Monthly Archives: October 2009

A little pot…

...of lemon cream.

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I have an enormous soft spot and pathological weakness for sweet, creamy, lemon spiked desserts and puddings, a quivering slice of tart au citron, a bowlful of that most English of desserts lemon Syllabub, a piece of lemon cheesecake, a spoonful or seven of lemon mousse, a little pot of lemon cream. It’s the soft, sweet, creamy nature of these puddings, the ointment of cream, eggs, maybe butter and sugar sharpened and lifted by a lip puckering tartness of the lemon which makes them so magical to me.

My love of all things sweet and lemony started with lemon curd (or lemon cheese as it was called in the north of English) the smooth, translucent, sweet – sharp spread. Or maybe it was the lemon sherbet sweets, the ones that fizzed and popped in your mouth, the ones you bought by the quarter at the local sweet shop that came in a white paper bag twisted at the corners…….

No, the lemon curd came first.

My mum would make it or little jars of it – usually with a jam pot hat, that circle of fabric secured by an elastic band covering the lid – would be brought back from English holidays or purchased from fragrant ladies wearing vast flowery skirts and pearl earings at garden fetes. The lemon curd was then spread extremely thickly on white bread or used to fill tarts which were sometimes topped with meringue, but it was best, as my younger sister Rosie and I quickly discovered,  eaten straight from the jar with a spoon, thick and luscious.

French holidays and the discovery of fine tart au citron gave my affection for such sweet, creamy, lemon spiked things a rather more refined and sophisticated edge, or at least I thought it did, I was at that age. Of course I liked the pastry, delicate and buttery but it was the bright yellow filling of lemons, sugar, butter and egg, the intense satiny lemoniness of it all, the way it trembled and wobbled ever so slightly as you cut a slice that I really loved

Unfortunately I haven’t mastered the art of a decent tart au citron yet, it’s the pastry you see, despite modest progress I still practice heavy avoidance techniques where pastry is concerned. The mere sight of the words… pate…brisee…sucrèe…rich or shortcrust will see me hastily turning the page if at all possible.

I do intend to master the art of a half decent tart au citron/ lemon tart at some point but until I do I am more than content with being able to make the filling…because thats what these little pots of lemon cream are you see…… the filling of a lemon tart…..well a kind of filling, purists may quibble at the recipe – although I very much doubt purists have read this far.

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….the juice and zest of 3 fine lemons, some sugar, a tub of marsapone or some double cream, 6 eggs with very yellow yolks…whisked together gently…allowed a long leisurely rest in the fridge, decanted into little pots and then baked in a gentle oven for 25 minutes.

It’s there, the soft, sweet and  creamy sharpened and lifted by the lip puckering tartness of the lemon. If ambrosial is something which is exceptionally pleasing to taste or smell then thats what these little pots are.

I can’t decide when I like to eat my little pot (s) of lemon cream more..is it about 15 minutes after they have come out of the oven when they are still warm and the center is still runny ? or after about an hour when they are cool and set but still very soft and tender ? or the next day after a night in the fridge when the are deeply set and thick and fudgy  ?….. The joy of making 8 little pots and only having 4 guests is that you don’t have to decide, after all you have 2 pots extra pots just for you.

Nigella recommends leaving the cream, sugar, lemon, eggs mixture resting and steeping in the fridge for 1 or 2 even 3 days before you decant it into little pots and then bake it. I do too…… well 1 day at least and if you have the patience 2, as it really does improve the silky texture and intensify the deep lemon flavour. I have never left if for 3 days, if you try let me know.

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Lemon Cream

from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

yield 8 little pots

  • 3 juicy, unwaxed lemons
  • 275g caster sugar
  • 6 fresh eggs
  • 250g marscapone or 300ml double cream

Grate the lemon zest from all 3 lemons into a bowl and then squeeze and add their juice to the bowl.

Add the sugar and eggs to the bowl and whisk until everything is nicely incorporated.

Stir in the cream or marsapone and then cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave it in the fridge until you need it but ideally for 2 days.

When you are ready to bake, set the oven to 150°, boil the kettle and put eight little ramekins or pots into a roasting tin and then share the lemon mixture between all eight.

Por hot, but not boiling water into the roasting dish to come half way up the little pots and then bake for 25 minutes or until they are just set but still with a bit of wobble and runniness about them as they will set more as they cool.

Allow to cool for about 15 minutes before serving and they will sit happily for a few hours. If you are making them a day in advance, keep them in the fridge but take them out a good half hour before you serve them so they are cool not cold.

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The big soup

Minestrone.

