Posts

A tail of pork pie…

After our all too brief dalliance with summer, autumn is upon us once more. Some might moan, but it’s my favourite time of the year. Crisp sunny days, scuffly crunchy leaves, purple tinged sunsets, the smell of bonfires and an excuse to indulge in a few more carbs. Have I converted you yet?

I decided to take advantage of this first really cold snap this week with a pie for dinner. What could be better than lots of seasonal ingredients topped with flaky puff pastry? What about accessorizing the whole thing with a boar’s tail and beating Fergus Henderson at his own game? Not so much cow pie as pig tail pie…

I got the tail at the stall* in Brixton Farmers’ Market for the bargainout price of a pound and couldn’t resist its curly charms, especially since there’s a fair bit of meat on one. You can also get them smoked at the Colombian butcher in Brixton Village.

To fill my pie, I used diced pork leg as I couldn’t stretch to wild boar this time. For a seasonal sensation, I added shallot, leek and some seasonal mushrooms, all sweated off in butter and coated in flour and bathed in Henney’s Herefordshire cider before simmering it all for 40 minutes on a low heat. When it thickened up, I added fresh tarragon, a pinch of mace and a good grind of black pepper. Like all the best pie fillings, it can be prepped in advance and then given a lovely lid when needed.

My lovely lid came courtesy of Jus-Rol. I wanted to do puff pastry and with butter the price it is, I did not feel inclined to experiment. Instead I failed to read the instructions for use properly and ended up having to defrost one sheet in the microwave. This was a bad idea. It ended up brittle and with greasy patches. I had to use the other sheet instead and allow it to come to room temperature naturally. Feeling deflated that I could mess up bought pastry, I turned attention to the tail.

I wanted it to partly inside the pie to cook the meat and allow the bone to infuse the gravy. This is surprisingly difficult. Pig’s tails are incredibly flexible and not especially easy to position. I put the pastry lid on the pie and slit it open to wedge the tail inside. This took longer than I thought and led to an interesting moment where I stopped while holding a floppy tail in one hand and wondered how exactly my life turned out this way…

Eventually with some ingenious overlaid pastry stars holding the tail in place, the pie went in the oven at 220C for about 40 minutes. I peered in after 30 or so and marvelled at how much it really had puffed up. It also smelled tremendous. I boiled some spuds and did some peas to go on the side and rushed to get at it.

The tail had crisped up at the very very end and the meat inside was nicely cooked. It might be better to skin it first as there was quite a lot of slightly flabby skin to wade through, but it was surprisingly tasty to gnaw on and it had added a meaty kick to the pie filling. Pork leg wouldn’t be my first choice of cut usually, but it softened up nicely and was delicious. The cider and tarragon worked well and the pastry was great. I had two helpings straightaway (and forgot the peas both times!)

If you can get hold of a tail or two, try not to be put off by the cute factor. It’s a tasty thing perfect for a bit of stock or to make people’s eyes open wide when you serve this pie. I just wish I’d gone the whole hog and bought a snout in the market too…

*I’m really sorry, but I cannot remember the name of the boar people at all, but they are there every week and super helpful and very friendly.

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…

Duck, or strange love (adventures with a homebrew sous-vide)

Duck or strange love (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the (flavour) bomb that’s cooking very low and slow).

I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the concept of sous-vide cooking over the last few months, but I’ve been put off by the extreme set-up costs associated with this oh-so-trendy way of cooking. Sous-vide, incidentally, means cooking under vacuum, at a low temperature for a long time. The idea is to preserve flavours and cell structure better through super-slow cooking. It’s actually a pretty simple concept, and in theory one can’t go far wrong with the ‘low n slow’ cooking style. However if you look online there are a lot of very expensive pieces of kit designed to relieve you of your hard-earned cash along the way.

That’s the thing: it’s one of the those ‘art vs. science’ techniques. I’m definitely more artistic than scientific, although I’ve watched as a more technical style of cooking has become more popular, thanks in part the Hestons and Ferrans of this media age. However I’m also a pragmatist. It was reading a review of ‘Modernist Cooking‘ that made me think, dammit, I should have a go at this malarkey. So I decided to rig up a rather Heath Robinson-esque DIY sous vide cooking kit. Take one slow cooker (rather a kitchen favourite, cost under £20 when I bought it a couple of years ago.) Add one inexpensive electronic cooking thermometer/probe from Clas Olsen (a tenner to you and I). Finish with a lot of cling-film and some zip-lock plastic bags. There were promising reports of similar setups on the net. But would it actually work?

Read more

Venison, bullets and spears

As it was Valentine’s Day (or more precisely the evening before, and I didn’t yet know what delights would present themselves at Guestrant) I fancied doing something a little more glamorous for a dinner for two, and wanted to explore a couple of whimsical thoughts. Luck and judgement conspired to help create something a wee bit different and classier than my normal fare… in this case venison steak, butternut squash bullets, spinach and potato gratin, and steamed asparagus tips.

Read more