Monday, 11 October 2010

Watch the pigeon!

Back in another lifetime, when R and I were still living in West Yorkshire, we had a chance conversation in the pub with a friend of a friend. Dave enjoyed hunting, but his family were not very interested in eating what he shot, so he usually ended up feeding the game to his dog. We both expressed horror at this situation and said that we would be delighted to buy any surplus from him.

And so began our education on the topic of cooking and eating game.

Throughout the season, almost every Sunday afternoon we would come home to find something hanging from the door handle. A brace of pheasant. A bagful of wood pigeons. Half a dozen rabbits. Or, best of all, a hare or a couple of woodcock.

The first time this happened, we discovered a brace of pheasant outside the door. Complete with feathers, insides and the like. We both stared at them for a few minutes - while logically we knew that just-shot birds came with all the aforementioned, I think we had both fondly imagined that the feathers would just drop off automatically! So we stared at them for a little longer and then boldly decided to hang them in the cellar for a bit.

I am not keen on very high game so after a couple of days I decided that Something Had To Be Done. R came home from work that day to find me sitting in the (empty) bath, having donned a pair of Marigold gloves, plucking away surrounded by a sea of feathers and wearing my best Margo Ledbetter face! Eventually I handed the now-denuded bird to him and announced that he could do the rest.

Armed with my well-thumbed copy of John Seymour's Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency, we squinted over the pictures and tried to match them with the bird in R's hand. It probably took half an hour or more to finally prepare the first pheasant for eating, but we got there eventually. And so we established the division of labour that we retained until he died - I would remove the fur or feathers and cook the beast. R would do the squelchy hand-up-the-critter's-nether-regions bit.
That suited me fine.

We often received wood pigeons. In the UK they are classed as vermin, so there is no closed season for them. The first time, I foolishly sat and plucked the entire bird. Fortunately this doesn't take very long with a pigeon, but I quickly realised that the only bit on a pigeon that is worth eating is the breast, and you can simply pull the skin back and remove the meat.

Last weekend I was in the fishmonger's shop and he had a nice selection of game for sale.

Nope. I don't understand either why game should be sold by the fishmonger, rather than the butcher, but that is often the case here. And this weekend he had some nice-looking wood pigeon.

As someone else had done the messy plucking and evisceration part, I bought a couple, froze one and removed the breasts from the other. There really isn't anything else on a pigeon that is worth eating as the legs and wings are unpalatably bitter, but the carcase makes a great stock.

So, what to have with it?
The garden is starting to run down now. The only likely candidates I could find were leeks, the last of the courgettes and some peppers in the greenhouse.

But those three form the base for a very good risotto, particularly the Tromba d'Albenga courgettes which are rather more substantial than the average courgette and can stand up to cooking for a half hour or so.

Thereafter it was simple.
Cook the risotto. Heat up some butter in a frying pan and quickly sear the pigeon breasts. Two minutes on either side is enough. Remove to a warm plate for a few minutes while you add some of this year's favourite ingredient - sloe gin - to bubble away until reduced to give a small amount of a slightly sticky sauce.

Then simply assemble.
A portion of risotto. Sprinkle on some chopped parsley. Slice the pigeon breast and place on top, then pour over the reduced sauce. That's it.
This isn't a risotto that needs parmesan cheese.

Monday, 13 September 2010


When you raise most of your own meat there are some things that are a rare treat. Perhaps surprisingly it is not the choice pieces of fillet or the best roasting joints.

No, the pieces that I eke out in the freezer for as long as I can are the offal. You can get several leg roasts from a sheep, but there are only ever two kidneys, for example.

Each one comes nestled in its little bed of suet. One day I shall risk roasting them as is, but out of deference to my arteries, perhaps not yet.

R loved them too. He would be transported into a reverie of delight at the memory of a plate of brochettes de rognons d'agneau (kidney skewers cooked on a charcoal grill) that he had in a restaurant in Tours many years ago. Steak and kidney pie inevitably gave rise to the complaint of too much steak and not enough kidney.

So this was a potential bone of contention given the tiny harvest.

