Friday, 29 October 2010

Guinea fowl and mushroom pie

Becca has never had chicken pie.  Ever.  I was shocked, but of course 9 times out of ten, at least, the filling has a creamy sauce and the pastry is made with butter and has an egg glaze, so with her allergies it’s just one of those items on a menu that she just crosses off.  Not even worth asking.

It came up because we returned from a weekend away that involved a short trip to the Peak District and a (very) short walk on the fringes of the moors, with a handful of boletus badii, just about enough, as it happened, for a pie.  Not chicken, in the end, but guinea fowl, from my favourite butchers, McKanna's aka Theobalds on Theobalds Road.  I was sorely tempted by their great range of game birds, but after last week’s pheasant adventures, felt less of an urge to break away from the domestic than I might otherwise have done.  Besides, a partridge and bolete pie would just not be the chicken and mushroom pie experience that I was after.  Guinea fowl on the other hand fancies it up just enough without straying out of the broad realm of chickeniness.

I jointed the bird, removing the breasts and the legs, which I split into thighs and drumsticks.  I deboned the thighs and put those bones and the drumsticks into a roasting tray with the rest of the carcass, seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, and roasted it up to make guinea fowl salad or sandwiches, for my next couple of lunches, and another vat of stock.

Meanwile I toasted a mix of crushed up aniseed, fennel, coriander and cumin seeds in a dry pan until browning, then added olive oil and the breast and thigh meat from the fowl, diced into big chunks.  Once browned all over I removed the meat and replaced it in the pan with first the bacon, then garlic, a little fresh chilli, onion, celery, fennel, all medium sliced and a carrot cut into batons, and cooked till softening, then added the mushrooms.  As soon as the mushrooms were showing some colour from the cooking, just a minute or two, I returned the chicken to the pan, poured over a generous glass of white wine, which I allowed to bubble and infuse for another couple of minutes, then added enough stock to just cover but not drown everything.  I let that simmer gently for a few minutes, reducing and thickening a little.

While that was happening I rolled out, folded over and rerolled (the more layers you put into it by continually folding over as you roll, the puffier it will go in the cooking) some shop bought non butter puff pastry, and shaped it for my dish, and heated the oven to about 180.  Then it was just a case of pouring the chicken and mushroom mix into the dish and covering it with the pastry, tucking it in and folding it round the edges.  I brushed the top with olive oil to provide some glaze – not as effective as egg, but it does the trick.

It cooked for about forty minutes to get the top golden brown and puffing up, then I served it with a baked potato each and a spinach, spring onion and red pepper salad on the side.  Becca seemed to enjoy it it.  In a small way she felt newly embraced by the mainstream, brought in from the cold of her lonely exile from the cosy world of chicken pie.  I like to think so, anyway.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


I'm very much liking the sound of this...

... except for all the binding with string stuff.  I'd be looking to find a way to do it without any of that sort of faffing around.

I had lunch at Balthazar once, an experience which, for reasons too complex to explain here, was set up to be a horrible disappointment, but proved far from it.  The main course I had - something very similar to the sole en papillote recipe in the sidebar of that Guardian page - I remember as being excellent but that's it, i.e. not terribly memorable, but the starter, a platter of a dozen different New England oysters, and the dessert, the prettiest and finest apple tart I have ever seen or eaten, made it one of the best and most memorable lunches I've ever had.  And the general atmosphere of the place was all, and exactly what I'd hoped for.  There are many reasons I can't wait to go back to New York, Balthazar is one of them.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Pot roast pheasant

Okay, that pheasant.  Various things have got in the way but finally I can post what I did with it, as if you still care.  I’ll be brief.

Pot roast.

Like any game bird the thing you’re looking to avoid is dry meat, due to the size of the birds and their almost total absence of lubricating fat.  If you know your pheasant is young and tender you can get away with just straight roasting it, as you would a chicken or guinea fowl, although I’d always make a point of barding a pheasant, however young and tender, with streaky bacon or pancetta which I wouldn’t normally bother with for a chicken or guinea fowl – particularly done on the rotisserie.  Come to think of it, it would be an interesting experiment to do a brace of pheasants, one unbarded on the rotisserie, and one barded in a tray, just to see how much moisture rotisserie cooking really does retain… Another time.

