JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pasta con sarde

Now then, this is not what you'd call an "authentic" dish, but I'm a little suspicious of that term, because it seems to me somewhat meaningless, or even an excuse for self-regarding chefs to lecture the rest of us. No two dishes are ever exactly the same, so authenticity should only be applied to the method, rather than exact quantities of ingredients. Dishes which are labelled "authentic" are ones which have been handed down through the generations, and it is only very recently that cooks have been able to get the ingredients that they wanted when they wanted them any day of the year - which means that cooks have traditionally used what is to hand.

So when I decided on the way home from work that what I wanted to eat more than anything was pasta with sardine sauce, I knew there was no question of making it with fresh sardines, or even salted ones, neither of these being in the larder. I used what was to hand: tinned sardines (in olive oil, well worth the few extra pennies). And I used the "authentic" method. It's nicer when you use fresh sardines, but this is better than not at all, and certainly better than with the tired-looking sardines that are all I can get locally at the moment.

Sardines are amongst the highest in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the risk of cardio-vascular disease in a number of different ways. Even canned sardines retain this advantage (canned tuna fish doesn't, sadly for those who like a tuna sandwich for their lunch). This recipe is for people who wouldn't normally choose to eat sardines, as the result is a very mild, though tasty sauce. I know that doesn't seem to make much sense - so give it a try! (Sorry, no photograph - partly because it's not very beautiful, and partly because we ate it up double quick!)

spaghetti or linguine
3 medium onions
4 tablespoons pinenuts
2 tablespoons sultanas
1 chilli
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
white wine
a lemon
one or two tins of sardines, depending on how much you like them!

Peel and chop the onions, then sweat gently in a little olive oil for 15-20 minutes without browning. Add the pinenuts and sultanas, the fennel seeds and the finely chopped chilli (I had to use a tablespoon or two of chilli jam, because there wasn't any fresh chilli either). Stir all this about for a few minutes, then add the sardines and a glass of wine. Cook this down for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta (put the pan of water on after you've added the fish to the sauce). When all is ready, zest the lemon, squeeze the juice into the sauce, then mix the sauce carefully into the drained pasta. Sprinkle with lemon zest, and some chopped herbs if you have them.

These quantities will sauce enough pasta for 3 or 4, depending on appetite. If you make too much, it's good on a pizza, in a sandwich, on its own.

This is an entry for Heart of the Matter 3, which is hosted this month by Ilva at Lucullian Delights. The theme for May is heart-healthy pasta, something most of us know about without really thinking: lots of vegetables, not much meat, no cream or butter, and preferably not much cheese either. Ilva and I would really love to hear your ideas, which we'll post on the HotM website (linked back to your blog), where together we are building up a resource of heart-healthy recipes for everyone to share. Send the link to your entry to i_beretta AT yahoo DOT it, by 22 May.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Puddings - Heart of the Matter Round Up

First of all, a huge apology to all American bloggers who were confused by my use of the word pudding rather than dessert. It's what I've always called the sweet course of a meal ... only now I've looked it up, and I see that, these days, I rarely eat pudding, mostly dessert.

This is how the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines pudding: a preparation of food of a soft or moderately firm consistency, in which the ingredients, animal or vegetable, are either mingled in a farinaceous basis, or are enclosed in a farinaceous crust, and cooked by boiling or steaming. Preparations of batter, milk and eggs, rice, sago, and other farinaceous substances, suitably seasoned, and cooked by baking, are now also called puddings.

Dessert, on the other hand, is: a course of fruit, sweetmeats, etc served after a dinner or supper; the last course at an entertainment. In US often including pies etc.

Yet another way in which the English language has diverged: you say tomato and I say tomato, you say potato ...

And whatever we call it, there are lots of new ideas for everyone to try. The interesting thing is that almost all of them use fruit as a basis. No-one has explored the possibility of dark chocolate as a healthy treat - perhaps it's because we all secretly think of chocolate as an unhealthy indulgence?

Chris at Mele Cotte sings the praises of pineapple because its micro-nutrients contain clot-buster, as well as cancer-beating properties. She serves it with a great yoghurt sauce flavoured with vanilla, honey and a little balsamic.

Ilva at Lucullian Delights has given us several delicious ideas in her determination to set up a really useful bank of heart-healthy recipes at Heart of the Matter .. her first recipe is the essence of summer, a cold melon soup, as usual served up with her beautiful photographs.

Do you believe in miracles? Marcela at Pip in the City thinks you will if you try her creamy fat- and sugar-free ice-cream that's low in calories and high on taste. Just take two bananas and - well you'd better check it out for yourself.

Next, I posted a few ideas for pepping up fruit, when you're fed up with fruit salad ... chargrilled and glazed with honey, roasted, or poached in cassis.

My friend Doodles at Peanut Butter Etouffe has posted an angel food cake with raspberry coulis. AFC is one of those recipes that anyone interested in healthy heart cookery should know about, because it uses only the egg whites, which cuts out all the saturated fat in an egg. It's not that you shouldn't eat whole eggs at all, it's just that you shouldn't eat too many. Anyway, Doodles has come up with a really scrummy pud (sorry!).

