Thursday, 27 January 2011

Game Pie

Robert De Niro in 'The Deer Hunter'
     This blog hasn't been running very long but it is game heavy.  Tis the season.  Round about this time of year I find my freezer is starting to sag under the weight of game bird carcasses, game bird breast loins, venison off cuts and random bits of offal.  I possess a violent reaction to waste, thus every little musk scented scrap of flesh and bone ends up in my ice box waiting for the inevitable entry to a pie.
     Pies are comforting, thrifty and downright important.  The ritual usually begins with a growl from my wife about an acute lack of freezer space.  This is followed by a growl at me dumping it all out in a heap on the draining board to defrost.  The next morning is spent carving off all the little chunks clinging to the carcasses- roasted and raw alike.  All bones are placed in a large pot with the usual suspects and a glorious stock emerges four hours later.  All the remaining meat is then braised very slowly in a quantity of the strained stock.  On the third day we make pie...
Game, Chestnut & Mushroom Pie
Game, Chestnut & Mushroom Pie

Ingredients for 6-8:
5-6 Medium sized dried mushrooms, reconstituted in a little boiling water
75gm Unsalted butter
1 Leek, chopped
1 Clove garlic, minced
180gm Chestnut mushrooms, sliced
50gm Flour
200ml Milk
2tbsp Double cream
350ml Game stock
1/2tsp Chopped fresh thyme
450gm Braised game meat, roughly chopped
200gm Chestnuts, store bought vacuum packed is fine.
Good handful chopped parsley
300gm Puff pastry
1/2 Egg, whisked

1) Warm the cream, milk and stock in a medium saucepan.
2) Melt the butter in a large saucepan and gently cook the leek, garlic and sliced mushrooms.
3) Season well and add the flour to make a sort of roux.  Cook out for a couple minutes.
4) Add the stock, stirring all the while, a ladle or two at a time, and bring to a simmer.
5) Add the thyme, dried mushrooms and liquor, and simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring often.
6) Fold through the chestnuts, game meat and parsley.  Check the seasoning and remove from the heat.
7) Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
8) Using a large casserole dish, fill level to within a half centimetre of the top.
9) Roll out the puff pastry no thicker than a pound coin and drape over the dish, ensuring you have a good even overhang of about 2cm.
10) Crimp the edges artfully and brush well with the egg.  Slash a few vents in the top and pop in the bottom half of the oven for 40 odd minutes or until the pastry is well browned and fully cooked.

To serve:
     This homey delight is perfect winter fare and comforting as old socks.  Serve up with braised red cabbage, watercress, redcurrant jelly and/or cranberry sauce.  We started with an aperitif of home made sloe gin and soda followed by a 2003 bottle of Chateau Musar.  I've got just enough game stock left for a nice lentil soup...

English hunter
Canadian hunter

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Midnight in Sicily

Renato Guttuso's 'La Vucciria'
     Every so often one stumbles across a work of art that grabs you by the scruff of the neck, shakes you out of your daily reverie and demands your rapt attention.  How many hours have I spent quietly gliding the galleries and museums of the world without such a tug?  I know little of art or art history but have tried my best to absorb culture by proximity, rarely succeeding.  The hallowed halls of The Louvre and the countless chapels of Venice blur into one long line of hanging Jesus' and rippled marbles.  The first time I was struck dumb by art was Caravaggio's, The Taking of Christ.  I simply could not believe the realism, the depth of emotion.  I get a similar hit from the above.  Guttuso's depiction of Palermo's market fills me with a confusion of nostalgia, foreboding, hunger and the usual mix of love and despair I get whenever wandering through a continental market.  The 'oh-my-god-it-is-all-so-gorgeous-why-the-hell-can't-we-have-this-in-every-village/town-in-England/Canada' feeling.  Of course what follows is bingeing and suffering.  How very Catholic of me.  My affinity for all things Italian runs deep.  Borne from first love and Coppola to working in a near exclusively Italian kitchen, numerous city breaks and a heavenly Florentine honeymoon.  I firmly believe Italians were created for our amusement and will forever covet their priorities and worship their food. 
Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ'
     Guttuso captures everything here.  The rawness of Italian cuisine and culture stripped bare in vibrant perfect produce.  A swordfish head, a dangling rabbit, bundles of finnochio.  The hint of sex through thinly veiled yet ample flesh, the dark look of an approaching man.  The overall claustrophobic yet 'business as usual' feel to the piece.  Guttuso is also well known for his illustrations in Elizabeth David's Italian Food.  A must have for all serious cooks.  Where are the food writers nowadays?  I don't mean cookbooks...books about food.  Books to read.  Books that transport you to the writer's dining table.  I feel a top 30 coming on...  
Further reading- The Leopard, Midnight in Sicily.  


