Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Bury Black Pudding

Going back two or three generations, East Anglia is my ancestral home. My grandfather maintained that we could (loosely) trace our lineage back to that most famous nuisance Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants' Revolt.

In that sense, since moving back to Cambridge, I've returned 'home'.

But I was born and bred in the North West. My accent may be softening (or non-existent) but I still feel an affinity for this part of the country.

There are a few culinary traditions that seem to be unique to the region: Eccles cakes (a flaky pastry cake housing a lightly spiced and tightly packed collection of raisins), Lancashire oven bottoms (a soft bread roll), chip barmcakes (said bread roll stuffed with chips and possibly a splash of thick gravy. Carb-tastic) and black pudding.

There are many variations of 'blood sausage': Spanish Morcilla, French Boudin Noir, or the Boudin Rouge from Louisiana. But the best come from the large Lancashire market town of Bury ('Buh-reh') just north of Manchester.

Made with pigs' blood, thickened with oats and pork fat, it is then spiced, stuffed into natural casings and steamed, transforming the colour from a vibrant red to the familiar black.

They are then left to cool before being sold in large slices or the famous horseshoe shape.

Before consuming, they must be cooked again either gently boiled or fried in a little butter.

Which is what I did this morning. Along with a couple of rashers of bacon and a fresh egg. Not the healthiest way to start the day but a hell of a lot tastier than a bowl of muesli.

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Monday, 30 March 2009

Interfering Kittens

I am without the entire middle line of my keyboard.

Not right now, obviously. I am on a different 'puter. But my aged iMac continues to skirt dangerously close to utter breakage.

I came home last week and the familiar shimmer of liquid was evident on the desk. Damn. Not only that but the keyboard was nothing short of damp. Damner.

'Quick, turn it off and get it onto the radiator,' said my techno-guru (The GF). 'The same thing happened to me at work and I managed to fix it that way.'

No such luck.

I tried taking off all the keys and laying them neatly on the desk. In order. Perhaps unsurprisingly they didn't stay in order very long thanks to inquisitive kitten paws.

I am unaware of any cat prey that looks like an Apple key but perhaps I've just never seen the fabled MacBird.

Anyway. Aside from not having the use of any of the following letters - a s d f g h j k l - Jed seems to have run off with my F5 and 'Shift' keys and hidden them somewhere for later consumption. I quite enjoyed using capital letters.

Major annoyance.

Anyway. Much to come when I get a new keyboard: Two N3T posts, something about 'mother-dough', something about cooking in the kitchen of the future and a whole host of other delights.

Right now I'm off to score some kidneys - a request from Laura over at Tiramisu. I knew it would happen eventually but I was trying to put them off for as long as possible because they make me pull a face like this:

They are my own personal 'heart of darkness'.


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Friday, 27 March 2009

Vodka Tonic

This is the ultimate drink.

The gratification that this simple concoction offers is near instantaneous. It is refreshing, gentle enough to drink more than three (unlike Martinis) yet in possession of an allure that belies its simplistic nature.

By definition, vodka is the purest spirit. I often find gin too perfumed, too aromatic. This may be part of its attraction. But not for me.

Usually all that goes into the glass is a squeeze of lime, a squeeze of lemon, plenty of ice, 50ml of vodka and a generous fizz of tonic water.

Like many people, I still remember my first time. Vividly. I was sixteen, wide-eyed and working in Toronto for my cousin’s magazine. We were in the Rivoli Bar, just off Queen St.

‘What can I get you?’ he asked
‘Erm, I don’t know. What are you having?’
‘I’ll get you a vodka tonic,’ he replied knowingly.

Every one takes me back:

The effervescence on the nose. The sweet bitterness of the quinine. The sour citrus hit. And the warming glow of the vodka. They still taste of dwindling innocence and suppressed excitement.

[Caution: Retro 80s style photography alert]

Often necessity is the mother of invention. We were out of lemons and limes but it had been one of those days. A real stinker. The cucumber looked slightly sad but strangely expectant.

And it really worked. Perhaps not quite as refreshing as the sharpness of citric acid but it added something else. Something worth repeating.

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Things seem to have got a bit ‘bakery’ recently what with oatcakes, flatbreads and Italian style tray bread. You’ve not been complaining though, so I’ll take that as a good sign.

The situation will be rectified shortly and there is a belated Nose to Tail Tuesday on the way as well as some cheeky nibbles.

In the mean time here is the final (for now) piece on what to do with bubbling masses of sourdough that I've been nurturing as it gradually expands and develops its own unique characteristics.

(I will post about making the actual mother dough next week)

When people refer to pizza as fast food they are normally talking about the sort that comes in a cardboard box with a base as thick as a telephone directory and all sorts of toppings that would probably make even Tony Soprano weep.

But there is another way.

Along with the swamp of dough that sits in the fridge, I try to keep a batch of tomato sauce on hand either frozen or refrigerated (gently fry a couple of shallots or a small onion in a little olive oil, add some chopped garlic, a little balsamic vinegar and two tins of tomatoes. Let it simmer for an hour or so, add a little oregano and seasoning and you have a tomato sauce fit for a king and a multitude of uses).

If you have these two things available you are only ten minutes away from a fresh pizza, and that’s quicker than any Dominos delivery.

