Saturday 2 February 2008

Recipe: Apple Tart from the Aosta Valley

A typical example of the sort of dish where the origins probably date far back - this one includes both honey and bitter orange, which to me suggests a recipe of venerable age. The preferred apples in this instance are Renette Franche, one of the oldest and grandest of apples, which can still be found in quantity in the Aosta Valley; small and intensely flavoured, these are traditionally the sort of apples that would be picked before being entirely ripe and then stored in an apple loft for consumption through the winter months. A Cox's pippin is a good substitute, and if you can't find those, then opt for something like 'Gala' or 'Pink Lady' instead - you want an apple that will cook through but still retain its shape, rather than going to mush. Above all, avoid anything like Golden Delicious, which is merely sweet and pappy!

For one 26 cm diameter Tart.

Ingredients: 6-10 apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks (if the apples are quite large, you'll probably need only five in practice); 2 bitter Oranges (or, if bitter Oranges aren't available, use 1 normal Orange plus 1 Lemon, instead, along with a couple of tablespoons of any orange liqueur such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier); 120g clear Honey; Shortcrust Pastry, made with 8 oz Butter, 10 oz Plain Flour, a pinch of Salt, and 50 ml of Cold Water; 1 Egg White, beaten with a fork just to break it up.


1. Make the Pastry as follows (best done the day before you want to use it, to allow it to rest sufficiently in the fridge before being rolled out):

- Freeze the butter in the freezer until it is rock hard. This is imperative.
- Grate the butter straight from the freezer using the grater disc on the food processor; add the remaining dry ingredients to the processor bowl and process using the blade until it has resolved itself into large flakes.
- Add water in very small increments through the top opening, whilst the processor is running. Be very careful not to add too much.
- As soon as enough water has been added, the mixture will form itself into one large solid lump and will adhere to the blade as it goes round. Stop the processor at this point.
- Remove the pastry from the bowl and perform the fraisage - using just the heel of your palm, push the mixture six inches or so across the work surface in half a dozen or so bite-sized pieces, then gather them back together into a ball and wrap in cling film. Only do the fraisage once - the success of good pastry lies in limiting contact with your hands to a bare minimum, as otherwise the heat from your hands will cause the butter to melt within the pastry, and it will lose its shape as it cooks.
- Preferably leave the pastry to rest in the fridge for 24 hours before rolling it out for use - again, this allows it to relax, and reduces the risk of it sliding out of shape or shrinking as it cooks.

2. Once the Pastry has rested, use 2/3 of it to roll out and line the base and sides of a greased 26cm spring-form tin; prick the base of the pastry all over with a fork and let it rest again in the fridge for about half an hour.

3. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

4. Meanwhile, combine in a pan the Honey, chopped Apples, and either the rind and juice of the 2 bitter Oranges, or else the rind and juice of the Orange and Lemon, along with the Orange Liqueur. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the apple is cooked through - this should take about twenty minutes or so.

5. Line the tart shell with a piece of foil, weight it and blind-bake it, ten minutes with the weights in and another ten minutes after they've been removed, to get a crisp and golden base to the tart.

6. Spread the Apple mixture in the tart shell. Roll out the remaining pastry, and use it to make a lattice over the Apple filling. Brush the lattice with Egg White, and bake for 30 minutes in the pre-heated oven.

Serve warm or cold, with either vanilla ice cream or a spoonful of Crême Chantilly (cream beaten stiffly with a little vanilla essence and icing sugar)

Friday 1 February 2008

Food Archaeology.... quite a different thing from Food History. Although interesting in its own right, the latter lacks the dimension of discovery that gives to Food Archaeology its particular frisson. Food History is about facts: terrines and smoked meats and sausages having developed as methods of preserving food for consumption during long, barren winter months, for example - or the fact that the ancient Greeks used sylphium (now disappeared, I think) to flavour food that was probably past its best. Or the small detail that the arrival in Europe of tomatoes from South America shortly after 1492 radically altered the profiles of half a dozen national european cuisines within a lifetime or so......All of these things are interesting, valid, and factually correct - but , when all's said and done, a little two-dimensional.

Food Archaeology, on the other hand, is about discovery and about identifying relationships and connections - and in being so has a richness and a satisfying relevance for us today. What do I mean by it? Well, I suppose it has a number of aspects.....

