Sunday, 1 April 2018

Roasted Fresh Salted Cod with Bacon, Cabbage & Beer (or Salt Fish, Fast Days & the Reformation)

Indulge me for a moment, if you will, and let me pose this culinary conundrum: When the vast majority of our European neighbours, north and south, retain a tradition of cooking and preparing dishes using salted and dried cod; why is it the British stand alone in their indifference to, or perhaps more correctly, ignorance of this nutritious and tasty ingredient?

 Portugal has its tradition of bacalhau dishes; in Spain they call it bacalau; in Italy baccalĂ  and in Scandinavia and Holland they use variations of the word klippfisk. An anachronism, salt cod hails from an age before mechanical refrigeration, when there was a need to preserve large stocks of fish caught in the northern waters of the Atlantic and around the coasts of Northern Europe. At a time when transporting fresh sea fish inland, particularly in the warmer Mediterranean regions, was all but impossible; salt cod became a staple of many catholic countries on fast days (essentially meat free days) and during lent.

Prior to the 16th Century, it is clear that the Catholic English did, indeed, consume large quantities of fish, ostensibly to fulfill the religious requirements of their faith. For those of middling income living inland of the coast, this would have meant a combination of fresh water fish, from ponds and rivers, and salted white fish from the cod family, such as cod, haddock and ling. Salted herrings, though plentiful at this time, were considered the preserve (no pun intended) of the poor alone. A typical medieval dish of salt cod might comprise salted ling, soaked and then poached in wine and water, served with a green sauce; the latter containing parsley, mint and other sweet herbs, chopped and combined with pepper and either vinegar, or verjuice, for added piquancy. If this traditional medieval English accompaniment to meat and fish sounds familiar, it's probably because it bears a remarkable resemblance to that sauce the Italians call salsa verde (and to whom we now appear to give all the credit!).  

Without going into a great deal of historical detail, what set fish consumption down the road of decline in this country was the Reformation. The creeping non-observance of fast days following England's conversion to Protestantism, and particularly in the wake of the Restoration, led to a marked decline in the demand for fish, in general, and preserved fish in particular. This decline was further compounded by the rise in popularity amongst the English yeomanry of the fictional 'John Bull' character; encapsulating the notion that an Englishman's strength and courage was built on the consumption of meat, in particular beef, plainly cooked. 

By the mid 18th Century, when Hannah Glasse first published 'The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy', her fish dishes were far outnumbered by those containing meat and her recipes for salted fish were limited to just one: This consisted of little more than salted ling soaked, poached and served on a bed of buttered and mashed parsnips, with an accompanying cup of melted butter and hard boiled eggs.

Although the 18th and 19th Centuries saw the extensive development and growth of the cured and smoked herring industry; kippers, bloaters and smokies; and to a more limited extent, the haddock smoking industry; by the end of the Georgian era, the use of salted white fish as a part of our staple diet had all but died out. 

In Mediterranean countries it is traditional for salt cod to be cooked and served with a piquant sauce, often tomato based.  Unfortunately, in this country, unless you live in a metropolitan district, it is still relatively difficult to purchase good quality salt cod from a market or shop. In the age of the internet it is, of course, possible to buy salt cod (usually sold as bacalhau or bacalau) online and have it delivered by post; but be aware, it is not cheap (expect to pay around £25 per kilo)! However, if you didn't want to go to this trouble or expense, it is possible to mimic the taste and texture of salt cod by salting fresh cod for an hour or more and then briefly washing and soaking it. Just a couple of hours salting will change the texture of the fish markedly. What you're looking for is something akin to the firm texture of a good piece of well made undyed smoked haddock. 

This recipe for Roasted Fresh Salted Cod has no historical precedence, rather it is a modern British dish utilising ingredients many would consider quintessential English.

The Recipe

Serves 2

a couple of good thick pieces of cod fillet, around 6oz each, skin on and descaled
a generous handful of sea salt
half a savoy cabbage cored and roughly shredded
2 thick rashers of dry cured & smoked streaky bacon, such as my own 
'Whitstable' Smoked Streaky, cut into thick lardons
a little butter for frying
a small to medium sized onion, chopped
a single clove of garlic, very finely chopped
5 fl oz English bitter beer, such as Gadd's No. 7
5 fl oz good chicken stock
two or three knobs of butter
a handful of curly leaved parsley, chopped
salt & freshly ground  black pepper

Two hours or so before cooking, spread half the sea salt on a clean plate. Place the cod on the plate skin side down and sprinkle the flesh side heavily with the remainder of the sea salt. Cover the plate and place in the refrigerator until required.

After a couple of hours, remove the the cod pieces from the fridge and wash off the salt under cold water. Place the cod pieces in a bowl of cold water to soak for, say, twenty minutes. Meanwhile, blanch the cabbage in a large pan of boiling salted water, bring the pan back to the boil and then drain and refresh the cabbage under cold running water. Remove the cod pieces from the soaking water and pat dry with a clean cloth or kitchen paper.

