Thursday, 27 November 2008

Game on...

It’s only recently that I’ve been aware of game. Not in a completely blinkered way where I was totally blind to its existence but in a more immediate fashion. I’ve always known that pheasants and rabbits and venison were available but rarely did they feature on the menu at home and even when they did, they invariably came pre-packaged in neat little portions, in no discernable pattern at various points in the year.

And whenever we ate it, I enjoyed it. Venison steaks are an absolute joy, especially when served achingly rare with a sweet sauce. Game casserole was also a favourite although it never made it onto the table more than two or three times a year.

It was only when I started writing about food and in turn reading more about the joys of cooking, seasonality and provenance that I became more aware of the importance and pleasure inherent in game.

Seasonality, an aspect of cooking that is of paramount importance to me, is perhaps most prominent with game. Fruit and vegetables exist at the fickle whim of the weather – too much rain, too little sun or a late frost can push back or bring forward the first potatoes of the year or halt the rise of the young and tender asparagus stems. We know broadly when spring lamb is going to be ready or the time of year when trout is at its best. But there are no absolutes.

The appearance of game, on the other hand, is so firmly set in the calendar that you could set an atomic clock to it. It is not just certain months or weeks when you can expect to see the first few partridges or pheasants – you can be sure of the exact day, days that are set in stone in The Calendar and are as important to some as Royal Ascot, The Henley Regattta or The Wimbledon Final.

‘The Season’ kicks off on August 12th, the Glorious Twelfth as it is known, which marks the first day you are able to shoot grouse. Duck, goose and partridge follow on September 1st and pheasants are fair game a month later.

By the end of February many of these are once again off the menu until the months roll around and the whole thing starts again.

For an enthusiastic cook, this is indeed a glorious time of year. Game is everything food should be – slow bred, wild, able to wander around the countryside and free from any insidious hormones and growth promoters. It is a world away from the intensively farmed, pre-packaged meats that have come to dominate the supermarket shelves and now form most people’s idea of what meat is.

With game, even if you buy it ‘oven-ready’ there is a connection to the land and an awareness that what you are about to consume was, until recently, running or flying round rural Britain. There is a purity to it and an almost unfathomable desire to treat it with respect.

This desire is only accentuated when you get hold of something only recently dispatched – head, feathers and guts in tact. This is hands-on food that offers an experience that every meat eater should consider trying if only to appreciate the moral implications of consuming the flesh of another animal.

I’m not going to pretend I am an expert at this. The only time I have been shooting was with an air rifle whilst in the Cub Scouts and then the target was round, paper and lifeless rather than bird-shaped, fleshy and living. Nor am I going to moralise on the rights and wrongs of being a carnivore. My personal belief is that eating meat does come with a necessary need to think about animal welfare and the connection between a burger and a cow or a pork chop and a pig but that is for another day.

What I would suggest is trying to get hold of a complete bird, just once, to experience what it is like to turn something that looks like it was once alive into something resembling a meal. Because it is a great experience that only gets easier with time and practice.

The first time I did the necessary prep work on a pheasant was a few months back (you can read about it here) and, I am happy to admit, it was not an easy process. Like Lady Macbeth frantically and desperately washing her hands, I tried for two days to remove the smell from my fingers although I am sure that it was almost certainly psychological. The mental images, too, are still strong and I approached the whole process with a degree of some fear and trepidation.

But nevertheless I was ball-bouncingly excited when I heard that a colleague of my girlfriend’s was going shooting last weekend because I knew what the result would be.

Sure enough, on Monday evening she arrived home with a heavy bag containing two freshly despatched pheasants: one young hen and one hefty cock whose large spurs and considerable size suggested he was something of a battle weary veteran.

They hung in the garage for two days before I decided to settle down and ‘do the deed’. Fortified with nothing more than strong coffee (last time required wine, much wine) I settled down and started plucking, a process that is almost therapeutic and quickly transforms a recognisable bird into something that resembles meat.

Once naked and the head has been removed, the gutting is a grim inevitability but, honestly, after the first time it presents little problem and within moments I had two birds ready to be washed and butchered as well as a plate of giblets, perfect for making a rich stock along with the bones.

