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Feijoada – the ultimate pork and pulses dish?

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Ah, Feijoada: the national dish of Brazil, straddling the culinary and cultural tectonic plate boundaries of Africa, Europe and South America. Possibly the stoutest meal you’re likely to encounter, and enough to give any vegetarian a dose of the cold shivers.

Feijoada marries the southern European / Romance tradition of slow-cooked pork cuts and beans, but with the addition of west African and Amerindian flavours and techniques. It’s often described as originating from slave fare (the story being it was made up of scraps and offcuts of meat that plantation owners disregarded), but like many classic dishes comes loaded with myths and romanticised stories of its origin. Regardless, it reflects the melting pot culture of modern Brazil, which perhaps explains its extraordinary popularity across generation, class, race and region.

I vaguely remember reading about feijoada many years ago, amongst a glut of facts about Brazil gleaned from geography schoolbooks. At the time it didn’t really register…as a teenage boy I was focusing more on images of the impossibly gaudy and glamorous Carnaval and sugar cane-fuelled cars than meat-heavy dishes. A few years ago, as part of an impromptu South American-themed meal, a good friend brought her own version of feijoada, and that sparked my interest. Ever since I’ve resolved to make my own.

Regular readers are probably spotting a pattern here: yet another dish pairing pork products and pulses, and another opportunity to indulge in the joys of black pudding. Well yes, guilty as charged. And having access to some superb rare-breed pork from our friends at Porcus, I’m inclined to work my way through the world’s greatest pig ‘n’ bean dishes, one by one.

When it comes to feijoada there are a plethora of recipes out there. My well-thumbed go-to-guide for South American recipes, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi’s ‘The Art of South American Cooking‘, suggested one needs at least five types of pork in there, including the snout. Others suggest a bit of pork belly and sausage is enough. In the end I ploughed my own furrow, referencing recipes from the ever-enjoyable Flavours of Brazil blog and a smattering of others.

I’d previously procured a Tamworth tail and trotters (being able to source a pig tail generally points to it being raised ethically, as sadly most intensively-farmed pigs have their tails cut off) and had also set aside some artisan chorizo from the fabulous folk at Levanter Fine Foods. After visiting Miss South in Brixton, allowing me to pick up some genuine morcela de lamego from the wonderful Continental Deli on Atlantic Road, I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Here’s the final recipe: it took a day of preparation and cooking, but believe me, it was worth every minute.

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Cassoulet: rabbit & pork to quicken the pulse(s)

We’ve written before on more than one occasion of our shared love for all things pulse and porcine. Pretty much every pork-eating culture in the world has at least one melt-in-the mouth classic which taps into both of these elements, exploiting the extraordinary harmony and symbiosis of flavour and texture which comes from such comfort food. These are truly made for each other, and it’s a massive favourite here with us at North/South Food.

Inspired in part by a great holiday to Languedoc (and armed with a few goodies on my return) I decided to make a semi-proper cassoulet as a way of warding off the rather autumnal weather which has blighted the north of England since coming home. Not a proper proper cassoulet (with all the regional rivalries that seems to stoke up) but my own interpretation. After all, it’s a genuine classic, and something I’ve never cooked before, so it was well worth having a go at…

I used my well-thumbed copy of Elisabeth Luard’s ‘Classic French Cooking as reference: her recipe for ‘Cassoulet de Castelnaudary’ seems pretty authentic. I deviated on a few occasions, perhaps most heretically by using rabbit rather than duck or goose. You see, I’ve had a bunny in the freezer for a few months, and coming home with a lovely artisanal French sausage, I thought something casserole-y would make for a perfect combination. After a bit of reading I warmed to the idea of cassoulet.

First things first, I had to make the rabbit confit. After a good defrosting I jointed the bunny… legs off and the body / saddle in three. I had some goosefat lurking in the fridge in a kilner jar (really not sure how long it was since I last cooked a goose but I decided to take the risk) and I had a tin of store-bought stuff as well. Tip: buy reduced-price tins of goose fat from supermarkets in the weeks after Christmas. It lasts for ever, and I’m sure you know just how good roast potatoes & Yorkshire puddings are, made with real goose fat.

I melted the fat down in a saucepan, then poured them over the layered rabbit joints in a stoneware pot. I’d also sprinkled salt over the meat (using wonderful fleur de sel from the Camargue), chucked a few peppercorns into the pot, and added a couple of bay leaves. Once the meat was covered by the warm, clear goose fat, it went straight into a pre-heated gas oven at the lowest setting, covered by tinfoil, and I left it overnight.

Next day a delicate aroma greeted me when I opened the kitchen door: inside the oven the meat had blanched and warmed through. very pretty looking too. I took out the legs, ate one of the other bits for breakfast on toast (chef’s perk!) and put the rest in a kilner jar, carefully covering with the fat. That was the rabbit sorted, now for the rest.

A quick trip to Stansfield’s in the market secured some belly pork (I got Paul to remove the skin for me) and some lean escalopes. I decide not to buy some fresh sausages, determined to subvert tradition and use the dried Aveyronnais saucisse instead. This is almost as heretical as using rabbit, but I thought the rich, fatty dry sausage would work well in such a slow-cooked dish.

So I diced the belly meat, and added it to the bottom of a cast iron Le Creuset (heretical decision #3… it should of course be cooked in stoneware but I didn’t have anything large enough). I opted for canned haricot beans over dried (life’s too short for soaking pulses) and added three tins of these, together with a couple of roughly chopped carrots, a bouquet garni, a red onion studded with cloves, and a head of garlic which I’d blackened quickly over a gas flame on the hob. Also in the pot went the rolled-up belly skin. Everything was covered with water, and raised to a rolling boil, before simmering for an hour or so.

