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A warm salad for warm summer nights

So, I’ve recently returned from a week’s holiday in the warmth and civilisation of Languedoc. It’s not a part of the world I was familiar with, and as well as good weather, my companions and I enjoyed a week of superb local food and wine. As they’d been to the area before I enjoyed some local delicacies under their guidance, and we made plenty of new discoveries too. We ate simply, and tried as much as the short timescale could allow (finally ticked bouillabaisse off my list of ‘to dos’, cooked superfresh whitebait, and gingerly tried freshwater clams which we’d sourced ourselves from Lac du Salagou). Plus freshly picked figs & plums everyday, moules et frites at the local village knees-up, and a host of other delights.

I’ve only warmed in recent years to classic French cooking – my reference point was always further south in Italy – and I associated French with more courtly and less rustic cooking. However there’s a healthy overlap between the high-end and the more accessible, so I’ve been expanding my repertoire and gaining more confidence talking mirepoix rather than soffritto. In part this helps when you’re in an area where the aroma of herbs hangs heavy in the air – wild thyme and mint nestling next to tall fennel plants in the verges – and bushes and trees are laden with fruits and nuts. Foraging and gathering becomes a daily constant, not an occasional novel experience.

I’d mentioned previously I was working on the forthcoming Parlour Café Cookbook: before going on hoilday I’d worked up several of these recipes into postcards, and one in particular stuck in my mind: a warm salad of Puy lentils and goats cheese. It’s one of the star recipes in the book and supposed to be a favourite with the regulars,  so I decided to give it a whirl.

We picked up most of the ingredients in the local supermarket before a trip up country to visit Roquefort and Millau – great cheese, rather dull tour of the caves, although I did pick up some sheep’s butter there – and on the way home had to make our respective ways through an enormous, spectacular and somewhat frightening electric storm. Everyone was a bit frazzled by the end of the trip, so it was rather relaxing to potter around in the kitchen, unwinding with a glass in one hand and a stirrer in the other, unwinding while knocking this oh-so-simple recipe up. Mind you, it’s always fun find your way round somebody else’s kitchen for the first time, making the most of what you find lurking in the cupboards.

It still makes me smile that this most Mediterranean of dishes actually comes via Dundee, but using local ingredients (and some great local wine) meant it was perfectly transposed to a more Gallic setting. Rather than rewritng this I’ll use Gillian’s words from the cookbook, annotated slightly.

Puy Lentil and Goats Cheese Salad

Serves 4

●200g Puy lentils [oddly they weren't labelled as Puy but verte]
●1 onion, chopped
●1 carrot, chopped
●2 stalks of celery, chopped [wonderful dark green celery, still with all the leaves]
●A handful of fresh thyme [straight from the local hills]
●1 bay leaf
●150ml extra virgin olive oil
●3 – 6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped [I used the full six cloves, and it was extremely feisty… I guess due to the freshness of the garlic. No worries about being bitten that evening!]
●50ml red wine vinegar [I couldn't find any in the store cupboard so I used a mix of balsamic & some red vin du table instead]
●100g goats cheese [we used a local, strongly flavoured little number]
●a large handful of parsley, roughly chopped
●sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the lentils in boiling water for 20 minutes, until they are absolutely tender.

Meanwhile, fry the onions, carrots, celery, thyme and the bay leaf in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil until soft and lightly coloured. In a food processor or with a hand blender, blend the garlic with the rest of the olive oil. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the vinegar and blend until it’s emulsified.

Drain the lentils and pour out onto a flattish dish. Smother in the garlicky dressing and turn gently so everything is glistening. Once the vegetables are cooked, gently mix them into the lentils and leave the salad to cool.

Then toss gently with the goats cheese, torn into chunks, and the parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper if you think it needs it.

The only major change I made was that a couple of our party didn’t like goats cheese, so we served their portions first – they had comté instead – then crumbled the cheese in afterwards. We’d also picked up some smoked sausage to add some savoury notes to the dish. Otherwise we kept it simple – a hunk of fresh bread, a fresh green salad on the side, and some local wine to help everything go down.

This is such a good recipe: it doesn’t take long to make, tastes stunning, and it’s most evocative of warm summer nights and lazy times. I can see why it’s a favourite at the café, and I think it will be with you too. Delicious!

