rites of spring

I don’t want to eat sweet asparagus, manicured from the piled earth; give me a tangled pot of wild greens, coarse and curled and bitter, to make spring feel less polite. There is something altogether too tennis-and-cucumber about much of an English spring, and a certain tendency among some writers to subscribe to these cut-price Bridesheadisms, as if all anyone wanted to do was sip gin amongst the aspidistras.

Personally, the first onset of hot weather combines with the latening nights to instil in me a desire to drink cold wine in an unrestrained and unrelenting torrent, as different from the furtive debauchery of winter drinking as it is from the full, lazy decadence of a good summer drunk. Spring is the right time for wild abandon. Skin a rabbit and braise it with alexanders; catch a mackerel and eat it raw.

Or maybe not, I don’t know. Wildness is such a luxury now, more so than white linen and pink gin, and spring is the right time to do as you like. Steam a trout and flake it off the bone alongside some hollandaise;  manicure piles of asparagus from the sweet earth, and dip their boiled tips into butter, hot and liquid in the cool shade.

A little lump

I often think that a dumpling is an underrated thing. Not the wrapped sort, of course, which travel a direct line from China and through the various -stans to reach possibly their greatest iteration in the broth-filled khinkali of Georgia, spreading and mutating into manti, pierogi, varenyky, tortellini and the like; the boiled dough giving way to fillings of chopped or minced meat, scrambled or still-flowing egg or chickpeas or ricotta or anything at all is one of the finest sensations available to the mouth, and everybody knows it. I’m talking about the other, naked kind, the little lumps of dough or breadcrumbs which usually exist more as an accompaniment than as the main event. (To differentiate between these and a wrapped dumpling I suggest we rename the naked form a lumpling).

I last ate a suet lumpling in the depths of our recent second winter, nestling in the hollows of a stew of three kinds of sausage and numerous beans, the whole thing enriched by the liver pate melted through it, which was exactly as heavy as it sounds. You might think the lumpling appropriate only to this sort of heavy cold weather cuisine, rib-stickers designed to line the body against harsh north winds; if you have eaten, though, a plateful of the ricotta-based gnudi then you know how shockingly light a lumpling can be. It would be nice, I think, on a cold April evening, to make a dough with ricotta and shredded wild garlic, and to poach the little lumps in a white ragu of spring rabbit, pale and sweet and green.

A Time To Build Up

There’s no denying that these are slow months. Feast-weary and diet-starved, eating out holds less attraction for most; the garden gives only the slow, iron creep of green leaf, brassica and root, and even the gas emerges slowly from the frozen pipes, bursting reluctantly into flame. A perfect time, then, for slow, nurturing cooking. That could mean a stew, a casserole or hotpot or daube puttering slowly in or on the back of the oven; it could mean a basket of bright Sevilles transmuting slowly into jewelled glass. For me, this year, it mainly means fermenting things.

At the last count, I had fourteen pots, buckets, crocks and tubs of (mainly) vegetable matter, being gradually colonised and transformed by bacteria. A mash of green chillies, gathering flavour before their vinegar bath; a souring julienne of roots and stalks; pungently spiced cabbage bubbling under airlocks; a foul-looking bucket of squid trimmings and guts. On the more experimental side, there is a vat of sweet honey-water that may or may not attract enough wild yeast to turn into alcohol, and a jar of brined radicchio that probably won’t, now, reach a pleasant eatability. All these things and more require almost daily attention or at least awareness, to be alert to the first sign of mould or rot or, equally, deliciousness; you don’t want your pickle passing its peak before it even gets jarred.

While there is, I suppose, a certain fascination in watching all this happen, the main payoff comes when your ferments are ready – which won’t be for a while. These things take time, especially in cold weather. Luckily, winter is full of instant gratification too, if you look for it – crisp salads of fennel and blood orange and chicory and nuts, or warm ones of roasted brassica, lentils and cheese; steaming, boozy pots of mussels or clams, or spitting pans of squid. All wonderful things that barely need a recipe. Slice Florence fennel and segment the juiciest Sicilian oranges, and combine them with the aid of sweet vinegar and bitter oil, and you have one of the world’s perfect dishes. How is it John Lanchester has it? “A taste that exists in the mind of God”. I can’t remember what he, or rather his narrator, is talking about.

My dinner last night was Romanesque cauliflower, roasted in thick slices with black pudding, tossed with braised lentils, shredded confit chicken, red onion and lettuce, dressed with olio nuovo and some vinegar from a jar of jalapenos; easy for me, because I had all of those things cooked or ready to hand. From scratch, a bloody faff of a recipe that probably wouldn’t be worth it. Still, you get the idea. We need something to keep us occupied while our slow food takes its time. You probably remember (ha!) how my rabbit ragout (my slowest recipe, I think) leaves you with spare saddle fillets; here, finally, is what to do with them. You are WELCOME.

