What to do when you’ve too much yoghurt…

I shouldn’t succumb to BOGOF offers. I inevitably end up with too many of something or too much of something, and a general inclination to give the extras away. My new resolution is to practise restraint and moderation in the face of offers that are too good to be true (and designed for families of 18 anyway). But in the meanwhile I checked the dates on my bulk buy of yoghurt and discovered that two large pots were on the edge. So what could I do? Make more yoghurt, obviously, but I already had too much (curse you and your buckets of amazing Greek yoghurt, Lidl). Then I remembered. I’d not made it for ages.

Yay! Soda bread!

Once upon a time there was a little local dairy near here, run out of an extension to the owner’s house. However, that closed some time ago and since then I’ve not been able to get buttermilk. But you can use yoghurt instead, and in the face of the yoghurt lake I decided not to be a purist. And the result was – well, though I say it myself, yummy. One thing, though: take the yoghurt out of the fridge about 30 minutes beforehand.

SODA BREAD
500g wholemeal flour (or half wholemeal, half spelt)
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
400g plain yoghurt
and maybe a little milk.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan / GM 6.
Mix the flour, bicarb and salt thoroughly. Then add the yoghurt, and a little milk if necessary, and mix it all together with your hands until you have a soft but not alarmingly sticky dough. Knead it a little, gently, and then form it into a round loaf on a baking tray. Cut a deep cross in the top.
Bake it in the oven for 45 minutes, but check it after 35; it may be ready. If it sounds hollow when you tap on the underside, it is.

Eat it on the same day or freeze it in chunks; it goes stale quickly. This is generally not a problem…

PS: it’s especially good with home-made – and therefore not too sweet – marmalade. Nom.

I’m back – with reservations….

What a funny old year. I know, I know, it’s been forever since I posted, but there’s a reason. Well, there are many – being inundated with work, having all sorts of things to keep up with on behalf of clients, etc, etc. So much, so no excuse really. But I do have a better excuse: this is a food blog, and last year I developed something that stopped me eating what I wanted. LPR: laryngeal pharyngeal reflux*. Lovely.

It started, I think, with a bug. That was not helped by a dodgy hog roast and/or a half of dirty beer. I know, I know again: at a festival or whatever, drink beer in bottles or cans. Yeah, right.

I was not well.

To avoid increasing my problems I had to trim my diet right down. Plain rice was fine, mashed potato was just about OK as long as there was no milk (I’m lactose intolerant anyway) or excessive fat. The same applied to cold meat, and I generally ate cold chicken; I knew beef would be too fatty and ham, good ham, just needed too much delicious fat trimming off. All fried food was out, and boy did I get fed up with scrambled egg. In fact, if I never scramble another egg I’ll be happy.

I drank loads: water. Coffee was out. Alcohol was unthinkable. Some herb teas were OK though – camomile, fennel. Pepperminty things were out.

Anything acidic was out. Anything with oomph – lots of onion, garlic, chilli – was out. Fruit? Even my beloved apples were out. I’d got lots of purée in the freezer, the result of the usual glut,

but no. Bananas? One a day. Maybe. Depending. What kept me semi-sane, hilariously, were chewy sweets – wine gums, pastilles, that sort of thing – and chewing gum, but not mint varieties. This does not an exciting food blog make. Oh, and eating out was a no-no. Or a complete nightmare.

Come October and I was down in London, still being very careful (such a waste). We strolled round the warehouses at Spa Terminus (nobody goes to Borough Market these days, ho ho); I tested nothing. We went out for dinner. I had the plainest dishes on the menu, and water. I wanted to buy something to eat on the journey back to Wales, and in the whole of Euston could not find anything my stomach could tolerate other than a tube of Rowntree’s Pastilles. Boring, boring, boring.

LPR does, however, eventually go (I’m having a mini flare up at the moment, again prompted by a bug that’s been doing the rounds, but very mini and I’m damned if I’m taking the tablets again). In the meanwhile a few things did save my sanity, and one was a miso sauce from a fabulous reader’s recipe I found in the Guardian. I’ve still got the cutting, so I can credit it correctly to Anna Thompson who ran a guest house in Kyoto with her husband. I adapted it for my needs and quantities, and this is my version. You need a small jar with a lid you can seal (don’t ask me why I’m putting so much stress on the seal; let me just say that cleaning ceilings is awkward at the best of times).

