Monthly Archives: September 2008

Hummus

In Middle Eastern Cooking mixed mezze (little dishes of mixed d’oeuvre) are signs of hospitality and conviviality, dishes to be shared to begin the meal or like Spanish tapas, nibbles to be eaten while drinking and gossiping. The word mezze originally comes from the Persian word Maza, meaning ‘taste, relish‘.

Many of these delicious dishes have been adopted by the West and none more so than hummus, a simple paste of cooked chick peas crushed with tahini, lemon juice and garlic. Unfortunately like so many things Hummus has been hijacked by supermarkets who. with a few exceptions, sell us little plastic tubs of unctuous, over creamy distant relatives of the real thing.

The good news is we can reclaim Hummus and make it ourselves and never buy those little tubs again.

Apart from its glorious role in a mixed mezze, hummus is a good accompaniment to Grilled or roast Lamb, makes a delicious sandwich with a Little peppery rocket, or a tasty blob on top of a baked potato.

Hummus

serves 6 – 8

300g chickpeas soaked overnight, juice of 2 large lemons, 200g tahini, 3 cloves garlic peeled and crushed, salt, olive oil, paprika, mint leaves to decorate,

Having soaked the chickpeas overnight they will have doubled in volume. Drain and rinse them. put them in a large pan and cover them with plenty of cold water – do not salt the water. Bring the pan to a fast boil and then lower the heat to a lively simmer and cook the chickpeas for 1 – 2 hours or until they are very tender. Once cooked drain them but retain some of the cooking liquid for later.

Put the chicks peas in a food processor or large bowl if you are using a hand blender with half the lemon juice and 3tbs of cooking liquid and blend to a coarse paste. Now you need to taste and then gradually add the tahini, rest of the lemon, garlic and salt and more cooking liquid if necessary little by little, adding, blending, adding etc………… until you find a balance, flavour and creamy texture you are happy with.

Spoon the Hummus in to a shallow bowl. In a small bowl mix 3 tbs of Greek olive oil with a good pinch of paprika and then dribble it over the hummus,

For me when it is still warm hummus is at its most delicious but it keeps well in the fridge for several days, but get it out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature before you eat it

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Greek Salad

In her stupendous New Penguin Cookery Book Jill Norman describes some salads as Composed Salads or Salade composèe, which she defines as ‘ imaginative mixture of what ever salads and vegetables are in season. It is fairly substantial; it can be elaborate or constructed from just a few elements; it can be served as a first course or comprise a meal in itself’ she adds ‘it is important to make sure that the flavours of the ingredients chosen are compatible and do not cancel each other out’.

Composed salads need to be, well, carefully and thoughtfully composed, they are not a mish mash of fridge clearing which just look and taste messy. Composed salads are thoughtful, harmonious and clever compositions of fine ingredients which delight the eyes and the palate.

Ceasar salad, salad niçoise, pear, walnut and roquefort salad, chicken liver salad, fennel and orange, crab and avocado salad, salad frisèe aux lardons, greek salad are just some of my composed (sorry if it sounds pretentious but it is the perfect word) salads of preference, all 8 triumphant and delicious.

A well made Greek salad is enough to make me happy and bring back warm memories of our yearly holidays by the sea in Sounion. I like this salad for lunch with some pitta bread or it makes a lovely partner with grilled lamb.

This is how they used to make a greek salad at our local Taverna in Sounion.

Greek Salad

Serves 4 as a starter and 2 as a generous main

250g of firm but flavoursome slightly sweet tomatoes, 1 cucumber, 1 small red onion, a hand full of black olives (Greek Kalamata if possible), 200g feta cheese, olive oil, greek if possible, 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash and dry the tomatoes and then cut away the hard center where the stalk was attached then cut them into 4 quarters and then each quarter in half.

Peel the cucumber and then cut it in half along its lengh, then each half in two and finally each quarter into chunky wedges.

Peel and chop the onion into chunky peices,

In a small bowl whisk together 5tbsp of good olive oil, 1tbsp of lemon juice and  just a liitle salt (the salty fetta will contrtibute later).

Cut the fetta into nice sized squares

When you nearly ready to serve the salad put the tomato, cucumber, onion and olives in a shallow bowl, add the dressing and toss well. Lay the slices of fetta over the top and grind over a little black pepper.

Serve immediately. Allow everyone to admire it first before tossing again and breaking up the fetta a little and allowing its salty deliciousness to disperse through the salad.

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Saint-émilion au Chocolat.

I first noticed this recipe in Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking years ago but I never made it. Then I was reminded of it recently by Simon Hopkinson in his brilliant book Roast chicken and Other Stories.

