Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Bat Out Of Hell


Much to my joy we have recently inherited a slightly battered copper terrine tin and a very heavy and battered saucepan that you could possibly use to knock down walls or smash up garden paths with. They once belonged to my wife's Grampa Brezina who came from Czechoslovakia and was by all accounts, a bit of a gourmet. Although he never trained as a chef , apparently Grampa B was a fairly accomplished cook as he had spent most of his life in the hospitality trade and once had his very own hotel back home in Moro Ostrava called Hotel Olda, which was short for his first name, Oldrich. Which is also one of my son's middle names and was specifically chosen to ensure toughening up when he goes to school. But anyway I digress, Grampa B settled in Britain after the war having met Doris, my wife's Nana, a good strong Yorkshire lass and so began the dynasty of the only Brezina clan in England. I've heard that the relationship was a particulary tempestuous one as Grampa B was quite fond of the slivovitz and would often come home at the end of the week worse for wear, with very little money left. As a result Nana would often throw whatever was nearest to hand at him and knowing this, I can only hope that it was the terrine dish and not the sauce pan (but I think we can guess what her favourite weapon of choice was).

So having received these family heirlooms, I decided to immediately put the terrine tin to use and despite his misgivings, create a dish in Grampa B's honor. Specifically a meat terrine with perhaps some kind of Czech influence. And it was with that thought in mind that I came across a stumbling block as I really don't know that much about Czech cuisine. My wife on the other hand thinks that I know everything about eastern european cooking. You see we once went to a book signing to meet Gordon Ramsey and when old potty mouth asked what kind of food do we like cooking, she inexplicably said "Oh my husband cooks Czech" to which he replied with a fierce look in his eyes "Really?! What kind of stuff?". Cue the longest 10 seconds of my life as I murmured and stammered and sweated and finally said "um.....dumplings?". Luckily Mr Ramsey had the good grace to say "wow, that's really.....interesting". I still haven't quite forgiven my wife for that stitch-up.

But going back to the dish, I was able to get hold of a Czechslovak cookbook from my father-in-law and found a traditional recipe called "paštikové koření" which translates as 'pâté spice' and is a mixture that takes equal measures of peppercorns, allspice, ginger, thyme and bay to be ground up together, stored and used when necessary. I thought that'll do so here is my Czech inspired recipe for Grampa B, a terrine based on a hotchpotch of other ones that I have made in the past.

Pork Belly, Chicken Liver and Leek Terrine (with a Czech twist)

Serves 8-10

1kg of pork belly, rind cut off

400gms chicken livers

20 rashers of streaky bacon

2 medium leeks

1 onion

3 cloves garlic

2 tsps of paštikové koření (pâté spice)

salt and pepper


First preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Finely chop the onion and fry until soft and translucent and place in bowl to cool. Slice the leeks and also gently fry until soft and put to one side to cool.

Chop the pork belly into small pieces and blitz in a food processor until you have a coarse mixture and add to the bowl of onion. Finely chop the garlic and also add to the bowl, season with salt and pepper and then mix together by hand until everything is fully incorporated. Divide into 3 portions.

Slice the chicken livers into slivers, place in a bowl and add pâté spice and mix together. Divide into 2 portions

Grease your terrine tin or dish with butter and layer with streaky bacon, overlapping some slices over the side. A good tip is to stretch the bacon with the back of a knife to make it go further.

Spread one portion of the pork at the base as evenly as possible and then evenly the layer chicken livers on top followed by the leeks. Repeat and finish by layering the third portion of pork on top. Fold the bacon strips over and secure the lid on top.

Place in a roasting tin filled with hot water coming halfway up the terrine tin/dish and cook in the oven for 1 and half hours, test with a skewer that it is completely cooked through, it should be piping hot to the touch.

Leave to cool and then place in the fridge overnight, weighing down the lid with some cans of soup. Serve sliced into even portions with crusty bread and pickles.

The end result was very pleasing especially as I've never used chicken liver in a terrine before although I think I could have used some more of the pâté spice, the flavour was just a little bit too subtle. The pork though had plenty of garlicky punch to it and the whole thing held together well, nothing worse than tipping a terrine out onto a serving plate to see it collapse (and that's happened before). So here's to you Grampa B, keep ducking, wherever you may be.

