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Northern Stars supper club. Pt.1: the meal

Northern stars main 1

For someone with an overly healthy interest in food, there could be few things more exciting than being set loose in a professional kitchen. Last Thursday saw my debut in the kitchen, at the latest JoinUs4Supper evening at North Star Deli. If, however, you’d seen me on Wednesday night, I’d probably have looked more than a tad pensive, mildy nervous, and concentrating deeply. A little part of me was starting to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew by accepting the challenge to collaborate with Deanna, Ben and the North Star Deli team. That and the fact I was helping stuff a pig’s intestine with blood, desperately trying to ensure it didn’t drop and burst in an ignominious end to our efforts to make fresh black pudding. All this from a throwaway comment about having a go on a TV food quiz to a couple of fellow foodies

Northern stars final 1

After weeks of thoughts, discussions and debate, we were clear in what we wanted to do. At the heart of the meal was the intention to place Porcus pork in the limelight, with local cheese and veg as superb supporting actors. We wanted to find a flavour and feel which properly encompassed the character of our TV team.

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Venison Christmas dinner, and the best leftovers ever…

Uncooked venison pieThe centrepiece of our Christmas dinner this year was a roasted leg of venison. Pretty good as it stands (ahem), but curiously, this tale ends up being all about the leftovers: the venison pie afterwards stole the show!

Cooked venison pie

My girlfriend’s family had served the roast venison a couple of Christmasses before, but it had overcooked disappointingly. I was given the challenge/opportunity to see if I could do it better. The roast recipe (see photo below) is from the Tatton Park estate, and I was handed a photocopy, complete with annotations. Now I like a good bit of venison, but hadn’t cooked a joint this size before, and was aware it’d need a bloody good basting to keep it tender. Hardly the hassle-free roast which is recommended for a peaceful Christmas Day, especially the first cooking for the in-laws!

Roasted joint of venison

I ordered the meat from Paul in the market (asking him to leave me the bone), and started work on Christmas Eve by making a stock … roasting the bones for 30mins before boiling up with a mirepoix and some herbs for a hour or so, until the stock tasted rich, robust and savoury. Venison’s very lean, but this yielded a creamy covering of fat, which I reserved and reformed for later use. While the stock was bubbling I also made up a batch of spiced Eastern European-style red cabbage. It’s normally better then day after making it, and has a good tang with caraway seeds, wild honey and bramley apple.

Spiced Red cabbage

After their experiences with the venison joint I was a little wary of following the recipe to the letter, so on Christmas Day we got cracking by late morning. This gave us time for a slow, low cooking; although potentially less than the recipe called for. After making the Stilton, bacon and panko stuffing, this got rolled up inside the joint which was then retied. I also stuck spears of that venison fat into the flesh, to help lard it. I wrapped the joint tightly in foil for all but the last 40 mins or so, when the foil covered the whole roasting tin, so the juices could really get going. All in all it was probably cooking for a shade over three hours, basted regularly. The meat rested for a half hour while I whipped up gallons of gravy, deglazing the pan with port and using the stock to build up the flavour.

Christmas dinner 2011

After our Spiced Beef starters, our Christmas plate was finished off with hasselback potatoes, roasted parsnips, sprouts with bacon and chestnut, and sweet potato mash. A great spread, with plenty of flavour, variety and colour for the main meal. The venison was very tender and moist (phew!) and the taste was good and richly gamey, but not exceptional (admittedly this was up against the Spiced Beef, which was a real winner by any standards). We had a leftover meal on Boxing Day, with as many of the trimmings and accompaniments as our plates would hold, but we didn’t fancy eating rich slices of venison every day until New Year.

Pie ingredients

One of my Christmas presents was the OCD Chef’s Chopping Board (my friends know me too well) and I’d joked about keeping my scalpel in the kitchen with it. My inner designer feels totally at home with a scalpel blade, and I fancied building on a couple of previous attempts to decorate a game pie. With around half a kilo of cooked venison, and a gale blowing outside, pie seemed like the perfect prospect. A post-Christmas pie, made with Christmas presents, leftovers, and a nod to the frozen north…

We came home after a shorter-than-planned afternoon walk in the heavy winds – any hot port in a storm –  and we threw ourselves into making the leftover ‘pie to end all pies’. Venison, stilton and gravy were all to hand. This was to be rich, rumbustious and made to revel in the excesses of the Christmas period: game, port and piggy bits, but I had a sweet potato leftover to use up. I reckoned that, much like the butternut squash in my venison pasties, this token vegetable’d work well.