In Lisa's kitchen you'll find little lemon sponge puddings, her recipe is for two individual servings, lovely and light with beaten egg white (although I'd need to tweak out the melted butter, as that's a total no-no for my husband's diet).

Pineapple is on the menu at Jumbo Empanadas, where Brilynn has created a scrumptious pineapple frozen yoghurt ... she uses an ice-cream maker, but it looks as if it'll work just as well without one (I hope so, anyway!).

When I was at school, we used to get a particularly horrid pink rubbery pudding which was called blancmange, and which I couldn't ever eat. Ilva's wonderful, wobblingly-barely-set blancmange - biancomangiare - flavoured with cardammom and served with a strawberry sauce is a world away from my early memories, and I'm going to try it just as soon as there are some English strawberries in the supermarket.

You just knew Victoria at Ooh Cake in Melbourne would come up with something interesting - after all, she says that dessert's the whole point of the meal really. She's homesick, so she's posted pulut hitam, a malay dessert that she says is quite similiar to a soup.

Tapioca is another of those things I would never have thought of eating because of really bad childhood memories. So I'm really grateful to Helen at Tartelette for posting this great layered tapioca raspberry verrine. Not even a hint of school food!

Back to Joanna's Food for two ways to make lemon creams using 0% Greek yoghurt. I started off thinking of 0% Greek yog as a substitute for cream, or even for "regular" Greek yoghurt; now, I'd never consider using anything else - it's thick, creamy and sharp, with none of that cloying sweetness you get from cream.

And talking of yoghurt, look at what Ilva's done - her saffron yoghurt with spicy honey comes with puffed quinoa. She says it's not really a recipe, but I reckon it is: I wouldn't have thought of this particular delicious combination of spices.

Lydia at My Kitchen came back to Sydney from her holiday with some strawberries she had picked herself. So she made little strawberry puddings. I particularly liked the one with the hidden strawberry in the middle!

Christine Cooks has a great recipe for strawberry in raspberry wine with goat's milk yoghurt. And she gives us a great reason for eating it: Strawberries are low in calories, packed with fiber, Vitamin C, folate, potassium and antioxidants such as ellagic acid. Research has shown that eating about 8 strawberries a day can significantly lower systolic blood pressure, which may reduce the risk of heart disease associated with high blood pressure. She's also the only contributor to this event who even mentions chocolate - check it out!

Rebecca at Saucy in the Kitchen was inspired to create a passionfruit sorbet after tasting her friend Annie's passionfruit mousse, laden with cream, condensed milk, eggs and gelatin (not friendly to vegetarians). This one's quick and easy to make - and her mom said it was good!

Next is my light version of Eton Mess, another pudding using strawberries (although you can use raspberries, too). I was inspired to make it after a visit to Eton to watch my son Alfred play cricket there on Saturday. It's always a huge hit, particularly with children, who also like making it - all that crumbling the meringues!

At Brown Bag Blues, Janelle gives recipes to put in the children's lunch bag. So for this Heart of the Matter event, it's no surprise she's come up with a "portable" pudding - strawberry bars your kids can make. Actually, you can use any kind of jam you like, but her family likes strawberry best.

Mia at Nosh has made us warm whole lemon and almond pudding with fresh raspberries - it's a Gary Rhodes recipe that starts by boiling the lemons - just like Claudia Roden's orange cake which I often make. So I can't wait to try this. And as Mia says, it contains mostly almonds, which are high in monounsaturated fats, the same type of health-promoting fats found in olive oil, and are associated with reduced risk of heart disease ... and ... whole, organic lemons which contain unique compounds that have antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, not to mention being a great source of Vitamin C.

Tanna's spectacular banana pudding takes thirty minutes to cook from scratch, and she takes you through all the steps, with photographs all the way. Sounds great. No wonder her blog's called My Kitchen in Half Cups - Second Helpings!

Thanks to all of you who participated - together we really are building a resource for all those who want to think about heart-healthy food, either just this once, or as a way of life. You'll find this post at Heart of the Matter too

PS I forgot to say: next month it's pasta dishes, and Ilva is doing the roundup ... so start thinking about your healthy-heart pasta sauces, and send them to Ilva at Lucullian Delights by 22nd May ... you'll find all the details on her blog, and I know she's already planning her first HotM3 post!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Shakespeare and St George

Today is Shakespeare's birthday, and also St George's Day. St George was a real person, but he never visited England, and probably didn't slay a dragon either. He's said to have slain the dragon on a spectacular tabletop hill in an ancient Oxfordshire landscape in the Vale of the White Horse. When my children were small, we re-enacted the scene in situ, amid much hilarity. I can't remember who played the part of the dragon. Probably me.

This picture came off Wikipedia, and shows the bronze age White Horse cut into the hillside on the right, and Dragon Hill in the rising up in middle (you'll probably need a magnifying glass). It's hard to do justice to such a magical place in any photograph - if you're ever anywhere near, it's worth a visit, particularly if you take a picnic (this suggestion may be as close as we get to food today!).

