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A Winter Risotto

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I love risotto, as will be evident to any regular reader of these pages. I make a risotto at least once a week, ingredients to a large extent depending on the season. One of the great things about risotto is that it doesn’t have a season – you can make it with pretty much anything and particularly any vegetable in season. You can make a fresh-tasting summer risotto with, say, asparagus but a deeply flavourful and comforting risotto in the winter with things like butternut squash. A family favourite – which I also make for vegetarian friends – is Mushroom & Chestnut Risotto.

The risotto is all the better when you have a good homemade stock to add depth – as I did tonight. I freeze my stock in cubes, ready to add a few to a gravy or sauce, but also packs of about 300ml to make risotto. Yes, I even plan to make risotto! I used chicken stock but if you want this to be a vegetarian dish, use vegetable stock.

I’ve been making courgette risotto quite a bit of late, dicing courgettes and frying them with shallot as a base. That was the plan tonight, but then I remembered I’d bought some tenderstem broccoli today so decided to add that too. Then on the ‘green’ theme, I thought I’d add a few peas. The ‘green’ theme took me back to Venice, more particularly the beautiful and tranquil island of Torcello, where in 2015 I had a wonderful spring risotto – Risotto Primavera – at Locanda Cipriani. My risotto tonight was very green. It isn’t, in all honesty, a true winter risotto – not with courgettes and peas, although the tenderstem broccoli is a little more wintery. But nowadays seasons are less evident – or certainly in the supermarket – than they used to be. The point is, I took some veg I had and made a gorgeous risotto. Bright green and fresh looking, but a creamy, deep warmth that felt good on a winter’s night.

This is how I made mine, but ring the changes with what vegetables you have to hand that go together well. Remember that in general, if you want to follow the Italian example, you go for fewer rather than more ingredients. Risotto isn’t a dish where you throw in the metaphorical kitchen sink – or everything lurking in the bottom of your fridge. Choose just two or three ingredients. Keep it beautifully simple.

 

A Winter Risotto – Serves 1

  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 courgette, diced (about 1-1.5cm dices)
  • 3 or 4 stems of tenderstem broccoli
  • a small handful of frozen peas
  • ½ cup risotto rice
  • 300ml chicken or vegetable stock, hot
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • knob butter (and ½ tablespoon)
  • a good grating of Parmesan

Put the shallot with the oil in a large pan. Fry gently for a couple of minutes and then add the diced courgette. Chop the stems off of the tenderstem broccoli into lengths about the same size as the dices of courgette. Add to the pan and reserve the tops.

Put a small handful of frozen peas in a bowl, add a little salt and pour over boiling water (I always prepare peas for risotto or a pasta sauce like this – they don’t need real cooking; just to get started). Drain the peas after a couple of minutes.

   

When all the vegetables in the pan are nicely softening and slightly golden brown, add the rice. Stir well to coat each grain of rice and fry gently for just a couple of minutes. Then start adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful.

   

It’s important to do this slowly and to keep stirring. This breaks down the starch in the rice and helps produce the nice classic creamy effect of a good risotto. For me this is one of the best parts of making a risotto – the necessity to slow down and relax and just enjoy the process. I can never understand people who advocate cooking a risotto in an oven or slow cooker – that, in my book, isn’t a risotto, even if it’s a nice rice dish.

   

When the rice is starting to soften (test a few grains on a fork), add the tenderstem broccoli tops with the last of the stock so they cook through but stay green and fresh-tasting. When the rice is tender and almost all absorbed by the stock, tip in the peas. Stir to mix. Turn off the heat. Add the butter and a grating of Parmesan. Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes. Then beat the melting butter and cheese into the rice. This stage is called mantecato and is an essential part of producing a creamy risotto.

   

Spoon on to a serving place. Grate a little more Parmesan over the top and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil to serve.

It was really gorgeous. Lovely flavours. It felt very healthy with all that green! But also wonderfully warming and comforting on a winter’s night.

Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce

It was a meal planned for weeks ago but due to illness, the duck breasts went into the freezer and the wine waited a bit longer. The wine was a bottle of Pinot Noir bought in Burgundy last July when staying with my friends Di and Tam. We had a wonderful day driving into the heart of Burgundy and bought some wine direct from a vineyard. Two bottles of white Chardonnay I brought back were drunk with the Christmas meal, and two bottles of Pinot Noir were ready for drinking. Another two bottles must wait a year or two to be at their best.

As a family, we’ve regularly bought Galette des Rois for Twelfth Night from our local Paul bakery. It’s a family tradition that dates far back to when my children were small and a French au pair introduced us to them. And as it is Twelfth Night, and the galette is French, it seemed an ideal time to have the duck and Pinot Noir.

I’ve put a couple of duck recipes on the blog before: one with a blueberry sauce and another which is inspired by a middle eastern recipe. Tonight I thought I’d go really classical and make an orange sauce – Duck à l’Orange. My confidence that this would be super simple was soon dispelled when it seemed that even usually reliable cookery writers seemed to offer very different versions. Older recipes tended to use a lot of sugar to make a caramel first, to which wine, or cointreau, or vinegar, is added. But I don’t like making sugar-heavy recipes these days even though I could appreciate that the caramel would give the sauce a nicely sweet bitter taste. Some recipes added stock; some didn’t. In the end, putting some of the ideas together, I just made something up. And here it is!

Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce – Serves 4

  • 4 duck breasts
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Orange Sauce

  • 1 shallot
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 dessertspoon plain flour
  • 50ml red wine
  • 300ml chicken stock
  • 1 dessertspoon sherry vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Seville orange marmalade
  • 3-4 oranges

 

Trim any excess fat off the edge of the duck breast. Score the skins to make diamond shapes. Cut fairly deep but not through the meat underneath the skin. Season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, rubbing them in a bit.

Heat a frying pan; you don’t need any fat. Put the duck breasts into the hot pan (they should sizzle as you put them in) and fry for about 5 minutes until they’re nice and golden brown on the skin side (gently lift with a spatula to check). Turn them over and cook for just a minute more. They’ll release quite a bit of fat. I saved a couple of tablespoons to add to my sauce at the end for flavour.

   

Transfer to a shallow oven dish with a slotted spatula so you don’t transfer the fat. Cook in a preheated oven (200C/Fan 180/Gas 6) for about 15 minutes. [If you like the duck very rare, only cook for 12 minutes; for well done, cook for 18-20 minutes.]

When they’re done, remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes, covering loosely with some foil to keep warm.

Meanwhile, make the sauce (I actually made mine earlier so I wasn’t doing too much last-minute cooking when the family arrived).

Finely chop the shallot and fry gently in the olive oil (you could use the duck fat instead if you’re making this as the duck goes into the oven). When the shallot has softened, add the flour. Stir well to mix and make a roux.

   

Add the red wine and mix well to get rid of any lumps. Now add the chicken stock. Again, mix well, using a whisk if necessary to get rid of any lumps. Transfer to a saucepan.

   

Add the sherry vinegar and marmalade and bring to the boil, Simmer over a low-medium heat for 15 minutes to reduce a bit.

   

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the oranges. Use a sharp potato peeler to cut strips of zest from 1 orange. Then slice into julienne strips. Put them in a bowl and cover in boiling water to soften and take the edge of the bitterness. Drain after just a minute or two. Use a fine grater to remove the zest from 1 more orange – you can add straight to the simmering sauce. Juice these 2 oranges and add to the simmering sauce with the julienne strips. Also add the couple of tablespoons of duck fat, if you saved it.

   

Depending on how many orange segments you want in your sauce, cut segments from 1 or 2 more oranges. To do this cut the ends off where the stems are. Stand on a cut end and, slicing downwards, take off the peel, including all the pith, with a sharp knife. Then carefully cut out segments, removing them from the membrane as you go. Add them to the sauce near the end of its cooking time, giving them just enough time to warm through. Check the seasoning of your sauce and add salt and pepper as desired.

   

The sauce tasted wonderful: sweet and orangey with a nice hint of bitterness from the addition of sherry, the orange zest and the Seville orange marmalade (when Seville oranges are in season, try using them). Either use the sauce straight away or turn off and reheat when needed.

As Twelfth Night is a kind of celebration – well, it’s any excuse for fizz in this house – a half bottle of champagne was taken from the fridge to begin our meal. The cork was removed from the Pinot Noir ready for the duck.

   

I just put out nibbles rather than a proper ‘starter’. They weren’t to be honest French but just things we like, but most importantly things that keep Freddie (3¾) and Benjamin (13 months) happy. A basket contained slices of fresh sourdough and olive focaccia; there were breadsticks and taralli. I’d made some butter beans & tahini dip and put out bowls of olives and almonds. Happily my little grandsons love their food and these were all things to keep them happy while the grown-ups enjoyed their champagne!

   

When the duck came out of the oven it was left on to heat the Galette des Rois later for dessert.

The duck was gorgeous, nicely pink and wonderfully tender. The sweet-sour-slightly bitter orange sauce was a perfect accompaniment. I served it with French beans and a potato & celeriac mash. There was a jug of extra sauce too.

My family are always appreciative of my cooking but Jonathan said this was one of my best; I’d excelled myself with the duck and sauce. It’s so nice to cook for people who love what you serve them.

Simple Roasted Cauliflower Soup

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Cauliflower is a favourite vegetable of mine and much underrated, I think. We tend to think of ‘good’ vegetables being those with vibrant colours – like carrots, tomatoes and sweet peppers – but despite its bland appearance, cauliflower is full of wonderful nutrients: calcium, magnesium, folic acid, potassium, beta-carotene and Vitamin C (source: The Food Doctor by Ian Marber). It’s immensely versatile, offering a meal in the form of the classic Cauliflower Cheese, to the more exotic and gorgeous Sicilian ‘Drowned Cauliflower‘ and the recently popular Cauliflower Steak.

To the Brit, there’s something inescapably British about cauliflowers with our Cauliflower Cheese and memories (for me as a child) of cauliflower served with a dressing of béchamel sauce as a side dish with Sunday roasts. In fact, they’re not British at all. The cauliflower is a variant of the Brassica oloracea family, the same as the cabbage. It can be traced back to Asia in the 12th century and has long been cultivated in Northern Europe. It likely goes back even further to the 1st century when Pliny, a Roman philosopher, wrote about cyma, a flowering cabbage that sounds much like our modern cauliflower. Chouxfleurs were introduced to France in 16th century, coming from Genoa in Italy. The cauliflower was introduced into England from Cyprus in about 1603, though they weren’t really well known until the days of Charles II in the latter part of the 17th century when they were described by a contemporary writer as ‘a common feature of the poor man’s garden’.

I certainly don’t think of them as a ‘poor man’s’ food now. Not because they’re expensive, but because of their sophisticated possibilities.

