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Archive for the ‘Summer’ Category

News reaches me my husband is at the eye of a storm of controversy in the States, but I don’t know how that can be, we work hard to keep his secret identity SECRET so we can carry on our gastro adventures privately; don’t want to draw a crowd, not keen on being mobbed by paparazzi either.

 

 

Turns out there has been shome mishunderstanding: read Lucy Mangan in today’s Guardian explaining how this impostor has grabbed the headlines – and why he’s wearing a necklace of Snickers bars: all I can say is I pity the fool who does that for a living and keeps the same haircut for thirty years.

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… we walk into a Menorcan distillery: undaunted by our desultory lunch at Cafe Baixamar we stuck to our plan and headed west for the Xoriguer Gin distillery tasting showroom, not much further along the Mahon waterfront.  T had the purchase of a bottle of G in mind and I tagged along: gin gives me shivers and not in a good way, but to my surprise we found a veritable kaleidoscope of balearic liqueurs set out for sampling.


And yet, like the fabled Marie Celeste, the echoing hall seemed recently abandoned, for beside each tasting barrel sat sinksful of cast-off tasting thimbles and at two in the afternoon our minds boggled at how long they might have been lying there.

So, summoning the bravado of Goldilocks and accompanied by a piped medley of classic rock tunes we set about our solitary tasting of the colourful concoctions:


Phew, well someone had to do it: there were rose, peppermint, coffee, chocolate, chamomile, herb, orange and some kind of butterscotch flavours; plus gin of course.  In memory – as in throat – they coalesce into a sickly sweet melange; my glee was short-lived and after downing a couple all I really wanted to do was brush my teeth, but we soldiered on, doggedly determined to do justice to the full, bewildering range.

Our verdict? I wouldn’t like to say, but we left without buying any and drank an awful lot of water afterwards.   Yet with free entry and air conditioning, I can think of worse ways to idle an odd hour in Mahon, tummy lining and teeth notwithstanding.  Needless to say, gin still makes me queasy.

Gin Xoriguer distillery
Moll de Ponent 93
Maó
971 36 21 97
entry free; open most shop hours
website

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Campari

Oh how I miss those apéritif adverts of the 1970s  …anytime anyplace anywhere, there’s a wonderful drink you can share, it’s the bright one, the right one, thaaat’s Martiniii…  I’ve been yearning for the fabulous life ever since.

But it turns out Leonard Rossiter was an arrogant egotist – he referred to Joan Collins as the Prop!  Such unforgivable rudeness earned Cinzano no place on my drinks trolley, yet despite its unspeakably common Luton airport advert, Campari is captivating, its bitter orange tang irresistible at the end of a hot day.

Campari soda

Half fill a tall glass with ice, pour over 50ml Campari and top up with 50ml or less soda.

Swizzle, garnish with a slice of fresh orange and enjoy the glow.

The Martini life could get you dashed up on the rocks so I’ll cling to Campari: cin cin!

The big mystery is Campari’s lack of popularity in the UK

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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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