Category Archives: Epic Ingredients
Doing the daily shop, French-style.
These aubergines are shinier than a militia man’s boots.
The lobster tank was looking a bit empty. I suspect there’d been a rush on lobster for cooling summer seafood platters.
This little piggy went to market, to hang out next to his brothers who are now a pair of delicious dried sausages. Oink oink.
Black-legged chickens with their heads ON, but running about no more.
Counting the chèvres…
Believe it or not, these rolls are called ‘hams’ of duck breast, and are stuffed with foie gras.
A trio of tapenades and other wicked treats to nibble with one’s apéro.
Legs of ham. With hoof or without?
Mimolette cheese (in case you were wondering). ‘Extra old’ says the label. You bet.
Extra old or prehistoric?
And to finish: Charentais melons in the Charente-Maritime.
Recently, I was chatting with @champagnediet on Twitter and mentioned my recent experimentation with a bottle of bubbly in the kitchen. I’d made a truly scrummy dish of scallops and king prawns in a champagne and cream sauce – plenty for two people as a light evening meal, or a decadent starter if you’re hungry. Anyway, I promised @champagnediet I’d send her the recipe for her site, which focusses on how to eat (and live) well without over-indulging. Then I thought it would also be a good idea to share it here.
This dish is ready in a flash. There’s next to no preparation time – just as long as it takes to get everything out of the fridge and chop the onions. Cooking time is max 10 minutes.
200g king prawns, uncooked and 200g fresh scallops, coral removed. In the UK queen scallops are good for this recipe as they’re smaller, but king scallops would work just as well, only you might need a minute or two more to cook through.
**(Please do ensure that the seafood is as fresh as it possibly can be. The champagne component in this recipe is too expensive to waste on close-to-expiry-date produce!)
3 Tablespoons of butter
A dash of light olive oil
1/4 cup of sliced salad onions (aka scallions for our American friends)
2/3 cup of champagne – don’t skimp. This has to be the real deal! I’ve tested with bubbly alternatives and the taste is still nice but not as good.
3/4 cup of reduced fat crème fraîche
Salt and pepper to taste
Take a frying pan and melt 1 Tbsp of butter, adding a dash (literally) of light olive oil to prevent scorching.
Add the chopped salad onions and stir over medium heat for 1 minute, no longer. We want them to retain their colour if possible.
Slowly pour in the champagne and allow to reduce to approximately one third, stirring occasionally.
Add the seafood and stir until the prawns have turned pink (2-3 minutes).
Add the crème fraîche and stir until the cream has combined with the butter and seafood juices and now coats the seafood easily. Allow the mixture to simmer for a few minutes. Stir regularly during this time, then add the remaining butter and stir through until the sauce thickens slightly.
Season to taste.
Garnish with a sprig of dill or sprinkling of chopped chives. Serve immediately, preferably with a flute of the leftover champers! Et voilà!
I am a full-time working woman with a full and demanding life. I know perfectly well how to cook pancakes from scratch, be they crêpe, American-style, potato or blini, but I’d rather get the fillings right than muck about with batter after a long day at work. As Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day/ Mardi Gras falls invariably on a weekday, that dictates the need to cheat if Monsieur and I are to do the traditional thing and dine on pancakes. This is how I blitzed it for us this week:
Pop a knob of butter in a frying pan and, once melted, place a galette darker side down in the pan. Immediately start to place your filling ingredients on one half of the galette, wait for the edges to brown a little and flip the other half across the fillings so that you have a perfect half-moon oozing with deliciousness. Make sure both sides have been adequately heated (this involves a bit of flipping for the culinary gymnasts among us) then place on a plate and set aside.
In the meantime, heat the oven to about 150 Celsius. If, like me, you have an audience who will eat the galettes as fast as you can make them, and if you prefer to eat at the same time as those you’re cooking for, this is a useful trick – wait until about a short while before you want to serve the already-filled galettes, slip them into the oven for 10 minutes and they will be piping hot, as if they came straight from the pan, when they arrive at the table.
I have an entire book filled with recipes for galette fillings and the options are endless. Here are three surefire favourites that Monsieur and I enjoy, not just on Shrove Tuesday:
- The Classic Complète. Place thin slices of ham (honey roast is delicious if available) to cover half of the galette. Crack an egg on top and allow it to start to heat through, but don’t leave it so long that the galette burns. It can always continue to cook a little once in the oven. Sprinkle with grated cheese, and/or a little parmesan. Grind black pepper over the whole and close. When in half-moon shape, i.e. the fillings are covered by pancake, flip to ensure the egg gets heat from both sides. If you’d like to be a little more ambitious with the presentation, place all the ingredients at the centre of the galette, leaving about 5 centimetres uncovered around the circumference. make sure the egg is situated as close to the centre of the galette as possible. Fold in 4 edges, leaving the egg exposed but creating a roughly square shape. Serve.
- The Neptune. Arrange slices of quality smoked salmon to cover half of the galette. Dollop three tablespoons of creme fraiche on top of the salmon and spread. Sprinkle chopped chives (dill also works beautifully here) and a little parmesan cheese over all. Close as the salmon’s colour starts to turn pale but before the galette edges start to curl.
