Saturday 14 January 2012

An excellent sauce for fish...

This was the sauce we had with the first course at dinner on Christmas Day. A classic technique, but none the worse for that! As with all good sauces, the secret is to reduce, and reduce, and reduce - so all those wonderful flavours end up concentrated in a spoonful of something which is so luxuriously delicious that it practically defies description.

On this occasion, we were eight for dinner, and I had a couple of gloriously meaty Dover Sole, the fillets from which were 'poached' over chopped shallots and white wine in a gentle oven, and then served with a light coating of sauce. In practice, the sauce will work with  any white-fleshed fish....and if you don't want to faff around with the filleting and making the stock from scratch, then substitute a quarter cup of ready made (good) fish stock, add to it the same quantity of white wine, and then reduce by a half before  proceeding with step two of the recipe.

You can make the sauce in advance, but if you do, then be very careful when reheating, and only do it slowly, and over the gentlest of flames.

Makes sufficient sauce for 6-8 servings (2 tbs each)

Ingredients: 2 fish carcasses;1 bottle dry white wine;1 pint of creme fraiche* - preferably home made**;1 stick celery;parsley stalks and/or fennel stalk;1 onion, roughly chopped.


1. Poach the vegetables and the fish carcases in the wine for an hour. Strain, discard the carcases and vegetables, and reduce the stock to next to nothing - ¼ cup say. 
2. Add the cream and reduce until you have 250ml or 2 tablespoons per serving. Season before serving.

* Creme fraiche is acid and produces a completely difference sauce to, say, double cream. You can use double cream and add lemon juice, but the flavour will not be the same. I also find double cream has a greater tendency to 'split' than creme fraiche. 

**To make creme fraiche at home, you will need to buy a small amount of creme fraiche the first time in order to start the process (and then use the tail-end of the first batch when it comes to making the next lot).  
Heat a litre of whipping cream to 40°C - I buy screw top paper cartons and put the carton in the warming drawer. As when making yoghurt, mix a couple of tablespoons of existing creme fraiche with some of the cream from the carton. Mix very well and return the liquid to the carton. Turn the carton upside down a couple of times to amalgamate and leave in a warm place(22-24°C say) for 24 hours. Turn the carton upside down occasionally to mix the contents.  I sit the container on top of the gas central heating boiler. Refrigerate for a day before using. It will keep 10 days or more.

Friday 13 January 2012

First-rate Art...

and third-rate scholarship. We were in Florence on Wednesday, with the Belfortes, for an exhibition at the Strozzi which was supposed to explore the relationship - accommodation, maybe? - between commerce and religion in the fifteenth century, as manifested in florentine works of art from the period. It's a valid thesis, and the works of art advertised were reason enough on their own to make it worth seeing. (The title of the exhibition was 'Botticelli, Bankers, and the Bonfires of the Vanities' , and although I've no great liking for Botticelli, there was enough on offer otherwise to whet the appetite.)

Many of the pictures were excellent: at the very least, a couple of beautiful Fra Angelico's, a wonderful Jacopo del Sellaio, and three panels of a predella by Pesellino that I would quite happily have pocketed had nobody been looking.  All-in-all, it was a morning well spent. As long as it remained  possible to ignore the banalities on the accompanying narrative panels, that is. The 'art' occasionally had to struggle quite hard to rise above the inadequacies of the text, for which joint responsibility (or do I mean blame?) was presumably shared between the two curators,  Ludovica Sebregondi and Tim Parks. La Sebregondi is apparently an art historian - although anybody reading her contributions to the signage of the exhibition could be forgiven for not having realised it - and so perhaps has less excuse than Mr Parks, who is, when all's said and done, a popular novelist. Ok, he has one light-ish weight work of Medici-related social history to his name, as well - but I'm not sure that really qualified him for the position of joint curator of this event. Who knows what struggles between these two went into the labour pangs of the enterprise, but as a scholarly exploration of a complicated - but not too complicated - subject, the end result read as though it was aimed at an audience of eight-year-olds, and was quite frankly pitiful.  

