Tuesday, 8 December 2009

There can never be too much food

    I am having dinner-party angst. Again. It must be that I am back to my old self then. Already. Three months spent trying to learn to let go, to ignore social conventions, to focus on the bigger things in life and here I am again, gripping the steering wheel, worrying about whether I should rush to the supermarket for extra duck breasts in case there isn't enough food.
    It sounds innocuous, doesn't it, the topic of how much food to serve one's guests? But as the subject of the longest trench war between the Neapolitan and myself over the past seven years (yes, longer even than the battle over how many pairs of shoes I could possibly need or why he is physically incapable of putting his morning cereal bowl in the dishwasher), it's actually a pretty major issue. To be perfectly accurate, however, I should probably rectify and say it's only been a prominent source of conflict between us for the past five years, because when we were still students we only served one dish: penne with vodka.

    Then we moved back to Europe. We got our own place. We got married. We bought china. We had our first grown-up dinner parties. And all of a sudden it happened. There wasn't enough food.
    I didn't get it at first. For several years I didn't get it. What on earth did he mean there wasn't enough food? Appetizer, main, dessert, sometimes even a salad squeezed in. That's plenty of food by my family's standards. I mean, that's like a Christmas meal in the house I grew up in. For my mom, a successful dinner party is one without leftovers. In the Neapolitan's family, an empty plate is the ultimate insult, a spit in the face of your guests. There should always, ALWAYS, be food left, he told me again and again. Even after second helpings I peeped? Yes. Even then.
    I still didn't get it. I fought him tooth and nail over it. Then I went to my first Neapolitan Christmas. There, between the seventh and eighth antipasto, I had the epiphany. There could never be enough food. I shamed my husband for years, it dawned on me. I'm still trying to make it up to him.

    Now I could tell you about the antipasto I made for that dinner party I was talking about earlier, the one for which I worried about getting extra duck breasts. On paper it sounded very good: round zucchini stuffed with fresh ricotta, amaretti and parmesan cheese. But the truth is it took quite a bit of effort and I wasn't impressed with the results. I can't tell whether it was because my zucchini weren't right (too bitter) or whether the slightly sweet stuffing didn't quite work in that case, but it would be a shame to share a recipe with you that I wouldn't make again in my own kitchen.
    So instead I decided to tell about something more seasonal: an original Brussels sprouts recipe. It would go marvellously with the Christmas turkey.

Brussels sprouts with chestnut and pancetta (serves 4)

500g trimmed and cleaned Brussels sprouts
100g pancetta (streaky bacon will do if you can't find pancetta)
40g butter
a dozen chestnuts

    Put a small saucepan filled with water on the stove and wait for it to simmer. In the meantime, make a small incision at the flat end of each chestnut (If you don't, they will explode). Then  cook your chestnuts in the boiling water for around 10 minutes. 
    While the chestnuts are cooking slice your Brussels sprouts very thinly, as for a cold slaw. If your pancetta comes in slices, cut it into matchsticks. Once your chestnuts have cooled enough to be handled but while they're still warm, peel them, taking out both the tough shell and the thin brown papery skin. Chop them up as you would walnuts.
    Put the butter in a pan and warm it, throw in the pancetta and let it sizzle for a few minutes on relatively high heat so it gets a bit crispy. Turn down the heat slightly and add the sprouts. Add a good grinding of salt and pepper and finally the chestnuts. Cook for about 10 minutes. You want the sprouts to retain a slight bite.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The recovery cake


Oh dear.

There's hardly a point denying it. I disappeared for a while. But rest assured you didn't miss much. I didn't cook over this prolonged absence and, to be truthful, hardly did much of anything else. The Neapolitan, bless him, took to Marks & Spencer prepared meals pretty well, making me doubt, in my darkest moments, the point of ever bothering to put anything on the stove that didn't come neatly packaged in a throw-away baking tray and non-recyclable plastic film.

So we ate cod in a crust of parmesan cheese and herbs, thai fish cakes with a ginger dressing, pork medaillons in their apple and sage sauce. It took very limited energy. Crack open the oven door, set the timer, crawl back to the sofa for a 15-minute snooze. You're done. A revelation. I started to understand why many of us no longer bother pretending to peal vegetables. Take those lovely, exotic thai fish cakes: I feel exhausted just thinking about shopping for the ingredients. Anyway, all I wanted to say is, M&S lovers out there, I get it now.

But guess what? The M&S near me is small. After a couple of weeks, we had eaten pretty much every single dish on offer a couple of times. I started to fear for the health of my marriage. The Neapolitan bit his tongue. I want to say it here for the record. Not a complaint was heard; not a sigh let out as I served him microwaved mushroom chicken soup for the fifth time in a month. Then, one Sunday morning, just as I was mulling making my way to a bigger M&S a couple of bus stops away, I walked into my kitchen and a miracle happened: I thought I could just about handle making a plate of linguine alla carbonara. And I did too, with a good grinding of black pepper and plenty of chili heat in the sauce, the way the Neapolitan likes it.

That, my friends, was a ray of light, the first sign of recovery.

Still, I didn't bake. Then this weekend we had dinner with friends, one of whom has turned vegetarian over the past year. We joked, we drank, we munched on chestnut and sweet potato cake, fake bangers and mash and a tiny tortilla stuffed with veggies. Then came dessert, always the main part of the meal for me. The Neapolitan and I shared an apple cinnamon crumble with some custard on the side. Now, I can be virtuous all you want at the start of a meal, but when it comes to dessert, I refuse to compromise. That puffy, brown crumble looked cute in its little ribbed porcelain dish, but it didn't cut it. It was dry, it was lumpy, it wasn't sweet nor crunchy enough. It had NO BUTTER. I didn't finish it. Did you hear that? Let me say it again. I didn't finish it. 

So on Monday night I baked. My inspiration was a ricotta pie my vegetarian friend makes every week. She likes to eat it for breakfast because it isn't too sweet and keeps well for a couple of days. I vaguely remembered her mumbling something about flour, ricotta and sugar over wine. Nothing else to do. As in the crumble, there was no butter, but in that case, it seemed natural.

Back in my kitchen I started having doubts. Shouldn't I put some eggs in? And how about something for flavour? Perhaps some lemon would work...oooooh I know, if I use lemon zest, I could then replace some of the flour with almond powder. 

So here it is. The recovery ricotta cake. It's nothing much but it's quick, simple and delicious. It won't give you headaches, it won't make you stressed. Think of it as a sun salutation: the warm-up before we can move on to bigger things.

125g flour
One sachet of fast-acting yeast
125g almond powder
250g ricotta
3 eggs
1 organic lemon 

Beat the eggs and the sugar together until foamy. Add the ricotta and then the almond powder, the flour and the yeast. Throw in the lemon zest and the juice of half a lemon to thin the mixture. Pop in the oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes. Let it cool for 15 minutes before you try to turn it.