- The Vegetarian Italian. Put thin slices of mozzarella around half of the galette, dot with 5 or 6 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half. Sprinkle with parmesan and chopped or torn fresh basil leaves. You have to keep an eye on this one because if you leave it in the pan for too long the tomato juice will make it soggy and difficult to flip. One solution, if you have time, is to use regular slicing tomatoes and remove the juicy flesh and seeds beforehand.
Sweet pancakes are usually called crêpes in France, to distinguish them from the savoury galettes. To cheat for this type I used the following pre-made version, also from Ocado, although most supermarkets in the UK offer something similar:
Once again, they come in packs of 6. I am a complete traditionalist when it comes to sweet pancakes. If at all possible, Monsieur will do the French thing and fill his with Nutella, but I prefer to keep it simple:
As for the galettes, heat a knob of butter in the pan and place the crêpe darker side down in the pan. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of sugar across one half of the crêpe, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the sugar, add a dash or two of cinnamon, fold in half and serve. An optional extra might be a squirt of chantilly or a scoop of proper vanilla ice cream. If I weren’t so convinced I’d set my head alight, I might attempt Crêpes Suzettes, but for the moment I leave that to the experts in restaurants like Les Halles, where they’re so practised that I couldn’t hope to compete.
All the talk about beans on the London Bloggers network recently made me do some odd things. Well, odd for most people but probably quite normal for me. This includes taking photographs of BEANS in a French supermarket, planning extra beans into our weekly diet (they’re very good for you – slow energy release), checking the glycemic index of beans (mostly somewhere in the 30s but BROAD beans are naughty with 79) and opening a certain kitchen cupboard door to gaze longingly at our emergency stash of ready-to-go French flageolets…
The bean talk also brought to mind a little Epicurienne anecdote, which hopefully will amuse.
It’s no secret that the French love to believe that English food is little better than pig swill. In fact, I recently fought hard to defend the cuisine of Old Blighty in a family ‘discussion’ in France. Contrary to French belief, England’s positive attitude to food has skyrocketed since I moved here 16 years ago. We have fantastic ingredients at our disposal, the media has helped increase public interest in what they’re cooking and eating, we can enjoy a different ethnic cuisine every night of the month if we feel like it and regional flavours are enjoying the support of increasing numbers of farmers’ markets and eateries that favour local produce. Certainly, it’s still easy to find pork pies filled with more gelatine than pork, and if you’re not careful, you’ll come home from the supermarket with a bag full of tomatoes that taste of cardboard (that’s why you’ll find me sniffing tomatoes in the aisles – more perfume equals more flavour), but it really isn’t fair to say that the English don’t know how to eat and in my experience it remains hard work trying to convince the French otherwise.
So when I was stopped at the X-ray machine at Eurostar in the Gare du Nord I was interested to see which product from a French supermarket shopping binge had piqued the interest of the two uniformed guards now glaring at me with suspicion. You see, there really wasn’t much in my suitcase apart from food and on unzipping the case it was obvious that Monsieur and I had enjoyed our recent trip to the supermarket. Out spilled our favourite soaps and packs of spaetzle, half a dozen bottles of persillade, delicious wine vinegars and various other items that are either hard to find (albeit not impossible) or over-the-top expensive to buy on the other side of the channel. Then they spotted the food criminal that had caused them concern.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” asked one, rattling a box of mogettes – a white bean which is popular in the Vendée region of France.
“They’re mogettes.” I replied
“What?” asked the uniform,
“Mogettes,” I answered.
Uniform 1 turned to Uniform 2.
“Do you know zese sings?” he asked his colleague.
“Yes, zey’re delicious. Some of ze best beans in France.” he said, nodding sagely. Then the uniforms turned back to me.
“What we want to know is ‘ow YOU English know about zese beans.” Ah. So I’d confused them. I wasn’t French yet I knew more about a regional French bean than a certain uniformed Frenchman. What an enigma. Perhaps now they’d realise that Anglo Saxon(e)s CAN cook and DO care about their food. Then again, perhaps they were going to arrest me for attempting to remove a French food treasure from their country. Two pairs of eyes narrowed as they focussed on me. It was obvious that they were confused to find that someone living in England actually liked to cook.
“My father-in-law is French and he introduced me to them. I saw them in the supermarket and thought I’d take some home.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. Because in England ze food is so bad.” Uniform 2 was laughing now. “So you have to come to France to buy REAL food. Hahaha.” That wasn’t quite accurate, although I wasn’t about to argue with two men carrying guns.
During the course of the examination of my mogettes quite a queue had built up behind us, but the uniforms didn’t care. They were now interested in how I was going to cook my mogettes.
“My father-in-law said I should soak them overnight and then cook them with a bouquet garni, a little onion and some carrots. I’ll probably serve them with chicken or duck.”
“Ah, yes.” Uniform 2 was practically dribbling. “I love ze mogettes.”
“So why ‘ave I not ‘eard of zem?” asked Uniform 1. “You say you can buy zem in ze supermarket?” he asked me. Suddenly, the ‘ENGLISH’ was the expert on French beans instead of a suspected terrorist with explosive in her shopping.
“Yes,” I said, trying to zip up my bag and make way for the grumbling travellers behind me, “You can buy them in the supermarket.”
