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The Sad Demise of Independent Cafes & Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kale & Courgette Soup

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

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

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

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

 

Kale & Courgette Soup

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

 

   

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

   

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

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

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

Spiced Apple Cake

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

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

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

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

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

Spiced Apple Cake

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

Apple Topping

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

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

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

   

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

   

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

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

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

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

Beef Meatballs with Lemon & Celeriac

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‘Simple’ and ‘Ottolenghi’ aren’t words that I’d instinctively put together. I love Yotam Ottolenghi’s food but it has to be said that his recipes are often complicated and contain many ingredients, even though a lot of them are ½ teaspoon of ‘this spice’ and ¼ teaspoon of another. So I have to confess I was a little suspicious of the title of his latest book (published 2018) called Ottolenghi Simple. However, I started hearing good things about it and therefore took a look. And when I took a look, I immediately saw tempting recipes that, while not ‘simple’ by everyone’s definition, were ‘simple’ by Ottolenghi standards. So the book came home with me.

I bought the book a few weeks’ ago and looked at it and thought about what recipes I’d like to try, but no cooking was done. Then on Friday I met my son at Ottolenghi’s flagship store and restaurant in Islington for a meal before we saw Shakespeare’s RICHARD II at the Almeida Theatre – conveniently situated almost opposite the restaurant. It was Jonathan’s first time eating there, my first since August 2017. It’s good to be reminded quite how special it is. Ottolenghi’s first restaurant/deli opened in Notting Hill in 2002, the Islington branch 2 years later.  I remember going there with my friend Annie when it was still quite new and being blown away. ‘Sharing plates’ were a new concept in London then (even if not in Ottolenghi’s native Jerusalem), but while the concept is now a very familiar one, Ottolenghi’s food remains magically ‘extra-ordinary’. When you eat it, you realise that his recipes have be fairly complicated to achieve the levels of flavours and textures that delight the tastebuds.

Of course, back home the book just had to come out again and some Ottolenghi cooking went on in my kitchen yesterday; to be shared with the family. We began with these beef meatballs and there was an Ottolenghi apple cake for dessert (recipe to come later). I made it almost exactly as Ottolenghi suggests with just a couple of minor changes: less garlic than his 3 cloves; and rather than just smoked paprika, I did half that and half sweet paprika, because I’m not fond of very smokey flavours. I also added a little plain flour during the initial frying to thicken the sauce a bit.

Beef Meatballs with Lemon & Celeriac – Serves 4

  • 400g beef mince
  • 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
  • 120g fresh breadcrumbs
  • 20g flat-leaf parsley, chopped (plus extra for garnish)
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • ¾ teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small (or half large) celeriac (400g), cut into wedges about 1cm thick
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1½ teaspoons fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • ½ teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 dessertpoon plain flour
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • 3½ tablespoons lemon juice
  • salt and black pepper

Put the beef, onion, breadcrumbs, parsley, egg, allspice, ½ teaspoon salt and some black pepper into a large bowl. Mix well with your hands then roll into small balls weighing about 40g. I oiled my hands slightly before doing this. I also weighed the meatballs and got 16, though Ottolenghi says the mixture makes about 20.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan with a lid. Fry the meatballs until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon. Add the celeriac (with a little more oil if necessary) to the pan, along with the garlic and remaining spices. Fry for a couple of minutes to release the aromas from the spices. Sprinkle over the flour and mix in well.

   

Return the meatballs to the pan and add the stock and lemon juice, stirring as you go.

Bring to the boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer and leave to cook for 30 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and check the seasoning. Then allow to simmer without the lid for another 10 minutes for the sauce to reduce and thicken a little.

This is an ideal meal to prepare in advance. I made this a few hours before eating and then just warmed it through. I served with rice (but you might like couscous) and a big green salad on the side.

It was a lovely meal and all the flavours worked so well together. These were meatballs with that added extra special something … and enjoyed not just by the grown-ups but by my little grandsons (nearly 4 and 14 months) too. That’s the kind of family meal I like – where everyone is happy!