1.5kg Round purple Italian aubergine, 2cm cubes
600gm Celery, peeled and 2cm dice
500gm Red onions, peeled and 2 cm dice (peeled weight)
2 Minced garlic cloves
200gm Pomodoro sauce or passata
3.5tbsp Caster sugar
4tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
130gm Red wine vinegar
75gm Halved green olives
2tbsp Fine capers
2tbsp Reconstituted sultanas
3tbsp Toasted pine nuts
Small handful basil leaves
Celery leaf

1) Lightly season the aubergine pieces with salt and fry in hot oil for 2-3 minutes or until soft.  Drain well on kitchen paper.  
2) Cook the celery, red onion and garlic in the olive oil in a covered pot for approx 30 minutes or until COMPLETELY soft.  
3) Add the sugar and vinegar and cook for another 5-8 minutes or until the majority of the liquid has reduced and the mixture is just beginning to caramelize.  
4) Combine the aubergine and celery/onion mixture in a tray.  Add the capers, pine nuts and olives.  Completely cool.  Mix in the pomodoro sauce, torn basil leaves and celery leaf. 

To serve:
Fantastic and flexible, caponata will stand on its own as a starter or as a garnish for fish or lamb.  Pair with a big Syrah or frizzante Lambrusco.  

     Caponata is a traditional Sicilian dish often referred to as an antipasto, salad or side dish.  The primary flavours being aubergine and that agrodolce hit.  Sweet and sour is not isolated to sticky day-glo Chinese takeaways.  My version is a little more complex than the usual, adding bits of texture contrast and flavour spikes such as the pine nuts, capers and olives.  The final flourish of celery leaf and basil add colour and depth. 

La Bella Cucina

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Importance of Moules

Moules Mariniere

Ingredients for 2:
1kg Checked, cleaned & bearded live mussels
1Tbsp Sunflower oil
50gm Unsalted cold butter
1 Large Barrington banana shallot or 2 small shallots, peeled, halved & thinly sliced
2 Large garlic cloves, minced
150ml Quality dry white wine, Muscadet would be ideal
Good handful of chopped flat leaf parsley
NOTE:  Moules Mariniere does not contain cream!  Major bugbear of mine.

1) Place a large heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stove and heat to a high temp.
2) Add the sunflower oil and half the butter, add the garlic and shallots and cook for 10-20      seconds, rapidly stirring.  Do not allow the garlic to burn.
3) Quickly add the mussels, give them a stir, pour in the wine and tightly lid the saucepan.
4) Cook for 2-4 minutes or until the mussels just open.  Don't be afraid to give them a good 'lid held' shake to aid their death throe blossoming.
5) Pour the mussels into a colander over another saucepan.
6) Quickly put this second saucepan on high heat, 'monter' with the rest of the butter, toss in the parsley and season the sauce to taste.

To serve:
Divide the mussels between two large bowls and pour over the broth/sauce.  Serve with frites, aioli and/or crusty French bread for that all important final 'mop up'.  Moules go great with fizz, white wine, cider or a quality ale.

