Aromatic port-soaked venison shanks wrapped in Swiss chard

This recipe uses one of the best cheap cuts from our stockpile of local venison – shanks, combining these with my favourite and infallible vegetable crop of this year, Swiss chard. The cooking marinade has a hefty glug of port and serves as a simple sauce, being further enriched with aromatic star anise, juniper berries and herbs. I say sauce. I’m not sure what it should technically be called – it is not a gravy (a thickened sauce), and probably not a jus (unthickened gravy type affair). Sauce. A thin one. That will suffice, for me at least.

As ever, posts and blogging interactions have been restricted by my commitments over the last few weeks.  Hopefully, with Christmas only a week away, I can start to think less about work and building and more about a bit of festive cheer – maybe even produce a festive post?  Well, that might be pushing it a bit. Bah humbug, we will see…

Swiss chard – a stoic vegetable

My Swiss chard crop has been the star of my veg bed greens this year.  Despite perpetual harvesting and hacking, gales and pelting horizontal rain, it persisted, unblackened and magnificently upright compared with my very ragged and battered leeks.

I say persisted. A raging storm last week meant I had to be pragmatic and accept the blackening blast would be the end of the chard crop for the year.  Now it can only be described as charred chard.

The storm was pretty fierce, there was a lot of flash, bang and wallop as the weather fronts rolled in from the Atlantic, gusts over 80 mph causing the occasional lurch and shudder of our old croft house.  This peaked with a magnificent thunderstorm, the crescendo as it approached accompanied by hail stones battering against the back of the house (and bedroom window),  the tumultuous auditory assault and accompanying spectacular lightning passing overhead about 0400 hrs, rattling the windows and leaving both of our telephone lines fried in its wake.

There was absolutely no chance of getting a wink of sleep, particularly with our baying hounds joining in with the racket to ‘enhance’ the cacophony. I couldn’t resist opening the curtains to stare at the spectacle as the storm approached.  I was rewarded by a gargantuan flash that left me blinded for a few seconds. Although overhead, the thunder could barely be heard for the roar of the wind, hail, dogs, rattling downpipes, etc. We rushed around the house, switching off all the appliances – we have had circuits fried in phones, printers and the cooker in the last few years. Incredibly, though the power supply wavered, it stayed on, as did our broadband.  Until later in the day when, just as I was approaching a critical work deadline, the broadband signal inexplicably disappeared, to be followed by the power an hour later.  Power was restored within an hour, broadband the next day.  It took a week to have one phone line fixed and we are still waiting on the fault on the other to be repaired – nearly 2 weeks later.

Ride the lightning

I have always been fascinated by storm watching, as a child I was transfixed by thunder and lightning, often only to be disappointed by the brevity and relative meekness of our UK storms (although we have discovered they are more frequent and sustained in the Hebrides). Not so when I moved to Portugal and I could enjoy the light show of autumn storms, fork lightning cracking the sky, illuminating the hills surrounding the village.  I delighted in Equatorial storms in Ecuador, predictable weather patterns accompanied by biblical cloudbursts. Most recently, on the Slovakian border with Ukraine, I became completely mesmerised, watching an eerily quiet 3 hour luminescent display of heat lightning while sipping beer on my hotel terrace on a still, balmy evening.  The frequent staccato lightning bolts branched and flickered, repeatedly incising the sky, like cracks running across a pane of glass.

Storms are, of course, to be respected and revered, and can only be enjoyed when you are not in danger. Sadly, the hurricane of 2005 that took 5 members of the same family on South Uist will remain a bleak reminder that one can never be complacent about forecasts. That night changed people’s perspective and sensitivity towards extreme weather across these exposed islands.

The wind speed during last week’s storm isn’t at all unusual for the Uists and such storms, indeed it is going to be the same again tonight. Occasionally some more ferocious storms occur, maybe only once each winter. Last week, the storm pulled tiles off 3 neighbouring properties and we were lucky not to sustain damage.  We are relatively protected from storms by low-lying hills around the house on the side of the prevailing south-west wind, but northerlies like the storm last week have the potential to do most damage to our house.

