Relaxed cooking for the holidays

May 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

I was chatting to a friend on a balmy Friday evening while we watched our sons valiantly lose a cricket match. She’s rented a holiday cottage by the seaside for a week over the half term holidays. She disclosed to me that, following an afternoon spent planning meals, shopping etc, all she had on her list so far was wine and a bottle of gin. Fine as far as it goes but it won’t feed a hungry crowd!

This dilemma got me thinking so I thought I’d jot down a few uncomplicated recipes with a summery holiday feel that you might be inspired to try in a holiday cottage with unfamiliar and probably limited cooking equipment.

I’ve come up with two lunch dishes, one evening meal and of course a cake.

Recipe for Caponata

Since trying the caponata at Da Piero’s restaurant last month (see my post I haven’t been able to get enough of the stuff. It’s a really useful holiday dish as you can make up a large batch and keep it in the fridge. It’s one of those dishes that improves if it’s kept and is very good natured as it is best served at room temperature. You could served it along with cold meat and cheese at lunchtime, or as a vegetable accompaniment with some simply grilled or fried fish (skate, sole, bass).

This is a dish you can experiment with and make your own – after all Da Piero’s unorthodox but good addition was chunks of waxy salad potato. So far, the version I like best is one I have adapted from a recipe in Tamasin Day Lewis’ “Good Tempered Food”. It’s quite simple and clean tasting and I like the astringency of the green rather than black olives.

Serves 6, maybe more depending on what’s with it


light olive oil for frying- about 4 tablespoons
6 sticks celery cut into 1/2 cm dice
2 medium aubergines cut into 2 cm cubes
sea salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 and 1/2 400g tins plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
3 oz good green olives stoned and halved
Handful of roughly chopped flatleaf parsley

Heat the light olive oil in a large deepish sauté pan big enough to hold all the ingredients. If you don’t have a pan large enough you’ll need to work with a frying pan (to brown the vegetables) and a casserole (to complete the cooking). When the oil is hot, add the celery and cook for about 10 minutes until soft and beginning to brown. Season then remove with a slotted spoon onto a plate and set aside. If needed, add a slosh more frying oil and when hot add the aubergines cubes. Fry until soft and brown which will take 10-15 minutes. They will shrink incredibly as the water they contain cooks away. Season and remove from the pan and set aside.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the extra virgin olive oil to the pan and gently fry the onions and garlic until soft and golden. Add the tomatoes and cook uncovered for about 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar and cook for a further 10 minutes. Check seasoning. Add the reserved aubergine and celery, capers and olives and cook gently together for a further 5 minutes.

Allow to cool to room temperature then stir in the chopped parsley and serve.

Recipe for Rillettes de Tours

From Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons cookery book. We eat loads of rillettes, a coarse stringy pork almost pâté, when we go on holiday to France. Both the boys love it. It makes an easy picnic lunch spread thickly onto crusty French bread. It’s simplicity itself to make, especially if there should be an Aga in your holiday house – the simmering oven would be just the right temperature to make this. Any butcher should be able to sell you the belly pork but it might be worth preparing the spices in advance and taking them with you as you may find difficulty tracking down the ground cloves and allspice in a village shop.

Serves 6-8

2 lb (900g) belly of pork
3 tablespoons (45ml) dry white wine or dry white vermouth
5 black peppercorns lightly crushed in a pestle and mortar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch of ground allspice
very small pinch ground cloves
1 large clove of garlic

Remove the rind and bones from the pork, or ask your butcher to do this. Cut the meat into small cubes and put them into a deep ovenproof dish with the wine or vermouth, crushed peppercorns, salt, spices and crushed garlic. Cover and cook in a very slow oven (120 degrees C; 250 degrees F, Mark 1/2 for 2 hours (maybe more) until the pork is soft and slightly shrivelled looking, swimming in a pool of fat.

Drain off and strain the fat. Pull the meat apart with two forks to form shreds. Press into your chosen pot or pots and spoon over the strained fat to cover. Chill until set. Serve with cornichons and crusty bread straight from the pot like a pâté. No butter is necessary.

Paella de Cerdo con Chorizo y Espinaca
(Pork paella with chorizo sausage and spinach)

Another recipe from Tamasin Day-Lewis’ “Good Tempered Food”. She attributes the recipe to Sam Clark, chef-proprietor of London’s Moro restaurant. Search out and bring with you the chorizo and smoked paprika, maybe also the rice, which you do need to give an authentic flavour to the dish. For anyone in the South Manchester area, Goose Green deli in Altrincham sell lovely fresh chorizo sausages for cooking.

