Monday, 29 November 2010

Veal: Yes we can (and why we should...)

‘We shouldn’t eat veal, should we, Sebastian?’, is a question people almost never ask me.  But I know that many of them think it.  And, like many, indeed most, of the questions people ask, the answer is not as simple as they assume.  No, we should not eat some veal, just as we shouldn’t eat some chicken and some pork, but while most people are familiar with free range chicken and outdoor raised pork, and (the carnivores at least) recognise these as good things, there is still a widespread assumption that all veal is a bad thing.  Which it isn’t, not if we accept the eating of meat at all.  If you are a carnivore, and perhaps more particularly a consumer of dairy products, the properly ethical position to be taken is  - and this may be uncomfortable for some - probably not only, yes, we should eat veal, but almost certainly also that we should eat more veal*.

There is a good case (that’s good as in logically and morally consistent, not good as in one I necessarily agree with) to be made against all consumption of veal, but in order to make it you’d better be, or be prepared to become, not just a vegetarian, but a vegan, because the argument to be had there is to not do with how we feel about the meat industry, but about the dairy industry**. Rose Prince, in her excellent book, The New English Kitchen goes so far as to cover veal not in her chapter on meat, but under the heading of Dairy, which I think is slightly perverse, but not so very much.  Because veal, while obviously meat, is essentially a by-product of the dairy industry. 

A dinner table with no veal.
As long as there is a dairy industry there will be excess production of calves, and if nobody’s going to eat them, those calves aren’t going to be sent away to live on a farm, like your mum and dad told you your old dog was when you were a kid.  Your old dog wasn’t sent away to live on a farm either.  And there is no Santa Claus.  Sorry, once you get started it’s hard to stop.  The point is that the dairy industry relies on calves being born, most of which (and pretty much all the males) are always going to be slaughtered whether we eat veal or not.  So if we want milk, and cheese, we really should be eating veal as well.  Otherwise all those calves, which are going to die anyway, will simply go to waste.  And as long as we eat pink, or rose, veal, which British veal has always tended to be anyway, then the animal welfare issues that are commonly, and inaccurately, associated with all veal production, do not arise.  The thing to avoid is white veal, the meat of calves fed exclusively on milk (or, more to the point, milk “products”) and kept in the dark, in spaces too confined to move, in order to keep the meat pale and soft.  Why anyone thinks this is a good idea is quite beyond me, because – quite apart from the unspeakable cruelty - the meat produced this way really does taste, at best, of nothing, at worst of stale milk.  I find it vaguely, and unsettlingly reminiscent of that old free school milk taste and smell that still haunts me from my infancy, and which to this day means that an innocent glass of milk is one of the few things widely consumed by mankind that I cannot even countenance passing my lips. That, of course is a question of taste, and, it must be acknowledged, that the notorious crates commonly associated with (most commonly Dutch) white veal production were banned by the EU in 2007.  Neither of these acknowledgements, however, make intensively reared white veal OK.

As a rule the pinker the meat, the less intensive the rearing, and the more natural, and therefore 'happier' the life of the calf that produced it.  So, as we've established that the calves are going to be born anyway, the more ‘good’ veal we eat, the less incentive there is for dairy farmers to either destroy them out of hand, or to ship them out to the producers of ‘bad’ veal.  It's one of the clearest examples I can bring to mind of the idea, first expressed to me by my sister Helen, a re-converted carnivore, that if your concern is the welfare of animals, it is much more effective to be an ethical meat consumer than to be a vegetarian.  Because meat producers really don't care what people who don't buy meat think.  Choosing to buy pink veal, well sourced, is good, both in the sense that you really don’t have to feel bad about eating it - quite the opposite - and in that it tastes good - and not of stale milk from the 1970s… 

The 'good' veal I bought the other day was yet another of Waitrose’s forgotten cuts (this blog is honestly not meant to be an advert for Waitrose, it’s just I like to try new cuts of meat, and they happen to be a good local source.  And hopefully local enough to many/most(?) of my readers, because this blog is not meant to be too esoteric or ‘cheffy’ either.).  This time it was even a cut that was not only properly forgotten, I hadn’t even heard of it in the first place, or at least not the name for it.  It was labelled as veal goose skirt, and it was clearly the same cut of the calf as a skirt, or bavette steak would be of the cow – a long, thin blade of lean, fibrous meat, so called, allegedly, due to its resemblance to a goose’s wing.  It was recommended as ideal for slow cooking.  I’m sure that’s true, but I also couldn’t help but think it would be a waste.

With bavette, as with onglet, or hanger steak – a similarly lean and fibrous cut – there are basically two ways to go with the cooking of the meat to achieve a deliciously tender end result: hot and fast or slow and low.  If going the low and slow route there are so many other (generally cheaper) cuts you could use – shin, shank and shoulder, cheek or tail – that will produce as good, if not better results, then it just seems a shame not to take the hot and fast alternative, just searing it and serving it good and rare.  Particularly in the case of a veal steak which is not only similar to bavette, but is in effect a younger, more tender, more delicately flavoured bavette.

roast squash and lentil salad
golden crusted boulangere potatoes

Rose Prince, in her aforementioned book reckons that due to it’s richness, you don’t need to serve as much veal as you would beef, about 150g per portion being plenty, which turned out to be just as well, as my friends Darren and Christabel, having just moved in around the corner from us and being, as yet, without kitchen facilities came round for dinner at short notice, and the two goose skirts I’d brought home, which I’d thought might be a bit over generous for two, would, by that maths just about stretch four ways.  To make sure nobody would go hungry I made a substantial warm salad of roasted butternut squash and lentils and baked a big dish of boulangere style potatoes, with onions and beef stock, to serve alongside.

The goose skirts I salted and peppered, and rubbed in sunflower oil on both sides, got my frying pan smoking hot and seared them for just a couple of minutes a side.  I took them out to rest on a board while deglazing the pan with sherry and adding a splash of beef stock to make a gravy. I served the steaks sliced – which is always a good trick for making a small portion of meat appear more substantial – alongside the salad and potatoes.  It was plenty.  Really good.  And almost obscenely tender.

Veal goose skirt. Seared briefly, to rare. Rest and slice to serve.

