Black bream with fennel

We don’t have much time to go sea fishing at the moment, and given the dwindling supplies of fish in our freezer, last week, I swung past the harbour at Grimsay and bought a couple of locally caught black bream.  I almost stopped for some langoustines, but resisted the temptation and instead chose this fine sustainable and economically priced fish.

This lovely firm-fleshed and sweet fish is a treat I have not eaten for many years.  Black bream (Spondyliosoma cantharus) were readily available at my local market in the Algarve, usually called sea bream (generically referred to as porgies in the US) and if you go to a fishmonger, not to be confused with the farmed gilthead bream. 

Black bream are wild fish found around the inshore shelf in North Europe and the Mediterranean.  It is a benthic/demersal shoaling species, often found associated with rocky or weedy reefs and also wrecks.  It is a carnivore with catholic tastes and feeds on invertebrates, crustaceans, encrusting algae and small fish. Black bream are protogynous, meaning they start out as females and then become male.  This form of sequential hermaphroditism is common in fish and can be triggered by internal and/or external factors.

Fascinating life history aside, it is currently considered to be a sustainable fish to eat in the UK. It is particularly good prepared as a whole fish, being attractive, robust and relatively easy to prepare. Black bream do require to be thoroughly de-scaled to remove the tough scales from the body and the sharp, spiny fins, notably the dorsal, should be removed before cooking.

bream raw

Black bream with fennel

This fish is easy to pan fry whole, skin slashed and gently stuffed with herbs.  I served the fish with fennel cooked in two different ways – braised with stock and pastis and also fried in a bit of olive oil and crushed garlic that the fish had been cooked in. I added some raw fennel tops fronds as garnish as well as spring onions. I served this with some baby red King Edward jacket potatoes.

Ingredients

Black bream:

2 black bream each about 500g

few sprigs rosemary

few sprigs thyme

3 bay leaves

clove of garlic, skin on

splash of olive oil

salt and pepper

Method

  • De-scale the bream, snip off the fins and remove the head. 
  • Slash each side of the body 2 or 3 times with a sharp knife and stuff a small sprig of rosemary and thyme in each.  Place a bay leaf in the body cavity and season the fish.
  • Put some olive oil, a smashed garlic clove (skin on) and a bay leaf in a non-stick frying pan and cook the fish for 3-4 minutes each side until the skin is crisp and golden, but flesh not overcooked.
  • Allow fish to rest for a few minutes before serving with the fennel and potatoes.

Fennel with pastis

This accompaniment can be cooked alongside the fish and will be ready about the same time if this is done.

Ingredients

1 fennel bulb, sliced, fronds/tops retained

1tbsp pastis e.g. Pernod

150 ml fish stock

salt and pepper

Method

  • Gently fry the fennel slices in some olive oil until they soften slightly and take on a bit of colour.
  • Add the pastis and allow it to reduce down to remove the alcohol
  • Add the fish stock and simmer to reduce and further soften the fennel for 2-3 minutes and season to taste.  Keep warm until serving.

Fried fennel garnish

This simply involved throwing some sliced raw fennel tops into the pan with the oil, garlic and bay leaf where the bream had been cooked and turning the heat up.  Fry the fennel until crisp and golden and serve over the braised fennel together with some raw fronds for contrasting textures. Garnish with some spring onions if you have some to hand. The fish was delicious and sweet and I can’t figure out why I’ve not been eating it more often. 

Bream and fennel

Potato Anathema?

I have a confession to make.  I can’t get too excited about the prospect of eating potatoes. There, I’ve said it.  The Scots are not so different from the Irish in their general adulation of tatties, notably here in the Outer Hebrides, where a confession such as this is tantamount to blasphemy.

‘Machair potatoes’ are a key conversation topic here and are generally loved by all (machair potatoes explained in due course).  I have experienced many a heated debate about varieties, passions rising most in the ‘waxy versus floury’ subject area.  The consensus here seems to be floury potatoes are tops, with varieties like Rooster and Desiree generating most excitement – ‘Machair potatoes are a meal in themselves’, I’ve been told.

I know, potatoes are a cheap and plentiful crop that can grow in a wide variety of climates and locales. They do have culinary versatility and are a key source of carbohydrate.

All that said,  the prospect of eating a plain boiled potato, especially a floury one, with the traditional addition of butter, no matter how much it is cited as machair, fresh, local and delicious leaves me cold. The sensation of claggy carbohydrate sticking to the roof of my mouth is not one I have learned to appreciate. Given the diversity of carbohydrate choices out there, I’m mystified why potatoes predominate, but for tradition and habit. Give me cous cous, rice or pasta in preference any day.

For those not interested in the experience of growing potatoes please see potato recipes at the bottom.

The Potato Enigma

And then there is the issue of growing potatoes.  Here is a crop that takes up a huge amount of space, especially if you really want to factor a potato plot into an organic rotation.  Many varieties are subject to a range of pests and diseases (not least the notorious blight), hence the rotational requirement.

Potatoes are cheap and always available to buy in the shops and if they are dressed up significantly in a recipe, can you seriously tell the difference in flavour between fresh potatoes bought from a shop and those grown at home? (I know this statement will be like a red rag to a bull for some readers)   Better still, buying potatoes from a farmers market or local veg growing co-op will eliminate supermarkets and alleviate the feeling that such potatoes are ‘not the same’ as home-grown and at the same time support local growers.  So why bother to grow them at home at all?

In justification, if you have the space, why not? Or maybe a desire could be borne out of nostalgia – memories of helping a parent or grandparent – planting, digging, eating together? It could just be intrinsic love of the taste of the humble spud.

I have come to appreciate that I generally find growing potatoes more exciting than eating them. For me, the best thing about growing potatoes is the physicality of the experience.  Chitting and preparing the tubers is very tactile. Digging the soil in preparation for planting and barrowing on manure can be tough physical labour, especially when breaking new ground. The satisfaction of raking the prepared soil to cover over the seed potato, knowing its nascent and continued growth will yield an incredible edible crop as it withers away to  rancid mush.

Then comes the quiescent period of growth and what is essentially crop abandonment, save for some ridging of the haulms. The mystery of what lies beneath. The soil is untouched by fork or hoe and left largely to get on with growing for a few months.  There is growing anticipation of seeing the fresh tubers exhumed from the earth, pale and interesting.  I enjoy embedding my arms in the cool, freshly turned loose soil, clawing it back with my bare hands to capture stragglers that I fear I may pierce with my fork.  Then the physical experience turns to inquisition. How much did each seed potato yield? Which variety did well? How healthy is the crop? Any scab? Blight?

Once they are off the plot and in the darkened storage of a hessian sack, my fervour  subsides.  I gather the potato of choice for inclusion in a meal, the right texture to suit my needs, waxy, floury, all-rounder. I work to dress them up in an enticing way. I check the stored crop regularly to ensure they are all in good condition to extend storage as long as possible. Then, as I did today, I browse seed potato suppliers websites, having decided that I can’t bear to miss the experience of the potato growing process this year.

Anya - planted in my now defunct asparagus bed

Anya – freshly dug in autumn from my now defunct asparagus bed

Potato growing pains

I must admit, the decision was a close call.  Despite my best efforts, my experiences of growing potatoes here have been mixed and at times frustrating as well as downright disheartening. Last year featured peaks and troughs.  The trough was definitely the abysmal early/second early crop.

