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purple power: aubergines big and small for bonfire night

You couldn’t dream up a more British celebration than Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire night as it’s commonly known. The French have Bastille Day, the United States have July 4th. Both mark the day when the establishment was overthrown, the triumph of successful revolution. In England, we celebrate the failure of anarchy, a plot foiled. Admittedly Fawkes’ intentions weren’t exactly to steal from the rich to give to the poor, entrench human rights in a written constitution or usher in democracy, but still.

Still, dubious roots aside, Bonfire night has to be the most fantabulous celebration of the year. For a start, no one has really worked out how to flog stuff for it. It’s a marketing department’s nightmare; a whole celebration with no bottom line benefit. Ha! Sure, locked fireworks cabinets appear in supermarkets, garages (gas stations) probably shift a few more bags of logs and hawkers stock up on glow sticks to flog to the crowds but there is no ‘Happy Bonfire night’ card, no big gaudy display of tat you don’t need and aren’t even sure you want. The closest you’ll get is a BOGOF deal on bangers (sausages, my non-British friends). It’s just pure, unadulterated fun, free from Hallmark sabotage and phrases like ‘bottom line’. My beloved Bonfire night flies in the face of corporate bullshit and that is why it is so special. Oh, and did I mention the fireworks?

As for Bonfire night food, it’s a time of year to indulge your childhood campfire fantasies. Sausages, jacket potatoes and marshmallows, all cooked over the fire and it’s better than a barbecue because everyone expects it to be cold and damp.

This year, inspired by a recipe Adolfo and I improvised over the ‘summer’, I thought I’d try something a little different: aubergines (or eggplants as they are known across the pond). The advantage of this recipe is that you can make it with the tiniest fire and therefore the tiniest of gardens – a disposable barbecue would work. And for very little effort and even less skill, you get something that tastes exquisite. The flesh becomes a melt-in-the-mouth smokey sensation. An explosion of taste.

Serves: as many as you need to

A selection of aubergines (eggplant) – whatever shapes and sizes take your fancy: allow 1/2 a large or 3 baby aubergines per person

A good glug of good olive oil

A sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped from the stem

2 cloves garlic, chopped

A generous pinch of sea salt

chiminea: bonfire night aubergine

Lay the fire like a good girl guide (not that I would know, I was neither good nor a guide) with a pile of newspaper swirls, covered by a teepee of kindling with a log or two poised and ready over the top (or just cheat and use firelighters!).

Come on baby light my fire: aubergines

Light and nurse to get a good flame going then let it burn until you have a bed of red-hot embers and a steady, gentle flame licking around your logs.

Gently heat the olive oil, rosemary and garlic in a frying pan until the aromas start to rise and scent the room, then set aside to cool.

Prick all the aubergines with a knife or skewer. Tear off a large strip of foil and pop an aubergine or two in the centre – I did two big aubergines per piece, or a handful of the littlies.

Test the oil to check it’s cool enough to handle and spoon over the aubergines, making sure to include some of the rosemary and garlic on each sheet. Give each aubergine a good rub to make sure it’s completely coated in oil and then scrunch the foil up and over the aubergines to make a little parcel. Pop another layer of foil over your parcel—better safe than sorry!

aubergines cooked on a wood fire

Hopefully by the time you’ve done this, your fire will be well and truly on its way. Pop the foil parcels on the embers as close to the flames as you can get them without putting the fire out and/or burning yourself. This is what barbecue tongs were made for.

I’m afraid cooking times are a little sketchy on this one. It’s really a case of size matters: both in terms of the fire and the aubergine. You should be able to hear the oil start to sizzle, and then enjoy a natter and a glass of wine something-completely-responsible-and-appropriate-for-someone-who-is-tending-a-fire before you have to worry—but do have a little check once in a while —we’re talking a ballpark of 15-30 minutes. I’d say check every 10, turning the aubergines inside the parcel if needs be. The skin should wrinkle, the flesh soften, the structure collapse. Sprinkle over the salt and tuck in!

aubergines cooked on open fire

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Sometimes you have to leave London to appreciate what time of year it is. August is just another month in the city but in the countryside the harvest is in full swing and huge balers are working flat out to bind up the straw into enormous golden wheels.

