Friday 29 January 2016

Lancashire hotpot, made with mutton, two ways.

I gave up trying to take a 'nice' photo of hotpot. This is what I served my family.
This is the low and slow version.
There's no such thing as hotpot. Honestly, even the name is in dispute. It almost certainly doesn't refer to the cooking vehicle but instead it's a corruption of hodge-podge, of ingredients. Hotpot is merely a vague mind map drawn around the west of the Pennines, encompassing lamb or mutton, onions... and even there the consensus stops. You can also include: carrots, potatoes or pastry, thyme, garlic, rosemary, water, stock or (god forbid) white wine, oysters, black pudding and kidneys. The pastry/potato topping debate is particularly virile. There are families who haven't spoken for generations. Even if we settle on a potato lid, which particular tubers are best? Waxy or floury? Edwards or Charlottes? Make even the slightest change and you are at risk of being accused of preparing a Lobscouse (the people of Liverpool are named after the dish apparently), a tattie pie/tatie pot or a Bolton hotpot.

The choice of lamb or mutton is key. If you've not had sheep meat, this is a good introduction. Mutton is worth seeking out, it's a different gig to lamb, darker and with a closer texture. Not as much as veal is to beef but a noble difference nevertheless.

I assumed it would be a dish of the working class: a slow simmer of tough mutton; a scrag end stew. But even the oldest recipes call for 'fine chops' from the best end. Some specify quite short cooking times; 90 minutes or so. That would mean cuts of tender lamb. We might be dealing with the suppers of the self-improving sorts.

The earliest reference comes via the rather wonderful site. Worth a trawl if you've the slightest interest in English culinary history.

"...consisting of a trifling portion of beef or mutton, either raw or boiled, cut into small pieces and mixed in a dish of sliced potatoes, proportioned to the size of the family, to which you add pepper and salt and a little water with butter or dripping, as gravy, the wholesome and savoury addition of a shred onion is often made, and gives a good relish. The dish of hot-pot, or lob scouce as termed by sailors, is composed of the same ingredients except a crust and that it is simmered over the fire in a pan or in a pipkin in an oven." 
Annals of Agriculture 1795

I do like the term 'a shred onion'. But at some point, fun though it is, you have to end the research and nail your colours to the oven. This is mine. Purists take aim!

The New River Restaurant Mutton Hotpot (with thanks to Lancashire).
Serves six.

You will need a large, lidded casserole dish, metal or pottery. It's more assembly than cooking as all the ingredients are raw. No need to sweat onions or brown meat. The only prep you need to do is make some lamb stock. Let's start with that.

Take a couple of small pieces of cheap lamb (cheap cut not quality, I should add). I used £1 of scrag end, diced, placed in a small lidded pan and simmered very gently in 750ml of water for about an hour. The liquid will reduce to about 400-500ml. Strain and if you have time, chill to separate fat from broth. Season the broth well with salt and black pepper. If you insist on a thick gravy you could now stir in a couple of teaspoons of slaked cornflour. I don't think it's necessary; the flour on the meat and the potato starch will thicken the juices.

To make the main dish: Butter the insides of your pot.

Peel and slice six large floury potatoes - about a 2p coin thickness if you can; a mandolin is your friend here. I'm a Maris Piper man as they have the highest proportion of dry matter. Arrange a third in the bottom of the pot. Salt and pepper these. 

Peel and thinly slice three onions (again with the mandolin). Arrange half on the potatoes. Season.

take 700g of diced mutton shoulder - you'll only get this from a proper butcher - and roll in very well seasoned flour. Don't worry about fat and even sinew. It will all melt away.

Rich, garnet red mutton.

Finley chop three inches of rosemary. Dice two big carrots and two sticks of celery. Not too small. Chunks. Carrot? Celery!? I know. The horror. Live with it. Mix with the meat and herbs. Pile this neatly onto the onions. Season well. You can swap the rosemary for thyme but try it my way once, please.

Now place the rest of the onions on the meat and the rest of the potatoes on the onions. Season all. You can do a nice overlapping potato pattern, if you like that kind of thing.

pour the stock into the pot. It should sink below the potatoes. Dress these with 50g of melted butter and a final sprinkle of sea salt.

