A Long & Messy Business

By Rowley Leigh

The definitive collection of recipes from one of our greatest food writers


I enjoy cooking and writing in January. It comes as a welcome relief after the deadline ‘pullbacks’ and frenetic pace of December when a working chef has to cook turkey and Christmas puddings for office parties and whilst attempting to think of something new to say about a subject – Christmas party food, Christmas starters, Christmas Turkey, alternative Christmas lunches, Christmas puddings etc - he has been writing about for twenty years.

January has its own problems. There are few ingredients specific to the month. The game season still has a month to run but care is needed with most birds as they become more mature. There are still apples and pears from store but the only fruit, apart from wonderful citrus, are the exotics. With vegetables, there are roots and brassicas aplenty and Italy seems to produce a new member of the chicory family almost every year. There is plenty of fish, if the weather allows and we live in an age where there is no shortage of meat at any time of the year.

The other problem is that January is diet month. Half the population – or certainly that section of the population that might read the FT – is on a ‘dry’ January and a detox diet. I prefer to defer my attempts at detox until Lent, not for religious reasons but because it seems more seasonally appropriate. I do, however, occasionally prescribe dishes that are suitable for those trying to clean up but in the main I tread my usual path. Whilst most food pages are full of well being and health, I reward the other population who pine for more substantial victuals. Nobody needs spiralised courgettes in an English winter.


9th January 2015

soft as the rain

and sweet as the end of pain

a star gleaming

bright as fire in the night

a theme

whenever I think of Steam

Archie Shepp, Attica Blues

I bought my steamer in a junk shop a few months ago. In almost burnished aluminium, it is an old fashioned double compartment fish kettle sort of affair. Espying it amongst the usual detritus to be found in a West London flea market, it was love at first sight. Since that day when I beat the dealer down to £9.00 for this splendid apparatus, the love has blossomed.

Previously I steamed when I had to. The odd beetroot, a chicken or duck prior to roasting and a bit of fish would be committed to a wire rack suspended across a wok with a steel bowl inverted over the top, a procedure that just about did the job but I needed something more. I have always been excited by the process. Thirty years ago I went to a restaurant in Paris (Le Dodin Bouffant, long since gone) and loved the food: as I used to in those days, I bought the chef’s cookery book despite its laborious title, Le Grand Livre de la Cuisine a la Vapeur. Once I took a good look at it, the chef, Jacques Manière, aimed to prove not only that steaming was the new healthy cuisine of the future, but also – not completely successfully – that there was nothing in the kitchen that could not be achieved by steam.

Sadly, Manière died quite young and would be disappointed that his enthusiasm for steam has borne such little fruit. Although ‘steaming’ implies a healthier approach I am surprised that it has not taken hold in the public imagination. In restaurants, chefs tend to either pan fry bits of protein in a great deal of butter or they put it in a bag and cook it in a water bath for a couple of hours. Whereas I am using my steamer for all manner of fish and meat, it is seeing a lot of vegetation too and here, in the spirit of virtuous January, is a vegetarian ‘main course’, dread term, which is popular at home and with my customers in Hong Kong.

WINE: despite the vibrant flavours, it is the rich earthy flavours of the different beets that will win through. A full bodied, white with a little oak treatment will work very well. Nothing like a glass of Meursault in the depths of January.


I used red, golden and candy stripe, also known as Chioggia, used on this occasion: all good beets may apply. Pickled garlic can be bought: it can also be dispensed with and fresh garlic deployed instead. Enough for six.

To pickle the garlic:

30 peeled cloves garlic

2 tablespoons sea salt

250 ml cider vinegar

100 grams sugar

½ cinnamon stick

10 cloves

Sprinkle the garlic with the salt and leave for four hours. Bring all the other ingredients to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Rinse the garlic and pour the pickling juice over. Bottle and refrigerate, ideally for two weeks.


1 kilo mixed beets (with leaves if possible

200 grams small turnips

200 grams black beluga lentils, green if not available

2 red chillies

Thyme, bay leaves

2 lemons

30 grams sugar

Wash the beets and turnips well, cutting off the stalks and leaves if attached. Half fill the bottom section of the steamer with boiling water and place the vegetables in the top with a sprinkling of sea salt. Turn the heat down and steam gently for ¾ hour.

