Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stuffed squid and mussels

We had non meat eating friends for dinner the other day, and that’s fine.  Unlike some other keen carnivores, and many chefs, I have no problem with vegetarians at all.  Why should I?  After all, if you’re a vegetarian because you don’t like meat, then that’s unarguable, a simple question of taste.  I may not agree but I can’t say you’re wrong, and even if you are, it’s no skin off my nose.  All the more meat for me.  If you’re a vegetarian because you care about the welfare of the animals that are bred and raised to be killed for us to eat, then I’m not going to argue with you because I can’t fault your motives, and could only wish that more people who do eat meat felt the same.  As I’ve said before though, I happen to believe you have more sway over the meat industry by participating as an ethical meat consumer than you do as a conscientious abstainer.  If, on the other hand, you don’t eat meat because of the environmental impact of meat production – if you are, I believe the term is, an ecotarian – then I can’t argue with you because you are almost certainly right.  The environmental cost of the meat industry required to maintain current consumption in a global population of six billion and rising is almost certainly unsustainable, but that’s a problem the scale of which goes way beyond the scope of this blog (and applies to many other industries).

A problem that does very much lie within the scope of this blog, however, is what to have for dinner.  Particularly when your guests don’t eat meat and it’s all bleak and midwintery outside, and every instinct cries out for hearty stews, or roast meats with roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots, all swimming in gravy.  It must be much easier being a non meat eater in summer.

Fortunately these non meat eaters do eat fish, so I decided to stuff a couple of good, big, meaty squid, and pot roast them.  All instincts assuaged (and no worries about sustainability, either).  

Stuffed squid (for 5 in this case)

2 medium large squid tubes (about 600g each in weight, 8-10 inch in length)
1kg mussels (or about 6-8 per person, scrubbed and cleaned and any that remain open, or with broken shells, discarded)

for the stuffing:
The tentacles and trimmed wings from the squid (cut into manageable pieces, dice to match the other elements below if you like, but I like to keep the pieces bigger, and the tentacles tentacle-y, but some people, I know, are squeamish…)
Equal parts red onion, red pepper, fennel, mushroom (I used ½ an onion, about ¼ of a bulb of fennel, 1/3 of a red pepper, 1 large open cap mushroom, but those proportions will depend entirely on the variable size of each), all diced small but not fine.
160g rice (I used basmati, but a risotto or paella rice would do the job)
3 anchovy fillets
fresh chilli and garlic, finely sliced
a sprinkle of raisins
a sprinkle of pine nuts
a pinch of saffron (or half a teaspoon of turmeric if you don’t have saffron)
½ glass white wine
200ml fish stock

for the tomato sauce:
½ onion, finely chopped
2 anchovy fillets
fresh chilli and garlic, finely sliced
2/3 tin of chopped tomatoes
100ml fish stock
1 glass white wine

For the stuffing you’re basically making a risotto, or paella, so the technique is pretty much as described here.  In order to keep flavours concentrated (and as a happy but honestly unintended consequence, to reduce washing up) I always like to do as much of the cooking of a single dish as possible in the same pot, which in this case means you have two options.  Either to cook the rice stuffing in the same dish you’ll be using to pot roast the squid (a shallow, lidded Le Creuset casserole, in my case) while cooking up the tomato sauce in a separate pan, which is what I did; or to cook the rice, and then the sauce in the same pan before transferring to the dish in which you’ll cook the squid.  The latter will take slightly longer, due to working consecutively rather than concurrently on the stuffing and the sauce, but the tomato sauce doesn’t take long, and you can be stuffing the squid and starting that cooking while it’s coming together, so there’s not much in it.  The decision on which way to go will probably be dependent on the suitability of the available pans or dishes.

The other option, if neither you nor your guests were vegetarian, would be to add something meaty to the stuffing.  Chorizo, black pudding, smoked bacon or pancetta all go really well with squid and all or any would make a tasty addition to the stuffing – in which case I’d leave out the anchovies, raisins and pine nuts, but you wouldn’t have to.  It would also be fine in that case, to use chicken stock instead of fish, but again, either would do.

In my case, in this instance, briefly, what I did was this:  melted the anchovy fillets in olive oil in my shallow casserole, added a nub of fresh red chilli pepper and a clove of garlic, both finely sliced, then threw in the chopped squid bits and cooked till it had turned opaque and just started to colour.  At that point I added the diced onion, fennel and pepper, continued cooking till they softened, then the pine nuts, raisins and chopped mushrooms.  A minute later I added the rice, the wine and the saffron, stirred it all together and let it cook down for another couple of minutes and then added the stock. 10 to 15 minutes of simmering gently under a lid will do to cook the rice.

In the meantime in a separate pan I melted another couple of anchovy fillets with garlic and chilli, then softened the finely chopped onion, added the tomatoes, the stock, and brought it all to a gentle simmer for, again, 10 to 15 minutes.

Once the rice was cooked I spooned the stuffing into the squid tubes, making sure to push it right down to fill them to their ends.  I was left over with just about enough of the stuffing mix to put into Tupperware and store in the fridge for a single portion squid risotto lunch, as a bonus.  I added a splash of olive oil into the pan I’d spooned the rice out of, and still on the stove top, I fried the squid tubes gently on all sides, taking care not to spill too much of the stuffing, until just starting to show a little colour.  Then I poured over the tomato sauce, covered with a lid and put in the oven, at around 180, for about 25 – 30 minutes.  Test the squid at around 25, by just pushing a fork or a skewer into its flesh, if it slides in easily, without resistance, it’s done and you’ve no need to worry about rubberiness.  If it doesn’t, then just give it a few minutes more (you don’t want to overcook it), although you might well want to add an extra splash of white wine at that point, to make sure there’s no risk of things drying out.