Potato planting bags

After text book care and chitting of Pentland Javelin and Charlotte potatoes, I decided to use 12 potato bags and a precious supply of my own compost.  I did not want early potatoes to take up valuable space in a raised bed that I wanted to use for other veg.  I also thought of this as a potential solution to the rotation issue.  I  wanted to give them a strong start in the polytunnel and move them outside to a sheltered spot when the worst of the gales had passed.

Four potatoes were added to each bag, compost topped up as the haulms grew.  The plants quickly grew sturdy and tall and when it came time for my tomatoes to be planted in the tunnel, I hardened the potatoes off and moved them outside.  I gave them a light feed of dilute liquid feed from my wormery, watered regularly and thought I was assured of success.

Earlies in potato bags - in their death throws

Earlies in potato bags – in their death throws

I was concerned when the haulms died back a bit earlier than I anticipated and without showing many flowers.  Nonetheless, I let them die back a bit more, harvesting just a bit after the suggested date for each variety (because of our latitude).  I tipped the contents of the first bag into the wheelbarrow, expecting a great bulk of white tubers to roll forth.  After picking my way through the compost, I found the seed potato and estimated a yield of just 4 or 5 potatoes per seed planted.

Emptying bag after bag, the result was the same.  First I was despondent, then mortified that I could not grow a tuber cited as ‘easy, great in bags on patios, big yield.’ I am too scarred by the experience to try this method again this year – and my compost is too precious. If any one has any suggestions as to what may have gone wrong, I’d be happy to know.  No disease was evident on the leaves, or the tubers.

Machair Potatoes

Yes, those much revered machair potatoes. supposed to taste superior as a result of growing in this exceptional habitat. Last year I was fortunate to gain access to a small machair plot to grow potatoes on the Isle of Benbecula.

Machair is rare, coastal grassland, unique to the north-western fringe of Europe. About 70% in western Scotland, the largest proportion being on The Southern Isles of the Outer Hebrides (from Berneray to Barra) hence the global significance of the conservation value of the habitat.

Machair forms when sand with very high shell content blows landwards by prevailing westerly winds, creating a fertile, low-lying plain. The unique compliment of biodiversity found in association with machair relies on habitats managed by traditional low intensity crofting methods where grazing regimes, rotational cropping and minimal use of pesticides and inorganic fertilisers results in a mosaic of habitats and a proliferation of a diverse array of wild flowers in the summer.

Corncrakes, corn buntings and the enigmatic and rare great yellow bumblebee rely on machair habitats to breed and forage, as do waders such as lapwing, redshank, dunlin and ringed plover. Beautiful swathes of flowering bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra) carpet the machair grasslands, flowering successionally from mid to late summer, providing forage for the bumblebees and other pollinating insects.

Great yellow bumblebee on red clover (Copyright: NHM.ac.uk)

Great yellow bumblebee on red clover (Copyright: NHM.ac.uk)

Rotational corn crops are bounded by a high diversity of flowering arable weeds, different flowers predominating at different stages in the traditional 2 year crop / 2 year fallow rotation practiced in some townships. Potato patches add to the mosaic being little islands of arable weed diversity between the patchwork of sown machair corn strips and are cropped at a new site each year. A useful and more comprehensive summary about the machair habitat and the species it supports can be found here.

I got pretty excited about having access to the patch, however, it took some time to organise exactly where it would be and it was then kindly ploughed for our benefit.  I wasn’t there when this was done, so driving round trying to find a pretty small strip in a patchwork of others while it is being described to me on the phone was challenging. ‘It’s by the second fence post. level with the gate and so-and-so’s patch.’ (!) It’s a miracle I planted the potatoes in the right place – and managed to find the patch again as the surrounding corn and grassland grew and entirely changed the lay of the land!

machair potato plot in mid-summer

machair potato plot in mid-summer

Harvesting at the end of the season

Harvesting at the end of the season

So, we planted a bit late (April) and tucked the potatoes under the turned furrows and crossed our fingers.  The summer was exceptionally dry and I returned at the end of May to add some organic fertiliser.  The potatoes were doing great, despite the conditions as the turned turf of the furrows locked in moisture.  We harvested at the end of September, taking a moderate yield, not surprising since we planted so late, and because we included a couple of heritage varieties we could not expect to produce high yields.

The star for yield was Red King Edward, also for condition and flavour – sublime for roasters.  Picasso also did exceptionally well.  The heritage purple waxy variety Edgcote Purple had a lower yield, unsurprisingly but was a great potato for pomme fondant, caldo verde and tartiflette. Markies was a big disappointment – very low yield.  I planted Anya at home in my old asparagus bed.  The yield wasn’t great but what little we had were in good condition and stored well. In all, we got about 60 kg.  They are storing well, but way too much for 2 of us, so we will share out the remainder before quality declines.

Potatoes –  (another) new approach

Lovely as it was to be out on the machair surrounded by waders and wild flowers, the plot was 15 miles away, so not convenient for checking and planting dates were beyond my control and too late, really.  This year, I am planning to reclaim a bit of our garden to give potatoes another chance. I will plant varieties Swift, Anya, Kestrel, Red King Edward and Picasso. I don’t want to give over a precious raised bed, but we have an old ruined blackhouse (traditional stone house with a thatched roof) shell in the garden.  We think the walls are about 1m or so high most of the way round, but it is so heavily vegetated, it’s hard to tell – as you can see from the photo, it just looks like a ridge of turf.garden house 1

In fact, when we viewed the house before buying it was mid-summer and nettles completely obscured it and it wasn’t until after we moved in winter we found it.  Our neighbour is knowledgeable about local history and told us that at one time the building was an inn that served the local community and that a ferry used to run to the bay at the bottom of our garden when the tide was in.  Information about when is scant but according to our neighbour, a man left the inn on foot one night and was later found drowned, thereafter it closed.

It will be tough work digging it out and goodness knows what we will find.  It will serve as a small walled garden until we figure out what we might ultimately do with it.

Finally, a few images of the garden just now, showing the dichotomy between the ravages of winter gales on the leeks and the first hopeful signs of spring from the chives and garlic. The weather has been so beautiful, clear calm and sunny these last few days, there has been a little growth spurt.  Fingers crossed we don’t get too many severe gales this spring.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Can you tell what it is yet?

garden chives

Happy garlic

Happy garlic

Potato recipes

Plain potatoes (roast excepted) may be out for me, but there are a few cunning ways to dress the potato to form wonderful dishes, that I admit.  I previously provided a recipe for pomme fondant.  Here I share Aloo Chaat, which I make to accompany curries and also the deliciously alpine tartiflette.

Aloo chaat

This well known hot and sour North Indian street food is delicious for lunch or supper or served alongside curry.  The wonderful tangy hot flavour is created by the addition of tamarind.

Ingredients

500g potatoes

1 green chilli, seeded and chopped

1 red chilli seeded and chopped

1/2 tsp chilli powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 tbsp. tamarind water, or pulp, liquidised with some water.

1 red onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp. fresh mint

2 tbsp. fresh coriander

splash of groundnut oil

Method

  • Boil the peeled diced potatoes until soft and fry gently in some flavourless oil.
  • Blend the rest of the ingredients except the onion.
  • Stir the onion and blended ingredients through the potatoes and serve.  Simple and makes potatoes taste deeply interesting – and hot!

garden pot curry

Tartiflette

If you are looking for gratuitous cheesy potato indulgence, tartiflette is a good place to start. Tartiflette hails from from the Alpine  Haute Savoie region of France and contains deliciously creamy Reblochon cheese, an unpasteurised soft washed rind cows cheese that is gentle and nutty. Some recipes use a whole wheel of cheese, sitting atop the potatoes and letting it melt and ooze down through them, but I thought that was perhaps a bit excessive, so used a sliced half. The dish looks pretty rustic but is incredibly tasty.