As I walked away from the Uniforms, they were still discussing mogettes, which just goes to show that even though the prevalent French attitude to English eating habits needs some correcting, it’s true when they say that if you want to enjoy a really passionate discussion in France, just start talking about food. And hopefully now there exist at least two more Frenchmen who know that sometimes, just sometimes, those folk across La Manche might know a bit more than just their onions when it comes to food.
Recently on the London Bloggers’ Meetup Group website I noticed a competition about BEANS. The prize is a lovely luxury bean bag from Ambient Lounge and all the entrants have to do is write a short (Epicurienne? Short? That’ll be the hard part…) post about BEANS. This made me think. Hard. I love beans, so I decided to create an A to Z to help me to remember how many varieties there are.
A Well, this has to be for Ambient Lounge, the supplier of the bean bag prize/s for this competition. They’re super-cool, are used to furnish Kensington Roof Gardens, a top London club with views over London, and there’s even a sun lounger bean bag – how hip is that?
B There are loads of BEANS beginning with B: Baked, Black, Broad, Butter. Beansprouts are great for salads and stir fries. The Adventures of Beans Baxter is a US TV series. Brazil is currently the biggest producer of dry beans and I come from the generation who all know what a Bean-o comic is.
C Did you know that the Chickpea is a bean? Now you do. There are Cocoa beans for hot drinks and chocolate making, Coffee beans to keep us awake, Castor beans which give a delightful flavour to sugar and the Common bean which can be used for just about anything. Coral beans and Cranberry beans are a bit more exotic. In France, Cassoulet is a wonderful meal comprising duck stewed in its own juices with fat, white beans. It’s a hearty winter meal in itself.
D stands for Designer Bean Bags upon which to launch oneself after a long day of arduous work, while watching The Food Channel. There is also a Dolichos bean which sounds delicious.
E is for Edamame, or soy bean, upon which patrons crunch in smart Asian food establishments.
F The Fava bean is another name for the Broad bean. Fagioli is the Italian word for bean. Flageolets are wonderful, juicy white beans which are popular in France (and in Epic’s London kitchen) and Fabaceae is one name for the family of plants whose seeds become BEANS on our plates at home. Flatulence can be the embarrassing result of eating too many BEANS but BEANS are too tasty for us to worry about a bit of wayward wind, no?
G The Green bean is a staple of many a mean-and-three-veg dinner, but for something a little special, you could always seek out the Goldmarie Vining Pole bean.
H Haricots Verts are the French green beans and who doesn’t know the slogan ‘Beanz Meanz HEINZ?’. Hannibal Lechter of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is renowned for the following spine-chilling quote: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” and on many an international boardwalk you will find teenagers doing unbelievable tricks with their bean-filled hacky-sacks.
I is for India, the second most prolific producer of dry beans in the world.
J is for the eponymous Jack, famed for the magic beans that grow into a giant beanstalk in one of the most popular fairy tales of all time. There is also a variety of bean called the Jack, and everyone has a favourite colour of Jelly bean, although the manufacturer, Jelly Belly, has extended the flavour options so far that having just one favourite is probably a thing of the past.
K is for Kidney beans.
L stands for Leguminosae, another family of plants responsible for giving us beans. There is also the Lima bean variety and LL Bean, the classic clothes mail-order catalogue from the States – very New England.
M Here we find Mung beans (edible) and Rowan Atkinson’s doofy character, Mr Bean (not). Monty Python sang ‘Spam spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam and spam is delicious, trust me!’ Personally, I can’t stand Spam but will take the baked beans any day.
N is for Navy beans, and
O is for Onions. The gardener’s advice is to never grow your beans next to onions – it will end in tears. But onions as a base for bean dishes will add texture and flavour.
P Beans grow in Pods, just like Peas, which are also beans, but let’s not confuse the issue by going into that here. It’s a whole different blog post. Polyanthus beans and Pinto beans come under Beans Beginning With P.
Q Beans form a vital ingredient for the classic Mexican Quesadilla.
R is for the classic Runner bean, the Refried bean used for Nachos, the Red bean, the Rice bean and the Roman bean. Go one up on the Joneses by serving the Roc d’Or or the Royalty Purple Podded Bush beans at your dinner parties.
S Beans are seeds and when planted will grow more beans. Beans beginning with S include Soy beans, Sieva beans and Scarlet Runner beans. The Latin name for the Sword bean is GLADIATA (perfect to give you energy before taking on Russell Crowe’s mates in a Colosseum somewhere). Spilling the beans will only get you in trouble.
T is for Tepary beans, and Tavera beans, otherwise known as French green filet beans.
U finds us with the Urad bean which is black with a soft white interior and highly popular in India, and
V gives us Vanilla beans and Velvet beans – what a sumptuous name.
W stands for Wattie’s, the New Zealand company who canned the baked beans I ate during my downunder childhood and
X is a tricky one so I’ve cheated – X is for TeX-MeX, a cuisine which makes great use of the humble bean.
Y is for the Yardlong bean and
Z is for ZE end.
That’s my A-Z of beans. Now if only I had a big fat bean bag to fall into… I’d be a very happy BEAN indeed.
