notes from a food conference

9 Nov

notes from a food conference

Doodles from the notes I took at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking, 2015. I still need to re-read everything I wrote down – all the stories from ancient to modern, from Greece to Japan. I still smile at the line “old cookbooks were just lists of ingredients, no verbs” (and no photos, bien sûr) – we have come full circle with some modern cookbooks all neat info-graphics, no words at all.

macaroni and three cheeses

2 Nov

macaroni cheese, candles

Maybe you had a bad day. Maybe you came home tired and needed to take off your shoes and your smile. Maybe your day was fine, right up until someone asked, really asked, how was your day? and instead of saying, yes, fine, you cry unapologetically for an hour. Maybe you just wept while they reassured you, feeling selfish to be sad, but without the energy to protest. Maybe because you didn’t resist, their words washed over you and into you and made you cry again, but in relief.

By this time it is probably nearly ten o’clock, and you are tired and your cheeks are tight with salt tears, the opposite of a day at the beach. But something they said stuck with you, take care of yourself first. Make your own bed, serve yourself something you would cook for two.

If you are hungry now, or at least curious for food, you boil the kettle, heat a pot with water, salt. Stare at the water blankly. Then you look through the cupboards for something to eat – rice, potatoes, bulgur wheat. Is there any pasta? Please be pasta. Tip some elbow things, macaroni, into the boiling water, enough for one, two. Serve yourself something as nicely as if it were for someone else as well. There is just a tablespoon of butter, enough for a roux with a tablespoon of flour. Cook, stirring, in a small saucepan until nutty, then whisk in a cup of milk a little at a time. Maybe you spill some of the milk, but you don’t cry again.

There are odds and ends of cheese in the fridge from different adventures: stinky Epoisses, smoked Idiazabal, Cashel blue. You spend a minute grateful for your wanderings. Crumble or grate the cheese, and toast a few walnuts in the oven. By now the pasta is cooked, the béchamel thick, speckled with nutmeg and pepper. A bit lumpy, you don’t care. It all goes into a little baking dish – macaroni, cheese, sauce, walnuts – more grated cheese on top and into the still hot oven. You may still be tired, eyelids at half-mast, but your curiosity and appetite have been piqued. You might have made something truly delicious.

There is exactly one glass of red wine left from the night before. The pasta takes seven minutes to brown on top, which is all you need. Lettuce, dressing. By ten thirty you have dinner. Eat straight out of the baking dish, candles lit. Comfort food for company, for one.

plum and hazelnut financiers

27 Oct

autumn gourmet desserts

Working on recipes over the summer holidays, I made what was possibly the ugliest dessert of all time. It didn’t taste terrible but it looked a mess. It reminded me of being an apprentice, trying to cut corners to go faster and having to start again entirely. Short cuts take twice as long, I learned. And I could feel the ghost of our strict French chef breathing over my shoulder as I attempted to pipe this monstrosity.

My friend was polite about it: I’ll save half for breakfast! No, it was nice, honestly. But she was betrayed by her comparative enthusiasm for the second thing we made that day, these simple, little plum and hazelnut cakes. We made them in cupcake pans with sliced plums on top, and in little moulds the size of corks that we ate hot as soon as they came out of the oven, not even a mouthful.

The financier is a cousin to the madeleine, and a superior cousin at that (though I share a name with the latter). (I’m also the oldest cousin in my English family, so.) Both are little buttery snack-cakes, but financiers are made with browned butter, what the French call beurre noisette, so they already have a toasty aroma that is only enhanced by the ground nuts, in this case hazelnuts. They stay fresh for a few days too, unlike madeleines which are best eaten on the first day. Plums are a perfect autumn accompaniment, the thin slices turning jammy in the oven, with a few halved hazelnuts on top for crunch.

Apart from browning the butter, the preparation is pretty easy. Stir, chill, bake. Ideally the mixture should rest in the fridge for a few hours to properly chill for the perfect texture. It will keep for a few days refrigerated, so if you have more mixture than tins, you can make a second batch later on.