The whole process from start to finish took close to an hour, not bad considering that I managed to prevaricate for almost two the first time I was presented with a complete pheasant. At the end of it I had four sizeable breast portions and a large handful of meat, ideal for creating a rich winter pie to eat in front of a crackling fire with a large glass of something red and warming. Game on indeed.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Soy Seed Nibbles

One of the best things about Friday is being able to collapse into the sofa, guilt-free, with something faintly alcoholic filling your glass in large measure.

Unless we are planning on eating spicy food, we rarely have beer in the house. Wine we tend to save for drinking with food too, so when it comes down to just having a drink, something to enjoy in its own right, the spirits cupboard is where I tend to migrate towards.

I shy away from sweet drinks and prefer something more refreshing with a bit of bite and a distinct sourness so a vodka or gin and tonic with plenty of ice and a hefty squeeze of fresh lemon and lime is damn near perfect.

But, as thousands of bartenders around the world know, with drinks such as this must come nibbles.

Olives and nuts have long been favourites, partly because their saltiness compliments many drinks so well (and leaves you feeling thirsty and thus more likely to order a second and a third and a…) and this same principle is behind by new favourite drink nibble: soy roasted seeds.

When my girlfriend first made these we had to roast a new batch within minutes of the first because I demolished them so quickly. They are easy, quick, finger-lickingly tasty and so more-ish that they could be offered to crack addicts in an effort to help wean them off the demon rocks.

The principle is simple – toss a few handfuls of pumpkin and sunflower seeds in soy sauce and roast them for about ten minutes in a hot oven until they dry out and puff up into little crunchy, salty bubbles of deliciousness. To pep them up a little you could add some dried chilli flakes or any one of numerous other spices – cumin, nutmeg, coriander. The possibilities are manifold.

One final tip is to make more than you think you might actually need. Any left over seeds (yeah, right) will keep just fine in an airtight container.

Please welcome to the stage...

A full two months ago I introduced you to Marx and Eggels, the two most revolutionary chicks this side of Cuba. We bought these two hens when they were a mere 15 weeks old and since then they’ve done little but stalk around the garden and eat raisins. They’ve certainly not been earning their keep by laying any eggs.

Not a single one.

It became something of a running joke: perhaps in the revolutionary spirit they downed tools in some passive act of insurrection. ‘We shall lay no eggs until the demands of the proletariat have been met. Death to the bourgeoisie!’ We even toyed with the idea of getting another chicken to try to placate them. She would have been called Henin.

We tried putting a ping-pong ball in their nest box in the vague hope that something resembling an egg might trigger a hitherto dormant desire to lay. This failed too – they merely kicked it out of their little house and proceeded to kick it around their run and peck it into oblivion. We’d even started discussing the possibility of maybe, maybe having one or both of them for Sunday lunch, but I’m still not sure whether the notion was ever a serious one.

And now it doesn’t matter because this morning there was something warm and distinctly egg shaped sat atop the straw.

So without further ado, I am delighted to be able to introduce you to Sheldon, our very first egg and currently the most expensive ova I have ever had the pleasure to hold – I think, when you factor in the cost of their house, the chickens themselves and the copious amounts of food they nom through, this single egg is worth more than Sevruga caviar.

But it is worth every penny because this is the first and I dare say it will make the smallest, tastiest omelette ever created.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Cherry Tree and Fresh Bread

In the front garden, within good sight of the desk where I work, is an ornamental cherry tree. Due to the fact that it is of a non-edible variety and its leaves litter the lawn in vast brown swathes, its days are numbered. Soon it will make way for another vegetable patch.

But while gazing out of the window this afternoon I noticed the sun shining through the only leaf left on the naked, angular branches. It looked great so I thought I’d take a picture.

Also, the loaf is ready. Real life still life.

The Little Things

I’m not entirely sure how to start this post. I’ve written and deleted the first line that many times that I can’t remember the original point I was trying to make.

I think that I wanted to talk about the non-linear process of cooking and how our experience of reading about food presents a distortion from the reality of cooking and eating, which happen in many more dimensions than two.

Ah, yes that was it, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about.

