Meatballs with lemon and fennel

FullSizeRender

Meatballs are another of those things I came late to (it’s a long list, I was a fussy child).  Their tinned version created a strong and stubborn aversion.  I assumed that they all came with that vaguely gristly sensation and slightly odd (perhaps offaly?) taste.  I also could never get my head around the pairing with spaghetti.  It seemed, indeed was, so impractical.   Guaranteed to make the maximum amount of mess, use all the cutlery and be in no possible way as romantic as they made out in Lady and the Tramp.

So of course, when I first tried the real thing, made at home, with good meat, herbs and cheese; bound together by breadcrumbs and egg rather than a patented scientific process and browned before being coated in rich velveteen tomato sauce, my prejudices and aversions were overturned.  Not least because, actually, just eat them with bread, forget the pasta, it’s a fiction that got turned into a fact by mistake.

This is a new version, I’ve mashed up a couple of recipes by Georgio Locatelli in his Made in Sicily book.  The cooking on the barbecue is also a technique that the resident Sicilian has not heard of, so perhaps the method may not be strictly kosher, but the flavours are.  I combined the fennel and the lemon because 1) the wild fennel is still frondy enough to use with abandon and 2) the lemon tree needed a prune, so I had leaves to burn.

The amount of fennel you need will vary according to taste, but also according to how strongly it’s flavoured.  Hotter summers make for stronger flavours.  To really up the aniseed, use fennel seeds instead.  If you can’t get hold of lemon leaves (although ask around, given that you can buy the trees in Homebase these days, an obliging and green fingered friend may be able to help out), Georgio (not that he knows me from Adam) suggests bay instead.

Pork being such a mild meat, these polpette soak up the flavours; smokey from the charcoal, citrus and aniseed from lemon and fennel, saltiness from the cheese.

Polpette con limone e finocchio (Meatballs with Lemon and Fennel)

Makes 18 balls,

For the meatballs

500g pork mince

1 onion

150g parmesan or pecorino

100g  breadcrumbs

Bunch of fennel fronds, finely chopped (1-2 tsps when chopped)

Clove of garlic

2 eggs

Black Pepper

20 fresh lemon leaves

Olive oil

Wooden skewers

For the tomato sauce

500ml passata

Pepper

Clove of garlic

2-3 unchopped fennel fronds

Chop the onion very finely and then mix it into the pork, breadcrumbs and cheese.

Add the crushed garlic clove and the chopped fennel, season with the black pepper.

Now beat in the egg and mix (with your hands if you’re not squeamish) everything together until it’s completely homogenised.

Squidge golf ball sized portions of the mix together into little spheres

Now thread a lemon leaf onto a skewer, followed by the first ball, then another leaf, and another ball.  I put three balls (and four leaves) per skewer.  

Chill for an hour.

Put your passata into a saucepan with one crushed clove of garlic, the fennel fronds and 200ml of water.

Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for about 20 minutes – according to what your lowest level of gas considers a simmer.  It should be thick, like a ketchup, no thinner.  Take out the fennel.

When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, drizzle over some olive oil and place them on the oiled barbecue, turning them as they brown.  It needs to be hot enough to cook them slowly.  Too hot and they will sear themselves the the grill and then disintegrate when you try to turn them.  (you can also just fry them, which removes the smokey element of the flavour, but makes them less liable to split).

Give two skewers to each person, with sauce poured over, and accompanied by chunks of fragrant yeasty bread to mop everything up.

There.  No spattered clothes, minimal cutlery to wash up and deliciously simple.

