Headline image, inside North Star Deli at the JoinUs4Supper event

Northern Stars supper club. Pt.1: the meal

Northern stars main 1

For someone with an overly healthy interest in food, there could be few things more exciting than being set loose in a professional kitchen. Last Thursday saw my debut in the kitchen, at the latest JoinUs4Supper evening at North Star Deli. If, however, you’d seen me on Wednesday night, I’d probably have looked more than a tad pensive, mildly nervous, and concentrating deeply. A little part of me was starting to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew by accepting the challenge to collaborate with Deanna, Ben and the North Star Deli team. That and the fact I was helping stuff a pig’s intestine with blood, desperately trying to ensure it didn’t drop and burst in an ignominious end to our efforts to make fresh black pudding. All this from a throwaway comment about having a go on a TV food quiz to a couple of fellow foodies

Northern stars final 1

After weeks of thoughts, discussions and debate, we were clear in what we wanted to do. At the heart of the meal was the intention to place Porcus pork in the limelight, with local cheese and veg as superb supporting actors. We wanted to find a flavour and feel which properly encompassed the character of our TV team.

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A real split pea souper

Soup 1

I am not the shopping fiend I used to be. I can spend all day trekking up and down the West End and come home with nothing to show for it but slightly raised blood pressure and sore feet. But occasionally when I’m out I still make impulse purchases, which explains why last week, I came home from ‘just nipping out’ with a bag of pig’s trotters.

Dazzled by their cheapness and pinkness, I couldn’t quite resist even though I had no idea what to do with them. Then inspired by a conversation about soup with Mister North, I remembered this mouthwateringly porky potage in the shape of erwtensoep or Dutch split pea soup. Thick as a plank and designed to be packed with piggy goodness, the pig’s trotters would make the perfect base.

Well known for their tendency to toward the gelatinous (and good for them. The jelly in a pork pie is the best bit) I figured something as absorbent as a split pea could take the risk and it would simply thicken everything up nicely if the stock seemed a bit gloopy.

I was also swung towards this soup by the addition of celeriac. Another impulse purchase back in the summer at Homebase saw me buying ten tiny celeriac plants in a tray. I planted them out, expecting only about a third of them to take. Fast forward six months and my patio is a convention of celeriac. All ten are thriving. I have a forest of leaves and a lot of celeriac needing eaten. Adding some to the soup was a start.

I began the prep with the weirdest bit and gave the trotters a shave with a spare and unused Bic razor. Not only are they quite pink and unnervingly delicate with their little nails, pig’s trotters are quite bristly. These were Tamworths and the fuzz was decidedly auburn. Much and all as I love red hair, I don’t want it in my dinner…

Trotters attended to, I turned my attention to the veg, trimming, peeling and cubing. Nothing difficult, just a little bit of time and effort. In went a rather sad looking leek, a few carrots, the whole small celeriac, an onion or two and a good handful of celeriac leaves for depth. I basically halved the amounts in the recipe above. I layered half a cup of split peas on the bottom of my Le Cresuet, then put the trotters on top, along with a spare rib pork chop. You’d add in the pork ribs and the bacon about now if you had them.

Then pile your diced veg on top, adding the other half cup of the split peas to the top. The meat will be hidden and it’ll look like pure vegetable and pulses. I added a few leftover stock ice cubes from the freezer which I think might actually have been pheasant. You always seem to get a dead pheasant in Dutch still lifes. I figure it couldn’t go amiss. I then topped it all up with 3 cups or 750ml of cold water and brought it to the boil before turning down to a simmer and leaving well alone for about an hour. No stirring, no poking, no peeking. Just leave it and get on with life.

