Monday, 30 September 2013

Beetroot gnocchi with feta, basil and brown butter

Is it me or has it suddenly gone very autumnal over the past week? I’ve had to dig out the jumpers again and the nights seem to be drawing in so quickly. I expect the heating will even go on before long! I’m not complaining though, my pasty skin isn’t a massive fan of all that summer sun and there’s so much to love about the autumn. To me, this time of year is all about crisp walks through burnished parks and bustling markets and returning home with rosy cheeks to steaming hot bowls of food. 

The best thing about the autumn is the sheer amount of seasonal British food that becomes available. Squashes, beetroot, sweetcorn and apples to name just a few. It is even the proper time to eat lamb. Ever wondered how all of those tiny lambs running around in March and April seem to instantly produce these big, yielding legs; they’ve often had to travel a bit further to get onto our shelves… For a foodie, the next couple of months are heaven. Despite this glut of amazing food, I am often left with just that; a glut. The use of beetroot in this recipe is a great way of taking care of any that are hanging round. You can also use butternut squash instead, which goes brilliantly well with rosemary, garlic and dried chilli.

Gnocchi is one of those things that rarely gets made at home despite being ridiculously easy. Although it is usually made solely with potatoes, the addition of beetroot makes the little dumplings a touch more interesting and gives the dish that lovely sweet, earthy flavour. Beetroot and strong cheese is a classic combination, whilst the pumpkin seeds add a much needed crunch and the butter sauce brings it all together.

There are a couple of things to look out for when making gnocchi. Firstly, make sure the beetroot and potatoes are sufficiently roasted before trying to mash them. You want everything to be smooth as gnocchi with hard bits is not fun. Once you add the flour to the mashed vegetables, try to work the mixture as little as possible. The dough should be very soft, and only just not stocking to your fingers. Finally, when the gnocchi have poached, make sure that the pan that you are cooking the butter in is non-stick. I’ve had a couple of nightmare occasions where they have stuck to the bottom of the pan and broken up. But apart from those couple of things they are a doddle and well worth the effort.

Serves 2


For the gnocchi:

2 beetroot, halved with the skin left on
2 floury potatoes
1 egg, beaten
100-150g plain flour
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
A few sprigs of thyme

For the brown butter:

2 tbsp butter
1 clove of garlic, finely sliced
A few sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
1/2 a lemon, juice only
3 tbsp pumpkin seeds
Salt and pepper

To finish:

50g feta cheese
A few basil leaves
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200ºC.

Put the beetroot halves into an oven dish along with the whole potatoes and a few sprigs of thyme. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper and drizzle over a little oil. Cover with foil and pop in the oven for about an hour, or until the vegetables are nice and tender. 

Fill a large saucepan with salted water and bring to the boil.

Scoop out the soft middle of the cooked vegetables into a large mixing bowl and mash well together. Mix in the egg and a good pinch of seasoning, then finally fold in the flour, adding a little more if needed to make the dough just workable. Roll the dough into a thin sausage and cut into 3/4” pieces. Tip into the boiling water. 

While the gnocchi are cooking melt the butter in a large non-stick frying pan over a high heat. When the butter bubbles away and turns brown in colour add the garlic, pumpkin seeds and a pinch of thyme leaves. As soon as the gnocchi floats to the surface of the water they are cooked. Transfer them straight to the butter pan using a slotted spoon. Squeeze over a little lemon and fry for a minute, tossing the dumplings so that they are well coated.

Spoon the gnocchi into two bowls and pour over some of the pan juices. Sprinkle over the feta and torn basil leaves.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Slow-cooked chuck steak ragu with pappardelle, girolles and sage leaves

The relationship between food and family and friends is extremely close and important to me. Growing up as part of a large family, my parents would often be busy cooking two or three different meals per evening for fussy children of different ages, and then finally themselves. Despite this, they always made sure that we all sat down and had dinner together at least 4-5 times a week, and this is something that I will be very keen to pass down when I am a father. Most of my memories involve food. Big family Sunday roasts with steaming joints of chicken. The day my dad called me to the kitchen to make me try a mussel he was cooking for a dinner party (I hated it!). Gazing through old cookbooks with my mum, and really wanting to make the cake that was a house in the shape of a boot, complete with a shredded wheat roof. Thinking about these times fills me with a warmth and happiness. Food is so much more than a fuel to keep us alive, it binds us socially, creates atmosphere and inspires. The wafting smell of bread baking in the oven does so much more than just produce a loaf for toast. 

As I have grown older this bond between food and my social life has become stronger. Nowadays I love nothing more than having friends over for a good meal and a glass or two of wine. I enjoy going out to nice restaurants and eating fancy food where every ingredient intrigues, but my fondest meals are ones where the food is a background constant to bustling conversation. For this kind of occasion, cooking should not dominate; I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen away from my friends. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be good, it just needs to be approached in a different way.

