By Any Other Name

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Sometimes the hardest step in the journey of a dish from brain to plate is deciding what to call the damn thing – a comparatively recent problem. Back in the day, of course, even the finest of chefs would have cooked a menu of the classics, and the names as well as the recipes and presentation would have come straight from Escoffier; now originality is expected everywhere, and if high-flung menuese and its attendant plague of adjectives has (thankfully) become a thing of the past, then the current style of [ingredient, ingredient, ingredient] or [ingredient & ingredient] can be just as demanding. Commas or ampersand? What order? In such a sparse form, the scanty information you do give away becomes vital. Do you acknowledge the artichoke is raw, the mackerel is cured, the chilli is fermented, the yoghurt is seasoned, the chickpeas are spiced, the croutons are absent? Or do you leave the nitty-gritty to front of house, who will (probably) get everything wrong anyway?

This gets even harder when you start making things up. A chicken breast is a chicken breast, no matter what combination of cured and fermented items you put it on a plate with. What to call boiled pigs’ lungs, minced with onion and stuffed into intestine? This is a similar preparation to a haggis, of course, but the chieftain of the pudding race is made with sheep offal (the whole pluck, ideally) and stuffed into a stomach; I think you could get away with one change to this formula, but not two. Pig offal stuffed in a stomach, I’d happily call a pork haggis. Conversely, lamb offal in sausage form would make a good haggis sausage. A pork haggis sausage, though, is just silly. A pork light sausage? A pork offal sausage? I’d expect some liver in that, personally. A pork lung sausage? These get less appetising. I find myself wishing I’d put some blood in the mix so I could call it black pudding and have done. Pudding might be the way to go – by the time the things are grilled they’re barely sausage-shaped anyway – but I’m not sure the term is generally understood in that way, black and white puddings as well as the aforementioned chieftain notwithstanding. Offal pudding? Light pudding? You see my problem. The things are sitting in the freezer now, awaiting only a name.

THE UNNAMED SAUSAGE

I am 90% sure that no-one will ever follow this recipe.

the lungs and windpipe of two medium pigs

stock vegetables (onion, carrot and co)

4 sweet white onions

a little oil

250g toasted buckwheat groats

sausage casings

copious salt and pepper

 

Put the lights in a big pot with the stock vegetables and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and leave there for several hours, skimming the scum off from time to time, until the windpipes are very soft. Fish out the lights with a spider or similar and leave to cool a little, then pick through them, tearing the lungs into chunks and discarding the hard parts of the windpipe.

At some point during this, slice the onions and cook them with a pinch of salt in a little oil until very soft and golden, which will, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, take a while. Add the cooked onion to the offal, weigh the lot and add 2% salt by weight. If you have a kilo, for example, add 20g of salt. Add a good teaspoon or so of ground pepper, then blitz until fairly smooth and stir in the buckwheat. Chill overnight.

Stuff into sausage skins (or get your friendly butcher to do it), then place the whole link in a pan, cover with cold water, and poach very gently for 15 minutes. They can now be kept in the fridge or used immediately; either way, oil them a bit and grill, turning a couple of times, until the skins are shiny and starting to brown. Eat with fermented tomato ketchup and maybe a hash brown or two.

Lights of My Life

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Excellent times at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Someone remarked that it was like seeing their bookshelves come to life, which seems apt; I chatted with Bee Wilson, Elisabeth Luard and Fergus Henderson, watched Claudia Roden, Jacob Kennedy and Jennifer McLagan, and added many more writers to my reading list; I met academics, fellow-travellers and stars of the future like Rebecca Johnson and Amanda Couch, who I watched perform a Mesopotamian-style liver divination – not something I ever thought I’d see.

It was, if not actually humbling, at least a signal honour to present a paper to such an illustrious and appreciative crowd, to have a space where I, as a non-academic with a semi-academic background and a wide range of interests, could come and be a part of the debate. The papers’ll be edited for online and physical publication before the end of the year, at which point I’ll put up my presentation, too; for now, since this kind of effusiveness doesn’t come naturally to me, here is a portrait of a pig.

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.

