Yes, this is as good as it sounds…. Welcome to my first winter warmer dish of the season. This definitely falls into the indulgent category of my recipes (a quick glance at the amount of butter and cheese in the ingredients list can tell you that much) but when has a little indulgence hurt anyone? […]
One of the things I love about leaving England to drive back to Italy for a while is what I call Cooking the Fridge. Despite my careful planning, two days before leaving I find myself with a fridge full of things I don’t want to throw away. Follows an enforced cooking session as I empty the fridge and stash things in the freezer for when we return which leaves me feeling frugal and virtuous and stores up treats for later. Win, as they say, win.
This time my fridge yielded the stock from a beef casserole which happily went with a glut of carrots and onions (how many did I imagine I needed?) to make carrot and onion soup. The beef casserole was a proper daube with lardons flamed in Cognac before a long slow cook so the stock is pretty impressive. I’ve added water to make enough liquid for the soup but it still socks you in the mouth with its taste.
I’ve chopped the unending celery, onions and carrots and all the herbs in the garden for a mirepoix ready for osso bucco or lentils in December. And the entire bag of shallots lurking in the salad drawer has made a single jar of caramelised onions for an onion and goats’ cheese tart in December. Just cook the slowly with a dribble of oil and a spoonful of dark brown sugar. Add a dash of salt at the end.
Then there’s some broccoli which has fallen through the net until today. I have whipped it into edibleness by roasting it with nuts and spices and covering in a rich cheese sauce. I find roasting it first really adds to the flavour.
Potatoes and eggs have succumbed to an ad hoc gratin with the remains of the cheese.
Cooking apples have been stewed (in the microwave) against future porridge delights or Winter crumbles.
So why not look in your fridge now if you have a slow day and cook the lot. Let me know what unusual things you make!
Here is the happy outcome of the day.
The Mrs Tiggywinkle feel of putting things in jars is unbeatable. And that reminds me of the fermentation I promised a while ago. Sandor Katz is the god of fermentation and once I had heard him on the radio and seen him on youtube I just had to have a go. As you can see I have experimented with pickling French beans, tomatoes and cabbage and it had already begun to bubble before I left. I’m new to this so I don’t know what state they will be in in four weeks time but I shall report back.
If you would like to learn about fermentation you could do a lot worse than listen here and look here for instruction. Great news : fermented foods are now fashionable as health foods because they replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut, keeping your weight down and your digestion working well.
This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.
At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.
I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.
But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.
And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.
My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.
After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.
And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.
This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.
But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less.
I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion.
The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up.
Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.
I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing.
Do you ever wake up feeling like a bad person, full of nameless dread and no idea why? If this happens to you and you are of an enquiring sort, interested in your body and the meaning of life, you may mull over what these feelings mean and get nowhere. If, God help you, you are of a psychological bent, you can spend a lot of time on this and still find out nothing much. Imagine my delight then to read the following passage in a very jolly book by Dr Giulia Enders called Gut, the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ.
‘It is now generally accepted in scientific circles that people with certain digestive problems often suffer from nervous disorders of the gut. Their gut then sends signals to the part of the brain that processes negative feelings, although they have done nothing bad. Such patients feel uneasy but have no idea why.’
So, let’s take it slowly. This doctor is telling us that our brain cannot distinguish between bad feelings that come from malfunctioning digestion and bad feelings that come from having done something we consider morally bad. Signals of uneasiness, the urge to make amends, even the terrible urge we seem to have to punish ourselves, may be a consequence of indigestion! Now you are aware of that, maybe you, like me, can ignore those feelings when they arise. Just say to yourself, ‘I probably ate too much‘ or ‘That midnight cheese sandwich was a mistake‘ and give it no more thought. You may need to take better care of your gut and what you put into it. (Are you drinking enough water? Do fresh fruit and vegetables figure prominently enough etc etc.) But you don’t need me to tell you what is good to eat because every magazine, newspaper and TV programme seems to be full of it. You may need help disentangling the confusion which links what kind of person you are with what you eat and what you look like. You see gut feelings can be very misleading!
Giulia Enders book was brought to my attention by a friend suffering from diverticulitis (ouch!) and it proves to be extremely entertaining with cartoons drawn by her sister and a determined attempt to demystify the gut and to do away with embarrassment about poo that gets in the way of our health. She tackles insensitivities and allergies and draws attention to the far reaching effects of ignoring your digestion. It’s a great read.
But now we come to Sunday Tomato Eggs which I found in the Financial Times Weekend magazine some months ago and which is attributed to Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a killer when you have weekend guests or when you just want to pamper yourself with a different kind of Sunday lunch/brunch. You can nearly make it with the contents of your store cupboard if your store cupboard contains that minced or chopped chorizo you can buy in airtight packets and which lasts for months in the fridge. Don’t worry about the celery if you have the other ingredients. You will hardly miss it but it is nice if you are shopping specially for this recipe.
