Tried and true


Cooking means different things to different people.  For some, it is feeding their family.  For others, it is a hobby.  For many, it is a chore.

Cooking is what I do to relax, for fun, and to entertain myself at the end of a day. There is nothing I like more than reading food magazines and planning dinner parties, scanning favourite recipe websites for new things to try, flipping through cookbooks and dreaming of canapé receptions. But in recent months that has all changed drastically. I have…a new job.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my new job. And we still eat. We cook dinner nearly every day, and I still cook a few times a week, especially on the weekends. It’s the time that has been lacking lately, but not my love of cooking.  Some days I am just too tired to even think about being creative when it comes to dinner.

One of my favourite Saturday morning activities is sifting through an enormous pile of recipe clippings and choosing two or three new dishes to try over the week.  But some Saturdays I am scribbling down a quick menu from “the repertoire”. You know the repertoire. We all have one. The things we can cook quickly with little fuss, common ingredients, and not much thinking.

So many of us face this dilemma regularly – what do I cook for dinner tonight?  When the pressures of life don’t give you a lot of time to think about this question, we turn to quick and easy meals that are etched into our brains.  I’m sure you have a recipe or two that you can make from memory, using mostly store cupboard ingredients and not a lot of thought or effort required.  Growing up my Dad used to refer to these meals as “Default Dinners”.  In those days, our family default dinners involved things ready-made in the freezer combined with instant foods in the cupboard (can you say frozen breaded veal cutlets and instant scalloped potatoes?).  But over the past few months, I have discovered that quite a few of my own default dinners can be quick and easy, but still home-made and wholesome.

I am very lucky to have a husband that loves to cook and enjoys following a recipe, so even on the nights that I’m too tired to cook we eat well. As I thought more about it I decided that just because it comes from the repertoire, doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious and worth sharing with others.  So for the next few posts, I will be sharing recipes from our super collection of Default Dinners!

Today’s default dinner is a favourite of ours, because there are very few fresh ingredients, and the result is a rich and creamy fish risotto that can be put together from start to finish in about 30 minutes.  I buy smoked haddock from our fish monger and cut and freeze it into portions just perfect for this dish.  Dill is another great ingredient that can be frozen easily – a quick chop of frozen sprigs of dill added to any dish, and you’ll probably never know that this herb wasn’t fresh from the greengrocer. Butter, onions, garlic, rice, and parmesan are all store cupboard ingredients, and chicken stock cubes are a great substitute when fresh stock isn’t an option.  Throw together a quick green salad on the side, and you’re zero to dinner in about 30 minutes!

Smoked Haddock and Dill Risotto

(adapted from, Serves 4


50 g butter

Onion, finely diced

Garlic, 1-2 cloves chopped

300 g risotto rice

100 ml white wine (cooking sherry is a good substitute)

1.2 litres chicken stock, hot (from a cube is fine)

200 g smoked haddock, skinned and boned and finely sliced

2 tbsp chopped dill

2 tbsp chopped parsley (or double the dill if you don’t have both)

50 g grated parmesan

4 tbsp crème fraiche

  1. Melt the butter in a wide shallow pan and gently cook the onion until soft.  Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the risotto rice and cook for 2 minutes, coating the rice in the onion and butter.  Stir in the wine and cook until nearly evaporated.  Add the hot stock a ladle at a time, stirring continuously and keeping the heat high enough for the rice to gently simmer while adding the stock.  Keep adding the stock bit by bit until the rice is cooked but still has a slight bite and a creamy consistency.  This should take around 15-20 minutes.
  2. Stir in the smoked haddock, dill, parsley and parmesan.  Leave to stand for 3 minutes – the heat of the risotto will cook the haddock.  Serve in warm bowls with a dollop of crème fraiche and a spring of dill.

Allison’s 27 Minute and 11 Second Meal

I enjoy a good challenge.  But a four course meal in 30 minutes?  Come on.  Whose brilliant idea was that?

Well Jamie’s.  And a brilliant idea it was indeed, because we all went out in droves and bought the book.  Shortly after its release in 2010, Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals was named the fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time.

