Friday, 17 February 2012

February is the leanest month - so cook Sausage Ragu

Sausage Ragu
with gnocchi
There is no doubt that February is the leanest month in the culinary calendar, but by definition that makes it the most hopeful month (sometimes it pays to be a glass half-full type of person).  It will be another 6 weeks before I start planting in my allotment but my plan of action is ready and the seeds are ordered.  It will be late spring before I start harvesting my own crops so, as I eke out the remains of last year's garlic harvest, this is the time I rely heavily on my favourite shops and markets.  It's the one time of year when I'm happy to embrace some seasonal fruits from warmer climes.  I draw the line at imported blueberries, cherries and apricots - it's just so wrong in winter, and so tasteless - but sweet jewel-like pomegranite seeds and zingy bitter Seville orange are very welcome in my kitchen right now.

The sky may be grey but just think of all the uplifting foods which are just round the corner.  Blood oranges and forced rhubarb are already in the shops, and before we know it Alphonse mangoes will be appearing.  Artichokes, leeks, parsnips and, this year, some frankly disappointing winter cabbages (too mild?) will soon be eased out by broad beans, peas, and green garlic.  Wild garlic leaves and Jersey Royal potatoes will soon follow.  The fish and shellfish on offer is changing from oysters and sea bass to crabs, sardines, mackerel and scallops whilst venison and pork is joined by hoggett and, soon, tender spring lamb.  The best part is that, other than the oranges and mangoes, all of these will be British grown or raised.   Given the strange winter we have had this year, we may see some of these sooner than we expect.

We are on the cusp of of swapping the filling, warming foods of winter for the lighter, uplifting dishes of spring.  But we're not quite there yet, so here's an easy economical winter dish of pork sausages filled out with pillowy gnocchi, fragranced with fennel seeds and warmed by the heat of dried chilli.  It's inspired by a dish I've eaten more than once prepared by Dave Cook at Gergovie Wines/40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey and a version appears in Bocca the Cookbook

You can prepare the gnocchi a few hours ahead of time if you wish, then you don't want to have too much going on at once.  If you're short of time, I'm sure a short pasta such as penne would work well.  This is the perfect dish to keep the February blues at bay.

Sausage ragù with gnocchi
(serves 4)

4 best quality pork sausages
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1-2 small dried, deseeded, chillies (depending on strength)
Half a tablespoon chopped rosemary leaves
Half a tablespoon of fennel seeds, crushed
800g tin of plum tomatoes

Fry the sausages to brown lightly, then slice into rounds and keep warm.  Fry the garlic, chllies, fennel seed and rosemary for 1 minute then add the tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the sliced sausages and simmer very gently, uncovered, for at least 45 minutes until the sauce is quite thick and dark.

300g (12oz) of cooked floury potato, eg King Edward (about 400g raw)
50g (2oz) plain flour
1 small egg, lightly beaten
A little nutmeg to taste
Salt and pepper

Steam the potatoes in their skins (this keeps the mash dry).  Bring a pan of water to the boil and salt it.  When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, skin them and put through a ricer or mouli or mash well.  While still warm, mix in the flour, egg, nutmeg and seasoning lightly.  Take a small piece and drop it into the boiling water.  It should float to the suface without breaking up.  If it separates, add a little extra flour to your mix.  Take pieces and roll by hand into lengths, roughly the thickness of your middle finger (use a little extra flour if you need it only to stop it sticking to the work surface but handle gently).  Cut into 1cm lengths. Drop into the boiling water and once they float to the surface, cook for 2 minutes. 

Drain the gnocchi and add to the finished ragù (if you are preparing them ahead of time, spread them in a single layer on an oiled plate and chill and warm them through in the sauce for a couple of minutes when you're ready).  Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino.