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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…

Candied Peel

I love love love candied peel. I used to run to the baking cupboard and cram spoonfuls of it in my mouth when my mum wasn’t looking. It was my favourite bit of any fruitcake or barmbrack. This is especially odd since I don’t like oranges as a fruit, juice or flavouring, and generally eschew citrus fruits of all kinds. But mellow those citrus rinds in vats of sugar and it’s hypnotic to me.

An inability to read recipes a few weeks ago meant I ended up with an overabundance of grapefruits when making marmalade for cake and found myself wondering what to do with them all. A casual Twitter conversation about Christmas preparations brought about a massive lightbulb moment. I would make my own candied peel. Never mind if it was incredibly faffy and complicated: I could rise to the challenge!

Imagine my glee when this Waitrose recipe popped up and I realised candying my own peel was actually easier than pie. Radio on, sleeves rolled up, I set about peeling and de-pithing my citrus fruit. I had a mix of pomelo, ruby grapefruit, lemons and orange, but avoided limes as I thought it might be too overwhelming, like cordial.

Get four pans going on your hob and simmer the peels separately in hot water for about 20 minutes to soften them up. Then split the peels into two pots to simmer in the syrup. I actually made two batches of candied peel and found it easier to keep the peels bigger and cram less peel into the pans as they bubble and soak up the sugar. I just did two batches of the syrup to be sure nothing caught or burned. Keep the heat down low as you can, you only want the merest blip in the syrup to stop it getting bitter or caramelising. Then go off and do stuff while your house smells truly amazing…

I came back to my peel when there was still a tiny bit of syrup left, and lifted the biggest pieces out with tongs, laying them on baking trays. The smaller bits went into a sieve to drip any excess syrup off, as you don’t want so much syrup on the pieces: they dry crunchy and I didn’t fancy trying to boil my pan dry and win the challenge. I then left the trayfuls of peel in the living room to dry as it was the only place I had room, but the airing cupboard or anywhere the cat can’t walk on them will do.

About three days later, I turned the peel with tongs and left for another two or three days or until I remembered about it. I popped it in a ziplock bag, with a tablespoon or so of icing sugar, and shook it up to coat it and stop it sticking together. Some went into the Christmas mincemeat. Some went into cellophane bags to give as gifts. The rest was stored in a jar to be used for various festive recipes closer to the time and the leftover syrup stored for a drizzle cake or put on porridge or ice cream.

So if you didn’t do a cake on Stir-Up Sunday, impress people with homemade candied peel instead. You will never buy one of those tiny tubs again after you’ve tasted the citrus sensation of making your own. It tastes as good as it looks!

Salted Vanilla Toffee Apples

Halloween is a big deal in Ireland. We don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night (for obvious reasons in Northern Ireland) but the Irish have been holding a celebration around this time since Celtic times when Samhain was the equivalent of New Year. The date merged with the Christian All Souls Day and All Hallows’ Eve to become Halloween. Traditionally the time when the link between the world of the living and the dead was closest, it is a time of supernatural feeling and rememberance of those passed on. Irish and Scottish emigrants to America took the traditional Halloween customs with them and those have been exported back across the Atlantic to the less spooky-minded folk of England in recent times.

As kids growing up in Belfast, Halloween was a big deal. Half term always fell around this time and we were off school to celebrate with a variety of traditions from a turnip lantern and full on costumes, trick or treating, apple bobbing, indoor fireworks (anything more explosive was banned) and a rich array of seasonal foods. Our mum made her legendary apple dumpling most years, steamed in a cloth, complete with silver coins for luck and it was also the time of year for barmbrack. But we also got in another one of our five a day with a toffee apple or two.

Wrapped in cellophane, these twinkled and crinkled in the run up to the big night and produced a fantastic crunch when we were finally allowed them. Sharp shattering toffee, softened but crunchy apple and a burst of tangy juice, these got eaten faster than any other apple in the year. These are the taste of childhood to me and I haven’t eaten one for years. Could I make them a touch more adult while keeping the memories?

