Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dragon eggs anyone?

The original plan was a lantern-lit ghost punt along the Cam swaddled in blankets, clutching hot water bottles and sipping hot chocolate. Followed by a ghost walk through the cobbled streets of Cambridge and then back home to put on a bit of finery before round to B and C’s to tuck into B’s Chicken and Mulled Wine dish and a few glasses of something bubbly to celebrate the New Year. But that was plan A!
Everyone had been feeling under the weather to varying degrees over the festive season and tonight was no exception. D had barely recovered, MC felt the need for lashings of sympathy and B was really not feeling well enough to stay up late and toast the New Year so we had to switch to plan B.
Clearly the locusts had swooped onto the supermarket shelves already so we decided on some frozen scallops and pancetta followed by sausages and you’ve guessed it - mash!
We left the scallops defrosting with MC and the rest of us headed into Cambridge. The weather didn’t look too good, cold would be okay but I wasn’t sure a rain lashed punt ride would be so atmospheric. We had nice wide punts (fortuitous as it turned out) and professional punters though ours had unfortunately lost his pole before we’d really left the docking area. We then hurtled down stream due to a rather impressive current chased by some of the other punters armed with a few spare poles. Pole duly restored we sat back to enjoy our guide’s ghost talk. And then it started raining… really hard! The punt was furnished with umbrellas but LLcT, D and I just seemed to be sat in the place where the rising wind was at its whippiest so every umbrella we opened was instantly turned inside out, deemed entirely useless unless we considered a sail to our punt would enhance the journey along the Backs. So we just got really wet! Naturally this rather put a dampener on the traipsing through the rain-sodden streets for the ghost tour so we left for home. And we never got the hot chocolate!
So after squelching home and bidding farewell to B and C, we started thinking of our sausage and mash feast. LLcT had plans of excessive drinking so he headed forth with a plentiful supply of cider and we concentrated on dressing up, dressing the table and ‘poshing’ up the potatoes. We decided that for a change we'd make individual potato soufflés from possibly the last ever Fresh magazine. Rather oddly the last Fresh we’ve seen appeared on the shelves at the very end of October with December on the front and then…nothing! So maybe this is the last one. It’s never quite matched up to Olive and Delicious but it would be a shame if it disappeared altogether as there’s generally a couple of good ideas to try. And this, in Fresh magazines words, ’perfect posh comfort food’ seemed an excellent idea.

Soufflé Potatoes
Fresh - December 2006 Serves 6

700g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
400g carton fresh four cheese sauce
1-2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
Butter to grease
6 tbsp finely grated fresh Parmesan
3 medium eggs, separated

- Cook potatoes in lightly salted boiling water for 20 minutes until tender, then drain and return to pan stirring over the heat for 1-2 minutes to dry.
- Take off the heat, add cheese sauce, mustard and season with black pepper. Mash well until lump free.
- Pre heat oven to 200c. Grease a soufflé dish (or use 6 ramekin dishes) with butter and sprinkle the base and sides with a little of the Parmesan.
- Add the egg yolks to the potatoes and beat in well.
- Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form then gently fold into the potatoes.
- Spoon into the dish, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and bake for 30 minutes until well risen and then tuck in.

We made two thirds of the mixture as splitting egg yolks always seems a little faffy and used 3 large ramekins (actually the ceramic dishes leftover from previous Bigham’s pies). I also riced all the potatoes before adding the cheese sauce. I think perhaps we should have cooked them for less as they were certainly well risen! And very tasty indeed, though they continued to cook for quite a while so it was slightly like consuming molten potato lava.
The table decorations somehow turned out extra gothic, the fabulous tall silver candles, black crockery and bizarre creation of colour changing crystals inside a ring of black feathers (looking somewhat akin to dragon eggs!) all added to the macabre appearance. It was unintentional but wonderfully dramatic!
We started with the scallops, pancetta and leaves. I thought the scallops being defrosted were a little watery, perhaps I should have floured them lightly. They were okay though.
Then of course the much acclaimed souffléd potatoes with some tasty fat musk sausages. We finished with a little Gü pot of chocolate - naturally! Not a bad New Year’s feast at all. And we didn’t get drunk and no napkins caught alight!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Oooh, new crockery!