Now you have a choice. You can go 'fast' and bake for three hours in a 180°C oven, removing the lid for an last half hour to finish the potato topping, which will be crisp and golden.

...Or you can go very low and slow and do six hours at 130°C. The potatoes will look brown and chewy (as below) and they probably won't crisp up properly... but the meat and onions will have a more developed flavour. This isn't necessarily better than the quick version, just different. But with the slow version, your house will fill with the most delicious aroma. Of all the stews/braises I've done, this smells the best.

Traditionally served with pickled beetroot... or beetroot... on a bed of dead Yorkshire-men. (Non UK readers - you'll have to read up on the Wars of the Roses. People have long memories in these parts.)

Further reading: aromatic, sweet & sour red cabbage (in ten minutes)

It's not pretty but it is hot and made in a pot. It's also easy and delicious.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Leave it alone!

Lamb chump. Just add fire.

No, not like your mother meant when she caught you with your arm elbow-bent worrying a garnet scab. Leave it alone, in the sense of keep it simple. Probably not the best reference to begin a food blog, but there are no recipes herein only my realisation that over the years I've been cooking I am now sure that the prevailing 'more is better' attitude is wrong.

Ah, but is it prevailing? It very much depends on your country of origin but I feel generally it is in the UK. You only have to scan an Ottolenghi recipe. Something called x + y salad needs x and y plus a, b, c, d, e, f and g... some of which are only available during a leap year on a distant island in the Pacific. And then be sure to get the yellow ones not the much more common green. There seems to be no dish Jamie Oliver doesn't feel is improved by lemon zest and/or juice. I'm certainly guilty of it myself; feeling that if I add flavourings I will eventually arrive at the plate of plates. But I think we have the journey backwards. We should go to the start.

Do you know what bay leaves taste like? How about oregano or that tomato paste we all squeeze into sauces? The oils we use? The mustards and redcurrant jellies? Did you taste your sweated onions before adding them to the dish? Are your dried herbs now ten years old and basically green/grey dust? We talk of a desire for more depth of flavour when we actually mean scope or span. We value width not depth.

One of the highlights of my 2013 Sicily trip. This was from Licata's La Madia restaurant; billed as beef with artichokes.
You could use the coals to sear forkfuls of meat. Or not.

For Belinda's birthday last year, the boys and I took her for a tasting menu in a well reviewed restaurant in Ambleside. It was Michelin starred with exquisite views over Windermere and a sweeping gravel drive. (I do like a gravel drive. Silly, I know.) The food however was below par. I won't name the restaurant because they dealt with my complaint graciously and generously and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The food was, or course, well sourced and cooked but everything had been... ponced about with. The worst offender was listed in the menu as a 'ham hock fritter'. Well what would you expect from that description? Ham hock, especially smoked, is packed with flavour. I was hoping for fine Cumbrian free-range pork with maybe a little salad, benefiting from some pickled fruit or, as they have a star, a sous-vide egg yolk and some sea salt.

What we were presented with was a nest of salad leaves and micro-herbs, dressed with vinaigrette, some goats cheese, a confit quails egg, pickled turnip, pickled carrot and an over generous spray of olio al tartufo, meaning that every mouthful tasted of... truffle. The dining room was heady with it. You literally had to seek out the pork. It was no bigger than my thumb and its flavour had been obliterated. I think this smacks of a nervous chef; someone lacking faith in their ingredients or maybe who felt the need to pimp up such a simple meat for inclusion on a Michelin menu. Contrast that with the picture above. Beef with artichokes it was called. What we received was the finest rare beef with the best artichoke hearts in a drizzle of very, very good olive oil. Three flavours. Much confidence.

There does seem to be that pressure. I blame (what Jay Rayner calls) fayne dayning. You'll often hear them complain about simplicity on Masterchef, as if complication delivers an improved dish. They seem to value technique over flavour. I'm also suspicious of that Bake Off standard the 'wow factor'. Wow is fine, so long as it's followed by mmmmm.

If everything has a multiplicity of ingredients, it must mean they all become more similar. A dish of one element can only taste of that thing. As soon as you add ingredients the dish starts sharing similarities and it moves away from its essence. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; mixed foods can obviously be tasty, but it does mean that we should think about every element that we add.

