I’m still thinking Sicily (see my last post). Having reacquainted myself with the wonderful Sicily Unpacked programme on Wednesday evening, on DVD, with Nicola, I watched another episode the following night and saw Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon enter Giorgio’s favourite gelateria in Sicily in the baroque town of Noto. A town Nicola and I visited in 2002. But we definitely didn’t find this gelateria. We obviously have to go back!! The two men were in gelato heaven. You could see it on their faces as they tried spoonfuls of different ice creams. Then they went to watch the owner – is a gelato maker an ice cream chef? – make an ice cream of gold: saffron and honey. Well, that sounded too exciting an idea to leave alone.
This morning I was searching through my Diana Henry book, Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, in which I discovered the fabulous recipe for Lemon & Basil Ice Cream that’s become a firm family favourite and was without doubt the star gelato attraction at my birthday party last month. Annie was here. She’d stayed over after our lovely meal at A Cena last night; Ruben’s Bakehouse was on the ‘menu’ for breakfast. We looked at the book together but no saffron & honey; in fact, I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere, even on Google. So, later, when Annie had gone home and one of Ruben’s cappuccino’s and chocolate croissants had been happily consumed to keep me going, I thought it was time to experiment.
I decided to make my basic vanilla ice cream and then add honey and saffron slowly to get the balance right, tasting as I went. I whisked 4 egg yolks, 50g caster sugar, 1 level teaspoon custard powder and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract paste in a bowl till thick and pale. (I used less sugar than normal because of adding the sweet honey later; the custard powder is a Delia Smith trick to stop the custard separating as you cook it.) Meanwhile, I soaked a pinch of saffron in a little boiling water. Then I brought 200ml milk to the boil – just to the point when bubbles appear at the edge. Then I slowly beat this into the egg mixture and transferred to a clean saucepan. I gently cooked the custard till hot and thickening and then turned off the heat.
I added 2 tablespoons of runny honey, mixed it in the hot custard till dissolved and tasted. Then I added 2 more tablespoons (i.e. 4 tablespoons honey in total). I wanted to get the honey taste right before adding the saffron. Once happy, I tipped in the saffron water and mixed well, transferred to a bowl and left to cool. When the custard was cold, I whisked 200ml double cream till thickening but not stiff. I poured that into the custard and mixed well.
I put the mixture in the fridge to get quite cold before putting in the ice cream maker as I find this best for my little, not particularly powerful, home ice cream maker. I churned till nice and thick and then put the ice cream in a freezer container and left it in the freezer till suppertime. If you leave it quite a long time before eating, you may want to take it out of the freezer for a few minutes to soften a bit before serving.
Well, it was certainly a wonderful ‘gold’ colour and looked so pretty and sunny in the bowl. The flavour was rich and fabulous. I’d managed to get a good balance of the two flavours: the unmistakeable saffron with its slightly metallic, bitter but truly wonderful flavour, which goes so well with sweet ingredients as well as savoury. But the sweet, fragrant honey shone through too. I thought this was really quite a special ice cream. It’s rich – one scoop was enough – but it would go well with dark chocolate ice cream or an orange sorbet. So, one more flavour for The Single Gourmet Traveller’s gelato repertoire and even if the weather is not playing game with summer, I’m heading into summer with more ice creams to cheer up even the dullest day.
My daughter Nicola and I were talking about Sicily last night. A friend of hers is moving there and Nicola plans to visit next Spring. It got us talking about our own wonderful trip to Sicily 11 years ago and so, after supper, I suggested we watch my DVD of Sicily Unpacked - one of my all-time favourite TV series which was shown last year. One thing leads to another … as I watched Giorgio Locatelli makes a Pasta con le Sarde for him and Andrew Graham-Dixon to share, I remembered the book on Sicilian cooking my friends Rona and David had given me for my recent birthday (along with some Sicilian olives and dried peperoncini they’d bought on their recent holiday in Sicily). There is a a photo of Pasta con le Sarde on the front cover.
