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An Evening with Parma Ham UK

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I was delighted to be invited to another evening of Italian food by Brand Dialogue, who recently asked me to a Parmigiano-Reggiano event at Bocca di Lupo. This time we were to enjoy and celebrate Parma Ham. The event was held at the Good Housekeeping Institute Cookery School in Soho – and it sounded as if we were going to have to cook our supper!

As it turned out, we only had to do some cooking; the splendid main course – a Pork Wellington – had been prepared beforehand, although we were given a demonstration of the basic steps. But before any cooking was required, we were given glasses of prosecco and some gorgeous snacks – all featuring Parma Ham of course! There were delicious Parma Ham, Griddled Pear, Pecorino & Rockets Rolls (truly scrumptious) and tasty Parma Ham, Parmesan & Tapenade Palmiers.

   

Then the cooking began. We had to pair off and I was joined by the lovely Natalie who was there representing her father who writes The Hedonist blog as he was at another event. We were working backwards, making Vanilla & Clementine Pannacotta with Roasted Figs and Clementines Served with a Honey Glazed Parma Ham Crisp first so it had time to set. If this sounds difficult then it wasn’t for us as everything had been well prepared: first a demonstration by our tutors for the evening, Bridget and Chris.

When we got to our workstations, everything had been weighed out so all we had to do was follow instructions and put it together and put the pannacotta in the fridge to set. Later, at the end of the meal, Bridget demonstrated adding the garnishes – then we prepared our own and enjoyed eating them.

The Parma Ham crisp was a wonderful, a slightly salty contrast to the sweet cream and caramelised fruit.

Back to the beginning and while our dessert was setting in the fridge we made some soda bread – one of the quickest and easiest of breads to make – for a base for a bruschetta starter: Homemade Pumpkin Seed Soda Bread Bruschetta, Topped with Roasted Butternut Squash, Chestnuts & Parma Ham. Bridget again showed us what to do first.

   

Everything had been weighed and prepared as before, so it was just a case of putting it all in a bowl and mixing, kneading a little at the end and shaping into a loaf, cutting two deep slices, as instructed, across the middle and dusting it in a little more flour.

   

These were put in the oven to bake for 30 minutes, then left to cool. This meant that we made our bruschettas to eat as the starter to our meal from slices of soda bread Chris had made earlier. Bridget demonstrated how to put it all together and then we did our own, sat down at a large dining table and ate.

They looked and tasted fabulous; a great combination of flavours. It was actually a very large starter and I commented that I’d happily eat just that for a light lunch or supper. It showed how versatile Parma Ham is, going so well on this open sandwich and combining perfectly with the sweet squash and fruit. Our own loaves were given to us at the end to take home.

We were shown how our main course was made too, a Pork Wellington: a fillet of pork with a mushroom duxelles topping, wrapped tightly in Parma Ham, then wrapped in puff pastry. Bridget decorated it with leftover pastry and glazed it with egg yolk.

   

   

When it was served to us for the main course of our meal it look so impressive.

It was served with roasted rosemary potatoes, red cabbage, roasted baby onions, jus and Parma Ham crisps.

It was really gorgeous – a fabulous treat! It’s quite a complex, time-consuming dish to prepare but the great thing about it is you can prepare it well ahead, even the day before, and so it makes it ideal for entertaining and of course particularly wonderful at Christmas.

It was a fantastic meal, served with excellent wines, and in the company of some great other food enthusiasts so no one was going to mind talking food all evening! It was also great to see how versatile Parma Ham is and how many ways you can use it.

A Morning in London: Coffee at Grind & Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery

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With the sun shining brightly on an autumnal November morning, I decided to head into central London to see Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys, an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House.

How could a food and travel blogger resist an exhibition with this name? It seemed perfect and it’s been on my mental list of things to do since it opened last month. The Courtauld Gallery is one of my favourite places: a small, friendly gallery that often has wonderful exhibitions. They’re never big, there’s not the space, but they are frequently exquisite and special. Apart from their temporary exhibitions they have a fabulous permanent collection that’s well worth a special visit if you’ve never been there.

Arriving at Waterloo station at about 10am, my first thought was ‘coffee’. I have a couple of favourite places in Covent Garden but wanted to try somewhere new, so headed to Grind in Maiden Lane.

Inside it was big and bright. Not too busy when I arrived but a lot busier when I left about 20 minutes later.

I’ve developed an interest in looking at how much a flat white (my usual morning coffee) and a plain croissant costs to eat in. Prices vary enormously from £3.96 in my local Your Bakery Whitton, £4.10 in Paul Bakery, to over £6 in some London cafés (which definitely feels completely over the top). Thus £5.30 in Grind, this branch sitting in a prime Covent Garden street, didn’t seem too bad.