Homemade Buffalo Curd Cheese…

I’m going to confess something. You’ll either nod sagely at my bravery or recoil in horror and never speak to me again. I’m just not that into cheese…

That’s not to say I don’t ever eat it. I’m partial to a nice slice of Jarlsberg (the holes make it taste better). I keep Parmesan in the house to add some extra umami to everything. And I’ll eat cheese at other people’s houses, but I never think to buy it and I never crave it. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy the same way a nice salami does. So I’m as surprised as you are that I made my own cheese last night.

My eye was caught by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s column in the Guardian the other week explaining that making certain types of cheese at home is a walk in the park. I imagine cheese to be a combination of dairy and witchcraft so this intrigued me. And then I happened to come across a bottle of rennet in Waitrose* the very next day and the spell was cast. I was going to make my own curd cheese!

It is ridiculously simple. You need some non-homogenised milk, some rennet, a pinch of salt and some muslin or ahem, cheesecloth and then you can get going with a few small pieces of attention to detail. You should be able to get non-homogenised milk at a Farmers’ Market but if you want to do raw or unpasteurised milk for whatever reason, then source yours through Duchy Originals at most major supermarkets or try some of the suggestions here. And while you’re at the supermarket, follow this excellent tip from the comments on the original article and pick up a pack of muslin squares from the baby aisle. Much larger than the trendy facecloths around, you’ll get about 5 for a fiver and can use them for cheese making or the forthcoming preserves season. Just iron before use to sterilise it.

I was using raw buffalo milk from Alham Wood Farms and I was surprised to see just how creamy it looked in colour and texture. Much more like the milk when I was a kid and most appetising looking. I heated it to 38° with the aid of a thermometer and then added the rennet. I think I used a touch too much, around a quarter of a teaspoon to a pint of milk, but a little bit extra splashed in so I suggest you measure carefully and not above the milk itself if your hand isn’t too steady. I stirred it in well and then left it for 15 minutes to separate into curds and whey while I got on with a batch of lemon curd.

And when I came back, it really was like magic. What had been thick creamy milk was now a slightly unappealing layer of watery liquid and something that did look quite cheese like already. I scooped the curds out with a slotted spoon into the muslin and tied onto the kitchen tap to drain and set for around three hours, dispensing with the whey completely. This is all you need to do. I won’t judge you though if like me you keep going in and staring at it as if hoping to catch a glimpse of the alchemy as it happens.

About three hours later, when I could wait no more, I unwrapped my little milky miracle. And it looked like real, honest to goodness cheese! Possibly a little bit firmer than it was meant to be due to the extra splash of rennet, it looked like cottage cheese with the firmness of mozzarella. I served it crumbled on some green lentils and homegrown tomatoes and it was stunning. Slightly bouncy, with a touch of saltiness while rich and creamy, it turned some placid pulses into something rather racy as it melted slightly and soaked up the juice from the tomatoes.

I couldn’t get over how delicious it was and how unlike the shop bought equivalent in flavour and depth. That’s probably the buffalo milk but I like to think it’s my natural cheesemaking skills. On an effort to taste ratio, it scores maximum points. I enjoyed it so much I had exactly the same dinner the next night as well and probably would have done so a third night had I not run out of cheese. Had I been able to get my hands on some more milk, I’d have made more and served it on my favourite black pepper infused crackers from Ryvita. I might even have remembered to photograph the meal instead of gorging myself. I think it’s safe to say I finally get the cheese obsession. I’ve come over the dark side of dairy…

*which happened to be vegetarian on closer inspection.

Wild food, or food to drive you wild

Last month’s Guestrant at Electrik was one of my favourites to date. Wild foraged food is something both Miss South and I have dabbled in before, but with the best will in the world, we don’t have the knowledge to go beyond the well known and well-trodden without some proper guidance.

So when I read Beth Creedon was the guest in Electrik’s kitchen for June I was rather excited… I knew how well-received her first stint at Electrik had been last year, so I signed up right away. Beth’s a bit of an expert in foraged food, and comes with good credentials and form in preparing foraged feasts. She, alongside her husband, also runs Dig, Manchester’s best local veggie box scheme. I’d met her at the recent cheese ‘chewtorial’, and her obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for foraged food was infectious.

