In How to Turn a Bird into Dinner Part One, I waxed lyrical about the moral benefits of eating game, and directed scathing retributions at those who termed my pheasant-butchering activities ‘gross’ whilst simultaneously chomping away on meat of dubious provenance without a second thought. I disclosed photos of my apron-clad self clutching a pair of bloody scissors looking nervous yet jubilant, the bare breast of a pheasant gleaming baldly before me. Fast forward two years and my butchery skills still leave something to be desired, I still feel a sense of considerable elation when I manage to produce something edible from a feathered carcass, and I still feel strongly about the issue of meat ethics and the advantages of eating game. Fortunately, however, all that moral high ground was covered in Part One, so this time you just get straight to the good stuff: roast bird.Read More
1. Making my own marmalade.
I grew up around this process; my mum used to make her own every year, but since it started gathering dust in the larder because no one in our family eats toast any more, she has sadly stopped. I decided to pick up the orange baton and initiate myself in the mysterious world of the magical seville after spotting crates of them at the market a couple of weeks ago. I've made twenty jars since then, trying two different recipes. The first was a Waitrose recipe that infuses the marmalade with herbs - I used bay and rosemary. The oranges are simmered whole in water until totally soft, then the flesh scooped out and the peel shredded before the whole lot is simmered again with sugar until it sets. This is pretty easy and can be made in an evening, although I didn't slice the peel finely enough so it was chunkier than I'd have liked. The herb flavour didn't come through as much as I'd like, so I might use more rosemary next time, as it's so good with oranges.Read More
When people ask me what my favourite thing about food is, I have an instant answer. Cheese, I say. (No not really). What I love most about food, and increasingly notice the more I indulge and explore my passion for this most fundamental of human drives, is that it's a brilliant social tool. Food can bring even the most unlikely people together. I first became aware of this when I spent two years in the Oxford University Royal Naval Unit during my undergraduate degree. Among the many arduous tasks this involved - sailing warships, trying to cook in a metre-wide sea-tossed kitchen while holding a sick bag to your mouth, shoe polishing, cleaning the ship's toilets, the unpleasant itch of mass-produced uniform, swabbing frozen decks without gloves in the middle of January - was the requirement to attend a fair few fancy dinners with various important naval personnel (OK, so not that arduous, really...until I tell you that I had to both wear and therefore learn how to tie a bow tie). Oh good, I thought. Small talk. My favourite.Read More
Of all the preparation that goes into cooking a meal, there are some tasks that I enjoy more than others. Preparing food is often seen as a chore, particularly when compared with the relative pleasure of eating it, but I think any keen cook will agree with me that actually, when you really enjoy the process of working with food, you learn to relish some of the simplest kitchen tasks. Separating an egg, for example - there's something quite satisfying about rocking the golden globule of yolk from shell to shell, allowing the viscous white to trickle through your fingers into the bowl beneath. Rubbing butter into flour for a crumble, sending up delicious waves of buttery scent that hint at the promise of golden crumb forty minutes later. Melting chocolate over a pan of simmering water, watching as those dark, matt cubes collapse into a thick, glossy silken mass. Blitzing spice pastes in a little blender, watching a tangled mass of disparate ingredients harmonise into a powerfully aromatic paste of fragrant flavour.Read More
I have a secret. You can't tell anyone, because I've spent the last four weeks moping around in huge jumpers moaning about how cold and rubbish England is compared to Asia, rolling my eyes every time I see grey skies (so my eyes have basically taken up permanent residence in the back of my head, then) and huffing every time anyone seems pleased to live in this ridiculous country. I'd hate to be inconsistent. But...and I can barely bring myself to admit it...tonight I actually found myself enjoying the English autumn.Read More
Isn't it just so annoying when you have four pheasant breasts in the fridge for dinner, but only three people to feed, so you have to come up with a way of using that leftover pheasant?
Yeah, I didn't think so. 'Leftover pheasant' is probably not the most likely thing you'll have in your fridge. If you do, though, we are kindred middle-class-food-lover spirits and should clearly be friends. However, should you happen to come across some pheasant breasts in the butcher, buy them on impulse, then stash them in the freezer while you figure out what on earth to do with them, this recipe is for you. It would also work if you happen to have roasted a whole pheasant and have some meat left over. Failing that, it would work with chicken. But humour me, and go with pheasant - we don't eat enough game in this country, and it's such a versatile and under-appreciated meat.
I've never cooked pheasant breasts before. All my pheasant cooking adventures have involved a whole bird, the most successful of which was a wonderful roast I made a few weeks ago. I smeared the bird in seasoned butter (salt, thyme, rosemary), layered the breast in streaky bacon, then roasted it until the bacon and skin were crispy. I served it with mash, greens, and the most incredible gravy made by deglazing the cooking pan with sherry and adding redcurrant jelly, rosé wine, and fresh blackberries. It was the best gravy I think I've ever tasted; a vivid dark purple, with delectable tart little morsels of berry that went so well with the rich meat and salty bacon. If you're stuck for pheasant recipes, I'd urge you to try this. I was a bit apprehensive as pheasant can be quite dry (I usually pot-roast it with cider and apples to avoid dryness), but roasting it can be very successful as long as you're generous with the butter and the bacon.
And if you're not generous with the butter and the bacon, life is clearly not going well for you. Sort it out.
Pheasant breasts are a much less scary option than a whole pheasant - they're much easier to cook, less prone to dryness because they can be cooked quickly, and more versatile when it comes to recipes. They can be used in the same way as chicken breasts, but provide much more meaty flavour. They're also not very expensive; at around £4 for a pack of four, they're probably cheaper than chicken breasts.
While I always used to cook my game on the bone, recently I've come round to using just the breast fillets instead (as you can see in my recent recipe for spiced grouse with roast grapes). Most game birds have hardly any meat on their legs anyway, so you don't end up eating them, and hacking your way through a whole bird is not the most harmonious dinnertime activity. It makes it hard to glean that perfectly balanced forkful of mash, meat, gravy and veg if you've got to manipulate your way around leg bones and breast bones and bits of cartilage first. So if you see pigeon, pheasant or grouse breasts in the butcher, I'd snap them up while you can. I even found goose breasts recently, which I'm indecently excited about cooking - watch this space.