I took the opportunity to buy some cheese (more on that another time), including Reblochon as I specifically wanted to use it to make tartiflette.  The trouble is, when I buy this cheese it is mysteriously nibbled to the extent that there is never enough to make the dish.  I got there just in time to have enough.  The dish is best served by using waxy potatoes.  I used Edgecote Purple potatoes and left the skins on, for colour, texture and flavour. It is rich, so lightly dressed green salad is a fine accompaniment.

Ingredients

800g waxy potatoes, boiled

a knob of butter

splash of olive oil

I onion, sliced

150g pancetta

60ml double cream

1/2  a Reblochon round

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C

Method

  • Boil the potatoes and slice or dice them, set to one side.
  • Soften the onion in the butter and oil until translucent, add the pancetta and cook both until slightly golden at the edges.  Remove from the pan and set to one side.
  • Put the potatoes in the pan and gently fry until slightly golden at the edges.
  • Place the potatoes in a gratin dish together with the panchetta and onion, pour over the cream, season to taste.
  • Place the Reblochon slices over the surface of the potatoes.
  • Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Après-ski personified!

tartiflette

Biscuits with Bartok 3 – Spiced orange blossom and chocolate cookies

I’ve had a pretty hectic week, not least because I was away for work for half of it.  As a result, my indulgence in the blogosphere has been restricted to access on my phone on the go – and my backlog of draft posts is growing.  The opportunity to write posts relevant to Shrove Tuesday and Valentine’s Day passed me by.  We enjoyed a couple of very nice venison-based meals that I did not photograph so I let them slip by for our own personal indulgence only. I will make these again, so there will be other opportunities to write a post for these recipes in the future.

We also have the good fortune to be benefiting from the adaptive management programme initiated to reduce greylag goose numbers and limit the significant damage they are currently doing to crops here.  Geese are being shot under licence and we are very grateful to receive another 6 wild geese, all in excellent condition, to keep our freezer stocked. Of course, this means considerable time preparing the goose, so we also had to get this done on my return.

I arrived home on a morning flight a couple of hours before the musicians were due to play, so I didn’t have time to make my 3rd biscuit of the series for them.  I decided to go ahead anyway as I wanted to try a biscuit flavoured with orange blossom water, an itch I just had to scratch.

Signs of spring

Despite the inconvenience of the snow on the mainland, here spring is showing signs of progression.  On my return, I heard the first song thrush singing from the corner of our garden.  A chipping snipe in the marshy grassland around the house means I will most likely enjoy the sound of the first drumming snipe imminently. If I stood outside for long enough at dusk, I would probably hear one – usually around Valentine’s Day each year we hear the first.  I can see the lapwings beginning to assemble again on the croftland in pre-breeding readiness.

The lighter nights mean I have no excuse to get out for a run after work, or start getting more serious about the garden other than whimsically reviewing my seed collection and plans for 2013.

My last long run (12km) had the usual smattering of Uist-based incidents.  I spent about 2 miles running behind a sheep flock being herded by a land rover and a collie from fields and along the roads to a fank.  Nice waft of urine all the way along the road, followed by copious amount of fresh sheep droppings in my trainer treads.  I opted to turn back when I caught the sheep up at the fank as I didn’t want to scatter them and the scene looked chaotic enough with one sheepdog doing his best to filter a large, tired flock into the fank.

On the way back, I passed a croft and a collie ran out to greet me. Sometimes they nip your heels as if you are a sheep but this one was friendly, too friendly, in fact.  She followed me all the way back to my car, about 5 km.  She had no road sense and although not much traffic passed us on the single track road, I had to keep stopping and grabbing her and had to wait on the verge until cars passed.  They probably either thought I was an idiot for taking a dog with no traffic-sense out on the road for a run, or were possibly laughing, having recognised the dog as local and saw it had tagged along with me.  I had to put her in the car and drive back to the croft.  I did this just as the crofter was getting in his tractor to look for her.  Not the first time apparently.

Where Eagles Dare

I was glad to get back and into my usual routine of dog walking over the moor near our house. Friday was a beautiful clear day and there was some bird activity up there too.  The dogs flushed a couple of snipe and a woodcock and a pair of ravens passed noisily overhead.  As we were coming over a rise, I could see another bird in the distance.  The profile initially looked like a raven, but then it became apparent it was very much bigger and was in fact a golden eagle.

It is not uncommon for us to see golden eagles, or sea eagles around this area.  It is part of a local golden eagle territory and there is a regularly used nest not too far away.  The first job I had when I moved to Uist was a role for a certain well known NGO that involved checking golden and sea eagle nests.  Golden eagles are much shyer than sea eagles and tend to keep their distance.  I know this pair have a regular plucking spot overlooking a loch on the walk and I often see the silhouette of an eagle there.  The pair regularly fly together over the hills surrounding the loch prior to settling down to breed.

The eagle was unusually inquisitive and passed directly overhead before turning and circling.  Since it was directly above me and at a height of about 15 metres and began circling, I decided it would be pertinent to keep the dogs close.  Though there was only an outside chance that an eagle would come down so close to a person and attempt to take a dog, it’s not unheard of.  I had known of a falconer’s dog to be killed by a golden eagle they were working. The eagle stayed with us, circling close overhead continuously for about 3-4 minutes before heading back over its territory to the hill near the nest.  Certainly a new experience for me. I managed to capture a few shots on my iPhone as it circled.  It was certainly an unusually close and spectacular view of this beautiful raptor.

eagle 2eagle 1Spiced orange blossom biscuits with chocolate

I wanted to incorporate orange blossom water into a biscuit, as I plan to with other aromatic flavourings such as lavender and rose and I thought orange blossom was probably a safe place to start experimenting.  I had some ingredients I wanted to incorporate including some lovely spiced orange slices given to me as a gift, golden sultanas and I also wanted to add a decadent garnish of candied orange. I had just made some to incorporate into Turron ice cream, the recipe courtesy of David Leibovitz. Cointreau was added for additional oranginess and decadence.

I added chocolate because there’s no denying that the marriage of chocolate and orange is tried and tested.  I don’t often use milk chocolate, hence the inclusion.  The Co-op’s Fairtrade milk chocolate is reasonably good, with 30% cocoa solids. I based the quantities of the basics of the dry ingredients on Ottolenghi’s spiced cookies from ‘Jerusalem’, but there is significant variation from that recipe.  The biscuit-making stabilisers aren’t quite off, so wanted to use the basis of the recipe to ensure success.

Ingredients

125g golden sultanas

2 tbsp cointreau

240g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

75g golden caster sugar

75g light muscovado sugar

125g unsalted butter

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

1 tsp orange blossom water

zest of 1/2 lemon

zest of 1/2 orange

1/2 a medium egg

1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice

100g milk chocolate

3 slices of preserved spiced oranges (optional)

Method

  • Soak the sultanas in the cointreau for 10 minutes.
  • Mix the flour, baking powder, bicarb, spices and salt together in a bowl.
  • Put butter, sugar, vanilla and zests in a food mixer and beat for 1 minute.
  • Add the egg, slowly while the machine is running and mix for another minute.
  • Add the dry ingredients, then the soaked raisins.
  • Divide the dough into roughly 50g balls and place a couple of cm apart on a lined baking sheet.
  • Rest in the fridge for about an hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 190C and bake for 15-20 minutes.  Allow to cool for 5 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Melt the chocolate in a bain marie and drizzle over the cookies. Top with candied orange just before serving.

spiced biscuit 1

Candied orange

Making this is vaguely reminiscent to marmalade-making and the resulting candied orange will keep for a couple of months in the fridge and can be added to cakes, biscuits and ice cream.

