Category Archives: Summer

In an effort to be interesting…

Yet again, I am at a dinner party and asked what my favourite food is.  I take a deep breath and try, as ever, to conjure from the ether a scintillating response.  None come.  My most recent acquaintance probes harder; “well . . . can’t you at least tell me what ‘sort of food’ you like to cook?”

When people find out that you cook, they seem instantaneously to want to categorise you.  Are you a Pastry Chef? You are a girl, so you probably bake cakes, don’t you?  It is true, I love to bake, and have mixed success in this area.  Indeed there are some baked items that I am famous for (well, at least amongst a very select few), and there are some things that I pride myself on having invented or improved upon . . . until I am told otherwise, of course.

There are recipes that I have been given over the years that just work.  A rare find in fact.  One, and only one, I admit to unashamedly stealing, which at the time caused the originators chef a sort of pride infused amusement.  But the recipe has long since been updated and reincarnated, and the chef it once belonged to is currently serving serious time.  So I don’t feel too bad.  I also secretly like to think that this particular recipe’s connection with someone more than a little on the dark side, has somehow added depth to it’s already wicked and bitter dark chocolate self.  Plus, I later found out, he in fact nicked it from someone else.

I try to answer honestly, and yet always seem to give a different answer.  I can’t bear pretentiousness and try so hard to avoid the obvious.  It would be so easy to say “Oh . . .  I do love truffles and foie gras, and I won’t eat anything other than Poilâne Bread with sweet French Farmhouse butter”.   But it is rubbish, I much prefer a burnt Pagnotta and English salty butter, and though it might placate my interviewer, I just can’t bring myself to say it.

I see the disappointment when my response is honest.  It is pizza.  “Seriously? Pizza”?  Yes, I respond; “Why? Have you had a good one recently in Singapore?”  And then the conversation begins.  Pizza is not just pizza.  The difference between a seriously good pizza and the kind you buy in the freezer section of the supermarket is incomparable.

And there it is.  I start sounding all pretentious again.  But it is true.  I have only had one serious Pizza in Singapore made for me by Osvaldo Forlino at Osvaldo’s before he left to set up No Menu with his family.  I have not been back to Osvaldo’s (now renamed L’Angolo) and he doesn’t make pizza at No Menu. I cannot begrudge him this . . . his wife and daughters have conjured an Italian menu virtually impossible to find fault with, in a truly charming shophouse setting.

Mario Batali does a pretty damn good one at The Marina Bay Sands, but these days you wait twenty minutes for the table you booked, twenty minutes for a menu, and then get told it might take forty five minutes to arrive!  A wood- fired oven can cook a pizza in less than 3 minutes, and the more I think about this the more annoyed I get, though it is hard to fault with Nancy Silverton’s pizza dough recipe which they use.  But I use the same recipe at home, and have done for years,  and I can have my pizza in a lot less time.

But I digress.  The truth is;  I wish I had a slightly more exciting answer for next time than ‘pizza’.

And then, this summer, there it was.  “You’ll never guess what it is in Grumpy’s garden”! I was greeted with this shouted query on our arrival at my parents’ home in the rolling English Somerset countryside.  “He has been saving them . . . Your favourites . . . Courgette flowers”.

It is true.  They are indeed my absolute favourite thing in the world (well, as well as hot crusty bread and cold, hard butter; artichokes in all their forms; white asparagus with blood orange hollandaise; Butterscotch Angel Delight;  Burnt Caramel ice cream from Island Creamery sprinkled with Maldon Sea Salt and cheese in pretty much all forms and . . . well  obviously . . . pizza).  Why, oh why can I never think of these things when confronted by foodie interrogators?

Courgette flowers are special.  They are only around for a few weeks of the year, and though very easy to grow, (in fact often a discarded or ignored by-product of growing courgettes) they are incredibly fragile and delicate in texture and flavour.

They are my perfect answer.  They are rare and difficult to find, so not your average response, yet utterly unpretentious as easy to grow and often absolutely free . . . unless of course, you live in Singapore.

