A perfect marriage of garlic, wood fired toasted bread, red tomatoes that zing with flavour, unctuous green olive oil with a glass of local red. I could eat it every day!
Lake Fiastra in Sibillini National Park, Le Marche, Italy. The mountains are named after the Sybil who lured people into her fairy cave for evil purposes and the area is filled with Devil’s grottos and ‘witches’ streams. The lake is deliciously cool, trimmed with green trees and white chalk beaches. There is an area of green grass (Le Marche is verdant with clover fields that remain lush even in the heat of the summer) where you can rent umbrellas and sunbeds for a few Euros which seemed surprisingly free of crowds of people. We spent a glorious afternoon reading, chatting and playing with the kids.
We stopped to buy salami and ham on the way home. The mountain air contributes to the wonderful cured meats of the area – pork loin hams, coppe and capocolli, salamis. Other local delights include: Pecorino Di Grotta (matured in caves), truffles, wild mushrooms, chestnuts, lentils, chickpeas, and ancient apple varieties; not to mention the peaches, which are so perfumed I practically swoon when I eat them.
At last, after a total of 19 hours driving ( with stops) we have arrived at our friends farm in the Marche region of Italy. Caroline and Andrea moved from Hackney in London to set up a business running painting holidays at their farm near the town of Camerino, check out their website http://www.paintingholidaysitaly.com Caroline is an experienced artist and teacher as well as being witty and fun, and Andrea is a master craftsman and fantastic cook (he is also witty and fun) what better combo could you get? The farm is set in the hills below the university town of Camerino with stunning views in every direction. Le Marche is my favourite region of Italy, unspoilt by mass tourism with all the beauty of Tuscany but peopled by farmers rather than rich second homers. Here are some early morning views from the house.
Velleron Farmers market is held every evening from 6pm. It’s considered one of the top 100 markets in France for the quality of the local produce all brought in by small producers. After a 7 hour drive from Paris, we stopped to visit my sister and she took us here to shop for supper. What a treat to see such quality food producers selling out of their goods (sold at extremely reasonable prices) no be-ribboned fancy specialty food here just excellent seasonal produce. We came away with crusty (still warm) bread, sausages, fresh cheeses, salads, aubergines, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and delicate chanterelle mushrooms for a few euros. A feast was had.
What to do in Paris with our two girls (9 & 10) in 24 hours (without spending a fortune)? Well, first we arrived and took them for an evening drive around the major sites like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de triumph before dumping the car and heading off for dinner. The next day we started at The Shakespeare Bookshop where we stocked up on reading matter in this extremely child-friendly classic literary hang-out. We followed this with a walk around Notre Dame and along the river. Then onto Luxembourg Gardens for a read, a picnic and a run in the extensive playground. The Pantheon came next, then a short siesta before an evening of window shopping and more food, a classic dinner at L’Ecurie (see previous blog post). Oh yes, and we finished the evening by popping into a little music bar near the restaurant where they allow would-be singers and musicians on an open mike. Musicians played or sung two songs and then it was onto the next. We stayed for an hour or so before meandering home.
The kids thought all the Parisian buildings “looked like palaces and castles” and enthused about the window displays in the food shops. They particularly loved the bakeries and cake shops. There is a Parisian craze (that has been going for some time) for delicately flavoured macaroons which the kids just adore. I think they like the surprise element as you never quite know what flavour you are going to savour as you bite into these little pastel coloured delights.
Our road trip to Italy begins. We stop in Paris for 24hours. A friend recommended L’Ecurie a tiny old style bistro on 2 rue Laplace 5th arr. John has written an excellent and extensive website on Paris restaurants and more, http://www.whitings-writings.com which is well worth a visit if you come here to eat. L’Ecurie has a kitchen the size of three bath mats laid end to end but within that space they manage to fit a wood fired bread oven, a charcoal grill and a gas stove (for the sauces). We ordered the basic menu for 17 euros – country pâté with their own bread and divine aioli, steak and frites, local light wine and creme caramel, the kids had a trio of homemade ice creams (mango,passion fruit & black currant) perfect, unfussy local fare served by a jovial waiter and finished with a free glass of calvados.
We have just been in Scotland for a family wedding, always fun with my husband’s lively Irish/Scottish relatives, held in the garden with the backdrop of the lowland hills. Here’s the hog roast man standing by his prize pig but the best food was served later at 11 – yes you guessed it – haggis, neeps and tatties Haggis ” is a kind of savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours.” Neeps are turnips (but more often swede these days) and tatties, potatoes. Oh yes, I almost forgot, all this is then doused in whisky gravy. A perfect dish to re-energise the guests so we could continue wildly reeling to the kale band ( which was alternated every hour with a groovy funk DJ – fabulous idea). All that offal helped my head the next morning too.
It was our daughter’s 9th birthday yesterday and she asked for roast chicken as a birthday meal, and what a comfort it was on a bleak rainy Sunday. My favourite thing to do to chicken is stuff it under the skin before cooking. The most popular under-skin stuffing recipe, made in restaurants all over the world, is a mixture of butter and chopped herbs but our family use cottage cheese, garlic, lemon zest and herbs; a guarantee of moist, tasty meat and crispy skin with out so much fat. The skin becomes particularly crispy as the stuffing separates from the flesh as it cooks. The herbs I prefer are tarragon, which goes with chicken so naturally, perfuming the flesh and lemon thyme (why use any other thyme!) I also squeeze the zested lemon over the bird, cut it in half and stuff one squeezed half into the cavity.