3 tsp miso paste
4 tsp olive oil
3 tsp rice wine
2 tsp clear honey
1 tsp shoyu
grated fresh ginger to taste

Put all the ingredients in a small jar with a decent lid (see above). Shake violently to combine; if it’s a bit thick, let it down with a very little water. Then use it as a dressing – for a salad, for crunchy oriental greens or, as frequently in my case, for plain rice.

The original also includes crushed garlic, but I couldn’t handle that raw. I can now. Yippee!

 

*LPR is a variety of acid reflux, sometimes called ‘silent reflux’, marked by constant coughing and throat clearing and hoarseness from damaged vocal chords, as well as the lovely feeling that you’ve got something stuck in your throat. It’s often the result of some infection, as with me. Happily it usually clears up with treatment, and usually doesn’t result in complications; unhappily, the treatment ‘requires larger doses of medication for weeks to months’ than normal acid reflux. And I didn’t get on with the drugs.

 

In praise of chocolate

Ages ago, when I first moved here, I felt deeply deprived. I had a chocolate problem.

Coffee, anyone?When working at home – and I often was – I had developed a ritual. I’d been used to getting a bar of wonderful, amazing, sensational dark chocolate and having a piece every lunchtime with my scary Costa Rican high-roast coffee (made in a Bialetti on my gas hob, of course).

Then I  moved. The hob went (no gas here), the Bialetti went (ridiculous waste of electricity, even on the smallest ring), the coffee stayed thanks to the Algerian Coffee Stores’ mail order, but I had a chocolate difficulty. Cadbury’s Bourneville did NOT cut it.

It didn’t take long for my assumed metropolitan attitudes to drop away (a relatively rural upbringing soon reasserts itself once you’re back in a place where you can get lambing ointment more easily than lemongrass). Soon a coffee roaster opened up locally – Poblado Coffi’s roasts are a great substitute for my ear-zinging, head-tingling Costa Rican blend – but I still missed the chocolate. The Bourneville experiment was not repeated.

Dolgellau market

Then I discovered a local chocolatier, Cathryn Cariad, and particularly her bars (dark chocolate with sea salt and lemon, using Halen Mon salt, natch, and – nom double nom nom – with blackcurrant and liquorice). She pops up at the farmers markets I go to in Dolgellau and Porthmadog, and she is good. She is very good. I will happily kill for her salted caramels, but when I popped into Porthmadog market she had a surprise for me. Umami. Yes, umami-flavoured chocolate. It’s under development, as they say, but my goodness it was good.

UmamiThe umami flavouring comes from another farmers’ market regular, Cynan Jones, The Mushroom Garden. That’s also local, and also making quite an impression away from here too: selling – for instance – the umami flavouring through Booths supermarkets. I may not have access to an extraordinary range of choices, but I think that is more than made up for by the quality of what I do have, and by the wonderful community spirit that affects the food producers in this area. I’m sure it’s the same for many others, and many other areas, but the close collaboration here is particularly effective.

And it’s almost time for the Dolgellau market again – it’s dormant in January and February. I’m hoping the umami chocolate will be in full production, and then I can try it out in savoury dishes (as well as by itself – delicious, lovely long finish). Apparently it’s stunning!

 

Twelve Miles?

I’ve been bad. I’ve not been keeping Twelve Miles up to date; I have allowed myself to be distracted by things like work. Shocking.

But it has given me a breathing space, time to think about what I want to do and – possibly more crucially – how I can make sure I motivate myself to do it, even in the face of writing and editing jobs that make me want to do something, anything, rather then sit in front of my MacBookPro once the (hopefully soon to be) paid-for work is done.

I have a plan which I will reveal in the New Year, when I am also going to redesign the site. I might come back to this format or, then again, I might not. Who knows?