One of my favourite things I’ve made all year was the Salted Caramel Butter Ice-Cream and thinking back on it inspired me to add a salted twist to toffee apples. It was the perfect time to use the Halen Môn Vanilla Sea Salt I’ve been hoarding for a while and make them salt sweet perfection. I got some lolly sticks off Ebay and stocked up on English apples at Brixton Farmers’ Market. I was ready to heat sugar to scary temperatures…

First up, scald your apples with just boiled water to take off any waxy coating they might have. Dry them completely and push the sticks into them firmly. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and heat in a small pan:

225g golden granulated sugar
about a heaped tablespoon golden syrup
1 tsp vinegar (I used cider)
1 tsp sea salt
50ml water

Melt everything, bring to the boil and then get it all to the hard crack stage or approximately 150C. A sugar thermometer is a godsend here to make sure you don’t go over. Take the pan off the heat directly at this point and add in some red food colouring to get that proper candy apple red. I used a teaspoon of powdered colouring and I’d hazard a guess at the same of liquid. Natural isn’t the look we’re going for.

Keep the toffee molten and very liquid, putting back on a low or residual heat if needs be. Tilt the pan to one side to get the toffee as deep as possible and roll your apple in it, coating as high up as you can. Allow the excess the drip off into the pan and then set on the lined tray. Repeat until you run out of toffee. I got 6 small apples out of this, but probably could have done 8. Dollop any leftovers onto a tray to set like toffee and cover with chocolate or make spun sugar baskets or add a dash of bicarb for a cinder toffee-esque treat.

The toffee will set almost instantly on the apples and on the pan. Fill it with water and bring to the boil to save hours of soaking and scrubbing. Admire your handiwork and feel smug that you have not burnt yourself or the sugar. Then get stuck into a toffee apple as soon as possible.

They tasted exactly as I wanted. The flavour and feel of childhood but with a tiny tinge of adulthood from the salt. There was just a hint of vanilla, almost like a waft, rather than a flavour. You could add essence if you wanted a more defined taste. I scarfed mine in the same record speed as I used to, revelling in the soft apple and the shimmering crunchy toffee. I wrapped the remaining ones in cellophane and hoped fervently that no one called to trick or treat so I could eat the lot…

Yellowman meets yellow butter…

Having invited some friends to Sunday brunch, I wasn’t quite sure what to make. Combining two meals into one raises the stakes somewhat and a rubbery fried egg and some cold toast wouldn’t cut it. So I googled brunch ideas and the clear winner was this Bill Granger recipe for ricotta pancakes with honeycomb butter. Soft fluffy pancakes with sweet crunchy butter sounded just the ticket and offered the perfect opportunity to educate my English and American guests about proper yellowman instead of this honeycomb malarkey…

Yellowman is the Irish name for this aerated sugar creation you probably know as the middle of a Crunchie bar or possibly as cinder toffee. It is famed throughout Ireland and particularly associated in the North with the famous Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle around the end of August. Paper cones or pokes of yellowman were served at the fair, traditionally accompanied with the famous dulse or dried seaweed. Perhaps an Irish precursor of the salted caramel trend we all know and love now, I found this combo utterly revolting as a child. Dulse had the texture of shoe leather dipped in salt and I could never understand why people brought it back from Ballycastle for us. I already hadn’t been on holiday, why punish me further? I might feel differently these days though.

I loved yellow man though with its sticky rough crunchy feel and glorious sunny colour reminiscent of late summer sunshine and long weekends before school started again. Skipping the side dish of dulse and adding it into butter sounded like improving on something already pretty perfect. Filled with the warm glow of childhood memory and refined sugar, I decided I would live dangerously and make my own yellowman for this recipe as I remember people making it when I was a child and saying how easy it was.

