Sunday, March 9, 2008

Two Pasta Dishes

I should go to Moen's more often. I suspect the reasons I don't is my bank balance and my chronic inability to resist foodie goodies. God has clearly written me off as an atheist as if he didn't want to lead me into temptation then he'd never have let me walk passed this fabulous shop two or three times a week. I am, as they say, like a kid in a sweet shop.

I did well, though, yesterday, escaping having bought what I went in for and nothing else. The sausages were huge, an inch or more thick and a foot in length. Deep purple-red and smelling sweetly of fennel they were just what I wanted for supper. Rigatoni con pomodoro e salsiccia is a wonderful dish, a more exciting version of Spag Bol with a fancy-dan name and several layers of extra flavour. It's basically just a ragu but using those brilliant sausages split open and broken up rather than boring old mince. Slow cooked with wine and tomatoes until thick, dry and concentrated, before being enriched with cream and nutmeg, it makes a deeply comforting meal and a little goes a long way. Those four oversized sausages would have fed six hungry people.

The inspiration had come from a Friday visit to Jen's local Italian in Hammersmith and a chance to eat their parpadelle al lepre - thick, wide pasta ribbons with a sweet, gamey hare sauce. One of the great things about this place is the chance to eat a classic Italian dish that you have read about but never tried. Last time, it was a classic osso buco with risotto milanese, this time the hare. The sausage was loose and wet, like a sloppy gravy, and flavoured well by the humble carrot. It's soft sweetness adding to the meaty hare. It reminded Jen of the veal breast and carrots we ate in Paris the day after the wedding last year. A case of the soffrito becoming the star. Boiled beef and carrots may be great, slow cooked hare and carrots with silky, expertly made homemade pasta might just be even better.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Moules Mariniere

I like authenticity. Some dishes should be scared. For lunch I decided to cook Moules Mariniere, and reached for the French cooking bible, Larousse, to see what its - and therefore the definitive - rules are.

I'm in luck, the book's recipe largely agrees with my own thoughts: no cream but lots of butter, shallots to start, parsley to finish and an all important reduction of the sauce after you have lifted the open mussels out.

We disagreed on one thing, though. Garlic. Larousse says no. I say yes. Definitely yes. I reach for a couple of juicy cloves and bash them on the board.

As I said, I still like authenticity, just not as much as I like garlic.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

When the moon hits the sky... a big pizza pie, That's Amore.

I adore pizza. For a bread obsessive who is more than a little partial to tomatoes and cheese, it is damn near perfect food. My obsession is relatively recent though; the pizza of my childhood was either the cardboard monstrosities made by the awful Deep Pan Pizza Company or my mother's well meaning but misguided efforts that consisted of a tray of bready wholemeal base topped with cheddar and green peppers. It probably came out of a Crank's vegetarian recipe book, which should tell you all you need to know. Any passing Neapolitan would have been mortified by the sight it. But hey, there weren't many passing Neapolitans in 1980s Worcester. The nearest we came was the multi-coloured ice cream Dad would serve up for dessert.

I'm not sure when I realised that pizza was one of the Greatest Things Ever but now I relish it with the sort of fervour only a convert can muster. I can sense the pilgrimage to Naples getting closer all the time. In the meantime we have two very good, unpretentious pizzeries nearby. Lavender Hill's Donna Margarita and Earlsfield's La Pernella. For what it is worth, the great Dan Lepard eats at the former and rates it as London's best.

Friday night found us in La Pernella, we turned up at 10 half-expecting a polite what-time-do-you-call-this but instead were welcomed like the family's fifth cousins twice-removed. Red wine, bruschetta, antipasti and a sensational half-metre pizza came to £34. We left happy with the bells ringing ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling, as we sang 'Vita Bella'...

Monday, February 18, 2008


I ate some raspberries yesterday. Five or six of them balanced on top of the most exquisite galette-style biscuit that was smeared with an intensely vanillary creme patissiere. A dark chocolate web of ganache on top of the berries was literally the icing on the cake. The amazing thing was not how good the whole thing tasted together - the cakes at Clapham's Macaron are always wonderful - but how tasty those framboises were. So juicy and flavourful and ripe. Heaven knows where they got them at this time of year. They were the exact opposite of the hard, tasteless berries than spoil those Valentine's desserts.

What's that got to do with rhubarb? Well, normally February is when the red fruit lover can normally first get a fix. A hint that the fruit desert of winter will go eventually and the wild larder will be filled with juicy red flavours again. Only it comes in the form of thin sticks of light deprived forced rhubarb. Snap one and sniff. It's all strawberry, raspberry and citrus, like a young, simple red Burgundy from Marsannay or Fixin. The aromas seem to have nothing in common with the bendy stalks or the yellowing leaves. There's just too much zest and life in that smell.

