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Sloe cured salmon and slow cooked goose…

Christmas may be over for another year, but some memories linger on happily. A hot port in front of a roaring turf fire, a proper fry with Coca-Cola ham instead of bacon on Boxing Day and the revelation that was home made gravlaks or home cured salmon fillet. Economical, easy and above all, delicious, I can’t recommend it enough!

As you might have noticed, we at North/South Food have a soft spot for Scandinavian food due to the influence of having family friends in Norway, so it’s no surprise to hear that I got my paws of a copy of Scandilicious by Signe Johansen as soon as I could after it was published last year. Filled with mouthwatering recipes and beautiful photos, I almost didn’t know where to start with this book when on page 151, gravlaks with dill mustard sauce leapt out at me. It might have been September, but I knew what our Christmas Day starter was going to be already.

All the Scandinavian countries cure, pickle and salt fish to improve its taste and to preserve it. Having seen how easy it was to pickle rollmops, I couldn’t wait to get curing, especially when I saw how easy the process is. I used Signe’s recipe as a guide to get the sugar and salt proportions correct, but wanted to add a personal twist. She suggests oomphing up the cure with some aquavit, but I decided to use a family favourite and add a splash of sloe gin instead.

Along with those Norwegian influences, one of my strongest childhood memories is of my parents making sloe gin nearly every autumn. We’d go on family walks in the autumn near my grandmother’s farmhouse searching out blackberries and blackthorn bushes and pick as many of each as we can carry. Back home, everyone would join in the pricking of the sloes before the jars of gin were stashed in the cupboard to mature. It was one of the first tastes of alcohol I had and the sweet, yet sharp flavour made me the gin lover I am to this day. Mister North has carried this tradition on with his legendary damson gin and our mum resurrected it when she managed to get hold of some stunning sloes when housesitting for friends who live on the tip of the Ards Peninsula facing Strangford Lough. Plump, juicy and slightly infused with salt, they made superlative sloe gin. I couldn’t wait to infuse the cure and the salmon with a splash of it.

A salmon fillet was purchased from Tesco as Belfast, sadly, isn’t abundant with fishmongers. Since there were only two of us, we went for half of one side of salmon. We didn’t freeze it first, but this would be advised if you aren’t sure how fresh the fish is or if you’re serving children or anyone with a comprimised immune system. The actual work involved in gravlaks is minimal, but you’ll need to let it cure for up to 48 hours so plan ahead.

I covered a flat baking tray with foil, then covered the foil with clingfilm before laying the salmon on the clingfilm, skin side down and applying a mix of pink peppercorns, coriander seeds, home grown fennel seeds and dill from my mum’s garden to the flesh. I then mixed up the sugar and salt with just enough sloe gin to turn the mix pale pink and make a stiff paste. This went on top of the spiced fish before the clingfilm was used to parcel the fish up tightly. It was all wrapped in the foil and left on the tray to catch any brine and then weighted down well in the fridge, multi-tasking by using the goose we were having for Christmas dinner.

A gift from the same friends on the Peninsula as we sourced our sloes from, this beast rivalled Mister North’s spiced beef for best meat dish of the season. Raised in the family’s walled garden, this goose was free range and more. Killed and plucked especially for us, we’d been looking forward to it for months. Scalded, salted and simply roasted, first in a hot oven to crisp the skin and then on a low heat to cook through, it was plump and juicy and so bursting with flavour that we just couldn’t get enough of it even though there were just two of us.

But it was challenged as dish of the day by the salmon. We usually do a seafood supper on Christmas Eve and to accompany our Lidl lobsters, we had some of the gravlaks on the side. Brushed clean of the peppercorns, sliced thinly and served with some fresh wheaten bread, it was spectacular. So soft it melted in the mouth, unlike slices of packed smoked salmon that remain firmly rubbery, it was moreishly salty sweet and fresh with the aniseed of dill and fennel and we both loved it.

Extraordinarily easy to make and much better value than most smoked salmon, it made a perfect start to Christmas dinner and the ultimate cold cut after the big day, as wafer thing slices of it cried out to snaffled everytime the fridge door was opened. It would make a easy, but impressive centrepiece for a lunch anytime of the year, but after this, I can’t imagine our Christmas without it in future…

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…

Crimp, rocket and roll… salmon ravioli

This weekend saw the latest round of our longstanding local dinner circle: an informal gathering of friends to enjoy good food, drink and conversation around a table. We’ve previously themed each event around a country or geographical region, for both food and drink. It was my turn to host again and I decided to combine Italian influences with locally sourced ingredients. Perhaps unwisely I decided to set the bar rather high, and make a meal from components bought on the day from the market, in a way I’d never cooked before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.

