Saturday, 27 June 2009

A Relaxed Dinner Party for a Summer Evening

I love having folks round for dinner, but when it is hot out, the idea of slaving in the kitchen really does not appeal. So how do you make the occasion special without baking yourself as well as the food? We had friends round for dinner on Thursday and the menu I chose meant that not only could I serve a meal that impressed, but we could all stay cool and enjoy it.

Most people really do not enjoy eating heavy food in the summer anyway so as a start, I decided to reduce the number of courses we were going to have. Normally, a special dinner in England will include four courses – starter (entrée), main course, dessert and then cheese and biscuits. As I figure a main course is pretty much indispensible and in this family we all love dessert and cheese, it was a pretty easy choice to eliminate the starter.

In order to keep the house, and me, cool, calm and collected, I needed to use the oven as little as possible. That’s pretty hard when you are having a dinner party. I decided that a dinner salad was an easy and delicious solution to this problem. My favorite salad of the moment is my Strawberry and Macadamia Nut Salad, but as it does not really involve much protein (except maybe the nuts), I figured I might have to tweak it a bit to make it a bit more substantial. This was quite easy once I started to think about it. A lot of the dinner salads I make use chicken breasts, and this was the perfect meat to add to strawberries, macadamias and a dressing that had a balsamic vinegar base. I figured if I cooked the chicken early in the morning, it would not be such a warm job, and I could then chill it and slice it later. Just to “tweak” the flavour of the salad a bit I decided to add some thinly sliced sweet red onion. It was a good idea. Of course, if you are vegetarian, you could just leave out the chicken and use more nuts.

Chicken, Strawberry and Macadamia Nut Salad

To serve five to six people, you need:-

5 or 6 cooked , cooled and chilled chicken breasts
(I used an extra couple of tablespoons of the balsamic vinegar dressing listed below to marinate the chicken, but this is entirely optional.)
five to six cups mixed salad leaves
(I used a bag of mixed salad and added about a cup of torn iceberg lettuce)
about 25 – 30 strawberries, washed, drained and sliced
(each strawberry should be sliced in three to four slices)
One half a small sweet red onion, peeled and sliced in very thin rounds
2 generous handfuls of macadamia nuts
5 - 6 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar salad dressing
(If you can’t find ready-made salad dressing in the grocery store, make your own by shaking together 4 tablespoons olive oil with 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon of white sugar. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days.)

Toss the salad leaves, half the sliced strawberries, half the onion and half the macadamia nuts in a large salad bowl with the salad dressing. Divide between five or six large salad or dinner plates. Slice each chicken breast in five to six slices and place a chicken breast on each plate Divide the rest of the strawberry slices, nuts and onion between them. Serve a little extra salad dressing on the side if you like. Again, if you can’t get ready made, just double the recipe I’ve given you for homemade.

So that was the main course sorted out, but what to serve for dessert? Well, fruit salad is always an easy and delicious summer choice, but as we had salad as our main course, I thought we could afford to indulge a little. I still wanted to keep things light though, so I decided to go with my Raspberry Almond Tart. As I was able to bake it in the morning while it was still cool outside, I didn’t have to use the oven much in the warm evening!

Raspberry Almond Tart

For the crust:-

125 grams cold butter, diced in small cubes
200 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
50 grams ground almonds
2 tablespoons caster or granulated (white) sugar
(vanilla sugar is lovely if you have it)
2 - 3 tablespoons milk

For the filling:-

2 - 3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

40 grams butter, melted
100 grams white sugar
90 grams ground almonds
10 grams plain flour
1 egg, plus one egg yolk, lightly beaten together
3 tablespoons half fat crème fraîche
1 tablespoon Amaretto liqueur
1 teaspoon almond flavouring
1 cup fresh raspberries, washed and well drained

For the topping:-
1/4 cup flaked almonds
1 - 2 tablespoons white sugar

To make the filling, blend together the butter, flour, ground almonds and sugar until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. You can do this in a mixer or food processor or with a pastry cutter. Now gradually add the milk, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the mixture just begins to cling together and you can form it into a ball. (You may not need the whole 3 tablespoons of milk.)

Dust your hands with a little flour and press the mixture into a fairly deep 10 inch (25 centimeter) round pie plate, working the pastry up the sides until you have formed a proper crust. (There is nothing to stop you rolling this pastry out if you want to, but I’m not a big fan of rolling pastry out, so I simply press it into the pan.)

