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Birthday Treats

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What does a food blogger do on a birthday? Well, actually, if it’s midweek of an Easter week and you’re at home, the day is similar to any other … but, if you’re lucky, with a few wonderful treats too.

Like any other Thursday it began very early – out of the house at 6.30am – to head to Jonathan & Lyndsey’s to look after Freddie for the morning. Freddie was still asleep when I arrived and at just two, even when he woke up, he was completely oblivious to it being Nonna’s birthday. Once the day was under way, we left the house and made the short walk to Your Bakery Whitton.

Birthday or not, where else would I want to go for a good coffee and one of baker-owner Stefano’s wonderful croissants, which one sees being lifted on big trays through to the shop from the kitchen at the back, straight from the oven. Replete with delicious pastries, an excellent flat white, and babyccino for Freddie, we set off once more.

Now the weather is warmer we regularly make the mile journey to my house, by foot and buggy, mainly in the hope of catching sight of my cat who, unfortunately for Freddie, is toddler-shy and tends to make a fast escape when she hears us arrive. But Freddie is ever hopeful, calling out to her, ‘Bella, Bella’, and is sometimes rewarded with a brief sighting and even an occasional cuddle. On the way there and back we pass through Kneller Gardens, a lovely little park with the River Crane running through it.

Kneller Gardens opened in 1931. The land was bought from the Jubilee Farm Estate and the park developed to meet the demands of the rapidly growing local population due to the large number of  new houses being built in the area. The park contained the first children’s playground in the Borough of Twickenham (which no longer exists and has been swallowed up by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames). The quickest way to walk from my house to my son’s is through Kneller Gardens so it’s a popular little park for us with its river, tennis courts and a café as well as the playground. Freddie’s greatest excitement is watching the ducks and moorhens on the river, especially when a duck flies in and lands, skimming along the water. This makes him laugh and claps hands. Yesterday we saw the first moorhen chicks of this spring and soon there will be ducklings too.

Later, when Freddie was safely delivered to nursery for the afternoon, I went round to see my dear friends Jane and Terry for tea. They live in my ‘old’ road in St Margarets. They’d bought cake from the deli-café in the ‘village’, Zoran’s. It’s a great café (which I haven’t yet written about on the blog), where you’ll witness great industry in the tiny kitchen in the basement where food is prepared, including wonderful cakes that are taken from the oven and left to cool on racks within sight and smell. We ate a gorgeous lemon polenta cake with yoghurt on the side, served on pretty plates.

Jane and Terry gave me two great books as a birthday gift: Street Fight in Naples by Peter Robb about Naples’ ‘unseen history’ and The Silver Spoon – Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

The second book’s ‘parent’ is The Silver Spoon, first published in 1950, which has become the most successful book on Italian cooking globally and is still well respected and admired by chefs. It’s a kind of encyclopaedia of Italian cookery and I’ve thought about buying it many times. I was thus really pleased to get this regional offshoot – and of wonderful Naples and the Amalfi Coast. It’s full of fabulous recipes and amazing photos of food and the area that made me long to go back to Naples (last visited in 2010).

In the evening I returned to Jonathan & Lyndsey’s and because they’d been at work all day I suggested we make life easy and have a takeaway. We actually love takeaways! We only ever get them from our favourite local Indian restaurant, Tangawizi. We like going to the restaurant but since Freddie’s arrival we more often order a takeaway delivery. Freddie actually loves the food too and will tuck happily into a medium-hot curry! But we were eating too late for him last night, so enjoyed it once he was asleep in bed. Jonathan added a few things to the two dips that come with the pappadums, and fizz was opened for it was after all a birthday.

As the birthday person, I got to choose my favourite dishes for our main course.

It was as good as always.

I’d had a lovely birthday and a number of treats. Nobody had had to cook – including me! – but we’d eaten well by making the most of what our local bakers and restaurants had to offer. But my birthday doesn’t end there … more family arrive over the weekend to celebrate with me and nine of us will be eating at Masaniello on Saturday night!

Vanilla Ice Cream with Gianduioso Ripple

This ice cream became part of a dessert that evolved in that wonderful way that happens when serendipity touches our lives. Not long after I got back from Turin last month, buoyed – gastronomically speaking – on having brought back some of Barratti & Milano’s wonderful chocolate cream, I was in my local Carluccio’s Caffè when I spied a pack of gianduioso, which came in a tube. This was basically my chocolate cream – here in Richmond. Just like my Turin version, it contains 45% hazelnuts (sweet nuts that grow in abundance around Turin) mixed with chocolate, and comes from Piemonte, the region of Italy of which Turin is the capital.

  

Well, of course, I had to buy some, but at the time, I didn’t quite know what I would do with it. Then, around the same time, I was in the wonderful Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham and spied some colomba.

