Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Week 2 - River Cottage - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

After finding some elusive new season scrag end of lamb (the old-fashioned cuts have the most romantic names) on the butcher’s counter in Waitrose I knew I had to make Ivan’s neck of lamb with lemon and thyme. A recipe that was originally published in the first River Cottage book, this was later adapted by Hugh F-W to include barley and kale, which is the version I have gone with here. Partly because I absolutely adore pearl barley with lamb and partly as the Ewing had just discovered a clump of kale that has escaped the interest of the rabbits on the allotment.

Growing up my mum’s lamb stew with barley, carrots, swede and suet dumplings was the one dinner the whole family always agreed on. There is something of Proust’s madeleines when I think back to days of getting home from school and eating a big bowlful while sitting around the fire watching Neighbours. Before fighting with my sister over who would get the last dumpling (me, of course).

I love lamb neck and lemons, and thyme, and barley and kale, I did worry slightly that it wouldn’t quite live up to my Mum’s lamb stew. But, worry not; while it was a simpler affair (the original recipe has just five ingredients) it was still a big, sticky hug in a bowl. The lemons brought a pleasing astringency to the fatty lamb, cooked long and slow until the meat divested itself from the bone. Proper, old-fashioned cooking that gets the maximum flavour from the fewest ingredients.

Lamb neck with lemon, barley and kale
serves 4
1kg scrag end or neck of lamb on the bone, cut into slices (I couldn’t find enough neck on the butcher’s counter, so I also added some lamb neck fillet, cut into big chunks)
1 tbsp of vegetable oil
Juice of 1½ lemons
4–8 sprigs of thyme
Water or lamb stock to cover
A big handful (200g-ish) of pearl barley or pearled spelt
A handful of, kale, shredded savoy cabbage or spring greens, roughly chopped, tough stems removed, per person
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based flameproof casserole, add the lamb and allow it to brown (you may have to do this in batches), turning until it is lightly browned all over. Tip out any excess oil, add the browned lamb, lemon juice, thyme and some salt and pepper, then enough water or stock to barely cover the ingredients.
Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and put in an oven preheated to 140°C. Cook for an hour and a half, then add the pearl barley or spelt, check the liquid, adding more if needed (the pearl barley / spelt will swell up as it cooks) and cook for a further hour or until it is nearly tender and the lamb is falling from the bone.
Remove the casserole from the oven. If you want to serve it straight away put the pan on the hob, skimming any extra fat from the top if there seems like a lot, and bring to a simmer. Add the greens and simmer for a couple of minutes, until they are just cooked through. You could also steam the greens separately, or any other veg of your choice, and serve alongside the stew.
If you want to make in advance, as I did, to allow the flavours to improve, then cool the stew once it is cooked and chill in the fridge overnight. The next day reheat thoroughly (removing any fat on top beforehand, if you wish) and cook the veg as above.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Week 1 - Nigel Slater - Kitchen Diaries

New year new you, or so the saying goes. Although, really I’ve reached a stage in life where I’m quite happy with the old me. Even more so when it means the highlight of the weekend is going to the butchers to pick up some premium free range Dorset pork chops (from Webster family butchers in Southbourne) and then making this recipe, from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, glass of wine in hand. 

Nigel Slater is the author whose books most frequently line my bookshelves. And of his books, this is probably my joint favourite (stay tuned to see which tome it shares a podium with). Written, as the name suggests, like a diary, it’s perfect to curl up with for inspiration. Ideal for planning seasonal eating or, if you’re anything like me, skipping ahead to the summer when you’ve had enough of the all the cold and damp and you want to dream about ripe peaches dribbling down your chin and warm sand between your toes (or vice versa).

This recipe is quick, easy and perfect for a chilly January afternoon, enjoyed alongside the remnants of the bottle I hadn't yet drunk, before curling up on the sofa beside the Ewing to watch the football.

Pork chops with mustard sauce
adapted from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries
For 2
2 large pork chops
big glug of brandy/white wine
100ml of double/whipping cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
Sprinkle of Bisto Best for chicken/chicken stock cube

Turn the oven to 180°c. Heat a frying pan over a high heat and add the pork, with a little oil if the chops don't have much fat, and fry for a couple of minutes on each side until golden. Don't forget to crisp up the fat. put the chops on a tray and into the oven for 8/10 minutes to finish cooking while you make the sauce.

Over a medium heat add the brandy/wine to the pan you fried the chops in and let it reduce, scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the cream and mustard (and a little Bisto if, like me, you wanted some extra oomph) and leave to bubble and reduce for a few minutes. Taste, season with salt and pepper, add the cooked and rested chops back to the pan to heat through and then divide between two plates.

I served this with two types of cabbage; red cabbage slow braised with a chopped green apple, cider vinegar, a spoonful of cranberry sauce and and couple of spoonfuls of brown sugar; and sweetheart cabbage, lightly steamed and crisp. 

I'm sure my Irish grandmother, were she still with us, would have admonished me for not including potatoes (and I'm sure the Ewing would agree). But while mash, or a few floury boiled spuds, would have been good, I found it quite enough with the rich meat and the rich sauce. Although the Clare Valley Riesling we drunk alongside had an acidity that was very welcome.

As if that wasn’t worth the price of admission alone, I also made Nigel’s frosted marmalade loaf cake from his Kitchen Diaries 1. Made with the remnants of a jar of homemade whiskey marmalade, 2017 vintage. This is a recipe that the Ewing has made a few times (although never for me, I note) but this time I made it for her. Or more precisely, I made it for her to take into the office for her new workmates. Apparently her boss had a slice, and she hasn’t been sacked yet, so I’m taking it that it went down well.

My only amendments this time were to use a mix of white flour (plain, with baking powder added) and wholemeal spelt flour, as I found some in a jar on the shelf as I was rooting about and thought the nuttiness, slightly crumbly spelt would work against the bitterness of the marmalade.

I also misread the '2 tbsps of orange juice' in the icing as 'juice of two oranges'... Luckily I had only added one orange by this point, but the mix was still far too liquid and I ended up adding more icing sugar after my initial application barely glazed the top of the cake. Well, the whole point, according to Nige's blurb, is to end up with the crisp crunch of the topping as a contrast to the soft sponge.

Frosted marmalade cake
For the sponge:
175g butter
175g golden, unrefined caster sugar
a large orange, finely grated
3 large eggs
75g orange marmalade
175g self-raising flour (I used 125g plain white and 50g wholemeal spelt plus 1tsp of baking powder)
For the frosting:
100g icing sugar
2 tbsps orange juice

Set the oven at 180 °C. Line a loaf tin about 25 x 11 x 7cm deep.
Put the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl and beat, with a mixer or electric whisk, until pale and fluffy.
Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition.
Beat in the marmalade and the grated orange zest.
Gently fold in the flour and baking powder. Do this slowly, firmly but carefully, till there is no sign of any flour. Gently stir in the juice of half the orange.
Spoon into the lined cake tin, lightly smoothing the top. Bake for 40 minutes, checking it after 35 with a metal skewer. Leave to cool in the tin, then remove and cool on a wire rack.
Sieve the icing sugar and mix it to a smooth, slightly runny consistency with as much of the remaining orange juice as it takes. Drizzle the icing over the cake letting it run down the sides, and leave to set.

As an addendum, my colleagues found out about the cake for the Ewing's colleagues, and so I baked another one this weekend just for them, As its my last week before starting my new job (eeek) I'm not so worried about being sacked, just hoping there are no ill-effects so they can all come for a farewell drink on Friday.... 

Monday, 6 January 2020

Cooking the books - my 2020 challenge

In this life things come and go, but my two enduring loves remain eating and reading (Ummm...surely this should read 'my three enduring loves remain eating, reading and The Ewing?? - TE). So I guess it stands to reason that I have always had something of an obsession with cookbooks. As a child I would often be found sitting at the kitchen table after dinner, flicking through my Mum's well-worn Dairy Book of British Food or the Heinz Beans cookbook, or, most favoured of all, the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book. This was a book my Mum didn't seem so enamoured by, as I don't remember anyone ever being presented with a cake actually baked from it.