In part, it's about worrying away at recipes to see where they've come from. Over time - long generations - recipes are repeatedly adapted and altered and revised to meet changing circumstances, such as the availability of particular ingredients, or the fact that people have moved on from using the communal oven at the village bakers to having a fully-equipped kitchen of their own. Often, some of the ingredients that have survived will be a clue to the great age of a particular recipe: the presence of honey, for example, usually indicates an origin at least before the general availability of refined sugar; or else certain spices in savoury dishes such as cloves or cinnamon will suggest a late-medieval provenance. The combination of particular ingredients is a sure sign of substitution having taken place at some point: whenever you find lemons and oranges in the same recipe, for example, you can be confident that the original version was for bitter oranges alone, and that the lemons have been introduced to offset the sweetness of the newer versions of orange that subsequently became prevalent in the market. And, then again, there are certain ingredients which have now somehow achieved 'premium' status on the grocers' shelves, but which were originally born of the direst necessity and poverty - pine-nuts, for example, and chestnut flour, both of which directly relate back to people's desperate wartime need for food from any source whatsoever. (And frankly, I'd need the wartime desperation once again for chestnut flour to have any place in my kitchen - the one time I made the unjustly-renowned Chestnut Flour Cake Castagnaccio, two half-consumed slices later and the remains of the thing was fed to the Pig!)

But the Food Archaeology thing can work in other ways, too. I recall once leafing through the pages of Apicius, the food-writer from Imperial Rome, and coming across a recipe that was indistinguishable from the delicious tyropitas (little phyllo-wrapped cheese pies) that you can find in any village bakers across Greece even today!
And there's the frisson - the sense of direct connection with other people in other times, and the ability to identify exactly with them in eating the same foods and finding them delicious in the same way. Even despite the fact that the World around us has altered out of all recognition. It's not unlike the idea of Christian churches having been built on the sites of pre-christian temples, which in turn had been built where previously pagans had had their sacred groves - the context has changed, but the underlying experience is still the same.....

And then, I suppose, there are other aspects of Food Archaeology, too, which are rapidly and inevitably being lost in our lifetimes. The bits which don't get written down, and which will disappear along with the people who practice them. Like the little old peasant woman in the village in Greece in the seventies who was demonstrating how to make avgolemono soup; as she stirred, she whistled gently to herself, and explained that this was necessary in order to ward off the evil eye, which would otherwise make the soup curdle. As her mother had taught her to do, and her mother in turn, right back until who knows when.....

For me, it's a particularly rich thread in Life's Rich Tapestry.

Tonight's Dinner:

Lentil Soup (no whistling)

Spezzatino alla Fiorentina; Fagiolini, sautéd in Butter with Cinnamon and Breadcrumbs.

Panna Cotta.

Thursday 31 January 2008

Recipe: Salmon & Tarragon Pie

Although this might sound like a complicated dish, it is actually quite straightforward, and probably the prep time needed from scratch until baking is no more than thirty minutes, if you're organised. The recipe is not unlike a quick-and-dirty version of Coulibiac, and - as with Coulibiac - benefits significantly from the fact that all of the different flavours are layered separately rather than mixed in together - with the result that you end up with a series of distinct flavour hits on the palate, all working with and against each other at the same time......Salmon, and Lemon, and Tarragon, and Mushrooms......delicious!

Being greedy, I would serve this as a starter - but it is substantial enough that it could also work as a main course, with the addition of an appropriate green vegetable. Even as a starter, though, it's light enough that it doesn't spoil the appetite for the courses to follow.

For two individual pies.

Ingredients: 3 sheets of Phyllo Pastry, each 6" x 12"; 8 oz Butter; 250g Salmon fillet, skinned; 100g Button Mushrooms; 1 tablespoon finely chopped Tarragon; grated rind of 1 Lemon; 4 fl oz Cream; 4 fl oz dry Vermouth; 2 Egg Whites, stiffly beaten; Salt & Pepper; a pinch of Nutmeg. Chopped Parsley & melted Butter, for serving.