Plum and hazelnut financiers

adapted from Hugues Pouget in Fou de Pâtisserie 12. It is an easily customisable recipe – substitute almonds or walnuts; add spices, citrus zest, vanilla or even finely ground tea for different effects; use seasonal fruits like raspberries, apples, pears…

makes 20-24

80g plain flour

120g ground hazelnuts

200g caster sugar

200g butter

20g honey

215g egg whites (about 7-8)

grated nutmeg

pinch of salt

3-4 ripe plums

whole hazelnuts for decoration

Sift flour, hazelnuts and sugar into a large bowl. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and keep going until it starts to foam and sizzle, then subside. After a couple of minutes, you should smell the milk solids in the butter toasting, similar to hazelnuts. This is easiest in a light coloured pan, as you can see them turn brown (but not black!). If you have a thermometer, cook the butter to 145C. Remove from the heat, add honey and allow to cool. Mix egg whites into flour/nuts/sugar, then stir in the cooled butter, nutmeg and pinch of salt. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (up to several days).

Grease cupcake moulds or line with papers. Fill each mould about 3/4 full. Finely slice plums and halve hazelnuts and arrange 2-3 slices of plum and 2-3 hazelnut halves on each financier. (This step can be done straightaway if preferred and then refrigerated in the pans).

Preheat oven to 170C and bake for 12-15 minutes. They should be golden all over and brown around the edges. Will keep for 2-3 days in airtight tin.

sweet, sweet corn

5 Oct


There are some recipes that I do not need to re-write, because they already exist somewhere out there on the internet in their truest form. I might have made them over and over again at home, but I do not have anything more to add. Rachel’s peperonata is one of those. No tweaks or tips necessary.

Rarely, a totally new recipe floats into my head in the five minutes before I fall asleep, or on a long run. If I can remember the idea the next day, it takes several trials to pin it down properly. Which makes me feel like the BFG, mixing dreams and blowing bubbles.

While I work on one of those, which still frustratingly eludes me after four attempts – all delicious but not quite right – here are two recipes that seduced me exactly as they were written, both involving corn in one form or another:


Vaghareli Makai, spicy Indian sweetcorn with peanuts, coriander and lime from Near and Far by Heidi Swanson (recipe via David Lebovitz). She has a knack for the fresh, healthy and addictively more-ish. Serve as a side dish in an Indian feast, with plain grilled fish or meat, or my personal favourite, a whole bowl with sliced hardboiled eggs on top. (Yep, the whole “four servings” all for me.) I often substituted cashews for the peanuts, as suggested, which was just as good if not better.

Perfect corn muffins from Smitten Kitchen. I had a craving for which I was pretty sure Smitten Kitchen would have (thrice-tested) answer: and of course, she had not one but two corn muffin recipes. The ‘perfect’ recipe has you make a quick porridge with half the cornmeal – or instant polenta in my case – making the muffins lovely and moist. The only change I made was to add cubes of leftover blue cheese in the centre of each muffin just before baking. Great with soup, or just a savoury afternoon snack.



pasta e ceci, from rachel roddy’s “five quarters”

28 Sep

broccoli pasta

This rainy week in September, all I want to eat is pasta. Spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, macaroni. At first I thought it was early hibernation, resentment for the horizontal rain that struck me halfway home. Or a sense of habitual wanderlust: for four years during university, I spent each September in Italy, on language courses and then visiting friends. Rome, Florence, Perugia, Bari.

But the real reason I have been eating only pasta for a week is because I fell headfirst into the recipe book by my bed, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It has everything I love from the original blog, rachel eatsclean, elegant writing, natural photos and a perfectly seasoned mix of stories from England and Italy.

