Explorations in salt beef

The Jobs list in December is guaranteed to turn one into the Grinch. There’s all the Christmas stuff; women take on the burden of organising it all, at our own behest, and annually I wonder why on earth do we do this to ourselves? And yet here I am, writing the cards, worrying about table settings and undelivered parcels and what to give the nursery teachers as a thank you gift. Then there’s the house jobs (lockdown with a three year old does not make for an ordered household. We’re in Tier 3 which essentially means No Non-Household Fun Allowed. There’s a lot of TV at present), and the allotment jobs (it still needs covering) and then all the work jobs to get done before the holidays (holidays! Pah!).

So I come to realise that at this time of year I have to make space for small, soul-sustaining things – else martyrdom and a minor breakdown will set in – one of which is manuring the allotment. The sweet joy of shifting a pallet of poo, ripping open bags, forking through the rich brown gold, to create a veg patch as pristine as an untouched canvas in time for winter.

Allotment and garden have been mulched with a thick blanket of manure

This year’s December door swag is a hastily constructed bouquet of greens and oranges, gathered by my Mum from her garden and then tied together for the door by me. I fully intended to adorn it further with dried hydrangea and strawflower heads but will probably never actually get around to doing so.

This year’s December door swag

The lockdown baking continues – of course – it’s such a normalised activity now that I barely notice it, but I do want to record Harry’s progress from bemused onlooker to active ‘helper’. Here we’re making brown sugar cinnamon rolls, using a scraper to spread scented butter over stretched dough.

Harry has progressed to helping with cinnamon buns

In my last post I mentioned that I felt some Project Cookery coming on. Reader, I am true to my word. Project Cookery is anything which requires a little effort: pickling, drying, layering, fermenting. It’s a good time of year to have a go at something new, given that we’re at home anyway so the small daily interventions that Projects require can be easily slotted into a daily routine.

Usually come December I’m having a go at making my own gravadlax or contemplating a gammon, and so it’s a natural progression to take the curing/salting mindset down a different road, to a different ingredient. The project, therefore, was decided: Salt Beef. Inspired by the River Cottage Meat Book, I tracked down a 2kg rolled brisket from my local butcher…and that’s where my troubles began.

It may be easy to make OK salt beef, but I have concluded that to make GOOD salt beef requires years of experience and more precise instructions than any recipe I have found. What follows, therefore, is not my definitive salt beef recipe, more a record of our family’s (for that is what it became) explorations.

Step 1: The Pickle
Stage 1 of making salt beef is to pickle the meat in a sweet-spiced brine solution for about a week. Easy enough. Except the myriad recipes I referred to confuse the matter. To roll or unroll the meat? Kosher (sea) salt or the bog standard stuff that comes in 1kg sacks from the Co-op? What receptacle does one keep a brisket plus 2+ litres of brine in for a week? In the fridge or not? Salt petre or not?

In the end we unrolled the meat, stabbed it several times with a skewer, then put it in my biggest plastic cake tin which, happily, could then hold 2 litres of brine and sit on the top shelf of the fridge. Some recipes called for a 5 litre mix which surely calls for a barrel and an out-house – fine if you live in Devon (I’m talking about you Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall) but not so great for folks in Smethwick.

I didn’t use salt-petre for the simple reason that I didn’t want the palaver of an online shop for an ingredient I will rarely ever use, especially if it’s just for aesthetic purposes. The spices I kept in keeping with the season: cinnamon, star anise, clove, juniper, bay.

Ingredients:
2 kg brisket, unrolled and stabbed with a skewer
2 litres cold water
75g sugar (I used half granulated, half brown)
200g salt (I used normal table salt)
2 bay leaves
dessertspoon each of black peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, cloves
1 cinnamon stick

Place the brisket in a large tupperware box or other receptacle – it needs to be kept covered and not react to brine, so plastic or ceramic is best (not aluminium). Heat all the brine ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for five minutes, cool completely and then tip over the brisket. Cover and refrigerate for 6 days, turning once per day.

Soak the brisket in a sweet, spiced brine for one week

Step 2: The Soak
On day 6, I tipped away the brine and covered the meat in fresh water, to remove excess salt.

Step 3: The boil
This is the bit that I think we messed up. The idea is to poach the meat in a court bouillon until it is meltingly tender. The problem with brisket is that, in my view, it actually rarely achieves tenderness: some of this is beyond the cook’s control (much depends on how the animal has lived, died and been butchered) but most of it is due to cooking time. The recipes I looked at said to look the meat for between 2-4 hours – now, that’s a big leeway right there.

Anyway, the beef want into a stock pot with carrots, leek, onion and garlic (there should have been more bay leaves but we ran out) and was simmered for two hours. At this point it was declared done (we were hungry) and removed it from the heat; in hindsight, I have decided that it needed either MUCH LESS or MUCH MORE cooking.

