Kitchen Tip #21 The Rule of Thumb-How to Cook Steaks

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Medium-Rare Roast Hoggett at La Trompette Restaurant

Everyone is who eats meat knows how they like it cooked. Whether you prefer it rare and pooling with bloody juices, or as grey as shoe leather, cooking meat is fraught with perceived difficulties. There is no doubt that it is very hard to gauge how ‘done’ meat is, without cutting into it and having a look. Lots of books give guidelines as to how long you need to cook meat to achieve rare, medium and well-done. The problem is that there are so many factors that affect how meat cooks, such as thickness of the meat, temperature of the pan etc, that these are not always accurate.

Two things are always the same, whatever type of meat you are cooking:

  1. Bring your meat to room temperature before you cook it. It will not go off. Fridge-cold meat will not cook properly or evenly. Ever.
  2. Rest your meat. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. When you have finished cooking, take your meat out of the cooking pan, place on a warmed plate and cover loosely with foil. Then just leave it for at least half the time you have cooked it. Longer if possible. It will not go cold. Resting allows the meat to relax and the juices inside to disperse and ensure a really juicy piece of meat.

The very best guide to whether meat is done is by texture and feel. Rare meat feels very soft, medium-rare is firmer and well-done feels very firm. With practice, there is no need to cut into a steak to see if it has cooked enough. Not only does this spoil the look of the steak, but all those amazing juices inside the meat that ensure the meat does not taste dry are lost.

This is where the Rule of Thumb comes in. This method is as simple as it sounds, but also incredibly accurate. It is based on how the fleshy base of the thumb feels as it is moved along to different fingers on the same hand and comparing it to how the meat you are cooking feels. With practice, this will become the only way you will assess cooked meat and you will be right every time.

  1. Uncooked. When the hand and the thumb is relaxed, the base of the thumb feels soft and quite flabby. This is how uncooked meat feels when pressed.
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Rule of Thumb-Uncooked

  1. Rare. When the thumb is held against the base of the index finger, the fleshy area at the base of the thumb feels softly springy. This is the texture of meat that is cooked so it is rare.
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Rule of Thumb-Rare

  1. Medium-rare. If the tip of the thumb is moved to the base of the middle finger, the fleshy area at the base of the thumb becomes firmer. This is the texture of meat that is cooked so it is medium-rare.
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Rule of Thumb-Medium-rare

  1. Medium. If the tip of the thumb is moved to the base of the ring finger, the fleshy area at the base of the thumb firms even more and feels quite springy to the the touch. This is the texture of meat that is cooked so it is medium.
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Rule of Thumb-Medium

  1. Well-done. Finally, when the thumb moves to touch the base of the little finger, the fleshy area at the base of the thumb becomes firm and has no spring to it. This is the texture of meat that is cooked so it is well-done.
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Rule of Thumb-Well-done

This method is just for small joints and steaks. Large roasting joints, such as rib of beef must be assessed by time, oven temperature and, best of all, a meat thermometer, as touch is not accurate enough to assess ‘doneness’.

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpea Salad

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Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpea Salad

A friend of mine recently went vegan. I have been a vegetarian and pescatarian in my past life, but I have never gone the whole hog-if you will forgive the terrible pun. It has always seemed a difficult choice, with many people, food outlets and restaurants unwilling to adapt their menus to it. There are lots of convincing arguments for veganism; a plant-based diet avoids any ethical or moral problems about food production. We are aware that we eat too much meat as a society, which impacts on our health, animal welfare and the environment. Although I dislike the concept of ‘clean eating’, as it implies other ways of eating are somehow ‘dirty’, focussing on fruit, pulses and vegetables as the basis of your diet does appear to be a healthier way of eating.

Despite these convincing reasons, my overall opinion is that this diet is not for me. I decided a long time ago to make specific decisions about the items that veganism excludes; I buy less meat, but make sure it is free-range or organic. I buy free range or organic eggs and dairy products. I have at least two meat-free days a week. I ask about ingredients in restaurants and sometimes avoid ordering certain items because of the answers. In reality, I love many meats and fish, but dairy and eggs form a huge part of my diet too.

However, I have respect and admiration for those who wish to eat this way; it appeals to my creative side, as you have to be inventive to avoid eating mushroom risotto at every meal. There is also the necessity to be very mindful of what you are putting into your body, to ensure a nutritional balance. I know vegans who have tried to live on cereal bars and juices and the result is not too pretty.

