Thursday, 24 February 2011

Poulet Basque/ish (at long last, chicken...)

I’m over 40 posts into this blog and I’ve not once written up a chicken recipe.  The closest I’ve come is the Guinea Fowl and mushroom pie I made because Becca had never had chicken pie.  You must think I’m a terrible snob, disdaining the humble chicken while publically flaunting my dalliances with its more glamourous cousins, guinea fowl, pheasant and grouse.  That’s not the case, although I can see why you might think it was.

I love chicken.  Who doesn’t?  I’d go so far as to say that chicken, in the form of coq au vin, was at one time something close to my signature dish.  I might go so far as to say that coq au vin was partly responsible for getting me my job at the Rivington, in so far as I’m sure it helped that when Sami, the head chef at the time, called me up to offer me a trial shift I was actually in the middle of cooking up coq au vin for twenty odd, for my friend Darren’s birthday dinner.  There was that and the fact that on that trial shift I was able to dispatch a lobster, by swiftly bisecting it, with my own knife (which I have to admit was a case of winging it – it was something I had never done before, although fortunately I had recently read a ‘how to’ article).  Of course the main thing that got me the job was being fortunate enough to have friends who were friends with Mark Hix, but without wishing to blow my own trumpet that didn’t help me with the coq au vin for twenty, let alone the lobster killing…

Anyway, here’s a chicken dish, a version of Poulet Basque, which I’d venture to suggest is close enough to do without the “-ish” suffix, although seeing as I am neither Basque, nor francophone, I think I might prefer to keep it anyway.  It just seems less pretentious, while remaining a more satisfactory and appetizing name than the functional English ‘chicken with peppers in cider.  Or wine, for that matter, although personally I’d be inclined to go for ‘Siciliana-ish’ if I were doing it with wine, although I would probably draw the line at calling the chicken ‘pollo’ in that case.  Not sure why.

Poulet basque (or a la basquaise), incidentally, doesn’t seem to attract the same degree of authenticity claim and counter claim as, say, cassoulet.  Another reason I’m not so bothered about the “-ish” suffix in this instance.  It doesn’t even have a recipe listed in Larousse, in which “a la basquaise” is defined as describing “recipes (particularly for omelettes or sautéed chicken) using tomatoes, sweet peppers, garlic and often Bayonne ham.  I’m going to disregard the tomatoes – there is, after all, nothing peculiarly or distinctively Basque about the use of tomatoes in Mediterranean cooking, or garlic, or ham (Bayonne, bacon, pancetta, whatever…) for that matter.  No, it’s the peppers that make the difference here.  Or in Sicily.  With regards to the ham (or equivalent), although I didn’t on this occasion, I often would use shredded smoked bacon or pancetta in this dish, so I’ll include it as an optional item in the recipe.

As for the use of cider, searching the web, I find most recipes use wine, some no booze at all, just stock, which seems just plain perverse to me, but as cider is what people commonly drink down there, at least on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, then it seems only natural to cook with it too.   I’m not going to claim it as any great innovation of my own.

You can of course joint a whole chicken for this, and I’d always heartily recommend doing so, but I have to admit, this dish is something I tend to do as a quick and easy dinner for two, and for that those supermarket packs of chicken thighs are perfect.  Much less hassle than jointing a whole bird, and just about as economical (as long as you get the skin on, bone in thighs.  And why would you ever not?  Let me tell you, if I ever catch you - any of you - buying the skinless, boned thigh fillets from the supermarket, I will come round to your house and do bad things…).

So, for a quick dinner for 2 you’ll need:

4 chicken thighs
1 red onion
1 red pepper (or a mix of red, green and/or yellow if you like)
4 rashers smoked bacon/pancetta shredded/diced (optional)
A little fresh chilli and plenty of garlic, finely sliced
Thyme, bay, salt, pepper
300ml Cider (more or less - or white wine) 

Brown the chicken thighs in a (preferably shallow lidded casserole).  When they are a pretty golden colour, first add the bacon/pancetta, if using it, for a couple of minutes or so until that too is nicely coloured, otherwise just go ahead and add all the other ingredients together, except the cider, and cook until the onion and peppers are starting to soften.  Then add the cider – it should be just enough to cover the peppers and onions and half the chicken thighs.  Bring to the simmer and cover.  This dish can be done entirely on the stove top, or transferred to the oven.  For the quantity above, I’d tend to leave it on the stove and allow it to simmer away covered for about 35-40 minutes.  If I were doing it in larger quantities, I’d be inclined to put it in the oven, at around 180 for a similar sort of time, or lower and slower if I had the time. 

