Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Round Up

Wed 29 Aug 2007

It's been quite a while since a round up, but not a huge amount of ground to cover.

The Hard Rock Café on Albion Street has closed down and a new Itailan, Felicini, is to be opening soon.

Another new opening is the much awaited Brasserie Blanc, taking over Leodis's old space. The opening is slated for 'early September' so it can't be far off ...

Entries for the Best Birthday Banger have to be in by mid-September, so if you're a sausage maker you need to get your skates on!

The other week I mentioned my Le Creuset marmitout. I've now read that these have actually been discontinued by Le Creuset! Apparently they are still available at outlets (and probably on ebay!), so it might be an opportune time to bag a bargain.

And finally, the other night I opened a bottle of d'Arenberg Footbolt Shiraz (Oddbins - £9.49) - it was absolutely fantastic and went an absolute treat with our sausages (I wonder why we were cooking those!). You can still find some other champagne related bargains at Hoults. They have generous savings on bubbles such as Krug, Dom Pérignon and Gosset - but only til the end of the month, so be quick!
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Thursday, August 23, 2007

C'era Una Volta

Sun 29 July 2007

C'era Una Volta translates as 'Once upon a time' and it was the first restaurant recommended to us by Laura. It is in the town of Lucardo, which is a bit in the middle of nowhere, so you won't be finding it unless you have a car! Lucardo also appears to be a town of one church and two restaurants.

As it was lunch and I, at least, was already feeling the effects of my father's lunching ability I opted out of the entrée - which means that I didn't order a starter, but rather 'sampled' other starters that appeared on the table. Mum ordered onion and zucchini beignets. This turned out to be onion beignets and zucchini beignets (rather than a combined mix) which mattered not as they were delicious, light and not greasy at all. The Italians seem to be so much better at doing stuff with zucchini/courgettes than anyone else. I resolved, briefly, to do more with this vegetable (incidentally, I love courgette but I'm quite happy to eat it raw or lighty steamed and therefore find little impetus to do anything else with it). Dad ordered the spinach and ricotta ravioli with walnut sauce. This was a generous serving with lovely home made pasta and, rather than drowning the pasta parcels, there was a dab of sauce per cushion which allowed the diner to enjoy the pasta and filling, as well as the sauce.

After my meagre pickings from other people's plates I was anticipating main course. I had ordered pici with cheeses and cherry tomatoes. The fat pasta was chewily al dente and coated in a mix of melted, stringy cheeses and flecked with cherry tomatoes. This description does not do it justice. It was absolutely delicious, and, although I scoffed it at record speed, I was so disappointed when I was finished. I did sample mum's pappardelle with wild boar and Andy's zucchini stuffed with mince, but missed out on dad's guinea fowl with lemon.

We were too full by this stage to contemplate dessert, and did discuss the possibility of returning another night for dinner - but this was something we never got around to.

If you're in the area, I recommend preparing yourself for a big meal and heading to C'era Una Volta. Also, please try the fried zucchini flowers for us!

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Apple and Blackberry Cake

Sun 19 Aug 2007

I'm a big fan of Nigel Slater's recipes and this cake appears to be almost bullet proof. This was the first outing for the new oven, so while I was cooking I held my breath! The cake came out evenly cooked and lovely and moist, so no complaints from me!

This cake consists of three parts: an almond cake base, a layer of fruit and a crumble. I find it easier to make the crumble first, as I don't need to bother with washing out the food processor. The cake is quick to make but does take an hour in the oven and you do need to let it cool down before eating it ...

Preheat the oven to 180C (conventional, 160C fan).

For the crumble: 100g (cold) unsalted butter, 100g demerara sugar, 100g plain flour and 2 tbsp of oats. Whizzy this together and put aside.

For the cake: mix 150g of unsalted butter with 150g of caster sugar. Add 3 eggs, 75g of self raising flour and 110g of ground almonds.

Put the cake batter into a greased, base-lined 20-cm springform tin and smooth over the top. On top of this, arrange an apple, peeled and cut into sixteenths and scatter with approximately 100-150g of blackberries (raspberries are also an excellent substitution).

Finally, top with the crumble and then bake for an hour: a skewer should come out clean, although it may well be moist thanks to the fruit.

The cake is very very buttery, so make sure you use a baking tray under the tin, otherwise you'll be cleaning butter out of the oven!

As the cake is fragile until cool, allow it a good rest in the tin before attempting to remove the base and the paper.

Thanks to the almonds, the cake is moist and keeps well: ideal for lunches throughout the week!