Sloppy Thinking


It’s surprising (to me, anyway) how difficult it is to make a luxurious dessert from cocoa powder and pig blood. The problem, I’m convinced, is the powdered blood I’m using, the jars of impossibly fine purple powder which sit on the shelves like something in an alchemist’s workshop; no matter what combination of temperature, hydration and whisking I use to produce a thick, black liquid blood, there always seems to be a slight grainy residue on the back of the tongue – though perhaps this is a residual squeamishness from thoughts of scabs, clots, stains and streaks. Eaten incognito, maybe this blood custard would seem the creamiest of desserts.

It always seems to be this issue of texture – that is to say, of the precise feeling in the mouth – which divides people over certain meats and offal. Take tripe. A beautiful shade of marble-white, the bleached and pre-cooked stomach lining has, once stewed in its usual heavy accompaniments of abundant onion or heavy tomato sauces, little distinct taste of any kind, let alone an offensive one; but the texture! Either rug-hairy or covered in soft, giving spikes, above all rubbery, it can seem like chewing on some chimerical alien’s hide; I find it edible, but I can’t say it’s something I would seek out very often – unless I was in Rome.

We don’t tend, in this country, to particularly value sloppiness – unless it is mitigated by a surrounding crunch. Jellyfish and sea cucumber have never made inroads here, and nor, really, have gelatinous okra, fermented beans, or the slimier of sea vegetables. Put it in a fritter, though, and that’s a different matter! I find simply poached brains, with their creamy, spreadable texture, intriguing if not overwhelmingly enjoyable; but deep-fried brains! Beautiful clouds, with a perfect surrounding crunch. While any sloppy meat – cheek, foot, belly, chest – does well in a croquette or similar situation, nothing matches the absolute transformation of the brain from worthy curiosity to pure, golden joy.

I suppose, really, that this is just a late adolescence of the palate, the start of a parallel journey to the one from chicken nuggets, turkey burgers and fish fingers to un-breaded protein; I need to go back to those spreadable brains, and see if the fritters have taught me their value. I suppose the lesson here is that anything can be made delicious by deep-frying, which we all knew anyway. Apologies for taking up your time. Now, where did I put those rabbit eyes?

The Matter of the Heart

  
One man’s (or woman’s, or culture’s) offal is another man’s premium cut; these things are as much about demand as about supply. A beef fillet may be prized partly because there is only one of it, but its status, still, as an expensive piece of meat comes as much from its giving tenderness – a texture which, coming as it does at the expense of flavour, many (yes, myself included) find if not unpleasantly then at least indifferently soft – at least when raw or extremely rare. Overcook it, of course, and it will be as dry and grainy as a minute steak.

 

Premium cuts often follow a French ideal of quality, and as such are rated by their edibility when sanguine; the cheaper ends of animals, either fatty or sinewy, tend to need much longer cooking – This is one of the things which defines their cheapness, despite the fact that a slow-cooked piece of belly pork is infinitely more delicious than a tenderloin cooked any way at all – unless you’re talking really cheap, in which case, things having come full circle, a quick sear in a very hot pan is often the best course of action. These cuts – skirt, flatiron, whatever – have long been enjoyed as steaks by the French (at a bistro level, perhaps, rather than haute cuisine) but are only now making their way out of our mincers and diced mixed stewing steak and onto waiting coals. Not premium, perhaps, but no longer as cheap as they were.

 

Heart, though, and despite its uniqueness in the animal, is still very cheap – in fact, our butcher gave us one for free, along with the tongue, kidneys, and some scraps of skirt, when we bought some excellent veal chops from him. He had the whole bullock, you see, and they were only going in the pet mix. Well, when life gives you offal, make a Fergus Henderson recipe, that’s what I say; and it turns out quickly cooked calf heart is a wonderful thing. I’d only ever braised hearts before, which takes bloody hours. I had a willing commis to do the wibbly bits for me, but even if you don’t, preparing hearts is pretty straightforward, should a jolly butcher ever give you his.

 

Essentially, you want to remove from this strange, muscular organ anything which is not in fact muscle; the top is surrounded by hard, suety fat, which you trim off; inside there are tubes, which you cut out; slicing the heart lengthways and opening it like a book, you will find the heartstrings, which it turns out are both real and extremely strong. Cut them off at each end. When you have a more-or-less homogenous pound of flesh, cut it into steaks. There’ll be a couple of triangular flaps which can be sliced off as is; as for the rest, it depends on your needs and appetite. You’ll want, though, to cut the thicker sections lengthways, so that everything is roughly of a muchness.