When the squid is done, remove it from the dish and set aside, somewhere warm, cover with foil if you like.  Return the dish to the stove top, add a glass of wine to the tomato sauce and bring it up to a lively simmer before throwing in the mussels and covering with the lid.  These will take just about three minutes or so – you know when they’re done when the shells open up.  If the majority have opened and  just a few remain stubbornly closed, pick those out and discard them, they’re no good (with mussels, as with clams and other bivalves, if they stay open when you clean them, discard them; if they stay closed when you cook them, do the same – that way you and you’re guests should be fine).  Stir the open mussels and the sauce together, make sure they get well mixed.

While the mussels were cooking I sliced my squid into portions, then rearranged them in the dish with the mussels to bring to the table, and serve – a thick ring of stuffed squid per person surrounded by mussels, with some good chunky bread on the side to mop up the sauce.

We’d started the meal with a thick and warming leek and potato soup, finished it off with a juicy apple pie, dusted in brown sugar and cinnamon.  There seemed to be no marked shortfall of the requisite wintery heartiness.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Pork shanks, prunes and apple in cider

Lamb shanks have been something of a staple of mine, which I’m slightly surprised not to have covered on this blog yet*, which is perhaps as well because lamb shanks would mark me out as being stuck in the 90s.  Being stuck in a gastro pub in the nineties, apparently, whereas the pork belly I roasted a couple of weeks ago puts me in a gastro pub in the noughties.  What will be the defining gastro pub cut of meat for the present decade has yet to be decided (presumably we need to agree on what we’re going to call the decade itself first.  Teenies?  Sheesh.  Noughties was bad enough), but my current bet, for what that’s worth, would be on veal osso buco, which all of a sudden seems to be ubiquitous on any butcher’s slab with any pretence to either quality or fashionability.  Or, if not osso buco, then maybe, in a mash up of the best bits of the previous two decades, pork shanks, which have also apparently appeared out of nowhere in the past couple of months.

Now I have to admit I don’t know precisely what a pork shank is.  Or rather, I know what a pork shank is, I just don’t know precisely what distinguishes one from a ham hock, which is undoubtedly cut from the same part of the pig (the lower leg).  Google suggests variously that shank and hock are entirely synonymous; that a hock is a cured shank; or that the shank is the whole lower part of the leg (called, excitingly, stinco, in Italian), of which the hock is itself the lower part.  Even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, and his essential Meat book – generally my bible in all things carnal (not THAT kind of carnal…) – lets me down by referring only to hocks.  From my own hands on experience I would suggest that the items I was sold as pork shanks were in fact the same as uncured ham hocks stripped of their blanket of skin and fat.

Whatever the precise definition and/or distinction, a hock or a shank, be it from a pig or a lamb (or veal osso buco for that matter) is a knobbly lump of meat on the bone of the lower leg, fatty and gelatinous but also formed of well exercised muscle so fibrous and sinewy too.  That makes it sound unappealing, but cooked long and slow till it falls softly off the bone, it’s full of sweet flavour and meltingly tender.  On this occasion I combined my shanks with two classically bistro-y companions to pork – prunes and apples – and braised it gently in good cider (Weston’s organic in this case, from Sainsburys so widely available).

2 pork shanks
10-12 dried prunes
2 apples
1 onion
500ml good dry cider
1 clove garlic, a little fresh chilli
6 - 8 sage leaves

First you’ll need to soak your prunes by covering them with boiling water in a bowl or pan, and leaving to stand for at least a couple of hours.
When the prunes are soaked and ready, brown the shanks in a big casserole.
Finely chop the garlic and chilli, peel and slice the onion into chunky wedges, throw them in the pot with the meat.

Peel and core the apples, cut them into quarter wedges, then 1/8s .  Once the onions are soft and starting to colour, throw the apples in the pot, let them cook for a couple of minutes, then add the prunes and pour over the cider.
Bring to a simmer, cover the casserole and put it in the oven at around 150 for about three hours.
Serve with mash.

* I will, I promise, cover lamb shanks sooner or later, either slow braised in beer or wine, which follows the same basic method as above (except without the prunes and apples and with wine or beer instead of cider, obviously) or my previously posted recipes for oxtail or cheeks; or pot roasted in my own approximation of kleftiko, next time I’m feeling exercised about the notion of ‘authenticity’ I dare say…

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Risotto. So shoot me.

As I was saying about authenticity, it’s all very well, but it’s no reason in itself not to do things differently.  Risotto is a case in point.  The way I do a risotto, the way, I would venture, that most British people will do a risotto, would make a purist throw up their hands in horror (or some other wildly exaggerated gesture, you know, what with being Italian and all…).  And I’m okay with that, because, not only do I happen to think that my risotto is perfectly good regardless of what anyone else thinks, but because the way I, we, generally eat a risotto is different too. 

In traditional Italian cuisine a meal is made up of many courses, and even within a single course, the component parts will tend to be served separately, so that the main meat course is likely to consist of, say, a breaded chicken escalope on a plate on its own, followed by a plate of veg, whereas of course in Britain we pile everything on the same plate, and – even in a foodie household like this one - there is seldom more than one course to a regular weekday dinner.  So whereas a traditional risotto, for a traditional Italian meal, will be but a single component in a greater whole, in Britain – or at least in my house – the chances are that bowl of risotto is the whole.  It is, basically, dinner in it’s own right, probably just with a bowl of salad on the side.  So it makes sense that a traditional ‘pure’ Italian risotto is a simple, plain dish, an elegantly minimalist concoction of rice cooked in stock, with just one or two added ingredients to raise it above the level of a side dish – parmesan usually, maybe with asparagus, or porcini, or saffron.  Always ‘or’, not ‘and’ for the true purist.  While a ‘British’ risotto will appear to that same horrified purist to contain half the contents of the fridge.  They’ll think it looks like a dog’s dinner, but it’s not.  It’s just dinner.

