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

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

cherry float

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream Float

cherry floatI haven’t been cooking very much this summer. Partly because I’m on a go slow in the kitchen after testing over 350 recipes for both Recipes from Brixton Village and Slow Cooked and partly because all I’ve wanted to eat for weeks are cherries.

Particularly abundant and well priced this season, I’ve been buying pounds and pounds of them from Brixton Market for £1.50 a lb and just gorging on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are one of my favourite fruit and it’s been utter luxury to indulge like I have been. In fact, I’ve even managed to have too many of them and needed to find ways to use them up.

Some of my lack of appetite has come from how warm it’s been and I’ve been alternating my cherry fest with ice lollies and sorbets, but hadn’t felt the urge for actual ice cream until I saw some leftover chocolate in the cupboard to go with those cherries and inspiration hit.

I have been a lip balm queen since Mister North bought me a pot of Morello Cherry lip balm from The Body Shop for my twelfth birthday. I cycled through their whole range, not dallying near the Kiwi Fruit one for long, and fell particularly in love with a limited edition version that was Chocolate Cherry. I rationed that little pot out for ages and each swipe of it reminded me how much I loved the combination. I moved on from it to a prized Dr Pepper Lip Smacker and from there to my current die hard obsession with Carmex.

I hadn’t really thought about my lip moisturising choices as a teen since those heady days, but standing there with a bag of cherries in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other and I just knew what I had to do. I had to combine all the best things of my early years and make a chocolate cherry Dr Pepper ice cream float immediately.

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream (makes one litre)

  • 450g fresh cherries, pitted
  • 25g sugar
  • 200g milk chocolate
  • 600ml double cream
  • 397g tin condensed milk

This is the simplest ice cream possible made to a non churn recipe I love so much I even used it for my Observer Food Monthly piece last year. It freezes quickly and scoops straight from the freezer and can be adapted to any flavour you fancy.

Begin by pitting your cherries. I find this oddly relaxing and not particularly faffy to do. I end up with lots of halved cherries. Lay them out as flat as possible and sprinkle the sugar over them to macerate them. This makes them lovely and juicy. Leave for up to an hour.

Break the chocolate into a large bowl and set it over a pan of boiling water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base. Stir it well as it melts to keep it nice and glossy. Once melted, set it aside to cool down for about 10 minutes.

Take the macerated cherries along with any juices they have created and roughly puree them with a hand blender. A bit of texture is fine, but try not to have any bits of skin if you can help it. Set them aside.

Pour the double cream into a large bowl and beat until it starts to thicken. You don’t want it to be whipped cream, but to get to the point where it flops over lazily and thickly. At this point, beat in the condensed milk until combined and airy. An electric whisk is nice here but some old fashioned elbow grease does the trick too.

Stir in the melted chocolate and the cherry puree. Fold until completely combined. It will be a pale pinky brown in colour. Pour it all into a plastic container and put the lid on it. Freeze for at least 4 hours. It will be a lovely creamy soft serve style.

Chocolate Cherry Dr Pepper Ice Float (makes one)

  • 330ml can full fat Dr Pepper
  • 1 large scoop chocolate cherry ice cream
  • kitsch item to accessorise, either an umbrella or gaudy cocktail stirrer

To make your ice cream float, get a good sturdy glass and pour an ice cold can of Dr Pepper into it. I am that person who genuinely likes the taste of diet fizzy drinks usually, but it’s got to be the real deal here.

Then gently drop your scoop of ice cream into the glass. The soda will fizz and froth and create the finest carbonated beverage on earth. Stick a straw in the glass, swizzle with a stirrer (I favour a flamingo myself here) and set a long spoon on the side before getting stuck in.

You cannot eat or drink an ice cream float neatly so don’t try to. Simply savour the flavours and revel in it. When I say this float is the taste and excitement of my whole childhood served up in one glass, I don’t think I’m quite doing it justice. It’s my favourite thing of the whole summer, maybe even the year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

pineapple sorbet

Pineapple Sorbet

pineapple sorbet Aside from friends and family, I think the thing I miss the most about Northern Ireland is its selection of ice lollies. Considering its such a chilly corner of the world, we love our frozen treats. Ice cream has its merits, but there’s something about ice lollies that we especially enjoy.

