Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Spiced Courgette & Lemon Cake


Courgette plant Striato di Napoli

It's peak time for courgettes on my allotment. In order to keep everyone around the dining table interested it's necessary to pull out all the recipes I have and then look for more.  I've worked my way through risottos of diced courgette finished with their shredded flowers; fritters of grated courgette topped with a fried egg; dishes of Scapece with its vinegar and mint dressing; and courgette and onion tarts.  Courgettes make a surprisingly creamy soup; a light supper when sautéed and coloured with saffron (thank you Fern Verrow - a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen); and their flowers, dipped in tempura batter, are delicious fried (more substantial if stuffed with soft cheese and herbs beforehand).  This year, we've had countless plates of Linguine con zucchine from Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome.  This summer my diners have never tired of that dish. We all need a recipe like that.

I vow not to let courgettes grow so large they effectively turn into marrows - the idea of stuffed marrow makes me shudder.  But when I'm bringing home armfuls of courgettes, they can find their way into cake.  I picked up a basic  recipe in the USA at least a decade ago.  Every summer since, out it comes to be tweaked a little according to what I have in the store cupboard. This year, in response to a request for the recipe, I've decided to share a version just in case you, too, are buckling under the weight of summer squashes.  It's worth mentioning that I've also successfully made this cake with crookneck squash.  If your courgettes are very watery, salt them after grating, leave them to sit for half an hour and then squeeze out the excess juice.  This recipe makes a pretty large cake but it does, quite easily, scale down to a 2-egg cake.

Spiced Courgette & Lemon Cake

Spiced Courgette & Lemon Cake
(makes a large cake 23cm x 13cm)

2 medium courgettes (about 450g/16oz), grated
180ml (6fl oz) groundnut oil
300g (10oz) caster sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g (9oz) soft plain flour
1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons of ground allspice (or a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and a little clove)
a pinch of salt
Zest of 1 lemon
115g (4oz) raisins or sultanas

SYRUP:
60ml (2fl oz) lemon juice
60g (2 oz) granulated sugar

Pre-heat oven to 180C(fan 160C)/350F/Gas 4
Grease the loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper on the bottom and long sides to help with lifting out the baked cake.
Combine the oil and sugar and mix well until creamy.  Gradually beat in the eggs, mixing well between each addition.  Mix in the grated courgette and the vanilla extract.
In a separate bowl combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, spices, salt, lemon zest and raisins.  Stir into the creamed mixture until it is just amalgamated.  You should have a fairly loose batter.  Pour into the loaf pan and bake in the centre of the oven for about 65 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and leave to stand for 5 minutes.
Gently heat the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar dissolves.
Pierce the loaf several times with a skewer. Spoon the hot syrup over the cake, covering all of the top.  Cool for 30 minutes before lifting out the cake with the help of the paper.

The cake tastes much better if you cool it completely, peel off the paper, and wrap it in fresh greaseproof paper or non-PVC food wrap  and leave overnight.  Keeps well for several days and actually becomes stickier and even better, I think.

More of my courgette recipes:
Scapece
Courgette Soup
Courgette, lemon & thyme linguine

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Pissaladière

Red over-wintered onion

This was the first over-wintered onion I lifted this year.  Its beauty transfixed me.  I took it home and placed it on the old wooden crate I keep on my little balcony and, of course, excitedly photographed it.  Out the shot went into the ether because, surely, everyone who saw it would admire it as much as I did.  I doubt anyone appreciated it quite so much, but this is what growing does to you.  You become ridiculously overwhelmed with your successes and their magnificence.  I harvested the onion early because of its immense size - well it was the biggest onion I'd ever grown - and monster veg is not my thing.  The need to grow for girth rather than taste - the biggest parsnip, the heaviest pumpkin, the plumpest gooseberry - is beyond my comprehension.  I think I was even a little scared by how big it had grown.  It was a meal in itself.

There the onion sat for 4 weeks, 'drying', even though I knew perfectly well it was a red overwintered onion; moist and perishable, they are most definitely not for keeping.  Bit by bit, the rest of the late-autumn planted sets have been brought into the kitchen and cooked enthusiastically, but this one remained on the box ageing with grace.  It could not go on.  So, today I took another 'still life with onion' (above) and chose a dish I hoped would do it justice.

In most cuisines the onion is reached for with astonishing regularity.  It's the vegetable that was top of my list to grow when I first took on my allotment.  Their ubiquity means they are cheap to buy but the satisfaction in harvesting a bed of onions, to be dried and squirrelled away for future use, is high.  All forms of allium are invaluable to my growing year: chives for delicacy; shallots for sweet pungency; leeks for a mild sweetness; garlic for punch; and onions for their fantastic versatility.

The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda wrote a number of 'odes to common things', including:
Ode to the Onion
Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal ....." Read more 

Thank you Comeconella for the reminder.

It's easy to take the onion for granted but there are some dishes where it commands a starring role. Onion Soup, Roast Stuffed Onions, Onions a la Grecque and Onion Marmalade, to name a few.  For me, Simon Hopkinson's Onion Tart with Lancashire Cheese is a fine example; the Provençal onion tart, Pissaladière, another notable one.  But should a Pissaladière  include tomato or not?  Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David say yes; Alice Waters and Elizabeth Luard say No.  Waters specifies yellow onions; Grigson leaves the choice of strength to the cook.  Then there's the question of the base - bread dough or pastry?  And, if pastry, what kind?  No one seems to agree, least of all the French.