There are other cauliflower soups on this blog, even a roasted cauliflower with spices. But apart from celebrating the wonders of the cauliflower, the post is as much about talking of how easy and quick it is to prepare a simple and nutritious homemade soup for lunch or a snack, with very little effort. I watched a short video by the brilliant Michael Pollan that an artisan baker friend, Igor, shared on Facebook. He argues that our health problems today associated with diet – like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes – are linked to our addiction to and reliance on processed, ready-made meals. We watch TV programmes where chefs produce elaborate restaurant food that intimidates us, though we shouldn’t imagine that’s really home-cooked food and try to aspire to it; and we’re made to feel our time can be spent on more important things than cooking.

But what could possibly be more important than feeding ourselves and our families well? And by well, I mean wholesome, nutritious – and delicious – meals made from fresh, good quality ingredients. Cooking shouldn’t be labelled as drudgery, but a pleasure – especially when you get the whole family involved; and good quality doesn’t have to be expensive.

I have a busy start to the year: two big publishing jobs, family commitments, social commitments coming up, a short break in Amsterdam at the end of the month. All good!  But with winter setting in and the days growing colder – albeit gloriously sunny today – eating well, eating good nutritious food is not only desirable but important.

I like to have a stash of homemade soups in my freezer – packaged in single portions – to pull out for lunch. Today, amidst an essential supermarket shop early on, a few hours publishing work, and then an afternoon looking after my gorgeous little grandson, Freddie, I managed to – almost literally! – throw this fabulous soup together for a hearty, warming lunch, which I ate with sourdough toast.

Simple Roasted Cauliflower Soup

  • 1 cauliflower
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 large potato, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 level teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • boiling water (or stock if you have it)

Cut or pull away any limp, damaged outside leaves of the cauliflower. Trim the base. Then pull away the remaining leaves with their stems and cut into chunks. (There’s no need to throw away – they’re full of goodness and flavour too.) Now cut the head of cauliflower into quarters, then into smaller chunks. Put it into a large shallow ovenproof dish.

Add the onion and potato. I cut these into fairly small chunks – about 2cm cubes. Sprinkle over the cumin. Scatter over about a heaped teaspoon of sea salt (I like Maldon) and grate over a generous (if you’re like me) amount of black pepper. Drizzle over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil. Use your hands to mix it all together so the vegetables are well coated by the oil.

Put into a preheated oven (220C/200 Fan/Gas 7) for about 30-40 minutes. Take from the oven once twice to give a good stir so the top pieces of vegetables don’t burn – you just want some caramelisation for taste but burnt is bitter. The actual cooking time will vary according to the size of your vegetable chunks – test with a sharp knife.

Remove from the oven and with a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables into a large saucepan. Now pour some hot water or stock into the pan you cooked the vegetables in. Over the heat, warm through and scrape any of the gorgeous caramelised bits that have stuck to the pan into the water. Then pour over the vegetables. You want to just cover them. Blend with a stick blender until smooth.

   

Bring back to the boil, check seasoning, and you’re ready to serve.

I used water as the only stock I had was frozen and as I wanted to freeze portions of the soup, I couldn’t use it and then re-freeze. You can use stock cubes if you like, but I’m not keen on them, and the soup has plenty of flavour from the roasting of the vegetables.

I ate a portion straight away. It was an absolutely perfect and delicious light lunch. I got 4 good portions to freeze with the remaining soup.

It was not only wonderful to eat and enjoy, it was full of goodness as I’d used all organic ingredients. And really, aside from the cooking in the oven (during which time I went back to my desk and carried on working!), I could have spent no more than 5-10 minutes chopping vegetables and blending the soup at the end. Really, you could call that instant!

Beef Stewed with Red Wine, Olives & Orange

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I had a wonderful Christmas at my daughter’s in Worcestershire and came back to London on Boxing Day. The following day my brother was due to come with my niece and nephew and a friend. I thought a good break from Christmas food – much as I like it – would be a fish pie. But when I checked with my brother, I learned that niece Clara didn’t like fish pie. OK, I texted, how about a beef stew. This brought an enthusiastic, Yes please!

If there’s a story to every good recipe, then here comes the story.

I had in mind the Gino D’Acampo recipe I made recently with red wine, olives and oranges – an Italian recipe that bridges the French-Italian border to Nice (once part of Italy) and is much like the classic Boeuf Daube. When I searched under ‘Beef’ on the blog though, I couldn’t find the recipe. Confused, I thought I must have made a mistake when assigning it a category. So I searched simply ‘Recipes’ knowing I’d made it recently. The mystery was soon solved. I’d made a lamb stew, not a beef one.

Well, beef was what I’d suggested and so I was going with beef. Given the recipe’s closeness to a Daube recipe, then it was going to work well anyway. So I set off to Waitrose in Richmond yesterday morning to buy ingredients. Well, it’s holiday time and even in Waitrose, shelves were a little bare (Old Mother Hubbard would have sympathised). I stood at the meat counter as I always buy braising steak there rather than pre-packaged. The woman in front of me was buying 2kg of Aberdeen Angus braising steak … what I planned to buy … and they were running low. As I watched her keep saying to the sales assistant, Another couple of slices, please, I began to think shopping wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought and I might have to change plan and go to the Waitrose in Twickenham.  It looked like it was a case of ‘counting chickens before they hatched’ or in this case, ‘counting on a kilogram of braising steak before it was weighed and packaged and in my shopping trolley’. When finally it was my turn to be served, I asked the assistant to weigh the remaining beef. If it was less that 1kg I’d have to go elsewhere. But joy! It was 1.35kg. I’ll take it all, I said. In my enthusiasm, I had more than I’d planned on but as I’ve said before, a good stew needs extra made for freezing. So that’s what I’d do. It meant a little improvisation with the recipe – more than just the lamb-beef swap. But stews aren’t like baking, where precision is important. Stews are moveable recipes that can adapt to circumstances and a little invention.

