Category: Uncategorized

Cooking with Nathan : In the Court of the Crimson King

It’s late November, and I’m a bit poorly. No, not man-flu poorly, just aware of things not being quite right and – crucially – my temperature is just above 37.5 which means I’m not allowed to go into work. So I’ve been catching up on some much needed sleep, thrown a lot of balls for Mimi and sent off a proposal for Nathan #7 (coming in 2023). But I’m still cooking, because cooking nearly always makes me feel better, and we also have a fridge full of veggies to use up.

Including beetroot.

I’ll be honest, it’s not my favourite vegetable to work with. A single lapse of concentration, a lid on the blender that isn’t quite fixed down properly, and your kitchen will look like Hannibal Lecter’s basement. However, Caroline had bought a bag of them for this excellent Nigel Slater recipe here :-


https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/oct/19/nigel-slater-midweek-dinner-recipe-salmon-with-beetroot-and-ginger

  • – and I still had a few to use up. So tonight I made a Beetroot and Goat’s Cheese Risotto.

Ingredients

1 Beetroot (small/medium – you really don’t need any more)
100g goat’s cheese
125g risotto rice (variety as you prefer)
1/2 litre light chicken stock
1/2 onion
1/2 carrot
1 small stalk celery

Bottle of prosecco.

Method (for 2)

I cooked this – appropriately to King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King.

1) Heat your oven to 200C. Pour two glasses of the prosecco, one for you and one for the person for whom you cook. If you’re on your own remember to halve the amounts. Except for the prosecco, obviously…
2) Peel and cube your beetroot, wrap in foil with a slug of olive oil, and stick it in the oven.
3) You have a bit of time now, so make a proper soffritto of onion, carrot and celery (I don’t think this one needs garlic) in a mixture of oil and butter. When they’re ready, chuck your rice in and allow the grains to toast. Throw in an additional glass of prosecco. Do not forget to continue drinking the one you’ve poured.
4) Heat the stock up and do the usual risotto thing with it.
5) After about 30 minutes, the beetroot should be suitably softened. Stick it in a blender along with a good measure of stock. MAKE SURE THE COVER IS SECURE. Get ready to blend it. HAVE YOU MADE SURE THE COVER IS SECURE? Good. Blend it to a liquid. Draw sigh of relief that your kitchen has been spared.
6) Add the blended beetroot to your risotto, add half the cheese, and season. Keep it cooking, adding the remainder of the stock as necessary.
7) When it’s almost – but not quite – perfect, stir in a knob of butter, take it off the heat, cover and rest for two minutes.
8) Uncover, give it a good stir, and decant into warm bowls. Tear/dice/scoop (as appropriate) the rest of the goat’s cheese over the top and just stick in the warm oven for a couple of minutes to allow it to melt.
9) Eat and enjoy, with a nice glass/bottle of red to hand.

This takes a bit of prep due to roasting the beetroot, but time it right and you can probably complete this in about one hour, or, as I prefer to say, 1.5 Courts of the Crimson King. It’s a warming, savoury and unctuous autumnal dish.

Happy eating all!

Cooking with Nathan : Lasagne with Porcini and Prawns

I haven’t been to the Rialto Market for months, and it’s a delight to be back. The sun is shining on the Grand Canal, the market is busy but not ridiculously so, and it’s a pleasure just to stroll around.

I go to what was once my regular fish stall (since we moved to Dorsoduro I buy my fish on Giudecca) and ask for 500g of Sicilian gamberi rossi. This is more than I need, but I feel a bit guilty about not having been here in so long. I could, I suppose, make two meals out of these, but I suspect I won’t.

I move on to the vegetable stalls, one of which is now a veritable treasure chest of mushrooms. They’re all there. Pioppini, chiodini, ones I don’t even know the name of and, of course, porcini. A sign that autumn has arrived. The guy tries to sell me a kilo (at a very reasonable price) but there’s no way I’ll be able to use them all in time. We both settle for a half kilo. I really will get two meals out of them.

Tonight I’m going to cook lasagne with porcini, mozzarella and prawns. Now, I’ve mentioned this before in a previous blog but this time, I think, it’s worth recording the whole recipe.

Ingredients (for two)

500g (unshelled) of red Sicilian prawns – well, no, you don’t need to be that precious about it and this is far too much anyway. Shall we say perhaps 300g of ‘some prawns’?

250g of porcini. This is pretty much exactly right.

One medium sized ball of mozzarella.

Lasagne sheets (as many as necessary)


Some grated Parmesan

Salt/Pepper

And that’s it!

Method

  1. Hurray! There’s a new Hawkwind album in the world, so I cooked this to Somnia.

2) Gently clean your porcini (don’t soak them), slice them into medium-sized chunks and let them sizzle in some butter. We want them to be nicely browned here.

3) While your mushrooms are frying, shell and clean your prawns. If they’re small – as mine were – this will take some time. No matter. Make a spritz, reflect on what a cracking album Somnia is, and think ahead to how good this lasagne is going to be. Oh, and let the oven heat up to 200 degrees.

4) When the prawns are – finally – shelled – toss them into the pan and let them cook for a minute or two. That’s all they’ll need. Season with salt and pepper.

5) Tear a mozzarella ball into chunks and prepare a baking dish with a little oil.

6) Build layers with the pasta sheets, the mozzarella, and the prawn/mushroom mix.

7) Scatter the parmesan on the top – a good crispy top layer will be nice – and put it in the oven to bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden and crisp. You might want to let it rest for a minute or two until it stops bubbling furiously.

This, frankly, is a bit of a Taste Explosion and a nicely chilled cheap red goes very well with it.

If you can’t get hold of porcini, no matter. Regular mushrooms will do almost as well – you won’t get the massive umami kick but, on the other hand, you might get a little bit more of the flavour of the prawns. Whatever you decide, Buon appetito!

Venice in Film : Destiny (Der müde Tod)

“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me…”

Has any director ever had a better decade than Fritz Lang in the 1920s? Der müde Tod (“The Weary Death”, a far better title than the more prosaic “Destiny”) was his first masterpiece in a ten year period that brought us – amongst others – Die Nibelungen, Spies, Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and M. And it’s also a film with a Venetian connection. As we’ll find out, it might be cheating a bit to fit it into a series called “Venice in film”, but nevertheless I think it’s worth a mention.

The plot of Destiny is a simple one : a young couple, riding in a carriage, stop to pick up a stranger who, later that evening, spirits the young man away. Grief-stricken, the woman searches for him and finds that his soul is imprisoned in a walled garden belonging to the stranger who, of course, turns out to be Death. She begs to be reunited with her lover, and Death – perhaps now weary of his work – brings her to a hall full of burning candles. Each one is a human life, he explains, showing her three that have almost flickered out. If she can save one – just one – of those three lives through the power of love, the young man will be restored to her. And this leads us into three short tales, the second of which is set in Venice…

So why, then, are we cheating? Well, quite simply, there’s no actual Venice to be seen. There was no location filming involved and so the Venice we see is one created via Lang’s great art directors Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm. So we see bridges, canals, a vera da pozzo, a gondola complete with felze, a Lion of St Mark – just enough to create a convincing sense of “Venetianess”. No, it’s not realistic, but that’s not what Lang is trying to do here.

The vignette is perhaps fifteen minutes in length; a dark, almost Shakespearean, love story set during Carnival which (SPOILER for 100 year old film) does not end well. There are a few historical references but they’re a bit confused – there’s a reference to the “Council of Fourteen” instead of the “Council of Ten” for example. No matter. The characters are sketched out quickly and efficiently, the plot is simple but effective and, really, fifteen minutes in Fritz Lang’s Venice is fifteen minutes well spent.

Lil Dagover, the female lead, had a long and distinguished career but is probably best remembered today for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Destiny, however, gives her a far more rewarding part and she’s absolutely terrific here. Further down the cast list is Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who himself had a small role in Caligari), a favourite of Lang’s, who would later feature as the sorcerer-scientist Rotwang in Metropolis and as the eponymous Dr Mabuse. But the film really belongs to the craggy-faced Bernhard Goetzke as Death, in a towering performance that, perhaps, prefigures Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Lang’s direction, aided by Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography, is exemplary.