That said, before you go chucking half the contents of the fridge into your risotto pan, you need to know how to make a good risotto in the first place.  And if you want it to be ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’, then just don’t chuck anything else in there…

This is how I do a basic risotto (to serve 4):

320g risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano, which is entirely a matter of personal taste)
olive oil
1 glass white wine 
6 shallots (or 1 onion – or a mix of onion and celery, see below) finely chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Leaves stripped from several sprigs of thyme
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon or pancetta (or approx 60g diced pancetta)*
salt & pepper*
1 litre good flavoursome stock - chicken stock would be standard, but obviously not if your cooking for vegetarians - most importantly, it must be hot 
1 big handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley

* the bacon is optional – obviously if you’re cooking for vegetarians leave it out, or for some seafood recipes, but smoky bacon  goes really well with squid, octopus etc if you’re using that (or you could even use finely diced chorizo, but use less as it is more strongly flavoured).  If you do use it, bear in mind you probably won’t need to add any extra salt.

butternut squash soffritto with celery
Saute the bacon in a casserole dish or heavy bottomed saucepan, then add some olive oil and throw in the shallots (or onion, celery etc), garlic and thyme, and cook till soft and translucent.  This is your soffritto, remember?  Add more oil if it’s all been absorbed - you need to be able to see it bubbling a little.  Give a good grind of black pepper at this point.

Turn the heat down a little and add the rice.  Cook gently for a minute or two, stirring it until the rice has absorbed all the oil and any juices, then pour in the wine.  Adjust the heat so it’s just gently simmering, give it a good stir and let it cook until all the wine has been absorbed, then start adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next.  Keep stirring regularly but you don’t need to stand over it all the time. 

After about 35 - 40 minutes you should have used up about 2/3-3/4 of the stock, and the rice should be just about cooked, depending on your preference for how much bite there is left in it (personally I like the grains to remain distinct and reasonably al dente, some prefer a gloopier, rice pudding type consistency – there is no right or wrong).  Taste test it and give it more or less time and stock according to your preference.  When you think it is done, add another splash of wine and one last ladleful of stock, and stir thoroughly until the stock and wine are just absorbed, this should give you a smooth, moist, creamy texture, regardless of how al dente or otherwise you like your rice.  Check the seasoning, adding salt or pepper to taste, throw in the parsley and stir it through, then your risotto is ready to serve.

coming together
Traditionally, and if you’re not cooking for someone with dairy allergies, you’d use butter or butter and oil instead of just olive oil, and add an extra knob of butter and a good handful of freshly grated parmesan right at the end, along with the extra splash of wine and last ladle of stock

That’s a basic risotto, and you do it just like that (with or without the bacon) regardless of what you want to add to it, and you can add pretty much whatever you want.  The point in the cooking at which you add whatever it is that you want, would depend on what it was and how long it would need to cook.

For example:
Butternut squash risotto:
Ingredients exactly as above, using half an onion and a couple of sticks of celery for the soffritto (the flavour of celery goes well with the sweetness of the squash), plus a butternut squash, obviously, a few sage leaves and a handful of chesnut mushrooms.

Peel the squash and cut it in half lengthways, then across just above the seed cavities.  Scoop out the seed cavities and cut the scooped out ends of the squash into wedges about a centimetre and a half across at the thick end.  While preparing your risotto you want to roast these in the oven with some sage, a couple of whole cloves of garlic and a sprinkling of fennel or cumin seeds (at about 180 for about 30 minutes).  Cut the solid ends of the squash into small dice, of about half a centimetre.  Depending on the size and proportions of your squash, you may well not need all the solid ends of it to be diced small – you basically need a similar volume, or maybe half as much again as you have of shallots (or onion).  If, as you probably will, you have excess squash, cut the remainder into big chunks and roast it with the wedges from the hollow ends of squash.

The technique for cooking the risotto is also exactly the same as above, except I’d add some chopped sage leaves as well as or instead of the thyme, and throw in the diced squash between the shallots and the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, then adding the mushrooms (thickly sliced, or diced, depending on how big the whole mushroom is) just before the rice goes in.  Everything else is the same, until you add the roasted wedges of squash on top of the finished risotto in the bowl.

Whatever you put in your risotto the secrets to it are always the same:
The quality of the stock you use.
Be generous with the olive oil (and/or butter) – if in doubt, add a little more.
Keep your risotto thirsty – add the stock a little at a time and make sure it’s absorbed before adding more.
Keep stirring – regularly, not constantly.  It doesn’t matter if you get a little bit of rice stuck to the pan, in fact I think a bit of golden brown on the bottom of the pan is good for the flavour – particularly if you use the stock and a your wooden spoon to redissolve it when you add each ladleful.

And that last point, about a bit of golden brown burn on the bottom of the pan, is a perfect illustration of my broader point about ‘authenticity’.  After all, to a risotto purist, the rice burning to the bottom of the pan is the greatest disaster to befall mankind since Noah’s flood, whereas, just across the Western Mediterranean, the crispy golden crust on the base is the very essence of a traditional and authentic paella.  But, and here I risk getting myself shot in parts of Italy or Spain, a risotto and a paella are essentially the same thing.  It’s rice cooked in stock with extra stuff thrown in.  And exactly what gets thrown in, or quite precisely how you choose to cook it, doesn’t change the essential nature of what it is.  So if you want to keep stirring your paella to avoid the build up of a crust, or get lazy with your risotto and end up with a few crunchy golden grains of rice, then that’s okay.  You’re not wrong any more than a traditional purist, be they Valenciano or Milanese, are right.  It’s all a matter of personal taste.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Sausages. Oh, yes. And Mash.

With three inches of snow on the ground and the nation, as a consequence, at a complete standstill, what else is there to do but to hunker down at home, pull the cork out of a bottle of something red and heartwarming, and build up your reserves of comfort.  What is generally referred to as comfort food, regular reader’s will have noticed, is a recurring theme of this blog, although I’m not, personally, a fan of the term itself.  Comfort, to me implies a palliative effect, and, by extension, the corollary presence of some degree of distress.  You know, I don’t actually count feeling a bit peckish as a form of genuine distress, and if you do, then, frankly, you need to toughen up.  Indulgent food, then?  Well maybe, except the word indulgence carries connotations either of puritan disapproval, or, whether you disapprove of it or not, of an unnecessary and extravagant treat.  Either way, oysters and champagne at Grand Central Station might count as an indulgence, oxtail stew (or braised ox cheeks, or pork and beans for that matter…) at home, to me, doesn’t.  So I think I’ll just choose to call it nice food, thank you.  And in this current wintery weather, what could be nicer (or more comforting, or indulgent, whatever…) than sausages and mash.