This time I wasn’t sure quite how young and tender my roadkilled bird was going to be, even with the benefit of seeing it fully feathered.  My barely educated guess, for what it’s worth, would be that it was youngish but probably not one of this years hatchlings.  Normally, obviously, most of us would be buying our pheasants already prepped from the butcher, so we’ll have even less idea of how old they may be, or even what sex they are (hens being generally considered more tender than cocks) so I’d suggest, as a rule of thumb, that pot roasting is pretty much always the way to go.  And why not?  What’s the downside?

One of the best and most memorable pheasant dishes I ever had was a pot roast/casserole done with Guiness a few years ago by my friend Ashley, but this time I had a surplus of apples and a bottle of cider lying around so I went that way.  And added some chesnuts for even more autumnal seasonality.

I prepped the bird as you would a chicken for roasting, a rub of olive oil on the outside and a bunch of mixed herbs and garlic inside and plenty of salt and pepper both inside and out.  And I crossed the breasts with rashers of smoked pancetta – probably not essential, but better safe than sorry.  I preheated my big casserole dish to about 220 (I had the oven good and hot for baking potatoes anyway) and put just the bird in, with the lid off, for about 10-15 minutes (the same hot blast technique I use for the start of any roast).  I took the casserole out of the oven at that point, with the pheasants skin just starting to brown, and added a red onion and two apples, both peeled and sliced into thick wedges, a few peeled cloves of garlic, a handful of blanched and peeled chesnuts, and poured over a glass, or about 200ml of cider (I drank the rest).  Then I turned the oven down to around 180, and put the casserole back in, this time with the lid on.  Another 30 minutes or so and we were ready to take the bird out and set it aside to rest, while putting the casserole uncovered on the hob to reduce the cider and cooking juices into a thick, rich sauce.

While that was happening I removed the legs (they virtually fell off) and the breasts (that did at least require a knife) from the pheasant.  The flesh was beautifully tender and moist, not a hint of dryness and a really rather delicate gaminess.  It could easily have hung for a couple more than the 4 days we had, whether or not that would have improved it would be purely a matter of taste.  It undoubtedly could have been a lot gamier, I can't imagine it could possibly have been much better than it was.  And plenty of meat on it too.  Often a pheasant is touch and go for feeding two, this gave us plenty, served up just with a baked potato and a bit of salad, with meat enough left on the carcass for a ragu of pheasant and the remaining winter mushrooms to go with tagliatelle the following day - also delicious, and to boil up into a good stock, which made a soup for lunch on the third day and enough for the basis of another meal (soup, risotto etc) in the freezer.  I am glad to say that this particular pheasant's tragic road traffic accident did not happen in vain.

Wild mushroom and pheasant ragu, made with the mushrooms sauteed in the usual way with the leftover sauce and shredded meat from the pot roasted pheasant stirred through with a splash of marsala wine.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

That pheasant I mentioned...

Hung for four days and ready for plucking
I lied.  Kind of.  By the time I published that last post the pheasant in the title was no longer hanging in the shed but had been taken down, plucked, drawn, pot roasted and eaten.  It was very good indeed. 

Plucking is best done out of doors
Right now, as I write, its carcass is in a pan with a leek, a carrot, an onion, some fennel, some celery, a couple of garlic cloves and a handful of herbs and spices, brewing up what will undoubtedly be a very tasty stock.  There’s enough meat pulled off it and set aside to make a “tagliatelle alla stuff we found” with the last of the winter chanterelles and trompettes.

This is the point the cleaver came into play
I’m not sure I’d describe the plucking and drawing of the bird as fun, but it is undoubtedly very satisfying in a hunter gatherer kind of way.  There’s also a principle being fulfilled.  If you are a conscientious meat eater you really should be prepared to do the messy (and in the case of the plucking, frankly tedious) stuff involved in turning the animal involved into the meat you eat.  Not only be prepared to, but, given the chance, to take the opportunity.  Okay, it falls some way short of actually killing the beast with your own two hands, but it’s a start.  Similarly I had a bit of an internal debate about whether or not to post the pics, but for the same reasons it was a very short and one sided debate.  My sincere apologies to any conscientious vegetarians they may offend (although you may have noticed already that this is not a particularly vegetarian blog...), but none at all to any squeamish carnivores.

