Monday, 17 October 2011

'Nduja, octopus and fennel risotto

'Spreadable' is not a good look for a foodstuff. 

'Spreadable' generally indicates a deterioration in quality, some sort of tampering that has gone on with a once proud ingredient to reduce it to a sad, pliable fraction of its former self. Spreadable butter? Well, it's not really butter, is it? It's a weird butter/oil hybrid that comes in a tub. Spreadable cheese? Not to be confused with cream cheese, which at least has natural origins, spreadable cheese often comes in a squeezy tube like toothpaste and looks like the sort of thing you might seal bathroom tiles with.

One of the most disgusting things I have ever let grace my field of vision was a tub of 'spreadable bacon'. I found it, of all places, in the Home section of TK Maxx. Needless to say, it was in the Clearance aisle. I had a quick look at the ingredients before I rushed off to be sick in one of their designer handbags, and managed to infer that this hideous concoction was a sort of bacon-mayonnaise love child, the kind of thing Dante meant to put in his fifth circle of hell but forgot because one of his minions popped over with an espresso and wanted to have a chat about the Papacy.

I don't feel I should post this link, lest I be seen to endorse 'baconnaise', but it's so horrible that it almost defies belief, so I feel the need to provide incontrovertible evidence as to the existence of this travesty.

With all these things in mind, the notion of 'spreadable salami' is not enormously enticing. When I mention it to people, they have a tendency to look a bit confused and slightly disgusted.

However, this is not the result of some preservative-wielding, meat- and mayonnaise-loving Americans. This spreadable salami is called 'nduja, and is in fact a long-established speciality of Calabria in southern Italy (the 'toe' of the boot), a comparatively poor region of Italy but one that is fast becoming famous for its DOP (protected origin) cured meats.

'Nduja is made by kneading ground pork together with seasoning and Calabrian chilli peppers. This is then encased in the pig's intestinal lining (don't get all's no different to your sausages) before it is smoked and allowed to rest for several months. The result is similar to chorizo in its vibrant red-orange colouring and smoky, spicy flavour, but the difference is that this variety is soft and spreadable. It's also intensely spicy, due to the liberal amounts of high quality Calabrian pepper. The pigs for the 'nduja roam freely on small-scale farms, feeding on chestnuts and foraging in woods for food, which contributes to the rich flavour of the meat; the welfare standards for 'nduja pigs are impressive, most of them living well for at least two years before being slaughtered. 'Nduja is made from the throat meat and fat, though the pork is also used to make pancetta and various other pig products.

For more information about the origins of 'nduja, you can read Rose Prince's excellent article, published in the Telegraph a little while ago. One thing she failed to include, however, and which all articles on 'nduja seem to omit, is how to pronounce the thing. This, to me, seems rather a large oversight, as I imagine your average consumer would look at the word and be more than a little flummoxed. With good reason, too - even the Italian lodger staying at our house a couple of weeks ago had never heard of 'nduja and had to guess at how to pronounce it. He declared that it was some sort of southern dialect word, hence the odd initial apostrophe and use of 'j', a letter usually absent from the Italian alphabet.

In case you were wondering, you pronounce it "un-DOO-ya".

Anyway, I was lucky enough to receive a sample of Calabrian 'nduja from the kind people at Unearthed, purveyors of authentic meat, cheese and deli products from around the globe (I previously wrote about their olives and chorizo). I was seriously excited about this. 'Nduja is one of the trendiest ingredients around at the moment; it's cropping up everywhere on blogs, twitter and the national papers, so I was glad to be able to jump on the bandwagon. I was beginning to feel a little bit like the kid standing lonely in the corner of the playground because all the other kids have this season's must-have new toy and he/she doesn't.

(If you too are feeling like that kid, you can buy Unearthed 'nduja from Waitrose, Ocado and Abel & Cole for £2.19 per 90g pack).

I just couldn't, for the life of me, imagine what 'spreadable salami' would taste like. I managed to glean from seasoned foodie James Ramsden that it is "pretty punchy", but other than that, I was in the dark. I suppose it was rather brave of me, then, to come up with an entire recipe based on what I imagined 'nduja would taste like. Fortunately, it worked extremely well.

