Tomatoes, cobnuts and rocket – late summer pesto

IMG_20140903_160429It’s full-on tomato season here in Dorset, and hugely satisfying to see so much ripe, red fruit both in the garden and the greenhouse.  We might even be saved from the usual gallon of green tomato chutney this year.   Over the summer we’ve munched our way through successive pickings of wild rocket grown from seed.  The flavour is so fresh and peppery, the leaves so crunchy when just picked so it’s been a delight to mix up simple salads with this come again crop.  Out in the lanes behind the house, blackberries and cobnuts are suddenly ready for picking, but if yesterday’s blackberry hunt with the kids is anything to go by there will be more eaten along the way than brought home for cooking. Anyway, more on the blackberries in my next post.

One of the recent comments that came back when I asked friends and family what they thought of the blog was that I should probably write a bit more about pesto and pistou.  That is the blog’s title after all.  Good point.  So I’m sharing my recipe for oven-dried tomato, rocket and cobnut pesto, a great sauce for late summer and a tasty way to use up a glut of ripe tomatoes. The tomatoes take three hours to dry out sufficiently in a low oven but you could use jarred sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil if you’re in a hurry. Go for pine nuts if you can’t get cobnuts.  Kentish cobnuts are available now in the UK but the season is pretty short.

No need to serve the pesto with anything complicated. Simply scoop a generous spoonful over linguine, add a few rocket leaves and top with a dollop of ricotta or a few torn strips of mozzarella. Why not add a spoonful to a bowl of fresh tomato soup or spread some over a fillet of grilled salmon or chicken?

Let’s raise a glass to all this delicious late summer produce.  Mine’s a soft red to go with the pesto –  a Barbera from Piedmont I reckon and lightly chilled.  Salute!

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Late Summer Pesto

For oven-drying the tomatoes:

500g ripe plum tomatoes, sliced in half lengthways
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Place the tomatoes on a greased baking tray, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with the extra virgin olive oil.  Bake in a low oven – 140°C – for three hours but do watch them to make sure they are not burning.  Remove from the oven when done and leave to cool.  NB You can also jar up these dried tomatoes, cover them with olive oil and add a selection of herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary and thyme, and then you have your own oven-dried tomatoes to use during the winter.

For the pesto:
(makes approx. 300g)

The oven-dried tomatoes from the above recipe or 150g sundried tomatoes, drained of oil
25g rocket leaves
50g cobnuts (about 150g before shelling), chopped and toasted (or the equivalent of pine nuts)
50g pecorino romano
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
75ml extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt

Place all the pesto ingredients in a blender and whizz until mixed.  Add more salt and oil as required.

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Baby broad beans, goat’s cheese and gremolata

IMG_20140807_175651Greetings from Burgundy, our home for a week or so before we head south to the Riviera.  It’s fantastic to be here, don’t get me wrong, but strangely for such a Francophile my departure from Dorset was tinged with some regret because the garden in the UK was suddenly awash with ripening veggies much earlier than expected.  Our friends who have kindly agreed to keep the plot going while we are away will certainly be ‘picking their own’, but their bounty will not include the broad beans from the dwarf plants I have been tending with care these past months.  I harvested those and brought them with me.  I couldn’t resist.

I’d been watching the beautiful, green pods emerging for a few weeks, wondering whether our summer holidays might clash with their ripening so it’s fair to say that I probably picked them a little too soon.  They are undoubtedly baby broad beans.  Recipe ideas from the Riviera for these delicious pearls of goodness are numerous, and I have gone for something that shouts summer: baby broad bean bruschetta with fresh, Burgundy goat’s cheese, – Baratte made near Macôn – and basil gremolata.  It goes down a treat with a glass of Bourgogne Aligoté, a fresh, simple, dry white wine with lots of citrus going on and well-suited to the kick of the garlicky gremolata which itself makes a great contrast to the ‘meaty’ broad beans. Give it a go and, by the way, there’ll be more on the wines from round here in next week’s Wednesday’s Wine post.

Baby broad beans, goat’s cheese & basil gremolata (on toast)
Makes enough for two as a light meal or for four people as canapés

120 g podded broad beans
50g fresh, young goat’s cheese
A few slices of country bread
The leaves from 4 large sprigs of basil
Extra virgin olive oil for mixing and drizzling
1 lemon
1 clove garlic
Salt to taste

Put the broad beans in a saucepan of water and bring to the boil.  Turn the heat down and continue cooking for a minute or so until the beans are softened but still have a little ‘crunch’ when you poke them with a knife.