This salad is made special by the addition of two things: spiced seeds, and rosemary salt. The former are simply pumpkin and sunflower seeds toasted in a little olive oil in a hot pan before being tossed with cinnamon and nutmeg. The spices seep into the oil and the seeds turn crunchy, golden, and wonderfully aromatic. They add a beautiful warmth and depth of flavour to the salad, plus a lovely crunchy texture.
Although the use of cinnamon and nutmeg in a salad might sound strange, you only get little bursts of it, and it makes the dish really special. For other recipes you could experiment with the spices - I think a combination of paprika and chilli would make the most incredible spiced seeds to scatter over a roasted vegetable salad, or cinnamon and ginger for sprinkling over a bowl of warming porridge with chunks of apple or pear.
The rosemary (and garlic) salt adds a wonderful fragrant salty crunch to anything you sprinkle it on. Here, the rosemary and garlic work well with both the pheasant and the pears (pears and rosemary go wonderfully together), and the coarse grains of salt add another texture to the salad, as well as the saltiness to make all the flavours much more pronounced - the combination of rosemary salt and sweet caramelised pear is fabulous. I can't wait to try this salt over a roast lamb or pork joint, or sprinkled over a focaccia dough before it goes into the oven, but it's also good for anything that needs a little flavour boost.
To pears caramelised in a little butter and the remnants of the seed-toasting spices, I added cooked green beans, the pheasant meat, some thyme, the rosemary salt, the spiced seeds, and some sliced chestnuts. This was all tossed together over a high heat to warm through and allow the flavours to mingle slightly. While you're doing this, appreciate the lovely muted autumnal colours - golden spice-flecked pears, jade beans, russet chestnuts, and bronzed seeds. To garnish, add ruby-red pomegranate seeds - both for colour and a little sweetness - and a little more salt.
Although this isn't perhaps the most orthodox combination of ingredients, it makes sense. Game goes well with fruit, as it provides a sweet foil to its rich meatiness. Game also goes well with chestnuts, which perform the same function, as well as contributing their delicious fudgy texture. Rosemary and thyme work well with almost all meat, but also pears. Cinnamon and nutmeg are warming autumn flavours that are a perfect match for both game and pears. Add all this together, with the fresh crunch of green beans, the snap of toasted seeds and the juicy bite of pomegranate seeds, and you have a salad that is as interesting to eat as it is delicious.
Although this basically arose from what I had in the fridge, it surprised me at being so much more than the sum of its parts. You have everything there - sweetness, saltiness, crunch, softness, meat, vegetables. It's nourishing yet substantial, perfect for colder weather when you want something a little healthier and more interesting than soup and bread, or a toasted sandwich. If you want to make it even more of a meal, add some cooked couscous or quinoa, or serve with good crusty bread.
Worth hunting down pheasant breasts for, I think.
Pheasant salad (serves 2, easily doubled):
- 2 cooked pheasant breasts* (see below for cooking instructions)
- 2 large handfuls of green beans, topped, tailed and halved
- Olive oil
- 2 tsp pumpkin seeds
- 2 tsp sunflower seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- A knob of butter
- 2 small pears, cored and thinly sliced
- A couple of sprigs of lemon/normal thyme
- 1/2 tsp rosemary and garlic salt
- 80g cooked chestnuts, halved
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the green beans for 5 minutes or until tender but still with some bite. Drain and set aside. Slice the pheasant breasts into thick strips.
Heat 1tsp olive oil in a non-stick saucepan or frying pan, and add the seeds. Toast over a medium heat until they turn golden and start to pop, then add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir to coat the seeds, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add a knob of butter to the pan and add the pears. Cook over a medium heat until they start to caramelise (around 5 minutes). Add the green beans to the pan, then add the leaves from the thyme sprigs, the rosemary salt, the chestnuts, and the pheasant slices. Toss everything together over the heat for a couple of minutes, then divide between two plates. Scatter over the pomegranate seeds and a little extra salt and thyme, if you like, then serve immediately.
* To cook pheasant breasts, sear in a hot pan with a little oil for 2 minutes on each side, then place in the oven at 170C for 8 minutes. Remove, season, and leave for 3 minutes to rest before serving or slicing.
Of all the meats in the world, it is those that are dark and mysterious which intrigue me the most. While I do believe that literally nothing on this earth beats a good roast chicken, at the same time I have a love for and fascination with those darker, gamier, more interesting meats. Those that can be eaten rare and rather bloody, sliced into gorgeous glistening pink strips on the plate. Those that can more than cope with a heavy dose of spicing and flavouring to bring them to life. Those with an iron-rich tang that pairs so well with all manner of sweet and savoury ingredients. Those that unequivocally scream 'carnivorous feast' when you see them on the plate, red and juicy with a burnished outer crust and a tender blushing centre.
One of these, a meat I've only recently discovered, is grouse. I first tried grouse a few months ago, and remember it well. I'd asked my mum to get me a grouse from the butchers near our house in Pateley Bridge, north Yorkshire, some time last winter. This had been sitting in the freezer for months, preying on my conscience, demanding that I get round to eating it before the poor thing froze away into oblivion. Having never cooked grouse before, I didn't feel particularly inspired, and had no idea what to do with it. I'd asked her to buy it on impulse, because I was curious about this elusive bird, which has a very short season starting on the twelfth of August (the 'glorious twelfth') and lasting around a month.
One night, however, I decided to bite the bullet (something that you literally end up doing a lot with game, which has a little surprise in the form of metal shot lurking in its flesh waiting to break your teeth) and cook the damn thing. I looked for a recipe online, but all I kept finding was the traditional grouse with bread sauce and cabbage. As nice as that sounded, it was July and I really wasn't in the mood for a traditional British autumnal feast. Bread sauce is not a thing that should be on plates in the summer. I was also in the middle of planning my August trip to Vietnam, which definitely wasn't putting me in the mood for winter fare.
I then came across a recipe for roast grouse with grapes (ignore the rather alarming photo at the top, which looks somewhat like a poultry foetus zombie - not entirely sure what editor allowed that unappetising shrivelled monstrosity onto the website...). This involved smearing the bird in seasoned butter, roasting it in the oven, then adding red grapes and red wine to the roasting tray. Always a huge fan of meat with fruit, and intrigued by the concept of cooked grapes, I went with it. It was fantastic - the meat was dark, rich and gamey, while the grapes were a delicious burst of sweetness. I served it with couscous, to soak up the red wine sauce and the juice of the grapes, and because I find it hard to go more than a couple of days without couscous in my life.
