Monday, 23 August 2010

Venison ragu

Sounds a bit decadent but it's not really, well, maybe just a little bit...

I'm all for whipping up a bolognese sauce after work, it can be a nice and quick crowd pleaser, but it's also fun to luxuriate in making a proper ragu from scratch, and if you do it you'll really taste the difference in the end product.

Preparing the mirepoix base (the holy trinity of carrot, celery and onion) takes a little time, but it's the base for great sauces and stocks, giving depth and sweetness to all it touches. Combined with beautifully ripe and juicy tomatoes they form the basis of a great ragu.

Whilst it's not really practical mid week post work, given the rain has been pummeling down all day its been the perfect time for me to cook this culinary treat, and try something a bit different with it.

Venison mince is priced around the same as minced beef from a butcher so its not overly expensive, and it brings a sweet richness to the sauce that really elevates it to something a bit more special.

The meat is pretty lean though so whilst it enjoys being cooked gently and slowly for a few hours, you don't want to pound it with masses of heat for hours and hours on end. And I definitely recommend making it one day and eating it the next, it gives the flavours time to intensify and deepen quite deliciously.

Food for four:
600g minced venison
3 fat rashers of smoked streaky, rind removed, cut finely
1 large carrot, peeled, top and tailed and finely diced
2 celery stalks, top and tailed and finely diced
2 golden onions, peeled and finely diced
Two fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
4 big juicy tomatoes, plum or salad will do, the green core removed and diced
1 can of tomatoes, or the same volume of pasatta
3 glasses of white wine
4 tablespoons tomato puree
One level teaspoon dried chilli flakes (optional but very tasty)
Olive oil for cooking
Sea salt and pepper
Pasta to serve

- In a large saute pan or saucepan heat several glugs of olive oil for cooking and butter, and cook on a medium heat, as soon as the oil is heating up add your carrots, onion and celery to the pan
- Cook for around 20 minutes until the vegetables have really softened and are turning a light golden colour (you're not looking for them to turn too dark)
- Add your bacon to the pan and continue to cook for another 6-7 minutes, then add your venison
- The mince has the tendency to clump together, so use the end of a wooden spatula to break it up and stop it being too lumpy
- When the venison has just browned all over, add the garlic to the pan and cook for a further 2-3 minutes, then add the wine, tinned tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, tomato puree and a generous amount of salt and pepper (taste it to see how much it needs) stir to combine and put the lid on
- Turn the pan down to its lowest heat and leave to cook for three hours (stirring occasionally) then switch off
- The following day when you're ready to eat, put the pan back on the lowest heat and add the dried chilli flakes
- Cook the ragu for 30 minutes stirring occasionally, then remove the lid and cook for a further 30 to reduce the sauce a little, continuing to stir
- Serve over your favourite pasta (I like these penne because they're wheat free, but if you can eat wheat I'd go for anything by De Cecco - overtime!) with a handful of extra virgin drizzled rocket and Parmesan cheese
- Wine to accompany is optional, but recommended

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Lemon, polenta and poppy seed syrup cake with honeyed spiced figs

This is something of a first for the blog; a cake!

It's not that I don't cook or like cakes, more that I've always been more of a savoury girl. But this is a beautiful cake that has a great texture, is incredibly moist and isn't overly sweet.

Plus, I am married to a cake eating Yorkshire man and can ignore this fact no longer.

Coming home from work on a daily basis I find that he has been buying little cakes and baked treats for 'afternoon tea'. At first I found them hidden in the pantry in the naughty basket, but now he doesn't even hide them, they sit brazenly on the dining table like some kind of non verbal message to me 'bake me a cake, woman'.

I am not even a year married and am trying to be a good wifey, and I'm sure many other married ladies will know that this sometimes involves doing things we wouldn't normally do (like making cakes, of course!), so here it is, my blog's cakey debut.

