Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Food to share

Last Friday I cooked dinner for friends.  Twelve friends in fact.  The number only striking in relation to the size of my kitchen (it is afterall a one bedroom flat) rather than the amount of food required for twelve hungry friends on a Friday night. 

I have not cooked for friends enough recently.  Maybe for one or two, or my nearest and dearest local three, but not supper for that indescribably important group of people that make up my London family.  And Friday evening lends itself so well to a long and late supper, the promise of the whole weekend ahead, to recover, to catch up on sleep and to feel lucky to have had the good company, good (and bad) chat of that wonderful group of people who put the world to rights around my kitchen table on Friday night.   

I made sharing salads to start: purple sprouting broccoli with orange and anchovy dressing; mozzarella with roasted red chilli, lemon, basil and olive oil; new potato, rocket, anchovy and chilli salad; and artichoke hearts wrapped in prosciutto.

Big plates to share are my favourite way to cook.  Food to be passed around, drawing people into conversation and away from their working weeks.  It enables friends who have not met before to chat over a large plate of (hopefully) something tasty, to serve each other and sets a wonderfully informal tone to the evening (important when dinner guests are often initially still dealing with the aftermath of the London working week).  Sharing plates provide the perfect excuse to serve an excitement of flavours, complementary, and seasonal, the possibilities are endlessly adaptable.
Next, I served homemade papardelle, with a broad bean sauce and topped with podded broad beans, rocket and pecorino.  It was not a recipe I had cooked before (rash and foolhardy to embark on a new recipe when cooking for twelve on a Friday night...).  Whilst the result was satisfactory, the preparation was overly involved and not my usual genre of cooking (albeit not helped by my limited access to the hob once everyone was seated around my kitchen table) and I cannot see myself making it again in a hurry (there are so many other simple and delicious broad bean recipes which are far more edibly appealing).   I have not therefore included it below but instead have included a recipe for summer linguine which I made last week and which has ample opportunity for improvisation depending on what you have growing in the garden.

For pudding, I revisited an old family favourite: rhubarb and orange meringue.  Last enjoyed when my sisters and I were still young enough to care keenly as to who would get to lick the bowl and who would have the treat of twisting their tongue around the spokes of our mother's Kenwood whisk, this recipe is an 1980s design that tastes as good today as it did to our childish palates then.  Grateful to Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi for making meringues acceptable again, this was the perfect dish to showcase my homegrown rhubarb.

I meant to take photographs of each dish but my good intentions were lost amongst the conversation, wine and general high spirits.  So I have left in the slideshow from last week, showing my garden one year on from the planting of its first plants this time last year.

Happy Easter x
P.S. Did I mention the rhubarb and campari bellinis we had to start...add a splash (or more) of campari to the rhubarb syrup in February's 'Rhubarb really recommended' post and serve with processco/cava etc.

Purple sprouting broccoli with anchovy and orange dressing

675g purple (or white) sprouting broccoli
4 tablespoons olive oil
5 tinned anchovy fillets, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
Zest and juice of half an orange
Juice of half a lemon
Black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a pan.  Add the anchovy and garlic and fry very gently, mashing in the anhovy until it has dissolved and the garlic is lightly coloured. Take off the heat and stir in the orange zest and juice and the lemon juice. Season with lots of black pepper (no salt as the anchovies are salty enough).

Steam the broccoli.  Pour over the dressing whilst the broccoli is still warm.

This recipe is borrowed from Sophie Grigson whose seasonal recipes never fail to please.  The broccoli would be equally tasty tossed in the lemon, anchovy and mustard dressing in March's 'Broccoli at last' post.

Mozzarella, roasted red chill, basil, lemon and olive oil

4 red chillis (the long ones not the little fiery birds' eye ones)
2 lemons
A big handful of basil
4 balls of mozzarella
Olive oil

Pierce the chillies and place under the grill until blackened all over.  Remove from the grill and place in a bowl with a plate on top (the steam will make the chillies shrink and the skins come easily away).  Remove the seeds and skins and tearibbonsr or cut the chillies into fine strips.

Tear the mozzarella into pieces and arrange on a plate.  Dress with the ribbons of chilli, basil leaves, lemon zest, a squeeze of lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper.

New potato, anchocy, rocket and chilli salad
(courtesy of River Cafe)

750g new potatoes, cut into halves
3 tablespoons capers
12 anchovy fillets
4 tablespoons of rocket
Juice of 2 lemons
2 red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
Olive oil

Marinate the anchovies in the juice of 1 lemon and sprinkle with black pepper.
Cook the potatoes and add the capers, chillies, anchovy mixture and lots of olive oil.  When ready to serve stir in the rocket and season to taste.

Artichoke hearts wrapped in prosciutto

Slice each piece of prosciutoo length-ways. Chop the artichoke hearts into quarters and wrap each quarter with a piece of prosciutto.

Summer linguine

115g pinenuts
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
1 large bunch of fresh parsley or basil, half finely chopped
215ml olive oil
150 parmesan, finely grated
50g pecorino, finely grated
500g linguine
Salt and pepper

Smash up half the pinenuts until smooth and place in a heatproof bowl with the remaining pinenuts, lemon zest and juice, chopped parsley, olive oil, pecorino and parmesan. Season with black pepper and stir to combine.

Cook the linguine in salted boiling water.
Whilst the linguine is cooking, heat the sauce gently over a pan of boiling water.  Add a ladleful of the pasta water to the sauce to loosen it.
Drain the pasta (reserving a cupful of the water) and stir through the sauce (add a little more of the pasta water if the sauce is too think).  Serve with extra shavings of parmesan and the remaining parsley.