In Italian to denote largeness you add -one/-ona/-oni to the end of the word. Libro (book) for example becomes librone (big book), casa (house) becomes casona ( big house) and minestra* (a soup) becomes minestrone (big soup.)

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Before I swear off writing about soup for a while – I do know there has been rather alot of it around here lately  – I’d like to talk about minestrone, the delicious heavyweight of our trusted soup/zuppa/minestre/broth recipes. A big, hearty, robust, bear roar of a plateful.

Minestrone, as you probably know, is a very substantial mixed vegetable soup which may or may not include beans and probably some pasta or Rice. It is cooked very slowly over a low heat emerging dense with a deep, mellow flavour that recalls no vegetable in particular, but all of them at once. There are, as is natural with a dish of this kind, many many recipes, ideas and thoughts about minestrone, the character of each panful being shaped by its circumstances, the place it is made in, the season, the produce available and of course the cook.

Place – Rome. Season – Autumn, was crisp and ode worthy but now rainy and rather soggy. Produce -  onion, celery, carrots, courgettes, potato, tomatoes, green beans,  savoy cabbage, cannellini beans. Cook – me with Vincenzo supervising.

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The big, bold, relaxed ‘everything in the pan‘ aspect of minestrone is true but misleading if you think it means ‘chuck it all in the pan.’ Good minestrone- I have learnt- is made with care, attention and needs time. True, a large part of this time requires a minimum of attention, a stir every now and then, the later addition of the beans while the pan simmers for about 3 hours over a very low flame. The initial steps however do need just under an hour of your cooking attention. This is because the ingredients enter the pot one by one in a set sequence, as each one joins the previous one in the pan it is given an attentive and gentle 5 minute sautè before the next ingredient is added.

This steady march of ingredients into the pot allows the essential underlying flavours to develop which are then imparted to the next vegetable. While one vegetable is cooking you prepare the next, It’s actually a rather nice process if you are not in a rush and have some good chopping music.

When you get to the simmer, the flame should be low and the simmer itself tremulous, the gentlest kind, the kind that has you checking the flame hasn’t gone out because the pan looks so still….. you lift the lid, you look closely, you see the surface is quivering and suddenly ‘plop‘ a burp of a bubble breaks surface of the soup, you are reassured all is well.

I made this particular minestrone on Monday. We had some for supper on Monday night with some bread, it was good, but it was much better on Tuesday when we added some pasta and ate it for lunch with Lisa. I knew it would be, a good nights rest and a gentle reheating improves the flavour.

We like pasta in our minestrone, it is usually small lumache rigate (lumache means “snail,” and this delightful form of this pasta does look rather like a snail shell.) As we usually make a mothership quantity of minestrone which lasts several days – a week even if all nicely sealed in the fridge – I reheat the quantity we need for a particular meal in a smaller pan. While the minestrone is gently reheating I cook some pasta in another pan, about 70g per person until it is very al dente. Once the pasta is cooked and the minestrone is nice and hot I drain and then mix the pasta with the soup and then let everything sit for at least 5 minutes so the pasta can finish cooking and absorb some of the flavours of the minestrone which is in turn cooling to the most desirable temperature.

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Minestrone

Adapted (like so many of my recipes) from Marcella Hazans book The essentials of Classic Italian cooking.and the recipe for Minestrone alla romagnola.

Inspired by the many bowls of minestrone I have eaten here in italy

serves 6 very generously.

  • 45g butter
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium red onions peeled and finely diced
  • 3 medium carrots peeled and finely diced
  • 2 sticks of celery,  finely diced
  • 350g courgettes diced
  • 200g potato peeled and diced
  • 150g french beans diced
  • 200g shredded savoy cabbage
  • 120g tinned or fresh plum tomatoes
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 400g cooked cannellini beans
  • a large parmigiano – reggiano (parmesan) crust
  • 4 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano – reggiano (parmsan) cheese

Gently heat the butter and oil in very large, heavy based pan and then add the onion. Keep the heat at medium low and cook the onion uncovered until it is soft and floppy and just starting to turn golden but no darker – this will take a good 10-15 minutes.

Add the diced carrot, stir and then gently cook for 5 minutes stirring once or twice more.

Add the diced celery, stir and then gently cook for 5 minutes stirring once or twice more.

Now add the potatoes stir and then gently cook for 5 minutes stirring once or twice more.

And now….the french beans stir and then gently cook for 5 minutes stirring once or twice.

Now the add the courgettes…..yes you have guessed it….. stir and then gently cook for 5 minutes stirring once or twice.

Add the shredded cabbage stir and then gently cook for 5 minutes stirring once or twice.

