Quail in rose petal sauce with toasted pistachio couscous

"Tita wasn't there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair; there wasn't the slightest sign of life in her eyes. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal's aromas."

For my birthday this year I was given the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate. It was a present from two good friends of mine, chosen - I think - because it is very food-centric. It recounts the story of Tita, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, who has been forbidden to marry because Mexican tradition dictates that the eldest daughter must remain single to look after her mother until she dies. She falls in love with a man called Pedro, who marries her sister Rosaura out of a desire to be near Tita. This doesn't quite go to plan, and - as the blurb of the novel states - "for the next 22 years Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds."

The novel tells the story of Tita and Pedro through the medium of food; each chapter begins with a different recipe, and tales of Tita - who we are told has a "sixth sense" about "everything concerning food" - preparing numerous exotic and seductive dishes are interspersed with the story of her emotional life and her encounters with Pedro. There is a scene where Pedro stumbles upon her grinding toasted chillies, almonds and sesame seeds together on a stone, and is "transfixed by the sight of Tita in that erotic posture". Everything in the novel revolves beautifully around the domestic world of cooking and food preparation, intertwined with passion and romance.

From the way the book is written, you'd never guess that twenty-two years are supposed to pass from beginning to end. It's structured around the months of the year, a chapter for each, but rather than covering a single year we're supposed to assume that the 'March' that follows the 'Feburary' is in fact March several years later. Each month begins with a recipe. January features 'Christmas rolls' (ingredients: a can of sardines, half a chorizo sausage, an onion, oregano, a can of serrano chiles and 10 hard rolls), moving through April (Turkey Mole with Almonds and Sesame Seeds), July (oxtail soup), October (cream fritters: 1 cup heavy cream, 6 eggs, cinnamon and syrup) to December (Chillies in Walnut Sauce). 

All the recipes are utterly fascinating, exotic and wonderful; I particularly love the idea of the turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds. In each chapter the recipe is featured because it bears some relevance to the emotions and situation of Tita at the time, or because the plot demands it. Feburary's 'Chabela Wedding Cake' (granulated sugar, cake flour, 17 eggs and the grated peel of a lime) appears because of the forthcoming wedding of Pedro and Rosaura.

I think maybe I enjoyed this book so much because I can relate to Tita in some ways; I often feel like my emotional life is inextricably bound up in my life with food. I don't mean that if I've had a bad day I'll devour an entire chocolate cake to cheer myself up, or that I comfort eat. More that I tend to remember significant or important episodes in my life via what I had cooked or eaten at the time, or that my cooking nearly always reflects my mood in some way, or that my state of mind is frequently governed by what I've cooked or eaten.

It is a wonderful, beautiful book. It's also rather surreal in places; I hate to use that over-used and rather vague term 'magical realism', but I think that's the best way of defining it. You're reading about something that appears to be a normal, realistic situation and then something utterly bizarre will happen. 

The best example of this is in the March chapter, where Tita's sister Gertrudis is affected in a surprising way by the dinner Tita has prepared: 

On her the food seemed to act as an aphrodisiac; she began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs. An itch in the centre of her body kept her from sitting properly in her chair. She began to sweat, imagining herself on horseback with her arms clasped around one of Pancho Villa’s men: the one she had seen in the village plaza the week before, smelling of sweat and mud, of dawns that brought uncertainty and danger, smelling of life and of death. She was on her way to market in Piedras Negras with Chencha, the servant, when she saw him coming down the main street, riding in front of the others, obviously the captain of the troop. Their eyes met and what she saw in his made her tremble. She saw all the nights he’d spent staring into the fire and longing to have a woman beside him, a woman he could kiss, a woman he could hold in his arms, a woman like her. She got out her handkerchief and tried to wipe these sinful thoughts from her mind as she wiped away the sweat.

But it was no use, something strange had happened to her. She turned to Tita for help, but Tita wasn’t there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair; there wasn’t the slightest sign of life in her eyes. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas.

Gertrudis goes to shower, because "her whole body was dripping with sweat. Her sweat was pink, and it smelled like roses, a lovely strong smell." Little does she know that the scent of roses from her body travels all the way to the town, engulfing the solider she had seen the week before.

A higher power was controlling his actions. He was moved by a strong urge to arrive as quickly as possible...the aroma from Gertrudis’ body guided him. He got there just in time to find her racing through the field. Then he knew why he’d been drawn there. This woman desperately needed a man to quench the red-hot fire that was raging inside her...

Gertrudis stopped running when she saw him riding toward her. Naked as she was, with her loosened hair falling to her waist, luminous, glowing with energy, she might have been an angel and a devil in one woman. The delicacy of her face, the perfection of her pure virginal body contrasted with the passion, the lust, that leapt from her eyes, from her every pore. These things, and the sexual desire Juan had contained for so long while he was fighting in the mountains, made for a spectacular encounter.

Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her on to his horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that I am not the first to try and recreate the splendid 'Quail in rose petal sauce' that is the focus of the March chapter and the cause of such wild, tempestuous carnal urgings. I was honestly convinced I might be, and was so excited about this prospect, but of course there are various recipes from other bloggers out there who have given it a go. My attempts at original creativity are always thwarted by others in the blogosphere.

However, I should probably add a disclaimer before I go any further: I did, by no means, decide to make this dish because I was hoping a rippling, muscular, semi-naked Mexican warrior would gallop down to my house and whisk me off into the sunset on his horse. 

No, I...er...actually made it because I thought it sounded tasty. Like you're going to believe me. But honestly, I did.

This is a recipe that has poetry. Pedro brings Tita a bouquet of roses to celebrate her becoming the official cook of the house. Rosaura is not impressed and runs off crying. Tita, overcome with emotion, clasps the roses to her breast "so tightly that when she got to the kitchen, the roses, which had been mostly pink, had turned quite red from the blood that was flowing from Tita's hands and breasts". Not wanting to waste the roses, Tita remembers a recipe she was once taught involving pheasants. She adapts it to use quail, which is all they have on the ranch. 

"It truly is a delicious dish", the novel states. "The roses give it an extremely delicate flavour". 

Fascinated by the idea of using roses in a sauce of meat, and also by cooking with quail, which I've never tried, I just had to give it a go. 

The book gives one of the strangest ingredients lists I have ever seen: 

  • 12 roses, preferably red
  • 12 chestnuts
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour
  • 2 drops attar of roses
  • 2 tablespoons anise
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 6 quail
  • 1 pitaya

There are very vague instructions as to how to make the actual dish, from which I was able to improvise a little and come up with my version.

It's actually a simple recipe, even if its ingredients are a tad bizarre. The sauce is made by frying some crushed garlic in a little butter and honey until softened and fragrant. To this is added a puree of cooked chestnuts and 'pitaya', which is more commonly known over here as 'dragon fruit'. I've seen them in supermarkets before and have eaten them occasionally - they have translucent white flesh full of little black seeds, that look rather like raspberry seeds. The taste is slightly sweet but generally a bit bland, which is why I don't really eat them. You also grind together anise and rose petals, and add these to the sauce, along with 'attar of roses' which I assume is rosewater or similar, and cornflour if needed, to thicken.

As I was making this, I looked at my Kenwood and I thought "this is the weirdest combination of things I have ever put in a blender". Roses, chestnuts, dragon fruit. Totally bizarre.

But, can I tell you something? It works. 

It's hard to describe the flavour of this sauce. It's rich and earthy from the chestnuts and garlic, but also quite sweet from the honey. There's a nice nutty texture from the seeds of the dragon fruit, which just lends it a slight mild fruitiness. Finally, there's the perfume of roses. I used dried rose petals for this rather than fresh - if you have roses in your garden that you can guarantee haven't been sprayed with anything nasty (hence don't use shop-bought), then go ahead and use fresh petals. Dried petals, though, can be found in Middle Eastern cooking stores and are rather lovely. I felt like I was cooking with confetti or potpourri.

Because rose is a strong flavour and one we don't generally tend to associate with edible things, you don't want to use too much. I added the rose petals bit by bit, tasting as I went. I didn't use any rosewater, as the recipe suggests, but the rose flavour of my finished recipe was very subtle, so by all means add a couple of drops of rosewater if you want it a bit more floral (only a tiny amount, though, as otherwise you'll think you're eating quail baked in soap).

I made a few changes to the book's recipe, adding chicken stock to make a runnier sauce that would soak into the couscous. I also used cornmeal (polenta) to thicken it, rather than cornflour, because it seems right with the Mexican theme. You could use either, depending on how thick you want your sauce. I also thought it needed something to give it a bit of sharpness, as it's quite rich - lemon juice would work perfectly, so I've included it in the recipe.  I didn't grind the rose petals with anise in a pestle and mortar, as the book says; rather, I put the rose petals in the blender with the chestnuts and dragon fruit, and I put two whole star anise into the sauce while it was simmering. If you have ground anise, though, either add that directly to the sauce (I'd suggest two teaspoons rather than two tablespoons) or grind with the rose petals, if you like. If you don't have dragon fruit, you could try adding a few raspberries instead, for the texture, or just leave it out. You could try other fruits in its place - peaches might work quite nicely, or pears.

