Food

Multum in Parva*

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I quite like the idea of having lifetime quests. They needn’t be anything terribly grand (though they can be – opera-singing, anyone?) but it’s just the notion of going on a gradual, unhurried journey to try to find a particular holy grail that is important to you. Two of my particular ones relate to food, and as I said, neither is particularly important of itself – and yet there is much potential within for the discovery and perfecting of some small point of order. The first, which I will relate here by means of sticking my neck out rather in this little photo essay, is the quest to make a perfect ragù alla Bolognese, and the second is to come as close as I can given certain constraints to making the perfect pizza.

I regret to say that it seems to be a particular trait of the British to adulterate – nay  bastardise – cultures from other places. Copying is something all cultures do – but we seem to have a particular gift for ruining perfectly good dishes by not being bothered to do make them properly. So here is my own personal assault against the travesty that is the typical British spag bol. I have eaten the proper thing many times in Bologna, so consider myself reasonably qualified to judge it a success, and give myself, after about a quarter of a century of trying, about 9/10. It is still not quite the perfect Bolognese flavour, but it ain’t bad…

The key to this is slow cooking – while preparing this article, I set the pot simmering at around 1pm and kept a weather-eye on it during the afternoon. By 7.45 it was ready…

Ingredients:

  • One onion, one carrot, one stick of celery – all very finely chopped to make the traditional ‘base’ for the sauce.
  • 250-300 g passata (Cirio recommended) Note: no tinned tomatoes…
  • 150g minced beef
  • 150g minced pork
  • One or two strips of pancetta to about 40g, finely diced
  • Salt and pepper
  • Milk (yes – milk!) as required, perhaps 200ml
  • Around 200-250 ml red wine.
  • Olive oil and/or butter for sweating the vegetables
  • And that is all.
  • Makes six portions, and is worth freezing.

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Method:

Melt the oil and/or butter in a medium sauce pan and sweat the vegetables until they are well softened and reduced.

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In a second, larger pan, heat more oil and/or butter and brown the various meats, starting with the pancetta, and then adding each at a time. Allow to colour thoroughly, but do not burn.

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Add the vegetables to the meat and combine thoroughly.

Add a small amount of passata until the mixture is moist but not flooded – the tomatoes should not dominate the appearance or taste of the dish.

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Add the red wine and bring to a slow simmer. Again, do not flood the mix.

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Season with salt and pepper.

Allow to simmer until the ingredients start to mix fully, and then add around 50ml of milk and mix in. This is the secret of a traditional ragu, which gives it a particular colour and flavour.

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Leave the mixture to simmer on a very low heat for an absolute minimum of two hours, ideally several times that. When it becomes a little dry, add a small amount more milk.

The final consistency should be moist but not runny; serve.

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Ragu is never eaten with spaghetti in Bologna, tagliatelle being much superior for coating with the sauce. Why not splash out on some quality to go with your efforts?

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I normally mix the sauce into the pasta, but left it separate for the photo, so that the consistency is visible. Italians also add far less sauce than the typical Briton – there should be a coating, not a flood – and they also tend to let their food cool a little before eating, so as to release the flavours.

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My wife, being vegetarian, does not appreciate this at all. The benefit of this dish is that it needs to be made in bulk, but is one of the few things I think freezes without too much harm. While this is cooking away, I normally prepare for her a simple sauce of cream, blue cheese and walnuts – which takes all of four minutes…

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*Much in a Little (the motto of England’s smallest county, Rutland)

Food

Zen and the art of pastry-making

patisserie

Pâtisserie production is a notoriously fiddly process. The fineness of the pastries, choux, custards and glazes all takes time and there are few short-cuts that aren’t immediately obvious as such. There has been quite a debate in the press in recent weeks about the virtues or otherwise of various mass-produced croissants, perhaps prompted by news that the old techniques are in decline in France too, no doubt provoked by a shortage of butter.

My last encounter with a full-on traditional croissant was in a rather ‘proper’ cafe in Lyon, the summer before last – and suffice it to say that it was a world away from the things one is routinely forced to accept in the U.K.

I know that croissants are not fully-considered patisserie, but the principles are the same – and I was suddenly taken by the urge some weeks ago to revisit some of the recipes I used perhaps twenty-five years ago, after my first proper encounters with the real thing in France.

