Thursday, 30 August 2012

Balmy, nuts and crackers

I'm still in Mediterranean mode.

This despite the rain and wind back here in the UK- where I've swapped balmy evenings for barmy dashes through the hailstorms to get a pint of milk!

One thing I really enjoyed whilst in Provence was eating a main meal at midday- and then having a light 'apero dinatoire' (or nibbles with drinks) in the evening. I imagine this is similar to the pattern in other Mediterranean countries- tapas in Spain, Middle Eastern meze or Italian antipasti (although  the name does suggest here that there is something more substantial to follow!)

The idea is a lovely one though- a plate of gorgeous-y, nibbly things with lots of different tastes to set off your glass of rose or Muscat or Pastis.

It's not practical of course if you follow an uncivilised work pattern with no lunch hour or lunchtime spent eating a sandwich hunched over a keyboard or in the car. But that's not for another week- like I say, for now I'm still in Mediterranean mode.

I've got some suggestions here for aperitif platters- but what you have is entirely up to you and what you like- and more importantly for this blog- what you have in your fridge.

You could go with the Mediterranean theme and have figs, olives, vine leaves and saucisson as here:

Or  add melon, parma ham and bread and butter:

My hostess here laid out a couple of platters of bruschetta with various toppings- see blog post 'Nibbles from nothing' for ideas- and 'spoons' with individual salads. In this case they were filled with coleslaw, which I wasn't so keen on, but they are a popular idea and I was served them elsewhere with tabbouleh or pea puree with prawns and that was a delicious mouthful:

Anchovies wrapped round olives, ham wrapped round prunes, frankfurter sausages with mustard dip,  cheese and pineapple on sticks, cherry tomatoes, radishes, cubes of cheese or ham, breadsticks with hummus or salsa, leftover pastry rolled with cheese or anchovy (or both) to make savoury straws, little toasts with cream cheese or tapenade :

Any of the ideas in  blog pages 'Cupcakes and canapes' or 'Nibbles from nothing' would go well here. The principle is just - have a variety of different colours, textures, tastes and shapes- and see what the fridge can offer you up.

You can of course always add a bowl of nuts or cheese crackers too, if you want.

Thursday, 23 August 2012


On 22 August 1944, the Allies swept into Salon-de-Provence and liberated the town from the Occupying forces. The town has celebrated this every year since- with fireworks, processions and dancing in the streets.

As we near the end of our Provencal summer, and as we joined in the festivities, I reflected that this time in the sun had been liberating in many other ways.

The French have a saying- Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup..- (Eat well, laugh often, love a lot)- and- whilst  I don't often see the average French person slapping their sides and roaring with laughter very much, on the food side of things they do have a point . This blog has always been about making the most of what you've got, not wasting any precious food- but perhaps the quality of the food that I use has not been uppermost in my mind.

Eggs, for example.

An egg is an egg, is an egg, I always thought- but, since getting up close and personal with the hens here, and discovering the pleasure of cooking eggs that have been laid that day- from hens that happily scratch around and eat good things (they even have a fig tree in their hen coop so they can eat the fallen figs!), I've discovered that there is a lot more to eggs than I thought before.

Their yolks are so yellow and make a glorious quiche, their whites cook so beautifully that poached eggs come out of the poaching liquor nicely rounded like little igloos, I don't think I can go back to Value eggs. I'm going to have to source some good farm eggs from somewhere.

Tomatoes are another food that are on a different level here. After tasting the lovely little cherry tomatoes offered as a nibble with aperitifs, or the gorgeous fat beef tomatoes which are perfect for stuffing, I will not be buying cheap chemical ripened tomatoes in plastic packs again. On a frugal note, they are really simple to grow yourself in a corner of the garden, in a conservatory or greenhouse. Here are some tomato recipes to get you thinking of all things red and wonderful: just simply roasted with some olive oil herbs and salt they make a wonderful accompaniment to roast meat or fish  And using big beef tomatoes I've made tomates farcies  : take off the 'lids', hollow out the centre of the tomatoes, removing the core, stuff with cooked rice, tuna and cheese (as here) or leftover bolognaise sauce with a fresh breadcrumbs on top. Roast the tomatoes, including lids and serve with green beans or just crusty bread.Finally, don't forget that overripe tomatoes make a great puree, (blitzed and sieved and reduced with a little balsamic vinegar and  a pinch of sugar). Use it to top pasta or pizzas.

