Our wonderful Tuscan holiday!

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This is the gorgeous villa we had the pleasure of staying in for our summer holidays- and we could have very easily stayed here for week after week after week! A couple of km’s from Cortona in the south of Tuscany, this villa was up in the hills and surrounded by olive trees and sunshine. Utterly heavenly.

We arrived on Saturday to glorious sunshine and made our way straight to the villa- well almost straight there, a hairy wrong turning up a very ‘white’ road up the mountain made me begin to question my desire to be somewhere remote! However, the right road was found with help from a very nice Italian man (and was still scary but compared to the wrong road we were relieved), the villa was moved into and the fridge was full.

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I absolutely noticed a big change in my cooking habits here. Because we were buying everything fresh and deciding what to cook on the day with very few ingredients, but all really tasty, cooking briefly and simply. Maybe it’s the quality of the ingredients, or the relaxed state we were in but everyday we ate plates of happiness- whether out in restaurants or at home at the villa.

We spent our first day lounging by the pool and enjoying a glass of wine- the first in a month!!! And well worth waiting for. The first dinner had to be a Florentine steak, grilled on the bbq and washed down with some good Tuscan red.

After a brilliant night sleep in utter darkness and quiet we got up, jumped in the car and drove down the hill and back up the next hill to Cortona. We climbed to the top of the town and admired the fabulous view. We watched a lovely elderly couple strolling arm on arm in the sunshine with their food for the day- may be a vision of the future for the Thomas’s!

A day by the pool with chilled Vernaccia and our piles of books beckoned, before I could summon up the energy to head to the kitchen.

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I wrapped the thin chicken fillets with a sage leaf and some cured ham, then fried them in olive oil quickly, deglazing the pan with some white wine to create a tasty jus. For dessert I bought a berry tart from the shop in the afternoon which was utterly delicious, and gave me plenty time to relax in the beautiful sunset.

We woke up on Monday morning to blazing sunshine, and after negotiating the small dog and mini kittens on the road down the hill (very, very cute!) we drove off to Arezzo.  After walking the town and admiring an ancient church backing onto the Piazza Grande we headed to ‘La Lancia D’Oro’ for lunch under Vasari’s arches.

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For me the local ‘pici’ pasta with a ragu of duck. For Colin a Bistecca de Manza, grilled maybe a little too rare, with waterfall beans! In fact he only ordered it to see what the beans were! And they turned out to be a little like a Cannellini bean, cooked in the delicious juices of the steak and finished with some wine. A lovely lunch on a beautiful square.

It would not be a holiday without some of Jo’s Famous Meatballs, so Monday night was meatball night!

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Simply made meatballs with meat, a little onion and garlic and poached in a sauce of white wine and tomatoes, served with some olive oil roasted potatoes and some salad. Washed down with a Chianti, and big smiles all round.

Tuesday was a day of towers- a must day in Tuscany! Monteriggioni was our first stop for a walk around the ancient stone walls to view the countryside, followed by San Gimignano, which was very full of tourists, and very hot. We had salad at a café  with a picturesque view of the main squares with a San Gimignano white to feel at home!

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We found some delicious Italian sausages for dinner- so well seasoned, and not too much fennel in there. I simply grilled them for dinner and served them with some salad and some lentils. The shops are filled with lentils and chickpeas and I simply cooked them and sautéed them with a little onion, garlic, carrot and rosemary with some of the olive oil from Ivana, the lady who owns the villa we are staying in. Simple, delicious and healthy to boot. We tried some Vino Nobile de Montepulciano in readiness for visiting the town tomorrow!

On Wednesday morning we jumped up and drove out to Montepulciano.

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We walked the old town and had a coffee in Café Poliziano, with it’s grand café feel and amazing views and then headed to Pienza for lunch at ‘Latté di Luna’. Pici pasta for me with a spicy tomato and garlic sauce, and some spaghetti ragu for Colin. The restaurant was packed out so we had to sit inside, but it was worth it- all delicious with friendly service, and I would love to go back in the evening to test out the full menu.