Ingredients

Zest of 4 large oranges

500ml water

200g sugar

1 tbsp glucose syrup

Pinch of salt

Method

  • Using a veg. peeler, remove 3 cm strips of peel (no pith) from the oranges.
  • Slice length-ways into very fine strips, no wider than a toothpick.
  • Place the strips in a pan, cover with a few cm of water, bring to the boil, then reduce to a gentle boil for 15 minutes.
  • Combine the water, sugar, glucose and salt in a pan. Bring to the boil, add the peel and cook at a low boil for 25 minutes. Add a sugar thermometer and when the mix is at 110C, take off the heat.  Store the peel in the syrup in the fridge.

spice biscuit 2

Venison Volume II: Skinning up – sausages and stock

This is a post part of which has been sitting in my drafts for some time and for some reason, I only now get round to publication.  This is not least with encouragement of Phil at Food, Frankly and my promise to do so last week. Being a person of my word (most of the time), here is the second volume of the rather graphic venison butchery episode.  Be assured that this is somewhat more gentle than Volume 1: In the Flesh and covers making the most of the animal and preparing fine game stock and venison sausages.

Part of the reason I have not posted this so far is that I am not really a very good step-by-step recipe blogger, especially with images as I lack patience and photographic skills for this, and the processes involved very much need this approach.  However, if going off on random digressions are your thing, especially musical ones, I am adept at that. I will curb my enthusiasm in this respect and restrict myself only to the briefest mention of a musical soundtrack.  Venison butchery, stock and sausage making are culinary marathons that demand a soundtrack to provide the stamina and to drive one to the end (she said in a thinly veiled justification).

Food provenance – there are no surprises

As outlined in Volume 1, knowing the provenance of the meat and fish I eat is the essence of why I decided to do so again after a decade of strict vegetarianism. This is especially pertinent given the unfolding ‘My Lidl Pony’ horse meat scandal. It is becoming increasingly clear that a long, convoluted and global supply chain makes it almost impossible to be reassured about the identity, provenance and possibly even the safety of processed meat products for sale in the UK.

In fact, this comes as no surprise to me as it should not be to most consumers.  Our insatiable demand and expectation for cheap meat, coupled with and exacerbated by the dominance of supermarkets reacting to the markets on a gargantuan global scale brings with it this vicious circle of inevitability.  Meat is a luxury and should not be cheap and we have all but lost sight of the global environmental and welfare implications of eating meat. It should be a component of our diet, not the central focus, which it so often is. The middle classes have the luxury to fret about the food miles associated with eating the likes of asparagus out of season flown in from Peru (mea culpa).  The issue for unfortunates who do eat processed ‘beef’ is one of food miles squared – with bells on.

While I am not ready to revert to vegetarianism, I do my utmost not to feel smug or sanctimonious about my eating habits or those choices of others. The options I have are fairly luxurious and there are many people who are not fortunate enough to be in a position to source quality local meat and, more fundamentally, that can afford the meat choices I can readily make.

While that is true, I also have a finite budget and would rather forego the luxury of a new pair of shoes, or even curb my CD buying urges to make sure I eat the best quality produce that I can.   In truth, I don’t have a problem with eating horse meat per se, I no doubt did when I lived in Portugal (maybe even donkey too). The real issue is that with processed meat you can have no confidence in what you are eating and must have your eyes wide open to that reality.

The making of venison sausages

Sausages are a case in point and I am guilty of contradictions in this respect.  I turn my nose up at processed meat of supermarket breakfast sausages, but happily eat artisan cured salamis.  Let’s face it, I don’t really know what’s in these salamis and donkey is likely in some traditional Spanish variants. Similarly, how much do I know about the provenance of the smoked pork belly I use in this recipe? So, going back to my ethos, I do what I can.

Out of respect for the deer, we use over 95% of the carcass we collected to produce prime cuts, stock and sausages. Sausage making is a great use for all the bits from the belly, ribs, parts of the shoulder and neck that ends up piled up at the end of butchery of the prime muscle cuts.  That said, we remove all sinews, tendons and viscera, keeping only the prime meat for the sausages. Equally, it could be simply minced and frozen to make a fine low fat venison based lasagne.  This year we had a whopping 5 kg of potential sausage meat from our deer.

To make sausages, it is best to be prepared in advance.  That means getting breadcrumbs or rusk, skin, pork fat and seasoning ready for construction. To do this, we call upon the services of the indispensable Weschenfelder, specialists in butchery and charcuterie equipment, all with the benefits of an online shop. Their website is mesmerising, offering a cornucopia of delights for the professional and home sausage-maker alike.

Sausage making soundtrack: Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide; Lamb of God – Sacrament; Kate Bush – Hounds of Love and The White Stripes – Elephant

Ingredients

5 kg venison

2 kg Pork fat or belly (smoked in this case)

1.5 kg Pinhead Rusk

1.5 litres cold water

227g seasoning mix – 1 pack of Weschenfelder Royal Venison Seasoning

venison 1

Over the past few years we have used many different sausage recipes, largely of our own creations.  Some have been very successful, others, in trying to cut down the fat content, have been altogether too meaty and a bit strangely flavourless.  This year we opted to play it safe and turned to a Weschenfelder seasoning recipe – Royal Venison Seasoning and incorporated their rusk into the recipe too.

Choice of casing

We always buy casings (skins) from the online shop too.  We favour natural casings: hog casings and sheep casings (more info courtesy of Weschenfelder) and have also used collagen. Each has a plus and minus.  Collagen is synthetic and is what most supermarket sausages are encased in. It is easy and forgiving to use but gives quite an unnatural shape and texture.

Hog are good, robust and offers quite big diameter sausages – good for Cumberland or similar.  Sheep casings are much narrower and more delicate to work but make a really fine, elegant (if you can call a sausage elegant) breakfast sausage.  We used sheep this year, choosing traditional hanks but the delicate nature of the casings meant they frequently broke/burst when shirring onto the nozzle of the mincer.  This made the process even more time-consuming. I suspect we would benefit from a smaller nozzle for sheep casings, shown below soaking in water.

venison 2

Method

  • First, the meat and fat is minced.  We have a dedicated mincer with a sausage-making nozzle attachment.  If you have a KitchenAid, a sausage-making attachment can be purchased for it, but it is expensive.
Mincing the pork Bosek

Mincing the pork belly

Venison is minced - note the vibrant colour

Venison is minced – note the vibrant colour

We used smoked pork belly, because we simply couldn’t get a hold of pork fat here.  This made the sausages a bit more meaty and ‘bacony’ than they would be if fat alone had been added, but they were not dry.