Thus I changed the quantities a little. I also noticed in the original recipe that while some onion was fried at the beginning to start the sauce, there was no carrot or celery. I decided to begin my stew with the classic and important soffritto. This combination of onion, carrot and celery, finely chopped and gently fried in olive oil, gives depth and flavour to a sauce and is a classic base for many Italian dishes.

A family gathering requires more than a main dish, however good a main dish it is. But – much as I love my brother and his kids – there was only so much cooking I wanted to do after a busy (if lovely) Christmas and a drive to and back from Worcestershire. Thus I employed some of my quick fixes in the kitchen.

For starter, I went to Corto Italian Deli and bought some sliced Italian meats. I then made a last minute decision as I was putting things together to roast some red peppers, skin them, and serve them on the side of the meat. I also made some classic tomato & basil bruschette.

   

There was a basket of fresh bread – sourdough and olive ciabatta from Your Bakery Whitton, which I’d bought in the morning, and taralli (little bread biscuits) from Corto. There was a bowl of olives and some almonds. All very simple and quickly fixed!

   

Dessert was even easier and most definitely a ‘fix’! Some Grom ice cream from Waitrose, and macarons from Paul bakery. I didn’t make any of it and it was a great hit! I think Clara and Leo are going to persuade their dad to buy Grom ice cream next time he’s in Waitrose.

So to the beef … made in the morning and slowly cooked in the oven for 3 hours … then left to rest until supper time.

 

Beef Stewed with Red Wine, Olives & Orange

  • 1.35kg beef braising steak
  • a little plain flour
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (see recipe)
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 1 large stick celery, finely chopped
  • 1 large or 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 120g pitted black olives
  • 3 bay leaves
  • juice and grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 350ml red wine
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon runny honey
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme

 

Dice the steak if not already diced (I prefer to do it myself and cut fairly large even chunks – about 2.5cm cubes). Sift some plain flour on to a large plate and season well with salt and black pepper. Now put some pieces of beef, a few at a time, into the flour and turn with your fingers to coat each piece. This coating of flour helps thicken the sauce as it cooks.

Fry the beef a few pieces at a time in a couple of tablespoons of heated oil in a large frying pan. Turn just once or twice to brown all over – don’t keep turning – and then remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. Add more pieces of beef and more oil as necessary, until all the beef is nicely browned with a slight caramelisation at the edges (which will bring a gorgeous flavour to the finished dish). Put it all to the side on a separate plate.

   

Now add a little more oil to the pan you’ve cooked the beef in and add the chopped vegetables. Fry gently until they’re colouring and softening a little.

   

Now add the olives, bay leaves, orange zest and juice and stir well. Cook for a couple of minutes then add the red wine.

   

Allow it to all bubble for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol, stirring occasionally. Now add the chopped tomatoes, honey and thyme and stir well.

   

Bring up to a boil and as soon as it starts to bubble round the edge, pop a lid on and put straight into a preheated oven (150C/Fan 130/Gas 2). Cook for 2 hours and then check it. Stir and see if the meat is tender. You’ll probably need more time – mine needed an extra hour, so 3 hours in all.

Check the seasoning. Apart from the seasoning with the flour, it’s best to season at the end. The olives are likely to be a bit salty so check how much salt you need. I also like to add a good amount of freshly ground black pepper – but all to your own taste.

I turned my stew off and then gently reheated later near supper time. I served with some white potato-sweet potato mixed mash and a big salad of green leaves, radicchio and finely sliced fennel.

It was really gorgeous. Because I’d added two oranges (my original lamb recipe had just one), it was quite orangey but I liked that, but if you’re not sure, stick to one orange. However you make it, the combination of the flavours of beef, red wine, orange and olives with the bay leaves and fresh thyme is absolutely gorgeous. And I’m so glad I made extra … I fed 5 of us generous portions but have another 4 for my freezer! A perfect ‘ready made’ meal for another wintry night.

Where to Eat with Kids: Corto Italian Deli, Twickenham

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Corto Italian Deli in Church Street, Twickenham is a favourite family haunt and I’ve written about it a few times on the blog – it’s fabulous for morning coffee, lunch, family celebrations, and to buy the best quality Italian foods you’ll find anywhere. We go there a lot but it’s taken me a while to get round to letting you know that it’s a great place to take kids. Freddie (3¾) has been going there regularly since he was a few days old. He had his first babyccino at Corto and loves their pasta.

It was Jonathan & Lyndsey’s 8th wedding anniversary on Saturday and we all – including Freddie and Benjamin (1) headed down to Corto at lunchtime. The idea was to feed the kids well … the celebrating pair were going out in the evening (to Masaniello) and I was babysitting. A good lunch meant an easy snack could be put together for the boys and me in the evening.

Corto have a good Kids’ Menu.

Freddie actually had ‘tickle’ juice – his name for sparkling Pellegrino orange juice, which was slightly watered down with my Pellegrino water and shared with his mum. But there is a juice option on the menu for kids at just £1.

We asked him whether he wanted pasta with tomato sauce or meat sauce and he chose the Bolognese (£4). It was a good-sized portion but as always, Freddie ate it all up, though he shared a little with his younger brother.

The adults were happy too. There are always a few specials of the day, freshly made by Romina.

