Saturday 26 January 2008

A Gardening Interlude....

Rising far too late for a Saturday morning, I emerged from the house into a glorious mid-winter's day, racing to catch up with the army of matrons whose weekly habit it is to lay waste to the Pisan food shops at crack of dawn, before retiring victorious, shopping bags bursting with loot. Needless to say, I was too late, and found only a few tired roses left at the flower stall on Borgo Stretto, and knew for sure I was on a hiding to nothing in my hope of getting Tuna Steaks at the fishmongers....And this was all before 9.45 in the morning!
In the end, this was one of those occasions when I just had to revise the weekend's menu plans on the hoof, in line with what I found was still available to, it will be Swordfish Steaks this evening (cooked à la Boulestin, with Cream and Marsala), preceded by Beef & Porcini Strudel.

An absolutely beautiful day! Completely still, with a clear, cloudless and intensely blue sky. Cerulean, maybe? The perfect day for getting the garden into shape, and for catching up with all the outdoor chores which should have been done over Christmas, but weren't.

One of the wonderful things about a garden in Italy is that things shut down for winter for so short a period that it's almost unnoticeable. Already the daffodils are budding, the Japanese Camellia is in bloom, the South Pergola is festooned with Urophylla blossom, and the narcissus and Hyacinths are sprouting enthusiastically - as are the freesias (but, then, they seem to follow such an erratic flowering timetable that I hesitate to guess whether they're early or late). The Magnolia Stellata are both budding almost obscenely, and will be in flower shortly, and the hellebores are blooming quietly, in their usual understated fashion.....

And so: I spent the morning hacking back the Passion flower on the North Wall - a great big brute of a plant, rather inappropriately named 'Charlotte Eliot', which flowers generously right the way through from late April until the end of October - and clearing around the rock cranesbills and the dwarf agapanthus in the bed below. I noticed in the process that the lemon crop is currently quite abundant, and so gathered a bowlful of lemons at the same time.
Then, as the sun moved round and the East Wall warmed up, I finally tackled the job I've been putting off and putting off for ages: giving the Pomegranate Tree its annual haircut. My second-most-loathed garden chore (pruning the Lavender beds is most loathed of all), hacking back the Pomegranate Tree invariably generates both neck and back-ache, and involves many, many scratches (Pomegranate branches are very prickly) as well as the airing of a great number of anglo-saxon expletives along the way. Finally, it was over - until this time next year, at any rate - and not before time, as the sun had now moved off the garden entirely and although the back of the Palazzo Ruschi was still bathed in sunlight, standing there in shirt-sleeves suddenly felt very end-of-January-ish. Back indoors, to make a Lemon and Almond Cake and a Chicken Liver Terrine......for no particular purpose beyond, just because....

Tonight's Dinner:

Beef & Porcini Strudel.

Swordfish Steaks, in Cream and Marsala Sauce, with Broccoli, fresh from the market.

Mango Soufflé Glacé.

Friday 25 January 2008

Recipe: Andalusian Tarts

Apples and Oranges aren't an obvious combination outside any half-decent fruit bowl, and I'm not quite sure why this version works as well as it does. A layer of Orange flesh on top of a thick Apple purée, assembled and then given a short, sharp blast of heat - just enough to concentrate the juice in the Orange slices.
Somehow the citrus flavour lifts the Apple purée from being nursery food, and the Apple gives an extra, more sophisticated dimension to the Orange. Easily prepared in advance to final cooking stage, this is certainly good enough for a dinner party, and is best served still warm. If you don't want to be bothered with making a sugar-heavy glaze for the final step - as I sometimes don't - then I find merely brushing the top just before serving with a little Vedrenne liqeuer (either Griotte or Peche de Vignes) works pretty well as an alternative.

For two individual tarts:

Ingredients: 2 sheets Phyllo Pastry, 12" x 6" each; 4 0z Butter; 3 tablespoons slivered Almonds; 4 medium eating Apples; 3 tablespoons Apricot Jam; 3 tablespoons Sugar (or Splenda); grated rind of a small Lemon; 1 teaspoon ground Cinnamon; 1 tablespoon Cognac; 2 medium sized sweet Oranges (seedless, by preference; blood Orange if you like). For the optional glaze: 3 tablespoons Apricot Jam; 1 tablespoon Lemon Juice.


1. Use the Phyllo and 1 oz of the Butter to make two Phyllo Pastry shells; as you construct each shell, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of slivered almonds between the two layers of Phyllo within each tart tin - this not only introduces an almond flavour into the finished tarts, but gives a splendid crunch to the base of the shells. Blind-bake and then finish the shells until they are uniformly golden in colour. Set aside.