There have been one or two occasions when the wind has reached hurricane speed that I did become slightly alarmed.  One particular night comes to mind in winter 2009 when wind speeds exceeded 100 mph.  Inevitably, the power went off, then we heard the alarming sound of creaking and a slumping sound.  This was a down pipe shaking loose, pulling with it a clump of render 4 x 4 m off the back of our house.  This storm lifted the roof off a building on St Kilda where wind speeds reached in excess on 120 mph.

Hurricane Bawbag

While these storms can be alarming,  the now infamous ‘Hurricane Bawbag’ was particularly memorable. This name coined on Twitter and was adopted thereafter, notably on the cover of one Red Top next morning, complete with the image of a wind turbine ablaze in Ayrshire.

Burning: The flaming debris from the wind turbines flew off into nearby fields due to the wind

It was quite an appropriate moniker for this scunner of a storm in Scotland, we couldn’t possibly have just called it Bob, Fred or Frieda in a regular Hurricane-naming way.  I note the meaning of bawbag is not provided in reference to the event on Wikipedia but can be found here for the curious. During this hurricane on 8 December 2011, the rest of Scotland got the flavour of wind speeds we experience here during severe winter storms.  Although we did lose power at home, plus 4 gates and a chimney cowl that night, unfortunately, I was not home but ironically in the eye of the storm for a meeting in Edinburgh.

Enduring a storm in a landscape devoid of trees and a few low, dispersed buildings in a rural landscape is an entirely different prospect to experiencing a hurricane in our capital city.  Scaffolding poles, roof tiles, trees and even flying rubbish became a serious hazard while myself and my colleagues staggered through the city centre, trying to avoid getting hit by detritus and being blown into the path of traffic along the way. The proposed festive outing to drink gluhwein at the outdoor continental market in Princes Street was most definitely cancelled.

Here, in the grip of another, more moderate gale tonight, it is comforting to know it’s unlikely to be ‘Bawbag II’, although with gusts of 80 mph, power could again be disrupted. A good night then to remind myself of the chard and other veg growing in the garden in mid summer: It won’t be long before it comes around again…

swiss chard

Port-soaked venison shanks wrapped in Swiss chard 

The venison shanks had to be decanted from one of our freezers to accommodate the surprise early arrival of our Christmas turkey from my crofting neighbour. It was also surprisingly large. We were offered a smaller bird, but the caveat was I would have to go round and dispatch it myself.  I declined. Earlier in the year, I could see these free range birds wandering about casually on the croft from our house and hear their calls on still nights. Our bird is a completely different shape from commercially farmed birds, being naturally proportioned, without those implant-style breasts that farmed birds sport. I look forward to comparing it with last year’s bronze turkey.

The venison shanks were slow cooked in a stock-based marinade for about 5 hours by which time the meat is very tender and falls from the bone and can be flaked, removing the most gelatinous components of the tendons and ligaments in which these tough muscle fibres are enmeshed. It is then ready for rolling in chard leaves which are steamed. Lettuce leaves such as little gem can also be used as a substitute for chard, and lamb shanks for venison.

The venison-filled chard parcels were served simply, with a little of the rich and aromatic cooking sauce and some carrots and parsnips from the garden.

Pre-heat oven to 150C

Ingredients

2 venison shanks

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed.

1 onion, chopped

100 ml of port

1 star anise

8 juniper berries, crushed

bunch of thyme springs

1 bay leaf

1.5 litres of game or chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

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shank 3

Method

  • Brown the venison shanks in olive oil in a large casserole dish, then add the rest of the ingredients to cover the shanks, bring to a simmer.
  • Put the lid on and place the casserole in the oven for 4-5 hours, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough stock marinade to cover the shanks.  Top up with water/stock as necessary.
  • Remove the shanks and allow to cool slightly before pulling the tender muscle meat away from the now gelatinous tendons, ligaments and sinews.  The meat will have already fallen off the bone.
  • Mix a small amount of the cooking sauce with the meat and roll a generous large spoonful in each chard leaf, securing with a cocktail stick, if required.  Steam the parcels for 5 minutes and serve with some of the cooking sauce and vegetables of your choice. I suggest 2 parcels per person.