  • The minced venison and pork are then mixed with the seasoning mixture then briefly with half of the cold water.
  • The remaining cold water is added to form a sticky, moist mixture before adding the rusk and mixing well.

venison 9

  • The whole batch of mixture is then minced again in readiness for being fed into casings. Casings are rinsed and soaked in water beforehand.

venison

  • The mincer attachment was changed for the nozzle and the wet sheep casings were carefully threaded onto it.
  • The mixture was fed back through the mincer, slowly feeding the mix through so as to not burst the casings or have sausages being produced at a high rate of knots that can’t be managed.

venison 7The reward is a huge pile of delicious venison sausages.  This batch provided 200 sausages and 40 chipolatas.  Most of the chipolatas were served with Christmas dinner.  Some of the mixture was also kept back and used to stuff our free-range bronze turkey. Any left over casings can be stored in salt in the fridge and re-hydrated for use.

Having done a back-of-an envelope calculation, I estimated the average cost of each sausage to be 20p. Although there is a lot of work in the butchery preparations and making the sausages, this is still a bargain for a premium quality sausage of good provenance.  The benefit for us is also the skills in butchery and food preparation we have developed which will stand us in good stead when we move on to make salamis, something we certainly plan to do in the future.

Stock making – post butchery therapy

The other essential component of the day that maximizes the value for money of a whole red deer carcass is to make stock with the bones.  Freezing the bones to do this another time takes up a ridiculous amount of freezer space and so I make stock and store it in 500 ml containers in the freezer for use throughout the year.  I call it game stock as I use it interchangeably as a stock for wildfowl as well as venison recipes. I take great care over making this stock as this will be the foundation of many game dishes over the winter and I find stock making very satisfying, even therapeutic.

The recipe I use is the classic Michel Roux game stock recipe. The recipe calls for veal stock, which is a bit of an ask out here.  This can be replaced with chicken or beef stock. I used chicken, which does lighten the stock a bit. I bring more intensity of flavour by reducing the strained stock at the end of the process. I made 2 batches over 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 220C (fan)

Ingredients

3 tbsp. groundnut oil

2kg game trimmings: venison bones in our case

150g carrots, sliced into rounds

150g onions, coarsely chopped

1/2 a garlic bulb, unpeeled and cut in half widthways

500ml Cotes du Rhone (preferably, other red wine is fine)

500ml veal stock (or beef/chicken)

8 juniper berries, crushed

8 coriander seeds, crushed

1 bouquet garni, including 2 sage leaves and a celery stalk

venison 3

Method

  • Put the oil in a large roasting tray together with the bones and trimmings and brown in a hot oven for 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
  • Add the carrots, onions and garlic and return to the oven for another 5 minutes.

venison8

  • Transfer all the meat and veg to a large stock pan, pour off any fat from the roasting tray and deglaze with the red wine.
  • Reduce the wine by half then add to the stock pan.
  • Add 2 litres of water to the pan and bring to the boil on a high heat.  Just as it boils, turn down the heat until the liquid barely simmers.
  • Skim for 10 minutes then leave it barely simmering for 2 hours.
  • Strain through a chinois / sieve. At tis stage it can be reduced by a third to intensify the flavour.
  • Cool and pour into containers to freeze.  Done!

venison10

Biscuits with Bartok 2 – Soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies

I must admit there’s been a bit of slippage this week on a number of fronts. I have, however, managed to produce my second biscuit for the musicians, a decadent soft cookie oozing with chocolate, complemented by the flavour of fennel seeds. However, a lag means I did this after the gathering. In fact, the visiting musicians sojourn turned out not to be Biscuits with Bartok but Biscuits with Linux. For some musicians, talents extend  beyond music and with help, after several attempts and considerable tenacity, my old laptop has Linux installed and the hamster in the hard drive is on steroids. I thought I had lost it forever after a de-fragmenting disaster.

No more am I chained to my desktop in the office.  I can now sit in comfort by the fire, using one or t’other of the dogs as a footstool and listen to selected vinyl or CDs, since I’m next to the stereo. What better way to blog? Tablet not required for the time being. I’ve been reliably informed by The Man Named Sous, my own personal techni-geek, that the time is not right to invest in a tablet and we will be better placed to buy in a couple of months as new products are on the cusp of release.  I have already decided that although I like my iPhone, the Android system will be the way to go and I have all but ruled out iPad, probably in favour of a Nexus 10. More on that another time.

Biscuit procrastinations

I am embarking on only my second biscuit-making event and I have already been overwhelmed by the choices out there.  Then I was gifted my biscuit epiphany when Cookies, Cakes and Bakes featured some enticing recipes from Annie Bell’s Baking Bible.  I was, of course, obliged to buy the book and although it hasn’t yet arrived, I found a very appealing recipe from it online for soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies.

Mid-week entertainment

One reason for the slippage this week was the rare opportunity to see a tour by Scottish Opera performing at the village hall in Benbecula. Every year, Scottish Opera take their Opera Highlights tour to very small venues in rural and isolated communities around Scotland.  The tour visits Uist every 2 years, visiting Stornoway on alternate years. The troupe of 4 singers plus pianist offer a pared back performance with minimal props which showcases their vocal talents.

I love opera and regularly went to Scottish Opera performances at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh and I very much miss the opportunity to enjoy the live experience, so this concert was a very rare opportunity to hear opera excerpts and not to be missed.  We were very lucky the concert went ahead at all.  The singers were stranded on Barra after a performance there.  The weather closed in and ferries were cancelled.  Fortunately, they made it across in a weather window on the morning of the concert.

The weather had been tricky and perhaps unsurprisingly, the concert was reasonably well attended but not busy as people were reluctant to venture out.  This was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that our mobile cinema, The Screen Machine had set up for a couple of nights. Despite the weather, it had somehow made it through the storms.  This pop-up cinema is Britain’s only mobile cinema.  The theatre folds out from an articulated truck that tours the Highlands and Islands to bring new cinema releases to audiences and really is a fantastic innovation and a lot of fun to go to.  Sitting in the dark watching a blockbuster, possibly in 3D, one can get lost in the performance only occasionally being reminded that you are in a pop-up cinema in Uist when the wind rocks and sways the theatre.

Unfortunately, a clash of programmes such as the cinema and opera on the same night can deplete audiences significantly in such a small community as ours. This could discourage a return visit, for example, I have been to concerts where visiting musicians have had an audience of no more than a handful of people, which is discouraging for them and offers no incentive for a return visit.  It therefore pays for visitors/event organisers to check what else is on any given night and make sure there is not a clash. As residents, we certainly feel that we should attend anything of interest otherwise it could be the case of use it or lose it.

Had the opera not been on, we would have gone to the cinema, although the choices of The Hobbit and Quartet would have pushed it into second place as we saw The Hobbit in 3D in Glasgow before Christmas and Quartet is probably not to our taste.

The opera was thoroughly enjoyable with a programme of popular arias (from La Traviata, Cosi fan tutte and Carmen) and less familiar and intriguing pieces. My favourite was The Executioners Song from Ines de Castro by Scot James MacMillan, an opera commissioned by Scottish Opera in 1996.  The darkly humorous libretto was delivered with conviction by baritone Duncan Rock, his vocal and acting performance stealing the show for me.

The Middle Eight

Sitting next to my vinyl and CD collection brings the opportunity for a blogging soundtrack, not that I can’t do this by using iTunes on the desktop, but the experience isn’t the same.  It’s not as loud for one thing! I also don’t download for a number of reasons; sound quality, tangible enjoyment of holding a CD / record, ownership, for starters. Browsing and selecting music also served to remind me that as well as biscuits, I am procrastinating over gigs too.  Planning trips to the mainland including London and Glasgow over the next couple of months means we will try to tie in a few gigs with trips.  There are a lot of good options coming up.