As for advice on how to go about the actual processes of hanging, plucking and gutting, having done it the whole one time, I really don't feel best placed to offer much.  This guy, on the other hand, seems to know what he's talking about.  And of course, as with all things meat, I'd refer you to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and his excellent, utterly indispensable, Meat Book.  If you are a remotely serious and even slightly conscientious meat eater and you don't already have a copy, then you should either buy it or put it on your Christmas list now.  All I will say, from my own experience is this:  do the plucking outside, leave yourself plenty of time (it was late afternoon when I started and I finished in the dark), but go head and do it, it's really not hard.

I'll cover what I did with it, once plucked, drawn and cleaned, in my next post.

Gutted. Heart and liver at top right.
carcass cleaned and ready to cook

More mushrooms, and a pheasant

We returned from our weekend in the country on Sunday with a bootful of goodies.  A bag of mixed mushrooms – a new haul for me, winter chanterelles and trompettes, and something apparently quite unusual which is like a cross between the two – I’ll check again on what it’s called and update this post…) and a fine looking cock pheasant picked up from the verge of a narrow lane near Goring, where it had met a sudden, but apparently mercifully untraumatic death.  The pheasant is now hanging in the shed, with the last handful of mushrooms set aside to accompany it, and I’ll cover that in my next post, this one will briefly return to the ‘what to do with mushrooms’ theme of my earlier mushroom post.
I had a butternut squash already in the larder, so thought what could be more perfectly autumnal on these crisp October evenings than roast squash and winter chanterelles?  As I’d have the oven going to roast the squash I decided to do a dish of boulanger style potatoes to go with, and chucked in some potatoes to bake, for making gnocchi with the excess squash to be dinner for the following day.  All very efficient and eco of me.

I peeled the squash, halved it lengthways and scooped out the seeds with a spoon.  What I always do then, is halve the half squash, just above the seed cavity, and slice the bulb of flesh around the cavity into attractive wedges, while dicing the flesh of the solid part into roughly inch cubes.  I roasted it with a couple of big celery stalks cut into couple of inch lengths, a handful of whole unpeeled garlic cloves, thyme, a half dozen sage leaves, salt, pepper and a generous slug of olive oil.  Usually about 40 minutes at 180 will do it, rather less on this occasion as I had the oven hotter for the potatoes.
I very simply sautéed a couple of handfuls of the mixed mushrooms with shredded smoked streaky bacon, garlic and some chopped parsley and then just stirred them through the roasted squash (just using the attractive wedges – leaving the squarer dice to be mashed for gnocchi) and celery, and served alongside the Boulanger potatoes.  Beautiful and delicious.

For the Boulanger potatoes – or welsh onion cake, or any variety of other names for a combination of potato and onion, let’s not be precious – I always find it’s best to partly cook the potatoes and onions before layering them up and putting them in the oven, otherwise it can be tricky to get them cooking at the same rate.  I par boil the potatoes whole (on this occasion in their skins, then scraped them, but you can peel first if you prefer, it doesn’t greatly matter), then slice them into rounds of no more than a pound coins thickness.  I soften the onions, with garlic and thyme, salt and pepper, in plenty of olive oil.  Then I put a layer of potato slices in the baking dish, a layer of onion, a layer of potato.  You can construct as many layers as you like, in whatever order you like, as long as the top one is potato.  Then pour over enough hot stock (in this case guinea fowl stock) to bring it all together but not flood it, and bake in the oven for around half an hour to forty minutes.  Temperature, and therefore time, is not critical, so it depends on what else you’ve got in the oven, but if you cook it longer at a lower temperature, you’ll probably need to whack the heat up at the end, or finish it under a grill to get the desired golden to brown, crispy edged top.

