Archive for October, 2009

Chickpeas with chilli, lime, tamarind and coriander

October 30, 2009


So, onwards and upwards: another week, another book. The central concept of Skye Gyngell’s ‘A Year In My Kitchen’ is her ‘culinary toolbox’: a palette of different flavours to be added to and combined with the recipes in the main section of the book. These occupy a scale, from sky, or top notes, to earth, or base notes. For example, base notes include a toasted mix of earthy spices like cumin, coriander and cinnamon; further up you have slow-roasted tomatoes and roasted red onions, and moving into the top notes you have flavoured yoghurt and lemon zest. The idea is that all the dishes contain a balance of notes, so those savoury notes lower down the scale are lifted by fresher tasting notes at the top to create a harmonious, well-rounded dish. It’s a nice idea, and once you’ve made the effort to prepare some of the more time-consuming toolbox items it is glorious to know that you have these little jars and boxes of concentrated flavour in the fridge just waiting to be used. Not so great if you’ve undertaken a recipe only to realise that you should have been roasting tomatoes for 3 hours already but there you go…fail to prepare and you prepare to fail etc.

I was excited by this first recipe because a) as I think we’ve already established, I love pulses in all forms and chickpeas in particular and b) while the Italian way of eating was fun, we cook mainly vegetarian and that has meant a lot of dough in one form or another. I was starting to crave something light and fresh tasting. This way of cooking is almost the complete opposite of the River Cafe’s simplicity in its wilfully complicated piling on of flavours and textures and I was really looking forward to the promising combination of heat and sharpness and warmth all at once. And, being fair, this recipe did not fail to deliver that. Only, I appreciated it a lot more when I ate it for lunch on the second day – when I ate it after having made it, I was too consumed with the raging grump that overcomes me when I’m so hungry I feel like my stomach’s trying to eat itself. See, I looked at the ingredients list, assured myself I had everything, and mistakenly assumed this would be a quick post-yoga supper. Not so, as I discovered at my cost when sitting down to eat at 9, a mere 2 hours after having started. This is, although not complicated, a looooong recipe. So, make it – but not when you’re hungry already. Or just have a snack ready.

Chickpeas with chilli, lime,  tamarind and coriander  Serves 4 as a main, 6 as a side

25g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, peeled and finely sliced
large bunch of coriander
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
2.5cm piece root ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp roasted spice mix (see below)
1 tbsp tamarind paste (Skye soaks tamarind pods in water and strains to make tamarind water – I had paste so used that)
4 carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks
2 x 400g cans of chopped tomatoes
2 cinnamon sticks
400g cooked weight chickpeas
100ml maple syrup
100ml tamari
juice of 2-3 limes

For the roasted spice mix (makes small jar full):
1-2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
5 cardamom pods
2-3 star anise or cloves
50g of each of the following: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds

Heat a heavy frying pan over a low heat. Add the spices and dry fry, stirring frequently, until you can smell the toasted aroma and the seeds start to pop. Remove from the heat and grind to a fine powder in a food processor or pestle and mortar (the second method is apparently better, but would have taken a more patient person than me).

For the main recipe, melt half the butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat, until foaming. Pour in the olive oil and add the onions. Sweat gently for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, wash the coriander, separate the leaves from the stems and chop the stems and roots until you have about 2 tbsp worth. I love this! She uses the coriander stems in everything!

Add the garlic, chilli, ginger, coriander roots and stems, spice mix and tamarind to the pan. Stir well for about a minute, then add the carrots, tomatoes and cinnamon. Stir to combine. Cover, turn the heat to low and leave for 1 hour (stirring occasionally).

Add the chickpeas, maple syrup and tamari and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Add the remaining butter and lime juice and stir well. Now taste: you are looking for a balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet which is “totally satisfying”. At first I thought mine tasted too salty – which is saying a lot for me – it seemed to mellow out later, but  I would caution against using all the tamari at first. I’m also not sure the big clod of butter at the end was entirely necessary, so if you don’t like big clods of butter leave it out.

