Thursday, 24 April 2014

Seared onglet with slow-braised oxtail, white sprouting broccoli, Jersey Royals and wild garlic and tarragon emulsion

In Britain we have been blinkered with what cuts of meat we buy and cook. When it comes to beef, the only steaks that you’ll find lining most supermarket aisles are the same old sirloins, rib-eyes, rumps and fillets. It’s only fairly recently that cuts such as the bavette and onglet have had some much deserved publicity. They pack such an amazing amount of flavour and are only a fraction of the price. Traditionally these unfashionable cuts were butcher’s favourites and would be kept back for them to take home, but more and more they are replacing the usual suspects on pub and restaurant menus. And about time too; this is all old news for bistros on the continent. 

I was amazed at quite how far the onglet that I bought went. For less than the price of two decent rib-eye steaks I got a whole kilo, which serves Katie and I for a good 4-5 meals. After I made this dish the meat ended up in a curry, a Vietnamese soup and a salad. This versatility continues in the cooking, and you can either flash fry for very rare and tender or stew it slowly for a few hours until soft and sticky. As you might guess, I cannot recommend it enough. Onglet is slightly less forgiving than the prime cuts though, which is fine if like me you like your steak still mooing, but it can quickly become very tough as it gets towards medium. 

Unlike onglet, oxtail has been around for donkeys years and has never really been that fashionable, especially with the younger generations. That’s fine by me though as the prices have stayed low and it always makes for a satisfying and hearty supper. In this dish it adds another texture and reinforces the savoury, beefy flavour. The cooking stock is also reduced down into a thick rich sauce. It is pretty impractical to cook small amounts of oxtail, so I have made a bit more here. The leftovers are great in anything from a sandwich to soups, stews and pies, so it is sure not to go to waste. 

The rest of this dish is another celebration of seasonal vegetables. But these play as big a part as the meat in balancing the richness and flavour. And they’re downright delicious to boot. Wild garlic is still about and it is so tempting to include it in absolutely everything. Spring is well and truly in the air now and Jersey Royals are back in the shops. These stunning potatoes are best without too much interference, so I have simply parboiled them before quickly sautéing in the steak juices. Finally the beautiful sprouting broccoli adds some much needed iron to freshen everything up. 

Serves 2 


For the onglet: 

200g onglet steak, trimmed 
Olive oil 

For the braised oxtail: 

800g of oxtail pieces, on the bone 
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped 
1 onion, roughly chopped 
1 leek, roughly chopped 
4 cloves of garlic, halved 
5 sprigs of thyme 
2 bay leaves 
2 glasses of red wine 
1.5-2 litres of good beef stock 

For the white sprouting broccoli: 

6 stems of white sprouting broccoli 
1 small knob of butter 

For the Jersey Royals: 

3-4 Jersey Royal potatoes, washed 
1 knob of butter 
5 sprigs of thyme 

For the baby shallots: 

3 baby shallots, peeled and kept whole 

For the wild garlic and tarragon emulsion: 

1 bunch of wild garlic 
1 bunch of tarragon, leaves picked 
200g butter 
2 egg yolks 
1 shallot, finely sliced 
1 garlic clove, peeled 
5 peppercorns 
2 bay leaves 
3 tbsp white wine vinegar 
½ a lemon, juice only 

To finish the sauce: 

The reserved cooking liquid from the oxtail 
1 tbsp caster sugar (optional) 
1 knob of butter 

Start by cooking down the oxtail. Bring the meat to room temperature then coat with a little oil and season well. Heat a large saucepan to a high temperature and quickly brown the oxtail all over and then remove to a plate. Add the chopped vegetables and herbs and lightly colour before pouring in the red wine. Bring to the boil, then return the oxtail to the pan and cover with the stock. Turn the heat down to a simmer, partly cover and cook for 4-5 hours, or until the oxtail falls off the bone. When cooked, strain the liquid into a saucepan and reserve. Discard the vegetables and shred the meat into a bowl. Set aside for finishing later. 

While the oxtail is cooking, prepare the other elements of the dish. 

Put the Jersey Royals into a small saucepan and cover with cold, well-salted water. Bring to the boil and simmer until just cooked, about 10-15 minutes depending on the size. Drain and rinse well under cold water to stop them cooking, then cut into quarters and set aside. 

Heat a small saucepan to a medium-low temperature. Pour in a little oil and slowly cook the baby shallots with a bit of seasoning until golden and tender. Remove from the pan, slice in half and allow to cool. 

To make the emulsion, fill a saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Blanche the wild garlic and tarragon leaves for 20 seconds and then transfer to a bowl of cold water. Drain the herbs and pat dry. Make the vinegar reduction by putting the white wine vinegar into a small saucepan with the sliced shallot, garlic, peppercorns and bay and reduce over a moderate heat until only a tablespoon of liquid remains. Strain the liquid and allow to cool. Melt the butter in a separate saucepan, then also cool slightly. Put the egg yolks into a food processor with the cold reduction, a little seasoning and a splash of warm water and blitz well to combine. With the motor still running, very slowly pour in the melted butter until all of it is incorporated and the sauce is thick. Finally add the dried herbs and a squeeze of lemon and blend again until they are well chopped. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve and set aside. 

