Saturday 29 December 2007

Recipe: Crêpes Suzette

Another dish that appears inexplicably to have fallen from grace, and certainly from restaurant menus. Speaking of it over dinner last night, somebody referred to Crêpes Suzette as 'that quintessentially sixties dish' (before proceeding to relate a story of a Mrs Murray, châtelaine of a grand Scottish country house, who managed to ignite herself along with the dessert, which had been brought to table by the butler for her to apply the match. An excess of hair lacquer explained the rest - another manifestation of the sixties, I suppose - and, having been extinguished by the quick-thinking and damask napkin of one of her guests - for the remainder of dinner she had to sit beneath the ruins of her coiffure, to which absolutely no comment was made by her fellow diners).
Anyway, the dish is another one long overdue for resurrection - the velvety richness of the pancakes in their delicious and unctuous sauce is quite incomparable, and the process of making them could hardly be more straightforward......

For four.

Ingredients: 2 Eggs; 80g Flour; 80g butter (melted and cooled); 150 ml milk; a pinch of salt; 3 tablespoons of Oil;10 tablespoons Cointreau (or Maraschino, or Grandmarnier - depends which you have to-hand); finely-gated rind of one Lemon; 4 tablespoons Sugar; 40g Butter (for reheating the Crêpes).


1. In a blender, combine Eggs, Flour, Milk, melted Butter, and Salt. Process for about thirty seconds until thoroughly combined (if necessary, use a spatula to clean from the sides of the blender jar any flour which has stuck there, and process again, to ensure all is completely mixed in).

2. Oil the base of a frying pan, and over a medium/high heat use the batter to make eight Crêpes, re-oiling the pan in between each one. (Some authorities would have you let the batter rest for 30 minutes before use - personally, I've never seen the point and use it straightaway).

You can either use the Crêpes immediately, or else cover them in cling-film for use later in the day - best not to leave them until the following day, though.

3. Fold each Crêpe in half, and then in half again, to make a fan shape.

4. Melt the Butter in a large frying pan, then add the grated rind and half of the Cointreau. If cooking on an electric hob, use a match to light the alcohol; if using gas, merely tip the pan in order to let the alcohol fumes catch. As the alcohol burns off, gently tip the pan, to ensure the base of the pan is entirely covered in the butter/cointreau mixture.

5. When the fumes have died down, place the folded Crêpes in a single layer in the pan; sprinkle them with Sugar, and then pour over them the remaining Cointreau. Repeat the process of lighting the alcohol, and gently rotate the pan to baste the Crêpes with the flaming liquid. As soon as the flames have died down, serve. (NB: if your pan isn't large enough to accommodate all Crêpes in a single layer, do them in two stages; do NOT try to cook them in two layers, as they won't heat through properly!)

Thursday 27 December 2007

Belforte, for Christmas…….

A gloriously sunny day, the beech woods in the valley below the village a rich, subdued russet. Bright and crisp and cold enough that the vapour rising from the power-plant many miles away is clearly visible, looking for all the world like the sulphur springs on an Etruscan wall painting; the skyline beyond, a timeless profile of rolling Tuscan hills. The only sounds which break the silence from time to time are the two, unsynchronised, village clocks chiming the hours and the half-hours.........and the occasional sound of gunshot from the surrounding countryside – two days after Christmas, and the boar-hunters are out in force!

I think Elizabeth David would have approved – two days of sybaritic self-indulgence with an emphasis on little-but-good (actually, not so much ‘little’ but at least not wild and untrammelled excess). We feasted for lunch both days on smoked salmon and Parma ham, helped on its way by a bottle or so of Verdicchio di San Gimignano. Afternoons - for me - were spent beside the fire, in the company of a cat or two, immersed in the pages of Harold Acton’s ‘Last of the Medici’ – essentially, wallowing in the tabloid gossip columns of three hundred years ago – and an additional log tossed on the fire from time to time, as necessary. One of the neighbours had delivered an offering on Christmas Eve of a cake about half the size of a ping-pong table, made with apple and pine-nuts and cinnamon which – unusually for Italian cakes – was light as air, and into which inroads were made at teatime each day – around the hour when people materialised from wherever they’d secreted themselves for the afternoon and it became appropriate to start to do things in the kitchen for dinner.

Christmas Day: an Onion Risotto to start (we’d planned on Risotto of White Truffle, but were met with raised eyebrows in Vettovaglie last weekend when we’d gone truffle-hunting, to be told that there were no more to be had, not even ‘ per milliardi’ – which we weren’t about to spend in any case); followed by slices of the neck of the Goose, stuffed with pâté de foie gras, served on a crouton, and with a sauce of raisins and sweet wine (delicious!); then the Goose itself, boned and roast, stuffed with prunes and served with stuffed Cabbage leaves; and finally Crêpes Suzette (the assembled throng – mainly Dutch - had sampled Christmas Pudding in the past, and had decidedly vetoed it this time around…). Two bottles of a 1997 Château La Commandèrie later, and everybody was about ready to call it a day….

Boxing Day: lazy cooking. A Cassoulet which did its thing in the oven over a number of hours, and released delicious smells throughout the house during the day. Preceded by flamiches, made with leeks pulled that morning from the garden, and tasting all the better for it, and finishing off with an uncomplicated and perfectly satisfying Chocolate Mousse. Some of the last of the 1988 Haut Gravère ……..and that was Christmas done and dusted for another year.

Except that we return to Pisa this evening, where the tree and the remaining twelve days’ of presents are awaiting attention, right through until the night of Ebufana on January 6th , when all the children get their presents, and the decorations only and finally come down.
Our habit these days is to spread present-giving over the
entire twelve days – 6.30 each evening brings a glass of prosecco and an exchange of presents – rather than to have a glut of the things all on the 25th, and then a denuded tree looking rather sorry for itself and clearly wondering why it’s still there as the New Year comes and goes, and the decorations looking increasingly like guests who’ve forgotten to leave….Our strategy means the tree has purpose right through until the bitter end!

