When I think of the variety of food there is to buy, cook with and order in restaurants, especially compared with what I grew up with, it makes even my mind boggle. There's been such a fundamental change in the way we eat and entertain our friends. Dinner parties were unheard of in our corner of Dorset, and I grew up with my gran eating home-cooked traditional British food. It's been a huge influence on what I cook today, as I find myself drawn back to the tastes of my childhood, hopefully adding a little modern sophistication, but also delving further back into English cookery. Along the way I trained the classical and predominantly French way, then got into, among others, Spanish, Asian, Caribbean, north African, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines, reflecting my travels and the restaurants I have been involved with.
Asian food particularly has had a dramatic impact, and it's completely at home here now - you'll find a Thai curry at the pub, alongside the braised beef in Guinness. To cook it at home authentically, all those south-east Asian and Indian spices, lemon grass, cardamom pods, cinnamon, curry, methi and lime leaves and fresh coriander are available in supermarkets and from ethnic grocers. We now have tropical fruits our grandparents never saw in their lives. Even ingredients they were familiar with come in many different varieties. Vinegar used to mean Sarson's at the local chippie. Now there are Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon vinegars, a foodie's must-have for the larder. Balsamic vinegar is drizzled over everything, including desserts. With so many different flavours and styles whirling around, cooking and entertaining has never been more exciting.
At the same time there's been a revolution in what we drink. Dinner parties aren't just about food, but finding drinks to go with dishes from around the world. There's wine not just from the usual suspects in Europe, but from, among others, California, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and South America, where they're producing modern wines to suit new styles of eating. Making the right choice can be daunting. So for my new book, The Simple Art of Marrying Food and Wine, I teamed up with the wine writer Malcolm Gluck to match wines to the recipes. With dishes as diverse as Catalan broad beans with chorizo, to bratwurst with rösti and onion sauce, lamb baked in hay with lavender to noodles from the Mekong delta, I didn't give him an easy ride. But we've got some great matches. Here's one menu that makes throwing a dinner party a cinch.
Slow-baked plum tomatoes
This makes a good starter if you serve it with a few rocket or other salad leaves. Or have it as an antipasti or side dish.
10 medium-sized plum tomatoes
2tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing
2tsp chopped thyme leaves
1tsp sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3tbsp olive oil
1/2tbsp balsamic vinegar
A few rocket leaves (optional)
8 slices of prosciutto or good-quality ham (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 130C/Gas mark1/2. Halve the tomatoes, cutting through the core. Lay them, cut side up, on a baking tray lined with lightly oiled greaseproof paper. Mix the olive oil, thyme, sea salt, and black pepper, and brush or spoon over the tomatoes. Bake for about 11/2-2 hours until the tomatoes have shrunk to half their size and are lightly coloured and caramelised on top. Remove and cool a little.
To serve, mix the olive oil with the vinegar and season. If using rocket leaves, place a few on to plates or a large serving dish and arrange the tomatoes on top. Lay the prosciutto on the side and spoon the dressing over.
Pinot nero (north-east Italy)
(Verona - north-east Italy)
Pinotage (South Africa)
Pinot Noir (New Zealand)
The acidity of tomatoes will normally take the edge off any red wine, but this dish has its own edge mollified by the prosciutto. Thus a chilled north Italian pinot nero will suit, as will a valpolicella classico from Verona. But a young, chilled pinotage from the Cape is also good, as are certain New Zealand pinot noirs: Mount Difficulty, Ata Rangi, Cloudy Bay, Jackson Estate, Wither Hills and Villa Maria Reserve, for example. However, in circumstances where the tomatoes in this dish still display some raw acidity the pinotage is much to be preferred to any pinot noir. Names to look for in particular are Clos Malverne, Warwick, Spice Route (which has a particularly funky, gamey edge suited to the dish), and Kanonkop.
Thai green chicken curry
There are some good-quality Thai green curry pastes on the market. They give a Thai curry a good base and the chilli heat it needs, especially when you haven't got an oriental grocery nearby. Try to buy an authentic one, which will probably be scribed in Thai. Look in your local supermarket's "special" range, and in particular for one by Charmaine Solomon, an Australian authority on Asian cuisine. You can add various extra ingredients to a Thai curry, such as pea aubergines - which are literally tiny, pea-sized aubergines - pumpkin etc. It's also important not to miss out any of the spices as each adds its own character to the dish.
