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Tarte aux Reine Claudes

Greengage tart does sound so much nicer in French: Tarte aux Reine Claudes. In France, greengages are named in honour of the French queen Claude (1499-1524) who was also Duchess of Brittany. They came originally from the Middle East and were brought to England from France in 1724 by Sir William Gage, who, as you can guess, gave them their English name, green being added to ‘Gage’ due to their colour. I used to make this tart a lot years ago and dug out an old favourite cookbook for the recipe, The Roux Brothers on Patisserie, which was a birthday present to me from my brothers back in 1987.

It’s one of those classic cookbooks that is as relevant today as when it was published. I often find recipes in my old cookbooks a bit outdated but I still believe that you can’t do better than turning to the Roux brothers for a classic patisserie recipe.

I had Jonathan, Lyndsey and Freddie coming to supper. Jonathan and Lyndsey are on ‘holiday at home’ this week and off to Cornwall for a week tomorrow. Usually we can only get together for meals at the weekend because of work hours, but tonight was a chance to get together for a meal before they go away. I’d bought some greengages a couple of days ago. I’d seen them in a supermarket and like them so much, I couldn’t resist buying them. These little green plums have a sweet, honey flavour with a touch of citrus acidity; when ripe and soft they are wonderfully juicy.

So many things are available all year round now but greengages seem to be one of those things that are available for just a short season of the year, which makes them all the more special. They’re delicious raw but once I knew the family were coming round for a meal, it seemed a good idea to make this gorgeous tart for them.

I’ve used old imperial measurements as that’s what is in the book. It does have some metric conversions but I could see they didn’t match up properly, e.g. the metric for the pastry gives exactly half as much butter but the original (and the imperial would have been the original at this time) isn’t quite that, it’s 9:4. Hopefully you have digital scales like me which will allow you to change the unit. I made a couple of very slight changes but essentially it’s the Roux recipe.

Tarte aux Reine Claudes

  • about 1lb greengages
  • a little caster sugar

Pâte à Foncer

  • 9oz plain flour
  • 4oz butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon water

Crème Pâtissière

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2oz caster sugar
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cornflour or custard powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 9 fl oz milk

Glaze

  • 2 tablespoons apricot jam
  • a dash of water

Heat the oven to 220C/200 Fan/Gas 7. Cut the greengages in half, remove the stone, and put them skin-side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle over about a tablespoonful of caster sugar. Put in the oven for 5 minutes so they start to soften. Remove from oven and keep aside.

   

Make the pastry. Now I like to make pastry by hand for a special meal or when I have time because I believe it comes out better. But you can use a food processor if you prefer. The hand method is this:

   

Sift the flour onto a cold surface. Make a well in the middle and add the butter in pieces, the egg and the sugar. Start mixing together with your fingers and gradually pull in the flour from the edge, starting to gently knead as you go. When all is coming together, sprinkle over the water. Knead briefly – never overwork pastry – then flatten the ball of dough slightly, cover in clingfilm and put in the fridge for about 20 minutes. Lightly grease a flan tin (10 inches/26 cm), sift in a little flour, shake to cover the bottom and sides and tip out excess. This stops the flan sticking to the bottom.

   

Roll out the pastry and fit into the prepared flan tin. Return to the fridge while you make the crème pâtissière.

Put the egg yolks and about a third of the sugar in a bowl and whisk until pale. Stir in the cornflour (or custard powder) and vanilla. Heat the milk until it comes to the boil and slowly add to the egg mix, beating as you go. Transfer back to a clean pan and cook over a moderate heat until it thickens and allow to boil gently for about a minute (the flour will stabilise it, so it shouldn’t separate).

   

Tip the custard into a fresh bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally so a skin doesn’t form. Then spread across base of the flan case. Now carefully transfer the greengages from the baking tray on to the custard, putting them cut-side down.

   

Put the tart into the hot oven (220C/200 Fan/Gas 7) for about 25 minutes. Remove when pastry and greengages are golden brown. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes in the tin and then carefully remove and slide on to a cooling rack. However! – if like me you couldn’t find (or haven’t got) a loose-bottomed flan tin and only have a solid-base one, then I suggest just leaving it in the tin. It’s far too fragile (unless you’re really out to impress) to risk trying to get it out.

While the tart cools, prepare the glaze by gently heating the jam and a splash of water in a small pan until it begins to boil. Sieve into a small bowl and then paint over the flan with a pastry brush.

This is a tart to be served at room temperature – not hot or warm, so ideal for making ahead. I served it with Cornish clotted cream – quite an indulgence and normally I’d buy just some single cream, but I know my son loves clotted cream and as they’re off to Cornwall tomorrow, I thought it would make an early start to Cornish treats. And really, as far as cream goes, it’s the queen of creams; absolutely wonderful.

It’s a delicious tart: I love the slight tartness of the greengages with the sweet pastry cream; the pastry itself had just the right amount of crispiness at the edges but was firm enough to hold the filling. It was a great dessert for a family meal but you can raise the stakes and serve it at a posh dinner party. Everyone will love it!

 

Panzanella – Tuscan Bread & Tomato Salad

I’ve always had a bit of an addiction to good bread. I can remember as a toddler standing with my grandmother at her local bakery (she looked after me while my mother worked) waiting for their shop to open and taking home a still-warm bloomer loaf with poppy seeds on top. In Italian delis in Soho as a child, I bought Italian breads with my dad before ciabatta became fashionable (though ciabatta as such was only ‘invented’ in the ’80s). When pregnant with my daughter, I had a strong bread craving and would attack fresh loaves with an almost insatiable hunger. I can remember buying baguettes in France on holiday when they’d go stale by the afternoon and you had to buy more for the evening. Holidaying in Italy for the first time in the late 1970s, I was surprised to discover Tuscan bread is unsalted. But such glorious bread was it, such as I’d never tasted before, I came to love it.