Seeking Irish expertise, (and soundtracking the event with the tones of Jamaica’s finest and appropriately named reggae artist Yellowman) I decided to follow Niamh’s recipe at Eat Like a Girl especially as she omits the butter some recipes use. I’m nervous enough round molten sugar without potentially burning butter to boot. Warned to use a deep pan, I got the Le Cresuet out and started melting. Unfortunately because I am incapable of reading recipes correctly at the moment, I used 200 ml of golden syrup instead of 200g so may have had too much in the mixture, which is why when my trusty thermometer said the mixture had reached the magic 150°C or hard crack stage, the whole thing had gone from an alluring golden amber to burnt umber. I bunged the bicarb in anyway and was unprepared for how much it foamed up. Unsure whether I was meant to stir (ie: put my hand near boiling sugar that is exploding) my hesitation meant there was yellowman mix all over the cooker and even belated stirring didn’t help that much. I poured the remaining mix into a lined tray and set about scraping the sugar off the cooker. I certainly know why the Scots call it puff candy

Sampling a bit left on the pan, I established that the sugar had gone from sickly sweet to acidic and overcooked. I decided to start again, using the correct amount of golden syrup this time. Thinking this is where I’d gone wrong, I followed the recipe exactly otherwise, again going for the hard crack stage and ending up again with darker looking sugar than I’d have liked. I added the bicarb, stirring like a dervish and although it puffed up like a more alluring indoor firework, the yellowman still didn’t look sunshine yellow. In fact eagle eyed readers will have noted that it is in fact that the kind of burnished hue usually only seen on a contestant on Snog Marry Avoid. It also had the same acrid tang of burned sugar as the previous batch.

Having run out of refined sugar products to ruin and acutely aware I was spending my Saturday night in a fog of sticky smelling smoke, I gave up at this point and turned my attention to washing up both sugar caked pots I’d used, realising I should have taken the mix of the heat before it got to the hard crack stage and see if that helped. I also discovered when ruining another recipe later in the week, that I am reading the thermometer wrong! So please don’t be scared to try this recipe unless like me you paid no attention in science class and can’t read a thermometer.*

I then went out the next morning and bought a four pack of Crunchies, denuding them of chocolate with a sharp knife and then mashing them into some softened (and thinking back to the dulse, salted) butter before shaping into a roll and chilling for a couple of hours in the fridge.

Once the guests arrived, I turned my attention to the pancakes. Despite the seemingly complicated two step batter, these are incredibly easy to make and quicker than a regular batter as they don’t need to sit. Spoonfuls of the thick yet light batter went into a hot pan and puffed up beautifully as they turned golden brown. Served up alongside some crisp streaky bacon, these little pancakes were pretty perfect as they were. But adding in the butter took them to a whole new level.

Flecked with shimmering jewels of honeycomb, the butter added a soft yet crunchy, sweet yet not sickly layer of deliciousness to the pancakes. Combining the best of the world of the whipped style butter and syrup the Americans serve with pancakes, you no longer have to choose between the two toppings, but enhance them by creating the best butter in the world. The crunch worked perfectly with the soft pancakes and the sweetness took the bacon up a notch too. There were no pancakes left and only a scraping of the butter once we’d all finished, even though we also had light crumbly corn muffins and a slightly spiced berry compote on our plates too.

Once my guests had left, I finished off the butter on the leftover muffins and reminded myself that it was so good, it had been worth all the fluffy faffing with sugar and syrup the night before. I will be trying making yellowman again instead of trimming a million Crunchie bars, so that I can make an entire block of the butter and then eat it with a spoon. Or make the best toast in the world. Don’t make the pancakes without it. It’s so worth the extra effort!

*I’d also like to thank Niamh who took time out to see if she could help me sort my problem with the yellowman despite me slightly slandering her poor recipe’s good name. I feel very reassured now.

Pumpkinseed brittle

Many years ago I had a Home Economics teacher who took great glee in scaring a roomful of twelve year olds off ever entering a kitchen. Anything and everything was a source of potential death, disease or disfigurement in this most dangerous of rooms. She left me nervous of many things, but none more so than hot sugar. But Nigella’s recipe for pumpkinseed brittle sounded so delicious, I decided to apparently risk life and limb and try making caramel for the first time… Read more