The argument for much less time in the pot is that a shorter cook prevents the meat drying out too much; it is a myth that poached meats can not be over-cooked.

The argument for much more cooking is that it gives the touch connective tissue time to disappear into a soft gelatinous mass, a state that can only be achieved with a profoundly long cook.

The true perfect cooking time therefore remains an unknown but my advice for the aspiring salt beef cook is to have a thorough prod of that meat before declaring it done, really checking for tenderness, and to err on the view that when it comes to brisket, more cooking is better than less.

Ingredients:
The drained brisket
1 each: carrot, onion, leek, roughly chopped
A few garlic cloves, bashed
Bay leaves

Place the beef into a large stock pot with the veg and herbs, cover with cold water, then bring to a simmer. Cook until meltingly soft – probably 3-4 hours, but could perhaps only be 1. The timing of this dish remains a mystery.

When it’s done, remove the meat and serve. Note: do not put the stock liquid down the sink as it will be full of melted beef fat that can clog the drain. Leave it in a cold place overnight, scrape the hardened fat off, then the stock can be saved for other dishes or chucked, as you will.

Braise the beef with herbs and stock vegetables until tender

Step 3: What does one do with 2kg salt beef?!

Now here’s the rub. What on earth do you DO with that much salt beef?! The flavour is delicious, salty yes but also complex with clove and cinnamon. The problem is that it’s just a teensy weensy bit tough…oh OK, at times it was like shoe leather. Of course there is no gravy to counteract the dryness.

Meal 1: Serve hot, in thick slices, with boiled new potatoes and buttered carrots. The Irish way.

Meal 2: Serve warm, in thick slices, tucked into a toasted bagel with gherkins and a slather of hot mustard. The Brick Lane bagel-shop way.

Meal 3: We’re in the territory of leftovers now. Many recipes recommend a red flannel hash (salt beef, beetroot, potato, onion) but honestly, our beef is too tough for that, so I am turning it into a ragu, rich with wine and tomatoes, thinking that an extra two hours cooking won’t do it any harm.

Salt beef: serve sliced with potatoes and carrots, in a bagel with pickles and mustard, or try leftovers in a long-braised tomato-rich ragu

The verdict: It’s easy enough to make, and I love the flavour, but that piece of beef cost about £15 which in my view is an expensive bit of Project Cookery. I’m not convinced it’s worth it – but then maybe if we’d cooked it properly I could be swayed. Let’s see how that ragu turns out.

Also this week:
Allotment and garden: Moving the pallet of manure and mulching both allotment and garden (still need to get the plastic covers on). Broad beans and the annual cut flowers have germinated but are leggy weaklings.
Cooking and eating: Osso bucco, steamed syrup pudding, chocolate buttermilk muffins
Also: Christmas overload already; all the fun things we had planned have been cancelled due to Sandwell being in Tier 3. Starting again on the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

Paneer and chickpea curry

Goodness this November is a drag. Without wanting to sound a total misery (which I’m not), but doesn’t it feel that the dreariness of February has arrived three months early? Lockdown, as a friend of mine eloquently put it, has taken the sheen off life. Have we ever valued the simple act of sharing a cup of tea with a neighbour, having real-life creative conversations with colleagues or a wander round the shops, so much as we do now? I realised yesterday that this is the first year in forever when – forgive me – there’s been no chance of getting a pig roast, whether it’s at a wedding, country fair, open day, you name it. All I can now think about is crackling. Make of that what you will.

It seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the drudge. You can either forget the present and project yourself into the future – it’s no coincidence that several people near me have gone WAY EARLY with their Christmas decorations. Or you can immerse yourself in something completely different, a diversion ideally of a comforting and creative nature. And so this weekend I found myself leafing through the superlative River Cottage Meat Book, reminding myself of the joy of solid, classic, non-poncy, ingredient-led cookery.

River Cottage Cookbook with notes

I can feel some project cookery coming on. Back in Lockdown 1 we were all about house and garden, messing around with tulips and plug plants. Lockdown 2 is looking likely to be about lard. And suet. Plus butter, obviously. I still dream of cooking a whole ham (A WHOLE HAM!) but given that it would serve at least 20 people, it is perhaps not the best vehicle to relieve lockdown fatigue. Ditto the proper fore-rib of beef. I will probably take it easy with a spot of salt beef…and as thoughts turn to Christmas, maybe a pork pie or two. I’ll keep you posted of progress.

In the meantime, here is a far simpler dish, one to have a go at mid-week when a bit of gentle kitchen pottering is needed after a day of Zoom calls. It’s vegetarian, inexpensive, authentic and – most importantly – really tasty. I have got into the habit of keeping diced paneer in the freezer, and there’s always chickpeas, tomatoes and spices to hand. So consider it the perfect store cupboard curry – and what could be more 2020 than that?

