Italian comfort food and the easiest cake in history


Winter doesn’t seem to be shifting quite as quickly as we’d like. The problem is that I always forget about February. January I’m prepared for; I protect myself from the hideous post-Christmas-blues and the financial hardship that accompany them by making sure I’m as busy as possible. You don’t mind the fact that it’s colder than December and November put together because January is still ‘proper winter’. But really my patience runs out at about this time of year when it’s still showing only TWO DEGREES (feels like -12) on my Met Office app.

This weather calls for comfort food; something slow cooked and delicious and hopefully cheap (because let’s face it – the financial hardship almost always continues into February). For this particular Sunday lunch I decided to cook a Beef Ragu with Pappardelle. I scouted round for a recipe online and predictably settled on a Jamie Oliver that I think comes from the original book Jamie’s Kitchen. The recipe said serves 4 but we found it more than enough for 6 (with seconds)!

  • One 28-ounce piece braising meat (beef/venison)
  • Olive oil
  • 1 handful each of fresh rosemary and thyme, stems discarded and leaves finely chopped
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 celery stick, finely chopped
  • 2 wineglasses Chianti
  • 2 tins of plum tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons pearl barley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pappardelle
  • Unsalted butter
  • 2 handfuls grated Parmesan (plus extra to serve)

Season the meat with salt and pepper and cut into 2-inch chunks. In a hot casserole-type pan, fry your meat in a little olive oil until golden brown on all sides. Add your herbs, onions, garlic, carrot and celery. Turn down the heat and continue to cook for 5mins until the vegetables have softened.

Add your red wine and continue to simmer until the liquid has almost cooked away but left you with a fantastic colour and fragrance.

Add the plum tomatoes, pearl barley and just enough water to cover the meat by 1/2 inch. Make yourself a cartouche (cut out a piece of baking parchment to the size of your pan). Wet it with a little water, rub it with a little olive oil, and place it over the pan. Put a lid on the pan as well as this will help retain as much moisture as possible while cooking. Cook over a really low heat for 2-3 hours depending on the tenderness and type of meat. It’s ready when you can literally pull the meat apart in tender strands.

At this point season the braise carefully with salt and pepper to taste and allow to cool slightly before removing the meat from the pan. Using 2 forks, pull apart all the lovely pieces of meat. Skim any fat from the surface of the braising liquid. Put the meat back in the pan over a low heat. (At this point we felt something was still missing – Mr F suggested I stir a teaspoon of Dijon mustard into the sauce and it somehow brought the whole thing together)

It’s now ready to serve so cook your Pappardelle. Once cooked, drain it in a colander, saving some of the cooking liquid in case the sauce needs a little loosening. Remove the pot of stewed meat from the heat and stir in a large knob of butter and the Parmesan with a little cooking water – this will make it juicy and shiny. Serve immediately with the sauce spooned over the pasta and extra Parmesan on top. We put a pot of basil on the table and mixed the torn up leaves in with the sauce. 

Since the recipe had called for Chianti I decided to keep things simple by serving it with just that. This is a great demonstration of one of the basic rules of wine and food matching – that the wines from a particular country often match perfectly with the local cuisine. Chianti is predominantly made from the Sangiovese grape and is naturally quite high in acidity which goes brilliantly with the classic Italian tomato based pasta sauces. This particular one was reduced to £5.99 in Sainsbury’s and not bad at all with straightforward cherry fruit, and smooth tannins.  