So, should you see it? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s a timeless work of art by one of the great filmmakers of the twentieth century so – yes- absolutely, you should.

But don’t expect too much actual Venice!

Venice in Film : Anima Persa

The great Dino Risi was a director more associated with commedia all’italiana than with the horror film And yet, in 1977, he made a deeply serious and effective piece of pure Venetian Gothic. Anima Persa (known elsewhere under the clunkingly literal title of The Forbidden Room) seems to be little known today, and that’s a great shame, because what we have here is a very classy example of gothic filmmaking.

Art student Tino arrives in Venice and goes to stay with uncle Fabio (Vittorio Gassman) and his noticeably younger wife Elisa (Catherine Deneuve).

Immediately, it becomes obvious that All Is Not As It Should Be. The relationship between Fabio and Elisa is cold and awkward, whilst, late at night, the sound of a piano can be heard from a mysterious locked room upstairs.

So far, so Gothic. However, the expected Big Reveal – the mad brother in the attic – happens surprisingly early, leaving the rest of the film to wallow in a suffocating Poe-like atmosphere of decadence, corruption and decay. There’s also a doll motif which very much seemed to be a theme in Italian horror in this period – think Deep Red, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Five Dolls for an August Moon and, well, other films with dolls, mannequins, or simply the word ‘doll’ in the title.

The denouement is, perhaps, not quite as surprising as all that. Nevertheless, the location filming is excellent, the sets are wonderful and Risi proves himself to be quite adept at this sort of thing including a couple of effective jump scares. There’s a good performance from Deneuve but, sadly, she’s dubbed and not very well. Gassman – one of the great Italian actors of his generation – is simply outstanding in his journey from cold respectability and manipulative bastardry to utter insanity.

Should you see it? I think so. It seems never to have been dubbed into English, however, so you will need to watch the Italian version. But if nothing else it’s a rare example of a horror film (and, really, what else can it be?) in which – spoiler – *nobody actually dies*, and it’s worth treasuring for that. Add to that the location filming and Gassman’s extraordinary performance and you have a film that’s well worth your time.

Cooking with Nathan : Apricots

Well this one is super-easy…

Apricots are up there with the Best of Fruit. Or, at least, they should be. Too often, they flatter to deceive and they’re just a little bit crunchy or just a little bit tasteless and, ultimately, just a little bit disappointing.

Have no fear, because this recipe is guaranteed to make the most of even the saddest of apricots, it will get loads of fruit into you, and it only takes about 15 minutes.

Ingredients (for 2)

About 10 apricots

Some natural yoghurt

Some honey (doesn’t have to be the best. Just some honey.)

4 or 5 biscuits (cinnamon would be ideal, speculoos/spekulatius style. But if all you have is the humble Hob Nob, then by all means give them a go. Rich Tea are probably a bit too austere).

Method

This one is really quick. You’re not going to have time to listen to the Best of the Ramones, let alone Wagner, and, by the time it comes to cook this, the Spritz hour has passed. So maybe just have a small prosecco to hand.

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

2. Whilst the oven is warming up, wash, halve and stone the apricots. Drizzle honey into the centre of each.

3. Put the apricots in the oven. They’re going to be in there for about 15 minutes.

4. In the meantime, take the biscuits and crush them. Don’t go mad…you don’t want them to be just a powder. Leave a few nice crunchy bits.

5. At this point you may drink the Prosecco.

6. By the time you’ve finished it, the apricots will probably be done. Tip them into a bowl and mash them to a puree with a fork.

7. Now this is the really cheffy bit! Take a Martini glass and build layers of apricot, yoghurt and biscuit; and then repeat. If you have over-enthusiastically crushed the biscuits, save the most powdery bits to sprinkle on top. You could try a mint or basil leaf on the top if you like, but I think we’re kind of getting into fusion cooking there. You don’t, strictly speaking, even have to have a Martini glass but, frankly, I think it’s worth investing in a set just to make this. And then you could have Martinis as well!

