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This stuffed bread makes wonderful picnic food as the filling holds itself in place allowing you to eat it with just hands – and a napkin for the fastidious. We took it for a packed lunch while decorating our new apartment and it was much more sustaining than the bag of Doritos (T’s choice, not mine) we’d munched on the day before: it didn’t stain everything orange either, which is a bit of a bonus when you’re trying to paint everything in shades of white.

butternut squash and stilton sandwich roulade

It’s a handy vegetarian addition to my picnic / packed lunch recipe repertoire.

slices of sage, squash and stilton calzoneButternut squash and blue cheese bread

  • 100g crumbled Stilton*
  • 100g diced cooked butternut squash
  • a sprig of fresh sage, chopped
  • 1 TBS chopped pecans (optional)
  • a handful of olive oil dough
  • olive oil
  • *Any creamy blue cheese such as dolcelatte, gorgonzola etc. will do just as well; here I happened to have some Stilton left over from Christmas haunting the freezer.

    Gently stretch out the ball of dough on an oiled swiss roll tin – or toaster oven tray – coaxing it towards the edges.  It will relax and stretch further so don’t be anxious about this.

    Strew the cheese and squash over the surface of the dough, padding the filling towards the edges.  Scatter with the shredded sage, then make a papoose by bringing the long edges of the dough to meet over the top and press them together to seal so the cheese doesn’t leak out when it melts in the oven. At this point it will not look at all promising, but have no fear.  Sprinkle chopped nuts, if using, across the seam and press them lightly into the dough so they stick.

    Bake in a hot oven (450F, 200C, Gas 7) for about 30 minutes, basting halfway through with a little olive (or hazelnut/walnut if you have it) oil for a delicately crunchy crust: cover the nuts with a strip of foil if they’re browning too fast (or blackening in my case, one hazard of using a toaster oven).

    Cool, loosen the bottom with a palette knife, then cut into slices or wrap the whole in foil to slice later.

    The sage makes a delicous ménage à trois with the blue cheese and squash, which the richly nutty pecans turn into a veritable orgy of flavours, or for an enjoyable alternative you could try swinging with rosemary and walnuts instead: a bit of gustatory promiscuity can produce some pretty interesting offspring.

    For a punchy packed lunch just add a handful of rocket leaves and for a picnic add whatever you like, but the way this British summer’s been shaping up you’ll be needing a blanket, windbreak, hot water bottle – and your head examined: it’s blowing a gale as I type this.

    A note to British readers: some branches of Waitrose sell frozen butternut squash, which is pretty darn handy for this recipe as it’ll cook in the microwave in 4 minutes – and there’s no skin to deal with!

    This post is my first-ever entry for the WTSIM… summer picnic blogging event.

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    Mr T opted for sopa Menorquina as his set-menu starter at La Guitarra in Ciutadella de Menorca one rainy lunchtime and its simple, straightforward heartiness really hit the spot. Unlike Cafe Baléar, however, La Guitarra is one place I wouldn’t advise opting for the menu del dìa; for although the restaurant has a great reputation for local specialities its à la carte menu is very obviously the focus. One lives and learns all the same: its troglodytic charm would be a wonderful escape from the heat of Summer and descending from scorching street level into its stone-walled cellar-cool basement interior for a slap-up meal is what we’ll be doing next time, but in the interim I recreate this Balearic soup with fond remembrance of Menorca’s old capital in the Spring.

     

     

    I wished I had ordered the sopa too as my garlic prawns were just that; peeled prawns with overcooked garlic and despite their toothsome texture, not much flavour in either.

    We both ordered the sea bass a la plancha for mains and it was ok; fresh and decently cooked but decidedly dull!  The highlight of our lunch was so obviously the working man’s vegetable soup that it demonstrated how plain food doesn’t have to be plain.

    This hearty soup could easily be made fit for a vegetarian – vegan even – by the substitution of the small amount of meat with extra olive oil, garlic and paprika.  On the other hand, if you’re a meat-eater but can’t get hold of sobrassada or chorizo, substitute pancetta or lardons and throw in extra pimentón (unsmoked, for a change) and garlic.

