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slow cookers

Slow Cooker Matchmaking

slow cookers

So you’ve decided to buy a slow cooker? Welcome to the least time consuming cult in the world. We find time to put our feet up (at least metaphorically) and get on with all the other stuff we love in life and then sit down to a proper meal at the end of it. I particularly love the low washing up levels that accompany it.

But what do you do if you’re still standing on the side of the fence with the stove and saucepans, looking forlornly at a dish needing steeped and don’t know which toe to dip in first to join Club Slow Cooker? I’ve got some advice for you here so you’re ready to start using the recipes in Slow Cooked.

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book cover

Creating Slow Cooked

book cover

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before now or anything, but I’ve written a book! You’ll have to forgive me getting meta and writing about writing a book but I’m still in post book writing withdrawal and indulging myself with as many blog posts as possible before Slow Cooked comes out on November 6th.

After people congratulated me on the book deal (and believe me, nothing gets people more excited than a proper paper book even in these days of blogs and e-readers), they generally wanted to know two things. Firstly, how do you get published and secondly, how do you actually write a book from scratch?

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pig cheek ragu

Slow Cooker Pig Cheek Ragu

pig cheek raguThere is always room in my life for pig on a plate. From bacon, just crisping round the edges to slabs of Christmas ham in Coke or a grilled glistening chop or chorizo jam, I love pork in all its forms. It was of course, the one thing that tempted me from vegetarianism in all those five years and I still feel no qualms about the bacon sandwich eaten late at night up one of the Mourne Mountains after a long day’s walking on my Duke of Edinburgh Silver expedition. I went back to instant couscous the next day and avoided porcine temptations for years more.

But when a rare steak lured me back to omnivorousness once again, it was pig that kept me there. Just around the time Babe hit cinema screens, I was incapable of cooking anything with pork in it without gleefully exclaiming that ‘pork is a nice sweet meat‘ like a demented CGI mouse. More than anything else I eat, I am most able to separate the cuteness of piglets from their taste and texture and the only thing I feel guilty about is my inability to feel guilt about it all.

At first the attraction was that pork is pretty easy to cook. Compare grilling a pork chop to getting a steak just right and you’ll see what I mean. I wasn’t a confident cook at all (if you’d told the 19 year old me that I end up writing two cookbooks, I’d have laughed myself inside out) and meals that were easy to make really appealed. Pork is also often lower in fat which as someone who had just had their gallbladder removed was crucial and combining all these factors with the fact pork is the most affordable meat for free range or higher welfare standards, I’ve cooked it a lot over the years.

We all know that you can eat everything on a pig except the oink and I find it a good way to keep expanding my horizons. Black pudding is a borderline North/South Food obsession and I’ve certainly been won over to the taste if not the texture of trotters, so it was inevitable that pig’s cheeks would call to me. Technically classed as offal as they come from the head, they are in fact pure muscle and perfect for low slow cooking to help the meat fall apart in a tender tangle. Very inexpensive at around £2 for 4, they’ll easily feed 4 people cooked well.

I get mine in Morrisons or Waitrose (and yes, that £2 price is correct for Waitrose as part of their Forgotten Cuts range) and tend to make a massive batch of this ragu in the slow cooker before portioning it up and freezing it until needed. It makes a lasagne of such beauty it’s hard not lick your lips as you describe it. It also goes well with either baked potatoes or as a porky version of cottage pie with cauliflower and potato mash on top. I served it simply here on top of some rigatoni with a hearty sprinkle of parmesan for the first properly autumnal day here in London.

It’s a slow cooker dream and makes a nice change from the ubiquitous pulled pork. I’ve made it without onions as I don’t eat them and I suggest you leave them out too. They bully the soft sweetness of the meat into something less soothing. Read more

fig salad

Crispy Caper and Polenta Salad

fig saladOk, let’s get the humour about Northern Irish and Scottish people not quite understanding salad out of the way. This one does contain fried things, but what do you think those lovely croutons in your Caesar salad are, huh? So let’s carry on with what is really a perfect early autumn lunch instead and celebrate crispy crunchy fried things in style.

This salad is built round polenta which is the other Italian staple carbohydrate in town.  Made from cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge, British people have never quite taken it to their hearts like they have with pasta. This is partly because we have little connection with eating corn in this country beyond the odd tin of Green Giant and partly because polenta can be quite bland.

In fact, the first time I had polenta as a child, I was actually quite repelled by its blandness. Almost offensive in its nothingness, it kept me away from eating it for years. Then I realised you should never ever buy precooked polenta and that like all the best foods on earth, it needs a liberal hand with the butter. Now I’m a regular polenta eater.

However, I’m not an authentic polenta maker. Firstly I usually make it in the slow cooker rather than stand around stirring slowly to make it smooth and creamy the old fashioned and energetic way and secondly, I add stock to mine. This is near sacrilege to a friend whose family are Northern Italian, but it’s the only way I can add enough flavour without bunging an entire block of Kerrygold in there and missing the point of peasant food.

polenta cubesI tend to make a big batch of polenta and eat half like a thick porridge to soak up ragus or stews (also usually done in the slow cooker) and then allow the other half to cool into blocks and eat it almost like a springier version of cornbread. This cooled polenta is especially good cubed and fried until crispy round the edges. Here I’ve scattered it over a salad but it works well as a breakfast dish with scrambled eggs and tomatoes too for a filling and gluten free start to the day. Read more

rbbit

Slow Cooker Rabbit Stew

rbbitFor ages, it was tradition for me to go and visit Mister North in the countryside over August Bank Holiday weekend. My dancing all day at Carnival days are over so it was very relaxing to head to West Yorkshire to breathe in the fresh air, frequent country pubs and eat well.

Unfortunately I also cooked one of the worst meals I’ve ever made on one Bank Holiday visit. It was a rabbit stew of such dryness that it was almost completely inedible and every single time Mister North or I so much as think about eating or cooking rabbit, we mention it in hushed (and horrified) tones.

Rabbit is a very lean meat with almost no fat and thus it’s easy to cook all the moisture out of it. It’s also a meat that most people in the UK don’t regularly eat or cook because of a combination of it being seen as poor wartime food, the myxamatosis scare of the 70s and the Watership Down/Beatrix Potter effect. This means we don’t grow up learning how it should be cooked or eaten and have anything to compare our efforts too.

Even I took a while to get into the swing of cooking things I used to keep as a childhood pet, so getting the hang of rabbit took me time. The terrible rabbit stew came from a frozen wild rabbit and was then soaked in vinegar water to tenderise it. I won’t be repeating either of these things again. It might work better if I’d brined it though.

I also irrationally despise the tactic of cooking drier meats with bacon to bard them. I’m not entirely sure why this practice enrages me so much, but it’s also fairly pointless with the kind of lean back bacon in vogue these days. I seemed destined to never exorcise the ghost of the terrible rabbit stew.

Then as my slow cooker chronicles progressed and I was making seriously succulent stews, I decided to risk doing bunny in it. And it was fantastic. It was one of the dishes I enjoyed the most while recipe testing and I was really disappointed when it didn’t fit into my chapter structures and had to be set aside (hopefully for next time.) When I saw a wild rabbit at Herne Hill Market this August Bank Holiday weekend, I knew the time had come to revisit the technique, adding a beautiful big Bramley apple, some fresh tarragon and white wine this time. Read more