Saturday 27 January 2007

Ravioli of Pear and Parmesan....

A beautiful morning. The bad weather has passed, and we now have a clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine. Bitingly cold though - not a day to linger outside any longer than necessary, and I'm relieved to have got the necessary garden labours already out of the way: planting thyme around the edges of the lavender beds, so that it should spread, and hopefully seed itself between the old red bricks of the pathways in the course of the summer.

Town was busy - it always is on a Saturday morning, with a slight undercurrent of panic that starvation is in sight during a shop-less Sunday, and disaster inevitable unless the households can all provision sufficiently to last through until Monday. If you don't want to spend the entire morning stuck in endless queues in a variety of shops, it's advisable to be out and at it early - and any idea that you might saunter in a leisurely way into the fishmongers any later than 9.30 and expect to find anything worth having is completely laughable.

The wonderful Pasta man on the corner of Vettovaglie - the old square - is, frustratingly, closed for the next couple of weeks. I hope it's nothing more sinister than a short holiday, as he closed for his summer break last year in the middle of July, and then didn't reopen agan until October. Apparently, he's keen to sell the place - which would be nothing short of a disaster! His black ravioli with Sea Bass stuffing defies description, as do his Casarecci (semi-circular ravioli, with a stuffing of ground pork and veal and, I think, a variety of spices). Instead, I went to the fresh pasta place in Borgo Largo, where I was astonished to find ravioli with parmesan and pears. I've only ever had them once before, at Boscaiola in the middle of the woods outside Radicondoli, and I've always assumed they were an eccentricity of the house, rather than a classic. I certainly didn't expect to fall over them in our second-best Pasticceria....Delicate in flavour, they are delicious dressed just in melted butter. I snaffled some up immediately! In this household, at least, starvation has again been successfully averted, and we may yet make it through to Monday.....

Today's Menu:

Tarts of Aubergine and Parmesan.

Triglie alla Maremmana (See recipe, below - another one for the list of fish and meat combinations), served with braised Fennel.

Frozen Hazelnut Zabaglione, with Chocolate Sauce.

Recipe: Triglie (Red Mullet) alla Maremmana

For Four.
Ingredients: 800g Red Mullet, cleaned and gutted (generally, there are two sizes available at the fishmonger; I tend to go for the larger ones, as the bones are less fiddly, and they are easier to stuff. This means two fish per person, as opposed to three per person if you go for the smaller variety); 100g Prosciutto Crudo (supermarket plastic-packed is fine for this - no point in using better quality crudo in this kind of dish) ; 1 tablespoon Butter; 6 fl oz White Wine; 3 fl oz Olive Oil; juice of half a Lemon; 1 Garlic clove, minced; Breadcrumbs; Seasoning.


1. Mince the Prosciutto in a food processor, and divide it between the fish cavities, adding a small knob of Butter to each one.

2. Place the fish in a flat dish and pour over them a marinade made from Wine, Oil, Lemon Juice, Garlic and Seasoning. Leave to marinate for a couple of hours, turning occasionally.

3. Coat the fish in breadcrumbs, and bake 25 minutes in a pre-heated 180 degree C oven. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the marinade over the fish at the start of the process, and add the remainder of the marinade in the course of cooking, as the fish dries out.

Friday 26 January 2007

The Marsala Experience....

I'm not certain exactly when it was that I first started cooking with Marsala - but I suspect it was as long ago as the first time I tried Marcella Hazan's recipe for zabaglione, which must put it more than a couple of decades ago! As a fortified wine - for cooking purposes, at any rate - it stands out entirely on its own. It has a depth and richness which can't be matched by anything you might consider comparable within the cooking-quality alcohols - not sherry, nor brandy, nor port. The closest thing I can think of in terms of the roundness of its flavour is an Oloroso, but I think we're then straying beyond the parameters of strictly 'cooking' alcohols, and so the comparison is unfair. I understand that Nelson stocked up with Marsala rather than rum for his entire fleet en route to The Battle of the Nile, and I can understand why he would have thought it a valid substitution - the two alcohols have a similar complexity and the structure of their flavours bears comparison. And we won the Battle of The Nile, so that ought to mean something!