Tonight's dinner....ought to be a dry crust and a glass of water........but is in fact:


Sausages of Cinta Senese,

Frozen Hazelnut Mousse

Sunday 23 December 2007

Recipe: Parmesan Crisps

This is one of those things where the process is so simple that it barely merits being called a recipe, and yet so delicious that the end result can stop you in your tracks. Perfect to be handed round with drinks - and the understated way in which you can do so, arousing no comment along the way, is the perfect preparation for the first bite, and the raised eyebrows as the taste buds register what's happening!

Makes approximately 40 Crisps (depending upon how finely you grate your parmesan)

Ingredients: 150 grammes of Parmesan


1. Grate the Parmesan finely. (The finest Microplane grater does a good job because it produces thin ribbons, not granules.)

2. Put a sheet of greaseproof paper (or a silpat sheet, if you have one) over the back of a baking tray (better to put it over the back than inside the tray, as it is easier subsequently to slide the Crisps off if you don't have to negotiate the rim of the tray at the same time).

3. Using a 2" circular pastry-cutter, place the cutter on top of the greaseproof paper and sprinkle a heaped teaspoon of cheese inside the cutter to make a complete disk; make sure the edge of the disk particularly is well covered. (Do NOT press the cheese down into place - it will melt and collapse delicately into itself as it bakes.)

4. Move the cutter along, and repeat the process. Continue until the greaseproof paper is covered in cheese disks. Leave a few millimetres between each disk - they don't spread in baking like biscuits do.

5. Bake at 175C for 8-10 minutes until golden brown. They start to brown when they stop bubbling, so watch them carefully. When golden brown transfer them to a wire rack to cool and crisp. Store in an air-tight container, and try not to eat too many before you have to serve them to your guests!

Saturday 22 December 2007

Falling towards Christmas.....

Christmas appears these days to have become largely about food - or at least, food is a significant manifestation of the general excess that surrounds the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps it was always so......but I suspect not. If it had been, then a good deal more food-based traditions would have sprung up around it than have done, and the raft of recipe books which focus exclusively on Christmas would have more to talk about than they patently manage to do. Every year, more appear in the bookshops, falsely promising the answer to the perennial challenge of what to cook for an entire household 'at celebration' for a period of ten days or so.... and a skim of their contents is enough to show them for what they are: shams!
Oh, they include enough recipes to get you through the period alright, but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about them, as they desperately grapple with the fact that traditional Christmas fare is effectively limited to three or four things: Turkey (we always have Goose...); Christmas Pudding; Mince Pies; and Christmas Cake. Beyond that, it's pretty much a free-for-all.......and inevitably the writers of the books substitute 'luxury' as a stand-in for 'celebratory' and the resulting onslaught of references to sturgeon, and smoked salmon, and caviar, and aspic, and crystallised ginger, and preserved fruits is enough to make your liver take fright merely at the thought of such unashamed binging.

Elizabeth David's 'Christmas', though is quite another matter - as you'd expect. She manages to avoid a bah-humbug approach, and at the same time doesn't fall into the slightly hysterical nuances of 'surviving' the experience that have become an accepted norm these days for dealing with complicated social devoirs....('How to survive the family holiday...', or 'How to survive your Mother-in- Law coming to stay', or other equally silly themes, when the sensible response to such situations if they fill you with such dread must be 'Don't have one', and 'Don't ask her'!).

ED's approach to Christmas is exactly the no-nonsense practical one that you would expect. The reader is left with the strong suspicion the David doesn't have much time for Christmas, but recognises that there isn't much opportunity for ignoring it unless one chooses to become a complete hermit. Despite the fact that she refers to most Christmas food as 'cloying', the book nevertheless provides methods for dealing appropriately with Turkey and Goose, as well as suggestions concerning Beef, Pork, and Duck, Pheasant and Tongue, for those who've had enough of the afore-mentioned. She hasn't made Christmas Pudding in thirty-five years, and hopes 'never to have to do so again', but nevertheless includes two different versions, both of which come with the David guarantee of quality. Likewise, Mincemeat, Brandy Butter, and Stuffing......... And all interspersed with the usual pithy bonmots that make her take on life so crisply refreshing (well, at least for those of us who have reached grumpy-old-person time of life, at any rate....)

ED's particular opinion of Christmas fare, though, is probably best summed up by her aside that one of the most positive thoughts about Christmas is that 'when Christmas morning dawns, for four whole days there won't be any shopping to do....'coupled with her statement that 'if I had my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening!' Which strikes a chord.

And I can't finish without quoting in full her wonderfully jaundiced put-down of those nattily creative ideas for dealing with leftovers that have graced every 'Golden Hands for Cookery' publication practically since Christmas began: '...if any of those marauding bands of persons who apparently roam the countryside calling themselves unexpected guests appear at my door - well, they'll have to make do with an omelette and a glass of wine to help them on their way to their next victims. I think I'd feel less nervous anyway offering them this sort of food than I would if I'd made a lot of little surprises with names like Pantry Shelf Fishbits and Fantastic Belgian Meatballs and Festa Turkey Nut-Logs. I didn't make them up, I swear I didn't, I read about them in a desperately sad American cookery book all about leftovers'.

Read it! I promise, you'll laugh out loud at least once every three pages, and smile wryly in agreement at least once in between.

Tonight's (still resolutely unfestive) menu:

Funghi Trifolati.

Baked Bream, with Anchovy sauce. Endive wilted in Butter.

Cherry Tarts

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Recipe: Foie Gras Cured in Salt.....

Definitely something for this time of year, and one of the most unashamedly self-indulgent aspects of Christmas. In years gone by, when we generally spent Christmas on the windswept bleakness of the Larzac plateau, one fixed item in the seasonal timetable was a foray to the market in Millau to get - amongst many, many other things - a Foie Gras, to be prepared from scratch. Never forgotten, forgiven or excused sufficiently was the year when we had a stock on the go in the kitchen which was the rich result of the previous week's consumption of Duck, Goose, and Guineau Fowl, and the cooks decided that this would be a wonderful vehicle for poaching our splendid, succulent, and newly-purchased Foie Gras. So, into the simmering stock it went, and it poached, and it poached and it poached.........until no amount of fishing around in the stock could find anything solid at all, and eventually we had to conclude ruefully that we'd managed to poach it away to nothing. Much to general irritation amongst the waiting diners......The following year, a much more reliable strategy was adopted, and I remember feasting on the thing for days on end, washed down with glasses of Blanquette de Cassis.......Perfect!

