Tuesday, 29 December 2015
My body is screaming for salad. Greens, vegetables, fruit, it wants them all. After the gluttony of Christmas, all piled high with cheese and butter and meat, something had to give. And today I turned that corner. After waking early to trudge into town to perform that compulsory festive hangover of returns desks and form writing, I decided that a soothing lunch was in order. I hate all of the sheer rubbish written about January diets, detox and ‘cleasing’. I think that it promotes an ultimately unhealthy, unbalanced and most importantly unhappy approach to food. For me eating is all about a balance that should apply to any time of the year, and certainly nothing that is liable to turn my breakfast, lunch or dinner into a passive-aggressive guiltfest. I was happy to eat that mountain of food over Christmas, but greens were definitely on my mind today.
I made a short detour to the wonderful greengrocers up at Newington Green. It’s sad that I hardly shop there having moved further east, but it’s always an absolute dream whenever I get the chance. On this occasion it truly didn’t disappoint. Today the shelves were heaving with great tangles of Italian puntarelle, beautiful, tightly-closed baby artichokes and unwaxed lemons. I didn’t have a particular recipe in my head, but I knew that I wouldn’t go far wrong somewhere along those lines.
Those ingredients alone would have made a fresh and vibrant salad, but I guess that I’m not quite ready to give up on Christmas just yet. To compromise, I roasted up a plump and fatty duck breast, until the skin was brulee-crisp and the flesh blushing pink. Thin slices formed the base, freshened up with a pile of sharply-dressed onions, artichoke and puntarelle and bound together with a punchy, anchovy-heavy green sauce. It’s simple cookery, but highly satisfying and damn tasty.
I’m determined to be more vegetable-focussed in the coming months, and although I have a steak recipe coming up on the blog shortly, I am hoping that it is a last-hurrah for a little while. Not to say that I won’t be eating and using meat and fish in my cookery, but they certainly will be on level terms with everything else on the plate.
1 large duck breast
1 red onion, cut into thin wedges
1 glass of dry white wine
For the artichokes:
2 baby artichokes
1 small red onion
For the puntarelle:
A small bunch of puntarelle, trimmed, washed and dried
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the green sauce:
1 bunch of parsley
1/3 of a bunch of mint
5 salted anchovies
1 tsp capers
4 thick slices of ciabatta, crusts removed
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 clove of smoked garlic, grated
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 200⁰C fan.
Remove the duck from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.
Prepare the baby artichokes. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into a bowl and combine with 1 tbsp of olive oil and a little seasoning. Peel the tough outer leaves from the artichokes, then trim about 2/3rds of an inch away from the top. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the stems. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the hearts and stems, transferring them straight into the lemony oil. Trim the red onion and thinly slice, then toss with the artichokes. Leave to lightly pickle for about an hour, tossing every now and then so that everything remains coated in the dressing.
To make the green sauce, put all ingredients apart from the oil into a food processor and season well. Blend to finely combine, then with the motor still running, trickle in the olive oil. Pour in enough to bring the ingredients together into a thick sauce that just about holds shape. Taste and season if necessary.
Season the duck breast all over, then place skin-side-down into a cold pan. Bring to a medium-high temperature, gently rendering down the fat until it is crispy and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Seal the other side quickly for a few seconds, then transfer to an oven tray and roast for 6-8 minutes. Remove the cooked duck from the oven and rest for about 10 minutes, then slice thinly.
While the duck is roasting, add the onion wedges to the now empty pan. Pour in the wine and lemon juice, adding the squeezed lemons also. Turn the heat down to medium; the juices should have deglazed the pan and reduced down. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions have softened. Allow the pan to cool slightly, then remove the onions and stir 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the pan juices.
Dress the puntarelle with the slightly-cooled pan dressing and a little seasoning.
To plate up, arrange sliced of the duck onto each plate and add a dollop of the green sauce. Arrange the onions and artichokes on top along with some puntarelle stems. Finally finish with a spoonful of the pan dressing.
Monday, 21 December 2015
When I look back on the food that I have cooked and eaten this year, one ingredient jumps out more than any other. Chickpeas. A strange discovery really, as previously I haven’t had all that much time for the poor pulse. Houmous aside, I’ve always found them a little bland and boring, always terribly under-seasoned with a strange, soft-yet-crunchy texture. The dusty 3-year old tin in the cupboard was never in any danger of being opened. But something changed, the world tipped upside-down, and suddenly they are an integral part of my cooking.
