Skip to content

Greek-style Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

E34348AA-22D4-4A36-8D45-33F41935AA56

Who doesn’t like meatballs in tomato sauce? Well, vegetarians of course. But they are the ultimate comfort food and with Storm Gareth raging across the UK in the last few days, bringing damage-threatening winds and a bitter cold in the air, something warm and comforting was definitely needed.

I usually take an Italian route to meatballs but when I saw Rick Stein’s Greek meatballs (soutzoukakia) in his Long Weekends book, a different kind of seasoning was too tempting to resist. Wasn’t a hint of warming cinnamon and cumin just the thing in the inclement weather?

I changed the measurements slightly as I had a smaller amount of mince to hand, and soaked my bread for the meatballs in milk (a fairly common method) rather than red wine. But basically the recipe was heavily inspired by Mr Stein!

 

Greek-style Meatballs in Tomato Sauce – Serves 4

  • 400g minced beef
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 slices bread, crusts removed (50g), soaked in a little milk
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Tomato Sauce

  • 1 large shallot or small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5cm cinnamon stick
  • 1 level teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 100ml red wine
  • 400g tin tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Put the mince, garlic, egg yolk, cumin and oregano in a large bowl. Squeeze the milk from the bread and crumble it into the meat mixture. Season with some salt and pepper and then mix well with your hands. Do not be tempted to use a food processor or you’ll have a paste – not the right mixture for meatballs. Use a little of the olive oil for cooking the meatballs to grease your hands and then start rolling out small balls of meat, about 25g each (you should get about 20). Rick makes his ‘rugby ball’ shapes and as I live in Twickenham – home of rugby – I sort of did this, though not too seriously; slightly oval rather than round balls. But really it’s up to you!

Heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan and brown the meatballs on a fairly high heat until golden brown all over. Remove to a plate while you make the sauce.

Clean the large frying pan. Add the shallot, garlic and oil to the pan and gently fry until softening. Add the cinnamon stick, cumin and sugar. Stir round and allow to cook gently for about 5 minutes.

 

Pour in the red wine. Stir well. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and allow to bubble and reduce for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée and seasoning. Mash the tomatoes down a bit with a potato masher. Leave to cook on a low heat for about 15 minutes until slightly thickened, stirring occasionally.

 

Add the meatballs. Mix well. Leave to simmer for about 15 minutes with a lid on the pan. Stir occasionally, adding a little water if the mixture starts to become too thick.

Serve with rice with a few olives chopped into it (if you like olives!).

It was so good! I just loved the flavourings, the gorgeous warming spices in the sauce, and the meatballs were wonderfully tender and tasty. I shared with the family and it was a big hit with them – especially 4-year-old Freddie. What a perfect family meal for a cold and windy March evening!

 

Seafood Pasta Sauce

My daughter Nicola has been visiting for 3 days with my youngest grandson – 6 months yesterday – and it’s been great to spend time with them. We both love fish and with an excellent fishmongers just down the road in central Twickenham, fish has twice been on the menu. On Monday evening I made Sea Bream Roasted with New Potatoes, Tomatoes & Fresh Herbs and last night I made a seafood sauce to go with pasta.

Italians like to match the shape of pasta with the sauce and often sauces similar to mine last night are served with linguine and I’ve had seafood with paccheri – large tube-shaped pasta. However, Romina in Corto Italian Deli suggested I bought some penne, saying tagliatelle could work but perhaps best not to use egg pasta, which I thought interesting. So penne it was – and it worked well.

After leaving Corto we headed down the road to Sandy’s, the fishmonger. I love having a fishmonger – a real fishmonger, not just a supermarket counter – nearby. There I chose a selection of fish for my sauce – large raw tiger prawns (I went for peeled for the sauce), some small squid and some cods’ cheeks. I wanted a harmonious variety.

Back at home I decided to make the tomato sauce base a little ahead of supper time, so we could sit with an aperitif and relax before eating, and would cook the fish at the last minute. I wanted to celebrate their quality – not leave them spoiling slightly in a sauce for too long and lose some of the integrity of their individual flavours and textures. I would then pan fry each fish separately to seal and brown them, then add them to the hot sauce for just a minute or two to finish cooking before folding the cooked pasta into it.

Seafood Pasta Sauce – Serves 2

  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • ½ stick of celery, finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra for frying the fish
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 large tomatoes, skinned and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • 100ml white wine
  • sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • mixed seafood for 2 (e.g. 8 tiger prawns, 2 small squid, 4 cods’ cheeks)
  • 150g penne (or other pasta)

 

 

Gently fry the shallot and celery with the olive oil in a large frying pan until starting to soften. Sprinkle over the chilli flakes (a pinch will give a slight hit of heat; a bit more if you want the sauce chilli hot). Now add the garlic and chopped tomatoes and give a good stir to mix. Add the tomato purée with the wine (I had some slightly flat prosecco which had been in the fridge for a couple of days and used that). Season with salt and pepper and allow to bubble gently for about 10 minutes.

      

Parsley has continued to grow in a pot outside my back door through the winter as it’s been so mild. I chopped a small bunch and added it to the sauce, retaining just a little for garnish at the end. The sauce can be taken from the heat at this stage and left for a little while until you’re ready to eat. If you make it much earlier in the day, you’ll have to keep it in the fridge once cooled.

