Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Great Italian Tinned Tomato Taste off and a recipe for 'white' tomato sauce

Tinned tomato tasting
I wrote this article for The Guardian. It seems to have caused a bit of controversy...600 comments and counting. I've been reading below the line and howling my head off with laughter. I've been called 'part of the 1%' because I'm prepared to pay almost a fiver for a jar of tomatoes. Check out the Guardian facebook page for even funnier remarks.

On the best tomatoes for canning:

For preserving it's best to use a firm fleshed tomato with few seeds and little juice that can withstand the canning process. Neopolitans believe the best tomatoes are grown around Naples, aided by the volcanic soil of Vesuvius.

  • Roma are a generic plum tomato frequently used outside of Italy.
  • Dattarini, named after dates for their shape and sweetness, are small tomatoes from Sicily
  • Corbarino, from Corbara in Campania.
  • San Marzano tomatoes, originally from Naples, are the most well known. Look for the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) label because there are many imposters. 
  • Torpedino is a mini version of San Marzano.
Here are the raw scores:

Waitrose Own Brand: 4/10 'fine for a curry'
Cosi Come red: 5/10
Cosi Come yellow: 7/10 'colour puts me off' said Dino.
Heinz: 3/10
Napolini: 3/10
Tarantelli: 4/10
Strianese: 5/10
La Carmela: 5/10 from 'Great packaging' 
Cirio: 4.5/10 'sweet' 'tastes like a leather book' according to Joe. These did better cooked.
Giovanni Paudice: 5/10
Metelliana:4/10 'tastes as metallic as the name' 'disappointing'
Ocado Own Brand: 1/10 'crime against humanity'
Mr Organic: 3.5/10
Antonella: 7/10 These are from 'very good'
Puma Conserve: 5.5/10
Gustarosso: 3/10
I sapori di corbara: 9/10 raw
I sapori di corbara sua eccellenzia: 8.5/10 but the winner when cooked.
Agrigenus San Marzano: 7/10
Agrigenus slow food with heritage tomatoes:7/10

What did I do with the rest of 21 open tins of tomatoes? I cooked up a massive tomato sauce which I boxed up for the freezer.
pasta with 'white' tomato sauce

'White' tomato sauce with pasta recipe

Dino Joannides, author of Italian cookbook Semplice told me: 'One of the best pasta sauces I ever had was by Chef Gennaro Esposito from Torre del Sarancino. It was white, with no colour, but tasted intensely of tomato. He'd used just the water from fresh tomatoes.'
I want to try that. Many chefs are including the vines in tomato sauce now, to extract more flavour. So yesterday I used just the water from i sapori di corbara tomatoes. 

Serves one greedy person or two moderate eaters

3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
Water from jarred plum tomatoes
a Sprig of fresh basil
1/2 tsp of good sea salt
150g of good pasta

In a good saucepan (I use a copper saucepan from Mauviel, this really makes a difference to cooking sauces) heat up the olive oil, add the garlic, soften, then add the tomato water, the basil and the salt.

Cook for five or ten minutes while the pasta is cooking.
Drain the pasta and mix it with the sauce.

Spending on what goes in your mouth

Depending on what I'm cooking, I'll buy a cheaper supermarket brand (especially as I live nowhere near Chelsea where the winning tomatoes are sold) especially if it's just for a curry or chilli where the pure taste of tomato is masked.
My interest lays in food and drink, so that's what I spend my hard-earned dosh. I come from a background where my family spent their money on interesting travel and food, while some of their friends forked out for first class hotels, designer clothes, handbags, posh cars, a big TV - things I would regard as 'status' buys. Spending over £50 on a handbag that might get stolen or over £20 on sunglasses that you will lose is a waste of money for many but everyone has their own priorities. What goes in my mouth, my body is very important. In Italy and France people spend a far higher proportion of their income on food than the British.
Good food is too cheap in this country although that doesn't help the thousands of people on the breadline. Farmers don't earn very much and that is why many of them are simply giving up. Last year I visited Featherdown Farms where the farmer no longer bothered to sell his potatoes, which were of high quality, because it wasn't worth it by the time distribution, transport, cut taken by the supermarkets was counted. The mark up in supermarkets on fresh fruit and vegetables is around 45% whereas junk food is sold with a profit of pennies. It's all wrong, all topsy turvy.
Do you think we spend enough on food? Is spending a fiver on a jar of tomatoes absolutely ridiculous?

