Author Archives: mwkitchen

Black Figs with Serrano, Purple Basil and Balsamic

In the mighty world of hams in Spain, nothing surpasses the acorn eating, wild Iberico pigs that provide the cured meat world with ‘Jamon Iberico de Bellota’, to be served and consumed only in paper-thin, translucent slices. Despite it’s fame, as a student I can’t quite justify a price tag of around €90 per 100g of the stuff. However, I happily downgrade to Serrano whose silken texture; meaty yet fruity and floral flavour isn’t as rich as Iberico ham but whose uses are much more versatile without causing offence to any onlooking Spaniards. I’ve definitely eaten my fair share of these melt-in-the-mouth hams this year and fully intend on taking as much of a leg as possible to England.

To quote the godfather of Food Science, Harold Mcgee: “Hams are to fresh pork what long-aged cheeses are to fresh milk – a distillation, an expression of the transforming powers of salt, enzymes, and time”

Serrano (or parma etc) with figs is a tried and tested combination; flavours and textures readily complementing each other without any work required. It was something I ate regularly on arriving in September in time for fig season and have missed them ever since they disappeared from the market in October.  So I was very happy upon the appearance of these black figs, also known as giant figs which precede the smaller  varieties that arrive in August. Their fleshy interior isn’t red like many varieties but they have a wonderful flavour, not so syrupy but just sweet enough with some woody notes.

My ‘go-to’ man for herbs in the market introduced me to this purple basil which I believe is the Red Rubin variety. I had never seen such vividly coloured basil before. It has a lovely floral aroma, not quite as pungent as standard green basil, and has a bit of a citrus taste alongside the sweet basil flavour. I intend to make a ridiculously deep purple pesto with my next purchase.

The balsamic I used was of the ‘glaze’ kind, the overused, controversial plastic bottle stuff that any Italian would turn their nose up to. A raspberry balsamic glaze at that. But then I don’t think it is any worse than using a shop bought balsamic anyway. In Italy vinegars from Modena of quality are sold labelled with the age of the content, are syrupy in consistency (getting thicker the older they are) and extremely complex in flavour as they must be a minimum of 12 years old. Around 35 kilos of grapes are converted over time by acetification, fermentation, maturation, evaporation and other processes to produce 250ml of balsamic vinegar. So that ‘traditional balsmic of modena’ you get in your posh deli for £10 is most probably wine vinegar coloured with caramel and sweetened with sugar, with some young balsamic and cooked down grape must if you’re lucky. Unnecessary rant over.

Black Figs with Serrano, Purple Basil and Balsamic

Makes a great easy starter of antipasti

in-season figs

Serrano ham in paper-thin slices

purple basil or similar variety if unavailable

balsamic vinegar

Trim top hard stalk off the fig and cut a cross down to the midpoint of the fig. Press at the base of the fig at 4 points towards the centre so the top slits you made open up.

Wrap each fig with slice of ham and plate. Dress the fig and plate with the basil and vinegar. Serve

Smoky Red Pepper Hummus & Pitta Crisps

I stumbled across this article the other day and realised that I had never made Hummus in the proper way. Despite making many batches of the stuff at uni last year, I had never bothered with dry chickpeas, imagining that there really couldn’t be that much difference; after all it just cuts out a bit of work buying them tinned. So after having spent this year striving to use the freshest, most natural ingredients available I decided it was time to take on the classic that has been adopted as the dip of choice by most of the West. In fact the weekend saw a finger food foray in my flat as ridiculous heat and humidity made cooking and eating a proper meal unthinkable.

Recent popularity in the West doesn’t feature much in the Hummus story. After a bit of light research I learnt it is believed to date back to the 12th Century, favoured by the Sultan Saladin, whilst others cite it in the Old Testament. It is a source of modern political tension and made in unbelievable quantities as a means to settling origin debates. It is also considered a blasphemy to stray away from the most basic of Hummus’ preparations; rendering mine and most of the supermarket versions as frauds.

Although I am a sucker for sticking to the food rules and limiting my fusion there is something about this combination which is so right that I had to break them (plus I had a couple of peppers to use) . The result is a vividly coloured hummus, where the sweet/smoky flavour of the skinned capsicums didn’t overpower the nutty chickpeas and sat perfectly with the garlic, cumin and smoked paprika.

