Saturday 23 June 2007

Memorable Dinners.....

A hot August night in Greece, nearly thirty years ago. On the terrace of a crumbling mansion, with views down over the town and the harbour, and out over the sea towards the low outline of Delos, dark against the sunset. The other side of the house was a wild garden, where the ruins of steps and terraces climbing the hillside could still just be made out amongst the forest of oleanders and geraniums that had long ago taken over, massed around the base of over-sized Cypress trees. We spent days clearing the main terrace of weeds, I remember, and excavating the seats alongside the huge stone table in the centre of the terrace. It was worth the effort: eating al fresco was a splendid idea in the leaden heat of a Greek summer......

Fifteen or so for dinner. An eclectic crowd. Apart from Sonia, our German hostess, I remember a Puerto Rican fan-dancer, and the assistant director of the Salzburg Festival, a local bar owner, a beautician from Amsterdam and somebody from a Lebanese shipping family....The roof of the kitchen had collapsed the previous winter, and so we prepared dinner elsewhere and carefully transported it across town in plastic boxes: chilled gazpacho, followed by cold roast pork and ratatouille. And we finished with a mountain of pears that had been poached in red wine and then glazed. And vast quantities of Lac des Roches, to drink.......All consumed by candlelight, against a backdrop of cicadas sawing insistently away in the darkness of the garden all around.

Last seen, several years ago, the property had become a five star hotel - the garden disappeared beneath buildings and pathways and a large swimming pool with views out to sea. The main house has been turned into the 'smart' restaurant for the hotel, all damask tablecloths and elegant flower arrangements. I'm told the food isn't bad......but somehow I doubt the experience matches up to my earlier memories...

Tonight's Dinner:

Poached Egg with Ratatouille (an all-time favourite...)

Fillets of Sea Bream, with tomato and Rosemary.

Chocolate and Apricot Tart.

Friday 22 June 2007

Recipe: Roast Loin of Pork with Dijon Mustard

This was practically the first dish I ever learned to cook - and it remains one of my favourites, even now. The instructions given here are taken from my dog-eared and decrepit recipe folder; I had thought the recipe originally came from Robert Carrier, but when, idly, I went to check it, I found I was wrong. Which means its true provenance is lost in the mists of time......

For Six.

Ingredients: 1 boned Pork Loin (approx 1500g for six people); 120g Butter, softened to room temperature; 6 tablespoons Dijon Mustard; 1 tablespoon of ground Bayleaf; 1 tablespoon of dried Thyme; Salt & Pepper.


1. Start preparations at least four hours before you intend to roast the Loin.

2. With a sharp knife, remove the rind from the Loin - reserve it to roast with the Loin, to make crackling. (If making this in Italy, I don't have this option, since Italian butchers only sell Pork Loin with the rind already removed. A great shame......)

3. Slice the Loin open, as though unrolling a swiss roll, in order to have a flat rectangle of meat (to do this, with the Loin end-on to you, imagine it as a clock face and make a flap in the Pork slicing from two o'clock almost through to eight o'clock - being careful not to slice right through the meat at the eight o'clock point; open this flap to the left, and then make a second cut from the end of your first cut, in the opposite direction, almost through to five o'clock; open this flap to the right of the Loin, giving you your rectangle).

4. In a bowl, use a fork to mix together the Butter, Mustard, and Herbs. Season to taste with Salt & Pepper. Spread three-quarters of this mixture over the rectangle of Pork, then roll it back into its original shape. Tie it with half a dozen lengths of string, and then spread the remainder of the mixture as a poultice over the strung Loin. Place in the fridge for the flavours to penetrate the meat for at least four hours. (I generally place the rind from the Loin over the poultice when I do this; this has no culinary benefit, but means that I don't forget to put the rind into the oven when it comes to roasting the Pork!)

5. Roast the Loin for an hour in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees C. Have the rind on a rack directly above the Pork, so that the fat it releases in roasting will fall onto the Loin as it cooks.

6. When cooked, remove the Loin from the pan and keep it warm under foil or in a warming oven while it rests for twenty minutes or so. In the meantime, remove the fat from the roasting pan and make a sauce by adding half a glass of white wine to the pan and bubbling it over high heat on the stove, whilst scraping the cooking residue from the base of the pan and incorporating it into the sauce.

Slice the Loin and serve with the crackling and a vegetable of your choice - my personal preference with this is Ratatouille, but roast celeriac is pretty good, too!

Thursday 21 June 2007

Removing the Wishbone....

Poultry suffers from a severe design-fault, in the form of the Wishbone. Whether spit roast, oven roast or pot roast, when it comes to carving the bird, the process always involves a feat of manual dexterity which is both time-consuming and fiddly, and generally involves a lot more meat being left attached to the bone than is necessary. The solution is to remove the wishbone while the bird is still raw - thereafter, once the bird is cooked, you can either make clean slices from the breast as you would normally, or else remove the breasts in one go and slice them on a board. It sounds like a minor difference, but the first time I saw a de-wishboned chicken being carved I was deeply impressed. Suddenly, the task is clean, efficient and quick....