Serves 4


7 tbsp olive oil
350g/12 oz pork fillet, halved lengthwise and sliced into 5mm strips
125g/4 oz mild cooking chorizo, cut into small pieces
2 large Spanish onions finely chopped
1 large green pepper, halved, seeded and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
225g/8oz paella or risotto rice (original recipe suggests Calasparra rice from Valencia)
1 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
2 bottled red peppers, drained and roughly chopped (original recipe specifies dried ñora peppers, presumably soaked in hot water but as these are difficult to get hold of I’ve substituted widely available bottled sweet pimentos)
900ml/1 and 1/2 pints hot chicken or vegetable stock or water
500g/ 1lb 2oz spinach, washed and drained
1 lemon cut into wedges
sea salt and black pepper

In a 30-40cm/12-16 in paella pan (or failing this a frying pan or large casserole) heat the olive oil over a high heat. Stir-fry the pork for 2-3 minutes so it is still a little undercooked. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Turn down the heat to low and fry the chorizo for a minute. Add the chopped onion and green pepper and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and continue cooking for a further 5-10 minutes. At this point the mixture should have begun to caramelise. Stir the rice into the pan for a minute to coat it in the mixture. Up to this point everything can be cooked in advance.

The next stage needs about 20 minutes more cooking time. Add salt and pepper to season the rice. Add the paprika and ñora or bottled peppers followed by the hot stock and simmer for 15 minutes until there is just a thin layer of liquid around the rice.

Meanwhile in a large pan briefly wilt the spinach with a little salt and put it on one side with the pork. Scatter the pork over the rice evenly then do the same with the spinach. With the back of a spoon gently push both the pork and spinach partially into the oily liquid that remains at the bottom of the pan. Tuck in the lemon wedges, cover the paella tightly with foil and let it sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Serve with a glass of Rioja and a tomato salad.

Recipe for Courgette and Lemon Cake

I tried a courgette, lemon and pistachio cake recently at Green’s very welcoming café and tearoom in Grasmere in the English Lake District. I searched around for a recipe and eventually found one I’d forgotten about in Nigella Lawson’s “How to be a Domestic Goddess”. She attributes the recipe to one Flora Woods. Don’t be put off by the inclusion of courgettes – they simply make the cake moist and turn it a fantastic green colour. Think of it as an interesting first cousin to a brash carrot cake. I’ve tweaked Nigella’s recipe by adding pistachios to the cake batter and simplifying the filling and icing. I’ve had trouble with cream cheese icings recently as Philadelphia and its ilk don’t have enough fat in and are packed with water and stabilisers which break down into runnyness when you beat the stuff with a wooden spoon. My friend Nadia put me onto the idea of using mascarpone with a 50% fat content instead – thanks Nadia it works! BTW the cake in the photograph contains neither raisins nor pistachios just to see how the plainer version worked out. Fine – in fact scrumptious.

Serves 8, maybe more if you’re frugal


60g raisins plus 2 tablespoons white wine or vermouth (optional)
250g courgettes (weighed before grating – about 2 medium ones)
2 large eggs
125 ml vegetable oil (I use light olive perhaps with a splash of deep green pistachio or pumpkin seed oil if I happen to have some in the cupboard)
150g golden caster sugar
225g self raising flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
50g pistachio nuts roughly chopped (optional)

For the filling
1/2 jar best lemon curd

For the icing
1/2 tub mascarpone cheese
6 heaped tablespoon icing sugar, sifted
juice of half a lemon

If using the raisins, put them into a small saucepan with the wine, bring up to the boil and leave to soak and plump up for 30 minutes or so.

Prepare your cake tin(s) by greasing and/or lining with bakewell paper. Nigella’s recipe specifies 2 * 21cm sandwich tins. I don’t have sandwich tins in that size so have used a single deep 21 cm tin (about 9 inches) and extended the cooking time and reduced the heat to bake a single large cake. Once it has cooled it can be split, filled and iced in the usual way.

Wash and dry the courgettes, trim off top and bottom but don’t peel them. Grate using the coarse surface of a standard kitchen box grater, then turn the grated courgette into a sieve and let it drain for 10-15 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, to remove excess water.

Put the eggs, oil and sugar into a mixing bowl and beat until creamy. Sift in the flour, bicarb and baking powder and beat until well combined. Stir in the grated courgette, raisins and their juices and pistachio nuts. Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin(s) and bake at 180 degrees C for 30 minutes for 2 cakes; 170 degrees C for 10 minutes then 160 degrees C for a further 35-40 minutes in the case of a single large cake. Check and cover with a disc of foil if the cake seems to browning too rapidly. Remove from the oven, leave to stand for 10 minutes then turn out and cool on a rack. Don’t attempt to split the large cake until it is completely cold.

