Friday, 23 December 2011

Makin' his list

We are gearing up. Did you know that black truffles from Perigord are wholesaling at €1,000 a kilo? I burnt through at least a ton*on my own yesterday. For this year’s fêtes, like every year, we will shift somewhere in the region of 100 kilos of foie gras. A poularde **from Bresse can easily cost 60 quid at this time of year; it comes with its fluffy white neck and head protruding from a cloth bag, neatly sewn up in a tight parcel which conserves its modesty and hides its rather splendid blue feet. We also have capons and turkeys, langoustes and salmon. White and black puddings, patés en croûte, terrines and suckling piggies. C’est la fête, quoi!

We’re getting ready for the big day at home too. I made pate en croûte yesterday at work, but in our house I made a pork pie. Of course, it is a very similar beast, but it’s not quite the same. It’s better.  No foie gras†: the british version is more boldly seasoned, with herbs and spices and a more open texture; slightly wobbly, tasty jelly; lard replaces butter – and the pastry kicks ass! A home-made pork pie is a revelation.

I can heartily recommend the version in Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall’s Meat book. Not only does it have a well-thought-through set of picture instructions, but the pastry is a winner and the filling works a treat. I pretty much just do what he says, although I’ve taken to adding the meat from my trotter stock to the pie because it adds a nice richness. Also, Hugh doesn’t discuss how to judge the seasoning properly. You can either follow his quantities blindly, or guess, or, as I do, fry a small pattie of your mix, and eat it, so as to be able to judge for yourself. It takes a bit of effort to make, after all, so you want to make sure it’s worth it...

It’s an impressive beast – a festival for the season of generosity. Just the thing to have waiting in the wings for when guests descend. Or the post-pub posse. A jar of chutney and a pickled onion and Bob’s your barman! Happy Christmas everyone!


* Money, not weight.

** Girl chicken.

† Well, not none. We’re having foie gras as well! We do live in the South West of France...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

T'is the season

My hands are fucked. They seem to go through phases of fragility. At the moment I only need to look at a shard of chicken bone for them to split open in a variety of annoying and painful nooks, hand-picked by judge Sod for their spiteful unpreparedness to heal efficiently. It’s very rare that I cut myself with a knife, but the combination of heat, pig’s blood, grease, water, chicken guts and cleaning products is a trifle dilapidating for my dermis.

I’m supposed to have got out. Working in a restaurant in December is hard work. It might involve special menus designed to keep things simple when catering for large numbers – but not necessarily just one. We used to do two (Bistro and Restaurant) alongside the à la carte and lunch menu. And specials. Plus the odd special menu for some fussy buggers in the Private Dining Room. You might do 100 for lunch (instead of a normal 30-50), 80 for pre-theatre, plus 70 for dinner and 40 in the PDR. This from maybe 15 different menu items, just from my pastry section. It’s a race from the 1st to the 24th*, and then you start preparing for a bumper banquet on New Year’s Eve.
Anyway, I don’t do that anymore. I work a day job. Except that in the evenings I’m making English pastries for a Christmas market. This might not be a wise move. So far though, the French have been decidedly un-bowled-over by the charms of mince pies, parkin and gingerbread men, so I might yet cope...

I’m pretty pleased with my mince pies - something I’ve always disliked. But, perhaps because of having laboriously made the mince meat myself, surprisingly, I find them a delight! The recipe comes from Delia by way of Gary Rhodes; two cooks who annoy me intensely, but who are both undoubtedly very good at cooking and writing recipes.

Here I reproduce the recipe as found in Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics in which he reproduces an entry from old Delia’s original (and best) tome The Complete Cookery Course:

Mince Meat

-          450g/1lb Apples, skin left on, grated. (Bramley, for preference, in which case you need only chop them up a bit)

-          225g/8oz Suet, shredded or grated

-          350g/12oz raisins (I substituted part of this  for a few prunes and dates, cos i like them – do what you want)

-          225g/8oz sultanas

-          225g/8oz currants

-          225g/8oz mixed peel  (from 1 lemon, 2 oranges, 1 grapefruit, candied)

-          350g/12oz muscovado sugar

-          Juice and grated zest of 2 oranges and 2 lemons

-          50g/2oz whole almonds, sliced up by hand for a varied texture

-          4tsp ground mixed spice

-          ½tsp ground cinnamon

-          A generous grating of nutmeg

-          6tbsp brandy (don’t waste the good stuff!)

