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ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

When the first English asparagus hits the shops in late April, early May, it scarcely seems possible that one can have too much of a good thing. I know that one can now have asparagus all year round, but to me it is one of the last true seasonal foods left. I don’t buy anything but English and make the greedy most of the short season.

It is just so easy to prepare and no, it isn’t necessary to have a special pan for cooking it, although admittedly the stems take longer to cook than the tips. To get round this, I tend to steam rather than simmer, as I can prop up the tips on the side of the steamer and then poke them back down for the last two minutes.

If I roast them, there isn’t really any way round having crunchier tips than stems but as they still retain intense asparagus flavour, I tend to just accept that’s how things are. For such a wonderful food, small compromises are worth it, I find.

Asparagus has an interesting history and appears as an offering to the gods on friezes from circa 3000BC. The Romans loved it so much that their followers of the Greek Epicurus developed ways to dry it and in the high Alps, freeze it for the Feast of Epicurus which I think is our January. In the Attic calendar it was in Gamelion which is difficult to equate to our modern calendar as it was Lunar, not Solar. Anyway, if you can help me out on understanding that, please feel free!

Its first appearance in a cookery book is in the oldest surviving book, Apicius’ “De re coquinaria” from the third century AD. Galen mentions it as beneficial to health in the second century AD and then it disappears from writings until about 1410, when it appears in al-Nefzaoui’s famous “The Perfumed Garden”, although the earliest translation into English that I can find is 1886, by the famous explorer Richard Francis Burton. I found some interesting uses for Cinnamon in that, but we’ll stick with asparagus here! It is perhaps from al-Nefzaoui that asparagus gains its (clinically unproven!) reputation as an aphrodisiac and it is documented as having been a favourite of Madame de Pompadour……..

It also, of course, has another reputation which I will ask Marcel Proust to describe: “all night long, after a dinner at which I had partaken of [asparagus] they played at ……..transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume”. Always overdoes it, does Marcel Look what a madeleine did to him. Nice enough with a cup of tea, but I ask you….

There is also a perception that asparagus is difficult to pair with wine. My own view is that it difficult with a tannic or oakey wine, which according to my in-house Sommelier is because of the asparagusic acid (the culprit in making Proust go over the top), which is an organosulphur carboxylic compound. This is the point at which my eyes glaze over until Roberto returns to the wine itself, preferably opening one. Anyway, his advice is to go with Sancerre, Pouilly Fume or Riesling. My favourites are Italian Verdicchio or Orvieto, but take the time to search out decent ones. Italian whites seem to be marketed in supermarkets at the “I’ll drink anything as long as it’s cheap” consumer, so it may be better to find a reliable vintner who takes Italian wine seriously.

I think I will leave the last words on asparagus to Samuel Pepys. I am quite fond of Sam although he had some less than admirable attitudes and habits; you have to have some affection for a man who, when the Great Fire of London threatened his home, thought more of saving his Parmesan cheese than his silver: “So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street, a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d. We had them and a little bit of salmon, which my wife had a mind to, cost 3s” April 20 1667.

Much as I adore our wonderful English sparrowgrass, after about four weeks, however, the joy of having simply cooked fresh asparagus with either melted unsalted butter or hollandaise begins to, well, not pall exactly but I begin to cast around for Other Things To Do. Much depends on how much effort I feel like putting in, so it might be as simple as roasting it, wrapped in Parma ham and finished with flakes of Parmesan. I also have three recipes which have become firm favourites, none of which is complicated and in fact, the base recipes can be re-used with other ingredients.

ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

Print Recipe
Serves: 2

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch English asparagus
  • 75 g Carnaroli rice (Arborio can be used but I prefer Carnaroli as it produces a creamier risotto)
  • 1 shallot, chopped finely (you can use onion; shallot gives a more subtle flavour)
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, chopped finely (juicy fresh garlic is seasonal at the same time as asparagus but you can use dried)
  • 1 litre hot vegetable stock (can use chicken but I prefer to keep the “purity” of a vegetable based dish)
  • Unsalted butter
  • Olive oil
  • Finely grated Parmesan cheese - about 40g
  • White wine or dry martini (optional!)
  • Saffron, either the powdered or pistils (the crocus “threads”); if the latter, soak a couple in a couple of tablespoons of warm water

Instructions

1

Start by preparing the asparagus: snap off the bottom of the stem where it naturally wants to bend

2

Steam for about 5 minutes, drain and chop into short pieces about 1cm long; separate the stem bits from the tips as you will add them at different points

3

The snapped off end bits can be steeped in the stock to rev up the flavour, then discarded; I find this worth doing but don’t worry if you forget

4

Using a wide thick based pan (I use a Le Creuset casserole that is wide and shallow), add about 1tbsp of olive oil and a good knob of butter over a low to medium heat

5

Add the onion and garlic and soften but don’t let anything burn, keep stirring around

6

Add the rice and allow it to gain some transparency

7

Add the alcohol element - about a glassful of either a dry white wine or slightly less of dry martini

8

Turn up the heat slightly and keep stirring until the alcohol has evaporated and been absorbed

9

Add the stem pieces of the asparagus with the first ladleful of stock, stirring all the while and add the stock by the ladle, keeping an eye on the heat as you don’t want the risotto to burn

10

Adjust the heat as necessary to avoid boiling or burning

11

Add the saffron around this time but go easy with it, the risotto doesn’t need to glow in the dark!

12

After about four ladles of stock, start to check the rice - eventually you want slightly softer than al dente and don’t worry if you don’t use all the stock, or indeed if you need to top it up with hot water

13

When you get to the last couple of ladles of stock, add the asparagus tips and when the stock is absorbed, turn the heat off

14

This is the only tricky part of risotto, as you don’t want to end up with a stodgy mess, nor do you want a soup; the Italian phrase is that is should be “all’ onda” - like a wave, so you’re looking for the rice to have some movement but not sloshing around like a soup

15

At this point, stir in a couple of good sized knobs of unsalted butter and two or three tablespoons of finely grated parmesan (in truth, add to taste but try not to swamp the flavour of the asparagus)

16

Now taste for seasoning, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste

17

Serve more Parmesan at table

Notes

If you have the technique of risotto under your belt, you will open a huge reservoir of recipes that you can vary to suit what you have and indeed, what you like. Quantities can vary every time you make the same risotto, as small things such as changing the brand of rice you use can make a noticeable difference to the quantity of stock you need. I can advise you only to practice, tasting as you go and experiment with ingredients. Small things do make a big difference to flavour, such as using unsalted butter, buying good quality parmesan in a piece and grating your own and if you don’t have fresh stock, use a good powder like Marigold or a Kallo cube.

My Favourites

QUEEN OF PUDDINGS. NOT.

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Not possessing a terribly sweet tooth means that guests here tend to be under-pudding. And under-caked. They will however, probably be over-cheesed but that another story. Part of this is, I think, because I don’t get so much pleasure from making puddings and cakes as I do from savoury dishes. I have just thought that maybe that’s because I don’t get as much pleasure from eating puddings, but I am a tad worried that might make me a selfish cook…..oh dear.

I think as well that I might have a rather French or Italian approach to dessert, as in my experience, in these countries when a stunning dessert is required, it is left to the professional in a local patisserie or pasticceria. I too take this approach and am lucky that I have such a place locally that produces superb gateaux, that I could never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares, frankly) produce.

The gleam atop their chocolate gateaux is such that only a professional can produce and whilst I am up for having a go at most things culinary, my life is not enhanced by tempering chocolate. And tempering is an appropriate word, as I think it’s tricky stuff, chocolate. Maybe I just don’t have the touch, but it does have a temperament approaching the diva: turn my back for a moment when melting it, and it stomps off scowling, immediately becoming lumpy and singed. And that’s doing it over a bain marie, not the mysterious process of microwaving it, which in my (admittedly limited) experience produces a foul, stinking mess from which any chocolatey goodness has been expunged. 