As it happens, I was in my local Italian deli – Gallo Nero II on Stoke Newington High Street the other day (before the snows came), and the people next to me asked for some of their special pork and fennel sausages.  I’d already been covetously eyeing the tray behind the meat counter, and that tipped me over the edge – I couldn’t resist asking for some too.  These are pricey sausages – the six I asked for came to almost eight quid, but they are hefty too.  Bigger and meatier than your average sausages - so much so that those six, casseroled, will do the two of us for two dinners, first as the casserole itself, served up with mash (of course), and then as the basis for a pasta sauce – so although it might be pushing the limits of indulgence, it’s not so very wildly extravagant, once in a while.  And they are the best sausages I know.

Because they’re so good I keep the casserole simple.  Just brown the sausages gently in my shallow casserole, then chuck in chunky wedges of fennel and red onion, some garlic, a touch of chilli, a little fresh thyme and salt and pepper.  Soften the onion and fennel, then pour over enough wine (I used red this time, but white will work, or even cider - but that adds an extra fruity element that these sausages don’t really need, but by all means experiment with whatever sausages you’re using) to just about half the depth of the sausages, throw in a bay leaf, bring it to a gentle simmer and put it in the oven.  About 30 – 40 minutes at 180 will do it, or longer and lower if you have the time, which will produce a greater depth of flavour.  Unlike say, ox cheeks or pork and beans, though, it’s not a case of putting it in and forgetting about it for pretty much ever.  This can cook for too long.  An hour at around 150 is probably ideal, although if you do what I did and pop out for a trip to the shops, which ends up taking much longer than you’d expected, and it gets about an hour and a half, it’s not (quite) a disaster.  In fact, flavour wise, it’s great - the onion and fennel having almost melted and caramelized, their flavour intense, their texture luxurious.  Aesthetically, though, I have to admit it’s no triumph, everything cooked to the same deep mahogany colour and the rendered fat from the sausages separated from the winey sauce and laying on top as a clear and glistening (but very tasty) oil slick.

As I’ve said before, and you might well have noticed anyway, Becca and I are not exactly deterred by a bit of fat, and this was utterly delicious served up with mash and a couple of heads of little gem lettuce, sprinkled with cumin and fennel seeds and fried in, I admit, a little bit of the sausage fat (you could use olive oil).  Two sausages each was plenty, leaving the other two in the pan with enough of the sauce to be put in the fridge to await being turned into a pasta sauce a night or two later, with the addition of a handful or two of halved cherry tomatoes and chesnut mushrooms, and served with gnocchi made from the leftover mash.
A more aesthetically successful version of sausage and mash was the one I did a few weeks ago, that I posted as a picture but hadn’t time to write up.  My blog stats tell me that’s been one of my most popular postings, which I’m not sure how to take.  Does it mean that people just like to look at pictures of food and would rather not be bothered with all these tedious words?  In which case am I wasting my time?  Or does it just mean that the people who read my blog are the kind of people who really like sausage and mash?  In which case they’re my kind of people.  I prefer to believe it’s the latter.

That sausage casserole was made in much the same way as the above, but using garlic and chilli sausages from the farmer’s market.  These were damned good sausages, but not in the same league (for flavour or heftiness) as the fennel ones from Gallo Nero.  Just really good ordinary sausages.  Hence the addition of a few more featured flavours going into the casserole, including pears, also from the farmer’s market and just short of perfect eating ripeness - which, in the way of all pears (including avocados, which I know aren’t, but in this respect may as well be), they would undoubtedly have reached for about half an hour around 3a.m. on a Tuesday, before turning to mush - and beans for added substance.

Again, brown the sausages to start, add onions and red peppers (more thinly sliced in this case than the wedges of onion and fennel) along with garlic, chilli, thyme, salt & pepper, then mushrooms and finally the pears, peeled and cut into wedges.  Cook all together for just a couple of minutes, then add cannellini (or butter) beans (half a tin was enough for two), a bay leaf and enough cider to just cover.  Again, put it in the oven for half an hour at 180, or an hour at 150.  Again serve with mash.  Again, delicious.

Mash:  King of carbs.

King of carbs?  It’s a bold claim.  There’s bread, of course - staff of life and all that.  And the Italians and their many –ophiles, would no doubt put in a strong claim for pasta.  I’m quite sure that well over half the World’s population would vote for rice, which just goes to show that democracy’s never really going to work, if you ask me.  Even within the world of potato (a magical world, rather like Homer Simpson’s Land of chocolate, except made of potato, obviously) the popular phone-in vote would probably go to the chip, but I tend to think of the chip of more of a flash prince, a regent perhaps, to mash’s kingly stolidity.  Mash has gravitas.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the snow outside: if Good King Wenceslas was a carb, he’d be mash.

And by mash, I mean mash – not pommes puree or mouselline.  I wouldn’t thank you (sorry, Mark) for any mash made up of half potato half butter and half cream (yes, I know that’s three halves, and that’s just about how far removed from reality these fancy mashes are, in my opinion, and mash, if nothing else, should be real, earthbound food).  I want to be able to tell that my mash is made of potato, and if that means finding the odd lump, then bring it on.  I’m not scared.  In fact I’d go so far as to say, I actually like the odd lump.  I like texture.  As a character in one of my several unpublished novels once said on my behalf: “Why puree a vegetable when you have teeth?”

