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Pastrami

There is a long weekend coming up and I have an excellent suggestion as to what you could do with it. Why not have a go at making home made pastrami? It’s not quick, but it’s also not difficult in the slightest. And if the weather is good over the Jubilee, it’s an excuse to get the barbecue out. Tempted yet?

Pastrami is beef brisket, brined and cured, then rubbed with spices and smoked until cooked. It’s also known as the finest sandwich filling around and something you always want more of so having a great big hunk of it in the fridge as cold cuts when you’re off work is just ideal. I’d actually never cooked with brisket before, but Mister North’s superlative spiced beef at Christmas had piqued my interest and I was just waiting to get my hands on one. And thanks to Becs over at Lay The Table alerting me to the presence of Farmison and their grass fed, higher welfare standard meat by mail order, I ordered a 2kg beauty on a Tuesday evening and had it ready for its brine bath by Thursday tea time which impressed me greatly and I’ll certainly be using them again for things my butcher can’t get me easily.

Brining meat is very easy. You simply prepare a solution of water, spices and salt and immerse the meat for the required time. This is also a cure thanks to the presence of saltpetre and means the meat doesn’t spoil, but retains a lovely rosy hue instead of looking leathery like some cooked beef does. Although the meat will be preserved by the process, you still need to be cautious with hygiene and make sure everything you use is nice and clean. It’s also worth preparing everything in advance rather than weighing spices at each step or you’ll lose track and end up accidentally doing too much of one thing.

Pastrami

  • brisket (I used a 2kg piece)
  • 200g sea salt
  • 100g dark brown sugar
  • 2 litres water ( I boiled it and cooled it)
  • 6 cloves of raw garlic
  • few stalks of thyme
  • 2 teaspoons of saltpetre (I had mine from the bacon)
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 tsp whole peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp shichimi togarashi (or chilli flakes)
  • 2 tsp allspice berries
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground mace
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 4 bay leaves (ie: I just used everything in the cupboard, bar cumin)

If your brisket comes in one of those meat hairnets, remove that now, but keep the string around it to keep the brisket shaped and rolled. Rub a handful of the salt over the meat while you dissolve the rest of the salt, the sugar and the saltpetre in the hot water. Give the spices a bash to release their oils and flavours and add to the water. Bruise the garlic cloves to release the flavours and put them and the thyme into a deep tupperware and put the meat in and pour the brine you’ve just made over the meat. Seal it up and leave it in the fridge for up to five days, but a minimum of two.

The meat will still have a pinkish tinge when you take it out of the brine so don’t worry, it’s quite safe to cook. The meat needs to be smoked to give that proper pastrami feel so there are two ways you can do it. If the weather is nice, you can use the barbecue or you can do it in the oven, but either way you’ll need wood chips to impart the  smokiness that lifts this from just being beef. Don’t forget to rub a crust of ground coriander seeds and cracked black pepper over the top of the meat first.

I started mine off on the barbecue using the indirect method where the charcoal is on either side of the grill and the meat is in the middle in the coolest spot so that it cooks without getting that charred exterior that direct cooking gives. I added pecan wood chips that I had soaked first and I got a fairly good smoke on but the charcoal went out about two hours in and since I don’t have a meat thermometer, I couldn’t tell if the meat was cooked so I popped in the oven to finish off. I put the rest of the wood chips in a dispable foil tray and put the meat above them on a trivet, then covered it all with foil and slow cooked it for 90 minutes at 150℃. The moisture from the wood chips steams the meat so it doesn’t dry out, but keep an eye and make sure they don’t lose moisture themselves. You might need to top up.

Once you’ve let the meat cool down then you can congratulate yourself. You’ve just made  pastrami from scratch! It’s as simple as that. Now serve it either slightly warmed (pop it back in the oven to heat gently) or at room temperature for a stunning picnic lunch. I made mini pretzel rolls and bagels from Dan Lepard’s excellent recipe and heaped them high with gherkins and mustard on the side and it all seemed to go down marvellously, fortifying us well to sit through four hours of Eurovision, but leaving me with a goodly amount of leftovers for cold cuts in the warm weather. Don’t delay and you could be seeing in the oh so British Jubilee next week with some very American pastrami!

Makin’ Bacon

I’m not actually a big fan of bacon. Yes, it was the one thing that caused me to fall off the wagon when I was a vegetarian, but that was more to do with the fact of it being 10pm on a cold April day in Ireland up a mountain and the choice of either eating the proffered bacon butty or going to bed hungry and chilled to the bone. I don’t actually remember the first time I ate bacon after stopped being veggie and I only buy it about twice a year.

