Sunday, 29 June 2014

Jersey Royal and Vitelotte potatoes with burnt spring onion mayonnaise, pea puree, garden leaves and lamb sauce

With Jersey Royal season in full swing, I thought that it was about time that I created a dish with them as the focus. Too often I lazily turn to a piece of meat or fish and then pick a couple of nice accompaniments to go with it. Nothing wrong with that, but with seasonal vegetables being so good at the moment they deserve a share of the spotlight. The problem is, to be bluntly honest, unless it’s chipped or a baked I very rarely use potatoes in my cooking. I can take or leave mash most of the time, and prefer the lightness that their absence gives a dish. I’m certainly not about start spouting on about how to bake the perfect potato… So I’m not normally all that inspired by the humble spud, but recently in my local greengrocers I noticed a box of tiny little baby Jersey Royals and somewhere in the back of my head a lightbulb pinged on. 

I’m very fortunate to have a small balcony, and this year I’ve been taking full advantage and have gone to town in my attempts to grow some veg. I’m hardly Alan Titchmarsh, or Charlie Dimmock for that matter, so this sort of thing didn’t come naturally at all. Plenty of desperate phone calls to my extremely green-fingered parents followed (“how often do I need to water them?!...”). But so far I’ve been loving it, and touch wood, my courgette, pea, radish, tomato and cucumber plants seem to be thriving. I’ve also planted leaves like rocket and nasturtiums on my window ledge, trying to cram as much into every bit of space possible. So I’ve been very inspired by what I’ve been growing, and when it came to this dish it was lovely to be able to harvest a few bits and pieces and eat them within minutes of picking.
This time meat is used purely as a background ingredient that just helps to bring everything else together. The dish would be perfectly good, and vegetarian, without its inclusion, but my idea here was to create a taste similar to that of a roast dinner; using the potatoes as a sponge to soak it all up. The best thing about using meat in this way is that you usually don’t even need to pay for it. A trip to my local butchers had me returning with a big bag of lovely lamb bones. There’s so much flavour in any bones, scraps or offal that you can pick up, and they are far superior to just crumbling in a stock cube.
Serves 2
For the Jersey Royals:
12-14 baby Jersey Royal potatoes, washed 
350g duck fat 
2 garlic cloves 
1 bay leaf 
5 sprigs of thyme
For the Vitelotte potatoes:
6 Vitelotte potatoes, washed 
30g butter 
1 lemon, juice only
For the burnt spring onion mayonnaise:
5 spring onions 
2 egg yolks 
1 garlic clove 
1 tbsp white wine vinegar 
½ tsp Dijon mustard 
250ml vegetable oil 
½ lemon, juice only
For the pea puree:
250g frozen peas 
½ a bunch of mint, leaves picked 
30g butter 
1 lemon, juice only
For the pickled radishes:
2 radishes, cut into quarters 
100ml white wine vinegar 
½ tsp fennel seeds 
10 peppercorns 
1 bay leaf 
1 tbsp caster sugar
For the lamb sauce:
500-800g lamb bones, cut into small pieces 
2 shallots, finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
10 thyme sprigs 
1 bay leaf 
1 large glass white wine 
500ml good chicken stock 
20g butter
To finish:
A handful of fresh peppery leaves, I had rocket and nasturtiums

First pickle the radishes. Put the vinegar, sugar, bay, fennel seeds and peppercorns into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and continue for a couple of minutes until the sugar has fully dissolved. Allow to cool a little, then pour into a small bowl and add the radishes. Allow to steep while you make everything else. 

