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.
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.