Friday 27 February 2015

The Big Braise

Everyone point at the pig's shoulder.

February was dead. Initially I had two bookings for the first weekend and then my Saturday cancelled. Well, no, she didn't. I chased her up on the Tuesday to tell her we should really be discussing the menu only to learn that: oh, they couldn't make it now. I'd held that bloody booking for four months. This didn't help my mood. I don't like not cooking.

So I decided to braise a shoulder of pork. This was partly because Etien keeps insisting we should open a pulled pork stall and make our fortune. He does love a porky bap does Et. He makes a delicious 'kim chee' coleslaw to accompany the meat. This isn't anything like the real fermented Korean delicacy but it's inspired by those flavours. And he's right, it works really well with luscious, slippery shreds of pork belly or shoulder - the lime juice acidity and the smokey sesame oil. 

We might take a stall at the next Palmers Green festival. Porky's Porkies is our current favourite branding. We'll see. You'll be the first to know.

The other reason was because I'm catering a party for a friend's father soon. He's eighty and they're expecting in excess of forty guests. I wanted to see how far a shoulder went. Belly famously isn't lean, which can deter some eaters, me included. I've never been a fan of fat. My father was. He used to reach over and scoff up all the bits of bacon rind, yellow lamb fat and even gristle that I'd piled up on the side of my plate. Ew.

I ordered a shoulder of orchard fed pig from Jim in F. Norman, on the parade in Oakwood. I'm using them more and more. Don't tell my other butcher; it's like having an affair. Belinda picked it up for me on Friday afternoon. I was expecting, indeed my recipe stated, a 3-5 pound joint. What arrived weighed thirteen and a bit; basically a stone of pork. "We'll need to invite some friends around."

Because when I'm not cooking in the restaurant of a weekend, that's what I like to do: cook  for friends. No, I'm not being facetious.

We invited a dozen people, friends, exes, liggers and a few social climbers we just can't shake off. We expected half to already have plans; the way middle class people always do. (I don't. I never have plans.) But none did. Coupled with kids and family, my weekend was fast turning into a pulled pork party. And yeah, double entendres on a postcard please.

Et made his coleslaw, although not nearly enough (my fault). I severely underestimated how much people would like it. Bread from Holtwhites of course. Sadly not my custom semi-brioche buns, these were simple floury, quotidian baps but still excellent of course. I also made some hummus/hummous/hoummmous and flamed a few plum tomatoes.

Pulled pork. And this is after everyone had eaten.
The massive locusts are in fact pieces of fat crackling. Slightly over done.
This is what happens when I drink and drive an oven.

Belinda doing what she does best.
Wonder why they're all so red faced?
But it wasn't going to be eating that night. A stone of shoulder needs a low and slow approach. Initially 90°C and then 120°C to crisp the skin - sixteen hours in total. It starts off as a roast but covered, in a large Dutch oven it soon becomes a braise. By Saturday evening it really was falling off the bones. I simply lifted them out, along with any large chunks of fat - not an onerous task. I also sliced the skin off to crisp properly in a 240°C fan oven. I shredded the meat into the copious roasting juices and then stirred in some barbecue sauce. Etien took exception to this. Next time he wants a simple fennel seed and salt roast.

Neighbours chat while Ken keeps a keen eye on the pork.
He can kill a man with his bare hands you know,
especially if they eat the last bun.
Yes, next time. But when time? Not soon. There's a lot of meat on a large shoulder. After fifteen people ate their fill we still had half left. There then followed a week of porky wonder. Porky sandwiches, porky salad, porky pizza topping, filled porky pitta pockets, porky pasta with a creamy mushroom sauce. Ten days on and there's still a fistful lurking in Tupperware. I fear that'll be binned.

Altogether that one £34 joint served up at least 35 meals and that's not even including those who had seconds at the original evening. Seems like a good deal. Mind, I have no idea what sixteen hours of oven costs.