But the book wasn’t without its fair share of critics, including many naysayers who felt the recipes couldn’t possibly be made in only 30 minutes.  Well in the words of Barney Stinson challenge accepted!

It took me awhile to decide which 30 minute meal to try.  The only trouble I have with this book is that you have to make the entire meal as Jamie has written it, because all the methodology is written in time sequence for the meal, not for each recipe separately.  So if you like the pasta dish and the dessert from one meal, but want to make the salad from another meal, it’ll get a bit difficult flipping pages back and forth during the cooking process.  And all that dillydallying TAKES TIME FOLKS!  When you’re making a 30 minute meal, you have no time to waste.

I finally settled on the steak sarnie (that’s a sandwich to us non cheeky-chappies) served with crispy new potatoes, cheesy mushrooms and a beetroot and feta salad.  I got my gear out, preheated the oven, dug out the food processor and away I went.  Pleasingly, I cooked all four dishes in 27 minutes and 11 seconds, and even managed to wash a couple of dishes during the process.  A delicious triumph!

Hope you have the same speedy and tasty experience as we did when we made this, and  hope you’ve enjoyed my week with Mr. Oliver!

Steak Sarnie, Crispy New Potatoes, Cheesy Mushrooms, Beetroot Salad

Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals (2010)


Serves 4

Steak Sarnie

  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 ciabatta loaf
  • A small handful of jarred peppers
  • A couple of sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Horseradish sauce, to serve
  • A large handful of prewashed rocket, to serve


  • 4 large flat Portobello mushrooms (approx 250g/ 9oz in total)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • ½ fresh red chilli
  • 2 sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • ½ lemon
  • 70g (2½oz) mature Cheddar cheese


  • 500g (1lb 2oz) baby new potatoes
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • A few sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • ½ lemon


  • Olive oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Beetroot Salad

  • 1 x 250g pack of cooked vac-packed beetroots
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • ½ lemon
  • A bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 50g feta cheese
To start: Get all your ingredients and equipment ready. Put a griddle pan on a medium heat and a large frying pan on a high heat. Turn the grill to full whack. Fill and boil the kettle. Put the coarse grater attachment into the food processor.
Potatoes: Cut any large new potatoes in half, then add all of them to the large empty frying pan with a good pinch of salt. Quickly squash 6 unpeeled cloves of garlic with the heel of your hand, then add to the frying pan. Pour in enough boiling water to cover, then cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until cooked through.
Mushrooms: Lay the mushrooms, stalk side up, on a chopping board. Trim the stalks and place the mushrooms stalk side up in a small earthenware dish that they fit into fairly snugly.
Crush ½ an unpeeled clove of garlic over each mushroom. Finely chop ½ a red chilli and a couple of parsley sprigs, and divide between the mushrooms. Grate over the zest of ½ a lemon, drizzle well with olive oil and season. Cut the Cheddar into four chunks and pop one on each mushroom.
Beetroot Salad: Grate the beetroot in the food processor. Remove the bowl from the processor, take out the grater attachment and pour in a couple of lugs of balsamic vinegar and a few lugs of extra virgin olive oil.
Squeeze in the juice of ½ a lemon. Finely chop a bunch of parsley and add most of it. Stir to dress, then tip into a nice serving bowl. Scatter over the rest of the parsley. Crumble over the feta. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and take to the table.
Mushrooms: Grill on the top shelf for 9 to 10 minutes, or until golden.
Steak Sarnie: Put the steaks on a board. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, pick and scatter over the thyme leaves, and drizzle with olive oil. Rub the flavours into the meat, then flip over and repeat on the other side.
Pound the steaks once or twice with your fists to flatten them a little, then put them into the screaming-hot griddle pan to cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side for medium rare, or longer if you prefer. This depends on the thickness of your steaks, of course, so use your instincts and cook them to your liking. Wash your hands.
Potatoes: Check they are cooked through, and drain in a colander. Return the pan to a high heat, add a good lug of olive oil and tip the potatoes and garlic back in. Use a potato masher to lightly burst the skins open (don’t mash them though).
Add a few sprigs of rosemary and a pinch of salt. Toss every couple of minutes until golden and crisp.
Steak Sarnie: Put the ciabatta loaf into the bottom of the oven. Finely chop the peppers on a large clean board. Move the steaks to the board and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
Finely chop a few parsley leaves, mixing them in with the peppers and all the steak juices. Scrape the pepper mix to one side of the board. Slice up the steaks at an angle.
Mushrooms: Remove the mushrooms from the oven and turn the grill off. Take the mushrooms straight to the table.
Steak Sarnie: Get the ciabatta out of the oven and slice it open. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Spread over the horseradish, then arrange the rocket leaves on one half. Lay the steak slices on top.
Mix and scrape the peppers and juices from the board and scatter over the meat, then fold together and take to the table.
Potatoes: Tip the potatoes on to a serving platter, and put ½ a lemon on the side for squeezing over. Take to the table.