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venison shank

Stornoway black pudding bon bons, Angus asparagus and Gloucester Old Spot pancetta

Last week, after a 5 year campaign, Stornoway Black Pudding at last received its deserved Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, under the EU’s Protected Food Name (PFN) scheme. It is not often that these islands on the fringe of Europe have a gastronomic accolade bestowed on them. What better reason to indulge in my favourite blood pudding.  It might be mid-week, but what the heck…

In fact, this post is one in celebration of prime Scottish ingredients at different geographical scales; National: Angus asparagus; Regional: Stornoway Black Pudding; Local (very): my neighbour’s Gloucester Old Spot pig for our home made pancetta.

In the land of the deep fried Mars Bar

It is unfortunate indeed that Scotland is synonymous with bad food – not least deep fried everything – indeed it could be argued that this recipe, in part, reinforces the stereotype.

When I lived / worked abroad (in Portugal, Hungary) and on excursions across Europe and beyond, I came to appreciate how different our food culture is from that of a sizeable chunk of the planet – we had no daily food market culture and yet it is such an intrinsic part of life elsewhere.  It is something I have long admired and missed about living in Southern Europe.

It is worth reflecting on this because I think in the last decade, a lot has changed. We have become aware of the value of food provenance as well as eating locally and seasonally. Farmer’s markets bring new insights into good British artisan produce.  Perhaps the tide has turned, we just need to look a bit harder in the surf to find the gastronomic gems.

I think this is the essence of the problem we face as British consumers trying to seek out the clichéd ‘Best of British’, it can be hard to find, and you have got to work (comparatively) hard to get a hold of the best. This is exemplified by the efforts one must go to here to seek out the very best produce but be reassured, there is no doubt it is here.

In Uist, we export the finest seafood in the world to continental Europe, principally France and Spain.  I am lucky since if I want live langoustine, lobster or crab and hand-dived scallops, I know where to source them.  I know where and how to collect local shellfish and where to catch trout / seafish. I can forage for seaweed, samphire, nettles, herbs.  However, all this takes considerable local knowledge, effort and that thing that life always seems be short of – time.  Here in particular, food really has to matter to enable one to access the best. It does pain me that often visitors ask where they can get local seafood, fish and meat.  The answer in never straightforward.

And so to our fine produce…

National gem: Angus Asparagus

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If it was not for Fiona Bird (see my last post reviewing her book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’), I would not have become aware of the suppliers of fine Scottish asparagus from Eassie farm, Glamis, Angus.  Fiona has roots in Angus and after a recent trip, kindly left me some of this fine product at a specified drop off point (again – this time the Cal Mac ferry office, Lochmaddy – thank you Fi and staff).

Eassie Farm asparagus is suberb quality and supplied to London’s Covent and Borough markets as well as fine dining restaurants across the UK such as The Kitchin, Edinburgh (one of my favourite restaurants, more on that later).  I can see why discerning customers would seek it out.  This is probably the best asparagus I have eaten. Of course, I have tried and failed spectacularly to grow it here.  However, I think after tonight’s asparagus excursion, I am determined to try again.

More about the Angus asparagus can be found here. Asparagus production is not Eassie farm’s only talent, they also produce sea kale, and I really hope to try some of that in future.

Regional delight: Stornoway Black Pudding

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This genuinely wonderful product joins the ranks of Champagne, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton Cheese and another Scottish favourite, Arbroath Smokies. The PGI status now guarantees the provenance of this iconic Scottish product. This status can only be described as Stornoway Black Pudding if it is produced in the town or parish of Stornoway on Lewis.

It is intrinsically linked with the food heritage of these islands and black pudding has been made on crofts in the Outer Hebrides for hundreds of years.  PGI will hopefully eliminate the threat to the pudding posed by  imitation “Stornoway Style” black puddings, produced elsewhere that are invariably, in my experience, inferior products.

Stornoway Black pudding is produced by only 4 butchers in the Stornoway area. It is rich, moist, decadent, delicately seasoned and every bit as distinctive and unique as the delectable Spanish morcilla and French Boudin noir.

Local hero: Gloucester Old Spot pork 

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Except for the occasional tweet about the progress of our Gloucester Old Spot pig butchery, sausage and bacon making, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to include this wonderful produce in a recipe for a post.

We bought half of one of my neighbour’s Old Spot pigs a few weeks ago.  I could see the two Old Spots wandering around the croft from my office window until their demise and I am delighted to say I know they had a wonderful time, freely rooting around in their luxurious field and quarters until their time came.

