FOOD & DRINK: OUT WITH THE OLD

New ingredients, new tastes. Start the New Year `cucina rustica' style, with recipes from Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. By Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
To greet the New Year we have enlisted the help of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. The River Cafe cooks have conjured up a celebratory dinner of a Bollito Misto made from goose, duck, pheasant and chicken, with celery, carrots, lentils, horseradish, dragoncella and mostarda di cremona; preceded by an antipasti of bruschetta, braised chilli, spinach, baked radicchio and chick-peas; with a rich cake to follow, a chocolate, hazelnut and chestnut torte with dry marsala ice-cream.

This has been an outstanding year for Rose and Ruth. With the second of their River Cafe cookbooks (serialised in the Independent on Sunday), they have now notched up world sales of 280,000 for both books combined - a phenomenal number considering they didn't have any lift-off from an accompanying television series. But that will change in May when they present their first television series.

It's conceivable they will do for unpronounceable vegetables what Delia Smith did for cranberries. Neither Rose nor Ruth are vegetarians, but they eat little meat. They recoil from battery chickens and animals bred intensively. But they are happy eating game birds, pheasant, partridge or pigeon.

Their apprehension about food is not confined to meat. They share a sense of alarm about vegetables pumped with artificial fertilisers and sprayed with poisonous insecticides. Consequently, as far as possible, they work with organic ingredients. Most of their vegetables are grown for them in Southampton by Sunnyfield. Their herbs are specially grown for them too, off the M25 in Middlesex. Organic? "I doubt if they are organic," laughs Rose. "They are on the flightpath to Heathrow," says Ruth. But they taste well enough, salad herbs such as mustardy rocket and perfumed basil. Safety apart, organic food tastes better, they insist.

The New Yorker has claimed that the River Cafe serves the best Italian food in Europe, which makes them smile, since they see themselves as champions of la cucina rustica; they follow the style of family cooking based on good, fresh ingredients. In Italy this means choice, well-aged Parmesan cheese and the most delicate, salty dry Parma ham; extra virgin olive oil with a bite to it, the best pasta and polenta and risotto rice.

Sourcing the best ingredients is as important as cooking them, Rose points out. Take the difference in flavour between the new season's pulses and last year's. For example, new chick-peas are nutty, sweet and smooth, with tender skins. Old chick-peas have hard skins.

Earlier in the year, an exasperated reader wrote from north Norfolk to ask how they could make a River Cafe vegetable soup when no store in Norfolk stocked (and no farmer grew) such a vegetable as cavolo nero. And had never met anyone who'd seen such a thing.

In fact, Rose and Ruth had persuaded Sainsbury's to stock it (they do, but only in a dozen or so of their more metropolitan stores). Rose and Ruth are unapologetic. It's not as if cavolo nero is some fragile Mediterranean plant.

It grows here, in Hammersmith in fact, outside the glass-fronted wall of the River Cafe. Cavolo nero is a leaf vegetable that grows in pots, tastes like cabbage but looks more like horseradish. It is no more exotic than cime di rapa, the top of a rape plant, which we know better as the mustardy brassica that gives us the seed from which we extract a pungent oil.

It would be wrong to assume that the vegetables they use at the River Cafe are all aliens, even if the ways they cook them are new to us. Their recipes feature potatoes, onions, beetroot, carrots, spinach, broad beans, peas and asparagus as much as aubergine, zucchini (courgettes), red and green peppers. Only slightly less familiar are globe artichokes, fennel, chicory, sweet potato and squash. (Greek, Turkish and Lebanese stores are good sources for these ingredients.)

Ruth and Rose use all these, and especially salad leaves such as rocket, trevise, raw spinach, and chard, young beet leaves and sorrel, wild dandelion hearts and lambs' lettuce.

In Tuscany a vegetable dish often stands on its own, served after soup or pasta instead of meat or fish. This is the direction Ruth and Rose are planning to go, for the ways of cooking vegetables separately and in combinations are infinite.

Many restaurants in Rome have bowls of raw and cooked vegetables on display as you go in; some may have been boiled, ready to be dressed with oil and lemon, such as broccoli. Some will have been simmered slowly in oil, perhaps red or yellow peppers. Or chargrilled - peppers, aubergine, zucchini, dressed with sea salt and oil. Or deep-fried, a fritto misto of artichoke hearts, zucchini and zucchini flowers. Cavolo nero or cime di rapa both lend themselves to braising - blanched in boiling water a few minutes, drained, then simmered in oil with garlic.

Nor are the techniques specifically geared to summer eating. Winter vegetables may be slowly baked - best of all in a wood-fired oven, their current passion. This produces sweet-tasting, melting-soft tomatoes, onions, beetroot, pumpkin, sweet potato, artichokes, porcini.