I wanted to write about how the process of writing about cooking can be to the detriment of the actual act of culinary creation and how trying to capture the sequence of events that takes place when making a meal or dish is nigh on impossible. And I was sure that I had thought of a way to illustrate this but now I can’t remember that either.

Which is most frustrating.

I think what I am trying to say is that the vast majority of food writing seems to focus on the end result, the final product sitting happily on a plate and nicely lit, bathed in sun and captured for a single moment before being devoured. Whereas anyone who reads food writing, and I assume therefore, has a passing interest in the subject, knows that this is not the main attraction of the culinary arts.

The main attraction is in the creation: the process from conception to mouth, which is different for everybody and makes food writing, to a certain extent, a largely moot topic. We can try all we can to describe smells, tastes and textures but ultimately eating is the most subjective of actions that has to be experienced to truly be understood.

I am conscious of this, and have been for some time, which is why I try to focus less on the finished items that emerge from the kitchen five or six times a week and more on the process, the philosophy, the ideas and the incidental details because (aside from a few exceptions) I imagine you’d find it boring to read about what I ate last night in the same way you’d find it boring to discover that I took a shower or put in my contact lenses.

In short, because eating is so subjective, I try to find some common ground, try to pick out the relevant aspects of what I do in order to make this as interesting as possible to as many people as possible.

I don’t want this to be a record of the meals I’ve cooked and eaten, more an exploration of as many aspects of the culinary world as possible, rooted in reality and entrenched in experience. Because those are what we hold in common.

To bring this whole thing round to something more tangible, there are two things cooking in my oven at the moment: a ragu sauce and a loaf of bread.

I am fairly certain that nearly all of you have a favourite, tried and tested, recipe for making a Bolognese sauce and (if you are at all like me) there is nothing, nothing I can do to convince you that yours is not the best in the world. There is no point in posting the recipe I use because you will read it, utter something like ‘Idiota! I cannot believe he uses pancetta!’ or ‘He should add milk!’, and then move swiftly on. And the last thing the world needs is another meat sauce recipe

Likewise, you will have a bread recipe and method that you are unwilling to deviate from so there is little point to me saying ‘Don’t forget to add a teaspoon of salt’ or ‘try using a little rendered duck fat in your dough, it adds an incredible flavour’. You will utter an audible ‘pah’ and click off.

Instead I shall focus on the little things, things that are interesting and mostly relevant, things that can offer a little extra. Things like Soffrito.

In Italy there are two holy trinities: the first has something to do with the church but the second, and more important one, refers to the combination of finely chopped carrot, onion and celery that, when lightly sautéed, forms the foundation of countless dishes.

To many Italians it would be unthinkable to attempt to make a ragu without this trio of ingredients (much like the French version, Mirepoix, only cut much, much smaller) that add flavour and body in wonderful abundance.

Having watched many episodes of The Sopranos, I can safely say that I wouldn’t dare to argue with an Italian about something as important as food, consequently whenever I make a meat sauce, soffrito is always the first thing in the pan (I could launch into a lengthy diatribe about the importance of browning the mince, the addition of red wine and the absolute, unshakeable necessity of cooking for at least two hours, but I shall spare you that).

If you decide to try this can I make once teeny suggestion? Chop it all as finely as you possibly can – I use a grater for the carrot and celery – because chunks of vegetables in a ragu are a big no no.

OK, onto bread. Bread is mostly flour. With the price of grain currently pushing the cost of a loaf over a pound I would instead suggest that you try making bread at least once. It’s fun. It’s easy and it’s cheap: you buy top quality organic flour hand ground by Cistercian Monks on solid gold grinding stones and it is still going to be cheaper than buying a loaf.

Even when you factor in the cost of the extra ingredients, you can have three or four freshly baked loaves for the cost of a single supermarket one. Plus all those wonderful smells wafting through your house and the overwhelming sense of smugness/satisfaction when you pull your freshly baked loaf from the oven, slice off a chunk, smother it with butter and tear into it eagerly. An experience that no shop can provide.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Friday Nibbles - Salt

Salt has had a bad press recently with more and more dieticians and nutritionists advising us to cut our salt intake and use alternative seasonings, which is fine. If you don’t like food.