For one 8" diameter cake:
200g unsalted butter
3 eggs
200g golden caster sugar (extra nice if you've stored a vanilla pod in it)
100g ground polenta
200g ground almonds
One heaped teaspoon poppy seeds
The grated rind of four lemons
The juice of four lemons
One fig each (depending on how many your cake is feeding)
A spoon of natural yogurt per fig
Butter for greasing
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons icing sugar

The fig syrup:
2 tablespoons icing sugar
Two tablespoons honey
The grated rind of one lemon
Juice of three lemons
One star anise
One half vanilla pod

- Preheat your oven to 170 degrees and grease an 8" cake tin with unsalted butter
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy
- Add the eggs and mix thoroughly into the mixture, then add in the ground almonds
- Once all combined, add in the poppy seeds, baking powder and ground polenta and mix together until its a pale yellow and fluffy mixture
- Finally, add in the juice of one lemon and the rind of four, combine thoroughly and then spoon the thick and fluffy mixture into the buttered cake tin
- Cook for 35 minutes in the oven then check it's cooked by putting a skewer or knife into the centre, if it comes out cleans its ready, if not give it a few more minutes and check again, once cooked remove the cake from the oven (but don't turn the oven off)
- Five minutes before cake comes out of the oven, put the juice of three lemons and icing sugar into a small saucepan and heat on a medium heat until dissolved
- Pierce the cake all over and pour the drizzle mixture onto it then set the cake aside so the drizzle can absorb
- Slice crosses through the centre tops of the figs so the tops open up into four quarters, but don't slice them all the way through just a third of the way down
- Place the figs onto a lightly buttered baking sheet and bake in the oven for 15 minutes
- While they're baking, in a small saucepan place all the fig syrup ingredients and cook on a gentle heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture lightly bubbling
- Serve the cake in slices onto plates, and place a tablespoon of yogurt to sit a fig in next to the cake
- Spoon the fig syrup over the figs and a little onto the cake
- Eat, a cup of tea or proper coffee go nicely

Pan fried chicken supreme with a fennel, sweet potato and Parmesan gratin

Don't be scared, this 'supreme' isn't the creamy sauced beige chicken you might have encountered in your childhood!

I'm really liking this cut of chicken; the breast and first half of the wing attached and in this case with the skin on and bone in the wing. Apparently it's a traditional French cut but that doesn't mean it's difficult to cook - far from it. And as it gives a bit more interest both visually and in terms of taste, in my book it's a winner and you'll find it at your local butchers if you fancy trying it out.

I'm always really excited to find a new vegetable accompaniment. As much as 'straight veg' on the sides of things is ok, I particularly like them in combinations with one another - for instance, ratatouille is a fave of mine. So finding this little dish in a Scottish bistro during Edinburgh Festival last week delighted me.

Now, I didn't ask the chef how it was prepared, more did my usual dish dissection to figure out what it contained and how it was cooked. This has turned out a little different but still (might I say) delicious, and it goes beautifully with a lovely crispy skinned chicken breast. Add some greens if you feel the need to be good.

For two (with some gratin left for the following day):
Two chicken supremes (chicken breasts with the wing attached, I like them skin on and bone in as it tastes amazing and helps presentation) - if you can't get supremes then two breasts with the skin on will do just fine
One fat fennel bulb
One large sweet potato, peeled
400mls single cream
150mls white wine
One golden onion, peeled
100g grated Parmesan
Sea salt and black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Oil for frying (veg or groundnut)

