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Fresh Pasta with Sausage & Broccoli Sauce

My son Jonathan has been a keen cook since he was small enough to need to stand on a stool to chop and mix ingredients and his sons Freddie (5½) and Benjamin (2¾) are fast following in his footsteps. Thus they were very excited yesterday by Daddy’s new ‘toy’: a super-grade KitchenAid mixer with a pasta-making attachment.

Jonathan has been making sourdough bread and fresh pasta for some time but having this mixer will make it much easier for him to produce loaves and pasta regularly as it basically does all the hard work – all the kneading. He’d already made some bread with the machine but last night was the first pasta making. It’s great fun because the attachment allows you to choose fusilli, bucatini, rigatoni, spaghetti, and large or small macaroni.

Being now a well-practised baker and pasta maker, Jonathan and I discussed the advantage of him having made bread and pasta by hand for some time. It allowed him to look and feel the dough and know whether it was ready; he could actually see how it was coming together as the mixer whirled away.

The following photos show how the pasta making went and how easy the machine made everything (I promise KitchenAid aren’t paying me to say that!). The machine had been on Jonathan’s wish list for a time and last night I was delighted to join in the fun of the first ‘run’ and be asked to photograph the journey.

The pasta was made first: we had some Italian ’00’ flour that we buy at Corto Deli in Twickenham (it’s where I also bought the sausages for the sauce). There was a base of 300g flour and 3 eggs. As you can see below, the flour was weighed straight into the mixer bowl, followed by the eggs.

   

   

Then the mixer started doing its work, closely watched by Jonathan.

   

After 5-10 minutes it came into a ball and Jonathan could tell by feeling it that it was springy and ready. It was wrapped in some cling film to rest in the fridge for 20 minutes – a step which Benjamin was keen to help with, hence little hands in the photo below.

   

The sauce: While the pasta dough rested, the sauce was made. The head of broccoli was cut into florets; big ones halved for uniform size. A red onion was sliced; a red chilli too and a large clove of garlic.

   

The sausage meat was removed from the skins and broken up into clumps. Fennel seeds were ground – which was Benjamin’s job!

 

The sausage meat was browned in a little olive oil and gradually the other ingredients added, including seasoning and about a glass of white wine.

   

   

When the wine had reduced and the sauce pretty much cooked, the broccoli florets were added but not stirred in. Jonathan put a lid on for them to steam but turned the heat off while we made the pasta. In the final stage of the sauce, the broccoli was stirred into the mix and some crème fraiche added.

   

The rigatoni disc was put into the pasta attachment. Then the dough is pushed through from the top. A cutting wire can be twisted round to cut off the shapes once they’re the desired length. Jonathan tossed them gently in a little semola (semolina flour) to stop them sticking.

   

The boys were very excited by this step. It has to be said their Nonna was too! With Jonathan’s help, the boys were each allowed a turn at cutting off the shapes.

A large pot of salted boiling water was ready and they only needed a couple of minutes cooking.

   

The sauce meanwhile had been heated through and finished off with the crème fraiche. Once the pasta was done, Jonathan lifted it out with a slotted spoon and put it straight into the sauce.

Portions were spooned onto shallow dishes and a shower of Parmesan grated over the top.

It was all really delicious. The pasta was wonderful; fresh pasta is different to even the best dried. The sauce was fabulous too – and being able to buy the top quality Italian sausages from Corto makes a big difference.

What a fun evening with the family and ending with a great meal.

Quiet Kew Gardens

I’ve been a Friend of Kew Gardens for about 30 years. I live only a couple of miles away so these famous – indeed, UNESCO World Heritage Site – Gardens are local to me and where I most often go for a walk. Usually, I can just turn up when the fancy takes me and show my membership card, but since Covid restrictions, I now have to book a slot so the Gardens can limit the number of people there at any time. I do sometimes miss the spontaneity, even if I understand the reasons, but today’s visit was almost spontaneous. Yesterday, I saw the weather forecast for today was for full sun – or at least that’s what my iPhone said. As you can see from the photos, it wasn’t quite like that, but it was still nice enough to enjoy a walk.

It’s a Bank Holiday Monday here in UK so my last-minute booking of a slot came up with only space for an 8am entry (or late afternoon). I always get up quite early, but even I hesitated … but then one advantage was to get in before the crowds … and the 8-9am slot was also Friends only.

It was gloriously quiet. Even in ‘normal’ times I choose to almost always go at quiet times to try to avoid the coach loads and day trippers that come in their masses. But even so, I can tell you that 8am on a Bank Holiday morning is very quiet indeed!

As you’ll see in the photos below, I hardly came across anyone else; only occasionally, and was able to enjoy a welcome tranquillity and calm.

The last few days have been quite autumnal and the Gardens are showing signs of change; their transition from summer to autumn. There was colour, but many of the blooms were dying and dropping yet it’s still too early for gorgeous autumn colours to shine. But Kew is always beautiful whatever time you visit. If you want to know more about how the Gardens change throughout the year, see my A Year in Kew Gardens when I recorded all that was happening in every month of one year: Click here. Otherwise, just enjoy my walk this morning through the following photos:

 

 

   

   

 

   

 

If you want to visit Kew Gardens or find out more visit their website: click here.