It is widely understood that pigs are very intelligent and sensitive animals and no secret that there are welfare issues associated with pork and derivative products such as sausage (if indeed it is pork!) and bacon we can buy commercially in the UK.  I do not choose to consume this kind of pork.

To use the cliché, to buy free range, slow grown pork of a heritage breed is a totally different animal. I will focus more on the butchery, sausage and bacon making of the Old Spot in a future post. For this recipe, we wanted to include some of the dry cured bacon we made from the pork belly.  Some of this was kept in chunks and frozen to provide us with pancetta-style lardons for recipes such as this.

This green bacon is as far removed from average shop bought bacon as you could imagine. It is succulent and flavoursome without exuding water (commercial bacon is usually injected with water to speed up curing) and is not overly salty.

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Stornoway Black Pudding bon bons, Angus asparagus and Old Spot pancetta

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Originally, this recipe was set to feature hand-dived scallops since scallops are a tried and tested combination with asparagus.  Unfortunately, the weather has been a bit rough for the last week for the divers to get out.  I’m trying hard not to complain about the atrocious weather we are having, in fact, it doesn’t feel like spring has yet started and the vegetation and garden are testament to that fact.  However, this weekend, I saw the first few broods of greylag geese and the short-eared owls are hunting around the house, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to tell whether it is November or May!  I have the utmost sympathy for visiting tourists – not least cyclists, I have been there and it is not pleasant.

The elements of this dish offer no great innovations in combination, but they work.  If it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it – just use the best quality ingredients available, which is what I have tried to do.

The bon bons are simple to make and are deliciously soft and sumptuous and packed with flavour. They are simply shaped spheres of Stornoway Black Pudding coated in seasoned breadcrumbs with Parmesan cheese and parsley (parsley from the garden, home made breadcrumbs).

The asparagus was simply sauted.  This approach was inspired by Tom Kitchin and his “à la minute” style of cooking, where the sauce is prepared just before serving, very fresh and captures the essence of the asparagus. I had watched him demonstrate a similar recipe to students on the new BBC series ‘The Chef’s Protégé’ this week and it seemed like the most respectful way possible to treat this high quality asparagus.

Advice for asparagus: Because asparagus spears are tapered, unlike when contained in an asparagus steamer, when sauted, the tips cook at a faster rate than the more woody bases.  To compensate, remove the green outer layer from the bases of the spears at about 4 cm from the bottom.  That way your spears will sauté evenly and the tips will not be soggy and over cooked.

I used the best quality balsamic vinegar and Jerez sherry vinegar to finish the sauce. This provided the right balance of acidity to accompany the rich elements of the dish. Timing is all for this dish and each of the elements have to come together within a couple of minutes, so get everything prepared in advance to bring it together quickly.

Ingredients

For the Stornoway Black pudding bon bons:

1 Stornoway black pudding

200g white breadcrumbs

50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

plain flour

2 tbsp. parsley, finely chopped

salt and pepper

1 egg, beaten

Groundnut / sunflower oil for deep frying

For asparagus and sauce:

10 fresh asparagus spears, bases trimmed

2 more asparagus spears, shaved for raw garnish

250 ml chicken stock

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. Jerez sherry vinegar

a splash of rapeseed oil

salt and pepper, to taste

Pancetta:

150g pancetta, chopped into lardons

a splash of rapeseed oil

Method

  • Roll pieces of the black pudding about the size of a walnut, coat in plain flour, then egg, then the herby breadcrumb mix: breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, parsley, salt and pepper.
  • Trim and remove the outer layer from 10 of the asparagus spears.  Shave the last 2 spears using a potato peeler – these will be served raw on top as garnish.
  • Heat the oil ready to deep fry the black pudding bon bons.
  • Sauté the asparagus spears in a little rapeseed oil in a sauté pan over a fairly high heat, keep them moving.  When they have gained a bit of colour, and start to produce some liquid, but are still firm (1 – 2 minutes), add a ladle of chicken stock and quickly cover to sauté.  Keep a close eye on the asparagus, keep it moving and add a little stock at a time, as required.  Cooking will take no longer than 5 minutes. The asparagus should flex but be firm with some bite.
  • Deep-fry the black pudding bon bons until they are cooked through and the crumb coating is golden.  Be sure the oil is not too hot or they will burn on the outside and be raw in the middle.
  • At the same time (!) gently fry the pancetta in a frying pan, bringing together all 3 elements to be ready at the same time.
  • Remove the asparagus from the sauté pan, add the butter, allow it to start to bubble up through the asparagus liquid and chicken stock, whisking then add the Jerez sherry and balsamic vinegar.  Allow to cook for a minute or so to evaporate off some of the vinegar. Season to taste and serve, garnish with the raw asparagus and drizzle over the sauce.  Simple!

