It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think about cooking regular family meals but with Jonathan and Lyndsey staying with me at the moment, I’ve had to take my turn and come up with something reasonably easy and inexpensive for midweek supper. And something that also contains or is served with meat. While Lyndsey and I would happily eat a vegetable risotto on its own as a main meal, Jonathan likes meat too. I’ve been out in the evening a lot over the last week or two, and they sometimes cook for me, but when it’s my turn it reminds me of how it used to be when my son and daughter were school kids and I had to come up with a plan of what to cook each evening. I always cooked. I didn’t resort to ready-made meals. But the somewhat relentless need to come up with a plan every night was more difficult for me than the actual cooking. Once I’d decided what we were having there was no problem; I’ve always liked to cook, but that constant question of ‘what shall we eat tonight?’ could, on a busy day, be the source of some frustration. I know for a time I slipped into cooking certain meals on certain evenings – always Bolognese on Fridays, for instance – and Nicola and Jonathan would tease me that they could tell the day of the week simply by what food I put before them! If this sounds a little complaining, I don’t mean it that way. I loved the family meals and when they brought friends home and a few of us would sit round the dining table it was great. But coming up with something to cook every night was a bit of a challenge!
Most of the time, living alone, I only have myself to think of. I might fancy fish and pick up a piece of salmon from Sandys while I’m out and about in Twickenham high street. I’ll look in my fridge and see lots of tomatoes and make a fresh tomato sauce to go with pasta; or think that half-pack of mushrooms would make a nice risotto. Cooking for others is usually a more special affair for me nowadays and I’ll enjoy the process of thinking about what to cook; I’ll spend time looking through cookbooks and not worry too much about cost. I’m usually ready to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen preparing it, often trying out new recipes for the blog. Fortunately, I find cooking very restful. Today, after what’s been quite a busy working day (albeit from home), it was actually a pleasure to stand by my cooker and slowly stir a risotto for our supper. The courgette idea came from the simple fact of having some in the fridge! A leftover from our Able & Cole organic vegetable box delivery. Lemon and mint go well with courgettes and I got the idea of sprinkling over some toasted pine nuts at the end from a Angela Hartnett recipe. The meat could be at the side, I decided, and I found some nice lamb steaks on offer in Waitrose so it turned out to be quite a reasonably priced midweek supper too!
Should I dice or grate the courgettes? The lovely Mimi grated them in a risotto on her blog last week (www.chefmimiblog.com); Angela Hartnett grates them too but Antonio Carluccio dices his. I went with grating.
The first thing I did was get out some chicken stock from the freezer, transfer it into a saucepan and leave it on a low heat to thaw and heat up. Luckily, there’s a good supply of Jonathan’s home-made stock in containers. Then I grated the courgettes (I had 2 large ones) and left them draining in a sieve with a little salt.
Next I finely sliced 2 shallots and put them with a crushed clove of garlic into a large pan with some olive oil and large knob of butter. I gently fried for a little to soften the shallots a bit then tossed in a large mug of risotto rice.
I stirred the rice round to coat in the oil and slightly toast the rice then added a good glug of white wine. I let this bubble away and then started adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful, stirring all the time. This is the good bit. This is the time of slowing down and relaxing. The more slowly and gently you take this step, the more creamy and wonderful your risotto will be. Risotto needs love; it’s not a fast food! Although it really doesn’t take that long to make. When the rice is almost cooked add the grated courgettes and stir in well.
Now grate in the zest of half a lemon and stir. Allow to finish cooking – until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked, but retaining a slight bite. Check seasoning. Turn off the heat. Add another good knob of butter, about 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint and grate over a nice helping of Parmesan.
Stir well and put the lid on the saucepan and leave to rest for a couple of minutes before serving. To serve, put spoonfuls of the risotto on to a warm plate, drizzle over a little olive oil, grate over some more Parmesan and then scatter some toasted pine nuts on top. I served it with some griddled lamb steaks but would have been very happy to eat the risotto on its own.