Heat a griddle pan to a high temperature. Trim the spring onions and roll in a little oil with some salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, cook the spring onions until well-charred on all sides then allow to cool. Transfer the cooked, cold onions to a food processor and blitz really well. Grate in the garlic and add the vinegar, mustard, egg yolks and a good pinch of seasoning. Blitz again for 30 seconds to combine really well. With the motor still running, pour in the oil very slowly until fully emulsified into a thick mayonnaise. Stir in the lemon juice and taste for seasoning before pouring into a bottle and setting aside.
For the lamb sauce, heat a large frying pan or skillet to a medium-high temperature. When hot, add a little oil and brown the lamb bones really well on all sides. Add the shallot, garlic, thyme and bay and sauté for another couple of minutes before pouring in the wine. Bring to the boil and reduce by half then add the stock. Reduce right down until the sauce thickens and about 150ml remains. Strain through a sieve into a smaller saucepan and set aside.
Fill a small saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Add a little salt, and when hot blanch the mint leaves for 20 seconds before transferring to a bowl of very cold water. Bring the water in the pan back to the boil and tip in the peas. Simmer for a couple of minutes until tender, then drain and pour into a food processor. Drain the mint leaves and squeeze out the water then add to the peas with the butter and lemon juice and blitz into a fine puree. Taste for seasoning and lemon, then pass through a fine sieve. Set aside to cool. 

Pour the duck fat into a small saucepan and add the Jersey Royals, garlic, bay and thyme. Heat to a medium-low temperature and cook gently for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and season well with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
For the Vitelotte potatoes, fill a saucepan with cold water and salt well. Add the potatoes, bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until tender. Drain well, slice in half and roll well in the butter, lemon juice and salt and pepper.  

Gently reheat the sauce and whisk in the butter until fully combined.

Dress the leaves in a little olive oil.
Arrange a selection of the potatoes around the middle of the plates. Squeeze blobs of the mayonnaise and pea puree around the middle and sides and place three pieces of the pickled radish on top. Finish with a scattering of the dressed leaves and a little of the lamb sauce.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Restaurant review: Polpetto, Soho

This is the year that Russell Normal jumped onto the television screens as the entertaining and fair Restaurant Man. The man all-seeing and all-knowing at the heart of his growing restaurant empire. He could quote how high (to the tape-measured centimetre) every bar was, the distance between each chair and the serial numbers of the light bulbs. He exposed the flaws and naiveties in budding restaurateurs (sic) who looked to make a quick fortune in hospitality having never washed a glass or served a plate in their lives. His likable modesty and calm temperament came as a refreshing change to previous ‘fix the business’ franchises; miles away from those furrowed Ramsay outrages. But in doing this he has put himself on a platform. Upon visiting his establishments you now see the calculations. You can imagine Norman pacing the space in his furred parka, advising his decorating team to stain underneath the wall lamps and talking up the merits of silver cutlery. In somewhere like Polpetto, all intimate with pleasingly mismatched furniture, dim lighting and rustically stripped back walls, the romance is slightly overshadowed by knowledge of the whirring business cogs that lay behind it. 

If the expectations raised by the owners profile weren’t enough, the rest was achieved by the restaurant itself. I can’t remember anywhere drumming up as much anticipation followed by such universal praise for a very long time. Top marks from newspapers and a twitter meltdown duly followed. We were excited as we approached on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, with the heady expectation of a damn good feed. The problem with a no-reservation policy is that nightmare of being stuck in an endless snaking queue, but as is often the case, you can sneak in easily enough around peak times. The place was dead in that no-mans-land period between lunch and dinner, but the small space still felt intimate and romantic despite the absence of fellow diners. We loved the silver, mismatched furniture and wall lamps. The menu listed very well. 

The day had been hot, very hot, and Soho had been sweating from every pore. Polpetto instantly had us dancing in the palm of its hand at the mere mention of a rhubarb bellini and an Earl Grey iced tea. We were then taken on holiday with an orb of creamy burrata, with sharp and spicy samphire and chilli interrupting only lovingly. Much like at sister-restaurant Polpo last summer, I was impressed that for somewhere so connected with terms ‘small plates’ and ‘tapas’, the portioning was bang on. Tender little chicken oysters swam in an unctuous bowl of gravy and cannellini beans, and we wished that the melting beef shin strozzapreti would never end. Where the food had missed the point at my recent visit to Mayfields, here Florence Knight and her brigade had well and truly lived up to the hype. 

But much like an episode of the Restaurant Man, when things were going swimmingly, you were still never far away from some drama. At some point around our main course, our peaceful surroundings were shattered by what can only be described as a chef having a meltdown. A screaming tantrum, quite impressively, came banging through a closed door and up a flight of stairs from the kitchen to our table. A flurry of worried and nervous looking waiting staff ran past. I can’t say whether the unseen woman having a hissy fit was indeed Knight, or whether they had a valid point or not, but whoever it was, it was rather embarrassing, and an awkward moment to be part of. If this had been part of his show, you could almost picture Norman outside talking into a camera, blasting this unprofessional tirade. Thankfully there were a mere handful of tables to experience this ‘entertainment’, but that’s hardly the point really. 

