The new season, some thoughts on eating in Paris and a recipe for pasta e broccoli.
Today Johan said why did it seem like there was more grass…
On the market the brassicas of winter – cavolo nero, red cabbages, savoys, brussels sprouts – are relaxing into paler shades. White and purple sprouting broccoli, broccoli romanesco and other more familiar calabrese are piled up among the new season’s watercress, cream-green leeks, the viridescent stalks and puce-etched skins of wet garlic, the forced rhubarb – pink stems and curling, chartreuse leaves.
I find these new strokes of colour so refreshing. Not least because they make me feel the imminence of things. I want asparagus with melted butter; I’d like a piece of trout or bass with beurre blanc and Jersey Royals. But they’re not quite here yet.
Besides, I am feeling the pinch of an expensive trip to Paris. I’m so disappointed in the standard of Parisian bistrots, which were, generally, terribly bad and terribly expensive. It has made the desire for fresh and good things all the more acute. To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. I did have an excellent salad of chicken livers (croutons, frisee, little lardons) and a plate of fruits de mer at a place called Capucine near the Opéra. And steak tartare in a bistrot on Rue Coquillière was a very respectable thing to eat before we raided E Dehillerin, the delightful cookshop there. A gelateria called Amorino in the streets behind Shakespeare and Co sold extremely good pistachio ice cream, nutty, perfumed, a little edge of salt.
Every other meal was a disgrace: cheap meat, tasteless salads, carelessness. The worst by far was the Moulin Rouge where a three course meal was an additional €75 on a €90 show and consisted of a prawn cocktail thing (chopped bits of crayfish in mary rose) with browning chicory and papery bits of greasy smoked duck, then a piece of stale-blooded beef (I guess it had been vacuum packed for a fair while) with pommes lyonnaises fried in stale oil, then a slab of what seemed to be solidified Nutella on a wafery base. It was really quite the most vile succession of foodstuffs I’ve had for a long time and insultingly overpriced. Do not go to the Moulin Rouge for dinner whatever you do, or, for that matter, for entertainment. The several bistrots we ate in were little better but were at least slightly cheaper and without embarrassing dance routines. I now expect everywhere to be as bad a tourist trap and know that walking round to find somewhere that looks nice simply doesn’t work. Appearances, it turns out, can be illusions.
Back in Cambridge, I’m eating on a shoestring. I like limits in my eating. I like seasonal constraints and I like not being able to spend more than a few pounds a day on my meals, allowing for wine. (At the moment cool Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc feel right; the Jean Marc Brocard bottles the Wine Merchant is selling are seriously lovely.) It makes me feel more appreciative. Today, the asparagus a little way off, the Jerseys still astronomical, the plentiful broccoli on the market seemed a good idea – and pasta. On the whole I am feeling fonder of Paris. I haven’t been sure if I really liked it that much but last weekend with Johan was lovely – not least because someone, a student of fashion, no less, struck up a conversation with me because I was smoking a Sobranie Cocktail cigarette. Truly it gives one faith in humanity. But after its food I’m fonder too of the thought of Italy, of the cheap, carby, uncarnivorous pleasures of Italian pasta dishes. On Tuesday I made linguine al limone e basilico, lovely with its springlike zing of citrus, herbal green, nutty bite of pasta. Today, pasta e broccoli.
Pasta e broccoli
Serves two generously. Into a large pan of heavily salted boiling water throw half a pound or so of the tender parts of purple sprouting broccoli, or any other broccoli, and cook for five minutes. Meanwhile in a wide pan over a low flame heat four tablespoons of olive oil with two cloves of chopped garlic, a generous pinch of dried chili flakes, and three anchovy fillets. As soon as the broccoli is done, spoon it across into the garlic and anchovy, with a ladle of cooking water. Cover and stew very gently while the pasta, a scant half pound, boils in the same water: penne are good here, or rigatone. Once al dente, drain, retaining another ladle of the cooking water. With a fork, roughly mash the now very soft broccoli into the oil, anchovy and garlic, and add your pasta and water. Toss the sauce through the pasta, cooking for a minute longer. Squeeze in a little of the juice of a lemon along with a handful of chopped basil and parsley. Adjust the seasoning. Serve with a glug of the best olive oil you have and plenty of grated Pecorino, the hard Roman cheese which has a very appealing salt tang.
It is worth noting that anchovies can be left out. I know most Italians balk at the idea of fish and cheese and I like the cheese to be there. The River Cafe recipe has anchovies, olives and cheese. Rachel Roddy on her excellent blog prefers unfishy broccoli, oil, garlic, chili and plenty of parmesan. A matter of taste.