Snapseed

Beans (Broad/Fave) and a quick dinner

IMG_5596

The first week of June and we’re on the cusp of Broad Bean season (Fave in Italy).  Mine are late this year, and will be a few weeks yet.  When they come though, the sheer abundance of broad beans ensures that there’s always a surplus and always a freezer drawer dedicated to them.  After the initial gluttonous rush of sweet, tiny proto fave around midsummer, there’s a year long supply of fatter, starchier siblings kept on ice.  Each has their merit.  The youngsters for their joie de vivre, the oldens for their persistence and reliability.  Keep them too long in the frost, and they start to lose their green zing, battered into submission by prolonged cold, so I try to remember to root out any hangers on from the previous spring before the next generation arrives.  These tough things need to be derobed to make them more enjoyable – scald them in hot water and then plunge into cold, this makes them easy to squeeze free from their leather jackets.  In small quantities, this isn’t too onerous, with the added fun of being mildly indecent when rogue beans squirt jets of water at you as they’re popped out of their skins.

As with everything, peak broad bean season here is several months after peak fava season in Sicily.  They are the first of many delayed gratifications you’ll experience when trying to grow a Sicilian kitchen on the wrong island.  Unless you’re outstandingly well located, organised, urban and sheltered, the broad beans won’t be making their first appearance this side of Canale della Manica until the latter half of May, at the earliest. The battle is now on. You will want to eat them at their smallest and sweetest before their skins turn tough and bitter.  They will want to fatten, coarsen and brazen it out – fighting for the next generation.  Catching them at their sweetest is one of the joys of vegetable garden in early summer, alongside with peas from the pod, your own woefully spoilt asparagus, and netted cherries thwarting the blackbirds.  They marry perfectly with peas, oil, mint or fennel.  There’s a lovely lunch of sharp cheese (salted ricotta perhaps), mixed in with mint, beans and peas to top toast.  Posh beans on toast.

But I am digressing – there is much to write and say about the joys of the broad bean in the first flush of its youth, but not here. Not today.  Maybe in a couple of weeks, when mine start to make an appearance.

Today is for that emptying the drawer period.  The time that comes before.

IMG_5594 copy

This is a recipe that is an adaptation of a much grander (and more expensive) version, simple enough for a week night tea and good enough for showing off too.  It is excellent for the time when you’re winding down last year’s stores in preparation for the fast approaching glut of new things.  Despite this, it has an intensity of summer to it that belies the inelegant, back of the cupboard, bum in the air search for those need to be used up ingredients.  Oily fish and tangy sweet acid tomato, fresh medicinal aniseed and the resolute health giving greenness of the beans.  Four essential flavours that, for me, work perfectly.  It’s a pasta dish, so don’t strive for impossible and instagram worthy beauty, rather pile it up, rolling with steam and dive eagerly in.

Tonno, finocchieto e fave

(For two, as a light meal)

One tin of tuna in olive oil

300 ml passata

2 tsp fennel seed

One bay leaf

Bunch wild fennel fronds

100g broad beans

2 cloves garlic

1 Onion

1 stick celery

150-200g Linguine (depending on appetites)

Start by chopping the onion and celery, as finely as you can, as though for a sofritto

Fry them with the fennel seeds (without colouring) in olive oil, and then add the garlic and bay leaf.

If you need to skin your broad beans, do this whilst your waiting for the vegetables to cook.

When they’re done, add the passata, plus the same amount of water, bring it up to a simmer, and then add your tuna, breaking it into loose chunks.  The better the tuna, the chunkier it will remain.  

Also add your broad beans, a handful for each person. You can keep this sauce cooking on the lowest of heats, reducing (but not even simmering) until you’re ready to serve, but watch that it doesn’t reduce too much.  It needs to stay saucy.

Ten minutes before you’re ready to eat, get  your pasta water boiling and then salted.  

Chop your wild fennel and add to the sauce.

Cook your linguine for 6-7 minutes and just before it’s done, turn the heat up under the sauce.

Drain the pasta, throw it into the sauce, with a splash of pasta water and mix everything with abandon until the pasta is coated with sticky, oily sauce and dotted through with vivid beans and chunks of tuna.

Eat (it goes very well with a bone dry cider).

