Monday, 31 October 2011

A tender heart, tenderloin and a big fat chop

As I said in my last post, our friend Claire loved her pigs, Bert and Ernie, but not too sentimentally.  It was perhaps in part, subconsciously at least, an attempt to test out the limits of her sentimentality that led me to suggest that the first part of either of them that should be consumed was the heart.  If so, then it’s possible that was unkind of me. If, though, it was indeed a test, then it was one she passed with flying colours. 

I could, of course equally claim that there might be some ritual or symbolic significance to the eating of the heart, as representing affection, or more importantly respect, for the slain beast.  That would of course be at best disingenuous, at worst spurious.  Or, to put it more bluntly: a load of old bollocks.  Not that the affection and respect weren’t there, because they certainly were; it was, I’m sure, purely the element of symbolism that was absent.  Nevertheless, I have to admit that there was a feeling, even in my own cynical, rationalist heart, that it was in some way appropriate, even if only on the level of the essentially meaningless gesture, to begin the consumption of Bert and Ernie, with one of their own hearts.  Or part of one, at least: half of it being as much as we needed for a starter salad for the three of us.

On a purely rational, pragmatic level, then of course it was appropriate: offal of any kind is best consumed as fresh as possible, and I can’t imagine there will be many opportunities in my life to consume offal as fresh as this was.  The livers were enormous, and, speaking personally of course, the best way to cook kidneys is long and slow in a stew, and preferably then baked into a pie.  So for a quick meal for three, that pretty much left the heart.

Heart, I think, is a much overlooked item of offal, seldom seen anywhere other than the menu at St John’s or the now many St John’s influenced nose-to-taileries, but it has great depth of flavour without being too pungently offally for even the most delicate palette, and I think a perfect balance of chewiness and tenderness.  And because it’s generally overlooked, even if you don’t have a friend who just happens to have slaughtered a couple of pigs, if you have a half way decent butchers anywhere locally, they’ll happily supply hearts (pig, lamb, chicken, duck – I have yet to try cow’s which might just be getting a bit big and tough, but I’d happily give it a go) for next to nothing.

A pigs heart, obviously, is a big, powerful well exercised, muscle – particularly the heart of a pig that is both active and - without wishing to be unkind - frankly at least marginally overweight.  So it’s a good idea to slice it thin.  In this instance I cut half of one heart into thin strips, no more than 3 or 4 mm thick, which I then marinated in salt, pepper cider vinegar and olive oil for about half an hour (had I remembered that Claire has great deep beds of sage growing right outside her front door I’d have probably added a few leaves of that too), before searing briefly in a hot pan and tossing into a basic leaf salad of baby gem, pea shoots and herbs (parsley, basil, mint & chives) with a simple dressing that was essentially the same as the marinade.  It was utterly delicious.  And, damn it, whatever the risk of appearing sentimental or superstitious, it seemed highly appropriate.

For our main course I took a tenderloin and roasted it with a paprika crust, served up with sautéed potatoes and a quick butterbean and pepper stew.  I’ve described the method for the tenderloin here; for the butterbean and pepper stew just cut a couple of bell peppers (I did one red, one green) into thin strips and fry these gently in olive oil with a finely sliced clove of garlic until just softening, then add a tin or a jar of butterbeans and a glass of sherry (white wine will do, or even marsala or Madeira if you have those to hand and not sherry).  Cover with a lid and allow to simmer away gently for about twenty minutes until the sherry and the pepper juices have combined with the oil into a sweet, glistening sauce.  Add salt and pepper to taste at the end, and a sprinkling of fresh leaf herbs.  This was an entirely improvised but pretty convincingly Spanish style dish, which, like most Spanish style dishes, made an excellent accompaniment to the pork.

It was a delicious meal, and a profoundly satisfying one on several levels.  Most of all, I hope, for Claire.  Certainly, given the current trend for locally sourced produce, it could scarcely have been a more fashionable meal.  Our pork could have been more locally sourced - if we had taken our plates down to the end of the garden to eat it.  As it was, eating in the conservatory as we did, I guess it was sourced from all of about twenty yards away.  I don’t know that it’s necessarily true that local is always, inherently, better; but if you were setting out to make the case that it was, you could do worse than call this meal as a witness…

Becca and I returned home the following morning with a huge shoulder joint, a great slab of belly and three big fat chops.  One of which, at the best part of a couple of inches thick, was big and fat enough to cook up on its own as a mini roast for the two of us a couple of days later.

