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Sticky, spicy ribs for a brilliant Bánh mì sandwich

Banh mi ribs 13

There’s been a bag of Porcus pork ribs in my freezer for the last couple of months, hiding under a furze of frost, waiting for the right recipe. Last weekend they received their calling when, leafing through the ‘Ginger Pig Meat Book‘ which I got for Christmas, out leapt an intriguingly simple recipe for spare ribs. Sounded perfect for bits of a ginger pig.

Over the years I’ve had a few goes at making slow-cooked, succulent sticky ribs – the last time was in the autumn, when I cooked them under foil at gas mark 1 overnight, before uncovering and getting a quick blast under the grill. They were good, but not gooey and crisp like proper BBQ ribs should be. Not enough time marinading beforehand, letting the flavours permeate every sinew of the meat. Miss South and I went to Bodeans in Clapham a couple of years ago, and enjoyed massive mounds of BBQ meat, and I’ve had good ribs in the States, but was never able to replicate that kind of taste at home. Until now.

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Tapas to light up your life: El Gato Negro at Guestrant

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Hoary old blues crooners and popular folklore alike state it’s bad luck when a black cat crosses your path. I don’t know if this adage holds firm in Spanish, but after a night of superb tapas from El Gato Negro’s Simon Shaw, I’m prepared to guess not. Lady luck and her helpers in the kitchen ensured that the inaugural Guestrant of 2012 was a resounding success.

Electrik black cat 3

Despite January being seen as a quiet month, there’ve already been a slew of great food events to choose from in Manchester, including Gastroclub at Room, JoinUs4Supper at North Star Deli, and then Guestrant announced they’d be bringing El Gato Negro to the Electrik Bar in Chorlton. Having enjoyed Guestrant on several occasions in 2011, it was an opportune time to re-engage with this great watering hole in south Manchester for some quality school-night dining.

Despite it being the same night as my debut TV appearance, it didn’t take long to decide that curiosity to view my gawping visage on the goggle-box would be comprehensively trumped by the chance for some superb Spanish fare from one of the best tapas joints outside of London.* El Gato Negro is one of Calderdale’s, and indeed West Yorkshire’s culinary gems. Chef/proprietor Simon Shaw has made his mark on the county and further afield, and over the years has steadily built a reputation on a sympathetic balance of innovation, tradition and flair, with a few appearances on national TV to raise the profile of the restaurant further.

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A real split pea souper

Soup 1

I am not the shopping fiend I used to be. I can spend all day trekking up and down the West End and come home with nothing to show for it but slightly raised blood pressure and sore feet. But occasionally when I’m out I still make impulse purchases, which explains why last week, I came home from ‘just nipping out’ with a bag of pig’s trotters.

Dazzled by their cheapness and pinkness, I couldn’t quite resist even though I had no idea what to do with them. Then inspired by a conversation about soup with Mister North, I remembered this mouthwateringly porky potage in the shape of erwtensoep or Dutch split pea soup. Thick as a plank and designed to be packed with piggy goodness, the pig’s trotters would make the perfect base.

Well known for their tendency to toward the gelatinous (and good for them. The jelly in a pork pie is the best bit) I figured something as absorbent as a split pea could take the risk and it would simply thicken everything up nicely if the stock seemed a bit gloopy.

I was also swung towards this soup by the addition of celeriac. Another impulse purchase back in the summer at Homebase saw me buying ten tiny celeriac plants in a tray. I planted them out, expecting only about a third of them to take. Fast forward six months and my patio is a convention of celeriac. All ten are thriving. I have a forest of leaves and a lot of celeriac needing eaten. Adding some to the soup was a start.

I began the prep with the weirdest bit and gave the trotters a shave with a spare and unused Bic razor. Not only are they quite pink and unnervingly delicate with their little nails, pig’s trotters are quite bristly. These were Tamworths and the fuzz was decidedly auburn. Much and all as I love red hair, I don’t want it in my dinner…

Trotters attended to, I turned my attention to the veg, trimming, peeling and cubing. Nothing difficult, just a little bit of time and effort. In went a rather sad looking leek, a few carrots, the whole small celeriac, an onion or two and a good handful of celeriac leaves for depth. I basically halved the amounts in the recipe above. I layered half a cup of split peas on the bottom of my Le Cresuet, then put the trotters on top, along with a spare rib pork chop. You’d add in the pork ribs and the bacon about now if you had them.

Then pile your diced veg on top, adding the other half cup of the split peas to the top. The meat will be hidden and it’ll look like pure vegetable and pulses. I added a few leftover stock ice cubes from the freezer which I think might actually have been pheasant. You always seem to get a dead pheasant in Dutch still lifes. I figure it couldn’t go amiss. I then topped it all up with 3 cups or 750ml of cold water and brought it to the boil before turning down to a simmer and leaving well alone for about an hour. No stirring, no poking, no peeking. Just leave it and get on with life.

An hour later take the lid off and see how the water levels are. You’ll want to check the texture of the stock and loosen it up a bit if it looks too thick and wobbly. I added a splash of water and then left it for another two hours or until the peas had softened and swelled and started to break up. Don’t cook it until they are total sludge. When you leave the leftovers overnight, the peas will soak up the remaining liquid and thicken and if you overcook you’ll be left with concrete not soup. Fish the trotters out and discard (I had enough skin and gristle with the tail). Give the peas a quick chivvy with the potato masher to thicken everything. Marvel at how a bog basic pork chop has become soft strands of loveliness and get stuck in with your spoon.

I was aware that pork and pulses are a good thing. I was expecting to like the combo in this bowl of soup. I wasn’t expecting to fall completely in love with split pea soup. But one mouthful and I was smitten. Rich with sweet porky flavour, it was bursting with taste and both the stock and peas gave it a suprisingly silky texture. It was fantastic. I practically licked the bowl clean and wanted a second helping, but wow, this soup is filling. I compromised by having it for breakfast next day.

Embrace this sudden cold snap and make this soup immediately. Use any pork on the bone to make a stock or take the challenge and buy some trotters for you instead of the dog. Add bacon, use up some smoked sausage, throw in some chorizo, use the leftover stock from doing a ham, the choices are endless. Just make sure you keep it porcine and it will reward you with being easy, cheap, healthy and filling. I impulse purchased some pork ribs today so I can make it again immediately…

 

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 accessorising 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 bargain 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…