Thursday, 12 November 2009

Crab Linguine, winter and summer styles

A bowl of crab linguine eaten outside on a summer’s evening with a glass of crisp white wine is a simple delight.  It is one of those dishes that is effortlessly elegant, taking only minutes to prepare but good looking on the plate.

Summer ingredients for 2 to 4 people:

White crab meat - 400 grams or so
Half a dozen plum tomatoes or a few handfuls or cherry tomatoes
Juice of a lemon
A garlic clove, finely chopped
A red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
A handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil and olive oil

Note on crab meat: If you are making this as a smart dinner party dish then use only the best fresh white crab meat you can lay your crustacean loving hands on, if not use quality frozen which is absolutely fine for a family supper.  Please do not use tinned, come on it’s a bit like drinking soya milk – life is just too short!

Note on tomatoes: For a simple supper I just chop up cherry tomatoes.  For an elegant dinner make tomato concasse though – boil a pan of water and have a pan of iced water at hand too.  Dip in your plum tomatoes for 5-10 seconds only and lift out with a slotted spoon into the iced water.  Remove the skins which should just pull away, if they do not pull away easily just dip back in the boiling water. Quarter them lengthways and remove the seeds.  Now you have what is called tomato tongues.  Dry these on kitchen towel.  Cut into neat squares.  Done.

Main recipe.

Now here we go, so get ready – it’s a quick one.  You can make the sauce in the time it takes to cook the Linguine, which is even faster than cooking spaghetti!

Get a couple of good slugs of olive oil into a large frying pan, throw in the garlic and chilli and sizzle for a few minutes but do not let it brown.  Add in your crab meat – you only want to warm this through as it is already cooked.  Put in the tomato, parsley and lemon juice and mix through before turning off the heat.

Once the linguine is cooked drain it and mix through your crab mixture.  Now pour in your finest extra virgin olive oil, don’t drown it, just a generous glug.  Mix through and taste.  Does it need salt, more lemon juice, more parsley, more olive oil? –get that seasoning spot on and serve. 

That really is it. 

Getting the pasta to crab ratio is a skill to hone with this dish, do not be stingy but then again do not over do it.  The real trick with this dish is judging how much olive oil, lemon and chilli to use which will vary with the heat of the chilli.  A larger quantity of a milder chilli is better I think as you get more nice red dots going through the pasta.  It should be fresh tasting from the lemon and parsley but have a nice warm aftertaste.

Winter variation

The winter version is very similar just a bit more robust.  Do as for the summer dish but replace one third of the white crab meat with brown meat.  Also add in some finely sliced spring onions (green part only) at the same time as the parsley and mix in an egg yolk or two when mixing the crab and linguine at the very end.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Brocciu stuffed roast partridge with cavolo nero, chestnuts, crispy panzetta and Muscat gravy

Friday, phew! Where did that week go?  Well my baby daughter has finally made her way into the World.  Four weeks ago actually and we are overjoyed…and overtired.  The better half is doing all of the feeds so I have no real excuse for feeling like the undead, kept in motion solely by espresso shots and an ever growing inbox.  What can I say?  Sharing a glass or two of pink fizzy stuff with each and every visitor takes its toll on a man.  Anyway, cast your minds back to my last post fellow gastronauts – remember I promised a recipe to honor the wild and mysterious mountains of Corsica.  Well here it is.  Give it a try – it’s pretty much a twist on an easy to prepare Sunday lunch using some produce that the wonderful people of this Mediterranean island are fiercely proud of…and rightly so.

Wait a second! Partridge, Brocciu, Panzetta, Cavolo whasisname – that’s gonna demand more than a quick trip to Tesco Express so switch it about a bit:

Partridge – use a chicken instead, simple as that. 
Brocciu – this is the real deal fantastic fresh cheese from Corsica.  Just grab a pot of ricotta instead
Cavolo Nero – use any cabbage really or Brussels sprouts.
Panzetta – Corsica’s very own pancetta.  Use pancetta or smoky bacon.
Muscat – use marsala, Madeira or any sweet fortified wine. 

