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Sprout Stuffed Squash

sprout squashChristmas is the spiritual home of Brussels sprouts. People have very strong feelings about them one way or the other. Except in our childhood home. I don’t really ever remember eating them on the festive plate when I was wee, possibly because we don’t do turkey either (and don’t even mention bread sauce.)

The first time I really remember them appearing was a few years ago when both our mum and I spotted the same recipe for sprout gratin in the Guardian and were keen to make it. I can’t remember whose recipe it was and I’ve long since lost the cutting, but basically the sprouts are lightly boiled and then blended up with cream and parmesan and baked with more parmesan and breadcrumbs on top. Very simple and utterly amazing. I’ve seen people get territorial over the last spoonful of it.

So when I was coming up with something for £3 Christmas Challenge for the Trussell Trust, this dish was at the back of my mind but I wasn’t quite sure where to go with it. But as you all know, if I’m stuck for an idea, my mind turns to stuffing. And what better to do with the spare Crown Prince squash I’d had sitting getting its gourd on since Hallowe’en on the window sill?

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Warming winter insulation

Squash and cauliflower soup

Ah, how I love the simple, comforting nature of a good home-made soup on a cold day. As the mercury’s plunged again this week after the unseasonal warmth over Christmas and New Year, I’ve been slipping back to the wintery cycle of roasting, making stock, and then cooking up quick and delightful vats of soup. As well as being a simple, wholesome task, it’s also a great way of using things up in the kitchen.

I rarely follow recipes for soups… you can’t go far wrong with most combinations as long as you use your taste and nose… although an exception to the rule was a fabulous Butternut Squash, Ginger and Apple soup. This was from my favourite Parlour Café Cookbook (which has just been awarded ‘Best First Cookbook in Scotland’ at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards… congratulations!) and was sweet, velvety and savoury all the way. Generally though, I make it up as I go along, but when the results are really good, I do note them down… so here are a couple I’d like to share.

One lazy Sunday lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, when it was freezing outside and the kitchen windows were all steamed up, I decided we needed some warming soup. We’d had a gloriously rich evening meal the night before, so something a little more simple was the perfect foil to this.

I’d bought one of those cute wee striped squashes around Halloween, and it had sat patiently on the sideboard, imploring me to use it in something. Squashes are great emergency food, lasting for ever. Today was its calling, so I cut it into eighths, and placed it and the florets of about half a cauliflower head on baking tray, drizzled some olive oil over the top, and placed it in a mid-temperature oven (the oven had already been on for a spot of baking a quick wheaten bread.)

Cauliflower and squash

Cauliflower’s been making a comeback in Mister North’s kitchen recently. When we were kids cauliflower only came in two ways: boiled (normally something we’d have at our granny’s) or as cauliflower cheese. I loved both, but it’s a veg which I realised I’d been sorely neglecting when the Hairy Bikers shone a spotlight on the humble cauli in the first series of the Great British Food Revival. I’d made a cauliflower purée the night before, so had a spare half a head to use.

As the veg was lightly roasting, I sweated down some shallots in butter, then added a couple of chopped potatoes to soften. Braving the rain, I nipped out and cut a good sprig of rosemary off the bush; washed it and threw the leaves into the pan. Everything sizzled and softened – the heady aroma of rosemary oil and shallots pervading all of downstairs – and once the spuds felt soft to touch, I threw in five home-made hare stock cubes. Some cooks think life’s too short to make stock ice cubes, but for me it’s a boon to be able to lay my hands on a selection of real stock in small, easy-to-measure quantities.

Taking stock

By then the veg in the oven was looking and smelling pretty fine too, with the cauli florets taking on just a hint of roasted colour, so they got tipped into the pan while I cut the skin off the squash and cubed it. Stir it up, simmer it down. A good shake of smoked paprika was next, the warming scent wafting up from the pan. Finally a decent splash of double cream, and a quick garnish, using up the last of the garlic chives which had grown lackadaisically on my windowsill since late spring, added a flash of colour. I paired it up with some freshly-baked wheaten bread, still warm from the oven: just perfect for wiping the bowl clean.