     Mussels will marry with many flavours- cream, chorizo, Thai paste, any variety of herbs and spices.  If you are certain of freshness and source, they are delectable pried open and slid down the throat still wriggling.  Of particular note is the 'Eclade des moules' originating from the beaches of La Rochelle in the Bay of Biscay.  A wonderful feast where the the mussels are arranged in concentric circles on a plank so that the hinged part of the shell is facing up.  Pine needles are mounded on top to a depth of a foot or so and set afire. The needles burn in a flash, producing a rich resinous smoke and imparting a unique flavour.  Two or three minutes after the fire goes out, the ashes are swept away and the mussels are eaten directly from the shell along with country bread, butter and white wine.

     What could be more simple, more primeval to a food lover than fresh shellfish.  Surely one of mankind's first found morsels and little changed through history.  Restaurant trends, molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine...all shall pass into a distant memory but people will still be dribbling greedily over steamed mussels.  There is something decidedly sensual about partaking in these creamy bivalvia.  Could it be the erotic shape, the slurping and sucking when devouring or maybe the gentle way they offer themselves up after only a few steamy moments.  The near instant gratification of this natural fast food and heady more-ishness places them high on the gastronomic aphrodisiac scale.
Christ, I really want some mussels right now.
The average rural Frenchman always carries an Opinel.
I imagine the posh ones carry one of these silver plated mussel eaters.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


     Volumes have been written about this king among fish and even more has been scribed about its demise.  Salmon really is in a sad state of affairs no matter how you slice it...
     Bog standard salmon farming is a truly grotesque practise akin to placing them in concentration camps.  From the intense overcrowding, to the dyed feed necessary to aid the lack of natural pigment, to the abhorrent amount of faeces carpeting the floor beneath them, you would be very surprised by the origin of most supermarket salmon.  Over fishing and farming itself have decimated the wild stocks to the point where it is with some guilt that I use wild salmon at all any more.  They need time to recover. 
     As a consumer, your best bet, most easily sourced and financially viable is organically farmed, usually found at a proper fishmonger.  A whole wild salmon can cost £90-100, organically farmed around the £30-50 mark.  Organically farmed salmon have so much more room to splash about and they feast on feed you can trust. It is such a shame, because a truly wild salmon is such a thing of beauty to behold and to devour.  Tell tale signs of a poor quality salmon- fatty and pale flesh, ragged and stunted tail.  As with most fish, overcooking is a crime.  A pink middle is preferable.
     Going old school back to the 'darne' cut is a fantastic way to showcase a fine round fish.  It takes me back to childhood and any fish cooked on the bone will taste superior.  If using a boneless fillet, keep that skin on for frying.  Nothing like a perfectly crisp cooked salmon skin to texture contrast the yielding flesh beneath.  Only ever take the skin off if poaching, serving in a broth/soup or for confit.
The salmon is a vital part of ancient Celtic and North American Native mythologies.

Darne of Wild Salmon, Grilled Courgettes & Hollandaise 

Ingredients for 2 

For the hollandaise: 
180gm Unsalted clarified butter
2 Free range egg yolks
Pinch of cayenne
Juice of half a small lemon
Water if needed 

For the rest: 
2x 180gm Darnes of wild or organic farmed salmon
1 Large courgette sliced into ribbons
Unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil/Rapeseed oil
Sunflower oil 

For the hollandaise: 
1)Ensure the egg yolks are at room temperature.
2)In a medium sized metal bowl over a 'bain marie' whisk the yolks with half the lemon juice to a
      'sabayon' texture, very thick.
3)Slowly stream in the butter whisking all the while.
4)Add the rest of the lemon juice to taste along with the seasoning and the cayenne.
5)Add a few drops of warm water whilst mixing if too thick.
6)Cover the bowl with cling film and leave somewhere warm. 