First I marinated it for an hour or so in cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and a sprinkling of small sage leaves.  Then I browned it briefly on both sides, in a pan large enough to take both the chop and an apple, peeled, cored and cut into wedges, half a bulb of fennel thickly sliced and a stick of celery, chunked.  Then I transferred the pan to an oven preheated to about 200, and roasted it for half an hour.  This actually turned out to be marginally too long to my taste – although I’m sure it would have been spot on for many people – so perhaps 25 minutes would be perfect, although there’s no point giving exact timings in cases like this as there are simply too many variables in the size, weight and thickness of the chop, oven temperatures and personal tastes in what constitutes perfectly cooked anyway.  Still, even if – for me- very slightly overcooked, the thick layer of fat protecting and lubricating it kept this chop deliciously moist and tender.  

I served it up, as well as with the roasted apple, fennel and celery from its own pan, with roast potatoes, parsnips and shallots, and pickled red cabbage.  This was a perfect weekday roast for two, all - apart from the marinating, and, honestly, if need be, you could reduce that to fit within the time the rest of the prep took - done in just about an hour.   

All that remains to say is thank you Claire.  And thank you Bert and Ernie.

Friday, 28 October 2011

A night at the butchers

Becca and I drove up to Suffolk just for the evening last week, to attend the butchering of our friend Claire’s two pigs.  They were her first pigs, reared and raised at the bottom of her garden, a space they shared with one cat, a dozen hens and a cockerel called Kevin.  The pigs, Bert and Ernie, were well, but not over sentimentally loved, very well fed, and lived what appeared to be very happy lives, in pig terms.  I couldn’t claim they died happy, but I can pretty confidently state that they lived happily up until the point they were, as humanely as possible, dispatched.

Whether or not they died happy, they undoubtedly died fat, which in this case, I suspect, amounts to much the same thing, fattened as they were in the last few weeks of their lives, at least, by this autumn’s bumper crop of acorns.  Acorns and just a little bit of procrastination on Claire’s part, as she put off committing, or at least commissioning the fell deed.  Acorns, procrastination and then finally a snuffle, which one of them – Bert, or Ernie, I’m not sure which – succumbed to shortly before the originally scheduled date, buying them both a stay of execution of about a month, while the administered antibiotics cleared their systems.

Eventually, though, their time had to come, which it did on the Monday of last week.  On Thursday, Becca and I joined Claire after hours at her village butcher’s to witness the final part of Bert and Ernie’s journey from pigs to meat.  From porkers to pork. 

I had hoped, I must admit, that there might have been the chance to do more than witness it, that the chance might arise to participate more actively, and I had optimistically sharpened my knives and brought them along.  As it turned out, when Claire had said that the butcher was going to show us how to butcher a pig, it meant he was going to let us watch what he did, rather than give a hands on lesson in butchery.  Which is fair enough.  He was doing this as a favour, and there was quite enough for the butcher and his lad to be getting on with as it was, without standing over a couple of cack handed amateurs, trying to impart the basics of his trade, and then, no doubt having to salvage the results of their hackery and convert it into serviceable joints of meat.

So we stood to the side and tried to keep out of the way as we watched and admired the skill and speed with which he applied the tools of his trade – of which there were just four: hacksaw; big knife with a ten or twelve inch, curved, slightly spatula shaped blade; small knife with a narrow, tapering six inch blade; big heavy cleaver – to the four vast sides of beheaded and halved pig that hung in his cold store.  A cold store, incidentally, that smelt headily mouth watering from the herbs in the great cascading bunches of sausage strings hung from ceiling hooks.

