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A HANDY TART FOR THE SUMMER…WHAT SUMMER?

Onion and Thyme tart

In this less than summery weather we are having, I always think things like quiches and tarts are useful to have in your repertoire. If it’s cold and grey (as per London as I write this) they can be eaten with new potatoes and a vegetable and if (by some miracle), we have sun and warmth, you can make them early in the day while it’s cool and eat them at room temperature with salad. I was extolling their virtues amongst a group of friends recently and I was a bit taken aback when one said, somewhat accusingly, “well I suppose you’re bl**** WonderWoman and always make your own pastry”. Ha, if only….no, I don’t.

It isn’t my favourite kitchen activity and if I didn’t have a Magimix, I am not sure I would ever make pastry. I nearly always have some ready made pastry tucked away in the freezer and my favourite is the French brand Marie La Pâte Feuilletée Ready Rolled Puff Pastry (no, I am not being paid to mention this). Rather conveniently the ready rolled round perfectly fits a 24cm flan tin so given that I nearly always have the other ingredients to hand for a tart or quiche, this cuts out the (for me) tedious part of the recipe. I’ll be honest and say that I used this by mistake the first time – I overlooked the fact that it was puff pastry but now I actually prefer it for this recipe.

This recipe owes its genesis to Sybil Kapoor’s Onion Tart in her book ‘Simply Veg” published by Pavilion (and I urge you to buy it – fabulous recipes that always work). As is my habit, however, I have tweaked and experimented – not least by using puff pastry – to make something that fits our personal tastes and sometimes, just uses what I have. This version is, however, the one we prefer and appears regularly, warm or cold. It puffs up massively while cooking and then when cold, sinks back to something that almost looks slightly disappointing. Do ignore this little failing, as the flavour is deeply savoury and rewarding; it also travels well for picnics or packed lunches.

I like to use a well flavoured olive oil for this as it is reflected in the final flavour and I have been getting good results recently with the Greek brand Charisma which even Edoardo admits is a very good oil. If the budget runs to it, the French Roscoff pink onions are superb in this recipe – their subtle flavour really shines through but use what you have or can source well.

If you want to use shortcrust pastry, please do – and if you want to make your own, well that’s good too!

ONION AND THYME TART

Print Recipe
Serves: 6 Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 packet Marie La Pâte Feuilletée Ready Rolled Puff Pastry or 170g shortcrust or puff pastry
  • 60ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or 3 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste with sea salt salt under the blade of a knife
  • 2 tbsp thyme leaves, stripped from the branches (yes, I know it’s a pain but it’s worth it)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 medium eggs, well beaten
  • 200 ml creme frâiche or soured cream
  • 60g finely grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C fan and set a baking tray to heat

2

Line a 23/24cm flan tin with your chosen pastry

3

Prick the base and then line with baking parchment or greaseproof paper

4

Fill with baking beans and put on the heated baking tray to bake blind for 15 minutes

5

Remove the beans and paper and return to the oven for a further 5 - 7 minutes until the pastry is golden brown

6

While all this is going on in the oven, heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan over a low to medium heat

7

Add the onions and garlic and fry gently for about 20 minutes; some colour is fine but we’re not looking for a high degree of browning here which would impair the fresh flavour

8

Add the thyme leaves and stir around to distribute evenly amongst the onions and garlic

9

Remove from the heat and seasonTransfer to the pastry case, spreading them evenly

10

Add the creme frâiche or soured cream to the beaten eggs, season well with freshly ground black pepper and add to the onions in the pastry case

11

I don’t add salt here as the Parmesan gives enough for our tastes

12

Gently mix it into the onion mixture being careful not to pierce the pastry which your not - so -Watchful Cook has done on one occasion

13

Sprinkle with the cheese and return to the oven, on the baking tray, for 25 minutes until puffed up and golden brown

Notes

Eat this warm (but not hot) or cold with salt or vegetables, depending on the weather!

Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

TREASURE FROM TURIN

Glorious Vitello Tonnato

I’ll be honest and say that when I first heard about this dish, I wasn’t at all sure that it would be to my taste. Veal and tuna together? Hmm, didn’t sound my kind of combination. If I had not tried it, however, I would have missed out on one of Piedmont’s true glories. I am also very glad that I waited until I was actually in Piedmont to try it. Turin, to be precise and frankly if you can’t find a superb, authentic vitello tonnato there, then something has gone badly wrong with the world. Fortunately, I did find one at the terrific www.leviteletonne.com which pointed me in the right direction when it came to finding an authentic recipe and tweaking it to our taste, and on advice from our Piedmontese friends.

It is true to say that there is still some reluctance to eat veal in the UK. Whilst I absolutely would not eat crate reared veal, free range rose veal is one of life’s true delights. And to be brutally frank, if you eat dairy, you are contributing to the creation of bull calves as a by-product. Sorry to be obvious but to lactate, a cow must be pregnant and deliver a calf. A heifer calf will become a dairy cow but a poor little bull calf, in industrial dairy production, faces a brutally short existence. We are talking hours. So to square with my conscience, all our dairy produce – milk, cream, yogurt, cheese – comes from high welfare farms (usually organic) that then rear the bull calves compassionately for rose veal. If you eat cheese, you should eat veal.

A good vitello tonnato also requires good tuna. It doesn’t have to be fresh and in fact I have never seen an Italian recipe that calls for it. I use Brindisa Ortiz Bonito Tuna Fillets which is line caught in the Bay of Biscay and comes in good size chunks which are also fabulous in other recipes. The flavour is superb and although it can be a bit tricky to track down, Ocado stock it and I’ve seen it in independent food stores too. Please don’t use that tinned tuna that strongly resembles cat food in looks, texture and smell. You know the stuff I’m talking about.

