Sunday, 30 December 2007

Birds Only

As I opened the fridge this morning to scan the damage Christmas had done, one thing remained from that day that I was keeping aside. A bowl of turkey fat, salvaged from the roasting juices, was perched awaiting my my usual 'treat' of turkey fat on toast. Or perhaps a few more roast potatoes for today's lunch. Goose fat appears to be the in thing at the moment, but turkey fat is just as good for sublime crunchy potatoes.

This time last year I had a scare at the doctors when he told me that I had overindulged somewhat. Not only was my weight on the heavy side, but my cholesterol was souring to dangerous levels. I had a fright and decided, through necessity, to calm everything down. The running and cycling returned and my consumption of chocolate and saturated fats became a rare treat rather than a daily one. 1 year on, the results are positive and things are looking good.

That isn't to say that I haven't had a great Christmas. I've ate and drank like a King. But instead of eating and drinking like a King every day, I'm doing it every 3 days. So looking at the turkey fat, I decided that the dripping on toast would be given a miss this year.

Instead, Cerys and I gathered up a few pine cones on a frosty walk, tied a piece of string onto them, smothered them in turkey fat then dipped them in bird seed. And now they are hanging on our little tree whilst the brave robins and blue tits dive bomb for a tasty treat with the cats stalking around beneath. So this is my first post not for human consumption.

Tomorrow evening I'll be eating and drinking like a King again. Not only is it New years Eve, but my 38th birthday follows on New Years Day. Thankfully, this year's celebrations will be conscience free as I have been dog-headed in my approach to getting my health back. And the birds will be thanking me for their seeded turkey fat treats. Happy New Year everybody! x

Turkey Fat Seed Balls
Feeds several wild birds

Pine cones
Turkey fat or lard
Bird seeds
String

1 - Tie a piece of string onto the cones.
2 - Rub the cones into the fat until covered.
3 - Dip into the bird seeds and press into the fat.
4 - Hang on the tree in a cat safe position.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Relish the Leftovers

After a well earned break I've realised that it has been over a week since I tapped at my keyboard. The turkey is almost finished, and with an 18 pound monster trying to feed only 7 people (I had illness in the family and a few dropped out), that is some feat. The last of the carcass is going into a spiced parsnip and turkey soup at lunchtime and then we can kiss goodbye to the gobbling one for another year.

Of course, this is the time of the year when leftover suppers become the norm. Getting creative with a cold turkey carcass and a few leftover roast spuds and sprouts can be testing, especially when you have had the bird for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Personally, I love leftovers. I can make a veritable feast with the most unimaginative of ingredients. Maybe it is just me enjoying whatever I knock up, but I can stretch it out and run that overloaded fridge down in no time. Soups, stews, casseroles, sandwiches, omelettes or just a plate of cold leftovers with cheese, bread and pickles. And that one is probably my favourite.

This pickle, or relish, is one I turn to every year. We all reach for the cranberry sauce or jelly on Christmas Day, but I find them a little too sweet on a savoury plate for my palate. And once you have had a spoonful on your plate, it tends to sit in the fridge, slowly making its way to the back until discovered the following Christmas. I prefer something sharper, which means it can be used over the Christmas fallout with cheese and cold meats or even stirred into a soup. So make the most of the bags of half price cranberries you will find for sale right now and make my versatile little number. Packed with spice and fruit, it improves with age and makes that leftover plate a little more classier.

Cranberry and Chilli Relish
Makes 1 large jar

2 onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
3 tbps olive oil
50g demerara sugar
250g cranberries, washed
Zest and juice of 2 satsumas
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
150ml cider vinegar
Salt and pepper

1 - Heat up the oil in a large pan then add the onions and garlic. Soften for 5 minutes, then add the sugar. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes until golden
2 - Tip in the spices, then stir in the cranberries, zest and juice and finally the vinegar. Bring to the boil then turn down and simmer with the lid half on for 30-40 minutes until everything is well reduced and the cranberries have completely burst and released their juices. You are looking for a thick, jammy texture.
3 - Remove the cinnamon stick. Grind in a little salt and pepper. Pour into a sterilised jar. This will keep in the fridge for up to 3 months, if it lasts that long.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

I'm Gonna Make You A Star

Only 5 days to go until Christmas and I don't know who is more excited - me, my wife or the 3 year old. For the first time since Cerys was born, I can finally indulge in all the things I fell for when I was her age.