Friday, 15 January 2016

Two in one recipes: whole yellow bean curry and aquafaba pancakes #veganuary

Reasons for this post:

  • still on my aquafaba kick which uses bean cooking water as an egg replacer
  • which means I can make two dishes from one starting point ingredient: yellow whole peas
  • tis the season for blood oranges
  • tis Veganuary and this recipe is vegan
  • it's almost pancake day
Yellow whole pea curry
Whole yellow pea curry served with soy yoghurt, lime and chapati

Whole yellow pea curry

Serves two to four

250g Yellow whole peas, soaked overnight
1 tbsp sea salt
2 tbsps coconut oil
1 tbsp Mustard seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp cumin, ground
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
5 cardomom seeds, ground
1 bay leaf
1 tsp turmeric or a small fresh turmeric root, grated
1 brown onion, diced
3-5 cloves of garlic, minced
a thumb of fresh ginger, grated
1 red or green chilli, thinly sliced
Handful fresh coriander leaves, to garnish

Drain the soaked yellow peas and put in a large casserole with a lid and cover with water. Simmer for 2 to 4 hours or until tender but not breaking up. As I'm going to use the cooking water for aquafaba, I'm not going to salt the beans until the very end, when drained.
As soon as the water is strained through a fine meshed sieve into a mixing bowl (keep this water), add the salt and stir it around the peas.
Take a deep frying pan, sauteuse or saucepan and put on a medium to low heat. Add the coconut butter, let it melt, then add the mustard seeds. Let them pop a little, then add the cinnamon, cumin, coriander seeds, bay leaf, turmeric. After a couple of minutes, add the onion, let it soften. 
Then add the garlic, ginger, for a couple of minutes then add the cooked yellow peas. Cook for another ten or fifteen minutes then add the chilli and fresh coriander.
aquafaba pancake with blood orange and maple syrup

Aquafaba pancakes with blood orange and maple syrup

Makes 12 pancakes

10 tbsps of the liquid from the whole yellow pea cooking water
30g caster sugar

250g plain flour
a Pinch of Salt 
200ml soy milk
1 tsp vanilla paste
2 tsps baking powder
2 tbsps coconut butter
2 Blood oranges, peeled, cut into thin slices
Light maple syrup to your liking

In a stand mixer add the pea cooking liquid, now cool and whisk on high until soft peaks start to form. I've found this happens very quickly when using the water from home cooked legumes rather than tinned.
Add the sugar and whisk into stiff peaks (more or less)
In a separate bowl add the flour, salt, baking powder.
Add 6 to 8 tablespoons of the aquafaba foam/liquid carefully to the flour mix.
Stir carefully.
Heat up a flat frying pan or crepiere with the coconut butter. You can wipe down excess oil with kitchen paper and use that to dab the pan in between each pancake. Put two generous tablespoons onto the hot pan, using the back of the spoon to make a circle with the batter.
I can do three at a time on my cast iron crepiere but do as many as you can comfortably fit in the pan.
Once the edges start to lift and darken, flip over the pancake.
When both sides are golden, remove from the pan to a plate, add some maple syrup and a few slices of blood orange.
Very light, very seasonal, vegan, with who knows how much protein from the aquafaba?
vegan aquafaba pancake with blood orange and maple syrup

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Skiing in the Savoie, France and a recipe for cardoon gratin

samoens, Alps, France

Villa Rose hotel, samoens, Alps, France
samoens, Alps, France
villa rose hotel decor, samoens, Alps, France
samoens, Alps, France