We have been swithering over whether or not we should get tickets to see Neil Young in June. The fantastic Jeremy Deller conceptual art work below sums this up. This was a phrase borne out of the procrastinations by Neil Young over work commitments when he would regularly ask his manager ‘What would Bob Dylan do?’ Bob Dylan later had the same manager and similarly asked him ‘What would Neil Young do?’ Deller, Jeremy - What Would Neil Young Do? - Conceptual art - Computer print - Other/Unknown theme

We have seen Old Shaky twice before, in 1992 with Booker T and the MGs and again in 1997 (I think) with Crazy Horse.  The venue is off-putting as it is the aircraft hangar that is the SECC in Glasgow.  We have experienced a few less than intimate gigs at this venue and on occasion, poor sound quality.  It’s just too big, as are the ticket prices.  Over the last few years, we have tended to prefer gigs in smaller venues with more sane ticket prices.  The atmosphere is always better with the artist connecting better with the crowd in a smaller setting and vice versa.

That aside and unresolved, the decision will likely be taken out of our hands when the gig sells out. Then came the news that Wilco Johnson, original guitarist with the great Canvey Island blues outfit, Dr Feelgood,  has announced he is terminally ill and is to go on a final blast of gigs across the UK.  Of course, I would love to go, but knew these would sell out quickly and they have, regrettably. Dr Feelgood had a reputation as an engaging live act in the early 70’s thanks largely to Wilco’s stage presence and choppy distinctive blues guitar style. Dr Feelgood have been credited as one of the founders of British Punk, discussed in the excellent film Oil City Confidential which captures the early days of the band’s history.

I listened to a very uplifting and moving interview on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago when Wilco spoke candidly about his illness and his desire to give this last tour while he was still well enough to give his best and thank his fans.  He was so positive and grateful for the life he has lived, tinged with no regret or sadness that he will soon leave this mortal coil.

Smaller venues such as the excellent King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow offers a chance to see contemporary proggers Amplifier. We saw Arch Drude and forward-thinking Mofo Julian Cope there in a memorably intimidating performance. Strikingly tall and thin, he was wearing 6 inch crepe heeled boots and sported face paint, wandered into the audience and stared various people in the audience out.  We hid well away from the front and it was a great gig. We were also very lucky to see another of our favourite songwriters, the thought-provoking Warren Zevon at a small venue in Glasgow not too long before his passing.

To the current, a Richard Thompson gig in Edinburgh is another possibility as well as seeing Polish metal band Riverside.  Devin Townsend has also announced another short UK tour.  That is a given.  Finally, sadly nothing on the horizon from Tool who, after 7 years still can’t seem to decide if they will release an album this year or not.  The band’s enigmatic singer Maynard James Keenan appears to be focussing more on growing award-winning wine at his California vineyard.  Rock and Roll!

Blogging soundtrack:  Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse

Devin Townsend: Epicloud, from the track ‘Grace’;

‘Laugh! Love! Live! Learn!!’

Soft-bake chocolate and fennel biscuits

chocolate and fennel biscuits 055

These were delightful and would not be half as good without the revelatory addition of the crushed fennel seeds, and, to some extent, the apricots.  Genuinely one of the  best cookies I have eaten, really unusual and very chocolatey with the 81% cocoa solids chocolate I used. I’m really getting into the biscuit-baking and don’t really know why anyone would, other than for convenience, buy biscuits from the shops.  Home-made are simple to make, free from the usual additives/preservatives and are considerably cheaper.  I got 36 out of this recipe which was allegedly for 20.  Although they were a bit more expensive to make than last week’s peanut butter cookies, they still worked out at about 10p per biscuit.  That for a real luxury bite of deliciousness.

Ingredients

125g unsalted butter, diced

200g golden caster sugar

1 medium egg

½ tsp vanilla extract

100g ground almonds

75g plain flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder, sifted

1 heaped tsp fennel seeds

100g dried apricots, chopped

200g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 200C (fan)


Method

  • Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer then beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Add the ground almonds, flour and baking powder and process to a soft dough.
  • Coarsely grind the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and stir into the cookie batter with the apricots and chocolate.
  • Put a big heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto greased baking trays, spacing them well apart and cook them in batches.
  • Bake for 8–10 minutes until golden around the edges but pale within. Leave the cookies to cool for 3 minutes, then loosen them with a palette knife and leave to cool completely.

Enjoy when barely cool and the chocolate is still gooey with a wee cup of tea (as my gran would have said).

chocolate and fennel biscuits 4

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Portuguese caldo verde and broa bread

Some of the best memories and experiences I had when I lived in Portugal are intrinsically linked with food. One of the most enduring memories I have is of eating the deliciously rustic and simple soup, caldo verde, served with a freshly baked big oval white loaf direct from the bakery in our street, aptly named Urb. Farinha (Flour Street).

Living the good food life – Algarve style

For a couple of years, my family and I lived in Sao Bartolomeu de Messines, a small traditional Algarvian market town with barely a trace of tourism, let alone any British residents, yet it is only 25 minutes drive inland from the busy coastal resorts. The food was therefore really part barrocal (inland) and part litoral (coastal).  Rabbit and pork featured a lot and also fish like bream and sardines; seafood including clams and lobster.

The food available in Messines defined the place and living there. The daily municipal market in the town centre was open all morning selling spanking fresh local produce. I remember sardines, red mullet and bream and freshly picked fruit and vegetables from the surrounding countryside – citrus fruit, pomegranates and figs. There was also a butchers selling local meat and charcuterie such as presunto, a dried cured ham similar to proscuttio.

massines market

mesines municipal daily market

Messines daily market (Casa Arabella website)

On the last Monday of each month, there was the added bonus of the arrival of a travelling market which moved round towns in the area each week. It always felt like an especially festive day, the town centre buzzing with locals having a day out, a good day to catch up with friends and neighbours.

The food was a real treat on these days. Barbecues were set up in the street round the town centre selling grilled chicken and barbecued polpo (octopus) tentacles (a favourite) as well as bifanas – spicy thin pork medallions marinated with chilli and paprika served in a crusty roll. Such delights would be followed with masaladas, Portuguese donuts deep-fried to order in the street, coated in sugar and handed to you in a slip of greaseproof paper.

These days usually ended by joining my friends in a pastelaria, sitting outside and drinking copious numbers of bicas (espresso), accompanied by delicious and irresistible pastel de natas before we moved on in the evening to a few imperials (draught) beers, usually the attractively named Super Bock.

Two doors up from our house, our neighbour had converted the ground floor of her house into a makeshift restaurant and served up her rustic and creative French / Portuguese food.  You never quite knew what you might get, or even what you were eating, but it was usually soups, stews or roasts, always delicious and an entertaining place to take visiting friends from the UK. On special occasions, like weddings, christenings and birthdays, I remember eating suckling pig, shellfish dishes such as cataplana and drinking copious amounts of local wine as well as vinho verde from further north.

The village was surrounded by lush countryside and the gentle hills on the west side of the town were covered in regularly harvested cork oaks as well as olive groves. It was also where local people would collect fruit from the Medronho tree, Arbutus unedo  (also called strawberry tree). These trees are not cultivated but are wild and form part of the natural vegetation around the area.

The Medronho fruits are collected  to make the local firewater Aguardente de Medronhos.  Local men usually drank a shot of this potent Medronho along with a bica first thing in the morning. Although largely unregulated and unlicensed, distilling of Medronho was tolerated as a local tradition and you could be guaranteed to be offered some if paying a social visit to friends and neighbours.