Put all the ingredients except the brandy in a large bowl or pan, mix and leave somewhere cool overnight or a bit longer. Then put in a low oven (120°) for 3 hours. The suet will render and it will look like it’s swimming in fat. Well, it is swimming in fat, but this is what we need. Give it a mix and leave to cool. Then add the brandy. Seal in sterilised jam jars with wax discs and all that business and it will keep forever, although a  week to mature is plenty.

I made my own candied peel, and I used fresh veal suet (the white, chalky fat surrounding the kidneys) – atora not being an option in French supermarchés. The candied peel is, frankly, a ball-ache**, but it is extremely satisfying, will taste much better and it looks really cool!

Sweet Pastry

Will easily make 40 mince pies. It freezes well if you don’t want that many. Use a food processor for best results.

-          250g unsalted butter, at room temperature

-          150g icing sugar, sifted

-          2 whole eggs

-          500g/1lb1½oz Plain Flour

-          0-2tbsp cold water

Cream the butter and sugar until really very soft. Add eggs, mix. Add flour, pulse. Add a little water if necessary and finish by hand. Stop mixing/kneading as soon as the pastry comes together. Don’t be tempted to play with it so as to mix it more than the minimum. This is important so as to get a nice crumbly texture. The mix will be very sticky, this is fine. Divide it into 2 or 3 and wrap tightly in cling film. For it to be workable, the pastry needs to rest in the fridge overnight or longer (it’ll keep in the fridge for a week, no problem).

Making Mince Pies
Roll out a portion of pastry pretty thin. Cut out some suitable-sized circles. You now have a choice:

-          either press these into a Yorkshire pudding tray, fill with a blob of mince meat and top with another circle of pastry or with your choice of Christmassy shape;

-           if you have no moulds, cut out another circle the same size, put a small blob of mince meat in the middle of the first, dab with milk and press the second circle gently on top, carefully sealing around the edges. Like making raviolis. Snip an air hole with a pair of scissors.

For both methods, leave to rest in the fridge for ten minutes or longer, brush with milk, sprinkle liberally with sugar, and bake in a preheated oven at 170-180° until looking nice and golden! (Probably about 15 mins, but it’ll depend on your oven and how thick you rolled the pastry – keep an eye on them!)

Leave to cool a bit, and then munch! With jolly festive cheer! Yum! ...hic...

* Restaurateurs who open on Christmas day are evil.
** Slice off your citrus peel in pretty petal shapes, put it in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Refresh in cold water. Repeat this FIVE (!) times and then add to a syrup made from equal parts water and sugar. Now reduce at a simmer till you have a thick gloopy syrup. Leave to cool in the syrup. It takes ages but the result is cool...

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Namaste नमस्ते

This week I have mainly been watching Manjula’s Kitchen. I have become a sad fan... I love her!

Manjula is a North Indian vegetarian living in America who welcomes you into her kitchen on one of the more interesting corners of the internet. I was looking for a recipe for the brilliant pea-and-potato samosas that I used to scoff in Leeds on my way to university. They were sold (I’m sure they still are) in every second newsagent’s and the dusty, spicy grocer’s shops in Hyde Park, the shopkeeper’s wife or mum having knocked up a dozen that morning. There is a much less significant Pakistani community in Liverpool and I never found anything to compete when I came home – less still in the south of France... I have had regular pangs ever since, but I am easily distracted, and it took cooking for a big bunch of Frenchies to prang me from my indolence.

I needed a cheap starter to counteract a slightly overgenerous main course for November’s  food and wine tasting soirée in our local cave. I cook what I fancy and Thomas Le Caviste uses his astonishing, and frankly intimidating, knowledge to select some interesting and complementary pinard. I cook, he pours, and we sit with our lucky guests around a big table and sup and chew and chat la merde. Vive La France! What I want generally entails good old-fashioned British Fayre, which seems to be an interesting change for the French, so samosas fit the bill nicely! The spotted/potted wonders that are Google and Youtube came up trumps and now Manjula is in my life!!

