Monthly Archives: January 2011

Cassoulet

Let’s forget about confit of duck, goose fat, and all the fancy stuff. Cassoulet is about fat and beans, so today’s is done with sausages and bacon. Annoyingly, the beans need to be the dried ones, so you will have to soak them. Tinned beans would turn to mush during the cooking. Delia makes a good point that if you’re using sausages, make sure the meat content is reasonably high, as bready sausages will also collapse.

I’m using the following (feeds four with seconds and leftovers):

  • six Toulouse sausages (about 400g)
  • 250g dried haricot beans
  • an onion, a couple of carrots, and a couple of sticks of celery; all chopped up (a similar weight to the sausages)
  • four cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
  • about 75g tasty bacon of some sort chopped into quarter inch cubes (a single vacuum pack of cubed pancetta ideal)
  • a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, drained – if we leave the juice then it’s too tomatoey and starts to resemble high class baked beans
  • two bay leaves
  • about a teaspoon dried thyme (or half a bunch fresh)

The pot. Pick a large one that’s good for the oven and the stove top, as we’re visiting both locations.

The beans need to be soaked in a litre of cold water, overnight, after which they’ll double in mass. (St Delia mentions the idea of putting the beans in cold water in a saucepan, bringing to the boil, turning the heat off and leaving for three hours as a way to accelerate the process.)

Once that’s done, change the water, apply some heat and get them going at a vicious boil for 15 minutes. After that, reduce to a simmer, and pop them on them on the back burner, both literally and figuratively. (You’ll need the front of the stove later.)

Crank the oven up to 160ºC, putting the sausages and bacon into the pot and the pot into the oven. Keep an eye on them, turning the sausages occasionally so we get an all over tan. After about half an hour, the sausages will be done enough for our purposes, so transfer the pot to the hob, on a low heat. Also, at this point, the beans will have been simmering for about 30 minutes, leave ’em on the back burner, ready for action in a moment.

(But don’t turn off the oven.)

Remove the sausages from the pot, and set to one side. Tip the veg into the pot, and gently fry in the fat that will have been exuded by the pig. After about five minutes add the garlic, and fry until translucent; about two minutes. (Best way to do this is shove the veg to one side so there’s a small exposed bit of the bottom of the pan where the garlic can fry. A splash of olive oil to assist if required.)

Deglaze with a splash of wine (white or red, or failing that some hot water) and then add the beans plus enough of the cooking liquid to almost-but-not-quite cover everything. Think runny, rather than soupy. Herbs, salt, pepper.

Return the sausages on top. I’d slice the sausages into three or four pieces each. Return to the oven for another two hours, lowering the temperature to about 140ºC. Leave the pot uncovered so the top gradually darkens and becomes sticky. Pretty much impossible to overdo, but check the liquid levels every so often, and if necessary, top up from a freshly boiled jug.

Despite every town in the south of France claiming that it (and it alone) is the Home of Cassoulet, there’s no definitive recipe. You could…

  • sprinkle some breadcrumbs on top about 30 minutes before it’s done
  • double the quantity of sausage
  • do it with pork belly cut up into two inch cubes instead of the sausages – the pork belly will need much longer – at least an hour – and a splash of water in the bottom of the pot – you might even want to do the pork belly for three hours so it totally breaks down

The Major is threatening to feed us with his cassoulet, which is a far superior product, and will feature his very own confit of duck. (I shall report back.)


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Marmalade

I’m wondering what possessed me to make some marmalade, other than the undeniable onset of middle age. Not really my area of expertise, so I’ve had to consult the Cookery Pantheon. Pomiane is reticent and defers to the English housewife, and Eliza Acton intriguingly calls it “Scotch” marmalade. (This will also be “scotch” marmalade, but for a different reason.)

The pot. Some people probably have jam pans. I don’t, so am just using my second largest stockpot. What you want is a wide pan, so the liquid will reduce easily, with a heavy base, so the heat is evenly distributed, and nothing burns. (The inside of mine is also discretely marked with a number and an arrow for each litre.)

Safety first, kids. You will be working with liquid that is not only hotter than boiling water, but will retain its heat and stick to your skin. Make sure the pot is reasonably deep to avoid the possibility of boiling over.

Grim warnings aside, here’s what I used to make just over two litres of finished product.