Thus I was inspired to cook the dish for supper tonight and I took myself along to the local fishmonger this morning where I bought fresh sardines, butterflied and de-boned. What I love about Sicilian cooking – and this dish perfectly sums up what makes it different from the cooking of mainland Italy – is the Arabic influence. You might find fresh sardines cooked in any part of Italy but it is the addition of sultanas (or raisins), pine nuts and saffron that gives Pasta con le Sarde that exotic richness that is so much part of Sicilian cuisine. Once I got started on getting my ingredients together to cook, I remembered that I also had Giorgio Locatelli’s book, Made in Sicily, and decided to check his recipe out. I ended up doing a combination of the two books. I hope it remains authentic – I think it does. But I shall have to check with Fabio – my Italian teacher – who comes from Palermo! One supposedly ‘essential’ ingredient is wild fennel but there wasn’t much chance of finding that in Twickenham today. Giorgio suggests using fennel seeds instead but the other book uses a fennel bulb – and I did that. Giorgio also adds ‘strattu – a sun-dried tomato paste – and so I added some too. The first thing to do is prepare the fennel. (I was cooking for just myself and adjusted ingredients accordingly, but you could probably stretch the sauce to two servings.)
Keep the fronds to chop and add to the sauce. Cut 1/2 small fennel bulb into large pieces and boil in plenty of salted water for just a couple of minutes, then remove but keep the water. One important part of cooking Pasta con le Sarde is cooking the pasta in the fennel water. Now finely chop a small onion and add to a large pan with some olive oil. Fry gently until softening and then add 2 chopped anchovy in oil fillets. Anchovies are used a lot in Italian pasta dishes to bring depth but surprisingly, given their strong flavour, they don’t make the sauce fishy (although in this case, the sardines will!). Break the anchovies down with a spoon; they dissolve into the sauce. Add a good glug of white wine or dry vermouth and let it bubble and thicken. Then add a tablespoon sun-dried (or ordinary) tomato paste. At this point you may want to add a little of the fennel water to loosen the sauce. Add the sardine fillets (I’d bought 4 small sardines), 1 tablespoon sultanas or raisins, 1 tablespoon pine nuts, a good pinch of saffron and the fennel fronds and cooked bulb, finely chopped. Stir. Taste and season (remember the anchovies will be quite salty.)
Then let bubble away for about 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked and the sauce thickening. Meanwhile cook the pasta in the fennel water. Traditionally Bucatini – hollow spaghetti – is used in the dish but I used linguine. Also brown some fresh breadcrumbs in a little olive oil. Make sure they don’t burn.
When the sauce is ready and the pasta cooked, combine them in the pan, adding a little more of the fennel/pasta water if necessary.
Then transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top. I served with a simple green salad on the side. For those who think grated Parmesan goes with every pasta dish – absolutely do not add cheese to this dish. (In fact, in general, don’t add cheese to a fish pasta dish.)
It was a gorgeous dish. I love sardines, but I’d never had sardines cooked in this way before with all the richness of spices and nuts and sultanas. You get a kind of sweet and sour effect but of the most sophisticated kind. I’m going to have to look through these books again and cook more Sicilian recipes.
It was back in December 2011 that I first interviewed exciting young chef, Shaun Dickens, for my Top Ten Cookery Books series. Shaun had arrived at Fallowfields, a country house hotel in Oxfordshire, a few months before with ambitions to turn round the restaurant – and he did, earning it 2 AA rosettes pretty quickly. With an impressive history of working in top Michelin starred restaurants – training with Raymond Blanc for 3 years at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (2 stars), followed by 2 years at Per Se (3 stars) in New York with Thomas Keller, and then working as sous chef for Alan Murchison at L’Ortolan (1 star) – Shaun was obviously a chef going places. I finished my last interview post saying, ‘(Shaun) just has to be a chef to watch out for.’ Thus, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Shaun had moved on and opened his own restaurant in Henley-on-Thames: Shaun Dickens at The Boathouse.
I thought it would be great to go to see the new restaurant and hear about Shaun’s plans. And also I couldn’t possibly go without eating – having sampled Shaun’s cooking before! – so I asked my friend Nina, who lives quite close, to meet there after the interview to have lunch.