Place the raspberry jam in a microwaveable bowl and very carefully on a low heat setting microwave the jam for about thirty seconds or until it is of an almost pourable consistency. Using a pastry brush, brush the jam over the bottom of the crust, covering it completely. Set the pastry case aside.

Blend together all the remaining filling ingredients except the raspberries until smooth. At this point you have a choice. You can very carefully fold the raspberries into the filling mixture and then very carefully pour the filling into the pie plate OR you can pour half the filling mixture into the pastry case, arrange the raspberries over top, and then pour the remaining filling mixture over the raspberries. The latter is the fiddly, time consuming option but it gives much better results as the first option can cause the raspberries to fall to pieces leaving the resulting tart delicious, but not very pretty to look at.

Mix together the flaked almonds and sugar and sprinkle them over top of the tart. Bake at 160 C (fan oven - 350 F normal oven) for about twenty minutes and then turn the oven back to about 150 C (300 F) and cook for another five to fifteen minutes, depending on your oven. The filling should be well set when the tart is cooked and it should be a lovely golden colour. You have to really watch this tart to make sure it does not over brown. I also always turn the pie plate half way through cooking to ensure it browns evenly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving.

After that, all we needed was a selection of cheese and biscuits to enjoy with our port in the garden after dinner.

The dinner went very well, and it was one of the easiest dinner parties I have ever served. We started the evening with a choice of Champagne or Kir Royale (blackcurrant liqueur (Cassis) topped up with Champagne) in the garden. We came back into the dining room for the dinner salad, which was delicious served with warm dinner rolls. (I enlisted the help of the Pillsbury Dough Boy so I only had to keep the oven on for about fifteen minutes.) I served a choice of either white or red wine with this. The white was a 2008 Italian Lugana wine called Cà dei Frati and the red was a year 2000 Côtes de Castillon called Johanna from the “Vieux Chateau Champs de Mars”. We enjoyed our Raspberry Almond Tart with good organic vanilla ice cream by Green and Blacks and a glass of the yummy 2007 Brown Brothers Orange Muscat and Flora dessert wine.

I remembered to get the cheese out of the fridge about fifteen minutes before I served it (normally I would say a half hour, but it really was hot!). We had a delicious Cornish Brie (a contradiction in terms as strictly speaking Brie has to be French, but the folks from Cornwall kind of turn a blind eye to that, and they do make lovely cheese), an Oxford Blue and some Cerne Abbas, a delicious artisanal cheese. I always buy my cheese from Greys Cheese Company in Pangbourne, Berkshire, a wonderful little shop. I get a lot of my wine there too. It’s worth looking for small shops and producers as the quality and selection is so much better than in supermarkets. I served Warre’s Optima Port (a ten year old tawny port) with the cheese and also the remainder of the red wine for those who, like me, are not that keen on Port.

It was a wonderful evening and this menu was such a success. It’s a great one for a lovely summer evening and you can easily increase of decrease quantities depending on the number of guests. Here’s to lots of relaxed summer entertaining – for you, as well as your guests!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Prawn and Scallop Rosé Risotto

Good rosé wine is an wonderful wine for summer evenings. I’m not talking about the old rosés of twenty years ago, which came in strangely shaped bottles and bore an amazing resemblance to paint stripper, but rather the fresh, bright tasting ones you can get today. Many of these hail from France and Spain and can be a refreshing, light drink for a summer afternoon or evening. Choose a really good wine as you want to be able drink the remainder of the bottle with your dinner, and it does make a huge difference to the taste of the finished dish. (This recipe will serve two, but is easily doubled.)

1 tablespoon butter
1 finely chopped white onion
175 to 200 grams risotto rice
(Arborio, Vialone or Carnaroli rice are best)
1 (250 ml) glass of good rosé wine
half a litre of chicken stock (made from a couple cubes is fine)
the juice of a lemon
sprinkling of tarragon (fresh or dried)
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil (not Extra Virgin)
5 raw scallops per person
3 large raw prawns per person (de-veined)

Melt the butter in a deep saucepan and fry the onion until it is translucent. Add the risotto rice and toss in the buttery onions.

Add the glass of rosé and stir until it is absorbed. Gradually add the chicken stock, stirring after each addition until absorbed.

Just before the last addition of stock to the risotto, heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Toss in the scallops and cook for three to four minutes. Now add the raw prawns, and cook until they are pink and the scallops are cooked through.

