Monday, 23 August 2010

Cool cucumber soup

Serves 4

8 cucumbers, peeled
a tablespoon of white wine vinegar, or half a lemon, squeezed
a small clove of garlic, crushed
a small white onion, sliced into rings
2 teaspoons of olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Split each cucumber vertically and use a teaspoon to scrape out all the seeds. Chop the remaining flesh into chunks and process to a coarse purée. Pour the whole lot into a saucepan and set over a low heat to bubble and reduce. If you don't have a processor you can just chop the chunks up a bit more and heat them in the saucepan like that - it will just take a little longer to break down. Give the cucumber purée a stir every now and then and check it is not burning. Taste it too - if it tastes grainy and crunchy then it needs more cooking. The cucumber should soften, smooth out and thicken up, this takes about 20 minutes of gentle heat with little bubbles blip-blip-blipping away.

When you think the cucumber is cooked enough, pour it into a blender with the raw onion rings and crushed garlic in the bottom. Add a pinch of salt and pulse then blend into a smooth consistency. If you have one of those blenders where you can take the top off while its blending, then do that and slowly drizzle in first the vinegar or lemon juice and then the olive oil. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. It should be a tiny bit more salty than you like as this will lessen as the soup cools. When you are happy with the taste pour the soup into a serving bowl and chill until cold.

To serve, pop an ice cube into each bowl for extra chill (or you could put the soup in the freezer until its just starting to freeze) and ladle over the soup. Scatter torn mint and basil leaves over and serve.

You could eat this with crusty bread, or put some little dishes with chopped chillis, toasted seeds, fried bacon bits or anything else you fancy on the table for people to help themselves.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Trattoria Montalbino

Here's a few more photos of lunch...

Trattoria Montalbino

Via Trecento 72
50025 Montalbino

Cauliflower truffle cakes

Every time we go to Trattoria Montalbino there is a great debate on the way over what we
will eat. Bistecca with truffles, or just porcini? Carpaccio with truffles instead? Yes if its hot. Maybe coniglio (rabbit) with truffles instead for a change. The one dish that is always ordered is a starter of little round cakes made from cauliflower, topped with shaved truffles.

At first sight this is an unlikely favourite. It remains this way until you bite into the crisp, lightly browned shell, inhale the heavenly scent of truffles, white or black depending on the season, and savour a mouthful of the hot fluffy interior, with its slightly grainy texture and earthy aroma.

We have endlessly argued over what the ingredients are, and finally today the proprietors gave in; not only did they give us the recipe, they gave us a whole bowlful of batter to take home.

Measurements to come, once we have finished the bowl of batter and survived food coma...

1 egg, beaten
Cauliflower purée
Béchamel sauce, made with flour, butter and milk
Truffle oil
Parmesan, grated
Sea salt and pepper
Dry breadcrumbs
Truffles, if you have them

Preheat an oven to 200 degrees Celsuis.

Whisk the cauliflower purée into the beaten egg until smooth. Then add the Béchamel and do the same. Add truffle oil and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan to taste. The dry breadcrumbs should be added last as they will soak up all the juice and product a batter with a thickish consistency.

Spoon dollops of batter into a buttered muffin tin, then bake for 10 minutes or so. The tops should be firm and lightly browned, with a springy texture when poked with a finger.

Turn out the cakes and let them allow enough to handle. Shave over your truffles and serve - eat immediately while they are still warm.

Sibilla's chilli jam

We ate thin slippery slices of marzolino cheese - smooth, creamy but acidic enough to not taste heavy, with slices of marinated cucumber and a dab of chilli jam. Completely addictive.

Makes several jars

200g chilli peppers
100g peppers, any colour
600g sugar, half brown half white
600ml white wine vinegar

Split all of the peppers in half, remove the stalk, pith and seeds and then roughly chop the flesh. Coarsely purée the peppers, either in a processor or by hand. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar over a low heat, add the pepper purée and simmer until it reaches a syrupy but still pourable consistency. This can take about 45 minutes. Pour the jam into sterilised jars and seal while still hot. The jam will thicken further while it cools.

Use this as a condiment to add sweet heat to almost anything, as a dip, a spread, a garnish...you could even have it on vanilla ice-cream!

Bats in the bell tower

We are currently sharing our bedroom with two bats who look adorable in the day.

Apparently a single bat can eat up to 3000 mosquitos in one night.

Why am I still getting bitten??

Marinated cucumbers

I’m back in Tuscany, celebrating a glut of cucumbers and getting reacquainted with flavours that took a backseat during the winter months. Eating here feels like emerging from some kind of taste-hibernation, remembering forgotten pleasures and rediscovering dishes as though meeting old friends. None of the artisan tomatoes from farmers markets in the height of summer in London tasted as richly delicious as the sun drenched examples from Sibilla’s garden. We feast on them every morning, sprinkled with a little red wine vinegar, torn basil and a splash of fruity olive oil. Yesterday there was creamy sheep’s milk ricotta from the dairy to go with our tomatoes. Sitting in the sunshine listening to cicadas I wondered why anyone would ever want to eat anything else.

We used home-grown Italian cucumbers with quite a tough, thick skin and spiky nubbins, so peeling is essential, however if you might decide not to peel yours if their skin is thinner.

Serves four as part of a summer's lunch

3 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into rounds about as thick as a pound coin (roughly half a cm)
One medium sized white onion, peeled and sliced into rings as thick as the cucumber
A generous teaspoon of sea salt
Half a teaspoon of sugar
A small clove of garlic, crushed
Good quality white wine vinegar
Fresh basil and mint
Extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper

Combine the cucumbers and onion rings in a bowl large enough to let you toss and mix around your ingredients. Add the salt and sugar and mix everything up. Taste a piece of cucumber – it should taste a tiny bit too salty. If not add a bit more salt. Add the garlic, toss again, then pour over enough white wine vinegar to just about cover the cucumber. The salt will draw moisture out of the cucumbers and together with the vinegar this will be your marinade.

Cover the bowl with cling film and leave it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, just before you serve the dish, tear up a small handful of basil and mint leaves and scatter them over. Add a good splash of olive oil, grind over some black pepper and give the whole thing one last toss.

The cucumbers are lovely and refreshing eaten on their own, perhaps with a slice of cold roast pork and chilled glass of white wine. Or add them to chopped up tomatoes, and throw in some cubes of dry, stale bread for a more substantial panzanella-style salad.