This Christmas, I visited the small alpine village of Samoëns, near to the Grand Massif web of ski runs. French ski resorts tend to be more modern than Austrian or Swiss resorts and as a result are often somewhat ugly, blighted with high rise flats catering for the French for whom skiing is a national sport, almost a right. Most French school children go skiing in the winter holidays, if not with their parents then with the school.
Samoëns, by contrastis small and romantically pretty; a jigsaw of low rise stone and wood buildings with chalet style balconies. This architecture is typical of the Savoy region, which is almost entirely mountainous, stretching south of Geneva down to Nice. Savoyard culture and food historically crosses national boundaries, girdling the alpine regions of France, Italy and Switzerland.

raclette, samoens, Alps, France
cheese fondue, samoens, Alps, France
Savoyard cuisine is perfect for the climate: hearty dishes such as Raclette, Tartiflette, Fondue Savoyarde; cheeses like Beaufort, Tomme, Gruyere, Reblochon; cured meat and sausages referred to as 'Diot', while polenta tended to be more popular than potatoes. For my tartiflette recipe go to my monthly column at the Ham & High
villa rose decor, samoens, Alps, France
villa rose decor, samoens, Alps, France
I stayed at a boutique hotel Villa Rose housed in a Belle Epoque circa 1900s villa, which only opened in May 2015. This is the dream project of Texan Kimberly Williamson, who supervised every aspect of the decoration using only local artisans, materials and products. It's a far cry from the rustic chalets of the alps, all pine and checkered tablecloths; here the style is more elegant and contemporary with silvered bedheads, upcycled antiques, beautifully appointed bathrooms with claw foot bathtubs, flocked wallpaper, glinting chandeliers, whimsical paintings of cows and stags on doors, and a strict palette of pink, silver and black except for the kitchen where apple green is sported.
window seat, villa rose hotel, samoens, Alps, France

Downstairs has a different style: a comfortable living area with coloured stained wooden floors by local artist Gilles Giacomotti, and an enclosed veranda with a pink velvet sofa and cosy nook window seats overlooking the ski lifts and mountains.

What to do at a skiing resort when you can't ski

The ski season starts on December 19th when the lifts open, but like everywhere in Europe, a warm winter has meant that snow was sparse. (I believe January has now had fresh snow so conditions are better.) Samoëns is also a summer resort. 

1) Ice Skating. There is usually a rink at every ski resort and Samoëns is no exception. You can also go tobogganing on a artificial slope in the village. At larger resorts you will find swimming pools, saunas and jacuzzis, which is a boon for après-ski. Villa Rose also has an on-call masseuse. 

2) Christmas activities: the main square of the village has concerts, games and other 'animations' during Christmas time: a jolly girl group harmonising in Santa outfits and old-fashioned wooden games for the public to play. The village is lit up with lights and Christmas music is piped through the pedestrian streets, it's all charmingly Disney-like. (I love Disney.)

2) Shopping. Samoens has many small boutique shops selling handicrafts and local products. I particularly liked the interiors and kitchenware shop, the quincaillerie, where I bought a wooden radiator brush. (Longtime readers will know that I do like a well crafted brush).

3) Walking. You can walk in the hills, alongside the bubbling river or visit the local Botanical Gardens, which contains thousands of alpine plants. If you walk enough you will deserve to...

4) Eating. Even if you don't do any exercise you will have a huge appetite and feel tired, especially if you come from a smoggy city like London where the merest whiff of fresh air is a jolt to an urbanite system.

Samoëns has some good local food shops, a boulangerie, places to buy cheese and cured meats, if you don't have a car. 
There are nice places to eat (the raclette at Gourmandises de Marie was good, as was the friendly lunch at Les Tartines de Martine) but French service is a problem, I don't know why. You expect rudeness in Paris but not in a small village. I had a terrible experience in one restaurant called La Tornalta, where the waitress said she wanted to hit me because I asked for a green salad with a dressing not out of a bottle.
Tourists should specify the size of the drink they are ordering as apparently it is a common trick to give the largest version and charge accordingly. This happened to me at a bar in the village, I ordered Gentian, an alpine bitter herbal liqueur made from the gentian root. It's usually around three euros, but the grumpy bartender poured me out a huge glass (too much to drink) at six euros. 
gentian root, samoens, Alps, France
Perhaps this is why Villa Rose only employs Anglophone staff all of whom are delightful and bend over backwards to give good service. Selina the manageress will sort out ski gear for you and give you a lift to the cable car in Samoens, however there is also a shuttle. Talking to the staff at Villa Rose, many of whom lived in the village and had children in the local schools, they all raved about living there, the sense of community, the special vibe of the village. 
cake at villa rose, samoens, Alps, France
Villa Rose has a private chef, Daniel Bearcroft, who can prepare evening meals depending on the package you choose. He provides a cooked breakfast and charmingly, a cake every day for tea time. Find him @alpinechef on instagram for a look at his dishes.
alpine cheese, samoens, Alps, France
alpine cheese, samoens market, Alps, France
diot charcuterie, samoens market, Alps, France
samoens market, Alps, France

