Wednesday, September 5, 2012

POLPO Cookbook - A Journey

A few weeks ago I was the lucky winner of a copy of the Polpo cookbook. The prize came from a draw run by Fiona Beckett, author of the wonderful Matching Food and Wine website, and wine writer for the Guardian. Fiona's website is a treasure trove of information and some cracking competitions too.

The Polpo book is subtitled 'A Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts)' which had me intrigued as  I know nothing of Venetian food other than what I have seen on various TV programs. The story of the author's love for Venice and its food and their ultimate opening of a Venetian restaurant,  Polpo (now more than one) in London was truly engaging.

I totally respect chefs who write accessible cookbooks and I have a lot of chefs' books on my shelves that I cook from, but I am in no doubt that in many cases if they were to write out all of the instructions for one of their signature dishes it would run to many pages and take many hours of work. In all honesty even if I could source the quality of ingredients needed I stand little chance of reproducing the sort of dishes that I am likely to eat in their restaurants.  Elements of them maybe, but never the whole experience. 

Polpo, however, really offers the chance to cook like they do. There are some lines in the introduction to the book that really speak volumes to any lover of pared back simplicity: 'We have a rule in the restaurant that a dish is ready to put on the menu only when we have taken out as many of the ingredients as possible'. There is a lovely quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: 'Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away'.

My eyes lit up when I read the line 'Polpo is a small plate restaurant, all the dishes are designed to be shared'. I have always had a grazing mentality towards food and thankfully my other half is always happy to share dishes, and choose items from a menu which allows us to sample as much as possible. It is just so much more fun than sitting down to a huge plate of one thing.

As the Polpo book is full of recipes suitable as sharing plates it is a brilliant source of ideas when you want a light but delicious snack or meal. Some of the recipes do not even require cooking; they are just perfect combinations of flavours as evidenced by my first dip into the book with the Zucchini, Basil and Parmesan Salad. The introduction to this recipe described it as 'a startlingly simple salad that is delightful and surprising'. I made this for a Sunday supper following a traditional Sunday lunch that we had eaten out and it was just the most perfect way to enjoy a light dish when you were not really hungry but love food so much you did not want to skip a meal.

So how do the authors achieve this transformation of ingredients?  I have made many a zucchini salad in my time, as the garden crop needs using up, but none of them have ever before passed the 'so what' test. Well perhaps not surprisingly the answer is in the detail. The recipe very clearly explains at the start that the trick is to slice the zucchini wafer thin and not to overdress the salad. Two very simple instructions, but critical none the less.

Every recipe has an introduction that entices you into cooking it, and nudges you in the direction of achieving a perfect result. What more could you ask from a book other than such attention to your own success with a dish the author loves and wants to share.

I have now worked through a good handful of recipes including the Warm Duck Salad (note you will get a much better presentation if you follow the recipe carefully which I sadly didn't):

I hope the authors will forgive me for trying this with fresh duck breast rather than duck leg confit. I had a bought a small pair of duck breasts from a local farmers market and wanted a light dish on a hot day. Neither did I have wet walnuts but got as close as I could. This made  a stunning light lunch with a little sourdough bread also from the market. 

Despite the wet summer my rosemary bushes have put on bountiful and fragrant growth, and a fine recipe to showcase this herb is the Roast Potatoes and Rosemary. The potatoes are cut relatively small making them a perfect snack on their own or an elegant side dish.  

And last night I made the Zucchino, Mint and Chilli Pizzetta. The zucchini, chilli and mint all came from the garden so I knew they were perfectly fresh. In making the pizza dough I kneaded for the full time suggested and actually checked the wall clock rather than my internal boredom monitor. The hardest part is shaping the dough into a good even and thin disk.

So here is the dish just before it goes into the oven:

And now just out from the oven but before I sprinkled the fresh mint over the top:

The combination of mint and chilli worked incredibly well. 

As I have no experience of Venetian food I feel like the book takes you on a mystery tour every time, but as each recipe delights I find myself wanting to quickly sign up for the next journey. I shall be in London for a day at the end of the month and am rather hoping I can make it over to one of the restaurants to sample the total experience. 

Thank you POLPO and Fiona Beckett 

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