Cabbages (and things)

  
Dinner last night, after a weekend of fairly gluttonous feasting, was a nearly meat-free dish of white cabbage wedges, thickly pot-roast on a bed of beans, bacon and leeks; taking around an hour and a half of hands-off cooking, it was reasonably delicious, although it would have been more so if the cabbage had been fermented first. The deep umami flavours of sauerkraut cooked with cured pork are quite extraordinary, something the Poles, the Germans, the Alsatians and indeed the Luxembourgeois know full well.

 

The week before we had eaten a pot-roast red cabbage, simply browned in lard and then cooked slowly in its own juices; served with stewed apple and a heaping dollop of creme fraiche, it was a revelation, with meaty, giving textures and a real depth of flavour, from charred and peppery to rich, sweet mustard – but what else would you expect from Stephen Harris? The Sportsman head chef’s recipes, which express the elegant precision of his cooking in simple language and accurate instructions, are a great gift to both the lay and the professional cook; almost as great as his grotty, rundown pub by the sea.

 

One of the reasons Fergus Henderson has become such a towering figure, aside from his revolutionary cooking, his unimprovable restaurants, and his remarkable dress sense, is the work of his acolytes across London and beyond. Justin Gelattly, James Lowe, Claire Ptak, Lee Tiernan; if these were the only cooks to have passed through his kitchen his legacy would be assured. They aren’t, of course. Noble Rot, a dark and odd wine bar in Bloomsbury which approaches, between the colfondo prosecco and the violent espresso, its own particular perfection, has a kitchen headed up by one Paul Weaver, who has done time under both St Fergus and Stephen Harris, who also consults on the menu.

 

Now, I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and possess neither the patience nor the vocabulary to be one; look elsewhere for a fuller appreciation of this excellent, terse menu, which raises a brasserie menu du jour to a particular, vibrant beauty. I’m still thinking about the Comte tart, warm and quivering, with a custard that offers no resistance to the edge of a fork and a pastry which crumbles in all the right places; of the salad of red chicories and pickled walnuts, sweet and bitter and razor-sharp. It is the sort of thing that you eat in an anonymous station bistro with a glass of rose and dream about for the rest of your life; to have it easily available in West London seems cheating, somehow, but also glorious.

Inappropriate Pun About A Tart


I don’t really do festive cooking. The feast itself is kept under the iron control of my mother, who adheres to a timetable developed over 40 or more Christmases, not to mention Eves and Boxing Days; I help with little jobs, the blanketing of pigs and the cross-hatching of sprouts, but the real meat of the matter, the planning, execution and seasoning, is all hers.

 

Professionally, I’ve been lucky, in recent years, to work in places that don’t really do festive cooking either; certainly not in a turkey-and-cranberry-and-mincemeat-and-stuffing-and-bread-sauce sort of a way. My first job was in a hotel which VERY MUCH did Christmas, with large work parties several times a day (turkey, smoked salmon & port everywhere). It was, I remember distinctly, hell.

 

Still, it’s nice to give a nod to the season, in the form of nuts and dried fruits and spices. There’s bugger all else to bake with, for one thing, at least until the orange season really kicks in. Hence this tart, with flavours from somewhere between Turkey and Ukraine, and a texture and taste blending mincemeat, treacle, and bakewell – snap, squidge, crunch.

 

SOUR CHERRY AND WALNUT TART

Makes 1 tart.

PASTRY

250g plain flour

50g light muscovado sugar

125g cold, cubed butter

1 egg

pinch of salt

splash of milk

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Blitz, rub or cut the flour together with the sugar, butter and salt. When it looks like fine breadcrumbs, mix in the egg and a tiny splash of milk, then form into a ball and stick in the freezer while you make the filling.

 

FILLING

60g caster sugar

60 soft butter

1 egg

60g walnuts

1 tbsp plain flour

100g dried sour cherries

Grind the walnuts with the flour into a fine crumb. Cream the sugar with the butter until almost white and really fluffy. Beat in the egg and then fold in the walnut mix.

Roll the pastry out thinly to line a buttered and floured tart tin (you’ll have too much pastry, which is infinitely preferable to not enough). Trim off the excess, and spread in the filling. Sprinkle the cherries evenly over the top (they’ll gradually sink, which is fine), then bake for about an hour until the filling is set and the pastry is a nice brown. Meanwhile, make the topping.

TOPPING

80g walnuts

30g caster sugar

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp caraway seeds

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

knob of butter

Put the walnuts in a small frying pan with the sugar, salt and spices, and toss and heat gently until the sugar melts and darkens into a caramel. Melt in the butter, then tip the lot onto a piece of baking parchment. Leave to cool, then smash or roughly blitz.

When the tart’s hour is up, sprinkle the topping over it and put back in the oven for 10 minutes or so. Leave to mostly cool, then turn out of the tin and serve with fresh cream.