The process of removing the Wishbone:

1. Stand the bird on its rump end, push the skin covering the neck cavity aside and locate the V shaped wishbone with your fingers.

2. Using the tip of a small sharp knife, score the flesh either side of the middle of one branch of the bone until you can grip it with your finger tips. Use the tip of the knife to free the 'top of the V' end from the carcase. It is attached to the skeleton with a little bit of cartilage. If you put the tip of you knife into the join and twist, it will come free.

3. Work on the other branch in the same way.

4. Gently holding both branches - be careful they snap easily - work the tip of the knife towards the base of the V until you can free the whole wishbone. This sounds more complicated than it is. With a bit of practice the whole process only takes a couple of minutes.

5. When you come to carve you have two choices. You can make long cuts parallel to the back bone in the classic way or you can remove the entire breast from the carcase by cutting along one side of the breastbone and running the knife along the ribcage until the whole breast can be removed. This can then be thinly sliced on a board like a grilled breast. (The latter method is definitely better for Duck, if you like your bird on the pink side). Whichever method you choose you will find it much easier without the wishbone getting in your way.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Recipe: Potatoes Roast with Sage & Rosemary

This goes perfectly with roast Pork, Veal, or Chicken.

For Four.

Ingredients: 6 medium sized potatoes (waxy in texture in best); 4 large cloves of Garlic; 1 oz Butter; 2 tablespoons Olive Oil; 3 large Sage leaves; 2 sprigs of Rosemary; Salt.


1. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. As it heats up, place a roasting dish in the oven with the Butter and Oil inside it, to allow the Butter to melt.

2. Peel the Potatoes and cut each one into half a dozen pieces.Once the Butter has melted in the roasting dish, add the Potatoes to the dish and stir them around to coat thoroughly in Oil and Butter. Add the Garlic cloves (unpeeled) and stir again.

3. Finely slice the Sage leaves, and strip the Rosemary needles from their stems. Add the sliced Sage and the needles to the roasting dish, add salt to taste, and stir thoroughly once more.

4. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until the potatoes are nicely browned on the outside. During this time, stir the potatoes once every ten minutes, to ensure they don't stick to the pan(If they show signs of doing so, loosen them with a knife; if necessary, add a little more Oil)

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Musical Chairs.....

It's that time of year, once again, when tickets go on sale for the Anima Mundi music festival which takes place each autumn in and around the Duomo. We've had season tickets for the entire programme every year, practically since AM began - and the quality of the performers and of the programme has been getting better and better over all that time. The only potential fly in the ointment is the fact that John Eliot Gardiner took over last year as Artistic Director for Anima Mundi, and it remains to be seen whether this was a wise choice: he was personally responsible for two concerts in the course of last year's festival, and they were both terrible!

And so, this morning I made my way to the ticket office, in order to try and negotiate this year's season tickets with Francesca, who has presided over the process for longer than I can remember. As I said, smilingly, across her desk as we both sat down, this was going to be a little complicato . We wanted Sector 'B' tickets for the London Philharmonic and the Concerto Italiano concerts, but Sector 'A' seats for the Camposanto concerts and the Gautier Capucon event, with the Radio Orchestra of Cologne. And we didn't care where the tickets were for the Eliot Gardiner concerts, since we didn't intend to use them. Francesca's smile fell. "No - you have to have all your tickets the same when you buy a season ticket", she said. "But - that wasn't how it was last year", I said. "No", she agreed"but that was last year." Hmmm. "Can't I pay for all my seats in sector A, but have some of them as seats actually in Sector B?" . Her expression was miserable in response. "No. The computer won't allow it". "Then what about buying all in sector B and paying upgrades for the ones I want in Sector A?". "No. The Director won't allow it". Aaaaaaaaaaaaagghhhh..........

In the end, she asked me for precise details of exactly what it was that I wanted to do, carefully wrote it all down on a piece of paper, and implied that the tickets should be available for collection by July 10th. With a nod and a wink I slid noiselessly from the office, confident that all would be well......

Alberto, who is finishing his MA in 'International Relations and Conflict Resolution' is coming to dinner tonight. Possibly, he has a promising future in concert ticket allocation! They sure as hell need somebody!

Tonight's dinner:

Risotto di Barolo (actually made with Merlot; needs must)

Arista di Maiale, with the Pomiane Tomates a la Creme

Pear and Peach Tarts.

Monday 18 June 2007

Recipe: Lapin au Moutarde, served with Ginger-glazed Pears

This combination is unexpected, but works well.

For Five.

The Rabbit:

Ingredients: 1 Rabbit, cut into serving pieces (you need quite a mature Rabbit for this dish, with a good amount of meat on it); 2 cloves Garlic; 4 Shallots, halved; 150g Lardons; 3 Onions, thinly sliced; 120g Dijon Mustard; 350 ml White Wine; Bouquet Garni; 2 Egg Yolks; 250 ml Double Cream; pinch of Nutmeg.