Winter soups 4

 

A couple of days later I bought a duck from Lidl – specifically so I’d have a decent stash of duck fat for roasting veg over Christmas – roasted it simply, made a load of stock from it (which set into the most wonderful lustrous thick jelly) and enjoyed the meat in sarnies. When that was suitably diminished I used up the rest in one of my standby big noodle soups: duck, rice noodles, cucumber, carrot and spring onion, shot through with star anise and chilli.

Duck noodle soup

And finally, here’s one of my favourites. When I posted this a few weeks ago on Twitter, the consensus was that it’s not worth making your own, as the tinned version is just perfect. Just add a swirl of cream or a knob of butter, and a generous helping of freshly ground black pepper. What is it? Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup… a true taste of childhood and still one of the best quick standby meals I can call upon…

Winter soups 1

Candied Bacon ‘N’ Pumpkin Ice Cream

I think we’ve touched on me being a bit of an Americanophile before. I have a total weakness for the literature and food of the USA. And I’m prepared to struggle for my art. The Kraft Mac n’Cheese might have defeated me, but like my first time reading Moby Dick, I don’t give up easily. Pumpkin pie didn’t float my boat, but I was determined to find a Thanksgiving inspired dessert that did this year. Pumpkin ice cream sounded just the thing.

Shamelessly copying this David Lebovitz recipe, I dug out the spare can of Libby’s from last year and got going. A rich thick custard was created, laced with vanilla and a lot more rum than he suggested and anointed with some proper amounts of spice. Half a can of the pumpkin puree was added in and the whole thing was churned til a beautiful golden shade of orange. It was then served as the highpoint after a proper Amurrican meal of corndogs and macaroni cheese with a friend from Chicago. And it tasted like grass.

Oddly powdery in texture with a strong vegetable taste that took over the soft spices and vanilla, it was the strangest ice cream I’ve ever had. The extra water content in the pumpkin made it freeze as hard as a rock and taste of ice crystals rather than the usual velvety blanket of churned cream I make. The rum didn’t help and added no flavour. And unusually for an American recipe, it wasn’t sweet enough. It seemed sparse and utilitarian. Neither of us finished our bowls.

But I had around a litre of it in the freezer and was loath to throw it out. It needed something to lift it and make it sweeter, more dessert-like and less like a very peculiar starter. And it need to be properly American in style. Hershey syrup would have worked. Maybe some of those mini marshmallows you get in American cereals. Butterscotch chips embedded in would be great. I didn’t have any of those things to hand and I refuse to pay Selfridges’ Food Hall prices.

What I did have to hand was some lovely unsmoked bacon from the Porcus people. I realised the time had come to get on the candied bacon bandwagon. It’s been uber fashionable to bacon everything possible in the past few years from chocolate to Baconnaise. Apart from one disappointing dalliance with the chocolate, I’ve steered clear, haunted by memories of bacon bits in adolescence. But when bacon is this good, it cries out to be coated with sugar, baked til crisp and then crumbled over ice cream and swirled with toffee sauce…

It went into the oven on a lined tray, heaped with sugar and cooked at about 200℃ for about ten minutes, then turned over and dredged through the syrup and cooked a bit more, before being cooled to a crisp. Shred it up nice and small. And then turn your full attention to the toffee sauce. I used equal quantities (handily unmeasured) of golden caster sugar, golden syrup, double cream and butter and boiled it for about 5 minutes or until I got bored waiting.

The rock hard ice cream had loosened up nicely and it got a liberal swirl of sauce and a decent sprinkling of bacon. Some crushed pecans nuts and a rasher of best back cut lengthways would make an amazing (and very adult) sundae. But we kept it simple and got stuck in. And it really worked. The sauce sweetened the ice cream and toned down the powderiness while the sticky shards of bacon added much needed texture. We finished the bowls with gusto this time.