Nowadays, with the coming of artisan bakeries popping up all over London (and elsewhere), a good loaf is fairly easily found. I’m lucky enough to have two brilliant independent artisan bakeries within walking distance of my home: Ruben’s Bakehouse and Your Bakery Whitton, as well as the French Paul bakery in nearby Richmond. Where once buying a loaf of bread was a straightforward affair, now there are many choices – wonderful choices! – of sourdough, Pugliese, ciabatta, focaccia; loaves with olives, perhaps walnuts & figs; sweet brioche and different kinds of baguettes; spelt loaves or rye.

It’s not surprising that I’ve been attracted to bread salads like Fattoush from the Middle East, and the Cretan Dakos salad, both family favourites and on the blog. It’s slightly strange that with my love of Italian food I haven’t for a very long time, if ever, made Panzanella. But when I was in Florence in June, it was on all the menus. The Tuscans use bread a lot in their recipes, often where pasta or rice might be used in other parts of Italy. Like other bread recipes, Panzanella is just a way of using up stale bread (in England we make bread pudding!). This is a photo of the version I had in Osteria Santo Spirito (my favourite restaurant of the trip):

I thought then, I must make this when I get home. It’s really a summer salad and the Florentines would say – indeed did say! – that it should only be made around June time when tomatoes are at their best. So I may be leaving it a little late to win their approval, but I did find the tastiest tomatoes I could. As always when making a classic recipe for the blog, I looked in lots of books on my shelves and checked on the internet to find different versions. Unsurprisingly there were many variations, with additions of capers, anchovies; some peppers grilled (Jamie Oliver) but others raw. Essentially a Panzanella has to have a good (a seriously good) bread as its base, a day or two old, not fresh, and ripe tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil; it’s a bread and tomato salad. I’ve eaten Panzanella in UK where the bread has been more like croûtons. However in Florence, I was surprised that it was quite wet and mushy – and utterly delicious! Thus I felt that was more what I wanted to aim for. The recipe that came closest to what I remembered was Antonio Carluccio’s, though I didn’t want to use anchovies nor spring onions (most recipes use red onion). I did add his olives on the basis I had some nice ones that really needed eating up, but also because I liked the idea. I didn’t want to use capers for much the same reason I didn’t fancy anchovies – too strong a flavour and you’re really looking for a nice fresh summery taste with this salad. I decided to follow Jamie’s idea of salting cut tomatoes and leaving them to drain for half an hour to collect juices because I felt the Panzanellas ( yes I had more than one!) I had in Florence had tomato juices soaking into the bread (just look at the photo above and you’ll see). Like all traditional recipes of this kind, which are about using leftovers up and not wasting food, you can to a certain extent add what you like to the basic recipe. But remember that Italians aren’t ones for complicated recipes – don’t overdo it; just a few things. Simple is often the best!

Panzanella (serves 1 as a main; 2 as a starter or side. Prepare 1 hour ahead)

  • about 120g stale bread
  • about 120g ripe tasty tomatoes
  • 1 small or ½ medium red onion, sliced as finely as you can
  • 4 large green olives (35g stoned)
  • ½ yellow pepper, cut into small pieces
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons wine or cider vinegar
  • ½ clove garlic, crushed
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few torn basil leaves

 

   

I had the remains of sourdough loaf I bought in Your Bakery Whitton about 3-4 days ago. I have to say it was quite stale and hard by now – partly because there was just about a quarter piece with lots of crust. However, I managed to break it up by hand; this is a rustic dish so broken pieces are better (and more authentic) than diced. Don’t be tempted to throw away the crust – that’s where so much of the flavour lies, but also it adds an extra texture to the salad. Now sprinkle over about 3 tablespoons of water, mix by hand and leave for roughly 30 minutes to soften a bit.

   

Prepare the tomatoes at the same time as the bread. I used 5 small-medium sized ripe but still firm vine tomatoes (about 120g, so roughly equal to the amount of bread). Cut roughly – please don’t evenly slice! Think rustic. Put in a sieve over a bowl to catch juices and sprinkle over about ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Give a little shake to coat all over with the salt. Leave, like the bread, for about 30 minutes.

While the bread and tomatoes are preparing themselves, get ahead with preparing the other ingredients. Thinly slice the red onion, roughly chop the olives and cut the pepper into small pieces.

Prepare the dressing: put the oil, vinegar and garlic in a bowl and whisk. Check taste is OK for you (I found such a huge variation of quantities from a 2 vinegar to 3 oil ratio to Carluccio putting in 8 tablespoons of oil to just 1 of vinegar! Season with a little salt and pepper but remember the tomatoes are already salted and olives can be quite salty.

   

Now put everything together: tip the soaked bread and the tomatoes with their juice into the bowl with the other vegetables. Tear a few basil leaves over. Then add the dressing. Turn and mix well with your hands.

   

Mash down a little with a fork and then leave for about 30 minutes, turning and mashing down a couple more times to really get all the juices and dressing into the bread.