I will agree with most in the dry versus tinned debate in that flavour doesn’t differ that much, maybe a slightly nuttier taste with the dried ones, the real distinction is the texture. It was smooth but still had some of the grainy, wholesome texture that hummus should have – if that makes sense. And as for the extra time taken, I would deem it worthwhile, after all it only requires a little forethought to pre-soak overnight and with the addition of baking powder the chickpeas can be cooked in much less time and be left unattended, even quicker with a pressure cooker. The simple pitta bread crisps are an idea stolen from my mum and are not only extremely ‘moreish’ but are a great way of using up bread that is past it’s best.

 

Smoky Red Pepper Hummus

this makes a nice big dish of hummus with plenty left over for other uses. Lemon, garlic, tahini, cumin should be adjusted to personal taste. 

To skin the peppers (capsicums) 

Place 2 large red peppers  directly onto the flame of your hob or even better onto  hot coals until blackened all over. Cover in a bowl until cool then rinse under a cold tap to help remove the skins. When skinned remove the seeds and stalk and then blend until liquid.

For the Hummus

500g dried chickpeas

2 teaspoons bicarbonate  of soda

8 tbsp tahini

3 lemons, juiced

6 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoon cumin powder

salt, to taste

red pepper purée (above)

olive oil

smoked paprika

Stir 1 teaspoon of the bicarbonate into two litres of water and use to cover the chickpeas in a large bowl. Leave for 24 hours.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas, covering with fresh water in a pan and adding the remaining bicarbonate of soda and a teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil over a medium heat and reduce to a low simmer until they are very tender, almost falling apart. Mine took around 2 1/2 hours. Add more hot water to the pan from time to time so the chickpeas are always covered.

Allow to cool in the pan, then drain, RESERVING the cooking water. Mix the tahini with half the lemon juice and half the garlic, then to loosen this thick paste slowly add a little reserved cooking water until the paste is loose and workable. Then transfer to your food processor or similar appliance along with the chickpeas, cumin, and a teaspoon of decent salt.

Blend until a purée and then loosen again with the cooking water until you reach the desired consistency, I also added a good dash of olive  oil at this point. Continue to blend adding the red pepper purée. Taste and add any of the remaining garlic, lemon juice or more cumin, olive oil or salt before transferring to serving dish.

Garnish with olive oil, smoked paprika and cooked chickpeas if you like.

For the Pitta Bread Crisps

pitta breads

olive oil

sea salt

dried rosemary

Oven @ 180 C

Cut the pitta bread into strips lengthways then separate each strip into two (they should come apart easily due to the natural air bubble in the centre). Drizzle a baking tray with a little olive oil, lay the pitta bread slices on then drizzle with more olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of rosemary.

Bake for 7 minutes or until golden brown. Remove and place on paper towel to absorb any excess oil before serving.

Fiocchetti di Pera e Ricotta with Sage and Walnut Butter

With my girlfriend visiting and some scorching temperatures in Valencia I decided to have a short break from the labour-intensive pig parts and cook some lighter dishes. This is a wonderful flavour combination and inspired by a ludicrously expensive Italian stall in the market. I have been desperately searching for the origins of this pasta but to no avail. Naples, Sicily and Florence are all possibilities but no sign of the Ricotta combination, instead many using Gorgonzola or Taleggio.

I haven’t put a recipe down for fresh pasta because if you have made it before then you probably know what works for you, and if not then there are many resources that can explain the process much better. If you have access to fresh, large eggs then the classic combination of 100g flour : 1 egg should work for you. Most of us will find the need for extra egg yolks to compensate for the industrial quality eggs available. A good knead and rest time will make all the difference. I also find rolling quite satisfying and therefore people shouldn’t be put off if they don’t own a machine, just remember you’re aiming for a level of thinness where anything underneath the dough can be made out when held to up to light.

These pretty little ‘bows’ are a bit more special than the standard ravioli, but of-course this filling can be used to fill any shaped pasta.

Fiocchetti di Pera e Ricotta with Sage and Walnut Butter

serves 4

500g fresh pasta dough, rolled to a thin sheet

3 medium pears, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

40g butter

2 tablespoons brown sugar

100g ricotta, drained

seal salt and black pepper

small handful of sage leaves

small handful walnut kernels

Heat 10g of the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat, add the sugar and a large pinch of sea salt, when dissolved add the pears. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until caramelised and cooked throughout.