Crank your oven up to full (about 225-250 degrees C) and get a dry frying pan hot. Roll out a handful of dough until it is the size you want and about half a centimetre thick. Try not to get it too evenly rolled, you want some discrepancies - they add to the flavour and character of the finished pizza.

Cook one side of the dough in the hot pan until it starts to blister slightly. What you are doing here is replicating the scorching temperatures on the base of a genuine Italian pizza oven – it will give you sublime flavour and a wonderful crispness.

Place on a tray and cover with a little tomato sauce, whatever toppings you want (I usually keep it simple and go for mushrooms, maybe some red onion and a few roasted peppers – basically whatever you have left in the ‘fridge!).

Top with cheese and get it into the oven. It should take no more than seven or eight minutes until the edges start to crisp up, the cheese starts to bubble and the whole lot begins to look like deliciousness defined.

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Monday, 23 March 2009

Hummus and Flatbreads

If you are ready and willing, I’d like to let you in on a little secret.

Ready? Good

Willing? Excellent.

Here we go: you never need to buy another flatbread, pita bread, wrap, tortilla or naan bread ever again.

They are so easy to make, so very tasty, so incredibly fast and so extraordinarily cheap that it makes almost no sense to buy them.

Before I started keeping a ‘mother dough’ in the fridge, I used to make flatbreads with a simple flour and water dough, flavoured with a little salt and olive oil (about 250g of bread flour, 150ml of warm water and seasoning to taste).

Within five minutes it was possible to have a steaming pile of hot, blistered flatbreads ready to be torn apart by hungry guests and dipped into garlicky hummus or wrapped round a spicy lamb kofta.

Now all I do is tear a small handful of dough from the bubbling mass in the fridge, incorporate a little extra flour to make a workable dough, roll extra thinly and cook for 30 seconds on each side in a hot, dry, frying pan.

For pita breads, after the dough has been rolled, fold it over on itself once, then once again to trap a layer of air in the dough. Roll it out and cook as above. It should puff up like a little pillow as steam gets trapped inside the bread. Perfect for slicing open and stuffing with falafel, salad and tzaiki .

We cook these a lot. Brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, they are an ideal snack and near impossible not to eat whilst they are still too hot.

Dipped in hummus, too, they are wonderful. Blitz a tin of chickpeas, some of the reserved water, two cloves of garlic, olive oil and seasoning in a food processor and you have an insta-lunch.

I tend to sprinkle a little smoked paprika over the top as well, just to add a slight warmth and depth of flavour. Just delicious.

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Monday, 16 March 2009

Nose to Tail Tuesday (N3T) - Lambs' Hearts

Not only are we moving away from the magnificent pig this week, having stuck resolutely to the extremities for the last fortnight (with cheek and tail), we’re heading towards the centre of the beast.

Right to the very heart, in fact.

Despite enjoying exactly the same biological construction as muscle tissue, the heart is firmly within the bracket loosely titled ‘offal’. Why? Because it does something. It performs a function, a function with which we are conspicuously familiar.

Whilst I’ve cooked the occasional pate, offal is not something I’m familiar with. Part of the philosophy behind this feature is to attempt to rectify this glaring omission in my culinary experience.

I’ll admit now that I am squeamish about certain things but I’m also rapidly learning to put aside my fears and prejudices. Partly because I think it important, partly because I hope it makes for good reading.

The same could also be said for my increasingly courageous and accommodating girlfriend. It’s one thing to cook ‘the nasty bits’ for yourself, quite another to foist them upon your loved ones.

‘I knew you were going to walk out of there with something odd,’ she said to me last Saturday as we exited the deceptively cavernous Middle Eastern supermarket on Cambridge’s Mill Road.

I tried to defend my actions, admittedly hard to do when clutching a small plastic bag containing two lambs’ hearts. ‘But they were only fifty pence each,’ I offered hopefully and somewhat ineffectively.

I failed to convince myself, despite my outward confidence.

‘It’s just like a steak,’ I added.

‘It’s not though, is it? It’s a heart. I know what it does and I’ve got one. I don’t have any steaks or fillets but I do have a heart. They are quite important.’

It was a good point. There is a linguistic difference when talking about meat: pigs become pork. Cows become beef and the names of the cuts are often comfortingly vague: rack of lamb, sirloin, brisket, fillet.

With offal it is a different story.

Offal speaks to you in plain language. Sure, there is the occasional softener (sweetbreads, for example) but mostly it is unadorned: liver, kidney, brain and heart. We can relate to these. We know what they do. We have them, as had been adroitly pointed out.

‘I really don’t think I can eat heart.’

This was going to be a challenge. But one I was looking forward to.

There are, it seems, three ways to cook heart. They can be stuffed and roasted, sliced and fried like a steak (no more than medium rare, unless you wish to be chewing on it for a month), or slow cooked in a braise.

Being a fan of the magical alchemy of slow cooking, I chose the latter, sure that if I could convince my most honest critic, I could convince almost anyone.

Braised Lambs’ Hearts with onion and black olive pie, spinach, nettle and mint puree, fondant potato and glazed carrots

Once the sinew and fat has been trimmed away and the heart meat cut into manageable pieces, it takes on a more familiar appearance. It looks, to all intents and purposes, like meat.