Apparently, the earliest versions of Marsala were produced by the addition of 8.5 gallons of grape spirit to every 400 litres of one of the local wines - of which three grape varieties predominate. I have no idea whether those proportions still hold good, and as I'm not contemplating making the stuff, I'm not too bothered about the detail. Where things do seem to have changed recently is in the production of a hierarchy of qualities of Marsala, the top four of which rank significantly above that of cooking quality. For the latter purpose, you should restrict yourself to the 'Fine' variety (misleadingly named, since it is the poorest quality of the lot) which sells for about two quid in any half decent italian supermarket.

I use Marsala for desserts - Posset with Poached Prunes; Zabaglione; Pears poached in Marsala and Moscovado Sugar; Oranges with Marsala Syrup - for cooking with vegetables, as a base for cream sauces for sauteed meat, in has a place somewhere in pretty much all kinds of cooking.

As for the place, I remember it as a bustling and unprepossessing example of modern urban sprawl, with a very confusing one-way system......which was particularly unhelpful when trying to get through Marsala and down the coast to Mazara del Vallo in time to see the statue of the Dancing Satyr before it closed for the day - and all I was working from was a small scale map of the whole of west Sicily! The guide-books describe Marsala as charming, and traditional and clustered round a picturesque harbour; well, all I can say is that I missed that bit as we swept through the main shopping street, past a host of all-too-familiar department stores, for the third time in twenty minutes! Dinner, however, in a family-owned trattoria called A Ciaramira in the middle of nowhere, eight miles away from Marsala, across empty fields and unlit roads was a truly memorable experience, and more than made up for the deficiencies of the roads- department within the local planning office!

Today's Menu:

Tortino of Pancakes, with a filling of Aubergine and Peppers.

Involtini of Leek and Parmesan. For the full recipe, see below.

Oranges with Marsala Syrup. Not sure what came first to my mind, today's post or the thought of dinner. Whichever.......

Recipe: Involtini with Leek and Parmesan

Serves two.
Ingredients: 2 large or 4 small scaloppine, beaten to wafer thinness (I prefer to use small scaloppine for this - they cook through more thoroughly); 1 medium Leek; 2 oz Parmesan, shaved thinly with a potato peeler or cheese slicer; Plain Flour; 1 tablespoon Oil; 1 oz Butter; 50 ml White Wine; Seasoning.


1. Slice the Leek centrally along its length, and cook until tender in boiling salted water. This should take 10 minutes or so. It should be very tender when finished.

2. Lay Scaloppine flat on the work surface, and lay slices of cooked Leek over each one, then cover these in turn with the Parmesan shavings. Season, and then roll up and fix each roll with a wooden toothpick. These are your involtini.

3. Lightly flour the outside of the involtini, and cook over a high heat in the melted Butter and Oil until the outsides are generally quite dark in colour. This might take 8-10 minutes. Remove the involtini to a separate dish and keep warm.

4. Add wine to the pan, and boil down to half its original volume, scraping the cooking juices from the base of the pan as the wine reduces.

5. Return the involtini to the sauce and heat them through, turning in the sauce, for about a minute. Serve.

Thursday 25 January 2007

Cocktail Monkeys and Wasabi.....