Place the bacon lardons in a heavy based pan and heat gently over a low flame until the fat starts to run, at which point you can turn up the heat and fry until the bacon starts to brown. Turn down the heat again, add a little butter to the pan, tip in the onion and garlic and fry for 5 minutes or more until the onion is soft and lightly browned. Add the chicken stock and beer to the pan and reduce the volume of liquid by around a half over a high heat. Add the cabbage and knobs of butter to the pan and cook gently for a further 5 minutes until tender. Season to taste with salt (only if required) and freshly ground black pepper, stir in the parsley and, if necessary, keep warm until the cod is ready. 

Whilst the cabbage is cooking, melt a little butter in a heavy metal handled frying pan (the sort you can put in the oven) over a medium heat. Season the cod on the skin side only with black pepper, place in the pan skin side down and fry for around 3 minutes. Carefully turn the fish over, ensuring the skin remains intact, and  place the pan and its contents in a hot oven (gas mark 7) for 6 or 7 minutes until the cod is cooked through and the skin nicely browned and crisp. To serve, divide the cabbage mixture between 2 warmed plates, place the cod on top, skin side up, and sprinkle with a little chopped parsley.

Monday, 4 September 2017

White Pot (or an Ancient English Pudding)

How many recipes in regular use today can claim a heritage stretching back almost half a millennium? Of all the great English puddings, white pot (or bread & butter pudding as it's more commonly known today) can probably claim to be one of our oldest. Elizabethans would certainly have been familiar with the concept of a baked bread based pudding, laden with dried fruit and soaked in a rich custard. Indeed, the basic recipe has been passed down through the centuries remarkably intact, regardless of changing food fads and fashions.

White pot was, for many centuries, the name most commonly used for the dish, particularly in the South West of England. That said, the term also crops up in other parts of England and, indeed, further afield in the newly colonised Americas; the recipe having arrived with the early settlers, presumably. 'Pot', by the way, in this case simply means 'pudding'.

An early written example of a recipe for a white pot type pudding can be found in a collection of recipes (or receipts), originally compiled in 1604 by Elinor Fettiplace. This hand written, leather bound collection of recipes, cures and advice remained in the family for centuries until it was finally published by theatre critic Hilary Spurling (whose husband, John, is a descendant of Elinor Fettiplace) in 1986. Elinor refers to the dish as 'My Lord of Devonshire's Pudding' and the only  significant deviation from the recipe we know and love the today is the inclusion of a little bone marrow in place of butter. Incidentally, the Lord of Devonshire in question was Charles Blount, a favourite of King James I and a lover of Penelope Rich, daughter of the the first Earl of Essex, the favourite of Elizabeth I who disgraced himself and was, consequently, executed.

White pot is traditionally made with good quality white bread, usually with the crusts removed. In a break from tradition, I prefer to use a good quality French brioche to make my bread & butter pudding. The rich sweetness of the brioche compensates for my use of full fat milk in place of the more traditional single or double cream. As the crusts of brioche are soft, there is no need to remove them before preparing the dish. 

The Recipe

Serves 4-6

3 good sized free range eggs
2 oz golden caster sugar
a pint and a half of full fat milk
a teaspoon of good quality vanilla extract
a generous grating of nutmeg
slightly salted butter, softened
10 to 12 slices from a brioche loaf
a handful of raisins
a handful of sultanas
5 or 6 pitted dates, roughly chopped
a tablespoon and a half of demerara sugar
a teaspoon of ground cinnamon

Begin by making a custard mixture - whisk together the eggs and caster sugar in a large bowl, before adding the milk, vanilla and nutmeg and whisking again. Loosely cover the bowl with a cloth and stand in a cool place until required. Take a three pint cast iron gratin dish or other suitable vessel and lightly butter the interior. Cut ten or more medium slices from your brioche loaf, generously butter each slice on one side only, then cut your slices across into triangles

Now to assemble the dish ready for baking. Sprinkle half of your raisins, sultanas and chopped dates evenly across the base of your dish. Place half of your brioche triangles, butter side up, on top of the dried fruit, overlapping your slices artistically to form a single complete layer. Repeat this process with second layers of dried fruit and brioche. Having given it another quick whisk, pour the custard mixture evenly over the brioche. Shake the dish to settle its contents and then gently push the top layer of brioche down into the custard. Set aside in a cool place for ten minutes to allow the custard to soak into the brioche, whilst you boil a full kettle of water and heat the oven to around 180 degrees (gas mark 4). Mix together the demerara sugar and ground cinnamon.

Once your oven is up to temperature, place the assembled dish into a larger vessel, such as a roasting tray, and surround with hot water from your kettle, ensuring the water comes half way up the sides of the dish containing the pudding. Finally, sprinkle the top of the pudding evenly with the sugar and cinnamon mixture and place the roasting tray and its precious contents very carefully in the oven. Cook the pudding for 50 to 60 minutes until its a good golden brown on top.


Try making the pudding using good quality white bread, crusts removed of course. You could always replace up to half the milk with single or double cream for a richer pudding. In addition to buttering your slices you could also add a smear of good quality marmalade and, of course, there's always the option to add a splash of alcohol (whisky maybe) to the custard mixture!

Thank you to Phil Priston for the photographs of the finished dish   

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Open Pot Chicken (or My First Cookery Book)

 Whether you received it as a gift, inherited it, or simply bought it yourself, what was the first cookery book you ever owned? Is it still in your possession? Perhaps, even now, you use it regularly?