It’s a bad day in the Epicurienne household if we run out of lemons. Monsieur and I use them for just about everything – squeezed over salads, in sauces for fish and seafood, in lemony vinaigrettes, on spaetzle, on roast potatoes… So imagine my delight on finding gigantic lemons in Italy!
The first time I saw such mammoth citrus was on walking to the car after a steamy day spent exploring the ruins of Pompeii. “eeee” I squeaked, in a fit of excitement, causing Monsieur to stop abruptly. He thought I’d been stung by one of the many wasps hanging around that day. Nothing so painful, I’d simply spied a fruit stand selling the biggest lemons I’d ever seen in my entire life.
To give you some idea of what we’re talking about, the two crates on the bottom right of the photo contain lemons of about five to six inches in length.
“Let’s take some home!” I suggested to Monsieur,
“No,” came his firm reply, “they’re too heavy.” and I’d regretted it ever since.
Then in January, I visited a Taormina grocer to stock up on packs of South Italian herb mixes. On the fruit and veg stand outside the shop were huge artichokes, fire engine red tomatoes, chilli plants and the massive lemons I’d seen at Pompeii, only even larger.
Monsieur wasn’t with me and therefore couldn’t say no. I bought two to take home. As long as it was in my luggage, he’d have nothing to complain about.
In fact, these gargantuan citrus fruit are known as ‘CITRON’ with the most ancient evidence of its existence being seeds found at Mesopotamian sites. Alexander the Great and his army reputedly aided the distribution of this citrus, as did the Romans who sent bushels of the fruit to China as a gift in the 4th Century AD. It’s around the same era that cultivation of the fruit on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily was first recorded.
At home, I carefully unpacked my giant yellow fruit with pride. They were surprisingly light, given their size, something to do with the fact that once open, they’re mostly white pith, with very little flesh.
(Citron on the right with regular lemon on the left to give idea of size)
Unfortunately, my darling citrons had not survived the flight in great shape; they now had a light dusting of white mould, but that wasn’t going to stop me from having fun. After all, I love cheese and cheese is mould.
And so, I chopped them open. The fleshy part was only the size of a regular lemon. The rest of the interior was white pith, but according to my research, this was edible white pith. The flesh was sweeter than a regular lemon, gladly lacking in eye-stinging sharpness. No wonder some folk eat the citron like a grapefruit.
In Sicily, citron are often candied, used to decorate cannoli and other sweets. They can also be added to ricotta cakes or made into marmalades. But the recipe I love best is for Citron Salad.
Remove the outer yellow peel from the citron, then chop the fruit into chunks. Place in a bowl and toss with a sprinkling of salt. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.
(You can prepare oranges in the same fashion for an equally refreshing salad. )
For a variation, once the lemon chunks have been tossed with the salt and olive oil, dollop them onto a bed of watercress, sprinkle with pine nuts and serve. The sweet lemon taste goes so well with the bite of watercress, and the pine nuts add a subtle quality of taste and texture.
Now all I have to do is work out how to get citrons in London. If you know, please leave me a comment.
Leaving Trapani proved a little more troublesome than we’d anticipated, mostly because of the downpour that drenched us minutes after leaving the wonderful little Cantina Siciliana, where we’d refuelled in anticipation of an afternoon packed with activity. Just before the deluge began, Monsieur and I had been happily photographing Trapani’s buildings. We dashed between dripping awnings all the way back to the car where we sat for some minutes dabbing at wet faces with inefficient paper napkins. No, we wouldn’t be going to Segesta today. Greek ruin complexes + rain = mega-uncomfortable.
“So what next?” asked Monsieur, somewhat unhelpfully. You see, Monsieur books the flights and I come up with full itineraries of where we go and what we do, including plan Bs in case of uncooperative weather like today’s. I didn’t really have a plan B. Yet. But in a place like Sicily, teeming with interest and culture (and gelato), how hard could it be to come up with one?
This wasn’t to be as easy as I thought. The nearby town of Erice, on cliffs overlooking coastal Trapani (where we now sat steaming up our car windows for all the wrong reasons), would have been an obvious alternative to Segesta. Our guidebooks raved about a couple of pasticcerie, and strange rituals of ‘sacred prostitution’ once practised in the Venusian temple now buried beneath the castle ruins, made us intrigued to visit. Alas, the best part of visiting Erice, which sits 750 metres above sea-level, is the view. Usually, you can see Erice from Trapani. With the current rainfall, the town was completely obscured by low, grey cloud. There wouldn’t be a lot to see in Erice today, besides which we’d eaten far too recently to take full advantage of the town’s renowned cannoli. In summary? Plan A – abort. Plan B – ditch. Plan C? Crikey. Whatever could we come up with now?
In the end we settled on a drive down the west coast to Marsala, home to the sweet Marsala wine. The drive was unexpectedly interesting, taking us along the SS115, which follows the line of the sea. It is here that the salt with the best reputation in Italy is produced, big, white piles of it lining the road, the salt pans lying flat to either side.
Around this point I started my own game of Count the Ape. An Ape (ah-pay) is a small three-wheeled workhorse of a vehicle much favoured by Italians, especially those in rural areas. The typical Ape is a flat-bed in miniature, with room for one person only at the wheel. En route to Marsala we spotted so many Apes that I had to stop counting. Piaggio, the Ape manufacturer, must really like Western Sicily, and I ‘m sure the local salesman does, too.