Now add the tinned tomatoes, stir and then add the water and the parmesan rind, stir again and cover the pan reduce the heat to a tremulous simmer, steady and slow and leave it just so for 2 and a half hours stirring occasionally.

After 2 1/2 hours add the cannellini beans, stir carefully and firmly and then cook for another 30 minutes.

NOTE; if you find the soup is looking too thick before it has finished cooking add a little more water.

When the minestrone has finished cooking pick out the parmesan rind and remove about 1/5 of the soup into a separate bowl and blast it until smooth and gloopy with the imersion blender before returning it to the big pan and the rest of the soup. Stir in the grated parmesan and taste and season with salt if necessary.

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* In Italian the word minestra is often used (sometimes confusingly) to describe most of the vast family of Primi piatti (first courses) with a liquid base and thus eaten with a spoon, the broths and some soups with pasta, rice or grains and sometimes dumplings in them. Soups without these additions tend to be referred to as zuppe. Tortellini in brodo, pasta e ceci, pasta e fagioli are all minestre.

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Some comfort

Otherwise known as eggs baked in very creamy mashed potato with very buttery spinach.

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If this recipe were an object it could be one of the four blankets draped or more often flung on, over and about our sofa throughout the colder months. We have no heating you see, blankets therefore play very important roles in our lives. Maybe the dark green fleecy one, my favourite, deliciously cosy and familiar, the one ready to be tugged reaasuringly around my shoulders, tucked under knees and toes in preparation for another chapter, episode and or another favorite of mine, a nap…The blue blanket however would be a fish pie, the deep green one pasta e ceci or a mothership minestrone and the funny grey blanket come cape – a plate of sausages and mash.

The blankets have taken up their winter residency on the sofa, I have started pulling on poloneck jumpers and banging on about vitamin C and handcream, large quantities of soup are being made at least twice a week, it’s that time of year, time for eggs baked in very creamy mashed potato with buttery spinach…..

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It’s all looking rather neat on the plate, obviously the idea is you mash everything up together, gently of course, into a big potato, butter, spinach, more butter, garlic, egg mess which is altogether more tasty.

An Egg – fried in olive oil until it is frilly at the edges but still runny of yolk- perched on top of some nice mashed potato, maybe with a flick of Tabasco has long been a favourite of mine. It was a great relief to discover Vincenzo shared my affection for such things. I can’t remember exactly when it was I decided to adapt our classic comfort supper by baking the eggs in the mash, I remember the inspiration though, it was a recipe from Fegus Henderson’s ‘Nose to tail Eating’ for baked celeriac with eggs.

Decant the mash into a warm dish….make 4 indents in the surface of the mash into which you break the eggs……Season the eggs and place two small knobs of butter on top. Bake in a hot oven for approximately 5 minutes until the egg whites are firmed up but the yolks still runny. Serve immediately.

Even before I had made it I had an inkling it would become a trusted favourite ….. and I was right.

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My soft spot for mashed potato is deeply engrained and blurred by nostalgia. I grew up with very buttery mash. Despite my mum’s affection for Elizabeth David, olive oil (we are talking England in the 1970′s here not that many years previously people were still buying olive oil in little bottles from the chemist) and French Provincial Cooking, we were not deprived of more stoutly English suppers. We were not only raised on ratatouille, dauphinoise and ragus but also hearty English fare, much of it topped or accompanied by a good generous dollop of mash;  smoked fish pie, Shepard’s pie, plump pork sausages, fried eggs, liver and bacon or simply straight. a bowl of plain mash, easy and celestial.

I can get a little evangelical about mashed potato but only because I have been converted. It was a tiny epiphany but an epiphany just the same, the discovery of the potato ricer. Maybe you already have a faithful and trusted way with mash, maybe you too are evangelical, good, you should be, it’s important to be sure of your mash. If on the other hand you are less certain then maybe you should consider a potato ricer, a rather pleasing object especially if you find a classic metal one. A ricer gives mash a lovely even texture, incorporates plenty of air into proceedings it also makes mashing or should I say ricing an easy, rather satisfying and mildly amusing - all those little worms of potato – task. Best of all, you don’t need to peel the potatoes, you just cut them into chunks and cook them with the skin on, which is meant to preserve the flavour. Then as you rice them the skins are removed.

The potatoes. Until I am persuaded otherwise I will keep using local grade A potatoes, red skinned, everyday ones bought from a farmer I trust. They have nice balance between floury and starchy as I find very floury potatoes tend to get rather waterlogged and often using all starchy ones produces a mash which is a little too sticky and gluey for my taste.