This alternative stuffing to herby butter has been a recipe in our family for years
125g cottage cheese
20g fresh tarragon
5g lemon thyme (regular thyme is ok too, if you must)
2-3 cloves of crushed garlic
salt and pepper
HERB STUFFED ROAST CHICKEN
- Take a pestle and mortar and GRIND the garlic with the salt, add the, lemon zest and herbs and crush them lightly and SCRAPE the resulting mixture into a medium sized bowl. Alternatively use a garlic crusher to crush the garlic then add the herbs and salt to the small bowl.
- Mix the crushed herbs, garlic and salt with the cottage cheese and set aside.
- Now take the raw chicken, and place it on a large, clean chopping board.
- Get a colander, place the chicken inside it and RINSE the chicken under a running tap of cold water for ONE MINUTE
- Now you have a clean chicken shake off any excess water in the sink, pat dry with some kitchen towel and place it back on the board
- Check inside the chicken for a bag of GIBLETS (neck, liver and heart in a small plastic bag) not all chickens are sold with these but if you forget to remove it, your roast chicken will become a plastic infused disaster area and will have to be thrown out uneaten. So remember to check and REMOVE GIBLETS when you find it.
STUFFING CHICKEN UNDER THE SKIN
- First place the bird on the chopping board with the legs pointing towards you.
- Starting at back, insert your four fingers of one hand, palm side down into the cavity between the skin and the chicken breast meat GENTLY PULL THE SKIN TOWARDS YOU WITH THE OTHER HAND, trying not to tear the skin. Loosen the skin from breast and legs by gently pushing your hand under the skin and against the meat. Use your index finger to loosed the skin around the drumsticks. Remove your hand and turn the chicken around and repeat the process from the neck end also.
- Take a teaspoon of the cottage cheese mixture and using your fingers, gently PUSH the mixture into the pockets under the skin. Remove your hands from the bird and massage it down. Take some more and repeat making sure you get some onto the tops of the drumsticks too. When you have used up all the stuffing remove your hand, place the chicken on the roasting rack, in the roasting tin and tuck any loose neck skin under the bird.
- Take your zested lemon, cut it in half, SQUEEZE it over the chicken and stuff the squeezed half into the chicken cavity.
- Finally, brush or drizzle a little olive oil or melted butter over the chicken. Season with salt and pepper and pop it in the hot oven 220C /GAS 7/425F
- and WASH YOUR HANDS.
I like to crisp up the skin of the chicken in a hot oven to seal in the juices and then turn the oven down a bit for a slower, moister finish. There are many other ways to roast a bird but this is simple and it works. I usually turn the bird on to its breast after the crisp up and then turn it back about half an hour before the end. Finally, I add 3 tablespoons of water/white wine to the bottom of the roasting pan, to start the gravy
Chicken Roasting Timetable with an oven temperature of 220C /GAS 7/425F then turn the oven down to 180C/Gas4/350F
The timings are based on an un-chilled, un-stuffed chicken in an open roasting pan (stuffed chickens take 20 to 30 minutes more).
20 minute hot crisp up then
25 minutes per 500g
so 1kg = 1hr and 10 minutes
REST the chicken for 20 minutes before serving.
To check it is done, take the chicken out of the oven and place it on a heat-safe surface in good light. Taking a knife and fork, gently cut down the join between the breast and the thigh and pull it open a little with your fork. Juice will run out, if the juice is clear it is done, if the juice is bloody then it need to go back in. Check it again in another 10 minutes.
Set the TIMER FOR 20 MINUTES.
- After twenty minutes turn the oven down to 180C/Gas4. Take the chicken out of the oven using oven gloves and place it on a steady heat resistant surface. Using a long handled spoon, baste it, with any juices that have collected in the bottom of the pan. Put the chicken back in the oven set the timer for 30 MINUTES (this is when I turn it over onto the breast). When the timer goes off baste the chicken again and set the timer to the end time of your cooking.
- When ready test if the chicken is done using the method above.
Now remove the chicken to a warm plate, cover it with foil and rest it for 20 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute through the meat. If you eat it immediately lots of the moisture in the chicken will be lost in a puff of steam as you cut into the hot surface of the bird. Just imagine, you worked so hard to get the perfect roast chicken and you have just lost half your effort into the atmosphere. DON’T’ DO IT, LET IT REST. And while you do; you can make the gravy.
- Now WEARING AN OVEN GLOVE AND PLASTIC APRON to protect yourself, (I mention this because my friend once accidentally poured the juices down his front wearing only jeans and it was, as you can imagine, a nasty, painful experience). Take the hot chicken baking tray pour off any fat (pour into a jug as it is easier to separate) pour back the tasty bit into the tray. There should be lots of lemony, herby juices.
- Now transfer to a secure position on medium heat on the hob. Take a long wooden spoon and scrape up any bits and pieces that have fallen from the chicken.
- Stir in 1 tablespoon of flour, stir for the count of 10, add stock/wine, whisk with a small whisk or fork, to break up any lumps = gravy