For the rest: 
1)Using a griddle or barbecue, grill the seasoned and lightly extra virgin olive oiled strips of courgette until tender but not over cooked.
2)Toss in a little more olive oil if desired/needed and set aside.
3)Season the salmon darnes liberally and place in a hot non-stick pan that has been lightly oiled with sunflower oil.  (Poaching in a court-boullion would be equally as tasty and healthier.)
4)Fry until golden on one side, reduce the heat, turn over and baste in 20-30gm cold unsalted butter until medium.

To serve: 
     Place a mound of grilled courgettes on each plate and top with the salmon darnes.  A generous spoonful of hollandaise on top can be blasted with a blow torch or under a hot grill for added finesse.  Serve with minted new potatoes and a crisp Sancerre or Chablis.

'La Cuisiniere Hollandaise' by Gerard Dou, 17th century

A note on hollandaise: 
     Traditionally this 'mother' sauce was made with whole butter in a saucepan over open flame.  As with many recipes it has greatly evolved. The perfect accompaniment for poached fish, asparagus or eggs Benedict this artery clogging delight is truly one of the great contributions of French culture to the world.  In the restaurant we always have an acidic and aromatic reduction to hand for flavouring a hollandaise, really not necessary for home...and sometimes I wonder if needed at work.  
A couple top tips: 
1)Don't let the hollandaise get too hot, this will cause it to split. 
2)If it does start to curdle, it can be re-emulsified by adding a tbsp of water, drop by drop whilst whisking.  Use hot water if the sauce has gone too cold, cold water if the sauce has gone too hot.

Lapsang Souchong Salmon Fillet, Ginger Broth & Basmati Rice

Ingredients for 2

2x 170gm Skinned organic or wild salmon fillets
100gm Lapsang souchong tea leaves
1 Tbsp brown sugar
Muslin cloth or women's tights
300ml Fish stock
30gm Julienne fresh ginger
1 Spring onion
1/2 Lime, zested and juiced
1/2 Small red chilli, sliced
1/2 Lemongrass stalk
200gm Basmati or jasmine rice
Small knob unsalted butter
Fresh coriander
Sunflower oil
1 Garlic clove, smashed
Pickled ginger

For the salmon:
1) Wrap the salmon fillets in a single layer of muslin cloth or inside the tights and coat evenly with the tea leaves, brown sugar and a couple pinches of salt.  Refrigerate in an air tight container for 24 hours.
2) Brush off all the tea and remove the salmon from the muslin.
3) Season lightly with sea salt and freshly ground black or white pepper and pan-fry in a non-stick pan, belly side down until golden.  Turn the fish over and decrease the heat.  Baste the golden 'service side' of the fish with a spoon for several minutes taking care not to burn the butter.  Your goal is to achieve a perfect 'mi-cuit' (half-cooked) temperature.  Well done salmon is only fit for the cat.

For the broth:
1) You can prepare the broth whilst the salmon is marinating.
2) Heat the fish stock to boiling point.  Add the ginger, lime juice and zest, garlic and lemongrass.  Season to taste.  Remove from the heat and cover with cling film for a ten minute infusion.  Remove the film, strain the stock and re-boil.  Add the sliced spring onion, finely sliced red chilli and coriander leaves just before serving.

To serve:

     Place the salmon fillets in two deep bowls/pasta bowls and pour over the ginger broth.  Top with a little finely sliced pickled ginger and serve with side bowls Basmati rice.
Top tip:  The addition of a little cassia bark and a couple cloves will add depth and spice to steamed rice.

A note on lapsang souchong tea:

     A Chinese black tea that has been withered over pine or cedar fires, pan-fried, rolled and oxidised before being fully dried in bamboo baskets over burning pine.  The result is a smoky, oaky and robust tea with an overriding scent and flavour of wood smoke.  It works wonderfully with salmon because you get the sense that you are eating smoked salmon although it is a large fillet of medium-rare cooked fish.

'Salmon are like men- too soft a life is not good for them.'
-James de Coquet