Restaurant crush: Lardo

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The food at Lardo is so good, that I found myself chowing down on a radicchio, gorgonzola and walnut pizza about an hour after eating a HUGE bowl of nduja pasta and raspberry jelly at home, like it was the most normal thing in the world. I know. I’d popped in for a ‘drink’ with a pal (thankfully it’s in my new hood Hackney), and I wasn’t intending on eating, but once I saddled up on a high stool overlooking the chefs at work and the pizza-spewing wood oven, it was like I’d never eaten… well I suppose this blog isn’t called ‘A Lot On Her Plate’ for nothing.

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve been there twice, and I will continue to go there as long as it carries on being what I reckon is one of the best informal, reasonably priced Italians in London.

From the outside, looking in on this pared-back, understated restaurant near London Fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a pizza joint, thanks to the huge, disco ball-esque wood-fired pizza oven that looms large through the window. But great as the pizzas are, this place is about so much more than that.

For starters, you might not know this, but Lardo – which takes its name from the delicious cured back fat of the beast – has its own extra special charcuterie made from Mangalitza pigs that are bred especially for it in the West Country. These pigs are furry and cute, so you might not want to Google pictures of them too much, but they’re also perfectly suited to yielding cured meats, thanks to their marbled meat and plentiful, flavourful fat. Try the deliciously fragrant fennel pollen salami and silky, silky coppa.

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To keep it true to the inexpensive, local Italian restaurants on which it’s modeled, the team at Lardo put huge effort into sourcing exceptional fresh produce and making things like pasta, simple cheeses, breads and even the syrups for its drinks from scratch. There are specials on all the time, and the menu changes according to what’s in season, sometimes on a daily basis, meaning that even though I visited twice in a few weeks (and ate the same pizza twice – it’s that nice), there were different things to try, and seasonal gems like stuffed tempura courgette flowers (£6), spaghetti with clams and wilted wild garlic (£12), or beautiful pale green nettle tagliatelle (£12) which comes wonderfully al dente and slathered in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and cheese.

The wine list at Lardo is focused and reasonably priced, honed on Italy and flitting between Northern Europe in winter, and Southern Europe in summer, with an emphasis on lesser-known European grape varieties. You can just pop in for a carafe and a bite, and sit at the bar watching the chefs (as I did) if you just fancy something light. But really, everything is so good you’ll just want to order and order – and I’d heartily encourage you to do just that.

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LARDO will open its summer rooftop bar and grill COPPA this summer on 24th May 2014, and I can’t wait for this as I stupidly managed to miss it entirely last summer. Bring it on!

Slow braised octopus with tomato, fennel, mussels and orzo

I have always been fascinated by octopus. I remember eating it on family holidays to Spain as a child, usually pickled or coated in oil and at the end of a cocktail stick, pleasingly chewy. I delighted in the texture of the tentacles – their beautiful gruesomeness, tinged with purple. I loved the way they felt against my tongue, the grooves of texture, their pleasing tangibility – they always reminded me of the suckers on those funny little furry toys I’d stick to every available window.

Whenever I’m at a fishmonger I’m drawn to the octopus – lying resplendent on the ice, dangling tentacles glistening like fishy chandeliers; but it’s never something I’ve attempted to cook. I suppose I’ve always been too scared to take such a magnificent, mystical creature and do the unthinkable to it: render it rubbery and inedible. But a gorgeous dish of slow-braised octopus eaten a few months ago at Rochelle Canteen has stuck in my mind as one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year, and something that I could at least try to recreate. It was deep, rich, velvety and heady – the octopus soft and tender and melding wonderfully with the olive oil, fennel, tomato and aromatic braising jus.

