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Hare removal… or who killed Roger Ragu…

Hare ragu, plated and ready
It’s game season again, and my thoughts have been straying towards furred and feathered fare as the hills and woods around here turn various gorgeous autumnal hues. Here at North/South Food we seemed to have cooked a disproportionately large selection of locally-sourced wild beasties over the last couple of years, perhaps motivated by an interest for something a little bit different, combined with a healthy desire to keep food miles low and quality levels high.

The blackboard in the local butcher’s been filled with a good variety of game in the last month: it’s been a bumper year for berries and fruits, so it stands to reason that many of things which feast on them will be in particularly fine fettle. Time to sharpen the steak knives, check the juniper berries, dig out the redcurrant jam and pour a glass of home-made damson gin!

I was gutted to have missed out on hare recently at the butchers (hare today, gone the next… buy it when you see it is the moral of this tale) so I was extremely chuffed to be offered a hare and three rabbits from another source; all local, lean and super-fresh. I’ve had hare in the kitchen once before, but it was more memorable for the cooking than the eating, perhaps as I’d ad-libbed the ingredients and found the beast a bit stringy and wanting for flavour. Since then I’ve read a lot more about hare – how in many respects it’s more akin to venison than rabbit – and wanted to give it a proper go before I made up my mind. So I took no chances and decided to follow a proper recipe this time, rather than make it up as I went.

The beast had been jointed and came without blood or giblets – jugged hare obviously wasn’t an option – so I delved into the excellent ‘Game: A Cookbook‘ by Trish Hilferty and Tom Norrington-Davies (now my go-to book for all things game) and plumped for a classic northern Italian dish of Hare Ragu. It sounded perfect for these cooler autumn evenings. I’m not a great fan of that hardcore, machismo-laced strain of game eating: you know, when the meat’s been left to hang for so long it’s high to the point of walking around the kitchen on its own. Not appealing to me… I’m all for flavour, but not so dominant it threatens to overpower everything else. This hare had been caught the day before I had it, and it spent a day resting before I started cooking. I reckoned the extreme slowness of the recipe would compensate for a lack of extended hanging.

Before going to bed I finely chopped up the veg and aromatics to make a marinade, gave the joints a good coating, mixed up everything and left it overnight to mellow and rest. I then did the same, minus the marinade. Next day I chopped up the last of some wonderfully smokey Porcus backfat and bacon (to keep with the local, hilltop vein), and rendered that down, substituting this for the oil in the recipe. Then the veg got sweated down, accompanied by what few drips of marinade juices were left in the bowl, then in went half a litre of red wine. This took a while to simmer down and evaporate, then I added a dollop of tomato puree and some cocoa.

The addition of cocoa powder might sound a tad unexpected… but after the frankly amazing rabbit with morcilla and chocolate I’d previously cooked, I didn’t need much persuasion to whack a generous teaspoon into the mix. The cocoa-y flavours add a richness with a slight tang, just enough to play off the tomato and sweetness of the veggies. Finally in went the meat, the pot was filled with water, and everything simmered slowly, softening and bubbling away for a few hours until the meat threatened to slip unbidden off the bones. It was at about this time that my guest for the evening, a good mate who’s recently recanted an adult lifetime of vegetarianism, helped me to clean the cooked meat from the bones for the second stage of the cooking. To be honest,  this was above and beyond the call of duty, but he threw himself into the task with more gusto and enthusiasm than many a seasoned carnivore would; driven by a combination of curiosity and hunger. I’d at least warned him that wild beast would be on the menu before he turned up, so it wasn’t too much of a shock for him…

Everything went back in the pot, bar the carcass which was reserved for later use, and the ragu reduced for an hour or so, until it more resembled a dark pulled-pork dish than a normal pasta sauce. By this stage the collective groans of our stomachs ensured the pasta was cooked and garnished. I’d originally intended to dig out the pasta maker and roll out a few sheets of home-made ribbons, but this was a bit ambitious for a midweek work night, so I decided to go with something already in the store cupboard instead. I went for Orecchiette Pugliesi, that curious ear-shaped pasta, reckoning its bite and open shape would work well to catch the thick ragu. It did the trick…

A good helping of pecorino and a twist of parsley topped off the hearty, steaming bowls, and we tucked right in. You know it’s a good meal when there’s little conversation and less left in the dishes by the end. The hare had a big flavour… deeply rich and meaty, with more than a hint of game, but the tastes were balanced rather than overwhelming. Cooking it so slowly meant the meat was soft, succulent and very moist, and had absorbed all the other flavours in the pot, reducing everything down to a dark, unctuous delight. The only criticism is that it was almost too dry for a sauce to coat and accompany pasta… if I made this again I’d take it off the hob slightly earlier.