 

Now, following Fergus, toss the steaks with a splash of vinegar, a good pinch each of salt and pepper, some oil, some rosemary or whatever seems appropriate. The vinegar, I think, performs vital tenderisation, but the herbs, I suppose, are fairly optional. Leave in the fridge til tomorrow.

 

Now, get an appropriately sized pan screaming hot, lightly oil it, and add your steaks, pushing down on them to discourage curling; season a bit more if you feel it necessary. Cook until you get a good brown crust, (say 2-3 minutes) then flip and cook a minute or so more. Remove to rest.

 

While it rests, shave some fennel and sweet white onion as thinly as your mandolin will allow you, then dress heavily in a lemon vinaigrette and finely chopped parsley. Slice the heart, which should be pink and gently weeping, and serve with a little fennel and onion. This is true love.

Invisible City pt. 2


“When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets … how many kinds of pavement cover the ground” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver
So much of Venice reaches up and away from the water, from the intricate canals and from the lagoon itself. The long needle of the Campanile, and the squares of Paul and the Magdalene, where, if you stand in the middle, you can pretend you are in a solid, everyday city, are the most successful; all of the buildings, though, all of the warehouses and palazzos and the elaborate bridges, do their best to reach away from the seaweed which purrs at their foundations.
These days the canals are reserved for richer tourists, who the gondolas, still black-clad for shadowy assignations and espionage, ferry around a largely forgotten city. The trattorias, with their lace curtains, batteries of hanging pots and their poorly-rendered aquatic scenes, sell endless processions of cuttlefish and calamari, while the still-living markets heave with the terrestrial products of the Veneto, with puntarelle, with radicchios of all kinds – curled, spotted, delicately pink – with honey-sweet apples, large and baby and carved artichokes, cardoons and celery and cauliflowers and all of the other favourites of the vegetable-loving Italians.
Here, though, in the richest part of the country, leaves don’t carry quite the same respectability as they do in the poor, dried-up south; here, the restaurants which offer an alternative to seafood tend to do so in the form of elaborate dishes of meat. These days we tend to think of Italian cuisine as all cucina povera, breadcrumbs and strange fish and offal; liver and onions, of course, is a favourite of Venice, and I saw tripe, tongue and the like in various butchers windows and on the bars of smaller eateries. In a restaurant, though, you might get half a duck, roasted and drenched in a quite astonishingly rich ragu of chicken livers; fricassees of veal, both sweet and deeply savoury; and, of course, the famous carpaccio, a fairly recent invention of the upmarket Harry’s Bar.
Apart from the latter, a distinctly urban dish, this might get described as ‘mountain food’; aware, perhaps, that their amphibious city has become a playground for tourists, the Venetians look inland and up for a different taste of home. Even here, though, they can’t escape the water. If you wander about the houses between the Accademia bridge and the Grand Canal, you might find a strange replica of an Alpine hut, hung about with straw hands and opening on to a boat yard; it is a gondola workshop, and the people who build and pilot them are often, themselves, sons of the Dolomites and beyond, far from their solid mountain homes.

Great Chieftain o the Puddin’-Race!

I’m preparing for Burns Night, the real foodie winter festival. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas (I’m deeply suspicious of anyone that doesn’t), it’s just there’re so many distractions – presents, decorations, family, carols – that it’s hard, sometimes, to just get stuck in. For Burns Night, on the other hand, there is just enough ceremony to provide an excuse for the meal, and no more – which is as it should be. Furthermore, as we’re not subjected to haggis sandwiches and three-courses-for-£25-office-Burns-Night-meals for a month and a half beforehand and are therefore not bored sick of the whole affair, no one has yet seen fit to mess around with the meal. Instead, we are bound by iron, delicious, tradition – and the fact that it involves offal and whisky makes it all the better.

