Thursday, 20 August 2009

What to do with courgettes...

Glut is such a wonderful word. Glut.

Its harsh consonants give it the feel of one of the more abrasive swear words but it also has an inherent softness that makes it warm and cosy – a small cuddle of a word that presents ample opportunity for elaboration.

Glut. Glutton. Gluttony. Gluttonous. Gluttonously.

Words that speak of the decadently indecent.

The garden is, finally, offering up its bounty. Potatoes were dug up a fortnight ago, the maize stems are starting to bulge at the halfway point suggesting that sweetcorn is not far off. The tomatoes are barely threatening to turn from acidic green to sweet red and the courgettes?

The courgettes are taking over.

For each that we pick, two more seem to grow in their place overnight. They are like the mythical Hydra and I am failing in my Herculean task.

As a result we have them lined up in the kitchen, a rag tag bunch of all shapes and sizes. The Usual Suspects as re-imagined by a vegan pacifist.

They’ve made their way into most things. Last night’s lasagne had a layer of them, thinly sliced, in between the ragu, pasta and béchamel. Diced and fried with a little garlic added at the last minute, they make an excellent addition to pasta.

Those that hid deftly under the expansive leaves and transformed into marrows have their insides scooped out and replaced with a tasty filling before being roasted.

I’m well aware that I am not alone. Courgettes seem to be as ubiquitous as Simon Cowell this summer so here is a ten point plan for what to do with them. You might guess that by the end, I was struggling. But that might be because I used up all the good ideas above…

One – Courgette Fries

I first had these crispy little bites of wonder at Italian restaurant l’Anima. Finely sliced and dipped in a light batter, deep fried courgettes are a joy and the perfect vehicle for some rich aioli.

Two – Courgette Bread

Grated and added to a sweetened bread mix in place of – or in addition to – banana, courgette adds a welcome moisture to this cake.

Three – Baked Courgette and Tomato

Layer thinly sliced courgette into a roasting dish, season and cover with a rich tomato sauce. Add another layer of courgette, more sauce and then cover liberally with cheese. Bake for 25 minutes and eat straight from the dish. Plates not necessary.

Four – Chutney

Ah, the forgotten art of preserving. Courgettes are perfect chutney fodder and take on a remarkable range of flavours beautifully, especially warming spices. We have a solitary jar of last year’s ‘Glutney’ left and it’s disappearing fast. most delicious with cheese and cold cuts. There are plenty of recipes out there but this one from HFW is a real winner.

Five – Roasted courgette with pine nuts

Simple, quick and very good with pasta. Slice or dice, dribble with oil, season, throw in a handful of pine nuts and bake. Top with Parmesan and commence nom.

Six – Barbecued Courgettes

Chargrilling courgettes really brings out a depth of flavour that is often lost when they are boiled or steamed (eurgh). Make sure your griddle or barbie is searingly hot so you get those tasty black tiger stripes on thin slices of courgette and serve with a sweet/sour yoghurty dressing.

Seven – Courgette Wine

I have no idea if this is possible but it must be worth a go? Anyone? Hello?

Eight – Doorstep Courgettes

Wait until nightfall. Take one, two or three of your largest courgettes and leave them on the doorsteps of your neighbours. Run. Go to bed happy in the knowledge that you’ve successfully ridded yourself of that particular problem. Until tomorrow and you discover that your neighbours had exactly the same idea.

Nine – Stuffed Courgette Flowers

OK, so this doesn’t really help you with eating your way through the courgette mountain taking over the kitchen but they are tasty. Stuff the flowers with well seasoned ricotta, dip in batter and deep fry. I cannot recommend these highly enough.

Ten – Courgette Portraits

Take pictures of your courgettes in various different poses and use them to illustrate a piece on what to do with a courgette glut. Realise that you still have nineteen to eat and a further seven peeping through the vegetable patch. Give up and promise not to plant so many next year.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Required Reading: In Defence of Food

The holiday to Umbria wasn’t entirely about stopping and smelling the rosemary. I did some work too. Sort of.