My first taste of grouse was delicious. I'd probably describe it as a cross between pigeon and partridge - the birds are a little bigger than a partridge but smaller than a pheasant, but the meat is much darker, more reminiscent of pigeon. It's also best served quite rare, otherwise it dries out completely and (I imagine) tastes of leather. It does have quite a strong gamey taste, but in a pleasant way, and this works very well accompanied by some sort of sweet fruit.
Inspired by this success, I bought some grouse breasts from the same butcher this year. Buying just the breasts takes the faff out of trying to hack your way through a whole bird, and seeing as there isn't much meat on the legs this is the best bit anyway. They're also much easier to cook, as you can just pan-fry them, and it means it's easier to get the exact degree of done-ness (I like my meat almost still alive - if it's not bleeding, it makes me sad). I love cooking pigeon breasts, as they're like little baby steaks - dark and sizzling and best served rare. I imagined grouse would be very similar.
This recipe, with its accompaniment of juicy roasted grapes, is inspired by that summer feast. The spiced grouse is inspired by a gorgeous dish I had at Cinnamon Kitchen in London a couple of months ago. Chef Vivek Singh served us the most delicious combination of spiced grouse breasts, spiced minced grouse leg meat, and black lentil dhal. It was a revelation to me: I'd never really thought of using Indian spices with grouse, but after I tasted it it made perfect sense. Grouse has such a strong, meaty flavour that it can perfectly withstand such strong spices. In fact, I would argue that they're almost necessary, to temper the very bold flavour of the meat. It was an ingenious dish and one that has stayed with me long after.
I've attempted to recreate it here, by marinating the grouse breasts in a spice paste before pan-frying them and accompanying them with roasted grapes. For the marinade, I've used three lovely spices: cardamom, garam masala, and chilli flakes. The aromatic garam masala is lifted by the citrus freshness of the cardamom, while the chilli adds a bit of heat. There's also grated ginger and crushed garlic for warmth and depth, and a little salt, plus some oil to bind everything together. This delicious scented paste is rubbed onto the grouse breasts, which are left to marinate for as long as you have time.
The grapes are placed in a roasting dish with a splash of red wine and a drizzle of olive oil, then seasoned with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. They go into the oven, where they wrinkle and pucker gloriously, ending up crispy in places and soft in others, their skins slightly split, oozing luscious juice. I pan-fried the grouse breasts for a minute or so on each side, to leave them nicely rare in the middle. The spice paste formed a delicious aromatic crust in the pan.
I served my grouse and grapes with pomegranate seed couscous, coriander and spinach. It's a fantastic combination - the bland, comforting couscous is the perfect foil to the rich, gamey grouse with its hit of spices and the juicy sweet grapes. It's a delightful Anglo-Indian fusion of flavours, and a really unusual dish. If you've never paired game with spices or fruit before, try this recipe and kill two birds with one stone. I think it's definitely the best way to cook and eat game.
Indian spiced grouse with roasted grapes (serves 1):
- 2/3 grouse breasts
- 6 cardamom pods, husks removed
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 tsp garam masala
- Pinch of chilli flakes
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
- 2 small bunches red grapes
- A splash of red wine
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A couple of sprigs fresh thyme
- Couscous mixed with pomegranate seeds and chopped coriander, to serve
Using a pestle and mortar, crush the cardamom seeds to a fine powder. Add the garlic, ginger, garam masala, chilli flakes, salt and oil, and mix to form a paste. Rub this over the grouse breasts and leave to marinate in the fridge for as long as possible (mine were in for around 4 hours).
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 190C. Put the grapes in a roasting dish with the red wine. Drizzle over a little olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Strip the thyme leaves from their sprigs and sprinkle over the grapes. Roast in the oven for around 15-20 minutes, until the grapes have started to wrinkle and split.
When the grapes are done, heat a non-stick frying pan. Add the grouse breasts and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side. Remove to a chopping board and rest for a minute or so while you get the couscous ready on the plate, then slice the breasts into thick strips. Arrange on the plate and place the grapes alongside. Sprinkle with fresh coriander and serve immediately.
One thing I love about cooking is that it's a constant learning curve. I've often found myself feeling nostalgic for my school days recently; being a tutor makes me envious of all these kids who moan about school and homework and don't realise quite how lucky they are. School gives you a purpose, a legitimate way to spend your day constructively, without having to actively put that much effort in. What you're learning that day is all decided for you; how to learn it is decided for you; the timeframe is decided for you. How I miss having my constructive activities scheduled in such a way. It's so much harder to fill your day constructively and positively when you have to actively think up activities to ensure this purpose is fulfilled. Even though I'm going back to university in October for my PhD, it's not quite as easy as just turning up to school, being entirely a question of self-motivation. Luckily my PhD basically involves reading kids' books about knights and damsels and witches, and occasionally incest, so it's all good.
Learning has always been what I enjoy doing. I'm only truly happy when I have a hobby or interest that caters for that, allowing me to pick up new skills and absorb new information. I used to be heavily into tropical fishkeeping, a hobby my mother deplored as not only is it expensive, it's also often very messy and time-, space-, and electricity-consuming. Oh, and stressful, especially when your fish start attacking each other or dying and you don't know why. Nevertheless, it was immensely rewarding, and I still have a pretty enormous aquarium in my room which I find very therapeutic. My best friend Laura (who is always harassing me for a mention in this blog, so I hope she's pleased to read her name here) enjoys this aquarium even more than I do; when she visits we sit in front of it like a TV, watching the fish cavorting merrily.
Everyone has a general field in life in which they excel, and mine is learning. I've never been a very practical person - for me, the practical side of fishkeeping was definitely less of a strong point than the theoretical side. I can talk to you until I'm blue in the face about the finer points of different types of filter, gravel, underwater plants, fish food and fish choices, but I once nearly electrocuted myself after disconnecting the filter and siphoning a good ten litres of water all over myself, the floor, and a live plug socket. Oops.
I think this may be why my passion for food has lasted so much longer than all of my other momentary hobbies and interests. The ancient Egypt obsession that I nursed as a deeply uncool, straight-fringed seven-year-old has faded to the extent that I can no longer read hieroglyphics, and the love for small creatures that led me to keep and breed giant African land snails has pretty much evaporated (although on a rainy day if I see a snail wending its way dangerously across a busy pavement, in grave jeopardy of being trodden on, I will still always stop to move it safely to a grassy verge) - but I've been obsessed with food for a good five years now and it seems to grow stronger rather than weaker.