D and I acquired some magnificent new matt-black ‘Oregon’ crockery from the M&S sale in rain soaked Cambridge today and I think it showed off tonight’s meal very finely. D had been keeping an eye on this range of china for a while so it was an extra bonus that it was reduced in the sale. Result! I would have like to buy more but was cautioned on increasing my already burgeoning crockery collection and of course I still had to get it home!
First we had a little tasting plate of the Waitrose canapés though I was quite horrified to find the mini cheese burgers came already adulterated with a tomato relish! In the end I found the most tomato free mini buns and swapped them round to spare my taste buds. The other little British favourites canapés were better behaved, there was a miniature toad in the hole, teeny weeny bubble and squeak pattie and a diminutive cheese and onion pie. T said they were horrible but ate them all anyway! Not that he's contrary or anything.
We then had new black bowls of a very colourful salad - exceedingly vibrant rare thinly sliced beef fillet, silky torn mozzarella, crispy cubes of sautéed potatoes and vibrant green salad leaves doused with Belazu balsamic vinegar. Mmm, mmm, mmm!
The deep pink of the ever so rare beef went perfectly with the table runner and napkins as well, which clearly an important consideration when planing a meal!

Friday, December 29, 2006

I'm in charge!

I’d promised D that she would not have to think about feeding everyone and that I’d try and come up with some inspiration and do the cooking. The recently wheeled LLcT was only too pleased to drive us to Waitrose so I could get inspiration in more familiar surroundings. I was considering duck (the shelves were bare) or beef fillet, maybe that fabulous Gordon Ramsay recipe with the wild mushrooms we did in August but curiously for T, he didn’t fancy it. I persuaded him to accept a stuffed chicken breast with the incentive of wrapping it in his beloved Parma ham. T isn’t crazy about chicken, I’m not entirely sure why he agreed. I think he just wanted me to hurry up, buy some food and let him get back behind the wheel - chicken or no! And whilst I was in Waitrose, I thought I’d better introduce D to the Cream of Scallop soup that I’d been raving about and grab a few of their canapés as well. There were some intriguing looking mini hamburgers, a British favourites medley and the already favourite Bigham’s mini beef Wellingtons.
As I was in charge for the night, I could pick all my favourites so I stuffed the chicken with gently sautéed leeks and some mature Cheddar. The plump breasts were wrapped in Serano ham (They only had the merest slivers of Parma) and then wrapped in foil because they were seriously in danger of spilling their ample content all over the oven. And of course, with all the choices of potato accompaniment I happened to stumble across mash potato - for a change. I know D prefers peeling the potatoes first but I thought that’s why ricers were invented. Last time D tried ricing unpeeled cooked potatoes they caused her undue stress and mess by their efforts to cling onto their jackets. But today the potato was behaving well.
The scallop soup with Parma ham trimming crisps (all I could prise out of the deli counter) and trio of mini beef Wellingtons seemed to go down well though the male contingent felt it was odd to drink it out of a cup and demanded spoons!
T didn’t mention the dreaded chicken but rather unexpectedly announced a distaste of mash potatoes. Well, this is a new one on me but fortunately he managed to force it down! How does D manage to satisfy the ravenous hoards each night? I guess that’s why pizza was invented!

Update: I've since tried making my own mini beef Wellingtons and they went down very well!

I will not ever never eat a tomato!

One of my lovely Christmas presents from D, MC and LLcT was this Lola anti-tomato mug. There is a Charlie and Lola book called “I will not ever never eat a tomato” where I believe Lola eventually eats a tomato - so not a happy ending then! But I unlike Lola will probably will never be tempted to the dark side. Great mug though and will remind those who might attempt to foist the evil red stuff on me!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ring-fenced fish pie

Clearly anticipating some sort of bizarre delay en route D had prepared a fabulous fish pie for us to consume before (belated) Christmas present opening. The journey was surprisingly easy but I love fish pie so was very happy. And D being ever so aware of my ambivalence to the prawns that everyone else loves so much, have kindly ring fenced part of the pie to be prawn free and marked it with a parsley stalk 'J'.
I am a huge fan of fish pies, it is definitely a favourite from my childhood and M used to make a thick layer of the yummiest cheesy mash. I didn’t even realise then that she doesn’t really like potato. Perhaps I just thought that she was holding back and that it meant more for us potato lovers!
D’s fish pie was very tasty indeed and not a prawn turned up on my plate so it was even nicer!
And then we got to open our presents…

