Saturday 21 July 2007

Recipe: Fig & Quince Tarts

One of the pleasures of the past couple of weeks in Italy was the arrival in the market of the boxes of green and purple figs which are such a transient and decadent pleasure at this time of year! I never know exactly when they're going to appear, and even once they have, you can't be certain of them being available today just because they were yesterday. As Anna's cousin shrugged the other day when I asked in vain for some, "Who knows? Some days the Contadine bring them in, if they've picked them....and others they don't....." It's an entirely opportunistic process: if they're there, grab them - but don't ever take it for granted that they will be and over-optimistically plan your menu accordingly!

I'm not sure figs actually call for 'recipes' so much as presentational methods. Figs are, without question, sublime things in and of themselves. The following is one such presentational method - but bear in mind that the combination of fresh figs with Cointreau is excellent, and should be remembered for whenever you find fresh figs available......

For two.

Ingredients: 3 ripe, medium sized fresh green Figs; 2 generous tablespoons Cointreau; 2 sheets Phyllo Pastry, each approx. 12" x 6"; 1 oz Butter; 2 tablespoons Quince Jelly (or quince paste, if you can get it; I was lucky enough to be given a supply for Christmas last year by my Godson, proudly presented as home-made).

1. Slice the Figs thinly, place in a shallow bowl, and pour the Cointreau over the slices. Leave to macerate for several hours.

2. Melt the butter, and use it with the Phyllo to make two individual pastry shells, baked to a fine crispness.

3. Drain the sliced Figs, and pour the macerating liquid into a small saucepan. Divide the Fig slices between the two pastry shells.

4. To the liquid in the pan add the quince paste or jelly, and stir over medium heat until the whole mixture is liquid and of a thick-but-pourable consistency. Gently pour over the sliced Figs in the pastry shells, and leave to go cold before serving.

A generous spoonful of cream beaten stiffly with the contents scraped out of a vanilla pod goes very well with this!

Friday 20 July 2007

Death by a Thousand Cuts.......

Prurient interest took us once more to Whole Foods Market in Kensington, this morning.....either to see whether they had woken up, smelt the coffee and actually done something about the state of things in Denmark, or - as I thought more likely - to look for subtle signs of retrenchment in the face of a marked absence of customers actually trying to buy anything......!

No prizes for guessing what we found.

If somebody were in search of a nice quiet oasis of calm in Central London, suitable for a nap, or to settle down and read War & Peace, or merely to drift gently through the morning in unruffled peace, then this would definitely be the place for them. Empty aisles....soothing music....and not a Stepford Wife in a floppy hat anywhere in sight cluttering the place up. Certainly not the ker-ching of a cash register to disturb the yogic calm. At 10.30 on a Friday morning, the banks of cash registers were largely unmanned, apart from a few checkout staff chatting amongst themselves. And justifiably so, since there wasn't a single customer buying anything. Not. One.

It is awe-inspiring that anybody can get something quite so jaw-droppingly wrong as the people who are behind this project. And it really does inspire awe, to watch a business which is quite obviously haemorrhaging money in this way, and appears to be trying to smile blithely through the process. The thousand cuts are there to see if you look closely enough: some of the chiller cabinets intended for meat have been given over to bottles of beer (which don't have the same limited shelf-life), the Soup dispensers are empty beneath their gleaming chrome lids, as are half of the containers of the serve-yourself traiteur offering. Outside, a notice frenetically advertises a heavily discounted happy hour in the cheerless watering hole upstairs that they've inappropriately named The Bramley.........I can't be certain, but I suspect there were fewer staff around than before.

What should they do? Firstly recognise that they've got it wrong, and organise a re-launch as soon as they can. Re-vamp the prices (downwards), and certainly launch a PR offensive to address the general perception that whatever they've got it's cheaper somewhere else! And they need a face to hang the whole process on - much as Sainsbury's have done with the ever cheerful Jamie Oliver (who I find intensely irritating, but it clearly works). The curvacious Nigella would be perfect........

Will they do it? I doubt it. The death throes are going to be painful to watch.......

Tonight's Dinner:

Beef & Porcini Strudel

Skate in Sherry Sauce, with Fried Capers

Poached Peaches filled with Raspberry Cream

Thursday 19 July 2007


Especially for Sylvia P. I've included the image on the left of an egg dish (see comments after the Chocolate Souffle post...). Although I did find the idea of a souffle made in an egg-cup rather charming, in a sort of Lorna Wing or Alison Price kind of way......
In retrieving the image, I became slightly intrigued about the 'why' of an egg-dish, and made the foolish mistake of looking it up on Wikipedia. Bad idea! Forty minutes later I was absolutely none the wiser on the evolution of the egg-dish, but had collected loads of useless trivia on how to cook hundred-year-old eggs, as well - I'm not sure why - as a list of contemporary English words which were originally derived from Persian! What a waste of time! In fact, I suspect the origin of egg-dishes is nothing more complicated than the fact that they are the right shape and size for gently baking eggs over a slice of ham or a layer of tomatoes......Personally, I use them most often for making individual clafoutis. Definitely French in origin, and most often viewed in use in books by Raymond Blanc.