Rachel Roddy’s recipes take me right back to those Italian kitchens I visited, waiting for the water to boil and snacking on scraps of parmesan if we ate late in the evening. People would drop by with wine, stories, chestnuts in the autumn, and there would always be enough for everyone, another handful of pasta. There, I mostly watched, chopped vegetables, set the table. I let the Italians salt the water, test the spaghetti to see if it was al dente.

The descriptions in Five Quarters perfectly capture that outsider’s gaze: an English woman in Rome for ten years, first starry-eyed, on holiday, and then, when she stayed, determined to master the peculiarities of Roman cooking.

Since each recipe, in true Italian style, only has a few ingredients, you know they have to be of good quality. When I picked up my burrata last week, I bought good spaghetti, pancetta and pecorino romano to start with the classic, spaghetti alla carbonara. Which, up until now, I had never actually made at home, intimidated by my Italian flatmate’s scorn at the French use of 1) cheap supermarket pasta 2) crème fraîche and lardons, instead of the proper egg and fatty pancetta or guanciale. The creamy sauce is all alchemy, no cream at all, just eggs whisked with finely grated cheese, tossed with the pasta and a little of the cooking water. If it gets too hot, it scrambles. Too cool or too much water, egg soup. I followed the instructions, and it worked, più o meno, more or less. There is always room for improvement. Italian food, Roman food, as Rachel explains, is all about la pratica, practice. I thoroughly appreciated her careful details, for steps as simple as how much water? how much salt?

So I practiced: I tried the pasta e ceci, a thick chickpea soup fragrant with rosemary, a fat anchovy for a kick of salt. I appreciated that there were two versions, for it is one of my favourite dishes. And a soup that is even better the next day. One lunchtime I spent a meditative hour boiling broccoli, then cooking it again with garlic, oil and chilli until it collapsed into a kind of pesto. That reminded me of waiting impatiently, in a Perugian kitchen, for a friend to do the same with a cauliflower. Nothing but time, oil and garlic, and again, that pasta water, to reduce it to its essence.


Ever since I read about it on her blog, the red pepper stew or peperonata has been a staple in our house. I couldn’t resist making it again from the book.It goes with everything – meat, fish, piled on bread – hot or cold. Breakfast today was a fried egg on toast, rocket and a tangle of silky strands of peppers and onion. It is the tail end of the peach season, so I tried the recipe for pesche ripiene, baked in halves with a cap of buttery almond paste. (Equally good with large plums.) Could barely save one for breakfast the next day.

So much of Five Quarters has me fall down a rabbit hole of memories, that it feels like a kindred spirit: the pinzimonio di ceci I also tried at the River Café on my 25th birthday; the description of figs sandwiched with pizza bianca and prosciutto that just conjures Rome for me, figs so sweet they might have been dipped in honey. The caramelised oranges remind me of my granny.

It is one for quiet days at home, for simple, flavourful cooking with carefully chosen ingredients. Like the pasta e broccoli, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. I have a mental list of the recipes I need to try: fettucine with butter and anchovies, a proper puttanesca,  and now that it is quince season again, cotogna in composta. And a growing list of places to visit and things to eat when I do go back to Rome – the restaurants, the market in Testaccio – to soak up that incredible atmosphere the book captures so well.

pasta jar, pencils

Pasta e ceci

adapted from Five Quarters  by Rachel Roddy. I hesitated at which recipe to write about, and since each one is beautifully detailed, I didn’t want to simplify or paraphrase. When I made the pasta e ceci, I used the ingredients from the first recipe and the method from the second, using tinned chickpeas and blending half because I like it thick. Hopefully it is up to scratch. Roddy recommends a “short tubular pasta, tubetti, ditalini or broken tagliatelle”. I used small penne – either way, it will be eaten with a spoon so choose accordingly!

serves 4

4 tbs olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 sprigs rosemary

2 large anchovies, in oil

2 tins chickpeas (400g each), drained

200g plum tomatoes (ripe, fresh ones, or good-quality tinned), chopped

200g pasta (see note above)

salt and pepper

In a large saucepan on a medium heat, heat the olive oil and gently cook the garlic cloves (crushed with the back of a knife), the whole sprigs of rosemary and the anchovies. When the garlic starts to go golden, remove it and the rosemary from the oil (or the garlic risks burning and the rosemary will fall apart leaving uncomfortable spines in your soup). By now the anchovies should have dissolved. Add the tomatoes and squash them gently. Cook for a few minutes, add chickpeas. Boil a kettle and pour 1 litre hot water into the pan. Bring to a boil.

