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.

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.