Monday, 24 November 2014

Mallard roasted on ciabatta with smashed borlotti beans, braised leg and liver, cavolo nero and truffle

We’re now bang in the middle of game season, which means it’s time to branch out from the usual beef, chicken, pork and lamb and have a go at something different. I’m usually terrible at taking advantage of this glut of alternative meat, but this year I’ve really made an effort and have already cooked with pheasant, grouse and wild rabbit. Although the often stronger, livery flavour puts a lot of people off, I personally love a bit of game and will always jump at the chance to buy it from a butcher or order it when eating out. The flavours work so well with other autumnal ingredients, be it sweeter squashes, beets and sweetcorn or bitter cabbage leaves and earthy mushrooms. 

This dish, like many of my better ones, happened by chance. It certainly wasn’t the result of a long-conceived and adjusted recipe; it all came together very quickly. I was strolling through Marylebone on the way home from town, and being a rare visitor to the area I thought I would take advantage and have a quick snoop around. Moxon Street was like my foodie heaven, with the delightful smell of cheese wafting out of La Fromagerie and the impressive glass-lined hanging room in The Ginger Pig, lined with blackened aged-foreribs and porterhouses. It was whilst in the butchers that I spied the mallard, and not often seeing them around I just had to take it. Back in London Fields and a quick trip to the local E5 Bakehouse for a huge slab of ciabatta and the local greengrocers saw me ready to go.
Ever since I had the chicken roasted on bread at Rotorino in Dalston I’ve wanted to have a go at something similar. It was such a fantastic dish, and the fact that I still have it at the front of my mind months after eating it is tribute alone. The end result is something similar to posh fried bread, all laden with the roasting juices and olive oil. To accompany the bird and the bread, I made a very savoury, earthy and thick stew out of the beans, the braised leg meat and the livers. Combined with the fairly sweet sauce it really brings depth to the dish. 

Serves 2 


For the mallards: 

2 plump mallards, legs removed and crowns trimmed 
2 long thin slices of fresh ciabatta 
2 cloves of garlic, sliced 
8 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked 
2 tbsp butter 

For the braised mallard legs and sauce: 

The legs and trimmings from the mallard 
4 shallots, finely sliced 
3 garlic cloves, crushed 
1 tbsp soft brown sugar 
1 carrot, diced 
1 leek, sliced 
5 sprigs of thyme 
1 bay leaf 
A good splash of brandy 
1ltr chicken stock 

For the smashed borlotti beans: 

6 tbsp cooked borlotti beans including the cooking liquid 
2 cloves of garlic, grated 
4 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked 
½ a shallot, finely chopped 
4 chicken livers, cleaned and diced 
The picked braised leg meat from the mallards 
¼ lemon, juice only 
Extra virgin olive oil 
A few gratings of black truffle  

For the roasted shallots:
2 shallots, quartered lengthways 
1 tbsp butter 
1 tbsp olive oil 
5 sprigs of thyme
For the cavolo nero: 

4 large cavolo nero leaves, thick stems removed 
1 tbsp butter
To finish:
A few gratings of black truffle 
Extra virgin olive oil 

First braise the legs of the mallard. Heat a heavy saucepan to a medium-high temperature and add a little olive oil. Fry the mallard legs quickly to brown well on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Repeat with all of the trimmings from the bird until well coloured. Turn the temperature down slightly and tip in the shallots, garlic, thyme and sugar and fry for about 15 minutes, or until softened and golden. Add the other vegetables and herbs and continue to cook for another few minutes. Turn the heat back up and add the brandy, burning off the alcohol and de-glazing the pan. Top up with the stock and return the mallard legs and trimmings to the pan. Bring to a simmer, then cook very gently for about 2 hours, or until the leg meat is tender. Remove the legs from the stock and shred the meat off the bones. Set aside until needed later.
Strain the rest of the stock and discard the carcass and vegetables. Pour the liquid into a smaller pan and set to a high temperature. Reduce until only a small amount of thick sauce remains, about 150ml. Cover and keep warm until needed. 