Until the middle ages, England's patron saint was the rather dour St Edmund. But crusaders brought home stories of St George, and at some point a swap was made. (Don't ask me, I'm not a medievalist!) By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, George was well established as England's patron saint: "Cry God for Harry, England and St George!" is the rallying cry before the battle of Agincourt. In the autumn we visited the battlefield with our two youngest children, but they - alas - are now too grown-up for in situ re-enactments of dubious historical accuracy (although this one would have been spot on after our visit to the excellent museum at Azincourt).

The whole thing is rather puzzling: what exactly is a patron saint expected to do? Particularly one with strong links to a multiplicity of other places: Palestine, Lebanon, Georgia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Majorca, Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Greece, Brazil, India, Moscow, Reggio Calabria (not to mention his links with the freemasons and American boy scouts) - and that's just the basic Wikipedia list. Here's something I read, amazingly, this morning, in Honey from a Weed:

St George, the equestrian knight, was particularly loved by the Venetians, people who valued above everything the horse, and who, in the old days, were quick to translate passion into action. He remains, in spite of the Vatican, the embodiment of a principle close to English hearts, and to the Catalans, the Greeks and the Dalmatians whose patron saint he has long been. The Veneto is the place to ponder his significance: not only in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice where Carpaccio painted his exploits for the Dalmatian community, but also in San Zeno in Verona where he was depicted by an unknown painter in a beautiful 13th century fresco. The wonder of this active saint must have dawned on the Venetians during their dominion over Dalmatia, Corfu, the Peloponnese and the Cyclades, lasting four centuries, and only brought to an end in Byron's time, by the Turks.

The reference to the Vatican seems to be that successive popes demoted him (third class saint at the lowest point - what on earth does that mean?), but he's back up there with his own special day in the Roman Catholic calendar, and one can only hope that that day is today!

But the key point about George, for me, is that he was a man who stood up to be counted. He was a Christian from Cappadocia, rose to high rank in the Roman army, but refused orders to take part in the persecution of Christians. When he followed this up with criticism of the emporer, Diocletian ordered torture (on a wheel of swords) and execution (beheaded). Brave indeed.

Oh, and there's one other thing about 23rd April - it's DD's birthday. She's my oldest friend, we were at nursery school together decades ago, then both crashed our A levels together. She introduced me to Lucius, and is Eleanor's godmother. Many happy returns of the day - I hope the weather's better in Crete than here!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Eton Mess

Yesterday we went to Eton to watch Alfred's first cricket match of the season: Marlborough vs Eton. Lucius, an old Etonian, feels a little peculiar cheering on Marlborough on Agar's Plough, but he managed well enough. Those of you who think that cricket is a boring game should know that the result of this match was always in doubt, and that it was settled on the last ball, when Eton won by one run. Nailbiting stuff, and very exciting to watch. Alfred was out for a duck (luckily I failed to spot this, because, at the crucial moment, we were accosted by some old friends we hadn't seen for a year!), but he then had the satisfaction of bowling well and taking three wickets (which I did see).

So pudding for lunch today is Eton mess. I've never actually heard of this being served up to boys (or even masters, come to that), but this is a traditional English summer pudding, quite delicious. It's a sort of strawberry fool with attitude, because the crushed meringue gives it a crunch - but only if you make it at the last minute, otherwise you get a sugary goo, quite nice in its own way, but not really worth writing about.

My version is lighter than the usual, made with 0% Greek yoghurt rather than whipped cream. It's too early for the seasonal cook to be making this properly, because English strawberries are still at least six weeks away. Today's version is a winter version, using up the last of last summer's strawberry jam. The danger with the jam method is that it gets too sweet, so I counteract that with a little lemon juice.

You need equal quantities (by eye) of meringue, Greek yoghurt, and strawberries (or strawberry jam). Allow one meringue per person (and this is the only recipe I can think of where bought meringues are okay - their pasty texture isn't a problem here). Crush the strawberries with a fork, and mix them into the yoghurt. If you are using jam, squeeze a little lemon juice on it first (lots if the jam is set hard). Lightly crush the meringues into the mix shortly before serving in a glass dish. Good for summer parties.

The Heart of the Matter deadline is today - send your delicious pudding/dessert recipes to joannacary AT ukonline DOT co DOT uk, with the permalink for the round-up next week, which you'll find here, and also at the Heart of the Matter website. I don't suppose I'll do the round-up until tomorrow evening, so the deadline can be slightly fluid if you need a little more time! There are already lots of delicious ideas ...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

HotM: a cure for depression

I'm not very good at pudding, dessert, call it what you will. It's a hit or miss affair in this house, usually forgotten in the rush to get dinner on the table. There's always fruit, often a square of dark chocolate. And this is the reason I haven't done much posting this week: I wanted to post some more pudding ideas for the second Heart of the Matter event, but found myself strangely devoid of them ... so no posts, & not much "proper" cooking either.