 

Now cook the fish. My prawns were ready to go; the squid had been cleaned and I sliced it into small rings; the cods’ cheeks I cut into square-quarters.

Heat a little oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the prawns. Turn over once coloured and cook the second side. Don’t cook right through as they’ll finish cooking in the hot sauce. Lay on top of the warm sauce (but don’t have the heat on). I kept a couple of prawns in the pan to cook through so I could put to the side for a garnish at the end. Now cook the cods’ cheeks and then the squid rings. Cook quickly and leave slightly underdone so they remain tender. Add to the sauce as ready.

 

Once all the fish is cooked, stir carefully into the sauce and heat through over a low-medium heat for just a couple of minutes.

Meanwhile have your pasta cooking (follow timing instructions on the packet). Once the pasta is ready, tip into the fish sauce and gently fold it all together. Spoon onto two serving plates or shallow bowls. Sprinkle over a little more parsley, lay a saved prawn on top of each portion and drizzle over a little more extra virgin olive oil. Serve with a green salad on the side.

It was really good; absolutely gorgeous. Nicola even said it was one of the best fish dishes she’d had in a long time! The fish was top quality and we were able to enjoy each type’s individual qualities; the sauce had a freshness because I’d used fresh tomatoes rather than tinned; the chilli was just enough to give a slight hit of heat. It was a lovely meal to enjoy together but it can also easily be made just for one, or doubled or tripled up for a few more people.

A Vermouth Revival

Delightful serendipity was at work again in my life when I saw The Guild of Food Writers were organising a workshop on ‘vermouth’ only a couple of weeks before my next trip to Turin – home of vermouth! I was excited to be accepted as a member of the Guild, an association for professional food writers and broadcasters, at the end of last year, and last night’s workshop was the first event I attended.

I’ve been hearing for a couple of years or more about how vermouth is making a comeback. I’d only associated it with the 1970s when its popularity was epitomised by the iconic series of TV adverts for Cinzano starring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter. I also associated it with my mother, who never drunk much alcohol, but loved champagne … and Cinzano Bianco.

Vermouth might be making a comeback, but in all honesty I wasn’t hugely impressed. Even when I first visited wonderful Turin in October 2016, my only tasting of vermouth came in the form of a splendid (and strong!) Negroni at the famous Caffè Torino.

However, last night’s event prompted me to think I should really find out more about vermouth and why it’s becoming so popular again. The workshop was to be led to Kate Hawkings, drinks expert, columnist, writer, and author of the book Aperitif. It took place at The Whisky Exchange in Great Portland Street in central London.

When I arrived I was immediately drawn to look round the shelves, which were full of an amazing array of wines – and vermouth!

My vermouth knowledge until this point hadn’t gone past ‘Cinzano’ and ‘Martini’. Now I was to learn a lot more.

Downstairs in the basement, tables were laid out with samples of vermouth and little bits of appropriate food to taste with them.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but be drawn to look at the enormous selection of whiskies that lined the walls. I love whisky … but I needed to turn my attention to vermouth.

Once everyone was seated, the tasting began. And necessarily and fascinatingly, the ‘lesson’ began with history – and how vermouth came into being.

Vermouth is a fortified and aromatised wine, not a spirit, and is actually quite low in alcohol for something we think of as a ‘stronger’ drink – around 18 per cent. The name derives from the German name for ‘wormwood’ – Wermut – an essential ingredient of vermouth. Wormwood is also an essential ingredient of Absinthe, which is famous for being banned around the world through most of the 20th century. Wormwood is a plant that has been used medicinally for thousands of years, going as far back as Ancient Greece and Hippocrates, who mixed it with wine and added herbs and spices. It was used to cure intestinal worms and continued for centuries to be thought of as useful for gastric complaints.

The name ‘vermouth’ can also be linked to the Latin verb apere, meaning ‘to open’. In this sense it fits with our idea of vermouth being an aperitif drink … or if you’re in Italy, aperitivo. It is a drink to open the appetite.

Technically, vermouth was invented in Italy in Turin in the 16th century by Alessio di Piemonte, a wine merchant, physician and alchemist (I love that he did all three!). He used it for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 18th century that modern vermouth was created by the first Cinzano brothers in 1757. They made in on a small scale in the mountain village of Pecetto in northern Piedmont and it was only sold locally. The first commercial vermouth was made by herbalist Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin in 1786. Later in 1863, still in Turin, a partnership was formed between wine merchant Alessandro Martini and herbalist Luigi Rossi to form that other famous vermouth label – Martini & Rossi.

Meanwhile in France in 1821, a French distiller Joseph Chavasse from Chambéry, who visited Turin and sampled vermouth, launched a lighter style pale vermouth made with local wine and alpine botanicals: Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry. Vermouth de Chambéry and Vermouth di Torino remain the only two geographically protected vermouths today.

So to the tastings. The photo below shows the enormous range of colour, which is reflected in taste.

Starting from the left, No.1, 2 … and through to No.6, I guess one might associate the pale 1 and 2 with dry vermouth or Cinzano Bianco; the rich darker colours at the far end with a sweet Martini (if we’re using 1970s talk!). But of course it wasn’t that simple.