Figgy Christmasness – or, Jason’s Ring

fullsizeoutput_4a4Buccellato 

I was going to call this ‘Camp as Christmas’, but as this cake is positively restrained when compared to a cassata, it seemed unfair.  Besides, the campness comes at the last minute via a generous sprinkling of 100s & 1000s, and although this is utterly compulsory, it’s just a bit of Christmas silliness on an otherwise very serious cake.  That said, in at least two households in the UK, this will forever be known as Jason’s Ring – because, it turns out, that after a few mulled wines, and because it’s a sturdy thing, this cake makes a brilliant hat … if your name is Jason.

It should be a centrepiece, because it’s a very handsome thing, and whilst fiddly to make, it’s not that difficult, with time and patience.  The recipe I’m giving comes from Rachel Roddy’s Two Kitchens, because when I tested various recipes out on the Sicilian, her’s earned an emphatic “THAT is that taste of buccellato”.  Be warned though, this is a grown up thing; compared to most British cakes, there’s very little sugar in it – and that is mostly in the pastry.  In fact a grumpy pink man at a food market once pulled a face and shouted ‘bitter! It’s bitter!’, which it is, slightly, from the dark chocolate.  The best way to describe it is like a spiced, fruity, nutty, chocolatey, giant fig roll, except it’s a ring, as we know.  The pastry is crimped for added effect, and then the whole thing is glazed with honey, before those essential and abundant 100s & 1000s are added.

There are some similarities with British Christmas Cake – the dried fruit, the added booze, the spicing – so you can detect that somewhere way back, they may have a common ancestor.  But make this Sicilian descendent and you’ll be saved inch thick royal icing and death by marzipan.  It’s also an excellent keeper, so make it a few days before Christmas and it’ll keep going til 12th Night, assuming it survives resident foragers.

Rachel’s recipe makes an unapologetically big cake – it’s a beast.  But you can easily adapt the amounts to make something smaller, to match your home’s appetites.  Besides, I find that there is a strange effect once a buccellato has its first slice taken.  People can’t resist it when they pass by, or when it’s sitting on the sideboard.  They’ll cut themselves the thinnest of slices, promising that they’re full, and this will be their last.  But then ten minutes later they’re back, and then again.   Cumulatively – this seductive loveliness means that your huge, moreish centrepiece of a Christmas cake is unlikely to make it til New Years Eve.

Rachel Roddy’s Buccellato 

Pastry

400g plain flour

Pinch of salt

Grated zest of a lemon (unwaxed)

170g cold, butter, chopped up

150g sugar

2 large eggs

Rub the butter and flour together (with the salt and lemon), to get a breadcrumbs texture.

Then add the eggs and sugar and mix until it all comes together.

Form it into a rough cylinder, wrap in clingfilm and put it in the fridge.

Filling

500g dried figs

300g nuts – almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts (I tend to use hazelnuts, because they’re my favourite)

150g raisins

60g candied peel

Zest of an unwaxed orange and lemon

60g honey

100ml Marsala

100g chopped dark chocolate

a bloody generous Pinch of cinnamon and ground cloves

1 egg

Soak the figs for ten minutes in warm water, and then chop them (I pinch the tough stems out), the nuts and the raisins finely (it’s easiest if you have one of those mini food processors).

Mix in all the rest of the ingredients and you’ll get a thick, sticky, very tactile paste.

Now, retrieve your pastry and roll it into a rectangle – about 70 x 14 cm and lift it onto a piece of clingfilm.

Make a log with the filling – and lay it in the centre of your pastry, leaving a short gap at each end.

Now you need to fold the pastry over, using the clingfilm to support it as you lift it.  Wet and seal the edges, turning the whole thing so that the seal is hidden underneath., – you’ll now have a long pastry sausage.  Bring the two ends together, to make your ring, wetting them again and pinching them to seal them.  This bit requires bravery the first time you do it, but summon the courage and refuse to be cowed by the alchemy of fusing pastry to pastry.

