Sweet foraging success: Razor clams with samphire, summer vegetables and herbs

For the last week I have spent many feral hours indulging in foraging and fishing in the delightfully radiant and balmy summer sun, making the most of the extraordinary weather in the Outer Hebrides. Foraging successes were numerous, although the pinnacle was the delight of foraging for and cooking with razor clams.

Summer arrived this week coincidentally with spring tides.  Syzygy brings extremes of high and low water that offer up numerous though infrequent opportunities for foragers and anglers.

Fly fishing combining fortuitous foraging

Bright and sunny conditions were less than ideal for fly fishing, but nonetheless, we visited some of our favourite spots, huge lochs within the remote interior of North Uist, encountering no one.  The fish were certainly not ‘on’, but I turned this to my advantage and I grabbed foraging opportunities that I stumbled across along the way.

The unremitting sunshine has resulted in a sudden leap forward for many plants and fruits. We may not have the burgeoning hedgerows found in other parts of the UK, but there are plenty foraging opportunities here nonetheless. On one outing to a favourite loch, Loch Hunder, I found a dense blaeberry patch and turned my attention to gathering these wild berries during a lean fishing phase. This was time well spent as The Man Named Sous continued to fish and caught nothing during my foraging hour! The delicious blaeberries and associated recipes will be discussed in a future post.

Loch Hunder, looking towards 'The Lees'

The sprawling Loch Hunder, looking towards ‘The Lees’

Similarly, on a scorching and opportunistic visit to Geireann Mill following on from the North Uist Angling Club open day and barbecue, I sensed the fishing would be almost pointless. As we drew up alongside the loch inlet in the car, I could smell meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) before I saw it and instantly knew how my time would be best spent.  I was not wrong, my fishless companions later returned to the car but I had a bagful of sweet bounty.

The meadowsweet was turned into cordial, as were kind deliveries of elderflowers from the mainland (thank you Fi and mum). Both cordials will feature in recipes in future posts and I am still experimenting with both. 

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A return to Geireann Mill on another evening when the heat of the day had passed (can’t believe I can use this phrase in reference to weather here) was simply stunning. As the sun set and the full moon rose simultaneously, there was not a ripple on the water, save for fish breaking the surface to feed on big hatches of caddisflies skimming or landing on the surface.  The silence was only broken by cacophonous yet plaintive calls of red-throated divers on the water and in between these, the gentle splashes of surfacing trout.  Yet again I know that on evenings like this, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Giereann Mill sunset 2200 hrs

Geireann Mill sunset 2200 hrs

Geireann mill moonrise 22215 hrs

Geireann mill moonrise 2230 hrs

Although we did try sea fishing too, it was not quite as fruitful as expected with mackerel very thin on the ground at our usual haunts.  The high tide was so big, we suspect it was not the optimal time and we may have missed any incoming shoals. We were content to give sea fishing another shot at Loch Eport, enjoying the sun and the views but with nothing to show for our efforts, it was time to head home for a barbecue. My parents were visiting, and how novel it was that we could manage to have a barbecue, as well taking my dad on numerous fishing outings.  The weather hasn’t always been so kind during their visits.

My casting spot over Loch Eport

My casting spot over Loch Eport

Equally breathtaking views of Eaval behind me

Equally breathtaking views of Eaval behind me

Spoots, storms and samphire

Samphire is now in optimal condition for foraging, growing bushy, fleshy and succulent without yet turning woody and tired.  I am enjoying it so much that I hope to preserve some before the end of growing season for use later. Just now, I pick it and eat it the same day and used it recently in a recipe with pollack and scallop corals.  The plentiful supply near our house is very convenient and the low tides provided the tantalizing prospect of a seasonal coupling of razor clams and samphire.

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I joined professional forager Fi Bird on South Uist for a spoot (razor clam) foraging expedition and some gathering tips.  I would highly recommend Fi’s book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ as an invaluable resource for foraging tips and recipes. My review of this excellent book can be read here.

Paddling thigh deep in water and engrossed in spoot-spotting, I was vaguely aware of the towering black cumulonimbus and accompanying stormy rumblings to the south, but wasn’t quite anticipating the hour-long rainstorm of biblical proportions that followed.  A couple of families on the beach cleared off during the deluge leaving us two lonesome foragers. At that stage there didn’t seem to be any point in stopping since we were drookit within a few minutes anyway. The spoots were justifiably wary and pouring salt down the telltale keyholes in the sand where they lay buried yielded a defiant spurt of water, the spoot staying put.

Eventually we hit a couple of good patches, firmly gripping and delicately pulling out the spoots subtly sticking out of the sand. Our hands eventually turning blue, it was becoming difficult to find and grip our quarry and the situation was on the verge of descending into what might very appropriately be called lunacy, so we called it a day. Soaked to the skin and bedraggled, Fi’s carefully prepared picnic looked like a better option accompanied by a cup of coffee and we retreated indoors to warm up and enjoy Fi’s smoked salmon samphire studded bagels.