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

More ways with steak, and the naming of it…

The dividing up of the carcass of a cow, and the naming of the parts thereby derived, is, I have to admit, an area rife with confusion.  I would say it was a minefield, but that would be to go too far.  After all, if a cow were to wander into a minefield, I think we’d end up with a pretty random collection of lumps of meat and no need whatsoever to give any of them names.  

More conventional butchery, though, does produce distinct cuts, for which there are particular names, and that’s where things do become, perhaps unnecessarily, confused.  For a start, there are the distinctly different ways of portioning the cow, according to different national traditions of butchery.  Take a look at illustrative charts of British, French and American cuts of beef and you’ll see that although there’s a broad similarity between them, there are a lot of differences in the detail.  Actually, take a look at enough of these charts, as I’ve just done, and you’ll see that once you get down to the details, there’s a good deal of difference even within each national tradition – and this is just taking three traditions, and not even wanting to think about all the others.  Least of all the Koreans, with their 120 odd main cuts (allegedly) as compared to 35 each for us and the French… 

Even once you’ve established which bit of the animal you’re looking at, there’s the question of how it is separated from the rest of the beast (on the bone or off, at the most basic) and that’s even before you get on to the issue of naming it.  Which is not a simple matter of translation from French to English, say, or even American to UK English.  For instance, in the course of my research, as I write this morning, I have come across the French ‘faux filet’ translated both as sirloin and ribeye.  As it happens, I had ‘faux filet’ for lunch in a restaurant on the shores of Lake Annecy, just the day before yesterday, and it seemed to me to be more like sirloin, but not so much like sirloin that I could definitively say that was exactly what it was.  More problematic, though, than fuzzy translation, is the fact that – like the charts – even within the same tradition, there can be tremendous variations, with the same terminology applied to subtly (or even not so subtly) different parts of the animal, or entirely different names used for the same bit.  Even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and his Meat book, in most other respects something close to a bible in all things carnivorous, lets me down in this regard, failing to even mention some of the more obscure and easily confusable terms, let alone defining the distinctions or overlaps between them.

Hanger steak under cling film for pounding into minute steak for sandwiches
Within the British tradition, at least, we feel on fairly firm ground when we come to the four basic cuts of steak – fillet, sirloin, ribeye and rump (in rough price order) – and I do wonder if that’s not one of the reasons they are so expensive: people are willing to pay a premium for the comfort of feeling confident that they know what it is they are buying.  As I’ve said before though, there are other cuts of steak available, less widely recognised but every bit as good, if not arguably better (all a matter of personal taste, of course…), than the four main ones, but people are understandably less confident in buying them, because, if their butchers have them on display at all, they appear unable to agree on precisely what to call them.  And even then, perhaps (I’m guessing) because butchers tend to be conservative by nature, they will usually, cautiously, advise that these cheap (or relatively so) cuts are best suited to slow cooking - for braising and casseroles.

