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Making the Christmas Pudding

It’s a few years since I last made a Christmas pudding. And I’ve never actually made many in my life. When I was a child, my maternal grandmother was the Christmas cook, making the pudding and Christmas cake. After she died, my mother started making the pudding and I made the cake. But not many of the family liked rich fruit cake and although I love it, it lost its allure after a while when I had nearly a whole one to finish up by myself! I starting making a lighter Dundee cake, which the family preferred. I think the generous addition of whisky had a lot to do with it! As for the pudding, I took to buying them.

This year a few of us are gathering for Christmas at my daughter’s. My son and daughter are cooking together for the main event (the turkey, etc.) but as I offered to buy a pudding, I suddenly found myself offering to make one instead. Last year my daughter and her wife made a wonderful Christmas cake from Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles and so I thought it would be nice to use his recipe to make a pudding.

Nigel Slater is one of my favourite cookery writers and Christmas Chronicles is an indispensable guide to fabulous food for the Christmas season; indeed it’s a great book for winter recipes, not just Christmas. I made a gorgeous chocolate mousse from it (click here – and for more info on the book).

I’ve been so busy I imagined I’d missed the traditional cut-off date for making a Christmas pudding (not that that was going to stop me making one!). However, a quick Google search revealed that Stir-up Sunday is next weekend – 26 November. So remarkably, and not always true to form, I find I’m making it a week early!

Of course, I can’t vouch for it being as fabulous as I’m hoping for. You’ll have to wait until after Christmas to find out. But I have every confidence in Nigel; certainly the cake from the book was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. I made his lighter version of pudding and love the addition of dried figs and apricots, fresh grated apple and fresh orange zest and juice, as well as they ‘usual’ ingredients. How could it not be good! It’s taken me most of the weekend to make it due to many interruptions – the ‘overnight’ soak of fruit in brandy turned into more like 24 hours … then the first steaming was delayed. But finally I have 3 puddings all waiting for Christmas Day. I’m not sure quite how I’ll use up three; Nigel only makes 2 but I had smaller pudding basins and am conscious that some of the family don’t actually like Christmas pudding. But the others can’t do Christmas without it! I’m sure we’ll manage three somehow. We can have one at Easter, as Nigel suggests, and I can always save one until next Christmas when it will be gorgeously matured. Now, I’m going to be seriously impressed with myself for that kind of organisation!

 

Nigel Slater’s Christmas Pudding

  • 350g sultanas
  • 350g raisins
  • 150g dried figs, chopped
  • 125g candied peel
  • 100g dried apricots, chopped
  • 75g dark glacé cherries, halved
  • 150ml brandy
  • 2 apples, grated
  • 2 oranges, zest and juice
  • 6 eggs
  • 250g shredded suet
  • 350g dark muscovado sugar
  • 250g fresh breadcrumbs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice

You will need either 2 x 1.5 litre pudding basins or 2 x 1 litre basins. You can buy special plastic ones now with lids (Nigel’s suggestion) that makes life easier – no tricky tying of string! Butter them and prepare 2 or 3 (depending on how many basins you’re using) large sheets of greaseproof paper to go on top. Butter the paper and fold a pleat down the middle.

Put the first six ingredients in a large bowl and pour over the brandy. Stir well, cover and leave for a few hours or overnight. Give it a stir from time to time so each piece of fruit gets coated in the brandy.

Then mix the grated apple, orange juice and zest, beaten eggs, suet, sugar, breadcrumbs and flour in another large bowl.

   

   

Then stir in the dried fruit and spice.

   

Mix thoroughly. Divide between the prepared pudding basins.

Cover with the greaseproof paper and put the lids on. Steam for 3 hours. Remember to check the water level regularly, every half hour or so, to make sure it doesn’t dry out. Top up with boiling water as necessary.

Let the puddings cool. Remove the greaseproof paper, cover tightly with clingfilm and put the plastic lids back on. Store in a cool, dark place until Christmas Day – or when needed. Then steam for another 3 hours before serving. Turn out and flame with brandy if you like, and serve with brandy butter, brandy sauce or my special Christmas brandy ice cream.

 

Gelatorino, East Sheen, London SW14

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I’d heard mention of a good gelateria in nearby East Sheen but it was only when I was driving through there a few weeks ago, along the Upper Richmond Road, that I saw it was a branch of Gelatorino. Wow! What a delight to find a little slice – well maybe ‘scoop’ – of Turin almost on my doorstep.

I made my first visit to the original London branch of Gelatorino in Covent Garden in the summer (click here) and was hugely impressed. We’re really spoilt for choice these days with fantastic ice cream available all over London (click here) but Gelatorino is consistently voted one of the best – and with good reason.

The Turin influence is strong with flavours made from Bunet (a classic Turin dessert of chocolate, amaretti, coffee and rum), Gianduja (Turin’s famous combination of chocolate and hazelnuts) and best-quality IGP hazelnuts from Piedmont.

We’d been out for a family lunch at Arte Chef in Barnes to celebrate middle grandson’s first birthday. Staying with the Italian theme, I suggested we drive back via East Sheen and go for gelato at Gelatorino; it seemed a perfect opportunity to try it. Truly, I promised everyone, they serve some of the very best ice cream you’ll find anywhere.

Inside we found the friendly Luca to serve us. When I talked about going to Turin, he told me that’s where he’s from and he was obviously proud of his home city and passionate about what he was selling in the cafe.