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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.

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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.

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

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  • 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

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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.

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  • 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!

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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.

Stormy Venison and Black Turtle Bean Ancho-Chipotle Chilli

Heavy Weather

I tentatively started writing this post a couple of hours ago. The predicted low weather front started to take effect on the Outer Hebrides about lunchtime. As it was also very wet and windy yesterday, for the first time in about 18 months, I thought it was safer not to take the dogs out. It seemed a bit better today, but once I got out, it deteriorated again and with pins of horizontal precipitation jabbing me uncomfortably in the face, I struggled to stay upright, slipping and sliding on the very wet blanket bog, struggling into the headwind to get back to the car. The dogs coped a bit better being four-paw drive and a bit nearer to the ground. Being smart beasts, they have devised a cunning and stealthy plan for horizontal rain and hail. They lie down flat in the heather and wait until I get a bit ahead of them, then slink at speed past me and lie down again, as if they are covering each other in a military advance. The best part for them was getting home for a towel dry and a biscuit. Me to.

The weather has deteriorated considerably since the dog walk, as predicted. Since the low is coinciding with a high tide, police are taking no chances and causeways along the island chain have been closed. Although I work from home now (thankfully) when I commuted from work on South Uist in very poor weather the office would be closed. We all left early to ensure we got back home (especially those crossing several causeways to North Uist) before causeways were closed by police.

Traversing causeways is like driving along behind a very long sea wall in a storm, although worse because vehicles move from the relative shelter of the island onto the causeway, open to the full force of the elements. Immediately a gust can hit the side of the car as sea spray and the occasional wave also lands on it, making it impossible to see. Windscreen wipers are useless and there is also a risk of aqua-planing. Great as my little puddle-jumper was for commuting, it did not take kindly to these occasional conditions any more than I did!

Exposing oneself: Eriskay causeway in better weather – closed for business this evening.

Wind speeds have reached about 70 mph, with gusts of +90 mph and the gusts are rocking the house, much as they have done periodically for the last 80 or so years of its existence, with no particularly detrimental effects. The wind is fairly persistently strong and then, as the clouds roll in from the Atlantic, even in the dark you just know when it’s going to get that bit worse. The preceding loud roar as the wind speed picks up heralds the arrival of another front of torrential rain, although unlike last night, no lightning accompanies the squall.

Regular Facebook updates from across the islands tell the familiar tale: ferries and buses cancelled, local amenities such as the sports centre closed – and beware, power outputs reported across parts of North Uist and Benbecula. I have got more common sense than to start baking when the weather is like this. With overhead powerline transmission serving the whole electricity network, power cuts are common – even without the explanation of the wind (swans or geese hitting a line somewhere is one such reason). So, it was just as we started to cook dinner the power went off following many threatening flickers. One never can tell how long it will stay off, so we try and keep the stove stoked, a pan of hot water on top, if required and NEVER open the freezer door – in case the outage is protracted.

Twenty minutes later, power back on, we quickly served dinner. The lights have more or less stayed on since until I started to write this and frustratingly, as anticipated, the power went off again but just for long enough to knock the computer off and all the digital devices in the house. It may be that I will have to resume this post tomorrow, we will see what happens….

Venison and Black Turtle Bean Ancho-Chipotle Chilli

Dinner needs to homely, preferably slow cooked and comforting in this weather – not to mention hot – chilli hot, that is. Using some of our venison that was butchered in the autumn – a piece of shoulder diced into big chunks, slow cooked and rich in gamey flavour stands up well to the heat and smokiness of the chillis.  The chilli was served with Mexican green rice, a recipe I found in the Wahaca ‘Mexican food at home’ book, which I varied to accommodate the ingredients I had. This is basmati rice cooked in veg stock with a handful of coriander, parsley an onion and 2 garlic cloves whizzed in a food processor and mixed through the rice, finished in the oven for half an hour.