An hour later take the lid off and see how the water levels are. You’ll want to check the texture of the stock and loosen it up a bit if it looks too thick and wobbly. I added a splash of water and then left it for another two hours or until the peas had softened and swelled and started to break up. Don’t cook it until they are total sludge. When you leave the leftovers overnight, the peas will soak up the remaining liquid and thicken and if you overcook you’ll be left with concrete not soup. Fish the trotters out and discard (I had enough skin and gristle with the tail). Give the peas a quick chivvy with the potato masher to thicken everything. Marvel at how a bog basic pork chop has become soft strands of loveliness and get stuck in with your spoon.

I was aware that pork and pulses are a good thing. I was expecting to like the combo in this bowl of soup. I wasn’t expecting to fall completely in love with split pea soup. But one mouthful and I was smitten. Rich with sweet porky flavour, it was bursting with taste and both the stock and peas gave it a suprisingly silky texture. It was fantastic. I practically licked the bowl clean and wanted a second helping, but wow, this soup is filling. I compromised by having it for breakfast next day.

Embrace this sudden cold snap and make this soup immediately. Use any pork on the bone to make a stock or take the challenge and buy some trotters for you instead of the dog. Add bacon, use up some smoked sausage, throw in some chorizo, use the leftover stock from doing a ham, the choices are endless. Just make sure you keep it porcine and it will reward you with being easy, cheap, healthy and filling. I impulse purchased some pork ribs today so I can make it again immediately…

 

Sloe cured salmon and slow cooked goose…

Christmas may be over for another year, but some memories linger on happily. A hot port in front of a roaring turf fire, a proper fry with Coca-Cola ham instead of bacon on Boxing Day and the revelation that was home made gravlaks or home cured salmon fillet. Economical, easy and above all, delicious, I can’t recommend it enough!

As you might have noticed, we at North/South Food have a soft spot for Scandinavian food due to the influence of having family friends in Norway, so it’s no surprise to hear that I got my paws of a copy of Scandilicious by Signe Johansen as soon as I could after it was published last year. Filled with mouthwatering recipes and beautiful photos, I almost didn’t know where to start with this book when on page 151, gravlaks with dill mustard sauce leapt out at me. It might have been September, but I knew what our Christmas Day starter was going to be already.

All the Scandinavian countries cure, pickle and salt fish to improve its taste and to preserve it. Having seen how easy it was to pickle rollmops, I couldn’t wait to get curing, especially when I saw how easy the process is. I used Signe’s recipe as a guide to get the sugar and salt proportions correct, but wanted to add a personal twist. She suggests oomphing up the cure with some aquavit, but I decided to use a family favourite and add a splash of sloe gin instead.

Along with those Norwegian influences, one of my strongest childhood memories is of my parents making sloe gin nearly every autumn. We’d go on family walks in the autumn near my grandmother’s farmhouse searching out blackberries and blackthorn bushes and pick as many of each as we can carry. Back home, everyone would join in the pricking of the sloes before the jars of gin were stashed in the cupboard to mature. It was one of the first tastes of alcohol I had and the sweet, yet sharp flavour made me the gin lover I am to this day. Mister North has carried this tradition on with his legendary damson gin and our mum resurrected it when she managed to get hold of some stunning sloes when housesitting for friends who live on the tip of the Ards Peninsula facing Strangford Lough. Plump, juicy and slightly infused with salt, they made superlative sloe gin. I couldn’t wait to infuse the cure and the salmon with a splash of it.

A salmon fillet was purchased from Tesco as Belfast, sadly, isn’t abundant with fishmongers. Since there were only two of us, we went for half of one side of salmon. We didn’t freeze it first, but this would be advised if you aren’t sure how fresh the fish is or if you’re serving children or anyone with a comprimised immune system. The actual work involved in gravlaks is minimal, but you’ll need to let it cure for up to 48 hours so plan ahead.

I covered a flat baking tray with foil, then covered the foil with clingfilm before laying the salmon on the clingfilm, skin side down and applying a mix of pink peppercorns, coriander seeds, home grown fennel seeds and dill from my mum’s garden to the flesh. I then mixed up the sugar and salt with just enough sloe gin to turn the mix pale pink and make a stiff paste. This went on top of the spiced fish before the clingfilm was used to parcel the fish up tightly. It was all wrapped in the foil and left on the tray to catch any brine and then weighted down well in the fridge, multi-tasking by using the goose we were having for Christmas dinner.