To make the squash gnocchi the procedure is exactly the same as for the pure  potato gnocchi described in my previous post, just mash the squash and potato together, then the ratio of mash to flour is the same.  This was the first time I’ve done the mash from baked potatoes rather than boiled technique, as recommended by Mark Hix among others, and I don’t know whether that was the secret, or whether it was just one of those things (gnocchi making can be a bit random) but these did come out of the pan firmer and plumper than ever before, with less evidence of disentragation in the cooking water.  The mushrooms were, as ever, sautéed with shredded bacon and garlic along with a handful of toasted pine nuts (start off with the pine nuts in a dry pan, then add the bacon when the pine nuts are turning golden, then add olive oil, garlic and hard herbs - thyme or sage - any chilli - fresh or dried - if you want it, I would normally but not here, I want to allow the flavour of the mushrooms to come through as strongly as possible - and salt and pepper, obviously, then add the mushrooms just for a couple of minutes, if that) then I added a splash of wine and a little of the guinea fowl stock to create a sauce and just stirred the gnocchi in.

Best toasted cheese sandwich ever.

Okay, so it wasn’t toasted so much as fried, but yum.  Two slices of wholegrain bread, a wedge of pecorino (Pecorino Giglio Sardo from my local Italian deli, Gallo Nero in Stoke Newington), two rashers of smoked pancetta (also from Gallo Nero).  Served with green tomato chutney.  Pecorino is ideal because it has the right combination of density with a bit of elasticity that allows fine slicing, without rubberiness - a good mature gruyere would do, or maybe manchego – and strength of flavour without being overwhelming, and even a little hint of sweetness.  I think a properly mature cheddar would be too crumbly and too astringently powerful, although I’m not going to say it might not work if that’s what you like.

It is essential to slice the cheese finely, as it’s not going to be exposed to direct heat, but you do want it melty, so just thinly cover one slice of the bread.  Meanwhile, briefly fry the rashers of pancetta, then lay them over the pecorino and cover with the other slice, then fry the sandwich in the pan with the pancetta fat and maybe a little olive oil (depending on how much fat the pancetta’s left behind).  When you first put the sandwich in the pan you’ll want to flip it almost immediately, otherwise all the pork fat will be soaked up by just one slice of the bread, and you want it evenly distributed.  Then, after the initial flip, just a minute or two on each side to get the bread golden brown and the cheese just melting.  I happen to have a heavy Le Creuset casserole lid that fits neatly within my frying pan and I used that both to cover the sandwich, to retain heat and encourage the cheese to melt, and to apply some downward pressure to it, which I guess roughly duplicated at least some of the effect of those deli style sandwich toasters.  That probably wasn’t essential, but I’m sure it helped.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Glazed pork ribs with pears and fennel
It’s been quite a past week, food-wise.  The lady says it’s all part of my ongoing plan to fatten her up for nefarious reasons of my own, but I swear to god, if it is, it’s a plan that’s conspicuously failing to work.  I guess we’re both just blessed with good genes, fat-wise, for which we must both thank our parents, but the fact that nothing in our house gets cooked in butter, or with added cream has to be a major contributory factor, and for that I must thank the lady and her dairy allergy.  We certainly make no particular effort to avoid fat, or, in particular, fatty cuts of meat.  In fact, quite the contrary.  Like the roasted pork ribs we had on Sunday, or the oxtail we had with gnocchi for the lady’s birthday eve dinner (see separate post below).  In fact I have an entirely unscientific theory involving "good" fats and "bad" fats, that may yet have a deal of truth in it - certainly, I'm sure, if there's no processed food whatsoever in your diet, then you've created space for a lot of outdoor reared pork belly.  And you cook everything in olive oil, not butter, then you can add a fair bit more...
I had intended to do a chinese style marinade for the pork ribs, but I'd picked up some pears from the farmer’s market, which were beautiful but remained resolutely hard, and they eventually changed my mind.  I marinaded the ribs for a few hours in salt, pepper, mustard powder, garlic, chilli and ginger, brown sugar, a sprinkling of fennel seeds and a splash of cider vinegar, then roasted them with the pears – starting off with just the ribs in the roasting dish with a half glass of cider poured over them, the oven good and hot (225 or so) for fifteen minutes, then turning it down (to around 180) and pushing the pears, peeled, halved and cored, and wedges of fennel, in between the ribs and the dish, for another forty, until the ribs were glazed and sticky, and the meat soft on the bones, but the pears still holding firm.

