Friday, 29 August 2014

Butternut squash gnocchi with buffalo mozzarella, lardo, sage, rosemary and chilli

One of the biggest things that I get out of cooking is how much happiness and joy it can inspire in others. The look on someone’s face when you unveil that birthday cake, walk to the table with a heaped platter or present an intricate and intriguing plate can make hours of effort instantly worthwhile. It’s funny how growing up a bit changes you; where I used to yearn for a night in the pub, now what I look forward to the most are a few hours entertaining close friends and family with good food and a bottle or two. We’ve had some great evenings this summer, sitting on the balcony in the balmy summer twilight to the sound of chatter and cutlery contacting china. But as much as I enjoy these occasions, when it comes to washing up I often am left feeling that I should have managed the food a little differently. I find it hard to strike the balance between cooking something good, but something that is also manageable to prepare without leaving poor Katie to hold court on her own. Time and time again I also find myself remembering how much easier everything is to cook last minute without the four glasses of wine just consumed. But sometimes it’s purely that I take the food far too seriously. My mind goes adrift trying to impress and indulge, when really the eating should just be the background conduit, the platform for everything else. Rarely does great food and crap company cement as a memorable evening.

Bitter experience and awkward delays have taught me the most obvious of things, that forward planning and preparation is everything when hosting dinner. Fundamentally I am clumsy and forgetful, and this is a deadly combination when wine is involved. I will and do forget about half of the ingredients painfully sourced out for the main course. Washing up, that bunch of flowers and empty drink bottles will all be sitting on that chopping board I need to use. Everything takes half an hour longer, and I end up looking so flustered at the point of serving that everyone’s appetite has sufficiently waned. Food is cold and my imagined precision plating is replaced with some Jackson Pollock slapdashery. So the least amount of time flapping around in my ever-shrinking kitchen the better. 

And this gnocchi dish is perfect for avoiding such calamities, and one of the few occasions that I sat down and thought “I’ve nailed this”. In that wonderful way that is so synonymous with Italian cooking, most of this dish is down to great ingredients prepared simply and put on a plate. Everything can be made ahead of serving, leaving the quick task of poaching the gnocchi, finishing off in the pan and plate assembling all that you need to do. Perfectly easy even when half-cut. You can even serve it in a bowl if you want to further avoid plate tippage when transporting to your guests, who will frankly be gobsmacked that you are back so quickly. 

If you are making the gnocchi in advance, the only extra step to take is to blanche them for a minute or so at the time of shaping, before shocking in cold water and draining. Then cover and refrigerate for up to a couple of days before boiling again and eating. 

Serves 4 


For the butternut squash: 

1 medium butternut squash, halved lengthways with the seeds removed 
1 large Maris Piper or King Edward potato 
3 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped 
1 tbsp smoked sweet paprika 
1 tsp dried oregano 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes 
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
1 lemon, zest only 
Olive oil 

For the gnocchi: 

1 egg, beaten 
3 tbsp parmesan, finely grated 
1 lemon, zest only 
Italian ‘00’ grade flour, enough to bind and dust (approx. 200-300g) 

For the infused oil: 

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes 
2 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
½ a lemon, juice only

For the sage leaves: 

12 large sage leaves 
Vegetable oil for frying 

To finish: 

1-1 ½ large balls of good buffalo mozzarella, torn into 12 pieces 
12 slices of lardo 
1 lemon, zest only 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional) 
2 tbsp parmesan, finely grated 

Preheat the oven to 190⁰C. 

First make the spice mix for the butternut squash. Put the rosemary, oregano, garlic, lemon zest, paprika, chilli and a good amount of seasoning into a small bowl. Pour in enough olive oil to create a paste and combine well. Put the halves of butternut squash on a baking tray and slather with the mixture, then bake, along with the potato, for about 1 – 1 ½ hours until both are soft and tender. 

While the vegetables are cooking, make the crispy sage leaves. Pour the vegetable oil into a small, high-sided frying pan until it is about 1cm deep, and put on a high temperature. When hot, fry the sage leaves in small batches for 30 seconds to a minute, or until crisp. Remove and drain on some kitchen roll and set aside. 

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. 