This following treatment is unusual, and entirely foolproof. Originally, I got it from the Chef at the Café des Artistes in Key West - Andrew Berman - and have subsequently verified it against various sources in France. The method allows you to shape your Foie Gras into a size which will work perfectly for its intended use. Generally, I use a Foie Gras of around 800 grammes weight - but, as you'll see, the treatment isn't quantity-specific.


1. The first step is to remove unsightly and undesirable veins within the liver: Bring the foie gras completely to room temperature. If the liver is too cold, it will break rather than bend. Remove any coarse membrane or veins, but disturb the liver as little as possible. The coarsest veins lie between the two lobes and you can get at them by gently easing the two lobes apart. When the liver is at room temperature the lobes can be eased apart without breaking or damaging the structure.

The level of perfection required in this task is proportional to the event - there is no need to be over scrupulous unless you are in charge of a 5 * restaurant. A little bit of red within the foie gras is normal and acceptable at most tables.

In fact, you don't have to remove the veins any more than you do if you are frying a slice of cal'sf liver. You can leave them in place and if when you slice the foie gras you see anything that looks amiss - remove it before serving. If your knife is not razor sharp, the foie gras will slice like butter, but a tough vein will tend to pull out of the slice as you cut.
The problem with digging out the veins in advance is that it necessarily divides the liver into several separate pieces. If you were to cook the liver, as for a classic terrine, these pieces would be welded together again by the melted fat. But if the liver is salt-cured - as here - the pieces remain separate and the eventual slices are more likely to fall apart.
Also since the slices at both ends are the least attractive, I start by cutting the roll in half, and then slice portions starting from each cut face.  The two ends are usually leftovers for another day.

2. Seasoning the liver before you re-form it: You can season your foie gras with a little pepper, or with anything you fancy. A few drops of Armagnac, for example, and any number of spices is also a possibility. My personal preference is for a plain approach, with perhaps just a few grindings of fresh pepper.

3. Reform the liver into a cylindrical shape. Roll it in a cling film and twist the free ends of the film tightly so that it forms a tight cylinder. You will be slicing the cylinder into serving portions, so the cylinder diameter will determine your portion size. Put it in the refrigerator to firm. About an hour, or until the liver is hard and will retain its shape.

4. Remove the cling film, then wrap the fois gras in a single layer of muslin before burying the cylinder in salt. If you have a long thin pate mould or a similar shaped bread tin, this works well. Place the container in the fridge.

5. For a 450gram liver formed into a 2-3" diameter cylinder, 24 hours in salt in the refrigerator followed by 24 hours more in the refrigerator after the salt has been removed salt should be enough. When you remove the salt, disgard the muslin and wrap the foie gras in clingfilm. Like this, the fois gras will keep a week in the 'fridge.

6. To serve, remove the clingilm. Keep cold and covered until needed. Slice and serve with toasted brioche. (For slicing, a thin knife dipped in hot water does the neatest job.) Alternatively, fry the slices to colour each side. It helps if the slices are very cold so you have time to colour the outside before the middle gets too hot and starts to melt.

At this stage, it would be normal to say 'Serve', or 'Enjoy'. With this kind of thing though, I think the appropriate exhortation has to be 'Luxuriate'!

*You can freeze the liver at this stage and it will keep well - most fats have a long shelf life if they are very cold and away from other smells. Eventually they all oxidise and taste 'off'. Defrost and serve as above.

Sunday 16 December 2007

I was fascinated.... see that the sub-title for A.A.Gill's latest book 'Table Talk' is 'Sweet and Sour, Salt and Bitter....' Entirely coincidentally, this has been the subject of much conversation across the dinner table over the past few weeks, in the context of Umami..... and Mr Gill's well-chosen words were a sharp reminder of quite how central this is to the theme of what makes good food good.

I've always been interested in why we respond as we do to particular flavours and smells: frying bacon, toast under the grill, garlic, fresh bread, shavings of truffle.........Do we respond as we do to them merely by association, or is it something more fundamental, like inherited memory, or a kind of physiological process at work within our brains? For ages, until I actually got round to reading it, I was hopeful that Brillat Savarin's book about the Physiology of Taste might address that very subject - but, no: great title, interesting book, but essentially nothing more than a genial romp round the food on offer in Paris in the mid Nineteenth Century.

And then, in following up on Umami, a lot of the answers seem to be provided....

In brief, traditionally, in the West, we've categorised flavours in four groups, viz: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. But the Japanese have identified a fifth one, which they call Umami - which is what we have to call it too, since there seems to be no translation from the Japanese. To quote from the 'What is Umami' website: "Although there is no English word for it, umami is a savoury taste imparted by glutamate and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. The taste of umami itself is subtle. It blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours. Most people don’t recognise umami when they encounter it, but it can be detected when eating ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat and fish......."

........Which is a useful short-cut, since I don't really fancy following recipes which feature 150 grammes of glutamate, and half a cup of ribonucleotide, infused with a teaspoon of inosinate!

And they sum up by stating that: "Umami plays an important role making food taste delicious."

There's more, though! Edmund Rolls, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, has explained how brain scans are being used to show what happens in our brain as we eat different foods. It appears that eating glutamate activates our taste centres in a way that no other substance does. "Whereas most foods activate a part of the brain called the secondary cortex, glutamate also activates another part of the brain, the left lateral orbifrontal cortex," he says. "Could this be why it seems to act on a second level, giving people an emotional feeling of well-being?"

But, enough of the science! In plain food-speak, I think we're talking about a particular kind of wow-factor, and an interesting process in terms of identifying that rather elusive quality that so many food-stuffs seem to have. Cloves, for instance - a smell I find quite wonderful whenever I unscrew the lid on the jar - could it be that that complicated and deeply old-fashioned smell is Umami? And what about freshly-ground coffee? Or anchovies....? Or Saffron...? Once you start the Umami game, it can be quite difficult to stop: I commented disparagingly the other day to the Technical Department that Coca Cola (which I loathe) represents everything that is not Umami, to which the response was that actually, beneath that horrible two-dimensional sweetness, is a complicated mingling of flavours which is probably Umami with knobs on! Hence its otherwise inexplicable success......