I follow Hugh’s advice when it comes to milk and butter……. plenty of it…. Did I mention I met him once, I was a waitress in this great organic pub he was being all organic in, he was really rude to me, I mean REALLY REALLY rude…TWICE, he made me cry. I got over it and despite it I still really like his food, his books, dammit I even buy his books, I have 4 of them and I have only defaced one photo of him in each, innocent stuff, moustache here, silly nose there, Toe weed written across his forehead I figure he deserves it.

The mashing. When I have drained the potatoes into a colander I put the whole milk ( about 200ml for every 1kg/2llb of potatoes) and lump of butter ( about 140g for every 1kg/2llb of potatoes) back in the still warm pan over a very very gentle flame so the milk warms and the butter melts, then I turn off the heat. I then quickly push the potato through the ricer into the pan and beat it energetically with a wooden spoon, I season with salt and pepper and beat again adding a little more milk if necessary. Sometimes I will add a very big spoonful of cream if I have some in the fridge.

The spinach. We are eating lots of spinach at the moment, what with the broken elbow and my impending cold, I seems the sensible thing to do. I am buying the big meaty stuff from the market, deep green and glossy leaved spinach that makes you feel stronger just looking at it..

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You wilt the spinach down in a big covered pan. A very thorough draining and then a few minutes being nudged around a frying pan with plenty of butter and some garlic is all this spinach needs.

So there you have it, some comfort on a plate, the culinary equivalent of a fleecy green blanket…..

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Eggs baked in very creamy mashed potato with buttery spinach

4 generous servings

  • 1 kg  spinach
  • 1.3kg  all purpose potatoes
  • 160g butter for the potatoes
  • 200ml – 250ml whole milk
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg
  • 4 large eggs
  • 75g butter for the spinach
  • 2 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed with back of a fork in a little salt

set the oven to 200°c/ 4ooF

Wash and rinse, wash again and pick over the spinach and then scoop it into a big heavy pan with just water you have washed it in clinging to the leaves. Cover the pan and put it over a modest flame. After a few minutes, turn the spinach with a wooden spoon, it will be starting to wilt. Keep and eye on the spinach after about 5 minutes it will have wilted down to about a 1oth of its original volume sitting in a pool of green liquid.

Drain the spinach in a fine holed colander – keep the liquid, you should drink !!!!….think Popeye kids. Set the spinach aside.

Make the mash. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into halves or chunks (without peeling them if you are using a ricer) and boil them a large pan of lightly salted water. When they are soft enough to mash, drain them thoroughly.

Put most of the whole milk and lump of butter back in the still warm pan over a very very gentle flame so the milk warms and the butter melts, then I turn off the heat. Put the rest of the milk and some extra in another small pan and warm it.  Quickly push the potato through the ricer into the big pan and beat it energetically with a wooden spoon. Add more milk from the small pan, beat again and taste, check the consistency is as you like it.

Season with salt and pepper and a grating of nutmeg and beat again adding a little more milk if necessary.

Decant the mash into a VERY warm oven dish – this is really important as the heat of the dish will help cook the eggs.  Working quickly so the potato stays nice and hot even the mash roughly with the back of the wooden spoon and then make 4 indents in the surface of the mash into which you break the eggs. Season the eggs and put two small knobs of butter on top. Bake in the hot oven for 5 – 10 minutes until the egg whites are firmed up but the yolks are still runny.

While the eggs are baking warm the butter and garlic over a very gentle flame so the butter melts and is infused with the garlic. Add the spinach to the pan and raise the heat. Stir carefully so the spinach is warmed through and well coated with the butter.

Pull the eggs from the oven and serve immediately.

It must be all the spinach and hours under one of the aforementioned blankets beacuse Vincenzo is really really on the mend, the plaster comes off early so he can start physiotherapy. He will not be doing any proper drumming for a while, hard for a drummer but at least the tapping can commence

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Roasted carrot and cumin soup with crispy pancetta

It’s wonderful……

…….when just a teaspoonful, a pinch, a soupçon, a flick, a twist, a squeeze, a dash of something nudges a dish from good to good.

Yesterday it was a teaspoonful, two to be precise, of toasted and ground cumin seeds and a little heap of extremely crispy pancetta which nudged the Roasted carrot soup.

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I have made this soup twice this week, pans of both good and good

Good by the way can be identified by an umm of about 1 second accompanied by a slight pout and an approving nod of the head. Italians will mutter buona at this point …good however is an ummmmmm of about 3 seconds accompanied by a serious pout, wide eyes, a roll of the head and if you are Italian that anticlockwise circular movement made with the right hand and a decisive buonissimo.

