Monday, 31 January 2011

Steak and chips

Following on from last weeks posts on poached eggs and omelettes and/or tortillas, I’m moved to point out that some of life’s greatest pleasures are the simplest. 

Well, duh. 

Except that’s such an obvious truth it can easily be overlooked.  It’s just too simplistic to feel worth saying.  We all want to appear cleverer, more sophisticated than that, so it goes without saying, and by remaining unsaid, it can easily get forgotten, and we end up denying ourselves our greatest pleasures in the endless, and self perpetuating, pursuit of ever more complex, more arcane pleasures.  I’m not going to make the obvious food/sex/pornography analogy here – this is neither the time nor the place, but hell, you’re already on the internet, if you want to I’m sure you can pursue that line for yourself.  Although it does remind me of something I didn’t mention in my review of Arbutus a couple of months back: that the stairs down to the toilets, the corridor and the toilets themselves are decorated with Victorian ‘erotica’ – i.e pictures of naked ladies, some of whom are in distinctly sexualised poses, with very little pretence to the status of ‘art’.  Which makes me wonder just how old does pornography have to be before it becomes acceptable as décor in a mainstream restaurant?.  My guess is the cut-off is currently somewhere around the nineteen seventies.  Sixties Playboy, OK; seventies, maybe, but probably not full frontal; eighties, definitely not.  Unless it’s a fully themed restaurant.  But why should it be that late 19th century pubic hair is acceptable and late 20th century pubic hair not?  And while I’m on the subject of risqué decoration of restaurant toilets, I feel obliged to bring up (although I rather wish I didn’t) the ladies and gents at Hix Oyster & Chop House in Farringdon, distinguished (?) as they are by close up (and blown up) photographs of the anuses (ani?) of the artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble respectively.  Quite apart from their capacity to put you off your food, these pictures really aren’t very helpful, because I, for one, cannot readily identify whose anus is whose…

Hanger steak, seared rare and sliced
Damn.  I knew this wasn’t the time and place to pursue that food/sex/pornography line… Sorry.  Still, Hix Oyster & Chop House is an appropriate place to get to at the end of that line, because the hanger steak there - rejected by Giles Coren on the grounds of being too cheap - is a perfect example of a simple pleasure being one of the finest.  Of course the hanger steak at Hix comes with a side serving of baked bone marrow, and you are eating it at one of London’s most fashionable restaurants, so it’s not as simple a pleasure as all that, but still.  If it’s just the meat you want (and it better had be, because that’s pretty much all they got) then you could try the Santa Maria de Buen Ayre (or just Buen Ayre as it now seems to be called), where they operate to a sort of gaucho version of Henry Ford’s famous dictum and you can order anything you like as long as it’s a great big slab of Argentine beef.  That said, merely by virtue of its being on Broadway Market, Buen Ayre, is potentially even more grievously fashionable than Hix is these days.  Still fantastic though, and fantastically good value, if not quite as ridiculously so as it used to be when it first opened and Broadway market was still at least half steel shutters and dog shit and not lined end to end by chi-chi boutiques and organic coffee shops.  Or you could just turn the simple pleasure dial up to 11, and have steak and chips at home (although, of course, for all I know, you live on Broadway Market, have a Tracy Emin neon hanging on your living room wall, and have AA Gill round for dinner all the time…).

... griddled
Ribeye, oiled, seasoned and...

Well, never mind, and even if you don’t, steak and chips is one of the quickest and easiest ways of treating yourself to a real luxury at home, and it’s really not all that expensive, as special treats go, as long as you don’t insist on prime fillet steak.  And why would you?  That question, by the way, is genuine, and not in any way rhetorical.  Why would you pay a premium for a cut of meat with less flavour, less texture, less character, than its cheaper counterparts?  Yes, it’s the most tender, but if I’ve spent that much on a piece of meat I want to spend at least a bit of time chewing it to feel I’m getting my money’s worth, and yes, there’s less fat in it, but fat’s good.  Fat carries flavour.  And anyway, if you don’t want a fatty steak, get a piece of rump (which now seems to be coming back into favour after a period in the foodie fashion doldrums) at half the price and just don’t eat the rind.  Not that I’m saying that ribeye, or sirloin are cheap cuts of meat, because obviously they’re not, but even so, not much more than the cost of two pints in a central London pub, will cover a substantial slab each for two people.  A round and a half would definitely cover you, unless you insist on ridiculous Desperate Dan style portions.  Which might say more about the price of beer in a central London pub than it does about steak, but never mind.

Ribeyes on the griddle, chips in the wok
But if you have a good butcher who can you supply you with the cheaper, and perversely less commonly available, cuts, then even better.  Flank/skirt/bavette, or onglet/butcher’s/hanger steaks, if you can get them, will generally be half the price of fillet, and considerably less than ribeye, or sirloin.  Also, perhaps because they are traditionally served already sliced on the plate, you seem to need less of them.  I would also argue that they have at least as much, if not more, flavour.  As long as they are cooked properly rare.  If you like your steak well done, or even on the medium side of medium rare, then these cuts are perhaps not for you.  Which would be a shame.  Not that I would judge you for it.  Really, I wouldn't, people do, I know, but it's a matter of personal taste, and as such there is no right or wrong.  If you want your steak burnt to a crisp, then go ahead.  No skin off my nose at all.  I might even nibble a few of your caramelised crispy bits...

