John Gardner at Home


'Courgette Anarchy' in Dario Haux and Steven Howe (eds), Culinaiuris (Luzern: Lucernaiuris 2018)

Gnocchi con zucchini due volte

We always have a courgette bonanza on the allotment in late summer. This recipe was invented to maximise our use of them on glut days. To serve six as a primo you need two big courgettes, one cut lengthways into wafer-thin slices using a peeler, the other cut into 5mm cubes. You start by frying the cubed courgette in olive oil with chopped garlic until it's soft and lightly coloured. Set aside. Then toast half a cupful of pine nuts in the same oil with some basil leaves, which should go a bit crispy but not burnt. Then mix the basil-nuts with the cubed courgettes, and set aside again, keeping some leftover basily-nutty oil in the pan (top up as necessary).

Meanwhile boil shop-bought gnocchi for 2 minutes. Spoon the gnocchi into the remaining basily-nutty oil and stir fry on medium heat for 2 further minutes. The gnocchi should still be soft but now coated in basily nutty oil. Warm a serving bowl and combine the gnocchi with the set-aside sauce and a little pasta water. Stir in a generous tablespoon of fresh pesto and the same amount, maybe a little more, of single cream. Keep warm. Now add fresh oil to the frying pan and fry the thin slices of courgette until they are crispy around the edges and inclined to keep their shape (not flop). Serve with the thin courgette slices piled on top of the saucy gnocchi, and parmesan sprinkled on top of that.

Matar paneer / matar murgh

Lately I've been getting into Indian cooking, and in particular reverse-engineering some dishes at my favourite curry houses. Matar paneer is the dish known to many British people as cheesy peas. But did you know that you can also make a great chicken curry with the same marinade and gravy? I'll take you through the paneer version, then the carnivorous modifications.

You begin by marinading the paneer for a few hours. Cut it into 1.5cm cubes. In a dish combine juice of 1 lemon, 2 cloves of garlic chopped, thumb-sized piece of ginger chopped, one tablespoon mild chilli powder, one tablespoon turmeric, one small green chilli chopped, all stirred around with the paneer. Cover and refrigerate..

Next make the the masala, which is the curry base. I use 1 onion roughly chopped, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, a handful of cashews, a small bunch of leaf coriander complete with stems, 3 chopped tomatoes (= half a can), 2 green finger chillies, a teaspoon of coriander seeds, 10 black peppercorns, a few cloves, and a piece of stick cinnamon. This all gets the blender treatment and should emerge with a consistency like a thick but fairly smooth soup.

Ready to cook? Melt some ghee in a heavy pan, medium heat. Add a couple of teaspoonfuls of cumin seeds (no need to grind) and let them sizzle for a moment before adding the masala you prepared above. It should bubble and splutter then you can turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until the ghee separates and appears round the edges of the mix. Now you need to put in the peas (forgot about them, didn't you?) a mugful of water, a few pinches of salt, and some more dry spices (half teaspoon each of turmeric, mild chilli powder, garam masala). Cover and simmer until the peas are nearly cooked (maybe 5 mins from frozen, 2 mins from fresh).

Meanwhile you should briefly and gently stir fry the marinaded paneer in a little vegetable oil, and throw it into your simmering gravy-with peas. Cook for 2 further minutes and serve. Perfect with parathas.

Chicken variant: Dice and marinade the chicken just like the paneer. Then use it just like the paneer! The only cooking difference is that, when you would briefly stir-fry the paneer, you will need to fry the chicken properly - until it is almost fully cooked (not browned - that is the enemy of tenderness). The final 2 minutes in the gravy will finish the cooking of the chicken. I tend to stir-fry the paneer for only 2 mins, and the chicken for around 4, but you need to do your own visual checks.

Ricotta salata and polenta

Ricotta salata is a firm cheese that behaves like halloumi in the grill or pan, i.e. it browns rather than melts so long as you treat it kindly.

I use instant polenta grain to save preparation time. Once you have it dissolved into a thick paste according to the instructions you should spread it about 1 cm thick on a baking tray, and dry it in a 50 degree oven until it is firm enough to cut it into rough 1 cm cubes. Cut the cheese into similar 1 cm cubes. Then lightly fry the polenta and cheese together in two tablespoons of olive oil.

While this concoction is cooling (it should be served warm, not hot) make your dressing using a mortar and pestle to crush basil leaves with extra virgin olive oil, perhaps a tiny red chilli, and a little salt.

Lay out some wild rocket leaves around a plate or serving dish and display the cheese and polenta in the middle. Then drizzle the dressing around the whole display.