Next year I won’t be bothering with pumpkin desserts, keeping my slices from the deli for soups and stews, but I recommend you combine this ice cream and the accompanying candied bacon one to have something to experiment with this time next year. You’ll be be giving thanks for the bacon all year round!

Hello deer… Venison Pasty

Hurray! It’s game season again… a chance to cook a broader range of foodstuffs. As the range of seasonal veg decreases, the blackboard at my local butcher’s is filling up with a wonderful selection of goodies. Recently venison and grouse caught my eye, so I snapped some up at Stansfields when I saw it.

I bought a few hundred grams of diced venison without a clear idea of what I wanted to make with it, but I started to entertain a growing desire to make a pasty. I love a well-made pasty, but where I live is pie country so it’s relatively rare to find a genuine, glorious example of the crust-encased pocket of goodness. I’ve made game pie before, but not pasties, so research and experimentation was called for…

Diligent homework threw up a lot of passionate and divisive opinion about pasties in general, and the Cornish pasty in particular. It was clear that under a strict interpretation of the rules this could not be seen as a true Cornish pasty: that requires beef, swede (turnip as we’d call it back home), and if you’re particularly strict, it needs to be made in Cornwall. It was becoming obvious I couldn’t label this as anything but a venison pasty. At least I was in good company: Shakespeare mentions venison pasties in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

So this was a posh imposter (with a heritage, admittedly), with a spread of ingredients which no traditionalist would entertain, but it sounded mouthwateringly good with the venison, and butternut squash as a substitute for turnip. In homage to ‘proper’ pasty making I followed the instructions on the Cornish Pasty Association website, and discounted my original idea of adding a shiitake mushroom and butter reduction over the top of the mix, as I’d read ‘proper’ pasties don’t have any pre-cooked ingredients in them.

As I was in the middle of making the shortcrust pastry for this I remember think I should’ve left baking to Miss South… it’s definitely her forté. I gave it a good go, but only after I’d mixed up the flour, egg (I used one double yolker duck egg), butter, baking soda and salt did I realise I’d have to hand-mix and rub the mix… I only have a hand-held food processor and it was starting to protest strongly at working the dough as vigourously as it needed. Still, I managed to manually get the pastry mix looking biscuity, as it was meant to, and then rolled it into a ball and bunged it into the fridge for an hour or so in some clingfilm to rise up.

To make 3 (rather large and overfilled) pasties I used around 330g venison, 200g of shallots and red onions in roughly equal measure, 300g of butternut squash, and slightly less potato. Ah well, I’ve never been a stickler for measurements anyway. I diced everything fairly small, mixed it all up with the seasoning, and a splash of oil so the flavours would mingle gently. Miss South suggested I supplement the normal seasoning with a pinch of mace: something which proved to be an inspired choice in adding warmth and old-fashioned flavour, redolent of big country house kitchens. It was only after putting the finished pasties in the oven I realised I should really’ve used up the flat-leaf parsley I’d meant to put in. Oh well…

I did over-fill the pasties (perhaps I should’ve made larger pastry circles, or doled 4 fillings out rather than the 3 I managed) so this made the distended pockets rather hard to seal (using a little egg to moisten the edges) and crimp (perhaps crimping should be left to the experts… the CPA, or The Mighty Boosh). I was amused that when I checked various references online crimping was described as a technique one couldn’t easily explain. My induction into this ancient art was somewhat therefore ignominious; and did allow more leakage than it probably should’ve, as the photos testify. I then baked the three of them at a medium heated oven for around 40 minutes, slowly being driven to distraction by the aroma filling the kitchen.

As mentioned my baking skills are not as fully honed as my sister, so in hindsight I wish I’d placed these on a better-greased tray, or even onto a wire shelf to cook. This did absolutely nothing to impact on the flavour though… these pasties were rich, warming and absolutely delicious. Autumnal heaven! Now I’ve lost my pasty cherry I’m going to make more of these with a variety of fillings… perfect for the lunchbox as a self-contained delight.