1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. Using two of the Phyllo sheets and 1 oz of Butter, make two individual phyllo tart shells. Make sure you leave enough melted Butter in the pan to brush the third sheet of Phyllo at the end of construction of the pies, when you'll need it for the 'lids'. Leave the oven switched on after you take out the baked tart shells, as you'll need it later to bake the pies.

3. Finely chop the Mushrooms, and sauté gently in 1 oz Butter for about five minutes, along with a generous pinch of Salt.

4. Meanwhile, process 175g of the Salmon fillet, along with Cream, Vermouth, 6 oz Butter, nutmeg and seasoning to taste. Remove this mixture to a bowl, and fold in the beaten Egg Whites.

5. Divide half of the Salmon mixture between the two pastry shells, and top with a layer of chopped Tarragon and then a layer of grated Lemon rind (use all of the Tarragon and rind in doing this).

6. Finely slice the remaining Salmon fillet, and divide it between the two tarts, making a layer of sliced fillet in each one. On top of this layer, divide the remaining Salmon/Cream mixture, and then use the final sheet of Phyllo to top the pies. (Brush the Phyllo with melted Butter, then cut it in half and use each half to make a lid, working round and folding it in to fit the shape of the pie; cut a cross in the centre of each top, and fold back the corners to leave a small square hole in the Phyllo. If you have any melted Butter left, use it to brush the top of each pie.)

7. Bake 30 minutes in the pre-heated oven. Leave to cool down for ten minutes or so after you remove the pies from the oven, and serve warm, with a spoonful of melted Butter and chopped Parsley over each one..........and a glass of chilled Pouilly Fumé alongside!

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Cooking with Butter....

I know, even before I begin, that this is going to stimulate an 'enthusiastic' response in certain quarters. But the fact remains: I like Butter. I like eating it, I like cooking with it, I love the smell of things being fried in it.....and, frankly, I think it's had a rather a bum rap over the years....

Whenever it was that the demon Cholesterol first swam into view, I think it has much to answer for, in terms of the blight it generally casts - in many instances, perfectly unnecessarily - over the lives of the many. And despite the existence of the French, Cholesterol seems to have achieved a stranglehold over the minds of large swathes of the population.......not least the denizens of the medical profession (in certain parts of the western World, at any rate). And what, pray, have the French to do with Cholesterol, you ask? Well.....nothing. That's the point. Absolutely nothing. They don't have it. France is a cholesterol-free zone, despite the prevalence in french cooking of large quantities of Eggs, Cream and - yes - Butter. Zut, alors!

In a rather bad-tempered, mealy-mouthed way, 'experts' in the UK and the US have come to refer to this strange circumstance as 'The French Paradox', and over time have twisted themselves into the most bizarre contortions in their attempts to make sense of it. It's something to do with the French habit of drinking red wine, they maintain, or of eating Garlic......and my favourite of all was the assertion that it was all down to the consumption of Foie Gras, which clearly counteracts the development in the system of Cholesterol. Well, it's obvious, isn't it? In fact, I can feel the need to go in search of some, even as we speak, just to be on the safe side! (Why not cite accordion-playing, for good measure, or the fact that they wear berets, and those natty little blue-striped t-shirts? Seems about as logical.......)

When you throw into the mix the 'Transfat' corollary, then the picture becomes even more complicated. 'Transfat' is actually just another name for Margarine - that nasty, greasy substance that populated supermarket shelves in the seventies and eighties, which the manufacturers confidently presented as the 'healthy' alternative to Butter. Until it was discovered that Margarine is in fact rather bad for you, that is, and they all went very quiet about it. In many places, use of Transfats in cooking is now actually banned by law!

And why stop with 'The French Paradox'? What about the Greek, Spanish and Italian ones, while we're at it? The Butter-eating northern Italians are not less healthy then their Oil-eating neapolitan brothers; and the Oil-consuming Greeks and Spaniards, I contend, have no greater a health profile than you or me.....An hour's drive north of Pisa you suddenly break through the Butter-line, and everything which in Tuscany would be cooked in Oil is instead cooked in Butter (delicious!) - yet, miraculously, people aren't dropping like flies!

So........what's going on?

Shades of the WHO decree in the early nineties that it was a bad idea for a person to eat more than one egg per week - which they banged on about for ages, until they realised they'd actually misread the data and got the decimal point in the wrong place (whoops!.......) - could it be, could it possibly be, that the 'experts' have got it wrong? And that the supposed Cholesterol effect is the result of something else entirely (but that they're so convinced they're right, they aren't looking for it). And Butter, all along - like Dreyfus - has been an innocent victim?