I made some pizzas for dinner: one with some local salami, and one with some grilled veg. Red wine watching the sun go down and the lights across the valley in Cortona come on. Watching the stars in the really black sky. I believe this may be heaven.

On Thursday we drove to Assisi, mainly because it was close by and we felt we should see it, but it felt decidedly like a theme Park so we left early and had lunch by the pool- some pasta with wild boar sauce (shop bought but yummy!). The day was so hot I had to have a little lie down inside to cool down! How will we get used to being back home?

For dinner we bought more of the delicious sausages, this time making a chickpea salad as an accompaniment- simply tossed in olive oil, herbs and a little onion.

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On Friday we headed to Siena.

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What a beautiful day to sight see a beautiful city! We wandered for a while taking in all corners of the city, then headed to ‘La Logge’ for a delicious lunch.

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My main course was amazing, and a little unusual as it was seafood in a very meaty area. Green pasta with a crayfish sauce- which tasted very special. It looked like the sauce was simply white wine, juices from the crayfish and maybe some garlic. However, it was also hot from chilli and pepper, which you couldn’t see on the plate but could taste in your mouth. Amazing. Colin had some ‘elephante’ pasta with a ragu which looked very tasty, and didn’t last long at all!

We are not often tempted by dessert at lunchtime but we couldn’t say no here. My dessert was a trio creation of hazelnut- a sponge that looked like a torn up bath sponge, hazelnut ice cream, hazelnut and chocolate sauce- sounded intriguing and tasted wonderful. For Colin there was a blueberry cheesecake which also did not last very long which is a good sign!

You might think that there would be no room for dinner, but no! A spatch-cock chicken with rosemary and garlic with a few roasted chips and salad made it’s way into our Tums…

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When we woke up this morning we thanked our lucky stars that we decided to book for longer than a week- or we would have been packing our suitcases and heading home! Instead we headed to Perugia, the city we flew into a week ago. A great city, much more cosmopolitan than the other towns we’ve visited in Tuscany, mainly down to the University influences. It was also filled with very well dressed people heading to the town hall for weddings, a good job we put our best on!

Lunch was back at the villa by the pool- salamis, cheese, salad and lovely bread. Dinner was some tortellini and tomato sauce. We were thanking our lucky stars again as the weather forecast was not so great for today and it was actually roasting hot so we made the most of it by the pool. Spending so much time outside has been one of the real highlights of this holiday.

Sunday, and the final day of the holiday. The sky was a little overcast so we drove back to Cortona to do some last bits of shopping (ceramics, bags, wine!) and our final lunch at ‘La Grotta’.

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Crostini to start, Grilled lamb for me and chicken for Colin. Happy jug of wine, followed by some vin santo and cantucci to finish. Heavenly.

For dinner a little bowl of pasta watching the sunset…

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we are seriously considering booking the same villa for 2 weeks next September. There is nothing I would change about it- the location, the food, the wine, and above all the company- a happy Thomas holiday.

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Weekend 24/25th August

Poor Colin! I have the extended weekend off but he is at work both Saturday and Sunday- and he’s out Sunday night at a leaving party in Putney (his leaving party!). So actually maybe I should say Poor Jo as I am home alone 😭😭😭

But a kitchen full of lovely delights has cheered me up…

Saturday lunch:

ImageThis is a squid salad- really fresh squid sauteed with garlic and red chilli, and served on a leafy salad, with am very ripe tomato thrown in at the end. A triumph.

However, dinner was a massive disappointment…..

It was supposed to be a spiced plaice, marinaded in Indian spices, coated in batter and fried, and served with some chips and mushy peas. What actually landed on plates was a half burnt mush of batter and yuk with some chips and mushy peas. 🙈🙉🙊

So today I have tried harder to avoid all foodie disasters!

