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...)