Pre-heat the oven to 160⁰C.
Put the quartered shallots into a small baking dish and toss in the olive oil, seasoning and thyme. Dot the butter around and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until really soft and slightly charred at the edges. Peel the shallot layers into individual petals and set aside.
For the borlotti beans, add a little olive oil to a saucepan and set to a medium-high temperature. Season the chicken livers and then fry quickly for about two minutes or until golden brown on the outside and still pink in the middle. Transfer to a side plate. Lower the heat, add the shallot, garlic and thyme and soften for a few minutes. Add the borlotti beans and liquid along with the braised leg meat, season well and gently cook for about 15 minutes. Return the livers to the pan and roughly smash the contents against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon. Finish with the lemon juice, a tablespoon of the reduced sauce, two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a few gratings of the black truffle. Keep warm until needed. 

Raise the oven temperature to 200⁰C.
While the borlotti beans are cooking roast the mallards. Pour some oil into a non-stick frying pan and set to a medium-high heat. Season the inside and outside of the birds and sear quickly on each breast for 1-2 minutes, then add the butter to the pan, turn the birds breast-side up and baste really well. Lay the ciabatta slices onto the bottom of an oven dish and top with a little extra-virgin olive oil, the slices of garlic, seasoning and the thyme leaves. Place the browned mallards on top of the bread, pour over the pan juices and roast for 10-12 minutes, basting every few minutes. When cooked, transfer the mallards to a chopping board to rest for 10 minutes. Pick the garlic off the ciabatta and return the bread to the oven for a few minutes to crisp up slightly.
Re-heat the pan used to sear the mallards and add the butter for the cavolo nero. When melted, add the leaves, a bit of seasoning and a splash of water and fry for a couple of minutes until slightly softened.
While the mallard is resting also reheat the other elements of the dish if necessary.
To serve up, spoon a good amount of the smashed beans onto each piece of ciabatta and place one on each plate. Top with some of the cavolo nero leaves. Carve the mallards and arrange the breasts around the bread. Finish with some of the slow-roasted shallot, a generous spoonful of the sauce, some extra virgin olive oil and more grated truffle.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Roasted pumpkin soup with braised duck leg, girolles, toasted chestnuts, duck crackling and taleggio

In the last month Katie and I have moved from the original tiny Sam Cooks Food flat slightly east to London Fields. Although I enjoyed Stoke Newington and have plenty of fantastic memories, one of the things that I will miss the most is the amazing greengrocers that we had close by. This blog really wouldn’t be the same without it. That shop was a constant influence, and the sheer range of interesting fruit and vegetables meant that after every visit I often left with three or four new recipe ideas flying around my head. They were the place to go when searching for that springtime wild garlic, for those vibrant heritage carrots or the sweetest of summer tomatoes. I really was like a kid in a sweetshop there. Mum must approve that I’ve grown up to consider greengrocers like sweetshops.


I was up early one crisp morning, and having a day-off ahead of me I wrapped up and took a stroll back to my old haunts, planning to pop by the greengrocers to get a few bits to make a simple warming soup upon my return. I was taken instantly by the vast array of handsome pumpkins and squashes piled up outside, and immediately the old recipe cogs started working away. The comparison between the produce available at the supermarkets when compared to the smaller, specialist shops always amazes me. If I went to the former I would be limited to your standard Cinderella bulbous orange types or the old faithful butternut squashes. But that morning about a dozen variants were on show, some tiny, some speckled, some that looked like two totally different pumpkins fused together. I just had to get one. I changed my mind and bought two. And somehow upon my return home I had also acquired some lovely mushrooms, a pair of duck legs and a honking chunk of taleggio.

I really love the autumn, and living close to London Fields I’m lucky enough to be treated to the glorious spectrum of burnished gold and orange on a daily basis. The food is also at its most dramatic and striking, with gourds, corn, beets, apples and chestnuts all on the seasonal menu. Gone are the sea of green spring and summer vegetables and the light, refreshing dishes they abounded. For the next few months it is all about hearty, filling food; the sort that makes a day spent in the cold forgotten within seconds.

