My week begins with a serious treat. Late lunch at the River Café followed by an inspired cooking week that kicks off with my version of Poulet Antiboise, an Elizabeth David favourite from A Book of Mediterranean Food. The chicken and sweet onion leftovers lived again in a gratineed potato pie with radicchio Treviso, the bitter leaves in perfect contrast to the gentle flavours. Another old favourite – spanakopita, the spinach pie from Greece – was fun to make and the perfect reminder how delicious vegetarian food can be. The highlight of the cooking week was a family lunch party with the first bbq of the year with my take on spaghetti alla puttanesca, a triumph with winter tomatoes.
The rain is bucketing down and we get absolutely soaked taking Red out for a walk through Chiswick House to the Farmer’s Market (Edensor Road on the 316 towards Richmond), so decide not to walk to the River Café for our late lunch. There’s a very jolly, manic mood at the RC, the place stuffed to the gunnels, tables loaded with gorgeous looking food and glasses clinking, it is a different land. We slip off our sodden coats and are soon sipping a deliciously highly spiced Bloody Mary, the chunky glass uncluttered by ice, celery or straw or mixer, just a slice of lemon. My it goes down well and soon (thank you Charles) we are wolfing down slices of crisp pizzetta bianca with taleggio, wilted winter greens and capers as we ponder the menu. I chose granchio – Devon crab with winter tomatoes, aioli and my favourite little Castelluccio lentils. The Barrister, who chose the River Cafe for a much needed treat after a demanding Case in Dubai, chose Culatello di Zibello with chicken liver and lardo di Greve crostino. Both choices were superb and both were ‘plates’ as opposed to dishes, simply presented assemblies of perfect food. Mine was a pile of white crab meat abutting another of beautifully cooked brown lentils, a small dollop of creamed brown crab meat and another larger one of aioli with slices of intensely flavoured pale orangey-red tomato. Plate two, was half covered with sheets of Culatello (Parma ham), with two slices of toasted sourdough, one topped with lardo (cured, seasoned pig back fat, probably from Tuscany), the other piled with mashed and beautifully seasoned chicken livers. My main course, piccione al forno, was possibly the best roast pigeon I’ve ever eaten, wood-roasted in Brunello di Montalcino (a Tuscan wine 100% Sangiovese grape) with baby artichokes, thyme and long, thin slivers of roast potato, perhaps a variety called Ditta from Calabria (more about Italian potato varieties www.tasteatlas.com). The B chose Arrosto di Vitello – boned and rolled veal loin roasted in Solo-sole Vermentino (white wine from Bolgheri) with winter herbs, cannellini and dried porcini. We hardly spoke as we ate, the food so superb, occasionally downing cutlery for a swig of wine and murmur of pleasure. It was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had at the River Café and that is saying something. We tried a new pudding cake – dolce di Zabaglione – a very pleasant pale Italian layered sponge spread with Marsala cream and supersonically good caramel ice cream. A Feast. And a joy, as always, to visit. Great food, great staff and the best ever conversion of a Duckham’s Oil warehouse it is possible to imagine.
Hen brings my car back from a week in the Black Mountains and tells me about the food he had at a dinner party in Herefordshire, close as the crow flies to his place, Charity Farm (www.charity.uniquehomestays.com). The meal began with soup which he thought was the most delicious he’d ever eaten. He couldn’t say exactly what went into it but when he asked for the recipe, his friend described it as using everything in the kitchen you might have that would add flavour. He’s a vegetarian who eats fish, so it wasn’t a meaty stock. Anyway, main course was quickly seared tuna with a puttanesca sauce with black olives and cherry tomatoes peeled and seeded, the seeds turned into a shot to serve alongside and the sauce transformed with masses of mint. Pudding was home made, unchurned ice cream. Yum. I of course had to copy to puttanesca sauce and I served my Winter Puttanesca for a Saturday lunch party with barbecued lamb kebabs. More about both later. We’d bought a chicken and loads of onions specially for me to make Poulet Antiboise discovered many years ago in Elizabeth David’s seminal A Book of Mediterranean Cooking. We call it buried chicken in my house and that’s what it is, the chicken turned upside down and crammed over an impossibly large amount of finely sliced onion in an oval Le Creuset-style dish. It is baked slowly with a splash of olive oil, dusting of salt and hint of cayenne pepper, cooking until the onions turn into a soft, sweet, golden slop and the chicken so succulent, it is hard to divide it up neatly. I always discard the skin which turns flobby, pile chunky pieces of chicken over the onion, dot the edge with little black Nicoise olive and triangles of fried bread the edges dipped in chopped parsley. It is gorgeous.