Indian food does use many flavours but it is routinely bastardised in the UK. Most dishes from the sub-continent select from a palette of no more than ten spices; usually focussing on two or three. These should be roasted from whole to express the oils and blended just before use. We tend to reach for that plastic pot of yellow stuff that tastes of 'curry'.

It's a bit like thinking you can make a great cocktail by combining mediocre liquids. Nope.

Italians have the right idea. It's all about exalting the king: be that beef, tomatoes, courgettes or olives. A dish rarely seen in UK restaurants is spaghetti al burro. Pasta with butter. Two ingredients. OK, so probably with added salt, a rough grind of pepper and a sprinkle of parmesan. But this way you taste the ingredients individually. Good butter is a thing of wonder and this is one of the best ways to enjoy it.

Increasingly I am decreasing my ingredient list. And it is counter-intuitive. It almost feels like a betrayal! Roasts especially. If you have good meat, eat good meat. It doesn't need flavour jazz, just a light seasoning and a sympathetic roast, often with a severe browning first in a scary-hot skillet. I'm often asked how I cook my pork belly and the glib answer is: in the oven. Honestly. I do nothing to it. And yes, sometimes it feels like cheating; I sense the invisible wag of the fayne dayning finger perhaps. Yet without doubt, the greatest compliments have come for the simplest of my dishes.

That lamb chump, deeply seared. Now needs 13 minutes at 230°C and then a ten minute rest.
It will be pink and delicious with a gnarly, caramelised crust. The pan juices will make a brilliant gravy.
Cream of mushroom soup

Veg is another candidate for special treatment within culinary solitude. For me this revelation started when I made my cream of mushroom soup. It's probably the single most praised item, these past few years. What's in it? Mushrooms, and a dab of cream. Lots and lots and lots of mushrooms that need long, slow cooking to remove almost all their water. That's it. I decided not to include cheese, garlic, sherry, shallots or chives. I don't even garnish it anymore.

So many common, supermarket shelf vegetables are transformed by roasting: carrots, cauliflower, squash, broccoli, sprouts (still yuk though). Flame roasting aubergine or peppers brings out new flavour.

This is my new approach (blimey, almost wrote philosophy): make the dish once, keep it simple as possible and then consider additions. Do I want a thyme background? Does it need lemon zest? More acid? Floral top notes? Sweetness? if so - why? Can I improve the key ingredients with a different treatment? You can call it lazy, I prefer to think of it as confidence. Depth not width!

Further reading: Three diabolical culinary crimes

Monday 18 January 2016

(Real) Mint choc chip ice cream

I do like a nice bowl. These were from Habitat. I wasn't even sure they still existed.

Minty most things don't taste like mint. Funny isn't it? Same with strawberry, apple, banana and cherry. Even orange. When we see those flavours specified we accept that they will taste nothing like a strawberry, a banana, a cherry or a piece of mint. The original flavours exist only as some distant reference point. A bit like the association between Coke/Pepsi and the fizzy brown water stuff you get in fast food outlets. You need to have drunk actual Coke or Pepsi; to have that memory, not be be deeply offended by the barrel of watery guff you're now sucking up to lubricate the oesophageal journey of your horse burger. Not so much flavour as fiction. Mint fiction. A story once told. Well, it's time to get back to the origins.

And so to mint ice cream. Much of it tastes like toothpaste. The colour is glow-in-the-dark GREEN. A hue so vivid it's never seen in nature, apart from perhaps the plumage of some Amazonian parrot. It's 'mint' in an industrial sense. MINT! I've made mint granita before but I wanted to see what real mint ice cream was like. There are several recipes, most seemingly following the great David Leibovitz's lead.

Natural mint ice cream a very different experience; obviously far more subtle than the petrochemical variety but also more... not grassy, but... herbaceous. You can tell it was made from leaves. Making your own also means you can use a good quality chocolate. Here I used, as usual, Valrhona 70%.

Fresh mint choc chip ice cream.
Makes just over a litre.

Summary: infuse milk with mint. Make a custard base. Churn that. Melt chocolate and drizzle into ice-cream to make the chips.

