Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Celebration Steak

As weeks go, the last seven days have been quite surreal.

There’s not much that can prepare you for making your debut on national television. It’s a little like getting onto a rollercoaster in the dark with no clue as to how the ride will pan out.

Thankfully, there have been no major hiccoughs. The heats and quarterfinals have been safely navigated and I’ve come out the other side as a MasterChef semi-finalist. It’s truly wonderful to be able to write those words.

The response has also been fantastic and genuinely heart warming. Thank you to everyone who has phoned, written, texted, emailed, tweeted or shouted across a car park. Thanks even to the person who suggested I might be Chris Martin and Stephen Merchant’s offspring (but only because you’re a Radio 1 DJ).

But my favourite response has been this:

It was quite a surprise when we pulled up in the car park at the butcher/farm shop/deli/food nerd’s nirvana that I go to and saw that sign, usually reserved for far more important matters like proclaiming the arrival of the season’s first rhubarb or new potatoes.

We were there to pick up a meal worthy of a celebration - and to my mind few things shout ‘hooray’ better than a whopping great steak. Whilst individual pieces are all well and good, practicality, economy and taste favour a shared piece of beef, especially if cooked rare and sliced tableside.

A hearty single rib (côte de boeuf if you wish to get all Gallic about it) from a Red Poll raised a mere four miles away was ideal. Aged just over four weeks the meat was dark red and looked tender enough to eat as was. Instead it was liberally seasoned, vacuum packed and submerged in a water bath to bob around merrily for a couple of hours at 52 degrees.

The logistics of the operation presented some slight problems: on realising that my largest pan was not big enough the bone had to be trimmed away and the rib-eye seared on both sides for about five minutes in order to put a tasty crust on the outside.

It was served with chips, an artery-clogging amount of béarnaise sauce and a heap of steamed broccoli as a concession to health - although once dipped into the rich buttery sauce the beneficial effects were possibly negated.

After waiting two and a half hours for a steak there was little that could have prevented us from falling on it like a pack of wolves hence the distinct lack of well composed, perfectly lit photographs.

In this case the lack of picture says a thousand words.

* * *
The MasterChef quarter final can be found here, on the BBC iPlayer and the first of the semi finals will be broadcast on BBC1 on Friday 26th March at 7:30pm.

And I'm also on Twitter.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

'Is that Alex from Just Cook It on Masterchef?'

Oh crikey. I’ve made it through to the quarter final of Masterchef UK.

If you’d like to see my television-based adventures so far (and you’re based in the UK) it is available on the rather brilliant BBC iPlayer.

Dear regulars: you have no idea how hard it’s been to keep this secret. Thank you hugely for your continued visits and your funny, insightful and inspirational comments over the past couple of years.

And for any newcomers: hello. Welcome to my little blog, Just Cook It – pull up a chair and have an explore. To give you an idea of the sort of thing I do, here’s a small selection of some of my favourite posts to get you started:

Five hour steak
Beef short ribs

Momufuku style steamed pork buns
Deep fried pig’s brain


Lemon and chilli pepper tart
Whipped Chocolate mousse
Instant sponge pudding

Misc. tastiness

Pork Pie
Eccles Cakes
Hot Dogs
Pork Scratchings

New posts may be sporadic over the next few days but if you’re feeling starved, I can be found on twitter at @justcookit. Hope to hear from you soon.

More madness to follow shortly - the Masterchef Quarter Final is on Monday 22nd March at 8:30pm on BBC1.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Beef & Stout Pie

The transformation of ‘stew’ to ‘pie’ by the simple addition of a pastry case or lid is a great one.

Although little more than starchy filler, hiding slow cooked meat within the confines of a flour and fat housing does wondrous things to the contents. Wondrous, magical things.

A cheap staple food with a lengthy and sometimes less than illustrious history, the pie has undergone a renaissance of late. Artisanal and gourmet offerings now jostle for space alongside mass produced efforts with less than stellar provenance. The pie is becoming a shining beacon of all that is great about British food. Hearty, wholesome and delicious. Food we should rightly be proud of.

