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Game, ceps and mash…

Partridge 10

We’ve written before about our shared love of game, especially the profusion of locally-sourced goodies from my part of the world in the Pennines. As our first birthday beckoned, and we thought of something to raise a fork and a glass to, I picked up a brace of partridge from Stansfield’s in Todmorden with an eye to our celebratory seasonal feast. As luck would have it, work took me to London for the weekend so we conspired to rustle up a hearty wintery meal which would encapsulate many of the tastes and temptations of the first twelve months of our blog, from both north and south.

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Sprats, spuds and Swedish sauciness

Miss South and I have a long-running appreciation of the herring family: from whitebait, the essential anchovy (in all its multifarious forms) through to sprats, pilchards, sardines and herrings; little silvery fish get a full-on thumbs up.

Curiously I’d come late to the pleasures of sprats… but once I discovered how cheap (and I mean cheap) a handful of good fresh sprats could be, I was a convert. Normally I’d have them very simply; tossed in a dusting of flour and smoked paprika, grilled whole and finished with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice, then eaten with some fresh crusty bread. The fact these small fish also answered to the delightfully silly scientific name of Sprattus Sprattus only enhanced their place high up the canon of favourite, fast, fishy fixes. But I alliterate too much…

So I was delighted when Miss South gifted me a tin of Swedish sprats as a Christmas stocking filler, which she’d picked up on her previously documented mission to the wonderful Scandanavian KitchenRead more

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.

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Ba Shan: Sichuan tastes for a peppercorn rent…

I make it a slightly gluttonous habit to meet friends once a week for tea and cake. This is often preceeded by a dose of culture to make me feel more cosmopolitan. This week’s destination was The Ministry of Food at the Imperial War Museum to get a taste of rationing during the Second World War. Slightly despondant after the thought of Woolton Pie and the reliance on margarine seen at the exhibition, we left in search of cake made with real egg at Konditor & Cook at the Curzon Soho.

Yet somehow we found ourselves turning off Shaftesbury Avenue and onto Romilly Street and straight in Ba Shan, seeking little meaty dumplings and jasmine tea instead. I’m not quite sure how this change of carb craving took place so quickly, but I am very very glad that it did…

Ba Shan is lovely inside, all sleek dark wood and surprisingly airy with well sized tables that just cry out to be piled high with plates and dishes of deliciousness. It specialises in Sichuan cuisine like its sister restaurants Bar Shu and Baozi Inn along with the less oil-infused but equally spicy Hunanese cuisine and if either of those are anything to by, we were in for a real treat of spicy porky goodness like no other.

We were momentarily taken aback by the enormous gaudy menus with their slightly lurid photos of all the dishes. It seemed more in keeping with the all you can eat buffets near Leicester Square tube, but a craving for soft juicy dumplings overtook us and we got choosing. Ba Shan offers both full sized dishes and more dim sum-esque small eats on the menu at all times and it was the small eats that tempted us since you can try more that way.

First choice were the irrestistable sounding Shaanxi flatbread sandwiches or jia mo stuffed with stewed pork. I’ve never seen bread in a Chinese restaurant before and I was eager to see what the texture and taste would be like. Our dumpling craving was sated by the choice of both potstickers and boiled dumplings stuffed with minced pork. An attempt to eat some of our five a day was filled by the exquisite sounding potato slivers with chili and Sichuan pepper and dry fried green beans. The hint of spice and the cleansing jasmine tea we ordered with it were just the ticket for the heat of the day outside.

Our jia mo flatbread sandwiches arrived quickly and comprised soft, chewy slightly sweet bread like a thicker version of pitta bread well filled with tender stewed pork and crisp crunchy lettuce. They were terrific, the sweetness of the meat and bread working perfectly together in flavour and texture. The compact size stopped them from being too heavy and I could have eaten twice as many of them as we’d ordered. I want someone to open a jia mo stall somewhere so I can gorge on these regularly!

Next up were the potstickers. Crisp and fried on the top with the crust just waiting to be shattered to expose the soft succulent dumpling beneath stuffed with minced pork and herbs, they provided excellent mouth feel with the contrast of crunch and juiciness. We had the plate emptied in a trice and were very happy to see the dumpling love continue with our boiled pork numbers arrive soon after.

These were accompanied with the potato slivers and the dry fried green beans, making an excellent main course of sorts. The unbelievably fresh slivers of blanched potato with the aromatic kick of dried chili and heavily scented Sichuan peppercorns enlivened the slightly stodgy meaty dumplings perfectly while the dry fried beans had real umami flavour thanks to the finely minced salted pork cooked through them. We felt smug that we had ordered so well. But if you don’t eat pork, Ba Shan wouldn’t be so easy to navigate!

