Tuesday, 27 September 2011

P is for...

P night played host to a perfect parade of personable people. We had music industry guru and karaoke enthusiast, Rebecca Ayres who came with her Aussie musician boyfriend, Graham Brown. We also welcomed pineapple-phobic performer, Tamzin Aitken, and journalist turned illustrator and co-founder of Failbetter Games, Paul Arendt. Sadly, Paul's chef-extraordinaire wife, Jane Carnall, couldn't make P night, but check out her blog for some delicious recipes, that begin, alas, with a disappointing variety of  letters. Last, but certainly not least, was hilarious comedian, writer and lover of offal, Chris Neill, who also writes a fabulous food blog called Chris Neill's Dirty Kitchen. Richard created a perfect P-themed playlist featuring The PoguesThe Pretenders, The Proclaimers, The Postal Service, The Pet Shop Boys, PavementParis MotelPulp and Prodigy as well as two of my all time favourites: PJ Harvey and The Pixies.

Planter's Punch

To get the party started, Richard made an enormous bowl of Planter's Punch, which is essentially fruit juice spiked with a generous finger of rum. It was so generous, in fact, that there was plenty of punch for us all to have a second glass.

Planter's Punch is two parts rum, two parts orange juice and one part lime juice, shaken over ice with a dash of Angostura Bitters, a little sugar syrup and a splash of Grenadine. Strain and top up with soda water, if you like, but we didn't bother. What's the point of a cocktail unless it kicks you up the bum?

To accompany the Planter's Punch, the P partiers picked on proscuitto wrapped prunes, potato cakes topped with Philadelphia and paprika, and pesto, parma ham and Pecorino palmiers.

Proscuitto wrapped prunes

These simple little snacks have a perfect balance of sweet and salty and are as simple as they sound.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)

16 pitted prunes
8 slices of Proscuitto

Wrap each prune in half a slice of Proscuitto, place them on a baking tray and pop the tray in the oven for about 10 minutes. 

Paprika potato patties topped with 

This is a great way to use up left over mashed potato. You can make them bigger to serve alongside a main course too if you wish.

Mashed potato, made with 3 medium sized potatoes (floury are best - Maris Pipers or King Edwards)
5 tbsp plain flour
1 egg
Salt and pepper
1 tsp bitter sweet paprika

Beat the egg and pour it into the mash and mix through. Sift the flour over the potato mixture with the paprika, salt and pepper and thoroughly combine. Spoon out the mixture and create small patties using your hands. Chill in the fridge for about 15 minutes so the patties will hold their shape. Once you're ready to serve, heat some oil in a pan and fry the patties on each side until golden brown. Top each patty with a teaspoon of Philadelphia and a sprinkle of paprika.

Pesto, parma ham and Pecorino palmiers

Palmiers are made from puff pastry and are usually sweetened with sugar and cinnamon and served as biscuits. Palmiers are a very particular shape that you make by rolling each end of the pastry in towards the centre. I decided to make savoury palmiers with home made puff pastry, fresh pesto, Parma ham and Pecorino cheese. They were incredibly indulgent, but definitely worth it.


3-4 generous handfuls of basil
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
A handful of grated Parmesan
Extra virgin olive oil
A squeeze of lemon 
Salt and pepper

Some people balk at the idea of bunging everything in the magimix and bang on about how you can really taste the difference if you stick to tradition and use a pestle and mortar. Personally, I couldn't give a monkeys for tradition here as whenever I try to make pesto in a pestle and mortar, it's too much like hard work just to keep it in the mortar. In the magimix, home made pesto is quick, simple and full of freshness and nicer than anything you'd ever get out of a jar.

Pulse the garlic, pine nuts and basil in a food processor and pulse. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and add most of the Parmesan. Stir through and drizzle over enough oil until you have a nice oozy sauce. Season and add some lemon and stir again. Taste for lemon, Parmesan and seasoning. Adjust as necessary and it's ready to serve.