Chilli Ingredients

800g venison shoulder, diced into big chunks

150g dried black turtle beans

1 tblsp of flavourless oil e.g. groundnut

2 onions, chopped

1 green pepper, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

400ml tomato passata

500 ml game (or beef) stock

4 dried ancho chillies, re-hydrated

2 dried chipotle chillis, re-hydrated

1 tblsp chilli powder

2 tsp ground cumin

I tsp celery salt

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tblsp lime juice

Method

  • Soak the beans for a few hours then boil for about 45 minutes until just tender, set aside.
  • Re-hydrate the chillis in boiling water for about 20 minutes, then blend and strain through a sieve to remove skin and seeds, set aside to add later.
  • Brown the cubes of venison shoulder steak in the oil and remove with a slotted spoon.
  • Saute the onion, garlic and the rest of the veg gently for about 5 minutes.
  • Put the venison back in the pan with the veg together with the passata, stock, herbs, spices, celery salt and rehydrated chilli paste.
  • Allow to cook for an hour at a low heat, covered, on the stove top, then add the turtle beans and cook for about another 1 hour 15 minutes. Add the lime juice just before serving.
  • Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with Mexican green rice – and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon – or some milk to suppress the heat.

chilli

Venison Volume I: In the Flesh, my deer

Warning:  This post contains content about the reality of eating animals (again) and describes butchery and contains images of same.

I am pleased to say that at last, the deer hind we took delivery of last week is finally completely prepped and in the freezers. I am even more delighted that we managed to use almost every piece of the animal, just as it should be, with only one small carrier bag of no more than a couple of kilos of waste.

We are no butchery experts, but are self-taught. We butchered our first whole deer carcass 3 years ago with the help of a couple of useful books, web searches and You Tube. It’s surprising how much we remember, given we only do this once a year and this year we were patting each other on the back for not reaching for any references. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but the animal is prepared with care and respect to provide the cuts that we want. I hope this post will help or encourage others to try the same.

For me, venison is the finest of all red meat, and red deer the finest of all Cervidae. Better still, it is wild meat hence has much fewer welfare issues that are associated with domesticated stock such as cattle and sheep. Although, it is true that good wild deer welfare is dependent on good deer management practices. Wild deer populations require careful management for the benefit of the landscape and importantly, the fitness of the animals themselves.

There are a lot of deer on North Uist and culls at an appropriate level can take the  pressure off a fragile landscape, not to mention crofters crops and gardens like mine (we have just this minute scared some red deer our of our garden). The deer population also benefits from this management.  Maintaining the population at the correct level i.e. below the carrying capacity for any given habitat improves fitness by reducing the risk of starvation in lean times and helps the animals maintain good condition over the winter, improving reproductive success.

Food provenance is also not particularly a consideration with our Uist deer. When you pick up your animal from the local abattoir on the island on which is was shot a few days before, there are no ambiguities about its provenance.  It is also a lean red meat, is relatively healthy and extremely versatile. It is also reasonably rich and dense, so a little goes a long way. So, I see benefits all round.  This is meat that is good for your conscience as much as your health and palate.

I am always rather disappointed by beef these days.  To my palate, even the leanest cuts taste fatty compared with venison (because they are).  Some would argue fat brings flavour but a well hung piece of venison cooked to perfection will beat beef hands down – provided you understand how to cook it. Less is more. If you cook it to the Jesus sandal stage of leathery cremation, it is truly abhorrent.

Did I mention that I like venison?

If you want to avoid or have no interest in the following butchery section please see the recipe for Blackened venison chops with pak choi

Managing your own deer

The hind weighed 86 lb when we took delivery of it.  This is the dressed weight meaning it is skinned and with the head, feet and internal organs removed, about 55% of the live weight.  It is ready to butcher.  It had been shot 2 days before.  Ideally, we like the venison to hang for about a week to age and enhance the depth of flavour. We hung it up in our shipping container for a few more days. You should only do this if the temperature is low enough and you can guarantee the environment is fly free, otherwise, get on with butchery.

