Monday, 17 June 2013

Lamb’s neck fillet with gnudi, fresh peas and olive crumb

After writing reviews for the last couple of posts, it feels good to finally have got some cooking done again. Although I love having chilled out days off, I also love filling them experimenting with new things. Over the past few weeks I have been really getting into Italian cooking, having watched Simon Hopkinson and Theo Randall on the television and bought the River Cafe cookbooks. I just love the attitude to food that this type of cooking has, where it’s all about the flavours and quality of ingredients. Some of my best food memories are tucking into a bowl of pasta or a big rustic salad, so I’m excited to discover more!

It was whilst watching Simon Hopkinson that I found out about gnudi. These are small ricotta dumplings that are gently poached to form little hot cheesy domes. What more could you want! I was desperate to try these out, and thought that they would work perfectly in this dish. Ricotta is naturally quite a bland cheese that needs flavouring, and it balances the strong olive crumb and lamb sauce in this dish with it’s lightness. Although you have to make them the day before cooking, they only take 10 minutes and are really easy. They would be perfect for making in bulk when cooking for numbers, and only need minutes to finish on the day. I will definitely be trying out other recipes with them in the future. 

With Italian cooking in particular, the food is mostly really simple, placing emphasis on choosing the best quality ingredients possible. With things like mozzarella, olive oils and in this case, ricotta, there is a stark difference in taste from the cheap produce found in the supermarkets to what you can get from specialist shops and delis. To source my ricotta I went to my local cheese mecca, La Fromagerie in Highbury. I rarely need an excuse to visit and smell that intense waft as you walk through the door, and on this occasion they failed to disappoint. I got home with a ricotta with much better flavour, and important to this recipe, texture. The stuff you find in supermarkets seem to be on the wetter side, which will make it much more difficult when rolling the gnudi. 

Lamb neck fillet might not be top of everyone’s list when thinking of cuts to use, but it packs a lovely flavour and is quite reasonably priced. Ignore the slow cooking advice given on the internet and cook it quickly for a pink centre, which will give tender and succulent results. As is important with cooking most meats, allow time to rest properly. This will also give you time to finish all of the other elements to the dish before plating up. When buying the meat, ask your butcher for any lamb bones and trim. They will make your sauce so much better and won’t cost very much.

The use of charlock flowers might seem a bit weird or unnecessary, but they add to the dish both visually and with their subtle, mustardy taste. I came across them by accident at the Stoke Newington farmers market at the weekend, but if you can’t get hold of them then peashoots alone will be fine.

Serves 2


For the lamb:

2 lamb’s neck fillets, excess fat removed
1 tbsp olive oil
30g butter
Salt and pepper

For the gnudi:

200g good ricotta
30g parmesan, finely grated
2 tbsp fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/2 lemon, zest only
Salt and pepper
Semolina, for dusting

For the sauce:

200g-300g lamb bones and trim, cut into small pieces
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled but kept whole
10 sprigs thyme
1 large glass dry white wine
500g lamb stock
30g butter
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

For the olives:

100g good black olives, stones removed

For the peas:

2 handfuls fresh peas, podded and shelled
30g butter
Salt and pepper

For the crispy mint leaves:

12 mint leaves
4 tbsp vegetable oil

To garnish:

Extra virgin olive oil
Charlock flowers

Make the gnudi 24 hours before needed. Mix the ricotta with the parmesan, herbs and lemon zest in a bowl and taste. Add seasoning if needed. Pour a good layer of semolina into a shallow tray. Carefully roll small balls out of the ricotta mixture that are slightly larger than a raspberry, then place them in the tray and dust with the semolina. Repeat until the mixture is rolled, then cover and put in the fridge. 

Also cook the olives in advance. Set to oven to 80ºC and scatter the pitted olives on a greaseproof lined oven tray. Put in the oven for 8-10 hours, or until dried through. When ready, blitz in a food processor until a fine crumb. Set aside until needed. 

To make the sauce, take the bones and trim out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Heat up a large skillet pan to a hot temperature and add a little oil. Season the bones and sear all sides until very well browned. Turn the pan down slightly and add the shallot, garlic and thyme and fry again until coloured. Turn the heat back up and add the white wine, and allow to bubble and reduce by half. Pour in the lamb stock and slowly reduce until the sauce is thickened and about 150ml is left. Strain through a fine sieve into a small saucepan, cover and set aside for finishing later.