Pour half the lemon juice in the risotto and stir so it absorbs. Pour the other half over the seafood, along with a sprinkling of tarragon and salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the risotto between two serving bowls or plates and top with the seafood.

Serve with a glass of cold, crisp rosé, and (I hope this isn’t too bossy) eat in the garden on a warm summer evening.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A Father's Day Lunch

Sunday Lunch is an institution in England. Although sitting down with your family to share lunch on this day of rest in the busy post-modern age is hardy a weekly event anymore, most people manage it whenever they can. And they almost always manage it on special occasions like Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

It used to be that Sunday lunch was nearly always cooked at home. A roast that took all morning to prepare, served with potatoes, vegetables and a rich dessert was traditional. Today a lot of people are so tired out by the time Sunday comes that cooking something that takes so long to prepare is less than appealing, so many of us choose to eat Sunday lunch in a restaurant instead of cooking it at home.

My family don’t have Sunday lunch every week. In fact, as I come from Canada, I much prefer to have a Sunday dinner later in the afternoon. I find eating so much at lunchtime can make me very sluggish for the rest of the day. But every once in a while I have to give in, and as today was Father’s Day it seemed a good time to treat my British husband to a traditional Sunday lunch.

I did not, however, want to treat my husband to the stress and steams that goes along with cooking said lunch, particularly now the weather is getting warmer. Nor did I want to subject myself to the stress of cooking a heavy meal on a day that was supposed to be a day of rest.

This is why today found us deep in the Berkshire countryside, at the wonderful Boathouse at The Beetle and Wedge in Mouslford. The Boathouse is just that, a converted boathouse. Upstairs the light and airy décor is enhanced by floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Thames. Downstairs is cosier, with the open grill ablaze. You can watch the chef cook all manner of things there, right before your eyes.

I always like it better upstairs, particularly in the warmer weather, and I had asked for a table by the window as it was a special occasion. Although the Thames has a reputation of being an urban river, filthy from the city, it actually flows through miles and miles of countryside and is a river people swim, sail and play outside of London. Sitting where we were we could watch the ducks, Canadian geese, and all manner of wildlife. We also saw gorgeous boats, from tiny traditional launches to yachts that were actually sea going vessels cruising past the window. People were also learning to sail and kayak right before our eyes. It was lovely.

The food is amazing too. The Boathouse specializes in things cooked on its wonderful grill, including some fantastic seafood, but the menu offers a huge array of choices for everyone, from vegetarians to meat eaters alike. From entrees to main courses and desserts, the choices are brilliant. Food is creatively prepared and the combinations of ingredients are fresh and delicious.

I started with a honey roast fig and parma ham salad, served with arugula and parmesan cheese. It was stunning, richly flavored and delicious. Our son always starts with the same thing, shredded duck served on a ginger risotto cake . It is his absolute favourite. And for my husband there are nearly always mussels in a beautiful cream sauce on offer.

For my main course, I tend to have seafood when I go to the Boathouse at The Beetle and Wedge as it is so fresh and cooked so beautifully. Today I enjoyed a roast loin of cod with mango salsa, served alongside a rosti potato cake. My side dish was a multi-colored cherry tomato and shallot salad that was utterly refreshing and delicious. Our son chose steak as always, served this time in a piquant peppercorn sauce, and my husband had beautifully cooked liver and bacon. He often chooses that dish as it is something I refuse to cook at home. Sadly I’m one of those folks who believe that offal is awful.

The desserts at the Boathouse are not to be missed. Our son chose an incredible profiterole dessert, served with chocolate ice cream and flaked almonds. My husband and I had steamed citrus pudding. British steamed puddings are like a heavy cake and are traditionally very stodgy. However, steamed puddings at the Beetle and Wedge are light and delicious. This one was served with an amazing citrus sauce and lovely light vanilla custard.

It’s just as well the Boathouse at The Beetle and Wedge is situated along the Thames path, as after such a wonderful lunch you do need a walk to help it all to settle. It is a fantastic place to while away a Sunday afternoon in the beautiful English countryside.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Veal Parmigiana

I love veal and now that veal crates are banned in the UK, I do not have to worry about eating it anymore. If you don’t live here, be sure to check that any veal you use is not crate raised (in some places, humanely-raised veal is marketed as Rose Veal). If there is any question, you can always use pork or turkey escalopes for this recipe instead.