Suggestion: Before you start select some appropriate music.  You are going to need motivation for the duration.  Since it was a team effort for us, we came to a consensus that perhaps Bach or Sibelius would not serve us with the motivation required.  We selected the Planet Rock radio station.  A plethora of rock classics got us through to the forequarter.  Memorable chestnuts we had not heard for a long time spurred us on: Speed King by Deep Purple (The Hairy Scream at his best), early ZZ Top – La Grange and some distinctively cheesy 90’s power rock – Thunder’s ‘Love Walked In’.

Hind halves hanging to age the venison and enhance the flavour

Playlist in place, first thing to do before you even start is make sure you are equipped with VERY sharp knives, appropriate for the job.  A boning and a paring knife are essential, as is a butchers saw (or hacksaw). Fortunately, The Man Named Sous is an expert at sharpening knives.  Just as well because our knives, Chroma 301, made of Japanese steel, require to be sharpened on a wet stone.  It is tricky to get the sharpening angle correct and depends whether you are right or left-handed.  Fortunately we are both right handed. The room should be cool as the meat is easier to work with in cool conditions.  Finally, make sure surfaces and clean, disinfected with something like dilute Milton fluid. Once you get your deer ready to butcher, have a look over it, remove any hairs sticking to the carcass.  Look and see where it has been shot and the implications for how you butcher it.  This hind had a body shot which damaged part of the loin on one side, so we needed to take that into account.  In the past, we have had deer shot through the shoulder.

This results in quite significant damage to the shoulder joint and a lot of meat can be lost as a result.

The Fillet

This is the first cut to be removed and it sits alongside the loin and continues back and into the pelvis.  This prime cut is very fragile, so you need to know where it is and what it looks like before you start, or you will invariably cut straight through the club-shaped end at the rear of the beast. Working from the anterior end, drop the fillet away from the body. It starts to taper thinly at the end just as you reach the clubbed end, which is embedded in another group of muscles associated with the pelvis.

Dropping the fillet, reaching the tricky point at the haunch.

 
  

Fillet removed, showing the double piece of muscle at the rump end.

Once you have worked out where the end sits, carefully remove it intact.  There is a thin muscle lying along the length of the fillet.  This can be trimmed off and I usually use it for stir fry.
The Loin
For this half, the loin was cut off using the saw just at the end of the ribs. The loin runs right along the top of the back from the shoulder to the rump.  We decided to cut here to remove the damaged section where the hind had been shot and also as we prep the loin in association with the ribs at the front.

Loin just before boning out showing the location of this prime cut

Boning out the loin is straightforward.  Care must be taken to remove all sinew and connective tissue around it to prevent distortion during cooking.  This applies to all cuts intended for quick cooking.  It can be time-consuming, but there is nothing worse than a nice medallion that is misshapen and chewy round the edge because sinew has been left on it.

Loin removed from the bone, still with fat and sinew attached

All fat and sinews removed, the loin can be sliced to form medallions (also called loin/sirloin steaks). In this case, we left it intact as we are planning to use it in a Venison Wellington.  Together with the fillet, loin is the best cut.

The loin fully prepared and ready to be used in a Venison Wellington.

To bring out the best in the loin, it should not be cooked more than medium rare. It contains very little fat and overcooking will dry it out. I prefer it either very rare (almost bleu) or rare. Undercooking, searing the outside to get a caramelised exterior and resting are the best treatment to guarantee succulence and a soft, almost melt-in-the-mouth texture. Resting is also very important to relax the meat and draws the juices back to the more cooked meat around the outside.   You know your medallion is well rested when all juices remain within the meat when it is served.

The Haunch

The back leg and rump. It is a big piece of meat.  In the past, we have kept the muscles together and boned out the joint but it weighed kilos and we simply didn’t want to hold a banquet to use it.  We now take the 4 muscle groups (rump, topside, silverside and thick flank) apart and cut them into sensible sized pieces.

The main haunch muscle groups minus the rump. Clockwise from the top: Hand is on the silverside, below is a small muscle, the salmon cut, topside at the bottom and the rounded thick flank on the left.

Silverside and salmon cut are good for steaks and roasts. Again, all sinew including the silver connective tissue that gives the cut its name should be removed.

Removing the silverside and salmon cut from the other muscles

Silverside and salmon cut. Silverside showing the silver tissue that identifies it. This was removed and it was cut into steaks. The salmon cut was left whole.

