Strawberry Vinegar Shrub

There’s no point in denying it any longer. The evidence is all there on the top and middle shelves of my refrigerator: I’m a hipster. If you should have the misfortune to open my fridge, you’ll see them there as clear as day. Various containers in glass or plastic with a makeshift label.

Not only am I pickling courgettes (what else can I do when I have this glut from the garden?) but I’ve started making shrubs. Continue reading “Strawberry Vinegar Shrub”

Readying The Vegetable Patch

Progress on the house has been slow over the past month or two and so I’ve turned my attention to something that I can have direct control over, without waiting on a boiler pump, flooring tiles or – even worse – a bathroom contractor to show up.

I’ve wanted a vegetable patch for a while but didn’t think that an opportunity would present itself as quickly as it did. It’s a beautiful south-to-south-westerly facing plot which is almost entirely in full sunshine but with a little stretch of shade under the fig trees in the far end.

Whilst I’ve been day-dreaming about this “orto” (“vegetable patch” in Italian) I’m not going to hide that I’m also rather intimidated about the whole thing. Continue reading “Readying The Vegetable Patch”

Playing With Porridge Oats

Since my last blog post just short of three weeks ago, I’ve barely been home. I’ve been to Florence, London, Milan and today I’m packing my bag again for a whirlwind weekend to Piedmont. I don’t mean to show-off; I know I’m lucky to travel so much but when you’re in a place for a very short amount of time, you don’t get to see much and it becomes exhausting. (Especially when you’re hoping and praying that the snow doesn’t cause too many delays…)

Yesterday, finally, I’d caught up with most of my work and my sleep and so I spent a couple of hours in the kitchen, playing around.

First on my to-do list was setting aside some lemons to eat during the summer months. I made preserved lemons this time last year too, but tragically I found out the hard way that there’s too much humidity in the walls of this old house (and not to mention, there aren’t any foundations) to support any kind of shelf. My glass jar full of salt and lemons ended up shattering on the floor.

Last week, I picked up a new jar in the sales and am determined to learn from last year’s lesson. I’m going to keep these precious preserved lemons at the back of my kitchen cupboard.

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Lemons, topped, almost quartered and sprinkled with sea salt and a little sugar.

Because we’re driving to Piedmont tomorrow and because I had a ton of porridge oats that I wanted to use up, I decided to make some food to take on the road with us. We English have a traditional tea-time snack called flapjack. It was one of my favourite treats from the bakery when I was a kid. There are two main types of flapjack: thick and often dry or thin, crispy and sticky. I always preferred the latter. 

Loosely speaking, a flapjack is made of oats, butter and golden syrup… sometimes currants. (There’s a good recipe here from BBC Good Food or here on Delia Online.) For my taste now, they’re overly sweet so I needed to adapt my childhood memories into something more palatable.

I made two versions because I wanted to test two different techniques: one heated with butter (but no golden syrup because it’s the equivalent of liquid gold here in Italy) and the other with banana. Whatever you want to call them – flapjacks, oat bars, cereal bars, granola bars, traybakes – they’re essentially the same thing and they’re super simple to make.

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Oats, candied ginger, dark chocolate and orange peel.

For the first version, I put a handful of sultanas in a small saucepan along with squeeze of orange juice (I wanted to rehydrate them somewhat to avoid them becoming shrivelled and burnt.) I added a thumbnail of fresh orange and lemon peel, a spoonful of brown sugar and a generous stick of butter. I very gently simmered this mixture until everything had melted.

Then, because I will always try and economise on the washing-up, I stirred 130 grams of porridge oats into this liquid mixture and sprinkled a very light dusting of cinnamon.

As a result of the heat and the stirring, the oats puffed up really nicely before they got spooned into a lined baking dish (21cm diameter) and then flattened down.

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Puffy oats with sultanas and citrus peel, easily filling the dish.

I had read on The Kitchn (here) that banana alone was enough to provide sweetness and bind the notoriously rebellious porridge oats together.

So, I mashed up a banana and in a mixing bowl, stirred in 130 grams of porridge oats and a sprinkling of candied ginger, dark chocolate and orange peel.

After I was satisfied that the banana was evenly spread throughout, I added the smallest drop of olive oil (just for luck!) and spooned this mixture into an identical baking dish.

Both were baked in the oven at 180°C (fan oven) for 16 minutes.


The result? The puffed up oats were the more aesthetically pleasing and it tastes good… but it crumbles too easily. Clearly a little golden syrup is needed.

The addition of a banana was a really good call. It really does bind the oats together well… despite it also lending a slightly greeny-brown colour…. you probably can’t detect that in the photo but you can see it in real life.

