Sunday, 13 May 2007

Artichokes in Palermo

When I was 18 I went on a college exchange trip to Palermo. I had been paired with a Sicilian girl who was very different from myself. I was a long haired, rainbow clothed, shoeless hippy and she was a very prim little lady, who was learning to become a model and went to deportment classes. As soon as we met each other we realised we had little in common so there was a kind of unspoken agreement that we would just let each other alone. When I wasn't participating in college activities, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her mother who, much to my delight, was very keen to teach me about Sicilian food. The rest of my free time I spent on the beach with my friends or flirting with Italian boys!

Much to the despair of the Sicilian mother I was a strict vegetarian (my morals have since given way to my desires). She was not particularly bothered that I did not eat meat, more that I would not try the fantastic seafood Sicily was so famous for. Luckily for me, my sister got married in Sicily last year, not far from Palermo and I got to taste the wonderful seafood at last. However, at 18 I was too puritanical for these indulgences and consequently my Sicilian hostess (we shall call her mama) decided to treat me to my favourite food cooked in as many ways as she new how.

What I loved most in the world were artichokes and as it was February it was Sicilian artichoke season. They were everywhere, men stood on street corners with carts full of them, picking them up in bundles by their long stems and selling them to passers-by. They were different from any artichokes that I had eaten before in that they were young and quite small and had therefore not yet developed the hard outer leaves or the inedible choke. Except for a very few of the outer leaves the whole thing could be eaten. Mama worked hard to make fantastic meals for me, in fact I have never seen someone spend so much time in the kitchen. She made artichoke and pea pasta, artichoke frittata, braised artichokes with lemon, stuffed artichokes with cheese, artichoke salad and we even ordered artichoke pizza from a local restaurant.

The best meal I had there involved the whole family. Mama lived on the middle floor of a gorgeous apartment block, mama's sister lived in the upstairs flat and their mother lived on the ground floor with a wonderful garden full of orange and lemon trees and a massive barbeque. We all gathered in the grandmother's flat around a huge table with all the cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and parents. The table was spread with cheeses, cold meats, salads, fruit and homemade wine. The women stood at the stove and cooked the pasta, they brought it to the table and we ate. After this they returned to the stove and cooked the next course, we ate again and again they returned to the stove. This went on for hours (about 6 hours in total!) until we were all completely stuffed and quite drunk on grandfather's wine! For me, the highlight of the meal were of course the artichokes. They had been flattened with a large stone, drizzled with plenty of good olive oil and cooked over the barbeque till the outsides had blackened. The outer leaves were then peeled off and the soft insides were eaten with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon.

I have rarely found the young tender artichokes without a choke in this country but I happened to chance upon one last week and its sweet taste took me back to my time in Sicily.

I will give the recipes that Mama taught me to the best of my memory, although they may not be exactly verbatim as it is a long time since I was that 18 year old hippy!

First, how to prepare the baby artichokes:

Use artichokes that are somewhere between the size of an egg and the size of a small lemon if possible.

* Remove the outer leaves from the artichoke, with baby artichokes this will be just the first visable layer.
* Cut off the pointed top of each artichoke
* Cut off most of the stem, I leave about4cm in tact
* Cut the artichokes in half lengthways, through the heart
They are now ready to cook
n.b. If you can only get older larger artichokes you will need to remove more outer leaves unti l you reach the soft silky inner ones and you will also need to pull out the inedible choke that they do not have if they are young.

Artichoke Frittata serves 4

6 baby artichokes prepared as above
Olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
6 eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
salt and pepper

*Boil or steam the artichokes until they are quite tender
* Warm some olive oil in a nonstick frying pan, add the garlic and the artichokes and saute till the garlic is soft and the artichokes soft
* Set the artichokes aside
* Wipe the frying pan clean and then heat till medium hot and add a little oil
* Add half the beaten eggs and turn the heat to very low
* Do not stir the eggs at all and cook slowly till they start to set on top
* Carefully slide the frittata out onto a plate
* Cook the other half of the eggs in the same way until they start to set on top
* Spoon the artichokes onto the egg in the pan then season with salt and pepper
* Now carefully invert the other half of the frittata on top of the artichokes, uncooked side down, so that you have an egg and artichoke sandwich

- this is fairly tricky so use oven gloves and take it slowly

- I find the best way to do it is to put a plate on top of the frittata so you have one on the top and one on the bottom, then tip them over so the uncooked side is on the bottom then carefully slide the frittata back into the frying pan

* Now continue to cook on a very low heat till the frittata is cooked through.
* Serve with a salad or in Italian style after the pasta and before the salad, cheese then fruit

Artichoke and Pea Pasta serves 4
8 baby artichokes, prepared as above but cut into quaters
2 cloves garlic, crushed
300g frozen petit pois or other frozen peas (in season you can use 400g fresh peas)
1 tin plum tomatoes, crushed or chopped
1 heaped tablespoon tomato puree
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil + more for sauteing
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
150ml double cream
400g pasta, rigatoni, penne or other shape with little hollows to catch the peas and sauce

* Warm some olive oil in a saute pan, add the prepared artichokes and the garlic and mix to coat
* Season to taste with salt and pepper, add 200ml water, cover and simmer till tender
* Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce: Put the tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, 100ml water, sugar, tablespoon of butter or olive oil and salt and pepper in a saucepan
*Simmer this over a medium heat for 10 - 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, till thickened
* When the tomato sauce and artichokes are both cooked mix them together, add the cream and place over a very low heat while you cook the pasta
* Add the peas to the sauce when the pasta is 5 minutes from being ready
* Drain the pasta well and mix with the sauce before serving

More recipes to follow...

