Duck with chocolate and marsala

If it's possible for food to be sexy - and of course I believe it is, otherwise my life as a food blogger and aspiring food journalist would be very barren indeed - then this dish might just be the epitome of blushing, pulse-quickening, supple-fleshed sexuality. 

Think tender, succulent, meaty duck legs, smothered in a powerfully rich and complex sauce. It's glossy and dark with molten chocolate, enriched with the creamy bite of toasted pine nuts, sweet and juicy with plump raisins and laced with alcohol. It dribbles seductively off the spoon over the crispy skin of the duck, a dark and dramatic waterfall leaving sweet-savoury nuggets of powerful flavour in its wake.

This is a recipe from the Bocca cookbook by Jacob Kennedy, acclaimed head chef of Bocca di Lupo in Soho. I've been there twice and it's one of the best restaurants I've ever visited. It serves Italian food, but not as you'd know it; the dishes are often unusual, highlighting recipes, flavours and combinations from all over the diverse gastronomic melting pot that is Italy. Flavours are hearty and robust, the cooking is exquisite, and eating there is a fascinating tour de force of Italian cuisine at its lesser-known and best.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Bocca cookbook has no time for lasagne, spag bol and carbonara. Instead it treats you to underrated classics: caponata, the amazing sweet-sour aubergine stew from Sicily; guidelines for making your own Italian sausages; octopus with olive oil and peas; baked pigeon and bread 'soup'; cassata, a sublime confection of ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit from Sicily; tuna tartare, and other wonderful and exotic dishes. 

(Incidentally, I'm not being asked to write about this lovely book...I just thought I'd share my passion for it with you.)

I've started bookmarking recipes in new cookbooks as soon as I first read through them, to make it easier to find them later on. I take this a bit too seriously, having created a geeky colour scheme of page markers (blue for fish, green for vegetarian, pink for desserts, purple for meat...) to categorise the recipes. It's lucky I'm going back to university in October, really, isn't it?

This recipe was bookmarked immediately. Just the title had my mouth watering in anticipation.

Perhaps because it just rolls off the tongue in this incredibly sexy fashion. Perhaps because the word 'chocolate' is effortlessly inviting, conjuring up images of dark, sweet, melting goodness; of the voluptuous flow of a chocolate fountain or the warm, molten centre of a chocolate truffle. There's something beautiful about the word 'marsala', too, its soft sounds reminiscent of a seductive whisper, a romantic sigh, the letters curling around each other like slumbering lovers.

I've always been fascinated by cooking with chocolate. It's not a new concept; the Aztecs used it in this way before we Europeans got hold of the stuff and pumped it full of fat and sugar. You still find chocolate used as an ingredient in some savoury Mexican cooking. I've been experimenting with its deep, tannic richness recently, finding it a perfect partner for smoked duck, caramelised pears and goats cheese in this beautiful salad, though it's also commonly paired with venison. If you use good quality dark chocolate, it can add an intriguing complexity of flavour to a dish; a hint of bitterness, a touch of fragrance, a soft and melting mouthfeel.

This recipe starts by browning duck - it states to use a whole duck, jointed, but duck legs were on offer at the supermarket so I went with those. Once the duck skin is brown and crisp and has rendered down a lot of its fat, you remove it from the pan and fry chopped onion, pine nuts and raisins along with a cinnamon stick, fennel seeds and bay leaves.

The scent emanating from the pan as I stirred this heady mixture was intoxicating. The combination of spicy fennel, warm cinnamon and perfumed bay is unusual, wonderfully fragrant in a way that manages to be both sweet and savoury simultaneously. The pine nuts toast, offering up their nutty aroma, while the onions soften into translucent slivers.

To this you add a generous amount of marsala, or medium sherry (I went for the latter as marsala is pretty expensive). The duck legs sit in this sauce, covered, for around 45 minutes, braising gently away while infusing all of their meaty liquor into the sherry.

The finishing touch, once the duck is cooked, is to stir some dark chocolate into the sauce, where it melts and colours the whole thing a deep, dark brown. Being dark chocolate, it lends more of a bitterness than a sweetness to the mixture, which is already quite sweet from the alcohol, rounding off the complex mixture of spices, nuts and raisins. It also thickens the sauce, turning it glossy and unctuous. I stirred in a little parsley at the end, to lend its welcome freshness to the whole affair.

The recipe suggests no other accompaniment than plain couscous or wilted spinach, owing to the complexity of the flavours. I'd have to agree. I served my duck with bulgar wheat (slightly nuttier and chewier than couscous, so a good match for the strong sauce) and the suggested spinach, which worked perfectly.

I'm hoping I don't even need to tell you how unusual and delicious this dish is, because the title has already caught your eye, like it caught mine, and made you think "Right. I can go no longer without this in my life". It's just a fabulous combination of ingredients that work in total harmony. It's sweet yet bitter with cocoa, it bursts with juicy raisins and the crunch of toasted nuts, it melts in your mouth like chocolate. It doesn't overpower the rich flavour of the duck meat, instead complementing it perfectly and allowing its iron-rich gameyness to shine. It is incredibly rich, though, so a little sauce goes a long way. In future I might try it with pan-fried rare duck breasts, which are less intense in flavour than the legs.

