Sunday, 26 September 2010

Slow braised oxtail with crispy pancetta and green herb gnocchi

All hail the slow cooker, bringer of autumnal unctuousness

I adore this blessed 1970's bit of kitchen equipment, it makes it easy to produce hearty classics and interesting slow cooked dishes without having to sit by the stove for hours on end - anyone with a full time job and / or a liking for tasty food should have one.

I had a dish similar to this in a wonderful restaurant in Ibiza on the first holiday Mathew and I went on together. We'd rented a beautiful secluded villa and spent lots of time seeking out great restaurants in between sunning ourselves by our private infinity pool on our hillside retreat (a bit flash but worth the indulgence!)

I remember the oriental fusion restaurant and bar Bambuddah Grove, with fab (and rather OTT) glam interior, tasty food and potent cocktails. A brilliant restaurant in the middle of nowhere that served a delicious herb crusted rack of lamb worthy of any top fine dining restaurant. And a Sicilian outdoor restaurant run by husband and wife, seafood so fresh and good that you didn't mind the circa 60 minutes it took for your food to arrive. Ibiza might be the party island and have its gaudy side, but we found it to be a great foodie haven too.

I can't remember where the restaurant was that I tried the oxtail or what it was called, but I do remember we ate on a lovely outside terrace, surrounded by lit swimming pools with grapevines and climbing floral shrubs suspended overhead.

The oxtail fell of the bone tender as butter, just the way it should be after gentle and long cooking. Its sauce was almost black - thick and treacle like, intense with bold red wine and classic herbs. It was a highlight of the holiday and unlike anything else Ive had since.

The big and beefy sauce of course needs something to soak it up. Cue the gnocchi - recently Ive discovered a plain flour milled from various grains other than wheat, it behaves like wheat (I tried it in a bechamel and couldn't tell the difference) and creates light and fluffy little dumplings. I like to pack them full of fresh green herbs as they really complement and counter the unctuous oxtail and its sauce.

Be prepared for a post eating snooze - a dish best for a lazy Sunday perhaps.

Dinner for two:
For the braised oxtail
One oxtail cut into 2" rounds
3/4 a bottle of red wine
Two carrots worth of batons
Two celery sticks, cut into batons
Two golden onions, peeled and quartered
2 fat cloves of garlic, pressed to crush
3 bay leaves
2 large sprigs of rosemary
5 cloves
1 level tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Plain flour (wheat free plain if you need)
Oil for frying
Unsalted butter
Sea salt and black pepper
4 pancetta rashers

For the gnocchi
This recipe uses wheat free flour so is slightly different as wheat free flour needs more moisture, if you don't want to use wheat free flour, simply use plain flour and don't add the 1 whole egg or extra virgin olive oil. 
This recipe also makes enough gnocchi for 4-6 people, I like to make as many as I can get out of the mixture, flour the ones I don''t need and freeze them, they can be used from frozen.
500g waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed
200g plain gluten and wheat free flour (I use Doves Farm flour that you can get in the Free From section in Sainsbury's)
10g fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
5g fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
5g fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
Several pinches ground nutmeg
One egg yolk and one whole egg, whisked
A generous glug of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