Manjula single-handedly provided me with one starter: Samosas with Tamarind* and Coriander Chutneys; good old Fergus Henderson with another: Red Winter Salad with crèmefraiche**, chervil and a caper or three; and Malika, a girl I worked with, with the third: Harira Soup.
The samosas are a bit fiddly, but fun to make. Chop up a boiled spud and fry it with some cumin and coriander-scented onions, a few frozen peas and a tickle of fresh ginger and green chilli. Bung in a handful of coriander leaves, season with salt, garam masala and lemon juice and the filling is done. The pastry is a very simple one of flour, salt, oil and water (plus an optional spoonful of semolina for improved texture), rolled into saucer-sized circles which will each make 2 little ice cream cones to be stuffed with spicy spud. Crimp the edges with a fork, apparently a more Pakistani touch, and they get deep fried quite slowly till golden and crispy and scented and nice! Try not to eat them when still mouth-searingly hot, as the flavour is much enhanced when they are just warm. A dunk of the sweet, citrusy tamarind, and a dribble of coriander chutney and your tootle is tinkled! You could be late for an 18th Century French Literature seminar***...

I’m afraid that after the samosas, I realised that I had to get my finger out if the guests were to be fed, and so photography had to be abandoned. The red salad is rather a delicious one made with raw shredded beetroot and red cabbage mixed with thinly sliced red onion and dressed with some nice olive oil and a splash of my rather posh vinegar (yum!). A gesture of capers and chervil, with a splodge of crème fraiche, and a very pretty salad is ready to be messed up.

My Moroccan soup, harira, was based on some unwanted lamb stock from work that I bolstered with a beef rib and some lentils and chick peas. It had a spot of chilli, cumin seeds and fresh herbs and some lovely yellow turnips added at the end so that they retained a bit of bite. The beef rib (not the kind you find on a generous foodie-type’s Sunday table, but the cheapest beef cut, like a pork rib – only off a cow) somehow makes the whole thing splendidly sweet, which combined well with the earthy pulses and spices and the freshness from the herbs and the stingiest squeeze of a lemon.

For mains we had a thick slice of veal shin braised in bière blonde with a very lot of very caramelised onions and fat pieces of fatty bacon. Served with rather a baddass mashed potato and buttery spinach. It’s all about the marrow in the middle. And the melting, gelatinous meat, of course. And the rich, sweet gravy. And the very bad-for-you mash! Mmmmm, it was good... I do like this kind of winter food – very satisfying, and copious to the point of fuddlement. The guy next to me had a second helping of mash – I was very impressed: that boy was a joy to feed!

*Tamarind is another amazing recent discovery for me. I’m sure I’ll get round to raving about it here at some point. In the meantime, check out the link for this lovely, simple recipe – a top alternative to Mango Chutney. Manjula likes it with chips!

**PLEASE click this link for the whole thing! It is good.

*** For which you haven’t read the book.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Writer's Block

I'm in the throws of writing a new post. It raises the question: what do I want to be? a writer or a cook? When you work a full time job, choices have to be made. after a succession of crap teas as I pontificate over my words, it makes me wonder...

Monday, 21 November 2011

a bum

There is the odd perk to my job. This does not include having hands that do dishes feel as soft as my face (with 24hrs of stubble). No, I get to eat what the boss throws away!

Honestly, this is a good thing...

Mind you, my boss doesn't throw much away. There seems to be a stinginess that, for the most part, I admire amongst the small family-run businesses that I have come across here. This is how money is made, I guess. The same determinned (or mean?) streak that has made France so famous for its tradition of wonderful paupers' cooking makes sure that nothing is wasted. Nothing that is worth selling at least. Needless to say, with these kinds of kitchen scraps, I often have my work cut out.

Now and again it's straightforward: Five chickens deboned equals ten chicken wings for my barbecue (too fiddley to be worth deboning, not enough of them to sell) plus some tasty stock for a risotto or soup the next day.

Often I have to be in the mood for a project:  Twenty chickens, chopped in half and prepared for grilling, equals, well, lots of bones and forty feet! (There might be lots of them, but they are chicken feet!) I've already made enough stock - Patte à poule façon chinoise anyone? I've got enough for a party...
patte a poule with shiitaki - not bad, but dim sum style is better!