Gin! Now, does that have Umami? I'm not at all certain, and it may be that further research is in order......

In fact, it could be that the entire Christmas break becomes an extended and broadly-based scientific experiment!

Tonight's attempt to stimulate the left lateral orbifrontal cortex:

Individual Haddock Soufflés.
Oxtail, cooked to death in Port, with aromatic vegetables.
Ginger & Lime Cheescake, with fresh Raspberries.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Recipe: Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

A very good high-days-and-holidays recipe, this dish tastes good, presents well, and can be prepared to final cooking stage several hours in advance - so lends itself to a dinner or lunch party when you don't want to find yourself stuck in the kitchen rather than with your guests. Goes particularly well with any dark meat or poultry: Beef, Duck, Goose, Venison......

For Six.

Ingredients: 1 large Carrot; half a Celeriac (approximately 500g in weight); 1 oz Butter (or Duck or Goose fat, if you have it); 1 teaspoon of dried Thyme; 1 small head of Broccoli; 6 Brussels Sprouts; 1 Savoy Cabbage; Salt & Pepper.


1. Put a large pan of salted water to boil.

2. Peel the Carrot & Celeriac, and cut them into small (about half centimetre) dice. Melt the Butter (or Fat) in a frying pan, and add the diced vegetables and the Thyme to the pan, turning them in the melted Butter several times, then leave to cook over a medium heat while you prepare the other vegetables.

3. Cut the Broccoli florets off their stalk and blanch in the boiling salted water for two minutes. Remove them from the water using a slotted spoon, and put into a colander to drain.

4. Trim the Brussels Sprouts, and cook for four minutes in the boiling water, then remove these also to the colander.

5. Strip the leaves from the Cabbage, and blanch for one minute in the water before removing - you need to end up with six good leaves.

6. Slice each of the Sprouts into four or five pieces, and cut the Broccoli florets into pieces the same size as the pieces of Sprout. Carefully mix these together in a bowl (don't overwork it - you don't want them to go to a mush), and add the cooked Carrot and Celeriac, which should be good and tender by this stage. Check the seasoning and correct as necessary.

7. Make six double-layered squares of cling-film, about 6" x 6" each. In the centre of each one place a blanched Cabbage leaf, from which the central spine has been mostly removed, and on top of that put one-sixth of the vegetable mixture. Bring the edges of the Cabbage leaf up around the filling, and then pull the cling-film up around the whole thing, twisting the cling-film tightly together, to make a tight little bundle. At this stage, you can set the bundles aside until you're ready for the final cooking.

8. For final cooking, place the bundles in the top part of a steamer, and steam over boiling water with the lid on for eight minutes. Serve at once, by carefully untwisting the top of the cling-film, inverting the bundle onto the plate, and peel away the plastic, to leave a plump and perfect parcel, with a flavour bomb inside.

Sunday 9 December 2007

Book of the Year......

It seems that everybody goes in for this as the end of the year approaches, so I suppose I'd better throw in my six penn'orth, and shout about My Book of 2007.....

In fact, this isn't one book, but the two books which have (so-far) been produced by one person: Galton Blackiston. My parents went for lunch at Morston Hall (Galton Blackiston's Norfolk restaurant) to mark my father's not-quite-'zero' birthday in June, with the end result that I received copies of both volumes of GB's oeuvre downhill of that lunch - which was apparently excellent in every way. I have to confess, I'd never heard of him before - although when I googled him, he seems quite high-profile... (a result of not having a TV, I suppose - a lot of this stuff passes one by!)

I was initially discouraged by the enthusiastic puffs for these books from Delia Smith and Simon Hopkinson respectively - and, to be honest, the appearance of their names writ large on the front covers would normally have dissuaded me from looking further, had I merely seen them on the shelves in a bookshop. This is one occasion, however, when a man shouldn't be judged by the company he keeps........and my initial lukewarm reaction was soon and very definitely overcome.

Quite a few months after they arrived, neither book has actually made it to the bookshelf, since they've been pretty much 'in use' for that entire period. I've now worked my way through a significant chunk of 'A Return to Real Cooking...' and am making forays also into 'Cooking at Morston Hall..' and have found the experience very rewarding, and definitely more-ish. There have been a couple of rather ordinary things - his meat section leaves me rather cold - but only one distinct thumbs-down (a Parsley Salad, which read well on the page but in practice was almost inedible - but then he attributes it to Simon Hopkinson anyway, so my case rests...) and a number of things which have been really very good indeed: Crab Tart, where the introduction of sautéed spring onion between the white Crab custard layer, and the brown meat which lines the tart shell adds a whole dimension to the dish; Cod, baked with a Herb Crust, with a thin coating of horseradish sauce between the fillet and the crust - delicious! The vegetable section in both books is excellent, as are his chapters on fish. Desserts are good - reliable and mouth-watering - and the peripheral stuff which focuses on things like breads and biscuits are very good indeed.

For a time, I found myself wondering quite what it is about these recipes that I like so much - and in advance of actually recommending them, I think I've managed to pin down my reasons..... to a degree. Without being particularly creative or innovative, Galton Blackiston has an ability to identify what is essentially good about a dish - flavours, textures, combinations - and then sets out exactly how to produce the dish in a way which plays to its strengths. He's that unusual being: a great recipe writer - the recipes in his books are no-nonsense, practical descriptions of how to achieve very good results with efficient use of both time and resources. Additionally unusual is the sense one gets that he has learned much in his years in a restaurant kitchen, and is faithfully transcribing that knowledge and experience onto the page - translated (and tested) for use in a domestic environment.

I've already got a lot of pleasure from these books, and with more yet to come. Highly, highly recommended.......

Tonight's Dinner: Sarah's responsibility, in Dolphin Square.