Pasta with Cauliflower, Saffron, Chilli, Pine Nuts & Raisins

This is an adaptation of a Rick Stein recipe in his Long Weekends book. I’m particularly attached to this book (and the accompanying DVD of the TV series) at the moment, not only for its great and reliable recipes, but its subject: Long Weekends. Pre-Lockdown I’d become well practised at making the most of a ‘long weekend’ away as it was my most usual form of travel. If I could choose an ideal job, it would be travelling to cities like Rick Stein and writing about it. However, there’s no travelling for me at the moment, but I took a virtual gastronomic journey to Sicily with Rick this evening. He calls this recipe ‘Sicilian Pasta’, due to eating it in Palermo on one of his long weekends. The addition of spices, pine nuts and currants (or raisins) is typical of the cuisine due to its heavy influence from various invaders over the centuries and its proximity to North Africa.

It was a considerable adaptation in the end, partly by design and partly by necessity. Despite some efforts, I couldn’t find currants so opted for the raisins already sitting in my store cupboard; I didn’t have spaghetti so used linguine instead; at the last minute, I discovered I didn’t have any tins of anchovies even though I was convinced this was an ingredient I always had to hand. The main adaptation by design was the way I cooked the cauliflower. Rick boils the florets and then mashes them into a thick sauce; I decided to leave my florets whole.

The recipe is very similar to one of my favourite cauliflower recipes – Cavolfiore Affogato (Drowned Cauliflower) – which also comes from Sicily. My cauliflower was rather a small affair (delivered by Waitrose on Saturday), which meant that my original plan of making this cauliflower pasta with half the vegetable and having cauliflower steaks another night, went pear shaped. In the end, I cooked all the cauliflower Rick style and kept some back before adding the pasta to have cold as a salad for lunch tomorrow. The smaller cauliflower meant I adjusted the ingredients to a bit more than half (my florets weighed 230g rather than Rick’s 350g).

 

Pasta with Cauliflower, Saffron, Chilli, Pine Nuts & Raisins – Serves One

  • about 230g cauliflower florets (cut big ones in half)
  • 20g pine nuts
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of chilli flakes
  • 30g fresh breadcrumbs
  • 30g currants or raisins
  • pinch of saffron, steeped in 100ml warm water
  • 1 small or ½ medium onion, finely chopped
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • 100g spaghetti or linguine

It’s a good idea to get all the ingredients prepared before you start cooking. Break the cauliflower into florets and cut large ones into two or three to make them all a uniform size.

   

Warm a large frying pan and dry roast the pine nuts until they start to turn golden brown. Remove to a dish. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and when it’s hot, tip in the breadcrumbs. Fry, turning all the time, until crisp and golden. Remove to a dish.

Wipe the pan clean and add about another couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and fry over a medium heat until softening (but not coloured). Add a pinch of dried chilli. Tip in the cauliflower florets and stir round, mixing it all together. Fry for about 5 minutes until the florets start to colour on the edges.

   

Tip in the saffron and water and the currants. Fry gently until the cauliflower starts to soften (check with a small sharp knife). Add a little more hot water if the mixture starts to dry out.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions (about 10 minutes) until al dente and then drain.

   

When the florets are starting to soften add the pine nuts. Cook for a little longer until the florets are just tender.

   

Add most of the parsley and breadcrumbs (keeping some of each back for garnish). Mix well.

Transfer to a serving dish and scatter over the rest of the parsley and breadcrumbs. Drizzle over a little olive oil. Eat straight away!

It was so delicious; absolutely wonderful. I like cauliflower a lot and this is a recipe that truly celebrates it and highlights its versatility and how tasty it is. I like that it looked pretty gorgeous too! What a fabulous pasta dish and a very enjoyable supper.

Four Hens and Some Very Special Eggs

Meet (left to right) Gwen, Mildred, Maud and Gerty. My daughter and her wife recently got four hens. They live in a 16th century farmhouse in Worcestershire, at the end of a long unmade-up road surrounded by farmland. They’re not farmers themselves, but at their home they’ve created a wonderful bucolic living space where they grow lots of fruit and vegetables and the hens run freely and harmoniously with three cats and a Labrador. And from the house there are glorious views across the pastoral landscape.

The lawn is currently being reseeded, so not at its best in the above photo, but you can see the hens roaming on it and how gorgeous the views are from the house. And there are all four pecking away in the grass below!

And here they are chilling with the dog and cats.

If a chilled, happy life amongst beautiful surroundings with plenty of companionship affect the taste of eggs – free range and organic as well, of course! – then the results can definitely be found in Gwen, Mildred, Maud and Gerty’s eggs. They are really very special. Such a wonderful flavour and gorgeous deep yellow yolks.

I brought six eggs home (though there were only four left when I thought to take a photo). When you collect them from the hen house they’re remarkably warm. And they come in different colours!

The first two eggs went into some banana and blueberry muffins. Perhaps not the best way to appreciate their taste – but the muffins were good!