Meanwhile make the icing by beating together the mascarpone cheese and sifted icing sugar then stirring in lemon juice to taste.

Sandwich the cakes together with lemon curd and top with the mascarpone icing. Decorate with more chopped pistachios and grated lemon zest if liked. For easy transportation to a picnic, you could use both the lemon curd and the icing to sandwich the cakes together and leave the top un-iced so the cake can be wrapped in foil.

Enjoy your holidays and don’t spend too much time in the kitchen!

Buenos Dias Buenos Aires! Breakfast from Argentina

May 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while since we had our last international breakfast (see Breakfasts of the World category in the sidebar). The plan is to work through every country in the world in alphabetical order and it must be at least a month since Antigua.

I was pretty excited about the prospect of an Argentinian breakfast. Surely there would be mounds of barbecued steak? Sadly not. I was amused by one travel blog which recorded with disappointment that breakfast in Argentina comprises a croissant (known as medialuna), a coffee and a glass of water. The beef for which Argentina is justly famous is strictly a main meal affair.

So our breakfast was indeed medialunas (bought not made), café con leche and of course, lashings of wonderful dulce de leche. Sadly the Merchant Gourmet dulce de leche, authentically Argentinian from the evocatively named La Esmeralda farm seems to have disappeared from our local supermarket shelves and I had to make do with a Bonne Maman Confiture de Lait, a similar sweet milk caramel idea but from France and not quite as thick and unctuous.

If you too are suffering from dulce de leche withdrawal symptoms, here’s the Merchant Gourmet website dulce de leche page – you can buy it online now with free delivery if you buy in bulk.

I also noticed that the San Ignacio brand of dulce de leche has its own UK website now which gives some useful background info on what it is and how it’s made and a singularly unuseful list of retail stockists. They are listed in alphabetical order of shop name so you have to scan the whole list by eye to find a shop near you. I came up with Harvey Nichols in Manchester and a deli in Frodsham, Cheshire as possibilities for me.

I digress. Back to the proper business of breakfast. A bought croissant, a cup of coffee and a jar of caramel was OK but didn’t quite hit the spot. I had to get beef into the breakfast somehow so I trawled the internet until I found a reference to eating beef empanadas (pasties to you and me) for breakfast. I’d struck gold at last!

I found a recipe for beef empanadas in “South American Food and Cooking” by Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filipelli – essentially a minced beef and potato stuffing encased in dinky shortcrust pastry rounds folded over to make mini pasties.

Here are the pastry circles and filling:

And here is the complete breakfast with the empanadas fresh out of the oven. I made a quick salsa with tomato, pepper, avocado, coriander and plenty of lime juice and seasoning to serve with the pasties:

Recipe for beef empanadas

I simplified the recipe I found in “South American Food and Cooking” by Fleetwood and Filipelli. I’ve halved the filling quantity which was way too much for the specified pastry quantity. I used minced beef rather than shredding it finely and baked the pasties rather than deep frying them for a lighter result. This worked well.


1 lb (450g) shortcrust pastry (bought or make your own with 8 oz (225g) flour; 4 oz (90g) fat)
l lb (450g) minced beef (use shin or leg if mincing your own)
4 tablespoons oil
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1 crushed garlic clove
2 tsp paprika
8 fl oz (250 ml) light stock
1lb (450g) waxy potatoes scrubbed (no need to peel) and finely diced
3 chopped canned tomatoes (or fresh ones skinned)
3 spring onions finely sliced
salt and pepper

Make the filling. Heat the oil in a heavy large frying pan. When hot, add the beef and sauté until lightly browned. Push the beef to the side of the pan and add the cumin, garlic and paprika. Reduce the heat and cook gently for about 2 minutes until the spices release their aroma.

Stir in the stock and bring to the boil. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Stir in the potatoes, tomatoes and onions and cook for 15 minutes more until the potatoes are tender. Keep an eye on the cooking liquid adding a little more water if necessary or alternatively reducing if there is too much. You are aiming for quite a dry mixture. Season and allow to cool completely.

Roll out the pastry very thinly on a floured board. Using a pastry cutter cut out 2 and 1/2 inch (6cm) circles. Spoon about 1 and 1/2 tsp filling into the centre of each pastry circle. Brush the edges of the pastry with water. Fold the pastry over to form a half moon. Turn the edges over and press together firmly to form a good seal. Bake at 200 degrees C until the pasties are golden brown.

Serve with your favourite fresh salsa.