The recipe was indeed simple, in the sense that there was nothing complicated about it. It wasn’t an ‘instant’ meal though; it took a bit of time to prepare with the rolling of the meatballs and preparing the celeriac. But the little bit of effort was definitely worthwhile and I’m pretty certain the family are going to be asking for these again!

A Winter Risotto

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I love risotto, as will be evident to any regular reader of these pages. I make a risotto at least once a week, ingredients to a large extent depending on the season. One of the great things about risotto is that it doesn’t have a season – you can make it with pretty much anything and particularly any vegetable in season. You can make a fresh-tasting summer risotto with, say, asparagus but a deeply flavourful and comforting risotto in the winter with things like butternut squash. A family favourite – which I also make for vegetarian friends – is Mushroom & Chestnut Risotto.

The risotto is all the better when you have a good homemade stock to add depth – as I did tonight. I freeze my stock in cubes, ready to add a few to a gravy or sauce, but also packs of about 300ml to make risotto. Yes, I even plan to make risotto! I used chicken stock but if you want this to be a vegetarian dish, use vegetable stock.

I’ve been making courgette risotto quite a bit of late, dicing courgettes and frying them with shallot as a base. That was the plan tonight, but then I remembered I’d bought some tenderstem broccoli today so decided to add that too. Then on the ‘green’ theme, I thought I’d add a few peas. The ‘green’ theme took me back to Venice, more particularly the beautiful and tranquil island of Torcello, where in 2015 I had a wonderful spring risotto – Risotto Primavera – at Locanda Cipriani. My risotto tonight was very green. It isn’t, in all honesty, a true winter risotto – not with courgettes and peas, although the tenderstem broccoli is a little more wintery. But nowadays seasons are less evident – or certainly in the supermarket – than they used to be. The point is, I took some veg I had and made a gorgeous risotto. Bright green and fresh looking, but a creamy, deep warmth that felt good on a winter’s night.

This is how I made mine, but ring the changes with what vegetables you have to hand that go together well. Remember that in general, if you want to follow the Italian example, you go for fewer rather than more ingredients. Risotto isn’t a dish where you throw in the metaphorical kitchen sink – or everything lurking in the bottom of your fridge. Choose just two or three ingredients. Keep it beautifully simple.

 

A Winter Risotto – Serves 1

  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 courgette, diced (about 1-1.5cm dices)
  • 3 or 4 stems of tenderstem broccoli
  • a small handful of frozen peas
  • ½ cup risotto rice
  • 300ml chicken or vegetable stock, hot
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • knob butter (and ½ tablespoon)
  • a good grating of Parmesan

Put the shallot with the oil in a large pan. Fry gently for a couple of minutes and then add the diced courgette. Chop the stems off of the tenderstem broccoli into lengths about the same size as the dices of courgette. Add to the pan and reserve the tops.

Put a small handful of frozen peas in a bowl, add a little salt and pour over boiling water (I always prepare peas for risotto or a pasta sauce like this – they don’t need real cooking; just to get started). Drain the peas after a couple of minutes.

   

When all the vegetables in the pan are nicely softening and slightly golden brown, add the rice. Stir well to coat each grain of rice and fry gently for just a couple of minutes. Then start adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful.

   

It’s important to do this slowly and to keep stirring. This breaks down the starch in the rice and helps produce the nice classic creamy effect of a good risotto. For me this is one of the best parts of making a risotto – the necessity to slow down and relax and just enjoy the process. I can never understand people who advocate cooking a risotto in an oven or slow cooker – that, in my book, isn’t a risotto, even if it’s a nice rice dish.

   

When the rice is starting to soften (test a few grains on a fork), add the tenderstem broccoli tops with the last of the stock so they cook through but stay green and fresh-tasting. When the rice is tender and almost all absorbed by the stock, tip in the peas. Stir to mix. Turn off the heat. Add the butter and a grating of Parmesan. Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes. Then beat the melting butter and cheese into the rice. This stage is called mantecato and is an essential part of producing a creamy risotto.