Yesterday it was so hot and humid I couldn’t face anything hot for supper and made a salad instead. I had spinach leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, new potatoes, a small tin of good quality tuna – and the eggs! I boiled one and split it into 4 to top the salad. This time I really did taste and appreciate the egg!

This evening I decided to make an omelette. Usually I made a two-egg omelette but the hens’ eggs are quite small so I decided to use the remaining three. I had mushrooms and an opened tub of mascarpone in the fridge so put together a nice creamy mushroom sauce to fill the omelette:

Omelette with Mushroom & Mascarpone Sauce – Serves One

  • a little olive oil and butter
  • a small shallot, finely chopped
  • 4 large mushrooms, sliced
  • a handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • a little finely grated garlic
  • a heaped teaspoon mascarpone
  • 3 small (or 2 large) eggs
  • a dash of milk
  • salt and pepper

   

Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan with a small knob of butter. Fry the shallot for a minute or so, add the mushrooms, parsley and a little finely grated garlic (depending on how garlicky you like your food!). Stir frequently over a low heat.

When the mushrooms have cooked through and softened add the mascarpone and season. Stir well to mix everything together. Set aside on a very low heat to keep warm.

Break the eggs into a mug, add a dash of milk and some seasoning, and whisk well with a fork. Heat a big knob of butter in a small frying (omelette) pan on a medium heat and when it bubbles, tip in the egg mixture. I like to gently lift the edges of the omelette with a small spatula, tipping the pan slightly, to let the uncooked mixture run beneath the cooked bit and then it all fluffs up nicely as it cooks. When it’s almost cooked (I like mine slightly undercooked in the middle), tip the mushroom mixture onto one side, slide onto a serving plate and fold over the plain side as you go – try to do it in one action. Eat straight away – omelettes don’t keep!

   

Well doesn’t that look good!

I served the omelette with a plain green salad.

It was a lovely supper and perfect for the warm night – a warm dish but not hot. The omelette was so delicious; those eggs are really full of flavour. And my spontaneous mushroom filling worked well.

I always love to visit my daughter and her family … and now I can look forward to the hens’ special eggs too!

Eat Out To Help Out


I’d heard about the government’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme to encourage people back into restaurants but hadn’t thought through whether and when I might actually take advantage of it. Then I found myself participating twice by accident yesterday!

It started in Richmond in the morning. I’d taken my two little grandsons (5½ and 2½) for an outing to have a run around on Richmond Green, a walk down to the River Thames to see and feed ducks and geese, and then a gelato was promised at Amorino, where we could sit down in air-conditioned comfort (a definite bonus in the current heatwave), and Nonna could have a coffee.

The children like their child-sized cones. They can choose two flavours and they’re made up to look like flowers – the ice cream is shaped like petals. Normally these are £3.20. Nonna adores gelato but even for me, morning is too early. Instead, I like to indulge in a macchiato and one of Amorino’s small macarons; their gelato-filled macarons are totally irresistible.

 

I ordered, sat the boys on stools at the tall counter table (every other stool is labelled to not be used because of social distancing, though of course it’s OK for a family group to sit together). As I tapped my card on the payment machine I saw it was only £5.75. ‘I don’t think you’ve charged me enough,’ I told the girl behind the counter. ‘Oh it’s half price today when you eat in.’ Wow! What a bonus – half price and air conditioning.

The scheme is applicable on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for all of August, with food and non-alcoholic drinks at half price, up to a maximum of £10 per person. The government foots the second half of the bill so the restaurant or cafe doesn’t lose out.

Back at my son’s I was told they were going for lunch at Giacomo’s (Coffee 091) because it was half price that day. Another member of the scheme … I was invited to join them.

Fortunately for the cafe (and us) in these socially restricted times they have a large frontage onto a wide pavement which means there’s plenty of room for a few tables outside. A table for six was free and so we settled down. It was my first meal out since early March …

We ordered a selection of bruschetta, panini, Parma ham, focaccia … We said we’d share everything – small plate style – so Giacomo arranged it for us to share easily, much of it arranged beautifully on a large wooden platter, and he brought everyone a plate.

The burrata with tomatoes, basil and focaccia was gorgeous: excellent buratta which was deliciously creamy inside and very tasty; sweet small tomatoes and some very good focaccia, which he makes himself.

Giacomo slices the Parma ham freshly from a whole ham and it’s very good. There was a panini with fennel salami; another with smoked mozzarella and aubergine. Everything was so good and the food there is always freshly prepared to order in a small kitchen at the back of the cafe; the quality of all the ingredients excellent.

A carafe of iced tap water was brought to the table with glasses for us all. The boys had some orange juice. It was all wonderful and so lovely to sit as a family in a favourite local cafe and enjoy a good lunch together. There were a few people eating inside but we were happy outside in the hot weather and with two excited little ones. Jonathan paid so I don’t know what it cost but prices are always very reasonable at Coffee 109 – and even more so at half price!

A lot of local restaurants are participating in the Eat Out To Help Out scheme and this seems a good way of encouraging people back into restaurants (which all have to adhere to the social distancing rules).

