I was delighted to have my friends Di and Tam come round for supper on Friday evening. The first time I’d cooked for them. Di is a friend made via the blog (she writes a blog too, click here). The blog has brought me many friends as well as some wonderful experiences and being invited out to Burgundy for the last two summers by Di, where she and Tam live most of the time, has been up with the best highlights.
When not in Burgundy my friends live only a 20-minute walk from my house in Twickenham, which is one of those weird but happy examples of serendipity. People read our blogs from all over the world and we find ourselves neighbours!
With just three of us for supper it was to be an informal affair. ‘I’ve made it very simple,’ I told my daughter Nicola on the phone in the afternoon … then thought a bit and added, ‘Well I did make the ragù for the lasagna yesterday and let it cook for three hours.’ It’s easy to think when a recipe is very familiar that it’s ‘easy’. Well, making a ragù isn’t particularly hard but it does take time. And if I’ve cooked ragù more times than any other recipe in my life, which I’m pretty sure I have, then Torta Caprese – my chosen dessert – comes a clear second.
It was all a case of following my own advice, written in my blog post ‘A Single Person’s Guide to Entertaining‘: prepare as much as you can in advance so you’re able to sit and enjoy your friends’ company and not be cooking hard in the kitchen at the last minute.
I also wanted to stick to my preferred rule of keeping with a one-cuisine theme. As I’ve said recently in these pages, I’m not a ‘fusion’ person: I like individual cuisines to retain their integrity and thus I try – even for an informal family meal – to keep to either a French meal, or an Italian meal, or a Middle Eastern meal, etc. The choice of Italian for Friday evening was obvious: my love of Italy and Italian food, celebrated on these pages; and the fact that Di and Tam live in France much of the time and know so much about French food and wine that cooking a French meal would definitely be more of a challenge!
Thus a simple Italian menu was decided upon:
Lasagna & Green Salad
I also bought Italian wines to accompany it: a light, delicate Gavi to go with the antipasti and a Chianti Classico to go with the main.
I did make a little more effort than I often do for a starter for a family meal when everything is bought – and I actually cooked something as part of the antipasti! Delia Smith may have made Piedmontese Peppers famous in UK kitchens in the 1980s but I’ve been using Elizabeth David’s recipe from her classic Italian Food, first published in 1954, since the 1970s!
Pepperoni alla Piedmontese is one of the finest examples of how just a few ingredients can make something extraordinarily wonderful – the very essence of Italian cooking. You just halve – or quarter large – peppers and lay in a shallow ovenproof dish. Add a couple of slices of garlic, 2-3 pieces of fresh tomato to each and half an anchovy fillet, cut into pieces. Top with a knob of butter, a dessertspoon of olive oil and a light seasoning (remember the anchovy will be salty to go easy on salt). Put into a moderate oven (Elizabeth doesn’t give temperatures! But I reckon about 180C/Gas 4 is OK) for around half an hour, or until the peppers are softening but not collapsed and have a slight caramelisation around the edge.
I made these in the morning. They should be served at room temperature and are best eaten on the day they’re made.
While the peppers were cooking, I made the Torta Caprese (click here for recipe) so it could go into the oven as the peppers came out. It’s the family’s favourite cake. You can make it a day in advance too and it will be fine.
Once essential cooking was done, I set off late morning to Corto Italian Deli to buy some cold meats. I know from experience that Romina won’t serve me the meats the day before, they have to be fresh … but when you see her carefully slice them straight into a container, you know they should be enjoyed soon while at their best. So good are their meats that I almost never buy cold Italian meats anywhere else now.
Did she have some of the Tuscan prosciutto and fennel salami, I asked; could I have enough for three for an antipasti? Romina asked if I was going to have a coffee too, and although I’d already had a coffee early morning at Your Bakery Whitton with the family, where I’d bought a fabulous olive ciabatta for the evening, I decided a second coffee was a tempting idea. I sat down and with my coffee came a gorgeous little cake – a fritella – filled with zabione, a taste of the Venetian carnivale, which is currently on. It was from Venice, Romina told me. Intrigued, for it seemed very fresh, I asked, did they come boxed? I brought some from Venice this morning, she told me, and showed me a photo of a large box filled with fresh cakes. She’d been over to place her order for Easter colombo bread direct with the producers, and had brought some cakes back on the first flight to Heathrow that morning.
It was an unexpected delight and the cake was really gorgeous; their coffee is great too! It quite made my day to know I’d eaten a little cake that had been made in Venice that morning.
Back home with my box of cold meats, I started putting the lasagna together. I’d made the ragù the previous evening (click here for recipe) and now had to make some béchamel, grate a mound of Parmesan and start doing the layering. Once that was done, I was pretty much ready, apart from leaving the plating of the antipasti and cutting of bread until the last minute.
I made an antipasti plate much like the ones I’ve enjoyed in Corto Deli. I had the cold meats, some olives, cherry tomatoes halved and dressed with olive oil and basil. I had two cheese: a burrata and some Taleggio. I thought it all looked pretty good!
For my bread basket I had some excellent olive ciabatta from the Italian bakery in Whitton, some of their sourdough bread and some taralli – little breadstick-like biscuits that I buy in Corto and my family have an addiction to. I think it’s nice to have a selection of breads.
I laid it all out on the table before we sat down.
Lasagna is such a classic Italian dish but also great when solo entertaining because not only can it be prepared in advance and then just popped into the oven an hour or so before eating, it’s very very tolerant with timing … you can turn the oven very low to keep it warm and not worry about it spoiling. My salad was a mix of green leaves, some chopped radicchio and thinly sliced raw fennel.
There was no cheese course; we’d had cheese with the antipasti. Thus, after a suitable break the Torta Caprese was sliced and served with some strawberries and cream.
They were all well-practised – but favourite – recipes and the bought ingredients (the bread and the cold meats) of the highest quality, so it all came together well. And come suppertime, I didn’t have to do much other than enjoy my friends’ company … oh, and the food! 🙂