It all started with a Greek inspired breakfast:

ImageFigs, sprinkled with almonds, drizzled with honey, baked in the oven for 20mins and served with thick Greek yoghurt. Beautiful.

For lunch I looked to the freezer and had some spelt ravioli, stuffed with walnuts and blue cheese that I bought some time ago from The Twickenham farmers market. They were quite nice, although a different texture to ‘normal’ pasta.

Dinner…

ImageFresh spaghetti with fruits de mer. All that was missing tonight was a good glass of wine- but I am remaining good until the end of the week. I am also on car duty to pick Colin up.

I have started packing for the hols today- I actually can not wait!!!

Week 19-23rd August 2013

What a week! I am very pleased of a long weekend off I can tell you- although in fairness I only have to work 4 days next week before we head off to Tuscany!!! ✈✈✈

But let’s have a round up of this weeks menu…..

Monday

A meat-free Monday classic today, a ratatouille pasta. This was a bowlful of absolute goodness- peppers, yellow courgette, baby aubergines, red onions, tomatoes- and all from my gorgeous Natoora delivery. With whole wheat pasta it was a delicious, yet nutritious, start to the week! 🍅🍅🍅

Colin had been out today with his old friend Jim: a good catch up during a walk of London and a nice lunch. He broke the alcohol-free pact for the day and came home with red wine stained lips…

Tuesday

My day off as I was working on Sunday. I always try to make myself a lovely lunch when I have a day off on my own, and have something that I know Colin would prefer not to eat. And today was an old favourite, based on a Jo Pratt recipe: harissa salmon.

ImageThe salmon is marinated in Greek yogurt, harissa pasta and lemon juice and then baked in the oven. The original recipe served the fish with a taboulleh type of accompaniment with pomegranate seeds which is absolutely delicious, but I wanted to keep it light so a salad did suffice. Delicious as always.

For dinner we are continuing the vegetarian theme and made a Homity Pie. You can see the recipe and a previous picture on the recipe link on the home page.

Wednesday

I ordered some spicy Tuscan salami from Natoora which was crying out for a pizza! However, better than that was the puff pastry tart that I made instead- puff pastry topped with a little passata, red onions, chilli, fresh tomatoes, salami and some shavings of cheese (I used some mature cheddar I had in the fridge) and baked in the oven for 30mins until browned and bubbling. These kind of tarts on puff pastry are quick and easy and so versatile- there is a gorgeous Nigel Slater recipe with caramelised onions and blue cheese which I would never get tired of eating! Scrummy!

‘Thursday

As well as the spicy salami I had bought some ordinary, Milano salami, which I sauteed with some garlic and red chilli, added some tinned tomatoes and served with spaghetti.  Comfort food of an Italian variety.

And finally Friday

It was Colin’s day off today so he assumed chef duties!!!

He decided to make some spicy beef burgers. Here they are in production-

ImageThe recipe is a closely graded secret, but, it was delicious! Not too spicy or hot, well seasoned, and cooked so well that the burgers were really juicy. Salads were prepared too, as well as some spicy potato wedges, plates were cleared and Tums were filled. Colin is back on form!!!

Today was a great day at work as lots found a nice surprise in their payslip due to some payroll problem that was fixed- squeals of delight were heard at work, for the very first time!

Oh, and still no drinkies for me, but we are now in count down until Friday when a cold beer may break the fast, or will it be a g&t, or a glass of vino- decisions, decisions, decisions!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekend 17/18th August 2013

Well, alcohol-free August is going remarkably well! Half way through the month and I am feeling cleansed and full of energy….. well actually that is not true but I am sure it must be good for me!!!

Dinner this Saturday night was delicious. A fragrant fish curry, which I believe is one of my best.

