A few years ago, I came across an enquiry in the Gambero Rosso magazine about food trends in London and one whole article was dedicated to a Pub run by the ‘pasionaria’, as they called her, Geetie Singh. Her pub was the first organic gastro-pub in London and if you google it, there is much to be thrilled about – here’s a little quote:
“Welcome to the website of the UK’s first and only gastropub to be certified by the Soil Association. We opened in 1998 and our ethical business ideals remain the same today: we serve delicious organic food carefully sourced from independent producers, while keeping our food miles super-low. In fact, 80% of our fresh produce comes from the Home Counties.”
This pub is located in Angel/Islington and my daughter had just started university in London that year and, being organically inclined myself (even when it comes to cleaning materials in the home), we decided to give it a try. And the place was warm, welcoming, with a nice buzz to it and the food very very good. I determined to photocopy the article in the Gambero Rosso and send it to them. And I did … eh … photocopy the article, that is. I never got around to sending it. Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, i.e. about three years later, when I happened to be in London again. I am one of those people who mean well and want to do 1,001 things … but get around to doing these things within a very long time frame, let’s say.
The article might have been three years old but it was a complimentary one and when I handed it over to Geetie Singh, she was naturally very pleased — and graciously chose to overlook my tardiness and thanked me profusely. My daughter and I had a delicious lunch and I also bought the cookbook “Recipes from the kitchen of the Duke of Cambridge Organic Pub” written by Geetie herself and her chef Sara Berg. I was very smiling-within amused to discover that the chef is Swedish … since I am half Swedish myself!
Back to Italy a couple of days later, I had to cook a dinner for about 14 people … a get-together for my husband’s liceo school friends who had not had the chance to meet, all together like this, in over four years.
All in our fifties now, we somehow retain an adolescent esprit and can get quite vocal and frolicky when grouped together again … so I immediately discarded the idea of a sit-down and opted for a buffet meal. That way, people are free to roam around and re-connect in an easy manner … not that dinners in our home are ever formal, sit-down or not.
Now, most Italians tend to be somewhat conservative about their food — you just can’t plonk down anything in front of them any-old fashion, they prefer a re-assuring sequence: an antipasto, followed by a ‘primo’ (pasta), followed by a ‘secondo’ (a main dish or either meat or fish).
I decided that I was going to make things easy for me and serve all kinds of room-temperature dishes and salads and veggies as a antipasto/primo combo and serve pasta as a secondo. And since it was a Friday, I was going to be guided by the Fish-on-Fridays rule of thumb. Easy peasy.
Having said that, however, I also had to make sure that all dietary contingencies were covered by my menu. Inviting people over for dinner, and cooking the meal itself, are both a pleasure. The worry, instead, is whether any guest will be: a) on a diet, b) intolerant to dairy products, c) intolerant to gluten, d) intolerant to tomatoes and spinach (very common), e) vegetarian, f) antipathetic to fish or to shell fish and g) not like cheese or vinegar.
Let me translate: this means that at any one meal, one has to serve pasta because nearly everyone adores pasta except for people who are gluten-intolerant and those on a diet. So substitute rice for the latter. Serve cheese and egg-based dishes for vegetarians so that they get their protein. Serve everybody else meat or fish. And serve a selection of vegetables because people are very picky about which vegetables they like. Fussy? No no no no …. no one is fussy entire of himself or herself. It’s only at a gathering that this fussiness rises to the surface.
Pazienza, as the Italians say, patience … when faced with such an ordeal, why not look to pub grub for the meal?
I looked to Geetie Singh’s Duke of Cambridge pub grub for inspiration and copied one of the dishes I had eaten there: a delicious salad made up of mackerel, beetroot, pear and wild salad leaves. I don’t know what was in her dressing, I put oil and balsamic vinegar on the table and told guests to make up their own. There is no point in dressing a salad in advance, it will only wilt and look awful (a) and (b), not everyone likes vinegar on their salad, some prefer lemon, and I for instance like neither … just a drizzle of olive oil.
It got a bit busy for me that evening and so the following are the only photos I managed to take. The table looked like a carneval of ceramics … all the dishes were of different patterns, it didn’t matter … it made us all think of Spring and its budding colours.