The weather has been lousy practically the whole time since we got here - thirty six hours of almost incessant rain and thunderstorms. And, believe me, the thunderstorms in this part of the World are impressive! Yesterday morning I found myself battling the elements to help Antonella's mother retrieve a box of small purple artichokes - the tender little ones that you slice thinly and fry to form the base for a frittata - which the wind had picked up and strewn all over the market square. At least by this morning things had calmed down enough for a more usual conversation, and we chewed the cud about the fact that La Mescita, the restaurant in front of which her market stall is located, has bitten the dust. Finally. The business had started promisingly, maybe six years or so ago, and I can particularly recall delicious Lardo di Colonnata there, as well as first being introduced to the Uccelliera wines and grappa from their bar. Then, they began to get grand ideas. Which was fine, as long as it was limited to expanding into the next property, and uncovering a rather fine Tuscan column in the process.......but it all began to go pear-shaped when the grand ideas seeped also into the cooking. The cook - a weasely-looking fellow, with close-cropped hair and earrings - began to dream of the sophistication of a Milanese clientele, and ever more exotic combinations began to appear on the menu. Unfortunately, his aspiration got significantly ahead of his abilities. For me, the final straw was when I found placed in front of me one evening a large square plate on which had been arranged some raw Tuna, a generous daub of Wasabi, some completely irrelevant garnish, and a squat tumbler of Campari and Orange, from the rim of which dangled a day-glo plastic monkey. Unwisely, I'd assumed the campari described on the menu was to form part of an interesting sauce for the fish. We never went back.
It was clear from a distance that times were troubled when a notice appeared on the door last summer stating that credit cards were no longer accepted - it's the standard bell-wether of creditors pressing too closely when an italian restaurant starts to run to cash!

Further to yesterday's confession that I couldn't remember where I'd originally found the recipe for Squid with Peas and Tomatoes, over dinner it was argued that I must have got it from Alessandro Molinari Pradelli's 'Cucina Italiana'. Which seems entirely likely. The conversation went downhill from there, and became very confusing once we began to focus on whether I'd used Totani (I had - it's what you use in these parts) or Seppie, which is what Pradelli calls for, but which are in fact a kind of cuttlefish. What was agreed was that above all Calamari should not be used, either the Italian or the Greek variety - recourse was had to Alan Davidson to check the point, and a lot of improbable latin tags started to be thrown about. Sometimes I suspect that the second bottle is best avoided.......

Final note on Boyajian: the helpful people at their Customer Service department in New York finally responded to my plea, and told me that chapter and verse on stockists in the UK can be got from either WG White in Wembley, or from The Oil Merchant.

Today's Menu:

Flamiches, cooked in Pomiane's way. Over the years I've used both Julia Child's and Anne Willan's versions of this. Pomiane's is by far the simplest and the best. See below for the recipe.

Pork chops, of Cinta Senese. Served with Carrots cooked in Marsala.

Crepes Suzettes. This is January, after all!

Recipe: Flamiche (a la Pomiane)

For two:
Ingredients: 3 sheets Phyllo pastry, approx 12"x6" each; 2 medium Leeks; 2 oz Butter; 1 Egg Yolk; 1 tablespoon Cream; seasoning.


1. Melt half the Butter. Prepare two pastry shells, using one sheet of Phyllo for each shell, brushed with melted Butter (cut each sheet in two, and then use two halves in each shell to make a double layer of pastry for the base of the Flamiche).

2. Finely chop the white of the Leeks and par-boil five minutes in salted water. Drain, and then stir round in the remaining melted Butter, to coat. Season to taste.

3. Fill pastry shells with cooked Leek, packed quite loosely, then brush the remaining sheet of Phyllo with the last of the melted Butter and cut it in half, to use each half to fashion the tops of the two Flamiches. Cut a cross in the centre of each top sheet of pastry, and fold the corners back to leave a small open square in the top of the pastry.

4. Bake the Flamiches approx 20 minutes in 200 degree oven, until well browned. Meanwhile mix together the egg yolk and cream.

5. Once the Flamiches are cooked, remove from the oven and immediately pour the egg and cream mixture carefully into the openings in the centre of each pie - don't worry if some pours over the top of the pastry, it will still be unctuous and delicious.

6. Leave to stand for 3-5 minutes, allowing the egg to coagulate in the heat of the interior of the Flamiches. Serve.

Wednesday 24 January 2007

Back to Italy....

A change of pace. Back to Italy for a few weeks, and not Waitrose and Jack O'Shea, but Maurizio, Sergio and Antonella (who has the preferred fruit and vegetable stall in the market, and who's real name I discovered only recently is in fact Alessandra - but since she's been Antonella for the past five years, I'm afraid she's rather stuck with it now!). A rather grotty flight yesterday, enlivened by only a BA sandwich (the letters can be taken to refer either to the name of the airline or the quality of the sandwich - equally appropriate in either case), and the fact that the plane was struck by lightning as we were coming in to land. Highly dramatic, for those of us who noticed, and generally reassuring, in that nothing untoward happened as a result.