Gelatorino is more than an ice cream parlour, it’s a cafe too. There was a nice seating area and plenty of pastries, cakes and biscuits to choose from to go with a coffee. They also serve focaccia sandwiches and pancakes.

   

Everything looked amazing. The gelati are kept in steel tubs called pozzetti, which have their lids on so the ice cream is properly stored. This is a sign of serious gelato-making! You may not be able to see the ice cream but we were offered tastes, even 3½ year old Freddie. There’s a fairly limited choice but this is because they’re all made fresh daily.

Freddie was definitely having ice cream! No question. But he made a rather grown-up choice of passion fruit sorbet. They serve a special kids’ size cone at £2.50 – it even had a teddy bear face on the cone; the ice cream sitting like a grand hat on top of the head!

Nonna liked the idea of passion fruit sorbet too and I chose a small cup (£3.50) with 2 flavours – the sorbet and Bunet. Freddie’s mum couldn’t resist one of the cakes and had a slice of chocolate flan. She and I had coffee as well – Lavazza, of course, as it comes from Turin. They’ve been making coffee since 1895. The coffee came with gorgeous biscuits on the side.

   

My son joined us a few minutes later. He had coffee too and a tub of half Hazelnut and half Pistachio gelato. He was seriously impressed, particularly by the hazelnut.

It might be as well that although Gelatorino is close, it’s not actually within our walking distance. It would be too tempting and we’d soon grow fat! But I love that it’s a cafe too and so it’s a great place to meet people for breakfast, a snack lunch or – as we did – afternoon gelato! It’s open every day from 8am – 7pm; 9am – 6.30pm on Sundays.

Gelatorino Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Review: Lina Stores

Lina Stores in Brewer Street is one of Soho’s most loved and respected institutions. Established in 1944 by ‘Lina’ – a woman from Genoa – it is London’s go-to deli for fabulous Italian food. Jamie Oliver has named it his favourite deli; a couple of years ago on TV I watched Nigella Lawson and the great food writer, Anna del Conte, make a visit there.

Over recent years I’ve popped in quite regularly when in London, buying the odd thing. Usually I’m on my way to the theatre so not about to do a major shop, but it’s full to the brim with the most glorious foods and you couldn’t fail to find a few things to tempt you. There’s the fresh pasta they make on the premises; great Parma hams and salamis hanging from the ceiling; huge slabs of Italian cheeses and jars of delights. Of course now it’s full of Christmas things so an ideal place to search for gifts for all your Italian food loving family and friends.

   

Such has been my love and respect for Lina Stores that I was seriously excited when I noticed earlier this year that they were opening a restaurant. When I mentioned it to my friend Lucia it was decided we simply had to go. It’s taken a while for a variety of reasons, but last night we made it. And I’m so glad we did!

Given that we were eating before going to the theatre and thus had limited time, it was fortunate I arrived early, as I always do. For I had just assumed the restaurant was in Brewer Street on the deli site, especially as I’ve noticed them adding a few tables outside and setting up a bar area to eat inside the deli. But no – the restaurant is at 51 Greek Street. So I made my way from Brewer Street, along Old Compton Street and into Greek Street. Barely 5 minutes.

I had tried to book but they do have a slightly weird and confusing system saying they ‘only take reservations for lunch & early/late dinner’.  What that actually means is they don’t take bookings for the early evening/pre-theatre rush – there’s just a walk-in system then. It was busy when I arrived at 6pm but happily there was a table for two downstairs in the basement.

My heart sank a little. How often do basement areas turn out to be rather grim, depressingly lit parts of the restaurant where you feel excluded from the main event. But not at Lina Stores! It was so cosy that I said to Lucia as we were leaving that perhaps it was the nicest place to sit. It was small and a little cramped, but not so cramped you risk knocking elbows with your next-door neighbour. And it was all beautifully decorated in the Lina Stores ‘green’ and white. But best of all – apart from the food! – was the warm Italian welcome. There were plenty of waiters and everyone was so friendly and helpful.

While I was waiting for Lucia I ordered a glass of house white: a wine from the Veneto at £4.50 for 125ml.

The menu is quite small and very simple: antipasti, pasta and dolci (dessert). There were 8 antipasti ranging in price from £3 for ciabatta and a special olive oil to £6.50 for Culatello di Mandolino – sliced Cultatello ham. There were also 8 pasta dishes, the cheapest being Mezzelune pasta with Parma ham, potatoes, Amalfi lemon and thyme for £5.50 and the most expensive Green agnolotti pasta with black truffle and ricotta at £13.

They are all really ‘small plates’ with the view that people will share some and when we ordered just 3, our waiter politely tried to suggest it might not be enough. We were certain it would be though – we’d seen plates at the next table and neither of us wanted to eat a huge amount pre-theatre. It turned out to be perfect for us – though hungrier people or those not in a hurry might want more.

There were no ‘sides’ and I suggested we share a salad from the antipasti choices: Finocchio, Topinambur, Arance e Olive con Vinaigrette al Bergamotto – Fennel, orange and artichoke salad with a Bergamot dressing (£6). We were asked how we’d like it – on its own or with the pasta. I said to please bring it but not hold back on the pasta – bring that when it was ready.

The salad looked beautiful when it was put before us.