Escalopes are the very thin pieces of meat that cook very quickly. I like to use matzo meal to bread the escalopes as it gives a fantastic crunchy coating, but feel free to use bread crumbs if you can’t find matzo meal at your local store.

This is a delicious meal that is ready in less than twenty minutes, but tastes like something really special. You can dress the pasta with tomato sauce, pesto, or even just a little butter and some herbs. I like to serve this dish with some broccoli or asparagus on the side.

4 veal escalopes (use pork or turkey if you prefer)
1/2 cup mild olive oil (suitable for frying)
1 egg, beaten in a medium bowl
2 good handfuls matzo meal (or bread crumbs)
1 handful of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
salt and pepper to taste
about 12 ounces of spaghetti, cooked in boiling water as per package instructions
warmed tomato sauce, pesto or butter, garlic and herbs to dress the spaghetti
4 lemon wedges for garnish

The veal will take very little time to cook, so make sure that your spaghetti is cooking as you perform these next steps.

Preheat the oven to a low heat so that you can keep the cooked escalopes warm while you finish cooking the rest. Have a large baking sheet ready.

Heat the oil in a large shallow frying pan until it is very hot (almost, but not quite smoking). Mix together the matzo meal, cheese and salt and pepper in a shallow plate. Have it ready beside the bowl with the beaten egg in it.

As you are about to cook each escalope (you may only be able to do one at a time), dip it in the egg and then the cheesy matzo meal. Pop it in the frying pan and fry for about a minute on each side until the breading is brown. Carefully remove the escalope from the frying pan and place on the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Repeat until all the escalopes are cooked.

Drain the spaghetti when it is cooked, dress it with your chosen sauce and warm through. Serve the dressed spaghetti alongside each escalope.

I like to garnish the cooked escalopes with a wedge of lemon which tastes delicious squeezed over top, but others in my family prefer ketchup!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Eating Locally

Most of us have small shops in our local area that are suffering in these tough economic times. The convenience of the one-stop shopping experience offered by supermarkets has been hitting them hard these days. I’ve been a supermarket shopper for years. There was something about the shrink-wrapped, carefully packaged products that made me feel secure. You see, I’m a product of the generation that grew up shopping that way. When I was little, we only had one car, which my Dad used to go to work. Aside from little “top up” shops at a local market, my Mom used to shop at a big supermarket once a week. She would go after my Dad got home from work because she could take the car. It meant farm shops were out of the question, except if my Dad happened to pass by them on his way to or from work. There was a farmer’s market in our city, held once a week, which in later years (when times were better and we had two cars) my Mom would attend regularly. But she would only ever purchase vegetables there, never meat, cheese or eggs. She was always very worried about buying things like that from anywhere but a “reputable supermarket”. The message stuck with me, and after I had my own home, the security of a “use-by” date, along with the comforting knowledge that a multi-national corporation was guaranteeing my purchase, made me feel I was somehow getting a better, safer deal. So I avoided local shops and supported the big guys for a very long time.

In recent months, however, it began to irk me that these big guys were making such huge profits when small producers were clearly struggling. The cost of my shopping bill was going up and up, and the quality of the goods I was buying did not seem to be echoing that. Then we moved to a house not far from a gorgeous little English village. This little village is a thriving community, with two pubs, three banks, an award-winning butcher, a vegetable and flower shop, numerous restaurants and other businesses, and a very intriguing little cheese shop.

It was the cheese shop that got me first. The welcoming owner and staff never hesitate to let customers taste before they buy, and their knowledge of cheese is utterly comprehensive. I got really comfortable buying their delicious cheeses, (many of which are produced only a few miles from the shop) wrapped traditionally in waxed paper and tucked in paper bags. Then I tried some of their wonderful breads, preserves and conserves. We enjoyed those too. My husband and I then attended a wine tasting there and came home with a half a dozen bottles of delicious wines from small producers – who although they are not local are mostly small, family owned concerns. Suddenly, I was buying a lot more locally, but I still relied heavily on my supermarket for many other things.

Or did, that is, until I began to hear people praising our local butcher. Even people who lived seven miles away in the centre of the largest city near to us raved about the sausages and meat pies they sold. I could not find even one person who had a bad thing to say. When I visited, I found a huge array of fresh meat, beautifully baked meat pies and even cold meats and terrines. Our first purchase was of a pound of ground beef and some sausages. I made hamburgers from the ground beef, and they were the best ever. Virtually no fat came out of the meat. This high quality ground beef was the only stuff on offer, unlike in my supermarket where the lower the fat content of the ground beef, the more it costs. As for the sausages, they were delicious, with not an ounce of filler in them. Pure pork and fresh ingredients made them taste amazing. On our next visit we bought steak – which was the best I have ever tasted in England. We are huge fans of American beef, but this steak was a pretty close second. I also bought humanely raised veal (veal crates are banned in England)which was delicious. All the meat for sale at the butchers was traceable back to the farms, locally produced in ethical conditions.