I can’t say it any simpler – food without salt is almost universally bland. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like my food salty but I know what a difference even a tiny amount can make to the flavour of a dish. In the wrong hands it can be a travesty with everything tasting like a mouthful of seawater but used correctly, salt is merely a flavour enhancer, used to help develop and boost the inherent deliciousness of so many foods.

Not only is it an essential ingredient in the kitchen, without it we would die a rather slow and painful death suffering through fatigue, muscle cramps and other such delights as our bodies struggle to regulate their water content.

In its simplest form, salt is a compound of Sodium Chloride (NaCl) but there are so many variations that a number of top restaurants have started specialising in gourmet salts, using samples from various parts of the world to complement certain dishes. Sel Gris (Grey Salt) and Fleur de Sel both hand harvested from France are two of the more popular gourmet salts and they have a rounder, softer taste to the standard table salt, which many find too harsh and overly salty.

To see for yourself how salt can give an explosion of flavour cut a couple of slices of a fresh tomato. Leave one unseasoned and sprinkle a little salt on the other before tasting each one. You should be able to tell the difference immediately with the second tasting distinctly more tomato-ey and even sweeter than the first. You can do a similar thing when you are making caramel – just a little sprinkling will give a significantly and noticeably more powerful flavour helping to accentuate the other elements in a way that isn’t possible without the salt.

So why has this magnificent little seasoning found itself demonised recently? Excess salt consumption has been linked to hypertension (high blood pressure) although there is no concrete evidence as yet. But the key word there is excess. An excess of anything is unlikely to do you much good. Too many bananas will give you potassium poisoning. Too many glasses of wine will give you a hangover and too many fried breakfasts will give you all manner of difficulties. Moderation is the key, as with most things.

Unless we are making a brine (which happens rarely), we tend to stay away from table salt which is cheap and, to my palate, too synthetically salty. Instead we have a little jar of Malden sea salt: delightfully soft flakes that are great rubbed over a finished dish at the final moment just before serving. In addition to this we have a small jar of rock salt too. This has a less brackish flavour still and is great for seasoning during the cooking process allowing some degree of grace if you slip and add a little too much (If you’ve over salted a dish there isn’t a great deal you can do which is why it pays to add it a little at a time. You can try compensating with other flavours: lemon juice and sugar to balance the saltiness but it’s best just to take a little extra care).

There’s no doubt in my mind that salt is one of the absolute essential ingredients in any kitchen, possibly the number one ingredient thanks to its ability to lift almost all other foods to the loftiest of heights. It may not be a stand alone food stuff but its inherent capacity to act as an ‘enabler’ for everything else in the kitchen to live up to their potential means that it deserves its own chapter in the hall of fame.

Updates and a request

Oh boy, it’s been a while. A whole week, in fact, which is almost inexcusable, and a fortnight since I gave you a ‘nibble’ (I just typoed that as ‘nobble’ and toyed with the idea of keeping it in because it looks like a great word. There you go, you can have both).

Before I do write up a regular Friday posting I’ve just got a couple of announcements and one itsy bitsy teeny tiny request.

First up, I’ve been graced with a rather fabulous award from the delightful Hopie at the equally delightful blog Hopie’s Kitchen. She very kindly rated my little corner of cyberspace E for Excellent for which I am very grateful indeed.

Numero two-so – I’ve recently started the preliminary work on a cookbook in collaboration with two wonderful chefs. More information to follow in due course.

Thirdly, I've just launched my very own website: - Please feel free to scoot on over and invite your friends.

Finally, we are taking some well-deserved time out (my girlfriend probably deserves it more than me, but I’m not complaining) and have booked a trip to Paris, a city I’ve not yet had the pleasure to explore. We have almost a week to play with so thought I would open up to you great people and see if you had any tips, must sees or, more importantly, could recommend some truly amazing places to eat.

All advice would be appreciated and I look forward to hearing from you. Stay tuned for ‘nibbles’ very soon.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Home Charcuterie Part Two – Making Pâté

After whetting my charcuterie whistle with a rip-roaring rillettes success, I thought the creation of something a little more adventurous might be in order. Being without certain items such as a meat grinder, nitrates and sausage casings, salamis and their ilk were out. I didn’t fancy smoking anything (not on a week night, at least) and I didn’t have the patience for curing. This left pâté.