Full ingredients:

Whole partridge or chicken
Brocciu – or ricotta.  Enough to stuff the bird
Lemon – zest of one, finely chopped
Flat leaf parsley – a small bunch.
Pinenuts – a handful
Garlic – one or two cloves
Fresh parmesan – quarter quantity of the ricotta
Thyme – small bunch, roughly chopped
Pancetta – a few rashers to cover the bird and a couple of rashers cubed to go with the cabbage
Cavolo nero – or any cabbage or even some lovely Brussels Sprouts, enough to serve for your guests.
Chestnuts – 5 to 7 roughly chopped, jarred or frozen are fine – fresh are better.
Unsalted butter
Muscat wine or Madeira, marsala…

·         While the oven is warming up to 180 degrees Celsius make your stuffing.  In a bowl, mix the brocciu/ricotta, lemon zest, parsley, pinenuts, garlic and parmesan.  Bulk out with a handful of  breadcrumbs if you need to.  Season with salt and pepper – and taste it, make sure it tastes good before it goes into the bird.  This is a dead easy stuffing that is really tasty, Try with any game bird.  Get confident with it and try it a few times you could squeeze in some lemon juice if you wanted to or add in some sultanas or some freshly chopped basil or thyme.  Spoon (well I just use my hands) the stuffing into the cavity of your Partridge/chicken, season all over, put a few strips of pancetta on the breast and drizzle over some olive oil and get the bird roasting in the oven.  Cook until the juices run clear –20 minutes or so for a partridge and a chicken will take much longer, double or more depending on the size.  Cut between the leg and breast and look to see what colour the juices run – gotta be clear, chicken sashimi is not a nice dish! 
·         While your chicken is cooking prepare your cabbage and boil it in salted water for just a few minutes (reserve some of the water.)  Refresh in iced water and drain.  Fry the cubed pancetta until crispy, add in your chestnuts and sprinkle in some thyme and then add your cabbage.  Leave on the side as is until just before serving.  Once you are ready to serve it just heat it through and throw in a couple of generous cubes of butter and season with salt and pepper. 
·         Make your gravy.  Using the roasting tin that the bird was cooked in pour off as much fat as you can but reserve any juices.  Sprinkle in a dessert spoon or so of flour and work the base of the pan over heat with a wooden spoon dislodging as much of the gooey caramelized juices as you can.  Splash in your muscat or marsala and cook away the alcohol for a minute or two and reduce a little.  Add in some cabbage water or stock and let bubble away to a nice rich gravy.  Taste and season as needed.
·         Serve some of your delicious pancetta cabbage on a plate and accompagny with the partridge or a few slices of chicken.  Drizzle with gravy.
·         You could muscle in some roast potatoes or parsnips with this dish quite nicely.

Eat on a cold wintery Sunday and spare a moment’s thought for leg burning treks in the thyme scented mountains of Corsica.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Thrills, hills and meals on Corsica's GR20

Corsica’s GR20 is billed as Europe’s toughest trek and my pre-trek training regime had centred around drinking pastis and eating tapenade in the Provencal countryside for a month or more this summer.  It came as no real surprise then that on the first day of the trek after climbing 1600 vertical metres my heart attempted to burrow through my chest and descend back down Monte D’Oro to catch the first flight home.  My vision, blurred by soft drifting stars confirmed that the pre-trek training should have stretched to sports more athletic than pétanque.  I think I have a touch of altitude sickness I panted to Francois our guide, a former pompier de Paris.  Altitude is not a problem in Corsica came his swift rebuttal.  Even my cousin, my partner in climb was letting me down – his pre-promised asthma and total lack of conditioning was glaringly absent and I had heard not so much as a wheeze as he passed me up a narrow gulley during our ascent.

That evening as my travelling companions ate seconds of cannelloni stuffed with mint and Brocciu, a beautifully fresh Corsican cheese similar to ricotta I sloped off to my tent on the inside edge of a corral (trekkers were corralled – pigs and goats were free to roam the hillside) to ponder my situation, too exhausted to eat.   The missus was eight and a half months pregnant back in Essex, for the first time ever I had lost my mobile phone…the day before departure, I had open leveraged positions in the financial markets and tomorrow’s journey was even longer than today’s - oh to be back in Provence. 

A beautiful star clustered sky offered little comfort to my anxiety and poor sleep that first night.  Our guide had told us that it takes seven full days to become acclimatized to the physical challenge of walking the GR20, he breezily mentioned that we would have enough endurance shortly before we were due to go home.