And in the meanwhile,

HAPPY CHRISTMAS / NADOLIG LLAWEN

and, for any gardeners, have fun with deciding what you’re going to grow next year!

beans

Work, summer and scribbling in cookbooks

What a summer. I had no idea, when I wrote the last post about Dylan’s in Criccieth, that I would be working flat out until the end of September. Not a clue. If I had done, I think I’d have drunk rather more wine…

The rate and extent of work hasn’t just meant that I’ve been a bad blogger. It means I’ve not been quite as committed in the kitchen either – no, I haven’t been forced down the ready-meal route (read the ingredients on 99.9% of supermarket ready meals and you’ll understand why not), but I have been falling back on standards that don’t require much thought any more. Potato salad with sausage? Tick. Pasta with fresh tomato sauce? Tick. Courgette risotto? Tick. And I’ve managed to keep up with breadmaking, though the Flour Quest I planned this time last year didn’t happen. Fell back on reliables there too, and that means using Bacheldre’s Strong White Unbleached Stoneground. Now the work is lessening and it’s soup time again – in the words of Jon Snow and just about any member of House Stark, possibly including the dire wolves, ‘winter is coming’.

Over the summer there was one food-related debate which did make me stop and think quite a bit. It was sparked off by Prue Leith, who asked ‘Whatever happened to serious cookbooks?’ in an article prompted by the imminent-then return of Bake Off. Her theme – essentially and crudely summed up – was that the ‘look of the book dictates the sale’. Someone else divided cookery books into ‘pretty books which you look at, food porn’ and ‘ones you actually use which are covered in gunk’. Personally, I don’t think I’d go so far as to suggest such a deep chasm – I’ve used Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem quite a bit, and that’s surely one of the most beautiful of the relatively recent crop.

pastabilityOn the other hand, and if you can go by the sheer amount of graffiti (‘THIS DOES NOT WORK!‘, ‘don’t use purple cauli, goes vile colour’, ‘not good, weird taste, threw out‘, ‘GO EASY ON THE ****** YOGHURT’, ‘Brilliant, VG!!!!!!’) and food staining, my most used books do seem to be unillustrated, practical, apparently as dry as dust or too specialist to a non-foodie eye, and not that recent.

This, for instance, is the somewhat sticky recipe for pasta tubes with chicken, cream, mushrooms, mustard and Gruyere from Pastability by Lizzie Spender, published in 1987. It got me through a relatively impoverished period when I none the less needed to entertain, and I’m very grateful to it.

Or take Lindsey Bareham’s brilliant 1993 book, A Celebration of Soup, which I’m actually using right now to help me riff on a beetroot recipe. That’s a bit cleaner (I’d moved out of a studio and into somewhere with a bigger kitchen at just that time) but equally annotated. And I’ve used it so much that I’ve split the binding. The beetroot soup, by the way, is delicious. Delicous with knobs on.

Sometimes parts of recipes are underlined with ‘eh??’ written by them where there’s been a bit of an editing shortfall (‘whaddya mean “bring back to the boil”? Never said boil it in the first place!!!) and sometimes there’s been nothing to underline, which is emphasised by the comment ‘WHAT COURGETTE? How much courgette? Where’s the fecking courgette?’ to quote one of my entries in another book by an eminent (and anonymous here) authority.

Prue Leith seemed to be stressing that the rise of the telly chef was almost killing off the serious cook book, but I would argue against that – or I would some of the time, ahem. One of my most used books is an early illustrated TV tie-in, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery, published in the same year as Pastability. My graffiti habit continues here, sometimes with big circles round parts of the text such as ‘the mixture should be very moist’ which I have annotated with ‘not too moist; it doesn’t thicken that much’, and sometimes with general comments like ‘yum!!!’. And I still annotate / deface / scrawl on books: Jerusalem, for instance, tells me that I really liked the hummus recipe and its addition of ice-cold water (‘WORKS!’) but that I prefer it with ‘more lemon/less tahini’. And it also tells me that there are editorial whoopsies (‘what “remaining herbs”???’) and notes how I adapted recipes (‘too long for fresh broad beans from the garden; add at the end of cooking’). These pages are much less sticky, but that’s just because I’ve grown into a bigger kitchen and no longer have to prop my recipe book against the wall by the stove.

Hmm.

So, basically, Prue, I don’t think I am using one type of book more than the other. Maybe it’s a generational thing? I grew up as a cook with brightly illustrated books; though I did buy Elisabeth David in Penguin paperbacks, I don’t remember cooking anything from them, though I loved reading her evocative text. In my case I think the heaviest graffiti in the unillustrated books – as in Soups – are often because I’ve just been using the book for longer. Give me another couple of years and I’m sure Jerusalem will be covered in scribble. Hopefully not quite as sticky as Pastability, mind. And here’s a reminder of the earlier form of illustrated book:

OMG

AGH!