Not that I’m a purist, or some kind of mash fascist (that would be grossly hypocritical of me).  Make your mash as you like it.  At home, due to Becca’s dairy allergy, obviously, I mash with extra virgin olive oil, but when I’m cooking for other, non allergic people, I’ll mix it with butter and crème fraiche.  And I’m perfectly happy to mix my potato with other root vegetables - sweet potatoes, celeriac, swede or parsnips, are all good – even occasionally something that grows above the ground, in the case of cauliflower.  I usually throw a stalk of rosemary and/or four or five peeled garlic cloves in the pan with the potatoes, for extra flavour.

And that’s one of the great things about mash, it’s variety and versatility, and the fact that you can (and should) make too much of it and turn the leftovers into great new things – all the variations on bubble and squeak, potato cakes, gnocchi - which you just can’t do with chips.  OK, I was joking to start with, but now I’m convinced.  Mash gets my nomination for king of carbs.  We’ll incorporate gnocchi to get the pasta lovers onside, and the campaign kicks off right here…

Monday, 29 November 2010

Veal: Yes we can (and why we should...)

‘We shouldn’t eat veal, should we, Sebastian?’, is a question people almost never ask me.  But I know that many of them think it.  And, like many, indeed most, of the questions people ask, the answer is not as simple as they assume.  No, we should not eat some veal, just as we shouldn’t eat some chicken and some pork, but while most people are familiar with free range chicken and outdoor raised pork, and (the carnivores at least) recognise these as good things, there is still a widespread assumption that all veal is a bad thing.  Which it isn’t, not if we accept the eating of meat at all.  If you are a carnivore, and perhaps more particularly a consumer of dairy products, the properly ethical position to be taken is  - and this may be uncomfortable for some - probably not only, yes, we should eat veal, but almost certainly also that we should eat more veal*.

There is a good case (that’s good as in logically and morally consistent, not good as in one I necessarily agree with) to be made against all consumption of veal, but in order to make it you’d better be, or be prepared to become, not just a vegetarian, but a vegan, because the argument to be had there is to not do with how we feel about the meat industry, but about the dairy industry**. Rose Prince, in her excellent book, The New English Kitchen goes so far as to cover veal not in her chapter on meat, but under the heading of Dairy, which I think is slightly perverse, but not so very much.  Because veal, while obviously meat, is essentially a by-product of the dairy industry. 

A dinner table with no veal.
As long as there is a dairy industry there will be excess production of calves, and if nobody’s going to eat them, those calves aren’t going to be sent away to live on a farm, like your mum and dad told you your old dog was when you were a kid.  Your old dog wasn’t sent away to live on a farm either.  And there is no Santa Claus.  Sorry, once you get started it’s hard to stop.  The point is that the dairy industry relies on calves being born, most of which (and pretty much all the males) are always going to be slaughtered whether we eat veal or not.  So if we want milk, and cheese, we really should be eating veal as well.  Otherwise all those calves, which are going to die anyway, will simply go to waste.  And as long as we eat pink, or rose, veal, which British veal has always tended to be anyway, then the animal welfare issues that are commonly, and inaccurately, associated with all veal production, do not arise.  The thing to avoid is white veal, the meat of calves fed exclusively on milk (or, more to the point, milk “products”) and kept in the dark, in spaces too confined to move, in order to keep the meat pale and soft.  Why anyone thinks this is a good idea is quite beyond me, because – quite apart from the unspeakable cruelty - the meat produced this way really does taste, at best, of nothing, at worst of stale milk.  I find it vaguely, and unsettlingly reminiscent of that old free school milk taste and smell that still haunts me from my infancy, and which to this day means that an innocent glass of milk is one of the few things widely consumed by mankind that I cannot even countenance passing my lips. That, of course is a question of taste, and, it must be acknowledged, that the notorious crates commonly associated with (most commonly Dutch) white veal production were banned by the EU in 2007.  Neither of these acknowledgements, however, make intensively reared white veal OK.

As a rule the pinker the meat, the less intensive the rearing, and the more natural, and therefore 'happier' the life of the calf that produced it.  So, as we've established that the calves are going to be born anyway, the more ‘good’ veal we eat, the less incentive there is for dairy farmers to either destroy them out of hand, or to ship them out to the producers of ‘bad’ veal.  It's one of the clearest examples I can bring to mind of the idea, first expressed to me by my sister Helen, a re-converted carnivore, that if your concern is the welfare of animals, it is much more effective to be an ethical meat consumer than to be a vegetarian.  Because meat producers really don't care what people who don't buy meat think.  Choosing to buy pink veal, well sourced, is good, both in the sense that you really don’t have to feel bad about eating it - quite the opposite - and in that it tastes good - and not of stale milk from the 1970s… 

The 'good' veal I bought the other day was yet another of Waitrose’s forgotten cuts (this blog is honestly not meant to be an advert for Waitrose, it’s just I like to try new cuts of meat, and they happen to be a good local source.  And hopefully local enough to many/most(?) of my readers, because this blog is not meant to be too esoteric or ‘cheffy’ either.).  This time it was even a cut that was not only properly forgotten, I hadn’t even heard of it in the first place, or at least not the name for it.  It was labelled as veal goose skirt, and it was clearly the same cut of the calf as a skirt, or bavette steak would be of the cow – a long, thin blade of lean, fibrous meat, so called, allegedly, due to its resemblance to a goose’s wing.  It was recommended as ideal for slow cooking.  I’m sure that’s true, but I also couldn’t help but think it would be a waste.

With bavette, as with onglet, or hanger steak – a similarly lean and fibrous cut – there are basically two ways to go with the cooking of the meat to achieve a deliciously tender end result: hot and fast or slow and low.  If going the low and slow route there are so many other (generally cheaper) cuts you could use – shin, shank and shoulder, cheek or tail – that will produce as good, if not better results, then it just seems a shame not to take the hot and fast alternative, just searing it and serving it good and rare.  Particularly in the case of a veal steak which is not only similar to bavette, but is in effect a younger, more tender, more delicately flavoured bavette.

roast squash and lentil salad
golden crusted boulangere potatoes

Rose Prince, in her aforementioned book reckons that due to it’s richness, you don’t need to serve as much veal as you would beef, about 150g per portion being plenty, which turned out to be just as well, as my friends Darren and Christabel, having just moved in around the corner from us and being, as yet, without kitchen facilities came round for dinner at short notice, and the two goose skirts I’d brought home, which I’d thought might be a bit over generous for two, would, by that maths just about stretch four ways.  To make sure nobody would go hungry I made a substantial warm salad of roasted butternut squash and lentils and baked a big dish of boulangere style potatoes, with onions and beef stock, to serve alongside.