The following day was tough…yet we made it, as we did the day after that and as we walked through ancient pine forests; up and down hidden valleys treading from boulder to boulder brushing past wild mint, lemon thyme, myrtle and juniper – their soft scents mixing into the curry caramel aromas of the maquis, the majesty  of the mountains began to unfold.  Errant thoughts subsided and our legs began to ache less, I even began to ‘enjoy’ walking up more than walking down.  The gasping for breath ceased and we walked quieter and felt stronger with each passing day through forests of Chestnut in the heart of wild boar country.  Partridges would scatter as we waded through thickets of emerald fern.  And in the evenings I began to appreciate the simple and special delicacies of the mountains, no longer dog tired from exertion.  Most evenings we stayed in refuges run by shepherds that still practiced the ancient tradition of transhumance grazing, check out the link if you are vaguely interested in that sort of thing.  We ate sublime charcuterie made from the pigs that wandered the refuge grounds and ate cheese made from the goats that grazed in the nearby maquis.  Each shepherd tweaking the cheese and charcuterie methods to create their own styles of produce.  We drank Pietra, a strong local beer made with chestnut flour and quoffed soft red wines produced on the opposite coast of the island.  

Throughout the week our expert guide took us off the GR20 main trail as often as possible to walk on paths long forgotten by many.  Each day we would swim in icy lakes surrounded by carnivorous plants and strange green mottled rocks.  I was beginning to feel like Frodo in a strange land a long way from The Shire.

Can you see the eye? Francois asked over a lunch of dates, spiced salami and cheesy bread made by his aunt’s neighbour.  He pointed to a summit in the distance, Capo Tafunatu and from over thirty miles away we could see a hole that went straight through the centre of this distant mountain.  We have a choice when we reach this place, we were told.  We filled our water bottles with the freshest water I have ever drunk from a secret source and moved on.

We moved closer to the eye with every step and - my cousin and I could feel Francois assessing our readiness for what lay ahead.  Walking on average for 9 hours per day had transformed my cousin - laconic at the best of times,  he was now a bearded, sun baked grizzly of a man moving silently across the barren steppes.  Unexpectedly one lunchtime we strayed upon a group of Corsican wild boar hunters drinking red wine in the midday sun whilst toting shot guns around a wooden refuge in the middle of nowhere.  We stopped for a can of Corsican cola and while I nervously rubbed factor 50 into my beetroot coloured arms my cousin sat amongst the hunters looking like he had caught his own boar that very morning – quite possibly with only his bare hands.

As we climbed towards Capo Tafunatu crushing aromatic Helechrysum under foot Francois asked if we were scared of heights.  Not so far.  The path faded and we began to climb, our choice made - we were going to the eye.  Edging along shoulder width rocky outcrops I began to feel  now was the time to really concentrate.  We climbed higher still and I began to think of my children, knuckles whitening as I gripped ever tighter onto the loose rocks.  This was a long way from my comfort zone.  The path narrowed even more and I could feel my chest thumping.  We turned and climbed into the eye of Capo Tafunatu – straight through the centre of the mountain to behold a view seen by few, an incredible mountain range straight out from our steeply slanting ledge and below us a drop of several thousand feet.  My hands tried to glue themselves to the rocks  but I felt I was slipping as if in a dream, my whole body stiffened.  I could not look over the edge.  As Francois revealed the stunning geology of our environment I failed to retain a single word that he spoke.  Instead, I tried to still my mind from flipping out altogether.  My cousin kindly caught the episode on video.

I asked Francois how many English people he had ever taken through the eye of the mountain before us and he replied: none.  That evening dragonflies darted in the orange, purple dusk as we ate stewed mountain lamb and sipped Mierte, a fierce eau de vie.  My mind wandered back to the eye of Tafunatu - it was a thrilling finale to a truly awe inspiring trek that I will never forget.

Next recipe posting to follow soon.  Inspired by the wonderful people and produce of Corsica.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Zen and the Art of Meatball Manufacture

Sometimes I use half beef, half veal...sometimes I use a cheap cut of beef and jazz it up with some pancetta but I gotta have The Godfather soundtrack playing when I make meatballs. I stand at my chopping block, slurp some red and just for a moment I am Vito Corleone, not Michael but Vito...this dish is old school. It's a wonderful meal to make after a hard days grind in the 'olive oil' business.

Now, I live a long way from Sicily and am about as Italian as fish and chips but the smell of lemon zest and fresh oregano; the slice and dice of garlic and onion; the deep red bubble of slow cooked tomato sauce - these things activate the latent Soprano gene in a man.