  • 1kg Seville oranges – the bitter nâranj of Persian cooking (sweet oranges don’t turn up until the 16th century, brought back from China by the Portuguese) – these are in the shops from mid Jan to early Feb – the Iranian shops at the fat west end of Kensington High St may have them later
  • 1.5kg sugar (I’m using 1.4kg of preserving sugar plus 100g Muscovado, preserving sugar should dissolve more easily and result in less scum – that’s the theory anyway) – have an extra half a kilo on standby
  • 2.5 litres water
  • 2 lemons (I used a single giant one)

Wash the fruit thoroughly – Blessed Eliza suggests rasping it but I don’t think this is necessary.

Peel the oranges, retaining the peel – easiest way is to score them from top to bottom as though you were going to cut them into four segments.

Balance a metal sieve/strainer on top of the pot and spread a square of muslin into/over it. Squeeze each orange over this, so the juices go into the pot, and the seeds get caught in the muslin. Screech when the juice squirts in your eye. Drop the grisly remains of each orange into the muslin when you’re done.

The lemon is there for the acid – so you just need its juice.

Tie the muslin into a bag, and give it a good squeeze over the pot to get the remaining juice out. You’ll notice that it oozes a bit of slime. This is pectin, and will help the stuff to set.

Whilst the pot’s coming to the boil, finely slice the orange peel, and add to the pot. Quickest way to do this is to stack the quarters of peel four deep and slice laterally. Add these, and the muslin bag to the pot.

Once the pot finally comes to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for two hours. This is a good opportunity to wash your jam jars.

(This is a rather marvellous part of the process: the kitchen, and then the house, will start to smell of Summer. Which on a cold rainy day can only be a Good Thing.)

Once the two hours are up, the peel should be translucent, and easily crushed between your thumb and forefinger, and the liquid may have reduced by half. (Obviously if the liquid is reducing too fast, top up.) At this point I have 1.5 litres, top it up if you have less. (The gradations on the inside of the pot are indispensible.)

Remove the muslin bag to a bowl. When cooled enough to handle, squeeze all the juice and goo out of this and into the pot. The two hours’ simmering will have encouraged a lot of the pectin to dissolve out of the pith and seeds, so don’t be surprised at how much comes out. If this feels like wrestling a treacherous slimy alien monster, you’re doing it right.

Turn the heat up to medium, start stirring in the sugar, and keep stirring until it has dissolved. Have a taste – careful! it’s hot! – and see what you think. If the oranges are particularly savage you may need your reserve half kilo. A fruit:sugar ratio of 1:2 is quite respectable – if you were making this using normal oranges you’d want a 1:1 ratio.

Pop some china saucers in the freezer. Also, get the oven going at about 120ºC, and put the jam jars in it to sterilise them. (Alternatively, if you have a dishwasher, do them on the hot cycle.)

Bring the pot to as murderous a boil as you can manage, occasionally skimming scum if it surfaces. After fifteen minutes, remove a teaspoon of the mix, place it on one of your chilled saucers, and return to the freezer. It should form a skin in a couple of minutes. To test, run your fingernail lightly over the top. If the skin wrinkles, you’re done. If not, keep performing the test every five minutes until it does.

Turn off the heat and allow to cool for about fifteen minutes. Turn the oven off, but leave the jars in it.

Stir the pot to distribute the peel and then pour into the jars. Easier said than done, and I’d recommend spending a few quid on a metal jam funnel. (The marmalade will still be hot enough to melt a plastic funnel at this point.)

A wee dram? No, not you. The marmalade. I bottled half of it, and then stirred in three tablespoons (45mL) of whiskey, before the bottling the remainder. A small amount into a bowl and straight into the fridge for – ahem! – testing.

Label and enjoy.


The whiskey and muscovado sugar are optional, of course. Some people put grated ginger in the muslin bag, and others add spices. Neither sounds appealing to me, but good luck if it floats yer boat.


Duck Legs

My reaction, on tasting duck for the first time, was to wonder why we hadn’t hunted it to extinction. A damned tasty animal, be it roasted, fried, stewed, or, quiver, in confit. (More about that another time.)