We got home to discover - depressingly - that the only thing available for a pre-dinner tipple was a rather iffy bottle of Lambrusco (I'm not sure how it had even ended up in the fridge) rather than the more usual Prosecco - however, it was rendered drinkable by the addition of a little Creme de Peche de Vigne , and we settled down to spit-roasting a leg of New Season Lamb, to be served with Garlic Sauce, and Celeriac braised in pork fat; Cheese Souffle to start, and Apples baked in the Venetian style to finish (stuffed with amaretti and sultanas, mixed with a generous helping of Dark Rum - delicious!). Although the weather here is better than in London, winter is still somehow more noticeable, and I can sense a raft of home and hearth type menus coming up.....

Today's menu:

Squid with Peas and Tomatoes. I'm not sure where this one came from, but it 's simple and quick and very good. The full recipe is given below.

Branzino (Sea Bass), baked in the oven, served with an anchovy butter dressing. Saute of Fennel and Radicchio de Treviso - the flavours of these two vegetables offset each other splendidly, and the texture perfectly balances the creaminess of the fish fillets .

Chocolate and Apricot Tart.

Recipe: Squid with Peas and Tomatoes...

For two:
Ingredients: 2 small Squid, cleaned and sliced into rings; 1.5 tablespoons chopped Onion; 3 tablespoons Olive Oil; 1.5 teaspoons minced Garlic; 1 tin peeled and chopped tomatoes - approx 300g; 290g frozen Peas; 2 tablespoons chopped Parsley.

1. Saute Onion in Oil until golden, add Garlic and Parsley and stir briefly. Add tomatoes and simmer 10 minutes.

2. Stir Squid into this mixture and simmer for 35-40 minutes.

3. When the Squid is tender, add the peas (from frozen) and cook through for about 5 minutes.

4. Check and adjust seasoning, and serve.

As with all things stewed, this is probably even better re-heated the following day - if you have any left, that is!

Monday 22 January 2007

Musing: Fish and Meat.....

The paucity of choice of images I could find to illustrate this topic says it all - rather than something succulent and mouth-watering, I've ended up with a picture that looks more like a refugee from the Natural History Museum than something destined to set the gastric juices flowing! Why is it that we instinctively appear to find the combination of meat with fish so awkward? Is it merely a hangover from the days when any self-respecting diner would expect both a fish course and a meat course, and thus an impenetrable cordon sanitaire sprang up between the two?

Examples to the contrary are legion. The first time I dined at Le Manoir I remember a splendid Lamb Mentonais and can even now picture the orange tones of the fish against the succulent pink of the meat. And what about Vitello Tonnato? Wonderful! Loubet has a recipe for Cod wrapped in Parma Ham, which has been an old favourite of mine for years, and I noticed the other day that Lindsay Bareham has included a version in her latest oeuvre, where Cod has been replaced with Snapper.

Perhaps the easiest one of all though, is the combination of a Lardon Sauce for grilled or seared fish, where the sauce can be made literally months in advance and re-heated just at the last minute during the time it takes for the fish to cook through, and its skin to broil to a delicious crispness! I think the version I use came originally from Alain Ducaisse, but I can't be certain - after a while, the provenence of old and favoured recipes tends to become lost in the mists of time!

Stop Press: Further to yesterday's moan about my problems sourcing Boyajian Oils in the UK, I've been reprieved! Lakeland carry a few from the range, it appears, but a wider choice - and at noticeably lower prices - can be found at an outfit called Blas ar Fwyd. I've put a link to their site in the side bar.

Today's Menu:

Chicken Liver Salad: Livers sauteed in garlic and butter, served over rocket and lamb's lettuce leaves, dressed in oil and lemon juice.

Salmon Steaks, seared and served with Lardon Sauce (See below, for recipe); accompanied by sliced endive and leek, thoroughly wilted in butter.