In fact chicken's feet are delicious, if a little demanding*. We used to eat them in a great dim sum place in Liverpool. I love them. They're really chickeny. Clearly, there's not a lot of bulk to them, but they are rich and gelatinous and a sticky-lipped treat!

A pair of stuffed and rolled suckling pigs leaves a fairly considerable challenge: Bath Chaps! This is a pretty gruesome task, but I must admit I rather like that sort of thing. Sort of...

The idea is to remove the skin and flesh from the head, including the prize-asset cheeks, and roll it up around the tongue. Fergus says a spirited butcher will do this for you, but I have spirit too so the game's on...

I was quite pleased with myself! Having never seen a bath chap before in the flesh, I don't really know how accurate my efforts were but, as you can see, the process was pleasingly revolting and the uncooked product acceptably neat. After being pot roasted with some aromatics and a bit of water, much as I might a shoulder of pork, it tasted pleasingly unrevolting, and my brave dinner guests didn't feel quite so brave after all! It actually turned out to provide rather tidy, and surprisingly lean, delicate mosaic scallops of tender baby pig face. Yum!

Waste not want not. Merci Patron.

* They need to have their scaley outside skin singed off, then fried, then marinated, then braised (and then steamed, for dim sum). Then you need to get your head round the idea of sucking the skin off a still-patently claw-like claw!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The importance of trussing chickens

In his classic chef-porn rag, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller writes about the art of tying chickens up with butchers twine so that they look all neat and tidy; a fascinating subject i'm sure everyone would agree...
He makes a point about how it was useful for him to have belatedly learnt the basics after working under a baddass old-school french chef. He has a point. My french experience hasn't been quite as enlightening, but I tend to be reminded of his beautiful (if a bit pretentious) book, when i spend an hour every friday up to my ears in giblets and bits of string while bunging bits of baguette up the poultry's bottoms.
This post is brought about entirely because I always think they look cool when they're all done!
 fortunately no one saw me sneaking about with my slr trying to coax a winning smile out of 30 dead chucks...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


Dot is starting to grow tired of me coming home with bibbly-bobbly bits. Often hairy and almost inevitably a little whiffy, she points out it's the last thing she wants to put in her mouth when feeling a little liverish*. Of course I couldn't disagree more, so now and again she has to put up with it, and grudgingly admit that it's really pretty nice...

There is a specialist abats counter in our local market where bits abound: I can treat myself with calves' feet, sweetbreads, liver, or go nuts with a full, floppy boned-out head; cows' cheeks, tail or tripe; pigs', well, everything! Good eh? Nose-to-tail stuff I used to only dream about. Some of it is a bit of a challenge, I'll admit, though some is pure luxury, such as onglet, the ribbony, king of steaks with a deep flavour that is a touch liverish** due to its position next to the liver. Why it should be sold as offal at all is a mystery to me. Other equally inoffensive-tasting morsels such as cheek or tail at least sound like they could be unpleasant; onglet is just a nice piece of steak sullied by its surroundings. Historical proximity, it seems, is enough to banish it to the ghetto with it's noisy neighbours. Not that I'm bothered, though I suspect you already know that...

I've been buying sweetbreads recently, and I'll admit I haven't quite got to grips with them yet. Braising them is easy - we do that at work with madeira and mushrooms. Roasting them is a bugger. It's difficult to tell when they're done, and they are so incredibly expensive that I struggle to justify my unsatisfactory tinkering. I know they can be excellent (all caramelised, sweet and interesting), but I think I really need someone to show me how.

Steak and kidney pudding is the plan to sneak in the bobbly bits by the back door(4/6 alliteration word-count ratio!! Yessss!***). Dot might well snipe that my simmering stew stinks of piss(4/8 - cdb). A soupcon - But... But the kidney is veal, a first for me, and it's so good that most of it ends up devilled on toast for a snazzy light dinner, Dot pulls a face but ends up saying 'Yum!' and mopping her plate. Yessss! Back in the game! The next time we have sweetbreads they're going to rock yer socks off!

