Saturday 29 March 2008

Meanwhile, in Pisa....

While global warming and climate change meant an Easter weekend of flooding and blizzards in the UK..... in Tuscany, instead, we've had the early and unexpected arrival of summer! Very unexpected, since it isn't even the end of March, and already today the french windows were left wide open for much of the day, as gloriously warm sunshine streamed in, and shirtsleeves were in order for some heavy-duty garden work. Many of the spring bulbs are in a state of shock, as they've been politely following the dictates of a more normal weather progression, and have been behaving until now as though it should be jacket-and-scarf weather here for at least another month......(a little like the Italians themselves, who tend to keep strictly wrapped up until after May 1st, just in which time groups of German tourists have already long been visible in the streets of Pisa, sporting shorts and open-toed sandals).

With the arrival of summer, the town immediately begins to smell differently. No, not the scent of flowers coming into bloom, but the wonderfully nose-twitching smell of good coffee. At the first indication of warm weather, all the cafés set chairs and tables out, outside their premises, and throw open their doors to let the mingled smells of coffee and pastries escape into the great outdoors...And in general people slow their pace - even if they aren't actually stopping to sit at a café table to luxuriate in cappuccino and morning sunshine - and there's an immediate tendency to 'stroll' rather than 'walk' , in order just to enjoy the beauty of the day and the town and the sense of being alive.

It was in the course of strolling rather than walking that I registered the presence of a new stall in the market. Cheese, salami, and honey. The sort of thing that makes a regular appearance in the monthly mercato di contadini in Piazza Cairoli, but which I've always assumed wouldn't drum up enough custom to make sense of a daily pitch in the normal everyday market in Via Cavalca. But this chap obviously thought otherwise, since I remembered I had actually seen him when last we were in town, several weeks ago - at which point it had still been bracingly cold, and so I was very definitely head-down not strolling, and making my way at speed directly towards Antonella's stall, round the corner....

This time, I stopped. And looked. Truckles of promisingly ancient-seeming pecorino, and baskets laden with different kinds of home-made salami, prominent amongst which were fennel, and wild boar. In a small vitrina he had some of his own gorgonzola, which looked intriguing, and several different kinds of home-produced honey. All looked worth a try, and in the end I opted for a chunk of pecorino and some fennel salami. Which is the point where - in true down-amongst-the-simple-folk style - I should be able to add that I handed him a few small coins in exchange for his honest wares...... but forget it, this is the twenty first century and this sort of stuff doesn't come cheap! With negligible change from a sizable banknote, I headed home quickly before I could be tempted further.

The pecorino was excellent, though - aged and crumbly, with the sedimentary texture of old Gouda, and an agreeably edgy flavour: quite complex but not too aggressive.

I felt well-set up for several hours of garden-work thereafter: hacking, and slashing, and weeding, and planting, and even a spot of Gladstonian labours (tree-felling, I mean, as opposed to rescuing fallen women, as he'd have us believe he was doing at the time). All good healthy stuff - except that I undid any benefit to my system by immediately wolfing down industrial quantities of a version of fruitcake I'd made the day before, using some mincemeat left over from Christmas as well as rather a lot of Demerara sugar. Deceptively light - which meant that it all disappeared much more quickly than intended.....

Which, actually, is also what happened to the pecorino, come to think of it. Ah well....tomorrow is another day. And, with any luck, summer will still be with us.....

Tonight's Dinner:

Chicken Salad.

Baked Spigola, with Anchovy Sauce; Green Beans.

Limoncello Panna Cotta

Thursday 27 March 2008

Recipe: Apple & Vanilla Tart

For years, I've made Apple Tart in the traditional French fashion: concentric circles of apple slices, baked on top of a rich, thick purée of apples, lemon, cinnamon, butter and cognac. It's good - actually, it's very good - but it isn't a last-minute job, given the time needed to make the purée and to reduce it to the right consistency. This alternative version is lighter, and has the obvious merit of suiting those "Oh, God!....It's seven o'clock already and I've planned nothing for dessert!" occasions. From start to finish, this recipe takes half an hour - and fifteen minutes of that is elapsed time, when the tarts are in the oven, and you can be concentrating on something else.

But the merit of this recipe isn't just about saving time: the combination of flavours and textures is wonderful. The mixture of vanilla with butter and apple is knockout, and the soft, buttery apple slices inside a crisp, nutty tart shell.....excellent!

For four individual tarts.