The adults all chose Melanzane alla Parmigiana because we all love it, and Corto make the best I know of. It’s always really really good.

We shared a mixed salad with it and also asked for a basket of bread, which was a mix of ciabatta, Italian flat bread and taralli bread biscuits.

The standard menu offers excellent ciabatta sandwiches, piadina (flat bread) rolls, salads, plates of mixed antipasti or cheese or meats; a selection of bruschette. All the cheeses and meats are cut to order and there’s little to beat a plate of their wonderful cold Italian meats sliced and laid straight on to the serving plate; bruschette piled high with chopped fresh tomato and basil, again made to order. They offer excellent wines too, homemade cakes and in the summer gelato from Gelateria Danieli.

We finished with coffee for the adults and some slices of chocolate panettone to share between us all.

For me, an essential requirement of a good place to eat with kids is somewhere where I also can eat well and would go without kids. It’s somewhere where kids are welcome (and Italians are the best at this!) so everyone can relax. Corto Italian Deli is always a perfect choice.

Corto Italian Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Getting Ready for Christmas 2018

This year, Christmas will be a family affair at my daughter Nicola’s in Worcestershire with seven ‘grown-ups’and three little ones: my grandsons Freddie (3¾), Benjamin (1) and Rufus (3 months). Nicola is going to do the Christmas Day cooking with her brother Jonathan and the rest of us will prepare contributions ahead to take with us.

Freddie is the only little one with any conception of what Christmas is. He’s very pleased that Nicola and Rachael’s old 17th century farmhouse boasts a beautiful large inglenook fireplace, which means there’s plenty of room for Santa to get down the chimney. A carrot will be left out for Rudolph and the grown-ups are agreed that Santa will need a nice glass of warming Scotch whisky and mince pie to help him get through his busiest night of the year. I can see in advance that we may need to leave a few glasses out so there’s no disagreement about who is Santa!

Here are my contributions; all well-practised recipes, except the Christmas puddings – I used a Nigel Slater recipe from his Christmas Chronicles for the first time. And the puddings were my first venture into Christmas preparations this year. I’d almost forgotten I’d made them (they’ve been hiding in a cool cupboard for a few weeks) until Freddie reminded me yesterday and asked if we were taking the Christmas puddings to Auntie Nicola’s … I must make a list!

 

Christmas Puddings

I didn’t know about ‘Stir-up Sunday’ until a friend mentioned it when I said I was making the puddings this year. Apparently the official last date for making the puddings is the last Sunday in November. I guess it’s called ‘stir-up’ because it’s a tradition that everyone in the family gets a stir and a wish before the mixture goes into pudding basins. That’s what happened when I was a child (my grandmother made the puddings). Of course many people like to make them well before then to allow them to mature; some make enough for the following year (serious maturing!); while others like my late mother are very last-minute about it. I think you can be sure that a good recipe will taste good however far in advance – or last-minute – you make it. I’m hoping this ‘new’ recipe will work well but have much faith in Nigel Slater (click here for recipe).

 

Panettone

OK, so I cheated and bought them. But I did buy them from Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham and they stock the best Italian foods you can find, and my Italian teacher Fabio also commented they’re one of the best makes when he saw them. It’s been a family tradition for many years that we have panettone with Christmas morning coffee and that’s when we open presents. I now buy two as my two daughters-in-law don’t eat raisins and prefer Pandoro, which is plain, while the rest of the family like the Classico (click here for more on Italian Christmas breads). But you can never have too much good panettone!

I did actually make some three years ago, which was fun to do.

If you want to make your own, click here.

 

Christmas Brandy & Vanilla Ice Cream

What do you like to eat with your Christmas pudding? Brandy butter? Brandy sauce? Custard? Cream? We’ve always had brandy sauce but I hit on the idea of making an ice cream version a few years ago and it was such a success the family always insists I make it every Christmas now (we have the brandy sauce too!). It is rich but somehow the icy coolness makes it quite refreshing too. And it’s so good you really shouldn’t save it just for Christmas. Click here for recipe.

 

Gingerbread

I had great fun making some gingerbread last year with grandson Freddie (who was then just under 3). I made the dough in advance and when he came round to Nonna’s, we cut out people, stars and Christmas tree shapes. After baking and cooling, Freddie had fun icing them. The plan for this coming weekend is for the two of us to make this year’s, all ready to take up to Worcestershire on Christmas Eve (click here for recipe).

   

 

Mince Pies

There really is nothing like homemade mince pies and my family always want me to make some for Christmas Day. I always love making them. The year I wrote the recipe on the blog, we even had homemade mincemeat, thanks to my son and a friend who made it. It was gorgeous, but I have to admit that this year the mincemeat has been bought. The pastry will be homemade though – a buttery sweet shortcrust pastry (click here for recipe).

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Thanking all my wonderful followers for reading this blog and wishing everyone a brilliant Christmas and a very happy New Year 2019!!

Spicy Sweet Potato Soup

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Sometimes days don’t go as planned; but sometimes a ‘spanner in the works’ can bring unexpected joy. The plan was mainly work – a publishing job to finish by the beginning of next week; a work meeting this afternoon. I was at my desk early but always take a break to go and buy a paper and get a coffee. After making a good start on a set of proofs, I went off to catch a bus into Richmond; the plan at this point was a coffee in Paul Bakery while I read my paper and a bit of shopping. Despite our digital age and writing a blog and having Twitter and Facebook accounts; using WhatsApp, FaceTime, and being thoroughly addicted to my iPhone, etc., I still like a real ‘hard copy’ newspaper. Just as I like an old-fashioned paper diary, opening a week to page for me to see my week ahead.