I cook things that I enjoy, with flavours that will stimulate, comfort or satisfy, according to how I feel at that particular time. It started me thinking about how much that I cook is vegan, just by coincidence. Lots of southern Mediterranean and Indian food happens to be vegan and Middle Eastern flavours seem to compliment this way of eating brilliantly. Punchy spices, pulses and an abundance of vegetables and fresh herbs does not immediately strike you as a diet based around restriction.

Cauliflower has cast off it’s reputation as a soggy, flavourless vegetable, cooked to death for school lunches and leaving the smell of old socks behind it. It seems a very fashionable ingredient at the moment, being used as ‘couscous’ and in salads and soups. It is incredibly versatile, feels surprisingly substantial and responds well to many ways of cooking, but roasting it brings a lovely smoky dimension to it. Cauliflower has unique flavour and a wonderful texture that I urge you to revisit.

This salad is a variation on one that Nigella Lawson features in her latest book. It keeps brilliantly in the fridge. It is great on its own and makes lunchtimes much more interesting rather than grabbing yet another limp sandwich.

So, if you are a vegan or a full on carnivore, please make this recipe knowing that it is vegan, but that it is also delicious.

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpea Salad

Serves 2 hungry people

Ingredients

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp cumin seeds

1 small head cauliflower trimmed and divided into very small florets

400g tin of chickpeas

1–2 tbsp harissa

150g cherry or baby vine tomatoes, halved

A large bunch of flatleaf parsley

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 220C.

2. Pour the oil into a large bowl, add the cinnamon and cumin seeds, and stir. Tip in the cauliflower and toss to coat. Pour into a small oven tray  and place in the oven for 15 minutes or until it starts to catch a little.

3. Add the chickpeas to the bowl, and add the harissa, tasting it after adding the first tablespoon to see if you want both. Toss to coat. Add the tomatoes to the bowl, and mix.

4. Remove the cauliflower from the oven and tip the chickpeas and tomatoes over the cauliflower. Toss to combine and return to the oven for 15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender.

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Roasted in the tray

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close up

5. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, add the chopped parsley. Taste and season again if necessary. You can add extra chilli if you like a real kick.

6. Serve warm or at room temperature. You can add yoghurt or feta for more protein, but this will, of course, cancel out the vegan element of the dish.

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Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpea Salad

Madeleines

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Madeleines

For the literary fans amongst you, madeleines may evoke thoughts of Proust. For me, they are an integral part of  the most fabulous petit fours I have ever had in Paris over ten years ago, where these babies were like little clouds on my tongue.

Until about a month ago, I had never made madeleines. In the back of my mind, these beautifully delicate shell-like cakes have been linked to the category of very tricky baking and patisserie and something that needs hours to prepare. They are also made with a genoise sponge, which I rarely make as it does not keep for very long .

An important breakfast meeting prompted the need to make something a little more delicate than bacon sandwiches and so I was inspired to try them. Since then, hundreds have seen their way through my kitchen. I would like to attribute this to the fact that I have been so diligent in preparing this recipe that I have made multiple batches, just for testing, but it is more the fault of Michel Roux Jr, who states in his recipe that they should be eaten within an hour of cooking.

Based on a genoise sponge, these little shell cakes are made with little fat, lots of eggs and even more elbow grease. This is unless you have an electric mixer, in which case it is the work of moments. The result is a mouthful full of rich, buttery flavour and featherlight texture. Michel Roux Jr is correct in his assertion that they should be eaten soon after baking. Not only are they even better eaten warm, but as time goes on, the delicate internal fluffiness starts to collapse, making them denser and slightly chewy. Therefore, although they are very easy and quick to make, you need to time them so they are consumed in their optimal state.

The only specialist equipment you will need is a madeleine tray. Purists may prefer a metal one, but after trying both, I find a silicone one makes it easier to remove the cakes while they are warm. I like a hint of lemon in mine, but you could add orange zest and a little juice, or honey. Another great addition is to full the shell section of the tray halfway, add a little raspberry jam and cover with more batter on top. This is the basic recipe, but the only limit is your imagination.

Madeleines

Makes about 15

Ingredients

2 free-range eggs

100g caster sugar

100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

1 lemon, juice and zest

¾ tsp baking powder

100g butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus extra for greasing

Method

1.Preheat the oven to 200°C. Brush the madeleine tray with melted butter then shake in a little flour to coat, tapping out the excess.

