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Griddled Tuna with Mango Salsa (2)

This is the second version of a favourite family dish – hence the (2) in the title. The original version was one of my first ever posts on the blog back in 2011. I used to often make the dish, partly because I liked it so much and it’s really simple, especially for a midweek supper, but also because tuna is about the only fish my son eats – and he likes this dish a lot.

I’m still getting a lot of food online or from local deliveries. I’m going into shops again occasionally but the queues are so long that I end up thinking it’s easier to put in an online order. I like ordering fish from the local fishmonger, Sandy’s in Twickenham, but tend to order a few things at a time and freeze it. I still have some left from my last order … but no tuna. And I saw someone cooking tuna on TV the other day and was reminded I hadn’t cooked it in ages; so I added tuna steaks to my Waitrose list … and a mango! I rarely cook tuna without making this salsa; it’s just a perfect accompaniment.

But as so often happens now, a little bit of adaption was necessary this evening: I didn’t have fresh red chillies, nor lime or fresh coriander. Instead, I made the salsa a little ahead of eating so that I could put in some dried chilli flakes and give them time to soften a bit and impart their gorgeous fiery hit. The tuna was simply griddled with a bit of oil coating and seasoning. I also griddled half a Little Gem lettuce as they griddle well and are a great accompaniment to fish; I roasted some new potatoes.

Prepare the salsa about an hour before you want to eat if possible. If you’re cooking last minute, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.

 

Griddled Tuna with Mango Salsa – Serves one

  • new potatoes (enough for one) cut into chip/wedge shapes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • za’atar (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tuna steak
  • ½ Little Gem lettuce

Salsa

  • Half a mango, cut into small cubes
  • ¼ small red onion, finely chopped
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • handful of chopped fresh herbs (coriander if you have it or I used a mix of flat-leaf parsley and mint from my garden)
  • extra virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons
  • good squeeze fresh lemon or lime
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Put all the salsa ingredients in a bowl, give them a good stir to combine well, cover with cling film and put in the fridge for about an hour.

About a half hour before eating, cut the potato, with skin on, into chip-sized wedges. Put in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and boil for just a minute. Drain. Transfer to a small roasting dish. Drizzle over a little olive oil and sprinkle over a little za’atar if you like. Roast in a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven for about half an hour, turning a couple of times, until nicely golden brown.

 

Heat the griddle until hot. Smear a little oil over the tuna steak and season with salt and pepper. Put on the hot grill. You can see on the side how it’s cooking through. Turn over and grill the other side. Depending on how rare you like your tuna, allow a little ‘raw’ to remain or cook through if you prefer it well done, but try not to overcook it or it will dry out.

I chose to griddle half a Little Gem lettuce at the same time, coated with some olive oil, and grilled both sides.

It’s all incredibly easy. Serve the hot food with spoonfuls of the mango salsa at the side.

It’s fantastically summery and was perfect for the end of a hot day when the air was still very warm and I could eat supper in the garden. The salsa wasn’t quite the same without the fresh chillies, coriander and lime but still excellent. I just love the combination of the tuna with the spicy mango salsa.

 

The Patio Allotment

OK, so ‘Allotment’ maybe over-stating things; in reality I’ve got just courgettes, tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries growing, as well as my usual tubs of fresh herbs that sit just outside my kitchen door to the garden, in a sunny sheltered spot they – and I! – love. But like many others at the beginning of Lockdown back in March, when it was difficult to get hold of a lot of foods, including fresh veg and fruit, I decided to grow some myself.

At first I sought seeds online. On reflection, as a bit of an amateur in this home-growing business, it’s probably as well that it was impossible to buy any. Even the Royal Horticultural Society was saying they’d have no more seeds this season. And having a small London garden, with only a dilapidated shed at the far end, and a small kitchen that doesn’t offer convenient windowsills for nursing seedlings, I wasn’t really set up to give birth to plants … I needed to adopt some from the garden centre instead.

A friend told me that Squires in Twickenham was closed but delivering (they’ve since reopened). It’s the garden centre I usually go to. I sent a message, as requested on their website as phone lines were closed, and it took a couple of days to get a reply. But when they rang me they were wonderfully helpful; absolute gardening heroes. Apart from veg, I was trying to get a few plants for window boxes and pots, and saying things like, ‘Well last year I bought this lovely trailing plant with little round, waxy looking green leaves …’ And rather than obviously despairing at my minimal knowledge, I was passed to the woman working outside amongst the plants and she helped me sort out my order with patience and friendliness.

I’m not a total novice in the garden. I’ve had my own garden for 40 years and love it. They’ve always been small London gardens though, so rather limited in terms of horticultural aspirations. When children arrived I had to give them priority – a large climbing frame; footballs (and then rugby balls when we moved to Twickenham!) were kicked and thrown around, so there was no point in any serious gardening; in spending a lot of money. It was when I went to my first Chelsea Flower Show – sometime in the 1990s – that I was truly inspired. I came back and starting claiming more land; cutting away parts of the small lawn and planting shrubs, herbaceous borders. My son, about 10 at the time, challenged me: What was I doing!! I had to offer to take him to the local park – Marble Hill Park – and thankfully less than 5-minutes walk away from my old house, instead. My son has now grown into a keen gardener himself and the last two years we’ve been to the Chelsea Flower Show together, which is a real highlight of my year. We had tickets for this year – in fact, yesterday – and I’ve swapped them for tickets on the same day in 2021.

I’m not a planner in the garden. I’m more a stream-of-consciousness gardener much in the way I write things like this blog as words and thoughts come into my head, without much prior planning. And then I press the ‘Publish’ button; I don’t do drafts. In the case of gardening, I walk slowly round the garden centre and grab things I like the look of and into the trolley they go. I’ll find somewhere for them, I decide. Occasionally I try to be organised enough to sketch out a little plan showing where I have gaps … I take it with me … it partially works but when some gorgeous plant takes my eye, the plan may be thrown aside and I’m determined I will find a place for it. I’m sure all those lovely gardeners on BBC TV’s Gardeners’ World (which I’m addicted to) would be horrified that when I decide a plant is in the wrong place – I move it! Regardless of the time of year. To be fair to myself, plants and shrubs rarely die on me so I must have fairly green fingers. My dad was a keen gardener and as a small child I used to follow our gardener, Old Tom, around, learning lots from him as he patiently gave me little jobs and gently taught me about plants. I still have a vivid memory of being shown how to look after our blackcurrant bushes by him and being told that worms are a gardener’s friend as we looked at a few wriggling out of the earth as we turned it over – I could have only been about 6 or 7.

