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valentine pinks

Cured meats, two of our favourite convenience foods: sitting on the left side of our slate roof tile we have saucisson with pimento and mustard seeds and on the right,  prosciutto crudo – home-carved from the boneless joint I scooped at Lidl just before Christmas…

£14 at Sainsbury's March 2009
….add rosé Champagne, one of my favourite things to drink, and we had the raw ingredients for a very Happy Valentine’s Day.  This Taittinger was an unusual tawny-orange, possibly from the extra year’s bottle age and meatier than most, possibly from the Pinot Noir, maybe the terroir: whatever the reason, it stood its ground with the charcuterie.  Sighing with satisfaction I could only hope everyone was having such a lovely, lazy afternoon last Sunday: everything came up roses.

Valentine’s Day luxuries without spending a fortune

  • Saucisson with pimento and mustard seed £3.99 new at Waitrose (paid £1.49 on sell-by date)
  • Prosciutto crudo joint £11.74 at Lidl (about £8 a kilo as far as I recall)
  • Taittinger Prestige Rosé £14-ish on the sale shelf in Sainsbury last Spring – total bargain! – now £36 approx.

btw: it was quite something to see the bunfight at the steak counter in M&S on Saturday – don’t these people have any imagination?

¿Cocido? ¡indeedo!

2 bowls of chickpeas and pork products Spanish-style

Chickpeas – a gift from the gods and a staple over here at Gastro Towers.   They’re notoriously tricky to cook, but ever since I learnt their secret of success – do it in earthenware and keep them hot & wet until tender, by the way – it’s been plain sailing.   In hommage to one memorable lunch in a Barcelona working man’s café (no trendy tapas types in that rinconcito) I riff on their basic premise: legumes long-simmered with barely identifiable cured pork products;  nuggets of ham, chunks of chorizo and morsels of morcilla bobbing about amongst root vegetable hunks dropping anchor in a spicy broth.  Add a tangle of shredded cabbage and you have a warming one-pot dish that improves over however long your leftovers last: an unbeatable bowl full of beautiful flavours.

chickpea chorizo stew with ham and morcilla

When it’s been a while since the last time I refer as always to the ever-reliable Elizabeth Luard’s The Food of Spain and Portugal.  When chickpeas are the legume in question I work from her recipe for Cocido Madrileño, but adapt the meat main players to match those inhabiting my fridge;  I suggest you do the same until comfortable with the routine, which stripped down to skeleton basics is cooking everything together on a long, steady simmer.  Get the chickpeas right and the rest follows suit.  Don’t know about you but I think when it comes to traditional recipes, striving for authenticity out of context is an absurdity, what’s imperative is to stay within the spirit.  And I like to think I do…

Cocido Madrileño comes to Kent – serves 2 twice

250g dried chickpeas (a cup and a half or so)
optional but nice: a pinch of saffron, lightly toasted – I do it in a serving spoon held over a gas flame
2 teaspoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 onion, cut in sixths through the root, stud 3 segments with a clove
2 ribs celery, in 2cm slices
2 large carrots, sliced in 5cm hunks
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 juvenile turnips, chopped in 2cm pieces (no need to peel if sufficiently young)
same again but with waxy potatoes (if you remember, unlike me)
2 bay leaves and some parsley stalks tied into a faggot – these silicone cooking bands do a great job
1/2 a small savoy cabbage, shredded fine
olive oil

Indispensable Meats, rations approximate

  • dry-cured ham or bacon, cut into lardons – about 100g?
  • chorizo – 1/2 a supermarket one
  • morcilla – 2 or 3

Ms Luard utilises a chicken in her cocido but I don’t fancy that idea at all and would rather stick with pork: remember what I said about authenticity!


Rinse, then soak chickpeas overnight in plenty of water in their earthenware pot. Drain, then add enough water to cover by 5cm.  Add the ham and chorizo (in one piece), onion, celery and carrots, plus garlic cloves and the faggot of herbs – don’t stir in any of these additions, just let them sit on top of the chickpeas – then top up with water to barely cover them.   Pour  over a couple of quick glugs of olive oil.  Place over gentle heat and replace lid.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour.

Reach down with a spoon through the vegetables to the chickpeas and retrieve a couple to check if they’re tender.   They should be, but if not cook another 30 minutes or so and check again.  When all is well add the turnips, potatoes and cabbage: stir these into the pot and return to a simmer.  Place the morcilla on top and cook through gently for half an hour to an hour – whenever you’re ready to eat, this stew will happily oblige.  Retrieve and discard the herbs, slice the chorizo thickly and remove the strings, if any, from the morcilla – which should have broken up into delicious crumbly bits and stained the cooking liquid an enticingly dark hue – then return these to the cooking pot, stir about a bit then ladle generously into shallow soup plates.  Serve with some good, honest bread and sleep well afterwards.