No.1 was Chazalettes Extra Dry from Italy: first made in Turin in 1860, this went out of production in the 1970s but was relaunched in 2016. This light, delicate vermouth had a floral sweetness but that essential vermouth bitterness with it, and a lemon, herby touch with a hint of gin (juniper berries). It was delightful and one of my favourites.

No.2 was a Spanish vermouth, Lustau Vermut Blanco: dry with a mineral flavour, it was a complete contrast to No.1 with its minerally ‘nose’ and taste, which to be honest I didn’t much like. In Spain it’s drunk with lots of ice and a slice of orange.

No.3 was Regal Rogue Wild Rose from Australia. Part of a new wave of vermouths, this is designed to be drunk in its own right. It has 40% less sugar, no woods and low bitters. It was a fresh tasting vermouth with strawberry notes and went well with the cheese on the table, and would go well too with a lemon Sicilian lemonade.

No.4 was Caperitif from South Africa: made from a base of Chenin Blanc wine and 35 natural botanicals. Bittersweet and grassy, it’s an ideal mixer.

No.5 took us back to Italy and Cinzano 1757 Rosso: the nose had a strong vanilla that transferred to the taste, which also had a hint of raspberry jam and plums. Medium-bodied, rich and fruity with that wormwood bitterness, I have to tell you this was my favourite. And I quite surprised myself by that for it seemed a bit of a cliché. But it was gorgeous. We were told it’s a great vermouth for making Negronis and goes well half and half with gin.

No.6, still in Italy, was Cocchi Vermouth di Torino: this comes with the most delightful story. Giulio Cocchi, a pastry chef from Florence, fell in love with a girl from Asti, in Piedmont. He opened Bar Cocchi in Turin and launched a range of vermouths made with the local Moscato grape in 1891. This  was another favourite with a big, complex taste: fruit, chocolate, orange peel, toffee, apples, with citrusy bitterness, it had a gorgeous sweet and bitter taste.

It was really fascinating to taste such a range of vermouths and get to know more about the drink. While interesting to try some of the new wave vermouths from Australia and South Africa, I have to say that my vermouth heart lies firmly in Turin, Italy. Numbers 1, 5 and 6 were my clear favourites. Thus I am totally inspired to try more vermouth and learn more about it when I’m in Turin in a couple of weeks’ time.

Vermouth is of course associated with some famous cocktails like Gin Martini, Manhattan and Negroni, so it was perfect to end this brilliant evening with Negronis.

People asked about storage at the end of the evening. We’ve probably all had bottles of vermouth that have stood on our shelves for weeks but because it’s not a spirit, but instead a fortified wine, it doesn’t keep well long. A dry white vermouth lasts only about 2 weeks once opened (though longer if kept in the fridge). The sweeter red can last for about 6 weeks.

Katie Hawkings’ book Aperitif was a great source for this post, as well of course as her talk last night. I also sourced a lot of information via the Internet and various sites.

A Simple Italian Meal

95A43576-3454-4662-B0B9-6A210966CD79

I was delighted to have my friends Di and Tam come round for supper on Friday evening. The first time I’d cooked for them. Di is a friend made via the blog (she writes a blog too, click here). The blog has brought me many friends as well as some wonderful experiences and being invited out to Burgundy for the last two summers by Di, where she and Tam live most of the time, has been up with the best highlights.

When not in Burgundy my friends live only a 20-minute walk from my house in Twickenham, which is one of those weird but happy examples of serendipity. People read our blogs from all over the world and we find ourselves neighbours!

With just three of us for supper it was to be an informal affair. ‘I’ve made it very simple,’ I told my daughter Nicola on the phone in the afternoon … then thought a bit and added, ‘Well I did make the ragù for the lasagna yesterday and let it cook for three hours.’ It’s easy to think when a recipe is very familiar that it’s ‘easy’. Well, making a ragù isn’t particularly hard but it does take time. And if I’ve cooked ragù more times than any other recipe in my life, which I’m pretty sure I have, then Torta Caprese – my chosen dessert – comes a clear second.

It was all a case of following my own advice, written in my blog post ‘A Single Person’s Guide to Entertaining‘: prepare as much as you can in advance so you’re able to sit and enjoy your friends’ company and not be cooking hard in the kitchen at the last minute.

I also wanted to stick to my preferred rule of keeping with a one-cuisine theme. As I’ve said recently in these pages, I’m not a ‘fusion’ person: I like individual cuisines to retain their integrity and thus I try – even for an informal family meal – to keep to either a French meal, or an Italian meal, or a Middle Eastern meal, etc. The choice of Italian for Friday evening was obvious: my love of Italy and Italian food, celebrated on these pages; and the fact that Di and Tam live in France much of the time and know so much about French food and wine that cooking a French meal would definitely be more of a challenge!

Thus a simple Italian menu was decided upon:

Mixed Antipasti

*

Lasagna & Green Salad

*

Torta Caprese

I also bought Italian wines to accompany it: a light, delicate Gavi to go with the antipasti and a Chianti Classico to go with the main.

 

I did make a little more effort than I often do for a starter for a family meal when everything is bought – and I actually cooked something as part of the antipasti! Delia Smith may have made Piedmontese Peppers famous in UK kitchens in the 1980s but I’ve been using Elizabeth David’s recipe from her classic Italian Food, first published in 1954, since the 1970s!