After the disappointment of the previous month’s event with Julie Bagnolli being cancelled due to poor attendance (shame on you North West foodies… surely you’re not doing anything better on a Monday night?) this needed to be something special to put a smile back on the faces of my dining companion and I. We needn’t have feared: it was.

We arrived, wet after a sudden heavy rainshower, looking over the well-stocked bar. Once again we decided to stick to beer, rather than wine, although there’s a decent selection of both in Electrik. We joined another couple on a table – always one of the best things about pop-up & supperclub-type arrangements is meeting new folk – and snatched a quick look at the menu which was being passed around.

The menu tantalised, teased and prompted whispered questions around our table. It sounded simple and restrained, yet wonderfully exotic. What the hell is Fat Hen? Do cherries go feral only when you lose them? Was that really two desserts on the menu? We couldn’t wait to learn more… so when Beth came out of the kitchen to introduce the first course I was straining to hear every word.

When it arrived the first course looked gorgeous… a perfectly turned-out layered terrine, surrounded by delicate leaves, sitting on a base of finely-sliced beetroot. We found out during the preamble that Fat Hen’s actually a kind of wild spinach-like leaf, not a plump poultry bird, so that was one mental image shattered. It, and the goats cheese in the terrine, was delicious, crowned with a sprig of chickweed. I’ve picked sorrel leaves in the woods before, and love their distinctively tart flavour. This sorrel was French, and the flavour of their leaves added piquancy. The star of the dish, though, were the little pickled dandelion buds. Wow! Revelatory stuff: these unassuming wee buds tasted like capers, and gave the whole starter an extra frission which I’d never expected. I may have to start home pickling…

With such a good starter our expectations around the table cranked up a gear. The main, with razor clams at its centrepiece, caused me some excitement (Miss South has already written on our love of these moreable molluscs) but my dining companion was somewhat nervous at the prospect of blade-like bivalves, being a little squeamish about such things. When the course was presented – a single razor clam shell laying across a bowl of chowder – this did little to allay her concerns, but she became more convinced when she tasted the contents.

The ‘hero’ shell – dressed with the flesh of several razor clams, hearty chunks of chorizo and a sprinkling of chives – capped a healthy portion of chowder. In this the razor clams were paired up with a goodly selection of smaller, more conventional clams. Accompanied by Barbakan bread, a perfect heart-shaped pat of delicious butter, and a hunk of lemon, this was simple but great fare. Salty pork and shellfish is a sure-fire winner (I’m looking at you, scallops and black pudding, as a prime example) and the rich notes of the chorizo complemented the tender pale flesh of the clams perfectly. The broth was rich and oh-so-moreable… by the time I looked up from my bowl there was a surfeit of empty shells and crockery around the table.

After that it was time for dessert #1… Beth reappeared from the depths of the kitchen to explain that yes, she couldn’t decide which dessert to serve us, so she opted for both. Hellish for us punters, you must understand, to be saddled with such an onerous task. The ‘feral’ cherries were local, but not totally wild… more like a domestic cultivar which had gone walkabout… so they were less tart than their wild cousins. Again, this looked so pretty… a cherry ‘mouse’, complete with almond ears, sat atop a cream cushion on a delightful chocolate mousse in a ramekin. Digging to the bottom of the mousse revealed macerated cherries, their sweet syrupy flavour riffing off the dark chocolate. Oh, and the finishing touches: glitter, and a sprinkling of popping candy on the plate, only added to the sense of giddy playfulness. Thumbs up!

The second sweet came shortly afterwards, and continued the local and slightly tongue-in-cheek theme, with a light hare-shaped shortbread accompanying strawberries, ice cream and praline pieces. The strawberries are Dig’s own organic offspring, grown in nearby Cheshire in polytunnels. Not sure what variety they were, but their flavour was rich and fruity, exuding summer with every mouthful. The elderflower and lime ice cream started to melt quite quickly, but the taste was divine… light and sharp citrus notes, with the elderflower rounding everything out in the background. The lavender praline was the unexpected highlight for me: I have a soft spot for lavender and its soft floral presence lent itself well to the slightly chewy sweetness of the praline. The whole dish disappeared quickly, but the flavours lingered on as a gentle reminder for some time. A fresh, light and well-balanced full stop to a really good meal.