   

Spoon on to a serving place. Grate a little more Parmesan over the top and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil to serve.

It was really gorgeous. Lovely flavours. It felt very healthy with all that green! But also wonderfully warming and comforting on a winter’s night.

Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce

It was a meal planned for weeks ago but due to illness, the duck breasts went into the freezer and the wine waited a bit longer. The wine was a bottle of Pinot Noir bought in Burgundy last July when staying with my friends Di and Tam. We had a wonderful day driving into the heart of Burgundy and bought some wine direct from a vineyard. Two bottles of white Chardonnay I brought back were drunk with the Christmas meal, and two bottles of Pinot Noir were ready for drinking. Another two bottles must wait a year or two to be at their best.

As a family, we’ve regularly bought Galette des Rois for Twelfth Night from our local Paul bakery. It’s a family tradition that dates far back to when my children were small and a French au pair introduced us to them. And as it is Twelfth Night, and the galette is French, it seemed an ideal time to have the duck and Pinot Noir.

I’ve put a couple of duck recipes on the blog before: one with a blueberry sauce and another which is inspired by a middle eastern recipe. Tonight I thought I’d go really classical and make an orange sauce – Duck à l’Orange. My confidence that this would be super simple was soon dispelled when it seemed that even usually reliable cookery writers seemed to offer very different versions. Older recipes tended to use a lot of sugar to make a caramel first, to which wine, or cointreau, or vinegar, is added. But I don’t like making sugar-heavy recipes these days even though I could appreciate that the caramel would give the sauce a nicely sweet bitter taste. Some recipes added stock; some didn’t. In the end, putting some of the ideas together, I just made something up. And here it is!

Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce – Serves 4

  • 4 duck breasts
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Orange Sauce

  • 1 shallot
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 dessertspoon plain flour
  • 50ml red wine
  • 300ml chicken stock
  • 1 dessertspoon sherry vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Seville orange marmalade
  • 3-4 oranges

 

Trim any excess fat off the edge of the duck breast. Score the skins to make diamond shapes. Cut fairly deep but not through the meat underneath the skin. Season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, rubbing them in a bit.

Heat a frying pan; you don’t need any fat. Put the duck breasts into the hot pan (they should sizzle as you put them in) and fry for about 5 minutes until they’re nice and golden brown on the skin side (gently lift with a spatula to check). Turn them over and cook for just a minute more. They’ll release quite a bit of fat. I saved a couple of tablespoons to add to my sauce at the end for flavour.

   

Transfer to a shallow oven dish with a slotted spatula so you don’t transfer the fat. Cook in a preheated oven (200C/Fan 180/Gas 6) for about 15 minutes. [If you like the duck very rare, only cook for 12 minutes; for well done, cook for 18-20 minutes.]

When they’re done, remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes, covering loosely with some foil to keep warm.

Meanwhile, make the sauce (I actually made mine earlier so I wasn’t doing too much last-minute cooking when the family arrived).

Finely chop the shallot and fry gently in the olive oil (you could use the duck fat instead if you’re making this as the duck goes into the oven). When the shallot has softened, add the flour. Stir well to mix and make a roux.

   

Add the red wine and mix well to get rid of any lumps. Now add the chicken stock. Again, mix well, using a whisk if necessary to get rid of any lumps. Transfer to a saucepan.

   

Add the sherry vinegar and marmalade and bring to the boil, Simmer over a low-medium heat for 15 minutes to reduce a bit.

   

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the oranges. Use a sharp potato peeler to cut strips of zest from 1 orange. Then slice into julienne strips. Put them in a bowl and cover in boiling water to soften and take the edge of the bitterness. Drain after just a minute or two. Use a fine grater to remove the zest from 1 more orange – you can add straight to the simmering sauce. Juice these 2 oranges and add to the simmering sauce with the julienne strips. Also add the couple of tablespoons of duck fat, if you saved it.