- In a large frying pan add a generous knob of butter and some frying oil, and once the butter starts to foam on a medium to high heat, fry your carrots, onions and celery (do in a few batches rather than crowding the pan as the veg will steam) until turning golden brown
- When you're a couple of minutes off the vegetables being browned, add the garlic to the pan and coat with the oil, once you can smell the garlic start to cook its time to remove the vegetables and place them in your slow cooker
- Wash out the pan and get it back on the same heat, add some more butter and oil to the pan
- While you're waiting for the butter to start to foam lightly dust the oxtail in some plain flour that has a good amount of salt and pepper in it
- Add the oxtail to the pan and turn over until every side is lightly golden brown, this should take around 10 minutes, once its done add them to the slow cooker with the bay leaves
- Carefully stir the meat and vegetables together so they are mixed together properly, then add the red wine, red wine vinegar, sugar and a scrunch of sea salt and black pepper. Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook on a low setting for 6 hours
- In the meantime you can get your gnocchi ready - preheat your oven to 200 degrees
- Boil the potatoes until they are ready to mash, drain them and lay them on a baking sheet and pop them into the preheated oven for 5 minutes (this is to remove excess water)
- Rice the potatoes into a large mixing bowl and set aside
- Using a sharp knife chop the fresh herbs up as finely as you can get them
- Measure out your flour and add the salt, pepper and nutmeg to the mix and stir to combine
- Add the flour to the potatoes and the herbs on top of that, followed by the whisked eggs and olive oil
- Using a wooden spoon stir the mixture so everything is combined and the herbs are running through the whole of the mixture, then using your hands bring the stiff dough together into a large ball
- Bring the ball onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead it for 2 minutes (don't do it for longer than this as the potato will turn unpleasant and elasticcy)
- Break a handful of the dough off and roll it into a sausage, keep rolling until you have a long sausage that's about 1.5cm thick
- Using a sharp knife again cut the sausage into the rectangular dumplings and set aside on a floured chopping board (making sure they don't touch each other) repeat the process until all of the gnocchi mixture has been used up
- Lightly cover the gnocchis with cling film and set aside until they're needed later on
- When the oxtail has had 6 hours strain the slow cooker mixture through a sieve - catching all of the cooking juices in a pan, do this carefully as you don't want all the meat to fall from the bones or the carrots to collapse
- Preheat your oven to 200 degrees
- Turn the pan on to a low-medium heat and let the sauce sit there reducing gently
- Mix up a couple of tablespoons plain flour with a little stock to form a smooth paste and pour into the reducing sauce, stirring until mixed thoroughly
- Take the oxtail and carrots out of the colander and set them aside in a bowl, cover with tin foil. Discard everything else
- When the sauce has reduced by a third, carefully add the oxtail and carrots back to the pan, put the lid on and cook on the lowest heat your hob provides, just to keep the contents warm
- Lay the pancetta out on a baking sheet and put them in the oven for 12 minutes
- While they're cooking boil a deep pan of water and add a generous amount of salt
- A couple of minutes before the pancetta is ready, turn off the oxtail and place the gnocchi into the boiling water, then remove the pancetta when they're just turning brown on their edges and set them aside to really crisp up
- When the gnocchis have all popped to the top of the water and started dancing around they're ready (takes around 1-2 minutes) drain them in a colander, then season with salt and pepper
- Plate the gnocchis with the oxtail and spoon the dark treacle like liquor over the dumplings and meat (gnocchi has the tendency to stick together so the sauce is needed to keep them separated)
- Add your crispy pancetta to the top and devour - a nice glass of red goes delightfully as you would imagine, perfect chance to finish off the bottle the dish was made with!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Our first wedding anniversary foodie roadtrip

San Sebastian is one of my top food cities, and every time I visit I feel a real connection to the place and a pull to stay.

Of course the food is a big reason for wanting to move there, but as a city it really does tick all my boxes; it’s on the coast with fantastic summer weather, it’s beautiful with some wonderful architecture, the shopping is good and there are one-off boutiques galore, its super stylish all over, there are loads of cultural things happening from cool art exhibitions to world class jazz gigs, and the Basques are really nice people – what’s more to want?!

Our visit a couple of weeks ago was to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than a trip back to France where we were married and San Sebastian where Mathew proposed. I’d been daydreaming the trip for weeks ahead and when it came, I loved every minute of it.

France as usual brought great eating treats...

Irregular tomatoes that we took to a picnic by a local lake looked so natural and knobbly and tasted so fresh, why can’t we get gems like that here? And we had some seriously tasty bavette steak with shallot sauce in the hotel, it’s a cut that takes a little getting used to but is well worth a try if you can get hold of it here.

We ventured out of the hotel to eat of course, a little restaurant in the opposite valley to my parents had delicious char-grilled steaks topped with Roquefort butter, tasty boudin noir, juicy queen scallops and succulent snails cooked just enough and given a dash of garlic butter, all served in the sunny outside terrace garden overlooking the fruit trees and mountains beyond. And in the next village square we enjoyed rich and creamy cep omelette followed by a cafe gourmand – a petit cafe with miniature dessert bites, all delicious.

Then came San Sebastian...

We ate some fantastic food, from pintxos in the back streets of the old town to a full on 13 course tasting menu at the top restaurant in San Sebastian, Martin Berasategui.

Now you know I love eating, but you don't go to a three Michelin starred restaurant like Berasategui to eat, you go to be entertained (or at least I do!)

Not that the food itself isn’t amazing, tasty and of course, filling – it’s an enhanced, extraordinary eating experience, one that goes beyond sustenance and sits firmly in the indulgent and pleasurable category, and they’re all so beautifully presented, it’s like eating little pieces of art!

Anyway, I’m not going to wax lyrical about the menu in some kind of restaurant critic style, other than to say it was incredible. Not the kind of place you go to all the time of course, and made all the more special because it’s an infrequent treat.

But San Sebastian isn’t just about Michelin starred restaurants, it’s full of delicious pintxos, and you can spend many a leisurely lunch or evening hopping around the pintxos bars in the back streets of the old town, eating gorgeous finger foods and drinking tumblers of wine.