I then chill it for two hours, before decorating, to let the pastry harden.  You can get a handy pincher thing from a cook shop – or just use a fork to stab and drag the pastry.  You want to be able to see the filling through the gabs, but not to shred the pastry completely.

Then bake it  until golden brown (30-40 minutes, depending on your oven) at 180 C/Gas 4.

fullsizeoutput_4c9

To decorate

100s & 1000s

Honey

Finally, let it cool, then warm some honey to make it runny and brush the entire ring,  then scatter your hundreds and thousands with gay abandon.

It’s ready.  Mangia! Mangia!

 

Refrigerator cake, with bells on

IMG_4444

This is a short one – a stocking filler.

When I first heard of this, I thought ‘refrigerator cake’.  Which is exactly what it is.  But with Italian style.

It’s as easy as falling off a (yule) log – there is no cooking involved, and the simpler you keep the ingredients, the better.  It’s a visual joke, a thing for kids’ parties and Christmas, that will still impress and delight the grown ups.  Have it in the afternoon with a cup of strong coffee, or after dinner with a coffee killer to slice through its richness.

As you can see, this ‘cake’ looks suspiciously like a salame – it even has the white mould on the outside, and has been tied up with string.  But then you cut a slice of your salame, and wonder of wonders – it’s made of chocolate and nuts and biscuits and the ‘mould’ is icing sugar.  The ultimate vegetarian salame!  

I like this cake.  When we make a refrigerator cake in the UK, it’s a blocky, in the tray kind of thing.  It is symptomatic of Italy, that the ordinary is made extraordinary, that you can be funny and classy at the same time, and that you don’t compromise on flavour.

Here’s the Sicilian’s recipe – there are plenty of other versions, some with figs, some with almonds, some with amaretto.  But this is his.

2 egg yolks

100 g caster sugar

150g butter 

200g cocoa powder (unsweetened)

60g hazelnuts

200g digestive biscuits

A slug of rum (although not if your making it for a kids’ party)

Icing sugar

String

Toast your hazelnuts in the oven for ten minutes, then put them into a clean tea towel.  Fold this over and rub the nuts vigorously.  This will get most of the skins off the nuts, which makes them sweeter.  Leave to cool.

Mix the yolks and butter (leave it out of the fridge to soften) and then add the sugar, mixing until you have a smooth cream.

Add in the cocoa powder and mix very slowly (if you’re using an electric mixer, put it on the slowest speed, otherwise you’ll end up with a brown cloud that’ll coat everything nearby with chocolate.

Break up the biscuits into small pieces and add them and the nuts to the chocolate mixture.  Fold them in gently (best with a wooden spoon or your hands, as you don’t want to break the biscuits up any more).

Then, place the mixture on a rectangle of greaseproof paper, and form into a rough cylinder about 10cm in diameter. 

Wrap the paper around the cylinder and roll it to get a smooth sausage.  Don’t let it get much thinner though – a real salame is a thick and hefty thing.

Finally twist the paper tightly at both ends (like a boiled sweet) and refrigerate your sausage for 24 hours.

To serve, work quickly, and roll the chilled sausage in sieved icing sugar, and then tie it up with string, you can watch charcuterie videos on YouTube and do it like a professional butcher, or just wing it, as I did.

IMG_4439

Then, with the sharpest of knives, cut your sausage into slices and enjoy the joke.  The nuts and biscuits look like the globules of fat in a real sausage, with the chocolate/butter cream acting as the meat.  

It’s very rich, so you’ll not want much, unless you’re a seven year old, and then you’ll want a whole one to yourself.  It freezes well.

Ever-so-slightly gothic Pasta.

IMG_4434

OK, so this is a slightly curveball dish, certainly for most of us who don’t have access to really good fish sellers.  On the whole, I’m pretty well served in Birmingham – we’re a big, diverse city, and our fish market accommodates that – we can even get cuttlefish.  The problem is they sell them precleaned – and they don’t keep the ink sac.  That will make a passable pasta senza nero di sepia, but the nero is really what this meal should be all about.