hanger steak sandwich
Take hanger steak, aka butcher’s steak or onglet, as I’ve mentioned before, perhaps my absolute favourite cut of lean meat.  Called hanger steak because it hangs from the underside of the cow’s spine.  Called butcher’s steak because, traditionally the butcher would keep it for himself, in part because it was a trade secret how good it is, in part because each whole cow, would yield just two such steaks, about enough for the butcher and his wife to make a romantic candle lit dinner of, but hardly enough to be worth selling.  I don’t know why the French call it onglet.  Normally when you see it on the butcher’s slab, a hanger steak will be a long, tapering, squared off cylinder of meat, not unlike a pork tenderloin (to which, I believe, it is anatomically similar).  However, the steaks advertised as ‘butcher’s steak’, in Harry’s Food Hall in Kentish town, although otherwise having the appearance of hanger steak, turned out to be more like sail, or wing shaped wedges, similar, in fact, to the veal goose skirt I picked up at Waitrose one time and wrote about here.  To further confuse the matter, the butcher there, while unfamiliar with the terms ‘hanger steak’ or ‘onglet’ suggested ‘feather steak’ as an alternative name.  Now I have to admit that I thought that ‘feather steak’ was another term for flank steak, or bavette, but my research this morning suggests it’s another cut entirely, taken from the (shoulder) blade of the beast.  Appropriate, however, for the same treatment as hanger/butcher’s/onglet or flank/bavette.  To his credit, although his terminology may have been confusing, the butcher did approve of my stated intention to sear his ‘butcher’s/feather steak’ and serve it rare, and made no attempt to persuade me to stew it slow and long.  He also made the point that the two 350-400g steaks he sold me for seven quid odd (as opposed to anything from twice to almost four times as much for a similar quantity of rump, ribeye, sirloin or fillet) were all that a single cow carcass provided, which supported the notion that these were indeed what I understand by the term ‘butcher’s steak’.  But even then, I wasn’t a hundred per cent certain.

Not that it entirely matters.  What matters is that it tasted good, and it certainly did that.  First thing I did was trim each wedge into one thick, roughly rectangular bar (of about 225g), and one thinner, roughly triangular piece (about 150g).  The bar was what featured in the pictures for my last steak posting, the triangular pieces were pounded flat between sheets of cling film (with a rolling pin) to make minute steaks for a quick, late supper of steak sandwiches after coming in from an evening out, a couple of nights later.  A sourdough baguette smeared with Dijon mustard, a few leaves of watercress and baby spinach, red onion and capers for a piquant tang.  A salad on the side, and a glass of robust, rustic red.  Few things better.

Potato, beetroot and been salad...
It was a couple of week’s later that I came across something labelled as Aberdeen Angus Feather steak on the meat counter at Waitrose, recommended again for slow cooking, and at just eight quid a kilo, priced that way too.  It came in the form of a single thick wedge of 800g, with a silvery seam of gristle dividing it horizontally.  When I got it home I cut it in half, first vertically (and put one half aside, which is now in the freezer) then horizontally along the seam and trimmed away the gristle, leaving two lovely lean, coarsely fibred triangles of meat.  These I simply seasoned with salt and pepper, seared to rare and left to rest before slicing into strips and serving over a potato, beetroot and bean salad.  Again, as I’ve said before, slicing a steak before serving is a great way of stretching out your meat – a 150-200g steak served whole would seem a meagre portion, served this way it will look and feel generous.  And I don’t mean this as a cheat, or to promote meanness, I really do believe it’s better – healthier, more economical, more ethical – to eat less meat, but to make more of it.  And yes, I know, a brief scan of this blog’s archive makes that bit about believing in eating less meat look and sound like a big, fat, meaty lie, but really, it’s not.  And even if it were, it’d be covered under the general heading of do as I say, not as I do…

...topped with seared, sliced, feather steak

Friday, 11 February 2011

More ways with pork belly

My friend Tommy told me the other day that he’d got himself some pork belly with the intention of making some cowboy style pork and beans as described here in November, which was gratifying, but what else, he asked, can you do with pork belly?  Simple answer?  Lots.  So I got myself some more pork belly too.  Enough for a couple of meals, cooked in quite different ways.

First up was my version of a dish cooked up for a dinner party last year by my friend Chris, who is of - I believe - Malaysian descent, so I probably shouldn’t describe it as Chinese style, but I will anyway.  Chinese, Malaysian, or whatever, it was thoroughly delicious.

I started by making my own five spice powder by pounding up a bit of cinnamon stick, a few cloves, a star anise and a pinch each of dried chilli flakes and fennel seeds with my pestle and mortar (or you can use a jar of ready made).  I diced the pork belly into good big chunks, a couple of inches square, and rubbed the five spice into them.  Then used my garlic crusher to make a paste out of a couple of cloves of garlic, a nub of peeled ginger and about an inch of fresh chilli, and rubbed that in to the meat too, along with a little sesame oil.  Then I poured over about a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a couple of tablespoons of rice wine (those quantities are very approximate) and left it to marinate for an hour or so.