   

Depending on how many orange segments you want in your sauce, cut segments from 1 or 2 more oranges. To do this cut the ends off where the stems are. Stand on a cut end and, slicing downwards, take off the peel, including all the pith, with a sharp knife. Then carefully cut out segments, removing them from the membrane as you go. Add them to the sauce near the end of its cooking time, giving them just enough time to warm through. Check the seasoning of your sauce and add salt and pepper as desired.

   

The sauce tasted wonderful: sweet and orangey with a nice hint of bitterness from the addition of sherry, the orange zest and the Seville orange marmalade (when Seville oranges are in season, try using them). Either use the sauce straight away or turn off and reheat when needed.

As Twelfth Night is a kind of celebration – well, it’s any excuse for fizz in this house – a half bottle of champagne was taken from the fridge to begin our meal. The cork was removed from the Pinot Noir ready for the duck.

   

I just put out nibbles rather than a proper ‘starter’. They weren’t to be honest French but just things we like, but most importantly things that keep Freddie (3¾) and Benjamin (13 months) happy. A basket contained slices of fresh sourdough and olive focaccia; there were breadsticks and taralli. I’d made some butter beans & tahini dip and put out bowls of olives and almonds. Happily my little grandsons love their food and these were all things to keep them happy while the grown-ups enjoyed their champagne!

   

When the duck came out of the oven it was left on to heat the Galette des Rois later for dessert.

The duck was gorgeous, nicely pink and wonderfully tender. The sweet-sour-slightly bitter orange sauce was a perfect accompaniment. I served it with French beans and a potato & celeriac mash. There was a jug of extra sauce too.

My family are always appreciative of my cooking but Jonathan said this was one of my best; I’d excelled myself with the duck and sauce. It’s so nice to cook for people who love what you serve them.

Simple Roasted Cauliflower Soup

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Cauliflower is a favourite vegetable of mine and much underrated, I think. We tend to think of ‘good’ vegetables being those with vibrant colours – like carrots, tomatoes and sweet peppers – but despite its bland appearance, cauliflower is full of wonderful nutrients: calcium, magnesium, folic acid, potassium, beta-carotene and Vitamin C (source: The Food Doctor by Ian Marber). It’s immensely versatile, offering a meal in the form of the classic Cauliflower Cheese, to the more exotic and gorgeous Sicilian ‘Drowned Cauliflower‘ and the recently popular Cauliflower Steak.

To the Brit, there’s something inescapably British about cauliflowers with our Cauliflower Cheese and memories (for me as a child) of cauliflower served with a dressing of béchamel sauce as a side dish with Sunday roasts. In fact, they’re not British at all. The cauliflower is a variant of the Brassica oloracea family, the same as the cabbage. It can be traced back to Asia in the 12th century and has long been cultivated in Northern Europe. It likely goes back even further to the 1st century when Pliny, a Roman philosopher, wrote about cyma, a flowering cabbage that sounds much like our modern cauliflower. Chouxfleurs were introduced to France in 16th century, coming from Genoa in Italy. The cauliflower was introduced into England from Cyprus in about 1603, though they weren’t really well known until the days of Charles II in the latter part of the 17th century when they were described by a contemporary writer as ‘a common feature of the poor man’s garden’.

I certainly don’t think of them as a ‘poor man’s’ food now. Not because they’re expensive, but because of their sophisticated possibilities.

There are other cauliflower soups on this blog, even a roasted cauliflower with spices. But apart from celebrating the wonders of the cauliflower, the post is as much about talking of how easy and quick it is to prepare a simple and nutritious homemade soup for lunch or a snack, with very little effort. I watched a short video by the brilliant Michael Pollan that an artisan baker friend, Igor, shared on Facebook. He argues that our health problems today associated with diet – like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes – are linked to our addiction to and reliance on processed, ready-made meals. We watch TV programmes where chefs produce elaborate restaurant food that intimidates us, though we shouldn’t imagine that’s really home-cooked food and try to aspire to it; and we’re made to feel our time can be spent on more important things than cooking.