Another major component that I am going to be a tad militant about is the mayonnaise. It must be homemade with a mild olive oil and good eggs. That calf and that fish did not die for you to insult it with industrially made “mayonnaise”; the UK’s best selling brand is made with – amongst other things – rapeseed oil, calcium disodium and paprika extract. I don’t want to eat that in an egg mayonnaise sandwich, let alone vitello tonnato.

You will also need a butcher, one who knows his onions and can supply humanely reared rose veal and who knows how to cut and tie it. I will be astonished if you can find a supermarket that can do this, so do your best to either find a local butcher or use an on-line supplier. If you can’t do either of these things, make something else.

This dish, done properly, is a significant financial commitment so do it right, even if you only make it once a year! My version owes a huge debt to the late, great Marcella Hazan and I‘ve tweaked it on advice from Piedmont friends.

Vitello Tonnato

Print Recipe
Serves: 6 - 8 Cooking Time: Including all prep time, 3 hours

Ingredients

  • For me, this is two day recipe. Day One I make the mayo and cook the veal. You don’t need me to tell you how to make mayo but can I please, however, make a plea that you use olive oil and ONLY olive oil. I occasionally make mayonnaise with sunflower oil but never for this recipe. Day Two I make the tuna sauce and put the dish together
  • Day One
  • Your favourite home made mayonnaise recipe made with 2 egg yolks, 300ml olive oil and two tablespoons or so of fresh lemon juice
  • The mayo needs to be a tad on the sharp side to cope with the other flavours that will mingle with it, so don’t be afraid to use a little more than you might otherwise
  • And for the veal 900g - 1.25kg lean boneless veal tied firmly into a roll
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 sticks of celery, minus leaves
  • 1 medium onion
  • 4 sprigs parsley, including the stalks where so much of the flavour resides
  • 2 bayleaves
  • Day Two
  • The mayo you made yesterday
  • The veal joint you cooked yesterday
  • 200g tinned Italian or Spanish mediterranean tuna
  • 5 flat anchovy fillets, preferably in olive oil and patted dry (if they are salted, rinse them throughly in cold water)
  • 300ml mild olive oil
  • 3 - 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • 4 tbsp capers, rinsed

Instructions

1

Day One

2

Choose a flameproof pot just big enough to contain the veal; I use an ancient oval Le Creuset pot

3

Put in the veal, carrots, celery, onion, parsley and bayleaves and just cover with cold water

4

Now take out the veal and put it to one side (no, I’m serious)

5

Bring the water to the boil and add the meat again

6

Bring the contents of the pot to just under the boil, cover the pot and reduce to a barely perceptible simmer

7

At the point, I have found that none of the burners on my hob allow the low simmer I need for this so I do use a reducer plate which I now don’t know how I lived without

8

Simmer for about two hours, using your judgement if it needs a bit more or less - don’t wander off and have a nap while this is cooking. It does need you to keep an eye on it and it is way too high an investment to allow to simmer dry.

9

When the meat is cooked - you should be able to easily slide a skewer into it - remove the pot from the heat and allow everything to cool at its own pace

10

Day Two

11

Drain the tuna and put in a blender or food processor with the anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice and capers and run at a high speed until a creamy consistency is achieved

12

Now fold it carefully into the mayonnaise (not the other way around!) and test for salt; I find it is rarely required because of the anchovies and capers

13

Having drained the meat (don’t discard the stock - it makes fabulous soup or risotto) and ensured it is patted dry, slice it into thin slices

14

Arrange artfully on a serving dish and cover completely with the tuna sauce; if you need to layer the meat, ensure each layer is covered with some sauce and and cover the final layer completely

15

I like to keep the finishing very traditional so usually garnish with boughs of rosemary, lemon slices or parsley leaves, as per the photograph. I have been told by my Piemontese friends that this keeps for up to two weeks in the fridge; never last that long in our house!

Notes

I love this dish and will happily invest the time and money to create it. If I can’t afford either the time or the money, I make something else; it really isn’t worth trying to make a budget version as it will be disappointing and I really can’t stress that enough. If you do make it, I promise you, you will become addicted!

Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

WHAT A SAUCE!

Sorrel hollandaise with asparagus

Why is it that certain recipes induce fear into the most intrepid cook’s heart? I will admit to be being very cautious about anything involving deep fat frying, in the absence of having a dedicated piece of kit. I am not however, afraid of mayonnaise or any of the other so called “Mother Sauces”. In fact, I sometimes think my food would be a much duller if I didn’t use them fairly frequently.

This week was an absolute case in point as I was casting around for something slightly different to do with salmon and asparagus. I had fallen for some sorrel from Farmdrop.com as I love the lemony sharpness that is a good foil for richer, oilier produce. It seemed a good combination to me to make a sorrel Hollandaise with steamed Jersey Royals, roast salmon fillet and steamed asparagus. Simple, flavoursome and absolutely seasonal.

