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...