ImageWe eat alot of fish curries these days in the French-Thomas kitchen, and most are tomatoey based, but this one is all spices and coconut and very tasty. Here’s the recipe:

Lime and Coconut Fish Curry

300g fish- monkfish, cod or salmon

400ml coconut milk

1.5 tbsp fish sauce

120g sugarsnap peas

4 spring onions, sliced

Handful of coriander leaves, chopped

Paste-

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

4 red chillis , chopped

2cm piece of ginger, chopped

Handful coriander stems, chopped

1 lemongrass stalk, chopped

2 kaffir lime leaves

Squeeze of lime juice

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp turmeric

2-3 tbsp water

  • Pop all the paste ingredients except for the water into a food processor and whiz into a paste. Add the water a bit at a time until the paste is quite smooth: you might need a little more that in the recipe.
  • Heat some oil in a wok, add the paste and stir for 2-3 mins, until fragrant smells are in the air!
  • Add the coconut milk and fish sauce and bring up to a simmer.
  • Add the sugarsnap peas and fish and simmer for about 10mins, or until the fish is cooked through. Add some water if the sauce becomes too thick.
  • Serve scattered with the spring onions and coriander, and a little spritz of lime juice.

It is lovely to eat something so light and full of strong flavours, which only takes about  half an hour to cook from beginning to end. Delicious.

On Sunday I made a tagine, based on the chicken and artichoke tagine in Claudia Roden’s book Arabesque. We used to have this alot, but not so much recently- and the next time I’ll take a photo and share the recipe!

 

Mon 12th – Fri 16th August 2013

A busy, busy week at work which has called for some comfort food in the evening- but still no drinkies!!! Lots of non-alcoholic drinkies though: we are becoming quite big fans of all Fentimans drinks- pink lemonade, ginger beer, dandelion and burdock, very refreshing when super cold.

The week started with a chicken breast….

ImageI stuffed the chicken breast with some really strong dolcelatte piccante, wrapped it in bacon and baked in the oven for 30mins. It was lovely- the flavour of the stilton really complemented the chicken and bacon, and gave it an intensely savoury flavour. I served it with lots of roasted Mediterranean veggies, and the juice from the chicken and the vegetables. Delicious!

On Tuesday I stuffed a squash for dinner! A little yellowy, orangey squash which went soft and gooey when baked. I stuffed it with a spicy lamb mince mixture- actually exactly the same mixture that I would normally use to form into kebabs or meatballs, and placed some little, sweet cherry tomatoes around the top. It needed a good 45mins in the oven to meld together, and was wolfed down quickly! (although Colin did leave alot of the squash- you can’t ask for everything!!!😒😒😒)

I had some really good mince beef from the weekend farm shops so Wednesday called for some meatballs. I didn’t add much more than some salt and pepper before making them into meatballs, and then baked them in the oven for 20 mins, just until they started to get brown.  I prefer the meatballs to be as meaty and unmessed about with.  The sauce was a tomatoey one, with a tablespoon or two of harissa for added kick- and the balls were added for the final 15mins to bring all the flavours together. A French-Thomas classic!

Laziness kicked in on Thursday so shop bought ravioli were bought- Italian sausage ones- although I did reduce down some tins of tomatoes, garlic and chilli for a sauce. Friday was my late night at work so no dinner for me…..

A full weekend in ahead, but the fridge is full of goodies- a big Natoora delivery arrived this evening!!!

Weekend 10/11th August 2013

Not quite a full weekend off as I had to go in on Sunday, so we had to make the most of Saturday. I had seen many reviews of the new Waitrose farmshop at Leckford so we decided to jump into the car and drive down the M3 to suss it out. Here’s what we bought:

ImageThe farmshop was ok- I wanted to love it but I can only say like. The building is lovely and it is all well presented. But alot of the products on offer are available in my Waitrose and I wanted to be wowed with new things! Saying that, what they did have from local suppliers was good- cheese, alot from the Isle of White Tomato farm, jams and bread.

On the way home we made a small detour to Laverstoke Park. Now we are massively spoiled in Twickenham as we have their shop on the high street, but it was nice to see the farm, and we picked up some good looking veg.

So, after a day of farm shops what would we have for dinner…………

AN INDIAN TAKEAWAY!!!!!