There is a perfectly good reason that they don’t keep the ink sacs, it’s because they are an armed and volatile liability to have lying around – especially in a domestic setting.  The ink is part of the cuttlefish’s defence mechanism – if danger threatens, then a small release of this into the water creates an instant pea-souper, giving our hero the cover to make a fast exit.  

Take the fish out of water, and the ink out of the fish (it’s in a hard to miss silvery, iridescent pouch), and you’ll find a small ball of black paste.  So far, so innocuous.  However, a little of this ink can go a long, long way. One slip, and you’ll be scrubbing for weeks.  There are more 21st century ways of sourcing your ink – you can sometimes find it presealed into little plastic pouches (like the ones attached to cut flowers), allowing for some containment of the pigmentary danger.  But the real thing will be fresher, stronger and certainly give you a better dish at the end.

So, if you can find intact cuttlefish, ask the fishmonger to clean them for you by all means – but ask them to keep the squid sac for you.  Be brave!  And keep a scrubbing brush close to hand, just in case.

This is one of those ‘scare the horses’ dishes that people will either love, hate, or be too terrified to try.  There’s no doubt that different food cultures are often mutually appalled and repelled by each other’s idiosyncrasies.  British tastes have gone soft of late, so that many of us are challenged by meals based on offal, or when asked to suck the brains from a prawn (but, please, try it – it’s the best bit).  And, well, jet black ink from a creepily intelligent chameleon of the sea…it’s just a bit left field of roast beef and apple crumble.  To be fair, I think the Sicilian responded in much the same way when I first introduced him to Heinz tinned spaghetti.

Assuming you’re feeling adventurous though, and that you can find your cuttlefish, give this dish a go.  It’s such a rich, sweet, BLACK meal.  You can play around with the seasoning to make it hotter or more herby – but at the heart of this dish is the unique ink depth of flavour.  It’s like nothing else – the only comparable depth of I can think of is sea urchins, but this lacks that divisive, love it/hate it iodine whack.  

Pasta col nero di seppia (serves 4)

3 or 4 small, cleaned Cuttlefish, cut into small chunks (size of a 20p piece).

A medium onion, finely chopped

2-3 cloves of crushed or chopped garlic

3-4 tablespoons of tomato puree 

OR

1 tablespoon estratto di pomodoro ( super concentrated sun-dried tomato paste ).  It’s hard to find, but well worth it for added intensity and umami.  If you know anyone going to Sicily – ask them to bring you some back – you can buy it at any supermarket by the tub.  And I’m sure there will be somewhere in London that has it, but I’m still searching.

Water

White wine

Parsley, pepper, salt and tabaso (optional)

Pasta – it should be a ‘long pasta’ – usually linguine.  But we found that jumbo penne is just as good.  The chunks of meat slip inside the penne – like mini cannelloni.

In a wide, deep frying pan (a small wok is ideal) fry off your onion in some olive oil, and when it’s starting to brown, add your garlic.

Add the cuttlefish and after a couple of minutes add a slug of white wine, and the tomato puree or paste – varying the amounts accordingly.

Take the ink pellet from the sac and mix it up in a small glass of water to a liquid.  Don’t wear anything you want to keep for Sunday best.  If you get any of this sauce on you, it’s never coming out!

Add the ink mixture to your onions and cuttlefish and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.

Get the pasta water boiling and salted, and about 8 minutes before you’re ready to serve, part cooking the pasta,  when it’s just under al dente, take a cup of the pasta water and keep; drain and then stir in the pasta to the cuttlefish sauce.

Loosen it with some of the pasta water, the starch will combine everything and make for a smoother, better coating sauce.

Finally, season with parsley, pepper and tabasco for heat. And serve.

It’s black as pitch and shines like a dark pool in an unlit cave. It is both unsettling and hypnotising.  And, it’s totally delicious.  

Possibly the most ridiculous cake in the world

Why would anyone in their right mind choose to make a Cassata? 