I always have lots of fresh herbs growing – a huge rosemary bush I grew from a cutting when I moved into my current house 14 years ago; different varieties of thyme; flat-leaf parsley; oregano; garden mint and Moroccan mint; chives and fennel. I’ve occasionally grown tomatoes and did last year, buying a special ‘patio’ plant from Squires which grew cherry tomatoes. This was mainly for my grandson Freddie’s benefit as at 5 he already loves gardening. I’d promised him that this year we’d grow strawberries too and so when I gave my order to Squires that had to be on the list.

When my plants arrived back in early April, they were very small … little plugs … clearly in need of some TLC – tender loving care. And indeed I’ve given them just that!

Apart from the lettuces, it’s too soon to harvest much but the tiny courgette plant has sprouted flowers and tiny courgettes, slightly hidden by its large leaves. My daughter Nicola – a more expert gardener than me who has a large vegetable garden with her wife – told me one courgette plant would be plenty for one person!

I like to water my plants by hand with a watering can. I find this soothing; a touch of ‘mindfulness meditation’ at the end of the day. And it means I do take special notice of what’s happening in the garden. Of course, it’s only really possible because the garden is small!

The leaves on the courgette plant were growing fairly fast. Then yesterday I saw the first flower and the tiniest little courgette at its stem.

This morning when I came down and went outside to check on them, as I do, I was almost overwhelmed with delight on this sunny morning to be greeted by the sight of a beautiful sunny flower, fully open to start the day.

Really, even if you didn’t have the bonus of a courgette growing, it would be beautiful enough to earn a place in your garden.

I’ve got two ‘tumbling’ tomato plants. It’s too early for actual tomatoes but they both have a healthy display of little yellow flowers promising the fruit to come.

I ordered a selection of salad leaves that went altogether in one big pot. I was slightly wary. I tried growing salad leaves 4 or 5 years ago and they got eaten by snails and slugs too quickly to harvest enough to eat. My daughter helped out again – they’d had success with copper tape. I thus ordered some and put it round the pots; I also rose the pots from the ground, standing them on other large pots turned upside down or, in the case of the lettuces, on a metal garden chair. Whatever trick worked my lettuces have survived, despite there being quite a few slugs and snails about. I now have enough to pick to make a green salad and of course they will just keep growing through the summer.

The strawberries! By chance I had an old strawberry pot and so planted my two plants in it. The pretty little white flowers are slowly giving way to the budding of plump strawberries; not ripe enough to pick yet but full of promise and the first small sight of red in them.

I’ve got a few pots of herbs and love being able to pick a bunch of parsley; make fresh mint tea with the Moroccan mint; chop chives into omelettes or scrambled eggs; sprinkle little oregano leaves into a Greek salad. The chives have beautiful lilac flowers at the moment and, like the courgette, are almost worth growing just for the pretty flowers.

It’s a very small ‘allotment’ but full of my favourite things. In the difficult days of the pandemic and lockdown, growing them has brought huge pleasure and – as I watch them grow and flower and fruit – they are such a glorious sign of hope and promise of good things to come.

Prawn & Courgette Risotto

Almost two months into Lockdown, I’m finding I have more food than normal in the house rather than less. Because food comes via deliveries, I order more than if I was just wandering into and around shops in my normal way, buying on almost a day-by-day basis with just a bigger shop once a week. Even the bigger shop doesn’t involve bulk buying; it’s just replacing things I’m running out of; buying heavier things like cartons of juice or milk that is more easily transported home by car than on foot or bus. But now during lockdown, when I’m sitting at my computer ticking items on the Waitrose list, phoning through to shops to bring an order, I more easily get carried away with what I think I ‘need’, or fulfilling a minimum order amount, and then an embarrassment of riches arrives at my door. I open my fridge or cupboards and food almost falls out … I am not going to starve!

Last week I had a delivery from Sandy’s fishmonger, bringing some wonderful smoked salmon, which went into a lovely salad. There was also excellent organic salmon fillets; a large sea bream filleted into two portions; and some large raw tiger prawns, all of which went into my freezer. I had one of the salmon fillets a couple of nights ago and then took out a bag of prawns yesterday to thaw in time for supper.

I decided to make a risotto with the prawns. I often make prawn risotto with peas (Italian style) but with the vegetable drawer in my fridge crammed with fresh veg, it seemed crazy to take out frozen peas. Instead, I drew out a lovely courgette, which I regularly use for risottos but today would combine with the prawns. And I’d add some saffron.

There was a strong ozone whiff of Mediterranean memory playing out here. For risotto + prawns + saffron immediately makes me think of Nice and an amazing lunch I had there last September at Bar des Oiseaux after a visit to the Matisse Museum.

My risotto wasn’t going to come up to that standard –  but it could still be very good!

 

Prawn & Courgette Risotto – Serves One

  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 courgette, diced into small pieces
  • a pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • handful (about 10-12) raw tiger prawns
  • pinch of saffron
  • ½ cup risotto rice
  • about 50ml white wine
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

   

Put the sliced shallot in a large shallow pan with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Gently fry for a minute or two and then add the diced courgette. Cook gently, stirring frequently, until both are softening and slightly colouring.

Meanwhile, In another smaller pan, heat a little olive oil (about a tablespoon) and add the pinch of dried chilli. When the oil is hot, add the prawns. As soon as you can see them colouring on the bottom – only a minute or so – immediately turn over and cook for another minute. Then lift them out onto a plate. Reserve the juices in the pan. Prawns needs to be cooked quickly and barely through to retain their juiciness or they go tough.