Ah, Mr. Anchovy! Do sit down.

As we continue on with my Jamie Oliver week theme, I am seriously considering renaming this “foods I used to be scared of and now love” week.  First lentils, and now anchovies.  I know.  Anchovies are delicious.  Who knew?

Well in fact, many people knew.  Like most of Italy.  And a lot of France.  And many other people in many other places I’m sure.  However let me clarify my new love of the anchovy for a moment.  I really don’t want to eat them on their own.  I think they’re too fishy and strong to sit on top of a salad or pizza.  Sorry to the Nicoise salad fans out there.  But when you saute them in a little olive oil and garlic and watch them just melt into nothingness, that’s when they are at their finest.  It’s kind of like Thai fish sauce in a way – on its own, it smells like feet.  But once you’ve cooked a Thai dish with fish sauce you couldn’t imagine pad thai without it.  Something about tiny fishy fish that just lend a great salty, savoury, umami quality to a dish.  Like magic.

Take today’s recipe as an example.  Broccoli and pasta.  Sounds nice enough, but just not very exciting.  And then BAM!  (Apologies for the Emeril Lagasse reference, I couldn’t think of a better explosive sound.)  You add some anchovies to the garlic and butter and chili flakes, let those anchovies melt away into nothingness, toss in some al dente pasta and broccoli florets, mix together and voila – you wind up, not with boring broccoli and pasta, but a fantastic dish that makes you a happy camper.  Amazing isn’t it?

Maybe you don’t believe me.  And that’s ok.  In fairness, I think I only tried a dish with anchovies the first time because somebody made me.  And we’re adults right?  We don’t need anyone telling us what to eat.  But if you’re a brave eater, I really encourage you to try the recipe below.  After all, it’s just a simple dish of pasta and broccoli right?  Nothing scary in sight!

Broccoli and Anchovy Orecchiette

Happy Days with the Naked Chef (2002)


  • 2 large heads of broccoli
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 8 anchovy fillets
  • 2-4 small dried red chillies, crumbled, to your taste
  • 4 good pats of butter
  • 1 lb dried orecchiette
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 good handfuls of grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

Using a small knife, trim round the broccoli to remove the dark green flowers from the main stalks and put them to one side.  Peel the stalk, trim off the dry end and throw this away.  Finely chop the stalk and put into a large pan with the garlic, anchovies, chillies and half the butter.  Cover with a lid and cook slowly for 8-10 minutes while you cook your pasta in salted boiling water.  This should take about the same length of time – check the package.  Something I like to do that is slightly different (but better, I’d like to think) is to cook the broccoli flowers with the pasta for the last 4 minutes – this makes them soft enough to eat but leaves them with great colour and texture.

Drain the pasta and broccoli, saving a little of the cooking water, then toss into the other pan.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, the rest of the butter and a large handful of Parmesan.  Mix well, adding a little of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the pasta and make it shine.  Serve immediately, sprinkled with the rest of the Parmesan.

Lentils…not just for hippies anymore

I like to think I was a hippie once.  In the 90s I wore plaid pajama bottoms to school with scuffed used combat boots that I bought from a guy with a rusty safety-pin in his ear in Toronto’s Kensington Market.  Can you hear the gasp from my mother when I came home with those boots?  Yeah, I can still hear it too.  Good thing she never saw the guy who sold them to me.