I’d also always assumed that cooking octopus would be super pricey, but when I was out shopping on ‘the Drive’ the other day I came face-to-face with a frozen whole octopus, priced very well at $7.99 (that’s under a fiver in British pounds!) so I thought I’d give it a go. I threw some mussels into the mix at the last minute because I was feeding three and was worried the octopus wouldn’t go so far – I was actually wrong as there was in fact leftovers – and the resulting dish was a bit of a hit. I will be making it again, and really the fact that the octopus was frozen didn’t seem to affect the flavour or texture at all. That’ll be the wonder of slow, careful braising!

Serves 2-4

1 octopus – fresh or frozen, about a kg
400g mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
half a small bulb of fennel, finely sliced
three large ripe tomatoes, chopped or, if not in season, a tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
half an onion, finely chopped
One large carrot, diced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
two cloves of garlic, minced
1 glass of white wine (preferably a good chardonnay for its aromatic richness)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
Pinch of dry thyme or a few fresh thyme leaves
Bunch of cavolo nero
Handful of chopped parsley

Prepping the octopus
First, if you’re using a whole fresh octopus you need to tenderise it, by either freezing it a few days before you cook it, or whacking it with a mallet for 10 minutes until it foams. If you’re using frozen octopus defrost gently on a plate in the fridge for about 24 hours, you don’t need to worry about tenderising it as the process of freezing does that.

Then you must remove the head, innards, ink, eyes and beak.  But don’t be alarmed! This is not as hard or as horrible as it sounds. You just cut below the eyes, separating the head from the tentacles. You’ll see there’s a hole where the tentacles meet, and inside that is the ‘beak’. It’s easy to remove – just push it out with your finger or thumb. Now take the head, cut the eyes off the bottom and discard. Rinse it inside and out, getting rid of the insides, and also rinse the rest of the octopus under cold water. Separate the tentacles too.

NB if you’re using a frozen octopus you won’t have to do this as the innards will have been taken out before it’s frozen. It’s still worth cleaning it in cold water though.

Method
Put the tentacles and sack into a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, cover with about 130ml of water and cook for 20 minutes on a low heat. This serves to partially cook the octopus, but also to extract its flavourful juices, which you can use later.

When that’s done, reserve the cooking liquor and chop the tentacles up into chunks of about 3-4cm or whichever size you prefer. I like to keep nice meaty chunks.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onions, fennel, carrots, celery and sautée until the onion and fennel is turning translucent and soft – about five minutes. Then add the garlic, bay and thyme and cook for another one to two minutes. Now add the octopus and sautée for a further few minutes, stirring, before adding the tomato, tomato puree, wine, octopus juice and black pepper.

Bring to the boil and then lower to a gentle simmer and cook for about 40 minutes. It might be a little less, you just need to keep testing the octopus until it’s tender but still meaty and not in the least bit mulchy.

About eight minutes before it’s ready, cook some orzo in boiling salted water until al dente and dress with a little extra virgin olive oil.

When it’s nearly there, de-stem your cavolo nero and chiffonade the leaves. Throw in the mussels and kale, cover with a lid and cook for about three-to-four minutes, until the mussels have opened and exuded all their tasty juice into the braise. Then taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Stir through the parsley and a dash of extra virgin olive oil, and serve in big ladlefuls on top of piles of orzo, making sure to dish out some of the octopus.

Enjoy!

Warm salad of roasted aubergine and broccoli with anchovy lemon dressing

I love broccoli. It’s one of the foods I really crave when I’ve been overindulging, which, as you know, happens fairly regularly. I came up with this recipe after a couple of days of eating, when I got back to my flat and happened to have some aubergine and broc in the fridge. I wanted something wholesome and nutritious, but tasty and sating at the same time. I particularly love the nutty flavour broccoli takes on when you roast it in a bit of olive oil in a hot oven: it’s somehow more interesting and satisfying than just blanching it, and it retains its crunch a little better, which works really well against the squish of the roasted aubergine. You can add a dollop of crème fraîche to the dressing if you find it a bit sharp, but personally I like it that way – I love how the acidity cuts the creamy aubergine flesh.

