Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A bird in the bush is worth a brace in the fridge

Harvest time is fast approaching and the process of clearing the freezer and larder in preparation for the processing of apples, damsons, blackberries and irresistible bargains of the shooting season revealed a brace of pheasant overlooked since January (see previous story). A hearty game casserole felt inappropriate for August, despite the chill winds and gusting rain, but the arrival of house guests and dinner for ten spurred me to cook a terrine.

A terrine takes the slow cooking of minced meat and offal to a more elegant level than meat loaf or pate de campagne, encouraging all sorts of creativity. Nevertheless, the thought of using two complete birds also brought out my frugal side, so after the pheasant were boned out (the breast fillets kept whole and the rest of the meat whizzed in the food processor) the carcasses were roasted with a splash of olive oil for ten minutes, before the tin was deglazed with a splash of red wine. The bones and juices were then simmered with an onion studded with two cloves, a couple of carrots, a dried pea pod and a bay leaf, and water to cover by an inch or so.

Whilst the stock simmered, the minced pheasant was mixed with a pack of minced veal and minced pork, a finely chopped onion, clove of garlic, a handful of brown breadcrumbs, seasoning, a beaten egg and a generous slug of marsala wine. A loaf tin was lined with streaky bacon (stretched with back of knife to ensure thin strips long enough to encase the filling) then half the minced meats added, followed by two lines of delicious, rich brown, air-dried, preservative-free Hunza dried apricots interspersed with pistachio nuts, followed by the breast fillets, more apricots and pistachio nuts and then the remainder of the mince mixture.

Finally the ends of the bacon strips were wrapped across, two bay leaves popped on top and a foil lid secured. The terrine was put into a roasting tin half filled with boiling water and carefully put into the oven (gas mark 3) and left to cook gently for 1 hour 30 minutes until juices run clear. Removed from the oven, the terrine was left to cool in its own rich, fragrant juices for half an hour before being weighted down and refrigerated.

Turned out of its tin, the terrine was sliced into thick slices of rich meaty pate layered with tender fillets studded with golden sweet fruit and jewel like green nuts. Fronds of rocket and cornichon gherkins were all that were required, with toasted wholemeal bread.

As for the stock, it had been strained, left to cool and degreased, before adding a pack of dried wild mushrooms (soaked and chopped) with two four stalks of celery gently sauteed with a little butter and some leaves of fresh thyme stripped from their stalks, a cup of black Beluga lentils and simmered for 30 minutes. The final touch, was to stir in the delicious jellied juices from the terrine tin to create a fragrant hunter's soup sufficient for six people. A frugal yet voluptuous use of two old birds.

Hunza tribeswomen spreading apricots to dry in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan. (Credited to Kent B and Marti B Rieske of Bible Life Ministries, USA)
Pistachio nuts ripening at the Desert Demonstration garden in Las Vegas (Courtesy Wikipedia User Stan Shebs).

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Season of mists - and manic freezer filling

It may still be August and therefore in theory the height of summer, but the Cotswold hills are swathed in rolling mist and glumly persistent rain is bruising the late roses, rotting the courgettes and encouraging battalions of snails to munch on plants that survived the June drought.

On a more positive note, the apples are growing plumper and rosier by the day. Planted 35 years ago, the Discovery apple tree was chosen because its sweet, crisp fruits ripen in August, perfect timing for school holidays in a country cottage. Even its neighbour, a Worcester Pearmain chosen for a sharper taste and later ripening (half term), has heeded the threat of felling on the grounds of consistent poor performance and is laden with fruit.

So with harvest time approaching (and with the Glorious 12th the best for a decade) it is time to buy foil flan cases, find new rubber rings for the preserving jars and to dust off the wonderful mechanical apple coring and peeling gadget (which men in the house love to operate) that produces concentric rings of fruit perfect for french apple flans and for adding to Faisan Normande.

Thinking about french apple flans and feathered game, there may be a couple still in the freezer. In fact, a quick check reveals that there are (all together now):
Four pigeon breasts, three french flans, two apple tarts and a pheasant brace in a foil bag.

Not to mention Swedish apple cakes and plastic boxes of baked apples stuffed with prunes - vintage September 2009. The larder contains three bottles of pureed apple and seven jars of apple chutney. The chutney can continue to mature away merrily and so can the bottles of puree (father-in-law famously kept kilner jars of gooseberries for many years) but common sense dictates that buying fresh peaches and raspberries must be resisted for the next couple of weeks - the freezer must be cleared!

