Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Spaghetti alla gricia

Two weeks ago it was my birthday; I finally turned the grand old age of 30. In an attempt to trick time and escape reality, Katie and I hot-footed to City Airport and jumped on a plane to spend a lovely long weekend in Rome. It was the perfect getaway; blue skies and temperatures approaching 30 degrees made for perfect square and balcony lounging. Sure we saw the Colosseum and the Forum, but let’s face it, this was always going to be an eating trip, and we encountered these places en-route to dinner. 

I hadn’t visited Rome or the surrounding Lazio region before, and I was excited to try the local specialities. One of my favourite things about Italian food and cookery is the diversity, which changes dramatically from North to South, from state to state. In Rome, I was more than happy to discover, it is all about the pizza and the pasta. Happy days. We walked miles across the city in search of wonderful pizzas, and were rewarded with crispy, thin bases and rich tomato topping.
When it comes to pasta, Rome is renowned for rich, creamy sauces such as carbonara. But whilst there, I really fell for the carbonara’s even simpler counterparts; cacao e pepe and spaghetti alla gricia. It was amazing how just some good pecorino and freshly cracked black pepper could create something so delicious. For someone like me who likes to cook dishes with multiple complicated elements, it was a real eye-opener. I ordered these dishes nearly everywhere I sat, and it was interesting to see the subtle differences. Some restaurants would prefer a looser sauce, some would prefer more gently cooked, softer guanciale etc etc. One thing that was pretty common in all, and frankly unexpected, was that for something listed as a ‘primi’, all pasta course were MASSIVE. We got caught out a few times, thinking that we’d have a cheeky little bowl of pasta before our main. We then sat in shock as the waiter pretty much wheeled out bulging plates, before bringing out practically half of a cow for the main. It’s been a long time since I couldn’t physically finish a meal, and it pained me, beads of sweat forming, to give up. 

When I returned to what seemed like freezing cold September London, I carried as much as possible back with me. Slabs of cheese, cured meat and olive oils jingle-jangled in my bag as I wheeled it through Hackney. It was so lovely to create this dish again; looking out of the window into a garden cluttered with auburn leaves and smashed conkers. Although a simple meal in principal, it’s all about getting the balance right for you. I like a lot of pepper to counter the rich cheese and pork. I cut the guanciale thickly to give some differentiation in texture. I prefer the sauce to cling to the pasta, instead of pooling at the bottom of the bowl. The ingredients below will give you scope, and allow you to create a dish to your personal liking. The trick is the ratio of cheese and pasta water, and moving the pasta as soon as it hits the pan, to release the glutens and thicken the sauce.
Serves 2
For the spaghetti:
200g ‘00’ grade strong pasta flour 
2 medium eggs 
1 pinch of fine salt 
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
200g guanciale, roughly sliced into strips about 2mm in thickness 
80g Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated 
1 tbsp black peppercorns, coarsely cracked with a pestle and mortar

First make the pasta dough. Tip all of the ingredients into a bowl and mix well with a wooden spoon until a dough is formed. Transfer to a clean worktop and knead for 5-10 minutes, until soft and springy in texture. Wrap the dough well with cling film and put into the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the dough from the fridge and unwrap. Roll out to roughly 1cm thick, then pass through the thickest setting of your pasta machine. Repeat 8-10 times, or until the texture of the dough is very elastic and dry. Work the dough once through each setting, until you get to number 5 (on an Imperia machine). Lightly dust the pasta sheet with flour, and cut to the required length for spaghetti. Pass each sheet through a spaghetti cutter, then set aside while the rest of the dish is prepared. 

Fill a large saucepan with water, sprinkle in a generous amount of salt and bring to the boil.
Set a large, heavy frying pan or skillet to a medium heat. Pour in a little oil, then add the guanciale. Fry for 10-12 minutes, until a lot of the fat has rendered away and the meat has crisped up. 

