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Local northern food to put a smile on your face

Northern Stars supper club. Pt.2: local food for local people

sliced rhubarb

(This is the second article on our Northern Stars supper club… you can check out part one here)

When we had to name our team for the recent ‘A Question of Taste’ TV show, I rather glibly chose Northern Stars… it chimed with our team’s all-northern roots, and echoed North Star Deli’s title as the genesis of our team. When we hatched plans for our recent supper club after the show, that name morphed to became a genuine manifesto for the evening. I was keen to make the JoinUs4Supper evening a showcase for some of our favourite local food stars and producers… the products I’ve known and loved for sometime… and those which I take down to Miss South in London, to bring a taste of the Pennines to the big city.

The combination for the night of farmer, chef and foodie gave us a chance to share some of these tastes with friends and fellow foodies in Manchester, and now we can share them with you too.

Northern stars local specialities 1

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Headline image, inside North Star Deli at the JoinUs4Supper event

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, mildly 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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Pasta & cheese part 1: return of the mac(aroni)…

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.

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!

Frittata? That’d be lovely, ta…

Onion, potato and tomato frittata

“Frittata, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Free-ta-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Free. Ta. Ta.”*

A long time ago I was deeply influenced by the writing of Marcella Hazan. She was, and remains, one of my favourite food writers; not just for her playful tone and homely style, but also for her authoritative standing on all things Italian-American. Our family used to holiday regularly in Italy when we were growing up, so the palates of Miss South and myself were honed through years of exposure to appreciate in simple yet perfect Mediterranean staples and delicacies. A Marcella cookbook or two always stood, well thumbed, on the kitchen bookshelf, and I’ve upheld this tradition since living here in England. I was given “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” many moons ago, and almost immediately alighted on the chapter on frittate. I fell in love and I’ve not looked back since.

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