Friday 7 December 2007

Recipe: Coulibiac

Ok. Since it's the end of the first week in December, I suppose it's time to stop feeling grumpy about the intemperate appearance of Christmas decorations in the streets and shop windows and to start to acknowledge the imminence of it a positive way. Hence this recipe - which, over the past few years, has become a standard first course for us for Christmas dinner. Years ago, when I first encountered Coulibiac, it was the version given by Julia Child, and although unquestionably delicious, it required a very experienced touch with Choux Pastry, and generally involved an anxious period during the final cooking, on tenterhooks about the end result - would the pastry have baked properly, or would it have separated and slithered messily onto the baking tray, leaving the innards of the thing horribly exposed to view?
The version given here is a slight re-working of Martha Stewart's recipe, which I found about fifteen years ago, and although it involves a lot of stages, it is indeed foolproof. Famous last words, of course - but I've lost count now of the times I've made it, and it's not let me down once......
To spread the load, all of the various elements of preparation can be done the day before, leaving just assembly and final cooking to be done on the day the Coulibiac is to be eaten. The amount given here is about right for fifteen or more healthy servings: certainly, I know that the last time I made it, it did comfortably for eight servings as a starter at dinner, as well as a further generous appearance - cold and delicious - at lunch the next day.


2 pounds of Puff Pastry (ready-made is fine...)

For the Fish filling:
3 tablespoons of minced Shallots; 2 oz of Butter; 2 pounds of fish fillets (the original recipe specifies Bass; I use Palumbo in Italy, which I think is dogfish in English - a fraction of the cost of Bass!) ; half a pound of field mushrooms, thinly sliced; quarter of a cup of chopped Dill; 2 teaspoons of Salt; Pepper, to taste; 1 cup of dry White Wine; Veloute sauce (made with 2 oz Butter, 3 tablespoons of Flour, half a cup of Milk, and half a cup of Stock, plus seasoning); 5 Egg Yolks; juice of 1 Lemon; pinch of Cayenne.

Egg & Rice Filling:
1 tablespoon of Tapioca; half a cup of cold Water; 1 medium onion, minced; 2 oz Butter; half a cup of long-grain rice; one and a half cups of Stock (chicken or duck); 3 hard-boiled Eggs, sieved; 4 tablespoons of chopped Parsley; 1 teaspoon of Salt; Pepper, to taste.

Dill Pancakes:
12 fluid oz Milk; 9 oz Flour; 3 Eggs; pinch of Salt; 6 tablespoons of Dill, finely chopped.

2 Egg Yolks, mixed with 2 tablespoons of Cream.


For the Fish Filling:

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Sweat the Shallots in the Butter until soft, then combine them in a baking dish with Mushrooms, Dill, Salt & Pepper. Place the Fish Fillets on top, add the Wine, cover with foil, and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

3. Remove from the oven, and remove the fillets from the poaching liquid to a platter. Measure half a cup of poaching liquid, for use in the Veloute (the remaining poaching ingredients can be used in as a sauce base for a fish recipe on another day, if you want.)

4. Make the Veloute: heat the Butter in a double-boiler or Zimmertopf; stir in the Flour, then add the Milk and Stock, and whisk over low heat as the mixture thickens).

5. Pour the Veloute over the Egg Yolks, lightly beaten, and mix them together, then return to the double boiler and continue to cook over low heat, stirring all the time with a whisk, and add the Lemon Juice and Cayenne as the mixture thickens. Pour this over the fillets, and refrigerate, to allow the fillets to firm.

For the Pancakes:
1. Make a batter in a liquidizer with all ingredients apart from the chopped Dill, then stir in the Dill, and use to make pancakes in the usual way - this amount should make about 18 pancakes.

For the Egg & Rice Filling:
1. Soften the Tapioca in the Water for about 5 minutes, then cook over a low heat until the Tapioca is thick - about 6 - 8 minutes. Let the Tapioca cool, then drain in a sieve for 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, soften the Onion in Butter over a medium heat, then add the Rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the Rice is transparent. Add the Stock, reduce the heat to low, then cover the pan and leave to cook until the rice is done - about 18 minutes.

3. Combine Tapioca, Rice, sieved Eggs, and chopped Parsley. Season the mixture lightly.


1. Roll out half the Puff Pastry to make a rectangle 14" x 22". Lay 6 Pancakes on the Pastry, leaving a 2" border all the way round.

2. Spread a third of the Egg & Rice mixture over the Pancakes, then lay half of the Fish Fillets on top of this; lay another 6 Pancakes over the fillets, then another third of the Egg & Rice mixture and the remaining Fillets. Finish off with the last of the Egg & Rice mixture, and cover this with the last of the Pancakes, which should drape over the top of the whole construction. Refrigerate, to firm up as you roll out the remaining Pastry.

3. Roll the remaining Pastry also into a rectangle 14" x 22". Take the Coulibiac from the fridge, and fold the 2" border up around the construction. Brush the exposed edge of this Pastry with cold water, so that the second piece of Pastry will adhere to it when placed over the top. Once this has been done, press the two pieces of Pastry together, and crimp the edges with the blunt end of a knife handle.

4. Refrigerate the Coulibiac for at least an hour, before baking.

5. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Brush the surface of the Coulibiac with the glaze, then make two small holes in the top of the beast and insert two funnels made from aluminium foil, to allow steam to escape. Bake at 200 degrees C until the Pastry has puffed, then reduce the temperature to 175 degrees C, and continue baking until the Pastry is a deep golden brown - it should take about an hour.

Allow to cool slightly before slicing to serve.

Don't be daunted by the apparent complexity of the dish - it's worth the effort!

Thursday 6 December 2007

New Kid on the Block.....

So.....finally..... it opened!

'Gilly d'Ottone
' - the new incarnation of 'Col Legno', which has been the object of much interest over the past few months. 'Col Legno' was our local version of a greasy spoon, I suppose - cheerful, and simple, and (truth be told) rather grubby round the edges, with a loo that would have given Health & Safety instant heart failure. Family-owned and run, with a chianti-infused enthusiasm that stood in for any actual skill in the kitchen. A two-course lunch for two, including a carafe of house white that would take the enamel off your teeth, would leave you with change from a tenner (and we're talking euros here, not sterling...) and I have to say, they weren't undercharging. Located only half a dozen doors away from us, Col Legno could have become a regular on the list - but, in point of fact, we went only once. The combination of factors somehow wasn't an argument for a repeat experience........