* Unless your view is that we shouldn’t eat veal because calves are simply too cute and adorable and baby to eat.  But I really don’t believe that the majority of people who will happily eat lamb but have genuine concerns about veal are that hypocritical, although there will, of course, be some.  Any sample population will always have its share of self contradictory moral hypocrites, and there’s no reason to suppose that just because somebody holds a view that is reasonable, they don’t do so for incredibly stupid reasons.  The assumption that just because somebody happens to agree with you then they must necessarily be smart, is one of the most flawed one can make, on so many levels… 

** In the course of my research for this piece I have certainly not been tempted to become either vegetarian or vegan, you probably won't be surprised to discover.  I have however come to the conclusion that I will probably make more of an effort in future to buy organic milk and butter, and organic and ideally unpasteurized cheese, wherever possible.

Should we all, ultimately, agree that the dairy industry is insupportable, and veal, as a result becomes unavailable, or prohibitively expensive, that will be a shame, although stick with this blog (ignoring the post about the best toasted cheese sandwich ever) because entirely by chance, and thanks to Becca’s allergies, it could show a way forward to a bold, new dairy – but not meat, obviously – free future.  

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Smoked haddock, clams and caulicannon

Smoked haddock, poached in milk, with onions and capers, served with mash and spinach, and, to crown it all, a soft poached egg, is, to my mind, one of the finest plates of food you could ever set before me.  It’s a perfect marriage of several combinations of flavours and textures all combined.  Several perfect marriages all going off at once.  Like the perfect Moonie wedding, on a plate.  Only problem is, with Becca’s dairy allergy also covering eggs, it’s a double no-no.  We’re not having that for dinner at home any time soon.

I’m not complaining.  The compensations are many, and anyway, while there is no real substitute for the poached egg, you can poach the fish perfectly well in wine, and given that I struggle to imagine the circumstances in which I am ever likely to choose milk over wine, in any context, that’s really not going to be an issue for me.  And throw in a handful of clams - to compensate for the loss of the poached egg, if you feel the need to justify them - and you’ve got a pretty fancy looking plate of totally non-allergic (in this household) food for really very little effort. 

There’s a school of thought that would, as a rule, warn against marinading fish.  This would be on the, not entirely unreasonable, grounds that a.) the flavour of fish tends to the delicate, and you don’t want to overwhelm it; and b.) the acidity of say, lemon juice, or the alcohol in wine, will have the effect of cooking the fish while it marinades, and fish is easily enough overcooked as it is.  As I say, not unreasonable, but in the case of smoked haddock, a.) the flavour really isn’t all that fragile; and b.) the effect of the smoking is already not that dissimilar to the cold cooking effect of acid or alcohol.  More generally, I’d suggest, exactly because fish takes so little cooking, the ingredients really don’t end up spending much time in the pan together, and flavours take time to infuse and mingle, so sometimes it helps to bring them all together for a while beforehand in the form of a brief marinade.  It’s a judgement call, but that’s certainly what I’d do here.

Take an onion and cut it in half lengthways.  Depending on the size of the onion you may need both halves, but you don’t need much, so quite likely just the one half will do.  Peel it and slice it thinly but not too fine, and lay the slices down as a bed in the bottom of a shallow dish.  Place your smoked haddock fillets on the bed of onion, give them a big grind of black pepper and a tiny pinch of salt, then pour over enough white wine to cover the onion and maybe as much as half the fish.  Don’t drown it.  Leave aside for half an hour, while you prepare the clams and get your mash on the go.

To prepare the clams, rinse thoroughly under the cold tap in a colander, then leave to soak in plentiful cold water, changing that water completely and giving the clams a good stir and jiggle (discarding any that remain open) three or four times over during the same half hour your haddock is marinading, by the end of which you’ll have peeled your spuds and got them boiling and just about ready to  mash.

Now remove the haddock from the marinade and scoop out the onions and put them into a shallow casserole on a moderate heat with a little olive oil to just soften, then pour over the wine from the marinade and add a couple of teaspoons of capers (rinsed if salted).  Bring the wine to the simmer then add the fish and cover.  The fillets will only take a few minutes to cook, no more than five – just about time to mash your potatoes.  When the fillets are just done (the flesh opaque and bright white), or even half a minute before, carefully remove them (if not quite fully done they’ll finish off when you add them back at the end), and throw in the clams (about 6-8 clams per person should be about write).  Replace the lid.

Now you have time to wilt your spinach – I like to toast some pine nuts in the dry pan first, and when they’re just lightly golden add a slug of olive oil and a finely shaved clove of garlic, then throw in the spinach in great handfuls – vastly more than you appear to need wilts down to meagerness in no time.

Lift the lid of your casserole and if all the clams are open, return the fish and mix it all up with a sprinkle of fresh parsley (if not, put the lid back on, obviously, but it should only need be briefly).  Then serve the fillets of haddock with the mash and the spinach on the side and the onion, caper, wine and clam sauce over the top (picking out and discarding any clams that have remained resolutely shut at this stage).

Oh, and it goes without saying you’ll need undyed smoked haddock, the pale golden beige fillets, not the incandescent yellow stuff.  If your fishmonger only has the latter kind, I’m sorry, you need to find yourself a new fishmonger.


The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that the dish shown in the pictures, the haddock is served not with ordinary mash but with fried mash.  What is not apparent from the pictures is that this is a variant of bubble & squeak or colcannon, that is as far as I can tell, an invention of my own, although I can’t think why, or quite believe that I can possibly be the first to have done it (feel free to contact me to point out that I’m not*).  It’s mash mixed with - instead of cabbage in the case of bubble, or spring onion in the case of colcannon - cauliflower.   Caulicannon, if you will.  I have Becca to thank for the coinage.  It’s just half a head of cauliflower cut into small florets which were little more than blanched, then stirred into about 250g of left over mash and the lot fried like a potato cake.  Utterly fantastic, and just one more perfectly matched element in the whole smoked haddocky affair.

* Further research has revealed that I am indeed not the first to incorporate cauliflower into colcannon, but, weirdly, most of the previous cases I can find are of Atkins inspired lo-carb freaks who substitute the cauliflower not for the cabbage/onions but for the potato!  Plainly madness.  I (Becca) am (is) also not the first to coin the term 'caulicannon'. Anyway, something similar is cited as far back as1872, according to this.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Pork Belly 2 - pork and beans, cowboy style

As promised in my last post: pork and bean stew.  This is not fancy food, far from it, it’s essentially my take on good old basic, out of the chuck wagon cowboy pork and beans (and I don't mean Dolly Parton style), but it’s full of flavour and deeply, deeply satisfying.  Proper comfort food.  As the nights draw in, and autumn starts heading towards winter, it’s got to be one of my absolute favourite dinners.  And it’s so easy to make that expressed as a ratio of effort put in to pleasure taken out, it’s probably just about my all time favourite.  It’s easy because it consists of just five main ingredients, two of them out of a can, requires no fine chopping and no precise timings or temperature control.  It really is just bung it all in and leave it till it’s done.  Like any stew it’s best done the day before, left to cool and reheated, but because it’s so labour un-intensive and only needs one big pot, it’s a doddle to throw together while you’re cooking one night’s meal, for dinner the next, as I did while my pork belly, potatoes and celery and ratatouille were roasting away in the oven (see post below).  So it kind of feels like two meals for the effort of one.

