I always love September and the strong sense of getting back to business that accompanies the cool crisp air. As a child this was signalled by the scent of crayons and sharpened pencils, but now I swoon at the sight of pumpkins and ripe tomatoes and blackberries at the markets. And to me, this change in season marks the end of the more casual dining style that late summer evenings afford, replaced by richer meals and more attention to detail. With all that in mind I had friends over this week to be my guinea pigs – I wanted to recreate the first dinner we had in Panicale, Italy in May.
On our anniversary trip we stayed just outside the walls of a medieval fort town high on a hill in Umbria. Inside those walls is a little place called Ristorante Masolino, run by the same family for over 50 years. Our friend who had lent her house to us told us we had to try this unassuming hole in the wall: “Try the pigeon on toast. It will change your life,” was what her email said. As you know, I’m always up for life-changing food and decided it should be our first stop of the week. Charming Andrea runs the front of the house while his mother and sister cook using recipes native to their Umbrian heritage. Bottles of local olive oil sit on each table, local wine is featured on the menu and local game the highlight of the menu. To start I ordered papparadelle with wild boar ragu, cinghiale, which is hunted all over the region. For my main I had to follow my friend’s advice and try the pigeon on toast – really a guinea hen with a rich liver and pancetta sauce served on toast. I swooned over both! Really, just about the best things I’d ever put in my mouth. Immediately I asked Andrea what was in the guinea hen sauce, but he demurred. It is a guarded family recipe he wasn’t about to divulge.
Not to be deterred, I came back to London and started poking around, looking for some clues as to how Andrea’s mother made this magical braised ambrosia. Not only did I want to eat it again without the plane journey, but felt the need to share with others the deliciousness of this very Italian dish. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far. You see, Chef Nancy Silverton had experienced exactly the same thing at Ristorante Masolino. She too had asked Andrea for the recipe, however despite being a regular customer and renowned chef, he still wouldn’t budge on sharing the family secret. So Silverton, along with her chef friends, ate the dish repeatedly, trying to suss out how this humble sounding dish was made. It was in her fabulous Mozza Cookbook that I found her version of this recipe along with one for a divine wild boar ragu and a butterscotch budino (pudding) with caramel sauce that made my toes curl it was so delicious.
So on Thursday night, after three days of cooking, I set the table with my Grandmother’s china and chilled some prosecco to accompany my toasted almonds and radishes with blue cheese butter that we were going to nibble on in the garden before dinner. This is actually a perfect dinner party meal because everything is prepared well in advance, albeit it’s a lot of prep. On Tuesday I made my tomato sauce and sofrito, both components of the wild boar ragu. Wednesday was a long walk over to the butcher in St. John’s Wood where I was able to source both the guinea hens (guinea fowl they call them here) and wild boar shoulder. Then I made the ragu, which cooked on the stove all day, figuring it would taste better if allowed to sit in the fridge overnight. I also prepared the butterscotch pudding and the caramel sauce on Wednesday, because, why not? Get as much done in advance as possible! My guinea hen thighs went into the fridge to cure overnight and I made a rich hen stock from the carcasses. Finally, on the day of the party I braised the guinea hen thighs, blanched some Tuscan kale to serve alongside this meat heavy meal and really that was it.
I know it sounds like a lot of work and with ingredients that aren’t readily available, but that’s what makes dinner party season so special. There’s something so soothing (to me – and yes, I know most people would disagree) about meals that require this kind of preparation. Little brings me greater satisfaction. Take the extra time to source ingredients and try something completely new and somewhat daunting. Even I thought the food tasted delicious at my party (something that doesn’t often happen) and I think my friends were happy too. It’s the little extra effort and details that make a night like this, the kick-off to a new season, so perfect.
Guinea Hen Crostone with Liver and Pancetta Sauce
Adapted from the Mozza Cookbook, by Nancy Silverton
8 guinea hen thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flour for dredging
1/4 cup olive oil, more as needed
3/4 pound diced pancetta
1 large diced Spanish onion
12 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1 bottle dry white wine
5 cups chicken or guinea hen stock
1 pound cleaned chicken livers, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice (maybe more at the end to your own taste)
4 (1-inch thick) slices peasant bread, such as ciabatta
3 lemons, zest removed in long strips
1/4 cup whole celery heart leaves, for garnish
1/4 cup whole Italian parsley leaves, for garnish
You’ll probably have to buy guinea hens whole rather than just thighs. In this case, cut the thighs off and make a stock with them, just as you would a chicken stock. Use in the recipe instead of chicken stock.
With a clean kitchen towel or paper towel, pat the guinea thighs dry. Season them with 4 teaspoons sea salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Place them all in a ziplock bag and allow to sit in the fridge overnight. Now, dredge in the flour and pat off all excess flour. Meanwhile, heat a large cast-iron Dutch oven over medium heat and then add the olive oil.
Brown the thighs, skin side down first, adjusting the heat and adding more oil so that the meat sizzles at a nice pace. Cook until golden, 2 to 3 minutes, and then turn the meat and cook another minute or two to color the other side. If your pan is small, cook the thighs in two batches. Transfer the thighs to a plate.
Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan again. Add the pancetta and sweat for 2 to 3 minutes scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic and sweat for another five minutes or so, so that the onions are soft and translucent. Add the rosemary, sage, and a small pinch of pepper. Cook for one more minute. Add the wine, 4 cups of the stock, livers, capers, vinegar, and lemon juice. Add the reserved guinea thighs and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the guinea is fork-tender and the meat pulls away from the bone easily, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Carefully remove the thighs and reserve on a plate. When cool enough to handle you can remove the thigh bones easily.
Now turn up the heat and boil the sauce, stirring from time to time to make sure it isn’t sticking and burning, until it reduces by half – about 20 minutes. To thicken it slightly, use a blender to puree 1 cup of the reduced sauce and add it back to the pan. Stir and taste for seasoning. Add a couple drops of lemon juice if needed. Salt is probably not needed, but use your judgment for final seasoning.
To finish, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the bread slices in a small baking dish that has been generously coated with olive oil. Ladle the remaining 1cup of stock evenly over all of the bread and toast in the oven until the bread has turned a crispy golden brown on the bottom, about 10 minutes. Use a spatula to check and be careful as the toast tends to stick. Warm up your sauce and chop up the celery leaves, parsley and lemon zest for your garnish. Toss this with a little olive oil and salt.
To serve, set one slice of toast (browned side up) on each plate and place the meat from two thighs on each toast. Spoon some of the warmed sauce over each thigh and a little more to run off the crostone. Garnish generously with the celery leaf, parsley and lemon zest mixture.