Monday, 22 November 2010

A touch of Eastern Promise...

The kitchen is perfumed with garlic and coriander, the lightness of rose in the chilli spiced harissa, and the subtle creamy meatiness of chicken, the meat no longer able hold itself to the bone, and the skin on top turning golden and crisp. A tajine.

It was the ‘antique’ pickled lemons found, no discovered,  at the back of Aunt J’s fridge the week before that started me off on a Maghrebine theme, and eastern influences in the food surely means an eastern influence in the wine,  Hochar et Fils 2003 (Bekaa Valley 12.5%, Vintage House £11.75). Lebanese, surely near enough (it looked so close on the map)?
 Not wanting to have the olfactorial distractions while tasting this wine, I have moved to a quieter, scent free room and start to pour, the bottle having been opened earlier to get to a reasonable temperature from the chill outside. Holding the glass up, the wine is clear, as are the legs, and light cherry red with tinges of garnet.

Slowly swirling and turning my nose into the glass I get leather. A full pupil dilating leathery scent with a back note of walnut mustiness (a panic as I wonder whether this is cork taintage, but thankfully it is not). Prunes and damsons come to the nose, and further swirling releases the cherry, some green pepper and herbaceousness. The overarching sense is though is the leathery, almost like opening a brand new briefcase; meaty, that slightly oaty bloody smell that comes from the butcher’s shop; damp straw and hay, and all the elements of the cow shed (minus the “you-know-what”).

I am excited and curious. I want to taste. And what taste! A soft muted berry loveliness, with lots of tannic woodiness and hints of vanilla and cream. That lightly perfumed berry from the Cabernet Sauvignon and that nutty note. Citric sharpness is thrown in for good measure however, and, surprisingly there is no flintiness or minerality.  

I say surprising as this wine is grown on gravel and limestone, not, say for instance a clay soil, so I would have assumed some stoniness would be drawn into the flavour. However, because the winters are rainy and rarely suffer frost, the soil drains well reducing the chance of mildew and ensuring the new growth fruit develops well. Longer milder summers lower the risk of disease further, and the altitude (1000m above sea level) prevents heat drying the grapes out.

Low yielding old vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan, and Grenache (that would explain the leather) are blended, partially aged in oak for 3 months, and bottled during the final year. Each yield and therefore blend varies so no vintage is the same.

So, back to the glass. Left for a bit the aromas are the same rich leather and blood and herbs, but the taste alters somewhat as the room temperature helps the wine’s development in the glass.

Allowing it to settle means I get those fruitier darker berries in a richer, purer concentration on my nose. A contrasting sweet and sourness from the cherry and blackcurrant, and a smokiness of raspberry with the rounded more muted blackberry notes. And then, the subtlest, subtlest hint of cinnamon.

But on the mouth? Wow! Brie and cheese skin pungency to the tongue. Sour cherry and some rosehip sharpness. A perfect and palatable natural concentrated sweetness like the confectionery cherry flavour, but all natural.

Outside, the damp chills reach through even the thickest of wool jumpers, but inside the wine brings a warmth that reflects the anticipated exoticness of an English Tajine with a touch of "Eastern promise". Rich in flavour and scent but, being a second wine, not as spicy and complex as its counterpart the Chateau Musar, Hochar et Fils still represents excellent value for money.

Lasagne...Corsican style

Autumn is over in my mind the moment the November bonfires die down and the sulphurous smells of fireworks have disappeared. Bird pecked, brown and softening windfall apples, home to earwigs and maggots, sit scattered on the lawn, waiting to be raked. Hard work outside means slow cooked comfort food inside as my head fills with ideas calorific and ‘carborific’. But slowly, slowly cooked. Slow enough to give me time to attend to the apples. Slow enough to saw some branches (not a callous on these hands strangely). Slow enough to bathe, to change, to pour myself a drink. Slow! (I think you get it!)

Syrupy stews with crushed potatoes, creamy casseroles with rice, and rich sauces to go with pasta are a winter must. It really is that time of year for a genuinely hearty supper to welcome winter in.

This weekend I am turning my mind to lasagne. Tomato sweetened ragù and a blanket of béchamel topped with a light flurry of parmesan. This, however, is a rich, potentially waistline busting version of a lasagne, Corsican in origin. Corsican? Well, yes. Although French, the influence and dialect is distinctly Italian (or should I say Genoese Republic). My recipe is my own version of a dish called ‘Dolari’ that I had fifteen years ago (when I was a child. Cough!) So called because of the coin shaped pasta-sausage layer. This version has more Tuscan influences thanks to the Tuscan sausages from Camisa in Soho.

1 carrot
2 celery sticks
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic chopped
1lb pork mince (preferably mutton)
1lb beef mince
½ bottle Italian white wine
3 tbsp tomato puree
2 tins chopped tomato
Sprig of rosemary
Small knob of butter

Sheet of pasta (ready bought)
1lb Tuscan sausages (or any Italian course ground sausage meat)
2-3 Mozzarella or one long one.

Béchamel sauce:

2tbsp plain flour
1¼ pint milk
1½ ounces butter

Parmesan for topping


Preheat the oven to 160oC.

First the meat sauce (I have used a combination of recipe ideas including Katie Caldesi, Marcella Hazan and, of course, Elizabeth David). Peel and finely chop the carrot, onion and celery (or whizz them in a blender). Heat about 8 tablespoons of oil in a pan and slowly fry for about 10 minutes until the mix turns glassy and soft. Add the garlic and stir a couple of times. Now add the meat and cook until the rawness has gone.