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Buttered and floured Madeleine tray

2. Whisk together the eggs and the sugar in a bowl until they become much lighter in colour and very frothy.

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Frothy eggs and sugar

3. Lightly whisk in the remaining ingredients. Leave to stand for 20 minutes before carefully pouring into the prepared madeleine tray.

4. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until the mixture has risen a little in the middle and is fully cooked through.

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Madeleines in the oven

5. Transfer the madeleines to a wire rack and leave for a few minutes to cool slightly. Depending on how many sections your tray has, you may need to do more than one batch. These are best eaten within an hour of cooking.

Perfect with a cup of tea!

Perfect with a cup of tea!

Cauliflower Cheese Soup

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Cauliflower Cheese Soup With Rye Croutons

On those days when you are struggling through rush hour as the biting wind whips right through you, after your boss has blamed you for the system failure again and no-one even offered to make you a cup of tea, you need food that will sooth and nourish. You need comfort in a bowl.

Sometimes, soup is the only solution. It is simple, warming and, more importantly, easy to make and eat. One of the few benefits of wintertime is the opportunity to eat more of it. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a carton off the supermarket shelf once in a while, but they are often loaded with salt and sugar and sometimes taste a bit thin and souless.

Cauliflower cheese has got to be on a lot of people’s winter comfort food list. It’s a combination that works partly because it’s so simple and yet, totally delicious. One particularly bitter winter’s night a few years ago, it suddenly seemed to make complete sense to make it into a hearty and totally satisfying soup. It’s rather bland appearance belies the incredible depth of flavour; it is rich, smooth and deeply reassuring. Life cannot be so bad when dinner tastes so wonderful.

Most soup is quite easy to make, but this is a ridiculously simple recipe, yet tastes like you have slaved for hours. It will keep for a week in the fridge, but it also freezes well.

The success of this soup does depend on the cheese. I like to use the strongest Cheddar I can find; Keens is excellent here if you can get it. No other type of cheese had quite the right acidic tang, which offsets the richness of the soup. Rye bread works especially well here, as it is slightly nutty and robust enough to stand up to the strong flavours in the soup, but you can use any bread you have in the house.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 large cauliflower, broken into florets

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 small potato, peeled and roughly chopped

100g of strong, hard cheese-preferably Cheddar

1 tbs English mustard

1/4 of a freshly grated nutmeg

1 bay leaf

600ml vegetable stock

400 ml whole milk

Salt and pepper to taste

3-4 slices of rye bread

Method

1) Pop the cauliflower, potato and onion in a large pan and add the milk, bay leaf and stock.

2) Bring up to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20-25 minutes until the cauliflower is very tender.

3) Remove the bay leaf. Blitz in a blender until very smooth. Add some more milk if it is rather thick then return to the pan.

4) Add the mustard, nutmeg and grated cheese. On a low heat, stir until the cheese has melted. Season to taste and put aside to keep warm.

5) Make some croutons with the rye bread: simply cut into cubes, toss with a little olive oil and bake on a low heat for about 15 minutes, until crisp and dried out.

6) To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, scatter with the croutons and sprinkle with a little more grated cheese.

Food Waste vs Food Safety

Lixo-reciclável-UFRNSo, it’s a new year again. Doubtless many of you will be in the throes of some hideous new eating and/or exercise regime which focuses on abject deprivation and much soul-searching as you route around the fridge at 3am, desperately looking for something which contains more calories than a rice cake.

I always see a new year as a punctuation mark; a comma rather than a full stop. Take a breath and reassess.

Over the festive period, I happened to visit many different homes. I was shocked to see how much food was thrown away after meals and parties. One person even threw out their leftover turkey because they didn’t want to strip the meat from the carcass. It seems it’s time to reassess our attitudes to food waste.

In the UK, there has been a welcome new wave of awareness about this kind of waste recently. At the end of last year, maverick chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his latest campaign; Hugh’s War on Waste. Much of this campaign is aimed at the food waste created by supermarkets through their rejection of less than visually perfect produce and the perfectly edible food they actually throw out at the end of every day.

Another aspect of the campaign is very much domestic. The average UK household throws away £700 worth of food a year. In 2013, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the average family spent £56.80 a week on food and non-alcoholic drinks. That means that the average household is throwing away over twelve weeks worth of food every year. Yet, The Trussell Trust, who runs 425 of the UK’s food banks, reports that from 2014-2015 over 1 million people were given emergency food. This is an insane imbalance.

