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.