It was really good. It was so fresh and quite crunchy with its paper-thin slices of raw fennel and Jerusalem artichoke; the sweetness of the orange and a glorious floral hint from the Bergamot dressing added an almost exotic touch.

Lucia and I chose the same pasta dish: Ravioli di Zucca, Burro Salvia e Nocciole del Piemonte DOP – pumpkin filled ravioli with sage butter and Piemontese hazelnuts (£9).

There were just four ravioli but they were quite large. It looked great and it tasted absolutely wonderful. Really, this was some of the best pasta I’ve ever had. The pasta was cooked to that perfect al dente; the ravioli were generously filled with the sweet and delicious pumpkin and the crushed hazelnuts on top made it all gorgeous.

There were other great choices: some chittara spaghetti with Dorset crab (£9.50); pappardelle with slow cooked veal ragu (£10); pici with porcini mushrooms and Umbrian sausage (£7)

There were 4 tempting desserts, including their famous cannoli, but we’d both had enough and it was getting close to the time we needed to head to the theatre, so we ordered just coffee – a macchiato for Lucia and espresso for me (£2.50 each).

The total bill, including service, was just under £38 for the two of us.

What a great find the Lina Stores restaurant is. I just loved it. The atmosphere was buzzing and welcoming and the food is fantastico! As we came up upstairs to leave, there was a long bar to eat at and outside, now just past 7.00pm, a queue was forming. All I can say is, it will be worth the wait!

Lina Stores Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Roasted Celeriac Soup

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I’ve posted other celeriac soup recipes on the blog, in fact very recently one including apple (click here – and for more information on celeriac). I’ve always known I like celeriac but clearly I like it more than I’d previously realised! This one came about through changed plans yesterday that meant a celeriac I’d bought wasn’t going to be used. And then there was the freshly made chicken stock. How could I not put them together?

I usually chop up the celeriac and do the whole thing in a big pan on top of the stove. But I decided to roast the celeriac instead. I like roasting vegetables for soup – Roast Tomato & Thyme, Roasted Cauliflower with Spices, Roast Squash & Tomato – and think it gives the soup a lovely deep flavour. Vegetables have a more intense flavour when roasted, and then you get gorgeous caramelised bits on some of the edges (though don’t let them burn). Make sure you scrape up any caramelised bits stuck to the pan when you’re blending at the end. As a method, it’s really much easier as you can just cut everything up and throw into an ovenproof dish and straight into the oven.

 

Roasted Celeriac Soup – Serves 4

  • 1 celeriac (about 800g)
  • 1 large potato
  • 1 stick of celery
  • 1 medium onion
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano
  • 750ml chicken (or vegetable) stock

 

Peel the celeriac. This is best done with a very sharp knife, cutting off the top and bottom first and then cutting downwards as you move the celeriac round. Cut into chunks – about 2½cm/1 inch cubes.

Then peel and chop the potato into similar sized chunks; then the celery and onion. Put them all into a large shallow ovenproof dish that can also go on the hob. Drizzle over a generous amount (about 3-4 tablespoons) olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter over the herbs. Now use your hands to carefully fold over and mix all together and coat the pieces of vegetables in oil. Put into a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven for about 50 minutes. The time will vary slightly depending on the size of your chunks. Give it all a stir a couple of times during the cooking so the top pieces don’t get burnt and more pieces enjoy the caramelisation effect.

When everything is nicely golden brown and the vegetables cooked through (test with a sharp knife or fork), remove from the oven.

Spoon the vegetables into a large, deep pan. Then pour a little of the stock into the pan you cooked the vegetables in and put over a medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon, which you can use to scrape any caramelised bits that have caught on the bottom and sides (not burnt bits!). Tip it over the vegetables and add the rest of the stock. Bring up to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes for everything to amalgamate.

   

Now use a stick blender to blend it all to a lovely smooth and creamy soup.

I like this kind of soup to be quite thick but thin it to the consistency you prefer, if necessary, either with more hot stock or some boiling water. Check seasoning.

Serve with a dollop of cream or yoghurt, if you like, and garnish with some chopped parsley or even a few thyme leaves if you put fresh thyme in the soup. It also occurred to me as I was ladling the soup into the bowl that a garnish of crispy bacon would be nice too, for something more special, as bacon and celeriac go well together. However you eat it, the flavour of roasted celeriac is truly special.

Quick Apple Tartlets

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Jonathan Swift used the phrase ‘life’s too short’ all the way back in 1711. Then Shirley Conran coined the phrase, ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ in her 1975 book Superwoman, aimed at busy women; it was a transforming book that liberated women and made it OK to take shortcuts and not feel they had to be some kind of goddess in the home. In 2008, Janet Street-Porter wrote LIfe’s Too F****** Short: A guide to getting what YOU want out of life, without wasting time, effort or money. I love this book; it struck a chord with me. As I get older I’m less concerned with impressing – for example, friends and family know I can cook well so I don’t have to always aim for the Michelin star meal; I know now a simple meal can still be really good if made with best-quality ingredients – and a lot of love. I don’t want to keep putting effort into things and even relationships that don’t work well for me; I like to adopt a Taoist approach to life – don’t give up at the first hurdle, but if you, metaphorically speaking, keep ‘knocking on the door’ and don’t get the answer or result you hope for, then accept it’s not going to work. Walk away. And don’t beat yourself up about it. I relate to Janet’s view about positive thinking. And that means putting one’s effort, time, emotions and energy into positive things. I’ve always believed that you should put the most effort into the people and things that are most important to you. Some people believe a good relationship looks after itself and you shouldn’t have to work at it. But I don’t agree. If someone is really important to you – keep telling them; make loving, thoughtful gestures … cook them Sunday lunch.