Fortification for travelling

It’s time to pack my unfeasibly large shiny black case and hit the trains again. I’m Cambridge bound for New Year but British Rail don’t feel it necessary to make the journey from Manchester to Cambridge easy so I’m actually heading for Peterborough and D and MC are going to collect me from there. Last year I made the same journey and as we drew into Peterborough station there was some issue and they kept us mysteriously lingering within touching distance of the platform for an hour. Not too bad for me as I was just stuck on a train but D and MC had to stand on a crowded platform in the freezing cold (and it’d been snowing!) I am intending this year to be considerably less troublesome. Though there’s quite a lot of the festive food left lurking in the ridge and cupboards and M is bound to stock me up so if I do get holed up in some snow bogged hole due to freakish British Rail behaviour at least I can feed everyone!
To fortify me for the journey ahead we have more of the delicious soup (in a triagular bowl, why not?) and I whip up a duck breast, mash potatoes and creamed leeks - and then serve them on possibly the large plates ever. The instructions said to pan-fry the duck for 45 minutes, I would prefer mine slightly less crispy but M doesn’t do pink so it looks rather disconsolate next to the lovely vegetables. It was very tasty though. Farewell M!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Decking the table again

Definitely a case of style over content! Today’s table layout was more attractive that our salmon and broccoli en croute so I’ll talk about that instead. I’ve been particularly taken by my metal snowflakes from M&S. They come with a magnet for easy clean-up which is a great boon as I like scattering the table with interesting themed table confetti but clearing it up can be quite a pain. I’m still finding the odd duck from when I made them for the duck-tacular back in May. And I’m fairly sure I’ve inflicted more than D’s fair share of interesting table titbits. I think she’ll like these ones better.
M&S have had some lovely tableware added to their collection this year, this is more of the M’s new Mikado crockery. The fabulous black beaded placemats, coasters and the fairy lighted Christmas tree are from M&S also. The silver snowflaked napkin rings are from Harvey Nicholls and the other bejewelled Christmas trees are from Lakeland that quiver dramatically as you eat. The table is a plethora of glittery sparkly goodies. Heavenly!

Also we have yummy Brown Brothers orange muscat and flora wine to drink. And there’s Gü for dessert, naturally!

All I want for Christmas is Gü

...or even Frü.
M thought that we’d better ensure we have a couple of desserts to tide us over the festive season… and clearly beyond! As well as our beloved favourite little pots of chocolate, we also have the hot lava tarts to try, Frü lemon soufflés and even another new experience - Frü lemon shots. We are positively awash with yummy Gü and Frü goodies.
The hot lava tarts turned out to be okay but a little more cakey than I would have thought. I’d rather have something more gooey or Gü-ey as they call it! I’ve had Gü chocolate soufflés before and the hot chocolate pudding and they were considerably more unctuous. So personally, I don’t think I’d bother with the lava tarts again.
The Frü lemon shots and soufflés had a nice little zesty zing if you’re not feeling in a chocolatey mood - and why wouldn’t you?
And yes just to be really corny, I'll reiterate - all I want for Christmas is !

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas dinner in a box?

It all started with D thinking that she'd forgo the traditional Christmas lunch with all the trimmings in favour of a bowl of hearty soup and a brisk walk on a cold beach. I'm not entirely sure that MC was as excited at the prospect as she was but I can appreciate D wanted an easy Christmas for once.

I'd recently come across the Banquet in a Box website where you can choose various gourmet meals that are pre-prepared and then blast frozen. These arrive packed in a snug jacket of insulation ready for transfer to your freezer. The meals can then be cooked from frozen at a convenient time.

I decided that it might be fun to order a special Christmas day meal for D and MC and order the same meal for M and me to share and have a virtual Christmas lunch together.

I picked the Boxing Day special as we didn't want turkey and all that and ordered instead a coquille of salmon and monkfish, followed by pleasingly plump beef Wellington, winter vegetables and loads of sautéed potatoes. There were also bundles of green beans and little banqueting rolls.

The coquille meant that I had some lovely mash on Christmas day; I'm pretty sure that's what I'd asked Father Christmas for! And I was able to 'enhance' the beef Wellington with a little Christmas tree-shaped sparkler.

Dessert was a raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake but as cheesecake isn't a huge favourite of mine (even when I make it myself) I swapped this with a chocolate bavarois. Though my swapping wasn't entirely successful as they still delivered the cheesecake!

The food was very tasty and the portions were very impressive. I do recall a voice from my past peering inconsolably into a meal-for-two ready meal box and asking if it was actually for two mice! In fact the portions were so impressive we were unable to finish it all. Though naturally I had the lion share of the vegetables!