As ever, these quantities fed two of us, but, as usual, would easily have fed three…

500g pork belly
a couple of onions (I used red onions this time, but there’d be nothing whatsoever wrong with ordinary yellow ones)
150g of chesnut mushrooms
1 x 400g tin of beans (I used borlottis but haricot or cannellini are fine too)
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
250ml of red wine
250ml of stock (chicken or beef)

First cut the belly into strips about as wide as they are thick, then dice the strips into rough cubes and get those cubes into your marinade.  Precisely what goes into your spice mix is up to you and what you have to hand in your store cupboard.  Like everything else about this dish (and, you may have noticed, my cooking style in general) it’s not a precise science.  You do definitely need a bit of sweet and sour going on in there, and a little heat.  I would also suggest paprika is essential, for both flavour and colour.  For the record, on this occasion the marinade consisted of salt and pepper, obviously; garlic and red chilli mashed together in my garlic press (the only thing I ever use it for, but it’s brilliant, as long as you put it straight into water once you’re done, and don’t leave the garlic to set hard, making it so much more effort to clean than it ever saved in the first place); sweet paprika (but smoked or hot would be good too, particularly hot if you don’t have any fresh chillies); a little pomegranate syrup for the sweet, and cider vinegar for the sour, but you could use brown sugar for the sweet, or apple juice the acidic sweetness of which does a bit of both.  Or you could take an oriental direction and use soy sauce and rice vinegar or rice wine.  And some olive oil, or if you’ve headed up the oriental route, sesame oil.  Quantities again are kind of up to you, but just a little bit of everything so that no single element dominates, until it looks, smells and tastes right to you.

You don’t need to leave the meat marinading for long, there’ll be plenty of time in the long slow cooking for all those good flavours to do their thing, but a little extra time is always better, so get the meat done first so it’s steeping away while you prep everything else.  Problem with this dish is prepping everything else takes pretty much no time at all, so you might even want to take a break and have half a glass of wine or a cheeky sherry at this point.  Prepping everything else consists of peeling the onions and cutting them into thick wedges, cutting the mushrooms in half, or even leaving them whole if they are particularly small, and opening a tin each of beans and tomatoes.  Oh, and opening a bottle of wine.

When you’re ready, heat up your big casserole on the stove and brown the meat gently, then add the onions till they’re starting to soften, then the mushrooms.  Chuck in some thyme, or savory if you have it, and a couple of bayleaves – use fresh herbs if you have them available, but if not, this is the kind of cooking for which dried herbs are ideally suited.  Add a good glass of red wine, something hearty and robust, at this point and let that simmer away till noticeably reduced then add the tomatoes and beans and 200 ml or so of beef or chicken stock.  Quantities of liquid again don’t need to be precise with such a long slow cook, you can always adjust later on.  You do want a good quantity of liquid to start with, as a lot of it – ideally most of it - will reduce away, but it should always look like a hearty stew, not a soup.

Bring it all to a gentle simmer on the stove top and then put it in the oven for as long and as low as you like.  150 for three hours will do it, but if you have the time and the oven settings, longer and lower is even better.  When, at last, you do take it out and lift the lid your first reaction should ideally be to think ‘oh bugger – I’ve cocked it up.  It’s been in too long and it’s ruined.’  It should look, frankly like an over reduced, gooey, congealed mess.  That’s perfect.  It’s amazing what another ladle or two of stock and an extra splash of wine will do by way of a miraculous transformation, and the treacly depth of flavour you get by letting it go just that bit too far and bringing it back is almost sinfully good, and I don’t believe achievable in any other way.  It’s also one of those things that either happens by happy accident, or not at all, so if your stew is proving reluctant to reach that state of divine over-reduction don’t be tempted to force it by turning up the heat or cooking it forever.  It may not reach the transcendental perfection of being brought back from the dead, but after three or four hours, it’s going to be damned good.  And if this is starting to sound like a religious experience well then that’s because eating this dish, for me, pretty much is.  Or as close as as I care to get.

As I said in my previous post, I put the casserole in when I took out the roast pork belly that was dinner for the night before, out of the oven and turned the heat way down.  That was at around eight thirty, and I left it there, while we ate, and for the rest of the evening, turning the oven off only when we were on our way to bed, some time after midnight.  I reheated it the next evening on the stove top, with just a splash of rejuvenating stock and an extra half glass of wine, served it up with mash and pickled red cabbage.  It was cowboy heaven.

And a chicory, spinach and beetroot salad on the side.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Pork Belly 1 - roasted

I mentioned last week that I couldn’t believe I’d been blogging as long as I had without writing properly about pork belly. It was hard to believe because we love the pig in this house, and hold a specially fond affection for its fat belly.  Ah well, better late than never.

Pork belly is another one of Waitrose’s “forgotten cuts” which I find a little odd, because, correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not – that’s entirely rhetorical) but isn’t streaky bacon pork belly?  You remember bacon, don’t you?  I’m sure I do… But even conceding that pork belly in its uncured form is distinct from bacon and may therefore theoretically have been forgotten in its own right, I would still have to ask has nobody from Waitrose ever been to a gastro pub? 

Whether it’s been forgotten or not though, is of purely academic interest.  What is beyond debate is that it is a cheap cut.  Presumably on account of it being largely composed of fat.  Luscious, lovely fat.  I can remember visiting Poland back in my callow youth and being confused and amused to see, on the barely stocked shelves of an immediately post communist butcher’s shop, a leg of ham that was composed almost entirely of snow white fat with just a whisp of pink lean meat running through it, marked at twice the price of the ham next to it which was mostly lean.  Now I would understand that, although even I think Polish cuisine may take a perfectly understandable love of pork fat to a frankly indecent, not too say unhealthy extreme.  My other main food related memory from that trip was the house special pizza in a very dimly lit basement pizzeria, where the big slabs of what I took to be mozzarella turned out to be lard.  I’m afraid I cannot recommend substituting lard for mozzarella on a pizza, even if you have a dairy allergic girlfriend.