Pesto, Parma ham and Pecorino palmiers

Puff pastry
Parma ham
Pecorino, grated

Roll the puff pastry into a rectangular and spread with pesto. Next layer over slices of Parma ham and sprinkle over Pecorino. Starting on one side, roll the pastry quite tightly towards the middle of the rectangle and stop. Roll from the other side in towards the centre, so that you've created an "ear" shape. Wrap in cling film and pop in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan)

Remove the cling film and place the sausage on a board. Cut in half inch slices and lay the palmiers on a large baking sheet. Leave enough room between each palmier for expansion on cooking. Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until golden. Leave to cool for a few minutes before transferring them from the tray to a serving plate with a palate knife.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

O is for... Orange truffles

I know I have ended many an Alphabet Soup dinner with a chocolate truffle or two and I make no apology for it. Who doesn't love a homemade truffle laced with booze, nuts or whatever else befits the letter of the day. In fact, I love to end a meal with a dark chocolate truffle so much, I can promise you there will be plenty more on the Alphabet Soup menus to come. They are quick, they are delicious and they are crowd pleasers. What's not to like?

O night's truffles were orange zest-heavy and spiked with Cointreau, but you could use any orange liqueur you have knocking around in your drinks cabinet. As always, it's much easier to think metrically than imperially when making truffles and a tip for speed if you haven't got time to finely chop your chocolate is to blitz it in a magimix. It saves time, though does create extra washing up. I've added butter to these because when you add a generous pouring of booze liquid, it can cause trouble with the setting. This amount of chocolate makes A LOT of truffles, so feel free to halve, or even quarter, the ingredients.

Orange truffles

100g dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used Divine)
100 ml double cream
1 heaped tbsp light muscovado sugar
50g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
The zest of one orange
A forkful of Cointreau
Cocoa, sifted, for rolling

Place the chopped chocolate and butter in a bowl. Heat the cream and sugar together in a saucepan until the sugar has melted. Bring the sugary cream to the boil and take the pan off the heat. Leave to stand for one minute before pouring over the chocolate and butter. Leave for 30 seconds before mixing through with a rubber spatula. The heat of the sweet cream should melt the chocolate and butter. Stir in the orange zest and Cointreau and leave to cool and then set in the fridge. Once set, use a teaspoon to scoop out the ganache and roll between your palms to make a ball shape. Roll the truffle in the cocoa, repeat with the rest of the mixture and pop your truffles on a serving plate.

O is for... Oxford Isis, Ogleshield, Ossau-Iraty-Brebis and Oxford Blue with home-made oatcakes.

O night's cheeseboard was sourced by Richard at the ever wonderful Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street. Oxford Isis was created in 2003 especially for supply to Oxford Colleges and restaurants in the city. It is a soft cows' milk cheese with a rind washed in Oxfordshire honey mead. The cheese was developed to compete against French washed rind soft cheeses such as Epoisses ( one of my all time favourites) and I'm here to report that Oxford Isis utterly delicious and can certainly give its French competitors a run for their money. Next on the board was the deliciously addictive Ogleshield, a firm Jersey cows' milk cheese, also with a washed rind and with a texture similar to Raclette. Ossau-Iraty-Brebis is an unpateurised French ewes' milk cheese. Ossau-Iraty is a nutty semi-hard cheese, robust in flavour with a natural rind. Last up, we had Oxford Blue. A deliciously creamy cows' milk blue, with a tangy finish. I adore blue cheese and this was was no disappointment. In fact, I'd almost certainly choose it over Stilton.

While Richard was busy tasting cheeses for O night in Paxton & Whitfield's, I was attempting to make oatcakes. I'd never made oatcakes before and, foolishly, assumed they'd be pretty easy. I was wrong. Oatcakes are a bugger to make and mine kept falling apart when I tried to cut them. In fact, they didn't stop falling apart after they'd been baked either, possibly due to my overzealous research, which led me to make a hybrid recipe of my own - a pick 'n' mix approach from all those I had read. For some reason, I balked at the idea of making the oatcakes with 100% lard, but I'm quite sure if I had they would have stayed together properly rather than snapping into shards all over everyone's cheese plates. Oh well, they were still delicious regardless, but if you try them at home, steer clear of the sunflower oil and go straight for the lard.  

O is for... Olive and chocolate fondants with olive oil ice cream

When I made this pudding on O night, I thought at the time that I was being highly original and inventive in combining salty black olives with chocolate. Then, one fateful day, a few weeks later, I was leafing through David Everitt-Matthias' Dessert: recipes from le champignon sauvage and discovered, to my horror, a recipe for bitter chocolate and black olive tarts with fennel ice cream. I must have subliminally stolen this idea and, to my shame, passed it off as my own creation. OK, so I didn't make chocolate tarts, I made chocolate fondants and I made olive oil ice cream without a bulb of fennel in sight. BUT, I did, for some strange reason, decide that it would be prettier to bake the fondants in individual fluted tart tins - something I had never done before and something which, in hindsight, seems an odd choice of vessel for a fondant.

