Archive for the ‘Autumn/Fall’ Category

spicy spanish tomato sauce

For a posh purveyor M&S has come a long way – discounting foods like there’s no tomorrow, which for 12 lamb meatballs on their sell-by date is quite true.   That’s where I came in and gave them a future as the stars of a southern Spanish-style spectacular supper.  Not quite P.T. Barnum but darned tasty all the same:

1 onion, chopped

garlic smashed in mortar with pinch or two of rough sea salt, 3 tsp cumin seeds & 2 dried chillis

Soften onion in olive oil; add garlic, cumin & chillis and sautee until fragrant.

Add 1 TBS paprika picante and 2 tsp chestnut honey, caramelise then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, an inch of cinnamon stick and 1 TBS PX sherry vinegar.

Season lightly;  simmer to thicken slightly then cover and pop in a low oven.

Lightly brown a pack of M&S lamb meatballs then place these in the sauce to cook through gently over about an hour: they will be beautifully tender & moist and the sauce subtly savoury and sweet,  with less a hint of Morocco than Andalucia.  Serve with rice or bread.

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Oh what lovely friends I have!  Dear (not my cousin) Vinny takes a trip home to Montebelluna,  65km north of Venice, 35km north of Treviso (this is important), and brings me back the best souvenir I can imagine:  three feisty heads of radicchio.  Not just any old radicchio, mind, these are the ne plus ultra of radicchios.  I quote Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers from River Cafe Cookbook Green (the ultimate River Cafe cookbook):

The most flavourful and prized, this comes last in the season.  It is less common, even in Italy, as it is only grown in a small area around the town of Treviso.  Identifiable by its large thick edible root and long, thin, pointed dark red leaves, it’s delicious simply grilled or pan-fried and is equally good in salads.


Now poor Vincent had a few delays what with the weather and work commitments – I’m a little confused as to what exactly happened he explained so fast but the gist is he bought them last Saturday and now it’s Friday – so they’re getting on a bit, but what the hey?  They’re a darn sight fresher looking than many a head of common or garden radicchio rosso di Verona lurking about my local greengrocer’s stall…


…and an hour or two spent  in the dark refreshing in the chilled water of my champagne bucket while I hunt for the perfect recipe might even perk them up.  Certainly can’t do them any harm.  What a joyful surprise to light up a dark chilly February day.  Oh, lucky Gastroplod! Thank you, Vincenzo!

Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall writes about the joy of chicory in The Guardian Weekend section:

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Mmmm, yummy yum yum.  A brand new juicy cookbook from a great galumphing goofy guy with big heart, bold -not bolshy- bearing and a neat turn of phrase.  I shot to the online reservation page of my local library’s website and lo and behold picked up Valentine Warner’s hefty tome a mere two days later.   The writing is delightful, most recipes have an entertaining vignette to accompany and there are plenty of tasty morsels for tryouts.  As for this one, as there’s not much wild boar to be had (legally at least) on the Kent & Sussex border, pork had to be substitute in his deliciously different recipe.  A fine dish for a dim and damp winter night: the following is my adaptation and scaled-down version-for-two-with-leftovers-for-lunch of Valentine’s Tuscan original, which actually serves 6-8.

Pork, Anchovy and Black Olive Stew on Polenta

500g boneless pork (shoulder or leg meat) in large-ish chunks
olive oil (or use anchovy oil from the tin)
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
4 cloves garlic, peeled
6 anchovy, fillets (use the whole tin if you’re opening one especially)
1 onion, diced finely
1 fennel bulb, diced finely
thick strips of rind of 1/2 lemon
2 large glasses big-boned red wine (preferably Italian)
1 cinnamon stick
1 TBS tomato purée
4 TBS niçoise olives

Heat a couple of TBS olive oil with the rosemary sprig in a heavy, preferably cast-iron pot.  When fairly warm add the garlic cloves and anchovies, stirring about so their flesh melts to a sludge.  Add the onion and fennel and cook covered for 10-15 minutes until seriously cooked through, only adding the juice from the lemon if it looks like drying out – which it probably won’t.

Throw in the pork (no need to brown it first!) and stir, then add the wine, cinnamon stick and tomato purée; stir again then tip the lot into a small slow cooker set to auto.  Cover and leave to bubble away for several hours (I’d give it a minimum of four) then toss in the olives, stir about and leave for another hour or two.

Serve over polenta with a scattering of gremolata if you’re not meeting clients the next day, just parsley if you are… and steamed spinach on the side.

