Monday, 24 October 2011


Black garlic is the new foodie trend to hit the supermarket shelves (I found it in my local Tesco), though it has been a staple of Asian cuisine. It will either be short-lived, and will disappear as mysteriously as it appeared, once the furore has stilled, or it will become as ubiquitous as sun-dried tomatoes and preserved lemons, now crucial components of any good cook's store-cupboard.

Black garlic is made by fermentation and the process results in molasses-black garlic cloves which have a deep balsamic sweetness while retaining the tangy flavour of garlic. The fermentation process leaves the cloves soft and melt-in-the mouth, rather like dried fruit. In health terms, it has twice as many antioxidants as raw garlic, and in Taoism is said to grant immortality. A thoroughly good ingredient, then.

In cooking, it lends depth and pungency to a stew. I chucked a clove into my Chicken Cacciatura last Saturday, and the friend who came to dinner spotted it - or rather he noticed an interesting deep garlicky flavour. If you like garlic, but can't bear its acrid bite, or its unpleasant after-effects, try black garlic for a new taste experience.

More on black garlic here


This recipe for a warming, fragrant lamb stew, comes from Jamie Oliver's very first cookbook The Naked Chef. He looks incredibly young on the cover, but a quick check of the copyright page confirms that this book was published in 1999, when Jamie was but a lad, and had just burst onto the scene with his first tv series. I remember enjoying it very much: he was refreshingly laid back yet entirely enthusiastic about food and cooking and I loved the simplicity of his recipes. I still do, and regularly return them - because they work. And they are easy to make!

I still have a lot of time for Jamie, though I got a bit tired of seeing his gurning face on the Sainsbury's adverts (he seems to have severed his relationship with the supermarket to concentrate on other projects), because I feel he truly believes in what he does, with passionate commitment. And his recipes remaining interesting, tasty and easy to construct.

This lamb stew is redolent of a tagine where ingredients are cooked slowly with spices to allow all the flavours to develop and deepen. The addition of chickpeas add some bulk, while the aubergine gives it a sweetness. I usually serve it with couscous, and a dollop of harissa on the side, but you could quite happily enjoy it sans couscous as it is quite filling. Just the thing for a gusty October day!

Serves 4-6

1 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
2 large firm aubergines, cut into cubes, sprinkled with salt and set aside
salt and pepper to taste
10 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, or a 400g can of plum tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
grated nutmeg to taste
4 neck of lamb fillets, cut into 2 inch pieces
4 tbsps olive oil
4 medium fresh chillis, chopped (or less if you don't want the heat)
2 tbsps grated fresh ginger
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp vinegar
fresh flat-leaf parsley and coriander, chopped

Heat the oil in a heavy casserole (Le Creuset) and brown the lamb pieces. Add the spices, ginger, garlic and chilli and give everything a good stir. Then add the chickpeas and tomatoes. Check seasoning.

In a separate pan, fry the aubergine pieces until slightly brown and then add to the lamb. Add the tomatoes and vinegar and give the pan a good shake. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and cook for about an hour, by which time the tomatoes will have melted to a sauce and the aubergines will be sweet. Check seasoning.

Serve with couscou and garnished with parsley and coriander.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Literally, "green tart", this is a regional speciality of Liguria (my current foodie obsession), where it is sometimes also called Torta Pasqualina, or Easter tart. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Greek spinach and feta pie spinakopitta.

The mountainous landscape of Liguria does not lend itself easily to cultivation and so this tasty vegetable tart tends to be made with whatever is available at the time. I've eaten it made with spinach or chard, potatoes, onions, and leeks. In the village of Molini di Triora, where I have stayed each time I've visited Liguria, you can buy a slab of freshly made torta verde for breakfast, or enjoy it as a canape (stuzzichini) with an early evening aperitif. It has a thin, crisp pastry and a layer of vegetable filling within. The pastry is very simple, just plain flour, olive oil and water, and the trick is to keep the whole ensemble thin - about 2 cms including filling and pastry.

Here's a rough recipe: you can of course vary the filling, according to taste and availability of ingredients. The key is to keep it green!

400g plain flour (pastry flour)
5 tbsp olive oil

I use my Kitchenaid food mixer with the dough hook. Put the oil and flour in the bowl of the mixer and set the motor running. Add enough water to form a soft, elastic dough. Knead in the mixer, or by hand, for about 5 mins, then turn out onto a board and knead for a minute or two longer. Then divide the dough into 6 equal-sized balls, cover and leave to rest.


