Quietly Shining

When you step outside to dump yesterday’s coffee grounds, to relieve the dog, to squeeze your curing hams or to otherwise do whatever it is you do first thing in the morning, and you find that the grass crunches underneath your feet and the sharp air catches in your nostril – when, in short, there is every sign that the ministry of frost has been busily fulfilling its duties overnight, it is time to think about boiling bones.

Although the health claims made for bone broth are dubious at best, the Jay Rayners of this world are wrong about one thing – it is not the same as stock. Not at all. A properly made stock has never risen above a simmer; it has been skimmed and pampered its whole life through, and the end result is eerily clear. A soup made with stock, with neatly diced vegetables cooked just-so in it, might be right for a summer day; a good bone broth, never.

I have some pork bones boiling up right now, in with a good smoked gammon hock – and they will be boiled. They will be cooked until the collagen and the fat breaks down and emulsifies with the water, which will be cloudy but glistening and almost tacky to the touch, like the pellicle on the skin of a drying mackerel. You can see, when you make broth, how bones become glue.

Personally, I rarely put in vegetables when I’m boiling ham and bones, though the skins of brown onions give a satisfying colour. As you’re normally doing something else with it, you can add the vegetables then, and give them a fighting chance to retain their integrity; not much outlasts the smoke and salt of a boiling ham hock. Today, when the broth is done I will sweat diced onion and carrots, add some pickled cucumber and its brine, then buckwheat and the broth and finally parsley, great handfuls of parsley and dill, and maybe some soured cream. I’ll share it with some good friends and some good beer, and we will know in our bones that it is cold outside and we are warm.

Panacea

IMG_4286

Whatever some might say about the roast beef of old England, the pig is, in religiously amenable areas at least, the indisputed king of the eating animals. Although it arguably deserves this accolade for its belly meat alone, not to mention the succulent beauty of its shoulder, cheek, and plump double chins, a large part of the utility and therefore the beauty of the pig comes from its suitability for curing of all kinds, in nitrate-protected salamis, salted raw hams, chunks of smoked bacon and jowl, dry-cures and Suffolk-cures, treacle and beer and vinegar; its ability, in other words, to be charcuterised. Since time immemorial, or at least a short time after that, the pig has lent itself, from snotter to trotter, to the sausage-maker’s trade – and we should all be very glad of that.

Still, there are hams beyond the porcine. Turkey, which has a pickle culture to rival that of Poland, has the meats to match, the best known here being suçuk and pastirma, both made from beef, the latter related in etymology if not technique to pastrami, which has in recent years overtaken the simpler salt beef as the most famous cured meat product of the Ashkenazi Jewish deli culture which has brought dill pickles to so many disparate parts of this world. The beef being cured here is generally brisket, sometimes fillet; the parsimonious celebration of flesh gifted to the pig is, for the cow, mainly expressed in the search for ever-more niche cuts of steak, possessed of either odd French or quaint English names and cooked bloody as hell, bavette, onglet, hanger, butler’s, butcher’s, baker’s , and candle-stick-maker’s, though an honourable mention should go to the salted and pressed ox tongue, one of the few pieces of world charcuterie which requires its own, specialist device.

Where, though, is the cured lamb? Perhaps the climates where lamb is the main protein are ill-suited to the curing of meat; perhaps I am just extremely ignorant on the subject. Either way, I know of few traditional recipes for cured lamb. This is a shame, as it can be extremely delicious. I have made a Serrano-style ham with the leg of a hogget, which was a thing of beauty; you had the squidge and edge of a good raw ham, but with an almost overbearing sheepiness, not quite edging into rancidity … I can taste it now. It did, however, apart from the whole leg, take several kilograms of salt, besides space and time and probably, I suppose, quite a lot of luck; a charcutier of my acquaintance was surprised and jealous that I had managed to make a bone-in cured lamb leg without rot or mould. I suppose the chimney in which I hung it must have been a particularly hospitable environment.

Whatever the reason, it is not a recipe suited to repeating at home, and, indeed, I never have. We should be getting another sheep soon, so I will try again; until then, this is an excellent, and extremely easy, cured lamb dish. Lamb fillet can be pale and unappetizing, but a couple of days makes it as dark as a Carpaccio; if it looks like a Caravaggio, it’s gone off.

CURED LAMB, BROAD BEANS AND FENNEL

2kg lamb fillet

600g coarse sea salt

400g granulated sugar

zest of 4 lemons

2 tbsp fennel seeds

Mix the salt, sugar, lemon and fennel together, and spread a layer in a plastic or otherwise non-metallic tub. Nestle in the lamb, and cover completely with the cure. Leave in the fridge for two or three days, then rinse and dry. Slice thinly and top with

a handful of raw broad beans, from however many pods it takes to get a handful

2 bulbs fennel, sliced wafer-thin

dressed with

juice of two lemons

200ml extra virgin olive oil

a pinch of salt

a good 6 grinds of pepper

whisked together.

Pigs and Peas

Pity the British food writer. A lovely last week of May, and all those pieces you’ve planned, on podding peas in the evening sun, the joys of stone fruit and cucumber and gin – the rich larder of an imagined English summer – are looking great. You can almost smell the lemonade. Then June hits, and it’s all autumnal gusts of sideways rain. Such is the problem of seasonality in a country where the weather barely pays lip service to the time of year.

Ah well. The whole point of summer produce is that you barely need to cook it anyway. You weren’t actually going to follow that clafoutis recipe, were you? Just eat the cherries out of the bag on the way home, like a normal person. When the late summer courgette glut hits, you might be glad of a few extra ideas (make chutney, leave it to ‘mature’ in the cupboard/shelf/oubliette) but for now (the imagined now, that is, where the weather’s really nice) it’s best to enjoy things as fresh as can be.

None if this helps with the need for early-summer warmers, though. Here, as so often, I suggest ham is the answer. Some conjunction of pea and pig is always appropriate, from London Particular to lovely little-gem-and-herb heavy salads, and this is a great way of hedging your bets. So.

BASIC HAM ADVICE

Ham hocks (gammon hock, bacon knuckle – same thing) are a perfect marriage of hard-working, pullable meat with gelatin-heavy bone and wibbly bits. Butchers usually have them. Get 1 or more if you’ve got a big enough pot.

Onions

Carrots

Leeks

Celery

Garlic, juniper, thyme, whatever

Put everything in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a lively simmer. Keep there for a good two hours, until you can easily pull out the main bone of the hock.

Fish out the ham(s) and leave to cool a bit before shredding, discarding bone, skin, and any wibbly bits that haven’t broken down. 

Strain the stock, which is now worth its weight in gold. The carrots will be deliciously hammy, the rest of the vegetables pretty insipid. Discard those too.

There you are! If the weather’s gone crap, you can cook split peas in the stock, add some shredded ham (maybe fried crispy) and eat with rye bread; glorious sunshine might warrant the aforementioned salad, scattered with freshly prodded peas, chervil and chives, and maybe a fresh curd cheese; somewhere in the middle (most likely, I suppose) and you could braise the lettuce and peas in your ham stock, enriching the broth with a good dollop of aïoli. If you want to just eat the warm ham with your fingers, slurping down jugfuls of broth, though, that’s fine by me. 

Eggs Dracule

photo(4)

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.