A problem I surmounted by the simple expedient of eating them while he was away working, secure in the knowledge that he had no real idea of what there was in the freezer!

The two tiny kidneys that I found in the freezer the other day would scarcely fill a skewer, however, and they would be lost altogether in a pie.

They would therefore need a companion to make a successful supper dish, and what better than some home-cured bacon. Just an ounce or two would be enough along with some field mushrooms.

So, fry the diced bacon until the fat starts to run, then soften half a small, chopped red onion with a clove of garlic. Turn the heat up high and add the chopped kidneys and mushrooms. After a couple of minutes when the kidneys are browned nicely, deglaze the pan with a good splosh of sloe gin (marsala would be good too, or red wine with a teaspoon redcurrant or other fruit jelly to add a little sweetness). Turn the heat back down again and simmer gently until the kidneys are cooked through but still slightly pink (add a little boiling water if the pan contents start to stick). Season to taste and serve with plain-cooked butter beans. Top with a small handful of parsley if you have it.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Mix and match

At this time of year, my first port of call when deciding what to eat is the garden. First find out what is ready for picking and then work out what to have with it. As a general principle this works well, but every now and again the vegetables ready to be eaten are not happy bedfellows at first glance.

Broad beans are one of my favourite vegetables. I like them at every stage - from the tiny underdeveloped beans in their fluffy pods that can be eaten without shelling right through to the mealy giants that somehow escaped picking, but nevertheless can play a starring role in a vivid green dip.

I rather overdid the planting this year. As the early sowing season went a little awry, I bought a couple of dozen plants from a roadside stand, rather than growing them from seed myself. When I got them home, I found that they were actually a dwarf variety called The Sutton which only grows to about 15 inches high. This sent me into a bit of a flap as I was worried that they wouldn't be very productive. As broad beans are one of the few vegetables that I freeze in any quantity, I made another sowing of a normal-sized variety just to be on the safe side. But Sutton has been incredibly productive and I have been picking, podding, eating, blanching and freezing broad beans nearly every day for the last couple of months. And now the second sowing has come onstream! The pigs are happy though, as they love tucking in to the crunchy pods.

The other star waiting to be photographed this week was the cavolo nero. Back in the days when we had an organic veg box every week I remember finding this a troublesome vegetable. I don't know whether it was the variety or the way I cooked it, but we always found it rather bitter and unappetising.

A couple of years ago my sister offered me some plants, so I decided to give it another go as it is one of the winter-hardy brassicas. Unfortunately cavolo nero proved to be the chickens' no. 1 favourite vegetable ever - they pecked the poor plants to stalks in very short order.

This year the chickens are well and truly locked up and are no longer able to take their toll of my veg beds, so I decided to give this Tuscan kale another try. And it has grown beautifully. The problem today was to find a way to pair it up with another wave of broad beans. Ribollita would be the obvious answer, but it wasn't a soup sort of day. A bit of google fu came up with cavolo nero con le fette, or bruschetta with kale. It was such an unlikely-sounding proposition that it just had to be given a try.

The cavolo nero was still quite young and probably didn't actually need de-ribbing, but all the authorities seemed to think this necessary and for once I followed their advice. I put the chopped leaves to simmer gently for about 20 minutes. This is much longer than I would normally cook kale or cabbage and it felt slightly wrong to do it, but the resulting leaves were beautifully non-bitter, which probably explains why my attempts at cooking it years ago were so unsuccessful.

While it was cooking I podded the broad beans and steamed them for a couple of minutes until the skins started to loosen. Removing the skins is indeed a faff and such a labour of love that I tend, selfishly, to only do it for someone who will appreciate the effort. Generally myself! The vivid inner beans went into the blender with some salt and pepper, chopped mint and a little olive oil. A quick pulse was enough as a purée isn't what is needed here.

The rest is simple self-assembly. Slice some crusty bread and toast it. Rub the slices with half a clove of garlic. Drain the kale, spoon generously onto half of the bread and season. Do the same with the broad bean mix. Drizzle very lightly with a little posh olive oil and sprinkle with a few slivers of air-dried ham. Both of the bruschetta toppings worked surprisingly well, particularly the kale which had a depth of flavour that belied its humble origins.