I absolutely cannot finish this post without adding in what we had for pudding as it was so brilliantly simple that it’s going to become my staple ‘easy-pud’ of 2013. It came from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries and you could adapt it to whatever fruit you happen to have in the house at the time:

  • butter – 130g
  • unrefined caster sugar – 130g
  • ripe pears – 2
  • eggs – 2 large
  • plain flour – 130g
  • baking powder – a teaspoon
  • blueberries – 250g
  • a little extra sugar

Set the oven at 180 degrees. Line the base of a square cake tin with a piece of baking parchment. Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Peel and core the pears and cut them into small chunks. Break the eggs, beat them with a fork, then gradually add them to the butter and sugar. Sift the flour and baking powder together and add them gently into the mixture. Scrape into the lined tin then tip the blueberries and pears on top. Scatter a couple of teaspoons of sugar over the top. Bake for 55mins, then test for doneness with a skewer. Eat warm and serve with cream and/or ice cream.

fruity cake

Recipes taken from Jamie’s Kitchen by Jamie Oliver and The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater.


Wine and food matching with L’atelier des Chefs

AndreI’ve never really done any kind of cooking classes before. I know lots of people that went off to terribly grand cookery schools at some time or another – some have gone on to become really brilliant home cooks, some not so much. For me I’ve always seen that kind of thing as luxury I can ill afford. I’m also not very good at being told what to do and have therefore always been ‘tricky’ in that kind of school environment – combine that with the high stress environment of a kitchen and it could be a recipe for disaster (excuse the pun)!

But how wrong I was. Last week I went to a class at L’atelier des Chefs; they are a cooking school currently with two sites in London who offer classes of different lengths starting from 30mins (for an extremely affordable £15) to 4 hours for their more specialised Master Classes. I have done a 30min class in the past and couldn’t believe that it a) genuinely took 30mins, and b) you got such fantastic food and quality produce for the price. Last week was particularly relevant as it was a food and wine matching class. The theme for the evening was Thai food with a lineup of 3 fantasticClass dishes – Thai spiced mussels, barbary duck with Asian greens and a soy and chilli glaze and mango and lime tart tatin for pudding. Each dish was matched with a wine; they were all from Majestic but it would be easy to find a suitable equivalent elsewhere. Thai food is so immensely popular yet is something a lot of people are afraid of cooking themselves at home due to the plethora of complicated ingredients and flavours. Similarly matching wines to these dishes can be a daunting prospect for the same reasons. Brilliantly there was almost nothing in these dishes that would have been difficult to find in a large supermarket making them all possible to reproduce at home.

The thai spiced mussels were matched with a Gruner Veltliner from Austria. Gruner Veltliner is a particularly good grape to match with food as it’s got a relatively full body but retains its elegance with delicate flavours and a lovely mineral streak. This restrained character allows the subtle flavours of the mussels to shine through and complimented the delicate spice and flavours of the sauce.Mussels

The barbary duck was matched with a pair of wines and the results were split pretty much 50/50 as to who liked what best. The pair was the Waimea Estate Pinot Gris and Waimea Estate Pinot Noir from New Zealand. Pinot Noir is quite a natural match for duck as it’s a lighter style of red wine with red fruit and soft tannins. The trouble is that this duck is again cooked with delicate Thai spices which can easily be overpowered by a red wine – this is where the Pinot Gris came in. Slightly off dry it complimented the chilli spice in the dish and the fattiness of the duck which had caramelised during cooking; it also gave room for all those gorgeous aromatic flavours to show off. As I said, both went down extremely well but for me the white won by a nose. Duck

Finally the mango and lime tart tatin with passion fruit drizzle – my goodness this was a beautiful pudding; a bit fiddly but by no means complicated and looked just stunning. It was matched with the Brown’s Brothers Orange and Flora muscat. The dessert wasn’t as sweet as I had expected as the lime gave it a real kick – it needed a wine with fruity sweetness to compliment the mango and with high acidity to match the lime and stop it all becoming too sticky; this worked admirably. Shockingly, orange muscat tastes orangey which gave it the desired fruit character – the flora is what gives it body and colour. A lot of people admitted not normally liking dessert wines but this was a real hit and something you wouldn’t often try yourself at home.Mango tatin

I couldn’t recommend L’atelier des Chefs highly enough – the school is set up beautifully with a shop at the front which is lethal for anyone who is as easily tempted as I am by exciting things like kitchen tongs and cook books. Our chef Andre was amazing and extraordinarily calm considering he had a kitchen of 16 people to keep under control. As well as learning 3 delicious recipes there are constant tips throughout the evening from basic knife-skills to how long you should rest meat for after cooking.