Despite the rain, it was still possible to admire the wonderful setting of the restaurant, right on the river near the bridge crossing the Thames at Henley. Comfortable chairs in the bar area show onto a great view of the river and deck area.
Sean told me later that there’s a deck menu for snacks but no one can reserve a table for lunch; they’re given on a first-come basis. Eventually, it will an area to sit with drinks and canapes in the summer before you eat and where you can go after your meal to enjoy coffee and petit fours.
Sean, at the age of 29, is a chef who has achieved a lot but his ambition still shines through as he talks of the future. The Boathouse is an exciting step but Shaun isn’t a guy about to sit still on his laurels. He talked to me of his goals, dreams and vision. The opening of The Boathouse has of course been the dream but, he tells me, he’s always striving for perfection. He’s always looking to improve things. This is reflected in his menu. He hasn’t worked out a ‘nice’ menu that he’s sticking to; the menu changes all the time. Not so much ‘with the seasons’ but very much according to what’s available. A whole page of the restaurant’s website is devoted to ‘Partners’ – the suppliers; the people he buys all his produce from. Shaun is committed to using the very finest ingredients and he will respond to what’s available week by week; even day by day. He told me, if a supplier rings and says, I’ve got some wonderful Sicilian lemons, or, I’ve got some fantastic new asparagus, some samphire or wild garlic, Shaun will take whatever is good and then decide on the best way to prepare it. He talks of a driving passion for his dishes and developing new ones. Having heard him talk about the great places he’s trained and worked at before, I can see as Shaun talks that he wants to pass this experience on to the people working for him, encouraging them to be creative too.
His head is already full of plans for the next three years; where he wants to take The Boathouse. But first, he told me, he needs to understand Henley and wait for Henley to understand him and his primary goal is to attract locals. However, he also strives to make The Boathouse a foodie destination; eating here will be not just be about eating great food but the whole experience. Hence the plans for the deck so that an evening or lunchtime at The Boathouse, especially in good weather, will be a total eating experience. He wants to offer excellent service that isn’t obtrusive but totally professional; to bring youth and vibrancy to the restaurant through the ambience and the way you are greeted and looked after.
The restaurant only opened a month ago – on 11 April – but already he’s attracting regulars; people who want to come back – and do. Raymond Blanc came to the opening and is full of praise for Shaun in a post on his own blog, saying that he’s sure Shaun ‘will make his mark at this restaurant’. It’s certainly already made a mark on me with the great lunch I had once Shaun and I had finished talking. When Nina arrived we sat by the window for a drink and to choose our food from the lunch menu (£17.95 for 2 courses; £21.95 for 3). A plate of wonderful canapes came with our drinks.
They were divine; one an asparagus panacotta that was rich with the taste of asparagus. When our food was ready, we were shown to our table. We’d both chosen exactly the same food. Nina kindly offered to choose something different as I was going to photograph for the blog – though I think if that was important it was up to me to be different! – but I said we should both have what we most wanted. Bread was brought – three kinds with two kinds of butter. I had the tomato bread which was light and really delicious. We also each had a small (125ml) glass of wine from a good choice of wines by the glass.
Our starter was some fresh asparagus with poached egg and some wonderful goats’ curd cheese (which Shaun had told me about sourcing nearby) with potato crumbs.
It was wonderful. Every part cooked to perfection and the combination of flavours working brilliantly together. Then came a surprise – a pre-main course dish of truffle and garlic risotto, with mushrooms and a little spinach. This looked wonderful and it tasted wonderful.
It was sublime: rich and creamy and a perfectly cooked risotto. It felt like a special treat as we hadn’t known it was coming! There’d been a choice of three dishes for each course. The mains were a vegetarian pasta, beef cooked in red wine and – our choice – seam bream with beans, tomatoes and chorizo.
I love sea bream (as you’ll know from a post the other day), and this warm, spicy accompaniment worked very well. We were, you won’t be surprised to hear, far too full by now for dessert so we just ordered coffee. But there was almost a turnabout when Nina pointed out wonderful looking desserts arriving at a nearby table. I must have dessert another time! But we weren’t entirely without a little sweet treat and a plate of lovely petit fours came with our coffee.