So don’t be afraid of making a Hollandaise which you can then use as a wonderful base for adding a little finesse to simple steamed or roast fish and boiled or steamed vegetables. In a trice you can turn it into Bearnaise, Maltaise, Choron, Moutarde or Mousseline. Yes it can split and you do need the right recipe which lays out the steps carefully. Carême’s recipe is quite intimidating, requiring as it does, the cook to have a quantity of Allemande sauce to hand and 1 tablespoon of chicken stock. You can bet Carême didn’t use a stock cube and just to give you an idea about Allemande, you have to have velouté to hand before you can even start that. Those of us without a brigade behind us need a simpler approach to producing a delicious flavoursome Hollandaise with the minimum of stress and fuss.

Before we start, I have found there to be three golden rules for Hollandaise:

  • use unsalted butter at room temperature; you can clarify it if it makes you happy but after doing it once, I have never bothered since. I do, however, tend to use French or Italian butter which for some reason gives a smoother result
  • use fresh free range, preferably organic eggs; the better the eggs the better the end result and they are the main influence on the colour of the sauce
  • watch the temperature of the emulsion very carefully; I make mine in a Pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, although I always remove it at some point and end up clutching it to my bosom to keep the sauce warm but not hot. I have a friend who is somewhat better endowed in the embonpoint department than I, and she makes her sauce in the fashion from the get go. I am completely in awe of The Guardian’s Felicity Cloake who makes her Hollandaise in a pan, direct on the hob. One day I’ll try that…maybe.

My method is based on that which I learned years ago from the Leith’s Cookery Bible, which for me was – and is still – an absolute godsend for acquiring or refreshing techniques. I have tweaked their basic recipe to land on something which I can make with my eyes closed and so far (touch wood) has never gone wrong.

Sorrel Hollandaise

Print Recipe
Serves: 2 - 4 depending on greediness Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp wine vinegar (don’t use balsamic - used it once by mistake. Horrid)
  • 6 - 8 peppercorns
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 1 or 2 blades of mace (not 100% essential)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • salt
  • 110 g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • lemon juice
  • 100g sorrel, finely chopped

Instructions

1

Put the vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaves, water and mace if used, into a small saucepan and reduce to 1 tbsp of liquid

2

Strain into a cold bowl and if you want to use immediately, shove it in the freezer for about two minutes to chill it

3

Put the egg yolks, a pinch of salt and a hazelnut size piece of butter into a heatproof bowl and stir together with a wooden spoon

4

Add half a teaspoon of the reduction and place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water

5

Do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl

6

Stir over the heat until slightly thickened and then start to add nut sized pieces of butter, stirring each addition well

7

Watch that the water doesn’t boil, so be prepared to moderate the flame under the pan and if necessary, move the bowl off the pan

8

It can be helpful to have a tea towel to hand to either place the bowl on, or wrap the bowl in if you employ what my well endowed friend calls “the bosom technique”

9

Keep adding the butter, stirring well and ensuring that butter is properly absorbed into the emulsion

10

If it begins to look a bit “sweaty” (unpleasant image, I know, but it does describe the condition), add a tiny bit more reduction or a few drops of cold water

11

When all the butter is in, remove from any heat source and beat vigorously for one minute

12

I do all this mixing and beating by hand, with a wooden spoon, simply because that’s how I’ve always done it and it makes me feel (unwarrantedly) virtuous

13

Check the seasoning and add salt and lemon juice to taste

14

Stir in the chopped sorrel and keep warm until needed

15

At this point, I sometimes add a tablespoon of double cream to make it a lighter, more pouring consistency; this doesn’t quite make it into a mousseline, for which you add stiffly whipped double cream at half the volume of the Hollandaise

Notes

I have read all kinds of dire warnings about what happens if you let Hollandaise get cold, but I have found it perfectly even tempered if I keep it at room temperature and don’t refrigerate it. If you find it has thickened a little, just put the bowl over warm water again and let it come to in its own good time, with a little gentle encouragement from a wooden spoon. Without the sorrel, it is a good, basic Hollandaise perfect for this time of year with pretty much anything seasonal

 

Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

ASPARAGUS AGAIN

Frittata di asparagi

I have friends who remark upon the passing of the years by exclaiming how quickly Christmas comes around. Not me, as apart from the fact that I truly loathe turkey, there are more pleasurable milestones throughout the year. For me, the best is the arrival of English asparagus. There is nothing quite like the real English product and I confine my asparagus eating to the eight or so weeks of the year when it hits the markets. Yes, when I am in Italy, I love Italian asparagus and it has a subtly different flavour so the risotto, or whatever I’m making, are also subtly different, but again, I only use it in season. And no, I never use Peruvian or Mexican asparagus that seems to be available all year round. Why would I do that? Why would anyone do that – it just doesn’t have the same depth of flavour.

I do remember years ago (in the 1970s or early 80s I think), I tried a recipe for a quiche that used canned asparagus and evaporated milk. It was foul, what was I thinking; even the dog wouldn’t eat it and Labradors don’t turn up their noses at much. I recently was given a can of asparagus, prior to the season starting, because this well meaning person knew how much of “an asparagus nut” I was. Well, quite. A nut but not idiotic. And yes, it is still foul stuff, still a travesty of the fresh product but OK for my neighbour’s compost heap.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about how to make real asparagus quiche, soup and risotto so this short post is about how to put together an authentic Italian frittata using asparagus. If you can make an omelette, forget what you know about omelettes. You do see writers who say that a frittata is an Italian omelette and it makes me livid. OK, they are both eggs but the methods are different, not to mention that an omelette is folded or rolled and a frittata is flat. An omelette is made rapidly, keeping the eggs moving and is over in the blink of an eye. I love Margaret Costa’s description in her Four Seasons Cookery Book of being tutored in the art of omelette making by Monsieur Laplanche, then chef des cuisines at the London Savoy; he had been taught as a commis to cook on the back ring of a gas cooker with the naked flame in front of the pan, under his wrist. Don’t try this at home, but it gives you an idea of how rapidly the eggs should be cooked for a French omelette.