Finish by stirring through the coriander leaves and serve. I ate mine with brown basmati rice but I imagine flatbreads would also be nice, or have it to accompany a lamb dish as Skye suggests.

Taken from Skye Gyngell’s ‘A Year In My Kitchen’.


Focaccia with salt & potato and rosemary pizza

October 26, 2009


That whole hibernation thing still seems pretty tempting. Yesterday I managed not to leave the house until about 5pm, and that was only to go to the corner shop. We briefly toyed with the idea of going to the cinema, but it just seemed like sooo much effort that we decided to stay in and eat potato pizza in front of Come Dine With Me instead.

On the upside, my kitchen was astoundingly productive yesterday. I prepared a few things for this week’s featured book, Skye Gyngell’s ‘A Year In My Kitchen’, about which more to follow, and I rounded off week two of the River Cafe with attempts at focaccia and pizza dough. You know it’s been a good Sunday when you’ve got through a kilo of flour.

I was pretty happy with both efforts – a touch disappointed when the focaccia emerged from the oven and looked generally a bit neat and firm and not really porous or oily enough to be authentic, but when we cut into it (perhaps a bit too soon) it was good: fluffy but doughy with a light, crisp crust, perhaps not quite as olive-oil rich as true focaccia but good nonetheless.

The pizza, similarly, was not quite thin enough if one was being picky, but I like dough. I also, as documented previously, like carb-on-carb action, so the idea of thinly sliced potatoes layered with pecorino cheese and sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt appealed both in idea and practice. And there you have it, my hibernation fare: bread, salt, potatoes.


Focaccia with salt  Makes one loaf

I halved the recipe as written, which they say serves 10. I still managed to get about 10 hefty chunks out of my loaf. I also adapted it to use dried, rather than fresh, yeast – I use the dried, granular kind which you rehydrate in water.

375g Tipo ’00’ flour (if you don’t have an Italian deli, you should be able to get this from a well-stocked supermarket; mine came from Waitrose)
1/2 tbsp finely ground sea salt, plus non-ground for scattering over the top
6g, or 1 heaped tsp, active dry yeast
75ml olive oil, plus around an extra 25ml for cooking

Measure out around 250ml warm water. You may need a little less, but the recipe says the dough should be soft and pliable so I erred on the side of more. Sprinkle the yeast over the top and stir it in vigorously. Leave for 10-15 mins in a warm place: it should start to bubble and produce froth.

Mix the flour and salt  together in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in the olive oil and yeasty water gradually, until you can form the mixture into a dough with one hand. When you have something of a kneadable consistency, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until elastic.

Put the dough back in the bowl, cover, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. This should take about an hour.

When the dough has doubled, lightly oil a baking tray (mine was about 20cm x 10cm). Roll the dough out to fill the tray and brush it with oil to stop it drying out (which I forgot to do…) Cover and prove for another 3o mins. Then dimple the dough with your fingertips, leaving a border around the edge, and leave for the final proving, around 30 mins.

Heat the oven to 200c. Sprinkle sea salt over the loaf. You can also add sprigs of rosemary here, which I did. Mix around 25ml each of olive oil and water in a jar and pour this over the focaccia before putting in the oven (apparently this helps keep the dough soft in the grooves). It should be ready in about 25mins, when it’s golden in colour and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.


Potato, pecorino and rosemary pizza Makes 2 large or 4 small pizzas

Again, I halved the original recipe and adapted it to use dried yeast.

For the pizza dough:
500g Tipo ‘0’ flour, ’00’ or plain flour – I used ’00’.
6g, or 1 heaped tsp, dried active yeast
250ml warm water

It must be warm for this dough to work – the book very specifically says over 25c. Well, it wasn’t the most eco-friendly of recipes: I whacked the thermostat up to 25c and shut the doors. I did turn off the radiators in the other rooms though.

As before, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and stir in. Leave in a warm place for 10-15 mins or until frothy.