Anyway pork belly is cheap for the very reason it is good.  Fat.  Fat carries flavour, keeps lean meat juicy and makes pork belly one of the most versatile and forgiving cuts, forgotten or otherwise.  The 1kg slab I brought home cost less than a fiver and served the two us for two deeply comfort foody dinners, cooked up in two entirely different ways.

First up, a straight roast, which would be instantly familiar to anyone at Waitrose if only they ever went to a gastro pub.  Then a casserole of pork and beans, cooked long and slow to a soft, treacly consistency.  Slow cooking particularly suits pork belly, on account of the fat which renders down and goes all sweet and sticky.  A Chinese style slow braise would be another favourite round here, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

Also on account of the fat keeping the meat lubricated, roasting pork belly couldn’t be easier.  The only trick lies in getting the rind to crackle, which I have to admit I find to be a bit hit or miss whatever method you follow.  And there are many methods, covered more exhaustively than I could ever be bothered to here.  I tend to pour a kettle of boiling water over the slashed rind, then pat it thoroughly dry with kitchen paper and rubbing in plenty of flaky sea salt, but I think the key is probably the slashing.  The more cuts the better.  And a good blast of heat, generally at either end of the cooking process. 

So, I cut my 1kg slab of belly in half, added a few extra slashes to the half to be roasted and gave it the boiling water treatment.  Along with the salt I rubbed in a good grind of black pepper and a generous sprinkling of fennel seeds, the aniseedy flavour of which compliment pork superbly.  Then I put  it in to a pre heated roasting tray in the oven set to around 225, for a 15 minute initial blast of heat.  Meanwhile I was par-boiling some potatoes, which I then drained off and returned to the pan and gave it a good shake to bash them about a bit, get their outer surfaces nicely fluffed.  When the 15 minute blast was up I turned the oven down to around 180 and added the potatoes to the tray (make sure you start off with a big enough tray to allow cooking space) with the pork and a couple of sticks of celery cut on the diagonal into two inch lengths.  I don’t know why people don’t roast celery more often, it is quite delicious, with a sweet, nutty flavour that is surprisingly similar to roasted garlic.  It goes particularly well with pork, and with apple too by happy coincidence – you could if you wanted do the potatoes in a separate tray and mix the celery up with apple wedges in with the pork.  That would be good too.  Very good.  If I was doing that, though, I'd cut the celery rather smaller, say into one inch lengths, and add it and the apples about ten to fifteen minutes later in the process, as the apples need less cooking.

To accompany the roast on this occasion, and to make the most of the oven’s heat, I did a roasted ratatouille at the same time, chunky dice of aubergine and courgette, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes mixed together in another roasting tray and stirred through with plenty of salt and pepper, thyme, a few peeled but whole garlic cloves and lots of olive oil.  That tray went into the oven at the same time I turned the heat down and added the potatoes, and then I left it all for about 40 minutes.

At this point the ratatouille was done, as was the meat.  The crackling was still a bit pliable, and the potatoes rather pale, so I cut the rind off the meat, and put it back into the oven with the potatoes and turned the heat back up high.  As high as you like.  Meanwhile the meat rested on a board, covered with greaseproof paper and a tea towel to keep it warm.  Another ten to fifteen minutes is plenty to crackle your crackling and get the potatoes to the desired golden brown, and in the same time the meat is rested to perfection.

All that remained, before serving up and enjoying, was to turn the oven back down again, way down low this time, as low as it will go, and whack in the casserole with tomorrow’s dinner of pork and beans in it, which I had got to the point of bubbling away on the stove top while today’s dinner was in the oven.  That'll cook away while we're enjoying the roast and for a good few hours beyond, and I’ll write it up in full for my next post.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

How authentic is your bolognese? And do we care? And Soffritto.

Authenticity’s a tricky one, isn’t it?  On the one hand, yes, absolutely, I passionately believe in it.  On the other hand, sod off, I really don’t care.  On the one hand, of course you’re looking for the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown that’s full of actual Chinese people and has a menu you don’t even know which way up to hold.  And if you’re in Seville you want to go to the tapas bar where old men are drinking sherry, not the one with all the bullfight posters and flamenco dresses on the walls and the menu in Spanglish with pictures of the food.  And if you’re in Bologna with your mate Paolo, and he invites you to join him and his family for a dish of his nonna’s totally authentic tagliatelle Bolognese, of course you jump at the chance.

It’s when authenticity becomes orthodoxy that there’s a problem.  When it becomes dogma.  When a rule gets laid down that this or that is the best and only way to do something.  That’s a bad thing, and it’s just plain wrong.  Let me make this clear: THERE IS NEVER, EVER, ONLY ONE WAY TO COOK ANYTHING.

A recipe is only a guide and there are as many different versions of the finished dish as there are people who follow it.  Which brings me on to another bugbear of mine: people serving something up at their own table and referring to it as Delia’s this, or Jamie’s that.  It’s not theirs.  By this point it’s yours.  Don’t do yourself down, by all means give credit where it’s due, but take possession of the fruits of your own labours.  It may have been Nigella’s recipe, but it’s your chocolate cake.  And okay, maybe that’s a bad example, cakes and baking generally being the one area where you do have to stick closely to the recipe, but even so – you think Nigella came up with that recipe from first principle?  Do you?  Really?

Anyway, back to authenticity: there are two main and quite distinct problems with it. 

Firstly, orthodoxy is, of course, the enemy of creativity.  If we are all slaves to an agreed authentic norm (or to meticulously sticking to the recipe, for that matter) then nobody will ever get to do anything new, fresh, interesting.  The authentic will become boring.  It’ll very soon go stale.  I’m not, personally, a huge fan of the kind of cuisine being practiced by the likes of Ferran Adria, or Heston Blumenthal, the practitioners of so called ‘molecular gastronomy’, but I’m very glad they’re there.  There always needs to be someone being experimental, playful, creatively messing about with the familiar and traditional.  And you can’t do that without, in effect, saying bugger authenticity (while, at the same time, respecting it - about which Adria has some interesting things to say here).  And you don’t need to be Heston Blumenthal, working away in his lab, to come home from Spain or Italy, or a Spanish or Italian restaurant, with a fond memory of a particular dish, and recreate a version of that dish in your own kitchen, with locally available ingredients.  It may not be ‘authentic’, but does that mean it’s any less good?  It might even be better, and best of all, you might have created something entirely new and different.  And how much more exciting is that?