RABBIT PASTRAMI
You’ll need a smoker, or some kind of tray-rack-lid contraption that does the job.
How much this makes depends on how many rabbits you had in the first place. It is very adaptable.
Brined rabbit saddle fillets, rinsed and dried overnight in the fridge
A handful of coarsely ground black pepper (you’ll probably want to do this in a spice grinder, if possible; you could use bought cracked pepper, but it’s not as nice)
2 tbsp loose black tea
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
Take the fillets, which should be a little tacky after drying (this is called the ‘pellicle’, I don’t know why) and roll them in the pepper to coat. Shake them gently to remove the excess, and arrange on the rack of your smoker so they aren’t touching. If you don’t have extraction, open a window.
Put the tea and spices in the bottom of the smoker, drip tray (if there is one) on top of that, then the rack, and then the lid, or tinfoil, leaving a small gap. Place on a high heat until smoke starts to wisp out, then close the gap and smoke on a medium heat for ten minutes. Take off the heat and leave for another ten before taking the lid off.
The ‘pastrami’ can now be sliced thinly and served with, say, sweet-pickled cucumber and rye crispbreads, or sauerkraut and cheese, or whatever; if you make tiny bagels to put it in, please send me pictures.

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.

Hop, Spring

 

Another rabbit recipe, yes, but a really very different one. It used to be normal to give a lot more consideration to the age of the animal you were cooking with – a spring chicken needed a different approach than a boiling fowl; lamb, hogget, mutton, all required various strengths and lengths of marinade and cooking. Although a few luxury youths remain (veal, suckling pig, the yearly argument that is spring lamb) and some of the older animals are making a resurgence, by and large slaughtering age has become standardised somewhere at the lower limits of adulthood, or the minimum required to get a good return on the farmer’s investment. This is a shame.

Apart from any ethical argument over the accelerated growth and early deaths of industrially farmed animals, there is a great variety of cooking that comes from the use of different ages of meat, and the techniques needed to deal with them – coq au vin, for example, is pointless with a young chicken, the long cooking required for the dark, glossy sauce being badly suited to tender white meat. The whole rich tradition, in fact, of stews, daubes, ragus, etceteras, would probably not exist without the need to consume older animals – why spend hours braising an oxtail when you could roast a young, dripping slab of calf?
Curiously, a similar standardisation seems to have happened with game. Although old cookbooks are full of advice for how to treat an old rabbit, a young one, a new mother (feed it to the dogs, apparently) the ones you usually get from butchers are generally of a similar size and condition, and need fairly careful treatment, along the lines I set out before. Once in a while, though, if you live in the countryside, or hate your children’s pets, you might get your hands on some younger ones. If you do, I suggest you do the following –

RABBIT, BACON, SPRING VEGETABLES
For 2
1 young rabbit
A small handful of smoked bacon lardons
A bunch of asparagus
About 500 grams of fresh peas, in their pods
3 banana shallots
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp Dijon mustard
A small glass of white wine
Small handful of parsley
Zest of half a lemon
Salt and pepper
Since you’re unlikely to get a baby from the butcher, we’re going to start at the beginning this time. First thank whoever gave you the rabbit. Remember he has a gun. Take the rabbit, and with a small, very sharp knife, make a slit between one of its hamstrings and the muscle, and slide the other foot through this, making a handy loop. Use this to hang it over something (preferably outside). Cut just under the breastbone, and make a slit down the belly to the groin. Pull out all the bits, which will smell horrendous, keeping the liver and kidneys aside if you want them. (The gutting process, pleasingly, is known as ‘paunching’.) Cut two more slits from the groin, down (or rather up, given how he’s hanging) the inside of the legs to the ankle; you’ll find, with a combination of pulling and gentle scraping, that you can undress him down to the feet; cut the skin round here, leaving the furry slippers on, then pull the skin down over his head and repeat at the other end. (You won’t need the head for this recipe – I’m not a monster. Just hack it off and chuck it away.) Right. Give the carcass a good wash, and bring inside. (Young rabbits shouldn’t need hanging.) OR acquire a baby rabbit from a rural game dealer.
First, with a cleaver or mallet-and-knife arrangement, lop of the still-furry feet. Splay the rabbit out on its front, and dislocate the back legs – hold the body down, and grab each leg in turn, giving it a sharp twist towards you – then use your small sharp knife to cut round the hip joint, separating each leg from the body. Put them to one side, then turn the rabbit round so the front legs are towards you. These are easy to take off – get a good grip under the shoulder blade, where the skin is quite loose, and slice round and under. Finally, with your lopping tool(s), trim the saddle at each end. Keep the ribcage for stock if you’re that kind of person. Or just ask your rural game dealer for a jointed baby rabbit. Or just use chicken, for that matter.
Nearly there. Trim the asparagus and pod the peas, and put the stalk-ends and pods in a saucepan. Add one of the shallots, halved, and one of the cloves of garlic, lightly squished. Cover with water, bring to a simmer, and leave to get on while you start the cooking proper.
In a sauté pan big enough to fit the complete dish (sorry if you’ve got this far and don’t have one), gently heat the lardons – the aim is to render a decent amount of fat from them before they brown. Once you’re happy with this state of affairs, remove them from the pan, whack up the heat, and brown the rabbit (or chicken, if you insist) pieces in batches, giving them a merry salting as you go. Put these with the bacon and turn the heat back down.
Finely slice the remaining shallots and garlic and sweat these (you might need a bit more fat or oil) until nicely softened and starting to brown, putting the bacon back in towards the end of this process. Add the mustard, cook for a minute, turn up the heat, add the wine, let it reduce to almost nothing.
Arrange the rabbit pieces nicely on top (they’d better fit) and add a couple of ladles of that veg stock, which should be ready by now – enough to not-quite-cover the rabbit, bring to the boil, simmer for twenty minutes. Meanwhile, slice the asparagus into pea-ish sized bits. When the twenty minutes are up, add the peas and asparagus, cover with a lid and simmer for ten minutes more. Finely chop the parsley with the lemon and stir in. A swirl of cream would be appropriate, and some extra mustard is a good idea.

