As I write, we are starting the first full week of Lock Down 3, coming hot on the heels of and not much different from Tier 4. Like so many freelancers, I am struggling with my accounts for the financial year and have just come off the phone after one of those draining sessions with my long-suffering accountant trying to guide me through the tedium. My head, though, throughout the conversation, has been mentally making marmalade downstairs in the kitchen, where I have two big bags of Seville oranges, sugar, lemons and a stash of jam jars waiting my pleasure. I feel a bit like Beth Harman as she conjured her chessboard in Queen’s Gambit (a must watch Netflix mini-series). Since I last wrote, I have been cooking every day, making soups, stews and lots of cheese on toast (not to mention all the Festive food) but have been very slothful about writing them up. So, I will start here and hope you will bear with me as I work backward. Today, the B and I were supposed to be coming to the end of spending a relaxing post-Christmas week reading, walking and generally chilling in a rental in the wilds of Chippenham. Instead, we are here feeling a bit lame and depressed. The news is more gloom and doom, extra big portions of it with rumours of another lockdown, even more restricting than Tier 4 we have been living through.
Sunday night is often roast chicken with all the trimmings and despite the fact that we are only just finished the Christmas turkey (actually half turkey; my big bronze bird intended for a family meal was happily sliced in half down the breast by my wonderful butcher (www.mackenbrothers.co.uk) so I could give half to my son and his family). There is something so enduringly delicious about this meal: bread sauce, sprouts, roast potatoes cooked in goose fat, maybe a few sausages and scraps of bacon added at the end of roasting the potatoes. This time, though, we’re having roast pheasant. A few years ago now, soon after my eldest son married, I’ve been lucky enough to receive a Christmas brace of pheasant from his parents-in-law. The live in Wiltshire surrounded by pheasant shoots and soon discovered that I am happy to hang, pluck and draw game birds myself. In fact, I love roast pheasant and since Mark Leatham taught me his foolproof way of ending up with juicy and tender rather than dry and dull meat, I prepare it to his instruction. Once plucked and drawn, he told me, it really helps the quality of the bird’s meat if its bagged up and frozen. I always stuff the bird/s with a handful of thyme but the important point is roasting in a small, shallow roasting tin with a couple of cups of water in a hot (200C/gas mark 6) oven. The bird is propped up on its side, roasted for 10 minutes, turned onto its other side and cooked for a further 10 minutes then finished for 10 minutes breast-upwards. The bird is rested for 10 minutes whilst the gravy is made in the tin (dusting of flour, vigorous stirring to avoid lumps, adding a spoonful of redcurrant jelly and a splash of wine. If the gravy is still lumpy, pass it through a sieve). Mark Leatham might not be a familiar name. He is the man behind Merchant Gourmet, the company he started with his brother Oliver in 1995. They cleverly isolated a number of ingredients, like cooked chestnuts, Puy lentils and wild red rice from the Camargue, were essential ingredients once we got to know them. The range has blossomed and was developed over the years but these days Mark is a farmer of sustainable rare breed meat at www.lyonshill.co.uk in Dorset.
First job, as always, after a roast bird, is stripping the bird of any leftover meat and making stock with the bones and carcass. The Christmas ham is still going strong but gets a serious battering, trimming big chunky pieces for a gratin with leeks and a Dijon mustard sauce, a breadcrumb and cheese gratinee finish. This Ham and Leek Gratin was delicious with sprouts, the last plucked from the flourishing Christmas stalk, the top-knot sprout added to the boiling water for the last couple of minutes cooking. This way of flavouring the béchamel sauce with white wine and Dijon mustard avoids the need to flavour the milk first as I’ve done in another (highly recommended) ham and leek gratin: Leek Gratin with Prosciutto.
It’s soup weather again but the cupboard is bare, save two big red peppers leftover from the laying-in-enough-food-for-a-seige Christmas food shop. I roast them with a handful of shallots and liquidize both with a pinch of saffron, spoonful of honey and chicken stock. To make more of Roast Red Pepper and Shallot Soup, I added separately poached eggs and with buttered, toasted bread (Hedone white is first choice with soup, thank you www.bayley-sage.co.uk). Supper is another foraged meal, this time hunted down from freezer and store cupboard. I find a bag of individually frozen chipolatas and a huge piece of feather steak. I defrost both and turn the chipolatas into what turned into one of those heartening meals-in-a-bowl with French white beans, plenty of onions and herbs and carrots on the side. If I’d had some sprouts, I would have served them with Chipolata and White Bean Hash but carrots were a perfect alternative.
Made soup with the last of my root veg; carrots, parsnips and a couple of potatoes, livening up a big, chunky soup with a hint of curry with garam masala as I couldn’t find my curry powder. The soup was a symphony of chunky, soft veg all merging into a thick, creamy liquid tinged with yellow, the beigeness lifted by a good handful of chopped coriander. I also did a beef version of a wonderful lamb shank stew with red onions, red wine and balsamic vinegar from the first River Café book (Blue). I cut 6 big pieces from the giant slab of feather blade steak I’d bought months ago at the Farmer’s Market and forgotten, found buried at the back of my kitchen freezer (I have a second larger, deeper one in the garden shed and dread to think what lies hidden there). Slowly defrosted, I cooked it gently all afternoon, left in the cooling oven overnight, re-heated and served it with very buttery, soft, fluffy mash and boiled white cabbage tossed with butter, lemon juice and freshly grated nutmeg. Slow-cooked Feather Steak with Balsamico could be made with other skirt steak or big pieces of stewing steak such as chuck (my favourite). Buried, incidentally, is a quasi culinary term that means meat-hidden-in-a-mass-of-sliced-onion, this time red onion. The cooking smells are extraordinarily tempting.
Leftovers from yesterday’s curried vegetable soup were even better today and Slow-cooked Feather Steak with Balsamico, served with buttered white cabbage with nutmeg and fluffy mash was sublime.
I kept back a small piece of feather steak to have tonight with chips. There wasn’t really enough for two, so surrounded the sliced steak with big, meaty mushrooms fried in olive oil with garlic and parsley. With M&S thrice cooked oven chips and Dijon mustard, this was heaven.
Fished out the Salmon and Dill Fish Pie I’d stashed in the freezer last week and jolly welcome it was too. A no-work, take-out dinner, perfect with peas also from the freezer.