    Sopa Menorquina

    serves 4 as main course

    2 TBS olive oil
    5 cm or so sobrassada, cubed (or chorizo if unavailable)
    1 large onion, chopped
    2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
    1/2 green cabbage, separated into leaves and torn into strips (chop if you must)
    1 large carrot, chopped
    100g spinach or Swiss chard, torn or chopped
    100g broad beans or peas or flageolets (any fresh or frozen green bean is good)
    2 tomatoes, fresh or canned, diced
    500 ml or so stock (if none fresh, make it with a bouillon cube)
    1tsp pimentón (whichever style you prefer)
    at least 4 slices of hearty peasant bread, toasted

    sweating onions and garlic with sobrassada in olive oil

    Chop or tear all the vegetables into pieces of approximately equal size.  Heat oil in an enamelled cast iron pot and sweat the onions with the sobrassada, garlic and pimentón on a medium-low flame.  Add the diced tomato and bring to a gentle simmer, then add the rest of the vegetables and cover with two cups of hot stock.  Simmer for 20 minutes.

    throw in some extra pimenton to boost flavour

    The correct way of serving this sopa is: for each person, place a slice of toasted bread in the bottom of a soup plate, ladle over the vegetables and their broth, place in a 150C oven for 10 mins and serve:

    serve in wide shallow bowls drizzled with olive oil and country bread on the side

    but unless it has just baked a loaf of bread, there’s no reasonable reason to whack on the oven specially, so I have been known to serve the soup straight from the pot: topped with a spoonful of homemade ricotta, a trail of olive oil and with slabs of toasted country bread on the side nobody minds one jot.

    Incidentally, at La Guitarra we ordered a bottle of Blanc Pescador, assuming (rightly!) its name denoted an affinity with fish, but as my Spanish vocabulary was not up to anticipating its pétillant tingle – “vino de ajuga” translates to “needle wine” apparently – it came as a pleasantly prickly surprise, and with a much cleaner and clearer flavour than el crudo cava, an awful lot more dignity too.

    La Guitarra
    c/ Dolos baixos
    Ciutadella de Menorca 07760
    tel: 971 38 13 55

    3-course menu del dia €12.50
    Blanc Pescador €13.50

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    fresh home made ricotta with muslin imprint
    I don’t know about you, but I adore la cucina casalinga – Italian regional home cooking – so simple, so hearty, so life-affirming; but dependent as it is on the quality of ingredients, my heart used to sink whenever a recipe called for fresh ricotta. There’s no such thing for sale in my home town, no matter what the supermarkets say; it will never be fresh enough and they may as well seal it in a coffin as in anything with a bar code, for its soul will have high-tailed it out of there long before the lid snaps shut.

    So with the summery weather (where did that go?) my time was ripe for making fresh cheese and serendipitously, The New York Times felt the same way. With instructions so elegantly simple all I needed was to calculate a couple of unit conversions, dig out a candy thermometer, snip off some muslin, then find me some buttermilk.

    Fresh home made ricotta

    heating the milk

    heating the milk

    Equipment

    large, heavy based pan
    thermometer
    heat-resistant spatula
    large sieve or colander
    1 m² muslin/cheesecloth
    fine mesh skimmer

    Ingredients

    2 litres whole milk
    500 ml buttermilk
    1 TBS salt

    forming curds

    forming curds

    Combine milks in the pan, add salt and heat steadily to 70C, running the spatula gently across the bottom to prevent sticking. Stop stirring and heat to 80C, then remove the pan from the heat and allow curds to form for 5 minutes. Then, very very gently, skim off the curds and transfer to a sieve lined with 4 layers of muslin sterilised with boiling water.

    draining curds in muslin

    draining curds in muslin

    Drain for 15 minutes, then decide if the moisture content is what you were hoping for.  For a drier curd, gather up the corners of the muslin and make a bag by securing with string or a sturdy rubber band and suspend it over a drip receptacle in the fridge (some simple improvisation called for here – I used a herb drying hook but a strong spoon or knife across the shelf above would work).