Secondly, how do we agree on what’s authentic in the first place.  I’m quite sure that Paolo’s nonna’s bolognese is fantastic, and totally, truly authentically Bolognese.  But meet Paolo’s next door neighbour Paola and I’m sure you’ll find that her nonna has an equally fantastic, and totally, truly authentic recipe herself, except it’s really quite different in a number of significant ways.  Whose nonna is to be the benchmark of authenticity, and whose are we to deride as a fraud and a sham?

Now I hate the words ‘spag bol’ as much as anyone, and I readily concede that the watery stew of tomato and boiled mince that is often served up under the name is a rank abomination.  And I know that even a good ‘traditional British’ bolognese, made with beef mince, is an utter bastardization, and a pale shadow, of the real thing with its four different cuts of three different meats (beef, veal and pork, none of them minced) simmered gently over a wood fire for six hours, but that’s no excuse for the sheer disdain I heard being expressed by an Italian chef on the radio recently, at the apparently outrageous suggestion that garlic might feature in the list of ingredients (I never believed a lip could curl audibly till I heard it on the radio).  If your devotion to authenticity is such that you are willing to contemptuously disregard garlic on the grounds of ‘that’s not how we do it in Bologna’ then I have three things to say to you, in descending order of politeness:  1. Try it, you might like it.  2. Get a life. 3. Do I really need to say it?  I’ll give you the ‘off’, you can fill in the first word for yourself.  Or, as, in this case, it’s directed to an Italian, or at least, presumably, an italophile, then ‘va fa’n culo’ will do the job nicely.  And as for the French, the undisputed World heavyweight champions of authenticity fascism, don’t get me started.  CassouletBouillabaisse?  It’s a meat and bean casseroleIt’s fish stew.  Make them how you like.  I’ll post my own recipes for each of these in later blog posts, I’m sure, and feel free to kill me if I make any claim to authenticity for either...

Anyway, at the risk of offending the good people of Bologna, here’s ‘my’ version of a bolognese.  Tell you what, let’s just call it a minced beef ragu…  Not that it needs to be beef.  You can do it with pork, or veal, or a mix of beef and pork.  Or lamb.  And the basic recipe can be followed, and adapted in any number of ways, to provide the basis for not just spaghetti (or tagliatelle, or gnocchi etc) bolognese, but also  lasagne, shepherd or cottage pies, moussaka or chilli con carne.  None of which may have any claim to authenticity, all of which will taste damned good.

500g good quality mince
4 thick rashers smoked streaky bacon, or pancetta, cut into batons, or approx 100g lardons
1 large onion, 2 sticks celery, 2 small carrots all chopped, not too finely
125g mushrooms, diced
1 x 400g can tinned tomatoes
Tomato puree
garlic, chilli, thyme, 2 bay leaves, salt & pepper (and a little finely chopped fresh horseradish if you have it)
approx 250ml red wine
approx 250ml beef stock
olive oil

Brown the mince in a big iron casserole, then remove it and set aside.  If you are using minced lamb, you’ll also need to spoon out and discard a good amount of fat at this point, but leave a little behind, that’s good flavour.  Add the bacon/pancetta/lardoons and fry till they’re starting to colour.  Depending on how much fat’s been released by the meat you might need to add a splash of olive oil now, then the garlic, chilli, horseradish if you’re using it, a good sprinkle of fresh thyme and a generous grind of black pepper (no salt at this stage, the bacon should supply that).  As soon as all those flavours have hit the pan and had a few seconds to infuse the fat and oil tip in the onion, carrot and celery.  Stir it all together, add a bit more olive oil if it needs it, and let it all cook together gently for five to ten minutes, or until the onions are starting to go translucent and the carrot and celery starting to soften.  At this point you have what’s called, in Italian, a soffritto (see below), the real foundation of your sauce.

Add the mushrooms, to your soffritto, and allow them to sautee for a minute or two, then add back the mince, pour over the wine and give it a generous squirt of tomato puree.  Stir it all through and let it bubble away for five minutes or so until the wine has noticeably reduced.  Then add the tomatoes and the stock, a bay leaf or two, bring it to a gentle simmer and leave it there, covered for an hour and half, or two.  Depending on the liquid levels you might want to add a splash more stock or wine along the way, but don’t make it too gloopy.  Check the seasoning.  Stir through some fresh basil or parsley right at the end if you like, and, if you don’t have a girlfriend that’s allergic, you can stir a generous grating of parmesan right into the sauce too.

This recipe provided the basis of 3 dinners for the two of us, first up with linguine, then in a dish topped with mash for a sort of cottage pie, and finally as a sauce for some home made squash gnocchi.  Plus a lunch for one with leftover cottage pie.  And not once during any of those meals did anyone give a stuff about authenticity.


A soffritto, or battuto, is a fundamental building block of Italian cookery, and forms the basis of almost every meaty sauce and stew.  In Spanish they call it sofrito, in French it’s sofrit, in Catalan, sofregit.  Its Portuguese equivalent goes by the name of refogada, and it exists, in one form or another, even if it goes unnamed, as far as I’m aware, pretty much anywhere anybody is making meaty sauces and stews.  It can be as simple as onions softened in oil, but because it is going to be the root, provide the bass note, of all the flavour permeating your finished dish, you’ll normally add a bit more too it than that, garlic for instance (whatever they might have to say about that in Bologna) and the hard herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage).  I almost always add a hit of chilli, fresh or flakes, for a bit of background heat (or enough to bring that heat to the foreground for a chilli con carne, say).  You might add leek, fennel, or even diced peppers, but most classically you’d include carrot and celery, and it’s no coincidence that onion, carrot and celery are your three essential veg for making a stock, or a mirepoix (which is essentially the French equivalent of soffritto, except that it is referred to in it’s uncooked state). 

To my mind, incidentally, and I don’t believe I’m alone in this, it’s the inclusion of carrot and celery in your soffritto, more than any other element, more even than which meat, or what cut you use, that defines your sauce as a ‘bolognese’ or not.  But that’s really by the by, what really matters is that whether you’re setting out to make a Bolognese, an osso buco, or even a Lancashire hotpot, a good soffritto (whether you give it that name or not, and in the case of a Lancashire hotpot, probably best not) is where you want to start.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Arbutus. Ah, but...

