Sunday, 24 November 2013

Bonkers British Puddings and Stir Up Sunday - South Shropshire Journal 22/11/13

This weekend gives us Stir-up Sunday, when traditionally it is permitted for us to start getting enthusiastic about Christmas. This is the last Sunday before Advent and in the Book of Common Prayer it says somewhere, something about “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord…plenteously bringing forth fruits of good work.” And if it’s in the Book of Common Prayer, it’s legit in my book (my book is inscribed at the front: “To Kenneth J. Mackley, Easter 1925”, as if proof were needed that I’m a God-fearing fellow who researches these columns scrupulously).

Anyway, on Stir-up Sunday, you stir and steam your Christmas puds, and it makes sense to do this five weeks before the Big Day. Christmas puddings need time to sit and fizz and brew, so that by the 25th December, just after the Queen’s speech it will arrive at the table alight and crackling with holly, and everyone is far too full to eat another of mouthful of anything. Still, it was a nice thought.

Whether it gets eaten or not, it’s good to stir pud this Sunday. As a Christmas pudding steams away on the hob, your house stops being four walls and a mortgage, and becomes homelier than ever. The smells of spices, rich fruit and citrus peel, and the kitchen windows fugged with condensation takes me back to being small, when everything was right with the world. Rose-tinted nostalgia is as integral to my Christmas as the John Lewis advert and the Nativity itself.

There’s something simply splendid about our old puddings: their lore, legacies and latent lunacy. I mean, where else in the world would a whole day be earmarked for stirring currants and eggs?

At work the other day (the Ludlow Food Centre where incidentally they make a glorious Christmas Pudding should the idea of making one’s own be too onerous) we set about creating Lord Randall’s pudding, a marvellous steamed sponge spiked with bitter marmalade and sweetened with apricots. But were we able to find out who Lord Randall was? Were we heck as like. I suspect he was a caddish philanderer of some sort, afflicted with dead man’s leg and spotted Dick, which he caught from Apple Charlotte. Although I’ll wager that Brown Betty, and Eve got involved too. HRH the Queen of Puddings of course was not inculpable, but sources (sauces?) tell me she was boating on a Sussex pond that day, so we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not particularly sweet-toothed, but there is such soothing and solace to be found in the sugary and stodgy old favourites. Make time for your pudding this Stir-up Sunday and escape the commercial claptrap, just temporarily, with a wooden spoon. The time Dear Readers, for figgy pudding, is now.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Beans: a Pulsation Situation (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 15/11/13

There are certain, staple items that can always be found in my kitchen cupboards. Things that I cannot, and God-willing, will not ever do without. At the more – shall we say, aspirational – end of the spectrum there will be: good olive oil, tinned anchovies (always Ortiz), Maldon sea salt (or the most excellent Halen Môn), fish sauce, preserved lemons and numerous other tinky-winky jars, tins and packets.

But, at the other end, I’ve got to have proper tea bags (I’ve always thought the term ‘builder’s’ somewhat derogative – what about plumbers and sparkies?), Bisto, OXO cubes, and Heinz baked beans. Hell will freeze over before I have supermarket own-brand beanz in my cupboardz, because the real stuff is just the best, right?

Yes, up to a point. Those beans all sweet, salty, sort of tomatoey, and straight from a tin go well on buttered toast. So yummy, especially if there’s Marmite underneath and grated cheese above. No substitute.

Your own baked beans will be different but better, because they will have taken you a good 24 hours to prepare. Your baked beans will involve overnight soaking, braising a pigs’ trotter, reducing several kilos of tomatoes to a hundredth of their original weight, a lot of patience and a whole lot of love.

You’ll do well to keep some beans in your larder be they in tins, or dried. And if like me, you’re slightly broke and a lot inventive, you’ll find a place for the pulse. It’s at this time of year particularly that this mealy genre comes into its own, helping to keep the cold out and the warmth in. Beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on add starchy volume and thickness to soups, stews and braises of all sorts. Over time they suck up the flavours of whatever it that they’re sharing a pot and become melty and tender.

For so long pulses were the vegan preserve of the Cranks generation and beardy wholefood shops, and indeed they are essential in many meat-free dishes. One of my all time favourite things to eat is a well-made dhal, and all manner of vegetarian Gujarati dishes in particular involving musty mung beans, black-eyed peas and the like. But pulses in my kitchen come alive when slow cooked with cheaper bits of meat. From ham and split pea soups (particularly the London Particular) to fruity and heavily spiced lamb tagines bulked with chickpeas, to the baked beans mentioned above.