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Seafood and Whisky Risotto

Sat 18 Aug 2007

Yes, you read that right. A quick dive back into my own kitchen, even though my Italian stories aren't yet finished. The latest Australian Gourmet Traveller features risotto and whisky as its 'perfect partners'. Hmm.

But I've been meaning to try one of these food and wine pairings for ages so I thought I'd give it a go. The recipe is actually a Balmain bug and scallop risotto, but I figured my chances of finding Balmain bugs were slim, and decided to substitute prawns. We managed to track down healthy prawns and huge scallops at the market (as well as cow's feet, for just £2.50 a pop - what do you do with a cow's foot?), but for some reason we couldn't find fennel. So, with another substitution underway I headed into the kitchen.

The first part is to make some fish stock. The recipe called for fish heads, but since I was using prawns and had the whole critters, I used the heads, shells and tails of four prawns. I coarsely sliced a fat leek, added it to the prawn detritus, added a couple of bay leaves and some pepper corns and threw in about 100mL of white wine. I reduced this mix and then added water ... enough to fill the pot. I brought this mix to the boil and then simmered for about 20 minutes, before straining (and discarding the solids).

You need to keep the stock warm, as the trick (if it can be called that) with risotto is to use hot stock.

For the risotto, I chopped half an onion and sliced a leek and sweated them in a mix of olive oil and butter before adding (for 2) 200g of carnaroli rice (normally I work on about 75g of rice per person for a good serving of risotto, but it happened that this was the end of the packet). Cook the rice with the leeks, onion and fats for a couple of minutes, ensuring it's well coated and mixed through. Then, start to add the HOT stock, about half a cup at a time. Stir lots and ensure the stock is fully absorbed before adding more. This can be pretty tedious - sometimes the rice cooks really quickly and other times (like Saturday night) it can take ages. That's just the way it goes.

So, after a lot of stirring, I was finally happy with the idea of adding my prawns, stirring them around, adding a touch more stock, until they turned pink. Don't overcook prawns - they become horribly tough and a bit nasty. In something like this, you can consider them done when they turn pink because, after all, they are going to sit around in the hot rice for a bit ... Finally, finish with a splash of single malt whisky.

So, prawns done, and risotto off the heat, I set to cooking the scallops. I don't think I've cooked scallops before and they were a bit expensive (£1 each!) so I was scared of over cooking them and turning them into rubbery pellets. I tossed them in some olive oil and pepper before putting them straight into a hot pan (actually - the non stick top from my Le Creuset marmitout - quite possibly the greatest pot/pan combination ever!) and cooked them for probably just under a minute on each side. The AGT suggested 30 seconds each side, but mine were quite fat and I did poke them (a lot) while they were cooking ... they turned out perfectly.

To serve: plate the risotto, add the scallops and ensure you have a glass of malt whisky to hand.

I was quite underwhelmed by this. The whisky in the risotto did add an interesting (in a good way) flavour, but drinking whisky with a main meal, somehow, just didn't work for me. Maybe I made a mistake in choosing to use a smoky, peaty Islay (seriously, how many single malts am I supposed to have?), and maybe the lack of fennel adversely affected things, but ultimately I thought this dish represented little reward for quite a lot of effort. Next time, I'd be tempted to smarten up the risotto, possibly with dill, or maybe even some fresh basil, or a drizzle of very thin pesto let down with good olive oil. I'd be be keen to omit the whisky, because with it, the risotto represents a next to impossible wine matching exercise.

I would, however, definitely make my own stock again when making risotto. It added very little to the time, and allowed me a great degree of salt and quality control.

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Friday, August 17, 2007


Wed 01 Aug 2007

The capital of Chianti is a town called Greve. It is serious wine country and we had to visit (although, on a less serious note, we were tempted to ensure we ate chips while there ...). For dining tips, we referred again to Laura, and she suggested a restaurant called Nerbone.

The restaurant is located on the town's main square, along with a great many other café choices. We were glad to have had the suggestion, but even so, Andy and dad completed a quick recce of the other offerings. The verdict was that there was a marked difference between the restaurants for the tourists and those not: the main difference being in price. Nerbone, with its window menu only in Italian, was at the cheaper end of the scale.

We settled in to our table and a litre carafe of house red (absurdly cheap at just €8) and digested the menu. This was probably the most interesting, and challenging, menu we encountered while in Italy, purely for the quantity and variety of offal on offer. Dad was happy, I was intrigued but not brave enough and Andy exercised some pioneering British spirit. And that's just the main courses!