But what could possibly be more important than feeding ourselves and our families well? And by well, I mean wholesome, nutritious – and delicious – meals made from fresh, good quality ingredients. Cooking shouldn’t be labelled as drudgery, but a pleasure – especially when you get the whole family involved; and good quality doesn’t have to be expensive.

I have a busy start to the year: two big publishing jobs, family commitments, social commitments coming up, a short break in Amsterdam at the end of the month. All good!  But with winter setting in and the days growing colder – albeit gloriously sunny today – eating well, eating good nutritious food is not only desirable but important.

I like to have a stash of homemade soups in my freezer – packaged in single portions – to pull out for lunch. Today, amidst an essential supermarket shop early on, a few hours publishing work, and then an afternoon looking after my gorgeous little grandson, Freddie, I managed to – almost literally! – throw this fabulous soup together for a hearty, warming lunch, which I ate with sourdough toast.

Simple Roasted Cauliflower Soup

  • 1 cauliflower
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 large potato, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 level teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • boiling water (or stock if you have it)

Cut or pull away any limp, damaged outside leaves of the cauliflower. Trim the base. Then pull away the remaining leaves with their stems and cut into chunks. (There’s no need to throw away – they’re full of goodness and flavour too.) Now cut the head of cauliflower into quarters, then into smaller chunks. Put it into a large shallow ovenproof dish.

Add the onion and potato. I cut these into fairly small chunks – about 2cm cubes. Sprinkle over the cumin. Scatter over about a heaped teaspoon of sea salt (I like Maldon) and grate over a generous (if you’re like me) amount of black pepper. Drizzle over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil. Use your hands to mix it all together so the vegetables are well coated by the oil.

Put into a preheated oven (220C/200 Fan/Gas 7) for about 30-40 minutes. Take from the oven once twice to give a good stir so the top pieces of vegetables don’t burn – you just want some caramelisation for taste but burnt is bitter. The actual cooking time will vary according to the size of your vegetable chunks – test with a sharp knife.

Remove from the oven and with a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables into a large saucepan. Now pour some hot water or stock into the pan you cooked the vegetables in. Over the heat, warm through and scrape any of the gorgeous caramelised bits that have stuck to the pan into the water. Then pour over the vegetables. You want to just cover them. Blend with a stick blender until smooth.

   

Bring back to the boil, check seasoning, and you’re ready to serve.

I used water as the only stock I had was frozen and as I wanted to freeze portions of the soup, I couldn’t use it and then re-freeze. You can use stock cubes if you like, but I’m not keen on them, and the soup has plenty of flavour from the roasting of the vegetables.

I ate a portion straight away. It was an absolutely perfect and delicious light lunch. I got 4 good portions to freeze with the remaining soup.

It was not only wonderful to eat and enjoy, it was full of goodness as I’d used all organic ingredients. And really, aside from the cooking in the oven (during which time I went back to my desk and carried on working!), I could have spent no more than 5-10 minutes chopping vegetables and blending the soup at the end. Really, you could call that instant!

Beef Stewed with Red Wine, Olives & Orange

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I had a wonderful Christmas at my daughter’s in Worcestershire and came back to London on Boxing Day. The following day my brother was due to come with my niece and nephew and a friend. I thought a good break from Christmas food – much as I like it – would be a fish pie. But when I checked with my brother, I learned that niece Clara didn’t like fish pie. OK, I texted, how about a beef stew. This brought an enthusiastic, Yes please!

If there’s a story to every good recipe, then here comes the story.

