How to ruin a British summer

IMG_9639

Last week it was in the 30s.  Bournemouth beach was the scene of a national scandal.  We were both in lockdown and not in lockdown.  The frisson of something about to snap hung in the clammy air.  Deluges and thunderstorms were promised, but never showed up.  So I came to the rescue and wheeled out my sure fire, rain making, cloud busting box of tricks and made a granita.

Granita, which I wrote a different piece on last year, is painfully, indelibly linked to the sun and heat of Sicily in July.  The month when only fools visit.  It is served, melting before your eyes – an ice that is a drink, a breakfast.  Fleeting.  The brain freeze lasts longer than the thing itself.  There is so much that I am missing about Sicily at the moment.  But granita is the thing that makes me cry when I think of being there; I don’t know if it is the freeze shudder amid the heat, or the race to eat before you drink, or memories of piazzas and castles; rubbish and stale dog piss.  Granita in the UK is not granita, for me.  It is the same, but not.  A granita needs the setting, the temperature, the Italian voices, to become itself.  Here, even in the most authentic of venues, it is just flavoured ice, reminding me that I am not in Sicily.

But, I make it anyway.  Because I am a sentimental fool.  I live in hope of hot days and sticky nights.  I remember a house on Alicudi and a theatre bar in Palermo.  I never think to make it until the temperature rises, and then, once that whim has grabbed me, and the juice or the syrup is freezing and being forked to shards, the wind switches to the west, the clouds roll in, drizzle, usually settles for a week or so.  The moment for a granita breakfast slips through my fingers.  Again.

Last week was such a moment.  And to make sure that I lost it, I went the whole hog and tinkered with two entirely Sicilian flavours, almond and jasmine; expensive and hard to source, this is a luxurious treat.  But it doesn’t need to apologise for itself.

A jasmine syrup made with heated sugar water and fresh jasmine flowers, and an almond milk, from blanched and blitzed almonds soaked in water for 24 hours, with just a smidge of extra almond essence to compensate for the Californian blandness of the dried almonds.  You freeze, fork over, creating crystals of pure white snow. Refreeze, refork – this is not a smooth sorbet, but something that, in its heartbeat of existence, should be gritty, like Sicily.

Done, your granita is ready.  Imagine marzipan, crystallised and frozen.  If you like marzipan, you will be in raptures over this.  The jasmine perfumes it, raises the almond’s game.  And it is gone.

Now imagine eating this in Piazza della vergogna in Palermo in 40 degrees.  Feel free to have a little cry about not being there.

Almond and Jasmine Granita

The Jasmine syrup

For this you will need fresh white Jasmine flowers (the summer flowering, Jasmine officianalis, not the yellow, winter variety, which is poisonous).  Some recipes say 50g, some say half a kilo.  Frankly, half a kilo of jasmine flowers is a tall order in Birmingham, so I cut my cloth accordingly.

So, with as many flowers as you can muster, soak them over night in cold water, 750ml if you’ve somehow managed to find your half a kilo, considerably less if you live in Birmingham and have a small garden with a smaller jasmine plant.  Meanwhile, make a sugar syrup by boiling 250 ml of water with 325g sugar until the sugar is dissolved (frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature).  Again adjust the quantities according to the abundance of your jasmine.

In the morning, mix the cooled syrup and the strained jasmine water.

The Almond Milk

Most recipes you read will err towards a conservative amount of almonds – I up the anti – because it was drilled into me that British (imported from California) almonds are sad and flavourless things.  That only Sicilian almonds truly taste of almonds.  So ingrained is this now, that I go full on cyanide I’m afraid, so I would advise on tinkering until you get your preferred intensity and life expectancy.

Blanche 500g almonds (pour over boiling water, leave them to soak for ten minutes then slip them out of their brown skins).  It’s a mindless job, but passes soon enough if you do it with the radio on or whilst chatting.

Rinse the almonds and then blitz them in a food processor.

Add them to one litre of water, with the juice of a lemon, a teaspoon of seriously good almond essence (bitter almonds if you can get it) and (if you like it) a cinnamon stick.

