It’s Becca’s birthday today and for tonight we’re booked into St John for dinner, which I’m very excited about, as it will weirdly be the first time I’ve ever actually had a full dinner at the original St John, which is, after all, one of the great holy places of My Kind of Food. I’ve eaten at Bread & Wine several times, and had snacks at the bar at St John many times, and joined friends at their table in the restaurant on occasion, but never actually had a table of my own. Until tonight. Can’t wait.
Last night, as a pre birthday treat I made her one of her all time favourites – gnocchi with oxtail. Normally I’d make up a big enough stew for two meals, serve it up as it comes first time round with mashed potatoes, then use the left over stew to make the sauce, and the leftover mash to make the gnocchi. This time round I already had mash left over from sausage and mash a couple of nights ago, and with dinner at St John to come I thought we could run the risk of oxtail overload, so I just made enough of the stew for a single meal. I cooked it in the morning and let it cool, then just stripped the meat from the bones to turn it into sauce for the gnocchi, but the recipe below is exactly the same if you choose to serve it as a good old stew – just don’t bother stripping the meat from the bones. Always best though to make it in advance and let it cool – preferably overnight – before reheating prior to serving. Any stew will just gain depth of flavour the longer it’s left.
The recipe is my version of an oxtail stew that Becca and I had and loved in a Jewish restaurant in the Ghetto district of Rome last year (Giggetto al Portico d'Ottavia - deep fried artichokes a speciality, and a new essential stop for me on any future trip to Rome). That was almost exactly a year ago, in fact, on a trip to celebrate her last birthday. I only just realised that. How romantic does that make me appear, entirely by accident? Never mind, I'll take those romantic boyfriend points...
2 sticks celery
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon
2 cloves garlic
6 sage leaves
1 bay leaf
500ml ale (or guiness, or red wine)
Dust the oxtail in seasoned flour (seasoned with salt, pepper, English mustard powder, paprika) and brown all the pieces in the casserole with a little olive oil, then set aside.
Add the bacon, cut into postage stamp sized pieces, the garlic and the chilli (both finely sliced, then the sage leaves, then the carrot, onion and celery. Let everything cook together for five minutes or so, then add the oxtail back to the pan.
Warm the ale in a separate pan and pour it over. It should roughly three quarter cover the meat and veg. Throw in the bay leaf. Cover the pan, bring it all to the simmer on the stove, then whack the into the oven and leave it to cook long and low – 150 for three hours would be good, or even lower and longer if you have the time and an oven that reliably goes down to lower temperatures (which is the one drawback of my own, which otherwise I love). And don't worry if you take it out and it looks drastically over reduced, with all the liquid evaporated, leaving just a sticky, fat slicked mess - just add another glass of the ale or wine, or a couple of ladlefuls of hot stock (beef or chicken) if you have some to hand; that sticky mess will come right back to being a slick, unctuous, velvety sauce, full of concentrated flavours, which is just what we're looking for. In fact I find that over reducing and "rescuing" like this actually produces the very best results with most, if not all, slow cooked stews and casseroles, presumably due to that concentration of flavours, so much so that I'd be inclined to incorporate it officially into the technique - particularly if you're cooking the stew to be eaten the same day (the effect of concentrating the flavours being similar to that of leaving it to stand for 24 hours).
Gnocchi (for 2)
400g mashed potato
100g (+ a bit extra) semolina flour
grating of nutmeg
4 sage leaves (finely chopped)
A little olive oil
Just stir the chopped sage leaves and a grating of nutmeg into the potato, then add the semolina a bit at a time and blend it all together, using the olive oil to keep the mix elastic but not gloopy as you go, and adding enough semolina to produce a firm, kneadable mix (you may need a little more or less than 100g, depending on the consistency of the potato).
Sprinkle some extra flour onto a board and knead the dough on it, shape it into a ball, then divide the ball into two, and roll each half of the dough into two long sausages about an inch in diameter. Flatten the sausages slightly and pattern the top surface with the tines of a fork, then chop into inch sections.
You can cook the gnocchi straight away, but best to make in advance and refrigerate them for a few hours which helps to firm them up and retain their consistency in the cooking. Best way to store them is in a single layer on a plate or in Tupperware, with an extra sprinkling of the flour to help stop them sticking to the container and each other.
To cook, bring a big (the bigger the better – give ‘em space) pan of well salted water to a gentle boil and lower the gnocchi into it. After little more than a minute they should start bobbing up to the surface, at which point, basically, they’re done. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon as they bob up, and add them to the sauce.