It’s always great to have an appreciative audience. And there was lots of happy appreciation from my two guests. Jonathan said it was ‘outstanding’ and he was definitely going to cook it himself. I think grating the courgettes was definitely better than dicing them would have been, but the really special ‘effect’ was the addition of the lemon and mint. Both flavours shone through beautifully and gave a wonderful freshness to the dish. Everything married well and it was one of those dishes I was really pleased with myself, which made it all the more delightful to have cooked.
I went up to Birmingham to visit my daughter, Nicola, over the weekend. We’re both members of the National Trust and so yesterday decided we’d visit a Trust house and gardens near to where she lives. The weather was a bit mixed. It had definitely been rather autumnal in Birmingham on Saturday but Sunday was a little better. Visiting a house and gardens gave the option of going inside during any rain showers.
Nicola had been to Hanbury Hall before – it’s a great place for a walk even if you don’t want to go into the house with lovely gardens and an excellent tea room. About a half-hour drive from Birmingham, we travelled into Worcestershire and through some pretty villages. The hilly terrain gave us wonderful views at times despite the dull weather and some rather ominous dark clouds. We’d had an abortive attempt to find me a coffee somewhere en route – unlike London, cafes didn’t seem to open for Sunday breakfast. Thus, by the time we’d parked up at Hanbury Hall, just after 10.30, our first instinct was to head straight for the cafe and sustenance. You really don’t want to be around me anytime my morning coffee is late in coming!
Hanbury Hall’s new tea rooms – Chambers – has taken inspiration from the lawyer Thomas Vernon who built the house in 1701. They serve morning coffee, light lunches and afternoon tea.
There was a good choice of food and drink and friendly staff. They use products from their vegetable gardens and so there were things like Beetroot chocolate fudge cake – which was also ‘cake of the month’ and a recipe available – to a lovely ginger cake with plums on top, which I chose.
My coffee addiction would have been better satisfied by asking for an extra shot in my cappuccino but the cake was lovely, as was Nicola’s chocolate and raspberry scone. The tea room looks out on to the formal gardens.
We’d booked a free ‘taster’ tour of the house and made our way there next. Our friendly and informed tour guide, Len, gave us the history of the house and the Vernon family who built and owned it for 250 years until it was passed to the National Trust in 1953. It was a fun thing to do.
An interesting story for cat lovers was that Doris Vernon owned 25 Maine Coon cats (huge cats!) and we were shown early cat flaps – smaller windows within large windows that could be opened to let the cats in or out. When we came out we wandered off to explore other areas of the gardens. We visited the vegetable garden and orchards. There was a stall full of lovely fruit and veg that you could choose and then pop your money into the honesty box. I bought some wonderful yellow lemon cucumbers that looked like small squashes but definitely tasted of cucumber when I put them in a salad in the evening.
There were chickens, beehives and an old mushroom house – a dark old, cold house where mushrooms were once grown but seemed to now be used for storage. The old dairy was being restored.
And there was an ice house too – a huge deep pit, now empty, but once full of ice – 24 tonnes of it! – in the days before fridges and freezers. Even though there was no ice there now, we still felt how much colder it was as we entered a tunnel that led through to the pit.
We came across a beautiful meadow of wild flowers near the orchards, which were full of apple and pear trees heavy with ripening fruit.
As lunchtime approached we were joined by Rachael and we went into a small cafe near the shop where we ordered sandwiches and cold drinks. The sandwiches were made to order on lovely fresh granary bread. My coronation chicken sandwich was excellent: a deep filling, good chunks of chicken and a lovely spicy ‘coronation’ curry mayonnaise.
At this point the rain came back. Fortunately it wasn’t heavy and we just moved our lunch on to another table under a large umbrella. I was really pleased to find a dwarf pomegranate tree in the shop. I’ve been looking for a pomegranate tree for ages. I’m not sure how fast it will grow or whether it will ever produce any pomegranates but I’m really pleased to have it, and it will also remind me of a lovely weekend.