While the sauce is cooking, pod and shell the peas.

Heat up a small pan with the vegetable oil for the mint leaves. When hot, quickly fry the mint leaves for about 30 seconds, turning occasionally, then remove carefully and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside until later. 

Take the lamb out of the fridge to come to room temperature.

Fill a medium saucepan with well salted water and bring to the boil. When it is nearly boiling, heat up a dry large non-stick pan to a high heat for the lamb.

To cook the lamb, season on all sides and rub well with oil. When the pan is hot place the lamb in the pan and cook quickly on all sides until well browned. When the lamb is coloured, add the butter to the pan and baste. Carefully control the temperature of the pan to not burn the lamb, and keep touching the meat to tell how well it is cooked as you would when cooking steak. After about 5 minutes the lamb should be cooked, remove from the pan onto a board and allow to rest for another 5 minutes. Once rested, slice into thin rounds.

While the lamb is resting gently reheat the sauce and stir in the butter. Taste and season if needed. 

At the same time cook the gnudi in the boiling water. Carefully shake off any excess semolina and drop into the pan. Turn the heat down to a gentler boil and poach for 4-5 minutes, until they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a warm plate and keep warm until you plate up. 

Also cook the peas. Add the butter to the same pan as the lamb was cooked in with 2 tbsp water. When melted pour in the peas and cook for a minute or two on a medium heat until tender. 

Dress the peashoots in a small bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil. 

To plate up, arrange slices of the lamb onto the plate and put the gnudi amongst them. Spoon over some of the peas and them a good amount of sauce. Place the mint leaves, peashoots and charlock flowers around the edge of the meat and sprinkle over a good pinch of the olive crumb.

Restaurant review: The Social Eating House, Soho

Lunch service can be the best way to sample the food at top restaurants without having to pay an arm and a leg. Set menus sometimes have the reputation of dragging up the scrag ends of the kitchen, but in the better restaurants you can get amazing value for money. This was recently highlighted by seasoned blogger The Critical Couple, who compiled a review of seven places offering special lunch deals. It showed a mixed bag of results, but by far the restaurant that jumped out at me was The Social Eating House. This is Jason Atherton’s new venture in Soho after rave reviews for the Pollen Street Social and Little Social in Mayfair. I have long been a fan of Atherton’s cooking and attitude to food, but the really striking thing was the value for money. I needed little encouragement as it was, but at £21.00 for three courses it looked an absolute bargain. You could spend more than that in Cafe Rouge. Venue set, and a Saturday lunch date was booked. 

The day of the lunch was one of those sultry dreamy types just perfect for strolling around in town. Soho was crammed and buzzy with tourists, and the seediness had a few hours left before leaking out. The name Social Eating House implied an informality, yet we still didn’t quite know what to expect. The restaurant was about half full yet the small space still had a bustle about it and was welcoming, and interesting with the mirrored ceiling modern distressed walls. What was also noticeable was the total cross-section of diners. They were all there; Made In Chelsea in one corner, lad’s lunch over there, poshy date on the next table and the obligatory couple who hate each other at the end. She spent the whole meal on the phone. The man with the backwards cap and sunglasses meant that any notion of being underdressed was quickly dispelled.

Our waiter was kind, despite us feeling apprehensive about being the cheapskates ordering the set lunch and tap water. As is often the case, a glass of prosecco in and the nerves set to relax. Set menus in their very nature don’t offer much choice, but despite the few options it took some time to decide on our order. None of the items were what we would normally pick, with ox tongue, stone bass and lamb breast all billed. But I feel like these kind of restaurants are the places to jump out of comfort zones and try something new, so was excited to educate my palate. 

Jay Rayner and The Critical Couple both recommended the starting jars, in particular the salt cod brandade with parsley sauce and thick salt and vinegar crisps. The jar was just that, a jar, and in it again something I never tried before. But after a scoop of the smooth fish and herb sauce we were instant converts. The flavours were balanced perfectly, with the subtle cod standing up to the garnishes. There was just enough too, leaving a lovely taste yet enough room with three more courses to go. 