Things sweetened up by the time puddings were delivered, thankfully devoid of any blood or broken bone. I feel that it’s hugely unfair to put something called ‘fried pecorino and honey’ on a menu, as however good everything else looks, there’s only one thing that I’m going to order. This is something that I’d seen and read about beforehand, and to say that I was excited would have been an understatement. But I have to say that I ended up a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that melting cheese and honey can ever be a bad thing, but I half-expected more. The cheese had lost any defining flavour, the batter was on the thick and chewier side of crisp and it needed a good hit of something salty to combat the honey. It certainly all got wolfed down though. As did Katie’s panna cotta, which was as light as a feather and full of summer fragrance. 

For fantastic food in a relaxing and well-created environment, Norman has yet again nailed it. We left with full and happy bellies and I would return in a flash. A few let downs were there; dreadfully inattentive service in an empty restaurant and a kitchen outrage to remember are a little disappointing but hardly unforgivable. And I must say, that little Virginia Wolf quote at the foot of the bill came across slightly arrogant and cheaply unnecessary. But we had indeed eaten well, and for that alone Polpetto was a triumph.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Braised wild rabbit with roasted artichokes, ricotta polenta, peas, pancetta and lemon

The Great British Menu has a lot to answer for. Every year I watch it religiously; I learn more from watching it than any other cookery programme, making a welcome change to yet another way to cook a shoulder of pork with apple sauce. But it doesn’t half lead to frustrated viewing, and I truly never want to see another fine dining interpretation of spam or an edible allotment. Don’t even get me started about those ration tins. I think it was a great brief this year but I don’t think that most of the chefs read it very well at all, and didn’t really address the people who would be eating the food at the banquet. Do veterans who fought in the Second World War really want to read a fabricated and contrived letter sent to relatives at home before tucking into a tiny piece of Dover sole? Surely the opposite to those meagre rations would have been a better option, four courses of overblown luxury that haven’t been arranged into the shape of Churchill’s face? 

Compulsive viewing all the same, and the thing that inspired this recipe was the amount of rabbit that was cooked. I’m almost ashamed to say that it is something that I’ve never worked with and barely eaten. It’s so strange that it has gone out of fashion these days when it used to be a staple. Not a year goes by without my dad telling that story about his neighbour eating his pet rabbits while he was on holiday, but nowadays you can barely find it, certainly not nestled in between the pork and chicken in the supermarket aisles. Our modern mainstream image of meat is getting more and more blinkered and sterilised, removing any connection between the chop on the plate and the living animal. I guess in that sense, the rather graphic image of a skinned rabbit on a chopping board doesn’t stand a chance. So thank goodness for the independent retailers still championing less popular meat. I was surprised and happy to see a rabbit displayed at a local butcher’s recently, and for under a fiver it was great value and I had to buy one.
I’ve recently been getting more and more into Instagram. Much like how Twitter compressed waffling Facebook statuses, this goes even further, and I love how you can quickly flick through and catch up on what’s going on. It is the ultimate tool when feeling a little short of inspiration or motivation; you soon want to eat a million things and are quickly re-shuffling the restaurant dining wish list. Last year for Katie’s birthday we ate at the fantastic (and fantastically local) Trullo at Highbury Corner, and I have been particularly enjoying their photographs recently. Their smart-yet-rustic Italian food sings to my soul, and one look at a polenta dish they posted had me rooting through the back of my cupboards.
I am so happy that British peas are back in season. I have often blathered for pages about my love of peas so I’ll try and restrict myself here, but all I will say is that this won’t be my last post that includes them. In this dish they add a beautiful sweetness and texture to the rich and soft accompaniments. Shelling them is a total faff but really worth it!  