I'm reading a wonderful book at the moment, Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray. This morning it struck me that PG wasn't keen on pudding either. In a hefty book (380pps), there's only one chapter on puddings, entitled A few sweets. Seven, actually. The few conserves are all savoury (several ways of preserving tomatoes, lots of ways to conserve a variety of vegetables in oil). There's a lovely chapter on jams which I'll definitely be using later this summer - figs, peaches, green walnuts. But overall this is not a book for the sweet-toothed.

I'm always easily distracted, and this week's distraction from pudding posts was finding PG's reference to Virgil's sauce for cauliflower. It's a sort of mayonnaise, with garlic, anchovies, capers, breadcrumbs. PG claims that "even Provencal cooks" agree that Virgil invented aioli. This seems to me so incredible that I spent several hours looking into it, with huge lack of success, partly because in the US there's a brand of barbecue sauce called Virgil's sauce which clutters up any search, no matter how cleverly worded.

"The origin of aioli is often attributed to Virgil, even by Provencal cooks. According to the story, one day, having lost his appetite, he was advised to restore it by crushing some cloves of garlic and mixing the resulting paste with breadcrumbs. It had the desired effect, as anyone in a similar condition can prove - providing they have a pestle and mortar. Pounding fragrant things - particularly garlic, basil, parsley - is a tremendous antidote to depression. But it applies also to juniper berries, coriander seeds and the grilled fruits of the chilli pepper. Pounding these things produces an alteration in one's being - from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated. Virgil's appetite was probably improved equally by pounding garlic as by eating it."

Well, the Virgil bit seems to me to be fanciful, but the rest, the pounding, seems to me to be true. The very best cup of coffee I ever had was in the Eritrean highlands (where coffee originated), pounded in a mortar with a wooden pestle by a nomad woman with the most enormous smile, even though we were in a war zone and her life was undoubtedly materially affected by the war.

I once read that the two most intimidating cookery terms are bain marie and pestle and mortar. Well, a bain marie is just a dish of water, and a pestle and mortar is what we gave up using when we got food processors. The only thing I use mine for is crushing pepper and other spices, when I want them to be chunky. Clearly it's time to make Virgil sauce in the traditional manner. Watch this space.

We've come a long way from pudding. I've been sent lots of wonderful ideas which I'll post next week in the round-up. Please send more ... as you can see, my family and friends are deprived (and many of them kindly bring their own when they come - notably Anna, who made four of the best-ever tarts for Easter: lemon, almond with prune, chocolate with pear, and white chocolate with raspberries).

The Heart of the Matter deadline is this Sunday, 22nd April - send them to joannacary AT ukonline DOT co DOT uk, with the permalink for the round-up next week, which you'll find here, and also at the Heart of the Matter website.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

HotM: lemon cream mousse

I've got a lot of lemons in the kitchen at the moment: it's hard to imagine cooking without using lemon, so I sometimes buy them forgetting that I've already got some, or that I've ordered some from my veg supplier. But it's okay, I can use up the glut easily - a squeeze of juice over steamed vegetables or grilled fish, perhaps a little zest as well. And, now, some puddings too.

In this house pud is almost always fruit-based. In truth there's not very much fruit in these little lemon pots, but zest is not only delicious but also very good for you: it contains limonene, which has cancer-fighting properties. If I'm using the juice of a lemon, I always use some zest. You need a MicroPlane zester to make this easy - they're expensive, but once you've got one, you'll use it every day.

I made these little creamy pots in two ways, and the photograph shows the difference. The first, quickest and easiest, is just good fromage frais mixed with lemon zest and a little sugar. I was going to sprinkle a little muscovado sugar over the top, like Barbados cream, but found I've run out. So they'll have to stay plain. The other pots are a little more special, because I've added beaten egg white to lighten the mixture, and a little gelatine for a soft set. You can see from the photograph the difference in volume, created entirely by the egg white.

Drain a 500g pot of fromage frais (you can keep the whey to make scones or muffins). Mix in the zest of two lemons, and a dessertspoon of caster sugar. That's it for the quick creams - just put them into four pretty pots or glasses, and sprinkle with muscovado sugar. Leave in the fridge for an hour or so for the sugar to "melt".

If you want to carry on and make lemon mousse, then soak two sheets of gelatine in water. When it's soft (which takes three or four minutes), squeeze out the water, and put the gelatin into a large bowl and melt it in the microwave. It says on the packet that this takes 10 seconds, but my experience is that it takes considerably less: one quick blast is enough. Add the cream mixture to the gelatine and mix thoroughly. Beat two egg whites until stiff, and fold into the lemon mixture. Pot. This is enough for four to six pots. Leave to set in the fridge.

The lemon cream is best made no more than a couple of hours before you want to eat, because it tends to separate a little, with a whey-y liquid which tastes fine but doesn't look very pretty; the lemon mousse can safely be made the day before.

It would be improved, I think, by mixing the zest and the sugar in advance, and leaving it to soak - you could do it the night before, and then mix the creams up quickly as you prepared a main course for a dinner party. And in June, both versions would be delicious with the addition of a little stewed redcurrant in the bottom.