The first course was my most ambitious, and allowed me the chance to try out something new which would hopefully be as pleasing on the eye as the palate.I ended up with home-made giant ravioli, filled with fresh lemon, salmon and local East Lee soft cheese, served with a fennel and vermouth hollandaise foam on a bed of rocket, and topped with pickled samphire and Morecambe Bay potted brown shrimps…

When Miss South and I were young there were few kitchen activities which beat the excitement and spectacle of making fresh pasta. The large kitchen table would get dusted with flour, a broom handle which was reserved for the occasion would be brought out from under the stairs, and would be placed across the back of two chairs, ready to hang and dry fresh tagliatelle. Finally the pasta making machine would be clamped to the table, ready to pummel, roll and cut.

There was palpable anticipation and excitement in our house, as these activities inevitably heralded a dinner party for the adults – an exotic and adult activity from which we were normally excluded, predominantly as they went on way past our respective bedtimes. However this didn’t preclude us from either hanging around as the pasta was being made, nor sampling it later on. Little would stop me from enjoying the pasta in any way, and I used to snaffle leftovers of the cooked, ungarnished linguine straight from the pan. Sorry mum, if you ever wondered where it disappeared to…

Strangely, despite my love of fresh pasta, I’d never attempted to make it myself. However, with the advent of the dinner circle, I rather fancied rectifying this gap in my culinary canon. So, on a wee bit of a whim, I picked up a pasta maker on the way home on Friday evening (at £17.99 thank you Argos). I suspect when our parents had brought back one from Italy in the 80s it would’ve cost significantly more, if it was even possible to source one in Northern Ireland back then.

I consulted my two favourite Italian authorities for all things kitchen-related: Marcella Hazan, and Giorgio Locatelli. Perhaps unsurprising there was some contradiction in their advice. This pasta-making business seems at least partly based on personal preference. The basic components were, thankfully, consistent – flour, eggs and salt. Previous pizza-making escapades ensured I had plenty of finely-milled ‘Tipo 00’ flour squirrelled away at home, but I picked some duck eggs and some double-yolkers from the market on Saturday morning. Locatelli subscribes to the ‘more yolks are better’ school of thought, and as we’re such a fan of duck eggs here at North/South Food I thought I’d take advantage of their renowned attributes for baking and see if that would apply to pasta dough too.

After finely sieving around 500g of flour I made my ‘fountain’ for 3 duck eggs (reminded me more of the way we eat champ) and got mixing. At first the dough was really hard work and I thought I’d got the mixture all wrong, but after adding an extra hen’s egg double yolk and about 10 minutes of heavy going, the dough started to come together more as I remembered it. The duck eggs helped imbue the dough with a wonderfully warm hue (with more than a passing resemblence to polenta). I then separated the dough into 2 balls, and wrapped both in clingfilm to sit for an hour. Thankfully the dough was much easier to work after it had sat around doing nothing… so I got out the shiny new pasta making machine and tentatively fed the dough into its waiting maw. As the dough got thinner and longer, and longer and thinner, I was glad of an extra pair of hands to assist with the increasingly giant lengths. Eventually it was tamed and fine enough to be laid out on the table to cut.

We cut out large circles, trimming gently around a bowl, then added the filling. I’d finely sliced a fresh salmon fillet (from Paul, the great fishmonger at Todmorden Market), mixing it by hand with some of local food hero Carl Warburton’s East Lee soft cheese. Add the juice of half a lemon, a good portion of zest and a generous handful of chopped flatleaf parsley; some coarsely ground black pepper, and mix up by hand. Form into patties and place in the centre of the pasta circle, before enclosing, sealing and crimping. These sat for an hour on a tea towel, looking pretty drying slightly, ready for the pan. When they were almost ready I started to make the sauce, a variation on Delia Smith’s always reliable foaming Hollandaise. I used less wine vinegar and added a generous glug or three of vermouth just before adding the egg whites, which gave the whole thing a hint of anise. Not quite a béarnaise sauce, but the addition of some fennel tops, finely chopped like dill, added to its slightly aromatic character.

After poaching the ravioli for about four minutes each they were ready to be placed in a bowl, on a star of rocket, and drizzled generously with the foaming sauce. The crowning glory was a garnish of pickled samphire (from the wonderful Brixton Cornercopia, courtesy of Miss South) and some potted brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay. Incidentally, if you’ve not had these little beauties before, snap them up if you’re lucky enough to spot them. They’re so moresome and flavoursome, but not worth the fiddle and faff of preparing them yourself. The dish did look at least as beautiful as I’d planned, and the combination of flavours was balanced and delicious. Thankfully it was also well received by my dinner guests. Phew!

The next day, buoyed up by the success of the ravioli, I used up the rest of the pasta dough and quickly created some tagliatelle. This provided the basis for a rapid leftover lunch to die for: sautéing some fennel in butter, adding some pieces of salmon and the rest of the shrimps, a splash of lemon juice to help wilt the rest of the rocket leaves, and a squirt of harissa to add warmth. This certainly helped to temper the fluffy head from the previous night’s drinking, and underscored that pasta making is nothing to be afraid of. I will be attempting much more of this in the near future… can’t wait until the wild garlic season comes round so I can make fresh pesto and spaghetti!