Remove from the heat and blend well until a thick liquid consistency. Set aside to cool.

When cool, mix well with the ricotta and season with pepper and a little salt.

Cut the pasta into small rectangles and place a teaspoon of the filling in the centre. Pinch opposite sides together working your way around until the centre above the filling is pinched firmly closed and the pasta above fans out.

But the fiocchetti on a baking tray or plates and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes to dry a little.

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil and when ready add the fiocchetti. Stirring carefully once to separate them. Leave on a high heat for around 2 minutes. They should start to rise to the surface when ready.

Whilst cooking, place the rest of the butter on a saucepan on a medium heat.

When cooked, remove carefully with a slotted spoon to a colander set above a large bowl.

Add the walnuts and sage to the now melted butter and combine. Add the pasta, stirring to coat it well but being careful not to break the casing. Taste one and add any further seasoning if  required. Serve.

Nose-to-Tail: Pig’s Head Croquetas

To celebrate my last month in Spain, I, like many before me will be cooking my way through a pig. I need not repeat the wise words of Mr. Henderson and co in stressing the importance of knowing where our food comes from. That the plastic-wrapped cuts of meat so easily placed in our shopping baskets do actually come from a living, breathing animal. So what better place to start this journey than in the land where a cured hind leg can fetch €1000; where care is taken over a well-fed animal; a simply prepared cut is juicy and flavoursome; and each body part is displayed proudly at every butcher.

Of course, I will aim for a Spanish preparation of each meal and I will score each dish on my personal P.I.G scale:

Porkiness  – flavour/taste/texture

Inconvenience – labour involved/difficulty

Gratification – value/satisfaction derived

scores from 1-10. 1 being low, 10 high. 

Credit where credit is due for this recipe is taken and only slightly adapted from a truly inspiring source. The British Larder consistently produces some of the most original dishes I see and share it over the web. Not only are they generous but a quick read of their ethos is insightful and heartfelt. I endeavour to eat at the restaurant on my return.

Croquetas are a sublime creation and a staple tapas throughout Spain, and almost every country seems to have their own versions. It was my first attempt and I was delighted to be able to incorporate them into this month. I could have served them on their own but I wanted  some freshness and acidity to cut through their richness so I served it with baby Red Chard and crispy Tatsoi leaves with a mustard vinaigrette and some pickled red onions which lent their own tartness and a beautiful colour to the dish. I also used the ears to make crispy ‘scratchings’ which I dusted with sweet paprika to add another element to the dish.

So before the recipe the all important PIG scores:

Porkiness: The tough gelatinous meat in the head needs a long cook , so after 4 hours cooking in stock melt-in-the-mouth meat was falling off the bone upon touch. I found the flavour lovely and subtle, but the texture is the real winner here. 10/10

Inconvenience: Unless your butcher delivers you will  be lugging at least 6 kilos of head home. It’s big. I didn’t have a pot big enough for all the snout to fit (how ironic my first dish misses the nose), and then you have to try and lift this slippery, flaky mass out of a pot filled with stock. But it took no more than 15 minutes to prep for cooking then to remove the meat (unless you live with a medic who wants to give a lesson in anatomy). However, much more inconvenience was found by my two vegetarian flatmates. fairly inconvenient 7/10

Gratification: The realisation of what I was dealing with only dawned when shaving off any remaining hairs then the head adopted a more human aspect. The pores in the soft, subtle skin; the beard-like growth; and a mouth and eyes which seemed to subtly smile. Cue vivid flashbacks of Animal Farm. But then at the same time I was proud to be putting this beautiful head to good use and it not being ground up into cheap sausages. Any simple prep and long cook would leave you with a wonderful meat. It’s also inexpensive, I scooped out around 800g  meat including the tongue and paid €5. It’s not something I will cook very often but I was truly satisfied with my experience and the resulting meal and am keen to try other recipes. Satisfied in more than ways than one: 9/10

Pig’s Head Croquetas with Crispy Ears, Pickled Red Onions, Baby Leaves and Mustard Vinaigrette

makes 25 croquetas

1 whole pig’s head

1 stick celery, cut into 4 even size pieces

1 carrot, cut into 4 even size pieces

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs thyme

2 sprigs rosemary

1 onion, quartered

Once any remaining hair are removed from the pig with a razor, place it alongside the other ingredients in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring this to the boil, removing impurities that rise to the surface. Reduce to a simmer and leave for 3 1/2 hours, topping up with water to make sure it is covered at all times. Let cool in the stock for 1 hour more and then remove from pot carefully.