Duck breasts – maigret de canard – are now fashionable and expensive. By comparison, duck legs are cheap. (And there is normally a spectacular glut of them at the start of Autumn, so keep your eyes peeled.)

Anyway, I used:

  • two duck legs (about 400g)
  • three King Edward potatoes (about 500g) but any kind of spud is fine
  • one large onion
  • half a bunch of thyme

Get the oven going at 180ºC. (I’m using a fan forced, so your mileage will vary.)

Find a small roasting tin you can put on the hob without it buckling, get it hot, and put the duck legs in, skin side down. No oil required. Turn the heat down to the lowish side of medium, so they’re gently sizzling, and starting to ooze fat.

Meanwhile, scrub the potatoes – no need to peel – and cut them into small pieces, about 2cm thick. If you just chop each potato into 2cm slices, and then divide those as you see fit, you’ll be fine. By the time you’ve cut up the potatoes, the duck will have oozed a layer of fat onto the bottom of the roasting tin. A good ten minutes or so: do check after about five that the skin isn’t going brown, as we’re just after a light gold colour.

Put the potatoes in and gently toss them in the hot fat. You may need to remove the duck for a moment in order to do this. Yeah. Hot fat. Be careful. Gluttony is transient, third degree burns aren’t.

Return the duck to the tin (skin side up, with the thyme spread out underneath it) and even out the potato into a single layer. Salt and pepper, and then into the oven. Check from time to time, and move the spuds around so they don’t stick. Inevitably some of them will. If everything seems to be crisping too fast, maybe turn the oven down a whisker.

After forty-five minutes, slice the onion lengthwise into eight segments – more if it’s huge – and peel. Pop these segments into the roasting tin, and roll them around in the fat. (If we put the onion in at the beginning it would burn.)

It should be done after another forty-five minutes, so ninety minutes in total. It’s difficult to overcook duck legs, but if they’re not in long enough, the meat will be cooked, but the connective tissue won’t have broken down, and they’ll be tough as boot leather. If the pieces of potato are too small, they may start to burn before the duck is done.

Once done (you can double-check by piercing the thickest part of the duck leg with a metal skewer and confirming the juices run clear) remove everything from the roasting tin onto plates, and deglaze the roasting tin with a splash of red wine or dry vermouth, to produce a tiny amount of sharp tasty sauce. Pour over and tuck in.

Note. The eating of duck legs is not a dignified process. Suggest you not serve these if the bishop is coming to tea.


Dried Basil

Kate asked me about why I chose this title for the Blog. To be honest, I think the main motive was a bit of shit-stirring, and a need to eschew any hint of cutesy domesticity. But dried basil? Maligned bogeyman of the spice rack? Here are a few thoughts.

It doesn’t have many fans. No less an institution than the BBC politely says, “Dried basil retains little of the aroma and flavour of fresh basil, so is of limited use in the kitchen.” Saint Nigel says it’s only fit for the bin.

As a result, we have supermarkets full of fresh basil. There are hermetically sealed plastic of leaves and little pots (some hydroponic) of the plant itself, all year ’round; air freighted when necessary. The leaves are neat, orderly, and strangely pale. And the taste? Curiously bland, with an unpleasant bitterness, and no aroma at all. Egged on by certain celebrity chefs, people buy this stuff, and proceed to cook the crap out of it, to the point where they might as well have used spinach. This is missing the point.

Go to a proper Italian deli – even in London there are only three I trust – and maybe – just maybe – you’ll find The Real Thing. Chances are you’ll smell them before you see them – a waft more heavenly than the finest incense, and there they are. Small, unsealed plastic bags of slightly bruised, slightly wonky leaves. Leaves of the darkest murkiest green. Often there’ll be punnets of dark red, slightly mangy tomatoes: tomatoes that don’t look quite respectable, unlike their uniform cousins in Tesco. This is the Real Deal. Don’t cook this at all, just grab the tomatoes, some buffalo mozarella, pugliese bread, prosciutto, and make a pig of yourself. Every now and again, there will be a glut, and you can get a kilo of the stuff. Make some pesto.