Incidentally, this Tuscan method and flavour combination appears frequently now I come to think of it.  I have cooked lamb in just the same way, but never before with anchovies and now I wonder why not: they give such a wonderful rich, toothsome savour when melted down into the background, the very essence of umami.  Lemon peel and rosemary contribute their own pungent perfumes to an outstanding sauce, thickened only by softened onion and fennel, which now occurs to me is reminiscent of osso bucco – see? nothing new under the sun, yet new delights to discover every day.  It’s the miracle of cooking.

What to Eat Now by Valentine Warner

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One of my all-time favourite dishes is brandade de morue – salt cod whipped up with olive oil and mashed potato plus a wee hint or more of garlic and a scatter of parsley.  Much as I adore the taste, though, I’m not about to pack in my suitcase a whiffy hunk of dried North Atlantic cod just so I can then rehydrate it under a running cold tap for a couple of days before cooking.

pureeAuthenticity be damned in this instance and come to think of it, I don’t remember when I last peeled a potato to make mash – certainly not since discovering this wonder-product from Lidl: 99p for a four-pouch box.  If you’ve ever read the ingredients list on a packet of Smash and its ilk, the relative purity of this product will come as some surprise, for it reads thus: Dehydrated potatoes (97%), salt, emulsifier (E471), nutmeg, spices, stabiliser (E450i), preservative: sodium metabisuphite (E223), antioxidant (E304), Acid (E330).  May contain traces of milk: that’s it. 

And before you start squealing in horror at the E numbers allow me to enlighten:

  • E330 = ascorbic acid = Vitamin C
  • E304 = ascorbic acid ester = Vitamin C+palmitic acid

The others are arguably possibly slightly dodgy, in that:

  • E223 can be an allergen, not recommended for consumption by children
  • E450i = disodium diphosphate, high intakes of which may upset the body’s calcium/phosphate equilibrium, so excessive use may lead to imbalance of mineral levels, which could potentially lead to damage to bone density and osteoporosis (drinking too much fizzy anything destroys your bones too)
  • E471 = mono and diglycerides of fatty acids; could be animal in origin or from genetically modified soya.

I can live with that, especially when pretty much all you have to do is scald 250ml milk with 500ml water and sprinkle one sachet over the top for some pretty good pommes purées.  It’s definitely French-style though so don’t even think of using this stuff for fishcakes – for that you need the real McCoy! The consistency is purrrfect however, for a creamy brandade. I take a few fillets of smoked fish – here I was fortunate enough to have hot-smoked sea bass and cold-smoked haddock cruising around the freezer – and poach them in the milk & water with finely sliced garlic, a strip of lemon peel, bay leaf and a pinch of saffron.  I then remove the fillets, skin and flake them hot in the few minutes while the potato flakes do their magic in the hot liquid, then stir the fish back in with a fork to blend. Sometimes I shred them finely and actually whisk the mix to more closely approximate brandade but it’s not strictly necessary by any means.

Piled into a ceramic dish and finished off in a hot oven it’s a fantastically hearty meal for two on a cold night, accompanied by a woodcutter’s pile of steamed carrots and courgettes and a lightly oaked chardonnay.  Somehow winter doesn’t seem so bad after all…

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Don’t get me wrong here folks, I have huge admiration for Michelin-starred chef/restaurateur/TV presenter/cookbook author Richard Corrigan, with his salt-of-the-earth bonhomie, clear-eyed yet unjaundiced worldview and his solid, down-home cooking style.  But I did a double-take when I saw his latest publication, The Clatter of Forks and Spoons placed next to Big Flavours & Rough Edges: Recipes from the Eagle – wouldn’t you?

It’s a terrific image so I don’t begrudge it at all – that’s my charity-shop-chic silver plate cutlery! – and Corrie’s text is so environmentally and politically astute, I can even find the recycling of a cover idea eco-fabulously forgiveable.  It’s almost a shame he couldn’t have borrowed the title too, but the rattle of battered flatware on a hard surface is even more gorgeously evocative of his writing.  Not a plain celebrity chef collection of restaurant recipe formulae, this book follows the current fashion, being a collation of discursive thoughts and memories, favourite dishes and discoveries: recipes sharing equal space with long tracts of text and a smattering of mood-evoking photographs; similar to Georgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy, for example.  To which I say hooray, by the way – who ever learnt anything about food or cooking from a mere recipe book?