On an entirely different subject, in the plane yesterday I was reading a column in the paper by somebody called Xanthe Clay - not somebody I'd come across before, but I may be revealing my appalling ignorance in confessing as much. Ms Clay was revisiting that old chestnut of the appropriate wine to be used in cooking - with the basic approach being 'don't cook with anything you wouldn't be happy to drink yourself' - and unless you're planning on serving premier cru, then there's no more promising combination than to use the same wine in the food that you intend subsequently to serve with it. Thus far I was with her. We parted company at the point where she talked about using an entire bottle of Pinot Grigio in preparing some Ossobucci (far too much liquid, unless cooking for an entire regiment in one go), and at her statement that one should always serve the wine at dinner that has been brought along by the guests, I gave up on her entirely. Since (a) I don't broadcast the menu in advance, and so the choice of dinner-gift wine has been made entirely independently of the food to be served, and (b) unless doing something carefully planned like a vertical tasting of different wines which are specifically related in some way, then the idea of serving different bottles within the space of one course seems clumsy at best and certainly ill-advised. Maybe - unlike mine - Xanthe Clay's guests arrive each clutching no less then three bottles of the same vintage which case, I entirely understand - and they would be welcome here at any time!!

Tonight's dinner:

Sauteed Chicken Livers with a Lambs Lettuce Salad.

Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding (Welcome back to Blighty!)

Apricot and Marsala Posset

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Recipe: Egg-White-Only Chocolate Souffle

I'm not entirely sure why - collateral damage, I suppose, from the egg yolk surplus needed for Hollandaise, Creme Patissiere, Custards, Ice Creams, etc - but there is always an egg-white surplus in my fridge (in all my fridges, to be exact, in both countries!), and I'm forever in search of ways of putting it to good use. Not always with success. Egg-White Cheese Souffle works well, and there are a few sorbets I can think of that use more whites than yolks (Grapefruit and Pear, particularly), but for the most part it's an uphill struggle. Egg white frittata is an abomination, IMHO, and the other day I tried a Hazan recipe for Apple Timbale that made serious inroads into the EW mountain - no good.........two and two didn't even make four. It was food for people with no teeth and a fondness for very sweet things (possibly not unrelated).

This yolkless Chocolate Souffle recipe definitely makes more than four, however, and has become one of my standard responses to What the Hell are we going to have for Dessert Tonight, when it's already 8 p.m and I haven't yet given the matter any thought......

For Two:

Ingredients: 50g plain chocolate: 4 Egg Whites; 2 oz sugar (or equivalent volume sweetener); 1 teaspoon Praline Paste (if you have it; if not it won't matter if you leave it out.)


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

2. Melt the Chocolate together with the Praline Paste in a zimmertopf or in a bowl over hot water.

3. Whisk the Egg Whites until firm, then add the sugar/sweetener and continue to whisk until stiff.

4. Stir a little of the beaten Egg White into the melted Chocolate to lighten it, then fold the Chocolate mixture back into the body of the beaten Egg White. Divide this mixture between two greased ramekins*, and bake in the pre-heated oven for eight minutes, until risen and the surfaces appear dry and as though they are about to break open.

* recently, I've taken to using individual egg dishes rather than ramekins for this recipe. They work well, and arguably actually better than ramekins.

Monday 16 July 2007

Back from the brink...

....of disaster! Gremlins in the computer software meant that I've been hors de combat (blogwise) for several days, and it was only due to judicious action on the part of the Technical Department, and a painstakingly detailed seventeen hour (!) intervention using something called BitDefender - available for free on the Web, and highly recommended - that I'm here now. It seemed a close-run thing......

Fortunately, gremlin activity didn't reach as far as the kitchen, and all has been pottering on much as normal in that department. Sarah passed by for a night, on Thursday, having spent a week at Peralta, just above Camaiore, where she'd been enjoying theatrical Wagneresque thunderstorms in the hills, while we - all of twenty minutes away - were continuing to bask in glorious sunshine.....In fact, basking to such an extent that I wouldn't actually mind a Wagneresque thunderstorm, for a change!

Louisa came for supper when Sarah was here, and we sat late on the terrace, by candlelight, enjoying the stillness of the summer's night. She brought a bottle of Sardinian wine - which I thought unusual, as I've not really come across Sardinian wine before, which Louisa in turn thought was strange, as she clearly drinks little else. The label was Terre Bianche, and although the grape wasn't identified, I think it was probably a Chardonnay. Deliciously full at first taste, but a bit lacking on follow-through. Technical Department and I drank it on Saturday, to accompany a plate of griddled triglie, which we were having as a late supper after the heat of the day.

Before departing on Friday, Sarah treated us to lunch at Casa Mia - somewhere which had slightly fallen off the radar and we hadn't been for a couple of years or more, probably because it's some distance away, towards the end of the Medici aqueduct. It's a bizarre place, but with excellent food! A suburban twenties bungalow where the interior has been stripped out and re-fitted with what look like the contents of an aristocratic clear-out sometime after the last war - the main dining room is dominated by two gloriously battered neo-classical chandeliers that must have graced a noble Pisano ballroom at around the time that Napoleon was passing through!

Lunch. Was. Excellent! Sarah and the Technical Dept went the Mare route, and I opted for Terra. Many, many courses and several bottles of very good house white later, and we staggered out into the afternoon sunshine. Mine host - whose house it really is, by the way, and in the hallway are displayed photographs of him playing in the garden as a small child, several decades (plus) ago - clearly thought we were mad to be walking anywhere in that heat, but in fact we needed to walk some of it off, even before collapsing into post-prandial siesta.....

Sarah managed to rouse herself - just - in time to head off to the airport for her flight to London, but I confess that we remained sufficiently pole-axed that we didn't make it to the Duomo for that evening's performance of Verdi's Requiem, which had been the previous intention. Oh, well - you can't have everything!

Tonight's Dinner:

Quiche Lorraine (Pomiane version - light and delicious!)

Petto di Pollo, in Capers and Lemon Juice, with an Umido of Peppers, Courgettes and Basil.

Egg-white-only Chocolate Souffle.