This is a Jamie Oliver recipe and, as is often Jamie's style, it is helpfully open to variation.  You could use a mixture of herbs for this recipe: parsley, basil, oregano, marjoram, sorrel.  You can also use any combination of parmesan and pecorino or 200g of one.

Rhubarb and orange meringue

300g rhubarb, cut into 2cm pieces
150g sponge fingers, halved
50g caster sugar
2 tablespoons water
Zest and juice of 1 orange
A pinch of cinammon

For the meringue
2 egg whites
100g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C.
Layer the sponge fingers then the rhubarb in an ovenproof dish.  Sprinkle over half the sugar, cinnamon, orange juice and zest.  Layer again with the remaining sponge fingers, rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon, juice and zest.  Add the water.
Cover and bake for 40 minutes until the rhubarb is soft.
Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  Whisk in the sugar, one spoonful at a time.  Spoon the egg whie mix (with a metal spoon) over the fruit and cook for a further 10-12 minutes until the meringue has formed a shell and is light golden brown.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

In the beginning or Never give up

At the end of 2009 I bought a small but perfectly formed flat in south east London with a small but not yet perfectly formed garden.  The garden was dominated by a large and delapidated shed, a vast expanse of decking and a monotony of shale (it had presumably been designed as a low maintenance urban space but it was not a space I could imagine anyone wanting to sit in).  The garden had potential but that potential was well-hidden and would clearly take some unearthing.

In the beginning...
The shed had known better days.  Once the pride and joy of a former owner, it had been lovingly fitted out with workbenches, toolracks, electric lighting and shelves hosting an antiquated collection of rusty tools and half-used pots of paint.  Whilst the outside had little to commend it, inside it smelled of sunshine on wood, the warm, comfortable, musty smell of your Grandad's toolshed.  However, long neglected, the shed had aged and a large hole in the roof let in the rain where it was absorbed by the chipboard walls and collected in pools in the electric lighting.  Beyond repair, it was only a matter of time before the shed would be little more than a crumbly heap at the bottom of the garden.

The removal of the shed heralded the beginning of my gardening adventure.  It was start of a chain reaction that marked my transformation from novice windowbox grower to garden devotee with aspirations of self-sufficiency, ideas bigger than my garden, a willing slave to the sowing, planting and watering demands of the season. 

The garden's transformation has been more eventful.  The shed, a 70s relic, turned out to be built from asbestos.  I unfortunately did not discover this until I tried to take it down with the help of some (very good) friends.  Our enthusiasm for the task was terminally hampered by the sight of the little silver fibres glinting menacingly in the morning sun.  The shed had to be professionally removed and disposed of (at horrible expense) by men in white coats, face masks etc. 

Shed gone but still a lot of work to do
The removal of the shed created a space, but a space still filled with concrete posts, metal piping, shale and corrugated iron.  I wanted to create a garden.  However, at 5ft 2" and with only a bicycle for transport, the task of transforming my urban jungle into a verdant oasis at times seemed overwhelming.  Each weekend provided a new challenge as my small patch of London inched its way towards becoming a garden.  Some of the highs and lows of the developmental process included:

The hateful trolley
- pushing a trolley twice the length and three times the weight of a supermarket trolley and laden with 3m long wooden planks (for raised beds) the one kilometer home from the timber merchant.  The trolley had a mule-like will of its own and once set on its chosen trajectory, the combined weight of the trolley plus wood made it almost impossible to stop.  Lurching from pavement to road, it was a hazard to pedestrians and parked cars alike.  Once home, tearful, my arms spent, I unloaded the wood and had to push the hateful trolley the long kilometer back to the timber merchant;

- filling rubble sack after rubble sack after rubble sack with handful after handful after handful of shale (fifty-eight sacks in total);

- carrying a 3m x 1.5m sheet of plywood home from the timber merchant (the trolley was unavailable...).  A man stopped in his car and offered to help, an offer I think he regretted his offer when he realised how far I still had to go.  We struggled with it between us.  At the front door I struggled to hold back tears, overwhelmed by the unexpected kindness of strangers;

- a battle between my hacksaw and the television aerial.  The aerial was atop an 18 foot high metal mast positioned half way down the garden.  The bottom half of the mast had been thoughtfully painted green to blend in with the (non-existent) grass, whilst the top half was blue...  The colour scheme was, unsurprisingly, insufficient to disguise the fact that there was a 18 foot high metal mast in the middle of the garden.  On Easter Sunday, in a rash moment of determination to rid my garden of the final ties to its industrial past, I hacksawed down the mast's supporting structure (more metal piping) and, using my body weight as lever, pulled the mast down, narrowly missing the house.  Encouraged by my foolish success, I hacksawed up the mast and aerial, only afterwards pausing to question the likely risk of electrocution by television aerial.

I dug up concrete posts, refenced one side of the garden (replacing the existing fence which it transpired was also built from asbestos panels...), rotivated, raked, tilled and turfed, built raised beds and a greenhouse, glazed the greenhouse (never again) and carried innumerable bags of compost and manure from the garden centre to the garden in a rucksack on my bicycle.

And then it was summer.

And the garden blossomed and bore fruit (and vegetables) and I cooked for friends from whatever the garden offered and we sat outside and marvelled at how lucky we were to have our very own patch of earth in London.

June 2010