Monday, 17 August 2009

Packed-lunch series 1: Lentils salad

Fancy yet another soggy ham-and-cheese sandwich? Sushi assortment? Nicoise salad?

No? I thought so. Me neither. No matter how buzzing the neighborhood around your office, after a few months, its lunch options get old.

Add to that the omnipresent recession headlines and constant touting of the virtues of thriftiness since our economies spiralled out of control and packed lunches start sounding like a very good iea.

It needn't be painful, long or boring. An
d it doesn’t have to be unhealthy either. Invest in nice stack of tupperwares. I find that having pretty and functional accessories helps to motivate me.

The only downside of the packed lunch, I will readily admit, is that I sometimes end up wolfing it down at 11 a.m. in front of my computer and then spend the afternoon trying to decide what would be the least unhealthy treat to buy from the vending machine.

The Neapolitan is even worse. He sometimes forgets I have made lunch for him and only remembers it when I ask him, mid afternoon, how it was. He then proceeds to have it as an '"afternoon snack." As you might imagine this is not helping his efforts to squeeze himself into a pair of dark jeans circa 1994.

But apart from its propensity to be devoured hours before lunchtime, you really can't fault the packed lunch, particularly in the summer, when it's easy to find a bench or a patch of grass in the sun where to settle down.

In the next few weeks I will post some of my favourite recipes for packed lunched here. Give them a go and let me know what you think.

PS: Generally the lunches I make don’t need to spend the morning in the fridge. Although my office boasts a tiny kitchen, its fridge is such a health hazard I believe it’s actually safer to do without entirely.

Lentil salad:
250g dry puy or green lentils
140g cubed pancetta
3 shallots or spring onions
250g baby plum tomatoes
Small bunch of parsley

1 tablespoon dijon mustart
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon of red or white-wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Serves 4.

Cover the lentils with cold water, bring to a boil and then simmer for roughly 15 minutes. When the water has evaporated, try the lentils. They should be cooked but retain some bite. It may be that you need to add another cup of water, don't be shy.

While the lentils are cooking, fry the pancetta in a small pan. You want it crisp and dark. Throw the excess fat in the toilet, not your sink, unless you want to clog it.

Cut your plum tomatoes in half. Dice the shallots and chop up the parsley. Wait for the lentils to cool down before mixing everything.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

BBQ Weather


Do you know what the Brits call a 32-hour dry period? BBQ weather. And let me tell you something, I haven't eaten a lot of grilled meat this summer. So when the newspapers started erupting in 'BBQ Weather' headlines towards the end of the week, I made a plan. Not for a bbq, alas we don't have a garden here, but for a little excursion out of town.
It recently struck me that we don't know much of the countryside near London despite having lived here for the last 5 years. I know, what a shame. I like to think that a lack of time and good public transportation rather than a shameful absence of curiosity lie at the root of the problem, but now that we have moved much closer to a big station, there is really no excuse.

So tomorrow, my friends, the Neapolitan and I shall go and explore the Chilterns, an "area of outstanding natural beauty" in Buckinghamshire, just 45 minutes away by train from our new address. You know how seriously I take new ventures, so I planned like a maniac. I registered to a walking Web site that offers maps, photos and directions to no fewer than 4,750 walks throughout the country, I dug up walking shoes and those light-weight rambling sticks, I enrolled a few friends and, naturally, I planned a picnic.

The traditional way of approaching an English walk would be to plan it around a pub. But it is our first proper walk outside of London and I couldn't determine from the instructions whether there would actually be an open pub on the way. Not one to risk losing my troops to starvation on their first outing I decided we shall eat al fresco. I have this vision of us, spread on a blanket in a field, drinking warm wine and munching on slices of salami in the sunshine.

Part of the vision also sees us eating sophisticated picnic food of the type always handsomely photographed in the Sunday papers. We shall thus have frittata, for once this confection of eggs and potatoes has cooled down, it's incredibly transportable, yet it retains an edge of sophistication that appeals. It's also a versatile dish in which you can incorporate any mediterranean vegetable you may have languishing in the fridge.