We had our meal with our telephones on speakerphone in the centre of the impressively decorated respective tables (note especially the colour changing Christmas trees and the ‘best’ china!) M and I had all the crackers so we pulled everyone's, read the jokes and saved the gift for the lucky recipients!

I don't mind cooking a Christmas lunch at all and as I don't have a hungry family to feed every day so it still seems more of a novelty but I must admit that this was just so trouble free, with the merest smidgeon of washing up and really tasty food to boot. I’d really recommend it! A three flying forks for Banquet in a box (though it was slightly marred by my lack of promised chocolate dessert!)

I am planning to use the same company to send a couple of days of hearty meals for the new parents when L relinquishes her bump next month. It seems so much more practical than flowers, as lovely as flowers are I can appreciate that some trouble free meals without the hassle of remembering to go to the shop would be a particular boon for new parents.

Update – L’s bump couldn’t wait until his due date and the handsome AJ was born on December 27th instead so too soon for me to organise a food parcel. Ah well, better luck next time!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

'twas the night before Christmas...

Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now!

The day after the night before...

Today is for leftovers. I don’t mind this as often something extremely tasty comes from re-imagining a previous meal. In fact I had set my heart on whipping up some bubble and squeak from the fabulous Brussels sprouts, pancetta and chestnuts but M was a little too keen in the clean up and they got black bagged before I could secure them. Shame!

First it was a little more of the yummy PIMM’S Winter drink. This was made with 3 parts apple juice, 1 part PIMM’s No.3 Winter warmed gently on the stove with a few slices of red apple (though apparently slices of orange is a good choice as well). Oooh I feel Christmassy already!

And then it was an M speciality – a meal of canapés! We polished off the remaining lobster, hot smoked salmon and prawn spoons and also the ever-lovely mini coquilles St. Jacques – both from M&S. The miniature scallops wasn’t strictly a leftover, as we hadn’t served them yesterday. But we did finish off with the cheese (finally) and more ginger chocolate pots.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Family Festive Feast

Tonight was the annual family festive thing, which I think went with a swing. I planned my usual over ambitious (never knowingly under catered!) menu to cater for various tastes and unfortunately illness made us two short for the first time ever. I should have prepared enough food for eight not ten but I probably catered for twenty! Well that's tomorrow's meal sorted out then! And possibly the day after also!

There was offering of a welcoming Winter PIMM'S. Then we started with the canapés piled up attractively on M's new black and silver platter and plates and further square silver platters lined with black sequined mats. We had mini beef Wellingtons, scallop croustades and truffled wild mushroom tartlets from the ever-reliable Bigham's, Parma ham wrapped figs, tiny scallop soups and some special spoons loaded with lobster, hot smoked salmon and prawns from M&S. The mini beef Wellingtons were as wonderful as ever and the scallop on top of the pea puréed covered croustade worked well but the truffled tartlets did not want to leave the comfort of their baking tray when they were baked. No amount of persuasion would get them out intact from their tray, I'm pretty sure I read the instructions properly and even though I was able to partially rescue them with the suggested use of a spoon they looked rather like roadkill.

The Parma ham wrapped dried figs was the Nigella inspired nibble though mine were entirely goat free and cream cheese replaced the offending goats' cheese. The gorgeous silky scallop soup was topped with Parma ham crisps and the Parmesan croutons were placed at the bottom of each espresso cup before topping up with soup. These didn't need spoons and were a tasty and welcome addition to the canapés. I'm not a huge fan of prawns and as I realise that most of the world prefer them to me so I just handed the prawns over to the nearest eager recipient and ate the lobster and hot smoked salmon instead. The toughened white plastic spoons were quite elegant and will come in handy for future little nibbles. It was rather daunting to consider that this was just the taster and there was considerably more food to follow!

(M wants me to mention her new black Christmas tree!)

We bucked the trend and as we were two visitors short we would eschew the usual buffet style and eat off your lap in favour of a sit down meal. This meant a foray up into the loft for the extra dining chairs and some other spare ones.