The first time (the good) was last Monday, the day Rome turned up its jacket collar, thrust hands in pockets and resolved to pull out woolen clothes and coats. I didn’t actually buy the carrots with soup in mind, my serious autumnal hankering for a plateful of roasted carrots meant they were destined for the oven. It seemed wasteful and foolish to crank up the oven for a modest portion of something so very tasty, so I peeled plenty and decided to make some soup as well. A roasted carrot soup based on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s faithful recipe for roasted pumpkin soup

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It is a straightforward kind of recipe with which I have taken liberties. Big chunks of carrot and mild onion are doused in plenty of olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt and given a good old roasting at about 200° for 35 minutes until they are soft, deep in colour and caramelized at the edges. Meanwhile you soften a couple of very finely chopped shallots and garlic in a heavy pan until translucent and floppy then you add a pinch of peperoncino. Once the roasted carrots are ready you add them to the heavy pan, stir and cover everything with chicken or good vegetable stock, bring the pan to a gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Finally you blast the contents of the pan with an immersion blender until it is smooth and creamy, here it is…It was good.

Ok, let me explain why I didn’t post about it on Monday, the nearly bit….. the soup I made on Monday was good and delicious soup which I would happily eat once a week given the appropriate quantity of good bread. Is is full flavoured, the different stages, the softening of the shallots, the roasting of the carrots, the stock, produce a soup with deep layers concentrated flavours. It’s thick with that wonderful creamy, grainy texture root vegetable pureès  are famous for…… In short it is good…. nearly good but not quite. It needed something else, it derserved something else – a nudge if you like and then I could share the recipe with you.

I pulled out some faithful books and made a list, coriander seeds, more peperoncino, pancetta, guanciale, beef stock, root ginger…….it was beginning to look like a rather nice experiment if not a rather overwelming quantity of roasted carrot soup, I also sent a message to one of my cooking big sisters, someone who I wish had a food blog but doesn’t as she doesn’t really know what a blog is. The reply was pretty immediate, an extraordinary thing considering this is someone who uses and checks her phone with such stunning irregularity. It was all in capitals as usual as she still hasn’t learned to remove the caps lock. It said;

TOASTED AND GROUND CUMIN AND BITS OF CRISPY BACON ON TOP. LOVE TO YOU AND YOURS.

Such good and speedy advice from such a marvelous cook deserved to be acted upon immediately, carrots were bought, chicken stock made. cumin and pancetta in – lieu of bacon- at the ready.

Oh for the love of crispy pancetta.

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Back to the soup. I made the soup exactly as I had on monday but while the shallot was softening and the carrot roasting, I toasted 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds in a small pan over a gentle flame, only for a couple of minutes until they smelt nutty and warm. Then I ground the toasted seeds to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar and added them to the pan immediately after I added the roasted carrots.

It all smelt very very promising, a pan of deep orange, soupy happiness really but this time with a soft spicy undertone, I was excited. I fried the bacon until crisp and rippled at the edges then I snapped and snipped it into little pieces to heap onto the soup.

The cumin, the bacon, this was the nudge, it was good.

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Actually, however delicious the bacon – what isn’t more delicious with bacon on top, I would eat a dishcloth given enough crispy bits – the cumin is the real nudge, gently spicy, earthy, warm cumin bringing out the natural sweetness of the carrots and gently lifting their soft and more neutral flavours. The cumin gives the soup edge, subtle but edge nevertheless and a touch of spicy mystery.

I am not sure how motivated I am with my investigations now I have found such a good nudge for the soup……maybe the pancetta with the shallot…or the ginger……we will see.

Roasted carrot and cumin soup with crispy pancetta

Inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for roasted pumpkin soup with advice from Meg.

4 very good servings

  • 900g good carrots
  • 1 medium white onion
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • 2 shallots, peeled and very finely chopped
  • 1 plump clove of garlic, peeled and very finely chopped.
  • 50g butter
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • a good pinch of dried peperoncino flakes or dried chilli
  • 1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
  • 4 thin rashers of pancetta or bacon

Peel and cut the carrots and onions into big chunks put them in a baking tray dribble with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse salt roast about 200° for 35 minutes until they are soft, deep in colour and caramelized at the edges.

Meanwhile you soften a couple of very finely chopped shallots and garlic in a heavy pan until translucent and floppy.

Toast 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds in a small pan over a gentle flame, it only took a couple of minutes until they smelt nutty and warm. I then ground the toasted seeds to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar.

Add the roasted carrots and onion to the heavy pan, stir then add the ground cumin and pinch of peperoncino to the pan, stir. and cover everything with the chicken or vegetable stock.

Bring the pan to a gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes.

