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Venison Christmas dinner, and the best leftovers ever…

Uncooked venison pieThe centrepiece of our Christmas dinner this year was a roasted leg of venison. Pretty good as it stands (ahem), but curiously, this tale ends up being all about the leftovers: the venison pie afterwards stole the show!

Cooked venison pie

My girlfriend’s family had served the roast venison a couple of Christmasses before, but it had overcooked disappointingly. I was given the challenge/opportunity to see if I could do it better. The roast recipe (see photo below) is from the Tatton Park estate, and I was handed a photocopy, complete with annotations. Now I like a good bit of venison, but hadn’t cooked a joint this size before, and was aware it’d need a bloody good basting to keep it tender. Hardly the hassle-free roast which is recommended for a peaceful Christmas Day, especially the first cooking for the in-laws!

Roasted joint of venison

I ordered the meat from Paul in the market (asking him to leave me the bone), and started work on Christmas Eve by making a stock … roasting the bones for 30mins before boiling up with a mirepoix and some herbs for a hour or so, until the stock tasted rich, robust and savoury. Venison’s very lean, but this yielded a creamy covering of fat, which I reserved and reformed for later use. While the stock was bubbling I also made up a batch of spiced Eastern European-style red cabbage. It’s normally better then day after making it, and has a good tang with caraway seeds, wild honey and bramley apple.

Spiced Red cabbage

After their experiences with the venison joint I was a little wary of following the recipe to the letter, so on Christmas Day we got cracking by late morning. This gave us time for a slow, low cooking; although potentially less than the recipe called for. After making the Stilton, bacon and panko stuffing, this got rolled up inside the joint which was then retied. I also stuck spears of that venison fat into the flesh, to help lard it. I wrapped the joint tightly in foil for all but the last 40 mins or so, when the foil covered the whole roasting tin, so the juices could really get going. All in all it was probably cooking for a shade over three hours, basted regularly. The meat rested for a half hour while I whipped up gallons of gravy, deglazing the pan with port and using the stock to build up the flavour.

Christmas dinner 2011

After our Spiced Beef starters, our Christmas plate was finished off with hasselback potatoes, roasted parsnips, sprouts with bacon and chestnut, and sweet potato mash. A great spread, with plenty of flavour, variety and colour for the main meal. The venison was very tender and moist (phew!) and the taste was good and richly gamey, but not exceptional (admittedly this was up against the Spiced Beef, which was a real winner by any standards). We had a leftover meal on Boxing Day, with as many of the trimmings and accompaniments as our plates would hold, but we didn’t fancy eating rich slices of venison every day until New Year.

Pie ingredients

One of my Christmas presents was the OCD Chef’s Chopping Board (my friends know me too well) and I’d joked about keeping my scalpel in the kitchen with it. My inner designer feels totally at home with a scalpel blade, and I fancied building on a couple of previous attempts to decorate a game pie. With around half a kilo of cooked venison, and a gale blowing outside, pie seemed like the perfect prospect. A post-Christmas pie, made with Christmas presents, leftovers, and a nod to the frozen north…

We came home after a shorter-than-planned afternoon walk in the heavy winds – any hot port in a storm –  and we threw ourselves into making the leftover ‘pie to end all pies’. Venison, stilton and gravy were all to hand. This was to be rich, rumbustious and made to revel in the excesses of the Christmas period: game, port and piggy bits, but I had a sweet potato leftover to use up. I reckoned that, much like the butternut squash in my venison pasties, this token vegetable’d work well.

I rendered down the bacon fat, and melted some butter, along with a sprig of rosemary. Then in went a few shallots, the diced bacon, and some cubes of wild boar salami, followed after a bit by cubed sweet potato and a hare stock cube. The plan was to soften everything through, cooking gently and once that was done, it all came off the heat. We discarded the stuffing from the venison, and cut the meat into properly decent-sized chunks. Venison has a tendency to firm up if overcooked, so I reckon bigger was better, and should guard against dryness. The hunky chunks of deer got mixed up well with the other cooled, cooked ingredients, then I crumbled in generous handfuls of Stilton to the mix. It looked great.

There was probably about 330ml of gravy left over from Christmas Day (a handy size… can you imagine if they sold tins of real gravy next to the Coke and Irn-Bru?) so that got warmed up in a pan, along with  teaspoon of Gentleman’s Relish (the secret ingredient),

Cutting board and reindeer

some extra hare stock cubes, a tablespoon-sized blob of redcurrant jelly, and significant quantities of ‘cooking’ port. After thickening to a wonderfully rich, thick consistency this was gently and methodically poured over the pie filling in the dish.

I’d already rolled out the pastry (Jus-Ro’s finest… I didn’t fancy making puff (or rough puff) this time) and traced around the pie dish, gathering up the offcuts to make decorations with my trusty blade. Once the pie dish was filled we had fun with the decorations! I’m really pleased by how it came out… there was no over-arching theme but I did reference my other half’s Christmassy knitwear for the reindeer inspiration. After that we got busy making trees and stars, then fitted everything together in a 3D manner. I think I went a bit too heavy with the egg wash in places, but I love the seasonal tableaux we came up with. It’s certainly raised the bar for the next pastry creation!

The finished dish got cooked for about 40mins in a medium oven: I didn’t want to overcook the filling and this was just enough to puff the pastry topping up perfectly and the contents heated to a slight bubble. By the time it came out we were almost climbing the walls with anticipation… just enough time to get the celeriac mash and a healthy portion of the spiced cabbage on the side. Oh, the smell…

Venison pie and mash

And we’re talking about a full-on, revelatory moment on the first bite. Boom… a gloriously grown-up pie fest… with the tang of the stilton, the richness of the game, the sweetness of the port-laden gravy and sweet potato meltingly intimate together on a fork. Proper posh pie heaven. Big chunks of succulent meat and light pastry were so good together… I didn’t want to stop eating it. Next day the pie made a glorious re-appearance alongside some home-fried chips and peas on the side. Which, if anything, was better than the first portion, as the gravy and filling had mellowed and mixed even more. No point in dressing up the accompaniments… pie and mash, pie and chips. Dead simple, job done. Fan-bloody-tastic!

Venison pie and chips

PS. Drinks during the cooking were provided by the superlative Buxton Brewery (their cracking Wild Boar making its debut next to the aptly game in the kitchen): then we washed the pie down with a suitably Nordic brew, Einstök‘s Icelandic Pale Ale. I like my ales at anytime, but a pie and a pint is a marriage made in heaven. Happy Christmas, deer!

 

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Irish Spiced Beef brings Christmas comfort…

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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…

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Pork chops and spring gems

After the harsh winter (thankfully an ever-more distant memory now we’re firmly into May) the recent bout of superb spring weather has brought welcome warmth and cheer in more than one way. Spring heralds two of our favourite fresh British delights: wild garlic, and asparagus. We’ve already written about both on several occasions, but with seasonal goodies this great, I’m not ashamed to sing their praises a little more. They provided the perfect partnership to prime Pennine pork last month.
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Venison, bullets and spears

As it was Valentine’s Day (or more precisely the evening before, and I didn’t yet know what delights would present themselves at Guestrant) I fancied doing something a little more glamorous for a dinner for two, and wanted to explore a couple of whimsical thoughts. Luck and judgement conspired to help create something a wee bit different and classier than my normal fare… in this case venison steak, butternut squash bullets, spinach and potato gratin, and steamed asparagus tips.

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