“Polpo, A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts)”, brings to readers 140 recipes from the restaurant of the same name based in Soho, London. Russell Norman is the owner of Polpo and author of the book which was winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year award 2012.
I am book (and food for that matter) obsessed and I still can’t bear to switch to an iPad or kindle no matter how efficient these devices threaten to make aspects of my life. And I am usually all about the efficiency. But not when it comes to books. They need to be held in your hands so that you can feel the paper between your fingers as you turn the pages. It is all part of the experience that the author intended.
The words written inside the book are equally as important as the beauty of the paper it is printed on. How it is bound, the lure of the picture on the front cover that catches your eye and how the book smells. OH! the smell of a new book, I really do love it...
Polpo has it all! Beautifully and uniquely crafted with a bare spine and Japanese exposed stitching - it is the first cookbook, or rather book in general, I have owned that sits flat on a table when opened. Norman’s passion for back street Venetian bars, known as bacari (meeting places for locals, social hubs where you go for a drink or two and a gossip), developed over his many visits to the floating city starting back in the 1980s is evident in his voice that emanates from each page.
Jenny Zairins, the book’s photographer, has applied a striking yet simplistic and unfussy approach to each picture which perfectly captures the very foundation of the recipes themselves. To quote Norman, “We have a rule that a dish is ready to put on the menu only when we have taken out as many ingredients as possible”.
James Daunt, founder and managing director of the Waterstones book chain, described the book as a joyous creation “...for all the bytes and elinks in the world this book can only be fully appreciated in its printed form” and he is wholeheartedly right.
Each recipe is accompanied by a few notes from Norman explaining ingredients, techniques or why the recipe means something to him personally. I found the recipes very easy to follow and I delighted in those that had only 3 or 4 ingredients but which still delivered powerful taste and were aesthetically alluring. They fitted perfectly into my quest to take it back to basics this year!
I made recipes mostly from the "chiceti" section. Chiceti are "small snacks, usually prepared in advance, that sit in a glass cabinet on the bar counter" of the bacari. They are designed to be shared over a drink and a gossip which was precisely what my husband and I needed last weekend.
I have shared below the recipes I tested from the book, but treat yourself and purchase a copy! It is a beautiful experience and I can see myself using this book time and again.
Zucchini, Basil & Parmesan Salad
Page 200, for four to six:
Juice of 1/2 a lemon *
6 tbs of extra virgin olive oil
2 heaped tbs of finely grated Parmesan
Sea Salt & black pepper
2 large zucchinis
1 large handful of rocket leaves
1 small handful of basil leaves
First make the dressing by mixing the lemon juice with the olive oil, Parmesan and a little salt and pepper to taste.
Finely slice the zucchini on an angle (or use a mandolin if you have one) and put into a bowl. Mix this with the rocket, basil and enough of the dressing to coat. Taste, adjust seasoning as required and serve immediately.
*The recipe calls for juice of a whole lemon and I used that quantity the first time I made the salad but I found it too overpowering so have cut down to juice of 1/2 a lemon
Garlic and Chili Prawns
Page 115, for four:
20 large, shell on prawns
Extra virgin olive oil
3 hot red chili, finely sliced on an angle *
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced *
A small knob of salted butter *
Sea salt as required
Wash and peel the prawns but leave on the tail and head. This is for presentation and because they are easier to handle.
Heat a few glugs of olive oil in a very large, heavy based frying pan. Make sure the oil is very hot and then throw in the prawns. Shake the pan a few times. After 1 minute, throw in the chili and garlic, stir once or twice and remove from the heat. Prawns should not be overcooked, so 1-2 minutes, depending on size, is really all you need. Add the knob of butter.
Season with sea salt as required.
*The recipe calls for 1 chili, 1 clove of garlic and unsalted butter, but in this household we are all about BIG taste!
Prosciutto, Rocket & Parmesan Wrap
Page 55, for sixteen wraps:
1 large handful of washed and dried rocket leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
150g of Parmesan, shaved
16 think slice of Prosciutto*
Lightly dress the rocket with the lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Add the Parmesan shavings and mix thoroughly. Roll the mixture up in slices of prosciutto and skewer with a toothpick.
* Bresaola is air-cured beef but we couldn't find any in Singapore so we used prosciutto instead.
Take a little piece of mozarella, a thick slice of roma tomato (the best quality you can find, ripe and at room temperature, please) and a leaf of basil. Spear them together with a wooden toothpick and sprinkle with salt flakes, a grinding of black pepper and a few drops of olive oil. If you prepare them in advance, leave the sprinkle of salt, pepper and drizzle of olive oil until just before you serve them. This sort of 're-activates' the stacks. Make sure they are not fridge-cold as this will mask the flavours.
Anchovy & Chickpea Crostini (my hands down favourite chiceti of the night!)
Page 26, for ten crostini:
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas
Fillets from 2 x 45g can of anchovies, plus some of their oil *
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 tbs of tahini *
Ground black pepper
4 tbs of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 French stick (or other bread), sliced and lightly toasted *
Drain and rinse the chickpeas and roughly chop the anchovies. Mix together with the lemon juice, parsley and tahini. Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Pulse in a food processor, with a little of the anchovy oil from the tin and enough olive oil to create a chunky paste. Taste and adjust the seasoning as required. There is no need for salt given the anchovies.
You can use this straight away or put it in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week. Serve it at room temperature. To serve, place desert sized spoonfuls onto the toasted slices of bread.
* We really enjoy the taste of anchovies so I doubled the amount the recipe called for and I am not a huge fan of tahini so halved the amount the recipe called for. We found we had a fair amount of the mix itself leftover and used it during the week as a dip with carrot sticks for a snack at work - perfection!