2. Peel, core and roughly chop the Apples. Cook in a covered pan over low heat for about twenty minutes, until they have collapsed. Add the remaining Butter, Cinnamon, Lemon Rind, Cognac, and Sugar (or Splenda), raise the heat under the pan and cook, stirring, for a further ten to fifteen minutes until the mixture is quite thick (don't turn your back on it - it will burn in an instant if unwatched!).

3. Remove the skin and pith in its entirety from the Oranges, then carefully cut the segments away from the membrane.

4. Divide the Apple Purée between the two pastry shells, then arrange the Orange segments on top in either a concentric or radial pattern. Bake for fifteen minutes in a 200 degree C oven. Lightly toast the remaining slivered Almonds at the same time.

5. Glaze the tarts by boiling together the Apricot Jam and Lemon Juice, and then sieve before brushing carefully over the slices of Orange. Sprinkle with pieces of toasted slivered Almond.

Serve warm.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Le Café Anglais - the original.......

Founded in 1815, on the corner of Rue Gramont and the Boulevard des Italiens, the original Café Anglais was one of the restaurant high-spots of nineteenth century Paris. Probably its most famous moment was the so-called 'Dinner of the Three Emperors' in June 1867, when Chef Adolphe Dugléré served up a sixteen course repast for a cozy tête-à-tête between the Emperor of Russia, the Tsarevitch, the King of Prussia, and Bismarck. A cheerful little gathering, no doubt. I couldn't help but note that the twelfth dish on the menu was Ortolans, the traditional method for eating which involves placing a napkin over one's head (don't ask me why), and chewing the undrawn birds whole - with only the beak left sticking out of the diner's mouth - for the duration of fifteen minutes! Quite apart from the dubious culinary and ethical aspects of the process, the image conjured up of this particular occasion is fairly surreal: several crowned heads of Europe, napkins akimbo, and no sound for a quarter of an hour but that of tortured chewing, and all while trying to breathe at the same time....

Predominantly a series of private dining rooms of varying scale and grandeur, the Café Anglais boasted the largest and most splendid private room in Paris at that period, 'Le Grand Seize', the paneling from which can still be seen at Le Tour d'Argent, along with the dinner service on which their imperial majesties dined in 1867. When, in 1913, the owner of the Tour d'Argent married the daughter of the owner of the Café Anglais, she brought with her not only those particular chattels, but also the remnants of the Café Anglais cellar, which seems not a bad deal at all. Particularly when you consider that the wines listed at the dinner in 1867 included a Madeira from 1812, and a Château Margaux and a Château d'Yquem both from 1847.....for the sake of any or all of which I'd quite happily sit, looking ridiculous, with a napkin on my head for the space of fifteen minutes! Longer, even, come to think of it.....

Less factually correct, but these days practically as noteworthy in the gastronomic firmament, is the fact that the eponymous heroine of Babette's Feast, was described by the author as having worked at the Café Anglais and of having learned her trade at the apron strings of Monsieur Dugléré. For all those many, many people (me included) who have tried to replicate the feast, that little snippet would definitely have some kind of frisson - although I think that when we did it, we could have done with a little of the dowry assistance, as well, as we had to slip an entire century in the choice of vintage of Clos de Vougeot!

And so, what might Monsieur Dugléré make of the modern incarnation of the Café Anglais? I imagine he'd be pretty impressed by the kitchen set-up, and blown away by the prices (he was selling, not buying, after all) ; the menu, he would probably find completely incomprehensible - significantly the result of changing tastes and fashions, I suppose - but I fear his opinion of the general level of skill and experience in the kitchen would be quite unprintable. Woefully basic, for the most part......and I wonder if any of the modern kitchen crew would have achieved even bottle-washing status in the Dugléré kingdom...

I've no idea where the Dugléré family plot might be, but I suspect that wherever it is local seismologists should take note. I suspect he's down there, spinning at a rate of knots!

Tonight's Dinner:

Tarts of Roast Capsicums, Basil and Onion.

Cod, in Parma Ham, with lemon-scented Beluga Lentils.

Posset of Apricots and Marsala.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Recipe: Boeuf Stroganoff

First cousin to a stir-fry, this is another of those dishes where there are as many different versions are there are sources to consult. The basics are simple: quickly sautéed strips of beef in a reduced cream and paprika sauce. Some versions include mushrooms, others onion and some tomato concentrate. Personally I prefer it without any of these.
Strangely, though, one element constant to all the versions I found- which makes absolutely no sense to me - is that they are without exception written back to front i.e that the meat is cooked first and then kept warm while the sauce is made. This is bonkers! Cooking the beef only takes a minute, but making the sauce will take 5-10 minutes, or longer, depending on the power of your burners, during which time the tender strips of beef are merely getting dry in a warming oven.
My preference is to make the sauce first, make sure it is up to scratch and have it ready for when it is time to stir-fry the beef. Not only does this produce a better result, but is eminently practical for entertaining, when the sauce and the sliced meat can be prepared in advance, and thus you are away from your guests for only a minimal amount of time.