Steak, chips, mustard, ketchup. Simple. 
As for cooking steak, well there’s not a great deal to say is there?  You put your meat in a smoking hot pan for not very long on each side, take it out and allow it to rest for ten minutes or more before serving.  That’s about it.  But here are my top tips for the perfect steak:
1.     Get the meat out of the fridge in plenty of time.  You want it at room temperature before you do anything to it.
2.     Season well – plenty of salt and pepper on the meat before it hits the pan.
3.     Oil the meat, not the pan, and use sunflower or grapeseed oil, definitely not olive oil, which burns at too low a temperature.
4.     And when I say smoking hot, I mean that literally.  Whether you use a regular frying pan or a ridged griddle, it needs to be properly, seriously hot.  Cooking steak will create smoke, you may need to take pre-emptive action to disable or remove any smoke detectors in the vicinity, and certainly want to ensure the kitchen is well ventilated and your extractor is at the top of its game…

As for the chips, my trick is to par boil them first, then dry them out.  Apparently, according to Heston Blumenthal, drying them out in the fridge is the way to go, but I frankly can’t be bothered/don’t have the fridge space, so just on a tea towel on a board or tray seems to work for me.  Then I cook them in batches in sunflower oil, in my wok.  The end result seems to be about as good as chips are likely to get, even without hypodermically injecting them with ketchup.  Seriously, Heston

hanger steak, sherry mushrooms, grilled pepper
A steak and a good portion of chips is a good enough plateful in itself, but a side order of mushrooms is a delicious addition, and a good way of ensuring that all those glorious juices and charred meaty bits left in the pan don’t go to waste.  Just chuck the mushrooms (wild, field, chestnuts, portabella’s whatever you have) in to the pan after you’ve taken out the steaks and while they’re resting, along with a little finely sliced garlic.  Throw in a glass of sherry or marsala (or white wine) to deglaze the pan.  If you don’t have an allergic girlfriend feel free to add a dollop of cream or crème fraiche if you want.  Cook till the mushrooms are done and the wine and juices are reduced to a rich deeply flavoured sauce.  Serve alongside the meat.

Grilled peppers - this is an idea I nicked from the fine people at Buen Ayre, apparently traditional in Argentina.  Just put a regular red pepper whole under the grill till the skin is blackened and blistering on all sides, then seal it in a polythene bag for a few minutes, after which the skin will easily peel off.  Slice it and scrape out the seeds.  Do a load of these at a time and marinade them in olive oil and balsamic or sherry vinegar, with finely sliced garlic and chilli, and some parsley, they'll keep a week or more in the fridge.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Roast Mackerel with fennel and tomato

Way back in November last year I posted a recipe for a dish of sea bass, roasted in the pan with fennel and tomato, and regular readers may recall that at that time I said I’d been intending to make a meal of mackerel instead but the fishmonger didn’t have any so I did a lighter version of what I’d intended with the bass.  Well last week the fishmonger had a very fine looking mackerel, so here, at last, is what I’d intended to do way back then.  Which is altogether appropriate, because compared to the sea bass version this is a meatier, heartier, more cockle-warming fish dish, perfectly suited to these gloomy January days.  And being made with mackerel, it’s way cheaper too, so in line with any post Christmas budget slashing.

Being dead cheap, of course, is just one of the many reasons to love mackerel.  It’s meaty, versatile, particularly rich in all those famously healthy fish oils and eminently sustainable so you can feel good about eating it.  Not that you need to seek out reasons to feel good about it, because I also happen to believe it’s one of the downright tastiest fish on the fishmonger’s slab, at any price.  In my view, mackerel is criminally under rated, but that’s the kind of crime I’m quite happy to live with, frankly.

Fennel bulbs
Cherry tomatoes
Chestnut mushrooms
Lemon juice
Olive oil

Allow either 1 mackerel per person or half each, depending on the size of the fish and the likely appetites of the people.  Same for bulbs of fennel.

Start with the fish.  If you’re doing half a fish per person – as I did this time, you’ll need to fillet them (or you can ask your fishmonger to do that for you, but if you do, make sure you ask him for the frames – as a classic cartoon style fish skeleton is technically known - to make stock).  If serving a whole fish each, chop off the heads and tails.  Put the discarded fish bits in a pot along with some onions, carrots, celery, trimmings from the fennel, whole peppercorns and fennel/coriander/mustard seeds, dried chilli and bayleaf, cover with water and simmer gently for about 25 minutes to make your stock.

Marinate the fish in lemon juice, vermouth and olive oil with lots of fresh herbs (I’ve just used parsley, a little soft thyme and the fine frond like leaves from the fennel here, but any combination of your regular green leafy herbs would be good - particularly the aniseedy flavour of dill.  Also, if you’re using whole fish, feel free to stuff their cavities with the ‘woodier’ herbs - thyme, sage and rosemary) and salt and pepper and finely sliced garlic and chilli (optional at this point – I would tend to use half the garlic and chilli in the marinade, half in the cooking pot).

Trim the fennel bulbs and cut into thick slices or wedges, and fry gently in olive oil (if you have a suitable sized pan/shallow casserole or roasting dish that is both stove top and oven proof you can do all this in the same pot, otherwise you’ll do this part in a pan and have a roasting dish warming in the oven to transfer to)

As with the fish and the fennel, your decision making on the tomatoes will depend on their size, if they’re big, halve them. If they’re small, actual cherry sized cherry tomatoes, then I’d leave them whole, but if you do that, then be sure to prick them with a fork, to allow the juices to flow, and to prevent them becoming potential steam bombs.  Similarly, halve or quarter the mushrooms depending on size (they should be at least as big as the tomatoes). When the fennel is nicely coloured, season with salt and pepper, add finely sliced garlic and chilli to the pan and allow that a minute or so to soften (take care not to let the garlic burn, but it’s ok to let it colour) before adding the mushrooms, cook them for a minute or so, giving a couple of stirs, then add the tomatoes.  Carry on cooking for another few minutes till the tomato skins are starting to wrinkle and shrink, then add a good glug of vermouth, and a ladle or two of fish stock.  Bring to a vigourous simmer and keep cooking on the stovetop until the fennel is soft and the tomatoes are just starting to break down

Now transfer to the roasting dish if you’re not doing it all in the same pan.  Arrange the fish (fillets skin side up, whole fish upright, as in dorsal fin up) on top of the tomato, fennel and mushrooms.  Pour over the rest of the marinade, and a little more stock if you feel you need it.  Don’t drown it, you want a good quantity of sauce, but not a soup.  You can top up the liquid levels with stock and/or vermouth later if it over reduces.  Cover the dish with foil and bake at 180 for around 20-25 minutes for fillets, or longer and lower if using whole fish – say 30-40 at 150, depending on how big the fish are.  Remove the foil, check the liquid level and seasoning and cook for another 5-10 minutes, if needed, but you want to be careful not to overcook the fish – if there’s too much liquid but the fish is already nearly done, lift it out and keep on a warm plate while you reduce off some of the sauce, then put the fish back on to finish it off.  To get more colour and crispness to the beautiful skin of the mackerel, I finish it under the grill till it turns an even more beautiful golden bronze, just starting to blister and blacken (but keep an eye on it or it can blacken just a little too much as mine did on this occasion.  Still damned tasty though, and I never did claim to be perfect... 