Pear and Chocolate Tart.

Recipe: Lardon Sauce for Fish

Ingredients: 3 tbs Olive Oil; 100g Lardons; 1 large Shallot, finely diced; 2 large Garlic cloves, minced; 1 sprig fresh Thyme; 1 sprig Rosemary; 1 Bay leaf; 3 tbs Port; 120 ml Red Wine; 400 ml Fish Stock; 500 ml Chicken Stock.


1. Saute Lardons 2 minutes in Oil, until browned.

2. Add shallot, garlic and herbs and cook until softened - approximately 7 minutes.

3. Deglaze with Port, then add Wine and cook until reduced by two thirds.

4. Pour in Fish and Chicken Stock, add pepper to taste, and then simmer approiximately 20 minutes until reduced by half.

5. Strain through a fine seive, and the sauce is then ready for use.

This recipe makes quite a large quantity - normally enough to last me for several months. I generally keep it in the fridge in a sealed container, and reheat it as I need it. This is excellent with grilled or seared fish, and having some ready-made in the fridge means you can have a finished dish in the time it takes to cook a piece of fish on both sides.....

Sunday 21 January 2007

Ingredient Alert: Boyajian Citrus Oils...

This post is in part a paean of praise, and in part a straightforward gripe. The paean of praise is for Boyajian Citrus Oils. I first discovered them ten or more years ago in the States, and my kitchen has never been without them ever since! Cold-pressed from the rind of the fruit, the flavours of these oils are intense and accurate, and in many instances are a perfectly valid replacement for either zest or juice in either sweet or savoury recipes. A drop of orange oil in a Creme Anglaise can replace the chore associated with juicing half a dozen oranges and then reducing the liquid to concentrate the flavour for e.g. an Orange & Raspberry Tart; or a drop of Lime Oil at the end of making mayonnaise is fantastic for eating with Globe Artichokes. Boyajian have branched out into a much broader range of flavoured oils than merely their base citrus range, but I confess I've never really got to grips with the more complicated items on their list, and in fact stick pretty much to Orange and Lemon Oils, with an occasional use also for Lime Oil. I can't recommend these oils highly enough!

And my gripe? I can't seem to get hold of them outside the States, and I can't get a response from the Customer Service people at the Boyajian website when I ask whether they will ship orders to the UK. Frustrating? And how!! If anybody reads this and knows where I might be able to replenish my declining stocks, please let me know........I probably have about six months' future supplies, and after that the future looks worryingly bleak!

Today's menu:

Scrambled Egg with Smoked Salmon. Winter seems finally to have arrived, and this is a very Sunday evening, Home & Hearth type of starter.

Boeuf Bourguignonne. Same reason as above, I guess....

Mango Souffle Glace. Enough dwelling on winter......! For the full recipe, see below.

Recipe: Mango Souffle Glace

For six individual souffles.
Ingredients: 1 medium fresh Mango, peeled and the flesh cut into cubes; 150 ml Water; 350g Sugar; 3 Eggs; 275 ml Double Cream; 12g powdered Gelatine.

1. Prepare 6 individual ramekins with paper collars coming approximately 1" above the rim.

2. Make Mango Coulis: bring 300g Sugar to the boil in 150 ml Water. Off heat, place the cubes of Mango in this sugar syrup and leave to cool; liquidize and then seive.

3. In zimmertopf or double boiler, make a light custard with Mango Coulis, 50g Sugar and 3 egg yolks. Set aside in a bowl, and then use zimmertopf/double boiler to heat the powdered gelatine in 70 ml water. Whisk until thoroughly melted and incorporated, then fold into the Mango custard.

4. Whisk the cream until stiff in a separate bowl, and then fold into the Mango Custard. Whisk the 3 egg whites likewise and fold these in also.

5. Divide the mixture between the six prepared ramekins, filling the paper collars so that the mixture stands significantly proud of the top of the ramekins.

6. Refrigerate for at least two hours, preferably longer, until the souffle glace is quite firm. Remove paper collars and dust with icing sugar to serve.