Oh, and there was a further highly-ignorable dimension to the event which, fortunately, I managed to tune out fairly comprehensively. Throughout the exhibition,  an undertone of distaste was discernible with the whole subject of banking and commerce, and wealth and luxury that could quite easily have come from one of the great-unwashed who were so recently camping on the pavement outside St Paul's, and clogging up Wall Street. Tiresome, witless, and childish. The subject deserved better.

However...lunch afterwards at Cammillo (just for a change!) was even more delicious than usual, with the stracotto I had being about as close to a work of art on a plate as you could hope to get. And as we subsequently headed off to Santa Maria Novella for our train, we waved the Belfortes off and into the Armani shop, where they had every intention of wallowing in luxury, encouraging commerce, and flouting every sumptuary law they could think of! Plus ca change...

Tonight's Dinner

Phyllo Shells, filled with Fegatini and Mushrooms, in a Marsala Cream.

Prawn Curry. 

Pineapple Soufflés Glacés

Sunday 8 January 2012

Passing on Recipes...

In the early sixties, Kira Petrovskaya talked about the time she'd asked an aged bubushka how it was that she made such memorably excellent piroshki. "Well," the old lady replied, after a long pause for thought, "first of all I wash my hands...and then.....well, then, I tie a clean kerchief around my head." This was followed by another and longer pause..."And, then?" she was prompted. "Ah, yes. And then....then, I make sure to put on a very clean apron, and tie it tightly." At which point, the explanation required another prompt, and the babushka folded her hands together, and with a smile of apple-cheeked sweetness, concluded with an understated flourish 'And then...well, then, I cook the piroshki!".  Petrovskaya was entirely convinced by the innocence of the delivery that she was in the presence of a natural cook, who couldn't conceive that any recipe could require explanation...someone for whom cooking was, after all, something that just happened  when one was in the kitchen. Never being entirely persuaded by apple-cheeked innocence,  however, I have my own view of  what was what was going on here, and take a more cynical view of the babushka's inability to communicate...

We were in Belforte for the weekend, for a birthday. For a starter at dinner on Friday, we were served a dish of wonderfully succulent courgettes, gently sautéed to a melting softness, the flavour rich, but with an undertone of tanginess. "How have you done these?" I asked, and got a vague response, that it was an adaptation over many years of something that had originally come from Hazan. "Yes, but what's the recipe?" I persisted. To be met with an explanation that it was necessary first to cut up and salt the courgettes...which led to a discussion of whether or not this was actually necessary, since I never bother with this step, any more "Ah, but unless they're absolutely garden fresh, you have to..."  which I think is nonsense, since no water ever comes out of the things, I find, even if I do salt them and leave them to sit for an hour, and so it's a complete waste of time. And by this stage we were on the second glass of grappa -  the local production of which in Belforte is absolutely lethal, and is shortly followed by collapse of stout parties - and so that was the end of that particular conversation.

"You never actually explained how you cooked the courgettes," I reminded her, over coffee, the next morning. "Ah.....didn't I?" And the evasive tone might have existed only in my imagination. "Yes, we did that bit..." I said, as a repetition of cutting and salting your courgettes seemed about to start. And this time we got as far as heating olive oil in a sauté pan...."But, it must only be very good oil, and Olive  oil, not sunflower, or peanut, or any of those other things they suggest in recipes...". 

And then the phone rang. And although there might not actually have been an element of 'saved by the bell' about it all, it was with a raised eyebrow that the TD and I exchanged a glance across the kitchen table, as the explanation trailed off in the direction of the trilling machine.

"About those courgettes," I tried again, sometime later, over a rising pile of chopped carrots and leeks, as a couple of lamb shoulders were being prepped for lunch (Belforte lamb is melt-in-the-mouth wonderful!). "Hmmm?" Difficult to concentrate on lamb and a recipe explanation all at the same time, of course, but slowly, step by painful step (of which there are only about three, anyway) we finally managed to get there. Finally. Almost twelve hours after having first posed the question. Talk about pulling teeth!

And, I would pass it on here, so we can all enjoy the perfection of the end result....but I can hear the phone ringing....and then I have to wash my hands another time! (Perhaps)

Tonight's Dinner:

Tagliatelle 'fata in casa', with a mussel and cream sauce.

Scaloppine alla milanese, with a cheese and prosciutto stuffing; fagiolini, with tomato and onion.

Apricot Cream 'Crimean style'.