I feel like most food disliked as a child goes through this process. It will always be avoided and ardently hated until that revelation moment, when tasted in adulthood, and it dawns that it really isn’t all that bad, and sometimes, just perhaps, it might even be nice. I went through the same with avocados, and Katie still holds the fact that I now really like them as one of her greatest victories. With chickpeas, the revelation happened around January time. I’d been reading a lot of Ottolenghi recipes, and had noted how he advised cooking them very gently, for long periods of time (sometimes 5 hours), to achieve a brilliant taste and texture. I then cooked a recipe where I experimented with slowly warming chickpeas in oil, almost like a confit, and the results were truly delicious. My mind was blown open to this new ingredient. I nearly ate about 3 tin’s worth.
From that point, I have used and enjoyed chickpeas a huge amount. Cooked and flavoured properly, they add a joyful comfort to pretty much any savoury dish; from bulking out warming stews to garnishing delicate cured fish. One of my favourite restaurant dishes this year was charred, smokey duck hearts balanced across a dollop of pureed chickpeas at the excellent Brawn. It was such a simple, yet complete plate of food, all brought together with, well you’ve guessed it…
Ok, enough of this chickpea love-in.
I do love a good kitchen tip, some small thing learned or discovered that makes a lot of difference. Most recently, this has been the brief salting of white fish prior to cooking. I was always brought up taught to season my fish only at the very last minute, for fear of dry results and a ruined meal. However, after seeing a chef doing it on the telly a few months ago, I gave it a go, and it really works a treat. Thick fillets of fish like cod, haddock or pollock are sometimes prone to holding huge amounts of moisture, giving the flesh a very mushy, flavourless texture. By lightly salting the fillets all over for just 10 minutes, this moisture is released before cooking; the flesh is firmer and deeper in flavour.
Despite looking a little complicated, the dish below is surprisingly simple. The cod and chickpeas are light and refreshing, perfect at this time of year when every other meal seems to include chocolate or cheese.
For the cod:
2 cod fillets
1 good knob of butter
For the chickpeas
400g soaked or tinned chickpeas
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 sprig of rosemary
1 lemon, zest and juice
For the razor clams:
10 live razor clams
A splash of dry white wine
For the herb oil:
1 small bunch of parsley
2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked
200ml extra virgin olive oil
The cooking liquid from the razor clams
1 lemon, juice only
For the sprout flowers:
6 sprout flowers, trimmed
4 slices of coppa
Start making the herb oil the day before serving. Put the parsley and rosemary leaves into a food processor with a pinch of seasoning and the olive oil. Blitz until the herbs are really finely chopped and everything is well combined. Tip the green mixture into a bowl, cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain the oil through a fine sieve into a clean bowl; the resulting liquid should be a vibrant green.
To cook the chickpeas, drain them well and tip into a saucepan, Add the garlic, rosemary and lemon zest and cover with olive oil. Cook very gently, without allowing to simmer, for about 40 minutes, until the chickpeas are extremely tender. Season well with salt and pepper. Using a slotted spoon, transfer about two-thirds of the chickpeas to a food processor. Add a couple of tablespoons of the cooking oil and the juice from the lemon, then blend well, adding more oil if necessary to achieve a smooth puree. Taste and season if necessary. Keep both whole and pureed chickpeas warm white you finish the dish.
Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and bring to a medium temperature. Fry the coppa and the sprout flowers together for about 5-6 minutes, until the meat is crispy and the sprout flowers are al-dente. Drain the coppa on some kitchen roll and tear into small pieces.
Take the cod fillets out of the fridge and sprinkle a little salt on all sides. Allow to stand on a plate for 10-15 minutes, then pat dry with kitchen paper.
Heat up a large saucepan until very hot. Tip in the razor clams and pour over the white wine. Cover the pan with a tightly-fitting lid and cook for about 2 minutes, until the razor clams have just opened. Remove the razor clams from the pan and shell the meat, then slice thinly on an angle. Allow the cooking liquid to cool slightly, then add 1-2 tbsp of it to the herb oil, along with a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and season if needed.
Pour a generous glug of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan and bring to a medium-high heat. Season the cod on all sides, then place skin-side down into the pan. Cook for 4-6 minutes through the skin depending on the thickness of the piece, then carefully turn over. Add the butter to the pan and use a spoon to baste the fish well. Cook on the flesh-side for 1-2 minutes then remove from the pan.
To serve, arrange the cod to one side of the plate and spoon or pipe a good dollop of the chickpea puree alongside. Scatter a couple of tablespoons of the chickpeas and the sprout flowers around. Arrange the razor clam and coppa slices into one half of a razor clam shell and position opposite the cod. Finally finish with a good amount of the herb and razor clam dressing.