Santa does exist of course, so it has all kinds of leverage when it comes to getting somebody to behave. And on Christmas Eve, I will be besides myself with excitement at the thought of putting out a carrot for Rudolph and a nip of whisky and a slab of cake for Santa. The icing sugar footprints may even be present. But ONLY if Cerys has been good.

Decorating the tree suddenly becomes a different art form now. It currently has amongst the usual tinsel and baubles a few crudely decorated paper chain Christmas trees and snowmen, a large cotton wool monstrosity which is supposed to be a snowman, and a letter to Santa. And last night we stuffed it to the max with some Christmas stars, our very own cinnamon biscuits which we have wrapped in tin foil. We sampled quite a few of them just in case. And Cerys can't wait to hand these out to stuffed and sleepy in-laws after dinner next Tuesday. But ONLY if they have been good....

Christmas Cinnamon Stars
Makes loads

125g/4oz plain flour
55g/2oz rolled oats
125g/4oz butter
55g/2oz muscovado sugar
A pinch of baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C, GM4.
2 - In a large bowl, rub all of the ingredients together and mix until they form a ball of soft dough. If it is too sloppy, add more flour. If it is too dry, add more butter.
3 - Roll out the dough until approximately 1cm thick. Using a star shaped biscuit cutter, cut out the biscuits and place onto a greased baking tray.
4 - Bake on a high shelf for 8-10 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown and slightly risen.
5 - Cool on a wire rack then cover in foil. Thread the biscuits with a needle and thread, form loops and decorate your tree.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Peas? With Pudding?

I have mentioned this before, but in my travels over the years, there are two things that people have pronounced to me in terrible efforts for Geordie accents; stotty cake and pease pudding. Despite the fact that not a lot of people outside of the North East know what they actually are or how they are made, they are still known but usually in mythical terms. It was always generally followed with, 'What are they Dave, do they really exist?'.

My earlier post on the stotty cake hopefully explained this wonderful Geordie bread to anybody who wasn't sure what it was. Now it is the time of the pease pudding, as no stotty cake is complete without a slab of pease pudding and ham beneath its fluffy interior.

Pease pudding is literally split peas cooked down so that they form a paste or 'pudding' of some form, which can then be cut into slices and spread onto bread or simply put on a plate alongside cold meats and pickles. We love the stuff, and a sandwich made with ham and pease pudding with lots of English mustard has to be one of life's great pleasures. I'm easily pleased of course.

I have my own method of cooking pease pudding, and I know that some people will 'tut tut' it. There are so many variations, but I use the one that works for me. The easiest way is probably to just hang a muslin cloth full of yellow split peas into the water whilst boiling a ham. But I like large volumes and prefer to simmer the peas in with a ham hock, much like making a pea soup. The ham flavours and seasons the peas beautifully and then the hock can be picked into large gelatinous slabs to serve in a sandwich with the pudding. Is your mouth watering yet?

As a youngster, there was always a tin of the stuff at the back of my mam's fridge that never seemed to get opened. It may still be there. I think it was there as emergency supply in case there was a pease pudding drought, as it always seemed to be on the young Hall household menu. I never got sick of it.

It may not look the prettiest of things, and it may take folk unaccustomed with pease pudding a while to get used to the texture. Cold and smooth, it certainly surprises when bitten into for the first time. But like many of the cheapest and best little treats the U.K. has to offer, persevere and you will benefit. It is marvellous stuff. And we will be having a large slab on the plate this Boxing Day alongside the pickles, cheese and good bread to assist the mountain of cold leftover turkey. And I'm shaking with excitement at the thought.

Pease Pudding
Makes lots, it can be frozen in batches

1 ham hock
500g dried yellow split peas, or a mixture of green and yellow like I have done, soaked for 8 hours then washed and drained
1 whole onion, peeled
1 bulb of garlic with the top cut so that it is slightly exposed
Ground white pepper

1 - In a large pan add the ham hock, peas, onion and garlic. Pour in water until the hock is just slightly covered.
2 - Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook for 2 and a half to 3 hours, skimming off any scum that forms on the top and stirring from time to time to ensure it is not sticking.
3 - Remove the ham hock and allow to cool. Remove the onion and garlic from the peas and then pour into an airtight container. Stir in a little ground white pepper to spice it. Allow to cool.
4 - When cool, the peas should form into a slab which can then be portioned off for the freezer, or simply shared out to hungry people along with lots of bread, ham and mustard.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Cerys the Well Done Angel Awards

As you all know, Christmas does tend to be a time of reflection. And I've been doing a lot of that lately. It has been an amazing year in more ways that one. But I don't need to bore you with the details.