So having said all that, for this recipe, forget it all (although I implore you to find a copy of Mrs Costa’s book – it is captivating) as a frittata is approached differently. It is slow cooked and to finish it, you can either flip it like a pancake or whip it under the grill for a brief moment. Because I use a heavy Le Creuset pan for this, I have proven to myself that my wrists are too feeble to flip a frittata so despite what my Italian friends do, I use the grill method, but you do have to watch it like a hawk. I am a massive fail as well when it comes to the “slide in onto a plate and flip it over” method which if you want to attempt, that is what You Tube is for. If it ends up on the floor, don’t blame me.

FRITTATE DI ASPARAGI

Print Recipe
Serves: 2 Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 200g fresh English asparagus (a bit more or less won’t matter too much)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 50g grated Parmesan cheese (no, supermarket “cheddar” won’t do)
  • 30g unsalted butter
  • salt and freshly milled black pepper
  • A heavy based frying pan: I use a Le Creuset with a top diameter of 20 cms

Instructions

1

Heat your grill

2

Trim the asparagus and cut into 1 - 1.5 cm pieces, keeping the tips whole

3

Rinse and blanche in boiling water for 2 minutes

4

Drain thoroughly, patting gently dry with lots of kitchen paper

5

Beat the eggs in a bowl (I use a large Pyrex jug) until whites and yolks are well blended

6

Add the asparagus, cheese, salt and pepper (about 5 twists of the mill)

7

Melt the butter in the frying pan, over a medium heat

8

When the butter foams but is not coloured, add the egg mixture

9

Turn the heat down as low as possible and let the mixture set and thicken

10

This might take up to about ten or twelve minutes but don’t wander off and read the paper; it needs a close eye kept to prevent browning

11

When the top is still runny but the very edges look set, whip it under a hot grill for about 30 seconds, but again watch it like a hawk: it must not brown

12

Loosen the frittata from the pan using a spatula and slide onto a warm plate

13

Cut into wedges and serve warm, not hot, with a green salad

Notes

The frittata in the picture is a bit less puffy than normal as I only had three eggs. Still tasted good, though. We like to sprinkle a bit more Parmesan over the cooked frittata and they also work cold and travel well for picnics or packed lunches. They can also be adapted to use whatever you have around; I like to use up the ends of whole salami or chorizo, finely sliced red pepper, left over griddled courgettes or small cubes of gorgonzola which melt wonderfully into the eggy mixture. Cold and cut into small cubes, frittate are excellent stuzzichini, too

 

Desserts & Savouries/ Spring

RICOTTA ICE CREAM

Ricotta, rhubarb and blood orange ice cream

I am a big fan of ricotta cheese; it is endlessly versatile but it is very easy to be fobbed off with inferior products. Because it is made from the whey left from cheese making, industrial producers of cheese in this country have cottoned onto the fact that they can make yet another insipid tasteless product from what was previously waste. Blame the industrialisation of the dairy industry in this country which apart from producing tasteless milk, condemns thousands of cattle to unspeakable lives. I can feel a separate post coming on about that.

A good, Italian-style ricotta can be difficult to find in the UK and I’m afraid I have been nagging farmdrop.com to source and supply a really good ricotta. it was therefore with huge pleasure that last week, I was able to order westcombedairy.com Ricotta which was a lovely cheese that I wanted to use for something that I perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have made. Fortuitously, I also had rhubarb and blood oranges, both of which I love. So, rather to my surprise, as I lack the gene for sweet foods (well, not completely but I’d rather have cheese than chocolate), I decided to make ice cream.

Now, before you are up in arms that the following recipe isn’t really ice cream because it’s not made with eggs and cream, yes, I know. But Larousse tells me that ice creams are “cold desserts made by freezing a flavoured mixture”. The use of milk, cream and eggs seems to have started around 1775, although it is said that in about 1650, the cook of Charles I of England had created the egg & cream recipe but the King had paid him to keep the recipe secret. So, I am unrepentant in calling this an ice cream (it does include cream, after all!). I also think that if I start to call it “frozen rhubarb dessert”, it sounds like something full of E numbers that is found at the bottom of a supermarket freezer on double discount because nobody fancies it. And who would, when they can have Rhubarb, Ricotta and Blood Orange Ice Cream!

On a slightly different topic, this recipe has been welcomed by a friend with a daughter who is severely allergic to eggs and who frequently misses out on the pleasure of ice cream.

Can I also mention here that I don’t own an ice cream maker and am not sure I want one (although I think Edoardo thinks he might get ice cream more often if I did). In truth, the end product could probably have been smoother if I had remembered to mash it up more frequently during the freezing process. I did set the alarm on my phone but only managed two mashes. Three might have made it smoother but the flavour is still delightful with just two mashes.