It was really, really good. I loved the flavour and it made such a wonderful supper at the end of a warm day. It wasn’t as mushy as I’d had in Florence but I think that was because I’d only managed to break the bread into large-ish chunks. But it didn’t matter in the end; they’d taken up all the juices and dressing and tasted delicious.

Panzanella is generally served as a starter in Italy but is also great as a light lunch or supper. Given the nature of its origins – a rustic recipe to use up stale bread, especially when there’s a glut of tomatoes in the summer – I’d imagine it was originally a main dish. You could add some flaked tuna or cheese or even quartered boiled eggs, perhaps, but for me it was gorgeous on its own for a midweek supper. I’d rather have some cheese separately after than add too much to the salad. It’s a real taste of summer and brought back happy memories of my lovely trip to Florence a few weeks ago.

 

Chicken Caesar Salad

I make no claims to authenticity for this recipe; it’s just a combination of some I found in books and online. But during the life of this blog, I’ve discovered that ‘authentic recipes’ are an elusive breed; there are always variations, sometimes hotly argued, but I would say that the essence of any classic recipe needs to shine through so you’re in no doubt about what you’re eating.

A Caesar salad, be it served with chicken or not, needs a nice crispy lettuce (I happened to have Little Gem but Romaine and Cos are frequently used), some crunchy croûtons, a creamy egg-yolk based dressing and a good grating of Parmesan cheese. Some people like to add anchovies and indeed, I thought I would try that, only to discover the tins lurking at the top of my store cupboard were out of date – so no anchovies! Others add Worcestershire sauce. I found many recipes that used ready-made mayonnaise as a base but I feel that’s cheating (OK maybe for a quick supper fix or a ‘safer’ dressing for the young and pregnant than raw egg) and you wouldn’t get the right tangy flavour or proper Caesar consistency. I pretty much based my dressing on a Nigel Slater recipe I’ve blogged about before, but with lemon juice instead of vinegar and some extra oil because I wanted to put in some Parmesan, which would obviously thicken it.

Chicken Caesar Salad (serves 1)

  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1 thick slice of sourdough bread, preferably 1-2 days old
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Little Gem lettuce (or other crispy lettuce)
  • Parmesan to grate over for serving

Dressing

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 egg yolk
  • juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 level teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan
  • 6 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

I made the dressing first: a crushed clove of garlic, the egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard, cheese and olive oil into a bowl, then a fast whizz with the hand blender until it was thick, pale and creamy.

   

I only had wholegrain Dijon mustard but would have preferred the smooth version. Taste and then season accordingly; maybe add a little more lemon juice. Make it taste right for you. You want a fairly thick consistency but one that will run and easily coat the lettuce.

Now make the croûtons: Cut a thick slice from a sourdough loaf, preferably a day or two old rather than fresh. Cut into dice (some people like to pull it apart), put in a bowl and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil.

   

Mix round with your fingers to coat the pieces of bread then lay them out on a baking tray. Put into a preheated oven at 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 for 15 minutes, turning halfway through, until nicely golden brown.

   

I cooked my chicken on a griddle, simply smearing it with a little olive oil and lightly seasoning with salt and pepper (if you don’t have a griddle, fry in a small pan or grill). While it was cooking, I started to put the rest of the salad together. I separated the leaves of a Little Gem lettuce, breaking the larger ones in half. Then I spooned over some of the dressing and carefully folded the lettuce leaves over to coat each one with dressing. Then I transferred to a serving bowl and added the croûtons.

   

When the chicken was nicely browned on each side, I removed it from the griddle and left to rest for 3-5 minutes on a cutting board. Then I cut it into thick slices and lay it on top of the lettuce. Some people like to shred or cut up the chicken into small pieces and mix everything together, but I prefer to keep the chicken separate on top.

  

Then I drizzled over a little more of the Caesar dressing and shaved over thin slices of Parmesan.

Surprisingly, I’ve never made a Caesar salad before. I say ‘surprisingly’ because it’s one of my favourite things. At one time I almost always had it at Joe Allen, who make a superb one. Sadly it’s a dish that can be poorly made and thus disappointing, so I’m careful about where I eat it. Happily my own version hit the mark and was truly gorgeous: tender pieces of chicken, crunchy but light croûtons, crisp lettuce and a deliciously creamy, slightly tangy dressing, all coming together in perfect harmony. Thus I shall definitely have to make it again soon!

A Birthday Supper at Corto Italian Deli

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My son’s birthday isn’t for another couple of weeks, but with my daughter living in Worcestershire, planned holidays, etc., the logistics of organising a family get-together to celebrate Jonathan’s birthday meant an early start. But then who’s not happy to begin celebrations early!

I suggested we all go to Corto Italian Deli, remembering the wonderful birthday meal they put on for me last year. Corto is a family favourite, we go there a lot: for morning coffee, lunch and to buy Italian foods like their wonderful cold meats, cheeses, pasta and homemade cakes, and the family’s favourite – taralli.

My family has such an addiction to these little bread biscuits from Puglia that we’ve even had a ‘taralli tasting’, buying them from different shops and supermarkets and having a tasting in the garden one summer’s evening, but the ones at Corto are definitely our favourite. And Nicola & Rachael bought up all Romina could find last night to take a large bag full of packs of taralli back to Worcestershire.

We ate early, partly because of having two and a half year old Freddie with us, but also because Nicola & Rachael had to drive back to Worcestershire after the meal. I’d booked a couple of weeks ago and agreed a price with Romina to provide a selection of antipasti, main courses and have a birthday chocolate cake for dessert. A table for six was ready for us and soon food was being put on the table.