[At this point I should have let the soup simmer for a while to thicken and deepen the flavours. But I was very hungry. And it was still good. At your discretion.]

Carefully remove about half the soup and blend. (Or blend roughly with a stick blender, careful not to splash the hot liquid, leaving plenty of chickpeas whole.) If you prefer a more brothy soup, like a minestrone, skip this step. Stir it all together again, with a generous pinch of salt, allow to boil and add the pasta. Stir every now and then. Taste to check the pasta is done at least two minutes before the packet says it will be. Keep tasting until al dente. Adjust seasoning. Serve warm. Add a little parsley if you like a bit of colour.

Excellent reheated the next day.

coffee cheesecake with a walnut crust and salted caramel ganache

21 Sep

cheesecake ingredients

Bringing a cheesecake to a party seems like cheating: pretty much everyone will love it. Forgive the fashion metaphor: after five years I finally caved and bought a black leather jacket, to match everyone else in Paris. And you know what? It makes everything else I wear instantly cooler. I have never looked cool before. Cute or quirky or colourful maybe. There is a reason that the French word for a leather jacket is un perfecto.

It feels like cheating because it is the same, simple recipe I have used forever, from the wife of my Italian tutor. Blend biscuit crumbs, whisk filling, pour into a tin, bake. Ice if you are fancy. I just adapt it to every occasion – with lemon zest and a poppy seed crust; kumquats and apricots; or Earl Grey tea – but keep the basic ratio the same. My trick is to bake it in a long loaf tin, which makes it less likely to crack or leak, and elegant and easy to slice later on. You can have the whole thing in the oven in about ten minutes. Leaving you lots of spare time to watch the Great British Bake Off and marvel at how complicated they make things for themselves.

Last time I tried another recipe, an involved one with several layers, a frozen ganache, extra bells and whistles, I was disappointed. My oven ended up covered in butter and chocolate. So I have gone back to my staple recipe. (It was high time I drew a new picture for cheesecake anyway.) Not too sweet, not too heavy. This version has a biscuit base of speculoos (cinnamon) biscuits as well as savoury crackers, and some ground coffee and walnuts for a grown-up edge. (Since I had some grapefruit marmalade lying around, I spread a little over the base too.) The mascarpone cream is flavoured with more coffee and rum, as well as a touch of grapefruit zest. On top, a bitter caramel white chocolate ganache and a few flakes of sea salt. No more decoration needed.


Coffee cheesecake with a walnut crust and salted caramel ganache

Ganache topping borrowed from Dana Cree’s not nutter butters. Feel free to substitute cream cheese or Quark for mascarpone; change the biscuits; swap the walnuts for any other nuts/seeds; change the coffee flavouring to cinnamon, lemon or tea… For a lighter topping, just smooth over some crème fraîche or sour cream when cool. Use this recipe as a template for your favourite flavours!

makes enough for at least 8 generous slices


120g speculoos biscuits

55g TUC crackers

35g walnuts

1 tbs ground coffee

25g caster sugar

75g butter, melted

(optional: 2-3 tbs grapefruit marmalade)


2 tsp instant coffee

1 tbs rum

450g mascarpone

150g caster sugar

4 eggs

zest of one grapefruit

caramel ganache:

20g water

50g caster sugar

75g whipping/heavy/single cream

20g butter

150g white chocolate

flaky sea salt to finish


Grease and line a 24cm-long loaf tin with baking paper, with an extra few centimetres sticking up to make it easy to pull out of the tin later on.