We had truly homemade pizzas (a friend has built a pizza oven in his garden!) and they were special and I can't resist showing you the photos.

Evening falls on our Provencal summer- and tomorrow I'll pack for our return to Blighty. Want to see what I'm putting in my suitcase?

Shame I can't fit in the hens!

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Foraged Fruits

It's time to unleash your inner hunter-gatherer- you know it's there!

You may be lucky enough to have a garden where you grow your own fruit and veg, or apple trees. You may have a hedgerow nearby with blackberries growing, or a pick-your-own farm close by where you can forage happily (but alas- not for free!) Or you may just enjoy searching for the best and the freshest in the market. It's all part of the same pleasurable experience- finding fruit or vegetables, taking them and making them into something delicious.

We are continuing our golden summer in Provence, staying in a gite with an overgrown and somewhat neglected potager where I have been spending many a happy hour foraging for raspberries, blackberries, fig, plums, tomatoes, herbs and even eggs from the bountiful hens who roam around all day. I've been foraging in the markets too of course and discovering new dishes with fennel, courgettes and olives.


I began quite tentatively- a few raspberries from the overgrown patch, mixed in with watermelon, nectarine and grapes from the market to make a tartare aux fruits rouges- a red fruit salad. You could do the same with any colour of fruit, but I thought red looked pretty.

Then, with the tomatoes and fennel, I made barbecued trout, stuffed with fennel. The caramelized fennel was yum- and the leftovers mixed well with a green salad the next day.

I also found out that fennel, braised  on the hob with orange juice, salt and pepper until all the liquid has been absorbed is a total discovery. Try it! It's aniseed-y and fruity and salty all at once.

Emboldened by the abundance of hedgerow fruit in the lane outside, I collected blackberries to offer to my host for an evening's dinner- and she made a delicious blackberry sorbet with them. My contribution to the meal was a raspberry tart- made from a pastry case (see last blog for method), filled with vanilla custard (made a little thicker with the addition of cream, and some icing sugar to make it into a confectioner's custard) and topped with foraged raspberries. All together with some verrines of chopped grapes, mixed with verveine and fruit juice (or mint if you have no verveine)- this made a lovely platter of little desserts.

With the figs and plums I tried some little nibbles to go with aperitifs- sliced in two with a slice of brie or spread with cream cheese. Also a starter of figs, melon, saucisson and olives - tapas style:

My next plan is to make the figs into a fig tart like this one:

Twice already I have made a summer pudding - with blackberries, apples and raspberries: cook some apples, blackberries and raspberries (or whatever fruit you can find) in 1/2 pint of water and some sugar,  line a pudidng basin with white sandwich bread soaked in the juice of the fruit, fill the centre with the cooked fruit and add a lid of more juice-soaked slices. Cover with a plate and put some weight on top- some tins for example. Leave for 24 hours in the fridge and then turn out and serve with cream or cold custard.

I haven't started yet on the courgettes and melons- shall I save that for next time? I think I will- the hens need putting away for the night. I wonder if there are any eggs?

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A Golden Summer

They say a week is a long time in politics- and it certainly is in sport, if this one is anything to go by! Just last Thursday I was racking my brains for some 'bronze' recipes to honour our athletes- when suddenly there was a veritable cascade of bronze, silver and gold upon gold upon gold.

So- who has inspired me most for today's 'Golden' recipes? Well, obviously the triumph of our men's C2 team gaining silver and gold minutes after my last blog post has to come first.

I thought that a fish which is both gold and silver- the gilt head bream (or dorade) would be an appropriate salute so here I have one pan fried until the skin is crispy and golden and served on a bed of courgettes, lightly braised in butter and stock with herbs. Courgettes absorb flavour- so a strong herb such as tarragon or mint is perfect to give them some oomph. Fry the courgettes briefly in butter,  barely cover them with the stock, be generous with the chopped herb in the butter and stock mixture and cook until the stock is all absorbed.Yum!