While the squash and potato are still hot, scoop out the middles with a spoon and pass through a sieve into a large bowl. Add the parmesan, lemon zest and beaten egg and fold to combine. Next fold in the flour, a heaped tablespoon at a time, until the mash comes together to form a soft dough that is only just workable. Sprinkle some extra flour onto a work surface and take a small handful of the dough. Carefully roll out into a thin sausage, then cut into 2-3cm cylinders using a sharp knife. Roll each gently in your hands to shape, using a fork or slotted board to shape if you like. Repeat until you have made 32 pieces of gnocchi. 

Put a large, non-stick frying pan on a medium-high heat.

Carefully tip the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they have popped to the surface, about 3-4 minutes. Do this in two batches if your saucepan is not large enough to comfortably hold all the gnocchi at once. 

While the gnocchi is boiling, add the extra virgin olive oil to the frying pan and cook the garlic, rosemary and chilli for one minute. As the gnocchi pop to the surface of the boiling water, transfer them to the frying pan with a slotted spoon. Fry for a minute or two until slightly coloured, seasoning well and squeezing over the lemon juice. 

To serve, scatter 8 pieces of gnocchi onto each plate. Dot pieces of the mozzarella, slices of lardo and sage leaves in-between and around, then spoon over some of the oil from the pan. Finish by grating over some lemon zest and parmesan and sprinkling on more chilli flakes and cracked black pepper.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Homemade dry-cured and smoked bacon with roasted carrots, garden courgette and cucumber and mint and parmesan sauce

Another week, another curing project. In a totally spontaneous manner I have managed to fill my summer with a number of lengthy and not entirely necessary preservation projects. But although I’ve had to put up with many estranged “are you crazy” type looks from the friends, family and total strangers whose ears I’ve bent detailing my doings, I have to say that they have all absolutely been worth it. It is true, you can buy good, exceptional even, sardines, and in this case bacon, from some fabulous independent suppliers. They will definitely save you time and might even in some cases be cheaper, but there is definitely something for the satisfaction felt in sitting down and eating something that has been days or weeks in the making. I have also discovered that a big lump of bacon as a gift inspires a great deal of happiness.

In this case, I was inspired by reading old Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall books where he explores old-fashioned techniques such as curing, smoking and preserving, and it occurred to me just how simple a lot of it is. I used to think that DIY bacon was something that was unreachable to small-flat city dwellers, but I was instantly taken with the idea, and I quick trip to my local Ginger Pig saw me committed with a large hunk of pork belly. Miraculously the whole process was surprisingly simple, and even without a proper smoker I managed to achieve a similar result using a BBQ which had a lid to catch the smoke. I have to say, the bacon that came from this labour of love tasted pretty damn good, and happily I have still got a big old piece in the fridge to whittle away every so often. 

Bacon is normally the bridesmaid. There to discretely add a depth of flavour or add a salty contrast to the primary ingredient. After getting this far, I really wanted it to be the star of the show in this dish. I’ve cut thick, proper slices and fried them until crispy, and only paired them with subtle vegetables and herbs to create something fresh and light yet packed with flavour. This year I’ve been growing courgettes, cucumbers and mint on my balcony, and it’s been lovely to walk out on a summer evening and pick a few things to go with dinner. 

As I said, you can buy fantastic bacon if the process puts you off. If that’s the case, this dinner becomes a very quick affair indeed. But I’ve caught the bug now, and am on the hunt for more ingredients to chuck in the smoker… 

Serves 2, plus a good bit of extra bacon 


For the bacon: 

2.5kg pork belly, ribs removed for eating on another occasion 
1kg table salt 
200g brown sugar 
1 lemon, zest only 
10 sprigs of thyme 
4 tbsp black treacle 
Juniper chips for smoking for 24 hours 

For the roasted carrots: 

6 small heritage carrots, trimmed, washed and scrubbed if necessary 
3 sprigs thyme, leaves picked 
1 garlic clove, crushed into a few pieces 
¼ lemon, juice only 

For the courgettes and cucumber: 

2 baby courgettes, flowers reserved 
2 baby cucumbers, flowers reserved 
1 lemon, juice and zest 
3 sprigs mint, leaves picked and roughly torn 
Splash of cider vinegar 

For the mint and parmesan sauce: 