I have a book of recipes from the Duchess of Devonshire, who lives at Chatsworth, one of the grandest houses in England (I don't suppose she did much of the cooking herself, but it's an interesting book). She gives a similar lemon cream, potted over a macaroon, which I should think would be good too. Macaroons, like meringues, are useful in a low-fat diet, because they use only the white of egg.

And please don't forget to send me your Heart of the Matter entries by this Sunday, 22nd April - joannacary AT ukonline DOT co DOT uk, with the permalink for the round-up next week.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My husband made dinner last night

I've been really busy for the past couple of weeks - numerous family occasions, lots of family staying, cooked dozens of meals for dozens of people, some wonderful parties to go to. And then, suddenly, it all came to an end yesterday morning after breakfast. My sister and her children left for the airport, my daughters had already gone back for their new terms, my husband took one son to university, and I took the other off to school (where he is a boarder). I'm left on empty.

By the evening, I was worn out, catatonic, not capable of making any decision. So Lucius cooked supper, as he could see that was the only way he would get to eat. He picked the first asparagus which he grows against the odds of heavy clay soil - four or five succulent blades of precious grass each, sweet and silky, smooth as butter. Then tinned sardines on toast, with spinach from the garden, and Lucius's very particular mixed salad. Hugely restorative.

The salads I make are completely different from those Lucius makes. We start by choosing different bowls - his an inward-curving wooden one he turned himself, mine a more open shape, the smaller turned by Lettice, the larger given to me by my mother-in-law. I nearly always make either a green salad, or a tomato salad, or a conventional mixed salad such as a Waldorf. Lucius puts in everything he can find, and likes to be able to find spring onions (left whole), raw mushrooms (quartered), chunks of raw carrot, a little cooked beetroot, and, above all, tomatoes - all chucked onto a little Cos lettuce, the huge outer leaves left whole. It is very good, and somehow reflects the man, in many of his aspects.

I didn't tackle yesterday's clearing up until this morning. I almost cried when I found the boys' breakfast plates. It will be high summer before they sit down to breakfast together. And days before I can go into their bedrooms to clear up the mess they have left behind. If I start crying I may not stop for days.

Busy busy. And smile.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pea puree

My sister-in-law Kirsty and her family produced a delicious lunch on Sunday for Matilda's christening: a summer's cold buffet for a really hot spring day - cold salmon, ham, a delicious lentil salad, pink fir apples with chopped herbs. The bruschetta were particularly fine, striking and very pretty as you can see, with their strongly contrasting colours. The black ones were an olive tapenade, which you can easily buy in a jar in most supermarkets. The green ones were very moreish - peas, with garlic and butter.

Here's the recipe for my version:

Boil a couple of handfuls of frozen peas with one fat clove of garlic (peeled). When the peas are tender, drain them, and whizz to a puree (a hand blender is ideal for the small quantities here, but if you were making enough for a crowd, then the liquidiser would be better). Mix in one tablespoon of 0% Greek yoghurt, and serve on little toasts. You could also flavour this with mint, in which case, put one or two raw leaves into the whizzer.

Kirsty often makes the lentil salad, and it's wonderful: puy lentils, mixed through with a few sun-dried tomatoes which have been soaked in olive oil, and some little torn pieces of ricotta. This is all dressed in a vinaigrette, with chopped herbs strewn over the top. It would make a good light lunch all by itself.

Fantastic puddings, especially Emily's richly chocolate-y brownies, at least, those few not stolen by Coco, the black not-quite labrador (but labrador enough to be a well known food thief!).

My first photograph shows us walking through the field to the church, little Cecily running to catch up. The second shows Matilda with her parents Susie and Nat, and the vicar, my newly-discovered cousin Robin Ewbank.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rag bag

How is THIS for an idea? A sturdy shopping bag made from recycled carrier bags! Terrific stuff!

Once again, it's not a food post - but you need something to carry your food home in, after all ...

A golden wedding celebration

Yesterday, my father and stepmother celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They had an early evening drinks party, with lots of family and old friends. As this is a food blog, I will tell you the menu: smoked salmon on bread, little squares of pizza, and hot cocktail sausages dressed in a mixture of Greek honey, grainy mustard and tomato ketchup. Wedding cake at the end. Crisps for the children. Champagne to drink.

The photograph shows me and my brother in front of the bride and groom, two sets of grandparents (I had three grandmothers and four grandfathers, all wonderful - how lucky am I?) and a couple of witnesses. The one below was taken during the speeches and is the best we could do ...

Friday, April 13, 2007

The secret of cooking is the release of fragrance ...

"The secret of cooking is the release of fragrance and the art of imparting it. Fragrance: the bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, a sacred tree, how brightly, how fiercely it burns. Gather its dark-leaved branches in summer if you can. Sweet the influence of rosemary, its ungainly shrubby stems bursting with pale lilac flowers. Pungent the mint trodden underfoot on the way to the orchard. Peppery and sweet the scent of wild marjoram, origano, self-drying in July on droughty limestone hillsides; lemon-scented the clumps of wild savory, poor man's pepper, producing its minute snapdragon flowers in August, picked by quarrymen on their way down from the quarry. Irresistible the bunches of herbs sold in the market place by an old man who bothers to gather them, shrubby sprigs of thyme nibbled by hares in high pastures and green-leaved sage, and clary. Holy the Byzantine perfume of coriander leaves and seeds, recalling the smell of incense burning in a Greek chapel perched on the spine of a bare mountain. Passer-by, grasp the invitation proffered by fennel flowers and seeds on brittle stalks leaning out from the hillside. Savour the strange sweet taste of juniper berries, blue-black, picked in September on a chalk down where nothing much else will grow. Wander through the maquis in spring when shrubby sages, thyme, rosemary, cistus, lentisk and myrtle are in flower. Inhale the fragrance of the wilderness.