A gift from the same friends on the Peninsula as we sourced our sloes from, this beast rivalled Mister North’s spiced beef for best meat dish of the season. Raised in the family’s walled garden, this goose was free range and more. Killed and plucked especially for us, we’d been looking forward to it for months. Scalded, salted and simply roasted, first in a hot oven to crisp the skin and then on a low heat to cook through, it was plump and juicy and so bursting with flavour that we just couldn’t get enough of it even though there were just two of us.

But it was challenged as dish of the day by the salmon. We usually do a seafood supper on Christmas Eve and to accompany our Lidl lobsters, we had some of the gravlaks on the side. Brushed clean of the peppercorns, sliced thinly and served with some fresh wheaten bread, it was spectacular. So soft it melted in the mouth, unlike slices of packed smoked salmon that remain firmly rubbery, it was moreishly salty sweet and fresh with the aniseed of dill and fennel and we both loved it.

Extraordinarily easy to make and much better value than most smoked salmon, it made a perfect start to Christmas dinner and the ultimate cold cut after the big day, as wafer thing slices of it cried out to snaffled everytime the fridge door was opened. It would make a easy, but impressive centrepiece for a lunch anytime of the year, but after this, I can’t imagine our Christmas without it in future…

Pickles and Pizza

I like a bit of fine dining as much as anyone, but sometimes one’s tastes run a bit more on the casual side of things. I don’t mean I ever want to eat a Prawn Ring or kebab meat again and I believe ready meals to be a waste of calories. But I do have a soft spot for the kind of comfort food that borders on junk, especially that brand of Americana popularised by Nigella recently.

So when Mister North was down recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge some homemade delights that would make a dietician weep. I’d been lusting after deep fried pickles ever since a Southern friend told me about them a few years back. Seeing Homesick Texan and Food Stories‘ recipes for them put them at the top of my to try list.

I dialled down the trashy vibe and put myself in the running for a pretentiousness award by growing my own gherkins and pickling them myself specially. (If this makes you eye roll at the sheer foodiness of it all, be comforted by the fact they didn’t taste that different to a Mrs Elswood.) Horticulturally experiments aside, these babies are super simple. I got cultured buttermilk in Sainsbury’s, but you could use yoghurt watered down instead. Do not feel tempted to substitute cream crackers for saltines. You’ll end up crying into your hot oil as all the moisture in your mouth evaporates. I used coarse cornmeal instead.

Heat your oil while you do the flour, egg, dip thing with the pickles. Fry for about a minute each side and then serve piping hot on the side of something delicious. In our case it was some leftover rollmops, a zingy homemade ranch style dressing with buttermilk, tarragon and garlic and a beer on the side. It was a heavenly plate of tanginess, crunch and sheer gluttony. I want to eat all gherkins in a crunchy coating now.

You’d think that plateful would have quelled our cravings for pig-out style food for the day, but you’d be wrong. About an hour later, we started getting ready to make a serious pizza for dinner. We used Marcella Hazan’s pizza dough recipe, leaving it to prove for several hours and turned our attention to the mozzarella. And I don’t just mean jiggling it about the bag in a slightly smutty fashion, I mean making it from scratch

Using some non homogenised cow’s milk from Alham Wood Farms at Brixton Farmers’ Market, my fledgling cheese making skills, some citric acid that we explored all of Brixton for* and my trusty bottle of rennet, we created mozzarella magic. Surprisingly easy, especially if you have asbestos hands like Mister North for dipping the curds into the hot whey, we ended up with two beautiful bouncing balls of mozzarella in no time at all.