Preheat oven to 170C.

Blend the biscuits, coffee and walnuts in a food processor to make fine crumbs. Add sugar and melted butter and blend again to combine evenly. Press the mixture into the bottom of the loaf tin firmly with the back of a spoon. Optional: carefully spread grapefruit marmalade over the crumb base.

Rinse out the food processor then blend instant coffee with rum to dissolve it. Mix in mascarpone, sugar, eggs and zest and blend until smooth. Pour into tin and bake for 45-50 minutes until puffed up, starting to crack slightly and a skewer inserted in the top comes out clean.

Let the cheesecake cool in the pan for at least half an hour before making ganache:

Finely chop white chocolate, put in a bowl with a sieve on top. Gently heat cream in a small pan or microwave. Measure out the butter. Heat sugar and water in a medium saucepan, without stirring, to make a very dark caramel. It should be just on the point of smoking, almost burnt, to balance out the sweetness of the white chocolate. Quickly take off the heat and slide in the butter. Let it melt before stirring it into the caramel. Add the warmed cream, stir again to combine. Strain the caramel sauce through the sieve into the white chocolate. Let it absorb the heat for 30 seconds then stir together to combine. If it starts to split or look a bit greasy, whisk in a teaspoon of hot cream or hot water and it should come back together. Carefully smooth onto the surface of the cheesecake. Refrigerate to set.

Just before serving, sprinkle some flaky salt over the cheesecake. Carefully lift out of the pan with the paper, cut into thick slices, cleaning your knife each time you cut it.

NOPI’s burrata with peaches and coriander seeds

15 Sep

peaches, burrata, nopi

Being grown-up means eating Coco Pops whenever you want. It means buying unfashionable clothes for comfort. It starts with a desire to move to the countryside.

Being grown-up seems to mean more responsibilities, more spreadsheets. Except that when we were children, we didn’t dream of more chores, but more choices.

I have been canvassing friends for their opinion on adulting, whether they consider themselves to have reached adulthood yet or not. I got silly and sensible answers, each with a ring of truth. Mostly they didn’t revolve around the obvious milestones – marriage, children, graduation – they were instead more intangible realities. Like being in a position to teach an intern, to explain an illness, to create a new life in a new country. Not feeling guilty about not finishing projects. The freedom to drink a beer in your own garden.

At least this last week, my idea of being an adult has included:

Going out to dinner at my favourite restaurant in London, Ottolenghi’s NOPI. I had been once before, with friends and family, for my 22nd birthday. This time I paid, and it was worth every penny. We had polenta truffle chips, blackened aubergine with basil, one shortrib with caramelised horseradish, the lightest courgette fritters, and of course, the burrata, with peaches and coriander seeds. Going home with the recipe book, gilt-edged, like a precious manuscript.

Spending an afternoon in the Luxembourg gardens with ice cream, talking about adulthood, memories, the initial sparks of a friendship. A second ice cream on the same day, as a treat for an excitable three-and-a-half year old, and for us as well, because why not? This involved waving at metros (and the driver waving back!) and making ourselves moustaches out of the black sesame ice cream.

Taking the time to queue at the Italian delicatessen, to buy pancetta, pecorino, scamorza, delivered fresh from Italy the day before. Buying extra burrata, knowing that we would be having it on Sunday anyway. Not taking the time to sit down to eat it, tearing it apart while standing up in the kitchen with my flatmate. (We both rate burrata as our number favourite cheese of all time. If you have never had it before, it is like a generous mozzarella with an extra creamy centre. If you have never had it before, we may not be able to be friends with you. True friendship, as previously defined in our household: allowing the other person to eat more than half the burrata.)

Cooking nicely presented meals for one, spaghetti cacio e pepe, with a neat green salad.

The film Youth, by Paolo Sorrentino. Trampolining as a sport. A sculpture class. Speeding through Paris on a bike, and noticing a dozen things from my new perspective.

