Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Venison Loin in Butter, Thyme & Garlic

'Are you interested in a roe deer?' Well yes, in short; regardless of who is asking and in what context. Max the chef at Bistro 46 had a deer going spare 'head off, hoofs off, skin on' did I want it? So I found myself the owner of a new headless pet... I enjoy a bit of butchery, but have only really dealt with game birds and small animals to be honest. The thought of the deer didn't really phase me. I was excited to get to grips with it, really interested, and I like learning new skills. I watched a few videos, but in the end I took it along to Charlotte's Butchery and asked her to give me a lesson, as I was concerned I didn't have the right tools, I need to invest in a few saws...


Charlotte took me through it. Removing the skin to start, which wasn't as difficult as I thought, then breaking down the deer into shoulders, legs and loins. I'd happily tackle the next one myself as it is easy enough to figure out, following muscles and the obvious joints of an animals body. It's an art I think, and one I would like to become better at.





There are two loins either side of the spine that once you know what you are doing are pretty easy to remove. They would serve 4 people, but we ate one between two because that's what often seems to happen in our house and also, we were on holiday. I have to say it is the most delicious venison I have ever had, which could be for any number of personal reasons, but it just was. It was shot near Chevington, just up the road, and I hope it won't be the last venison I can get from Max.



I haven't had a pan large enough on any occasion to cook the loin all in one piece, and it doesn't suffer at all from being cut in half, one end seems slightly thinner than the other, this may be my butchery skills, so it needed a touch less cooking.

Bring the loin to room temperature, for at least an hour, maybe more; then dry it thoroughly with kitchen roll and season generously with salt and pepper, more than you think, as if you were salting a pavement I read somewhere...



Take a heavy non stick frying pan and add a little bit of oil, it doesn't need too much. Then when it is hot you can add the venison, it should sizzle loudly as it hits the pan. Add both halves to the pan, don't move them or touch them or press them, just leave them to cook for 2 minutes. Watch them, the pan should be hot, but if it smells like its burning then turn it down a touch. After 2 minutes turn the loin onto the other side and give it 2 minutes again, it should have taken on a lovely golden colour.

I'm generally more at home with slow cooking, lots of flavours gently mingling together, rather than fast paced hot pans. But I find it exciting, I'm working on becoming more au fait with cooking with fire. Francis Mallmann, Niklas Ekstedt and others are inspiring me. Ideally I would have done this in a big heavy cast iron pan over a drift wood fire on the beach... another time, this time will come.

When the loin has had 2 minutes on each side turn the heat off and throw a big knob of butter into the hot pan, along with a crushed clove of garlic and some thyme. Then start to baste the meat for ten minutes, spooning over the delicious melted butter that has picked up all the flavours of the meat, the garlic and the thyme.



Finally remove the loin and rest it somewhere warm for 5 minutes. Carve into 2cm slices and serve, drizzle a little of the pan juices over the meat on the plate. We had it with some sticky beetroot and red cabbage and some celeriac mash with lots of butter and a bit of nutmeg. The meat is on the rare side of medium rare, and is so beautifully soft and delicious. I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed both of the loins, each as delicious as the other.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Shetland Scallops smoked over Seaweed

The little grey fish van pulled up just as we were about to give up. We had seen a few up in Scrabster; little vans that drive around, you can flag them down and buy fish anywhere you see them. We hadn't found any fish shops and had left a message with a man about some lobster but that was yet to come to fruition.


We've been up in the very North of Scotland for a weeks holiday, just a cottage on a beach, surrounded by sea, big skies, hills and nature.

There were no lobsters and langoustine aboard unfortunately, but plenty of other guys, we ended up with some massive Shetland scallops, a couple of kippers and a wild card of some cod roe. I wasn't sure what to do with it at first, but ended up smoking it by the beach fire and blitzing it into a version of taramasalata that was delicious, considering I guessed how to make it.



I'd read something in Niklas Ekstedt's book about scallops and cucumber steamed over seaweed, so set about making a plan, as when you're staying in a cottage on your own beach that's the kind of wonderful plan you need...

I wandered down and cut some fresh live seaweed from the rocks, you shouldn't use stuff just lying on the beach. I've been reading a bit about seaweeds lately, you can eat all of them in Britain I believe, but some are just disgusting, I plan to dry some out and use it for seasoning. There were a couple of types on the rocks, the one you make nori from and another with bits you can pop, I'm not down with the names just yet. I picked a big serving bowl full.