The sight of these huge mountains of hay reminded me of the many nights I spent at Yellow Bar as a student in Florence. We’d scoot into one of the booths, order a vat carafe of house red and a steaming plate of paglia e fieno (straw and hay). No this isn’t some strange student pre-loading ritual – paglia e fieno is the Italian name for green and yellow tagliatelle. In Yellow Bar, they served it with cream, pancetta and mushrooms. It was delicious.

Serves: 2

4 nests of tagliatelle ‘paglia e fieno’

1/2 tub mascarpone

100g bacon, chopped into bite-size pieces. Please note, the fine side of bacon you see above is from Sainsbury’s basics range. 670g for 99p. Yes, really. Amazing how posh it looks when you take it out the shrink wrap and pop it  in a wicker basket.

1 punnet chestnut mushrooms (reduced to 49p), peeled and sliced

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

A spring of thyme

A splash of olive oil

Lashings of parmesan to serve

Salt and pepper to taste

Plunge the pasta into salted boiling water and let it bubble away for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the bacon bits until crispy and brown, then set aside. Then fry the mushrooms, garlic and thyme in a splash of olive oil. Turn off the heat and add in the bacon and mascarpone and stir to a smooth silky sauce.

Drain the pasta, pour into the frying pan to coat with sauce and serve with a bowl of grated parmesan at the table.

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“I saw from out the wave of her structures rise / As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand”

I have yet to visit every city in the world, but I have no compunction whatsoever in declaring Venice the most beautiful of them all. Here’s a little taster of what 24-hours in Venice looks like, as long as you don’t count the meetings, that is…

1300h Speeding towards The Cipriani

1900h A passion fruit cocktail on The Cipriani’s terrace

2000h Sunset at The Cipriani Dock

2100h The moon resplendent over the lagoon

0900h Breakfast with a view

1000h A tour of The Cipriani’s kitchen garden

1100h Attempting to hide among the grape vines in The Cipriani gardens (I don’t want to go home)

1300h Off the beaten track: a quiet back street in Venice

1310h A gondola floats by…

1330h Drooling over biscotti at Fuori Menu

1340h Buying a souvenir from Italy: Parmigiano Reggiano

chargrilled artichokes with lemon and fennel

There are many things that are out of reach for someone who is eternally on a budget: hair cuts, new clothes, beauty treatments. Still, I’m someone who is just happy to look neat—and I don’t even achieve that most of the time, so it’s not much of a sacrifice to give up these little luxuries.

The thing that I miss the most is browsing food emporia, the culinary world literally my oyster. This weekend was a case in point: I was wondering around the supermarket trawling the ‘reduced’ aisle when some chargrilled artichokes caught my eye.

Those self same eyes nearly popped out as I zoomed in on the price. I mean, I love chargrilled artichokes as much as the next man, but this particular pack contained four quarters, and cost £3.49. There was no gold or diamonds listed on the ingredients, so one can only assume this is a royal rip off, especially in the middle of artichoke season.

I can do better than that, thought I.

Off to the grocer I went and bought three whole artichokes for £3. I had a bottle of sherry vinegar kicking around, of which I used 100ml (£1.59 for 375ml = 42p). I used 100ml of olive oil (£6.21 for 2 litres = 31p), 2 lemons (30p each) and a tsp of fennel seeds (24p for 5g). I used some bay leaves and rosemary from the garden, so I’m counting them as free.

I make that £4.57 for 12 quarters, or £1.52 for four quarters. Now I haven’t counted the energy cost of actually cooking these beauties, labour or packaging costs (although I’m using recycled jars and as previously discussed, my time comes pretty cheap!). In the same way that some supermarkets write off their corporation tax, I’m just going to sweep those costs under the carpet. Even so, that is less than half the cost. Take that supermarkets!