Pepperoni alla Piedmontese is one of the finest examples of how just a few ingredients can make something extraordinarily wonderful – the very essence of Italian cooking. You just halve – or quarter large – peppers and lay in a shallow ovenproof dish. Add a couple of slices of garlic, 2-3 pieces of fresh tomato to each and half an anchovy fillet, cut into pieces. Top with a knob of butter, a dessertspoon of olive oil and a light seasoning (remember the anchovy will be salty to go easy on salt). Put into a moderate oven (Elizabeth doesn’t give temperatures! But I reckon about 180C/Gas 4 is OK) for around half an hour, or until the peppers are softening but not collapsed and have a slight caramelisation around the edge.

 

I made these in the morning. They should be served at room temperature and are best eaten on the day they’re made.

While the peppers were cooking, I made the Torta Caprese (click here for recipe) so it could go into the oven as the peppers came out. It’s the family’s favourite cake. You can make it a day in advance too and it will be fine.

Once essential cooking was done, I set off late morning to Corto Italian Deli to buy some cold meats. I know from experience that Romina won’t serve me the meats the day before, they have to be fresh … but when you see her carefully slice them straight into a container, you know they should be enjoyed soon while at their best. So good are their meats that I almost never buy cold Italian meats anywhere else now.

Did she have some of the Tuscan prosciutto and fennel salami, I asked; could I have enough for three for an antipasti? Romina asked if I was going to have a coffee too, and although I’d already had a coffee early morning at Your Bakery Whitton with the family, where I’d bought a fabulous olive ciabatta for the evening, I decided a second coffee was  a tempting idea. I sat down and with my coffee came a gorgeous little cake – a fritella – filled with zabione, a taste of the Venetian carnivale, which is currently on. It was from Venice, Romina told me. Intrigued, for it seemed very fresh, I asked, did they come boxed? I brought some from Venice this morning, she told me, and showed me a photo of a large box filled with fresh cakes. She’d been over to place her order for Easter colombo bread direct with the producers, and had brought some cakes back on the first flight to Heathrow that morning.

It was an unexpected delight and the cake was really gorgeous; their coffee is great too! It quite made my day to know I’d eaten a little cake that had been made in Venice that morning.

Back home with my box of cold meats, I started putting the lasagna together. I’d made the ragù the previous evening (click here for recipe) and now had to make some béchamel, grate a mound of Parmesan and start doing the layering. Once that was done, I was pretty much ready, apart from leaving the plating of the antipasti and cutting of bread until the last minute.

I made an antipasti plate much like the ones I’ve enjoyed in Corto Deli. I had the cold meats, some olives, cherry tomatoes halved and dressed with olive oil and basil. I had two cheese: a burrata and some Taleggio. I thought it all looked pretty good!

For my bread basket I had some excellent olive ciabatta from the Italian bakery in Whitton, some of their sourdough bread and some taralli – little breadstick-like biscuits that I buy in Corto and my family have an addiction to. I think it’s nice to have a selection of breads.

I laid it all out on the table before we sat down.

Lasagna is such a classic Italian dish but also great when solo entertaining because not only can it be prepared in advance and then just popped into the oven an hour or so before eating, it’s very very tolerant with timing … you can turn the oven very low to keep it warm and not worry about it spoiling. My salad was a mix of green leaves, some chopped radicchio and thinly sliced raw fennel.

 

There was no cheese course; we’d had cheese with the antipasti. Thus, after a suitable break the Torta Caprese was sliced and served with some strawberries and cream.

They were all well-practised – but favourite – recipes and the bought ingredients (the bread and the cold meats) of the highest quality, so it all came together well. And come suppertime, I didn’t have to do much other than enjoy my friends’ company … oh, and the food! 🙂

My Week in Food

D6D7F3CF-F3AB-405F-95F8-852D7062E70E

It’s been a great foodie week with visits to a couple of old favourites, a new restaurant discovery and a little bit of home cooking. Here it is:

 

Sunday

Sunday at home and a delicious chicken dish made with mushrooms and Madeira. A perfect Sunday meal. Click here for recipe.

 

Monday

I was back at Bancone, which has become a favourite haunt since my first visit last summer, soon after it opened. In fact it was my second visit in ten days! I’d been there for a pre-theatre meal with a friend on the 8th and was back having a meal with my son on Monday the 18th. It’s the simplest of menus with just a few each of Antipasti, Pasta & Desserts. But it sums up what I love about Italian cooking – that a few ingredients can be brought together to make something stunningly wonderful. You can see the pasta being made early on in the front window and sitting at the bar (bancone!), watch the chefs cook as you eat. A nice little touch of excitement and a happy kind of drama. On Monday I had: ‘Strozzapreti, cavolo nero, pancetta, Cornish scallop & crispy onion’ (£14.50 – and the most expensive dish on the menu; the cheapest pasta dish was £8.50). Do book if you plan to go; it’s always busy. Click here for my full review.

 

Tuesday

Tuesday night is my book group night and I have to leave the house quite early, so I usually cook something simple and light; often an omelette. Last Tuesday I wanted to use up a portion of roasted ratatouille which had been in my freezer for a few weeks. I thawed and heated it through, put it into a small ovenproof dish, spread it out and made two dips into which I cracked two eggs. Into a hot oven for about 10 minutes until the whites had cooked but the yolks were still runny and there I had a perfect light supper. I had some lovely new sourdough bread which I dipped into the yolks. Delicious!