Rib of beef roasted with potatoes and shallots, and pickled red cabbage
The ribs were just the start of a week in which roast meat featured heavily, with grouse and mutton at St John for the lady’s birthday (see separate post below) on Thursday, then two big beef ribs, rubbed in salt, pepper, mustard powder, thyme and olive oil, and roasted rare for dinner with friends on Friday, and then pot roast partridge at The Magdalen Arms in Oxford for a family get together on Saturday.  All rounded off with a Guinea Fowl stuffed with chesnut and apple for a late lunch/early dinner for the two of us back home on Sunday.

Even roast fruit - pears, peaches & apricots in marsala to follow the roast beef
I did the guinea fowl on the rotisserie, which is perhaps the thing I love most about my oven.  It's a bit of added faff, and a definite hand burning hazard when it comes to removing the roasted bird, but the finished result is so crisp and golden on the outside, moist and juicy within that it's well worth the effort and the risk.  And I have to admit it's fun in a slightly gadget freaky kind of way.  The stuffing was half a leek and a stick of celery, diced and softened in olive oil with one peeled and diced apple, about 8 chesnuts that the lady's parents brought home from Italy, blanched (just slit the shells with a knife and boil in a pan of water for about five minutes, it makes peeling so much easier), shelled and roughly chopped, a handful of breadcrumbs and a bunch of sage leaves (6 or 8, roughly chopped).  That made enough for a good couple of heaped tablespoons to go into the birds cavity, and about the same agin to go into the freezer for next time.  And I can't wait for next time, because damn it was good.

guinea fowl and stuffing on the board...
...and on the plate

Monday, 11 October 2010

St John

So, a full sit down meal at St John at last.  As I said in my earlier post, I’ve eaten at the bar there many times, and at Bread & Wine, the sister restaurant in Spitalfields, on several occasions, so it wasn’t for the sake of novelty that we wanted to go, and nor was it likely to surprise us.  The obvious danger therefore, was that it might disappoint.  Not be bad – that really would have been a surprise – just be a bit underwhelming.  A bit so what?  Don’t worry.  It wasn’t.  Not at all.

For those of you not familiar with the bar or restaurant, it’s a big, open, high ceilinged, industrial space – converted from an old smokehouse - with white washed brickwork and exposed fixtures and fittings.  The kind of space that’s quite commonplace now, might even be considered rather passé, but was groundbreaking back in 1994 when Fergus Henderson and co opened up, and why should they change just because lots of others have followed the trend they set?  You might even say the same of the food.  I’m not at all sure that the phrase “Modern British” even existed back then, but it’s certainly being applied to the food in a restaurant or gastro pub near you, right now, wherever in the UK you may be (assuming you are).  That’s as maybe, but in very few, if any of those places, will modern British food be being done as whole-heartedly (that’s an entirely inadvertent pun), or anything like as well as it is at St John, even today.  Nor as unpretentiously, and that’s a big deal.  Very few restaurants anywhere, with the kind of reputation St John has, are so lacking in pretension.  I rather doubt any others with a Michelin Star are.  The service is friendly, efficient and well informed, but not over attentive or obsequious.  The tables are laid simply, and arranged in semi refectory style.  The cutlery and glasses are basic.  It really is about the food here, but it isn’t a shrine to it.  It’s also a convivial, social space, about enjoying the food in good company.  It can get quite loud.

The two of us were given the choice of a table for two that would have felt like we were joining the group of four already ensconced at the adjacent table, or the table on the other side of them, originally laid for three.  We took that, because it was a little bigger, and better spaced, and also it was right next to the pass, which opens directly into the dining room – it’s a sort of semi open kitchen.  I do like to be able to see the chefs at work.  It’s a nostalgic thing, and generally it makes me glad to be sat this side of the pass, but it has to be said the kitchen at St John looks a tranquil, happy place to work (all things being relative and acknowledging the potential deceptiveness of appearances …). 

For starters she ordered the duck heart salad,  which I would have had, but it was her birthday, so she had first shout.  I went for the lambs tongues instead.  They seemed appropriate, offally choices, and we’d both had the signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad before.  For mains she took the roast mutton from the specials board, beating me to it again – curses – leaving me to take the seasonal route, and a grouse.  We chose a Roussillon from somewhere round the middle of the exclusively French wine list.  Bright and fruity, but with enough punch to look after itself.