For four.

Ingredients: 750g Beef Fillet, trimmed (you can use Sirloin or Rump instead, or even Skirt); 30g unsalted Butter; 60g chopped Shallots; 100ml dry White Wine or Vermouth; 50ml Cognac; 200ml Veal or Chicken Stock; 300ml Cream (Crème fraiche or sour cream or Greek Yoghurt is best - the sauce should not be sweet); 2 tablespoons Sweet Paprika; juice of 1/2 Lemon (NB not ne, don't bother with this if you are using Sour Cream); Salt and Pepper; 60g clarified Butter*; chopped Parsley, for garnish


1. Sauté the Shallots in Butter until thoroughly wilted but not coloured. Add all the liquids and reduce to a coating consistency.

2. Dissolve the Paprika in a little sauce to break down any lumps, then add this back into the sauce in the pan and stir thoroughly. Taste for seasoning. Add a little lemon if the cream you are using is neither of the three types mentioned above.

If the sauce is going to sit for a long time, cover it with a piece of cling film to stop a skin forming.

3. Cut the Beef into strips 5cm x 5mm x 5mm.
NB1: The long side of the strip should be cut across the grain of the meat; if you cut with the grain, the meat can end up undesirably chewy.)
NB2: It helps in cutting if the meat is ice cold - achieved by leaving it in the freezer for 15 minutes or so before slicing.
NB3: I then spread all the pieces out onto a length of greaseproof paper, roll it up, and put it in the 'fridge or freezer. When I am ready, I unroll the paper and slide all the pieces into the pan. Cold meat takes longer to cook, so this gives you a little longer to sear and brown the outside while keeping the inside rare.

At this point, you can set the prepared sauce and Beef aside for several hours, until time for the final cooking and assembly.

4. Heat a large frying pan or wok until very hot. Add the clarified Butter, then add the meat and seal it all over very quickly for about a minute. At this stage, the meat must still be rare inside. Tip the meat into a colander placed over a plate. Season it with salt and black pepper. Wipe the pan out with kitchen paper to remove any oil or debris.

5. Lower the heat to medium. Add the prepared sauce to the pan and quickly bring just to the boil. Turn the heat to low. Return the meat to the pan, stir to coat with sauce and heat through for a few seconds. Garnish and serve at once on hot plates.

Ideally the Beef should still be medium rare and juicy, but if you prefer Beef well done, just cook it a little longer in the sauce.

This is best with plain rice, puréed potatoes or noodles.

* To clarify a small quantity of Butter like this quickly, put 100gms of butter in a tall plastic jug and microwave only until you hear the Butter just beginning to pop or splutter. Stop at once. Wait for a few seconds, if the Butter is not liquid, give it a second dose. Let it settle and pour off the clarified Butter you need into your pan, leaving the milk solids behind: you can add these to something else like mashed Potato or any other cooked vegetable. You need to be quick on the draw in this process: if the Butter heats too long, it can spit all over the place. You can of course use Oil, but Butter tastes better.

Monday 21 January 2008

Le Café Anglais....

To dinner, at Rowley Leigh's new venture in Bayswater, which seems to have been so widely reviewed recently that I wonder if anywhere else has opened in the past few weeks - leaving no other options for the food journo's to get their teeth into.

I have mixed feelings about Rowley Leigh. I've always liked Kensington Place - where he made his name and ruled the roost for quite a few years: an unpretentious menu (very good quality, elbows-out eating, essentially), and a good value wine list, well chosen and sensibly priced. RL's weekly column in the FT, on the other hand, I find pompous and self-important, and the recipes are in general rather silly - or at least they were until the point when I decided to stop reading him, since I was just getting irritated by it. IMHO he'd do much better to stay in the Kitchen, and stick with the saucepans....

And so.....Le Café Anglais. In appearance, it resembles the first-class restaurant on a luxury liner, large and sleek, with much chrome and white nappery and uniformed staff in evidence. Foolishly taking a seat on the banquette side of the table, though, my heart sank along with my centre of gravity as I realised they'd got the heights of the banquettes wrong, and I felt as though I were ten years old once more, with the need for a large cushion and a couple of telephone directories in order to be the right height to have my hair cut! An unnerving sensation, after all these years.....