Paneer and chickpea curry
Serves 4. Adapted from Waitrose Weekend recipe by Chetna Makan.

Sunflower oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 onions
2 green chillies – the long thin ones – left whole. (If you like it hot, slice them up)
salt
2 fat cloves of garlic, bashed and chopped
a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 chilli powder (or more/less to taste)
1 tsp ground tumeric
1 tsp garam masala
2 tomatoes, chopped
about 200ml water
400g can chickpeas
about 200g paneer, diced
1 tsp sugar

I use a karahi for this but you can also use a heavy-based sauté pan or casserole.

Heat the oil over a medium heat, add the cumin and mustard seeds until they sizzle, then tip in the onions, chillies and good pinch of salt. Gently fry for about 5 minutes, until quite soft and turning golden. Add the garlic and ginger, then the ground spices – fry them for a scant minute just to cook the spices – then add the tomatoes and sugar. Cook for 10 minutes or so until you have a thick, amalgamated sauce, loosening with water as needed.

Tip in the chickpeas and paneer, then cook for another 10 minutes to allow the flavours to come together. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar as required. Serve with rice, chutneys and maybe a piquant chopped salad of onion, cucumber and tomato.

Paneer and chickpea curry

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Chicken in white wine, with leftovers turned into a filthy chicken tartiflette. Gingerbread. Ordering the Christmas meats and, as every year, my plans of beef or something else interesting has been given up to tradition: turkey it is.

Garden and allotment: Clearing last of the annuals, cutting back perennials. Planted out hellebores. Started off broadbeans. Clearing the masses of leaves that have blown into both front and back garden. The cosmos etc started last month are a leggy mess so once again I ask, what point is there starting annuals in the autumn?

Also: Trying to dodge the ‘what am I doing with my life’ lockdown gloom with cookbooks, plus starting Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View. I have totally lost my ability to drink all alcohol other than traditional-method sparkling wine, coming out in instant allergic reaction at the mere sip of wine or beer. Spirits are a distant memory. Whilst I partly enjoy how pretentious my liver has become, this is a source of great sadness.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew

We are returned from our summer holiday, ‘summer’ being perhaps an optimistic notion for October. It is at this time of the year that we travel, partly to avoid school holidays but mainly because work is usually busiest during the festival-season of June to September. Not this year of course. Nothing is the same this year – not that you’d know it in Cornwall. There, the pace of life remains reassuringly unhurried, the noise of lockdown diktats from London seem to merely echo rather than shout.

Alas, the weather threw everything at us. Gales, rain, drizzle, sun, rainbow, wind again…Watching it all unfold, I wrote a few words in my journal:

Sea merging into sky
steel blue, grey, white, concrete
Three days of leaden sky
Forceful wind, rajasic weather,
Stormy. Relentless.

But then this morning, sun broke through
turning the cliffs golden
The hint of a rainbow dissolves onto the sea
and then returns with greater resolve.
A brief strengthening of sprit.

I am not normally driven to write poetry-style words. This is what the Cornish landscape does to a woman in middling-age.

Endless grey skies at Mawgan Porth
Industrial architecture mimicking a Norman keep
Sky meets sea

I have always thought of our September/October break as the end of summer, a mental shift towards the autumn/winter months. On returning home my mind whirrs with lists to make the next six months more tolerable; much of it is kitchen and garden-room (I can wish) related: the final autumn harvests, the creation of dried flower vases around the house. Sloe-apple jelly and butternut squash soup become earmarked for creation. Traditionally we prepared for winter by filling our stores and retreating indoors, a way of thinking that remains in my blood.

Yesterday I gave in and harvested the outdoor tomatoes from the veg trug. These are lockdown plants, arriving shrivelled and near dead in the post after whiling away for days in the postal service, but they perked up and the four plants have given several kilo of fruit. Harry, only 3, insisted on using the secateurs and to his credit, did an effective job. The issue is ripeness, or rather the lack of it: 90% of them are green, our back garden too overlooked and the summer too cloudy to allow them to ripen. I’ve placed them on newspaper in the sun room in hope of a late ripening, and the rest – let’s face it – will probably end up in the compost.

The harvest from 4 tomato plants, all outdoor. An abundance of fruit, alas all of it in varying shades of green

Whilst sorting out tomatoes my eyes were drawn to the bunches of hanging strawflower and hops, now papery and dried, and I cut a few to make a small vase for the office – a classic procrastination before work. Over the next few weeks there will be more of these to brighten up the house, replacing the vases of dahlias and chrysanthemums that have been so abundant during late summer.