Sunday Tomato Eggs
115g cooking chorizo chopped
1 onion finely chopped
2 tbs celery finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
400g passata or tinned chopped tomatoes which you have simmered for 10 minutes with some olive oil, salt and pepper
1 tbsp capers
5 black olives chopped
1 chipotle finely chopped or chilli flakes to taste (I recommend 1 level tbsp)
1.5 tbsp horseradish (freshly grated or out of a jar)
8 large eggs
To serve: 4 slices country bread toasted, formal frais or burrata, basil leave
Saute the chorizo, celery, onion and garlic in olive oil in a large pan until the onion softens. Add the water passata, chilli, olives and capers and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce is quite thick. Stir in the horseradish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the chilli. You can now leave this mixture until you need it.
When you’re ready to eat just heat it up and crack your eggs into it. Cook over a medium heat with a lid on until the eggs are set how you like them, then serve on the toast and add a spoonful of burrata or fromage frais or thick yoghurt to each dish and a few torn basil leaves.
If you don’t eat meat you can add avocado to the toast before you put the burrata on. Surely this will make you feel good to your core.
So at last I get home to find that the pathetic little sorrel plant I shoved in before I went away in July, the one that looked as though it might not survive the weekend, has taken over the world. Or at least my herb garden. I have a great nostalgia for sorrel. Some time before the Flood you used to see it on French menus but now, not so much. As a student I used to feel very French buying small, expensive bunches of sorrel in M & S on Kensington High Street but I don’t think I have seen it on sale these many years. In my mind it has taken on a mythical status and its taste has been elevated in memory to something near divine. Have you tried it? It’s lemony and refreshing and delicious with fish. So it is a delightful surprise to come home to sorrel with ambitions to march on Moscow which has started by annexing all available space in the zinc manger that is my herb garden. It is a divided affair, the manger, otherwise both sides would have fallen to the sorrel. I’m secretly delighted with this occupying force although I do wonder what has happened to the horseradish that went in at the same time.
So what am I going to do with it? Interestingly recipes for things containing sorrel are only in my oldest cookbooks. Nigel Slater’s volumes on his garden produce do not mention it and a cursory glance at Diana Henry also draws a blank. A quick scroll though google, however, confirms what I remember. Sorrel dissolves even better than spinach with butter over a little heat. It lacks that blood and gravel taste of iron that people who don’t like spinach don’t like. With seasoning and an egg yolk or some cream or stock it is a ready made sauce. No blender to wash up! I can see it is going to be my mystery ingredient for the Autumn entertaining that is on the horizon.
It will also be keeping some pretty grand company as I am proud to tell you I have in my freezer, direct from the French field it grew up in, a poulet de Bresse. Such a song and dance has been made over this chicken (not least by Alistair Little) that when we passed a sign on the French motorway advertising Bresse as the next exit I brought the full force of my charm to bear (and a little hysteria) to persuade the driver to turn off so that we could buy one. I don’t know how it is in your car but in ours it doesn’t matter which of us is driving the power goes straight to our heads. Coffee stops, loo breaks and even medical emergencies simply cut no ice with the one behind the wheel, especially when abroad. If you want to stop do not begin your sentence ‘Shall we …?’ or ‘We could …’ or ‘Oh, look …’ Deaf and head down, the driver’s instinct is to Keep Going at all costs. The inviting lay-by, service station or out-of-the-way country restaurant is merely a cloud of dust behind you before you finish. Rather, shout ‘STOP!’ in such a way that obedience is instinctive but not so that the driver has a heart attack. (I suggest you practise before setting off.) To maintain the effectiveness of this technique I recommend limiting it to once every five hundred miles or so. Anyway when I tell you I came home holding aloft a poulet de Bresse as though I had won Wimbledon and did a victory lap of the kitchen, you will appreciate why.
I will keep you posted when we eat it but it will be cooked with love, I promise, not shoved into a cold oven I meant to put on half an hour earlier and then heated to spontaneous combustion temperature because we’re all hungry. Perhaps some boiled potatoes with a sorrel sauce? Meanwhile I am planning a sorrel risotto with or without a few prawns. Here I am rerunning the risotto recipe that I gave some months ago to which you add your sorrel at the end. But first you need to plant your sorrel and there is no problem buying a plant online from a website like this. Make sure you give it some decent soil in a pot as big as you have room for. Like most plants it likes plenty of sunshine and plenty of rain but if we are lucky with the rest of September there is time to get one established before Winter. Here is the monster that was planted in July.
In cooking sorrel disappears much like spinach so although it is lovely to have a few leaves in a salad, it is best kept for soups and sauces unless you’re going to give it the run of your borders.
500 g risotto rice (Replace 250g of the rice with finely diced vegetables (carrots, celery, courgettes) if you are watching the calories.