Of course, such a limited menu gives you little scope for showing off – so what do you do? You make your own haggis. I should warn you in advance that it is quite an undertaking, at least in terms of sourcing the ingredients; Fergus Henderson, whose recipe I adapted, seems to assume you won’t even try to make it, as he neglects to mention how hard it is to get a sheep’s pluck. I asked a couple of butchers, and scoured the internet, with no luck, but reasoning that the lungs probably don’t taste of much, I went with what I could get. Accordingly, this recipe assumes you will use sausage skins rather than one whole stomach; a less impressive spectacle, perhaps, but still very satisfying to make.

HAGGIS SAUSAGES

Enough for 8.
Large branches of Tesco are good for lamb offal if your butcher can’t oblige; places like Lakeland normally stock sausage skins. The oatmeal might be hardest to track down – you don’t want rolled, porridge or jumbo oats, which are steamed. Try health food shops.

3 lamb hearts
400g lamb liver
Bay leaves
Peppercorns
1 carrot, roughly chopped
Half an onion
A leek, roughly chopped
2 large onions, finely chopped
A little lard or butter
100g coarse oatmeal, toasted in a dry pan
100g dried breadcrumbs (buy panko or pangrattato, or make your own)
200g beef suet
4 tsp coarse ground pepper
2 tsp ground allspice
A pack of sausage skins or similar

Rinse the offal, then place in a large pan with the whole spices and stock veg. Cover with cold water and a big pinch of salt, bring to the boil, then simmer for two hours, skimming off the scum (there will be a lot) and fishing out the liver half way through. Meanwhile, sweat the chopped onion in lard or butter until very soft and sweet.

When the lights are cooked and cooled (save 500ml of the stock), dice roughly then coarsely blitz in a food processor, using the pulse button – you don’t want a smooth paste. Tip the result into a large bowl, then add the cooked onions, the reserved stock, and the rest of the ingredients (apart from the sausage skins, obviously). Mix thoroughly with your hands, and salt to your liking.

When happy, stuff or pipe into your skins or whatever; I used a sausage gun designed for the purpose, but a piping bag, bought or improvised, would do. If you can’t be bothered with any of that, just bake it in a flat tray like Paxo stuffing; it won’t be as fun, but will still be delicious. Leave your sausages in the fridge overnight to firm up.

When you’re ready to eat, heat the oven to gas mark 5/190C/375F. Put the haggises in a deep, oven-proof frying pan, and just cover with water. Bring to a boil on the hob, let them bubble until the water’s half gone, then stick in the oven to brown up and finish cooking – another 15 minutes or so.
Serve with neeps and tatties , a wee dram (mandatory) and perhaps some greens and mustard. Get someone to recite ‘Address to a Haggis’ in their silliest Scots, and plunge your knives in at the third stanza. Enjoy!

The Magic Pudding

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Sometimes it’s nice just to follow a recipe. I own a LOT of cookbooks and eagerly await new ones, although I rarely follow them directly. There are a few exceptions, of course; technical procedures like baking or pickling, or dishes from cuisines that are entirely outside my understanding. In general, though, I (and I imagine a lot of people) use cookbooks chiefly for inspiration, the more so the more complicated the book is. I have never, for example, followed an Ottolenghi recipe through from start to finish; the number of ingredients alone is enough to put me off, even though I’d happily use that many myself when improvising. Fergus Henderson’s books are a joy to cook from, but the sheer effort involved can often be dispiriting – if it doesn’t need ordering in advance from a butcher, it probably needs brining for 5 days or (the most extreme, if tongue-in-cheek, example) cooking on driftwood in the Hebrides.

 

Give me an Elizabeth David or a Claudia Roden, though, and I’d happily cook every dish. You look at the short ingredient list and think “How could that be nice?” – but it always, always, is. They are vague where they should be vague, and precise when they need to be, forgiving of substitutions and geographical issues with sourcing ingredients. Although they have both since been coffee-tabled up with hardbacks and photos, in their original editions they are perfect to work from, small enough not to take up half my work surface, cheap enough that I don’t worry about getting wine all over the pages… And with no varnished, styled images to compare the end product to, I’m generally happier with the result.