Enjoy your Argentian breakfast! Carlos Tevez, if you happen to read this please do drop me a line with your breakfast thoughts…

Review of Da Piero, Irby (Wirral)

May 4, 2010 § 3 Comments

The arrival of warm spring weather coincided with the Delicious magazine’s Italian issue appearing on the shelves earlier this month. Browsing through its glossy pages I noticed a feature on an Italian restaurant that wasn’t (as usual) in London but in the small village of Irby on the Wirral (south of Liverpool) less than an hour’s drive from Manchester.

Da Piero gained recognition beyond its local loyal customer base earlier this year when it was named “Best Newcomer” in the 2010 edition of the Good Food Guide. Hot on the heels of this accolade came recognition (in the form of two knives and forks) in the latest Michelin Guide. It’s owned and run by the Di Bella family, with father Piero in the kitchen, wife Dawn front of house and son Alan sous-chef in training. Piero grew up in Sicily and the restaurant specialises in authentic Sicilian dishes.

Sicilian food in a village on the Wirral? It sounds unlikely doesn’t it? Maybe a Mafia money-laundering operation with links to the Liverpool underworld? Undaunted we booked a table and, on a beautiful Wednesday evening we drove off into the sunset.

Here’s what we found:

Apparently just a small neighbourhood restaurant in a quiet street. Going inside, it was as if you had walked into your gran’s front room into which someone has unaccountably placed four tables. There are just 15 covers in the restaurant. A couple of black and white family photos hang on a magnolia painted wall and that’s it in terms of decoration. Thankfully no Chianti bottles in straw, red-checked tablecloths that kind of thing.

We were greeted and waved to what was evidently our table by a smiling Dawn. All the other tables were occupied and there was a hum of contented post-meal chat over Italian pop music playing in the background (you may not like piped music but Zucchero is at least authentic).

We browsed the handsomely large menus which are laid out in traditional Italian style (antipasti, primi piatti; secondi piatti and dolci) and the interesting wine list.

Piero is clearly a man who knows what his customers want – the menu is by no means exclusively Sicilian: there are Northern Italian specialities (osso bucco) plus Italian restaurant favourites (spaghetti carbonara) as well. We later discovered that Piero’s family has roots in mainland Italy so the menu is almost a blended family history.

I was determined to have the full authentic Sicilian experience so chose a classic caponata to start, then a pasta with garlic, parsley and hot pepper, followed by home-made salsiccia (sausage) Siciliana with lentils.

Following Dawn’s advice about portion sizes, Tim elected to share the pasta course with me and chose osso bucco as his main course.

The caponata, correctly served warm rather than piping hot, was simple and delicious, each vegetable cooked to perfection. If you don’t know the dish, think of it as a Sicilian version of ratatouille, enlivened with capers and olives. Unusually it contained nuggets of potato along with the aubergines and tomato. A bit odd but entirely successful.

The pasta was good quality factory-made tagliatelle simply dressed with best quality olive oil, browned garlic, flecks of parsely and chilli flakes. I asked Dawn later about whether they made their own pasta – she said they generally used factory pasta but made their own if there was a ravioli special on the menu. This sounds like an entirely sensible decision for such a small restaurant but don’t go there expecting mounds of beautiful home-made pasta.

Here’s Tim’s rich and meaty osso bucco:

And here is my glorious dish of home-made sausage and lentils:

The sausage was rustic and flavoursome with just the right amount of chilli heat and the lentils were the perfect accompaniment and cooked to just the right degree of tenderness. One of those dishes you could eat again and again…

I think it was Ed Balls who that very day (during the election campaign) said he wanted to give one-parent families more money so they wouldn’t have to feed their children lentils every day. Ed, get down here and eat your words!

We’d chosen from the short but interesting wine list a reasonably priced organic red wine (Nero d’Avola) from Sicily (Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2008) which was earthy and just right with the rustic food.

We were too full for puddings so just had a skilfully made espresso each. By now there were just two tables left occupied in the restaurant and as Piero had finished cooking he came out from the kitchen unprompted to meet the remaining guests. He’s a distinguished looking man who, dressed in a toga rather than immaculate chef’s whites, could pass for a Roman senator. He’s passionate about his food and utterly charming. Who can resist a man who’ll share a caponata recipe with you (the addition of potatoes was his own idea) and is such a perfectionist that he makes his own candied orange peel?

What a lovely evening. Don’t come here expecting refined food or a slick city restaurant experience. Simplicity and freshness are what it’s all about together with a genuinely warm welcome. My advice would be to get here while you still can.

Contact details

Da Piero
5 Mill Hill Road
Wirral CH61 4UB

0151 648 7373

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