When ‘Drinks’ Became the New ‘Dinner’

If ever we doubted the importance of social interaction, then the last five months of pandemic living has highlighted our basic need to connect and meet with others. From the grim early days of isolation within our houses, we’ve slowly stepped back out towards our more social selves. But we’re still a long way from what we once knew, and inviting a group of friends round for a meal in our homes is just part of our dream of a future recovery that allows us to return to a normality close to what we once enjoyed.

Even if the heatwave of the last couple of days – at least in London – has been a bit of a challenge, then overall the months of the pandemic have seen kind weather that’s allowed more outdoor living than we British might normally expect. People no longer talk about friends and family coming round for lunch or dinner – they now come for drinks in the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one) or gather on open green spaces.

My friend Di’s new book, A Foodie Afloat, has just been published. A lot of the usual publicity that accompanies the publication of a book has had to be scrapped amid pandemic restrictions, but inviting Di and her husband Tam round to my garden for drinks and ‘nibbles’ seemed a good alternative way to celebrate. It also gave me the perfect excuse to buy some nice champagne …

Di and Tam lived and worked on UK waterways most of their lives before spending the last 20 years exploring the rivers and canals of northern Europe on their barge Friesland. They love ‘the sedate way in which we negotiate the landscape’ and journeys that are ‘waymarked by the people we meet and defined by the food and drink we discover en route’. I met Di through following her blog A Foodie Afloat a few years ago; we also discovered that when she was in UK, she lived very close to me so we met up and I’ve even visited her and Tam in their Burgundy home where normally – but not in this pandemic year – they spend most of their time, especially in the summer. With their barging days behind them, Di has turned A Foodie Afloat into a delightful book, full of wonderful stories about travelling along the French canals, the people they meet, things they see … and above all the food they eat. This is the perfect book for anyone who loves France, canal holidays, and good food and wine. It’s especially perfect in this year when it’s difficult to travel anywhere and many of us are staying at home: reading A Foodie Afloat is a wonderful way to travel and for a time become lost in its other world on the French canals and lazy French food.

The ‘nibbles’ I prepared were easily made. At one point I remembered making from scratch little palmiers and other small pastries for drinks, but I’ve grown lazier in recent years, though to be fair to myself, the food available to buy is so much better than it once was. The local Italian deli was closed so I couldn’t get all I’d planned, but I had jars of wonderful Seggiano and Odysea foods: gorgeous tapenade, artichoke pâté, Kalamata olives.

I’d bought a baguette from Paul bakery the day before so it would be perfect for toasting. I ‘toasted’ slices in the oven, quite thin, until they just started to brown. Then I left them to cool, making them little crostini, which I then brushed with some olive oil.

 

I made six slightly larger ones to top with chopped tomato, basil and baby mozzarella – a classic bruschetta. I chopped the tomatoes a little in advance, leaving them in a strainer for excess water to drain out. I seasoned with salt and pepper and some chopped fresh basil, placed them on the crostini and topped with half a baby mozzarella and a basil leaf.

As there were three of us, I made six versions of everything. One lot was simply topped with some of the excellent Odysea tapenade. Six more with thin slices of goats’ cheese and fresh peach.

Six more were smoked salmon on mascarpone cheese, topped with a tiny slice of lemon and sprinkled with black pepper. The other six were a gorgeous artichoke pâté from Seggiano.

There were bowls of taralli and Kalamata olives …

And there was the fizz of course!

Luckily it was a perfect evening to sit in the garden. It was very warm but the hot sun had retreated behind trees so we could sit outside comfortably. The plates of canapes were laid on the table, the fizz – some glorious Perrier-Jouet – was popped. And over the next two hours we enjoyed talk, some laughter, some nibbles and fizz and life felt good.

If you like to buy Di’s book you’ll find it on Amazon or click here.

The Sunday Barbecue

I like the heat, I like the sun; I was born under the sun sign of Aries and put my love of the sun down to that. I promise you would never want to be out and about with me on a wet, cold and windy day because my mood takes a nosedive. However, even for me, 35C in London is pushing the boundaries of ‘lovely sunny day’ a bit and in all honesty, it’s just been uncomfortably hot.

One might even say it’s too hot to barbecue because really, barbecuing is quite a hot exercise. But then I was only preparing the food … my son was going to be in the heat firing line.

The Sunday Barbecue. Sunday has always been special; Sunday is family day. When I was a child it was always a roast, traditional British style roast beef and Yorkshire puddings; or maybe roast lamb and mint sauce. My mother never failed to cook a roast on Sundays. Never! Even on the boat …

My dad built a 4-berth cruising boat in the back garden. I helped him. It took a few years as far as I remember. He’d always loved messing about in boats and he liked making things. I remember the launch when it was finished. The boat was hoisted onto a lorry and driven to nearby Woolwich where it was ceremoniously lowered into the Thames. We all held our breath. My dad was the youngest of six children and his older brothers Joe and Jim (who’d both been in the Navy) oversaw this momentous event. A lot of advice was given. The boat rocked gently on the water; it didn’t sink. Some of us got into it for its maiden voyage. And the boat went on sailing for a few years.

