Tuesday, 28 September 2010

NAUGHTY LUNCH FOR ONE

I have a great liking for seafood ("I see food and eat it!" ha ha de ha ha). A good friend of mine, who has known me all my life, still refers to the incident when I declared to her, aged about 5, "I love prawns!" and proceed to eat about a pound of prawns, and then be violently sick. Luckily, the experience did not put me off prawns.... I love mussels and other shellfish (though I do drawn the line at oysters - I simply cannot see the point of them), langoustines, lobster, crab; I have even eaten sea urchins in Croatia! And, aside from the Prawn Incident, I have never been ill from eating seafood. One of my favourite restaurant starters is scallops with black pudding.

In my local Tesco, the little roe-less scallops were on offer today (along with jumbo prawns), so I bought a packet for my lunch. I had a single boiled Charlotte potato left over from last night's supper, so I sliced it and fried it, added a few strips of chorizo, and the scallops, cooked until they were just done (overcook scallops, and they turn rubbery). Add a handful of rocket, and suddenly I had a rather elegant, if a little naughty, lunch. It seemed a fair reward for an hour at the gym and set me up for two hours at the piano. It took all of five minutes to prepare - and was utterly delicious!

Monday, 27 September 2010

PUMPKIN RAVIOLI

My recent visit to Liguria has inspired me! I dusted off my pasta machine - not a hand-cranked one, but a neat automatic device which runs off the motor of my trusty Kitchenaid mixer - and made my own pasta dough. And then I went one step further, and made my own ravioli! I was so chuffed with the result, I had to blog it.

Homemade pasta is relatively easy to make, but it takes a bit of practice, patience and a light touch. It's a little like bread-making, or playing the piano: if you practice, you get better at it! It is also cheap and nutritious, and keeps well when dried.

I use Jamie Oliver's recipe for egg pasta, and I buy pasta flour in Tesco (in the Special section). I used to use strong white bread flour, but its high protein content made the pasta rather chewy. Italian Tipo '00' is the correct flour for pasta. Eggs make it rich. And it needs nothing more: no oil, no water.

Basic pasta recipe:
600g/1lb 6oz Tipo ‘00’ flour
6 large free-range or organic eggs or 12 yolks for a really rich pasta dough

I make the dough in my Kitchenaid, using the dough hook, and then knead it lightly by hand before leaving it to rest, wrapped in clingfilm, in the fridge. This is an important part of the process and should not be overlooked. At this point, you can leave the pasta until you are ready to use it, or even freeze it.

I roll it through the pasta machine until it becomes silky and smooth, and then I either fit the tagliatelle cutter, or cut it myself to make ravioli. I bought a ravioli mould from Lakeland, but when I tried to use it, I ended up with a sticky mess. This time, I used a circular pastry cutter. The filling for my ravioli was made by roasting a squash in the oven until the flesh was soft. I scooped it out, and added some salt and pepper, and chopped sage. Sometimes I add cheese, or some crumbled amaretti biscuits (yes, really! This is authentic!). The only dressing this ravioli requires is the classic "burro e salvia" (sage and melted butter), and a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Four ravioli were sufficient for a filling supper.

The trick when making ravioli is to have a light touch, i.e. not to handle the pasta more than is necessary. I roll out the sheets and then cut the discs to make the ravioli, placing them on a plate dusted with fine polenta. Meanwhile, I set my deepest pasta saucepan on the fastest ring on the hob and get the water boiling. Pasta needs to cook on a vigorous rolling boil. A teaspoon of filling is enough for each ravioli. Seal the discs together by lightly brushing water (note: water, not egg) on one side and lightly secure the sides together. Drop the ravioli into the water and cook for about three minutes. It should be al dente, but not tough. Drain and serve.

Homemade pasta is somewhat labour-intensive, but it's well worth the effort. And it impresses dinner guests no end, for when they ask "Did you make this?" I can reply with confidence, "Of course I did!".

Saturday, 25 September 2010

CAKES AND CONVERSATION

I hosted my annual charity coffee morning to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. Billed as the World's Biggest Coffee Morning, it's an event held on the last Friday of September to bring people together for coffee, cakes and conversation and to raise funds to enable Macmillan Cancer Support. I always try to entice people to my home by offering homemade cakes and over the past three years, my chocolate brownies, or rather Nigella's chocolate brownies (I use her recipe - it's the best I know), have become very popular. I'm not a great cake-maker, but brownies are so easy that I always make them. I also made Forgotten Cookies (see separate post) and could not resist buying a Battenberg cake from M&S, as it's one of my favourites.