Suddenly I began to realise that my shrink-wrapped, long dated meat from the supermarket was really not the very best thing after all. Pumped full of preservatives and colouring, even the free range and organic offerings were not the best they could be. And one of the best side effects of shopping at the butcher was that I was buying exactly what I needed, fresh every two to three days. Although in some cases the meat was a bit more expensive at the butcher, in reality I was spending less as there was absolutely no waste. If I wanted three of something, I could buy just three. Normally I always have one extra of everything, as most things are packaged in twos or fours, and there are only three of us.

It was a very small step from there to attending the local farmer’s market. For years as consumers, we have sought out the exotic, shipping food long distances in order to enjoy our favourite treats all year long. Strawberries and asparagus in December and fresh blueberries all year round are something many of us have come to accept as normal. Yet my trips to the farmer’s market revealed something interesting. That asparagus I have been buying in December, shipped all the way from Peru, tastes nothing like the beautiful fresh asparagus I bought at the market held in my village on Saturday. And the strawberries grown in Egypt and Spain are not nearly as sweet as the locally grown berries on offer there. Furthermore, even asparagus and berries marked grown in the same county I live in and purchased at my local supermarket do not measure up to those bought at the farmer’s market in terms of taste or quality. I purchased a box of strawberries at the supermarket on Friday and it was much smaller, more expensive, and had two spoiled berries in it. On the other hand, the two boxes of sweet strawberries I bought at the farmer’s market on Saturday were fuller, and contained not one single spoiled berry.

The two spoiled berries in the supermarket box were the final straw. I headed to the greengrocer, and was so pleased with what I found there. The tomatoes I bought taste like tomatoes I remember from when I was a child, not the ones I have gotten used to these last few years. Everything was fresh and delicious.

I’m a convert to shopping in my local village. There is not much I cannot purchase there – from eggs, bread and milk to meat, cheese, vegetables and even wine and flowers. Even if you can’t shop every couple of days, almost everything you can buy at a butcher shop will freeze, and most vegetables will last at least four to five days. So there is no reason even those who work full time can’t shop locally too.

Go on, check out your local farm shop or the little shops in your town or city. Shopping locally is a great way to cut transportation costs, shopping bills and support your local community. It’s also a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.

I don’t suppose the ‘big guys’ will miss us much – but if a few more people catch on, it will be just like the old Herbal Essences advertisement with everyone telling their friends, and them telling their friends, and so on. Shopping locally could change the world – both the wider world and your own - for the better.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's Devil's Food Cake

I made my own birthday cake this year. This is not as bad as it sounds. Neither my husband nor my son are keen bakers and I’m pretty good at making cakes. Added to this, my husband had only just returned on the red eye from San Francisco in the late afternoon the day before my birthday. Not much time to make or order a cake – and as he gave me a Fendi handbag for my birthday, I’ll definitely forgive him!

I’ve been making Devil’s Food Cake for a long time now. It’s one of the nicest cakes I make and people often ask for it. The thing is, I was using a recipe I developed a long time ago with the help of a dog-eared clipping from my Mom’s old recipe file. For some reason, I felt a tiny bit daring when I made it this time, and I’m so glad I did. I made a few more changes to the recipe and this Devil’s Food Cake is definitely the best one I have ever made. Sometimes Devil’s Food Cake can be a bit too rich, but this one is light and has just the right level of sweetness.

I like to use an electric mixer to make this cake as it gives a lighter and fluffier result. You can mix it by hand if you prefer, but I find the amount of beating the mixture requires to get the best results makes my arms feel like they are going to fall off and yet I still don't get the amount of air I need in the mixture!

It’s really important to use good unsweetened cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate) as it can affect how your cake turns out, and especially how it tastes. I used Green and Black’s Organic Cocoa Powder this time and the results were superb. In the past I have also used Cadbury and Rowntree cocoa powder with good results as well. Also, don't leave out the vanilla. Although it seems odd putting vanilla in a chocolate cake, it makes a huge difference to the depth of the flavor.