Serves 2
For the braised rabbit:
1 wild rabbit, jointed with the trimmings kept 
2 carrots, roughly chopped 
2 onions, chopped 
1 leek, sliced 
4 cloves of garlic, crushed 
3 sprigs of rosemary 
5 sprigs of thyme 
1 bay leaf 
1 large glass of white wine 
2 ltrs chicken stock
For the ragu:
1 shallot, finely chopped 
4 slices of pancetta, chopped 
1 garlic clove, finely chopped 
500ml of the rabbit braising stock 
2 tbsp parmesan 
1 tbsp butter
For the polenta:
120g polenta 
750ml of the rabbit braising stock 
200g ricotta 
1 tbsp butter
For the roasted artichokes and peas:  

3 baby artichokes 
2 handfuls of fresh peas, podded and shelled. Reserve the pods for the stock 
The liver, kidneys and heart from the rabbit, chopped 
3 thyme sprigs, leaves picked 
½ a lemon, juice only, plus another for the artichoke water 
1 knob of butter
For the parsley oil:
1 large bunch of parsley 
Extra virgin olive oil 
1 tbsp white wine vinegar 
½ a lemon, juice only
To finish:
3 slices of pancetta 
1 lemon, zest only

First make the parsley oil. Fill a saucepan with water and a little salt and bring to the boil. Have a large bowl of iced water ready on the side. When boiling, blanch the parsley for 20 seconds before draining and plunging into the cold water. Drain and squeeze out all of the water from the leaves. Transfer to a food processor with the vinegar, lemon juice and a little oil and blitz well, adding more oil until the mixture has a flowing texture. Taste for seasoning, adding more vinegar, lemon or salt and pepper if necessary then pour into a bowl, cover with cling film and refrigerate. The next day, strain the mixture through muslin into a small bowl and reserve the flavoured oil. 

Next braise the rabbit. Pour a little oil into a large, heavy-based saucepan and set on a medium-high heat. Season the rabbit meat and trimmings well and brown all over in batches, transferring to a plate when coloured. Add the vegetables to the saucepan and sauté quickly for a couple of minutes before adding the herbs and the wine. Reduce the liquid by half then add the stock and the rabbit, along with the leftover pods from the peas. Bring back to the boil and then turn down for a low simmer for about an hour, or until the meat is very tender. Remove the rabbit from the pan and allow to cool slightly and then finely shred with a fork. Strain and reserve the braising stock, splitting into amounts of 500ml and 750ml.
To finish off the ragu, heat a large frying pan or skillet to a medium temperature. Fry the pancetta and shallot in a little oil for a few minutes until golden brown, then add the garlic and fry for a further minute. Pour in the 500ml measure of rabbit stock and add the shredded meat. Bring to the boil and then simmer uncovered slowly for about an hour, until the liquid has reduced to a sticky sauce that clings to the meat. Add the butter and parmesan and stir well. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed, then set aside if making in advance. 

  For the polenta, pour the larger measure of rabbit stock into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Quickly add the polenta and stir well as the mixture thickens. Turn down the heat and cook for about 20-30 minutes, until the polenta is thick and tender.
While the polenta is cooking, preheat the oven to 160⁰C.
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and line with the three slices of pancetta. When the oven is hot, bake for about 15 minutes, or until browned and very crisp. Pat dry with kitchen paper and allow to cool, then break into large shards.
Prepare the baby artichokes by removing the outer leaves from the stem and then from the head, working around until just the softer inner leaves remain. Cut horizontally across the top of the head and scoop out the chokes with a melon baller. Trim the stem to about 5cm and peel, removing any tough bits at the top. Slice vertically into halves, and if not using straight away transfer to a large bowl of water and squeeze in the juice of a lemon to stop discolouration. To cook, heat a frying pan to a medium heat and add a little oil. Fry the prepared artichokes for 3 minutes on each side before adding the chopped rabbit offal and stirring well to quickly seal. Add the butter, peas and thyme and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Squeeze over the remaining lemon juice and season well. 

Just before serving, finish off the hot polenta by beating in the ricotta and butter and checking for seasoning. 

To serve, spoon a good dollop of the polenta onto each plate and top with some of the rabbit ragu. Arrange 3 of the baby artichoke halves on top and scatter over some of the pea and offal mixture. Drizzle a little of the parsley oil on top and around the sides before finishing with the crispy bacon shards, grated parmesan and lemon zest and peashoots.