Food means learning.
I am always reading about food, when I'm not eating it. I love absorbing new information about ingredients, methods, cultural cuisines. I have a frankly scary amount of random knowledge about food.
Did you know that the reason rhubarb leaves your teeth feeling kind of furry and weird is because it contains a small amount of oxalic acid, which is present in large quantities in the leaves, meaning they are poisonous?
Did you know that English pies were originally called 'coffins'?
Did you know that the seeds of a papaya are an effective laxative?
Or that grapefruits are so called because they grow in clusters on the tree, like a giant bunch of grapes?
I always feel a sense of accomplishment when learning a new culinary technique for the first time. The first time I filleted a fish, and the flesh didn't come away in ragged chunks leaving me despairing, I was aglow with satisfaction. The first time I made chocolate ganache, and watched as a selection of the world's most fattening ingredients transformed themselves from a runny, silky sauce to a thick, rich, spreadable paste, was pretty magical. The first time I made creme patisserie, feeling as the vanilla-scented milk started to stiffen under the pressure of the wooden spoon, I couldn't quite believe I had produced something that adorns those beautiful delicate French fruit tarts so beloved of cafe counters everywhere.
For this recipe, I had to joint a guineafowl.
My butchery skills are pretty limited, because like any sensible person I normally rely on the butcher for such things. If I buy a rabbit or chicken from the butcher, he can joint it for me. I listen anxiously to the swish of the cleaver as it slices through the air and lands with a sharp thud on the chopping board, a part of me always waiting with bated breath for the howl of agony as it misses and finds a live limb instead (fortunately this has never happened). If I want the breasts off a pigeon, I either buy them ready-prepared, or ask him to slice them off for me. If I want lamb shoulder diced and ready for stewing, a butcher's knife can accomplish this far more easily than I could with my humble kitchen knives.
I've only really had to venture into the world of home butchery a couple of times before, when I wanted just the breasts off a pigeon or wild duck carcass. They're so much easier to cook that way and look much more attractive when presented on the plate. I gingerly sliced away with great trepidation, sure that I would end up with a bloody mess. When the breasts came away cleanly, leaving something that you wouldn't be dismayed to see on a butcher's counter, I was pretty thrilled. It took about half an hour, mind, and I had to use scissors a couple of times, but I was still pleased.
So when I bought my whole, plastic-wrapped guineafowl from Sainsburys, I knew I was in for a bit of trouble. No friendly butcher there to joint it for me, and my recipe required it in four pieces. Not to worry, though - I looked up Delia's instructions online for jointing a chicken, grabbed my sharpest knife, and started to hack through this yellowish carcass before me. It wasn't easy. I'm pretty sure my knife is now totally useless, as the cringing sound and feel of it attempting to slice its way through solid backbone and breastbone was not pleasant. I resorted to scissors at several points on this occasion, too.
But, to be honest, when I had finally hacked my way through the poor bird, it actually resembled something I might have brought home from the butcher. I felt a great sense of lightness, like a major obstacle in my life had suddenly been lifted. It may sound silly, but I felt independent. I no longer need to rely on a butcher and his knife; if I have to, I'm perfectly capable of cutting a dead thing into pieces. You can't quite appreciate how much of a mental block I'd had about this before; as if, if I brought a fish home that hadn't been gutted or filleted, or meat that hadn't been diced or jointed, it was the end; it was unusable. It may seem totally silly, but there's a great sense of freedom accompanying the knowledge that you can conquer all these obstacles armed with nothing but a knife (and maybe a pair of scissors...).
So, what did I do with my quartered guineafowl? I've had this recipe for guineafowl and nectarine tagine in my book of recipe cuttings from magazines for years, and finally got round to giving it a go. You know how much I love my meat and fruit pairings, and this one sounded irresistibly intriguing. I've never cooked with guineafowl before, and I've only eaten it a couple of times - it seems to be the knee-jerk option for 'posh' formal dinners at Oxford colleges, I think because it's easy to cook (treat it like chicken) yet it sounds exotic, even though it's basically chicken. It has a slightly stronger flavour than chicken, particularly the legs, which have a lovely rich gameyness to them. Because of this, it stands up well to assertive flavours.
So I bombarded my guineafowl with spices, rubbing it in a heady mixture of turmeric, ground ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It sat in this for a while, before I browned it in hot olive oil, sauteed an onion, then covered the lot in a bit of water and a dash of honey. This simmered until the fowl was cooked through, resulting in a shockingly yellow sauce from the turmeric, but one that was warm, fragrant and sweet.
Then, the nectarines. These wouldn't look out of place in a pudding, actually, perhaps alongside sweetened mascarpone and gooey meringue (which now I really want to try). They're sliced, tossed in a little olive oil and honey, then griddled on both sides until attractively charred, which releases all their sugars and juices and makes them gloriously soft and sweet. They go into the guineafowl sauce for a few seconds, to impart their lovely sweetness, along with a dash of orange flower water, which gives a beautiful intriguing floral note. I threw in a load of herbs - parsley, basil, coriander and mint - to lift the rich, earthy sauce and to contrast with the sugary nectarines. Nectarines and basil are a perfect partnership, both in sweet and savoury food - I love nectarines in a salad with salty parma ham, torn basil and milky mozzarella.
The first time I ate this, I left the guineafowl pieces whole. But the next evening, I decided to shred the meat from the bones and spoon over the nectarine sauce, which I think is a better idea - it's a lot easier to eat that way, and means you can get a proper mouthful of all the components without fiddling around separating meat from skin and bone.
I served this with bulghur wheat - though couscous would also be perfect - and greens beans the first night, swapping them for a large tangle of watercress, rocket and spinach the next night. Either (or both) are excellent accompaniments. A handful of toasted flaked almonds is a delicious garnish, complementing all the flavours, while a final sprinkling of fresh herbs lifts the dish and gives it a lovely summery freshness.
This might sound like an odd combination, but it's really lovely. The guineafowl, rubbed in spices, has a deep savoury flavour to it that is pleasantly complemented by the sweet, smoky nectarines and the delicious perfume of orange flowers. I also think this is a beautiful-looking dish (although my photos, taken al fresco just as an enormous thunder cloud was about to break overhead, don't really do it justice), perfect for summer days when salad isn't quite substantial enough and you want something warm, fragrant and exotic to lift your spirits to sunnier climes.