It should all look rather lovely and be intensely apricot-ey. And, given the amount of fruit, it’s possibly quite good for you as well! It’s a nice, easy dish that you can prep in advance for a dinner party or just throw together at the last minute. There is no better way of dealing with disappointing apricots!

Happy eating everyone!

Cooking with Nathan : Tuna with Gnocchi

Or, if you prefer, Gnocchi with Tuna.

I used to buy all my fresh fish at the Rialto Market but, since moving to Dorsoduro, I’ve changed to the fishmonger at Palanca on Giudecca. There are times that I miss the huge variety of choice at Rialto, but Palanca is a lot easier to get to and the guys there are a Great Bunch of Lads as well.

Inevitably, though, I always come back with more fish than I actually need. I once came back with ten red mullet instead of four, as they were about to close and said they’d do me a good deal if I took them all off their hands. Well, it would have been wasting money not to…

Similarly, I recently came back with a humungous piece of tuna that was way, way too much for a meal for two. Now fresh tuna is one of those things that – along with sardines – I think I could kind of just always eat. Nevertheless, it cost a bit and so I thought I should really try and get two meals out of it. So I trimmed away the leanest part of the steak, and griddled it as usual. The rest I put in the freezer for some occasion in the future.

Well, a couple of days ago Caroline arrived back from a day on the beach when I’d been hard at work upon the next book. Neither of us felt like going out, or pizza, and neither did I feel like Big Complicated Cooking. Fortunately, however, we had a packet of fresh gnocchi, the tuna (which I’d thought to take out earlier), and a few staples.

This, then, is a straightforward giovedì gnocchi dish which you can probably knock off in about thirty minutes.

Ingredients (serves two modestly hungry people)

250g fresh gnocchi (I’ve made my own in the past but, really, life is too short)

200g fresh tuna (or more, or less. This is not an exact science)

12 – 18 cherry tomatoes, halved (I started with 12 and decided that wasn’t enough halfway through)

2 tbsp capers, rinsed

12 black olives, stoned/sliced

Method

Oh, this one is easy.

  1. Put a healthy measure of olive oil in a deep pan, and fry the tomatoes for as long as you want. I like them nice and blackened and roasty-tasting. All of this adds plenty of extra flavour and helps to generate the sauce.
  2. Put a pasta pan of salted water on to boil.
  3. When you’re happy with the tomatoes, throw the gnocchi into the pasta pan. They’ll be done when they float to the surface (2-3 minutes)
  4. Add the tuna, olives and capers to the tomatoes and turn up the heat. Keep everything moving around in that nice, tomato-ey sauce.
  5. Drain the gnocchi, and add to the pan. Toss them around for a bit, just to make sure everything’s nicely coated in the sauce, and then dish up (I was going to say ‘plate up’ but, frankly, this isn’t a ‘plating up’ kind of dish). Some torn up basil leaves would have been good as well, but I’d forgotten we had any!
  6. This is, in all modesty, frankly delicious. A chilled, budget red wine is an ideal accompaniment.

    I think this might work equally well with swordfish. Indeed, I’m going to put it to the test tomorrow. You see, the last time I went to the fishmongers they had three nice chunky steaks remaining. I told them I only wanted two. They gave me a sad look and said surely I wasn’t going to leave one piece abbandonato…?

    And so, of course, there is a spare swordfish steak in the freezer….

    Happy eating everyone!

Listening with Nathan : The Venetian Legacy

So we made the Top 10!

I don’t think anyone expected this but – yes – “The Venetian Legacy” had its moment in the sun of the Times Top 10 Paperback Fiction. And thank you all so, so much for that.

So, by way of thanks, here’s the Spotify playlist that serves as the soundtrack to “The Venetian Legacy”. Some of these were songs I had in mind whilst writing. And some were ones that came to mind later. You can decide which are which…

We begin, then, with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro. It’s fun, it’s happy, it’s got a belter of a tune and it’s about a wedding! Of course we were going to begin with this one.

Track 2 is è Festa! by the great Italian prog band Premiata Forneria Marconi. We’ve moved on from the wedding itself to party time, and I can imagine Dario saying ‘hey, let’s play this one’. And Federica rolling her eyes…

Now we have a couple of gentle, summery tracks. The first is by Le Orme, Senti, L’estate che torna . Five years later, they’d be writing concept albums about binary planets, but they weren’t quite there in 1968. This is a very pretty little tune, and the accompanying video – bless them – is hilarious.