A beautiful plate of tongue. A sentence that I never thought I would write, yet what was put in front of me was just that. A thin slither topped with delicate pickled mushrooms, crouton and a sticky onion puree danced together and was visually stunning. Despite this I still managed to have food envy, as Katie’s starter was incredible. Pea, mint and ham soup - a trip back to the 80’s surely? Not in this case. A delicately poached hens egg sat daintily in the bottom of the bowl, surrounded by crushed peas and topped with shards of brittle, salty ham. The silky yet intense pea veloute was poured around and was just spectacular. This was no thick and clumsy soup, it was delicate, each taste pinging in your mouth. That one little bowl will remain in our minds for quite some time, and will always trump my homemade favourite.

The mains had a lot to live up to. Again my stone bass was stunning, and possibly the best way that I have seen cous cous presented. It was a true summer lunch dish; perfectly cooked fish, ripe tomatoes and pepper. It didn’t make the world move as much as the starters, but was delicious. Katie’s lamb breast with nicoise garnish fell apart at the mere suggestion of a fork and was rich and flavoursome. It is such an underrated cut of meat and certainly inspired me to give it a go at home. Two courses, and the best part of a bottle of prosecco down and we were (drunk) happy bunnies.

The dessert options caused me a few issues. I have a complicated nut allergy, meaning that some nuts are fine, but others are not so good. In the past I have been rather blase about it, but after a slight scare following my meal at Polpo the week before I thought it best to ask our waiter. In describing my needs I managed to confuse the poor man, but eventually it was determined that none of the options on the set menu were suitable. Instead I was kindly offered to select one from the a la carte menu, which I was extremely grateful for. That said, I was also jealous at the sound of Katie’s coconut and chocolate dessert which sounded divine. 

It looked it too, quenelles of sorbet, aerated chocolate and a translucent tuile were swiftly demolished without the slightest taste from me. However, this time it was my turn to be dealt the memorable dish. My jar, yes another jar, of homemade yoghurt topped with strawberries cooked a number of different ways was frankly incredible. Granita, sorbet, poached and jellied all gave a different sensation. The sheer amount of strawberry flavour that the chef had managed to extract was ridiculous. I’m not normally a dessert person, but I would happily eat that again and again, and would return just for that. 

The table next to us had managed to consume an impressive amount of cocktails during their meal, each one housed in a different ornate or intriguing glass. So we though it rude to not have one before our departure. The drinks menu had fun, if not slightly cringe-worthy names, and it felt slightly embarrassing to ask for two ‘dill or no dills’, but they lived up to their appearance and were seriously good. Often cocktails can seem too sharp or alcohol heavy, but these were a joy to drink. 

We stumbled out into the busy hazy Soho Streets with that funny amazement that you get when leaving the cinema and discovering that it is still light outside. But we were also amazed at the food we had just eaten, especially considering the value. The skill of the chef is to use humble ingredients and make them sing, and this had been a masterclass. Simple pea soup, old-fashioned tongue and forgotten pieces of lamb all the polar opposite. Certainly another astounding success in the making for the Jason Atherton team, and I look forward to visiting his other restaurants for food that good.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Restaurant review: Polpo, Covent Garden

Since moving to London I have often asked for recommendations on places to go when in town, and Polpo has always come out near the top. So when planning my dad’s birthday recently with my sister, as soon as dinner there was mentioned we knew we were onto a winner. Dad always gets given cookbooks, but he was particularly pleased when he unwrapped the Polpo one at Christmas. Brimming with beautiful plates of Venetian tapas I had full on book envy, and knew that he would love the real thing as a birthday treat. 

Over the past few years the Polpo empire has expanded with a number of sites in central London, and has become a true dining institution. You cannot look at Twitter for five minutes without someone raving about. Like many of the trendy new ventures in town, Polpo operates a no-booking policy, and I was wary as to whether five of us would be sat at all. Would we end up in sad looking chain full of disappointment. This wasn’t a million miles away. Greeted by a large queue and long wait at the Soho branch, my heart sank. However, I was quickly informed that the next, and bigger branch was just a short hop away in Covent Garden, so we set off with haste. Often in these situations you feel like every other member of the public is heading to the same place, and this was no different as I set about racing shoppers and barging small children to try and avert a repeat performance. 

There was another queue. Of course there was. But there was also a pub opposite, and a 45 minute wait over a pint didn’t seem like the worst option. Even after the brief doorway impressions I was excited; the dimly lit, beautifully rustic room was heaving, and carried a buzz radiating off every table. The menu reflected this, the sort where you could easily order every item. I couldn’t wait to get in. 

