Thursday, April 28, 2011

Melt in the mouth slow braised pressed lamb

Slow braising lamb is not exactly rocket science. Even so, I can hardly claim it’s my own invention. I pinched the idea off a cooking show. Definitely Rupert Rowley’s idea.*

I saw through his fancy-pants cheffery at once. Past the la-di-da herb crust and caramelised onion mousse and sous vide tender loin and poached baby vegetables and aligot (cheesy mash).

A shoulder of lamb, very simply braised on the stove top and then pressed under a weight overnight. Dense, meltingly tender, rich and sticky, reheated in the strained and reduced braising liquid.

Not rocket science. Not even Michelin Starred Science. Just a perfect idea.

After placating Little Chocolate Flavoured P- with the promise of apricot frangipane pie, I commandeered her wood panelled country kitchen. Stripped of complications, glass of wine in hand, I did absolutely nothing for six hours.**

Braising is nothing new. Just time consuming.

Squishing things after they’re cooked is probably not new either. But this technique I despise in commercially produced chicken nuggets and processed hams results in a moist gelatinous and impossibly dense slab of lamb, infused with the braising stock flavours and melt in the mouth succulent.

I craved, no, coveted, this lamb ever since I witnessed it via the magic of television. Worth the wait? Oh G-d yes.

* Hairy Bikers Tour of Britain, Derbyshire Episode. The recipe for the braised and pressed shoulder is unfortunately not included on the BBC website.

** Not, strictly speaking, true. For a little while I surfed the net looking at chocolate art, and I whipped up two frangipane pies, helped Bird with the pomme de terre au gratin AKA potato bake, roasted a leg of lamb, baked some sweet potatoes, made gravy and generally made a mess

Rosemary infused braised, pressed lamb with lamb jus

Boned shoulder of lamb, approximately 1 kg (although size doesn’t matter)
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut in half
1 large brown onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 medium leek, cut into four pieces
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs rosemary
½ bottle dry red wine*
3 cups good quality beef stock (or a couple of beef bones, roasted in the oven for about an hour)
Kitchen string
Parchment paper (greaseproof paper), cut into a circle just a little larger than the saucepan, and with a 1 cm hole pinched in the centre
Fry pan and medium sized saucepan (just large enough to snuggle fit the piece of lamb)

Using kitchen string, tie the lamb up like a parcel. There is a neat way to do this that is a little like a blanket stitch and a little like a mobius strip (see this Epicurious video). Or, you could just tie it up any old way. This works too. Or ask your butcher to do it.

In a small fry pan, heat a small amount of olive oil. Add the tied lamb shoulder, turning occasionally to brown on all side.

At the same time, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the saucepan and add the vegetables and herbs. Cook on a medium to high heat, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked and starting to stick to the pan (but not burning).

When the vegetables are stating to stick, toss in half the wine and scrap around the pan to deglaze all the sticky vegetable sugars. Add the meat into the saucepans and deglaze the frying pan in the same way with the remaining wine, then tip that into the saucepan too. Add the beef stock (or bones) and add water (or wine or stock) to just the top of the meat.

Press the parchment paper onto the surface of the liquid and meat (like a second lid) and then place the lid on the saucepan. Turn the heat the lowest setting, and set to very gentle bubble away for about 5 to 6 hours. Check on it from time to time – make sure it does not dry out or burn onto the bottom of the saucepan, and gentle turn the meat over after about three hours.

When the meat is finished cooking, allow to cool slightly and then remove from the braising liquids and strain over the saucepan. Place onto clean parchment , cut the strings and discard, then wrap up like a Christmas present in the greaseproof paper. Tightly wrap this package in plastic wrap (I went several times around it all).

Place in a bake dish, then cover with another baking dish and then weight the top baking dish (I used a concrete statue of a cockerspaniel. You could use a brick). Leave overnight (food safety would probably dictate in the fridge, but I left it out on the kitchen bench).

Meanwhile, strain the braising liquid and discard the solids. Keep the liquid. That stuff is gold.

To serve: cut the lamb into neat portions. It is very dense and rich, so make them smaller than you think you might want.

In a small frying pan or shallow saucepan, heat a little olive oil and add the lamb portions. Add a few spoonfuls of braising liquid (which by now should have a lovely jelly like consistency), turn and add more liquid as it bubbles and thickens, until all sides of the lamb pieces are richly glazed. Remove the lamb ready to serve. Add addition liquid to make a sauce, heat through until thick enough.

Place lamb onto a bed of pumpkin puree, spoon over some sauce and enjoy.

* For goodness sake, only cook with wine you will drink. It doesn’t need to be great wine, but it does have to be palatable

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fire and ice: Thai beef salad

Iceberg lettuce is seriously underrated. Eclipsed by fancypants rivals, bitter raddicio and spicy rocquette and sweet mache, iceberg, to paraphrase Dame Edna, is C-O-M-M-O-N. Cheap and ordinary.

It is the lettuce of my childhood, sweet and crisp and watery.

Whilst the cuisine of the West may currently not be on speaking terms with iceberg lettuce, having swapped our childhood salads of cubed cheese and grated carrot for frissee and witlof, Asian cuisine from China to Thailand has no such prejudices.

