The Musette: my riff on Panzanella and Insalata con l’acqua

Frankly, it’s way too hot at the moment to do much cooking, even for someone who loves it as much as I do. Yesterday evening, I surveyed my bounty: stale bread, sun-ripe organic tomatoes, a wilted bunch of basil and some salad stuff. Initially, I thought of Panzanella, bread and tomato salad, until I remembered I don’t like how the tomatoes make the bread all soggy. So here’s what I made for us instead which is more like an insalata con l’acqua – but not quite! The end result was both refreshing and substantial.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a meal, or 4 as a starter)

Salad

  • 4 slices of stale sourdough bread
  • 3 large sun-ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 large cucumber, cubed
  • 2 fat salad onions (scallions), finely sliced
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • handful of salad leaves

Dressing

  • leaves from a bunch of basil, approx. 3 tbsp., finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp  extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 fat garlic clove, crushed
  • I tbsp Dijon mustard
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method

1. Put all the chopped vegetables into a bowl, including all the juices from the tomatoes, and season.

2. Whisk all the ingredients together to make the dressing – I confess to whipping this up in my liquidiser – and pour over the chopped vegetables. Toss well and allow the flavours to mingle for around 20 minutes at room temperature.

3. Toast the bread and place on a bed of green leaves. Pile the vegetables and dressing onto the bread, and serve.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Feel free to use whatever salad vegetables you have in the fridge. Finely diced celery and fennel would go well.

2. A mixture of different types and sizes of tomatoes would also work.

3. You can substitute flat-leaf parsley for the basil or, if you’ve no fresh herbs, add 1/2 tsp dried oregano to the dressing.

4. If I’d had some to hand, I might have added some small black olives and capers to the salad.

5. For a more substantial dish, top with chopped feta or even mozzarella.

6. Rather than toast the bread, make croutons with it and mix into the salad just before serving.

7. Substitute the salad onions with half a finely sliced small red onion, but soak it in the vinegar beforehand to reduce its heat.

8. If you’re particularly fond of garlic, you can rub a cut slice of garlic over the toasted bread.

The Musette: a riff on ratatouille and caponata

I generally love shopping daily, finding inspiration in the local shops and markets for the day’s meals. However, when I’m on my own, I’m quite happy to make a pot of something which I can use in a number of different ways for a variety of meals. Often necessity is the mother of invention and the dish comes from whatever I have sitting in the fridge.

I love Ratatouille, a dish hailing from Nice, because it’s one way of using the abundance of summer sun-ripened vegetables. As a general rule, I use equal quantities of each vegetable – tomatoes, peppers, onions, courgettes and aubergines. I would generally sauté each vegetable separately in olive oil and assemble them at the end, as in my lasagne recipe. This guarantees that each one retains its colour, flavour and texture. However, on my regime I’m not supposed to sauté vegetables in olive oil plus I didn’t have any courgettes, so I opted for a mix of the Niçois dish with some ingredients from one which is typically Sicilian, Caponata. Note, I used passata rather than fresh tomato sauce because I was also out of fresh tomatoes!

Ingredients (serves 6 as a side dish, or 4 as a main)

  • 1 tbsp coconut oil (neutral flavoured)
  • 2 small aubergines, cut into 2cm (1″) cubes
  • 1 large red pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 red chilli pepper, finely chopped, or tsp chilli flakes
  • 4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4 celery stalks or small fennel bulb, cut into 2cm (1″) pieces
  • 2 tbsp capers
  • 150g (1 cup) black olives, pitted
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  •  500ml (2 cups) passata or 4 very large tomatoes
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method

1. Cut the tomatoes into quarters and place them in a  saucepan with a pinch of salt. Gently bring to the boil and cook over medium heat for 30-40 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce has thickened. Strain through a food mill or large-holed sieve to remove the skins.