Add a handful or two of chopped flat leaf parsley, and serve it with boiled new potatoes as I’ve done here, or it’s yet another dish that goes superbly with with mash to soak up all that sweet, rich sauce.

P.S. I highly recommend watching the videos here.  They might or might not help you fillet your mackerel  - for that I'd refer you to the rather more prosaic Mitch Tonk one embedded in the text - but they have a weird, compelling beauty all of their own.  The guy's technique, while extremely time and motion efficient, seems to be highly fish wasteful, but I love the sheer gracefulness, and the abstract poetry of the gloomy voice-over - although that will presumably be lost on anyone who actually speaks Dutch.  Or maybe not.  If you do speak Dutch, and that really is abstract poetry, please let me know...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

More Egg

On past form you might not unreasonably expect this to be posted under the heading “Tortilla-ish”, but it won’t be, because, at the risk of leaving myself open to accusations of flip-flopping on my authenticity position, the potato and onion omelette featured here is just a potato and onion omelette, it’s not a proper Spanish tortilla.  Even if a proper Spanish tortilla is, in essence, just a potato and onion omelette.  And an omelette, after all, is an omelette, is an omelette, is an omelette.  Etc.

Ironically, though, that’s exactly why this is definitively NOT a tortilla.  Because, an omelette being an omelette, and all that, then if the word tortilla is to mean anything at all (in the context of potato and onion omelettes) then it has to mean something quite specific.  I have spent a substantial proportion of my adult life trying to capture that specific quality - that totally integrated, dense but light, genuinely cake-like consistency - and for a large part of that time I would have ascribed the name ‘tortilla’ to what I have just had for lunch today.  Today though, I'm not going to do that.

The key and crucial difference, and where I long went ‘wrong’ was that today’s omelette was made with left over potatoes, cooked for last night's dinner.  A proper Spanish tortilla (henceforward referred to here as a PST) has to be made with raw potatoes, cooked from scratch, sliced fine and effectively boiled in olive oil, before adding onions (and maybe garlic), and finally egg.  Made any other way, you might well end up with a very tasty omelette indeed, but it will not have the particular quality that would mark it as a PST.  The other, lesser, difference is that I threw a handful of chopped parsley into today’s omelette, while a PST should have no green herbs, consisting solely of potatoes, onions (and maybe garlic) and eggs.  Plus salt and pepper.  Nothing else.  They did a lovely “tortilla” in the – I believe, Portuguese – deli in Brixton where I used to live, which was heavy with rosemary, and delicious, but not a PST.

To make a PST, peel your potatoes and slice them into small pieces about the thickness of a pound coin.  Fry these gently in olive oil, in your omelette pan, covered with a lid (you want them to cook through without browning), until softening then add the onion, sliced into wedges about the same size as the potato pieces.  I add finely sliced garlic at this point too, but that’s optional and arguably controversial.  Plenty of salt and pepper.  When the onion is softened and turning translucent, turn the contents of the pan out into a large bowl in which you have already broken and beaten your eggs (mixing the egg, potato and onions in the bowl rather than just pouring the egg over the potatoes and onion in the pan seems somehow crucial to achieving a PST).  Re-oil the pan (lots and lots of olive oil is another key secret of PST success) then tip the mix back in, and keep it moving, stirring and pushing away from the edges of the pan until the egg is starting to set through.  Traditionally, at this point you turn the omelette by tipping it out onto a plate and sliding it back into the pan the other way up, but I find, with anything bigger than a one egg pan, that is a difficult and risky manoeuvre, and even if it goes well it leaves a substantial portion of your tortilla smeared across the plate.  Or, if you are incredibly skilled and have an arm like Popeye, like the tortilla-maker (tortillista?) I watched slack jawed with awe in a Madrid bar for a good half hour a couple of years back, you can just flip the whole thing like a pancake (and this guy was flipping tortillas at least a foot across and three inches thick, and in the half hour I watched he made at least four.  Frightening.).  Or you can do what I do and finish your tortilla under the grill.  As for quantities, it depends entirely on the size of your pan, but the volumes of potato and onion should be more or less equal, and the volume of egg enough to cover them both generously without overflowing the pan, obviously.

Today’s omelette was a much simpler affair, just a handful of left over boiled new potatoes fried in the pan until they were browning, half an onion, cut into wedges, a little garlic, two eggs beaten in a mug and poured over once the onions were soft, a handful of chopped parsley thrown over and the whole thing flipped - with a spatula, I’m afraid, like a big soft gurl…

It made a thoroughly delicious lunch with a couple of slices of buttered brown bread, but it wasn’t a tortilla…

Monday, 24 January 2011

A perfect poached egg

This won’t take long, and I’m only writing it up at all to give me an excuse for posting the accompanying pics, but is there anything quite as perfect as a perfectly poached egg?

Eggs don’t get much of a look in on this blog, what with Becca being allergic, but I’m not always cooking for two, and, like the previously featured grilled/fried cheese sandwich this is a case of a basic snacky lunch for one being made just a little bit unnecessarily indulgent for very little effort.

To poach an egg is undoubtedly to go to a bit more trouble than to simply fry one, or to boil it, but not by so very much.  You just need to put a pan of water on the heat and bring it to the gentlest simmer you can.  Add some vinegar – about as much as you’d sprinkle on a portion of chips, then, using a wooden spoon stir the water to create a whirlpool in the pan, into the centre of which you drop the egg. The trick is to break the egg into a small cup or ramekin, and then tip the edge of the cup into the water, so the egg just gently slides in, and that way it all holds neatly together.  Then you wait until the egg white is set, just a couple of minutes, then lift it out with a slotted spoon, tipping off any excess water before placing it on to a slice of toast or a potato cake or, as here a golden fried disc of colcannon.  Some mushrooms, sliced and sautéed with perhaps a little garlic and parsley could even make it a little better still.  Breakfast, or lunch, of champions.

If you do like an egg, by the way, fried or poached, on toast or colcannon, for breakfast or lunch, my top tip is to try a few drops of the mild green Tabasco sauce sprinkled over it.  A marriage made in heaven.