   

Put the saffron in a cup of hot water and set aside. Add the risotto rice to the softened shallot and courgette. Cook, stirring all the time, for a couple of minutes so that the grains of rice are well coated with oil.

   

Add a little white wine and let it bubble up and absorb briefly. Scrape in the remaining oil from the pan you cooked the prawns in to make the most of their flavour into the risotto. Add the cup of saffron water. Normally it’s best to add liquid to a risotto gradually in small amounts, but I wanted all the saffron to go in at the beginning to get the flavours going, so I put the liquid in in one go, but continued to stir most of the time to get a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper.

When the liquid is almost totally absorbed check the rice to see if it’s done – al dente, so a slight bite still. If it needs a bit more cooking, add some hot water. Check the seasoning. Add the cooked prawns and stir in. Turn the heat off and pop a lid on the pan and leave for just a minute or so for all the flavours to be absorbed and the prawns warm through.

Spoon the risotto into a serving bowl. Drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle over some chopped basil or parsley if you have some. [Basil goes well with courgettes, hence that choice for me.]

I put the bowl on a gorgeous placemat I brought back from Nice last year that captures all those amazing Mediterranean and Matisse colours!

The risotto was gorgeous. It didn’t quite transport me to Nice but it was certainly a lovely summery supper!

Taralli ai Semi di Finocchio


Well if Lockdown is getting us all to ‘make do’ in the kitchen and to ‘not waste’, it’s also given us time to try out new things. And I’ve been looking at the recipe for taralli in Gino D’Acampo’s Islands in the Sun book for ages, thinking, ‘I must make those some time.’

These little snacks, a kind of small bread stick rolled into a circle, are a family favourite. Gino calls them Tarallini Sardi – Sardinian taralli – but I’ve always thought they came from Puglia in the heel of Italy, and that’s where the ones I usually buy come from. Wherever … it’s generally agreed they’re a southern Italy snack.

The reason I wanted to try making them is they’re not only a family favourite, we’ve all become addicted to them. I buy them from Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham. Such is the family addiction that two or three summers ago we had a ‘taralli tasting’ in my garden with drinks before lunch. I bought some from Corto and two other lots from elsewhere. Corto’s won!

My little grandsons love them and I always think that’s much healthier than sweet biscuits. They’ll ask for them when they come to my house and my daughter Nicola, who lives in Worcestershire, told me the other day that while on a work call in the kitchen (such is Lockdown life), her 20-month old, Rufus, seeing his mother distracted, opened a drawer in the kitchen units to help himself to a pack of taralli. When I messaged her today that I was making taralli, she messaged back that it would be ‘a family landmark’!

I know that one of the reasons I put off making them is because they need a bit of time. Apart from making the bread-like dough and allowing for rising time, you have to roll out and shape 40 little taralli, then cook them first in boiling water (like pretzels and bagels), drain them, and then bake them in the oven for about 30-40 minutes.

The mood took me this morning. I had semola – the kind of semolina flour Gino recommends using, and popular in the south of Italy – as well as some fresh yeast, which I got from Corto the other day. Gino makes the plain, classico, version but I opted to add fennel seeds – semi di finocchio – as that’s our favourite flavour. Once I got going I decided it was quite fun to be doing this and excitedly shared the various steps with the family via WhatsApp.

 

Taralli ai Semi di Finocchio – makes 40

  • 200g semola (or ’00’ flour or strong bread flour)
  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • a good grinding of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 15g fresh yeast (or use 7g dried and follow instructions on pack)
  • 250ml lukewarm water
  • 7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

 

Put the semola into a big bowl and sift in the plain flour. Add the salt, black pepper and fennel seeds.

 

Mix the yeast with the warm water and add to the flour mixture with the olive oil. Mix well with a wooden spoon and when it all comes together, gather into a ball and the knead on a lightly floured surface for 5 minutes.

 

Put the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl with a tea towel or clingfilm and leave for about an hour or until doubled in size. Knead for another 5 minutes. Then divide the dough into four pieces.

   

Roll out each ball of dough into a long ‘sausage’ shape – about 2cm in diameter. Then cut into 10 pieces of about 8cm length. Shape each piece into a little ring.

   

Have a large saucepan of boiling water ready and preheat the oven to 190C/170 Fan/Gas 5.

Put the first 10 rings of dough into the boiling water. Gino’s instructions – and other recipes I looked at – talk about boiling until they rise to the top; Gino says about 5 minutes. However, mine came up pretty much immediately so I left them to boil for just a minute or two then removed with a slotted spoon onto kitchen towel to dry. I then did the rest in three batches of 10 taralli.

   

Transfer the drained dough rings onto 2 baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper. Put them in the preheated oven and after 10 minutes lower the temperature to 150C/130 Fan/Gas 2 and cook for another 30-40 minutes.

I have to say mine did take longer than Gino’s 30 minutes; I think in the end more like 50 minutes to get a nice light golden brown colour. Then I transferred to a cooling rack.

Once cool you can store in jars and keep for a week. However, if you have a family like mine, there’s no chance they’ll last that long …

If the family were all here for a meal, I’d tip them into a basket for a snack to go with drinks before our meal.

I was really happy with how they turned out. They were slightly chewy rather than dry and crisp all through, as I’m used to – although Nicola said she remembered us having some chewy ones one time which she liked. But they are crisp on the outside and – most importantly – wonderfully delicious! The semola gives a lovely flavour and of course the olive oil adds a gorgeous richness too. And we love the taste of fennel seeds in them, but you could bake without, or maybe add chilli flakes or another seasoning that takes your fancy.

These will definitely be on the menu the next time the family can all get together!

Smoked Salmon, Spinach, Egg & Avocado Salad

The pandemic and lockdown have always felt awful and we’ve all had to adjust to the shock of suddenly finding ourselves in such a terrible situation. I remember at the start I’d wake in the morning and it would be like when someone you love dies, or a love affair ends, and you suddenly remember; remember it’s true. And it’s devastating all over again. Fortunately – although it’s still not easy – one does adjust and life becomes that annoying phrase the government keep putting out: ‘the new norm’. Hopefully not to be a ‘norm’ for long enough for it to become an old norm!