Knowing what works, all that was needed was to coat the pieces in seasoned flour, brown them in a hot pan then add them to the Le Creuset along with some onion, garlic, carrot and rosemary. Topped up with red wine and lamb stock, the whole lot goes into a cool oven to cook away for at least two hours.

This is, generally, a good approach to take with any number of cheap cuts which need the low temperatures and lengthy cooking times to break down the connective tissue and collagen that holds the meat together. The benefit is a deliciously rich and unctuous stew with meat as tender as any prime cut.

While spoonfuls of this could easily be served alongside a baked potato or underneath a golden pie crust, the Thomas Keller school of cookery (and if anyone knows a thing or two about food, it is that man) advocates discarding the vegetables (which have already imparted its flavours into the pot), removing meat and reducing the sauce down to a thick, sticky jus.

So that’s what I did.

100ml of cassis liqueur was added to a pan along with the same amount of gravy from the stew and a few cubes of frozen beef stock. A couple of sprigs of rosemary and a split clove of garlic were also dropped in before the whole lot was reduced down. After passing through a fine sieve, the meat was returned back to the jus to warm through.

Although refined, this dish screamed ‘hearty’ (excuse the pun). And what could be heartier than a pie?

I remembered reading somewhere that in parts of France, lamb is often served with black olives. It seemed like a flavour combination that would work so I fried off some onions in olive oil, added some finely chopped black olives and then made a basic vegetable suet pastry to house the faintly sweet mix. Brushed with eggwash, they took barely ten minutes in a hot oven.

Mint is also a classic accompaniment with lamb but instead of a sweet and vinegary mint sauce of the type that graces dinner tables across the land every Sunday, I plumped for a more delicate side of spinach, nettle and mint puree (cook the leaves – one part fresh mint, one part nettle, two parts baby leaf spinach – in a little water, blitz, drain and season).

For the rest of the vegetables, sweet glazed carrots and fondant potatoes, cooked in a little chicken stock, completed the dish.

So, to get to the heart of the matter (sorry), how was it?

It wasn’t just surprisingly good, it was deliciously good. It was the sort of food that somehow has the ability to make you very happy indeed. It was rich, tasty, satisfying and all those other things that go into making a successful braised dish.

The heart had a deep flavour though not over-powering. It was ever so slightly ferric, like very mild liver but also deeply meaty. Texturally it had bite but wasn’t chewy or tough. The small morsels offered a little resistance but more than compensated in flavour. This is everything that is good about food.

‘Can I quote you?’ I said to my girlfriend after she had proclaimed it ‘completely delicious, so good. It’s possibly the best thing you’ve ever cooked. I can’t believe you got me to eat heart and enjoy it this much! Mmmmm, so, so good!’

‘Of course you can quote me,’ she replied. So I just did.

Verdict: N3T – Lambs’ hearts: a complete and utter success. Do again? With absolute certainty. And at fifty pence a go, it is almost sacrilegious not to buy these when they are available.

Any changes? Serve with buttery mash and wilted spinach. Simple, hearty and, in the words of my girlfriend ‘so, so good.’

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Cashew Nut Butter and 'Live Blogging'

Sometimes you read something in the food pages that strikes a real chord with you. Often the recipes featured are distinctly seasonal and faintly inspiring but occasionally one will come along that simply shouts ‘Try me!’

In last Saturday’s Guardian, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was talking nuts. More specifically those big packets of nuts that sit in the back of a dark cupboard slowly going stale.

‘Don’t we have a bag of cashew nuts in the back of our store cupboard?’ said my girlfriend.

I tried to think back to the last time I’d used a cashew. ‘Erm, I think we might,’ I replied. Vague memories of toasting and grinding cashews to top a Phad Thai back in the Summer came to mind.

I went to check.

She was right. It appeared I’d bought a rather ambitious kilo of them after we returned from Thailand last August, no doubt purchased in a fit of enthusiasm and a desire to recreate some of the great food we had whilst on holiday.

But there was still a vast quantity left. ‘I’m going to make this,’ she said, pointing to a recipe for cashew nut butter. I nodded an approving nod, made a positive noise and watched her bound into the kitchen.

After a few minutes and much noise, she returned with a teaspoonful of what looked like peanut butter, only the colour of clotted cream.

It was delicious, especially over the remainder of the oatcakes I made last week.

Cashew Nut Butter (after HFW)

200g unroasted and unsalted cashew nuts
3-4 tablespoons of rapeseed or groundnut oil (we didn’t have either so used sunflower oil instead. It worked just fine)
1-2 tablespoons of runny honey
a pinch of salt.

Mix this lot together in a food processor until you have a creamy paste and there you go. It should keep for about a week in a sealed and refrigerated container.

Live Blogging
In other news, tomorrow will see my first attempt at ‘live blogging’.

I’ve been invited by the good people at the Miele Experience Centre to go and try out some of their gadgetry and learn how to rustle up some quality Irish fayre in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

I’ll be posting throughout the day from about 11am. Just drop by from then to follow what’s going on.

Alternatively, follow me on Twitter.