I can never resist Italian celebration sweet breads: panettone at Christmas and colomba at Easter. So I bought one – quickly, because I know that Corto sell out of these things quickly. When my Italian teacher Fabio saw it, it said it was a very good make (Corto really do have the best!). I imagined we’d have it with morning coffee on Easter Sunday as my family always have panettone on Christmas morning. But I hadn’t taken into account that our favourite Italian bakery/café, Your Bakery Whitton, was going to be open all over Easter. So in all likelihood, that’s where we’d be, not at home. So, what was I going to do with the colomba? And I had bought rather a large one in my enthusiasm. Well, it would have to be dessert for the family Easter supper. But I felt something else was needed and that’s when I decided to use the gianduioso in some home-made vanilla ice cream. I also thought, to brighten it all up with a bit of colour, I’d dip some fresh strawberries in chocolate to go with it.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Gianduioso Ripple

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 1 heaped teaspoon custard powder (or cornflour)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 300ml whole milk
  • 300ml whipping cream
  • 115g tube gianduioso

  

Put the egg yolks, sugar, custard powder (to stabilise the mixture so it doesn’t separate when you heat it) and vanilla paste into a large bowl. Meanwhile, put the milk on to heat – don’t allow it to boil, just heat until you see bubbles at the edge.

  

Whisk together the egg mixture until it’s light and fluffy. Now slowly add the warm milk, beating all the time. Pour the mixture into a clean pan over a medium heat. Stirring continuously, cook until the mixture thickens and coats the back on a spoon. Transfer to a bowl to cool. When completely cold, whip the cream until thickening and increasing in volume (whipping cream doesn’t whip very thick), then carefully fold into the cold custard.

  

I like to then transfer it to a large jug so it pours more easily into my ice-cream maker. I also find it helps to put the custard in the fridge for half an hour to become really cold and then it usually churns better and more quickly in the machine.

  

Churn in the machine until thick. If you don’t have a machine, you can freeze in a container and beat with a fork a couple of times as it freezes, but it won’t be as smooth.

Now for the exciting part. Adding the gianduioso! I imagined I might have to use the whole 115g tube but in fact, I felt I had put in enough when I’d used only about half. (If you can’t find the gianduioso, you could use Nutella, but it’s much less pure in terms of hazelnut-chocolate content).

  

I squeezed in a little and stirred just a bit; then I added some more and stirred again. I was careful not to stir too much; just enough to spread the ‘ripple’ about the ice cream. I wanted it to retain its integrity as a ripple, not make chocolate ice cream. I then transferred to a freezer tub and put in the freezer. I made this a day before so it had time to freeze properly and you’d certainly need to make it a few hours in advance – unless your ice-cream machine is more efficient than my basic one. Remember when you’re about to serve to take it from the freezer 10-15 minutes beforehand so it softens a little.

 

Chocolate Coated Strawberries

  • 100g dark chocolate
  • about 300g fresh strawberries

  

Break the chocolate into a bowl over gently simmering water. Don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water. When you see the chocolate starting to melt, stir gently occasionally but not all the time or it will thicken and be unusable. I also added a squirt of the gianduioso for a touch of its flavour, but don’t add too much or the chocolate won’t ‘set’ on the strawberries. As soon as the chocolate has melted, take it from the heat. Now hold a strawberry by its stem and dip into the chocolate, so the chocolate comes about halfway up. I then carefully transferred to a baking cooling rack, the strawberries stem down through gaps – the only way I could think of to let the chocolate harden and not be smudged. A bit of spontaneous creative improvisation! I stood with the first strawberry for ages wondering how on earth I could give them enough time to dry and set properly, short of standing there for hours. I then put the tray carefully in the fridge to harden well before transporting them to Jonathan’s house for supper.

  

 

Colomba

Known as Colomba di Pasqua, this Easter bread comes from the Lombardy region of Italy. It’s similar to panettone but doesn’t contain raisins and is always made in the shape of a dove. In fact, colomba is the Italian word for dove. This represents the beginning of spring and, as an Easter bread, the dove is also a symbol on the Holy Spirit in Catholicism. In the little booklet that came with my colomba, the makers Loison tell another story of a victorious king entering the city of Pavia in 572 and being given the bread in the shape of a dove as a symbol of peace.

My traditional version contains candied orange peel, some almond flour as well as wheat flour, eggs and sugar. You can get other versions – I was offered one with chocolate, another with zabaglione, but decided to go with classic. It’s topped with grain sugar and almonds.

For our supper, Jonathan had made a rotisserie chicken on his barbecue, which was delicious. Freddie, at 2, was about to give up on food after that and get down from the table, but when we offered cake (the colomba), ice cream and strawberries covered in chocolate, he sat down again. Once he’d tasted them he couldn’t decide what he liked best … more ice cream, please … more cake … more strawberries.

The adults were pretty impressed too. Strawberries and chocolate is such a classic combination; the colomba (cake or bread? It is almost cake-like) was delicious and wonderfully moist. But the ice cream was a huge success too. The gianduioso rippling through worked so well. Its distinctive chocolate-hazelnut flavour came through strongly – and deliciously – and complemented the vanilla ice cream perfectly. A great hit and such a simple trick to make something much more special from your vanilla ice cream. Also, the gianduioso won’t freeze hard like melted chocolate would, so stays fairly soft, which makes it all the nicer within the ice cream and the perfect addition.

 

Happy Easter!

Wishing all my followers a very 

Happy Easter!

Quick and Easy Harissa Hummus

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I make a version of ‘hummus’ quite often. By this I mean, a basic hummus recipe but not necessarily made with chickpeas but often with butter beans or cannelloni beans instead; even roasted vegetables such as beetroot and squash. Then the other day I was in the National Portrait Gallery café and had a sandwich that had ‘harissa hummus’ in it and I thought, What a great addition, I must try that.