The key ingredients
Wrapped in a piggy blanket
Cooked in Mary's dirty bathwater

I hope Grampa B would enjoy

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Sun Has Got His Hat On


Depending on how I look at it, this week's early burst of spring sunshine has been great, the shorts have come out along with the pale, hairy legs, a couple of lunchtime pints have been supped out on the pavement and yesterday, I even managed to catch a few rays sitting on my new patio having had the day off (within the hours of GTT* of course). But behind all the frivolity this kind of weather brings, there is the nagging doubt that this week could possibly be it, this year's Great British Summer. So with that in mind, I decided in the afternoon that we should have the first barbecue of the year and eat outside before May ushers in a summer of general pissiness, low grey clouds and gusts of disappointment from the east. Make hay while the sun shines and all that.

Barbecuing has been quite a love affair of mine over the years starting in my uni days. For parties, we would often knock down garden walls in whatever house we were renting to create makeshift pits with oven shelves loaded with cheap value sausages, burgers and chicken wings. In turn these were often marinated in cheap lager to keep the roaring flames down as fat rained onto the coals. From there I progressed to using the throwaway packs, at one get together we assembled 8 individual trays and everything was going swimmingly until somebody questioned the reliability of a wooden table as a surface. Again cheap lager came to the rescue. Over the last few years, I've come to rely on the easy to assemble kits (yeah right!) that you get from diy stores which are great and do the job well over a summer period but come next spring are found to be collapsed in a rusty heap at the bottom of the garden. Soon it will be time to build a brick barbecue proper but for last night's effort, I wheeled out old "Betty" and I reckon I could get a couple more blazes out of her before her bottom falls out.

Betty has actually been the best of the bunch so far with it's kettle lid which has enabled me to roast as well as barbecue, chicken in particular gains a delicious smoked flavour. I also once cooked some pork belly using the indirect heat technique which came out fantastic, rubbed with oil and some Chinese five-spice, it was so tender and succulent. As it was just the two of us last night, I didn't go in for anything quite so ambitious, just plain barbecuing. So once the flames had died down and the coals had whitened up, I laid down some parboiled new potatoes wrapped in foil which had been coated in olive oil, balasmic vinegar and rosemary to get things under way. By way of a little appetizer, we kicked off with the cheese of the moment, grilled halloumi with Delia's magic dressing and pitta. I've made this time and time again and I can confidently say that Mrs Smith's piquant green sauce is so chin-dribblingly good, you could kiss her on the lips for dreaming it up (except you wouldn't because that would be like kissing your mum).

Once that was out the way it was time to get the chicken thighs on which had been marinating in chopped preserved lemon (homemade) and the Moorish skewers. I am indebted to Moro for inspiring these kebabs made from tenderised pork loin and marinated in a combination of garlic, sweet paprika, coriander, fennel, cumin, olive oil, red wine vinegar and finely chopped bay leaf. It can be sometimes tricky cooking meat on a barbecue when considering timings and making sure everything is cooked through, especially poultry so with the thought of the galloping trots running through my mind, I kept scrutinising the chicken over and over again. Unfortunately plans to eat al fresco were undone by this over zealousness, I kind of forgot that nights still draw in early at this time of year so we had to retire inside to finish eating our feast but at least we could then keep the bugs from dive bombing the Turkish salad. Again this is another Moro stalwart (I do have more than one cook book by the way) - finely chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion, pepper, parsley, coriander, lemon and olive oil, topped with Greek yogurt, caramelised butter and chilli flakes.

So how did everything fare? The Moorish skewers as always were lightly spicy with a lovely sweet smokiness in the background and very tender, which is not surprising as I bashed the bejesus out of the pork beforehand. The chicken didn't pick up much of the flavour of the lemon but the extra salt from the preserve gave the skin a nice crispy smack and the flesh was still fairly moist. I was very happy with the potatoes, they were cooked just right and the balsamic gave them a nice glaze. The Turkish salad resembled tabbouleh in the end as I'd thrown in so much parsley but that's not such a bad thing, always good to have something fresh and crunchy with grilled meat. All in all it was a good start to the barbecuing season. As I sat at the table after finishing my plate and the last of the wine, it got me thinking about other things I could try this out this year, I haven't done much in the way of fish on Betty for instance. And it was with that thought I looked out of the window and saw her, standing there, still aglow and with a funny kind of sadness, I pondered to myself "I wonder how much longer she's got left?".