That said, I also like the difference in textures and flavours with the ginger and chocolate. It feels more sophisticated, if that makes sense?

What would I do if making this again? I’d repeat the flavours in the ginger and chocolate version but would find a way of heating up the oats (maybe in a little butter?) before adding the banana as my binding agent.

 

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Because the oats hadn’t been pre-cooked, it remained far more compact than in the other version.

“Un Tempo Cruo” – late January in the Veneto

Yesterday was a beautiful, bright sunny day that had me thinking that spring might be just around the corner. It was one of those days when being outside in the sunshine was a million times better than being inside, stuck in front of a computer.

I went down to the local market and picked up a few fresh ingredients for the next couple of days. The produce is still decidedly winterly – artichokes, various green leaves, particularly the various delineations of cabbage and cauliflower, and a couple of lonely fennel bulbs. In terms of the fruit selection: you have a vast choice between clementines or oranges, oranges or clementines…

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Aubergines straight from Sardinia at the Mercato Orientale, in Genova.

Feeling that spring in my step, I made a simple, raw salad to go with lunch. With minimal effort required, straight into the serving bowl, I mixed fennel, tips of puntarelle, slices of clementine and pomegranate seeds (from the freezer.) I used just extra virgin olive oil and salt as the seasoning but squeezed some clementine juice over the top to give some acidity and sweetness. I more commonly use lemon juice but using clementines is something I’m going to do more often. Not only does this salad look bright and colourful, but it tastes great too.

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Fennel, puntarelle, clementine and pomegranate salad.

Unfortunately, today is back to being grey and unforgivingly cold. “Un tempo cruo ” in the local dialect. Personally, I’d never heard the weather being described as “raw” / crudo before but I understand the meaning. It’s a cold that gets into your bones.

In the kitchen today, I’m making a rustic vegetable soup, loosely adapted from the first of these recipes from Anna Jones in the Guardian. I started with the soffritto, only to realise that I’d forgotten to buy carrots at the market. I knew that, actually, but last night I’d dreamt that, in order to make this soffritto, I successfully found a carrot lurking at the back of the fridge. It turns out that there was actually no carrot and I’m now ever so slightly concerned about the lucidity of my dreams. I can’t be the only person who spends their valuable shut-eye imagining what they’re going to cook later in the day… am I…?

Anyway, once my half-hearted soffritto was ready, I added a potato (peeled and cubed) and some similarly sized pieces of the rind of aged Monte Veronese cheese (the equivalent of parmesan in my area.) Following more or less the method outlined in the recipe, I have added vegetable stock, tinned datterini tomatoes, borlotti beans, tips of the fennel that I didn’t use yesterday in the salad and some more of those puntarelle leafy greens, again. I’ll leave it aside for a little while and when I’m ready this evening, I’ll pop down to the bakery to pick up some bread which’ll be used for dunking. The dog is always happy to accompany me for a walk into the village.


My next challenge is to figure out what to take to a lunch on Sunday. I’ve been told to bring a dessert (does that sound familiar? no? click here.) As it happens I have a ton of milk to use up so I thought about a riz au lait. The problem is that I can’t find the trusty recipe that I used many years ago so I’m having to wing it. I’ve checked a couple of recipes online but I’m going to spend this afternoon giving them a test run. To keep the saucepan covered or not. That is the question…

Frittelle for Carnevale

After the month-long festivities to celebrate Santa Lucia, then Christmas, New Year’s Eve and finally la Befana (don’t know who La Befana is? click here and read my last blog post) you would probably expect me to say that things were starting to quieten down and for this frigid winter to be tightening its icy grip. If only! We’re now starting to revv up for Carnevale!


Find out more about the Carnevale di Venezia, which officially starts on Jan 27th this year and runs until Shrove Tuesday, on the official website here.

I also heartily recommend checking out the Venice Insider website which has painstakingly listed all of this year’s events and much of the history.


Anyway, this morning, coming back from a meeting to decide upon a new marble staircase for the house (yay!) I popped into my local bakery for a caffè-brioche and saw these on the counter….

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Frittelle!

Frittelle, fritole or fritoe (depending on which accent or dialect you’re speaking with) are small, fried balls of dough. They’re about the size of a walnut but it’s quite easy to tell that these particular ones have been handmade because they are all different shapes and sizes. At my bakery, there was the choice of frittelle studded with raisins (uvette) or filled with pastry cream. In other parts, I’ve seen apple and pine nut frittelle as well as with lemon peel or chestnuts. Once they come out of the oven, they get generously sprinkled with sugar (just as you would with a doughnut) and are best eaten still slightly warm.