"I would like to transport you to the house of Maurin Bacciagulupo, the guardian of the temple of Diana at Luni. In front of his door on the plain of Luni stands the skeleton of the Roman temple. Maurin's threshing floor is divided from it only by the twisted branches of an immeasurably old vine. Looking west you see the great extent of Tyrrhenian Sea at a distance and the long line of hills which terminates in the promontory, the Punta Bianca. Looking eastwards, are the high Apuanian mountains, in springtime still capped with snow, behind which barrier lurk the mysterious backlands of the Lunigiana. On the lower slopes the mountain villages adhere to their mountain background like lumps of coral.

"Maurin used to keep seven bulls. He was a bachelor as befits the guardian of this temple. In his house was a spacious kitchen with red brick floor, the high ceiling made of beams, whitewashed. There was a big hearth, a bottle gas stove, a table, chairs, a settle. Behind the settle was an array of copper and aluminium pans suspended from a wooden framework on the wall. At the window was a stone sink, the drinking water kept in a large terracotta Tuscan bowl with a glaze of green marbling inside. The water was drawn from the well outside. The cheese was kept in the kitchen drawer out of the way of the cats, and the bread in the bread chest. The cantina across the passage was well stocked with wine, both white and red.

"This man had always lived on the farm within sight of the sea and in touch with the sea breeze. The house was exposed to the moon's rise and the sun's set. He had the lilting speech of the Genoese. He had reduced his diet to a very few things because he refused to touch anything that was not genuine. This eliminated bread baked in an electric oven, industrially confected sausages and salami, cheese which had been artifically matured, wine which had been tampered with.

"He prepared the meal with deliberate movements and a certain solemnity. The pasta was cooked in an enormous aluminium cauldron in a great quantity of boiling water, salted of course with sea salt. When it was al dente he strained it through an impressive colander at the sink, and then placing an ample white china bowl on the kitchen table, at which we were already sipping his delicious white wine, he poured in the pasta, then the sauce, and with great deliberation, turned the spaghetti about with two forks to distribute the sauce. The fragrance of this sauce, whether it was a pesto or made of fresh tomatoes slowly simmered with garlic and herbs, was not only communicated to the pasta but to his guests. Beato te! Maurin."

This is taken from Honey from a Weed, an extraordinary book I am reading at the moment, by Patience Gray. It was published in 1986, and describes her life and the food she cooked and ate in various Mediterranean locations from the early 1960s. I was originally going to give you only the first paragraph, but this passage is so entirely whole, so closely argued, that I wanted to share the whole chapter with you. Food for thought, and of the highest quality. No wonder it's never been out of print.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How to stop your watercress getting jet lag

This morning my watercress seed arrived ... I love watercress, the peppery tang of it, especially in an orange salad, but haven't been able to buy it for ages, because it's flown here from America, and it's nearly two years since I bought any veggies with jet lag. When I was a child, we ate watercress from the beds at Ewelme, a village less than 10 miles from here. Now the beds are banned from commercial use, even though they have been recently restored. No wonder we have global warming!

So, the plan is to grow it. I got the idea from the Cottage Smallholder, who gives detailed instructions for growing it, and who makes it sound easy. It never occurred to me before that I might be able to grow it, so I sent off for the seed straight away, as it's never on display in garden centre seed racks. It says on the back of the packet that if you cloche it when the weather is cold, it will keep on growing until Christmas. This is the first sowing of my campaign to grow fresh green salad throughout the winter. I'll keep you posted.

I'm entering this for weekend herb blogging, hosted this week by Haalo at Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once. I find that once something's growing in my garden (and this one is going into pots, so you don't even NEED a garden), I'm more likely to eat more of it.

Watercress is one of those easy plants that like to be constantly pruned: the more you pick, the more you get. Make sure you pick the stem just above a pair of buds, so that the plant bushes out to make more and more buds for you to pick.

So long as the cottage smallholder is right in saying that the seed germinates freely, then this is easy, easy gardening. I hope that this post inspires someone else to give it a go.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

HoTM: Beyond fruit salad

I feel a bit of a hypocrite at the moment. I'm busy - I've been travelling, I've had lots of people over at Easter, and now I'm preparing for a big family weekend plus a couple of parties (why does everything always happen at once?) - and I'm not eating well. That's not actually quite right: I'm eating TOO well, and not lean enough. I don't mean to seem ungrateful, but I'd rather be eating mostly vegetables and fish, with the odd bit of fruit. Hard to do when you're out and about.