On this occasion a few weeks ago, a couple of old friends were coming over for dinner. At first I was just going to knock together a simple but tasty one pot supper, something casual to plonk on the table for everyone to help themselves. This was thrown out the window the day before however, when they told me that they had seen this blog, and they had high expectations of what they would be served. This presented me with a challenge, as I had to try and create something impressive that was practical socially. All those memories of dad making his dinner party staple of salmon en croute came flooding back!

Salmon was not on the menu for me however. I love making pasta, and the thought of a slow-cooked, meaty ragu sauce was too much to resist. This ticked all of my worry boxes; the homemade pasta and flavoursome sauce would please my guests, and I would be able to make the whole thing in advance.

I know that in the last month I have cooked beef a lot, with a tartare, a Wellington and now a ragu, but for this meal it worked perfectly. My only dilemma was the cut to use. Ideally I would have used something with bags of flavour like cheek, shin or oxtail. But as it was a Sunday and I had limited time on my hands, I left the butchers with a whopping piece of chuck. This is the joy of local, independent butchers; you can really talk to them about what you want to cook, and they have the wealth of knowledge to advise. So although they didn’t have the cuts I was looking for (but would have been able to order with a few days notice), I left with something that was still bang up for the job.

Britain has some wonderful mushrooms, and a quick gaze at this blog will tell you that I am obsessed with them. I am lucky that my local greengrocer has a wide range, and I really recommend searching in local food markets. But if you can’t get hold of girolles, then meaty, strong mushrooms such as chestnut or portabella will also work well.

Lots of this preparation can be done days before it is needed, and aside from the pasta, requires very little time. The sauce itself gets better over time, and any leftovers are great with potatoes or as a pie filling.

Serves 6-8


For the pasta:

600g strong ‘00’ grade flour

6 eggs
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil

For the ragu:

1.5kg chuck steak, cut into 2-3” chunks

200g plain flour
2 onions, finely chopped
1 head of garlic, chopped in half
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
200g button mushrooms, sliced
2 bay leaves
10 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of rosemary
½ bottle of red wine
1.5ltr good beef stock
Salt and pepper 

6 rashers smoked streaky bacon, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped

50g butter, cubed
40g pecorino, finely grated

For the sage leaves:

About 30 sage leaves

3-4 tbsp vegetable oil, for frying

For the girolles:

About 30 girolle mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

30g butter
½ clove garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

To finish:

Grated pecorino

Extra virgin olive oil

Get the ragu going to start with. Tip the plain flour onto a plate and season well, then use this mixture to lightly dust the chuck steak. Heat up a large, heavy bottomed saucepan to a high temperature and add 2 tbsp of oil. Cook the meat in batches, searing quickly until well browned on all sides before removing to a plate. When all of the meat is cooked, add the onions and celery. Sautee for a couple of minutes until coloured, then add the carrots, garlic, mushrooms and herbs. Continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes then pour in the red wine. Bring to the boil and allow to reduce slightly, then put the meat back into the pan. Cover with the stock, topping up with water if needed. Season well and bring back to the boil then turn down to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for about 5 hours, until the meat is falling apart. 


While the ragu is cooking, make the pasta. Add the flour, eggs, salt and oil to a food processor and blend until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Tip out onto a clean surface and pat together, then knead well for 10-15 minutes. The dough should be soft in texture but not sticky. Wrap well in cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour, preferably longer.

When the dough has rested, remove it from the fridge and cut it into four pieces. Dust with a little flour, then pass one piece through the widest setting of a pasta machine. Repeat 7-8 times, or until the dough has a really elastic texture. Rub with a little more flour if it starts to turn sticky at this point. Now roll the pasta down through each setting on the machine you get to the second thinnest; number 5 on an Imperia machine. Sprinkle the outside of the sheet with flour, cover with a clean tea towel and repeat with the other pieces of pasta dough. Cut the sheets to the length that you want the pappardelle to be, then pass through the pasta cutter. Dust a cooling rack with flour and lay the individual strands down to dry. Keep the pasta separate and in one layer to avoid sticking. 


To prepare the sage leaves, pour the oil in a small frying pan and put on a medium-high heat. When hot, add the sage in batches and cook for 20-30 seconds, or until crispy, then remove to a plate lined with kitchen roll. Set aside until needed later.

After 5 hours, carefully remove the meat and a little of the liquid to a bowl and allow to cool. Once cold, finely shred the meat and set aside. Strain the remaining stock from the saucepan through a sieve into a large bowl and discard the cooked vegetables. Set a large, high-sided frying pan or skillet onto a medium-high heat and add a little oil. Add the bacon and cook for a couple of minutes until starting to colour, then add the shallot and fry for another 2 minutes. Now pour in the strained stock. Turn the heat up and allow to reduce by at least half, until just enough is left to hold the shredded meat. Turn down to a simmer and add the meat, combining well so that the sauce and meat come together as one. Taste and season if necessary, then turn the heat right down until needed. 