I bought my first recipe book in 1989. I was 22 years old, still living with my parents and 'filling in' between acting jobs as an insurance broker. Bona!  The tome was entitled 'New Creative Cuisine' by Lynn Bedford Hall, and I purchased it from one of those book clubs whose representative would visit our office once every six months, or so. When the book arrived, fresh from its cellophane, it soon became clear that this was, in fact, a collection of her previously published recipes and, therefore, anything but new! Certainly, judging by the style of the photography, some of which had a distinct seventies feel to it, this was not the cutting edge cookery implied by the title. Indeed, 'creative' may have been a misnomer too. Don't get me wrong, these were good, solid and reliable recipes, some of which have done me proud over the years, but they definitely had their feet planted very firmly in the fifties and sixties. If I were to tell you that Worcester sauce, port or sherry, sultanas and a good pinch of sugar (in every savoury dish) were the most common ingredients, I'm sure you'd get the picture.

Of all the recipes in 'New Creative Cuisine', there is still one I use regularly, albeit now so heavily modified as to be purely inspirational. Ms Bedford Hall snappily called it 'Chicken with Mushrooms and Soured Cream' and for many years, in our household, it was known as 'that Chicken and Mushroom Thing'! However, I've recently settled on the more descriptive name of 'Open Pot Chicken', since all the ingredients are cooked together in an uncovered pot in the oven. Simple! The secret of the dish is the relatively large quantity of uncooked mushrooms that are added to the pan before it goes into the oven. It's the moisture exuded by these raw mushrooms during the cooking process that, effectively, forms the sauce. Over the years the recipe has become more anglicised, the original having a distinct oriental bent, and a little more concentrated in flavour.

Personally, I would never dream of buying prepared chicken breasts to make this or any other dish, preferring to buy a whole chicken (or even two) and butcher it myself. Generally, you can expect to pay around 80% of the cost of a whole free range chicken for just two free range chicken breasts, which, to me, makes no economic sense. Spend just a couple of pounds more per bird and you get two legs, two wings and a carcass for making stock thrown in! You can always freeze what you don't use, or make use of it the following day. So, whether you make this dish using four breast pieces, or two breasts and a couple of legs cut from a whole chicken*, I'm sure it will be just as delicious! 

The Recipe

Serves 4

half a pint of chicken stock
a small handful of dried porcini
4 plump 'skin on' chicken breasts or 1 large chicken*, preferably free range or organic. 
a couple of teaspoons or so of paprika (for preference, the sweet Hungarian variety)
a good glug of rapeseed oil or similar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 
1 large onion, chopped
2 plump cloves of garlic, finely chopped
4 or 5 sprigs of thyme
3 level tablespoons of plain flour
12 oz mixed fresh mushrooms, sliced (nothing too fancy, chestnuts and oysters perhaps)
a tablespoon and a half of good quality dark soy sauce (I use Kikkoman)
 a tablespoon of mushroom ketchup
4 tablespoons of dry sherry 
5 floz sour cream

Heat the stock in small saucepan until it just reaches boiling point, remove the pan from the heat, add the dried porcini to the stock and leave to soak off the heat for 20 minutes, or so. Meanwhile, lightly dust the skin and flesh your chicken pieces with half the paprika and leave to stand for a few minutes. Once the porcini are soft, remove from the stock with a slotted spoon, squeezing any excess liquid from the soaked mushrooms back into the pan. Reserve both the porcini and the stock for use later in the recipe.

Pre-heat your oven to around 170 degrees (gas mark 3). 

Heat the oil in a heavy based frying pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the four chicken pieces and brown on all sides, turning as necessary. Once nicely browned, turn down the heat and remove the chicken pieces to a heavy casserole, ensuring they are placed skin side up in a single layer. Lightly season the chicken skin with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Returning to the frying pan, add the onion, garlic and remaining paprika to the pan juices and cook for a few minutes. Strip the thyme leaves from their sprigs, add the leaves to the pan and continue to fry over a low to medium heat until the contents are soft, golden and unctuous. Add the flour to the onions in the pan and stir into the juices scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Let the flour cook out a little before adding the reserved stock to the pan, perhaps a third at a time. Stir continuously as you add the stock, until you are left with a relatively thick oniony paste.  Now, this is where it gets really messy! Remove the pan from the heat and throw in your sliced mushrooms, soaked porcini, soy sauce, mushroom ketchup, sherry, sour cream, together with a little more ground black pepper. Using a large spoon, roughly mix the entire contents of the frying pan together before poring the resultant thick mess over the chicken pieces in your casserole. Give the casserole a bit of a shake to even out its contents, before placing in the oven uncovered for around an hour and twenty minutes or until the chicken is cooked and tender. As it cooks, the sauce will form quite a dark brown crust on its surface - this is normal, so don't be tempted to pop a lid on! To serve, locate and remove the chicken pieces from the casserole first, then stir that lovely brown crusty surface back into the sauce before spooning it over the chicken. If you feel the sauce is a little too thick (and this will depend on the moisture content of your mushrooms), you can always let it down with a little boiling water. Serve with parsley or garlic mash and a fresh green vegetable, whatever's in season. Enjoy!

