Wednesday, 30 July 2014


Caroline arrives back from the butcher's having spent more there than I would have thought possible. She usually comes away with sufficient meaty products to get us through the week and change from ten euros. But this time proper money has been spent. We have a rabbit (which will make us a roast dinner, a pasta sauce and stock) and two pieces of beef. This is where it gets a bit difficult. We can't really identify what type of cut it is. It looks a bit like a rib of beef which has been cut into two steaks. Now, this is a bit of a shame, as - had it been kept in one piece - a roast rib of beef would have been a great treat; but, given what we have, I don't think that's going to be feasible without overcooking them.

The butcher said they could be cooked in the same way as a Florentine steak. Now, strictly speaking, these are not the same thing at all; but, after having trimmed away the bone and some of the excess fat (so they lie flat in the pan), I am still left with two fine-looking steaks, perhaps 3/4" thick.  If I had a rolling pin to hand, I would flatten them to a uniform thickness, but the rolling pin is still lost in a random box somewhere, and a look around the kitchen reveals a shortage of suitable battering implements. Oh well, they'll be fine as they are.

Now then, I have two lovely lilac-and-white striped aubergines (or melanzane if you prefer) to play with and some almost-past-it tomatoes (victims, perhaps, of the spectacularly harsh weather over the past few days). Nigel Slater has a recipe for aubergine slices topped with tomato sauce and parmesan. This sounds nice, but harder work than it needs to be. The Nige recommends cutting the aubergines into rounds, and then topping them all individually. This is going to be (a) time-consuming, as there's no space in the oven to bake all the slices in one go and (b) fiddly to plate up, especially if I've got two steaks that need precision timing.

So I decide just to cut the aubergines in half, drizzle them with olive oil, and stick them in the oven at 180 degrees. Whilst these are baking away, I sizzle some chopped garlic in oil, and add the chopped almost-past-it tomatoes. I add a healthy grinding of salt and pepper, and leave them to simmer away into a sauce. Nige recommends adding a chilli to the mix : now, I firmly believe that the chilli is the noblest of God's vegetables, but I really think there's enough going on in this dish already. It doesn't need anything else adding.

After thirty minutes, the aubergines are just cooked enough. They'll yield to the point of a knife, but they're not so well-cooked that they'll lose their shape and collapse. I take them out of the oven, and layer on the tomato sauce (trying to get complete coverage on every one), followed by a hefty sprinkling of parmesan.

Back in the oven they go. I have a glass of wine and a sit down for 20 mins or so.

When the parmesan is starting to form a crust, I start work on the steaks. Just the thinnest sliver of oil wiped on the surface of the frying pan. I heat the pan until it's just about starting to smoke, and throw the steaks on. 90 seconds each side. I then remove them and leave them to rest for a minute or two as I distribute more glasses of wine and dish up the aubergines.

The steaks are just about right : beautifully rare and red in the centre, and cooked on the outside. I failed on getting a nice blackened crust on the outside, perhaps because the steaks weren't quite of a uniform thickness. Or perhaps I should have had the courage to heat the pan even more. Oh well. They're still good. The aubergines are a bit of a revelation, the tomatoes are delicious, and the whole dish is full of flavour. One half each might have been enough as a side dish, but we have no problems with a whole one. Besides, an entire aubergine each probably counts as 7 of your 5-a-day.

A result, then, and "Baked Aubergine with Parmesan and Not-Quite-Past-It Tomatoes" goes on to the list of future dishes.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The 3 second rule

The spritz is perhaps the perfect drink. On a hot day, the first half of a beer can seem like the best thing in the world. The second half of the same beer, however, can seem stale and warm (this is a general rule, obviously, and doesn't apply to those "didn't even touch the sides" moments). A prosecco is fine, but not a drink that can really be lingered over. But uno spritz al Campari is is bitter and refreshing to the last drop. And for me, it has to be with Campari. I find Aperol too sweet and akin to alcoholic Irn-Bru. I like Cynar as much as I like most artichoke-based drinks. The slightly medicinal Select, said by some to be the most authentic, is today mainly the preserve of old men; and whilst 2014 may have been the year in which I finally embraced the cardigan, I don't think there's need to hurry things along any more than necessary.

I observed the swiftest of spritz-making masterclasses the other day, in the bar at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, where the ancient knowledge was being passed on to a young apprentice. I admired its almost Zen-like simplicity :-

Put ice cubes in glass
Apply three second burst from white wine tap
Hold bottle of Campari upside down. Keep it there for three seconds
Fill up remaining space with three seconds worth of sparkling water
Plop slice of lemon in

The three second rule seemed almost perfect so I gave it a go at home. Sadly, it doesn't really work without proper bar equipment to control the flow. Or maybe I just needed a bigger glass. Nevertheless, whenever I see one being made in the future, I shall look for the count of three as a sign of quality control.