I had in mind the Gino D’Acampo recipe I made recently with red wine, olives and oranges – an Italian recipe that bridges the French-Italian border to Nice (once part of Italy) and is much like the classic Boeuf Daube. When I searched under ‘Beef’ on the blog though, I couldn’t find the recipe. Confused, I thought I must have made a mistake when assigning it a category. So I searched simply ‘Recipes’ knowing I’d made it recently. The mystery was soon solved. I’d made a lamb stew, not a beef one.

Well, beef was what I’d suggested and so I was going with beef. Given the recipe’s closeness to a Daube recipe, then it was going to work well anyway. So I set off to Waitrose in Richmond yesterday morning to buy ingredients. Well, it’s holiday time and even in Waitrose, shelves were a little bare (Old Mother Hubbard would have sympathised). I stood at the meat counter as I always buy braising steak there rather than pre-packaged. The woman in front of me was buying 2kg of Aberdeen Angus braising steak … what I planned to buy … and they were running low. As I watched her keep saying to the sales assistant, Another couple of slices, please, I began to think shopping wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought and I might have to change plan and go to the Waitrose in Twickenham.  It looked like it was a case of ‘counting chickens before they hatched’ or in this case, ‘counting on a kilogram of braising steak before it was weighed and packaged and in my shopping trolley’. When finally it was my turn to be served, I asked the assistant to weigh the remaining beef. If it was less that 1kg I’d have to go elsewhere. But joy! It was 1.35kg. I’ll take it all, I said. In my enthusiasm, I had more than I’d planned on but as I’ve said before, a good stew needs extra made for freezing. So that’s what I’d do. It meant a little improvisation with the recipe – more than just the lamb-beef swap. But stews aren’t like baking, where precision is important. Stews are moveable recipes that can adapt to circumstances and a little invention.

Thus I changed the quantities a little. I also noticed in the original recipe that while some onion was fried at the beginning to start the sauce, there was no carrot or celery. I decided to begin my stew with the classic and important soffritto. This combination of onion, carrot and celery, finely chopped and gently fried in olive oil, gives depth and flavour to a sauce and is a classic base for many Italian dishes.

A family gathering requires more than a main dish, however good a main dish it is. But – much as I love my brother and his kids – there was only so much cooking I wanted to do after a busy (if lovely) Christmas and a drive to and back from Worcestershire. Thus I employed some of my quick fixes in the kitchen.

For starter, I went to Corto Italian Deli and bought some sliced Italian meats. I then made a last minute decision as I was putting things together to roast some red peppers, skin them, and serve them on the side of the meat. I also made some classic tomato & basil bruschette.

   

There was a basket of fresh bread – sourdough and olive ciabatta from Your Bakery Whitton, which I’d bought in the morning, and taralli (little bread biscuits) from Corto. There was a bowl of olives and some almonds. All very simple and quickly fixed!

   

Dessert was even easier and most definitely a ‘fix’! Some Grom ice cream from Waitrose, and macarons from Paul bakery. I didn’t make any of it and it was a great hit! I think Clara and Leo are going to persuade their dad to buy Grom ice cream next time he’s in Waitrose.

So to the beef … made in the morning and slowly cooked in the oven for 3 hours … then left to rest until supper time.

 

Beef Stewed with Red Wine, Olives & Orange

  • 1.35kg beef braising steak
  • a little plain flour
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (see recipe)
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 1 large stick celery, finely chopped
  • 1 large or 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 120g pitted black olives
  • 3 bay leaves
  • juice and grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 350ml red wine
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon runny honey
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme

 

Dice the steak if not already diced (I prefer to do it myself and cut fairly large even chunks – about 2.5cm cubes). Sift some plain flour on to a large plate and season well with salt and black pepper. Now put some pieces of beef, a few at a time, into the flour and turn with your fingers to coat each piece. This coating of flour helps thicken the sauce as it cooks.

Fry the beef a few pieces at a time in a couple of tablespoons of heated oil in a large frying pan. Turn just once or twice to brown all over – don’t keep turning – and then remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. Add more pieces of beef and more oil as necessary, until all the beef is nicely browned with a slight caramelisation at the edges (which will bring a gorgeous flavour to the finished dish). Put it all to the side on a separate plate.