I like that they didn’t ask me what size coffee I wanted. When ‘flat whites’ arrived in UK there was only ever one size – now some cafés want to serve medium and large versions. I’m very Italian about my coffee (yes I know flat whites are Antipodean) – I never order anything other than small (regular). I have to say that Grind’s ‘small/regular’ was quite a small cup, but it was great coffee, served at the right temperature (i.e. not too hot and not too cold – ‘just right’ as Goldilocks would say). I particularly liked that once ordered and paid for, I could sit down and wait for it to be brought to me. It came with a glass of water came too. That’s a brilliant touch – very continental Europe. The croissant was excellent – a great flavour with a good, flaky texture. Grind offer an all-day menu if you’re looking for more of a snack or meal (varying slightly according to which branch you go to). In the evening they become a bar and are famous for their Espresso Martini. The coffee is ground daily at their Shoreditch headquarters.

From Grind, I slipped down Southhampton Street into the nearby Strand and walked the short distance to Somerset House and the Courtauld Gallery.

I have to confess to knowing nothing about Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) before hearing about this exhibition. I was intrigued to learn that he became a leading artist in 1920s-1930s Paris, where he’d moved to from his homeland of Russia. He was hailed as an heir to Van Gogh and became best friends with Modigliani. He lived in poverty for a time in the Montparnassse area of Paris before his portraits of Parisian hotel and restaurant workers were noticed and bought. Soutine was a Jew, escaping religious persecution; he notoriously had a temper, suffered from depression and had few friends other than Modigliani. It is interesting therefore that he chose to paint portraits of Parisian lower life, by which I mean people with low-paid jobs in the service industry, whose lives were full of drudgery, to express his own inner angst. The faces in these portraits are vividly moving and disturbing; people, sometimes kids, crushed into uniforms, crushed into a painting’s frame, as if wanted to burst out, full of tension, sometimes world-weary, sometimes angry, but above all, real people. If you can get along to the Courtauld Gallery before 21 January 2018, then it’s well worth seeing.

 

Baci di Dama

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Baci di Dama have been a family favourite for years. Baci di dama translates from the Italian to ‘ladies’ kisses’ and these gorgeous little biscuits are a kiss of sweet delight with a cappuccino or espresso (though if you’re not into coffee, then tea works well too). I’ve always bought them from Carluccio’s Caffè and they sit by my Nespresso machine to have as a little treat, usually with an afternoon or evening espresso. It never occurred to me to make my own until I saw them in a cookbook I was browsing through in WH Smith a few days ago.

I’ve got a couple of Gino D’Acampo’s books. His name may not carry the same foodie weight as someone like Giorgio Locatelli, but actually I find his recipes work well and they’re simple and straightforward. I found his pizza dough recipe far superior to the Paul Hollywood one I tried – but then Gino does come from Naples! As I browsed through his A Taste of the Sun, I found lots of recipes I felt I’d like to try. And anyway, it was in WH Smith’s cookbook sale at only £5 so how could I resist!

One thing that momentarily held me back was his use of Nutella. I love most things Italian but I really cannot understand their devotion to Nutella! It’s really pretty awful stuff if you read the ingredients. And now I’ve been spoilt by a very upmarket and superior version of hazelnut chocolate spread that I’ve bought in one of Turin’s famous caffès – Baratti & Milano.

So … I went in search … I’ve done this before without much luck (although Carluccio’s had a great version I put in some gelato at Eastertime, but then they didn’t stock it again). I found (almost) what I was looking for in my local M&S Simply Food.

It contains 40% hazelnuts (Nutella contains only about 13%) and the list was pretty similar to my gorgeous Turin version. I also went in search of some Italian ’00’ flour, used for baking and pasta making. I found this in Corto Italian Deli.

Back home I already had ground almonds, butter, caster sugar and vanilla extract. I was ready to go.

Baci di Dama (makes 10)

  • 120g butter, softened
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 120g ground almonds
  • 120g ’00’ flour
  • 10 teaspoons chocolate hazelnut spread

First of all put the butter (soft, not straight from the fridge) into a bowl with the sugar. Beat until pale, light and fluffy. Then add the vanilla extract and beat again.

   

Add the ground almonds and flour to the bowl and mix (not with the electric mixer) together with a wooden spoon or spatula until it all comes together into a ball of firm dough.

   

Now, with floured hands, divide into 4; then each piece into 5 – so that you have 20 pieces in the end. I did actually weigh my dough and then weigh out each little piece (clearly in a perfectionist mood!). Roll each little piece gently into a ball and then place on a baking sheet covered with some baking parchment. Gently press down a little on top to flatten (I forgot this step!).

   

Put into a preheated oven at 180C/160 Fan/Gas 4 for 15 minutes or until nicely golden brown.

Remove from the oven and gently lift with a palette knife onto a rack to cool. They’re quite fragile while warm so try to touch them as little as possible.

Once completely cold, sandwich together with a teaspoon of the chocolate hazelnut spread.