On the cooking front though there was a kind of excitement in the challenge of ‘making do’ and ‘not wasting’ and cooking from what was in the fridge or cupboard rather than running out to the local Tesco down the round, open 7am-11pm seven days a week, so one could always have what you suddenly fancied. Well, that’s how London life is … We don’t have to plan ahead; we just pop out to the always-open shops. Or we used to.

I was excited to discover how many shops and delis were now delivering food; gorgeous Italian favourites from Corto Deli; fish and fresh meat from Sandy’s Fishmonger in Twickenham. The rare success of getting a Waitrose delivery was an excitement for the day; never had food shopping formed such an important part of my life. Yes I love all those fantastic markets in Italy and Spain and France, and the gorgeous sensuous pleasures of enjoying the sights, smells and tastes. I remember the exotic delight of the souks in Marrakesh and the fragrance of spices piled high in pyramid shapes. But when it comes down to it, running out of milk, tomatoes, potatoes, fruit … well the basics are more important than I even gave them credit for.

I have to confess I’m feeling a little less excited by it now. I long to just plan a meal; plan what I want to cook … and go out and buy all I need without all the hassle current shopping demands! But still, there are sometimes those little frissons of pleasure when you do something a little bit different simply because when you look in the fridge and pull out what needs to be used now … you find you can make something very delicious for supper. And tonight I did. A packet of smoked salmon delivered by Sandy’s a few days ago; a perfectly ripe half avocado that needed to be savoured at its best; a third of a pack of baby spinach leaves that were still fresh enough to enjoy but definitely on their last good day; and some eggs.

This isn’t a recipe as such – it’s a putting together. So I’m not going to list it all. But I did add to the basics I found (above) some boiled new potatoes cut into bite-sized pieces and some gorgeous little cherry tomatoes halved. I boiled the egg; about 6 minutes so it would cut easily. I made a dressing with 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil; 1 Tbs cider vinegar; ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard; ½ teaspoon honey; a pinch of dried dill; sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, which I whisked together.

 

I got out a nice big, shallow bowl and started layering: spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, avocado (peeled and sliced).

I rolled the pieces of smoked salmon and laid them on top, with the quartered hard-boiled egg nestled in them. Then I drizzled over the dressing.

I poured a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc … I sat down … and then I ate. And it was wonderful. All those gorgeous flavours coming together. Excellent smoked salmon; not too salty; thicker slices than often found in packets which was all the nicer for the salad. The dressing with a slight sweetness, a slight heat from the mustard; a suggestion of the dill to complement the salmon (fresh would have been nice but that for Life After). Sometimes you just have to live in the moment … and supper was a very good moment in time!

Ligurian Potato Bread

Over a month into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s astounding how many people have taken to baking their own bread and it’s still nigh on impossible to buy bread flour or yeast. I’ve been lucky to be able to source fresh yeast and flour from my local Italian deli, Corto, but this gives me Italian ’00’ flour or semola, not ‘strong bread flour’. The Italian flours are commonly used for pasta making but sometimes bread too. I’ve been successfully making focaccia with it; a recipe I’ve used for many years but generally only brought out at party time when it’s fun to have some homemade focaccia on the table for people to take slices.

Much as I enjoy focaccia and have found it freezes well in slices so I can take one from the freezer for lunch, there’s only so much focaccia one wants to eat. Especially when in normal times it’s mostly a nice sourdough loaf I eat. So what could I do that was a bit different? In Gino D’Acampo’s Hidden Italy I found a recipe for Ligurian Potato Bread. I’ve seen potato bread on the deli counter in my local Waitrose and been tempted to try it – though never have. But this encouraged me to think that Gino’s recipe was worth a try. I’d have to substitute his ‘strong white’ bread flour with some semola (otherwise known as durum wheat flour/double milled semolina) but then ‘semola’ is Italian … so it would work for some Italian bread … wouldn’t it?

Fortunately it did. And very well!

 

Ligurian Potato Bread

  • 250g floury potatoes
  • 350g semola (or strong white bread flour)
  • 100g wholemeal flour
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 30g butter, melted
  • 15g fresh yeast (or 7g dried – follow packet instructions)
  • 150ml warm water
  • extra virgin olive oil for greasing and brushing

 

   

First of all cook the potato. Peel and quarter the potato and cook in salted water until tender. Mash well or, even better, if you have a potato ricer use that. Leave it to cool.

Now measure out the flours into a large bowl and add the thyme, salt and melted butter.

   

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, whisking to break it up, and add to the flour mixture with the mashed potato.

 

Mix it well with a wooden spoon and when it comes together, gather it into a ball and knead for about 10 minutes until springy. You can test springy-ness by gently pushing a finger a little way into the dough and if the dent springs back, your dough is ready.

 

Put the ball of dough into a greased bowl and cover with a tea cloth or clingfilm and leave to rise in a warm – but not hot – place for 1-1½ hours, or until doubled in size.

Knock back and knead just a little more and then form the dough into an oval shape. Lay on a baking sheet lightly greased with olive oil. Cover loosely with a tea towel or lightly oiled clingfilm. Leave for a further 40-50 minutes or until doubled in size. Preheat your oven to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 7.

Cut diamond shapes across the top with a sharp knife. Brush a little olive oil over the top. Scatter just a little wholemeal flour over it.

Put into the preheated oven for about 25-30 minutes, until nicely browned. Check for doneness by lifting the bread up to tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, then it’s done (take care as the bread will be very hot!).

Leave to cool on a rack.

According to Gino, the bread was traditionally made in mountain areas where baking was done less often and the potato flour lasted better and remained soft. It would, of course, also be quite nutritious. It’s been associated with poverty in the past and in the mid-1960s the Italian government even banned it being made commercially because of this. But in recent years cucina povera – cooking of the poor – has become very popular and even fashionable, so now it’s making a bit of a comeback.

I was really pleased with the way my bread turned out. It’s quite a soft bread in texture, but light, and has a definite potato flavour. My son thought it quite like focaccia, so perhaps I hadn’t moved so very far from my recent standard bread! But it is different, slices nicely and I made a good sandwich from it for lunch. It’s a bread that’s easily made and even the novice bread baker can expect good results.