RICOTTA, RHUBARD AND BLOOD ORANGE ICE CREAM

Print Recipe
Serves: 4 - 6 Cooking Time: 30 mins plus freezing time

Ingredients

  • 250g ricotta, strained (sieve it if it pleases you)
  • 400g rhubarb, rinsed and cut into 2cm pieces
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 4 blood oranges, juiced squeezed (I didn’t bother straining it but you could if you wanted to)
  • zest of one of the above oranges
  • 75ml runny honey (I used acacia but use what you have)
  • 240ml double cream (I used Jersey cream for extra lusciousness)

Instructions

1

Put the rhubarb, sugar, orange juice and zest in a pan and simmer until the rhubarb has collapsed into a puree

2

Set aside to cool

3

Beat together the ricotta and honey until very smooth then add the cream

4

Continue beating until all the ingredients are smooth then add the rhubarb mixture

5

Mix well until you have an even distribution of rhubarb then pour into a plastic container and freeze for about two hours

6

After that time, mash up the mixture to reduce the size of the ice crystals and return to the freezer

7

Repeat that process two or three times more for a smooth, silky ice cream

8

At the last “mash” you could add chopped pistachios or walnuts to add a bit of texture

Notes

I served this with Nyakers Pepperkankor Swedish ginger biscuits and in fact, now that blood oranges are over, I might make ricotta, rhubarb and ginger ice cream…

 

Lunches & Light Suppers/ Spring

BEARS AND EMERALDS

Spinach, watercress & wild garlic soup

If you read many “foodie” blogs, you’ll see that foraging seems to be something you need to do, or you are just Not Keeping Up. Now, I love fresh food but I am not going to start foraging. “Pick your own mushrooms” they say. Really? REALLY? How do you know they aren’t toadstools? How do you know your foraged risotto al funghi won’t kill off your nearest and dearest? There is a huge risk differential between snaffling a few blackberries to add to an apple pie and deciding you are qualified to distinguish between a delicious mushroom and a fungus which at best, will give you a night to remember for all the wrong reasons. I love nettle risotto but my nearest green space is Brompton Cemetery and call me a wimp if you like, but somehow I just don’t fancy eating something picked in a Cemetery (and there is the small matter of it being illegal to take flora from there).

In Italy, they do things differently and many pharmacists are qualified to pronounce on your foraged fungus (no, not the kind on your feet, although they do that too). There are also helpful signs near popular foraging sites warning you of the toxic fungus to be avoided, although how do you know those signs are comprehensive? Just because something doesn’t appear on the sign doesn’t mean it’s safe. Oh, I know, I’m a wuss but blame 35+ years of working in insurance – risk assessment is an ingrained habit.

My aversion to foraging does not, however, mean I need to miss out on recipes containing ingredients traditionally thought of as foraged. The lovely folk at farmdrop.com have recently added a seasonal goodie which I just love: wild garlic. I am pretty well addicted to garlic in most forms and this has given me the seasonal opportunity to experiment with it and look into its history.

It amused me to see that its Latin name is allium ursinum due to it being a favourite of the European Brown Bear who, after emerging from hibernation, would dig it up and feed voraciously, as it grew  early in the spring. Bears, in all their variations, are by far and away my favourite animal so it’s another reason for me to have a soft spot for this plant. In the absence of being able to keep a bear at home, I’ll happily settle for a dog, preferably an Italian Greyhound…but I digress.

This garlic is widespread over Europe but its similarity to Lily of the Valley, which is toxic, has led to a few cases of death through people confusing the two. I’m not sure I understand why as the flower forms are completely different and what about the smell? Crush Lily of the Valley and you get a light, pleasant fragrance that reminds me of Diorella. Crush wild garlic and it’s a whole different fragrance, unused, as far as I know by M. Dior. Just reinforces my aversion to amateur foraging, though.

Wild garlic is seasonal between April and June in the UK, so do make the most of it. I chop it into butter for the ubiquitous garlic butter or to drizzle over roast cod or chicken. The leaves (which have a slightly milder flavour than the bulb) can be used in a salad or added to a leafy green vegetable. The pretty white flowers make a lovely garnish, a change from the nasturtium, but I think my new favourite is this soup. Spring weather can be so unpredictable that I never feel a hot soup is unwelcome around about now and last weekend, when the weather here DID change rapidly and in the wrong direction, this was especially welcome. My slightly fanciful name references the Latin name and also the startlingly intense green of the finished soup which begs finishing with the contrasting colour of cream or creme frâiche – or indeed the flowers.

[sp_recipe

Autumn/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Winter

FEEDING PEOPLE – EASY BAKED SALMON

Colourful, healthy and SO easy.

Let me state right up front, I love to have a table full of people for whom I’m cooking. Don’t much mind if I’m just making a giant risotto for twelve with antipasti first and green salad then fruit and cheese, or a full scale cordon bleu high French cuisine meal for four. Have to say the former scenario is less stressful and much easier on the budget. On reflection, I am not sure anyone really entertains at home in that formal way any more and I can’t stand it when home entertaining becomes a competitive sport.

On that basis, I am going to do a series of occasional posts talking about recipes and tips I have found useful when feeding people at different times of the year and of the day. I will probably include a few failures as well, on the basis that I’m human!

Having said that, having friends round their table is something that sometimes worries people though, so this post is giving you an absolutely foolproof main course that can be put on the table in under 30 minutes, is stress-free and can be done even if you’ve over done it on the aperitivi before you get in the kitchen…not that I have any experience in that regard…

Before we get to the recipe, I would like to emphasise that the quality of ingredients here is crucial: when we cook something this simple, the flavours must be clear and authentic, so do try to find the best you can and in the case of the salmon, preferably organic.

In terms of setting this within the context of say, a three course meal, I usually give people either a simple soup (prepared the day before) or a cold starter (Roquefort, pear and walnut salad is a crowd pleaser and dead easy), followed by a big bought tart, fresh fruit and cheese. Again, very simple so look for the best you can afford.