And speaking of marriages made in heaven, I've said it before and I'll say it again: smoked haddock and mash with spinach topped with a poached egg.  As I believe the kids say elsewhere on this internet thingy, OMG.

Thursday, 20 January 2011


So, as promised, here’s one to upset the Greeks, as I desecrate another great culinary national treasure, or, as I prefer to think of it, take inspiration from another great culinary national treasure.  Yeah I know.  I’m doing it ALL WRONG, and how dare I?  But I don’t care.  I really don’t.   And that’s not because I’m peculiarly dismissive of the sensibilities of the Greek people, or because I’ve got anything against them at all, any more than I have against the French or the Italians (which, I will say again, is NOT AT ALL).  I would say that many of my best friends are Greek, but that would be a lie, although, when I spent a year living in Rome a (long) while back, many of my friends were (the Greek and the Spanish students being the ones who threw the most parties meaning that, as a foreign student in the capital of Italy, the people you most easily got to meet – and to get drunk enough with to lose your inhibitions about conversing in your still shoddy Italian – were mainly Greek and Spanish.  Not so many actual Italians, and pretty much NO Romans, who already had their own social and family circles and therefore neither the need nor the inclination to make friends with a bunch of Brits/Greeks/Spaniards who were constantly babbling at each other in a drunken approximation of the language of Dante.  I digress…).  But I do have half Greek cousins, and I do love Greek food.  The original Real Greek, on Hoxton Market, before it sold out to THE MAN, and became a chain, used to be one of my favourite restaurants, and I think wistfully of their chicken livers, and cured mackerel, to this day.

One thing I never had at the Real Greek, though, was kleftiko.  Mainly because it didn’t feature on the mezedes menu, which is what we would generally be ordering from, but I don’t recall it appearing much, if at all, on the main menu either.  Not really their kind of thing (although owner/founder/chef Theodore Kyriakou has a recipe here, but I have to say he uses a boned joint, and roasts it pretty hot and quick, which seems at least as wrong as anything I’m proposing).  Just my kind of thing though.

Ah, kleftiko.  Lamb slow cooked on the bone till it’s falling off and ready to fall apart in your mouth, densely flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices.  Just thinking about it makes me want to eat it now, and if I do go to a Greek restaurant and see it on the menu, and the thought is put in my head, it’s very hard to order anything else.  The first time I thought about doing it at home, I looked up recipes and, of course, in the way of bolognese, or risotto, or cassoulet, or any classic dish that is essentially peasant food in origin, I came across any number of variations and almost as many mutually incompatible claims of authenticity.  Some cooked the meat dry, some wet, some included onions, carrots and potatoes (or some combination of all or any of the above).  Some included cheese.  Almost all, however, called for the construction of some kind of sealed parcel for cooking the meat in, made from folded layers of parchment paper or foil, which was the point at which they lost me. 

That seemed like a lot of faff.  I have a selection of cast iron casseroles with lids that fit pretty well – as they should, the amount I paid for them (actually, to be fair, mainly other people did.  Most of them were gifts) - wouldn’t they do?  Yes they would.  Whether the result is strictly speaking kleftiko, or just mouth meltingly tender pot roasted lamb is open to debate, all I know for sure is that it tastes good.

You can use lamb shanks for this, as I have in the accompanying photos (allow one per person), or any bone in joint - but I would suggest leg rather than shoulder.  The first, and probably most important, thing to do is marinate the meat well.  Exactly what goes in to the marinade is up to you and what you have available, but I would suggest the essentials are lemon, garlic, olive oil and plenty of fresh oregano, thyme or rosemary (or combination of all or any), plus salt pepper and olive oil.  Personally I would also include fresh chilli, a sprinkling of sumac and maybe star anise (although I might just add one of those to the pot come roasting time), if you wanted to add crushed fennel, cumin or coriander seeds I see absolutely no reason not to.  Put the meat in a non metallic dish, lightly scoring the surface if it has a covering layer of fat or skin, generously salt and pepper it, grate the zest of a lemon or two over it, then add the juice, crush a clove or two of garlic over it (and chilli if you’re using that - when I’m marinading I always roughly chop a clove of garlic and a chilli and crush them together in the garlic crusher, the only time I ever use that device), throw on the herbs (and whatever else you want to add) and a little olive oil.  Give it all a good rubbing in, then cover it and put it in the fridge for at least a few hours, preferably overnight.

Take the marinading meat out of the fridge early enough to return to room temperature before you start cooking, and at least four hours before you want to sit down to eat.  Peel a bunch of shallots and some cloves of garlic (I’d normally allow at least five shallots and a couple of cloves per person, but you don’t have to, and substitute peeled and quartered onions for the shallots if you prefer).  Preheat the oven to get it hot (around 220), with the casserole you’ll be using inside.  Meanwhile, in a frying pan, brown the meat.

Take the hot casserole out of the oven, chuck in the shallots/onions/garlic cloves, with a splash of olive oil (not much), a grind of pepper and a pinch of salt, then add the browned meat.  Pour over the remaining marinade and a glass of wine (red or white, it doesn’t really matter.  Whatever you’ve got open).  This is also where I might throw in a star anise.  Put the lid firmly on the casserole and put it back in the oven and immediately turn it down low.  How low depends on how low your oven reliably goes and how long you’ve got to cook it, and also how big the joint (or how many shanks), but generally 150 for 3 hours, or 130 for 4 should be in the right area.  It doesn’t have to be too precise.  This is not fine margin cooking.

Take it out of the oven about half an hour before serving and leave it to rest for 15-20 minutes with the lid on, then take the meat out and leave that to rest on it’s own on the carving board for another ten or so, before serving up (Even if you’ve used a leg or shoulder, it’s not really a question of carving, it will be falling apart, you should be able to literally spoon it off the bone and on to a plate).  You might want to return the casserole to the heat to reduce the liquid in the pan or just reheat the shallot/onion/garlic, which should be just about broken down and velvety soft.

Serve the meat with the shallot/onion/garlic and the juices from the pan, and thyme or rosemary roast potatoes.  Is it really kleftiko?  Who really cares? 