I have just been given a small box of these perfect, delicate blooms.  In England, for me, they trumpet the first sign of Summer, though Spring is barely in evidence I understand.  I am standing in a cold storage container unit on Singapore’s west coast and I daren’t ask where they come from.  I squirrel away my tiny stash of guilty pleasures knowing they have probably clocked up more airmiles than my husband.

But now . . . what to do with them?  I bought some freshly made ravioli at Marylebone’s farmer’s market last summer, billed as ‘Ricotta and Zucchini Flower’.  Pretentious.  But I couldn’t resist.  Sadly they were a little disappointing; you certainly couldn’t taste the courgette flower and the ricotta was bland and grainy. I couldn’t even really manage to revive the rather flaccid rectangles with a wonderful (though rather wasted) nutty Olive Oil and a heavy hand with the S &P.

Having got my bounty home I decided to stick to my mantra: “if you have great ingredients; don’t mess with them”.  Well, sort of.  I have, I hope, at least partly learnt my lesson from an aborted attempt at fritters last year.  I had made a light batter using my father’s delicious home made cider (using ingredients from the same region; ‘terroir’ and all that) and was rather smug about what I felt sure the result would be.  I was wrong.  The cider turned bitter in the heat, and totally overpowered the taste of the flowers.  I swallowed.  My flowers, and my pride.

This time I would try to keep it simple.  No fancy batter or pretentious stuffing ingredients.  Just heaven.

Ricotta Stuffed Zucchini/Courgette Flowers

 Batter:

¼ cup plain flour

1 egg

1/3 cup soda water

large pinch of salt and good grind of pepper

Ricotta stuffing:

ideally use ‘Galbani’ ricotta; it holds together really well

250g ricotta

1 tsp sea salt flakes

½ tsp lemon juice

1 TBSP grated parmesan

a few grinds of fresh black pepper

Method

To make the stuffing simply combine all the ingredients well and then use a small spoon to help distribute the stuffing evenly into the very core of the trumpet.  You only need about a teaspoonful in each, taking care not to bruise the flower as you work.  Gently bring the feathery ends to a close and place on greaseproof paper in the fridge until you are ready to cook them.

To make the batter; place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre.  Crack the egg into the well.  Using a fork, begin to mix the egg into the flour and dribble in the soda water to help loosen the mixture as you go.  Once the mixture is a uniform, thick cream consistency (no lumps!), slowly pour in the rest of the soda water, stirring all the time.  Set it to one side.

Take a large, non stick frying pan and place three or four TBSPs of canola or vegetable oil, and one TBSP of olive oil into the pan.  The oil should cover the base of the pan well but not be at all deep.  Bring the pan up to a medium heat and splatter in some batter to check that it is ready – the batter should gently go golden and bubble a little – not spit too much or burn.  When ready, generously dip your flowers in the batter, ensuring they are completely submerged before removing and placing in the frying pan.  A little excess batter is welcome – don’t try to shake off all the excess drips!  Turn after about 30 seconds or when the underside has become the desired colour and cook the other side. 

Remove, and drain on paper towel.  Sprinkle with Maldon Sea Salt and eat immediately, ideally with a cold glass of white wine or a light beer.

Eat immediately . . .

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Everything!, Recipes, Savoury, Summer

Mr McGregor’s Garden (or Ode to ‘Grumpy’s Veg)

Peter Rabbit's idea of heaven

Last weekend it was Guy Fawke’s Night, an evening of fireworks, frozen noses, mulled wine and slightly too-charred burgers.  The weekend before was ‘Apple Day’ at home.  It is a busy time back in Blighty.

The Artichoke, a truly regal vegetable worth every minute of prickly preparation

Apple day is a particular favourite in our calendar.  An annual tradition of apple harvesting that comes at the same time as my husband’s birthday; we join the whole village picking all the apples we can in a day.  The weekend always marks the true end of summer for me; wrapped up warm and shaking trees in windy orchards.  Trudging home in borrowed wellies that don’t quite fit, laden down with our loot that my father will magically turn into cider over the coming months.  We hug cups of tea and spiced hot cider from last year’s harvest, and kiss goodbye to the last of the summer sun as it dips behind the hills, ever earlier, in preparation for the darker winter months ahead.

