Ciao Bella

Last week I got together with friends to cook Italian food.  Unfortunately, our hosts had received some horribly upsetting news just a few days prior to our get together — they’d lost a very dear friend in dreadful circumstances!  I had met that friend on several occasions and I remember her very fondly, so I would like to dedicate this post to Vivian Hart.

Our menu was as follows:

  • Cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers
  • Caponata
  • Rosemary and olive oil focaccia
  • Spinach and ricotta gnocchi
  • Chicken with agrodolce sauce

If the list of dishes sounds ambitious, we did have a few things to nibble on while we were cooking!  And although it sounds like a lot of work, there were five pairs of hands to do the preparing and cooking, and I find that Italian food is not as labour intensive as say North African cuisines — that is apart from home made pasta!

The cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers were very straightforward to prepare.  The trimmed whole peppers were roasted until soft and starting to brown.

Once they were cool enough, a slit was cut into the side of each pepper, and they were stuffed with a mixture of goat’s cheese, mozzarella and basil.  Here they are, ready to go into the oven again:

We served the peppers with a few spears of cooked asparagus, which had been drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parmesan shavings.

Together with a campari spritz (campari, prosecco, sparkling water, slice of orange) this was a perfect appetizer!!

The recipe for the caponata came from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book – if you don’t have your own copy already, I would warmly recommend that you buy that book – it’s absolutely packed with good recipes AND good writing!

I have previously written about making caponata — you can find my recipe via this link.

Essentially, caponata is a stew made with onions, aubergines (eggplant), celery, tomatoes, olives and capers.  The results will vary, depending on the recipe and method you use — there are many, many variations of the recipe out there!

We served the caponata with home made rosemary and olive oil focaccia — a typical Italian flatbread.  Here is the dough, already shaped and after it had risen a second time:

Here is the dough with the “dimples”, which are simply made by pressing the fingertips into the dough, and with the rosemary olive oil drizzled over:

… and 20 minutes later, fresh from the oven: 🙂

The fresh focaccia was delicious in combination with the caponata:

The recipe for the spinach and ricotta gnocchi involved a fair bit of chopping, but once that was done the dough was fairly quick and straightforward to prepare.

The dough was shaped into walnut-sized balls which were refrigerated for 30 minutes or more before being boiled.

The finished gnocchi were delicious!  A regular portion consists of 8-9 gnocchi.  I knew that we still had our main course to eat, so I held back a little! 🙂

The recipe for chicken with agrodolce sauce came from the olive magazine website, as did the focaccia recipe.  Once all the ingredients had been prepared, the cooking was very quick!

The chicken escalopes were dipped in flour and browned on both sides:

Next, the vegetables (onion, celery and tomatoes) were stir fried:

After the vinegar and sugar had been added to the vegetables, the escalopes were returned to the pan and cooked for a few minutes together with the vegetables:

The whole cooking process took no more than 15 minutes and the resulting main course was scrumptious!

We finished our meal with some fresh cherries and strawberries, and more reminiscences of our dear departed friend.

Let’s meat again!

At the end of February, I got together with friends to explore the making of terrines and pates.  Some were to be for the store cupboard and others were to be eaten right away.

A recipe for rabbit terrine came from Simon Hopkinson’s book Roast Chicken and Other Stories; the recipe for perfect smoked mackerel pate came from Felicity Cloake; and from Jamie Oliver’s website came a recipe for pork rillons.

We started our cooking session with the rillons, which we had planned to eat for our lunch.  The pork belly had been cut up and salted the night before.  After being rinsed and dried, the pieces went into a frying pan with a little lard, to be browned all over.

The smell of the sizzling pork was wonderful!!

The remaining ingredients for this dish had already been prepared.

The browned pork cubes were put into an oven-proof dish, along with the herbs, the garlic, some lard and white wine.  The dish went into the oven for an hour and a half!

With the rillons out of the way, we started on the rabbit terrine.  The recipe called for a small rabbit, pork back fat, skinless belly pork, pork fillet, bacon rashers, onion, garlic, butter, egg, herbs, breadcrumbs, cognac, salt and pepper – quite a list!!