 

Another fine food writer who seems to have resisted the coffee-table trend is Elisabeth Luard. Her European Peasant Cookery has the authoritative and pleasingly wordy air of a well-written reference book, a Brewer’s or similar; you can dip in and out whether cooking or not, and find solid, time-tested iterations of traditional recipes free from authorial meddling. If you want to know how to make, say, a pork pie, without Tom Kerridge or whoever faffing about with it, this is the place to go. So, I had some ox kidney, a steak in the freezer, and half a pack of suet in the cupboard; where else to look?

 

STEAK AND KIDNEY PUDDING

A pudding for two. You’ll need a little pudding dish.

The only deviation this involves from Luard’s recipe is in halving the quantities, and in the manner of arranging the meat; she slices the steak into little fillets and wrapping these around the kidneys, which seemed like a waste of time.

PASTRY

125g self-raising flour

1 tsp salt

80g shredded suet

up to 100ml of cold water

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl, then stir in the suet. Gradually mix in the water until you have a nice smooth dough. Roll out two-thirds to line your buttered pudding basin, roll out a lid, then get on with the filling.

FILLING

250g stewing steak (I used 1 flat iron steak, which was ideal), cubed

125g ox kidney, trimmed, cubed, and soaked in water and a little vinegar

about 6 button mushrooms, sliced

half an onion, diced

1 tbspn chopped parsley

50ml red wine

salt and pepper

Put a pan of water on to boil, big enough to house the pudding. Mix everything except the wine with a generous amount of seasoning, then pack into the pudding case (I know it seems weird to put in a raw stew mix, but it cooks beautifully in its pastry home). Pour the wine in, then dampen the edges of the pastry, cover with your lid, trim and crimp. Make a slit for steam, and cover with a disc of greaseproof and some foil, with enough give in it to let the pastry rise.

Place a folded tea towel into the boiling water, to protect the pudding from direct heat, then place the pud carefully on top. The water should come two-thirds of the way up the basin, so adjust as necessary. Cover the pan and boil for three hours, making sure it doesn’t go dry. When done, take it out and let it settle for a few minutes before turning out. Serve with greens and mustard.

Sherry Baby

I love cooking with sherry – the rich, raisiny stuff, not your gran’s Bristol Cream – and keep a bottle of Pedro Ximinez by the stove, adding a slosh to braises, sautés, or anywhere a drop of wine would be welcome. It goes really well in a beef stew, giving it a sweet, light note that blends well with orange peel and cinnamon, a nice change from the heavy peals of red wine, rosemary and juniper that dominate winter food.

It sits very happily with cheese, and I imagine a splash would be welcome in a fondue, or a plain old cheese sauce, taking the place of beer in a rarebit; it has a smooth roundness that gives body and depth to other ingredients, without the need to cook out the tannins or acid you get with wine, which makes it particularly useful in quick sautés and sauces. This body and quick cooking makes it an especially good partner for offal; sherry can oppose and sweeten the metallic tones of liver and kidneys, which red wine would have bullyingly sided with.

SPICED CHICKEN LIVERS
This method, of quick searing and a brief simmer, is a very good way to cook offal generally – it keeps it moist and pink, and allows you to introduce a variety of other flavours. Just change up the herbs and spices, and maybe add a dash of cream at the end, for different dishes.

For 2, with salad, or more with rice or whatever

400g of chicken livers, washed and trimmed
1 small onion, sliced
a good pinch each of red pepper flakes, urfa flakes, sumac, dried mint, and dried thyme
a slosh of PX
3 tbspn of pomegranate ketchup, or two of a good tomato ketchup and one of pomegranate molasses
a handful of chopped flatleaf parsley
oil
salt & pepper

Cook the onion to a slow sweetness in a little oil, then add the herbs and spices and cook for a minute. Set aside.

Whack the heat right up, add some more oil, and when it’s smoking hot, sear the livers, in batches if necessary, for a few minutes each side, until nicely browned. Season them with salt as you go.

Return all the livers to the pan, if you cooked them in batches, then add the sherry, letting it bubble away as you scrape all the crusty bits from the pan into it. Add the ketchup/molasses and a splash of water and simmer for two minutes or until the livers feel nicely giving. They should be blushing pink inside. Chuck in the parsley and some pepper and stir. Not a particularly pretty dish, but a deeply satisfying one.