Saturday 31 May 2008

This week in Pisa...

The weather is grim. Either unpleasantly hot and airless, with thunderstorms threatening, or else - almost without warning - dropping back to sweater-wearing temperatures, and the rain coming down like chairlegs. Apparently, Tempo Italia forecasts a summer of more of the same - so one just has to hope that Tempo Italia is about as reliable in this as it normally is in everything else..Fortunately, the Technical Department has finished his Trellis project in the Loggia, so at least the place is now free of DIY paraphernalia, and is comfortably available for use - if only to be able to sit in, in order to watch the rain!

The garden takes no notice of the lousy weather, and puts on growth at a rate of knots. Keeping the pergolas trimmed at this time of year is like painting the Forth Bridge, and I know that when we return after a fortnight's break the place will have reverted to jungle once more, and I'll have to start the hacking-and-slashing process all over again. The Bergamot has settled in well, and has put on a spurt of new growth - even a small display of blossom (which smells amazing) and the promise of fruit later in the year. I confess, I'm not quite sure what a Bergamot is, and have no idea what the fruit will be like - they don't normally grow round here, and are generally found no further north than Calabria. Research reveals that the Bergamot plant is a cross between a Seville Orange and a 'Pear Lemon' (no, I hadn't, either...), and that it is used in making scent and in Earl Grey Tea - although I imagine the bit used in making scent comes from the blossom, rather than from the fruit. More research needed, clearly. Watch this space for bergamot-based recipes , later in the year...

Town is limbering up for June, which is when pretty much all of the annual festivities here get crammed within one month: the Luminara; the Giocco di Ponte; and the Palio. The streets are closed to traffic along the Lungarno for most of the month, and all sorts of 'special events' are organised, like a tour of private gardens within the Centro Storico (which is show-stoppingly unimpressive) and the annual opening - for one day only - of the archaelogical site where several years ago they found the remains of the ancient harbour, and the remnants of all the Roman and Greek boats that had ever sunk there, over time (which is definitely worth taking a look at)...

Food News? Several things to report......In addition to discovering the proper way to treat Strawberries with Balsamic, I also came across a recipe for Hasselback Potatoes with a poultice of Lemon and Garlic and Sage. Good in itself, it also suggests all sorts of other ways of treating the dish, with different fillings that can gently melt and cook deliciously between the slices of roasting potato - wonderfully fatty pancetta, for example, would be splendid.....Until now, I hadn't thought of doing the recipe any way other than bog-standard, as copied from Alastair Little many years ago, but in practice there are all sorts of variations that can be played on that basic theme. To be explored...

Tonight's Dinner:

Risotto of Basil (made with Rabbit Stock).

Swordfish, sautéed with Onion and Garlic.

Cherry Clafoutis.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

A discovery....

A real one. Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar.

"Oh", I can hear you yawn...."that old chestnut!" And you'd be right, if you meant the way I've been doing it for years (and, let's be honest, so have you) - i.e. Strawberries, doused in a slug of said vinegar, all whisked around for thirty seconds and presented with a flourish that encompasses how modern and clever and 'nouvelle' and sophisticated we all are, when the reality is that after the first time of having done it - all those years ago - when it was surprising, and really quite good, and had an edge to it, we've actually been doing it for years and years essentially from sheer laziness. God! Is it that time already? And nothing organised for dinner......I know! Strawberries with Balsamic ....Perfect!

This. Is. Different.

This takes the concept to a different level. And although it takes a few more minutes, it really is only a few more minutes...and the end-result is stratospherically better. I made it a few days ago, to serve along with home-made French Vanilla Ice Cream, and it was SO good!

I'm not writing this out as a recipe, because the pitifully few steps don't merit it.

For 12 oz of strawberries, take 2 fl oz of red wine, and combine in a small pan with 1 tablespoon of runny honey and 2 tablespoons of Balsamic Vinegar (decent quality, preferably, rather then the scrubbing alcohol variety). Halve the strawberries; bring the liquid to a fast simmer, and cook the fruit briefly in it - for about one minute (you just want to break the membranes down slightly); with a slotted spoon, remove the fruit to a small bowl, then boil the liquid down to a syrup (takes maybe two or three minutes); pour syrup over fruit, stir, leave to cool, and then chill prior to use. Wonderful! Delicious! Try it!

Tonight's Dinner:

Poached Eggs on a bed of Ratatouille

Bistecchie di Maiale; Leeks, braised in Pork Fat

Individual Paris-Brests, with Wild Strawberries

Sunday 25 May 2008

Recipe: Farfalle with Lemon & Hazelnut sauce.

First cousin to the wonderful recipe for Risotto with Lemon & Sage, this is one of those dishes where the first mouthful is greeted with an exclamation of surprise, quickly followed by an exclamation of pleasure. The flavours here are as unexpected as they are delicious, and the overall effect is light and unctuous - perfect to be included in any summer menu.

I once heard Matthew Parris wax lyrical in decrying the silliness of all the different shapes of pasta, when in fact - in his opinion - all they are is different methods of presenting exactly the same ingredients in myriad forms. Well, articulate though he was on the subject, his argument was wrong, and this combination of sauce and pasta type is a prime example of the fact. Different pasta shapes work well with the varying textures of different sauces - and the shape of Farfalle is perfect for this sauce, where the creamy lemon coats the exposed flanks of the pasta shape, while the crunch of the hazelnuts is contained within the ends of the individual pieces of pasta, and thus spread evenly throughout the dish.

For four.

Ingredients: 14 oz Farfalle; 2 oz Butter; 4 medium cloves of Garlic, peeled and minced; 2 medium Lemons; 3 oz Hazelnuts ; 4 tablespoons each of fresh Basil and fresh Parsley; 4 tablespoons of Cream; seasoning; grated Parmesan, to serve.


1. Toast the Hazulnuts under the grill for several minutes, taking care not to let them burn. Once toasted, let them cool slighty, then rub them with a dry cloth to remove the skins. Process them briefly in a food processor, but don't go too far -you want them to be roughly chopped, not reduced to a powder! (You can use pre-processed toasted and chopped nuts instead, if you'd rather, but I don't the result is quite as good as doing this stage yourself).

2. Put water to boil for the Pasta, adding the appropriate amount of Salt, and a slug of Oil (to prevent the pasta shapes from sticking together as they cook). Follow the packet instructions for the time needed to cook the Pasta - normally about ten minutes - and carry on with the sauce as the Pasta is cooking.

3. Melt the Butter in a small pan; add the minced Garlic to this, and - having stirred it, and cooked the Garlic in the Butter for a minute - add the chopped Hazelnuts and sauté the mixture over a medium-high heat for a further minute. Add to this the grated rind from the Lemons and then set the mixture aside.

4. Once the Pasta is cooked, drain it into a colander, leaving perhaps a couple of tablespoons of cooking water in the bottom of the pan. Add the Lemon-Garlic-Hazelnut mixture to this water and stir quickly.

5. Return the cooked Pasta to the pan and stir to coat it with the Nut mixture, then add the juice from the 2 Lemons (you should have four tablespoons), the chopped fresh herbs, and the Cream. Stir, to coat the Pasta thoroughly in the sauce; check the seasoning and adjust if necessary, then serve, topped with freshly grated Parmesan.