This recipe makes a proper two-layer cake that you can sandwich together with the frosting of your choice. Traditionally, Devil’s Food Cake is frosted with chocolate icing. However, my son decided when he was a little boy that he preferred vanilla frosting with it. It tastes very nice, so I tend to use that instead. (I must confess that I do use a Betty Crocker ready-made frosting from time to time, especially if I am in a hurry as I was this time.) I am currently working on developing a new ‘from scratch’ frosting using the Green and Black’s Cocoa Powder as I find myself craving a return to the traditional - so watch this space!

The 21st Century Housewife’s Devil’s Food Cake

½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ cups white sugar (caster for preference, but granulated will do)
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs, preferably free range and organic if possible
2¼ cups all-purpose (plain) flour
½ cup cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
2 generous pinches of salt
1 1/3 cups milk (I used half fat – that’s 2% - milk)

You’ll need two eight or nine inch round cake tins (20 to 23 cm). Grease and flour the pans before using – or use cake tin liners which are by far the easier option. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). This is quite hot, but you are not going to leave it this hot. You just want the oven right up to temperature when you put the cake in, at which point you turn it back a bit. This helps the layers to rise beautifully.

Cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and vanilla and cream together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together into a separate bowl. Add this mixture alternately with the milk (in about four additions) beating well after each addition.

Divide the mixture evenly between the cake tins and place in the preheated oven. Once you have closed the door, immediately turn the oven back to between 150 and 170°C (fan ovens are best at 150°C) or 325°F. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes until a piece of raw spaghetti inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

Frost as desired and enjoy. The cake will keep up to three days and is better if stored in a fridge and returned to room temperature before serving. You can also freeze the layers (without icing) for about a month. Thaw completely before frosting.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables

I love the taste of Mediterranean vegetables. Their rich, bright colors and delicious, fresh flavor just personify summer. At least once a week, I roast a big pan full of multicolored peppers, zucchini and red onions. It is such an easy thing to do, and yet it is the foundation for countless meals and snacks. Cooled and refrigerated, roast vegetables will keep for at least three days and they are the most natural, healthy fast food I know.

This is more a guide than a recipe, as the quantities and ingredients are very flexible. It is well worth making plenty as you can do so much with the leftovers. I tend to use more peppers than zucchini because I like peppers more (although I rarely leave out the zucchini as it brings a great touch of green, along with good flavor to the dish). I like to use red onions for their color and flavor, but if you only have white or yellow onions there is no reason not to use them. To make a large pan of Roast Mediterranean Vegetables I would use two red onions, two red peppers, one yellow pepper, one orange pepper and two small to medium zucchini. Of course if you can’t get multicolored peppers, you can use different quantities of different colors. I do avoid green peppers though as they tend to be very bitter in England where I live – but if you can get lovely sweet North American bell peppers, feel free to use those too. Even if you are not keen on zucchini, do put in at least one small one. It really does taste nice in the mix. Of course, I won’t be there when you make the roasted vegetables, so if you do choose to leave out the zucchini, I’ll never know! If you like garlic peel a few cloves to taste – I would use five or six in a big pan - and toss them in with the vegetables. They will roast to a soft, creamy deliciousness, adding flavor to every vegetable they touch.

All you do is de-seed and cut the peppers into chunks (about three to four centimeters square, but don’t panic, no one is going to check the sizes!), slice each zucchini in half lengthwise and then chop the halves into two to three centimeter thick half moons, and peel the onions and cut them in about eight pieces each. Basically I cut each onion in half and then cut each half in quarters. Put all the vegetables in a large roasting pan. Now mix two to three tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of Balsamic Vinegar together. You can use whichever sort of olive oil you prefer. If you like a strong flavor, go for Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but if you prefer a milder flavor, choose a mild olive oil. It is worth buying good Balsamic vinegar though as there really is a difference in flavor. You don’t have to buy the really expensive stuff if it is cost prohibitive, but I would urge you to choose a mid-price, properly aged version. It is best if you can get one imported from Modena in Italy as I do think they make the best version – as they should. Modena is the birthplace of Balsamic vinegar, where they have been making it since 1064.

Now pour the oil and vinegar over the vegetables, tossing them with your hands to coat. You want the vegetables to be shiny with the mixture, but not dripping. If you do not feel they are coated well enough, feel free to add a bit more oil, or mix up a bit more oil and vinegar if you like. Go easy though; you don’t want them to be greasy. If you want to toss in some dried Italian herbs at this point (about one teaspoon of thyme, oregano or basil, or a mixture of the three), this makes a very tasty addition. Spread the vegetables out over the pan as evenly as you can.