Thank you to Phil Priston for the photographs of the finished dish   

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Musings on the Humble Potato (and its place in English food culture)

Bangers and mash with lashings of onion gravy; a sizzling rib of beef with roasties; fish and chips with, of course, plenty of salt and malt vinegar. Three classic British dishes with one ingredient in common - the humble spud!

 Ah, the British potato! A starchy tuber of great variety and versatility, and a staple of our national diet for . . . . . . well, probably not quite as long as you'd imagine! Of course, most of us are aware of the potato's new world origins and, back in the day, every schoolboy could have told you that the potato was brought to these fair shores, along with tobacco, by gentleman, explorer and politician, the gallant Sir Walter Raleigh (well, that's if Elizabethan propaganda is to be believed!). As Raleigh was probably returning from from the newly created state of Virginia, where the potato is not native, it's now commonly accepted that the tuber Raleigh introduced to England (if any) was, in fact, the sweet potato. This, at least, goes some way to explain a number of curious Elizabethan recipes for candied potato! It seems more likely that, having been brought from the South Americas to the Iberian peninsula by the Spanish, propagation and use of the potato spread slowly eastward across Europe and, later, to the remainder of the Old World .

Although the potato was in relatively common usage throughout Spain, Portugal and Italy within fifty years of its introduction into Europe, the English remained stubbornly suspicious of this tuberous member of the nightshade family well into the 18th century (much later among the poor of London and southern of England). Why so, you may ask?

Well, several attempts were made to popularise the cultivation and consumption of potatoes over the centuries. As early as 1664 the Georgical (agricultural) Committee, a subcommittee of the fledgling Royal Society, advocated the cultivation of the potato "to provide against famine". It actively encouraged the Society's land owning members to plant the tuber and provided seed potatoes and instructions for cultivation, all to no avail. Our staples remained stubbornly those cereals we had grown for millennia - wheat, rye, barley and oats, in the form of pottages, breads, pastries and suet based puddings.  Across the Irish Sea the potato had gained favour as a staple crop as far back as the early 17th century, encouraged by a climate that rendered the production of grain crops, other than oats, difficult to say the least. Yet in England this fibrous and nutritious root failed to gain acceptance, particularly among the "lower orders". Indeed, as late as the late 18th century, when poor town and country dwellers alike were subsisting on a diet of little more than white wheaten bread, small quantities of animal derived fats (butter, cheese and dripping) and sweet tea, the potato was still viewed by many working class English as food fit only for cattle and the Irish!

That's not to say that the potato didn't make an appearance at the tables of the English nobility, gentry and the merchant classes during the 17th and 18th centuries. Following it's initial introduction into the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire, presumably via the port of Liverpool, cultivation of the root for both animal and human consumption spread gradually outward across the nation. However, it was not until the mid-Victorian era, perhaps 300 years after its original introduction into Europe that the British nation, as a whole, finally came to accept and, indeed, relish the potato. And, boy, did we make up for lost time? Potatoes boiled or steamed, roasted or baked, mashed with butter and milk, and, of course chipped and fried!

So, where does this leave the good old spud in relation to our lost peasant food heritage? Would the potato have become a feature of English peasant and country cooking had the development of our countryside taken the slower trajectory of, say, France or Spain?  . Well, ironically, it could be argued that, had our peasant food culture not been truncated by enforced land enclosures (the process by which, with the connivance of the British Parliament, most common land and open field systems were taken into the ownership of the ruling classes and landed gentry, and enclosed, rendering them absolute private property), the uptake of the potato as a staple crop of the poor would have occurred much sooner than it actually did. The potato, after all, unlike many cereal crops, lends itself to cultivation on a small scale, whilst returning relatively high yields.  However, without these remaining scraps of common land, the rural poor were denied the means of raising livestock and growing vegetables which, coupled with the virtual inaccessibility of the countryside for foraging both food and fuel, led to severe rural deprivation and, often, destitution. Without the means to grow and cook food, habitual daily recipes that had been a central part of the lives of the English peasantry must have been lost in a matter of years. As these people were, for the most part, illiterate, recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation suddenly vanished.

It is my conjecture that, had the development of our rural cooking culture continued unabated, we would have seen not only the earlier inclusion of the potato into that culture in such a way that was more integrated than we see today (by which I mean there would have been many more recipes where the potato formed an integral part of the dish, for example Lancashire Hotpot, rather than just a side vegetable), but that we would also have retained our love of cereal based dishes, whether using whole grains for pottage and frumenty (our equivalents of risotto and paella, but made with barley and wheat), or milled grains for bread, pastries and suet based puddings.

Perfect Parsley Mash

A modern potato masher, Grandma Dot's wooden masher and a potato ricer

Less a recipe and more my particular method for making, what I consider to be, perfect mashed potato:

Serves 4

6 medium to large King Edward potatoes, peeled and chopped in halves or thirds 
full cream milk
1 or 2 good knobs of butter
a few grates of nutmeg
a handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the prepared potatoes in a saucepan, for preference large enough to accommodate them in a single layer, and cover with a good quantity of cold generously salted water. Put the saucepan on the stove over a high heat, bring the pan to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, lid on, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked and just beginning to break up on the outside. Once cooked, drain the potatoes into a colander and leave them to steam and dry out a little. Meanwhile, return the empty saucepan to a low heat and pour in some milk - enough to just cover the bottom of the pan - before adding the butter and some grates of nutmeg. As soon as the butter has melted, take the saucepan off the heat and, using a potato ricer, rice each potato into the pan. Finally, throw in the chopped parsley and beat all together with a wooden spoon, season to taste with salt and black pepper and beat once more. Perfect mash!

