Never Failed Me Yet

Cooking with offal was once truly common sense. You slaughtered Francis (I’ve always wanted a pig called Francis) in the late autumn, and it was not just respectful to his memory but entirely necessary to your own survival that you used every single bit of his fat pink carcass; except for the oink, of course, which had in any case departed when you stuck him. With the help of salt and smoke and many hands, each part would be rendered gradually edible, for today, tomorrow, or for the long winter ahead. Most of us no longer live like this.

Some parts which come under the broad heading of offal are still truly waste; my butcher gives me heads and feet, hearts and scraps for free, as they would only be destined for landfill, and I’m more than happy to take the time and energy to transform these stubborn pieces of meat into something delicious. Others, perhaps, are making the slow transition from unwanted cut to delicacy; a pig only has two cheeks, after all, and if everybody realised how good they were they would be prized higher than fillet, with a price tag to match. Still other bits are so hard to get hold of that their consumption becomes more performative than practical, in which category I’d put blood.

Fresh blood is hard to find, but even in its dried form it is cheap, nutritious and delicious; if we no longer need to use it to thicken or to bind, or just as a handy, sausageable form of protein, it is still worth doing, both – I’ll admit – for the B-movie fun of it and for the elusive, rusty flavour. Perhaps, too, by keeping a taste for it alive, we prepare for a time when its fresh form is not treated as a poison but used and celebrated at its abundant source. This southern Italian recipe would once have been a part of the pig-killing festivities; now, almost black and with a fudgy, spoonable texture, it is simply a delicious thing to eat. You’ll need, I’m afraid, a reliable thermometer.

SANGUINACCIO

Makes six little cups

35g dried pig’s blood

100g lukewarm (blood temperature) water

100g light muscovado sugar

200g dark chocolate, chopped

100g olive oil (a lowish grade is fine)

100g double cream

Whisk the dried blood with the water and a pinch of salt until you have a smooth liquid, rather thicker than water; pinch a drop between your fingertips to check it has all dissolved, then add to all the other ingredients in a heatproof bowl.

Set this over a pan of simmering water, and stir the whole lot together while the sugar dissolves and then the chocolate melts; keep stirring until it reaches 67°C, and then immediately pour into a waiting jug and from there into your six little cups. Put in the fridge for a few hours to set.

Serve, if you like, with candied pine nuts, raisins and orange peel, or with more cream. Ask your diners to guess the secret ingredient, and then await their wrath.

Eggs Dracule

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Reading food writing all the time, it’s easy to think that recipes spring, fully-formed, from nowhere; that other people’s lives are parades of perfect meal after perfect meal, crafted and styled. Even leftovers are never chucked in a sandwich or in the bin, but instead reimagined, ‘upcycled’ into hashes and pilafs, fritters and arancini. “I always make extra, just for the leftovers!” they cry, and you curse them from your pit of crisps and shame.

 

Of course, no-one lives like this in reality, or at least no-one who has anything else to do with their time. The lifestyle we are shown in cookery books, blogs and TV shows is a fantasy, even for those who espouse it; Nigel Slater recounts, in the middle of his Kitchen Diaries (otherwise full of farmers’ markets, trips to Chinatown, odes to his herb garden), being publically accosted while carrying a bag of frozen peas, and fleeing in shame. Nothing wrong with frozen peas, of course, but the message behind this careful lifting of the mask is clear. “I am like you”, he says. “I am human too.”

 

In the interests of transparency, then, I feel I should say that my breakfast yesterday consisted of a co-op ham and cheese sandwich and some crisps. The gas was off, the house was freezing, and I stayed in bed until hunger drove me out; there was nothing to eat in the house that didn’t need cooking. That, however, doesn’t make for a very good blog post, at least not on a food blog. Brunch today, then, is what I will write about. While a little fancier, it was still born of necessity, surplus, and experiment, an off-the-cuff meal that turned out quite well.

 

I have a lot of dried blood left after making black pudding, and had been searching for things to do with it. I remembered reading about some research done by the Nordic Food Lab, in which they had discovered that blood has a very similar make-up to eggs, and so this dish was born.

 

EGGS DRACULE

a fine romantic brunch for two

4 eggs

2 English muffins

4 slices of good ham

a little chopped parsley or chives

PIG BLOOD HOLLANDAISE

50g butter

2 tblspn dried blood

50ml water

25ml red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a small, lipped pan, and leave to settle a little. Put a pan of water on to boil. In a heatproof bowl, whisk together the blood, water and vinegar with a pinch of salt until the blood is dissolved.