The main feature was a Nigella recipe for a spectacular one-pot chicken, sausage, sage and onion. I thought this would do away with the need to carve. The potato and leek boulangère from the Waitrose magazine, sprouts with chestnuts and pancetta, Chantenay carrots in olrossa sherry and finally some purple sprouting broccoli, accompanied this. The recipe for the boulangère was rather odd, it called for 800g of leeks, this is a lot of leeks and I was only able to cram half of that into the largest pan for sautéing. The resultant dish was okay but maybe too liquid. I had originally planned a gratin Daupinoise but thought the boulangère might be a lighter option. I had worried that there was nowhere near enough sprouts but as seemingly only I really like them I need not have panicked. In fact some thoughts for next time: G's only green vegetable is peas, maybe I should abandon sprouts and do some sort of petits pois à la Française; cousin J doesn't like fruit with savoury (a la figs in Parma ham); big A prefers Becks or Grolsch (probably chilled!) and along with little A will eat most things. N was suspicious about the chicken at first but relented but wasn't ever going to trust a sprout and was deeply disturbed by the ginger in the puddings. K seemed to like most things (or was too polite to say otherwise) and M enjoyed the canapés but then couldn't face more than her customary two sprouts and an iota of chicken.

Desserts were warm mini crepes filled with either orange cream or chocolate cream and mini fruit tarts from M&S and finally the ginger chocolate pots topped with a chocolate ginger. N initially tucked into her little ramekin with gusto until she hit the stem ginger at the bottom. My recipe was for four so I doubled it for eight and perhaps the ramekins I used were slightly smaller than anticipated but I could have easily filled ten or eleven ramekins with that mixture. That meant dessert was sorted for the next few meals as well! I’d also forgotten from the last time I made this (New Year’s eve last year) that you get ever so sticky. You get sticky, the chopping board gets sticky and your knife gets sticky. The urge to jump in a bath straight after preparing this dessert is very strong.

The crepes were okay and the mini tarts looked very pretty but I couldn't accommodate one after the ginger chocolate pot. In fact we filled the cheeseboards with a fine array of cheeses, grapes, bread and cheese biscuits but not even the merest morsel of cheese was consumed, I guess we were all well and truly festively stuffed! Until next time!

Decking the table

Not a particular blog-tastic meal, more a quick snack to sustain me during all the preparation for tonight but it does show the M&S Mikado crockery – another crockery addition for M (it’s so catching!). And it was a really lovely M&S crab pâté though I would have preferred it with brown bread instead!

Friday, December 22, 2006

I'll Be Home For Christmas

I’ve braved the inclement weather and crowded trains to venture home for Christmas. It was touch a go whether I’d make due to a ticket mishap (!) but despite tales from Heathrow being very dire and many planning to bed down for yet another night in the freezing fog, the train North was curiously trouble-free.

Everything is in pace from the Christmas consumption. The deliveries from Ocado and Sainsbury’s have been delivered. And shock horror, Ocado let us down (slightly) for the first time. They had no garlic or dried sage though curiously they had the fresh sage. I was able to grab some garlic en route and as for dried sage, I guess I need to dry a bit of my own!

We tucked into the crème fraîche and bacon tart (like the Tarte flambée d’Alsace I’m so fond of from Waitrose) with lovely lamb’s lettuce and Belazu balsamic vinegar eaten off M’s new damask crockery from M&S. There's also some new table runners and rather fabulous Christmas trees, with lights and glitter and diamantes and everything!
It seems the joy o
f table styling is contagious; all those “table linen and crockery is wonderful” subliminal messages I’ve been emitting have worked! Now hopefully people will realise why I am unnaturally attracted to placemats, coasters and plates.

A toast to toast!

