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
Left to his own devices in my house while I spent some time back at my parents', my boyfriend lovingly cultivated, over a period of four weeks, what he matter-of-factly calls a 'man fridge'. For the uninitiated: this basically means that, when I returned and opened the chilled receptacle that is at the heart of my kitchen, I found four items: a steak, some bacon, a tub of marmite and a packet of blue cheese. Furthermore, the majority of those items were past their sell-by date.Read More
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.Read More
We all, I think, have times where we wish our mouths had an ‘undo’ button. Where we would happily go back in time and refrain from eating that last piece of bread, slice of cake, cutlet of meat, forkful of noodles, entire two courses…times where we’re so disgracefully full that we empathise with force-fed foie gras geese as we waddle, moaning plaintively, home to fester fatly in bed until the following morning when we declare we are never eating that much again. A bit like a food hangover, really.Read More
There are some fruits that people are, generally speaking, fairly comfortable encountering in a savoury dish. Few people would bat an eyelid at a sliver of apple turning up alongside their roast pork, either in sauce form or maybe – outré prospect as it is – in thick wedges, roasted alongside the meat to soak up its delicious juices. Although a subject of mockery, ham and pineapple is a pretty established combination by now, whether it’s performing the ludicrous feat of turning your margherita into a ‘tropicana’, or in the form of a lurid golden ring of fruity goodness perched atop a fat pink slab of salty gammon.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
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
I love what the summer is doing to my cooking at the moment. Something about hot weather just gives me an urge to serve up a feast to a crowd of people, preferably in my garden, with some magnificent form of fish or beast as its centrepiece, adorned by an array of fresh, vibrant salads. Recently there was a fabulous barbecue in which I cooked an entire salmon, rubbed with Cajun blackening spices and grilled on each side until the skin was rich and crispy, while the fish stayed beautifully moist and pink. We ate it with tortillas and freshly made guacamole, and a wonderful variety of salads and salsas (mango, chickpea and spinach salad; fennel, apple and mint salad; cucumber and melon salsa; fresh papaya and avocado salsa; watermelon and feta salad), all washed down with oh-too-moreish mango mojitos.Read More
"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.
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.
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'.
Sage is a herb I rarely use. I think, like most English people, I associate it simply with the stuffing for the Christmas turkey, or other heavy, pork-laden winter fare. When I think of cooking with herbs, I think of gorgeous, vibrant bunches of coriander, with their bright, yellow-green leaves the exact colour of ripe limes. I think of feathery dill, in large quivering bunches, with its slender leaves like little jade needles. I think of fresh mint, possibly my favourite aroma in the world, reminiscent of lemons in its freshness. I once stalked a small boy halfway across the suburbs of Marrakech because he was carrying the biggest bunch of mint I've ever seen in my life, and it was perfuming the surrounding air with its zesty scent. I think of the sharp, astringent, aniseedy snap of fresh basil or the beautiful delicacy of a sprig of thyme, barely wider than one of my own hairs, with its tiny pointed leaves, those ready for picking sporting a delightful purple blush where they meet the stem. I had never noticed this until a chef I once worked for pointed it out to me, instructing me to harvest only the leaves with a deep, flushed underside for whatever dish he was cooking at the time. But rarely do I think of the braille-like pebbly texture of sage leaves, the muted jade green of a Regency drawing room, with their deeply aromatic and somehow comforting scent; designed, it seems, to be paired with other comfort foods to bring cheer in the darkest winter.
Perhaps this is unfair, though, and a gross underestimation of the potential of poor old overlooked sage (or even downright maligned - Elizabeth David dismissed it as having a "musty, dried blood scent" that "deadens" food). I was going to say there must be a reason why supermarkets sell this herb all year round, not just at Christmas, but then I realised that supermarkets sell most things all year round, and that is no indication of their quality - just think of hideous, crunchy, sour strawberries in November, or bitter Peruvian asparagus even when the tender English crop is in full swing. However, there is definitely a case to be made for bringing sage out of the winter period it is often consigned to. Sadly, it seems that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got there first in the fight to rehabilitate this lovely herb with his article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, but hopefully this is another recipe that will help to support his case.