We were all emailed our recipes after the class and they have generously allowed me to share one with you…

Barbary duck breast with Asian greens and soya and chilli glaze (Serves 6)

  • 6 duck breasts
  • 5cl soy sauce
  • 20g honey
  • 2 red chillies
  • 2 limes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 sweetheart cabbages
  • 3cl groundnut oil
  • half a bunch of thai basil

For the meat – Preheat the oven to 180’C. Trim the duck breast to remove any excess fat and sinew. Score the skin. Place into a cold dry pan skin side down and cook till crispy draining away the fat as it renders. Turn the breast remove from the pan and roast in a 180’c oven for 6 minutes. Allow to rest before carving.

For the vegetables – Finely dice the chilli and puree the garlic with a pinch of salt. Zest and juice the lime. Cut the cabbage into quarters, remove the tough core and thinly slice. Colour the cabbage in a a hot pan with some of the duck fat, add the garlic and chilli and cook for a further minute. Add the honey and the soy and start to reduce to a glaze, constantly basting the cabbage. Finish with the lime juice and half of the zest.

To plate – Carve the duck into 3 pieces and serve on top of the cabbage. Drizzle the glaze on top and garnish with the Thai basil and a sprinkling of lime zest.

This dish was match with Waimea Estate Pinot Gris and Waimea Estate Pinot Noir both from Majestic Wine.

With thanks to L’atelier des Chefs for their fantastic recipes and a wonderful evening.

Spain. But without Rioja

We had the second instalment of our Wine Club last week – what a rowdy bunch! I think having the very good excuse of drinking lots of wine for ‘educational purposes’ provoked a little too much excitement in some folk! Chosen topic of the night was Spanish wines; we decided to leave out Rioja because, let’s face it, everyone drinks Rioja and Spain has so much else to offer. It is a country that has a very traditional history of wine making but which is gradually starting to accept  more modern styles and techniques. Although known for its reds, it produces some outstanding whites and sparkling wines which are now appearing more and more on the international market. The whites went down a storm actually with the Ribera del Duero winning out as the clear favourite among the reds…

Codorniu Brut NV 

Cava is big business in Spain. Over the last couple of decades it has suffered from a bad reputation due to the poor quality product that was often produced. These days there are some really really good Cavas around and they always offer good value for money. Unlike Prosecco they are made using the same method as Champagne and so are often much more similar stylistically. You will often be able to pick out the slightly biscuity notes and even honeyed aromas that you may associate with a much more expensive bottle of Champagne. The key difference, aside from where it comes from, is the grape varieties – Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-Lo. The Codorniu Brut is excellent value, very easy going in style with subtle hints of citrus and apples.

Cuatro Rayas Verdejo, Rueda

Verdejo is sometimes described as Spain’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc; honestly I quite often prefer it. Although dry and with fresh acidity it is much softer than Sauvignon Blanc and with a fuller body. These are great wines to drink by themselves due to this approachable nature and display flavours of stone fruits, pears and minerals.

Albarino Martin Codax, Rias Baixas

A few years ago it was almost impossible to get hold of Albarino. It’s a fantastic grape and widely grown in Galicia but local demand is high and few producers made enough for it to be worth exporting. Martin Codax makes fantastic wine and if you’re ever in that part of the world they are very hospitable towards visitors at the winery. I spent a few days here in 2008 helping with the vintage (grape picking in the sunshine) and it was just brilliant. In terms of style, Albarino is not a million miles away from Viognier; crisp and fresh on the palate but with a real aromatic character of stone fruits and ripe apples. This is a perfect match with the local dishes which mainly revolve around seafood and shellfish.