How best to describe the elusive 'nduja? It is very reminiscent of chorizo, with its smoky flavours and the gorgeous scarlet oils it exudes. However, it is substantially spicier than most chorizo and, of course, is soft. Not quite as soft and spreadable as pâté; it doesn't quite have that smooth, mousse-like texture, but is a little more fibrous. I love its beautiful brick-red colouring, so vibrant and full of life and flavour. It has a buttery, rich mouthfeel that contributes an intensely savoury flavour to whatever you use it with. It's also easier to cook with than chorizo; you can just stir it into cooked pasta or risotto, or spread it on pizza - no need to bother with pre-cooking.

Unearthed suggest coupling their 'nduja with pasta and fresh ricotta. I think this would be a delightful combination; the spicy, rich 'nduja clinging to the slippery strands of pasta, mellowed out by clouds of sweet, crumbly ricotta. This combination would also work well as bruschetta, I think. Seeing as this is a relatively new ingredient to our shores, there are few existing recipes out there, which I find immensely inspiring. I loved the sound of Rose Prince's 'nduja batch buns, though, and she had some great recipe suggestions here. I have a few more ideas up my sleeve, but for now I'll share my 'nduja debut with you.

This involved cooking a whole octopus. One of the more adventurous things I've done in the kitchen of late, this was a challenge I just couldn't refuse after I found a small octopus from the fish counter in the reduced section of Tesco for under £3. It's always a gamble buying wrapped stuff from the fish or meat counters, because you can't see it and have no idea what you're getting - it'll just say "sea bass", or "salmon", and you have no idea if there's one fillet in there or four. To get an idea of what I was letting myself in for, I went over to the counter and had a quick look at the whole octopi splayed there on the ice. They were, as I had suspected, completely intact.

I had absolutely no idea how one cooks whole octopus, having only prepared squid before, but I remembered a recipe for it in Jamie Oliver's Italian cookbook. Essentially, you just steam it, as you would mussels or clams, but for longer, until it is soft and - also like mussels and clams - has released loads of delicious broth. It goes beautifully tender - still a little bit chewy, but that's just the natural texture of cephalopods - with a lovely rich, gelatinous skin and dense, sweet flesh. You can then slice it up and add it to whatever dish you fancy. The smell as it cooks, along with a little parsley, garlic, lemon and olive oil, is truly sumptuous.

I settled on octopus because I initially wanted to pair the 'nduja with crab or squid. Squid works so well with chorizo, its sweet mildness mellowing out the rich spice of the meat. It's one of those surf and turf combinations that is immensely successful. I figured octopus would work just as well, and for £3 I couldn't really say no. Originally I was going to cook pasta, stirring the 'nduja in at the end and tossing it with rings of squid, but I had a real craving for risotto, so just adapted the recipe in my head to suit rice instead. I still want to try out a 'nduja spaghetti with crab, though. Risotto works better with octopus, I think, as the pieces of flesh are quite chunky and not really suited to tossing with pasta.

This is a basic risotto recipe, using fish stock as well as the delicious cooking liquor exuded by the octopus. There's some fennel in there, because it goes really well with both pork and seafood. There's parsley and lemon juice, to cut through the richness of the 'nduja. Other than that, it's just octopus, 'nduja, and rice: I stirred the 'nduja in right at the end, tasting along the way as my risotto was transformed from mild and comforting to meaty, moreish and fiery.

The creamy risotto base is the perfect vehicle for the heat of the salami, tempering it so that it just contributes a lovely savoury mouthfeel with a whisper of spice, rather than something that immolates your tonsils. The pieces of sweet, meaty octopus provide a lovely contrast in texture to the creamy rice and crunchy pieces of fennel. For something so low in fat and good for you, octopus is surprisingly rich and filling.

I really liked this risotto. It was the first time I'd cooked octopus, and I'm now a convert to its unusual flavour and texture. It was the first time I'd tried 'nduja, and I'm definitely now a convert to its versatility, beautiful colours and moreish flavour; an addictive combination of fat, smoke and spice.

If you're not already racing along on it, I'd suggest you jump on that 'nduja bandwagon now, before it gets too crowded.