The menu didn't make me feel a lot happier - although the Kir that accompanied it was perfectly made, with not too much Cassis, as is so often the case.
In fact, I struggled with the menu. As we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, I tried in vain to find anything amongst the First Course selection that seemed at all interesting: three different kinds of soup didn't do it for me, and nor did the offer of a selection of omelettes. A.A. Gill had warned everybody off the Pike Boudin; Parma Ham with Quince Jelly at twelve quid a pop didn't seem much of an argument; and I was increasingly resigned to the prospect of Potato Salad with Truffles.....when Gina had the brainwave of opting instead for a generous selection from the list of Hors d'Oeuvres. An inspired idea, since not only were the latter a fraction the price of the former, but the list had clearly been put together by somebody with ten times as much imagination. We ended up with Salsify Tempura (light as air); Pork Rillettes (delicious); Anchovy Toast, with Parmesan Custard (the Platonic form of Welsh Rarebit - definitely a nickable idea); and some Octopus, and a dish of braised fish of some kind, both of which were finished before they made it to my side of the table - so I presume the other side of the table had thought they were really rather good.

Second Course dishes went back to being rather dull, though. I know the place positions itself as a 'rotisserie', and so could be forgiven for the rather deadening list of roast Lamb, roast Duck, roast Beef, roast Chicken.......but it does nothing to quicken the pulse in reading it. My Beef was perfectly ok - although I suspect that they've adopted a cooking method whereby the meat is par-cooked in advance - possibly by poaching it - and then finished on the rotisserie just before serving. I can't think what else explains the unusually even pinkness throughout each slice, and I have to say that although the quality of the meat was good, the way it had been cooked avoided improving its personality in any way.

The wine list, on the other hand, I liked. And yes, we quite happily partook - no point in wearing hair-shirts in public. We started with an excellent bottle of Grüner Veltliner from Birgit Eichinger; an austrian wine, the grape is developed from the traminer (which explains why the wine has all of the best characteristics of a gewürztraminer, but without the scent). And we then moved on to a rather good Morellino di Scansano - fruity and rounded - which is increasingly becoming our House Red in Italy; full-bodied, with a good strong character, but without the assertiveness of the super-tuscans (which can become a bit tiresome after a while, frankly).

It didn't occur to anybody to think about a dessert, although we happily ploughed into another bottle of Morellino to round off the evening - and only realised as we finished it that the room had emptied around us, and the staff were clearly anxious to go home. Which I think is probably a fair indication that we'd had a good time....

All-told, I think I'd recommend the place - although with the caveat that you need to work at the menu with care. It would be all too easy to have a very dull and extremely over-priced meal at Le Café Anglais, if you weren't concentrating. Oh, and it might be a good idea to take along with you a couple of old telephone directories, as well, if you don't want to sit with your chin resting on the tablecloth!

Tonight's Dinner:

Garlic Prawns.

Boeuf Stroganoff, with Green Beans

Andalusian Tarts.

Sunday 20 January 2008

Recipe: Salmon and Lemon Fishcakes

Unusually, this is a dish which can be constructed and then cooked in either of two ways, to significantly different effect. Steamed, the texture is soft, and the flavours of the herbs and of the sauces within the mixture are much more pronounced, whereas frying the fishcakes gives a crisp outer shell, which you break through to get at the flavours within. To my mind, either way is excellent....

For four.

Ingredients: 450g Salmon Fillet, skinned; 1 tablespoon Thai Fish Sauce*; 2 tablespoons Light Soy Sauce; 1 teaspoon Ground Ginger; 1 tablespoon Lemon Juice; scant teaspoon fresh Lemon Thyme; 1 generous tablespoon fresh Coriander, chopped; 1 Egg Yolk; seasoning, to taste.

*A modern version of Garum, the sauce so beloved of the ancient romans; made from anchovies, salt and sugar, this is the fermented liquid thrown off by the combination - and I think the commercially-produced product available these days must then be somewhat 'tidied up' for modern palates; years ago, in Greece, we made some Garum as an experiment, and the end result was enough to make anybody within smelling distance take to the hills! If you can't find Thai Fish Sauce for this recipe, I suppose you could try substituting finely chopped anchovies, but I suspect the end result would miss some of the edge that the sauce gives it.


1. Finely chop the Salmon Fillet, either by hand, or else very carefully in the food processor (but be sure not to reduce it to a mush, if you do so)

2. Add the chopped Salmon to all the other ingredients, and mix thoroughly.

3. Divide the mixture into four, and shape each piece into a ball which you then flatten into a patty shape, tidying the edges as you do so.

4. Either Steam the fishcakes over boiling water for about four minutes, or else dredge lightly with Flour and fry in Olive Oil for about three minutes on each side (taking care as you turn them, to minimise the amount of 'drop-off' from the edges of the fishcakes.