Pissaladière

Personally, I don't want to stray into Italian Pizza territory, much as I like Pizza, so tomatoes are out along with the bread dough base.  Pissaladière gets its name from pissalat niçoise, a paste made of salt-cured anchovies pounded with olive oil, thyme and bay.  For me, it needs to be a rough-puff pastry base, spread with sweet onion perfumed with bay and thyme to contrast with salty anchovies and olives.  I prepare my onions the Alice Waters way, stewed slowly, the cooking juices drained off and used to pour over the tart just before serving.  

Pissaladière
(Serves 4)

300g rough-puff pastry
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 medium sized onions, thinly sliced
2 plump cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bayleaf
a few sprigs thyme
100g salted anchovies
A handful of black olives, preferably Niçoise, de-stoned
Salt and pepper

Roll the pastry to a rectangle, roughly 30cm x 20cm.  Place on a baking tray and create a narrow border to the pastry by cutting half-way into it all the way around. about 1cm from the edge (this allows the border to rise a little more than the centre)   Prick the base a few times with a fork.  Chill in the fridge.
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat.  Add the onions, garlic and herbs, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper.  Stir then cover and stew for about 1 hour until they are completely soft (they should not brown). Strain and reserve the liquid.
Rinse and fillet the anchovies.  Halve the olives or leave whole if very small. 
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (Fan 16oC)/Gas 4.
Spread the onion mixture over the base of the pastry within the cut edge.  Top with the strips of anchovy and the olives.  Bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from the oven. Just before serving, use the reserved liquid from cooking the onions to pour over the filling.
Serve just warm or at room temperature.


Here's a tip from Jane Grigson for the frugal cook: "When your onions sprout towards the end of the winter, use the green shoots as if they were chives."

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Raspberry Clafoutis

Raspberry 'Clafoutis'

It's the way the word rolls off the tongue - c l a f o u t i s - that does it.  It's like a loving endearment or reassuring pat on the back.  So many times I've been seduced into taking a little slice of 'cherry clafoutis', hoping against hope that this will be the one to live up to all my expectations.  So many times my optimism has been rewarded with a stodgy or desiccated disappointment, made palatable only by pouring on copious amounts of cream.  Yet still, I search for the holy grail of the perfect 'clafoutis'.

The clue, I think, is in the usual description of 'clafoutis' as a "thick" batter pudding.  Personally I prefer my pudding to be thick, or dense, with fruit rather than flour so each year when the cherry season comes round I try again to find the recipe that's right for me.  The norm is to use cherries, unpitted so as to impart a little bitter almond-like flavour.  I've had a mirabelle plum version that was excellent, though some would say if it's not made with cherries then it's a 'flaugnarde'.  I'm perfectly happy to accept it as clafoutis.  I just wish I'd asked for the recipe.

With at least another couple of weeks of cherry picking to go, I haven't given up on this summer's quest for the cherry clafoutis of my dreams.  Meanwhile, here's a lighter batter pudding I came across last summer.  It offers not only a different treatment for the batter, but uses raspberries.  As I'm currently frantically harvesting berries from my allotment, I'm grateful to revisit it.  Nothing beats eating the fruit straight from the canes, warmed by the summer sun, but they're peaking now and so are destined for the kitchen.  If they are truly ripe, they travel badly.  This is when you need a recipe where looks matter less than taste and there's only so much jam, cordial and puree I can make - and take.

Summer Raspberries

CLAFOUTIS: from the verb CLAFIR 
meaning: 'TO FILL"

The delicacy of raspberries calls for light cooking.  This recipe is adapted from Second Helpings of Roast Chicken by Simon Hopkinson.  It's somewhere between a custard and a batter pudding.  He calls it a "clafoutis" and that's fine by me.

Raspberry Clafoutis
(Serves 4)

250ml whipping cream
a pinch of salt
1 vanilla pod
about 25g of softened butter
about 250g raspberries
1 whole egg + 2 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon potato flour
a little icing sugar
a little raspberry eau de vie (optional)

Pour the cream into a pan.  Split the vanilla pod and run the back of a knife down the cut surfaces to extract the seeds.  Add pods and seeds to the pan along with the salt and stir.  Bring almost to the boil.  Take off the heat, cover and leave for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/Gas 4.
Butter 4 shallow oven-proof dishes (or 1 large one).  Divide the raspberries evenly between the dishes and place them in a roasting tin.
Beat together the egg, egg yolks, sugar and potato flour.  Remove the vanilla pod from the cream and pour into the egg mixture, whisking gently.  Carefully pour the batter over the raspberries.  Sift the icing sugar over the surfaces.
Add hot water to the roasting tin to reach at least halfway up the sides of the dishes.  Place carefully in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes (about 35 minutes for a large one) until slightly puffed-up but still a little wobbly.  Turn off the oven and allow the puddings to settle for a few minutes.  Remove and serve when just warm sprinkled with a little eau de vie (if using) and some whipped cream.


Thursday, 9 July 2015

Honey & Co The Baking Book

Page from Honey & Co The Baking Book
Baked Apricots with marzipan filling and almond crumble
Photograph by Patricia Niven ©


"Our days are governed by the rhythm of the pastry .... ".  For Honey & Co, this tiny restaurant in a London backstreet, it's the pastry section that provides the essential underpinning to their busy days, from breakfast to end of dinner treats.  Here is the book that has been so anticipated since last year's publication of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich's much loved debut Honey & Co Food from the Middle East.  I wrote about the 2014 book here.  Where the first book concentrated mostly on savoury Middle-Eastern food, The Baking Book offers recipes for sweet and savoury bakes, with the emphasis on the sweet ones.