Personally, I don’t agree that ‘life’s too short’ to stuff a mushroom because a mushroom stuffed with duxelles, showered in freshly grated Parmesan and browned under the grill, is a truly wonderful thing. But sometimes life is just too busy. Or, you’re really pleased the family are coming round for Sunday lunch but making flaky pastry from scratch for the apple tartlets is a step too far today. I do genuinely love cooking, even just for myself, but today was going to be a shortcut day. I wrote about making my own flaky pastry for apple tartlets last year (click here) and it is fun to do, immensely satisfying and, I think, the result a little better. But then while I was wandering the aisles of Waitrose gathering ingredients for lunch today, buying ready-made and rolled all-butter puff pastry for the apple tartlets seemed a good idea and the easy route far too tempting to resist.

Instead of spending more than an hour making and chilling and rolling the pastry, you can make the whole dessert, from start to finish, in about half an hour. Apart from being so easy, it’s also something that can be rustled up last-minute.

 

Quick Apple Tartlets – Makes 6

  • 1 x 320g pack of all-butter puff pastry
  • 3 eating apples
  • a little butter for greasing baking tray
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • icing sugar

 

I wasn’t sure how many pastry circles I’d get from the pack and only wanted 4 tartlets, so I cut the roll in half, thinking I’d freeze the second half. However, I could only get 3 from each long half, so I decided to cut the extra 2 circles and layer them with greaseproof paper and freeze them for another time. You couldn’t, of course, do this is you bought frozen pastry but mine was from a cold shelf so OK to freeze.

   

Use either a pastry cutter or mug to cut out 6 circles of 10cm (4 inches) diameter. Place them on a baking sheet that you’ve first greased with a little butter. Now use a sharp knife to mark a circle about 1cm from the edge. Don’t cut right through. This is just to allow the edge to puff up a bit more as it cooks.

   

Peel the apples, core and cut in two. Now cut into slices keeping the shape of the apple half as much as you can. My apples were quite big and I decided I didn’t need the entire half (so I ate the ends instead!).

   

Carefully lay the apple slices on top of the pastry, fanning out to separate the slices a bit, and leaving the edge uncovered. Brush beaten egg round the edge so the pastry will brown nicely.

   

Put the tartlets into a preheated 220C/200 Fan/Gas 7 oven for 20 minutes. The edges should puff up and the tartlets be a nice golden brown. Using a fine sieve, shower some icing sugar generously over the top of the cooked tartlets.

   

Put the tray under a hot grill to melt the sugar and caramelise the tartlets. This only takes a couple of minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn.

And now you have your ultra quick, homemade apple tartlets! Yes I know I said I didn’t need to impress … but, honestly, who isn’t going to be impressed by these!

I made these in advance but they’d be nice served warm too.

If you’re in French mode you’d eat these just as they are. But don’t feel you have to deny yourself a little extra in the form of some cream or ice cream or maybe a dollop of thick Greek yoghurt. We didn’t!

The Manor Arms, Abberley, Worcestershire

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I’ve just been up to Worcestershire to see my daughter and new grandson. It’s quite a long journey from London – minimum 2½ hour drive each way – so I prefer to stay the night. However, as Nicola & Rachael’s house is deep in renovation and there’s no room for me to sleep in at the moment, not even a dust-free sofa, I decided to find somewhere nearby to stay. Nicola suggested The Manor Arms and as we had a great meal there last year, it was an attractive choice.

The Manor Arms is in Abberley, a beautiful village deep in rural Worcestershire. There’s been a village there since the 11th century and the parish of Abberley is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. The Manor Arms dates back to the 17th century and was first owned by the Lord of the Manor. It was smaller then and had its own brew house and, typically of pubs at the time, was a central meeting place for locals. It’s undergone major renovation in recent years and is now privately owned. Here are some photos I took this morning of the countryside surrounding the pub.

   

   

   

I drove up to my daughter’s early yesterday morning. In the afternoon we headed over to Abberley – a 17-minute drive according to Google Maps – so that I could check in. With a 7-week-old baby in the family, we weren’t planning on having supper there again, but I wanted to get settled in before arriving for the night much later in the evening.

There are just 6 en-suite bedrooms. We were shown up to the room, via a large and cosy landing with sofas and bookshelves.

I had the smallest room and it was in the eaves at the top of the building, but very comfortable.

There was a small shower room (larger rooms have baths). The shower room had Noble Isle luxury toiletries. This was a nice touch as they were really lovely and so often, even in big hotels, you find indifferent, hotel-label shower gels, etc. I was pleased to see a kettle provided with a great selection of good quality teas. There was also a small cafetière with packs of ground coffee. I thought this was great. (There was supposed to be some homemade biscuits but they hadn’t refilled the jar – another time I’d ask them to fill it but I didn’t notice straight away). The young woman who showed me to the room said there was long-life milk there but if I wanted fresh, just ask, and they’d bring some up, which was thoughtful service.

   

After I’d sorted my things out, Nicola and I (and baby) headed downstairs and I suggested we ask to have some tea before we headed back to Nicola’s house. The bar area was empty and all was quiet but there was no problem getting some tea brought to us. We found a cosy corner to sit in by the Inglenook fireplace and it was lovely to relax there and chat for a while.