Following many grim days of grey skies and rain, it was a delight to find the sun shining, the sky a clear blue and the air crisp and as fresh as London can manage. Yes, it was a very cold but beautiful day. The ‘spanner was thrown into the works’ outside Marble Hill Park. At 9.30am I expected a clear run through to Richmond on the bus (just 10 minutes), but it came to a halt. And stayed still. For a long time. There was a long – stationary – queue in front of it. Then it inched forward a bit. But stopped again. It seemed no one was going anywhere fast by bus. So I and a number of other passengers got up and asked the driver if we could get off. The only sensible thing to do was head back to Twickenham.

Before me was Marble Hill Park. I crossed the road and went through a gate. It was quiet. Just a few people were out walking, mainly with dogs. One small one ran excitedly up to me, its owner shouting apologies in its wake.

I decided to take the path down to the River Thames and walk along the towpath back to Twickenham. Ice lay on the path so I walked carefully; a thin layer of ice across the grass looked almost like a covering of snow. The sun shone low, as it does in winter, through the trees as I neared the river. It really was glorious. I used to live very close to this park and even now am not far away. Yet I hadn’t walked there for a while, and what a privilege it is to live in such a beautiful part of the great city that is London. The famous poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) lived in Twickenham for almost 20 years and said it was London’s loveliest suburb. The house where he lived, and died, looked over Marble Hill Park (click here for more).

Well, coffee was still needed! Travel Gourmet doesn’t get far through the day without coffee becoming a pressing necessity. So I cut up from the river as I approached the centre of Twickenham again and walked down pretty Church Street to go into Corto Italian Deli. The whole family love Corto! I always buy Loisin panettone and pandoro from them for Christmas. Owner Romina wasn’t around this morning but she told me a couple of weeks ago, when I was wanting to buy the pandoro (because some of the family don’t like raisins, so prefer it to panettone) that Loisin were baking them that week and they’d arrive from Italy the following week. She comes from a northern part of Italy and Loisin is local to her family, so she’d visited them a few weeks ago to place her order for the deli. I love these connections; I love that her passion for food makes her search for the best. This is what makes a good independent deli so special.

I ordered a slice of panettone and a cappuccino and chatted a bit to Alicia. I was now feeling pleased that my original plan had been thwarted and I’d had to make a new one. I was having a lovely morning – albeit a longer ‘coffee break’ than I’d originally planned! – a walk through a sunlit park to the river and coffee in a friendly and cosy Italian deli with a slice of the most fabulous panettone.

   

‘The plan’ had also included getting ingredients to make a soup for lunch. Even when quite busy, putting a soup together is a quick affair and a bowl of homemade soup, with some sourdough bread from the local Italian artisan bakery, is so much better than anything bought. Buying ingredients had gone from my mind with the altered plan. But three large sweet potatoes were lurking in the bottom of my fridge. I was sure they would make a perfectly good soup. In fact, it was delicious.

 

Spicy Sweet Potato Soup – Serves 4

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • about 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 sweet potatoes (about 500g), peeled and diced
  • pinch of chilli flakes
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano or thyme
  • big pinch of ground ginger
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • about 750ml of hot stock or water

 

   

Put the chopped onion, carrot and celery in a large saucepan with the olive oil. Fry gently, stirring regularly, until the soffritto is softening and lightly coloured. This is the base of the flavour of the soup. Now add the diced sweet potato. Stir well and continue to fry until the potato starts to colour a bit and soften slightly. Sprinkle in the chilli flakes, oregano or thyme, and ginger. Season with salt and pepper.

   

Stir well and then slowly pour in enough stock or water to cover the vegetables.

   

Bring to the boil and then turn the heat down low, put a lid on, and leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Check the potato is cooked through with the tip of a sharp knife. Then blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Check seasoning. I like this kind of soup quite thick but if necessary, thin down with a little more stock or water until you get the consistency you want.

I served it with a little yoghurt and dusting of black pepper. You might also like to add crème fraîche or cream … or just serve it as it is.

It was absolutely perfect for an icy winter’s day lunch. I think there’s something very comforting about sweet potatoes anyway (maybe it’s that warm colour), but the addition of just a little spice with the chilli and ginger, perked up with a little oregano, gave it a terrific extra lift.

GPSmyCity Travel App – Seasonal Giveaway

I’m excited to let you know that GPSmyCity have just published another 6 of my travel articles – from my holiday in Malaga in October. I have now 44 articles published on this brilliant app from trips to Spain, The Netherlands, France, Austria, Greece and Italy. The GPSmyCity app offers guides to over 6,500 walks in more than 1,000 cities around the world and, as they say, the app allows you ‘to lose yourself without getting lost’. It will act as your personal guide and you’ll always know where you are and how to get to where you want to go. It’s also full of inspiration of what to do, where to eat and what to see in the city you’re visiting.

The beauty of GPSmyCity is that it allows you to go at your own pace and follow the route you want to take. All you have to do is search for articles on the city you’re travelling to and download them on to your smartphone or tablet. Then they’ll always be with you. No more carrying heavy guidebooks around or struggling to open out a map to find your way. Nor do you have to rely on WiFi or using valuable GPS data on your phone: you can download articles for free and read them offline – even on the plane or a beach.