Flake off the meat and set aside. I also finely chopped the tongue into this mixture, but be sure to cut the rough edged from it first and use the centre.

To prepare the croquetas:

3 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and cut in equal sized pieces

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon ras-el-hanout

meat from pig’s head

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

4 tablespoons chopped soft herbs (chives, tarragon, parsley)

50ml milk

100g cornstarch

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, salt well and add potatoes, cooking until soft and falling apart. Drain and when cool enough to handle press through a ricer or sieve.

Meanwhile gently fry the onion until translucent then add the garlic, ras-el-hanout and season, cooking for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the meat and herbs stirring until well combined.

Add the pomme puree to the mix and stir again to combine continuing whilst adding the milk and cornstarch.

You should end up with a mix that is difficult to stir, if not, add a little more cornstarch. Refrigerate this mix until cool – around 2 hours.

Roll into individual croquetas and refrigerate these again on a plate

To cook the croquetas:

1 egg, beaten

4 tablespoons plain flour

150g breadcrumbs

Heat preferred deep-frying oil to 160C

Line up 3 plates, one with the flour, one with egg, and the other with the breadcrumbs. Panée them by rolling each one first in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs.

Deep fry in batches until golden all over and leave to drain on kitchen towel. Meanwhile dress the salad and arrange with the onions on plates. Serve

For the crispy ears (optional):

I removed the ears after they had cooked with the head, sliced thinly and allowed to dry on paper towel an hour. Dust with flour and cook in the same oil as the croquetas for 4 minutes until crispy. Drain then season with paprika and salt.

Serve this as a starter or serve more croquetas as a main meal or tapas. I did this over two days, refrigerating the flaked meat overnight before preparing the rest the next day. 

Eggplant Timballo with Orecchiette al Pomodoro

Continuing with the series of lesser known pasta dishes this one probably rates amongst the more unhealthy and laboured plates of pasta you will make. But it is such a joy to eat and watch people’s faces light up upon cutting into this ‘drum’ that the extra work is well worth it. Besides it makes it dinner party material. My Italian flatmate and I served this to a table of Italians as part of a 5 course ‘fritto’ menu amongst olive all’ascolona, coniglio fritto and around 2 litres of oil – keeping things light.

I cooked this recipe from a picture I had seen but having researched a bit it appears there are hundreds of variations of Timballo (I should have guessed that with it being Italian) with fillings from rice to meat. The common theme being that it is baked, normally in a springform tin, however as you will see from my photo at the bottom, I tried to create individual portions by hand as I didn’t have the smaller tins. If you do, then you can save yourself the hassle of trying to create a leak-proof layer of fried aubergines, alternatively just make a large timballo and slice like a cake to serve!

There’s something so satisfying about making your own tomato sauce, not just in the rich taste but in filling the house with their aromas and making a big batch on the weekend can sort supplies out for months. I normally go along the lines of Marcella Harzan’s Sugo Fresco di Pomodoro – slow-cooked and kept simple. Paired with the ‘little ears’ that are Orecchiette to hold the sauce, some tender and crispy coated eggplant, each mouthful is amazing.

A beautiful insight into the art making Orrecchiete in Puglia (video by Tailored Media):

http://vimeo.com/32028266

I found it’s also important to really dry the aubergines out before the baking, so drain in between layers of paper towel to absorb residual oil  for at least half an hour. That way they will stay nice and crisp throughout baking.

This is the most basic Timballo around so experiment and let me know the results!

Eggplant with Orecchiette al Pomodoro

serves 4 as individual starters

For the Eggplant

4 eggplants, sliced thinly lengthwise into around 7 slices

2 eggs beaten

250g breadcrumbs

250ml oil for frying

Place eggplant slices in a colander and salt well, rinsing them in fresh water after 20 minutes and then drying with paper towel.

Heat the oil to 180C. Dip the slices in the egg then in the breadcrumbs.

Fry until golden on each side and drain well on paper towel.