Of course, it's hugely unlikely that any of us are entirely original, and the creation of new recipes inevitably leads to all sorts of culinary kleptomania. This is especially true, if, like me, a cook book is as likely to be resting on your bedside table as a novel. In actual fact, there's something rather wonderful in knowing that all the endless cookbooks, food blogs and magazine recipes I read do, on some level, get absorbed. It's reassuring to know that they end up somewhere and that my brain doesn't just throw them in the recycling once my stomach's stopped rumbling. 

Salty treats mixed with chocolate have become modern classics, from Paul A. Young's famous salted caramel chocolates to Reese's peanut butter cups and, more recently, Vosges Haut-Chocolat introduced us to chocolate and bacon bars. It makes sense to think olive and chocolate would be just as much of a hit, but my black olive and chocolate fondants weren't a unanimous success on O night, by any means. Olly and Dolly loved them and although I won't make olives an everyday addition to my chocolate fondants from here on in, I really enjoyed their salty fruitiness against the bitter cocoa rich chocolate. Richard, in contrast, declared this pudding to be "a real Alphabet Soup low point". In fairness, Richard is really not a fan of black olives full stop. Though, stoical to the end, this didn't prevent him from finishing his plate and scraping it clean with his pudding fork. 

The olive oil ice cream, on the other hand, was a hit with the whole table. It was smooth, creamy and vanilla-rich, with a subtle but pleasing undercurrent of aromatic fruitiness. It goes without saying that it is essential to use a good and fruity extra virgin olive oil for this ice cream. If you go cheap and functional with the EVOO, the flavour of your ice cream will certainly suffer for your scrimping. 

Olive oil ice cream

4 egg yolks

4 oz/ 100 g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, scored lengthways
12 fl.oz/ 350 ml double cream
About 8 tbsp good quality fruity extra virgin olive oil

First make a custard by placing the cream in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla pod and chuck in the pan, along with the pod. Gently bring to the boil. In the meantime. whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until pale and creamy and pop a sieve over the bowl ready.

Once the cream has come to the boil, pour it through the sieve over the eggs to strain off the vanilla pod and any woody bits that have come off it in the cream. whisk the eggs, sugar and cream together and pour back into the saucepan. Place the saucepan over a gentle heat and whisk constantly until the custard thickens enough so that it can coat the back of a spoon and if you draw a line through the custard with your finger, the line remains. Immediately pour it into a cold jug and pop a bit of cling film over the top to prevent a skin forming and leave to cool. 

Once cold, stir the olive oil into the custard and taste, add a little more oil if you think it needs it and pop the jug into the fridge to chill.

If using an ice cream machine, follow the manufacturer's instructions, otherwise, pour the mixture into a tupperware box, pop the lid on and transfer to the freezer. Whisk the mixture thoroughly every half hour or so for the first 2 hours of freezing to prevent ice crystals forming and then leave to set completely.

Olive and chocolate fondants

Makes 4

75g pitted black olives
175g caster sugar
100ml of water
25g unsalted butter
100g good quality dark chocolate (I used Divine)
100g salted butter, cut into small squares.
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
75g plain flour
25g cocoa, plus extra for dusting

Place the water and 75g of caster sugar in a saucepan over a low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat and once the syrup is boiling add the olives, reduce the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool. Once cool, chop the olives and pop them back in the syrup and pop them in the fridge until needed.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)

Melt the 25g unsalted butter and brush the insides of four individual tart tins. Use a tea strainer to sift cocoa over each tin, until they are well covered. Tap the excess cocoa out of the tins and place on a baking tray.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Once melted, take off the heat and stir until thoroughly combined. Leave to cool for about 10 minutes.

Whisk together the eggs and egg yolks with the remaining 100g caster sugar until thick, pale and mousse like. This can take a little time so get your electric hand whisk out if you have one. 

Pour the butter and chocolate mixture into the sugar and eggs and stir thoroughly. Sift over the flour and cocoa and fold in. Finally, drain the olives of their syrup, and mix them into the chocolate batter.