It was pouring in Marsala by the time we found our way into the town. Some local chaps at a stationery store kindly helped us do our scratchy parking card, before we set off in search of interest. We were only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, yet getting there took a while in the rain. As we dashed along the side of the Cathedral towards its front entrance, a gush of water from the overloaded gutters above splashed directly onto our heads. Monsieur looked at me with that “Are you okay?” frown, but he needn’t have worried. I was completely sodden now, as was he. All we could do was laugh like a pair of bedraggled hyenas.
The Cathedral itself was a bit disappointing. It was so large and cold that it felt unwelcoming and empty. No, we wouldn’t stay here. Running past the twinkling Christmas tree in the piazza outside, we sheltered in the Caffeteria Grand Italia, in spite of its reputation as a magnet for octogenarians. Apparently all the octogenarians were wiser than we were, sat safely in comfy armchairs at home. A couple of espressi were now required, as was gelato, a small reward for braving the rain.
Once we’d dried ourselves with yet more malabsorbent table napkins, we set off to visit one of Marsala’s museums, but in spite of the posters stating that it would be open, it was firmly closed against us and we were wet once more. So we dashed from shop to shop in an attempt to stay dry. I bought a Tiziano Terzani book in a small libreria, where we were treated like unwanted foreigners until I asked the right question about the right author. Then the shop clerk couldn’t do enough to help me.
The next shop clerk we came across was even more unpredictable. We’d run into a Marsala wine specialty shop, disturbing the sole proprietor who had the malady of mobile phone permanently attached to ear, as shown by the fact that when we’d passed him earlier, he was chatting away and was still now in the state of permanent chat. It must have been a slow afternoon for him because when we entered, he cut the call short and focussed his full attention onto us. Bearing in mind that he looked strangely like Hutch from Starsky & Hutch, only with the deep orange skin of a fake-tan addict, it was difficult to take him seriously. First he tried to steer us away from the Marsala wines which are now owned by big liquor companies, thereby losing their seasonal variance in favour of the supermarket shelf-friendly reliability of mass production. Then he allowed us to taste three or four different breeds of Marsala, feeding us morsels of bread with some of his cupboard wares – tapenades heated in a terracotta bowl over a tealight and a creamy garlic sauce. Our new curly-haired friend was a little too attentive to me, however. He asked me how I knew Italian, so I explained that I’d lived in Venice for a while.
“Ah, Venice. Beautiful place. Have you been anywhere else in Italy?”
“Yes, all over,” I answered,
“So if you love Italy so much, then tell me, how come you are with this Frenchman?” he asked, grimacing unsubtly in Monsieur’s direction.
“Because I love France, too.” I replied, keen to get Monsieur away from perm-head as quickly as possible, in case he’d understood.
We left leery Mr Hutch with a bottle of Marsala, some tapenade and garlic sauce, which we’d started to assemble just before his studliness got out of hand. Paying up we wasted no time in getting out of there. The rain was now subsiding, but we dashed away from that shop and Mr BadFakeTan almost as if the rain were still torrential.
It was completely dark, the roads slick with wet. Now we just had to get back to Palermo. Our map looked straightforward enough, but the route was far from. With a combination of impossible signage, lousy back roads, windy ways and a lack of street lighting, the next couple of hours were to be the most stressful of our Sicilian adventure. When we finally found the way to a decent autostrada, the relief of being back on a well-lit road was truly something else. We wouldn’t be taking the Sicilian motorways for granted again.
For the true grub-loving gastronome, the most fatal by-product of enjoying our food has to be weight gain. Monsieur and I are no different, loving our food as we do and engaged in a constant battle of taste versus calorific content. It was therefore serendipitous to catch a tweet from Quadrille Books, asking for bloggers to review Lighten Up by Jill Dupleix.
I admit that Dupleix’s name was relatively new to me, so for a girl with shelves plural devoted to cookbooks, I have had to ask myself why this is the first of Dupleix’s fourteen books to break into the Epicurienne fold. As I learn more about this seasoned kitchen whiz, I am astounded that her profile isn’t better known in London. I thought it might just be me, so I asked some foodie friends about Dupleix. Apparently, it wasn’t just me. It would seem that unless you’re a regular reader of The Spectator or The Times food columns, you may just have missed this writer, much like I have, and that is what I’d call an absolute travesty of gastronomic proportions. Here’s why.
Dupleix’s website profile tells us that she was born on a sheep farm in Australia, growing up with ‘good, fresh, no-nonsense home cooking’. (This sentence alone makes me nostalgic for the freshness of unregulated Downunder produce). But, in spite of a growing passion for food, Dupleix didn’t enter the realm of the food writer until she’d done a spell of copywriting, encompassing such non-food-related topics as cars and fashion. Then something happened along the way and a passion for food, cookery and restaurants overtook all else. Dupleix first took the mantle of Cookery Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, later moving to London to do the same job for The Times. Nowadays, Dupleix contents herself with freelance food writing and cookbook work, which is a good thing indeed, especially for foodies whose nightmares involve a set of bathroom scales.