On the other hand, I was going to recommend David Eyre’s excellent-in-parts Eagle gastro-pub-grub book – for its informative recipes but not its crummy index – until I realised it’s out of print and £95 – bloody hell! – so I’ll just be wiping the spills and splashes from my precious copy a little more assiduously in the future.  I will however, soon be sharing its best recipe: root vegetable & greens soup.  Prosaic-sounding, I know, but absolutely ambrosial, and to which I return time and time again: a soup apart.
Big Flavours & Rough Edges: Recipes from the Eagle
The Clatter of Forks and Spoons

And if you’re not into reading or cooking, sample Richard Corrigan’s hospitality at Bentley’s Oyster Bar 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1 (just off Piccadilly) – bliss – or scroll down and watch this captivating video of him talking about this book

His new place sounds pretty nice, too: Corrigan’s Mayfair 28 Upper Grosvenor Street London W1

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Well hey, I’m not going to pay a visit to our place in Nice and swan about its perfect little kitchen, brave the snooty sales ladies at Alziari for a tin of their unctuous olive oil, fossick about the farmers’ stalls for vegetables and forage for fresh herbs on the Cours Saleya and NOT idle away an idyllic afternoon preparing the greatest Niçoise cliché of all, which also just happens to be one of my favourite vegetable dishes ever, now am I?  Its fall from fashion since its 80s heyday probably had much to do with the ghastly glutinous supermarket tinned travesties I remember not enjoying at all – and I only resurrected this recipe having enjoyed the real McCoy so much Chez Palmyre I had to recreate it myself at home. So delicious it could turn you vegetarian, ladies and gentlemen: I give you ratatouïlle.
vegetable market
Follow the correct principles using decent ingredients and you simply cannot go wrong.  I’ve never made the same one twice – vegetables vary in ripeness, juiciness, depth of flavour and the way they’re sliced or chopped makes a great deal of difference – but I’ve never made a bad one either.   Folk can get so precious about this sort of classic recipe but the fact is there is no one classic recipe.  In its home town nobody makes it the same as their neighbour, so why should you?  Just don’t undercook the vegetables nor stew them together without giving each its initial independent sauté – far less hassle than one might suppose. Oh – and don’t overdo the tomato.

Roughshod Ratatouïlle Niçoise

1 onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced fine
4 – 6 medium sized, tasty tomatoes, chopped
good olive oil

1 red & 1 green sweet pepper, in .5cm slices 5 cm or so long
1 aubergine, in .5cm dice (do not peel!)
4 small courgettes, in 1cm slices
thyme, salt, pepper + a sliver of orange peel if you have it

Preferably in a cocotte, but if not at least in a high sided saucepan, gently fry the sliced onion in a couple of tablespoons olive oil until softening, then slip in the garlic and sizzle briefly before adding the tomatoes.  Stir to mix, drop in the thyme (and orange peel if using) with a pinch of salt then leave to cook down steadily on a low heat while you sauté the other vegetables.

I think it a nonsense to use separate pans for each vegetable – although one must respect their individual characteristics and sauté them separately – so take a wide and heavy-based frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and toss in the peppers.  Cook over a medium heat for 5-odd minutes until softened then add them to the pan of onion and tomato; stir to combine and continue cooking down gently.

Same pan, two tablespoons of olive oil: heat and throw in the aubergines.  Cook fairly briskly, tossing the dice about so they don’t stick, for between 5 and 10 minutes until they are definitely cooked, then tip into the other pan.


Same deal with the courgettes: perhaps a little less oil and a gentler heat needed here.  Do make sure they have really softened sufficiently before adding to the ratatouille pot as they will not cook much further and a crunchy courgette is not what is wanted.  Give the master pot a good stir and allow to simmer a very few minutes.

Taste, season; enjoy.  Ratatouille is good eating right away and even better once the flavours have had time to settle in with each other.  Hot, cold, tepid; it’s both a fine accompaniment and solitary dish: good crusty bread is its best friend, especially if your ratatouille is on the watery side (no bad thing, btw).


Fab to come home to: comforting when reheated on a wintry day and refreshingly cool on a sultry evening.

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…and I loved it.  No, I wasn’t auditioning for a remake of Pink Flamingos, but as in the direct translation of the Nissard dialect’s Merda de Can and no, it’s not actually what it says on the tin, rather a gnocchi Nissarde made with swiss chard (blettes) and/or spinach, shaped to resemble its namesake; I doubt if the resemblance goes further than that.  This wryly-named Niçois speciality is one of my favourites I usually buy at a wonderful pasta and sauce shop, La Clé aux Pâtes in Vieux Nice, to cook at our flat around the corner or even freeze to take home in my luggage.  Other artisan pasta joints in the neighbourhood get more press coverage but in my experience their products don’t come close in quality to what is made on the premises here.  For a change though, today I enjoyed my traditional dish of canine poop with beef daube sauce at celebrated Old Town haunt of authentic Nissart cuisine L’Escalinada.