Leave everything to soak for 24 hours in the fridge, and then strain the milk.

(This can now just be drunk, like ambrosia, if the heat is really unbearable and you can’t wait for it to become an ice)

The Granita

Unite your jasmine syrup and your almond milk.

If you’ve done the full recipe – you’ll have two litres.

A granita should be scratchy and crunchy, so don’t put this into an ice cream maker – which will give you that refined sorbet.  Instead, put the mix into a container, freeze it, and come back every now and then to aggressively fork it over.  You want shards and crystals – you want the water to freeze and split and sharpen.

When it’s completely frozen and broken, it’s ready.  Wait for a hot, hot morning.  Serve it in your daintiest, campest glasses.  Watch the clouds roll in and the heavens open.

Un buon pranzo

IMG_9150

 

You may have read my account of a weekend in Rome last October. The weather was apocalyptic, I had a full on head cold, but the day of artichokes at Latteria Studio learning so much from Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, was an antidote to everything.  A feast of knowledge and a bloody good lunch to boot.  I have written at length and often about my unseemly love of artichokes, so I shall spare you a repeat here.

In some ways, it was a kind of a torture – spending that weekend surrounded by most loved vegetable flowers; everywhere I looked, they were on offer. And knowing that when I came back to Birmingham, it would be to an artichoke drought, broken only when (and as it turns out, if) I could get down to London’s markets, or when my young allotment plants decide to throw up their own flower buds (I’m still waiting for anything that you could tentatively call a ‘glut’).

I went to be shown a myriad ways to cook with artichokes, in the full knowledge that buying the quantities needed for some the recipes would bankrupt me, especially if I had to get them singly and cellophane wrapped from Sainsbury’s.

One dish in particular stuck in my food brain,  niggling away with thoughts of “will I ever have this again?”  Artichoke lasagna.  A vegetarian layering of pasta, cheese and artichokes.  Spanking hot and with a glass of teeth achingly cold white wine, this will be my death row meal (well, one of them).  Whilst it’s a dish for winter and early spring in Rome, here, if you’re reliant on your own crop, it’ll be a summer treat.  I have been missing this dish since October, dreaming of a day when I am rich enough to not care how many artichokes I have just bought, or somehow, have managed to persuade someone to give me gainful employment in Italy, so I can move there, just for the artichokes.

But then in the perverse way of the world, the UK want into lockdown, the panic buying stripped the shops, and bafflingly, this provided me with the wherewithal to finally break my lasagna fast.  I was told of delitalia, an Italian catering supplier that a) had flour, a lot of flour and b) was now doing domestic deliveries to Birmingham. Of course there was a small catch, just a minor detail; you still had to place catering size orders.  My cupboards and freezers are already overflowing with food from the allotment and ingredients I thought I ‘needed’ at some point.  And it’s not that I’m a hoarder, just that I’ve always regarded Best Before dates as mere guidance for the wise.  So, whilst the product list was temptingly extensive, I had to restrict myself to things that I really would use, and would buy anyway over the next year.  Flour yes, I’m already a third of the way through it (and have turned into the go to ‘flour man’ for my isolating neighbours), oil yes – 5 litres of olive oil will see me through the next year.  And then there they were, jumping out at me as though lit in neon; frozen artichokes, prepared and raring to go.  Minimum order, 5kg.  Yes, I am that much of an idiot.

A freezer drawer was cleared (I had to eat a lot of ice cream that week, a hardship) and now I have what should be a year’s worth of my favourite vegetable, but realistically, I don’t think they’ll see out lockdown.

As they arrived, my first artichoke flower formed on one of the allotment plants.  This I prepped, battered and fried – I wanted to memorialise its perfection.  It was literally a taster, for the main, the lasagna.

I urge you to find a way to make this (even if it means having to buy catering quantities of flour and olive oil).  The version I ate in Rome was Rachel’s, and my memory of the details is not perfect.  So when I get hold of the real thing, I may come back and do an update.  The potatoes were an addition suggested by Italianhomecooking – and he is right, the additional texture brings another bauble to this dish.