1. Pre-heat the Oven to 150 degrees C.

2. In a heavy frying pan, brown the Lardons and remove them to a heavy Casserole. In the fat left from the Lardons, thoroughly brown the Rabbit pieces on all sides - this may take five minutes or so, over high heat (add a little oil or fat if the pieces are beginning to stick). Remove the Rabbit pieces to the Casserole.

3. Add to the frying pan the Garlic, Shallots and Onions. Cook for six to eight minutes, until the vegetables have collapsed and are just starting to colour. Transfer these also to the casserole, then clean out the frying pan with some of the White Wine, bubbling it over high heat and scraping up the cooking residue from the base of the pan. Add this liquid to the casserole, along with 40g of Mustard and the remainder of the Wine (it doesn't matter if the Rabbit pieces are not covered, as long as the casserole is heavy, with a good-fitting lid). Season with Salt & Pepper.

4. Place the casserole, covered, in the pre-heated oven, and cook for two hours. Turn the pieces a couple of times during this period. Once cooked, remove the dish from the oven and let it cool down.

5. Half an hour or so before serving, remove the pieces of Rabbit from the casserole, and strain the cooking liquid. Discard the vegetables and Lardons. Reduce the cooking liquid over high heat until you have about 250 ml. Return the Rabbit to the pan and gently reheat it, covered in the oven, while you make the veloute sauce: mix the Yolks, Nutmeg, and the remaining 80g of Mustard with the cream; add 50 ml of hot cooking liquid, and whisk to blend, then return this to the remainder of the cooking liquid; whisk thoroughly to incorporate, then cook in a double boiler for ten minutes or so, until it thickens to coating consistency.

Serve the re-heated Rabbit Pieces coated with a spoonful of sauce, and half a Ginger-glazed pear.

Glazed Pears:

Ingredients: 3 medium sized Pears, peeled, halved and cored; 2 tablespoons fresh Ginger, peeled and very finely chopped; 50g Sugar; 150 ml White Wine; 250 ml Chicken Stock.


1. Place the peeled Pear halves cut-side down in a buttered baking dish. Heat all the other ingredients together to boil, then spoon this over the Pear halves.

2. Cook for half an hour in an oven pre-heated to 190 degrees C. Spoon the Sauce over the Pears frequently during this time. By the end of the cooking period, the liquid should have reduced to a glaze.

Both the Rabbit and the Pears in this recipe can be cooked and gently re-heated a day or so later. In fact, the Rabbit benefits significantly from being re-heated, and can even be cooked as much as a week before eating, as long as it is well refrigerated for that period, and then returned to room temperature before going back in the oven. The Pears will be fine for a couple of days, but probably not for much longer.

Sunday 17 June 2007

San Ranieri's Day......

June 16th. And since he was a twelfth century son of Pisa, and is now the town's patron saint, his Day is the excuse every year for a luminara, when all the buildings along the river between the Fortezza Bridge and the Guelph Tower are festooned with hundreds of thousands of candles, and the evening finishes with a display of fireworks from behind the Guelph Tower that leaves everybody reeling!

Ranieri was one of those workaday saints - more social worker then miracle worker, who gave all his riches to the poor and proceeded to do good works in general thereafter. None of the fun stuff like levitations or raising incurables from their deathbeds. He now lies entombed in a glass sarcophagus half way up the back wall of the South Transept in the Duomo - which I find a slightly creepy concept on occasion when attending one of the autumnal Anima Mundi Concerts, and have my back to the great man's beatific gaze......

The Brancolis came down for the occasion, so we repeated a few of the Masterchef 2007 recipes, and gave them Langoustines in Vanilla, followed by Saltimbocca alla romana (along with Tomates a la Creme, from Doctor Pomiane himself), and then Peaches in Pistachio Cream. Having polished off a decent bottle of Champagne, in honour of the occasion (and all agreed what a splendid change it made from Prosecco!), we sauntered down to the Lungarno at dusk, to watch the lighting up process, as daylight faded and was overtaken by the myriad flickering lights as far down the river as the eye could see. Magical. Town was buzzing, with street parties everywhere, and the Lungarni closed to traffic and turned over instead to all the trappings of Carnival.

The idea was that we'd be out again after dinner in good time for the fireworks. As it was, we were so engrossed in sampling and discussing the merits of the first bottle of Chateau Brancoli 2006 that we entirely forgot the time, and ended up scurrying back down to the river only after we'd been alerted by the first few explosions. The fireworks were excellent - as was the wine!

Tonight's Dinner:

Ravioli of Agrumi (oranges and lemons), with a sauce of gamberi in butter.

Fiorentina alla brace. With Rocket and Parmesan.

Cherries poached in syrup, then chilled with fresh Mint.