 

Wednesday

After seeing the wonderful Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, I ate an early supper with my friend Annette who’d recommended Bar Douro and booked a table for us. This was a fantastic find and I can’t wait to go back! Click here for my full review.

 

Thursday 

Thursday lunchtime I met my friend Kate in Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham. This has long been a favourite haunt of my family and it’s where Kate and I often meet as she loves it too. Neither of us wanted a heavy lunch so chose roasted vegetable salad with mozzarella but owner Romina gave us some bruschette too to start. It was all gorgeous and we were surrounded by enough Italians to even have a little sense of being transported to Italy. Click here for a fuller review.

 

Friday

A ‘home’ day when I finally got started on a work job which was waiting for me. I did however make some roasted celeriac soup for lunch, eating one portion and freezing more. And the evening was my habitual Friday tagliatelle with Bolognese ragu for supper – a very simple supper as a portion of the ragu was waiting in the freezer for me! Click here for recipe.

 

Saturday

After a early morning sortie to Waitrose, then watching some men fit a new dishwasher, I decided some serious work was in order. And I did indeed work (an editing job working on a cookbook). But with the sun shining in a clear blue sky outside, after a suitable time I decided I had to venture out for a walk. And the walk down to Twickenham town centre and along pretty Church Street led me to Corto Italian Deli. And how could I resist going in for a slice of homemade cake and some of the fabulous coffee? I convinced myself I deserved it!

Restaurant Review: Bar Douro

6216AE8C-2FAB-46D4-AF22-6885232402BE

It was my friend, Annette, who suggested eating at Bar Douro; a recommendation from her daughter, Rosie. We were going to the Pierre Bonnard exhibition (absolutely wonderful!) at Tate Modern and planned to eat an early supper afterwards. Bar Douro was just a short 10-minute walk away from the gallery.

Bar Douro is tucked inside a railway arch in trendy Flat Iron Square, just off Southwark Bridge Road, where an increasing number of street-food stalls, artisan bakeries, bars and – at weekends – markets liven a once dull and rundown area. For some foodie excitement, this is now a hot destination.

I hadn’t eaten Portuguese food before other than the famous Pasteis de Nata – and no, I’ve never eaten in Nando’s. I had only a vague idea that it was a bit like Spanish food, but perhaps spicier with its use of piri piri. Lisbon is now a hugely popular destination and has been sitting on my wish list for at least a couple of years, though I haven’t yet got there. I was therefore particularly pleased at the chance to try out some Portuguese food.

Bar Douro was almost empty when we arrived just after 6pm but full and buzzing soon after. Luckily Annette had booked. I may not have been to Portugal but entering the bar with its marble-topped counters and beautiful blue and white traditional tiles made me feel I was being transported to somewhere very nice and slightly exotic. It most definitely didn’t feel like being in a dingy railway arch; it was lovely.

We were shown to stools right by the open kitchen, allowing us to view all the excitement of flaming pans on the hob and the careful and precise preparation of putting food on to plates. The chef greeted us, immediately setting a friendly and open tone.

A large bottle of complimentary (tap) water came and we ordered small glasses of the house white wine, Meio Queijo, Douro (£4.50). A large basket of bread came too with a small bowl of their own label extra virgin olive oil. I’m a real bread addict; I have always loved good bread and exceptional bread can win me over when it comes to restaurants. This was exceptional bread with that distinctive sourdough flavour. I had to restrain myself from eating too much and filling myself up before the main event!

Bar Douro is a tapas-sharing plate restaurant. The menu offered 4 choices each of Snacks, Garden (vegetable), Sea (fish) and Land (meat) and finally Desserts. Fish features in a big way when it comes to Portuguese food and meat is mainly pork and beef and spicy sausages; there’s also a Whole Suckling Pig option in Bar Douro, available on request. There was Grilled Black Pig Chorizo, Grilled Quail, Pork Loin and Onglet steak (ranging in price from £6-12). However, Annette and I decided to order a couple of Vegetable dishes and two Fish; but started with Salt Cold Fritters from the Snacks list.

We ordered just one plate (£4) and the fritters were quite big, so plenty to share. They were delicious and served with a spicy tomato sauce on the side.

We were told the dishes came in no particular order; just as they were ready. First to come – after the fritters – were Cumin Carrots with Sheep Milk Yoghurt (£6).

This was a mix of heritage carrots and a confident – but not too heavy – dressing of cumin with the thick, creamy yoghurt. It was fantastic.

Garlic Prawns (£12) arrived next: 2 large prawns each. Perfectly cooked; sweet and tender in a lovely sauce. These were great.

We had Chargrilled Sardines with Blistered Peppers & Shaved Fennel next ((£6.50) – two large sardines, so one each. Unfortunately I seem to have missed taking a photo so you’ll just have to trust me when I say they looked good and tasted excellent.

Our second Vegetable dish was Roast Squash, Pumpkin Seeds Vinaigrette & Requeijâo (£9). Requeijâo is a mild, ricotta-like creamy cheese.

This dish was a lovely combination of the sweet, soft squash with peppery watercress and creamy cheese.

I don’t often eat desserts but I couldn’t resist trying one of their Pasteis de Nata (well, who could!). It came slightly warm with cinnamon ice cream on the side (£4). It was a wonderful way to finish the meal: small and sweet – but not too sweet. We ordered espressos to go with them.