Meanwhile, zest the lemon, finely chop the basil and crush the clove of garlic. Mix these ingredients together with salt to taste – this is your gremolata.

Drain the beans and refresh in cold water then peel off the outer skins.  Mash them roughly with a little extra virgin olive oil and the juice of the lemon then set aside.

Cut four slices of medium-sized country bread and toast.  Leave to cool slightly.  Cut into your desired size depending on whether this is lunch or pre-dinner nibble nosh.

Spread the toast with the goat’s cheese, top with the crushed broad beans and sprinkle over some gremolata.

Finally, a teeny drizzle of extra virgin olive oil wouldn’t go amiss.

I hope you enjoy this taste of summer. Mozarella, fresh ricotta or feta would be good cheeses to match with the broad beans in the absence of fresh goat’s cheese.

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Aubergine Salad

IMG_20140726_161055Since waxing lyrical about the recent English weather in Wednesday’s post, it seems a prolonged, warm and dry spell was not on the cards after all.  Today it has mostly rained.  Never mind – in the garden summer vegetables are starting to ripen and it’s time for aubergines, courgettes and tomatoes to shine in the kitchen.

I knocked up this simple aubergine salad pretty quickly the other day and it’s delicious served either with grilled meats or (and this is my preference) with some fresh, burrata cheese and a hunk of crusty bread.  The ingredients make enough for a side salad for two hungry people. Do give it a try.

Aubergine Salad

1 medium aubergine, finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
12 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
A few leaves of basil
Salt and extra virgin olive oil

Pour the red wine vinegar over the chopped onion and leave this to sit while you prepare the other ingredients.

Fry the aubergine pieces in a little olive oil until they have softened and browned a little.

Combine the aubergine and quartered tomatoes with the onion and vinegar mixture.

Add a tiny pinch of salt to taste and a drizzle of olive oil. Stir and top with torn basil leaves.  Serve with your choice of accompaniments, not forgetting a glass of something pink and chilled, naturally.

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Courgette Flower Fritters

CourgetteFlower2For the last few years we have successfully grown courgettes here in Dorset and I’ve enjoyed putting them to good use in many a Riviera-influenced recipe. This year, however, I have yet to harvest even one courgette from my three plants, but the beautiful, yellow courgette flowers have been prolific.

Ideas for stuffing this delicate crop abound and I have tried various concoctions including ricotta with herbs, pesto and even mozarella and anchovy.  But stuffing these beautiful blooms can be a fiddly business and sometimes all I want is something quick, easy and tasty for my current (almost) daily supply.

So here’s what I’ve come up with, using one of my favourite ingredients, chickpea flour.  Quick, easy and so moreish.

Chickpea Flour & Saffron Courgette Flower Fritters
(no stuffing)

20 courgette flowers, washed and dried
125g chickpea flour
175ml sparkling water
A pinch of salt
A pinch of saffron strands
Olive oil for frying

Make a batter by whisking together the flour, water, salt and saffron.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan.

Coat the courgette flowers in the batter and drop them, a few at a time, into the oil.  Turn them over and then remove them from the pan once they are lightly browned and crisp.  Drain on kitchen towel and serve immediately.

A great canapé idea!

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Les petits farcis

Petits Farcis Niçois at La Petite Maison, Mayfair, London.

Petits Farcis Niçois at La Petite Maison, Mayfair, London.

Back in April I spent an indulgent afternoon with a good friend sampling the tempting delights of La Petite Maison, a restaurant in London’s Mayfair which describes its cuisine thus: ‘combining the best fresh seasonal ingredients with the culinary influences of the Côte d’Azur and neighbouring Liguria’.  Popping up on the menu were so many Riviera favourites together with some iconic bottlings from the region, but my attention was immediately drawn to the Petits Farcis Niçois or stuffed vegetables, which I hadn’t tasted for years and had certainly never cooked myself.  These little bite-sized portions of courgette and tomato (see photo above) looked so dainty, and they were awakened by the strong flavours of the veal stuffing, the resulting ensemble melting slowly in the mouth.   I came away wanting to recreate this idea at home, and so began the research…..

Farcis, known as ripieni in Liguria are eaten all along the Riviera, but in usual local style thoughts on the stuffing ingredients vary from place to place.   The elements common to most recipes are garlic, herbs, eggs, the scooped-out flesh of the vegetables themselves and leftover meat (ham, beef, veal, pork or a blend of more than one, chopped up finely).  Some cooks add cheese, others rice.  I came across breadcrumbs and mushrooms too, but what seems clear from the text accompanying many of the recipes I looked up, is that here is another recipe demonstrating the creativity and frugality of the people of the area who have traditionally used up leftovers from yesterday’s lunch and blended them with the fresh produce available to them locally.