   

Baskets of bread and a selection of cold treats were put at each end of the table. There was crisp Sardinian bread, ciabatta; tomato bruschetta, spinach & risotto rolls, and gorgeous little rolls of grilled aubergine filled with mozzarella & tomato.

Then there were the Italian meats and cheeses, freshly cut onto the serving board.

I don’t know anywhere better to buy cold meats. Corto have even won an award recently from a Parma organisation for the quality of their meats and cheeses. We all tucked in enthusiastically to this fabulous antipasti. We asked for a bottle of prosecco as a birthday celebration warrants fizz. Though to be honest, my family can think up a reason to open a bottle of fizz anytime. Corto always serve excellent wine and it’s a great place to be certain of a good wine, if you want to order by the glass. This was a fine prosecco as was the bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that we had to follow. I just asked Romina to serve us what she thought best because in a good place you can trust that you’ll be served something good at a reasonable price.

   

There was a choice of 4 mains. Nicola & Rachael took the vegetarian option of ordering the ‘porcini mushroom risotto with saffron’ and also the ‘trofie with fresh pesto’ to share, so they could have some of each.

   

Lyndsey also had the mushroom risotto and gave me a taste; it was really delicious. Meanwhile, Jonathan had chosen ‘beef lasagna’ while I took Romina’s recommendation of the ‘penne with Tuscan ragu’, which was a pork based ragu with a touch of citrus in it. It was really good.

  

Freddie was happily making his way through his not-so-child-sized but actually quite large plate of penne with beef ragu. Freddie spends a lot of time in Twickenham’s Italian bakeries and restaurants and has even learned to say ‘caio’. This love for Italian has spread to gelato. As he finished his pasta he said loudly, ‘I want ice cream.’ I’d ordered the cake for dessert but Romina didn’t miss a beat and headed straight to the fridge. Soon a smiling Freddie, having thanked her, was tucking into a bowl of vanilla ice cream. For the rest of us there was a gorgeous chocolate cake topped with fresh fruit, chopped nuts and some whipped cream.

It was a wonderful meal and lovely evening, and really special to get the family together. There’s also something very nice about going to a familiar place you know you like a lot, run by friendly people who really care about what they serve you, so that everything about it is a perfection.

Never Too Young to Learn to Cook …

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This morning I was emailing my friend, Di, who I stayed with in France recently, and told her I was about to go and pick up grandson Freddie to look after him for a while. I also explained that as heavy rain was forecast for the entire day, I’d have to be creative about how to entertain a two and a half year old. Because he loves my banana muffins, I thought it would be fun to make some together – ‘it’s never too young to learn to cook’, I wrote. Of course, that’s a slight exaggeration – you can hardly teach a babe in arms to cook. But you can introduce them to good food from the start, and the connection between eating and cooking can begin early on. Even a year ago when the family were living with me for a few months, if I was giving Freddie (then aged about 18 months) supper, I’d sometimes stand him on a stool in the kitchen and get him to help me beat eggs to make him scrambled egg. Then I’d hold him up and let him hold a spoon with me to help me stir the eggs as they cooked. He loves scrambled eggs and maybe he’d love them anyway, but I like to think this investment in helping cook them makes them more appealing to him.

My own kids, Freddie’s dad and my daughter, were introduced to good food early on. At the time I had Nicola I was a commissioning editor at Methuen working on popular non-fiction books like cookery, health, gardening, travel, etc. We’d just published a book on cooking food for your baby and freezing it in ice cube portions so you could cook in bulk, freeze, and then take out exactly the amount you needed for your baby’s meals. It was quite revolutionary at the time (1980); it was also a time before you could buy good ready-made organic baby food, so for the keen cook, there was more incentive to make your own. As my kids got older and we holidayed in France regularly, they delighted in the wonderful food we found in the way that their parents did; no menu enfant for them – they wanted the real deal!

It was my own parents who introduced me to the delight of good food from an early age. My mother loved to tell stories about me sitting at restaurant tables eating ‘proper’ meals when I was still in toddlerhood. All through my childhood we’d venture into Soho on Saturday mornings for breakfast at Maison Bertaux or the original Patisserie Valerie, when there was just the one in Old Compton Street, run by the original family. Then we’d go into Italian delis and buy gooey Gorgonzola cheese and Italian breads. If it seems slightly crazy to people that my thoughts are so often centred on what I’m having for my next meal, seeking out great places to eat, buying top-quality food and drinking the best coffee … well, I really didn’t stand a chance. It was bred into me! But I’m not complaining for it’s brought so much pleasure, and appreciation of good food has become something my family shares. Both my son and daughter are great cooks – and Freddie’s cooking skills have now moved on from scrambled egg to banana muffins!

We took it slowly. It’s a well-practised recipe on my part (click here for it) and the main point was to have fun with my grandson. I got out the muffin tray, then separated 12 muffin cases and gave them to him to put into the tin.

   

As I weighed out the flour, butter, sugar, etc., I let him transfer them from weighing bowl to the big bowl we were using for the cake mix.

When it came to using the electric mixer, I warned him he had to stand back and not touch. But then when I’d finished and unplugged the mixer, I gave him one of the beaters and he stirred the mix around with it for a while.

   

We added blueberries at which point I had to try to explain that we needed to fold them in carefully as excitement was rising and he was keen to continue beating the mixture. The mix was too sloppy for him to manage to transfer to the muffin cases, but I cut thin slices of banana to go on top of each cake and he happily did that job.