Haggis, neeps and tatties (parsley mash in this case)

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Pork & Beans (or Ramblings on the Food of Old England & a Shared Inheritance) 

Dry curing pork belly for bacon

I recently spent the best part of a weekend perusing the pages of various ancient cookery tomes (admittedly in facsimile form, on line, so not quite the tactile and ocular pleasure it sounds!), ostensibly in search of old bacon curing recipes but, in truth, simply as an excuse to riffle through the 'receipts' and epicurean delights of Old England. I was particularly enthralled by the recipes and notes contained in 'The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy' by A Lady, the lady in question being Mrs Hannah Glasse. First published in 1747, this cookery book was an enormous success, so much so that it was revised and reprinted many times over the subsequent 70 years. The book gives a fascinating insight into the culinary arts of the mid Georgian period, albeit a style of cooking generally enjoyed by the middle and higher orders; that is, households wealthy enough to keep at least a cook and a few servants.

 And the book is clearly intended for use by (literate) cooks and servants of the wealthier classes, as Mrs Glasse states quite unashamedly in her introduction: "If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven; for it is my intention to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way". To clarify she continues: "For example: when I did bid them lard with large lardoons (sic), they would not know what I meant; but when I say they must lard with little pieces of bacon, they know what I mean".

Helpfully divided into chapters, 'The Art of Cookery' covers every aspect of English cookery, from the roasting and boiling of meat, to the brewing of beer, and just about everything in between.The most fascinating section of the book, for me, is the chapter on 'Made-dishes', Generally these were dishes where meat or poultry was sliced, cubed or jointed prior to cooking in a pan with gravy and other flavouring ingredients. The shear range of these additional ingredients would, no doubt, surprise anyone brought up in that bland post war era of 'meat and two veg'. Hannah's 'made-dishes' frequently included ingredient such as; sweet herbs, shallots, truffles and morels, other dried and pickled mushrooms, lemon peel, capers and gherkins, red and white wine; ingredients that from the mid 19th Century the English considered distinctly continental and, consequently, treated with suspicion and disdain. Flavours were further enhanced by the frequent use of spices including; nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cayenne and, of course, pepper, both black and white; all redolent of our medieval culinary past. The point is, the English had been using these ingredients for hundreds of years prior to the Georgian era;  they were intrinsic to our style of cooking and not something fancy introduced to these shores by our supposedly more sophisticated continental neighbour.

Mrs Glasse's fulminations against French cooking are legendary and have amused both historians and food writers alike. It's important to remember, however, that Hannah was compiling and writing the original manuscript at a time of great political upheaval in Britain and Europe. Hot on the heals of yet another skirmish with the French in 1743, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion had thrown England into utter turmoil. Led by the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie to you and me!)  and with French financial backing, the Jacobite forces had raised an army in Scotland before marching south into England as far as Derby. Britain had faced the real prospect of a royal coup and with it the return of the country to Catholicism. No wonder Mrs Glasse was vindictive in her writing of Catholic France and its ostentatious cookery

Amusingly, and despite her constant berating of France, the French style of cooking and, particularly, Gallic chefs, Hannah's book is peppered liberally with French culinary terms, without any hint of irony and often applied to dishes that are quite obviously English and medieval in origin. What, for example, Mrs Glasse refers to as a fricasey (sic) is quite clearly a development of the medieval dish known simply as a fry-up! A good number of the recipes contained in 'The Art of Cookery' would be recognisable to many of us today, though once again, like our forebears, most would probably attribute them erroneously to the French.

Incidentally, I did find an old cure for bacon in 'The Art of Cookery' and was interested to note its list of ingredients included a small amount of saltpetre (potassium nitrate). From my first tentative forays into the world of meat curing some years ago, I have wrestled with the difficult question of nitrates/nitrites (sodium based these days, rather than potassium) and their use in modern preservation processes. The natural route, relying on the inherent preserving qualities of common salt, plus good practice, would be my preference; my Environmental Health Officer (EHO), however, has other ideas!  The inclusion of saltpetre in a 270 year old bacon curing recipe has gone some way to allay my qualms in relation to the use of nitrates/nitrites in curing, but I am still inclined to favour a more natural approach.

I digress! Unfortunately, 'The Art of Cooking, Made Plain & Easy', by its very nature, provides us with only a limited view of the full extent and breadth of English cookery at the time of the book's publication. Away from this middle and higher class world of fricaseys, ragoos, harricos and cullis (sic), what do we know of the food of the 18th century rural English peasant, my particular area of interest? Of course, with the Georgian lower orders still largely illiterate, little written evidence survives of the dishes on which the English peasantry, the cottagers and the agricultural labourers, sustained themselves. Prior to the enforced land enclosures of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, cottagers at least had the right to use common lands to graze a few beasts, forage for wild foodstuffs and collect fuel in the form of firewood. In addition, they'd usually have a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables and grains, perhaps keep a few chickens, maybe even fatten a pig or two. Once the common lands and, indeed, their small plots had effectively been privatised and enclosed by wealthy local landlords, the cottagers were left with little option but to join the cash economy; carrying out poorly paid production work at home, move to one of the growing industrial cities or emigrate.