In between dips in the pool, singeing my hair in a pizza oven and trips to hilltop towns, I read In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan.

It’s a book about food. Really, really about food. Proper food. More an extended essay than a fully-fledged tome, it is the most intelligent, impassioned treatise on the subject I’ve ever read.

With so much extraneous information bombarding us everyday, seeing the topic of food stripped down to its bare essentials is both refreshing and important. Crucial even.

Pollan writes about food with a sense of unhurried urgency and seemingly effortless intelligence. He is a man who, if you’ll excuse the pun, knows his onions. And shallots. And garlic and all other members of the allium genus. He knows what is wrong with the food industry and, more importantly, he knows how to fix it.

One of the criticisms levelled at many polemicists is that they are happy to point out problems and often less able to talk of solutions. Michael Moore, take note. Pollan does both with equal skill.

In Defence of Food is the sort of book that comes along so rarely it makes you want to buy copies for everyone you know, thrust it into their grease-flecked fingers and sit watching to make sure they consume it. And consume it they will.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt and no degree of hyperbole, the best book about food I have ever read. Ever. Now, go and get a copy, sit ye down and read it.

And follow me on Twitter. But only if you really want to.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Pork Pie

Full many a glorious morning I have seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye.
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gliding pale streams with heavenly pork pie

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33

We are a nation of pie lovers. That is undeniable.

From steaming hot meat and potato pies that grace chip suppers across the north to the crescent shaped Cornish pasty of the south, if it’s a scorching filling wrapped in artery clogging pastry, we adore it.

Legislative affirmation of this fact came just last month when the legendary Melton Mowbray pork pie was finally granted Protected Geographical indication by the EU.

It now stands proudly alongside such luminaries as Parmesan Cheese and Champagne. Only pork pies from Melton Mowbray can be labelled as such. Anything else is a mere pretender.

But pretenders aren’t necessarily a bad thing when they originate in your own kitchen.

Recent dispatches from New York saw me trying to re-create some of the tasty food that was consumed there. It was great fun, making pizzas and bagels and hot dogs and cheeseburgers.

So much so that it got me thinking – why not try it more often, with things that originate closer to home. Why not try to create in the home kitchen those foodie treats we know and love: doner kebabs, pink wafer biscuits, custard creams, marshmallows.

By using excellent ingredients and leaving out all the unnecessary bits and bobs it should be possible to cook versions of these treats to rival anything that can be found on the shelves. Artifice by more natural means.

Before I get started on the big things, I wanted to start small. Keep it simple.

If my girlfriend and I are ever out and attacked by hunger pangs it inevitably falls not to a chocolate bar to quell the cravings but to a pork pie.

There is something so satisfying about the combination of heavily seasoned meat housed in a crunchy yet melting pastry that just makes us smile. It is a rare treat, but a treat nonetheless.

We’ve been hunting for the perfect pie for a while. One whose meat:pastry ratio is spot on and where the jelly doesn’t overwhelm you with its strangely appealing yet vaguely disgusting texture. It’s a fine pie tight rope to tread and some get it right.

Others fail miserably. Hopefully now that the pork pie has some certification it will mark an end to any disappointments.

Recipe: Pork Pie

This isn’t a traditional pie. This is me freestyling, throwing caution to the wind and rolling easy. The result? A perfect picnic item, great served with homemade chutney, just erring on the side of sweetness.

For the filling you’re going to need some pork. Don’t scrimp here. Toddle over to your friend the butcher and ask him for some fatty shoulder or hand meat. While you’re at it inquire politely about acquiring some bacon offcuts. They shall be your new best friend and work out about a quarter of the price of regular bacon.

[I cannot believe I just shared my best culinary secret with you.]

Oh, and ask him to throw in a couple of pig’s trotters too, you’re going to need them later.

Once you’ve got hold of your meat, head home, turn on the stereo and get cooking.