Place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and add half the yeast mixture. Combine with your hands and then add the remaining yeast mixture until you have a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured worksurface and knead for 10 minutes, until elastic. Oil the bowl and place the dough back in, covering well. Leave to rise in your warm place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size.

Tip the dough back onto your floured surface and knead again for 2-3 mins. Return to the oiled bowl and leave for a further 30 mins (or until you want to make the pizza). Divide the dough into 2-4 balls and roll out thinly into circles or rectangles.

Preheat the oven to 230c. If you have a pizza stone, put it in the oven on the bottom shelf. If not, use a baking tray. You should use your fan-assisted setting if you have one.

For the topping:
2 large potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
sea salt and ground black pepper
olive oil
125g fresh pecorino
3 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Rinse and dry the potato slices (I didn’t bother). Place them in a bowl and drizzle lightly with olive oil to coat. Season and mix together.

Slice the cheese into thin slices, cutting off any hard skin. Pick the leaves off the rosemary.

Place a single, slightly overlapping layer of potatoes on your pizza bases, leaving a border around the edge. Lay the pecorino on top and scatter with rosemary, salt and pepper.

Slide the pizza onto the baking tray or pizza stone and bake for about 10 mins – the potatoes should be cooked through. Serve immediately, although I found this made a great packed lunch the next day even if it was a bit chewy round the edges.

Adapted from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ ‘The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook’.

Squash and potato gnocchi

October 24, 2009


So, where was I? And why did I think it was wise to move onto White Russians when already quite drunk on red wine last night? It was not wise. I think White Russians are one of those things I just like too much, as in it’s dangerous to even go near them. They send me into a sort of milky hypnosis and before I know it I just have a clouded empty glass full of melting icecubes and I’ve ordered another one. Also, I thought I was over the stage in my life when I went out and got very drunk every weekend and woke up feeling groggy and hungover, but, what do you know, apparently I’m regressing.

Anyway, in a more grown-up moment during this week I decided to turn my hand to making gnocchi for the first time. I like gnocchi, but they’ve always seemed a bit daunting and maybe I just didn’t like them enough to make the effort. But being on week two of River Cafe seemed like a good enough excuse, and besides, we need to eat something other than pasta. The recipe seemed simple enough: boil up some potatoes, roast some pumpkin/squash, mash together, roll into balls, boil. Well, it was simple, no unexpected hitches here. What I didn’t foresee was quite the level of kitchen carnage that would result: bits of dough caked onto the work surfaces, every pan we own piled dangerously high, floury parmesan and eggshells scattered among the debris. Generally, this kind of scene is not infrequent since I’m often at least a bit over-ambitious in my dinner plans and we have a very small kitchen, but this was bad. Luckily, we had just enough time after eating to clean it all up before sitting down with the rest of the wine in front of Masterchef: The Professionals. Phew.


Squash and potato gnocchi  Serves 4

800g potatoes, preferably floury
500g pumpkin or squash (I used butternut)
olive oil
2 dried red chillies, crumbled
1 tsp dried oregano
salt and pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
200g plain flour, plus more for rolling out
50g parmesan or pecorino

Boil the potatoes in a large pan of salted water for about 30 minutes with the skin on. When cooked and soft, drain and peel, then put through a ricer or mouli while still warm. This bit was messy – have you ever tried peeling a softened potato which is actually still very hot because you’re worried about having to mash it while still warm? I’m not sure you couldn’t just peel them before boiling them in the usual way. Also, I don’t have a ricer or mouli so I just used a potato masher.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C. Peel the pumpkin or squash, slice in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Cut into 3-4cm cubes and put on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Drizzle over enough oil to lightly coat, then mix in the chillies and oregano and season (I suggest doing the oiling etc. on the baking tray to save washing up, rather than in the separate bowl they suggest). Cover with another layer of baking paper and bake in the oven until soft, they suggest 30 minutes, mine took about 45 mins. Anyway, bake until soft enough to mash. Then mash with your mouli, ricer, masher or whatever. I also did this in the same bowl with the potatoes, again to save washing up, but you can mash separately and then mix together. Then make a crater in the middle and pour in the beaten eggs and add seasoning.