Meanwhile I peeled a big onion and cut it into thick wedges.  When the meat had had enough time in the marinade I browned it in my small casserole, then threw in the onions and cooked till just starting to soften, then I poured over the remaining marinade (at this point you may want to add more soy sauce and rice wine, that’s a judgement call, but you’re aiming for a juicy pot roast, not a stew), brought it all to the simmer, covered the pan and put it in the oven, at around 150 for a couple of hours.  Lower and longer would be even better.  When it comes out the meat should be gelationous and softly caramelized, and most, but by no means all, the liquid reduced away to a sweet, sweet, sauce.  I served it up with rice and a stir fry of mushrooms, red peppers and chicory.

While my Chinese style pork belly was marinating, I’d also prepared the marinade for the other half of my big slab of pork belly, following a recipe of Nigel Slater’s that had by happy chance appeared in the Observer Food Monthly that very weekend, which gave me an excuse to use some of the pomegranate molasses I have a bottle of at the back of my cupboard, and to buy a whole fresh pomegranate from the Turkish supermarket, which I always feel I should when they have them, but so seldom do.  That then went into the fridge ready for dinner the next day.

Pomegranate salad
I don’t feel the need to write up the recipe, duplicating what Nigel Slater has already done, but I do feel the need to pull him up on a couple of points.  Firstly, yes, I put the pork, in its marinade, in the fridge.  Or, “in a cool place (the fridge, if you must)” as Mr Slater rather disdainfully put it.  Yes, frankly, Nigel, I must.  I don’t have that many spare cool places in my kitchen.  Nor, I suspect, do most of your readers.  Secondly, and more significantly, I have to take issue with his technique of starting the meat roasting at a low temperature and then whacking it up at the end to crisp the crackling.  That runs entirely counter to my regular practice, which I believe to be pretty much standard of starting a roast off hot (the “sizzle stage” as Hugh FW calls it in his Meat book) then turning it down.  Nevertheless, in the spirit of experimentation, and taking Nigel Slater’s word as good, I tried it.  Have to say it didn’t really work.  By the time I took it out, the crackling showed no real sign of crisping up, but the meat was showing every sign of approaching overdone.  I will revert, in future, to my usual practice of starting hot, turning the heat down, then removing the crackling to crisp up at a high temperature again once the meat itself is done and while it rests.  I have to admit I have yet to achieve a failsafe method of creating perfectly crisp crackling, but I’m quite sure Nigel Slater’s method ain’t it.

Pomegranate molasses roast pork belly, a la Nigel Slater, with pomegranate salad and roast potatoes: Good, but not THAT good...
Anyway, the pork belly itself with its sweet and sticky pomegranate crust was good, although not, perhaps, as indulgently treacly-y good as I’d expected.  And certainly not as good as the previous nights Chinese style pork belly a la Chris.  It seems ironic, or perhaps just straightforwardly revealing, that better results were achieved by emulating, via guesswork, a friend who makes no claims to being a cook, than when meticulously following a recipe published by the self (or at least Guardian/Observer) proclaimed ‘Britain’s Best Food Writer.’  Not that I have anything against Nigel Slater, or his food writing, which I believe to be generally excellent.  Or against the Guardian or Observer for that matter.  Honestly.  I’d be delighted if they offered me a job.  No, the lesson to be drawn here is a broader, and, I believe, a very important one.  That lesson is this: trust your instincts.  And never assume that the recipe writer is necessarily right.  Not even if it’s me…

Chinese style slow cooked pork belly a la Chris, with rice and stir fry veg: REALLY good

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Pig cheeks

I’ve not given Waitrose and their “forgotten cuts” a plug for a while now, so it’s about time I blogged on my favourite forgotten cut of all – pig cheeks.  So tasty, so easy to cook, and so ludicrously cheap that pretty much every time I’m in Waitrose and I see them on the butchery counter, I’ll buy all they have.  And that is scarcely an extravagance.  They are, I believe, the cheapest cut of meat in the entire shop – and that’s not just because we’re in Waitrose and it’s all a bit ooh la la.  Really.  At 2.99 a kilo, last time I checked, then I believe we’re down into battery chicken kind of territory, price wise (although I have to admit it is a very long time since I checked on the price of a battery chicken.  I know, slack research…).  For one of my absolute favourite cuts, regardless of cost.  It’s madness.  But in a good way.

