I’ve been enjoying looking through the wonderful The Silver Spoon: Naples and the Amalfi Coast book that my friends Jane and Terry gave me for my birthday just over a week ago.
Even if you don’t want to cook anything, it’s the most glorious book to look through and read. However, one of the recipes that first caught my eye and I did want to cook was ‘Totani alla Sorrentina’ – a recipe for stuffed squid. It was a fairly last-minute decision this afternoon to cook the dish tonight. I was out and about locally so popped into my local fishmongers and bought some baby squid. I said I was planning to stuff them and the fishmonger recommended I bought 3 for one portion (they only cost me £1.89).
I vaguely remembered the recipe, having looked at it earlier in the day, so bought some mozzarella and tomatoes too. The recipe calls for San Marzano tomatoes, those extraordinarily tasty and special tomatoes from Naples. They’re often referred to as ‘Mount Vesuvius’ tomatoes as they grow on the fertile, volcanic soil around the Vesuvius. It’s said – by Italians – that the only true Margherita Pizza is one made with San Marzano tomatoes. Well the chance of getting the genuine tomato in Twickenham was nil, so I settled for some organic little cherry tomatoes I’ve bought in M&S Simply Food a few times and know to be particularly tasty.
Back home I started to get things together and was rather surprised to see that the cooking time was 1 hour. I always think of cooking squid quickly. Now, what I hadn’t taken into account in my enthusiasm to buy baby squid and stuff them was that the recipe really calls for bigger grown-up squid. Still I was not deterred. I made the stuffing and, with a good deal of difficulty it has to be said, somehow managed to stuff the squid through a small opening at the top.
Because I was using very small tomatoes, I decided there was no way I was going to skin and seed them, as the recipe instructs. I often make fresh tomato sauce for pasta without peeling the tomatoes. I got the whole dish together and left it gently simmering. Pretty soon I saw that the filling was starting to seep out. At this time I was exchanging emails with my friend Annie (organising our next restaurant excursion). I told her about the squid. She said it sounded complicated and I replied, not really, but the stuffing was leaking out; if it was all a disaster, then she wouldn’t see it on the blog! So … what is a disaster? I have had disasters that I haven’t written up but it turned out that the squid, while they looked a disaster – if you compared them to the appealing photo in the book …
– tasted absolutely wonderful. I therefore decided to tell you all about it; give you the recipe. I would recommend that you use it for a full-size squid though, not baby ones (the recipe below would be right for one squid). And it also goes to show that this food blogger doesn’t always cook perfect food. It’s a shame when people feel intimidated about cooking for me now I write the blog because while I think I’m a pretty good home cook, I’m not a professional, and a lot of the time I’m cooking straightforward, simple food – and I do have the odd disaster! I just don’t usually blog it. But the taste of this ‘disaster’ was so good it’s worth sharing … and it did remind me of the brilliant and famous chef, Massimo Bottura’s signature dessert – Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart … broken but still fabulous (click here for my meal at his restaurant, including the famous tart). Not that I’m claiming my dish tonight was in that league, just that visual disasters can sometimes taste very good!
Baby Squid Stuffed Sorrento Style
I had to adjust the recipe to accommodate cooking for one rather than six; some ingredients are halved and others a third, so use your judgement if you multiply – or buy the book! It’s worth having.
- 3 baby squid
- 4 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
- 3 bocconcini (baby mozzarella – or 75g), chopped
- 5g grated Parmesan
- pinch of chilli flakes
- 1 egg, beaten
- salt and pepper
- 200g cherry tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
Put the breadcrumbs, chopped mozzarella, Parmesan, chilli flakes, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the beaten egg and mix well together.
Now stuff the squid, pushing in and then finishing with folding the tentacles into the top (supposedly to hold the stuffing in!).
I prepared these a little in advance, covered with cling film and put in the fridge while I prepared the tomato sauce. Halve the cherry tomatoes and chop the parsley. Put the olive oil in the pan with the garlic and gently cook until the garlic starts to brown, then remove it. This way you’ll get the flavour of the garlic without having to eat it – and possibly make yourself unpopular with non-garlic eaters if you do!
Now add the tomatoes and parsley with a seasoning of salt. Cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the tomatoes start to break down and soften.
Add the squid.
Turn down to a gentle simmer and put a lid on the pan. Leave to cook for about 40 minutes (if they’re baby squid; an hour for a big squid), turning carefully occasionally.
So far, all good and I was pleased with how it was going. Doesn’t it look great? Lesson to the cook: don’t get smug; don’t count your chickens, etc.
Now, I wouldn’t like to promote the idea that alcoholic relieves stress … but … maybe it’s as well that I decided – sticking with the Italian theme – to open a little bottle (one of those individual sizes) of prosecco at that point.
As I sipped my fizz, I saw that the squid was shrinking as it cooked and the stuffing was coming out. Mmmm … well it did look a bit of a mess.
I planned to cook some black seppia pasta to go with it …
I decided the only thing I could do was to remove the cooked squid and slice in two or three and mix some of the sauce with the cooked pasta. It wasn’t going to look quite how I’d imagined.