It was a fun and enlightening afternoon, though no photos were possible as phones / cameras would have quickly died in the deluge! Fi kindly gave me our modest mollusc bounty for dinner. I got home to discover hardly any rain had fallen on North Uist although it was still quite muggy and overcast.

razor display

Razor clams with samphire, summer vegetables and herbs

The last thing any cook wants to do in the middle of summer is stand over a hot stove cooking for long periods.  This recipe avoids the need, as does the main ingredient of razor clams, by default.  The style of cooking and construction of this recipe is the kind of cuisine I get most pleasure from making: very fresh ingredients sustainably sourced by hand, vegetables and herbs picked from the garden minutes before preparation, intricate and time-consuming preparation with precision cooking of only a few minutes required to bring the dish together.

This à la minute cooking style is one I have favoured lately and is perhaps the signature style of Tom Kitchin whose recipe this is (albeit tweaked a bit).  Tom may be considered a celebrity chef, but it was very reassuring when we ate at ‘The Kitchin’ to see that he was present, leading his brigade in service. His undeniably Scottish take on fine dining with complex yet honest dishes containing the finest fresh seasonal produce made the dining experience one of the best we have had recently, so another recommendation.

The chorizo used is very good quality, coming from Lupe Pintos Deli in Edinburgh.  A little goes a long way, so depending on the style and potency of the chorizo, more may be added.

Serves 4 as a starter or light main course

Ingredients

8 razor clams, washed

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

110 ml white wine

1 tsp rapeseed oil

1 courgette, cut into 0.5 cm dice

1 carrot, cut into 0.5 cm dice

60 g samphire, rinsed

40 g cooking chorizo, cut into 0.5 cm cubes

110 ml double cream

110 g young broad beans (podded weight), podded and shelled

50g finely chopped parsley

3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

1 lime, zest and juice

25 g unsalted butter

100g squid, prepared and cleaned, cut into triangles

salt and pepper

Garnish:

3 springs of dill, finely chopped

1 bunch chopped fresh chives

1 bunch of chervil, leaves only, chopped

2 springs of bronze fennel, finely chopped

a few springs of basil (I used Red Rubin for colour), gently torn

a few chive flowers

Method

Get everything chopped and prepared ready to go as this recipe comes together in a flash.

First, prepare and cook the spoots.  NB The spoots look just as indecent when cooked as they do when you pull them from the sand.

  • Heat a large saute pan or similar (with a tight-fitting lid) over a high heat.  When hot, add the razor clams, shallots and wine and quickly cover.
  • Steam for 30 seconds (no more or you will get Pirelli-textured spoots), they will open.
  • Strain the cooking liquid into a pan and keep aside.

razorclams cooking

  • Take the spoots from the shells when cool enough, remove the digestive tract (worth an online search for tips if you don’t know how to do this), slice the cooked clams thinly at an angle and set aside. Keep the shells for plating up.
  • Heat a teaspoon of rapeseed oil in a pan and over a medium heat, add the chopped carrot and courgette, broad beans, parsley and anchovies. Fry gently for 3-4 minutes and set aside.
  • Take the clams cooking liquid, heat and reduce by half before adding the chorizo, cream, samphire, carrots, courgettes, parsley and anchovies.  Stir and simmer until thickened slightly.
  • Add the lime juice and zest and butter until melted then strain off about 1/4 of the sauce into another pan and add the spoots. Keep warm.
  • Using the other teaspoon of rapeseed oil, heat a pan to cook the squid.  Season the squid and add to the pan once it is smoking and cook for 1-2 minutes until opaque, no more or squid will be rubbery.
  • Add the squid pieces to the spoots and sauce.
  • To serve, put 2 shells on each plate, spoon the spoot and squid mixture into the shell and drizzle the veg and sauce around before garnishing with the herbs and chive flowers.

razor 1

razor 2

Gloucester Old Spot pork scaloppine with nettle pappardelle

With most of the vegetables in the garden yet to surface, it seems wholly appropriate to utilise our currently most successful garden edible, nettles, and combine these in a meal with some of our local Old Spot pork.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) really is a great plant species, and not just for eating. Don’t be put off by online diatribes about nettles being ‘unpalatable, disgusting or only survival food’, or statements such as ‘nettle recipes exist for the sake of eating an ingredient because you can’, etc, etc. The secret is in understanding when to pick them (young, early season tips only) and how to prepare them to really get the best from them.

Also, I don’t buy the argument that they are a hassle to prepare.  They are most certainly less hassle to clean and prepare than some other veg we grow and prize e.g. globe artichokes. OK, an extreme example perhaps, but comparable with spinach, for sure.