As is so often the way, the flavour got better over the next couple of days – just as well, as there was a lot of meat on this hare. I was (happily) eating it for days, and there’s still a tupperware container in the freezer, holding at least three generous portions, ready to meets its match with some home-made pappadellle one evening as the nights draw in. And, as the bones were substantial enough to boil up, I’ve also got a good selection of hare stock (or should that be hare restorer?) ice cubes in the freezer, ready to add to something special in the future.

Brown hare are powerful, elegant but shy native creatures – normally the most I see of them is a browny-grey blur when I’m out walking in the hills – so I’m pleased to have gotten a second chance to savour this beast… and that we hit it off better on our second dinner date. I can highly recommend this dish… stop reading this now and make yourself a hare appointment!

Pot luck with Lancashire Hotpot

Autumn’s definitely the time to turn up the heat, run down the blinds, and take solace in slow-cooked, slow-release, one-pot wonders. As I felt the first fingers of frost tapping on the windows in October I decided it was definitely time to blow the dust off my slow-cooker, which doesn’t get much love during the summer months.

One morning when I was at Stansfield’s the butcher, I asked about the availability of mutton. As chance would have it, some was due in later that day: Paul had serendipitously thought it was about that time for the older, more flavoursome meat to make a reappearance as it was drawing in a bit out there. Now, I love a good bit of mutton. Snobs may turn their noses up at an auld bit of sheep over a young lamb, but for certain dishes I’m a firm believer that the grain and richness of an older beast is much more appropriate. The dish I had in mind was a good old Lancashire Hotpot, a perfect home for an older sheep to end its day in…

It’s hard to find a definitive recipe for Lancashire Hotpot: such a family favourite means there are a thousand variations and versions, particular to a certain place. I’ve had delicately-balanced miniature portions in restaurants and great splodges of home-served goodness, and the unifying elements are normally lamb/mutton, carrots and spuds. After that it seems to be open season for a whole range of additional elements.

A few years ago I saw the Hairy Bikers making hotpot in Bury Market and they suggested adding a layer of the local black budding to give a layer of unctuous goodness at the bottom of the pot.I tried this the first time I had a go at making this dish, and never looked back. Black pudding makes a great gravy base at the best of times (as used here) and it adds an extra touch of the local speciality to a hotpot.

I started by slicing a load of spuds and carrots, then laying down a layer of thinly-sliced spuds on top of a well-greased pot. Season well, and add the next layer… in this case a sliced link of Ireland’s black pud. Then another layer of spuds (I love that dauphinoise-esque experience of lots of layers of well-buttered spuds) and pieces of mutton, cut fairly small and mixed with some fresh parsley. Then that was covered by sliced carrots, then potatoes, then mutton and… well, you get the picture. Hardly scientific in terms of quantities, but delightfully fun to arrange.

Last time I made this I added a proper stock, but reckoned in the slow cooker I’d be able to rely on the liquid in the veg, so just poured some water down the edges, mixed with Worcester sauce. Some older recipes suggest adding oysters to the mix: I added a splash or three of Anchovy Sauce for a similar umami kick. The whole thing was then finished off with slivers of butter on the top, before the lid went on for 8 hours of overnight slow-cooking.

Proper Lancashire friends have told me the origin of the dish is that was cooked slowly all day in oven, ready for the working folk to get home. I’m a fan of all things cooked for aeons so the slow-cooker (crockpot) seemed a likely option. What I’d not bet on was how appealing it is to wake up to the heavenly smell of a hotpot: It took an almost superhuman effort not to wolf down a portion for breakfast, and instead save it for my intended evening meal.

Fast forward through the day and I served this up to a friend for an informal evening meal. Always good to see us attacking the pot for seconds with such gusto: hopefully this proves the worth of such a classic, simple, traditional British dish. Preferably the slower cooked, the better!