A recent care package from the north stuffed with Porcus bacon and Bury black pud reminded me that it’s not bacon I don’t like, it’s cheap or mass produced bacon that doesn’t float my boat. So since I can’t get Mister North to pop to the post office every week with some rashers from the Porcus girls, I decided that I would try making my own bacon to see if I could tempt myself.

A quick Google search established that I wasn’t setting myself an impossible task. Basically I needed a hunk of pork belly, a surprisingly small amount of salt, saltpetre and some time. It sounded fairly simple and I was quite excited to get cracking. I went to Walters in Herne Hill and got him to cut me 1.8 kilos of pork belly into two pieces (including the bones) and skipped home to get curing.

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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…

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Irish Spiced Beef brings Christmas comfort…

Spiced beef 11

Having read Miss South’s glowing write-up before my latest visit to her, I was keen to read through Niamh Shields‘ “Comfort & Spice” cookbook. I sped read as much as possible in a short time, and one of the (many) wonderful recipes which caught my eye was Spiced Beef: an Irish dish which is traditionally served cold over the Christmas period. We’d normally have a decent-sized cold cut in the house over the holiday period, often the Coca Cola Ham which we wrote about last year.

However I  can only remember having spiced beef once, when our mum brought back joint from the butcher. She’d fondly mentioned it from her childhood, but this shop-bought version was memorably unmemorable. So I’ve always wanted to make proper spiced beef from scratch, and Niamh’s recipe provided the perfect excuse to give it a go this year. I alternate between spending Christmas in the north of England, and returning to Belfast, and this year I was in Manchester with my girlfriend and her family. Having something which brought a taste of Ireland to the table was important to me… and having a cold joint to be able to pick and nibble at is always a bonus.

Spiced beef isn’t a complicated dish, but it does require some patience, preparation… and an ingredient which wasn’t available to the general public in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, which curtailed its consumption when we were growing up. Saltpetre aka potassium nitrate was a controlled substance, as it’s a key constituent of black powder (gunpowder). I’m not sure if it’s still verboten: I was lucky enough to be given some for this recipe by a friend. Saltpetre’s one of those relatively unknown but essential compounds on which the modern world has been built; used for fertiliser, food preservation, an oxiding agent for gunpowder and fireworks amongst other uses.

I ordered the Christmas meat in advance from Stansfield’s in Todmorden Market –  the centrepiece of our Christmas meal was leg of venison – but Paul always has good beef and I picked up a weighty brisket form him last weekend.

Irish Spiced Beef (from Comfort & Spice)

2kg beef brisket off the bone

The curing mix:

1tsp allspice
1tsp cloves
1tsp fresh nutmeg
1tsp mace
75g soft brown sugar
10g saltpetre
100g sea salt

Combine all the ingredients for the curing mix and rub all over the brisket. Sterilise with boiling water a non metallic pot or plastic container into which the beef will fit snugly. Add the beef, cover and store in the fridge for eight days, turning daily and basting with any juices.

Wipe off the excess marinade and cover the beef with water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for two hours. Allow to cool and serve over the festive period as you would a ham.

First step: make the curing mix. I closely followed Niamh’s ingredients, with a couple of minor tweaks. I used Muscovado sugar, as I love its rich, sticky, almost smoky rawness. I also raided my extensive selection of salts to create a posh mix which would hopefully play up the strengths of the beef and spices, using Maldon Smoked Sea Salt, Guerande Grey Sea Salt, and Carmargue Fleur de Sel. Every recipe I’ve seen for dry-curing meat stresses that the quality of the salt is imperative, and they looked beautiful ranged on the plate too.

Spiced beef 1

I ground the whole allspice, nutmegs and cloves together, together with a cheeky tablespoon of mixed peppercorns to add a little bit more warmth to the mix. Then I combined the salt, sugar and saltpetre in a bowl, make a good stiff mix. The aroma was stunning: if you’re ever looking for a sure-fire way to enfuse your home with the sweet, aromatic and suggestive hints of winter, this really is it. It’s even better with a cockle-warming glass of hot port to aid the cook’s concentration!

Spiced beef 4

I sterilised a tupperware container, and placed the cured meat in it, sealing it tightly and placing it in the fridge. With six days between the initial preparation and Christmas Eve, the only requirements were to gently spoon and baste the spiced liquids over the joint daily. You’ll find a fair amount of juice will be drawn out of the meat by the cure. I tried my best to disturb as little of the spiced coating as possible, wanting to let the power of the spices permeate properly through the meat.

