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!

 

 

 

 

Mixed spring sourdough grissini

Adventures in sourdough: pancakes and grissini

Mixed spring sourdough grissini

One of the things which seems to mark out people who care about their food is a love of proper bread. In some respects I came round to this rather late. Although we grew up enjoying bread from wee bakeries in Northern Ireland, with lovely batch loaves, bloomers, wheaten bread and more; we also ate a lot of cheap sliced loaves at home. I used to be a demon for toast, and sliced pan loaves were the only option to sate my cravings as a growing teenager.

Throughout student life cheap sliced loaves were a staple. After graduating I shared a house with a mate who never bought a loaf of pre-sliced bread. His stance wasn’t dogmatic – no deeply ingrained opposition to the Chorleywood process – he just liked half-decent bread, and the pleasure of being able to cut your own slice, to whatever thickness you desired. Thanks to him, I kicked the habit of rectangular loafs wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer. Since then I’ve made an effort to try and buy decent bread (Barbakan in south Manchester was a particular inspiration), and I tempered my toast habit a bit…

Unlike Miss South I’ve never been particularly drawn to baking – a few experiments in the past led to some reasonably unimpressive loaves – and so have stuck to flatbreads, pizzas, coca bread and of course those Norn Irish staples we both grew up with. I’ve always been impressed and daunted in equal measure by tales of friends growing their own sourdough starters, but never made the leap to doing it myself.

However our mum gave me a bit of her starter earlier this year (a mother from my mother seems appropriate) and so I’ve been giving this sourdough malarky a go. I work at home, so I’ve been able to accommodate the routines of this relatively undemanding pet: feeding, stirring, growing, nurturing. Loaves have turned out pretty well, and I can relate to the satisfaction one often hears described which comes with slowly proving a loaf with rewarding, complex flavours. However there are lots of folk out there who bake sourdough bread much better than I do… so this is about other things made with sourdough instead.

Sandor Katz’s monumental ‘The Art of Fermentation’ was a recent welcome birthday present, and as I leafed through the inspiring recipes and writing I was immediately drawn to his suggesting of using up excess sourdough starter for savoury pancakes. It’s dead simple: to help stimulate your starter to grow, you need to chuck out the majority of the flour and water mix so you can feed the remainder with new supplies. Most sources advocate using it for baking, or chucking it away, but the waste-not, want-not approach which Katz outlines is great.


sourdough pancake and starter

They’ve become a firm favourite in the last few weeks, providing an easy and welcome vehicle to use up a bunch of fresh and not-quite-so-fresh things from the fridge. I love the slightly sour tang from the starter; it’s like an quick and dirty hybrid of injera and a Staffordshire oatcake, and they’re great for a quick lunch.

sourdough_extras-03

Just pour out some of the sourdough ‘batter’ into a hot pan, and do like you would with traditional pancakes. Then fill, and wolf them down. Below are a couple of recent lunchtime five-minute wonders: blanched cavolo nero, diced salami and a squirt of sriracha in pancakes flecked with chives; and home-made slaw, salami and leaves. The contents are dictated only by your taste and what you have in. The only downside; roll ‘em like wraps and they disappear in no time.

sourdough_extras-04  sourdough_extras-02

Outside, our rosemary bush has been flowering over the last few weeks. I’ve always wanted to make the most of these delicate, beautiful lilac flowers but never settled on the right option. They wilt and fade when roasted with lamb; they’re a bit much for a salad… but then I thought I’d try and pair them with smoked roast garlic and sea salt.

bumblebee on rosemary flowers

That, plus it being the tail end of wild garlic season in the Pennines, meant a making a brace of big umami-laced flavoured breadsticks. Which, oddly, don’t seem to last long in our house, especially when there’s a bottle open. Of the two, the rosemary flowers and smoked garlic was the standout for me. Well worth making…

Wild garlic, smoked garlic, rosemary flowers and sourdough mix

Spring sourdough grissini, two ways

(makes approx. 24 breadsticks)

  • 325g strong white flour
  • 150g sourdough leaven
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 220ml slight warm water
Rosemary flower, smoked roast garlic and sea salt 
  • 3-4 tablespoons of rosemary flowers (you could alternatively use dried ground rosemary leaves)
  • half a bulb of smoked garlic, roasted slowly for 40mins in an oven at approx. gas mark 4 / 180°C
  • a few tablespoons of sea salt to roll and coat the grissini in
Wild garlic, anchovy and black pepper
  • a fistful of wild garlic leaves, finely chopped
  • 6-8 anchovy fillets
  • fresh ground or crushed black pepper
  • olive oil

Roast the smoked garlic slowly. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool. You should be able to squeeze out the delicious garlic purée from the cloves. Chop the wild garlic leaves finely, mixing with a splash of oil and chopped anchovies in a bowl to create a paste.

Mix the flour and leaven together in a bowl, then slowly add the water. Sprinkle the teaspoons-worth of salt in as you add the water. Mix roughly in the bowl, then leave for ten minutes. After ten minutes, divide into two equal portions, and work each separately. It should be slightly wet and sticky.