While I’ve been writing this, I have come to the conclusion that I really don’t like the word “entertaining” in this context. It’s all a bit Abigail’s Party (find it on You Tube – it’s genius) or 1980’s Cuisine Minceur (don’t bother Googling that – dreadful phase in food; everything served on black octagonal plates and so tiny you just wanted to make a pile of buttered toast once home). Having people round a table, eating good home cooked food (ahem, apart from puddings…) accompanied by conversation and laughter is one of great pleasures. Yes, wine helps but some of the best conversation round our table has come from teetotallers or designated drivers. On second thoughts, maybe there is a correlation there…

That’s a long paragraph to describe why I dislike the pretensions that can accompany feeding people at home and I still haven’t found a word to replace entertaining, so I am going to leave it at “feeding people” and hope it doesn’t make me sound too institutional!

Don’t be deterred by the length of these recipe; it is dead easy and when you’ve done it once, it will all slot into place and you’ll do with your eyes closed – or after a few aperitivi

EASY BAKED SALMON

Print Recipe
Serves: as many as you like Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 fillet of organic salmon per person
  • 1 slice of Parma ham per fillet (optional - see notes)
  • bay leaves
  • olive oil
  • 1 lemon
  • small bunches of cherry tomatoes, left on the vine
  • sweet potatoes, say, 1 chunky one per person but depends on appetites!
  • mature spinach (not those wimpish “baby”leaves that are for salad but have no flavour when cooked); buy more than you think you can possibly eat
  • fresh or dried thyme
  • 1 clove garlic
  • butter
  • double cream or creme frâiche
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • nutmeg

Instructions

1

Pre heat the oven to 200 degrees/180 degrees fan

2

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into chunks about the size of a golf ball

3

Wash the spinach in two or three changes of water and leave in a colander to drain

4

Put olive oil into a shallow baking tin or oven proof dish, add the chunks of sweet potato ensuring they are all well coated with oil

5

Add black pepper, thyme and a smashed garlic clove (no need to peel it)

6

Put in the oven for 20 minutes

7

Take a second oven proof dish and add a drizzle of olive oil - just enough to lubricate the base

8

Pat dry each salmon filet and wrap each in a slice of Parma ham with the “seams” underneath

9

Slot a bay leaf under the ham, on top, with the tips poking out

10

Add the tomatoes to the dish, with the salmon, making sure they have a drip of olive oil of them but aren’t swimming in it

11

Put in the oven proof dish and wait until the sweet potatoes have had their 20 minutes

12

At that point, turn over the potatoes and return them to the oven

13

Put the salmon in the oven and set your timer for 15 minutes (Note that this time is for a slender fillet - if you have gone for a chunkier size, add a few minutes)

14

About 5 minutes before time is up, take your largest pan and melt a good sized knob of butter

15

When it has foamed, add the spinach and ensure it is all well coated with butter

16

Add a pinch of salt, put the lid on and leave it alone for about four minutes over a medium heat

17

When the time goes off for the oven; switch off the oven and leave everything in there while you finish off the spinach

18

Take the lid off the spinach and you’ll see it has shrunk beyond belief which is why I recommend you buy more than you think you’ll need

19

Drain it through a colander in the sink and then take an old saucer or small plate and press down hard on the spinach to force out as much of the liquid as possible

20

(You can do this to this stage a couple of hours in advance and in some ways that’s better, as it does give the spinach time to properly dry out)

21

Return the resulting green heap to the pan over a low light and move it around a bit more to drive off more liquid Turn up the heat to medium and add a couple of tablespoons of double cream or creme frâiche, heating until it bubbles and sizzles

22

Add black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg

23

Turn off the heat, plate up the fish and tomatoes put the potatoes and spinach in serving dishes - job done

Notes

This is colourful, healthy and not too expensive, especially if you replace the sweet potatoes with lentils or brown rice and leave out the Parma ham In truth, the method for this meal can be adapted for any firm fish such as cod or haddock and the spinach replaced by whatever green veg is in season, so do experiment and find your own speciality that you can produce with your eyes closed - or after a few aperitivi!

 

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

BAKED EGGS

This is such a simple recipe, I am wary of actually posting it but a good friend said that she’d never thought of it, so why not?

I think this is something that you can throw together from things you mostly have in the house anyway, plus the fact that you can add all kinds of bits you might find lurking in the fridge. I recently used a few scraps of left over Parma ham; any small pieces of salami are also good but I am reluctant to use anything fishy as i just can’t imagine how it might test. Although it might be good with lovely Morecambe Bay shrimps?

Apologies too, for the dayglo cheese; I was using up a bit of left over Red Leicester and it does come up bright! Tasted good though and that’s what counts.

Baked Eggs

Print Recipe
Serves: 1 Cooking Time: 8 - 9 minutes

Ingredients

  • scrap of butter for greasing
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • i small leek washed and sliced finely (or a small shallot finely chopped)
  • 1 large tomato, skinned and cut into 1cm dice
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 2 tbsp cream or creme frâiche
  • 2 tbsp grated cheese
  • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • Salt and freshly milled black pepper
  • small oven proof dish, buttered

Instructions

1

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C/160 fan and put in an oven tray to heat

2

Melt the butter in a small pan on a medium flame

3

Add the leeks and soften but don't allow to colour

4

Remove from the heat and drain well on crumpled kitchen paper (don't omit this step as to do so will render this dish too greasy)

5

Spread across the small dish

6

Add the tomato dice

7

Carefully break the eggs into the vegetables, without breaking the yolks

8

Drizzle over the cream and season, taking account of how salty the cheese is likely to be

9

Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs

10

Place the dish on the oven tray for about 8 minutes until the egg is set

11

Watch the egg yolk carefully - hard-boiled is not what we aiming for!