I rendered down the bacon fat, and melted some butter, along with a sprig of rosemary. Then in went a few shallots, the diced bacon, and some cubes of wild boar salami, followed after a bit by cubed sweet potato and a hare stock cube. The plan was to soften everything through, cooking gently and once that was done, it all came off the heat. We discarded the stuffing from the venison, and cut the meat into properly decent-sized chunks. Venison has a tendency to firm up if overcooked, so I reckon bigger was better, and should guard against dryness. The hunky chunks of deer got mixed up well with the other cooled, cooked ingredients, then I crumbled in generous handfuls of Stilton to the mix. It looked great.

There was probably about 330ml of gravy left over from Christmas Day (a handy size… can you imagine if they sold tins of real gravy next to the Coke and Irn-Bru?) so that got warmed up in a pan, along with  teaspoon of Gentleman’s Relish (the secret ingredient),

Cutting board and reindeer

some extra hare stock cubes, a tablespoon-sized blob of redcurrant jelly, and significant quantities of ‘cooking’ port. After thickening to a wonderfully rich, thick consistency this was gently and methodically poured over the pie filling in the dish.

I’d already rolled out the pastry (Jus-Ro’s finest… I didn’t fancy making puff (or rough puff) this time) and traced around the pie dish, gathering up the offcuts to make decorations with my trusty blade. Once the pie dish was filled we had fun with the decorations! I’m really pleased by how it came out… there was no over-arching theme but I did reference my other half’s Christmassy knitwear for the reindeer inspiration. After that we got busy making trees and stars, then fitted everything together in a 3D manner. I think I went a bit too heavy with the egg wash in places, but I love the seasonal tableaux we came up with. It’s certainly raised the bar for the next pastry creation!

The finished dish got cooked for about 40mins in a medium oven: I didn’t want to overcook the filling and this was just enough to puff the pastry topping up perfectly and the contents heated to a slight bubble. By the time it came out we were almost climbing the walls with anticipation… just enough time to get the celeriac mash and a healthy portion of the spiced cabbage on the side. Oh, the smell…

Venison pie and mash

And we’re talking about a full-on, revelatory moment on the first bite. Boom… a gloriously grown-up pie fest… with the tang of the stilton, the richness of the game, the sweetness of the port-laden gravy and sweet potato meltingly intimate together on a fork. Proper posh pie heaven. Big chunks of succulent meat and light pastry were so good together… I didn’t want to stop eating it. Next day the pie made a glorious re-appearance alongside some home-fried chips and peas on the side. Which, if anything, was better than the first portion, as the gravy and filling had mellowed and mixed even more. No point in dressing up the accompaniments… pie and mash, pie and chips. Dead simple, job done. Fan-bloody-tastic!

Venison pie and chips

PS. Drinks during the cooking were provided by the superlative Buxton Brewery (their cracking Wild Boar making its debut next to the aptly game in the kitchen): then we washed the pie down with a suitably Nordic brew, Einstök‘s Icelandic Pale Ale. I like my ales at anytime, but a pie and a pint is a marriage made in heaven. Happy Christmas, deer!

 

Pasta & cheese part 2: Cacio e pepe

A bowl of cooked cacio e pepe, with fork

This is the second article about the perfect partnership of pasta and cheese; the first being Macaroni (and) Cheese. If you though that sounded good and easy to make, just wait til you try this wee number!

I first read about the classic Roman dish, cacio e pepe, about ten years ago. I think it was in an old River Café recipe in the Guardian. I wasn’t convinced… it seemed just a little too simple and basic… but my curiosity was piqued and I knocked up a portion one lazy evening. I’ve not looked back since, and my fridge always has a small stash of pecorino in it; perfect for a quick bowl of this wonderfully life-affirming pasta dish. It really is the perfect fallback meal.