Add the flour a little at a time. At some point you need to get your hands in there and start kneading it into a dough. Now, the recipe adds ominously, “it is essential to work the dough quickly, as the longer it is worked, the heavier the gnocchi become.” The River Cafe ladies will often take this stern tone with you. It’s OK, it’s only because they care. I’m not sure I was that quick, but my gnocchi didn’t seem that heavy. Or no heavier than you would expect a dumpling made out of potato thickened with flour to be, anyway…

Lightly dust a work surface with flour (if you can find a clean one). Shape the dough into several long rolls about 1.5cm in diameter – about 4 rolls in my case. Cut each roll into 2cm pieces and form them into a gnocchi shape with your hands. You can also use a fork to get the typical groove pattern, but I didn’t feel like bothering by this stage. You may be able to detect the lack of effort in the picture of hopelessly unevenly sized potato boulders at the top. The taste is the important thing, right?

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Gently lower in the gnocchi, about a dozen or so at a time. Stir them and they should rise to the surface after a minute or two. They should be done in about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and, if necessary, keep them warm in the oven while you finish the other batches.

Serve on warm plates, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with the cheese. We also had their suggested sauce of butter melted with sage leaves, which was nice, but I think next time I’ll try them with tomato sauce. The good thing is, if you made too much, you can freeze them (open freeze on a baking tray first and then when hard transfer to a freezer bag). Now, next time you want gnocchi all you have to do is whip them out of the freezer and give them a brief boil in water.

Taken from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ ‘The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook’.

Bucatini with salted anchovies

October 24, 2009

Forget what I said about autumn, how excited I was about it and how great and cosy and lovely and russet it would be. Now I just want to climb under my duvet and stay there until it’s all over. Or at least until we get to the bit where there are holidays.

Fortunately, River Cafe Week Two delivered a couple of stand out recipes that lightened my dreary days, as I hope they will yours too. The first one is called bucatini con acciughe (that’s bucatini with salted anchovies, and it’s only just occurred to me that that last word might sound a bit like a seasonal sneeze). I love anchovies. They come very high up my list of small salty things that I like, above capers and olives but below, um, salt. Any recipe that involves making a sauce by melting anchovies into garlicky olive oil is alright by me. And then when you add chilli and lemon zest and parsley and you somehow get something darkly savoury but also fresh and salty and citrussy and mmmm, you accidentally ate all of the sauce, half of which you meant to leave for your boyfriend. But it’s OK, you left him a note instructing him to make more. You wouldn’t want him to miss out.

The other good thing about this dish is the pangratto, which is sourdough breadcrumbs which you’ve gently fried in more garlicky olive oil until they’re toasty and crisp and sort of taste pleasantly of grease without being greasy. I’m also strangely drawn to recipes that contain more than one type of carbohydrate, so this was really the icing on the cake (or the potato on the pizza, if you will).

Second dish to follow…




Bucatini with salted anchovies  Serves 4

The recipe is very instructive on the Cantabrian anchovy and the Mediterranean anchovy and the relative merits thereof, specifically advising you to “avoid the little jars”. Well, I chose to ignore them as a little jar was what I had and it tasted very nice to me. That said, it’s probably best to up the amount you use if you do the same as proper anchovies are bigger. I kept the amount the same but more sauce would have been good. Mmmm, tasty salty sauce.

For the sauce:
4 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
12 salted anchovy fillets, from a tin, sold in Italian, Spanish or Greek delis, washed and chopped (or more of the small ones from a jar – maybe 18? No need to wash or chop)
2 dried red chillies, crumbled
black pepper
zest and juice of one lemon
3 tbsp parsley, chopped
350g bucatini or pici (I used linguine – well, if you’ve already used anchovies from a jar…)

For the pangratto:
100ml olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled but whole
1 small ciabatta loaf, crusts removed, pulsed into breadcrumbs in a food processor (oh, and I used a chunk of sourdough. And I left the crusts on. This made a lot of breadcrumbs, anyway)

Start with the pangratto. Heat the oil in a large frying pan (they say small pan, but then I couldn’t fit in the immense amount of breadcrumbs) and cook the garlic cloves in it over a low heat for around 5 minutes until brown. Remove the garlic from the oil and discard. Add the breadcrumbs to the pan, push them down into the oil and cook until crisped and brown. They say 5-10 minutes, I say more like 15. They also say to drain them on kitchen paper, but mine just kind of absorbed all the oil so I left them.

