Niall McKenna: Serving up summer, Italian-style

Niall McKenna

SINCE the weather has taken a decidedly Autumnal turn, there's no better way to pretend we're still on our summer holidays than with our food.

I always like to take inspiration from my travels and, as a regular visitor to Italy, I love re-interpreting their menus for our own restaurants.

Italians have an old fashioned and very honest love for well grown, homemade products, and this is evident everywhere in the country.

Polenta is a foodstuff which you don't really see that much on menus in Belfast and it is a great accompaniment to meat dishes. I have paired it today with quail.

The quail is a perfect main course, while the refreshing sorbet provides the perfect accompaniment – but can also be kept in the fridge for a few days and goes well with any ripened fruit.

:: Quail with Guanciale and Polenta

Ingredients (Serves 8):

8 birds

16 slices of Guanciale

8 sage leaves

olive oil

50g butter

A splash of white wine

For the polenta:

1 litre milk

1 onion, diced

2 bay leaves

4 black peppercorns, whole

80g butter

100g polenta

50g Parmesan, grated

:: Method

Start by making the polenta. Dice the onions and place in a pot, pour over the milk and place on a gentle simmer. Add the bay leaves, peppercorns and simmer for 8-10 minutes. This is to infuse the milk with the flavours.

Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Once cooled, strain the milk and discard the ingredients. Add the milk back to the saucepan and add the butter and place on the heat again until melted through.

Once the butter has completely melted, add the polenta and stir using a whisk. Leave on a gentle heat for 10 minutes, stirring to ensure that a milky skin does not form. Add the grated Parmesan and cover with a cartouche (length of greaseproof paper) to keep moist.

Preheat the oven to 180C. For the birds, you firstly want to brown them off in a hot pan before placing in the oven. Turn over on each side until completely browned all over.

Wrap the guanciale around the bird (you can use skewers to keep this in place) and stuff the cavity with a sage leaf. Place on the roasting tray with the white wine and butter and cook for 10 minutes. The oven needs to have come up to its desired 180C temperature before cooking.

Take the birds out of the oven and leave to rest. Keep the juices from the birds and you can either spoon over when serving or use to make a more intense jus. Serve with the polenta.

:: Fruit Salad with Lemon Sorbet

Sorbet ingredients:

250g caster sugar

250ml water

1 tblsp honey

200ml fresh lemon juice with bits

1 lemon zested


Start by placing the sugar, water and honey on a gentle heat and simmer, letting the sugar dissolve. Once simmered and the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and allow to cool adding the lemon juice and zest. Taste at this stage as you can add an additional spoonful of honey if the mixture is too tart.

Place the mix in a freezer proof container and place in the freezer. Remove from the freezer after an hour and fork over to mix it up as this will prevent ice crystals forming. Keep doing this every couple of hours until the mixture is frozen.

For the fruit, it is better to use soft fruit and berries so strawberries, blackberries, raspberries with peaches and plums. Remove stones, roughly chop and serve with the lemon sorbet.

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