The starter salads were much the same dish, save for the main ingredient.  Offal and dandelion leaves in a richly emulsified mustardy dressing.  The lambs tongues were yielding and slightly jellified – rather corned beef like, in a very good way.  But the duck’s hearts were the winner, with the rich, sweet softness of chicken livers, but a bit of pop to their texture.  A little like baby squid.

The grouse when it came was a rich golden caramel colour, and had a big bunch of watercress sticking out of it’s arse – an indignity it could perhaps have done without.  The flesh beneath the crisp skin was a deep ruby pink, done just enough and no more, with not a trace of the dryness which is always the risk with game birds.  It came with a little bruschetta of its mashed innards, and a smooth creamy pool of bread sauce.  Good as the grouse was, though, it was her dish that won again.  The roast mutton was exactly what you come to St John for.  Literally and figuratively it was a grown up rack of lamb.  Meltingly tender but with a depth of flavour that could come only with experience, and a thick layer of rich, soft but almost beefy fat, that would have had Jack Spratt reconsidering life choices.  It came with a sharply bright salsa verde and braised fennel, both of which, like the bread sauce with the grouse, complemented the meat perfectly without distracting attention from it. 

Two nil to Becca, then, going into desserts, and those were almost (not quite) a non event, on account of being too full to order the eccles cake and crumbly lancashire cheese, which I really wanted but know from experience to be a substantial meal in itself.  I settled instead for  the plum jelly, with vanilla flecked ice cream, and a glass of PX, while she didn’t so much opt for as fall back (no reflection on St John - dessert and dairy allergies being generally incompatible) on the raspberry sorbet that came with a vodka shot.  Both were excellent, but we were rather going through the motions by now.  Final score was two and a half to a half to the better half, but food, and St John, was the real winner tonight, Brian…

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Oxtail and Gnocchi

It’s Becca’s birthday today and for tonight we’re booked into St John for dinner, which I’m very excited about, as it will weirdly be the first time I’ve ever actually had a full dinner at the original St John, which is, after all, one of the great holy places of My Kind of Food.  I’ve eaten at Bread & Wine several times, and had snacks at the bar at St John many times, and joined friends at their table in the restaurant on occasion, but never actually had a table of my own.  Until tonight.  Can’t wait.

Last night, as a pre birthday treat I made her one of her all time favourites – gnocchi with oxtail.  Normally I’d make up a big enough stew for two meals, serve it up as it comes first time round with mashed potatoes, then use the left over stew to make the sauce, and the leftover mash to make the gnocchi.  This time round I already had mash left over from sausage and mash a couple of nights ago, and with dinner at St John to come I thought we could run the risk of oxtail overload, so I just made enough of the stew for a single meal.  I cooked it in the morning and let it cool, then just stripped the meat from the bones to turn it into sauce for the gnocchi, but the recipe below is exactly the same if you choose to serve it as a good old stew – just don’t bother stripping the meat from the bones.  Always best though to make it in advance and let it cool – preferably overnight – before reheating prior to serving.  Any stew will just gain depth of flavour the longer it’s left.

The recipe is my version of an oxtail stew that Becca and I had and loved in a Jewish restaurant in the Ghetto district of Rome last year (Giggetto al Portico d'Ottavia - deep fried artichokes a speciality, and a new essential stop for me on any future trip to Rome).  That was almost exactly a year ago, in fact, on a trip to celebrate her last birthday.  I only just realised that.  How romantic does that make me appear, entirely by accident?  Never mind, I'll take those romantic boyfriend points...

Oxtail stew (for 2)

750g oxtail
1 onion
1 carrot
2 sticks celery
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon
2 cloves garlic
fresh chilli
6 sage leaves
1 bay leaf
500ml ale (or guiness, or red wine)

Dust the oxtail in seasoned flour (seasoned with salt, pepper, English mustard powder, paprika) and brown all the pieces in the casserole with a little olive oil, then set aside.

Add the bacon, cut into postage stamp sized pieces, the garlic and the chilli (both finely sliced, then the sage leaves, then the carrot, onion and celery.  Let everything cook together for five minutes or so, then add the oxtail back to the pan.