The thick flank is a rounded muscle group made up of 5 muscles.  It usually makes a good rolled roast, but if from an older animal, may be best as stew. The topside is great for steaks, the largest from the animal. It is also good for making bresaola, which I have done in the past. Although traditionally an Italian recipe for beef, it works well for venison. It is salt-cured with herbs and spices then air-dried for at least a month during which time it goes deep red, almost purple. Sliced thinly, it makes wonderfully distinctive antipasti.  I would recommend giving it a go.

Fully prepared thick flank (left) and topside (right).

Below these cuts is the shank, a piece of meat that requires very slow cooking, either on the bone, or sliced and including the marrowbone, called ossobuco, an ingredient  in many classic recipes.

Musical interlude

By this point, the process was getting pretty intense and we needed another musical boost.  Planet rock was wearing thin with an increasing amount of ‘Cradle Rock’ such as Foo Fighters (stick to Them Crooked Vultures,  Grohl) and the final nail in the coffin was Bon Jovi’s ‘Bad Medicine’ an appalling track.  Bad Medicine, no Jon, just bad songwriting. This is not rock! Hang the DJ, as the great Mozza said…

Time for our own musical back catalogue and a motivational smack between the eyes – Lamb of God’s Sacrament  followed by Machine Head’s The Blackening.  Whoaaah!! Having then had enough Mofos for one day, time for something epic and loud, that’s right, it’s Epicloud, Devin Townsend’s captivating new album. The only Canadian more prolific and consistently brilliant as Neil Young. However, typical of Hevy Devy, this album is so complex I was unable to concentrate on both the butchery and the music. Time to try Porcupine Tree’s The Incident…..

The Forequarter

The front end of the hind including the neck, shoulder, ribs/loin and flank. We prefer to bone out the shoulder and dice it to use as stew.  Parts of it are also used for mince and sausages, as is the flank.  Boning out the shoulder is time-consuming, but there is a lot of meat and it is worth removing as much sinew as possible, even if though it will be used in stew/sausages. The shoulder can also be rolled.

Removing the shoulder in preparation for boning out.

The bottom of the ribs were retained for stock. We kept the tops attached to the loin and sliced these into chops. Immense on the barbeque (on the few days a year we can have one here).

Venison chops

The neck contains good meat for stew and the bone is excellent for stock making.  All bones from this hind were retained to make stock (recipe to be featured in Venison Volume II).

So, give it a try!

Although, as will have been deduced from this butchery description, it is a protracted process but it is worth remembering how satisfying it is to butcher your own deer to produce the cuts you want.  Also worth giving it a go, even if you are a beginner.  We were too.  Mistakes will happen, but it’s not the end of the world. Stick to separating muscle groups and you can’t go far wrong.  Think about where the meat sits on the deer, how these muscles will have been used and how this affects how you will use them. It is a steep learning curve the first time but ultimately rewarding to know you have treated the deer with respect and you will be proud to honour it in your recipes over the months to follow.

After all that butchery, a simple dinner is required.  For the simplest possible dish, why not try venison chops?  I found this recipe in Nichola Fletcher’s book ‘Ultimate Venison Cookery’, a mandatory purchase and reference for the venison lover. It is derived from the recipe ‘Blackened rack of venison with a gratin of fennel’.  I just use the marinade and mix and match with whatever fresh veg I have to hand from the garden. In this case, it was my super-abundant and bolting pak choi crop at the end of August.

Blackened venison chops

Ingredients:

1 tblsp balsamic vinegar

2 tblsp soy sauce (I used dark)

2 tblsp clear honey (also have made with cloudy, doesn’t make much difference)

Method:

That’s it! Mix, rub into the chops  (or steaks, whatever quick cook cut you choose) with a bit of pepper. Marinade for a few hours, grill or stick on the barbie.

Stir fried pak choi with chilli and spring onions

Served with the chops last time I made them.  Very simple and tasty.

Ingredients:

A few handfuls of pak choi

sesame oil, a small glug

a handful of spring onions

1 fresh red or green chilli

sesame seeds

Method;

Heat a small amount of sesame oil in a wok, on a high heat.  Add the chilli and stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Fling in the sesame seeds and stir until golden and popping, about 1 minute.  Throw in the pak choi and stir fry until the leaves wilt down a little.  Add the spring onions, turn them through the pak choi and then serve.

Blackened venison chops with pak choi