The butcher had already boned the rabbit, which was incredibly helpful!  In his introduction to the recipe, Simon Hopkinson calls for all ingredients to be chopped by hand, as the resultingtexture is nicer.  We chopped everything into small pieces, but the results were still a little too coarse for our liking.

We chopped some of the meat using two very sharp knives – that worked fairly well!

The hand-chopping took a lot of time and elbow-grease, so we put some of the meat through an old-fashioned meat grinder.

The remaining ingredients were mixed with the chopped meat..

… and then we packed the mixture into terrine jars – the kind that seal with a clip and a rubber band.

The terrines were put in a deep baking dish.  Hot water was added to come halfway up the jars, and then the dish went into the oven for just over an hour.

At that point, we were ready for a little aperitif!!

After a few sips of vin d’orange, we made the perfect smoked mackerel pate.  The recipe was very simple.  Smoked mackerel fillets were skinned (and any remaining bones removed), then pureed in a food processor with cream cheese, creme fraiche, and horseradish.  A few grinds of black pepper, some lemon juice and some chopped dill were folded in, and that was it!

I had dug up a horseradish root from my garden – somehow it looked a little like a sea creature, don’t you think?? 🙂

We ate the smoked mackerel pate with some toast – it was absolutely delicious and a perfect start to our meal!!

The rillons were our main course.  They had been filling the kitchen with the most delicious aromas for far too long!!

We served them very simply, with a salad of ‘bitter’ leaves and blood oranges.  The ‘bitter’ leaves were endive, chicory and radicchio.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the rich taste of the pork.

At the end of that delicious meal, our terrines were ready to come out of the oven:

They were looking very good! Of course the jars would have to cool completely before the clips could be taken off, and then they would have to stand for a week or two for the flavour to develop fully.

Prior to writing this, I opened a jar to taste it.  The pate is absolutely delicious – well worth the effort, and definitely one to make again!

Welcoming the rooster

The Chinese zodiac year of the Fire Rooster started on January 28, 2017.  Together with a few friends I decided to welcome the year of the rooster, by cooking a Chinese meal.  Our host had selected the dishes for us to cook and done all the shopping!

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As you can tell, we started proceedings with a glass of bubbly – just one glass though, there was work to be done yet!!  We cooked five dishes in total:

Simple Thai-style Lemongrass Shrimp Soup:

The soup only required two ingredients which might not be in your cupboard:  fish sauce and chili paste with garlic.  You should be able to find both of them at an Asian grocery store or in the speciality section of a larger supermarket.  The remaining ingredients are easy to find.

The finished soup was delicious, wonderful flavours of ginger and lemongrass.  Definitely one I will make again!

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Duck pancakes with hoisin sauce:

Preparing that dish was fairly straightforward, but different to the classic way of using crispy duck.  In this recipe, skinless duck breast was cut into strips, then stir fried and finished off with hoisin sauce.  We decided to substitute lettuce leaves for the pancakes, which made the dish lighter and gave it a bit of a crunch.

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King prawn and scallop stir fry:

The king prawn and scallop stir fry required a fair amount of preparation, but it was very quick to cook!  We substituted sherry for the rice wine, and there were some asparagus spears, so they went in as well! :).

It tasted every bit as good as it looked!

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Chicken and cashew nut stir-fry:

The chicken and cashew nut stir fry is an old favourite, which was easy to make.  It was great in that it required no special ingredients.

Once all the vegetables and ingredients were prepared, the cooking was very quick!  Another delicious dish!

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Mandarin Oranges with Grand Marnier and Mascarpone:

We finished our celebratory meal with a light and refreshing dessert.  It was a perfect ending to a delicious meal!

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Discovering new flavours

Our cooking get-togethers are still on the theme of ‘take one cookbook and do as many recipes as you can’.  The last time we met up, the book for the day was Siriana by Sabrina Ghayour.  It’s a book full of delicious sounding recipes, and we prepared three:

The above links are to various sites where you can find the recipes.  You could of course buy your own copy of Siriana.  I’ve not yet added the book to my bookshelf, but I feel that it may not be all that long… 🙂

The scallop dish was pretty easy to prepare.  A mandolin slicer made very short work of shaving the fennel into wafer-thin slices!

