Posts

xmas_venison-16.jpg

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!

 

spiced_beef-8.jpg

Irish Spiced Beef brings Christmas comfort…

Spiced beef 11

Having read Miss South’s glowing write-up before my latest visit to her, I was keen to read through Niamh Shields‘ “Comfort & Spice” cookbook. I sped read as much as possible in a short time, and one of the (many) wonderful recipes which caught my eye was Spiced Beef: an Irish dish which is traditionally served cold over the Christmas period. We’d normally have a decent-sized cold cut in the house over the holiday period, often the Coca Cola Ham which we wrote about last year.

However I  can only remember having spiced beef once, when our mum brought back joint from the butcher. She’d fondly mentioned it from her childhood, but this shop-bought version was memorably unmemorable. So I’ve always wanted to make proper spiced beef from scratch, and Niamh’s recipe provided the perfect excuse to give it a go this year. I alternate between spending Christmas in the north of England, and returning to Belfast, and this year I was in Manchester with my girlfriend and her family. Having something which brought a taste of Ireland to the table was important to me… and having a cold joint to be able to pick and nibble at is always a bonus.

Spiced beef isn’t a complicated dish, but it does require some patience, preparation… and an ingredient which wasn’t available to the general public in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, which curtailed its consumption when we were growing up. Saltpetre aka potassium nitrate was a controlled substance, as it’s a key constituent of black powder (gunpowder). I’m not sure if it’s still verboten: I was lucky enough to be given some for this recipe by a friend. Saltpetre’s one of those relatively unknown but essential compounds on which the modern world has been built; used for fertiliser, food preservation, an oxiding agent for gunpowder and fireworks amongst other uses.

I ordered the Christmas meat in advance from Stansfield’s in Todmorden Market –  the centrepiece of our Christmas meal was leg of venison – but Paul always has good beef and I picked up a weighty brisket form him last weekend.

Irish Spiced Beef (from Comfort & Spice)

2kg beef brisket off the bone

The curing mix:

1tsp allspice
1tsp cloves
1tsp fresh nutmeg
1tsp mace
75g soft brown sugar
10g saltpetre
100g sea salt

Combine all the ingredients for the curing mix and rub all over the brisket. Sterilise with boiling water a non metallic pot or plastic container into which the beef will fit snugly. Add the beef, cover and store in the fridge for eight days, turning daily and basting with any juices.

Wipe off the excess marinade and cover the beef with water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for two hours. Allow to cool and serve over the festive period as you would a ham.

First step: make the curing mix. I closely followed Niamh’s ingredients, with a couple of minor tweaks. I used Muscovado sugar, as I love its rich, sticky, almost smoky rawness. I also raided my extensive selection of salts to create a posh mix which would hopefully play up the strengths of the beef and spices, using Maldon Smoked Sea Salt, Guerande Grey Sea Salt, and Carmargue Fleur de Sel. Every recipe I’ve seen for dry-curing meat stresses that the quality of the salt is imperative, and they looked beautiful ranged on the plate too.

Spiced beef 1

I ground the whole allspice, nutmegs and cloves together, together with a cheeky tablespoon of mixed peppercorns to add a little bit more warmth to the mix. Then I combined the salt, sugar and saltpetre in a bowl, make a good stiff mix. The aroma was stunning: if you’re ever looking for a sure-fire way to enfuse your home with the sweet, aromatic and suggestive hints of winter, this really is it. It’s even better with a cockle-warming glass of hot port to aid the cook’s concentration!

Spiced beef 4

I sterilised a tupperware container, and placed the cured meat in it, sealing it tightly and placing it in the fridge. With six days between the initial preparation and Christmas Eve, the only requirements were to gently spoon and baste the spiced liquids over the joint daily. You’ll find a fair amount of juice will be drawn out of the meat by the cure. I tried my best to disturb as little of the spiced coating as possible, wanting to let the power of the spices permeate properly through the meat.

Spiced beef 7

On Christmas Eve we simmered the beef for a couple of hours, before letting it cool (patience is a virtue) and cautiously cutting a few slices off for a Christmas Eve nibble. As you can see, the beef had held its vivid rose hue thanks to the saltpetre, and the flavour was quite wonderful: warming, comforting and so tender. Paired with wholegrain mustard mixed into some mayo, and ranged with gherkins, this was a perfect sandwich: almost the Irish equivalent of New York pastrami. We didn’t leave any out for Father Christmas though, as it proved way too popular with everyone who tasted it.