I'm not going to give you a recipe, unfortunately, as I cooked the dish word-for-word from the Bocca cookbook, and I think it would probably infringe some kind of copyright to replicate it exactly on this blog. But do go out and buy Jacob Kennedy's excellent book; you'll find far more delights than just this gorgeous dish nestling in between its hallowed pages.

Walnut and juniper crusted venison loin with chocolate jus

This beautiful loin of Yorkshire venison has been sitting in my freezer for months. It seemed so special that I could never find an occasion good enough to defrost and cook it. I was also frightened of doing something bad to it and ruining what is one of the most wonderful ingredients I have ever used. The loin of venison is the prized cut: like beef fillet, it is tender, succulent, and beautiful. Overcooking it would be a culinary crime. I've only used it once before, to make a venison carpaccio with raspberry vinaigrette. I seared the loin, and then thinly sliced it to serve with a mixture of balsamic vinegar and crushed raspberries. I remember being delighted when my guests didn't finish it all, and the next day I feasted off sandwiches of thinly-sliced, rare deer. Carving rare meat is one of my favourite kitchen tasks; I love the incredible colour and texture of tender, pink flesh, particularly game. Finally I plucked up the courage to remove the venison from the freezer.

I had no fixed idea of what I wanted to do with it, so I made a mental list of all the things that work well with this meat: juniper, nuts, mash, chocolate, raspberries, bitter greens. I've seen Jerusalem artichokes around for ages now, and keep meaning to use them, so I decided I'd definitely include them in a mash to go with the venison. The rest just sort of happened in my head: I wanted some kale in there, because I love it, and because the dark, iron richness of greens goes well with game. I like the idea of encasing meat in a crispy crust, for textural interest, so I found a way there to incorporate walnuts and juniper. Finally, a chocolate and red wine jus.

Chocolate and venison is by now a well-established culinary connection. There's something about the cocoa richness of dark chocolate that really enhances the flavour of the meat. I just grated a little into a jus made from the pan juices of the venison loin, some beef stock, some red wine, and a sprig of thyme. Finally, I added a few raspberries, crushing them into the jus for a hint of piquancy to lift what is otherwise a very earthy dish. The chocolate adds a depth of flavour that you wouldn't expect; it's excellent.

For the venison, I seared the loin in a pan before rolling it in a mixture of crushed walnuts, crushed juniper berries, dried thyme and seasoning. It then went in the oven for ten minutes; the walnuts became crispy, and I left it to rest under foil while I finished the mash, greens and sauce. It sounds like a fairly complicated recipe, but it isn't really: the trick is getting all the elements finished at the same time.

I was really pleased with how it turned out. The meat was cooked exactly as I like it: very rare. Anything else would have been wrong with such a tender cut of meat. I was surprised at its moistness, too - game can often be very dry, even when left bloody. I sliced it into beautiful rounds, still with a few walnut crumbs clinging to them, placed them on the mash, and drizzled over the jus and raspberries. The sauce is absolutely wonderful: the beef stock gives it a richness that the chocolate then enhances, and it works so well with the texture of the meat. There are lots of very big, rich flavours going on, but they're balanced by the greens and the raspberries, and the slight sweetness of the rare meat. One to repeat, I think. If I could change one thing, I'd toast the walnuts first for extra crunch.

Juniper and walnut crusted venison loin with raspberry and chocolate sauce, Jerusalem artichoke mash, and kale (serves 4):

1 venison loin (about 600g)
A little olive oil
A handful of walnuts, toasted
6 juniper berries
1 tsp dried thyme
6 Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and halved
3 mashing potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 tbsp creme fraiche, cream, or butter, for the mash
Several large handfuls of curly kale
200ml red wine
200ml beef stock
Sprig of thyme
A bar of dark chocolate
A few raspberries (optional)
1 tsp balsamic vinegar

First, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the artichokes and potatoes. Simmer until tender. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.

Meanwhile, pulse the walnuts, juniper berries, dried thyme and some seasoning in a blender to make fine crumbs. Spread out on a plate. Get a frying pan very hot, add a little olive oil, then sear the venison loin on all sides. Roll it in the crumb mixture to coat all over, then place on a baking tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes (this is for rare - increase the timings a little if you like your meat more cooked, but beware of overcooking this very tender cut). When done, remove and cover with foil to rest for 10 minutes.

Pour the stock and red wine into the venison pan to deglaze. Add the sprig of thyme and simmer until reduced by half. Taste and check the seasoning, then add the balsamic. Strain into a jug, and just before serving, grate in some dark chocolate. How much is up to you - keep tasting. You don't want it to turn into chocolate sauce, but you can put a surprising amount in without overpowering the meat. Add the raspberries too, if you like.

Place the kale with 2 tbsp water in a large, microwaveable bowl, cover with clingfilm and microwave on full power for 3 minutes. Alternatively, steam using a steamer. Season and keep warm.