Pepper Frittata (for 6)
10 eggs
4 red peppers
100g grated gruyere or cheddar (keep an extra table spoon aside)
10 smallish potatoes or 5 bigger ones

Turn on the oven to its highest temperature. Place your peppers on a tray covered with aluminium foil and roast them in the oven until their skin has turned black and started blistering.

While your peppers are roasting, peel your potatoes and cut them in half. Put them in a pan of cold water and bring to a boil. Cook for a further 5 minutes, or until you can insert a fork without the potato breaking up. You want the flesh to still be firm.

Take out either a small lasagna dish, a round skillet or even one of these cake moulds with a bottom that detaches to help you turn them out in one piece. Butter the chosen dish.

Take your potatoes out of the boiling water and rinse them under a cold stream. Then slice them thinly, about the thickness of a CD case. Then lay half of them at the bottom of your pan.

Take your peppers out of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 180 degrees but leave the oven on as you will need it to cook your frittata. Rinse the peppers under cold water to cool them off. Pull out of the stem delicately, making sure to take most of the seeds with it. Peel off the skin. If you have baked them long enough it should come off easily. Slice the peppers in long strips. Cover your layer of potatoes with a layer of peppers.

In a separate dish beat the eggs until they turn pale. Season well and add the grated cheese. Pour half of that mixture onto your potato/pepper layer. Then start the whole process again. Once you're done, sprinkle some some grated cheese on top and put in the oven for 25 minutes.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Spaghetti alla bottarga

It's our last day in Sardinia. There I have said it. It's been a holiday full of the expected blissfully hot weather, tranquil beaches and perilous boat excursions with the Neapolitan at the helm, but also punctuated by unforeseen events, including a dash back to London, a missed flight and the getting to know of one of my husband's most cherished friend and her family.

Between long days at the beach --interrupted only by lazy lunches of tomato salad and fruit-- and dinners with friends all over the north of the island, there hasn't been much time to cook. 

And now there are only a few hours left to pack the half-used, sand-crusted bottles of sunscreen, the salt-stained beach bag and the unfinished lofty novel. So, as we say farewell, I wanted to share with you a wonderful pasta recipe that is one of the staples of Sardinian cuisine: spaghetti alla bottarga. 

Bottarga is a Sardinian delicacy of cured fish roe, often grey mullet, more rarely tuna. Sometimes called the poor man's caviar, it's also found in Southern France under the name of poutargue and in Spain, where it's known as botarga. 

In Sardinia it's sold in supermarkets, vacuum-packed, after it's been massaged by hand to eliminate air pockets, then dried and cured in sea salt for a few weeks. Once it's taken the shape of a dry, hard slab, it's coated in beeswax for keeping. I'm not sure how long it's supposed to last once opened but I have eaten it several weeks later to no ill effect.

You can also buy already-grated bottarga, but of course it doesn't taste nearly the same. The difference is even starker than that between just-grated parmesan cheese and the pale yellow powder one finds in tubs on supermarket shelves.

Perhaps the best thing about bottarga is how quickly it allows you to slam dinner on the table. Other than spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, I don't know an easier recipe.

Spaghetti alla bottarga (feeds four)
400g spaghetti
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
A bunch of fresh parsley
1 fresh red chilli

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Throw in a generous handful of salt. Wait until it boils again and add your pasta. 

In another pan, gently heat up the olive oil and let the garlic cloves and the chopped chilli infuse it. It should take about 3 minutes. Then grate some bottarga over your pan. If you don't have a grater, just slice it very thin and then cut it again until it forms tiny squares no bigger than a grain of rice. Depending on your taste you may want between 4 and 8 tablespoons of bottarga. 

Fry the bottarga gently for a further 5 minutes, or about the time it takes your pasta to cook. Drain the pasta about 30 seconds before it's ready. Add it to the pan with the bottarga, sprinkle with fresh parsley, a grind of pepper and another tablespoon of bottarga. Mix well and serve immediately.