    Peel away the muslin for immediate use in sweet or savoury dishes; alternatively, place the ricotta in a lidded container and refrigerate but use early; it doesn’t keep well although I’m told it freezes brilliantly.

    So delighted to have such delectable stuff to hand we abandoned the idea of recipes entirely and savoured its snow-white tang with some chopped fresh oregano from the garden: spread over toasted slices of homemade artisan bread scraped ever-so lightly with garlic and topped with a drop or two of Alziari olive oil, it made immaculate bruschetti.

    artisanal boule, homemade ricotta with fresh oregano

    The following day ricotta spoonfuls perched prettily on top of a Menorcan vegetable soup splashed with a good and grassy Sicilian olive oil; a terrific trio.  In the picture below you can see the difference between ricotta made with two types of milk: goat’s milk for the first batch is on the upper left (easier to find than sheep’s) and cow’s milk alone is at the lower right; I found the goat milk’s texture and flavour superior to that of the cows, but both were better than any supermarket substitute.

    ricotta made with goat's and buttermilk and all cow made with vinegar

    Two essential yet priceless ingredients of ricotta are patience and gentleness, neither of which are my strengths exactly, but the process fosters a contemplative calmness. Trying too hard – stirring too much, squeezing too tight – will transmogrify the cheese into tiny, useless grains of curdled milk which may even drain away before your eyes right through the muslin, and that’s a more than palatable life lesson: take it gentle, take it slow and you’ll find there’s nothing bitter at all about this learning experience.

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    fregola grains
    Last time I visited Fortnum & Mason I picked up a packet of fregola sarda.  Interesting stuff, fregola: it’s pasta, but of Sardinian origin and in appearance it’s couscous on steroids, reminiscent of pollen grains at a billion magnification.  Also, unlike any pasta I can think of, fregola nuggets are toasted, which not only explains the colour variations, but also adds quite a bit of flavour complexity – well, for pasta anyway – due to the Maillard Reactions.  Cooked, fregola makes interesting eating; having been dried v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y it makes for a goodly chew, and the starch on the surface of each mini boule of semolina thickens the broth slightly: I hesitate to use the term slime for reasons obvious, but aficionados will appreciate my meaning.  It’s novel, but delicious and satisfying.

    Fregola Sarda is traditionally served in a shellfish broth and with a surprisingly sunny afternoon putting us all in a Mediterranean mood a credible combination came to mind.  I should say here that although using both seafood and bottarga could be construed as gilding the lily – it’s conventional to have either one or the other – my seafood happened to be a frozen assortment from oriental emporium Wing Yip (into which I may sneak again on Saturday) so it needed a bit of a fishy kick and bottarga put the boot in beautifully.    In this neck of the woods, if it’s even possible it’s pretty pricey to get hold of sparkly seafood, so I stand by my sources: not quite tradizionale, but neither travesty – it’s a kind of cucina povera after all – simmer down you puritanical purists, we’ve got other fish to fry…


    fregola sarda with seafood and bottarga

    fregola sarda with seafood and bottarga

    Fregola Sarda with Seafood and Bottarga

    serves 4

    • 3 TBS olive oil
    • 1 clove of garlic, sliced fine
    • 4 handfuls of frozen mixed seafood (squid, mussels, octopus, prawns)
    • 4 fillets frozen pollack
    • 3 chopped tomatoes or 3 TBS tomato paste or 250 ml passata
    • a couple of fennel stalks, if available
    • a pinch of saffron if wished
    • crumbled chile if you like
    • 1 glass of white wine
    • water or stock to top up
    • 4 tsp bottarga, grated

    For the fregola:

    • 400-500 g fregola sarda
    • 1 litre fish stock – use a cube, concentrate, whatever
    • 1 TBS capers
    • 2 spring onions or a small bunch of chives, chopped
    • chopped fresh parsley, fennel, mint (any permutation you like)

    Heat the garlic gently in the olive oil to release the fragrance, but don’t allow it to brown.   Add the white white wine and tomato, bubble up then turn the heat down to a simmer.   Throw in any or all of the flavourings if using, then sit the seafood and fish fillets atop to steam; cover and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes or so until the fish is opaque.  If there is insufficient liquid to go round, top up with a little hot stock or water.