Actually no, it’s not in a good way.  It’s actually really bad, because the reason pig cheeks are so cheap is because they are regarded as offal, at best, wastage at worst.  Hardly worth the effort of removing from the pig’s head.  Which is criminal.  I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to the point of near certainty, that the majority of the cheeks belonging to most of the pigs sent to slaughter are, if not literally thrown away, then converted into processed meat products that really might as well (indeed should) be.  And that is not just a pity for the discriminating meat eater, it’s a grievous insult to the pig that died for our dinner.  Thanks to the likes of Fergus Henderson, of St John, and his concept of ‘nose to tail eating’, and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, the notion that we owe it to the animals killed on our behalf, out of respect and common courtesy, to make use of as much of their carcasses as we possibly can (not to even mention the benefits to ourselves, gastronomically and economically), is gaining ground.  It’s encouraging that you can now get pig cheeks at Waitrose, even if they are labeled as ‘forgotten’.  Ten years ago I’m sure you wouldn’t have been able to.  If you don’t have a local Waitrose (or even if you do) but you do have a good local butcher, ask him (or her) for pig cheeks.  They might not have them on display as a regular item, but they’d be able (and probably delighted) to supply them, probably even cheaper than Waitrose do.  You’ll be doing yourself a favour on three counts:  doing your bit for ethical, responsible and respectful animal husbandry; saving yourself money; and above all, giving yourself a treat.

The pig cheeks themselves are beautiful little pillows of pork, lightly marbled with fat and sinew.  Three or four per person will be perfect for dinner, and cooking them couldn’t be easier.  Two to three hours of low and slow braising in wine, cider or – my favourite – sherry, will make them luxuriously tender and delicious.  Served with mash they’re a perfect meal for this time of year, and a post Christmas budget…

Pig cheeks in sherry

This is my approximation of a dish we had in a tapas bar in Sevilla last year.  I have no idea (nor do I care) how ‘authentic’ it is, but the finished result is much as I remember the original, and even if it wasn’t, it would be tasty enough in it’s own right to become a standard part of my repertoire.  Even without taking into account how ridiculously easy it is to do.  And how that easiness translates as a simplicity, purity even, that makes it feel like proper, ‘serious cooking’, even though you can get it in the oven in a matter of minutes, with almost no chopping, mixing, careful timing, or any of the things that might make ‘serious cooking’ difficult or more effort than you can be bothered to put in after a day at work.  Really all it takes is time in the oven.

Season the cheeks (allow three or four per person) with salt and pepper (and perhaps a little paprika, but I tend not to for this dish), brown them gently in a little olive oil in a casserole.  While the pig cheeks are browning, peel an onion  or two, and cut either into wedges or thick slices.  When the meat has a good colour throw the onion into the pan with it, along with a clove or two of finely sliced garlic and maybe just a little fresh chilli, finely sliced again, and a bay leaf.  Soften the onion for a few minutes and then pour in enough dry sherry (I used a manzanilla on this occasion, but it’s not critical, in fact it doesn’t even have to be that dry) to half cover the pork and onion, then transfer to the oven at around 150, for two hours, or 130 for three.

Pig cheeks and apple in cider.

As I said, I love the purity, and subtlety, of the pig cheeks in sherry dish, which is why I tend not to add paprika, which would lend a richer colour as well as it’s flavour, but I like to keep the emphasis on the essence of pork, sherry and onions, and to that end I rather like that the finished dish is something of a symphony in beige, hence, generally using a pale manzanilla or fino sherry, and yellow, or even white onions, rather than red.

Nevertheless, if you do like a little more colour in your pig cheeks, then by all means throw some paprika into the seasoning, mix the onions up with some sliced red pepper, add a couple of apples, peeled, cored and cut into wedges (either after the onion or lightly browned till golden in a separate pan and thrown in for the last half hour or so of the cooking), and braise it all in cider instead of sherry.  With the red pepper and the cider, this is, I guess, a rough approximation of what a Basque cook might do with pig cheeks.  I make no claims whatsoever for any kind of authenticity for this, not even to repudiate the notion...