   

Now add a little more oil to the pan you’ve cooked the beef in and add the chopped vegetables. Fry gently until they’re colouring and softening a little.

   

Now add the olives, bay leaves, orange zest and juice and stir well. Cook for a couple of minutes then add the red wine.

   

Allow it to all bubble for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol, stirring occasionally. Now add the chopped tomatoes, honey and thyme and stir well.

   

Bring up to a boil and as soon as it starts to bubble round the edge, pop a lid on and put straight into a preheated oven (150C/Fan 130/Gas 2). Cook for 2 hours and then check it. Stir and see if the meat is tender. You’ll probably need more time – mine needed an extra hour, so 3 hours in all.

Check the seasoning. Apart from the seasoning with the flour, it’s best to season at the end. The olives are likely to be a bit salty so check how much salt you need. I also like to add a good amount of freshly ground black pepper – but all to your own taste.

I turned my stew off and then gently reheated later near supper time. I served with some white potato-sweet potato mixed mash and a big salad of green leaves, radicchio and finely sliced fennel.

It was really gorgeous. Because I’d added two oranges (my original lamb recipe had just one), it was quite orangey but I liked that, but if you’re not sure, stick to one orange. However you make it, the combination of the flavours of beef, red wine, orange and olives with the bay leaves and fresh thyme is absolutely gorgeous. And I’m so glad I made extra … I fed 5 of us generous portions but have another 4 for my freezer! A perfect ‘ready made’ meal for another wintry night.

Where to Eat with Kids: Corto Italian Deli, Twickenham

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Corto Italian Deli in Church Street, Twickenham is a favourite family haunt and I’ve written about it a few times on the blog – it’s fabulous for morning coffee, lunch, family celebrations, and to buy the best quality Italian foods you’ll find anywhere. We go there a lot but it’s taken me a while to get round to letting you know that it’s a great place to take kids. Freddie (3¾) has been going there regularly since he was a few days old. He had his first babyccino at Corto and loves their pasta.

It was Jonathan & Lyndsey’s 8th wedding anniversary on Saturday and we all – including Freddie and Benjamin (1) headed down to Corto at lunchtime. The idea was to feed the kids well … the celebrating pair were going out in the evening (to Masaniello) and I was babysitting. A good lunch meant an easy snack could be put together for the boys and me in the evening.

Corto have a good Kids’ Menu.

Freddie actually had ‘tickle’ juice – his name for sparkling Pellegrino orange juice, which was slightly watered down with my Pellegrino water and shared with his mum. But there is a juice option on the menu for kids at just £1.

We asked him whether he wanted pasta with tomato sauce or meat sauce and he chose the Bolognese (£4). It was a good-sized portion but as always, Freddie ate it all up, though he shared a little with his younger brother.

The adults were happy too. There are always a few specials of the day, freshly made by Romina.

The adults all chose Melanzane alla Parmigiana because we all love it, and Corto make the best I know of. It’s always really really good.

We shared a mixed salad with it and also asked for a basket of bread, which was a mix of ciabatta, Italian flat bread and taralli bread biscuits.

The standard menu offers excellent ciabatta sandwiches, piadina (flat bread) rolls, salads, plates of mixed antipasti or cheese or meats; a selection of bruschette. All the cheeses and meats are cut to order and there’s little to beat a plate of their wonderful cold Italian meats sliced and laid straight on to the serving plate; bruschette piled high with chopped fresh tomato and basil, again made to order. They offer excellent wines too, homemade cakes and in the summer gelato from Gelateria Danieli.

We finished with coffee for the adults and some slices of chocolate panettone to share between us all.

For me, an essential requirement of a good place to eat with kids is somewhere where I also can eat well and would go without kids. It’s somewhere where kids are welcome (and Italians are the best at this!) so everyone can relax. Corto Italian Deli is always a perfect choice.