 When Becca and I arrived the first of these sides had been jointed and most of it set aside in a second cold store (alongside a whole wall lined floor to ceiling with hanging game birds – pheasant, partridge and mallard), destined for curing and smoking, before coming back to Claire in the form of bacon and gammon.  A large plastic palette tray was already more than half full of meaty off cuts intended for sausages and a giant steel pan under the table was similarly filled with trimmed bones, fat and skin.  Both of these would be filled to overflowing well before the end of the process.  It’s possible that Claire in her understandable keenness not to waste a scrap of her cherished first pigs will end up with more pork stock than she will ever need.  She will also end up with a lot of sausages, but I don’t think it’ll add up to more sausages than she’ll ever need.  I’m not sure such a thing exists.  And that is in no way intended as a personal slight on Claire…

These pigs were big.  A measure of how big is that one of the shoulders was cut into a joint that I’d heard of, but don’t recall ever having seen in the flesh, called a hand of pork.  Now Matthew Fort, if you click on that link, says nothing about how many his recipe will feed – which normally means a standard 4, as is the stated case for this one – but he does mention that he picked up his hand for 3.99 from his local farmer’s market, and even though he was pointing out what a bargain it was, I think he’d have made rather more of that point had it been capable of feeding 8.  Which Claire’s – or rather Bert or Ernie’s – will do, conservatively.  Probably 10.  Hungry people.  He also talks about slow roasting it, at a low temperature in two and a half to three hours.  That’s simply not going to do it for Claire’s hand - that baby’s an all-dayer, if ever I saw one, and that was certainly the butcher’s recommendation.  I sincerely want to be there when Claire takes the hand out of the freezer, but I have a feeling that it might just be saved for her family Christmas.

There was scarcely a joint cut from Bert or Ernie that would feed less than six, and the meat came wrapped in a thick blanket of fat, inches thick in places.  The butcher indeed clearly felt that Claire had allowed them to get too big, and much too fat, which from his point of view you could see might be a problem – both as the man who had to manhandle the carcasses, and who would, in other circumstances have to try and sell the meat to a fat-phobic public.  You can see his point.  Claire, and Becca and I, on the other hand, just looked at that deep layer of snow white fat, and the marbling that ran through some of the joints like a sirloin in a way you simply never see with pork, and thought flavour.  And luscious, succulent flesh that would be more or less impossible to dry out, even if you committed the cardinal sin of overcooking.  What the butcher saw as a flaw, we saw as a rare prize.  And the very thing that marked this meat out as special.  You really wouldn’t be able to buy pork like this in the shops, it seems, not even from the very best butchers.  The one thing that concerned Claire was that she’d let Bert and Ernie get too old - 10 months by the time they went to slaughter, rather than the standard 6 - because, as their names suggest, they were male pigs, and as male pigs reach maturity their hormones can make them quite unpleasant.  Which is the case with the males of many species, you might observe, but specifically in the case of pigs it can lead to something called ‘boar taint’ spoiling the flavour of their meat.  There was, however, not the merest whiff of male pig pheromone in either Bert or Ernie’s meat.  They may have been big, fat boars, but they were nice boars - and, like the real Bert and Ernie, there was not the slightest hint of inappropriate sexuality about them...

In little more than an hour, three plastic palettes were stuffed to overflowing with every cut and joint of pork imaginable.  And there are many.  One of the things that most struck me was how many choices there were to be made at every stage of the process.  We’re all familiar with the broad distinctions between the cuts – shoulder, loin, belly, ribs, chops – but not necessarily in the proliferation of different ways those cuts can be shaped and subdivided.  I think Claire got at least one example of pretty much every option, but it’s impossible to be sure.

What I can be sure of, because I’ve tasted some of it, is how good each of those many cuts is going to taste, and I’ll cover that, at least some of it, in my next post.  Of course the thing that you, or your friend, has raised for food by your/their own hand, be it fruit, vegetable or animal, tastes better than anything bought in a shop.  And of course at least part of that may be psychological, not that that would make it any less real, even if that were all it was, particularly if part of the psychology in play was the knowledge that the animals that had died to provide your meat had lived happy lives.  But psychology aside, the flavour, succulence and tenderness of the meat we got from Bert and Ernie is real, and stands as an example of something significant.  It goes to show, as if we needed showing, that the best meat is obtained from animals that have led good lives, and suffered, in relative terms, a good death.

Now obviously not everyone can raise their own pigs down the end of their gardens.  And not every pig can lead as comfy, and cosseted a life as Bert and Ernie did.  But if more of the pigs that more people ate led lives that were closer to Bert and Ernie’s than they were to a Danish factory porker, then the world would be, in a small but significant way, a better place.  For pigs and the people who eat them.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

More grouse and chanterelles

1 little bird that's already given us one meal (although not at the time this picture was taken, obviously),  and is now about to give us two more...