I finely cut the beef and veal by hand if I am feeling extra authentic. Often I just blast it in the blender though, but only for a few seconds - I want some texture. I would user a mincer if I had one. Crumble in some breadcrumbs: home-made or otherwise. I add lemon zest, thyme, oregano and nutmeg or sometimes fennel seed (especially if I make the meatballs with pork ), crumble in fresh parmesan, slip in an egg and splash some milk - shape into small balls and put in the fridge. For the tomato sauce: fry some garlic, chop some tomatoes and add to the pan with a splash of white wine and cook down for some time. This is not food that likes to be timed nor measured - make it a few times and get a feel for what works, keep your scales and measuring spoons firmly in the cupboard. Maybe you will add some dried smoked chilli to your tomato sauce to give it depth, maybe not. I always finish the sauce with loads of fresh parsley and basil and when I say 'always' I mean if I have it in the fridge or herb patch, if not 'forgedda boud it'. We are free styling here - your time, love and effort are the most important ingredients. Just keep it simple and do not add too many ingredients to the sauce nor the meatballs.

I fry the meatballs on a high heat to add some colour then pop them into the tomato sauce to cook through and share flavours, I roll the balls fairly small so cooking does not take long at all. Boil some spaghetti and mix through the sauce. Serve sprinkled with more parmesan, chopped parsley and drizzle with some best extra virgin olive oil. My young children are not yet members of the nice and spicy chilli appreciation club so if I want some extra heat I just scatter some finely chopped chilli over my serving or a couple of glugs of home made chilli oil.

I love this kind of Italian home cooking: I make fresh pasta and pizza dough with my children. They shell fresh peas to add to home made tomato sauces. They crush toasted fennel seeds in our mortar and pestle to sprinkle over grilled sardines. The missus picks the tiny thyme leaves from the woody stalks and pours more red wine. This kind of cooking brings a sense of unity, of time well spent together. It is cooking for la familia.

Occasionally, it is in these moments that I feel that I am on the right track in life. Sometimes this feeling is subtle and fleeting, at others it is a powerful sensation that has a knock on effect that reverberates through my life - good things start to happen. An idea comes to life that leads to positive change or something that has been in the pipeline for a long time begins to pick up pace. Maybe an old contact does something out of the blue that brings new significance to our relationship, a better connection. Or something happens to make me think about a current challenge in a new way that gives it momentum, anxieties subside and pace gathers.

I have a loose fitting rule about this phenomenon that floats around at the back of my mind unwilling to be tied down - it is something along the lines of 'luck happens when I work hard on the right things.' It is at these times that I feel the guiding hand.

Unfortunately that right thing may not always be to make fresh meatballs and tomato sauce with my family. When it it's not I just enjoy the simple pleasure of life in la cucina.

Friday, 2 October 2009

How'd you like them apples?!

As promised, here's my recipe for Tarte Tatin. Simple to make, it tastes great and is a great show-piece at the end of a meal - especially when you set it on fire with Calvados!

Caution: Setting anything on fire is best left to a sober adult so if you've drank a bottle of Puligny Montrachet with your first course and are working your way quite nicely through a fine Bordeaux by the time dessert comes around I suggest passing the matches to your teetotal aunt or someone else along those lines.

Ingredients for 6:

12 Granny Smith apples
1 lemon
350g unsalted butter
350g caster sugar
1 pack of frozen puff pastry that you have let thaw (seriously, do not bother making puff pastry yourself unless you are going for a Michelin star or something. The quality of ready made frozen puff pastry is just fine)

  1. Preheat your oven to 220 celsius
  2. Fill a large bowl with water. Halve your lemon, squeeze in the juice and throw in the squeezed lemon halves. This is where you will put your apple halves to stop them turning yucky.
  3. Take an apple and cut off its bottom so it sits flat on a work surface. Repeat with the top of the apple. Peel and core and then halve from top to bottom. Place the apple in your water and lemon bowl. Repeat with all of the apples.
  4. Pour your sugar into an oven proof frying pan or skillet and pour in a little water, just enough to help the sugar dissolve. Now heat up the sugar so that it dissolves into sugar syrup. Keep heating til the the syrup turns a lovely golden blond.
  5. Add in the butter and stir through the syrup.
  6. Carefully place the apples rounded side down in the syrup. Be careful - getting hot caramel stuck on your fingers is not pleasant. The wet apples will slow down the darkening of the syrupy caramel so blast up the heat - you want to get some nice colour on them there apples! Manoeuvre the apples so that they are in nice tight concentric circles. If you have some spaces fry up a few more apple halves in butter and fill in your gaps.
  7. Now turn off the heat and leave the apples and syrup in the pan to cool completely - keep that nice apple pattern. This is the part that many tatin recipes leave out and it is essential for the next step to work properly. I place my pan on a trivet and place the whole thing in the fridge for twenty minutes.
  8. Roll out your puff pastry so it is about as thick as a pound coin.
  9. Lay the pastry over your apples in the pan and then tuck it down around the inside edge of the pan so it folds around all of the apples - do not worry if the pastry touches the caramel.
  10. Put your pastry covered apple pan back in the fridge for ten minutes to relax the pastry.
  11. Place the pan in the oven for 30 minutes. Checking to see the pastry does not burn.
  12. Take pan out of oven and let cool for 20 minutes.
  13. Tricky bit - place a tray over your pan and flip over the tatin so the pan is upside down. Be careful not let hot caramel pour down your arm. Carefully lift off the pan and there should be your beautiful tarte tatin. Carefully reposition any unruly apple pieces.
There you have it. Serve hot or warm with vanilla ice cream and flambé in Calvados.