Wash the beets and turnips well, cutting off the stalks and leaves if attached. Half fill the bottom section of the steamer with boiling water and place the vegetables in the top with a sprinkling of sea salt. Turn the heat down and steam gently for ¾ hour.

Whilst the beets cook, rinse the lentils in cold water, cover with fresh cold water and bring to a simmer. Add one chilli, some sprigs of thyme and a couple of bay leaves and, without seasoning at this juncture, continue to simmer very gently without letting them dry up. Once tender, remove from the heat and season with sea salt, lemon juice and some olive oil.

Peel the lemons, catching the zest without any pith. Cut this zest into very fine matchsticks. Place in a little pan of cold water and bring to the boil, drain and refresh in cold water. Boil the sugar in 100 ml of water and then add the lemon zest and cook it very slowly until glossy and translucent. Lift the zest out and reserve.

Once the beets and turnips are cooked, rub them both in kitchen paper to remove the skin. Cut them into segments. Place the beet tops or spinach in the steamer and place the cut beets and turnips on top just long enough to wilt the greens. Place the lentils on a serving dish and arrange the steamer contents on top. Slice three or four pickled garlic as thinly as possible and sprinkle over the ensemble, followed by some very thin rings of fresh chilli, seeds removed, a good squeeze of lemon, a few flakes of sea salt and some olive oil.


January 2 2012

I have been asked many questions about my involvement with Odeon cinema’s luxury ‘movies with meals’ project, the Lounge. One of the most intriguing is the notion that I might try and theme the meals in accordance with some of the films. This would present a bit of a challenge. Some films might be comparatively easy, The Artist could have something French, light and airy, quenelles, perhaps, and the Iron Lady would undoubtedly feature halibut as she seemed to be looking forward to it so much. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo could feature a smorgasbord and I daresay I could come up with something for W.E (cold fish?) although Shame and Warhorse might be more problematic. The one complete shoo-in would be a puntarella salad with Coriolanus.

I simply did not get puntarella when I first discovered it some twenty years ago. I came by a box of the strange – but beautiful – plants. I tore off a stem and ate it raw and spat it out in a mouth puckering state of disbelief. Untamed, it is about as bitter as a chicory can get. It needs a bit of handling. The outside leaves should be torn away, washed and boiled briefly before being dressed with olive oil and lemon and served with roast meat, like the cicoria to which it is closely related. It is the stalks in the middle that are addressed as salad.

In Rome markets such as the Campo di Fiori you will find plastic bags of puntarella that have been cut and washed for you, alongside other prepared salads, trimmed baby artichokes and topped and tailed fagiolini verde, should they be in season. Sadly, should you be lucky enough to find puntarella elsewhere, you will have to prepare it yourself, even if it is not an especially burdensome task. The important part of the preparation is the soaking of the salad in cold water for a couple of hours which has the merit of making the shoots even crisper but also that of drawing out much of the bitterness.

The traditional dressing for puntarella – and rarely strayed from in Rome, in my experience – is a robust mixture of chopped anchovies, white wine vinegar and olive oil. It is an aggressive mix but one that I find addictive. That combination of bitterness, salt and sour is typically Roman and one can imagine it being chomped by a bunch of centurions two thousand years ago as easily as in a restaurant in the Trastevere today. Coriolanus would have regarded it as a little dainty perhaps but enjoyed it nevertheless.

I was going to commend this traditional fare to you – well I still do – but got distracted when Andy came round to take the pictures. I had the puntarella and I also happened to have a few Seville oranges looking for a home. I debated whether to partner them with the puntarella. The question was whether the oranges were just bitter like the salad, thus compounding the felony, or sour like the vinegar and complementing the salad. In the end, we made both the traditional salad and the version below. There is a simple test on these occasions: which one did the extraordinarily greedy (and skinny) photographer eat and finish, concluding that whereas the zest of the orange is indeed bitter, the juice is sour?

WINE: the aggressive seasoning – especially the orange - will, I am afraid, murder fine wine. A gutsy white from Central Italy such as a Trebbiano, Pecorino or Fiano d’Avellino or coarse and racy red will not be so squeamish and cope very well.


Puntarella is in the height of season now but, I will have to concede, not easily found. Unusually, I would also concede that substitutions can and might have to be made. The salad will work well with curly endive, Radicchio or Witloof endive, the flavours being similar if lacking a little of puntarella’s special crunch. A head of puntarella should serve six as a starter.