As I write this, I am reheating the half I did not eat last night, for my lunch.  There will be some bread too (I have to get through that flour after all) .  It will be just as good second time round I know. All sweet anaesthetic on the tongue artichoke, cheese and carbs.  Un buon pranzo.

Artichoke Lasagna

(This made enough for two large portions)

The recipe will get refined over time – as I was making this up as I went along.  If you are lucky enough to have access to abundant and affordable fresh artichokes, substitute those for the frozen ones, prepped into quarters, as shown in the photos below.  If using frozen ones, check them, some may still have a few tough petals attached, which can take all the fun out of them.

 

Artichokes

A cereal bowl’s worth of prepared artichoke hearts (defrosted)

One small onion, chopped.

1 garlic clove

Salt and pepper

Glug of white wine.

Oil

Put the oil into a large frying pan (which has a tight-fitting lid) and as it warms, add your artichokes,  onion and crushed garlic, and once they start to fry, throw in the wine, quickly turning down the heat, and slipping the lid on.  These need to cook until the hearts are tender and yield easily when stabbed with a knife.

Remove from the heat and blitz 2/3 of the artichokes into a puree with blender (check the seasoning), keep the remaining third whole.

Bechemel Sauce

Flour 25g

Butter 25g

Milk (I used 700ml)

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter, and then add the flour, cooking it, but not allowing it to brown.

Gently, very gently, add milk.  A tiny bit at a time to begin with.

The starch in the flour will suck upon the milk and swell like something from a sci fi film.  If you add too much milk, it’ll be impossible to get rid of any lumps.

When all the milk is absorbed and and you’ve beaten the flour paste into smooth submission, add a spot more milk. Repeat the process patiently, and you’ll end up up a smooth, glossy white sauce the consistency of expensive emulsion paint.  Seaso again, this is vital, as this sauce, together with the ricotta, could make a bland filling if you’re not brave with the salt here.

The rest

Lasagna sheets (I used premade, dry, as I had some in the cupboard, left by a former lodger (the wonderful Simon, who named his son for me), but if you prefer to make your own fresh, go ahead).

3 floury potatoes (peeled, boiled and sliced)

Ricotta (one tub)

50-75g (or as much as you like) Parmesan or Pecorino if you can get it.

Assemble your Lasagna

In a deep pie dish, place a third of your potatoes, artichoke hearts, and the puree.  To this add a third of the ricotta and grated parmesan. Pour over a quarter of the bechemel, season. Add a layer of lasagna sheets.

Repeat another layer of vegetables, cheese and sauce, top with more lasagna sheets.

One final layer, and then pour the last of the béchamel over the lasagna sheets.  You can grate some more parmesan over this if you like.

Into the oven at gas mark 4, for 30-40 minutes, until it is bubbling and golden.  Ideally some of the lasagna sheets will have started to curl and crisp up, for another layer of crunchy texture.

Eat straight from the oven, or reheat the next day (assuming you have leftovers).

Why I stopped then started writing again

JPEG image-E84DC8978D9A-1

I last wrote anything on here in January (the 15th) – nearly three months ago. Writing is a craft I am learning.  To become a good writer, you have to write, write some more, keep writing.  “Write every day” my friend Rachel tells me.  But I stopped.  The words dried up.  Or rather they bottle necked.  I had plenty of words.  Too many words, but there was no sense or reason to them.

The Sicilian and I finished.  After nearly four years.  On the shortest day of the year.  

It was something that had been approaching for months.  I thought that watching its slow and steady approach towards us would shield me from a Titanic moment.  It turns out I was wrong.  I may not be Leonardo di Caprio in this version, but I had a damn good go at being Kate Winslet.

For three weeks, I was fine.  I stumbled through the horror of my dysfunctional family Christmas, I hosted New Year.  There was sadness.  Relief.  

On the 16 January, I found myself at work, in front of the computer.  Crying.  Crying uncontrollably.  Overwhelmed by loss, regret, coulda woulda shoulda, self loathing and doubt, emptiness. Hating my job, my life, myself.