Monday, 17 January 2011


New year, old theme.  Yep, time to re-open that authenticity can of worms again, and while I’m at it, to kick off what may well turn out to be another recurring theme on this blog, namely recipes that start with the phrase “three days beforehand…”  Seriously, who has the time, the patience, or the forethought?  Certainly not me.

Cassoulet.  As I mentioned in passing in my first post on the subject of authenticity, this, along with Bouillabaisse, must be just about the most tediously, and pointlessly, argued over dishes in the world. Both of them French.  Funny that.  Because if there’s one nation on Earth more pedantically precious about authenticity, or more pig-headedly parochial, than the Italians, that’d be the French.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s entirely a bad thing.  It’s symptomatic of a culture that encourages pride in culinary tradition, that cherishes regional specialities and promotes the artisan over the factory.  All of which seems sadly long lost in Britain, and having to be re-learned by what I’m sure is, still, a very small number of professionals and hobbyists.

Anyway, as a French regional speciality, with infinite local variations within that region, all treated as holy writ, it doesn’t really matter how well (or badly) you make a cassoulet, any purist who so much as smells it will tell you that you’re doing it all wrong anyway.  And a second purist will confirm that yes, you are wrong, but that so also is the first purist.  And so on ad infinitum.  And as it is simultaneously one of the dishes most likely in the world to have a recipe that starts with the words ‘three days beforehand’, it’s also one of those dishes it’s most easy to be put off tackling at all.  So I wouldn’t bother.  Instead, here is a hearty stew that seems to have all the basic characteristics of what we might generically call a cassoulet, is thoroughly delicious and satisfying, and can be made in a couple of hours from scratch.  I call it ‘cassoulet-ish’.

I’d like to say that the duck legs I’ve used here are essential, but to do so would undermine my “anti purist” stance, so I’ll say they come strongly recommended.  However, feel free to substitute (or even add) duck breasts, strips of pork belly and/or big meaty pork sausages.  Even guinea fowl or chicken.  Best of all - and if you’re doing it as a special dinner party dish, I’d recommend this - add the lot.  By all means develop your own version and declare it to be the one true, definitive version and all others false.  You have every bit as much right to do so as any Carcassonnais cassoulet snob


4 duck legs
6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut into postage stamp sized pieces or strips (or equivalent quantity diced pancetta/lardons)
1 tin of beans (cannelini/haricot/pinto/borlotti)
1/2 tin chopped tomatoes
mushrooms (about a dozen chesnut mushrooms, halved or quartered depending on size or a couple of large flat mushrooms cut into big chunks or thick slices)
1 dozen small round shallots, peeled and left whole
fresh red chilli pepper, finely sliced - about two inches worth, more or less depending on taste and strength of chilli
2-3 cloves of garlic, or 4 depending on taste and size of cloves, finely sliced or crushed (I generally prefer my garlic in recognisable slices)
bay leaf
1 glass red wine
250 ml good strong stock – beef/chicken/mushroom)

Score the skin of the duck legs or stab them repeatedly with a fork, season with salt and pepper and fry them, skin side down both to brown and to melt off some of their fat.

While the duck legs are browning, heat a heavy, lidded oven proof pan or casserole and gently sautee the bacon, garlic, chilli and shallots in olive oil, with salt and pepper and a pinch of thyme (dried or fresh), taking care not to burn the garlic. 

When the duck legs are nicely browned, and their pan swimming in drained fat, add the mushrooms to the main pan and cook for a minute or two before adding the duck legs.

Add the wine, letting it simmer and reduce slightly, then add the tomatoes and a bay leaf or two, then the beans and the stock (be sure to add the stock hot).  You don’t want too much liquid at this point so modify the amount of stock you add accordingly.  If you think there might be too much liquid, leave the pan to simmer uncovered on the heat for a few minutes to reduce.

Put the lid on the pan and transfer to a preheated oven to cook until the duck legs are well cooked through and the shallots nice and soft.  About 180, for 45 minutes to an hour will do it, but, as (almost) ever, it’s even better, if you have time, to turn the oven down and cook it longer, lower and slower.  I really should have a keyboard shortcut for ‘150 for about 3 hours’ because that should certainly work here, although I’d be inclined to check it at about two and a half.  When it comes out of the oven, the sauce should be thick, gloopy and shiny with duck fat, and the meat on the duck legs should be ready to fall off the bone.  If it’s too fluid, again, reduce it on the stove, if it’s too dry add a little wine and/or stock and allow to simmer for a few minutes before serving.

This is best served with mash.  Best of all if you use some of the melted off duck fat from the frying pan where you’d normally use butter (or I’d use extra virgin olive oil) on the potatoes.  Perhaps even with some chopped spring onions softened in the fat stirred in to it too.

Anyway.  That’s the French thoroughly offended, I’m sure, along with the Italians.  Next up, the Greeks

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


Leftovers are of course the curse/blessing of a traditional Christmas turkey dinner, and I say that as a hardcore leftover enthusiast.  I love cooking a dish on one day and adapting and adding to what is left of it over the subsequent two or three days.  Stop me if I’ve said this before, but a Sunday roast for instance might lead on to cold roast beef and chips on Monday night (a strong candidate I’d have to say for my death row meal), the beef and bean salad in my title picture on Tuesday, maybe even a cottage pie on Wednesday.  Not to mention sandwiches.  Or a good old fashioned British beef stew could come over all Provencale with the addition of some red pepper and olives; with the addition of half a tin of tomatoes (or a good handful of cherry tomatoes), and some capers that then becomes a richly delicious pasta sauce.  I love the challenge of looking in the fridge at a random collection of leftovers and fresh ingredients and combining them in a way that makes a dinner quite distinct from whatever it was you had last night, but tasting as good as if it were what you had intended all along.  Very often the improvised adaptation of the leftovers will be tastier than the original meal, and gets tastier still in each successive incarnation.

Nevertheless, I consider it, on the whole, a side benefit of grouse for Christmas dinner that by December 29th you are not opening the fridge and feeling wearily, not to say queasily, obliged to have a grouse sandwich for lunch AGAIN.  Particularly as we didn’t have a whole family to feed all through those long, dark, empty days between Christmas and new year.  Having said that, though, I do kind of wish I’d done a bigger ham.  A few more ham, mustard and medlar jelly sandwiches would have gone down very well indeed…

Not that there were no leftovers at all from the grouse.  I scraped enough meat from the six carcasses to form the feature if not the bulk of at least three meals for the two of us, and then the carcasses themselves yielded a good 4 litres of pungently gamey stock which in turn formed the basis of a risotto and a game soup before the rest of it went into the freezer.  Grouse sandwiches (again with that medlar jelly) also made up one light lunch.