   

That night I returned about 10.00pm. I hadn’t really drunk with supper because of the drive to The Manor Arms so I decided to get a glass of wine down in the bar and settled into the same comfortable chair to enjoy it. It was busier now but I was quite happy, even on my own, in the bar. Not all bars are comfortable places for a woman on her own late evening but this was just as cosy and welcoming as it had been earlier in the day.

My room rate (£80 per night) included breakfast. Breakfast is served 7.30-9.30am Mon-Fri and 8.00-9.30am Sat and Sun. Nicola suggested she and baby come over and join me for breakfast. The breakfast room – which is sometimes used as a private dining room for events like weddings – opens out on to a terrace with glorious views.

Breakfast was OK but slightly sloppy and fairly minimal. The ‘buffet’ was just a couple of loaves – no pastries or cakes – some juices and a couple of cereals (containers almost empty). There were pats of English butter and little jars of Tiptree jam (only Strawberry) or honey.

   

There were some nice bio-yoghurts in little pots with a choice of fruit compote at the bottom, and a choice of 4 things for cooked breakfast: The Full English; Scrambled Egg and Smoked Salmon; Spinach & Mushroom Omelette; and Kippers with Parsley Butter.

   

I never usually eat anything cooked for breakfast but decided to have the scrambled egg and smoked salmon (a Full English – many people’s delight, I know – would be many steps too far for me). There was a generous amount of smoked salmon but the egg was overcooked. Once it came, I had to get up and go over to the buffet table to toast bread and it would have been better if they’d brought toast with it. The coffee was very good and served in a large and generous cafetière; I did have to ask for milk, though. For the tea drinker there was a large selection of good teas.

The breakfast was, to be honest, disappointing, especially as the evening meal I had there a year ago was so splendid. It was a bit of a pattern – some really thoughtful touches, like the top quality tea in the room and nice toiletries but then just a few sloppy things. But I still liked The Manor Arms – the service was so friendly, and the atmosphere so cosy, it compensated a lot for the slight annoyances; everyone I encountered was very helpful and greeted me with a big smile, so I felt very welcomed. Not surprisingly, given the excellent restaurant and fabulous location, it gets very booked up and when I tried to book a room for 3 weeks’ time, it was already full. So … if you fancy a weekend in beautiful rural Worcestershire and some good food and a room in a nice pub … book well in advance! (Click here for The Manor Arms website.)

Vegetarian Suppers for Autumn Nights

I was alerted to the fact that today – I November – is World Vegan Day by the food writer Matthew Fort on his blog, Fort on Food. There’s a lot of vegan and vegetarian in my life at the moment: I’ve recently worked on a book about part-time vegans (which apparently is the ‘in’ thing – being vegan for part of the week but eating meat on other days), and cooking more vegetarian food for the family than usual. This is due to my daughter having recently had her first baby. She lives in Worcestershire in a beautiful (or it will be once they finish the renovation works) 16th century farmhouse with glorious views over the Worcestershire countryside. Despite being a firmly committed Londoner, it’s lovely to visit and especially at the moment to enjoy my new grandson. I’ve been taking meals with me or cooking there, to help in the early stages with the baby, and as my daughter’s wife is a vegetarian, vegetarian meals are called for … and that got me thinking about this post.

I was brought up at a time when it was thought that everyone should eat ‘meat and two veg’ a day. I guess this was a by-product of the war years when food was scarce and rationed. It took me a long time to get over this; this belief that if I hadn’t eaten meat and two veg in a day then I might starve, waste away, become ill. It sounds silly now but we are so deeply influenced by our childhood experiences and the beliefs our parents pass on to us that it can be quite a challenge to let go of them. Slowly over the years I’ve cooked more and more vegetarian meals. I’m far from being a vegetarian though and I can’t imagine ever embracing veganism, but I guess I’m a ‘part-time vegetarian’ and eat non-meat meals at least three times a week. Other nights I’ll have meat, and fish at least once. I rarely choose a vegetarian main meal when dining out though, and in truth I’m so far from being a real vegetarian that I have to confess to a deep love for an occasional very rare steak; I absolutely adore (very politically incorrect, I know!) foie gras; and have a passion for oysters – always raw and live rather than any cooked kind.

Eating less meat overall, I find I don’t really want to eat it every day. And I think my love of Italian food – so often cooking pasta dishes or risotto – means that I’ve come to appreciate the wonders of simple meals cooked with a few good ingredients, preferably very fresh and in season. A typical midweek supper will be some pasta with a simple sauce made from fresh tomatoes with maybe some spinach or tender stem broccoli added; or a risotto with mushrooms, or diced courgettes, or as simple as a handful of peas added with some fresh mint. Despite this vegetarian tendency, I’m always slightly thrown when I have to cook a vegetarian meal because I’m feeding a vegetarian! I guess that’s because when I think about entertaining and cooking for family and friends, I generally cook meat or fish dishes. However, there are lots of vegetarian dishes on the blog and here is a selection of ones that make a great warming and comforting meal as we head more deeply into autumn and long, dark nights and icy cold mornings.

 

Vegetable Lasagna with Aubergine, Courgette & Tomato

Lasagna is always a crowd pleaser and so comforting. It also has the advantage that it can be prepared ahead and cooked at the last minute, so especially good for entertaining. Vegetarian lasagna is every bit as good as the meat kind. Why not experiment with different vegetables but for my favourite mix, click here.