I'd never tried quail before, apart from once at Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant Nopi, where I had it smoked with an utterly incredible fruity sauce that I think had kumquats in. It was divine. I was almost as impressed with it the second time round. These plump little birds (serve 2 per portion) have delicate, tender breast meat and rich, meaty legs that are small and diminutive enough to pick up and gnaw on without looking like a wannabe caveman. They're not hard to get hold of - Waitrose sell them, and any butcher should be able to order them for you. There's something delightful about being served two tiny little quail, perky and burnished like mini roast chickens, all for you.

I served this on a bed of couscous mixed with toasted pistachios, because I had an inkling it would all work very well. I wasn't wrong. The sauce is quite sweet and rich, so really needs that earthiness from the toasted nuts to balance it out. Couscous is a perfect vehicle for the sauce and, although not really Mexican, seems to work with the textures and flavours involved.

This is a delightful dish. The sauce infuses the tender, flavoursome quail meat with its intriguing blend of flavours, and forms a lovely crust on top of the birds. It's addictive in its combination of flavours, a gorgeous blend of chestnuts, sweet honey, fruit and that light floral touch from the roses. The pistachios add the final flourish. This is exactly my kind of food: flavoursome, fruity, earthy, and served with couscous. I loved every minute of devouring it.

Best of all, it's not even very difficult, despite sounding a bit odd. 

This would make the perfect romantic meal for Valentines Day or some kind of special occasion, especially given its origins in the book. You could decorate it with real rose petals or roses, if you like. It's romance on a plate; it's exotic, exciting and unusual.

I  love the associations this recipe has with the wonderful writing of Like Water for Chocolate; like the book, it is romantic, sensuous and bursting with flavour and excitement.

Quail in rose petal sauce with toasted pistachio couscous (serves 2):

  • 4 oven-ready quail
  • 12 vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts
  • 4 heaped tsp dried rose petals, plus extra to garnish
  • 1 dragonfruit, flesh scooped out (omit if you can't find one, or use another fruit as suggested above)
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 star anise or 2 tsp ground anise
  • 250ml chicken stock
  • 1-2 drops rosewater (optional)
  • 2 tsp cornflour or 1 tbsp cornmeal/polenta
  • A good squeeze of lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g couscous
  • 3 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Put the chestnuts, rose petals and dragonfruit flesh in a blender and blitz to a puree. In a small saucepan, heat the butter and saute the garlic until it is golden and softened. Add the honey. Add the chestnut and rose puree along with the star anise and cook for a couple of minutes. Season well, then add the chicken stock and lemon juice, and simmer for another couple of minutes. Add either the cornmeal or cornflour to thicken the sauce. If using cornmeal, add it directly. If using cornflour, stir it into a little water first to make a paste, then add this. Taste - if you want more rose flavour, add the rosewater. It might need a little more lemon juice or salt to give it a bit of sharpness, as it's a rather sweet sauce.

Place the olive oil in a frying pan and place over a high heat. Brown the quail on the side of one of its legs for a couple of minutes, then flip over, then finally brown the breast side. 

Place the quail in a small oven dish so they fit snugly together. Season them well, then pour over the sauce.

Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes until the sauce is rich and bubbly, and the quails are cooked through - test them as you would chicken.

Meanwhile, place the couscous in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover by about 1cm. Cover with a plate and leave to fluff up. While this happens, toast the pistachios in a dry saucepan over a low heat until fragrant. Fluff the couscous with a fork, season, and add the pistachios.

Serve the quails on top of the couscous, with the rose sauce poured over. Garnish with a few dried rose petals.

Walnut and juniper crusted venison loin with chocolate jus

This beautiful loin of Yorkshire venison has been sitting in my freezer for months. It seemed so special that I could never find an occasion good enough to defrost and cook it. I was also frightened of doing something bad to it and ruining what is one of the most wonderful ingredients I have ever used. The loin of venison is the prized cut: like beef fillet, it is tender, succulent, and beautiful. Overcooking it would be a culinary crime. I've only used it once before, to make a venison carpaccio with raspberry vinaigrette. I seared the loin, and then thinly sliced it to serve with a mixture of balsamic vinegar and crushed raspberries. I remember being delighted when my guests didn't finish it all, and the next day I feasted off sandwiches of thinly-sliced, rare deer. Carving rare meat is one of my favourite kitchen tasks; I love the incredible colour and texture of tender, pink flesh, particularly game. Finally I plucked up the courage to remove the venison from the freezer.

I had no fixed idea of what I wanted to do with it, so I made a mental list of all the things that work well with this meat: juniper, nuts, mash, chocolate, raspberries, bitter greens. I've seen Jerusalem artichokes around for ages now, and keep meaning to use them, so I decided I'd definitely include them in a mash to go with the venison. The rest just sort of happened in my head: I wanted some kale in there, because I love it, and because the dark, iron richness of greens goes well with game. I like the idea of encasing meat in a crispy crust, for textural interest, so I found a way there to incorporate walnuts and juniper. Finally, a chocolate and red wine jus.