It was lovely to gather a small group of friends together for coffee, cakes and conversation, and I was struck, not for the first time, at how lucky I am to have such a nice group of friends: many are women I have met through the primary school, or through my teaching (or both), or my bookclub, or are friends made in my "previous life", when I worked in publishing.

I think those who attended would agree with me when I say that the highlight of the morning was Claire's chocolate macaroons. These were not dainty, Laduree-type macarons, but random discs of chewy chocolately almondy loveliness, sandwiched together with whipped cream and blackberry conserve. They were so popular that hardly any of the other cakes were eaten, and I was able to take a generous tin full of Forgotten Cookies and brownies to supper with friends in the evening.

A big thank you to everyone who joined me on Friday morning and for your generous donations, in person and online at Just Giving. I have raised nearly £200 so far!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

LONG WEEKEND IN LIGURIA, Part 2

The Ristorante Ca' Mea, a kilometre or so south of Badalucco in Liguria, is easily identifiable, thanks to the giant fibre-glass porcini mushroom near the bridge. The restaurant itself is an old mill with two vaulted rooms painted with colourful cherubs serving wine, mushrooms and other delights, and a gazebo/garden room overlooking the Argentina river.

The evening I visit Ca' Mea there is a sagra (local festival) in Badalucco, the nearest town, in honour of stoccafisso, or dried cod. Because of the festival, I expected the restaurant to be busy, but when I arrived, a large christening party was just leaving, and there were plenty of empty tables. Like the Hotel Santo Spirito in Molini, Ca' Mea has no menu. You arrive, are seated, offered still or sparkling water and a bottle of red wine. On the table is the local rye bread and grissini. The dishes come out of the kitchen with the most perfunctory of explanations of what you are about to eat; as you finish one dish, another one is brought. And another, and another...... Only at the meat course, are you asked what you would like (a choice of lamb chops or steak, cooked rare, with mushrooms, fried with garlic or deep fried with a dusting of polenta). There is also a choice of puddings: ice cream or sorbet, fruits of the forest served with sorbet, or tiramisu, served, strangely, in an enamel chamber pot. With your pudding comes Limoncello, or Grappa, served in a receptacle not unlike a Russian samovar or an early Christian reliquary.

In all, I think I counted at least 10 dishes. When I was in Barcelona last April, our friends took us to a hidden away restaurant for a tasting menu of about 30 dishes. It was interesting, but the food was fussy, overdone, too full of veloutes of this and cappucinos of that, the sort of chemistry and kitchen pyrotechnics that Heston Blumenthal favours. To me it was not real food, partly because there wasn't enough of it (each course was a mere mouthful) and I came away still feeling hungry. At Ca' Mea, one felt well-fed, comfortably so, but not stuffed. The food was so interesting, seasonal, bursting with flavour. The sort of food that had me itching to get to the kitchen to try some of the dishes myself. From tomato bruschetta to baked cheese, risotto to frittata, there wasn't a single course at Ca' Mea that I didn't enjoy.
Porcini mushrooms marinaded in oil and raw beef

What I ate at Ca' Mea:

Mushrooms & carpaccio of beef
Tomato bruschetta
Ricotta with onion
Omelette with mushrooms
Baked cheese
Mushrooms baked with sliced potatoes and cream
Mushroom tagliatelle
Mushroom risotto
Lamb chops grilled
Mushrooms with garlic
Ice cream served in a pisspot

LONG WEEKEND IN LIGURIA, Part 1

The church at Triora
The road from Arma di Taggia snakes up the steep valley of the torrente Argentina. The landscape, which is lush and green with deciduous trees and those tall thin cypresses that are so characteristic of Italy and the southern Mediterranean, is striated with farmed terraces: swags of vines, grey-green olive trees, fruit trees, maize, climbing beans. In the villages that cling to the sides of the valley nearly every house has a strip of garden that is given over to vegetables: knobbly green-and-red tomatoes, curly pale green zucchini, bulbous orange squashes and pumpkins. One has the sense of people making the best of the landscape which limits more conventional farming. It is no accident that this region of Italy is famous for its very distinctive and unique food.

 
Liguria is the narrow region of Italy just across the border from France and the chic resorts of Nice and the French Riviera, bound by the sea to the south and the mountains to the north. Its most famous city is Genoa, while Portofino, further down the coast towards La Spezia, is the holiday destination of choice for the celebrities who people the pages of Hello! The mountains rise almost straight from the sea and provide a dramatic backdrop to the beautiful beaches and chic resorts. You need only drive inland a few miles to be in the Maritime Alps.