This was my attempt at a quick “I must have a snack but I don’t have much food in the house as I’ve been running everything down in time for going away”. I fortunately had a couple of slices of bread in the freezer that I could pop in the ever reliable Dualit and then stick under the grill with a generous spreading of cream cheese with garlic and chives topped with a few ends of Cheddar and a couple of gratings of nutmeg. Okay a slightly unusual combination but it definitely filled the gap.
I’ve been warned against trying to photograph melted cheese as it has a tendency to just look greasy and therefore not particularly appealing. There was little I could do to prevent that so at least I arranged the portions nicely. I hoped it may detract from the inherent unappetizing look of my actually rather tasty snack.
Toast is such a wonderful invention; it’s amazing how bread (which is rather nice in itself) metamorphoses into something completely different and more savoury. And then the addition of cheese or maybe a poached egg (no such luck today!) or perhaps some ham can add a whole new level to the snack. I recall my first forays into sandwich toasting; I favoured the ham, cheese and pineapple and thought it was such an exotic meal to rustle up on returning home from school. And many a grumbling tummy in Paris has been sated by a Croque Monsieur or even a Croque Madame if I fancy an egg on top. Welsh rarebit is another toast-based snack standby that always goes down well. Another favourite from my childhood was toast spread with Rose’s lime marmalade. I never really got into ordinary orange marmalade but lime marmalade seemed a very sophisticated breakfast choice. I’ve enjoyed many a fine smooth chicken liver parfait on some slices of Melba toast and poached egg on toast can be a very enjoyable dish also.
The colour of my toast is important to me, I like mine pale and interesting not black and rather carbonised - M! It all goes wrong so quickly if the toast is overdone and scraping the slices over the sink makes a huge mess and never entirely destroys the evidence of excessive toasting. I also insist upon white bread being toasted. Brown bread is good in crab sandwiches and granary is nice with just a bit of butter but they both go too hard if you toast them - and clearly wouldn't be the requisite pale and interesting!
There’s plenty that I wouldn’t put on toast – peanut butter never seemed right to me, Marmite is excruciatingly awful and just the smell of it makes me feel quite ill (you may guess that I am of the “I hate Marmite” camp!), Nutella too (chocolate is just so lovely in other guises but not on toast) and sardines on toast has never appealed to me. Also rather curiously as much as I like scrambled egg, I don't like it with toast. I believe the egg makes the toast soggy and the toast spoils the smooth creaminess of the scrambled egg with sharp little crumbs.
I know D resisted owning a toaster for a long time because of toast crumbs, and she is right, they do get everywhere. But it seems a small price to pay for such loveliness and as long as I don't get them in bed, I can forgive the odd crumb.
Toast is a very good thing and I am very pleased that my lovely Dualit is more than happy to deal with frozen bread slices and as long as I’ve remembered to replenish the bread supply that toast is never very far away.
So a toast to toast it is!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Apron fit for a queen... or a foodie diva!

B has very kindly made me a customised b-eautiful apron as a thank you for making her eat all that food at the black-tie and diamond Queen's 80th birthday meal. It has both the obligatory J and the fork and very importantly, is trimmed with black marabou! There is also a fabulous touch of bling!
And very tasty this is too! This will be most useful over the festive food production season and is definitely a foodie diva pre-requisite.
Thank you B!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I thought I'd try another bowl of the Waitrose cream of scallop soup with Parmesan croutons today. It really is rather good!

I've got some more on order with Ocado for the festive family frolics as one of the canapés. M is planning on supplementing her coffee cup collection with some new white elegant little recepticles and we'll serve miniature scallop soups topped with Parma ham crisps. I think I'll submerge the croutons as a little surprise. I saw the idea in the 'Waitrose Seasons Christmas' magazine and thought it would make a change from the normal nibbles. Not that they won't be totally wonderful also. There's going to be mini beef Wellingtons, truffle and wild mushrooms tartlets, scallop croustades (obviously I think you can never have too many scallops!) and various smoked salmon goodies. And that's just for starters! I hope eveyone will be hungry.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lemon joy

I’ve made this particular risotto in the best of times and the worse of times.

Many years ago when T got me into risottos I’d seen Nigella make this on her Nigella Bites series and she said what a massive influence Anna Del Conte had been to her. I made this for the first time in T’s previous fabulous new kitchen and we marveled at the quantities the recipe produced. There were three of us so I may have doubled it in fear of falling short but I seem to recall a river of unctuous risotto but definitely as good as it was, there was way too much.

Years later when I made it for D when MC, N and LLcT wouldn’t dream of going near a risotto, again we really enjoyed it but were rather over faced. In June 2004 when I made it for M when we were in dire need of some stodgy solace and there was way, way too much but it did the trick. I can really vouch for the calming effect of making a risotto, the gently soothing motion of stirring the grains and adding the stock a ladleful at a time is ultimately comforting even before you’ve had a mouthful. And this one seems extra pleasurable, as firstly I love microplaning the lemon into a pile of lemon gossamer. I then microplane the Parmesan into very satisfying curls. And the final gratifying part is add the eggy, lemony, Parmesany mixture to the cooked risotto. The egg yolk causes the risotto to take on a sunnier glow as it mingles with the cooked grains. And then of course there’s the eating, there is something very reassuring about a good risotto, all is well with the world for a few mouthfuls.