Drain the potatoes and artichokes and mash. Add creme fraiche, cream, butter and milk to taste, along with lots of salt and pepper.

To assemble, spread some mash on a plate. Slice the venison loin into slices about 1.5cm thick, and arrange on top. Spoon some kale onto the side, then finally drizzle over the chocolate jus.

Chocolate crêpes with caramel pears and praline

Pancakes, to me, normally mean brunch. I tend to make thick, pillow-like cakes that you can pile high and adorn with gleaming drizzles of maple syrup or honey. As you sit down to eat them, there's always that brief pause where you have to decide whether to try and cut down through all the pancakes, and eat a mouthful containing multiple layers, or eat them one by one. However, a recent skiing holiday in the Alps put me in mind of the famous French crêpe, wafer thin and designed to provide an envelope for all sorts of delights: the simplicity of lemon and sugar is hard to beat, but you can go all out and opt for fillings guaranteed to replenish those calories lost through skiing: chocolate and banana, chestnut purée, chantilly cream. I thought pears, caramelised in butter and demerara sugar, would be a perfect filling, and chocolate also leapt to mind as an ingredient possessing a perfect affinity with the sweet, grainy fruit.

Originally, I intended to make a normal crêpe, fill it with the pears, and drizzle over some melted chocolate. However, while making the batter, I found myself reaching for the cocoa tub. The contrast of the chocolatey-coloured pancake against the bright pears is rather nice, and a bit unusual. To make the batter, just mix flour and cocoa, make a well in the centre, and crack in an egg. Using an electric beater, beat the egg gradually into the flour, adding milk until you have a fairly runny batter - about the consistency of custard. I don't tend to measure anything when I make pancakes, but you can look up a recipe for batter online and just add cocoa (Delia has a good one). Get a small frying pan very hot, add a knob of butter, and pour in enough mixture  to cover the base of the pan in a very thin layer. Cook for a minute or so, then flip (either by tossing the pan, if you're feeling daring, or with a spatula or palette knife) and cook for about half a minute. Keep warm in the oven while you make the pear filling.

To do this, just heat some butter in the hot pan, add sliced pears (one small pear per person), and cook on a medium heat until slightly coloured. Sprinkle in some cinnamon and demerara sugar, and cook until caramelised and soft. This shouldn't take long, though it depends on how ripe your pears are. Take the pancakes out of the oven. Put a few pear segments on top, then fold in half. Put the rest of the pear on one side of the semicircle-shaped crêpe, then fold over again to make a triangle.

As for the praline, I can't take any credit for its genius, because it came about as the result of a culinary accident. I melted a bar of hazelnut milk chocolate to drizzle over the crêpes. By the time it came to serve them, the chocolate wasn't quite runny enough to drizzle. For some reason, I thought adding boiling water would loosen it (normally I'd use cream, but I didn't have any). Of course, the hot water only 'cooked' the chocolate, turning it into a nutella-like paste, but not as runny. Vigorous stirring on the part of my friend Helen in an attempt to make it runny again had the result of turning it into a series of hazelnutty, chocolate pellets, that looked a bit like tiny cocoa pops.

As it turns out, these made a spectacular garnish for the crêpes. They added a nutty crunchiness that contrasted well with the soft, grainy pears and the smooth surface of the pancakes. The cocoa in the batter isn't overly chocolatey, and would be fine without any extra chocolate, but if you're going for sheer indulgence, definitely add the praline. In fact, the paste that resulted from pouring the hot water onto the chocolate is also very good spread over the inside of the crêpe before you tuck the pears into their little envelope. A dusting of icing sugar, and you have a very easy, but wonderful, dessert. Bon appetit.

More Ottolenghi, and a medley of berries

I realise as I write this that I have made quite a lot of risotto recently. I think it is turning into a bit of a habit; I just love the depth of flavour you can get from a good risotto. I think it is also to do with my parmesan addiction: anything you can grate the stuff liberally over is going down well at the moment. I had also been asked to cook something vegetarian for dinner, and risotto is always a good way to make people forget that their meal lacks meat, because it makes up for it with lots of flavour.

Naturally, I turned to Ottolenghi's Plenty, my favourite vegetarian cookbook. This lemon and aubergine risotto caught my eye, because I love aubergines and the idea of using roasted aubergine flesh in a risotto intrigued me. It's just a basic risotto but with lemon zest and juice added to it, with roasted aubergine (put under a very hot grill until blackened then cut in half and scoop out the flesh) stirred in and chopped sauteed aubergine sprinkled on top. Next time I will use more aubergines; I used three smallish ones for six people but I think more wouldn't hurt. 

For dessert, a white chocolate and vanilla mousse with summer fruits. The mousse is Green & Blacks vanilla white chocolate, milk, and vanilla extract, set with egg whites. The fruits are a medley of redcurrants, blackcurrants, blueberries, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, cherries and small plums macerated in vanilla sugar. It could almost trick you into thinking it was healthy.