It was a really lovely meal and I can see The Boathouse would be a great place to head to for an outing – even if, like me, it’s a bit of a drive away – especially in the summer when one can enjoy the riverside setting. I’m sure they can do lunch quickly if you need it, but really this is a place to come and take your time to relax and enjoy some excellent fine dining in a great setting with very good and friendly service.
I wish Shaun and his team well. One month into The Boathouse and it seems to have got off to a great start. And all I can say is, may the dream continue to grow! I’m already thinking about when I can go back …
I wanted a really nice meal tonight. I’ve had fun the last couple of evenings but no ‘proper’ meal. And that’s a very unusual thing for The Single Gourmet Traveller. I was brought up to believe that if I didn’t have my ‘meat and two veg’ every day then something dire would happen to me; I had to eat a proper meal. It must be some kind of atavistic reaction that makes it, even to this day, hard for me to not ‘eat properly’ at some point in the day and a slight feeling of panic creeps in. And as I generally snack at lunchtime, evening is my time for serious eating. OK, I can hear you laughing, but this is a food-loving woman speaking here. I met a friend in the pub on Thursday evening and although two glasses of Merlot passed my lips, no food did, and by the time I got home it was so late I just ate a banana before bed. Last night I had a great time meeting Italian friends in a pub in South Kensington – another glass of Merlot – and then we went to the Royal Albert Hall for a concert starring Mario Biondi, whom I’d not heard of but they were excited by. And as he filled the Albert Hall, I guess he really is famous. And I did enjoy the concert a lot. But by the time I got home it was midnight … another banana and bed …
So when I walked into my local fishmonger, Sandy’s in Twickenham, this morning, having decided to buy sea bream, and the smallest they had was pretty large, I just went with it. Even though it cost me over £8. I got them to fillet the fish; one fillet for tonight and the other to freeze for another time. Sea bream is one of my favourite fish; I just love it. I wanted to have it with a salmorejo sauce, as I’d had that as a dish at Balthazar a few weeks’ ago and had liked it a lot. I’ve heard some mixed reports of Balthazar but certainly my fish that night was superb.
Salmorejo is a kind of gazpacho served in Andalucia. It’s made from ripe tomatoes, bread, garlic and olive oil. It can be served as a soup or, as I did tonight, a sauce to go with either fish or chicken. A small dish of it is often served as part of a selection of tapas.
I found a recipe in my trusty Moro East book, which suggested making the sauce in advance and putting it to chill in the fridge for a while. That was great as with my fish already filleted, once I decided to cook it was all going to be a quick affair. I planned to serve it with just a green salad on the side – green leaves, some finely chopped chicory and chopped fresh herbs from the selection growing on my kitchen window sill.
Making the salmorejo is very easy. I halved the Moro recipe for 4 – sometimes it’s just too difficult to quarter recipes! Everything went into the food processor: 250g ripe, halved sweet tomatoes, 1/2 clove garlic crushed to a paste with some salt, 25g crustless bread, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar.
Process until you have a smooth sauce. Check the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary and some pepper and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar, depending on the sweetness of your tomatoes. If the sauce isn’t very smooth, then, as I did, pass it through a sieve. Then put in a bowl (I used a lovely small Spanish bowl I bought in Valencia last September when staying with Linda and George) and chill until needed.
When you’re ready to eat, prepare the fish. Cut 3 slashes – not too deep – in the skin side of the fish and season with salt and pepper. Pour a little oil in the bottom of a frying pan and heat until smoking slightly and then gently lay the fish, skin side down, in the pan. Cook over a medium heat until you can see the outside edge of the fish turning white, indicating it’s cooked, and the middle part starting to change colour.
You want most of the cooking to be done with the skin down. When you then turn it over – very carefully with a slice – the skin should be nice and crisp and the fish need just a little more cooking with the flesh side down. I spooned some of the sauce on to a plate and cut a wedge from a lemon. Then when the fish was ready, I carefully transferred it, skin side up, to the plate.