I was feeling very good about Arbutus when we sat down.  For a start it came about as the result of a spur of the moment decision, and I find those are often my favourite and most memorable eating out experiences.  Secondly, they’d been able to seat us, having traipsed to and fro across Soho from West to East, on a blustery, rain squally night, finding no room at several inns on the way, and being very nearly ready to chuck it all in and get a burger from GBK, or go home.  Thirdly Becca, having recently been paid, was promising to treat me. Fourthly, Becca’s price limit on my treat was ‘mid range’ and Arbutus, despite its Michelin star, is still reasonably enough priced to fall within that limit, particularly if we were just to order a main and go easy on the wine.  Fifthly, I have read and heard many good things about Arbutus over the years since it opened, and had long wanted to go there, to be finally doing so more or less by accident, felt like it should be the set up for a real treat.

And I carried on feeling good about it.  Our waitress was friendly and very helpful, completely unstressed and positive about accommodating Becca’s imposing list of allergies.  The menu looked good, so good we couldn’t stick to the just a main and a carafe restriction and agreed that Becca would cover the main and the wine and we’d split the excess for starters and any other extras.  We placed our orders - warm wild mushroom salad with salsify and chestnuts to start for Becca; pig’s head with potato puree and ravioli of caramelized onion for me.  For mains she had the venison, I had the rack of pork.  Our waitress came back straight away with the adjustments for Becca’s allergies and warned us there’d be a slightly longer wait than usual because they’d have to cook the salsify for her warm wild mushroom salad from scratch, which was fine by us.  We had a chocolate and cherry fragranced Patagonian cabernet sauvignon/merlot to tide us over, from a wine list that is yet another and very good reason to feel good about Arbutus.  The list is not only eminently reasonable, starting around the twenty pound mark, but all wines come by the bottle, or the 250ml carafe, and our carafe at just £8.25, was a cockle warming bargain.

By this point I was feeling very good and well disposed towards the World in general and Arbutus in particular.  But, and I’m sorry to have to say this, I really am, then our food arrived.

The first sign of the disappointment to come, in retrospect, came with the delivery of my pig’s head.  It was served with something close to an apology.  The waitress explaining that the advertised ravioli of caramelized onion was in fact no such thing.  It was a single raviolo composed of onion encased not by pasta, but by two discs of what was described as “andouillette tripe”.

At which point I must pause to declare an interest, or should I say an aversion:  I know I’ve used this blog in the past to advocate the nose to tail approach to eating meat, but I have to hold my hand up and admit to there being a gap in my commitment – a gap that comes between nose and tail, but closer to the tail, and into which fall the stomach and lower intestine.  I’ve tried with tripe, I really have, but I’ve never been able to locate the appeal of the combination of unpleasant texture and no real flavour.  Better tripe though, by far, than andouillette, the sausage made from pig’s colon, with it’s winning combination of unpleasant texture and really unpleasant flavour.  There’s a reason the phrase ‘tastes like shit’ is commonly used for things that don’t taste good, and it’s not because the thing in question actually does taste like shit, nor even that most of us, thankfully, know what shit really tastes like.  Andouillette, though, actually does, literally, taste of shit, and you know what?  It tastes like shit.  And I’m sorry, I’m all for acquired tastes and that, but you know, there’s a line… 

Having said that, I am more than happy to see tripe or andouillette on a menu.  I’m positively encouraged.  It speaks, in a very literal sense, of gutsy cooking.  Bold and unafraid of offending squeamish sensibilities.  Exactly, in fact, what all the rave reviews had let me to expect of Arbutus.  Tripe appeared several times on the menu, and that was fine by me even if I wasn’t going to order it.  But the fact that my andouillette raviolo was not announced on the menu, and the apologetic manner with which it was delivered, complete with advice to put a little of everything on the fork to disguise it’s flavour, was the opposite of bold.  It spoke rather of cooking, and presentation, that lacked the courage of its own convictions. And the saddest thing is, even given my reservations above, I was willing to be won over, even to like the andouillette, indeed it’s a measure of the problem I had with the food we were served, quite how keenly willing I became. Not that it was bad, I would like to stress.  It really wasn’t.  It was just sadly underwhelming, and I wanted it to be so much better.

The pig’s head, a coarse terrine, was a good start in itself, soft and sweetly piggy.  Problem was that everything on the plate, the lozenge of pureed potato, the caramelized onion, even the andouillette, was similarly soft and sweet.  Had it come on toast, with a pickle or sharp chutney on the side, I could have loved it. Becca had been slightly cautious about going for the wild mushrooms following our recent mushroom adventures.  She wondered if it might fare poorly by comparison.  I’m afraid she was right.  It was all just a bit flimsy. And there were no chestnuts, just a very cultivated looking chestnut mushroom among the trompettes, which didn’t really help. The best bit was the carrots, which were apparently excellent, but that’s to damn with faint praise.

Becca’s venison seemed more like it at first, tender, succulent meat, with a surprising suggestion of having been seared in sesame oil, which may or may not have been a result of the accommodation of her allergies.  After that initial surprise though, it all became a bit samey, the meat perhaps a touch lightly seasoned but more to the point the accompanying pomegranate salad and beetroot marmalade hitting too similar sweet notes.

First thing I noticed about my rack of pork when it came was that it was served off the bone. When I order a rack, I want to see the rack – is that too much to ask?  Apparently so.  This rack came disassembled into a disc of lean meat, more steak than medallion, and a lip smackingly fatty strip of belly.  Like the venison it was a soft and yielding piece of meat, nicely cooked to a delicate pink.  Like the venison there was a surprising Chinese-y hint of sesame or possibly an element of five spice to its seared outer surface.  Also like the venison though that surprise was short lived, the meat under seasoned, in this case, I’m afraid to the point of blandness, and the accompanying pumpkin, gnocchi and prunes all similarly soft and yielding and monotonously sweet.

The problem was not that the food was bad, far from it, each element served up was perfectly realized, it was just that all the elements put together occupied too narrow a spectrum of the available ranges of flavour and texture.  There were no spikes on either graph.  Everything was sweet and soft, with very little contrast, no counterpoints of sour, bitter or sharp, crunchy or chewy.  The only item across four dishes between us that had any real bite were those carrots, the only challenge to the tastebuds, that andouillette, of which, by this point, I was thinking rather fondly.