Prosecco, arancini, scallops and peas, the dishes were empty moments after getting to the table. Light, delicate and bursting with flavour. Dad’s a good cook, and every meal gets the critique to the standard of his home fare, but here him and mum were relaxed, happy, overwhelmed. Food, drink and service flowed in harmony as we recalled stories of Venice holidays, fish markets and ripe tomatoes. Beautifully refreshing mozzarella with new season broad beans and perfectly crisp light fritto misto followed, and were downed with as much gusto. 

Tapas is a funny thing. Some love the mouthful of everything that you get, whilst I am in the opposite camp. I am the Chinese takeaway stick in the mud. I like my choice and will pick something that I want to eat. All of it. So I was hesitant at the thought of five of us sitting round scrimping from the small plates. I was surprised. Despite the numbers, each plate provided a good amount, even room for second helpings. My sister is a vegetarian, but unlike the lazy afterthoughts seen at other restaurants her choices were fought over. The simple sounding spinach, parmesan and soft egg pizzette was one of the tastiest things I have eaten in a while, packing a real depth of flavour from such humble ingredients. 

The big guns emerged in the third round, charred soft lamb and spiked caponata and the real star calves liver. I never order liver, but something swung me that evening and it was just amazing. Tender, deep and unctuous. Just delicious. I was a convert, and vowed to get blogging with some recipes of my own. 

There was just room for a couple of desserts, a fragrant moist almond cake and a dinky cup of foamy tirimisu. We were plump, rosy cheeked and satisfied. 

AA Gill wrote last year about the emergence of restaurants serving food that 30 years ago would have been cooked at home. He said this disparagingly, but I think that this can be a celebration in some scenarios. At Polpo the food was great. It didn’t blow me away with technique or new flavours, it just tasted really good. The rustic presentation and setting gave the meal that homely family gathering feel, and in this situation it was perfect. I would rather this than sitting in a mindnumbingly dated Michelin hotel restaurant any day. 

There was one thing that I hated though, and it wasn’t the food. It was the music. I understand that it’s trendy and young, but I never want to be having a lovely meal to suddenly hear Catatonia booming from the walls. Justin Timberlake followed. It just threw me. Where did this all fit in with authentic Venetian food and an intimate atmosphere. This all got gently louder towards the end, and just didn’t really have a place. If the cleaners were rearing to get going and wanted to clear the place then I applaud the tactics. 

But that was all. If you are into dodgy 90s music and good food then this will be heaven. If you are into good food then this will be heaven. Just hum loudly.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Porterhouse of Dexter beef with bearnaise sauce, Jersey Royal potatoes and greens

After cooking loads of fish recently, it is definitely time that I tackled a piece of meat. I was inspired recently by reading an excellent article by Jay Rayner about his favourite eating experiences. His choices ranged from dining at el Bulli and the St John to more personal meals such as crab on the beach and a big piece of steak at home with his wife. It was this last example that hit a chord with me, and got me thinking about the best things that I have eaten. Holidays scoffing carpaccio in tucked away Venetian restaurants and fresh seafood off a Cornish campfire sprung to mind, but certainly the best thing that I have eaten recently was chomping through a steak as big as my head at Hawksmoor in February.

So beef it was, and instead of buying a standard ribeye, I wanted to try something a little more special. One of the greatest meals that Katie and I never had was when we paced the streets of Florence a few years ago, frantically looking for somewhere decent that would offer us one of it’s famed slabs of t-bone. After hours of searching we got impatient in the humidity, and settled in a rubbish tourist restaurant for rubbery gnocchi and tough veal. I’ve been keen to settle that one ever since. Still, I was slightly hesitant about ordering a porterhouse (which has more fillet attached than a t-bone), as frankly it is an expensive piece of meat and I wanted to do it justice. I have cooked conventional steaks loads of times but my experience of cooking larger joints of meat is quite limited, so I would have to be very careful.

Cuts of meat such as t-bone, porterhouse or even bone-in ribs or sirloin are only really available from good independent butchers. I am lucky enough to have some great ones a cycle ride away, but last week I was really short on time, and there was no way that I would get the chance to visit my favourite Ginger Pig. Whilst researching cuts of meat I stumbled upon the website for the East London Steak Co, which instantly impressed with easy functionality and a great selection of produce. I would never normally order meat or fish online, as I like to see the quality before buying and I try and support local supplier as much as possible, but thought that I would give it a go. I have to say that the service and quality were excellent, and I was very happy with what I received. If I ever need meat at short notice and can’t make it to the shops then I would definitely buy from them again. 