After that was done I drained everything, reserving the cooking liquor carefully. I browned the rabbit joints in a heavy frying pan, then did the same with the lean pork and a couple of diced red onions & some garlic, letting them shimmer and glisten in the hot goose fat. I unfurled the pork skin on the bottom of the cast iron pot, and layered up the beans, veg and meats on top. A tin of plum tomatoes was ably accompanied by some home-grown toms, which looked as pretty as they tasted. As the ingredients stacked up I was worried by a deficit of beans to cover everything, so I added a extra tin of cannellini beans. Then I poured the cooking broth from earlier in until everything was just coated, lidded up and put it in the oven at gas mark 2 (150°C) for about two hours.

It was about then I realised that such a long cooking process was going to severely test my patience: the smell when I opened the oven was enough to make me want to gnaw my own arm off. However the next stages would mean it was some time before I could exepct to finally tuck in. After notching the oven up to 160°C the pot went back in, uncovered, to help develop a crust. This took closer to an hour as a fair amount more liquid had been drawn out of the tomatoes, but eventually there was enough of a crust for the next stage. I spooned some goose fat over the top, and broke the crust several times before adding a layer of breadcrumbs. Breaking the crust seems to be one of the defining differences between Castelnaudary and other towns in Languedoc which lay claim to cassoulet as their own. I opted to break the ‘croute’ seven times, as Larousse Gastronomique suggests this is the Castelnaudary way. Then back in the oven again to thicken up and cook for another half an hour or so. Cue more groaning stomachs – it was at this stage I cracked open some rather good anchovy-enfused Camargue olives.

We enjoyed this with a bottle of excellent Saint-Chinian red (sticking to the Languedoc theme) and some crusty white bread to soak up the juices. Dead simple, and all that was needed to really savour this dish. It tasted wonderful, and was well worth the anticipation and wait. Better still, as so many one pot meals do, it just got better over the next couple of days.

I’d give this 7/10 for adherence to tradition, but 10/10 for flavour. The sausage was excellent, adding a complexity and richness to the dish, and the rabbit was succulent and delicious. Sometimes traditions are there to be subverted! If this heralds the season to eat rich, slow-cooked one pot wonders, then I’m glad to wrap up warmer and take things slowly. Meanwhile I’ll be rationing out the goose fat from the confit for future cooking exploits… it’s a wonderful by-product of this dish. What’s good for the goose is certainly good for me…

All Boar, No Bore…

Up bright and early and filled with the joys of summer on Sunday I headed into Brixton to take advantage of the season’s finest. Already chuffed to bits about getting some very reasonably priced donut peaches and baby plum tomatoes at the fruit and veg stall opposite the back of Brixton Village on Coldharbour Lane by the bridge, my day was made when I discovered a stall at the Farmers’ Market selling, (amongst other things) wild boar and duck eggs. Almost before I knew it, my money had found its way out of my purse and a bag with a rolled wild boar loin and two double yolked duck eggs was nestled in my hand. Suddenly dinner seemed a long way away…

Back home, I tucked into a delicious cooked breakfast with the eggs and the tomatoes and set to reading the Sunday papers. Seeing Jay Rayner compare Red Dog Saloon and Pitt Cue Co in the Observer got me thinking that I just can’t have enough pig and pulses in my life and that slow roasting the boar loin over beans would be the perfect twist on that American classic this Independence Day weekend.

Being all organised when I made the root beer beans a few weeks ago, I soaked and cooked more haricots than I needed at the time and then froze them. So while the oven heated to the maximum temperature to blast the boar skin into crackling, the beans defrosted and I prepared a rub of salt, butter, oilve oil and home grown fennel seeds for the skin. Once the meat was at room temperature I slathered the skin with the rub, working on the premise that the only thing better than pork fat, is pork fat with butter on it!

The loin went into a very hot oven for 20 minutes to crisp up. I also chopped up fennel, red onion and some of those baby plum tomatoes and some cloves of garlic to mix with the beans as a bed for the meat to slow roast on.
I then took the meat out, set it aside, deglazed the pan with some water and then tossed the beans and veg well in the juices, put the meat on top and popped in the oven at 160℃ for about two hours. Or until I remembered about it again…

It smelled amazing when I opened the oven, but I was worried that the fennel was the wrong side of caramlised and would just taste burnt. But the meat looked so mouthwatering moist and tender I didn’t really care. Slow roasting on the bone had turned this into something really special. I left it to rest to make sure I didn’t miss those precious juices and chopped up a quick slaw of white cabbage, fennel, carrot and golden beetroot to go on the side.

If you aren’t just as fennel obsessed as I am, feel free to leave it out of the beans. But do keep it in the slaw where the anise cuts through the sweetness of the beets and carrot and tempers the mustardiness of the cabbage. The fresh crunch of the slaw is its selling point, so don’t be tempted to chop too finely or drown it in dressing like a shop bought version. I used a tablespoon of yoghurt, a dessertspoon of mayonnaise, cider vinegar, fish sauce and a tiny bit of Dijon mustard to make a light yet flavoursome dressing that coats the vegetables well without being overwhelming.

Then after all the chopping, shredding and roasting, I dug in. It was so good. The meat was so juicy and tender even compared to the equivalent piece of pork, falling off the bone beautifully. The crackling wasn’t just as shatteringly crisp as pork can be, but the slight chewiness and caramelly finish from the butter made up for that in abundance. The beans were deliciously meaty whil even the slightly burnt fennel was very enjoyable. Everything just burst with flavour, especially the boar itself.

And best of all, it didn’t feel like a heavy dish thanks to the refreshing crunch of the slaw and the fresh flavours of the beans so you could eat a hefty portion of the meat with feeling defeated. It’s dishes like this that remind me why seasonal food is so worth the wait…