Date expectations

Date expectations

The first time that you cook for a date is, without any doubt, a nerve-wracking and important occasion. It might seem futile, given that in and around Florence you can't throw a stone without it ricocheting off the walls of at least three or four romantic hole-in-

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Thu 26 Jun 2008 12:00 AM

The
first time that you cook for a date is, without any doubt, a nerve-wracking and
important occasion. It might seem futile, given that in and around Florence
you can’t throw a stone without it ricocheting off the walls of at least three
or four romantic hole-in-the-wall eateries. However, serving something that
you’ve made yourself is thoughtful, considerate and personal.

 

It’s
easy to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the big picture. This is
particularly true here, where an event as simple as going to the supermarket
can turn into a confusing parade of culinary temptation. A wander through
aisles overflowing with scented oils, intriguing cuts of meat, startlingly
aromatic cheeses and gnarled funghi can be overwhelming.

 

The
key is to plan ahead, and make it look spontaneous. Ask your date what
he or she can and can’t eat, does and does not like. You don’t want to serve
your trademark five-bird roast to a guest who told you, over your fourth glass
of wine three weeks previously, that he or she is vegan. Take a list when you
shop and you’ll also avoid forgetting a crucial ingredient.

 

Make
use of your situation.

 

Summertime
in Florence means tomatoes the size of your head and vibrant vegetables
galore-simple and delicious ingredients that don’t need a lot of preparation,
that can be served on the terrace and sampled over a couple of hours and a
glass of wine.

 

Take
advantage of these and use a couple of kitchen tricks to make them seem more
opulent. Fresh tomatoes in a sauce, for example, will take on a velvety shimmer
if you add a little oil or butter and then bake the sauce, covered in a dish,
for 15-20 minutes before serving.

 

Partially
roasting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, courgettes (zucchini) and onions
in olive oil before adding them to your dishes removes a little of their water
and concentrates their flavours. Use the abundantly available fresh
herbs-roughly chopped parsley, crisp-fried slivers of sage leaf, ripped-up
basil-to complement the other flavours that you use.

 

Be
romantic but not clichéd.

 

Oysters
and asparagus are delicious, yes, and certainly the preserve of wannabe
Casanovas the world over. Serving them on a first dinner date, however, is
tantamount to presenting your guest with a banana and then settling back in
your chair with a meaningful expression. Use rich ingredients sparingly. A dash
of truffle oil or a couple of strands of saffron in a risotto, for example, are
noticeable, but won’t bellow over any other flavours. If you do want to use a
typically ardour-inducing ingredient, make it secondary or equal to the rest of
the food on the plate. Envelop asparagus in a white wine, funghi or pesto-based
sauce, for example.

 

Think
about how much you cook. You don’t want to serve too little and leave
your date nibbling at his or her napkin. You can, of course, make a
haystack-sized ribollita and simply hustle the leftovers into a vacant
wardrobe; it’s far better to cook more than enough of one type of food, and
small samples of other dishes, than present a bewilderingly huge buffet.

 

Finally:
relax. Nothing says ‘I know my stuff’ better than presenting your food
with a furrow-free brow; conversation won’t flow if you’re fretting about
whether or not you used too much vinegar in the dressing. Give yourself plenty
of time and taste the food as you go along; don’t be afraid to discard
something that doesn’t work out, and remember that your guest is there to enjoy
dinner with you rather than be wowed by your own brand of molecular gastronomy.

 

 

Braised
rabbit with mushrooms, sage and tomato
(Serves
two)

 

For
this dish, you can remove the bones from the rabbit (carefully trim them out
with a small, sharp knife, leaving the meat in one piece), but here, for
simplicity’s sake, I’ve left them in.

 

1 saddle of rabbit (sella di coniglio)

4
large sage leaves

75
pancetta, cubed

40g
dried, sliced porcini mushrooms, soaked

in
cold water for 1 hour, then washed well

1
tsp fennel seeds

4
ripe tomatoes

1
red onion, peeled

400ml
red wine

1
tbsp olive oil

Salt
and pepper

140g
mixed wild/plain rice

Seasonal
green vegetables to serve

 

You
will also need a large ovenproof dish with deep sides, and some cook’s string.

 

1. Wash the rabbit. If the kidneys and
any large-ish pieces of fat are present, remove and set to one side. Using a
large, sharp, heavy knife, or cleaver, cut the rabbit in two down the spine,
leaving two long halves.

 

2. Chop the kidneys and fat finely (removing the tough
middle part of the kidney). Chop the sage leaves. Add these to a pan with the
oil and pancetta and cook until the bacon is beginning to crisp.

 

3. Add the mushrooms and fennel seeds and stir well
for one minute.

 

4. Lay the rabbit halves on their back and spoon an
equal amount of the mix into the cavity. 
Fold the thinner piece of meat over and wrap each piece into a tight
roll. Secure with string. Now, return these to the pan and brown lightly all
over, sealing the meat.

 

5. Cut the onion and fennel into fine wedges. Crush
the tomatoes into the oven dish with your hands (careful, this can be messy).
Mix in the onion and lay the rabbit on top of this. Finally, pour in the wine.

 

6. Cover with foil and cook in an oven preheated to
200°C for 35-40 minutes. Take the foil off for the last five minutes or so.
Serve with boiled or steamed rice and lightly steamed seasonal green
vegetables.

 

Ingredient of the fortnight: sage

 

Used
in a variety of Italian dishes, normally alongside fatty meats in recipes such
as osso buco and saltimbocca. Elsewhere in Europe,
it’s partnered with onion and used as a stuffing or sauce ingredient.

 

Delicious
when chopped and added to stews, casseroles and sauces: the thick, furry leaves
are a little bitter raw but release their aromatic flavour when cooked. Sage
can also be used as a garnish: frying the leaves until they are crispy and then
salting them lightly gives them a vibrant dark green colour and enticing
texture. Sage can be grown in your garden all year round (it needs to be left
alone for the first year, then to be pruned regularly of stems and leaves as it
grows and turns woody) but is inexpensive to buy in the supermarket. Eat it
with veal, fatty cuts of pork, chicken, turkey, rabbit, sausages, onion and
chicken stock-based soups and sauces, white wine sauces.

 

 

 

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