This week's #cookbookchallenge is from a much-loved classic; Polpo. A cookbook gifted to me by Stealth that features Venetian inspired recipes from the London-based restaurant chain that, as I sit writing this, I realise I still haven't actually ever visited. Although Spuntino (RIP), where I remember spending a perfect afternoon with Stealth and several negronis, was a favourite.
In fact, it's such a firm favourite that it turns out I have already written about it on this very blog, way back in 2013. Which feels like a lifetime ago now (in fact, despite priding myself on my elephant-like memory, I did actually have to search back to check and it seems I made a fennel and chickpea soup I have absolutely no recollection of). I also particularly liked the picture of a negroni, in the snow on my front lawn.
One dish that I really wanted to try was the fritto misto. Squid rings, whitebait and shell on prawns, dusted in flour and dipped into a mixture of egg whites and sparkling water before being deep fried in vegetable oil and served with a spritz of fresh lemon. What could go wrong?
Well, pretty much everything. But I did manage to cobble together all the ingredients (more difficult than it may sound in the midst of a pandemic) and cook it - along with some sticks of courgette, which also feature on the Polpo menu as a popular side order - and get everything in and out of a boiling cauldron of oil without any serious burns occurring. I think it was almost worth it as I ate the fruits of my labour in the garden, along with a chilled vino blanco.
There were also some simpler options, aided and abetted by top class ingredients from The Italian Shop in Maidenhead, which is an Aladdin's cave of wonderfulness, and has helped keep me sane on essential shopping trips to buy pasta and fruit and veg (and cannolis).
First a bruschetta (on homemade sourdough) with stracchino cheese - a fresh cheese made of cow's milk that was a first for me. Slightly chewy, I'd liken it to a cheese spread on steroids. Which is a pretty great thing. The recipe paired it with fennel salami and fresh figs, and it was the perfect mix of salty, creamy, crunchy and sweet.
I also dusted the mandolin off and (carefully) cut radishes and fennel into wafer thin slices, which I then draped over a pile of fresh Sicilian ricotta, topped with chopped fresh mint leaves. The ricotta was transcendental; like eating a tangy cloud of loveliness, set off with the fresh bite from the veg.
Of course, I couldn't neglect the classic Polpo meatballs and tomato sauce. If you came to visit Chez Famy circa 2013, there was a pretty high chance you were going to get a bowl of this. In fact, there's a pretty high chance you still might.
I still make the sauce (which is still my favourite) in exactly the same way with three tins of tomatoes (occasionally, I also throw in a few fresh ones, if it's the right time of year and I've got them to hand), an onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, a glug of olive oil, a pinch of sugar and a pinch of chilli flakes. Salt and black pepper to taste. after it's finished cooking, I add fresh oregano from the garden and whizz with the stick blender until it resembles a certain well known brand of tinned tomato soup.
I'm still not sure why something so simple is so quite so good; but it is. At Polpo they serve a plate of the meatballs with the sauce and a toothpick and let you get on with it, but I prefer to make mine slightly smaller than the recipe and serve with spaghetti and fresh flat leaf parsley, which is growing in abundance on my patio at the moment. There aren't many dishes I make more than once, but this has remained a firm favourite. Stay tuned for the 2027 update, to see if it's still on the menu.