And to round off, a toast to the Year of the Vegetable then, 1998? Happy New Year!

BRUSCHETTA

Serves 6

6 x 1cm/12in thick slices of pugliese or sourdough bread

1 large garlic clove, peeled

extra virgin olive oil

Toast the bread on both sides then lightly rub with garlic. Drizzle with olive oil.

BRAISED WHOLE RED CHILLIES IN OLIVE OIL

Serves 6

12 large fleshy red chillies, washed, with stalks intact

2 cloves garlic and 1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt

100ml/312fl oz extra virgin olive oil

Prick the chillies. Place in saucepan with the garlic and just cover with the oil.

Heat gently and slowly simmer for 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Allow to cool in the oil.

To serve, remove from the oil and split open. Remove some of the seeds.

BRAISED SPINACH

Serves 6

2kg/4lb 8oz spinach

4 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pick through the spinach; discard any old rough leaves. Wash thoroughly. Blanch in boiling water for three minutes, then drain.

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat oil and add garlic. Allow to colour, then add the spinach. Toss together, season.

BAKED RADICCHIO

Serves 6

2 medium hard heads of radicchio

Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons of aged balsamic vinegar

juice of half a lemon

1 small bunch of fresh marjoram, leaves taken from stalk

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Trim the outside rough leaves from the radicchio heads and cut each in half at the base. Then cut into quarters, always from the base to keep each quarter attached at the stem.

Place the radicchio quarters in a lightly oiled baking dish. Season with the Maldon sea salt and freshly ground pepper and bake in the preheated oven for approximately 20 minutes or until leaves are crisp and the stems are al dente.

Allow to cool. Dress with the lemon juice, olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with fresh marjoram.

CHICK-PEAS

Serves 6

175g/6oz dried chick-peas, soaked overnight in cold water

1 large potato peeled

13 head of garlic

14 head of celery

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

extra virgin olive oil

Put chick-peas into a saucepan with the potato, celery and garlic. Bring to the boil and skim surface. Turn heat down and simmer for one to one a half hours.

Drain chick-peas, season with salt and pepper and toss with the olive oil and serve up with the bruschetta, chillies spinach and radicchio.

BOLLITO MISTO

This alternative recipe for the traditional Bollito Misto (the classic dish served in Italy on New Year's Eve) can be made up of any or all of the suggested birds.

Serves 10

1 small goose (3.6kg/8lb approximately), with as much of the fat from the inside removed as possible

2 small gressingham ducks (1.35kg/3lb each)

1 large free-range chicken (2.7kg/6lb)

2 cock pheasants (1.35kg/3lb each) wrapped in lard or bacon

For the stock:

Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 heads of celery, hearts and leaves, halved lengthways

2 red onions, quartered

9 organic carrots, scrubbed and halved lengthways

8 bayleaves

2 bunches of fresh thyme

2 heads of garlic, quartered

1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon white peppercorns

For the goose, duck and pheasant stock only:

800g/1lb 12oz tin of peeled plum tomatoes

50g/112oz dried porcini

To serve:

2 heads of celery, hearts and leaves, halved lengthways

12 organic carrots, scrubbed and halved lengthways

To cook the goose: three hours before serving, place the goose with the neck, gizzards and heart with a third of the stock ingredients as well as half of the tomatoes and porcini in a saucepan with enough water to completely submerge the goose. Bring to the boil. Turn the heat down as low as possible and simmer gently for two and a half hours or until the goose is cooked. Test for doneness by pulling the leg from the body - it should come away easily.

To cook the ducks and pheasants: two hours before serving - fill a saucepan large enough to hold both of the ducks and the pheasants with enough water to keep the birds completely submerged. Add another third of the stock ingredients as well as the rest of the tomatoes and porcini and bring the water to the boil.

Remove the fat from the inside of the ducks and season the cavities generously. Place into each duck a halved carrot, a piece of celery, a bayleaf, a sprig of thyme and a quarter of garlic. Wrap each duck in a clean tea towel and tie securely with string. Place the ducks into the boiling water together with the larded pheasants and weigh down to keep them submerged. Simmer gently for two hours.

To cook the chicken: one hour before serving - put the chicken into a saucepan large enough to cover it with water and add remainder of the stock ingredients. Bring the water to the boil and simmer gently for about one hour.

Twenty minutes before serving add the quartered carrots and celery and season the stock at this stage.

To serve, test the chicken for doneness. Remove the chicken, celery and carrots from the stock and keep warm. Strain the stock and check for seasoning.

Remove all of the rest of the birds from their cooking liquids, unwrap the ducks and keep all the birds warm.