50 g butter
50 g olive oil
1 onion or leek finely chopped
2 litres of beef or Marigold vegetable stock (hot)
2 glasses of white wine
an egg yolk beaten with half a cup of double cream
as much sorrel as you can muster
- Saute the onion unbelievably slowly until it is translucent.
- While the onion is softening wash and chop the sorrel and melt it in some butter over a low heat. When it is like a puree, turn off the heat.
- Add the rice and saute for a minute or two before adding the wine.
- Stir until the wine is completely evaporated and the rice is dry again.
- Add the stock one ladleful at a time until it is all absorbed. This should take 20 minutes but I find it takes longer, so be patient.
- Turn off the heat and add the pre-cooked sorrel, salt and pepper, the egg yolk and cream. Check the seasoning again.
- Leave to ‘mantecare’ (to cream) for 3 minutes and then serve.
This risotto is great with grilled white fish on top or a few sautéed prawns. It goes equally well with ripe and mild Dolcelatte but to my mind Parmesan overwhelms the sorrel. You could leave out the egg yolk and cream and put a dollop of burrata into each portion before serving.
The Fish Market at Rialto on Christmas Eve
It was great fun to struggle through the crowds to the pescheria like a Venetian on Christmas Eve. Traditionally only fish not meat passes their lips on La Vigilia but on the other hand there’s no way you could call it a fasting day! Italian housewives are out until the evening topping up their extensive provisions for the banquets to come.
Traditionally I offer a Lobster Supper (festive, nearly calorie-free and no cooking) on Christmas Eve but Venice seemed to be pretty much a lobster-free zone so we had a variety of other things instead. The recipe I think worth sharing is for a simplified Coquilles Saint Jacques which came after the garlic and chilli prawns and before the San Pietro (John Dory). You can see the scallops in the picture above but sadly we ate them too fast to offer you a photo of the finished dish. The local baker had for sale Panettone made on the premises and melting Lindt Intense dark orange chocolate and adding a little thin cream made a pudding worthy of the name. Let me know what you think!
Of course the great thing with fish is that you can eat your own weight in the stuff without putting on a pound so a little chocolate sauce is definitely allowed.
Coquilles Saint-Jacques for four
One scallop per person, ideally with its shell (but you can use a cocotte dish)
2 x leeks trimmed and very finely chopped
100g of Parmesan or another hard cheese finely grated
A glass of white wine
A small pot of single cream
A handful of white breadcrumbs per person
A tsp of olive oil
Make sure the scallops are really clean. This is a given if they’ve come from the supermarket but not, let me tell you, if the fish market has been involved. Get rid of any sand and trim them if they need the membrane removing.
Poach them in a little water for a couple of minutes and then fish them out and set them and the liquid aside while you make the sauce.
Sweat the finely minced leek in the olive oil until it has nearly melted. Then add all the breadcrumbs as if you were making a roux. Gradually add alternate tablespoons of white wine and cream to the leek and breadcrumbs until you have a sauce thick enough to spoon over the scallops. Now taste it and adjust the proportions (more cream?, more wine?) and the seasoning. If the sauce is too strong you can add a tablespoon of the scallop cooking water.
Arrange each scallop on its dish and spoon over a generous amount of thick sauce. Allow to cool. Cover with cling film and set in the fridge until you want to eat them. Allow them to come back to room temperature and grate some cheese over each before putting in a very hot oven for ten minutes or until the sauce bubbles slightly.
This isn’t as grand as the traditional version with piped Duchesse potatoes but it does taste as good and you have no piping bag to wash. (Result!) It’s really useful as an impressive course in a special meal as it can be done the day before.
Breakfast at Le Stanze del Cardinale, Pavia
This was our breakfast buffet at a wonderful B & B in Pavia called Le Stanze del Cardinale. where Martina and her colleagues make you feel so welcome. In addition to the delicious bread, jam and cakes they insisted on cooking us bacon and eggs – perhaps because they knew we were English. In any case it was a great start to the last day of our journey. Pavia was another beautiful Italian city that we had too little time to explore but we shall certainly be back. The B & B overlooks the Piazza del Duomo. Gorgeous.
In a hop skip and a short ferry ride we were in Venice.
View from the car ferry to the Lido
After all that traffic and all those different stops, I arrived with quite a lot to do to prepare Christmas for friends and family in Venice. Not surprisingly the old IBS started playing up and I could feel a bad throat coming on. But I have discovered turmeric milk with the help of another blog called Cooking Without Limits and this has had a powerful effect on my system such as I would never have believed. My new packet of ibuprofen remain unopened! I knew that turmeric is a healing Ayurvedic spice good for inflammation and but it had never occurred to me that you could enjoy it with hot milk, cinnamon and honey or put it on your porridge. I can’t say for sure that the cold has gone but certainly I feel heaps better. I shall sprinkle it wherever I can to fend off Christmas colds.
Here is the rainbow porridge with toasted flaked almonds, cinnamon and turmeric as well as a spoonful of sugar. I could feel it doing me good! I would love to hear if you try it.