The laid-back mood continues with Hawkwind (no, seriously) – here in a mellow, almost jazzy mood – with the appropriately-titled City of Lagoons.

We then move on to what I think of as two character-driven pieces. The first – for “The Old Wolf” – is the partisan anthem Bella Ciao. This is my favourite version, and it’s by Italian folk-rockers Modena City Ramblers. The following number – and this one’s for Federica – is Dotti, Medici e Sapienti by the great Edoardo Bennato. If you’re wondering what this one’s doing here…it’s from a concept album about Pinocchio.

Back to more summery sounds, and Joe Satriani’s instrumental A Day at the Beach, followed by Pink Floyd at their gentlest and prettiest, with A Pillow of Winds. “Sleepy time, and I lie, with my love by my side, and she’s breathing low.” The music is by David Gilmour, and the lyrics – perhaps surprisingly – by Roger Waters…

Things start to get a bit more serious, and we have a funeral scene accompanied by Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. And then things start to get properly grim, kicking off with Blue Oyster Cult’s acerbic This Ain’t the Summer of Love.

Then we’re joined by our old friend Stelvio Cipriani, and the suite from the tough 70s thriller La polizia ha le mani legate, and the Alabama 3’s Woke up this morning, the theme tune to “The Sopranos”.

Now when I was younger, and grumpier, the soundtrack – and even the book – might have ended there. But I’m in my fifties now, and – SPOILERS – I appreciate the value of a good happy ending. We don’t get many of those in real life, and so I think they’re ever more important in fiction. Jovanotti’s Baciami ancora is the sound of being on holiday, of wondering whether to have one or two Negronis before dinner, and, ultimately, of wanting nothing more than to be with the one you love under the stars on a warm summer’s night. Sentimental, perhaps, but why not? It’s a honeymoon novel after all, and it deserves a lovely song like this to finish on.

With my thanks to you all, once again, and wishing you, wherever you are, happy walks in the sun in the not-too-distant future.

Baci, and Buon Ascolto!

Philip

Venice in film : Anonimo Veneziano

I know it’s fondly remembered but – whisper it – Anonimo Veneziano really isn’t a very good film.

The plot, if you don’t know it, is simple enough. Enrico (Tony Musante) invites his ex-wife Valeria (Florinda Bolkan) to visit him in Venice. They walk around, have lunch, he tells her he’s dying of a brain tumour. They walk around some more, go back to his apartment on Giudecca, have sex, walk around a bit more. And then, finally, Enrico conducts Alessandro Marcello’s concerto for oboe and strings in the church of San Vidal. Valeria, possibly realising she still loves him, leaves for her train.

Musante had just finished The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and, indeed, had previously worked with Bolkan on Metti, una sera a cena. Bolkan herself had worked with Visconti, and would go on to work with directors as wildly diverse as Vittorio de Sica and Lucio Fulci. The actors are not the problem here : the trouble is that the characters they inhabit are not particularly likeable and endless scenes of them fighting and then reconciling in the damp Venetian streets become wearing.

Of course, it looks good. But it’s not difficult to use Venice in the winter as a metaphor for death and decay. Nicolas Roeg, in Don’t Look Now, used it as part of a profound meditation on loss. Here it just seems like window dressing. Very pretty window dressing, of course, but that’s not enough.

The real star here – and perhaps the reason it’s so fondly remembered – is Stelvio Cipriani’s score and, in particular, the main theme. It’s a lovely thing, and manages to carry more emotional weight than the film it accompanies.

Do you need to see it? Well, it’s just over 90 minutes, you see a lot of Venice (albeit in a fairly random order) and there’s Cipriani’s music. I’d say it’s worth a watch. Just don’t expect too much.

Cooking with Nathan : Scallops

It’s Saturday night, and I’ve got ten scallops from the fishmonger on Giudecca waiting to be cooked. But what am I going to do with them?