Vegetarian Moussaka

Moussaka is a big family favourite and I’ve been cooking it for as long as I’ve been cooking – going back to school days! However, having a vegetarian in the family meant I had to come up with a different version and it works so well with Puy lentils instead of meat – click here.

Grilled Cauliflower Steak on Creamy Mash with Tahini Sauce

Cauliflower ‘steak’ was popular a little while ago and is a fantastic way to cook cauliflower. It even has a kind of ‘steak’ feel when you eat it as a thick slice and really does make a good, substantial meal. Click here for my recipe.

Frittata with Potatoes, Courgettes & Parmesan

Well of course eggs are a great ingredient for the vegetarian (though not vegans, of course!) and while I sometimes love a simple French-style omelette, making a frittata with more ingredients seems more like a meal rather than a snack. For family I’ve made a huge one and cut it into slices and served with salad. Click here for recipe.

Polenta alla Cacciatora – Polenta Hunter’s Style

I’ve become very fond of polenta. I ‘cheat’ in the sense that I use a quick-cooking, instant kind that you can make in just a couple of minutes. It’s pretty bland on its own but season well and add some Parmesan and a big lump of butter and it’s absolutely glorious. It makes a good alternative to potato mash or pasta – especially for this mushroom dish – click here.

Polenta with Aubergine, Tomato & Pine Nut Sauce

And here’s another polenta topping that’s really good – click here.

Fried Polenta with Fresh Tomato, Garlic & Basil Sauce

It takes a little more time but try frying the polenta after you’ve made it the usual way. Allow it to rest and go solid, then cut into chip-sized pieces and shallow-fry in some extra virgin olive oil. It’s really delicious and needs only a simple tomato sauce to accompany the ‘chips’. Click here.

Mushroom and Chestnut Risotto

I make risotto a lot. I find it such a comforting dish to make and eat. If you’ve had a busy day, making a risotto is almost like mindfulness – you have to slow down and take things gently; be in the moment. But risotto is so versatile, working well with light, summery ingredients as well as rich, warming wintry ones like this mushroom and chestnut version – click here.

Basic Tomato Sauce for Pasta

Every cook will have a recipe for a simple tomato sauce. Nothing could be simpler than some freshly cooked pasta coated in a great tomato sauce with a generous dusting of Parmesan grated over the top. Click here for my recipe. Remember you can make more than you need and freeze some for an ‘instant’ meal another night.

Penne with Aubergine & Salted Ricotta

I do love aubergines so there are a lot of aubergine recipes on my blog. This is a version of the classic ‘Norma’ pasta from Sicily. Click here.

Easy Pasta Bake

Everyone loves a pasta bake and what could be more warming and cosy on a winter’s night? I used filled pasta in the recipe above but you don’t need to; plain pasta like penne will work well too. Click here for recipe.

Orecchiette with Sumac Roasted Yellow Courgette and Hazelnuts

I just love orecchiette pasta and this was a special way of eating it – click here.

One into Two: Butternut Squash & Tomato

Butternut squash is a family favourite and here I managed to enjoy two dishes from one squash – first with pasta and then as a soup! Click here.

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Aubergine, Tomato & Chickpea Curry

It’s obvious to any regular reader of my blog that my main influence in the kitchen is Italy – I love Italy, Italian food, have Italian friends … But I also like Middle Eastern food and Indian too. This is a great curry dish – quite light and beautifully fragrant. Click here.

Aubergine & Tomato Tagine

Yes, here come the aubergines again! This is a different take on the aubergine and tomato combination with a gorgeous memory of Morocco. Click here.

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Even die-hard meat eaters generally like to eat some vegetarian meals these days, whether it be for health reasons or simply because we eat a much greater variety of foods than we used to, from all parts of the world. I hope this post has inspired you if you want – or need – to cook a vegetarian meal.

Tagliatelle with Slow-cooked Beef Ragu

This is a ‘bolognese’ sauce in essence, but of course we are better informed in 2018 and know we must never talk about ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, especially to an Italian – and particularly one from Bologna! Certainly you will find meat ragù in Italy though and the first recorded version of a meat sauce served with pasta came from Imola, a city near Bologna, in the late 18th century. And the famous Italian cookery book writer, Pellegrino Artusi, who wrote La Scienza in cucina l’arte di mangiar bene (science in the kitchen and the art of eating well) in 1891, gave a recipe for a Maccheroni alla Bolognese.

   

In fact, the sauce we tend to call ‘bolognese’ is more akin to the Naples version of meat ragù – alla Napoletana – where tomatoes, popular in the south, are added. In the north – Bologna – there is much controversy about whether to add any tomatoes at all. My favourite local restaurant, Masaniello – where head chef Livio comes from Naples – serves the best version of meat ragù I’ve ever had – slow cooked and of the Naples kind. He uses braising meat rather than mince, which I’ve been meaning to try … but it was mince this evening. Mine makes no pretension to emulate his – its only claim is to be an Italian-style sauce I make a lot.