I can’t remember what happened to it in the end. Only that later my dad bought a larger, 6-berth, cruising boat, which he moored first in Poole harbour and then at Lymington. One year it was even taken across the Channel to Cherbourg and the family took it in turns to holiday on it before it was brought back to England. I remember I was pregnant with my daughter at the time. I feasted on oysters, mussels and unpasteurised French cheese because you did in those days. Daughter grew up to love fish. When we took her back to France aged about 18 months, she’d walk around seafront fish restaurants in La Rochelle begging prawns and other delicacies from diners’ Plateau de Fruits de Mer and had learnt to shell her own plate of shrimps by time she was five.

Back to Sunday lunch and my mother’s determination to always roast on Sunday. I remember leaving Lymington harbour on a Sunday morning when we were staying on Dad’s boat for the weekend, and sailing round the Isle of Wight, the boat rocking as we rolled over wave upon wave, and my mother in the galley roasting a leg of lamb or joint of beef. There were never any accidents and at some point we’d drop anchor and sit around with plates of hot Sunday lunch.

It was part of Mum and we loved it … but I could never do it. I don’t even do it now. When my kids were small we’d usually carry on the tradition of Sunday roast but it’s been a very long time since I’ve made one. I do often roast chicken for a family meal but serve it with something like roasted ratatouille; or I make a boeuf bourguignon on a cold winter’s Sunday. But in summer we do usually barbecue … even if the thermometer is hitting 35C and it’s blistering hot … which makes me a bit like my Mum I suppose, determined to carry on where other people might just put a cold salad together …

Fizz on Sunday is another tradition – sometimes Champagne; more often these days prosecco or cava. I don’t make a ‘starter’ but there are always ‘nibbles’. They may be as simple as bowls of olives and taralli but today I went a step further and put together some little crostini: little toasts topped with tapenade, guacamole, tomato & mozzarella, and a sun-dried tomato pâté.

Jonathan got the barbecue going, the fizz was popped and poured into glasses as we tucked into our little canapés. The boys – 5½ and 2½ – liked them too. Their fizz was of the Pellegrino mineral water variety.

Freddie (the elder boy) loves prawns so I’d bought some raw tiger prawns for the barbecue, which we had before the meat. Freddie was intrigued by picking up the raw prawn before it hit the charcoal heat and declared himself brave for doing so; he was intrigued by the eyes. Benjamin settled for having a close look but declined the opportunity to hold one.

Jonathan, who generally doesn’t eat fish, had never barbecued prawns before. But really you can’t go far wrong … just remember that as soon as they turn pink they’re done; overcooked they become tough.

I showed Freddie how to take off the head, then pull off the tail, and then the rest of the shell. He was determined to do it himself – despite them being hot! And it was this that took me back to his Auntie Nicola aged five determinedly shelling her own plate of shrimp in France all those years ago …

Really for prawn lovers there’s little to beat a freshly barbecued large tiger prawn. Absolute bliss!

The meat was our fairly standard fair – things I often cook but because they’re so delicious. Chicken that had been marinating in a tahini and lemon juice paste (a Moro recipe) for a couple of hours; Moro kofte.

I’d made a fattoush to go with it. My concession to the heat – hot vegetables definitely weren’t in order!

I’ve made various versions of fattoush over the years but this time made a Moro dressing for it with sumac, za’atar, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. It was delicious.

We sat round the garden table; the air hot and heavy, not a hint of breeze, but the sun was slightly dimmed by now so it was okay to sit outside. And what a joy! One can go a whole summer in UK and never get weather good enough for eating outdoors, but while the pandemic has brought challenges and disappointments, the weather on the whole has been kind. So staying at home is at its best. Especially when you have a son who’s an excellent cook and willing to brave the heat of the barbecue for you!

It was a gently paced meal, just as a Sunday meal should be: the canapés and fizz; the gorgeous prawns; a little gap before the meat course. Dessert – because there always has to be dessert at Nonna’s on Sunday – was a homemade fruit salad, topped with a large spoonful of Greek yoghurt and some honey. Simplicity at its best.

Now We Are Nine!

It was as I was publishing my last post with the red mullet recipe that I noticed a message from WordPress congratulating me on my blog’s 9th anniversary. Yes, it the blog’s birthday!!

I was too busy to cook the blog a birthday cake (and in truth, there’s no one around at the moment to share one with!), so I ‘cheated’ and bought one of my favourite little strawberry tartlets in Paul Bakery in Richmond this morning. Well, it’s always good to have an excuse for a bit of sweet indulgence and nine years is pretty special, isn’t it?

The blog has become so much part of my life it’s hard to remember when it wasn’t there. It’s like a companion. I like that I can write a broad range of things on it, although every post connects to food and/or travel in some way. I began writing back in 2011, inspired because my daughter had started a blog, and knowing I wanted to write about food. In particular I was keen to find places where a woman on her own could comfortably eat. I’ve always been confident eating alone; it comes from my upbringing, I think. But I’d heard stories of women eating on their own in restaurants being treated badly or turned away or hidden in a corner and made to feel uncomfortable. It hadn’t, to be honest, been my own experience but I didn’t like what I heard. I hope things have changed over the past nine years but I’m sad to say I think women dining on their own, particularly in a nice restaurant, can still be treated awkwardly or even with suspicion. Frankly I consider it really crazy and a hangover from less equal times and I can still get angry if I hear these stories. I’m sure some men find it uncomfortable eating alone in restaurants too; I don’t want to be sexist here. It’s just that the tale of a woman being treated badly in a restaurant back in 2011 is part of what spurred me on to start blogging.