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It is time to start making intelligent and informed choices about the food in our homes. Most of us buy the majority of our food at supermarkets and there is a lot of confusion about the different labels and dates on all our packaged food. Every year in the UK we throw away 7.2m tonnes of food and drink, most of which could have been eaten if we were a bit more knowledgable about labelling.

Supermarket food labels explained

  • ‘Best Before’ dates are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, simply that it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. It is still perfectly safe to eat.
  • ‘Use By’ dates do refer to food safety. The NHS guidelines recommend you do not consume anything after its ‘Use By’ date in case it does you harm.
  • ‘Display Until’ or ‘Sell By’ often appear near or next to the ‘Best Before’ or “Use By’ date. These are instructions for shop staff, not for shoppers, so you can safely ignore them.

It goes without saying that food safety should be of the highest importance in the kitchen. There are certain foods that should not be eaten if out of date. Meat, fish and eggs can all cause horrendous illnesses if consumed when they have gone off. However, due to all the red tape supermarkets have to adhere to, some of these dates are flexible. Food is often safe to eat after these dates provided that it looks and smells ok and that it is cooked properly if necessary.

Butchers, fishmongers and  greengrocers are not subject to the same health and safety guidelines and red tape as the supermarkets. Carrots from your local greengrocers or farmers market don’t come with a use by date.  Our grandparents did not have access to date-stamped food and just used their common sense.

Use your senses

  • Sight-If food has any kind of mould or looks very bruised or discoloured this is not a good sign. If that bag of spinach is weeping mass of mulch then clearly there is nothing to be done but if that block of cheese looks and smells fine, it probably is. You would not eat a bruised and wrinkled apple; that is from using your sight, not from what the packet may say.
  • Smell-I have a habit of smelling milk every time I open it. Everyone recognises the sour smell of milk that has gone off so if milk smells fresh, that usually means it is, whether it is later than the date on the label.
  • Taste-If it looks and smells ok, taste it. Trust your tastebuds. You will be able to tell if that yoghurt really has gone off. The human body is programmed to let you know if it doesn’t think something is fit for it to consume.

Sensible shopping

It is not rocket science to understand that eating what you buy saves money. If you throw out less food, you are wasting less money. Much of our eating habits depend on our shopping habits.

  • Make a shopping list. Try and plan out what you actually need before you enter the shop, rather than randomly grabbing what you think you want. Make a list and stick to it.
  • Never go shopping after exercise or if you are hungry. That niggle in your tummy will make you buy things you would never normally consider. I have brought home bags of  unnecessary food, as if in some sort of hunger-trance, after going to the gym. Worrying, pointless and expensive.
  • Think before you buy- will you eat those three packets of cereal before they go off, even though they are such a good deal?
  • Organise your fridge. When you unpack your shopping, don’t just shove everything in, so things get lost at the back-move the newest food to the back of the fridge and the older to the front, so that the older items get eaten first.

Leftovers

Just as some people delight in a fridge full of plastic containers and half eaten scraps, some people lose the will to live when they witness the same. If you like leftovers, then great. If you don’t, you have to work a bit harder to make sure they don’t end up in the bin. Just make sure you never put anything that is still warm into your fridge; this raises the internal temperature of the fridge and makes food prone to develop dangerous bacteria.

Try new recipes. Everyone opens the cupboard and feels utterly uninspired sometimes, so it helps to have a few things in the house that can used to jazz up the most mundane of ingredients. Tinned tomatoes, chilli flakes, honey, good olive oil, wholegrain and French mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ginger and garlic are just some of the things that always help a cook add essential layers of flavour.

The freezer is your friend

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I never have enough room in my freezer, as I use it like another food cupboard.

You can freeze so many things. If you know the whole loaf of bread won’t be eaten, freeze half of it. Milk, cheese and even raw eggs (separated) can also be frozen.

You can freeze all meat and fish for up to a year, just make sure it is well wrapped so it doesn’t get freezer burn. As long as any meat used was not frozen to start with, you can freeze things like curries, stews and soup after you have made them. Label them properly to avoid any surprises and make sure they are piping hot when you reheat them after defrosting, to get rid of any nasty bacteria. And never re-freeze something that was frozen.

You really can freeze most things. In reality, it is quicker and easier to give a list of things you cannot freeze. The basis is usually water content-the higher the water content, the mushier a food will be when it is defrosted.

