Thursday, 6 January 2011

Festive grouse and neglected cabbage

Grouse, goodwill and candlelight...
I don’t know why more people don’t have grouse for Christmas dinner.  Actually I can think of several reasons.  Here’s a bunch, just off the top of my head: it’s not necessarily easy to get hold of; it has a reputation for being fearsomely expensive; it is properly gamey, so not to everyone’s taste; people think it’s tricky to cook, and easy to get wrong; if you’re cooking for a lot of people it’s logistically tricky and oven space becomes an issue (but then the same is true for whatever you cook once you go beyond a certain number); grouse season ends on Dec 10th, so it may not be just tricky to get hold of by Christmas, any there is may be ropey, or there may simply not be any left.  So to be sure you can get hold of good grouse, you’ll need to buy early and freeze, and we don’t all have that much space in our freezers (I know I don’t).

But, as I've said before I’m lucky to live just a bus ride away from a great butchers, that does a fantastic range of really excellent meat and game, even the fancy stuff, for almost ridiculously unfancy prices (it must be those notoriously cheap rents in, er, Bloomsbury…).  I may well also be doubly lucky in that 2010 was apparently as bumper a year for grouse as it was for mushrooms, which might explain why Theobalds not only still had grouse in stock the week before Christmas, but they were selling them at a fiver a bird, just a quid apiece more than partridges, for a much bigger and generally more prized bird.  Allowing a bird a head, for seven people, that worked out about half the price of a good goose, and probably not much (if any) more expensive than a pretty average turkey.  And I was certainly lucky (trebly so?) that with the weather the way it was before Christmas, I didn’t need to find room for them in either my freezer or fridge, but just put them in a plastic box out on the balcony under a packed mound of snow, till I needed them on the afternoon of Christmas day itself.

As for being tricky to cook, then really, honestly, they’re not.  I would suggest considerably easier than a big turkey, and the six I ended up doing (one party member couldn’t make the trip on account of the weather) took up less oven space than a single big bird would have done.  I can see why people might think it easier to handle just one large bird, rather than half a dozen small ones, but you need to do so little to the grouse that it really is no fuss at all.  And it all cooks so much quicker.

That only leaves the matter of the grouse’s gaminess, and whether or not it might be to everyone’s taste, and as that is a question of taste, there is no answer to it beyond you like it or you don’t.  All I can say that everyone around our table seemed to like it, or if they didn’t, they were much too polite to say.  And, apart from my Mum, who is a paragon in all things, we aren’t really all that polite a bunch…

To cook the grouse I gave each of them a rinse inside and out under a running tap, pulling away and
discarding any stray feathers, then patted them dry with kitchen paper.  I ground up a generous quantity of black pepper and mixed it in a bowl with a similar quantity of Maldon salt – whenever prepping a bird for roasting it’s best to have your seasoning pre-mixed so you can pinch and sprinkle with one hand while manoeuvring your fowl with the other – and seasoned the grouse generously inside and out.  Then I rubbed them over with olive oil and wrapped each in a couple of rashers of pancetta, crossed over their breastbones.  That was it, it took about 10 minutes.  Then it was just a question of spacing them evenly on a roasting tray, heating the oven to about 220, and giving them about half an hour, and the same again to rest on a board while we had our starters.

As a rule 20 minutes should be enough to get a grouse cooked to a suitable shade of ruby pink on the inside, but the more you’re doing the longer they will take.  My 30 minutes was guesswork but it came out more or less right.  Theoretically a good fan oven should reduce the need to extend the cooking time, so if you have one of those, by all means check them at 20 and take it from there.  Next time I do six grouse in my own oven, the one thing I’ll do differently is be sure to rotate the tray half way through, as clearly mine, much as I love it, doesn’t distribute its heat evenly and the six birds came out covering a spectrum of rareness from really quite bloody to scarcely at all, although all within tolerance, and suited to different tastes on the scale.  Again an effective fan oven should reduce the need to rotate the birds within the oven, but it’s probably not a bad idea, all the same.

Grouse (and medlar jelly) in a festive haze
One word of caution I would have for anyone planning on grouse, is make sure you have a set of proper serrated steak knives.  Our dinner knives, while perfectly capable of cutting through a nice tender steak lying flat on a plate, struggled rather with the inherently less stable proposition of a whole grouse which had a tendency to scoot out from under the blade and skitter wildly across the plate.

To accompany the grouse we had the classic roast veg combination of potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and a salad of bitter leaves, chicory, rocket and watercress in a spiky, citrusy, mustardy dressing.  Plus bread sauce and home made medlar jelly that I’ll have have to try to remember to write up for a blog post when medlars become available again next autumn…  (which kind of goes for the grouse themselves, I guess…). 

A magnum of Chateau Musar: Special wine for a special occasion.  Thanks Dad.
Oh, and we sort of had pickled red cabbage and chestnuts, in that I’d been all super efficient and organised enough to prepare some on my day off three days before.  The only problem with being all super efficient and organised enough to prepare things three days in advance, is not being all super efficient and organised enough to remember they’re in the fridge when the day comes, so we had pickled red cabbage and chestnuts, and then again we didn’t…  Nevertheless, sharp eyed regular
readers will have spotted this dish as a recurring side order in pictures on this blog, lurking in the background or on the plate alongside roast beef, ox cheeks, cottage pie and pork and beans, and possibly other things I’ve missed.  It’s one of my favourite companions to pretty much any roast meat, beef in particular, but it’s also the traditional accompaniment to a Lancashire hotpot, and goes well with any meaty stew, particularly one made with a fatty cut of meat, where the sweet vinegariness helps cut through the fat.  And it’s about time I wrote it up, if only to make amends to the cabbage itself, for having neglected it and leaving it forgotten in the fridge on Christmas day.  I owe it that much.

Pickled red cabbage with chestnuts and raisins.
Normally I do this with pine nuts, but this time I used chesnuts just to make it festive.  The technique is the same.

Red cabbage – half a big one, or a whole small one, about 5-600g
6-8 chestnuts, blanched or roasted, peeled and very roughly chopped (or a handful of pine nuts
A handful of raisins or sultanas
Cider or sherry vinegar
Bay leaf
A little olive oil

Roughly shred your cabbage, to a nice combination of chunky and fine.  Dry fry the chestnuts (or pine nuts) until just browning (this might not be necessary if they have already been roasted to a golden colour), then add a good slug of olive oil and add the cabbage and a bay leaf.  Put a lid on the pan and cook till starting to soften – about 10 -15 minutes.  Throw in the raisins and cook for a few minutes more, then pour over the vinegar.  You want just enough to see the surface of the liquid emerging through the cabbage, not enough to submerge it.  Give it all a good stir, you should see the cabbage turn from almost black to a beautiful bright purple.  Put the lid back on and let it cook for another 15 minutes or so, until the liquid has almost all been absorbed and you no longer get the eye watering hit of vinegar when you lift the lid and stick your nose over the pan.  Taste test one of the bigger chunks of cabbage to check that it’s tender and not too harshly vinegary.  It should be sharp but sweet.  Give it a little longer if necessary, and maybe add a little seasoning to your taste.  Once done this will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for, literally, weeks, and can be served hot or cold.

No comments:

Post a Comment