These babies are beautiful alone, or as part of an antipasto/tapas platter. I adore anything with an aniseedy tang, and it will go beautifully with the dish I’m planning to serve these with, but if you are not a fan of fennel, try chilli and rosemary or oregano.

chargrilled artichokes with lemon and fennel

Chargrilled artichokes

Makes: 12 quarters (2 large jars)

3 globe artichokes

2tbsp vinegar (white wine or malt – whatever you have knocking around)

100ml sherry vinegar

100ml olive oil

1 tsp fennel seeds

2 sprigs of rosemary

2 bay leaves

2 lemons

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut long fat strips of zest from the lemons. Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in the juice of one lemon.

Prepare the artichokes, peeling off the outer leaves with a knife until you reveal the softer, yellow leaves below. Pare back the stalk, removing the woody outer layer (if you use baby artichokes, you can skip this step), then cut each artichoke into quarters, rubbing each with lemon juice and dropping into the water as you go to prevent discoloration.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add 2 tbsp of vinegar (I had an inch of white wine vinegar kicking around, but malt will be fine) and the artichokes and simmer for 20 minutes (less if you are using baby artichokes).

Drain and season, then drizzle over a splash of olive oil and the juice of the remaining lemon and toss to coat. Pop a griddle pan on a high heat and sear the artichokes on all sides until slightly charred/browned then pop to one side.

Warm half the oil in a pan, throw in the lemon zest and fennel seeds and heat until they sizzle, but remove from the heat before they brown. Stir in the other half of the oil then remove the zest with a slotted spoon and chuck over the artichokes. In a separate pan, warm the vinegar but don’t allow to boil.

Pack the artichokes into jars with the lemon zest, bay leaves and rosemary. Pour over the vinegar then cover with oil. Leave overnight for the flavours to infuse, then keep for up to a week in the fridge.

Once you have devoured the artichokes, keep any leftover oil/vinegar in the jar to use as a salad dressing.

 

 

 

spaghetti ai frutti di mare - seafood spaghetti

Oh great, it’s football time again. In celebration of the world’s (or Europe’s anyway) long-suffering football widows, here’s an indulgent dish to be enjoyed alone…

My fishmonger gave me the mussels when I told him why I only needed four. Bonus!

I was going to cook this ‘in cartoccio’ (wrapped in a parchment parcel and baked in the oven), but I am so rubbish at anything that requires neat little folds and patience, that I abandoned that plan… I don’t think it has had an adverse effect on the flavour!

Serves: 2

2 tiger prawns, shells on

1 squid, cut into rings (my fishmonger did this for me)

4 mussels, thoroughly cleaned and checked (they should close when tapped, or they are dead and therefore inedible)

3 tomatoes, chopped

A pinch of sugar

1 red onion, chopped

A splash of white wine (about half a glass)

A handful of fresh basil leaves

A squeeze of lemon juice

100g squid ink spaghetti

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Lemon wedges to serve

Plunge the spaghetti in boiling water and let it bubble up for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the onions and prawns and fry until the shrimp have turned pink (a minute or two each side should do it, depending how large they are) and the onions have softened. Throw in the squid and mussels, toss, and then chuck in the tomatoes.

Fry for a couple of minutes until the tomatoes break down and the mussels open up, then add the wine and sugar and simmer down, but not so long that the shellfish overcook. Drain the pasta, toss in the sauce and squeeze over the lemon juice. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh basil and salt and pepper to taste. You shouldn’t need much salt as the squid ink spaghetti has a wonderful taste of the sea.

Find somewhere where the incessant drone of football commentary is at a minimum and enjoy in peace!

layer cake courgette and polenta bake

The first time I ever tasted polenta was a revelation. I was 14, and staying with my Italian exchange and her family in the hills above Lago di Como. They had a terrace supporting gnarled twisted grape vines, where we sat watching the sun set as mamma Raffaeli stirred an enormous skillet of polenta, with a correspondingly huge wooden paddle, throwing in handfuls of parmesan shavings at regular intervals. I had never even heard of polenta, let alone tasted it. Papa Raffaeli was trying to teach me the words to a Roman drinking ballad, belting out: “Fatece largo che passiamo noi, sti giovanotti de’sta Roma bella” in a rich baritone and then falling about with laughter as I joined in.

