There are many reasons why I could never be "cool" - and I think I've already revealed far too many of them on this blog - but the one which really defines me as a person is that I take things a little bit too far. Cool kids affect a studied nonchalance, deliberately casual. I get enthusiastic, eager and not a bit geeky. When I was about 15, a local boy (a boy!) invited most of my year to a fancy dress party. Obviously, the cool girls wore their normal clothes but a bit more slutty - the link between teenage girls, fancy dress and exposed bras is a whole different kettle of fish - but I wore a proper fancy dress outfit, wig and everything. I realized within a millisecond of getting out of my mum's car that my dedication to a theme had impressed no one but me. That was a long evening.
But the dark teenage days are over, I've embraced my uncool enthusiasm (hello, I studied Latin at university and LOVED it), and now I can be over-excited whenever I want. So when the anniversary of our honeymoon came around, and the sun-drenched memory of our Tuscan cookery class swam into our minds, we decided to throw a party to share our pasta prowess with friends. Then, clearly, we took things a little bit too far. The dulcet tones of Dean Martin singing classics like That's Amore and Volare floated through the air. We bedecked the dinner table with Italian flags, and hung more around our sitting room. A crisp white tablecloth, red and green napkins and little crystal vases of red roses. We even wrote place settings for our guests in pseudo-Italian, with varying degrees of success. Who knew that the name Jennifer doesn't really exist in Italian?
And of course, we had to do the food properly. Bellinis with prosecco and peach, lovely artisan grissini and a bowl of fat, garlicky olives. Starting the meal with a plate of juicy melon, ruffled prosciutto and some gorgeous, oozing buffalo mozzarella from the deli. Then came the pasta - great steaming bowls of lovingly (and time-consumingly) hand-rolled pici in a rich tomato sauce, smothered in parmesan. Pudding was obvious - as you will have noticed, we need no excuse to make ice cream - and we jumped at the opportunity to try out a new flavour alongside the old favourite, chocolate sorbet. Served up with chocolate-filled wafers and ill-advised glasses of grappa, our experiment officially became our New Favourite, and it's on its way to this blog in the very near future.
For main, this pot roast beef served with griddled courgettes was as near as we could get to the veal from our honeymoon. It was a shot in the dark - we'd never made it before - but I'm relieved to say that it was almost a perfect reincarnation, fragrant and rich with red wine and herbs. The meat itself was incredibly tender, pulling apart with a fork. We upped the quantities of vegetables in the recipe and next time we'll add still more, just because we love vegetables and we love gravy. But there will definitely be a next time. This is good enough for a reprise even when we're not sticking to an Italian theme. That's not to say that the theme didn't make it even better, of course. How can you doubt it? Didn't you hear about the flags?
Italian Pot Roast Beef in Red Wine
Adapted from the Waitrose website
Serves at least 10, reheats well
- 24 shallots
- 2kg silverside or brisket beef
- 4 carrots, finely diced (next time we'd do more)
- 4 sticks of celery, finely diced (ditto)
- 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- a handful of fresh thyme
- a couple of bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons of tomato puree
- 400ml beef stock
- 350ml red wine
Preheat the oven to 150C.
Peel the shallots - yes, this is tedious, but it's worth it - by dunking them in a bowl of boiling water for a minute or two.
Heat a splash of oil in a large frying pan over a high heat, and sear the beef for a few minutes each side, or until browned. This will be splattery and hissy, so be careful of your arms! Then transfer it to a big casserole dish, preferably one into which it fits quite snugly.
Return the frying pan to the heat, turn it down a bit and add the shallots, carrots and celery. Stirring intermittently, cook them for a few minutes until just starting to turn golden. Transfer them to the casserole dish too, scattering onto and around the meat.
Back in the frying pan, add the tomato puree, wine and beef stock. Season and bring to the boil, then pour it over everything in the casserole dish. Tuck in the bundle of herbs, then cover the dish and put it in the oven.
Set the timer for 4 hours. You're meant to stir it every half hour but we found that absolutely impossible so just left it alone. After four hours, take the beef out to rest for 20 minutes, covered in foil, before slicing. We just served up the vegetables and gravy as they were, but next time I might be tempted to try to thicken the gravy a bit at this stage, maybe by mushing up half the veg or just stirring in a bit of cornflour.