A meeting of the Grape Leaves Club, leaning on the kitchen counters, glass of white wine in hand, as we sterilised jars, simmered plums and sugar, and ladled jam into jars. Teaching the above almost-four year old to say JAM for confiture. Sitting down to supper and nearly weeping with laughter at some inanity. A moment of quiet as we each took a bite of our first course, burrata again, seasoned with dukkah, and served with sliced peaches à la Ottolenghi.

In summary, adulthood for me seems to mean mostly… dairy products? So the last word to my wisest friend of three and three-quarters: “no-one knows the difference between a kid and a grown-up,” but the latter “seems to have a lot of difficult things to do.”


Burrata with peaches and coriander seeds

A simplified version of the recipe from NOPI by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully (no lavender oil). If you can’t find fresh burrata, buy the best mozzarella you can get your hands on. And if you have some dukkah on hand, it makes for a wonderful, toasted, spicy crunch on top. Otherwise coriander seeds, as in the original recipe, are great.

serves 4-6 as a starter

2 fresh burrata, 300g each

2 peaches

olive oil, lemon juice, salt

2 tsp coriander seeds OR 2 tsp dukkah

Boil a kettle. Gently score the peach skin as if you were about to cut the peaches in quarters. Place in a bowl. Pour the hot water over the whole peaches to cover. After thirty seconds, test to see if the skin slips off. Run peaches under cold water, peel and slice thinly. Toss the slices in a little olive oil, lemon juice and salt, to taste. Toast the coriander seeds in a small frying pan until fragrant. (No need to toast dukkah as it has been toasted already.) Gently tear the burrata in half/thirds and place a piece on each plate, sprinkling the coriander or dukkah on top. Add peach slices.


To buy burrata in Paris: Cooperativa Latte Cisternino – 108 rue St Maur, 11ème / 37 rue Godot de Mouroy, 10ème/ 46 Rue du fbg Poissonière, 9ème / 17 rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, 5ème. Delivery from Italy on Thursdays.

common and garden variety pizzas: butternut and cherry tomato; courgette and pesto

3 Sep

homemade garden pizza

Once upon a time, four Parisians and a cat escaped to the south of France for a rural holiday, in a little yellow house with a large garden. They talked and read and lazed in deck-chairs. When they played pétanque, the cat raced up to each ball, like a referee judging distance. There was a jazz festival and a meteor shower. When it rained they sat around a fire with books, stirring only for tea and bread and jam. If they were too lazy to go the market, they only had to walk through the long grass to the vegetable patch. There were spaghetti squash (steamed, tossed with basil pesto, also from the garden) and beefheart tomatoes (sliced with salt and oil)  and long stalks of chard that were starting to go brown. (The chard went into everything – baked eggs, courgette soup, sauteed with chili and orange as a side dish.)

The menu started to look like an achingly hip farm-to-table restaurant, from the fresh sourdough – parmesan and black pepper – to the homemade jam – apricot and ginger – not forgetting the handmade mayonnaise to go on the local chicken salad. With chives from the pot next to the outside tap. They made lists of meals, and lists of Things Googled. (Why is Judy Garland a gay icon? Can zombies swim? Etymology of condom? What is the French for knuckles? Answer: They don’t have any. They have finger joints. So no knuckle sandwiches in France.)

They recycled all the leftovers into more meals – the chicken stock into soup, the bread into croutons. They ate duck and more duck. Ethiopian bread with its hint of vinegar, spread with duck rillettes and fig jam. Magret de canard with lentils. One restaurant served an incredible beef tartare, briefly seared top, with toasted hazelnuts and a generous slab of foie gras on top. They ate too much. But they only made it halfway through the enormous marrow. You can only eat so much marrow.