You see, the weird thing is that I can turn out hollandaise and mayonnaise without turning a hair and arguably they are equally tricky. Why can’t I melt chocolate? Maybe I’m a bit frightened of chocolate or maybe it knows I don’t like it? Well, I do, but only as a piece of chocolate. Not interested in chocolate cake or mousse and suchlike. No, chocolate and I are not going to get along in the kitchen, so it’s perhaps just as well that I have a much less fraught relationship with fruit, so I can turn out a few respectable puddings. 

In fact, when I (usually reluctantly) decide to make a pudding, I enjoy working with fruit in a sweet context, as much as when using in a savoury dish. One of the cornerstones of my repertoire is this delightfully simply pudding-cake. I know, that’s not exactly a technical term but does describe this moist, almondy cakey pud, that has never been known to fail, either in the oven, or to please. Works well warm (but not hot) and cold, but has rarely lasted long enough for me to serve it cold. I have used raspberries in this recipe, but I have also used blueberries, which tasted delicious, but given their tendency to explode when baked, did make for a slightly messy looking appearance. I have also used chopped fresh apricot, which worked well, but for reasons I am not sure of, peach and nectarine don’t work so well – turned out a bit soggy. Whatever you use, this is quick, simple and delicious!

RASPBERRY ALMOND PUDDING

Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 large unwaxed lemons
  • 115g softened unsalted butter
  • 115g caster sugar (I like golden, which does beneficially affect the finished cake colour)
  • 3 medium free range eggs, beaten
  • 40g self raising flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp almond essence (I like a pronounced almond flavour, but use less if you prefer)
  • 300g raspberries
  • 20cm loose bottom cake tin, lightly buttered and base lined with buttered parchment

Instructions

1

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C/fan 180 degrees C

2

Finely grate the lemon zest and in a large bowl, add to the butter and sugar

3

Beat until light and fluffy; I believe there are some people who use a wooden spoon but I use my hand mixer!

4

Add the eggs gradually, beating well after each addition

5

Fold in the flour, followed by the ground almonds, then the almond essence, finishing with the juice of one of the lemons

6

Spoon into the buttered tin, smoothing it off with the back of a spoon

7

Scatter the raspberries over the top and press them into the mixture, not so that they disappear forever, just so they are properly embedded in the mixture

8

Sprinkle the top with a further 1 tablespoon or so of caster sugar

9

Place it in the oven for 30 minutes and then test with a skewer; if it comes out clean, it’s done

10

If mixture still clings, give it another 5 minutes and test again; repeat until you have a clean skewer

11

In my oven, this only ever takes 30 minutes, but I have known it take up to about 40 minutes in friend’s ovens

12

When done, leave to cool for a few minutes in the tin, then remove carefully to a rack to cool until you are ready to serve

Notes

A rather nice variation is to replace the lemon zest and juice with a tablespoon or so of strong espresso coffee and top with flaked almonds (add these about half way through, otherwise they can become burnt) and fewer raspberries. In this instance I do reduce the almond essence to half a teaspoon. I expect someone other than me could tame the diva and produce a chocolate version - please tell me the secret if you do!

 

My Favourites

REAL BREAD, EVERY DAY

Is there a more traduced and reduced yet basic foodstuff than bread? How can we possibly have allowed this staff of life to have been subjected to the degrading influence of the Chorleywood Process and how can we, as intelligent consumers, have been duped into believing that something that comes in a plastic wrapper and that keeps for weeks, is bread?

I will admit, I fell for it. Before I began to question seriously what I was actually eating, in terms of the ingredients of the food I was buying, I bought bread in supermarkets usually thinking about how long the loaf might last and would it freeze OK. Now, I am not going to launch into an assault on supermarkets; they are necessary and in any event, if we are naive consumers, we will buy badly. It is our responsibility to buy well – not just what the supermarket has on offer that week. There is good bread to be found in supermarkets, but it’s never on the shelves at your eye line: you will need to bend down or look up to find it.