In addition to my snazzy hippy wardrobe of flowing skirts and peasant blouses, I was “el presidente” of my high school’s environmental group.  I loved Simon & Garfunkel.  I wore dangly beaded earrings.  My friend Rob had a brown VW van and we used to sit in the parking lot at lunch hour and sing Blue Rodeo songs.  Right on.  Groovy.

During those years I also tried (unsuccessfully) to be a vegetarian.  I decided I would subsist on a diet of basically everything I was already eating, just minus the meat. Which meant a lot of mashed potatoes and cooked carrots at home, and a lot of fries and pizza at school.  Not exactly well-balanced.  And I certainly was NOT going to eat weird things like lentils. As if.  Sheesh.

While my vegetarian hippie days are now but distant memories, I have recently found myself head over heels in love with the mystical lentil.  How did THAT happen?  I’ve discovered that lentils don’t have to be overcooked and mushy, no no.  They can be a delicious savoury side dish (or main for that matter), simply cooked in a little stock, drizzled with olive oil and maybe some sautéed onion and garlic and fresh parsley.   Mmmmm.  As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said in the Guardian last week, they are “little marvels”.

The Jamie recipe featured today is from his second book, The Naked Chef Takes Off, and is a very quick, healthy and colourful weeknight dinner dish.  Perfect for your inner hippie on a Wednesday night!  Peace out brothers and sisters.

Salmon Fillet Wrapped in Prosciutto with Herby Lentils, Spinach and Yogurt

The Naked Chef Takes Off (2000)

IMG_7137Serves 4

  • 9 oz lentils
  • four 8 oz salmon fillets, skinned and pin-boned
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 8 slices of prosciutto
  • olive oil
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 good handfuls of mixed herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, mint), chopped
  • 3 large handfuls of spinach, chopped
  • 3/4 cup plain yogurt

Preheat the oven to 425F.  Put the lentils into a pan, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer until tender.  Season the salmon fillets with a little pepper before wrapping them in the prosciutto slices.  Leave some of the flesh exposed.  Drizzle with olive oil and roast in the oven for around 10 minutes until the prosciutto is golden.  Feel free to cook the salmon for less time if pinker is to your liking.  Drain away most of the water from the lentils and season carefully with salt, pepper, the lemon juice and 4 good glugs of olive oil.  Just before serving, stir the herbs and spinach into the lentils over high heat, until wilted.  Place onto plates with the salmon and finish with a drizzle of yogurt seasoned lightly with salt and pepper and stirred well.  Thin the yogurt with a little milk if necessary.

Chinese and pizza and curry, oh my!

I must admit that I have come to enjoy Indian food much later in life than my British friends and family.  I suppose that is because in Canada, Indian cuisine isn’t as readily available as it is in my adoptive home of Britain.  When Canadians crave a takeout meal or can’t be bothered to cook, I think we tend towards pizza and Chinese before anything else.  As a kid growing up in a household that rarely ordered in, I remember being excited for pizza nights like most children get excited waiting for Santa Claus.  Driving with my dad to pick up the pizza, the thrill of holding the very large flat and warm box on my lap as we drove home, the smell of pizza wafting through the air tempting me to open the box and steal a piece of pepperoni.  Delicious memories.

I also remember eating Chinese food as a child in Toronto’s Chinatown with my great Auntie Anne.  Walking to her neighbourhood restaurant was always a special treat, and it was from eating with her that I learned the names of many of the popular Chinese dishes and grew to love these exotic tastes and textures so much.  My grandparents were also big fans of Chinese cuisine and no trip to visit them in Manitoba was complete without a trip to Cathay House in Winnipeg – we always had to order the dry spareribs (with hot mustard) and the wonton soup.  I loved to watch the comically oversized goldfish swimming in the giant pond beside the indoor pagoda.  When my grandfather took Nick and I there for dinner two summers ago I was pleased to see that everything was exactly as I remembered it, even down to the goldfish.