Spiced beef 8

I’d also decided to have the Irish-themed starter on Christmas Day revolve around the spiced beef: after a night in the fridge the meat was even easier to thinly slice, and I plated it up with a small toasted piece of soda bread, a dab of redcurrant jelly, some cubes of Cashel Blue cheese, and a lightly dressed selection of watercress, rocket and baby spinach leaves. Everything worked well together: the sweetness of the jelly complementing the sharpness and warmth of the mustard vinaigrette, pepperiness of the rocket, the crisp of the bread… and of course that succulent, aromatic and oh-so tender beef. Needless to say, we’ve been cutting cheeky slices off the joint ever since, as it’s perfect for snacking and sating our cravings for seasonal cold meats.

Spiced beef 14

Thanks to Niamh aka @Eatlikeagirl for allowing us to reproduce the above: it’s a brilliant encapsulation of a traditional Irish recipe, and doesn’t suggest any of the adulterations which crop up in many US-oriented traditional ‘Oirish’ recipes. We’ve recommended it before and we’ll do it again… buy Comfort & Spice and make your kitchen a happier, better place!

Baked Alaska Mince Pies

While there are many Christmas foods I adore, I just can’t get excited about mincemeat. It’s been several years since I ate a mince pie and feeling somewhat left out, I decided to make my own this year to see if I could get myself more enthused. Unable to get my hands on enough quinces to do jelly this year, I decided to get my fix by following Nigella’s Quincemeat recipe from page 265 of How to Be a Domestic Goddess and up the fruit content of those pies.

The quincemeat went into a jar in September to mature gently and I gave myself time to get excited. I was quickly distracted when The Little Loaf and I managed to find a date that we could meet for a pre-Christmas bake. An idea to do a winter inspired chocolate brownie Baked Alaska developed a life of its own when I heard about Sainsbury’s mince pie ice cream. We just had to do Baked Alaska mince pies instead! Talk about exciting…

We decided to each take a component and prepare it in advance and because we were baking at mine, I went for the ice cream. I wanted it to be inspired by that extra thick brandy cream people top their mince pies with and decided to push the boat on it. Using the foolproof custard from David Lebovitz as a base, I tweaked it slightly to be as rich as possible. You’ll need:

250ml (1 cup) whole milk (I used unhomogenised Jersey Milk)
500ml (2 cups) double cream
100g sugar
8 egg yolks (you could use 5 if you prefer)
pinch salt
dash of vanilla extract
good slug of brandy

Heat the milk and sugar gently to make sure all the sugar is dissolved. Add the cream and make sure it is nicely warmed. Then take a cupful or so of the warm dairy mixture and stir into the beaten egg yolks to temper them and stop them scrambling when you tip them all back into the milk mixture.

Gently add the tempered yolks into the warm milk and cream and cook over a low heat, stirring well. Use a spatula for this to make it easier and because you’ll know when the custard is ready when it coats the back of the spatula.

Take it off the heat immediately. Pour into a metal bowl, adding the vanilla and brandy and either chill overnight in the fridge or make an ice bath inside another larger bowl. Then once nicely chilled, pour into your machine and churn as standard. About five minutes before the end, gently add in about 250g of the quincemeat, a tablespoon at a time and let the machine mix it in well.

You’ll need scoops of ice cream for your mince pies so if you want you could shape the scoops now and freeze them on a plate or simply place in a container with a lid and freeze as normal. You can soften it slightly and do the scoops when needed but you’ll need to re-freeze them for at least two hours to prevent a fit of melting that would alarm even a climate change denier.

It was all a bit Blue Peter for me when the pies were assembled as The Little Loaf had made this beautiful clementine pastry and had rolled it out, pricked with a fork and blind baked it while I turned 3 egg whites, a teaspoon of cream of tartar and 100g of caster sugar into some meringue with the help of a hand whisk.

A scoop of ice cream went into a cooled pie case and the meringue was piped in with a disposable bag and a large star nozzle. Piping gives lots of surface area to crisp up and looks lovely, but you could also smooth the meringue over with a mini spatula and rough up with a fork. Make sure there are no gaps either way and then put the piped pies into the freezer for about 20-30 minutes.

Get the grill nice and hot and then toast the pies under it for about 2-3 minutes. Do not take your eyes off them for even a second. Meringue has a nasty habit of turning without close supervision. You can like us finish the meringue off with a blow torch for extra toastiness (and dinner party entertainment) but be careful the whole thing doesn’t ignite! Meringue is surprisingly flammable.