Here’s a nifty little tool – not complex enough to call a gadget – I found in a smalltown mall in the Canadian hinterland a few years back.  Microplane call it their “Try Me” Zester.   At 6.5 by 3.2 cm I find its only trying aspect is trying to find it amongst the flotsam and jetsam of my kitchen drawer.  So I solve that little problem by keeping it on the window sill: it makes short shrift of a clove of garlic, zests a lemon in seconds, grates Parmesan in a trice and cleans in the wink of an eye.  As long as I have this I see no rhyme or reason in acquiring a full-size version – for a start where would I put it?   Priced to match its size the only downside is that it’s not available in Europe…

Oh my, what a successful festive season. As if feeding family and friends weren’t reward enough, along came the snowstorms forcing us to subsist on remnants and remainders while awaiting the thaw.   But all that idle time made for some goodly innovations and as a result I hereby declare the Stilton and walnut dumpling fare fit for a king.   I had snapped up Marks and Spencer’s irresistible offer before Christmas but never thought we’d get through a whole kilo of Stilton – even of Tuxford & Tebbutt creamery”s sumptuous standard for a ridiculous £4.99 – but we did!

Having bought in a battalion’s worth of supplies the cold spell caused us quite the opposite of hardship; sheer semi-hibernational bliss rather.  Broccoli and Stilton soup having become a bit of a cliché, albeit delicious, with a cheeseboard theme in mind we swung with celery bisque, not entirely successfully I might add.   Next time I’ll use a more concentrated stock, celeriac and celery salt to boost the flavour and I won’t add cream either.  That’s if I make a celery soup at all: following Ed Baines‘ flavour lead I rather fancy making a beef consommé and letting these feather-light cheese’n’nut nuggets grab the limelight, they’re fabulous.  And meaningful employment for a couple of the usual suspects in the leftovers league.

For the dumplings

250g self-raising flour (or same amount of plain with a tablespoon or so of baking powder)
125g suet, shredded (I use vegetarian)
a pinch of salt
150g Stilton cheese, crumbled
50g finely chopped walnuts (do it yourself with a knife)

Sift the flour with the salt (and baking powder if using).  Add the suet, Stilton and walnuts and toss gently to distribute evenly.  Using fingertips, start to work this into a dough by adding a tablespoon of cold water at a time (2or 3 maximum): stop before you think you need to and form the dumplings into balls by lightly pressing the mixture together. Add them to your soup hot in its pot, replace lid and cook for 20-30 minutes, either at a very gentle stove-top simmer or in a low-medium oven.

Ed Baines original recipe in The Independent newspaper.

Once upon a time hill farmers would bring down a flock or two to Nice for a mini Christmas transhumance: the Journée du Haut-Pays Niçois, when the Jardin Albert 1er on the Promenade des Anglais would host a mini-festival of produce from the high hinterland behind Nice, the southwestern foothills of the Alps, indeed.   This mini-vid was taken in December 2007.  I really dig the feisty mini black and white goat.

We were lucky enough to be staying at our apartment – just a short stroll through Vieux Nice to the Promenade des Anglais where we found horses, donkeys, pigs, goats and sheep. It was a delight to see, hear and smell them all up close – and taste all the wonderful products on sale: sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, charcuterie, honey, vin chaud; so much on offer I forget but we had a lovely time despite the chilly weather and bought half a kilo of aged farmhouse tomme (de savoie-type), which we nibbled all the following week.

baby donkey down from the hills to the big city
And who couldn’t fall in love with these little guys, just look at that beautiful coat!

Not much porchetta left on this one!

I’m sure Valentine had a good life but I haven’t yet taken the plunge into Nice-style porchetta so couldn’t tell you how well she tasted:  this is no dainty Tuscan arista shoulder stuffed with fragrant herbs but an entire pig stuffed with its meat, tripe and liver, and each slice weighs about 200g,  an awful lot to get through if I decide I don’t like it.   Maybe next time…

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.

postcard from Nice

Sorry for not being in touch lately – been hanging out and about in Nice.  Here’s my photo to prove it!


After a long, hot and frustrating trudge west along the Promenade des Anglais checking out various beachside establishments we descended on the Blue Beach Bar & Restaurant and were more than pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome.  Although our waiter resembled Peter Stringfellow‘s simple cousin he was adequately dressed (thank God) and brought us our reasonably priced, reasonably tasty food and wine in reasonable time: amazing, and in stark contrast to Lido Plage.  For me, the filets de rouget (red mullet) au thym:


et pour lui, les tagliatelles au basilic (do you really need a translation?), toothsome albeit tepid, which was actually ok on such a warm afternoon:


plus, of course, the de rigeur bottle of Côtes de Provence rosé.  All at not-so-shocking-after-all prices, at least for the Côte d’Azur….

… and that old devil Nicolas Sarkozy lurking in the underground area only added to the charm of the afternoon.

sarkozyBlue Beach bar & restaurant, 31 Promenade des Anglais, Nice 06000 – opposite the Negresco




Am I nuts? This short clip was taken over a year ago, and in the depths of winter, yet it still reminds me of sunnier climes. I’m just getting excited about getting back to Vieux Nice: next trip I’ll try to snap some sultry summertime footage.

Might be an idea to turn down the sound thanks to the blustery Mistral…or Tramontana…not sure which wind was blowing at the time but either way it made a horrible noise!

sanguine And then I tried the Maltese sanguines: smaller and cheaper by 50p, sharper and less fragrant.  A much milder thrill than the stunning Sicilian Tarocco, but a welcome dose of sunshine all the same.