Divide the batter between your tart tins, filling them almost to the top, and pop them in the oven for 6-7 minutes*. Pop the tart tins on a wire rack to cool for a few minutes before unmoulding and plating up.  Take the ice cream out of the freezer ten minutes before you're ready to serve so it is soft enough to scoop. Place alongside the olive and chocolate fondant and dust the top of the fondant with cocoa before serving.

*You can use ramekins if you prefer, but increase the cooking time to 10-12 minutes.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

O is for... Oolong and orange rolled ostrich with Oxford Landing reduction, oregano and oyster mushroom orzotto served with stuffed onions.

I remember eating ostrich for the first time in the late '90s, when it seemed to be everywhere. Waitrose stocked it and gastropubs in the area I grew up (Tunbridge Wells) seemed to jump on the band wagon with ostrich steaks hitting their chalkboard menus. It seemed everyone was trying to get consumers excited by this high iron, low fat and exotic meat back then. 

I remember eating it for the first time in a pub with my Grandad, who always encouraged me to try new things, but what I remember most about the experience was how dull the meat was. Perhaps I was expecting too much? A flavour explosion like nothing I'd ever tried before it certainly wasn't. In reality, it was rather dry and uneventful. Sadly, ostrich didn't last long on the supermarket shelves or on the menus of gastropubs, largely because people just didn't know how to cook it. 

Ostrich meat has a taste somewhere between venison and duck and should be treated like lean game in the kitchen. It is sacrilege to overcook an ostrich fillet, as all the succulent, juicy flesh will become a desiccated disaster; where all moisture has been sucked out and replaced with chewy flakes of tough meat. Overcooked ostrich is equally, if not more awful, than overcooked pork tenderloin. But, when cooked well, ostrich is sensational - a subtle and tender red meat with less fat than a skinless chicken breast.

Ostrich meat should be brought to room temperature before cooking and should be served rare to medium-rare and must, as with all meat, be left to rest before serving. If you don't like to see any pink on your plate, move away from the ostrich tenderloin now and leave more for the rest of us. If your curiosity is strong enough, I recommend you try ostrich sausages or mince instead.

I sourced the ostrich for O night from the wonderful Gamston Wood Farm, an ostrich farm in Nottinghamshire. They handily have a stall at Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays and also offer a mail order service for those who want it brought to their doorstep.

I rolled the ostrich in orange zest and "Oriental Beauty Supreme" oolong tea from Jing Tea. The tea and orange added an aromatic and woody depth to the flavour of the meat, without overpowering the ostrich's subtle charms. I made an Oxford Landing red wine reduction to be spooned over the meat and served it with orzotto, a "risotto" made with pearl barley instead of rice, studded with oyster mushrooms and oregano. The vegetable accompaniment was the much neglected onion. Poor old onions are rarely used as a vegetable in their own right. They are mostly used to add extra flavour, then left to play second fiddle to the more starry ingredients of the show. Onions are deliciously sweet, mellow and moreish when roasted and I followed Jamie Oliver's lead and stuffed mine with a mixture of garlic, bacon, herbs, Parmesan and cream to add a little extra indulgence to the dish.

Oolong and orange rolled ostrich

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)

2 ostrich tenderloins (this amount of meat could probably have stretched to feed 6)
The finely grated zest of 2 oranges
10g Oolong tea
Plenty of cling film

Simply mix together the tea and orange zest and roll each tenderloin in it until it is evenly coated. You may find it easier to pat the orange oolong on to the meat with your hands. Once coated, wrap each tenderloin individually and tightly in cling film and leave on a plate out of your way until you are ready to cook it.

Once all the other components of the dish are almost ready to serve, unwrap the tenderloins and sear in a hot pan with a little oil and butter. Once seared, transfer the ostrich on to a roasting tray and pop it into your preheated oven for ten minutes for rare or 15 minutes for medium-rare. Once out, transfer to a board and leave to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving. I served mine in thick medallions on top of the orzotto.

Oxford Landing reduction

Same volume of chicken stock
1 shallot, finely chopped
A little butter

Pour the wine in a saucepan with the shallot and leave to simmer until it has reduced by half. Add the stock and continue to simmer until it has reduced by half again. Strain the shallot out of the sauce into a clean saucepan and continue to simmer until the sauce is nice and thick. Finish with a little butter to enrich the sauce. 

Oyster mushroom and oregano orzotto

Orzotto is a slower cook dish to risotto, simply because pearl barley needs a lot longer in your pot than rice, so start this an hour before you want to dish up. 