A great way to spend a Sunday evening: Dylan’s, Criccieth

There were rumours this was happening for some time. Whispers, vague speculations, gossip. But if we believed everything we heard, all sorts of things would be true that patently are – well, rubbish. However, these rumours became more concrete – almost literally. Dylan’s, the restaurant beloved of those lucky people in Menai Bridge, was coming to Criccieth.

And in what a building.

Dylan's Criccieth

It looks Art Deco, but it was actually built in 1954 – it’s a typical Clough Williams-Ellis design, in that it’s a classy pastiche. It was built as a cafe, but not one like Dylan’s; in fact one of the owners in the early days was Billy Butlin, and people staying in his holiday camps would come for tea dances; after that, it was rented out. It’s listed (grade II), and it is indeed made of concrete.

As soon as we knew Dylan’s were taking bookings, we rang and got in as early as we could – you’ve got to test these exciting developments – and so we piled into the car yesterday evening and set off for our supper. An hour’s drive, yes, but we knew it would be worth it (the Menai Bridge branch has been well, er, researched).

ready and waitingWe were booked in quite early, and when we arrived the place was almost empty, allowing us to have a good look around. It’s a delightful, airy space, with full-height windows giving an magnificent view of the sea and lots of light. The restaurant seems very spacious and I suspect it will continue to do so, however frantic it gets at the height of the season.

Almost empty though it might have been when we arrived, it soon filled up – it was fully booked, in fact, as a few speculative ‘walk-ins’ were being told. The service was – no surprises, given past experience – great: efficient, friendly, chatty without being intrusive. The major problem was deciding what to have. Pizzas (such as the Menai Strait, with lobster and scallops)? A burger (maybe the felafel burger, with its sourdough bun, chunky chips, relishes and pickle)? Mussels (perhaps the Drunken Mussels, steamed in Welsh cider, with leeks and bacon)? A lobster salad?

We eventually went for other things. After all, we can come back and check out the pizzas and burgers – and indeed everything else – quite easily now. So I started with Gravadlax, salmon which had been cured for 48 hours in beetroot and gin, and which was served with a potato salad, including lots of fennel (I thought I detected dill instead, but it may just have been very strong fennel). Beautiful.

I follDylansowed this with a Ceasar Salad. I know it may seem boring, but I reckon that’s a good test: the dressing, the quality of the chicken and the Parmesan, even the lettuce – I’ve had some horrors over the past few years. This was a good one. In fact, this was a very good one. The chicken was perfect, and there was plenty of it – another good test: one anaemic, tasteless slice doth not a Caesar Salad make.

I decided to test their chunky chips too (someone has to do these things), and can report back that they were delicious, and I can also say that the house white was a perfectly respectable Sauvignon Blanc. The others had roast halibut and a hake fillet with a herb and parmesan crust, and were equally impressed – but we were too happily full to test the dessert menu. One for another visit…

Finally – the setting:

Dylan's boardwalk

Imagine this in a winter storm, with a warm and welcoming restaurant to watch it from. Perfect.

Dylan’s Restaurant, Maes Y Mor, Criccieth, Gwynedd, LL52 0HU;
01766 522773 – open 11a.m to 11p.m

 

 

Chuffed to bits by bread!

Sometimes, when you’re bread making, you have disasters. I’ve produced loaves even the birds won’t touch, and others which have been more air bubble than bread. I’ve made loaves which fell apart at a touch (how the heck did that happen?) and loaves I couldn’t get the bread knife to even scratch.

Those days have, due to huge amounts of practice, largely gone. Oh, I can still have my off days – who can’t? Days when I forget to set the timer, get distracted and have no idea how long the bread has been in for; days when I even forget that the timer exists and am only alerted to imminent disaster by the acrid smell of bread burning. Then there are days when I get everything set up and forget one vital thing. Like whether or not I’ve got enough starter.

I set everything up on Sunday and then looked at the Le Parfait jar in which my starter was sitting, allegedly ready. Only it wasn’t. I’d made the mistake of using almost all of it, and had then had to revive it big time. I’d thrown away most of the first revival – very watery – and done the second. I really needed to do a third, but I was also out of bread and out of fresh (or dried) yeast. And there wasn’t very much of the starter anyway, not if I wanted to keep some back and avoid making the same mistake again. But what there was did look quite lively.