Monday, 12 July 2010

After the lettuce has bolted

One advantage of living in a place that is rarely hot and dry for any length of time is that green leafy crops stand well in the ground. I am still finishing off the first sowing of lettuces made back in early April. Conventional gardening wisdom is to sow a few seeds every couple of weeks, but I find that three (or at most four) outdoor sowings of saladings is usually sufficient for the whole season. And that applied even when there were two of us here to eat them.

But even under my cool, damp conditions they do eventually bolt. My chickens don't appear very interested in them, and I am a little reluctant to give the pigs too much lettuce. I am sure they would happily demolish the lot, but I am not sure the effect it would have on their, admittedly none-too-delicate, digestions while they are still quite young. It is certainly a waste to throw it straight onto the compost heap. So what to do?

Lettuce is not an obvious ingredient for hot dishes, with one or two notable exceptions. I sometimes use a few chopped leaves if I am short of green stuff for noodle soup, and braised peas and lettuce is a lovely way to make use of peas that escaped being picked while young and tender and have turned a little mealy.

Sadly there is no excess of peas, either fresh or mealy, in my garden this year. I have made several sowings - both directly into the ground and in lengths of guttering indoors - using older and freshly-bought seed. In return I have had about half a dozen pea plants. A complete disaster that I am at a loss to explain.

There were some shop-bought peas in the freezer, however, which gave me the idea of making a soupy version of the braised lettuce. I simply softened a couple of chopped shallots in a little butter (and I think it does have to be butter here, rather than oil), and threw in a couple of handfuls of frozen peas, the washed and shredded lettuce and a nice sprig of mint. I then waited for the mountain of lettuce to subside a little before pouring in some vegetable stock (in this case the liquid saved from cooking chick peas, which makes a very serviceable and savoury stock). This was simply simmered for ten minutes or so, seasoned and then attacked with the hand blender until smooth.

I was very pleased with the result. The slight bitterness from the lettuce contrasts beautifully with the sweetness of the peas, while the hint of mint gives the whole soup a satisfying depth of flavour. I did think of adding a little cream, but in the end didn't think it needed it.

All in all a happy end for something that originally looked destined for the compost heap!

Monday, 5 July 2010


Rhiwbob is the Welsh spelling of rhubarb. It is pronounced rhee-you-bob and is a word that always makes me smile when I see it.

This weekend I harvested the last few sticks I wanted from the plants. A few sticks were chopped up and frozen as is for making crumbles later on in the year, but most of it was rendered down in the oven with some sugar and crystallised ginger. This I use as a topping for my breakfast oats. It has been a good year so, with any luck, the tubs of frozen rhubarb will last me until the apples come on stream.

I have no idea what variety of rhubarb it is. All I know is that it is robust, flavoursome and prolific. Very prolific!

R was given the original roots by a work colleague. Chris and his family had a 10-acre farm near the coast, and it was a place we loved to visit whenever we could. I think it was there that R realised that smallholding was something ordinary people like us could do, and I often wonder if we would have found our way to Wales and our little place on the hill if it hadn't been for those visits.

The resulting rhubarb plants certainly love it here, helped along with a generous helping of well-rotted stable manure every winter. The received wisdom about growing rhubarb is that you shouldn't let it flower, as that will weaken the plants. I think that is nonsense. I have been letting these plants go to flower and then seed every year for seven years. The massive flower spikes are so dramatic and exotic-looking that I always look forward to them in the Spring. I have certainly not noticed any fall-off in stalk production, fortified as the plants are with their generous top-dressing of manure.

As the oven was on already for stewing most of the stalks, I decided to make a batch of my favourite rhubarb and walnut muffins. Made with wholemeal flour, freshly-laid egg, rhubarb and nuts, these delightfully moist and sticky buns feel almost healthy. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how to make muffins, but the recipe I use is similar to this one by Nigella, although I use about half the quantity of rhubarb, don't use cinnamon and do add chopped walnut pieces.

They also freeze and defrost beautifully, so I don't have to worry about eating up a dozen muffins in the next 24 hours!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Woodland poultry

Weird-looking critter, isn't it?