They were bigger than the ones I’ve always bought – but then I won’t be tempted to feeling I have to have a second. I couldn’t resist trying one immediately – well, I had to know how they’d worked out! Were they as good as they looked? Yes they were! Wow! Wonderful – ‘fantastico‘ as Gino would say. They were a bit different to the ones I’ve been buying but actually, I thought, nicer. With all those ground almonds in the dough mix, they’re slightly chewy inside – and really, really delicious. The chocolate spread is way better than Nutella … though not as good as my Baratti & Milano one. I clearly need to go to Turin again! Meanwhile, these gorgeous little baci di dama are fabulous, easy to make, and I think would make a lovely foodie present for friends at Christmas.

Fried Polenta with Fresh Tomato, Garlic & Basil Sauce

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It was a leftovers supper. I had a lot of polenta left over from the Fegato alla Veneziana I made a couple of evenings ago. At first I felt quite silly for having completely overestimated how much polenta I needed, but as it turned out it led me towards the simplest but most divinely tasty supper tonight.

Of course, you can start from scratch and prepare the polenta just for this – but remember to start well enough in advance to allow the polenta to cool and go solid (see Fegato recipe for instructions) so that you can then easily cut it into slices to fry. I cook polenta quite a lot as an alternative to pasta or rice, partly because I like it a lot, but also because I eat a lot of pasta which means I eat a lot of wheat. And although I’m not sensitive to it, it sometimes seems like a good idea to bring an alternative into my diet – and polenta is made from corn – maize flour. Usually the polenta I cook is left soft and creamy – a bit like a creamy mash potato – but I always flavour it with plenty of salt and pepper, a good lump of butter and some freshly grated Parmesan. Polenta without flavouring is too bland. I buy instant polenta from Carluccio’s.

It tastes really good and although I make most of my food from scratch (no ready meals), I’m still happy to take shortcuts when I can if I still end up with something authentic.

So, tonight I decided to cut my left-over polenta into slices and fry it, and serve it with a simple sauce made from fresh tomatoes. I had some lovely small vine tomatoes which are full of flavour, so ideal for a simple sauce. I’d also add a shallot, some garlic and fresh basil, which I have growing on my kitchen windowsill.

   

   

Fried Polenta with Fresh Tomato, Garlic & Basil Sauce

  • cold polenta, made from about 50g polenta, quite thick
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, sliced thinly
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
  • 4-5 medium, full-flavour vine tomatoes, chopped into quarters
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few basil leaves
  • Parmesan for grating over at end

Slice the cold polenta ready for frying. Heat about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Add the sliced shallot. Let that start to cook for a few seconds and then add the sliced garlic (at the end you can either leave it in or easily remove it if you’re worried about smelling of garlic – the flavour will still come through). Cook, stirring, for a minute or two and then add the chopped tomatoes.

   

Cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are soft and collapsing. Season with salt and pepper. Stir. Tear over some fresh basil leaves.

As this is cooking, heat a little (about a tablespoon) olive oil in another small pan. When it’s hot, add the slices of polenta. Cook over a medium heat, turning over when nicely browned on one side, and cook until both sides are a deep golden brown.

   

I also made a quick simple side salad of rocket with sliced raw fennel, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

When the polenta slices are nicely brown transfer to a serving plate. Then spoon over the tomato sauce.

To finish, grate over a generous shower of Parmesan, then drizzle over a little olive oil.

Now eat and enjoy! This is the simplest of dishes – and all the more Italian for it. But it was truly wonderful. I love the way the texture of the polenta changes when you fry it, becoming fluffier inside with a nice crisp outside (a bit like a perfect chip!). I must cook polenta this way more often; or just get into the habit of cooking extra whenever I’m making the creamy version so I have leftovers. I often make a simple fresh tomato sauce like this for pasta. It’s such an easy but very special thing. Combined with these gorgeous slices of fried polenta, it made a truly gorgeous supper.

Saute Potatoes with Rosemary-infused Droitwich Salt

This is less a recipe than a story about Droitwich salt and how it came into my kitchen. My daughter Nicola lives just outside Droitwich in a village called Shrawley, in Worcestershire; her wife Rachael’s parents live in Droitwich – also known as Droitwich Spa. When I was visiting recently, Rachael’s mother Janet had kindly left a packet of Droitwich salt for me. Knowing about my blog and interest in food, she thought I’d like to try some of this salt that was a sell-out and big hit at the Ludlow Food Festival in September.

Now if someone gives me a foodie present I like to think of a way to do something special foodwise with it. But what could I do with salt? I considered salted caramel ice cream … I could bake fish in a salt crust – but that would use up all the salt in one go! While I pondered what I could do that would highlight the salt, I happened to visit Honest Burgers who are famous not just for their great burgers but also for their rosemary chips – chips tossed in salt with rosemary in it. So good were these wonderful rosemary chips, I got quite excited by them.

From there it wasn’t a massive leap in creative thinking to come up with the idea that I should infuse some of the Droitwich salt with some rosemary from my garden. So, back home, I picked some rosemary from the large bush at the end of my garden. I decided I should dry it first, so it hung some from a spice rack in the kitchen (along with the thyme and oregano I already had drying).

   

I waited until it was properly dry before going ahead with my rosemary salt.

