Matt’s rabbit rillettes

The temperature in our house has plummeted in recent days from long-sleeve-t-shirt-with-thick-cardigan temperature, to proper-jumper-plus-thick-cardigan-and-socks-but-still-really-cold temperature. The windows are permanently hazed with condensation and I find it inconceivable that I ever used to wander around in shorts with nothing on my feet. What madness was that?!

This means that we have arrived firmly in autumn. Actually we might be fast-forwarding through autumn in a rush towards winter, given this weekend’s chill wind. Aside from these nonsense low temperatures, autumn brings with it a great many pleasures, most of them culinary. It’s quince season for one. You can buy the fuzzy aromatic pear-shaped fruits in the halal shop on Bearwood High Street for £1 each, or I found this basket of 50p fruits in Moreton-on-Marsh the other day.

Quinces a bargain 50p each in Moreton-on-Marsh

Pumpkins and squash abound, of course, in the run-up to halloween. My local Aldi is selling ‘decorative’ turks turban and blue prince squash for 39p each – presumably they think people will use them as table decorations but I’d rather cook with these than a butternut squash anyday. In Ludlow on Saturday, the pumpkin prices were higher but the colours just as fun.

Gorgeous colours on Ludlow market

We were in Ludlow for our annual freezer-filling visit. I have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere better in the UK to stock up on game, meat, cheese and proper veg (i.e. field-fresh, knobbly and ideally still crusted in mud). Add to that the independent shops, the cosy pub that serves really good pies AND has an open fire, the Ludlow Brewing Company, the castle and the glorious country drive and you have the perfect escape from the city. It’s also surprisingly good value. We came home with (VEGETARIANS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW) 2 pheasants, 2 rabbits, stewing venison, stewing mutton, oxtail, 1kg beef mince, 1kg braising steak, Italian sausages, pork pie, a round of cheese, amazing pain de levain and purple sprouting broccoli for less than £55. We’re not talking rubbish meat here, we’re talking meat that someone has taken care over, but without the pretension that you find in the posh urban butchers.

The Ludlow visit always precedes the start of Proper Cooking Season. Yesterday was a happy day of concocting rabbit rillettes, beef bourguignon and orange & cinnamon creme caramel and this morning I interspersed press release writing with making a massive vat of deeply flavoured bolognese sauce. My Things to Cook list has gone subtly wintry….cranberry breakfast bread, pumpkin pie, smoked mackerel pate with beetroot and horseradish.

The rillettes are a particularly welcome addition to the autumn kitchen. The rabbit is slow-cooked with pork belly, thyme and garlic until shreddable, then packed together with their cooking liquor (which is essentially lard, let’s face it) to make a subtly-flavoured pate. Keep a tub of these in the fridge for topping warm buttery toast: lard and butter, working together to keep out the autumn chill.

Rabbit Rillettes
Adapted from this recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Makes two shallow 10cm tubs.

First, joint a rabbit (or get the butcher to do it for you). Remove the rind from 500g fatty pork belly and dice into chunky cubes. Place the meat in an oven-proof dish with sprig of fresh thyme, 3 bay leaves, a bulb of garlic sliced in half through the centre and 250ml water. The meat should be in a single layer so that it cooks evenly. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 220c for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 140c and cook for 2-and-a-half hours more, until the rabbit and pork can be shredded with a fork. Give the dish a prod every now and then during the cooking to ensure that it’s not drying out (top with a little water if you need to).

Allow the rabbit and pork to bubble together in a gentle oven for several hours

Remove the meat from the liquor and leave until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat from the bones and place in a large bowl, making sure all the fat from the pork is included.

Strip the meat from the bones and save the liquor

Thoroughly mix the two meats together and season well with salt and pepper (you could also add some nutmeg or mace now). Add a good splash of the cooking liquor and stir until you achieve a loose pate texture, adding more of the liquor as needed. Transfer your rillettes to tubs or jars, and refrigerate until firm.

Pack the meat into your container and chill

Serve on hot toast, preferably with something slightly acidic to counter all the lard. A cornichon or pickled onion is just the ticket. The rillettes will keep for several days in the fridge, or you could make a few jars and freeze what you don’t need for a later day.

Serve on good toast, ideally with something pickled

Also this week:

Cooking & Eating: German bienenstich (bee sting) cake, spiced squash soup, pies at The Crown Inn in Ludlow, hake from the Birmingham fish market with chorizo. Stollen-watch has begun: Aldi has its mini stollens in, which means the proper ones won’t be too far away.

Reading & Watching: The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown, a love story to the English apple tradition with plenty of references to Herefordshire. The Prawn on the Lawn cookbook by Rick and Katie Toogood.

Visiting: Batsford Arboretum to make the most of the autumn colour. Ludlow for freezer-filling. The new BOM cafe, near the Bullring markets – a cosy cafe that has been designed to be friendly to autistic people.