To Prepare:

200g orecchiette pasta

200g tomato sauce

handful of basil leaves

3 tbsp parmesan, grated

1 ball of mozzarella, sliced

Oven to 160C

Cook the pasta al dente. Meanwhile heat the tomato sauce adding basil leaves just before mixing with the drained pasta.

Line the prepared eggplant slices how you wish, in a large baking tin or individual moulds. Divide the pasta equally, placing in the centre over the aubergines.

Wrap the eggplant ends around the pasta. Top with a slice of mozzarella and some grated parmesan then bake for 10 minutes until the mozzarella is melted. Remove  from the tin onto a plate, garnishing with basil leaves.

Watermelon Gazpacho with Prawns and Kumquat

Despite being hot here in Valencia most of the year one thing which has signified the start of summer and the need to refresh oneself is the appearance of Gazpacho on almost every menu. Made well it is truly one of the most satisfying things one can eat in the heat. Served ice-cold and filled with the season’s finest tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers; those adverse to ‘cold soup’ need to experience the real thing.

The idea for watermelon gazpacho came from a meal in Havana, in the well-established king of tourist restaurants – La Guarida. Having thought it was a very original dish and a welcome change from the never-ending mountains of rice and beans I was quite surprised to find not only was it a well-practised dish in Spain but that the shockingly pinky-red dish I had eaten was merely a more traditional gazpacho with watermelon added. Far from the simple, distinct flavour I had experienced. So I decided to create my own stripped back watermelon gazpacho.

Upon seeing some kumquats in the market I wanted to add another element to the plate. I had never cooked with them before but with their wonderful appearance; tart and slightly acidic taste I thought would sit well with the freshness of the watermelon and the spiciness in the prawn marinade. Then I tried the cooked Kumquat and was blown away, little caramelised rounds of goodness, serving it both ways on the plate starts to exhibit it’s diversity as an ingredient

I was so happy with how it came out, such vibrant colours and flavours yet so easy to make, it honestly won’t take you more than half an hour to prep and cook; plus some chill time in the fridge in-between. There can’t be a better place to eat this than sitting outside on a sun-soaked evening with the BBQ burning. It was also a great excuse to utilise my latest flea market purchase: a decanter with ice-compartment.

Watermelon Gazpacho with Prawns and Kumquat

serves 4 as a starter

For the Gazpacho

Half of a watermelon, de-seeded and flesh roughly chopped

Flesh of one tomato

2 capfuls of vodka

sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to season

Process the watermelon flesh with the tomato in a blender until smooth, add the vodka and season to taste. The pepper really added something to the dish and worked well with the melon giving it a more aromatic fresh taste whilst the salt takes off the really sweet edge.

Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours until ready to serve, then strain through a fine sieve into a jug.

For the Prawns

20 raw prawns, with shells

2 tablespoons of olive oil

small handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

6 kumquats, sliced into thin rounds (if unavailable substitute for lime zest)

teaspoon of chilli flakes or 2 fresh chilli peppers

sea salt

 Peel the head, legs and shell from prawns, leaving the tail in tact (de-vein if you like – I didn’t) . Heads and shell can be set aside or frozen to make a good fish stock.

Add prawns to a bowl with the olive oil, parsley, kumquat slices, chilli and a pinch of salt. Leave covered in fridge to marinate for 15 minutes – we can’t leave this too long as the acidity from the kumquats could start to cook the prawns.

To cook the prawns:

In a pan: Heat some olive oil from the marinade on a high heat in a wide heavy-based pan until smoking then add half the prawns. They will need to be cooked just 1 minute each side if the pan is hot enough but cut into one to check before removing. Cook the remainder in the same way.

OR

On the BBQ: undoubtedly more flavourful and ‘smokiness ‘really works with the other flavours. Skewer prawns and kumquat slices from marinade and cook for 1 minute each side over hot coals.

To Serve

1 small cucumber cut into thin batons

5 kumquats, sliced into thin rounds

Arrange the cooked prawns, cooked and fresh kumquat and cucumber as you wish on the bowl. Pour over the strained Gazpacho at the table

Cherry and Apricot Tart

The idea for this tart came purely was based purely on sight, two fruits nestled next two each other in the market which looked so perfect together I knew I had to combine them somehow. There is something about mounds of fruit that is so appealing and I find it hard to believe I could be inspired this way walking around the packaged products of a supermarket. I love the idea as food as a sensory experience, how sight, sound and touch influence our enjoyment as well as the taste and smell. That moment upon seeing a dish so appetizing that one salivates and impatiently waits to eats it is surely most common in sweet things. With the great weather and the start of the season for both these fruits this is a perfect pudding with some cream, ice cream or just as it is.