If you have ever felt the pressing urge to experience life as a mentally unhinged doctor from a late Victorian gothic horror or empathise with the deranged protagonist in a David Cronenberg movie, then making pâté is an excellent place to start.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to see your food neatly packaged in cellophane bearing no resemblance to any living creature or are liable to feel a little nauseous at the sight of blood and guts then I’d advise you stay away. Well away. This isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak of constitution.

All good pâté begins with liver. Liver, like all offal, is a foodstuff that featured rarely in my childhood and only now am I tip-toeing into this murky world. My only memory of liver was being presented with a seething brown mass topped with a hemi-sphere of mashed potato during one school dinner. It’s liver, I was told.

With a trembling fork I lifted the tiniest possible piece to my mouth and took it between my teeth. I remember the harsh ferric smell and the gritty texture. I remember the dark brown colour and the slimy grey onions in the drab gravy. And I remember a swelling tide of bile making its way up my gullet as the weird meat like substance shifted around my mouth. I sat there for what felt like days whilst it congealed and grew cold on my plate. Just eat half, said my primary school teacher. Half? Oh good god, please no.

I don’t remember the outcome, perhaps I blacked out or have packaged away the memory somewhere deep in my sub-conscious but that was my last experience with liver: as a timid six year old far, far away from the comforts of my mother’s cooking surrounded by giant teachers and snotty nosed compatriots who all seemed to be able to eat the disgusting bubbling brown mess on their plates without too much trouble. I went home that day and asked, nay demanded, that I take a packed lunch to school every day.

But the scars could not have been that deep because last week while at the butchers I spotted some fresh pig’s liver on the counter and was intrigued enough to buy it. Much like with rillettes, the constituent parts of pâté are cheap. For a little under three pounds I was able to buy a kilo of organically reared Gloucestershire Old Spot liver from a pig I was assured had led a happy life. This would be enough to make a large loaf of pâté, about a kilo and a half in total. Considering you pay about three quid for a tiny slice of the good stuff in a deli, this was too good a bargain to miss.

Having only ever made chicken liver pâté, I assumed, wrongly, that the process would be the same no matter which animal’s dark organ was lying on the counter. Slice, fry in butter, add booze, blitz in a food processor then leave in the fridge covered in a layer of melted butter.

It soon became apparent that this wasn’t the case. Instead the liver needed to be picked over (to remove any weird bits of I don’t know what), sliced and processed along with some breadcrumbs, milk, onion and a little pork shoulder to add a more meaty texture. This is fine when you are in possession of a full sized food processor. When you have one of these:

…it becomes a little trickier and a lot more time consuming.

I used the catch-all recipe from HFW’s River Cottage Meat Book and so was prepared to get a little mucky during the process. What I wasn’t prepared for is just how sticky raw liver is. It behaves like some weird 1950s B-movie monster gradually sliding across the plate, finding its own level and seemingly multiplying at will. By the time it had been picked over and sliced, it appeared to have doubled in volume and I was growing increasingly concerned as to whether it would fit into the loaf tin I had prepared.

The next step was to blitz up the various ingredients in my tiny food processor. Fine, I thought, no problems here. The resultant gloop (half an hour of whizzing, pouring, scraping and refilling) was, quite frankly, disturbing and if you’ve never tried to mince pork shoulder with a stick blender I don’t recommend trying. By the time everything had been thoroughly mixed and blitzed and processed I was slightly concerned that my sleep time would be plagued with horrific visions.

Regular readers will know that I don’t squeam easily. I’ve gutted things, I’ve cooked trotters and ears, I’ve sniffed and munched on durian, I’ve tried century eggs and even come very, very close to eating salted bugs (until a small Thai lady shook her head with a slightly concerned expression on her face) but a pork liver smoothie was almost too much. Almost. Thee are no pictures, for obvious reasons.

