Beignets de feuilles

IMG_20150531_174805This is a very quick post for a very quick and easy canapé dish that showcases the abundant crop of green salad leaves and delicate herbs flourishing at this time of year.  Here in Dorset, we have wild rocket, basil, chives, mint, peashoots, wild garlic and sage in the garden and the local woods, so I have been making the most of them.

Recipes for beignets are common to all my provençal cookery books be they recent publications or older, more traditional recipe collections.   Most of the recipes I have consulted involve frying a single piece of vegetable such as courgette or aubergine, but we need not limit ourselves here.  A myriad of ingredients lend themselves to battering it seems.  I’ve come across recipes featuring anchovies, salt cod, potatoes and courgette flowers (see my chickpea flour version of the latter here) and let’s not get sidetracked right now by sweet beignets…..

Eggs are almost always used in the batter mix but the simple recipe below uses just ’00’ pasta flour and sparkling water to bind the chopped herbs and leaves.  These herby fritters are packed with spring flavour and the simplicity of the batter makes them light and not too filling.  Serve them hot, just out of the pan with a glass of rosé (Tavel worked for us) or fizz.  A little aïoli, pesto or fresh tomato sauce on the side as a dip is always popular too.

I used rocket, basil, chives and a little sage for my beignets this time but you can use whatever you have to hand or what’s available locally.  Spinach and chard work well with some flavoursome herbs to accompany them in the mix.

Beignets de feuilles (makes 16)

30g rocket leaves
A handful of basil leaves
A handful of chives
6 large sage leaves
100g 00 flour
150ml sparkling water
A good pinch of salt
Groundnut or sunflower oil for frying

Rinse the leaves, pat them dry and then roughly chop them.

Whisk together the flour, sparkling water and salt, then add the leaves to the batter and mix thorougly.

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and, once it is hot, add a teaspoon-sized, test ball of the batter.  If the batter mix sizzles nicely, you know the oil is ready. Gradually add desertspoon-sized portions of batter, but don’t overcrowd the pan – four to five at a time works well.  Turn the fritters in the oil until they are crisp all over and lightly browned. The kitchen will be filled with the aromas of the various herbs by this stage – my family came running from all ends of the house and garden!   Drain the fritters on kitchen towel and serve immediately with your choice of dip.

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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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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