I was also fairly newly alone, recently divorced, and while even married I was used to travelling alone sometimes, eating out alone sometimes, it was going to be a bit different. But I wasn’t about to compromise and eat only in cheap, informal places where I could slip unnoticed into a quiet table. I’ve been eating in smart restaurants since I was about two, thanks to my parents, so I wasn’t about to give up searching for the best. That doesn’t mean expensive though. You’ll find a Michelin starred restaurant a rare thing here. Partly it’s because an expensive meal is a treat I can only occasionally afford, but also because I’m really more of a cafe person – sophisticated cafes, as in brasserie-style cafes in France or Italy; tapas bars in Spain; bars and huge open cafes in Amsterdam full of buzzing conversation; historic cafes in Turin, Paris or Vienna knowing famous writers and philosophers once gathered there or a famous food dish or drink was born.

The most memorable exception to my informal eating preference was having lunch at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana back in 2014 (click here for review) – a 3-Michelin star wonder that had just, a couple of days before I went there, won the award of 3rd best restaurant in the word (a year or so later, it would be No.1).

I’d seen Massimo on TV and was so impressed with his style of cooking, I knew I simply had to go to his restaurant if I got the opportunity. That came soon after as I had a trip to Bologna planned. I contacted the restaurant and booked a table for lunch. It was – and remains – one of the most exciting eating experiences of my life.

As the blog grew, its content broadened. I also realised I was eating out with friends and family a lot; sometimes travelling with people and not always solo, so I decided to change the name of the blog from The Single Gourmet and Traveller to Travel Gourmet in 2016. Not only did it seem a more appropriate and less clunky name, it summed up succinctly what it was about.

A highlight the year before, in 2015, was when I was shortlisted for the DFDS Travel Blogger of the Year Award. I didn’t win but it was very exciting to be noticed and shortlisted. Then the next year GPSmyCity, a global travel app, approached me and asked if they could publish some of my articles. They now publish over sixty of my travel articles. I receive a (very) small but regular royalty from them, but the best part of this association with GPSmyCity is how it’s helped me grow as a writer. They don’t commission me to write specific things, but I know what they like and so I’ve given more thought to what I write and now, I believe, write better articles because of it. I introduced those ‘summing up’ posts of travel to cities that give you all the details about why you should go, how to get there, where to stay, where to eat and what to do. I love writing them. Of course in 2020’s pandemic lockdown, I’m not travelling and not writing them at the moment, but I enjoy looking back and reminding myself of some of my great trips in recent years to cities like Nice, Malaga, Amsterdam, Turin and others.

Because I travel solo a lot, the blog really is a companion: I have followers to share my experiences with; I get lovely comments from some of them and thus some interaction. It’s made me a little more adventurous, encouraging me to seek out new places to visit and things to do while I’m away. I think, What exciting this can I do today to write up on the blog? And I love that! It may not be what everyone would want to do on a holiday, but for me it’s my chance to write (normally at home, I’m working as a book editor and having to concentrate of others’ writing!). And of course the blog is a wonderful record of all I’ve done and all the places I’ve been to over the past nine years. Few people keep photo albums these days – but now I have the blog.

GPSmyCity’s publication of many of my articles officially made me professional, even if in a small way, and because nearly all my articles are about food, even if travel too, this enabled me to join The Guild of Food Writers, which has been another highlight of the blog’s life. In ‘normal’ times they organise lots of wonderful events for members. My first event was all about vermouth (click here) and perfectly timed just before a trip to vermouth’s home – Turin!

The blog has made me bolder about just going up to people and starting a conversation. In the early days I did lots of wonderful interviews with chefs and restaurateurs (click here). I simply asked chefs and owners of restaurants I liked whether I could interview them. People were so kind and I met some truly lovely and generous people. I keep meaning to revive it … maybe that can be part of a post-pandemic plan!

I’ve always loved cooking and trying out new recipes, but the blog has encouraged me to stretch myself a little more. I was cooking from a very young age, as were my kids, and now my little grandsons have started to cook. One of the most fun recent additions to the blog has been writing about cooking with my eldest grandson, Freddie, just 5½ (click here) and also taking him to find good places to eat with kids (click here).

The blog hasn’t always been just a record of what I’m doing now but a place for memories too. I remembered learning how to dress a salad (click here) with one of my authors when, back in my twenties, I was commissioning cookery books and stayed with her at her home on the Ligurian coast of Italy. I wrote a whole post on memories (click here), which I enjoyed doing and many readers kindly shared their own food memories, which I loved reading.

Because the blog is important to me, I’ve done what I can to keep it going during the pandemic this year when I haven’t been able to travel or visit restaurants. I wanted to conserve its broad range and so have had to be a bit more creative in my thinking than normal. But I’ve written about shopping in the early days of the pandemic when it was hard to get food (click here), growing some of my own vegetables (click here), a barbecue when I was finally able to ‘bubble’ with my son and family and eat with them (click here), getting to know my local area better (click here), cooking a lot of bread (click here), and have even done some virtual travelling (click here).

