Saturday 9 February 2008

The Grandfather of all Food-bloggers....

Pierre Franey. A name that was certainly well known in the States in the seventies and eighties - and may still be now, for all I know - but which achieved little renown further afield. I first came across his 'Sixty Minute Gourmet..' books in the late eighties, I think, and what a breath of old-school fresh air they were, too! Sensible, practical, knowledgeable, down-to-earth recipes for seriously good food that could be made and consumed as part of a normal daily existence....

Franey came from a small town in Burgundy, exposed to the domestic and cultural culinary influences that would have been normal in a french country town in the pre-war years, and went on to work first at the Restaurant Thenint on the Place de la Republique in Paris, and subsequently to train at the Restaurant Drouant. Several years later, and with a Boys-Own-Story quality to it all, he found himself cooking at the French Pavilion at The New York World's Fair in 1939, and stayed on in the States as a war refugee, after France had fallen to the Germans. The forties and fifties saw him cooking at Le Pavillon, in New York, and subsequently at La Côte Basque, and then at some point in the sixties he was invited to contribute a daily food column to the newly re-vamped New York Times. Hence, his position arguably as the first foodblogger....

I think at some point he did a stint as one of the early TV chefs, but for the most part - in addition to the inevitably ephemeral columns - his output was limited to a small raft of books: something on Classic French Cooking, written in collaboration with Craig Claiborne, a couple of books produced in conjunction with Bryan Miller, who was the then restaurant critic for the New York Times, and some TV spin-offs like 'Cooking with Friends' and 'Cooking in France'. But, to my mind, his most valuable contribution were the two 'Sixty Minute' books, '60-Minute Gourmet' and, not surprisingly 'More 60-Minute Gourmet' - both of which are distillations of what he felt had been the best from his daily columns. The recipes are excellent, and the overall approach is efficient and no-nonsense: unexpected gems like a purée of Broccoli or of Green Beans - which appear inexplicably to have sunk without trace subsequently - or his myriad recipes for various shellfish, or quick and easy methods for dealing with classic and possibly otherwise daunting dishes. The second volume introduced a section on desserts - somewhat grudgingly, I suspect; he reads to me as definitely from the 'good cheese and some more red wine' school of diners. Otherwise, although all is good, the really stellar stuff comes when he writes about fish and crustaceans.

More than just his recipes, though, I find I resonate with his general approach. Having owned the book already for many years, it was only recently that I got round to reading the introduction to '60-Minute Gourmet', and found myself repeatedly tapping the page with a forefinger of solid agreement at what he was saying:

  • Buy for your kitchen the best equipment you can afford; two knives will suffice to start with, rather than the whole set available - but make sure they are two good knives!
  • Be organised in the way you cook: to quote Franey himself: "Always keep in mind that clutter is is distracting, a hindrance, and an enemy of time"
  • Clear up as you go along...
  • Always have a can of tomatoes in the cupboard, and a tube of tomato paste....
  • Leftovers are a wonderful thing, and should be treated as the makings of future meals..
  • Plan menus so that you aren't in the kitchen for great tranches of social time...
Etc, etc, etc.....

In fact, there's much in Franey's approach which reminds me of the great Doctor Pomiane himself, not least Franey's choreographed description of the steps involved in making a fish chowder, which has distinct similarities with Pomiane's famous riff in 'Cooking in Ten Minutes' that begins 'When you get home, before you even take off your coat, put a large pot of water on the stove to boil: whatever you're cooking, you'll need it at some point!"

In his introduction to 'Cuisine Rapide', one of the two books he wrote with Bryan Miller, Pierre Franey extols a style of home cooking which is 'efficient, accessible, and refined'. I think Pomiane would have approved of that, as he would have approved of Franey's clear belief - not explicitly articulated, but obvious from his writing - that good food is there not to be centre-stage but to provide the background to good conversations, good friends and the things that make life worth living.

Which is, of course, as it should be.