One of the most important decisions I made personally was to start a Blog on my 37th birthday, 1st January 2007. What Blogging has done for me has drawn out the writer within, something that I used to talk a lot about but never get around to doing. Since tapping away on New year's Day, I have somehow managed to write over 150 articles and recipes, and I'm proud as punch of each and every one of them. It has spurred me on to follow a little dream of becoming a writer and I'm finally achieving that. Next year, the book beckons. As Human League once sang, these are things that dreams are made of.

More importantly have been the various characters I have met in food blogger cyberspace. Amazing, intelligent and informative people from London via Barbados and over to Australia. It has made the world a smaller place. Without you all, it would have been a lonely place of tapping into the void. I would like to think that we all support each other without even meeting each other, which has to be an amazing thing. I'm an emotional softy, but I do think it is important to recognise each other and celebrate and champion fellow passionate bloggers. The people I speak to on a daily basis are all smashing folk and I'm a happy lad to know you all in some way.

So for that reason, I've decided to mention a few of you and bestow upon you a smacker from Cerys the Well Done Angel for coming up with some superb recipes. I could have written a huge list of all the recipes I have loved reading about and actually trying out but it would have been the longest and dullest post in history. So in no particular order, here are the recipes I have singled out as the ones that have had me drooling the most, inspiring me somewhat and generally making me happy to know that there are people out there who are as genuinely passionate about food as I am.

This world of food and blogging can sometimes get a bit mesmerising; there are so many to look at and so many opinions. So I would like to think this is like a mini food Oscars but held in my home with me and Cerys the Well Done Angel who has been my chief taste tester all year. So Merry Christmas to you all, have a sloppy kiss from me and Cerys if you so desire (feel free to copy and post the angel on your Blog!), and to the people I have not mentioned, heres to a fantastic 2008 of food blogging! xxx

Baking For Britain
Welsh Harvest Cake

Hannah's Country Kitchen
Wild Mushroom Roast Chicken

Coffee and Vanilla
Roasted Chicken in Smoked Paprika Gravy

Figs, Olives, Wine
Cardamon Plum Torta

Joanna's Food
Slow Roasted Pork with Plums

Under The High Chair
Pumpkin Spice Bread Pudding with Rummy Raisins

A Wee Bit Of Cooking

Venison and Bramble Stew

The Boy Done Food
Squash and Chorizo Parcels

Squishyness
Asian Style Roast Beef

Tastes Like Home
Pepper Pot and Garlic Pork

Great Big Vegetable Challenge
Dandelion Tart


More Than Burnt Toast
Strawberries and Cream Cheese Tart


Little Foodies
Beef Stifado

Tinned Tomatoes
Spicy Orange Soup

Thursday, 13 December 2007

They're Hasty Hasty, very very Hasty


'Nay, but make haste; the better foot before', demanded King John to his knight, in an effort to rally themselves for one final push into France to decide who was the true king of England. And in the end, he dies. Poisoned in fact. Old Shakey knew how to write a thriller.

Of course, a little haste can have its benefits, especially when it comes to food. In this day of 100mph running around trying to make ourselves so busy, we often forget the art of cooking and reach for the convenience foods. And that has its repercussions as we all know. Personally, I just like to slow everything down and have a good old few hours knocking up a storm in the kitchen. There is nothing like it after a hard day's work. But it is always nice to have a few speedy recipes up your sleeve for those times when cooking seems like a chore.

Our great mate friend Freddie at the Great Big Vegetable Challenge is onto Q in his alphabet of the vegetable challenged, and his mum Charlotte simply cannot find a vegetable that starts with that letter. So in a flash of inspiration, she has challenged a few of us to come up with a 'Quick' vegetable dish. So quick, it has to take 10 minutes or less.

This recipe is one of those I always keep handy in my little head of culinary delights for when a vegetable accompaniment for anything is required and time is against me. As long as you have some peppers, garlic and a few store cupboard ingredients, you can have some delicious sticky sweet and sour peppers on your plate by the time it takes to look through the Yellow Pages to find a decent takeaway. So leave the old book where it is, spend a couple of minutes slicing and a further 8 cooking, and before you know it, you will have a beautiful thing on your plate. These are perfect with a piece of fish or chicken, but are an equal delight on a piece of toast for a quick veggie lunch. Make haste...