5) Going to the market, which is open on Wednesday mornings in Samoëns. The market sells great food, handicrafts, local products, alpine themed oil cloths and cheap clothes.
I was in my element here but to know which stalls to buy from, look at those that have queues of locals. One cheese stall tried to charge me 50 euros (£40 or over $50) for a Brillat Savarin cheese (500g) that would normally cost a maximum of 10 euros, so shop wisely.
I lined up at a brilliant stall selling raclette from the back of a farmer's van and bought a quarter wheel for 10 euros. Bargain!
cardoons, samoens market, Alps, France
cardoon gratin
cardoon gratin

If you are self-catering in the winter, do look out for cardoons (cardons), which look like a spiky celery. They aren't cheap but are a local delicacy: 'l'épineux de Plainpalais' in the Christmas season, tasting a bit like artichokes, for they belong to the same family of thistles. I considered squeezing an entire cactusy cardoon in my suitcase along with my ski boots but ended up buying them ready prepared, that is, freshly cut into sections. Cardoons are little known in the UK, which is a pity - they are delicious. Here is a typical recipe:

Cardoon Gratin Recipe

Serves 4 to 6

1-2 kilos of cardoons, stringy bits stripped off, cut into pieces 3 inches(5-7 cms)long.

Juice of half a lemon
1 tsp of salt

For the sauce:

20g of butter
250ml of double cream
500ml of cardoon cooking water or vegetable stock
A little nutmeg or mace
Salt and Pepper

To top:
300g of cheese, grated (use an alpine cheese such as Comté, Beaufort or Gruyere or, failing that, Cheddar)

If you are lucky enough to get a fresh cardoon plant, treat it a bit like rhubarb, removing the stringy bits, chopping it up then place it covered with water in a large saucepan acidulated with half a squeezed lemon and a teaspoon of salt. This prevents it from going brown. Once prepped, bring to the boil and simmer on a medium to low heat until the cardoon is soft enough to prick with a fork easily, about an hour. Cardoons taste rather bitter until they are cooked. 
Drain but reserve the cardoon water. Preheat the oven to 180ºc. Butter a baking dish 20cm x 10cm approximately.
In the meantime, make the sauce.
In a medium sized saucepan on a low heat, melt the butter. Immediately stir in the cream. You can then add the cardoon water or vegetable stock or a mix of both. Keep stirring the sauce for about ten minutes until it thickens, then add the nutmeg or mace. Taste then season with salt and pepper.
Lay the cardoons in the baking dish in a single layer then cover with the bechamel sauce.
Add the grated cheese (if you prefer it low fat, add breadcrumbs instead) and bake for 20 minutes. Another option, which a commenter on my Instagram mentioned, is adding roasted slivered almonds. Drool!

More info:

  • I stayed at Villa Rose, Samoëns, courtesy of Villa Rose. 
  • I flew with Easy Jet to Geneva. Flights are from £90 both ways. 
  • Transfers from Geneva airport to Samoens are available: a shuttle costs around £60 return while a private taxi is anything from £260 return to £316. Villa Rose has its own taxi service which you can arrange for a fee.
  • If hiring a car during winter, make sure you have the motorway 'vignette' (pass) for exiting Geneva or you will get a fine. 
  • Also make sure you ask for chains for the tires. To buy them in the Alps costs more than usual and the hire company should provide them for a small fee. 
  • Find out more at Samoë