These lollies held a massive lure when I was a kid popping to the local shop with my pocket money. Sometimes you went for quantity over quality and got handfuls of those Mr Freeze freezepops in the long plastic containers, making sure there was at least one Blue Raspberry flavour per batch. A freezepop fest didn’t count unless you dyed your tongue an unnatural shade.

But more often, it was all about branded lollies on wooden sticks. I’m old enough to remember when they embossed jokes onto the sticks and this was worth the potential to set your teeth on edge with the wood. Walls offered us Mini Milks and Funny Feet, but I didn’t like either much. Lyons had the iconic Fab and the Mivvi, but they were cinema lollies not hot day ones. I adored Irish company HB‘s Fat Frogs which were apple flavoured and had a soft spot for a shark shaped one that was sharp and citrus flavoured and a blackcurrant Dracula lolly too, but my love lay (and still does) with Norn Irish classics from Dale Farm.

Leaning over the freezer trying to choose between a Rocky Rasper (raspberry, but not blue), the sugar free but lovely lemon-lime Supa Cool, a smooth vanilla Mr Frostie (in lieu of the toy lolly maker of the same name) or the crocodile branded Choc Pop was tricky. I never wanted a Joker with its orange outer and ice cream middle and I hated orangey Quenchers too.

My first choice was always the Pear Picking Porky, the undisputed classic ice lolly of all time. Not, as my Slovakian surrogate sister once asked, pig flavoured, but made of that artificial pear flavouring that is nothing like the fruit, these lollies the spot every time. I’ve even eaten them walking up Botanic Avenue on Boxing Day. The only problem with them is that they are so popular they sell out easily, meaning one needs a back up plan.

For me this comes in the shape of a Polly Pineapple. So when I found myself far from Belfast in the middle of a heatwave and craving frozen salvation, I knew I could muster a pineapple lolly in London rather than a pear one. Surely it would be pretty simple?

And it was, coming in with a whopping three ingredients. The tricky bit came when I could not for the life of me get the lollies out of the cheapo moulds I bought in the pound shop in one piece. The sticks slid out, there was swearing and then in a fit of frustration, I scooped the slightly slushy sorbet out with a spoon and refroze it in a Tupperware. Success…

Pineapple Sorbet (makes about 500ml)

  • 1 whole fresh pineapple or 425g tin of pineapple chunks
  • 100g sugar
  • 75ml water

I like tinned pineapple (blame my Mallory Towers habit as a kid) so that’s what I used but if you can get a super sweet and ripe fresh pineapple, it’d be perfect. Sniff the base of it, discreetly if in store, and if it smells strongly of pineapple, it is perfect. Peel it, remove the core and chop it up making sure you keep any juice.

If using the tinned, tip it, juice and all into a large bowl. Using a hand blender, blitz the pineapple of either kind and its juice together until smooth and lump free. It should like those nectar style juices you get that contain pulp. Set aside and chill.

Make a simple sugar syrup by combining the sugar and water in a pan and heating together until it forms a thick syrupy texture without changing colour. Remove from the heat and allow to cool down. You will have slightly more here than you probably need for the recipe but it keeps well in the fridge and is perfect for sweetening iced tea in hot weather.

Add about 50ml of the cooled sugar syrup to the pineapple pulp and stir. Pour into a Tupperware container and put the lid on. Put in the freezer and chill for 4 hours. Either give it a stir once an hour with a fork to break up the ice crystals and keep it smooth or leave it alone for 3 hours and then blitz it again with the handblender and freeze for another hour.

Take it out of the freezer about 10 minutes before you want to eat it. It will be smooth in texture and almost like a really really good Slush Puppie. In fact, you could add a tiny bit of dark rum and drink it as a frozen cocktail through a wide straw if you liked. It tasted enough of a Polly Pineapple to quench my craving, but better enough to be worth the effort. Plus it gave me a chance to get the fake parrot and pineapple ice bucket out…