Warm the ale in a separate pan and pour it over.  It should roughly three quarter cover the meat and veg.  Throw in the bay leaf.  Cover the pan, bring it all to the simmer on the stove, then whack the  into the oven and leave it to cook long and low – 150 for three hours would be good, or even lower and longer if you have the time and an oven that reliably goes down to lower temperatures (which is the one drawback of my own, which otherwise I love).  And don't worry if you take it out and it looks drastically over reduced, with all the liquid evaporated, leaving just a sticky, fat slicked mess - just add another glass of the ale or wine, or a couple of ladlefuls of hot stock (beef or chicken) if you have some to hand; that sticky mess will come right back to being a slick, unctuous, velvety sauce, full of concentrated flavours, which is just what we're looking for.  In fact I find that over reducing and "rescuing" like this actually produces the very best results with most, if not all, slow cooked stews and casseroles, presumably due to that concentration of flavours, so much so that I'd be inclined to incorporate it officially into the technique - particularly if you're cooking the stew to be eaten the same day (the effect of concentrating the flavours being similar to that of leaving it to stand for 24 hours).

Gnocchi (for 2)

400g mashed potato
100g (+ a bit extra) semolina flour
grating of nutmeg
4 sage leaves (finely chopped)
A little olive oil

Just stir the chopped sage leaves and a grating of nutmeg into the potato, then add the semolina a bit at a time and blend it all together, using the olive oil to keep the mix elastic but not gloopy as you go, and adding enough semolina to produce a firm, kneadable mix (you may need a little more or less than 100g, depending on the consistency of the potato).

Sprinkle some extra flour onto a board and knead the dough on it, shape it into a ball, then divide the ball into two, and roll each half of the dough into two long sausages about an inch in diameter.  Flatten the sausages slightly and pattern the top surface with the tines of a fork, then chop into inch sections.

You can cook the gnocchi straight away, but best to make in advance and refrigerate them for a few hours which helps to firm them up and retain their consistency in the cooking.  Best way to store them is in a single layer on a plate or in Tupperware, with an extra sprinkling of the flour to help stop them sticking to the container and each other.

To cook, bring a big (the bigger the better – give ‘em space) pan of well salted water to a gentle boil and lower the gnocchi into it.  After little more than a minute they should start bobbing up to the surface, at which point, basically, they’re done.  Scoop them out with a slotted spoon as they bob up, and add them to the sauce.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


Recently I was asked for my chutney recipe, and I had to say I didn't really have one, because I've never measured quantities of anything, more a general technique.  Today I’m making green tomato chutney, but this would work with courgettes (which was specifically what I was asked for) or pretty much anything else you might want to make a chutney out of.  It goes like this:

Pound some spices in a pestle and mortar and toast them in the dry pan - I generally use coriander, cumin, fennel and mustard seeds, aniseed, plus salt and pepper obviously - but a pinch of whatever you have to hand and you like.

Once the spices are toasted and before they start to burn, add enough oil to coat the base of the pan (olive, sunflower, groundnut - or sesame for a toasty nut flavour if you like, doesn't matter), then add finely chopped garlic, ginger and either finely sliced fresh chillis or chilli flakes.

Add finely chopped onion/s, and a dash of turmeric powder - enough to turn the onions a nice strong but not too lurid yellow.  Cook till the onions are soft but not yet browning, then add the diced green tomatoes, courgettes (or whatever).  

Cover and cook gently till the courgette is softening, but before it starts to break down, then add enough cider vinegar to half cover the veg, then re-cover the pan and leave it to simmer gently until the courgette and onion are just starting to mush together but well before they've  become a homogenous gloop, and sharpness of the vinegar has mellowed - you can tell that by the effect on your nose and eyes when you lift the lid.  Usually about twenty minutes.

Uncover the pan and simmer uncovered for a further five minutes - or as long as is necessary to allow the liquid to reduce to get the right consistency.  If you want to add fresh leafy herbs add them just in the last minute before turning off the heat.

Then leave it to cool a little before transferring to sterilised jars.

That's about it, I think.  Don't appear to have missed anything out.

