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).

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.