We built a small fire in amongst some massive rocks, where it would still get plenty of air flow from below, but was a bit sheltered from the winds whistling in off the sea. We got it going using driftwood twigs and dried out seaweed from the beach, topped with some birch logs. Nicklaus always uses birch wood so we followed his advice, he knows what he's doing when it comes to fire, and scallops for that matter...


There are two stages to this; the pan, then the seaweed... So once the fire was pretty strong I put a bit bit of butter into the pan and heated until it sizzled over the fire. I need to invest in some good cast iron numbers for this really. Then add the scallops and cook for roughly two minutes on each side. They will have taken on a lovely golden colour, remove to a warm plate, then add a bit more butter to the pan until melted, stirring up all the scraps of flavour from the bottom of the pan, then remove the pan from the fire.



Now quickly cover the fire with seaweed, all over, you don't want it to go out but conversely you don't want the flames coming through burning the scallops. A nice thick seaweed bed for the scallops to sit on.

I'm not sure whether Nicklaus' version is to steam or smoke these scallops but ours were definitely smoked. I left them on for about 2 minutes on each side, the seaweed began to change colour to a deep green and just as it began to catch fire and flames began to lick through the seaweed we took the scallops off. Season with salt and drizzle with hot butter from the pan.


I loved them, I really hope I get a chance to do this again. They were rich and smoky, but slightly different to a wood smoke taste, more mellow, and you could still taste clearly the sweet soft scallop and the sea. I really loved them, did I say that already... There's something exciting and magical about cooking outside on the fire, it makes everything taste better. We rushed inside to eat just as it started to rain.



Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Pigeon Prosciutto

I want my game to taste of game, I like it hung and full of strong gamey flavour, it's one of the highlights of Autumn for me. These little pigeon breasts do not disappoint in that respect and are full of flavour. The Feathers Inn had too many to deal with so sent some my way, I think about 20, and I wanted to do something a bit different with them.



I've read about duck ham, although not yet tried it out, so did a bit of reading around the subject. I couldn't find anything about any cured pigeon but thought I'd give it a go anyway. I liked the idea of some cured gamey meat with pickled pears and walnuts, it was ticking a lot of autumnal boxes in my head...

Pigeons are pretty easy to pluck, the feathers come out pretty easily and don't generally tear the skin, it becomes harder work the bigger the bird and how presentable you want them to look at the end. I quite enjoy it, it can be quite messy so recently I've been wrapping up warm and setting up outside with a table and a bin bag, utilising the wind to clear up all the stray feathers, rather than intensive hoovering.

If you're giving this a go starting with a feathered friend, gently pull out all the feathers covering the breast, using your thumb and forefinger. Remove all the feathers from the neck, on the shoulders, down under the wings, over the breast and down to its bum... If you were going to roast it whole you would need to continue to pluck the whole bird, remove the head, wings and legs and then gut it, but that's another story and actually quite easy once you've done it a few times.


Once all the breast feathers are removed take a very sharp knife and make an incision down the centre of the skin along the breast bone, then pull the skin back from the meat to reveal the whole pigeon breast. Then pick a side and keep your knife as close to the bone all the way along from neck to bottom, gently running the length of the bird to remove the breast in one piece with as much meat as possible, aiming to leave little or none behind on the carcass. Repeat on the other side. Then there you have it, a butchered pigeon, you will improve the more you do it, I found doing 20 odd quite satisfying and was pretty proud of my efforts by the end.



I used a cure of 3 parts fine salt and 1 part sugar as I wanted a slight sweetness to it. I added some black pepper, torn up bay leaves, some rosemary and some crushed juniper berries. Sprinkle half of the mix over the bottom of a flat container that will fit all your pigeon breasts, then cover everything with the other half of the cure.

I wasn't sure how long to leave the pigeon to achieve what I wanted, but I put them in one afternoon and checked them the next morning and they were done. I had imagined 2 or 3 days but it was much quicker. The cure had turned to liquid, in turn drawing the liquid out of the meat, the meat had become harder and more solid over night. Remove the pigeon and rinse under cold water, then dry them off with some kitchen roll. I left them out to dry in the air for a few hours, but they are ready to eat straight away. They are rich and gamey, delicious, with a salty hit. I was really pleased with them.