Now, the classic Scallops with Black Pudding is always a winner, but – unsurprisingly – I don’t have any of the latter and I find recipes that begin with ‘First make your black pudding’ a little depressing. However, I know that there’s half a pumpkin in the fridge that needs using up, so what could be better than scallops with a pumpkin puree? Then Caroline reminds me that she used the last of it up making soup for lunch…

Okay then. There must be something in the fridge that I can use to put a scallop on. Scallops with sprouts seem like a recipe for which the world is not yet ready but, fortunately, we have a small celeriac.

So here we are : scallops with bacon on a celeriac puree. It’s dead easy, doesn’t take a lot of time and it even looks a little bit cheffy!

Ingredients (for two)

Ten scallops
Small celeriac
100g bacon (or equivalent)
Butter
Cream
Parsley

Method

  1. Peel and dice the celeriac and put it on to steam until tender (20-25 minutes).
  2. In the meantime, dice the bacon (or equivalent) into small cubes and fry it until crisp. I used guanciale, as that’s what I had, but pancetta would have worked equally well. You need something suitably fatty though, as the fat is going to come in useful.
  3. Scallops aren’t that difficult to shuck and clean but they can take a bit of time if you’re not an expert (I’m not) so why risk a messy accident? The fishmongers did all that for me without me even asking and they did a better job than I’m likely to do. So just clean them gently (don’t run them under a tap as scallops soak up water) and pat them dry with kitchen towel. The drier they are, the more chance of them caramelising nicely in the pan.
  4. Once the bacon has fried to your satisfaction, take it out of the pan with a slotted spoon and keep it warm.
  5. Mash the celeriac. Now you could just use a fork or a potato masher, but celeriac has a fibrous quality that can make it a little difficult, so I took a hand blender to it. Then add butter and/or cream until the consistency seems right. Season, and let it join the bacon somewhere warm.
  6. Now you need to work quite quickly. Reheat the bacon fat until it’s sizzling, and add your scallops to the pan. For a good sized scallop, one minute a side is just about perfect. Much more than that and they’ll start to toughen up.
  7. Make five little mounds of celeriac puree on each plate. Put a scallop on top of each, and then scatter the bacon and some chopped parsley over the top.
  8. Serve with a glass of prosecco. Bask in the admiration of your loved one. Try and ignore the plaintive looks from your cat.

    I cooked this whilst listening to HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” on audiobook. Howard, of course, was notoriously phobic about any kind of seafood, but I like to think even he might have enjoyed this…

    Buon Appetito



Venice in Film : Il Mostro di Venezia

1965 was a pretty good year in Italian cinema. Leone made For a Few Dollars More. Fellini made Juliet of the Spirits. And, erm, Dino Tavella made the cheapo black and white horror Il Mostro di Venezia, otherwise known as The Embalmer.

As you might expect from the title and the poster art, it would be wise not to expect anything too subtle. But if you want to see a skull-masked serial killer who dresses as a monk and preserves the bodies of his victims in a submerged monastery beneath the lagoon – well, you’ve come to the right place.

Sadly, however, it’s nowhere near as much fun as that might suggest. Yes, there are a number of nice location shots of Venice but the studio interiors are so obviously non-Venetian that the clash between the two is distracting. There’s also no getting away from the central problem of the film, namely that it shouldn’t be difficult to run away from a man in scuba-diving gear.

I don’t want to seem too harsh. This is a film made by an inexperienced cast and crew, evidently with very little money. And there are a few atmospheric shots of Venice by night which lift it a little. But I kept thinking that if they’d given Mario Bava the same money to make a film about an underground monastery in Venice he’d have made something fantastic and probably brought it in under budget as well.

None of the cast went on to much – indeed, for many of them, this is their only credit. As for poor Dino Tavella – well he directed just one other film, Una sporca guerra, and died a few years later. He was 49 years old.

So, do you need to see this? Well no, quite obviously not. The plot is ridiculous, the acting is nothing to write home about and the film feels a lot longer than its 83 minute running time. On the other hand, you do get to see a man in a wetsuit chasing a monk through St Mark’s Square and, for some, that might be enough. Caveat emptor!