Too tired to cook can you believe it, and curry was being yearned for by Colin, so Minar in Hampton were called and delicious food arrived 45mins later.

 

So the cooking of the haul from the farmshops was delayed until after work on Sunday. I had bought a dry-aged wing rib of beef, and I took a lot of care to cook this perfectly, keeping it pink in the middle and letting it rest for 20mins. It was gorgeous- very much worth the cost.

ImageThis was served with some roasties, some baked golden beetroot and a stir fried romanseco with a little garlic, chilli and lemon juice. Lovely!

PS it was crying out for a glass of Burgundy, but a chilled ginger beer (non alcoholic of course) working well too!

Week 5-9th August 2013

Still being healthy!!!

 Isn’t it funny how sometimes you make food for your nearest and dearest, sure they will love it, and they barely touch it. Then other times when you are concerned and approach with caution, yet empty plates? Well Monday night, I am delighted to say, was one of the latter!!!

A Tian of Aubergine and Tomato

Colin ate all of this and declared it yummy, so here it is:Imageready-made, ready rolled puff pastry

1 red onion, cut into half moons

1 aubergine, sliced into thin rounds

3 large tomatoes, sliced

Cheese, grated-  I used pecorino, but you could use cheddar, parmesan, Comte, or any hard cheese of your choice, and as much of it as you like

Handful fresh breadcrumbs

Handful chopped fresh parsley

1 clove garlic, chopped

Drizzle of olive oil

  • roll out the pastry onto a baking sheet
  • preheat the oven to 200°
  • Sprinkle the onions over the pastry. Place the aubergine and tomato on top, overlapping.
  • brush the aubergine with a little olive oil where they are visible.
  • in a small bowl mix the cheese, breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic. Drizzle in about 1tbsp olive oil and mix well. Sprinkle all over the vegetables as evenly as you can.
  • bake in the oven for 20 mins or until bronzed all over.
  • serve with some green salad, and some new potatoes if you fancy it.

This would be lovely with a chilled glass of sauvignon Blanc- maybe in September!

And then on Tuesday I have the former problem- I was positive Colin would love a pork satay as he loves all the individual ingredients. I found what looked like a good recipe and gave it my best shot.

ImageI quite liked it, would have liked it a little more spicy, but liked the crunch of the peanut satay sauce and the juicy pork. Colin, however, moved it around the plate for a while and said the look of it was putting him off 😭😭😭. It just goes to show, you can never tell! He did, however, eat loads and loads of the accompanying salad- a raw mix of sugar snaps, carrots, white cabbage and onion, and rice. So he did not go to bed hungry, I promise you.

 

The rest of the week has seen some old favs- fishcakes and a lovely spaghetti bolognaise.  And a late night where Colin made a curry which I took in to work for my dinner, and lovely it was too.

Weekend 3/4th August 2013

Happy alcohol-free August!!!

We are off on our hols to Umbria at the beginning of September so we have made the amazing step of having a healthy month in preparation. I have actually started a little early on 31st July, with Colin joining me on 2nd August. There are many who think I am mad, and many who think I won’t make it for a whole month- I partly agree with them!!!- but try I will. The vision of a glass of wine by the pool in our villa on 31st August will keep me going!

August so far has seen 2 late nights so only 2 proper meals cooked so far.

ImageOn Friday I decided to make a roasted veggie lasagne as it has been absolutely ages since I made one- in fact I am not certain I have ever made it for Colin. As you can see from the photo it was packed with lovely veg- peppers, onions, courgettes, tomatoes, chilli, celery. I soaked the dried lasagne sheets in water before using which made quite a difference in the amount of time it took to cook. Quite tasty, and Colin almost ate it all…..

Sunday has been my day off and I have snuggled down for a lovely restful day, full of lovely food.

Brunch….

ImageCake…..