Like most things in Italy, there’s a certain time and place for everything and even these (otherwise pretty nondescript) treats are actually highly seasonal. The one and only season for frittelle, as you may have guessed, is during Carnevale.

If you want to try your hand at making them, the recipe on “I Love You More Than Food” looks solid but I admit that I haven’t tried it. Link here. Good luck!

A Perfect Autumnal Plum Pie

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Mother Nature has changed direction. After the balmy summer nights of July and August, September has arrived. The crisp, damp mornings. Even though now it is accompanied by the sound of tractors heading off to the vineyards and the smell of wine fermenting in the town’s cooperative, it still vividly reminds me of pulling up my knee-length red socks and going off to school.

Right now, it’s only a subtle shift. We’re not even halfway through September yet but already you can spot a change in hue. The piercing sunshine of the summer months has been painted over with a wide brushstroke of grey. Even last night, on the way home from the pizzeria (did you read about my recent kitchen woes?) the fog phenomenon found in northern Italy, la nebbia, made its first appearance of the season. It’s remarkably early.  Continue reading “A Perfect Autumnal Plum Pie”

Projects: To Grow, To Make and To Cook.

At risk of sounding like a snob, I don’t like going out to restaurants for mediocre food.

If we leave, having paid upwards of 50 or 60 euros (for two) for a dinner that I feel that I could have cooked myself, I am disappointed. I would rather go out once and be faced with a bill of 100 euros for an exceptionally good meal and a memorable experience than go out twice for sub-standard offering.

I choose to go to places which offer food that I can’t or don’t want to cook at home. For example, unless it’s so fantastic that it will knock my socks off (a very English expression!) I will rarely order a pasta dish in a restaurant. We have pasta for lunch nearly every day. Pizza, however, is a completely different kettle of fish because pizza costs between 6 and 9 euros and is cooked at temperatures that my home oven (even with a pizza stone) cannot rival. Similarly, I will happily order fish (well, probably not on a Monday) because when I cook a beautiful salmon or bouillabaisse at home, the smell remains with us for two more days at least. Am I the only one like this? Continue reading “Projects: To Grow, To Make and To Cook.”

Some Like It Hot

It’s been really boiling hot this week and often without as much as the slightest breeze. Temperatures will easily soar above 30 degrees (86F) every day… and what makes it particularly unbearable is that it doesn’t start getting cool until at least 10pm at night.

Normally I like standing in the kitchen, spatula in hand, stirring, tasting, seasoning… but in this past week, I have not wanted to spend any time near any sort of heating element. Therefore, on the menu this week have been quick, easy, healthy meals – packed full of fresh vegetables – which I can prepare in advance. (Thereby getting any cooking done before the heat of the day.)

June is one of the most exciting months for food, in my opinion, as it is the most plentiful. It is the perfect time for courgettes, peppers, beans – runner, broad and green beans – aubergine, lettuce, fresh garlic, tomatoes… and there are still a few good peas to be had. For fruit – it’s even better: strawberries, cherries, plums (especially for a particular, very small, variety called susine in Italian and mirabelle, in French), apricots are all in season…

In the garden, my mint and oregano plants are going crazy. My basil is crying for more water and a little less heat.

I’ve just come back from a week in Paris and my choices reflect that. On the dining table this week have been:

  • tarte fine (using puff pastry) with the thinnest of layers of Dijon mustard and thinly sliced, ripe tomatoes. Baked – first blind, then with all the toppings – in the oven for 15-20 mins. So simple but really tasty.
  • salade niçoise – this French classic requires no introduction.
  • soupe au pistou – using David Lebovitz’s recipe as my inspiration but adapted to what was in my cupboard, I made enough of this soup to last us several days. I prefer to serve it warm, rather than boiling.
  • panzanella: this is an Italian summer dish, composed of stale bread, pickled red onions, basil and lots of tomatoes. Fresh, tasty and filling.

 

I’ve promised the boy that, throughout the summer, there will always been something cold in the freezer. This week I made a granita (think of it as somewhere between a sorbet and an ice slush) and super-easy to make.

  • lemon and raki granita. I love citrus flavours because they’re so refreshing. I’ve made Diana Henry’s pink grapefruit and Campari version many times, but it’s easy to change the ingredients depending on your mood. This time, lemon juice and lemon peel were mixed with a little sugar and heated until melted. I added a small amount of water and a generous glug of raki (an anise spirit very popular in Turkey) to give it a bitter kick on the finish.

 

P.S. Pimms! It’s a lifesaver in moments like these. I leave the Pimms to macerate in fruit (lemon, apple, cherry) and mint for a couple of hours and then when the boy gets back from work, I fill up the jug with lemonade… and we go onto the half-finished house, once the builders have gone, and raise a glass to the future!