It's no great leap of the imagination to surmise that, without the interruption of the enclosures, the arc of English peasant cooking would have continued along much the same trajectory as that of our rural continental cousins. My hunch is that our cooking culture would have straddled the culinary traditions of a number of our European neighbours, falling somewhere in style between the Spanish and German models (though perhaps without the Spanish emphasis on New World vegetables, such as the potato and tomato, which the English lower orders were very slow to embrace), but certainly a more earthy and rustic style than the French. I am certain that in England's cold winter months a hearty rib-sticking dish containing a little salted pork bulked out with highly nutritious dried beans and flavoured with dried wild herbs, would have been the order of the day. A dish similar perhaps to the fabadas of Spain's Asturias region (pork belly, chorizo, morcilla and butter beans), the French cassoulet (pork belly, Toulouse sausage, a confit of duck or pork and white haricot beans) or, indeed, the pot baked pork and bean dishes originally brought to North America by European settlers. I envisage some form of pottage, comprising smoked bacon, sausage of some type, either fresh or cured, and dried beans; most probably the Old World broad bean. It's always exciting to recreate dishes from the past, so as soon as the new smokehouse is built and things have settled down a little, I'll get to work developing a  recipe or two. I'll let you know how I fare in a future article.  

 In the meantime, I'll leave you with this recipe for a Spanish style pork and bean dish of my own devising. Inspired by a meal I had at a local Tapas bar probably a decade or so ago (in hindsight, it was probably some form of fabada), I very much enjoy the contrast between the piquancy of the chorizo, the relative blandness of the fresh English sausage and the floury texture of the beans. I hope you do too!

A Stew of Chorizo, Fresh Sausage and Butter Beans

Serves 4~6

a small handful of sundried tomatoes
half a chorizo ring, the cured and fermented type, either natural or picante
A glug or two of olive oil
a large onion, diced
one large carrot, diced
2 plump cloves of garlic, sliced and roughly chopped
2 heaped teaspoons of sweet smoked paprika
a generous half a teaspoon of hot smoked paprika
half a dozen good quality meaty English sausages, each sliced into 4 pieces
a generous shake of dried oregano
2 fresh bay leaves
a small glass of dry sherry
a good glug of balsamic vinegar
one 400ml tin of chopped tomatoes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
two 400ml tins of butter beans drained of their water and rinsed (or the equivalent in dried beans soaked and cooked according to the instructions on the packet) 

Before you begin cooking, soak the sundried tomatoes for 15 minutes, or so, in just enough hot water to cover them. Whilst the tomatoes are soaking, slice your chorizo into rounds just a little thicker than pound coin. Once the tomatoes are soft, squeeze out any excess liquid and roughly chop. Be sure to set aside the water you soaked the tomatoes in for use later in the recipe.

Heat the oil in a good heavy pan or casserole over a medium heat, add the sliced chorizo and fry, turning it over until it has coloured a little on both sides. Turn the heat down a little,  add the onion, carrot and garlic and cook, stirring now and again, until the vegetables have taken on some colour. Now add the sundried tomatoes to the pan together with the paprikas and let these cook out for a few minutes.

Time to add the sausage pieces! Make space in the pan by moving the chorizo/onion mix to one side, then add the sausages to the pan and turn up the heat a little so they begin to sizzle. Once the sausages have taken on a little colour, gently mix the contents of the pan together, sprinkle in the oregano, added the bay leaves and allow the whole lot to fry slowly for 5 minutes or so. Now turn up the heat, add the sherry, a good glug of balsamic, the whole can of tomatoes and give everything a gentle stir. You can rinse out the empty can using the the reserved tomato soaking water, if you like, and add this to the pan too. Turn down the heat, season the with salt and pepper and simmer with the lid on for 30 minutes or so. Finally, add the drained butter beans and allow these to heat through before serving. I like to serve this stew with fried paprika potatoes and a salad of tomatoes and green beans with a sherry vinegar dressing.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A Thick Pottage of Bacon, Beans and Barley,with Wild Garlic and Herbs

Pottage (n) (middle English) ~ a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, pulses and grains, and, if available, meat or fish.

The Italians have proudly given the world risotto, the Spanish paella, both hearty cereal based dishes of peasant origin,  each borne out of the need to make a little go a long way. Had the combined onslaught of enforced land enclosures and rapid industrialisation during the 18th century not brought the English peasantry to its knees, in the process destroying our own cultural food heritage, might pottage still be the English national dish?

My starting points for this recipe were a small quantity of good quality English smoked streaky bacon and, as it's the season, some wild garlic. Our own 'Whitstable' Smoked Streaky would be perfect for the job and is available, via The Native Smokehouse website,  as ready cut lardons. At the Native we cure our pork bellies for a period of six days; each day applying fresh cure by hand. Once cured, our streaky bacon is carefully air dried for a minimum of ten days. Only then is it cold smoked over oak for up to fifteen hours. The result is an old fashioned English bacon, dry to touch and robust in flavour, just like bacon used to be! 