On top of all this, GPSmyCity offers you the chance to upgrade for a small fee (US$1.99) and receive a city map and GPS navigation to all the sights and places mentioned in the article, which you can access offline. If you want to get the most out of your holiday or if you travel a lot, you might want to buy a subscription: US$12.99 per year buys you access to all travel articles for 900+ cities worldwide; US$18.99 per year gives you access to travel articles + walking tours for 1,000+ cities worldwide. You will get the upgraded full benefit of GPS and city maps right across the app, in whichever city you’re visiting, for a whole year. Click here to find out more on their website.

Meanwhile, to celebrate the publication of my six articles on Malaga, upgrades to the first two here are being given away free for one week. So why don’t you upload on to your phone … if you haven’t been to Malaga, it should be on your list!

 

Malaga: Art and Food, Part 1

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Click here for link to get your free upgrade.

 

Malaga: Art and Food, Part 2

Click here for a link to get your free upgrade.

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The following aren’t part of the giveaway but worth downloading if you’re planning a trip to Malaga.

Mercado Atarazanas and Picasso’s Birthplace, Malaga

Click here for link.

 

Rain, Tapas and the Moors in Malaga

Click here for link.

 

Malaga at Night and Return to Vineria Cervantes

Click here for link.

 

Five Nights in Malaga: Eat, Drink, Do

Click here for link.

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Next time you’re travelling to a city, why not take a look at all GPSmyCity has to offer: click here.

My Week in Food

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It’s quite a while since I last wrote one of these posts but they’re fun to do occasionally and a great way to mention favourite restaurants I revisit and recipes I cook again. It’s been a good week of friends, food and expeditions. Come and share it with me …

 

Friday

I had a fabulous time last Friday going to a talk at the Royal Academy of Arts to hear one of my favourite artists ‘in conversation’, Barbara Rae (see Art & Food for more). I then went to one of my favourite restaurants in London for some supper. Yalla Yalla, has become my ‘go to’ place for some early evening supper when I’m near Piccadilly Circus. Usually, it’s a pre-theatre meal but this time it was post talk! I sometimes go with friends but it’s a great solo dining place too.

 

Saturday

Saturday was a family day. My brother Adam came with my niece Clara (15) and nephew Leo (13). Son Jonathan came too with his family, so there were 8 of us round my table, including 3¾ year old grandson, Freddie, and his 1-year-old brother, Benjamin. There was also a big rugby match at Twickenham so Adam – driving from Kent – and even Jonathan only driving from local Whitton, timed their journey to arrive at my house (close enough to the stadium to hear the crowds singing the National Anthem and screaming whenever a try is made) while the match was in progress. Any other time would be disaster. I can walk to Jonathan’s house in 20 minutes. It once took me 45 minutes to drive home when I made the mistake of leaving after a rugby match ended. Rugby + 2 little boys = need for food flexibility. And there’s nothing more flexible than moussaka. I made it in the morning ready to go into the oven near suppertime but it’s also happy, if there’s any delay, to sit in an oven turned down low for a long time without spoiling.

I decided on a Greek meal … everything could go on the table and people just tuck in as they wanted. Apart from the moussaka I made Labneh, Butter Bean ‘Hummus’ and bought olives and some ciabatta from Your Bakery Whitton. There was also a big green salad to which I added torn leaves of radicchio and shredded fennel and then drizzled lots of extra virgin olive oil from Kalamata over it.

For dessert we took a journey to Italy and the family’s favourite cake – Torta Caprese. A glorious flour-free gooey chocolate cake made with lots of ground almonds and chopped dark chocolate. I served crème fraîche and a bowl of mixed fruits (blueberries, blackberries and raspberries) on the side.

 

Sunday

Sunday was my easy food day. Adam and family left after breakfast and so I pulled a portion of the Chicken with Orange and Chicory I made a few weeks ago from the freezer for my supper. It confirmed my belief that you should always make extra of a stew or casserole to put portions in the freezer for a great but instant homemade ready made meal.

 

Monday

On Monday, Freddie and I went on our expedition to Windsor to see the Queen’s castle. Windsor Castle is said to be the Queen’s favourite residence and certainly my little grandson loved visiting it. We were delighted to be told the Queen was actually there – though sadly we caught no sight of her. Food after the castle visit came in the form of a very good Kids’ Menu at Carluccio’s for Freddie and a pasta dish for me (click here for more).

 

Tuesday

There was a constant Italian theme throughout Tuesday. It began with coffee and pastries in Your Bakery Whitton – an Italian artisan bakery – with my little grandsons. It was one of my ‘Nonna’ (Italian for grandmother) mornings, having the boys. Then I went into Richmond to meet my friend Liz for lunch at Debraggio’s – a great Italian deli where you can eat in or take out. I only wanted a small lunch as I was going out in the evening so I ordered a starter – Melanzane Parmigiano – and they offered to add some salad to it. As you can see from the photo above, it was a great plate of food. Not quite as small as I’d had in mind but too good to not eat it all.

In the evening I went to Masaniello with Italian friend Antonio. He and I discovered it back in 2012 and it’s always nice to return there with him. We shared a Mixed Antipasti to begin.

Then Antonio opted for a pizza while I had ravioli with an aubergine filling and some burrata. It was gorgeous.

 

Wednesday

There was a bit more Italian on Wednesday (well, in truth, as regular readers will know, there’s always a lot of Italian of some sort in my life!): an Italian lesson with Fabio in the afternoon and then I put together a pasta dish for supper with some chestnut mushrooms, a handful of peas and lots of grated Parmesan on top. It was one of those ‘open the fridge and see what’s inside’ suppers.