Put the pasta on to boil. To make the sauce, heat the oil (the other lot) in a medium sized pan. Fry the chopped garlic for a couple of minutes until coloured and then reduce the heat as low as it will go. Add the anchovies and break them up with a wooden spoon until they melt. After about 5 minutes, crumble in the chillies and season with pepper. Remove from the heat, add the lemon zest and juice and the parsley. Taste – you can now add more olive oil if you want to thin it out.

When the pasta is cooked, drain (keeping back a little of the cooking water). Add the sauce to the pasta with the reserved water and toss over a low heat for a couple of minutes until the sauce coats the pasta. Mix in the pangratto and serve. Feel a lot better now.

From Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ ‘The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook’.

Not-really-a-disaster biscuits

October 17, 2009


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This biscuit wasn’t meant to turn out like that. It was meant to be a cantuccini from the new River Cafe book, Classic Italian – the little, brittle crunchy biscuits that you sometimes get on the side of a glass of sweet wine as pudding in Italian restaurants. I love that. I applaud the person who decided that booze plus biscuit equals dessert.

This, on the other hand, was a giant, altogether more biscotti-like affair, crisp at the edges but still a little soft in the centre – definitely firm to the bite, but with a solidly yielding rather than a shattery crumb. So, in respect of the fact that what I ended up with was definitely not what I set out to, this was a recipe disaster. Except it wasn’t, because these biscuits were lovely: well packed with roasted almonds and hazelnuts, softly lemony, they filled the house with the most comforting scent of baking that I oddly felt a bit christmassy all of a sudden. Unassuming but a little bit sophisticated, I think these can do double duty as an afternoon coffee biscuit and an after-dinner treat.

We had a friend round for dinner and these were dessert with a couple of scoops of Green & Black’s vanilla ice-cream and some raisins that had been macerating for a few hours in a small glass of pineau des charentes blanc. We also had pork roasted in balsamic vinegar with roast potatoes and green beans with parmesan, which was also delicious, but I forgot to take any photos and Tom made most of it.

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So, the recipe, and my issues with it. Ruth and Rose claim that, once you’ve mixed all your ingredients together, you’ll have a thick dough which you will be able to separate into three and form into sausages. This just didn’t happen with me – I double checked I’d put everything in, in the right quantities, but what I had was more like a batter than a dough. There was no way it was being shaped into anything, so I just dolloped it into the tray and hoped for the best. For the second baking stage I sliced down the length of the tray to make long biscuits, rather than the one-third sized ones I was meant to have. They took much longer to cook than stated, which was understandable, but neither did they ever achieve the dark brown colour of the photo in the book. When I went to see Ruth Rogers speak recently she claimed that Penguin, who published this book, had been especially rigorous in making them test the recipes – which begs the question, was I just being an idiot in some way? And also, were the recipes never tested in any of the previous books?! Well, there is a happy ending to this story.

Cantuccini  Makes 30 biscuits, or by my method, 12.

250g whole blanched almonds
100g softened butter
150g caster sugar
3 large free-range eggs
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
50g blanched almonds, ground to a flour (I used ground almonds)
zest of 2 lemons
150g peeled hazelnuts (I didn’t peel mine –  the rebellion!)

Preheat the oven to 150c. Spread the whole almonds on a baking tray and roast them in the oven until light brown and toasty. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Put the softened butter in a mixing bowl with the sugar and eggs and mix together. Then sieve in the flour and baking powder. I still had some buttery lumps, but it didn’t seem to matter. This is the point at which the book claims you will have a ‘thick dough’. Fold in the ground almonds and lemon zest and stir through the roasted almonds and hazelnuts.

Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper – you’ll probably want to lightly grease it to be on the safe side. Supposedly you now divide the dough into three and form each piece into a flattened sausage. Otherwise, just stick the dough onto the tray. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the dough is springy, firm and very lightly golden. Leave to cool.

When cooled, cut the dough into biscuits about 1.5cm in width. Peel them off the paper and lay them back on the tray cut side up. Put them back in the oven to bake until they are a deeper brown and appear crisp and dry, turning when one side is done. The book says up to 15 mins per side. I got distracted and have no idea how long mine took in the end, but probably about 20-25 minutes each side. I’m also not sure the turning is strictly necessary; if you have big biscuits like mine you risk them falling apart and I think it’s acceptable to bake them on one side. When they’re done the surface should be dry and hard and they should have become easier to move.

Adapted from Rose Gray and Rose Rogers’ ‘The River Cafe Classic Italian Cook Book’.


October 17, 2009

Believe me when I tell you, as I am about to, that these beans are amazing. Discount the fact that I am a bean obsessive, a pulse evangelist if you will. These are some good beans. Even though previous to making these I’d had such a bad day that I had to eat a whole bar of Lindt to try and comfort myself, the beans were still the food highlight of my day, if not the highlight full stop.

The original recipe, in the River Cafe’s first book, is simply called ‘Cannelini’, and that is what they use. I used borlotti because they were the only dried beans I had – they’re one of my favourites for their pinky-purple shells and their rustic freckles, like little mini eggs, though sadly this washes out in the bath.

You must use dried beans for the texture. Comfort yourself with the pleasingly frugal and homely sight of them soaking overnight next to the sink. An important step which I picked up here is the addition of bicarbonate of soda to the soaking water – this really made a huge difference to the cooking time, which can run to an hour or more if your beans are a little old.

Once soaked, the steps of boiling, draining and boiling again may seem a little arduous, but you don’t have to do much once they’re bubbling away and you do get a fairly huge yield of tasty beans.


That unwieldy bunch of greenery there is sage. You throw that into the simmering pot with some unpeeled garlic and a tomato (I’m not entirely sure what the tomato did, but it was there so I added it) and then, when the beans are cooked and soft to the tooth you drain them and dress with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. What you get is almost silky, barely fragrant with the autumnal musk of sage and garlic, subtle enough to be soothing but, when lukewarm, almost addictively delicious.

These sat happily on the side of penne with tomato and balsamic vinegar and a mushroom risotto the following night, but I wanted to scoop them up with everything.

Borlotti Serves 6 as a side
250g dried borlotti beans (or other dried beans e.g. cannellini, chickpeas)
2 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
1 large tomato
1/2 bulb of garlic, unpeeled
A handful of fresh sage leaves
2 tbsp red wine vinegar (or the recipe suggests you can use lemon juice)
4-6 tbsp olive oil (I used a little less than they suggest)
salt and pepper

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water with the bicarbonate of soda added. The next day, drain the beans and place in a large saucepan. Cover with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes and then drain again.

Again cover with water and add the tomato, cloves of garlic from the bulb, and sage. Return to the boil and then lower to a simmer, covered, until cooked. You may find greyish scum will form on the surface of the water, which you can skim off. The recipe suggests the beans will take between 40 minutes to 1 1/2 hours to cook, mine actually took a little less – I may have been a bit over vigorous with the initial boiling. In any case, try tasting one and when it’s as soft as you’d like, they’re done.

To serve, drain and dress with the vinegar or lemon juice, oil, and salt and pepper. I think warm room temperature is good. An optional step in the River Cafe recipes involves crushing two extra garlic cloves with a little salt and mixing this in at the end, which I didn’t feel was necessary given that I’d just used almost all my garlic. That said, garlic and salt are two of my very favourite things, so next time I make this I may try the variation.

Adapted from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ ‘The River Cafe Cook Book’.


