Sometimes when you’re having people round for dinner, you find yourself planning an elaborate and expensive menu because you really really want to impress them. What that actually means is that you really really want them to like you. You think if you cook something absolutely mind-blowingingly complicated and sophisticated then your guests minds will be so befuddled and amazed that they will forget all your perceived shortcomings and will simply adore you for the rest of eternity. You even dream that they will forever refer to “that” meal as the benchmark against which all their future meals will have to be measured against.
Monthly Archives: July 2010
When stuck for meal ideas, one of my favourite ways to find inspiration is to look through Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries. You probably know the book, but if not it does pretty much what it says on the tin: a year in Nigel Slater’s kitchen. The reason I love it is because it’s a month by month and day by day account of seasonal recipes. You can pretty much go to the very day of the month and see what’s good to eat right now.
When I mentioned last week on twitter that I was planning to make gnocchi from scratch for dinner I was met by a surprising reaction. Unbeknownst to me, gnocchi has gained the reputation of being a big fat ball-ache not worth attempting because it inevitably ends in total disaster. Just check out the response I received from the twitterverse when I happily tweeted that I was off to make gnocchi from scratch.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m mildly obsessed with Italy (!), so when Bertolli invited me to an evening with Gennaro Contaldo I assented without a moment’s hesitation. As well as being a very successful, talented and well-published chef in his own right, Gennaro is the mentor and friend of our nation’s sweetheart and my cooking heart-throb, Jamie Oliver (who I am also mildly obsessed with). I was in, for shiz. The evening was billed as an Italian Cookery Workshop, so I was excited to see a little bit of Gennaro in action, get some tips and maybe a little taster too.
One of the things I love most about holidaying in Italy is cooking and eating at “home” in the villa. Frequent trips to the local supermarkets give you ample opportunity to be inspired by and experiment with the local produce. Whilst eating out gives you lots of ideas for recreating or rethinking dishes on your own terms back at the villa. On this trip to Puglia we pretty much did a one-night-in and one-night-out routine, and actually some of the meals we ate ‘back at the ranch’ were exceptional. Following on from the theme of pure and bold flavours, we generally kept the meals simple: penne arrabbiatta one night, spaghetti vongole another, and perhaps one of my favourites (but stupid idiot me forgot to take photos) was the calamari followed by spaghetti puttanesca. Beautiful.
I’ve been to Italy dozens of times. My family (my entire family) is completely obsessed with the place and we all dart off there at any given opportunity. Being quarter Italian, my siblings and I have always felt a really strong affinity to the place. The food we ate at home had a strong Italian influence (my mum’s lasagne is still everyone’s favourite meal), which has carried through to my own cooking (as you may have noticed). As a child a holiday to Italy would have had far more sway than a trip to Disneyland or the beach. Some of my fondest memories are set against a backdrop of the rolling valleys and tumbling towns of various parts of Italy. And the connection always felt all the more real to us because of our much beloved grandma, who had a strong Italian accent until her dying day. We loved to be told off by her (lots of “mamma mia” and “manage”) in Italian and to hear stories of her childhood and look at beautiful pictures of her in the old country. My grandma grew up in Sorrento on the picturesque Amalfi coast and, although we’ve been there a few times, it is now so full of American and European tourists that it’s impossible to imagine life there in the 40s and 50s before the hoards descended. We can try to replace the throngs with the black and white photos in our minds, but somehow the loud and rude tourists break through and shatter the image. Puglia on the other hand is so wonderfully bereft of tourists that I finally felt like I had experienced something of the real Southern Italy.