½ bunch of mint, leaves picked 
5 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves picked 
1 clove of garlic, grated 
1 lemon, zest and juice 
3 tbsp grated parmesan 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 

To finish: 

The flowers from the baby courgettes, stamens removed and leaves roughly torn 
The flowers from the baby cucumbers 
Red-veined sorrel leaves 
Fennel herb sprigs 

Start by curing the bacon. Mix the salt, sugar, treacle, thyme and lemon zest together in a bowl. Pour a quarter of the mixture into the bottom of a large, deep dish, big enough to accommodate the pork belly. Place the pork belly on top, then evenly distribute more of the curing mixture over the top and sides, rubbing the meat in the process. Keep about a quarter of the cure. Cover the dish with cling film and refrigerate for 5 days. After a couple of days moisture will have drained out of the meat. Drain this away and pack the remaining cure around the pork. After 5 days, rinse the meat clean and pat dry. It should have firmed in texture and darkened. Clean the dish and place the meat back in it, then refrigerate, uncovered, in the fridge for another 24 hours to dry out. 

Create a long, heaped line of the fine juniper chips on the bottom of the smoker or barbeque and light one end until caught and smoking constantly. Place the pork on a rack above, then cover with a lid. Slightly open any ventilation ducts and leave to cold smoke for 24 hours. Check every 3-4 hours, topping up and relighting the chips as and when needed. When smoked the bacon will have taken on a golden colour and have a lovely smokey aroma. Wrap with cling film and refrigerate until needed.

To prepare the courgettes, use a mandolin to slice into thin cross-sections. Cut the baby cucumbers into long quarters. Put both into a bowl and add the lemon zest and juice, vinegar and mint leaves along with a good pinch of seasoning. Mix to combine then cover and set aside. 

For the mint and parmesan sauce, put all ingredients into a food processor and blend until everything is finely chopped and combined, adding a little more oil if needed to loosen. Taste and adjust the seasoning and/or acidity if needed. 

Pre-heat the oven to 180⁰C. 

Put the carrots on a baking tray and scatter over the thyme leaves, garlic clove and seasoning, then drizzle with olive oil. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until tender. When cooked, squeeze over the lemon juice. 

Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and set on a medium-high heat. Cut two thick 2cm slices from the bacon joint and fry for about 5 minutes on each side, until well browned and crisp on the outside and cooked through. When ready, remove the bacon from the pan and use a little of the juices to dress the courgettes and cucumber. 

To serve, transfer one piece of bacon onto each plate. Place some of the courgette and cucumber slices and roasted carrots around it. Scatter over some of the vegetable flowers, fennel sprigs and sorrel leaves and finish by dotting some of the mint sauce around the plate.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Marinated sardines with smoked aubergine and garlic and rosemary focaccia

The sardine season seems to have taken an age to come. On a hot summers day, I can think of little better to eat than a heap of them freshly grilled or even better, barbequed. As a child I couldn’t stand the things. Dad would always cook them and marvel. I ate chicken. Chicken was my friend. Chicken didn’t smell fishy and chicken didn’t have an infinite amount of silly little bones to ruin each mouthful. Why would anyone eat sardines when they could have chicken I would wonder. Now I know damn well. Growing up and acquiring new tastes is a joyful thing. I’m still waiting for cherries.

But back to sardines. I have been a convert many a year now. I filled my flat with smoke whilst the girl was away last July and they shared a fork with cavolo nero and clam. I joked that the washing that draped the clothes horses would never smell the same again. This time there was going to be none of that. Salt and acidity do amazing things to fish, and with a bit of patience I ended up with a dish of cured and marinated sardines that provided a delightful little snack for many sunny evenings. Just like the plates of anchovies that little time-etched ladies hand out in those proper bars on holiday. 

The bread was an important reminder to my lack of recent baking and the happiness a flat filled with the smell of browning crust and roasting garlic can create. I have to hand the wizardry of the focaccia recipe largely to baking GOD Dan Lepard, for which it is based. I have taken his recommendation and reduced the yeast levels, which makes for a timely wait but a tasty crumb. The substantial loaf was wolfed down and I sat there like a cheeky child in disbelief that I could consume so much. 