Yes, nettles can be invasive in a garden, but if you have space for a patch they grow (too?) unabated, demand no attention and offer up a welcome lush green and nutritious crop during the hungry gap (our’s at least – it is longer than most). Later on, they are fabulous refuges and food for insects (and corncrake refuges here too), make superb nitrogen-rich liquid plant food and can help activate your compost heap. For all these reasons, I love my garden nettle patches. Of course, you don’t need to have them in the garden, there’s plenty to forage from urban wasteland, woods and meadows.

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You might think that living where I do that a crop of pristine unpolluted nettles should be easy to forage.  Well, it is true that we have significant nettle patches in the garden but nightly visits from deer, the dogs cheerfully marking their territory (including the nettles) and most recently, a wily sheep in occupation, make most of our nettles effectively unpalatable.

Even if I wanted to run the ‘urine gauntlet’, I’m reluctant to take an early crop of young nettle tops from our biggest patches. On occasional years, corncrakes arriving from their long migration take a welcome break in this early cover in our garden, especially if the irises have yet to get going, as is the case this year.

The rasping call of the males resonates for a few nights before they move on to more productive machair areas to establish breeding territories. I was optimistic that a corncrake may visit and benefit from our nettles as cover, but our very late i.e. non-existent spring means there was no cover to attract the first arrivals this year.  They must have felt very exposed on arrival.

I shouldn’t exaggerate about our non-existent spring.  It did occur on Sunday past after all, which was glorious and confusing all at the same time.  I was fly fishing on Saturday wearing 3 layers of fleece, couldn’t feel my fingers and abandoned the outing.  On Sunday, we were bewildered by the novelty of stunning sunshine, but not just that – warmth and managed  t-shirts all day and a swim (for the dogs anyway, I’m not quite that hardy). Monday, same old, same old northerly wind, rain and low cloud.  Where art though spring?  Or please can we cut to the chase of summer?

Spring wildlife spectacular

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the wildlife is undeterred and the breeding season is in full swing.  Lapwings and redshanks show their irritation as I pass by their breeding territories on my local run.  I know exactly when and where to expect the next irate protective parent to rise from the vegetation to give me an earful as I pass by.

I watch the oystercatchers nesting round the bay having their frequent and noisy altercations with a pair of local ravens.  Gregarious eiders also nest around the bay, the gentle and soothing call of displaying males resonates on (rare) still nights.  Females will soon form crèches with their broods to help protect the vulnerable ducklings from predation.

The spring migration is ongoing and we currently have reasonable numbers of whimbrels on passage north, stopping at the bay at the bottom of the garden on their way to breeding grounds from Greenland across to Central Siberia. Male cuckoos make their presence heard and wheatears dart around the garden, a flash of white on the rump making them stand out against the grassy backdrop.

We have had spectacular views of a pair of hen harriers and short-eared owls hunting daily across the garden, often flying within a couple of metres of my office window.  This is very distracting while I am working!  Many parts of our garden have remained largely ungrazed for years and the sward is longer than the surrounding common grazing vegetation, so we have a genuine vole hotspot that is proving very fruitful for the local short-eared owls.

I have seen them hunt successfully on a number of occasions, once taking a short-tailed field vole literally from under the kitchen window.  I never tire of watching their graceful billowing flight.  One owl has regularly taken to saving energy by scanning the grass in the garden while perching on a favoured fence post.

owl 004

Another rare and spectacular wildlife watching experience happened this week.  For the first time since we have lived in this house, we had a visit from an otter in the bay at the bottom of the garden.  It is not at all rare to spot otters here and we have had many very close encounters, but our bay is unlikely to form the core part of an otter territory due to the large component of the day when the tide is some distance out of the bay.

However, this young otter appeared to be exploring the area with a view to establishing a territory.  It ran up and down the grassy slopes at the bottom of the garden, methodically exploring overhanging rocks some distance from the shore, before returning periodically to play and feed in the seaweed on the rising tide. It was delightful and a privilege to have such prolonged views of this secretive mammal from our window.

Nettles: weeding and feeding

My pristine young nettle tops were picked from my raspberry beds where no marauding beasts have access.  This served to let the new rasp shoots have more space and light to grow. I find this to be the only downside to applying old manure (pig in our case) to permanent beds – weed seeds proliferate.  The nettles are small beer though – I’ve got my hands full with the chickweed later in the season.

I have a pretty extreme reaction to nettle stings, so I harvest using heavy-duty rubber gloves – gardening gloves are not robust enough and I learned my lesson the hard way when I was stung through them.

Although sensitivity to stinging nettles does vary between individuals, my sensitivity has very much increased as I have got older.  I remember, like most children, running through nettle patches and coming out with the familiar white blotches and associated red rash, but it never really hurt as much as just irritated slightly. I would just grab a dock leaf (Rumex spp.), rub it vigorously over the affected area, usually my knees, until my skin turned green from the dock and then continue on my merry way.