Anyway, despite culling my collection over the years on several occasions - and, for the first time since I moved out of home, no one in my household works in either libraries or bookshops - I've still accumulated far too many. And I use them far too little (other than the pile upstairs currently making a makeshift bedside table). So this year I'm resolving to give them the attention they deserve by attempting to cook from a different one every week.

It also feels like a while since I set myself a challenge - I’m sure much to the Ewing’s delight, who has had, amongst other things, to traipse around Greater Manchester looking for rag pudding and Brussels looking for eels in green sauce during some of my previous ‘challenges’ – so I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one. Both literally and figuratively.

As well as attempting some of the more outlandish recipes/projects and sourcing some of the crazier ingredients, I’m also hoping to find some easy after work ideas beyond the same hackneyed pasta bakes and stir fries that have become indelibly lodged in the weekly repertoire. That said, I will always have a huge affection for pasta bakes – particularly a version I invented when I was at university, featuring jerk pork chops, black olives and Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. Which certainly won’t be found in any recipe books. But definitely should be.

I also want to find ways to maximise the produce we (well, mostly the Ewing) grow on the allotment and in our garden/windowsills at home. From the first forced rhubarb through to the fresh peas, garlic, tiny new potatoes and the gluts of courgettes that everyone ends up with through the dog days of summer. 

Plus I hope to find some fitting uses for all the jams, marmalades, chutneys, liqueurs and preserves that seem take up all the available space (along with Imelda Marco’s my wife’s shoe collection) under the spare bed and the cupboard under the stairs. A friend’s dad has taken to calling us the ‘jam girls’, an epithet I rather like, and saves us all his empty jars to refill. And while there may not be many finer uses beyond jam being slathered thickly on buttered toast, it would be good to find some more creative uses for some of the things we make.

Yes, it’s hardly a revelatory concept, and God knows if I’ll see it out past Easter, but it feels like something that’s doable and most importantly, enjoyable. And which will also allow me to carry on writing the blog without feeling horribly over-committed to going out and eating things and writing about things. Instead I’ll probably feel horribly over-committed to staying in and eating things and writing about things; but that’s another matter…

I'm hoping there will also be time to write about various other events and memorable meals. Probably not on the same scale as previous years - I'm rather looking forward to eating more meals out without the write ups and the attempts to get a good photo on a mobile before things get cold, as I'm sure my wife will heartily agree -  But with this New Year heralding new jobs for both the Ewing and I; a special anniversary; a special birthday; a road trip (or two); my best friend's wedding and three visiting parties from Down Under I'm sure there will be more than plenty to write about during 2020.

So, despite finding it almost impossible to properly follow a recipe - through a mixture of my lack of patience, disorganisation; frequently finding I don't have all the ingredients; and, most critically, thinking I always know better; I'm not sure what can go wrong....

NB, that's not my own kitchen above, but a student kitchen the Ewing and I found ourselves in a couple of years ago, having a beer (but definitely not any food) with a guy we had rescued from the churchyard on our way home from dinner. Long story. I took a picture of it for posterity and it still makes me laugh.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Smoke on the water

Forgive me father, it's been a while since my last blog post. Mostly as I've got toothache and the Ewing's got a new job. I've relayed things in that order as (as you might imagine) that's the priority they are receiving in our household. 

While it hasn't been all fun and games recently - lots of tinned ravioli and antibiotics for me and lots of long hours for her - I was hoping that going to the seaside for a celebratory seafood lunch (some of the Ewing's favourite things) in sunny Southwold with me (her favourite thing) would be just the ticket for both of us.

The Sole Bay Company can be found by Southwold Harbour, a pleasant stroll from the pier (the Under the Pier Show is a must), along the main beach and across the dunes. Comprised of four semi-derelict fisherman's shacks knocked together, the interior is rustic yet comfy; with jugs of water (which the Ewing still contrived to miss) and rolls of kitchen towel laid on each table, alongside freshly cut flowers. 

To get to the loos you have to trek back outside and up some steps (all while remembering the code). So I was thankful for clement weather; and the fact I was on the antibiotics and therefore off the booze and able to navigate the shingle without incident.