Making hummus for me is a quick thing: as a simple starter to a Middle Eastern meal; maybe a quick lunch to eat with bread (I even keep small 130g – drained weight – tins of beans to make just enough for me to eat over a couple of days). I always use tins. Much as I love cooking, there is a lazy side to me; I’m not into spending hours and hours over the proverbial hot stove. However, I never use stock cubes (real stock is worth a few hours attention) but I never cook chickpeas or other beans from their dried state that needs a 24-hour soaking and then hours of cooking. No. I just open a tin. And really, that works pretty well for my needs.

Talking of ‘tins’ or ‘cans’ brings me to hummus ‘opening a can of worms’. You’d think hummus was a simple enough thing to make and eat, devoid of controversy. But oh no! In his book Jerusalem, Ottolenghi devotes a whole section to the ‘Hummus Wars’: was it the Arabs or the Jews who invented it? Should it be smooth and fluffy or chunky and spicy? And then there is the question of olive oil. To add or not to add? that is the question; to put it in the mixture or just drizzle on top?

For years I’ve used a recipe for hummus from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken & Other Stories. He makes his with olive oil in the mix and thus so have I. But as the years have gone by and I’ve got to know Ottolenghi’s books more, eaten at the amazing Palomar restaurant in London, and talked about hummus to my son Jonathan (yes, we talk food a lot) who has many Jewish friends, I’ve come to see that olive oil isn’t essential and indeed, some consider it a kind of sacrilege to include it. So my own recipe has evolved from Simon’s and now, while I do continue to add extra virgin olive oil (well it’s good for us and tastes great), I add a little more tahini and quite a bit more water than I used to. So, here’s my version with the added harissa. Do feel free to play with it, perhaps add less olive oil, use more water. Ottolenghi even adds baking soda (quite common) for a lighter, fluffier hummus. There are times when I can get worked up about authentic recipes but there are times to just chill out and have it just the way you want – like Goldilocks.

Harissa Hummus

  • 400g (240g drained weight) chickpeas
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 1-2 teaspoon harissa (see below)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • Tabasco (see below)

  

Use either a food processor or electric hand blender. Put the drained chickpeas in the container and add the juice of a lemon, the crushed clove of garlic, the tahini and 1 teaspoon harissa.

  

Start mixing together and slowly add the olive oil. It will be very thick once you’ve incorporated the oil so then add a little cold water. Mix more and add enough water to get the consistency you want – leaving it quite thick or making it smoother and runnier (your choice!). Now taste. The harissa I bought wasn’t as spicy as the make I usually buy (it was also quite smokey), so I added another teaspoon, whizzed the blender again and tasted again. It still didn’t have quite the chilli hit I was looking for so I added a few drops of Tabasco. I also seasoned at this point – again, I wanted to check the taste the harissa gave the hummus on its own before adding salt and pepper, to ensure I didn’t end up with something over salty. Once I was happy with the consistency (quite runny) and taste, I transferred to two serving dishes. Two because I planned to give one to Jonathan & Lyndsey but otherwise just put it all in one dish.

I’ve always ‘dressed’ my hummus with a sprinkling of sweet paprika and drizzle of olive oil but have picked up the idea of using za’atar instead of paprika from Jonathan.

It made a wonderful lunch. I had a fresh loaf of Pugliese bread from Your Bakery Whitton; some large Greek olives in my fridge; and some gorgeously sweet cherry tomatoes. Lunch perfection!

 

Travel Gourmet’s Top 5 City Breaks

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I’ve been writing this food and travel blog for nearly six years so it’s not surprising that I often get asked where I most like to travel to, and which are my favourite restaurants (usually referring to hometown London). Most of my travelling is city breaks: 3 or 4 nights in the heart of a city where I explore local sights and where I can find wonderful food. I never want to travel to a place where I can’t find great food! I blame it all on my parents who took me to posh restaurants and Italian delis in Soho before I could walk properly; for whom a ‘treat’ always involved food. This love of food, from cooking myself to editing cookery books years ago; searching for great places to buy food; eating in wonderful restaurants or having coffee and pastries in fabulous cafés, has never left me. If I find great food in a great city, then all the better.

I like going back to cities I particularly love – Amsterdam, Venice and Turin. Each time I find something new; each time I try to do something new, something I haven’t done before, whether it’s eating in a new restaurant or seeing a sight I haven’t visited before. But I also love that comforting feeling of familiarity; knowing the place well enough to know where you definitely want to head back to, not having to rely on a map all the time. In between these ‘favourite’ visits, I also want to search out some new. I love arriving in a new city that’s a big open adventure for exploration.

There are meals that stand out: years and years ago in Venice at Corto Sconto with my daughter; a restaurant (then) with no menu, only Rita, the owner, who told us what there was to eat. We went back a few times in following years but sadly the last time it had changed a lot, Rita had gone, and I haven’t been back since. I remember a glorious evening of food in Madrid’s covered market, Mercado San Miguel: a huge glass-covered market, lit up at night, where you push your way between crowds of happy eaters and drinkers to a different stall for each tapas or glass of wine or sherry, for each has their own specialities. I remember the taste of true Napoli pizza at Pizzeria Matteo in Naples; the glorious Risotto Torcello at Locanda Cipriani in Venice. And I remember one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had at Osteria Francescana in Modena in 2014, just days after it had been voted 3rd best restaurant in the world (last year it was 1st!).