Chocolate and venison is by now a well-established culinary connection. There's something about the cocoa richness of dark chocolate that really enhances the flavour of the meat. I just grated a little into a jus made from the pan juices of the venison loin, some beef stock, some red wine, and a sprig of thyme. Finally, I added a few raspberries, crushing them into the jus for a hint of piquancy to lift what is otherwise a very earthy dish. The chocolate adds a depth of flavour that you wouldn't expect; it's excellent.

For the venison, I seared the loin in a pan before rolling it in a mixture of crushed walnuts, crushed juniper berries, dried thyme and seasoning. It then went in the oven for ten minutes; the walnuts became crispy, and I left it to rest under foil while I finished the mash, greens and sauce. It sounds like a fairly complicated recipe, but it isn't really: the trick is getting all the elements finished at the same time.

I was really pleased with how it turned out. The meat was cooked exactly as I like it: very rare. Anything else would have been wrong with such a tender cut of meat. I was surprised at its moistness, too - game can often be very dry, even when left bloody. I sliced it into beautiful rounds, still with a few walnut crumbs clinging to them, placed them on the mash, and drizzled over the jus and raspberries. The sauce is absolutely wonderful: the beef stock gives it a richness that the chocolate then enhances, and it works so well with the texture of the meat. There are lots of very big, rich flavours going on, but they're balanced by the greens and the raspberries, and the slight sweetness of the rare meat. One to repeat, I think. If I could change one thing, I'd toast the walnuts first for extra crunch.

Juniper and walnut crusted venison loin with raspberry and chocolate sauce, Jerusalem artichoke mash, and kale (serves 4):

1 venison loin (about 600g)
A little olive oil
A handful of walnuts, toasted
6 juniper berries
1 tsp dried thyme
6 Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and halved
3 mashing potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 tbsp creme fraiche, cream, or butter, for the mash
Several large handfuls of curly kale
200ml red wine
200ml beef stock
Sprig of thyme
A bar of dark chocolate
A few raspberries (optional)
1 tsp balsamic vinegar

First, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the artichokes and potatoes. Simmer until tender. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.

Meanwhile, pulse the walnuts, juniper berries, dried thyme and some seasoning in a blender to make fine crumbs. Spread out on a plate. Get a frying pan very hot, add a little olive oil, then sear the venison loin on all sides. Roll it in the crumb mixture to coat all over, then place on a baking tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes (this is for rare - increase the timings a little if you like your meat more cooked, but beware of overcooking this very tender cut). When done, remove and cover with foil to rest for 10 minutes.

Pour the stock and red wine into the venison pan to deglaze. Add the sprig of thyme and simmer until reduced by half. Taste and check the seasoning, then add the balsamic. Strain into a jug, and just before serving, grate in some dark chocolate. How much is up to you - keep tasting. You don't want it to turn into chocolate sauce, but you can put a surprising amount in without overpowering the meat. Add the raspberries too, if you like.

Place the kale with 2 tbsp water in a large, microwaveable bowl, cover with clingfilm and microwave on full power for 3 minutes. Alternatively, steam using a steamer. Season and keep warm.

Drain the potatoes and artichokes and mash. Add creme fraiche, cream, butter and milk to taste, along with lots of salt and pepper.

To assemble, spread some mash on a plate. Slice the venison loin into slices about 1.5cm thick, and arrange on top. Spoon some kale onto the side, then finally drizzle over the chocolate jus.

Seared venison, kumquat compote, beetroot and savoy cabbage

"The venison first shall be the lord o' the feast; To him the other two shall minister" ~ Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Sometimes you can't beat a good piece of red meat, seared in a blisteringly hot pan on the outside until it scorches, left to rest for a few minutes and then sliced open to reveal a perfectly pink interior glistening with moisture. Even better when the red meat in question is one that is good for you, amidst all the headlines about red meat being linked to bowel cancer. Venison is I suppose what you would call red meat (though actually, it's almost more of a very dark purple), but it is low in saturated fat, high in iron and vitamins, and very low in cholesterol. What's more, it has the succulence of (beef) fillet steak but rather more flavour. There's also the notion of grandeur about it: 'venison' to me conjures up images of grand Tudor feasts, servants carrying home the spoils of one of Henry VIII's (pre-leg ulcer) hunting trips, huge deer carcasses draped over their shoulders.

I normally cook venison with some sort of red wine jus, with a little redcurrant jelly and something like whole redcurrants or blueberries added. I've also made it with a quince and rosemary compote, which was absolutely delicious. However, I'm always in search of new and exciting meat and fruit pairings, and I vaguely recalled a recipe I read somewhere that mentioned a kumquat compote. Off to the market I went, to procure some venison and kumquats.