Mireille Johnson, writing in her book ‘Cuisine of the Sun’ explains the raison d’être of these delicious morsels so romantically:  “Farcis are a summer staple in Nice.  On Sundays and festive days housewives and children carry large trays of freshly stuff vegetables to the village baker’s oven, returning at noon to pick up their crisp, golden farcis.  Served at most picnics or buffets, farcis are usually prepared in large quantities, since they are delicious warm or cold”.  She also advises the use of small vegetables and the avoidance of over-stuffing them.

For my version of the dish, I used baby peppers, young courgettes and medium-sized vine tomatoes.  Served warm, the courgettes and peppers would make great canapés, the tomatoes would work better as a light lunch dish, with a green salad, as finger food they are not.  Bon appetit!

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Petits Farcis

1 medium-sized courgette (zucchini)
4 mini peppers
4 small to medium sized tomatoes
1/2 onion, finely chopped
20g breadcrumbs
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
30g finely chopped cooked meat (I used pancetta)
20g parmesan, finely grated
tbsp chopped fresh herbs (basil & sage for me)
1 large egg, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil to

Chop the courgette into four rounds and scoop out the flesh, ensuring that a good base of flesh is left at the bottom so as to make a small cup shape. Slice the top off the tomatoes and scoop out the flesh and seeds. Cut a slice across the length of the pepper and clean out the inside.  Place the hollowed-out vegetables in a baking dish and drizzle with olive oil.

Chop and reserve the courgette flesh, tomato pulp and seeds. Chop the pepper ‘lid’ into small pieces and add to the courgette and tomato pulp.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Next, sauté the onion and pancetta in olive oil for 5 minutes on a medium heat stirring regularly.  Then add the crushed garlic with 15g of the breadcrumbs and stir for a further two minutes.  Add the reserved vegetable pulp and cook for another five minutes, stirring all the time.  Then add the fresh, chopped herbs and stir for a minute or so.

Remove the mixture from the heat, place in a small bowl. and stir in the grated parmesan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Finally, stir the beaten egg into the mixture.

Fill the hollowed vegetables with the mixture, sprinkle with the remaining breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil before placing in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes uncovered.  The tops of the vegetables should be brown and crispy when you take them out of the oven.  Yummy.

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Pissaladière – tart or pizza?

IMG_20140521_202541Caramelized onions, anchovies and olives – the key components of a pissaladière are never in question.  But as to whether this dish, popular on both sides of the French / Italian coastal border, should be made with a bread dough base similar to focaccia or with pastry is up for debate.  Having read around the subject it would seem that the former option is more widely accepted as the traditional recipe, but I beg to differ with popular opinion so you will find my recipe below, using pâte brisée.  The combination of the crumbly, crisp pastry with the melting onions and sharpness of the olives and anchovies is irresistible.  Another twist in my recipe is a thin layer of black olive paste which I spread over the tart base before ladling in the onions.

If you can resist, leave the tart to cool once cooked as you will find it at its very best eaten cold. Serve it with a chilled Vermentino or even a provençal rosé. And if you prefer a bread dough base, you could use the focaccia recipe I posted recently, omitting the rosemary.

Pissaladière

225g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, chilled & cut into small cubes
5g salt
1 egg yolk
30ml chilled water

100g pitted black olives + a few extra to decorate
20-30 ml extra virgin olive oil + extra for sweating the onions / decoration
2 sage leaves, roughly chopped
Small pinch chilli flakes

2 kgs white onions, finely sliced
4 bay leaves
A few sprigs of thyme
Tin of anchovy fillets in oil

Brush the base and sides of a loose-bottomed 30cm tart tin and prepare the pastry. Place the flour and salt in a bowl and rub in the cubes of butter with your hands until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.  Add the egg yolk and water and work the ingredients together to form a soft dough.  Wrap the dough in clingfilm and leave it to rest in the fridge for 2 hours or overnight if you prefer.  When you take the pastry out, allow it to reach room temperature before rolling it out on a floured surface until it is around 5mm thick.  Place the pastry into the tin and press it in lightly with your hands. Prick the surface with a fork a few times, cover and leave in the fridge for half an hour.