   

The dried rosemary doesn’t look as pretty as the bright green fresh stems, but as I started to pull the little spiky leaves from one stem into a small bowl, the smell was wonderful: intense and aromatic. This is the reason I love drying some of the summer herbs that grow in my garden, before winter takes hold of them and they shrivel, discolour and perhaps die off. Greeks and many middle eastern countries use dried herbs a lot for their greater intensity of flavour and I’m a great fan of many for certain types of cooking – though like my fresh herbs too! (See this post for more on fresh v. dried herbs.)

I crushed the rosemary leaves with my fingers and added them to some of the salt, which I’d put in a small glass jar. Then I shook it all up, and it was ready to use.

   

Of course I had to try the salt before adding rosemary and decided to do a taste test with the sea salt I usually buy. I wasn’t sure if I’d notice the difference to be honest, but I did. It amazed me that I found it slightly different and the bright, fresh, pure taste of the Droitwich salt shone through.

Droitwich salt has an interesting history. The town of Droitwich sits on rock rich in minerals and so the water from the springs is very salty – in fact, ten times saltier than sea water. It was the Romans who first exploited the Droitwich brine and harvested the salt it contained. Then in 1215 King John granted the town a Royal Charter. Droitwich Spa became one of the most prosperous towns in medieval times based on the salt production. Production continued until 1922 but has recently been started again by Churchfields, a local, family-run farm, where the salt is harvested by hand. They launched the salt at the Ludlow Food Festival in September 2017 and it received much applause, with famous chefs getting excited about it and the stall selling out fast.

So what is so amazing about Droitwich salt? Although salt has had a bad press in recent years, and ordinary table salt is processed in a way that means it isn’t good for us, sea salt is now known to be full of vital minerals which are good for us. So sea salt – and remember, everything in moderation – is healthy, and it also has a better, purer taste, which makes it popular with chefs. However, the pollution in the sea nowadays has led some people to worry about sea salt’s purity. Droitwich salt, though, comes straight from the rock below the town and surrounding area. It is pure and unpolluted. The brine springs have existed for millions of years and are some of the oldest and purest in the world. Thus the salt is very special – and very pure. You can really taste the difference … so I’m going to put in an order for more!

Meanwhile, I got going with my sauté potatoes. I was going to serve them with a burger. I have made many a burger in my time but have to confess to recently buying some venison burgers in Waitrose that are truly wonderful, so they sit in my freezer, with some brioche burger buns, for days when I’m feeling a little lazy. But also for a day when I wanted to try out my rosemary-infused Droitwich salt!

I boiled the potatoes first – in water with Droitwich salt, of course! I drained them when almost, but not quite, tender. Once they were cool, I sliced them quite thickly. I left the skins on. It wasn’t laziness – they were little new potatoes and apart from liking potato skin, the skin is full of nutrients and flavour – and I did buy organic!

   

I heated some extra virgin olive oil (yes you can heat it and it’s still good for you!) in a small frying pan and when it was hot I added the potato slices. I kept the heat quite high and stirred and turned them frequently, until golden brown and crispy. Then I transferred them to a small bowl lined with kitchen towel to soak up the extra fat.

   

I tipped them from the paper back into the bowl and then sprinkled over a little of the rosemary salt and tossed them, so they were all covered in the salt.

Meanwhile, I’d griddled my burger and also cut my brioche burger bun and lightly toasted it.

   

I made a mixed salad to go on the side and smeared by toasted buns with some Maille aioli – just because I love it and especially on a burger.

   

The burger was put together on a serving plate; a little rocket and sliced tomato added on top. Then the crispy sauté potatoes with their rosemary Droitwich salt were put on the side.

It was all very delicious. I often add rosemary – fresh from the garden – to roasting potatoes so it makes such a lot of good sense to add some to salt to have at the ready for a quick sprinkle over potatoes, chips, lamb chops maybe … anything that likes good salt and some rosemary. I love the beautifully scented rosemary flavour but that salt from Droitwich is truly special and so I’m really pleased that Janet got me some to try.

 

Fegato alla Veneziana

While I was gathering the ingredients together for this dish I heard the sad news of the death of Antonio Carluccio, the great Italian chef, who did so much to bring good Italian food and an appreciation of it to this country, which he made his home over 40 years ago. I have many of his books which I’ve used for years and have remained favourites. Unfortunately I couldn’t find his recipe for this classic Venetian dish in any of them so turned to Rick Stein, but I couldn’t post an Italian recipe today without mentioning Carluccio and thus dedicate the post to him with thanks for all the good he gave us: great Italian food, books, recipes, his joyous laughter, and his entertaining TV series.