Cut thick slices (1cm/12in) from the breast and legs of the birds and arrange all the meats on a large, warm serving plate and pour over plenty of the seasoned chicken stock and arrange the carrots and celery around the meat.

Serve with salsa di dragoncello, salso di rafano, mostarda di cremona (mustard fruits) and lenticchie (see below).

SAUCES FOR BOLLITO MISTO

TARRAGON/DRAGONCELLO

half a ciabatta loaf

65ml/212fl oz red wine vinegar

yolks of 2 hard boiled eggs

100g/4oz fresh tarragon, stalks removed, chopped

10 salted anchovy fillets, (rinsed under cold running water, fillets carefully pulled away from bone), chopped

50g/112oz salted capers (rinsed under running water), chopped

120-175ml/4-6fl oz extra virgin olive oil

Tear the bread into small pieces, and soak in the vinegar for 20 minutes. Remove, squeeze dry and chop, ideally with a mezzaluna (mincing knife).

Mash egg yolks with a fork. Very gently combine bread, tarragon, anchovies, capers and egg in a bowl. Stir in the oil.

HORSERADISH/RAFANO

200g/7oz fresh horseradish, peeled

1 loaf of ciabatta bread

4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

150ml/5fl oz olive oil

Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove then discard the crust from the bread. Tear the bread into small pieces, then pulse-chop in a food processor to coarse breadcrumbs. Place breadcrumbs in a bowl, then add vinegar and enough water to moisten the breadcrumbs. Put aside for 10 minutes before squeezing as dry as possible. Grate horseradish finely with a cheese grater. Combine with garlic and squeezed breadcrumbs, then slowly add olive oil, stirring continuously as for mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper.

LENTICCHIE

These small lentils need no soaking.

Serves 6

225g/8oz lentilles du Puy or Castelluccio lentils

12 bulb garlic, cut horizontally

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

2-3 tablespoons chopped herbs (oregano, basil, summer savory, mint or marjoram)

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash the lentils and place in a large saucepan. Cover with plenty of cold water, add the garlic and bring to the boil. Simmer very gently for about 20 minutes or until the lentils are al dente. Drain, discarding the garlic and toss the lentils in the olive oil and lemon juice. Stir in the herbs and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve warm.

CHOCOLATE, CHESTNUT AND HAZELNUT TORTE

Serves 8-10

350g/14oz fresh chestnuts (unpeeled weight)

200ml/10fl oz milk

320g/13oz shelled hazelnuts

300g/12oz Callebaut chocolate, or other bitter-sweet dark chocolate with minimum of 68 per cent cocoa butter

150g/6oz unsalted butter

250g/10oz caster sugar

5 eggs, separated

Preheat oven to 300F/150C/Gas 2. Butter a 24cm (10in) round spring-release cake tin and line with greaseproof paper.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Score and peel the chestnuts across the round side of their outer shells using a small sharp knife. Drop them into the boiling water and boil for 15 to 20 minutes according to size. Remove a few chestnuts at a time to shell them; the shell will come off easily so long as they are kept hot in the cooking water. Squeeze each chestnut to crack the shell open, then prize nuts out of the shell. Remove bitter inner skin. They should weigh approximately 300g (10oz) now.

Roast the hazelnuts in the pre-heated oven until their skins become crisp and the nuts begin to colour, about 20 minutes. Place the hot nuts in a tea towel, fold over and rub on a flat surface in the towel. This removes most of the skins. Set aside.

Melt half of the chocolate. Simmer the chestnuts in the milk to soften, about 10 minutes. Drain and discard the milk. Chop the hazelnuts, the other half of the chocolate and chestnuts together in a food processor. Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until pale and light. Add the egg yolks one by one, then the melted chocolate and finally the chocolate and nut mixture.

Beat the egg whites in an electric mixer until they form soft peaks. Fold about a quarter of the whites into the stiff chocolate and nut mixture to loosen it a little and then very carefully fold in the remainder of the egg whites. Spoon into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes until the cake has set.

MARSALA ICE-CREAM

Serves 10

10 egg yolks

200g/10oz caster sugar

350ml/12fl oz dry marsala or dry sherry

450ml/15fl oz double cream

Place the egg yolks and sugar in an electric mixer and beat until light and fluffy, at least 10 minutes. Add 100ml (312fl oz) of the dry marsala and transfer the mixture to a bowl that will fit over a large saucepan of boiling water. The water should not touch the bowl. Whisk continuously until the mixture comes to the boil - this will take at least 30 minutes.

Stir in remaining marsala and leave to cool. If you are using an electric ice-cream machine, add cream and churn. If freezing directly in the freezer, beat the cream to soft peaks, fold into mixture, then freeze in a suitable container.

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