Merda de Can

How the young waiters manage their combination of cool insouciance, sharp wit, friendly yet professional service is beyond me but it’s very welcome when all too often any hint of an Anglo accent triggers the dreaded treatment touristique.


The dish was delish, but I have to say Clé aux Pâtes does it more to my liking.  L’Escalinada’s chef produces a looser stool, metaphorically speaking, than does the genius on rue de la Boucherie, and I like my doggy do with a bit more bite.   T went for the sautéed rabbit which although on the dessicated side of succulent was saved by exquisite tagliatelle with pistou; both made on the spot, perfectly simple and simply perfect.

Couldn’t possibly find fault with our starter either – Ribambelle de l’Escalinada – a starry selection of niçoise nibbles for two to share: after a help-yourself bowl of chickpeas with raw onion and aïoli, our platter delivered sliced raw baby artichokes, stuffed vine leaves, beignets (fritters) of courgette and aubergine, roasted red pepper, marinated octopus and best of all, exquisitely teeny-tiny cuttlefish, freshly battered and deep-fried.  In contrast to its soggy-seeming appearance the beignet batter was light and crisp with a creamy interior, the recipe for which I am delighted to see featured in Nice Matin’s August 2008 review: must try and if it succeeds I’ll post with my recipe translation.


It has been raining buckets for the past week apparently but this afternoon we were treated to sunshine warm enough for basking outdoors on L’Escalinada’s jaunty terrace while sipping our pichet of Côtes de Provence rosé and watching the perennial people-parade along rue Pairolière: it’s so very nice to be back in Nice.

L’Escalinada, 22 rue Pairolière, Nice 06300
La Clé aux Pâtes, 8 bis rue de la Boucherie, Nice 06300

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our room with a view

our view from the room the morning after the storm

As part of my position I am required to attend top-secret conferences scattered around the countryside: this one in Lancaster, which is about as far as you can go without running into the Lake District.  The journey should have taken five hours but it took nine, of which four were spent in such mind-numbingly boring stop-start M6 motorway traffic that we only have the knowledge of time having passed: either that or we were abducted by aliens, but I don’t recall any little green men probing my anus.  We finally reached the Sun hotel in the heart of downtown old town Lancaster at 9 pm, its integral bar abuzz with Friday night revellers: once T had macheted his way through the crowd to the reception area at the back we were led up several carpeted flights of stairs to Executive Room 32.  After the long drive flat screen satellite TV, wine glasses and corkscrew were almost all we needed and after a quick trip down to the bar to pick up a bottle of Rioja we settled happily into our comfortable, cosy eyrie under the eaves.

one well-stocked bar

Terrific idea for breakfasts: five items from a selection of eight included with room price, or choose from the individual breakfast menu: Eggs Benedict, Kippers, etc.  You could stay a week and have something different every day, enjoying the morning tranquility of the bar with self-serve juice, cereal (if you must) and coffee laid out opposite an array of newspapers, a basket of toast and preserves plus the full Monty brought to your table by friendly-enough but blissfully not too-so staff.  Very very pleasant: even Katie Melua on the tannoy couldn’t upset me.  I just wish we hadn’t had to be anywhere afterwards.

smoked bacon, herb sausages, white pudding, poached egg, grilled tomatoes

smoked bacon, herb sausages, white pudding, poached egg, grilled tomatoes

Sorely tempted by the Eggs Benedict I found myself seduced twice over by the 5/8 selection: gosh do I love a bit of white pudding.

smoked bacon, fried duck egg, pork sausages, grilled mushrooms & flageolet beans in tomato sauce
bacon, fried duck egg, sausages, mushrooms & flageolet beans in tomato sauce

After a leisurely breakfast like that there’s no need for lunch and barely room for dinner even, so the £70 a night room price looked increasingly bargainly.  What with the weather – remember the recent hullabaloo over 10 million fell runners swamped by storms?  same area, same weekend – exploring Lancaster was pretty much off the menu, so after the conference we snuggled in once more.  Champagne by the glass at £6 (£6.50 for rosé) set the mood for a laid-back evening, although I could have done without the strawberry floater: it was decent champagne, so why make me stick my fingers in it?  T’s stomach empties faster than mine so he ordered a Lancashire hotpot from the bar menu (they stop serving at 7 pm – not entirely convenient for folk with continental habits) which I gather was well tasty, although not good-looking enough to snap.