No need to remove the stems.
In a saucepan mix 500ml double cream, 250ml full fat milk and 130g caster sugar. Warm over a low heat. Take 75g of mint - that's three of the stupidly small supermarket packs or one big hearty hank from the corner shop - and bruise it by squeezing and twisting the leaves. This helps to release the mint oil. Submerge the mint in the milk mix and bring to the boil just briefly. Cover and leave to infuse for two hours. Any less and you're missing out on flavour, any longer and it doesn't seem to make a difference. I fancy it might allow in a slight bitterness too, but I'm not sure.

At the end of two hours you'll have this: a vaguely green but very minty milk. Strain the milk using a sieve and use the back of a spoon or ladle to press out as much minty moisture as you can.

Whisk in six egg yolks to the milk and stir over a low heat until it starts to thicken. This happens at about 77°C. Well, apparently it does but I often find I'm in the low 80s. I check using my food thermometer, this has the advantage of allowing me to heat the mix quickly until it approaches the low 70s, then I can pull back and stir constantly. If you heat too quickly you will of course have minty, creamy scrambled yolks. Try as I might, I can't think of a use for that. Don't expect a heavy custard, this is just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

During one batch, the egg yolks I used were very orange which turned the gently green milk a rather unfortunate khaki colour. So I'd say try for pale yolks but how on earth can you tell?

This custard base should now be chilled for a few hours before it can be churned for about 30 minutes in your ice cream maker.

While your base is churning... take 200g (one bar) of decent, dark chocolate. You need the darkness to contrast with the cream and mint. Milk chocolate doesn't work as well. You have two options here. You can just chop it finely and stir in or you can go the Italian 'straciatella' route and melt the chocolate before pouring it in to the ice cream, thread like and allow the final few minutes of churn to break up the threads. The one advantage of this is you can add a little oil to the melted chocolate (something neutral tasting like groundnut or rice bran). This will lower the melting point of the chocolate so instead of ending up with a mouthful of chips, the chocolate will melt in your mouth with the ice cream. I've done it both ways. Both are delicious.

Monday 11 January 2016

Use both hands. And other stupidly obvious instructions.

Use both hands! It's my new mantra in the kitchen; as much to myself as to anyone else. Not just an instruction, more a philosophy of work. Yes, you should use both hands placing in or removing anything from the oven but it's about being deliberate in your actions. Don't take physical short cuts.

Every time I've had a regrettable incident in the kitchen it was because I was trying to do two things at once, usually trying to hold two things at once. If you lift something critical - cake mix, batter, Yorkshires, braised meat, anything hot, anything aerated, anything with juices slopping around... don't do it one handed. Put down your phone, your baster, your sexy partner (all three if it's one of those evenings) because the bi-manual approach means you have much better odds of not dropping it, or holding it at an angle that something hot and wet spills over the floor.

Doesn't have to be an oven though. One of my greatest achievements in the field of idiocy was taking out a two litre jug of batter at just enough of a tilt that some splashed down my neck. The cold shock was enough to make me jolt... and drop the rest down myself. Two litres of batter covers a lot of floor. Luckily, half a litre was soaking into my trousers. Now that's a sexy look. Did I mention that this was done just before the serving of the main course; the lamb rack already cut and now rapidly cooling on the board. The battered floor area was between food and guests. I could now either clean the floor and let the meat go cold (or overcook in a hot oven) or serve the food and risk sliding, Buster Keaton style, plates aloft, into the wall.

Cake tins should be placed on a baking tray in the oven. Sure it's easy to handle when it's half empty but once it's cooked and the mix has risen up to the top edges you'll have to hold it by the sides; the smooth, slippery, hot sides. What happens if it slides? They do this all the time on Great British Bake Off and Masterchef - risking crucial cakes in transit. I have to move my chair away from the TV else I end up pebble-dashing it with my dinner. Use a tray. 

When you put down the cake/bread/roast, make sure it's on a flat surface. Check above to ensure nothing will fall onto or into it. Protect everything with foil or clingfilm if it is to be left for more than a few minutes, even pots and pans. Especially pots and pans.