In terms of oven temperature, I don’t think it has to be screaming hot to roast vegetables. (Potatoes, yes - vegetables, no.) I preheat my oven to about 200°C and then turn it back to 180°C when I put the vegetables in. That translates to about 400°F for preheating, and 375°F when you put the vegetables in. With the amount of vegetables I have described, you can count on about forty minutes roasting time, but you do need to keep an eye on them. I stir them round at least once during the cooking time – twice is even better. You want them to be just beginning to brown up on the edges, but you definitely do not want them burned. If you want to make extra-special roast vegetables, toss some pieces of asparagus in with the vegetables twenty minutes before the end of the cooking time or add some sugar snap or snow peas ten minutes before the end of cooking time. When the vegetables have cooked, remove them from the oven.

Now the fun begins! There are so many things you can do with roast vegetables. In the first instance, they are great on their own as a side dish with just about anything. I’ve listed some other ideas below:

1. Make up couscous according to package directions. I recommend adding a chicken or vegetable stock cube to the water that you use to make the couscous for flavor. Now toss the couscous with some of the roast vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil. Adding some pine nuts and chopped fresh basil gives the dish an Italian flavor. You can either serve this dish hot, or allow to cool, pop in the fridge and use as a cold salad.

2. Stir the vegetables into cooked rice along with a bit of butter and salt and pepper to taste.

3. Cook some pasta according to package directions and add the roast vegetables with tomato or pesto sauce. If you like, you can add slices of cooked chicken breast to this, or fry up some bacon pieces to add to the mix.

4. Layer the roast vegetables with ready-to-cook lasagna sheets, tomato sauce, béchamel or cheese sauce and grated mozzarella cheese as you do to make ordinary lasagna. Bake for forty minutes at 170°C or 325°F until the top is golden brown.

5. Slice a piece of French bread almost in half, and fill with roast vegetables and your favourite cheese. You can add some sliced roast beef, pork or chicken as well if you like. Wrap the sandwich in aluminum foil and pop in the oven for about ten minutes on medium heat to warm through.

6. Stuff toasted pita bread with hummus and cold roasted vegetables.

7. Cook some pancetta or pieces of bacon until crispy. Toss into hot roast vegetables. Place on serving plates and top with a poached or lightly fried egg (or two). As you break the egg yolk, it will gently spill down over the bacony veg – yummy!

8. You can use roasted vegetables as a filling for omelettes.

9. Make fajitas by tossing the roasted vegetables in some Mexican seasoning (you can buy packets in the grocery store), and wrapping them in warmed tortillas. You can also use strips of cooked steak and chicken along with the vegetables if you like. Top with guacamole, grated cheese, salsa and/or sour cream to taste. If you prefer your fajitas mild (as my family do) just take it easy on the seasoning, or leave it out altogether. Roast vegetables can also be used in enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas.

10. For a quick and easy eggplant-free ratatouille, warm a tin or two of drained chopped tomatoes (reserve the juice) in a saucepan and add some of the roasted vegetables. Cook together until warmed through, adding a bit of the reserved liquid if you feel it needs it.

As you can see, making a big pan (or two!) of roasted vegetables can be your ticket to several days of delicious, nutritious and easy meals. These ideas are only a beginning. Served hot or cold, Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables are an easy, nutritious and delicious way to serve your family a variety of healthy meals.

Monday, 1 June 2009

My Old Favourites

I am very lucky to be able to travel a great deal with my family and I must confess, one of the things I enjoy most when we are travelling is eating. I love tasting new things and visiting different restaurants all around the world. When you do travel as much as we do, one of the things that can be wonderful is to find restaurants you love, and to return to them whenever you visit your favorite cities. This is a great way to feel at home, even when home is thousands of miles away.

Of course, there is nothing like finding a good restaurant close to where you do live, one that you can go to fairly often, where you are recognized and the staff know you. It is lovely to walk through the door and be greeted with a smile and a handshake, and to be made to feel at home. My family and I have this experience every time at Piccolino in Heddon Street (just off Regent Street) in London. Developing this kind of a relationship with a restaurant takes time and effort. You need to be kind to the staff – don’t just reply to their questions, converse with them. Take care to remember details of what you discuss for the next visit. For example, one of the waiters who serves us at Piccolino is studying Mandarin – and is off to China in a few weeks time. If he is working when we visit at the end of this week, we’ll ask him how the plans for his trip are going. Of course, it is important to tip well too. No matter how you slice it, a good tip will get you remembered.