Guineafowl and nectarine tagine (serves 3-4):
- 1 guineafowl, jointed into four pieces
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- Olive oil
- 1 white or red onion, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp honey
- 500ml water
- 3 nectarines, stoned and cut into eight slices
- 1-3 tsp orange flower water
- 1 tbsp each chopped mint, parsley, basil and coriander (or a mixture, depending on what you have)
- Toasted flaked almonds, to serve
Mix together the ginger, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric. Rub all over the guineafowl pieces and leave, covered, for at least an hour in the fridge.
When ready to cook, heat some olive oil in a large non-stick pan over a high heat and brown the guineafowl all over (it's easiest to do this in two batches). Remove to a plate, lower the heat and saute the onion until starting to soften. Then return the guineafowl to the pan, pour in the water, add 1 tbsp of the honey and some salt and pepper, then simmer for around half an hour, turning the pieces over halfway through, until the guineafowl is cooked through and the sauce has reduced. If it hasn't reduced enough, remove the guineafowl pieces and boil it for a bit, adding a little arrowroot or cornflour to thicken.
When nearly ready to serve, mix the nectarine slices with the remaining honey and a drizzle of olive oil. Get a griddle pan very hot, and griddle them on both sides until charred in places (you can also do this under the grill, but they tend to disintegrate). Add them to the sauce along with the orange flower water - how much you need will depend on the strength of the brand you have. It should taste and smell floral, but not too much or it will be like eating soap. Allow to warm through, taste and check the seasoning (it might need a bit more salt, as the fruit is so sweet), then stir in the chopped herbs, reserving a few to garnish.
You can either serve a whole guineafowl piece per person, simply pouring the sauce over it on the plate or - if you can be bothered - allow the pieces to cool slightly (keep the sauce hot), remove the skin and shred the meat using your fingers or a fork, then mix it all back into the nectarine sauce and ladle it onto plates to serve. I prefer it this way. Scatter with flaked almonds and the remaining herbs and serve, preferably with some couscous or bulghur wheat, and something green - green beans or a tangle of watercress are both good.
"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:
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.
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.
Look at those pigeon breasts. Don't they look like something you'd pick up in a neat vacuum pack from the butcher? Already filleted and trimmed and arranged so all you have to do is chuck them in a pan? All the hard work done for you?
Would you ever guess that they were the result of some extremely amateurish home butchery, mainly involving the hacking of pigeon flesh from bone using a small paring knife and - towards the end, out of frustration - a pair of kitchen scissors? Note to self: there is very little point in buying whole pigeons and not getting the butcher to take the breasts off for you. There's about as much meat on the rest of a pigeon as there is on my little toe.
Kitchen carnage aside (there was a definite Lady Macbeth moment once I'd finished), these plump, juicy pigeon breasts - once separated from their owners - were the perfect choice to showcase a very special ingredient I picked up at the Feast East food festival in Cambridgeshire a couple of weeks ago.
You may have heard of the Gourmet Spice Company. They make all sorts of intriguing and unusual delights like lavender sugar, saffron and orange infused oil, citrus salt and fruit vinegars. Wending my way through the labyrinth of gastronomic delights at the festival, my attention was caught by their stall, proffering a comprehensive range of flavoured balsamic vinegars.
You might not think about balsamic vinegar much. It's probably just one of those things in the cupboard (if you're like me you'll have at least three bottles, because for some reason balsamic vinegar seems to be the mandatory gift for someone you know is interested in food. Note to these people: for future reference, I'd love a KitchenAid ravioli-making attachment. Thanks). But when you're confronted with a dazzling array of flavours ranging from peach & nectarine and pear & cinnamon to fig & date and chocolate & vanilla, I bet suddenly balsamic vinegar is just the thing you've been looking for.
With that single glance at the little ramekins lined up, containing glassy pools of rich, dark goodness, whole wealth of culinary possibilities opened up to me. I stood there for a good five minutes, first trying a couple, then realising it was inevitable: I'd have to try the entire range.
The chocolate & vanilla vinegar had a gorgeous cocoa richness that I really, really wanted to try out in a sweet-savoury dessert. The fig & date was just begging to be used in some kind of Middle Eastern fusion cooking. Knowing that it would be a little bit extravagant to buy the entire range, I eventually settled for the blackberry and rosemary balsamic, a bestseller for good reason. It has a subtle sweetness from the berries and a beautiful fragrance from the rosemary, both of which couple really well with the fruitiness of balsamic vinegar (which is aged for four years to develop its complex flavour). I thought it'd be the most versatile in the kitchen, though I'm still longing to try the others.
I have multiple ideas for the uses of this vinegar, and I'm still in the mood for experimenting with it in the near future. This pigeon recipe arose from my love of pairing fruit with meat; blackberries work very well with game, and I've used them with pigeon before. Rosemary also couples well with red meat like venison; in fact, I was originally intending to use venison steaks but the butcher only had pigeon, so I settled for that. I thought the sweet-sour vinegar with the intense gameyness (why is spell checker telling me that isn't a word? How else is one meant to describe the pungent, iron-rich, earthy, slightly muddy taste of non-domesticated fauna?) of the rare pigeon would be perfect.
I also had multiple ideas for how to serve the pigeon, all involving just salad and/or various vegetables, until I realised I'd be eating this after an intensive kickboxing class. Naturally, then, I turned to risotto.
I've made mushroom risotto with pigeon breasts before, using wild mushrooms. I figured a comforting, starchy base of creamy, earthy rice would provide the perfect foil to the tanginess of the pigeon, which I planned to glaze in the balsamic vinegar and a little honey. I also decided to add chestnuts to the mix, mainly because mushrooms, chestnuts and game are a happy and inseparable trio in my head, and also because their sweet fudginess (again, apparently not a word, but it's the perfect description of a chestnut so in defiance of the Blogger spellchecker I shall leave it be) would give a little lift to all those deep flavours. I found some porcini mushroom stock cubes lurking in the larder that I've been meaning to use for approximately a million years, so they made up the stock for the risotto. They're amazing - instead of having to buy expensive dried porcini, soak them and use the liquid, you can just use these cubes. If you don't have any, just use chicken stock augmented with the soaking liquid from some dried porcini, which you can then add to the risotto, or use chicken stock on its own.