Notes

It easy to increase this to serve more than one person but I'd use individual dishes if you can. Serving could be messy from one large dish.

Autumn/ Breakfasts & Brunches/ Desserts & Savouries/ Spring/ Summer/ Winter

BANANA EMERGENCY

I had a bit of a challenge to my Watchful principles last weekend, as I discovered three elderly bananas that were quite beyond eating “as is”, and for some reason I had neglected to eat most of the Discovery apples that had been delivered by Farmdrop.com. I can’t really explain that latter event, as I adore those apples and they have such a short season. It might have had something to do with my stuffing myself with a friend’s homegrown raspberries and the delivery, direct from Italy, of the most fragrant melon, another gift from a friend – lucky me!

Anyway, these poor apples had become a tad on the wizened side, so I made Spiced Apples (elsewhere on this site), not thinking they’d also come to the rescue in a banana emergency.

I have a fairly large collection of cookery and food books, together with favourite websites and years and years worth of good, old-fashioned clippings from magazines and newspapers. I wish I could tell you that the latter are in apple pie order and that I can lay my hands on exactly what I want in a trice. Nope. Not a hope. This lamentable lack of organisation came back to haunt me when I wanted to save these poor bananas from the bin and had a vague recollection of a good recipe from some years ago. I will cut a long and frustrating story short, by saying it took me nearly an hour to find what I wanted. Yes, there were other recipes more readily available, but stubbornly, I wanted that particular recipe that turned out to be snipped out of an American newspaper eleven years ago. It probably wouldn’t have taken me an hour if I had remained on task, but I kept discovering long forgotten gems, some of which revealed just how rusty my once fairly fluent French has become. Anyway, back to bananas.

The recipe is straightforward enough, in fact it is so simple it barely counts as cooking. Assuming, of course, one has all the ingredients…..now, I am an incurable recipe tweaker, except when it comes to cakes and baking generally. I don’t seem to have to same instinct for baking as I do for other areas of cookery, so tend to tweak only minor ingredients. I am not sure, however, it counts as minor when I discover I only have slightly more than half the required peeled weight of bananas. At this point I had greased the tin, was heating the oven and had weighed out all the other ingredients so opting out wasn’t an option. And Edoardo was expecting cake…….I sympathise, I get a bit like that when I’m expecting cheese…..

Anyway, for once I decided to tweak on a more major scale and made up the weight by using Spiced Apples that were drained of the juice that is inevitable with them. I did wonder if they would make it a bit too damp but decided to keep a close eye on the cake in the oven. For me, it is a minor miracle that it turned out perfectly: moist, light and full of flavour. I might even make this more often (cue for E’s eyes to light up – he complains he is cake-deprived normally).

I have written up what I did, but I suspect you could tinker around with the proportions, so long as it added up to 225g. And it wouldn’t have to be the Spiced Apple recipe; I might try it with raw grated apple and increase the spice content a bit. If you do try that, please let me know how it works out.

One last note; in the picture I was worried to see what looks like a lump of uncooked cake mixture but was relieved when it turned out to be a piece of apple!

I hope you enjoy this – we now call it “Leftovers Cake” but it’s not a very appetising title!

Spiced Banana and Apple Cake

Print Recipe
Serves: 10 Cooking Time: 45 - 60 minutes

Ingredients

  • butter for greasing the tin
  • 85g unsalted butter
  • 225g plain flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 0.25 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 0.25 tsp salt
  • 0.25 tsp grated nutmeg (or cinnamon, or a mixture of both)
  • 120g peeled weight ripe bananas
  • 105g drained Spiced Apples
  • 110g caster sugar
  • 2 medium eggs, beaten in a cup
  • 100g roughly chopped walnuts
  • 1kg/2lb loaf tin, base and long sides lined and greased with butter

Instructions

1

Pre heat the oven to 190 degrees/170 degrees fan

2

Melt the 85g butter in a small saucepan over a gentle heat (it mustn’t colour) and allow to cool

3

Mash the bananas thoroughly and stir together with the apple

4

Stir in the sugar, eggs and melted butter

5

Sift in the flour, baking powder and bicarb, folding in carefully

6

Fold in the chopped walnuts

7

Turn the mixture into the prepared tin, giving it a smart tap on the work surface to eradicate any air pockets and smooth off the top

8

Bake in the oven for 45 - 60 minutes, testing with a skewer after 45 minutes.

9

This one was done after 50 minutes but I suspect the banana/apple proportion will influence the time

10

Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove form the tin and cool on a wire rack

Autumn/ Breakfasts & Brunches/ Desserts & Savouries/ Spring/ Summer/ Winter

APPLES OF MY EYE

If you were to ask me, I think the first fruit I can remember eating is an apple. I also seem to think of them as always having been around all year, whereas when I was a child, fruit definitely had its season. Strawberries are irretrievably linked to tennis for me and their fragrance reminds me of my mother being glued to the (black and white!) TV during Wimbledon. Tangerines, as they were then, were Christmas, although we seem to see every variation on small citrus now.

Is there, however, more of a workhorse of the fruit bowl than an apple? Admittedly bananas work hard for their living too, but it terms of sheer versatility, the humble apple wins out every time for me.