There was plenty of chicken leftover from yesterday’s buried chicken and onion and gorgeous jellied juices too. I picked all the meat off the carcass, made stock with the bones (simmered with a chopped onion, leek trimmings, couple of chopped carrots, salt and whole pepper corns and trimmings from a big bunch of parsley). I sneaked some torn chicken and sweet, dark, soft onion for my lunch but decided to make a gratin with something bitter to counter the sweetness. At www.natoora.co.uk I was spoilt for choice with bitter leaves and decided on Treviso (any red chicory would work well) for my gratin. Roast Chicken and Treviso Gratin was fantastic; really was, so good I am going to make it again with roast chicken leftovers. I covered the top with slices of potato quickly blanched then arranged over the top of the gratin like roof tiles, then dredged with fresh breadcrumbs mixed with grana padano. 30 minutes in a hot oven and two very greedy people are very happy.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about dreaming that I had to make a shopping list for Spanakopita, the Greek spinach and feta pie. The next day, I rushed out and bought all the ingredients but life intervened and I used the spinach for something else and the filo pastry languished in the fridge. Today, I shopped again for everything I needed and also called in at the butcher for some lamb neck fillet, planning to make little kebabs to serve with it. In the end, we ate the pie on its own with a warm grilled cherry tomato salad made with pitted black olives, slivers of garlic and a few capers for sharpness. My recipe should have fed 4 but there was just enough leftover for a decent serving for one.
Supper alone on leftover spanakopita which I popped back in a hot oven for 10 minutes to crisp the sheets of filo. Made a new tomato salad, this time a fresh one and had a lovely fork supper in front of the TV.
Spent the morning doing all the preparations for Saturday’s lunch party of six adults, two children and a just-weaned baby who has taken to real food like a duck to water. Decided on cream of leek and potato soup to start which I plan to serve with bacon croutons over a dollop of full-fat crème fraiche (Neal’s Yard is my favourite) with a sprinkling of chopped flat leaf parsley. Cooked equal quantities of chopped, washed leek and peeled, rinsed potato in salted water then liquidized it thick and fluffy, reheating it with a generous pat of butter and checked the seasoning with salt and lemon. Left it to cool then stashed it covered in the fridge overnight. I fried 150g streaky bacon lardons to make the very, very crisp garnish, drained them on kitchen towel and piled them into a jam jar out of the way. The recipe is actually So Simple Leek and Potato Soup liquidized and very easy to scale up or down as you will see from the recipe. Spent an absolute fortune on the beautiful green-streaked, various-sized craggy, slow-ripened winter tomatoes from Sicily, Sardinia and Spain at www.natoora.co.uk to make Winter Puttanesca. I tend to think of this as a summer dish because it relies on richly flavoured ripe but firm tomatoes but the advent of winter tomatoes (first imported by Natoora in 2008 and now a feature of most truly discerning restaurants such as the River Café, Quo Vadis and Sardine and increasingly familiar at other fruit and veg suppliers) makes it a useful dish to know about at this time of year. The tomatoes, are peeled and diced, the seeds crushed for their juice – I intended to serve it as a chaser and completely forgot – then folded into garlicky anchovy melted in olive oil with scraps of dried chilli, with pitted black olives and capers folded in just before serving. I added a little top drawer passata too and a mound of chopped mint (thank you Alastair for the idea) instead of the more usual basil. It isn’t cooked, just warmed through then mixed with the pasta. I also marinated 4 diced lamb fillets in olive oil with lemon, crushed garlic and thyme. It always gives me great pleasure to have all the food in hand when lots of people are coming over. This time, there will only be pasta to cook, the cheese to unpack and bread (Hedone white) to buy tomorrow. I almost skip out of the house to meet The B for a martini at www.highroadhouse.co.uk and walk back to Devonshire Road for steak and chips at www.vinoteca.co.uk.
Lovely to get up, knowing that all the work for todays lunch party is done. All I need to do after breakfast is lay the table and line up all the plates and dishes and bits and pieces I need at hand for Lyra’s lunch (she is almost one and quite adorable) as I’m calling our six adult, two children, one baby, two lurcher lunch. Lyra tucked into some of the soup but had her own supplies. In fact everyone loved the thick and creamy, pale liquidized So Simple Leek and Potato Soup and my add-ons of very crisp bacon croutons, a scoop of crème fraiche and chopped flat leaf parsley. I think making the soup yesterday for today really enriched the flavours. The B lit his tiny but powerful Kenyan barbecue that did us proud for the lamb kebabs. Best of all, as far as I was concerned, it took me just a few minutes to fix the rest of the main course (Winter Puttanesca) as everything was prepared. With cheese to follow, our lunch was easy for me and everyone loved everything (the two children, I have to admit had passata on their pasta instead of puttanesca). Little Lyra eventually dropped off for her afternoon nap but in no time was tucking into another meal.