These recipes came from a wet morning, and a roasted butternut that needed a purpose. Perfect for using up the end of summer overload of squash, tomatoes, courgettes. They were some of the best pizzas ever made in that little yellow house.

pumpkin butternut

Butternut and cherry tomato pizza; courgette and pesto pizza

serves two, hungry

Make your favourite pizza base, enough for 2. For example: mix 250g bread flour, 150g sourdough leaven*, 120g lukewarm water, 20g olive oil, 5g instant dried yeast, 5g salt. Adjust water if necessary – but it should be initially sticky rather than dry and tough. Knead for 10 minutes or so until the dough can be stretched as thin and translucent as the surface of a balloon. Shape into a ball, allow to rest in a oiled bowl, covered, for an hour or so at room temperature until doubled in size. Halve, shape into two balls, rest 10 minutes. Roll out with a little flour to desired size/thickness.

*instead of leaven, make a starter by mixing 75g bread flour, 75g water and a pinch of dry yeast 12 hours before; or skip it altogether, just add the extra flour/water directly to the mix


(The day before.) Roast one butternut squash, whole, until soft.

Finely slice one small onion and a clove of garlic, sauté in olive oil until soft. Peel and mash about half the squash into the onion with a potato masher, or a fork. Add a large dollop of crème fraîche. Flavour with salt, pepper, paprika, chilli powder, lemon juice, chopped thyme. Stir in a splash of water if too thick.

Spread over pizza base. Halve some cherry tomatoes, tear up some ham and fresh mozzarella and scatter it all over the top. Add some extra thyme too.

Bake at 250C until the crust is nicely browned.


Very finely slice a large courgette, enough to cover a whole baking tray without overlapping, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 250C until golden-brown. Leave the oven on for the pizzas.

Blend large handfuls of basil with a handful of grated parmesan, some toasted pinenuts or almonds and a few generous glugs of olive oil to make a rough paste. Taste and add salt, lemon juice, and/or a garlic clove if desired. Spread pesto over pizza base, cover with roasted courgette circles, then fresh mozzarella and a little more olive oil. Add herbs – basil, oregano – if desired, before and/or after baking.

Bake at 250C until the crust is nicely browned. Serve with chopped parsley or rocket on top.

a picnic fit for a prince

15 Aug

chantilly castle

Less than an hour away from Paris – 30 minutes on the train and a short walk – is the Chantilly castle with its enormous, pristine grounds. Designed by Le Nôtre, the landscape architect for Versailles, the place feels virtually empty in comparison. Perfect setting for a picnic. Or two picnics, for the truly serious outing/eating.

We had several cheeses, three kinds of bread, including my favourite nuage tressé (plaited sourdough with crème fraîche), salami, Tyrrells crisps, peaches, hummus with preserved lemon, aubergine dip, and roasted aubergines. Cubed and baked with olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano and whole coriander seeds, packed in more oil, they were silky and delicious piled onto baguettes with extra aubergine dip.

It was gloriously hot as we followed the shade around the ‘jardin anglais’ (the English section of the garden is supposed to be more wild, sauvage, than the manicured geometry of the French half). We said hi to the sheep and donkeys then cooled off in the château, admiring the gilt trimmings and the crooked nose of the prince that lived there, the duc d’Orléans. (The main castle is actually a reconstruction of the original destroyed in the French Revolution.)

Between us we polished off a dish of real chantilly cream – as I learned at pastry school, whipped cream sweetened with 10% sugar and flavoured naturally. And then, when tired of culture, we picnicked again in the hameau (not a hammock, sadly, but the hamlet that was the inspiration for Marie-Antoinette’s ‘little farm’), eating the leftover chocolate choux puffs and wondering lazily if the enclos de kangourous at the end of the park had real kangaroos in it, or if it was a euphemism. We took naps instead, under the loosely waving branches.