And so, early in the summer, Col Legno hauled away all their kitchen equipment, put up their shutters for good, and departed (in fact, to rather more elegant premises in Via Mercanti.....somebody's Granny has died and they're investing the inheritance, I suspect). And in place of Col Legno's lace-edged curtains, some rather smart boards appeared, announcing the imminent opening 'in October' of Gilly d'Ottone - which all looked rather high-design and serious. Intrigued both by the prospect of a decent restaurant practically next door, and with the nosiness comprehensible only to those who have lived with a building project of their own, we watched progress with interest. Slowly, slowly ........walls were demolished and new structures raised (actually, not entirely accurate - builders are always quick to do the demolition-and-causing-maximum-mess bit, it's the subsequent raising of new structures that moves at snail's pace....), doors refurbished, new floor which point it became impossible to follow the more cosmetic treatment from the street, as the doors remained resolutely closed. Eventually, and squeezing in just before the end of November - which isn't bad slippage, at all - they had their grand opening.........and we waited several days before giving it a try.

Gone for good are the days of the greasy spoon! Broad horizontal stripes in light and dark grey around the walls, and a cluster of exuberant - and over-bright - crystal chandeliers have turned the interior into a combination of Orvieto Cathedral and a Milanese bordello! Bad decoration generally promises good food, though, and the rule wasn't proved wrong on this occasion, either: delicious starters (something called a Fagottino, which included hazelnuts and ground veal, with an intense and richly complicated sauce) and a very good dessert - a vanilla semifreddo inside a thin, dark chocolate shell (bought in, I suspect) and with a layer of rum-infused cake nestled inside the top of the shell. The main course was a little dull - baked salmon - but perhaps not a decent test of the kitchen. Wine was good, service was friendly - if a little nervous - and the bill was agreeably low.

All of which definitely adds up to a reason to go back. Partly to be supportive; partly from pure gastronomic self-interest; and partly on the basis that if we become regular enough clients, we might even be able to persuade them to fit a dimmer switch to the chandeliers!

Tonight's dinner:

Poached Eggs, on Sprue and Creamed Spinach.

Salmon Fishcakes, with Sweetcorn & Green Pepper.

Chocolate and Hazelnut Mousse.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Recipe: White Onion Risotto with Sage

Definitely White Onions for this recipe, rather than the increasingly ubiquitous red variety, which I think would be too strongly flavoured here and would probably overpower the Sage. This is a deceptively simple dish, with ingredients that you would expect to find in practically any peasant kitchen - yet the end result is surprisingly delicate and refined, with a subtle marriage of flavours and textures that works amazingly well. This is one of those rare occasions when two and two makes not four, but eight!

For Two.

Ingredients: 4 oz Butter; 1 large White Onion; 2/3 cup of Carnaroli Rice; 1 pint of Stock (Chicken or Duck); half a cup of freshly grated Parmesan; 6 medium sized Sage leaves, chopped finely; Salt & Pepper.


1. Melt half the Butter in a large sauté pan, and add to it the Onion, very thinly sliced. Cook over medium heat for about ten minutes until the Onion has softened - it should not colour, and you don't want it to collapse entirely, so don't go too far!

2. Add the Rice, stir to mix it thoroughly with the Onion, and cook for about a minute, before you start to add Stock, one ladleful at a time.

3. Continue cooking at a very low simmer for about 25 minutes, adding more Stock as necessary (if you run out, then use water - but you shouldn't need to if you're regulating the heat properly under the pan).

4. Test the rice for done-ness, and when it is ready, add the remaining butter to the Pan, and stir to melt it into the Rice mixture. Turn off the heat, and mix in the Parmesan and the Sage leaves, then add seasoning to taste.


If in doubt on Risotto technique, go here.

Monday 3 December 2007

A Good Day.....and a Sad One.....

To Florence for the day. Sarah was visiting, and was keen to see Michelangelo's Pietà, in the Museo dell Opera del Duomo, and I wanted to go to San Marco, having been inspired by Lauro Martinez's excellent book on Savonarola to see where it had all taken place.....(last time I was there was in 1981, when the book hadn't even been thought of, and my memory of the place was a little hazy). The City was in full Christmas swing, with stalactite illuminations the length of the street between the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, and the crowd on the train from Pisa suggested Christmas shopping expeditions were firmly in progress. The Pietà was beautiful - as were the original panels from Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, also on display in the museum courtyard - and San Marco was like the Ideal Home version of what a monastery should be: all polished perfection, with Michelozzo's spaces and Fra Angelico's frescoes jostling exuberantly for attention....

En route to San Marco, we made a slight detour through the Mercato Centrale, which is a food-shopper's paradise. On the ground floor, poultry, and haunches of meat, and tripe, and pasta, and oils and wine, and up on the first floor, vegetables, and dried fruit, and fresh fruit, and more oils and vinegars, and strings of peppers and mountains of pumpkins, and on and on.......Freezing cold, and jolly, and noisy and bustling. Had we not got a full day's itinerary ahead of us, I'd have loaded up more generously, but as it was contented myself with bottles of Sage Oil and Rosemary Oil - for adding to salads - and some dried strawberries and dried cherries (excellent, amongst other things, re-constituted in alcohol and mixed in with vanilla ice cream....).

Inevitably, we ended up in Cammillo for lunch. I had the most delicious chicken I can practically ever remember - boned, and chopped up, and then deep-fried - whilst the Technical Department had fried brains, which he proclaimed excellent, and Sarah had a dish of Tripe, ditto. She and I then had Crême Caramel, the texture of which was thicker than I would make it, but with the delicious and unexpected addition of flecks of orange peel in the mixture, and the TD had a tart with Crême Patissière and Wild Strawberries. Two carafes of house red to windward - to keep out the cold, you understand - and we were all set to declare victory and make our way back to the station, window-shopping the length of Via Tornabuoni as we did so.

And the Sad Day? Much lamentation......but Claudia has announced that she'll be closing down soon, for good, and the best pasta bar none that any of us have ever eaten will be no more. Her father and brother make it in their laboratorio in Via Tavoleria, and Papa is too old to carry on, and the brother has had enough of starting work at four o'clock in the morning for six days out of seven....And I suppose he can't be alone in that, since they seem to have given up hope of selling at as a going concern, and are merely going to shut down instead. The pasta they produce is of a quality almost unimaginable.......a texture which is soft and buttery, and in comparison with which all other pasta (even that painstakingly made at home, a mano) is frankly rather ordinary. I don't know whether it's the combination of flours that he uses, or a particular technique in the process, or - more probably - a combination of the two. more Casarecci, no more black ravioli stuffed with Branzino, no more melt-in-the-mouth Papardelle or Fettucine. It's good news for the waistline, but most definitely a ratchet downwards in the quality of life!