Medronio - red fruits ready to pick

Medronho – red fruits ready to pick

Olives, much like Medronho, are considered to be an acquired taste and I certainly developed my love of olives while living there, in fact it is almost an infatuation these days.  I recall our neighbour handing over a huge bucket of olives he had just collected from a tree in his garden.  They didn’t last long in our house.

Finally, there was Tia Rachel’s (Aunt Rachel’s) restaurant on the outskirts of the town, and a short walk up the hill from our house.  This was the place where we regularly made a lunchtime pilgrimage to indulge in the best barbecued chicken piri-piri the Algarve had to offer (despite the claims of other piri-piri places on the tourist trail).  Sitting outside in the shade, even in summer, lunch would always start with the simplest caldo verde and fresh white local bread.  This was followed by a pile of spicy chicken piri-piri with fine-cut chips and a lovely fresh side salad with a simple vinaigrette. Barbecued chicken doesn’t get better than that!

Caldo verde

Caldo verde, meaning green broth is a very simple traditional Portuguese soup that would have originally contained only a handful of the most frugal ingredients: kale (couve gallego), onion, garlic, potato and water. Many permutations can be found online which in my view unnecessarily ‘sex-up’ caldo verde, adding sausage or chorizo, beans or rice.

In fact, I never saw a piece of sausage in caldo verde in the Algarve – just the basics outlined, although I permit myself the decadence of using home-made chicken stock instead of water. I’m not a purist, and I love chorizo, but the soup wouldn’t be the same with these additions.  I used home-grown Picasso potatoes and Brussels sprout tops, which needed picked just before they were burnt and blackened by another impending storm.

The way to get the most out of this soup is to use the best ingredients you can get and serve it with a traditional Portuguese-style loaf – I chose broa.

Ingredients

6 large potatoes (not a floury variety), diced

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 big handfuls of kale or other brassica, sliced to taste – shredded or chunky

1.5 litres of good quality chicken stock, or veg stock

olive oil, a glug

a few grinds of black pepper

salt, to taste

Method

  • Sweat the onions, garlic and potatoes in the olive oil, covered for 10-15 minutes.  They should not take on any colour.
  • Add the stock and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the potato chunks are tender.
  • Blanch the brassicas for 30 seconds in boiling water and refresh in cold water, before adding them to the soup.  This way, they will lose any bitterness and retain their vibrant colour. Add seasoning.
  • Stir the greens through the soup and then serve with broa or other thick crusted artisan bread.

caldo verde 2

Broa bread

Although this is not what I would have regularly eaten with caldo verde in the Algarve, it is another traditional Portuguese bread.  The daily loaf I had in Messines was more akin to a classic Italian bread, with a thick, crisp, hard crust and many air holes.  It was a bit more yeasty though.  Despite searching, I have been unable to pin down if this this type of loaf has a specific name and everyone just called it ‘pão’.

Broa is a hearty rustic bread made from a mixture of cornmeal, wheat and rye.  There are many and varied recipes online, most of which I found less than enlightening and a bit confusing, or there were aspects of them I simply didn’t like. I therefore decided to make my version of what I considered a rustic textured broa should be.

The best technique I thought might work for this recipe was to make a sponge with water, strong white flour and yeast before combining and kneading the remaining wheat flour, rye and polenta. It worked well, producing a very even bake. The rustic loaves were not too dense or heavy (achieved by keeping the rye proportion down) and had a thick crisp crunchy crust thanks to the polenta – and bags of flavour.

Ingredients

Sponge:

500g strong white bread flour

10g dried fast action yeast

600ml warm water

Rest of the ingredients to be added when sponge is ready:

250g polenta

250g rye flour

20g salt

20g fat – I used goose fat for extra flavour – butter or olive oil are fine

Preheat the oven to 250C

Method

  • Mix the sponge ingredients together well in a large bowl.  Cover with cling film and put in a warm place to at least doubled in size (takes about 45 – 60 minutes).
  • Either by hand, or using the dough hook on a food mixer, combine all the ingredients and knead for 10 minutes.
  • Flour the dough lightly and place in a bowl,  cover and put in a warm place until it doubles in size (1-2 hours).
  • Gently knock the dough back, divide in 2, form into 2 rounds and leave to rise on a covered baking sheet or in a proving basket until it rises significantly, about 30 minutes in a warm room. Dust with rye flour.
  • Place in a very hot oven for 10 minutes, adding a cup of boiling water in a tray at the bottom of the oven to give a crisp crust. After 10 minutes,  reduce the temperature to about 180C and bake for 40-50 minutes more.  It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

broa 1broa 2

It has occurred to me that I would like to explore more of the Portuguese culinary repertoire and remind myself of further delights.  Fun as this may be, perhaps I should just take a holiday in the Algarve and experience the real deal once again!

caldo verde

Wild greylag confit d’oie and more

For many British game species, 31st January is end of the open season, including wild greylag geese. I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by spending time exploring classic goose recipes by Julia Child. I was particularly thinking of confit of the legs.  I had another recipe in mind for the breasts courtesy of Cooking in Sens, a delicious balsamic goose breast recipe.  It is also a requirement, of course, to use the whole bird and the carcass was used to make goose or game stock (as I call it).

We have accumulated a number of wild greylag geese, shot and kindly gifted to us by a friend.  One never quite knows when geese will arrive at the door, but we are always pleased to see them, no matter how busy or inconvenient the moment – it is a pleasure to receive such delicious and free wild meat.

We recently took receipt of our final two geese of the season. Given the pretty awful experience of plucking the last two indoors (being forced to do so by darkness and grim weather), we decided our only option was to get out while it was daylight and the weather calm enough to deal with plucking, etc.  Since it was mid-week, and we both work full time from home, this meant seizing the opportunity at lunchtime to get on with the job.  Not your average lunchtime pursuit!

goose plucking bay cottage

So, down we went to the bay at the bottom of our garden, a goose each in hand and got plucking.   Fortunately, only the sheep can see us down there.  I had to abandon The Man Named Sous, (pictured finishing the job sitting on the rocks in the company of sheep as the tide came in) as I had to get back to work.

Room with a view

This is also the view from my office window and I work hard not be distracted by the ebb and flow of the tide and daily patterns of activities that the changing sea level brings, particularly those of birds. Waders including redshanks, greenshanks and curlews use the bay all year, as do a resident population of about 50 shelducks.

Female eiders nest around the edge of the sheltered bay in the breeding season, forming crèches with other females and their broods to try to protect their vulnerable chicks from predation, particularly by gulls.  Lapwings and oystercatchers nest around the house in the mosaic of marshy grassland, as do snipe.

Passing and hunting raptors including hen harriers, short-eared owls (both daily visitors in the breeding season), peregrine, kestrel and the occasional white-tailed sea eagle make use of the bay and the surrounding common grazings.

It’s a busy and beautifully noisy place most of the year, especially so in spring when lapwings display and snipe drum overhead. A bit later in the season, oystercatchers start to get excited as their broods hatch and they constantly circle anything that comes close, trying to see them off with their distinctive and relentless, loud piping call.

Of course, resident greylag geese also use the croftland all year and nest out on the islands, bringing broods in to the sheltered bay once they hatch. It is also why the location, overlooking the bay and islands sold the house to us – and that was before we realised how incredible the sunsets would be. It pays for us to remember these most sublime views when the weather is at its worst, as it has been on some days over the last couple of weeks.

sunset 1

sunset 2

sunset 3

Plucking complete, goose feathers were gathered up and added to our compost heaps as they make an excellent addition to compost, providing nitrogen and minerals (similarly, I also add wool gathered from around the common grazings that surround the house).