October 17, 2009

This week it was my turn to host our book group. As it’s also River Cafe week, I decided an Italian snack theme would be appropriate – those colossal juicy green olives and the smaller black ones with chilli for people who like olives, beetroot and parsnip crisps (not strictly Italian, but they are good) for the crisps component, and to go with them I would try my hand at making grissini.

There is a grissini recipe in the new River Cafe book, but it contains semolina and ‘OO’ flour and generally sounded a bit unachievable without a trip to the shops. Turning to Stephanie Alexander’s ‘A Cook’s Companion’ , I found an alternative which mentioned giving your finished breadsticks a bath in garlic and fennel seed scented olive oil, which all sounded rather lovely.

I didn’t change much of the original, though I did use my Cotswold Crunch granary bread flour instead of strong white for a bit of added goodness. I also discovered that rolling tiny balls of dough into sticks with a rolling pin is difficult and it’s much easier to just roll them between your hands (a bit like playdough) while pulling them into stick shapes. And, in the interests of washing up, I dispensed with the step of rolling the grissini in olive oil and transferring them to a different tray to bake, instead just using less oil in one tray.

Unthinkingly I only made one batch, a grand total of 15 breadsticks – not enough, semi-intellectual conversation is surprisingly hunger-forming . This was also a quite silly amount of dough to prove and not particularly economical since I had to turn the heating on to get them to rise. Next time I would try at least doubling the recipe. However, they were pleasingly rustic looking and went down well, being generally better received all round than Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy. Admittedly they could have been a bit crisper for authenticity, although I kind of liked the breadiness.


Grissini Makes 12-15

125g plain or wholemeal bread flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp instant dried yeast
pinch of sugar
2 tsp olive oil
65ml lukewarm water
olive oil, for flavour bath
1 clove garlic, bruised
1 tsp fennel seeds

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water for 10-15 minutes. Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Add the yeast, water and olive oil to the bowl and mix into a dough. Knead well until smooth.

Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and stand in a warm place until doubled in size (this should take 30mins to 1 hour). Gently knock back and leave to double in size again (around 15 mins).

Preheat the oven to 180C. Divide the dough into about 15 small balls and then stretch and roll them between your palms to elongate them into sticks about 20-25cm long. Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a baking tray with the garlic and fennel seeds and roll the grissini in the oil until coated. Sprinkle with salt and bake for 10 mins, before shaking the tray to turn the grissini and baking for a further 10-15 mins. They should be quite crisp. Cool on a wire rack.

Adapted from Stephanie Alexander’s ‘A Cook’s Companion’.

Rye and thyme flatbread

October 14, 2009

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This one was adapted from Bill Granger’s ‘Every Day’ recipe for Rosemary and Olive Spelt Bread – fairly heavily adapted, since I had neither rosemary, olives, nor spelt. I wanted to buy spelt flour, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’m constantly drawn towards like a magnet in Waitrose, but this time I fought it’s evil spell because spelt flour is really quite expensive and I sensibly decided to use the half-full/empty (delete as outlook appropriate) bag of rye flour in my baking cupboard. What, you don’t have a baking cupboard?

What you end up with is focaccia crossed with a wholemeal loaf – the satisfying salt sprinkle and Italianate herbiage of focaccia but with an infinitely more wholesome and denser breadcrumb underneath. I used almonds and thyme on top of mine, which I liked, but I imagine you could use pretty much any woody herb and whatever springs to mind as a suitable bread topping – you just need something you can poke into the holes on top.

Rye and thyme flatbread
250g spelt flour, or rye flour
250g plain flour
1 tsp honey
300ml tepid water
7g instant dried yeast
3 tbsp olive oil
sea salt
decorative items: rosemary or thyme sprigs, pitted olives, almonds, pumpkin seeds, roasted tomatoes etc.

Stir the two flours together in a large bowl. Take out about one quarter of the combined flour mix and put it in a small bowl with the honey and water. Whisk to mix, sprinkle the yeast over the top, mix again and set aside for 10-15 mins until it starts to look bubbly.