   

Then they were ready to go into the oven.

Every so often, we’d peek at them through the oven’s glass door to watch them rising, until finally they were risen and ready to come out.

My only job after that was to persuade Freddie they were too hot to eat straight away – and wouldn’t be cool enough until after he’d eaten lunch. So one ended up as his dessert. There was no way we were waiting until teatime!

Of course, cooking with kids requires care and attention (you don’t want damaged fingers, etc.!) but apart from being fun, I do think this connection to food encourages kids to appreciate what they’re given to eat and to be more adventurous. And believe me, in the long run, it pays off. My son and daughter cook wonderful meals so being invited round to theirs is always a treat!

Sicilian Stuffed Vegetables

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I had a really lovely time in France at the beginning of the week and very much enjoyed eating good French food again, but once home I slipped back into my default cook status in the kitchen and started cooking Italian food again: Polenta with Aubergine, Tomato & Pine Nuts, making a huge ragù yesterday – some of which was packed in single portions to freeze and about half of it went into a lasagna for tonight to share with my son. I also decided I just had to make these Sicilian stuffed vegetables – the recipe, a Diana Henry one in July’s Red magazine, has been staring at me from the dining table for about four weeks. The recipe is actually ‘Sweet and Sour Stuffed Sicilian Peppers’ but I ended up stuffing some tomatoes too. I really like Diana Henry’s recipes and have a couple of her books; Crazy Water Pickled Lemons (a gift from my friend Linda years ago) is a favourite and it also contains one of my family’s favourite ice cream recipes: Lemon & Basil Ice Cream. I always think of stuffed peppers as a Greek dish so was intrigued by these Sicilian ones that have bread as a base rather than rice. Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, Is this really a Sicilian recipe? To be fair, Henry isn’t someone to mistrust, so well respected is she, but with a Sicilian Italian teacher, many Italian friends, and knowing that should I get it wrong someone was bound to point it out to me in a comment on the blog, I decided to play safe. And I found an almost identical recipe in Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Sicily. So – Sicily it is and these stuffed vegetables are fantastic!

Sicilian Stuffed Vegetables

  • 6 red and/or yellow peppers, or 4 peppers and 4 medium tomatoes

Sutffing

  • 150g fresh breadcrumbs
  • 60g currants or raisins
  • 75g toasted pine nuts
  • 45g capers, rinsed of salt
  • 45g pitted black olives, roughly chopped
  • 15g mixed flat-leaf parsley and mint leaves chopped
  • 60ml (4 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • salt & pepper

   

Do use a good country bread, preferably a couple of days old. Mine (from Paul bakery) was a bit too fresh – but I’d been away so hadn’t got slightly stale bread to hand! It didn’t grate finely but was still perfectly fine once cooked. Put the breadcrumbs in a bowl and add all the other stuffing ingredients.

Diana Henry uses currants (I only had raisins and they were good) and soaks them for 15 minutes in hot water; I was in too much of a hurry so just threw them in. I didn’t notice a problem with that but you may like to try the soaking if you have time. Mix it all together.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. You can check the taste for although the stuffing is ‘raw’ it’s all edible in this state. It actually tastes really good raw!

Now prepare the vegetables. Diana Henry cuts the peppers in half lengthwise to stuff and cook them, but I decided to keep them whole and just cut off the tops. I did the same with the tomatoes. Then stuff them quite tightly, and right to the top; drizzle over a little olive oil and replace the tops. Drizzle a little more oil over the tops. I find these kind of vegetables fall over easily so I struck upon the idea of crumpling small strips of foil to fit between them to prop them up and that worked well.

   

Now put them into a 180C/160 Fan/Gas 4 oven. The recipe says 45 minutes to 1 hour but my peppers (as I kept them whole) took 1hr 15 mins. The tomatoes took less time – about an hour. Just check regularly; you want them to retain their shape but be cooked through so a sharp knife slips straight in.

I served one pepper and one tomato warm (better than really hot) with a simple side salad for my supper last night.

The rest I put in the fridge to take to my brother’s today as I’d promised to take some things for a simple lunch, so these were part of my offerings. They were a great success and just as gorgeous cold as warm last night. I loved the sweet and sour combination with the olives, capers and slightly sweet pine nuts. The bread was a great base for the filling and you get lovely crunchy bits on top. Definitely a recipe to be repeated soon!

Three Days in Burgundy

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Why go?

I’ve driven through Burgundy and spent odd nights in the region many times over the years but my recent visit was to stay with friends who own a house in southern Burgundy and it was very nice to have more time for a bit of exploration and appreciation of all Burgundy has to offer. One shouldn’t just drive through it, it deserves time, for after all this is one of France’s finest regions for food and wine; it also offers wonderful landscape and delightful villages and architecture.

 

Getting there

There are many possibilities with airports like the Paris airports or Geneva and Grenoble fairly close by. I flew to Lyon, just south of Burgundy. You can also easily access it by Eurostar, but really it’s best if you have a car and either drive from UK or, if flying in from there or elsewhere in the world, hire a car. You can certainly manage without if you’re based in a city but if you want to get around and visit medieval villages, country markets and vineyards, then a car is almost essential.

 

Food

Burgundian food is much more than Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin. The region is a rich and fruitful, with lush green plains reaching up to the Jura mountains; there’s Charolais beef, said to be the finest in France; Bresse’s famous chickens; hams with dishes like jambon persillé; cheeses such as Époisses and Chaource and lots of chèvre – goats’ cheese – including these sweet little ones to go with your aperitif, which my friends served on my first evening and were always seen on cheese stalls in markets.