  • Vegetables: Celery, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers (especially green), potatoes (especially raw), radishes, sprouts, salad greens
  • Fruit: Apples, grapefruit, grapes (unless you’re planning on eating them frozen) lemons, limes, oranges, watermelon, avocado, tomatoes (unless you are cooking them when defrosted)
  • Dairy: soft cheeses, cottage cheese, cream cheese, custard, eggs in shells, mayonnaise, sour cream
  • Soft Herbs: Basil, chives, parsley, etc

It’s actually a combination of small changes that make a difference. Less food waste means less money wasted, less environmental impact and less guilt. That’s a good enough resolution for me this January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagliatelle Fatte a Mano con Funghi Porcini – Hand Made Tagliatelle with Porcini Mushrooms

Tagliatelle with porcini

Tagliatelle with porcini

One of the very best things about this time of year is the arrival of wild mushrooms. The UK is home to more than 15,000 varieties of wild funghi; some edible, some very much not. We are incredibly lucky to get beautiful chanterelles, morels, chicken of the woods, puffballs and many more varieties growing wild in our woods. What is so special is that they are truly seasonal and so you have to grab them when you can.

All our native mushrooms are wonderful, but if you are fortunate you might come across some porcini mushrooms in a local deli or larger food market. These are Italian cep mushrooms and the literal translation of the name is ‘piglets’. These are the mushrooms you can buy dried and soak them to add a deep richness in cooking, but fresh they are in a different league. The flavour is earthy, nutty, rich and meaty. It is unrivalled and truly worth the shockingly high prices as a seasonal treat.

Porcini in Borough Market, London

Porcini in Borough Market, London

Choose your mushrooms wisely when you are shelling out so much for them. They should be firm, dry and with as few dents and gauges as possible. Do not be alarmed about the dirt on them; this means they have come straight from the ground rather than being processed in a factory. Never wash mushrooms, as they will soak up water like a sponge and be ruined. Instead, use a clean cloth or soft nail brush to gently brush off as much dirt and debris as you can.

Porcini close up

Porcini close up

Pasta is a perfect partner to porcini and this is a very simple recipe; the mushrooms are so rich that you only want additional ingredients that will enhance, rather than mask the porcini. If you cannot find porcini, you can use a variety of supermarket mushrooms and add a few dried porcini that you have pre-soaked. It will not taste the same, but it will still be very good.

The only time consuming thing is making the pasta. You can, of course, buy fresh tagliatelle, but I would not use dried for this recipe. Porcini are so special they deserve the extra effort.

Tagliatelle Fatte a Mano con Funghi Porcini

serves 2 hungry people

Ingredients

For the pasta

200g 00 flour

2 large eggs

pinch of salt

fine semolina for dusting

For the sauce

250g fresh porcini mushrooms (or a variety of others such as portobello, chestnut and chantarelles)

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 large handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped

3tbs extra virgin olive oil

75g butter

Large splash of dry white wine

Squeeze of lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated parmesan to serve

Method

  1. Make the pasta.
  2. Clean and slice the porcini.
  3. Add the butter and olive oil to a large frying pan, warm over a medium heat until the butter starts to foam and add the chopped garlic. Fry for a few moments, making sure the garlic does not colour.
  4. Add the porcini to the garlic, butter and oil and cook down. Meanwhile, boil the water for the pasta.
  5. Add a large slosh of white wine and cook down until you cannot smell the alcohol anymore. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, which will only be a matter of moments.
  6. Taste the sauce, season and add the parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice.
  7. Drain the pasta, making sure to reserve some of the cooking water. Add immediately to the pan of sauce and mix well, adding small amounts of cooking water until the pasta is coated and glossy.
  8. Serve immediately with grated parmesan and a sharp Italian white wine.

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A Tomato Story

Homegrown Tomatoes

Homegrown Tomatoes

Tomatoes are probably one of the foods I buy most often. My post for Crudaiola is one of the most viewed on this blog so I assume lots of you adore them as much as I do.

Since I have been a ‘proper’ grown up and lived away from the parental abode, I have never had a garden. I couldn’t even grow herbs on the window sill as the sills were too narrow to balance a pot on and I was worried about the subsequent lawsuit after inadvertently knocking someone unconscious in the street below when it fell off.