Baked apricots with marzipan filling and almond crumble
baked from Honey & Co The Baking Book

Cakes are a big part of the book, even though the original plan for Honey & Co the restaurant didn't include a single cake.  Finding premises with a big picture window changed all that.  Cakes were the lure to attract customers in - the swivel of the eyes as they pass by.  I've done it myself and can confirm how effective a hook that window display is.  Colour to draw the eye, spices, orange blossom and rose waters to make the nose twitch.  All heavenly stratagems are employed.  But there are no deceptions here.  The bakes live up to expectations.

Chocolate & pistachio cookies
baked from Honey & Co The Baking Book

If this was simply a book of recipes, it would be very good - how could it not be, when it covers all of the Honey & Co customer favourites.  But it's the look behind the scenes from 'Dead of night' and 'First light', through the long daily flow of staff and customers, to the snuffing out of the candles, that makes it very good indeed.  In this book Sarit takes centre stage, the driving force for the baking with Giorgia the pastry chef who "lights up when she talks about cakes".  The purple folder of recipes from Sarit's baking life is the starting point.  Then the creative and collaborative work begins - helped along by tastings by staff and regulars and the need to fulfil Itamar's pastry dreams.  The results find their way to table and counter and, now, into this book which "has our favourite recipes .... and the best of all of us".

Raspberry & lime jam
cooked from Honey & Co The Baking Book

Sarit's tips on 'How to be good at baking' are a fine start to the book, with guidance on the use of sugar, eggs, cream, butter/fats, nuts and seeds, as well as excellent advice on ingredients like chocolate, "if I don't want to steal a piece, I shouldn't be baking with it".  The 'Store cupboard' yields up the likes of Strawberry & rose and Black fig, cardamom & orange jams, Amalfi lemon & rosemary marmalade, Candied quince, sweet and savour spice mixes and sugars.  You can breakfast on sticky Fitzrovia Buns  with sour cherries and pistachios (a personal weakness); a dish of Shakshuka (eggs cooked in spicy tomato sauce); Burnt Aubergine burekas (pastry parcels); or buttery Kubaneh, one of the intriguing "three strange Yemeni breads".  Mid-morning could have you feasting on Feta and courgette muffins or Fig, orange & walnut cake.  But then again there is Tahini & white chocolate plait and Pear, ginger and olive oil cake to consider.  Lunch could be a Balkan cheese bread; a spicy Pigeon pastilla; or Leek & goats' cheese pie with an out of the ordinary cheese pastry.  And suddenly it's teatime and we're at page 179 which doesn't even bear a recipe.  What it has is one of my favourite pages of writing in the book as it gives a flavour of the restaurant routine at that particular time of day.  But turn the page for Blood orange & pistachio cakesOrange blossom & marmalade cakesBlueberry, hazelnut & ricotta cake; and Chocolate sandwich cookies filled with tahini cream.  'After Dark' we have sweet, salty, crispy Knafe fragrant with cardamom and orange blossom water; Poached peaches with rose jelly & crystallised rose petals; and, maybe, some pistachio and rose petal Halva.


Peach, vanilla & fennel seed loaf
baked from Honey & Co The Baking Book

I can never write a review without first trying out some of the recipes.  What did I make?  A ruby-red Raspberry & lime jam with citrus and spice notes from the use of fresh and dried limes; soft, yielding Chocolate & pistachio cookies; fragrant Peach, vanilla & fennel seed cake; and a luscious dish of floral, lightly-spiced Baked apricots with marzipan filling & almond crumble.  I made Honey & Co's recipe for Marzipan with orange blossom water for the filling and I swear I will never buy ready-made again.

Slice of Peach, vanilla & fennel seed loaf
baked from Honey & Co The Baking Book


This is a book for those who like a good read along with their cake.  A true taste of Honey & Co the restaurant, a place I know well.  The photography, by Patricia Niven, is every bit as beautiful as her photos in the first book.  This is a Baking Book well worth the wait.




Honey & Co The Baking Book

Book courtesy of Salt Yard Books, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Spring into Summer with peas, beans and garlic

Broad beans, garlic and Florence Red onions

Every potato has sprouted into a canopy providing much needed shade to the tubers you just know are growing abundantly.  Bright spots of luscious red mark the strawberry bed where healthy plants poke through weed-suppressing cover and are guarded by a mesh-covered frame.  Evenly-spaced raspberry canes are already fruiting nearby and rows of broad beans stand to attention,  straight-backed  and regimented.  Sadly, not my plot but my east-side allotment neighbour.  Ex-army? There's something about Ray's disciplined plot that makes me think so.  Every area seems to be organised and considered, from the raised nursery bed to the onions, which, needless to say, are enormous.  Ex-Royal Engineers?  Whatever, clearly I need to make friends.

How different from my own plot.  I am a stranger to straight lines, instinctive in my practices, a firefighter rather than a planner.  Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't.  One year the courgette crop will be fantastic, the next a disaster.  Onions will sulk their way through one spring and grow to the size of cricket balls the next.  I am a philosophical gardener and I try not to let size matter.  Yet I keep straying over to check on Ray's plot.  There must, I reasoned, be something that's not quite working out.  Then I spotted the blackfly, thickly massed around the growing tips of those uniform broad beans.  At last, a chink in Ray's armour.