Tonight's Dinner:

Onion Risotto, made with a rich Duck stock.

Bistecchie di Maiale, coated in minced Fennel and fried; Chard cooked with Chick-peas.

Apple Strudel (with a handful of dried Strawberries mixed in with the Apple...)

Thursday 29 November 2007

Recipe: Ossobuco alla Novese

This is a combination of two recipes from Giuliano Bugialli - the basic recipe was from one of his earliest books, and the gremolada is taken from a much later version, where in fact he was quoting a dish from Sardinia. I think the marriage of the two works well.
Outside Italy, Ossubuco tends to be associated with a rich and heavy tomato sauce. The method given here is completely different, and the flavours are light and edgy, and accentuate the taste of the veal perfectly. Generally, there is quite a lot of sauce left over at the end , which is delicious subsequently either as a pasta sauce, or mixed in with cooked borlotti beans.

It is worth getting the best quality veal you can find for this dish!

For Six.


For the main dish: 6 Ossobuchi; 15 pitted green Olives; 1 tablespoon fresh Rosemary; 6 Sage leaves; 2 tablespoons Capers; 1 clove of Garlic; 1 strip of Lemon Peel; 2 cups of dry White Wine; 4 tablespoons of Olive Oil; 2 tablespoons of Butter; approx 6 tablespoons of Flour; Salt & Pepper.

For the Gremolada: Grated peel of one large Lemon; 10 Sage leaves; 15 sprigs of Parsley; half a tablespoon of Rosemary; quarter of a cup of Oive Oil; 1 teaspoon of Lemon Juice; Salt & Pepper to taste.


1. Tie each Ossobuco with string, to ensure it doesn't fall to pieces as it cooks. Flour each Ossobuco on each side. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. On a board, combine the herbs, Garlic, Capers, Lemon peel, and Olives, and chop them finely all together. Put this mixture into a bowl and add the Wine.

3. Melt the Butter in an oven-proof heavy casserole (with a lid). Add the Oil, and when hot enough, brown the Ossobuchi for three minutes on each side.

4. Pour the Wine and herb mixture into the casserole, cover it with the lid, and place in the pre-heated oven for an hour. Half way through, carefully turn the Ossobuchi over and add seasoning.

5. While the Ossobuchi are cooking, chop all of the dry ingredients for the Gremolada and mix them thoroughly with the Oil and Lemon Juice.

6. Check and adjust the seasoning for the Ossobuchi just before serving. To serve, spread a spoonful of gremolada over each Ossobuco once it has been plated, with some of the sauce over and around it.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Artists, or Craftsmen?

This is a subject that has become of increasing personal interest - and gathering irritation - for some time now: Is the process of cooking best understood as the preserve of the Artist or of the Craftsman?

For me, the answer is firmly the latter: cooking is primarily about the efficient deployment of resources to optimal effect, and the ability to judge the correct texture of pastry or pasta dough, or the 'done-ness' of zabaglione or risotto, or the correct point at which to remove a fish or chicken from the oven, or how a freshly-baked loaf of bread should sound when you tap it - all these things are technical skills, learned through experience over time, much as a potter learns to handle clay, or a blacksmith learns how to work with metal. Once you've learned the technical aspects of the process, then - and only then - do you have the technical knowledge even to consider moving ahead and working from that knowledge-base to develop new combinations of ingredients or new methods of production. It is only at this stage - if at all - that any artistry kicks in.........and in my experience, very very few people have the skill or ability to make this leap. (Bruno Loubet does, for sure, and Raymond Blanc, to a lesser extent........and after that, I think we're essentially dealing with people of varying degrees of technical knowledge whose recipes are basically a re-hash of what has already come before, with some slight variation at best.....)

And the reason for my irritation? It's simple - I don't know why, but it seems that in the anglophone parts of the world this distinction between cooking as an Art or a Craft has become completely confused, with sometimes dire results. The process is increasingly viewed as some kind of mystical alchemy, rather than as a precise science, and cooks are encouraged to think of themselves as 'creative beings' rather than as technicians. With an artistic temperament, to match, if a lot of the blah-blah surrounding celebrity chefdom is to be believed. And the end result of all of this is an increasing preponderance of restaurants where the menu is crammed with unrecognisable combinations of things in dishes you've never heard of, and which you're expected to eat with an attitude of hushed reverence for the creative genius behind the whole questionable process. Whilst in Greece, you can go out to dinner with a confident expectation of finding avgolemono soup on the menu, if that's what you want, or in Italy, if your taste is for Spaghetti Carbonara, you can find it........or Paella in Spain, or Tête de Veau in Britain or the USA, however, you're more likely to be confronted with a 'galaxy' of this, or a 'medley' of that, and end up dubiously picking at an unsuccessful marriage of greengages with Venison, or Wasabi & Campari Sorbet! Heaven forfend that the Chef should actually offer a traditional dish that might also appear on somebody else's menu somewhere else - but with the confidence that his version will bear critical comparison - and the whole experience ends up being a combination of purple prose, over-ambitious egos, and poor food.....

I blame the dead hand of celebrity chefdom, which has encouraged every restaurant cook to see themselves as the future Gordon or Emeril or Jamie, and so rush to distinguish themselves with the creation of 'signature dishes' which, quite frankly, just don't work. Ok, other countries have their foolishness too, like Gualtiero Marchesi with his Gold Leaf Risotto, or El Bulli's 'smoke' souffle - but you're more likely in those countries also to find myriad restaurants where the dishes being produced are an exact replica of what was learned from the generation before, and the generation before that. Which is as it should be.

There's nothing wrong with being a technician rather than an artist, and better an expert technician any day than a lousy artist!