Tuesday, 1 December 2015
I had wanted to visit The River Café for years. As a child, before I had any idea of what The River Café looked like or even really what it was, I was familiar with the iconic blue and yellow books, with the block-print fronts and frustrating lack of food photos inside. Growing up in the midlands, the thought of even beginning to look for coppa or trompettes de mort was preposterous. Why you would ever want to boil meat in milk was beyond me. But as I started to cook for myself and learn about ingredients it all started to make sense. The first recipes to gain the accolade of splashed pages and thumb-prints were the mushroom risotto and the lemon tart. Even now, as a reasonably competent cook and some 20 years after publication, they remain one of my first stops for inspiration.
When I moved to London 5 years ago I looked into making a visit. By then my own cooking had taken a more Italian direction, and I had just met the woman who would become my wife. Her and her father had a long working history with King’s Wharf and Richard Rogers architects, and throughout the nineties The River Café was their canteen. “Oh we must all go” they would say. Even as a plucky twenty-something looking to impress my date, I shat-myself when I saw the prices. I resigned myself that it was out of reach, and instead set about discovering the excellent Italian restaurants emerging a little closer to home. Five years on, and suddenly the now wife receives a tax rebate. “Let’s just book it and go!” she said. That’s my girl.
Booking made, the excitement of the visit, still a couple of months in advance, started to turn into fear. What if it all didn’t turn out as good as imagined in my head. Googling the see what others thought was a bad idea. “Shockingly overpriced” and “not what it used to be” were common. Was it worth risking spending enough money to pay for a holiday on a few hours of choking disappointment? But I had to go. This place had turned into my cooking mecca, and I just had to see for myself.
Hype is a brilliant thing for a restaurant. In the modern era, social media means that real buzz can be created in an avalanche of recommendations and filtered photographs, instantly turning the venue into a ‘must go’ location. But this also leads to make-believe expectations, and it is unfair to expect a restaurant to live up to this. From reading some previous reviews of The River Café, it seemed like people imagined that they would be hand-greeted by Lady Rogers, before being sat at gilded chairs, with a personal waiter who was able to pull themaway away at the merest thought about going to the loo. And those who visited expecting technical food full of squiggles and foams were truly missing the point.
Despite this negative feedback that had stirred my own apprehensions, I am relieved to say that I could not have wanted more from the whole experience. The simplicity of the room itself was a marvellous thing, peppered with those little architectural details that lifted everything else; that big red wood oven filled with iron pans holding grouse, veal and bass, the looming, projected clock, serving kitchen and diners alike, and those ‘hand written’ iconic menus. And I loved the references to it still being a working canteen at heart. The paper tablecloths may have looked a little out of place at first, but then Katie told me stories of how her father would have meetings there, and upon leaving the paper grids would be covered with scribbled building plans and notes. Brilliant. The room was a heaving bustle, full of smiling and laughter, yet right in the throngs of it, our table still had enough personal space that allowed us to engage without competing.
But it was ultimately the food that I was most worried about. Could such unashamedly simple food be somehow taken to another level? Well in short, yes. Every plate was a brilliant reminder that amazing ingredients, treated with respect and served simply, can be incredible. I love technical cooking and fancy presentation, but this was a total eye-opener, proving that sometimes the fancy frills aren’t necessary. My antipasti of raw veal with truffle was a prime example of this. I’d be surprised if there were more than five ingredients on the plate, yet that was absolutely all that was needed.
The dishes that followed carried the same hallmarks; wonderfully crafted pasta with soft, rich ragu, and perfectly cooked chunks of turbot and lamb that left us swooning. Contrary to what I had read previously, portions were mostly massive, and I was fit to bursting by the end of the main course. But I couldn’t come all of that way in freezing November without squeezing in that lemon tart, and I’m so glad that I did. Having made the recipe successfully many times, I assumed that this would just be a pleasant formality, a familiar ending to an outstanding meal. Wrong again. I now fully understand why that tart is the benchmark that all others follow. Quite how they achieve such a light, flavourful texture inside such delicate pastry is beyond me. I thought that I could recreate that recipe well, but this made my attempts purely amateur.
Time for the bill. I had noted earlier that Lord Rodgers had cleverly not included windows in the toilets, for petrified customers to make a dash out of. There’s no getting around the fact that the meal was hugely expensive. But with that I can in no way complain. It was no surprise; the restaurant made their prices clear and I chose to visit with that knowledge. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It was quite frankly the best Italian food I have ever eaten, with polite, unstuffy service in a lovely room. I would certainly return again given the chance, perhaps for a long, carefree lunch sat outside by the river on a hot summer’s day. In the meantime, I’ll have to go and dust off those blue and yellow cookbooks all over again…