This is such a simple meal made from the best ingredients. The fish was superb: the fish from Sandy’s always is and it was cooked so still moist and soft and tender; it was delicious. The sauce needs good quality tomatoes – buy the best you can because cheap, unripe ones won’t work; they have no taste. I have to say at this point – because it is quite funny – that at my first taste of the salmorejo, I thought, It tastes a bit like Heinz tomato soup. And I guess it does look a bit like that! And then after, looking through the Moro book and at the Sams’ recipe for the sauce with prawns, they joke that they refer to it as the ‘prawn cocktail of Andalucia’. So I guess their reference to that slightly acidic rose marie sauce with Heinz tomato soup isn’t so off the mark. But however one describes it, it’s great with the fish and made a lovely meal. And I guess with my other half of sauce I could try it with some chicken.
It’s taken me nearly a year to get round to this. Nearly a year because it grew from my holiday in France last summer where deep in the heart of cider and Calvados country we indulged in wonderful Normandy dishes – which often mean apples, cider, Calvados, Camembert cheese and cream. I don’t think any of us actually had a souffle of the kind I cooked last night, but a lovely bottle of Pierre Huet Calvados came home with me and a desire to make souffle with it was born. I remembered often making Souffle au Grand Marnier years ago; a recipe out of my tattered but still used edition of the great Katie’s Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book, published in 1972. Surely it would be as delicious with Calvados rather than Grand Marnier, I thought. I’d brought home some chunky apple jam as well – which I’d also bought at Pierre Huet – and thought about how to incorporate this so it would be a Calvados and apple souffle. In the end I abandoned the jam but stuck with the idea of adding apple.
I didn’t want to add apple chunks to the souffle mixture though; I thought it would spoil it. So I decided to make some apple puree and put a layer at the bottom of the ramekin dishes with the souffle on top. I also played with the idea of a hot sauce to pour into the centre of the cooked souffle and thought I’d make a creme anglaise and flavour it with Calvados. However, as well as a lot of cooking (fun) yesterday, I was also doing a lot of work (the day job) and making a proper custard seemed a step too far as the day went on. I decided instead to warm some single cream and flavour it with a little sugar and Calvados. And wow, that did work well! Souffles are supposed to be last-minute affairs but I didn’t want to be doing all the work after our main course; I wanted to get as far ahead as I could. So I prepared everything up until the whipped egg white stage a couple of hours before eating. First of all I prepared the apple puree. I always use sweet apples like Cox’s when cooking so I don’t need to add much sugar. I cut these into small chunks and boiled up with a little water, leaving on a simmer until the water was pretty much absorbed and the apple could be mashed down easily into a puree.
I sweetened it with a little sugar and toyed with the idea of adding some Calvados but decided against this as I thought the slightly tart apple would cut through a rich souffle topping well – especially with the warm cream added. I don’t like puddings that are very sweet. I buttered 4 individual ramekins (9 cm diameter/150 ml) well and sprinkled with sugar. Katie’s recipe was for a souffle for 4. Even with an accountant on hand in the shape of my son I wasn’t going to divide the recipe into 3. My slight worry about how an extra hot souffle would last – souffles don’t last – was an unneeded worry. Jonathan ate two! I divided the apple puree between the 4 ramekins so there was just a shallow layer – about 5cm – on the bottom of each.
Then I began the souffle mixture. I brought 1/4 pint of milk to the boil with 3oz caster sugar and a couple of slivers of lemon zest in them. I turned off the heat and left for 15 minutes and then removed the lemon. In a medium-sized saucepan (big enough to take the later whipped egg whites), I melted 1oz butter, stirred in 1oz plain flour and mixed to a roux over a gentle heat. Then you slowly add the hot milk, beating well so it’s nice and smooth. It’s quite a thick roux so don’t be put off and think it’s gone wrong.
Leave it to cool for a while until you can safely stand the saucepan on your hand (a good tip also for making choux pastry and judging the right moment to add the egg yolks). Now add 4 beaten egg yolks one at a time and finally 3 tablespoons of Calvados.
Now you should have a smooth sauce that can be left until the last minute when you whip the egg whites. It was only once we’d had the main part of the meal that I went back to the kitchen to finish the souffles. I had left the oven on ready – 180C/160Fan. I then whipped 5 egg whites (N.B. the recipe uses 4 egg yolks but 5 egg whites). When they were stiff I carefully folded them into the sauce – as Jonathan snapped away with my iPhone for action shots!