Brilliant BreadThe inspiration struck – I thought I’d seen something in James Morton’s excellent book Brilliant Bread. And I had – a basic formula for a sourdough. One I could adapt to whatever quantity of starter I had available. So I got the scales, found a clean bowl, found the calculator, found a pen, found some paper, had to find the calculator again… but it was worth it.

Essentially the formula is 2 parts white flour to 1 part starter. Easy. I had 160g starter (measured out in my clean bowl), so I needed 320g flour.

Then I had to work out the water I needed – not quite as straightforward, but simple once you realise that the starter can be assumed to be 50:50 flour and water. You need 75% of the total weight of flour, so my starter could be assumed to  contain 80g flour – with the 320g, that made 400g. Three-quarters of 400 is 220g of water.

Made up tepid water in jug, put jug on scales. No idea how much jug itself weighed. Poured out tepid water, replaced empty jug on scales, set scales to 0 (thank goodness for digital scales). Filled jug with tepid water until it weighed 220g.

Salt, nearly forgot salt. Salt should be 2% total flour weight, so 8g in my case. No probelms.

And then I made my sourdough as normal, letting it prove in the fridge overnight. Second prove in the morning, only took about a couple of hours; result? Great – lunching on fresh bread. On the perfect mini sourdough (not so mini, come to that).

Mini sourdough

Obviously I had to adjust the cooking times slightly, but that’s no hassle. And – quite frankly – neither is working out the maths. And the next time I’m faced with a similar problem (OK, piece of stupidity), I know what to do. Find the calculator.

Oh yes. And remember to keep some of the starter back for that next time.

Greengrocer glories

We have a new greengrocer! I can’t quite believe it, but there it was – a man putting up a sign above a shop in Eldon Square, Dolgellau. Did it say ‘greengrocers’? I wasn’t quite sure I’d read it properly, so changed out of my sunglasses and moved closer, risking life, limb and being run over by a 38 bus. Yup: greengrocers.

A couple of days later and I was back in Dolgellau. A friend excitedly told me that the greengrocer had opened, and we popped in after we finished work. I admit that I had to stop myself from going mad, but I did quite well nonetheless:

grocer haul

That’s a huge sweet potato (just under a kilo – really), a magnificent aubergine, a bundle of lemon grass, a bag of French shallots and a couple of onions. No idea what I was going to do with any of them, but I couldn’t resist. Planning? What planning? Moi??

I quite enjoy doing this, buying what looks good instead of buying what I need to make X or Y, and I really enjoy the trawling through the cookery books that follows. I knew that I didn’t want to make such a perfect specimen of an aubergine into a dip like moutabal / baba ghanoush (smoked under the grill and puréed), and nor did I want to lose it in something like a ratatouille or curry, though I do have a lovely dry aubergine curry I make regularly – but this was just too fat and glossy to be used like that. I wanted it to stand out. In the end I based a dish on a recipe from Nigel Slater, with added za-atar, but it was – in my opinion – a bit too oily. I need to work it.

That left me with the sweet potato as the remaining ‘main’ ingredient, and I knew what I wanted to do with that: try and make the roasted sweet potato ‘chip’ work.

The problem is that sweet potatoes are extremely difficult to get to crisp, unlike ordinary spuds. I have read several explanations for why this is, some scientific, some bonkers, some completely barking (I just cannot believe that the phase of the moon at cooking time is critical), some based on vagueness or inaccuracies such as ‘they contain more water’: no, they don’t, not significantly, and it depends on the variety – of both. Moisture is key, however.

There are all sorts of solutions online. I’ve tried some – parboiling, soaking – and have found no difference other than making them worse, but I wanted to try another. If you’ve ever tried making sweet potato chips (or wedges), you’ll know that they generate a lot of steam which does not help them crisp up at all. Some of that needs to be let out. Size is also a factor – the bigger, the less likely they are to crisp up. The edges may burn, but the middles will be really soggy. They’re never going to be like roasted ‘ordinary’ potato chips, but they can be better than I’ve managed so far. I’m not going to say that I’ve cracked it, but I think I’m as close as I’m going to get. Opening the oven door may be counter-intuitive, but…

IMG_2010Now, they need a dipping sauce, something to cut through the sweetness. Greek yoghurt with a little Tabasco stirred in is lovely; a sharp salsa is messy but good; a raita made with grated cucumber, mint and Greek yohgurt is best. Well, for me… and they were served as part of a tapas-style assortment.