OK, I just have to ask this quickly as a (related) aside: am I the only one who thinks porcini mushrooms smell exactly like cat biscuits? Answers left as comments on this post, please.
A smattering of thyme and sage to evoke a pleasant woodland aroma, a little salt, a splash of white wine, and twenty minutes later I had a beautiful rich risotto. The pigeon breasts I marinated for a couple of hours in a mixture of the rosemary and blackberry balsamic, a little honey, some rapeseed oil and some salt and pepper. I pan-fried them briefly on each side, then deglazed the pan with more balsamic and honey to make a gorgeous jet-black syrupy sauce. This was poured over the pigeon breasts sitting atop their mound of risotto, where it pooled in the gaps between each individual grain of rice, delivering a delicious sweet-sharp surprise with every mouthful.
As I suspected, this entire dish is just a perfect marriage of flavours. You have a really wonderful combination of rich, rare meat (I like my pigeon basically raw, though you can cook it a tiny bit more if you like - don't go mad, though, or you may as well eat a wooden spoon) with its sticky, tangy glaze, fruity and herbal and tangy. Then to counteract and balance this, you have creamy, earthy risotto with the dense bite of sweet chestnuts. Of course, you could use normal balsamic vinegar and add a little rosemary to the marinade and the glaze, if you're not lucky enough to possess some of this fabulous infused stuff. But if you're anything like me, you'll want to head over to the Gourmet Spice Company website and get your hands on these really unusual vinegars. They suggest using the blackberry and rosemary one in a goat's cheese salad, or drizzled over strawberries, both of which I imagine would be amazing. (Incidentally, I should probably say that I did in fact pay for the vinegar myself and am writing about it purely because it's great and I want to share it with you, not because I've been asked to.)
So there you have it. A fairly standard mushroom risotto, given an unusual and delicious twist with the help of one extra-special ingredient. And a pair of kitchen scissors.
Blackberry & rosemary glazed pigeon with mushroom and chestnut risotto (serves 2):
- 4 pigeon breasts (or buy two whole pigeons and cut the breasts off/ask your butcher to do this)
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 4 tbsp blackberry & rosemary balsamic vinegar (or normal balsamic with 1 tsp chopped rosemary)
- 1 tbsp honey + 2 tsp honey
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 250g chestnut mushrooms, finely sliced
- A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
- 1 tsp dried sage/chopped fresh sage
- 150g risotto rice
- 1 glass white wine
- 1 litre porcini mushroom stock (or chicken stock plus 200ml soaking water from 15g dried porcini, mushrooms chopped and reserved)
- 100g cooked and peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
- 1-2 tbsp truffle oil (optional)
- Finely chopped fresh rosemary, to garnish.
First, marinate the pigeon breasts. Mix the rapeseed oil, 2 tbsp of the balsamic, the 1 tbsp honey and a good grind of salt and pepper in a small dish, then coat the pigeon breasts in the mixture, cover with clingfilm and leave for as long as you can in the fridge (I left mine for about 2 hours, but overnight would be fine).
Next, make the risotto. If you're using dried porcini, soak them in 200ml boiling water for half an hour before cooking, then make 800ml chicken stock and keep warm in a pan. If not, make up the litre of porcini mushroom stock and keep warm in a pan while you start the risotto. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan or saucepan and fry the onion and mushrooms over a high heat until the mushrooms have released all their liquid and are starting to turn golden brown and sticky. Add the chopped porcini, if using. Add the garlic, thyme and sage and cook for another couple of minutes on a lower heat until the garlic has softened.
Add another glug of oil and the risotto rice, stirring to coat it in the oil. Cook for a minute, then pour in the wine and wait until it has been absorbed before adding a couple of ladlefuls of stock. Stir over a medium heat and wait until all the liquid has been absorbed before adding another ladleful. (If using porcini soaking water, add this first then carry on with chicken stock).
Proceed in this way for 20 minutes or so, stirring often and checking the rice for doneness - it should be tender with a little bit of bite remaining. You may not need all the stock. At this point, stir in the chestnuts and check the seasoning.
When the risotto is almost cooked, get a non-stick frying pan really hot then add the pigeon breasts, skin side down. Cook for 2 minutes then flip over and cook on the other side for another 2 minutes. Remove to a plate and cover with foil while you make the glaze. Turn the heat down and add the remaining balsamic vinegar and the tsp honey. It should bubble away - stir it well and let it bubble until it's thick and syrupy.
To serve, pile the risotto onto two plates, drizzle with the truffle oil (if using), then put the seared pigeon on top. Spoon over the balsamic glaze, garnish with fresh chopped rosemary, and serve.
Mallard is an underrated bird. It has several advantages over its farmed counterpart, duck. First of all, it takes a fraction of the time to cook. Roasting a duck will take you at least an hour or maybe two; mallard needs only about fifteen minutes in the oven, if that. Secondly, you can pretty much guarantee it's free range and has lived a good life, as with a lot of game. Thirdly, it's much lower in fat than duck but still delicious. And finally, it has a stronger, gamier, richer flavour than farmed duck, making it ideal for pairing with slightly more flavoursome, fruitier sauces.
One thing you must know: never, ever overcook a mallard. Like pigeon, this is a bird that has to be served dark, at most medium rare, and preferably oozing a little blood. You may find recipes suggesting you can pot roast or braise a mallard for hours to tenderise it: please don't. Sear it in a very hot pan, scorch it in a very hot oven, then serve it pink and delicious. Otherwise you may as well eat your own shoes.
The last time I cooked mallard, I served it with quince and a star anise sauce. Quince goes beautifully with mallard, as with duck, but this time I wanted to try a more classic flavour combination. Duck and orange is a bit retro, and something I've actually never tried, despite it being almost traditional. I figured I'd put a seasonal twist on this pairing by using Seville oranges.
The woman in the greengrocers looked earnestly at me when I bought my two wrinkled oranges. "You do know those are marmalade oranges, right?! They're not for eating!" I nodded, as if it was obvious. Apparently there had been several instances of customers complaining about these extraordinarily sour citrus specimens. I can't help but be amused by imagining the facial expression of someone who's just popped a segment of seville orange in their mouth.