Bring on Lighten Up, the latest Dupleix offering, first released in 2007. From the moment I first flicked through this brightly-covered paperback, I was a fan. Then I read the introduction and became a total Jill Dupleix acolyte. Once I proceeded to test the recipes for myself, I started daydreaming about hanging out with Dupleix in her kitchen, making Chawan Mushi.
So what makes this book different from its rivals? For a start, the inspiration. Dupleix has created a more easygoing, lighter alternative to the heavier northern hemisphere diet, which sees altogether too many antipodeans expanding sideways once they’ve landed in the likes of North America or Europe. There is proven, personal inspiration also, in the form of Dupleix’s husband, Terry Durack, a restaurant critic who, through his self-professed love of long lunches, cultivated quite an impressive girth. With the help of Dupleix’s lighter approach to eating, he managed to lose an admirable 38 kilos. Now, with Lighten Up, we can all benefit from Dupleix’s tasty, healthy food and a few lost pounds to boot.
The book’s layout is so easy to follow that even a novice cook would find it difficult to make a hash of the recipes. The instructions are short and written in a brief, bullet point style, starting with the action required for each stage: SEAR, CUT, MIX, ADD, TOSS, TRIM, SERVE. The book is separated into sensible sections, such as Morning Food, Salad Food, Soupy Food, Spicy Food, Fast Food and Slow Food. These are interspersed with snack ideas using bananas, bread (yes, the Dupleix Way even bread-based snacks can be good for you!), Japanese ingredients like nori and miso, and perhaps not surprisingly, tofu. There’s a glossary of terms so you have no excuse for mistaking your tamari for tamarind, and if you’d like to know what kitchen accessories rate high on Dupleix’s list, you will find out in Lighten Up.
That’s the summary, but in practice, what are the recipes like? So far, so scrumptious. I’ve particularly enjoyed the ease of Fast Roast Fish with Anchovies, the Fresh Salmon burgers with dill pickles and watercress and Spring Onion Scallops served in their shells, which were so professionally tasty that friends might think you’d called in the caterers. Grilled Chicken with Salsa Verde has received exacting Monsieur’s seal of approval and I’m happily working my way through the little recipes in the Extras section. But what I particularly love about Lighten Up is that it’s time-friendly to the full-time working woman, allowing weight-loss to be quick in preparation with any sense of deprivation completely eliminated.
Still on food but with a whole different slant, here are some articles by Dupleix:
How I shrunk food critic Terry Durack, where Dupleix talks about transforming her husband from Mr Piggy into Mr Fit
Hollywood audiences must think we never eat, where Dupleix wonders why Great Australians are never seen eating on film
And if you want to try out some fantastic sweetcorn fritters, here’s a Dupleix recipe for you. Oh, boy, I’m actually making myself hungry now.
Lighten Up is certainly a worthwhile introduction to Dupleix, with the tantalising photography by Petrina Tinslay spurring me on to try more and more of the Lighten Up recipes. Next on my list will be Chicken Tortilla Soup with Avocado, Watermelon Carpaccio with feta cheese and kalamata olives and the Crab Salad with pumpernickel crisps. When I’m done with those I just might let have to pop along to Books for Cooks to pick up another of the thirteen Dupleix books I have yet to read. I have a funny feeling that Jill Dupleix will be popping up again on Epicurienne, so if you like her style, watch this space.
When I was about eleven, I started home ec classes at school. My classmates and I then spent the next two years fighting over ingredients in these core classes as we perfected the mangling of simple dishes such as scrambled eggs and kedgeree. The worst part of these classes, however, was post-cooking when we had to sit and EAT what we’d just burned, undercooked or over-salted. At this key time in my culinary development I learned precisely how not to cook in class; conversely I learned how better to cook at home, where I’d help in the kitchen and sit with my mother in front of afternoon TV shows of Julia Child slamming food around her studio kitchen amidst what could only be described as a slightly awkward, inelegant presentation. Part of me loved watching her infectious passion for food and admired the results, wishing she could visit our dated home ec kitchen to inspire our prematurely-jaded attempts at food preparation; another part of me sat glued to the set in awe of the hulking woman who obviously knew her onions when it came to food, but whose booming voice and giant stature were more than a little intimidating. In case you need reminding, here’s a clip of La Child in action:
Cue a bout of Julia Child amnesia, until last year, when I bought Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, written in conjunction with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I’m embarrassed to say that it sat in my ‘to read’ pile for some time until recently, when I quite literally devoured it. Once more, I was mesmerised by this towering doyenne of cuisine as I learned that there was so much more to her own personal history than is first apparent when you think of an acclaimed author of cookbooks. For a start, she wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in her hand, nor could she bake soufflés before she could walk. Au contraire; Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37 years old, when she moved to post-war France with her adored husband Paul. Once there, her love of eating and a fascination with French food led her to the Cordon Bleu school, where she studied food and its preparation. Julia also spent time getting to know the local market vendors, finding the best produce, learning French and experimenting in her own kitchen in an odd apartment on the ‘rue de Loo’, as she called the rue de l’Université. On top of all of the above, the tireless Julia somehow found the time to socialise with Paris-based foodies. She taught, gave dinner parties, helped a couple of new friends with their attempt at ‘cookbookery’, and it is this latter activity that eventually developed into Child’s weighty mega-oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which brought truly French methods and cuisine into the American kitchen and subsequently revolutionised many kitchens all around the world.