Finally you blast the contents of the pan with an immersion blender until it is smooth and creamy.

Fry the bacon until crisp and rippled at the edges then  snap and snip it into little pieces to heap onto the soup.

Mandarins are here and the drummer is on the mend. Thankyou for all your nice words by the way, I passed them on and they made Vincenzo very happy.

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Nearly

nearly…

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The last few days have been all about nearly……the ravioli, the ragu, the soup, the cake….. nearly ready to be posted about……nearly…….but not quite.

Not the fruit and nuts of course they are perfect already.

Vincenzo broke his elbow and banged his head mightily when he was catapulted off his bike. He has been in hospital all week and now has a big thick, heavy cast on his drumming arm which means no drumming for a while……..which for a drummer is a terrible thing.

He comes home tomorrow which is very good indeed.

Comforting, elbow fortifying food ahoy.

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Muskily spiced Prunes.

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I really like Prunes.

Sticky, chewy, complex, concentrated, thick with the taste of intense fruit sugar, treacle and dark caramel, jet black, mysterious prunes….

My affection for prunes..……despite the obstacles which include 1. the English speaking worlds prune negativity and habit of sniggering and turning up of the nose at the mere mention of prunes (no wonder the French think we are unsophisticates) 2.their unfortunate association with the dreary food and bleak dining rooms of English public institutions and the breakfast buffet at fusty seaside B&B’s. 3.The enduring childhood idea that prunes are as funny if not funnier than a whoopee cushion……… started young.

My Grandma may have championed their curative qualities, she believed you not only ‘ate‘ but also ‘took‘ prunes, but she also adored them. So we did too because we adored her. She would stew prunes gently in a little apple juice and sugar until they were plump and soft, then serve them just warm in the stickysweet syrup with thick, creamy custard. ‘Not too many mind‘ she might have said knowingly in her soft northern lilt with a cheeky smile ‘you can have too much of a good thing‘ and we would promptly roll around laughing because we knew what that meant. She would also make a sticky, prune dense fruit cake best eaten in thick slices with a chunk of crumbly Lancashire cheese at tea time.

My youthful love of prunes however was cemented by a certain round, deep, metallic red tin with gold writing my Dad would buy from Fortnum and Mason for my Mum every christmas. The tin, which would be prised opened after christmas dinner contained 16 Pruneaux d’agen fourrès. 16 jet black, glossy, dried Pruneaux d’agen from southwest france plumped back into voluptuous roundness by a filling of prune cream. My childish lips were stunned, were they one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten ? The dark, chewy, deep seductive flavour of the prune bursting open to reveal a soft, luxurious prune cream,  I might even have declared that Fortnum and Mason Pruneaux d’agen fourrès were my favorite thing ever. – precocious ? moi? – maybe a little, but mostly at the mercy of something ambrosial.

Holidays in France, in particular a rather unhappy French exchange with a girl calld Carolyn when I was about 13 during which I eased my homesickness by consuming much fine French farmhouse cooking, served to reinforce my prune devotion. Nobody it seemed was sniggering in France they were simply relishing prunes in both sweet and savory dishes.  I remember pork garnished with rich juicy prunes, a prune tart, a prune clafoutis I think and best of all prunes soaked…I mean drenched in Armagnac of which I ate many, went rather pink and subsequently found climbing the stairs to be a rather confusing task.

Growing up my mum never doomed prunes with medicinal or worse a ‘healthy’ eat your greens albatross. It was quite the opposite in our house, prunes were a treat, a luxury, a delight. They were in the pantry all year long for snacks or nice cakes, the odd tart and appeared with pleasing regularity on the table on Sunday mornings, part of a fruit compotê to be eaten with thick yogurt. It was Christmas however when prunes came into their own, wrapped in bacon for the delicious treat that is devils on horseback, as stuffing for the turkey or soaked in brandy and then fried in butter if we were having roast duck. Then, the tin, the red metallic one with the gold writing…….

As I write this I have popped a couple of prunes in my mouth just to remind myself how much I like them, ‘not too many mind‘ I can hear my grandma saying ‘you can have too much of a good thing’…….

I imagine if you don’t like prunes you haven’t bothered to read this far. If on the other hand you’re still reading and you share my affection for these delicious wrinkly things you’ll probably like this recipe, Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Muskily spiced prunes…..prunes that is, agen prunes if possible, poached in a syrup of fragrant earl grey tea, Marsala and spices.

Muskily spiced prunes – what a good name for a pudding.

Or a breakfast with greek yogurt….