Soup is a year-round thing in our household and is always savoured. They are marvellous things, often loaded with all of those vegetables that my body screams out for after a few heavy nights out or a tough week at work. It always shocks me that lots of my friends still hold a stigma against the humble soup, not deeming them worthy as a standalone meal option. Well more fool them, they clearly haven’t had a steaming bowl of tomato soup with triangles of cheese and bread on the side. Heaven. I just like the creativity that they allow. On busy days a few chunks of root vegetable floating in a bit of stock will suffice, but the variety of little finishing touches is almost limitless. This recipe is very much in this thinking; the base is a simple yet delicious roasted pumpkin soup that stands up for itself. But this is only made more interesting with the different textures and bursts of flavour from the garnish.

Serves 4-6

For the pumpkin:

1 medium pumpkin, peeled and seeds removed and reserved
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 lemon, zest only
3 garlic cloves, grated
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
3 tbsp olive oil

For the duck and stock:

2 duck legs, skin removed and reserved
1 glass dry white wine
1 litre good chicken stock
1 leek, sliced
1 carrot, chopped
2 shallots, sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tomatos, diced
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp dried oregano 

5 sprigs of thyme 
1 bay leaf

For the chestnut, leaves and duck skin:

3 fresh chestnuts, peeled and thinly sliced
The reserved skin from the duck legs, cut into small pieces
The seeds from the pumpkin, cleaned of membrane
3 thyme sprigs
½ tbsp. dried chilli
½ tbsp. dried oregano

For the mushrooms:

12 girolle mushrooms, brushed clean

To finish:

100g taleggio cheese, torn into small pieces
Fresh oregano leaves
1 lemon, zest only 

Extra virgin olive oil

Pour a little olive oil into a large saucepan and set on a high heat. Season the duck legs and quickly brown on all sides, then transfer to a side plate. Tip in the leek, shallot, carrot, garlic, thyme, oregano, paprika and bay and sauté for about 5 minutes, then pour in the wine. Reduce by half then top up with the stock. Tip in the tomatoes and return the duck legs in the pan, making sure they are covered by the liquid. Bring to the boil, then turn to a low simmer. Partly cover and cook for 1.5-2 hours, or until the duck is very tender. Remove the duck legs from the pan and allow to rest in a little of the liquid for 10 minutes, then strip off the meat into small pieces and set aside. Strain the stock, discarding the vegetables. 


Preheat the oven to 200⁰C.

While the duck is cooking, cut the peeled and seeded pumpkin into 1.5” chunks and scatter in one layer onto an oven dish. Mix all of the other ingredients and a good amount of seasoning in a bowl, then pour over the pumpkin and toss until each piece is well coated. Roast in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until lightly caramelised on the outside with a soft core, turning every so often.

For the crispy seeds, duck crackling and chestnuts, pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a frying pan and heat to medium-high. Fry the skin, chestnut slices and seeds with the herbs, spices and seasoning for a few minutes, or until crispy and golden brown. Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper and drain well.

When the pumpkin is cooked, transfer to a food processor and blitz really well. Slowly add the strained duck stock to the puree, continuing to mix until a smooth soup consistency is achieved. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Pour back into a saucepan and bring to just below the boil.


While the soup is heating up, pour a little olive oil into a small frying pan. When at a medium-high heat, fry the girolle mushrooms for a couple of minutes or until caramelised on the outside and cooked through.

To serve, place bits of the braised duck leg into each bowl and cover with the hot soup. Scatter over the crispy duck crackling, seeds and chestnut along with the pieces of taleggio, cooked girolles and fresh oregano leaves. Grate over a little of the lemon zest and finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Smoked haddock with pressed potato and leek, clam beurre blanc, charred corn and mussels

Gosh it’s been a while. The last few weeks and months have been a total blur, filled with the arduous and always-underestimated task of moving flat followed closely by the less arduous and highly anticipated task of a few weeks away in Sydney. With work and random jetlag tiredness to navigate around these goings on this blog has been shamefully put on the back shelf, until now! Despite being slow on the keyboard my cooking has continued and I’ve got a whole host of recipes to post over the next few weeks, from soothing cheesy pumpkin soups to rich, gamey mallard. 