Preparing geese, I must admit, is a lot of work and was covered more fully in a previous post Plucking Hell, it’s an ‘een of evisceration but is well worth it.

Confit d’oie

As the season goes on, geese accumulate more fat reserves, so the bonus of late season geese is the ability to utilise this fat to confit part or all of the bird.  Although greylag geese can be difficult to age, I had judged this bird to be one of the 2012 broods, so was reasonably confident the breasts would be wonderfully tender and fit for the fine recipe I had in mind.

Wanting to maximise what the goose could deliver in both the number and variety of dishes, I opted to confit the often tough legs and wings.  Actually, only one wing was fit for confit as the other had sustained irreparable damage when the goose transited from sky to ground.

I used Julia Child’s recipe for Confit D’Oie. Salt curing the goose pieces first for 24 hours, I omitted the saltpetre (Potassium nitrate) from the original recipe and it still works. For this volume of goose, you need a lot less of the quantities than Julia suggests as her cure is for a large pork joint.

Ingredients

For the salt cure:

20g Maldon salt

2 bays leaves, shredded

2 springs of thyme

1 tsp. of ground black pepper

3 garlic cloves

  • Crush this mixture in a mortar and pestle and rub it all over the goose pieces, skin and flesh, massaging it in well. Refrigerate the pieces for 24 hours.

Goose confit, 1

goose confit 2

  • Scrape the seasoning off at this stage.
  • Brown the goose legs in a frying pan in some goose fat to colour them lightly.
  • Now the legs are ready to go into the goose fat.

goose confit fat

For the goose fat:

  • Use enough goose fat to submerge the pieces of goose, I used about 700 ml (melted).  Put in a casserole dish with a lid – it will be going in the oven.
  • Bring to the gentlest simmer on the stove top and preheat the oven to 140C.
  • Place in the oven, covered for about 2 hours.  Check it half way through to make sure all the meat is covered.

It should be golden brown and the flesh exceptionally tender when it is ready.  The smell was intoxicating when I took the lid off the pot.  Mine were perhaps a bit too brown, but it did not diminish the deliciousness.

goose confit 3

There was no way this goose was ever going to last long enough to be preserved in goose fat, the original reason for confit being to enhance the storage potential of the meat. Having made goose stock with the carcass,  I served the confit legs and wing with puy lentils cooked in the stock, with a bit of carrot, shallot and celery, folding through some tomato concasse at the end and garnishing with parsley.

goose confit 4

A final added bonus was all the spare fat which the goose was cooked in.  This was strained and stored for other recipes – not least wonderfully flavoured roast potatoes.

Balsamic goose breast with roast potatoes and braised red cabbage

Having boned out each goose breast, I use a goose breast recipe courtesy of Cooking in Sens, where the recipe can be found – delicious marinade of balsamic vinegar, honey and ginger.  The only alterations I made were to replace the chicken broth in the original with goose stock – and the alternative side dishes.

goose breasts

I also made a sauce by taking a decent splash of Madeira, simmering it to let the alcohol vapours leave the sweet flavour, then adding the reserved marinade.  This was then reduced slightly before whisking in some cubes of unsalted butter at the end, straining and serving over the goose breast which was served nice and pink and extremely tender.  Apologies for the quality of the photograph!

goose final

Potatoes were diced for a large surface area to absorb the flavour from the goose fat they were roasted in, reserved from the confit. Braised red cabbage was cooked in a bit of goose stock, sherry vinegar and a few sticky drops of pomegranate molasses.

In the end, the goose went a long way because the breasts were so big, we could only eat one between us.  We had the other one cold in a tasty winter salad the next day as we discussed how great greylag goose tasted and what we might do with the others in the freezer.

Biscuits with Bartok 1: Peanut butter cookies

Once a week The Man Named Sous gets together with friends to play some music in his acoustically wonderful workshop.  Musical choices for violins range from Bach to Bartok. A lot of Bartok’s work is delightfully infused with the essence of Hungarian and Romanian folk music and other music native to the Carpathian basin and beyond.  His duets are refreshing to listen to and fun to play, therefore popular in the repertoire.

Every musician, of course needs a break from the rigours of the musical challenges. Although we supply the coffee, our hosting skills to provide sweet treats to go with the oh-so-wet coffee are perhaps not as spot on as would be customary and sometimes there is nothing much at all to offer. Meanwhile, cakes and biscuits are contributed by the visiting musicians. Poor show, shame on us (well me actually, the cook).

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say The Man Named Sous likes biscuits.  Hot drinks are simply too wet without them, apparently. The problem is, I am not that partial to biscuits, although there are a few I do really enjoy; amaretti, biscotti, Florentines. Yes, a good biscuit for me means Italian and only consumed in earnest with coffee.

I enjoy making cakes and desserts, usually because of the complexities of processes, combining different elements; creams, meringues and pastry to deliver the dessert.  I love the dark art of baking bread, constantly striving for success and improvement. However, I have singularly failed to engage with biscuit baking to any extent.

Inspired by Bartok and embarrassed by lack of hospitality (in fairness, I have managed the odd bit of cake – we just have to remember not to eat it all beforehand), I am planning a more consistent approach.  I aim to provide a new biscuit each week for the musical gathering, hopefully for a run of 10 weeks (although work may impede occasionally) to see where my biscuit baking foray takes me, hopefully building confidence to produce some unique creations by the end, or at least unique in my culinary repertoire.

For the first ‘Biscuits with Bartok’ I’m going for a straightforward confidence building peanut butter cookie.  I’ve still got my head in the Wahaca cookbook and found this recipe.

Peanut butter cookies

The beauty of this recipe is the speed and ease with which these biscuits can be made – thanks to the assistance of my KitchenAid.  I’m sure it would be pretty quick by hand too. The recipe states it makes about 25 biscuits, but I got about 45, which was great volume and hence value (about 7p per biscuit) compared with inferior shop-bought biscuits. The recipe gives a cooking time of 12-15 minutes at 180C, but my first batch were a bit burnt round the edges at 12 minutes, so 10 minutes was fine for my fan oven.  The biscuits turned out to be lovely, very simple to make, are very light and have a melt-in-the-mouth texture. They were perhaps a bit too rich and buttery for me (I know, that’s the point!). However, The Man Named Sous says differently and so they will devoured with fervour.

Preheat the oven to 180C

Ingredients

180g plain flour

3/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

pinch of salt

225g unsalted butter, softened

200g light brown soft sugar

1 egg plus one egg yolk

200g crunchy peanut butter

1 tsp vanilla essence

120g roasted salted peanuts

Method

  • Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
  • Cream the softened butter using a food mixer (if you have one) until pale, light and fluffy.
  • Add the sugar to the butter, then the egg and egg yolk.
  • Gradually mix in the flour, peanut butter, peanuts and vanilla essence.
  • Put the mixture in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes.
  • Line baking sheets with silicone/parchment and place a heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto the sheet to form each cookie.  Leave plenty space (about 5cm) between them to allow for spread during cooking.  Top each with a half peanut garnish.
  • Bake in batches for 10 minutes and cool on a wire rack before storing in an airtight jar.
  • Get the kettle on and enjoy with your brew of choice.

Peanut butter bisciuts Peanut butter bisciuts 2