Add the fresh pasta carefully to the boiling water and cook for 1-2 minutes, until al dente. Use some tongs to transfer the cooked pasta to the frying pan, and add in 2-3 large spoonfuls of the cooking water. Sprinkle in a good pinch of the black pepper and most of the Pecorino, reserving a little for serving. Toss the pan really well to combine all of the ingredients together, the melted cheese, pork fat and water should emulsify into a glossy sauce that coats every spaghetti strand. Add more water/cheese if the sauce is looking respectively dry or wet.
Pile the pasta onto each plate, making sure that each portion contains a good amount of the crispy guanciale. Finish with more black pepper and grated Pecorino.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pork belly with harlequin squash, burnt apple puree, chard and nduja

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited along to a ‘Meet The Producer’ evening hosted by wonderful champions of British charcuterie, Cannon and Cannon, and their producer for the night, Moons Green. Having bought and enjoyed their products a few times before, it was great to learn more about what went into the production side of things, and interesting to hear the (often highly amusing) stories gained along the way. Of course, it was also brilliant to taste a wide range of cured meats, from beer sticks to UK coppa, cured ‘buttock’ and nduja. And I was very happy to be kindly given a piece of the latter to play about with back in the kitchen. 

I’m a real lover of foreign charcuterie, and any trip back from Europe sees me cramming my suitcase full of regional specialities to devour once back at home. But it was hugely enlightening to see the sheer range and quality of cured meats being produced in this country. In the UK we rear some amazing quality livestock, and it is crazy that we aren’t renowned for preserving it. Cannon and Cannon are rightly hugely enthusiastic about their products, and hopefully soon we will see a well-deserved charcuterie renaissance, one to rival the current resurgence with cheese.
Nduja is fantastic, and something that has recently achieved trend status in London and beyond. And rightly so; it is such a versatile ingredient. It can hold its own as a dominant flavour when used in something like a sauce with tomatoes, or balanced and tempered to add depth to other dishes. I recently saw a Gizzi Erskine recipe where she crumbled it into a vongole-style spaghetti and it looked fabulous.
Now that we’re full-swing into autumn, I thought that the fiery heat of the nduja would contrast brilliantly with the sweet fruit and vegetables that are now coming through. It also works a treat with greens and brassicas, in this case, some of the lovely chard that seems to be springing up out of the ground everywhere at present. At the centre of the dish is a hunk of pork belly, brittle and crunchy on top and succulent underneath. I wanted to showcase the quality of British pork, and here it is evident both cured and fresh. Ignore the pale, anaemic slabs you see lining supermarket aisles; independent butchers and suppliers is where the real quality (and flavour!) is at.
Serves 4
For the pork belly:
1 x 1.5kg piece of on the bone pork belly, ribs removed and saved for stock 
1 tbsp fennel seeds 
1 tbsp dried oregano 
1 lemon, zest only 
10 sprigs of thyme 
1 pinch of dried chilli flakes 
1 carrot 
2 shallots 
3 cloves of garlic
For the sauce:
The ribs and trim from the pork belly, excess fat removed 
1 tsp fennel seeds 
2 shallots, finely sliced 
1 carrot, finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, sliced 
5 sprigs of thyme 
1 bay leaf 
1 large glass of white wine 
750ml chicken stock 
1 large knob of butter
For the burnt apple puree:
4 braeburn apples 
2 tbsp caster sugar 
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the roasted squash:
1 large or 2 medium harlequin squash, peeled and seeded 
1 garlic clove, grated 
1 tbsp dried oregano 
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika 
1 tsp ground cinnamon 
1 tsp fennel seeds 
1 lemon, zest only
For the chard:
1 inch-thick slice of spicy nduja 
1 large bunch of chard, tough stalks removed. Leaves roughly sliced. 
1 lemon, juice only

Preheat the oven to 240⁰C. Put the apples for the puree into an oven dish and roast for about an hour, until dark in colour all over and very soft. Transfer to a food processor with the caster sugar and blend until smooth. With the engine still running, drizzle in the olive oil until emulsified. Pass through a fine sieve if necessary, then spoon into a squeezy bottle. 

