pig cheek ragu

Slow Cooker Pig Cheek Ragu

pig cheek raguThere is always room in my life for pig on a plate. From bacon, just crisping round the edges to slabs of Christmas ham in Coke or a grilled glistening chop or chorizo jam, I love pork in all its forms. It was of course, the one thing that tempted me from vegetarianism in all those five years and I still feel no qualms about the bacon sandwich eaten late at night up one of the Mourne Mountains after a long day’s walking on my Duke of Edinburgh Silver expedition. I went back to instant couscous the next day and avoided porcine temptations for years more.

But when a rare steak lured me back to omnivorousness once again, it was pig that kept me there. Just around the time Babe hit cinema screens, I was incapable of cooking anything with pork in it without gleefully exclaiming that ‘pork is a nice sweet meat‘ like a demented CGI mouse. More than anything else I eat, I am most able to separate the cuteness of piglets from their taste and texture and the only thing I feel guilty about is my inability to feel guilt about it all.

At first the attraction was that pork is pretty easy to cook. Compare grilling a pork chop to getting a steak just right and you’ll see what I mean. I wasn’t a confident cook at all (if you’d told the 19 year old me that I end up writing two cookbooks, I’d have laughed myself inside out) and meals that were easy to make really appealed. Pork is also often lower in fat which as someone who had just had their gallbladder removed was crucial and combining all these factors with the fact pork is the most affordable meat for free range or higher welfare standards, I’ve cooked it a lot over the years.

We all know that you can eat everything on a pig except the oink and I find it a good way to keep expanding my horizons. Black pudding is a borderline North/South Food obsession and I’ve certainly been won over to the taste if not the texture of trotters, so it was inevitable that pig’s cheeks would call to me. Technically classed as offal as they come from the head, they are in fact pure muscle and perfect for low slow cooking to help the meat fall apart in a tender tangle. Very inexpensive at around £2 for 4, they’ll easily feed 4 people cooked well.

I get mine in Morrisons or Waitrose (and yes, that £2 price is correct for Waitrose as part of their Forgotten Cuts range) and tend to make a massive batch of this ragu in the slow cooker before portioning it up and freezing it until needed. It makes a lasagne of such beauty it’s hard not lick your lips as you describe it. It also goes well with either baked potatoes or as a porky version of cottage pie with cauliflower and potato mash on top. I served it simply here on top of some rigatoni with a hearty sprinkle of parmesan for the first properly autumnal day here in London.

It’s a slow cooker dream and makes a nice change from the ubiquitous pulled pork. I’ve made it without onions as I don’t eat them and I suggest you leave them out too. They bully the soft sweetness of the meat into something less soothing. Read more

boxty 2

Brixton Boxty

boxty 2I have to admit that boxty wasn’t something I ate as a child. Popular in Monaghan and Leitrim, it’s a type of potato pancake made from grated potato, but it was so alien to me as kid, I basically thought it was made up until I was older. I first saw it as a real thing in my beloved potato bible The Humble Spud and I’ve been meaning to make it for years, but I disappeared down the tangent of rosti instead and forgot to back up until recently.

Half of you are probably lost by now. Isn’t a potato pancake just a potato pancake I hear you cry? Well, no, rosti are made with semi cooked grated potato with a high starch content, mixed with onion and fried on each side in butter and is eaten as a savoury side dish. Boxty uses raw grated potato before being fried and can be sweet or savoury. Potato farls are made with mashed potato before being cooked on a griddle and then often fried until golden. And I’ve never yet made a latke, but I’ll bring you breaking news about them when I do…

Some recipes for boxty use mashed potato in with the grated spuds but I thought I’d some pureed fresh corn instead since I have tonnes left over from a recent Brixton Bugle recipe. Combining corn and potato gives a autumnal feel and a taste of Brixton which I thought I’d enhance by adding some chopped Scotch Bonnets, fresh coriander and lime. I then served it with some grilled tomatoes for a really good brunch. Read more

pork-fillet-plums-tweaked2

Pork, Plums and Fodmaps

pork-fillet-plums-tweaked2I have a notoriously delicate constitution. My innards tend to react like an angry toddler needing its bedtime over all kinds of things. Some of it is because I am an expert maker of gallstones (despite having my gallbladder removed when I was 18) leading to my digestive system reacting like angrily to say the least. I’ve done a lot of exclusion diets in my time.

