1. Southern Italian wine dinner at the Chequers Inn.
Last week I ventured out into the Yorkshire countryside on a snowy night to attend the first southern Italian wine dinner at the Chequers Inn, Bilton-in-Ainsty. This lovely, cosy pub is tucked away in a small village on the way to Wetherby and was offering a fabulous five-course menu complete with matching wines from the lesser-known southern regions of Italy. A platter of goat’s cheese fritters rescued us from the outside chill, along with delicate morsels of fig wrapped in parma ham and asparagus wrapped in leeks. Why have I never considered deep-frying balls of goat’s cheese before? They tasted like creamy, gooey clouds of joy.
We devoured them with a lovely glass of Paolo Sacchettos Fili Prosecco from the Veneto region, and Gary, a sommelier from the Chequers’ wine supplier, Hallgarten Druitt, talked us through the provenance of the wines. To accompany our starter, we had a delicious Verdeca ‘Falo’ San Marzano white from Puglia, produced by a very young winery where the grapes are touched by the breeze from the ocean, resulting in crisp, apple notes. It paired beautifully with a seared fillet of sea bass on shredded celeriac, fennel and chicory slaw, complementing the fresh, buttery flavour of the fish. For our main course, we were presented with gigantic slabs of succulent, melting braised beef shin in a rich, dark sauce, accompanied by thick, pillowy herb gnocchi and the most beautiful focaccia I think I’ve eaten, with a tender moist crumb and a salty, oil-rich crust. It was totally unnecessary, mind you, as each portion of beef would easily have fed two, but I was glad of it when I wanted to scoop every last morsel of sauce out of the bowl and into my mouth. The accompanying wine, Tareni del Duca Nero d’Avola, from Sicily, needed such a bold dish to cut through its tannins: the skin of the Sirah grapes thickens in the hot climate of Sicily resulting in a more tannic wine, and its ageing in oak for 18 months accentuates the bold, bramble fruit flavours.
My favourite wine, though, was the gorgeous Passito de Pantelleria, also Sicilian, which involves blending the wine with raisins before a second fermentation, giving it the most beautiful sticky, molasses-scented dried fruit flavours. We had it with a light, airy panna cotta and sweet stewed plums; it’s often quite hard to pair wine with delicate creamy flavours, but this was beautiful (that said, I could have drunk the wine just on its own and been happy). Finally, a plate of Dolcelatte, Pecorino and Taleggio cheeses with crispbreads and a fruit relish; I managed a morsel or two of these, despite my unnecessary focaccia consumption, just so I could try them against the Rubrato Aglianco DOC, a wine from Campania that is bottle-aged and rich in tannins, so excellent with a strong blue cheese like Dolcelatte. I’m not very familiar with the wines of southern Italy, and it’s a region I’ve long been keen to visit, so hearing a little about these wine producers and accompanying them with some classic Italian flavours was an excellent way to spend an evening. Keep an eye out for future wine nights at the Chequers – it’s a lovely atmospheric country pub and well worth a visit (their regular food looked and smelled very good too!) Many thanks to the pub for inviting me to such a lovely occasion.
2. Home-smoked duck breasts.
Last week it was salmon, now I’ve gone smoke-crazy for duck. On the rare occasion I could afford it, I’ve enjoyed sliced smoked duck in cold salads, perhaps with a few figs and rocket and a pomegranate dressing. Home-smoked duck breasts are on another level completely. For starters, you can crisp up the skin before smoking and eat them hot, pink and medium-rare, just as you would a standard cooked duck breast. I expected these rosy, smoky pieces of meat to be delicious; what I didn’t expect was the unbelievable tenderness that results from curing the meat for two hours in a mixture of salt, brown sugar, peppercorns and crushed bay leaves. Not only is it moist and pervaded with that heady aroma of smoke (I used oak chips), but the meat is as tender as butter and so full of juicy flavour, I still can’t quite get over it. I served mine with a salad of chicory, pomegranates, watercress and pearl barley from Diana Henry’s book Roast Figs, Sugar Snow. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous meal, full of beautiful rose, scarlet and ruby hues. This instagram photo doesn't really do it justice, but I don't have a proper one, so you will have to cope with hipster duck. Sorry.
