These pages may have been silent for a couple of weeks but it’s been far from silent in the Single Gourmet Traveller’s household. A temporary homemade food delivery service started up a week ago and pans with boeuf bourguignon, lamb tagine, shepherd’s pie and the occasional fruit crumble or bought dessert treat made their way from my kitchen to the new parents. Jonathan and Lyndsey’s baby boy arrived last Monday and it’s been a joy to welcome my beautiful grandson into the world.
When Nicola and Rachael arrived on Saturday, I decided to make a vegetable lasagna as Rachael is vegetarian. I wasn’t used to eating all that meat myself for days but hearty meals has been requested by the new dad. Then it turned out that they fancied a vegetable lasagna as well, so I made two.
I rarely venture away from a classic ragu filling when I make lasagna so making a vegetarian one presented a nice challenge. What could I put inside to make it interesting and tasty? And full of goodness? Of course, the combination of aubergines, courgettes and tomatoes is a classic one but I thought making layers with each vegetable distinctly separate would be a nice touch, rather than cook them all together into a vegetable stew. So, first of all, I sliced each vegetable and gently fried them in some olive oil to soften them before adding to the pasta layers. I also had some spinach in my fridge so a layer of that went in too (spinach is full of iron and excellent for the new mum!). I always like to soften lasagne sheets in a big bowl of boiling water for a couple of minutes, even when the packet says they don’t need pre-cooking. It also makes it easier to shape them into the dish you’re using. I then made a big pan – about 2 pints – of béchamel sauce. Once everything was ready, it was time to begin assembling it all. First of all, I put a layer of béchamel in the bottom of the two ovenproof dishes and topped them with a layer of spinach leaves.
Next, I put the first layer of lasagne sheets in. Then a layer of béchamel followed by a layer of aubergines topped with a layer of tomatoes. I added some seasoning and a sprinkling of dried thyme.
Then another layer of pasta with some béchamel. On top of this the slices of courgettes. On top of this I crumbled over some mozzarella. I’d bought a tub of baby mozzarella – bocconcini. I topped this with torn basil leaves and some more seasoning of salt and pepper.
Finally, a last layer of pasta. On top of the final layer of lasagne sheets I put a thick layer of béchamel and sprinkled over lots of freshly grated Parmesan.
I wanted a good cheesy flavour to the topping and also a nice crisp to it.
Into the oven it went: 200C/180 Fan for about 45 minutes or until nicely brown on top. The great thing about a dish like this is you can turn the oven down low and keep it hot for some time if you’re not quite ready to eat when it’s done.
It came out looking just as golden and delicious as I’d planned. Meanwhile, the second one had gone to the new family’s home to be cooked to their timing. Then a bottle of champagne was opened to welcome the new family member while the lasagna patiently waited.
We finally sat down and I opened a bottle of delicious Primitivo, one of my favourite Italian wines from Puglia. There was a big bowl of green salad to go with the lasagna too. And then we tucked in. Perfect comfort food with a touch of sophistication with those layers. And very delicious indeed.
My recent trip to Amsterdam began with pancakes for lunch. I arrived at midday, checked into my hotel and then headed up to the area I know and like the best in the Jordaan district near Westerkerk and the Anne Frank house. It was so much quieter at the end of January than it had been when I’d last visited at the end of March 2014 with my daughter Nicola. Then we’d sat outside a busy pancake house in the sun, right by the canal, with a view along Prinsengracht to the nearby Westerkerk. I hadn’t especially planned to go back to the same restaurant but ended up there – this time sitting inside! – remembering what delicious pancakes they served, and as pannenkoeken are such popular things in the Netherlands, it seemed a perfect way to start my Dutch short break and with a glass of local Heineken.
I made a note to myself that come Pancake Day back at home, I’d make some pancakes just like these, with goats’ cheese, fresh thyme, honey and walnuts. Whenever I eat pancakes I wonder why I eat them so rarely. On a holiday in Amsterdam, they’re a must. In France where pancakes come as crêpes, often made with buckwheat flour, they’re another essential for some holiday eating. Like these gorgeous ones in Normandy in the summer of 2012 that we ate in a crêperie at lunchtime with local cider.