Tonight's Dinner:

Pasta Oscura, with an agrodolce Ragu

Salmon & Lemon Fishcakes; steamed Pak Choy

Apple and Blackberry Pies.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Recipe: Risotto with Spinach, Asparagus & Polpette

Well, the sun may be shining gloriously in a clear blue sky, and things in the garden impatiently pushing their heads above ground, but the fact remains that it is still a long time until spring - and when the sun has gone down, it's time to close the shutters and draw the curtains against the outside world.....and hearty winter's fare for dinner is still very much in order.

It doesn't come a lot heartier then this, a recipe from Ticino, in the north of Italy - at the point geographically where slabs of Polenta and haunches of meat appear, and you can tell that the cuisine has evolved in response to an unforgiving winter climate. The local name for the dish, rather unhelpfully, is merely Risotto alla Rustica - which conveys nothing of the many flavours and textures that you encounter within it: the bite of asparagus and spinach combined in an unctuous creamy risotto, all topped with delicious veal and parmesan polpette in a light tomato sauce.

Splendid with a light red wine from Friuli - but don't plan on doing anything energetic for some time after you've eaten!

This works well for a group including vegetarians, since the vegetarian option merely means leaving the meatballs off when you come to serve.

For six.


For the Vegetable Cream: 500g Spinach, rinsed; 200g Peas; 300g Asparagus (any woody ends of the stalks having been removed)

For the Polpette: 100g minced Pork + 100g minced Veal (or, if not, 200g minced Beef; 1 garlic clove, minced; 1 Egg; 3-4 tablespoons grated Parmesan; 1 tablespoon chopped Paresley; Salt & Pepper; Flour (to dust the meatballs); 250g tinned tomato Pulp; half a glass of White Wine or Vermouth.

For the Risotto: 1 Onion; 3 tablespoons Olive Oil; 1 glass of White Wine or Vermouth; 1 pint Chicken stock**; 250g Mascarpone; 200 ml Cream; half a cup* grated Parmesan; 2 tablespoons chopped Basil; 1 oz Butter.

* these are UK cup measures, rather than US ones. A UK cup is equivalent to 10 fl oz, whilst a US one is only 8 fl oz.

** if using homemade stock, remember to add seasoning to the risotto at the end of cooking; if the stock is commercially made, you'll need much less seasoning at the end.


1. Put all the green vegetables into a pan,cover with water, bring to the boil over high heat and boil for 3-4 minutes; strain, let cool and blend in a liquidizer to make a homogenous cream.

2. Combine the minced meat with Garlic, Parsley, beaten Egg and grated Parmesan; add seasoning to taste. Form these into small meatballs, no larger than the size of a large olive. Dust these in Flour, and fry over medium-high heat in Oil until done - maybe 3-4 minutes. When the polpette are good and crisp on the outside, pour in the Wine or Vermouth and the tomatoes, and continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce around the polpette has thickened.

The recipe can be done until this stage several hours in advance, if you wish.

3. Make the Risotto in the normal way: soften chopped Onion in heated oil, then add Rice, stir over heat without any liquid for a minute, then add liquid - first the Wine or Vermouth, then the Stock - by the ladleful, adding more each time the previous amount has been completely absorbed. If you run out of Stock before the dish is ready, continue with water. After twenty minutes, add to the Risotto mixture the Vegetable Cream, Mascarpone and Cream, stir thoroughly, and continue to cook the Risotto to completion. When the rice is done, turn off the heat and stir in the Butter and remaining Parmesan.

To serve, sprinkle with chopped Basil, and top with a spoonful of warmed polpette in their tomato sauce.

Ricetta: Risotto con spinaci, asparagi e Polpette

Per sei.


Per la crema di verdure: 500 g di spinaci, sciacquati; 200g Peas; 300g di asparagi ( ogni estremità dura del gambo essendo stato rimosso)

Per il Polpette: 100g di maiale tritata 100g + bovine macinate (o, in caso contrario, 200g di carne bovina macinata, 1 spicchio d'aglio, tritato, 1 Uovo; 3-4 cucchiai di parmigiano grattugiato, 1 cucchiaio di trito di Prezzemolo; Sale & Pepe; Farina (per polvere Le polpette di carne); 250g polpa di pomodoro in scatola; mezzo bicchiere di vino bianco o di Vermouth.