For the salad
Serves 2 

Half a head of broccoli
One teaspoon of dried red chilli flakes
One garlic clove, sliced
One medium aubergine
Two handfuls of baby spinach leaves
1/2 teaspoon of Maldon sea salt
Glug of olive oil

For the dressing
Half a small tin of anchovies in olive oil, chopped
The juice of half a lemon
A handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Five teaspoons of olive oil
A splash of tabasco
Half a teaspoon of honey
Half a teaspoon of crème fraîche (optional)

Method
Preheat the oven to 180. Slice the aubergine into hearty rounds (about 3cm thick). In a bowl, coat the aubergine in the oil, salt and chilli. Then lay them onto a flat baking tray and place in the hot oven for ten minutes. In the meantime, cut the florets of broccoli off the stalk, reserving the stalk and any leaves, as these can be roasted too. Cut the florets into bite sized pieces – some might be the right size but you might have to slice others in half. People tend to throw the stalk away, but it’s actually just as tasty as the rest of this brassica if you get to the tender inside bit, so waste not, want not. Cut off the rough end of the stalk, and peel with a knife until you get to the tender pale bit inside. Slice into 2cm thick rectangles.

After the aubergine has cooked for ten minutes, remove the tray from the oven and turn the rounds over. Now add on the broccoli florets, stalk and any leaves. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes.

While that’s cooking you can make the dressing. Briskly combine the lemon juice, olive oil, tabasco, honey (and crème fraîche, if using) until it’s all emulsified and then add in the chopped anchovies, garlic and parsley.

When the vegetables are ready, take them out of the oven and let them sit for five minutes. Arrange the baby spinach on the plate, scatter over the aubergine and broccoli, and drizzle over you dressing. This dish works well on its own as a healthy supper, or on the side of something like roast lamb.

An American-Italian feast to fight the post-NY blues: Meatloaf recipe

A few days ago, I was here:

Now, I’m here:

Brixton, I love you, but in the words of Cat Power, “you’ll never be, never be, Manhattan.”

So I was blue to be home after one very tasty and informative trip to Brooklyn and Manhattan. But instead of solely drowning my sorrows with bloody marys and American films like I did when I came back from my first visit in 2009, I decided to cook up a storm inspired by my trip and the food magazines and cookbooks I brought back.

I was craving the hearty flavours of American-Italian fare – creamy mac n cheese and meaty treats. I’d been on a burger crawl of Brooklyn with Byron Burger founder Tom Byng, and was originally going to try my hand at burgers, but seeing as the butcher I use in Brixton market was closed on the Sunday and my only option was supermarket mince, I decided on a meatloaf instead: two parts pork to one part beef. I couldn’t get any veal, as most of the recipes I’d looked at had specified. I adapted two recipes I’d found, one from the Food Network’s magazine and one from my proudest new purchase, my copy of James Beard‘s American Cookery – a behemoth that I’d bought from the brilliant Bonnie Slotnick (163 West Tenth St, NY) in the West Village: a tiny, wonderful second hand book shop stocking out-of-print and antiquarian cookbooks. James Beard has no less than six different recipes for meatloaf here, but I went for the ‘Favourite Meatloaf’ one, which like mine is a mixture of beef and pork.

The Food Network mag did it with an accompanying garlic sauce, but I decided to do it with a rich, slow cook Italian tomato sauce, as suggested by Mr Beard, which I got from the Polpo cookbook. After all, this was to be an ode to American-Italian food!

For the meat loaf, Food Network had called for panko, instead of normal breadcrumbs, so I got some of the those from the oriental grocer on Electric Avenue, but unlike Beard, it recommends using a cup of milk, which I refrained from in fear that it would make it too sloppy. This recipe is an amalgamation of both, with little things like the fish sauce, spring onions, chopped gherkins and red chilli added in by me.