A Gourmet in Lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic brings many challenges. And of course there are many more important things than a gourmet continuing to enjoy their favourite foods. However, a lot of people are finding ways to treat themselves to raise their spirits a bit, and treating myself to some of the gourmet foods I was missing was a nice challenge to take on … how could I source some of the things I’d run out of? So I turned to looking at where I could order direct and – much to my delight – I found I could order quite a few things I’d been missing, or having difficulty getting hold of, direct from the producers.

Many people are doing a lot more cooking than they do normally. For the experienced and enthusiastic cook, there’s a certain pleasure in taking up the challenge to do things a bit differently, whether it’s because you can’t get hold of some foods or because we’re all ‘making do’ more – not wasting food and cooking from what’s available to us rather than what we fancy. But there’s no substitute for some things … even if they amount to treats! So … what can’t I live happily without?

 

Lavazza Coffee Pods

My son and daughter would tell you that Mum without coffee in the morning is not a person you want to be with! And it has to be good coffee. I would go without rather than have instant or some dreadful concoction with flavourings and half a cow of milk.

I bought myself a new coffee machine a few months ago, choosing a Lavazza one simply on the basis (with my environmental hat on) that I could use compostable pods and also that I could easily buy them in Waitrose. Well, I had to wait nearly 4 weeks for a Waitrose delivery and my pod supply was running low, but by looking on the internet I found I could order direct from Lavazza. So I did! And a box containing a supply of coffee pods was soon with me. Oh … and another thing about Lavazza is it’s based in Turin … a city I love … and I may have had to cancel my trip to Turin in late March because of the virus, but I could still drink Turin’s coffee!

 

Plenish Almond Milk

Of course drinking almond milk has become a bit of an environmental issue due to the surge in the demand for almonds that’s brought about some bad farming practices. However, I’ve been using this organic almond milk for a while for my morning cereal (it’s pretty pure with no extras – just almonds, water and sea salt). I usually buy it in my local health shop but a search online found I could order some direct from Plenish. I have to say that unlike some of the other direct buys, it was more expensive doing it this way … but I ordered quite a few to spread the delivery cost and make each one cheaper. And I’ve now got plenty to last me a number of weeks.

 

Odysea

I’m a great fan of Odysea Greek foods: their olive oil, their olive meze (tapenade) … basically pretty much anything they sell! It reminds me that when I holidayed in Kardamyli a few years ago – just an hour’s drive from Kalamata – I ate the most wonderful olives I’d ever had. And I still think of them being the most wonderful olives I’ve ever had (taggiasche olives in Liguria come a close 2nd). These lovely Odysea Kalamata olives transport me back to Greece … and their other meze mixes, oil and foods are just as delicious. I normally buy them in Wholefoods in Richmond but now I’ve found I can order direct.

 

Seggiano

I’ve long been a fan of Seggiano products and have a particular addiction at the moment to their wonderful crispy Lingue – flatbreads – that are handmade in Piemonte. They’re delicious on their own but I like to spoon some of the Odysea olive meze (like a tapenade) onto them, and of course other kinds of dips and spreads work well. I also ordered some roasted artichoke hearts in oil which will be great in an antipasti-type salad.


King Soba Mighty Miso Instant Organic Soup

I rarely eat ready made or instant foods, but I’ve become rather addicted to these miso soups from King Soba at lunchtime. Quickly made in a mug to go with a sandwich, it’s a perfect quick lunch. And I like to think the miso is doing me good too! Thus I search online and again found I could order direct and now have plenty to keep me going for a while.

 

Seed and Bean Chocolate

OK … so who can live without chocolate! Not everyone likes chocolate … but most people do … and Seed and Bean’s organic Cornish Sea Salt chocolate has become a firm favourite … and I can’t live happily without it 🙂 So … I ordered some direct to keep me smiling.

 

Food & Travel Magazine

I may not be able to travel anywhere – other than up to 2 miles from my home for exercise or essential shopping – but I can dream. I regularly buy Food and Travel magazine because it’s my perfect magazine – all about lovely places to travel to where you can find gorgeous, exciting food. Usually I pick up a copy in Waitrose when doing my food shopping but have now subscribed to receive it through the post and make sure I don’t miss a copy!

 

Fortnum & Mason Hamper

This is a last-minute addition. I don’t normally write drafts of blog posts – they’re fairly instant things following usually some cooking or visit to a restaurant. I write, read through to check no mistakes (as a book editor, grammar and spelling is especially important to me!), then press the Publish button. But I started putting this post together a few days ago, while waiting for all my orders to arrive and taking photos as I unpacked them. Then … yesterday was my birthday … and clearly it wasn’t going to be the birthday that had originally been planned with all the family coming together and some special outings. So imagine my surprise – and excitement – when I opened my front door to see a huge box in front of me, with Fortnum & Mason written on the side. I immediately realised it was from my daughter, Nicola. She’d told me something would be delivered, and as a foodie family we nearly always include some food-related present in gifts to each other. And normally on my birthday she and her wife would take me out for a meal. But as they couldn’t be with me, they ordered a Fortnum & Mason hamper for me instead. I have never had one before. I was like a child with the excitement of it. I texted and suggested we FaceTime so they could watch me open it up. I then carefully found each item in the thick protective packing and held it up to show them. And although it wasn’t quite the same as actually being with them, it was a pretty wonderful way for a gourmet to celebrate a birthday!

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What are the foods you can’t – or wouldn’t like – to live without?

My Lockdown Week in Food (2)

As the lockdown continues we find ourselves adjusting to some extent in a number of ways. I don’t mean it’s easy and we all want it to end, but being in a constant state of panic is neither sustainable nor healthy. Some light relief is needed at times! Whether it’s a lovely walk in nature, as I enjoyed yesterday, talking to or FaceTiming friends and family, immersing oneself in a good book or film … or, if you’re food obsessed like me … thinking about what to have for the next meal!