- Preheat your oven to 190 degrees
- Using a mandolin (easy and fast so a worthwhile piece of kit to have, and its not expensive to buy) shave your sweet potato and fennel into slices around 2mm thick, and your onion into 1mm thick slices
- In a frying pan on a medium heat add a knob of butter and some oil and when the butter starts to foam add the onions and a scrunch of salt to the pan
- Fry for around 6 minutes, turning over until they become golden, once they start to take on the colour add the garlic and cook for a further three minutes before turning the heat off, you're wanting them to be lightly golden, not brown
- In a small saucepan add your cream and wine and a little scrunch of salt and lots of black pepper and bring to the simmer, turn the heat off and add about three quarters of the Parmesan cheese until its all melted into the sauce
- In a baking dish place a fine layer of the fennel (a third of the fennel), followed by all of the onions, then a layer of the sweet potatoes, then repeat with the fennel and sweet potatoes until you've finished - the potatoes should be the top layer
- Now pour all of the cream, wine and cheese mixture over the vegetables and finally top with the remaining Parmesan. Give a good scrunch of black pepper and top with a tent of foil (meaning a cover that doesn't touch the contents) then pop into the oven for 45 minutes
- After 45 minutes remove the foil and continue to cook for a further 15 minutes to just brown the tops a little
- When you've taken the foil off, get a frying pan and add a knob of butter and some frying oil, heat on a medium-high heat until the butter starts to foam, at this point salt and pepper the skin of the chicken and place them skin side down in the pan
- Cook skin side down and move a couple of times in the pan so they don't stick, for around 7 minutes, then salt and pepper the upturned sides before turning over and cooking for a further seven minutes, the skin and flesh will become deliciously golden and juicy
- Now its time to take the gratin out of the oven (but don't turn the oven off), just let it sit to one side until the chicken has done (it's always a little better when its cooled ever so slightly and has set a bit more)
- After the chicken has fried on both sides, place it into the oven in a roasting tin or on a baking sheet, and cook for 11 minutes (it might need one minute more or less depending on how big the breast is)
- Cut a slice of your gratin out of the baking sheet and place it on a plate (now its cooled slightly it shouldn't collapse but stay more firm and set) then remove your chicken from the oven, slice the breast in half length ways (so through its centre) and place on top
- Serve and devour, we like it on its own but you could have it with some buttered mange tout, and a glass of white vino goes very nicely indeed (of course!)

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Pan fried Dingley Dell pork loin chops wth toffee apple reduction, and puy lentils in creamy cider sauce

My day out at Dingley Dell pig farm in Suffolk might not have been very glam but it was seriously good fun.

I don't normally go in for hanging around in pig farms, but the company I work for use Dingley Dell as our pork supplier, and it provides a great sense of pride to all in the business and our customers as Dingley Dell pork not only tastes superb, the animals are welfare reared.

And as the only pig ambassador farm for the RSPCA Freedom Food foundation in the UK, we think its pretty fantastic that our pork has this kind of provenance - a real winner, the pigs taste good and eating them makes us and our customers feel good.

Our day involved a horrifically early start in the morning to tackle the five hour drive to Suffolk, but once there with the glorious weather, and being greeted by the owners of Dingley Dell, brothers Mark and Paul Hayward who were brandishing a plate of bacon sandwiches, we were well on our way for a good day.

A day around the pig farm seeing the sows, piglets and junior pigs was excellent fun, we finished off with a butchery demonstration on a whole half pig and finally, sampling the goods by the lakeside on a giant barbecue - delicious.

Home time came and of course, all that lovely freshly butchered pork needed to be eaten, so we left the farm with our very own pork goody bags (I don't think I've ever been so excited to receive a goody bag, even when I was a child!).

So, in tribute to the friendly and majestic pig, I wanted to do it justice and cook something a little special, and this dish delights the palette, dinner party circuit friends can expect this one soon.

Dinner for two:
2 pork loin chops, ours were French trimmed by our butcher which makes them prettier, but isn't essential
150g puy lentils, uncooked
3 bay leaves
1 braburn apple, peeled and cored, quartered and sliced into segments (this should be the last ingredient you get ready before starting to cook, so the apple doesn't turn brown)
500ml sweet cider
A generous glug (4 shots) of sweet / dessert wine
One chicken stock cube
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour, mixed with a little water
75g creme fraiche (full fat please!)
A big handful of green beans, top and tailed
Butter -  a fair amount of it
Olive oil for cooking
Sea salt and black pepper
Mashed potato to serve (if you fancy, we didnt this time).