* TM Fergus Henderson
** Not in the FH sense. It just tastes a bit like liver.
*** Or maybe just a sad, head-shaking 'No'.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The void

The void is supposed to be filled by purple sprouting broccoli; I live in south west France, and it seems no-one has ever heard of it! Winter is over and spring is bouncin but not yet jizzing out produce all over the shops. I spent an unnaturally long time trying to work out how French people have named one of my favourite treats – the broccoli that actually tastes nice. Calabrese in Italian, perhaps that’s a clue... Ah, of course! It’s not French. Silly me. Why would a French shopper be interested in something that his great-great-great-great grandmother didn’t cook? Bref, I can’t find it bloody anywhere.
Of course, though, French people do like food, and redemption is available if you’re prepared to dig a bit. I had a fantastic false dawn at our brilliant daily farmer’s market: it looked like green sprouting broccoli, it was fresh and cheap, and they call it brouttes.  Innit! I thought to myself, bought a couple of bunches and headed home. A bit of pre-dinner googling calmed me down; it wasn’t calabrese at all, but the young flower shoots of an already-harvested cabbage. Still, they tasted delicious when briefly cooked in salty water and went down very well with my rabbit stew, and the Pinot Noir we drank with it. Like a cross between the purple sprouting stuff and spring cabbage – a distinct success. Better allotmenters than me might already be among the cognoscenti, but none of my French foodie-type guests had heard of it either, though they assured me that I wouldn’t just be fighting with the grannies to get it before it’s short season is spent. Also, it seems that there is a silver lining when your cabbages fail to heart and spitefully bolt: chop the shoots off before they flower and munch them steamed, with a bit of nice olive oil. Mmmmm... Yeah! Fuck you cabbage!!
I was at the market this morning and there were none left. It seems that in the blink of an eye, the season is gone (ho hum), but so is the void, and I came home with some new season white asparagus and baby, snooker-ball radishes with lovely bright greens. Oh, and it’s 28° outside... Woohoo! To say it might make me distastefully smug, but down here we start bouncin a bit earlier than at home! Boing!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Curried Mackerel for tea

We don't eat anything like as much fish as we should; it's just so expensive. Fortunately for the stingey there is always mackerel. I've recently rediscovered an excellent fishmonger's that I had bimbled past one day when we first arrived. It's taken me months and several soggy and frustrating perambules to pinpoint the spot. (Why is it always raining when i'm trying to find a place whose address exists only hazily in my mind as 'somewhere over there'?) The selection of poissons is a treat, but the prices would make for rather more of a celebratory meal than I had in mind. Anyway, I love mackerel. The ones I buy are little and seem as fresh as ninepence, and nearly as cheap! Splendid. I've promised Dot a curry. Spicy food is a little thin on the ground in this neck of the woods, and sometimes we need a taste of home. Makerel curry will be a first for me. I hope i'm not about to do something terrible...

Moroccans go nuts for spicy oily fish so i'm reasonably confident. My curry is tomatoey and heavy on the ground corriander. I just poach the fish in the sauce, add a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sumak and it goes with some steamed bok-choy and couscous, just cos we've run out of rice, but as it turned out, it rather went with the slightly arabic feel that came from the last minute seasonings. Crikey it was nice! I was terribly pleased with myself. Good old British cooking! None of that fancy French shite!...

Monday, 31 January 2011

Moving to France

We made a holiday of the trip here. Camping's fun. Littlest Hobo style! Maybe tomorrow we're gonna settle down, until tomorrow, we'd better pack up the trailer, put the aubergine plant in the back seat, and get a move on, or we'll never bloody get there... doo-doop pi-doo doop, - that's hobo style...
We lived in our little tent for a couple of weeks until we finally found our bonheur - a lovely , if empty, apartment in a grand old building, with a large south-facing terrace overlooking the chateau. - Pas de barbecue, says Madame. What?! Oh well, we'll see about that one... Where do we signe? We moved in two days before Dot started school - clasy timing. I hadn't worried for a second... And the abergine survived to see out its days in the southern sun!
In the following weeks we bought a bed. And a setee. What more could we want? The sun shone, the place was beautiful, the supermarkets vast and amazing, and about a million restaurants that we couldn't afford to eat in. Best get a job then...