There was the post cholecystectomy low fat diet that meant all I could safely eat without a trip to A&E was bread and jam which in turn meant having to do a candida exclusion diet. Not only am I prone to yeast issues in my gut but because it was the mid 90s and it was the current solve all your internal ills idea at the time. I also dabbled with wheat and dairy free for a while and didn’t achieve much effect apart from sending myself gently bonkers around food. I’m sure I’d have excluded gluten too if I’d heard of it then.

I thought I’d just have to put up with feeling terrible all the time and existing on a heavy routine of peppermint oil capsules and mint tea and then I saw a new and wonderful gastroenterologist about some other gallbladder related issues you don’t want to read about over breakfast. While not denying I had a problem, he mentioned that about 80% of his current caseload is down to three things: poor gut flora, Chorleywood bread and Fodmaps.

The first, I know well. The second makes sense since it relies on underproving yeasts and gluten and making bread much harder to digest. The third? I had no earthly idea what he was on about. But I trusted him (I should, he swears like a sailor on shore leave, keeps a sourdough starter in his office for patients and is Michael Mosley approved, all on the NHS no less) so I went off and looked these Fodmaps up.

Discovered by Monash University in Australia, it identifies that there are certain sugars and carbohydrates that the human body finds hard to digest leading to problems. These are the Fermentable, Oligo, Di and Mono Saccharides and Polyols the diet is named for. Often confusing for people because many healthy foods are an issue, it’s a complicated diet that should only ever be undertaken with the help of a trained medical professional, hopefully via the NHS these days,

However it’s worth looking into doing it if you find you have issues after eating wheat or rye, all dairy products not just lactose based ones, certain fruits and vegetables, especially onions and garlic or pulses beyond the normal response to large amounts. Meat substitutes like Quorn can only be a big Fodmap trigger. People are further confused by Fodmaps because everyone’s tolerance is different. I am absolutely fine with wheat (and other members of the galactan family) and have no issue with lactose.

Yet give me a fructan in the shape of an onion or garlic especially and I am utterly miserable. My problems are compounded by the fact I am also fructose intolerant so react terribly to high fructose fruit, any kind of fruit juice and anything like agave syrup that’s high in it. It’s best to only consume fructose when it comes with the natural fibre of the fruit to prevent overloading your system but for fructose malabsorbers like me, any amount is difficult. A glass of orange juice or a whole apple will be both cause my mouth to swell and break me out in a sweat and itchiness. I suspect many people have this issue these days but have simply never heard of it. Innocent times. Literally.

I have to be incredibly careful in what I eat so that I don’t end up lying down feeling faint and bloated at best or triggering off my more intense bowel issues. Fruit and pulses are occasional treats for me (which is why I become murderously annoyed when people tell me how great lentils are when you are poor) and alliums are to be eaten only when I can’t avoid them and can be alone soon after. I will never eat a Jerusalem artichoke or chicory root or take a prebiotic again as they contain inulin, a form of indigestable fibre that is problematic for everyone but triggers debilitating biliary pain for me. Read more

fig salad

Crispy Caper and Polenta Salad

fig saladOk, let’s get the humour about Northern Irish and Scottish people not quite understanding salad out of the way. This one does contain fried things, but what do you think those lovely croutons in your Caesar salad are, huh? So let’s carry on with what is really a perfect early autumn lunch instead and celebrate crispy crunchy fried things in style.