Buoyed by this, we turned to the pizza bases, lovingly dressing them with homemade sauce courtesy of Mister North and a glut of Blackpool tomatoes and an umami hit of anchovies, green olives, some of my home grown plum tomatoes and a finishing sprinkle of ham salt from Comfort and Spice. Unfortunately made giddy by the cheese achievement, we forgot to dust the worksurfaces with semolina as instructed and the bases stuck somewhat, leading to some creativity with a fishslice and a slightly concertina style pizza.

The pizza might have lacked finesse, but it was loaded with flavour. The tomatoes tasted of summer and the mozzarella was so soft and fresh I could have eaten the whole ball like an apple to fully enjoy the texture. It needed a touch more salt and I think it would have been even better with buffalo milk, but for a first go, it was pretty amazing.

We devoured the pizzas like kids at a sleepover, both wishing we’d had more of the mozzarella to do a tomato salad with or go retro and deep fry in a crispy coating like the gherkins. Instead we rounded off a day of gluttony with a cheeky bowl of Veda bread ice cream and a glass of wine or two, proving that sometimes the taste of home is all you need. Your own kitchen provides the greatest comfort.

*Try the Nour Cash and Carry if you need it Monday to Saturday and the Low Price Food & Wine on the corner of Brixton Road and Loughborough Road on a Sunday. We did the walking round so you don’t have to.

Salade Niçoise with guinea fowl eggs

Guinea eggs 6

To be honest; until I started writing this post I didn’t know very much about guinea fowl (or guinea-fowl), nevermind their eggs. I’ve bought guinea fowl on a few occasions, to make Ghanaian dishes like Nkatenkwan, as their flesh is almost gamey and really benefits from slow, moist, covered cooking methods. I also knew the bird originated in West African, hence their name, and have long been a favourite with chefs (Larousse suggests they’ve been domesticated since Roman times).

Guineafowl egg & duck egg

I’ve also spotted them pecking around farmyards on a few occasions, looking a little haughty and slightly out-of-place with their blue faces and wonderful op-art speckled plumage. Last week my friends from Porcus persuaded me to leave their farm with a selection of wonderful guinea fowl eggs (these are the same people who sated my quest to enjoy turkey eggs last year too)

Guinea fowl eggs

So I came home with six speckly guinea fowl eggs, undecided on how best to use them. I’d been warned they had thick shells, which could prove a bit of a challenge to break through, but I had an extra pair of hands in the form of our mum who was visiting. A quick search on the web threw up very few recipes specifically for guinea fowl eggs, but a friend suggested making a niçoise salad. This proved to be an inspired recommendation, as the diminutive hard-boiled eggs (sized somewhat between a quail and a bantam egg) looked gorgeous nestled against the other ingredients. Not that we needed an excuse to enjoy a classic summer salad (even when the sun is somewhat lacking) which manages to combine some of our favourite family ingredients.

In this case I followed an Antony Worrall Thompson recipe from the BBC website, deviating a little from some other versions, but ticked all the boxes in terms of fresh flavours. I started by marinating the tuna steaks for an hour or so in the vinaigrette mix while prepping the veg. These and the other ingredients filled a large salad bowl. Once the tuna was sufficiently soused it got seared on a very hot ridged griddle, then rested gently.

Meanwhile we boiled the guinea fowl eggs for six minutes, then cooled them off in cold water. They proved quite difficult to peel: the shell was indeed tough, and the inner membrane was equally resistant. Eventually we managed to de-shell and slice them, and were rewarded with sight of bright yellow yolks. They looked wonderfully pretty set against the rest of the salad. Once they were in place the tuna steaks were added, everything was drizzled with the vinaigrette, and we sat down to eat.

The whole thing looked and tasted wonderful: salty, smooth, crisp, sharp and rounded flavours contrasted just as you’d expect a salade niçoise to do. The eggs were creamy and more flavoured than hen’s eggs. The final verdict: great salad, and really tasty wee eggs. If you’re lucky enough to find guinea fowl eggs, don’t pass up on the opportunity to enjoy their delights. Cracking!