In the meantime, ahead of the cookfest that dominates September, the first few apples can be enjoyed on a less industrial scale. Here are some ways of using apples from the garden.

Healthy breakfast fry-up
Wash and core a couple of apples, then slice into thickish rings, dust with seasoned flour and pop into the pan or griddle after frying some slices of streaky or back bacon (Denhay is the current favourite) and/or some slices of Bury black pudding. Cook until the apple slices are golden and crisp on the outside and soft and melty on the inside. Just as delicious as fried bread but more virtuous.

Fruity carrots
This suggestion comes from Jane Grigson's wonderful Good Things cookery book and is based on a recipe from the German Rhineland. Scrub 4 or 5 large carrots, slice thickly on the diagonal and cook until almost cooked but still slightly firm. Meanwhile gently saute a few onion slices in butter with a splash of olive oil (to prevent burning) and then add a couple of apples peeled, cored and cut into fat wedges. Raise the heat and cook until lightly browned, then add the drained carrots and shake about in the pan.Season with salt and plenty of black pepper, scatter over some chopped parsley and serve. Particularly good with roast pork or game.

A fast tart
This recipe is the basis for a number of dishes, including the Provencale Panade and, with butter, sugar and egg added to the apple mix, the wonderfully named American Transparent Pie. I love it because it is fast, delicious and popular with all ages - and you can dispose vast quantities of apples very quickly when you feel the glut is about to overwhelm you.

Prepare your favourite shortcrust pastry (or use readymade), line a tart tin then pop it into the fridge or the freezer. Grate the zest of a lemon and an orange into a large bowl, and squeeze the juice of both into the same bowl. Then grate in peeled and cored apples, tossing well in the juice and zest as you go to minimise browning. The number of apples needed is flexible, but the minimum for an 8inch tin will be five. Turn the grated mass into the tart tin, piling it up like a plump feather pillow. Sprinkle with sugar to taste mixed with ground cinnamon. Dot with little bits of butter and put in a hot oven (number 6) for around 40 minutes until golden brown. Just as good cold as warm, with creme fraiche or cream.

More on that brace of pheasant later.....

Sunday, 2 May 2010

A classical education with zest

The first time I saw lemon trees, I was a sixth form schoolgirl on a Latin class expedition to Italy. Under the gimlet eye of fearsome, flame-haired Miss Mansfield, our chattering group travelled by train through France and Switzerland, emerging from the St Bernhardt Pass at dawn, stopping overnight in Milan and finally arriving in Rome. And there they were, the lemon trees, their brilliant fruits glowing amongst glossy green leaves and fragrant white blossom, as magical to me as the myths of ancient Rome and the wonders of Pompeii.

And then the revelation of Italian lemon ice cream, an explosion of sweet and sour sunshine served by street vendors as the anarchic Romans hurtled past on Lambrettas or drove their masseratis with one hand on the wheel, the other combing their hair and both eyes on the women. Or limone pressi, lemon juice freshly squeezed in an art deco contraption (dream on, Philippe Starck) on to rough sugar crystals in tall glasses, swizzled with long spoons by street vendors in crowded, odorous, ebullient Naples.

So that trip to Italy, my first abroad, opened my eyes to the wondrous power of lemons. Until then the high point of my culinary enjoyment of this fruit had been limited to lemon curd from the Womens' Institute and the Sunday treat of lemon meringue pie conjured, as in so many households in the early 60s, from a Green’s packet, the lemon essence dissolved in a strange gelatine capsule. I loved the citrus smell and to capture the fragrance, I kept lemon-shaped guest soaps produced by Bronnley - seen then as the height of sophistication - amongst briefs and blouses in my chest of drawers.

I have yet to achieve my dream of living in a house with a lemon grove, but I am now seriously considering a single tree in a terracotta tub for my south facing London patio as a more realistic alternative. In the meantime, I am never without lemons in the fridge - or in a large glass jar packed with rock salt and spices - ready to transform a simple dish into a memorable one.

Orange and lemon juice stall in Pompeii, photograph by Alison Avery.

Preserved lemons
Cut unwaxed lemons into quarters, without going all the way through, then pack the cuts with sea salt. Squash into a preserving jar, seal and leave for a couple of days, so the salt draws out the juice. Top up with fresh lemon juice from the remaining lemons, to cover the fruit (add if you don't have enough juice), with spices too if you like (I put in a cinnamon stick, bay leaf and star anise or black mustard seeds) then leave for at least a month. Use only the well rinsed skin of the lemons, scraping off and discarding the pulp.

Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon, olives and coriander

This is a delicious recipe from one of my favourite cookery writers, Claudia Roden. It is very good tempered, and I often cook it on a low heat in the oven whilst at the theatre or cinema, adding the lemon and olives on return whilst preparing the cous cous and tossing the salad.

I sometimes also take all the meat off the bone in large chunks and return to the pan, rather than carving the whole bird at the table with the sauce separately. It reheats well too, but again, leave adding the lemon peel and olives until just before serving, to get the full fragrance.

Serves 4- 6 depending on size of chicken

Whole chicken, including the liver if possible
½ teaspoon ginger
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
large pinch saffron powder
salt and pepper 3 tablespoons oil (sunflower or olive)
2-3 garlic cloves,
crushed 1 large onion, finely chopped
large bunch of parsley, finely chopped
large bunch of coriander, finely chopped
peel only of 1 preserved lemon, rinsed well and cut into small pieces
50g pinky green or brown olives, soaked in two changes of water for 1 hour

Clean the chicken, removing the lumps of fat often found in the cavity. Put ginger, cinnamon, saffon, pinch of salt and pepper into a large pan or iron casserole with about 700ml of water and the oil. Stir well and then add the chicken with its liver and the remaining ingredients except the lemon peel and olives. Cook, covered for 45 minutes, turning chicken over occasionally and adding more water if necessary.
Add the lemon peel and the drained and rinsed olives. Cook for a further 15 minutes or so until the chicken is so tender that the flesh comes easily from the bone. Remove the liver, mash it and return it to the pan to thicken the sauce, which should be greatly reduced but not too dry.

Fruity lamb casserole with apricots and preserved lemon

2-inch piece of ginger, cut into fine julienne sticks
5 cloves garlic
4 shallots
12 apricots (the natural, brown dried ones if possible)
750g lamb neck fillets, cut into cubes
1 tsp harissa (optional)
½ a preserved lemon, peel only
1 litre cider (or stock)
1 sprig rosemary
1 tbsp flour
Fresh oregano to garnish (or coriander)
Olive oil

Serves 4
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and brown the lamb over high heat. Set aside. Reduce heat under pan and add shallots (with a little more oil if necessary) When the shallots are beginning to take on some colour, add the sliced garlic, the ginger, the lamb, the diced skin of the half-lemon (reserve the flesh) and the apricots to the pan. Cook, stirring well, for another five minutes, then add the flour to the pan, stirring to make sure the flour is coating everything.

Pour the cider or stock over the lamb, the rosemary and the harissa (if used) to the mixture. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and leave to simmer for two hours until sauce is fruity and lamb tender. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning if necessary. Garnish the dish with oregano.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Older and wiser

The wedding feast was magnificent. The main dish was a baron of beef carried in on the shoulders of four burly cooks to the delighted surprise of the guests, at a hotel well known for its fine food in beautiful surroundings. So imagine the dismay on the face of the chef when the bride refused the braised celery hearts offered as part of the carefully composed vegetable dishes. I was that bride, but as the years have passed, I have not only learned to enjoy celery, but also regard it as an essential vegetable in a well-stocked fridge.

Valued from Ancient Greece through the European Middle Ages for its medicinal qualities, celery was believed to treat ailments from rheumatism and gout to anxiety, insomnia and toothache. More recently, research carried out in the USA in 2008 indicates that celery contains flavonoids that could help combat Alzheimer’s.