I spent a week on the sofa.  Sometimes in foetal position.  Sometimes not.  I wrote furious, vitriolic, crazed messages that helped no one and produced no answers.  The GP ordered therapy and told me to call urgently if I had any suicidal thoughts.  Dark days.  One night I sat crying on a wall for an hour.  I stopped eating and lost 8 kilos. The dogs got edgy and clingy.  

And for three months nearly, I was off work.  I thought that I would use my time to be productive.  To make the allotment the best in the country.  Become fluent in Italian.  Visit Florence and Rome.  Finish the book.  Decorate the house.  But I did none of these.  I sat.  I gardened a little. I walked the dogs. Every week I would meet my boss for a coffee and try not to cry. The thing that was furthest from and closest to my mind was writing.

I discovered that depression is exhausting and jealous.  It demands all your energy, it allows no room for anything else.  

Fortunately grief and madness faded.  Time did its cliched work.  There are still scabs that I mustn’t pick at and I will have scars, that I shall wear stoically, if not proudly.  And I am left with the need to write, but without the knowledge of what to write about.  Who wants to read the guesswork of some guy from Nuneaton fumbling his way through another culture’s food?  Remember that self doubt I mentioned?

Friends reminded me to cook. To keep up the journey.  To claim it as wholly mine.  Rebrand it if you like.  It was difficult.   I had to stop reading Anna del Conte’s biography, there was too much to remind me of another life.  There were many books I couldn’t finish.  Couldn’t start.  Recipes I couldn’t cook.

Just as Lombardy was starting the most localised of lockdowns, I went to visit my friend Stefano in London.  I went to Borough Market and, as citrus season was in full swing, bought bergamots and citron.  Something began to tilt.  These were wholly mine, and what I did with them was down to me and to no one and nowhere else.  I cooked more, I made the boobs of St Agata,  blood orange curd, bergamot marmalade, candied citron, Agra dolce everything, polpette.  I cooked English food, French food, Sicilian food.  I had a few dates, I met a guy for one evening who’s great (apart from living in Amsterdam, damn this lockdown!).  

As we know, the world then went to pot.  On a Friday (the morning after my date with Mr Amsterdam), my GP and I decided I was well enough to return to work.  On the Monday, the University where I work shut itself down and physically locked the gates.  Officially I work from home, but it’s hard to operate a laboratory remotely.

And then I became ill.  The worst flu I’ve ever had.  Temperature, coughing, fatigue; began to get better and then 8 days in relapsed and spent nearly 48 hours asleep.  This being Britain, I shan’t find out if this was just flu, or the new thing.  I kept out of circulation, a friend walked the dogs.  

This was a month ago now.  Through it I cooked only with what I had in the house.  Things grown on the allotment from the freezer, or pickled or jammed.  Despite the illness, it was a fun experience. On the days that I had the energy, I had the time and the resources to eat wonderfully; alone, yes, but wonderfully.   When I emerged from my isolation, I found the shops stripped bare.  No eggs, no flour, but thankfully, still gin.  So I carried on cooking from my reserves, and kept returning to Italian and Sicilian things of three or four ingredients.  Beans and vegetables, pasta and tinned sardines, stale bread turned into bruschetta with peas and broad beans.  I found cherries bottled in vodka and orange wine.  I made a crostata with marmalade.  Risotto got deep fried as little not arancine.  I found a magnificent sacred heart of a cotagnata from last November.  And I started to plant seeds – this year’s crops for next year’s stores.  My peach tree had two flowers on it.  

The world today is one of sadness, loneliness and strangeness.  But these things in my freezer and cupboards have at least given me some hope again.  The remind me that my past is not all waste and loss.   With hope comes a voice.  The bottlenecked words might have found a release.

So this is not a blog about Sicilian food written by the partner of a Sicilian, rather it is a blog about mostly Sicilian food – the growing and cooking of it, written by a single, adopted-Brummie, because he is greedy, loves the sun, and likes to grow and cook things.  

