Tuesday 24 May 2011

Spinach and ricotta tortelloni

Homemade spinach and ricotta tortelloni

Homemade spinach and ricotta tortelloni

Perfecting a classic dish is the first step towards experimentation. Once you've mastered the technique then you can broaden your horizons and experiment. Making fresh pasta is one thing but filled pasta is another entirely. My first attempt was OK, my second was a disaster and one which I unwisely attempted to foist upon my parents. My mother was wonderfully forgiving, my patriarchal Sicilian father less so. He withheld any verbal comment but the manner in which he approached his plate spoke a thousand words.

So this is my third attempt and this time I have followed a recipe and used a snazzy device that cuts and crimps the tortelloni together - tonight I will serve them with all arrabbiata with basil and parmegiano - tomorrow I may try and tempt my father!

Friday 20 May 2011

Lavender and blackberry fairy cakes with lemon icing

Lavender, blackberry and lemon fairy cakes
Serpentine Pavilion, Frank Gehry
Visual Athletics Club: Gehry Roof, Serpentine, 2008

I remember eating some fairy cakes at Frank Gehry's Serpentine Pavilion a couple of summers ago - three now actually. Amazing how the memory of a flavour combination stays with you quietly remaining in the background until one day you finally get it together and work it out.

So this is my version - blackberry and lavender fairy cakes with lemon icing. Memories are good but the real thing is even better.
Heat the oven to 180 C and prepare a baking tray with twelve fairy cake papers.

100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
100g plain flour mixed with +
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of organic lavender
12 blackberries
Unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons of icing sugar

Cream together the caster sugar + butter until light and fluffy.
Add a spoon full of sifted flour + one egg beat well, add another spoon of flour + second egg - beat well.
Add the vanilla essence + the lightly chopped lavender - mix well.
If the mixture does not drop off your spoon easily add a little bit of milk.
Take a teaspoon of the batter and drop it into each of the papers - smooth down, add a blackberry.
Spoon more mixture on top + smooth down.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 18 minutes.
Remove and leave to cool.
Grate the zest + the juice of half the lemon add to the icing sugar, add more sugar/lemon juice to get required icing consistency.
When cool spoon over cakes - leave to set.

The blackberry and lemon add a wonderful zing to the subtle perfumed flavour of the lavender.


Thursday 19 May 2011

Foraging in a suburban garden

Wild plants in a suburban garden
Visual Athletics Club: Down the bottom of the garden, 2009

I've been foraging - unfortunately without my camera to share the specific spoils of my labour. But this is the garden wilderness where the riches are recovered. This week my exploits include stepping gingerly to avoid nettles and bumble bees to pick fat, juicy, wild strawberries, also claiming the last tender shoots of broccoletti a taglio which has sprouted on an a recently cleared bramble patch, and climbing high to gather elderflowers.

We picked enough flowerheads for three litres of elderflower cordial and left the rest for later on in the summer when we will combine the berries with vodka and sugar to make a wonderful hedgerow liqueur.

The sterilisation of the natural landscape to make way for new housing developments where trees, shrubs and even grass have been usurped by decking, and paved driveways means that wild food grows in increasingly inhospitable spots - coerced by this onward march of  progress. Overstretching on a step ladder to reach the best flowerheads, the desire to just gather that little bit more and the knowledge of when to stop is all part of foraging. But the rewards are incomparable to those of the soulless exercise of visiting the supermarket. 

The simplicity of the process of combining the gently fragrant flowerheads with water, sugar, lemon and citric acid - the alchemy of an infusion to provide a homemade cordial is a wonder to practice and a joy to behold.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Would you like a cup of tea?

Ginger bread, Ferrells Bakery Fore Street St Ives
Visual Athletics Club: A nice cup of tea, 2010

Tea is a panacea - a cure-all that we defer to in times of stress. Emotions are mollified by a cup of tea. In hospitals it's an indication of bad news, and if biscuits are produced you know you're really in trouble. Sweetened tea is an alternative to a shot of brandy applied to steady the nerves and becalm an emotional tsunami. As we work hard to control our unspiralling lives we turn to certain crutches to see us through - a cigarette, a large drink but a cup of tea is the anywhere, anytime solution.

Rituals and symbolism that surround tea may be a hangover from the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The UK Tea Council describes its nascence  as coming from 'the Taoist idea of trying to find beauty in the world combined with the Zen Buddhist belief that the mundane and particular were of equal importance with the spiritual and universal. Thus the ritual of tea making expressed the quest of greatness in the smallest details of life, and the formalised acts of graciousness and politeness that are integral to the Ceremony are an outward form of an inner belief in the importance of peace and harmony.' 

By serving tea we could subliminally be tapping into an ancient culture that put tea at the heart of a meditative, highly contemplative ritual, thus lending stability to crisis. A cup of tea remains a fail-safe, a gesture, an acknowledgement of our inability to alter the situation but a remedy seeped in empathy.


Thursday 5 May 2011

What's for lunch?

A faded photograph of a universal scene mother and daughter, birthday cake - the anticipatory moment before the candles are blown out. The cake, the choice of a favourite meal, maybe steak and homemade chips with rosemary, a chance to influence on your own special day. 

Food is the ritual through which we mark celebrations - the sharing and coming together of friends and family united by occasion and appetite. A special meal where all are suitably grateful but what about all the other meals? Not the grand gesture of the occasional cook who breezes in to announce in a tone of simultaneous self-congratulation and sacrifice that - "Tonight I'll cook you supper" but the every day provisioning of a family. My mother cooked day in day out, usually for eight - four children, grandma, nonno, my father and herself and then there were the pets - three dogs, a cat or two, hamster, canary...but that's another story.

My father, as the Sicilian, is often seen as the inspiration behind the family's love of food but my mother whose unsung invisible hand provided the endless meals is the true influence. Food is far more than sustenance and keeping a large family fed is a task which many of us rarely have to contemplate as the extended family has become more rarefied. 

Now as I shop for my family of three I'm constantly amazed at the quantity of fresh food we consume, the endless trawling home of food procured from market or local shop. My mother did not drive, she had some help managing a large back garden planted with a variety of fruit trees and vegetables, peas, broad beans, strawberries, gooseberries and an especially large dual use apple tree, a Mary Barnett, outside the back door.

In a family kitchen helping hands are seconded to peel vegetables, clear away, wash and dry up. But the real task requires a sophisticated imagination and logistical organisation to deal with the complex dietary foibles of an octogenarian nonno, an orthodontically challenged grandma and four small children, and of course a rather exacting patriarch. My mother was fortunate in some way that at school we had very strict ascetic rules regarding food - whatever was taken on your plate had to be eaten - this set us in good stead for home where the same exactitude was in play.

My mother soon adopted a wide Italian repertoire, taking on the more time consuming dishes my father would not consider. Traditional English was also included as were a variety of her own variations of continental classics. Her only respite from the grinding monotony was on a Saturday when father would cook lunch, usually a plate of pasta, and grandma would bake.

The egocentric nature of children meant we took the care bestowed upon us for granted - the hours they spent toiling to keep us healthy and satiated. So now, when opportunity arises they sometimes let us return the compliment. My father is still exacting in his likes and dislikes but my mother is wonderfully gracious, complimentary, delighted even - just have someone else take care of what's for lunch.