Favourite cities though, while I want to find good food, aren’t necessarily about where the best restaurants are. A city is more than its food – even Bologna and Turin! I’m looking for some culture; I’m looking for attractive architecture; I’m looking for friendly people who make me feel welcome in their city. I like a city that’s compact enough to explore mainly on foot when I’m there for just a short break; I don’t want to have to keep jumping on buses or the metro. Good food stretches to a perfect slice of apple pie with coffee mid morning in Amsterdam; a bowl of thick homemade soup with dark rye bread in a Dutch bar at lunchtime; a plate of delicious tapas in Spain; a glass of prosecco and plate of cicchetti overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. It’s knowing where to buy amazing chocolate spread (no, not Nutella!) in Turin. So, here are my favourite of the cities I’ve visited since starting the blog – and I plan to go back to every one of them sometime!

 

AMSTERDAM

I have a long history with Amsterdam, from staying in a youth hostel there with a school friend in my late teens; to semi living there for a couple of years when I was married and my kids were young; to regular visits over the last 4 years. It’s a city I never tire of and the only one, apart from London, I can truly imagine living in. It combines a laid-back, relaxed ambience with a thriving cultural, intellectual, sophisticated life. It has a beauty, perhaps even prettiness, that is like no other. To walk its canals in the heart of the old city is a timeless delight; the tall 17th century houses that line the main canals of Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizergracht still speaking of the Dutch Golden Age.

Food isn’t always good in the Netherlands, it has to be said, but fantastic food can be found in Amsterdam, from traditional fish dishes, Indonesian food and modern European. It isn’t a place I go to for the food, but it is a place where I always find good food and have a few favourite restaurants, like De Reiger. For more see What to Eat and Where in Amsterdam and The Traveller in Amsterdam.

 

TURIN

I’ve been to Turin twice in the last six months. I never go to cities twice in one year! But I fell in love with Turin, a little unexpectedly, when I first visited it last September and one weekend just wasn’t enough time to explore and enjoy it. But how could you not love a city with 18km of beautiful arcades?

A city that is full of beautiful historic cafés and is the home of chocolate?

And serves aperitivo at lunchtime as well as evening?

I wanted to go there because as the capital of Piemonte, one of the great food and wine regions of Italy, I knew I would eat and drink well. But it turned out to be so much more than a foodie destination. I also love the hotel I found, Grand Hotel Sitea, which is located in the heart of the city and a short walk to pretty much anywhere you want to go. For more, see A Weekend in Turin and Turin: Historic Cafes, Chocolate & Aperitivo.

 

VENICE

Venice is another city with which I have a long history, featuring in various stages of my life, and a place with memories of lovely holidays with my son and daughter but somewhere I’m also totally happy on my own. It gained a particularly special place in my travelling heart when I discovered Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo in 2006, a hotel I’ve returned to a number of times, last in 2015, where I always receive a warm welcome from owners Walter and Sandro.

People are often surprised I love Venice so much. Isn’t it terribly expensive! Isn’t it smelly! Isn’t it too crowded! It can be all these things, but it’s also beautiful and if you know it well you can avoid the crowds and find quieter and less expensive places to eat. I partly love it because it combines city with water. One moment you’re in a busy, vibrant city but a few minutes later, just a vaporetto ride away, you can walk along the Lido’s beaches and breathe in sea air. You can go to a concert of The Four Seasons in Vivaldi’s church; you can take a boat trip to Murano and see where beautiful (if also some tacky touristy) glass is made. You can visit the tranquil island of Torcello. And of course there is the food: gorgeous little cicchetti snacks by the Grand Canal early evening with a glass of prosecco (which comes from Veneto) or perhaps eat a seafood risotto (the Veneto is the birthplace of risotto).

For more on Venice see The Rialto Area of Venice and A Trip to the Lido.

 

BILBAO/SAN SEBASTIÁN

Like many people, I thought about going to Bilbao purely to see the famous Guggenheim Museum; San Sebastián had been recommended to me as a destination because of its foodie credentials. I went with my good friend Annie and we decided to have one night in Bilbao and two in San Sebastián. It turned out that Bilbao had much more to offer than the Guggenheim, which is magnificent to see (though its actual art collection is less impressive), but the old part of the city is so attractive with lots to do and great places to eat that we could easily have spent longer than 24 hours there.

San Sebastián was great too. It lived up to its foodie recommendation and we ate tapas – known there as pinxtos – that were amazing. The sophistication, complexity and creativity of these tiny helpings of food were beyond any tapas I’d experienced before. It was such fun too, moving from bar to bar as the locals do, ordering a drink and a couple of pinxtos, then moving on to the next bar and ordering more.

And there’s the beach to enjoy as well, making it a wonderful destination for a city break with seaside benefits. This dual destination is easily done in a short break – a bus from Bilbao takes you to San Sebastián in about an hour; a bus from there will take you directly to Bilbao airport, again in about an hour. For more see 24 Hours in Bilbao and 48 Hours in San Sebastián.

 

NICE

Nice has that – for me – perfect combination of city and sea. It has a glorious long beach – made famous in paintings by Raoul Dufy – and the pretty old town is full of fabulous restaurants, bars and cafés. Once, until 1860, it was part of Italy and thus combines some of the best French food with some of the best Italian food. Indeed you’ll often hear Italian spoken as you wander through markets and there are plenty of Italian restaurants as well as French.

