After writing reviews for the last couple of posts, it feels good to finally have got some cooking done again. Although I love having chilled out days off, I also love filling them experimenting with new things. Over the past few weeks I have been really getting into Italian cooking, having watched Simon Hopkinson and Theo Randall on the television and bought the River Cafe cookbooks. I just love the attitude to food that this type of cooking has, where it’s all about the flavours and quality of ingredients. Some of my best food memories are tucking into a bowl of pasta or a big rustic salad, so I’m excited to discover more!
It was whilst watching Simon Hopkinson that I found out about gnudi. These are small ricotta dumplings that are gently poached to form little hot cheesy domes. What more could you want! I was desperate to try these out, and thought that they would work perfectly in this dish. Ricotta is naturally quite a bland cheese that needs flavouring, and it balances the strong olive crumb and lamb sauce in this dish with it’s lightness. Although you have to make them the day before cooking, they only take 10 minutes and are really easy. They would be perfect for making in bulk when cooking for numbers, and only need minutes to finish on the day. I will definitely be trying out other recipes with them in the future.
With Italian cooking in particular, the food is mostly really simple, placing emphasis on choosing the best quality ingredients possible. With things like mozzarella, olive oils and in this case, ricotta, there is a stark difference in taste from the cheap produce found in the supermarkets to what you can get from specialist shops and delis. To source my ricotta I went to my local cheese mecca, La Fromagerie in Highbury. I rarely need an excuse to visit and smell that intense waft as you walk through the door, and on this occasion they failed to disappoint. I got home with a ricotta with much better flavour, and important to this recipe, texture. The stuff you find in supermarkets seem to be on the wetter side, which will make it much more difficult when rolling the gnudi.
Lamb neck fillet might not be top of everyone’s list when thinking of cuts to use, but it packs a lovely flavour and is quite reasonably priced. Ignore the slow cooking advice given on the internet and cook it quickly for a pink centre, which will give tender and succulent results. As is important with cooking most meats, allow time to rest properly. This will also give you time to finish all of the other elements to the dish before plating up. When buying the meat, ask your butcher for any lamb bones and trim. They will make your sauce so much better and won’t cost very much.
The use of charlock flowers might seem a bit weird or unnecessary, but they add to the dish both visually and with their subtle, mustardy taste. I came across them by accident at the Stoke Newington farmers market at the weekend, but if you can’t get hold of them then peashoots alone will be fine.
For the lamb:
2 lamb’s neck fillets, excess fat removed
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
For the gnudi:
200g good ricotta
30g parmesan, finely grated
2 tbsp fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/2 lemon, zest only
Salt and pepper
Semolina, for dusting
For the sauce:
200g-300g lamb bones and trim, cut into small pieces
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled but kept whole
10 sprigs thyme
1 large glass dry white wine
500g lamb stock
Salt and pepper
For the olives:
100g good black olives, stones removed
For the peas:
2 handfuls fresh peas, podded and shelled
Salt and pepper
For the crispy mint leaves:
12 mint leaves
4 tbsp vegetable oil
Extra virgin olive oil
Make the gnudi 24 hours before needed. Mix the ricotta with the parmesan, herbs and lemon zest in a bowl and taste. Add seasoning if needed. Pour a good layer of semolina into a shallow tray. Carefully roll small balls out of the ricotta mixture that are slightly larger than a raspberry, then place them in the tray and dust with the semolina. Repeat until the mixture is rolled, then cover and put in the fridge.
Also cook the olives in advance. Set to oven to 80ºC and scatter the pitted olives on a greaseproof lined oven tray. Put in the oven for 8-10 hours, or until dried through. When ready, blitz in a food processor until a fine crumb. Set aside until needed.
To make the sauce, take the bones and trim out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Heat up a large skillet pan to a hot temperature and add a little oil. Season the bones and sear all sides until very well browned. Turn the pan down slightly and add the shallot, garlic and thyme and fry again until coloured. Turn the heat back up and add the white wine, and allow to bubble and reduce by half. Pour in the lamb stock and slowly reduce until the sauce is thickened and about 150ml is left. Strain through a fine sieve into a small saucepan, cover and set aside for finishing later.
While the sauce is cooking, pod and shell the peas.
Heat up a small pan with the vegetable oil for the mint leaves. When hot, quickly fry the mint leaves for about 30 seconds, turning occasionally, then remove carefully and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside until later.
Take the lamb out of the fridge to come to room temperature.
Fill a medium saucepan with well salted water and bring to the boil. When it is nearly boiling, heat up a dry large non-stick pan to a high heat for the lamb.
To cook the lamb, season on all sides and rub well with oil. When the pan is hot place the lamb in the pan and cook quickly on all sides until well browned. When the lamb is coloured, add the butter to the pan and baste. Carefully control the temperature of the pan to not burn the lamb, and keep touching the meat to tell how well it is cooked as you would when cooking steak. After about 5 minutes the lamb should be cooked, remove from the pan onto a board and allow to rest for another 5 minutes. Once rested, slice into thin rounds.
While the lamb is resting gently reheat the sauce and stir in the butter. Taste and season if needed.
At the same time cook the gnudi in the boiling water. Carefully shake off any excess semolina and drop into the pan. Turn the heat down to a gentler boil and poach for 4-5 minutes, until they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a warm plate and keep warm until you plate up.
Also cook the peas. Add the butter to the same pan as the lamb was cooked in with 2 tbsp water. When melted pour in the peas and cook for a minute or two on a medium heat until tender.
Dress the peashoots in a small bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil.
To plate up, arrange slices of the lamb onto the plate and put the gnudi amongst them. Spoon over some of the peas and them a good amount of sauce. Place the mint leaves, peashoots and charlock flowers around the edge of the meat and sprinkle over a good pinch of the olive crumb.