I find it actually rather pleasant to spend the afternoon doing some non-essential cooking. And with my other interests including distinctly-obsessive attention to detail, the intricacies are even rather welcome. I will admit, too, that some of the intimidation that proper cooks feel for patisserie had simply, out of ignorance passed me by. My wife, who has never before known me do such things was, I think, rather impressed when she arrived home to find I had made a very satisfactory pâté brisée; I simply didn’t know it was meant to be difficult…

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I think the other thing I like about patisserie is that it is meant to be spectacular and it appeals to the closet exhibitionist in me. Quite often it’s easier to do than it might appear, once you know the secrets. Think about the effect seen in a shop window in the 16th – Patisserie Valerie is a worthy contribution in this country – but it has a good way to go yet…

Anyway, I offer by means of evidence of my endeavours one old and one new (at least to me): the tarte aux pommes is one I resurrected from my earlier efforts, while the tarte aux citrons is the result of a request – no directive – from my wife having eaten two of the apple ones. Next on the list may indeed be home-made croissants, which I did make a couple of times many years ago with reasonable success, or perhaps chocolate éclairs – but I am also tempted by an opera cake, which is just that bit more jewellery-like flamboyant again. There’s a bit of brushing-up on technique and presentation required yet; I will report back on progress in due course.

And the secret for all those of my countrymen visibly shrinking from the thought of voluntarily spending time in the kitchen: it’s not work when you don’t have to do it.

TaC

 

 

 

Food

Pastaciutta, Chelmsford: first impressions count.

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…but not always in the way you might expect.

I suppose it’s a worldwide phenomenon, the dressing-up of ‘ethnic’ restaurants to conjure up the ambience of the homeland…. and yet I tend to be suspicious. Anywhere that needs to ‘theme’ itself strongly may be saying something about the inability of its food to do the job without help.

Pastaciutta is about as far away from that as possible. Started a couple of years ago by husband-and-wife Alessio and Laura Maugeri, it is tucked away under a multi-storey car park in the less attractive part of Chelmsford Market. Yes, Chelmsford, that well-known hot-spot of refined eating. Well, perhaps the ghost of Marconi lives on, for it was from here that he made the world’s first radio broadcasts.

Pastaciutta is not a restaurant; a working kitchen with a canteen tacked on, would be a better description. There is a glass display counter out front, full of the most wonderful home-made pasta, and a small eat-in area comprising folding wooden chairs and tables. There is a little attempt at homeliness, but it’s no more ‘themed’ than you would expect in the back streets of a small town in Sicily. When we visited, there was a good babble of Italian not only in the kitchen but amongst the clientele too, and Alessio and Laura seem gradually to be colonising several other nearby pitches in order to gain more seating space. Take-away trade that weekday lunchtime was booming, including service to a number of the other stall-holders.

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Whether you eat there, or take away, the food is served in disposable dishes with plastic cutlery. But who cares, when it is as good as this? There is a choice of sauces including daily specials, which you can mix and match with a pasta of your choice. I went for the acid test, namely a meat ragu with tagliatelle, and having eaten a good many of same in Bologna, I can attest that this is no pale imitation. My wife’s Norma was equally spot-on – in the best home-cooking sense. Pleasingly, they also offer less-known dishes too.

Espressi followed, possibly the best had in the U.K. for a long time. Only an inch deep and thick enough almost to be a savory. We left toting two slices of torta caprese, which did not last long when we got back home.

I think getting a license might be a good move – I’m sure they could source some equally good wines to match, though it might slow the throughput, I suppose. I do like a good Italian restaurant, but while at first sight this place can look rather basic, that is pretty much what small-town Italy is like. But just as there, it makes the food all the more of a delight.

https://www.pastasciuttashop.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/PastasciuttaChelmsfordMarket/

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Food, Travel

If dinner’s good, life is good.

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A wet Wednesday afternoon in Bournemouth. The day was being frustratingly spent almost failing to communicate with the elderly relative we were visiting in a nearby care home. (We eventually pinned the problem down to dead hearing-aid batteries, but it was hard work…) On top of two hours of rather tiresome cross-country travelling to make the visit, it was proving hard on my still-tender head.