Nice has a strong art history, not only Dufy, but you’ll find Matisse’s home to visit here and Musee Marc Chagall.

The city became popular with the English in the late 18th century as a destination for its health benefits and mild winters and even gave their name to the 4km main promenade by the sea – Promenade des Anglais. For more see Five Nights in Nice – Eat, Drink, Do.

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I hope you might be inspired to visit some of my favourite cities if you don’t know them already.

See also: Making the Most of Your Short City Break and GPSmyCity Travel App. And if you’re travelling alone see Tops Tips for the Solo Traveller.

Risotto with Wild Garlic

I recently met up with one of my blog followers, Di, who also writes a blog about her experiences of living on the canals of France (see Foodie Afloat), which has a wealth of wonderful information for anyone travelling in France. Di and her husband have recently given up sailing the barge and now have a home in Burgundy. But when they’re in UK, it turns out they are only a short walk away from where I live. So recently we met up, which was a lovely thing to do. Di noticed the wild garlic growing along the nearby River Crane was ready for picking and emailed offering to show me where it was. But as it was just before I was travelling to Turin (click here) and I hadn’t time for a river walk, she offered to give me some she’d preserved in olive oil and Maldon sea salt.

Di also offered to tell me where it was growing so I could go along and pick my own when I had time, but I had to confess I wasn’t confident about picking it on my own. I’m not really a forager; I just haven’t the experience and I think it’s good to start by going out with someone who does and not risk picking the wrong thing (perhaps unlikely with the wild garlic because of the smell) and being ill.

I got the photo above from the internet. Wild garlic is from the Allium family – allium ursine – and unlike ‘ordinary’ garlic, it’s not the bulbs you eat but the leaves. It has an abundance of pretty white flowers and you will pick up the smell of garlic near it. It’s in season from about March/April until June/July but is best eaten early for as it matures, the leaves get tougher and more bitter. So try to pick it before the flowers have fully opened.

Like the bulbs of garlic we are more used to, wild garlic has all the same health benefits: it’s a source of calcium, phosphorus, potassium and Vitamin C; it has antibacterial, antiseptic, antiviral and decongestant properties. It’s said to lower cholesterol and is sometimes called nature’s own antibiotic (source: The Food Doctor by Ian Marber).

Health benefits aside, it’s a wonderfully versatile food. The fresh leaves can be used much like spinach and blanched, or wilted in olive oil. Use it in a frittata instead of spinach. Serve it with potatoes, especially some nice new potatoes like Jersey Royals; it must be great with mushrooms too. You can add it to soups and stews or make a pesto with it. Or, as I did tonight, add it to a risotto. And, of course, you can preserve in olive oil and sea salt as Di did to keep it in a jar for longer use. When I opened the jar the wild garlic inside was a wonderful bright, deep green and the garlicky smell was strong but fabulous.

I wanted to keep my risotto very simple so the full flavour of the wild garlic came through. I saw some recipes put ‘ordinary’ garlic in at the beginning but I decided to just add my preserved wild garlic at the end – which I would do slowly, tasting as I went, to get it just right for my taste.

Risotto with Wild Garlic

  • about 300ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 shallot
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup risotto rice
  • 100ml white wine
  • salt & pepper
  • preserved wild garlic
  • Parmesan

I took some frozen chicken stock from my freezer and put it in a saucepan to defrost and heat through.

  

Then I started preparing the risotto. I finely chopped a shallot. I chose to use shallot rather than onion for its milder and sweeter flavour.

  

I gently cooked the shallot until softening in the olive oil. Then I added the risotto rice and stirred to coat all the grains and then ‘toast’ them a little. This ensures the grains stay separate but still allows them to release enough starch so you can obtain that classic creamy consistency, essential for a good risotto.

  

When the rice is well coated, add a good amount of white wine. Stir well and over a medium heat allow the rice to absorb all the wine. Now start adding the stock, ladleful by ladleful, allowing each amount to be absorbed by the rice before adding the next. It’s important to go slowly and add the stock bit by bit, stirring all the while to achieve the creamy consistency. I love doing this. It’s such a gentle, relaxing thing to do, watching your risotto come together and slowly stirring. For me this is the only way to make a proper risotto and I’m not keen on the idea of cooking it in the oven (as some people do!) or even (I’ve heard) using a pressure cooker. A good risotto needs time, patience and loving care.

When you’ve used up all the stock, season with some salt and pepper (remember the stock will have salt and the preserved wild garlic, to go into it, will have salt), and check the rice is cooked. It should be al dente – be cooked through but still have a slight bite to it.

I then added a rounded teaspoon of the preserved wild garlic and grated over just a little Parmesan. Then I stirred them through carefully and put the lid on the pan and left to rest for a couple of minutes. Then it was ready to spoon on to a plate.

I served it with a simple green salad on the side. The risotto had a fabulous flavour. It was strong (I didn’t need more than the teaspoon for my one portion) but incredibly good: pungent as garlic is, but with a sweetness, and I detected a slightly lemony taste to it too. I was so glad I’d kept it simple so I could really appreciate the flavour. But I can also see the rest of my jar will be a great addition to sauces or soups, or served with grilled chicken and other meats. It’s endlessly versatile and really gorgeous so I’m very grateful to Di for introducing me to it and my lovely gift.