I then carefully spooned the fluffy mixture on top of the apple puree in the ramekins until they were filled to the top. Then straight into the oven for 20 minutes. I was guessing the time as Katie’s recipe was for one big souffle to be cooked for an hour, so I looked at mine through the glass oven door after 15 minutes and decided to give them another 5 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a souffle to rise so much but rise they did. When I pulled them from the oven I dusted over some icing sugar.
I know if I’d been on Masterchef, Gregg and John would have said they’d risen unevenly – a wonky top – but hey, they’d risen!! And they didn’t sink going to the table either. I warmed the Calvados cream through again and poured it into a warmed jug. The souffles went into the garden as we were still sitting outside. We cut a hole with a spoon in the centre and poured in the warm cream.
All I can say is they were a big hit – hence Jonathan ate the spare fourth, with help from Lyndsey! And well … actually there was a small fifth, I have to confess. Jonathan said I couldn’t waste the mixture that was left over in the saucepan when I’d filled the ramekins so I put a small amount into a fifth smaller ramekin. There was no doubt we preferred the ones with the apple puree on the bottom. It really had worked well and I was delighted with it. And the great thing about souffles like this is they are such special treats yet don’t fill you up because of their essential lightness. A perfect end to a lovely evening of good company and good wine and good food.
Sunny weather, a bank holiday and Jonathan and Lyndsey coming for supper – if an excuse was needed to pull out all stops on the cooking front, then that’s all that was required. I love to cook for people and a truly appreciative audience makes it all much more worthwhile and fun. Picking up a bunch of fresh beetroot in Waitrose yesterday began the idea for the starter. I thought about putting some soft goats’ cheese with them into a salad but when I saw some wonderful soft buffalo cheese in the Twickenham Farmers’ Market later, and tasted just how good it was, the salad changed slightly. Buffalo cheese it would be.
I remembered a beetroot salad I’ve done in the past from one of the Moro books with a pistachio dressing, so I decided to add some chopped pistachios too; a bit of fresh mint and a simple red wine vinegar dressing. The main course would be Tagliata di Manzo, which required a visit to the wonderful Village Butcher as Matt’s meat is quite simply the best locally. A lovely thick slice of rump was cut for me.
It would need no garnish. Just a bit of oil coating it, some salt and pepper, and onto the sizzling hot griddle and it would be perfection. The meat cooking was left to Jonathan. I know my place in the kitchen when it comes to griddling steak or barbecuing. Wise choice. Just look at his Tagliata di Manzo: the steak perfectly cooked, left to rest for a few minutes then sliced, laid on a bed of rocket, some seasoning, olive oil, balsamic and thin slivers of Parmesan cheese over the top.
Back to the starter: I decided to bake my fresh beetroots for maximum flavour – which paid off because Jonathan took one bite and guessed I’d baked them, they were so wonderful. You have to be careful with beetroots: just scrub them gently, cut off the leaves well away from the skin and then put in the oven (about 180 Fan for 45 mins, depending on size).
Try to resist piercing them until you are pretty sure they’re done as once the tip of a sharp knife goes in all that gorgeous bright crimson juice starts seeping out. I did this earlier in the day, then when it was nearing the time to eat, I skinned them. A fairly easy process since the skins were almost coming off anyway. Meanwhile, I had roasted some pistachios in a pan and chopped them roughly.
I made a dressing from 4 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper, and some chopped fresh mint. When it was time to serve, I sliced the beetroot quite thickly and laid on plates. I crumbled over some of the soft buffalo cheese, scattered over some of the chopped pistachios and then carefully spooned over the dressing. It was a simple starter but so good.
There was the full flavour of the baked beetroots and the cheese was heavenly: a taste reminiscent of a good buffalo mozzarella but much deeper in flavour, creamy and more akin to a good soft goats’ cheese in texture. But before we started on the meal properly, we sat in the garden in the dying sun and evening warmth and enjoyed a drink and nibbles first.
I was opening two birthday present bottles: the first was a bottle of Raboso Rosato Vino Spumante that Fabio gave me, to begin. We really liked it: not as sweet as prosecco and deeper in flavour.