It is simply one of the nicest and most delicious chocolate puddings I know, intense and wonderfully rich.  Obviously the better the chocolate – dark, bitter, high-quality, cocoa butter rich – the better it tastes.

You can make it in a large soufflè dish, six individual ramekins. or as I like to, in eight little espresso cups, that way somebody could mistake it for an espresso and have a very nice suprise indeed!.

I use Lindt 85% chocolate.

Serves 4 – 8 depending how you serve it

  • 110g softened unsalted butter
  • 110g caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 200ml milk
  • 225g of good dark bitter chocolate broken into pieces
  • 12 – 16 amaretti biscuits
  • a little rum.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and well amalgamated. Beat the egg yolk into the creamed mixture,

Gently gently warm the milk and broken chocolate in a small pan over a very low flame. Once the milk is warm enough for the chocolate to start melting remove from the heat and stir until it is completely melted into the milk, Allow to cool for a few minutes.

Stir the melted chocolate into the butter, sugar and egg cream and stir carefully until it is perfectly mixed and beautifully smooth and glossy.

The final stage depends on your serving dish. if you are using a large souffle dish or ramekins arrange a single layer of amaretti in the base of the dish, sprinkle with rum and then cover with a layer of chocolate mixture, add a further layer of amaretti, another sprinkle of rum and another layer of chocolate. Continue like this until all the mixture is used up.

If you are using expresso cups put one whole amaretti in the cup and crumble over another one pressing it down a little, sprinkle with rum and fill the cup to the brim with the chocolate mixture,

Chill for at least 12 hours before serving.

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Spaghetti alla Felice

This is my interpretation of a dish I first ate in a local trattoria in Testaccio called Da Felice. It is simply cherry tomatoes marinated in really good olive oil with fresh basil, fresh mint and oregano, tossed with spaghetti and topped with grated salted ricotta and a good blob of creamy fresh ricotta.

The key to the dish is that the tomatoes are firm but perfectly ripe, preferably on the vine, and full of sweet fruitiness balanced by just enough acidity, the ones you want to pop in your mouth like sweets.

As always, use the highest quality dried spaghetti you can afford – it is worth it. Finally a note about cooking spaghetti, it is essential you use a large, deeper than it is wide pan so the spaghetti has plenty of room to roll around, 1 litre of water for every 100g of spaghetti. Salt the water well, 10g to every litre, this is the quantity you need to produce a perfectly seasoned pasta in this quantity of water, it will be disappointing otherwise.

Spaghetti alla Felice

serves 4

  • 400g Dried Spaghetti
  • 500g of sweet vine ripened cherry tomatoes,
  • 5 tbsp excellent olive oil,
  • 4 basil leaves and 4 mint leaves ripped into  small pieces
  • a good pinch of dried oregano,
  • salt,
  • freshly ground black pepper,
  • 200g of fresh goats cheese ricotta,
  • 100g of salted ricotta, grated.

Wash, dry and cut the cherry tomatoes in quarters and place in a bowl large enough to also accommodate the spaghetti with the ripped basil, mint and olive oil, sprinkle over the oregano and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, stir well and set aside to marinade for 30mins so the flavours can mingle.

While the tomatoes are marinating bring a large, deep pan of water to the boil, salt it well and bring to a rolling boil. By now the tomatoes should have been marinating for 20mins so you can add the spaghetti to the rolling water, fanning out the strands and gently using the back of a wooden spoon to ease them under the water, stir well to stop the strands sticking and recover the pan so it can come back up to a fast boil at which point you can remove the lid.

Once the spaghetti is cooked to Al dente perfection immediately remove from heat, quickly drain, and tip into the marinated tomatoes. Toss everything together carefully allowing the marinade to coat the spaghetti and the tomatoes to disperse. Divide between 4 shallow bowls, making sure you divide the delicious oily, herby  juices at the bottom of the bowl between the portions. Sprinkle plenty of the grated salted ricotta over each plate and top with a generous blob of fresh ricotta.

Serve immediately

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A passion for cookbooks

I know I am not alone in my love, and that is what it is, love, for cookbooks. I know many many others live like me, with an urgent need to read, use, touch, flick through, idle over, buy, collect, protect, refer to, take to bed and hoard cookbooks.

It started when I was very little indeed gazing up at my Mums small but perfectly formed and beloved collection sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. I knew they were important, I knew inside those well thumbed volumes lay the secrets of all the delicious things we ate. They were also out of reach and thus all the more intriguing. I quickly discovered the clambering and balancing act required to reach them and my inquisitiveness was rewarded with my very own cookbook, my first, a small penguin hardback which I seem to remember had a recipe for cheese and pineapple hedgehog. Now I too could take my cookbook, choose a recipe and open out the page on the work surface before commencing the cooking,  just like my Mum.