The first of this year’s dried flower posies, made of hop, strawflower, cornflower and poppy head

October weather – once one has truly been in it for days, as even in gale-force winds a pre-schooler insists on building sandcastles – demands a return to slow food. Feta cheese and salads won’t cut it now; my body yearns for homely, inexpensive, peasanty cooking. Yesterday, whilst stocking up on essential supplies I even found myself sneaking turnips into the trolly. Turnips! They found their way into a simple long-braised stew, rich with root vegetables and just a scrap of meat, served steaming in deep bowls with a few stodgy-yet-crunchy dumplings.

The trick to this is cutting your foundation vegetables – the onions, celery, leeks – quite small so that they melt into the stock, but the hero veg – the parsnips, carrots and the like – big. That way you get a smooth silky soupy base with interesting chunks to chew on.

This is what I call National Trust cookery. Autumn is here.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew
serves 4, generously

500g braising steak, diced
oil or dripping
2 small onions, peeled and finely sliced
2 large sticks of celery, trimmed and finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned, trimmed and finely sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 small turnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
5 mid-sized new potatoes, halved or quartered (if you have tiny ones leave them whole and just use a few more)
4 or so fat cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed but left whole
4-5 bay leaves
few springs of thyme
1 tablespoon flour
salt and pepper
2 beef stock cubes (I use Kallo organic low-salt)
boiling water

For the dumplings:
250g self-raising flour
125g suet
cold water
salt and pepper

Set the oven to 160c. Warm a heavy-weight frying pan and when hot, brown the meat on all sides until burnished – I do this in batches, without any extra oil as I dislike all the splatters. Remove the meat to a very large casserole pot.

Turn the heat on the frying pan down, add a little oil or dripping, then soften the onions, leeks and celery for about five minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, then tip the lot into the casserole with the meat – the onions should pick up any crusty bits left from browning your beef. The frying pan can now go in the sink to be washed up.

Put your casserole pan onto the heat, add the remaining vegetables and turn them over with the onions and beef for five minutes or so, just to slightly soften. Add the herbs, flour and the stock cubes, and stir again for a few more minutes so that everything is well distributed. Tip in enough boiling water to cover the meat, bring it all to a slow simmer and give everything another good stir – we need the stock cubes to fully dissolve and for there to be no lumps of flour.

Pop the lid on and transfer to the oven, where it should putter away for two hours. Top the water up if it looks dry.

For the dumplings, stir the suet, flour, salt and pepper together using a table knife, then add enough cold water to bring it together to a rough dough – maybe 3 tablespoons. Shape into however many dumplings you require – this mixture makes 5 BIG ones or rather more smaller ones.

After two hours, turn the heat up to 180c. Remove the lid of the casserole, pop the dumplings on top of the stew and return to the oven, cooking uncovered for 30 minutes or so until the dumplings are puffy and crunchy on the top.

Enjoy in a deep bowl with a dollop of hot horseradish. No other accompaniment is required.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Braised rabbit with rose wine, rosemary and bacon (found an independent rural butcher selling wild rabbits for £3, which is an offer I can not refuse); pasties, scampi, chips, fudge etc etc; a tot of sloe gin from Chappers’ 2017 vintage. Buying up apples and pears, some for eating now, some to be sliced and frozen for future pies.

Reading: Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy, wonderfully evocative writing; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which I’ve been putting off because it is literally the size of a brick, but when on holiday there is no excuse.

Southern red beans with ham

It’s still touch and go on the allotment. The brassicas and perennials are doing just fine, but the cut flower annuals are the worst they’ve ever been. Even the sunflowers seem stunted. I am uncertain what the problem is….perhaps the evenings have been too chill, perhaps the weather too dry, perhaps the seedlings were too weak to be planted out. I don’t feel that I’ve done anything differently from previous years though…it’s a mystery.

Most of the cut flowers are far from thriving

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my cinnamon bun recipe. I am sure posts with follow, but with The Nordic Baking Book by my side, and inspired by those amazing Copenhagen bakeries, this was last weekend’s efforts.

Been experimenting with my cinnamon bun recipe

I have got into the habit of keeping a stash of cinnamon buns in the freezer for emergency breakfasts / snacks / comfort. And speaking of freezer food, this Red beans and ham dish is a new addition to the bulk cooking repertoire. The recipe comes from Jamie Oliver’s American cookbook, inspired by the frugal cuisine of Louisiana and the Southern states. Frugal it may be, and simple, and nutritious (all those beans…) but the most important thing is that it’s incredibly delicious. If you think that you don’t like kidney beans, try this and have your perspective changed.

The first thing to do is get hold of a hefty piece (around 2kg) of smoked gammon or a ham hock. The hock will shred more easily plus you’ll get all the bonus flavour from the bone in your stew, but a piece of gammon is easier to find. Either way, it really must be smoked. Then the day before you wish to cook, soak 500g dried kidney beans in fresh water for several hours.