It was a great place to eat, with a buzzing atmosphere, attractive decor and fabulous food. The bill came to almost £35 a head, including wine and service.

Bar Douro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chicken with Madeira & Mushrooms

F5764247-A297-4A66-A855-290CF4C400E4

I’d planned to cook this a couple of weeks’ ago for the family but plans changed … as plans sometimes do … and it was put on hold. The family are in Wales this week for half term and despite being home alone, it’s Sunday and something a little special is always called for at the weekend. So I went back to the idea of this chicken dish. It’s something that can easily be made for just one … or doubled or quadrupled up for more.

In all honesty it’s very simple and the kind of thing I’ve ‘thrown together’ many times but the specifics came from seeking an Italian recipe two weeks’ ago. I’d planned to try out an Italian ‘starter’ (still on the ‘to do’ list) so was looking for an Italian main course. I’m definitely not fusion when it comes to cooking; I like food from many different countries but I like them to – mostly – retain their individual national character. And I do like to keep a meal pretty much from one nation or geographical area – Italian, French, Middle Eastern, Spanish, etc. This recipe – or ‘almost this recipe’ – is from Rick Stein’s Long Weekends and his dish hails from Palermo. He uses Sicilian Marsala wine and although I usually have some in my cupboard (essential for Tiramisu, Zabaione, etc.), I didn’t today. However, I did have a fairly new bottle of Madeira; another sweet wine that goes brilliantly with chicken (I often add some to a gravy when roasting chicken). Thus, one might say I’ve just disproved my claim to not like fusion food since Madeira is part of Portugal! But well, let’s not get too serious about these things. What I made was a really delicious dish and it can be put together nice and quickly.

 

Chicken with Madeira & Mushrooms – Serves 1

  • 1 skinless chicken breast
  • about 1 dessertspoon plain flour
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 25g butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • ½ clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 70g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • 50ml dry Madeira
  • 50ml chicken stock
  • about 1-2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

 

   

Lay the chicken breast between 2 pieces of clingfilm and beat with a rolling pin. Beat fairly gently so the chicken breast doesn’t break apart. You want it to end up with an even thickness of about 5mm.

Put the flour on a plate and season with the salt and pepper. Mix with your fingers. Put the chicken breast in the flour, coat well, turn over and coat the other side. Then give it a good shake so excess flour falls off.

Melt half the butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a frying pan. When it starts to sizzle add the chicken and cook over a medium heat, 2-3 minutes each side, until a nice golden brown.

   

Remove the chicken to a plate. Wipe the pan clean with kitchen towel and add the remaining butter and oil. Add the shallot and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes over a medium heat until they start to soften. Now add the sliced mushrooms. Cook for another couple of minutes until the mushrooms start to colour.

   

Add the Madeira. Let it bubble up and cook on a high heat for a minute or two until it reduces a bit. Now add the chicken stock. Stir and let it bubble up. Return the chicken to the pan and turn the heat back down to low-medium.

   

Cook the chicken in the sauce for about 10 minutes, turning once or twice so it takes up the flavour of the sauce all through. Check seasoning.

I served with some roasted small cubes of potato (Rick sautés his) and some tenderstem broccoli (dressed with a little lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil). Scatter some finely chopped parsley over the top.

It looked very appetising and tasted delicious. Chicken is always beautifully tender when beaten out like this and cooked quickly. The sauce was fabulous and added that extra ‘special’ touch for a Sunday evening meal. The crispy little pieces of roasted potato, with a grating of sea salt over the top, made a great accompaniment with the broccoli. Definitely one to do again when the family next come!

 

The Sad Demise of Independent Cafes & Restaurants

It was with great sadness I heard that Patisserie Valerie was going into administration and many closing down, including the iconic ‘original’ in Old Compton Street. In fact it wasn’t actually the original, which was opened in Frith Street in 1926 by Madame Valerie, a Belgian woman. When the cafe was bombed in World War II, it reopened in Old Compton Street, just round the corner. And, for a long time, this was the only Patisserie Valerie. Thus it was a haunt of Londoners looking for a perfect croissant and to be transported briefly to Continental Europe at a time when this was truly unique and special.

It was a haunt in my childhood. My first two years of life were spent living in a pub in the Charing Cross Road, which was run by my parents. I don’t remember it, but I was taken into Patisserie Valerie often. We then moved out of central London but remained close enough to have Saturday morning trips into Soho where we’d have morning coffee in, sometimes Madame Bertaux, and sometimes Patisserie Valerie.

I can remember the steep winding, narrow staircase we climbed to go upstairs at Madame Bertaux where, after choosing a glorious cake or pastry from the window, we’d find a table and wait for our treat to be served. In Patisserie Valerie one of the things I loved was the rich wood-panelled and furnished room, that felt like entering another, exotic country, where baskets of fresh croissants waited enticingly on tables. You could sit down and take one even before an order was given, and at the end, you owned up to how many you’d eaten. And no one questioned your honesty.

Afterwards, my father and I would go off to the Italian delis and buy breads and cheeses that were mostly unknown in those days – creamy, oozing Gorgonzola, smelling slightly high in its ripeness; the kind of Italian bread you’d never find in a supermarket.