Well, not if you compare it with the one in the book. But it sure did taste wonderful; delicious. I loved it. I really must try it again with a full-size squid and make sure I secure the top opening as best I can. But meanwhile, beautifully presented food is a wonderful thing but in the end, it’s the taste that counts.
I’ve been reading and hearing good things about Honey & Co for some time; then of the opening of their larger grill room a few months ago in Great Portland Street. There are so many good restaurants in London these days that even a food blogger, whose thoughts fall deeply into food related things much of time, can’t manage to get to more than a handful. However, my interest in Honey & Smoke grew after my son, wife and friends ate there recently. As I was babysitting my grandson and watching Netflix while they were indulging gastronomically, I got their first-hand, newly formed reaction when they arrived home. And they thought it was great. Regular readers of this blog will know that my two great cuisine loves are the food of Italy and Middle Eastern food. So really, if my son thought Honey & Smoke was great – I was bound to love it. And I did.
I suggested to my good friend Annie that when we next met we went to Honey & Smoke. She’d been once before, quite recently, on a busy Saturday night, and had found it rather noisy in their basement area, but thought the food was great and was keen to go again, especially at an earlier time mid week. As it’s so popular I booked well in advance but still had to take quite an early sitting of 6.15 and was told – virtually standard now in popular London restaurants – that they’d need the table back 2 hours later at 8.15.
Inside, the restaurant has a very simple, minimalistic style and the kitchen at the back is on view (photo above from our table on the ground floor). The decor may be minimal but the welcome and service was warm and friendly, and happily, efficient too. The menu is interesting for, apart from 3 small plates, there aren’t starters. There are though 10 grills to choose from and Annie said these were different from the time she’d been before so they obviously change the menu quite often. If there were few starters there was a wonderful Spring Set Menu offering a selection of 9 mezze, a choice of any grill and then any dessert from the menu for £34.50. I’m sure you can guess where we went with our choices! Annie had had this the previous time and so had my son and friends, so frankly, I wasn’t going to miss out. Here’s what we had:
(1) Baba ganoush with seeded lavoush (2) Cauliflower florets with homemade amba & tahini.
(3) Moroccan sourdough (4) Greek olive oil, Kalamata olives, pickles
(5) Tomatoes & pomegranate tabule (6) Charred marinated courgettes & smoked labneh
(7) Sweet potatoes in embers, almond tahini, date honey & spring onions (8) Falafel & tahini
There was also Hummus with tatbilla & tahini but somehow I managed to miss photographing that. But as you can see – there was a lot of food! I had been warned and Annie and I discussed that we’d actually be happy just having the mezze on their own as our meal. They were, each and every one, wonderful. The baba ganoush was nicely smoky, just as it should be and I loved the crisp bread with it; the spicy cauliflower was fabulous (if I was forced to choose favourites here, this would be one); the bread was good and the olives fantastic – I like olives but there are some bad ones on offer, but not these for they were excellent. The tabule with the tomatoes and pomegranate had a bright, fresh taste; the charred courgettes were exceptionally good and I loved the smoked labneh; I’d never had a smoked version before. Finally, the sweet potatoes were so fabulous it reminded me I hadn’t bought sweet potatoes for far too long; and the falafels had a good flavour and texture. The photo-lacking hummus was excellent too.
The menu of grills for our mains offered a wide choice of fish, meat and vegetable. Annie chose Beef shish with zaalouk, marinated aubergine & ramsons (wild garlic) leaves.
She said this was really good. I chose Lamb kofta in the style of Adana, Gigandes beans & goats’ yogurt.
I love lamb kofte and actually make them quite often but it was great to eat these with all the gorgeous flavours of the dish.
Now you’re probably wondering how on earth we ate all this. Indeed, Annie said that on her previous visit they took their dessert home, which was nicely packaged up for them. Somehow we managed to eat our dessert last night. I know it sounds greedy, but there you are, it was all too good to resist, and actually I felt nicely full at the end but not overfull. But you need to be sure to arrive hungry as we did!
For dessert I had Feta & honey cheese cake on a kadaif base – a signature cake from Honey & Co. The ‘kadaif’ is that shredded wheat looking base you find in middle eastern cakes. It was rich and delicious. Annie had an equally delicious but less indulgent dessert of Alphonso mango & lime sorbet.
Wine came by the 125ml glass or bottle so we had a glass of French Picpoul, a white from Languedoc (£6) to start and for red with our mains, a glass of Tempranillo from Spain (£7.50).
It was really a fabulous meal. I liked the laid-back, informal ambience of the restaurant; appreciated the friendly and helpful service. There were no hiccups, no disappointments; it was full of wonderful, perfectly cooked dishes and thus an absolute delight to experience. I now feel I want to visit the original Honey & Co sometime and so impressed was I by all the gorgeous flavours last night, I’ve ordered the Honey & Co: Food From the Middle East cookbook today.