*Currently cooking to the sounds of Handsome Devil by Jim Bianco. Excellent debut from the gravel voiced Hotel Cafe resident. Snippets of sleazy prohibition era Americana, delicious ballads and some cheeky dittys thrown in for good measure. Also excellent live. 8.5/10

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Italian Flatbread

I’m assuming that as a well-seasoned traveller and committed gastronome, you’ve been to Rome. Please forgive me if this is not the case but play along anyway. It’ll be fun. Promise.

My first time was about five years ago. Just me and my Dad exploring the Italian capital and imbibing Peroni, pasta, pizza and football in equal measure.

But the best meal we ate was a hastily bought picnic of bread, cheese, tomatoes and cured ham eaten on the steps of a backstreet church close to the Campo de’Fiori. A couple of chilled beers completed the feast nicely.

Campo de’Fiori, the city’s old flower market, is now home to a daily food market where visuals, smells and flavours meld together in luscious Technicolor with the intensity of a thousand ristretti.

Cafés and bars line the exterior of the diminutive square, encircling a generous selection of stalls around a central statue of Geordano Bruno, a 16th century philosopher who was executed as a heretic in 1600.

In the southwestern corner is a bakery from where smells waft over the square and jostle for prominence against the rich coffee scents coming from the various cafés. Their large rectangles of salted flatbread are a firm favourite with the city’s residents and we barely managed to secure ourselves a large slab when we were there.

But we did. And it was amazing – thinner than a focaccia, more substantial than a pizza base and tastier than pitta bread. Just something unique, special and incredibly tasty.

Since then I’ve been meaning to recreate this delicious bread, liberally drizzled with olive oil and a scattering of sea salt and this morning I finally got round to it.

The dough I now use is an amended version of Jeff Herzberg and Zoe Francois’ Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day.

Initially I really struggled with getting the consistency right (perhaps something to do with English measurements) but I’ve gradually made a few changes and now have something that bubbles away nicely in the fridge like a cartoon swamp.

The other change is that I treat it as a sourdough – whenever I take some of the dough out, I replace it with extra flour and water, give it a stir, cover it and leave it in the fridge.

Firstly it means not having to make a master dough every few days and secondly it means you start to get some real character in your loaves as it ages and becomes more complex.

For the flatbread just grab a handful of the dough and spread it out over a well-oiled tray using your fingers so that it covers the area. Brush the top with more oil and scatter with sea salt.

Bake in a hot (seriously hot – about 250 degrees) for ten minutes, or until the bread starts to brown.

It tastes best fresh from the oven and needs no adornments to aid the Italian experience.

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Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Salt & Pepper Oatcakes

I’m slightly concerned that you’ve been subjected to an overly meaty few posts recently, what with cheeks, tails, scratchings and butchery.

So here’s something to redress the balance – homemade oatcakes and a completely meat free post.

Oatcakes are great and are pretty much the ideal base for almost any cheese as well as being perfect for dipping into creamy, garlicky hummus.

They are also incredibly good for you – oats are a slow release carbohydrate and have a very low glycemic load. For a long time I used to have oatcakes and tomatoes for lunch almost every day – fresh, seasonal tomatoes with a little olive oil and a smattering of seasoning. Perfect.

There are plenty of great ones on the market (these made with smoked oats are a particular favourite) but they are also staggeringly easy to make yourself.

Making up your own batch means you can flavour them with whatever you like – herbs, spices, cheese, seeds – anything at all depending on what you are going to be serving them with.

They could be pepped up with a little grated Parmesan, for example, if you wanted them to accompany a broccoli soup or maybe a little cumin and ground coriander for dipping into hummus.

But to act as a base for great cheese, it’s best not to go over the top with flavourings. Keep it simple. So, with that in mind, here is a recipe for:

Salt & pepper oatcakes

Whilst the oatmeal provides a nice texture, the addition of a few porridge oats is a nice little touch, both visually and for flavour.

250g of oatmeal
50g of porridge oats
25g of melted fat (I used rendered pork fat – damn! So not totally meat free then…). Butter or even olive oil would work great.
¼ of teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
salt and pepper
Some freshly boiled water (about 100ml)

Turn on the oven to about 180 degrees C.

Mix the dry ingredients together. A couple of pinches of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill should be more than enough. You don’t want to detract from the flavours of the cheese that will grace these little crunchy delights.

Add the melted fat and start to mix it in. Slowly start adding the water until the dough just begins to come together. You might need a little more or a little less but don’t fret too much. You can always add a little more oatmeal if you get a juicy slop.

Knead the ball of dough for a few minutes. It should be relatively dry and quite hard. Roll it out to about half a centimetre’s thickness and use a cutter to press out the rounds. Bake on a baking sheet for about ten minutes until the oatcakes just start to brown. Let them cool and then top with decadent wedges of your favourite cheese.

This is a Stichelton – an unpasteurised blue cheese made using traditional methods. Allegedly it is everything that Stilton once was before it became sanitised. It’s fantastic and well worth seeking out if you can.


I read a lot of food blogs but occasionally one pops up on my radar that really makes me smile.

I devoured the whole of Ryan Adams' Nose to Tail at Home in a single sitting. This bold culinary adventurer, as well as being the namesake of one of my favourite musicians, is bravely cooking his way through Fergus Henderson's superb cookbook.

Inspired by the exquisite efforts of Carol Blymire to cook her way through The French Laundry Cookbook, Ryan is taking on the Whole Beast. I urge you to head on over right away.