A bowlful of grated pecorino

Cacio is a local name for pecorino cheese from Lazio, and pepe is as in pepper; and that’s all you need to know in order to bring a bowl of pasta to life. I’ve tried it with fresh pasta too, but prefer the bite and feel of dried pasta, as the cheese sauce works brilliantly with its smoother surface texture. I particularly love bucatini, with its thick, hollow tubes which flex and bow with just the right ‘bite’. I read somewhere bucatini’s the correct pasta for this dish, but it works equally well with linguine or spaghetti too.

A fistful of dry bucatini pasta

The basic components are dead simple, the preparation time is a shade over ten minutes, and it’s a forgiving recipe which anyone can tackle. Bring a good amount of water to the boil in a deep pan. Salt it well – good pasta always deserves a decent dollop of salt to cook it with – and add a generous fistful of pasta per person. I invariably make too much of this for one person, but it always mysteriously disappears as soon as it hits the plate. You just need to cook the pasta as you would expect, until it’s slightly al dente. When it’s done, be sure to reserve a little of the cooking liquid before you drain it (I’ve absent-mindedly tipped it all out on more than one occasion, so now I scoop out half a cup or so to make sure I keep it, before draining). The starch in the cooking water is important, as it helps to soften and melt the cheese.

As for the cheese, in Rome this would be made with the local pecorino Romano. I prefer the stronger taste of pecorino Sardo if I can get it, but either way, the sheep’s milk in pecorino is perfect for melting, and the salty umami flavour compliments the warmth of the pepper perfectly. I’m not sure about quantities of cheese… i grate up enough for a generous helping. Some recipes call for a mix of Grana Padana or Parmesan, and I find this mix doesn’t melt quite as well, but tastes even better than straight pecorino.

Pour a bit of the reserved water back into the pan over a medium heat, stir in the cheese, and watch it melt. It should quickly become a very pale, almost white stringy consistency, bubbling on the base of the pan. At this stage you’ve got to remember two things: this dish needs to be made and served HOT, and served FAST. Stir in the pasta, keeping everything moving quickly, and grind in black pepper.

Starting to melt the pecorino

This is important, you really need the fieriness of freshly ground black pepper – don’t use anything pre-ground –  it needs to glow and sparkle with the heady aromatic notes of freshly ground peppercorns. Again, I tend to subscribe to the principle of twist and grind until you think you’re done, then give it a couple more turns for good luck. Give it a bit of welly: your eyes may water but you’ll be grateful for the punch of pepper against the mellow salty smoothness of the cheese. Sometimes I add a twist of mixed peppercorns over the top of the plated dish: the floral pink and green peppercorns give it a lighter, more playful finish.

Get this onto a plate, pronto, and eat it while it’s still piping hot. A slice of good rustic bread on the side is always a plus, to mop up those last errant smears of cheese and pepper., and I can guarantee you’ll have the cleanest plates after this meal. Quality pecorino is a bit like Clint Eastwood: hard, salty, and matures with finesse, so as long as you wrap it properly in waxed paper, and keep it carefully placed in the fridge, it’ll always sit patiently ready for an emergency callout for cacio e pepe.

It’s one of the easiest dishes you can make in a shade over ten minutes… just water, pasta, cheese and black pepper. Magnifico!

The finished dish… a bowlful of hot cacio e pepe

Pasta & cheese part 1: return of the mac…

Mmmm, pasta and cheese. Such perfect bedfellows, and the basis for two of my most favourite, comforting and fail-safe meals. After all, it’s hard to beat the double whammy of carbs and dairy products on a cold day. As it feels like winter is knocking on the front door, it’s time to share them with you. this first one is easy, the next is even easier: so there’s no excuse not to try these out for yourself!

Here’s the first of these… it’s macaroni cheese. Perhaps not haute cuisine, but one of my all-time favourites. And to any of our North American readers, I apologise in advance to you: this is the exact opposite of a Kraft Dinner. Miss South was braver than I, and last year experienced boxed Kraft & Mac. Made from powdered cheese: two words which should never be used in the same sentence. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t a fan. I shuddered at the very thought of it… but then my macaroni cheese has become a signature, sloppy, safe dish; something I can always fall back on when feeling cold or blue. So it’s time to redress the balance and serve up some proper North/South mac!

