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

biscuits

A Savoury Cream Tea

biscuitsConfession time. I don’t have any opinions on the cream tea at all. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, I’ll eat it if it’s there. I really don’t care if you put the jam first or the cream first. My only rule is don’t put raisins in your scones. No one likes raisins in scones.

However I do like other things in scones. Cafe Renoir in Belfast (the one in Queen’s Street was a beloved day time hangout of mine when I was a teenager ) is the spiritual home of scone and offered up some great takes on them. I loved their pineapple and coconut ones and may have stampeded the queue when they had the white chocolate and raspberry ones. I also make treacle and ginger soda bread scones quite often at home. I am not a scone purist at all. In fact I find the plain scone a little, well, dull sometimes.

The problem with the plain scone is that they need to not just be nice, they need to be excellent. I can’t make them to save my life, churning out leaden lumps that set your teeth on edge with baking powder. I lack the light hand to make fluffy golden topped scones that people ooh and ahh over. I’ve tried and neither Delia nor the wife of a Northern Irish minister who has made thousands of scones for the church over the years have been able to set me on the right path.

So I’ve given up and turned my attention to the American biscuit instead. More savoury than a scone and often made to be flaky rather than fluffy, something about them appeals to me more for making at home than scones. I’ve tried a version that simply involved double cream and flour that were more like fudge than anything else and worked my way through those involving lard instead of butter and they’ve been good, but not great.

Then I came across this recipe from a woman in Tennessee with 5 stars reviews across the board (unheard of on the internet) and 17 tips to help make your biscuits great and the savoury cream tea was born. I topped these flaky biscuits with chorizo jam and thyme creme fraiche and suddenly I have many many opinions of cream teas again…

chorizo jamSlow Cooker Chorizo Jam (makes 5 x 300ml jars)

(Loosely inspired by Eat Like a Girl‘s dedication to meat jams)

  • 1 large white onion, finely diced
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 500g cooking chorizo (or 250g chorizo and 250g streaky bacon)
  • 1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard
  • 1 tablespoon tomato puree
  • 1 tablespoon brown miso
  • 1 red chilli, finely chopped
  • 150ml apple juice
  • 60ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
  • 1/4 white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon pul biber/Aleppo pepper (smoked Turkish chilli flakes)

This is the easiest thing in the world to make, which is a blessing since people are going to ask you for jars of it quite frequently. I imagine you can make it in a low oven of around 120℃ for about 4 hours, but you’ll need to check the liquid levels as it cooks to make sure it doesn’t cook dry. But since I am all about the slow cookers these days, I’ve barely remembered how to turn my oven on….

The chorizo jam is best made with soft cooking chorizo which is raw rather than the hard cured kind. I got mine at Brindisa but most of the big supermarkets will stock it. You could use the dried cured kind, but add about 75ml more apple juice to help it soften up.

The base of the jam is made with soft sweet caramelised onion to bring it all together and create a sticky jammy texture. Raw or barely cooked onion doesn’t work well here so don’t skip the first stage of the recipe.

Finely dice the onion to about 1cm dice and add to the slow cooker with the butter. Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook the onion on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours. The slow cooker makes the best caramelised onions you can imagine so I quite often spent 20 minutes slicing or dicing a kilo or two of them and doing a massive batch. I then freeze portions or keep them in a sterilised jar in the fridge for up to a month and add them to dishes as needed.

Once the onion is caramelised, cut the chorizo into 1-1.5cm pieces and add to the slow cooker crock. The bacon should be thin strips if using. Add all the other ingredients and stir it all together well. I find adding them with the liquid in the middle helps bring it all together  more easily.

Pop the lid on the slow cooker and cook it all together on low for 8-9 hours. I did mine overnight and when I woke up the house smelled wonderful. I then sterilised some jars in the oven and bottled it. Keep in the fridge for up to four weeks.

While you are making the chorizo jam, multi task with making the crème fraîche as well. It takes about 18 hours to be ready, but requires very little actual effort. Making it from scratch allows you to customise it by infusing it with the flavours you like. It would be wonderful with rosemary or sage or garlic for a savoury version or with rose, lavender or lapsang souchong for a sweet version. Simply substitute the equivalent amount of thyme for the flavour of your choice.

creme fraiche

Homemade Thyme Crème Fraîche (makes 300ml)

  • 300ml double cream
  • 2 tablespoons dried or fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons cultured buttermilk or sour cream

Put the double cream in a small saucepan and add the thyme (or flavouring of your choice) and gently heat the cream to 71℃ exactly. You will need a thermometer for this. Do not heat the cream higher than this heat. 71℃ is the magic number to activate cream or milk to thicken (or develop into cheese) and is sometimes known as ‘clabbering’ it. Some argue this is only the correct term if you are using raw unpastuerised milk, but since few words suit my Belfast accent better, I will continue to use it even if inauthentic.