The goose skirts I salted and peppered, and rubbed in sunflower oil on both sides, got my frying pan smoking hot and seared them for just a couple of minutes a side.  I took them out to rest on a board while deglazing the pan with sherry and adding a splash of beef stock to make a gravy. I served the steaks sliced – which is always a good trick for making a small portion of meat appear more substantial – alongside the salad and potatoes.  It was plenty.  Really good.  And almost obscenely tender.

Veal goose skirt. Seared briefly, to rare. Rest and slice to serve.

* Unless your view is that we shouldn’t eat veal because calves are simply too cute and adorable and baby to eat.  But I really don’t believe that the majority of people who will happily eat lamb but have genuine concerns about veal are that hypocritical, although there will, of course, be some.  Any sample population will always have its share of self contradictory moral hypocrites, and there’s no reason to suppose that just because somebody holds a view that is reasonable, they don’t do so for incredibly stupid reasons.  The assumption that just because somebody happens to agree with you then they must necessarily be smart, is one of the most flawed one can make, on so many levels… 

** In the course of my research for this piece I have certainly not been tempted to become either vegetarian or vegan, you probably won't be surprised to discover.  I have however come to the conclusion that I will probably make more of an effort in future to buy organic milk and butter, and organic and ideally unpasteurized cheese, wherever possible.

Should we all, ultimately, agree that the dairy industry is insupportable, and veal, as a result becomes unavailable, or prohibitively expensive, that will be a shame, although stick with this blog (ignoring the post about the best toasted cheese sandwich ever) because entirely by chance, and thanks to Becca’s allergies, it could show a way forward to a bold, new dairy – but not meat, obviously – free future.  

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Smoked haddock, clams and caulicannon

Smoked haddock, poached in milk, with onions and capers, served with mash and spinach, and, to crown it all, a soft poached egg, is, to my mind, one of the finest plates of food you could ever set before me.  It’s a perfect marriage of several combinations of flavours and textures all combined.  Several perfect marriages all going off at once.  Like the perfect Moonie wedding, on a plate.  Only problem is, with Becca’s dairy allergy also covering eggs, it’s a double no-no.  We’re not having that for dinner at home any time soon.

I’m not complaining.  The compensations are many, and anyway, while there is no real substitute for the poached egg, you can poach the fish perfectly well in wine, and given that I struggle to imagine the circumstances in which I am ever likely to choose milk over wine, in any context, that’s really not going to be an issue for me.  And throw in a handful of clams - to compensate for the loss of the poached egg, if you feel the need to justify them - and you’ve got a pretty fancy looking plate of totally non-allergic (in this household) food for really very little effort. 

There’s a school of thought that would, as a rule, warn against marinading fish.  This would be on the, not entirely unreasonable, grounds that a.) the flavour of fish tends to the delicate, and you don’t want to overwhelm it; and b.) the acidity of say, lemon juice, or the alcohol in wine, will have the effect of cooking the fish while it marinades, and fish is easily enough overcooked as it is.  As I say, not unreasonable, but in the case of smoked haddock, a.) the flavour really isn’t all that fragile; and b.) the effect of the smoking is already not that dissimilar to the cold cooking effect of acid or alcohol.  More generally, I’d suggest, exactly because fish takes so little cooking, the ingredients really don’t end up spending much time in the pan together, and flavours take time to infuse and mingle, so sometimes it helps to bring them all together for a while beforehand in the form of a brief marinade.  It’s a judgement call, but that’s certainly what I’d do here.

Take an onion and cut it in half lengthways.  Depending on the size of the onion you may need both halves, but you don’t need much, so quite likely just the one half will do.  Peel it and slice it thinly but not too fine, and lay the slices down as a bed in the bottom of a shallow dish.  Place your smoked haddock fillets on the bed of onion, give them a big grind of black pepper and a tiny pinch of salt, then pour over enough white wine to cover the onion and maybe as much as half the fish.  Don’t drown it.  Leave aside for half an hour, while you prepare the clams and get your mash on the go.

To prepare the clams, rinse thoroughly under the cold tap in a colander, then leave to soak in plentiful cold water, changing that water completely and giving the clams a good stir and jiggle (discarding any that remain open) three or four times over during the same half hour your haddock is marinading, by the end of which you’ll have peeled your spuds and got them boiling and just about ready to  mash.

Now remove the haddock from the marinade and scoop out the onions and put them into a shallow casserole on a moderate heat with a little olive oil to just soften, then pour over the wine from the marinade and add a couple of teaspoons of capers (rinsed if salted).  Bring the wine to the simmer then add the fish and cover.  The fillets will only take a few minutes to cook, no more than five – just about time to mash your potatoes.  When the fillets are just done (the flesh opaque and bright white), or even half a minute before, carefully remove them (if not quite fully done they’ll finish off when you add them back at the end), and throw in the clams (about 6-8 clams per person should be about write).  Replace the lid.

Now you have time to wilt your spinach – I like to toast some pine nuts in the dry pan first, and when they’re just lightly golden add a slug of olive oil and a finely shaved clove of garlic, then throw in the spinach in great handfuls – vastly more than you appear to need wilts down to meagerness in no time.

Lift the lid of your casserole and if all the clams are open, return the fish and mix it all up with a sprinkle of fresh parsley (if not, put the lid back on, obviously, but it should only need be briefly).  Then serve the fillets of haddock with the mash and the spinach on the side and the onion, caper, wine and clam sauce over the top (picking out and discarding any clams that have remained resolutely shut at this stage).