This is a long post, because there is nothing simple about a cassata.  And there is no actual recipe – because there are so many out there, mine will not add anything new to the sum of cassata knowledge (but start with Mary Taylor Simeti)

This cake, of sponge, ricotta, chocolate, marzipan, icing, candied fruits, more icing, takes days to assemble.  At every stage of that assembly, it is an unrelenting faff.  Plus, you can never, and I mean, NEVER, get two Sicilians to agree as to how you should actually make it.  To top it all off, the whole thing ends up looking like the campest Panto dame in Christendom.

And that, I guess is reason enough to make the damn thing.

Cassata is an antidote to all those stuffy, frugal, puritanical recipes that (thankfully) are largely a thing of the past.  For every seed cake, or sponge cake iced with margarine “butter’ cream, this is a giddy rebuke. But the care that goes into making a cassata means it’s got more class in one of its candied fruits than your average overly-calorific shop-bought confection of too much cream and syrup and salted caramel.  If I had to liken cassata to a person, it would be Barbara Windsor, collecting a damehood (in itself, not a bad idea).  Get the idea?

It’s also a bit of a cliche – the airport at Palermo has a shop that sells obscenely overpriced ‘authentic’ Sicilian gifts, and has a chiller cabinet full of cloned cassatas.  Surely the most impractical thing you could ever taken on board as hand luggage?  The only person I have ever seen anyone buy one was a small, angry businessman.  He sat two rows behind me on a flight back to the UK, and became so enraged by the usual RyanAir awfulness that I thought he was going to have an embolism.  Perhaps he was worried that the ricotta would go off?  Perhaps he’d never flown RyanAir?

The full recipe is long, complicated, open to personal interpretation, subject to judgement.  Many, many variations exist, although, that said, Fanny Craddock’s is not one of them (whatever she calls it), I’m not even sure it’s a cake.

If you’re dead set on having a go at your own cassata, then you will face some obstacles.  Firstly, to get the proper effect, you need whole, candied fruit.  Now these are relatively easy to buy in Sicily (I can’t speak for the rest of Italy), you go to a specialist patisserie shop and come away with a plastic container of sugar soaked pears, clemetines, figs and slabs of squash.  They are dyed impossible colours with Lord knows what chemicals.  But I have yet to find anywhere in the UK that supplies them – although there must be somewhere??  In London? Anyone?  The closest I’ve found, are those posh boxes of candied fruit that elderly relatives heave out at Christmas, but I’m not convinced.  I also had a stab at making my own in the slow cooker and ended up with marmalade.

Next you have to make a decision – are you going to go for almond or pistachio marzipan?  This is a decision that is a source of strife chez nous.  Almost every damn recipe for Cassata written in the English language (barring Fanny Craddock’s fevered imaginings) states that you use a pistachio or dyed green almond marzipan – at the very least, alternated with a white almond one.  And this is important  not just flavourwise, but because it fundamentally alters the appearance.  Almond reins in the campness, makes it a little more refined.  Pistachio brings bright green zing to the party and tips the whole thing over into full blown Hello Dolly territory.

The Sicilian though, is adamant that pistachio is a variation on the original.  An affectation.  Now, having grown up in Palermo, I’m guessing that his opinion on this carries a lot more weight than most, certainly more than that of this 2nd generation Irish lad from North Warwickshire.  But, but, but…. lads from north Warwickshire aren’t noted for being refined…you can guess where I’m going.

So, to the cake.  If you want, if you have the time and the inclination, you can make every fussy part of this cake from scratch – or, should sanity prevail, you can buy a sponge cake, and marzipan – thereby saving yourself at least a day.

You’ll need a cake tin with sloping sides – the nearest standard thing in the UK would be a pie dish,  or you can get actual cassata tins, to create the exact shape – I’m guessing though that’ll require some stealthy internet searching (or a trip to Sicily).