Rabbit, Rabbit

photo Apologies for the rather long break (I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks). I’ve just started a new job and have been rather busy testing dishes, writing menus, and pickling lots of things, so while I’ve had plenty of new recipes to share, I haven’t had the time to write anything about them. Even if I did, I’m not sure a lot of them would translate that well into the home-cooking format – like a lot of professional recipes they are broadly split between “take a lot of expensive and hard-to-source-ingredients and put them on a plate” and “subject cheap ingredients to a three-day process of dismemberment”. Still, I feel I’ve got to write about something, and putting things on a plate wouldn’t be very interesting, so dismemberment it is. This recipe uses one of my very favourite meats, and is one I’ve been working on – I don’t like to say refining, but certainly improving – for the last few years. Despite the increasing fashionability of game, rabbit is still pretty cheap to buy, and is a plentiful and guilt-free meat, the things being a pest in most of the country. Like most wild meat, though, it does need careful cooking, and can be a stringy and unpleasant eating experience if handled badly. This recipe is designed to minimise that possibility. People seem to treat the cooking of game as if it’s some great mystery, requiring an almost magical touch in the kitchen; basically, though, the meat is both hard-working – think how much a rabbit runs in its short life – and lean, and requires a healthy dose of moisture and fat to help it along. In this, as in so much, pigs are your friend. So. This is a lengthy process, but none of it is particularly hands-on, and is, I think, worth it. (I would say that though). To shorten things a little I’ve assumed that you’ll get the rabbit jointed, although as this is a satisfying procedure in its own right, I do suggest you give it a go sometime.

RABBIT RAGOUT

Happily serves four.

DAY ONE

All this can be done some time in advance.

TROTTER JELLY

3 pig feet (you’re not using the flesh for this, so don’t worry about shaving them)

2 onions

2 sticks of celery

2 fat carrots 2 leeks

1 head of garlic

A few cloves, peppercorns & juniper berries

Put the feet in a large pan, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Blanch for about 15 minutes, to drive off some of the scum. I’ve skipped this step before and ended up with a pan of sickly green, so please do it. Chop the veg into chunks, washing the leeks, and halve the garlic along its tummy. Drain the feet, rinse off any clinging scum, then put all in the pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to a bright simmer, and leave there for at least three hours, maybe more, until the trotters have completely collapsed, with bones poking all over the place. Drain the stock into jars or tubs, and discard the solids somewhere that won’t attract rats. Leave to cool, then refrigerate.

BRINE

300g fine sea salt (not table salt; it’s got stuff added to it)

200g granulated sugar

2 cloves of garlic, lightly squashed

A few cloves, juniper berries and peppercorns

Put everything in a pan, cover with two litres of water, and heat gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn up the heat and boil for a couple of minutes. Leave to cool, then refrigerate this too.

DAY TWO 2 wild rabbits, jointed

The brine

Put the rabbits in the brine, or the brine on the rabbit. Weigh down with a plate or something, and put in the fridge.

DAY THREE RABBIT Brined rabbit (you don’t need the saddles for this; they are much more tender and quick to cook than the legs, so save them for something else)

1 onion

1 fat carrot

1 stick of celery

1 leek

trotter jelly

chicken stock (if you have some)

Again, chunk the veg, and use them to make a rabbit bed in a suitable pan. Drain the rabbit, and rinse under running water for a good few minutes, then arrange the joints on their bed. Add enough trotter jelly to cover the rabbit once melted; it might need a top-up with stock or water. Cover and braise gently for a couple of hours, until the meat starts to fall off the bone.

SAUCE

1 large onion, finely diced

1 carrot, finely diced

1 stick of celery, finely diced

1 lemon, zest only

2 sprigs of thyme, stripped

2 tblspn tomato puree 100ml full-fat milk

50ml white balsamic or other nice vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil

Sweat the vegetables in a good slosh of oil until very soft, then stir in the zest and thyme leaves and cook for a minute until fragrant. Add the puree, increase the heat, and fry for a minute or two. Turn down again, add the milk, and let it bubble away to nothing, then do the same with the vinegar.

TO FINISH

rabbit sauce

a handful of chopped parsley Shred the rabbit meat of the bones and add to the sauce, then strain in enough of the braising liquid to just cover. Simmer until everyone seems happy together, then serve with something bright and green, and polenta or pasta.