When you’re ready to cook, plonk your hock or gammon in a large stock pot, cover with fresh cold water, bring to a simmer, then drain the water away completely. This helps remove excess salt from the meat. Replace the meat to the pot with the soaked beans2 tins of tomatoes, 4 sticks of diced celery, 2 diced onions, 1 bulb of garlic with its neck sliced off to reveal the flesh within, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, a few bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne for a subtle kick and a good grind of black pepper. No salt, due to the saltiness of the pork. Top it up with about 1 litre water, so the meat is covered.

Place on the hob and bring to a fast simmer for 5 minutes, then leave to putter on a low heat (lid on) for about two hours, until the beans are soft. Give it a prod every now and then, topping up with water if it looks dry.

Simmer ham and beans with tomato, stock veg and spices for a few hours

Once the beans are cooked, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Fish out the garlic skin and any herb stalks that you find. The meat needs shredding so remove the hock or gammon from the pot, remove the bone and any excess skin and fat, then shred into large chunks and set aside whilst you finish the beans.

Place a few ladles of beans into a bowl and use a potato masher to break them down. This makes a thick, creamy mixture that will help to thicken the beans. Replace to the pot with the ham and give it all a good mix; If the beans are too watery, cook with the lid off for a few minutes to reduce. Season to taste – a little cider vinegar may be just the trick.

Serve with rice, a dollop of sour cream and something fresh and crunchy – lightly dressed salad leaves or a chopped guacamole. This recipe makes 8 generous portions so it’s great for a crowd, but any leftovers will freeze excellently.

A few hours later, pull the pork into the spicy red beans for a frugal but incredibly delicious dinner

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Cinnamon rolls; Matt’s beignets with cinnamon and chocolate sauce; cream tea at Emma Bridgewater in Stoke.

Harvesting: Sweet William, foxgloves, cow parsley, first homegrown salad leaves.

In praise of horta

As we edge towards midsummer there is a general lightness, in all senses. Light mornings and light evenings. Lighter food. Light, frothy flowers in the back garden. A lightness of spirit (longer, warmer days translate to having more energy, for me anyway). It’s my absolute favourite time of the year, with days filled with discovery and adventure.

The border in our back garden is coming into fullness. This is only its second season – and it’s still rife with gaps and errors – but I love watching for daily micro changes as the roses bloom, delphinium hover on the edge of flowering and foxgloves provide food for hungry bees. The allotment, as usual, is a mixture of disaster and fecundity: the climbing beans have been all but destroyed by the birds, and the cut flower annuals are as tiny now as when they were planted a month ago. The perennials, on the other hand, are thriving, with Sweet William the latest arrival to the June cutting party.

Roses on the edge of bloom

All the flower annuals are now planted out, though most are stumpy and far from thriving

Sweet William now in flower

I added a few stems of wild, self-sown cow parsley and foxgloves to today’s cut flower harvest of allium, sweet rocket, persicaria, flowering sage and the Sweet William; I’m particularly pleased with this pink, purple and pale cream arrangement.

June pickings: allium, sweet william, sweet rocket, foxgloves, flowering sage and cow parsley

Same arrangement in the vase

When it comes to home-grown veg, it’s still a sparse time of year, and it will remain so for ages, given the stumpiness of my seedlings. And this is where the joy of GREENS comes in. I don’t mean the massive, leafy cabbages or lettuces that we’ll get in a few weeks time, but rather the small, palm-sized leaves that thrive in early summer. There is a tradition in parts of the Mediterranean to collect wild greens – called horta – which are then eaten raw, or very slightly cooked, to supplement the lean, home-grown diet. In warmer climates this can go on year round, but here in England we only really start to see lush green growth in late April. Patience Gray discussed horta in great detail in Honey from a Weed, and makes wild claims that a plateful of herbs has an ‘oiliness’ to it that can keep the eater going for hours. Whilst that may be disputable, there is an undeniable vigour to freshly picked young greens that can not be replicated by any supermarket packet.

I do not collect wild greens (though I could – the allotment is FULL of nettles, and they would be grand) but I do look forward to this time of year, when the fridge has a constantly re-filled bag of fresh greens in it. Currently on the go is cima di rapa, which I grew in the veg trug from a sowing about 6 weeks ago, rocket from the allotment, and young spinach, radish tops and beetroot tops that I thieved from mum’s vegetable garden (her pickings always come a month earlier than mine).

Cima di rapa

All these young, gentle greens need is a quick wash, then to be wilted in a hot pan with a lick of butter or olive oil, perhaps a few thin slivers of garlic or chili, and a bit of salt. They take mere seconds to cook. Have them as an accompaniment to something else or – my preference – turn them into the star of the show. Horta on toast with a poached egg is my June brunch of choice, and orecchiette with cima di rapa and fennel sausage is a classic for a reason.