The risotto was made in the standard way, with shallots, celery and some thickly sliced mushrooms, the grouse stock, then a couple of small handfuls of shredded grouse meat, heated in the frying pan with a dash of sherry (or white wine would do) and a splash of the stock before being stirred through the risotto right at the end.  I served that up with a similar bitter leaf salad to that I served with the roast grouse for Christmas dinner, and that pickled red cabbage that I forgot to…

The soup was made with a soffritto of some diced smoky bacon, equal quantities of diced leek, onion, celery, red pepper, carrot parsnip and mushrooms, softened in olive oil with a little chilli and garlic and the strong grouse stock blended half and half with the softer, gentler pheasant stock that I’d taken out of the freezer in order to make the gravy to go with the grouse on Christmas day.  Again a handful of the shredded meat was thrown in at the end.  If you had any leftover roast veg (we didn’t), they could happily go in there as well.

Which brings us to the ham I wish there had been more left over of, and the stock left from the boiling of it, out of which you simply couldn’t not make pea and ham soup.  The quickest and easiest pea and ham soup to make is fresh (or rather frozen) peas, a generous portion per person cooked directly in the stock (allow about 300ml per person), and then blitzed, maybe with some shredded mint.  The flavours of clove and cinnamon in the stock this time though, would work against any such fresh, bright green mintyness, so dried split peas felt the appropriate way to go, and, partly to emphasise that this was not fresh pea soup, I went with yellow split peas rather than green.  I followed the proportions given in this Mark Hix recipe (for split pea and smoked haddock soup which sounds good although I haven’t tried it) and this one from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, but found the finished result just a little thin for my tastes, so I’d suggest increasing the quantity split peas from 200g to 300g for the 1.8 litres of stock I used.  Otherwise the technique is exactly the same as in those recipes, except obviously I used olive oil where they have butter.  Also, I soaked my peas for a couple of hours, although the packaging they came in suggested you didn’t have to. 

And that leaves the smoked trout, although this wasn’t strictly speaking leftovers, as it was something we ate before, not after, the main event.  I’d smoked 4 trout, to allow a fillet a head for 7 people, and then the 7th person dropped out, so I had one whole spare trout.  Which was the perfect amount to make a quick and easy and stress free pasta supper for Becca and I on Christmas Eve.  The quick and easiness of this dish is the key, it being something I came up with as the result of a kind of Ready Steady Cook challenge round at a friends house a few years ago, throwing together an improptu dinner out of whatever odds and ends she had in the fridge.  So don’t feel you need to smoke your own fish for this, the smoked trout fillets that come in packs at the supermarket are just fine, and indeed I stockpile them in the freezer whenever I see them reduced to clear, for just this purpose.  Regardless though of how quick and easy it is, and whether or not you use shop bought fillets, or smoke your own, this is a pasta dish that I would be happy serving to anyone, at any time.  It just seems quite fancy, sort of like linguine alle vongole, except without any of the faffing around with shellfish…

2 smoked trout fillets
250g cherry tomatoes
125g chestnut mushrooms
garlic, chilli, fresh flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons capers
1 glass vermouth (or white wine)
200g linguine (or spaghetti)

This whole dish can be made from scratch easily in the time it takes to boil a pan of water and cook the pasta.  Put your linguine (or spaghetti) in to cook in plenty of heavily salted vigorously boiling water, for ten minutes or whatever it says on the packet.  While that’s happening, simply halve your cherry tomatoes, and quarter, or otherwise chop your mushrooms to be about the same size as the halved tomatoes.  Finely slice a clove or two of garlic (this wants to be garlicky) and a small thumbnail’s worth of a fresh red, not too hot chilli pepper (or you can use a few dried chilli flakes, or no chilli at all, up to you).  Soften the tomatoes, garlic and chilli in olive oil then add the mushrooms, flake in the trout, add about a wine glass of vermouth (or white wine) and a grind of black pepper and a couple of teaspoons of rinsed capers, let it all cook together for just a couple of minutes, add some chopped parsley right at the end stir through the cooked and drained linguine (or spaghetti), and serve.  Serve it in oversized bowls and it’d pass muster as a fancy pasta dish in any Italian restaurant you care to name…

Monday, 10 January 2011

Tea Smoked Trout and Marmalade Glazed Ham

I’ve written already about the grouse we had for Christmas dinner and the red cabbage we didn’t.  What else is there to say about Christmas dinner?

For a start Christmas dinner this year was indeed dinner, not lunch which has always been the tradition in my family, even though it was my family that was coming, not Becca’s for whom dinner is the tradition.  Nevertheless, as the family were travelling down on the morning of Christmas day itself, and the weather leading up to Christmas suggested their journeys might be hellish, I thought it better to have lunch, in the form of warming soup, ready for them whenever they arrived, and save the formal meal till later on.  As it turned out, the weather relented, but even so, given that both Becca and I were working up to and including Christmas Eve, doing it this way round also made the day itself less stressful, not least because lunch could easily be prepared in advance and served whenever people were ready for it.

Soup and Ham:
Lunch would be a roast butternut squash and chestnut soup, followed by a home glazed ham.  We probably didn’t really need the ham, seeing as the family were only with us for Christmas day and Boxing day morning, then we were off for lunch at Becca’s family home.  But it really wouldn’t feel like Christmas without one, and it really is so easy, and so satisfying to do, it’s one of those things that every time I do it, I wonder why we don’t more often.  So when I picked up my grouse from Theobalds on the Wednesday, I picked up a small gammon joint as well.

I put the gammon in to soak in a pan with plenty of cold water, which I changed a couple of times over the course of the next twenty four hours or so.  Then I changed the water one last time and chucked a roughly chopped carrot, stick of celery and half an onion, along with a few pepper corns, four or five cloves and a bit of cinnamon stick into the pan with it.  Then I put it on the stove over a low heat and brought the water to the boil, and let it gently simmer away for a couple of hours before turning off the heat and leaving the ham to cool in the water.  Now I had a ham ready for glazing and a ham stock with a delicious hit of winter spice from the cloves and cinnamon, ready to make distinctly seasonal soup.