But I am not in England.  I am in Singapore.  And I am homesick.

My idea of heaven!

I look at photos of our trip home over the summer, and call to mind the wondrous hours of rummaging around in what can only be described as ‘Mr. McGregor’s Garden’.  I try to conjure the vision of my son as he discovers again the magic of his grandfather’s vegetable patch;

His fingers are green.  A lurid, almost neon ‘school-book highlighter’ sort of a green.  The rubbed earth around the bottom of the ladder that he is climbing is strewn with the shells of baby broad beans, new season English peas and a pile of runner beans, saved for later.  I run my fingers across the curly, twisted, spindly ends of the pea shoots that climb ever upwards, wrapping their tenacious tendrils around the crossed bamboo poles that stand proudly in this corner of my father’s beloved patch of the garden.

My head was instantly filled with recipes recalled and re-invented, twisting and turning, growing and changing . . . and my fingers  were itching to play.

Homemade pasta with baby fava beans and fresh peas?  Zucchini flower and pea shoot salad?  Shaved baby artichoke carpaccio with Cedri or lemon juice and homemade ricotta.  Melted onions on a pizza bianca with fresh herbs from the pot outside the kitchen door.  The possibilities were endless.   And I was still just standing at the garden gate.

Instead of a recipe, I am going to simply load up a few captured images of this, one of my most treasured of places.  Every time we return it is different, changed, as only a truly  biodiverse and polycultural garden can.  This corner of the world is precious in many, many ways.  But most of all because when I am on the other side of the world and so far away from the ingredients of my childhood I can come here, at least to a pictorial reminder of what insightful writer Michael Pollan would refer to as “real food”.

Tempted to grow your own? check out Madeleine Cardozo's books; 'Down to Earth' and 'Plot to Pot'

The way broccoli is supposed to look

I have spent a bit of time studying nutrition recently.  Navigating today’s ‘food rules’ is more than a bit of a minefield.  No wonder we need experts to guide us – trans fats, beta carotene, polyunsaturated fats, omegas 3 and 6, antioxidants, carcinogens, proteins, carbs, mercury, What to eat?  What not to eat? How should we avoid certain things? How to eat more of certain things? Good or Bad? Right or Wrong?  By this point most of us have given up caring.   It turns out, these days, perhaps you really do need a degree to eat.

I can’t help but wonder if we would need to pay professionals to tell us what we should eat, if instead we just ate the contents of Mr. McGregors’ garden.  I have learned that food that doesn’t require labeling listing all its ‘nutritional attributes’ are undoubtedly the most nutritionally valuable.  As a rule, in fact, food that doesn’t need to tell you what it is, is probably the best food of all.  Meals that don’t contain more than 5 ingredients…when was the last time you had one of those?  When was the last time you check the list of ingredients on that single packet of noodles, that splodge of sauce out of a bottle, that packet of something you just opened while you thought about what to eat?  I promise you, most of us have eaten more than five ingredients in our pre-dinner snack.

Tiny wild strawberries, hidden treasure

With this in mind I would like to support a local Singaporean initiative – “Veggie Thursday”!  It pretty much does what it says on the tin – and promotes the idea of eating only vegetables on a Thursday.  There are a ton of reasons to do this – not least to support our ‘inner temple’.  Whether you are swayed by Karma or Korma it is a great excuse to check some of the wealth of Singapore’s vegetarian Indian restaurants, challenge your recipe repertoire, and get into greens.  Check out http://www.veggiethursday.sg/ for more information.

Tomorrow I shall be starting the day with coffee and carrot cake  in honour of Veggie Thursday ( I am obviously bending the rules just a little – but I will use anything as an excuse for carrot cake) . . .  Now, how bad does that sound?

Rare gold in the garden

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Filed under Everything!, Recipes, Savoury, Summer, Winter