Instead of making the traditional marmalade with these, I thought they'd be a lovely contrast to the gamey mallard. Mallard, marmalade, they sound quite similar. Although you probably wouldn't put duck on your morning toast. I've used Seville oranges once before, in a cake with almonds, which was lovely. They're not the most versatile of citrus fruits, unfortunately, being both hugely sour and also containing about a million pips per orange, but fortunately that suits this recipe well.
I made a light, sharp sauce with the oranges, rather like a jus, if you wanted to be all fancy and Mastercheffy about it. This involved blanching strips of orange zest in boiling water twice, to remove most of the bitterness, then making a kind of caramel with sugar and white wine vinegar. To this I added chicken stock and the juice of the two oranges. It looked rather like melted marmalade in the pan, with those gorgeous marigold strips of zest and its light, tawny colouring. I roasted the mallard in the oven, having seared it first in a pan, and served it with the sauce, some steamed cabbage, and celeriac mash.
This sharp sauce makes a wonderful contrast to the iron-rich meat of the mallard, which stays moist and delicious because of the fast roasting time. The mash soaks up all of the lovely sauce while the crunchy cabbage is a nice texture contrast and, obviously, good for you. You could make this sauce with any orange, though Seville and blood oranges are good because they're slightly sharper. It would also go well with normal duck, roasted until crispy, or pan-seared rare duck breasts.
A wild twist on an old classic; seasonal, comforting and delicious.
Roast mallard with Seville orange sauce (serves 2, with sauce left over):
- 2 Seville oranges (or any kind of orange - blood oranges are good)
- 3 tbsp caster sugar
- 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 400ml chicken stock
- Olive oil and a knob of butter
- Salt and pepper
- One oven-ready mallard
- A handful of fresh thyme
- Mash and greens, to serve
First peel the rind from the oranges using a potato peeler. Slice this into long thin strips. Boil for a couple of minutes in a pan of water, then drain and boil again. Set aside. Bring the sugar and vinegar to the boil in a small saucepan, lower the heat and cook until it has turned a light caramel colour. Add the stock and boil for 5 minutes or so until reduced by a third. Add the juice from the oranges along with the rind, and keep warm.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C (190C fan oven). Season the mallard with salt and pepper. Warm a glug of olive oil and the butter in a pan and sear the mallard on all sides over a high heat until the skin has browned. Put on an oven-proof dish and place in the oven for 12-15 minutes (for rare to medium rare). Remove, place on a board and cover with foil. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving with the sauce, some greens and mashed potato - garnish the plates with the thyme leaves.
One of the downsides of working so close to a rather foodie area of town (well, for Cambridge, that is - so basically anywhere that doesn't have a Pizza Express, Nandos and Starbucks right next to each other) is that I inevitably end up drawn there in my lunch break. I have to get out at lunchtime, get some fresh air, walk and clear my head. These things are necessary. What is perhaps not quite so necessary is going to the butchers and the oriental grocers every time.
I can't help it. I hate walking without a purpose; even if my end goal is just to peruse aisles of weird and wonderful produce in jars, I need something to spur me on. Plus there is always something new and fascinating at the end of the tunnel: huge bunches of weird and wonderful Chinese greenery that I've never seen before; tofu in every conceivable shape, size and texture; giant bottles of soy sauce and other condiments; huge bags of rice, noodles and pulses. There's also stuff that's just downright weird, such as various undesirable bits of seafood or animal in big, bloodied bags in the freezer section. Still, I consider this my culinary education and I'd hate to miss out on it.
I'm usually drawn to the butcher on the corner as well, sucked in by signs boasting about salt marsh lamb, or something that, out of the corner of my eye, looks suspiciously like a row of neat, plucked, oven-ready pheasant on the front of the counter. I don't actually cook that much meat, especially not red meat, but I'm fascinated by all the different cuts and animals you can get from a good butcher, and I'm always looking to try something new. A couple of weeks ago it was oxtail. More recently, it was wild rabbit.
I was pretty pleased when I caught sight of the wild rabbit on the butcher counter. Admittedly not pleased because of any aesthetic reason; skinned, jointed rabbit aren't particularly nice to look at, rather resembling something that has been prematurely plucked from the womb. However, they promised all sorts of tasty delights. I've read a lot about the virtues of wild rabbit: free range, obviously, and you're also doing farmers a favour by eating a pest; more importantly, it's meant to be a lot more flavoursome than farmed rabbit. Having only eaten the farmed stuff before, I couldn't wait to try the wild version for comparison.
I cooked my rabbit fairly simply, so as not to mask its flavour. I braised it in cider with some bacon, carrots, celery, onion, rosemary and juniper. At the end I added mustard, creme fraiche and parsley. We ate it with soft polenta, and while it was delicious, I have to say it was actually rather too rich for me. Wild rabbit really does have quite an intense flavour. The texture is reminiscent of chicken thighs and is lovely, while the taste has that rich earthiness you associate with stronger game like pigeon and hare. I really enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, but after that I was defeated by the richness of the dish. And that hardly ever happens.
As a result, there was rabbit meat left over. I decided to use it in a salad, featuring something a bit sharper, sweeter and more astringent to cut through that intensely rich flavour. This barley salad with caramelised apples was the result.
I absolutely adore pearl barley. I can't get enough of its crunchy yet tender texture and its nutty flavour. It works so well in winter salads - one of my favourites features roast squash, feta or goats cheese, chestnuts, bacon and sage. I often cook a huge vat of it and use it for various salads throughout the week, throwing in whatever is in the fridge. It's filling and hearty and can stand up to strong flavours, contributing an irresistible crunch of its own. I figured it'd be the perfect base for my rabbit salad, for all these reasons.
The apples were a bit of a whim. I had some russet apples turning soft in the fruit bowl, and there's nothing I hate more than a soft apple. Then I realised that they could actually work beautifully with the rabbit; cooking rabbit in cider with apples is fairly common, especially in France, so there was no reason why they shouldn't work sliced, cooked and stirred into my salad. I caramelised them in some butter and brown sugar first, to bring out their flavour so they'd stand up to the rabbit. Russet apples are beautiful things; I love their burnished, matt skins and their mellow, intriguing flavour. They are, I can confirm, even tastier when coated in butter and brown sugar. Then again, what isn't?
This salad was the simplest thing ever to assemble: cooked pearl barley, shredded rabbit meat, caramelised apple slices, some fresh thyme and parsley, and a little of the rabbit cooking sauce from earlier in the week. A good grinding of black pepper to lift the richness, and I had lunch.
