I've known and worked with Russell Norman for several years and we both left the Caprice Holdings ship at much the same time to set up on our own. It seems like we have both been racing against each other to find new pockets of London and interesting buildings, and I would like to think that we have stayed in close proximity to each other, which can only be healthy for business.
But enough about Russell and let's move on to the inspiring young talent, Florence Knight, who is also the subject of this week's column. She is the 26-year-old head chef of Polpetto, Russell's soon-to-be-relocated Venetian restaurant that nestled above the French House in London's Soho for nearly two years. After studying at the London College of Fashion, she changed direction to train at Leith's Cookery School before working with legendary baker Richard Bertinet.
Her love of simplicity has inspired her menus at Polpetto and her forthcoming, debut cookery book is to be published by Saltyard Books. Some of Florence's recipes also appear in Russell's new book, Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts), published by Bloomsbury. Here, Florence and Russell introduce us to some of their favourite dishes.
Warm octopus salad
Russell: Octopuses aren't something your fishmonger will necessarily have as a matter of course. You might have to ask him in advance so that he can order one for you. You need a small beast for this recipe, probably about the size of a grapefruit, and you need to soften him up. You do this simply by freezing and then thawing the octopus. This breaks down the toughness in the cellular structure of the flesh. Or buy one already frozen.
1 medium octopus
1 fennel bulb, cut in half
1 onion, cut in half
2 celery stalks, cut roughly
A handful of roughly chopped parsley stalks
3 medium waxy potatoes, peeled
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1tsp chilli flakes
A handful of chopped parsley
Flaky sea salt
Ground black pepper
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1tbsp lemon juice
In a very large pan, boil the octopus in unseasoned water on a medium heat with the fennel, onion, parsley stalks and celery until tender enough to push a fork easily through the flesh. This should take no more than one hour. Remove from the cooking water and allow it to cool.
Cut the cooked, cooled octopus into bite-sized pieces, discarding the eyes, beak and the mush inside the head. Once the pieces are cut, you can rinse in clean water.
Cut the peeled potatoes into bite-sized pieces and boil. Be careful not to overcook – they should not disintegrate.
In a large mixing bowl, gently combine the octopus and potatoes with the garlic, parsley and chilli flakes. Dress with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice.
Transfer to a large serving plate and cover with clingfilm. You can then set it aside in your fridge and when you are ready to serve, put it in a microwave on full for 30 seconds so that the potatoes and octopus gain a little warmth.
Broad bean, mint and ricotta bruschetta
Russell: This is one of the most popular dishes on the summer menu at Polpo. The colours are such strong indicators of the flavours that are to follow but, despite the assertiveness of the ingredients, it is still a subtle and delicate combination. This dish is a joy to prepare. Ricotta is readily available from Italian specialists and even in good supermarkets now. And I don't know about you, but podding and skinning broad beans is one of my favourite kitchen pastimes.
2 thick slices of sourdough or soda bread
A good handful of podded broad beans
3tbsp fresh ricotta
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ clove of garlic
The zest of one lemon and a little juice
10 mint leaves, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
Place the broad beans into boiling water for 5 minutes, remove and plunge into cold water. Then drain and skin them. Put them in a small bowl and dress them in the olive oil, the zest, a little lemon juice, most of the mint, salt and pepper. Toast or grill the slices of bread so that they are crunchy on the outside but still have a bit of give when squeezed. Rub one side of each slice with the cut side of the garlic. The clove will melt into the bread's hot surface. Spread the fresh ricotta, with salt and pepper added to taste, on to the hot and prepared bread. Top with the broadf beans and garnish with the remaining chopped mint.
Raw razor clams, white currants and fennel
Serves 4 as a starter
Florence: This dish reminds me of my first research trip to Venice. Russell took me to a restaurant called Alle Testiere, where we had the tiniest local razor clams simply prepared in olive oil, white wine and garlic.
I've always loved this neglected bi-valve; in this version, the accompaniment of fennel and mint gives this dish a delicate, feminine quality.
8 large razor clams, alive and cleaned
1 punnet of white currants
1 head of fennel
3 sprigs of mint
The juice of 1 lemon
A pinch of salt
1½tbsp olive oil
½ a red chilli, halved, seeded, roughly chopped
Run the clams under cold running water and gently prise the shells open with a butter knife to reveal the live clam. Remove and discard the gritty sinew at each end of the clam and the black sac in the middle. Rinse again under cold water and slice each clam at an angle.
Remove the outer layer and root of the fennel and thinly slice the bulb with a mandolin or knife. Tear the mint leaves and pick a few white currants off the stem.
Mix together the clam, fennel, chilli, mint and white currants and dress with the lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Be gentle so nothing gets crushed; scatter over your plates.