The most satisfying of pies, though, are the ones that you nurture yourself. A tender, slow cooked meaty filling and a suet exterior that manages to be both crunchy and yielding at once. A barely audible crack as the pastry gives to the pressure of cutlery and a waft of richly scented steam as the contents spill out onto the plate.

‘Double carbing’ is a point of contention. In most cases desire trumps sensibility and a mound of buttery mash will be on hand to capture the gravy. If not then a couple of slices of bread, generously spread with butter, will be needed to mop up the overflow. Once you’ve gone for pie, you may as well ignore the guilt.

The best meat for cramming into pastry is a cut that needs slow cooking. Chuck steak, brisket, oxtail or short ribs are all ideal but shin probably tops the list.

Beef shin, onion and mushroom pie

Half a kilo of boneless shin should be enough for four people and definitely won’t break the bank. Expect to pay no more than 3 or 4 quid.

500g boneless beef shin, cut into chunks
6-8 small onions, each about the size of a ping pong ball
Half a handful of dried mixed mushrooms – porcini and shiitake are ideal
A tablespoon of tomato puree
A couple of bay leaves and two sprigs of thyme
A can of stout – Guiness or Murphy’s are both good
500ml of stock, either dark chicken or beef
As many button mushrooms as you want, cut into quarters
Salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce for seasoning

You will also need a favoured pastry recipe.

Peel and quarter the onions trying to leave the root end vaguely in tact.

Toss the beef in seasoned flour and brown in oil over a high heat, in batches if necessary so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Drain the meat on a couple of sheets of kitchen roll and brown the onions in the pan for a couple of minutes. Return the meat to the pot, add the tomato puree and cook for a couple of minutes before pouring in the stout and stock.

Poke the herbs and dried mushrooms into the liquid, cover with a cartouche and cook in a very low oven for 4-5 hours. Add the button mushrooms and cook for a further hour then remove from the oven and leave to cool whilst you make the pastry.

Line a large pie dish or a series of individual ones with the pastry, spoon as much of the beef and mushroom filling in as you can then top with more pastry. Brush with egg, poke a little hole in the top and cook for 35-40 minutes at 160-180 degrees centigrade.

Serve with peas and either mashed potato, bread and butter or both and a sticky onion gravy if you’re craving extra richness.

For more meaty chunks, follow me on Twitter

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Beef Cheek Ragu

Beef cheeks can be a little hard to find. Legislation passed in the wake of the BSE scare of the mid 1990s meant they were completely off menu for quite some time and even now a quiet word in your butcher’s ear will likely be necessary to score the bounty.

A general rule of meat cookery runs thus – the more work it does, the longer it cooks. A beef cheek is probably the natural end point of the scale. There aren’t many calories in grass so – being a ruminant – a cow has to get through an awful lot before it feels full and it’s all got to be chewed. At least twice. That’s a lot of work.

The upshot of this is a supremely tasty fist-sized nugget of meat that can be braised in red wine and stock until it’s ready to be balanced on a heap of mashed potato and covered in a rich sauce. The slightest prod with the tines of a fork should have it collapsing into tender meaty strands.

It also makes a staggeringly good and achingly rich ragu. Done this way, two cheeks should be enough for four people.

Trim any excess fat or sinew from the meat, cut into chunks, season with salt and pepper and brown in hot fat in a casserole. Deglaze the pan with white wine vinegar then sweat down some finely diced carrot, celery and onion in olive oil.

Return the meat to the pan with the vegetables, add a large glass of red wine and a carton of passata and cover with a cartouche. Braise the whole lot in a very low oven for six hours by which point the volume of liquid will have halved and the meat should be falling into the sauce.

Serve stirred into pasta and be ready to pledge not to use minced beef again.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Boiled Tongue

As far as titles go, the above is probably about as enticing as ‘How to Par-tay the Mormon Way’ but bear with me on this one. Please.

Granted, taken in turn neither of the two words is particularly exciting and together they create some sort of force field that for many will result in the gag reflex kicking in with gusto. Admittedly even I approached this one with a small amount of trepidation.

Like a badly executed kiss, it started with a tongue. A great big flapping, fresh, wet, grey, spikey tongue. Curled up on the chopping board it resembled some sort of Mephistophelean re-imagining of an evil pet, like a prop from an early David Cronenberg film.