I have had my eye on this chicken of the woods for a couple of weeks now. I decided not to risk leaving it until I got back from my holiday; it rained here for most of the time I was away and I was a little worried about losing it to slugs. Or worse still, to another mushroom hunter!

Chicken of the woods is a wonderfully dense, solid mushroom. It doesn't take on a slimy texture when heated, and really shines in situations that call for diced or sliced chicken, particularly when cooked gently in a sauce.

I may be looking in all the wrong places, but it doesn't seem to do well here. There have been a few down in the valley, but those have been growing on trees in fields I have driven past and don't have permission to forage in. More's the pity.

Ironically I saw a beautiful one on a tree this week as I was walking along the bank of the Spree in Berlin. But it was quite high up and I was wearing my respectable clothes... And sadly the rest of the party probably wouldn't have understood my excitement either!

It has been warm today, so I wasn't looking for a heavy pasta and sauce sort of supper, nor a substantial stew. But I did buy a couple of nice big aubergines at the greengrocer this morning with a view to making moutabal, and they suggested the perfect solution.


Cut the aubergine into slices roughly 1 cm thick. Brush them lightly with oil and grill under quite a high heat on both sides until browned and softened.
Meanwhile chop and soften a shallot and some chopped garlic in a little oil. Throw in some chopped pepper as well perhaps, then add the diced mushroom along with some fresh marjoram or oregano. When the mushroom cubes have softened a little, pour in some of the now-dwindling stock of passata from the freezer and simmer until the liquid has reduced and thickened.

Ladle generously onto the aubergine slices, top with olives, sliced tomatoes or whatever else takes your fancy and add a little grated cheese (in my case parmesan, as that was all there was in the fridge).

Grill until the cheese is bubbling, then allow to cool just a little before eating.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

This week we shall mainly be eating...

... leeks!

I couldn't wait any longer. They were still occupying the bed that I have earmarked for the beans this year, so they had to come out this weekend. The biggest ones are probably only fit for making stock, but there are still enough for several meals there. I'm not sure yet what to do with the middling leeks, but the babies need to be enjoyed quickly.

Way back when, in the days when my garden was the tiny back yard of a terraced house in Manchester, and I could only dream of a proper veg patch rather than a couple of dozen pots, a South-facing windowsill and a cold frame, I had a book entitled, "The Weekend Gardener", or something like that. It gave fortnightly lists of jobs to do in the garden, most of which didn't apply to me due to lack of garden. But the entry I liked most over the Summer months was "Eat at least one meal a week outside", and it is something R and I always tried to do whenever the sun was out.

The window of opportunity for doing that here is very short, so it is even more important to make the most of the sunshine.
R's parents gave us the table when we moved here. During the Summer it lives under the big sycamore tree in the rather grandly-titled "orchard". This was where we would shell peas and beans together, share a glass of wine when he arrived back after a week away and, after a weekend of work outside, would just sit with our tired bodies and watch the sun go down over the hill, kept company by the ever-busy swallows and house martens, while we waited for the bats to make their entrance, signalling a change in temperature and time to go indoors.

I firmly believe in the principle that the better the food, the less you need to do with it.
A handful of peas picked, shelled and eaten in the vegetable garden tastes better than just about any dish that can be cooked with them. A perfectly-ripe strawberry picked with the early morning sun on it just cannot be imitated by any supermarket's Finest range. And a new-laid egg still warm from the nest box makes a poached egg that most top chefs would be hard-placed to beat.

So, for a Summer lunch take a bunch of asparagus from the farm shop, the final few broad beans from the freezer (after removing their dull grey coats to reveal the vivid green kernels) and some just-picked baby leeks. Steam until just tender. Perhaps add a little freshly-ground salt and pepper, and just enough butter to make everything pleasingly glossy. Poach the eggs discovered in the nest box this morning and attempt to place them attractively on top. Carry outside and eat in the warm sunshine.
The shop-bought apple and tomatoes add a sour note of commercial realism to the picture, but perhaps the home-made elderflower cordial mitigates this a little.