This salad is built round polenta which is the other Italian staple carbohydrate in town.  Made from cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge, British people have never quite taken it to their hearts like they have with pasta. This is partly because we have little connection with eating corn in this country beyond the odd tin of Green Giant and partly because polenta can be quite bland.

In fact, the first time I had polenta as a child, I was actually quite repelled by its blandness. Almost offensive in its nothingness, it kept me away from eating it for years. Then I realised you should never ever buy precooked polenta and that like all the best foods on earth, it needs a liberal hand with the butter. Now I’m a regular polenta eater.

However, I’m not an authentic polenta maker. Firstly I usually make it in the slow cooker rather than stand around stirring slowly to make it smooth and creamy the old fashioned and energetic way and secondly, I add stock to mine. This is near sacrilege to a friend whose family are Northern Italian, but it’s the only way I can add enough flavour without bunging an entire block of Kerrygold in there and missing the point of peasant food.

polenta cubesI tend to make a big batch of polenta and eat half like a thick porridge to soak up ragus or stews (also usually done in the slow cooker) and then allow the other half to cool into blocks and eat it almost like a springier version of cornbread. This cooled polenta is especially good cubed and fried until crispy round the edges. Here I’ve scattered it over a salad but it works well as a breakfast dish with scrambled eggs and tomatoes too for a filling and gluten free start to the day. Read more

ginger beer

Homemade Alcoholic Ginger Beer

ginger beerI have been mildly obsessed by ginger beer ever since I grew up gorging myself on Enid Blyton novels with their constant mention of it. (I did always wonder how English people had so much ginger knocking around when it was as rare as hen’s teeth in 1980s Ireland in comparison.) My only taste of ginger beer as a nipper was the occasional can of Idris Fiery Ginger Beer and this also confused me as to how the Famous Five could make fizzy drinks at home. But then again, I never found any shipwrecks round my way either so I think I knew not to compare myself to them too closely.

Living in Brixton these days, I drink a lot of ginger beer made from fresh ginger and often given a hearty slug of dark rum at my friend Brian’s restaurant Fish Wings and Tings in Brixton Village. Fiery and refreshing, it was perfect in the hot weather earlier this summer.

However my tastes in drinks run to the sparkling. Anyone who has ever been to my flat knows that I order fizzy water in quantities so immense I should really have stop using bottles and just park a tanker outside instead. Could I make a fizzy ginger beer to tick all my beverage boxes at once?

Mister North recently got a copy of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and has been making kefir and other fermented drinks at home while both he and our mum have the successful touch with their sourdough starters. Still slightly resentful of the time someone chose to break up with me so they could spend more time with their new sourdough starter, I have resisted the fermenting trend thus far. But I discovered you can make a ginger beer ‘plant’ with ginger and yeast and it will fermented to make both bubbles and booze you can drink. My time had come.

Recipes told me that I could use both dried ginger and fresh ginger for this plant, but believing the dried powder to be too good to be true, I decided I would experiment and try a batch of both. I also didn’t want to have to splash out on champagne yeast so having finally obtained some fresh yeast tried it instead. I did get bubbles this way but the flavour was so intensely damp and yeasty, it was undrinkable.

I tried again with some champagne yeast I bought off Ebay and the overpowering yeasty flavour was replaced with something more subtle and crisp due to the tight little bubbles it created. Unfortunately there was no flavour or fire from either the fresh or dried ginger and the whole thing was unpleasantly bland.

I went for third time lucky and decided to adapt Brian’s recipe in Recipes from Brixton Village to combine it with my fresh ginger plant and create a fizzy ginger beer with a kick. Instead of just relying on the plant for flavour, I steeped fresh ginger and sugar in water overnight as well and it was perfect.

Full of flavour and fizz and just alcoholic enough to warm the cockles further, it was well worth the experimenting. It’s not a quick recipe but it’s fun to do and works out much cheaper than bottled ginger beers from the supermarket if this is a favoured tipple. Read more