- Heat your oven to 100 degrees
- Empty your cider into a saucepan, add your chicken stock and sugar and reduce on a medium heat until there is just under half the volume left
- Place your lentils in a pan of cold water, add your bay leaves and bring to a rolling boil, let cook for around 15-20 minutes, you're looking for them to have swollen in size and become al dente and ready to eat. Once done, drain in a colander and reserve
- Now your cider has reduced, add your cornflour to slightly thicken the liqour and cook for a further five minutes. Taste for the seasoning and add salt and pepper as you need, then add the creme fraiche to the pan and stir until combined. Turn the heat down and leave to cook gently, stirring occasionally to make sure they don't catch
- Heat a pan of boiling water ready to cook your beans
- Heat a frying pan on a high heat and add a generous knob of butter and a glug of olive oil
- Season one side of your pork loin chops with sea salt and pepper, and once the butter begins to foam, turn the pan down slightly (still a med-high heat though) and add the pork chops to the pan, seasoning side down
- Move them gently in the pan to make sure they don't get stuck, and cook for 3-4 minutes (depending on their thickness). While they're cooking, season the other side of the chops
- Turn them over and at the same time, add your fine beans to their pan of boiling water (you'll cook them for about 4-5 minutes), add a bit more butter to your frying pan and place your apple segments in there
- After a further 3-4 minutes on the other side both sides of the pork should now have some good golden caramelisation, now remove them from the pan, place in a baking tray or on a plate and pop in the oven
- Turn the apple segments over to get more good colour on them, at the same time you need to drain the beans and leave them steaming in a colander
- Now the apples are looking gorgeous and golden, it's time to add your shots of dessert or sweet wine. I like to cock the pan toward the flame to catch the liquor, this quickly cooks off the alcohol - just make sure you don't set yourself or anything else on fire!
- Once the flames die down and the liquid is bubbling and reducing, add a final knob of butter to the pan and shake it into the sauce until its all dissolved - this will thicken the reduction and give a great sheen
- Time to plate up. A few heaped tablespoons of the lentil and cider sauce to the bottom of your plate, followed by your beans, then pork chop, apple segments and a few spoons of that delicious toffee apple style reduction to finish, then its time to eat. If you're real carb or potato lovers mashed pots would go beautifully with this, served on the side.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Larb gai - hot and sour minced chicken salad

I've been somewhat obsessive about this dish, cooking it repeatedly until I could eat it and imagine sitting at a rickety bamboo table, white sand between my toes, an ice cold Singha beer in hand, looking out to the deep blue sea of the Thai islands.

Now that you've sourced your galangal, nam pla, holy basil and palm sugar you're well on the way to creating this Thai classic, the larb gai salad. And you're only missing one unusual ingredient; toasted rice powder.

I know it sounds a bit scary on the sourcing front, but it's actually really easy to make yourself. Buy some sticky white rice from an oriental supermarket and toast on a medium heat in a dry frying pan for around 12 minutes, tossing it over regularly so it turns nutty golden brown all over. Then transfer it to a pestle and mortar and grind for a couple of minutes by hand (once toasted it breaks up really easily, so you don't need mega muscles for this bit).

Sharp, seriously spicy and quite sweet, with a fantastic toasted taste and grainy texture, this dish is seriously moreish and if chicken isn't your thing, beef works just as well.

Larb gai for two:
Two chicken breasts minced by hand (a ball ache that requires a clever, or put it very briefly into a food processor which is much easier) If you decide to use beef make it rump steak, and mince it in the same way.
75mls lime juice
75mls chicken stock
2-3 green chillies (depending on how hot you like it), finely chopped up
75mls Thai fish sauce
A knob of galangal and one of ginger, both peeled and finely grated
8 Thai shallots, peeled and finely sliced
2 tablespoons palm sugar
A handful each of fresh mint, holy basil and corriander, chopped up just before being needed
5 tablespoons toasted rice powder

- Combine in a saucepan all the ingredients apart from the shallots, fresh herbs and rice powder
- Put a lid on the pan and on a low to medium heat bring the chicken to the simmer
- There isn't much liquid in the pan so you'll need to keep turning the chicken to make sure its all covered in the liquid
- Once its at simmering point, remove the lid and cook through for around 4 minutes to make sure all the chicken is cooked through - add the shallots half way through this cooking
- Test the taste and make sure there is a good balance of spicy to sour to sweet - it should taste very intense so don't be scared to adjust the flavours if they need it (you might need more nam pla, lime juice, chilli or palm sugar)
- Remove the chicken from the heat and stir through the herbs and 3/4's of the rice powder, mix through until combined
- Serve on shredded iceberg lettuce and top with the remaining rice powder, then devour