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Whenever I go to Venice I always have to eat Fegato alla Veneziana at least once. It is one of my favourite dishes; basically the Venetian way of cooking liver and onions, but doesn’t it sound so much better in Italian! In Venice it’s traditionally served with polenta (‘grits’ in US), which is a popular accompaniment there and turns up in many dishes. Here it is with Fegato alla Veneziana last time I was in Venice:

I cook polenta* a lot as an alternative to pasta or rice (see this recipe), though have never tried frying it in the way I did tonight, but have often had it this way in Venice. It was a little hit and miss as usually I don’t weigh anything and just throw it together last-minute and add water until I get the consistency I want – usually soft and creamy – and add butter and Parmesan for taste. Tonight I left it a bit thicker so that once cold, I could cut it into slices ready to fry. I prepared that in advance. There’s a lot of last-minute cooking here but just get yourself organised and really the dish is very easy. I think it does require calf’s liver rather than the stronger tasting lamb’s liver, which is cheaper but not so pleasant.

* I always use instant polenta from Carluccio’s. It’s just so much easier!

Fegato alla Veneziana – for one

Polenta

  • 100g instant polenta
  • about 400ml boiling water
  • sea salt
  • 20g butter
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 10g grated Parmesan

Liver & Onions

  • 1 medium onion (about 100g)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • pinch salt
  • pinch sugar
  • 100g calf’s liver
  • sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • 10g butter
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

First of all prepare the polenta – far enough in advance to let it cool, ready to cut into slices (if you’re in more of a hurry, just cook and serve as a mash, which Rick Stein does). Measure out the polenta (I made far too much, so you could halve or even quarter these measurements if only cooking for one like me). Measure the boiling water into a small pan and add some salt. Slowly tip the polenta into the water, stirring all the time.

   

Mix well and continue to mix as you cook it for a couple of minutes. If it’s too solid, add more water until you get it the consistency you want but keep it thick. Then add the butter and pepper. Mix well.

   

Remove from the heat. Add the Parmesan and mix well. Check seasoning. Transfer to an oiled (with olive oil) shallow dish (about 15cm square). Level off and leave to cool.

   

Later, when it was cold, I cut the polenta into thick slices (using only half of what I’d made and keeping the rest in the fridge to use over the next day or two – next time I’ll make less!).

   

Now start to prepare the liver and onions. First prepare the onion. Slice the onion very thinly then put in a pan with the olive oil. Add a pinch of salt and pinch of sugar to sweeten. Fry very gently for about 10 minutes until softened and starting to colour and turn golden brown. Transfer to a plate and keep warm.

   

Cut the calf’s liver into strips (roughly 2cm wide). Season with salt and pepper. Add a little more oil if necessary – only about a teaspoon – to the pan you cooked the onions in. When hot add the liver.

   

The trick with liver is to cook it very quickly over a medium-high heat. It should stay pink in the middle. If cooked for too long it will go tough. Turn it over so it’s browned both sides then return the onions to the pan. Mix together and fry for just a few seconds, stirring constantly. Transfer to a warm serving plate.

   

Add a little butter to the pan you cooked the liver in and scrape up any bits clinging to the pan- they’ll be full of flavour. Let it all bubble for a few seconds then spoon over the liver and onions. Sprinkle over a little chopped parsley.

Meanwhile, heat a little olive oil in a small frying pan and when hot add the pieces of polenta. Let them fry while you’re cooking the liver, turning once, so they’re nicely browned on each side.

  

Add the polenta to the plate. I also cooked some tenderstem broccoli to serve on the side, dressed with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some olive oil.

It was really fabulous. I don’t know why I’ve left it so long to cook one of my favourite dishes myself! The liver and onions were sweet and tender and oh so delicious; the polenta, despite my doubts that I’d left it too thick, was light and fluffy from the frying. I don’t think this is a dish I’d like to be cooking for a dinner party with the last-minute cooking and getting the liver just right – it needs to be served straight away! – but fabulous for one or two …

Basic Tomato Sauce for Pasta

Making a tomato sauce for pasta must be one of the first things most people learn when they start cooking. I actually often do a much more basic one than I did tonight, with just a shallot, olive oil, a tin of tomatoes and seasoning. But sometimes it’s nice to take things a bit further and make a richer sauce using a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery as a base, especially if the sauce is to be served with plain pasta. I was particularly keen to up the nutritional content with the addition of organic carrots, onions and celery as I planned to freeze small portions for 2¾-year-old grandson Freddie. I love occasionally making food for Freddie, or sometimes just freezing small portions of something I know he likes, like a ragù or my basic chicken curry. This is partly to help his working parents but also because cooking for family and friends has always been a way of expressing my love and care. When you love cooking, you love cooking for those you love.

I’ve taken to often blending tomato sauce for a smooth finish, which is especially good if you’re using it as a base for meatballs, a sausage sauce for pasta or perhaps some fish. It also makes easy eating for a toddler and hides the veg if they’re not keen to eat them! But you can serve it without the blending if you prefer.

Whether I’m planning to make some for Freddie or not, it’s worth making extra for the freezer for a quick meal another night. Here’s my recipe:

Basic Tomato Sauce for Pasta

  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • a pinch of dried red chilli flakes (optional)
  • about ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • about ½ teaspoon sugar
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the chopped onion, celery and carrot in a pan with the olive oil. Fry gently for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables have softened and are starting to take on a bit of colour – but don’t allow to brown. This is a basic soffritto. Cooking the vegetables in this way, before adding the tomatoes, will give the sauce a deeper and richer flavour. Now add the garlic – it’s important not to add garlic too soon because if it browns it will give the sauce a bitter taste. Also add the pinch of chilli if using (I can’t resist putting chilli into lots of things!), the dried oregano (a favourite herb of mine, but you could add thyme, basil or other herb) and tip in the tins of tomatoes.