2. Heat 1tbsp coconut oil a large saucepan, sweat the red onion, red chilli pepper, red pepper and garlic over a medium heat for 10 minutes until lightly caramelised. Add 2 tbsp of tomato paste and cook lightly to get rid of its raw flavour.

3. Now, add the diced aubergines, strained tomatoes or passata, and season. Bring to the boil, cover with greaseproof (parchment) paper, clamp on the lid and simmer gently for an hour. The parchment paper prevents the mixture from drying out. You’ll need to cook it for this long to soften the aubergine. Alternatively, fry both aubergine and pepper in olive oil and cook for only 20 minutes.

4. If the capers are salted, soak them for 2 minutes, then drain. If brined or in vinegar, drain and rinse. Add the capers and olives, stir and leave to sit for at least 2 hours, stirring gently once or twice. The finished dish needs to rest for at least an hour – ideally three. It’s even better the next day, and keeps well in the fridge for up to four days.

5. This dish can be served either at room temperature or cold, as a main or side dish. I also love it as a sauce with penne or heaped over some sweet potatoes or cauliflower rice.

6. You can make it more Sicilian by adding a handful of raisins, toasted pine nuts, a tbsp of sugar and 2 tbsp of red wine vinegar for a sweet-sour hit. I’ll often do this a couple of days later to give it a slightly different flavour.

The Musette: Gazpacho

It’s only the middle of June and already temperatures are in the late 20s early 30s centigrade! It’s been hot and humid. Could we be heading for a summer heatwave? To my mind, that can mean only one dish – a freshly made, ice-cold, refreshing gazpacho. This perfect hot-weather soup is simply a salad in liquid form, which means it’s one of the easiest dishes to make. All you need to get started is a blender or food processor and some super-tasty, juicy tomatoes.

I make a litre or two of this most weeks to enjoy immediately after I get back from my morning ride. It’s delicious, cooling, contains at least three of my five-a-day and is low in calories – what’s not to like? Of course, it’s one of those recipes where there are more versions than Andalucians. I’m just adding to those with my very own take on it.

Gazpacho

Ingredients for a low calorie and refreshing lunch (Image: Sheree)

Ingredients (serves four)

  • 1-1½kg (2-2¼ lbs) sun-ripened, juicy, fresh organic tomatoes
  • 3 sticks celery
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 3 spring onions (scallions)
  • 1 large cucumber
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 4 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 tsp Tabasco (optional)
  • 5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Method

1. Roughly chop the vegetables and whirl in a blender or food processor in batches until they’re all reduced to a fine rubble.

2. Pour into a large glass bowl, add the oil, vinegar and condiments to taste. Cover the bowl with cling film (plastic wrap) and leave it in the fridge for at least eight hours for the flavours to develop.

3. To serve, pass the mixture through a coarse sieve or food mill. Test the seasoning, pour into a glass jug and return to the fridge to chill.

4. Serve either as I have below in a long chilled glass with a stick of celery or ladle it into bowls and garnish with whatever takes your fancy.

And no, it's not a Bloody Mary

And no, it’s not a Bloody Mary (Image: Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The tomatoes are the star of the show. If yours aren’t quite as ripe and juicy as you’d like you might have to top up the gazpacho with some good quality bottled or fresh tomato juice.

2. I only ever use red peppers in gazpacho simply because I prefer the taste.

3. If you’d like the soup to have a thicker consistency soak a few pieces of stale bread in water, squeeze dry and add them to the blender along with the vegetables or add back some of the sieved rubble.

4. I often add fresh watermelon juice to the soup and a further teaspoon of tabasco to counter the sweetness along with a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lime juice. This is delicious served in a bowl over a pile of white crab meat or a few plump juicy prawns and cubed avocado.

5. To give the soup an Italian twist, add freshly torn basil leaves and pour over torn chunks of burrata (a yummy mix of fresh buffalo mozzarella and crème fraiche).

6. There are of course both white and green versions of gazpacho, but let’s leave those for another Musette.