Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Tastes of Autumn: Squash, Chestnut & Bacon Risotto

When it comes to food, Autumn is the most exciting season. By the time the end of November rolls around, one hankers for rich, big, warming flavours and hearty platefuls to ease the depression of driving home in the dark and fighting through increasingly bad weather.

Large jumpers can hide expanding waistlines and the only way to achieve a healthy glow is by supping an extra glass of wine. It truly is the season for gourmands.

Those earthy flavours so reminiscent of Autumn are a delight to cook with. Their versatility offers infinite combinations, each one guaranteed to be tasty. Pick three of the following and you’re almost certain to achieve deliciousness in perfect harmony:

Pheasant. Bacon. Mushrooms. Pears. Truffles. Pumpkins. Squashes. Rabbit. Potatoes. Pigeon. Chestnuts. Garlic. Thyme. Apples.

In fact, you could probably put all of the above together and create something lip-smackingly good.

I didn’t quite go that far with this risotto but came pretty close.

First step was to roast off a small squash – sliced and cooked until tender in a hot oven, squash develops a rich sweetness that demands to be matched with something salty. In this case bacon, although some melted blue cheese with it would make a good meal on its own.

Once the bacon had been crisped up nicely in a hot pan, the fat rendered out into a tasty sizzling liquid, it was put to one side and a finely chopped red onion softened in a tablespoon of the reserved bacon fat – using the same pan to make the most of the flavours in there (and minimise washing up)

A handful of chestnuts were roasted in the oven until the insides were sweet and the skins had split open. Half were then chopped finely, the others merely split in two to act as a textural contrast.

The risotto was made in the usual way – toast rice, add onions and spoon stock in until rice is tender but still in possession of some integrity. Right at the end, along with the requisite Parmesan and butter, the bacon, roasted squash and chestnuts were stirred in.

The whole thing was topped off with thinly sliced pheasant breast that had been fried off in a little butter, chestnut halves and a little of the reserved bacon. Finally, it was seasoned with a small pinch of ground coffee to add the merest hint of bitterness.

A big, steaming, delicious bowl of Autumn.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Just One More Hit...

Sometimes things don’t always go right in the kitchen.

There is a wonderful book called ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ where fifty highly skilled chefs share their own personal culinary horror stories. It as an affirming read: to know that such artistes as Adria, Batali and Henderson can mess up gives us mere mortals reason not to hang up the sauté pan just yet.

Last week I attempted a rather adventurous process with my ingredient of the year, a pig’s head.

After removing the jowels, they were seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon and rosemary and cooked sous vide for about 8 hours. Once cool, the meat was shredded and fat removed from the skin. The shredded meat was then spiced and packed back into the skin, the whole thing rolled up into a crude sausage.

The inspiration was a Tom Kitchin recipe I saw in Coco – crispy on the outside with a hint of teeth sticking crackling and soft within, exactly the way pork should be.

Except it didn’t quite work. As the sausage hit the hot metal of the pan it split quite enthusiastically, the skin popping and sending the filling flying out onto the hob.

The cats ate well for three days.

And I declared that I’d had my fill of porcine head – that it was fun but I’d proved my point and, what’s more, belly is far, far tastier. ‘I can’t be arsed to cook one of these again,’ I uttered as I tipped the last of the snout into the rubbish and waved it goodbye, a piggy little eye looking up at me from the depths of the bin.

Like a true junkie, 48 hours was all it took to renege on my promise.

Brawns and braises and crispy fried ears are all well and good (and sometimes not so good) but it was a tiny transparent slice of charcuterie that convinced me it was worth obtaining just one more head from my butcher.

Guanciale is the perfect halfway point between pancetta – made from belly pork – and lardo, the cured back fat of a particularly chubby variety of pig. It is the cured jowl cut, the name coming from the Italian word guancia, meaning cheek. And it is delicious.

Some say the reason behind the popularity of chocolate is that it melts at body temperature – pop a piece in your mouth and you can feel it gently spreading across the palate as it transforms slowly into a liquid.

For me, charcuterie has the same effect. The fat in top quality cured meats should be near translucent at room temperature and should slowly dissipate once in the mouth leaving just a tiny morsel of intensely flavoured meat to chew on.

Guanciale did just that. It fluttered around the mouth like a delicate angel’s wing but then settled into tasty, porky goodness of the sort I’ve only tasted with the finest and ethereally thin slices of prosciutto.

What’s more, it convinced me that now is the perfect time to attempt some proper meat preservation. It should be ready by Christmas…

Friday, 13 November 2009

Eccles Cakes

A while ago I wrote a brief manifesto centred on making the world a better place through the introduction of mandatory elevenses.

Should I ever be appointed ‘Food Tsar’ in order to help see the successful passage of this essential legislation, the Eccles Cake would almost certainly be the official flagship treat.

The finest example of this Lancastrian delicacy can be found not in their hometown of Eccles but at Restaurant St. John close to the City of London. Tightly packed with spiced currants and served warm, with a cup of tea on the side, I can think of no better way to ward off winter ills than taking 15 minutes out of your day to have your cake and eat it.

These are loosely based on the St. John recipe and should make six decent sized cakes.

Be sure to slightly overfill each one and pack it in tightly to full appreciate the glory of these delightful wonders.

NB - If you want to make a smaller or larger quantity just use the ratio one part butter to two parts sugar to four parts currants.

Half a block of ready-made puff pastry (oh, how convenient)
250g currants
60g unsalted butter
120g golden caster sugar
One egg white
Extra caster sugar, for dusting.

Heat the sugar until it starts to melt and colour slightly then remove from the heat and add the butter. Allow to melt then add the currants. Stir well so each is coated with some of the caramel. Flavour with allspice and nutmeg – keep tasting it until it is slightly Christmassy and comfortingly warming – then leave to cool.