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

Horta need no recipe or any grand instruction. They are the essence of what it means to grow, and cook, your own food. In this age where we are so deeply indoctrinated into supermarket food culture, I find that a plateful of simple greens can root me back to the peasant tradition – born of necessity of course, but none the worse for that – of eating what nature provides, when she provides it.

 

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out chrysanthemums, marigolds, chard, spinach and bulls blood. Netted the blueberries. Grass is growing at a distressing rate. Annuals are not doing so well – it is so dry – and climbing beans have been eaten by the pigeon. Broad beans have set. Back garden nearing its peak, with roses, foxgloves and delphinium.

Harvesting: Sweet William, last Sweet Rocket, alliums, cow parsley, persicaria, flowering sage, foxgloves. Rocket, spinach, broad beans (from Mum’s garden), chives, oregano, mint.

Cooking & eating: Chicken in white wine with tarragon from garden; gateau with strawberries and raspberries; Lincolnshire plum bread from work visit to Grantham.

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

We’ve had a week of outdoorsing it. I took Harry up to Malvern to collect spring water and see how the wild garlic is looking – pleased to report that it’s at its peak right now. We scooped up a few fistfuls (not so much as to cause any damage to the plants, which are innumerable in my secret foraging spot) which Matt then used as the basis for a chimmichurri sauce for steak. Whilst home, we headed to Clive’s to check out the chickens.

Wild garlic is in peak form right now

Toddler living his best life

Then this weekend we headed out to border country, Hay on Wye. I used to spend a lot of time in this part of the world and sometimes have deep, physical yearnings to be amongst the cool, damp air, mountains and green. The green of Herefordshire is something else. On Hay Bluff, sheep grazed amidst the aftermath of a recent snow storm, and as we wound our way down the mountainside to Llanthony Priory, streams broke their banks onto the road.

A view from Llanthony Priory

Which all sounds very romantic until you remember that Harry sees 11th century ruins as a potential playground, and regards country roads as BORING.

The reality of taking a small child to a heritage venue

Back to more practical matters. The allotment rules dictate that bonfires are allowed only in the months of November and March, a fact I had forgotten until a few days before the end of the month. Matt went down there in a brief gap between family commitments (Mother’s day lunches and Grampy’s 99th birthday party) armed with a blow torch (yes really) to destroy some of last year’s detritus.

Managed to sneak in a bonfire before the end of March

Meanwhile I used the brief hour of calm after Harry’s bedtime / before Matt gets home to whip up a vat of leek and potato soup for when I hosted a working lunch the following day. Soup is fine as far as it goes – easy, cheap, nutritious – but it can be dull. A spoonful of this rocket and hazelnut pesto, stirred in on serving, gives the poke that it needs. I turned to rocket as I had some in the fridge – ditto with the hazelnuts, I just happened to have some on hand – and was delighted at the results. I can’t help but think that some of the wild garlic from the previous weekend would have also been a welcome addition.

No quantities with this, you just have to use your eye and trust your tastebuds. In a food processor, blitz together a few handfuls of rocket, a handful of basil or Greek basil, a small clove of garlic, a chunk of parmesan, handful of hazelnuts, small pinch of salt, small squeeze of lemon with a trickle of the best olive oil. Keep blitzing until smooth, taste, then adjust your seasoning as you fancy. Keeps in the fridge for several days.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

Also this week:

Growing: Started off rocket, dill and violas. The dahlias that I potted up a few weeks back are starting to sprout.

Eating & Cooking: Leek & potato soup with extra chard for vitamins, wild garlic chimmichurri, beautiful canale bought from the market at Hay on Wye

Chicken jalfrezi

The false spring was there to make fools of us, just as I predicted. Since my last post we’ve had two big windy storms, big enough to take down branches, plus yesterday brought the heaviest hail shower that I’ve experienced for several years. But the lighter evenings do bring a sense of relief and the spring equinox is shortly upon us, time for a resurgence of energy and resolution.

Speaking of energy, Harry and I both succumbed to chest infections, which are now on the way out, but point to the importance of nutrition and rest. Last week I experimented with purple pancakes – these are American-style pancakes with blueberry compote stirred into the batter before cooking – which gave us a good dose of protein, calcium, carbs and (most importantly) fun.

Harry loves purple pancakes. Make a regular pancake batter and swirl into a few tablespoons of blueberry compote, then cook as normal.

There was also a trip to Ludlow, home of the world’s greatest butchers and greengrocer, to restock the freezer with proper sausages, bacon, a bunny or two plus a sensational leg of pork.

March in the Marches – the view across the river to Ludlow castle

An abundance of spring flowers at Ludlow market

Back home, the garden is changing from brown to yellow. The forsythia came into bloom last week, with its optimistic bright yellow flowers hanging from branches like fairy skirts. The primulas that we lifted from Granny’s garden before she passed are thriving – a softer yellow than the forsythia, they provide pleasing pops of colour that can be seen from the sun room.