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The Tail Tale - An epilogue

THE GIRLFRIEND ‘I liked your post today, it was funny.’
ME ‘Thanks hon.’
GF: ‘The photos turned out pretty good as well.’
ME: ‘Thank you.’
GF: ‘It looked surprisingly appetising.’
ME: ‘It did, didn’t it?’
GF: ‘But there’s one you missed out?’
ME: ‘One what?’
GF: ‘Photo.’
ME: ‘Which one?’
GF: ‘You know that one.’
ME: ‘Which?’
GF: ‘That one.’
ME: ‘Not helping.’
GF: ‘That one of you and the tail.’
ME: ‘Ah. Yes. That one.’
GF: ‘You should post that one up.’
ME: ‘Erm, I don’t think so.’
GF: ‘You should!’
ME: ‘But I look kind of, I don’t know, I look a bit…’
GF: ‘Yes, but it’s funny.’
ME: ‘Not for me it isn’t.’
GF: ‘Yes but for me, and hopefully everyone else who reads your blog.’
ME: ‘I’m not so sure.’
GF: ‘Pleeeeeeease?’
ME: ‘Maybe.’
GF: ‘Go on.’
ME: ‘But it would instantly strip away the veneer of manly bravado that I’ve carefully crafted over the last 12 months.’
GF: (Badly stifled laughter) ‘Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about that,’ (more badly stifled laughter)

I gave in. Obviously. Something about oatcakes to follow later but in the mean time here you go:

See what I mean about Alien? *shudder*

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Nose to Tail Tuesday (N3T) - Pigs' Tails

From last week’s ‘cheeky’ success, we are heading right over to the other end of the animal for today’s N3T.

These, as you can no doubt see, are pig’s tails:

According to Fergus Henderson, tails have a ‘lip-sticking quality’ thanks to the merging of fat and flesh, similar to snout (which is yet to grace the table) and belly (which has. On many, many occasions). Surely this was going to be a success?


‘What the hell are they? Oh my god, what are they? Oh my god, they look disgusting. I don’t think I can eat those. I really don't.’

This is the (paraphrased) reaction of my girlfriend after I’d pulled a tray full of tails from the oven. And it was vaguely understandable.

You see, even when cooked, a tail looks completely, totally, resolutely and unapologetically like, well, a tail. Only slightly scarier. If Ridley Scott is looking to make a recession friendly addition to the Alien franchise then he could do a lot worse than cook up some tails.

I suppose this is part of what I was talking about yesterday – about detachment and the intrinsic distance that now lies between animal and consumer. If it looks recognisable then it is unappetising. What we have become used to is eating something that doesn’t have to remind us that what is on the plate was once on a farm.

A tail changes that.

A tail is something we are used to seeing in cartoons and in children’s books. It’s curly, it’s faintly ‘cute’ and almost completely representative of the animal that it is from.

It’s also visible. You cannot see a steak when a cow is walking round a field. Many don’t even know where the fillet is, for example. A tail is on show. It is always there, being curly, being piggy.

But there is a way round this. A simple and easy way to overcome this seemingly insurmountable hurdle.

Slice, cover in breadcrumbs and fry in oil. Instantly you have something that resembles a McNugget or goujon (depending on your personal predilection for fast food or otherwise).

First off the tails were nestled into a deep roasting tray with a couple of onions, some squashed garlic cloves, three or four bay leaves and some rosemary. The whole lot was then sluiced with light chicken stock and a splash of white wine before being covered with foil and going into a low oven (about 150 degrees C) for three hours.

What emerged was what caused the (justifiably) negative reaction from my girlfriend (hence no photo).

Once cool, they were plucked from the remaining stock – which had turned to jelly – and slow roasted in the oven to render out some of the fat (in a similar manner to pork scratchings).

Step three was to slice into bite size chunks then bread them. Instead of breadcrumbs I used crushed corn flakes, partly for colour, partly for texture and partly for taste.

Flour-egg-flour-egg-cornflakes is a good way of getting a nice crust.

They took no more than a minute or two on each side to fry in oil (sunflower or canola oil is fine). By then they were a wonderful colour and perched neatly on top of a mound of mustard mashed potato and some broccoli puree.

And the verdict?

They were good. No more, no less.

Just good.

The texture could be hard for some to overcome. The roasting part had crisped up the tails and given them a slightly chewy bite. You also have to be a little careful not to bite down to eagerly due to the high number of small bones.

But the meat is tasty, noticeably porcine with a smattering of fat (although not as much as the St. John recipe due to the slow roasting phase, which Henderson leaves out) and a generous amount of lean.

They would benefit from something acidic, like a salsa, in which to be dipped because they are seriously rich but the mustard mash provided a nice flavour and textural contrast to the crunchy bites.

Would I make them again? I doubt it, but I will be keeping a bag of these in the freezer to throw into the stockpot every now and again – they’d add a smattering of body and richness to chicken, or beef stock.

So, verdict? N3T 2 – partial success

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Monday, 9 March 2009

The Butcher's Apprentice

Food is a process.

Whether you are eating an apple freshly plucked from a low-hanging branch on a warm Autumn evening or munching through a Big Mac in a harshly lit McDonalds, you are taking part in a process.