Pancake Day in the UK comes, of course, on Shrove Tuesday, the night before Lent begins when Christians will give up something they love for 40 days. Traditionally the rich food things in a house were used up before beginning the simple, frugal meals that were to be eaten until Easter. I can’t remember if I’ve ever managed to give up something I love eating or drinking for 40 days! But certainly Pancake Day has been part of my life from childhood; as it has for most of us. You can find all kinds of instructions for keeping your pancakes warm, or making them in advance in batches and reheating, so that everyone can eat together. But somehow to me that seems to defy the essence of good pancake eating. They are supposed to be eaten immediately! When I was a child my mother would stand at the hob turning out pancake after pancake to go straight on to our plates, with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and dusting of caster sugar – to be eaten straight away. I remember doing that kind of cooking for my own kids and no matter what anyone says, they really don’t taste the same if kept warm.
There are versions of pancakes all over the world. The Ancient Greeks made some called Tagenites which were made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey and curdled milk which they ate for breakfast. They sound rather good! Both my son and daughter sometimes make wonderful American-style blueberry pancakes which are smaller and fluffier, a bit like a Scotch pancake. We eat them for breakfast with bacon and maple syrup. And they’re gorgeous!
I remember in the far-off days of my working full-time in a publishing house, before children, I used to sometimes go to the Dutch Pancake House in Holborn with friends and colleagues. It opened in 1958 but my working days really don’t go back nearly that far! However, it is where I came to understand the Dutch pancake to be one that is very large. The Pancake House has enormous plates to accommodate them and you can choose – just like in Amsterdam – to have savoury ones or sweet ones, or even both. In the Netherlands they’re a popular treat for children’s birthday parties and are often served with appelstroop, an apple syrup. Another delicious way of eating them in the Netherlands is as poffertjes, small pancakes cooked in a special pan.
I had some on my last day on both recent Amsterdam trips in Café Smalle, but discovered them many years ago in a market in Gouda where you could buy freshly cooked ones from a stall, which were spooned onto a paper plate and dusted with lots of icing sugar for you to eat still hot and fresh. Wonderful!
For my actual pancake recipe this evening, I turned to the ever reliable Delia Smith for a basic pancake recipe. I bought some mild soft goats’ cheese and walnuts. I had a tub of fresh thyme on my kitchen windowsill and a jar of some lovely thyme honey from Liquid Gold Cave.
Delia said her pancake recipe didn’t need to ‘stand’ for any time and could be used straight away, so once it was close to suppertime, it was just a matter of getting started. I dug an old frying pan out of the back of my cupboard as it was much bigger than my usual one with a large flat base. I gave it a good clean and we were ready to go. My Delia Smith’s Cookery Course is so old (1979) that she uses old imperial measurements. She gives approximate metric but it seemed best to stick with her original ones. Most digital scales in UK offer both. I weighed out 4oz plain flour and sifted it into a large jug (or bowl) and added a pinch of salt. I made a well in the middle and cracked in 2 large eggs.
In a jug I measured out 3 fl oz of water and topped up with 7 fl oz of milk to make 10 fl oz in all. With an electric whisk I whisked the eggs, gradually drawing in the flour. As it started to come together I slowly added the milk and water mixture. I whisked until I had a nice smooth batter.
Delia then suggests adding 2 tablespoons of melted butter just before cooking. As I was cooking immediately, I added that once the batter was smooth. Now I was ready to cook.
Pancakes are tricky little things. I remember my mum teaching me that the first one often had to be thrown away and even Delia suggests a ‘test pancake’. Added to this I had a large pancake to deal with. The pan I’d uncovered (and I’m not sure even this was as a big as the real Dutch one that must have been used in Amsterdam!) is 28cm. But well, Pancake Day is supposed to be fun! First of all, warm your pan until it’s very hot. Then melt about a teaspoon of butter in the pan and swirl round. Because of its size I used a silicone pastry brush to brush all the way over the base. I gave the batter a last-minute stir and then slowly poured some into the pan, using a soup ladle to measure.