    While the seafood is cooking, bring the fish stock to a boil in another pan then tip in the fregola.   Mine took 15 minutes to cook, but follow the instructions on your pack as different brands vary.  When cooked al dente, drain the fregola in a colander then toss with the capers and chopped herbs.

    Serve in shallow bowls as in the pic above, fregola on one side, seafood on the other.  Moisten the fregola with the tomato broth and sprinkle all with a little grated bottarga – and unlike me, try to remember lemon on the side for squeezing; saving a little chopped parsley to counterbalance the lurid orange wouldn’t go amiss either – buon appetito!

    Footnote: this weekend’s Financial Times carries an interesting article on pollack – cheap, abundant and relatively eco-friendly – with chef endorsements and some valuable cooking advice from Anthony Demetre of Wild Honey and Arbutus; worth checking out.

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    cooking Pimientos de Padron

    a panful of Pimientos de Padron

    So we cooked and ate them, following the instructions provided by Elizabeth Luard in her delectable tome, The Cooking of Spain and Portugal: A Regional Celebration, which great good fortune allowed me to pick up for £4.99 at tkmaxx the other week (possibly to the great relief of my local library, having clung to their copy for the last 4 months, post-it marking every other page and the prospect of returning the thing increasingly unthinkable with each passing day).  Whichever way wangled, it’s definitely a keeper.

    Ms Luard’s food writing is a joy to read with her frequent canny little asides, vignettes and scene settings before the directions, giving just that little bit of extra information you need to make the thing properly, that is with the right attitude and in good spirits.  And a cook in a good mood always, always, always makes a dish taste more authentic and delicious; the right spirit is just as important as the right ingredients, temperature and timing.  A glass of champagne helps, too, by the way.

    Here’s how to set off your Sunday afternoon with a bang:

    • 200g Pimientos de Padrón
    • 3 TBS olive oil
    • Maldon salt flakes

    Rinse and dry the peppers, but leave whole, stalks intact: you’ll be needing them later.

    Grab a heavy based, preferably cast-iron, frying pan that can just about accommodate the peppers in one layer.  They will shrink a little as they cook, but you will want each pepper to have contact with the hot oil.

    Heat the oil in the pan over medium-high heat until a pepper will sizzle, then tip in the rest.  Cook over high heat for a couple of minutes or so until the skins are blistered and browned in places (you’ll hear them pop and see them hop, which is fun), then turn the heat to low and cook gently another 2 or 3 minutes until the peppers are soft. You may find a splatter guard comes in handy.

    Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and serve sprinkled with salt and some decent bread on the side to mop up any juices.  To eat, hold each pepper by the stem and bite off the flesh.

    Legend tells that every nth pepper is super-hot – estimates vary from 1 in 5 to 1 in 30 – which is why this dish is often referred to as Spanish roulette: apocryphal hype I pooh-poohed – until KABOOM!!  I got one.   Ouch.  But there’s nothing to fear for a chile lover; anyone who likes a bit of heat shouldn’t need to call the fire brigade – a quick sip is all that’s required to carry on until they’re all gone.  The delightful thing about these peridot nuggets is the scintillating mouth mosaic made by the flickering interplay between their subtle variations in flavour and heat; that plus the occasional firecracker.

    Terrific tapas? I should coco loco.

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    The man lies exaggerates.  For a start, that claim is fatuous, and moreover, his directions for perfect pork crackling betrayed me – as I suspected they might.

    I’ll admit that Clarissa Dickson Wright with a wig and a penis blazing his way through the Yorkshire countryside on a quest for the Great British Feast is a beguiling sight, and his pot shots at a certain pilfering, posturing and now pigeon shooting chef are persuasive (let the feathers fly!), yet when it came to the crunch he left me with crackling stiffer than it was crisp.