Sticky Sweet and Sour Peppers
Serves 2 on toast or as an accompaniment

2 peppers, I use red and yellow, sliced into thin slivers
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tbsp muscovado sugar
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
A pinch of chilli flakes
Salt and pepper

1 - In a non-stick frying pan, preferably with a lid, heat up the oil until very hot. Lower in the pepper slices and cook for 5 minutes with the lid on, removing now and again to give it a good stir. You are looking to get them broken down and caramelised as soon as possible. Don't worry if any begin to look slightly charred, this will just benefit the flavour.
2 - Once caramelised, remove the lid and quickly stir in the garlic.
3 - Stir in the sugar, vinegar, chilli and a good grinding of black pepper and cook for 1-2 minutes until it starts to look nice and sticky and reduced. Taste for seasoning, it may need a pinch of salt. And that is it.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Eagle Has Landed

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of finally visiting The Eagle in Farringdon Road, London. The Eagle is famous for becoming one of the first 'gastro pubs', serving simple delicious Mediterranean influenced meals from its busy and furious open kitchen. It is also where the Clarkes of Moro fame worked, and being a huge fan of their work, it was a place I always wanted to visit. And it didn't disappoint.

I gather that The Eagle was the benchmark for a lot of imitation gastro pubs. It is certainly unpretentious, with basic tables and chairs scattered around its well worn wooden floor. What I love about it is the fact that you can see everything that is being cooked, with most of the bar used up as an open kitchen. And with huge blackboards with ever changing dishes written and rubbed off on a regular basis, the food was fresh and unfussy with the security of knowing that once it was gone, it was gone. I loved it, certainly my type of restaurant.

A plate of Tuscan sausages, thick and spicy, served on a bed of red cabbage and borlotti beans were hungrily wolfed back with a good bottle of red. Simple, delicious, nourishing, filling and ultimately satisfying. It was so good that once I had horse and carted it back to Geordieland, I made the very same dish for my wife and daughter. So here is my version of a fantastic simple plate of food from an institution that deserves all of the fuss. If only all other so called 'gastro pubs' could live up to the same level of brilliance as The Eagle.

Spicy Italian Sausages with Braised Red Cabbage and Borlotti Beans

Serves 4

For the red cabbage
1 red cabbage, washed, cored and sliced thin
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
3 tbsp muscovado sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 pinch of cloves
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Butter

A dozen top quality spicy Italian sausages, or your sausage of choice
2 tins of borlotti beans
1 lemon
Olive oil
Fresh parsley
Salt and pepper

1 - To make the braised red cabbage, put all of the ingredients in a large casserole dish, season and mix well. Dot the top with a few pieces of butter, put the lid on and place in the oven for 2 and a half hours, stirring every now and again. Once cooked, this will keep well in an airtight container for a few days in the fridge or could be frozen.
2 - Cook the sausages either in a large frying pan or under the grill.
3 - Warm the beans in a pan and squeeze in the lemon juice, a glug of olive oil and a grinding of salt and pepper.
4 - To serve, place a pile of beans onto a plate, followed by some braised red cabbage and finally the sausages and a scattering of roughly chopped fresh parsley. Delicious.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Buffalo Stance

I've been keeping this recipe a secret for some time. The reason is that it is the first recipe that I wrote for Tastes Of Britain which had to be submitted over a month back. And at long last, I've pleased to say that it has finally been released. And I'm even more pleased to release a simple and delicious meal using a meat that is rarely used in this country - buffalo.

During the summer, I was presenting at The Children's Food Festival and went on a rare wander around the festival site. And there, munching away in an enclosed area, were two of the cutest baby water buffalo. I had never seen one in the flesh before. And after seeing them close up, I certainly couldn't see them in an edible form. They looked like fantastic beasts. But as our very own Hugh FW said on television last week, us carnivores have a heavy price to pay for our love of meat.

Tracking down buffalo meat is the difficult part. The nearest I could fine were in Derbyshire, a brilliant farmshop called Farmhouse Pantry. In the U.K., we don't eat it much and it is not a commercially available meat. Quite why I do not know as it is sensational to eat. Similar in taste and texture to good beef, it is much lower in fat and cholesterol but not lacking any flavour. And in times when there has never been more discussion on the subject of health, that has to be a positive thing. Especially as the buffalo that are available in the country comes from good stock and are looked after with care and attention. Seek some out and make your own mind up with my warm salad of buffalo fillet, pumpkin and cobnuts.