Corto Italian Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Getting Ready for Christmas 2018

This year, Christmas will be a family affair at my daughter Nicola’s in Worcestershire with seven ‘grown-ups’and three little ones: my grandsons Freddie (3¾), Benjamin (1) and Rufus (3 months). Nicola is going to do the Christmas Day cooking with her brother Jonathan and the rest of us will prepare contributions ahead to take with us.

Freddie is the only little one with any conception of what Christmas is. He’s very pleased that Nicola and Rachael’s old 17th century farmhouse boasts a beautiful large inglenook fireplace, which means there’s plenty of room for Santa to get down the chimney. A carrot will be left out for Rudolph and the grown-ups are agreed that Santa will need a nice glass of warming Scotch whisky and mince pie to help him get through his busiest night of the year. I can see in advance that we may need to leave a few glasses out so there’s no disagreement about who is Santa!

Here are my contributions; all well-practised recipes, except the Christmas puddings – I used a Nigel Slater recipe from his Christmas Chronicles for the first time. And the puddings were my first venture into Christmas preparations this year. I’d almost forgotten I’d made them (they’ve been hiding in a cool cupboard for a few weeks) until Freddie reminded me yesterday and asked if we were taking the Christmas puddings to Auntie Nicola’s … I must make a list!

 

Christmas Puddings

I didn’t know about ‘Stir-up Sunday’ until a friend mentioned it when I said I was making the puddings this year. Apparently the official last date for making the puddings is the last Sunday in November. I guess it’s called ‘stir-up’ because it’s a tradition that everyone in the family gets a stir and a wish before the mixture goes into pudding basins. That’s what happened when I was a child (my grandmother made the puddings). Of course many people like to make them well before then to allow them to mature; some make enough for the following year (serious maturing!); while others like my late mother are very last-minute about it. I think you can be sure that a good recipe will taste good however far in advance – or last-minute – you make it. I’m hoping this ‘new’ recipe will work well but have much faith in Nigel Slater (click here for recipe).

 

Panettone

OK, so I cheated and bought them. But I did buy them from Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham and they stock the best Italian foods you can find, and my Italian teacher Fabio also commented they’re one of the best makes when he saw them. It’s been a family tradition for many years that we have panettone with Christmas morning coffee and that’s when we open presents. I now buy two as my two daughters-in-law don’t eat raisins and prefer Pandoro, which is plain, while the rest of the family like the Classico (click here for more on Italian Christmas breads). But you can never have too much good panettone!

I did actually make some three years ago, which was fun to do.

If you want to make your own, click here.

 

Christmas Brandy & Vanilla Ice Cream

What do you like to eat with your Christmas pudding? Brandy butter? Brandy sauce? Custard? Cream? We’ve always had brandy sauce but I hit on the idea of making an ice cream version a few years ago and it was such a success the family always insists I make it every Christmas now (we have the brandy sauce too!). It is rich but somehow the icy coolness makes it quite refreshing too. And it’s so good you really shouldn’t save it just for Christmas. Click here for recipe.

 

Gingerbread

I had great fun making some gingerbread last year with grandson Freddie (who was then just under 3). I made the dough in advance and when he came round to Nonna’s, we cut out people, stars and Christmas tree shapes. After baking and cooling, Freddie had fun icing them. The plan for this coming weekend is for the two of us to make this year’s, all ready to take up to Worcestershire on Christmas Eve (click here for recipe).

   

 

Mince Pies

There really is nothing like homemade mince pies and my family always want me to make some for Christmas Day. I always love making them. The year I wrote the recipe on the blog, we even had homemade mincemeat, thanks to my son and a friend who made it. It was gorgeous, but I have to admit that this year the mincemeat has been bought. The pastry will be homemade though – a buttery sweet shortcrust pastry (click here for recipe).

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Thanking all my wonderful followers for reading this blog and wishing everyone a brilliant Christmas and a very happy New Year 2019!!