We sought a breather in a local pizza restaurant which we knew, and just as we started to walk, the heavens opened. We reached the restaurant in its rather uninspiring side-street and sat there, the only people eating in, while the kitchen staff chatted away brightly in Italian; that was enough for things to start looking up. The guy doing the home-delivery runs was working on double, though. It’s a popular place.

A couple of glasses of decent red arrived, followed by a bowl of olives and eventually the excellent wood-oven pizzas we had been looking forward to. I’ve eaten enough pizzas in my life, including all over Italy, to know when I’m getting a good one; forget the chains (Pizza Express probably excepted) – there is nothing like a properly-made, wood-cooked pizza. You need a puffy, springy base, a well-judged topping, and that unmistakeable wood-charred flavour.

Just as we started to eat, the door opened and a dark-skinned man wearing a Ryan Air crew tabard entered. He spoke to the chefs in Italian and proceeded to check out the quality of their dough. He was a good way from the airport, so we assumed he has sought the place out deliberately while on an away shift. All seemed to meet his approval, and he eventually went away with his pizza in a box.

We followed the pizzas with a dollop of home-made tiramisu and espresso. The day was looking much better and we returned to the fray at the care home in much higher spirits. If you know that you are going to eat well, then most things are manageable. We have a collection of such hide-aways around this and other countries, and we like to return to them when we can. Nothing pretentious or expensive, just decent honest food that knocks spots off the ubiquitous chains. All just a matter of a little discrimination and detective-work.

I don’t know what Brexiteers find so abhorrent about having other nationals in our midst. The musical patter of Italian, and the serendipitous cameo of a culture that is still discriminating enough to check out the quality of the dough in a takeaway pizza brought a little Italian sun into an otherwise dank and difficult September afternoon. Diversity is fine by me – bring it on!

http://bournemouthpizza.co.uk/

(usual disclaimer)

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Food

Get stuffed

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Pesche ripiene al forno

If there were a time in the culinary calendar when one could stop the clock, now would be a strong contender. For just a few British weeks, there is an abundance of ripe everything – the (imported) melons are still just about holding on, local tomatoes are – briefly – sweet and soft enough to be worth bothering with – and the soft fruit is still plentiful. Strawberries have gone of course; well, no they haven’t, but I’m all for seasonal eating, and strawberries out of season are usually only outdone for blandness by tomatoes…

But perhaps the highlight is the peaches; imported again, of course, but picked at a point when by the time they reach my kitchen, they are perfect. But they go over quickly, and this well-known Piedmontese recipe is a stunning way of rescuing them…

Ingredients:

  • Ripe (or even over-ripe) peaches, one and a half per person, plus a couple extra.
  • Handful of crumbled Amaretti biscuits.
  • Slug of Amaretto liqueur to taste
  • Sprinkle of caster sugar
  • Mascarpone to serve.

Method:

Cut the peaches in half; remove the stone and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving some to maintain the shape. Position the half-peaches open-side up in an shallow oven proof dish.

Remove the flesh from the extra peaches and add to the same. In a bowl or on a board, chop the peach flesh until fairly homogenous, but not just pulp.

Place the peach flesh in a mixing bowl. Crumble the Amaretti biscuits to taste into the chopped peach flesh and add a slug of Amaretto liqueur to taste. Mix briefly, until the biscuits soften just a little.

Fill the scooped-out peaches with the flesh until piled. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar and bake on a fairly high heat (200C) until browned on the top (perhaps 20-30 minutes).

Serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

I have seen a version with grated chocolate added to the mix; not needed in my opinion.

Food

La Dolce Vita in a dish

Tiramisu

If it seems as though there is an Italian ‘thing’ going on here, you’re probably right (the title is a bit of a giveaway…). Periodically, I experience severe withdrawal symptoms from that country, and now is one such time. Unfortunately the planned antidote in the form of a visit to Bologna later this month has had to be postponed.

I certainly don’t look to Italy for its reliability or organisation – but if it’s an aesthetic boost you’re in need of, there really is no better inspiration than The Boot. In a sense, it’s the idea of Italy – La Dolce Vita – that is important. Taken at face value, it is languidly, decadently glorious; look too closely and you might find rather dark depths…

Of course, no one who is not Italian will ever be able to do it like the natives, but that’s not the point. We can appreciate the style (without ever fully trusting their delivery times) and adapt to our own needs. That said, there is also an almost perverse pleasure in seeing how close you can get.