This recipe makes me especially happy though as it is my 100th post on Sam Cooks Food. I’m really proud to have stuck with it and got this far; it seems like ages ago that I took the photos of that mushroom and goat’s cheese ravioli just over two years ago. I feel I’ve come on leaps and bounds since nervously typing that first recipe, both as a cook and writer. This blog has also been a source of stress relief, somewhere where I can vent or reflect on memories. It has been a place to celebrate birthdays and family gatherings and help me through personal struggles such as the death of my brother at the end of last year. It’s lead to numerous friends, writing opportunities, new jobs and collaborations with producers, and I was over the moon when The Evening Standard named it in their Top 20 London Blogs. On a practical level it drives my cooking level and food interest higher and higher. I used to be a stickler for recipes and was scared of venturing off-course, whereas now I take inspiration from something my parents have grown on their allotment or a cookery programme on the television and have a go at making something new. 
I had loads of ideas for what I wanted to make for this post. My first thought was spaghetti bolognese, something that has been somewhat of a cooking nemesis over the years. I still vow to correct my failings in this standby Italian and student classic in the future but for now it just didn’t fall into place. My mind was elsewhere and the wonderful autumnal seasonal food drove my cooking in other directions. Surely I can knock up a spag bol anytime? Well we’ll see. I also toyed with the idea of oysters, a true celebration ingredient, and made a delicious dish which is now patiently waiting in the wings for me to get around to and write. But as is often the case, what I was looking for was hiding in plain sight right in front of me. 
As the weather cooled and summer turned into a burnished chill, there were two things that I really started to crave; smoked haddock and sweetcorn. Two flavours that come together to form something so utterly soothing and comforting. Of course, my first instinct was to make chowder. This is something that my dad has long been the master, and he often makes huge batches at home in Brighton, steaming and ready after a blustery walk by the sea. It’s the sort of food that steams your glasses and exfoliates your cheeks, the sort that you eat until you full to bursting. It always seemed like such a difficult thing to cook, and before my food interest intensified I’d nag him again and again to show me how. Finally he bowed to my pestering, only for me to storm off in disgust after he cut himself. I was a moody teenager. Yet it’s still one thing that holds such a strong food memory. 
Here I have taken all of the components and flavours of the standard chowder and have given it my own stamp. Yet when you taste everything together I’m still taken back to family meals shared over the years. From cooking on a daily basis I also love how I keep on learning little unexpected things. On this occasion it was hard fried sweetcorn with butter and cayenne. It’s nothing new really, chilli butter has long been an accompaniment to corn on the cob. But it’s something that I’ve never really had before and an instant addiction. I could eat a bowl of that alone. 
Serves 2   


For the haddock:   

4 pieces of naturally smoked, undyed haddock, about 80-100g each, skin removed and reserved 
1 knob of butter 
1 tbsp olive oil 
½ lemon, juice only   

For the pressed potato:   

6 large maris piper potatoes, peeled and cut into thin slices 
1 leek, finely sliced 
1 clove of garlic, grated 
1 bay leaf 
1 knob of butter 
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked 
300ml single cream 
150ml milk 
(You may need a little more or less cream and milk depending on the size of your dish)   

For the shellfish and clam beurre blanc:   

1 handful live clams, rinsed 
1 handful live mussels, de-bearded 
1 glass of dry white wine 
150g cold butter, cut into 1cm chunks 
½ a lemon, juice only   

For the charred sweetcorn:   

1 cob of sweetcorn, kernels cut off and core kept 
1 knob of butter 
1 tbsp olive oil 
1 tsp cayenne pepper   

For the haddock skin:   

The skin from the haddock 

To finish: 
Nasturtium leaves 

Preheat the oven to 180⁰C. 
To make the pressed potatoes, pour the milk and cream into a saucepan and add the used cob from the sweetcorn and the trimmings from the leek and garlic. Bring to a simmer then take off the heat. Add the butter to a separate saucepan and heat gently. Add the garlic, thyme and leek and sweat until softened. Line the bottom and sides of a deep oven dish approx. 20cm x 30cm in size with greaseproof paper. When the leeks are cooked, layer the potato slices into the oven dish, evenly distributing a little of the leek mixture and a good amount of seasoning at the same time. Strain the cream mixture and pour the liquid over the potatoes until nearly covered. Put another sheet of greaseproof paper over the top of the potatoes, then place another dish on top. Fill the top dish with heavy items such as baking beans, rice etc. to weigh the potatoes down. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and all liquid has been absorbed. Allow to cool, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours. 

