For Christmas my good friend Stealth bought me the Polpo cookbook. This was not because she thought I would like it (I did), or that we had enjoyed eating in Russell Norman's restaurants together before (we had), but because of an incident in Spain a year and a half previously. In order to practise her schoolgirl Spanish she had attempted to order dinner one night, which resulted in my getting Pollo (chicken) instead of the polpo (octopus) I had requested. Of course, I took it very well (I didn't, getting my fluent in Spanish friend, Tom, to order the right dish), but it has remained a bit of a joke ever since.
After receiving my gift my thoughts turned to a visit to one of the four branches of Polpo, so we could scoff an array of delights featured in the book while getting merry on Campari. But then I realised, what better opportunity to try out some of their dishes at home for ourselves. It (should) be cheaper and easier; we had plenty of supplies of prosecco stashed away; and, hopefully, there would still be leftovers for the day after. In fact the only down side seemed to be the prospect of all the washing up.
This DIY approach also tied in very nicely with my budgeting attempts (not spending more than twenty pounds a person on food when dining out until mid-May). Although individually the sharing dishes aren't pricey, when you get a hungry group together, consider the Ewing's gravitation towards most expensive things on the menu and then add booze to the mix, you could soon be looking at a far heftier bill than you anticipated.
With Stealth's visit booked up in the diary it was then down to the business of choosing which of the many delicious looking dishes to try. In the end it was a bit of a no-brainer; with the cold weather and the fact that I was busy at work all week and needed something quick and hassle free, it could only really have been a batch of their iconic meatballs with tomato sauce.
At Polpo they serve four flavours (pork/beef, pork, duck and lamb); I wanted to make the duck and porcini, but ended up running out of time and going for the simpler pork and fennel (top), and, the best selling, pork and beef (bottom). I made the first batch for lunch with Stealth, and the second batch, to compare, a week later.
You can find the recipe for the Pork and Fennel version here. For my version of the basic tomato sauce: finely chop a red onion and two crushed cloves of garlic sweated in olive oil, then add three tins of tomatoes and a good pinch of sugar, simmer for an hour, cool, blend with a stick blender and add a good pinch of oregano and another glug of olive oil to finish.
The pork version were delicious; the egg and breadcrumbs made for quite a dense ball, but they were a lot jucier than anticipated and held together well. Although I used more fennel than specified in the original recipe next time I would up the fennel and chilli even further, as I found the seasoning a little underpowered. The beef balls had a deeper, more interesting flavour, but I found them far more fragile to handle (my pork/beef ratio was 50:50, instead of the 70:30 in the book), and a little drier in texture. I did enjoy the extra garlic, though.
Both versions, when combined with the simple tomato sauce (I omitted the fresh tomatoes, as I couldn't find any decent ones in the depth of mid winter) were fabulous. Fancy enough to make a great supper with friends, but also economical and very simple. At Polpo they are served as a cichetti (Venetian bar snack), with spaghetti, or in a piadini smash (kind of meatball wrap). As mentioned above we had ours with polenta and greens, although I also may also have been caught eating them cold straight out of the fridge the next morning.
After the success of the fennel seeds in the spicy pork balls I decide to carry on the anise theme by trying something featuring fresh Florence fennel, too.
I always used to think of fennel as a summery salad and barbecue kind of vegetable, but you can now find good fennel all year round, making it a perfect way to cheer up those bleak winter months. The fennel available in the shops at the moment is beautiful. Tight, crisp heads with a bright white bulb and bright green stems, and good value, too. I can't help but lob a couple of pieces into my trolley every time I'm out at the supermarket.
On the Saturday of Stealth's visit we enjoyed the chickpea, fennel and leek soup; whizzed up the night before, then simply reheated and served with hunks of toasted sourdough.
To say this soup was easy would be an understatement. A couple of chopped fennel bulbs, shallot (I used an onion) and two leeks (another great winter veg) sweated in olive oil until soft, before adding chicken stock and three tins of chickpeas, simmering for another fifteen minutes and blending with a hand blender. I ended up sieving the soup, to get rid of any rough skins from the chickpeas, then sweating another couple of leeks and adding them, plus a small handful of reserved chickpeas, for a bit of extra body and texture.
I'm not really the biggest soup fan, and usually the idea of having it for dinner wouldn't normally fill my heart with joy, but this was one of those genuinely delicious, rich and creamy (despite the absence of any dairy) bowlfuls that made me question why I don't rustle up things like this much more often. The fennel flavour was fresh without being overpowering, and the punch from the alliums was tamed by the nutty chickpeas and slick of grassy olive oil on top.
My finocchio adventures were still not quite over, and the following weekend I decided to modify one of the many antipasti/cicchetti in the book and turn it into a punchy, bright winter salad for the Ewing and I.
This dish simply combines grilled fennel slices dressed with olive oil and then draped with silvery-white marinated anchovies (the book serves each slice of fennel skewered with a single fillet) and a scattering of feathery dill or fennel tops. The vinegary zing of the fish with the sweet veg made the perfect pairing when scooped up with thick slices of toasted wholemeal bread. A beautiful light lunch, or equally good as part of a bigger spread.
Although all the recipes tested thus far have been successful, delicious, and, most importantly, easily achievable for an impatient slap-dash home cook like me, the thing I almost think I like most about this tome is the clever binding. Initially the visible stitching on the spine may appear more style over substance; but the pages really do all stay flat, wherever you open them at, leaving you with both hands free to pour yourself another Spritz. Cin cin!