You can find Crank’s Wholemeal and Poilane Sourdough in UK supermarkets and no, it won’t be the cheapest bread BUT it will not have fillers, colours or preservatives in it and best of all, it tastes wonderful! There is however, a “but” and that is cost. At the time of writing, a 450g loaf of Poilane Sourdough is £3.00 and a Cranks Organic Wholemeal at 800g is £1.55. Both of those are expensive and whilst worth it, not perhaps sustainable dependent on one’s budget.

There are alternatives in supermarkets and we all need to become avid label readers to avoid some of the ingredients that appear in some loaves. I kid you not when I say the following are used regularly in bread in this country: Calcium Propionate (to inhibit mould growth), Soya Flour, “Vegetable Oils”, Emulsifiers…….

If a loaf needs a mould inhibitor, to me that says something quite profound about the product; neither of the loaves mentioned above use them and it doesn’t sit easily with me to eat it. I have read of studies linking it to damage to stomach lining, adverse behavourial effects on children and migraines. I make no claims to be a medic but for me, if I don’t need to eat an additive, I don’t.

Soya Flour: any person knows that this has mixed press. I am not going to get into an argument for which I am manifestly not qualified to arbitrate, except to say that because of my medical history, I avoid Soy in all forms.

“Vegetable Oils”: nothing too horrid here, unless this is hiding the use of Palm Oil, which from an environmental perspective, can be a disaster. This bothers me, so I have researched this topic and have elected to avoid it wherever possible and where it is needed, try to use products with sustainable Palm Oil sources.

Emulsifiers: As far as I can see, these exist to soften a dough and/or harden a dough. Really?

So what on earth are these things doing in bread? It’s because as an ill-informed public in 1960’s, the vast majority of people in the UK just wanted cheap food. The Chorleywood Process was born and our daily bread went downhill fast after that. No wonder that our bread became, by and large, the laughing stock of Europe. If you want a blow by blow account of the Chorleywood Process, I recommend Elizabeth David’s  excellent book “English Bread and Yeast Cookery”; it is worth reading if only to understand that we should never allow the wool to be pulled over our eyes in such a way again.

Mercifully, there were enough people left who did value real bread and thanks to them, we now have the choice to buy real bread, made from good flour, yeast, water, maybe a little honey or sugar, and a fat with integrity. The wonderful RealBreadCampaign.org is a great place to start looking for your local baker and then please, please support them! Good bread isn’t cheap, but I come back to the fact that few things are more influential on our everyday health than the food we eat.

These fabulous people also support home baking and I have been experimenting with an everyday loaf that can fit into a busy life. I started with Doris Grant’s Wholemeal Loaf, adjusted it via the Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread recipe and have finally landed on a version that suits us. I make this every week, and it’s easy to double up the quantity for a bigger family. Don’t be deterred by the use of fresh yeast: I buy mine from ocado.com and freeze it. Please don’t think this is onerous or any way difficult; it really isn’t but there is one problem: it is far too easy to eat too much of it! Making this bread doesn’t involve bouts of kneading or baby-sitting bowls of dough (although that can be very satisfying sometimes); it’s hard to believe something that tastes so good can be so simple to make.

 

If Edoardo and I are exercising (some) self discipline, this keeps well in an airtight tin (I use a cake tin) for several days. It also freezes well but doesn’t seem to last so well after thawing, but that isn’t a problem for us.

Honestly, this is so simple, when I began to make it, I was astonished that it fitted so well into my busy life. I have also experimented with the ingredients and have added seeds to the mixture, replaced some of the wholemeal with granary or strong white (for a lighter loaf) and also made a half quantity with added walnuts. On the whole, I like the original – which also makes divine toast – and it comes in at about 84p per loaf!

