Thursday, 22 October 2015

A themed evening of Britpop and recipes from the River Café Cook Book

Written by Dee

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to find a copy of the River Café cook book in a local charity shop, so snapped it up quickly full of enthusiasm to try out some of the recipes.
The book was written by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, who were chefs and owners of the now legendary River Café Restaurant in London, which launched the careers of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and a number of other chefs.  Rose has now passed away but the restaurant remains under Ruth’s ownership.
This is a book of Italian cuisine, with the emphasis on using the finest quality ingredients and little need for expensive or sophisticated kitchen gadgets.  Back in the mid-1990s I can remember the hype surrounding the whole River Café philosophy and although I never had the chance to eat there, I felt drawn to the attractively photographed food.  It was cooked and served in a top London restaurant, yet it had a home-cooked look and feel to it.  Of course, there was no such thing as a food blog back then, and without uninterrupted access to a kitchen where I could try and replicate the dishes at home, not to mention cooking skills which were rudimentary at best, the fabulous photos and tempting recipes eventually faded from memory.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and I watched an interesting television documentary about the restaurant, in which the book was featured quite extensively, and added it to that never-ending list that I keep of cook books to buy.  I searched on-line for details of the documentary but couldn’t find any reference to it at all.  It’s a shame, as it would be great to see it again.
With the book now bought, the next step was to select the recipes to cook first.  There were many to choose from and I could have easily designed a full-on banquet, but Jay reined me in and helped with the selection.  In the end, we settled on a few fairly straightforward recipes that we could enjoy on a Friday night.

For the main course we chose Bistecca di Manzo con Rucola (Steak and Rocket) with Verdura Mista in Graticola (Marinated Grilled Vegetables).  We don’t have a griddle pan so ended up coating the vegetables in oil and seasoning them before roasting them.  They came out well; softened with slightly charred edges, and certainly delivered the robust flavour that the recipe required.  The steaks were simple seasoned and then fried according to preference, which is rare for Jay and medium for me, then served on top of dressed rocket leaves.  The steaks were supposed to cover the rocket leaves completely so that they wilted down evenly, but we left a few peeking out, so that they could be seen in the photo.  We used a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the dressing, though the recipe calls for red wine vinegar.  We have some excellent Portuguese olive oil which added a rich smoothness to the dish.
Although there weren’t a huge number of ingredients on the plate, the combination of flavours was delicious, and the quality of the ingredients certainly shone through.

The book also includes a great dessert section at the back and, while the authors admit that not all of the recipes are ‘authentic’ Italian, there is much of interest in there; several sorbet and ice cream recipes and frequent inclusion of chocolate.  Chocolate Nemesis was listed as the most popular dessert at the restaurant, but I opted instead for the Torta di Nocciole e Ricotta (Hazelnut and Ricotta Cake).  This proved to be a great choice and I was again happy with how it turned out.  Just as well really, as the ingredients listed were enough for two cakes. 
I was initially wary of the 8 eggs that were used in the cake batter, but these provided a pleasant lightness of texture, and the cake wasn’t too sweet tasting despite having 250g caster sugar in the mix.  The chopped hazelnuts provided a nice contrast to the light cake and there was also a slight citrusy bite from the small amount of lemon zest that we added.  We cut right back on the quantity stated in the recipe, which we felt would have swamped the other rather delicate flavours.  We also cut back on the grated chocolate for the same reason.  This was sprinkled over the baked cake as soon as it came out of the oven; the idea being that it would melt and form a glaze.  I was most impressed with the finish that it provided.

We enjoyed everything we made, and the simplicity of the recipes and presentation of the food, which admittedly we didn’t take as much care of as they had for the book, were such that the evening ended up being much more than just retro-dining.  The other recipes that I have perused look like they have stood the test of time, so I’m looking forward to trying out a few more of them soon.

The Soundtrack:  Various Artists - Common People; Britpop: The Story
First things first: This compilation doesn’t include any songs by Oasis or Blur, so can only really be considered an incomplete story of Britpop.  Secondly, some of the artists featured, such as Placebo, James and Kenickie do stretch the definition somewhat, but nit-picking aside, this isn’t too bad as a compilation.  Although it doesn’t include the two biggest names, there are still quite a few hits included.  Some of my favourites include Sleeper’s ‘Inbetweener’, Cast’s ‘Alright’ and Monaco’s ‘What do you want from me’.
No, it isn’t strictly music to dine to, but I was after some sounds that were around at the time that the book was out, to complete the theme.  I didn’t allow myself enough time to put a playlist together but this turned out to be close enough to what we were looking for.

I do enjoy putting these themed menus together and have a few more planned for the future, so watch this space…

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