When the oxtail is cooked, use the cooking liquid to make a sauce. Transfer the strained stock into a large frying pan or skillet and reduce right down until thick and sticky; about 15-20 minutes.

When you are ready to finish everything off, heat a heavy frying pan over a high temperature and boil up some salted water in a saucepan. 

Season the onglet steak all over and rub with some oil. When the pan is smoking hot add the meat and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side for rare, a touch longer for medium. When cooked, remove to a board to rest for 5-6 minutes. 

While the meat is resting finish the other elements of the dish off. 

Reheat the sauce and whisk in the butter and sugar (if needed). Put the shredded oxtail into a separate small saucepan and add 2-3 tbsp of the finished sauce and warm through, making sure all of the meat has a nice coating to it. 

Add a knob of butter and a little oil to the pan with the steak juices and add the boiled Jersey Royals, thyme sprigs and baby shallots. Season well and cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes.

Finally boil the sprouting broccoli in the water for a couple of minutes until just tender, then drain and transfer to a bowl. Season and toss with the butter. 

To plate up, spoon some of the oxtail meat, potatoes and onions onto the plate. Dollop some of the emulsion on top and then place on some of the sliced onglet. Arrange the broccoli around the meat and spoon over a little of the reduced sauce.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Allotment ribollita with borlotti beans, rosemary, rainbow chard, leeks, bread and olive oil

Every time I talk to my parents on the phone, invariably at some point the conversation turns to what they have eaten recently. This is normally met with a modest ‘oh just some odd bits of veg from the allotment’, but I know that that is a damn lie. They talk about their plot like some barren land with a few brown leaves poking out here and there, but the reality couldn’t be more different. They put so much work into it and I’m always so impressed whenever I see it. They took me up there at the end of last summer and I was gobsmacked. Disciplined rows of proud, vibrant vegetables stood in architecturally framed raised beds, all village fete standard and all crying out to be picked. I was like a child in a sweet shop. Commuters must have raised a few eyebrows at the muddy-kneed man laden with earthy bags and smug grin on the way home. So when they offered to return there right at the end of a recent visit I bit their arm off. 

We drove up at dusk, and the view standing on the hillside looking down at Brighton and the sea bathed in sunset reds and burnished golds will stay with me for a long time. But I couldn’t linger for long, there was digging to do and the light was fading fast. I couldn’t see much of what dad was doing under torchlight and only responded to hasty ‘quick Sam, put these in the bag’, and it wasn’t until I got back to my kitchen in London that I could marvel at what goodies lurked inside. Last summer it was all nasturtiums, new potatoes, broad beans and courgette flowers, but this time stunning rainbow chard, flowering rosemary, leeks and purple sprouting broccoli. Not a bad yield for the half a dozen trips my parents had made over the winter. My mind was racing as to what to make, and with the lingering late winter chill still in the air a soup it was to be. This would also be the best way to cram in as much of the newly-picked produce into one bowl as possible. 

When I was young, despite not having such a keen interest in what I was eating, I always remember that in the kitchens of my cooler friends were the same blue, yellow and green books. Although I didn’t identify or read The River Café cookbooks for years afterwards it feels like they’ve always been there, and they’re always my first port of call when looking for inspiration. I love the simplicity and focus on quality ingredients, which often provide the starting point even when attempting something much more complicated. Proper food that you want to eat, not just look at. Although my ingredients and flavourings are far from those of the authentic cavolo nero packed ribollita described within those dog-eared pages, the principal of showing off simple fresh greens is the same. 

Talking of beans, the borlotti beans used here also came from the folks; dad proudly presented me with a jar of the mottled beauties that he had dried and stored from last summer’s harvest. Although I have previously made this with standard tinned beans, it really makes a difference taking the time to prepare them yourself. At this point I added even more garlic, rosemary and bay and was left with about a litre and a half of lovely stock to form the base of the soup. It’s just such a shame that they lose all of their individual markings in the process. 

This recipe makes a lot of hearty, revitalising soup, but the good news is that the leftovers just get better and better. And it’s easy to tweak everything to just how you want it, with a squeeze of lemon, some more chilli or with some crispy prosciutto broken over the top.

Serves 6 generous portions.


Olive oil 
1 onion, finely chopped 
1 carrot, finely chopped 
3 medium leeks, finely chopped 
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped 
1 tbsp fennel seeds 
2 small dried chillies, finely chopped 
2 large sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped 
4 slices of prosciutto, finely chopped 
2 tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped 
2 large handfuls of cooked borlotti beans, drained but retaining the cooking water 
2 large bunches of chard, stalks chopped and leaves sliced finely 
2 handfuls of stale bread, crusts removed and torn into small pieces 
1 small bunch of wild garlic leaves, torn 

To finish: 

Parmesan cheese, finely grated 
Flowers from the rosemary 
Good quality extra virgin olive oil

Heat a large saucepan to a medium-low temperature and add a splash of olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, leeks, garlic, prosciutto, rosemary, dried chilli and fennel along with some seasoning and cook slowly for about half an hour, until everything has softened. Tip in the chopped tomatoes and cook for another ten minutes. Stir in the chard stalks and half of the cannellini beans, topping up with the reserved cooking water until covered, about 750ml-1ltr. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20-30 minutes. 