400g pearl barley
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
4 rashers of bacon, finely chopped
A punnet of oyster mushrooms, finely chopped
A generous handful of fresh oregano
2 pints of chicken stock 
A large wine glass of white wine, I used Oxford Landing Sauvignon Blanc
Salt and pepper
A handful of fresh Parmesan, finely grated

Sauté the onion, garlic, carrots, mushrooms and celery in a little oil in a large heavy bottomed pan. Add the bacon and cook until the vegetables are soft and the bacon is lightly golden. Add the pearl barley and stir for a minute or so and chuck in the wine. Stir to prevent the pearl barley from sticking and pour in the chicken stock. All of it. You don't need to add a little at a time like you would with risotto. Add half the oregano and season generously. Stir thoroughly, pop on the lid and leave to simmer, stirring every now and then, for about 50 minutes. Stir through the Parmesan and add most of the rest of the oregano, leaving a little for scattering on top. Taste for seasoning, adjust accordingly and serve with the final oregano sprinkled over the top.

Stuffed onions

Adapted from a Jamie Oliver (another "O"!) recipe

2 pints of fresh chicken stock
2 bay leaves
4 small onions, peeled
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
A little fresh oregano, picked and chopped
A generous splash or two of double cream
A generous handful of Parmesan, grated
4 rashers of smoked back bacon
Salt and pepper

Boil the onions in the chicken stock with the bay leaves for about 15 minutes or until the onions are slightly tender. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and leave to cool. You can use this stock for the rest of the dishes above.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan)

Once cooled, cut about an inch off the tops and use a spoon to scoop out the middle of the onion, leaving the outer cm intact. If need be, slightly trim the stalk end so that the onions sit flat on a roasting tray.

Heat a little oil in a frying pan and add the chopped up scooped out flesh of the onions, the garlic and half the bacon. Once soft and golden, add the oregano and pour over the cream. Stir thoroughly and remove from the heat before adding the grated Parmesan. Season to taste. Set aside. 

Fry off the rest of the bacon until brown. Place the onions on a roasting tray, spoon the creamy filling inside each one and top with a sprinkle of the chopped bacon. Pop the onions in the oven to roast for 25 minutes to half an hour or until soft, bubbling and golden. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

O is for... Ox cheek olives

After the delicate elegance of the octopus carpaccio, the time in the evening had definitely come for something that bit more rich and hearty. Something unapologetic, both in its rich and meaty flavour as well as its undeniable efficiency in lining the stomach for the several bottles of wine to come: ox cheeks. Ox cheeks are made for slow cooking and are excellent value at around £7 a kilo (or just over two pounds for the imperially inclined amongst you). I picked mine up from the ever reliable and wonderful Moens of Clapham - a meat lover's paradise. 

Beef olives were a 1970's bistro classic, but on flicking through the net I have read various claims of this dish's origins. Some say they are a French or an Italian export and others an old-fashioned Scottish staple dating as far back as the 1600s. Wherever they're from there's no doubting their credentials as delicious and hearty fare. Apparently you can use any cut of beef you like for these, as long as it's for slow cooking (fillet is not welcome here), which is why ox cheeks proved to be the perfect choice.

Ox cheeks are huge and are jam-packed with connective tissue, so as long as you don't let the sauce you cook them in boil dry, it would be almost impossible to overcook these babies. I thought it would be a fairly simple procedure to hammer the ox cheeks to thin them out enough to stuff and roll, but proved extremely reluctant to participate and barely budged a centimetre, despite at least half an hour of banging them repeatedly with a meat tenderiser. Instead, I decided to cut each cheek (which in this case was two to feed four) horizontally in half and then butterflied the halved cheeks again. As I sliced through the cheeks I had to remove quite a bit of the stringy connective tissue so I could flatten them effectively and then I gave them a final bashing with the meat hammer before they were ready for stuffing. Once stuffed, these meaty morsels were braised in all manner of befitting flavours for as many hours as I could find in the day. If you're serving this dish as a main course, a dollop of mash and some steamed greens are all you'll need as an accompaniment. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more full-bodied and meltingly tender way to eat these beefy beauties. 