When three Italian brothers bought Patisserie Valerie in 1987, they expanded it to nine outlets. But in a sense, it still remained ‘independent’. By now I was married with kids of my own and we took to meeting my parents on Saturday mornings at the Knightsbridge branch of Patisserie Valerie. For many years it was a favourite haunt; sometimes I’d go on my own for lunch if I was in the area. They continued to put the baskets of fresh croissants on the table in the morning, trusting in their clients’ honesty; it was still a special place to go and still spoke of authenticity.

Then all changed in 2006 when the patisserie was bought out by Risk Capital Partners, who owned such outlets as Pizza Express, Giraffe and Strada. Patisserie Valerie started popping up everywhere. And it was no longer special.

There’s an argument that says, Isn’t everyone entitled to enjoy a special cafe like Patisserie Valerie? But I think the expansion we see today isn’t governed by any philanthropic impetus, but rather the desire to cash in on something which is successful but small and therefore vulnerable.

We see it all the time. I never got to Franco Manca when they were a little independent set-up in Brixton market and everyone was raving about their incredible and authentic Neopolitan pizzas and rushing out to SW2. It was all too much for the greedy big guys. In they came (more specifically The Fulham Shore), bought Franco Manca out and now there are over 40 outlets. I’ve had good pizzas at Franco Manca (some recorded on this blog) but I’ve also had bad ones; even at the same restaurant where one week it’s been great, the next week terrible. Usually it’s because the dough is too flabby, meaning it hasn’t been proved for long enough; something that doesn’t happen when a well-trained and experienced pizzaiolo is in charge. Consistency is so often what goes first when restaurants expand and that special place you loved is no longer special.

Carluccio’s Caffe was great when it opened, then it was sold and went badly ‘off’, so they brought the man himself back and things improved again … until the great chef died and now Carluccio’s isn’t quite what it used to be. Same with The Ivy. That great institution, famous since 1917 and the haunt of celebrities. Then it was bought by an big-name entrepreneur in 2005 and a lot of Ivy cafes were rolled out to hitch a ride on the back of the old distinguished name. Plush and green-themed like the original, but basically just a ruse to get people to hand over lots of money for (in my experience) sub-standard service and food. I do not like Ivy cafes. They’ve become a bit like ‘Brexit’ – my friends are either strongly for or strongly against them; there is no middle way.

So now to the independents; the truly special. Sadly hit hard by egregious business rates that are putting small restaurants, shops and cafes out of business or leave them struggling to survive. Fortunately for me, living in Twickenham, there are still many left. It’s one of the reasons I love living here. Nearby and posher Richmond is lovely but as for eating it’s almost all chains – Côte, Carluccio’s, Five Guys, Byron, The Ivy Cafe … Whereas stay in Twickenham, especially pretty Church Street, and you’ll find places like Masaniello, where Livio’s pizzas are of a reliably consistent quality – and he comes from Naples and knows his stuff – or you can enjoy his wonderful pasta dishes, or fabulous fish stew. Then down the road there’s Corto Italian Deli where Romina stocks the best quality Italian food, cooks a few hot dishes each day to offer alongside wonderful ciabatta sandwiches or, as you watch her, will freshly cut glorious slices of the best salamis and Italian hams to serve straight on to a platter. There’s Ruben’s Bakehouse in the high street with its artisan breads and excellent pizzas. We also have one of the few and best fishmongers in SW London – Sandy’s. In Whitton, where my son lives, and still part of Twickenham, you’ll find Your Bakery where fabulous artisan bread is made and gorgeous pastries and cakes.

What’s great about the independents is not just a consistency of standard but the personal touch. You get to know the owners and staff and they get to know you – it becomes a bit like family. In Your Bakery my little grandson has learnt to say Ciao to Stefano, the Italian co-owner and baker, when he comes out of the kitchen at the back; if I go into Corto on my own, they’ll ask me how the family are; in Masaniello the welcome is warm and Livio, if he’s in the kitchen, which he often is (but he also has 2 other restaurants), will come out and say hello to customers at some time in the evening. It all breeds a wonderful sense of community; a feeling of belonging.

In the independents, the owner is there; they’re overseeing things, and it’s not just about the standard of what they’re serving but making sure everything is running smoothly and people are happy. Livio may have 2 other restaurants but he’s in the kitchen cooking in all of them regularly and this ensures the consistently high standard.

Our high streets are increasingly becoming bereft of essential shops where you can buy clothes, things for the home; basic common needs. And finding somewhere good to eat or even just have a coffee, is becoming a challenge too. Chains aren’t all bad and indeed, at times, useful; but can you name a brilliant one? There’s a kind of anodyne sameness that fails to excite the senses. When you go into a Costa Coffee, or a Carluccio’s, or even an Ivy Cafe, you could be anywhere – you just know what chain you’re in. When you go into the little independents, the best of them sparkle and excite with their difference, their uniqueness and the fact that you know exactly where you are. And you’re delighted to be there!

Kale & Courgette Soup

c4a43e1a-67d9-4203-ba68-48bbf668a731

If green food is good for us, soups don’t come much more nutritious than this gorgeous Kale & Courgette Soup. The kale was an instant buy in the little local Tesco that stocks quite a few organic things. I was actually looking for spinach but settled for kale. The pack of courgettes contained three large ones; I only needed one. So it looked like soup was a good option with the spares, and why not put the kale in too!