SIMPLE WHOLEMEAL BREAD

Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 450g strong wholemeal flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 425 ml blood heat water
  • 20g fresh yeast (non GM)
  • sunflower or pumpkin seeds (optional)
  • room temperature unsalted butter
  • 1 x 1 kg/2lb loaf tin or any tin measuring about 12.5cm x 20cm

Instructions

1

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees C/210 degrees fan

2

Measure the flour into a large bowl

3

In a small bowl or jug, mix the honey with about 150ml of the water and crumble in the yeast. “Crumble” can be misleading as fresh yeast can be quite sticky, so do your best to add it in small pieces, rather than one lump

4

Leave in a warm place for up to 10 minutes, during this period, grease the tin lightly with the butter; it is possible to use sunflower oil, I just prefer butter

5

Check that the yeast is coming to life; it needs to be popping tiny bubbles to the surface and if it isn’t doing this, it doesn’t matter if it takes a few minutes longer to acquire the frothy head that is needed. If you are not seeing any movement, you might have dud batch of yeast; it does occasionally happen but in a year of baking this loaf, it’s happened only once to me

6

When you have a frothy head (no, when the yeast mixture has a frothy head…), pour into the flour along with the remaining 275ml of water and mix it up. Don’t mix until all the water is in, otherwise for some reason, it will go to lumps from which, in my experience, there is no way back!

7

The mixture should be too wet to knead but not too liquid.

8

Put directly into the greased tin and sprinkle with seeds, if wanted.

9

Cover with a clean tea towel (prevents skin forming) and leave to rise.

10

This can take between 10 - 25 minutes depending on the ambient temperature

11

Once the dough has risen almost to the top of the tin, put into the hot oven and give it 20 minutes

12

After that time, reduce to 200 degrees/180 degrees fan and leave it for 40 minutes

13

At 40 minutes, slip the bread out of the tin and knock on its bottom with your knuckles; it should sound distinctly hollow

14

If it doesn’t yet sound hollow, slip it back into the tin and give it another 5 minutes

15

If you want crisp crust all over the loaf, leave the loaf out of the tin for the last 10 minutes of cooking but omit this step if you want softer crust

16

A point on the rising stage, if you get absorbed in something else and forget about your loaf so that it rises to the top of the tin, it will slightly overflow the tin when you bake it. It will not affect the flavour of the main loaf, although you will have a “muffin top” on your loaf, which may become a bit too crisp.

Autumn/ Lunches & Light Suppers/ My Favourites/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Winter

IN THE SOUP

When our British weather sends us something miserable, is there anything more comforting than a bowl of homemade soup? Is there anything else that tells us that life isn’t that bad and it will get better? (OK, so wine or chocolate work here too) After all, think of the theme of so many of the advertisements for bought soups; they usually focus on the homely theme or on the fresh and natural aspect. So far, so good – until you read the ingredients or check the cost. Not so good.

I read recently that tinned soups are one of the biggest offenders for salt and as for ingredients, I am speechless (not a frequent occurrence….). What on earth are Wheat Flour, Citric Acid, Modified Cornflour (modified how?), Polyphosphate and Sodium Phosphate doing in soup? Fresh soups are by far and away less offensive on the ingredient front but that is unfortunately reflected in the price.

It is possible to easily avoid these dilemmas by making your own. It is so easy to make soup, it almost criminally simple and once you have the Foundation Recipe under your belt, you can use whatever ingredients are seasonal, well priced, or just what you fancy!

Before I dive into the Foundation Recipe, I want to just make a few comments on the ingredients I have listed:

I soften my onion, carrot and celery mixture in olive oil, unsalted butter or a mixture of both. It depends on the flavour I want to achieve; you’re free to use what you like, including sunflower oil. Personally I avoid rapeseed oil as I can always detect it in a soup (or indeed in most dishes) and I dislike it.

Note too that the ingredients I just listed are not mandatory. I pretty much always use an onion (or shallot if I want a more subtle flavour) and frankly, carrot and celery isn’t always needed.  I find it helpful to just take a moment before I decide, to imagine the end flavours I want to achieve; if it doesn’t include carrot or celery, I don’t use them.

Stock is a fraught subject that can bring normally calm, restrained cooks to scarlet-faced fury. Yes, it is lovely if you can always have homemade chicken stock to hand and if you have had a roast chicken and you have the time, yes, make some. But, please, don’t stress about it, or even shy away from making soup simply because your freezer isn’t stocked with homemade stock! It is perfectly acceptable to use bought stock (Waitrose and Truefoods both produce excellent stock without salt) and I always have Marigold Organic Reduced Salt Bouillon Powder and Kallo Organic Very Low Salt Vegetable Stock Cubes in the cupboard. That Swiss brand or the three letter brand – don’t even go there. Have you read the ingredients?