3. The Honey & Co. cookbook.
I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I’ve been on a self-imposed cookbook amnesty and have only allowed myself to break it recently for this glorious compendium of Middle Eastern recipes. I won’t lie, I bought it because it has quinces on the front, so I absolutely judged it by its cover, but where food is concerned I think you’re allowed to do that. I used up nearly an entire packet of post-its marking out the recipes I want to try, and I’ve already made the muhamra (roasted pepper, walnut and pomegranate molasses dip), cumin and mushroom sfiha (a sort of bread pie with ricotta and fragrant mushrooms), cauliflower shwarma (unexpectedly incredible: slow-cook a whole cauliflower with spices until tender, then smother in tahini sauce, caramelised onions and toasted pine nuts), apricot and pistachio tabbouleh (excellent with the cauliflower), roasted beetroot with plums, walnuts and rose (an odd combination…not so sure about this one, I think it’s the rose, and I don’t really like beetroot much…so I don’t know why I tried it really…let’s move on…), and, saving this mention until last, the slow-cooked beef short ribs with dates and potatoes. This basically involves letting your oven spend four hours producing dark, unctuous, sticky beef smothered in date molasses and cooked in a rich sauce thick with tomatoes, onions and dates, which caramelises around the meat and around wedges of potato until everything is butter-soft, tangy and sweet. It requires ten minutes of hands-on time, which is almost unbelievable considering how bloody delicious it tastes. It’s ridiculously good. I love this book, the stories behind the food, and the devourable nature of all their recipes – so much more than your standard Middle Eastern fare. Plus, there are loads of quince recipes. Sold.
4. Using things up.
Perhaps it’s the new-year-resolution mentality, perhaps it’s the manifestation of a psychologically-cluttered mind, but I’ve become a bit obsessed with slimming down not myself, as is usual, but my kitchen cupboards. They are full of odd bits of this and that, jars and bottles purchased on a whim from delis or abroad that have never seen the light of day in my own kitchen (scorpion fish pâté? Raspberry vinegar? Red risotto rice?), and fruit, meat and vegetables that I have hoarded in the freezer for that specific recipe and then never got round to making it. So far, this clearout has resulted in a delicious saag paneer (frozen spinach), Christmas pudding ice cream (the leftover ingredient is probably obvious here), cherry and almond cakes (a half-opened jar of cherry jam from two years ago; a bag of frozen egg whites), Thai basil chicken (chicken breasts in the freezer), apple and cranberry breakfast crumble (the last of this autumn’s cooking apples from the freezer and a box of cranberries from November), a labneh, roasted squash and walnut gremolata salad (a sad-looking pomegranate and some parsley stalks from the freezer) and a rather fine pear and quince crumble (a languishing quince and the leftovers of a jar of quince jelly). The best part is that none of it has tasted like leftovers whatsoever, and I’ve enjoyed my meals twice as much when they’ve been accompanied by a liberating sense of de-cluttering the kitchen. I’d really recommend it both for your kitchen and your sanity.
5. Fresha bags.
I admit, I can’t read/type the above without thinking of first-year university student banter, but don’t let that put you off. These are a godsend for someone like me, who practically cries if she has to throw food into the bin, and will sometimes endanger her own health by eating out-of-date ingredients rather than letting them 'go to waste'. Apparently the average family wastes nearly £60 a month on food, a figure I can’t even conceive of (does it not hurt people to throw half a cabbage in the bin?!), so these are designed to help alleviate this.
Using a blend of minerals, the bag slows down the natural ageing process of food and prevents bacteria forming on fruit and vegetables. It’s supposed to keep food fresher for 25% longer. The only way to empirically test this would be for me to put two fruits or vegetables of identical age into the fridge, one within a bag and one as it is, and keep a close eye on their ripening process, making daily comparisons. Unfortunately, I have a job, and therefore haven’t had time or inclination to do such a thing, but they do seem to be working. I find them best for things like salad leaves or delicate greens, which go off in the blink of an eye (also in that category: pears, avocado, bananas). You just put your food in, seal with a clip or tie or similar, and put them in the fridge or cupboard - wherever you would normally store them. They come in bags of 20 for £3.99, are a good, large size, and you can re-use them (as long as they’re clean and dry), so pretty good value for money if it will save you the angst of having to throw out that half-head of broccoli or old apple. You can’t put a price on that peace of mind.