Roast sweet potato chips
serves 2

1 very large sweet potato (or 3 or so smaller ones)
2 tsp oil (I used garlic-flavoured rapeseed oil from Blodyn Aur, but olive is fine)
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
a sprig of rosemary
a sprig of thyme
lemon wedges (to serve)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, GM6. Find the biggest baking sheet you have, or get two smaller ones – the sweet potato pieces need to be spread out in a single layer.

Peel the sweet potato and cut it into long slices. Cut the slices into chips, never thicker than 1cm, and a maximum of 4cm long. Toss them in kitchen paper to dry off some of the dampness that the chopping generates.

Put the oil and paprika into a large shallow dish or bowl and mix them together. Add the sweet potato pieces and stir them gently around, making sure they are coated in the mixture. Then spread them out on the baking sheet so that they do not touch – some people have found that lining the tray with baking parchment first also helps, but don’t use greaseproof paper as that keeps the moisture in. Put them in the oven for 10 minutes.

Open the door carefully and allow the steam to escape. Then close the oven and cook for another ten minutes. Take the tray out, turn the chips over if it’s possible to do so without breaking them, and scatter the herbs over them. Return the tray to the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper – oh, and if you pile them up in a small dish, they’ll just go soggy again (I know this… ahem).

sweet potato

What next, I wonder? I’m going with the flow and seeing what they have in, and what looks good. For some bizarre reason the selection of fruit and veg at the Co-op in Dolgellau is rather patchy (it’s fine in Barmouth, not that far away), and the Eurospar is the other side of town – not that handy, depending on where you are. But this new greengrocer – Youngs – is slap in the middle, right by the bus stops. Worth supporting!

 

Terrible bad – and the need for free wifi

I’ve been terrible bad, barely blogging here – partly down to our broadband being not so much super-fast as super-dooper-sssslllloooowwww, and partly down to simply working too much on other things.

TH Cafe
T H Café, Dolgellau (photo from Trip Advisor)

Due to the aforementioned broadband running like a snail with arthritis, I have been working quite a bit in a couple of cafés in the nearby towns, and have come to the conclusion that an essential ingredient for a perfect café is free, decent wifi.

Happily my absolute favourite choices, depending on where I am, are generous with the wifi – they are TH Café in Dolgellau and the Llew Glas Deli in Harlech.There are others I use, but generally they fall down on other factors (customer service, ahem), or their wifi is either only free for a limited period of time and/or ensures that you are bombarded with marketing drivel for ever and ever. Making a pact with the devil would be a better bargain than getting ‘free’ wifi from one of the high street chains…

How did this happen? It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote a post about local cafés, in which I went on about decent coffee, customer service, even the quality of the seating. The quality of the broadband barely occurred to me – then. Now it’s crucial. Is it something to do with the fact that I now carry my very own edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in the form of my iPad) everywhere?

It intrigues me, though.

A couple of days ago I sat in one of my favourite cafés and noticed a family of four nearby. It was a glorious day though the wind was a little nippy, but the sun was beating down, the countryside was gleaming with new leaves and the sea was the sort of deep blue you normally associate with the West Indies rather than West Wales. And yet this evidently holidaying family were sitting inside a café, each of them lost in their own mobile device – either tablets or smartphones. It wasn’t just that they weren’t paying attention to the world outside, they weren’t even paying attention to each other. Or the food, either: they could have been served a helping each of slugs stewed in their own juice, and they’d not have noticed. As they left one of the staff wished them a good day, and the mother said that they were going home tomorrow, and how thankful they’d been for the wifi.

I went over to pay myself, and started chatting with the staff (I know them, it’s OK, I don’t always start gossiping to complete strangers). Apparently the family had been in every day for a week, had never stayed less than a couple of hours and sometimes more, had almost never spoken to each other except to order food and drink. It’s been a good week, weatherwise, too. The staff were slightly baffled and so was I – why come to somewhere like Snowdonia for a holiday if you’re not going to get out into it?

This prompted me to ask about the wifi. Could the caff imagine life without it? No need to imagine, I was told – a few weeks previously it had gone down (no surprise there, I think BT believe that if they improve the cables in Wales they’ll just get eaten by dragons). And so had their takings.