For the haddock skin, line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and rub with a little olive oil. Season the haddock skin lightly on both sides and lay on top, then place more on paper and another tray. Bake for about 20 minutes at the same oven temperature as the potatoes, or until crisp. Break into rough shards and set aside. 
Heat a frying pan to a high temperature and pour in the oil for the corn. When hot, tip in the kernels along with some seasoning and the cayenne and fry until they start to char. Stir in the butter and continue to cook for another minute, then transfer to a bowl and set aside. 

When the pressed potato has cooled down, remove from the fridge and slice around the sides of the dish. Carefully tip out onto a board – it should have compacted and stuck together. Using a sharp knife, cut two 2-3cm wide slices and transfer to a baking tray. There will be plenty left that isn’t used in this recipe, which is delicious reheated and eaten on another occasion.
When nearly ready to serve, again set the oven to 180⁰C. 
For the shellfish, heat a medium-sized saucepan to a high heat. When hot, add the clams and the white wine then cover with a tight lid and shake. Steam for 2-3 minutes until they have all opened, then transfer to a bowl using a slotted spoon, leaving the liquid in the pan. Add the mussels to the same pan, cover and repeat the same process. When the mussels have been spooned out, turn up the heat and reduce the liquid until only a few tablespoons remain. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cold butter, one knob at a time, until emulsified and thickened slightly. Squeeze in a little of the lemon juice and add a couple of grinds of pepper then taste, it should be intense and sharp. Adjust if necessary. Keep warm. 

Slide the oven tray with the potato slices into the oven for 6-8 minutes to warm through. 
Heat a non-stick frying pan and add the oil and butter for the haddock. When at a medium temperature season the fish and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side depending on the thickness. Tip the cooked shellfish into the pan for the final minute to warm through and squeeze over the lemon juice.
To serve, place one slice of pressed potato onto each plate and arrange two pieces of the haddock on or around. Add some of the clams and mussels, shelled and unshelled, in the gaps and scatter the sweetcorn over the top. Finish with the crispy haddock skin, some nasturtium leaves and a good spoonful or two of the beurre blanc.

Restaurant review: Rotorino, Dalston

September and October saw birthday season in full swing, and as per usual this meant some good eating. After a summer largely spent cooking at home, it was time to make some bookings and try out places that we had long had on our lists. We had a random, yet delicious Masterchef dinner at their Southbank pop-up, experienced true pea-souper London amidst the skyscrapers (so we’re told) at Duck and Waffle and perched in sardine-tin Jose in Bermondsey to relive our Spanish explorings from earlier in the year. I often make note to slip a camera into my pocket for such visits, but on many of our recent ventures my forgetfulness got the better of me. All for the better though, as I do cringe at the blunt pauses caused by clicking away as soon as the bottom of the plate meets the table. The only recent time that the trusty camera got its calling was for a highly-anticipated visit to Rotorino in Dalston. 

This is the sort of restaurant that attracts me like a bee to honey, and ever since it opened earlier this year I’d been yearning to make a booking. The fantastic Trullo is on my doorstep, but like that Highbury institution, Rotorino appeared to have it nailed with a multi-course menu that instantly generated a smile to read. The photos had me salivating. It all looked and sounded proper. It’s no massive secret that I am shamefully obsessed with Italian cooking, so there was certainly room enough for another good restaurant in the area. I just love the food culture; what could be better than endless plates accompanied by good wine. Real celebration food. Total gorging food. Something on bread, something with cheese, something tossed in pasta, something charred and grilled, something sweet and finally something to perk you back up from the mountain of consumption. Heaven.
It was three days after my birthday at the time of our arrival. The standard hangover had passed, and the glorious September warmth still clung on. Beer gardens thronged as everyone desperately tried to bask in what could be the last hour of summer. The evening haziness still hung in the air. It was almost like a holiday. It’s been over four years since those trains took us through weeks of Tuscan sunsets and I miss it dearly. Any opportunity to release those old memories and I’m there. 