Orecchiette with cime di rapa

Cime di rapa is turnip leaf. If you can't lay your hands on it, try young broccoli sprouts instead. They are from the same family. Try to get proper Italian sausages which are less held together with starches than their north European counterparts. Best of all, in fact, are 'luganighe' from Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Your first job is to skin the sausages and break them up into small pieces. If the sausages are right they will do the breaking up for themselves.

While you are boiling the water for the pasta, fry the sausage pieces gently with some garlic, a small shallot, and a little chilli (unless the sausages are already spicy). Then pour in half a bottle of white wine and turn the heat up a bit so that it comes to the boil. That is also the moment to get the pasta cooking.

Simmer and stir the sausage and wine for a few minutes. While there is still a decent amount of liquid in the pan, add the raw cime. Top up with more wine if it gets too dry, and stir frequently to stop the solids sticking or burning. The cime should be tender in at most two minutes, just ahead of the pasta. Drain the pasta, saving a bit of the water. Stir it together to serve, pasta, water, wine, and all. Plenty of grated parmesan or pecorino to finish.

Pollo milanese

Flatten a couple of chicken breasts between foil sheets using a rolling pin (being careful not to break them). Make a plate of flour and water batter - I recommend using sparkling water, and an egg whisked in as well for extra adhesion - and then make a plate of fine seasoned breadcrumbs. Dunk the chicken in both, in that order. Gently fry. Now lightly dress some rocket and mizuna in olive oil and lemon, and put a heap in the middle of your plates. Put the chicken on top and serve with a wedge of lemon.

If you make enough of the flour and water batter you can also use it for a side dish of deep fried courgettes. Slice the courgettes into 5 mm rounds, coat them with the batter, and cook them fast in a skillet, using just enough oil to immerse them.

Two great sandwiches

1. Chicken, mozarella and pesto on ciabatta. Slightly flatten a chicken breast (to about 1 cm thick), fry in a little olive oil in a non-stick pan, spread one side with fresh basil pesto, and slices of fresh mozarella. Now the daring part - flip it over in the pan so that the cheese and pesto and underneath, and fry hard for about 30 seconds - it should brown the cheese quickly and leave lots of juice in the pan. Now get it out. Slice a half ciabatta lengthwise and put it in the pan for a few moments so that it absorbs the basil gravy. Put the chicken in the bread with some spicy leaves and some lemon juice.

2. Goat's cheese and chorizo panini. You need big misshapen French rolls (pains rustiques) from the supermarket - not too high-bake, mind you, or they won't squash well. You need rocket, crumbly goat's cheese log, good sliced chorizo and - here's the secret - a spicy tapenade from the deli (no anchovy in it, just olives and hot peppers, that kind of thing). Well all you do is slam all that in the rolls according to taste and toast them in a sandwich grill until the cheese starts to make an escape.

Lime risotto with goats cheese

Begin with your basic white risotto. Mine is red onions, fried in olive oil, then add the rice, then one glass of white wine per person, then as much vegetable stock as you need. When the rice is a couple of minutes away from being ready, stir in the juice of one lime, a good handful of lemon thyme, and lots of grated pecorino. It should have a strong citrus flavour. If you like it more intense still you can substitute lime oil, or add lime zest as well as the juice. Serve into warm bowls. Then crumble goat's cheese on top then some chopped rocket leaves. Carnivores like it with a thin slice or two of speck (prosciutto from Trentino/Südtirol) laid on top as well.

Papardelle with salsicce and prosecco

A really easy recipe based on a dish that I once ate at a tiny osteria in Pistoia. The best bit: you can justify drinking the rest of the prosecco. All the key ingredients are mentioned in the name of the dish. You need wide noodles. If you can't get papardelle, try lasagne broken by hand into uneven strips and shards.

Start by putting the pasta on to cook in plenty of salted water. This means you have about 10 minutes to do everything else! The sausage (allow about 3 for 2 people) should be a loosely packed Italian type that crumbles in the pan, and ideally it should be a bit spicy. (If not, drop a touch of garlic and red chilli into the pan with the sausage.)

Begin by releasing the sausage meat from its skin and browning it lightly in a non-stick pan without drying it out (break it into pieces if it doesn't break up by itself). When it's cooked through (or very nearly) pour in about one glass of Prosecco per sausage and watch it fizz. Reduce gently with the sausage juice until you have an intense liquid with just enough volume to coat the pasta (say, half the original volume of the Prosecco). Just stir it into the drained pasta with a little of the pasta water left behind, and that's your dinner.

Looks too colourless? Roughly chop up some rocket and scatter over the top. Don't forget the parmesan. And don't forget your glass of Prosecco to accompany it.