Of the meat loaf, Beard says this. “Meat loaf is a modern development. To be sure, Europeans long ago made pates of various kinds to be eaten cold as special treats. But the meat loaf we use so constantly nowadays is a product of the present century. The best loaves are those made with a combination of meats, honestly flavoured, and still moist when cooked. The average loaf cooked today is apt to be overcooked and dry because of the filler put into it; one finds recipes calling for oatmeal, cornflakes, and other cereals, as well as condensed soups and canned vegetables. A good meat loaf is similar  to a country pate. It should be highly seasoned and firm but not dry. It is much better eaten cold, when it slices nicely and holds its shape. It should have a pleasant texture and never be grainy. It may be served hot with a good tomato sauce, a brown sauce with mushrooms, or an onion sauce.”

American Meatloaf (with a slight Asian inflection)

2 tablespoons good olive oil
3 banana shallots, minced
500g minced beef
750g minced pork
1 tablespoon of chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons of fish sauce
1 chopped red chilli
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 big gherkins, chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
1 cup of panko breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon of white pepper
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
teaspoon of Tobasco

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Put the olive oil in a shallow frying pan and fry the garlic, chilli, shallots and celery for a few minutes gently until the shallots are translucent and lightly brown. Meanwhile, blend the panko crumbs until very fine. Thoroughly combine the meat with the seasonings and egg, add in the crumbs, and finally mix in the celery and shallot mixture. Pack into a greased loaf tin and cook for an hour, basting as you go, until the top is caramelised. Serve with tomato sauce and some kind of greens. Make sure you check the temperature with a meat thermometer when you take it out to see that it’s done.

I served mine with homemade red onion and rosemary bread, bacon mac ‘n cheese and a wonderful salad of broccoli stalks with floret vinaigrette (below) that I got from Bon Appetit magazine – but those are separate posts altogether for another time. Please excuse these pictures – I have lost my camera cable so these are the ones taken with an iphone. When my new cable arrives I will replace the pics with the good ones.

Living la vida Lucca: Aperol, aperitivo and polpo in Campora

I recently found myself in Lucca, Tuscany for a friend’s wedding, slipping into that blissful Italian routine of non-stop eating and drinking. My waistline has still not forgiven me. I love being in a country where they not only have aperitivi – a miniature early meal in itself (see below) consisting of Aperol spritz or whatever tipple you might fancy and delicious nibbles – but main meals where you lose count of the number of courses. Antipasti, primi, secondi… I say lay it on me!

 We were staying in Campora -(tuscanyvillahire.com) in a wonderful villa overlooking olives groves about a twenty minute drive from Lucca. The place was a converted farmhouse with four spacious bedrooms and more rustic Italian charm than you could throw a bowl of polenta at. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at night the grove just below our outdoor dining table was actually lit up with fireflies who put on a little moving light display for us as we swigged our local Tuscan wine. As well as a pool with a view and diving board that more than once doubled as an impromptu picnic table, there was loads of land for us to explore, with herbs, figs and courgettes at our fingertips for cooking and eating. I basically split my time between the villa’s well-stocked kitchen and its pretty terracotta terrace, which hangs with fresh jasmine and wisteria and overlooks the rolling Tuscan hills. We ate and drank to our hearts’ content here.

Pasta was a bit of a recurring theme. We bought bags of fresh tagliatelle from the supermarket and I made this dish of asparagus, zucchini, herbs and parmesan pasta with pancetta.

 We also made the most of the local tomatoes, which were fat, juicy, ripe and sweet – and made our own bruschetta brushed with fresh garlic.

One day we really couldn’t resist buying a beautiful looking octopus (I love that you can just casually pick up fresh octopus in any Tuscan supermarket). We cleaned it, de-beaked and de-inked it and marinated it in lemon, chilli, garlic, olive oil and fresh oregano before sizzling it on the grill for a couple of minutes.

Next time I’d like to have a go at one of the slow cook octopus dishes, perhaps one involving oil and wine, or cooking it in its own ink, because this did go slightly springy. We probably should have boiled or ‘bashed’ it first – as advised by Elizabeth David. But you know, we were on holiday, and our Aperol-addled brains weren’t up to much…