 

Thursday

I met my good friend Annie for supper at the brilliant Joe Allen. It’s ‘our’ place; our favourite place to get together. We’ve been meeting there regularly for at least 20 years! They don’t serve their usual early evening fixed price menu during December and we didn’t really want 3 courses, so decided against the Christmas Menu and went à la carte instead. I had their fabulous Caesar Salad, which has been one of my favourite starters ever for all the time I’ve been going there. And it really is very very good.

Annie and I both had a great Sea Bream dish for mains but were so busy talking I forgot to take a photo. I promise you it looked as great as it tasted!

A week of favourite restaurants: Yalla Yalla, Masaniello … and then Joe Allen on Thursday. I have to admit that 3 favourite restaurants in one week is pretty good going!

 

A Day in Windsor

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Windsor is very easy to get to. Trains run every half an hour from Waterloo in central London to Windsor & Eton Riverside and I can get on the train at Twickenham, from where it’s just a 30-minute journey. When you arrive at the Windsor station and come out of the exit, Windsor Castle is right in front of you (photo below), so only a short walk away, up a steep road and through the town.

As you can see from the photos, the weather wasn’t great today – grey and raining some of the time. But I’d promised 3¾-year-old Freddie we would go and I was looking forward to an outing with my grandson. It all came about from a visit to Windsor only a week ago to meet up with a friend for lunch. While there I took some photos of the castle to show Freddie, telling him it was the Queen’s castle, and he wanted to go. So we did!

Windsor Castle dates from Norman times and the original castle was actually built by William the Conqueror after the invasion in 1066. It’s been added to and bits rebuilt since then but nevertheless is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. It’s well known here in UK that it is one of the Queen’s favourite residences and she chooses to spend her private weekends here; Buckingham Palace is considered ‘the office’.

It cost me £21.20 to go in and Freddie – being under 5 – was free. It seemed a lot considering that I knew we’d not spend a long time there; there’s only so much ‘historical building visiting’ a 3¾ year old can manage, even though he was very excited to go into the Queen’s castle. Then I was delighted to discover that the ticket was actually a One-year Pass and I can go back as many times as I want for a whole year with it and not pay again (you have to be sure to get it stamped each time on the way out so it remains valid). There was no choice; this was the only ticket but of course for someone who is fairly local, like me, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to use it again over the next 12 months.

From the moment we arrived and bought the ticket, everyone we encountered was wonderfully friendly. At the ticket desk people talked to Freddie and gave him his own leaflet, which contained a map. Freddie was so delighted he insisted on leading the way (even though he can’t actually read yet!).

The route round is well marked so you can’t get lost and just follow the roped off walkways. But every so often a guard would point you in the right direction or offer to help out.

Sadly no one was allowed to take photos inside so I can’t show you how beautiful and sumptuous it was. Because we’re close to Christmas now, there were three huge, decorated trees inside, which Freddie was very impressed by. As we passed through one room into another, a security woman talked to us and I told her how excited Freddie was to see the Queen’s castle. She then leaned down towards him and said, Come with me. It was only a few feet and still close to me. She lifted up a rope so he could get a little closer to a window. She pointed to a flag flying on top of a nearby tower. Do you see the flag? she asked Freddie. When that’s flying it means the Queen is here; you’ve come on a day when she’s home.

It was such a nice touch and quite delightful to have security people so friendly. As we moved on, Freddie asked me: Do you think the Queen knows I’m here? I had to say that I thought she was probably very busy but if she knew he was there, she’d be very pleased that he’d visited her castle.

I’d hoped to show him +Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which was built in the early 1920s, and I remember showing Freddie’s dad when he was a young boy and we went to Windsor. However, that display room is closed at the moment until some time next year.

We followed the path back down towards the entrance as we made our way out. Then stopped to go into St George’s Chapel, where Prince Harry and Meghan were married in May (we saw the wedding dress and Harry’s outfit in the castle). I told Freddie it was the Queen’s church; the simplest explanation to a toddler. It’s a very beautiful chapel and definitely shouldn’t be missed if you visit the castle.

Then we were through an archway and back into Windsor town again.

We made our way to the nearby Windsor Royal Station shopping centre. There is actually still a station there too – Windsor & Eton Central Station – with services to Paddington Station in central London.

We headed to Carluccio’s, which is familiar to me as it’s where I usually meet my friend Nina – as I did last week – and I knew they had a good Kids’ Menu.

The Kids’ Menu has a great choice and is just £6.25 for 2 courses; £7.50 for 3, including a drink. A little booklet with crayons was brought straight away for Freddie.

   

Freddie chose Spaghetti and Meatballs with apple juice to drink. This was a really good portion and he liked it.

I had Penne Giardiniera (£9.95) which is one of my favourite dishes in Carluccio’s – pasta with courgettes, spinach balls, chilli, garlic and cheese.

Freddie chose Apple & Blackcurrant Ice Lolly for his dessert and I had a cappuccino (admittedly bad form in an Italian restaurant; Italians would never drink a white coffee after a meal!).

   

It was a perfect place to go after our castle visit. When we came out, Freddie wanted to go back into the castle but I had to say no, but we would go again soon. A woman in a shop told us we should go on a day when we can see the Changing of the Guard – at 10.45am three days a week in the winter and every day from April over the summer. So that is the plan. Meanwhile we walked back to the station to get a train home. We were a little early so made a minor diversion down a street by the station to look at the River Thames.

Windsor is a great place for a day out. Visiting the castle is a must, but the shopping centre is great and there are loads of bars, cafes and restaurants. And if you have more time and the weather is kinder, take a walk in Windsor Great Park or along the River Thames Path.