Looking back my Mum almost always had a cookbook open in front of her even when she knew the recipe backwards, reassurance I suppose, a friend. As I grew older and taller and having donated the penguin book to my little sister ‘this is for babies’ I probably said scornfully. I began to frequent my mums cookbooks and my passion really began. I entered a world of Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food, French Provincial Cooking, Italian Food, Bread, and her glorious essays in An omelette and a glass of Wine. I encountered Jane Grigson’s masterful books on English Food, Good Things, her Vegetable book, Fruit book, Fish book. I was enchanted by Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. I met Eliza Acton and Mary Berry. It didn’t matter that the books were maybe too sophisticated for a pretentious teenager, reading the recipes was almost hypnotic. I loved the way the books, many of which were penguin paperbacks, fell open at certain pages. The way English food page 323 bore the evidence of many Christmas cakes made with love and eaten by my Dad for weeks after Christmas. I learned to cook with my mum and these where the books that guided and comforted us.

Some where around seventeen I lost my way, for a long time. During these years I had books, cooked…… but it was not very happy.

It was only a few years ago, three and a half to be exact when I had moved to Rome, happier and healthier that I reacquainted myself with the books the cooking and eating I had loved so much. My cookbooks were some of the only things I brought with me. I began to read and use and appreciate them as I had as a teenager, but now with adults eyes. Of all the books it was those by Elizabeth David’s and Jane Grigson’s that really recaptured me. Of course it was the glorious recipes, but more than that, it was the way in which both women wrote, it  enchanted me, masterful, scholarly but at the same time utterly engaging, honest and enticing food writing of the very highest quality.

Reacquainted with cookbooks and eagerly cooking I began seeking out copies of the Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson books I didn’t have. Then through these books I was inspired to seek out Auguste Escoffier, Antonin Carème, Robert May, Ambrose Heath, Dorothy Hartley, Hannah Glasse, Patience Grey and Primrose Boyd, Richard Olney. It didn’t stop there, after alI was living in Italy in a sort of gastronomic frenzy, I needed some Italian cookbooks. I began buying, borrowing, furrowing in markets for Italian cookbooks Artusi, Marcella Hazan, Ada Boni, a 1964 and a 1979 copy of il Cucchiaio d’Argento with tenicolour photography vivid enough to make your eyes water…….. I was in heaven. But, I reasoned with myself, all these Italian cook books, I really mustn’t let go of my English roots. Severals trips to London and Daunt Books saw the purchase of books by Simon Hopkinson, Furgus Henderson, Nigel Slater, Hugh Fearnley – Whittingstall, Colin Spenser, Alan Davidson and Gillian Riley.

After my London book buying sprees and the hefty assess baggage charges I paid to heave them back to Rome I did pause for breath and then I slowed down and then I stopped for a while. Stopped buying that is, not reading, using, touching, flicking through, idling over, taking to bed, protecting, referring to and hoarding.

I do still have a list of books I really do need though.

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The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, Second Edition edited by Tom Jaine

Considered by many to be the best food reference book ever to appear in the English language, The Oxford Companion to Food is a magnificent and unique repertory of food, food history and culinary expertise. The inimitable and extraordinary Alan Davidson compiled and famously wrote over eighty percent of the first edition over a twenty year period producing a work of breathtaking wisdom, exquisite detail of the foods which nourish mankind and one touched magically by his erudite charm and wit. The second edition retains almost every word he wrote and is beautifully and thoughtfully updated by Tom Jaine and Alan’s wife Jane Davidson.

I never tire of reading, referring, flicking, protecting and appreciating this book

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Review: Plat du jour by Patience Grey and Primrose Boyd

One of my favorite cookery books and one which is a constant source of inspiration is ‘Plat du jour ‘ by Patience Grey and Primrose Boyd first published in 1957.  Inspired by their experiences of simple meals abroad, most notably in france and Italy PG and PB  in their own words  ‘Evolved a system of cookery by which a variety of dishes was replaced by a single ‘plat du jour’ accompanied, as a rule by a green salad, a respectable cheese, and fruit in season, and whenever possible, by a bottle of wine’. This conception of a meal underlies this book. This central idea is beautifully realised and illustated with drawings by David Gentleman. As with all the best cookbooks it has no photographs, the recipes themselves, notes, comments and occasional illustations or diagrams are evocative and inpiring enough, often poetic .

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