Half-eaten macaroni cheese with tomatoes

Firstly, let’s drop the ‘and’. On this side of the pond, it’s always just been ‘macaroni cheese’. I was heartened to find it’s been a favourite in the UK since Victorian times, no doubt because it’s simple to make, and almost universally appealing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten macaroni any other way apart from with cheese. If ever there was a typecast pasta, it’s macaroni. Whole packs must sit at the back of the cupboard, dreaming of being partnered with a cacciatore or arrabbiata sauce. Macaroni wants to be treated like an adult, and I’d like to think I know how to show it a good, grown-up time. There must be something to this: over the years I’ve found none of my guests has turned down my offer of seconds. Or thirds, come to think of it…

So let’s start with the basics… you’ve got to make a white sauce. I’ve got a bit more classical in the last few years, making a proper béchamel by letting the warm milk infuse with a clove and bay-studded onion, before adding it to a roux of butter and flour. But you can keep it simple and just trickle the milk in gently once you’ve stirred the butter and flour together into a smooth paste. The secret is to keep stirring at all times… I’ve been known to walk around the kitchen, stirring the pan as I go, just to keep everything perfect. This might seem excessive (or obsessive), but this is the cornerstone to the whole dish: a superbly glossy, silky, smooth and savoury sauce. And, if like me, you learn how to make this most classic kitchen sauces as a by-product of knocking up a bit of dirty comfort food, all the better. Without a badass sauce of the right consistency, this dish fails, so give it some love and attention. Once you’re confident in doing it properly, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes shut.

Three cheeses for macaroni

Obviously cheese is the other fundamental to this dish. Apart from the time, still celebrated in our family lore, when our dad managed to omit it altogether (cue whole family confusedly chewing pasta in white sauce, waiting in vain for the flavour to kick in). Generally our mum used to make a killer macaroni cheese, always using mature cheddar to up the umami stakes, giving every bite a good savoury tang. I used to do the same, but over time have settled on a broader range of complimentary flavours. So now you’ll find the sweet nuttiness of Parmesan paired with the kind of tangy Cheddar which makes one’s mouth pucker involuntarily, and a creamily lactic Lancashire to soften everything out. Sometimes a wee bit of pecorino will get added instead of the Parmigiano, or I’ll substitute some local Pike’s Delight for the normal mature cheddar; but the rich elegance of the sauce is best based on a range of cheeses. After all this lactic love, I tend to go heavy on the quantities. My rule of thumb is to grate a bowlful of roughly the same volume of cheese as the volume of dry pasta I’m going to use. Seems like a lot, but you need a decent amount for the topping. As the cheese gets stirred slowly into the béchamel, it’s time to get the macaroni going in a pot of boiling water. Drop in, return to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Once you’ve added a good proportion of the cheese (perhaps three quarters of the bowl), and the consistency of the sauce is like a thick custard, it’s time to season. If I was a purist, like the excellent Simon Hopkinson, I’d insist on using white pepper to keep the delicate shade of the béchamel consistent. However I normally add a tablespoon or so of wholegrain mustard at this stage, so some freshly ground black pepper just adds to the speckled appearance, and gives a touch more warmth to the dish. Taste will tell what’s right for you… I like it with a decent amount of poke. A few minutes stirring, ensuring the sauce is rich, flavoursome and thick, and the pasta should be about ready. For God’s sake, don’t overcook it: we’re finishing the dish off under the grill (and in a bed of molten sauce), so slightly al dente macaroni is better then flaccid and overdone any day.

Drained macaroni in colander

Drain the macaroni, take the sauce off the heat, and pour the pasta into an ovenproof dish. Slowly pour over the sauce, stirring well to ensure everything is coated properly, then finish the dish off with a generous topping of cheese. This’ll brown perfectly under the grill, adding a bit more bite and chew to the finished affair.

Mixing up the sauce with the macaroni

It was only a few years ago I weened myself off my childhood delight of a good squirt of Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup on my macaroni: as I was upping the ante with ever more posh ingredients. However our mum always used to put sliced tomatoes on the top to brown. I hated this at the time (sorry mum) but as I’ve got older, I’ve appreciated how the tart and sweet flavour of tomatoes complements the savoury nature of the cheese; so now I’m fully signed up to the tomato garnish. You can make the whole thing look as pretty or as lazy as you like, before bunging it under the grill/broiler until everything bubbles and browns, and you can’t resist any longer.