The Ivy Café opened in Richmond last week and my friend Liz kindly offered to take me there as a birthday treat. I was pleased to get the chance to try it out so soon after the opening but also slightly uncertain of how I might find it. I say this because it was going to be the third Ivy offshoot I’d go to. When The Ivy Market Grill opened in Covent Garden a couple of years ago, my friend Annie and I went enthusiastically and with, it has to be said, high expectations. But who wouldn’t expect a lot from a ‘child’ of one of London’s – it not the world’s! – best-known restaurants. The Ivy has been a favourite with the famous since it opened in 1917. I’ve never been but have always imagined if I did, I’d have a wonderful meal there. In the end the Market Grill turned out to be hugely disappointing (click here for my review). Then, a few months ago, another friend suggested meeting at a branch in Wimbledon. My experience there was better but the service wasn’t as good as it should be. So, what would I find in Richmond. Happily, it turned out to be my best experience of the three but I still found some issues with service. The fact that they only opened last week is no excuse; they are part of a growing chain with a very exclusive and famous pedigree. They should get every step of the meal right.
Richmond’s Ivy Cafe has opened on the site of what was previously an All Bar One and before that a bank. It’s a large open area and has been styled very attractively, very much like a high-end Parisian brasserie; it was certainly a lovely place to sit and enjoy a meal. There were linen tablecloths and lovely thick linen napkins with the Ivy logo. Everything spoke of luxury. The only drawback – as with all open restaurants like this – is it’s quite noisy, but luckily we were given a table in a corner, which was quieter and gave us a good view across the restaurant.
As we were celebrating my birthday, Liz suggested we had a glass of champagne (£9.50). This was a real treat. I drink quite a lot of prosecco these days or Spanish cava and I know you can get some excellent sparkling wines from places other than Champagne now, but for me, real French Champagne is still special and my preference. This house champagne was very good.
The menu is extensive and there were quite a few things I could have happily chosen. However, for a starter I went with Atlantic Sea Scallops served on a pea purée with broad beans, lemon zest, sea cress and crispy shallots (£10.95).
This was nice and I liked the different flavours, but the scallops were just very slightly overdone and I would have preferred a less chunky purée. Liz opted for Raw Market Salad (£6.75) – thinly shaved market vegetables with avocado houmous and Manuka honey.
This was beautifully presented and Liz had fun deciding what various shaved vegetables were; they included courgette, carrot, mooli and red radish. I was given a couple of tastes. It was a good dish and Liz really enjoyed it.
Rather weirdly they brought a dish of arancini with the starters. We hadn’t ordered these and asked what they were. They didn’t question whether we’d ordered them so we assumed they were some kind of amuse-bouche. But if they were gratis (I must get Liz to check we weren’t charged for them if she still has the bill), why bring them then and not with the champagne. They were nice but didn’t really go with our starters. A basket of bread would have been nicer but was never offered – which is a bit unusual in a French-style brasserie.
There was another service hiccup when they brought our mains before clearing the dishes from the starters. The waitress made a vague comment about the kitchen working too quickly but really that’s no excuse – I think she’d just forgotten she hadn’t cleared the table and it would have been more honest to admit it and apologise. It’s really an unacceptable thing to do in a decent restaurant.
For a main, I stuck with fish and ordered Line Caught Swordfish with red pepper sauce, cherry tomatoes, toasted fregola, pesto, lemon and baby basil (£15.50). There were also a lot of olives – not included in the list, but that was OK as I like olives; if you don’t, you might feel a bit caught out as olives have a strong, distinctive flavour.
Again, the presentation was very attractive and it was a very good dish, which I enjoyed a lot. A nice thick cut of swordfish, which could happily take the deep-flavoured sauce and accompaniments. Liz meanwhile had chosen Roast Salmon Fillet with asparagus spears, baby watercress and soft herb sauce on the side (£15.95). The waitress did ask if she wanted the salmon pink or well done, which was appreciated.
Liz said this was excellent. We also ordered a side of Thick Cut Chips (£3.95).
They were good mains and we enjoyed them. Neither of us had room for dessert (although there were some tempting options) and so we ordered coffee for me and peppermint tea for Liz, which was nicely served in a small silver teapot. We then asked for the bill, which came quite quickly and before Liz had had a chance to open the wallet and look at the bill the waitress was standing at her side with a card machine – again, not brilliant service; it gave us a sense of being hurried.
The café is open from early morning until late evening and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are some ‘sandwich’ options for a snack but priced between £9.75 and £14.25, not a cheap option. The Ivy Café is a good addition to Richmond, which is sadly pretty much full of familiar restaurant chains – Carluccio’s, Côte, Zizzi, Byron and others. I guess The Ivy Café is part of another chain but at the moment quite a small one and carrying a huge heritage. I didn’t see the final bill as Liz treated me, but the food alone, without wine and coffee, comes to over £50, so while not very expensive, it’s not a cheap place to eat. I’m sure I’ll go again as it’s on my local food doorstep, and I did enjoy my food, particularly the main course, but they need to smooth out some problems, most particularly the service that was unpolished – and not overcooking scallops!
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!
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.
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.
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.
- 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!
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!
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.
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 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).
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 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.
I hope you might be inspired to visit some of my favourite cities if you don’t know them already.
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
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.
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.