When I discovered the original Anna Del Conte recipe (though she attributes it to Romana Bosco, a talented cook who runs a cookery school in Turin and then she in turn credits Giovanni Goria), I realized that the only difference was the additional of 5 or 6 sage leaves and one or two more diners! The mystery is solved; Nigella is feeding hungrier people!

I do admit than shallots and celery aren’t always just at hand for me so this time I substituted them for a very finely chopped leek (but I adore leek so this isn’t a problem!)

Risotto with Lemon (risotto al limone)

If you’re Nigella Lawson Serves only 2!
If you’re Anna Del Conte Serves 3-4!

2 shallots
1 stick of celery
60g unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
300g risotto rice
1 litre vegetable stock (Marigold with do)
zest & juice of 1/2 unwaxed organic lemon
needles from 2 small sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 egg yolk
4 tbsp grated Parmesan & to serve
4 tbsp double cream
Maldon salt & white pepper

- Chop the shallots and celery very fine

- Soften the shallot and celery mixture in half the butter & oil for about 5min (a little salt helps to prevent burning) until the soffritto is done

- Mix in the rice and stir to coat all the grains until slightly translucent

- Keep the stock simmering in another pan

- When rice becomes shiny and partially translucent, start ladling the simmering stock and stir thoroughly until the rice has absorbed the stock.

- Add another ladleful of stock and continue. You may not need all the stock; good quality risotto rice takes around 20 minutes to cook.

- Meanwhile, mix the lemon zest and the finely chopped rosemary needles and stir them through the rice halfway through the cooking

- In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk, lemon juice, the Parmesan, double cream and a generous grinding of black pepper

- Remove risotto off heat and stir in the eggy, lemony mixture and the remaining butter

- Cover the pan and leave to rest for 2 minutes, finish by giving the risotto an energetic stir and transfer to a heated bowl

- Serve with more Parmesan... Dive in!

I finally, got to christen my new Divertimenti lemon squeezer, it is very yellow, efficient and also pleasing to use.

I was determined to try and get an action shot of the risotto, yes I know you’re going to say exactly ‘what action does a risotto do?’ But I mean that as a risotto is maybe not the most photogenic of subjects, a judicious redeployment of my gorilla pod can at least allow a fork magically levitate over the bowl! The effect is more of a J's eye view if you will.

Go on then…dive in.

Buon Appetito!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Paradise at Paradiso?

Tonight was a farewell to our great leader so it wasn't about the food but Paradiso is not a restaurant I've visited before so I felt I had to pay attention to the food as well. And I think we did very well. C - our guest of honour is not fond of spicy elaborate food and therefore all the food tonight has been chosen with him in mind. We start off with some great shiny platters of canapés - smoked salmon triangles topped with fat salmon roe, grissini with cream cheese and Parma ham, balls of mozzarella wrapped in aubergine slices, sausages wrapped in bacon and some cherry tomato things I ignored.

The sausages seemed slightly incongruous amongst the other Italian fare, but a sausage is not to be sniffed at. After the nibbles and a few speeches it was the main buffet. We could choose between little pork chops, calamari, mushroom risotto, fat prawns, slices of breseola and salad. They even had a decent hunk of Parmesan grate over everything. I was very impressed with the quality. Okay, your plate would be somewhat of a mess if you said yes to everything but I made the change from your average buffet.

C's favourite dessert is a crème brulée and he was awarded an especially large one. We fortunately had more normal portions though I still struggled to finish it and had to assure the waitress that it was very nice but that I was full. Obviously all this dessert sharing I do means I can’t actually eat my own anymore. Hmmm maybe that’s why I love a little Gü chocolate pot; it’s just the perfect size and not too much of a challenge to finish off all by myself!

Paradiso is an interesting Italian restaurant; it seems so tucked away on Wapping High Street I wonder if it gets a lot of clientele. I would like to try it again under normal circumstances and see their versions of the Sicilian classics. Catering for a crowd must be a challenge especially when it’s not really a sit-down meal and they deserve a fine Sicilian fork for their efforts.

Zizzi top?