After eating a whole one straight off and patting myself on the back a bit I wondered what to do with them. Curing something always feels a bit like magic to me, you've created something quite complex by doing something quite simple, I always feel a great sense of achievement! I put these guys into a salad that was delicious with bitter radicchio, sweet pickled pears, toasted walnuts and the salty rich irony pigeon, it worked really well.



Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Goat Mince Ragu

All through October chefs and restaurants all over the country were taking part in something called 'Goatober'. I've got to say, it's not the catchiest of titles, but you get the jist, goats and October being the important bits.

Goatober is the brainchild of Heritage Radio Network Executive Director, Erin Fairbanks, and renowned New York cheesemonger, Anne Saxelby. An annual campaign every year in October in the US. In 2010, Heritage Foods USA partnered with a dozen goat dairies around upstate New York and Vermont to purchase their unwanted males, who, as unable to produce milk for dairy products, are killed at birth. Over 50 New York City chefs agreed to feature goat on their menu for the full month of October including Gramercy Tavern, Babbo, Spotted Pig and Bar Boulud and the campaign’s success has continued to grow to year on year.


This year James Whetlor of Cabrito, a relatively new company bringing British goat into the mainstream food market, has been championing the event over here in the UK. I decided to get involved as I really do like goat and was keen to support James, and also my local goat suppliers The Goat Company based up in Morpeth.

This Goat Mince Ragu recipe has been on the menu at Cook House all month, I'm serving in on toast smothered in delicious Doddington cheese. It is also great served with pasta, in a lasagne or with some buttery polenta.

To start finely dice 1 onion, 1 carrot and 1 stick of celery, then add to a big pan with a pinch of salt, a bay leaf, 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 15g butter and cook slowly until soft and turning golden, for about 15 minutes. 


While this is going on add 4 large tomatoes cut into quarters, or the equivalent amount of cherry tomatoes to a small baking tray with a couple of cloves of garlic, add a splash of olive oil, and a pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar. Then roast at 200˚C for about 20 minutes, until soft and starting to brown. Then remove from the oven.


Grate into the onion mix, one clove of garlic and a few sprigs of finely chopped thyme and stir through. Add 1kg of goat mince, this will serve 4 generously. Gently stir the goat mince on the heat until it is browned and breaks up evenly. Then add 2 heaped desert spoons of plain flour and stir through, allow this to cook for 5 minutes. Then add 2 heaped desert spoons of tomato puree and stir through and allow to cook for another 5 minutes.



Add the roast tomatoes to a blender and blitz until totally smooth and then stir this into the goat mince, post flour and tomato puree. Add a big pinch of salt, lots of ground black pepper and a teaspoon of sugar and stir to combine. It will begin to smell and taste delicious at this stage. You're looking to layer as much flavour into the pan as possible, the golden veg at the beginning and then these delicious roast tomatoes all help that along.

Then add about 600ml of beef stock and a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce; preferably homemade stock made with roast beef bones simmered for a few hours with stock veg, which will yield the most delicious results. Then let the mince simmer for an hour, covered, very gently, so it's just moving. If it seems too thick add a little more stock. After an hour remove the lid and if it seems like there is a bit too much liquid, take the lid of and turn the heat up and let it reduce for about 15 minutes, stirring now and again so it doesn't stick to the bottom. Turn it off when it is the desired consistency, check the seasoning and let it sit for 15 minutes, just to let let it settle and for all the flavour to come out. It is even better the next day, so if you can make it ahead that is ideal...

To serve, pop it on toast with lots of grated cheese, or stir through some pasta, again top with cheese, or layer it up into a homemade lasagne, making sure to top with cheese!


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Pit Cooking - Lamb in the Ground

I have wanted to experiment with cooking something in a pit in the ground for a long time; a lamb or a pig, out in the wild... surrounded by nature, digging up beautifully cooked meat, grilling lovely vegetables on the fire... I watch Francis Mallman on 'Chef's Table' with envy, and make plans to light fires, cook whole venison and river trout at the top of a deserted valley with friends and family one summer. I'll send out invitations with just a little map; everyone will walk for miles to the delight at the end, maybe no one will want to come, but I will! However, if I'm ever going to actually attempt that I needed to practice; because that's not just going to fly on the first attempt!


So a few weeks ago we set off to the lakes with a big leg of lamb and a vague plan. I read various websites and put together an idea of what I might do. In short, dig a hole in the ground, fill it with stones, burn a fire until the stones are red hot, put the lamb in, cover with soil and turf and hope for the best...