At the end of last year that changed and I was lucky enough to move into a place with a garden. One of the first things I did was start researching how to grow tomatoes. I have long harboured a dream to grow my own produce, particularly tomatoes. I spend a small fortune on them as I buy so many.

This is not a gardening blog and I cannot claim to have any expertise whatsoever. Anything I have picked up is from the web and very patient in-laws who have kindly responded to my often inane questioning.

So, I bought the equipment I thought I needed and selected three types of seeds; Gardener’s Delight, as they are supposedly easy to grow, San Marzano’s, as they make the best passata in the world and are fiendishly expensive to buy, and finally Heritage, which seemed a little vague in name, but the variety of colours and shapes attracted me.

After sowing the seeds in a little tray in the darkness of one March evening, I was hopeful but not convinced anything would ever appear. The excitement I felt when the first shoots came through after only a few weeks was totally ridiculous.

Small shoots showing

Small shoots showing

When the seedlings get to about 4cm tall, they need transferring very carefully into small pots filled with seedling peat.

Small potted seedling

Small potted seedling

Then they need transferring to a larger pot again when they get to about 15cm and are showing the first buds and flowers. I can quite smugly tell you that this is called a truss.

Growing upwards!

Growing upwards!

As the nights were still quite cold, I kept the plants on a sunny windowsill until they started to develop their own truss’. I moved them outside around the beginning of May. I would like to tell you that this was because it was the appropriate time, but it was actually because my other half was so sick of the kitchen looking in like it has been invaded by trifids.

First tiny fruit appearing

First tiny fruit appearing

When the first few truss’ have appeared you can start to feed the plants.

Fruit getting larger

Fruit getting larger

Once a plant has developed a maximum of five truss’, you need to break the top of the plant off, as otherwise you risk having lots of green fruit that never ripens. You also need to keep pinching off the little shoots between the main stalks, so they do not take away the energy from the main plant.

San Marzano fruit

San Marzano fruit

With a little luck and a fair bit of sun, the fruit will start to ripen.

Gardener's Delight fruit ripening

Gardener’s Delight fruit ripening

And so eventually came the day when there were enough red fruit to pick and eat. Dressed simply with a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, they were, frankly, incredible. It was very special.  I love the fact they are bit gnarly in places and not all of them look perfect. They are authentic, rather than forced into perfection because that is what the public want to buy.

The sun has been somewhat lacking for the last few weeks and so I still have a lot of green fruit. I am hoping that we get a few sunny days, as they seem to ripen overnight when there is warmth and light. The constant rain has meant that some of the fruit has started to split, which is a little heartbreaking. I have picked the ones which are showing the slightest sign of ripening and put them into a bowl on the windowsill in the hope of ripening them fully.

There are a few things I would not do again. I would only plant 10-15 seeds.  The packet instructions suggested that only half the seeds would take but I have only lost two plants out of 45 throughout this process. Unless you are heading for commercial production, 43 plants are far too many for a domestic cook to maintain, however much you love tomatoes. It is actually bordering on insanity and has taken up far too much time and energy. Not to mention the amount I have spent on peat probably outweighs the amount I would have spent on tomatoes normally.

That said, some cliches exist for a reason and there really is nothing like the taste of tomatoes you have grown yourself. There is a wonderful feeling of productivity and pride that simply can’t be replicated by picking out a fridge cold plastic packet in the supermarket. This is a process I have enjoyed so much more than I thought I would. The time and care needed means you feel very invested in these little plants. I never thought I would be the type of person to find myself away for a weekend and catch myself worrying about how the tomato plants were doing in my absence! It all seems a bit too grown up.
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Gnudi della Ricotta Con Pesto – Ricotta Dumplings with Pesto

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Like everyone else, I am seriously unimpressed with the weather in the UK at the moment. The previous two years we enjoyed a plethora of beautiful sunshine over the spring and summer and it seemed like we were back in the groove of having long balmy evenings and weekends full of barbecues and outdoor frolics of various kinds. Like a ‘normal’ summer should bring. Not so in 2015. The few good days we have had do not make up for the overtly depressing fact that I am watching the rain pour down the window pane in mid August. I have a cup of tea next to me and a thick pair of socks on. Balmy it truly is not.

Just as a cup of tea always brings solice, food can often be a comfort in the days when you are desperate for a ray of sunshine in your life. My obsession with Italy and Italian food is well documented and shows no sign of abating. It is a cuisine that can simply radiate sunshine. This is one of those dishes.