To make the soup for lunch, I roasted a single big butternut squash, peeled and cut into a mix of big chunks and more delicate wedges (which would be saved for making a salad), liberally sprinkled with cumin and fennel seeds, thyme, salt and pepper; and blanched and peeled (that’s the tedious bit) a good handful of  chestnuts (you could roast them as well, but that makes the peeling harder and therefore even more tedious).  Then I softened a finely chopped onion and leek in plenty of olive oil with salt and pepper and just a little garlic and fresh chilli, threw in the chunks of roast squash and the chestnuts and cooked it all together for a few minutes before pouring in about a litre of hot chicken stock (I was doing this before I’d boiled my ham).  I simmered it gently for twenty minutes then blitzed it with my hand blender till smooth and thick, and then set aside in a cool place.  Come Christmas day lunchtime I just thinned it to the perfect, silky consistency with my clove and cinnamon spiced ham stock and served it up.

To follow the soup came the ham, which I’d glazed with marmalade on Christmas morning.  I’d saved the last bit in a jar of Tiptrees Tawny that had been due to run out just a week or so before, by perfectly fortuitous timing, which meant all I had to do was gently heat the jar in a pan of water and pour it’s liquid contents out over my gammon, from which I’d removed the rind but left a good layer of fat which I’d then studded with cloves.  Then I baked it at around 180 for just 15-20 minutes.

Tea Smoked Trout:
The same day I’d put my gammon in to soak, I also smoked the trout I had planned as the starter for Christmas dinner itself.  I lit the barbecue out on the balcony in the snow, but if you’ve got a well ventilated kitchen with an efficient extraction system then you could almost certainly do this indoors as I’m always surprised at how little stray smoke seems to get emitted.  Don’t blame me though, if you try it and end up having to pull your smoke alarm off the ceiling and throwing it to the end of the garden (which is pretty much what I now do before I even start cooking steaks, for instance…).  I use my fish kettle as a smoker, but a lidded wok with a steamer rack will do the job, or you can construct a bespoke smoker out of a bread bin, or a giant size Quality Street or biscuit tin if you have one lying around post Christmas.  Whatever container you use the technique is the same: line the base with foil, cover the foil loosely with a sprinkling of rice, sugar and tea leaves (I used lapsang for extra smoky flavour) and place the fish (or chicken or duck breasts, or whatever else you fancy smoking) to be smoked on a rack over that.

I’ve done this with and without salting the fish beforehand and I find it works fine either way.  Salting the fish does seem to allow the flesh to absorb more of the flavour of the smoke, while unsalted the smokiness is very subtle, so I’d say it’s a matter of taste, but if you want smokiness to feature prominently, then definitely salt first.  I salted mine, allowing 50g of salt per quite small trout and making sure it was liberally sprinkled inside and out, while the barbecue was getting up to temperature, then rinsed the fish thoroughly and patted them dry while the fish kettle with the rice, sugar and tea leaves heated up to smoking point.  Then I arranged the fish nose to tail on the rack and lowered it into the kettle and put the lid over it.  After just about 20 minutes, lift the lid and once the smoke has cleared (there’s actually not that much), you should see the skin of the trout has turned a beautiful burnished gold and the flesh of the fish is cooked (check in the usual way by sliding a knife into alongside the spine and seeing if the flesh is just opaque).  If it is, lift out the rack and let it cool.  Then wrap in foil or greaseproof paper and keep in the fridge till you need it.

Once your trout are smoked and cooled it’s very easy to peel off the skin – although a shame, because it is SO pretty – and to remove the fillets from the bones – just cut diagonally behind the head, run a sharp knife along the spine and slide the flesh off the top half, then lift the skeleton off the bottom fillet.  A skinned fillet per person is perfect for a starter, with a simple salad of sliced celery, celery leaves and capers, with a bright lemony dressing, and a big blob of intense horseradish sauce (you could make your own with freshly grated horseradish, lemon juice, salt and – give or take dairy allergies – crème fraiche, but I have to admit, mine came out of a jar – a Polish jar, in this case).

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Festive grouse and neglected cabbage

Grouse, goodwill and candlelight...
I don’t know why more people don’t have grouse for Christmas dinner.  Actually I can think of several reasons.  Here’s a bunch, just off the top of my head: it’s not necessarily easy to get hold of; it has a reputation for being fearsomely expensive; it is properly gamey, so not to everyone’s taste; people think it’s tricky to cook, and easy to get wrong; if you’re cooking for a lot of people it’s logistically tricky and oven space becomes an issue (but then the same is true for whatever you cook once you go beyond a certain number); grouse season ends on Dec 10th, so it may not be just tricky to get hold of by Christmas, any there is may be ropey, or there may simply not be any left.  So to be sure you can get hold of good grouse, you’ll need to buy early and freeze, and we don’t all have that much space in our freezers (I know I don’t).

But, as I've said before I’m lucky to live just a bus ride away from a great butchers, that does a fantastic range of really excellent meat and game, even the fancy stuff, for almost ridiculously unfancy prices (it must be those notoriously cheap rents in, er, Bloomsbury…).  I may well also be doubly lucky in that 2010 was apparently as bumper a year for grouse as it was for mushrooms, which might explain why Theobalds not only still had grouse in stock the week before Christmas, but they were selling them at a fiver a bird, just a quid apiece more than partridges, for a much bigger and generally more prized bird.  Allowing a bird a head, for seven people, that worked out about half the price of a good goose, and probably not much (if any) more expensive than a pretty average turkey.  And I was certainly lucky (trebly so?) that with the weather the way it was before Christmas, I didn’t need to find room for them in either my freezer or fridge, but just put them in a plastic box out on the balcony under a packed mound of snow, till I needed them on the afternoon of Christmas day itself.

As for being tricky to cook, then really, honestly, they’re not.  I would suggest considerably easier than a big turkey, and the six I ended up doing (one party member couldn’t make the trip on account of the weather) took up less oven space than a single big bird would have done.  I can see why people might think it easier to handle just one large bird, rather than half a dozen small ones, but you need to do so little to the grouse that it really is no fuss at all.  And it all cooks so much quicker.