Now, even the slightest brush against the youngest stem covered in the small silky irritant hairs, which contain histamine, serotonin and formic acid among other things, is to be avoided. These hairs generate the familiar rash but this is coupled with considerable pain.  Although the rash looks the same, the pain stays and I can feel the effects for up to 2 weeks after being stung and the area of skin remains tingly and sensitive, which is a bit disconcerting. I wonder how common increased sensitivity is with age and expect it isn’t unusual, just unpleasant!

Preparing your nettles

I wanted to incorporate the nettles into pasta.  The best way to deal with them for this is to blanch the young tips, plunge them into boiling water for 3 – 4 minutes, then refresh in ice cold water to retain the vibrant colour.  The stings are now gone and the nettles can be handled.

All stems should be removed and the leaves squeezed lightly before blitzing in a food processor to a fine texture.  The nettles then need to be squeezed hard to remove as much moisture as possible as this will impact on the texture of the pasta.

Nettle pappardelle

I wanted to make a rustic hearty pasta to accompany the pork and thought pappardelle would be a fitting choice for the nettle and to complement the gutsy flavour of the pork scaloppine. I have used the same pasta recipe for about 20 years as it has never let me down.  It is from Nick Nairn’s first book ‘Wild Harvest’. The standard recipe calls for 150g of flour (plain, but I use ’00’).  For this recipe I used 180g to offset the additional moisture the nettle brings to the mix.  I got away with it.  Just.

Ingredients

180g flour, ’00’ or plain

1 whole egg, medium

1 egg yolk, medium

80g of fresh young nettle tips, rinsed, blanched and refreshed, trimmed and blitzed

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Method

  • Combine the flour, eggs, blitzed and squeezed nettles together in a food processor for 2 – 3 minutes. The mix should resemble fine breadcrumbs, not be gooey.  Add a bit more flour if it is.
  • Tip out the dough and knead briskly for 1 minute.  Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to rest for an hour.
  • Cut the dough into 2 pieces, flatten each with a rolling pin to 5 mm thick then roll and refold the dough 7 times until you have rectangles about 8 x 18 cm.  This is important to work the gluten to get a shiny dough and gives the correct al dente texture after cooking.
  • Using a pasta machine, set the rollers at the widest setting, pass through the dough and repeat, reducing the roller setting with each pass until the penultimate setting.  Pass through at this setting again and hang up to dry for at least 5 minutes.
  • Lay the pasta sheet out on a lightly floured surface and roll before slicing about 2 cm wide to produce rustic pappardelle ribbons. Hang them up again until you are ready to use them.
  • To cook, place in salted boiling water, bring back to the boil and cook for 2 – 3 minutes.  Check the texture as you cook.

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Pork scaloppine with prosciutto, capers and balsamic vinegar – a fitting accompaniment

Ever since I got a hold of our local Old Spot pork, one particular recipe has been pouting at me and I knew it would work very well with this nettle pasta.  I saw this recipe on the The Garum Factory blog pages.  The pork is sumptuously blanketed in prosciutto with pungent sage delicately folded within which also shines enticingly through the prosciutto. The sauce is perfect with the pork – and the nettle pappardelle.

Jody and Ken are not just accomplished chefs, but Ken is also a superb photographer.  His images capture the essence of this recipe and my photos would simply not hold up to their exquisite gallery of images that accompany the recipe. I do not reproduce the recipe, but it can be found here.  Thank you Jody and Ken.  It was really delicious!

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

Harissa chicken with chickpeas, olives and preserved lemons

After 3 months on a cool larder shelf, the long anticipated wait to try my preserved lemons is over. I incorporated them in this suitably North African supper dish, which delivers a nice balance of piquant flavours with a combination of harissa, spices, olives and preserved lemon. I used chicken thighs as I always consider this brown poultry meat to be superior in flavour and more moist than chicken breasts. It is also more economical, an important consideration when using free range chicken. My updates about gardening, fishing and wildlife follow or you can cut straight to the recipe at the bottom of the post.

The Hebridean weather pendulum

The harissa chicken casserole could be eaten at anytime of year.  It has a sunny, refreshing, summery disposition, yet has the depth of flavour and warmth that are reminiscent of casserole comfort required in cold weather. The schizoid personality of the dish then perhaps matches the spring weather here at the moment: wild swings from calm periods with blue skies to short sharp shocks of wild, squally downpours rolling in on weather fronts from the Atlantic.  Then there have been a few days of persistently strong gales of 30-40 mph.  The relentless nature of these days makes dog walking fairly tedious (when facing the prevailing wind, at least) – and as for seed sowing – tricky.  Even the broad beans are likely to be cast out of my hands in the gusts.  Carrots? Forget about it, the seeds would be cast in the wind and likely end up germinating somewhere on the west side of Skye.