Cafe/Deli Review: The Italians, Chiswick, London W4

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I’ve driven past The Italians on Chiswick High Road a few times over the last few months, always en route elsewhere, and I think, I must go back and take a look. Finally today I managed it. I’d had an appointment that finished nearby just after noon, so by the time I’d parked the car again and taken a look inside, I decided it was lunchtime and the perfect opportunity to try one of their delicious looking ciabatta rolls.

I chose a prosciutto, mozzarella and tomato roll and also ordered a Flat White. Yes, I know, dear Italian friends – it was past 11.00am and one does not (if Italian) drink white coffee at this hour of the day and after a meal. But it was what I fancied and as I mainly drink Flat White (or espresso later in the day), it was a good way to judge how much I liked their coffee.

The roll was wonderful: full of gorgeous prosciutto and excellent mozzarella. The roll itself was perfectly crusty on the outside, soft in the middle, and very tasty. A roll this good is a very splendid thing. The coffee was excellent too – definitely one to return for.

A nice touch was leaving some bottles of water and glasses with cutlery and serviettes on a small table so you could help yourself to a bottle of water to take to your table. The walls were covered in wonderful black & white photos of Italians – each labelled showing people in different parts of Italy.

People were coming in for takeaways but a number like me opted to sit down. It was a friendly place with a large deli to buy Italian food to take home: fabulous cold meats, gorgeous breads, slices of pizza and small ones, dried and canned goods, like a whole pack of hazelnuts from Piemonte.

There was fresh pasta and some fresh vegetables.

There were chocolates and jars of chocolate-hazelnut cream.

And olives, salads and cheeses.

At the back was an extensive wine cellar with a large selection of Italian wines to choose from.

There was a fridge with glorious looking cakes and desserts, including little Sicilian cannoli and sfogliate.

I couldn’t resist taking home a slice of tiramisu for suppertime.

What a great find. It may have taken me a long time to actually stop and take a look at The Italians, but now I have I’m sure to be back there soon. It’s open Mon-Sat from 7.30am – 8pm; Sun from 8am – 7pm.

See their website: The Italians.

 

 

 

Grilled Salmon, Asparagus & Homemade Hollandaise

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I was so excited to see a bunch of fresh organic asparagus on Waitrose’s shelves yesterday that I didn’t stop to think that it wasn’t yet asparagus season in UK. That doesn’t start until St George’s Day, 23 April, and lasts only a couple of months. It’s some time since Waitrose went into partnership with Duchy Originals, the Prince of Wales’s range of organic foods, but I still see them and think, Local, British, Homegrown. Actually the asparagus comes from Mexico. Waitrose just uses the name for all their organic things. But the Prince of Wales is still connected and his share of the company gives their profits to charity.

Whether it was Mexican or not, it was still a delicious treat and I also bought some Duchy Organic salmon to go with it. I don’t ask if salmon is organic when I’m out but I only ever buy organic (or wild in season from the local fishmonger). The poor salmon has been much abused by farming techniques to make it cheap but generally it’s tasteless and I’m not convinced that healthy because of all the horrendous additives.

The weather wasn’t really cooperating with my summery thoughts but I was not put off. I decided to up the game and make some hollandaise sauce to accompany the meal. I’m not sure if I’ve ever made it before; if I have, not for a long time. It’s not that difficult. And I found a ‘quick’ version in an old Sophie Grigson book to make in a processor. I looked at some other recipes online and found there were two clear messages in all of them (including Sophie’s) and that was: hollandaise sauce has to be served straight away, and it doesn’t tolerate well being reheated. Good timing skills were required them. Good job it was only me I had to worry about. One thing I hadn’t reckoned on was having no eggs in my fridge. I always have eggs. But not tonight. I was tempted to give up. But no. Less than 5 minutes walk away is a Tesco Express. I wrapped up again (it’s cold and windy out) and went to buy eggs. All ready to go.

Every recipe I found used 2 eggs to make enough sauce for 4. But if you can’t reheat it and you’re just one, then what’s the point of wasting three portions! So I took the risk of halving the measurements. I’ve got a lovely new little processor that came with my new Dualit hand blender. I use a hand blender so much and the one I bought when I moved into my house 11 years ago had died. So, it was time to try out the new little processor and I reckoned it was just the perfect size.

But before I got started – with all those timing issues! – I prepared the salmon and asparagus. The salmon I wanted to grill very simply, brushing over some olive oil and seasoning lightly.

  

It would only need 5 minutes or so under a hot grill. I like it to be pink in the middle. I got it ready to go under the grill and then prepared the asparagus. Don’t cut off the ends, but hold the asparagus and gently break and the spears will break at exactly the best place. I then put it in a steamer and sprinkled over a little sea salt.

Then I started to prepare the hollandaise sauce by measuring out the butter into a pan and adding the egg yolk and other ingredients to the processor. Once this was done, I put my salmon under the grill and turned the asparagus on. It might not all come together at exactly the same time but near enough and would keep warm enough for a couple of minutes.

Hollandaise Sauce (2 portions)

  • 55g butter (preferably unsalted)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ¾ tablespoon water
  • lemon juice
  • salt and pepper

  

Slowly warm the butter and as soon as it’s melted turn off the heat. You don’t want it bubbling hot. Put the egg yolk, water and a good squeeze of lemon juice into the processor bowl with salt and pepper. Whisk until well blended. Keep the motor running and very slowly and gently pour the warm melted butter into the jar. About halfway through add another squeeze of lemon (not sure why but this is what Sophie said!). Finish adding the butter.