After that I'm just going to dedicate the rest of my golden recipes to anyone and everyone who has enjoyed the Olympics as much as we have.

But I also mustn't forget all those of you who have leftovers to use up and are waiting for me to get up from in front of the TV and do some cooking!

I've got two suggestions here for something to do with leftover chicken or vegetable curry, or just a few spoonfuls of curry sauce or even a pot of Coronation Chicken sandwich filler.

The first is a curry tart- no, I'm not kidding- I  had this recently in a restaurant in Isle-sur-Sorgue in Provence and, whilst the setting was fab, there 's no need to go all that way just to eat it.

Bake a pastry case 'blind' (as in the pictures- pastry rolled to fit a dish and then cooked in a moderate oven until crisp and pale brown, weighted down with baking beans and greaseproof paper) or use a pre-made one.

Take your leftover sauce, Coronation chicken etc and blitz it with  some creme fraiche, add three beaten eggs and pour into your pastry case. Bake again in a moderate oven until firm to the touch and golden on top.

Leftover sauce is also particularly good as a marinade for meat on the barbecue- here some chicken skewers have been coated in sauce and grilled:

Just to finish off this 'golden' page, I can't resist raising a glass in celebration with my newfound favourite aperitif- Muscat Beaume de Venise over ice. If anything says summer, gold and sunshine, then this is it. Cheers!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Gold, Silver or Bronze..

As I write this blog entry, I'm dashing in and out of the room to watch the Olympic canoe slalom semis and then the finals. Who knows? By the time I post this we may be a medal or two up. If we do win- then I will do a special recipe to honour whatever colour of medal we get, as I am a big paddlesport fan..

There are other achievements of course to celebrate- and I'm dedicating two of today's recipes to my two favourites so far.

 Anyway, back to the blog. There are times- the end of the week/month or before you go away on holiday for example - when you need to root through the fridge and decide what is for keeping/putting in the freezer and what just has to be used up.

Today's 'How Can I Use Up?' blog is all about the stuff that lurks in the salad drawer, hoping to get by unnoticed until it can crawl away by itself !

People often ask me what they can do with leftover lettuce, root vegetables, cabbage etc. once a planned meal has been and gone. There are some obvious answers- most veg makes wonderful soup of course. (See March blog 'Cheap cheep' for some soup ideas.)
Once you've made your soup, it can easily be frozen if you don't fancy it right there and then.

I've decided to rename this soup 'Golden Girls' in honour of  Heather Stanning and Helen Glover - our Olympic rowers who won the first British Gold yesterday Gold standard: Brit rowing duo Stanning and Glover celebrate their gold

The next use-up idea is a vegetable curry: made with whatever you've got. Good combinations involve starchy veg like potatoes, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, parsnips etc mixed with leafy veg like spinach, broccoli or cabbage and then a legume of some sort eg. peas, broad beans, chick peas or green beans.

You can make your own spice mix from garam masala but I'm not that confident with balancing spices so I opt for a good curry paste.
Here is my selection of vegetables.

These are gently fried with the curry paste, then add stock, some tomato puree or coconut milk (depending on whether you want your curry jalfrezi or korma) and gently bubble until the vegetables are soft. Serve with rice or naan bread.

Again, I want to call this 'Bronze Vegetable Curry' in honour of our fantastic men's gymnastic team who took  Bronze yesterday- a huge achievement for GB as it was 1912 the last time we had any Olympic men's gymnasts.Well done guys- although having a vegetable curry named after you may not rank up there with standing on the podium! Great Britain''s bronze medallists
My final recipe for today is for those who wonder what to do with leftover lettuce- especially the outer leaves which you don't necessarily want to put in a salad.

Lettuce is surprisingly good cooked- braised in a little stock or, as here, braised with butter, onions, peas and stock to make petits pois a la francaise.
The stems should retain a little texture and the leaves should be soft ( matter of a few minutes stirred in with the peas).

Well, that's it - and the men's final is about to start. Will it be gold, silver or bronze?