When the water comes to a boil, put the bowl over it, turn off the hear, and start whisking. When frothy and thickened slightly, start adding the butter in a slow stream, whisking as you go. When it’s all added (leaving behind the white solids) you should have a light, glossy sauce. Season, and leave over the hot water while you construct brunch.

Poach the eggs according to your usual method, unless your usual method is terrible, in which case get someone else to do it. Split, toast, and butter the muffins, and put a slice of ham on each half. A poached egg on that, a blanket of sauce, and a sprinkle of herbs, and there you go.

 

Bake Against The Dying Of The Light

10402798_10152785373432559_2727655711948833627_nI meant to write a post about autumn. Something about the wonderful, crackling transience of it, about the brief period of crisp, bright days, and, of course, about the food, fungi and wet nuts, the first of the year’s game, the last of the summer in hedgerow berries, orchard and stone fruits – the way it seems to be the most British of seasons, not having to borrow from other cuisines the way we do in summer, but able to fully express our ingredients and our heritage. Well, I missed autumn. It seems to have lasted about a week between Indian summer and early-onset winter.

The thing about our autumn is that it is really itself. We don’t really have an idealised autumn to hold it up against, the way we do with summer (Cornwall, the south of France, wherever) and winter (Christmas stories, the Alps). Is it dry and clear? Beautiful. Is it rainy? Good! All the better for splashing in the mud. Winter, on the other hand, rarely matches up to our desires. It’s never really that cold, and even decent snowfall soon turns into filthy slush. We want to sit huddled up with hot cocoa, scarves and mittens, and various arrangements of potato, meat and cheese, but that hardly seems justified when it’s 10 above freezing and drizzling.

As such, we don’t really have winter food as a distinct entity. We have the late autumn repetoire of soups and stews, and then we have the month-long tyranny of Christmas, which infects every meal in December. Even a quick supermarket sandwich becomes an opportunity to eat turkey, stuffing, and some cranberry-related concoction. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, turkey and cranberry are vile, unless prepared very carefully indeed; secondly, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration, a feast. No wonder people complain about Christmas Day, about the endless tedium of the family meal – they’ve already experienced the most important part of it, watered down and adulterated, about 20 times, at drunken office parties, in petrol stations, pubs, Pret a Manger. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate at Christmas, but do we have to do it for so long?

What we need is a new winter festival, one that hasn’t been corrupted by Americanism, commercialism, and Pret a Manger, a new way to rage against the dying of the light and bring back the setting sun. For much of European peasant history, the big event of the winter has been the pig-killing festival, the whole village coming together to slaughter and to create, curing and salting and hanging meat to see them through the dark days. I appreciate that most people don’t have a pig to slaughter; still, perhaps we could nod to the toils of our ancestors, and make black pudding. Besides being delicious, it is ridiculously cheap, although you’ll need a couple of specialist ingredients. This recipe is adapted from the excellent Nose To Tail iteration, and makes a flat, Yorkshire-style loaf.

BLACK PUDDING

Buy dried blood off the internet (here is good); you’ll have to ask a butcher for back fat. I got mine free, but we’re good pals. It shouldn’t be expensive, anyway. I guess you could use fat snipped off back bacon? Mr Henderson suggests salted lardo if you can’t find raw fat.

Serves 8-10

1 spanish onion, finely chopped

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

A chunk of lard

A small bunch of sage, finely chopped

Half a nutmeg, grated

1 tsp allspice

150g dried pig blood

150g fine polenta

250g back fat, chopped into little cubes

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3, and line a loaf tin with clingfilm.

Melt the lard in a big pan, then sweat the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, whisk the dried blood into a litre of blood-temperature water. When the onion is done, tip in the sage and spices, cook out for a minute, then add the polenta and blood. Turn the heat right down, and cook, stirring, until it starts to congeal and thicken. Blood is very like eggs, so imagine a custard. You don’t want it to set yet. Taste (this is gross, more because of the raw polenta than the semi-cooked blood), and season appropriately. It wants a surprising amount of salt, and a free hand with the pepper.

Take off the heat and stir in the back fat – you want it evenly spread through the bloody porridge. Pour into your loaf tin, which you cover with foil and place, on a folded tea towel, in a good deep oven tray. Pour boiling water to just under the lip of the tin, then carefully slide into the oven. Back for about 1 and a half to 2 hours, until a knife comes out cleanish, then leave to set overnight.

To eat, slice appropriately, and fry or bake until hot and crispy. Serve, perhaps, with black badger peas and black kale, on the shortest day of the year.