An awareness of this should be essential, especially when meat is concerned.

Many of us consume meat without thinking about the full implications of the process required to transform a living, breathing animal into something we can eat.

As a result the process has become convoluted and swollen like a diseased abscess. Now consumers can pick up neatly packaged portions of meat, hermetically sealed and bearing no resemblance to the cow, pig, sheep, chicken or springbok that it was once a part of.

Spending a day learning the basics of animal butchery with a qualified expert is one such way you can restore an awareness of the link between what we eat and where it comes from.

So, that’s what I did.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story (full article will appear in due course, once it has been published).

A whole lamb carcass, covered in mutton cloth (meat hates being wrapped in plastic).

I learned the basics of how to butcher lamb, pork and beef but due to technical issues (ahem, did someone say 'memory card'?) only managed to get pictures of the lamb.

The tools of the trade - a boning knife and steel. Knives are sharpened regularly throughout the day. Blunt knives are far more dangerous than razor sharp ones.

Once the mutton cloth is off, the lamb starts to resemble an animal. You can see the kidneys in the foreground like two shiny conkers.

The carcass is then divided into 'primary cuts'...

...before starting to look like more recognisable pieces...

...like this rack of lamb being french trimmed.

The completed rack which went straight into the shop's display, mere metres away, within a few seconds of this picture being taken.

A good butcher doesn't just portion up pieces of meat. Much of the day is spent expertly preparing a range of other items - hams, sausages, brines, bacon or boned shoulder of lamb stuffed with parsley, garlic and olive oil:

You don't get that in a supermarket.

So, what did I learn?

I learned that butchery is a skill, an artform, that is worthy of respect and can take years to master.

I learned that it's hard work.

I learned that there is a world of difference between production line meat of the sort that we buy in supermarkets, and rare breed, well-treated, well-hung meat that is available in butchers' shops.

I learned that butchers have a bigger range and better prices than any of the supermarkets. I came back with cheeks, trotters, tails and lamb breast. Not to mention a promise that anything else I wanted could be ordered in. Sweetbreads, tongue, beef short ribs and many other treats are on their way.

I learned (and I have the sore hands to prove it) how to do a butcher's knot (photo tutorial to follow).

I learned that the anatomy of lambs, pigs and cows is almost identical (no, really).

And finally? I learned that getting your hands dirty is an inevitable and massively enjoyable part of being a food writer.

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The Usual Suspects (or Chicken Run?)

Looking out of the kitchen window this morning, this rather wonderful line-up was just a metre or so away from me.

Hoping they would stay there long enough, I ran to grab the camera and shot this just before they flapped their wings and jumped to the floor in rather ungainly fashion.

Reminded me of The Usual Suspects. Either that or Chicken Run.

Left to right: Eggels, Henin and Marx. The most revolutionary hens this side of Havana.

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Friday, 6 March 2009

Friday Nibbles - Black Pepper

A while back I wrote about salt. Pure and simple. I thought now would be a good time to redress the balance and pen something about it’s natural bedfellow – black pepper.

These punchy little fruits are the dried berries of the pepper tree. They grow like tightly packed, streamline bunches of grapes throughout Asia but are thought to have originated in India where they have been used as a seasoning for well over 4000 years.

From India, the plant was traded throughout Asia and now grows in abundance all over the continent. But Kochi, India remains the spiritual home of the spice and the International Pepper Exchange still has its headquarters there, despite Vietnam being the world’s most prolific producer.

Peppercorns are the most widely traded spice in the world, accounting for a whopping fifth (in monetary terms) of all goods in this bracket.

The 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries saw Europe’s ruling factions desperate to monopolise the lucrative spice trade and by 1494 the Portuguese had managed to gain exclusive rights to this new ‘black gold.’

But as Portuguese hegemony was usurped by British and Dutch colonial successes, their influence diminished and the spice routes were opened up.

The result was an increase in supply to Europe and a subsequent fall in price.

Now black peppercorns are a commodity taken for granted and the familiar peppermill is near ubiquitous in Western kitchens. Why? Simply because freshly ground black pepper is a near perfect seasoning. In moderation it is unobtrusive but able to lend a faint warmth and depth of flavour to many dishes.

It compliments the flavour of a vast variety of cuisines from steaming bowls of hearty stew to simply roasted pieces of meat. Plates of pasta and crispy edged rounds of pizza, topped with melting cheese and sweet tomatoes, would be unthinkable without a last minute turn of an oversized peppermill. Likewise slow cooked daubes or quickly fried pieces of fish. A good steak, cooked quickly and seasoned with only salt and pepper is a thing of simple beauty.

But it must be freshly ground.

Pre-ground black pepper, the stuff that looks like the contents of a vacuum cleaner after it’s been used to clean a student’s bedroom, is a total waste of time and belongs in the kitchen as much as a bacon butty belongs at a Bar Mitzvah.

Don’t do it.

It’s hard to think of a recipe that showcases this kitchen essential in the way previous initiates to this Hall of Fame have enjoyed (although both cheese on toast and Bloody Marys would be far less enjoyable without it).

But try this one on for size, it’s brevity and simplicity are part of its appeal

Pineapple & Black Pepper
You will need:
One pineapple
Some black pepper
That’s it.
No, really, that’s it.