  

Taste and check seasoning. I had a small bowl ready over a pan of hot water ready to keep it warm for just a couple of minutes while I plated the salmon and asparagus. Don’t have the pan simmering over heat though or your sauce will separate.

Lay the salmon on a warm plate. Carefully lay the asparagus alongside it. Then spoon over the warm hollandaise. Mine had thickened but wasn’t particularly thick – maybe if I hadn’t halved the recipe it might have thickened more. But it was OK. And it tasted wonderful with the salmon and asparagus. A truly gorgeous supper bringing a breath of summer into the house – if I ignored the weather outside!

For a little dessert, I couldn’t resist opening the pot of amazing chocolate spread I’d brought back from Turin on Monday. I bought this on my last trip in Baratti & Milano, one of Turin’s historic cafes (click here for more) and this last time, last weekend, I just had to buy more. I even gave up the option of taking my small suitcase into the cabin and checked it in, because in Turin airport, chocolate spread is listed on a huge poster as one of the things not allowed in hand luggage!

Last time I made the mistake of only buying one pot. It didn’t last long. Although I did have Jonathan and Lyndsey living with me at the time. So this time I got family members their own pots so I have mine just for me. I know! That sounds mean and of course I would share. But most of the time it’s just me here. Now this may be a chocolate and hazelnut spread, and it may come from Turin, but never put it in the same sentence. As Nutella. It’s just leagues ahead. It contains 45% hazelnuts and glorious chocolate. When I opened the pot, the smell was amazing even before I tasted it.

For the simplest of desserts, I spooned some thick Greek yoghurt into a bowl, put some raspberries on top, then a spoonful of the chocolate spread.

Delicious! What a great supper.

 

 

Turin: Historic Cafes, Chocolate & Aperitivo

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If ever reasons were needed to explain why Travel Gourmet has fallen in love with the city of Turin (apart from it being in Italy, of course!), there are three excellent ones: it’s home to some of the most wonderful historic cafés you’ll find anywhere; it’s the home of chocolate (yes, even before Switzerland); and it is (arguably) the home of aperitivo.

Six of the Best Historic Cafés in Turin

Like the historic cafés of many other European cities, such as Vienna and Paris, the cafés of Turin are steeped in political, cultural and intellectual history. It is said that part of Italy’s history was written in Turin’s cafés and indeed the city was the first capital of a unified Italy in 1861. Stepping into them today is a little like stepping back in time; it seems as if nothing much has changed over the last hundred years or so. Given I’ve spent only six nights in total in the city, over two weekend breaks, I’ve managed to sample a good number of these famous cafés.

The oldest café in the city is Caffè al Bicerin, founded in 1763. I sought it out last weekend but there was a long queue so I didn’t wait. It takes its name from the famous Turinese drink, bicerin, which is a mix of espresso coffee and chocolate, topped with a layer of milk froth (sometimes whipped cream). Here, however, are six cafés I did become acquainted with, all in the centre and within easy walking distance of each other. I’m listing them by age – oldest first! Remember also that in Italy the price difference between standing up at the bar to drink a coffee and sitting down is often big – you might pay around just €1 to stand up to drink a coffee but more like €4 or €5 to sit down.

1. Stratta

Stratta was established in 1836 as a pastry and chocolate shop. You can get good coffee here but be prepared to stand at the bar – al bar – Italian style as there aren’t tables. It was one of the first cafés I passed, on walking into the beautiful Piazza San Carlo, on my first trip to Turin. I was drawn to the window full of the most glorious cakes and although I didn’t go in then, I went back another morning for coffee and pastry.

2. Baratti & Milano

Established in 1858, this too was originally a confectionary shop. It’s particularly famous for its gianduotti, a mix of chocolate and Piemontese hazelnuts. You can also buy the most amazing chocolate and hazelnut cream spread (far superior to Nutella – which also comes from the area).

Today it’s a good place to stop for an excellent coffee and delicious pastry but you can also sit down to something more substantial.

3. Caffè San Carlo

Established in 1842, this opulent and grand café sits on a corner of Piazza San Carlo. I went there on my first trip and liked it, though didn’t get back this last time. I considered eating there on the last day as they have a full menu and there are lots of tables outside on the square if the weather is good enough to eat outside.

4. Pasticceria Abrate

Established in 1866 this café, on Via Po, specialises in cakes and pastries and officially supplied pastries to the House of Savoy. I went to it for the first time on my recent trip and had a cappuccino (made with Lavazza, the local coffee) and delicious croissant. It looks small from the front but opens at the back where there are quite a few tables. I also thought that it looked a good place for aperitivo because of the gorgeous snacks in the window, but didn’t manage it this time round.

5. Caffè Torino

This café opened in 1903. Its Belle Epoque decor makes it a great setting for either coffee, lunch, dinner or just a drink. You can sit outside in the galleria and look over Piazza San Carlo or inside, where there’s also a more formal restaurant area. (For more on Caffè Torino click here.)

6. Caffè Mulafsano

I’ve been to this café, established in 1907, a couple of times – for morning coffee and had a great aperitivo there this last trip. It opened earlier in another location. It’s famous for inventing the sandwich – or least an Italian sandwich known as tramezzini. These sandwiches are made with light white bread and have their crusts cut off. You’ll often see them piled in glass-fronted counters in Italian cafes where they are popular for lunch.