Sadly, this very versatility led to this unsung hero being bred for volume, size and keeping qualities. We went through a very low period in the seventies and eighties when, unless you grew your own, eating apples were frankly pretty grim. The average supermarkets offered Golden Delicious, Macintosh Red and Granny Smith. Personally I find all of these unpleasant as raw eaters, either because of flavour or texture, but Golden Delicious and Granny Smith do cook well.

Many of the old British, French and Italian species became at risk as producers grubbed up old orchards to plant more profitable types. Mercifully, and largely because of the efforts of Slow Food and in the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society and its members, some enlightened retailers (take a bow, Waitrose) and a general increase in the public’s demand for flavour, many breeds were brought back from the brink.

It is now relatively easy to find scrumptious seasonal apples such as Discovery, although until I started to do some research around this lovely apple, I didn’t realise it is in fact a modern fruit. It was found in the late 1940’s in Langham, Essex and is a child of the luscious Worcester Pearmain. I absolutely adore the fragrant crispness and almost strawberry-like flavour of the Discovery, BUT it is a seasonal being and in fact becomes flabby in both texture and flavour if stored for too long. They tend also to be a tad inconsistent in size but frankly this doesn’t bother me and I actually enjoy the process of selecting the individual apples that appeal to me.

Another fragrant apple that I love is Pink Lady; it is also a modern apple, developed in the late 20th Century, in Western Australia, from a liaison between Golden Delicious and Lady Williams. It has the remarkable capacity to be consistent and until recently, I don’t think I have ever had a disappointing Pink Lady. That changed recently when I had some quite unpleasant Argentinian apples – the texture was too mealy for me. Perhaps they had been stored too long. And did you know that Pink Lady is a trademark? I didn’t; her horticultural handle is Cripps Pink and she has an equally lovely cousin called Sundowner (also a trademark), who is horticulturally Cripps Red. She, however, is not so easy to find.

In terms of other modern apples, Jazz is a likeable apple that works well in the Spiced Apple recipe below. Oh and this is another apple that operates under a nom de guerre; it is really Scifresh.

Braeburn is another apple that you will see in quantity in supermarkets and it was an apple in the right place at the right time. It became commercially viable at a point when the public wanted more in terms of flavour than Golden Delicious or Granny Smith could provide. At best, it is a crisp, fragrant and deeply flavoured apple. It does however, to my mind, have a major flaw and that is that it is hugely variable in terms of quality. Personally, I have had too many Braeburn disappointments. Rather than waste them, however, if you are unfortunate enough to have a disappointing batch, use them for the Spiced recipe and just up the spices!

The last eating apple that I want to talk about it is the wonderful Cox’s Orange Pippin. This is an older fruit, developed, it is said in 1825, and with many progeny. I love these apples when they are in prime season, becoming a tad mealy when old. That is though, a wonderful reason to eat seasonally, as it is at its best when from British orchards.
You may wonder why I have not mentioned the noble Bramley Apple in this post. Well, it is indeed a noble apple with an impeccable history of service in the kitchen. I stopped using it quite so ubiquitously when I made a conscious decision to reduce the amount of sugar I use in cooking. As I started to use other apples, I also realised that I actually prefer to eat my cooked apples when they have retained some shape and I can still see the slices. Don’t get me wrong, if I making apple sauce for roast pork, I would still use a Bramley as I do like a cloud of fluffy apple in those circumstances.

Spiced Apples

Print Recipe
Cooking Time: About an hour including prep

Ingredients

  • 6 eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into slices about 2mm thick
  • juice and finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • zest of 1 lemon (I like to peel this with a potato peeler and then cut into julienne strips; you may have a julienne cutter but either way, I like clearly defined strips of lemon peel)
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 3 pieces of star anise
  • 1 large stick of cinnamon, broken in two
  • half teaspoon of powdered cinnamon

Instructions

1

Put everything into a thick based pan or casserole and simmer gently for about 30 minutes

2

Stir occasionally and watch that it doesn’t catch

3

You may need to add a small quantity of water, depending on how juicy the orange is

4

The final result should be tender but still well shaped slices, with a slightly syrupy juice

5

This is scrumptious hot, warm and cold and I serve it with either ice cream, creme fraiche or yogurt

6

It makes a fabulous filling for a pie or a crumble and can have all kinds of ingredients added (see above)

7

Edoardo is fond of this for breakfast with yogurt and seeds and I have to say I agree with him.

Notes

This recipe rose out of necessity. I had a bag of eating apples (I think they were Braeburns, but can’t actually remember), I had tried one as a raw eater but it wasn’t terribly pleasant. Well, I was at the outset of watching my budget and my conscience, so it was unthinkable to just discard the other five or so apples, even for the benefit of our local birds and foxes. I didn’t want to shop specifically for anything else to make these apples edible so instead I rummaged in the pantry. I think I have said before that pantry is a metaphor - I would dearly love a larder but have to make do with two large drawers and two shelves as my pantry. One day……. Anyway, this recipe is made from ingredients I nearly always have in store, but I have found that I can experiment with this and use sultanas, raisins, seeds, dried apricots, prunes to add flavour to apples. This is also an extremely economical recipe if you make this with blemished apples which are often sold in supermarkets for very low prices, so do experiment. Also, you can make this with however many apples you happen to have, just scale the other ingredients up or down. It also freezes well for about three months. In truth, it so simple I feel a bit of a fraud posting it here, but friends I’ve shared it with have all liked it and mostly said “oh I never thought of doing that…”, so I’m hoping it’s not too much of a fraud!