That only leaves the matter of the grouse’s gaminess, and whether or not it might be to everyone’s taste, and as that is a question of taste, there is no answer to it beyond you like it or you don’t.  All I can say that everyone around our table seemed to like it, or if they didn’t, they were much too polite to say.  And, apart from my Mum, who is a paragon in all things, we aren’t really all that polite a bunch…

To cook the grouse I gave each of them a rinse inside and out under a running tap, pulling away and
discarding any stray feathers, then patted them dry with kitchen paper.  I ground up a generous quantity of black pepper and mixed it in a bowl with a similar quantity of Maldon salt – whenever prepping a bird for roasting it’s best to have your seasoning pre-mixed so you can pinch and sprinkle with one hand while manoeuvring your fowl with the other – and seasoned the grouse generously inside and out.  Then I rubbed them over with olive oil and wrapped each in a couple of rashers of pancetta, crossed over their breastbones.  That was it, it took about 10 minutes.  Then it was just a question of spacing them evenly on a roasting tray, heating the oven to about 220, and giving them about half an hour, and the same again to rest on a board while we had our starters.

As a rule 20 minutes should be enough to get a grouse cooked to a suitable shade of ruby pink on the inside, but the more you’re doing the longer they will take.  My 30 minutes was guesswork but it came out more or less right.  Theoretically a good fan oven should reduce the need to extend the cooking time, so if you have one of those, by all means check them at 20 and take it from there.  Next time I do six grouse in my own oven, the one thing I’ll do differently is be sure to rotate the tray half way through, as clearly mine, much as I love it, doesn’t distribute its heat evenly and the six birds came out covering a spectrum of rareness from really quite bloody to scarcely at all, although all within tolerance, and suited to different tastes on the scale.  Again an effective fan oven should reduce the need to rotate the birds within the oven, but it’s probably not a bad idea, all the same.

Grouse (and medlar jelly) in a festive haze
One word of caution I would have for anyone planning on grouse, is make sure you have a set of proper serrated steak knives.  Our dinner knives, while perfectly capable of cutting through a nice tender steak lying flat on a plate, struggled rather with the inherently less stable proposition of a whole grouse which had a tendency to scoot out from under the blade and skitter wildly across the plate.

To accompany the grouse we had the classic roast veg combination of potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and a salad of bitter leaves, chicory, rocket and watercress in a spiky, citrusy, mustardy dressing.  Plus bread sauce and home made medlar jelly that I’ll have have to try to remember to write up for a blog post when medlars become available again next autumn…  (which kind of goes for the grouse themselves, I guess…). 

A magnum of Chateau Musar: Special wine for a special occasion.  Thanks Dad.
Oh, and we sort of had pickled red cabbage and chestnuts, in that I’d been all super efficient and organised enough to prepare some on my day off three days before.  The only problem with being all super efficient and organised enough to prepare things three days in advance, is not being all super efficient and organised enough to remember they’re in the fridge when the day comes, so we had pickled red cabbage and chestnuts, and then again we didn’t…  Nevertheless, sharp eyed regular
readers will have spotted this dish as a recurring side order in pictures on this blog, lurking in the background or on the plate alongside roast beef, ox cheeks, cottage pie and pork and beans, and possibly other things I’ve missed.  It’s one of my favourite companions to pretty much any roast meat, beef in particular, but it’s also the traditional accompaniment to a Lancashire hotpot, and goes well with any meaty stew, particularly one made with a fatty cut of meat, where the sweet vinegariness helps cut through the fat.  And it’s about time I wrote it up, if only to make amends to the cabbage itself, for having neglected it and leaving it forgotten in the fridge on Christmas day.  I owe it that much.

Pickled red cabbage with chestnuts and raisins.
Normally I do this with pine nuts, but this time I used chesnuts just to make it festive.  The technique is the same.

Red cabbage – half a big one, or a whole small one, about 5-600g
6-8 chestnuts, blanched or roasted, peeled and very roughly chopped (or a handful of pine nuts
A handful of raisins or sultanas
Cider or sherry vinegar
Bay leaf
A little olive oil

Roughly shred your cabbage, to a nice combination of chunky and fine.  Dry fry the chestnuts (or pine nuts) until just browning (this might not be necessary if they have already been roasted to a golden colour), then add a good slug of olive oil and add the cabbage and a bay leaf.  Put a lid on the pan and cook till starting to soften – about 10 -15 minutes.  Throw in the raisins and cook for a few minutes more, then pour over the vinegar.  You want just enough to see the surface of the liquid emerging through the cabbage, not enough to submerge it.  Give it all a good stir, you should see the cabbage turn from almost black to a beautiful bright purple.  Put the lid back on and let it cook for another 15 minutes or so, until the liquid has almost all been absorbed and you no longer get the eye watering hit of vinegar when you lift the lid and stick your nose over the pan.  Taste test one of the bigger chunks of cabbage to check that it’s tender and not too harshly vinegary.  It should be sharp but sweet.  Give it a little longer if necessary, and maybe add a little seasoning to your taste.  Once done this will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for, literally, weeks, and can be served hot or cold.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Happy New Year...

... to one and all.

Christmas and a new job have kept me away from the blog these past couple of weeks but there’s certainly been no shortage of good eating to give me something to write about, so it’s good to finally get some time to put my thoughts in order.  While I do that, why not take a look at this article by George Monbiot, which covers in depth some issues I’ve at least tangentially touched upon in recent posts, relating to the meat and dairy industries and the various reasons for vegetarianism.

A full post on Christmas dinner – we had grouse – and, perhaps more to the point, leftovers – although one of the benefits of having grouse was not being left with enough cold meat to sink a battleship, just lots and lots of deliciously gamey stock (almost, if not quite, enough to float a battleship) - will follow shortly(ish).

And in the mean time, here's a picture of a pork shank (or stinco) braised slowly in a tomato sauce, as suggested to me by Patrick Haney in response to my previous pork shank post.  He promised it would make a lovely meal of the pork shanks themselves while simultaneously cooking up a delicious sauce for pasta the next day.  He wasn't wrong.  Thank you, Patrick.