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We are never without butter at home, as essential to us as dried oregano, garlic, tomato sauce, capers and olive oil. My wife has been known to melt a pat of Jersey butter for flapjacks, and my children eat it like cheese on the endless rounds of toast they clamour for each morning. Everyday luxury.
Butter is a staple of northern Italian cooking, used much more than in the south. Historically the fat of choice for the wealthy, its rich, mellow sweetness is in the elevated fine pasta served with white truffles, and also crucial in risotto. What is poetically described by Elizabeth David as “a walnut of butter”, added towards the end of something home-cooked with everyday ingredients, makes it the hug one needs at this time of year.
Pollo alla cacciatore
An Italian classic, this can be heaped on a bed of marigold-yellow polenta – an opportunity for more lashings of butter. It would also work well with greens and bread on the table to mop up the juices.
chicken 1, small (roughly 1 kg)
celery with leaves 3 sticks
leek 1, large
garlic 2 cloves
green olives 12
rosemary 3 sprigs
bay 4 leaves
white wine 250ml
salt and black pepper
Using a good knife or scissors, cut the backbone out of the chicken. Turn it upside down and cut the chicken in 2 between the breasts. Remove the wings and thighs and separate them from the drumsticks. Cut each breast in 2. (Alternatively, ask your butcher to joint the chicken for you.) Season with salt and black pepper.
Melt the butter over a medium-high heat in a wide, lidded pan. When it is foaming, add the chicken, skin side down. Fry, gently crackling, for 8 minutes, turning from time to time until golden brown. While this is happening, chop the celery and leek into 2cm pieces. Peel and then add the garlic with the olives into the crackling butter in a space between the chicken. Fry for a further minute or 2.
Add the herbs and vegetables and mix them through – the butter will quieten down at this point. After 3 minutes, add the wet ingredients, incorporate and cover. Cook over a medium low heat for 35 minutes, turning and basting halfway through.
Porcini and saffron risotto
There is a strong argument that porcini make the very best risotto. The luxurious lick of saffron, along with butter and parmesan, highlights their depth of flavour. Use powdered saffron if you like or omit it altogether if you don’t have any.
dried porcini 15g
saffron threads a pinch
celery with leaves ¼ of a head
red onion 1, small
garlic 1 clove
risotto rice 400g
white wine 1 large glass
stock 1.5 litres (chicken, meat or vegetable)
parmesan 60g, grated
salt and pepper
Soak the porcini in a cup of boiling water and, separately, the saffron in a couple of tablespoons. Reserving any leaves, finely chop the celery along with the onion and garlic. Warm the stock.
Melt half the butter with a little olive oil in a saucepan and sweat the vegetables with a pinch of salt over a medium heat until soft. Reserving the water, drain and chop the porcini and add to the pan. After 3 minutes, add the rice and continue to gently fry, stirring for a minute or so until all the grains are hot. Turn the heat up, add the saffron in its water and all the wine. Stir well as the wine evaporates. Once the liquid has evaporated, add the mushroom water, continuing to stir. Now it’s time for the stock. Add ladle by ladle, stirring and allowing for the last ladle to be absorbed before adding the next.
Continue cooking until the rice is to your liking. Slightly al dente is best. The whole process should take about 25 minutes. Turn off the heat. Check the seasoning. Complete it by stirring in the rest of the butter, parmesan and chopped celery leaves. Cover and allow the glossy rice to rest for 2 minutes before serving.
Celeriac, fennel and squash
A slightly aniseedy, comforting mix of braised autumn vegetables. This works as well with a savoury centrepiece as it does as the centrepiece itself.
fennel 3 bulbs (about 500g)
winter squash 300g
garlic 5 cloves
parsley or marjoram ½ a bunch
red wine vinegar ½ tbsp
sea salt and black pepper
Cut the fennel into 3cm wedges. Peel the celeriac and winter squash and cut both into 2cm slices. Peel and cut each garlic in half.
Melt the generous amount of butter in a wide pan over a medium-high heat. Move the pan as it melts and allow the butter to change colour to a light caramel before adding the fennel and garlic. Turn the heat down to medium and stir frequently for around 4 minutes, so that the vegetables turn an even gold. Then add the celeriac and cook for another 5 minutes, continuing to move from time to time to avoid the vegetables scorching.
Add the squash and a splash of water, turn the heat to medium-low and put the lid on. After 5 minutes’ cooking, add half of the herbs, checking to see if the pan has dried and needs another splash of water.
Continue this process, checking for dryness and turning every so often, for 30 minutes. Be gentle when you turn the vegetables. The pan should be kept steamy rather than too wet. When done, season, add a flick of red wine vinegar and the remaining herbs.
Bread, butter, pears and brandy pudding
My mother, an expatriate in Italy, has always taken delight in how popular English puddings are with her Italian supper guests, so I took a special pride in serving this to an Italian house guest and getting her stamp of approval. Serves 6
butter 2 tbsp
soft brown sugar 2 tbsp
sourdough bread 7 slices, preferably stale
double cream 250ml
vanilla pod 1, split
egg yolks 4
golden caster sugar 50g
butter 2 tbsp
Peel, halve and core the pears. Then melt 2 tbsp of butter over a medium-high heat in a wide, shallow pan. Add the pears cut side down. Fry for 5 minutes until golden in places, then turn, fry for a further 2 minutes, before adding the soft brown sugar, turning off the heat, and then adding the brandy. Turn everything so the sugar melts into the brandy, making a sauce in the residual heat of the pan.
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Butter the bread. Alternate bread and butter and then pears to fill a baking dish. Heat the milk and cream with the vanilla. Whisk the yolks with the caster sugar until pale and then whisk the hot milk and cream into them. Use it to cover the bread and pears, adding the juice from the pear sauce on top. Set the pudding dish aside for 20 minutes.
Put the dish into another slightly larger one and surround the dish with hot water to make a bain-marie. Bake for 40 minutes and serve with a jug of good cream on the table.
Joe Trivelli is joint executive chef at the River Café in west London