Though I've been cooking for years, like most cooks and chefs, I carry my own recipes around in my head. Quantities are usually measured in pinches, handfuls, bunches and glugs, not exactly helpful when attempting to commit a recipe to paper (or should that be screen?), but bear with me. A recipe is nothing but a useful guide, to be tweaked and altered at your will!

The Recipe

A couple of good handfuls of dried flageolet beans soaked in cold water over night
2 or 3 thick slices of dry cured smoked streaky bacon cut into thick lardons
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 clove of garlic, chopped (yes, the English did use garlic - blame the Victorians for its demise)
4 or 5 sprigs of thyme
10oz or so of pearl barley, washed in cold water
A good couple of glugs of mild ale
A pint and a half of chicken or vegetable stock*
a good bunch of wild garlic (or perhaps turnip tops, kale or a combination)
A few grates of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 
4 or 5 good knobs of butter
A small handful of chives
A handful of parsley

In a saute pan, deep frying pan or something similar, gently fry the bacon lardons on a low heat until the fat runs free, then increase the heat and brown them. Remove the  browned bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve, leaving the flavoursome fat in the pan.

 Turn down the heat and add the onion, leek and garlic (depending on the quantity of fat the bacon has given up, you may need to add a knob of butter at this stage). Fry on a gentle to medium heat, stirring now and then until golden and unctuous. Meanwhile, pull the thyme leaves from the sprigs, add to the pan and stir in. Add the barley to the pan and stir around to absorb the fat, then pour in the ale (a third of a pint, perhaps) and allow to bubble and reduce a little. Then add around three quarters of the stock, together with the drained flageolet beans, bring to the boil and reduce to, lets say, a rolling simmer. As soon as the barley has begun to swell, season the pan with some grates of nutmeg and four or five turns of the the pepper mill (resist the temptation to season with salt at this stage).The barley requires around forty to forty five minutes cooking, stirring every now and then. If the mixture become a little dry towards the end of the cooking period, add a little more of the remaining stock. 5 minutes before the end of cooking, reintroduce the cooked bacon lardons to the pan and stir in.

 Now, the big question; when to add the greens? You could either add these direct to the pan  along with the bacon or, alternatively, steam them for four or five minutes and refresh in cold water at your convenience, ready to add to the pan along with the butter at the end of the process just before resting. Once the barley is cooked (it should be fairly moist and nutty, with just a little resistance when bitten) remove from the heat and add the butter. Check the seasoning again and add salt only if necessary (this will depend on the quality and saltiness off your bacon). Cover the pan with a lid or foil and leave the contents to rest off the heat for five minutes. Finally, stir in the chives and parsley and ladle into four warmed bowls.
(Serves 4 as a main course, or 6 to 8 as a starter)

*The question of stock! Mine is a domestic kitchen, not a commercial one, and although I make my own stock when I have the odd spare carcass, I am not adverse to using good quality stock cubes to save time. I recommend the Kallo range of organic stock cubes. 

This is an updated version of my very first blog from April 2015

Monday, 9 January 2017

Braised Stuffed Lambs' Hearts (or My Food Hero)

Braise (v) (old or middle French) ~ to cook in a small amount of liquid, in a covered pan.

If I asked you to name just one person; someone who'd had the greatest influence on you as a cook, your style of cooking or, quite simply, your appreciation and enjoyment of all things food related, who would that person be?

I'd have to nominate Mrs Dorothy Merton Allen. My Grandmother on my Mother's side, Grandma Dot was a domestic goddess of seemingly boundless energy, who not only cooked, sewed, knitted and gardened, all to a very high standard, but for most of her married life held down a job, often full time. All food was cooked fresh from scratch - rich meat pies and puddings, tasty roasts and stews, delicious flans and tarts, not to mention fantastic cakes and buns. My Grandmother did the bulk of the cooking, it's true, but that's not to say my Grandfather, Tom, didn't play his part in the kitchen, assisting with food preparation and, of course, the washing up. There was always fruit to be bottled (usually obtained from an obliging hedgerow), onions, horseradish and beetroot to be prepared for pickling, or jam to be made from the fruit grown in their own garden. 

Tom always joked that he'd only married his wife for her plain and simple English cooking. Her food was simple, certainly, quintessentially English, quite definitely, but no one could ever describe my grandmother's cooking as plain! Her ability to produce richly flavoured, traditional dishes from a few simple ingredients was legendary and one of the abiding memories of my formative years. She never strayed far from what were perceived to be traditional English flavours and cooking methods (albeit these traditions stretched back generally no further than the Victorian era and Mrs Beeton) - for one, my grandfather insisted that "those strongly spiced and flavoured foreign foods" played havoc with his digestion. It always struck me as curious that he managed to consume quite so much hot English mustard, home pickled horseradish and fresh peppery watercress, and yet nothing as 'exotic' as a simple spaghetti bolognese ever past his lips! Attention to detail was the key to my Grandmother's success - onions were carefully browned for flavour, meat was generally seared before braising (this recipe being an exception), roast beef was served a deep pink in the middle, and, unusually for her generation, vegetables were steamed briefly leaving them still full of colour and flavour. No yellowing soggy sprouts at my Grandmother's dinner table, thank you very much!