800g pork hand (or shoulder) meat
300g cooking bacon (smoked or unsmoked, dependent on your preference)
Two trotters
A couple of onions
1 litre or so of chicken stock
Thyme, finely chopped
Sage, finely chopped
Cayenne Pepper
Ground ginger
Salt and pepper

For the pastry (taken from HFW’s Meat Book):
100g lard
100g butter
200ml water
Two eggs
550g plain flour

Your first job is to make the jelly. Split the trotters down the vertical and them to the stock and the onions in a pan, bring to the boil and let it simmer gently for about three hours.

Next up, make the pastry. Melt the lard and butter into the water over a gentle heat. Don’t boil it. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl, crack in the eggs and stir them in. Gently pour the water/butter/lard mix into a glass, take a big sip and pour the rest over the flour and egg. Mix together until a dough forms, knead for a couple of minutes. It may need more flour. When you have a verifiable dough cover it with cling film and get it into the fridge.

Finally, you’re going to need to dice the meat. Finely. And that means small. You could cheat and mince it but who wants a pie filled with sausage meat? Sharpen your favourite knife, crank up the music and get chopping.

Once you’ve transformed your great hulks of meat into delicately fine dice, it will need seasoning. When cold, food can taste bland – as such be generous with the seasoning, especially the salt. I’d go for a teaspoon of sea salt as well as a pinch of everything else and a good grind of pepper.

To check the seasoning, fry a little of the mixture off like a mini-burger and taste it (it’s a hard job but someone has to do it). Adjust as required.

By now your pastry should be cool and far more workable than it was before when it was all warm. Take a cricket ball sized handful (or a baseball if that’s your thing) and roll it into a vaguely spherical shape.

Squidge the bottom of a jam jar into the dough-ball and start working it up the edges:

Don’t be too precious – this is a pie, not something to grace the plate of a three star Parisian temple to haute cuisine. Once you have a rough outline, ease the jar free and pile in the filling. When you think it’s full, add another spoonful and ease the pastry around it.

Cut off a piece of dough about the size of a ping-pong ball (gawd bless sporting analogies), roll into a disc and top your pie. Crimp the edges together, brush the top with beaten egg, poke a hole in the lid and place into a roasting tray.

Repeat until out of dough or filling or both.

Bake at 180 degrees C for thirty minutes then turn the oven down to 150 degrees and bake for another twenty minutes.

Leave to cool on a wire rack and tend to your jelly. Trotters, being jam packed with gelatin, make an excellent jelly after simmering away gently for a couple of hours.

Strain your stock through a fine meshed sieve, return to the heat and reduce by about a third. To see if it is ready, spoon off a little of the stock in a small cup and refrigerate. If it sets, it’s ready. If not, carry on cooking.

Once the pies have cooled down you’ll need to get the liquid jelly into them, a procedure that those of you unskilled in veterinarian sciences might find tricky. I improvised with a syringe. I’ll leave it to you to find the best way (pouring is not, repeat not, the best way).

Try and resist the temptation to bite into your pies before they’ve been refrigerated overnight. They are best eaten outdoors with a picnic blanket under your arse and a bottle of something cold and beery in your hand.

For more high fat delights, follow me on Twitter.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Slow Cooked Lamb (Video post)

It’s only so much time that can be spent in a state of blissful relaxation before the mind turns to food.

On holiday breakfast tends to be a mere distraction – a hastily gobbled croissant, piece of fruit or biscotti washed down with a short, sharp coffee. Lunch provides a brief respite from the heat of the day, usually some bread and cheese with a couple of tomatoes on the side.

But dinner is where the magic happens. This is the real centrepiece of the day where effort truly pays off and the gentle preparation can be done whilst gradually slipping into a state of happy inebriation.

As such, the majority of my days were spent thinking about what to cook that evening.

Being in possession of a pizza oven, we, naturally, cooked pizza. But the giant domed edifice was still warm come the following morning: the perfect conditions to slow cook some local lamb.