Fill a large saucepan with well-salted water and bring to the boil.

While the water is boiling, raise the heat of the ragu sauce pan to a simmer.

When the water boils add the pasta. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until just al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, add the cubed butter and grated pecorino to ragu sauce and stir well to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. As soon as the pasta is cooked, use tongs to transfer the pappardelle to the pan with the ragu and toss to combine well, so that every strand is coated. Remove from the heat.

Heat up a medium sized frying pan to a moderate temperature and add the butter for the mushrooms. Fry the garlic for 30 seconds then add the prepared girolles, cooking for another couple of minutes until crisp on the outside and soft in the middle.

To plate, spoon a generous amount of the pasta into bowl and top with some of the girolles and sage leaves. Grate over some more pecorino, grind some black pepper and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Steak tartare with crispy egg yolk, mustard mayonnaise, nasturtiums, tarragon dressing and fennel pollen

Firstly apologies for the lack of blog posts recently. Holidays, birthdays and general business have all got in the way and I just haven’t had the chance to sit down at a computer. Hopefully I’m on track again now and can get back to the weekly updates…

The real inspiration for this dish was a lovely trip to Brighton to see my mum and dad’s allotment. They have had it for a good few years now, and the work they have done really shows. Neat rows of perfect looking vegetables everywhere! I was lucky enough to get to pick a bit of everything, and came back to London armed with bags of courgette flowers, new potatoes, French beans and herbs. Heaven! And because they were so fresh the taste was just sensational. 


Included in my bag of goodies were nasturtium leaves and flowers. I had never tried them before, but once I had my first one I couldn’t stop. They have a wonderful peppery taste that yields to a final sweetness, and I knew they would be perfect as a salad element in this dish. The other unusual thing that I bought home was fennel pollen. This was something that my mum gave me to try as we walked round. It is way more intense and aniseedy than other types of fennel, and used sparingly here adds another flavour dimension. Obviously these are quite difficult to get hold of unless growing your own, so rocket or watercress can be used instead of nasturtiums and toasted fennel seeds for the pollen.

Steak tartare is a simple thing that can be made quickly and reasonably easily. The most important thing is the quality of the meat and the balance of ingredients. As you are eating the meat raw, you really want to be using the best beef possible from a trustworthy butcher. Fillet steak is the most expensive cut, but for this the tails will be perfectly suitable and a lot cheaper. A small piece goes a long way too. Instead of mixing all of the ingredients together, in this dish I have decided to present the mustard, dressing and egg yolk as separate items. I feel that this stops the beef flavour being diluted, and that you can taste each part individually. Texture is also important, and the nasturtiums and breadcrumb coating on the egg add much-needed crunch to the soft meat and mayo. It’s all about tasting for seasoning at every stage.

Serves 2


For the tartare:

150g good quality fillet tail, trimmed of all sinew

3 cornichons, very finely chopped
2 tsp shallots, very finely chopped
¼ garlic clove, very finely chopped
½ tsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

For the crispy egg yolk:

2 egg yolks

1 handful panko breadcrumbs
50g flour
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
1ltr vegetable oil for deep frying

For the tarragon dressing:

1 bunch tarragon

¼ bunch marjoram
½ lemon, juice only
1 tsp caster sugar
200ml olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the mustard mayo:

2 egg yolks

1 garlic clove
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tbsp English mustard
400ml vegetable oil
Salt and pepper

To finish:

1 handful nasturtium leaves and flowers

A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of fennel pollen

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

First make the mustard mayo. Put the garlic, egg yolks, mustard, white wine vinegar and a good amount of seasoning in a small food processor and blend well. Slowly add the vegetable oil, starting with just a few drops, then slowly trickling until fully emulsified. Taste and add more mustard or seasoning if necessary; you want it to be creamy with a good mustard kick. Remove to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until needed. 


Next make the tarragon dressing. Put the tarragon, marjoram, lemon juice, sugar and salt and pepper into a food processor and mix until very finely chopped. Add the oil slowly until well combined. Taste and season if needed then set aside.

Chop up all of the ingredients that accompany the steak; the cornichon, garlic, shallot and thyme should be really fine. Set aside until needed.

Heat the oil up to 180ºC.

While it is heating, prepare the crispy egg yolks. Very carefully separate the whites from the yolks. Lightly roll them in the seasoned flour until fully coated. Beat the other egg into a small bowl and dip the coated yolks into it before covering in the panko breadcrumbs. Set aside until the oil reaches temperature. 