In all honesty, I haven’t had any really amazing Indian restaurant meals since moving to London.  I remember going to Brick Lane on my first visit in 2004, but I don’t have any particular memories of wonderful food.  I have been to a few Indian places near where we live, but wasn’t overly impressed.  We ordered an Indian takeaway with family once, and I was utterly disappointed.  I seem to always order things that are just far too hot to be able to taste anything, or out of my fear of too much spice, I opt for milder things which seem totally bland.  How is this the most popular ethnic cuisine in Britain I wondered?

And then my sister-in-law bought us a great Indian cookbook.  Hallelujah!  The recipes were fabulous, full of flavour and texture, and while many of them required ingredients we needed to source, the dishes were ultimately very simple to make.  But there was one recipe that the book was missing, and that was for the most popular Indian dish in this Britain.

Along came Jamie Oliver and his great book the Ministry of Food.  While initially I found many of the recipes in this book a bit simple and basic for our tastes, there are actually quite a few gems in the book and the Chicken Tikka Masala is definitely one of them.  This has become a regular dish in our house, and it is a treat to eat every time!


Chicken Tikka Masala

Jamie’s Ministry of Food (2008)

Serves 4-6

  • 4 skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 fresh red chilli
  • a thumb-sized piece of fresh root ginger
  • a small bunch of fresh coriander
  • vegetable oil
  • a knob of butter
  • 1/2 a 283g jar of Patak’s tikka masala curry paste
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 x 400g tin of coconut milk (we use the light version)
  • 200g natural yoghurt
  • small handful of flaked almonds
  • 1 lemon

Slice the chicken breasts lengthways into 2cm thick strips. Peel, halve and finely slice the onions. Finely slice your chilli. Peel and finely slice the ginger. Pick the coriander leaves and put to one side, then finely chop the stalks.

Put a large casserole-type pan on a medium to high heat and add a couple of lugs of oil and the butter.  Add the onions, chilli, ginger and coriander stalks and cook for 10 minutes, until softened and golden.  Add the tikka masala curry paste and the strips of chicken.  Stir well to coat everything with the paste and season with salt and pepper.  Add the tomatoes and the coconut milk.  Fill one of the empty tins with water, pour into the pan and stir again.  Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on.  Check the curry regularly to make sure it’s not drying out and add extra water if necessary.  When the meat is tender and cooked, taste and add a bit more salt and pepper – please season carefully.

This will be fantastic served with fluffy rice and with a few spoonfuls of yoghurt dolloped on top.  Sprinkle over the almonds and coriander leaves and serve with some lemon wedges for squeezing over.



IMG_7107Recently I was asked which one chef I admired the most. For someone who owns over 100 cookbooks, subscribes to about six food magazines, dreams about dinner parties and watches far too much food television, I was surprised when I initially drew a blank. But then the answer hit me. Jamie Oliver.

I know, I know. Too easy right? It would have probably sounded better if I had said Julia Child or Thomas Keller or Escoffier. I mean, those chefs were classically trained, they cooked for the love of food and not for the fame, long before the days of TV chefs and million dollar celebrity restaurant openings. I could have picked a chef like Fergus Henderson, someone who has single-handedly made nose to tail cuisine a major trend, influencing other modern chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton and Anthony Bourdain. I could have picked Delia Smith, loved by millions of Britons, a woman whose “Delia effect” could sell any new ingredient to the masses once she featured it in a recipe. But I picked Jamie.

Jamie Oliver, in all his cheeky chappy-ness, has really had a huge influence on my cooking. His rustic, chuck it all together, add-ingredients-to-taste methodology is one that I have gravitated towards. I’m not much for precision when it comes to cooking, which is why I’m not much of a baker I guess. Jamie made cooking look cool, like the best way to be cool to all your mates wasn’t to be the funniest or the smartest, but to cook up a great feast for your hungry friends on a Saturday night after the pub. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with THAT guy? And so I guess in a way I aspired to be that guy too. I started throwing dinner parties for friends, started cooking more at home for my Mom, started to really love cooking. And somehow, after all those years since the Naked Chef graced our screens and bookshelves, I am still a Jamie O kinda girl.