They're a funny little fruit. A member of the citrus family, the skin and pith are sweet while the inside is quite sour - kind of the reverse of an orange. I nibbled a whole one, and it was pleasantly refreshing, but I'm not sure I could sit there and eat them raw from the bag. So I cooked them with fresh ginger, shallots, cinnamon, cumin, brown sugar and vinegar to form a beautiful orange compote, thick and jammy with whole pieces of kumquat that had a crunch rather like the peel you find in thick-cut marmalade. It's hard to describe the taste of the compote: it has a lot of sharpness from the vinegar, but that is matched by the sugar, and you end up with something very sweet and very moreish. It works perfectly with the iron-rich gameyness of the meat, though I'd actually eat it as it is on porridge, or with ice cream. 

To accompany the venison, some of my favourite winter vegetables: mash, roasted beetroot, and savoy cabbage. I absolutely adore cabbage - braised red cabbage is probably my favourite, but I have a new love for savoy. When lightly steamed, its leaves have so much texture and a hint of bitterness that makes them a perfect match for rich-flavoured meat dishes. They also provide a nice colour contrast on a plate that is predominantly dark purple. The beetroots I just roasted in foil in the oven. I actually intended to mash them with the potato, but they don't mash particularly well, so I ended up serving them in chunks. They gave a new textural dimension to the dish, which is otherwise rather soft.

As for the venison, I left it to marinate in red wine, juniper, bay, thyme, rosemary and garlic for half a day before drying it and searing it in a hot pan for a couple of minutes on each side. I also left it to rest for about ten minutes under some foil while I made the mash - this does make a real difference. It means that the juices don't trickle out of the meat when you cut into it and make a mess of the plate, and it makes the meat a lot more succulent.

This is a dish I'm rather proud of; all the individual elements work very well together, and the kumquat compote is just wonderful. I'd make double and save some for dessert one day, if I were you - sadly I didn't have the foresight. But I think this is just what you need when those cravings for a good old-fashioned plate of meat and vegetables arises. If I owned a gastropub, it'd be there on my menu without a doubt (one can dream...).

Seared venison, kumquat compote, beetroot and savoy cabbage (serves 4):

4 venison steaks (or 2 large ones - you want a total weight of about 800-900g)
Large glass of red wine
6 juniper berries, crushed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs thyme and rosemary (or 1tsp dried thyme and 1tsp dried rosemary)
2 bay leaves

200g kumquats, quartered lengthways
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
2 shallots, peeled and finely diced
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cumin
75ml white wine vinegar
40g light muscovado sugar

4 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into four
2 large beetroot, scrubbed but not peeled
1/2 savoy cabbage
Olive oil
A dash of milk
Salt and pepper

Marinate the venison steaks in the wine and aromatics for at least an hour before you plan to cook it. When you are ready to cook, remove from the marinade (reserve it) and dry the steaks thoroughly with kitchen paper before seasoning them.

Roast the beetroots at 200C, wrapped in foil, until tender. (If they take forever, cut them into smaller pieces - some of the colour will run out, but it doesn't really matter).

For the compote, fry the ginger and shallot in a little oil until softened. Add the spices and the kumquats, and cook until the fruit has softened slightly. Then pour in the sugar and vinegar, cover with a lid and leave to simmer until the fruit has softened even more. Remove the lid and reduce until you have a thick, jammy consistency. Taste - you might need to add a little more sugar.

For the mash, boil the potatoes until soft. Drain and leave to dry out for a few minutes before mashing or pushing through a potato ricer. Stir in seasoning to taste, along with butter and milk.

When the mash is done, keep it warm while you cook the venison. Heat some oil in a large saucepan until quite hot - you want the steaks to sizzle as soon as they hit the pan. Place the steaks in the pan and cook for a couple of minutes on each side (this is for rare meat - you can cook it more if you like, but venison should ideally be served rare as it toughens very quickly). Put on a plate and cover with foil while you cook the cabbage and make the jus.

For the jus, strain the venison marinade and pour into the hot pan you cooked the steaks in - it should bubble and reduce to about 6tbsp of liquid. Taste and check the seasoning.

For the cabbage, finely shred the leaves, heat a little oil in a large saucepan with a lid and stir fry for a few minutes. Add about a centimetre of water, put the lid on, and leave to steam until tender but still crunchy. Check the water level sporadically to make sure it doesn't boil dry. Season and stir through some butter before serving.

To serve, place the mash on the plate and surround with beetroot and cabbage. Slice the venison steaks into thin strips and place on top, drizzle over some jus, then top with the compote.