Per il risotto: 1 cipolla, 3 cucchiai di olio d'oliva, 1 bicchiere di vino bianco o di Vermouth; 500 ml brodo di pollo**; 250g Mascarpone; 200 ml di Crema; una mezza tazza parmigiano grattugiato, 2 cucchiai di basilico tritati; Burro 30g.

** Se si utilizza un brodo fato in casa, ricordare di aggiungere il condimento per risotti al termine della cottura; se il brodo è reso commercialmente, devi molto meno condimento alla fine.


1. Mettere tutte le verdure in una pentola, coprite con l'acqua, portate ad ebollizione più elevato calore e far bollire per 3-4 minuti; ceppo, lasciate raffreddare e si fondono in un liquidizer a fare una crema omogenea.

2. Combina la carne macinata con aglio, prezzemolo, uova sbattute e il parmigiano grattugiato; aggiungere condimento di gusto. Forma in queste piccole polpette di carne, non più grande delle dimensioni di un grande ulivo. Queste polveri e Farina, e friggere nel medio-alta e di calore olio fino al fatto - forse 3-4 minuti. Quando le polpette sono buone e fresco sulla parte esterna, e per il vino o il Vermouth e pomodori, e continuare a cuocere, mescolando, fino a quando la salsa intorno al polpette ha ispessita.

La ricetta può essere fatto fino a questo stadio diverse ore di anticipo, se lo si desidera.

3. Rendere il risotto in modo normale: ammorbidire un trito di cipolla in olio riscaldato, quindi aggiungere il riso, mescolare più di calore senza liquido per un minuto, poi aggiungere liquido - in primo luogo il vino o di Vermouth, allora il brodo - dal mestolo, aggiungendo più quando l'importo precedente è stato completamente assorbito. Se si esaurirà prima di brodo il piatto è pronto, continuare con l'acqua. Dopo venti minuti, aggiungere alla miscela Risotto alla crema di verdure, mascarpone e Crema, mescolare accuratamente, e continuare a cucinare il risotto a compimento. Quando il riso è finito, spegnere il calore e di suscitare nella restante burro e parmigiano.

Per servire, cospargere con un trito di basilico, e la parte superiore con un cucchiaio di polpette e riscaldato il loro sugo di pomodoro.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

The French Paradox - more.....

In a timely and fortuitous follow-up to the recent post on butter as an innocent victim of over-eager nutritionists, I was delighted yesterday to discover a new and splendid-sounding volume called 'In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating'. Even before assessing the contents, it gets points - potentially anyway - merely for a title that suggests that food should be about enjoyment, and not about nit-picking and soulless scientific analysis.

The author - somebody called Michael Pollan - has a simple fundamental thesis, which boils down essentially to the idea that a good dietary regime means eating good things , in moderation, and in sensible balance with each other. Not exactly a radical proposition, you might think. What he clearly shoots down - and this is where the reference to The French Paradox comes in - is the tendency of nutritionists to grab at the simple explanation, in this case cholesterol, and the with-one-bound-he-was-free strategy, i.e. to expunge it ruthlessly from your diet. The paradox, in Pollan's eyes, lies not with the French diet, but with the myopia of the British and American nutritionists in assessing the situation.

The anti-cholesterol approach seems to be the same sort of narrowly focused strategy, really, as can be found in all of those one-shot diet fads that periodically rear their heads and then disappear from view: the grapefruit diet; the steak diet; the cabbage soup diet (definitely one to be avoided.......if you want to keep any of your friends, that is!) ; and my favourite of all, a regime I heard of, years ago, which involved consuming nothing but dry biscuits for one day, and nothing but white wine for the next, to be repeated until either you'd dropped sufficient weight or had merely lost the will to live!