It is pointless to make a small batch of the smoked aubergine to accompany the fish alone, so the amounts stated are for a decent bowlful. Spread on more bread, stir into pasta or eat with a spoon. Either way it lasts little longer than the loaf. 

Serves 4 


For the marinated sardines: 

12 sardines, butterflied 
500g table salt 
Extra virgin olive oil, to cover 
3 tbsp caster sugar 
3 tbsp white wine vinegar 
1 lemon, zest cut into large strips 
1 red onion, finely sliced 
1 garlic clove, finely sliced 
1 tsp black peppercorns 
6 sprigs fresh oregano 
1 tsp dried oregano 
1 small dried chilli, crumbled 

For the smoked aubergine: 

2 medium aubergines 
2 shallots, finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
1 small dried chilli, crumbled 
1 tsp dried oregano 
1 lemon, zest and juice 
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika 
1 tbsp tomato puree 
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
3 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves picked 

For the garlic and rosemary focaccia: 

4g fast action dried yeast 
400ml warm water 
500g ‘00’ grade Italian flour 
A large pinch of salt 
8 sprigs of rosemary 
3 garlic cloves 
Sea salt 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 

To finish:

The pickled onions from the marinade 

Fresh oregano leaves 
1 lemon, zest only 
Extra virgin olive oil

First cure the sardines. Mix the salt and sugar together and pour half into the bottom of a dish large enough to hold the fish side-by-side. Lay the opened out fish on top, then pour over the other half of the salt mixture. Cover and refrigerate for two hours, then rinse all of the salt off the fish and pat dry. Clean the dish and place the sardines back in it, then add the onion, garlic, lemon zest, dried oregano, chilli, fresh oregano, peppercorns and white wine vinegar. Pour over enough extra virgin olive oil to cover then toss all of the ingredients until everything is well distributed. Cover the dish with cling film and refrigerate for 24 hours. 

To make the focaccia, mix the yeast and lukewarm water together in a jug until well combined. Tip the flour and salt into a mixing bowl and stir in the yeasty water until a sloppy dough is achieved. Cover with cling film and leave to prove for 45 minutes. Knead very quickly for thirty seconds before repeating the proving process. Lightly oil a work surface and shape the dough into a large rectangle shape, then perform a blanket fold. Transfer back to the bowl and cover for another 45 minutes. Stretch the dough out again and fold, then on an oven tray of about 25 x 30cm lined with greaseproof paper. Cover with cling film and leave for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200⁰C. 

While the dough is performing it’s final prove, mix the sliced garlic, rosemary and extra virgin olive oil in a small bowl. When the dough is ready, push it out with your fingers so that it nearly fills the oven tray. Push into the surface with your fingers and spoon over the rosemary and garlic oil mixture. Sprinkle very generously with sea salt and slide into the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until evenly golden on the top and cooked through. 

For the smoked aubergine, heat a large griddle pan to a medium-high temperature. Coat the aubergines with olive oil and roll in salt and pepper. Fry for 8-10 minutes on all sides, until the inside is very soft when squeezed. Set aside to cool down. Add a little olive oil to a frying pan and set on a medium-low heat. Soften the garlic, chilli, shallots and dried oregano with the paprika and a little seasoning for about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree and cook for another 3-4 minutes, stirring to combine. Remove from the heat. When the aubergine has cooled, slice in half and scoop out the middles with a spoon into a food processor. Blitz into a coarse puree, then add the fresh oregano, lemon juice and zest, shallot mixture and olive oil and mix again until everything is well combined. Taste and add more seasoning or lemon juice if necessary. 

To serve, spoon a little of the aubergine puree onto the middle of each plate. Top with three of the sardine fillets, then dot on a little more of the aubergine. Arrange some of the marinated sliced onion on top along with some fresh oregano leaves. Grate over the lemon zest and finish with a little extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

New potato and thyme pansotti with smoked ham hock, broad beans and potato broth

I often struggle to think up new recipes to cook for this blog. I guess a kind of cooking block. I’ll have certain ingredients that I want to use in mind, but the finished dish will shift and change many times until I’m ready to get cooking. However frustrating it is at the time, this constant editing and reworking definitely results in better dishes. But I never know when the eureka moment will come, I could be walking to work or dozing off to sleep when that final piece slots into place and I’m truly satisfied. 

The flip side, are the meals that I make spontaneously, almost accidently making something and then thinking ‘hang on, this is actually quite good; I’ll take a quick photo and stick it on the blog’. This often occurs after a trip to see my parents and a visit to their allotment, when I drive home with a glut of seasonal vegetables. And that’s exactly what happened here. Dad scraped a fork along a random bit of earth and these amazing new potatoes appeared. It was all really impressive. A few plump broad bean pods and some sprigs hacked from their rosemary ‘tree’ joined them in my goody bag that sat next to me smelling amazing in the car on the way home. As usual, I was in a quandary with what to do. The logical thing would have been simply boiled potatoes with the fresh herbs and beans and lashings of butter. That probably would have done everything justice, but I wanted to do something more.

I’ve wanted to make filled pasta with mashed potato as a filling ever since a chef-friend told me about it a few years ago. The idea of carb filled with carb was a funny one, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed to work. I love thinly-sliced potatoes on top of bianco style pizzas, and the same flavour combinations work in this recipe. The key is to make the potato filling as light as possible and full of flavour. This, combined with the ham, herbs and beans makes for a comforting a tasty dinner. Adding the potato skins to the broth was a bit of an experiment after hearing about a potato infused soup recently and I was surprised that it really worked, giving a lovely mellow savoury flavour.    

I learned recently that pansotti means something like ‘greedy bellies’ in Italian, which makes me love it even more.

Serves 4


For the pasta:

300g ‘00’ grade flour
3 medium eggs
1 tbsp olive oil

For the filling:

2 handfuls of new potatoes, washed
2 tbsp parmesan, finely grated
1 garlic clove, finely grated
3 sprigs mint, leaves picked and finely chopped
3 sprigs thyme, leaves picked and finely chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

For the broth:

1 small cooked smoked ham hock, meat shredded into large chunks and bone reserved
500ml good chicken stock
The finely chopped rind from the parmesan (optional)
2 shallots, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
5 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
Shells and pods from the broad beans
1 lemon, juice only

To finish:

2 handfuls broad beans, podded and shelled
2 tbsp parmesan, finely grated
2 spring onions, finely sliced
2 thyme sprigs, leaves picked

Preheat the oven to 180⁰C.

Put the new potatoes in a baking tray and coat with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Add the bone from the ham hock and roast in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until cooked and soft in the middles. Remove the bone and set aside until later. Halve the potatoes whilst they are still warm and pass through a sieve into a bowl. Keep the skins. Add the garlic, parmesan, mint, thyme and olive oil along with a good amount of salt and pepper and combine well. Taste and adjust if necessary then allow to cool.

While the potatoes are cooking make the pasta dough. Put the flour, eggs, oil and a generous pinch of salt into a bowl and mix well until combined. Tip out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead well for at least 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic in texture. Wrap with cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

When the pasta dough is rested and the filling cooled start to make the pansotti. Roll the dough through your pasta machine about ten times on the widest setting, then pass down through each gradient until the thinnest (number 6 on an Imperia machine). Cut the pasta sheet into 12 4-by-4 inch squares. Spoon a tablespoon of the potato filling into the middle of each square and brush a little water onto one diagonal side. Carefully fold each square to form a triangular shape, pushing out as much air as possible in the sealing process. Trim away any excess pasta from the edges and to neaten up.  Place the finished pansotti onto a lightly floured piece of greaseproof paper, loosely wrap with cling film and refrigerate until needed.

For the broth, add a little oil to a saucepan and set on a medium heat. Cook the shallots, garlic thyme and rosemary for about 8-10 minutes until soft. Pour in the chicken stock along with the ham bone, parmesan rind and broad bean pods. Bring to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the potato skins and cook for another 5 minutes, then strain through a sieve into another pan. 

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

Reheat the broth to a simmer.

When the pasta water boils, tip in the pansotti and cook for 3 minutes. When cooked, use a slotted spoon to remove from the water and put three in each bowl.

While the pasta is cooking, add the ham pieces and broad beans to the strained broth and heat through for a few minutes. Squeeze in the lemon juice and taste for seasoning.

To serve, spoon the broth over the pansotti in each bowl including a good amount of ham and beans. Finish by scattering over the spring onion, thyme leaves and parmesan.