While I might have had a pain in my tooth, I wasn't suffering alone. The Ewing also had a pain, this time self-inflicted, from bowling headfirst straight into a wooden post after being distracted by the fishmonger's slab that greets you as you walk through the entrance.

And who could blame her; it's a beautiful sight, featuring a spanking fresh array of locally caught fish and seafood, much of it smoked just next door. As well as being available in the restaurant there is also all available to take away and prepare at home.

Specials, slightly unnervingly, are chalked up on the sides of a huge fish tank that lines the dining area. On our visit, these included beer battered oysters and mussels, both of which the table next to us ordered, and both of which looked excellent.

And so to our drinks, and a toast to my very lovely, and very talented wife. A large glass of Picpoul for the her and a (non-alcoholic) Ghost Ship for me; brewed at the Adnams Brewery, not more than stone's throw away, and where we took a tour in 2014, on our last visit to town. 

The closest low-alcohol drink option back then was probably a bitter shandy, but no-booze is a much bigger thing now. I'm happy to report that this made the perfect option for someone who is off the sauce but still fancies a lunchtime pint, tasting commendably similar to the full ABV version.

To eat we chose a seafood platter; while they offer many set choices, many involve whelks and winkles, so we went off piste and created our own to avoid the rubbery lumps of cold sea snot that nether of us actually like.

Instead we chose a magnificent platter pield high with a whole smoked mackerel; a pile of shell on prawns, hot smoked salmon, a cromer crab; two crevettes; and two giant roll mops in their own silver sauce boats. There was also an, apparently, excellent warm loaf, served whole with a bread knife and plenty of butter. But you'd have to ask my wife as I could only nibble at a crust.

Even though I was under the weather, I rallied around when the food appeared and I can report that was all quite as excellent as it appeared; the mackerel and the tranche of bronzed salmon the colour of the winner of a reality show being particular highlights. There was also a small shoal of silvery sprats, a small oily fish that has fallen from favour which the Ewing beheaded with a flourish and swallowed with gusto.

Crustacean wise the duo of crevettes certainly looked the part, but at two quid each, didn't quite live up to the billing. Just order another portion of the sweet shell on prawns instead for the same price. And make sure you bring your wife to peel them for you....

Astonishingly, I only seem to have three of photos of the food - consisting of the fish platter taken from a different angles and the fish platter after the Ewing attacked it. I must have been ill. You can also see she (with a little help) did a pretty good job. I must also give her credit for patiently peeling things and checking for bones and shell and just patiently putting up with me generally; although that did meant she got the lion's share of the fish for herself. 

They are also more than happy to pack up any leftovers to take home, so she even got to enjoy the roll mops and the sprats with the leftover crusty bread the following evening. While I ate soup and yogurt and looked on with mixed envy/disgust.

A wonderful lunch with the most wonderful person, finished by a brisk walk along the sand. As you can see, the sea air certainly had some kind of effect on the Ewing's mood; or maybe that's just the result of having to put up with me. That's certainly one job she already excels at.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Pigs at the Pig (birthday lunch number two)

This year I was fortunate enough to have two of my all-time favourite meals. Yes, even better than Christmas, Easter and the first solid food you can eat after having a tooth out - the birthday lunch. 

I've already written about the first here, whilst the second was a semi-surprise arrangement, concocted between my lovely wife and my lovely friends, at the Pig in Brockenhurst. (I'm not going to speculate further on my friend's additional motivations for wanting an excuse to go for lunch at the Pig too closely...).

This is the original Pig - there are now several incarnations, including the Pig in the Wall and the Pig on the Beach, spread across the South - and the converted house, built in the early 1900s includes a 29 room hotel, several treatment rooms and a bar, alongside the multi-roomed restaurant. 

We were shown to a lovely bright table in the corner of the conservatory, which made the pictures of the food look better and the pictures of us look worse. Nothing like the natural light to really highlight those imperfections.

Cocktails to start included icy cold Chase vodka martinis, with a healthy lick of olive brine and a green olive. There was also their version of a rum and cola, which was fabulous but, with ingredients including 'acorn aromatic' and 'honeydew sage', probably remains out of the scope of most amateur mixologists.  