And talking of the more mature, computer-shy older people in the USA are using celery to Twitter. ‘Celery’ is a service set up to help older family and friends without computers to stay in touch with those who do. Hand-written outgoing messages and photographs are converted into email, Facebook status updates, or tweets that are transmitted via fax on a standard telephone line. So why Celery? Says founder Neil Grabowsky, "It plays off the unrelated Latin word celeritas, which means speed; because we bring ‘snail mail’ up to speed."
How to keep and use
Celery is one of the most useful and easy-going vegetables to keep. Wrapped in a piece of kitchen roll, letting its top and toes breathe, it stays fresh and crisp for two weeks or more. Here are some ways in which it can be used.
Take one…
celery stick from the outside of the head, cut into two or three pieces and keeping its feathery leaves, add to the pot when making stock from the carcass of a chicken or roasted meat bones.
Take two…
celery sticks to create a vegetable dish to make a simple meal special. Slice the celery thinly and sauté gently with a finely chopped shallot or small onion, in a generous knob of butter in a covered pan. Meanwhile shred finely the best bits of three or four lettuce leaves from the outside of the head (the ones not nice enough for the salad bowl) and when the celery and onions are soft and golden, add to the pan with a tablespoon of water and a cup of frozen peas. Season with salt and pepper and cook gently, still covered, until the lettuce has wilted down and the peas are just cooked (around five minutes). Remove the lid and if necessary reduce the butter juices so that they just coat the vegetables rather than drown them, and season.
Take three…
celery sticks for a Waldorf style salad to serve with pate or cold meats for a light lunch. Chop into smallish dice and mix with one or two peeled and diced crisp apples, two or three finely sliced spring onions. Toss in a dressing made with 1 tablespoon french dressing mixed with 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise and a teaspoon of creamed horseradish sauce. Brown a handful of cashews or pine kernels in a very hot and ungreased frypan or skillet (don’t wander off whilst doing this) shaking them around to ensure even colouring and then tip into the celery mixture whilst still hot – creating a satisfying sizzle and aroma.
Cashews or pine kernels or even peanuts are much nicer than traditional walnuts, which can be very bitter, and the horseradish gives a refreshing kick.

Or take a whole celery head …
if you have a jar of preserved lemons adorning your kitchen counter and make Moro’s fragrant, warm celery salad. Wash the celery sticks, stringing the tougher stalks if necessary, and cut into 1cm slices. Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add a thinly sliced clove of garlic and the thinly sliced skin only of half a preserved lemon, (having discarded the soft pulp and rinsing the skin well in cold water). Fry for 30 seconds then add the celery and cook gently for a further 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the celery begins to soften, add 100ml of water and cook for a further five minutes or until the liquid has almost evaporated. Add 1 tablespoon of roughly chopped flat leaf parsley and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve warm or cool.

Game, set and match

Many years ago when a rather smooth work colleague asked if I liked pheasant, I accepted his invitation to dinner at home with alacrity. When I arrived at the appointed hour, the other two guests had not yet arrived and I was conscious that there was no welcoming aroma of roasting meat wafting from the kitchen. The reason quickly became clear, when I was presented with a brace of birds in all their glory, complete with feathers, heads, feet and innards. Clearly I had been invited not only to eat dinner, but also to prepare and cook it - from scratch.
Fired by a combination of pride, hunger and red wine, I managed to convert the birds to a reasonable state of oven readiness. As far as I remember, they tasted pretty good and the other guests appeared to enjoy them. Smooth work colleague was quickly despatched to social history, but the experience did not put me off my liking for most feathered and furred game.
Game is lean, flavoursome and surprisingly affordable – especially if you buy it in the country where butchers have a ready local supply or if you have access to a Waitrose where surprising bargains can be found on the meat counter late on a Saturday afternoon.
Game also makes a great dinner party dish, creating an air of celebration or special treat, except when entertaining vegetarians or people with labradors and a gun cabinet. Or, as happened on one memorable episode from my anthology of culinary nightmares, if you serve wild rabbit in Italian sauce to someone who has just returned from putting down their favourite bunny at the local vet.
What’s more, the intense flavour of game means it can be stretched into several meals, with complementary vegetables such as mushrooms and fillers such as lentils and chestnuts. Here is how two pigeons and 600 grams of lean venison made excellent eating over a weekend.
Roast pigeon
Rounded off a busy week with a dinner a deux. Put a couple of rashers of dry cured bacon across the tops of two pigeons and roasted them for 40 minutes. Served the breasts only, with puy lentils (Merchant Gourmet, microveable sachet, very quick and tasty) , brussels sprouts and a gravy spiked with dry sherry. Before retiring to bed, put 600 gms of casserole venison to marinade in a pint of red wine, a tablespoon of olive oil, a bay leaf and six crushed juniper berries.
Put the roast pigeon carcasses in the pressure cooker, with an onion stuck with two cloves (onion washed but unpeeled so that the skin would give a golden colour to the stock), one carrot , a stick of celery and the stalks of the chestnut mushrooms that were destined for the venison casserole. Added the dregs of the red wine from the night before and enough water to cover everything by an inch or so. Cooked at full pressure for 20 minutes (equivalent of an hour ordinary simmering, covered). Strained through a sieve, discarded bones and vegetables, let cool and stored in fridge. Then moved on to cooking main dish for supper party.
Rich venison casserole with chocolate
Poured hot water over a pack of dried porcini mushrooms and left to swell. Drained the venison (saving marinade) patted dry with kitchen paper and then seared quickly on all sides in little oil in frying pan. Put to one side, then quickly browned 10 shallots (peeled, roots trimmed and then halved) two cloves of garlic. Sprinkled on 1 tablespoon of flour and cooked gently for a couple of minutes before adding the marinade wine, the drained porcini mushrooms and liquid, the venison and shallots. Cooked on low heat for one hour, then added half a packet of frozen cranberries and 150gm fresh chestnut mushrooms, washed and quartered and cooked for a further half an hour. Then stirred in 2 tablespoons of damson jelly and two squares of 80% dark chocolate and checked seasoning before leaving on low heat in oven
Served venison casserole topped with individual golden discs of puff pastry, celeriac and potato puree, red cabbage braised with whole garlic cloves and the finely chopped skin of a preserved lemon plus a spoonful of petit pois to give fresh green colour and taste.
As there were five for dinner rather than six, there was a generous helping of venison casserole remaining, kept in sealed box in fridge.
Luscious left-overs
Gently sauteed a finely chopped onion, two thinly sliced sticks of celery and a handful of sliced mushrooms in a little oil for five minutes. Then poured over the pigeon stock and simmered for 15 minutes, before adding the remains of the venison casserole and three tablespoons of puy lentils left over from Friday supper (Merchant Gourmet, microvable, very useful and tasty). Result: enough delicious and intensely flavoured game soup to serve six people.
Illustration: Courting pheasants, by Robert E Fuller