Iranian-style roast teal

A couple of weeks ago I visited Borough Market for the first time. For someone who expends every waking thought on culinary matters, this was rather an exciting experience. It reminded me of the Real Food Festival; lots of independent retailers selling weird and wonderful things - the favourites seem to be cheese, artisan bread, and chorizo sausages. I was expecting more of a generic market, so I was pleasantly surprised. I loved the fruit and veg markets especially, with their lush displays of glistening fresh cherries, lychees, champagne rhubarb and quinces. I haven't seen quinces for a while now, so I bought a load of them eagerly for future use. They were the most perfect quinces I have ever seen; smooth and with a perfect, unblemished surface. But this isn't about the quinces. Another exciting purchase came in the form of a brace of teal from a butcher's. I've never seen teal before; the butchers here have never had it in stock, so I've only read about it in my game cookbook. It's a very small breed of wild duck, and I was struck by just how tiny it is - smaller than a wood pigeon. Always keen to try cooking something new, I bought a couple, with no idea of what I was going to do with them.

Inspiration came, though, from my Iranian cookbook, Saraban. There's a recipe for duck breast with fesenjun sauce, a thick, rich, unctuous concoction of pomegranate molasses and walnuts. Seeing as teal is a kind of duck, but its meat is much more strongly flavoured and gamey, I figured it would go very well with a rich, aromatic and sweet sauce. My mum had also recently been for a meal at an Iranian friend's house, and she raved about the fesenjun stew she had tasted. She told me proudly that she'd even obtained a bottle of the pomegranate molasses from her friend to make it, which she would give to me - why on earth she didn't think I'd have some already, I don't know, but I'm a bit addicted to the stuff so more is always a good thing. I wanted to try this culinary delight for myself; the notion of walnuts and pomegranates together in a sweet-sour sauce is something that appealed to me immensely.

In classic fesenjun recipes the meat is cooked in the sauce until it is tender and melts in the mouth, but overcooking such a tiny, beautiful game bird would have been a horrible thing to do, so I made the sauce separately.

The sauce is simple to make: the ingredients go in a pan and bubble away happily for an hour or so, until the mixture thickens and becomes rich and glossy. It's not the prettiest sauce to look at, but it tastes amazing. There's a richness from tomato purée, a sweet-sourness from pomegranate molasses, and an aromatic depth from cinnamon, turmeric, bay and black pepper.

For the teal, I seasoned them with salt and pepper then browned them in a pan full of hot butter. I brushed their skins with a glaze of honey, pomegranate molasses, black pepper and crushed cardamom, then they went in the oven for about ten minutes. Sounds like a very short time, but they are very small birds, and the meat is best eaten rare. They were perfectly cooked; a deep, scarlet red inside, with wonderfully soft, grainy meat.

Add some saffron couscous and a bunch of watercress, spoon over the sauce, and you have a delicious and moreish combination of intriguing flavours. Scattering over a few pomegranate seeds makes it look pretty and also adds a welcome crunch and freshness. The sauce is very good just stirred into the couscous and eaten on its own, but it's even better when coupled with a mouthful of iron-rich game. I can't wait to try a proper fesenjun stew with chicken.

You could use regular duck breasts for this recipe as well, or even a wild mallard (though you'll need to cook a mallard for a little longer).

Roast teal with fesenjun sauce (serves 2):

First, make the sauce. Roast 100g shelled walnuts in a baking tray in the oven for ten minutes. Remove to a food processor and blitz to thick crumbs - try to retain some texture. Heat some oil in a small saucepan and fry a small onion, finely diced, until soft. Stir in half a teaspoon cinnamon, a quarter of a teaspoon turmeric and black pepper. Add a dessert-spoon of tomato puree. Fry for a couple more minutes, then add the walnuts, a dessert-spoon of pomegranate molasses, a bay leaf, 20g sugar, 150ml pomegranate juice and 200ml chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring regularly, for an hour or so, until the mixture thickens and becomes rich and glossy. Taste to check the seasoning - if too sweet, add some lemon juice.

Start cooking the teal once the sauce is ready. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Season the teal inside and out with salt and pepper. Get an oven-proof frying pan quite hot and add a knob of butter and a splash of olive oil. When sizzling, place the teal in the pan, breast-side down, and sear for a minute or so until golden. Repeat with the bottom of the bird. Mix a tablespoon of honey with half a teaspoon pomegranate molasses and a pinch of black pepper and ground cardamom, and brush over the browned skin of the teal. Place the pan in the oven for ten minutes, then remove the birds, cover with foil, and rest for a few minutes while you make the couscous.

For the couscous, just put it in a bowl, sprinkle on some saffron, then pour over boiling water to cover it by half a centimetre or so. Cover with a plate and leave for five minutes.

Serve the teal with the couscous, some watercress or rocket, the sauce, and some pomegranate seeds sprinkled over.