So I’m making a plea to us all, including myself. Yes, let’s use cafés with wifi, and why not? But do let’s enjoy other things too. Counryside. Coasts. Our friends, our families. Cakes. Coffee. Or the slug stew will come out. Honest it will.

 

Raving about ribollita

I’m still dealing with the great Snowdonia kale mountain, which looks dangerously as though it’s about to run to seed. So much for my ‘hungry gap’ filler. Better pick it and eat it, then. And I know just what to do with it.

ribollita in progressOne of my all-time favourite ways to use the cavolo nero which grows so well in my garden is in the Italian soup ribollita: ribollita because it’s ‘reboiled’ – cooked one day, reheated and eaten the next. And the day after that.

What am I saying? It’s not Italian, it’s Tuscan. I’ve been doing a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers.

There are four constants: kale or dark cabbage, some sort of dried or canned bean, olive oil and bread. One person’s nonna used potatoes; another thought that putting them in was a crime. Someone else refused to believe that you could have a ribollita without the addition of sausage. The identity of the beans caused a debate too: borlottis, or cannellini beans? What about tomatoes? Obligatory, or an offence?

So I turned to my collection of recipe books, and found an equal variety. One has a version which includes both potatoes and sausages, and suggests using any white beans, including butter beans. River Cafe have a fabulous recipe which goes for cannellini beans, no potatoes or sausage – only it serves 10. Anna del Conte’s recipe from Classic Food of Northern Italy has chillies in it (cannellini beans; no to sausage, yes to potato, yes to tomatoes). I’ve found another which adds chard and bread to a basic minestrone, and the minestrone has bacon in it as well as pasta and wine (surely not). I’ve found a recipe from another well-known food writer which oddly has no greens. That’s definitely not ribollita, but it may be an editing error.

I give up. But not on ribollita, because if I do give up on that the kale plants will uproot themselves and come marching into the house like triffids. So I’m doing my ordinary ribollita: no sausages, no potatoes, no pasta, no chillies, no wine (well, maybe a splash), no bacon; borlotti beans because I’ve got some in, and tomatoes just because.

Ribollita
serves 4

1 small head of celery
1 tbsp olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly 1-cm pieces
2 small red onions, peeled and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
a good bunch of flat-leaved parsley
250ml passata, or 1 x 400g tin tomatoes, drained and chopped (set the juice aside)
a huge armful of cavolo nero – about 750g untrimmed, 500g trimmed
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans

To serve: good bread – it can be a day old – and more olive oil

Trim the celery well and remove the strings with a knife, then chop the sticks finely. If the leaves look good, finely chop a few of those too and put them to one side. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or pan (with a lid) over a low to medium heat, and add the chopped celery, carrots and onions. Put the lid on and allow the vegetables to cook until soft, but don’t let them colour up. Add the garlic when the vegetables are almost ready; it – especially – must not burn, and then add the parsley and celery leaves (if using), stir them in, and cook everything together for a couple more minutes. Add the passata and continue cooking for another half hour or so – check to make sure the soup isn’t catching during this time; add a little water if necessary.

While the ribollita base is cooking, trim the cavolo nero. Discard any thick stems and, above all, any caterpillars (eek – surely it’s too early!), and then chop it into fine strips – it looks like a vast amount but it cooks down. Drain the borlotti beans and rinse them; put half the tin in a small bowl. Add the cavolo nero and the rest of the borlottis to the ribollita, and then top up with water, but be careful – this is a very thick soup (this is where you can add a splash of wine). Bring the heat up and simmer the ribolitta for 20 minutes or so.

Mash the remaining borlotti beans up with a fork and add them to the pan; cook for a further 10 minutes. If you want to be authentic – and it’s worth it for the depth of flavour – take the soup off the heat and leave it overnight, in the fridge if your house is warm (if you can’t wait, cook it down until the soup is very thick). Check for seasoning before reheating, then cook it until there is very little liquid left. Break up some stale-ish bread and stir it into the ribollita just before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls – it should be too thick to pour easily – then add a good drizzle of olive oil and serve.

ribollita ready

And it’s yummy. Especially on a day like today when the mist is down, the drizzle is persistent and yesterday’s promise of spring was a cruel joke from the weather gods.