Make pulses the backbone of your winter diet and yes, things are likely to get windy, but this is a small price to pay for warmth, comfort, and tasty thrift. One day, I may get given a recipe column and I’ll reveal in minute detail how to prepare my trotter-beans. In the meantime play around, and get your finger (or chops) right on the pulse. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Pluckin' Pleasant Pheasant (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 8/11/13

One evening last week I arrived home after work to find a brace of pheasants hanging from my knocker. A young cock and an old hen. I’ll take that, happily. When autumn happens it happens all at once, so three weeks ago I did game birds, a fortnight ago pumpkins, last week quinces, and now I’m back on birds. There’s a lot happening right now, so go with it.

Over the knocker hung these birds, but the weather was warm. They were shot on Saturday, it was Wednesday, and a few flies were starting to take an interest. I’m something of an expert at ageing game. Beat an old bird that’s hanging on your doorstep, firmly on its chest. If a fly or two flies out from the beak, it’s time to get pluckin’. In fact, you probably should have done it yesterday. If its body falls clean from its head – forget about it.

What I anticipate more than the gift of free pheasies is an invitation to go and shoot them. The pursuit of animals as sport is controversial; I know this, so spare me the lecture. I don’t bullfight, badger-bait, cockfight, foxhunt, or coarse fish (In my mind an abomination). I enjoy however – along with thousands of others in this county - the sport of pheasant shooting.

Trudging through countryside often off-limits for most of the year, drunk as a tree on sloe gin at 11.00am, and waiting silently on a peg with feet in frost, mud or dew, I relish a day in the shooting field. The only sound comes from the panting of gundogs, until the distant clacking, whooping, and whistling of the beating line draws closer. Some of the birds, bred for sport – but more importantly to me – the pot, will fly high and clever and live to see another day.

Many will not. And I’m fine with this. In fact I’m more than fine with this. Having pulled the trigger, and been responsible for ending a creature’s life be it a pheasant, woodcock, snipe, rabbit – whatever ends up in the bag on that day – I derive a greater pleasure when it comes to the eating. However sozzled on fruity moonshine I might be at the moment of dispatch, the killing of an animal is an act I consider with a sober and respectful mind.

Throughout the shooting season I’ll become more adventurous, racy and experimental with any game that comes my way. This first brace got the gentle treatment. Plucked and trussed, their breasts protected with very fat bacon, they were roasted high and hard. Served with fried apples, tiny duck-fatty roast potatoes, and wine enriched pheasant juices, this was a supper to whet the appetite for what is to come over the darkening months. 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Curiously Quincy, the Naughtiest Fruit of them all (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 1/11/13

If I should die, in the moments before I draw my rattley last, I’d like to be presented with a bowl of quinces to gaze upon, sniff and stroke, before I get on my merry way to wherever it is that I’m going next. For the quince is the most pungently, eye-poppingly sensual fruit of them all.

It was a quince (so they say, although I’m not sure who was there to verify this – maybe it was Adam) that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, not an apple; Aristophanes used quinces to reference the bosom of young females; Lear’s owl and pussycat were partial, and Nigel Slater one of the greatest food-writers of our time neatly describes the quince as, “A fat cherub…here and there, patches of soft, pubescent down.”

Slice through a quince and there will be no secret as to why it was often regarded as a fertility symbol. A popular variety is the vranja, which to my mind, so prone to childishly creating puerile non-anagrams, is a word not a million miles from, well, you know…

I came home the other evening to a warm embrace of a smell, so intoxicating that it made me thankful for the gloomsome fug and damp outside. I am something of a dictator when it comes to the cooking in this house, but when my wife had been slow-roasting pork and quince for an afternoon, my control freakism went walkabout. Naked and raw, a quince exudes a subtle scent, and a coquettish smile. Exposed to the dry heat of an oven the quince grows up, throws off her clothes and the hug becomes a snog, with the promise of much more. The aroma deeply honeyed, musky, and complex; its ancient Arabian heritage is laid bare. When cooked, the quince gives up on flirting and gets stuck right in.

Quince roasted with fat pork is the most perfect culinary symbiosis. Earthy yet soft. Butch but femme. The dirtiest weekend imaginable, in a roasting tin. One of so many examples of opposites attracting, which is why the sweet, perfumed Spanish quince paste, membrillo is frequently paired with the salty-sharp and sheepy manchego cheese.

Membrillo (the Anglo version is confusingly called “quince cheese”) is easily made at home, and a tremendous way of making the most of the glut we’re experiencing at the moment. Forego the manchego cheese for the biteiest of cheddar cheese and pair it with quince cheese. Sounds ridiculous? It’s just sublime.

The quince is a proper cook’s fruit that will reward you with organoleptic joy beyond compare. But if you can’t be bothered to cook it, I urge you to just pop a few in a large bowl on your kitchen table. Find a quiet moment to gaze, sniff, and touch. Surely this is what life, in and out of the kitchen, is all about.