Buffalo Steak, Roast Pumpkin and Cobnut Salad
Serves 4

1 pumpkin (with seeds removed and kept aside), skinned and cut into chunks
3 tbsp olive or extra virgin rapeseed oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
50g cob nuts or whole hazelnuts
2 buffalo fillet steaks, approximately 2” thick
Several handfuls of spinach leaves, washed and trimmed
A handful of fresh parsley leaves
2 balls of buffalo mozzarella

For the dressing
3 tbsp olive or extra virgin rapeseed oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp English or Dijon mustard

1 – Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 6, 200 °C.
2 – Put the pumpkin onto a baking tray, season with salt and pepper and combine with 2 tbsp olive oil. Roast on the top shelf for 30-40 minutes until starting to caramelise at the edges.
3 – Spread the cobnuts and pumpkin seeds out onto another baking tray, season with salt and pepper and combine with a tbsp of olive oil. Place onto the middle shelf and roast until golden. Watch carefully as the cobnuts will take no more than 10 minutes to roast.
4 – Season the buffalo fillets with salt and pepper. In a dry frying pan, sear the fillet on all sides until sealed. Place on the top shelf of the oven and cook for 5-6 minutes rare, 8-10 minutes medium or 12-15 minutes well done. Remove and rest for 5 minutes, then carve into thin slices.
5 – To dress the salad, place a few spinach and parsley leaves onto a plate, followed by a few chunks of pumpkin, a scattering of seeds and nuts, a few strips of buffalo meat and finally a few torn pieces of mozzarella. Repeat until the salad builds up, then drizzle on a little of the dressing.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

William, It Was Really Nothing

Type 'Sweet William' into Google and you get thousands of hits on flower websites. Type in 'Sweet William recipe' into Google and you get lots of edible flower recipes. This is the predicament I was in yesterday when I left my fishmongers with a couple of portions of Sweet William - the fish.

I bought the Sweet William as I thought I knew what it was. And you know what happened to 'thought'. For some reason, despite the fact that I had never eaten it or cooked with it, I assumed that I knew what to do with it. As it was bought already skinned and beheaded, all I could see were a couple of long thin fish carcass with meaty flesh waiting to be snaffled. Filleting it, things got weird. Instead of bones and a 'normal' spine, it had a thick membrane, much like a monkfish has. That was when I knew I had to Google as it wasn't what I had assumed.

Nothing was revealed except for some talk on the Australian Gummy Shark. As none of these have been floating up the Tyne in recent history, I had to delve a bit further with a call to my fishmonger. And that was when the Dog Fish was revealed. Sweet William is the affectionate name given to our not so lovely Dog Fish. Whether it has been so named in an attempt to get people to eat it I don't know. But my decision in the end was to make a simple batter and a 'cheat's' tartare sauce and eat them as goujons with some sautéed potatoes.

If you have never eaten Dog Fish before, you will be in for a nice surprise if you decide to try some. If you can get past the hideous features, a delectable meaty flesh is revealed. Sweet by name and by nature, the dog fish makes for a sensational quick fried supper, one that won't hit you too hard in the purse. It is so cheap and of course, like a lot of our sustainable local fish, completely neglected and under-used. So please give our humble Dog Fish a chance; a Dog Fish is for life, not just for Christmas....

Sweet William Goujons with 'Cheat's' Tartare Sauce

2 Sweet William fish (or Dog Fish), filleted and sliced into strips
Vegetable or sunflower oil, enough to fill a medium deep pan

For the batter
100g plain flour
Salt and pepper
A pinch of English mustard powder
1 bottle of cold beer

For the Tartare Sauce
Good shop bought mayonnaise
Fresh dill or parsley, chopped
A handful of capers, chopped
A squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

1 - Heat up the oil in a pan until hot enough for batter to instantly float to the surface when dropped in.
2 - To make the batter, pour the flour, seasoning and English mustard powder into a bowl and make a well. Begin to pour in the cold beer and with a whisk, beat thoroughly until you have a batter the consistency of double cream.
3 - For the 'cheat's' tartare sauce, mix all of the ingredients together, taste for seasoning and keep aside.
4 - In batches, dip the fish into the batter and carefully lower into the hot oil. They should curl up and float to the surface. Cook for 2-3 minutes until golden brown.
5 - Place onto kitchen towel to soak up any excess oil, then serve with the tartare sauce.