Gardening with grit

With another long term forecast for a week of wind and unsettled weather, I have decided to ignore our typically erratic Hebridean spring weather and am determined to make the best of the light nights to get on with planting and sowing. I did, after several attempts, manage to dive out between showers and plant my potatoes, having spent a week of evenings and two weekends digging the soil over in readiness, including removal of 2 huge rocks that had fell into the centre of the old blackhouse from the walls.

The second rock levered out with deer posts - it took us over an hour to remove it

The second rock levered out with deer posts – it took us over an hour to remove it

Intact collection of bottles and jars from the blackhouse

Intact collection of bottles and jars from the blackhouse

Within the walls of the old blackhouse, where there once stood an inn, then a post office (before the war, we think), we gathered quite an inventory: remains of one sheep, 4 broken teapots, countless spoons, bottles and containers, mounds of broken crockery, ink pots and a candlestick!

Planting potatoes is not the most stimulating job, but made that bit more interesting by trying to do so between the showers, looking up, trying to judge when the next one would hit as the black clouds of doom and rain sheets approached from the west. The best indication is always the preceding acceleration in wind speed, the blast serving as a warning that you are most likely to get pounded by heavy rain at any second. Then it is over in minutes, sunshine and fragments of blue sky allowing a window of opportunity for more planting.

Frustrating as this was, I had no excuses to prevent me from getting on with organising the polytunnel for the coming season.  Despite a couple of rips which we patched, the tunnel has stood up remarkably well in what is its 4th season.  We feared the plastic would be shredded during the first winter, so we are delighted that the plastic has almost made the anticipated 5 year lifespan, even out here. My chilli and tomato seedlings, raised in a heated propagator are robust and strong.  Pea and beans in sown root trainers will be ready for planting next week and a plethora of herbs have germinated, including 5 varieties of basil that I will sow successionally across the summer.

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Strawberries in planters protected in the tunnel

Strawberries in planters protected in the tunnel

Chillis- 6 varieties

Chillies- 6 varieties

Robust tomato seedlings

Robust tomato seedlings

I am as organised as I can be for this time of year – for planting at least.  There is a lot of construction, maintenance and repair work to be done – gates to be repaired and built, fruit cage to be constructed, deer fence ongoing, dry stone walling, ad infinitum….  I don’t want to think about all that too much, best focus on one task at a time or the list becomes overwhelming. To add the ‘to do’ list, we have started thinking seriously about the timeline for extending and renovating the house, a task that will become all-consuming next year.

Adverse angling

The initially cold spring, followed by windy weather has impacted on our fly fishing results too and the brown trout are still fairly deep and inactive. A trip to South Uist for a fly fishing competition last week was a damp squib. The beautiful and productive machair loch, Loch Bornish yielded nothing for the 15 or so anglers present – after 5 hours in the cold and wind.  The highlight was a flock of 90 whooper swans present on the loch in the afternoon.

whooper swans

This week’s outing was arguably even tougher.  40 mph winds whipping the line erratically across the choppy waters of the vast Loch Caravat that nestles within the remote interior of North Uist.  Blanked again.  Still, I did get nice views of black-throated divers.  We walked for miles along the west shore of the loch, the only shore we could fish from with the prevailing wind behind us.  Ironically, at the end of the outing The Man Named Sous caught a fish about 10m from where we started fishing.

loch caravat

BBC Outer Hebrides wildlife spectacular

The week, the mobile cinema of the Highlands and Islands, The Screen Machine was here in Lochmaddy, North Uist.  As part of the programme, they offered a special preview of the a new flagship BBC wildlife documentary series, an episode of which is devoted entirely to the Outer Hebrides. The series is called Hebrides: Islands on the Edge (there’s lots of info in this link) and it is part of the BBC’s up and coming ‘Wild Scotland’ series of programmes. The screening featured episode 3, covering the Outer Hebrides and it was indeed spectacular – and a Screen Machine sell out.

screen machine

hebrides on the edge

The production team of Maramedia have worked on filming this BBC commissioned series for the last 3 years and I have been lucky to be involved with some of their activities, in a very small way.  There have been many contributions from the numerous knowledgeable naturalists across these islands that have helped to support the production team to obtain the spectacular footage.

The director Nigel Pope engaged with local people and naturalists from the start, meeting with the committee of our natural history society, Curracag, which I chaired until recently, calling upon the expertise of our members and very capable naturalists in the wider community.  I also provided some licensing advice for filming of protected birds during the series in my previous job. Nigel and his crew are extremely experienced and knowledgeable about the ecology of the species they film.

He very kindly provided a talk for Curracag members about his work on the series and that of the world renowned wildlife cameramen who shot it.  Nigel and the crew previously worked on other BBC wildlife spectaculars including Big Cat Diaries and Life in the Freezer. At the time of the talk last summer, Nigel had not decided who may narrate the series and was looking for suggestions.  It turns out they did very well in obtaining the services of a high profile Scottish star, actor Ewan McGregor and his narration worked very well on episode 3.

