Nothing Is Lost

When I was going to sleep, I think the night before last, I had a really good idea for a piece. Today I need to write it, and I have not the slightest idea what it was. Gone. Possibly it was in fact quite a bad idea for a piece, or, it might be, a few lines from a song or a book, the memory of a smile from an imaginary film, which became entwined in my nearly-dreaming brain with, say, a discussion of the relative methods of octopus preparation, complete with recipes. I remember once, in the drifting minutes between the first alarm and the final waking, composing a song which was also a pie, a very fine pie, and am still rather disappointed that I have forgotten the details, which, come to think of it, are probably non-existent and at any rate impossible.

The problem is that, between work, a demanding puppy, and the cold and the dark, I am really quite exhausted, and I can see why most food writers confine themselves, in December, to the production of lists of various kinds, or to a retread of festive tropes providing twists on seasonal classics. Now, I can see why these are useful, if you have a lot of parties in December (as apparently people do), or indeed if you work in a restaurant, and wish to serve people something other than a bulked-up Sunday roast, over and over again. Personally, though, I feel a little sorry for anyone who feels that they need to constantly change the Christmas meal itself, to fall in with fashion or diets or simply for variety’s sake. Surely the point of such meals is that they are always, by and large, the same – like listening to the Fall, or reading PG Wodehouse.

If I was at home for Christmas (‘home’ in this context always being where your parents or the majority of your family live) I know that on Christmas Eve there would be shepherd’s pie with braised red cabbage and mulled, perhaps blackberry wine, with a treacle tart to follow (or is that New Year? Maybe it’s warm mince pies), a warm hug after standing in the cold for the carol service; Christmas dinner means soup, a leg of pork, long chipolatas wrapped in good bacon, stuffing balls, slightly overdone sprouts, sneaky parsnips to be picked out of the roast potatoes, proper gravy and all the rest; it means Christmas pudding and ice cream, mint chocolates, nuts, fruit, the yearly indulgence of coffee with cream in it, and the rest of the day spent dipping bread in gravy every time you walk through the kitchen. The soup might change from year to year; an extra piece of meat might come out, or the veg vary depending on what is left of the allotment in the freezer, but the essentials remain.

I won’t be at home for Christmas itself, this year, so we can do what we like. I think a salt cod and potato pie for the night before, and maybe a game-hung five year old hen, perhaps pot-roasted, for the main event. If it ends up tough and stringy, as well it might, considering I have never cooked one before, then at least we have the trimmings, which are after all the best bit.

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.

The Fastest Potato

I’ve never actually read any of Marguerite Patten’s food writing or, until today, cooked even one of her recipes. It turns out, though, that I’ve eaten a lot of her food. A lot of recipes that I remember eating a lot as a child – particularly, in fact, the ones which I always thought were traditional, family recipes – come from Patten’s books. A lot of these were preserves – jams & chutneys, of course, but most notably the mighty family store of pickled shallots. Dad would (still does, in fact) bring back his wheelbarrowful of little alliums from the allotment, and sit in the garden peeling them; then they’d sit in vast brine tanks before their spiced, malt bath. Then, of course, the endless torment before you were allowed to open them. I remember one year popping a jar before they were ready and eating most of the contents; the stomach ache brought on by eating quite a large amount of raw onion was not pleasant, but the vinegar still tasted good.

I didn’t, unfortunately, have time to recreate these, but it felt appropriate to mark what would have been Patten’s 100th birthday with another of her recipes. This page in my Mum’s cookbook is apparently covered in ancient batter, so I assume I used to eat these a lot.

POTATO DROP SCONES

Wee potato pancakes, really. Feeds two or so. I give you the recipe in ounces, as my mother gave it to me.

2oz plain flour

1.5 tsp baking powder

pinch salt (a BIG pinch)

4oz very smooth mashed potato

1oz melted margarine (because it is no longer the 70s, I used butter)

1 egg

1/4 pint of milk

Sieve together the flour, baking powder and salt (does anyone really do this? I didn’t. Just put them in a bowl), then thoroughly mix in the potato. Beat in the butter, then the egg, then the milk.