Prepare your pineapple in whichever way you normally do. Personally, I think long, thin strips are ideal. Arrange over a large plate. Grind a little black pepper over the slices, making sure each one has had a little of the magic. Go easy.

Leave the whole lot in the fridge for at least two hours. Remove and eat. Preferably with the glowing orb of the setting sun in the background and the dying embers of a well used barbecue in the fore. Trust me on this. It’s incredible.

stuff 'n' things

I'm heading over to have a poke around Feast East shortly so no Nibble until later today. But some cool stuff to follow. Promise.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

A Happy Omelette

I was feeling slightly rough this morning. Perhaps something to do with too much Guinness and some bizarre shooters containing (I think) Amaretto and Baileys.

Tea and marmite on toast provided temporary relief. Likewise for a shower and a shot of espresso. But both were short lived and for a while I thought bed was the only way to go.

In a final effort to fight off the ill, I thought that something vaguely greasy, eggy and fried might do the trick. Remembering there was still some pork cheek leftover as well as a small finger of cheddar, an omelette seemed the logical conclusion.

It’s not often eggs come with surprise messages from one's girlfriend (or boyfriend) but today mine did:

And that, more than anything else, made me feel better.

Mind you, the omelette helped, as well.

Parsnip Soup

After teasing us with mild breezes and generous sunshine a couple of days ago, spring retreated with rapidity and definition yesterday.

Enter noisy winds, heavy rain and a reminder that it is still too early to put away the hats, scarves and gloves just yet.

But there is always comfort to be had in the kitchen.

The right food has an amazing ability to echo what is going on beyond the windows, especially when rain is pounding into the glass like an invading army. It comforts and reassures. Encourages and delights. Warms and satisfies.

Soup, above most other things, can perform these tasks effortlessly. And a curried parsnip soup, smooth and delicately spiced, is certainly one of the best.

I know this shouts ‘Winter!’ but sometimes you just have to go with what you know is right.

To make this warming cuddle-in-a-bowl, just peel and roughly dice the veggies – two or three parsnips, a couple of onions and a decent sized potato. Lightly fry in a little olive oil until a little colour starts to appear. Add a couple of litres of stock (vegetable or light chicken) and simmer until all the vegetables are tender.

Whizz in a food processor then return to the pan for seasoning. A teaspoon of mild curry powder, some Garam Masala and a little black pepper should do just fine. This isn’t a spicy hot soup, merely one that will entice you into a warming embrace whilst the wind does its worst outside.

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Tuesday, 3 March 2009

When Art Imitates Life

So you might have seen that the blog has had a bit of a makeover. I felt strangely exposed doing this and hitting the ‘save’ button.

You know when you get a new haircut and you feel a little apprehensive about going into work or school the next morning? A bit like that. You’re fairly sure you look OK, pretty good even, but you can’t completely rule out the possibility that people might just clutch their sides and inadvertently do that laugh that makes tea squirt out of their nose.

But at least I won’t be able to see you do that.

So what’s new? It should now be much easier to subscribe. Just click the link in the sidebar. I’ve also added a list of other links: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and the like. And I’ve changed the font.

I’m a real sucker for fonts. Especially ones that look like they are from a vintage typewriter, old romantic that I am.

Anyway, fresh from pork cheeks success I just wanted to post this (below). I was just giving the photo a little CS treatment when Abbey decided to watch. Intently.

The scene was too good not to capture. Life imitating art imitating life. And so on.

Nose to Tail Tuesday - Pork Cheeks

After much bluster and fanfare, it’s finally time to get on with the show.

Nose to Tail Tuesday (or N3T as it shall be known from now on) is about rediscovery, thrift, culinary philosophy and, above all, taste (for a more complete break down of the ethos behind the feature see this post). If we can’t make these cuts taste sublime, or just as good as the expensive bits, then the exercise becomes moot.

For the inaugural dish, we’re starting with these…

…pork cheeks.

These are a criminally cheap cut, often dispensed with or turned into budget sausages. More adventurous butchers, with a more adventurous clientele, might turn them into Bath Chaps. But often they are ignored, especially by the consumer.

Which is a real shame because they are incredibly tasty and, as I found out, very easy to cook.

You could cook them long and slow with stock vegetables, let them cool and eat them, thinly sliced, as you would a ham. Alternatively once cool you could breadcrumb them and fry them. Served with a punchy aioli, they would be delicious.

But I wanted something a bit special to kick off this feature.

Pork and apple sauce is a classic combination, for good reason. The sweetness and faint acidity of the apple cuts perfectly through the fatty richness of pork meat.

With this in mind I chose to confit the pork cheeks, stuff them with stewed apple and serve them, sliced, with apple jelly, candied bacon, spiced parsnip puree and seasonal greens.

Pork and apple, perhaps, but not in the traditional sense.

This is good slow cooking, perfect for a Sunday when you can turn on the radio, fill the house with the most delicious smells and take your time. It really isn’t very labour intensive and you could even do the vast majority of the work the day before or while the pork is cooking.

The end result is totally delicious - like belly only with a more intense flavour. It's got the perfect ratio of meat to fat giving a juicy, porky flavour with the added bonus of crackling as well. This is a rich cut of meat - you don’t need much which adds further to the economy of it.