This new-found passion for French cuisine changed Julia’s life, but not without hard graft did she become a published household name with her own TV show. I dare not give too much away, as this book is filled with such characters and surprises and inside knowledge of famous restaurants, critics and foods (I yelped with delight at the part where she visits the original Poilâne bakery in the name of breadmaking research) that it demands a reader’s first-hand attention, rather than a second-hand account. However, to whet your appetite, I will say that the complex politics of the time does not escape mention and honest accounts of strain on a workaholic’s interpersonal relationships, a quite unexpected picture of Julia in the bath with her husband and the down-to-earth description of universal frustrations and disappointments can only add to the admiration which Julia fans will feel on reading what she referred to as ‘The French Book’.
My Life in France was the sort of book that pained me to finish. There was only one thing to be done: I’d been bitten by the bug and now simply had to read more Julia. So, as you do, I popped onto Amazon, where Julie and Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell came to my attention. I’d heard of it; in fact, one of my grub-loving friends had recommended it to me; I just hadn’t bought it yet. One click later and the book was delivered to me at the end of last week, just in time for the May Bank Holiday weekend – a blissful three days of Nothing Planned. Julie and Julia arrived with impeccable timing because on commencing to read this book I experienced the startling result of waking up well before I would normally have roused myself on a long weekend. Why? To read The Book, of course, and for once I’m not complaining about waking early. Not at all.
So, every morning for the past three days, as Monsieur slumbered on next to me, my first waking thought was “I wonder what Julie does next?” as I grabbed the book and read as quietly as possible so that Monsieur wouldn’t wake up and disturb this precious reading time. You see, this Julie Powell person had decided on a whim to cook every single one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days. AND she had a full-time job, AND a tiny kitchen AND lived in Long Island City, which isn’t the best place to find some of the more unusual ingredients commanded by such recipes. To call this book entertaining is quite the culinary understatement. Refreshingly, there’s zero pretension. If the aspic doesn’t set or if murdering lobsters keeps Powell awake at night, we hear about it. Some recipes work, others don’t, and at times Powell enlists a search party to track down some strange foodstuff or other. Oh my Heavens, how I am loving this book, right down to the plumbing issues and day job and the strain that an obsession with cooking can place on a relationship.
As veteran Googlers tend to do, I’ve also spent some time reading the Julie and Julia Project blog, which is the unwitting inspiration for the book. There’s also the current Julie Powell blog to salivate over and on You Tube, there’s a trailer for THE FILM (see end of post), starring none other than Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as frustrated cooking-by-night-to-save-own-sanity government agency temp, Julie Powell. Now we just have to wait until it’s released on 7 August (I’m counting the days and if you know someone who can donate preview tickets to this particularly enthusiastic fan, then please please pretty please would you let me know?).
Believe it or not, you can also follow @Julia_Child on Twitter, only it’s not REALLY Julia (unless there’s a new app allowing us to tweet from beyond the grave), because she passed away in 2004, aged an astonishing 91. Following this sad date on the Child fan’s calenday, The Smithsonian was lucky enough to be given her kitchen, copper pans, units, books ‘n’ all and it’s now a crowd-drawing exhibit. (The Smithsonian has been added to my Bucket List. )
So, to sum up, unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that we’re in a mid-Julia Child revival and we just might have former government drone, Julie Powell to thank for that. Personally, I love the fact that courtesy of Powell I’ve now learned what a gimlet is and have added kattywhompus to my vocabulary.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for the film of Julie and Julia:
Following our day spent visiting the islands of the lagoon, Monsieur and I returned to the Fondamenta Nuove and followed the signs to Rialto. Turning down a wide, vibrant street leading to the Ferrovia, or train station, we came across a particularly crowded souvenir shop window. Something in it caught Monsieur’s eye and drew him in like a magnet. It was a gaggle of black and gilt plastic gondolas. His interest surprised me.
“My grandfather had one just like that,” Monsieur explained, “It sat on his mantelpiece. Funny. They haven’t changed in fifty years!”
Crossing the street we walked through turnstiles into the brightly-lit Billa supermarket. Inside was a crowded mess of aisles, but ah, the ingredients in those aisles were worth the struggle. We wandered among the shelves of oils and balsamic vinegars, pastas and grissini, past jar upon jar of sundried, sun-blushed and regular tomatoes to the wall of tinned anchovies with retro labels and the bottles of olives in black or green, stuffed with pimento or garlic or lemon or feta. Had a Venetian genie been in a wish-granting mood, right then and there I would have dropped to my knees to beg him to transport the entire Billa and contents to our London neighbourhood. Monsieur and I ogled the fresh deli section with watering mouths. The array of cheeses and meats was begging to come home with us, but we were restricted to what we could realistically carry without it breaking, rotting or leaking en route.