That first mouthful was sublime. I have been trying to recreate it ever since. I’m not sure I ever will – but I have, at least, managed to make a polenta dish that doesn’t taste insipid. It’s a start.

This dish would be a lot of work to make from scratch. I relied on the leftover cheese sauce I had in the freezer from my tartine hollandaise adventure, and the tomato sauce I made earlier in the week, so all I had to do was grill some courgettes and nurse the polenta.

layer cake courgette and polenta bake

Serves: 6

For the tomato sauce:

2 red onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 small packs lardons

2 tins chopped tomatoes

A splash of balsamic vinegar

1 tsp sugar

1 chicken stock cube

A handful chopped fresh basil

1 bay leaf

Fry the lardons, onions and garlic on a medium heat until browned, throw in the tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, sugar, stock cube, bay leaf and basil. Stir well and simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes.

For the courgettes:

2 large courgettes, sliced finely lengthways

A good drizzle of basil oil

Salt and pepper

Toss the courgettes in the oil and season, place under a hot grill for 5-10 minutes, turning regularly, until the slices become translucent and browned. Keep an eye on them, it’s all to easy to forget and burn the lot!

For the polenta:

175g polenta

900ml water

50g butter

50g parmesan, grated

salt and pepper to taste

For the cheese sauce:

Ingredients and recipe here – no need to use gouda, mature cheddar will work just fine.

Pre heat the oven to 180C.

In a heavy bottomed saucepan or frying pan, add the polenta and slowly add the water, stirring all the while. Once all the water is absorbed, add the butter and cheese and season generously. Stir over the heat for 5-10 minutes until you have a thick, smooth paste.

Now layer up all the elements in a baking dish (or individual ramekins) as if you were making a lasagna: tomato sauce, then polenta, then courgettes and repeat until you near the top of the dish. The final layer should be cheese sauce, covered with a sprinkling of grated cheese.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

Saltimbocca meatballs

These babies will leap from the pan into your mouth…

All the best dishes come from nostalgia, I find. When I dreamt up this dish, I was thinking of all the summer nights I’ve spent gossiping, eating Saltimbocca alla Romana  and drinking copias amounts of Chianti with my best friends on the terrace at Ciao Bella in Bloomsbury

Saltimbocca translates literally as ‘jump in mouth’—in food terms, it’s code for veal wrapped in sage and parma ham cooked in white wine or Marsala. But no baby cows were harmed in the making of this dish. LoveRichCashPoor’s interpretation relies on pork, although you could use beef mince, if you prefer.

Saltimbocca meatballs

Saltimbocca meatballs

Serves: 6

500g sausagemeat / pork mince

6-12 slices of parma ham (I could only afford six)

A bunch of sage leaves

2 slices of toasted bread (I used wheat and rye)

Salt and pepper

1 egg

1 punnet of cherry tomatoes, each cut into quarters

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

2 small red onions, finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

Oil for frying

1 tsp oregano

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

A pinch of sugar (opt)

Pre-heat the oven to 190C

Whizz four sage leaves and the bread in a blender. Fry half the onion and garlic until soft and golden. In a large mixing bowl, mix the breadcrumbs, sausagemeat, onions, garlic and egg and season generously. Using your hands, roll into small balls, you should be able to make around 12 from this mix. Don’t worry if the mix seems a little wetter than you are used to, this will keep the meatballs nice and moist. There’s nothing worse than a dry meatball *shudder*.

Wrap six of the meatballs with one sage leaf and a slice of parma ham (or all of them, if you’re feeling flush), then brown all of the meatballs on all sides.

Cover the bottom of a large casserole with a tin of tomatoes, then sprinkle over the remaining raw onions and garlic. Dot the meatballs around on top, then cover with cherry tomatoes and a further tin of tomatoes. Don’t worry if the tomatoes don’t completely cover the meatballs. Sprinkle over the oregano, sugar and slosh in the balsamic vinegar.

Pop the lid on the casserole, and bake in the oven for thirty minutes. Remove the lid, then bake for a further 15 minutes, until all the extra liquid has evaporated to leave a rich, goey tomato sauce and browned the top of the meatballs.

Buon appetito!

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