Roll out the pastry to about half a centimetre’s thickness then using a 9cm cutter press out as many discs as you can. Re-roll the leftover pastry and repeat until you have 12-14 discs. Top each with a spoonful of the filling and sandwich them together, making sure to press the sides together tightly.

(You can make the circles larger and fold the pastry together underneath. Either way works fine)

Turn them over and neaten them up with your palms. Flatten the top and cut three times with a sharp knife (supposedly to symbolise the holy trinity). Brush with egg white and dip into caster sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes until they are an inviting colour and the filling is oozing out of the top.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

'Easy As' Pie

There is something slightly decadent about a pie that belies their inherent simplicity.

Well, most pies.

I’ve had many a miserable midweek football match warmed by a steaming meat and potato number at halftime and to call these a luxury would be akin to describing X Factor as a singing competition.

But pastry can work wonders. It can turn a stew from sustenance into a centrepiece or even make the most cackhanded of bakers look like a master practitioner: Crème patissiere plus puff pastry equals ‘millefeuille’ – a dessert so impressive that it is near impossible to pronounce, let alone eat.

As a result I’ve taken to keeping a slab of ready made pastry in the freezer for those occasions when potatoes, rice or pasta just won’t cut it and my Northern roots are whispering that sweetest of words down my lughole: pie. Pie. Pie.

This little creation is light enough not to raise the blood pressure but also satisfying, cheap and downright delicious.

Cheese, onion and ham pie

Serves four, or two with enough left over for an enviable lunch the following day.

Half a slab of ready-made puff pastry (save the other half for Eccles cakes – coming soon)
6-8 white onions, depending on their size
3-4 slices cured ham (prosciutto, Serrano – anything of that ilk)
two or three handfuls of young leaf spinach
Any cheese that melts and as much of it as you like
An egg, beaten

Chop/slice/dice the onions any which way you wish but be sure to leave them in fairly big pieces. Cook them slowly in olive oil until they begin to brown. This should take 20-30 minutes, don’t rush it or they will go from crunchy to burnt in a matter of minutes without passing through that delicious sweet stage. Stir them occasionally.

Whilst the onions are cooking, cut the pastry into two squares (so two quarters of the original block) and roll them out to two equal sized rectangles – about 8 x 12 inches. Put one on a suitably sized baking sheet and layer on the ham, making sure to leave a border of about a finger’s width round the outside. Top with a few dollops of pesto.

Once the onions are cooked, stir in the spinach to wilt it down and spoon the whole lot over the ham. Grate or slice the cheese and sprinkle over the onions. Brush the border with beaten egg, lay the second pastry sheet over the top and press it into place round the edges. Brush the top with more egg and cook for 25-30 minutes. Eat as soon as it comes out of the oven. Mouth burns are inevitable.

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Monday, 9 November 2009

The Ultimate Comfort Food: Gnocchi

If it’s comfort food you are after, there are few better options than gnocchi.

These little pillows of deliciousness deliver satisfaction in ways that a mound of pasta could only dream of. They have a dense chewiness and a slightly sticky texture that holds onto whatever sauce they are coated in making each one a ferocious nugget of flavour.

They almost invite you into the bowl like tiny carbohydrate Sirens, their sweet song beckoning you further and further to the bottom of the pile until you inevitably collapse in a misty fug as the last one makes its way down your throat.

Cue belly rubbing, sighs of satisfaction and the inability to move as 90% of your body’s blood rushes to your stomach as it begins fighting its way through the wheat/potato onslaught that has just descended.

The only option is to sit very still, sip the final inch of red wine that was sitting innocently in the bottle – a chianti would suit nicely – and fall into a merry doze on the sofa as mindless brain candy plays its way across your television screen. Happiness descends. Winter isn’t that bad after all.

Potato Gnocchi with tomato, chilli and oregano

Like bread baking, the secret to successful gnocchi is instinctive. Play around with the dough and I guarantee you will just ‘know’ when it’s ready. Not too sticky, not too dense and easy to roll. Make the sauce whilst the gnocchi are resting in the fridge.

Precise measurements rarely work for this type of cooking, it’s better to think in terms of ratios and various flours and potatoes behave very differently. As such there is no recipe here, merely a rough method.

Bake a large potato for an hour or so until the insides are light, steaming and fluffier than Paris Hilton’s bedspread. Scoop out the innards and let it cool in a bowl.

Weigh out how much potato you have and add 20% by weight of plain flour (example, for the dunces, if you have 200g potato, use 40g plain flour). Keep some aside for dusting and rolling.

Add an egg (roughly one egg per two potatoes)) and some salt. Mix well with your hands and knead into a pliable dough. If it’s too sticky just work more flour into it but go easy.

For rolling out the gnocchi, I find the easiest way is to divide the dough in two and roll until it becomes unmanageably long. Divide again and continue rolling, repeating the process until your dough sausage is about as thick as a plumber’s forefinger. Split into half inch sized pieces and place on a floured tray. Cover with a damp towel and refrigerate.

For the sauce, heat a generous sluice of olive oil in a frying pan, add a clove of garlic, gently biffed with the side of a knife (leave it whole so you can fish it out later) and a finely chopped chilli, heat dependent on your preference. Allow the two to flavour the oil then pour in some passata. Season with salt, pepper and oregano and allow to bubble away for 15 minutes.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and drop in the gnocchi. Rather helpfully they will rise to the surface when cooked so you can easily fish them out with a slotted spoon straight into the waiting sauce. Stir, serve, eat and sleep.

Oh, and keep those potato skins…(recipe to follow).