Ragu of hare with red wine and cocoa

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? ~ Macbeth

I had only come across hare in a culinary context once before I attempted this classic Italian dish. My housemate last year fancied trying his hand at jugged hare (which, if you are unaware, means cooking the hare in its own blood). Fortunately, he asked the butcher to do all the cutting and jointing for him. So when I entered our communal kitchen to find blood spattered everywhere (we later found some inside the kettle), I was more than a little confused, and was told that apparently the butcher hadn't cut it into enough pieces. He stood there, gore-stained knife in hand, hacking away at a deep red carcass and looking decidedly sheepish. To this day I am unsure if perhaps the hare story was a clever ruse to cover for some sort of kitchen-based murder.

In 2006, a UKTV Food survey of 2021 people found that 70% of people stated that they would refused to eat jugged hare if it were served at the house of a friend or relative. Although the idea doesn't bother me in the slightest (seriously, people, man up - it's basically the same as eating a rare steak), I settled on a slightly less gory way of cooking this wonderful animal, in case my four dinner guests comprised those people who object to the idea - braising the joints in a mixture of red wine, cocoa, bacon, vegetables and aromatics (juniper, bay, thyme), and serving it with pasta. This hare ragu is served throughout Italy with pappardelle; thick, wide strips of pasta that hold the rich sauce perfectly. 

I'd never tried hare before; I knew it was very different to rabbit, and much more like venison both in its appearance and flavour. I didn't realise quite how much larger than rabbit it is; the hare and its braising liquid could barely fit in my Le Creuset (and that, avid readers, is perhaps the most middle-class sentence you will ever find within this blog). Nor was I prepared for the sheer amount of blood that the meat seems to shed, even when it has already been jointed. I felt a little bit like Lady Macbeth, frantically scrubbing bright red blood from under my fingernails. 

That said, it's a magnificent animal. The meat has a fresh, glistening look about it, and a startling red colour that will satisfy any carnivore. The saddle of the hare is good roasted, which I'd quite like to try. However, the legs are best braised; because the hare is such a muscular animal with hardly any fat on it, roasting the leg joints would probably result in dry, tough meat.

This is a very straightforward dish, and one that doesn't require much attention. Marinate the hare joints overnight with crushed juniper berries, a bay leaf, thyme, a chopped onion, chopped carrots, leeks and celery, and olive oil. Then brown the joints in a casserole, remove and fry some streaky bacon until crisp, then add the vegetables and cook until softened. Pour in some red wine, a teaspoon of cocoa, and some tomato pureé, leave to bubble for a bit, then return the hare joints to the pan. Cover with water, put on a lid, and simmer for at least two hours. The cocoa is an interesting addition: the pairing of chocolate and venison is not that unusual, so I suppose it makes sense: it adds a depth to the sauce.

It depends on the age and toughness of your hare as to how long you'll need to cook it, but mine was perfect after just two hours. The meat fell off the bone in beautifully thick, deep russet strands, which I stirred back into the cooking liquid to make the ragu. It's hard to describe the taste of the meat, but it's incredibly strongly flavoured. In fact, the smell of it is almost unpleasantly strong, though the taste is excellent. If you like venison and don't object to gameyness, you'd probably like it. The sauce needs lots of grated parmesan to cut through the meaty richness, but what you'll end up with is an immensely satisfying - and unusual - bowl of pasta. I'd quite like to try cooking hare with some form of fruit; I think it needs sweetness to complement its dark, iron-rich meat. Watch this space.

Hare ragu (serves 6-8) (taken from Game: A Cookbook)

Place a hare, jointed, in a large bowl with a shredded bay leaf, the leaves from a sprig of thyme, 6 crushed juniper berries, 4 crushed cloves of garlic, a finely diced onion, 2 finely diced carrots, leeks and stalks of celery, and 2tbsp olive oil. Mix together and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight.

Heat some oil in a large casserole and brown the hare pieces all over. Remove to a plate and fry 100g smoked streaky bacon until it becomes crispy. Add the vegetables and any marinade juices. Add 500ml red wine and allow to evaporate partially, then add 1tbsp tomato pureé and 1tsp cocoa powder. Return the hare to the pan and cover with water. Season and bring to the boil; cover and simmer gently for at least two hours, or until the hare falls off the bone.

Remove the hare from the pot and let cool until you can handle it. Shred the meat from the bones and be careful not to snap off the ribs and put them in the sauce too (ouch). Mix the shredded meat back into the cooking liquid - you may need to add more water to loosen it, or arrowroot or cornflour to thicken it. Serve over cooked pasta with lots of grated parmesan.

For more wonderful game recipes, I'd strongly urge you to buy this recipe book. It's very rare that you find such an enticing selection of recipes in one place, and if you're a big game fan (that is, a big fan of game, not a fan of big game like rhino), you'll know that finding nice recipes can be a struggle, because the meat is so underrated in this country. Click the link...you know you want to.