We had booked a table at Zizzi on Shad Thames as being Christmas week; it is bound to be heaving. But it seems that the world is out doing some last minute Christmas shopping and we have the place pretty much to ourselves. Obviously we select the table nearest the fireplace. Not that there’s a fire there but it seems the correct but cliqued thing to do on a winter day. This is my first Zizzi but my dining companion ZZ is on a self-proclaimed assignment to visit and evaluate all the known Zizzi’s and possibly some unknown. In particular, he wants to check out the pepperoni ratio to pizza on the Diavola in all the various Zizzi's. The Diavola comes with double pepperoni and ZZ has tried extra pepperoni (triple pepperoni) but today is back on JUST the double! ZZ bears no relation to any members of the famously bearded rock group I just asked him to choose an appropriate name for this blog and his currently mission being foremost in his mind encourages him to choose this one!

The thought of a Diavola slightly alarms me with any quantity of pepperoni so I go for a pappardelle with marinated chicken, field mushrooms, rosemary and a creamy Marsala sauce. It is very tasty and seems home made and miraculously I don’t cover myself in the sauce. Always a hazard! Apparently the Zizzi staff are programmed to up sell and it is true that every time you order something they throw in a few extra suggestions and even though we say we’re sticking to water they ask us if we want wine (again!) and more water (though we’ve hardly touched the other water at the time) It’s slightly odd but I guess that’s what they do. They encourage me to add a rocket salad to my pasta which was okay I guess.

ZZ felt that it wasn’t the best Diavola he’d had as now there wasn't enough pepperoni but he needs to make more studies before confirming his findings.

Next time I will try one of their famous pizzas and see how well they cope with the anti-tomato stance! I’d started to see non-tomato pizzas on various menus but at last glance Zizzi hadn’t taken that brave step. And I can’t reconfirm on their website as it seems to have gone - completely! How mysterious!

I finished with a fine lemon tart that ZZ couldn’t be persuaded to partake of the tiniest bite (how disciplined!) but it was a fitting end to a pretty good meal.

I want to give Zizzi one 1 ½ forks but that isn’t possible and the more I think of the up selling, it is actually rather irritating! So I’ll give them a high one fork and re-evaluate on next visit.

Update - Their website seems to be back, obviously they were having a moment!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A nice cup of tea?

I've always been quite intrigued by the curative and therapeutic properties of tea. It seems that no matter how catastrophic any disaster is, it can always be soothed with a nice cup of tea. The proffered panacea at all moments of dire need is always 'how about a nice cup of tea?' clearly tea is either 'nice' or it's a coffee. I've seen this over the years and generally haven't been able to participate, as I can't get my head round the hot milk part. I would try sipping someone's black coffee (only when offered I hasten to add, I don't just steal sips from random cups) but found it much too bitter. I wanted to like coffee because cool people sat around in coffee shops putting the world to rights, albeit mainly on US sitcoms! But try as I might I just couldn't become a coffee drinker. I like the ritual of coffee, I like espresso jugs and cafetières and I have elegant little coffee cups though I use them for intense little soups tasters or mousses. And of course, coffee spoons are de rigueur for eating little pots of unctuous Gü! But I also like teapots, teacups, strainers and infusers.

I tried dabbling in the occasional green tea with lemon but it was only an occasional occurrence.

On the Orient Express to and from Venice back in May, we would partake in afternoon tea each day. And after seeing how D takes her tea I figured that I could do that. She has the weakest Earl Grey without milk and now, so do I. It is fine if I make it myself as I can show the infuser or the tea bag to the hot water but if I have tea out I invariably need an extra jug of hot water to tone it down for my delicate palate! Also, like D I can easily eke two or three cups from a pinch in an infuser or a bag but if I leave the bag to one side for a reuse I get accused of being slovenly and not disposing of my discarded bags. But I can state here, that I do dispose of my used tea bag, but not until I've finished with it. So if it's still there, I intend to have another cup later.

So basically I get it now. As long as my tea is über weak and devoid of milk I can enjoy the odd cup though I'm not sure if I'd turn to tea in a crisis yet. Maybe I have to get my daily uptake higher before I can turn to the leaves in moments of distress as currently I have a hardened two cups a fortnight habit. Crazy I know! But now I can hang around normal people and frequent the likes of Starbucks whereas previously I'd stare at the chalkboard and try and select the least offensive option. Though I have to say Starbucks is quite an intimidating place for a coffee avoider, there's some scary stuff in there.

And it seems very appropriate that I am talking about my newfound occasional tea habit as H gave me a 'j' mug amongst other presents for Christmas. And coincidentally I gave her a sparkling H!

Another favourite cup (if I'm feeling inclined to a saucer) is my Harvey Nix Italian 'baci' women who, along with Nigella, I aspire to be!

Anyone for a cuppa?