You can develop a relationship with a restaurant in a foreign city in much the same way. If you find somewhere that it takes you ages to decide what to eat because there is so much on the menu, make a point of returning during your visit. Engage with the staff, tell them where you are from and why you are visiting. If you are planning on returning, tell the staff when as you bid them farewell. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it can’t hurt to try. Also be sure to look into local tipping customs before you go – while a ten percent tip might be adequate in some places, in others (like the US, particularly in New York where fifteen percent is the absolute minimum tip for good service), it is an insult. You don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons!

Even if you only visit a place once every few years, it is well worth returning to old favorites. There is always a risk they will change, but the really good places – ones you make the effort to go back to – often do stay the same. Going back does make you feel at home (even if you are not recognized by the staff) because you are familiar with the surroundings and the menu. It’s a great way to connect with a city and a culture. One way to ensure a warm welcome is to call and book a table before you arrive in town. When you call, be sure to mention where you are calling from and that you have been to the restaurant before. A compliment never hurts either – as in “I’d like to book a table please. We visited your restaurant last year on holiday and enjoyed our meals so much we wanted to be sure we could get in when we visit again next week. “ Even if they are fully booked, it’s very likely a table will become available.

My family and I tend to return to our favourite cities at least once a year. New York, San Francisco, Paris and Toronto are always on our annual list of places to go, and in each of these locations, we have restaurants we love to go back to. In some of them, we are remembered even by name.

No visit to New York City is complete for us without a visit to the Russian Tea Room (150 W 57th Street). Whether for brunch, lunch, dinner or afternoon tea, this iconic restaurant is always a delight. The opulent décor and luxurious surroundings take you miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city outside, and you feel as if you are stepping back in time. The food is always scrumptious and the service is discreet and attentive.

Before we even arrive in San Francisco, I make sure to book a table at Harris’ Steak House. Located on Van Ness Avenue (at Pacific), Harris’ is old San Francisco hospitality at its best. Opulent surroundings and what I would argue are the best steaks in the world make it a real delight every time we visit. The first time we stumbled on this wonderful place we were hot and tired after a day spent exploring the Napa Valley. Despite the embarrassing realization that we were a tad under-dressed when we first walked through the door, we were made to feel incredibly welcome and enjoyed a delicious meal. We returned later in the week, more appropriately dressed, and our welcome was just as friendly. It was the first of many visits.

When in Toronto, we always head back to one of my favourite restaurants from my childhood. I introduced my husband and son to it a couple of years ago and now it is one of our family favorites. The Old Spaghetti Factory (56 The Esplanade) is casual dining at its best – delicious food, great service and excellent value for money. As suggested by its name, pasta is one of their signature dishes, but it certainly is not the only thing on offer. Set in an old warehouse, the décor includes an old trolley car (which you can eat in), antique furniture and even a carousel. It’s quite simply delightful, whether you are a kid or just a kid at heart.

Paris is another place we adore and not just for the food, although it is a very big part of this wonderful city. Chez Georges in the Rue de Mail is a wonderful family owned restaurant my husband used to go to with his parents when he was a child. When I went there with my husband and our son the first time he had been back in several years, he was welcomed with open arms – and we were even treated to a complimentary after dinner drink. Traditional French dishes are a specialty here, and when we visit we are often the only English folk in the place. You always know a restaurant is good if the local folk frequent it, especially in France. Much newer, but a place we equally enjoy, is the marvelous Libre Sens in the Rue Marbeuf. Their fresh and modern menu is consistently delicious. We also love going back to Fouquets on the Champs Elysées, where a cup of tea and “un petit dessert” is truly something special – not to leave out Ladureé just down the road, its iconic green awning welcoming you for anything from a delicious lunch or dinner to fabulous cakes and desserts.

Of course, there are lots of other places I love to go, but these are my all-time faves – those that have stood the test of time and which I hope to keep going back to for years to come. Wherever you go in the world, I encourage you to seek out restaurants you love and return to them whenever you visit. It evokes a connection with the place and the culture of your favourite cities in the world that absolutely nothing else can. And no matter how much you enjoy travelling, it’s always nice to feel at home.