It seems like ages ago now, but for almost two glorious weeks around Easter I was in Italy on what can only be described as a gastronomic tour to give both Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Gilbert a run for their money. It was also a most efficient holiday as I managed to spend time with my husband, my family and friends all in one trip. We started in Rome, without plan or agenda, simply walking the streets in search of new sights and good food and wine. On our first day we gave the Easter crowds a wide berth by avoiding the Centro Storico and Vatican. Instead, we headed to the neighbourhood of Monti, with its quieter streets, more peaceful squares and treasure trove shops. This was followed by a walk to Said chocolate shop, which has been producing treats for the Romans since 1923. After stocking up on truffles and Easter eggs, we nipped in for dinner at Pastificio San Lorenzo across the road. An excellent place to try a few dishes that veered away from the pasta/pizza fare of the centre of town and the perfect place to people watch over an aperitivo.
After this city break and in the midst of the Easter rush, we escaped to the countryside. After surviving what was possibly the most terrifying taxi ride of my life (our driver felt he was quite capable of turning around and chatting to us at length while speeding down the motorway), we picked up our car at the airport and drove up through Lazio into the heart of Umbria and where my Dad is gradually semi-retiring. We met him in his tiny little village near Orvieto, perched at the top of a hill with views stretching out into Tuscany.
Umbria is sometimes overlooked by tourists, but this relative quiet really only adds to its charm. It is known as the il cuore verde d’Italia (the green heart of Italy) because of its verdant hills and agricultural abundance. It certainly seemed like everywhere we turned there was wonderful produce – from the olive groves and vegetable patches around the village we were staying in, to the nearby vineyards and saffron fields. Over the Easter period there were plenty of markets in the nearby towns and villages, manned by proud farmers showing off their produce. We particularly enjoyed a blustery afternoon spent in Citta della Pieve, tasting salame, cheeses, beers and hog roast panini.
After a few peaceful days in Umbria, I waved goodbye to my family and headed up the country to Florence, where I met a group of girlfriends for a long weekend. Walking around the city was a strange experience, it seemed like there were ghosts of a past life on every corner, echoes from a long time ago. I lived in Florence for a year when I was 16, my father’s infatuation with Italy brought the whole family there at the turn of the millennium. I went kicking and screaming, not wanting to leave my friends and established life behind. Of course when we moved from Italy year later, it was in further floods of tears. I’d fallen hard for the city, the weather, the people (Italian boys, of course!).
Every street in central Florence brought back a memory, a conversation I had forgotten, a person I’ve lost touch with, a smell or a taste I can’t quite seem to place. It was eery and a bit sad, but also wonderful to be reminded that yes, this did actually happen half my life ago and it was great and came to shape who I became as an adult.
Not least in terms of food. I had a wonderful friend that magical year in Italy, called Hannah. She was the daughter of the priest at the American Church in Florence (who from what I could tell spent most of his time marrying Japanese tourists, even answering the phone with a cheery ‘moshi moshi!’) and she was in the year above me at school. She had bright pink, red or purple hair (depending on the week) and cooked like a goddess. It was the first time I had met anyone my age who loved food and loved cooking to that extent. Before living in Italy, I’d been a bit embarrassed by my love of food and kept it hidden and separate from the rest of my life. It was something I shared with my family and only revealed to friends at the occasional school bake sale.
But Hannah made it not only seem like the coolest thing in the world (I remember watching in awe as she chopped a peach sans chopping board, delicately segmenting each slice in the palm of her hand), but also a viable career option – she always knew she wanted to be a chef and eventually open a restaurant or bakery. Even at that young age she was taking birthday cake orders from all the moms at our school. Although I haven’t seen her in many years as she now lives in Texas, from what I understand from social media she is well on her way to making that a reality.
My year in Italy was sandwiched between the two summers I worked at Lisa Elmqvist in Östermalms Hallen, Stockholm, gutting icy herring and rolling meatballs all day long – hard, physical and sometimes monotonous work creating those classic Swedish dishes. And I loved it. So I guess that year when I was 16 cemented my future in food. I went about it in a pretty round about way, but got there in the end.
I was immensely fortunate in my choice of travelling companions over that weekend. We all share an obsession with good food and drink and so rarely went for more than an hour without eating, drinking or at least planning where our next meal was going to be. Highlights from the weekend included the Cantinetta Verrazzano for the most delicious focaccia (the truffled mushroom was out of this world) fizz and coffee taken standing up at their pastry-laden counter. The Enoteca Fuori Porta was also well worth the hill climb for a favourite for crostini and lengthy wine list. Then there was the piazza Santo Spirito for nightlife and watching the world go by. I also managed to pick up some wonderful curtains and prints from the monthly Santo Spirito antiques market.