On the allotment: Still harvesting cosmos, chrysanthemums, chard and cavolo nero. It’s time to clear: Matt has started to remove the thicket of brambles at the back of the greenhouse, I’ve pulled up most of the annuals and veg, and have put black plastic on the one plot to protect the soil and keep weeds down. It’s nearly time for a bonfire.

Pheasant in spiced orange juice

The quiet couldn’t last long. After being abruptly pulled back into the world of work, I’ve spent the past hour happily compiling a playlist of club classics to use as warm-ups in my first ‘proper’ yoga classes. Groove is in the heart? Where love lives? Suddenly old favourites take on a new life.

Speaking of old favourites, today’s recipe is a Vietnamese take on the French classic duck a l’orange. I’m not sure if the French pinched the idea from the Vietnamese, or if the Vietnamese pinched it from the French, but either way, this is a great dish to have up your sleeve, particularly in January when citrus is in season and inexpensive. I got the idea from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, where he braised duck with orange, bird’s eye chilli and ginger, and have adapted it to the English winter by using pheasant. I’ve also added in kaffir lime leaves, which is probably not authentic, but I love them. Any dish that begins life with this much colour is always going to end well.

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Sunshine on a cloudy day: you need oranges, chillies, ginger and lemongrass

The recipe calls for about 1 litre of orange juice. I squeezed my own, but you could equally get some ready juiced – try and use fresh juice though, not concentrate.

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Squeeze those fruits

Next thing to do is to prep the aromatics. They will all be strained out afterwards so there’s no need to be too precise. Thinly slice the ginger and bash the garlic and lemon grass; the chillies can stay whole. Star anise adds a background hum, and if you can find them, kaffir lime leaves give an elusive fresh citrus zing.

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Prep all the aromatics…

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…chucking in a kaffir lime leaf if you have any

Once all that is done, prepare the pheasant (or duck, if you’re going down that road). Pheasant skin doesn’t add anything to the party so I remove it, and then I joint the bird into three pieces (two legs and one breast bone. Discard the back bone). Give it a good rinse, pat dry, and we’re good to go.

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Joint, skin and dry the pheasant

This is a classic braise so the usual rules apply: brown the meat and set to one side whilst you soften the aromatics, put the meat back in the pan with liquid and flavourings, and leave to splutter for an hour or two. So first, brown the pheasant on each side in a little sunflower oil.

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Brown the pheasant then set to one side

Next we briefly soften the ginger and garlic, before putting the pheasant back into the pan with the lemongrass, chillies, star anise, kaffir lime leaf and the orange juice. I sieved the OJ to remove the pips, but that’s optional.

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Saute the garlic and ginger…

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…before adding everything back to the pan. Season, pop the lid on and simmer for 90 minutes.

Now we need to season, which means a splash of fish sauce, a little sugar and a grind of black pepper. No salt needed, due to the fish sauce. Pop the lid on and leave it to simmer on the lowest possible heat for about 90 minutes, by which time the pheasant will be tender. Cooking it in this way helps to prevent it drying out – this bird came from the freezer and could easily have been tough as old boots, but braised to beautifully tender shreds.

Once it’s cooked, remove the pheasant and shred the meat from the bones. I like to strain the sauce (no-one wants to chew on a star anise – ugh) before reducing and thickening with a little cornflour, then the meat is returned to the sauce.

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Reduce and thicken for a gently spiced sauce.

And that’s it! Serve garnished with spring onion, accompanied by rice and a plate of stir-fried greens. This is a surprisingly mild but incredibly flavourful dish, and is a classic example of making a little go a really long way: one pheasant is enough for four people with a few side dishes. Despite the exotic ingredients, it feels familiar – it’s just a stew, when all said and done – and is perfect to warm the cockles on a cold January day.

Pheasant braised in spiced orange juice

Adapted from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. Use duck or chicken if you prefer. Serves 4 with rice and veggie sides.

1 large pheasant, oven-ready

splash sunflower oil

4 cloves of garlic, peeled

large thumb of ginger, peeled

1 litre freshly squeezed orange juice

5 star anise

4 red bird’s eye chillies (leave them whole)

2 lemongrass stalks

4 tbsp fish sauce

1 tbsp granulated sugar

freshly ground black pepper

4 spring onions, thinly sliced

1 heaped tsp cornflour

First, prep the aromatics. Bash the lemongrass and garlic but leave them whole, and thinly slice the ginger.

Prep the pheasant. Rip the skin off then joint into four pieces (you can keep the breast in one whole piece.Discard the back bone and skin.) Give the pheasant a good wash and pat dry with kitchen towel.

In a casserole dish, heat the oil then brown the pheasant on all sides and remove to a plate. Soften the garlic and ginger for a minute or two, then replace the pheasant with the chillies, star anise and lemongrass. Add the orange juice (you can sieve it if it’s full of pips). Season with fish sauce, sugar and black pepper. You probably won’t need salt. Pop the lid on and cook on the lowest heat for about 90 minutes – give it a stir every now and then.

