Tag Archives: herbs

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.)


Ragù

I have a cunning plan that will probably culminate in lasagne. So first, I’m going to need a pot of ragù.

This time, I used:

  • 300g beef or pork mince – this should not be the “premium” steak mince, but rather something cheaper and fattier – this will taste a lot nicer as it’s made from all the obscure, and in some cases, unspeakable, bits of the animal
  • 75g of diced pancetta (sweet cured belly bacon) leave the fat attached
  • four cloves of garlic, or more if the garlic is small; you know how much you like
  • two medium onions, and about the same amount of celery and carrots; I ended up with about 600g (uncooked weight)
  • four large (ish) portabella mushrooms
  • 800g tinned tomatoes
  • a small glass of red wine

You’ll need a large sauté pan, preferably with vertical sides, so the stuff doesn’t escape as you’re stirring.

  1. Get the pan warmed on a low heat, and put the pancetta in, no need for any cooking oil, and let it quietly sizzle away for about five minutes, during which time it will become medium brown, crunchy, and will have rendered up most, if not all of its fat.
  2. Scoop out the pancetta with a slotted spoon, and pop somewhere on the side, but not so close you’re tempted to nibble on it during the rest of the cooking.
  3. Add the mince to the pan, breaking it up with a spoon, and putting a pinch of salt, and a generous grind of pepper on. You can also sprinkle a quarter teaspoon of white or brown sugar over the mince at this point, which will help it caramelise. You’ll probably need to turn the heat up a whisker, as you’re cooking a much greater mass, but you still want a gentle sizzling, and again, get it brown, a little crunchy, and having given up its fat.
  4. Whilst that’s browning (you don’t need to stir constantly) peel and slice the garlic. Make a well in the middle of the mince, and pop the garlic in, moving it around with a wooden spoon until it’s gone translucent, and started to go a golden colour. Do not let it brown, as it will go bitter. Once that’s all done, rescue everything with the slotted spoon into a dish, and leaving the fat behind. By this point, you’ll have noticed a bit of a build up on the bottom of the pan, of brown stuff. Rejoice, for this is Very Tasty. This is what the French call the fond.
  5. Put the diced onion, carrots and celery into the pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary, and fry ’til the onion is translucent. You’ll notice that the juices from the veg deglaze the bottom of the pan, and the fond is incorporated into the veg. Mmmm.
  6. Add the wine and stir furiously, in case frying the veg builds up some goo.
  7. Add the tomatoes, the mince, pancetta, and about a teaspoon each of dried oregano and dried basil. (I will explain the Dried Herb Heresy another day.)
  8. Add the chopped up mushrooms.
  9. Bring to the boil, but don’t let it arrive there, and then reduce the heat so the surface is barely quivering, cover the pot, and then leave it like that for an hour.

Hints:

  • You can get vacuum packed bags of pre-diced sofritto – this is a fancy word for diced and fried onions, carrots and celery.
  • I also grated about a quarter of a nutmeg over it. Some people like mace and majoram.
  • Maybe you’ve found some fresh basil that isn’t bland hydroponic rubbish. In this case, shred it up and add it at the very end, i.e. about five minutes before the end of the simmer, or even after simmering, when you’ve switched the heat off. Fresh basil does not like being cooked.

Akoori

The breakfast of champions and the supper of the downtrodden. Gadget Boy could never stand the smell: “Urk! You’re making those eggs!”

Supper for one, but just multiply the quantities.

  • three eggs
  • a small tomato, chopped and deseeded; don’t worry about skinning it!
  • half a small onion
  • one clove garlic
  • quarter teaspoon cumin seeds, ground or whole
  • quarter teaspoon turmeric
  • quarter teaspoon chilli (depending on how potent you like it: I’m only using half a dozen dried chilli flakes)
  • chopped coriander leaves (I freeze mine)
  • salt, pepper

Finely dice the onion and fry in a small amount of oil and butter, no need to drown it, until soft. Add a pinch of salt. While that’s happening chop the garlic finely.

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Move the onion to the edges and add the chilli and cumin, and fry for a minute.

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Add the garlic and fry for another minute. At this point, beat the eggs lightly, and add about a tablespoon of milk.

Add the turmeric and stir for a few moments, and then add the tomato, and fry for a minute.

Now add the eggs and coriander, and leave for a slow count of five.