There has been a gorgeous piece of veal sitting in my freezer for a couple of months now, from the Real Food Festival. While the burgers and sausages have been barbecued, and the rump steak served as veal saltimbocca, the little silverside roasting joint has languished, saved for a special occasion that kept failing to arise. Finally, the stars aligned to produce the perfect opportunity for this diminutive joint: it was a Sunday, the weather was beautiful but not too hot, my boyfriend and I had nowhere important to be, and we both wanted a good roast dinner. Despite the bizarre weather of late, it is still July, and therefore a full roast with all the heavy trimmings (Yorkshire puddings, thick dark gravy, the spiky caramelised edges of golden root vegetables) doesn't seem appropriate. Instead, I came up with this much lighter variation on a roast dinner; satisfying, flavoursome, but still full of summer.
I wanted to serve the meat fairly plain, because it seemed too lovely to mess around with. One of my favourite ways to serve simple, fast-cooking joints of meat like fillet or rack of lamb is to roll them in a crust of herbs, nuts or spices (or all three). That way the beautiful interior of the meat still captures attention, but it both looks nicer and has a bit of textural contrast to accentuate it. I decided to use sage for the veal crust, because it pairs so well with veal (as in the classic veal saltimbocca, where veal steaks are wrapped in Parma ham and sage leaves). The crust is a variation on Italian gremolata, a mixture of very finely chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic. It's best known for being sprinkled over osso bucco, a dish of braised veal shin on the bone usually served with saffron risotto. The mixture of these zesty, tangy ingredients perfectly balances the unctuous richness of braised meat and marrow. I used sage instead of parsley, and added a few breadcrumbs to the mixture as well to help it crisp up in the oven.
After searing the veal in a very hot pan (I relish that sizzling noise), I brushed it with a little mustard and rolled it in the sage, lemon and garlic mix. It then went in the oven on top of a bed of mushrooms and sliced leeks. I completely guessed the timing for the meat, as I couldn't find any reliable guidelines as to roasting times for a joint this small, but it worked perfectly (to my immense delight, especially after the tragedy that was my recent beef topside, planned to be oozing blood and instead dry and mealy throughout, probably due to my overactive oven). I kept the accompaniments as simple as possible: boiled and steamed summer vegetables (carrots, broccoli, peas and broad beans), and tiny baby new potatoes roasted in their skins until crackly and burnished gold. Instead of gravy, I poured a glass of rosé into the hot roasting tin with the mushrooms and leeks; it formed a dark, flavoursome jus with the earthiness of mushrooms and a slight sweetness from the wine (which, incidentally, was horrible wine to drink, more akin to an energy drink than anything vinified, but lovely for cooking with).
The colours of this dish are perfect for summer: the vegetables are wonderfully vibrant against the muted pastel pink and green of the crusted veal. It is beautifully tender (and apparently even better the next day, thinly sliced in a bagel with mustard and rocket, as my boyfriend informs me), the fat rendered into crispness and the sage, lemon and garlic accentuating the rich, slightly bloody meat. Add to that a crunchy canvas of summer vegetables and a trickle of light gravy, and you have the perfect meal for a warm summer evening with a glass of chilled white wine. Possibly the best part is the mushroom and leek mixture I roasted the veal on; the mushrooms absorb all the meat juices as well as the wine from the gravy, meaning they are beautifully caramelised but also saturated with flavoursome juice. The sage really brings the dish together, infusing its subtle perfume throughout the meat and vegetables.
It really does deserve its year-round place on the supermarket shelf after all.
Sage-crusted veal with summer vegetables (serves 2, with leftovers):
- 10 baby new potatoes
- Salt and pepper
- Dried herbs, for the potatoes
- 500g silverside joint of veal
- 10g sage leaves
- 3 cloves garlic
- Zest of a lemon
- A slice of bread
- Olive oil
- 2 tsp mustard
- A punnet of mushrooms
- 2 leeks, sliced
- Half a head of broccoli, cut into florets
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 500g broad beans, podded
- A couple of handfuls frozen peas
- A knob of butter
- A glass of rosé wine
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Toss the potatoes in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and your choice of dried herbs. Place in a small roasting tray and place in the oven. They will take about 30-40 minutes to cook, but it does no harm to leave them in for longer while the veal roasts.