Heat the oven to 200°C and then turn your attention to the onions.  Fry them on a low heat in a large frying pan with a swig of olive oil, the thyme and bay leaves, and leave them to cook gently for half an hour or more without browning.

When the oven is up to temperature, remove the pastry case from the fridge, cover the base with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans.  Bake blind for ten minutes until the pastry is starting to crisp.  Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a small foodmixer, whizz up the black olives with 20-30 mls of extra virgin olive oil, the chilli flakes and the sage.

Once the onions are soft and sticky, take them off the heat and remove the bay leaves.  If there is a lot of liquid in the onion pan, pour that away. Spread the black olive mixture onto the bottom of the tart case, ladle in the onions and top with anchovy fillets and a few black olives. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and pop in the oven for 20 minutes at the same temperature as before.

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My mouth is watering just thinking about it.  Must make another one soon! I hope you enjoy it too.

 

Focaccia, fugassa or figassa?

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Focaccia is made all over Italy nowadays, and well beyond its borders too, but in Liguria “fugassa”  as it is known in the local dialect (figassa in Genoese) is widely available and enjoyed as a snack, often with a coffee mid-morning.  A thick, flatbread that is liberally dosed and doused with olive oil, it is most commonly served with an onion topping, thus resembling the French pissaladière.  Elizabeth David, writing in her book Italian Food, refers to focaccia as the ‘Genoese pizza’ but normally focaccia recipes include more yeast than for pizza, making the cooked dough thicker.

In the seaside town of Recco, the delicious focaccia col formaggio (cheese focaccia) is made by sandwiching dollops of the local soft, melting cheese, Crescenza, between two sheets of dough and baking until the top is golden brown.  Another popular version of the bread, focaccia col rosmarino, originally thought to have been created to attract the tourists, is studded with rosemary or other herbs, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and simply oozes with olive oil.  You’ll find the recipe for this last focaccia below and I can promise you it’s a real crowd-pleaser and will have everyone eating more than they really ought to so here’s a useful tip: make plenty.

I like to serve the rosemary focaccia warm with a selection of charcuterie, artichokes in olive oil and a salad of ripe tomatoes.  Or perhaps a ball of gooey Burrata cheese.  If there is any left the next day (a rare sight in my house), try toasting it and serving simply with unsalted butter or a slug of olive oil and some chopped tomatoes. Given the thickness of the bread, it’s great for sandwiches – just slice it in two and fill with tapenade or pesto, sliced tomatoes and goat’s cheese.

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If you happen to be in Recco on Sunday 1st June this year, look out for La Festa della Focaccia di Recco, a local festival celebrating this local culinary icon.  More info here: www.focacciadirecco.it

Rosemary Focaccia
(makes two loaves, each measuring roughly 12cm x 30cm)

500g strong white bread flour
10g fast-action yeast
120ml extra virgin olive oil plus more for brushing the top of the bread
275ml warm water
10g fine salt
Coarse sea salt for sprinkling
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary

Mix the flour, yeast and salt then add the olive oil and water.  Knead the mixture on a floured board for up to ten minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and elastic.  You can also use a food processor with a dough hook for this.  If the dough is very sticky, add a little more flour.

Form the dough into a ball and leave in an oiled bowl, covered with plastic film, for an hour until it has at least doubled in size.

Heat your oven to 220°C and oil two 12cm x 30cm baking trays.  Take the dough from the bowl, cut into two pieces and mould both pieces into oval shapes to fit the baking trays.  Use your knuckles or fingertips to make slight indentations all over the dough.  Brush it with extra virgin olive oil and stud it with rosemary leaves (you can chop them finely first if you prefer), and press them into the dough.  Sprinkle with the coarse sea salt and drizzle with more olive oil.

Leave the dough to rise in a warm place for half an hour then bake in the middle of the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown – keep an eye on it as it can turn brown suddenly and will easily overcook and become too hard.

Take the bread from the oven and place on a wire rack for a few minutes.  Drizzle with more olive oil and serve.

 

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Socca Chips (Panisses / Panizzie)

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One of our rituals on a visit to Nice is a wander down the winding, narrow streets of the Old Town in search of a plate of socca.  Known as farinata across the Italian border, socca is a thick pancake made from chickpea flour and in Vieux Nice it’s great fun to see it being deftly cooked in the street in large, flat pans.  Once it’s ready, this delicious street food is roughly cut and sprinkled generously with black pepper (essential).

