Thursday, 2 December 2010

Sausages. Oh, yes. And Mash.

With three inches of snow on the ground and the nation, as a consequence, at a complete standstill, what else is there to do but to hunker down at home, pull the cork out of a bottle of something red and heartwarming, and build up your reserves of comfort.  What is generally referred to as comfort food, regular reader’s will have noticed, is a recurring theme of this blog, although I’m not, personally, a fan of the term itself.  Comfort, to me implies a palliative effect, and, by extension, the corollary presence of some degree of distress.  You know, I don’t actually count feeling a bit peckish as a form of genuine distress, and if you do, then, frankly, you need to toughen up.  Indulgent food, then?  Well maybe, except the word indulgence carries connotations either of puritan disapproval, or, whether you disapprove of it or not, of an unnecessary and extravagant treat.  Either way, oysters and champagne at Grand Central Station might count as an indulgence, oxtail stew (or braised ox cheeks, or pork and beans for that matter…) at home, to me, doesn’t.  So I think I’ll just choose to call it nice food, thank you.  And in this current wintery weather, what could be nicer (or more comforting, or indulgent, whatever…) than sausages and mash.

As it happens, I was in my local Italian deli – Gallo Nero II on Stoke Newington High Street the other day (before the snows came), and the people next to me asked for some of their special pork and fennel sausages.  I’d already been covetously eyeing the tray behind the meat counter, and that tipped me over the edge – I couldn’t resist asking for some too.  These are pricey sausages – the six I asked for came to almost eight quid, but they are hefty too.  Bigger and meatier than your average sausages - so much so that those six, casseroled, will do the two of us for two dinners, first as the casserole itself, served up with mash (of course), and then as the basis for a pasta sauce – so although it might be pushing the limits of indulgence, it’s not so very wildly extravagant, once in a while.  And they are the best sausages I know.

Because they’re so good I keep the casserole simple.  Just brown the sausages gently in my shallow casserole, then chuck in chunky wedges of fennel and red onion, some garlic, a touch of chilli, a little fresh thyme and salt and pepper.  Soften the onion and fennel, then pour over enough wine (I used red this time, but white will work, or even cider - but that adds an extra fruity element that these sausages don’t really need, but by all means experiment with whatever sausages you’re using) to just about half the depth of the sausages, throw in a bay leaf, bring it to a gentle simmer and put it in the oven.  About 30 – 40 minutes at 180 will do it, or longer and lower if you have the time, which will produce a greater depth of flavour.  Unlike say, ox cheeks or pork and beans, though, it’s not a case of putting it in and forgetting about it for pretty much ever.  This can cook for too long.  An hour at around 150 is probably ideal, although if you do what I did and pop out for a trip to the shops, which ends up taking much longer than you’d expected, and it gets about an hour and a half, it’s not (quite) a disaster.  In fact, flavour wise, it’s great - the onion and fennel having almost melted and caramelized, their flavour intense, their texture luxurious.  Aesthetically, though, I have to admit it’s no triumph, everything cooked to the same deep mahogany colour and the rendered fat from the sausages separated from the winey sauce and laying on top as a clear and glistening (but very tasty) oil slick.

As I’ve said before, and you might well have noticed anyway, Becca and I are not exactly deterred by a bit of fat, and this was utterly delicious served up with mash and a couple of heads of little gem lettuce, sprinkled with cumin and fennel seeds and fried in, I admit, a little bit of the sausage fat (you could use olive oil).  Two sausages each was plenty, leaving the other two in the pan with enough of the sauce to be put in the fridge to await being turned into a pasta sauce a night or two later, with the addition of a handful or two of halved cherry tomatoes and chesnut mushrooms, and served with gnocchi made from the leftover mash.
A more aesthetically successful version of sausage and mash was the one I did a few weeks ago, that I posted as a picture but hadn’t time to write up.  My blog stats tell me that’s been one of my most popular postings, which I’m not sure how to take.  Does it mean that people just like to look at pictures of food and would rather not be bothered with all these tedious words?  In which case am I wasting my time?  Or does it just mean that the people who read my blog are the kind of people who really like sausage and mash?  In which case they’re my kind of people.  I prefer to believe it’s the latter.

That sausage casserole was made in much the same way as the above, but using garlic and chilli sausages from the farmer’s market.  These were damned good sausages, but not in the same league (for flavour or heftiness) as the fennel ones from Gallo Nero.  Just really good ordinary sausages.  Hence the addition of a few more featured flavours going into the casserole, including pears, also from the farmer’s market and just short of perfect eating ripeness - which, in the way of all pears (including avocados, which I know aren’t, but in this respect may as well be), they would undoubtedly have reached for about half an hour around 3a.m. on a Tuesday, before turning to mush - and beans for added substance.

Again, brown the sausages to start, add onions and red peppers (more thinly sliced in this case than the wedges of onion and fennel) along with garlic, chilli, thyme, salt & pepper, then mushrooms and finally the pears, peeled and cut into wedges.  Cook all together for just a couple of minutes, then add cannellini (or butter) beans (half a tin was enough for two), a bay leaf and enough cider to just cover.  Again, put it in the oven for half an hour at 180, or an hour at 150.  Again serve with mash.  Again, delicious.

Mash:  King of carbs.

King of carbs?  It’s a bold claim.  There’s bread, of course - staff of life and all that.  And the Italians and their many –ophiles, would no doubt put in a strong claim for pasta.  I’m quite sure that well over half the World’s population would vote for rice, which just goes to show that democracy’s never really going to work, if you ask me.  Even within the world of potato (a magical world, rather like Homer Simpson’s Land of chocolate, except made of potato, obviously) the popular phone-in vote would probably go to the chip, but I tend to think of the chip of more of a flash prince, a regent perhaps, to mash’s kingly stolidity.  Mash has gravitas.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the snow outside: if Good King Wenceslas was a carb, he’d be mash.

And by mash, I mean mash – not pommes puree or mouselline.  I wouldn’t thank you (sorry, Mark) for any mash made up of half potato half butter and half cream (yes, I know that’s three halves, and that’s just about how far removed from reality these fancy mashes are, in my opinion, and mash, if nothing else, should be real, earthbound food).  I want to be able to tell that my mash is made of potato, and if that means finding the odd lump, then bring it on.  I’m not scared.  In fact I’d go so far as to say, I actually like the odd lump.  I like texture.  As a character in one of my several unpublished novels once said on my behalf: “Why puree a vegetable when you have teeth?”

Not that I’m a purist, or some kind of mash fascist (that would be grossly hypocritical of me).  Make your mash as you like it.  At home, due to Becca’s dairy allergy, obviously, I mash with extra virgin olive oil, but when I’m cooking for other, non allergic people, I’ll mix it with butter and crème fraiche.  And I’m perfectly happy to mix my potato with other root vegetables - sweet potatoes, celeriac, swede or parsnips, are all good – even occasionally something that grows above the ground, in the case of cauliflower.  I usually throw a stalk of rosemary and/or four or five peeled garlic cloves in the pan with the potatoes, for extra flavour.

And that’s one of the great things about mash, it’s variety and versatility, and the fact that you can (and should) make too much of it and turn the leftovers into great new things – all the variations on bubble and squeak, potato cakes, gnocchi - which you just can’t do with chips.  OK, I was joking to start with, but now I’m convinced.  Mash gets my nomination for king of carbs.  We’ll incorporate gnocchi to get the pasta lovers onside, and the campaign kicks off right here…

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