It was especially nice as I drank lots of Raboso wine in Venice a couple of weeks ago. Lyndsey tried looking it up on the internet to see where we could buy it but didn’t find out – so I must ask Fabio on Wednesday. With our steak I decided to open a 1998 Urbina Rioja that Redmond and Pippa gave me.
Pippa teaches wine courses (I’ve been on a number and they’re great) and Redmond is a fantastic chef so I knew it would be good. It was. It was amazing; really special.
As you can see, we were eating and drinking very well. But slowly and leisurely. The light was slowly dying and I lit candles for the table outside. Then it was time for the dessert: my piece de resistance. Hot Apple and Calvados individual souffles. But that will a post all on its own tomorrow.
I bet you thought, She hasn’t made risotto for a while, but here we go because I can’t keep away from that arborio rice for long! Actually, what I couldn’t resist was the organic asparagus in Waitrose yesterday. It’s a bit early for home-grown English asparagus after the awful winter and late arrival of spring, but once it’s in my local farmers’ market I’m going to be buying it up in its short season. I’ve bought some of the most delicious asparagus ever from Twickenham Farmers’ Market in previous years but at least the type I bought in Waitrose yesterday was Italian. And well, Italian is almost home for The Single Gourmet Traveller.
I’ve said before I like simple risottos with just a couple of ingredients. Risotto for me isn’t a ‘clear out the fridge’ recipe where you throw everything in. Risotto needs to be treated with respect. I had a good risotto conversation with Tim Healy of A Cena on Wednesday when I met him and Lawrence Hartley at Joe Allen, which they’ve recently bought. Tim’s wife and co-owner of A Cena is Camilla, who is half Italian, and Tim was telling me about her wonderful, but simple, risottos.
I did toy with the idea of adding some fresh prawns but when I passed the fishmongers, nice as I knew they’d be, I decided to stick with just the asparagus. Asparagus has such a wonderful taste – a sweet, slightly sulphurous taste. Really, it doesn’t need enhancement; it just needs to sing by itself. I started by preparing the asparagus.
I trimmed off the bottoms – just a couple of centimetres. Then I used a very sharp vegetable peeler to take off the outside skin of the asparagus as thinly as possible, from beneath the spears. I then cut off the spears and put them in a steamer. The rest of the stems I cut finely into little circles – about 3-4cm.
Then I finely chopped half a small onion and put it in a large frying pan with about 1 tablespoon olive oil and a big knob of butter. I gently fried the onion till softening and then added the chopped asparagus stems. I decided to cook the stems in this way to get maximum asparagus flavour without ruining the tender spears. Once the asparagus pieces were starting to soften – just 2-3 minutes – I added half a cup of risotto rice (you must use proper risotto rice – preferably arborio – or the risotto won’t end up nice and creamy). I stirred it all together, combining the rice with the vegetables and coating them in the oil, then I added a good glug of white vermouth (or white wine will do nicely). I let this bubble away for a minute or two, then started adding hot stock (use a light stock only; not too strong) ladleful by ladleful. It’s essential to do this slowly and keep stirring, only adding more stock as the previous amount is absorbed by the rice. The stirring breaks down the starch in the rice to give it that essential risotto creaminess.
As the risotto was cooking, I turned on the steamer so the asparagus spears cooked, but only for a short time so they were barely tender, al dente, and retaining a bite. Then put them aside. Once the risotto is starting to get that nice creamy appearance and the rice is becoming tender, use a zester or grater to add just a little amount of lemon zest.
Lemon is great for bringing out the flavour of asparagus. Check seasoning, and as soon as the rice is just tender – retaining a slight bite – then turn the heat off, put the lid on and leave for a minute to settle. Your risotto should be sloppy and creamy – but not thin and runny! Spoon it into a bowl. Then I laid the steamed asparagus spears on top, grated over a little Parmesan and drizzled over some extra virgin olive oil. I served a green salad on the side.
It was a lovely supper. Total respect to the asparagus! That’s why risotto is best served simple, I think, as the rice is a perfect accompaniment for allowing the primary flavours to shine.