Ox cheek olives

Preheat your oven to 180°C (160°C fan) 

Serves 4 

2 ox cheeks
A generous few spoonfuls of Dijon mustard
String or cocktail sticks

for the stuffing

A couple of shallots or a small onion, finely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, crushed
4 rashers of smoked bacon, cut into small pieces
A punnet of chestnut mushrooms
A small bunch of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
150g of sausage meat

for the sauce

1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 pint of fresh beef stock
1 bottle of red wine, something full bodied
A few sprigs of thyme
A couple of bay leaves
A few sprigs of rosemary 
2 tbsp tomato purée
Salt and pepper

Firstly, make your stuffing by sautéing your onions, garlic, bacon and mushrooms together. Add the thyme and season. Leave to cook down until soft and golden, then leave to cool. While you're waiting for the onion mixture to cool, butterfly and bash your ox cheeks (as above). Spread some mustard over the surface of each ox cheek. Thoroughly mix your cold onion mixture with the sausage meat and place a ball of mixture in the middle of each ox cheek. Roll the ox cheeks up into a sausage shape and tie up with string or use cocktail sticks to secure the olives. Brown the olives in a large frying pan with a little oil and place inside an oven proof dish with a lid.

Make the sauce by sautéing the vegetables in the same frying pan in a little oil until soft. Season generously, add the tomato purée and stir until it is all well mixed. Pour over the stock, stir it round and pour over the ox cheek olives. Pour over the red wine and add the herbs, put the lid on and pop in the oven for at least three hours. Checking every now and then and turn over the ox cheek olives. When you're ready to serve, scoop out the ox cheek olives and place on a warm plate, discard the herbs and boil the sauce to reduce until nicely thick. Taste for seasoning and spoon a generous helping of sauce over each ox cheek olive before serving.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

O is for... Octopus "carpaccio"

Once the beast was definitely dead, it was time to turn this octopus into carpaccio, which usually means finely sliced raw meat or fish, but according to my research, in the case of octopus, it should be boiled for hours on end before any knives need sharpening. 

The octopus carpaccio we ate in Rome definitely had its suckers on but, in a fit of confusion, I decided to follow the advice of Gordon Ramsay and scrape the suckers and skin off its tentacles after boiling. Essentially, all old Ramsay's recipe requires you to do is to tightly pack your tentacles in a lined mould and pour over some of the reserved octopus stock (which looks a bit like Sailor Matey bathwater that you've dropped a bar of soap in - when the colour remains, but the bubbles don't). Once you've done that, you're supposed to tightly wrap it into a sausage shape and then bung weights on top of it and stick it in the fridge. Gordon seems sure that the octopus will hold together if you follow this advice. Gordon is wrong. I think if I'd left the suckers on it might have worked, because they're a bit sticky. But I didn't leave the suckers on. I listened to Gordon Ramsay. 

My carpaccio did not hold together in a big homogenous tubular mass that could then be sliced into delicate, paper-thin and pretty rounds. My carpaccio instantly fell apart. My octopus's tentacles refused to stick together, and so I was left with lots of tiny little circles of finely cut tentacle meat. I dressed these rounds with a fresh and tangy lemon, chilli and parsley vinaigrette and it was delicious. Light, succulent and summery, my octopus carpaccio might not have held together, but this was purely a presentation issue. When something tastes this good, who cares what it looks like?

Octopus carpaccio

1 large octopus (trimmed, beak and stomach removed and cleaned)
1 whole, unpeeled onion 
A couple of carrots, cut into large chunks
A stick of celery, cut into large chunks
1 leek, cut into large chunks
A couple of bay leaves
A bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 large glass of white wine
A scattering of peppercorns
Enough water to cover the octopus.

Place your octopus in a large pot with your onion and then pop the other vegetables and herbs around it. Add enough cold water to cover the octopus and bring up to the boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and leave to simmer for four to five hours. Remove from the stock and leave to cool.

Once cold, cut off the tentacles and discard the body. You can try making the carpaccio as described above, or you can leave the suckers on and follow the instructions above. Leave the tightly rolled cling film sausage in the fridge for a few hours before carving. 