While the apples are cooking make the sauce. Bring a large frying pan or skillet to a high heat. Season the ribs and trimmings from the pork belly and brown in a little olive oil until all sides are well caramelised. Tip in the shallots, carrot, garlic and herbs and continue to fry for a couple of minutes. Pour in the wine and reduce by two-thirds, then top up with the stock. Bring back to the boil, then gently reduce until only a thick, concentrated sauce remains. Pour through a fine sieve into a small saucepan, discarding the bones and vegetables. Whisk the butter into the sauce, then cover and set aside.
Lower the oven temperature to 130⁰C. Put the fennel seeds, lemon zest, dried oregano, chilli flakes and half of the thyme for the pork belly into a pestle and mortar with a generous amount of salt and pepper and crush well. Slice the root vegetables in half lengthways and scatter onto the bottom of a roasting dish, along with the garlic and remaining half of the thyme. Use a sharp knife to carefully score the skin of the pork, then position the meat on top of the vegetables. Rub the spice mix into the skin of the pork, making sure that it gets right into the grooves. Roast in the oven for 3-4 hours, until very tender. Raise the oven temperature to 240⁰C, and continue to cook the meat for 10-15 minutes, until the crackling has bubbled and crisped. Remove from the oven to somewhere warm, and allow to rest before carving. 

Lower the oven temperature back down to 200⁰C. Slice the squash into thick wedges and scatter into a roasting dish. Sprinkle over the spices and spoon in a good glug of olive oil. Toss well to combine, then roast for 30-40 minutes, until tender in the middle and caramelised on the outside. Set aside 4 pieces of roasted squash, and transfer the rest into a food processor. Blitz well into a smooth puree, adding the butter and a good sprinkle of seasoning.
Bring a frying pan to a medium heat. Pour in 1 tbsp of oil, then add the nduja. Fry for a couple of minutes, until it starts to release its oil, using a spoon to break it up into small pieces. Add the chard leaves and the lemon juice, and combine well with the nduja. Cook for another minute or so, until the chard leaves have just wilted. 

Reheat the sauce and roasted squash if necessary.
To serve, postion a piece of pork belly onto each plate. Squeeze on a good blob of apple puree, add a piece of roasted squash and spoon on a dollop of squash puree. Add some of the chard and nduja, before finishing with a couple of spoonfuls of the sauce.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Roast pigeon with prosciutto, sweetcorn, sage and onions

The days that I spend cooking for this blog are often hurried and frantic affairs. In the mornings I’m out and about gathering the required ingredients, before returning back home to turn them all into a finished (and hopefully successful) dish. In theory a fairly simple and straightforward plan. But often enough something goes amiss and the whole ordeal becomes much more stressful. Especially for something meant to be a hobby. And last week was a prime example. 

Things didn’t get off to the best of starts; I overslept. This wasn’t the greatest of problems really, and in truth Mondays are also my only real day of the week to get some rest. But it set me behind schedule, and my window for messing about in the kitchen was getting smaller and smaller. What I really wanted to buy was a grouse or two. Since the Glorious Twelfth, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with them, and I wanted to have another crack at cooking them. But could I find one? Could I heck. A few tubes and buses covering a London map of butchers later and I still had empty bags and even less cooking time. Stuck on Oxford Street amongst the crowds, things were looking pretty desperate. But then I remembered that there was a rather good branch of the Ginger Pig, not too far away in Marylebone, so I walked up to chance my luck one more time.
They also didn’t have any grouse. Bah! But what they did have were a couple of lovely, plump pigeons. At that stage of the day, I snapped them up. With the recipe cogs whirring around in my head, I darted next door to the mecca that is La Fromagerie for some bits to accompany the bird, and I was soon sat on the bus home with a bag laden with beautiful sweetcorn, cavolo nero and prosciutto. Soon the light would be fading, threatening rubbish photography and a wasted day, so I had to work quickly.
I wasn’t too disappointed to be lumped with pigeon instead of my desired grouse. I haven’t tackled a pigeon for a good few years, but they remain one of my favourite things to eat. I love that gamey richness and tender, pink flesh. And because the birds were whole, literally heads, claws and guts, it meant that I also had access to the wonderful offal. Whilst the trimmings and liver helped to make the sauce deep and flavourful, the heart was simply pan-roasted, adding another dimension to the finished dish. I never mess around with the cooking of smaller poultry, in my opinion roasting the crowns before carving is the only way to go.
The rest of the dish is a simple balance of early autumn flavours. The sweetcorn provides a wonderful sweetness that cuts through the powerful flavour of the pigeon. Sage and onion are practically married. I’ll still try and track down a grouse this season, but in the end I was pleased as punch with my pigeon.
Serves 2
For the pigeon:
2 pigeons, portioned into crowns with wishbones removed. Trimmings, hearts and livers kept 
4 slices of prosciutto 
4 sprigs of thyme 
2 sage leaves 
1 knob of butter
For the sauce:
The wings, legs, livers and trimmings from the pigeons 
1 onion, finely chopped 
1 carrot, finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, crushed 
2 slices of prosciutto, chopped 
5 sprigs of thyme 
1 generous splash of brandy 
750ml good chicken stock 
1 knob of butter
For the smashed sweetcorn:
The kernels from 2 sweetcorn cobs, released with a knife 
75g butter 
500ml water
For the charred sweetcorn:
The kernels from 1 sweetcorn cob, released with a knife 
1 small knob of butter
For the burnt onion:
1 small onion, skin left on and halved vertically 
½ a lemon, juice only
For the cavolo nero:
3-4 cavolo nero leaves, any tough stalks removed, leaves roughly chopped
For the pigeon hearts:
The hearts from the two pigeons, cleaned of any sinew