Place the sage, garlic, lemon and bread in a blender and pulse until finely chopped. Spread out on a plate.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based ovenproof pan until almost smoking, then place the veal in the pan. Sear on all sides until golden brown, then brush with mustard and roll in the sage mixture to coat thoroughly.
Place the mushrooms and leeks in the pan then place the veal on top. Put in the oven and roast for about 25 minutes, for medium-rare meat. Remove the meat from the oven, place on a carving board and cover with foil. Rest for 10-15 minutes. Keep the mushrooms and leeks in the oven.
While the meat is resting, boil the peas and broad beans, and if you have a steamer, steam the broccoli and carrots over the top. If not, just boil everything together (do the carrots and broccoli first, as they take longer). Toss the cooked vegetables with the butter and some salt and pepper.
When ready to serve, place the vegetables and cooked potatoes on a plate, slice the veal thinly and arrange over the top. Pour the wine into the mushroom and leek pan; it should hiss and bubble. Stir the pan to deglaze, and serve this over the top of the meat and vegetables.
However, having caught the beef 'bug' from the delicious goulash and a little bit of my boyfriend's roast at the pub the other day, I decided to give beef another go. Luckily, fate seemed to be on my side, as the butcher had an enormous piece of topside on offer. It was gigantic, over two feet long, weighing over three kilos, and a bit of a bargain. I struggled home with it and then had a think about recipes. Initially I had the idea of serving it very rare, thinly sliced, with truffle oil, parmesan and rocket, rather like the classic Italian beef tagliata. I was going to bake bread to accompany it, but eventually I couldn't be bothered and therefore the need arose for more carbohydrate. I was intent on using truffle oil somewhere in the dish, ever since I had an incredible starter of wild boar ham drizzled with the stuff in Italy in April. It goes very well with beef, I think - beef and mushrooms are a great combination, and truffle oil is just taking it one step (well, several steps) closer to gastronomic luxury; the earthiness of the truffles have a great affinity with the earthy, iron-rich flavour of good beef. Firmly set on an Italian interpretation, I decided to make some wet polenta infused with truffle oil, imagining that its richness and slightly grainy texture would match the tender meat perfectly.
I suppose the obvious thing to do with the topside would have been roast beef with all the usual trimmings, but we're nearing June now and the weather is (or was, at least) just too summery to start whipping up Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and thick, dark gravy. For that reason, I decided that some simple summer vegetables would be the perfect accompaniment; their flavour would bring freshness to the dish and their flavour wouldn't overpower the truffley aromas emanating from the polenta, or the richness of the beef. Tagliata and carpaccio usually pair very rare or even raw slices of beef (usually fillet) with a rocket salad; I decided to serve the meat with a peppery combination of rocket, watercress and spinach, to complement its deep flavours.
The only slight issue I had was with the cooking of the meat. I don't know what happened - I timed it perfectly to result in rare meat, and it came out closer to medium. I guess my oven just runs hotter than it should, because I left the beef in for really the shortest time possible. I love rare meat and wanted it still bloody in the middle, but instead it was just pink. I was assured it was delicious, but to this day I am still very grumpy about this mishap and intend to order a meat thermometer as soon as possible to avoid future incidents. I suppose generally people don't share my love of meat that is practically still breathing, so cooking it to this stage is probably more socially acceptable.
Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables (serves 10):
3 kg beef topside joint, ready for roasting
5 onions, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife blade
A few sprigs of thyme
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
3 tbsp flour
500g quick-cook polenta
Salt and black pepper
50g grated parmesan
Vegetables, to serve (I used asparagus, green beans, peas and carrots)
Rocket and watercress, to serve
Pre-heat the oven as hot as it will go.
First, prepare the beef. Sprinkle the onions into a large roasting tin, add the garlic and thyme, and season. Rub the olive oil, sea salt and pepper into the beef and place it on top of the onions. Pat the skin with the flour. Put the beef in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 170C and roast for half an hour per kilo - this should give you rare/medium-rare meat, but if you like it very rare try 20 minutes per kilo - you can always put it back in, and remember it continues to cook while resting.