Venison with redcurrants

Similar to the venison with blueberries I cooked a while back, but possibly even better. The redcurrants have a sourness that blueberries lack, and when you bite into a whole one that hasn't collapsed in the heat of the pan, its sweet-sour juice against the iron gameyness of the venison is beautiful. Redcurrants seem to me rather festive right now, even though they're not in season - I picked this lot up at the farmer's market in October and froze them for an occasion such as this. Perhaps it's because the currants look like holly berries with a dusting of ice (courtesy of the freezer), but this to me seems a quintessential pre-Christmas dish. 

It's also very simple, using the same method as the duck with figs I cooked a while ago: sear the meat in a pan on each side, remove and leave to rest, pour some red wine into the pan and allow to bubble, stir in a teaspoon of redcurrant jelly, some seasoning, thyme, and fresh redcurrants, and wait for the sauce to reduce and become syrupy before pouring it over the meat. Simple mashed potato is a good accompaniment, though I think celeriac, parsnip, sweet potato or butternut squash mash would be very good too. If you happen to have a jar of Fortnum & Mason game relish in the fridge (as of course your average student does), it works brilliantly on the side.

A study in cranberry

It was actually an accident that both courses of last night's meal ended up containing cranberries. A realisation over the weekend that I still haven't eaten any pheasant this season, combined with the freezing cold weather and a need for something warming and substantial resulted in a trip to the butchers and a brace of pheasant in the shopping bag. I normally pot-roast pheasant with bacon, cider and apples, but thought I'd try a recipe involving red wine and sour cherries. Unable to find any dried sour cherries, I used dried cranberries instead. Dessert, a clementine and cranberry sorbet, arose for more practical reasons: fresh cranberries are half price in the supermarkets at the moment. You can't really get more festive than a sorbet combining two of Christmas's signature ingredients.

To accompany the pheasant, I made a sort of butternut squash crumble. Steamed pieces of squash, baked under a blanket of breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil with garlic, rosemary and orange zest. The colours are beautiful, and it tastes great too: the crunchy crumbs provide a nice contrast in texture to the soft, sweet squash. 

The pheasant is easy: brown the bird in butter in a casserole dish, remove and saute onions and garlic in the pan. Put the bird back in, pour in some red wine and stock, add the dried fruit, a cinnamon stick, a bay leaf and some fresh thyme, season, put the lid on and cook in the oven for about 40 minutes. You end up with a wonderfully aromatic sauce, and a truly beautiful tangle of soft, sweet onions with a sharpness from the wine they have steeped in. The combination of dense, gamey meat and sweet onions is superb, and the squash works with it better than I had anticipated. Its sweetness is a good foil for the acidity of the wine, and the crumbs on top give a nice crunch. Even better when the dark sauce from the casserole has soaked into the crumbs and made everything rich and delicious.

The sorbet recipe is from this food blog, Pastry Studio. It is the reason my degree is suffering at the moment; I am obsessed with the recipes and the photography is absolutely beautiful. It's more of a sherbet than a sorbet, really, because it includes milk. Orange zest and sugar are blitzed in a blender before you mix them with orange juice (I used clementine juice), milk, vanilla and a bit of lemon juice. The cranberry compote is just fresh cranberries stewed with lemon juice, brown sugar and water. I churned the sherbet in the ice cream maker and then layered it with the compote before putting it in the freezer. The colours are lovely, though it does look rather like someone has just mixed jam and custard in an ice cream tub! I'd quite like to serve this alongside something warm and sticky, like a Christmas pudding. I think the contrast in flavour and temperature would be rather nice.

Venison with blueberries

"Come, we have a hot venison pasty to dinner; come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness." ~ The Merry Wives of Windsor

Possibly my ideal food combination: game, and fruit. Even better when "game" refers to a steak that has been seared to perfection on the outside and is still juicy and bloody in the middle. Deglaze the pan with some red wine, add a couple of teaspoons of redcurrant jelly and a handful of blueberries, throw in a sprig of thyme while it's bubbling away, and you have the perfect sauce for a venison steak. Sharp enough not to cloy, but sweet enough to deal with the rich-tasting meat. To go with it, new potatoes and jerusalem artichokes. I'm a bit obsessed with them at the moment, and their earthy taste and texture are perfect with game. I also discovered today that they are not that much of a faff to peel when armed with a super Y-shaped peeler: bits of soil in the mouth are now a thing of the past. There were going to be mushrooms roasted with them too...but in my excitement at deglazing a pan I forgot to put them in the oven. I'm sure they would have made the dish even better. But even so, this makes a very nice dinner. You might want something green to finish it off, like a watercress salad.