At the end of my last post (or rather about three paragraphs back from the end) I’d left a couple of grouse breasts marinading in the fridge.  No doubt you’re on tenterhooks to find out what happened to them next… No?  Oh.  Well here goes anyway.

Just to remind you, the grouse breasts had been filleted from the bird’s carcass and put in a Tupperware container with the zest and juice of one orange, salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil.  I’d also pared off a couple of strips of the outer peel of the orange, that I’d then further sliced into fine matchsticks, but these were as much for the presentation of the finished dish as part of the marinade. 

You may think grouse breasts are a bit esoteric, or too fiddly to remove from the carcass to be worthwhile, or simply a waste of a whole roasted bird; but if you are lucky enough to have a good local butcher it really should be something they’d have readily available from late August to Mid December, and, in a good year at least, one grouse really shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for a special seasonal treat.  And this one grouse, that cost me a solitary fiver, provided not one, but several meals for two (a single grouse breast is undoubtedly small for a main course, but the flavour is so full a little goes a long way).  And it isn’t actually that fiddly at all, although if your butcher really is a good one, and you maintain a good relationship with him (as it would be well worth making every effort to), then I’m sure he’d remove the breasts from the carcass for you anyway if you asked nicely (but do be sure to keep the carcass for the rest of the meat on it, and for stock, of course).  

If, however, you are not fortunate enough to have a proper local butcher, or if you really can’t be convinced that stripping the breasts from a grouse isn’t just a waste of a whole roast bird (and I wouldn’t necessarily put up much of an argument there), then this is also a good way with a duck breast, readily available, neatly packaged into pairs from any decent supermarket.

Anyway, the grouse breasts, in their marinade, were put in the fridge on the Tuesday, while I made a stock from the carcass and a couple of pigeon carcasses from the freezer, and then a delicious pasta sauce with that stock and the rest of the shredded grouse meat pulled from the carcass before going in the stock pot.  I’d intended the breasts for dinner the following night but circumstance resulted in us not having them until the evening after, meaning they’d marinated for a good 54 hours or so by the time I came to cook them.  This is excessive, although it did them no harm.  Overnight is good, but 3-4 hours would do fine (although in that case I would recommend keeping them out of the fridge).

Whenever you are ready to cook your breasts, it really couldn’t be simpler.  Heat a frying pan, till good and hot, then just remove your grouse breasts from their marinade (if they’ve been in the fridge do try and remember to take them out a good hour or so ahead, so they’re up to room temperature in time for cooking) and sear them for no more than a couple of minutes on each side (basically treat it like frying steak).
Take the breasts from the pan and set aside to rest for 5 minutes.  While that’s happening, pour the left over marinade into the pan, perhaps with an extra splash of wine – or sherry or marsala if you have either of them to handy, brandy even – and acouple of tablespoons of stock, and reduce a little to make a richly flavoured, glistening sauce.

If doing this dish with duck breasts, that are significantly bigger and, crucially, thicker than those of grouse, I’d sear the breasts then put the pan in an oven, heated to around 200, to roast for just 10 minutes – maybe as much as 15 if they are particularly big and thick and/or you like your duck better done than pink.

If you’re going to have the oven on anyway, you may as well roast up some potatoes, and maybe parsnips and carrots (always good with anything gamey, particularly if you allow them to start to caramelize) to serve alongside. As I cooked my grouse entirely in the pan, I just served them up with sautéed potatoes and the rest of our fabulous, foraged winter chanterelles, just quickly fried up in olive oil with a bit of garlic and parsley.

It was a light meal, but so full of flavour it left neither of us unsatisfied for a week night dinner.  If you wanted to make it more substantial, then of course you can always do a grouse per person, or use duck breasts.  Or stick with one grouse, and make a starter – a soup from the stock would be the obvious solution, and one that would maintain the theme of eating economically, if not parsimoniously, from what would generally be regarded as ‘luxury’ ingredients.

We skipped the starter on this occasion, so had plenty of stock left over for making a risotto the following evening, with a handful of dried ceps (or more likely some other bolete, to be honest) from one of the jars we still have left from last autumn’s bumper mushroom harvest.