   

   

Give it a good stir. Add the sugar to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes and season with sea salt (about a teaspoon) and black pepper. Stir again, bring to a simmer and put on a tightly fitting lid.

Leave to simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour. The vegetables should be tender by now and the sauce concentrated down a little.

Now blend until smooth with a hand blender.

It will be quite thick but you can always add a little of the pasta water – something Italian cooks do a lot anyway! – when combining with the cooked pasta. Taste and check for seasoning. You can use the sauce straight away or make in advance and keep in the fridge for up to 2 days before using. If you want to freeze some, do that as soon as the sauce is cold, transferring to freezer bags or containers and chilling first in the fridge and then transferring to a freezer. I’m a firm believer that food for the freezer should be frozen as soon as possible and not when it’s been hanging around for a few days and it seems a good idea to pop it in the freezer. That way goes food poisoning …

I used some scialatielli pasta that I bought in Carluccio’s. It seemed a perfect choice as they’d recommended it for a thick vegetable sauce.

Cook the pasta as directed on the packet. Drain, reserving a little of the water in case you want to thin the sauce (although I didn’t as I found the water clinging to the cooked pasta was enough). Tip the drained pasta back into the pan and spoon in some of the sauce. Stir over a low heat to amalgamate.

In Italy, sauces aren’t dumped on top of pasta as we tend to do here; they’re carefully folded into the pasta. Transfer to a serving dish, grate over a little Parmesan and drizzle over a little olive oil. Top with some basil, if you like. Serve with a green salad on the side.

For such a simple dish it was wonderfully flavourful and delicious; really special. I think the blending helps the flavour. I’m not sure why – but then I was never great at science! It also gives the sauce a creamier texture which wraps itself brilliantly around the pasta. I’m not sure what an Italian would make of my sauce (a Sicilian might allow the chilli!) but for me it sums up the beauty and essence of Italian cooking: using the best ingredients in a simple way, using only a very few ingredients, but celebrating their flavour. And, of course, cooking and sharing with love.

Lunch in Windsor

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I’ve been meeting my friend Nina for lunch in Windsor fairly regularly for a few years now; sometimes she comes to Richmond. It’s only recently that I’ve realised it’s just as quick to go by train as car – and certainly easier, especially as the Windsor & Eton Riverside station is so central that as you come out of it you immediately see Windsor Castle rising above you.

I’d parked at Whitton, the next station down from Twickenham on the line as that’s where my son lives and as I was picking grandson Freddie up from nursery at 4, it seemed easiest to travel from there. The Windsor & Eton Riverside line is a semi-fast from Waterloo station, running every half hour.

It’s an easy 30-minute journey to Windsor and almost immediately one is out of crowded London suburbs with their densely populated streets and into the country (or country by London standards!). I spied pretty villages like Datchet and Runnymeads as we stopped briefly and on past woods and fields and lakes. I spend so much time jumping on trains into central London it’s easy to forget greener places are not that far away from me in the other direction!

I had a little time to spare before lunch so wandered round the town, past the entrance to the castle, then a fairy tale little crooked building, and the Guildhall where Prince Charles married Camilla.

   

Unusually for a castle, it is very much in the centre of the town, which seems to be built round it. Then on to the shopping centre where I was meeting Nina at the local Carluccio’s Caffè. The entrance to the shopping mall proclaims its royal heritage.

It’s built within an old railway station – and the Windsor central station inside is still a working station.

A replica of an old steam train – ‘The Queen’ – is displayed near the platforms. Built in 1894, the original used to pull the Royal Train.

And not far from it, clearly under a railway station arch and roof, sits Carluccio’s.

I’ve eaten outside in the summer, but we opted for inside today. Despite the sunny weather, it was cold; temperatures having plunged to freezing in the night. Carluccio’s has been a favoured venue to meet for some time, both for its convenience and reliability. Though, I’ve felt of late its reliability is less certain and the food isn’t as good as it used to be. I had a new dish – roasted stuffed butternut squash.

It was OK, but not brilliant. Their flat white coffee is more reliable (though Italian friends will have to forgive me for ordering a white coffee after lunch. I wouldn’t have dared order it with an Italian!).

It was nice to spend a lazy couple of hours over lunch talking to an old friend (we were at school together!). Windsor itself is a great destination from SW London, not too far away and offering a true ‘out of London’ feeling. It’s a pretty town and it’s really rather wonderful to have the castle at such close quarters. For shoppers it offers pretty much any shop you could think of; all the usual ones rather than any unique and exciting, but easily explored in the mainly pedestrianised area. And on a beautiful sunny day such as today, a great trip out of town.