Oh, and it goes without saying you’ll need undyed smoked haddock, the pale golden beige fillets, not the incandescent yellow stuff.  If your fishmonger only has the latter kind, I’m sorry, you need to find yourself a new fishmonger.


The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that the dish shown in the pictures, the haddock is served not with ordinary mash but with fried mash.  What is not apparent from the pictures is that this is a variant of bubble & squeak or colcannon, that is as far as I can tell, an invention of my own, although I can’t think why, or quite believe that I can possibly be the first to have done it (feel free to contact me to point out that I’m not*).  It’s mash mixed with - instead of cabbage in the case of bubble, or spring onion in the case of colcannon - cauliflower.   Caulicannon, if you will.  I have Becca to thank for the coinage.  It’s just half a head of cauliflower cut into small florets which were little more than blanched, then stirred into about 250g of left over mash and the lot fried like a potato cake.  Utterly fantastic, and just one more perfectly matched element in the whole smoked haddocky affair.

* Further research has revealed that I am indeed not the first to incorporate cauliflower into colcannon, but, weirdly, most of the previous cases I can find are of Atkins inspired lo-carb freaks who substitute the cauliflower not for the cabbage/onions but for the potato!  Plainly madness.  I (Becca) am (is) also not the first to coin the term 'caulicannon'. Anyway, something similar is cited as far back as1872, according to this.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Pork Belly 2 - pork and beans, cowboy style

As promised in my last post: pork and bean stew.  This is not fancy food, far from it, it’s essentially my take on good old basic, out of the chuck wagon cowboy pork and beans (and I don't mean Dolly Parton style), but it’s full of flavour and deeply, deeply satisfying.  Proper comfort food.  As the nights draw in, and autumn starts heading towards winter, it’s got to be one of my absolute favourite dinners.  And it’s so easy to make that expressed as a ratio of effort put in to pleasure taken out, it’s probably just about my all time favourite.  It’s easy because it consists of just five main ingredients, two of them out of a can, requires no fine chopping and no precise timings or temperature control.  It really is just bung it all in and leave it till it’s done.  Like any stew it’s best done the day before, left to cool and reheated, but because it’s so labour un-intensive and only needs one big pot, it’s a doddle to throw together while you’re cooking one night’s meal, for dinner the next, as I did while my pork belly, potatoes and celery and ratatouille were roasting away in the oven (see post below).  So it kind of feels like two meals for the effort of one.

As ever, these quantities fed two of us, but, as usual, would easily have fed three…

500g pork belly
a couple of onions (I used red onions this time, but there’d be nothing whatsoever wrong with ordinary yellow ones)
150g of chesnut mushrooms
1 x 400g tin of beans (I used borlottis but haricot or cannellini are fine too)
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
250ml of red wine
250ml of stock (chicken or beef)

First cut the belly into strips about as wide as they are thick, then dice the strips into rough cubes and get those cubes into your marinade.  Precisely what goes into your spice mix is up to you and what you have to hand in your store cupboard.  Like everything else about this dish (and, you may have noticed, my cooking style in general) it’s not a precise science.  You do definitely need a bit of sweet and sour going on in there, and a little heat.  I would also suggest paprika is essential, for both flavour and colour.  For the record, on this occasion the marinade consisted of salt and pepper, obviously; garlic and red chilli mashed together in my garlic press (the only thing I ever use it for, but it’s brilliant, as long as you put it straight into water once you’re done, and don’t leave the garlic to set hard, making it so much more effort to clean than it ever saved in the first place); sweet paprika (but smoked or hot would be good too, particularly hot if you don’t have any fresh chillies); a little pomegranate syrup for the sweet, and cider vinegar for the sour, but you could use brown sugar for the sweet, or apple juice the acidic sweetness of which does a bit of both.  Or you could take an oriental direction and use soy sauce and rice vinegar or rice wine.  And some olive oil, or if you’ve headed up the oriental route, sesame oil.  Quantities again are kind of up to you, but just a little bit of everything so that no single element dominates, until it looks, smells and tastes right to you.

You don’t need to leave the meat marinading for long, there’ll be plenty of time in the long slow cooking for all those good flavours to do their thing, but a little extra time is always better, so get the meat done first so it’s steeping away while you prep everything else.  Problem with this dish is prepping everything else takes pretty much no time at all, so you might even want to take a break and have half a glass of wine or a cheeky sherry at this point.  Prepping everything else consists of peeling the onions and cutting them into thick wedges, cutting the mushrooms in half, or even leaving them whole if they are particularly small, and opening a tin each of beans and tomatoes.  Oh, and opening a bottle of wine.

When you’re ready, heat up your big casserole on the stove and brown the meat gently, then add the onions till they’re starting to soften, then the mushrooms.  Chuck in some thyme, or savory if you have it, and a couple of bayleaves – use fresh herbs if you have them available, but if not, this is the kind of cooking for which dried herbs are ideally suited.  Add a good glass of red wine, something hearty and robust, at this point and let that simmer away till noticeably reduced then add the tomatoes and beans and 200 ml or so of beef or chicken stock.  Quantities of liquid again don’t need to be precise with such a long slow cook, you can always adjust later on.  You do want a good quantity of liquid to start with, as a lot of it – ideally most of it - will reduce away, but it should always look like a hearty stew, not a soup.

Bring it all to a gentle simmer on the stove top and then put it in the oven for as long and as low as you like.  150 for three hours will do it, but if you have the time and the oven settings, longer and lower is even better.  When, at last, you do take it out and lift the lid your first reaction should ideally be to think ‘oh bugger – I’ve cocked it up.  It’s been in too long and it’s ruined.’  It should look, frankly like an over reduced, gooey, congealed mess.  That’s perfect.  It’s amazing what another ladle or two of stock and an extra splash of wine will do by way of a miraculous transformation, and the treacly depth of flavour you get by letting it go just that bit too far and bringing it back is almost sinfully good, and I don’t believe achievable in any other way.  It’s also one of those things that either happens by happy accident, or not at all, so if your stew is proving reluctant to reach that state of divine over-reduction don’t be tempted to force it by turning up the heat or cooking it forever.  It may not reach the transcendental perfection of being brought back from the dead, but after three or four hours, it’s going to be damned good.  And if this is starting to sound like a religious experience well then that’s because eating this dish, for me, pretty much is.  Or as close as as I care to get.