2 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and finely sliced
1 onion, finely sliced
approx 500g fresh spinach or chard (or frozen spinach)
Fresh oregano, chopped
1 tub of ricotta
1 egg
Approx 4 medium sized waxy potatoes (Charlotte), pre-cooked and sliced
Salt and pepper

Fry the onion and leeks until soft. Add the spinach or chard and cook until wilted. Add the chopped oregano. Remove from heat, allow to cool, and add the ricotta and egg. For a more cheesy flavour, add some freshly-grated parmesan. Check seasoning.

Oven 180C

To prepare the tart, roll the six pieces of dough together to form a very thin pastry. Brush a non-stick baking tray with olive oil and lay the pastry in it. Place a thin layer of the vegetable/ricotta mixture on it and then a layer of potatoes. Top with more vegetable mixture and then bring the overlapping pastry up to form a top to the pie. Brush with olive oil and bake until golden and crisp. Carefully lift the tart out of the baking tray and cut into small pieces.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Mel and Sue (Picture credit: BBC)
The Great British Bake Off on BBC2 has proved a surprising culinary hit, it appears, with viewing figures the highest for any cookery programme in recent memory, outstripping the pneumatic Nigella and the comely, doe-eyed Sophie. Certainly, I have enjoyed the few episodes I have caught. Maybe it is the cosiness of the subject - baking - that makes it so popular. We can almost smell the aroma of bread baking or a banana loaf straight from the oven. The presenters, Mel and Sue, are engaging and entertaining, with a nice gentle tongue-in-cheek take on the proceedings. I'm less keen on the judge Paul Hollywood who can be cutting and harsh in his comments, and who seems rather impatient with a bunch of (mostly) women with floury hands trying to turn out perfect petit fours to please him.

I happened to catch the bread episode a few weeks ago as this is probably the element of baking that interests me the most (I'm not a great cake or patisserie maker). When I stopped full-time work to have my son, I decided that one thing I would do while I was at home was learn how to make bread properly. It took awhile to perfect my loaf, but after some experimenting and tinkering - and the purchase of a heavy-duty Kitchenaid food mixer - I arrived at what I considered to be a pretty damn fine method resulting in an Italian-style loaf. Now bread making is just something I do each week, like practising the piano and teaching other people's kids how to play the piano. It's second-nature, and I rarely measure anything. I use the same method for any kind of loaf, unless I am making something really special, like Stollen, which requires a little more attention.

Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
Thus, I was all prepared to crow and shout with horror at Paul Hollywood's focaccia method on The Great British Bake Off, but I was also willing to stay the course to see the results at the end. He recommends a wet dough to give the bread its aerated texture. Some of the contestants were very successful, others less so - and they were the ones who received the full curl of Paul's discerning lip. The next day, I set about making focaccia to his method. It's a little disconcerting at first, to have the bowl of the mixer filled with a sticky mess, but keep at it and it gradually takes on a characteristic silkiness that indicates it is nearly ready.

I tend not to put fancy toppings on my focaccia: the most fancy you're likely to get in my house is chopped fresh rosemary, or some black olives, or occasionally sun-dried tomatoes. I usually top it off with olive oil and Maldon sea salt.

When I was in Italy recently, I watched the cafe owner in Molini put the finishing touches to her focaccia (sea salt and sesame seeds, which is Ligurian style, apparently) before taking the big trays of bumpy dough up to the village bakery. There was one 'secret' thing she did to the dough, which I am not prepared to reveal until I have tried it myself, but the clue is steam - and not the tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven, as Paul Hollywood recommends (which does work to produce a good crust).

You can get Paul Hollywood's recipe from the BBC website here (downloads as a PDF file). I don't use sachets of dried use, as I prefer Dove's Farm Quick Yeast (use 1 tsp to 500g strong white bread flour), and I make my bread entirely in the food mixer, except for the knocking back after proving, and shaping. You need a large, shallow baking tray for focaccia as the loaf should not be too deep. In Liguria, you sometimes see focaccia with a tomato, garlic and olive topping, but more often than not, it is kept simple, with oil and salt.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


A welcome return to a favourite place, Molini di Triora, a "miniature Bethlehem" which clings to the side of a mountain some 20 miles inland from Sanremo and the Italian Riviera.