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The shaved fennel was mixed with lemon juice and olive oil, and set aside while we made a dressing with honey, vinegar, saffron, orange juice, olive oil and a little lime juice.

The scallops were looking beautifully plump!

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Once we were ready to sit down for our starter, the scallops were seared on both sides in a very hot frying pan.  When they were just done, we arranged some of the dressed fennel and a few scallops on each plate, and drizzled over the prepared dressing – et voila!!  Delicious and simple to prepare at the same time!

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The Bandari monkfish tails were prepared for our main course. There was one monkfish tail per person.

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To prepare this dish, the monkfish tails were marinated with a spice paste, which contained turmeric, curry powder, cumin, ground coriander seeds, cinnamon, garlic, fresh ginger, coriander leaves, dill weed, Greek yoghurt, and lime juice.  Quite a list of ingredients!!

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Sabrina Ghayour recommended that a shirazi salad would be perfect to accompany the fish, so while the monkfish tails were marinating, we prepared that.

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The shirazi salad is a colourful mixture of fresh vegetables: cucumber, tomato and red onion, all cut into small pieces. Here’s the start of it.

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The salad is very simply dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper.  Before serving, it is sprinkled with sumac (a sour tasting seed) and pomegranate seeds.  Here’s  our finished salad:

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The monkfish tails were simply fried with a little olive oil…

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…and the finished dish tasted every bit as good as it looked!

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Originally we had planned to have our get together on Shrove Tuesday, also called pancake day in Britain, and so we had chosen crepes suzette for the dessert course.  Unfortunately our get-together had to be postponed,  but we stuck with the crepes suzette for dessert all the same.

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Wwe used Gordon Ramsay’s recipe (you can find it here), but we didn’t quite follow his method!  First we made a stack of crepes (thin pancakes), which were covered in plastic wrap, to stop them from drying out.  The oranges were filleted (the peel cut away, and the segments cut from the membranes), and some squeezed for juice.  The sugar was caramelized in a stainless steel pan (please don’t ever use a non-stick pan for that purpose, the temperature is too high for the non-stick coating), and once it was a nice caramel colour, grand marnier liqueur was added and “flamed”.  Careful, don’t singe your eyebrows!  The orange juice was added next, and the whole left to bubble for a moment.  Next the crepes were dipped into this sauce, one after the other, and each crepe folded into four.  They were then arranged on the plates, and decorated with the orange segments.  The crepes suzette were totally delicious!  I wish there had been more!!

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Do you have a favourite cookbook or recipe you return to time and time again??  Do let me know!!

 

Plenty more

A couple of weeks back, I published the 200th post on this blog!!  To mark this milestone, I treated myself to a very special dinner at Nopi, whilst stopping over in London on a recent trip.  Nopi is a restaurant which was created by Yotam Ottolenghi, amongst others.  I’ve long been a fan of Mr Ottolenghi’s recipes, so this was very exciting!!  Plenty more is the title of Yotam Ottolenghi’s fourth book.  There’ll also be ‘plenty more’ posts on this blog!

The restaurant was very stylish and there were beautiful touches everywhere!  The food was sublime, and the menu was very much geared towards people sharing a multitude of smaller dishes – perfect for me and my companion!  That way we got to taste far more than just two starters and two main courses.  I felt too self-conscious to take many photographs, and the pictures I did take did not come out well enough to share with you, because of the low light levels.  Phone cameras can only do so much, unfortunately. 😦

But fear not, I have been doing some more cooking with my friends, and together we tried out more of Mr Ottolenghi’s recipes!! 🙂

Here’s what we cooked:

Since it was not long after Christmas and New Years, we all agreed that we wanted to keep it as simple and light as possible. The dishes we had chosen were perfect for that!