At this stage you need to swirl the batter round quickly to cover the bottom of the pan. Then wait for the bottom to cook. I gave the pan a shake from time to time to stop the pancake sticking then tested carefully by lifting the edge to check it was nicely browning underneath. Then I had to turn it over!! Now clever people, like my son, flip pancakes in that showy professional way: up into the air and over. I’ve even just watched my lovely 12-year-old niece Clara do it on a little video clip on Facebook this evening. Me? I used a large spatula. It folded in slightly but some quick action smoothed it out.
I cooked the pancake a little more till it was brown both sides then slid onto a large plate. Delia talks about aiming for them to be so thin you don’t need to turn them but a Dutch pancake isn’t that thin; nor it is thick like an American one. I can’t help thinking Goldilocks and porridge here … too hot … too cold … just right! Once the pancake was on the plate I spooned on 4 dollops of the creamy goats’ cheese, dribbled a little honey over each piece. I then topped with a walnut half and sprinkled over some fresh thyme. Wow! I thought it looked pretty good. And it really did look a lot like the real Dutch one I’d had in Amsterdam three weeks ago!
As for eating, I was alone and just tucked in. It was delicious. I love the combination of slightly salty goats’ cheese with the sweet honey; the fresh thyme taste and crunch of walnut. It’s almost a savoury and sweet pancake combined! Of course it would be difficult to make it for a few people as a main course without keeping them warm but for two, you could just have nice warmed plates handy so that the first keeps warm that way while you cook the second. They cook very quickly! And I think we should be more like the Dutch and not save wonderful pancakes just for one day a year!
Few things excite me more than the combination of food, Italy and art, so it’s not surprising that the beginning of a new Italy Unpacked series on BBC2 tonight got me very excited indeed. Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli first got together on TV for the series Sicily Unpacked three years ago. Such a success was this that two ‘Italy Unpacked‘ series followed. I often joke that in a future life I’d like to come back as one of these guys and be paid to travel round Italy in the way they have in these series. It’s really just my idea of heaven.
There were a few things that particularly delighted me with the first of the new series this evening. For a start, I felt that the two men had recaptured the wonderful sense of fun and friendship that was so evident in Sicily Unpacked but slightly lost in the first ‘Italy’ series. They are both such naturals in front of the camera that their conversations and banter come across as entirely unrehearsed (though I guess it must be to at least some extent) and they genuinely seem to like each other’s company. While Andrew inevitably takes the lead in the art talk and Giorgio the food talk, they both exhibit a good knowledge and love of the other’s subject as well as their own and thus the conversation that passes between them comes across as refreshingly real, open, honest and connected. The conversation flows just as a good conversation should: one person picking up the thread from the other and carrying it on; expanding it, questioning it. It’s intelligent conversation; the kind one hopes for, spanning the richness of life through art, architecture, history, the culture and politics of the places they visit and, of course, the food.
A further delight was their destination this evening: Basilicata and Puglia. The three main places they visited – Matera, Lecce and Trani – were places I went to with my daughter Nicola in September 2010 when we spent nearly three weeks travelling around the south of Italy. The programme brought back such wonderful memories for not only was it a special time with my daughter, but this region of Italy was so different from any other I’d visited and special in itself. Andrew and Giorgio’s first stop this evening was Matera, in Basilicata.
Matera is very special indeed, in fact it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and said to be one of the oldest towns in the world. The famous sassi – stone houses carved out of caves – are both magical and haunting. It’s a little like entering another world walking round it. There is a terrible history of harrowing poverty, touched on in the programme tonight, but the sassi are now being renovated and the town restored to glory. The first day Nicola and I visited it was pouring with rain – even though it was early September and everyone kept telling us that rain never normally arrived until November! Days later, when the sun at last showed itself, we headed back and took more photos, such as the one above. We didn’t though see the wonderful frescos – dating from about 1,200 years ago – that Andrew showed Giorgio, explaining that these were the ‘beginning of Italian religious painting’. They looked so incredibly beautiful and anytime I return to the area, I’d love to see them. From Matera the two men moved on to Lecce, in Puglia, a stunning baroque town with beautiful buildings made of local sandstone.