1 head of puntarella

10 salted anchovy fillets

2 Seville oranges

4 tablespoons strong olive oil

Discard the leaves from the outside and top of the puntarella and separate the stalk clusters, breaking them off or cutting them from the base. Cut these in half and then slice them into thin strands. Rinse them carefully in cold water and then soak in a large basin of very cold water for at least an hour, preferably two. Drain and then dry the stalks in a salad spinner.

Chop the anchovies quite coarsely and mix them in a bowl with the grated zest of one of the oranges and the juice of both. Add the olive oil and a good milling of black pepper and then turn the puntarella very thoroughly in this mixture. Serve with plain country bread, either as a starter or as a side salad to a piece of grilled fish or some grilled lamb chops.


My resolution this year is to go to Paris more often. It is really quite shaming: last year I went for a long weekend with my son in February and for the day in September. The year before that I did not even go to Paris once. And yet every time I do go I wonder why I have left it so long. Even more than Rome, it is home from home.

It was not always thus. My first visit, with no money and stuck in a hug, army style Auberge de la Jeunesse somewhere in the Southern suburbs, was not auspicious. It was probably another ten years later before I returned. Even then, I did not quite get for a day or two: if you go to the wrong restaurants, queue interminably for the Louvre and look to the Parisians for a friendly word of advice you can have a pretty rough time of it in Paris. That second time I was still on a pretty tight budget and things weren’t going to well until we happened upon the Brasserie de l’Isle St Louis.

It is a place that has little right to be any good. Just over the little bridge that links the Ile de la Cite (and Notre Dame) and the more sedate and civilised Ile St. Louis., there are tourists everywhere and many of the cheap geegaws available that bedevil any tourist destination. And yet countless visitors to Paris have christened their stay in the city with a modest meal at this brasserie and not regretted it. The food is remarkably consistent and the menu reads almost exactly the same as it did in 1978. I strongly suspect that it has not changed ownership and therefore no one has felt the need to improve upon it.

Resistance to change can, of course, be as dangerous as an excessive enthusiasm for progress. Just across the river from the Ile St Louis, Bofinger has a menu that would be largely unrecognisable thirty years ago. True, the oysters and coquillages are still there, as is the choucroute, and the desserts are a symphony of sugar and cream, with a rum baba the size of a football and containing enough rum to inebriate the first team of Paris St Germain. However, the main courses are no longer brasserie fare but positively gastronomic and my veal with salsify, black truffles and creamed potatoes expertly done.

Meanwhile, across the river, I am happy to say that the jarret de porc aux lentilles is still on the menu at the Brasserie de l’Isle. It costs a bit more than the six Francs I paid in 1978 but it is still a huge chunk of meat adorned by nothing more than a little thin gravy, some firm green lentils and a pot of mustard.

WINE: The brasserie staple, when speaking of red wine, is a racy and fruity Beaujolais . In truth this is not a dish that will struggle with any red.


Puy lentils, a dark moss green lentil are traditional. On this occasion I used the slightly browner Castellucio lentils. They hold up just as well when cooked and have the requisite rich and earthy flavour. Serves at least 8.

2 ham hocks weighing 1.25 kg each

2 onions

1 large carrot

1 bulb of garlic

3 bay leaves


Parsley stalks

250 grams green lentils

12 cloves

1 red chilli

1 shallot

25 grams butter

1 glass dry white wine

100 ml double cream

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons seed mustard

Soak the hocks in a large pan of cold water overnight. The next day, change the water, bring to the boil and then discard the water and cover with fresh cold water. Add a sliced onion, the carrot, the garlic, the bay leaves and the thyme. Bring to a simmer, skim carefully and cook on a gentle heat for two and a half hours, replenishing the water if necessary.

Rinse the lentils in a sieve with cold water before covering with fresh water in a saucepan. Add the second onion studded with the cloves and the chilli and bring them to the boil. Simmer gently for forty minutes or until they are perfectly tender. Drain if necessary and season with salt only now that the lentils are cooked.

Peel the shallot and chop it very finely. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and sweat the shallot gently. Add the wine and reduce it by half before adding two large ladles of the stock from the ham. Reduce this quite vigorously by two thirds and then whisk in the cream, boil briefly and then whisk in the two mustards. Season this sauce and taste.

Lift the hocks from their stock and carve them, arranging on top of the lentils and dress with the sauce. Boiled potatoes may also be served.

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