Rotorino shone like a jewel on the otherwise nondescript strip between Dalston and Haggerston. Quite literally. The new jazzy sign lit red what had been quite a subtle, almost secretive entrance. Inside it was all dim lighting, and a smart collage of wood, glass and tile. At our table we sipped a delicious Chianti and picked on bread. It was early and we were almost an island in the middle of a patchily acquainted seating area, but it still felt comfortable and in no way isolating; something difficult to pull off. A note on the bread; although hardly a revolutionary concept, it does surprise me how infrequently it is offered these days. It always seems to work wonders at taking the edge off those potentially awkward early moments, giving the diner something to occupy themselves with while they wait to be served, and the waiting staff a couple of extra precious minutes. And in this case, those old chalky dinner rolls had been swept aside for something a little more interesting that were almost another course in their own right.
We ordered big, loosened a few belt buckles and awaited a feast. That point in a meal is always glorious. You have waited and anticipated for your booking, laboured over the menu, contemplated time-over if it would be acceptable to order two main courses before finally commiting, and then you are just sat there knowing that you are just a touching distance away. 

The joy of Italian cookery is the emphasis on good quality ingredients, often very simply combined and presented. The plate of plump buffalo mozzarella, juicy figs, chilli and good olive oil was a real case of why didn’t I think of that. This is a dish that just wouldn’t really work if the cheese was bouncy, the figs were tough and the oil cheap, but here the procurement shone through and everything balanced beautifully. Likewise, the gnudi that Katie was served for the following course was something that she described as one of the best things she had eaten in a long time. The melt-in-the-mouth ricotta combined with a blanket of cheesy, buttery mushroom was just stunning. Ricotta also starred in my main, niftily tucked under the skin of a chicken and then roasted on bread. I never order chicken when eating out but this was a game changer. Truly inspired.
The problem was that with the brilliance of these dishes, you wanted it repeated across everything else, which sadly it wasn’t. The beef in both tartar and hanger steak form managed to taste of very little, something probably easily rectified with a bit of seasoning in the kitchen or had it been available on the table. Similarly the pasta that read so well, all anchovy and breadcrumb, was severely lacking on both parts when it arrived on the table. It was like a few blobs of this sauce had been added as an afterthought, barely touching most of the long naked rigatoni stretched across the bowl. 

I love a simple ice cream to finish a big meal, but the scoops of mascarpone and lemon balanced awkwardly in the sad citrus shell and in taste. It just didn’t seem quite right. Katie was equally disappointed with her tart, which seemed to have been made a long time ago and left to go dry and crusty. It came with some sort of cream that had been pebbledashed alongside and left a clay-like feeling in the mouth. We were hoping for some respite with a coffee but it came seriously burnt.

It’s funny how the end of the meal is often the most memorable, that time when you feel the warmth of full-stomached satisfaction or when you start to get irritated by the time lapse in the bill arriving. Despite some brilliant plates of food, we left slightly deflated. Compared to other similarly-ranged ventures such as the aforementioned Trullo or Polpetto in town, where each dish had us scraping the porcelain for that last morsel, at Rotorino some of the things we ate seemed lacking in care. Fundamentally I’m a greedy eater and I never leave food on a plate, but here great chunks remained. For the fairly serious money it totted up to, I don’t think it’s enough for just one in every two or three dishes to be up to it. Had I sat there another time and just ordered the mozzarella, the gnudi, the chicken and finished there this review would be the total opposite, a winner. There is clearly good food being made, and most of what we ordered could have been great on another day. So I am cautious with my conclusion at this point, and I look forward to returning. If not just for another bite of that chicken-soaked bread.