Add the wine and sprig of rosemary, turn up the heat to high and let it bubble until it reduces down to below the level of the meat. Lower the heat; add the tomatoes and tomato purée and season. Once the sauce starts simmering gently put a lid on and leave for about 3 hours to cook, stirring occasionally. Add more salt at the end as well as the knob of butter. Remove the herbs once cooked. You can make the sauce the day before and let the flavours meld even more.

Now, butter a deep sided dish.

Next, the coins. (I used bought fresh pasta sheets but still dipped them in boiling water for a few seconds to prevent splitting). Skin the sausages and spread out the meat evenly over the sheet(s) of pasta until it reaches the edge. Carefully roll the sheet tightly, like a Swiss Roll and slice into coin shapes (about a centimetre wide).

Slice the mozzarella and set to one side.

Finally, the béchamel sauce (I used Elizabeth David’s recipe in Italian Food, but feel free to another recipe). Place a bay leaf in the milk and heat up (do not boil though) in a separate pan. Melt the butter in another pan, then add the flour. Stirring constantly add the milk slowly ensuring the mixture remains smooth and slowly thickens. (I thought of using eggs in the béchamel, as I would for a Moussaka, to make it fluffier and add another layer of flavour and richness but did not want to risk it this time around).

To assemble, place the coins flat, in the buttered dish. Put the mozzarella slices on top roughly. Pour the ragù over the coins, then the béchamel sauce on top of that. Finally, scatter some finely grated parmesan on the top and place in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour.

Lamb’s Lettuce or rocket salad on the side (or more traditionally, afterwards) cleans the palate well. I drank Panizzi’s 2006 Colle di Sinese to wash this down ( or

So how was my memory? Well, it was lighter than I thought it might be. Breaking down through the layers, the béchamel was lightly cheesy and thick enough to coat the tongue but not heavy, and gave a creaminess to the ragù. The sharper wine and tomato flavours of the sauce mellowed with the long cooking period, helped also by adding that small amount of butter.

What made it different was, of course, the sausage meat. Subtle to the palate and made more so thanks to the tempering melted mozzarella, it complimented the pork and beef mince well, the higher noted, sharper seasoned meat giving extra layers to the slightly more muted flavours of the pork and earthier beef. (I could only get the pork with lower fat content and wondered about using a small amount of lard in the oil. I don’t believe in size zero meats though my cardiologist would disagree, naturally). The small amount of pasta was enough although the coins could be made bigger for those who have toiled more vigorously in the garden. Overall, only a small portion was needed. The rest I froze for another time, and although I say so myself, I can’t wait.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Re-inventing the Dharmachakra

Catching up with some one you haven’t seen in years can be terrifying (if not aging!) Will there be awkward silences and painted smiles as I stare into my drink wondering what to say next? Will I find new and interestingly subtle ways of looking at my watch to see what time it is? Will someone please call so I can pretend it is an emergency for goodness sakes?!

This was not the case when I bumped into a former work colleague from a previous life quite by chance outside the tube in Chiswick and agreed to meet him for a drink. Catching up on old times and discussing future ambitions, the years were condensed into minutes and the ‘quick’ drink turned into a couple of hours. So relaxed was the evening that when I got home, I realised I had completely forgotten about food.

I fancied something spicy (steady on!) I had just had a couple of drinks and was in that spice and carbohydrates I-have-now-had-two-glasses-of-wine-and-don’t-care-anymore mood, so why not? A Thai or Indian curry to take away. Dial a number, make a choice, wait for a delivery. But for one person they can be too expensive and wasteful (something I really hate). Pizza also came to mind. Again, I could order one for delivery. A flabby, bog standard one where the flavour of the cardboard has seeped into the pizza base. But why waste the money?

And there in the corner of the kitchen was the Eureka moment. That sign. That message. That mug. The one with “Make do and mend” on the side. Someone somewhere was telling me something. And so, taken with the idea of some culinary austerity, I opened the fridge: chicken breast, an individual naan bread and some herbs. My face fell flat. Not really very much is it?

However, with other ingredients lying around, a bottle of Pinot Noir and a swig of Dutch Courage, I decided on a course of action. Ok, it is not original. And ok, someone has invariably done it before. But yes, even though it was my own variation, I had reinvented the wheel.

Makes 1:
1 naan bread
1 chicken breast
Curry paste
Yoghurt (Garlic, Lemon, Coriander)
Mustard seeds
Fennel seeds
Chilli flakes

First, take the chicken, slice it and ‘marinade’ it in the curry paste, if you have more time then you can mix the yoghurt and curry paste together and let it sit for a few hours. My time was limited, so I mixed the garlic (purée for cheats) and lemon juice with some chopped coriander in a separate bowl.

Next, throw the seeds into a pan and heat until they start to turn. Remove and fry a sliced onion. Add the chilli flakes and the tomato, and reduce until thickened.

Fry the chicken in a separate pan. Spoon the tomato onion mix on the naan, and place in a heated oven about 5 minutes. Spoon on top of that the yoghurt (if separate) and then the chicken slices. Return for a couple of minutes and then scatter some coriander on top to garnish before serving.

Did it work?

I think so, in a I-have-now-had-three-glasses-of-wine-and-don’t-care-anymore way. There was flavour (woof! Thank God for liquid refreshment as I had rather overdone the spicy heat). Yes, there was flavour! The yoghurt thankfully, tempered the fire of the curry paste and the chilli heat in the tomatoes enough that you could taste the fennel, lemon, mustard seed and coriander. The naan could have been more crisp to stop it going a little soggy and the chicken would probably have been better mixed with the yoghurt so that it tenderised the meat, but that is for next time. Did it look ok? I forgot to take a picture but I can assure you that it was presentable (yes, in a I-have-now-had-four-glasses-of-wine-and-don’t-care-anymore way). The point was that it hit my cravings and kept me smiling from my catch up with H through the evening to my bed, or maybe that was the wine.