Spiced beef 7

On Christmas Eve we simmered the beef for a couple of hours, before letting it cool (patience is a virtue) and cautiously cutting a few slices off for a Christmas Eve nibble. As you can see, the beef had held its vivid rose hue thanks to the saltpetre, and the flavour was quite wonderful: warming, comforting and so tender. Paired with wholegrain mustard mixed into some mayo, and ranged with gherkins, this was a perfect sandwich: almost the Irish equivalent of New York pastrami. We didn’t leave any out for Father Christmas though, as it proved way too popular with everyone who tasted it.

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I’d also decided to have the Irish-themed starter on Christmas Day revolve around the spiced beef: after a night in the fridge the meat was even easier to thinly slice, and I plated it up with a small toasted piece of soda bread, a dab of redcurrant jelly, some cubes of Cashel Blue cheese, and a lightly dressed selection of watercress, rocket and baby spinach leaves. Everything worked well together: the sweetness of the jelly complementing the sharpness and warmth of the mustard vinaigrette, pepperiness of the rocket, the crisp of the bread… and of course that succulent, aromatic and oh-so tender beef. Needless to say, we’ve been cutting cheeky slices off the joint ever since, as it’s perfect for snacking and sating our cravings for seasonal cold meats.

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Thanks to Niamh aka @Eatlikeagirl for allowing us to reproduce the above: it’s a brilliant encapsulation of a traditional Irish recipe, and doesn’t suggest any of the adulterations which crop up in many US-oriented traditional ‘Oirish’ recipes. We’ve recommended it before and we’ll do it again… buy Comfort & Spice and make your kitchen a happier, better place!

Comfort and Spice

Even if you aren’t a food blogger, you’ve probably stumbled across Niamh Shields’ fantastic blog Eat Like a Girl with its mix of travel, food, great writing and strong personality. It appeals to everyone from die hard foodies to people idly pondering what to make for the one Sunday lunch they do each year. I’m especially fond of it due to the fact Niamh proudly references her Irish roots, never apologising for the cuisine of my youth and helps sate occasional pangs of homesickness.

So I’d been counting down the days till Niamh’s first cookbook Comfort and Spice was published. I had pre-ordered it on Amazon and then Quadrille very kindly offered us a review copy to see what other Irish folk thought. Even on the first flick through I knew I’d have been happy to pay full price for it. I can’t remember the last time a cookbook excited me so much.

It’s quite a small book compared to some of the stupidly large tomes we’re used to these days, but there isn’t a single filler recipe in it. Split into sections such as ‘Hearty Lunch’, ‘Simple Suppers’ and ‘Eight Great Big Dinners’ this is a book written by someone who loves food but understands the home cook and their concerns and costs. There’s no cutting corners on quality and an encouragement to make things from scratch with dishes running consecutively so you can shop wisely while leftovers are given their rightful place. There is no assumption that you have unlikely kitchen gadgets or an army of kitchen staff to wash up items that didn’t really need used.

And if that isn’t already a refreshing change that sells the book to you, wait til you see the recipes. Based round a combination of clever shopping and a good storecupboard, I was cooking from it within an hour of it arriving. Cauliflower soup with spiced butter tortelloni lifted this humble brassica into an evening event so good I forgot to photograph it.

Black pudding croquettes perked up some mediocre slices from the supermarket along with a rosti and some homegrown tomatoes. Ricotta pancakes made Monday morning a sheer joy. The soda farls tasted as good as the ones off my Auntie Georgie’s griddle. Ham salt makes the world a better place and I can barely wait til Christmas to do the spiced beef.

I have more recipes marked to try than not. I love the everyday luxury of the book with cook’s perks such as chicken skin skewers while the tasty practicality of two and six hour pork belly makes me want to invite the world to lunch. I can’t wait to feel the achievement of homemade butter and ricotta. It’s a book that speaks to all levels of cook from the novice to the expert and neither assumes confidence (or a vast spice cupboard of unheard items) nor patronises.

I just can’t think of anything I don’t like about it although if I was quibbling, I’d prefer a hardcover as my cover had greedy greasy fingerprints on it after the first goes. Beautifully written, brilliantly planned, I can’t fault it. Buy one immediately, bring the joys of chorizo on sticks into your life and let Niamh suggest all your meals for the next few weeks. You couldn’t be in better company!