When the time is up, remove the beef to a board and cover with foil and a tea towel. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
To make the polenta (do this just before serving), bring 2 litres of water to the boil. Add a little chicken stock cube for extra flavour, if you like. Gradually pour in the polenta, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Stir in a generous amount of seasoning, and the parmesan. Spoon big mounds of it onto the plates and drizzle generously with truffle oil. Top with several slices of beef, drizzle with more truffle oil, and spoon over some roasting juices and caramelised onions.
Serve with your choice of vegetables, dressed with a little garlic-infused olive oil, or butter and salt, and a pile of rocket and watercress salad.
There are few simple meals I enjoy more than a roast chicken. My favourite part is the crispy skin, so wonderful a thing when you've seasoned it with lots of salt and pepper and rubbed it with butter or olive oil. The contrast in texture between the crunchy exterior and the soft chicken flesh underneath is a wonderful thing. The only thing that makes this experience even more delicious is the promise of some juicy, flavoursome stuffing encased within the meat. I know some chefs advocate cooking the stuffing separately to make sure it cooks through, and because stuffing a chicken takes a bit of effort, but for me the main reason to eat stuffing is because it has soaked up all the delicious chicken juices during roasting. The only problem when roasting a whole chicken for several people is that this gastronomic gold has to be divided up, and you can't fit that much stuffing inside a chicken. Serving poussin, however, solves this problem. It feels, somehow, as if you get so much more because you have it all to yourself. No faff of carving a whole chicken and trying to make sure people get all the bits they like; with poussin, you get a whole bird per person. It feels so much more generous and looks so much neater. Plus, there's more crispy skin, all for you.
I've made this before, using dried cherries instead of fresh. However, there are a lot of imported cherries around at the moment, and I can never resist the lure of fresh fruit coupled with meat in a dish. Cherries and goat's cheese go particularly well together, both aesthetically and flavour-wise. The slightly acidic sweetness of the cherry couples nicely with a chalky white goat's cheese, and I think there's something rather beautiful about the way the cherry-stained knife leaves pink trails over the surface of the cheese, reminiscent of the rose-coloured pout of a porcelain doll, or those lilies whose petals are bright pink at the base and taper out into whiteness.
The stuffing also involves dill, which works very well with chicken. Every time I use this herb I can't imagine why I don't use it more. It has a lemony, aniseedy freshness that is very good with fish, but also with the blander meats like chicken. I put rather a lot in the stuffing; it stops the cheese being too rich. Other than that, it's just onions, garlic, and breadcrumbs.
The poussins, after being stuffed with the mixture, go into the oven at 180C for about 40 minutes. I rubbed the skin with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt (rather a lot), pepper, and dried herbs. I put the stuffing that didn't fit in the birds underneath them once they'd been in the oven for about 20 minutes, so that all the roasting juices ran down into it. You may have to keep adding a bit of water to stop it burning.
The result is a beautifully burnished skin, crunchy and salty like the best French fries. The flesh of the bird is lovely and moist, and the stuffing is truly wonderful. I do think, actually, that it's better with dried cherries rather than fresh - they add a nice tartness that is lacking in the fresh ones. However, either work well, and the goat's cheese and dill give an unusual flavour to the mixture. The fresh cherries look rather beautiful, as they soften and turn rather jewel-like in appearance, a bit like pomegranate seeds. It's as comforting as a good roast dinner, but fresher-tasting, and - the real bonus - you don't have to fight over the crispy skin or juicy stuffing. Excellent.
Poussin with cherry and goat's cheese stuffing (serves 2, with lots of extra stuffing):
(Adapted from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Melt a little butter in a frying pan and sauté one finely chopped onion and 3 crushed garlic cloves until soft. Put into a bowl and mix in 100g white breadcrumbs, 100g goat's cheese in chunks, and 4 tbsp chopped fresh dill. Add 100g dried sour cherries or pitted fresh cherries. Season with salt and pepper and mix together gently.
Stuff into the cavity of two oven-ready poussins. Place in an oiled baking dish and rub the skins with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried herbs (a mixture of thyme, rosemary, basil and oregano is good, or any one of those). Place in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. After this time, put any remaining stuffing in the dish around the poussins, and put back in the oven. Keep checking to make sure it isn't burning - if it is, pour in a little water.
After 40 minutes, check the birds for done-ness as you would a chicken - you want the juices to run clear.
Serve the birds with any extra stuffing, a big green salad, and couscous, rice, mashed potato or potato wedges.