You’ll only need 25 minutes to knock this up; you can feel good as you’re applying some proper chef skills. Yes, the calorie count is on the high side, but this is winter comfort food, not something for a healthy regime. Don’t even think of skimping on the fat: skimmed milk or lo-fat cheese is wrong on so many levels, and just won’t deliver the big, warming flavours you want. I sometimes add a bit of double (heavy) cream to the sauce for a splash more decadence. Once you finish your portion (and seconds too, because this is one dish I can guarantee you’ll not be able to resist more of) you can always do something wholesome and virtuous, like taking a long walk in the park, or climbing a hill. You’ll be ready for anything. Except, perhaps, dessert.

Pickles and Pizza

I like a bit of fine dining as much as anyone, but sometimes one’s tastes run a bit more on the casual side of things. I don’t mean I ever want to eat a Prawn Ring or kebab meat again and I believe ready meals to be a waste of calories. But I do have a soft spot for the kind of comfort food that borders on junk, especially that brand of Americana popularised by Nigella recently.

So when Mister North was down recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge some homemade delights that would make a dietician weep. I’d been lusting after deep fried pickles ever since a Southern friend told me about them a few years back. Seeing Homesick Texan and Food Stories‘ recipes for them put them at the top of my to try list.

I dialled down the trashy vibe and put myself in the running for a pretentiousness award by growing my own gherkins and pickling them myself specially. (If this makes you eye roll at the sheer foodiness of it all, be comforted by the fact they didn’t taste that different to a Mrs Elswood.) Horticulturally experiments aside, these babies are super simple. I got cultured buttermilk in Sainsbury’s, but you could use yoghurt watered down instead. Do not feel tempted to substitute cream crackers for saltines. You’ll end up crying into your hot oil as all the moisture in your mouth evaporates. I used coarse cornmeal instead.

Heat your oil while you do the flour, egg, dip thing with the pickles. Fry for about a minute each side and then serve piping hot on the side of something delicious. In our case it was some leftover rollmops, a zingy homemade ranch style dressing with buttermilk, tarragon and garlic and a beer on the side. It was a heavenly plate of tanginess, crunch and sheer gluttony. I want to eat all gherkins in a crunchy coating now.

You’d think that plateful would have quelled our cravings for pig-out style food for the day, but you’d be wrong. About an hour later, we started getting ready to make a serious pizza for dinner. We used Marcella Hazan’s pizza dough recipe, leaving it to prove for several hours and turned our attention to the mozzarella. And I don’t just mean jiggling it about the bag in a slightly smutty fashion, I mean making it from scratch

Using some non homogenised cow’s milk from Alham Wood Farms at Brixton Farmers’ Market, my fledgling cheese making skills, some citric acid that we explored all of Brixton for* and my trusty bottle of rennet, we created mozzarella magic. Surprisingly easy, especially if you have asbestos hands like Mister North for dipping the curds into the hot whey, we ended up with two beautiful bouncing balls of mozzarella in no time at all.

Buoyed by this, we turned to the pizza bases, lovingly dressing them with homemade sauce courtesy of Mister North and a glut of Blackpool tomatoes and an umami hit of anchovies, green olives, some of my home grown plum tomatoes and a finishing sprinkle of ham salt from Comfort and Spice. Unfortunately made giddy by the cheese achievement, we forgot to dust the worksurfaces with semolina as instructed and the bases stuck somewhat, leading to some creativity with a fishslice and a slightly concertina style pizza.

The pizza might have lacked finesse, but it was loaded with flavour. The tomatoes tasted of summer and the mozzarella was so soft and fresh I could have eaten the whole ball like an apple to fully enjoy the texture. It needed a touch more salt and I think it would have been even better with buffalo milk, but for a first go, it was pretty amazing.

We devoured the pizzas like kids at a sleepover, both wishing we’d had more of the mozzarella to do a tomato salad with or go retro and deep fry in a crispy coating like the gherkins. Instead we rounded off a day of gluttony with a cheeky bowl of Veda bread ice cream and a glass of wine or two, proving that sometimes the taste of home is all you need. Your own kitchen provides the greatest comfort.

*Try the Nour Cash and Carry if you need it Monday to Saturday and the Low Price Food & Wine on the corner of Brixton Road and Loughborough Road on a Sunday. We did the walking round so you don’t have to.