Molini di Triora is about two-thirds of the way up the Argentina valley, and it clings proudly to the mountainside, despite its falling and ageing population. From the top of the village, the views down the valley and across the mountains are breathtaking, banks of carefully terraced fields tumbling down towards the sea, the spreading fruit and olive trees, the rugged hillside. Molini, like the other villages and hamlets that nestle in the folds of the mountain, is like a tiny, model Bethlehem, the church atop the village, a handful of houses cast around it, higgledy-piggledy.

In the Hotel Santo Spirito, there is no menu (actually there is, but I only noticed it, pinned in the foyer, when I was leaving). The husky-voiced, black-haired patrona comes to your table and, with hands very formally clasped behind her back, announces "antipasto!" and you nod enthusiastically and await the delicacies of the day - and each day it is different. In fact, there are two courses - cold antipasto consisting of Russian salad, porcini mushrooms marinaded in olive oil, half a tomato stuffed with the freshest homemade pesto, a slick of creamy ricotta flavoured with garlic and onion, and vitello tonnato. The hot starters are little discs of deep-fried cheese, or a slab of torta de verdura, the local vegetable tart made with ricotta, chard, potatoes and herbs, a circle of frittata. All is accompanied by a local wine and rustic rye bread which is made up the road in the local bakery.




Cold antipasti
As her assistant (possibly her sister or her daughter) clears away, the patrona is back to announce the pasta course. Here, the pasta is freshly made, virtually to order, and comes with a choice of pesto or mushroom sauce. The pesto is so fresh and vibrant, you can virtually taste its "greenness". After the pasta, if you've still got room for it, is the main course - rabbit, wild boar, goat, venison, chicken, simply cooked and served with fried potatoes or fluffy polenta. Pudding is usually a sweet tart, or homemade sorbet, or Zabaglione icecream, and complimentary local Grappa, the bottle left on your table from which to help yourself.
Gorgonzola dolce
In the shop with all the witches (the area is rife with legends of witches and fairies), the lady owner gabbles away to me in Italian and I understand about one word in twenty. She exhorts me to try her grappa, and violet and rose liqueurs, which are like drinking sweet perfume. Then a selection of very pungent cheeses. I buy chocolate pasta (to be served only with butter and sage) and trofie, another Ligurian speciality artisanal pasta, a bottle of violet liqueur (which I'll use in cake-making, or for a very special Kir Royale) and soft amaretti biscuits, which are also special to this region.

sausage with fennel

Back at the flat, I eat gooey Gorgonzola dolce straight off the knife, and pink tongues of sweet proscuitto. Tomorrow night I am going to the restaurant with the giant plastic mushroom outside, where, I am promised, I will experience a true celebration of Ligurian cuisine.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

IN SEASON NOW - FIGS

My local market is awash with figs, from Turkey and Spain, which are suddenly in season for a few short weeks. Check for ripeness by gently squeezing their velvety mauve skins, as you would an avocado, drop a few into a brown paper bag and take home to eat raw with Parma ham or a sharp cheese, or bake or pan-fry with honey and rosewater to make a succulent pudding. Figs do not ripen after picking, so be sure to check for ripeness: they should have a rich colouring.

When I was only holiday in Turkey two summers ago, I ate perfectly ripe little green figs straight from the tree, or purchased them from a roadside fruit and veg stall (which also sold wonderful melons, small green peppers, cherries and peaches). A few delicately flavoured figs and a bowl of fresh yoghurt made a delicious, healthy breakfast before a day spent on a sunlounger, reading, sleeping, swimming.

Ripe figs are great quartered and made into a salad with Parma ham, curls of Parmesan, or a good Mozzarella, roughly shredded, with lots of Balsamic vinegar and rocket. Or bake them in the oven with honey and rosewater to make an eastern-inspired pudding, served simply with Greek yoghurt or creme fraiche. With their high sugar content, figs are great companions for other highly flavoured foods. They are also good in tarts and cakes - the frangipane mixture (see previous post) goes wonderfully with figs.

Like asparagus, the short season for figs makes them extra special. Enjoy them while you can, for soon they will be gone....

FRIDAY NIGHT SUPPER WITH GOOD FRIENDS

Demon Cook loves to cook, but Demon Cook also loves to dine out, especially in the company of good friends and fellow foodies. In a role-reversal, my regular dinner guests Jacky and Nick, hosted supper on Friday. The theme was Venice, the wine was, appropriately, Pinot Grigio, the food was delicious, varied and plentiful, and a fine evening was topped off with a hard-fought game of Scrabble (Nick won - again).