Ingredients: 4 sheets of Phyllo Pastry, each 12" x 6"; 4 oz Butter; 4 level tablespoons of slivered Almonds; 2 Apples (something rustic and old-fashioned like Cox's or Renette Franche are good for this); 1 Vanilla Pod (or 1 teaspoon of good quality Vanilla Essence); 1 heaped tablespoon of Sugar; 1 tablespoon of Brandy or Rum.


1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. Melt half of the butter in a small pan, and proceed with making the tart shells: Grease the individual tart tins; brush the sheets of Phyllo with melted Butter, and cut each sheet in half, to give you two squares of pastry from each sheet, each one 6" x 6"; line the bottom of each tart tin with a square of pastry, tucked in around the edges, and over the top sprinkle a quarter of the slivered Almonds in each tart shell; finish with a second square of buttered Phyllo in each shell, again tucked in neatly around the edge. Blind-bake the shells in the pre-heated oven: five minutes with weights inside, and five with the weights removed. The shells should be a good rich colour when you take them out.
Reduce the oven temperature to 180 degrees C.

2. Melt the remaining Butter in a small frying pan or sauté pan. Peel and core the Apples, and slice them very thinly - either by hand, if you can slice them paper-thin that way, or else with the use of a mandolin.

3. Add the sliced Apple to the pan and turn it in the melted Butter until well covered. Add the Vanilla (either the seeds scraped from the inside of the pod, or else the teaspoon of essence), as well as the Sugar, and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate everything thoroughly. Over a medium heat, cook the apple mixture, stirring occasionally, until the Apple slices are soft and almost translucent. This should take about ten minutes.

4. With a slotted spoon, remove the Apple slices from the pan and divide them between the four blind-baked tart shells. Return these to the oven for fifteen minutes - but keep an eye on them, to ensure they don't get too dark (if they do, remove them from the oven straightaway, and proceed to step 5).

5. Meanwhile, add the alcohol to the cooking juices in the pan, and heat through, stirring, to thicken and reduce the juices slightly. Two minutes before the end of cooking the tarts, spoon this liquid over the top of the four tarts, and then return them to the oven to finish cooking,

Allow to cool slightly before serving - these should be eaten warm rather than hot.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Recipe: Fennel, Tuscan Style

Normally, I would think of Fennel as something to accompany fish - its delicate liquorice flavour marrying well with the subtle qualities of a perfectly cooked Bass or Bream. In this treatment, however, it takes on a more robust character, and would go well with roast Pork, say, or an old-fashioned flavoursome roast Chicken.

Why 'Tuscan'? I have no idea. I first came across the recipe in the scribblings of an obscure french chef from the fifties, who was unlikely to have known 'Tuscan' from a bull's foot, I should think! The use of cloves is also suspect, and to me suggests a provenance nearer to the Veneto than Tuscany......although, as ever, the appearance of Cloves in the list of ingredients implies a pleasingly early provenance.

This is a dish which can be cooked in advance to the final stage, and then re-heated just before adding the Cream.

For six.

Ingredients: One and half kilos of Fennel; 600g Tomatoes (preferably the larger, vine variety); 250g white Onions; a stem of fresh Thyme; a teaspoon of dried Bayleaf; two tablespoons of fresh, chopped Parsley; 100g of Lardons; 4 tablespoons of Olive Oil; 3 Cloves; Salt & Pepper; two tablespoons of Crème Fraiche.


1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Skin and de-seed the tomatoes (I always do this by cutting crossed lines in the skin with the tip of a sharp knife, then putting them on the end of a fork and immersing them in very hot water for a minute or two; the skins then peel away easily, and you can then cut the tomatoes n half and scoop out and discard the seeds.) Slice the Tomato flesh finely.

3. Finely slice the Fennel and the Onion.

4. In a shallow pan that can subsequently go into the oven - I use a small handless sauté pan - heat three tablespoons of Oil over medium heat, and sauté the Lardons and Onion until they just begin to colour.

5. Add the sliced Fennel and Tomato, mix everything well together, and cook over high heat for a couple of minutes, stirring.

6. Stir in all of the herbs and spice, and season to taste. Pour the remaining Oil over the top, and place in the oven to cook for 45 minutes.

7. Remove the pan from the oven and stir the cream into the vegetables, just enough to warm through. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then serve, sprinkled with chopped Parsley.

Monday 24 March 2008

Eating well and staying trim....

It is possible. And without having to resort to odd dietary or lifestyle regimes, either.