Restaurant Review: Honest Burgers, Soho

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It was my friend Elsa who suggested eating at Honest Burgers’ Soho branch last night, as we came out of Curzon Soho where we’d seen the newly released film, The Death of Stalin, a black comedy which has been receiving rave reviews. It was mildy funny but we thought over-hyped. Supper, as it turned out, wasn’t at all over-hyped; it was just as good as I’d read about.

I’m not someone to go in search of a good burger. I quite like burgers but in general they haven’t been my first choice since my teenage days when my mum would treat me to one at the Hard Rock Café on trips to London, in an age when it was probably the only place in town to get a good burger. However, I do still occasionally enjoy one and was pleased by Elsa’s suggestion because I’ve read a lot of good things about Honest Burgers. The original branch in Brixton (which seems to give birth to many good restaurants) has grown into 24 branches; all in London, except for the Cambridge branch.

The Soho branch is tucked away down a small side road off Dean Street. It was about 8.45pm and inevitably a queue had formed outside. We were told by a friendly guy that the wait would be about 15 minutes so we decided to stay put. It was a mild October evening and no big deal to wait outside for a short while. The inside is tiny; far too small for queues.

I’m not sure how long we actually waited but it couldn’t have been too long before we were ushered inside and shown to a table. Again a friendly welcome, a menu brought, things explained, like the cooking of the burgers to pink inside (if you want well done then you need to ask at this point), what the special was that day; and we were asked if we had any allergies or special requirements (you can ask for gluten free buns). The menu was also written out on a blackboard above us.

Well, I was in Honest Burgers for the first time so really the only burger to choose was an Honest Burger: beef, red onion relish, smoked bacon, mature cheddar, pickled cucumber and lettuce (£10.95), but there are chicken and vegetarian options. The burgers are served in a glazed brioche bun and come with Honest Burgers’ signature rosemary salted chips.

The wine doesn’t come in choices other than red, white or rosé, but it does come with the option of 125/175ml glass (£4.75/£5.75), a 500ml carafe (£15), or bottle (£20). I really like it when there’s a carafe option. I don’t want to share a whole bottle but sometimes a glass doesn’t feel quite enough with a meal. The wine came, along with a carafe of tap water, and bottles of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and tomato ketchup stood on the table awaiting our meal.

   

It wasn’t long before our burgers came. Elsa had also ordered the eponymous ‘Honest’.

I opened up the burger and could see a generous dollop of the red onion relish sitting on top of the bacon. Cutting the burger in half, there was the tantalising sight of a perfectly cooked burger, all wonderfully pink and moist inside.

   

The burger was great. I’ve read they get their beef from Ginger Pig (one of the best butchers in London) and it tasted fabulous. But the chips – wow! They were amazing, quite the best chips I can remember having for a very long time, wonderfully crispy outside, soft in the middle. These really are handmade chips, not the frozen variety that pollute so many restaurants. And you could taste the difference. But also the rosemary salt – what an ingenious idea. I often put fresh rosemary on roasting potatoes but to put it in the salt for chips is a brilliant touch.

When we were asked if we’d enjoyed our meal we ending up talking to Connor (we thought the manager) for a while after I enthused about the chips. He told us they were made by hand in a central kitchen, had the first cooking, were chilled (but not frozen!) and sent out. At the different restaurants they have their final cooking to order. Well, a good chip needs to be fried twice (or even three times) so this seems a good way to ensure fresh chips in bulk orders.

I really don’t think I’ve been so excited by a burger since my teenage trips to Hard Rock Café and I’m definitely going back to Honest Burgers soon!

Honest Burgers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Italian Food Event at Bocca di Lupo

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The fabulous Bocca di Lupo has been one of my favourite restaurants in London since I had a spur-of-the-moment lunch there three years ago (click here). I’ve been back a few times since, with friends and for a family birthday celebration. And if I’m anywhere near, not necessarily wanting an actual meal, I can’t resist popping into their gelateria opposite, Gelupo (my Italian teacher, Fabio, who told me about it, and I regularly update ourselves on ‘best gelaterias’ in London and Gelupo remains our favourite). You can imagine, therefore, how delighted I was to be invited to a food event there last night by The Dialogue Agency. There were to be just 20 of us, eating a meal prepared by Bocca di Lupo’s Head Chef, Jake Simpson, and 1* Michelin chef, Isa Mazzocchi, from Ristorante La Palta in Piacenza.

The meal was part of The Culinary Project ‘Assi nella Manica’, which has been running a few events throughout the year to promote and celebrate Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Thus the entire 6-course meal was centred around these two products.  First though, we were welcomed with some sparkling wine from the Bologna area, courtesy of Orsi Vigneto San Vito, who use traditional biodynamic methods in their vineyard. We’d drink more of their wines with our meal and owner Federico Orsi was there to talk to us about them before we sat down.

  

We also had short talks from Simone Ficarelli of Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano and someone from the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. And while we listened, samples came round for us to taste.