Nicola and I made a day trip there from where we were staying in Basilicata and loved it. We next stayed in a masseria – a kind of old farmhouse B&B – near Bari in Puglia. We drove through miles and miles of fields filled with old olive trees; everywhere you looked and far on into the horizon, olives were growing. We went to another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the town of Alberobello, which is full of trulli. Andrew and Giorgio seemed to make the same journey and gave a wonderful description of the trulli as igloos in reverse: their shape designed to keep out the very hot sun and thus be cool, while of course an igloo does the opposite and keeps you warm. You can see why the description fits in this photo of some trulli:
Alberobello was the most extraordinary place and Nicola and I wandered round for ages.
One of Puglia’s most famous dishes is orecchiette con le cime di rapa. Orecchiette are wonderful little ear-shaped pasta made from the durum wheat typical of southern Italy, which is coarser and contains more protein (they are my absolute favourite and I cook with them often). Cimi di rapa is a green vegetable of the area, similar to sprouting broccoli. It was fantastic to see Giorgio making the pasta with a local woman and later making this famous – and delicious dish.
One of the most beautiful places on the coast we visited was Trani, and that’s where this evening’s programme ended. Known as a ‘Pugliese gem’, one of the most spectacular sights in the town is its Norman cathedral.
We ate at a restaurant overlooking the harbour and were delighted to find a new bride and groom arriving for their reception at the restaurant just next to us.
I remember we ate at La Darsena, famous for its seafood, and that we had a brilliant lunch – but it was the days before the blog and I have no record of what it was and nor can I remember! I think I was too distracted by the fun of the wedding next door.
Well, as you can see, watching Italy Unpacked tonight was quite special and personal to me, bringing back all those wonderful memories. But even if you’ve never been – indeed perhaps, simply because you’ve never been! – to Basilicata and Puglia, don’t miss your chance to catch up on the programme from tonight and see the next in the series. It made me long to go back, just as a good travel programme should. Italy Unpacked really is TV at its best.
I hadn’t planned to do the February post for my record of Kew Gardens through the year that I’m writing on the blog. I had a reminder marked in my diary to do a follow-up to my January post next week. But Sunday morning walks in Kew are a regular thing for me when I have nothing else planned and the weather is good enough. It was a bit grey when I woke this morning, but after a leisurely breakfast with today’s Observer in Butter Beans first thing …
… on the spur of the moment I decided to head to nearby Kew for a walk before going home. The sun was coming out and the pull of Kew was too great to resist. Once there, I saw that the annual Orchid festival began yesterday (lasting just a month, until 8 March – so be quick!). I used not to like orchids much, but then many years ago someone gave me one as a present and I discovered their wonder – and that this not especially green-fingered blogger was surprisingly good at keeping them! Thus the Kew orchid festival has been a regular springtime delight for some time. This morning it was so quiet when I arrived, I felt I had just had to start clicking away, using my iPhone camera as I hadn’t taken my digital with me. The thought also occurred that I should take my chance with writing this February post while the going was good. Jonathan and Lyndsey’s first baby is due in just over three weeks and life might turn a little too busy for me to be walking quietly round Kew on a Sunday morning for a while. Over a family lunch in Fat Boys yesterday we discussed my being the fallback in case Lyndsey went into labour while Jonathan was at work – the other side of London! I will anyway be picking up their little Yorkie, Zeph, and having him at my house for a day or two (or more?). Yes, definitely writing the February post today seemed like a good plan!
The orchid show – ‘Alluring Orchids 2015 – A Tropical Extravaganza’ – is in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This is always a good place to escape to if there’s rain and cold outside as you move through warm ‘tropical’ areas. And there’s always some kind of interesting special display, even when it’s not orchid time.