To start with, both dad and Andy ordered the pici with pork cheek, tomato, garlic and onion. Pici is a local pasta, made with just flour and olive oil and rolled into quite thick spaghetti like strings. Because they both ordered it, they had one huge dish to share between them. Mum ordered ricotta ravioli with pear, butter and thyme sauce and I chose a special: taglietelle with galetti mushrooms.

My taglietelle was lovely: simply dressed in some butter and olive oil and served with masses of the galetti mushrooms. The ravioli was similarly simple, with the combination of so few flavours working well. Mum did comment that there wasn't as much butter sauce left over as she would have liked (as we had plenty of bread), but that is hardly a criticism. The serving of pici was huge (I had to help finish it off) and also delicious.

A gentle pause and we moved on to our main courses. My choice, of finely sliced beef with grilled chicory, proved to be the most spectacular. I haven't quite worked out how it was produced. I suspect that the finely sliced beef was layered on the metal plate, the chicory placed on top, and then a veritable forest of herbs (bay, rosemary, sage) finished off the dish, which was then put under the grill. The metal plate was incredibly hot, and the beef very barely cooked, but infused with the flavours from all the greenery. The dish looked quite spectacular, as all the herbs were left on top, and it seemed more like an overgrown plant pot than a main course!

Mum chose the grilled duck breast special: a huge portion of pink duck breast with a delicious yogurt sauce. Dad opted for boiled ox tongue, with salsa verde and pickles. Another big portion, with generous slices of tongue. And the pièce de résistance was Andy's choice: poppa fritta. This is fried cow's udder. I wasn't brave enough to order this for myself, but I was quite happy to give it a good taste test. The verdict was that we all thought it tasted like _something_ but we couldn't put our fingers on it. It was slightly spongy (a bit like bean curd) and didn't really have a great deal of flavour. I'm glad I've tried it, but certainly, cooked that same way, I don't know I'd bother eating it again (and especially not when I could eat beef and chicory!).

We were full, and we also had to head back to the villa before it got dark, so there was no time or space to sample desserts or coffees.

You can check out an alternative cow's udder dish (also at Nerbone) at Izzy Eats. I think the salsa verde would have been a welcome addition to the rather plain poppa fritta!

Finally ... it was only on our return to the UK that we discovered that Nerbone is the sister restaurant of a much more famous (well, it appeared in Australian Gourmet Traveller!) Nerbone in Florence - so even if you're not out in the Chianti countryside you might be able to find some offal delicacies!

1. Nerbone di Greve, Piazza Matteotti, 22, Greve in Chianti, phone: +39 55 853308
2. Nerbone, Piazza Mercato Centrale, 47/R, Florence, phone: +39 055 219949

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Antica Osteria di Vico

Thurs 2 Aug 2007

Continuing the backward journey through Italy (begun with truffles at La Taverna di San Giuseppe), the next stop is the Antica Osteria di Vico, in the village of Vico d'Elsa in Chianti.

Vico d'Elsa is a tiny and remote village, and we wouldn't have headed off in this direction, had it not been for Laura, who was our host for the week at Il Nido. We quizzed her constantly about good places to eat (two of her other recommendations forthcoming!), and she did not fail us.

We stopped at the Antica Osteria di Vico for lunch. It was a hot day and the restaurant has a large patio area for al fresco dining. The restaurant also features a lot of grilled meat, which was all being cooked outside, so it was like having an open kitchen.

There was also some impromptu entertainment in the form of the huge table of workmen sitting near us. At the end of the meal, the land lady explained that they all worked together and it was their last day of work before going on holiday. Judging by the huge large and even larger bottles of red wine they were drinking, I doubt too much work was done that afternoon. While I can't speak any Italian, there was definitely a lot of joking, ribbing and random moments of quiet, before they all burst into song down the phone to unsuspecting wives or girlfriends.

But on to the food ... we started with mixed crostini (a garlic-y topping, a tomato topping and an olive toopping) and a plate of mixed cinta senese, which was different salami made from the local pig. We drank a bottle of the house white with this, before moving on to the house red and our main courses.

Mum and dad opted for a large mixed grill to share. This decision was based on the fact that two small grills would have been all pork. This was the most disappointing part of the meal. Although the pork was rated very highly (and left them both wishing they'd ordered two small grills) the lamb was deemed almost inedible and they were less than thrilled with the beef. This was a shame, because Andy had ordered sliced grilled beef on rocket salad, which came beautifully rare and was absolutely delicious. While marginally more complicated than just grilled meat, this dish (yet again) showed how important simplicity is in food. If you have good beef, good rocket and good olive oil you don't really need too much else.