There is the famous mustard from Dijon which will often be added to sauces and dressings and – if you want to go very French – plenty of large juicy snails (escargots) and frogs’ legs (grenouilles); and if you really want to push out the French experience, then a speciality of the region is tête de veau (cow’s head).

For those with a sweet tooth, you’ll find Ile Flottante and Sorbet au Cassis. And on my first morning, my friend Di served little fromage frais Burgundian style so that a little cream was poured over the top and instead of the usual sugar sprinkled on top, we chose maple syrup.

There are impressive salads, perfectly dressed, for no one dresses a salad better than the French, usually containing frisée, mâche (lambs’ lettuce) and roquette (rocket). Sauces will often contain wine and/or cream but so fine is the French cooking that, while rich, there will be subtlety too.

 

Wine

   

If the food of Burgundy is famous, its wines are no less so, indeed they are perhaps even more famous. This is the land of Chardonnay (think glorious Chablis, not heavily oaked Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world), Macon, Beaune, Gamay, Givry, and of course the Beaujolais region.

I was fortunate to be staying with friends who knew a lot about wine and they took me to one of their favourite vineyards, just a small place and definitely non-touristy, to taste and buy some Beaujolais – Domaine des Duc.

It was great to be able to buy some wine, which my friends will bring back to UK in a few weeks’ time, as I travel so much by plane it’s not usually possible. This for me is one of the best parts of the French wine experience – stopping at a vineyard, talking to the producers and buying what you’ve tasted and like.

 

Markets

One of the excitements for anyone who loves food and is travelling in France is visiting local markets. My friends took me to the one at Louhans, which is held on Mondays. It stretched right the way through the town, completely taking it over, and you could buy pretty much anything you might want or need.

Louhans is the capital of the Bresse region of Burgundy and thus it was not surprising to find a large amount of famous Bresse chickens for sale – either alive or dead. But even the dead still had their heads and innards – the French housewife/husband likes to clean and prepare chickens themselves.

   

I ate chicken a few times – well why wouldn’t you if you love chicken and are in one of the best places in the world to eat it? – and the Bresse chicken really is something very special. I ate a gorgeous Bresse chicken meal at Auberge des Grenouillats in St Maurice de Satonnay, served with a morilles and cream sauce.

There were plenty of things to excite the tastebuds in Louhans market.

   

   

After walking for a while we stopped for coffee and ate some local pastries – corniotte – a kind of sweet choux pastry with our coffee.

   

 

Architecture

Different regions of any country invariably offer different types of architecture and buildings can vary enormously from one part of the country to another. Within the fairly small area of Burgundy I was able to cover in three days, it was fascinating to be shown two distinct types of houses: those of Bresse and a typical Burgundian house.

The typical Bresse house above was actually a museum in St-Cyr-sur-Menthon, but driving around we saw them everywhere, their distinctive long roofs reaching far out beyond the walls of the building.

   

The reason for this is that the walls are made of mud – and so they need to be protected from the rain as much as possible. You can see the mud that’s packed between a timber frame in the photo above. There was even a Bresse chicken running about in front of it at one stage. Many roofs had corn hanging from them due to the large amount of maize grown in the area.

The Burgundian house below is typical because of its stairs at the front of the house leading up to the living area; animals were kept below stairs. As we drove through this part of Burgundy nearly all the houses were like this.

Another feature of southern Burgundy architecture was Préty stone, from the village of the same name and the next village along from where I was staying in La Truchère. It has a beautiful pale pink tinge to it and you see houses built from it. In my friends’ home they had a fireplace made from the stone.

And in the abbey at Tournus it was used on the floor, sometimes having an almost marble effect.

 

Town and Villages

There are wonderful, pretty villages everywhere you go and my friends took me to the medieval hilltop village of Brancion, which has a château and 12th-century church.

   

A major town in the area is Tournus which is a lovely town with a 10-12th century Romanesque abbey that we visited.

Inside are some beautiful and rare 12th-century mosaics with signs of the zodiac.

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I had a brilliant time in Burgundy – and thanks to the kindness of my friends Di and Tam, who took me to so many places, I managed to see a lot in three days! It’s an area that deserves time and there are so many other places to see, so many vineyards and markets to visit, that I think next time I need to take my car across the channel to explore some more and give Burgundy more than three days.

A Day in Lyon and Paul Bocuse

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I’m just back from three lovely days in France. Friends Di and Tam invited me to visit them at their house in Burgundy and as I flew into and out of Lyon, about 100km south of where they live, Di suggested I book an evening flight so we could spend the day in Lyon. We’re all ‘foodies’; I know some people hate the term but really, it immediately gets across just what I mean! Di and I met through our blogs, each following the other, and it turned out that when they’re in UK, they live within walking distance of me, so we met up, which led to the invitation to France. Di and Tam have spent most of their life on barges and Di’s blog about travelling on their barge through France is about not just life on the canals but food and wine too – which is why it’s called Foodie Afloat. She’s soon to have a book published – Barges & Bread.

Lyon is one of France’s most famous foodie destinations (some even say the best in the world), mostly due in recent time to its ‘son’ Paul Bocuse. Bocuse was born near Lyon in the village of Collognes-au-Mont-d’Or in 1926. His restaurant l’Auberge du Post de Collonges has 3 Michelin Stars and he’s made a huge contribution to gastronomy through his innovation and training of other famous chefs. If your pocket doesn’t stretch to 3 Michelin Stars then you can still experience Paul Bocuse in one of his 8 brasseries in Lyon – one of which we ate at yesterday lunchtime: Le Nord. But first of all, we visited Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse.