We ate pintxos all over the old town in traditional bars like Gandarias Taberna and in the more contemporary bars like Fuego Negro, and we ate fantastic foods in all of them, some of our favourites were vinegared baby eels, iberico shoulder and goat's cheese lollipops, black cod on pureed cauliflower, and a plate of iberico shoulder with a red pepper puree.

If you like food, style, substance and value having a great time in a glorious setting you should visit the Basque capital – but be warned, you may never want to leave!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Globe courgettes with goat's cheese, mint and honey, served with char grilled pepper tortilla

I could perhaps get into trouble with customs in admitting to this, I wonder what kind of punishment I could face for being a courgette smuggler...?

Seeing a box of them all spherical and lovely and perfect for stuffing in France last week pricked my skin with excitement, oh the possibilities! Courgettes are my favourite of the green veggies, and stuffing one thing with another is a favourite cooking technique of mine also, so the shiny green globes are a perfect addition to my kitchen.

I haven’t seen these in the UK before but my local grocer says they can be grown here, they’ve just not made it into the vegetable mainstream - so sneaking a few into my suitcase to bring home was a must.

I like how the delicate goat’s cheese, zingy mint and toasted pine nuts complement the vegetables fresh flavour, and with the honey glaze it seems to take on an almost Greek quality, tasting light and bright – perfect for this time of year when the nights are starting to draw in and we all cosy down.

Serving it with a fresh and flavoursome tortilla worked brilliantly, but for more carnivorous eaters I think simple lamb kebabs that have been rubbed in a spice mix of chilli, salt and cumin would accompany the globes deliciously.

You can do this dish with the standard courgette, you just need to use one that’s a medium to large size and hollow it out carefully, and when baking it use foil to cover it over to protect the contents.

For four:
The courgettes -
4 globe courgettes / 4 medium to large courgettes
100g soft goats cheese
50g pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
A handful of fresh mint
One teaspoon of runny honey per courgette
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

The tortilla -
One red pepper, pierced all over a few times
One orange pepper, pierced all over a few times
Six free range eggs
A glug of whole milk
Salt and pepper
8 baby new potatoes, boiled and cooled enough to handle and sliced up into 1/2cm thick discs

To serve -
Salad leaves (I like lambs lettuce and rocket but use whatever is your favourite)

- Oil the outside of your pierced peppers lightly and place them under a hot grill, cook them on all sides until they begin to char and blacken (this isn't strictly 'char-grilling' as there are no flames involved (or at least there shouldn't be!) but they do get a wonderful blackened char to their skin and they're cooked under the grill, so all is good
- Once they're blackened on all sides remove them from the grill and leave to cool on a plate, gently pulling the core out of the top of each so that the steam can escape and they cool quicker (make sure you don't get burnt by it!)
- Preheat your oven to 180 degrees and lightly oil the base of a baking sheet with olive oil
- If you have the globe courgettes, cut their lids off (at the point where you'd cut the top off a pumpkin to make a lantern), and if you're using regular straight courgettes, slice them in half length ways
- Using a melon baller (easiest way) or a teaspoon (just be careful not to pierce the flesh as the teaspoon is blunt) hollow out the centre of the courgettes and keep the inners to one side
- Chop up the inners and fry them on a low-medium heat in a little butter and olive oil until soft and starting to turn golden, add some salt and pepper and then pop them into a food processor (small compartment)
- Add the mint and goat's cheese to the food processor, along with a glug of extra virgin, blitz until smooth
- Take the blended mixture and stir the toasted pine nuts through, then spoon into the hollowed out courgettes
- Place the courgettes onto your oiled baking sheet with their lids on (or lidless if using straight courgettes) pour a bit of olive oil into the palms of your hands and rub the courgettes gently all over on their skins until they're nice and shiny. Pop them in the oven for 35 minutes, and during the last 7-8 minutes cook them without their lids or tin foil over the top of them.
- While they're cooking it's time to make the tortilla. Take the peppers and cut them open, then remove the seeds and pith and discard. Cut them length ways into large slices and try to keep as much of the juice as you can
- Break the eggs into a bowl and mix with a fork, adding a generous scrunch of salt and pepper and a glug of milk to the mix
- Take your frying pan and add some unsalted butter and a dash of frying oil to the pan, turn onto a low heat and lay the potatoes into the pan, then layer the peppers on top of the potatoes and pour the egg mix over the vegetables carefully
- Cook the tortilla on a low heat for around 25 minutes until only the top of the tortilla is wibbly, when this happens simply place it under the grill for a couple of minutes to fluff up and cook the top
- Serve the tortilla with a handful of dressed leaves and the lovely globe courgettes, once on the plate, drizzle each of the courgettes with the teaspoon of runny honey