I do like the autumn.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Hello again - to you, and grouse, and winter chanterelles...

Writing this feels more like a confession than a blog post: Forgive me father, it has been four weeks since my last post.  I really don’t know how that happened, apart from the universal fleetingness of time, and the more specific laziness of me.  There are other excuses I could make, like the possibly sand induced jamming of my camera, which occurred after a trip to the beach at Cabo de Gato in Almeria and explains why there was only the one post on what we did and ate on our Andalucian holiday.  Decent pictures really are key to this whole blogging thing, and I apologise in advance for the reduction in image quality that will be inevitable until I can either fix or replace the jammed Lumix.  Mind you, I blogged for several months before I got the Lumix in the first place, so it’s not really a valid excuse.  Which tangentially reminds me: since I last blogged the first anniversary of my first blog post has passed.  A whole year.  How?  I refer you again to the universal fleetingness of time…

There’s also been the weather, which has been lovely, but unsettlingly unseasonal.  In the Stoke Newington wine shop where I work part time (more like full time recently – another excuse) a couple of weekends ago we had girls coming in to buy chilled rosés to drink in the park.  In bikini tops.  In October.  Not that I have anything fundamentally against girls in bikini tops, but in Stoke Newington, in October?  That’s surely wrong.  Anyway, wrong or not, and nothing whatsoever to do with the girls and their tops, it does throw all your plans for featuring seasonal produce out the window, all the roasted squashes and game casseroles you had in mind no longer seem appropriate.  The weekend of the bikinis, incidentally we had a wine tasting in the shop, that had been scheduled weeks in advance, and the chosen wines advertised, for which, it being the first weekend in October we’d cunningly chosen big, hearty, autumnal reds.  Not so many takers for those, as it turned out… 

It’s also not been much of a mushroom season, unlike last year.  Although that said, we did return from a family wedding weekend in the Peak District  - which did at least manage to be partly autumnal, with horizontally driven rain on one day, albeit followed by baking sunshine the next - with a bag full of winter chanterelles, and a couple of small boletes.

That made it seem like an appropriate time to dig the spare grouse we had left over from Christmas out of the freezer.

Once thawed, I removed the breasts from the grouse and then pulled as much of the rest of the meat off the carcass as I could.  Then I put what was left in a roasting dish, along with a couple of pigeon carcasses (the ones I’d stripped the breasts from for Valentines) I also had in the freezer and briefly roasted them (for just about 10 minutes), before transferring them into a stockpot along with the regular stock veg, seasonings and water, and simmering them away for several hours to make an intensely gamey stock.

Scary space alien? Or grouse carcass stripped of its breasts?

The grouse breasts I put in a Tupperware dish, covered them with the juice and zest of one orange, a little olive oil, salt and pepper, then put them in the fridge to marinade for what turned out to be a couple of days.  In the meantime I took the remaining shreds of meat pulled from the carcass and fried them up with some similarly shredded bacon, a finely chopped shallot, clove of garlic and knub of red chilli, then tossed in a couple of handfuls of mushrooms (the chanterelles simply cleaned, the boletes thickly sliced).  Then it was just a case of adding a splash of white wine and a ladle of the game stock and bringing them to the simmer while cooking up some trofie pasta (trofie are little, knobbly, apparently hand rolled scraps of pasta, that have a basic rusticity that seems well suited to game and foraged wild mushrooms).  I added the pasta to the sauce (along with just a little of it’s cooking water, which Italian cooks always seem to insist on, and really does seem to help bring the pasta and sauce together), stirred it through thoroughly, along with a handful of freshly chopped parsley and served it up in bowls.  Apart from the two to three hours of simmering the stock, the whole meal was done in the time it took to bring the water to the boil and cook the pasta, and yet it was a rare, and intensely delicious treat.  That really is my favourite kind of meal.

To make up for the sorry shortage of posts over the past couple of months, I’ll hold back writing up what I did with the rest of the grouse and mushrooms till next time, but rest assured there are two whole meals to come yet.  Not bad from one tiny bird that cost me a fiver, and a bag of mushrooms foraged for free.

Until next time, which I promise will be sooner than four weeks…