As always there are cherry and apricot tarts/cakes/pies everywhere but this is my version. The recipe for the pâte sucrée I got from this amazing blog which provides a quantity for two tarts. I used the pastry I had left over in the freezer from the last batch which meant it was so quick to assemble but in an attempt to defrost it even faster I dried it out a little, the final result was still great it just crumbled around the top edges. Of course to make this really quick you could substitute for a shop-bought pastry.

I also list the recipe for the amount of almond cream I used, next time I would probably use less and reserve some in the freezer as it covered up the fruit more than I wanted upon rising.

Cherry and Apricot Tart

for a 9 1/2” tart tin

1/2 kilo ripe apricots half and de-stoned – I used two varieties

250g cherries

For the Almond Cream:

140g sugar

130g chopped or ground almonds, plus extra to garnish

120g butter, cubed

1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon flour

With a food processor or blender combine the sugar and almonds until well ground and combined. Add the butter and continue blending until combined and continue adding the other ingredients allowing each to combine before adding the next.

To Assemble:

Prepare the pastry and blind bake as explained in the recipe here, leave to cool.

Preheat oven to 170C

Pipe around 3/4 of the almond cream into the base and spread evenly.

Layer fruit on almond cream as desired and bake on middle oven shelf for 40 – 45 minutes when the cream will have a lovely golden colour and the fruit just cooked through.

Leave to cool on a wire rack then serve or refrigerate until ready to eat.

Penne al Pistacchio

I imagine the humble pistachio to be in many eyes as it is in mine, just a humble snack and occupation for bored hands, occasionally stretching its uses to ice cream and fancy biscuits. Probably with good reason, because for any decent quantity that precious commodity time is required: frustrating, nail-breaking shell-breaking. But that is no excuse not to try this recipe, stick on some music, get something to read, reflect and get cracking. This is such a pleasure to eat, it has an amazing nutty flavour and texture whilst the alcohol lends a sweet almost caramel taste all balanced by the fat and saltiness of the pancetta.

Before writing this I thought hard about whether I should post pasta recipes, for everyone knows about pasta and the web is awash with recipes for every kind of pasta imaginable so should I try and stay away from the obvious? But there is such a beautiful simplicity to pasta in all its forms, the story of fuss and controversy over what started as two ingredients has endured over 1000 years and is one full of myth and lore.. It just fascinates me. So I will continue sharing this love here, aiming for the more obscure, unknown and unique dishes from Italy; simple yet interesting and full of flavour and obviously true to the generations of Italians cooking it beforehand.

This recipe is taken from Al Dente by William Black, a truly inspiring read for anyone even slightly interested in Italy and its food. The recipes contained are usually straight from an Italian ‘nonna’ and left unadulterated, so you know it’s the real thing.

As for ingredients in this one, I have read brandy can be substituted for dark rum; I used Jerez and some use white wine. I can’t think of many places that offer a large range, but if you do, aim for the flavoursome Sicilian Bronte variety, whose wonderful red shell gives way to the greenest of nuts – the true King of Pistachios. And feel free to point me in the direction of some more recipes using these please!

Penne al Pistacchio

serves 4

400g penne

30g unsalted butter

1 onion, chopped finely

2 garlic cloves, chopped finely

50g pancetta, diced

1 tablespoon reduced chicken stock

50g pistachios, finely chopped or given a quick whizz in a blender.

100 ml brandy

200ml single cream

salt and pepper

Cook the penne in the normal way until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a large pan on a medium heat melt butter and soften onions, adding garlic after 3 minutes and making sure only slight caramelisation occurs.

Add the pancetta then the stock and a ladel of pasta water. Cook for 5 minutes more. Check the penne.

Stir in pistachios (reserve a sprinkling as a garnish, add brandy and flame with a long match.

Add cream and season to taste then add drained pasta to pan stirring for 1 minute.
Serve.