Nicola bought one too and the kind shop assistant offered to keep them safe for us while we went for a walk across the fields and up a hill to the church. Although the rain had stopped, it was still chilly and grey. Even the sheep were taking shelter under a tree.
There was a touch of the gothic novel in approaching the church with heavy dark clouds hanging over it.
We’d walked up for the view and even in the drab weather, it was still worth the climb. Nicola pointed out the Malvern Hills in the distance.
Then the rain came again, pretty heavily this time, and we were forced to take cover for a short time until it petered out and we could retrace the path across the fields, past the sheep, and back to Hanbury Hall. We’d had a really great visit and I’m sure if I lived close by I’d go there a lot – for walks, fruit and vegetables and the lovely food in the cafes. Now it was time to head back to Rachael’s house – only 15 minutes away – for a cup of tea and short rest before heading back down to London via a couple of hours’ drive on the M40.
I hadn’t been to the Oxo Tower for years. We came to it via a circular route: I read about a good deal on Bookatable but then it turned out you either had to eat before 5pm or after 10. Mmm. Not very social hours. However, the seed laid, and the possibility discussed with Annie, we decided we both wanted to go anyway and would do a la carte. And Jerry came too, which was great, so it was the three of us.
For me, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from Waterloo station to the Oxo Tower along the South Bank. It’s a fun area with lots going on and lots to see but the heavens opened as I arrived, which seemed a shame when my restaurant choice for the night offered one of the best views in London. I went in early, not wanting to hang around outside in the bad weather, and when the rain died down, went out on to the balcony to take in that view.
Well, it’s still pretty good! Even in bad weather. The restaurants are on the 8th floor: the Brasserie to one side of the lifts, the more formal Restaurant the other. There’s also a bar which was busy when I arrived with people obviously meeting there after work for cocktails. The brasserie was busy. It has the relaxed air you’d expect from the name: tables quite close together, things informal. But not the service. Right from the start the service was friendly and efficient; very professional. Orders for drinks were taken, excellent bread brought, pots of cold butter. Jerry suggested a bottle of a Lodi Old Vine Zinfadel from California for our wine: it was delicious, beautifully soft and smooth. We all chose different things for our starters. Jerry went for some bresaola with fried goats’ cheese, white peach and orange truffle honey; Annie for za’atar spiced quail. I was going to have the Parmesan panna cotta but made a last-minute switch to Middle Eastern Spiced Chickpea Salad.
This looks quite spectacular (as did all dishes). The chickpeas were on a bed of labneh; across the top lay a ‘brick’ which turned out to be a kind of thin, crispy pancake filled with ricotta. It was hot spicy; lots of chilli. But I like that so it was OK. The whole thing was wonderful and a great start to the meal.
Annie and Jerry went vegetarian with their main course, choosing Buffalo milk burrata with aubergine, artichoke, courgette and black olive almond crumble.
This dish had an Asian influence with bak choy, aubergine, Enoki mushrooms, shallot ginger dressing and nori oil. This kind of flavouring goes really well with fish. The whole thing looked beautiful and this was definitely a time when the taste matched up to the promise in appearance. It was a fabulous dish. The fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin but gorgeously soft and tender inside. The accompaniments married beautifully, enhancing the flavour of the fish but not overwhelming its delicacy.
Annie decided she was too full for dessert but thankfully Jerry wanted one so I didn’t have to feel guilty about going to a third course! I didn’t need anything else but the choices were so tempting! Jerry had White chocolate coconut cherry mouse, which looked a bit like a deconstructed Black Forest gateau. It was, Jerry said, very good.
It looked pretty but was unfortunately slightly disappointing. The cake a little dry and the whole thing not quite as wonderful and tasty as expected. But overall, we’d had a brilliant meal. And what a view from my seat!
Not a very good quality photo, I’m afraid, but at least it gives you the idea! And shows that eating at the Oxo Tower is a brilliant experience when you can have such wonderful food as well as a fabulous views of London. Everything came together to make a great evening out: the view of course, a good buzzy atmosphere, live music and an exciting menu. Exciting food because everything was just a little different: tempting combinations that excited the tastebuds and made you feel you’d like pretty much anything on offer. It had been a long time since any of us had been there but we certainly won’t be leaving it such a long time until we return!