As for quantities - that all depends on how big a glut of whatever fruit or veg you're chutneying you have, and how big a pan, and how spicy or not you like it.  I guess the most significant quantities involved would be the ratio of onion to feature fruit/veg, but it's not crucial, it'll just come out more or less oniony, and as there's nothing wrong with onion chutney anyway, what's the worst thing that can happen?  For what it’s worth, for the purposes of science, and this blog, today I did weigh my diced onion and diced tomato, and the ratio was one to three – 300g onion (one and a half onions) to 900g tomato.  That seems about right to me.

Green Tomatoes

We didn’t really bother growing tomatoes this year, but a surprising number grew of their own accord, presumably self seeding from tomato pips chucked into the compost.  They grew late in the summer and thrived remarkably, producing heavy vines laden with fat fruit.  Unfortunately the vines laden with fat fruit arrived just as summer departed, and they all stayed resolutely green and hard.  A lovely shade of green, to be sure, but green nevertheless.  Fortunately I do like a chutney, and, somehow, a green tomato chutney is just about the most satisfactory chutney of all.  Something about making a triumph out of failure I guess, if that’s not too grand a claim.
So I set aside today to make some chutney with the kilo or so of green tomatoes that I brought up from the garden a few days ago.  There had been a hope, probably an entirely forlorn one, that they might ripen indoors, but I have to say at least part of me was actively glad that they didn’t.  As well as the chutney – see the separate post below for the details of that – I used just three of the biggest, fattest tomatoes to make a tart for lunch.  First I sliced the tomatoes to about a pound coin’s thickness (or 3 or 4mm) and sliced up half a red onion lengthways, and dressed them both with salt, pepper, a light dusting of brown caster sugar, a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  Then I rolled out some shop bought puff pastry (I know, but I really can’t be arsed, and shop bought is fine.  When I worked at the Rivington and was generally in charge of desserts making pastry, in industrial quantities was one of the jobs I hated most, along with making custard, oddly, and caramel, both of which are, in theory, incredibly simple to make, but both of which can, for no other reason than that they, presumably, hate you, simply refuse to co-operate.  Pastry doesn’t actively hate me, it’s simply very laborious) into a rectangle, laid some cut off pastry strips around the edges and baked it at 180 or so for about 10 minutes, to get the pastry stated, then took it back out and laid the tomatoes in an overlapping layer over it, with the onion scattered on top.  Whacked it back in the oven and baked for another 40 minutes or so.  It was sweet and delicious served with a simple salad of mixed leaves with celery, spring onion and capers, for a bit of additional sharp greenness.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Mmmm Mushrooms

It’s the first of October, and, as I write this, it is bleak outside.  Cold, wet, windy and dark.  Miserable.  One positive to be taken, as I gaze out of the window at the general grisliness, is that it’s great weather for mushrooms.  This is a bumper year for foraging, or so I’m told, as this is the first year I’ve really done it with any serious intent, and certainly each time we’ve been out this year we’ve returned laden with ceps and other boletes, parasols, oyster and horse mushrooms in such abundance it’s been a struggle to carry them all home.  Literally.  I suspect I’m going to be spoiled, and from now on any regular mushrooming year is going to feel like a great mushroom famine.
Once you have overcome the struggle to bring your mushrooms home, of course, the question becomes what to do with them?  To which the answer, as with all good ingredients, should properly be very little.  In my case, with the lady being allergic to dairy, even basic standards like omelettes and cream based sauces are ruled out, so basically it all comes down to sautéing them, and you know what?  I have no problem with that at all.  Why mess with something so plainly delicious?
Slice up a selection of your mushrooms and fry them in olive oil (or butter of course if neither you nor your loved one are allergic) with just salt and pepper, garlic and a handful of parsley.  Maybe add some shredded smoked streaky bacon or pancetta, and whack it on a slice of toast for breakfast.  Finely chop and sweat a couple of shallots in the pan first, and then add a glass of wine to turn it all into a rich sauce for tagliatelle or gnocchi, or to be served alongside a piece of good meat or fish just grilled or fried.  Keep it simple.  Don’t mess.
Seared hanger steak with new potatoes, runner beans and mmm mushrooms
Last month the lady and I spent a week in Suffolk.  We went on two woodland walks and the focus of the week became what we were next going to have with our mushrooms.  It was a very good week.