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartes aux Moules

Bistecchie di Maiale, with Cannelini Beans cooked with Pancetta and Sage

Mango Ice Cream

Saturday 24 November 2007

Recipe: Chicken Liver Terrine

This is definitely a recipe for this time of year - partly because of its hearty-trencherman-fare-keeping-out-the-cold quality, and partly because we're approaching the period when suddenly you find you have an extra three or four (or five or six) bodies for lunch or dinner, especially during that ramshackle period between Christmas and the New Year, when a rather more ad-hoc approach to meals becomes the order of the day, and a terrine of this kind in the fridge will definitely come in handy. I know it seems ridiculously early to be mentioning Christmas, but in fact this is a dish which should be kept for at least two weeks before being eaten, and is fine at three and even four weeks, too. I suspect it would last even longer, if necessary, but I've never been in a position to find out - over time, the flavours strengthen, and as the terrine dehydrates, it becomes firmer and therefore easier to serve. Whenever I come across them, I read with derision the cautious comments from Health and Safety 'experts' that a terrine can be kept for several days .......with clearly no knowledge whatsoever that in in the past, the whole purpose of this kind of dish was specifically in order to be able to feed off it during the winter months; it falls within the same category effectively as dried sausage and cured ham...(which is a whole different story, and one for another day)

For Twelve.

Ingredients: 7 tablespoons Cognac; 3 tablespoons Port; 3 tablespoons Sherry; 2 cloves Garlic, minced; half a Cup of finely chopped fresh Parsley; 1 level teaspoon of dried Thyme; 1 pinch of Nutmeg; 1 level teaspoon of Sugar; 2 heaped teaspoons of Salt; a dozen grinds of Pepper from the mill; 500g Chicken Livers, roughly cut up (check to see that there are no 'green' bits that need to be removed - but frankly, I can't remember the last time I had to do this, given the quality of livers now generally sold); 200g Pork, cut into 1cm x 2 cm dice (you can use either Pork belly for this, or a Pork Steak or piece of loin - whatever is most readily available); 200g minced Pork or Veal; 200g rindless Bacon, for lining the terrine mould (or I use slices of Pancetta for this, if I'm making it in Italy).


1. Combine Cognac, Port, Sherry, Garlic, Parsley, Thyme, Nutmeg, Sugar, Salt and Pepper in a large bowl. Add Chicken Livers, diced Pork and Sausage meat, and stir with a fork to mix thoroughly. (At this stage, Michel Guérard, whose recipe this was before I mucked around with it for my own purposes, would have you let everything stand for at least 24 hours before proceeding. I see no point in this: if you are leaving the terrine for a week or so before eating it, the flavours will mingle perfectly at that stage, when the texture of the terrine is also sorting itself out).

2. Line the terrine mould* with slices of Bacon or Pancetta, making sure you leave enough over to be able to cover the top of the terrine once all the ingredients have been added.

3. Fill the prepared mould with the Meat mixture, then cover the top with the remaining slices of Bacon or Pancetta. Bake in a bain marie, in a 220 degree C oven, for one and a half hours, uncovered. The top will become a deep crispy brown, and the smell as it cooks will fill the entire house!

* Although for years I've lusted after one of those porcelain terrines with a lid, none has ever actually come my way, and generally, I've made do with a succession of loaf tins for this purpose; recently I graduated to a Le Creuset silicone terrine mould, which worked wonderfully until I stupidly managed to put the tip of a knife through the side of it. It has since been replaced.....but take note of the fragility of this particular piece of kit!

Thursday 22 November 2007

And a Pisan Day......

Raining. It often does here - which begs the question why all those Inglesi consumptives arrived in the nineteenth century, in search of warm dry air for their damaged lungs. One of the standard local sights is the senegalese street vendors, who manage somehow - and instantaneously - to switch their stock-in-trade from CDs and cigarette lighters to all kinds of umbrellas at the first sign of a raindrop. Impressive. And because it's such a common occurrence, the Pisani don't let it put them off their stride one bit, but just carry on as normal, except with the protection of large umbrellas. Borgo Stretto and the marketplace in Via Cavalca are transformed into a version of that impressionist painting Les Parapluies - Renoir, I think - with a multitude of the things thronging the streets, all in bright colours and every kind of stripe and tartan and pattern you could imagine.

To Maurizio, for a Pork Loin. I stood and watched as he expertly boned and rolled it - something that almost never happens in a butchers in London, where you rarely get to see work like that actually being done, and in fact the butchers on show are really only acting as shop assistants. His speed and efficiency is almost balletic, there is no wastage whatsoever in the process, and the delicacy with which he strings the boned loin makes me embarrassed to think of the ham-fisted way I tie up similar cuts of meat at home, when I've had to open them up to stuff them!

Then to Antonella for Radicchio and Apples. She talks me into the mutant Radicchio - the one which has chaotic, primeval-looking tendrils rather than the more normal round or long variety - on the basis that it has a much more assertive bitter-sweet flavour than the others. She's right - but they also cost a lot more, so the choice isn't as obvious as you'd think.

And finally to Claudia, where I'm briefly tempted from my planned purchase of Casarecci by the mountain of deep yellow Pappardelle she's serving to the signora two ahead of me in the queue, and I consider the option of Pappardelle with some of her wonderful ragu, the sight of a bowl of which in the vitrina has my mouth watering. I have plenty of time to ponder, as the elderly lady before me is having trouble understanding the euro coinage - even after all this time, it isn't unusual to see people of that age who haven't managed to get their heads around the move away from the lira - and in the end Claudia accepts a handful of small change in settlement of a larger bill, in order to help her out. And by that time, I've decided to resist temptation, and to stick to the original Casarecci plan. Tomorrow is another day, after all......

Back home, for the first - and very welcome- cappuccino of the morning, and to put a batch of almonds into the oven to roast. If the rain eases off, then I can get out into the garden to clean the leaves from the lily pond, and to plant Hyacinth and Narcissus bulbs in pots for the terrace...and if not, then it's a question of hunkering down beside the fire, and attacking the remainder of this year's Booker longlist.

The Brancolis will be here for dinner this evening, and to spend the night, passing through en route to the airport, as they depart until early next spring. It should be a bucolic affair.....

Tonight's dinner:

Casarecci, with melted Butter and Parmesan

Pork Loin, pot roast with Radicchio, Pancetta and Garlic

Tartes aux Pommes - served with cream (as long as the luggage which was yesterday kidnapped by Gatwick baggage handlers actually turns upon this afternoon's flight!)