I couldn't get back to my own broad beans quickly enough to check them.  Sure enough, there the blackfly squatted, farmer-ants keeping them in their place and milking them for their sweet honeydew secretions.  Normally, pinching out the growing tip is sufficient to stop the colony in its tracks.  But not this year.  Onward they have marched, shepherded by their guardians, down the length of the stem and onto the bean pods.  And it hasn't stopped their, barely germinated runner beans are being ambushed, even spinach and chard have been blitzed.  Each visit, battle is joined here on plot 45.  My weapon of choice the soap-spray, has been enhanced with a garlic brew and success, I'm convinced, will be mine.

Ray, on the other hand, is not a firefighter.  Those stately broad bean plants now stand stunted, their crop overwhelmed.  The strawberry plants he gave me are doing well in their ramshackle housing on plot 45.  I think I need to offer him some broad beans in exchange.  I'll try not to be triumphalist, honestly I will.

Peas in the pod

Lifting my first garlic in early summer coincides with the pea and broad bean harvest.  Here's a dish I always make at this time of year to celebrate the real start to harvesting.  If the peas and beans are cropping earlier, I'll also add a few asparagus tips from the market.

Pappardelle with peas, broad beans & new season garlic
(serves 4)

200g (8oz) 'OO' flour
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
A little extra flour or polenta to help prevent sticking to the worktop 
60g (2oz) unsalted butter
About 1kg mix of broad beans and peas in their pods
1-2 cloves of fresh garlic, thinly sliced
150ml (5 fl oz) vegetable stock
A small handful of mint, roughly torn or chopped

Put the flour and salt in a bowl.  Maker a well and add the eggs.  Mix to bring the ingredients together. Either knead in a mixer with a dough hook for 2 minutes or on a work surface, by hand, for 10 minutes.  If you use a machine, knead the dough by hand on the worktop for a further half minute (the warmth of your hands finishes it off perfectly). You will now have a smooth firm dough. Wrap it in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Pod the beans and peas and cook in boiling, salted water for 30 seconds.  Plunge them into cold water, drain and pop the broad beans out of their skins.  Keep the peas and beans to one side.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and salt the water (correctly it should be 1 litre of water to 10g of salt and for this quantity of pasta you should use at least 2 litres/20g).  As the water comes to the boil, feed the pasta dough through the pasta machine on its lowest setting. Fold the dough and repeat 3 more times. Increasing the setting by one mark each time, feed the dough through the machine once until you reach the penultimate setting (if you are as short of kitchen space as I am you'll want to cut your rolled pasta in half, or into thirds, part way through the rolling to make it more manageable, so you end up with 2 or 3 sheets of pasta).   Lay the sheets on the floured work surface and cut into wide pappardelle strips (1.5-2cm).  

Heat 30g of the butter gently in a large pan and add the garlic.  Cook until just softened.  Add the stock and boil to reduce a little.  Turn down the heat to a simmer and add the broad beans and peas to heat through for a couple of minutes while you cook the pasta in the salted water for 2 minutes.  

Season the vegetables and add the rest of the butter, cut into dice, shaking the pan to emulsify. Take off the heat.  Add the drained pasta and 2-3 tablespoon of cooking water to loosen if necessary.  Add the mint and serve with lots of parmesan.


NB.  The excellent book, Five Quarters by Rachel Roddy has a section on pasta which has changed my own pasta-making habits.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy

Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome
by Rachel Roddy

I've watched Rachel Roddy's writing develop from her Rachel Eats blog, which she started in 2008, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on her first book.  As always,  I endeavour to be objective in my review and I loved the writing which feels so familiar.

Five Quarters may seem a strange title but it's easily explained.  The number five recurs as the book goes along but Quinto Quarto (the Fifth Quarter) is the name of the distinctive style of cooking created by the workers at the Testaccio slaughterhouse towards the end of the 19th century.  Wages were partly paid in-kind with offal.  This being a quarter of the animals weight, it was known as the 'fifth quarter'.  The slaughterhouse is long gone and, no, this is not a book about offal, but it is firmly rooted in the Testaccio quarter of the city of Rome which this Englishwoman calls home.

The "notes" referred to in the sub-title are as delicious as the "recipes".  Arriving in Rome, almost by accident, the tourist decided to stay a while in a tiny flat above a bakery, next to the "coarse and chaotic" old food market.  As she began to get under the skin of this "straightforward, traditional, ordinary" part of Rome, a sense of guilt that she was part of the gentrification taking place in the area led her to resolve to buy local and truly embrace the life of this quarter and its "fierce sense of community".  A daily presence at the next-door market with its families of traders, negotiating the "clusters of chattering signore" in the streets she drinks coffee in the same bar every morning.  And then she fell in love with Vincenzo, a Sicilian with beautiful, strong hands.  A golden-haired baby boy, Luca, arrived in 2012, anchoring her ever more strongly as she became truly a Testaccio local.

This is not a book about 'my beautiful life in Rome'.  The reality is, life is as messy as the food market at the heart of the book.  Certainly it's about hauling bags of produce home to cook in a tiny apartment kitchen. It's also about the life of Testaccio, particularly the market, and the people who make it possible to live in the chaos of a city. There's the Sartor family butchery, Mauro the fishmonger, Gianluca and Giancarlo the fruit and veg sellers, Augusto at Trattoria La Torricella and the numerous independent shop-owners of the quarter.  Friends, neighbours, acquaintances, and even strangers are ever-willing to offer advice. It's about forgetting what you thought you knew about 'Italian' food and watching, listening, questioning and cooking dishes again and again to re-learn how to cook it, here, in this extraordinary place.  For nine years she gradually gathered understanding along with ingredients.  She began to notice the differences, and the similarities, with English food; particularly with the simply prepared food of her roots in Northern England - slow braising of cheaper cuts of meat, the use of offal and the love of jam tarts and of spiced fruit cakes.