Presentation was absolutely spot-on, food was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the theme and focus of the whole meal was bang on. A good balance of playfulness, education, quality and localism (without being too hung up on every last ingredient being utterly wild or from on our doorstep) made it a great menu. Oh, and at £25 a head, very good value considering the extra work which must’ve gone into the sourcing and preparation of the course. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough… bravo to Beth (and her sous for the night, Deanna).

Today’s Guestrant features Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham from Aumbry. After June’s experience I can’t wait to see what these graduates of the Fat Duck will deliver from Electrik’s modest kitchen…

Vive la fromage!

A few weeks ago we got an invite to attend a wine and cheese tasting in Manchester, as part of an education campaign for Vive le Cheese, which aims to get us Brits enjoying the pleasures of French fromage. Needless to say it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to sample cheeses (and quaff wine too) so I made a beeline for the Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter to check out the ‘chewtorial’ last Tuesday (or should that be Chewsday?)


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Wild Garlic Pennine Pesto

I can’t believe it’s only a year since I first tried cooking with wild garlic: this proved to be a revelatory experience on two levels. First, I rediscovered it’s fun to forage for local, wild food (as Miss South can testify with her participation in regular Invisible Food Walks) and secondly, I found out wild garlic tastes really, really good.

There’s a spot nearby where ramsons run wild and profuse so at the weekend I picked a few handfuls… some to take to city-dwelling veggie mates who appreciate the delicate spring freshness… and the rest for me. I tend to pick the leaves and the occasional flower bud, rather than lifting whole plants. After all, this should be a sustainable food one can come back to year after year, so keep the roots and flowers going. So now I had the sustenance from this year’s spring, what was I to make of it?

Towards the end of last year’s season I had a recommendation to make pesto from the wild garlic leaves, as it freezes well and is a good way of preserving a little bit of spring sunshine into the winter months. I didn’t have time to try this out, although I did freeze a few leaves, which we ended up using in our blog’s first birthday dinner. So it seemed only right that I give Pennine pesto a go this year as the brief season is now fully underway.

I’ve previously made Pesto Genovese at home, taking my cue from years past when our mum used to convert the surfeit of fresh basil from the greenhouse into great pesto. From what I remember it was pretty classic pesto… only basil, parmesan, good olive oil, pine nuts and garlic. Last year MIss North and I were very pleased with a fantastic pesto we made from cobnuts and beetroot tops. However the whole subject of pesto making is a contentious subject, discussed in this piece by Felicity Cloake, so I did some more reading. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep it simple, doing a straight swap of basil for ramsons. I rather liked this blog post about wild garlic pesto, so after some brief prep I rolled up my sleeves and got started.

I (rolls eyes) toasted my nuts in a heavy pan, then tossed them in sea salt and let them cool down fully to bring out the best of their flavour. Meanwhile I washed each ramson leaf. Yes, one by one, like some slow-motion chlorophyllic shampoo advert. Although it’s a bit of a faff when you have a load of leaves it’s worth doing it properly to remove any icky things. I grated the cheese (half pecorino romano, half parmesan) and measured out the oil.

At first I tried to use my mortar and pestle to mash up the mix (doing things the traditional way), but I soon realised I’d need a Belfast sink-sized setup to grind all the long leaves easily. I was also getting hungry, so I used the hand blender instead, incorporating the wild garlic, nuts and oil in batches. Once they were done I stirred in the cheese, and a healthy grind of black pepper. I kept the final mix quite coarse; wanting a little bite from the pine nuts, and to let the grated cheese bind everything together. If anything I think it was a wee bit thin, so in future I’d probably reduce the quantity of olive oil, although it was only afterwards I realised I should’ve kept some back to top the jar off with.

The pesto was vividly viridecent; ramsons don’t have the same tendency to bruise or discolour as basil, so it looked fab. The flavour was clean and fresh, without tasting too ‘thin’ or indeed too ‘garlicky’. Tastes and looks great over some good spaghetti or linguine… and as I’ve made enough to keep me going for a while, any spare can go straight in the freezer to add some springtime greenery for a later date!