I think it bears thinking about.

Tonight's Dinner:

Tuna Tartare.

Sea Bream, sautéed (in Butter!) with Mushrooms and White Wine.

Apple and Strawberry Strudel.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Recipe: Steamed Asparagus Mousse

Deceptively simple to make - it takes twenty minutes from start to finish - this starter is light and sophisticated, but with a beguiling flavour that definitely leaves you wanting more!

If you don't have a steamer and you're unimpressed by the thought of constructing a version of one from bits and pieces in the kitchen, then I imagine this would work just as well if you bake it for ten minutes in a hot oven in a bain marie that you've covered with foil (as in the Scallop Mousseline recipe). I haven't tried doing it this way, but common sense suggests it should work.

For Four.

Ingredients: 1 lb Asparagus; 1 oz Butter; Salt; 1 Egg + 1 Egg Yolk; 200 ml Cream; finely chopped Parsley (for garnish).


1. Cut the Asparagus into 1" lengths. Place in a small pan along with the Butter; add 2-3 tablespoons of water and a teaspoon of Salt. Cook, covered, over medium heat for about five minutes, until the Asparagus pieces are tender. Discard any liquid that remains, and let the Asparagus cool slightly.

2. In a liquidizer, blend the Asparagus along with the Egg, Yolk and Cream. Taste the mixture for seasoning, and if necessary add more salt and liquidize for another few seconds.

3. Divide the mixture between four ramekins that have either been generously buttered or sprayed with Trennwax. Steam, covered, over boiling water for ten minutes.

4. Run the blade of a small knife around the edge of each mousse to ensure it isn't stuck to the side of the ramekin, then invert onto a heated serving plate. Garnish with finely chopped Parsley.

Monday 28 January 2008

Authenticity: A Monday Rant!

There was a time when the gastronomic canon, at least the French version, was immutable. Sole Colbert was a precise dish, prepared in a precise way - and any budding chef had to learn how to make it. The general idea was that customers, having seen the dish on the menu, could order it, and would be pretty confident in their expectation of what would be served. Restaurants hired trained chefs who knew the ropes and could turn out the required dish without breaking a sweat.

Well, all that seems to have gone well-and-truly by the board! Chefs have decided en masse that they don't want to be bound by these rules. Some invent either new - or slightly new, dishes - and give them brand new names; others keep the old name .......and change the recipe slightly; or else they apply the well-known name to a completely different dish, apparently either by mistake or presumably just for the sheer hell of it.

I have just read Robert Courtine - the late great food writer for Le Monde - railing against French chefs who no longer know that Crêpes Suzette is made with mandarin orange juice, and not with ordinary orange juice: and this particular bastration was something he was already up in arms about as early as 1970!

I have to confess, I had no idea about the mandarins either.........but, then, neither actually did Jane Grigson, or Delia Smith, or Nigella Lawson, Ann Willan, or Gordon Ramsay, not to mention Alan Davidson and Alain Ducasse. Even Escoffier (in the English edition) gets in a muddle: his version starts off using mandarins, and inexplicably switches to oranges half way through. Didn't he know? Or did the translator or editor make a mistake? It is correct in Larousse Gastronomique..... but then Robert Courtine was LG's editor, so this is hardly surprising. When this particular baton was dropped, history does not relate, and gastronomically seems inexplicable. Mandarin juice (hardly ever specified in recipes for anything that I can think of) is delicious........... and as a bonus in Crêpes Suzette, one could use glorious Mandarine Napoleon Brandy as the alcohol. Having now learned the error of my ways, I can't wait to make the real thing for the first time.......

In a similar vein, the Technical Dept has been grumbling for years (and I mean grumbling and years) about Parisian restaurants which advertise Île Flottante (Floating Island) but actually serve Oeufs à la Neige. Rather unhelpfully, Oeufs à la Neige is soft meringue floating in custard, and Île Flottante is a sort of Crème Caramel which sits up to its ankles in the stuff. The one that isn't floating is properly called floating and the one that is, isn't. Confused? Well I can tell you from long spectatorial experience that the Technical Dept has yet to come across a waiter anywhere who isn't, too.