I settled on a cooking time of 12 hours, various times were mentioned on line but this allowed us to leave it in all night, get it out in the morning, and have time to rescue it if needs be before guests arrived for lunch. So we had to forgo the 'big reveal' of digging it out of the ground to the waiting crowd, but it seemed like the sensible thing to do as I had read reports of joints being burnt on the bottom and raw on top and various other disasters...




The hole in the ground needs to be deep enough to accommodate a layer of large stones at the bottom, the lamb in the middle, more stones on top and then a layer of soil and turf, so we ended up with a pit about half a metre deep, measuring about the same in width and length.

We collected stones from the river, going for pretty large ones, as they need to retain the heat for a long time, about the size of your head I read, I chose slightly smaller ones as I had to carry them! The idea is to heat them as hot as possible, burning a fire around them for a good few hours, letting your fire eventually disappear , leaving you with stones that are about 200/300 degrees.






We lined the bottom and the edges of the pit with the stones, then placed a few more in the middle that we ear marked as the ones that we would then lift up and put on top of the lamb when it went in. Then covered the whole lot with kindling and logs and got going with the bonfire, gradually adding more logs as it burnt bigger, building it up to heat all of the stones. I think we burned it for about 3 hours in the end. It was very enjoyable sat round faffing about with the fire, a glass of wine in hand, excited to put the lamb in and wondering what on earth was going to happen.




I marinated the leg of lamb in garlic, rosemary, lovage, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and left it out to come up to room temperature while we got the fire going. Before it goes in it needs to be wrapped up very tightly in foil, do this carefully as you don't want all the lovely juices to leak out, I used quite a few layers. Then wrap it in an old damp towel or a damp burlap sack. This creates a barrier between the lamb and the red hot stones and prevents burnt spots.




The fire burnt and burnt, we moved the logs around so every stone was enveloped with heat and slowly we let it burn right down, pushing the embers away into the gaps between the stones, until it had all but disappeared and we were left with red hot stones. It took about 3 hours in the end; it is worth taking your time over this bit as if the stones haven't heated right to the core they aren't going to be very good at cooking your lamb for 12 hours. Obviously this is a difficult thing to assess, testing the middle of stones, but I figured a long, long fire was the answer. 



Then the parcel of lamb is placed in the middle. We had big fire proof gloves to lift out some of the stones, put the lamb in place then put some stones back over the top, so all surfaces were covered. It was starting to get dark at this point and the heat was so intense, it was a bit of a frantic getting everything into place... Then dig the soil back over the top, covering the whole thing so no little jets of steam and smoke are escaping, finally placing the square of turf back over the whole thing and stamping it down, you shouldn't be able to feel any heat coming out at all. Almost as if nothing had happened.


Night had begun to fall and we were shoveling soil back into the pit by the light of an iphone, anyone passing may have thought we resembled a scene from Midsummer Murders... It was all very exciting to see what we would find in the morning!

It was a really cold night and there was a icy dew covering everything when I went outside at about 9am and you could see your breath. I could see patches of dry soil and around the edge of the turf top, and the ground felt warm when you put your hand to it... joy! it had actually stayed warm overnight, so something must have happened... We carefully lifted the turf lid then began to dig away the soil, slowly uncovering the lamb bundle. It was a warm bundle when lifted out, and unwrapped the lamb was actually cooked! Lovely smells wafted out as I unwrapped it, finding soft, cooked, aromatic lamb, actually cooked!





It was pretty anaemic looking, it doesn't colour at all as it is basically steaming in its little bundle, so there's no great 'wow, look at that transformation' moment, it's just cooked. But it felt pretty good that we'd managed to actually cook it with just some stones and a fire. For lunch I put it in the oven to heat through and crisp up, it was very tasty sat at the long table next to the pit with the carved up lamb, big salads, bbq potatoes and vegetables, a smoky aubergine yoghurt, mint syrup, spicy tomato sauce and everyone tucking in.





I'm keen to try it again as soon as possible. There are some things I would like to improve on. When we took it out of the ground it was warm, but not hot, and would have needed a blast of heat from an oven or bbq regardless, so I think I left it in a bit too long, or, the stones could have been hotter to start. The lamb doesn't fall apart as it would in an oven braise, you had to carve it into slices, and I think perhaps it didn't reach a high enough temperature for long enough, so again, perhaps heating the stones better at the beginning might improve this. That said it was a pretty satisfying day all round! I'll report back on take two...