Cooked and photographed in real time, the recipes are based on a year in this "Kitchen in Rome". Pleasingly, there are five chapters, just as there should be five course to an Italian meal.  Each chapter is enticingly seasoned with helpful advice, observation and anecdote and spiced with a little Roman history.  There's also a generous sprinkling of good sense.  Advice and useful information, which can only come from someone who has cooked the same recipes over and over again, comes thick and fast yet it feels like a two-way conversation.  It's far from 'preachy' or 'know-it-all' but is generous and sharing.

Linguine con zucchine (Linguine with courgettes, eggs and parmesan)
cooked from Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome

The Italian names for the dishes in the book are far more poetic, but here I use English titles for brevity.  Chapter 1 - Antipasti - starts, as the Romans frequently do, with Broad Beans and Pecorino, simply a pile of young fresh beans to be podded at the table alongside a chunk of, preferably, sharp sheep's milk cheese.  There's Deep Fried Artichokes, Ricotta and Spinach Fritters and Panzanella.  Octopus and potato salad features with instructions for how to cook your octopus - and how, based on much advice, trial and error, not to cook your octopus!

Chapter 2 covers Soup & Pasta.  We learn that the soup, or minestre can be simple or complex and is one of the few foods that Romans do not have a definitive recipe for, rather minestre is a dish you make your own; "the embodiment of childhood nourishment and comfort".   Here is Fettucine with rich meat sauce, Spaghetti with clams and how to make Potato dumplings (Gnocchi).

A chapter on Meat & Fish reminds that "Good Roman cooking, like any good, popular cooking, is homely and rooted in tradition..... makes virtue out of necessity and makes things taste as good as they possibly can".  Making a little go a long way, particularly when it comes to meat, is a Northern England virtue as well as a Roman one.  There's Meatballs in tomato sauce or Roman-style tripe. Fish is introduced by a story familiar to most of us, the quest for a good fishmonger.  There's a Pot of musselsSalt cod with tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts, and a Roman Jewish dish of Miriam's bream baked with potatoes.

Chapter 4 is the Vegetable course.  Mostly treated as a separate course in Rome, though, served in larger portions, they can also take the place of the meat or fish course.  Many of the dishes can be prepared ahead, and some benefit from doing so, and with the addition of bread, eggs or cheese, they become a meal in themselves.  If I'd had this book a few weeks ago I would not have been confused by the large, hairy green Italian leaves at my London market that turned out to be borage - so different from our English borage which we tend to value more for its electric blue flowers.  It's in this chapter that Rachel's favourite English writers continue to influence her cooking in Rome, but when it's the likes of Jane Grigson and Simon Hopkinson, it's no wonder.  There are recipes for Greens with garlic and chilli, adaptable to whatever greens you can get; Eggs in sauce, Roman-style artichokes; and Fennel baked with Parmesan.

To finish with there's Dolci.  Often it's seasonal fruit.  Wedges of pellucid, ruby-red,  watermelon; Pale green figs with, "if you're lucky, a teardrop of nectar at the tip of the stalk"; fragrant cantaloupe melons; apricots, peaches, nespole or cherries and plums.  Here you'll find a recipe for Spiced quinces in syrup, wobbly Panna Cotta; slushy, coarse-textured Granita di melone; Kitty's vanilla ice-cream scented with citrus; and Cherry jam tart.  If you're hungry for more, there are delicious crisp little Ring biscuits with wine and fennel seeds and Angel Wings and much, much more.

Pangiallo (Spiced fruit cake with saffron)
cooked from Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome

I have already cooked four recipes from this book.  There is, mercifully, no striving for novelty in them.  If you are looking for innovation, you are missing the point of the book.  Instead, expect tried and tested dishes, recipes that really work and dishes that are delicious to eat.  You'll learn a lot along the way and enjoy a damn fine read.  This is a book which will stay in my kitchen.

Most of the photography in the book is by the author.  This reinforces its authenticity as the cooking and photography was done in real time - shop, cook, eat.  The photographs are also very, very good. Additional photography by Nicholas Seaton beautifully captures the atmosphere of the Testaccio quarter and its inhabitants.

2015 is already proving to be a very good year for food writing, and this book is right up there with the best.  Now, I'm off to make Linguine con zucchine again, just to make sure I really have unlearned what I thought I knew, and because it's a delicious recipe.


Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy

Book courtesy of Salt Yard Books

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve

Rhubarb & grapefruit

I've previously mentioned Jane Grigson's declaration that only "pink" rhubarb is worth eating. She was, of course, referring to the 'forced' kind where the plant is grown under cover of a pot or in the gloom of a candlelit forcing shed.  Forced rhubarb is very different from outdoor grown rhubarb and, generally, I have agreed with Jane Grigson's sentiments.  Certainly if you are looking for a beautifully evenly coloured compote with delicate flavour it's worth buying the early, forced, kind. However, this growing-year has made me appreciate the merits of the more robust and vigorous form of the plant.