A big basket of warm, fluffy bread - with the addition of yet more chopped olives - was excellent. Plus extra points for serving it with both oil and butter (or both, if you're the birthday girl, or just greedy. I was both).

From the piggy bits menu we ordered sharing plates of crackling shards with warm apple sauce and mini sausage rolls with mustard mayo which went down (along with retro mushroom vol au vents and salmon pate on toast) as you may imagine, very well. 

There were also raptures from the rest of the table over the 'brock eggs'; mini scotch eggs made by wrapping quail eggs in shredded ham hocks before being breadcrumbed and deep fried. If you weren't an oeuf-avoider you would probably have enjoyed these. But I am, so couldn't comment. 

I started things proper with a pretty (if a little bijou) plate of Solent mackerel tartare with fennel and trinidad peppers, topped with edible flowers from their gardens. At one point the trinidad was claimed to be hottest chilli in the world, but even I was glad that there wasn't any real heat to take away from the delicate flavours of the spanking fresh fish and gentle aniseed twang from the fennel.

While the menu changes seasonally the pièce de résistance is the tomahawk pork chop, a beast of a cut served with roast beetroot and a creamy mustard sauce. Move over Homer Simpson, this was damn near my perfect meal. The vast hunk of meat had been chargrilled on the outside while still juicy within, and the thick ribbon of crisp fat and rind (absolutely the best part) left intact. Earthy beetroot and a creamy mustard sauce with a decent punch completed things nicely.

Chips were commendably good, and I'l forgive them for being served in a flower pot as it fits in with the kitchen garden schtick. We also had some of their home grown steamed greens, fresh from the garden, and a plate of the excellent tobacco onions; crispy deep fried curls of lightly battered allium that did somewhat resemble a pouch of old shag tobacco.

After the fanfare with the pork, the Ewing was slightly underwhelmed with her choice of Beaulieu Estate venison haunch with crushed celeriac and pickled pear. While it looked the part, and each constituent element was well executed - especially the venison, which was butter-soft - overall it felt a little timid to really wow.

Thankfully she didn't completely miss put on the tomahawk and did manage to get her hands on a good bone (steady) to gnaw on when some of us were rendered defeated by the vast hunks of meat. Which you can clearly see she relished getting properly stuck into.

After wanting to try a queen of puddings - an old school dessert consisting of baked breadcrumbs mixed with custard, spread with jam and topped with meringue - for pretty much my whole life, just like buses, two have now come along at once. The first was made for me by the Ewing a with some allotment rhubarb, before it turned up again a few weeks after here at the Pig.

While it wasn't quite up to the standard of my wife's (and not because she is going to be reading this for typos later), it was pretty bloody great - chewy burning meringue segueing into a wobbly, custardy cakey layer, finished off with a base of warm jam.

The Ewing chose the chocolate mousse with honeycombe, boozy prunes and yet more flowers. Expecting something a bit more robust (and dare I say, more generous) the delicate pudding that appeared - like the previous daintier plates - was less successful than the old school, heartier helpings.

There was also a little dissonance around the table when one party member realised, a little too late, that the divisive dried fruit came with the mousse. As with the surfeit of chops, the Ewing felt the benefit here too, after being gifted the unwanted dehydrated plums. And with the added advantage of keeping things regular.

Now the Pig is well known for it's grounds - including kitchen gardens, smoke house, wild flower orchard and a chance to see future chops, in the form of their own pigs, snuffling around - which you are free to wander around (they even provide a range of welly boots if you don't have yours with you). But for once I was thankful for the inclement weather, which gave us the perfect opportunity to retire to the bar at the front and sit and enjoy a post-prandial in front of the log fire.

In this case a notorious P.I.G; made with bourbon, blackberry liqueur, Frangelico and apple juice. A perfect ending to the perfect afternoon. (I won't go into further details about how the rest of the night unravelled, but it may have involved more espresso martinis while trying to learn the moves to Cameo's Candy, which we then performed en masse like drunken line dancers at a wedding. And that's what you need friends for).