Of course, I had to fill whatever small scraps of space in my suitcase with loot from the Italian supermarket. Olive oil, parmesan wedges, dried mushrooms, biscotti and sauame all came with me. As did a paket of curious greens that caught my eye in the vegetable aisle. I wasn’t completely sure what it was, but decided to take a risk and do some research when I got home.
It turns out I hit the jackpot – agretti, or ‘barba di frate’ (Monks’ beard) has all but sold out in the UK, I later found out. It is quite delicate and subtle in flavour that is slightly spinach-like. Cooked properly it has a lovely bite, a bit like samphire. It likes classic italian flavours – garlic, anchovies, lemon. Although it’s not so easy to get hold of, it is well worth picking some up if you do happen to stumble upon it. I also had to take some artichokes back as they were absolutely everywhere we went and wonderful to cook with. The recipes below are inspired by these ingredients and the simple, delicious dishes that Italy is so renowned for.
Agretti with Chilli, Ricotta, Caramelised Lemon and Pine Nuts
You will need:
Large bunch agretti
2 tbsp olive oil
1 chilli, finely chopped
20g pine nuts, toasted
small handful greek basil leaves
1. Remove any tough ends of the agretti before plunging into a large pan of boiling, salted water. After about a minute, drain and season with salt and pepper as well as a drizzle of olive oil.
2. Cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions. Meanwhile, strip the lemon of it’s zest using a zester or a sharp knife to create little shards of zest, avoiding any pith. Heat a little olive oil in a large pan and cook the zest until golden and beginning to caramelise. Set aside.
3. Drain the pasta and toss in little olive oil. Add the agretti, lemon zest, chilli and ricotta as well as a squeeze of lemon juice. Season and serve, topped with pine nuts and basil leaves.
Roman Baked Artichokes
You will need:
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp grated pecorino cheese
4 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
4 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped oregano
2 tbsp chopped basil
juice and zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra
4 medium sized artichokes
150ml dry vermouth
1. Preheat the oven to 200C. In a small bowl, combine chopped anchovy fillets, minced garlic, pecorino, breadcrumbs, herbs, lemon juice and zest. Add the olive oil and mix to form a thick paste.
2. Cut off about 2 cm of the artichoke tops and rub with the leftover lemons. Pry oven the individual leaves and stuff with the herby breadcrumb mixture. Sprinkle with a little olive oil and the vermouth. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes, until tender. Uncover for the final 10 minutes to allow the artichokes and breadcrumbs to crisp up. Serve with chunky bread and a crisp green salad.
I have been working with Tenderstem® recently to create some recipes under their ‘date night’ theme. This really appealed to me as I love the idea of giving vegetables a starring role by building a dish around them. Tenderstem is a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale and although at its best in the Spring, is available in the UK all year round. In the States, it is more commonly known as Broccolini and is not to be mistaken with Broccoli rabe, which is in the turnip family.
Incredibly, a 100g portion gives you your entire daily requirement of vitamin C as well but Tenderstem is also packed full of vitamin A, calcium, folate and iron. It is an incredibly versatile ingredient as it can be steamed, boiled and stir fried of course, but I particularly love it roasted or grilled. You can even eat it raw in salads or as a crudité. I’ve put together an elegant date night dish for Tenderstem® with polenta and chorizo crumbs (for when you want to impress your date) and a more relaxed pizza for when you’ve been together a bit longer and just fancy a slobbing out in front of the telly. Finally I’ve wrapped them in prosciutto with a hollandaise-style dip, which would make a lovely starter – or even brunch the next day.
Smoky Three Cheese Polenta with Sautéed Tenderstem, Chorizo Crumbs and Parsley
You will need:
1 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
50g chorizo, finely chopped or blitzed in a food processor
40g fresh breadcrumbs
200g instant polenta
50g smoked cheese, grated
30g grated mozzarella
30g parmesan, grated
1 tsp chipotle paste, optional
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
small bunch fresh parsley, roughly chopped.
1. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the tenderstem and simmer until just cooked through, with a little bite, about 5-7 minutes. Drain and run under cold water to stop the broccoli cooking and set the colour and texture.
2. Heat 1/2 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan and add the chorizo. Fry until golden then remove to drain on kitchen paper, keeping the fragrant oil in the pan. Add the breadcrumbs and fry in the oil until crispy – about 3 minutes. Combine with the cooked chorizo.
3. Fill a large saucepan with 1 litre of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer then slowly pour in the polenta. Lower the heat immediately and stir continuously until cooked, about 5-7 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and add all of the cheese, stirring until completely dissolved. If you’d like extra smoky flavour, add up to 1 tsp of chipotle paste.