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Summer is Coming – Home-dried Tomatoes

Welcome news to start this week for all those living in the UK with the prospect of some sun and balmy heights of 25C before the end of the week (well done to the Guardian for putting a downer on things for those living in Scotland though). Underused BBQ’s will be dragged out of sheds throughout the country, Pimm’s opened and pasty bodies exposed as summer finally arrives.

The weekend just gone here in Valencia was hot, nothing unusual there, clocking 34C on Saturday but for me it was the start of Summer with my first BBQ of the year. Prawns with alioli, squid, garlic and rosemary butterflied leg of lamb, chorizos and of course bananas on the coals. What it did miss however was some tomatoes, not your bland supermarket tomato, nor the popular sun-dried tomato (whose texture or taste is really not that great when bought in a jar?), but the semi-dry, over-priced, full-flavoured morsels of goodness that are sun-blushed tomatoes.  Ok so done in the oven isn’t the same as the sun, but let’s not put too much confidence in British weather to stay good and leave them outside, besides when these come out you won’t be going to that deli counter any more.

Get to a grocer or market this weekend and grab a few kilos of very ripe tomatoes, preferably English as imported ones will lack that sweet-savoury caramel flavour that comes from being picked ripe. Even better if you have a bumper garden crop.

I used this recipe from the brilliant Heston Blumenthal at home, a must-have book for any ambitious home cook. The flavours are pretty provencal but obviously this type of recipe calls for individual taste so play around with herbs  and quantities to personal taste. The recipe forms part of a tomato tart which is  probably the best I have ever eaten, think tapenade, caramelised onions, pesto… salivating?

Removing the pulp and seeds first means a shorter time in the oven, and in my opinion removing the skin first leaves such a lovely, smooth texture at the end which is very worth the effort (for less hassle and less pleasure just leave them be, season and dry for 4-5 hours instead).

Oven-dried tomatoes 

medium to large very ripe tomatoes

cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

bay leaves, finely sliced

thyme sprigs

salt

caster sugar

olive oil

  • Peel tomatoes.
  • Cut in half and scoop out pulp and seeds.
  • Drain on kitchen paper for around 2 hours.
  • Oven at 100C.
  • Line baking tray(s) with parchment , place tomatoes cut-side up and add to each some garlic, bay and thyme. Season with salt and sugar.
  • Drizzle with olive oil and place in oven for 3 hours.

After 3 hours the result should be a dry but soft tomato, for me the texture was almost that of a dried apricot but less chewy. Eat that day drizzled with some good oil or store in a sterilized jar covered with oil – find endless uses for these in pastas, salads, tarts etc.. enjoy!

Cuba and its street vendors

In December I was fortunate enough to go to Cuba, albeit on a family holiday so I could not travel how I would have liked to but nevertheless got to see a decent amount of the country, its wonderful people and culture. One thing I love to explore when I travel is the food outlets of that country, be they markets, supermarkets or street vendors. In Cuba, the majority is sold through the latter.

I have to admit I was not overwhelmed by the food in Cuba, but then I don’t think one is meant to be. The poverty is reflected in the diet and dishes served outside the comfort of the hotels. Rice and beans served in their many forms (moros y crisitanos being the most popular) are found everywhere and basic stews and cooked down hard vegetables form the main meals of a fairly unproductive country.

Yet, never have I enjoyed a plate of frijoles so much, plantain there is a joy to eat whilst roots such as yuca let to cook all day have a wonderful consistency. In the hotels and fancy restaurants there are more fancy options available at a huge expense and often only to disappoint. Lobster seemed to be available everywhere despite the off-season and at a fairly cheap price, meanwhile Paladares such as ‘La Guarida’ have been leading the way in innovative cooking for some years. My qualm with these ‘high-end’ Paladares was a lack of authenticity in the food and drink, silly prices for average imported wine when Cuba itself has a burgeoning wine industry, and hidden charges for bread and service. Still, I wish I had seen this and this  article from the Guardian before going.

But back to the street vendors, for it really is the people who make Cuba, everything said about their hospitality is true and although I did feel I was seen as a dollar sign in some eyes it was a pleasure to get to know some locals and have a small insight into their amazing lives. Perhaps the offerings of these humble street stalls do reflect Cuban cuisine’s shortfalls, yet there is such vivid colour and simplicity to them I feel it reflects the attitude of a lot of Cubans – make the most of what you have.