Get the pigeon sauce on first. Bring a large, heavy frying pan up to a medium-high temperature and add a good glug of olive oil. Season the pigeon legs, wings, trimmings and livers with salt and pepper and brown well on all sides, in batches if necessary. Add the prosciutto, onions, carrots, garlic and herbs to the pan and cook until lightly caramelised. Pour in the brandy and carefully flambĂ©, then reduce until only a small amount remains. Top up with the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up and caramelised bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce slowly until only around 150ml of thickened sauce remains. Strain the sauce through a sieve into a smaller saucepan and discard the used flavourings. Whisk the knob of butter into the sauce until fully emulsified, then cover and set aside until needed later. 

Bring a frying pan up to a high heat and add a small amount of olive oil and a knob of butter. When hot, add the smaller amount of sweetcorn kernels and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Fry for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until starting to brown and blacken. Tip into a bowl and set aside.
Pour the water for the smashed sweetcorn into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Tip in the sweetcorn kernels, butter and a good amount of seasoning. Stir to combine, then simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until the sweetcorn has softened and taken on some of the liquid. Using a hand blender or food processor, blitz into a coarse, yet soft mash. Loosen with a little water if necessary, and taste for seasoning and butter. Cover and keep warm. 

Add a good glug of oil to a frying pan and set on a high heat. Place the onion halves cut-side down and fry for 5-6 minutes, until blackened and burnt. Turn over for an additional 5 minutes, then transfer to a side plate. When cool enough to handle, carefully separate the layers into little cups and place in a bowl. Squeeze in the lemon juice and season. Mix well and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 190⁰C.
Pour a generous glug of olive oil into a large, heavy frying pan and bring to a medium-high heat. When hot, add the sage leaves and fry for 30 seconds until crispy. Transfer to drain over a sheet of kitchen roll. Keep the pan hot for the pigeons.
Season the insides and outsides of the pigeons well with salt and pepper. Lay the sheets of prosciutto crisscrossed over the breasts, tucking some sprigs of thyme and a sage leaf underneath. Tie in place with some kitchen string. 

Add a large knob of butter to the sage pan and sear the pigeons for 1-1.5 minutes on each breast. Turn the crowns so that they are sitting upright in the pan, and use a spoon to baste well with the butter for a further minute. Transfer to an oven dish and roast for 10 minutes. Allow the cooked birds to rest for 10 minutes, then carve the breasts from the bone.
While the pigeons are resting, cook the pigeon hearts. Bring the same pan that was used to sear the pigeons back to a medium-high heat. Season the hearts, then cook for 1 minute on each side, basting well. Remove and allow to rest briefly, then slice in half.
In the same, now empty pan, add the cavolo nero leaves and a good splash of water. Wilt down quickly for a couple of minutes until tender.
Reheat the sauce and the smashed corn.
To plate up spoon a few dollops of the smashed corn onto each plate and add some of the cavolo nero. Arrange the pigeon breasts in the middle and three of the onion segments in the gaps at the sides. Top with the charred corn, heart, sage leaves and some of the prosciutto from the pigeon. Spoon some of the sauce into the onion cups and around the plate and serve.