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...

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Drinking Vinegar's or 'Shrubs'

I've come across drinking vinegars or 'shrubs' as they are known in a few places over the years, I think the first time was in Ducksoup in Soho, but I chose wine instead... They sparked my interest but I hadn't actually ever tried them, and added them to a long list of 'things to try out'.

I'm a fan of the sour, the pickle, anything sharp, whether it is in food or drinks, a sour beer or a sour cocktail, always gets my attention... I'll order food based on the presence of a caper sometimes, those little bursts of something sharp with a rich meat or a buttery sauce is the best balance in my mind. Fergus Henderson gives warning however; as much as you think you love the caper, don't overdo it - they should be discovered like a prize, the 'Ho! Ha! moment of surprise and delight' he calls it...

Making a shrub is similar to pickling, an old fashioned way of preserving fruit. Fruit mixed with vinegar then made into a syrup. I have seen it done the other way round where the fruit is macerated with sugar first, then mixed with vinegar, but I prefer the former. You have more control over the sweetness that way, and a more versatile product because the fruit vinegar is a delicious thing in its own right that can be used in salad dressings, braises and sauces, to name but a few...

The drink itself is great just with soda, a sharp drinking cordial. It seems odd to be drinking vinegar, but it's just a sharp kick the same as you would get from using citrus in a good punchy lemonade. It is also double great in a cocktail, I made a cherry shrub, elderflower cordial and gin fizz recently that was a summery gin delight!

Cherry was my first shrub experiment. I had a beautiful big box full and wasn't sure what to do with them all, I pickled some first off, these are really good with cheese or pates. Then set to making my first shrub. The good thing is that you can use fruit that's a bit on the turn too, so if something looks like it's a bit overripe or you're not going to use it up, just put it in a shrub...

Wash whatever fruit you are going to use. I stoned a load of big fat cherries, about half a big kilner jar full. Just tear them in half into a bowl, then mash them up either with your hands or a potato masher, crushing the flesh and getting all the juices moving. Add them to your jar and you want to add the same quantity of vinegar to fruit, roughly. I don't think you need to be super accurate with any of this. I used white wine vinegar this time round. Seal the jar and give it a good shake. Then leave for 1 to 2 weeks, giving it a shake every few days, you want the maximum amount of fruit flavour to come out as possible.

Then it is time to strain it and add sugar. You can strain it through a muslin cloth or through a sieve, it is fine if a bit of pulp stays in the mix, it's just down to preference. Then add sugar to taste. I have been adding about half as much sugar to liquid, some recipes say equal amounts, but I found this far too sweet, I want to taste the fruit, not just sugar. So if you have about a litre of fruit vinegar add about 500ml of caster sugar. You don't need any heat, just stir until it is dissolved. Then it is ready to use.

I have been using about 1 part shrub to 5 parts soda or water, or gin... But it is down to personal taste really. I would like to make some with some unpasteurised vinegar, this is a live fermentation and so full of probiotics and very good for you.

Since using the cherries I have also made a gooseberry shrub, with lovely fat gooseberries from the Ouseburn Farm. I also tried a Strawberry, Raspberry and Black Pepper one too, which is delicious with a warm spice from the pepper. Long before I started thinking about shrubs I also put some new pine shoots in to vinegar to flavour the vinegar, not thinking that it was the beginning of a drinking vinegar, I tried it recently and it'd delicious, but I'm aiming to leave the pine for at least 6 months as that was the original plan. Larger harder fruits or leaves can either be left much longer to break down, or there is a method of cooking them slightly first with spices, water and sugar, then adding vinegar. I'll give this method a go too and see which I prefer; regardless I'm a total drinking vinegar convert now, hope you feel the same...

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

BBQ Bavette and friends

I'm trying to expand my cooking on fire repertoire; so I took the opportunity to try a few new things recently, on a short break in the Lake District. Fire makes me a bit more apprehensive than the safety of an oven, but it also allows you to be outdoors, and is a lot more exciting... I'd always be outdoors if I could choose... if only the weather was a bit better...