Dried basil will never be any good for pesto or bruschetta. (That’s broos-ketta, by the way, not brooshetter.) Dried basil is a different beast altogether. It’s sharp and musty; with a hint of aniseed. You don’t need a lot, and you can cook it vigorously. Its place is in pungent sauces, soups, and ragù that peacefully simmers on the hob all afternoon. It’s not a primary element, just a zesty backnote in the palette, which probably features dried oregano or marjoram. It doesn’t last more than a few months in the jar, so don’t hang on to it for so long that it just smells like mothballs.

Just like mint – where the fresh stuff is for desserts and the dried stuff is for curries – we have two completely different ingredients. Use them wisely.


(Aside: my parents bought a spice rack in 1978, complete with jars of spices, all pre labelled and pre filled. I’m fairly sure some of those jars had their original contents when we moved house in 1984. If your spice rack is like this, then just throw the whole accursed lot out. Out, I say, out.)


Butternut Squash and Chorizo Soup

Another easy soup for the mid-week zombie march. You will need:

  • one butternut squash (or a very small pumpkin)
  • about a handful (50g) of chopped up chorizo (a reasonably spicy one, preferably – you could use pancetta but I don’t think that would deliver the same amount of excitement)
  • about a litre of stock (chicken, vegetable, or just reach for the Marigold powdered boullion)

Cut the squash down the middle, scoop out the seeds with a metal spoon, and slice a channel down the middle, with channels across as well. Butternut squash are treacherous, so be careful when you do this.

Pack the chorizo into the hollows, and grind over a spot of salt and pepper. Put them in a shallow baking dish, and into the oven at 180ºC for an hour. (The pancetta will ooze fat, so don’t use a baking sheet unless you want hot pig fat on the floor of your oven.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, get the stock into a saucepan, and hot. I had a block of stock in the freezer (no idea whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral) so popped it in the pan to defrost. (End result: vegetable, if a little on the bland side.)

When you retrieve the squash from the oven, the channels will have opened out and the chorizo fat soaked into the flesh. In addition, the flesh on the surface will have started to caramelise. Yum.

Let the squash cool a bit. Using a pair of barbecue tongs to hold them, use a metal spoon to scrape out the soft flesh and chorizo, and add it to the saucepan of hot stock. Stroke the flesh gently with the spoon and it should come off the skin easily. The biggest challenge of this operation is not to simply eat the hot squash then and there. (It does make a terrific side dish.)

The soup will then need to be simmered for another fifteen minutes or so, but another half hour if the flesh was a little fibrous, i.e. hadn’t cooked all the way through in the oven.

I use the hand blender (purée wand in US English) to smooth out any last pockets of resistance. You could just have a go with a potato masher and leave it chunky.

Salt and pepper to taste. Maybe a teensy pinch of paprika if you’ve used pancetta.

Smoked Mackerel Risotto

Smoked mackerel is one of my public vices. I can happily eat the stuff on its own, roughly shoved onto some toast with a squirt of lemon and some pepper. Never had it as a child (we used to have smoked cod, which was a chemical orange colour and horrid) so no nursery associations, but it strikes me as comfort food.

This, then, is a bit of an experiment. Can I combine the slightly sharp smoky fishiness with the gentle ooze of a risotto? The answer is yes, although the results don’t quite taste like risotto.

I used:

  • 300g Arborio rice (or your preferred risotto rice)
  • a large onion
  • 200g smoked mackerel fillets, skinned and flaked into large pieces (or some other hot smoked fish, if you prefer – note that most “smoked” salmon is cured and cold smoked, so not suitable for this recipe)
  • 150g shelled peas (frozen is fine, you could maybe use mangetout, but definitely some form of crisp legume)
  • about a litre of vegetable stock (fish stock would be too OTT for this)

Make the risotto in the usual way – adding the peas and fish about five minutes before the end.

You probably won’t need any extra salt, but more pepper than usual.

Some people get very sniffy about seafood plus cheese, but I think that stirring in maybe 25g of parmesan is the right thing to do. The sharp salty flavour helps balance the starchy goo.

In hindsight, it really could have done with a bunch of parsley, and maybe some lemon zest. Fresh thyme leaves might be worth a go as well.

Resolutions

Predictably, I am the victim of over indulgence, and it is in this spirit that I always make rash vows. For this year I solemnly do swear and promise:

  1. less food
  2. better food
  3. more exercise
  4. more experimentation

That said, I am writing this sipping an adult hot chocolate, so suspect I’m wavering.