Most people have heard of gnocchi- those gorgeous Italian dumplings made with mashed potato. Gnudi ( pronounced nu-dee) are similar but different, not least because they are made from ricotta cheese rather than mashed potato. The literal translation is ‘nude’ – you can think of them as naked ravioli; the filling without the pasta, but I don’t think this does them justice.

You can buy fresh gnocchi in the supermarket these days, but I do think they feel more like rubber in the mouth than the proper melting unctiousness of homemade. I have never seen gnudi in the supermarket and only in a few delis in Italy. Through this, you can be assured that you will impress your guests just through their uniqueness.

Quite simply, gnudi are dumplings made from ricotta, flour and egg, with a few other additions of deliciousness. Ricotta is a soft Italian curd cheese made from whey, which is drained and then lightly ‘cooked’- hence the word ‘cotta’ meaning cooked. It is light and creamy with a slightly grainy texture and delicate flavour. It’s intense creaminess belies the fact that it’s quite low in fat. I believe ricotta to be a very underrated and versatile ingredient that can be used in dishes as diverse as cheesecake, pastries and pasta.

If you have never tried gnudi or feel daunted about making them, I can assure you that the very small effort required is well worth it. They are actually easier and quicker than gnocchi as you do not have to peel, boil and mash potatoes. I can get a plate of these on the table in under half an hour.  The taste and texture is unique and incredibly moreish. They are lighter than gnocchi and as ricotta is such a fresh and clean flavour, these are a great vehicle for any sauce you want.

I have made them for a number of years and have tried a number of different recipes. The first was from the wonderful Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers from The River Cafe. The recipe is great but very time consuming as it requires the dumplings to be stored overnight covered in semolina to extract extra moisture. I’m all for extra effort if makes a real difference, but I have found this is time and effort that isn’t really necessary. I have come up an amalgamation of a few recipes, coupled with the addition of pan frying the gnudi after they have been boiled. This adds an extra texture, colour and crunch that works brilliantly with pesto. They taste great without this step, but I think it’s worth it.

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the Gnudi
500g ricotta
230g plain flour
2 medium eggs
2 large handfuls of grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

For the Pesto
3 big handfuls of basil
75g of pine nuts
1/2 clove of garlic
1 big handful parmesan cheese
100ml of extra virgin olive oil

Method

First make the pesto. Gently toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan or under the grill. Watch them as they burn very quickly. Put the garlic in a pestle and mortar (if you put it in a processor the heat from the blades will blacken the pesto) with a good pinch of salt and bash until a paste. Add the basil and grind again.

Grinding the pesto

Grinding the pesto

Add all the toasted pine nuts except a handful and grind again into a paste. Add the parmesan and half the olive oil. Mix and season to taste. Add the rest of the olive oil a little at a time until you have a rich emulsified sauce. Add the remaining whole pine nuts.

Pesto

Pesto

Now set the pesto aside and make the gnudi.

Put the ricotta in a sieve to drain the excess liquid for about 5 minutes. Place in a bowl and mix with the flour, eggs, parmesan and salt and pepper until it comes together.

Tip out onto a floured worktop and work into a smooth dough. Divide into 6 sections and roll out into long sausage shapes of about a 3cm diameter.

'Sausages' of dough

‘Sausages’ of dough

With a knife or pastry cutter, slice the sausages into pieces of 4cm.

Cutting the dough

Cutting the dough

Carry on rolling out and cutting until you have gone through all the dough.

Raw gnudi

Raw gnudi

Place the gnudi into a large pan of simmering salted water. They will sink straight to the bottom and float to the top when they are cooked. As they float to the top, remove with a slotted spoon and pop into a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of hot olive oil. You will need to do this in two batches, or in two frying pans. Fry until golden and crispy on all sides.

Frying the gnudi

Frying the gnudi

Take the frying pan off the heat and mix in the pesto to warm through. Spoon into bowls and top with grated parmesan.

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

I don’t like repeating recipes on this blog. I feel that it short-changes my readers when you visit expecting something sparkly and new and it reads with a little too much familiarity.

I make an exception here, as I can claim it is a worthy variation, rather than a direct repetition. Every recipe I post has been tested at least three times, often many times more. I post recipes that I love and I hope my readers will love too. As a result I cook the food featured on this blog often in my everyday life. This does lead to tweaks and alternations that sometimes don’t work, but sometimes lead to something wonderful. This is one of those times.