Time to cut back, then, at least until tomorrow evening, the first party, a 60th birthday. A huge leaf salad for lunch, then fish and plain vegetables for supper. Fruit in between. Nothing else.

And in that spirit, I need to think of pudding: the sort of pudding you want to eat, which feels indulgent, but which doesn't break the everyday rhythm of a lean eating pattern. Fruit, obviously. Virtually all the puddings I make these days are fruit-based. Just now, it needs to be simple. But fruit salad can feel a little like omelette for a vegetarian - slightly unimaginative, a what-on-earth-can-we-give-them last resort.

So, for the first of my Heart of the Matter pudding posts, I'm giving you a few ideas for pepping up fruit-as-dessert ...

Chargrilled fruit with honey glaze: whisk together 6 tbsp honey with a little grated ginger (to taste) and the zest of an orange and a lemon. Brush the glaze over slices of pineapple, mango, papaya, banana, kiwi fruit, peaches, nectarines (not necessarily all at once!). Cook under a hot grill for 10 minutes, turning once, and brushing with more glaze. Serve hot.

Currants in cassis: You can make this with frozen berries, or, in summer, with fresh berries. Gently poach 500-600g mixed soft fruit - redcurrants, blackcurrants, whitecurrants, blueberries, raspberries - with a little sugar (say 3-4 tbsp) and the grated rind of an orange. They will give off a lot of juice. Strain this into a saucepan, and thicken it with a little arrowroot or cornflour slaked in a few drops of water. When it's cooked through, let it cool slightly, and stir in 2 tbsp creme de cassis, that lovely blackcurrant liqueur from France. Put the berries in a pretty serving dish, and pour the liquid over them. Serve with a garnish of mint, if you've got some.

Jamie Oliver's sticky figs: This is a wonderful thing to do with figs when you've got a glut. Tear them open, put them on a rack, and into the oven on the lowest setting possible, 50C. After two hours, turn the oven off, but leave them in until it's cold. Then you'll find you've got something seriously sticky, and good with (0%) Greek yoghurt. Jamie has lots of other ideas for them which I've never tried: good in stew or pasta sauce, "surprisingly amazing" with roast chicken, or chopped into gravy. But in my experience, you don't get many left over for any of that!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Purple sprouting broccoli

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, we were 24 for lunch, not including two babies and a toddler. We ate roast lamb (and three legs were not quite enough!), little potatoes smothered in mint, parsnips, carrots - and purple sprouting broccoli from the garden. This has been in the ground almost a year, awaiting its moment, but needing no attention at all during that time. Later this week, I'll have to sow seed for next year's crop, which I'll grow where the sweet peas were last year - plants from the cabbbage family like plenty of nitrogen, which plants from the pea family take from the air and fix in the soil.

I went into the garden with Cecily, aged 19 months, and picked a large colander full of the beautiful flower heads, which I then steamed for a few minutes until it was tender, drained it and served it like that (there's not much time for fancy cooking when you're putting food for 24 on the table!). Kate, my sister-in-law, an artist who makes everything look lovely, said that if you serve in on a white plate and squeeze lemon juice over it, the result is the most wonderful bright pink juice.

Here's another idea, one that works with ordinary broccoli too: "melt" some anchovy fillets in a little oil in a small frying pan. When they have softened, add some thin slivers of garlic and a few dried chilli flakes; keep stirring the mix until the garlic is just starting to colour, then throw it over the drained broccoli. There's something about anchovy that brings out the best in the flavour of broccoli. And, actually, you could finish this off with a squeeze of lemon juice. Perhaps we'll have that for lunch....

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Tip for a quick fish pie

No photograph today, we ate it up so fast! This is not really a recipe, more of a tip which you can adapt to your favourite fish pie recipe.

I've always found that the worst thing about making fish pie is all that washing up: you poach the fish, you make a sauce, you get out a pie dish .. this cuts out one process, and so cuts down on washing up and on the time it takes to make. I also think it improves the finished dish, because the fish isn't overdone by being twice-cooked.

General method
: Make your sauce. Cut the raw fish into bite-sized pieces and lay them in your pie dish. Pour the hot sauce over, cover with your topping, and bake in a hot oven (Gas 6 or 7) for half an hour. In other words, don't bother to poach the fish first.

For my fish pie, this is what I did: I made plenty of bechamel sauce with oil, flour and skimmed milk. I poured this over a mixture of cod, defrosted prawns, and cooked mussels. I topped the pie with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and anchovies (I stirred the contents of a tin of anchovies on a low heat until the fish just started to "melt", then stirred in some breadcrumbs).

Quick, delicious, creamy - no hint that this was "healthy". (It works just as well if you top the pie with mashed potato or pastry. The key thing is to cook the fish in a hot oven for half an hour.)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Happy Easter!

This morning, during a disgracefully long lie-in, it struck me exactly why I love food blogging ... it may sound very obvious, but I love the way it puts you directly (and immediately) in touch with the people and ideas you want to follow up. It means you find out about the way life is really lived by other people, nothing is filtered out by the metropolitan elite who run our media, and who like everything to be how they like it to be.

