Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Romanesco cauliflower cheese

Inflicting jaundiced food on my dear readers has become a habit. Apologies. Bakes, cakes, and corn, my current weaknesses, don't fill a screen with colour. My next post will be a verdant delight, I promise.

Back to the bake...

Last weekend I bought a beautiful romanesco cauliflower from the farmers' market. I wanted it to appeal to my one-year-old, so a dousing in dairy was the only way forward. But not just the usual bechamel and a bit of cheddar - I wanted to enjoy it, too. Dijon mustard, Poilane sourdough breadcrumbs, nutmeg, and Gruyere turned it into something very special indeed.

Prep: 15-20 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
  • 1 romanesco cauliflower, florets removed and rinsed
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 500ml whole milk
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • generous grating of nutmeg
  • large handful grated sharp cheddar cheese/Gruyere
  • 1 ball of mozzarella, sliced
  • 1 tbsp creme fraiche
  • 2 cups of breadcrumbs
  • 3 tbsp grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 190C. Steam the cauliflower for 8-10 minutes, until tender. Lay it in an ovenproof dish, in a single layer.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat, then add the flour and stir constantly for 1 minute. Gradually start adding the milk, a tbsp at a time, stirring constantly as it becomes amalgamated with the flour and butter to make a smooth paste. Once the paste has become looser, and more liquid, add the rest of the milk and cook over a low heat, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until the sauce has a thick and creamy consistency.

Take the bechamel off the heat, and add the mustard, nutmeg, cheeses, and cream. Stir until they have melted into the sauce. Season.

Pour the sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Mix the breadcrumbs and Parmesan together, and scatter over the dish. Cook for 30 minutes, until you have a delightful crunchy top, and bubbling, oozing sauce underneath.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

da Polpo

Russell Norman's winning formula of Italian bacaro eating has just spawned a fourth offspring: da Polpo, in the heart of Covent Garden. The slender and unimposing green frontage sits on Maiden Lane, a cobbled street that belies the surrounding touristy hubbub and is home, too, to the wonderful Rules (London's oldest restaurant: visit during game season, and seek out its famous cocktail bar).

Inside, da Polpo's unpretentious and pared down decor reflects that of the original Polpo in Soho. Modelled on Venice's wine bars, the brick walls are bare, the tables small and candlelit, and the bar prominent.

There for an early lunch, we had the place to ourselves, and a convivial welcome. Moretti and refreshing MGM virgin cocktail (lemon juice, elderflower liqueur, and ginger beer) in hand, we contemplated the placemat paper menu. It offers small Italian sharing plates: cicheti (snacks), pizzette, vegetables and salads, meatballs, 'plates', and tempting desserts.

Food-loving twitterers @londonfoodie, @sarahlovescake and @KaveyF recommended the Gorgonzola pizzetta, spicy pork and fennel meatballs, and the spinach, parmesan and soft egg pizzetta, and I'd heard people swoon about the Nutella pizzetta.

Dry focaccia was disappointingly free of char and olive oil, but all was forgiven when the pizzetta arrived.

Zucchini, chilli, mint pizzetta £6. Incredibly thin and crispy base, and a perfectly attuned topping. Heavenly, and the best dish of the day.

Grilled asparagus, buttered eggs and Parmesan £7.50. Rustic and uncomplicated. More butter than egg, but all the better for it.

Heritage tomato salad £5. Another highlight. Rarely do tomatoes satisfy - like sweetcorn and avocados, they lose their sweetness as they linger on supermarket shelves - but these were oozing goodness, sitting in a perfectly judged dressing.

Classic beef and pork meatballs £4.50. These hit a dud note. The meat was ground too finely, and quite dry. Any subtle meatiness was drowned out by the pungent tomato sauce. A weak dish.

Chicken liver crostino £1.50. The second of our two meat dishes, and sadly forgettable. The bitterness of overcooked liver overwhelmed any offaly sweetness.

Arancini £2.50. Fab, and great value. Warm and soft deep-fried risotto balls. Perfect comfort food.

Da Polpo might not be pushing the boundaries, but they cook to please. The hits outweighed the misses, and we emerged content, planning our return visit. Norman creates spectacular meat dishes, particularly ragus. I'll refrain from judging all da Polpo's meat dishes until I've had a chance to try more, particularly the pork and fennel meatballs which came so highly recommended.

Spuntino, Norman's third establishment, is getting rave write-ups, and may well be the jewel in Norman's crown (American classics such as sliders, mac 'n' cheese). I'll check it out soon.

Our bill for two (four dishes each + booze) came to £47, including service. Not bad at all, and I'll certainly return.

Da Polpo takes daytime bookings - nighttime, it's a free for all.

da Polpo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

At Home: Grandmother's Creamy Fresh Corn

Corn bought in the Midwest or Southern States is the best to be had: fresh from the sun-drenched fields, and tooth-achingly sweet. It bears no resemblance to its poor relations flown across the world to languish in plastic, stripped of their protective husks, on our supermarket shelves.

My American grandmother was a home economist and food writer, and a meticulous and impressive home cook. She kept records of her favourite family and entertaining recipes, pasting clippings neatly onto cards, or noting them down in elegant script. Serendipity intervened as I was helping clear out the family home in Ohio after the death of my grandfather, and I came across her collection. Corn features widely, and this is a true American classic.