After adding some more fuel we went in search of the meat and returned with two whole shoulders – almost a quarter of the beast – ready to be browned off, sat atop some freshly picked rosemary and crushed garlic and shoved into the waiting furnace, cooking slowly in a winey bath until it emerged lovingly tender and achingly delicious.

It also seemed a good time to indulge in my first ever video post so please be kind. I’m still learning.

And, yes, I really did come that close to setting my head on fire. Look carefully and you will see the innocent, yet telltale, wisp of smoke rising from my reddening forehead.

Slow cooked Lamb

Leg of lamb is fine, and if that’s your sort of thing then I’m happy for you. But shoulder is the business end, where the real flavour is. It does a bit more work, and as such should be cooked longer and slower, but the effort is worthwhile.

It’s also slightly fattier which will baste the meat from the inside keeping it juicy, rich, tasty and tender.

Serves 8-10

Two lamb shoulders, complete with neck
Two bulbs of garlic, squashed lightly under the flat of a knife
Half a lemon
Two handfuls (think bricklayer’s size rather than manicurist) of rosemary
Salt and pepper
Half a bottle of red wine

Season the lamb with salt and pepper all over and brown in a large frying pan. Layer half the rosemary and garlic in a casserole dish big enough to hold everything comfortably. Nestle the lamb on top and then deglaze the frying pan with red wine.

Put the rest of the rosemary and garlic on top of the lamb, squeeze over the lemon then pour over the wine.

Cook in a 200 year old wood burning oven for about four hours, turning and basting halfway through. Temperature? Pretty hot.

NB – Make sure you don’t get too close to the oven and singe your fringe.

If you are only in possession of a regular oven go for about 120 degrees. Serve with potatoes and maybe a token salad. Maybe.

For more slow cooked and half baked musings, follow me on Twitter


‘A bicyclette, that’s what we’ll drink,’ I said with unreserved confidence.
‘A what?’ asked my brother.
‘A bicyclette,’ I repeated with similar bravado.

Memory can be a strange thing. I’d called to mind a simple cocktail from Fergus Henderson’s ‘Nose to Tail Eating’. It had Fernet Branca, an Italian bitter of some alcoholic fortitude, as its main constituent.

Sitting in the courtyard of an Umbrian farmhouse and gazing out over the patchwork hills, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try this potent little number.

‘Are you sure that’s the right recipe?’ said my brother as he watched me splash equal parts of medicinally coloured Fernet Branca and lurid Campari over ice.
‘Yup, positive,’ I replied.

Although I didn’t have the book with me, I was sure this was how to make a bicyclette.

The drink is so-called because after two or three you are unable to ride home in a straight line on your bicycle. When the mixer weighs in at a hefty 20% alcohol you know you are dicing with forces more powerful than your average aperitivo. This was no regular stomach-readier.

The first sip offered surprise: a distinct alcoholic bitterness. But a cooling sweetness swiftly followed by the Campari. It was dangerously drinkable and over the following week it led to a number of dinners being eaten considerably later than planned.

When we returned home I consulted the book to check I’d got the recipe right.

I hadn’t. What I had done was combine the only two drink recipes in Henderson’s two books: Campari and white wine (the famed bicyclette) and Fernet Branca and Crème de Menthe (a Dr Henderson)

What could have emerged was a terrifying hybrid monster. Thankfully it didn’t and the slightly skewed memory served only to create something new, something tasty, something to ready yourself for a night of gastronomic indulgence.

I shall name it a Centaur – it approaches like a gentleman but has the kick of a stallion.

Centaur – an aperitif for the brave

One part Fernet Branca
One Part Campari
Sugar syrup, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste

Pour the booze over ice, stir. Have a little sip. If the taste make you pull a face like a baby eating marmite, it’s probably a little bitter. Add sugar syrup and lemon juice until you reach a pleasant combination.

Two of these will give you the appetite of a king but render you unable to cook at your best. Take precautions.