In the late summer of 2010 we rented a villa on the Costa Tropical in Spain, near Almunecar (which turns out to be the source of every cherimoya fruit I’ve seen since!). The villa was gorgeous, perched high up on a hillside with a 180 degree view of the blue Mediterranean and spectacular sunsets to be enjoyed over poolside cocktails. Most days we’d trundle down to the local beach, laze on the sand and splash about in the turquoise water before lunch in a local beach bar. Later we would pick up ice cold beer and wine, olives, jamon and manchego cheese to take back to the villa and nibble on while watching the sun slip below the horizon. Paradise. But of course there is only so much of this one can take (!) and every few days we would venture further afield. One day we visited the local Moorish castle ruins; another we drove inland to Granada to re-visit one of my favourite places in all the world: the Alhambra palace. And another day we headed for the hills. Past the rolling hills dotted with silver-grey olive trees; past the lush green groves of cherimoya trees; past the loquat trees with their electric orange fruits; past old men in vests with walking sticks sitting outside their houses gazing suspiciously at our shiny rental car; past goats and dogs and donkeys – up winding, narrow roads all the way into the mountains.
We arrived in Otivar at about lunchtime, a tiny village of just over 1,000 souls perched high in the mountains with spectacular views. As with most southern European villages, in the heat of the day it seemed as if everybody was having a siesta. Just a few bored-looking cats lounged about gazing at us in mild curiousity and a couple of old ladies hunched over their canes peered out of dark doorways festooned with curtains of plastic beads or ribbons. You could almost hear them think: “keep walking, stranger!”. After walking around a bit we wandered into the only obviously open restaurant, Restaurante Buenavista, where we were greeted with friendly surprise. Clearly, out-of-season tourists are not an everyday occurrence! Soon, though, we were settled at a table by the window, admiring the view, drinking some local wine and choosing our meal. Lisa, who’d been looking forward to gazpacho all day, immediately spotted it on the menu and ordered it. “Oh no, no gazpacho”, said the owner. Perplexed, Lisa asked whether it was sold out so early in the day. “No sold out, wrong season”, we were informed. You see, gazpacho is a Summer dish and we had wandered into Otivar on 2 October; and as every Spanish schoolboy knows, gazpacho production in Andalucia ceases promptly at the stroke of midnight on 30 September
As the Bible (and the Byrds!) say, to everything there is a season; and although I would not be in favour of quite as rigid an enforcement policy as the Otivarians and their gazpacho, I do think that the thing I love most about the UK is its distinct seasons and the unique pleasure that they provide. Spring with its fragrant blossoms, cheery daffodils and delicate asparagus. Summer with its sunny days, picnics and warm vine-ripened tomatoes and strawberries. Autumn with its gloriously coloured leaves, the smell of woodsmoke and the joys of hearty pumpkin soup. And winter with its crisp frosty days, its tender Brussels sprouts and truffly Jerusalem artichokes. Except… this year, things have not really gone according to plan. You see, Winter simply stayed away! My coat hung forlornly in the hall and my gorgeous new red leather gloves with their black buttons languished by the front door, unworn. My roses kept blooming all the way into December and my daffodils poked ther spiky heads up in the same month, despite my dire warnings to them that This Cannot End Well. Not a flake of snow was to be seen in London. Fair enough, we were saving on heating bills – but I felt kind of cheated. I missed my frosty, crisp days and the satisfying stews that these days usually make me crave.
And then, suddenly this week the frost arrived, covering the fields in a blanket of white and making cars and leaves shimmer in the early morning sun. At last, the universe had fallen back into step with expectations, and I could start making comforting one-pot dinners to be eaten while snuggled up under a blanket in the lounge cradling a glass of red wine. One of the first recipes that sprung to mind was something I’d had in my head to make since last winter – some sort of gratin with sausages and cannellini beans. I often make a really easy sausage and baked bean casserole with dumplings, but this time I was after something a little more sophisticated. The recipe is a slight adaptation of this one from Real Simple and apart from being simple to make, it is truly delicious without being too rich or heavy. In fact, it is very low-fat but still manages to feel like indulgent comfort food – and that’s something that’s always in season at chez Cooksister, whatever the weather decides to do!
SAUSAGE AND CANNELLINI BEAN GRATIN WITH KALE AND PARMESAN (serves 4)
4 pork sausages, either thinly sliced of casings removed and crumbled
1 medium onion, chopped
2 sticks of celery
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 cups of curly kale or cavolo nero, chopped and thick stems removed
1 x 410g tin of shopped tomatoes
2 x 410g tins of cannellini beans, drained
1/2 teaspoon salt (I use Maldon)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 180C and spray a 25x15cm baking dish with olive oil or other non-stick spray.
Place the sausages slices/meat in a large frying pan over medium-high heat and cook for about 5-7 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the sausage from skillet and set aside. Add the celery and onion to the pan and cook until the onion is translucent but not browned. Add the garlic and sage and cook for another minute or two.
Add the kale, a handful at a time, stirring until slightly wilted. Then add the chopped tomatoes, beans and sausage meat. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the mixture into the baking dish and set aside.
In a small bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, Parmesan and remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle the mixture on top of the beans and bake the whole dish until golden brown and bubbly (about 30 minutes). Serve hot with a glass of Italian Merlot.
Did you miss our our super-successful Tuscany Plate to Page workshop last October? Well, registrations are open for Plate to Page Somerset due to be held in the UK in Spring 2012! Have a look at the programme, details about accommodation, and if it looks like something you’d like to attend,register here - but hurry: places are limited to 12. It would be great to see you there!