Transfer the remaining cannellini beans to a food processor and blitz until very fine. Add to the saucepan with the torn bread and the chard leaves and stir will to combine. Pour in more of the bean liquid if needed and break up some of the bread with the spoon to achieve a thick yet pourable consistency. Cook for another couple of minutes until the chard leaves are tender and then finally add the wild garlic leaves at the last minute. Taste, and season if necessary.

To serve, spoon into shallow bowls and drizzle over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle over parmesan and some rosemary flowers and a good crack of black pepper.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Restaurant review: Esters, Stoke Newington

Despite a reputation for being wanky, full of buggies and a migrating ground for the ageing hipsters from Shoreditch, I’ve really enjoyed living in Stokey for the last three years. But although Church Street remains fiercely independent with a thriving café culture, it hasn’t half been difficult to find a decent cup of coffee. The explosion of brilliant artisan coffee around East London has kept the major chains at bay, where it seems like every beardy, check-shirted man has the ability to make a decent flat white. Somehow this has failed to spread up the Kingsland Road, and the frothy, muddy ‘cappuccino’ still rules in N16. However, tucked just away from the beaten track are a couple of neighbourhood gems. Fred and Fran was one of those, finally somewhere that took coffee seriously. And those cakes! But alas, the owners scurried back to Australia at the end of last year and the caffeine gap once again re-opened. Not even the well-meaning Green Lanes arrivals a stones-throw from my front door got it quite right, and it was with slight contempt that I noticed that Esters was opening out of the previous saviour’s ashes. 

Every new business takes a little while to finely hone and settle in, but there were good signs from the start. That same balance of architectural and makeshift, designer lamps and treacle tin stands, had been maintained, as seemingly had the Marzocco. Doughnuts delivered from The St. John sat on boards alongside a short and confident hot food list. It did feel like a sickening bit of cool had tried to be injected into what had been a fairly unassuming café, though perhaps that’s just me getting old. But I was happy that as the weeks went by the attendances and coffee got better and better, and by my first sitting for breakfast Esters had happily filled the void for a weekend morning perk. 

The café was full on the bright morning that Katie and I visited, but you wouldn’t know it. A glorious bustle was replaced by stony silence hidden behind a sheet of grey and that bright apple. This is no fault of Esters, and all good business to them, but a sad by-product of concentrated freelancing. Our hushed conversations seemed amplified in the small space. But it was bright and airy, the staff were cheery and that wonderful ground aroma wafted round. And yet again the coffee was excellent. For someone like me who can only take one hit of caffeine per day without climbing up the walls it was perfect. I’m not overly fussed by latte art as a whole, but it generally comes hand-in-hand with good, tight micro-foam and a coffee made with care. This one had that pleasing balance of sweet mellowness and punchy acidity. 

Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern breakfasts are all in at the moment, possibly down to the spreading influence of Mr Ottolenghi, but they really are a breath of fresh air. Give me grilled leeks, sprouting broccoli, sumac and zhoug over flabby bacon and powdery scrambled eggs any day. But please don’t serve them up to me on a silly little board. For food styling purposes this might look wonderful, but half of my beans were on the table at my first attempt at a forkful. William Sitwell made a big fuss over the lack of round, white plates on the telly recently and I totally agree. The same food would have looked just as good and been perfectly functional to eat. Though aside from that and the want of a little more butter or oil on my slightly dry bread, my breakfast really was lovely. Aioli and chorizo danced around with the beans and chard and there was just the right amount. It was nice to eat a cooked breakfast that left you energised and not wiped out and wanting bed again. Katie’s black pudding and leeks were a little swamped by a very sweet tomato relish but otherwise equally satisfying. 

Since returning I have noticed the menu changing regularly, and I look forward to seeing how this moves through the seasons. I also picked up one off their glorious sausage rolls, which are a total revelation. The bottom of the crispy pastry somehow manages to taste just like those joyful bits of roast potato that get stuck to the bottom of the dish after a Sunday roast. 

Despite only being open a couple of months it is evident that Esters is already going from strength to strength. Despite my nit-picking it has carried the high standard left by Fred and Fran and remains one of the best places in Stoke Newington to hang out for a coffee. The word neighbourhood gets bandied around by trendy restaurants sitting totally un-neighbourly locations. But this is the real deal. For those who want a decent coffee and an interesting breakfast for a change, it really is worth the extra five minute walk away from all of those wanky buggies, greying scenesters and rushed coffees on the high street.