'Nduja and octopus risotto (serves 4):

One octopus, around 1kg, rinsed
A large bunch of parsley
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Olive oil
1 lemon
1 onion, finely chopped
Half a bulb of fennel, finely chopped
A small glass of white wine
300g risotto rice
1 litre fish stock (keep warm in a pan on the hob)
Salt and pepper
1-2 tbsp 'nduja (or more if you like it really spicy)

First, cook the octopus. Heat 2-3 tbsp olive oil in a large pan with a lid, and fry two of the garlic  cloves until softening. Add the stalks of the parsley and the zest of the lemon and fry for another minute until fragrant, then add the octopus. Put the lid on the pan and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the octopus is tender to the point of a knife. It should release lots of delicious cooking liquor in this time - save this. Give the pan a shake every now and again while it's cooking.

Meanwhile, prepare the risotto. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan and sauté the onion and fennel over a medium heat until softening. Add the rest of the garlic, and continue to cook until golden and soft. Add the risotto rice and another tbsp olive oil, and stir for a minute or so to coat the rice in the oil - it will start to turn translucent around the edges.

Pour in the wine and wait until it has bubbled away. Then add a couple of ladlefuls of fish stock, and stir the rice until the stock has been completely absorbed. Add another ladleful, and continue to add bit by bit, waiting until all the liquid has been absorbed before adding the next lot.

After a few ladlefuls of stock have been absorbed, use the cooking liquid from the octopus instead of the stock (it'll have turned a weird pinkish-brown colour). When you've used it all up, carry on using stock to finish the risotto.

After about 25 minutes, the rice should be nearly ready. Taste to check - it should have a little bite but not be chalky. Stir in the juice of half a lemon and some finely chopped parsley, and season to taste. Finely slice the rest of the fennel bulb using a mandolin or sharp knife, and stir this into the risotto.

Remove the cooked octopus from the pan and slice into small pieces, discarding the white frothy stuff from the centre of its head. Stir these into the risotto (I saved the tentacles for a garnish) along with the 'nduja - taste as you go to check how much 'nduja you want to put in there, as it's quite spicy. You may also want to add the rest of the lemon juice.

Finish by sprinkling with a little more parsley, the octopus tentacles, and a good grinding of black pepper.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin


  1. un-DOO-ya you say? hmm, there was a fad for oooo-MAA-meee a while ago but I have more faith in this one.

    Great recipe, the octopus looks gorgeous.

  2. Congratulations on completing your Masters Elly - love the new profile pic - so....racy (and ready for the world!) Extremely cool recipe. Fabulous photos as always.

  3. You always come up with such lovely flavour combinations. I first had n'duja at l'Anima in London a couple of years ago but it's only more recently it's become widely available. It's lovely with seafood and in pasta, and can imagine it's great with the octopus. Very impressed by your octopus tackling btw! :-)

  4. It may only be 10.30am but I'm salivating at the thought of this. It sounds and looks delicious - lovely photographs. I love octopus but have always been a little put off (lazy more likely) about removing the beak, eyes and ink sack. Had Tesco done this already?

  5. Food Urchin - I reckon the beauty of nnndooooyaaa is that it is also full of oommaaammee goodness.

    Kelly - haha thanks! My boyfriend was just being silly taking photos of me while I cooked so I started posing coquettishly with figs. As you do...

    Littleloaf - I've wanted to go to l'Anima for aaages but have never made it, is it worth a visit?

    Eliza - always good to know I've achieved my aim: to make people salivate over my recipes before lunchtime! I'm not sure about the octopus prep to be honest - I literally just rinsed it and chucked it in the pan. If there were any unsavoury bits in there, I didn't notice when it came to eating them! There was some weird stuff in the head (brains? eyes?) but it was fairly obvious when it was cooked that that stuff wasn't to be eaten, so I just discarded it.

  6. I never new there is spredable salami:)Your dish howeve rlooks great for ones that like octopus;)

  7. I've heard of 'nduja and wasn't sure what it was: I think half the time my first thought is of gianduja (until I am corrected by the context) which, well, would be a lamentable turn on this recipe. Now I will remember: spreadable chorizo, or sort of, which sound so delicious! I actually happen to love octopus and fennel so I hope to try this recipe someday. (PS love your blog title and nod to shakespeare!)


Please leave comments - they make my day.