Mix the rosemary flowers into one of the portions in a bowl, then add the roasted garlic purée. Knead and mix until the ingredients look evenly distributed, and you can feel the dough changing in your hands. I slap it around briefly for a few minutes, then left it, before returning after a suitable length of time (preferably at least 4 hours). The mix will have risen slightly and proved well.

With the other, stir in the wild garlic mix. You may find you need to add extra flour as the water from the wild garlic leaves makes the dough more liquid. Mix as above until it’s uniformly green and has changed texture, then leave as above.

When the proving has completed, divide each in half, roll into a rough sausage shape, and then divide further into six equally-sized pieces. Roll these pieces, one by one, between your hand to make long breadstick shapes. Be careful they don’t snap… and don’t sweat it if they are uneven. They should look pleasingly rustic. Keep each dusted lightly in flour, and place on a dusted baking tray.

I sprinkled sea salt on a baking tray and rolled the rosemary and smoked garlic grissini in these, so the crystals stuck roughly to the dough.

Bake in batches for 12-15mins in a pre-heated oven at 220°C / Gas Mark 7. Check to see they’ve firmed up and taken some colour. They should be firm enough to break rather than tear. Leave to cool, then enjoy with a drink or two!

winter_leftover_soups-05

Two very different Christmas leftover soups

winter_leftover_soups-05

Happy New Year! Well, that’s Christmas over for another year. The tree’s gone, the decorations are down, and the last hints of spice in the air are fading fast. Miss South and I made the most of the season in our respective locations… both making Christmas puddings for the first time; cooking up a great main meal and seasonal accompaniments; and getting creative with leftovers. After all, getting good mileage from leftovers is one of the best things about the holiday season, isn’t it?

Here are two recipes for Christmas leftover soups, based on main dishes we’ve previously posted about over Christmas. Both have proved their worth (and have been road-tested with others) and provide a good way of taking your leftovers in a different direction. After all, If you’re going to splash out on a large cut of meat, make sure you make the most of everything around it… from boiling liquid to bones. You can’t beat a warming soup in winter: it’s the best form of central heating around, and a great way to make ingredients and flavours go a bit further. Whether it’s a thick, hearty black pea and spiced beef soup, or the exotic joys of a fragranced Vietnamese-style pho bo, you should find something to whet your appetite.

Black pea and spiced beef broth (serves 6-8)

Black pea & spiced beef soup

Although it’s not based on a traditional recipe, this is a very northern dish in heritage and at heart. It’s got mixed Irish and Lancashire parentage, but I reckon a variation on this would feel equally at home in large swathes of Nordic or Eastern Europe too. It’d certainly keep the cold at bay. The spiced beef I used here followed our previously published recipe, which was based on Niamh Shields’. It’s established itself as a family tradition over the last three years!

We’re predisposed to pair pulses and pork on the blog as they’re natural BFFs, but here the sensuous spiced notes and savoury stock of the beef and its broth work really well with the dusky black peas* (not black-eyed peas).

Miss South and I first experienced black peas, parkin and cinder toffee on Bonfire night on a farm above Rochdale in the mid 1990s; that combination of frosty air and scaldingly-hot peas was a happy and formative memory for us both. When I moved to Manchester a few years later I visited Bury market and enjoyed the pleasures of a styrofoam cup of peas and black pudding on a winter morning (tip: you can fashion a spoon from a black pud link by biting the end off strategically).

Dried black peas

*Black peas (aka maple or pigeon peas) are a bit of a rarity outside of East Lancs and the South Pennines, and I’m conscious many readers might not’ve heard of them before. They’re delicious, and deserve to be better known. They’re on sale just over the West Yorkshire border here in Todmorden around Bonfire Night, but you might struggle to get them out of season, never mind outside the region. Even most of my books on regional British specialities (Andrew Webb, David Mabey, Laura Mason & Catherine Brown etc) don’t mention them; and while Mark Hix does in ‘British Regional Food’, he mentions the Lancashire black or parched pea alongside a differently cooked Lenten ‘carling’ or ‘carlin’ from Tyneside and the North East. (if you want to know much more about black peas, I’d suggest this well-researched and comprehensive piece here).

Ingredients

  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 litres stock / liquid from boiling the spiced beef brisket
  • 250g dried black peas (you can substitute with marrowfat or other dried peas, but the taste is quite different)
  • 6 medium sized potatoes (I used Maris Pipers)
  • (optional) salt and pepper to taste
  • A sprinkle of finely sliced beef per person
  • A dollop of sour cream

This recipe assumes you’ve cooked the spiced beef already. Ensure you retain all the liquid you’ve boiled the beef in: it should last, properly covered in a cool place, for a few days. You may want to strain it through a fine sieve or some muslin, as you’ll likely get some bits from the ground spices at the bottom of the pan.

Start the day before, by soaking the black peas in a large bowl, covered in water with plenty of room for them to swell up. Add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to help soften them. Leave the peas to soak overnight. In the morning, rinse them well.

I had around 3 litres of stock from boiling up the spiced beef: I reduced this by a third so it was more intense. It was quite savoury; with the sugar, salt and spices really coming through strongly. I was concerned it’d be too strong, but those wee peas soak up liquid and flavour.