This is definitely one for the grown-ups; grown-ups who love whisky and honey. Rich, deep in flavour and quite alcoholic, you could almost apply the description tira-mi-su – pick-me-up – but unlike the Italian dessert of that name, this one has Scottish overtones. It was my son’s idea. Perhaps it came from seeing the bottle of Chivas Regal sitting on my dining table, a gift from the cocktail and canapé pairing event with Chivas Brothers I went to a few weeks’ ago. Chivas Regal 12 Year Old Whisky has been described as a whisky ‘for grown-ups … a very refined blended whisky with herbs, honey and fruit’ so the honey addition was likely to work well. I guess some people might think it sacrilege to ‘waste’ it on ice cream but the thing about cooking with alcohol is that you only get really good results if you use really good ingredients. Yesterday, with Jonathan cooking the main part of the evening meal it seemed a good opportunity for me to turn my attention to dessert and the ‘honey and whisky ice cream’ was born.
Jonathan and I discussed the making of the ice cream. When you love food and cooking, discussion about how to cook something is part of the pleasure. If I started with my basic ice cream recipe, should I substitute all or half the sugar with honey? Should we add vanilla? How much whisky would be right? In the end, I used the equivalent amount of honey as I’d normally use sugar and we added the whisky once the custard was made, testing as we went until it seemed right. Of course, adding it at the end means the whisky retains its alcohol (hence an ice cream for grown-ups) and you have to also remember that spirits don’t freeze so too much will stop the ice cream ‘setting’, but an advantage is that when you get it right, it stays nicely soft.
First of all I made the vanilla ice cream: I put 6 egg yolks, 1 teaspoon custard powder (to stabilise the custard when cooking) and 1 teaspoon vanilla paste into a bowl and whisked till creamy. Then I added 8 tablespoons runny honey (120ml and equivalent to the 120g of sugar I normally use) and whisked some more until it was all well combined. The honey I used has quite a strong flavour; remember the honey you choose to use will affect the final flavour of the ice cream.
I heated 300ml milk till bubbles appeared at the edge, then slowly poured it into the egg mixture, whisking until smooth, and tipped it all into a clean saucepan. Over a medium heat, I stirred until the custard came almost to the boil and was thickened (using the custard powder – or cornflour – enables you to do this without risk of the mixture separating). I poured it back into a bowl and left to cool completely before adding 300ml double cream, whisked until just thickening but not stiff.
Now it was time to add the whisky. I added 3 tablespoons; Jonathan tasted and said it needed a little more – so it was 4 tablespoons whisky in all.
Now for the final stage: pour the mixture into an ice-cream maker and churn until thick. Transfer to a freezer container and freeze until needed.
The weather was turning as suppertime approached. The balmy evenings we’ve been enjoying for weeks, sitting comfortably outside in the garden until darkness falls, have been overtaken by the tail end of Hurricane Bertha. Lyndsey and I sat outside with aperitifs while Jonathan barbecued chicken and halloumi but as the wind got up and dark clouds filled the skies, we decided to move inside to eat the meal. Jonathan had prepared a wonderful aubergine dish to go with the meat and halloumi – aubergine cubes gently fried in olive oil with a tahini dressing, pomegranate and coriander.
When it came to dessert we scooped creamy mounds of whisky and honey ice cream into glass dishes. ‘We’ because I put some in the dishes and Jonathan topped them up with an extra scoop!
It’s really a quite wonderful ice cream. Indulgently rich and creamy with the caramel taste of dark honey and a deep, warming glow of whisky; it both warms and cools you at the same time. And yes, it’s a sophisticated taste that’s definitely one for the grown-ups!