I won’t say that Jamie had any influence on my decision to move from Toronto to London, but boy was it amazing to spend time in the markets I saw on those early shows, buying great produce from Borough Market like him, incredible cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy, meat from those English butchers that called me love. I was in heaven.

Fast forward to today and I must admit to owning the entire Jamie library – although I haven’t kept up my subscription to the magazine and never managed to pick up many of the branded (ahem – expensive) dish ware and cookware items. Nick and I always tune into his various TV programmes and specials and usually find them thoroughly entertaining. But mostly, I am a constant admirer of his tireless campaigns to get us all cooking for ourselves, to get us all eating better – you can’t really fault a guy who could have easily sat back on his successes and not given a crap except to watch the money roll in. But Jamie keeps going. He keeps encouraging all of us.

Looking at our vast Jamie library, I thought it might be a fun experiment to try a week of his recipes, both those recipes I’d always wanted to try, and a few classic favourites too. Might as well put all those books to good use.  I hereby present to you, my week with Jamie!

Monday – Pork Chops with Thyme, Lemon & Pesto and Parmesan & Truffle Mash

The Naked Chef (2000)

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start!  The Naked Chef book, which accompanied the television series of the same name, was full of simple and tasty recipes that made the cookbook buying public sit up and take notice.  With a mouth-watering marinade, and finished with delicious homemade pesto, this pork chop recipe quickly became a favourite in our house. We served this with another of Jamie’s recipes from this first book, Parmesan and Truffle Mash, and some simply sautéed courgettes on the side.  Delish!

Serves 4

  • 1 handful of thyme
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 two-rib pork loin chops, or regular chops
  • 1 pesto recipe (or really good store-bought)

Using a mortar and pestle pound (or very finely chop) the thyme with 1 teaspoon of salt. When pulped, add the garlic and 1 teaspoon of black pepper and pound again.  Stir in the lemon juice and zest and the olive oil.  Smear the mixture over the chops and leave for at least 10 minutes.

Place the chops on a very hot griddle or in a hot frying pan (they make a bit of smoke, so get your fan on!).  Try to get each side nicely charred and golden, but take care and don’t let them burn; if it looks as if they are getting too much colour, turn the heat down.  They take about 8 minutes to cook at a medium high heat.  Don’t overcook pork, it isn’t necessary and will only make the meat dry.  Rest the chops for a few minutes, then spoon some pesto over them.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment!

The Scary Stuff

I’m a good eater. I’ll try all kinds of things and don’t like to think of myself as fussy or picky. I consider it a handicap – if you won’t try new things then you’re missing out on so much.  About ten years ago I got tired of being that person, the one who picked olives off pizza and nachos, so I forced myself to like them. “Eat seven”, was my mother’s advice. “It takes seven olives in a row to love them”, she told me, and by golly she was right.  I am now a great olive connoisseur and can’t imagine a world without them.

Some things are a bit tougher to like. Offal for me has always been difficult. While I do enjoy all kinds of pate and mousse and other things that are made with offal (my mother swears as a child I used to like calves liver with lots of ketchup), these days I’m not so much a fan of a kidney sitting on a plate and looking at me, no matter how much Madeira cream sauce or bacon (or ketchup for that matter) you put on top. For me it’s not what animal part it is, or even what it tastes like, but the texture that turns me off.  Plus it’s a bit scary, even for a relatively open-minded eater.

My husband Nick is a whole different story. He is a food adventure seeker. If it’s weird or scary and no one else wants to eat it, he’ll order it. And thanks to his adventurousness I have tried, and come to like, things like faggots & peas, anchovies, pork crackling, and a personal favourite, roasted bone marrow.  I first had bone marrow on our honeymoon in New York City with our food adventurer friends.  Prune is a small restaurant on the lower east side that serves a bistro-style menu that includes a lot of offal, and I’ll never forget the first moment I experienced the bliss that is roasted bone marrow spread on toast and sprinkled with coarse sea salt and flat leaf parsley. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton was inspired by the food of Fergus Henderson and his St John Restaurant in London. Our cookbook collection now includes copies of Hamilton’s autobiography/cookbook and both of Henderson’s books – needless to say, we have some offally interesting recipes!