Mr Pollan distills his proposition into the following succinct list of rules concerning what we should or shouldn't eat:
  • Don't eat anything your Grandmother wouldn't recognise. (A bit narrow, this one, but I take his point. I mean, sushi or braised squid wouldn't pass muster for me on that basis, but as long as a common-sense filter is applied, the rule feels right.)
  • Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients, or containing anything you can't pronounce. (Again, apply the common-sense filter - after all, one man's Phenolphthalein is another man's Chocolate!)
  • Avoid anything that claims health benefits - not least because to do so it must come in a package, in order for the claim to be printed on something, and so is suspect before it even begins! The health benefits which abound in things like prunes, garlic, and fresh citrus have been well-understood for generations, and I'm unaware of anything new that's popped up in that regard any time recently.
  • And, the over-arching rule: Don't look for the magic bullet in anything! Sadly, the wish for this is the same impulse that leads to the purchase of lottery tickets - nice, if it turns out well, but not a good basis on which to plan your future!
Alors, mes braves: a sound basis for a healthy life, with its fair share of good food along the way. Makes sense to me....

Of course, there's always the other school of thought - which also (I confess) has its occasional attraction - as expounded by Miss Piggy. Only one rule in this case, and not difficult to apply:

  • Never eat anything you can't lift!

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartes aux Moules

Involtini di Vitello, stuffed with Anchovies, Capers & Tomatoes; Carrots in Marsala.

Chocolate Soufflé, on a Chocolate Cake base.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Recipe: Limoncello Panna Cotta

It's the time of year when Limoncello has a tendency to creep into many dishes in this household - Massimo's mother-in-law makes industrial quantities of it annually to be given away at Christmas, and although I like the flavour when used in cooking, I'm really not that fond of it as a drink. Although I do recall having some once at a small trattoria in Enna, in central Sicily, which was truly memorable: served at table in large glass jugs, it was a vivid green, industrial-strength, and with a kick like a mule. I was subsequently told that the colour suggested it was probably made from Citron rather than from Lemons, which might explain it's singular character!

Panna Cotta is an intriguing and rather wonderful thing. Intriguing because the name literally means 'cooked cream' - although in fact it often contains no cream, and in any event is set rather than cooked - and its relationship to Creme Caramel seems tantalisingly close, but nevertheless remains unexplained. And wonderful in the way that it manages to be both simple and light, and yet rich and complex all at the same time. Very simple to make, and easily dinner-partyable with the addition of a few fresh raspberries, or - even better- wild strawberries!

For six.

Ingredients: 6 oz Sugar; juice of half a Lemon; 15 fl oz double Cream; 5 fl oz Milk; 1 teaspoon of Vanilla Essence; 4 tablespoons of Limoncello; 1 tablespoon of powdered Gelatine.


1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C, and leave 6 small (4 fl oz capacity) ramekins in the oven for five minutes to heat through.

2. Make a Caramel: Put 2.5 oz of the Sugar in a small saucepan, over medium heat, along with 3 tablespoons of water and the Lemon Juice. Bring slowly to the boil, stirring constantly. Watch as it turns first a light brown, and keep it on the heat, stirring until it turns to dark brown. At this point, remove the pan from the heat, and divide the caramel between the pre-heated ramekins. Holding them in a towel, carefully rotate them to coat as much of the inside of the ramekin as you can. Set the ramekins aside to cool.

3. Heat the Cream, Milk, Vanilla Essence, remaining Sugar, and Limoncello in a pan. Stirring all the time, bring the mixture to a gentle boil, and keep it at this level, stirring all the time, for a minute. Remove the pan from the heat, and leave to infuse for an hour.

4. Dissolve the Gelatine in 75 ml of warm water, and stir over low heat in a double boiler or simmertopf, to ensure it is properly dissolved. Stir this into the infused Milk/Cream , allow to sit for half an hour or so, stirring regularly to prevent the gelatine from separating, and then divide the mixture between the prepared ramekins.