The series is not about hardcore natural history but is excellent eye candy that provides an insight into the character of these islands and their inhabitants. I think the footage in episode 3 captured the essence of the scenery, weather and wildlife of the Outer Hebrides perfectly. Some of the footage, particularly of divers, is incredible.  I have no doubt it will do wonders for wildlife tourism in the Outer Hebrides, which deserves to be put on the map as a special destination to see a unique combination of species in a spectacular setting.  The wildlife and scenery were, after all, key reasons why we ended up living here in the first place. If you have the chance, do watch the 4 part series on the BBC or the web, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Making preserved lemons

And so to the recipes. I have at least 6 different variations on recipes for preserved lemons and have not tried all of them.   I prepared some as a Christmas present for my mum and they worked so well, I could not resist making more when I saw bumper amounts of lemons in a local shop at 20p for 6. The recipe is very simple.  Once prepared, the lemons are best left for at least 2 months.  I left these for 3 months. Here, I have used Ottolenghi’s recipe.

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Ingredients

6 unwaxed lemons

6 tbsp sea salt (I use Maldon Salt)

2 sprigs rosemary

1 large red chilli

Juice of 6 lemons

Olive oil

Method

  • Sterilise a jar big enough to hold all of the lemons
  • Wash the lemons and make a deep cut all the way from the top to the base so you are left with 4 quarters attached at the top and bottom of each lemon.
  • Stuff each lemon with a tablespoon of salt, opening up each of the slits and stuffing it in.
  • Push them tightly into the jar and leave in a cool place for a week.
  • After a week, remove the lid, press down the lemons hard to squeeze out their juice and add the juice of 6 lemons, rosemary and whole chilli and cover with a thin layer of olive oil.
  • Seal the jar and leave it in a cool place for a least a month, but the longer the better

You can swap the rosemary and chilli for any appropriate flavour that you like.  I also prepared a batch with coriander and caraway seeds.

Harissa chicken with chickpeas, olives and preserved lemons

This recipe was inspired in part by the availability of my preserved lemons, but also because I have been reading Paula Wolfert’s tome, ‘The Food of Morocco’ to increase my understanding about the delightful cuisine of the country. Her introduction serves to remind the reader that Moroccan ingredients are fairly simple and that some amazing food can be made from a few well selected cheap cuts of meat, combined with herbs and aromatics and pulses and grains to produce honest dishes with incredible depth of flavour.  I try to incorporate those ingredients that typify this ethos here.  I think I am at the beginning of the process of understanding Moroccan food.  I have a long way to go, but will relish the journey.

Chick peas – try to find time to soak and boil dried chick peas in preference to tinned. They are worth the extra effort as they have a much deeper more intense almost meaty flavour.

Harissa – This is easy to make, but on this occasion I used some authentic Moroccan harissa paste purchased for about £1 for a big tub from a shop on Golbourne Road, London.

Ingredients

8 chicken thighs, bone in (free range if possible)

200g dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked (or 1 400g tin, drained)

2 tbsp Harissa paste

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 fennel bulb, finely sliced

1 large onion, finely sliced

1 tsp cumin seeds, dry fried and ground

1 tsp coriander seeds, dry fried and ground

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 preserved lemon, pulp removed, skin rinsed and finely chopped

150 g mixed black and green pitted olives

200ml chicken stock

olive oil

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 170C

Method

  • Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and sear them in a casserole dish with some olive oil over a medium heat until lightly browned.
  • Remove and allow to drain on some kitchen towel.
  • Add the onion and fennel to the casserole dish, then the garlic, cook until soft and translucent. Add the harissa and spices, stir gently.
  • Return the chicken to the casserole dish, add the chickpeas, olives, chopped preserved lemon and stock.
  • Put in the oven for 45 minutes to allow all the flavours to infuse into the meat and chick peas.  Serve with cous cous and flat bread.

harissa chicken

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

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

Garlic: A year in the life

Allium sativum – pleased to pleat you…Planting finished, the remaining bulbs were pleated.

I don’t remember a time in my life when garlic was not part of my diet. One of the best cooking aromas must be the pungent scent of garlic gently frying in good quality olive oil. I am very fortunate that my mum cooked with olive oil when I was a child, a time when most mums were still only sticking it in their children’s ears. Similarly, garlic was a culinary delight in our everyday meals and I didn’t give it a second thought until I noticed the lack of it when I had tea (as we called it then) at friend’s houses.

Garlic is my number one favourite ingredient and is one of the big four, one or more of which I invariably use every day (chilli, olive oil, lemons being the other three). From the outset, I have been determined to grow garlic successfully here on North Uist. If you fling it in the ground and hope for the best, you will get results of sorts, but random gardening, as I have found out to my cost with many veggies is a bit foolhardy if you live here. In fact, typical Uist climatic conditions (wind, rain – and persistence of both) mean the weather can be merciless even if you do your green-fingered best.