Garlic – love it, so it finds its way into most of my soup. If you don’t like it, don’t use it but might I plead with you to give it a gentle try in at least tomato soup?

OK, sermon over, let’s get started. I have tried to give very clear instructions here and if I have over done it and trespassed into the “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs” territory, sorry, but some of you might never have done this before and I am a tad evangelical about the numerous benefits of homemade soup!

In terms of cost, this comes at about £1.29 and can serve four as a first course or two for lunch as a single course. This compares well, I believe, with about £1.89 for 600m of fresh tomato soup in the supermarket. Yes, tinned tomato soup is cheaper, at about 99p for a well-known brand. But does it really taste of tomato?

Now, moving on to other flavours. You can make soup from pretty much any vegetable, pulse or bean. Let’s say you want lentil soup: soften the soffrito as above then instead of tomatoes, add a couple of handfuls of red lentils and perhaps cumin and a scrap of dried chilli flakes. You might need more of the stock at this stage and also, lentils are devils for catching on the bottom, so keep the flame low and stir frequently, while the soup simmers lazily, with the occasional plop. You might want spinach and broccoli soup, so add washed broccoli florets, let them cook for about 10 minutes and then add washed, torn spinach, cooking for another ten minutes or so. This is splendid with a scrape of nutmeg and a generous amount of cream and in my mind, does need blending before adding the cream.

You can experiment, vary and play with this foundation recipe to your heart’s content. The only thing I would say is try to keep it seasonal and use left over vegetables, too. They just need less simmering. I did try to make something once with left over roast potatoes. Don’t. Just don’t. Horrid. Oh and taste, taste, taste as you go, and if you do succeed with roast potatoes, let me know!

In The Soup

Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
  • 1 stick celery, chopped into 0.5mm dice and if it’s a bit stringy, swipe a potato peeler down it to whisk away the strings
  • This combination is called a soffrito in Italian cookery. I know it exists in French cookery too, but a) I can’t remember the French word for it and b) my heart is in Northern Italy and particularly in her kitchens!
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 (or more) cloves of garlic, finely chopped, or crushed under the blade of a knife (see over in My Kitchen under Techniques for how to do this)
  • I tin Italian tomatoes, chopped or whole - no matter - but they MUST be Italian
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tbsp Italian tomato puree
  • 1 litre chicken or vegetable stock - see above
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions

1

Take a pan or flameproof casserole with a thick, heavy base. I use an ancient and much loved 20cm Le Creuset which has been with me for more than 30 years

2

Put it on a low heat, add the oil and butter then the soffrito, stir and allow to soften until everything becomes soft and fragrant

3

Under no circumstances allow this to burn, so you might need to be a bit hawk-like at first, until you understand how your pan and flame perform together

4

You can add a modicum of salt at this point, but go easy

5

Add the garlic and soften that too, but again no burning, as burnt garlic is just horrid

6

I like to add the thyme at this point and to be honest, don’t always bother to strip the leaves off the stems; they will fall off in the process of cooking and just remember to fish out the stems before you blend

7

Add the tin of tomatoes all in one go; if they are whole, mash them up a bit with a wooden spoon

8

Add the tomato puree and then the stock, using at this stage probably about 750 ml, and stir everything round

9

Add a few grinds of pepper, partly cover the pan having brought the contents to a gentle simmer

10

Leave it for about 20 - 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing catches on the bottom

11

The soup should reduce a little during this process, which helps to concentrate the flavour

12

Turn off the heat and let the soup cool a little

13

This is the point at which I like to blend a soup, usually using a trusty Kenwood Stick Blender which is just so easy to wash up (just remember to fish out the thyme stems!)

14

You can of course, use a conventional blender or food processor, and indeed you can leave it chunky and rustic

15

After blending, it may appear quite thick so just thin it out with the remaining stock

16

To finish, swirl in some cream, yogurt or creme fraiche and top with a sprinkle of finely chopped chives or parsley