Monday, 12 April 2010

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig …….

There are strong views about bacon in our family. There are those who believe that only dry-cured, rashers of back bacon from free range pigs, cut medium thin with just a fine edge of fat and no rind, are worthy of attention. There are others who believe that the other half of the bacon cut, the streaky rasher, has just as many virtues and indeed, is far more versatile. Those narrow stripes of meat and fat are perfect for so many dishes. Wrapping figs stuffed with gorgonzola, dribbled with honey or maple syrup, sat on a disc of bread and roasted in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Or lining a terrine to encase a pate before cooking gently in a bain marie, holding the luscious juices and keeping the mixture moist. Or snipping into a hot pan with olive oil and chopped garlic to crisp up before sizzling with wine vinegar and pouring the whole lot, hot and fragrant,to wilt spinach leaves for a salade tiède.

The bacon debate took a new twist recently, on a trip to South Africa, when we were invited to breakfast by friends of our hosts in Cape Town. The house clung to the mountainside at Llandudno, with vast windows overlooking the bay and full of wonderful works by Elsa, a successful sculptor. Her husband Horst (a professor of biothermodyanics) served home-made berry tea and fruit jellies made with seaweed , whilst explaining the health giving properties of agar.

The conversation was lively around the table, as we tucked into mealiepup, seeded rye bread and other specalities of Cape cuisine. Elsa then announced that despite having no functioning cooker because of a power cut, she was sticking to her plan to give us all bacon and eggs. Displaying Voortrecker determination, she had retrieved a primus stove from storage for the purpose. "Who would like their bacon crisp?" she called as the mixture of back and streaky rashers sizzled and spat in the pan.

After ten minutes Elsa expressed surprise that the bacon was not crisping. After another ten minutes she expressed irritation. After another ten minutes, when we all tried to persuade her that we really did not mind how the bacon was cooked and she should simply serve it, she asked Horst where he had bought the bacon. "The usual place," he replied, " but I asked for warthog, to make a change."

All around the table collapsed in laughter, some us wondering how Elsa resisted clipping Horst with the frying pan. Warthog makes good eating, but apparently if you want your bacon crisp, a domestic porker is the one to take home again, home again, jiggety jig.

Roasted piggy figs

Two figs per person
Strong blue cheese (the last bits of Stilton, gorgonzola or even Danish Blue)
One rasher of streaky bacon or pancetta per fig
Clear honey or maple syrup
Thin sliced bread without crusts

Wash the figs, then cut a cross almost down to the base, so they open up like a flower. Push small pieces of cheese into the cuts and then wrap each fig in a slice of bacon or pancetta. (Stretch the bacon gently with the back of a round bladed knife first, to make it thinner and more pliable.)
Lightly oil a baking tray. Cut discs of bread a little larger than the figs, sit a fig on each disc and grate over some black pepper. Then trickle over a little honey or maple syrup, Pop into a hot oven and cook for approx 10 minutes. When ready, the cheese is melted, the bacon fat starting to crisp and delicious pinky purple juices are soaking the bread. Serve warm, garnished with a little rocket or other small salad leaves. Also tasty cold.