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Then stir gently, and gradually, after a couple of minutes, the mixture will come together.

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And then you can serve, with a grind of pepper to taste.

As with any member of the scrambled egg family, they will carry on cooking, so you can serve when they’re still a bit gooey. Mine just went on a section of baguette, as that was what happened to be handy.

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Variations

When it’s still fairly runny, put it into flatbread, roll up, and crisp under a preheated grill.

Lots more ingredients, e.g. courgettes, peppers, etc, but cook it like a frittata.

Rillettes de Porc

This is somewhat of a cautionary tale, where victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat. I’ve decided to make rillettes, using pork belly, since, with the exception of leg that’s been turned into Parma ham, it is the tastiest bit of the pig, and bloody cheap, too.

Today I’m using…

  • pork belly (I’m using an 800g piece from the posh supermarket, which was just under a fiver)
  • a bunch of fresh woody herbs – I’m using thyme, sage might be nice, but rosemary or tarragon probably a little overpowering – check with your guests
  • bay leaves
  • salt, pepper
  • as many peeled and squished garlic cloves as you like (I’m using four)

Get the butcher to bone and skin the meat, as you will not enjoy trying to do it at home. Remember, he has better knives than you will ever have, and you’re paying him to risk his fingers. Rub it down with plenty of salt, about a tablespoon, and maybe some pepper as well if you fancy.

Now, I’ve put the herbs, garlic, bay leaves, etc on the bottom of a roasting dish…

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…and laid the meat on top…

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…so you can probably anticipate what’s about to go wrong.

For each 100g of meat, you’ll need to add 25mL of water. Cover the dish with foil, or if you’re using a casserole (probably more sensible) just pop the lid on.

Three hours in the oven on about 150C should have reduced it to a quivering mush of piggy, garlicky goodness. But not in this case. There was enough thyme to keep the pork well clear of the bottom of the dish, and the dish was too wide, so the pork drained its fat, and started to dry out. In fact, it would have made excellent roast pork, had I been doing that instead. So, with a bit of cursing, everything was transferred to a smaller dish, with the meat on the bottom, a little bit more water, and left for another two hours. Piggy mush ensued.

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Once you’ve gotten this far, you need to shred the meat. Do this with a pair of forks, using one fork to hold each large lump, and the other to stroke the meat off. Since the meat has collapsed by this point, it’s very easy. There will be a few tougher bits of meat, usually from the edges, where they’ve become sticky and caramelised. These can be set aside for sandwiches, or just go straight into the cook without any further comment.

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Finally, squish, squeeze and shove this meat into the terrine, ramekins etc. You want to pack it down as tightly as you can. Use a small tumbler or something to tamp it in. Finally, pour enough of the juices from the pan into the terrines, to cover the meat, and refrigerate or freeze, depending upon when you’re going to use it.

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Crusty bread and cornichons all round.


June 2011 addendum. I forgot to mention that you can also salt the meat first: hack the meat up into large chunks, add about a tablespoon of salt, and seal in a plastic bag at the bottom of the fridge overnight. Discard the liquid and rinse the meat before proceeding as above. You can get fancy and add any of the following to the cure: pepper, crushed juniper berries, hacked up thyme, sugar, honey, and so on.

Oh, and you can use pork shoulder as well. Or a mix of shoulder and belly.


Frozen Parsley

Funny stuff, parsley. Tastes really rather bland, buts adds an indefinable zing to loads of dishes. And totally useless dried.

When I was a kid, Mum would sometimes have way too much parsley, so she’d chop it, mix it with water and pour the resulting goo into an ice-cube tray. Once the cubes were done, she’d shove them into a plastic bag, et voilà, teaspoon sized portions of parsley ready to go. That was the theory. The reality was that getting the springy, bouncy parsley leaves into the ice cube tray was harder than it sounds, no matter how finely chopped they were.

The simple approach is to chop up a bunch of parsley, and simply stuff into a rectangular plastic “sandwich bag”, and put that into the freezer. The trick here is, once the bag is sealed, to squish it around the contents are evenly spread and the bag is almost flat. This way you can easily snap off a corner.

Same thing works for leftover mash, too. The flatter you squish it, the easier it is to stack in the freezer and the quicker it is to defrost. (I try and make my frozen slabs of mash line up with the dish in which I make Shepherds’ Pie…)