More yellow, this time from the blooming forsythia in the back garden

Granny’s primroses are thriving

Meanwhile I have a space issue. Our Victorian house contains only 1 windowsill and 1 smallish cold-frame, meaning that spring-time seed sowing is an exercise in logistics. It’s a constant juggle of succession sowing and tray-turning to get things started. This year I have unfathomably got about 40 different varieties of flowers, herbs and veg that need sowing over the next month or two, and only a postage-stamp amount of room to keep them in (Matt promises that he will apply his hive-mind to this issue). Meanwhile I have also (equally unfathomably) amassed a collection of nearly 20 dahlias, all of which I potted up yesterday in the hail, and which are now snuggly resting in big trays in the sun room to begin their ascent to full-flowering August glory. My labelling is dubious at the best of times but I particularly enjoyed unwrapping the bag-for-life full of shrivelled tubers and a single pink Post-it noting “jewel colours for garden or allotment”. I have absolutely zero idea where these came from but I look forward to seeing how they progress.

Somehow I have amassed a collection of dahlias, all of which are dubiously labelled, now potted up after their winter snooze.

Cold frame already full with broad beans and delphinium seedlings

On to today’s recipe. Since the Frugality Challenge I have become very aware of using meat to its best potential, so that it lasts for loads of meals. The other week I bought a large whole chicken, took it down to its essential parts (2 breasts, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, 2 thighs, carcuss) and froze each piece individually. This is far more economical way of shopping than buying lots of individual packs of thighs or breasts, plus the portions tend to be larger – and thus better value – when taken off a whole bird.

The legs were marinated with yoghurt, garlic and spices brought by my friend Claire from her recent trip to Morocco (thanks Claire), before being baked and served with flatbreads and salads.

The breasts were turned into this wonderful jalfrezi, from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics book. I love that it’s very simple, very healthy and genuinely delicious, plus there’s no special ingredients needed, as it’s made with store-cupboard and fridge staples. This does involve whizzing up a curry paste but even that isn’t too much bother, and the chicken can be marinated in advance if that makes life easier. We ate it up with rice, home-made tarka dal, a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, mint and coriander, plus Matt’s vegetable pakora. Highly recommended.

Chicken Jalfrezi
from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics. Serves 3-4 with side dishes.

For the paste: Toast 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds with 1 teaspoon each of coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and black mustard seeds in a dry frying pan until toasted. Tip into the food processor with 2 cloves of garlic, a big knob of ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons tomato puree, 1 fresh red chili and a handful of fresh coriander. Whizz the lot to a puree, adding a splash of water if needed.

Slice 1 large or 2 small chicken breasts into large chunks, then place in a bowl with 2 tablespoons plain yoghurt, the curry paste and a pinch of salt. Massage the paste into the chicken then set aside to marinate.

Dice one red onion and two peppers (red, yellow, green, or a mixture) into large chunks. In a dry frying pan or casserole, stir-fry the vegetables until they start to char – this gives good flavour to the curry. Tip in the chicken and any excess marinade, then cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken begins to turn opaque.

Tip half a tin of chopped tomatoes into the pan with a good splash of water, stir to combine, then leave to cook on a low heat for 10 minutes until the chicken is cooked through, the veg is softened and the sauce is thickened to your liking. Check the seasoning – add a squeeze of lemon if you like.

Serve with rice, daal, salad and raita.

 

Also this week:

Cooking & eating: Ludlow pie and chips; chocolate muffins; blue pancakes; cherry flapjacks; Moroccan-baked chicken; apple & blackberry galette; hot cross buns; roast pork shoulder with crispy crackling; phenomenal amounts of tea.

Outside: The conifers at the end of the garden were removed this morning, opening up massive amounts of light into the wilderness.

Reading: Mildly obsessed with Up: My lifetime’s journey up Everest, Ben Fogle’s account of climbing Mount Everest. Make mental note that life has become dull and so, whilst I have no desire to climb any mountain whatsoever, we should plan some adventures for 2019.

Vietnamese-style dressing

The warm temperatures of the last two weeks have brought the seedlings, bulbs and buds on no end. Let’s not be fooled too much – False Spring is a thing – but there’s definitely a sense of sap rising. We’ve been out for our first ice cream of the year, albeit in thick coats, and the daffodils in the back garden are singing in their bright yellow trumpets.

Never too early in the year for ice cream

Narcissi ‘rip van winkle’

The early seedlings are germinating impressively. This year I am being far more fastidious about thinning, and the tray is being rotated daily to prevent too much legginess. The broad beans that Harry planted back in January took weeks to get going, but once they did then whoooosh, they were off! Now several inches tall, I’ve moved the seedlings to the cold frame to harden off.