2tbsp vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1kg chicken thigh meat, skinned, boned and halved if large
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 sticks lemon grass, trimmed and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
30g galangal or root ginger, scraped and finely chopped
1tbsp Thai green curry paste
4 lime leaves
1.5litres chicken stock
150ml coconut milk
for the fresh green paste
4 lime leaves
A few sprigs of coriander
A few sprigs of Thai basil
1 stick lemon grass, trimmed
Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, season the chicken thighs, place them in the pan, and cook on a high heat for about 5-6 minutes. Add the onions, lemon grass, garlic, and galangal and continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
Add the curry paste, lime leaves, and chicken stock, bring to the boil, season, and simmer for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, blend the ingredients for the fresh green paste with a tablespoon or so of water until smooth.
Add the coconut milk and fresh green paste to the curry, and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the sauce has thickened. Serve with jasmin or basmati rice.
Pinot gris (New Zealand)
Verdelho (Western Australia)
Chenin blanc (South Africa)
Gewürztraminer (Alsace - France/New World)
Verdelho from Western Australia (Bleasdale is excellent) is one interesting choice. Another is a chenin blanc from the Cape where the grapes have been a trifle late. And third, which surely heads the candidate list, is New Zealand pinot gris. What the coconut milk, basil, and galangal do to all these grapes is enhance their grapiness and very subtle spiciness; in return, the wine emphasises the dish's ingredients, especially the lemon grass and chilli. None of this can be achieved with beer, which simply wipes the palate clean. It adds nothing to the dish.
Gewürztraminer, if it is young and frisky, is fine, and New World examples are certainly preferable to many from Alsace, unless you can get one from the co-op at Turckheim. This provides a satiny-textured, genteel tanginess without excess spice; perfect with this dish.
Riesling and berry jelly
Jellies are so adaptable to the seasons. Earlier in the summer there are elderflowers, and Champagne, and as autumn approaches, you can use apple juice with the blackberries. Imported berries are available for most of the year, but tend not to have the flavour of seasonal fruit. But the growing season of our native berries stretches into autumn now, and if you can find different varieties such as tayberries, blueberries (also grown in Dorset into the autumn), wild blackberries as well as any remaining strawberries, this jelly is a great way to make them go further.
Juice of half a lemon
150g caster sugar
5 sheets leaf gelatine
120g soft fruit such as raspberries, sliced strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackberries
Bring 300ml of water and the lemon juice to the boil. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then remove from heat. Soak the gelatine leaves in a shallow bowl of cold water for a minute or so until soft. Squeeze out the water and add the gelatine to the syrup along with the riesling. Stir until dissolved.
Put the jelly somewhere cool, but do not let it set. Fill individual jelly moulds, or one large one, with half the berries, then pour in half of the cooled jelly. Put in the fridge for an hour or so to set, then top up with the rest of the berries and unset jelly. This allows the berries to stay suspended and not float to the top. Return to the fridge. To serve, turn out, and offer thick Jersey cream to go with it.
Torcolato (Veneto - north-east Italy)
Orange Muscat and Flora (Victoria - Australia)
Not any old dessert wine will do for this chunk of hedonism on a plate. Bring up from the cellar a bottle of Torcolato, the Italian sweetie. This white is a deep gold in hue, made from tocai, vespaiolo, and garganega grapes in the Veneto. It is made from half-dried berries, and, with age (not anywhere near as long as with other sweet wines), it offers some delicious honey and tropical fruitiness with an underlying hint, in some vintages, of candied cherries.
Botrytis, the so-called noble rot, can also be present in the grapes, so they are already dehydrated before being picked and left to dry further. The only wine I am familiar with over several years of tasting is produced by Faustino Maculan. This won't be found in every street-corner bottle shop, and so, in its absence, I can recommend Brown Brothers Orange Muscat and Flora from the state of Victoria, Australia. When young, this is excellent with this dessert. Some even claim it is superior to many fine sweet Bordeaux.
From 'The Simple Art of Marrying Food and Wine' by Mark Hix and Malcolm Gluck. Published by Mitchell Beazley, £20. To order for the special price of £18 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897Reuse content