We loved staying at this hotel – beer aficionados would love it even more – and recommend it heartily.  Visit their website to get a feel for the place; it more than lives up to its own marketing.
virtual tour

the Sun Hotel & Bar, Lancaster

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Sunday afternoon in Tunbridge Wells – where to go for a lunchtime drink that’s both within walking distance of the town centre, yet comfortably removed from its urban hum and traffic drum?  Btw, that’s a stroll in nice shoes, not a heavy-booted hike up hill and down dale.

Dim memories of a bar set into a cave on the Common, somewhere over there… off we plodded, Dorothy and her cowardly lion.  Amid the winding paths, rolling lawns and bracken forests we were relieved to find the Mount Edgcumbe Hotel snuggled at the end of a short gravel drive.  Although it must have changed hands a-plenty over the years and the complimentary bar snacks of yore seem to have vanished, to my delight its gingerbread granny’s house-in-the-forest enchantment lives on.

Popular rather than heaving is just my kind of place, and an outdoor table in the sunshine the Maraschino in my Manhattan: not that I ordered one mind – it’s not that kind of a place.  No; my tipple was a glass of Chenin Blanc, a varietal I order with a ripple of anticipation but tend to drink with a shudder of disappointment.  I don’t want to give up on CB by the glass – Lord knows it’s more interesting than PG – but this South African’s spiteful skinniness reminded me of an encounter in M&S last Thursday (this is not just a checkout girl, this is a nasty bitch looking for a scrap):  more for masochists than oenophiles.  Ok, I exaggerate; the wine wasn’t that bad, even if the checkout girl was.  By contrast T lucked out by puckering up to a pleasingly passion-fruity Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.  I can’t be too judmental of the Mount Edgcumbe’s wine list anyway because here beer is the star – Harvey’s Best Sussex Bitter AND Peroni on tap, no less – but beer just ain’t my thing.

Ah well, although I wasn’t quite enjoying my wine the bowl of bar menu Nachos (homemade salsa with a nose-wrinkling drop-kick of cumin – isn’t salsa supposed to be refreshing?) helped wash it down and I passed the beautiful autumn afternoon enjoying my view of both the Common’s sandstone outcroppings and at closer range, the undulating human landscape …


Mount Edgcumbe Hotel

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Somerset House photo credit: Jan van der Crabben

A couple of weeks ago we dashed up to the Big Smoke on a sunny Saturday to catch the last weekend of the Courtauld Institute’s Cezanne exhibition – which was stunning, btw.  And what a stunning day all round: Somerset House itself; at the far eastern end of The Strand, children frolicking under its courtyard fountains in the autumn sunshine and the chiaroscuro effect of the afternoon light on the Neo-classical quadrangle’s façades filled me with a sense of satisfaction and contentment normally only induced by a lazy luncheon with a glass of wine. Or two.

My delight had much to do with having sourced our train ride snack from the countertop cornucopia of Carluccio’s caffè.  A can of San Pellegrino Limonata for me: sharp, tart and truly lemony; very grown up and tasting nothing like pop, and a tinny of Peroni birra for he. Mine came with a foil cover to keep the sipping hole clean, which doubled up nicely as a micro-plate for our delectable little savoury biscuits: one each of parmesan/herb and walnut/rosemary flavours. Mmm – crisp and crumbly with the quality of their ingredients resonating on the palate: not much more than a morsel per piece yet intensely satisfying.

I do hope the delightful Antonio is feeling better after his recent knife mishap.  His erudite books and television works are informative and entertaining, and although he is no longer involved with the caffè chain which bears his name, it’s still a civilized pleasure to stop by and shop.  Best wishes for your recovery, Mr Carluccio!

We visited another bastion of civilization that day – the ever-urbane Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly.  A lunch date elsewhere meant foregoing the joys of the 1707 cellar wine bar, but who wants to be underground on a beautiful day anyway?  I did discover, however, what the deli counter does with the leftover fat from their Pata Negra Gran Reserva ham – they send it to the kitchen, clever devils.  I was hoping to acquire it cheaply for my own devices but at F&M they’re not fools.  Instead I came home with a goodly package of saffron  – saffron indeed – salami, and a very goodly thing it turned out to be: resembling more a lomo than a salami – no casing, the meat wasn’t chopped and fat evident only in the marbling – but all the more enjoyable for it, especially at just £3 for 100g.

 The saffron-gilded edge was beautiful to behold and its flavour subtly enhanced the top notch pork flesh.  I wish I could say more about this product but there was no information on the label and my server, although charmingly helpful, knew as much as I of its provenance.  The mystery remains…anyone out there know?


Courtauld Gallery

Somerset House map

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