The blog is in many ways a record of my life, but only part of my life. I began it with the intention of celebrating the best things; it was always meant to be a positive blog in which I would share good things. And thus it has sometimes lifted my spirits if low, encouraged me to be bold and positive, filled me with joy at times and has brought some amazing experiences and wonderful new friends. May I be as delighted with the experience of blogging in another nine years’ time. And may you, dear readers, continue along the journey with me. For without followers, knowing that some people do actually read it and sometimes share their thoughts with me, it wouldn’t be the fun it is and I may well have given up if writing into a vacuum. So a very BIG thank you to you all!

Red Mullet with Orange, Capers & Pine Nuts

It was a spontaneous buy. I stopped off at the local fishmonger’s to buy some salmon and prawns and saw fillets of red mullet. I remembered it’s one of Rick Stein’s favourite fish and so decided to get some.

I’ve cooked red mullet before, but long ago, and wasn’t sure what to do with it to make something a little special for a Saturday evening, so it made sense to turn to the man himself – and thus I found a recipe in Rick Stein’s From Venice to Istanbul.

Red mullet is common in the Mediterranean (and also the North Atlantic and Black Sea) but Rick talks of the Cornish ones being wonderful. They have quite a strong flavour and thus can take strong accompaniments. I’ve had it Chinese style but this recipe I chose of Rick’s is Mediterranean and labelled Greek in his book. The oranges give it a lovely freshness, which is wonderful with the red mullet, and there’s a nice little kick from the pinch of dried chilli flakes.

I changed the recipe quantities slightly as I was cooking for one and not four. I didn’t have oranges so used tangerines. When I added their juice and zest, I decided a little more liquid was needed, so splashed in some of the white wine I was drinking, à la Keith Floyd, while I cooked!

 

Red Mullet with Orange, Capers & Pine Nuts – Serves 1

  • 2 small red mullet fillets
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a little semola (semolina flour) for coating
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 small oranges or tangerines: zest and juice of one; the other peeled and thinly sliced
  • a little white wine
  • 1 teaspoon capers
  • 1 heaped teaspoon pine nuts, toasted
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • about 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Have everything measured and ready before you start as once you begin cooking, it’s almost an instant meal! Put a plate in a low oven. You want to transfer the cooked fish to a warm plate or it will quickly go cold.

   

If the red mullet isn’t already filleted, ask you fishmonger to do it for you. Rick fries his fish whole (scaled and gutted), which is another option if you prefer.

Rick dusts the fish with semolina and I had some semola – semolina flour – which I buy from my local Italian deli to make focaccia. If you don’t have either, just use ordinary plain flour.

Season the fish with some salt and pepper and then lay it in some semola on a plate and coat both sides. This gives the fish a slightly crispy crust when cooked, which is really good. Heat a little oil in a pan. Extra virgin olive oil does cope with high temperatures, contrary to what some people say – see my review of an olive oil workshop: click here.

 

Put skin side down in the hot oil and cook for a couple of minutes until you see the edges start to look cooked through. Turn over and cook for another couple of minutes. My fillets were quite small and larger ones, and especially whole fish, may take longer.

   

Transfer the cooked fish to the warm plate. Tip the orange juice and zest in and stir round to deglaze the pan and capture all the fish juices. It was at this point I felt it needed more liquid so I added a little white wine. Then add the orange slices, capers, pine nuts, chilli flakes and parsley. I almost forgot the parsley so it went in a few seconds later than the rest!

   

It barely needs cooking. It’s just about mixing it all together. Spoon the sauce over the fish.

I served mine with some simple boiled new potatoes and some tenderstem broccoli with some olive oil and lemon juice drizzled over the top.

It was a lovely meal. The mullet has quite a strong flavour but in a pleasant way and I think it almost needs an equally strong accompaniment. The strong flavour is due to its high fat content and so it’s rich in Omega-3 and thus good for you too. I really liked it and will buy it again. Despite the grey sky and heavy rain outside on this late July evening, it did bring a welcome touch of summer to my meal.

Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic

A picnic was promised. I’ve been booking weekly slots to go to Kew Gardens since it reopened. I do miss just being able to go there spontaneously on a nice day since the gardens are local to me, just a couple of miles away, but I’m grateful they’re open again and I can once more enjoy the splendour of these world famous botanical gardens.

The problem with booking slots a week or so ahead of time is you can’t be sure of the weather and weather forecasts these days seem to change by the hour. However, as Monday is a good day for me I’ve taken to booking a morning slot then and add an extra ‘guest’ as my membership allows me to take someone else in. Last week it was friend Louise (which was particularly exciting as I hadn’t actually met up a friend by plan since Lockdown); two more friends are booked in over coming weeks. But this week I asked my son if I could take grandson Freddie. Freddie (5½) is back at school two days a week. He loves Kew Gardens; like most kids he loves big open spaces! He’s been going to Kew since he was a babe in arms and regularly since. I took him to the Chihuly exhibition there a year ago and he was so excited by it he was looking for the glass sculptures as we went in yesterday and I had to remind him they weren’t there any longer.