Kale is one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet, containing so many I’m not going to try to list them here. But basically it has lots of powerful antioxidants, high levels of Vitamin C and is said to help lower cholesterol. Courgettes (or zucchini) aren’t quite in the same mega-nutrients league, but they are nevertheless healthy vegetables. They’re said to help digestion, lower blood sugar levels, support healthy circulation through high levels of potassium (more than bananas), and have enough soluble fibre to aid healthy bowel function.

As you know by now, I eat healthily – very much a Mediterranean diet with lots of fresh veg and not a lot of meat – but I’m not really into ‘health foods’ as such. I would never cook a risotto with brown rice; prefer good quality white pasta to brown; and like lentils only in moderation. So I made this not as a health food but simply a super tasty soup to stock in my freezer for these cold winter days. The health benefits are a happy bonus.

My gorgeous grandson Freddie (4 next month) is quite a carnivore, but loves fruit and has a passion for olives. He is not, however, fond of vegetables. His parents have persuaded him that ‘green leaves’ are dinosaur food (dinosaurs are another passion) and thus he’ll now eat up the green offerings on his plate. So maybe we might call this – Dinosaur Soup!

 

Kale & Courgette Soup

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, roughy chopped
  • 1 large potato, chopped (about 2cm cubes)
  • 500g courgettes, chopped (about 2cm cubes)
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 200g prepared kale
  • hot water, to cover vegetables (or stock if you have it)

 

   

Put the oil into a large saucepan (with a lid) over a medium heat. Add the onion, potato and courgette. Fry, stirring frequently, for a few minutes until they begin to colour slightly and soften a bit. Season with salt and pepper and add the lemon zest. Stir. Now add the kale – handful by handful and stirring in as you go. Its volume will quickly decrease as it wilts down. Stir to mix everything together and add enough hot water (or stock) to just cover the vegetables. Bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer, pop the lid on and leave for 20 minutes.

   

Check the cubes of vegetables are cooked through with a sharp knife. Turn off the heat. Blitz to a smooth purée with a hand blender. Check seasoning.

I had one generous portion for lunch with sourdough bread and a little cheese. The rest of the soup I packaged up into 4 more generous portions for the freezer – and a quick lunch another day.

It was really a gorgeous, deeply flavourful soup with a nice fresh edge from the lemon and fragrance from the garlic. Kale and courgettes turned out to be a perfect partnership!

Spiced Apple Cake

60f9a088-15f3-439f-91db-d4f6f333523e

This is another recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Simple book, which I wrote about last time. I made this apple cake for dessert.

One of the great pleasures of visiting Ottolenghi’s Islington deli and restaurant is the glorious display of food in the window – especially the cakes! So fabulous is it, that it’s almost impossible to walk past without looking … and if you have time, going in. The restaurant is at the back but plenty of people come in for takeaways too so the front is often busy with people choosing and ordering things to take away. If you don’t want a dessert after eating in the restaurant, then there’s lots to tempt you on the way out if you might fancy a sweet something later.

This cake seemed a perfect dessert for an informal family Sunday lunch. I always like to make a dessert but usually it’s something very simple, like an apple crumble or tart; in the summer, maybe some homemade ice cream.

I was intrigued by the addition of a large amount of soured cream in the batter and read that is a common way to add more moisture and flavour to a cake. Certainly the raw batter (of which one always has to have a taste – unless you’re pregnant, very young or ill, of course) had quite a tangy ‘sour’ taste, though the edge was taken off by the cooking.

Having said in my last post that Ottolenghi is never really ‘simple’, this actually is a very simple cake recipe! I served mine at room temperature but Ottolenghi suggests you can serve it warm with vanilla ice cream. I made a couple of slight changes: I never use self-raising flour (I always use organic spelt flour) so I added some baking power; I prefer to cook with eating apples rather than Bramleys (sour cooking apples) so that I can use less sugar, so this is what I did and cut down on the sugary topping by almost half.

Spiced Apple Cake

  • 130g unsalted butter
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs, beaten lightly
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 300g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 200g soured cream

Apple Topping

  • 4 medium-large eating apples (e.g. Cox, Braeburn, Gala), weighing about 600g
  • 70g demerara sugar
  • 1 rounded teaspoon mixed spice

Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan 160/Gas 4. Grease and line a 23cm cake tin.

Put the butter and sugar in a bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla a little at a time (plus a little of the flour if it looks as if it’s curdling). Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. Fold the flour mixture in a bit at time, alternating with spoonfuls of the soured cream. Spoon the batter into the prepared cake tin.

   

Peel, core and slice the apples into wedges (about 1.5cm thick). Put in a bowl. Mix the demerara sugar with the mixed spice and add to the apple. Toss gently to coat the pieces of apple.

   

Gently lay the apple on top of the batter in the tin. It looked like far too much but I went with the recipe and, of course, it was absolutely perfect!

Bake for about an hour. Mine took a little longer – Ottolenghi warns that if checking whether it’s cooked by inserting a sharp knife, it won’t come out clean because of the apple. But when I checked after 55 minutes the middle was definitely not cooked, so in the end I had it in the oven for 75 minutes. It looked really wonderful when I took it out!

Use a serrated knife to cut it as that goes through the apples better. I served it with a choice of clotted cream or Greek yoghurt.

It was a delicious cake; a wonderful flavour. And it really was simple to make!