OK. I know I’m on a bit of a Carluccio’s roll here with two Carluccio posts in a row. I promise they don’t pay me. I almost decided not to write about tonight. But I took my camera just in case, and as soon as we sat down after a warm welcome with a glass of prosecco and I looked at the menu and music programme for the evening, I knew it was going to be too good not to write about.
I was in Spain when I got Carluccio’s e-newsletter and information about the evening. I emailed my friend Lesley; were she and Colin interested? She booked for us; I offered to drive. Wimbledon from Twickenham isn’t far – but it’s a nightmare by public transport. I’ve been to ‘opera a tavola’ – opera singing while you eat – before but not for many years; again, it was in an Italian restaurant. Which makes sense. No one loves opera like the Italians. A welcoming glass of prosecco with canapés plus three courses for £35 with live music seemed an offer too good to miss. The restaurant soon filled up as we sipped our prosecco and canapés were brought round.
There was one song with our aperitivo before the starter arrived: Homemade chilled tomato and cucumber soup with fresh basil leaves.
This was a nice, fresh start to the meal and was followed by four more songs before we were served our main courses. The music was provided by Opera d’Amici. Founded in 2001 by Hannah Kirk, this is a group of highly experienced singers from companies such as Covent Garden, English National Opera and D’Oyly Carte. They say they are a company of friends who come together to share their love and passion for what they do and perform in a variety of different venues and settings. Our singers for the evening were Hannah herself and Daniel Meades, accompanied on the piano by Peter Crockford. The programme was an eclectic mix of songs and arias from Verdi (Tosca and La Traviata) and Puccini (La Boheme); Bernstein (West Side Story) and Gershwin (Porgy and Bess); to lighter stuff from shows such as ‘Showboat’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Their voices were wonderful and it was exciting and a real pleasure to enjoy their singing in such a small and intimate setting (the Wimbledon Carluccio’s isn’t particularly large). They seemed to really be enjoying themselves and engaged in a good way with the audience – who were very appreciative of this musical treat. We three thought we might have preferred a little more opera but I guess they try to accommodate all musical tastes and also the setting calls for quite a number of lighter songs, I think.
Our main course was a delicious lamb dish: Roasted rack of lamb with herbs and extra virgin olive oil crust, served with chargrilled vegetables and couscous.
We were a little surprised the vegetables were cold but they tasted good and the couscous was a salad too, and also good. The lamb was particularly excellent – and hot! – cooked to perfection: pink inside and very tender; the flavours of the herb crust had permeated the meat beautifully. This was followed by another five songs before the dessert was brought: Carluccio’s own ‘gelati artigianali’ – vanilla and chocolate ice cream. It was lovely gelato and a nice – and very Italian! – way to finish the meal.
We then had the final five songs from Opera d’Amici; these were lighter songs on which to end. I was pulled to my feet by Daniel for him to sing ‘On the Street’ from My Fair Lady directly to me and dance a few steps. It was fun – no one has ever sung to me before! – but I did feel slightly embarrassed to be the almost centre of attention. Thank goodness it was too dark to see my blushes. They finished with ‘Champagne’ from Die Fledermaus and we were encouraged to lift our glasses and join in.
It was such a joyous way to finish: everyone singing along and happy. It was a fantastic end to what had been a great evening of wonderful music and lovely food. We three loved the whole event. If you’re interested in finding out about more of Carluccio’s opera evenings look at: www.carluccios.com/events.
There really is nothing more summery than a bowl of English strawberries over which you’ve poured some fresh cream. Sadly, strawberries are one of those foods that are becoming readily available out of season, flown in from afar, and stacked on our supermarket shelves as if they in themselves might bring a taste of summer; but really, in the middle of November, what’s wrong with a taste of winter? These strawberries are never the same as the real thing: a fresh-picked English strawberry bursting with life and sweetness. But while there is something quintessentially English about the strawberry (think Wimbledon) it did in fact come to us via America – more particularly Virginia – and the garden strawberry as we know it was first cultivated in Brittany in France in the late 18th century. People have often asked me, do I prefer strawberries or raspberries? But why would one want to choose? It’s a bit like being asked which of your children you prefer; you love them both equally but in some different ways. While the raspberry has a gorgeous deep floral, sweet-sour taste the strawberry is intensely sweet and juicy. This juiciness makes it a fruit that doesn’t freeze very successfully while raspberries freeze well.