   

I have enough Italian friends to know that I really shouldn’t call my Parmigiano Reggiano, Parmesan. ‘Parmesan’ is a general name for this type of cheese but it may not be authentic. Parmigiano Reggiano is PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), a mark of quality granted to food products produced under strict production laws within a defined area. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, it may only be produced in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the River Po. There are also strict regulations about what the cows who produce the milk for the cheese eat; they can only eat grass from the place of origin and natural animal feed. Some foodstuffs are strictly forbidden: any kind of silage or fermented food, and animal origin feed or any by-product of the food industry. The minimum maturation time is 12 months but it’s only considered to be at its best once it reaches the age of 24 months. Ageing can continue up to 36 months or more and during this time the taste, texture and digestibility will all change.

Last night we were given the chunks of different ages of Parmigiano to try, from 18 months, to 24 months and 30 months. Simone led us through the tasting: the young cheese was smooth and sweet, with little acidity and had a background taste of green grass; the 24 months cheese was more granular in texture, drier, stronger tasting and perfect for eating as it is or grating; the 30 months cheese had large crystals in the granulation, little notes of nutmeg and dried fruits in the taste, and was perfect for grating.

Next we tasted the balsamic vinegar. There were two – a 12-year vinegar and a 25-year vinegar. They were quite small – 100ml – bottles. Apparently the younger one sells for about £55 in London and the 25-year for £75. Yes, this is very expensive balsamic, not what you find on your supermarket shelves or even, probably, your local Italian deli. But it is the real thing. It was stressed that it should be served in drops, not drizzled extravagantly round food. Surprisingly the shape of the bottle was important: all traditional balsamic vinegar has to be sold in a particular shape of bottle. Aceto Balsamic Traditional di Modena PDO can only be produced in the province of Modena and it takes at minimum of 12 years to slowly acetify, becoming concentrated, mature and refined. All the vinegar produced has to be tasted and tested by a panel of expert tasters and may only be sold in the special 100ml bottles, each one numbered and sealed.

The taste – especially of the 25-year balsamic vinegar – was amazing. It may be exceptionally expensive but it really is quite a different specimen to the kind of balsamic most of us enjoy. I simply loved the taste of the older one – and there were bottles left on the table for us to help ourselves! Together with special little spoons to pour it into for the tasting.

We were reminded that balsamic vinegar is a condiment, not an ingredient. Apart from its use as a dressing for salads, it can be used as a finishing touch to hot food but only added at the end; you don’t cook with it. And try adding a few drops to strawberries and ice cream.

It was all fascinating and I learned a lot, but then it was time to eat, and here’s what we ate:

Crispy Parmigiano Reggiano PDO Scorzonera with Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Modena PDO

Jake Simpson

This was gorgeous: crispy Parmigiano Reggiano wrapped around some scorzonera – a kind of salsify – so soft and creamy inside.

Poached Egg on Parmigiano Reggiano PDO Cream & Crispy Tagliolini with Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDP

Isa Mazzocchi

This looked so amazing and tasted wonderful: a softly poached egg sitting on a cream of the Parmigiano Reggiano and topped with crispy tagliolini (pasta).

Grilled Polenta with Porcini, Parmigiano Reggiano PDO & Cream

Jake Simpson

Another fabulous dish: this time a perfectly cooked porcini mushroom sat on a Parmigiano Reggiano cream and was served with grilled polenta. It was the kind of dish I would love as a supper dish in its own right, with a green salad on the side perhaps.

Raviolo di Ravioli with Parmigiano Reggiano PDO

Isa Mazzocchi

This amazing looking raviolo is one of Isa’s specialities and quite famous. The rows of little ravioli within the one big raviolo contain Parmigiano Reggiano of 6 different ages, from 12 months to the rarely found age of 72 months (an exceptional treat). This really was a work of art as well as a glorious dish. It was extraordinary to experience the changing tastes as you made your way across the raviolo, the old Parmigiano intense and quite wonderful.

Roast Squab Stuffed with Delica Squash & Chestnuts; Treviso Radicchio & Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO

Jake Simpson

This was another fantastic dish of a roasted squab – a small pigeon. It was served very, very rare and was gorgeously tender and tasty. I’d never eaten pigeon before and was worried it might be a bit gamey (I’m not fond of strong tasting game) but it wasn’t. We were told it was roasted quickly at a very high – 240C – temperature for just a few minutes, then some of the balsamic vinegar glazed over the top.

Vanilla Crème Brûlée with White Chocolate Cream & Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO

Isa Mazzocchi

Our final dish was the softest, most delicious crème brûlée I’ve ever had, topped with a white chocolate cream, some fruit and little ‘caviar’ of balsamic vinegar. What a great way to end a truly fabulous meal.

The two chefs came out to meet us at the end and received an enthusiastic round of applause from the roomful of happy diners.

What a wonderful evening it had been. A truly spectacular meal with lots of fascinating information about authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and Balsamic vinegar. It was also great to enjoy it with a group of like-minded food enthusiasts and be able to talk food throughout the meal! Many thanks to the Dialogue Agency for inviting me, the two fabulous chefs for their fantastic cooking, and all involved in this great event.