book cover

Creating Slow Cooked

book cover

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before now or anything, but I’ve written a book! You’ll have to forgive me getting meta and writing about writing a book but I’m still in post book writing withdrawal and indulging myself with as many blog posts as possible before Slow Cooked comes out on November 6th.

After people congratulated me on the book deal (and believe me, nothing gets people more excited than a proper paper book even in these days of blogs and e-readers), they generally wanted to know two things. Firstly, how do you get published and secondly, how do you actually write a book from scratch?

Getting published is as personal as what you are writing and every path will be different. Mine involved using North/South Food to develop my writing and recipe testing skills and shaping my style into something people paid attention to. In many ways, it’s the epitome of practise making perfect. From there came the Observer Food Monthly and then the attention of publishers.

By the time I was talking to Ebury about writing a book, I’d teamed up with my fantastic agent at Hardman Swainson who helped me negotiate the practicalities of a book contract, held my hand emotionally and answered a multitude of questions about publishing in general. Along with my fantastic editor, their encouragement and enthusiasm got me to the place where a slow cooker book could happen.

I’ve been a huge fan of the slow cooker for ages as its low energy style of cooking (both electricity and exertion wise) is perfect for my spoonie lifestyle, but I’d never found the inspiration I needed to take it beyond the ubiquitous stews. Most stuff I read about it seemed to be about simply fuelling yourself with stuff warmed up in the slow cooker rather than experimenting with ingredients, techniques and the genuine enjoyment of food. This is what I wanted from my slow cooker so I thought that rather than wait for someone else to do it, that was the book I would write.

With the idea at the back of my mind that Slow Cooked would be aimed at all the people the other books weren’t, like the retirees who are too busy all day to be chained to the stove, the students who don’t have great kitchen facilities, the 50 something men who’ve never really cooked before, the young couples with hectic lives and the people like me who can’t reliably use a standard kitchen all the time, the book started to take shape in both my mind and my Evernote folders. Read more

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

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

rbbit

Slow Cooker Rabbit Stew

rbbitFor ages, it was tradition for me to go and visit Mister North in the countryside over August Bank Holiday weekend. My dancing all day at Carnival days are over so it was very relaxing to head to West Yorkshire to breathe in the fresh air, frequent country pubs and eat well.

Unfortunately I also cooked one of the worst meals I’ve ever made on one Bank Holiday visit. It was a rabbit stew of such dryness that it was almost completely inedible and every single time Mister North or I so much as think about eating or cooking rabbit, we mention it in hushed (and horrified) tones.

Rabbit is a very lean meat with almost no fat and thus it’s easy to cook all the moisture out of it. It’s also a meat that most people in the UK don’t regularly eat or cook because of a combination of it being seen as poor wartime food, the myxamatosis scare of the 70s and the Watership Down/Beatrix Potter effect. This means we don’t grow up learning how it should be cooked or eaten and have anything to compare our efforts too.

Even I took a while to get into the swing of cooking things I used to keep as a childhood pet, so getting the hang of rabbit took me time. The terrible rabbit stew came from a frozen wild rabbit and was then soaked in vinegar water to tenderise it. I won’t be repeating either of these things again. It might work better if I’d brined it though.

I also irrationally despise the tactic of cooking drier meats with bacon to bard them. I’m not entirely sure why this practice enrages me so much, but it’s also fairly pointless with the kind of lean back bacon in vogue these days. I seemed destined to never exorcise the ghost of the terrible rabbit stew.

Then as my slow cooker chronicles progressed and I was making seriously succulent stews, I decided to risk doing bunny in it. And it was fantastic. It was one of the dishes I enjoyed the most while recipe testing and I was really disappointed when it didn’t fit into my chapter structures and had to be set aside (hopefully for next time.) When I saw a wild rabbit at Herne Hill Market this August Bank Holiday weekend, I knew the time had come to revisit the technique, adding a beautiful big Bramley apple, some fresh tarragon and white wine this time. 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!