Escondite Perfecto Mencia Bierzo

Bierzo is being recognised more and more as a quality wine region producing wines from the little know Mencia grape. Honestly I was a little disappointed with this wine. When made well wines from Bierzo can display fantastic depth of flavour and character but sadly this is exactly what this wine lacked. It was perfectly pleasant with lots of upfront fruit and plummy flavours, but that was about it. The alcohol stood out too much and for the £9.99 it cost me I thought it was overpriced.

Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero is a region that is seriously giving Rioja a run for its money. It has the same rules as Rioja regarding the different styles (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva) and uses the same grape variety – Tempranillo. The high altitude of this region, combined with the warm days and cool nights, mean that the wines produced have fantastic fruit concentration without giving away any of the aromatic complexities that make them the success story they are. As I said – this was the star of the night; dark fruit and dark chocolate are complemented by a smooth texture and upfront yet silky tannins. This will be delicious with barbecued or flame grilled red meat.

Acustic Cellars Ritme Priorat Tinto

This was the interesting one of the night for me. I had to hunt around a bit to find a Priorat but it was definitely worth the effort. Priorat as a region produces some truly outstanding wines and its reputation has continued to grow over the last decade or so. The principal grape varieties tend to be Carinena and Garnacha but some international varieties are also often used. Although it was a little young it nonetheless displayed fantastic complexity; the initial cherry fruit opened up and gave way to a slightly more dried fruit / raisiny character. Its length and complexity were worthy of its £18.99 price point – a lot of money I know but this is the kind of wine you buy as a treat. A great option for an Easter Sunday lunch for example – perfect with spring lamb!



An Ottolenghi lunch

Ott Lamb

I cooked the most delicious lunch on Sunday. I know this for a fact because my mother told me about 17 times while we were eating it having had a couple too many glasses of Macon-Villages. Still, I’m never going to complain about being over-praised for something so thank you Mum and you’re very welcome.

The trouble is I can’t really take the credit for it. Not really. I have probably mentioned before that I’m not a ‘fussy’ cook. I’m someone who is much happier being able to throw everything into a pot and leave it for a few hours rather than running round the kitchen like a headless chicken with 5 different pans overflowing on the hob. But sometimes, when there’s no pressure, and it’s not for too many people, and I have time (oh how I long for the days when I had time) I love it. In this instance, Yotam Ottolenghi is the man that should be taking credit for our lunch. He is the chap to go to if you want something completely delicious but, more often than not, a little more complicated. As it turns out in this case it was blissfully easy and involved no complicated ingredients whatsoever. Of course I made it complicated myself by what I chose to serve alongside it but that is not the lamb (nor Ottolenghi’s) fault so I will take full responsibility for my actions…

Lamb rack

Marinated rack of lamb with coriander and honey (enough for 4)

  • 1kg rack of lamb, french trimmed
  • 20g flat leaf parsley, leaves and stalks
  • 30g mint, leaves and stalks
  • 30g coriander, leaves and stalks
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 15g fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 3 chillies, seeded
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 50ml lemon juice
  • 60ml soy sauce
  • 120ml sunflower oil
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons water

Separate the rack into portions of two or three cutlets and place in a non-metallic bowl. Blitz together all the remaining ingredients in a blender or a food processor, pour them over the lamb and make sure it is well covered in the marinade. Cover and keep in the fridge overnight or for at least 8 hours.

Preheat the oven to 200c. Heat up a heavy cast iron pan, preferably a griddle pan. Remove the meat from the marinade, shaking off the excess. Sear well on all sides, about 5 minutes in total. Transfer to a baking tray and cook in the oven for about 15 mins, depending on the size of the racks and how well cooked you want them.

Meanwhile, heat the marinade in a small pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Both the cutlets and sauce can be served hot or at room temperature.