Add the oil and 2 tsp salt to the big bowl of flour. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeast mix. Stir to combine into a dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes until pliable and smooth. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover, and leave to rise for an hour or until doubled in size.

Knock the dough back and leave it for 5 minutes. Lightly oil a rectangular baking tray and pile the dough into the tray, stretching it out until it reaches the edges and is fairly even in shape.

Cover the dough again and leave it for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 220C.

Poke holes in the dough with your thumb and push your chosen decorative items into the holes. Brush the top with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake it for 10 minutes before reducing the heat to 190C, then bake for a further 12-15 minutes  until golden brown.

The alphabet

October 14, 2009

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So, now I have a few posts up, perhaps it’s time for an explanation.

The alphabet of alphabet soup represents, clearly, the A-Z, the things of which words are made out of. The soup represents the food, the nourishment, of which the meals that pass the days that make a life worth living are made out of. And here, that means recipe books. I don’t know when my obsession with recipe books began, but it shows no signs of abating. And being a Person Who Likes Order, I needed a way to feel like I was in control of the recipes, that they weren’t just sitting there multiplying and brooding over their neglected un-cookedness. Because it was a bit like what I imagine living in London would be like – whatever you’re doing, you suspect there might be something better and more exciting you could be doing somewhere else (you don’t have that problem in Oxford): whatever I was cooking, I suspected there was a more delicious, more sophisticated recipe I could have been cooking from something else. I needed method! I needed a system, goddamnit!

So, I alphabetised my recipe book collection. The system is thus: one week, one book, from Alexander to Worrall Thompson (the alphabetical limits as they stand). I know, what’s that I said about Oxford? That’s right, it’s just not big enough to cope with the hedonistic debauched lifestyle I lead.

There are a few books of recipe collections which refuse irritatingly to fit into the alphabetised system: a Leith’s Vegetarian Bible, a couple of Good Housekeeping volumes, the Covent Garden soup book (mmm, looking forward to that week) so they sit on the end and we’ll get to those when we come to them. I also do allow myself to cook ‘off-system’ occasionally if I have ingredients to use up and no recipes in the current book with said ingredients. Because if there’s one thing worse than deviating from a well-ordered system, it’s waste.

So far I’m on G, but the implementation of the Alphabet System seems to have done nothing to halt my craven book buying, so the end of the project becomes ever further away. Either that, or I buy things I won’t get to cook from for, potentially, years, because they are pre-G. Minor flaws though, merely.

Ruth Rogers

October 12, 2009


Today, my mum and I went on our annual outing to Cheltenham Literary Festival. She had alerted me to a brilliant offer on a talk by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray followed by a 3 course River Cafe themed menu at a local restaurant, but sadly it was fully booked before we got our tickets. I’ve never been to the River Cafe but I do have their first book, the blue one, and although I don’t cook from it much the recipes always seem so simple and pure and appealing that when I open it I want to rush out to the nearest Italian deli and invite my friends round. So, we booked for the talk, still hoping there might be a cancellation, but we weren’t so lucky. And then we arrived to a notice that Rose Gray would not be attending due to ill health. My spirits sunk a little at this point, but, as it turned out, Ruth Rogers did a good job of making up for her absent partner by seeming genuinely interested and engaged; her enthusiasm even in the face of questions she must have been made to consider many times before was quite compelling and her answers were thoroughly informative. She also managed to seem enviably both poised and relaxed, really the kind of person you wanted to imagine hanging out in the kitchen with. And I dug her outfit – red checked dress, thick grey tights, jewel-blue shoes.

Afterwards we had lunch at a completely bizarre ‘pacific-rim fusion’ restaurant owned by Norwegians. Pacific-rim fusion translated into Norwegian is apparently ‘mexican’. I had a burrito which tasted like Pringles Tex-Mex BBQ flavour: I’m not sure Ruth would have approved. Undeterred, a redeeming scone and cup of earl grey in a nearby cafe and we were ready for some poetry.  And, I now have in my possession a signed copy of the new River Cafe recipe book, River Cafe Classic Italian – I just need to email that dinner invite…