The only surprise that occurred from ordering online was that when the meat was delivered, I discovered that the cattle breed was Dexter. Dexter cows are much smaller than average, and as a result my 1kg porterhouse was much smaller and thicker than I was expecting. I was happy with this though, as Dexter meat is considered to have great flavour and tenderness, so was excited about trying it. My only concern was that my initial cooking timings would be thrown with this much thicker piece of meat. 

After a lot of prodding and checking during the cooking process, I was extremely pleased with the results. The sirloin side was perfectly cooked for me, pink and tender all the way through without being raw. I have to say that the fillet was a little overcooked, and only slightly pink. But I’m not sure if cooking the two parts evenly is all that possible given the tiny size of the fillet, but it was still very tender and juicy. The flavour of the meat was extraordinary, and I only have the quality, aging and hanging of the meat to thank for that.

Pairing the steak with simple Jersey Royals and greens complimented the flavour of the meat perfectly, and turned it into a complete meal. Albeit a very meat heavy one. Jersey Royals and broad beans are bang in season right now and should be made the most of.

Serves 2 very hungry people

For the beef:

1 x 1kg dexter porterhouse steak
10 sprigs fresh rosemary
10 sprigs fresh thyme
5 garlic cloves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the bearnaise sauce:

4 egg yolks
1 small banana shallot, very finely chopped
4 tbsp tarragon, chopped
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
250ml clarified butter
1/2 lemon, juice only
3 tbsp cold water
Salt and pepper

For the Jersey Royals:

12 small jersey royal potatoes, washed and scrubbed lightly
50g butter
1 garlic clove, sliced
2 tbsp tarragon leaves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the greens:

1 large handful broad beans, podded and shelled
250g baby spinach leaves
50g butter
2 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp thyme leaves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Take the steak out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking to allow it to get to room temperature. 

Next make the bearnaise sauce. Pour the white wine vinegar into a small saucepan with three quarters of the tarragon, some seasoning and the chopped shallot. Reduce by half over a low heat then take off the heat and allow to cool. If clarifying your own butter then do this at this point too and cool slightly. When the reduction is cool add the egg yolks and whisk well. Return to a very low heat and carry on whisking continuously and making sure that the mixture doesn’t get hot enough the scramble. After about 10 minutes the eggs will have emulsified with the reduction and formed a thick frothy texture. Take off the heat and very slowly add the butter, whisking still until all the butter has been incorporated into the sauce. Pass through a sieve then add the remaining tarragon and taste. Squeeze in the lemon and season if necessary. Cover and set aside.

For the Jersey Royals, put the washed potatoes into a medium saucepan and cover well with cold water and a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Drain and plunge into a bowl of very cold water to stop the cooking. Drain again and set aside to finish at the end. 

Heat the oven to 200ºC.

While the oven is heating up make the flavoured butter for the greens. Mix the butter with the chopped anchovies, garlic, thyme and seasoning until fully incorporated.

When the oven is hot heat up a heavy griddle on a very high heat until smoking. Season the steak well and rub with a little oil. When the pan is really hot, put the steak fat side down in the pan to render for a minute, then sear on all sides until well coloured. Transfer to an ovenproof dish with the rosemary and thyme and put into the oven. Turn the oven down immediately to 180ºC, and cook the meat for about 30-35 minutes. Use a thermometer to check the middle, which will be 58ºC for medium-rare. Take the meat out of the oven and allow to rest in a warm place for at least 15 minutes.

While the meat is resting, heat up two large saucepans to a medium heat. 

In one pan, melt the butter with a little olive oil for the potatoes. When hot, add the sliced garlic and cook for a minute or two. Add the potatoes, season well and toss in the butter and garlic to cover. Cook for about 5 minutes, then finish with the tarragon leaves. 

Cook the greens in the other pan. Melt the anchovy butter and 2 tbsp of water and add the broad beans. Cook for a couple of minutes then tip in the spinach. Stir well until the leaves have just wilted, then taste and season. 

Transfer the potatoes, greens and bearnaise into serving bowls. To serve the meat, take the sirloin and fillet off the bone and slice thickly. Pour over the cooking juices, season and transfer to a board and tuck in.