But true test is whether I’d choose to have it again. The answer? Yes. In a heartbeat, as often as is possible.

Want to know how to do it? Course you do.

1. First off, cut each cheek into three. Season well with salt, pepper and a hefty amount of finely chopped bay leaf and rosemary (about 4 sprigs of rosemary and three bay leaves). Leave them in a bowl in the fridge for at least an hour, preferably overnight.

2. Melt some fat (pork, duck or goose is ideal. I used the leftover fat from the pork scratchings) in an ovenproof dish, wipe any excess salt from the cheeks and nestle them into the liquid. Cook for about three hours in a low oven (about 150 degrees centigrade), turning three or four times. Leave them to cool.

3. For the parsnip puree add one star anise and three cloves to 200ml of milk and 200ml of water and bring to a gentle boil. Let it cool then remove the star anise and cloves. Add two diced parsnips to the infused milk and water then simmer for 20 minutes, or until they are cooked. Strain (reserving the cooking liquid), blitz in a food processor and pass through a sieve. Add some of the cooking liquid if it is too thick. This will keep for 2 or 3 days in the fridge.

4. The apple jelly is easy. Dissolve 2g of agar powder with 125g of apple juice, bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Pour the liquid into a suitable container and leave to cool. Cut into square dice when it is set.

5. For the candied bacon – sprinkle two rashers of bacon with Demerara sugar on both sides (use baking parchment or Silpat for this, unless you want to be scrubbing your trays for nine hours) and cook in a moderate oven (about 170 degrees). Turn once or twice during cooking. When cool, chop the bacon finely. Don’t forget to eat some while you are doing this because it is freaking delicious.

6. Stewed apple is simple, too. Peel, core and dice two eating apples, put into a pan with a splash of water, a tablespoon of sugar and a quarter of a lemon (helps to maintain the colour as well as add an acidic note), with the juice squeezed over the apple. Cook, partially covered with a lid, until the apple starts to break down.

7. Once cool enough to handle, remove the cheeks from the confit and sieve the liquid fat into a plastic container to keep in the fridge. It’s great for many things and keeps forever (almost). Finely dice the meat. Lay a square of crepinette (caul fat) onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press a layer of the meat onto it, almost covering it. Spoon the apple puree in a line down the middle and wrap the whole lot into a tight sausage.

*You could use cured ham instead of crepinette. Let it cool in the fridge to help it keep its shape when you fry it off*

8. To complete – remove the plastic wrap from the cheek and apple ‘sausage’. Fry in a dry frying pan for about a minute on each side (so four minutes in total). Leave to rest while you plate the rest of the dish. Cut the ‘sausage' into half inch thick slices, place on a small pile of wilted greens and serve with a crisp white wine to help cut through the richness.

Verdict – N3T 1: pork cheeks – total success.

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Monday, 2 March 2009

'Nose to Tail' Tuesday: A Prologue and a Competition

‘Nose to tail’ shouldn’t be a food philosophy. It shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is.

For thousands of years we’ve been raising or hunting animals for meat and then using as much of them as possible for sustenance.

Only in the last 50 years, when we have witnessed the industrialisation of meat production, have consumers been able to dispense with the cuts that needed nurturing or slow cooking.

We’ve gradually been weaned onto meat that is effortless: Easy to cook, easy to eat. Any fool with a frying pan can cook a chicken breast or a fillet of beef or a loin of pork.

Offal and the ‘awkward’ cuts have been relegated to the back seats and in most cases, the bin where they lie ignored and forgotten in favour of the pieces that are easier, more convenient.

This is wrong. It makes no sense, neither economically nor philosophically.

Even the most financially illiterate individual can see the stupidity in raising an animal for the prime cuts only. But this is how things have turned out, especially in Britain and America where convenience has become the high priestess to which we must pray.

Time to re-dress the balance.

Of course, I’m not proclaiming to be some sort of pioneer in this field. Chefs like Fergus Henderson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anthony Bourdain blazed this same trail quite some time ago. Many other professional chefs have followed their lead or ploughed similar furrows.

But I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a home cook who loves good food, and I think you are too. Let's do this.

Let's fasten our seatbelts and drive full speed down our own 'nose to tail' road. Tasty treats, delicious recipes and sumptuous surprises are certain to follow in our wake.

This isn’t extreme eating of any sort. For that go and see Andrew Zimmern. This is about recapturing the true spirit of being an omnivore, about respecting the animals we slaughter and creating delicious meals out of the cuts that have, over the last few decades, become unusual.

They aren’t inherently strange or nasty or disgusting. Very few things are. But we’ve lost something vital recently. Hopefully the shifting economic climate, and the relative cost of these cuts, might make one or two more people embrace this holistic approach.

Please feel free to contact me with ideas. I’m open to many things.

As a little amuse bouche tomorrow’s inaugural dish will be something delicious done with pig’s cheeks.

In the mean time, consider this a call to arms for like-minded individuals to get on board and, in the words of Fergus Henderson, ‘go beyond the fillet.’

Fancy joining me? Pledge your support below or submit a suggestion (see where it says ‘leave a comment’? Click that) and you could win a copy of ‘Nose to Tail Eating’, the cookbook of restaurant St. John.

Thank you.

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