You may or may not have read my previous post about cantuccini which suggested several, rather traditional additions to the dough. After a recent trip to Italy, I was inspired to try out a chocolate variation, darkly rich with cocoa, chocolate chips and glistening green pistachios. Do not be tempted to use anything other than the best quality dark chocolate here. Even if you do not like dark chocolate, it is necessary here for the richness and depth of flavour which works so well with the pistachios. It is a fabulous combination and totally addictive. A worthwhile post, I hope you will agree.

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini
Makes about 30

Ingredients

250g plain flour, sifted
250g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tbs good quality cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate)
150g good quality dark chocolate-60% cocoa solids or more is good.
2 eggs

Method

Heat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4 and line two baking trays with baking parchment. Shift the cocoa powder into the flour and mix all the dry ingredients together. Chop the chocolate into rough shards and mix into the flour. Beat the eggs and pour half into the dry ingredients. Mix.

Add the eggs until you have a dough which comes together and feels slightly sticky. You may not need to use all the eggs, so go carefully or the dough will be too wet.

Dust the worktop with flour and divide the dough into six. Roll each section out into a rough sausage shape, about 3cm wide, using a bit of flour if they stick. Lay on the lined baking trays, leaving a good 3-4 cm apart as they spread when they cook.

Pop in the oven for about 25-30 minutes and cook until they are a light golden brown. Take out and leave to cool for 10 minutes.

Turn the oven down to 150°C. Slice each section on a diagonal using a serrated blade into pieces of about 2 cm and lay back on the baking trays. Bake for a further 10-15 minutes but do watch them as they catch quite easily. They make be pliable when hot, but it is imperative that they are cooked through, as this is what gives you a fantastic crunch.

Cool on wire racks and store in airtight containers.

Watermelon and Mint Martini

 

Watermelon and Mint Martini

 
It is a sad fact that us Brits cannot cope with hot weather. It’s just not in our DNA. The sun pokes it head through our normally grey sky and suddenly men and women are wearing outrageously inappropriate clothing on public transport, as their exposed shoulders gently turn the colour of cooked lobsters. People whose usual idea of cooking is to pop a pizza in the oven decide that they are expert BBQ chefs, donning aprons with smutty slogans on and giving everyone food poisoning by sloshing the marinade used for the raw meat all over the bits that are cooked. 

Our rail tracks buckle, our parks frazzle and no shop can keep up with the demand for ice. That picnic with your family in the park that sounded like such a great idea rapidly unravels into a bitch-fest as people get cramp, get stung, get bored and get drunk. It’s not pretty. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to these potential hazards of summertime. Deciding that hot pants are not a great look for the office and avoiding any picnic without waiter service are a good start. 

More positive still is to have a really cracking summer cocktail up your sleeve which is both delicious and genuinely refreshing. The ubiquitous Aperol Spritz is still alive and kicking (although when hideous chain pubs start serving it, it might be a sign to move on), but I urge you to try this absolutely delicious concoction of watermelon, mint and vodka, given to me several years ago by the Head Barman of the, now sadly defunct, Boxwood Cafe in London. It is so simple it barely warrants a recipe but this is a cooking blog so I need to give you one, just to make myself feel useful. 

Watermelon really does live up to its name as it is made up of about 92% water. This is very important for summer drinking, as it’s mainly dehydration caused by alcohol consumption that gives you that awful headache at about 4pm on a Saturday afternoon after deciding to drink rose wine from midday onwards. The water content in the watermelon in this recipe will help mitigate this. I only say help, not eliminate so please drink responsibly, keep hydrated, blah, blah, blah. 

The mint in this recipe is a brilliant compliment to the watermelon and makes the drink doubly refreshing. Temperature is key so make sure everything is as cold as possible before you partake. 

You can make this martini in a cocktail shaker if you want to look very efficient but this method means you can make a whole jug at a time, which can only be a good thing for everyone. 

Watermelon and Mint Martini

Makes 4

Ingredients

400g watermelon, roughly chopped into chunks

Handful of mint leaves

200ml good quality vodka

Watermelon slices for garnish

Method

If you have a juicer, juice the mint and watermelon together. If not, blend the watermelon and mint in a blender or with a hand held blender until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve.  Chill the juice until it is ice cold. 

Add the vodka, stir and serve in chilled martini glasses, with a slice of watermelon on the side.