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You may have noticed I have a penchant for compotes, for poached and stewed fruit and they are often my pudding of choice. Well executed such fruit needs no adornment. However a big dollop of real custard, a blob of creme fraiche or yogurt, maybe a sable biscuit is rather nice. These prunes are nudged right up next to my other favorites; poached quince, pears simmered in red wine or apricots in Sauterne.

The recipe

You make a spicy tea syrup of earl grey tea, muscovado sugar, some marsala, a stick of cinnamon, a clove, a strip of orange peel and a star anise in which poach your prunes for about 20 minutes – tender bellied Agen are perfect. Then you let the prunes sit and steep in the syrup for 12 or 24 or if you can wait 36 hours when they are soft and drenched in sweet spiciness.

They are, as Nigella suggests, delicious with baked custard. I also like them with creme fraiche or thick greek yogurt, the tartness of both balancing the sweetness of the syrup.

The last thing….

…..we prune lovers know that prunes will never win unanimous support and people may well snigger. So I suggest you make this for someone you know will appreciate it or, just eat them all yourself. 250g is about 32 prunes thats gives you 6 to taste while they are steeping, 3 breakfasts and a random snack you can eat whist reflecting that you’re glad so many people are rude about prunes and don’t like them as that means more for you.

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Muskily spiced prunes

from Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to eat’ -

To whom it may concern -why oh why did you change the book cover of ‘How to eat‘ and put that silly picture of her, we know she is beautiful and sexy, WE KNOW, but the other simple, understated cover was so much more in keeping with this wonderful erudite book.

yields 4 portions

  • 250g pitted prunes
  • 500ml boiling water and an earl grey tea bag
  • 150ml Marsala
  • a cinnamon stick broken in two
  • a star anise
  • a clove
  • the peel of half an orange pared from the fruit with a vegetable peeler
  • 100g light muscavado sugar

Make up 500ml of tea with the boiling water and the earl grey tea bag – discard the bag when the tea is strongish.

Put the tea, the Marsala, muscovado sugar, cinnamon stick, clove, star anise and orange peel in a heavy saucepan.

Bring the pan to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the prunes and allow them to poach for 20 minutes.

Leave the prunes for 12, 24 or best of all 36 hours – they get better and better so it is worth it.

After 36 hours remove the prunes and spices to another bowl with a slotted spoon and then pour the syrup into a smaller pan and reduce it over a lively flame until you have a thick unctuous puddle of almost treacle thick syrup. Once the reduced liquid is cool spoon it over the prunes.

Serve at room temperature with warm baked custard or cool yogurt.

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Filed under food, fruit, Puddings, recipes

Only soup will do.

There is an Italian proverb which says;

‘Sette cose fa la zuppa, cava fame e sete attuta, empie el ventre, snetta il dente, fa dormire, fa smaltire, e la guancia fa arrossire’

‘Soup does seven things, it takes away hunger and thirst, fills the stomach, cleans the teeth, makes you sleep. makes you slim and puts colour in your cheeks’

Soup is also all I want when I feel like this.

….tiresome aches and fuzzy snuffle, twitching limbs, wildly erratic temperatures and temperament, all accompanied by a rash of self-pity and itchy paranoia that ‘I have contracted something terrible from which I may DIE’ and then the weary disappointment at discovering that even though I feel terrible it is merely a rather common thing…..

So soup it was, borlotti bean soup…..

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….a thick and hearty one, you could say progress after yesterday’s chicken broth.

You know the sort of thing I am talking about, I have written about this soup and others very like it with almost excessive regularity here. The robust, rustic bean soups the Italians are so good at, the ones which in essence are just a puree of beans thinned with a little flavoursome stock, studded with more whole beans, scented with rosemary, sometimes fortified with pasta and maybe served with a dribble of raw oil and maybe some freshly grated parmesan.

I forsake the parmesan and oil yesterday figuring simplicity was more appropriate for my convalescence, surprisingly Vincenzo did too. I was about to encourage some sort of soup embellishment for HIS soup for the sake of the photo…..if not oil a parmesan then a blob of yogurt, some snipped chives, croutons…anything, something photogenic, the word garnish crossed my mind. GARNISH….I snapped out of embellishment mode as soon as that word reared it’s limp lettuce leaf of a head from I don’t know where, I remembered what a fine cook once said  ‘say farewell to garnish, just make sure whatever is on the plate is as it should be.’

Which is cosi…A soup proud to be brown and hearty with texture, a soup with no pretensions just the desire to nourish and sustain. A soup that if it were a spa would spurn any scented candle, designer water, soft gowns and towels (which are lovely but so soft they don’t actually dry you), relaxation to music luxury. It would be a rather austere but striking place in the Swiss mountains that encouraged long brisk walks. A place where where buxom, ruddy women wearing white coats would pummel you and give you a proper massage, wrap you up firmly in good coarse towels and a functional brown blanket and instruct you to rest on the terrace with glass of tap water – this is a spa after all, the water has just rolled down the moutain – to breathe the mountain air.