A member of the Rheum genus of plants, rhubarb is related to both sorrel and buckwheat.  We add sugar to rhubarb to make its natural astringency more palatable and it's easy to forget it's actually a vegetable.  In Persian cooking, rhubarb is used in lamb dishes as a tenderiser.  In Europe, barely sweetened, it's used as a foil for oily fish like mackerel or fatty meats like pork.  In the UK in particular, rhubarb is enjoyed in compotes, crumbles and pies, in much the same way as we use gooseberries.  Both share a mouth-puckering sourness before tempering with sugars and flavourings.    

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve
Batch 1

I felt like the laughing-stock of the allotment group, as the only person unable to get a decent crop of rhubarb.  Then, last year, I split the crown of my plant into four sections.  Replanting each in a new location has rewarded me this year with a spectacularly good crop.  There's nothing so guaranteed to make you appreciate a vegetable as a bumper harvest.  So what to do with all that bounty?  Personally I find rhubarb releases far too much water to ever make a good pie but, thanks to the Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen, we've been enjoying bowls of Rhubarb custard fool and bottling up Rhubarb cordial for summer's promise of glasses of Rhubarb gin fizz, Pink lemonade and Rhubarb Bellini.

But it's a recipe for jam I want to share with you here.  A recipe for Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Fruit book (no, not the Chez Panisse Vegetable book).  It's not a combination that would normally have caught my attention.  Maybe it was because I'm in the midst of reading Bitter by Jennifer McLagan, which goes into the subject of bitter foods in forensic detail.  Though grapefruit is clearly a "bitter" food in her view, indeed the fruit was the starting point for her taking on the subject, opinions she sought were divided as to whether the flavour is bitter or merely sour.  Personally, I go with bitter and the idea of pairing grapefruit with sour rhubarb seemed a bit of a leap of faith.  Maybe it's something about the British palate, as inhabitants of the North American continent seem to have a taste for citrus with their rhubarb.  And then I looked at Grigson again - "... with citrus fruits it makes a delightful jam".  Sugar can transform the bitterest citrus into delectable marmalade, and the sourest rhubarb into luscious compote, so I swallowed my scepticism and I'm so glad I did.

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve
Batch 2

The first time I made this preserve, I took it a degree or two over jam set-point.  The colour changed from jewel-like to reddish-brown in the blink of an eye.  If this happens to you, what you lose in colour you'll gain in a delicious marmalade quality to the taste.  Stopping the cooking at exactly jam set point will give you a ruby-red preserve with the rhubarb flavour to the fore.  I'm still not sure which batch I prefer, so really you can't go wrong in my view.

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve (adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters)
(makes 40 oz/1.125 kg)

2 lbs (900g) Rhubarb, washed, dried and cut into 1cm dice
2 grapefruit (I use red)
4 cups (900g) granulated sugar

Place the rhubarb in a large heavy-based stainless steel pan.
Peel the grapefruits, slice the peel thinly and juice the flesh.  Add the zest and juice to the pan of rhubarb along with the sugar.
Let the mixture stand for at least 30 minutes for the rhubarb to release its juices and the sugar to dissolve.
Sterilise your jars and lids.  Put a small plate in the freezer for testing the jam.
Over a high heat, bring the pan of mixture to the boil, stirring to make sure it doesn't stick.  The mixture will bubble high up the pan.  Skim off any foam around the edges.  Soon the mixture will subside and bubble thickly.  Stir frequently and start testing with a sugar thermometer and/or by using the cold plate for the 'wrinkle' test.  When it has reached set point, take the pan off the heat and pot up the jam.  Will keep for up to 1 year in properly sterilised jars.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen

Fern Verrow - A year of recipes
from a farm and its kitchen

Let me say from the outset that I know the authors of this book, in as much as I've bought produce grown on their farm ever since they started to load up a van and bring it down to London for sale most Saturdays.  Last Saturday they slipped some copies of the book on the back of the van so I was able to buy a copy a few days before publication date.  I grow some of my own fruit and veg so I know a little bit about where this book is coming from. I'm an enthusiast, but that's not the reason I found this book difficult to put down.   The Fern Verrow land is farmed  biodynamically, but this is not a book only for those of us who embrace the methods of Rudolf Steiner.  If you care about how your food is grown and how it's cooked you'll love how this book draws you in with its rhythmic prose and page after page of recipes for simple seasonal food that honours the ingredients.  This is food that you really want to eat.

'Verrow' comes from an old French term for a split in the land around which water flows.  It describes perfectly the lie-of-the-land on the Herefordshire border with Wales in which the farm, Fern Verrow, sits.  Lindsay Sekulowicz's hand-drawn map at the front of the book gives the reader a wonderful orientation to the land being described.  Here is the acreage where Jane Scotter and Harry Astley raised a family while turning the land into the farm of their dreams.  Here, in one of the most unspoiled areas of England, they have laboured long and hard, learning "to adapt and to live with the rhythms and cycles of the year" working in "partnership" with the land.  This book concentrates on how they work and cook from "the engine room of the farm", the kitchen, where every day starts and ends and where they always find time for cooking.  Many books of recipes claim to be 'seasonal'.  The writers of this book know the true meaning of the word.  In their words, this book "is a place to pass on our recipes, as well as the understanding of food and its cultivation that we have developed over the years.  It is a celebration of what nature provides.  It encourages imagination and consideration in the kitchen, and the pleasures of cooking well, with an appreciation of the different vegetables, fruit and meat as they arrive at our tables throughout the course of the year."