ImageThis cake was a yoghurt and cinnamon cake made from the Rachel Allen book, Cake. It is moist and lovely with a coffee in the afternoon. I am planning on having the rest with Greek yoghurt and berries for my breakfast throughout the week ahead. A quick, easy and delicious treat.

Dinner…..

Imagedinner was a braised salmon from Ottolenghi’s book- tomatoey and spicy with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, and a little turmeric. Not a usual Sunday night dinner but very satisfying and filling.  Recipe can be found in the recipe section of the blog!

 

 

Wednesday 31st July 2013

Today has been my day off and I have spent it cleansing the flat and myself ready for a healthy few weeks ahead- unbelievably I am having an alcohol free August!!! And I am starting tonight! I am going to be filled with energy and vitality in no time at all, or that’s the plan….

Colin is at his stocktake so Tonight’s dinner has been a delicious salad, which I can not rave about enough.

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Here’s the recipe:

Chicken, Mandarin and Sesame Salad

1 chicken breast, roasted and seasoned, then chopped up

1/2 tin mandarins, in juice

1/2 tbsp sesame oil

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Large handful of watercress leaves

1/2 small red cabbage, shredded

1/2 red pepper, chopped

1/2 red onion, finely sliced

Handful salted cashew nuts

Sprinkling of sesame seeds

  • drain the mandarins over a bowl. To the juice add the sesame oil and rice wine vinegar and whisk together.
  • on a large plate place the watercress, red cabbage, red pepper, red onion, chicken, mandarins and cashews. Sprinkle over the sesame seeds.
  • drizzle over the dressing and serve immediately.

I have made enough for my lunch on my late night at work tomorrow and I can’t wait for it. Massively filling and tasty, and super healthy!

For dinner last night we had some spicy lamb meatballs with a tomato sauce.

ImageColin had requested this dish- unusually for him with lamb mince as he almost always prefers beef, but lamb does go so well with our favourite spice mix of all, ras-al- hanout. And obviously the photo is my dinner, some potatoes for Colin…

Monday night is normally veggie night but I did not get home until late after a meeting so I grabbed some steaks, some chips and a (Waitrose) fresh peppercorn sauce. Lovely, even if I did feel like I was massively cheating. Next time I will endeavour to make my own sauce!😋😋😋

Weekend 27/28th July 2013

A really relaxing weekend, which was really needed after a long week. On Saturday we had to stay in to wait for a man from BT to install BT Infinity- only really being done to make sure we can get BT Sport from next week!!! Although being a Newcastle Utd supporter I probably will not want to be watching the football when the season starts up…..

For lunch we had a little bowl of pasta- tomatoey, garlicky and full of chilli, really yummy.

For dinner I made some Indian inspired dishes: a dal, a bean curry and some marinated plaice.

ImageThe bean curry was an amalgamation of 2 recipes: one for a chickpea curry and one for a red kidney bean curry. However, I realised that I had bought cannellini beans by mistake so adaptations had to be made….. Actually it was ok! Cannellini beans don’t hold their texture as well as red kidney beans and they did break down a little, but mixed with the dal the flavours worked really well.

I am not mentioning the fish….. marinated in some spices and lemon juice then fried, it all collapsed and looked rubbish 🐟🐟🐟🐟🐟🐟

 

On Sunday we had a lie in and then wandered along to Twickenham, trying Ruben’s Bakehouse for pizza.

ImageWe have bought bread, particularly sourdough bread, from Rubens many times as it is delicious, and such a good addition to the high street. We noticed that they have opened up a Pizza place next door so thought we’d give it a go. And how pleased we were! 2 pizzas down- spicy pepperoni and a fresh mozzarella, rocket and tomato. We were bursting as we ate way too much, but happy, happy, happy! We’ll be back on a very regular basis.

Despite feeling like we would never eat again somehow we managed to find room for a little roast loin of pork (rubbed with bashed fennel seeds, thyme and garlic), salad and some little potatoes. A fitting end to a foodie filled weekend. Happy weekend indeed!

 

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