In a sense that’s worse, in a restaurant you want to like, than it would be to catch them on an off night in the kitchen.  If you felt they’d cocked up, you could give them another chance; if you’re left with the impression that the kitchen has delivered everything the chef intended, and it’s left you cold, then there’s not a lot of point.  You just have to concede that your palate and the chef’s are incompatible.  And in the case of Arbutus, for me, that’s a terrible shame because there is so much about the place to like and admire – if only that included the food, I could truly love it. 

We finished with a carafe of dessert wine and a coffee, and split the bill in the end.  At forty quid a head - for a Michelin starred restaurant, in Soho - it was, in many ways, a bargain.  Sadly, it just didn’t rate as a treat.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Octopus stew

I know some people are funny about squid, and even more so about octopus, and frankly I’m not going to bust too much of a gut to persuade them they’re wrong.  Which they are. But as long as they’re not eating squid or octopus, in this world of threatened fisheries, it just leaves more for me to eat, with a clearer conscience.  Because I do like a cephalopod, me…

I realize that octopus may not be readily available where you’re reading this, but I’m lucky enough to live near a thriving multi ethnic market at Ridley Road, Dalston, and octopus is always readily available, and cheap as, if not chips, then very much the cheapest fish.  The two octopi pictured cost me less than four quid. And I don’t want to come over all metropolitan elitist, because I know you can get octopus outside London – I couldn’t resist doing the dish below for a group of friends when we were way out in the Cambridgeshire countryside, and I came across octopus on the fish counter at Morrisons in Cambourne.  Which apart from being in the middle of nowhere, is one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been to, a faux olde worlde new town, with meandering streets, a 19 mph speed limit, and the distinct if unsupportable feeling about it that all its inhabitants might well be there under a witness relocation program (please, residents of Cambourne, feel free to contact me via the blog to confirm or deny that you are on a witness relocation program, or that living there is like being trapped in an Ira Levin or JG Ballard novel…).  Anyway, that’s by the by – the point is, if you can get octopus in Cambourne, you can surely get it most places (and the fish counter at Morrisons is probably, generally, a better bet than you’d think…).  Even if you can’t, you can surely get squid, and that is perfectly happily substitutable in the recipe below, although probably a little pricier.

I always like to gut and clean an octopus myself, although your fishmonger will always do it for you, and the young lad on the counter at Morrisons was so eagerly excited to show off his (I’m guessing newly acquired) skill that it seemed mean not to let him.  I can see why some people might get a bit squeamish about it, but it really is dead easy.  remove the head portion, cutting it through just below and above the eyes, leaving the tentacles held together by a solid ring of flesh a centimeter or two thick, and the bulbous, balloon like body sac.  Poke your fingers inside the body sac, flip it inside out and pull away the inner sac that neatly contains all the octopus innards, pull or cut away any fibrous membrane, flip the body sac back outside in, push any remains of the beak out of the hole in the centre of the tentacles, rinse it all off and you’re done in about 30-45 seconds per octopus, taking it nice and easy.

I score the flesh of the body sac in a criss-cross pattern, although that’s probably not really necessary with small octopi, then cut into 3 or 4 large pieces.  Cut off each tentacle whole, or cut 2 or 3 cm chunks off the thick ends of them if they seem too cumbersome, and divide the ring of flesh that held them all together neatly into segments, put it all in a bowl, with salt, pepper, zest and juice of a lemon, some parsley and dill, as I've used here, or fresh thyme, finely sliced garlic and chilli, and a good coating of olive oil. Leave it to marinade a while.  A couple of hours is good if you can, the acid in the lemon juice will help to tenderize the flesh.  A lot of people worry that octopus, or squid, is inherently tough and rubbery, but I’ve never found that to be a problem, not with the little ones we tend to have for sale in this country at least.  I have heard that the secret of tender octopus is freezing it, making it about the only thing you are looking to hear “yes” for when you ask your fishmonger ‘has it been frozen’. I can’t personally vouch for the soundness of that advice, but it makes sense, and appears to be supported by Skye Gyngell at least.

2 small octopi
½ red pepper
½ bulb fennel
2 biggish potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm dice
1 ½ large tomatoes, skinned and deseeded
1 red onion
½ glass white wine
250 ml fish stock
garlic, chilli, olive oil

Once it’s marinaded an hour or two, gently fry the octopus for a minute or two, till it becomes more opaque and you’re starting to see a nice white and pink colour contrast, then add the onion, fennel and red pepper to the pan.  Let those soften, then add the potatoes, the tomato and the wine.  Bring that to a vigorous simmer and let it thicken a little before adding the fish stock, then cover the pan and let it simmer away gently for about a half hour to forty minutes, or until the potatoes are tender enough to just start breaking up when jabbed with a fork. By then the otopus should be beautifully tender too.  Finish with a sprinkling of freshly cut herbs, dill, parsley, coriander or basil.  Or any combination thereof.

As I say, you can readily substitute squid for the octopus.  If you do, I find that the squid – or the same is true if using very small, young octopi – needs less cooking time than the potatoes, to reach the perfect tenderness.  You can get round that in one of two ways: if you’re using pre made fish stock out of the fridge, par boil the potatoes in the stock as you heat it up in a separate pan, then add both together at the same stage above where you add the stock.  This is actually the quickest, and in many ways easiest way to do it.  Or, if you’re making up some fresh stock specifically, then follow the instructions above, BUT, remove the squid/young octopi from the pan before putting in the onion, fennel and peppers, and add them back in for the final 10 minutes or so.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Paprika crusted roast tenderloin

It has to be said that, generally, Jack Spratt would have a tough time round here.  A lean time you might say.  His wife on the other hand, might just find herself facing unaccustomed competition.  We like our fat.  Oxtail, ox cheeks, lamb neck, ribs.  Give me a rib eye over a fillet steak any time.  And I can’t believe I’ve blogged for a month now and not mentioned pork belly more than in passing. 

Nevertheless, there are one or two lean cuts that I am particularly partial to:  Hanger steak, aka onglet, is another of those “forgotten cuts”, that I believe may not have been so much forgotten by us, as concealed from us – it’s also known as butcher’s steak, on account of the butcher keeping it for himself - although when you do find it, it is fortunately still a bargain compared to other, to my mind much less interesting cuts of steak.  Yes, fillet, I'm talking about you again...  Tenderloin of pork on the other hand is widely available, still reasonably priced, tender, delicious, versatile and convenient.