This covered market pays homage to the master chef with restaurants, cafés and food shops. Sometimes I find these huge food emporiums a bit overwhelming and disappointing, but not these. The food looked stunning; the restaurants looked like places you could happily sit without feeling you were in a market thoroughfare, and there was even a cookery school. As we’d already booked a table at Le Nord, we weren’t looking to eat. But we did need a coffee after the drive before we explored and, as you’d expect, it was a very good coffee indeed.

Here are some photos of what we saw:

   

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I was really pleased I saw these ‘Saucisson brioche Pistache’ (photo above) as it encouraged me to order some as my starter for lunch; brioche filled with local sausage. Lyonnaise cuisine and fame goes way back past Bocuse. It focuses on local products and tradition; often described as rustic, it of course also comes quite refined. It’s a rich cuisine with lots of pork and cream. However, there is also excellent Charolais beef, glorious chickens from Bresse, huge snails, wonderful sausages (a speciality is boudin blanc), fabulous cheeses like Tomme and a variety of chèvres; frogs legs (grenouilles) are also a local speciality and there is fresh fish from the rivers. Crossing from one side of the city to the other you first find yourself by the side of the Saône and then on the far side you reach the Rhône. There is also the added bonus that Lyon is in the heart of some of France’s best wine regions with Burgundy just to the north, and the Rhône and Beaujolais areas.

Historically, much of the tradition of the cuisine comes from Lyon’s mères, the mothers, and there are simple restaurants called Bouchon that you won’t find anywhere else in France, usually offering a cheap no-choice menu of simple Lyonnaise dishes, often based on sausages and wine. They were originally set up by women (hence the mère connection) to feed the local silk workers in the middle of the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, Lyon was also famous for its enormous cafés.

We were so impressed by the food on offer in the Halles that we vowed another time we’d eat there. But it turned out Le Nord was so good, a real gastronomic treat, that I’m very pleased we went there. Inside it has echoes of Paris and the decor is classic brasserie.

   

Not only did it feel like a classic French brasserie but the service matched it: friendly and wonderfully efficient but definitely not over the top. Soon some excellent bread and very good olives were put before us and Tam chose a bottle of Givry, a lovely Burgundian wine, to go with our meal.

  

When I saw that the sausage-filled brioche was on the menu, I couldn’t resist it, especially as I wanted to eat Lyonnaise dishes.

‘Sausage in brioche’ really doesn’t convey how good it was; the sausage warm with a good flavour, the brioche soft and slightly sweet and a perfectly dressed little salad on the side (no one dresses salads as well as the French). Di meanwhile had chosen Lyonnaise salad, a classic salad of lardons with frisée and poached egg.

It was enormous so she didn’t finish it all but was enthusiastic about how good it was.

For my main, given my fairly hearty starter, I chose a light dish of Charolais beef carpaccio.

It was perfect and really delicious. Di chose another Lyonnaise speciality of quenelles of pike in a lobster sauce.

She gave me a taste and the quenelle was so light, the sauce so rich and glorious that if I ever go to that restaurant again, I’m having this dish. However, I really was happy with my own choices, so I wasn’t disappointed, just excited by the good food on offer.

I chose a simple dessert of the day – an Alsatian apple tart with Chantilly cream (definitely homemade and not from a can!), which was very good and the kind of dessert I like best.

Di had the more impressive looking coffee granita with Chantilly cream, which she enjoyed a lot.

We finished with coffee.

And then it was time to head back to the car and the airport. Our few hours in Lyon had been a perfect ending to a lovely trip – of which, more another time.

Joe Allen: Going But Not Gone

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This weekend, one of my favourite restaurants closes its doors in Exeter Street, Covent Garden after 40 years. But happily all is not lost, for the iconic Joe Allen is moving only 25m down the road to 2 Burleigh Street.

Since hearing the restaurant was under threat a few months ago, due to actor Robert De Niro buying a large corner site at the Exeter Street/Wellington Street junction in WC2 to open a boutique hotel, I’ve been feeling very sad. I’ve been regularly going to Joe’s for at least 20 years (mainly with my good friend Annie), and first ate there well before then in my full-time publishing days. When I started the blog back in 2011 and wrote a review, I got a lot of support from their lovely general manager Cathy Winn, interviewed their then head chef and when the restaurant was sold a couple of years later to two restaurateurs I already knew from my local area, Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy, I got an early interview with them about their plans, which was very exciting for me. I came to know their two restaurant managers, Deborah Fellows and Stewart Moss, who are always so friendly and welcoming, and would chat on the phone when booking and they’d bring a glass of complimentary fizz when they saw me in the restaurant. It’s no wonder I feel at home in the place. How was I going to manage without it!

Joe’s is very much a theatre land and media love and some famous people like Graham Norton and Monty Don worked there early in their careers. It’s always been a favourite haunt of actors, from Sir John Gielgud to Dames Judi Dench and Harriet Walter. Even the Observer‘s restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who’s definitely not soft touch when it comes to writing about restaurants, talks about it having ‘a special place in my congested heart’.

If I’ve been sad, then I’m pleased to say that the Joe Allen team have embraced the enforced change with enthusiasm. Their sister restaurant Orso has had to close completely but they’ve found another location for Joe Allen and it’s moving just a short distance down the road. The intention is to take everything with them, and I mean everything, even their splendid bar.