For some reason, in the heat, I ordered rabbit stew, with Vernaccia and saffron. It was lovely: the meat was tender and moist and the sauce just had to be mopped up with plenty of bread.

After all of this we didn't really have room but were still tempted by a plate of cheese and a portion of the chocolate tart with home made chilli jam. And coffees. And then some dessert wine.

Then we had a little rest, watched a ginger kitten play with pieces of paper and then headed on our way.

A very different meal from that in Siena, and the grill was a bit disappointing, but in all, a great (not to mention obscenely cheap!) lunch - and a good birthday celebration for dad, who was celebrating turning 65!

1. Antica Osteria di Vico, via della Villa 11, Vico d'Elsa, phone: +39 55 807 3279.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Tiled Hall Cafe

Sun 12 Aug 2007

Another quick break from European travel adventures. Sunday saw us stop into the Tiled Hall Café in between the Art Gallery and the Central Library: we'd just completed a swift march from Crown Point back into town and decided we needed some sustenance.

The Tiled Hall Café has a very neat trick up it's sleeve: it's stunningly beautiful, and I recommend that you head there for a coffee as soon as possible. It was originally opened in 1884, and in the 1950s a false ceiling, bookcases and lots of panelling covered up its prettiness. It's only just been restored and re-opened.

Having said that, it's not going to be the greatest afternoon tea experience you'll have in Leeds. Ordering and paying is at the counter and you then get to wait for your food and drink before carrying it back to your table on a rather flimsy tray.

I ordered a caffè latte (£1.95) and a ginger syrup cake (£1.50). I was very taken with the cake as it came in its own miniature cardboard 'tin' and looked stunning. I also discovered that this is, quite possibly, the hardest cake enclosure to get into in Leeds. If I'd had a camera with me I would have taken a photo of the carnage that ensued as I tried to get into my cake. The cake itself had good flavour but, I thought, was a little too dry and crumbly for what should be a ridiculously moist and sticky beast.

Andy went down a more savoury route, opting for a pork pie (which came with salad, £2.25) and an Americano (£1.75). The pork pie was topped with apple and cheese and while the verdict was that it was 'quite nice' he wasn't sure it was worth the money (salad or no salad).

Having said that, the coffees were good. My caffè latte was actually milky and definitely hit the spot, and £2 isn't beyond reasonable.

So - the Tiled Hall Café is good for coffee and people watching - just don't go along when you need cake!

1. The Tiled Hall Café, Situated between Leeds City Art Gallery and Leeds Central Library, LS1 3AB, phone: 0113 224 4811

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Malmaison Brasserie

Wed 8 Aug 2007

Last night the eating and drinking machine rolled on to the Malmaison Brasserie. The Brasserie is set in the basement of the pretty Malmaison building on Swinegate, just a short walk from the city centre.

We were a little early for our reservation so we started off with drinks in the bar. It was a bit noisy and hotel-bar like for me, though the low lighting, purple table lights and sofas were a good start. I ended up being treated to a glass of Veuve vintage, so no complaining from me!

The Brasserie has a 'home grown' menu where the food is sourced from within 30 miles of Leeds. It's £12.50 for 2 courses or £15.50 for 3, or you can opt for the à la carte menu. In our party of four we had a bit of mix and matching. I started with the risotto milanese. Other starters were squid and scallop salad, pea and leek tart and (from the home grown menu) a niçoise salad.

The pea and leek tart was the star dish - sitting on top of some asparagus spears, it had the most incredibly light, crispy and short pastry. I thought the risotto was very good although perhaps a trifle over seasoned and both the salads were well received.

For main course I chose the Gloucester old spot pork, pan fried, with sorrel and water cress and a gooseberry chutney. It was very good. The pork was moist and the gooseberry chutney was delicious. The lamb chops, with roast garlic, girolle mushrooms and pesto, was a huge portion: 4 fat, pink chops presented on a board with a copper pan of pesto. From the home grown menu the selection was Goosnargh chicken with tomato and cous-cous, and the final choice was streak-frites. We ordered an additional portion of chips, as well as carrots with chervil and a portion of spinach.