Serve your pies immediately to get the maximum mixture of buttery pastry, creamy cold ice cream and and crispy crunchy meringue. These Baked Alaskas are smooth and sweet with just enough bite from the quincemeat and the brandy not to be sickly. I’d use a bit less cardamom in the quincemeat in future, but otherwise this was pitch perfect. I think I’m a total mince pie convert now…

gingerbread

Guinness Pumpkin Gingerbread

Christmas isn’t Christmas without the scent and taste of spices in the air and on the tongue. Last year I indulged with doughnuts and mulled cider. This year, my appetite whetted by the parkin, I decided my Christmas spice had to come from gingerbread. I intended to make hard gingerbread people made extra festive with gold leaf, but my dough refused to play ball and I ended up with something more akin to sticky Play-doh. I sought solace in booze and a stack of Nigella’s recipes to see if I could find a foolproof gingerbread recipe.

And lurking in Kitchen, but also available online was the truly tempting sounding Guinness Gingerbread that combined dark sticky stout with dark sticky treacle and spice. I was instantly sold. Except I didn’t have any sour cream or even emergency yoghurt. I didn’t have time to go out and hunt any down (sour cream is surprisingly elusive these days. It’s all creme fraiche instead.) But I did have some leftover buttermilk and half a can of the pumpkin leftover from the ice cream. Despite the lack of success with that, I knew the pumpkin works well in baked goods, adding amazing moisture. Mouth watering, I got baking…

You’ll need:

150g butter
300g golden syrup (or use black treacle if you have it. I did half and half)
200g dark muscavado sugar
250ml Guinness (this is about half a bottle and you can use any stout)

2tsp ground ginger
2tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (or as I had none, I used mace)

300g plain flour
2tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g pumpkin or squash puree
150ml buttermilk (or leave out the pumpkin & buttermilk and use 300ml sour cream)
2 large eggs

Then prepare yourself for the easiest baking recipe in the history of the world. Line a 20x30cm deep baking tray with parchment. Then melt the syrup, treacle, sugar and Guinness in a pan. This will smell amazing.

Sift the flour and bicarb and spices into a nice big bowl and then pour in the melted treacle Guinness mix and half combine. Then add in the beaten eggs, buttermilk and pumpkin puree and combine the mixure lightly until just properly mixed. Don’t overbeat or you’ll knock the air out of this beautiful batter. Pour the batter in the lined tray and then bake at 170℃ for around 45 minutes or until the gingebread is a glossy dark brown on top and coming away from the edges slightly.

Then comes the tricky bit. Your house will smell sensational, all spicy and treacly and sweet and you will have to wait at least 20 minutes for the gingerbread to cool and firm enough to get it out of the tray and cut in pieces. This will test your limits. You’ll want to get the kettle on and your chops round a sticky piece of gingerbread sooner, but it is worth the wait.

Unbelievably moist, but firm and springy from that fortifying Guinness and with the most wonderful spicing, this is the stickiest, moistest most Christmassy gingerbread possible. Served slightly warm with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream it would make a great dessert. I iced some of it with simple icing sugar and water mix with a teeny splash of the leftover Guinness to make it more a cake. The un-iced stuff lasted well in a tin, growing softer and stickier each day, allowing you to make this and have it ready for visitors with ease.

Just remember to keep your last piece to put by the stockings for Santa on Christmas Eve. He’ll come to your house first next year after tasting gingerbread this good…

fore rib of beef

Forearmed and fore-ribbed: Christmas beef

 

fore rib of beefAt the end of the festive season, on the twelth day of Christmas, it’s as good time as any to write up our Yuletide dinner… our first since starting the blog in early 2010.

With both of us back at the family home this year there’d been some debate about what the main dish should be. As a family we’re not traditionalists, and rather enjoy Christmas dinner being an excuse to indulge in a quality meal, regardless of convention. Last time it was a fantastic shoulder of lamb, and this we we plumped for forerib of beef, ordered a month in advance from McKee’s farm shop in the Craigantlet Hills above Belfast. This is beef from their own farm, and they’re proud of the provenence and hanging of their meat. Rightly so. Might you, we had a bit of concern that Northern Ireland’s coldest winter for decades could wreck havoc with the mission to pick up the joint, but it’ll take more than that to stop our family from a prime bit of beef. And this was one serious a cut of meat, clocking at a shade under 6kg. That’s a 50p piece next it in this photo.

Read more