Take the pan off the heat immediately and allow the cream to cool to 40℃. This will take around an hour and allows the thyme to infuse beautifully.

Wash out a glass jar in the hottest water you can handle and don’t dry it. Strain the cream through a sieve into it, leaving the thyme behind. Add the 2 tablespoons of buttermilk or sour cream and stir well. This ‘inoculates’ the cream and introduces the culture needed to turn from cream to crème fraîche. It is similar to the process of making yoghurt and both allow dairy products to last longer without spoiling.

Loosely cover the jar with its lid and then set it somewhere nice and warm to thicken up. I left mine right by the slow cooker that was making my chorizo jam as it gives out a nice waft of warmth. It will take about 12-14 hours to become a thick creamy texture that will hold the mark of the back of a spoon run through it. At this point, chill it for 4 hours to thicken up completely. Store in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.

Serve the chorizo jam and thyme crème fraîche on freshly baked biscuits you’ve split open. Your choice as to which you dollop onto the biscuit first. I’m not going near that controversy unless I’ve served an entire bottle of cava with my savoury cream tea and am too well refreshed to notice!

Snails

Slow Cooked Giant African Land Snails

SnailsI was a weird kid. Cutely weird, rather than scary weird, and few habits of mine were weirder than my obsession with snails. Something about these slow shelled creatures fascinated me and I collected anything to do with them from live one from the garden to the snail shaped sponge that turned out to be a seahorse on its side…

The fascination reached its peak when I got myself a pet Giant African Land Snail through the post when I was about twelve. Snails of all kinds are haemphrodites and when everything aligns right, they make babies in the kind of numbers that make rabbits look slow to breed. Some woman on’t telly had an African Land Snail that has so many offspring she was desperate to offload a few.

Postal order for P&P paid and enough months later to have forgotten about the Crazy Snail Lady, the postman rang the bell and handed me a baby formula tin marked ‘snails in transit’. Once the snail mail jokes had subsided, I opened it and looked for the mollusc inside. Nestled right in the bottom of the tin, amongst the wet kitchen roll, was a snail the size of my little fingernail.

Immediately christening it Pumpkin in honour of it being Hallowe’en when it arrived, it was whisked off to live in a peat filled fish tank in the bathroom. It was a snail’s life hanging out on a flowerpot or a piece of cuttlefish, absorbing some cucumber and porridge oats and squelching around slimily in the middle of the night. For several years I adored it even though you definitely can’t cuddle a snail and it does very little. Then I realised I was about to leave home for uni and and had no desire to take it with me. A ad went in the local vet’s waiting room and a few months later that now not so small snail went to live with some local little boys, and I presume some puppy dog tails.

pumpkin the snailI didn’t think much about snails again until I moved to Brixton when I saw baskets of African Land Snails in the market for eating. Some people were oddly sentimental about them, setting up a protest group in their honour and rightly having some concern about how the snails are kept, often handling them rather unhygiencally themselves. Most people however buy them for dinner and don’t give much thought to their welfare.

My thoughts turned to them when I started writing Recipes from Brixton Village. They are one of the things people associate with the market and it seemed right that the book had a recipe for them. I asked several of the Nigerian traders if they would be keen to do so, but none were. I was going to have to do it myself.

I nipped into Vivo Afro Caribbean foods and asked for snails. They all tittered at the crazy white girl as they brought three out from the back, expecting me to recoil at the size of them. I explained I knew them well as I’d had one as a pet and waited while they wiped away tears of mirth before getting a bag of alum to go with them for cleaning them. I then gulped at the fact they were three for a tenner and took them home.

Already nervous about actively killing my first creature for dinner myself, I kept them in the fridge overnight so they wouldn’t come out of their shell. I then scrubbed their shells clean, rinsed them under the tap and took them out to the patio and laid them out to break the shells.

Bearing in mind I am still soppy enough about snails that I avoid walking on them on rain soaked paths and take them on long walks from my garden, it took quite some psyching myself up to do the deed. In fact, it took a large sherry, about 40 minutes of mental preparation and repeated checking that my neighbours couldn’t see me with three giant snails, a pair of rubber gloves and a pestle and mortar.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to crack the shells, giving one a bloody great wallop with my stone pestle. The shell rocked slightly and nothing happened. I whacked it again and again before I lost my nerve and finally the shell shattered. It felt brutal and slightly traumatising for me, so I dread to think what the snail thought.