The gorge at Loreto, near Triora
The road from Taggia, on the coast, snakes up the Valle d'Argentina in a series of hairpins and unnervingly blind corners (especially if you meet the Triora-Sanremo bus coming the other way!), through hamlets, villages and small towns, past olive groves and terraces growing almonds, walnuts, beans, tomatoes. There's no room for traditional pastures in this mountainous landscape and so the locals make do, growing fruit and veg wherever they can. Almost every garden has sunflowers, bean canes, zucchini and tomatoes, while the woods offer good "wild food": mushrooms, rabbit, boar and deer.
Sign to mushroom hunters at Loreto

The region is famous for its food - and rightly so. Its capital, Genoa, is the city of pesto, that slick pungent green sauce made from pounded basil, sharp pecorino cheese and pine nuts. On the way up to the village, torn, flapping posters advertise food festivals: stokafisso (salt cod) in Badalucco, chestnuts in Andagna, funghi in Triora and snails (lumache) in Molini. There are hand-painted signs directing you to olive oil sellers or to small-holdings selling 'produtto tipico' (local produce) such as dried porcini mushrooms, bottled fruits and vegetables, cheese, cakes made from chestnut flour, and grappa.

Bought at Sanremo market
The Argentina river carves its course right through Molini: sit outside at the Bar Regina del Bosco (Queen of the Woods) and you can enjoy a stunning view down the valley while sipping an early evening apperitivo. With your drinks you'll be served nibbles - stuzzichini - of cubes of focaccia, tomato bruschetta, local ricotta, salami and olives. At the Hotel Santo Spirito, there is no menu. The Patrona brings plates of hot and cold antipasti, then the lightest pasta, followed by carne, usually a rich stew of meat (venison, rabbit or boar) cooked slowly in red wine with rosemary and juniper berries. The vino rosso della Casa is ruby-red, made locally, fruity and fragrant.

Focaccia rising in cafe in Molini

On the first morning, while having breakfast of coffee and torta verde, I watched the cafe owner put the finishing touches to two big trays of focaccia before she delivered them to the village bakery (which is open 7 days a week) to be cooked. Later, in Sanremo, a handsome riviera town, full of belle époque elegance, designer shops and a bustling port, I wandered the aisles of the market: piles of knobbly green and red tomatoes, bunches of yellow courgette flowers (for stuffing), shiny purple aubergines, bags of deep crimson sun-dried tomatoes, oils and vinegars, huge porcini mushrooms, small mountains of pine nuts, rough  wedges of Parmesan and snow-white mounds of ricotta. I bought cloudy olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes (unbelievably sweet), Limoncello and a hunk of parmesan. Lunch, taken at a pavement restaurant near the casino, was fritto misto - mixed seafood dusted in flour and deep-fried. Simple yet delicious.

Fritto misto for lunch in Sanremo

Dinner at Ca'Mea, just outside Badalucco, was just as memorable second time around. You arrive, you are seated and almost before you have unfurled your napkin, the first of 12 courses arrives: tomato bruschetta, raw mushrooms sliced over raw steak, baked cheese, mushrooms with cream and potatoes, mushroom risotto, mushroom tagliatelle, the tenderest tiny lamb cutlets. All washed down with Ca'Mea's own red wine. Pudding is a choice of fruit with ice-cream or tiramisu, which is not some fluffy pumped up version with soggy sponge, but is stiff and creamy - and served in an enamel chamber pot. The bill for two? 70 Euros.

Porcini and other funghi at Sanremo market
Drive further up the mountain and turn left just below Triora. Continue to Loreto where you get a fabulous view of the gorge. There's a trattoria here, an unprepossessing little place on the roadside with plastic tablecloths and strip-lighting. As at Ca'Mea, there is no menu. Course after course comes from the small kitchen: homemade salami, cured beef, tiny lacy pancakes filled with mushrooms, polenta with venison stew, rabbit with porcini mushrooms, sliced and dusted in polenta and deep-fried. The 10-course lunch took two and a half hours!

Aubergines at Sanremo market
Courgette flowers at Sanremo market

Fly to either Nice or Genoa and hire a car. Nice is closer, but a more frenetic entry point, plus it can take up to 2 hours to collect your hire car. There is a good autostrada along the coast. Exit at Taggia and follow the signs for Triora. There is only one road up the mountain!