I've been watching the new series of Chef's Table on Netflix, I love it, one of my favourite episodes is from the first series about Francis Mallman, he has a restaurant in Argentina that focuses on Patagonian cuisine. When he's not there he seems to wander the country cooking outdoors in the most remote and beautiful spots. At one point Francis and his team are out in the snow on the edge of the forest, they had dug a fire pit that morning and set up whole lambs cantilevered over it, cooking all day. They set up a full table, rugs, furs, chairs, giant bottles of red wine; and laughed and feasted in the snow, it looked perfect. He has a small fishing boat, that has a little BBQ attached to the side of it so he can float around on the beautiful lakes of Argentina, catching fish, putting them straight on the coals, relaxing in the boat, drinking red wine. So that's where I'd like to get to, set ups like these one day... out in the quiet, fresh air, water, nature, fire, cooking and wine, that's my idea of a good life...

But for now I've just got a small BBQ, and I'm thinking about where to dig the fire pit... but there's always the future. It's not all about huge chunks of meat either, so let's start very small... with BBQ pea pods.

Peas are in season right now, so get some fresh peas in their pods. You can put them on very early while you're still waiting for the coals to all turn white, when it's still a bit too hot for the meat. Lay out a layer of pea pods over the grill, turning them around now and again, until you get a good char on the outside, then take them all off into a big bowl. The peas will have steamed cooked inside their pods. Sprinkle with lots of salt and suck the peas out of their pods, a lovely snack while you wait.

BBQ New Potato Skewers are a good new discovery I've found. Par boil your new potatoes, about 3 per skewer, depending on how big they are. They should be almost done. Drain then, leave them to dry in their own steam, then toss them in olive oil and salt. Thread 3 or 4 onto wooden skewers and place them on the BBQ, leave them for a minute on one side, then turn, a minute on the other, depending how hot your fire is, they should take on a deep golden skin. Take them off when they are ready and serve with lots of cold butter or a really good aioli.

Then to the BBQ Bavette Steak. I used a 2kg piece of bavette, which is also known as the flank steak. This was for 6-8 people and was plenty. It is marinated, cooked quite quickly so it stays pretty rare then sliced thinly. Make the marinade first, some olive oil, a splash of sesame oil, a couple of centimetres of grated ginger, a clove of grated garlic, a splash of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sugar, salt and pepper. Mix it up and taste, alter to suit, more salt, more sweet, however you like it. Then cover the steak in it and leave at room temperature for an hour or so, or you can leave it in the fridge over night.

When the BBQ is hot, all the coals white and the flames have died down it is ready. Put the steak on and leave it, don't touch, give it 4 minutes on the first side, don't move it, this allows a crust to form, then turn, for another 4 minutes, but it can vary, so prod it with your finger, if it feels very soft it's still very rare, you want it when it just starts to firm up, like the bit of your palm feels next to your thumb when you prod it... Remember don't move it around, just two turns... Then get it off when you think it's done and rest it for 5 minutes, covered. This allows it to relax, keep its moisture and generally get over the aggression of the fire it's just been on... Get a sharp knife and slice thinly to serve, about half a centimetre ish... It should be beautifully pink inside and totally delicious...

Everything is a bit ish when it comes to cooking on fire, just try and practice and find your way, I'm starting to...

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Hawthorn Blossom Syrup

The blossoms are in full bloom on the Hawthorns at the moment. I have read an account of people eating the new leaf shoots in sandwiches, in bread and butter, or in salads. I have tried them straight off the tree and I don't think they are much to shout about to be honest...

Then I found a recipe using the blossoms, an 18th century recipe that was published in E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife originally. They are long winded instructions about gallypots, thank fully the book I found it mentioned in simplified matters for me, a little bit.

I picked a carrier bag full of lovely white blossoms. You will need about 1 litre of blossoms. Gently snip the flowers from the stalks and pack them loosely into into jars in layers about 2.5cm deep. Sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar between each layer of flowers, until the jars are full.