The crunchy bowl of an iceberg lettuce leaf is irreplaceable in Chinese san choi bao. Vietnamese chả giò are dangerously moreish, crisp deep fried pastries wrapped with mint and basil in iceberg leaves.

And torn chunks of iceberg hearts, tossed with sweet ripe tomatoes and thick slices of cucumber is the perfect cooling counterpoint to the volcanic combination of raw onion and chilli in Thai beef salad.

Thai beef salad

Serves 2

300 gm of the best steak you can get.
½ iceberg lettuce
1 small Lebanese cucumber
1 punnet cherry tomatoes, halved (or 3 medium sized field tomatoes, cut into thin wedges)
½ red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup coriander leaves, torn
½ cup mint leaves, torn (English mint is fine, use Vietnamese mint if available)
½ cup Thai basil (or sweet Italian basil)
1 or 2 hot chillies
1 crushed bulb garlic
1 tsp sesame oil
Juice and rind of 2 limes
1 tbsp palm sugar (or raw sugar)
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce

Cook the steak to medium rare on a grill pan or barbeque (Make sure your steak is at room temperature when you cook it. For a thickish steak, an inch and half or so thick, cook for 4 minutes on each side).

Set aside to rest for about 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the chillies, garlic, oil, sugar, rind, half the lime juice, half the fish sauce and the soy sauce. Taste. Gradually add fish sauce and lime until the flavours balance (you want something that has ‘zing’ and a nice salty finish, without being mouth puckeringly sour or drinking sea-water salty).

Slice the steak into very thin strips. Toss through the dressing to coat and remove.

Add the lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes , onion and herbs to the dressing, toss to coat.

Pile the salad vegetables onto a plate, scatter the beef over the top, and drizzle with the dressing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rustic baked beans

I still have ham left over from Christmas.

In a characteristically excessive move, I procured a 9.7 kilo leg of beautifully cured ham for our very small Christmas gathering*, which I glazed with quince paste and cardamom and green ginger wine and lovingly studded with approximately twelve million cloves. We ate ham everyday for two weeks. And then I carved up the remaining five kilos, and packaged the slices and chunks and bones away in the freezer, dreaming of mid-winter pea-and-ham soups and ham and leek soufflés.

I don’t like waste. I ferret away kitchen scapes and old bones for stock. My freezer contains little zip lock bags of everything from stale bread crumbs to off cuts of potato and kohlrabi to a chicken carcass to prawn heads. You never know what you might need. Of course it’s frugal: throwing away food is the same as throwing away money. It’s also partly a political stance: when we waste food we are saying that the time and effort put into growing and rearing our food is disposable**. And it is so satisfying to make something delicious out of food that would otherwise be assigned to the trash.

Think of it as 3D Tetris for your tastebuds.

Ham. Diced carrot off-cuts. The first of this year’s tomato passata. Half an onion in the fridge. Celery. Celery powder. Half a bulb of fennel. Stolen rosemary. Tinned cannellini beans. Now I love baked beans. Not the sticky sweet navy-beans-in-tomato-sauce you can buy in a tin (although, to be fair, those bad boys are pretty healthy, providing you buy the low salt/low sugar brands). The old-school home-made kind, chunky and spicy and packed full of vegetables. It is my measure of a good breakfast cafe, the calibre of their ‘house-made beans’. And baked beans are precisely what the contents of my freezer suggests. All it needs it a little time to braise.

Best Christmas present ever.

* In addition to a two kilo turkey buff, and two chickens. Not to mention potato salad and zucchini and green bean salad with pangratto, and steamed carrots and four loaves of bread and roasted baby beatroots. For eight people. I have issues.

** You could argue that rather than saving money by not wasting food, we should just buy more food so that farmers are better recompensed. I say, let’s pay more money for food, thus better remunerating farmers and incentivising us consumers not to waste it. Food is way too cheap.

Rustic baked beans

1 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced 2 red chillies, minced (optional)
2 medium carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
¼ ground all spice
3 cloves
2 tsp sweet paprika
6 very ripe tomatoes, diced (or 2 cups passata or 2 tins crushed tomatoes)
Sprig rosemary. Or thyme. Or oregano. Whatever you grow/can steal.
300 gm thick chunks ham (or a bit of ham bone or smoked pork hock or similar. Or leave out, just as good).
2 tins cannellini beans (or your favourite beans, butter beans are good. So are kidney beans.)

Saute the onions, garlic and vegetables (except tomatoes) in a large heavy based saucepan until soft, this will take about ten minutes. Add the spices, toast for about 1 minute, then add the tomatoes, fresh herbs and ham.

Bring to a simmer (add as little water if a bit dry) and cook for about half an hour to an hour, until thick and all the flavours are infused. Taste, and add salt if necessary.

Gently stir through the drained tinned beans (feel free to soak dried ones over night, I just love the convenience of tinned ones) and heat through.

Finish off with masses of fresh chopped parsley and a teaspoon of powdered celery leaves.

Serve over grilled polenta or thick sourdough toast. Soft yolked organic poached egg makes this transcendent.