What I've come to realise only recently (following conversations with my Mother and a little research into rationing and its effects during the war) is that my Grandmother had wholeheartedly embraced the Food Ministry's wartime advice to "not overcook vegetables in order to maintain their nutritional value" and then continued to cook in this style after the war; whereas, many of her contemporaries had either failed to take up the practice in the first place, or reverted to the 'old method' of boiling vegetables to death once the war was over. My Mother was nine when rationing finally came to an end in July 1954 and maintains that, as a child, she was entirely unaware that many staple foods were in short supply, such was my grandmother's ability to produce tasty wholesome food from very little.

 And so to the recipe. Now, I'm not going to pretend that, before she died, she handed me a much cherished, well worn and dogeared notebook containing all her favorite dishes. Like most cooks, she carried her recipes around in her head with little need to commit them to paper. All I can do now is make an educated guess at the ingredients and methods used to produce the dish, based on what I observed and learned from her over the years. Grandma would usually stuff hearts with sage and onion, but I always preferred her thyme and parsley stuffing. The walnuts and lemon zest are my addition, as is the port in the gravy (What can I say? I like to cook with alcohol, so, inevitably, some will find its way into the food!).  

The Recipe 

2 firm lambs' hearts

For the stuffing:
a couple of thick doorsteps of good quality bread, 1 or 2 days old (I prefer wholemeal)
1 small onion, chopped
1 good knob of butter
a handful of walnuts, chopped
5 or 6 sprigs of thyme
a small bunch of parsley
the grated zest of half a lemon
a few grates of nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small egg, beaten

For the gravy:
some beef or lamb dripping for frying (preferably from a roast)
1 medium onion, halved and sliced
1 small leek, sliced into rounds
a clove of garlic if you wish, chopped,
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1" pieces
 1 Tbsp plain flour
a glug or two of port
a shake or two of Worcestershire sauce
some good beef stock
2 fresh bay leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper

First clean and prepare the hearts. Cut a thin slice from the top of each heart, exposing the chambers beneath and removing any pipework you don't like the look of. Wash out the chambers with cold water to remove any clotted blood and dry thoroughly with a clean tea-towel or kitchen paper. 

To make the stuffing, remove the crusts from the bread and discard, then using a convenient method (I use a food processor) turn the bread to crumbs. Don't make the crumbs too fine, though - rustic is good! Now melt the butter in a small pan over a gentle heat and add the chopped onion and let in cook until golden, being careful not to let the butter brown. Meanwhile, add the chopped walnuts (rustic again!) to the breadcrumbs, along with the thyme leaves stripped from their sprigs. Roughly separate the parsley leaves from the thickest stalks, chop  the leaves and add to the breadcrumb mixture, together with the grated lemon zest. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste and then pour in the melted butter and onion mixture. Add enough beaten egg to help the mixture bind, mix together and there you have it, stuffing!

Now to stuff the hearts (and this is where it gets messy!). Taking a heart in one hand, use your free hand to push the stuffing into every cavity, being quite forceful with your fingers, until the heart is filled with stuffing and you have formed a little cap of stuffing on top of the heart. Repeat for the second heart, obviously. If there is any stuffing left over, either bake it separately as a little cook's treat, or save it to add to the gravy later, should it need thickening.

Pre-heat you're oven to around 170 degrees (gas mark 3) 

And so to the gravy. In a stove proof lidded pot or casserole melt the dripping over a relatively high heat, add the sliced onion and hard fry until nicely brown. Be attentive and stir regularly! The idea is to caramelise the onion, giving it a good deep colour without actually burning it. Now turn down the heat a little and add the leek, garlic (if using) and carrots, letting these cook a little until the leak rounds start to break apart. Add say a tablespoon or so of plain flour to the pan, stir in and let the flour cook out a little. Then pour in the port and a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce and stir round until the mixture thickens. Add the beef stock, (perhaps half a pint initially) together with the bay leaves, stir in and bring just to the boil before reducing the heat to a simmer and seasoning with salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. 

Right, now for the difficult part! My grandmother would simply have sewn up the hearts, using a needle and thread, to stop the stuffing escaping and immersed them in the gravy. However, me being the difficult bugger I am, I prefer to stand the hearts upright in the gravy with their stuffing tops protruding above the liquid, for reasons that will become apparent shortly. To be honest, this would be much easier to do when cooking for four, than it is for two, as the hearts become self-supporting. The success of this operation depends on the diameter of you pot and your level of ingenuity. I solved the problem by pushing wooden skewers through hearts and jamming them against the sides of the pot to keep them upright (see top photo). Once the hearts are in place in the gravy, top up with more stock, if necessary. The idea is that the liquid should come just up to the shoulder of the two hearts, leaving around half an inch plus the stuffing caps exposed. Now cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and cook in the oven for around an hour and a half, after which, remove the lid, increase the heat to say 185 degrees (gas mark 5) and cook for a further 20 minutes with the lid off until the stuffing caps are nicely brown and crusty. Serve the hearts in two large bowls with, perhaps, some creamy mash potato, steamed brassicas and a ladle of the rich gravy.
(Serves 2)