Germination going well, rotating the tray daily and using the heat-mat

Harry’s broad beans took AGES to germinate but now are thriving

Matt’s been away all week, therefore living on Pret and McDonalds (not that he’d admit to it), so come Saturday I was determined to get some vitamins into our addled bodies. Vitamins doesn’t need to mean boring though. Alongside stir-fried lemongrass chicken and broccoli I pulled together a crunchy, vibrant, searingly hot Vietnamese salad – it’s the kind of cooking that is so satisfying that you don’t realise that it’s healthy. This would usually have green papaya and Chinese leaf in it but I had neither, so subbed in a firm, not-quite-ripe mango, plus turnip for crunch. Turnip and mango sounds awful, right? Wrong – try it and be surprised. The joy of these salads is that you can use anything crunchy that you have to hand, though I do think that cucumber and shallot are essential.

Vietnamese-style salad

Julienne a bowlful of crunchy vegetables – use what you have to hand, but carrot, shallot, turnip, kohl rabi, Chinese leaf, cucumber, white cabbage, firm mango, yellow pepper and beansprouts all work. Toss in a handful of mint, basil and coriander (again, use what you have to hand) and some chopped, toasted peanuts for crunch, if desired.

The key to this is the dressing. Make it as hot as you dare! Whisk together 1 tbsp fish sauce, a good squeeze of lime, 1/2 tbsp Japanese rice vinegar, 1/2 tbsp caster sugar and very finely minced garlic and red birds eye chili (to taste). Pour onto the vegetables and leave to stand for a few minutes for the flavours to mingle before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Cherry brownies, blackcurrant bakewell tart, lemongrass & ginger chicken with broccoli, Welsh cakes, cherry almond loaf cake
Growing: Cleared out the front garden, taking out the fern and an unidentified variegated evergreen (a family joint effort, this).

Nordic baked pancakes

Bit nippy isn’t it? In the last fortnight I think I’ve been outside maybe twice. Once to look at snowdrops…

Snowdrops are peeping in the garden. I planted these in the green last spring so hopefully now they’ll start to spread and establish.

…and the other because Matt wanted to watch the Stourbridge Stagger 10k running race.

This picture gives no indication of how painfully cold it was in Stourbridge yesterday.

The rest of the time I’ve been finding indoor pursuits, including finally planting the broad beans that I meant to sow back in November, and lots and lots of cooking.

Harry planted his first seeds last week – broad bean Aquadulce Claudia

There’s been braised ox cheeks with ancho, a massive chocolate meringue cake, spicy lamb kebabs, tzatziki with flat breads and the first – glorious – rhubarb bellini of the year. Actually, the first for three years, as in 2018 the booze made me feel too poorly and in 2017 I was pregnant. I spent a fortune on the precious pink stems and, for once, I don’t regret a penny of it.

Harry is a fan of tzatziki

First rhubarb bellini in three years!

I know there are some who give up booze and carbs and dairy and joy for January, but I think you need to find whatever sustenance you can to get through these icy-cold days. This recipe for Norwegian baked pancakes is just the ticket. This baked pancake has a greater proportion of egg and milk to flour than our normal pancakes and so it cooks into something more like a custard than a pancake.

Norwegian baked pancake

Bakes to a rich dense custardy mass

I found the recipe in the Nordic Baking Book, which is a dense encyclopaedia of all things to do with Scandi baking. The author, Magnus Nilsson, is EXTREMELY particular about the way things are done (and quite rightly too as this is meant to be a documentary book). However at home we can have more leeway. If you prefer a more cakey pancake, just add a few more spoonfuls of flour. The original has no sugar in it – though you could add some if you like – making it an ideal accompaniment to morning bacon or maple syrup and berries. It will happily keep in the fridge for a few days after baking.

Thick Norwegian oven-baked Pancake – Tjockpankaken
From The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson

25g unsalted butter
125g plain flour
2 eggs
pinch of salt
500ml milk

Preheat the oven to 220c. Place a baking dish large enough to hold your mixture into the oven to warm – I used a 8inch round pie dish. Add the butter to the dish and return to the oven to melt.

Combine the flour, eggs, salt and half the milk in a bowl and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the rest of the milk. (This bit is just the same as for making Yorkshire Puddings).

Swirl the melted butter around your dish to coat. Add the batter and return to the oven to bake. Cook for 30 minutes until dark golden and completely set. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

 

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Beef cheeks braised with ancho and tomato, golden wholemeal soda bread, golden oat and raisin cookies, rabbit braised with root veg and pearl barley, chocolate dacquoise, chocolate meringue cake, rhubarb bellinis. Harry’s first trip to Original Patty Men.

Reading: Becoming by Michelle Obama – from the library rather than giving Amazon any more ££.

Also: Just trying to keep warm.