Greed got the better of me when I used my improved chopstick skills to snaffle up the last few slivers of potato and bit into a Sichuan peppercorn. This was my first experience of these little firecrackers and to say they took me by surprise would be an understatement. My tongue spent the next five minutes going numb and yet fizzing like I’d mainlined popping candy by the handful in a strangely enjoyable fashion.

I think that stray peppercorn and Ba Shan have given me the Sichuan bug. I can’t wait to come back and try some of the main dishes  such as the spiced tripe and the stewed ducks’ tongues for more savoury spicy fun very soon. Our dishes were the perfect amount for a late lunch and while I have no idea how much them came to thanks to my most generous friend who insisted it be her treat, everything seemed reasonably priced on the menu. Calm and unhurried service, along with mouthwatering food, make Ba Shan feel like a real treat in Chinatown.

Gardeners’ Delight

After a freakishly chilly May, I have finally got everything planted in my little garden (despite the person who stole a bag of soil from me. What kind of person steals dirt?). I am now impatiently awaiting the appearance of tender green shoots like an eager child…

As I had previously mentioned this is my third year growing my own and with my confidence growing, I am hoping my crop will too! Things took on a life of their own slightly when I managed to get hold of some raised beds fairly cheaply online, expanding my growing space hugely and unexpectedly. Getting hold of soil online proved a bit tricky, but the beds were soon ready to go.

Raised beds

A trip to the amazing garden centre at RHS Wisley led to a rather large credit card bill and some new finds for the garden. I will be experimenting with Munchkin squash in the beds this year as well as hopefully bedding in some perennial Holsteiner Blut and Pink Champagne rhubarb beside the beds. As you may remember both Mister North and I are very fond of rhubarb so I have high hopes for this!

Wisley was also the source of several new herbs for the patio. I got my hands on a stunning tarragon plant, some beautiful marjoram and a fabulous oregano in a self composting pot. Along with the chervil, borage, lovage, sorrel, lemon basil, Thai basil and regular basil I have planted in pots, I think I might just have the best herb garden in Brixton! I’m really looking forward to cooking with some of these new herbs, plan to make litres of pesto and my Pimms will be enhanced beautifully by the borage!

herb-tastic

My little raised beds are home to beetroot, salad leaves, pak choi, gherkins, squash, curly kale, carrots and Swiss chard. I’m using a combination of seeds from Just Seed on Ebay, some swaps with friends and family and my freebies from the brilliant Dig in! at the BBC. I planted last week and seven days later, my pak choi and salad leaves are fantastic! My beetroot was a total washout last year, so I’m particularly excited for that…

I’ve gone for two types of potato this year; the sweet nutty Pink Fir Apple and the stunning looking Shetland Blue. Last year I had limited success with the Pink Fir Apples. I don’t think I planted them deep enough or banked them up well enough. So this year, I dug a trench for them both and buried them deep enough that neither squirrels or sun can damage them. I want to make chips with the whole Fir Apples for utter indulgence and the Blues will make the prettiest mash in all the land.

My tomatoes are less than two weeks in their pots and already showing fruit. I’m starting to think I may be some kind of tomato whisperer. Sadly I couldn’t get the amazing Cheriettes of Fire again this year, but I’ve got two Tumblers instead. These trailing plants are so easy to grow I’d recommend them to anyone with even the smallest amount of outside space, even a strong hanging basket. They just need regular watering and a bit of a feed and they crop like nobody’s business. I’ve also got a lovely Gardener’s Delight again and a heritage variety called Black Cherry because I’m a sucker for purple fruit and veg!

pots & planters

I’m also hoping to get some peas and beans going. I did buy runner bean plants at Homebase, but an unfortunate slug infestation means they have been eaten to shreds before even seeing a flowerbed. I hope to get some more this weekend, plus I plan to get my peas and mangetout underway. I’d like to fully grow the mangetout, but I think I’ll simply sprout the peas to feast on those sweet crunchy pea shoots that make a salad a sensation.

I also have several collapsible planters (supposedly for potatoes) on the patio for courgettes. I’ve planted two varieties this year, a striped Italian number and some yellow ones. I had fairly good success with my zucchini last year, but the globe type I planted seemed to run out of steam quite early and I only had about 8 in total. I’ve heard better things about the sort that resemble mini-marrows instead, so fingers crossed!

I’m hoping for a nice mixture of sun and rain this summer to get my money’s worth from the fruit and veg I’ve got going. Planting most stuff in beds or pots makes them quite easy to care for and hopefully I won’t spend all summer weeding! I’m secretly hoping for a glut of tomatoes again as I’ve really been enjoying sampling that fresh grown flavour throughout the winter months thanks to the home made sauce in the freezer. Home made pesto would be a lovely addition this year to perk up pasta!

I’m just keep my fingers crossed that I don’t have too much die on me this year, but if you’ve got any tips on getting any of the plants mentioned to thrive, please let me know! My nerves may not be able to take the stress otherwise!