Ott Lamb2

When I had stuck my finger in the marinade the night before I had been a little bit nervous that the flavours weren’t entirely balanced. I now feel like a complete idiot for ever doubting the recipe. It was fantastic and we really did have the most stonking lunch. We had it with Ottolenghi’s marinated aubergines (from the same book – I forgot to make the tahini sauce but I don’t think it needed it), baby roast potatoes, spinach and pine nuts and yoghurt on the side (natural yoghurt with grated cucumber, a tiny amount of crushed garlic and ground cumin).


I had thought this would go brilliantly with the Barbera d’Asti but with the multitude of flavours in this dish from all the fresh herbs it needed a white rather than a red wine. It was a much better match with the Roero Arneis which had the body to stand up to the lamb but the delicacy of flavour not to overpower the herbs and spices.

I love it when a lunch comes together.

Recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

Italy can be tricky

I have always struggled with Italian wine. I don’t mean I have struggled to drink it (almost always a pleasure) but as a topic to learn about in the wine sense – it’s mammoth, and it’s tricky. This probably has something to do with the fact that Italy, as a country, wasn’t actually fully unified as we know it today until sometime around 1870 (I apologise for my vagueness – dates were never my strong point). Pretty much the entire of Italy produces wine, and I mean everyone; from the big big producers right down to the local postman with a few rows of vines in his back garden. And up until relatively recently they were all doing it completely differently with different grape varieties and different vinification techniques. It took a long time to modernise the Italian wine industry in terms of production because of this fragmentation. It produces some truly incredible wine (and of course food) in a range of different styles; the one helpful trick is that local food and local wine tend to go together so if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Italy you don’t need to worry too much about your food and wine pairings – this should happen pretty organically.

This week I bought an Italian white and 2 Italian reds to have at home. Two out of the three were fairly successful purchases. The disappointing third was probably my fault as I reverted to the good old tactic of buying a wine based on the label. In my defence this does sometimes work but it’s a lazy way to buy wine and it serves me right.

Malvira’ Roero Arneis – £10.99

Arneis is the grape variety and Roero is the region which can be found to the south of Piedmont in the north west corner of Italy. Arneis means ‘rascal’ in Piedmontese, so called because it is such a difficult grape to grow. The Malvira’ is a great example of the fantastic wines that can be produced from this grape and region. A beautifully delicate nose of stone fruits and pears with the merest hint of rose petals and a firm streak of minerality. The palate is savoury, more so than the nose suggests, with flavours of green apples and minerals with relatively high acidity and a lovely buttery texture. For such an elegant wine it is actually quite full bodied and would go with all manner of fish dishes, grilled chicken or antipasti.

Tesco Finest Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2009 – £7.29

We can stay in Piedmont while we talk about this wine, Asti being the village it’s from and Barbera being the grape. Perhaps less recognisable as a grape than Sangiovese or Montepulciano it is nonetheless one of the most planted grape varieties in Italy. Ruby red in colour this wine has a nose of cherries and a hint of drink fruit and sweet spice. These flavours follow through on the palate but with more of a white pepper spice and earthiness. It’s nice and pleasant but lacks a bit of depth. What did confuse me is that it’s described on the bottle as being ‘rich and full’. It’s not. This is on the thin side of medium bodied. Nonetheless it’s enjoyable and its tannins give the wine a decent structure. I might try a glass of this with my lamb tomorrow.

Piccini Super Tuscan 2008 Toscana – £8.99

The term ‘Super Tuscan’ can be applied to any wine from Tuscany that does not adhere to the tight legal restrictions of the region in terms of grape varieties and winemaking techniques. The first Super Tuscan was Sassicaia which is now hailed as one of the great wines of the world. There have been many since then which have been extremely high in terms of quality, normally full bodied, modern styles of red wine which often use Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant grape. Let me be clear – this is not one of those wines. Sadly the Piccini was a real disappointment; a mediocre nose was followed by a palate that lacked any real depth of flavour or body. I also feel a little ripped off as this cost almost a full £2 more than the Barbera d’Asti.

What have we learnt today – don’t judge a wine by its label! As if I didn’t already know that… Luckily the other two wines (especially the Roero Arneis) have made up for it.