I've adapted the recipe, providing UK measures. Use the freshest corn cobs you can find, preferably with their husks intact. I've omitted the flour, as I don't think it is necessary. Serve with plain roast chicken, or as part of a Sunday brunch fry up.

7-8 ears of corn
85g unsalted butter
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp sea salt
120ml whole milk
120ml double cream
pepper and nutmeg, to taste

Cut the corn from the cob by holding it on a board vertically and slashing down through kernels with a small sharp knife, then scrape the cob with back of the knife to extract all the milk from the cob.

Melt butter in frying pan, stir in corn. Add sugar, salt and milk. Cover, and cook slowly for about 10 minutes. Stir in the cream, and simmer for a further couple of minutes. Sprinkle generously with coarsely ground pepper and nutmeg.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

At Home: Fridge-raid Frittata

A supremely easy meal, perfect for lunch boxes, picnics, toddler finger food, or a simple supper.

A frittata can be made with an endless array of ingredients languishing in your fridge, though I try to keep it seasonal, and make sure I add a generous handful of cheese (feta, Parmesan, goat's cheese, or gruyere), and whatever herbs I have to hand. A luxury version could be made with smoked salmon, or a few truffle shavings.

Asparagus, sausage and pea frittata
8 Jersey Royal potatoes
6 spears of asparagus, trimmed
1 cup of frozen petit pois
1 tbsp light olive oil
knob of unsalted butter
3 spring onions, finely sliced
2 good-quality pork sausages
5 eggs
1 heaped tbsp grated Parmesan
  • Cook the potatoes, asparagus, beans, and peas until tender, and put them aside until they are cool enough to handle. Chop the potatoes, asparagus, and beans roughly.
  • Put a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat, and add the oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the spring onions, and cook - stirring - for 2 minutes.
  • Squeeze the sausage meat out of its skins into the pan, and break it up with a wooden spoon as it browns, for 5 minutes.
  • Stir in the chopped cooked vegetables, and petit pois, and warm through for 2 minutes.
  • Whisk the eggs with the Parmesan and a generous grind of black pepper (add salt now, if you like, though I like to season it just before serving).
  • Pour the egg mixture evenly over the vegetables, sprinkling over some feta or goat's cheese if you have some, and turn the heat to low. Leave the frittata to cook for 5-8 minutes, until almost set, then transfer the frying pan to the grill until cooked through.
Ingredient variations
Vegetables: spinach, broad beans, roasted squash, sweetcorn, chopped and deseeded tomatoes, red pepper, broccoli, red onion, watercress.
Meat and fish: smoked trout, smoked haddock, smoked salmon, cooked ham, bacon, chorizo, cooked prawns.
Herbs: dill, chives, mint, parsley, sage, basil.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The First Birthday Cake

Charlie's first birthday brought with it a dilemma. Have a big bash, frowned upon by parenting gurus, or keep it low key. Refusing to be made to feel guilty for 'putting him through' a party, we shunned advice and pulled out all the stops.

One crucial element of the day: the cake. No guilt-wracked conscience here. It had to be big, it had to be sugary, and it had to be chocolatey.

A cake connoisseur, my friend Sarah suggested Nigella's Chocolate Fudge Cake from Nigella Bites. The recipe that follows is lifted word for word from her website. I decorated it with strawberry halves, white chocolate shavings (which my mother thought was Parmesan....), and icing sugar. It worked a treat, and was devoured with gusto by babies and adults alike.

It serves 10 adequately, 20 at a snip, and 60? - no chance. We managed to feed 40, but they only got a meagre sliver.
  • 400g plain flour
  • 250g golden caster sugar
  • 100g light muscovado sugar
  • 50g best quality cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 142ml/small tub sour cream
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 175g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 125ml corn oil
  • 300ml chilled water


  • 175g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids
  • 250g unsalted butter, softened
  • 275g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Butter and line the bottom of two 20cm sandwich tins.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugars, cocoa, baking powder, bicarb and salt. In another bowl or measuring jug whisk together the eggs, sour cream and vanilla until blended. Using a freestanding or handheld electric mixer, beat together the melted butter and corn oil until just blended, then beat in the water. Add the dry ingredients all at once and mix together on a slow speed. Add the egg mixture, and mix again until everything is blended and then pour into the prepared tins.
  3. Bake the cakes for 50-55 minutes, or until a cake-tester comes out clean. Cool the cakes in their tins on a wire rack for 15 minutes, and then turn the cakes out onto the rack to cool completely.
  4. To make the icing, melt the chocolate in the microwave - 2-3 minutes on medium - or in a bowl sitting over a pan of simmering water, and let cool slightly.
  5. In another bowl beat the butter until it's soft and creamy then add the sieved icing sugar and beat again until everything's light and fluffy. Then gently add the vanilla and chocolate and mix together until everything is glossy and smooth.
  6. Sandwich the middle of the cake with about a quarter of the icing, and then ice the top and sides, spreading and smoothing with a rubber spatula.
As you can see, our singing didn't go down too well. But I can promise that the cake did.