The rhubarb cost a fortune (when will I learn not to shop at the greengrocer's in Primrose Hill?) but stewed gently to a pulp with some orange juice and ginger, it will lift the spirits at breakfast this week. Stirred into some creamy yoghurt or just plain in a bowl, jolting the senses awake with its tart conversation.

Friday, February 15, 2008

If Food be the Food of Love

My old friend Sarah’s Dad used to own a bistro in Sheffield way back in time, before he discovered absentee-landlordism and a love of skiing. On his first Valentine’s Day as a restaurateur, he spent most of the day sawing four-tops in half and cobbling together table legs to double the number of tables in the restaurant. And therein lies the problem with Valentine’s Day, it is an opportunity for the restaurant trade (not to mention florists, chocolatiers, greeting card manufacturers and God know’s who else) to profit from your tender feelings. Money might not be able to buy you love, but it can certainly buy you some garish commercial trinkets instead.

Having cooked my share of Valentine’s Night meals in restaurants – a staple diet of oysters, , sea bass (for the ladies), steak (for the gents) and rock-hard out of season strawberries – I know better than trying to eat out on February 14th. If the overpriced set menu doesn’t bore you to tears, the couple in the window with the psychopathic loathing for each other will at least ensure the night is memorable. When I was in the kitchen, our main amusement would come from trying to convince one of the Commis Chefs to hide a ring in some unsuspecting bastard’s girlfriend's dessert.

So what did we eat last night? A late dinner of orcchiette pasta with some early season purple sprouting and a healthy dose of garlic, chilli and anchovy alongside a half-bottle of Bisol’s unimpeachable Crede Prosecco. A simple dinner for two in the peace and quiet of our own kitchen. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Praise of Gastropubs

My first ever catering job was in a pub kitchen exactly ten years ago in 1998. But it was anything but Gastro. Scottish and Newcastle owned it and the only thing we had to cook were omelettes. Everything else was pre-portioned and frozen, or came in a dreaded oversized catering pack. I lived off Curly Fries and Garlic Mayo Sandwiches for the summer and learnt more about industrial cleaning products than I did about cooking. Not so happy days.

Recently I'd been lulled into thinking that things had changed. On Saturday, it all came flooding back. Driving back to London with the folks, we aimed at a pub Dad remembered from a few years back that had a gorgeous Thames-side location just outside Oxford: The Kings Arms at Sandford-on-Thames. Remember that name and file it under Never Ever. The whole place was ghastly, starting with the blackboard propped up outside than "greated" us warmly and beckoned us inside with meaningless flowery prose about tending to our needs.

All the Crap Pub alarm bells started to ring inside my head, to be confirmed by the harvest festival of mayonnaise and ketchup sachets on a table by the door. For some reason we stayed. When we came to order, I asked whether my coeliac mother could have the bacon-wrapped-mozarella-stuffed-chicken with the tomato and basil sauce.

-She's gluten what?
-Gluten free. She can't eat any wheat products or anything with flour in it.
-Oh. (Pause. Whirring cogs audible.) I'll check with Chef.

Chef my arse. In the end, two people had to go and ask The Microwave Man and eventually the answer was "We don't know, it all comes in packets". What could she eat on the menu? "How about the salad bowl?" The one with pasta and croutons? "Yes". We left hungry. Apparently we should phone ahead in future, presumably to give the time to read the ingredients on the packets and look words like gluten up in a dictionary. I doubt we will, mind.

Anyway, back to gastropubs. Yes, they have ruined a few classic old time boozers but they have rescued some shit ones too. And, anyway, what's wrong with a pub offering an edible plate of food that wasn't made in a factory? Italians have cheap, local trattorias, the French have bistros, the Greeks tavernas. Why shouldn't I eat something decent in a pub? It doesn't have to be (and bloody well shouldn't be) a Michelin rip-off with tians of aubergines or foie gras sauces. A decent pasta dish or homemade pie will do nicely, a simply grilled lemon sole or some crisply fried squid. It's not much to ask is it?

In my head, I compose the perfect ploughmans just as I imagine musicians do songs and poets haikus: a big slab of pork pie with real jelly, some properly mature hard cheese, a decent local apple, a dab of homemade chutney, a spicy pickled onion and maybe a slice of some chewy, rustic bread. One day, I'll buy a pub and do it. You watch me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pancake Day

Definitely in my Top Five days of the year, simply because you have to eat pancakes. I can remember Shrove Tuesday as a child as clearly as turkey at Christmas or excessive amounts of chocolate eggs at Easter, and I love that foodie nostalgia. There are so few days of the year where food traditions are still alive, that we need to celebrate and nurture them or lose them all to history. Today is just far too much fun to let that happen.

My topping of choice is lemon juice and golden syrup. I know the purists say lemon juice and sugar only, but golden syrup is sugar. Just better.