Then heat 800g sugar with 1.25litres of water and 7 tablespoons of lemon juice in a pan, bring it to the boil for 3 minutes, then set aside to cool. Pour the cooled syrup into the jar with the flowers and put the lids on loosely. Stand the jars in a big pan on top of a few sheets of folded newspaper, with some newspaper between the jars so they don't touch. Then fill up the pan with cold water, bring to the boil slowly and simmer very gently for 1 hour.

Finally lift out the jars and tighten the lids. When everything is stone cold open the jars and strain the flowers out of the syrup through a cloth and seal into sterilsied jars or bottles. Keep it somewhere cool and it will keep for months.

It's a delicious apricot coloured syrup, serve with soda, ice and a squeeze of lemon, with a few flowers scattered on top... It's good with gin and tonic! or drizzled over panna cotta or ice cream...

Monday, 30 May 2016

BBQ Goat Chops

Having The Goat Company at Jesmond Food Market regularly means I've been able to get hold of goat meat much more easily; and hearing James Whetlot of Cabrito speak the other week about his endeavours to make it available more widely, has also encouraged me to try it out more. It's a really tasty yet subtle meat, which I would like to cook with more often. I tried out a goat ragu a couple of months ago; browned then slow cooked with onions, carrots and celery, some red wine and chopped tomatoes, served with polenta, it was simple and delicious, but not particularly photogenic. This time round I went for some chops...

I am without a kitchen at home at the moment and am really missing cooking for myself, friends and family. It has been knocked down to be rebuilt and will be wonderful once it is finished but washing up in the minuscule bathroom sink just isn't feasible so we're surviving on salad, Cook House leftovers and accepting every dinner invitation thrown our way! Subsequently a holiday in the Lake District, for a few days, with a working kitchen, bbq and smoker sent me into a bit of a frenzy... Menu planning, shopping lists, orders placed; this was not going to be time wasted! A little simple bbq to kick things of when we arrived was actually one of the highlights.

I began by marinating the goat chops in a mix of chopped rosemary, a clove of grated garlic, the juice of half a lemon, olive oil and salt and pepper. I thought simple was best, to appreciate the flavour of the meat and I like a BBQ that is a bit Greek in style; home made flat breads, choppy salads and dips... lots of things to pick at on the table, it's the best way and delicious.

Leaving the goat to sit for an hour or so, we lit the bbq... and I set about some simple side dishes. Some asparagus, spring onions and sliced courgettes, with just a bit of olive oil and salt are delicious on a bbq. More often than not people pile a ton of meat on, every type at once, with a token corn on the cob, but I like a vegetable on the bbq just as much as a chop!

BBQ pea pods were a good discovery over the weekend, just put fresh pea pods onto the bbq, turn until they are charred, then open them up and you have tasty steamed peas, sprinkle with a bit of salt. They can go on while the bbq is still too hot for everything else so are a good pre dinner snack, as they only take a couple of minutes...

I made some homemade flatbreads, which sounds like a lot of effort but is the opposite. 250g plain flour mixed with 150ml of warm water, a teaspoon of salt and a table spoon of olive oil, mix it into a dough and knead for 2 minutes then let it sit under a bowl until you need it. It will make 4 large flatbreads. Just divide it into 4 and flatten out into a thin disc when you need it and chuck on the bbq at the end, it will puff up and char a bit. The dough takes 2 minutes as does the rolling out and you will be rewarded ten fold by the delight of your own fresh bread!

I also made a sweet cumin yoghurt, a smoky aubergine yoghurt and a spicy tomato sauce; my favourite trio of dips, you can see how here...

Time to BBQ. Make sure you have left it calm down a bit, all the coals white but not volcanic, you don't want everything burnt to a crisp within a minute of being on the grill. We put the veg on first and a bit of sliced halloumi... lush... Then the goat chops, about 3 minutes on each side, I put a sprig of rosemary on at the same time as the chops which caught fire coating them in a lovely rosemary char... Then take it all off into a nice hot bowl and put the flatbreads on, roll them quite thin and they will only take a minute while everyone tucks into the rest of the offerings... It was a lovely evening.