Convenience is a damning with faint praise kind of word, but that’s not at all how I mean it in this case.  What I mean is sometimes a  joint of meat is too much, a wild extravagance and quite a palaver for a midweek dinner for two.  Pork tenderloin is a quick and easy alternative, and in no way a second rate option.  Roast dinner for two in no time, with no waste, no fuss, and no great quantity of washing up.

Just get down your pestle and mortar and rummage in your spice store.  I went with black peppercorns, fennel and coriander seeds and a star anise, pounded with rock salt, but you could use cumin, aniseed, or whatever you like, really.  Then I mixed the crushed spices with plenty of paprika (sweet on this occasion, but by all means use smoked, or hot).  Then I rolled the pork fillets in the mix, browned them in the pan and put them in the oven at around 200 for about 15-20 minutes. Let the fillets rest for 10 minutes, then slice them and plate up. 

That’s it.  It  really is that easy, and it really doesn’t get any more complicated, however many people your cooking for.  That’s the other great thing about roasting tenderloins, they are just so easily scaleable.  There’s no great logistical or technical challenge, it’s just a question of doing more, or less.  It really is as suited, and as easy to do, for two or for twelve.  I’ve served this up for a party of fifty, out of a regular domestic kitchen, for that very reason.  While most dishes, once you scale up beyond a certain point, call on a whole new set of skills - most of them logistical - this one just calls for more roasting trays.  You don’t even need an unusually large oven.

 One last thing.  You may have noticed in the picture that the meat is cooked pink.  Pork can be pink.  It should be pink.  Think about it: It’s not like beef or lamb, it doesn’t start off red, it starts off a kind of semi translucent beige, so by the time it’s turned a nice delicate rose pink, it’s cooked.  By the time it’s turned beige again, or even worse, white, it’s way over done.  It’ll be dry, fibrous and taste of bugger all, no matter what kind of tasty crust you wrap it in.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Roast sea bass with fennel and tomato

Friday we had fish.  Partly because it was Friday and some regressive Catholic gene in me makes that feel somehow only right and proper, partly because one effect of keeping a food blog is that you have a record of what you’ve been eating, and this month it has very conspicuously been mainly meat.  I did not set out to make this blog quite so red in tooth and claw as it has become, but I think I can reasonably plead seasonality – both in terms of ingredients and mood.  October is the time of year, after all, that your mind turns to hearty stews and roast meats, washed down with robust red wines.  Had I started a month or two earlier then lightly grilled sole and crisp sauvignon blancs would have been much more likely to feature.

We did in fact have lightly grilled sole accompanied by ceps and other meaty fungi that week way back at the beginning, when I wrote about the mushrooms.  I didn’t make a post of  the sole because I didn’t get a nice picture of it, but it did go very well with the mushrooms, with a nice balance of light and delicate and strong and meaty in flavour and texture, proving you don’t always have to mix like with like.

Anyway, that was a month ago now, so we were overdue some fish.  I went up to the fishmongers for a couple of mackerel, and came back with seabass.  They had no mackerel!  Can you believe it?  But that’s okay, because when you’ve decided you want fish, I’m firmly of the opinion that you should stop your planning at that point, and make no specific choice of precisely what fish, or what you plan to do with it until you have visited your fishmonger.  Then you let yourself be guided by a) what’s there, obviously, and b) what looks good on the slab. This week it was seabass.  Nothing wrong with seabass. 

I decided to roast them with fennel and tomatoes, a lighter version of what I’d had in mind for the mackerel, had there been any, and had it looked as good as the bass.  As it turned out, Friday was not only sunny, but unseasonably mild, so the lighter version of what I’d had in mind turned out most appropriately.
2 whole, single portion sized seabass
½ bulb fennel
1 red onion
a dozen cherry tomotoes
bunch of parsley, bunch of dill
a lemon
garlic, thyme, salt & pepper

Cut the fennel and the onion into thick wedges, and cook in a big oven proof pan with some garlic, thyme, salt and pepper till the fennel’s going golden and starting to soften, then add the cherry tomatoes.  Keep the tomatoes whole, but prick them with a fork, otherwise they are liable to come out of the oven at the other end as lethal little steam bombs.

Meanwhile slash the sides of the fish – three or four cuts on each side, deeper towards the head end - season inside and out with salt and pepper, stuff their cavities with dill, parsley and lemon slices and rub the outsides with chopped herbs, lemon juice and olive oil, making sure you work plenty of the herbs and salt and pepper into the slashes in the flesh.

When the tomatoes are starting to sag, and a few skins showing signs of splitting, then push them, and the onion and fennel, to the edges of the pan to create enough free space to add the fish.  Cook the fish on one side for three or four minutes, depending on size, then flip them, give them another minute or so on the new side, then transfer the pan to the oven.  Let them roast at around 180 for about fifteen minutes, pour over a glass of white wine or vermouth and give it another five minutes in the oven.  That should be enough cooking for the averagely proportioned bass (check it by sliding a knife along the backbone at the thickest part just behind the head to see that the flesh is just opaque and white.  If in doubt, best to err on the side of slightly under done, after all you can always put a fish back in to cook it more, you can’t uncook it once it’s gone too far) - but you may (or not, it all depends how much juice oozed out of the tomatoes, and how liberal you were with your wine chucking) want to reduce the wine and juices at the bottom of the pan a little to make a thicker sauce.  If so, then take the fish out of the pan and keep warm on a plate covered with foil while you finish the sauce back on the stove top.  There shouldn't be too much liquid, just a couple of tablespoon's worth to spoon over the fish on the plate is good.

As I had the oven on anyway, I chose to serve the fish with anya potatoes roasted with the rinds of the lemon, a sprinkling of sage leaves and plenty of salt, pepper and olive oil. 

If you don't have an oven proof pan big enough to do it all in one, not to worry.  Just colour the fennel and soften the onion and tomatoes in the biggest frying pan you have then transfer them to a preheated roasting tray in the oven.  If the pan is big enough, then briefly fry the fish in the veg juices, one at a time if need be, then place them in the roasting tray, either amongst or on top of the veg.  Make sure you scrape out all the oil and juices from the pan and get them into the roasting dish though, don't want to lose any of that flavour.  Doing it this way I'd be inclined - and I don't know there's any science to this, just instinct - to fry the fish more briefly, no more than a couple of minutes on the first side, one on the second, and roast longer, maybe twenty minutes, before pouring over the wine.