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Chocolate

I’ve always associated chocolate with Switzerland but actually chocolate – as we know it – originated in Turin when in 1678 Madama Reale, queen of the Savoy State, granted the first chocolate licence to a Turinese chocolate maker. Cocoa had been brought by Spain from its colonies in South America but it remained the privilege of the rich nobility to enjoy it until Madama Reale issued the first licence. The production of chocolate took off in a big way and Turin began exporting it to Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany. It was the Swiss who came up with the idea of putting milk in it to make milk chocolate.

Chocolate was threatened when Napoleon put restrictions of the importing of cocoa. The inventive Turinese though came up with an alternative plan: they started blending chocolate with the local sweet hazelnuts to make it go further and thus gianduiotto was born. Traditionally gianduiotti are triangular shaped.

Today in Turin you’ll find all things chocolate: chocolate bars and sweets to eat, chocolate cake, the famous dessert called Bonet, which is a kind of chocolate crème caramel with crushed amaretti biscuits in it. You’ll also find the chocolate drink I mentioned above, bicerin. I tried this for the first time last weekend at Baratti & Milano.

I’d thought I might find it too sweet for my taste, but it wasn’t, it was really delicious with gorgeous gooey chocolate at the bottom to finish up with a spoon.

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Aperitivo

Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian institution, which I discovered by chance a few years ago when in Rome with a friend. We’d gone for a drink before going to a concert and I left Kate ordering while I sought out the Ladies. When I returned there were two glasses of prosecco and a plate of snacks. ‘Did you order food?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she told me, they’d just come with the drinks. Afterwards this became a nightly ritual for us, stopping somewhere for a drink and sampling little gratis snacks. You’ll find aperitivo all over Italy. Generally it occurs early evening, around 5-7pm. However, in Turin over the weekend I noticed that it seemed to happen at lunchtime too. I enjoyed one in Caffè Torino on Saturday (click here). On Sunday, in search of a snack lunch, I went to Caffè Mulafsano – well, wouldn’t you try where the sandwich was born! Then, before the sandwich came, the friendly waitress set before me olives, peanuts and a plate of the most gorgeous little snacks with my glass of wine. The snacks were wonderful. I have to say the sandwich – a simple toasted ham and cheese – was slightly disappointing in comparison!

Some say aperitivo originated in Turin in 1786, started by Antonio Benedetto Caprano who created vermouth (Turin is also home to Martini). It didn’t really take off in a big way though, and as we know it today, until the 1920s in Milan. Traditionally the snacks will come with drinks like Aperol or Campari spritzer, a Negroni cocktail. But in practice you just need to order a glass of wine or an ‘aperitif’ drink to get your aperitivo treat.

Lunch at Caffe Torino, Turin, Italy

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Caffè Torino became a favourite haunt on my first trip to Turin last September. It’s situated in Piazza San Carlo in the heart of the city. This beautiful piazza – square – was built in the early 1600s. Caffè Torino was opened in 1903. With its Belle Epoque interior it offers a glimpse of a glamorous bygone age when film stars like Ava Gardner, James Stewart and Brigitte Bardot frequented the café.

I ate lunch there twice during my recent trip – two different kinds of lunch. On Saturday, with a table booked for an evening meal at Tre Galli, I wanted just a snack lunch. At home and away, I prefer to eat something light at lunchtime and have my main meal in the evening. I headed to Caffè Torino and sat outside at one of the tables in the galleria. This is a great place to enjoy the view across the piazza and watch the world go by.

I could see people were being given little plates of snacks as happens at aperitivo time in Italy. Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian institution of offering a plate of gorgeous little snacks at what we in UK would call Happy Hour, usually between about 5-7pm. In Italy you order a drink and snacks come with it, their quality obviously depending to a large extent on the quality of the bar you are sitting in. I saw in Turin that it appeared aperitivo happened at lunchtime too. I ordered a white wine spritzer and asked the waiter if it came with snacks. It did. So I didn’t order anything else and waited.

It really was just a snack but plenty for me for a light lunch (though I did go to a gelateria for an ice cream afterwards!) and much more special than just a sandwich. My drink cost €7, which is a reasonable price and the snacks were gratis.

One of the problems with going to Turin (as many continental cities) for a Friday to Monday weekend, and which I need to remember for a future trip, is that lots of restaurants and cafés close on Sunday evening and some on Mondays too (many shops are closed on Monday morning, and most of the sights are closed on Monday). Happily, Caffè Torino is open every day from 8am until midnight. I thus decided to go there for my last meal before heading home on Monday afternoon. I didn’t want just a snack this time but more of a meal before heading to the airport so I was directed to their restaurant area once inside.

I wanted a meal but not a huge meal so decided to just have a pasta or risotto with a salad. I chose Risotto al Barolo con Fonduta.

Barolo is one of Italy’s most famous wines and comes from the Piemonte region. And fonduta is an Italian version of fondue. It really was fabulous; a gorgeous flavour. And I liked the fonduta on top. They’d put enough to add a creamy cheese flavour but not too much to overpower the risotto. The rice was cooked to perfection with that famous al dente bite to it but cooked all the way through.

My mixed salad was excellent – a nice variety of ingredients all crisply fresh. It was also quite large and I didn’t eat it all. So I finished my meal with just an espresso. It was a perfect way to end another lovely weekend in Turin.