For amusement and erudition the old men had a staring competition
Dessert was a 'sort of' crumble. I made double the salty, almond biscuit base of my cheesecake and sprinkled it over cherries, blueberries and plums that had been fast poached in a spiced syrup. I made a mental note to eat more plums. They are delicate, beautiful and almost floral in flavour. This was served with an absurd mass of vanilla mascarpone that resembled a Desperate Dan mound of mash - sans sausage thankfully, we were all replete with pig by then.

Dessert. I'd put a weird colour in the lights which makes this look like we're partying in the 1970s.
No one wants that.

February was dead but March and April are fast filling up - as is May and June. I was going to say so no more loaves and fishes moments but I've just heard from a  farmer friend of mine (Peter in Cambridgeshire) who's been offered some slow grown, grass fed, English Longhorn beef.  Among the best money can buy. But... he can only purchase whole animals. Did I want some?

Guess what my answer was?

Sunday 8 February 2015

Grandma's heirloom shot glasses and two kinds of beetroot.

Alison, on the right, on the floor. You can add your own punchline.
I found Alison's friend Jo, carefully unpacking these dainty vintage crystal shot glasses. "They were my Grandmother's." She said, entreating caution I suppose. Jo, of Polish heritage, had brought something to fill the glasses too, neither of which I'd ever come across: a lemon vodka (more like a grown up limoncello I thought) and Soplica Wisniowa which was sweet cherry but still with a 36% kick. Just the stuff to celebrate Alison's birthday.

Four of the nine guests had been before and Hannah (of Enfield LYDS fame) was on her third visit.

Jo's glasses. Unusually, empty.
One of my vodka flutes with my... ahem, tasting sample.
Raw candy beetroot
Starters was Wildes curd cheese again but this time served with two different beetroots from Borough Market: Cheltenham and Candy. I'd been for lunch with my mate Veronica Henry. Cheltenham, sometimes called Greentop, is a long, tapering beet whereas Candy, comes in a variety of presentations but usually rings of either pink or orange. How pretty is that? However, on peeling, my Candy was more of a graduated pink to orange. At the market I'd also found a stunning purple radicchio, a variant of chicory. I thought its crisp snap and bitter flavour would contrast nicely with the soft cheese and the sweetness of the baked beets. This was a purple and off white colour, giving it an almost retro look, as if through some permanent Pinterest filter.

Certainly, this was at the most attractive beetroot salad I've ever served. 

The weather still has a midwinter feel so instead of Yorkshires with the braised lamb shanks, I served rich, creamy and deeply warming potatoes Dauphinoise. To avoid creamy boil over which results in a serving dish that is unattractively streaked with burnt brown, I slow roast mine, covered, at 150°C for 90 minutes before a final 20 mins at 200°C for that essential golden crisping.

Crisp golden top and clean, white sides.
At the end of the meal, I had a long chat with Barbara, also Polish, who I suspect is a better cook than me. We discussed three day cooked cabbage and sausages made from the triumphs of her father's hunting trips.

Some guests sat digesting and cogitating. And some didn't. You can just make them out in the background, behind the empty bottle of Soplica Wisniowa.

And finally: happy birthday Alison.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Custard Tart Success

Served with orange zest baked rhubarb and sorbet

You know you're straying into obsession as you watch your family taste the new attempt and then try and spend twenty minutes minutely dissecting mouth-feel, flavour, granularity, creaminess. Was the pastry crisp? Did it snap? Too thick maybe? Their responses weren't as eager as I wanted but this was the fifth custard tart they'd tried in seven days.

But finally I'm happy with it. Any less set and I would have been pouring it. Following the same recipe I monitored the wobble every two minutes for 16 minutes; removing the tart after 42 minutes. But it was only 42 minutes for that mix of those eggs, in that tin, baked in that oven, on that shelf on that day. The custard centre still looked very liquid and had I not read Heston's recipe for 'perfect' lemon tart I probably would have left it in. Heston advices using a temperature probe and cooking the custard filling to 70°C. This is what I did. It worked. You would have to be a very brave, or very experienced cook to take it out without the technological tell-tale though.

I'm not sure what custard perfection is but this was damn close: rich, rewarding, entirely smooth and (yes, that word) unctuous. 

My tip: buy a probe or eat a lot of unset tart.