When the pheasant is tender, remove the meat from the liquid. When it’s cool enough to handle pull the meat from the bones, shredding them into large chunks. Discard the bones.

Strain the liquid through a sieve into a new pan and reduce on a high heat until the sauce is richly flavoured. Mix the cornflour with a little water and add to the sauce to thicken. Return the pheasant and bubble gently for a few minutes to heat the meat through. Give it a taste and add more fish sauce, pepper or salt as you need to. Garnish with sliced spring onions and serve.

Braised pheasant

More Christmas preparations. I made this wreath! It is wonky, one side bushier than the other, and it’s showing up all the dodgy paintwork on our door, but who cares?!

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My hand-made wreath. Notice the food theme.

Radio 4 devoted an hour yesterday to discussing the high cost of living and how people are coping. Lots of talk of wearing several jumpers at once / hot water bottles / cutting back on consumer goods. So far, so wise. I work from home and try not to have the heating on too much, partly because it is horrendously expensive, but mostly because it feels so wasteful of energy. It gets c.o.l.d. though. My trusty Age UK Hypothermia Thermometer tells the story (I love this):

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Yes, it is cold

A few people on the radio said that they had started buying cheaper meat cuts, cooking up vats of stew/curry/whatever, and freezing for a later date. This I know well, there being enough food in my parent’s chest freezer to last for about a year. I have totally inherited the hoarding instinct.

So yesterday I cooked up a pheasant braise, using one bird (about £3), some home-made stock, a few veggies and leftover wine. Feeds four comfortably.

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Pheasant, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, mushrooms, wine, stock. Not pictured:  bacon, rosemary, flour, tomato puree

The only vaguely complicated thing here is chopping up the pheasant. Meat shears would be useful, but I used a knife. Game birds are not butchered so cleanly as, say, chicken and they usually need a good wash. This one still had a few maize kernels lurking inside…doesn’t bother me but perhaps isn’t for the squeamish.


Bunny pie

There’s been yet more stocking up. The other week it was game, and now it’s booze. Wine for me, beer for him. Look what the postman brought:

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Christmas booze is in

Despite appearances, I can’t actually drink that much; two glasses and I’ll be knocked out with a bad head for a couple of days (and I don’t even touch coffee). Tanners wine merchants are great as they do a serious selection of half-bottles, perfect for the wino-lightweight like me. If you like wine, go to Tanners!

Onto the food. Last night Matt tried to kill me with pie. Not just any pie: rabbit pie, topped with dumplings, then pastry, and then served with roast potatoes.

I’ll say that again: meat and gravy and dumplings wrapped in pastry and served with fried potato. Now exhale.

Our relationship has been marked by things-wrapped-in-pastry, from the high of a beef and oyster pie (Birmingham) to the nadir of the fish and chip pasty (Devon). The best sausage rolls are from Tebay services on the M6 and best Cornish pasties from a dinky little shop in St Ives. Pie is an ongoing obsession.

So bunny pie it is and this one may actually create a heart attack. It’s also a bit of a faff…but worth it.


Winter stockpiling

The countryside has been shrouded in low mist for the past few days. A weekend walk on the Malvern Hills looked like this:

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Worcester Beacon

Although it’s not properly cold yet, the shift to mist and darkness has finally set the trees on their golden turn. Driving back from Stratford to Birmingham this afternoon, the fields stretched before me in monochrome tones, dotted with sheep, the sun hanging low in the sky. We’re moving from autumn to winter: I’ve seen flocks of geese and turkeys being fattened for the Christmas roast.

But we’re not quite there yet. So at this time of year, my thoughts turn to game. With so many shoots around, it’s time to stock up the freezer – game found at this time of year will still be relatively young but leave it until February and March and the meat will be that little bit older and tougher.

I suppose I could buy my game from the supermarket, but why would I when I live an hour from Ludlow, the foodie hotspot of England? We get to have a day out, eat excellent pie and chips in a proper pub, browse in a proper book shop and support small family businesses to boot.

So off we went, and my favourite Ludlow game butcher looked like this:

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Ludlow butcher

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We came back with a brace of pheasants, a fantastic rolled loin of local venison, two rabbits (a bargain at £3 each) plus sausages, a beef shank and various squeaky-fresh veg. If only all shopping could be so satisfying. The freezer is full.

Then on arriving home – laden with cheese from the market – Matt was given a selection of cuts from the World Cheese Awards, where a girlfriend-of-a-friend had been working. The fridge is now laden with manchego, gruyere, an unidentified sheep cheese, another unidentified cheese with a port-washed rind, plus taleggio, stinky cheddar, lancashire, you name it.

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Goodies from the World Cheese Awards

I am not entirely sure what I will do with this cheese mountain, but it does mean that there is no need to do any more shopping for days. Wonderful.