I’ve written about ‘bolognese’ before and it was one of the first recipes I wrote on the blog, back in 2011 (click here). I talked about it being a ‘Friday Night’ dish in my family as I always had a big pot simmering on the stove when my kids were old enough to start going out on their own on Friday night. They could have their supper early, leaving their dad and me to eat ours later – no spoilt meal, and everyone could eat when they wanted. I think it’s clearly nostalgia that makes it still a regular Friday night meal – either just for myself or with anyone else who happens to be here! I still make a big pot but nowadays freeze it in separate portions. In fact, it almost never happens that there is none at all in my freezer. When I get down to the last packet, I make more. My son has been known to raid my freezer, asking for a couple of packs of ‘your bolognese’ to take home with him, and grandson Freddie (3½) loves it too (though he possibly loves Livio’s more as he often chooses it rather than pizza in Masaniello). The mother in me – and indeed, the Nonna – likes having packs of comforting food in the freezer, ready to hand out to hungry family. If you love cooking, there are few things more wonderful than feeding those you love.

Rather inevitably, as I’ve been making this for so many years, the recipe changes slightly as time goes by. My current favourite way to cook the sauce is to add some diced pancetta and also to cook the sauce very slowly – hence, ‘slow-cooked’ – for a long, long time. Generally three hours. It really does make a difference to the flavour. In my original recipe I added mushrooms – I think a habit that came from following a recipe that I had from a cookery writer (Robin Howe), who lived in Italy, and I was working with many years ago when editing lots of cookery books. It’s not a usual ingredient but while looking through some ragù recipes today I saw some people added dried porcini mushrooms, so I decided to try that, knowing they’d bring a great deep flavour to the sauce.

As with all cooking, but particularly Italian, buy the best quality ingredients you can afford but especially the pasta. The difference between a good quality pasta rather than a cheap supermarket own make is enormous. And do eat meat ragù with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. Italians like to match pasta to the kind of sauce they’re serving and meat ragù wraps itself round tagliatelle much better than it does spaghetti.

 

Tagliatelle with Slow-cooked Meat Ragù Makes enough for about 8 portions

  • 10g dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 250ml warm water
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 77g diced pancetta
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 3 small-medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 800g extra lean minced beef
  • 200ml red wine
  • 500g passata
  • 1 x 450g tin tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • tagliatelle, about 70g per person

 

   

Put the dried porcini in a jug and pour over the warm water. Leave the mushrooms to soften and a lovely ‘stock’ form to go into the ragù.

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the diced pancetta, vegetables and garlic. Cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until the pancetta has coloured and the vegetables are softening. This base is called a soffritto (though more often made without the pancetta) and it’s important to take the time to cook it properly before adding other ingredients as it gives a depth of flavour to the sauce.

   

Tip in the meat, turn the heat up a bit, and stir carefully, turning from time to time so the meat colours all over. You want the meat to cook fairly fast – to ‘fry’ rather than ‘steam’. When it’s nicely coloured, pour in the wine and mix well. Cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the wine has been absorbed (this also burns off the alcohol).

   

Remove the porcini from the jug and chop finely, then add with their ‘stock’ to the meat. Add the passata and tinned tomatoes. Sprinkle over the dried oregano and season with salt and pepper.

   

Stir everything together well and bring to the boil – just bubbles round the edge; not a ‘rolling’ boil. Then turn down the heat to the lowest possible setting and put a lid on the pot, leaving just the smallest gap for steam to escape. Leave to simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 2½-3 hours, or until the liquid is almost totally absorbed and the mixture fairly dry.

   

 

Cook your tagliatelle according to the instructions on the packet – usually about 4 minutes. Drain. Tip back into the dry pan. Add a couple of large spoons of the ragù. Mix carefully but well over a low heat for just a minute or two. Italian never dump ragù on top of the pasta; it’s always carefully folded in. Now spoon on to a plate or shallow dish. Serve with a side green salad.

There’s something so wonderfully comforting about this dish. For me it’s full of memories – family meals, Italy – but it’s a dish everyone loves because it is so good. And I really do recommend making a big, big pot and freezing portions. It’s just great to grab one from the freezer for a quick meal … or to give to hungry sons.

Restaurant Review: The Ivy Tower Bridge

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I’m trying very hard to like the Ivy Cafe chain; I want to like it. In theory it should be perfect: a famous, indeed iconic, name; the attraction of grand, sumptuous cafes of the Parisian kind serving great food. In practice, I never fail to be disappointed. Some of my friends love them and can’t understand my negativity; others hate them and even refuse to go on the basis they’re overpriced and the service is awful; there’s a polarised division much on the scale of Brexit. Jay Rayner of the Observer isn’t a fan, calling them ‘a clumsy branding racket’ but you’ll find plenty of enthusiastic reviews too.

Thus it was with a little misgiving that I suggested to my friend Chris last night that we eat in The Ivy Tower Bridge. But as we were going to The Bridge Theatre to see A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Martin McDonagh’s play about Hans Christian Andersen, starring Jim Broadbent, and the theatre is bang next door to The Ivy, then why wouldn’t one eat there?

Both theatre and restaurant are right by Tower Bridge – hence their names – so there’s the promise of good views as you arrive. The location is a bit out of the way though compared to the West End (nearest Undergrounds a 12-minute walk to London Bridge or 13-minute walk to Tower Hill), but this area of London is undergoing major regeneration and more and more shops and restaurants are opening up.