While planning a trip to Italy two years ago, I made special note of the many delicious things we had to eat while we were there. Florence is a city where I love to eat, and a city whose famous food I thought I knew everything about. But in planning for this trip, we discovered a Florentine specialty we had not previously been aware of.

I was quite happy sticking to my handmade pasta with shaved white truffles, a glass of Chianti, and my favourite Tuscan dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, a beautifully cooked steak served with rocket and curls of aged parmesan cheese. Divine. These were the stops on my Florentine eating itinerary. Nick, aka ‘Indiana Jones Who Eats Everything’, discovered in our travel guide that trippa alla Fiorentina was a very traditional dish, and still served from a few food trucks in Florence, one of them being conveniently located in front of Mercato Centrale, the city’s main covered market.

As we stood in line one sunny afternoon, wedged between the food market and endless stalls of beautiful leather goods, we found this tripe-lover’s gathering point. The queue wasn’t too long, but we were definitely surrounded by enthusiasts from many parts of the world – everyone seemed very excited. The signs on the truck were largely in Italian, with a few in Spanish and Korean, and the staff didn’t speak much English.  Thankfully we have mastered the art of sign language when eating in foreign lands, and Nick was able to place his order for slow braised tripe in spicy tomato sauce on a squishy white bread roll with a bit of extra hot sauce. The lady nodded encouragingly toward me, as if she knew I wasn’t as willing a participant in this adventure as Nick was.  We found a small space to stand and I watched Nick dive in.

Well what can I say? I had a couple of bites and was pleasantly surprised. The tripe was cut into small strips and was the texture of tender squid.  The tripe didn’t have a strong flavour as I had expected, and the spicy tomato sauce provided some needed zing. For me, it wasn’t bad at all.  Nick of course thought it was fantastic, and happily polished it off. Another satisfied customer it would seem! On our return to Florence this year, we agreed to make another pilgrimage to visit the tripe stall. And while Nick devoured his new favourite regional specialty, I poured over the gorgeous leather goods and picked out a new handbag. In the streets of Florence, there’s something for everyone!

This autumn we went on another jaunt to Italy and spent five days in Turin and Piedmont, taking in the specialties of the region including the wines, the cheeses and the very famous white truffles of Alba. Following the advice of our New York food adventurer friends, we stopped in a family restaurant called Battaglino in a town called Bra, just outside Turin. Bra is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, and is a place where things that are eaten are taken VERY seriously. We knew we were in for a delicious experience. “Try the tripe”, says our friend. And course Nick did.  Delicious and tender, it was buttery and melted in the mouth.  Once again I was very pleasantly surprised.

When we arrived that same afternoon to our B&B in the town of Barolo, we were shocked that a big festival was planned for that Sunday and that it wasn’t to celebrate the world-renowned Barolo wine that we had come all this way for.  A banner reading ‘A Tutta Trippa’ greeted us as we drove down the main cobblestone road of this village.  Everything tripe.  Oh boy.  We watched as the local men gathered in the main square and debated (argued) about how to erect two enormous cauldrons over large gas and wood-fuelled burners, while others fashioned a roof over the cauldron area using scaffolding and topped with massive metal sheets.  Nothing was going to stop this celebration, not even the impending rain.  Tripe is serious stuff in these parts.

On Sunday morning we had an early start, leaving Barolo to begin our drive back to Turin to catch a train to Paris later that morning.  As we walked through the village towards our car, a wonderful warm smell came clouding over us.  As we waded through the fog and steam we came to the two cauldrons being stirred by townspeople using giant-sized paddles.  They looked so excited, and Nick looked so disappointed that we would be missing such a celebration.As we drove away I realised that I might have been wrong about the humble tripe.  Perhaps next year we will mark ‘A Tutta Trippa’ on our calendar and try to return to the beautiful Barolo – I’m sure it would be a delicious experience and a true insight into a very traditional, overlooked, and sort of scary ingredient.