So, I have been on a strategic programme of growing trials to optimise my garlic growing success. It has taken 4 years of experimenting, but I tentatively consider that I may at last be on the cusp of success. I have tried soft neck versus hardneck, autumn versus spring planting, numerous varieties: Albigensian Wight, Bella Italiano, Solent Wight, Early Purple Wight to name but a few. Comparisons were made in yield and bulb size as well as storage time. I concluded that softneck garlic produces higher yields, produce bigger bulbs and more bulbs that are subject to lower losses in the ground than hardneck varieties. Importantly, the softnecks store for significantly longer, in my experience.

Autumn planting is the only way. I have tried 2 early spring plantings (same varieties and harvest year as the autumn planting). One was a dismal failure, the other less so, but still with a yield well below autumn plantings, regardless of variety. I suspect that our relatively mild winters mean that by the time it gets to planting in early spring, the bulbs do not get the period of cold they require to flourish. The star variety is without a doubt Provence Wight, for size and storage. This is now the only variety I grow. Garlic may not grow as large here as it does further south in the UK, but the cloves are intensely flavoured, which is all that really matters if you are a garlic lover.

Class of 2011 – Garlic crop harvested on 17 July last year

All butchery out of the way (for now) at last (1 deer, 2 geese, then 2 rabbits), I am hoping to get my culinary life back. Hope springs eternal that weather windows will occasionally fall at weekends so I can get on with some outdoor stuff in the garden too. And so it was with fair weather I spent the best part of Sunday getting my favourite Allium into the ground.

If you like to eat garlic, but do not want to read about the minutiae of growing it, skip to my Roast garlic soup with home made pitta bread recipe.

Preparing the bed

I practice a fairly standard organic rotation.  I do not grow entirely organically, but pretty near it.  I have given up using 100% organic seed.  I am not intending to go for Soil Association accreditation and I was finding it restrictive in terms of varieties (and especially ones that work here), and a bit costly. The soil was depleted after a beetroot crop over the summer (pimple-sized beetroots, embarrassingly small).  Hence, the first job was to call one of my neighbours, a local crofter who keeps pigs among other things, to arrange to collect some well-rotted pig manure. Half an hour or so of shovelling and our trailer was full enough to replenish 2-3 raised beds.

After digging a trench in sections along the garlic bed, the manure was dumped at a depth of about 15 cm and the soil raked back over so the garlic can happily dangle their roots into the nutrients as they grow.  This was an easy job in these raised beds.

Adding well-rotted pig manure to add nutrients and texture before planting

I have worked hard to get a fine tilth, sieving and removing stones, essential if root veg, especially carrots are part of your rotation (although I would not manure a bed that carrots are going into).  The soil is very light and free draining and I incorporate a lot of my own compost too for soil conditioning. I also top dress with seaweed over the winter to minimise erosion and  to add more nutrients and minerals.  Some machair soil was also added to lighten the structure and bring the soil to a neutral pH.  Finally, I weed regularly and never stand on the soil surface to avoid compressing it.

Preparing and planting garlic

The 2011 crop was grown from 7 bulbs bought from a commercial grower.  I was a bit disappointed by the number of cloves per bulb, which fell short of that promised in the catalogue (20-25 cloves per bulb.  I got 15 on average).  Some were also very small and this seems to be correlated with small clove development/size.  Nonetheless, with no signs of disease, I got 75 healthy bulbs from the crop, about three-quarters were larger than those you can buy in the supermarkets.

This year, I am using part of the crop from last summer’s harvest – my next trial, I suppose. I prepared them by selecting the biggest bulbs from my stored garlic, then selecting the biggest and healthiest cloves from these bulbs.  Any that were slightly soft or damaged were kept for cooking, but there were very few.  By this time, the light was fading, so being up against it and in trying to be ‘efficient’ I managed to somehow slash the side of my hand with the scalpel while separating the cloves. There was an interlude to deal with the ensuing minor bloodbath and melodrama.  More haste less speed, as the saying goes!

Preparing for the soil

I wanted to fill the entire bed with the crop and it took me 14 bulbs to do this, a total of 144 cloves.  I always compress the soil slightly with a plank of wood which also acts as a planting guide. Some compression helps the garlic stay put in the wind while the roots get established, since they are planted with the tops just under the surface. Each was spaced about 10 cm apart along the row, each row about 20 cm apart.

Garlic cloves in situ in neat rows of compressed soil.

Despite the race against the light on a short winter day, I got the planting finished, although admittedly it was quite dark and I had to finish the job with the help of the workshop lights.

Imagine my consternation when I got up the next morning to admire my work in daylight to find the night crawlers had been in.  There were cat paw prints across the bed, which I can cope with, but there were also about 35 very neat little holes which garlic cloves no longer occupied.  I don’t think it was the cat, but I should have perhaps asked my neighbour to check her cat’s breath…  I had my suspicions about the culprit, especially since most cloves were missing at the end near the dry stone wall.