Following Kitchen Butterfly’s directions, I carefully pulled the shell away from the inner foot. Those things are razor sharp which accounts for the Marigolds. Pausing to look at how the snail’s quivering grey innards are neatly rolled up inside the shell, I cut this sac away from the foot, killing the snail.

snail guts 2I eat meat. I eat quite a lot of meat and I’m not especially squeamish. This simple cut challenged all my feelings and principles about eating animals in one flick of a knife. I know they say you should never eat your dinner if you can’t kill it first, but something about this felt so strange to a city girl who has never caught a fish or trapped a rabbit. I felt a surprising amount of guilt over an invertebrate. And I had two more to kill…

I brought my three snails inside and cut down the foot to butterfly them. Turning the radio to some Dolly Parton and the tap to cold, I scrubbed the snails with the alum rocks to loosen the slime. And there was a lot of slime. I kept the Marigolds on and still I got a sense of what it must be like to have been gunged on kids’ TV in the 80s. Each one took a good 20 minutes scrubbing to get them fairly clean.

I soaked them in cold water while I raided the sherry bottle further and texted my editor to tell her what I was doing. When I looked, there was more slime. I scrubbed further bent over the sink trying to fathom how my Sunday afternoon had come to this and deciding it was still more fun as a job than working in Selfridges was.

Eventually the snails were spotless and slime free. Two went into the pot to braise for two hours as per the recipe in the book. The third went into the slow cooker to simmer in stock for eight hours.

I finished the stove braised snails off as the recipe in the books suggests and still reeling from the experience, lured two friends round with the promise of Brixton Brewery IPA. We each ate a small piece and struggled with the cartilege like texture, preferring to get stuck into the beer. Their 19 month old daughter however loved them, going back for more to the point where she had to be stopped for fear she’d spoil her dinner.

After they went home and I’d swept up all the shards of shell, I tried the third snail and found the texture much improved by such a long cooking in liquid. Still not exactly tender, it was much more like my Western palate is used to and with lots of chilli and pomegranate molasses, it was edible.

I didn’t suffer any indigestion or ill effects from eating the snails, but I dreamt of huge steam train sized snails chasing me as I slept. They weren’t angry with me for killing and cooking their cousins, just disappointed in me. Who knew a gently waving feeler could contain so many emotions? If I hadn’t known it before I started the recipe, I knew it now: snails neither make good pets or entrees in my life, just lovely illustrations instead.

Kaylene snail unframed

PS: don’t forget to vote for Recipes from Brixton Village as Best New Cookbook in the Observer Food Monthly Awards. Do it in memory of the molluscs…

 

Lamb and lentil soup

Spiced Lamb, Lentil and Tomato Soup

Lamb and lentil soup

Every summer I buy lamb mince with the intention of making kofte with it and every summer I panic and decide that kofte are incredibly difficult to make and I’ll ruin them*. I find myself looking at a bag of lamb mince slightly nervously and then I just make meatballs. Again.

This time I happened to have been flicking through Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume by Silvena Rowe and had seen a soup involving lamb mince and lentils and thought I could finally branch out of my meatball rut.

Unfortunately I went out and drank a couple of glasses of red wine before coming home to cook it for dinner and failed to notice that Silvena’s recipe was actually for rice, lamb and lentil soup until I had a third glass of wine and couldn’t be bothered to follow the recipe. I took inspiration at that stage from Keith Floyd and went for just making it up as I went along. The result was bowls that were scraped clean and no hangover from the wine either. That’s quite a soup.

Spiced Lamb, Lentil and Tomato Soup (serves 4)

  • 400g minced lamb
  • 1 teaspoon onion seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon kirmizi pul biber or smoked chilli flakes
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • 200g red lentils
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh mint to serve

This is a very easy soup to make. Start by heating a dry frying pan on a medium heat and add the onion and cumin seeds. Allow to fry until they start to smell aromatic. It should take about 30-45 seconds. Watch them with an eagle eye or they burn and become bitter. Tip out of the pan onto a clean plate.

Return the pan to the heat and add the lamb mince. Fry it off until the fat starts to come out of it and then add the toasted seeds back in along with the paprika and pul biber. Stir it all well and cook through completely. It should take about 10 minutes.

Remove the cooked lamb from the pan and using the fat from the lamb which is now infused with the lovely spices, sweat the onion and garlic over a low heat until they becomes translucent. This will take about 12 minutes.

While the onions and garlic do their thing, boil the lentils for about 10 minutes in salted water. Drain them once they start to look softened and return them to a large pan. Stir the lamb and sweated onion and garlic through it all and then season well. Red lentils need a generous hand with the salt cellar for me.

Tip the chopped tomatoes into it all and stir well. Add the chicken stock and simmer it all for 25 minutes until the lentils swell up and the soup thickens. Keep an eye to make sure the lentils don’t burn or start to boil dry. They have a habit of that if left to their own devices. You might need a slug or two more of stock.

Serve the soup in deep bowls. Chopped fresh mint scattered on top and stirred through as you serve complements the smoky spicy flavours of the dish perfectly.

I loved this soup. Easy, flavoursome and incredibly filling, it makes the lamb go a long way and made a real change from my usual lentil based soups which tend to be a little worthy for my real enjoyment. Lots of flavour is obviously what I was missing up until now!