Inspired by Italian 'tapas' (is there an equivalent word in Italian for tapa? There must be.....) eaten at Soho bar and "bacaro" Polpo (the premises was once the home of Italian painter, Canaletto), Jacky produced a wonderful starter of chickpea and anchovy crostini, and green beans with mozzarella and toasted hazelnuts, both dishes bursting with interesting and unusual flavours, and combinations of flavours. For the main course, we ate fennel risotto, which was perfectly cooked, with just a little bite left in the rice and a lovely creaminess. We all concurred that one could not possibly omit the pancetta (which would make the dish vegetarian-friendly). For pudding, Nick made a rich Tiramisu, that cliched-yet-wonderful pudding of marscapone and boudoir biscuits soaked in marsala. Unable to find boudoir biscuits in the local M&S, Nick used almond fingers which gave the pudding a really lovely twist. We ate and drank far too much, but that did not deter us from clearing the table and reaching for the Scrabble board, whereupon Nick reprised his Scrabble triumphs of Ireland and beat us, fairly and squarely.

Polpo is at 41 Beak Street, London W1

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

MARMITE SPAGHETTI

Marmite is one of those foods, like oysters, which divides people. You either love it or hate it. There's no middle ground. And just for the record, I loathe oysters. I can't see the point of them at all. But I LOVE Marmite! Always have, always will. I particularly like it on hot, buttered toast (good toast, preferably sourdough or my homemade bread), a thin smear of the shiny brown stuff. It is especially good on toast soldiers, dipped in a soft-boiled egg. My cat Freddy is also rather partial to it; he loves its faux-meaty saltiness and a tiny dob of it on his front paws will keep him quiet for ages.

This recipe comes from Nigella Lawson's new book Kitchen, a fat, well-illustrated tome celebrating homely food. Alongside the pictures of the food, are some rather fetching shots of Herself, in a red silk robe, or her signature little cashmere cardis. I read the recipe and thought "hmmmm", but I was also intrigued, and, having just eaten a plate of Marmite Spaghetti, can heartily recommend it to fellow Marmite fans. It's a great dish for children, being both simple and flavoursome. It could be "jusshed up" for grown ups with some fresh flat-leaf parsley, a handful of toasted pinenuts and freshly ground black pepper. Oh, and fresh parmesan is a must. I enjoyed my plate of Marmite Spaghetti so much, I was tempted to go back to the kitchen and cook another batch, but I have resisted. I would love to serve this as a starter at a dinner party and see what people make of it, without revealing the key ingredient. Supper guests, you have been warned......!!!

Serves 4 children

375g spaghetti
50g butter
Approx 1 tsp butter, or more to taste

Cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling water. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the Marmite. Just before the spaghetti is done, take a couple of tbsps of the cooking water and add it to the Marmite/butter mixture. The starch in the water will thicken the sauce slightly. Drain the pasta and mix in the Marmite sauce. Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and black pepper. Eat.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

THE WORLD'S BIGGEST COFFEE MORNING

I have mentioned this event, in support of Macmillan Cancer Support, in the previous post. I have successfully hosted a charity coffee morning for the past three years. It's a lovely opportunity for friends to come together for coffee, cake and chat, and a chance to raise money for a very important and worthwhile cancer charity. One year, I combined the event with a book swap which was great fun - it's amazing what sort of books people bring - and everyone went home with a good haul of new reading matter.

This year's coffee morning is on Friday 24th September and I will be hosting it as usual at my home. There will be homemade cakes and good company. This year's event has a special resonance for me as a friend, and former colleague from my publishing days, Karen Stafford, died on 19th July after a year-long battle with cancer. She was in her forties, a wonderful, vivacious person, a talented graphic designer, and a great mum. She leaves behind her partner, Keith, and her two boys, Louis and Miles. She will be much missed.

Please please support Macmillan Cancer Support and help improve the lives of people affected by cancer, both those living with cancer and also their families and carers.

You can find out more about the World's Biggest Coffee Morning at http://coffee.macmillan.org.uk/Home.aspx

and it will be open house at my home from 9.15 to 11.00 on Friday 24th September. You can donate online at my personal fundraising page at

http://www.justgiving.com/Fran-Wilson

Thank you in advance for your support!

BENEDICT BARS

With a definite tinge of autumn in the air now, especially first thing in the morning (there was dew on the grass and mist in the air when I set off for work last Tuesday morning), and in the evening, my culinary thoughts start turning to homely, comforting recipes: cakes and cookies which go well with steaming cups of tea and a toes-up on the sofa.

Benedict Bars originate from South Africa,wedges of shortbread with an almond and raspberry jam topping, but I first discovered them in Dorset, at a little artisan bakery called Long Crichel Bakery, which is hidden away down a lane with grass growing up the middle of it, in the village of Long Crichel, near Blandford Forum. You can buy bread and cakes from the bakery, or sample them at Long Crichel Tea Rooms in Wimborne. (for more information visit http://www.longcrichelbakery.co.uk/). There a many hidden foodie gems in Dorset - you just have to know where to look for them.