Line the tin with clingfilm, leaving enough overhang to fold back in later,  and line the sloping sides of the tin with marzipan (you can add pistachio paste to your bought almond marzipan if you don’t have the will to start grinding nuts to a powder) – and you may need a spot of green food colouring.  Don’t over do it though – the first time I tried this, it turned the colour of arsenic.

Then, place a thin disk of sponge cake in the base of the tin and brush it with marsala, or sugar syrup and marsala, or sugar syrup and orange flower water.  

Mix dark chocolate chips into ricotta with icing sugar and spoon this onto the sponge, until it almost fills the tin.  Then place another pre cut disk of sponge on the top and fold in the clingfilm to seal the whole thing together.  Put a plate onto the embryonic cassata and weigh down with a sturdy mug or a big dense block of cheddar.

Make room in the fridge, and chill the whole thing overnight.

Tomorrow – turn the cake out onto its serving plate.

Mix up a thick fondant icing.  This is a pain, and almost impossible to work with, but you’re committed now I’m afraid.

The aim is to get a layer of icing on the top of the cake that is a solid, opaque ‘lid’ to your cassata (some people cover the whole thing – it’s your choice), leaving the green of the marzipan to shine.  

Then take your candied fruit, and arrange on the top of the icing in a suitably flamboyant way.  

If you really want to gild your lily, you can then pipe more icing into swirls and dabs onto the fruit and the sides of your cassata.  I’m totally cack handed at icing, so mine usually ends up looking like a six year old was set loose on it.

It’s unlikely that you’ll make this many times in your life.  Unless you work in a patisserie in Sicily or New York.  But, if you’re looking for home cooking bucket list items, this should probably be on there.  It’s a traditional cake for Easter in Sicily, but makes a pretty fancy celebration cake any time of the year.  

God knows how many calories it contains, although, despite all the sugar involved, the ricotta has a sharpness that stops it tipping over the edge into Type 2 Diabetes territory.  But, it’s definitely improved by a ‘coffee-killer’ – one of those bitter or super strength digestifs you have at the end of your Italian meal – grappa, limencello or Cynar (my favourite).

Go on.  I dare you.

Hare ragu – how to cook your way back from disaster, helped by Anna del Conte

IMG_4182

Until last week I’d never cooked a hare, never eaten one, and only ever seen one darting off through a watercress bed in Hampshire.  And then I get hold of four legs, and set about planning. And almost as soon as I get my hare, I read that their numbers are collapsing, possibly catastrophically.  So with the knowledge that I’m about the serve up an unfortunate statistic in this collapse, my conscience demands that I do the beast justice.

I think I’ve found a recipe that sounds perfect.  The weather has turned autumnal, it’s stormy and the rain is flattening what’s left of the veg plot.  This calls for something part broiled/part roasted, something nutty (toasted hazelnuts in this case), root veg and herby.  Throw in a slug of something red and it’s going to be great,  I double check the cooking times, cover the whole thing in a space-age foil wrap to keep in the moisture and the flavour, and wait.  Kale is prepped ready for a short steam and a fry off in butter.  Table is laid. Fire is lit.

I ballsed it up.

Out of the cosseted roasting tin emerge four rigour-mortised, dirty pink admonitions to my cooking pride. You can’t even cut them, they’re so tough you could make a pair of shoes.  My hare died for no purpose, and it’s my fault.

So, here I am, enabler of the hare’s decline, with three choices: bin, dogs, or an intervention from St Lorenzo – patron saint of cooks

Bin would be criminal; dogs, best chums of mine they may be, do not get fed good (if badly cooked) game.  So prayer it is!

I had an idea to try an bring some life back to my hare by making them into a ragu – the Italian meat sauce, not the tomato ketchup sauce out of jars.  This rescue mission needed time, so I started off using the legs, the veg and the nuts to make a stock, cooking them on the lowest of simmers for several hours, and then leaving it overnight to infuse while cooling.