Tip: Warm the Calvados in a saucepan in a pan before trying to light it.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Tarte Tatin Tour de France

Bruno came to our hotel in the evening to apologise for making me cry all day. I was 9 years old, it was my first ski trip and my second day on the slopes - I had endured a day of steep black runs and black off piste runs all day. No blues, no reds - just blacks and then some. On one particular run I remember feeling that if I made one wrong turn, one misjudged side slip that I would shoot off the edge of the alps and fall forever more. It was a baptism not of fire but of hard ice and snow.

After such an introduction skiing somehow came to be my number one sport and to this day my father and I ski together each year, although we never did invite Bruno again.

It was during our annual ski trips that I was first introduced to mountain food: Roast pumpkin soup, Tartiflette, Steak Tartare et frites, Tomme de Savoie cheese, beaufort cheese, hearty Leek tarts and for dessert tarte aux myrtilles, tarte aux poires but for me it was always Tarte Tatin (pronounced 'tat-tan'.)

In my early adolescence my love affair with this sticky, caramelised upside down apple tart began. I am reasonably sure that there are only a handful of restaurants in the Savoie region of the French Alps where I have not sampled Tarte Tatin. Le Plagne, Courchevel, Meribel, St. Martin de Belleville, Champagny en Venoise, Flaine, Tignes, Val D'Isere - the great Tour de Tatin had begun and I was hooked. We would ski hard all morning, and by this time I had grown rather fond of black and far steeper off piste runs, and then by midday or early afternoon find a restaurant somewhere high up on the mountain side or down in some hidden valley for lunch. In the bright sunshine we would rest our burning legs on weather battered benches and unzip our ski jackets, steam rising rapidly in the crisp mountain air. I was thirsty and in my early teens my penchant was for beer mixed with pineapple juice - my palette was to undergo extensive re-modelling but at 13 it tasted good! Then maybe some paté de campagne with tiny cornichons and onion marmalade to start followed by Tartiflette or Roti de Porc to follow but it was always Tarte Tatin for dessert, always. In some restaurants the caramel was rich, dark and almost smoky in others light and blond. The caramel darkens the apples and mixes with the apple juices and butter oozing into the puff pastry creating a crisp and sticky base with meltingly soft apples sitting on top. My quest for the perfect Tatin was well underway and I was eager for the hunt. I scoured the alps and of course Normandy and even southern France for the holy grail of rustic desserts. Yet I was to eventually discover the ultimate Tarte Tatin several years later back in the French Alps. In a tucked away corner of an unattractive concrete shopping complex in La Plagne. The restaurant was called 'Le Grizzly' I do not know if it is still there today. It was owned by some people from Normandy and our ski guide who proudly took us there was also from Normandy. We went for dinner and seeing as this is perhaps 17 years ago I do not recall what I ate as a starter. However my main course was 'Gigot d'Agneau' roast leg of lamb simply cooked on a spit in front of an open fire in the middle of the restaurant, sensational. I had spotted Tarte Tatin on the menu and after the Gigot my expectations were on the up. It did not disappoint. Our host brought the whole tarte to our table and sliced four generous servings. Then in a pot came the crowning glory of Calvados (apple brandy) heated ready to be set on fire and deftly poured over each slice. The flambéed Tatin was accompanied with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into rich pools of creamy, calvados infused, apple caramel bliss. The Calvados had added a level of sophistication that my young taste buds had yet to encounter (by this age I was off the pineapple/beer combo but it was still early days) and I knew then that my quest for Tatin perfection was complete.

These days I love to cook Tarte Tatin for family gatherings and each time it takes me back to 'Le Grizzly' in La Plagne। I serve it the same way with vanilla ice cream and flambée with Calvados. I caught the Missus' hair on fire on one occasion in a Calvados fuelled blaze, but that dear reader is another story.

Next posting: my Tarte tatin recipe.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Today's lunch

Gala pie from Byfords. My lovely local food hall