Although orchids are the main attraction, there’s plenty of other wonderful tropical colour too.
However, it’s the orchids I really love and here at Kew you can see the most amazing varieties from phalaenopsis, which is the variety most often seen in shops, to incredible less common varieties, some with tiny flowers; some that you’d barely recognise as orchids; and those with large, blowy, extravagant flowers that only deign to show you their beauty once a year.
Back outside I found that the gardens hadn’t really moved on much from my January visit. There was little colour to be seen; winter was still here. Soon there’ll be a bright display of magnolias but at the moment they are just barely coming into bud:
Crocuses are just showing their heads and I caught a slight suggestion of blue as I walked past some sheltering under some trees:
I never fail to be delighted by the sight of the Sackler Crossing, the wonderful bridge with its beautiful curves that spans the lake. And there was a bit of colour here:
And a peacock taking a walk – here crossing a road – added his own special colour:
Heading back towards the Victoria Gate at the end of my walk, I spied some hellebores in flower:
And a stretch of camellias, which can always be counted on for some early colour, was still in bloom:
Back at the entrance, I couldn’t resist a look round the shop with its large array of beautiful orchids and almost inevitably came home with yet another one to add to my collection!
If you’ve never been to Kew Gardens’ wonderful display of orchids then it’s really a fabulous thing to see. Look at their website for more details: click here. And even though the rest of the gardens are rather low on colour at this time of the year, walking in Kew is always a joy, from its quiet wooded areas to more formal areas or a walk across Sackler Crossing.
It was Giles Coren’s worst nightmare: a large table full of food bloggers. Thankfully some good people in the food world – namely, this evening, Heddon Street Kitchen and Roche Communications – seem to think that food bloggers deserve a bit of respect. Thus a group of us were invited to dine at one of Gordon Ramsay’s newest restaurants, Heddon Street Kitchen. Tucked in a small area now known as Regent Street’s Food Quarter in London’s Mayfair, it’s in a prime location for shoppers, theatregoers and office workers. Open 7 days a week from breakfast until dinner, you can pop in anytime for a snack, a meal or evening cocktails.
The Kitchen opened last autumn to a mixed reception and so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I haven’t always felt I ‘like’ Gordon Ramsay – though I’m coming round, especially after his ‘Bad Boys’ project at Brixton Prison – but I’ve always had a lot of respect for his food. A meal at Maze a few years ago was one of the best I’ve ever had and real gastronomic highlight. Last year I enjoyed a meal at Union Street Café – a much more ordinary affair but good food at good prices. So how would Heddon Street Kitchen fare? Well there’s nothing like a nice cocktail on arrival to put you in the right frame of mind. I chose the Kitchen’s take on an aperol spritzer.
It was the first of four cocktails that came our way through the evening and remained my favourite, with my taking just sips of the others to taste them. But then I’m not really a cocktail person. The restaurant itself is a large open area combining industrial utility with a touch of chic: dimmed lighting, exposed pipes, comfy banquette seating. It’s all very inviting and there was quite a buzz in the air creating a good atmosphere. It was somewhere you could happily sit, especially with a group of friends, for the whole evening. The menu caters to this. You could eat a traditional 3-course meal or order a selection of plates to share. For us bloggers, food came on large sharing platters from things to nibble on when we arrived, to starters, mains and then desserts.
The antipasti plate with its sliced meats, olives and nuts and some very moreish Parmesan breadsticks with Parma ham wrapped round them, was nice enough – but then hard to get wrong. The starters that followed were more substantial affairs.
First came some fish: Fried Rock Oysters, Fennel & Lemon Confit Salad; Spicy Tuna Tartare; and a maki roll with snow crab mix on top. I may not be in to cocktails but I’m a great lover of oysters; I’d never had them cooked before. They were cooked well enough; still moist and soft. But why cook an oyster? You lose that whole gorgeous taste of the sea experience. But I guess some people like them cooked; just like some people want to put in mixer into a wonderful single malt. I liked the crab and tuna. And then we moved on to meat starters. These were pretty full-on.