I had this thought because of an offhand comment I read yesterday on domestic cat's blog: introducing her recipe for rolled chicken with spinach, she said "It is such a well-known dish, there is almost no need for a recipe." I've never made it ... ever. And I'm not sure I've ever really heard of it, either. But now I really want to make it, and I'm sorry that I've already bought the ingredients for a fish pie tonight.

This is related to the question Ilva at Lucullian Delights posed a couple of months ago: do food bloggers need editors? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is a resounding NO - blogging is not the same as writing a book or newspaper column, or making a television programme; it's a lot more exciting precisely because it's raw and unfiltered, and you can take it in any direction (rather like a food bloggers' event, really!). I'm sorry I can't find the exact post, because there were some interesting comments.

These days when I want to find a particular recipe, I look increasingly to the blogosphere first - although you'd never think so if you looked at my collection of recipe books. So this morning, I have weeded out a large boxful, and I'm going to take them to the charity shop on my way to buy coffee, which I forgot to get yesterday, and which gives me an excuse to go to the deli for it rather than the supermarket.

Writing this reminds me that I need to update my favourite blogs, because the list is out of date (and almost as untidy as my bookcase!). Here's one, an Easter present to you all, the not-quite-truthfully named Venice Daily Photo (to tell you the truth, I'd like two or three photos a day of Venice of this quality). Not quite food blogging, I know, but, all the same, food for the soul.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Borodinsky bread

In Waitrose the other day, I bought a loaf of Russian bread made by the Village Bakery, founded in the Lake District in 1976, by Andrew Whitley. This rye loaf, flavoured with coriander, is about the best shop-bought loaf I've ever tasted. It disappeared in no time.

On the packaging (shame it's a plastic bag, not a nice brown paper one), there's a story about how the Borodinsky loaf got it's name. I don't believe a word of it, but that's a historian for you, always fighting against folklore - and spoiling a good story!

It is said that in 1812, to raise the morale of Russian soldiers before the crucial battle of Borodino, a general's wife baked some special sweet rye loaves. Thus fortified the Russians overcame Napoleon - and the bread was christened Borodinsky.

The problem - one of the problems - is that the Russians didn't really win at Borodino, it was pretty inconclusive, and allowed Napoleon to keep going on to Moscow, where his grande armee starved that terrible winter. In his book Bread Matters (which I was too mean to buy even though it's only £10 in Waterstones), Whitley names the general's wife. But I haven't been able to find any other source for the story, despite wasting several hours on it this week. Nor have I been able to find a recipe for it, other than that given in Whitley's fine book.

The story may be romantic rubbish, but the bread is most emphatically of the highest quality. You should try it even if you think you don't like rye bread.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mushroom sauce for pasta

Holiday time, and the children want lunch. Not leftovers, my staple, but lunch cooked from scratch. Mostly it's pasta, sometimes it's a pizza, if I remember to make the dough in the morning. Today we had linguini with mushroom sauce. It's cooked slowly to extract the maximum flavour, which makes it a good way to give those slightly dull supermarket mushrooms some taste.

Chop a couple of onions and sweat them slowly in a little olive oil. When they're soft but not brown, add some chopped parsley (and some garlic if you've got it; I ran out last night, and haven't been to the shops today). Stir, and then add in a little flour. When that's amalgamated, add chopped mushrooms - I used four large field mushrooms, one per person. Cook slowly for about 15-20 minutes. The liquid from the mushrooms should be enough to make a sauce, but if you overdid the flour (and I did), then loosen the sauce with a little stock or water.

Overall, it took about half an hour, with three bursts of activity of about two minutes each.

This would also be a good basis for a meat casserole, or you could turn it into a cream sauce with a dollop of creme fraiche. There's a little left over, and I'll chop fresh herbs into it and spread it on little toasts or biscuits as a starter. In the autumn you could use wild mushrooms from the countryside.

This is my entry for weekend herb blogging, hosted this week by Anh of Food Lover's Journey

Monday, April 02, 2007

Heart of the Matter, round two

Now that April's here, it's time to announce the second round of Heart of the Matter, after all your fabulous finger food creations. This time, it's puddings.

It might seem as if there's something inherently contradictory about healthy desserts, as a lot of the point of pudding is self-indulgence. But indulgence doesn't have to come laden with saturated fat - think of a meringue or pavlova with raspberries and a dollop of 0% Greek yoghurt (I love that little sharpness, so much nicer than the sickly sweetness of cream). Great for a party. What about a plate of sliced oranges with a crunchy caramel thrown over the top? Or a fruit salad strewn with passionfruit seeds?

As you'll see from those ideas, fruit features large in my pudding ideas. But, like lots of cooks, I'm stuck in a rut ... so I'm longing to hear all your ideas - it's always seemed to me that food bloggers are at their most enthusiastic when it's puds and baking.

The last day to send me (joannacary AT ukonline DOT co DOT uk) your entry is Sunday 22nd April. Please remember to link here, and that we want only one-event entries. And I'll post the roundup here and on the Heart of the Matter website later that week. I'll look forward to hearing from you ...