It’s amazing how shops, from supermarkets to little corner shops and farm shops, as well as restaurants and cafes, have adapted to offering delivery services and keeping us stocked in food. Getting a slot for a supermarket delivery is nigh on impossible now, but with my local Corto Italian Deli providing a lot of my food and having a delivery from my local fishmonger last week, plus a lovely neighbour picking up bits for me when she goes to the supermarket, one thing is certain – I’m not going to starve over the next few weeks!

 

Friday

My local fishmonger, Sandys, is hugely popular in the area, with people travelling miles to buy their goods. Fishmongers are quite rare these days. Supermarkets have fish counters but it never seems the same. Sandys sells not just fish but meat, cheese and many groceries. I rang in an order for delivery and got 1 sea bream (one of my favourite fish) filleted so I had 2 portions; 3 pieces of organic salmon fillet; 1kg beef mince and a packet of smoked salmon.

For Friday supper, I cooked one piece of the salmon and froze the other two. I roasted some potatoes, roasted the salmon with a generous dusting of a ‘fish herb’ mix; and fried some courgette cubes in a little olive oil.

 

Saturday

The kilo of beef mince was turned into a Bolognese ragu. I had one portion with some tagliatelle that evening and put the rest into freezer bags in one-portion sizes. I now have lots of Bolognese to keep me going for quite a while!

 

Sunday

   

Making the focaccia the previous week had worked well. It freezes briliantly. So I made more. I still had some of the flour and had frozen the extra fresh yeast I had into 15g portions. I cut the focaccia into portions and put them in a large freezer bag. In the morning I get one portion out and by lunchtime it’s thawed and I can just pop it in my toaster to warm and freshen up.

Sunday evening I took one of the sea bream fillets from my freezer. More little roast potatoes and the last bit of broccoli I had. A Sunday meal ought to be special, even if you’re in lockdown on your own! So I made some fresh pesto to go with my fish. I have a pot of basil on a sunny windowsill in my kitchen and with garlic, pine nuts, a little Parmigiano and some extra virgin olive oil, I soon had a small bowl of gorgeous fresh pesto.

 

Monday

   

On Saturday I’d had a delivery from Corto Italian Deli. This included some fresh vegetables – aubergine, peppers, tomatoes and courgette (not all the above – that’s one of the deli’s photos … they display what they have on their Facebook page each day). Well of course I just had to make ratatouille. How could you not with those ingredients! I considered making it traditional style on the top of the cooker, but then decided this was an adaption too far … I definitely prefer the more modern roasted method. To be honest, it’s just easier to chop all the veg up, drizzle over olive oil, season, add some herbes de Provence (or some such) and pop it into the oven and more or less forget about it for around an hour, apart from one or two stirs. I like the intensity of the flavours from this method and that the different vegetables retain their integrity and individual taste.

That evening I had some of the ratatouille with some rice. A simple but delicious meal.

 

Tuesday

I had a lot of leftover ratatouille so I put some into an ovenproof shallow dish, covered it in foil and warmed through in the oven. When it was hot, I made two indentations with the back of a spoon and broke eggs into each. Then this went back into the oven, uncovered, for about 10 minutes until the eggs were cooked. Because I had some leftover pesto too, I drizzled some over the top to serve. It reminded me of being in Genoa (where pesto originates) where pesto was put on lots of dishes.

The last of the ratatouille made a good lunch the next day, served cold with some of the focaccia. As for Wednesday … I’ve no photo and forget what I ate! Other than that it involved half the bag of spinach that Corto delivered on Saturday. So we’ll move on to …

 

Thursday

I was missing my morning excursions to buy my paper and read it over a coffee and pastry in a cafe. So I came up with the idea of turning the focaccia into a sweet version. It worked very well! Read more here. When it was cool, I cut it through the middle, top to bottom, then cut into thick slices and put them in the freezer. I can take one each morning, pop it in the toaster to defrost and warm through while I make my coffee. It’s a delicious treat to start the day.

Thursday evening I made risotto. I used the second half of the bag of spinach, a fresh large tomato and shallot to make my risotto. At the end, I added the last of the pesto and gently stirred it in. Fabulous!

I really made the most of those deliveries – the meat and fish and the wonderful fresh vegetables from Corto. I’ve eaten well! And I’ve also experimented well for I think the sweet focaccia will be a regular bake in my kitchen!

 

Travelling to Right Before Your Eyes

We’re all facing many challenges at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought fear, isolation, and financial hardship to some; there is disruption to work and schools and every part of our lives. We can no longer just pop out to the shops, go for a walk in some parks, eat in restaurants and cafes, and, hardest to deal with, we can’t see our families and friends. Some people who, like me, live alone are more alone than usual; other people suddenly find themselves in sometimes claustrophobic proximity to those they live with. Coping with 24/7 rather than just seeing each other after work in the evenings and at the weekend; not being able to go out to normal separate activities; attempting to home school children whose energy is rising like a pressure cooker about to burst … well a lot of it isn’t easy.

I feel extremely fortunate that I have a garden to get out into; family and friends who FaceTime me much more often than usual; and work that I’m used to doing at home and is still occupying some of my time, and while I’m doing it, for a time life seems normal again.

We’re all adapting in some way. I’m ordering all kinds of things online whereas previously I bought very little online. I continue my fortnightly Italian one-to-one lessons with Fabio via Skype while he sits in his family’s home in Palermo (where he’d returned to for a week and then his flight back was cancelled) and I’m at my desk in London. It’s not quite the same of course, but it is a kind of normality. And it’s also about creating some kind of structure to our days to bring a rhythm into our lives that gives a sense of stability.

One of my new habits is an early morning walk before breakfast. We’re officially allowed one walk a day for exercise and I decided to go out first thing when it’s quieter. It’s also a very lovely hour at this time of year when the weather is warm, the sun newly rising, and the air fresh and light clear.

I’m very lucky to have Kneller Gardens nearby; barely a 5-minute walk away from my house and through which the River Crane flows. Below is a photo as I crossed a little bridge over the river into the park this morning. You can see it was quite early!

Though to the other side it was brighter with the sun starting to shine through the trees.