With an entry time of 11.00-11.45 we were going to be there at lunchtime so I promised a picnic. And a picnic has to have cake. Well doesn’t it? It does is you’re a 5 year old! I’m not a great baker, as in I don’t bake cakes often and only from a small repertoire. Even then it mainly consists of banana muffins, using up that suddenly ripened bunch that were not fit eating yesterday and won’t be fit for eating tomorrow. I love bananas but the ripening process brings its challenges. The ones sitting in my bowl from the Waitrose delivery at the weekend were still so green they weren’t fit for anything at all. So an alternative was needed. When I was a child my mother regularly baked rock cakes on Sundays. We all loved her rock cakes. So I dug out an old rock cake recipe. But as some of the family don’t eat raisins or candied peel (and I’m talking the grown-ups here, not the kids), I’ve taken to substituting any dried fruit with blueberries. So a blueberry version of rock cakes was born.

I also wanted to try out some new flour I’d ordered from Shipton Mill. I hadn’t been able to resist one of their speciality flours – Organic Fig, Spelt and Pumpkin Seed Flour. I’d had bread in mind but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen so I decided to use some in the ‘rock cakes’ as the fruity seed aspect seemed great for cakes. I thought 100% might be too much so mixed half quantity with Shipton Mill’s Heritage Blend organic white flour. If you don’t have the special flour, use all white or a mix of white and wholewheat.

I used the rock cake recipe as a guide to quantities as rock cakes (as their name suggests) are quite solid little cakes, which makes them perfect for picnics and small hands. Usually one puts the stiff dough in clumps on a baking tray but I decided to use muffin cases, again for picnic ease. I started with my 40-year-old recipe but took things as I fancied along the way. Most baking requires strict attention to the rules (maybe that’s why baking doesn’t really appeal to me!) but rock cakes are friendly little cakes that don’t take life too seriously and humoured me with their flexibility.

Because I used an old recipe the measurements are in old Imperial. I’ve put metric guide in brackets but use one or the other rather than mix.

 

Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic – Makes 12

  • 6oz (175g) Fig, Spelt & Pumpkin flour (or wholewheat)
  • 6oz (175g) organic white flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 6 oz (175g) soft butter
  • 6oz (175g) soft brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or essence
  • 1 egg
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • 4 oz (110g) blueberries

Preheat oven to 190C/Fan 170/Gas 5

 

   

Measure the flours into a bowl and add the baking powder. Put the butter and sugar into another bowl. Rock cakes are usually made with the butter rubbed into the flour, like making pastry, but I wanted a more cake effect for the cakes I was making and so mixed the butter and sugar well together first.

 

Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg. Beat again.

 

Tip in the flours and beat until it just comes together. Add a little milk if too stiff, though it is supposed to be a stiff dough. Then stir in the blueberries carefully.

   

You can see below how stiff it is.

Transfer to 12 muffin cases in a muffin tin.

Put into the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, taking them out when nicely golden. Transfer to a rack to cool.

They didn’t look ‘beautiful’ but they smelled very enticing! And I could see the little specks of dried fig and pumpkin seeds that would add flavour and texture.

It was a pretty windy and chilly day given the heatwave of only a few days’ ago. But there’s no telling a 5 year old that it’s too cold for a walk! I gave Freddie the option of choosing which way we walked. We went to the Palm House first to look at the geese and ducks on the pond in front of it. At which point Nonna had to confess that she’d forgotten to bring the Quack Snacks to feed them, but Freddie turned out to be most excited by the huge fish he could see swimming around and coming to the surface – about ½ metre or more long. Then I suggested we made our way to the larger lake where we’d find lots more ducks, geese and even swans. Freddie remembered the bridge (Sackler Crossing) and said he wanted to go across it.

There were people around and I reminded him of social distancing and we mustn’t go too close to others walking, but he’s a sensible little chap who now has a good understanding of these things so Nonna didn’t have to keep reminding him or stress about upsetting anyone. As we moved further away from the entrance it was quieter anyway; only a few people around, so Freddie was able to run around and have great fun.

We spent a long time at the lake. A lone teenage duckling was amongst a group of geese who were hassling it. Freddie wanted the little duck to find its family. Then the duck flew off, which was a cause of wonder and excitement. It didn’t go far and we slowly followed it. Freddie crouched down – so it wouldn’t be frightened, he told me – and got really close and we were befriended. It took some persuasion to eventually move on as Freddie would have stayed there all day!

Freddie was charged with finding a bench to eat our picnic. I suggested not too close to the geese! He spied one up a little hill amongst trees near the lake and we settled down to eat. It was a simple picnic (we weren’t in Wimbledon or Glyndebourne mode) – just some sandwiches, a tub of cucumber and carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, olives (because all my grandsons love olives) … and cakes!!

They may not have looked pretty but wow … they tasted brilliant! The special flour had brought a gorgeous extra taste to them and I love the way the blueberries burst just a little into the dough. The picnic was a success. But then even the 5 year old was feeling the wind and cold were getting a bit much and asked if we could go back to Nonna’s house now. But we’d been there for almost a couple of hours and, according to my phone, walked a couple of miles … so home it was.