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Cannellini beans, chickpeas and borlotti are all fine beans for this recipe, we use tinned, dried and fresh beans depending on the state of affairs in the kitchen, timetable and with our frankly funny seasons.Yesterday it was brilliantly marbled pink and white fresh borlotti which would provide the earthy, nutty chestnutlike body for our soup. Vincenzo was on podding duty…. can I say podding, is pod a verb.……..he was in fact on everything duty, I was horizontal.

bag of beans

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I’ve noticed that people are often disappionted that borlotti beans lose there mottled charm when cooked. I don’t, I like the deep earthy russet colour they assume with gentle cooking as much as I love the pink and creamy white marbling they wear when raw.

Vincenzo is a good and patient soup maker. Our bedroom is not so far from the kitchen and I could hear the steady rhythmic sound of him making the battuto- the finely cut up mixture of celery, carrot, and onion produced by striking (battere) them on the chopping board with the knife – I am actually quite surprised he didn’t strike me with something at that point, I was being that annoying and demanding. I could just make out the gentle sizzle of the battuto becoming a soffritto as it was sautéed with the olive oil in the pan…gently for about 20 minutes until it is soft, translucent floppy and starting to look a little thick and sticky.

Oh, two things, which I know are going to sound obvious, it is as much a reminder to myself as you.  First, use really tasty, sweet, earthy carrots, celery and onion, they provide the base of flavour for the soup, if the vegetable foundations are insipid (like so many vegetables are today) the soup will be too. Second, make the soffritto carefully and slowly so the flavours have time to develope and emerge fully.

Back to the recipe, you probably know the rest, the beans are added to the soffritto base along with a sprig of rosemary and a squeeze of tomato concentrate.  The heat is raised and everything briskly stirred so the beans are completely coated with the elements of the base. You stir again and then cover everything with stock or water, throw in a Parmesan rind, bring the pan to a happy boil, reduce to a simmer and then leave the pan to bubble away gently for about 25 minutes (45 for fresh beans.)

Now, remove the rind and sprig of rosemary and set aside a couple of ladelfuls of liquid and some of the whole beans. Now pass the contents of the pan through the mouli or give it a blast with the hand blender to create a smooth gloopy soup. Reunite the beans and liquid you set aside.

Raw oil, some freshly grated parmesan from a big fresh hunk, nice bread.

Ummm….I have written this recipe out so many times and it seems to get more complicated every time….

Wholesome, honest and healing… After a bowl of this I was nearly better…… nearly…….I did need another day resting today……  you know, just in case I was still contagious……a bit more soup…..another film……

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Some say this soup is even more delicious with some pancetta or a couple of little pork chops added to the soffritto and allowed to sizzle for another 10 minutes before you add the beans. I agree.

Borlotti bean soup

Serves 4 generously which is as it should be

  • 900g fresh borlotti beans unshelled weight – shelled, or 250g dried borlotti soaked overnight and then simmered for 2 hours until tender or 450g tinned borlotti
  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • medium carrot peeled and finely diced
  • stick of celery finely diced
  • mild onion peeled and finely diced
  • 100g pancetta diced or 2 small pork chops (optional)
  • 2 tbsp tomato concentrate
  • small sprig of rosemary
  • 750ml vegetable or chicken stock or water the dried soaked borlotti were cooked in with more plain water added to make up the 750ml if necessary.
  • Parmesan rind
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare your soffritto of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery, sauteing them gently and slowly in the oil in a large heavy based pan until soft and floppy and translucent. If you are adding pancetta or pork chops add them now and cook for another 10 minutes turning in the vegetables every now and then.

Then you add the tomato concentrate and a sprig of rosemary, stir, and then add fresh, precooked or drained tinned borlotti.

Stir again and then cover everything with stock or water, throw in a Parmesan rind. Bring the pan to a happy boil, reduce to a simmer and then leave the pan to bubble away gently for about 25 minutes (45 if you are using fresh borlotti).

Now, remove the rind and sprig of rosemary and set aside a couple of ladelfuls of liquid and whole beans (and pork chops if you added them). Now pass the contents of the pan through the mouli or give it a blast with the hand blender to create a smooth gloopy soup.

Reunite the beans and liquid you set aside (and pork chops if you included them) and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve the soup in warm bowls and allow it to settle for 10 minutes before serving as it tastes better warm rather than hot.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, recipes, soup