    True, my meat was tender and tasty with a gorgeous glaze and fat rendered below, but the dish came off half-cocked: our crackling crackled not, a monstrous munch fit for the dentally daring alone.

    As a MPW virgin I found a famous chef more fascinated by food than currying favour with viewers and reviewers an inviting prospect, but although I love that surly face still, his words failed me: when he said “I don’t care” I should have believed him.

    I will, however, spread the love by sharing my minor modifications to the glaze instructions in his Honey Roast Pork recipe:

    Spiced Honey Glaze

    • 6 star anise
    • 1 tbsp cracked coriander seeds
    • 600g runny honey
    • 1 stock cube
    • 200ml water

    The TV show is sponsored by Knorr, hence the stock cubes, but I use their liquid concentrate so no criticism from this corner.  600g honey seems totally excessive; I used 4 TBS with around 100ml of water.  Anyway, one just stirs together the water, honey, coriander seeds, star anise and stock in a saucepan and simmers the liquid until reduced by a third and fairly syrupy.  Don’t abandon it or you will have savoury treacle toffee – or worse.

    Marco instructs us to glaze the pork – I’m sure he glazed the crackling itself on TV – using a pastry brush.  I strained out the bits, cleaved off the crackling and glazed the meat, allowing it to caramelise on the oven’s bottom shelf while I attempted (and failed) to furnace the crackling into compliance.  Incidentally, I remember Heston Blumenthal mentioning the umami properties of star anise and how it subtly enhances the meatiness of meat: it certainly did the business here.

    Be that as it may, my quest for unfailingly friable, crisply crunchy crackling continues.  My pork rind plays peekaboo with perfect: sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t and I DON’T KNOW WHY!!!

    Does anyone out there know the science behind the secret?  Do I have to ask Harold McGee?  Heston Blumenthal?  Please, put me out of purgatory; any kind soul who knows the truth do leave a comment and let me know.

    Marco’s Great British Feast ITV Wednesdays 9th, 16th & 23rd July at 2100
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    I mean this most sincerely, it’s not some cheap trick to lure porn-surfers to my food blog; why would I want to do that?  It’s wordplay on Pigs in Blankets but to satisfy those at the back, here’s an uncut image (for illustration purposes only, please) from the mind-boggling immeatchu blog.

    Not sorry to disappoint, I’m referring to the sexiest pasta sauce of all, Puttanesca; a store-cupboard classic from Naples.   Puttana being Italian for whore, puttanesca means whore-style: naturally there is some debate about how it acquired this intriguingly salty name.  It’s all true no doubt, but as importantly it’s a delicious dish to give hunger a good seeing-to and a pushover to pull a few ingredients from fridge and cupboard for the laziest gal – or guy – in town.
    raw puttanesca on olive oil dough

    Or on a languorous afternoon, do as I did: put a bit of lead in the pencil of some elderly olive oil dough and wrap it around puttanesca’s uncooked ingredients for a putta nuda al forno: salaciously delicious – or deliciously salacious…just try twisting your tongue around that.

    Putta Nuda al fornoputtanesca calzone

    • 2 salt-cured anchovies, filleted
    • 4 sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, sliced
    • 10 Niçoise olives, stoned
    • 1 TBS capers, drained
    • dried oregano
    • a fistful of olive oil dough

    Shape, strew and scatter as in first pic, stretch the long edges of dough over the filling to meet in the middle and press to seal.  Bake in a hot oven about ½ an hour, basting beforehand and after 15 minutes with oil from the tomatoes.  Cool slightly, slice and serve.

    Although there are acceptable variations to the cooked sauce, never have I encountered as total a travesty as at a certain trattoria in Vieux Nice, to which I not-entirely-ironically refer as Casa della Disasta: according to our waitress, their pasta puttanesca contained no olive, neither anchovy nor caper!  Incidentally, on top of that surprise, the line at the till was not for takeaways but disgruntled diners queuing to question the errors on their bills – all in the management’s favour, natch.  Make of that what you will.

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