Benedict Bars are reminiscent of Bakewell Tart in their combination of almond and raspberry flavours, but that is where the similarity ends. They are easy to make and are very popular at my annual World's Biggest Coffee Morning, which I host in support of Macmillan Cancer Care. This year's coffee morning will have a special resonance for me as a good friend recently died from cancer. She was a fan of this blog and told me, only a month or so before she passed away, that she enjoyed reading my posts, because she found trying to read a book or magazine just too tiring.

This recipe is from a book calling Baking with Passion.

Makes 16

For the shortbread:

  • 5oz/140g unsalted butter, softened
  • 8oz/225g plain flour
  • 4 tbsp cornflour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 4oz/110g unrefined vanilla caster sugar
  • A pinch of sea salt

Heat the oven to 180C/360F/gas mark 4. Lightly butter a 94in x 8in/24cm x 20cm baking tray. Dice the butter into a bowl. Sift the flour, cornflour and baking powder on top, then add the sugar and salt. Form it gently into a ball and flatten the mixture to fit the tin.

For the topping:

  • 3oz/85g unsalted butter
  • 2oz/55g unrefined vanilla caster sugar
  • 7oz/200g flaked almonds
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • Good quality raspberry or strawberry jam

Heat everything together (except the jam) over a low heat until the butter has melted, then leave to cool. Spread a thin layer of jam over the surface of the dough with a palette knife, then spread the topping mixture over the jam. Bake for 25–30 minutes.

Cut into wedges.
Serve.
Eat.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

"FRAN"-GIPANE

Frangipane is a filling for tarts and pastries made from ground almonds, butter, eggs and sugar, and goes wonderfully with fruit such as apples, pears, cherries and raspberries. It's dead easy to make and once cooked, a tart with a frangipane filling has a lovely crisp, slightly chewy 'macaroony' top with a deliciously soft centre. I think the picture of my pear and frangipane tart is a testament to its success when served for supper the other night. Needless to say, everyone had seconds.




Serves 4, generously

For the frangipane filling
125g butter
125g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
125g ground almonds
a few drops of almond extract (optional)

Oven 180 C

This will make sufficient quantity to fill a medium-sized tart tin. I used bought puff pastry for this tart, but homemade sweet crust pastry is good too. I follow Jamie Oliver's tip for pastry: line the tin with the pastry and then put in the freezer for about 20 mins before using. This results in lovely crisp pastry when cooked.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, mix well and then add the ground almonds and, if using, a few drops of almond extract.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and then add your fruit - apples or pears, peeled, cored and quartered; pitted cherries; peaches or apricots, stoned and quartered; raspberries. I have also come across a frangipane tart with a chocolate topping.

Cook for about 30 minutes, or until the top of the tart is golden brown and firm to the touch. Allow to cool. Dust with icing sugar and serve with creme fraiche or ice-cream.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

SOCCA DE NICE


Not a football team, but a speciality of south-eastern France, in particular, the city of Nice, Socca is a kind of crepe or flatbread. It is made with chickpea (gram) flour (farinata in Italian) and olive oil, and is baked in a hot oven, often in a cast-iron pan more than a metre in diameter. It is traditionally served hot and eaten with the fingers. It makes a very good tapa as it can be used as a base for other things, such as tapenade or cheese. I sometimes make it instead of focaccia as an accompaniment to a meal, and I like to scatter it with fresh rosemary and fine shards of sea salt. It is a glorious yellow colour and has an unusual nutty flavour.

No longer the preserve of health-food shops or Indian stores, chickpea flour is easily available these days in the supermarket. My Tesco 'Local' sells it in the speciality section (near the veg) in big 2 kg bags. I use it for making onion bhajis and falafels as well.

Socca is easy to make. You just need to let the batter stand for an hour or so before cooking (as you would for pancake batter). The quantities given below can be easily doubled up. The cooked socca comes out of the oven as lovely golden slab with crispy edges.

150 g chick-pea flour
250 ml water
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Fresh rosemary, finely chopped (optional)

Oven 200C

Whisk the flour and water together to create a smooth batter, about the consistency of double cream. Season and set aside for about an hour. Pour the olive oil into a baking tray and heat in the oven for about 5 minutes. Pour the batter over the oil (it may bubble up around the edges), scatter with rosemary, and put the baking tray in the oven. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the socca is golden brown and slightly crisp on top. Cut into slabs and serve hot.