Kneller Gardens were opened in 1931, the land bought from the Jubilee Farm estate to provide open space for the new houses that were being built in West Twickenham and Whitton. It’s become a popular haunt for me with my family who live in Whitton, as when I walk to their house (a mile/20-minutes walk away), I go through the Gardens then through a subway under the Great Chertsey Road (A316). I’ve spent many happy times there with my little grandsons and of course one of their favourite things is to watch the ducks. Now I’m sending photos of the ducks each morning for them to see. I can’t wait until Mr & Mrs Duck below produce some ducklings!

People often ask me if there’s a connection between the Gardens and Kneller Hall, which is famous as the home of the Royal Military School of Music. I’ve always thought probably not with the Great Chertsey Road running between them, and the Hall a mile away. But now – with a little more time on my hands! – some basic research reveals that there is indeed a connection.

A house was first built on the Kneller Hall site in the mid 1600s. This was bought in 1709 by Sir Godfrey Kneller, who was a Royal Court painter. He demolished the original house and built a new one, which was named Whitton Hall. However, on his death his widow renamed the house Kneller Hall after her late husband. The Gardens at the time were a bathing area – presumably because of the River Crane – and surrounded by farmland.

The Gardens are now owned by and maintained by the local Richmond council. There’s a playground, tennis courts, a cafe and open space for games, exercising dogs or simply having a walk.

My preference – unless cutting across diagonally to walk to my son’s – is to take the path along the river. I’ve always liked being by water, be it a river or the sea. In ‘normal’ times, however, my instinct is always to walk in the other direction towards the Thames. A walk down to Twickenham’s main street and cutting through a side road to the riverside takes me to the Thames in about 10-15 minutes. So I don’t have a shortage of water to walk by. But since the pandemic, and the restrictions on our outdoor activities; of having to keep our distance from others while out and about, it’s seemed a good idea to go for a walk along the quieter River Crane.

A change of normal routine is what marks this period of time for us. We’re all having to do things differently, make changes and adapt to the restrictions and where we can find a way round (without breaking any rules!) them to still do some of the things that are important to us. And walking is something I usually do a lot of.

The morning walk has become a routine to set me up for the day; establish a sense of purpose. It’s become a time of reflection; a time when I look around and take in what’s surrounding me much more than before. I find it lifts my spirit. Yesterday morning I woke quite angry with the world for what it was delivering at the moment, but by the time I returned from my walk by the river, surrounded by nature, I was happier and more positive.

This blog focuses on travel and food and of course at the moment, I can’t write it in the way I’ve done for the past 9 years. I can’t travel to faraway cities or even my daughter in Worcestershire; I can’t go to restaurants and cafes and write reviews; I can’t interview anyone; I can’t even just pop out to buy ingredients for a new recipe I come across. What I’m being forced to do is travel to what’s right before my eyes!

As I walked this morning, going further than other mornings right to the Crane Park Island Nature Reserve, it occurred to me that most of the time I ignore this lovely space right on my doorstep; right before my eyes. I remembered that the last time I’d walk to the Nature Reserve was before my son’s second child was born; I’d walked there with him, his wife, and Freddie, who was only 2. Now Freddie is 5.

I’ve always loved travelling. Most of my travelling has been to Europe – I’m a true Europhile. I’m always planning where I can travel to next, be it old favourites like Amsterdam, Turin or Nice, or a new place to explore. And my choices are always guided by food; I’ve no interest in going anywhere that doesn’t offer me great food experiences. I like to think of how this all expands my experience and understanding of our world; how I learn about other cultures, see amazing sights, beautiful buildings. And all this is good – very good – and it is enriching, and I hope it won’t be too long before I can do it again – but how often do we stop and see what’s right before our eyes?

This morning I walked along the river, came out of the Gardens, crossed Meadway and continued along the River Crane Walk. Signs of spring were bursting around me: cow parsley, bluebells, pretty white hawthorn blossom.

   

   

There are some beautiful carved benches along the walk. Wouldn’t you just love this one in your garden?

Although you won’t see any real cranes along the River Crane now, you can appreciate one in this lovely carving on a bench.

Cranes are marvellous birds. They live a very long life; some species for 80 years. In Eastern tales – China, Asia – they represent harmony and long life. They’re very loyal and mate for life and show respect for elders and ancestors. We should all have a crane in our lives. And I do, in fact, have a crane sculpture in my garden – though I must find it a mate!

One of the things I like about this walk is its wildness. It’s true wildness! It’s not manufactured wildness. A lot of upkeep is done by volunteers of The Friends of the River Crane Environment group, particularly in keeping the paths clear and the river free of rubbish and pollution. But as you look around, it is simply an overgrown and wild area where nature rules.

Finally I came to my destination – the Shot Tower, a Grade II listed building, and the Nature Reserve. The  Shot Tower was built in 1823 and small lead shot was produced here. Crane Park was the site of the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills, built in 1766 and at the time one of the largest in Europe, supplying gunpowder to the army and navy. Other mills that were once further along the river date back to 1066.

The Nature Reserve is a delight. I always find it amazing that the River Crane, so small and narrow near my house, widens enough to accommodate an island this size. Once part of the gunpowder mills site, the reserve was created in 1981 and has been managed by The London Wildlife Trust since 1986. It provides a home for many rare species and has even been visited by Sir David Attenborough – a local who lives in Richmond.

   

You can go through a gate and cross a little bridge onto the island. I’ve done this a few times and it’s a great thing to do. However, I decided against it this morning as the paths are quite narrow and with a view to keeping my ‘social distance’ it didn’t seem a good idea. Anyway, I’d left home early and hadn’t had my breakfast yet and needed to head home!

Below is a view across the island from the gate.

Turn to the right from looking across the Nature Reserve and you see the open space of Crane Park.

Now I backtracked, the river now to my right as I made my way back to Kneller Gardens.

There are a few little bridges crossing the river and on one a man stood in the middle, looking down the length of the river. We called ‘hello’ to each other and I stopped – at far more than the 2-metre social distancing rule – and we chatted for a while. I’ve no idea who he was, we didn’t even exchange names. But we exchanged some nice, friendly talk and smiles and he pointed down the river as I moved on, and told me to watch out for the kingfisher that was around.