In one refrigerator we found fresh handmade pasta in little twists, just like the type we’d so enjoyed at Algiubagio, so a couple of packs of that christened our wire supermarket basket. Bulbs of smoked provolone cheese joined the pasta, along with long slabs of Italian nougat for my parents and boxes of Cipster!, a moreish potato snack in bright red boxes. Monsieur marvelled at the wine selection while I stood mesmerised by the olive oils – virgin, extra virgin, infused with chilli, garlic, lemon and basil, in different sizes and shapes of bottle and tin, with labels from all over Italy and (quel sacrilege) Spain and Greece.
Following a last circuit of the aisles, we joined the check out queue, something that’s so universally mundane. As in all supermarkets around the world we stood and waited, shifting the heavy basket from arm to arm, listening to incomprehensible conversations ahead of and behind us. Then, as shoppers do all over the world, we stacked our goods for the teller and packed them into sunshiny yellow Billa plastic bags. Our predecessors in the line were now leaving with their loads of as much shopping as their taut tendons could take. We’d be next.
Out of Billa we went and into a delicatessen along the street. There I found cellophane packs of stuffed olives, Ascoli style, filled with a sausage mixture and coated with breadcrumbs. These are a local delicacy, turning up on platters at all the right Venetian events and normally they have to be ordered in advance so this was a real find. As I paid, the man behind the big glass counter full of yet more cuts of meat and rounds of cheese was incredibly brusque, causing me to wonder if he’d stepped out of his gondola on the wrong side that morning. I smiled at the thought of his big, grumpy self splashing into a dirty canal.
Back in the dark outdoors we turned a corner and I stopped in my tracks. “That’s the bar I dreamed of last night,” I told Monsieur. “You know, the one where we drank Campari, which I don’t even like?” Monsieur raised his eyebrows at me as if to say “you’re nuts,”. Perhaps I am, perhaps I’m not. All I know is that we hadn’t passed this bar until now and even when I was an intern so many years ago, I only visited this part of Venice on a very few occasions. I wasn’t a Campari drinker back then and I’d never set foot in this particular bar, so how on earth did it get into my dream?
Trying not to over-analyse the mysterious machinations of my mind, we walked up Canale Cannareggio in search of La Marisa, the restaurant at Tre Archi which had been so enthusiastically recommended to us by the Guggy interns. It was dark and cold next to the wter, with an icy breeze rushing towards us from the lagoon ahead. Flummoxed, with no discernible restaurant to be found, we trotted up the steps into a toasty hotel reception to ask directions.
“La Marisa? Aaaaah,” came the response. “e chiuso.” It’s closed, the receptionist said with a sympathetic nod, slapping his sides in a sort of Latin defeat. He pointed across the canal at the building which housed the hibernating eatery, its windows dark like a pair of napping eyes. So much for that plan.
As we waited at the TRE Archi vaporetto stop for a boat to chug us back to the hotel, we tried in vain not to watch the only other people in the shelter. The pair were not exactly hiding their raging hormones. With their youthful appearance and sporting the latest in leisure brands, I thought they were a teenage Romeo and Juliet until a flash of gold caught my eye. Wedding bands. The babes in arms were married. So far I’d had offers but I’d never actually taken the plunge myself. I could practically be the mother of this pair of kids now cavorting in the snow. It was a sobering moment.
Back at the hotel, Monsieur and I decided to spend our final night in Venice dining at Algiubagio. It was far too cold to venture further afield for a meal at some unknown quantity of a restaurant, an act we may later regret. No. The Algiubagio benchmark had proven hard to beat.
Now regular patrons we were met again with glasses of prosecco. More importantly, what would we eat tonight? I tried the starter of a creamy cheese called Burrata, garnished with juicy grapes from the lagoon. Each mouthful melted like a cool marshmallow against my tongue, contrasting beautifully with the tart bite of grape. This was the food of my paradise, sending me off into a cook’s own dreamworld. If only I could find this cheese in London, I’d devote a shelf of my fridge to it and it alone.
I moved onto a main course of those delicious fresh twirls of pasta with cherry tomatoes, warm mozzarella chunks, fresh parsley and Planeta olive oil. Monsieur’s enjoyment of the same pasta dish as his starter was evident. “There isn’t enough of it,” he complained with a grin. Having now tracked down some Planeta of our own for Epicurienne’s kitchen, all I can say is you should definitely try it. The taste is like olive syrup, bringing to mind images of olive groves in the height of summer as Mediterranean cicadas chirp in the shade of the trees.
Monsieur’s main was a laid-back pizza capricciosa drizzled with a liberal dose of chilli oil, and disappeared down his throat so quickly that he had plenty of time to spear my precious pasta twirls with his greedy fork, stealing them from my plate. The minute we’d finished, our waiter was back at our sides. “You must try the warm ice cream,” he urged, and we relented. After all, it was out last night in Venice. We could afford to be decadent and on this occasion, it was worth it. The ice cream was a smooth, vanilla semi-freddo, peppered with shards of spicy chocolate. It was sensational. Would we ever regret dining at Algiubagio on all three nights of our weekend in Venice? In a word: never.
Later we lay cocooned in our bed watching TV. News reports focussed on the inclement weather currently washing over the entire boot of Italy. Down in Tuscany the Arno was flooding and it had snowed that day in Milan. Thus, with images of snowflakes floating through my head, I drifted off to sleep that night, wondering if Monsieur and I might see snow on Venetian gondolas after all.