Does it matter? After all, these days, so often, either the ingredients are exhaustively listed on the menu, or else the waiter will, if asked - and very often if not asked - tell you, at interminable length, his idea of the precise recipe.

Well, it matters, if truly great recipes get changed so much they get forgotten or in some cases - Duck à l'orange is an example - positively shunned.
It matters if the menu promises innovation and the only innovation is the description. I was pretty irritated several years ago when the Sugar Club grandiloquently promised Oeuf Mollet, and Smoked-Ham-cooked Redonda Beans on a Garlic Crouton and what actually arrived was Egg & Beans on Toast!
It also matters if you have to sit through a long description of something you know quite well being excitedly - and completely inaccurately - garbled by a waiter who heard about it for the first time that morning.
And it
definitely matters if, as happened the other day, I came across mention on the internet of a 'newly-discovered and wonderful' dish: Pommes Anna..... except that this one had been 'improved' with the addition of butternut squash, parmesan cheese and nutmeg! The 'improved' version may possibly have been good (although I have my doubts), but it sure as hell isn't Pommes Anna! Poor Robert Courtine; poor Adolphe Dugléré (who's dish it is); poor, beautiful, sexy Anna Deslions, for whom the dish was named......and probably, most of all, poor US!!

However...... not to end on an entirely pessimistic note, this weekend's major discovery was the combination of Mango Soufflé Glacé with Wild Strawberries which have been macerated in Cointreau. It isn't a bastration of something old and venerable, and nor does it have a long and complicated title....but believe me, it
is seriously, show-stoppingly wonderful!

Tonight's Dinner:

Squid, braised with Peas & Tomatoes.

Calves Liver, in Cream & Mushroom Sauce; Sweet-&-Sour Courgettes.

Tuscan Pear Cake

Sunday 27 January 2008

Recipe: Flourless Limoncello Cake

Wonderfully moist, this is as unlike the fluffy, sweet Lemon Cakes of childhood as you're likely to find. The use of complete Lemons in the mixture - peel, pith and all - produces a strongly flavoured cake that practically bites back at you (in the nicest possible way)!
Made using Ground Almonds rather than Flour, and the option of replacing half of the normal amount of Sugar with Splenda instead makes this dietarily sound, as well as being delicious. I've experimented with using Lemons which have been boiled, as in this recipe, and also just processing them without treating them in any way first, on the basis that the boiling process looked back to a period before food processors and was merely a means of rendering the tough skins soft and malleable. In fact, if short of time, you can omit the boiling and simmering stage, but it will give you a slightly more bitter result, as the effect of this step appears to be to take the edge off the bitterness in the pith of the fruit.
An alternative name for the cake would be 'Vanishing Cake', since - as you can see from the picture - if you turn your back on it, half of the cake has disappeared before you know it.....

For one 26 cm diameter cake.

Ingredients: 2 Lemons (Meyer or Amalfi Lemons by preference, but ordinary Lemons from the supermarket will also work perfectly well); 6 Eggs; 250g Ground Almonds; 2-3 drops Almond Essence; 2 tablespoons of Limoncello; 1 teaspoon Baking Powder; 250g Sugar (or 125g Sugar, plus equivalent volume of Splenda); a handful of Slivered Almonds.


1. Put the Lemons in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil on the stove, and then simmer, partially covered for an hour. Leave to cool.

2. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

3. Drain the Lemons, break them open with your hands and pick out and discard any pips. (Either throw away the boiling liquid, or retain to use subsequently as the cooking liquid for any green vegetable).

4. Process the Lemons for a minute in a food processor along with all the other ingredients apart from the Slivered Almonds. Pour this mixture into a spring-form tin, which has either been greased or sprayed with Trennwax.. Make sure the surface of the cake is level, then sprinkle generously with the Slivered Almonds.

5. Bake for an hour in the pre-heated oven. Test for done-ness by pressing lightly on the centre of the top of the cake - if it springs back into place the cake is done; if not, it probably needs slightly longer. NB: I generally find it necessary to cover the top of the cake with foil after it has been in the oven for half an hour, in order to prevent the Almonds from catching, and the top of the cake from colouring too much.