About twenty years ago, for an important meal, I created one of the finest fish veloutés in the history of humanity. I'd used turbot bones for the stock; braised fennel and bruised bay leaves. I'd used just the right amount of exquisite saffron. It was my masterpiece. Subtle yet with depth. I'd given my friends tiny, teasing tasters and watched them curdle with delight. All agreed: it was from the gods.

I never served it.

I'd left the pan on the hob, handle tucked out of harm's way. I opened a nearby high cupboard and a tin of soup fell out. It bounced on the counter, the way tins don't... bounced and hit the handle of the velouté just at the end. The pan flipped 180° and landed upside down on the floor, contents spread across the kitchen.

Cling film might have saved it. Cling film might have meant my wife didn't have to coax a furious husband from hiding behind the shed at the bottom of the garden. Yeah, I know. But I was young, and you weren't there man... you weren't there.

And lifting jugs and jars with removable lids. Don't just lift it from the top. It will be loose. Lid and body will part company as you heave it over the main course. No, I know it's never happened before, but it will this time, and the dinner's late anyway' Sophie's just texted to 'remind' you that she's paleo so she can't have the 'en-croute' or the profiteroles. And your father-in-law is watching. You know what he'll say. He doesn't mean to be so delightfully condescending but...

Use both hands.

Sadly, these are my fingers. Yes, it did hurt. The blisters the next day were impressive.
Also, remember that things recently removed from the oven are hot. I know, I know. Duh! But so often have I taken out a pan, put it to cool, done something else for a minute and then turned... oh, I should move that pan. Ta-dah! It was a trick I performed so frequently that my sons started insisting I did it on purpose. Why would an otherwise competent cook keep making the same stupid error? Indeed. I once had to direct my sons during service while I stood with my hand in a jug of ice water. 

Now I always, ALWAYS, place something over a hot handle or knob (ahem): an oven glove or a tea towel; anything to act as a visual reminder.

Toast the nuts, not your fingers.

Use a spoon! This one is dedicated to my son Etien. Don't add ingredients directly into things already mixed. Use an intermediary: a spoon, a ladle, a spatula.

For instance, you've creamed your eggs and sugar with your mixer so now you need to add the flour. Either pre weigh the flour into a bowl and pour it in or place the mix on a scales and add the flour with a spoon. DON'T pour it out of the bag or - worse - that heavy flour jar. Just at the end... tippy, tippy... you only need another 5g... tippy, tippy, shaky, shaky... suddenly evil forces create an avalanche and the entire contents come a-tumbling. Bowl and mix disappear in a half kilo, farinaceous cloud of fatality. Your cake is gone. Dead. So young. So much promise. Spluttering and wiping down your face you think: if only I'd used a spoon. Dark sugars are especially bad for this. Massive sticky rocks will come bowling down into your melted butter, impossible to retrieve. Use a spoon.

Don't be tempted to crack eggs directly into a mixing bowl while the machine is running. The egg will crack but the white will stick to one half and drag it down into the mix. Before you can curse and switch the mixer off your batter will have the texture of concrete. You wanted crunchy biscuits... but not like this.

Similarly, when separating eggs, don't do it over the whites bowl. Use three receptacles, one to break and one each for whites and yolks. Sure you won't drop any yolk into the albumen - you're experienced. But if you do, how much time do you want to waste experiencing the yolk-chase-spoon-dance, before you start again? But, oh, that was the last of the eggs. 

Was this the look you were going for?

Think. In his fabulous book 'Twenty', cook Michael Ruhlman says the first and most important ingredient in any recipe is thought. Yup!

Know what you're doing by reading the recipe all the way through, obviously. We've all been tripped up by that 'chill for at least eight hours, preferably overnight', usually two hours before guests arrive (bloody Sophie again and with her tedious husband who always brings one bottle but drinks three). But also, know why you're doing it. Why are you adding those ingredients in that order? Why is the heat high or low? Think it through. Imagine the steps. This will make timing easier too. Have you ever seen the Olympic bob sled people standing at the top of the course, eyes shut, arms out, gyrating slowly as they think their way down the ice? Do that. You don't have to close your eyes though. Or gyrate. Unless you want to.

In DIY there's a phrase: measure twice, cut once. The same is true in cooking. Be deliberate. Plan your actions. Use both hands.