I found it hard to imagine wanting them as a starter rather than a main. But fine for a sharing table. The Roasted Veal Carpaccio sounded like a starter; but why ‘roast’ it? I like my beef carpaccio raw. Unfortunately it was pretty tasteless, we all thought. The Potted Beef Brisket with piccalilli and buckwheat crackers was tasty (some thought it salty but I was OK with it); the Tamarind Chicken Wings were also good. The first mains to come were a Mac Cheese and plate of cooked meats.
The macaroni cheese was decidedly uninspired, lacking the depth of cheesy flavour that one expects; the macaroni pieces too small and overcooked.
The grilled lamb chops were well liked, and I enjoyed the slow-roasted pork belly and apple sauce. A fish dish came too, spiced with piperade and chorizo.
It was OK; not quite as an exciting dish as it sounded. An appealing plate of desserts arrived after a short interlude.
The chocolate fondant was a great success: the outside sponge light and chocolatey; the middle opening to a gorgeous gooey delight. I liked the smooth crème fraîche ice cream and the crème brûlée . The pineapple carpaccio was liked a lot too but the ‘classic’ pear tart – thin pear slices on a frangipane sponge base lacked flavour and was a bit heavy.
It had been a great evening. I loved meeting the fabulous bunch of food bloggers; I liked the buzzy atmosphere. And it’s a brilliant location. The food, sadly, was a bit disappointing. The name ‘Gordon Ramsay’ brings a certain expectation and at the moment, Heddon Street Kitchen doesn’t match up to that name. I can see I’d happily pop in again if in the area; it’s a lively, friendly place for a group of people to meet after work. But it lacks that ‘wow’ factor one expects from Gordon.
‘Muffin’ has become something of a generic word for small cakes. Once it was used only for those light, fluffy small cakes that contain a lot of air but now it’s more or less used for any individual cake cooked in a muffin-sized tin – larger than a fairy cake but definitely for a single serving. I gave the basic banana bread recipe here on the blog a couple of years ago, so apologies for the repetition but sometimes a recipe deserves a second outing, especially when presented in a different way. I used to make the ‘bread’ version a lot when my kids were small; a healthier kind of cake to greet hungry children home from school.
I rarely make it now but when I saw a few overripe bananas, already browning, in a bowl the thought of homemade banana bread was irresistible. But with a busy day ahead and being uncertain I could fit in a hour or more’s wait for a whole bread to cook, I decided to make small ones. They’re incredibly quick and easy to make. I followed on old Katie Stewart recipe as I’ve always done, but replaced her pecans with the walnuts I had handy.
I put all the dry ingredients in a large bowl: 225g spelt flour (ordinary plain will do but I always buy spelt now, not just for health but its nuttier taste), 2 teaspoons baking powder, 100g soft butter, 100g light muscovado sugar, 50g walnut pieces (break up if too big) and 50g sultanas (or raisins). Weigh out 450g bananas with skins on; skin then mash. Add them to the dry ingredients with 2 eggs.
Now use a hand mixer to beat everything together until smooth.
Grease a 12-muffin tin and lightly dust with flour to stop them sticking (or use muffin liners if you have some). Spoon the mixture into the tin. I had half a banana left over after weighing them, so I lay thinnish slices on top of each muffin and dusted the banana with a little golden caster sugar.
Put into a 180C/160 Fan oven for 30-35 minutes until they’re risen and are nicely browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes before carefully lifting out and laying on a cooling rack.
Banana bread benefits from a day’s ageing – if you can possibly wait that long! The smell is just too irresistible. I gave some away when I went out for a work meeting and left some at Jonathan and Lyndsey’s when I went to walk Zeph, their little Yorkie. But by the time I got home it was teatime. I can be very English about tea at 4.00!
I rarely drink tea of what we tend to call in UK, ‘builder’s tea': tea with milk. I drink coffee and quite a lot of herbal – mint, etc. – teas during the day. But what better for an afternoon treat than some ‘real’ tea and a fresh homemade cake?