The juice of half a lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 red chilli, finely chopped
A handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Half a clove of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper

Mix the ingredients together until fully combined. Taste. Add more seasoning, lemon juice or whatever it needs. Plate up the octopus carpaccio and liberally dress with vinaigrette.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

O is for... Octopus vs. Victoria

Richard and I had such a delicious dish of octopus carpaccio in Rome last year, that we haven't stopped banging on about it since. I wanted to try to recreate that unforgettable dining experience for O night and started, reasonably enough, by sourcing an octopus for my pot, so I turned to our excellent local fishmonger's,  Fish Tale, for help and advice. I rang them up and asked if I could order an octopus for the weekend and the lovely man on the other end of the line replied in a thick Portuguese accent, "Of course! You cook octopus before?". I told him I hadn't, but I would very much appreciate his advice. And here it is:

"Well, traditional speakin', you supposed to bash 'im very hard against a rock for a very long time to make 'im nice and tender. So much faff it is this way, so don't worry. Stickin' 'im in the freezer does zactly the same job. You freeze 'im and once you defrost 'im, he'll be very nice and tender for you.  So, I do this for you, OK?"

"Yes please! Thank you, that sounds great! And how long should I cook the octopus for?"

"Well, my wife, she is a very good cook, and she say to put an onion in the pot with 'im and also lots of water. When the onion is cook, 'e is cook. OK?"

Great! That all sounds straightforward and easy enough. Just shove him in a pot with water and an onion and leave it until the onion's cooked through. No probs. Excellent.

I asked Richard to collect the octopus from Fish Tale on his way back from a meeting, which he did, but it wasn't quite what I'd been expecting. The octopus was in a large plastic box, about the size of a family sized tub of ice cream, all squashed with a beady eye looking at me, peering out through the cellophane lid. Richard told me what the man in Fish Tale had said, 

"I was going to kill 'im for you, but 'e 'asn't 'ad time to fully defrost yet. Very easy to do though, once 'e's finish defrosting, turn 'im inside out and chop 'is beak off and then run 'im under the tap. OK?"

"Hang on", I said, "hang on just one second. Does that mean... he's still alive?" Richard and I both turned our attention back to the half defrosted plastic tub of octopus sitting on the kitchen worktop. We looked suspiciously at the eye peering out through the icy, transparent and flimsy lid, then back at each other's worried scowls. "I don't know," said Richard, "surely freezing it would kill it? Wouldn't it?"

I quickly opened my laptop and pounded 'will freezing an octopus kill it?' into the keyboard. My search unnervingly raked up accounts of their unparalleled intelligence and problem-solving skills and also entries concerned with how octopuses kill humans:

"Most octopus have beaks that can pierce a person and if they bite one of your main arteries than you would bleed to death. Some octopus have venom in their beaks so you would get poisoned and possibly die. Also, their grip is tremendous so they could strangle and suffocate you. If you were scuba diving than an octopus could pull your breathing tube out so you would drown".

These reassuring images caused the already heightened paranoid dramatics in my head to snowball. The octopus in my kitchen was clearly going to defrost, break through the cellophane lid with its unusually strong eight arms before hurling itself at my throat. I had images of the octopus's eight-armed grip growing tighter and tighter around my neck, shaking me with enough force to lift my kicking feet off the kitchen floor. With my hands desperately clawing at its suckers in a last pathetic attempt to lessen its hold, I imagined the octopus losing patience and, in irritation, releasing one of its arms from my throat, so as to slap away my scratching fingers, before slapping me round hysterical face, like swatting a fly, before rejoining its seven comrades in choking the last gasping breath of life out of my oxygen-starved body. Next he would move on to Richard, then the neighbours, then the whole street. Was any of London safe from the psychopathic cephalopod in my kitchen?

My mind wandered back to a memory of my nephew's excited and expectant face as he showed me a video from the National Geographic website called Shark vs. Octopus. He laughed as he asked me, "which one do you think will win, Auntie Vic? I bet you can't guess!". I thought the shark could take it, of course I did. Who wouldn't? A shark's got massive bite-y teeth and the strength of ten Bravestarrs at least. And what's an octopus got? It's just a big rubbery pile of arms, for Christ's sake! It couldn't beat a shark, because, well, it's a bloody SHARK! Well, it turns out that octopuses are much niftier in the art of killing than most of us would expect. In Shark vs. Octopus, the octopus took it without breaking a sweat. Octopuses are clever. 

After much nervous laughter while prodding the half frozen box with a spatula to see if it moved, I realised there was only one option. Richard would have to go back to Fish Tale and ask the lovely, helpful man to wait for it to defrost so he could kill "him". So Richard did and then a few hours later we went back to collect "him" to put him in a pot with an onion. When the onion was done, he was done.