Its size, its weight, its appearance, its texture – everything conspired against it becoming a foodstuff were it not for the good reports I’d had regarding its utter brilliance when cooked.

Although technically offal, there is no reason why tongue should provoke such revulsion. It is muscle in the same way topside or fillet steak is muscle. However, due to the amount of work it does – daily tearing kilos of fresh grass from the earth – it needs some serious cooking. To stop it from drying out it also needs brining. I gave it 5 days but if you’re tempted to try this at home (please do) I’d let it spend at least a week in the brine bucket, possibly even ten days.

To stop it being overly salty it went into fresh water for 24 hours before being slung into the stock pot along with the usual suspects – carrot, celery, onion, garlic, peppercorns and a couple of bay leafs.

Four hours at the merest quivering simmer was enough to cook it through. I’d been reliably informed (thank you once again Fergus Henderson) that tongue is easier to peel (!) when still warm. Even so, a sharp knife was necessary and the process was more of a paring than a peeling. Although not a pleasant process by the time the tough barbed outer skin was removed what sat in front of me was recognisably meat that looked at least as good as a slab of tasty salt beef.

Which is exactly what it was.

Assuming that it would be best fresh from the cooking pot and still warm, it was thinly sliced and crammed into a bagel along with a generous slick of mayonnaise, a handful of rocket and some sliced pickles. The whole lot was topped, inevitably, with the lurid yellow mustard so reminiscent of New York’s finest culinary offerings.

By now any feelings of trepidation had long since evaporated and the first bite was an adventurously large one. It was delicious. It’s as simple as that. Perhaps made even more so by the timidity with which it approached. ‘Under promise and over deliver’ seems to be the mantra of marketing. If so, tongue is the marketer’s dream. Don’t be surprised if it joins cheeks, shanks and trotters in the ‘forgotten cuts’ section of supermarket. Now that will set tongues wagging.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

(Almost) Instant Sponge Pudding

Meals don’t feel complete without at least a morsel of sweetness to round them off. Most of the time a square of dark chocolate or scoop of ice cream is enough to satisfy but sometimes the cravings require something with a bit more substance.

Inevitably these desires are strongest when the cupboards and freezer are bereft of anything sugar based. Yes, one could turn to the fruit bowl but a pear or apple isn’t fun – it has no air of decadence or whiff of naughtiness and thus little ability to satisfy.

It was this combination of empty shelves and niggling desire for sweetness that led to the creation of insta-pud: a hearty late winter warmer that expanded the stomach, delighted the senses and induced a state of near comatose happiness soon after finishing the last mouthful.

As far as sponge puddings go, it won’t win any awards. It certainly doesn’t have the artery clogging density of a steamed suet based effort or the deft lightness of a well worked cake. But what it lacks in technique, it more than makes up for in brevity.

From raw ingredients to finished product it takes no more than five measly minutes. Just enough time to whip up some Bird’s custard, in fact. Perhaps not quite instant in the truest sense of the word but, hey, it’s all relative.

Microwaved Jam Sponge Pudding

Of course you could replicate this with countless other flavours – golden syrup, lemon, ginger, chocolate – but for a little whiff of summer, raspberries take some beating.

Size wise, this is easily large enough for two. Unless you’re feeling particularly greedy.

50g butter
50g self raising flour
50g caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
Some jam (only you know how much jam you like. For me it has to run down the sides like rivers of scorching lava)

Use a spoon to mix the butter and sugar together. Add the flour then the beaten egg. Stir to combine. Spoon the jam into the bottom of a microwavable container then pour the sponge mixture over the top. Microwave on medium power for 3-4 minutes until the top of the sponge is set in the middle. Go easy, if you do it too long you’ll end up with something that bounces.

Serve with custard and an episode of Arrested Development then lapse into a carb induced coma.

On the subject of cake, you should watch this – a neat little short that documents the British love affair with afternoon tea. Suggestions and recipes for favourite cakes are encouraged, especially if they can be made in an advert break.

For more near instant gratification, why not head on over to Twitter?