As any 'foodie' must know, the challenge of enjoying good food as part of a daily routine sits uncomfortably with the process of maintaining control over the waistline - and over the decades regular recourse has been had in this household to various expedients in an effort to get rid of some of the excess pounds. The problem with all of them was firstly, that they were only ever departures from normal behaviour, and secondly that they were always deeply, deeply dull! And so, on both counts, unsustainable. Which is the problem in practice with pretty much all weight-loss initiatives - after a while, you heave a sigh of relief, return to your earlier habits and - surprise, surprise - any benefit you might have accrued dissipates before your very eyes.

The only way to balance eating well with having a physique which doesn't make you avoid full-length mirrors is to identify a dietary regime which is readily sustainable in the long term, and in which the food is interesting as well as being consistent with your dietary goals. And after several years of tinkering with it, I think I've largely got there.....

The current regime has grown out of the discovery of the low-carb Atkins concept, which I first encountered about ten years ago. At the time, I had a job which involved much time spent on planes, in airports and at hotels in different parts of the globe, as well as sitting in meetings and conference rooms and at corporate dining tables. It's a regime perfectly designed for chubbiness - no time for regular exercise, and constantly taking refuge in the sort of comfort-eating that follows on from tiredness, wrong time-zones, and people forever pushing the stuff at you! At home, in an effort to do something, I suggested reducing our normal three-course dinner habit to only two courses, but was met by dark muttering from the Technical Department along the lines of ' thin end of the wedge', and ....'the end of civilisation as we know it'. So, no luck, there...

At first sight, Atkins seemed wonderful: no prohibition or even limits on levels of consumption of meat, fish, eggs, cream, as much as you like! When I first tried it, though, I followed the suggested menus that the Atkins people had devised - which was, frankly, rather challenging. With the best will in the World, the range of suggestions was pretty limited, and after a week of nothing but different kinds of grilled meat, accompanied by one green vegetable or another, the World was beginning to seem a rather boring place. But - the regime was clearly working. Demonstrably so. In which case, the way to proceed was to take the low-carb principle and apply it to a rather more sophisticated gastronomic palette than the Atkins people had done.

And so, over time, I did exactly that.

And the result is the following set of guidelines:

- Replace sugar with Splenda in your cooking. In things like sauces, where the sugar is providing only sweetness, and has no 'structural' work to do, this can be a complete substitution; and in baking, where the sugar has the dual role of sweetness and texture, then replace half of the prescribed amount of sugar with Splenda. (I'm not merely banging the drum for a branded product here - the fact is that at present Splenda is the only artificial sweetener I know of that retains its sweetness during cooking......if anybody knows of any others, I'd be happy to hear of them)

- Remove Potatoes from the menu entirely. They can easily be replaced with other vegetables - Turnip gratin, for example, is just as delicious, and much lower in carbohydrates than the Potato version; Purée of Broccoli with Parmesan and Garlic works just as well as mashed Potato, in many dishes; and in fact, puréed Cauliflower is almost indistinguishable from mashed Potato , even if you use it in something like Cottage Pie....

- Eschew bread in any form whatsoever. No exceptions.

- Replace Shortcrust or Puff pastry with Phyllo, which has only negligible flour content. (in fact, a few days ago, in making a Quince & Pear tart for dessert, I used Pâte Sablée, unusually, and found the result incongruously heavy; I've got too used to the crisp lightness of Phyllo tart shells in comparison....)

- Only serve pasta and risotto rarely (it's a bit of a challenge that one, but they're both carb-heavy; so neither of them more than once a fortnight, say)

- Avoid rice in general, and try not to use flour in any significant quantities (often, in desserts, you'll find that flour can be substituted with ground almonds, which are much more dietarily sound)

- Nothing deep-fried. And in general, use a light touch when cooking with Oil in any form.

- Temper the intake of alcohol; at the start of this year, we moved from a routine where drinks pre-, post and during dinner had been the norm to a routine where consumption of alcohol became something one positively chose to do on occasion, rather than the general default mode (it was surprisingly easy to do, and had a phenomenal effect! I'm now on the last hole on the belt in my jeans....)

And the end result of all of the above has been so successful, that it allows things like pasta, risotto, ice-cream, sorbet, biscuits and cake to make a welcome reappearance on the menu - as long as it's only irregularly, and doesn't become the thoughtless norm.

Having said all of which, I'm off to get on with Tonight's Dinner:

Individual Haddock Soufflés.

Boeuf Stroganoff.

Passion Fruit Tarts.