For the cooking, the mixture (‘pretend it’s a cake, pretend it’s a cake, pretend it’s a cake…oh jeez it’s pink and lumpy and smells like wet rust) was seasoned and poured (more like slopped) into a loaf tin and covered with a double layer of buttered foil before being placed into a roasting pan filled with water. After an hour or so in the oven, warm meaty smells were starting to fill the kitchen and it was removed from the bain marie ready to be pressed (cue enormous heavy wooden chopping board) and cooled.

By this time it was getting late and the prospect of homemade pâté that had only recently looked like a special effect was not too appealing, so I waited hoping that time and a sleep would ease my prejudice.

Which is exactly what happened. I had my first slice for lunch the following day and was completely, utterly, totally and unashamedly won over by the flavour and general texture. It wasn’t coarse like a pâté de campagne but nor was it too smooth. It had enough resistance to be meaty and a subtle taste that was nothing like the iron-y tang of liver. Definitely one to be recommended.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Home Charcuterie Part One - Making Rillettes

Charcuterie is an aspect of the culinary arts that has long interested me both theoretically and on a more practical level. I find it truly wonderful that something that began as a necessity grew into the art form that we know today.

On the broadest level it encompasses the vast gamut of skills from curing and smoking to drying and salting. In short it is about preservation. It was about making sure that precious parts of an animal that would spoil quickly were not wasted and could be eaten throughout the year, long after the prime cuts had been roasted and consumed. It was about thrift. It was about economy. It was about the reality of slaughter and respect for the animal that had just been killed, making sure that as little as possible was wasted.

In the days before refrigeration and deep freezing, our ancestors had to come up with myriad other ways in which to preserve the meat from the pig or cow or sheep that was far too large to eat within the few short weeks (days sometimes) before the meat started to spoil.

Thankfully, these were tasty and delicious enough for the practice to continue and flourish even after technology made it possible to preserve meat simply with the application of cold temperatures and even now we still enjoy the salamis, hams, pâtés, terrines and other items that they perfected over generations.

But charcuterie is not a practice that many home cooks embrace and it is becoming a lost art beyond the specialist. Which is a shame because many aspects of the practice are easy enough to replicate in any domestic kitchen – not to mention, incredibly cheap.

This surprises some people – pâtés, terrines and salamis are expensive when bought in delicatessens – but the components themselves are the cheaper cuts of meat, those which could not be simply roasted over hot coals: the tough bits, the offal, the bits that need a little more care and attention in order to become delicious.

In the spirit of adventure we set about attempting the charcutier’s art for ourselves this weekend. Keen to keep things relatively simple we shied away from chorizos, salamis or cured hams (plus we really don’t have the space to hang a full pig’s leg just yet) and chose instead to make a pâté and some rillettes, which are one of my single favourites in the charcutier’s entire armoury.

The first time I ever had rillettes was when I lived and worked in west London and invariably got my lunch from the best deli-café I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in (sadly now a hair salon). They are rich, decadent and so tasty that even the mere mention can bring a smile to my face (see above for Tony Bourdain’s rather excellent summation of this glorious food).

Made with either duck, goose or pork cooked long and slow in fat they are not for those who view calorific items with scorn or trepidation but given the scarcity with which they are eaten, and the all-natural origin of the ingredients, I personally don’t think this is an issue – I’d much rather eat a few spoons of this sort of food once a week than gorge on a microwave chicken tikka masala or other such culinary monstrosity.

For our version of this classic French pâté type preparation we used pork belly and shoulder to be cooked down in some back fat. Once the belly had been skinned (which we use to make pork scratchings – nothing wasted here) it was cubed and placed in a large pot with the cubed shoulder cuts (often used to make high grade sausages) and the rendered fat. After the addition of a little water and a bouquet garni it was cooking time. And it takes a while. Three hours at a tremulous simmer so that the occasional bubble will make its way to the surface before bursting is necessary in order to cook the pork to the ideal texture.

Once cool, the pork was then shredded, seasoned with salt, pepper and a little allspice, before being left for a day or so to allow the flavours to develop, meld together and take on that distinctive Gallic character.

This is food alchemy at its finest. The gradual transformation of base ingredients into a finished product that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts and just to be sure, we made a lot. Certainly enough to keep us, and others, dwelling in happy porcine reverie until well into the New Year. Mmm, rillettes.