To get to the castle: catch a train to Chantilly-Gouvieux from the Gare du Nord, then follow the signs to the Château, past the Hippodrome. About a 20 minute walk. You can buy tickets just for the grounds, or for the castle as well. (Includes Horse Museum, which we did not visit.) Highly recommended as a peaceful alternative to Versailles, as is Vaux-Le-Vicomte, at Melun on the RER D; or Chamarande on the RER C: less grand, but with beautiful grounds.

greek caper-potato spread

19 Jul

greek potato caper dip, devilled eggs, carrot salad

C-O-P-C-M … Copka-mmm? Carrots, olives, potatoes, capers, what was the m? Mustard?

Little cousin and I were trying to make a mnemonic to recall the shopping list we were too lazy to write down. The greengrocer had everything, capers, olives, even the mustard. We almost forgot the bulgur wheat though, since we missed the second B in B-B-O-W-T – blueberries, bulgur, oats, walnuts, tomatoes – an essential ingredient in the grape leaf parcels the dinner was themed around.

The Grape Leaves Club was celebrating more than a year of cooking evenings (ravioli, sashimi, paupiettes de poulet….) with a summer fiesta, vaguely Mediterranean themed. A bit of Spanish-French-Italo-American-Greek (SFIAG?): ajo blanco, white almond soup and soubressade spicy sausage from Marie; oeufs mimosa, devilled eggs with homemade mayonnaise  from Jen, with her own foccacia; and grape leaves with lemon and mint, of course. Peeling carrots as the other two rolled up the leaves, talking and then not talking, listening to my little cousin hanging bunting in the other room in fits of laughter, I realised once again that the party preparation is my favourite moment. Inviting people over was a necessary (pleasant) function of liking to cook together, producing too much to eat on our own, as a three.

I was inspired by the ‘Mostly Vegetarian Greek Feast’ eaten at the Oxford Symposium* the other week: long tables lined with tarama, pita, black-eyed bean salad with tomatoes and crispy crumbs. My favourite dishes were a kind of caper spread, with the soft fluffy texture of mashed potatoes; and a carrot and olive salad, the carrot discs just cooked, crunchy, lemony, with pops of salt from the olives. The architect of the feast, Aglaia Kremezi, explained how important the right spices are for (mostly) vegetarian food. And as simple as the main ingredients were, it was the best meal of the weekend, because everything was so well-seasoned, spiced, balanced.

I haven’t bought the book (yet) but really wanted to try the caper-potato combination at home. Even though I don’t normally like capers, something about the squeaky texture. But blended with parsley and swirled into potatoes with olive oil, the sum was so much more than the (four!) parts. Tangy, salty, fresh. It is thicker than a dip, more like mashed potatoes, and could be served as a side dish, a snack, a spread. If everything else on our table hadn’t been so delectable, I would’ve just eaten it by the spoonful. Because she is a genius, Marie suggested piling it into crisp brick pastry with an egg, and frying the parcel until golden and the egg yolk is still runny.

Seriously, try it. This will be your easiest and best summer dish to take to picnics, or to eat absentmindedly from the fridge late at night, when the city finally cools down.


*The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking left me with pages of notes I haven’t yet written up: on the Gourmet in popular Japanese manga, on tattoos in the kitchen, on banquet scenes in medieval paintings. I will, soon. I loved pretending to be a student in lectures again, this time surrounded by people as obsessively keen as I am about food. And quite a few recipe ideas, including Greek spoon-sweets: preserved orange rind in syrup, offered to us by a pair of artists that collected the fruit from trees in different neighbourhoods of Athens.


Greek potato-caper spread

inspired by Aglaia Kremezi’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts – obviously you can be creative, add garlic, lemon, other herbs as well, but it is pretty amazing with just these four ingredients. 

makes a generous bowlful but still not enough!

600g potatoes

125g capers

generous handful of fresh parsley

a couple of glugs olive oil

Peel, boil and mash the potatoes. Drain the capers (reserve the brine) and blend with parsley and olive oil to make a rough paste. Mash the caper mix into the potatoes by hand: do not put potatoes in the blender or they will turn gluey. Add more olive oil and some of the brine to achieve required consistency – like loose mashed potatoes. Serve with more olive oil and chopped parsley on top.



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