The show business posters that adorn its walls will go too. We’re told that there will be some new things but in essence, Joe Allen will be reincarnated a few metres away from its old home in Exeter Street. As a love of my restaurant life, it’s hard to imagine it will be quite the same yet I know really I shouldn’t worry. There was lots of worry from regulars when Lawrence and Tim took over about things changing, but the changes weren’t obvious, they were subtle ones and all for the better. Many things improved at Joe’s, most notably the food went up a notch or three. So, in the spirit of embracing change, I’m looking forward to a new era of Joe’s in Burleigh Street.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t let them go from Exeter Street without a final meal and so I suggested it as a place to meet to my friend Chris last week; a friend from my publishing days she also knows it well and was a bit shocked to hear of the move. We met early – 6.30pm – and had the early evening set menu as I usually do, which is great value at £14.95 for 2 courses, and offers a 125ml glass of house wine for just £3.00.

I had ‘Pea, Broad Bean, Fennel & Mint Salad, Pecorino, Lemon Dressing’.

Everything was so fresh and delicious with a lovely but not overpowering dressing. For my main course I unusually took a vegetarian route and chose ‘Chestnut and Mushroom Arancini with Tomato Sauce and Parmesan’.

This was really delicious too and the sauce had a rich, full flavour. It was so nice to end my Exeter Street experience on a high note with a great meal.

The ‘new’ Joe Allen opens on 1 September. To find out more and keep up to date, visit their website: www.joeallen.co.uk

 

High Tea & Tennis

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This post is for my lovely daughter Nicola who made us the most magnificent high tea yesterday to enjoy while watching the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon. She arranged for me to visit over this last weekend back in April with a view to us all watching the tennis together and for the tea we were joined by Rachael’s parents. So five us gathered around the TV to watch – it has to be said – a rather disappointing men’s final but with such a wonderful tea we were still a happy bunch of people.

As you’ll gather from such advance preparations, as a family we’re pretty big tennis fans. It’s the only sport I get seriously excited about (occasionally rugby, but then I do live in Twickenham!), and the only one I’ve played seriously.

Wimbledon and tennis of course means strawberries and champagne, which was going to feature in our tea, but lots of other delights too. Nicola sent me the menu last week:

Cucumber sandwiches

Ham & mustard sandwiches

Feta, spinach, pea & mint puff pastry tarts

Blinis with smoked salmon, soured cream & caviar

Blinis with buffalo mozzarella, tomato & basil

Croustades with crab, avocado, lime, chilli & coriander

Sourdough crostini with ricotta, pear, walnut & truffle honey

Gazpacho shots

To drink with it, we were to enjoy some Californian rainbow sparkling wine and Californian rosé that Nicola & Rachael brought back from a trip to California in May.

   

Preparations began early in the day after breakfast. The plan was to begin the ‘tea’ at around 1.00pm when the TV coverage began for the tennis; the match would start at 2.00pm. Nicola was very well organised. She did all the cooking and I offered to be sous chef when any kind of help was needed. First of all she made the little feta and spinach tarts.

   

When they came out of the oven they smelled delicious and later when we tasted them, they were fantastic.

All the baking and cooking was done in Nicola & Rachael’s Aga, fitted with their new kitchen only a few weeks ago. Nicola has been learning to adjust her cooking to the Aga but seems to have already mastered the technique. It’s a wonderful thing to have in an old farmhouse kitchen and not surprisingly their dog Willow, and the cats, like to take up residence nearby.

Next the gazpacho was made. There was a lot of chopping of ripe tomatoes, cucumber and peppers and the soup needed to go into the fridge for a few hours to be nicely cold for serving.

   

For extra velvety smoothness the mixture was put through a fine sieve – this was sous chef’s job.

Then the crab mixture was prepared but would only go into the croustades at the last minute so they didn’t get too soggy.

  

I’d brought a sourdough loaf from Your Bakery Whitton on Saturday morning and this was sliced and cut into crostini-sized pieces to toast on the top of the Aga.

   

Once the crostini had cooled, Nicola added the topping.

Nicola sometimes makes blinis but this time she’d bought them and they were warmed in the oven before toppings were added.

The sandwiches were made fairly last minute so they didn’t go stale; the crusts cut off in true English tea style.

And of course because this was a Wimbledon tea there had to be strawberries, scones, clotted cream and jam.

   

The food was laid out on the table.

The TV was turned on, the tennis coverage began, and the champagne (well Californian sparkling wine!) cork was popped, and served in the vintage champagne saucers that Rachael bought Nicola.

Our chef was toasted!

Roger Federer and Marin Cilic came on to the centre court at Wimbledon and we sipped our fizz and started eating; everything easy finger food to go on plates; the gazpacho in little glass bowls. Everything was so good; really delicious and it was such a glorious spread of food to eat while sitting watching a tennis match on TV. Later a pot of tea was made and we ate the scones.

  

My daughter has certainly mastered baking these in the Aga. They were so light and delicious and quite definitely some of the best scones I’ve ever eaten.

It was a really lovely occasion. The food was gorgeous, the wine special (the rainbow sparkling wine from California was very special indeed) and we enjoyed seeing Roger Federer make Wimbledon history as he collected his 8th men’s title, even if the match itself wasn’t as exciting as expected. I have to say I’m rather hoping high tea for Wimbledon finals at my daughter’s will become a regular event!