By the time we arrived at dessert, we were slowing down. We shared a crème brûlée and a serving of cheese. The cheese comes out on the cheese trolley and you choose a selection of 5 from the menu (there was a choice of over 10 cheeses last night). The crème brûlée was delicious too: a crispy, caramelised top with a soft, just set custard underneath.

Although I didn't get to look at the wine list in detail, it looks monumental, and even contains a table of contents. We started with a Tim Knappstein riesling and followed with an American zinfandel. We wrapped up with a selection of dessert wines and liqueurs: Frangelico, Banyuls and cognac.

The meal stood out for several reasons: the food was 'bloody good' (I quote my father), the spelling on the menu (so often a point of downfall) was good (apart from a very dodgy spelling of liqueur!) and the service was excellent. The staff were cheerful, knowledgeable and all very professional.

The location and style of the restaurant puts the venue firmly in the special occasion league, but without outrageously high prices. In addition, you will get a reservation far more easily than you will at Anthony's, and many diners will find the food far more accessible.

1. Malmaison Brasserie, 1 Swinegate, Leeds, LS1 4AG, phone: 0113 398 1000

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Taverna di San Guiseppe

Sat 4 Aug 2007

If you're thinking there's been a paucity of posts recently you'd be right: I've just spent the last 10 days or so in Italy. It was an eating and drinking marathon, and I'll be writing about it all in reverse order so there should be some regular posts while I catch up!

Saturday found us in Siena, a city that I've not visited before and which everyone said I would love. Everyone was right. It's a beautiful (if somewhat hilly!) city, with the famous Campo (which plays host to the Palio) and Mangia Tower.

Anyway, after walking around all day, it was time to eat, which involved more walking around as we sussed out a selection of restaurants. We ended up deciding on La Taverna di San Guiseppe, which is tucked away up a (steep) street that runs off the Campo.

We started with glasses of prosecco and pre-dinner beers before rodering a bottle of chianti (of course). The waiter originally suggested a €70 bottle but we exercised some moderation and opted for the Querciabella Chianti Classico DOCG 2005. It was a rather blind choice, but proved to tick all the boxes and some subsequent research suggests that it's not a shabby wine at all (it's always so nice to have one's taste vindicated!).

First of all - the bread. I have to confess that I found bread in Italy to be OK. It was erratic and generally, I thought, under-salted. The bread at San Guiseppe was fantastic. We were given three types: a plain white, a walnut bread and a slightly fruity bread. They were all dense, tasty breads with good crusts.

We started the meal proper by sharing two starters: a platter of mixed meats and the old Tuscan-style chicken livers. Both were excellent, and the generous sauce on the chicken livers gave us plenty of opportunity to gobble up the remainder of the bread. The mixed meats weren't for the garlic averse and were delicious too.

The main courses were where the excitement really lay. I had ordered from the special truffle menu. At €15 I was worried that my spinach and ricotta dumplings with truffle sauce would be an over-priced disappointment. I could not have been more wrong. The dumplings were lovely, light and tasty and the sauce was laden with truffle. As the dish came out of the kitchen the whole restaurant knew, and there were truffle shavings through the sauce and all over the plate. I'd already started eating when our waiter appeared with black truffle in hand (it was huge!) and cheerfully covered my food in even more truffle shavings! €15 well spent!

Other main courses included a pork steak with a rosemary sauce and an accompaniment of mushrooms, pasta with a pumpkin and leek sauce and a mixed grill (also very generous for €15). Everyone was very happy. We also ordered a green salad, a mixed salad, extra roast potatoes and some mixed grilled vegetables. The only disappointment was the mixed salad which contained hard boiled eggs and sweetcorn.

After all of that, we couldn't be rude and not sample anything from the dessert menu, and no trip to Italy would be complete without tiramisu. The waiter assured us it was the best tiramisu in Italy - I don't know about that but I'm quite certain it was the best tiramisu I've ever had. It was made with an incredibly rich, sweet custard and it was very, very good.

The only slight slip up of the evening was that the waiting staff started to clear our plates while I was still in the (slow) process of tidying up some grilled vegetables. I didn't notice it but apparently the head waiter winced noticeably when he realised I was still eating, so all is forgiven.

The Taverna di San Guiseppe is mentioned in the latest Michelin Guide, so I can't lay claim to an undiscovered gem. However, we had an amazing meal and came out having spent just over €50 a head. Not ludicrously cheap, but we didn't skimp from the prosecco aperitif through to the grappa digestif.

1. Taverna di San Guiseppe, Via Giovanni Duprè 132, 53100, Siena, Italy, phone: +39 0577 42286

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