Cover the previously-drained peas with fresh cold water, bring to the boil and then boil hard for 10 minutes, before simmering for a further 30 minutes. Meanwhile sauté the finely chopped red onion and chilli slowly in a heavy-based pan, so it softens and starts to melt down.

Rather than continue to simmer the beans on the hob, I decided to make the soup itself in the slow cooker, but you could easily keep it in a pan. However making meltingly soft black peas is particularly good in the slow cooker as it’s self-contained and cheap as chips to run for hours. I left everything bubble for a few hours, then threw in the peeled, chopped potatoes for 30 minutes. Once they’d softened and cooked, I used a hand blender to process the soup, keeping it rough and textured rather than a smooth purée. Another 20 or so minutes just to soften everything down, and it’s ready to ladle into bowls.

Ideally serve with a dollop of soured cream, and sprinkle with chopped matchsticks of the leftover spiced beef on top. Garnish with some finely chopped chives or some flat-leaf parsley for a dash of colour.

Pho bo (generously serves 4)

Home-made pho bo

My first taste of a decent pho was when Miss South took me to one of the Vietnamese places on the Kingsland Road in London about ten years ago. I’d heard it was one of the best breakfasts known to mankind, and I was smitten on the first slurp. I’ve been going to Vnam Café on Oldham Road in Manchester since it opened to get my hit in the north, but making your own is extremely satisfying, and a great way to get the most from beef bones. In fact this was so good we made it twice within the space of a fortnight last Christmas (as my girlfriend and I had two family Christmas meals; one in Manchester, the other in Belfast). Both times we used beef forerib which we’d roasted as a joint for the main meal. This is the kind of recipe which can certainly improve with specialist ingredients, such as Thai basil, but we didn’t adhere strictly to this prescribed recipe either time, and it tasted fantastic. I’d defy anyone to turn their nose up at this after a night on the tiles over the Christmas period. Just don’t plan a big lunch if you have it for breakfast…

It’s based on this recipe which I suggest you follow; I’ve added some personal notes below. I’ve enjoyed Andrea Nguyen’s Viet World Kitchen blog for years, but it was her recipe for pho which prompted me to finally buy her wonderful book ‘Into the Vietnamese Kitchen’, which I can highly recommend. Her additional tips on making pho are as useful as the main recipe. However there’s no set rule for making this soup, so feel free to substitute or ad lib if required.

Ingredients

For the broth

  • Beef bones (in this case, from fore rib, but anything large and preferably with marrow is good)
  • some nuggets of fat from the beef
  • 300g brisket or similar beef cut
  • 2 mid-size onions, halved
  • 6-8cm ginger, sliced lengthways
  • 5 star anise
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1.5 tablespoons rock salt
  • 3 tablespoons rock or palm sugar

For the finished bowls

  • Noodles (ideally flat rice sticks, but we used rice vermicelli first time, and something like dried ramen next)
  • Fresh mint and coriander leaves, torn roughly
  • Beansprouts
  • Birds-eye chillies, sliced thinly
  • Beef (we cut thin slices from the cooked rare rib meat, and poured the hot broth over)
  • Scallions (spring onions), sliced and briefly blanched to take the edge off them
  • Limes, cut into wedges
A key tip for the start; char your ginger and onions. Slice them, then hold them over the gas flame on your hob until they char nicely round the edges. This gives a lovely richness to the broth. Then add salt, spices, sugar, fish sauce, bones and the cut of braising beef to the pot. First time I made this, I used normal granulated sugar. Second time, at our mum’s, we used rock sugar…and it was so much better. Alternatively you could use some panela, or at least some sticky muscovado to give more depth and aroma to the sweetness in the broth.
Bones, beef, salt. sugar and spice

First time, I used the slow cooker to make the broth overnight to allow all the flavours a chance to meld and mix wonderfully. Plus, the aroma you’ll wake up to is something else! At our mum’s we simmered the stock for several hours in the evening in a cast iron casserole, then let it cool overnight, before giving it some more time in the morning. This quicker cooking time was balanced out by being able to use more beef bones, giving a richer stock. However if you can, use the slow cooker for maximum flavour impact!

Strain the dark, delicious broth to remove any bits of spices and aromatics. You’re wanting to retain just the liquid. If you’ve used any braising cuts of meat in the stock you can retain it ready for a sandwich, shredded. Then put the broth back on the heat to keep warm.

The magic of pho for me is that tantalising counterplay between the slowly simmered, aromatic broth and the crispy fresh ingredients in the bowls. It’s bright and fresh, yet deep and complex. So ten minutes before you’re ready to serve, cook your noodles til al dente; then douse them in iced water to arrest their cooking further. Place them at the bottom of a deep, wide bowl; then add bean sprouts for crunch (I’ve also added mandolin’d carrot for brightness and bite). Add the meat, then pour over the hot broth. Let each diner garnish accordingly with fresh herbs, slices of chilli and scallion, and perhaps a squeeze of lime juice to taste. Happy slurping! Read more