As I said in my previous post, I put the casserole in when I took out the roast pork belly that was dinner for the night before, out of the oven and turned the heat way down.  That was at around eight thirty, and I left it there, while we ate, and for the rest of the evening, turning the oven off only when we were on our way to bed, some time after midnight.  I reheated it the next evening on the stove top, with just a splash of rejuvenating stock and an extra half glass of wine, served it up with mash and pickled red cabbage.  It was cowboy heaven.

And a chicory, spinach and beetroot salad on the side.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Pork Belly 1 - roasted

I mentioned last week that I couldn’t believe I’d been blogging as long as I had without writing properly about pork belly. It was hard to believe because we love the pig in this house, and hold a specially fond affection for its fat belly.  Ah well, better late than never.

Pork belly is another one of Waitrose’s “forgotten cuts” which I find a little odd, because, correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not – that’s entirely rhetorical) but isn’t streaky bacon pork belly?  You remember bacon, don’t you?  I’m sure I do… But even conceding that pork belly in its uncured form is distinct from bacon and may therefore theoretically have been forgotten in its own right, I would still have to ask has nobody from Waitrose ever been to a gastro pub? 

Whether it’s been forgotten or not though, is of purely academic interest.  What is beyond debate is that it is a cheap cut.  Presumably on account of it being largely composed of fat.  Luscious, lovely fat.  I can remember visiting Poland back in my callow youth and being confused and amused to see, on the barely stocked shelves of an immediately post communist butcher’s shop, a leg of ham that was composed almost entirely of snow white fat with just a whisp of pink lean meat running through it, marked at twice the price of the ham next to it which was mostly lean.  Now I would understand that, although even I think Polish cuisine may take a perfectly understandable love of pork fat to a frankly indecent, not too say unhealthy extreme.  My other main food related memory from that trip was the house special pizza in a very dimly lit basement pizzeria, where the big slabs of what I took to be mozzarella turned out to be lard.  I’m afraid I cannot recommend substituting lard for mozzarella on a pizza, even if you have a dairy allergic girlfriend.

Anyway pork belly is cheap for the very reason it is good.  Fat.  Fat carries flavour, keeps lean meat juicy and makes pork belly one of the most versatile and forgiving cuts, forgotten or otherwise.  The 1kg slab I brought home cost less than a fiver and served the two us for two deeply comfort foody dinners, cooked up in two entirely different ways.

First up, a straight roast, which would be instantly familiar to anyone at Waitrose if only they ever went to a gastro pub.  Then a casserole of pork and beans, cooked long and slow to a soft, treacly consistency.  Slow cooking particularly suits pork belly, on account of the fat which renders down and goes all sweet and sticky.  A Chinese style slow braise would be another favourite round here, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

Also on account of the fat keeping the meat lubricated, roasting pork belly couldn’t be easier.  The only trick lies in getting the rind to crackle, which I have to admit I find to be a bit hit or miss whatever method you follow.  And there are many methods, covered more exhaustively than I could ever be bothered to here.  I tend to pour a kettle of boiling water over the slashed rind, then pat it thoroughly dry with kitchen paper and rubbing in plenty of flaky sea salt, but I think the key is probably the slashing.  The more cuts the better.  And a good blast of heat, generally at either end of the cooking process. 

So, I cut my 1kg slab of belly in half, added a few extra slashes to the half to be roasted and gave it the boiling water treatment.  Along with the salt I rubbed in a good grind of black pepper and a generous sprinkling of fennel seeds, the aniseedy flavour of which compliment pork superbly.  Then I put  it in to a pre heated roasting tray in the oven set to around 225, for a 15 minute initial blast of heat.  Meanwhile I was par-boiling some potatoes, which I then drained off and returned to the pan and gave it a good shake to bash them about a bit, get their outer surfaces nicely fluffed.  When the 15 minute blast was up I turned the oven down to around 180 and added the potatoes to the tray (make sure you start off with a big enough tray to allow cooking space) with the pork and a couple of sticks of celery cut on the diagonal into two inch lengths.  I don’t know why people don’t roast celery more often, it is quite delicious, with a sweet, nutty flavour that is surprisingly similar to roasted garlic.  It goes particularly well with pork, and with apple too by happy coincidence – you could if you wanted do the potatoes in a separate tray and mix the celery up with apple wedges in with the pork.  That would be good too.  Very good.  If I was doing that, though, I'd cut the celery rather smaller, say into one inch lengths, and add it and the apples about ten to fifteen minutes later in the process, as the apples need less cooking.

To accompany the roast on this occasion, and to make the most of the oven’s heat, I did a roasted ratatouille at the same time, chunky dice of aubergine and courgette, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes mixed together in another roasting tray and stirred through with plenty of salt and pepper, thyme, a few peeled but whole garlic cloves and lots of olive oil.  That tray went into the oven at the same time I turned the heat down and added the potatoes, and then I left it all for about 40 minutes.

At this point the ratatouille was done, as was the meat.  The crackling was still a bit pliable, and the potatoes rather pale, so I cut the rind off the meat, and put it back into the oven with the potatoes and turned the heat back up high.  As high as you like.  Meanwhile the meat rested on a board, covered with greaseproof paper and a tea towel to keep it warm.  Another ten to fifteen minutes is plenty to crackle your crackling and get the potatoes to the desired golden brown, and in the same time the meat is rested to perfection.

All that remained, before serving up and enjoying, was to turn the oven back down again, way down low this time, as low as it will go, and whack in the casserole with tomorrow’s dinner of pork and beans in it, which I had got to the point of bubbling away on the stove top while today’s dinner was in the oven.  That'll cook away while we're enjoying the roast and for a good few hours beyond, and I’ll write it up in full for my next post.