The Italian Job…
The Tuscan hills bulged like the limbs of a Botticelli woman. The roads delightfully twisted through these curves and I noted to myself that next time when taking a job here I would write in my contract that I needed to do the shopping in a Ferrari. A red one.
The job for the week was to cook for 18 fun loving individuals that had flown in from all corners of the globe to celebrate a milestone birthday. They had taken a large villa plopped reclusively on top of one of these voluptuous hills with only a discreet track lined with Cyprus trees marking its whereabouts. Well that was my sat nav’s excuse for getting confused. With temperatures dallying around 30°C and the prospect of shopping at Italian local markets for a group that were ‘game to eat anything’ I was very much looking forward to my week’s work.
On the first evening, one of the guests bounced into the kitchen just as I had started frying the sage leaves in butter for their saltimbocca to enquire,
“Was I into cocktail making?”
“Indeed I am,” I said.
So with the house being equipped with a full-on professional bar I happily got shaking. Now, I know there is some weird and wonderful mixology going on out there like drinks made from ‘smoked rabbits breath’ or ‘dehydrated Louboutin sole dust’ but whenever I try one of these new concoctions I always wish I had just chosen a classic. With this in mind, the ones I whizzed up during the week were all traditional, including some unashamedly girly Cosmopolitans, zingy Mojitos and very American Long Island Iced Teas.
As always, before the job began I had discussed with the client what they loved, hated and how they wanted the week to be. We got as far as ‘Italian’ and stopped there. This is the perfect job brief for whenever you venture somewhere new you never quite know what you are going find. I have definitely found the best way to plan a menu is to go to the shops/markets, see what looks best and then decide what’s for dinner. As they mentioned they ‘eat anything’ I noted on my first shopping trip that 4th stomach of the cow seemed plentiful, maybe I should try them on my Florentina tripa recipe… but perhaps that was a little daring for the first night.
Anyone who has experienced food shopping in Italy will realise that produce, even in the local supermarket, is generally superb, very seasonal and almost entirely centered around traditional Italian ingredients. It will probably be hard finding ingredients like limes and coriander but there will be six different types of ricotta and five varieties of aubergines to choose from. I’m not sure I would enjoy this pure approach all the time but when in Rome (or Tuscany as it happens) I love it.
By day two I had scoured most of the local shops and sussed out what was looking good so I could plan the food for the weeks main party. The menu was as follows;
Aperol Spritz/ Peach Bellinis
Rosemary arancini with spiced tomato sauce
Fried zucchini flowers stuffed with sheep ricotta, anchovies and pine nuts
Grilled Bream with chili sauce
Fresh Borlotti beans with herbs and balsamic
Grilled radicchio, hazelnut pesto and rocket.
Peach, amaretto and almond tart with salted caramel ice cream
The rest of the week consisted of long lunches, more evening feasts and plenty of swims in the pool (the guests not me). Then all too quickly Sunday came, my bags were packed and the sat nav set for Florence airport. I weaved my way back to the UK and got ready to cook for my next job, a fashion shoot in the Scottish Highlands.
This week’s stats:
Cocktails shaken: 165
Transport: A red Ferrari (trapped in a Peugeot 206 body).
Every home should have: A Sonos music system and a Teriyaki grill.
Borlotti beans podded: 556
Chianti drunk : too discreet to say
Deep fried zucchini flowers with prosecco batter, stuffed with sheep ricotta, anchovies and pine nuts
Serves 4 as a starter
You may think it is extravagant using prosecco in a batter when you could substitute sparkling water but its not like I used a Don Perignon 1995. No, that was a totally different party and recipe….
8 Flowers (As a starter you probably want 2 each)
2 tbs pinenuts toasted and roughly chopped
8 dessertspoons of ricotta
3 anchovies fillets finely chopped
2 tbs chopped mint
zest of 1 lemon
200g self raising flour
1 litre sunflower oil
To serve 2 tbs runny honey
In a bowl mix the stuffing ingredients and season with salt and pepper
Carefully spoon the mix into the zucchini flower heads (A teaspoon works best) then seal back up the flower by pressing the petals to the ricotta mix you just put inside. (You don’t want it bulging with ricotta mix, about 2 or 3 teaspoons for each flower depending on size should be perfect).
They can be left in the fridge all day if prepared in advance but I would bring them out around 1 hour before being fried so they are not really chilled right through.
Make the batter about 1 hour before using by:
In a large bowl add the flour.
Crack the egg in the middle then start adding the prosecco until you have a smooth batter (about the consistency of double cream).
Leave the batter at room temperature until ready to use.
To fry, the oil needs to be about 3 inches deep so if you don’t have a deep fat fryer and are using a saucepan bare this in mind. Heat the oil up to about 190 °C or so that when you drop a few blobs of batter it immediately sizzles.
Get ready a plate ready lined with some kitchen paper and a slotted metal spoon that you can fish the frying flowers out of the oil with.
When the oil is hot give the batter one more quick whisk then carefully fully dip the stuffed flowers in the batter. Pull out of the batter and let the excess drip back into the bowl then carefully slip into the oil.
They will take about 2 minutes to fry and might need gently turning over as they tend to roll onto one side. You can cook about 3 or 4 at once.
Remove from the batter and transfer to the paper.
While still hot transfer to the serving plate, drizzle with honey then serve.