Heat and oil a frying pan and drop (hence the name) in spoonfuls, flipping them when they start to bubble on top, then cooking until set. Keep them warm while you cook the rest, then eat. I had them with a pork chop and some cabbage, and they were lovely.

Over-Cooked

I first tried rabbit on a pork-tasting trip around the Peak District – specifically, around parts of Derbyshire – where we sampled the quite impressive array of pork scratchings (and crackling – the difference, in a pub snack context, has never been clear to me) on offer in various pubs. Fun though this was, we had decided to take a night off (a birthday was involved) for a meal in Buxton. With its opera house, its spring water, the distant grandeur of the surrounding skyline (and despite being in the Midlands), Buxton can, I think, justifiably claim the title of the Italy of the North; we weren’t surprised, then, to find a lovely trattoria right in the town centre, all wood and leather and stairs and painted glass. The menu was pretty decent, too, from what I remember (we had quite a lot of wine – a birthday was involved) – we had snails to start, topped with vivid splashes of green, and there was squid-ink ravioli and calf liver and onions and I had rabbit, as I said, which had been stewed on the bone in a tomato sauce that could have been richer if you ask me. It was overcooked, dry but still tasty, and it might have been the wine or the company but that stands out in my mind as a hugely enjoyable dinner (we went clubbing afterwards – not an activity I recommend in Buxton), and I’ve loved rabbit ever since. The trick, of course, is not to overcook it – and to make the tomato sauce richer.

“Taking care not to overcook” is a particularly annoying piece of recipese, up there with “if liked” on my personal list. Presumably you are always taking at least some care not to overcook, and if not, the odd admonition is unlikely to make much difference. The implication, of course, is that the ingredient and process mentioned are particularly likely to result in overcooking, or that the consequences of overcooking are more drastic than usual. Without telling you exactly how not to overcook, though, or what the early-warning signs that you are doing so might be, these imprecations are worse than useless, throwing the cook into a panic without giving any way out. With any slow-cooked meat, it can be hard to judge the point where slow, happy disintegration shades into overcooking, a problem which is exacerbated in a meat as naturally lean as rabbit (all game suffers from a similar problem, which is why I’m not a huge fan of slow-cooked venison) – especially, and I’m sorry if I’m labouring this point, the tomato sauce (or other cooking medium) isn’t rich enough. When I started cooking rabbit, I used to stew the animal in its entirety, something which, for a number of reasons, you’d never do with a cow or sheep, though you might get away with a pig. As a result, the tender saddle meat always ended up tough and dry, a problem which I thought could be fixed by longer stewing, thereby messing up the whole dish. Now, of course, I keep the saddle fillets separate, and make rabbit nuggets.

This is a happy place to have arrived at, but the journey could have been halved if anyone had told me what to look for while I was taking care not to overcook my rabbit. A problem with recipes as a genre is that they do rather assume you know what the finished result should taste like – an assumption which robs them of a large part of their use, or certainly of their egalitarianism. A good cookbook should throw open the cuisines of the world and of history, and make them available to anyone who can follow a set of instructions. Without a certain degree of precision in the matter, say, of what overcooked rabbit looks like, or the degree of reduction in a tagine, or the careful balance of spicing in a proper Istanbul kebab, you are narrowing your audience to those who can afford to go and get the real thing. I mention examples from world food, but this applies just as much to restaurant cookbooks, which need the same sort of precision if they are to be more than just souvenirs of a good meal. The Nose To Tail cookbooks are so good because they manage to call up the whole atmosphere and ethos of St John, and I loved them long before I could afford to eat there. They are welcoming, in a way that, say, White Heat is not, and this welcome is extended in the balance between blithe imprecision – ovens are only ever gentle, medium, hot – and absolute clarity. Rabbit is ready when a knife can be slipped easily into its haunch; this is true, and useful, and immediately understandable. If only those Buxton-Italians had known. They could have taken some advice on the sauce too.

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.