I have known blackbirds to inquisitively pull at the papery tops of the cloves after the first day of planting but I usually see their tracks and the cloves are rejected and left nearby on the surface. No cloves to be seen, or dead blackbirds lying about having choked on the chunky cloves. Being rather trusting, and indeed sticking my head in the sand, I decided to leave it another night to see if the novelty would wear off for the critter (or it might have a garlic overdose).  Hardly.  Next morning, same again, 15 cloves missing.

I couldn’t sustain losses at this rate and after re-planting 50 cloves – another 4 bulbs, and having a suspicion this was the work of a rodent,  I went for belt and braces, covering the crop with environmesh and setting up a tunnel along the wall with 2 rat traps in it.  Both measures would protect any birds/cats from the traps and would attract rodents to my bait in the tunnel – prime chorizo – 100% irresistable in my experience.  And so it was, my garlic survived intact last night and I found a mouse in one of the traps. These traps are only supposed to spring with the weight of a rat but this was one big mouse (I wonder why?), so it got chorizo, but then its luck ran out.  It is always disappointing to have to take this action, but I want to eat my veg, not supplement the diet of an already burgeoning local rodent population.

Roasted Garlic Soup

Before pleating the remaining intact garlic bulbs, I thought it would be a good idea to use up all the small bulbs and loose cloves in one of my favourite soups, roast garlic.  Roasting the garlic and adding it to the soup makes it wonderfully sweet.  Topping it with dry fried chorizo or cheesy croutons complements the dish with saltiness to balance the sweetness of the roasted garlic. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic used.  It is quite a different animal when roasted in the oven.

Ingredients

2 large garlic bulbs, left whole

bay leaf

olive oil

onion, chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

3 large potatoes, diced

sprig of rosemary

1 litre chicken stock or vegetable boullion

500 ml milk

salt and pepper

chorizo, enough for garnish, sliced and dry-fried

parsley

Set the oven to 180oC

Method

Cut the tops off the 2 garlic bulbs to reveal a bit of white flesh in each clove. This will make the soft garlic easy to squeeze out after roasting.  Place them in a foil parcel with a bay leaf and a drizzle of olive oil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.  Leave aside to cool.

Peel and chop the onion, carrots and potatoes and sweat in a pan on a low heat with a small amount of olive oil for 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic by taking the cooled bulbs and squeezing each at the base.  The garlic will be soft and should squeeze out like toothpaste.  The aroma is wonderful.

Add the stock and rosemary, season and simmer for about 1 hour.  Let it cool slightly, add the milk, remove the rosemary then blitz in a blender or puree using a hand-held blender. If it too thick (although I like it thick, as in the photo), add a spot more milk or water.  Pass through a sieve or chinois and heat through.

Garnish with parsley and chorizo or cheesy croutons. Serves four.

Home made pitta breads

I served this soup with pitta breads on this occasion. This simple bread regularly features in this house because it is so versatile and easy to make – especially if you have a bread maker. There’s nothing wrong with using a bread maker for dough like pitta or foccacia.  It can be a huge time saver. If you have not made them before, give them a try.  They are astonishingly straightforward to make and are incomparable with the rubbery, slightly stale, vinegary tasting pitta breads you buy in supermarkets.

I am not sure where I got this recipe, I have been using it for so long.

Ingredients

500g strong white flour

2 tsp yeast (easyblend)

25g butter,

1 1/2 tsp salt

310 ml water

Set the oven to 220oC

Method

If you have a breadmaker, fling everything in and set to dough only program. This takes 45 minutes on my Panasonic SD-255 machine – the only breadmaker I would recommend, having had many others that sat on the shelf due to poor performance. I usually let the dough rest for another half hour once the program stops to ensure light and puffy pittas.

Alternatively, you can mix by hand, incorporating all the ingredients then kneading on an oiled surface for 10 minutes.  Allow it to prove for about an hour, covered with cling film in a warm place.

Place the dough on a heavily floured surface and break off golf ball sized pieces of dough with floured hands and roll them into tongue-shaped pittas with a floured rolling pin, to about 3mm thick.  It doesn’t matter if they are a bit misshapen – that’s called rustic, or more current still, artisan. Flour a couple of baking sheets and put the bread in the oven for 8-10 minutes.  I usually turn them half way.  Most will puff up, some won’t but keep an eye on them in case they get too thin and crispy as they puff.

This recipe usually makes 12. I do them in 2 batches of 6, 3 on each baking sheet.  I keep the first batch warm under a tea towel however, we usually start eating them straight away if there is some moutabal or hummous to hand and they are best eaten fresh and still warm from the oven.

They will keep overnight wrapped in a tea towel but need to be re-warmed and get a bit chewy if they are allowed to cool.

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