5. Leave to set for a minimum of two hours, and up to one day. To serve, run the blade of a small knife carefully round the inside of the ramekins, and invert each one onto a serving dish. If you want to be sure of getting as much of the caramel out as you can - or if the panna cotta seems not to want to come out - dip the base of the ramekin in a shallow pan of very hot water for about ten seconds and then invert it onto the serving dish.

Monday 4 February 2008

The Monday Rant: Dishing Delia...

I think I'd better declare from the outset: I've never got Delia Smith. As a phenomenon, the point of Delia has always escaped me. When she first appeared in the firmament, or at least within my consciousness, sometime in the early eighties, I was merely slightly baffled by the whole 'Delia' thing. On occasion, at a dinner party, when some unremarkable dish would be served (hey....not everybody's been taught's allowed!) accompanied by the modestly proud acknowledgment that "'s one of Delia's", I'd keep schtum, amongst the flurry of enthusiastic praise from my fellow diners. Oh, I'd find something else to praise instead, like the wine, or the flowers - I'm not entirely socially inept - but I could never bring myself to gush about the nondescript offering on the plate before me. It was always perfectly edible - I think - but in general had the wow factor of a three-day-old lettuce leaf. No character; no edge; no... moxy. Two and two made four - but it was always a penny-plain four, and never the sort of four-plus or even five which is the real point of a good recipe.

It was summed up for me by a critical review in Private Eye sometime around 1984, which drew a grunt of approval from this quarter. It said something along the lines that: ...the thing people say about Delia's recipes is that 'they always work'. And why wouldn't they? After all, they're just the same old tried-and-trusteds that have been in every bog-standard cookery book right back to that thing which came free with your Mum's first electric cooker in 1957 and which has been in the back of the cupboard ever since. And there you have it: Delia Smith was a sort of starter-kit for people who didn't know anything about cooking, a culinary version of those training wheels on the back of kids' bikes - the overall result is neither dashing nor elegant, but at least you won't fall over and embarrass yourself in public!

And that was really all there was to it - Delia inhabiting her world, and not impinging on mine. I was vaguely conscious of a furore several years ago about Delia writing a book or having a TV series or something, the gist of which was teaching people how to boil an Egg - which seemed about par for the course. But apart from that, she has bothered me little over the past twenty-five years. She's been in her Delia-world corner of the universe, doing whatever it is she does to the enthusiastic acclaim of her fan club - the bland leading the blind, one could say - and I've felt little inspired to give her any thought.

Until now, that is.

On the plane, several weeks ago - when I was devouring the newspaper in its entirety - I was wryly amused to read that Delia is about to launch a new tome, the underlying theme of which is short-cuts in cooking. Fair enough; why not? What had me wriggling uncomfortably in my seat though was the language she was using. Apparently, she claims to have 'discovered' all sorts of 'new ingredients' that will allow cooks to whip up delicious meals in no time at all, thereby putting the 'fun' back into cooking!

These 'discoveries' appear to be based on the idea that you can use pre-prepared elements within your recipe - like a can of mushroom soup at the appropriate moment, rather than having to work from mushrooms, stock and cream in whatever it is that you're making. mean, like Katherine Whitehorn was already telling us, back in the sixties? Or the ranks of pre-prepared pastes and creams and fillings that are delivered for use on a daily basis to professional kitchens the length and breadth of the country? Well, Hallelujah!

Frankly, as discoveries go, Cortez on a peak in Darien this ain't!

But there's more. It seems that the marketing noise associated with this latest venture will also involve the appearance of labels on various tins and packets of things on supermarket shelves proclaiming them to be an acknowledged 'Delia Cheat'. These aren't new products, of course, but the identical things that have been there all along - except now licensed, at a fee, naturally, as part of this crass manoeuvre on the part of the Delia machine. The words 'morally' and 'bereft' spring to mind.....along with 'shameless', and 'money-grubbing'.