Today (Good Friday), I made an utterly English Simnel Cake.  It has some of that Borough Market candied citron in it (very Elizabeth David), candied ginger (for extra medieval).  I ballsed up the crystallised flowers, because there is no caster sugar in the shops.  They cracked and shattered, but now is not the time to be wasting eggs to have another go.  I also made the marzipan lamb of Sicily, one of the campest, most delirious things in the world – Jesus as marzipan; my middle aged long sightedness means he ended up all googly eyed, with a distinctly home made look.  My kitchen was both English and Sicilian today.  Two places that my healing Irish heart is very attached to.  Suddenly there were words again.

Discovering Frittelle

 

img_5425.jpg

A random patch of white flowered borage has appeared in the middle of a path on the allotment.  Somehow it grew through the winter, whilst I wasn’t paying attention, and I’ve let it stay put. It’s easy enough to step over, and it and I have more pressing, more pernicious pop ups to deal with.

Like so many randomly self-placed plants, it is abundantly happy in its chosen path hogging position.  So much so, that now, before even the end of May, it is covered in flowers which are doing their best come hither looks for every bee in Moseley.  And not just the domesticated honeybees that live at the heart of the allotments, but countless feral, less biddable bees of varying sizes, shimmers and fuzzyness.  Bees make me happy.  Another reason the patch can stay.  I shall always be a tree hugging hippy at heart.

Borage is a herb.  I know that.  It says so in the herbs section of my RHS encyclopedia.  There are suggestions  for using its flowers as a garnish in a Pimms (it looks like drain water said a non Anglophile friend of the Sicilian’s) or be frozen in icecubes (11 on the scale of Camp 1 to 10).  Is that it?  I think this is stretching the definition of herb somewhat.  So, maybe, if it gets hot and I remember to pick some flowers, I’ll stretch a culinary use from my impromptu patch.  But otherwise I have no other plans for it.

The bees had other ideas though.  I was crouching in the soil, planting out borlotti beans next to the borage.  I snapped a quick video of the bees at work, pinged it to instagram and carried on with my Tom Good impersonation.  I am no influencer; my followers are mostly other food people, friends of mine or the Sicilian’s, a few writers and a vascillating personal trainer who manages to follow and unfollow at least three times a week. Perhaps he finds the pictures of Italian cakes and pasta simultaneously too distressing and tempting for his never ending carb free/paleo existence.  But amongst them is the wonderful Stefano, of ItalianHomeCooking, who jumps in with a suggestion for taking the leaves of my bee-friendly borage, dipping them in batter and deep frying them.  I’m learning that this deep frying thing is a wider art in Italy than in the UK perhaps.  There is a fondness and love of the process that goes way beyond our cod and chips, or mars bars (see arancine, Jewish artichokes, canolli and on and on)  But I was a virgin up until this point for the battered frittelle version of things.  Now I’m hooked.  I can feel a rush of deep frying approaching.  Stefano has suggested opening a frying joint – I am decidedly tempted.

When to eat frittelle?  Well, I ate the lot, in the kitchen, standing up at the counter. They were so good that burnt fingers and mouth were minor discomforts.  The batter of flour, soda water and seasoning is effortless – seconds in the making.  The leaves of the borage, which seem so unpromising, clad in stiff, skin pricking hairs not suggested delicacy or digestibility.  But the marriage of leaves, coated in batter, fried in hot, hot olive oil until golden…just another of those Italian marriage of simplicity. It’s a way of getting some of your five a day whilst cocking a snoot to  healthy eating.  The leaves lose all their unfriendliness and faint inside the crispy cheesy batter into almost a paste of green freshness.  Despite the parmesan, the flavours are not strong so much as physical sensations; the crunch, the melt, the heat, the desire for more.

I think the rule goes that if you can batter it, you can frittelle it.  I’m a novice here though, so a lot more experimentation and frying is needed.  I shall be forced to undergo more burnt fingers, more stand up in the kitchen dinners. The prospect of this does not, however, distress me.