Fern Verrow, the book, like the farm is tied to the 4 seasons, here represented by the classical elements of Earth - Winter, where everything starts, from the ground up; Water - Spring, bringing the sprouting of life; Air Summer, light and flowering; and Fire -Autumn, fruiting and transformation.  The book gives you insights into 'Working with the soil' "our most valuable resource"; 'Working with the sun', which dictates the pattern of the day; 'Working with the moon', whose effects on water and tides and on reproductive cycles is well known, and 'Building fertility' of the soil.  There's just enough about biodynamics to spark your interest, and there's a Further Reading section at the back if you want to know more.

Fern Verrow
Working with the soil

Winter, for Jane and Harry is a time to think and plan for the coming twelve months.  Recipes for this time include Braised chicory and bacon enriched with double cream, Beef stew with parsley dumplings, to make the most of what is around and counter the season's icy blasts.  There's Apple and lemon crumble, Carrot and almond cake and Parsnip and hazelnut oat biscuits.  Spring brings birdsong, light and colour, along with new life in the greenhouse, the barn, the fields and the woodlands.  For those of us who grow it also brings the 'hungry gap' when winter brassicas have gone to seed and 'spring' veg is slow to get going.  But there are herbs, foraged leaves and flowers. There's wild garlic, dandelion, Jack-by-the-hedge and buttercup - heat and pungency, needing only a simple dressing to make a bowlful sing.  Here are recipes for Lovage and potato soup, Spring fritters with wild garlic mayonnaise, Herb butters and Rhubarb puddings.  For later in Spring there's Fried duck egg with asparagus, sage and parmesan and then Elderflower cake.

Early Summer on the farm brings cultivated salad leaves and the first of the soft fruit in the form of gooseberries.  These are swiftly followed by currants, strawberries, raspberries, jostaberries and more.  The bees are busy and the farm is looking its best.  Weather becomes an obsession - too hot, too wet, too something - and can make for testing times.  The table is laid with Fresh pea and mint soup, Barbecued chicken with sweetcorn and lime leaf relish, a Blackcurrant pie or a spectacular Summer fruit trifle.  Come Autumn outward growth slows and activities turn more often to preserving late berries, plums, apples, pears and quince.  Then the kitchen table bears Borlotti bean, chorizo and tomato stew, Red Florence onion Tatin, and Braised rabbit with juniper berries. Desserts are fragrant Quince and ginger upside-down cake and Steamed greengage pudding.

And, all too soon, the twelve month cycle is over.


"Our relationship with the farm continues to feed us, 
the work never ceases, our lives are played out on this plot of land".  
... "The gifts of the year have come full circle, 
transforming the  past into the seeds of the future".  
Jane Scotter and Harry Astley

The book benefits hugely from the stunning photography of Tessa Traeger.  But, most of all, it's the pictures painted by the prose that stay with you.  I found the book difficult to put down.  Some of us paddle around the edges of biodynamics, never fully getting our feet wet - it's not for the faint-hearted.  A few hard working people, like Jane Scotter and Harry Astley, live the life.  Caution -  reading this book may make you want to go in search of your own acreage.

As is my way with book reviews, I had to try at least one recipe.  It had to be seasonal, of course, and, having pulled some sticks of rhubarb this morning, I chose Rhubarb and custard fool.  Silky, creamy custard and sweet/tart fruit.  Ringing the changes with a little fresh ginger root or orange zest is suggested.  I added a little rosewater to the rhubarb at the end of cooking.  A perfect Spring recipe.  If you want to see it beautifully styled and photographed, go to page 124.  Meanwhile, here's a serving:

Rhubarb and custard fool
from a recipe in
Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen


Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley
First published by Quadrille 21 May 2015

Friday, 15 May 2015

Brawn for lunch (or dinner)

A glass of VdF "Moussamoussettes" Dne Moshe
at Brawn

Everyone knows Columbia Road for its Sunday morning flower market where traders line the Road specialising in bulbs, herbs, cut flowers or potted plants.  It's quite a sight but if you suffer from claustrophobia, get there early or you'll find yourself shuffling along toe to heel with what feels like half of London.  There are some good individual shops on the Road, though many of them are only open from late in the week to catch the busy weekend trade.  This means, early in the week, Columbia Road is quiet and leafy and, well, a bit of a haven of peace really.  The draw at this time is lunch or dinner at Brawn.

Torta Fritta, Parma Ham
at Brawn

Occupying a corner site in what was a wood-turning workshop, it's a lovely light-filled space furnished with reclaimed tables and chairs.  Brawn opened not long before I wrote about it here in early 2011.  The restaurant garnered a host of positive reviews then quietly got on with its job as the perfect neighbourhood restaurant in a largely residential area of Bethnal Green.  Being part of the much admired 'Terroirs' small group of restaurants, the food and wine at Brawn were, reliably good.  So, why am I writing about it again now?  Because in this notable restaurant things just went up a few notches.  A re-think amongst the original owners of the Group has resulted in chef/owner, Ed Wilson, splitting off Brawn and taking over in the kitchen.  Those of us who loved the Green Man and French Horn on St Martin's Lane knew Ed Wilson's skill.  We briefly mourned the closure of the Green Man  earlier this year in the restructuring of the Terroirs Group. Now we are re-acquainted with Ed's skills.