But don't let's stop there! Last week, the Technical Department was amusing himself by reading out to me various snippets from Delia's website, largely in order to watch my increasingly irritated reaction. Some of the most choice items were:
  • Delia's advice not to bother with piping bags, on the basis that 'life's too short'. Interesting to consider how you make meringues, or work with choux pastry in her bagless world, let alone fill ginger snaps or pipe biscuit mix.....
  • The suggestion to throw away the potato ricer 'because the potatoes get cold, and anyway an electric hand whisk mashes potatoes more effectively'.Well, firstly, it doesn't; secondly, she ignores the fact that you don't need to peel potatoes when you're subsequently going to use a potato ricer on them, and thirdly, what on earth is she doing with them that they 'go cold'? The proper way to deal with potato post-mashing is to re-heat gently with butter, a little milk and a beaten egg.....
  • The idea that you use an electric whisk to make mayonnaise 'which is the easiest option, but if you have oodles of energy, you can make mayonnaise with a balloon whisk'. Huh?? Does she not know that the process of making mayonnaise is about making an emulsion, and not about beating air into it. The correct utensil to use is a fork, and the most arduous thing you have to do is to keep on stirring gently.....which hardly requires 'oodles of energy'...No whisk of any kind whatsoever should be used in the process (unless you're making for an army, that is)
Presumably the 'Delia Cheat' answer to all of these points would be that you don't need to bother with any of this kit, anyway, since she's now given you permission to go and buy packets of meringues, biscuits and instant mash, along with jars of commercially-produced mayonnaise!

The best bit of all, though - as far as the TD was concerned - was where she advised readers that they could throw away their baking weights, since she had 'pioneered' a method to pre-bake a crisp pastry case without them. I read on with interest - if true, this could be of great relevance, since I use baking weights practically every day. I could even overlook the vainglorious 'pioneering' if her method actually worked.

And what did it turn out to be? Merely that you should prick the base of the case with the tines of a fork before you bake it.


This is an idea that is older than God - and I don't think even He claims to have 'pioneered' it! Has she never read Julia Child or Marcella Hazan, Anne Willan or Robert Carrier, Gaston Le Nôtre or Michel Roux? (Actually, scrub that.....clearly, she hasn't!). And, not only is it an idea that's been around for ever, but also it won't generally work - ok, sometimes it will, but only if you make the holes so large that you end up with a pastry case that will subsequently leak. Anybody with any sense always pricks the base and uses baking weights!

'Pioneered'!!! Words fail me! Whatever next?......a PR announcement that Delia has invented the Egg?

But, enough of this! I could go on.....but I won't.
Instead, I have to go and indulge in a process I've recently 'pioneered', which involves the exchange of hard cash for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. I'm not yet completely decided, but I'm thinking of calling it 'shopping'. I wonder if there's a patent available?

Tonight's Dinner:

Chicken Liver Terrine.

Rabbit in Garlic; Fennel sautéed in Butter with Radicchio.

Vin Santo Rice Pudding, with Sultanas.

Sunday 3 February 2008

Recipe: Green Beans with Cinnamon & Breadcrumbs

Simple and quick, this method of dealing with Beans gives them an extra dimension and sufficient heft to punch in the same weight as a strongly-flavoured beef stew, say, or roast venison. And I defy anybody to be able to identify that the spice in play is Cinnamon - far removed from any dessert connotation, used this way it has a rather muscular, four-square quality that is as much a shape in the mouth as a flavour on the tongue.

For Four, as a side serving.

Ingredients: 300g Green Beans; 50g Butter; 2 tablespoons fine Breadcrumbs (I use Leimer brand, but home-made would be ok, too - as long as they aren't too large); half a teaspoon ground Cinnamon; Salt.


1. Cook the Beans in the normal way, in boiling salted water for 7-10 minutes, until they are al dente. (Don't let them cook too far, or else they will merely go soggy subsequently). If not using them immediately, plunge them into cold water to stop them cooking further in their own heat and to retain their fresh colour.

2. In a large frying pan, melt the butter, and stir in both the Cinnamon and the Breadcrumbs. Add the Beans to the pan, and heat through, stirring everything together for five minutes or so to coat the Beans thoroughly in the Cinnamon-Breadcrumb mixture.

3. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.