 

IMG_5444

Frittelle di Borragine

12- 16 medium sized borage leaves (make sure they’re clean, and from the edible borage plant, not one of it’s inedible cousins)

100g 00 flour

25g Grated parmesan

Fresh black pepper

100-125 ml Soda water

Olive oil

MIx flour, cheese and ground pepper with the soda water to create the batter, it should be a thick – strong enough to cling to the leaves, without running off.  Don’t add all the water at once, it’s easier to thin a batter down than to thicken it up.  Whisk until there are no lumps.  If you have a soda fountain, this adds to the fun and theatre, which makes these great for inquisitive young cooks

Heat your oil to deep frying temperature in large high sided saucepan or a deep fryer if you have one.

Dip the individual leaves into the batter and then fry, a few at a time, until cliched golden brown.

Drain onto kitchen roll, and eat them piping hot, ideally outside, with cold beer.

There are all sorts of different recipes out there – that add anchovies, or mozzarella, or use beer instead of water.  But I think starting simple and then building up the complexity is the way for me to go – discovering an extravagant menu of frittelle as I go.

Spines, death, delicious jeopardy

epine

This is a long way from Sicily, or indeed Birmingham.

Once, someone ate a sloe, possibly expecting a damson-like burst of sweetness.  They got a wincing, puckering, spit it out sourness instead.  They persevered.  Somehow they thought ‘If I add these to gin, it’ll be perfect in the depths of winter’ So they did. It caught on. There must be a thousand and one understairs cupboards where a bottle of this peculiar British stuff is ageing to inky purple perfection. And then it was monetised, obviously, into a vapid version itself, allowing you to buy it off the shelf and forego the pleasure of musty, mouldy autumnal foraging, spiking your limbs on the blackthorns that jealously guard their sloes. And the patience, the delayed gratification of prolonged steeping. You get to forgo that too.

There are people who have deep pockets, or steely resolve. They manage to keep their sloe gin for years; either they make so much or drink so little. But my gin budget is limited and it would be disingenuous to claim I’m abstemious, so my single bottle rarely lasts long past Christmas, leaving me bereft of my British bitter liquer until the following December. Sad, but then that is partly the point of delaying gratification.

However, help has arrived from France, the north I think, with my discovery last year of Epine (literal translation, spine). Not at all like Sloe Gin, this is smoother, colder, more almondy and carries the vague peril of death by cyanide.

Like all members of the Prunus family – the leaves and seeds contain traces of the poison, whose older name of Prussic acid I prefer, it’s more melodramatic, less serial killer. The key word here though, is ‘traces’. They’ll only kill you if you eat enough. So, spend your day in the hills of Italy, snacking on wild, bitter almonds, you may die (believe me, it happened, I remember a childhood news story of a poisoned teacher on a walking trip in Puglia. I didn’t eat an almond for years). Or if you have a rampant laurel hedge, that you prune and decide to shred, the strong smell of marzipan and simultaneous light-headedness are a sign to step back and perhaps take a break.

If I haven’t scared you off, make épine. Now, in April, is the time. You need half a litre (by loose volume) of fresh, green shoots – free from aphids and their insect relatives. Once these shoots have turned woody from added lignin, you’ve missed the window and will have to wait until the purple sloes and the frosts arrive for your foraging hit. Wash your shoots and then add them to a sealable jar into which you pour 1.5 litres of wine (I use red, but rosé works well too), half a bottle of own brand vodka (that’s about 375ml). This stops any unwanted fermenting, as well as upping the booze quotient and making it a liqueur. And finally, sugar. Around 100g – but play with the quantities to hit the sweetness you desire.

Shake, seal and leave, for two weeks. Then strain, bottle, leave it in the fridge,  forgetting about it until there’s a heatwave in June or July. You should be outside, in that heat, as the evening begins and waiting for dinner.  Now you can open your épine.  It is not just an infused red wine, it is something simultaneously both refined, and domestic. There is a sense of something forgotten, delved from the past about it, perhaps a little deliciously illicit. One glass is not enough, and yet, with that vague almondy poisonous peril hanging over it, perhaps, one glass is plenty.