One’s best chances are in the kitchen, where language and body shape cease to matter. I have spent frustratingly enjoyable years trying to get close to my conception of perfection with certain Italian dishes. I say conception because there is no one such thing as the objective ideal, of course. However, one learns certain secrets in the process, and the ‘research’ is by no means a hardship…

So here is one such dish, that I have started making again this summer after several years without; I am immediately wondering why I stopped, apart from the impact on the waistline. Tiramisu can be bought in any supermarket, but there is no substitute for making one’s own; so long as you have the means to make decent espresso and think ahead a few hours, it is ridiculously easy.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • Three egg yolks
  • 500 g mascarpone
  • 100ml single cream
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 (espresso) cups of cold espresso coffee
  • 4 tbsp coffee liquer such as Kahlua
  • 15 (approx) savoiardi biscuits (ladies/sponge fingers)
  • Cocoa powder for dusting.

Method

Make the coffee and leave to cool.

Beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar and vanilla essence until thick and smooth.

Beat the cream into the mascarpone to loosen it, then carefully fold in the egg mixture.

Spread half the mixture over a shallow dish; briefly dip the savoiardi biscuits in the coffee, and lay over the mascarpone.

Once a complete layer is achieved, spread the rest of the mascarpone mixture on top, to cover completely; chill for some hours.

Before serving, dust the tiramisu generously with cocoa power.

(from Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food)

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Virginal tiramisu
Food

Pasta pomodoro al forno

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The latter part of the summer usually brings a glut of tomatoes, indeed in my humble opinion, it is about the only time in the U.K. when it is worth eating them; I’ve never been a fan of the hard, sharp British or Dutch offerings. This year though, our own crop has unfortunately been written off  by blight which has hit the allotment as a result of the recent damp weather…

So here is a dish that Italians use when tomatoes are so plentiful that they don’t know what to do with them all. It’s not fast food, but it most certainly is comfort food, and is now an established favourite at this time of the year in our household. The dish as described makes two to three generous portions.

I’m not sure what its proper name is, even assuming it has one – so the title is my own suggestion.

Ingredients:

  • Lots of very ripe or even over-ripe tomatoes – at least three or four per person. As always, San Marzano or similar are desirable, but even British tomatoes are usable with a little help (see below).
  • Clove of garlic, finely chopped.
  • A little sugar to judgement – if the tomatoes could be riper.
  • salt and black pepper to taste.
  • Two or three tablespoons of passata – more if the tomatoes are less than fully ripe. Quality makes all the difference – Cirio is the best; the sweetness of the tomatoes is needed for this sauce.
  • Two tbsp olive oil
  • Handful of torn basil leaves
  • Penne pasta at about 50g per person. De Cecco recommended.
  • Butter, milk and plain flour to make a béchamel sauce.
  • One ball mozzarella.
  • Parmesan for grating.

Method:

Pre-heat the oven to about 210°C.

Prepare the tomato sauce. To do this properly, skin and deseed the tomatoes (the former can be done easily by blanching them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, and then peeling). Chop them coarsely. (Tinned tomatoes can probably be used but at the cost of some texture freshness of taste; again Cirio are the best).

Put the oil, passata, sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, tomatoes and torn basil in a saucepan and place on a moderate heat. Simmer gently for perhaps 30 minutes until the sauce starts to reduce. Stick your head over the pan and inhale.

Towards the end of this time, par-boil the pasta – about 8 minutes is about right for 13-minute penne. Drain and mix with the tomato sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, prepare the béchamel sauce – enough will be needed to cover the oven pot being used. This will probably be about 100g butter, 2 tbsp. flour and enough milk to make a fairly loose sauce. Season as necessary.

Drain and chop the mozzarella into bite-sized cubes.

Assemble in an oven-proof dish: first pour in the pasta/tomato mix and spread out. Cover this with a layer of béchamel sauce. Scatter the cubes of mozzarella on top, add a few more basil leaves and grate parmesan cheese liberally over the top.

Cook in the oven for around 20 minutes, or until the top of the dish is nicely browned. It is worth allowing the dish to cool a little after removing from the oven, as the flavours come out better as a result.

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