5. In a large frying pan, heat 1 tbsp of oil and add the tenderstem and garlic slices. Sauté until heated through and the garlic is crispy.
6. To serve, reheat the polenta and divide between four plates. Top with the tenderstem and sprinkle with chorizo crumbs and chopped parsley.
You will need:
For the pizza:
300g wholemeal flour or wholegrain spelt flour
30g grated parmesan
1x 7g sachet fast action dried yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
100ml double cream
25g grated parmesan
50g grated mozzarella
1 sprig rosemary, leaves picked and roughly chopped
2 large handfuls rocket
For the red pepper sauce:
2 red peppers
1 clove garlic
1 red chilli, deseeded
50g blanched almonds
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Being by making the pizza dough. Combine the wholemeal or wholegrain flour, grated parmesan, yeast and 1 tsp salt in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix together the warm water and oil and pour almost all of it into the bowl, mixing with your hands as you go. Add as much of the rest of the water as you need for form a sticky dough. Tip onto a floured work surface and knead for a few minutes, so it comes together and feels elastic. Cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes in a warmish place.
2. Meanwhile, make the red pepper sauce. Grill the peppers in the oven or, if you are feeling confident, over a gas hob until charred. Leave until cool enough to handle, then remove the skin, seeds and any remaining stalk. Blitz the peppers in a food processor along with the garlic, chilli, almonds and vinegar. With the motor running, gradually add the olive oil until you have a dressing-like sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Place the tenderstem in a large pan of salted boiling water. Cook until just tender, about 5-7 minutes. Refresh under cold water, drain thoroughly and set aside.
4. Preheat the oven to 200 C. Divide the dough into two and roll out on a floured work surface into two rounds, about the thickness of a pound coin. Place each round on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and leave for a further 15 minutes until beginning to poof up.
5. Combine the cream and cheeses with a little seasoning. Spread over the pizzas and sprinkle over the rosemary. Top with the tenderstem and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown and the veg is starting to crisp up. Top with the rocket and drizzle with the red pepper sauce just before serving.
You will need:
80g prosciutto slices, halved lengthways
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
100g hollandaise sauce
zest and juice of 1 lemon
small bunch chives, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the tenderstem and simmer until just cooked with a little bite, about 5-7 minutes. Drain thoroughly.
2. Wrap each broccoli stem in a piece of prosciutto and place on an oven tray. Drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic oil and bake for about 15 minutes, until the prosciutto has started to crisp up.
3. Meanwhile, mix the hollandaise with the lemon zest, chives and a squeeze of juice. Serve with the tenderstem broccoli, letting your guests dip the stems into the sauce.
So it’s been a while since my last post, but I do have my reasons! Naturally, work projects do tend to nuzzle in and get in the way but also I’ve been on holiday over the Easter period. And in between that and house hunting, choir commitments (I joined a fantastic choir at the start of the year called Lips) and trying to build a website for my work portfolio, the blog has fallen by the wayside.
No matter, because I’ve just returned from a glorious 10 days in Italy (more on that to follow) and suddenly Spring has sprung. The sun is shining and London seems decidedly less grumpy, more scantily clad and frequently to be found drinking in the middle of the day. Which is a pretty great state of affairs to come back to.
There’s also fantastic new produce everywhere I turn- lots of gorgeous green leafy vegetables and crisp beans and peas, all perky and bright. It’s enough to make you want to start a new health regime or at least blitz up a few green juices. Which is just as well as this is exactly what is required after my holiday, but then what is Italy, really, without the pasta, pizza and gelato? And red wine, of course. And Prosecco. And Aperol Spritz.
For me, the arrival of wild garlic (also known as ransoms) really heralds Spring properly. As a cousin to chives, they might not be the best ingredient to put through your juicer, but they are wonderful to cook with, something that I encourage you to do as soon as possible- the season is short lived.
I found mine for sale at my local deli, however, back home in Sweden (a nation of foragers!), I’m more likely to pick them in the wild. Do be careful when you go looking for wild garlic- it bears a striking resemblance to several poisonous plants. Whenever you are foraging, it is best to be completely sure that what you are picking is indeed edible- don’t eat anything you aren’t able to correctly identify. Wild Food UK offers courses in foraging for those keen to find out more. And remember to ask permission from the landowner before you collect your loot!
Add them to a creamy risotto with peas, asparagus and broad beans or stir chopped wild garlic through buttery new potatoes (perfect with Spring lamb). Alternatively, you could try this recipe for fluffy savoury scones- the wild garlic pairs really well with the goats cheese. They are very moreish straight out of the oven with plenty of butter but also great paired with a Spring soup- I like a creamy carrot or beetroot in particular.