The next day, I scooped out the legs and the nuts, to strip the meat from the bones, which flaked and shredded as I did so.  By the time I’d finished cleaning them, I’d garnered an overflowing bowl of dark, dark leg meat that was no longer shoe leather, and was on its way to being a different, but better dish than the one I’d originally planned.

Then I finely chopped up onion, celery and garlic and sautéed them off slowly, until soft, but without colouring them.  Note, there are no carrots. I’d run out. The Sicilian hit the roof when he discovered me making ragù without carrots. My defence; “I had no carrots’, was met with ‘then don’t make ragù!’ I carried on regardless and added a jar of the allotment passata (see last week’s post about the tomato glut), another glass of red and a bay leaf and cooked this down further for ten minutes.  And then I added in the hare meat and a splash of red wine vinegar for added sharpness (a trick the Sicilian taught me), checked the seasoning and let it gently carry on cooking whilst I got the pasta ready.

Pappardelle is my favourite – I could lie and write prosaically about starchiness and generosity, but the truth is that it’s the one pasta that forgives my non-Italianess, that doesn’t make me look like a toddler with a fork trying .  To over egg my pasta, I cooked it in the stock that had been created by poaching the hare’s legs for all those hours.  Once sauce and pasta were combined I stirred in some crumbled hazelnuts.

Hare ragu and pappardelle with crumbled hazelnuts – it was outstanding, a proper snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  It’s gamey of course, and I want to say it’s ironey, but not in a grilled liver kind of a way.  And whilst I may not treat my dogs to good game, I did let them lick the plates (don’t judge me). Cooking pride restored.

And then the next day, I’m flicking through Anna del Conte – and there it is.  A better, and authentic version of my recipe.  Including the pappardelle and the red wine, but without the tomato sauce.  Whilst it would be wonderful to think that this home cook had independently come up with a similar recipe as his food hero, I think the reality is that things stick, especially when written well.  The more you cook and the more you read; the better you become.  And whilst I may never be Italian and may never master the art of eating spaghetti neatly, it turns out I’ve learnt enough along the way to rescue, at least, a cremated hare.

So, thank you Anna del Conte for giving me the wherewithal to rescue my hare from my own incompetence, once again, you have saved the day in my kitchen.  Her recipe is in her Italian Kitchen book, my half remembered version of it is here.

Anna del Conte inspired Pappardelle with Hare.  

50g butter

50g streaky bacon (smoked)

1 onion (finely chopped)

1 carrot (finely chopped, and appeasing resident strict Sicilians)

1 stick of celery (finely chopped)

Clove of crushed garlic

Bay leaf

300ml passata

200ml good stock (chicken or vegetable)

4 hare legs

Glass of red wine

Splash of red wine vinegar.

400g dried pappardelle

Salt and pepper

50g Toasted hazelnuts 

I’ve omitted the section on nearly ruining your hare legs (that bit is entirely optional)

Melt the butter and fry the chopped bacon until it begins to colour.

Add the chopped onion, celery and garlic, and lower the heat.

Cook until the vegetables are soft, but not coloured and then add the hare legs, browning them on both sides.

Turn up the heat and throw in the red wine to deglaze the pan.

Add the bayleaf and the passata and some of the stock, and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour. Keep an eye on it and if it starts getting to thick and at risk of drying out, add a ladle of stock.

When the meat falls easily for the bone, remove the legs and strip them, before returning the meat to the tomato sauce (chopping up any larger pieces).  Add your vinegar and seasoning and cook for five minutes longer.  You’re aiming for a thick, dark sauce that won’t turn your pappardelle watery.

When you’re ready, cook your pasta in ferociously salted water in the biggest pan you have, for 5-6 minutes.  No longer, as it’ll keep cooking when you mix it with the ragu.  

Drain, and return to the pan, stirring in your hare ragu until the pappardelle is evenly coated.

Sprinkle over the hazelnuts (you can rub the skins off them by rolling them in a tea towel when they’re still hot from a five minute roasting in the oven)

Serve immediately and eat quickly if you’re expecting competition for seconds