Cut the fillet steak across the grain into 1cm slices, then into thin strips. Slice these strips into pieces slightly chunkier than mince. Transfer to a bowl and combine well with the flavourings, a good amount of seasoning and a couple of glugs of extra virgin olive oil. I like the tartare to be quite loose with oil, which also adds a good peppery taste.

When the oil is the right temperature, spoon in the egg yolks and cook for 45 seconds then remove. While the egg is cooking dress the nasturtium leaves and flowers in a little extra virgin oil, salt and pepper.

To plate up, spoon two neat piles of the tartare mixture onto each plate. Add the hot egg yolk and a small quenelle of the mustard mayo. Arrange the nasturtium leaves and flowers around the edge and add a few drops of the dressing. Sprinkle the fennel pollen over the top and serve.

Restaurant review: The Corner Room, Bethnal Green

Last week saw my birthday come and go, sweeping away any remaining hopes that I was still in my mid-twenties. Next stop the big thirty, grey temples and dodgy knees… Aside from this clear psychological trauma, and probably to ease it, I was lucky enough to receive some lovely presents. Usually my birthday presents are pretty one-dimensional, and my food obsession brings in swathes of cookbooks and random gadgets destined for the back of the drawer. Not this time however, as I was treated to a shiny new ice-cream machine from my gal, and from her mother a secretive lunch had been booked. I was also the recipient of some much needed, and very beautiful new shoes, but this is a food blog and frankly I should stay constant. 

And so the day came for my birthday lunch, and it was revealed as The Corner Room, in the newly renovated Bethnal Green town hall. This was very exciting news, as I had heard rave reviews of what they had done to the building and had been wanting to go look for a while. But I knew little of the restaurant. The town hall is largely renowned as the home of Viajante, the Michelin-starred restaurant of former El-Bulli chef Nuno Mendes. A little research showed that The Corner Room is the less formal sister restaurant, also overlooked by Mendes. The menu was short, the sort that requires a trust and a hope when ordering, but that leaves you in hot anticipation of what is to come. 

A Saturday full of damp misty rain and gloom is not always the best time to be hanging around Bethnal Green. As standard we were umbrellaless. It screams of a short trip to Broadway Market or Brick Lane and a cosy coffee or beer and newspaper. But tucked down a random sideroad was a grand old entrance that opened into warm yellow light and a step into another time. For a casual lunch, it didn’t half make you feel like you were somewhere special. The old utility wooden panels fused with the shiny marble and the quirky ornamental hipster touches. It is just beautiful. 

The restaurant is difficult to find, mostly because every centimetre of the décor draws the eye and removes you to state of wide-eyes glaring. Again they had got the balance just right. A small corner room, as implied in the name, sparsely laid out with simple tables and flooded with natural light. And old man with wonky glasses entertained his family in one corner and a couple drank coffee with a farty looking baby. Beautiful modern lights lifted the space, and straight away we were relaxed.

Some incredibly strong negronis and margaritas eased us further before the food arrived. First to arrive was the interesting sounding crispy rice and chicken mayo, which in the flesh were delicate rice cakes and a rich mayonnaise, scattered with what I assume was crispy chicken skin. Like everything else we were to eat, it was subtle, with your mouth popping to new little bits of spice and flavour, and was quickly polished off. The mackerel with ponzu and smoked tomato split us; Katie isn’t much a fan of cold, fish broths whereas again I enjoyed the odd-sounding but harmonious combination. 

I was left speechless at the arrangement of ingredients sitting on my main course plate. It is probably the most beautiful thing I have ever eaten, and tasted every bit as good. I had opted for the Berkshire venison with tarragon and mustard, which was both tangy and soothing at once and packed an extreme amount of flavour. Katie’s Iberico pork was the tenderest piece of pork I have ever eaten, and accompanied by classic tart red cabbage and sweet berries. Although this wasn’t as complex and original in taste, it was just a wonderful piece of cooking.

It was really a silly question being asked if we wanted to view the pudding menu, and despite my love of cheese I wanted to see a dessert at this level. My rhubarb with roasted lactose and ginger was a lovely clean way to finish the meal. The almost chalky milk fizzed and dissolved on the tongue. There wasn’t much of it though, and I would have liked a bit more of the roasted rhubarb alongside the compote and ice cream. Katie’s frozen panna cotta with apple and hazelnuts was again full of interesting textures. Neither of us however could really see much difference or point in freezing a jellified cream when you could just have ice cream.  

I haven’t eaten anything nearly as interesting for a very long time. Although the overall concept of some of the dishes, especially the desserts, seemed to overtake the substance, everything tasted really, really good. That clichéd description of taste buds being taken on journey was made for this meal, and the sort of thing that is difficult to achieve without an awful lot of thought. The value for the level of food is also fantastic, and to eat it in such a setting was a joy.