Wild Garlic and Goats Cheese Scones
(makes 8 scones)
You will need:
225g self raising flour
black pepper (from a mill)
120g soft goat’s cheese
1 large egg
4 heaped tbsp roughly chopped wild garlic
2-3 tbsp whole milk, plus a little extra
1. Preheat the oven to 190 C/ 375 F/ Gas Mark 5. Sift he flour and salt into a large bowl along with a good few grinds of pepper. In a small bowl, mash together the cheese and egg then stir through the wild garlic.
2. Mix this into the flour along with a few tablespoonfulls of milk, enough to make a soft but not sticky dough. Tip out onto a lightly floured worksurface and knead briefly to come together. Roll into a rough circle, about 20cm in diameter and 1 cm thick. Cut into eight wedges and brush each with a little milk.
3. Place each wedge onto a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 18-20 minutes until risen and golden. Serve warm, slathered in butter or allow to cool and serve as an accompaniment to soup.
Almond milk Braised Shoulder of Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Fennel and Baby Carrots
You will need:
1/2 shoulder of lamb, approx 1kg/2 lb 3 oz
3 fat garlic cloves, cut into slivers
2 green chillis, finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley stalks
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds, toasted and lightly bashed
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
300ml/10 fl oz almond milk (unsweetened)
1 tin cannellini beans, drained
baby carrots, to serve
flaked almonds and chopped parsley leaves, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160 fan/gas 4. Using a small knife, make little incisions all over the meat and insert the slivers of garlic. Mix together the parsley stalks, cumin seeds, lemon juice and zest, smoked paprika, olive oil and 1 tsp of salt (preferably sea salt) in a small bowl to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the lamb.
2. Place the onion and fennel in a roasting tray, season and pour over the almond milk. Sit the lamb snugly in the tray. Cover with tin foil and roast for 1 hour, basting a few times, then remove from the oven and tip in the beans. Continue to roast for a further 30 minutes, uncovered, until tender. Leave to rest for 10-15 minutes then scatter with chopped parsley and flaked almonds. Serve with steamed baby carrots, still slightly crunch and, if you like, some of the beans, fennel and milk whizzed into a thick sauce.
Alright, so the title of this post is a little misleading. I’m not entirely sure it would be possible to make healthy hot cross buns, as there is no way of getting around it- they are a treat. But you can make them a bit healthIER. I’ve tried to lighten them up a little with the addition of spelt flour, oats, agave and grated apple for sweetness and oil instead of butter for richness. There’s still plenty of spice there and if you pop them in the toaster, you’ve got a perfect Easter breakfast. This was originally a recipe I created for Women’s Health Magazine. You can see it and other healthy treats here. Make a large batch then freeze the rest for later.
Lighter Hot Cross Buns
Makes 16 buns
You will need:
500ml skimmed milk or dairy-free alternative
4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 2 oranges
300g spelt flour
300g strong white bread flour, plus about 100g extra for kneading and the crosses
1 tsp salt
1 x 7g sachet fast action yeast
50ml sunflower oil
3 tbsp agave nectar
1 large egg, beaten
1 apple, coarsely grated
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp apricot or fig jam, ideally a no added sugar brand
1. Bring the milk to boil with the cardamom pods, cloves, lemon zest and zest of 1 orange. Set to one side and allow to cool to blood temperature. Meanwhile, sift the flours and salt into a large mixing bowl. Tip in the oats, yeast, oil, agave and beaten egg. Once the milk has cooled, remove the cloves and cardamom and pour into the bowl.
2. Mix together until the ingredients are well incorporated. Then tip the dough onto a generously floured work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes, either by hand or using the dough attachment of a table top mixer. It will seem like a very wet dough, but keep working it, slapping it onto the work surface to develop the gluten. It will eventually come together to form a sticky, but elastic dough. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove in warmish place for about 1 hour, until risen.
3. Tip the dough out onto a floured work surface and flatten slightly. Mix together the apple, cinnamon, currants and remaining orange zest and sprinkle over the dough. Knead briefly to distribute all the ingredients. Divide the dough into 16 even pieces and roll into smooth balls. Arrange the buns on 2 lightly oiled baking sheets in rows of 4, about 1 cm apart. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for a further hour.
4. Heat the oven to 220C/fan 200/gas mark 7. In a small bowl mix together 30g of flour with 2 ½- 3 tbsp water, adding the water gradually until you have a thick paste. Scrape into a small sandwich bag. Once the buns have risen and puffed up, cut off the tip of one corner of the sandwich bag and use to pipe crosses over the buns. Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes, swapping shelves halfway through. Meanwhile, heat the jam with 2 tbsp of water in a small pan until the jam has melted and is syrupy. Sieve into a small bowl and use to brush over the buns as soon as they come out of the oven. Transfer the buns to a wire rack and allow to cool before tucking in.