As with all things culinary in this part of the world, there are endless arguments about the correct ratio of chickpea flour to water and many people believe it is not a recipe to be cooked at home but one to be brought back to the house as a takeaway.  I tend to agree as it’s not easy to produce something as good as what’s on offer in Vieux Nice so maybe it’s one of those local specialities that should only be enjoyed in situ.

Socca chips however are an entirely different matter and my family go mad for them.  These little chickpea flour fries are called panisse in Nice and panizzie in Western Liguria where they are also made.  Simply make a thick chickpea flour paste, leave it to cool, slice the mixture into batons and fry these batons in olive oil.  I like to add a little grated cheese and some cumin to the batter, ideas pinched from Hilary Davis’ recently published book ‘Cuisine Niçoise’.  Serve the chips on their own as a snack or a hearty canapé with the obligatory twist of the black pepper mill and a pinch of sea salt.

Socca Chips

175g chickpea flour
1 ½ tsps ground cumin
1 ½ tbsps extra virgin olive oil plus extra for frying
25g gruyere cheese
675ml water
Pinch sea salt

flour

Whisk the above ingredients together in a large bowl, then transfer to a heavy-based saucepan and heat until thick, stirring constantly.  This should take about five minutes.

Pour the thickened mixture into a greased baking tray and leave to cool.  I use a 22cm square tin which gives quite thin chips. Cut the mixture into slices and fry in olive oil until crisp and browned on the outside.

Serve the chips straight away with salt and pepper sprinkled over them as desired.

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Pesto Pistou…how it all started

Tomatoes & Pesto

Since a stint living in Nice in the 1990s, I am often drawn back the distinctive flavours and very individual recipes of the Riviera coastline which stretches from Nice in France, across the Italian border into Liguria and on to the Tuscan border, passing Genoa, the home of pesto, along the way.  Whilst it’s not possible to truly recreate the ‘cuisine of the sun’ miles away in the UK, I’ve set up this blog as a way to record my experiments with similar ingredients albeit with a British twist from time to time.  Thrown in too, some tasting notes on the local wines, little known away from the Riviera itself.  How I look forward to being back there again…..

So, where to start? It would seem apt to kick things off with a post to explain the name of this blog so here’s the lowdown on the provençal sauce, Pistou and its Italian cousin Pesto Genovese.  Their recipes share many ingredients, namely garlic, basil, olive oil and cheese (usually pecorino and/or parmesan).  Writing in his book Cuisine Niçoise, former Mayor of Nice, Jacques Medecin explains the key difference between the two – it’s all about which side of the Franco-Italian border you reside on:

“I make no attempt to settle the question of whether pistou migrated from Nice to Genoa, or vice versa, but let me simply say that the Ligurians like to add 100g of pine nuts to the ingredients pounded in the mortar”.

The reference to the pounding of the sauce in the mortar is an important one.  Pistou, a word from the Nicois dialect, means “pounded” as does the Genoese word Pesta.  To this day, purists use a pestle and mortar believing that the use of a blender causes the capillaries in the basil leaves to close up which stops them from releasing their full aroma.  The blender method has become acceptable in today’s modern kitchen however, and the speed of making it means there is always fresh pesto (or pistou) in my fridge just waiting to top a bowl of pasta or a vegetable soup.  The pounded version is well worth it when time allows.

Pasta & Pesto

Recipes for both pistou and pesto vary widely depending on the cook or the village where it is being made, and the debate about whose sauce is best rages on.  How much garlic should be used? Which cheese works well and how strong should it be? In Liguria, some add cream, others ricotta.  One thing that everyone is clear on though: the sauce should never be heated up on its own prior to serving.  Simply stir a spoonful into hot pasta or soup at the very last minute.

Here is my version of basil pesto which will keep well in the fridge (best used within two days of making) and the freezer if frozen the same day. I’ll be posting a variety of pesto recipes in the coming months together with ideas for dishes they can be added to.  But we won’t just concern ourselves with pesto here.  The blog is about the food (and wine) from across the Riviera – think socca v farinata and salade niçoise v cappon magro – and we will touch on tips for travelling in the region as well.

Thanks for taking the time to look at the blog.  Feedback will be happily received!

Basil Pesto

25g basil leaves
20g pine nuts, toasted in a dry pan
10g pecorino romano
10g parmesan
1 small clove garlic, crushed
40 ml extra virgin olive oil
tiny pinch salt

Put all the ingredients in a food processor and whizz on high speed for a few seconds to form a paste.  Stir in more olive oil if you like a slightly runnier consistency.

Basil Pesto