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Pink and black (or birthday lunch number one)

We've just got back from a week in Sicily (or, as the Ewing, who flicked through the phrasebook for five minutes would say, See-cheee-lee-uh). As ever there was food and drink. And more food and drink. And several afternoon naps. And it was lovely.

It's also been increasingly difficult to get the blogging mojo back since returning. Mostly because I have spent most my time since I've been back swathed in blankets, with the heating on full blast, bemoaning the fact I'm not still in shorts, looking out at the view above, sipping cold rose and eating cannoli.

While we ate many delicacies - including goat's intestines, gelato and granita for breakfast - but my favourite meal was my birthday lunch (part one of two, stay tuned for the next instalment) at Trattoria Al Vecchio Club Rosanero a shrine to the S.S.D Palermo, or the Pink and Black - named for the colour of their strips - the city's revered football team.

On arrival we were given a comprehensive menu but then, from my very limited understanding of Italian, informed that we should go and chose from the dishes chalked up on the boards around the room. Of course I had already studied it comprehensively on social media before our visit.

Which was lucky as it saved us standing over someone's table attempting to figure out random local specialities such as glasa, pasta topped with leftover stew, and triato, pasta with a 'chopped' sauce.

Our first antipasti was sarde a beccafico, or stuffed sardines, a dish we had seen Giorgio Locatelli cooking for Andrew Graham-Dixon on Sicily Unpacked (worth searching for online if not available on iPlayer). Made from butterflied sardines, stuffed with raisins, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, it's a peasant dish that has remained popular in Palermo.

I have say to I wasn't overly-excited about ordering them but felt duty-bound as I knew the Ewing wanted to try them. As things turned out, they were one of the best things I ate on the trip. Maybe it was the location, or the atmosphere, or the litre of vino blanco we had eagerly got stuck into, but they were simply perfect.

Equally as good was the caponata, a sweet and sour aubergine dish with celery, tomatoes, raisins and capers. Here served with the addition of chunks of spada, or swordfish, another fish found plentifully in local waters.

A heavenly mix of soft slippery aubergine and meaty cubes of grilled fish, bathed in local olive oil and mopped up with chunks of warm, sesame studded wood-fired bread that was delivered to every table on arrival. This was so good we had to come back just to order it again before we flew home.

For our primi platti, the Ewing ordered a bowl of spaghetti with sweet red prawns and briny sea urchin; with this heaping plateful being a half portion. I can confirm the full sized portions were at least twice as large, and I spent half my time trying not to stare in awe at the svelte local lady next to us who was quietly and elegantly demolishing a gargantuan heap of spaghetti bathed in a pool of jet-black squid ink sauce.

I chose the ravioli, with the robust pasta parcels pleasingly reminding me of the tinned squares in a lurid orange sauce which most 80s kids in England were subjected to as children. Rather than a mystery grey 'meat' filling, these were stuffed with a mousse of grouper fish, and served with a wonderfully glossy and buttery sauce of fresh tomato and topped with parsley and tiny pink shrimp.

In all honesty, after all that had come before, the squid was probably superfluous, but there was no way I was going to pass up ordering one of my favourite things. It was also good to see it available simply chargrilled (as well as stuffed and fried), the smoky cephalopod served bathed with olive oil, lemon and sprinkled with wild  Sicilian oregano.

In fact, the oregano was so good that I'm very  I bought a big bag in the famous Capo market and carried it home in my suitcase. I am  also retrospectively very glad I wasn't questioned more when coming back through customs.

As good girls who always eat our greens (along with pretty much everything else) we accompanied the squid with some giri  which can refer to various long-stemmed, spinach-like greens, but in this case meant swiss chard - that had been slowly cooked until soft in yet more olive oil and lemon juice and tasted deliciously sweet and delicate after all the big flavours that had come before.

We finished the meal the way all good meals should finish; with two icy cold glasses of local Sicilian amaro, a pleasingly small bill (less than fifty 50 Euros, including water and and the aforementioned litre of wine) and a long afternoon nap. The perfect way to herald the last year of the fourth decade of my existence.