This salad is called “insalata di campo” (meadow salad – wild, in other words) and is a mixture of salad leaves including rocket, dandelion, baby spring onion, tiny chicory leaves, and is available only around this time of year, with a very distinctive strong taste. I boiled some fresh mackerel until just done, skinned and deboned the fish, and seasoned it with olive oil, salt and pepper. I cut up 3 beetroots and 2 pears — and threw everything together. The pear went beautifully with the strong taste of the mackerel.
Here is some buffalo mozzarella, cut it up into thick slices. I kept the liquid it came in and poured it into the ceramic bowl to prevent the mozzarella from drying up. On the side, I had a little glass jug with olive oil in it as well as lemon zest and tiny squeeze of lemon juice to dress the mozzarella. Lemon is not considered a ‘normal’ dressing for mozzarella and I can’t say I was surprised to see that no one used this dressing on the actual mozzarella! (Some used it, instead, to dress the mackerel salad.) When it comes to proper buffalo mozzarella, I too can be a purist and just it eat it as is … with just a tiny pinch of salt.
A platter of carciofi (I have already written two posts this month on how to make these – see “Edible Roses”).
A typical and humble, fresh borlotti bean salad. I boiled the borlotti for about half an hour (they were fresh – had they been dry, I would have had to soak them for 10 hours first and boil them for at least 1 hour). After draining them and allowing them cool, I dressed them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar — not balsamic, it wouldn’t work for this recipe. I thinly chopped 3 celery stalks and added them to the salad, together with some tender celery leaves. It is usual to add wafer-thin slices of onion to this salad … but it’s not to everyone’s liking and can hamper the art of kissing later on in the evening. How does the ditty go? “Beans, beans are good for the heart, the more you eat, the more you” …. dart about feeling healthy. The simplicity of this salad is inversely commensurate with the wonderful taste it imparts. I used some leftover beans the next day to make pasta e fagioli …
I also boiled some asparagus and made mayonnaise as ‘their’ dip I’ve been make home-made mayo for years now, in a matter of minutes …. trust tonight to have been THE night the mayo went crazy on me. I ended up having to use something like 10 eggs in the end before getting it right. But it was worth it … nothing like fresh, luxuriously rich mayonnaise on asparagus. Those two small, empty little bowls are what I used to serve the mayonnaise in.
This is what the oval dish looked like before filling it with the asparagus … and there is one of the baby bowls filled with some mayonnaise. Don’t you just love how golden it is!
And here is a very large ceramic bowl filled with couscous that was cooked in the liquids emanated by the mussels and the clams. Seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, and lemon juice, I made something very similar on Christmas Eve last year (see the January post).
A platter of potatoes and wild greens called ‘ramoracce’ here in the Castelli area near Rome … although proper Italian for them is ‘ramolacce’. I will write a separate blog about this dish.
A dish of porchetta from Ariccia to keep our carnivores happy — as I said, not every one likes fish.
I also served some fresh ricotta cheese and some primosale cheese with wonderful breadsticks brought by my sister-in-law from the Roscioli delicatessen store in Rome, accompanied by aromatic oils.
I also made a frittata with mozzarella and fried potatoes in it (no photo). And a dish of black rice and shrimp salad (no photo).
And everyone was happy — it was all ‘diet’ food really, if you think about it (except for the porchetta). I had also made earlier that day a lasagna with mushrooms and sausage (again, just in case someone didn’t fancy fish) … and don’t be surprised ! some people did have a helping of that too. But when I asked whether I should go ahead and make pasta with squid-ink and tuna roe (bottarga) for secondo, there was a resounding ‘no’.
For pudding: home-made ricotta and chocolate tart (which Elena made — she loves baking and making desserts) and a fruit tart brought by a friend. And for whose who had room for them, home-made cantucci (Elena again) and dessert wine.
A lovely evening … And can I say that: although everyone appreciated the nice variety and the taste of my dishes, it was not the centre of attention that evening — friendship was. And I wasn’t ‘stuck’ in the kitchen with last-minute preparations … I could mingle relaxedly with my guests.
Thank you Geetie for the inspiration. And hey! none of the food cost an-arm-and-a-leg, most of it was organic and nearly all of it local, including the wine (Casale Marchese), the oils (Quattrociocchi’s Olivastro, my friend Liz’s Casale Mattia and Azienda Capodarco), and the cheeses (bought from the Sardinian shepherd 1 kilometer away from where I live). Geetie could be proud of me!!!