You’ll be able to download and print off the recipes from the above links (to find the pear recipe please keep scrolling down the page), so I won’t go into any details as regards preparation or ingredients.  Without further ado, here are the pictures for the grilled red mullet with lemon and celery salad:

The multi-vegetable paella was a glorious combination of rice and all kinds of vegetables:

With the caramelised pears we substituted strained yoghurt for the mascarpone, and left out the fennel seed crackers – it was still a very delicious dessert!!

It was such fun trying out these new dishes, and the results were so very good.  Have you tried out any of the recipes from my blog?  I’d love to hear how you got on!

Let there be plenty

Soon the festive season will be upon us all – a time of getting together with friends and family, sharing good cheer, good food, and presents – a time when most of us will eat too much, and some of us may drink a little too much…  It’s all part of the festive celebrations, a time-honoured tradition – and seriously, who can resist all that delicious food and drink??

Mindful of the excesses which may be heading our way I thought I would share a special meal with you, which I recently prepared and ate with some very dear friends.  The starting point was “Plenty”, a book by Yottam Ottolenghi, a British based cookery writer with Italian, Israeli and British passports.  “Plenty” is Ottolenghi’s second book, a collection of vegetarian recipes, which he developed for his column in the Guardian Weekend Magazine.  It is a book that draws on many different cuisines and influences.

 

My friends and I selected three dishes from the book:

“Plenty” is not strong on recipes for desserts.  I wanted to stay with a recipe by Ottolenghi for dessert, so I did a search on the net and turned up an interesting sounding recipe for strained ricotta balls with banana fritters, on the Guardian website.

I started the dessert recipe days ahead of our meal, as the ricotta balls need to drain in the fridge for several days.

For the Soba noodles and wakame, I searched the internet for an on-line retailer, and found a Japanese store in Paris which did mail order!!  Great!!  The package arrived on time – five out of five to http://www.kioko.fr !

I had never eaten or worked with wakame before, so it was interesting to try it.  Wakame is an edible seaweed, most often used in soups and salads.   It was very easy to re-hydrate the required quantity:

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Other ingredients for the salad were soba noodles, which are made with buckwheat flour; shredded cucumber (skin on), which is salted and left to drain for some time; as well as toasted sesame seeds, coriander and mint leaves, and radish sprouts.

The dressing was made with rice vinegar, lime juice, grated lime zest, chillies, fresh ginger, sugar, salt, sesame oil, garlic and sweet chilli sauce.

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It was quite a challenge to mix all these ingredients, but the result was worth all the effort – a wonderful combination of flavours and textures!

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The roasted butternut squash called for ingredients which were easy enough to find!  Butternut squashes are plentiful at this time of year, and I think they are the best of all winter squashes for flavour.  The squash was cut into slices, put on a lined baking sheet and liberally anointed with a mixture and oil, ground allspice and coarsely ground cardamom.  A little sprinkle of salt, and 15 minutes in the oven.

The dressing called for Greek yoghurt, lime juice, tahini, a little water and salt.  The sauce was poured over the cooled squash slices, and the whole decorated with lime segments, finely sliced green chilli and chopped fresh coriander.  Another winner!!

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The recipe for the caramelised garlic tart called for an incredible amount of garlic – three whole heads!

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The peeled garlic cloves were blanched in boiling water, drained, fried and then simmered with balsamic vinegar, rosemary and thyme until tender and caramelised.

The tart case was made with ready rolled puff pastry, which was blind-baked (pre-baked).P1010018

For the filling, two types of goat’s cheese (soft and hard) were crumbled and scattered over the base of the pastry case.  The garlic cloves were added, and the whole covered with a custard made of creme fraiche, double cream and eggs.

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The aromas which came from the oven while the tart was baking were heavenly, and the finished tart absolutely delicious!!

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When the time came, the dessert was very simple to prepare.  Having made the ricotta balls ahead, all that was left to do was to slice the bananas, prepare a tempura batter and deep fry the banana pieces.  I love fritters, and these were very delicious!!

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I would definitely make all these recipes again!  They were all straightforward to prepare and oh-so-delicious!!  Vegetarian food does not have to be boring, and “Plenty” is a testament to that!

If you want to try any of the recipes, the links at the beginning of this post will allow you to print them off.  Happy cooking and eating!