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Sardines in Moliets

Lying in the sunshine today reminded me of the time I spent working in the South West of France. I say working, when the reality was mainly lying on beaches, cycling through fields of sunflowers, swimming in the swimming pool and eating phenomenal food.

I had taken a job as a chef in private villas, I was the last person to sign up before the summer and the last job left was entitled 'floating chef'. This apparently meant that I had to fill in for any chef that fell in or took a holiday. Noone took a holiday and noone was ill. I had nothing to do. I realised that I may be sent home as a waste of money as I was still being paid a salary so I invented a job for myself which involved making the canapes for the villas and delivering them on my bike. This took about 1-2 hours a day. The rest of the day I was free to do as I wished. And the management thanked me for making myself useful!

The food in the area was amazing. I lived so well and so cheaply. I went to the market in the morning and bought fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast and at the weekend I sat in cafes with my croissant or my pain au chocolat and a coffee and read the papers. For lunch I had wonderful salads; nicoise, chevre, saumon fume, landaise, salad au lardons. But the best meals were in the evening when I took a bottle of wine to the beach, bought a baguette from the boulangerie and then visited the fish stall on the seafront. In England it would be a burger hut, in America a hot-dog stand but in Moilets et Maa it was a hotplate and a selection of freshly caught fish. They served fresh tuna steaks with sauted red onions and peppers, swordfish brochettes with shallots and bay leaves and best of all little sardines cooked till crisp on the hot iron and served in a piece of foil with a wedge of lemon. They were sweet and tasted of the sea. Mopping up the juices with the crusty bread and washing it all down with some great wine was heaven, especially with the sun setting over the sea. And I got to do it every night!

This dish hardly needs a recipe but here is a 'serving suggestion' so to speak:

4-6 very small sardines per person
olive oil
1 lemon
baguette and wine to serve (optional)

* Clean, gut and descale the sardines
* Rub with olive oil and sprinkle with salt
* Cook on a hot hotplate, under a grill or on a barbeque until the skin crisps and the flesh is cooked through (usually about 2-3 minutes per side, but really depends upon the size of the fish)
* Squeeze lemon juice over the sardines and serve with crusty baguette and a good bottle of wine, preferably at sunset on a beach!

Thursday, 3 May 2007

New Season English Asparagus

When I was a child my grandmother used to take me to farms near her home to buy asparagus. She lived in Bexhill and now lives in Beckley, nr Rye, both of which are not far from the Kent/East Sussex border on the South Coast of England. This, as far as my taste buds have tested, is the best place in the world to buy asparagus. When I got a bit older my grandmother started to send me a £5 note when she saw the first English asparagus in the shops so that I could fuel my love of new season asparagus. When I got a little older still, the amount increased slightly so that I could buy myself a bottle of wine to go with!

At 17 I moved out of home into a little cottage in a place called Slack Bottom (?!) on the hills above Hebden Bridge. The cottage belonged to my friend's dad and were really lucky as he worked on oil rigs so was only home two weeks a year. He let us live in his cottage for free. It was my first taste of freedom and I took the opportunity to live exactly as I wanted. This included being able to eat only my favourite things. Every time I went to the shops I would buy a bunch of asparagus, butter, lemons and eggs and lived almost entirely on asparagus and hollandaise sauce! There were a couple of deviations from this. The girl I was living with had a thing for Smash and salad cream, I have never really fathomed why, but I occasionally joined her. And my boyfriend, who had been on a family holiday to France, brought me a huge sack of olives (1200g) of various types, my favourite being the tiny purplish-black nicoise olives, which we ate with bread for snacks!

I now live in East Sussex myself, so am lucky enough to get what I consider to be the best asparagus in the world once again. Last week my boyfriend brought me back a bunch of the first asparagus from a farm shop outside of Lewes and so I will gorge myself on asparagus and hollandaise once more until the season ends in June.

Here is my recipe for asparagus with a basic hollandaise:
1 bunch English asparagus
1 large organic egg yolk
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons water
100g butter, cut into small cubes
salt and white pepper

First make the hollandaise:
* Place the egg yolk, lemon juice and water into a heatproof bowl.
* Set the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water (do not allow the water to touch the bottom of the bowl).
* Whisk over a low heat until the egg starts to thicken, be careful not to let it get too hot or cook for too long as the yolk will scramble.
* As soon as the mix starts to thicken add a cube of butter, continuing to whisk.
* As soon as the butter has melted into the sauce add the next piece and continue like this whisking all the time until all the butter has been incorporated.
* Again, make sure the sauce never gets too hot - you can have a large bowl of iced water ready to sit the sauce bowl in and cool it down at any point if you are worried.
* Set the sauce aside

For the asparagus:
* Thoroughly wash the asparagus (I do not remove the bottom of the stems as I think that they prevent the edible bit of the stalks from becoming overcooked and waterlogged and provide a good finger hold)
* Tie the asparagus into a bundle
* Place in 5cm water in an asparagus steamer, or failing that a tall saucepan covered with a cone of foil to keep in the steam
* Set over a medium heat and steam for 8 - 15 minutes depending on the thickness of the stems - they are ready when a knife slides easily into the stem just below the tip.
* Drain and serve with the hollandaise