The entrance lobby to the restaurant – which is actually huge inside – was quite small; my welcome tepid, which made me feel a bit annoyed even before I sat down. I was shown through to my table in a heaving part of the restaurant. I was struck by the loud and busy decor, which wasn’t as sophisticated as other Ivy cafes I’ve been to, and seemed designed to hype everyone up rather than calm anyone down. However, there was a great view out of large windows across to Tower Bridge, now lit up in the dark and looking splendid.

Despite the uncertain start, the service turned out to be excellent. Poor service at this chain has always been my major complaint (Covent Garden, Richmond), but I have to say that last night’s was efficient, attentive and friendly. So 10/10 for service. Then it went downhill.

The lunch and early evening fixed priced menu is £16.50 for 2 courses; £21.00 for 3. It’s available from 11.30am to 6.30pm daily. There were 3 starters and 4 mains to choose from, plus 3 desserts (though we didn’t have those). There was a small separate wine list as well as the main one, listing wines available by the glass. We both chose Côtes du Rhône (175ml for £8.50).

We also both chose the same food, beginning with Gravlax – cured salmon, dill-pickled cucumber, wholegrain mustard and dill dressing, granary toast.

Not quite what I was expecting as it was put before me. The toast was overgenerous – we thought the first rack was to share. The slices were too thick though and no butter came – which we had to ask for to make it edible; who wants to eat thick dry toast?

As for the salmon – when I order Gravlax (which is one of my favourite things, but so simple you wonder how anyone can get it wrong), I expect fairly thick slices of cured salmon and a nice thick, almost mayonnaise-like, mustard and dill sauce. The salmon was so thin it could have qualified as carpaccio – you could see through it; the barely cured cucumber slices so thick, it was totally inappropriate as an accompaniment. And what a lack of any kind of sophistication to put them on top in the way they did; it looked so amateur. The dressing was mild and thin; not that nice tangy sauce you usually get with gravlax. So … it was OK … just … but for a restaurant claiming the Ivy name, very poor indeed.

For mains we ordered Hoisin-glazed crispy duck leg with pak choi and coriander mashed potatoes, sesame seeds, steamed broccoli and red wine sauce.

It was OK. That’s really about the best I can say for it. Plenty of duck but a meagre helping of sauce and mash (and the pak choi addition might be stretching the description a bit); the broccoli didn’t qualify for an al dente description, it was so underdone I had trouble cutting through the stalk to eat it.

The bill came to £56 for the two of us, with wine, and including service. If the food had been great, that would have been a fair price but there are much better pre-theatre meals available for less.

The Ivy Tower Bridge Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chicken with Orange, Chicory & Thyme

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I had two organic chicken breasts and decided to cook them with oranges. I pondered a while over what else I might add and remembered that oranges go really well with chicory – I often make a salad with them – and so I reckoned that the flavours were bound to work in my chicken dish – and they did! I had a bunch of fresh thyme that I’d hung in the kitchen a few days ago to dry – so I guess it was semi-dried – and decided to add that too. It’s been a lovely sunny day but quite cold – well, it is the end of October. I thought the dish would be a good transition dish with its bright summery flavours but the warming aspect of braising it to give a gorgeous sauce, which could be mopped up with some smooth and buttery potato mash.

Chicken with Orange, Chicory & Thyme Serves 2

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • a little flour seasoned with salt & pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 77g diced pancetta
  • 2 shallots, finely sliced
  • 1 stick of celery, finely sliced
  • 1 large head chicory, quartered lengthwise
  • 2 oranges, juice of 1 and the other finely sliced
  • 100ml white wine
  • 100ml chicken stock
  • a good pinch of dried thyme or 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the chicken breasts between 2 sheets of clingfilm. Carefully bash them out a little – but not too thin. This is to even out the thickness but also to tenderise. Cut each breast in half.

   

Put the 4 halves of chicken breast in the seasoned flour. Coat well and shake off excess.

   

Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Fry the chicken pieces on both sides until nicely browning (I seem to have forgotten to photograph that step!). Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon, reserving the oil in the pan.

Add the pancetta to the pan. Stir for a minute or two to colour evenly, then add the sliced shallots and celery. Cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes or so, stirring frequently, until softening and very slightly browning.

   

Move the onion and pancetta mixture to the side and put in the chicory and allow it to colour slightly, turning it a couple of times, to achieve a slightly caramelised effect. Move to the side and add the orange slices, allowing them to colour slightly, turning once to colour both sides.

   

Add the wine to the mixture. Stir and mix all together carefully. Once the mixture comes to the boil allow it to bubble for about 3 minutes to burn off the alcohol and concentrate the sauce a bit. Add the stock. Mix carefully. Then add the browned chicken pieces, pushing them between the fruit and vegetables. Bring it all to the boil and then turn down to a simmer, put a lid on the pan, and allow to cook gently for about 20 minutes.

   

At this stage you can either serve straight away or turn off the heat as I did, and reheat a bit later when you want to eat.

I served it with some buttery mash potatoes, sprinkling over just a little parsley at the end.

It was really delicious. The chicken was tender from fairly quick cooking and the initial browning. The sauce was slightly thickened from the flour which the chicken was tossed in. And then the gorgeous citrusy-sweet orange flavour marries so well with the bitter chicory, creating gorgeous flavours that go brilliantly with the chicken. It was a lovely dish with just a touch of ‘special’ for a Sunday evening’s supper. It would also make a perfect dish for entertaining as it can be prepared a little time ahead of eating and warmed through when it’s time to eat (if you’re making it a few hours in advance, cool and refrigerate).