Raw Scallop, Celery & Bottarga
at Brawn

Lunch on a perfect Spring day this week began with glasses of gently fizzed, palest Loire rosé VdF "Moussamoussettes" Dne Moshe.  A plate of Torta Fritta with Parma Ham was the perfect appetite stimulator.  The literal translation of 'fried cake' is not particularly helpful.  Think, at least in this case, featherlight crispy dough pillows draped with slices of the very best Parma ham.  A starter of Salt Cod Salad "Esquiexada", the classic Catalan dish, was here executed with seasonal Marinda tomatoes, sweet Tropea onions and small purple olives, possibly Andalucian coquilles nicoises.  The cod was salted in-house and made for a juicy and aromatic plateful. Raw Scallop, Celery and Bottarga, came in a shallow pool of fish broth made from the scallop skirt and dressed with good olive oil.  A perfect balance of sweet seafood and bitter celery leaf and olive oil, it tasted of the sea and had us fighting for the last morsel.


Black Pudding, Squid & Erbette
at Brawn

When we thought it couldn't get any better, out came Black Pudding, Squid & Erbette.  'Surf n Turf' is really not my thing but I would have happily eaten all of this.  Soft, sweet blood cake, tender cephalopod and earthy leaf-beet, the whole simply dressed with a vinaigrette.  A glass of Saumur Champigny Piak from Bobinet was suggested and was a good match.  My perfectly cooked fillet of Turbot came with sweet, fat mussels and a helping of still crunchy Monk's Beard in a clear fish broth along with the suggested well-judged glass of mineral Soave.  

Turbot, Monk's Beard & Mussels
at Brawn

We really didn't need it but managed to share a portion of Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Orange.  As top-notch as it looks.  Expect to pay £40 per head including a couple of glasses of wine and service.

Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Orange
at Brawn

Brawn is a relaxing kind of place.  The staff know their stuff and you can expect a genuinely warm welcome.  The food and drink are seriously good and the restaurant draws on some of the best suppliers in London.  Cooking is seasonal and, as they put it themselves, "The food is honest and simple with a respect for tradition".  Most of the wines are natural, sourced from small growers who work sustainably, organically or bio-dynamically.  There are a few seats at the small bar if you only want to pop in for a drink and a small plate.

If you do want to brave Columbia Road flower market and its surrounding shops on a Sunday and combine it with lunch at Brawn, the restaurant offers Sunday lunch for £28 a head, but you'd probably be well-advised to book.

Brawn
49 Columbia Road
Bethnal Green
London E2 7RG

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Taking the sting out of Nettles

Urtica dioica - common nettle

The nettle spread from Eurasia and now it's a weed common throughout the Northern hemisphere.  But, as Jane Grigson observed, nettles are "not to be despised, especially at a season of the year when greenery is scarce".  Revered by today's foragers, nettles have long been considered of value to "purify the blood" when eaten in April-May.  Nettles are stocked with a cocktail of irritant chemicals, including histamine.  Their tiny hairs act as effective needles to deliver a sting to unprotected flesh.

Grigson suggests topping a slice of fried bread with nettles and a poached egg or egg mollet, or pairing them with brains and a creamy sauce.  Her suggestion of a take on that comforting dish, Champ, certainly appeals as does her nettle soup and nettle broth.  If you exclude early season European imports, right now "greenery" is still scarce in the UK. Broccoli, the last of Spring's greens, is now rapidly going to flower, spinach and chard are hardly getting going and asparagus has all but come to a stop in the return to cool weather.  I can see why the earthy mineral, quality of nettles was so valued.  Last week I harvested the remainder of my sprouting broccoli, pulled some spectacular rhubarb and then looked around for what else was available.  The strawberry patch was being over-run by a thick carpet of nettles so the answer was clear.  A bag of weeds it was.  Somewhere in the depths of my memory I remembered a recommendation to take only the top 6 leaves of the plant and these were duly, and respectfully, plucked with gloved hands.

In Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray mentions the Southern Italian taste for nettles in a dish of Pasta colle Ortiche, though it's a recipe for Nettle Soup she chose to share.  Soup is an excellent way to harness all the goodness this "weed" has to offer.  It's good plainly served, just thickened with potato, or enriched with a little cream.  The addition of a salty contrast of bacon or meaty snail is a good idea for the carnivore.

Arriving home, top of my agenda was the need to preserve the plant before it lost all rigour, so I decided on a nettle butter. This way I could buy some time to decide on a recipe.  Half the resultant verdant butter went into the fridge and the other half in the freezer.   With all of these influences floating around in my head and with little time, I decided on a pairing of potato, egg and nettle butter and created a lunch dish that worked a treat.

Baked potato, nettle butter, poached egg

Baked Potato with Nettle Butter & Poached Egg
(Serves 4)

110g (4oz) unsalted butter, softened
2 good (gloved!) handfuls of nettle tops
4 eggs
2 large (or 4 small) baking potatoes
A little olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan 160C)/Gas mark 4.
Wash the nettles carefully.  Cook in a covered pan with a splash of water and a pinch of salt for 2 minutes.  Drain the blanched leaves, squeeze out excess water, dry well on kitchen paper and chop roughly.  Mix the chopped nettles into the softened butter.  Turn out onto greaseproof paper and roll the nettle butter into a sausage.  Keep in the fridge until ready to use (or freeze it for another day).
Rub the potatoes with a little olive oil and salt and bake in the oven for about 45-60 minutes.
Poach the eggs and whilst they are cooking, split the potatoes and spread with the nettle butter before topping with the eggs

Nettle butter

Getting a little more up-to-date, and rather more refined, Giorgio Locatelli in his doorstop of a book, Made in Italy, offers a Risotto alle Ortiche.  In One, Florence Knight favours a Nettle Gnudi, describing Gnudi as a "stripped-back gnocchi".  Both recipes will definitely be getting an outing in this house soon.  I never thought I'd be looking forward to harvesting nettles from the allotment.