We’re big on birthdays in my family. This probably began with my parents who although they didn’t go as far as putting a crown on our heads when it was our birthday, from early childhood a birthday was always a special occasion: it was your day, you were ‘king’ or ‘queen’ for the day and everything revolved around what you liked best. Thus, although Jonathan’s birthday isn’t until the end of the month, The Birthday Party is already a subject of conversation. Especially since it will happen just four days after he and Lyndsey move into their new home so there won’t be much time for food preparation and making anything ahead will be a bonus. Like ice cream. Would he like me to make some ice cream for dessert, I asked. Without hesitation Jonathan asked me to make my Citron Green Tea Ice Cream – that’s his current favourite. But you need at least one other flavour for a party, I pressed. Strawberry! he said. Strawberry? But I haven’t make a strawberry ice cream on the blog … Well, it was a bit of a silly thing to say, as if I might not make strawberry ice cream anyway. I used to make it a lot, years ago, but haven’t recently. So I gave it some thought. And I thought I’d like to add just a little special touch. I consulted my brilliant The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, as I often do, and found she quoted Heston Blumenthal describing mint as a classic partner to strawberries. I therefore headed into the garden, cut some fresh mint, and that would be my ‘special’ touch. And as for those quintessentially English strawberries and cream, they were coming in a frozen form in my house and would bring a genuine taste of summer for a little while to come.
First of all, I made the custard so that it could cool down before adding cream and the pureed strawberries. I heated 300ml milk until bubbles started to show around the edges, then I turned off the heat and added 6 large fresh mint leaves and set aside for about quarter of an hour for the milk to infuse with the mint. If you dip a finger in and taste, you will catch that minty flavour in the milk.
I put 120g caster sugar in a bowl with 6 egg yolks and 1 teaspoon custard powder (or cornflour – to stabilise the custard when cooking) and whisked until thick and pale.
Then I slowly poured in the warm milk through a strainer to remove the mint leaves, whisking all the time, and transferred back to a clean saucepan. Now all you do is heat over a medium heat (the addition of the custard powder allows you to do this without risk of it separating), until the custard has thickened. Pour back into a bowl and leave to cool completely. Meanwhile, prepare the strawberries. Hull 500g English strawberries and blend to a puree with juice of 1/2 lemon and some caster sugar.
How much sugar you need will depend on the sweetness of your strawberries but I put in about 4 tablespoons. Just taste for sweetness as you go and stop when it seems right. Strain into a jug, to remove the pips. I had about 600ml of puree.
When the custard is cold, lightly whip 300ml double cream and fold into the custard with the strawberry puree.
It was a gorgeous deep strawberry colour. I could tell already it would taste good.
Then taste and check sweetness. Mine was fine but if you don’t think it’s sweet enough you can always add a little more caster or icing sugar to get it right. Remember the custard is sweet too so it’s when you bring it together with the puree that you can get a real sense of how your ice cream will taste in the end. Now it’s ready to put into your ice-cream maker and churn. I had to do mine in two batches as I had quite a bit of mixture for one small machine!
As always, I couldn’t resist a taste immediately – and also spooned some into Jonathan’s mouth as he came into the kitchen at that moment. It was very good, we agreed! Such a deep strawberry flavour: the mint and lemon juice intensifying the sweetness but also bringing a nice fresh edge. Later at lunchtime, I spooned a proper serving into a dish.
I rather think this ice cream will end up being a dummy run for the birthday party. There is no way it’s going to sit in my freezer untouched for another four weeks! Especially with Jonathan and Lyndsey in the house at the moment. But then really, such a wonderful ice cream, full of the summer taste of strawberries and cream shouldn’t sit untouched for too long. And the recipe definitely deserves another making before the English strawberries disappear for another year.