I looked across the river and saw lots of beehives. Twickenham has quite a vibrant beekeeping association and it’s easy to buy local honey.

I crossed Meadway (a road leading up to the A316 from Twickenham) again and was back in Kneller Gardens. The light made some beautiful wooden sculptures of wild animals stand out as I walked and they were a sign that I was almost home.

What a joy it is to go for such a walk on an April morning, the sun coming up and warming the air, the light casting sparkles on the river and shadows from the trees. Sometimes it is very good indeed to travel to what’s right before your eyes – or just down the end of your road!

Sweet Focaccia

One of the many things I miss during this coronavirus lockdown – and to be honest, it’s really not the most important – are my daily trips out to a cafe in the morning to enjoy a coffee, pastry and to read my newspaper. I like to still buy the ‘real’ paper kind – although am now making do with my iPad kind.

Going out for a coffee isn’t just about having a morning treat but getting out of the house and having a little social contact early in the day. As someone who lives alone and works from home, despite a (usually) busy social life, there’s no one other than the cat to try out my voice with first thing. Most often (pre lockdown) I go to Paul Bakery in Richmond where the staff know me well enough to get things started without my placing an order; they’ll ask how I am; ask about my family, who sometimes go there with me. These are the kind of everyday social interactions we are so short of now. We must remember how important they are once we can go out again!

I do have some bread in the freezer, but I’m not really a toast person (just as despite being English I’m not a Full English Breakfast person!). I crave a little sweetness with my coffee, though. Coffee is always later. How much later depends on how long I can wait for my caffeine kick. I get up quite early and have cereal, yoghurt, fresh fruit to start. But a sit down and coffee with a little sweet treat comes later. In Paul I almost always choose a mini pastry – one of those tiny ones that’s just two or three bites. There’s something rather Continental Europe about it for often in places like Italy and France a coffee will come with a little biscuit or chocolate.

I often buy a Cramique Brioche in Paul that has raisins in it, with little bits of sugar on top, to take home. My 5-year-old grandson Freddie loves it. I slice it thickly and freeze some to keep for him; a slice is soon thawed and warmed through in the toaster. When I take him to school – in normal times, three times a week – once I’ve picked him up and we’re back at my house for a while before walking to school, he’ll have a slice of brioche and glass of juice before we set off. One of the last times I took him before school closures, as I parked the car in front of my house, Freddie’s voice from behind me said, ‘I can smell brioche in your house, Nonna.’

There’s been an extraordinary surge of home baking since the virus lockdown began and supermarket shelves started emptying fast. Now it’s almost impossible to buy bread flour and yeast. However, as I wrote about a week or so ago, I’m able to get flour for pasta and focaccia from my local Italian deli and fresh yeast. I’ve been making focaccia at the weekend, cutting it into 6-8 pieces and freezing it. I take a slice out in the morning and come lunchtime it’s thawed and I just pop it into the toaster to warm it through and freshen it and I have fresh bread!

This now regular baking got me thinking. Maybe I could make a sweet version of focaccia for my morning coffee. I wanted something that was still easy and quick to make; nothing too sweet. I looked at a few recipes; I remembered making panettone but wanted something quicker and easier. I couldn’t find what I was looking for … so I decided to adapt my usual focaccia recipe (an Antonio Carluccio one I’ve made for years). I took the idea of adding sultanas and candied peel from Italian sweet breads; I thought an egg yolk would make the dough richer; I kept olive oil rather than butter; and I put in only a little sugar to satisfy my not-too-sweet tooth. I used the semola (flour) that I’ve been getting from Corto Deli, which is a semolina flour made from durum wheat. Romina told me it’s what Italians normally use for pasta and bread. I – almost literally – threw it all together and hoped for the best. ‘Fingers crossed’ I texted my daughter as I told her my plan. Well, the fingers or something worked for it was very delicious; just what I was looking for. And here it is!

 

Sweet Focaccia

  • 450g semola (or strong white plain flour)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 50g sultanas or raisins (soaked briefly in hot water and drained)
  • 25g candied mixed peel
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 300ml warm water
  • 15g fresh yeast (or 7g pack dried – but check instructions for us)
  • 1 tablespoon Demerara sugar

 

 

In a large bowl, put in the first seven ingredients. Measure the water – it should be warm but cool enough to put your finger in comfortably. Add the yeast and mix well. Pour this into the bowl.

   

Mix well together. I used a spatula for this. When it all comes together, gather into a ball with your hands and knead on a lightly floured surface for about 5-10 minutes. Once it’s ‘elastic’ and less sticky, test its springiness by gently putting a finger a little way into the top. The indentation should spring back out.

   

Put the dough back in the bowl and cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel. Leave for about an hour, until double in size. Meanwhile prepare a tin. I don’t use a tin for my usual savoury focaccia but thought it would be nice to do it for the sweet kind. I chose a heart shape because we could all do with some extra loving right now! It’s about the same as a 23cm diameter tin. Lightly grease the sides and bottom with some olive oil.

Once the dough has doubled in size, knock back briefly and flatten into the tin.

   

Cover lightly and leave to rise again for 30 minutes. Turn the oven on to start heating to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 7.

Drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil and brush across the surface. Scatter over a little – about a tablespoon – of Demerara sugar.

   

Put into the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes. Remove once nicely golden brown. I tested ‘doneness’ by slipping a small sharp knife in; I’d thought it might take longer to cook but it didn’t.

Remove from the tin and allow to cool on a baking rack.

I was so delighted with how it looked – but how would it taste? I managed to wait until after lunch and had a slice with an espresso, sitting in the garden in the warm sun and enjoying a peaceful moment.

It was really good! Almost brioche-like in texture – probably due to the egg. It had a light sweetness to it but definitely wasn’t ‘sweet’. It was perfect with an espresso.

Now to freeze some slices; I don’t think it would keep fresh for long so you need to either eat it (which means sharing it!), or freeze it. I’ve found the plain focaccia freezes very well, so I’m sure this will too.

Not quite an Italian Easter bread but close enough. So Buona Pasqua! to you all.