A delicious, filling, comforting lunch, full of intriguing flavours. The apples worked really well alongside the rabbit, better than I could have expected. They provided a beautiful sweet tartness against the soft, rich meat and the crunchy, nutty barley.
I don't really need to give you a recipe for this, but here's the general idea. Adapt to suit you - use chicken instead of rabbit, if bunny boiling scares you; add extra veg if you like (spinach and green beans would be good); use wild rice or brown rice instead of barley. You'll end up with something delicious, unusual, and rather pretty.
Wild rabbit and barley salad with caramelised russet apples (serves 1):
- Leftovers from a cooked wild rabbit (probably 1 leg or the loin), plus a little sauce*
- 50g pearl barley, boiled until tender but still slightly al dente
- 1 russet apple, cored and cut into thin slices
- 15g butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- A scattering of fresh thyme and finely chopped parsley
- Black pepper
Shred the rabbit meat from the bones. Be really careful to get rid of all the bones - some are tiny and may go undetected, until you bite into one resulting in a deeply unpleasant sensation. Mix the meat and sauce with the pearl barley, then toss with the thyme, parsley and a good grinding of black pepper.
Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan over a medium-high heat and add the apples. Cook until golden brown and caramelised, turning occasionally. Toss this with the barley salad. Sprinkle with a little more thyme and serve.
*(the recipe I used to cook my rabbit was basically this one from James Ramsden, but I added carrots, rosemary and juniper, and substituted creme fraiche for the double cream)
It may not be very cool to say so, when the general trend appears to be to moan about it as much as possible, but I love Christmas. In fact, I love the few weeks before the big day more than the day itself. There are twinkly lights in the Cambridge streets, Christmas songs playing in the shops, cranberry sauce sitting in the fridge, and two heavy, alcohol-sodden Christmas cakes maturing happily in one of my kitchen cupboards. We were very organised this year and made the cakes a huge six weeks in advance, to allow time for 'feeding' them with copious quantities of brandy and rum - brandy for Delia's classic version; rum for a truly scrumptious-smelling tropical version by Fiona Cairns, resplendent with jewel-like chunks of dried mango, apricot, pineapple, dates and raisins and rich with the aroma of crystallised ginger, lime zest and treacle. I can't wait to get my teeth into a slice of it, though I'll wait until it is thoroughly inebriated before I do so.
What better way to celebrate all things festive than with a dish that echoes a famous Christmas carol?
The 'partridge in a pear tree' notion holds fond memories for me. Two years ago I dressed up as a partridge in a pear tree for our URNU (University Royal Naval Unit) Christmas party. It was an inspired costume, even if I do say so myself. I wore a green dress (the tree), brown tights and boots (the tree trunk), a string of pears and leaves around my neck, and clipped a fake, feathered bird into my hair. Not only did I win the prize for best costume, but that was also the night my boyfriend and I got together - I can't help but think it was my avian sartorial ingenuity that sealed the deal.
Partridge are, of course, for life - not just for Christmas.
When I'm not exploiting their potential for Christmas costume possibilities, I'm plotting the best ways in which to devour them.
I found three brace of partridge for £11 at a butcher in Yorkshire a few weeks ago - an obscenely good bargain, which made this dish taste even more delicious. Like hunger, frugality is an excellent sauce.
I've cooked with partridge a few times, but don't have a true favourite recipe yet, so I decided to try one from Nigel Slater that I'd bookmarked when I bought his book Tender, Part II (pretty much my kitchen Bible, given my love of fruit in cooking). I couldn't resist the notion of coupling partridge with pear, in a nod to that classic carol. Some might argue there's something slightly morbid about that...a bit like serving rabbit on a bed of lettuce and carrots - Nigella Lawson has a recipe for "Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor's Salad" which does just that. Try not to think about it too much.
The beauty of this partridge recipe is that it is quick and easy, but gives impressive and delicious results. The birds are basted with a herby butter to keep them moist, then wrapped in streaky bacon to seal in the juices. They are roasted with herbs and slices of caramelised pear; the bacon is removed near the end to allow the skin to crisp up. The end result is an array of lovely little burnished birds, slices of crunchy bacon, and tender, juicy pear segments to contrast wonderfully with the grainy, gamey flesh of the birds. You also end up with some juices left in the pan, to which you can add a little redcurrant jelly and make a nice gravy.
This, for me, is what game is all about. Keeping the meat moist with some butter, using some lovely autumnal flavours (thyme, rosemary, juniper), and serving it with a fruity accompaniment. I also roasted some squash with rosemary and steamed some savoy cabbage to go alongside.
Autumn on a plate, with whispers to come of Christmas.
Roast partridge, juniper and thyme (serves 4):
(Adapted from Nigel Slater - recipe here and in 'Tender, Part II')
- 4 young, plump partridges
- 6 sprigs of thyme
- 4 sprigs of rosemary, leaves finely chopped
- 12 juniper berries
- 100g butter
- 8 rashers of streaky bacon
- 2 pears
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- 2 tbsp redcurrant, rowan or quince jelly
- A glass of vermouth or white wine
Check the birds all over before you start for any stray feathers or bits of shattered bone. Set the oven at 220C/200C fan oven.
Pull the leaves from the thyme branches and mash them with the juniper berries, rosemary, butter and a hefty pinch of sea salt and black pepper, using a pestle and mortar. Reserve a tablespoon for cooking the pears, then spread this butter all over the birds, and particularly on their breasts.
Lay the bacon rashers on a chopping board then stretch them with the flat of a knife blade to make them longer and thinner. Wrap them round the birds. Place in a roasting tin.
Cut the pears into thick slices, toss them in a little lemon juice, and cook briefly in a little of the herb butter in a shallow, non-stick pan. When both sides are pale gold, transfer them to the roasting tin. Roast for 20 minutes, then peel off the bacon, setting it aside if it is crisp enough or leaving it if not, then return the birds to the oven for a further 10 minutes.
Remove the tin from the oven and set the birds, bacon and pear to rest (I put them on a plate, covered with tin foil). Put the roasting tin over a moderate flame, drop in the jelly and let it melt into the pan juices, add a small glass of wine and stir to dissolve the pan-stickings. Bring to the boil, put the birds and their bits and pieces on to warm plates, then spoon over the 'gravy'.
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.
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.
Roast teal with fesenjun sauce (serves 2):
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.