Grilled Halloumi with Coriander, Lime and Caper Dressing

Turkish Salad with Greek Yoghurt, Caramelised Butter and Chilli Flakes

Moro's Moorish Skewers, Chicken in Preserved Lemon and Rosemary Potatoes (in foil)

Feeding time

* Ginger Tanning Time, only expose to sun before 11am and after 3pm

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Allotments Against Terrorism

I have stated in the strap line of my blog that I am an allotmenteer which to some may conjure up the image that I belong to a strike force of volunteer horticulturalists not too dissimilar to the boy scouts. Need to know when your earlies will be ready, how to stop cabbage white fly or cotton root rot, whether you can throw citrus waste in your compost or how to stop badgers from nibbling your corn crop? Have no fear the Allotmenteers are here, we are here to help!

Actually all it means is that I have an allotment and have rudimentary knowledge of how to grow vegetables and a little bit of fruit, if you ever are looking for proper advice or expertise then ask this man. I was lucky enough to get our one 3 years ago, having made a phone-call and a visit to the site, which is five minutes away from our house, to have a quick chat with a man named Bert. Clever man was Bert, who I found out later was the allotment warden, as he spent some time showing me around the place, explaining the rules and regulations, how much the fees would be and where you could get manure from before stopping off at his prize plot. He stooped down by his strawberry plants, plucked off a couple of big red juicy ones and rinsed them under a nearby tap. "Try one of these, much better than the rubber ones you get at the supermarket" he said and he wasn't wrong, it was amazingly juicy and tasted beautiful. Bert then showed me the plot that was available which was huge and resembled a jungle with a monstrous bramble bush at it's centre."That's the last one left" he said. "Ah that looks like a lot of work" I replied but of course I was already hooked, thinking of it's potential with all the lovely things I could grow, like potatoes and stuff. So I signed up there and then, and then called my Dad (who exclaimed "f**ing hell" when he saw it) and so it began, a summer of profuse sweating, swearing and sore backs.

We are two and a half years down the line now and the principles of that first summertime effort still applies, keeping an allotment is bloody hard work and it is very time consuming. As such the plot hasn't quite come up to it's full potential but I can happily state that the vegetables that we have cultivated have always tasted ten times better than what you could get at the supermarket. I do sometimes wonder if this is psychosomatic but still the aforementioned potatoes dug straight from the ground and plainly boiled are just so much more creamier than their plastic wrapped counterparts which is why we will gladly slog our guts out with a fork and spade. From this season on though we are going to try and do things a bit differently ie. keep on top of things and not break our backs every four weeks. The whole patch has been rotavated, the spuds are in the ground and we have varieties of cabbage, beans, courgettes, tomatoes, sweetcorn, spinach, peas, onions ready to go in. The fruit patch is fairly well established with bushes containing raspberries, gooseberries, redcurrant, white currant, figs and rhubarb (except that's a vegetable isn't it?), plus we're putting in some strawberries. Good times lie ahead on the cooking front and I'll be writing more in this blog about the allotment and the produce we get so ideas and suggestions will be appreciated.

Alas Bert isn't with us anymore but with this new found enthusiasm, I reckon the old boys he left in his place as wardens aren't going to know what's hit them this summer. Or will they? Recent events suggest that they are far more on top of the game than I give them credit for for and probably far more than Bert had ever intended. Perhaps before I go any further that I should explain that as with any well run gardening society, our allotment has a committee to regulate the rules and regulations that are needed to run the running of an allotment. The most recent motion passed by the committee was to change the lock on the front gate and install a sign that the gate needed to be LOCKED AND SHUT AT ALL TIMES. "Oh no, so what we've been getting our veg pinched then?" I thought. But on investigation, it seems that the main reason had been "to prevent terrorists from stealing fertiliser from the main shed, we'd read reports in the paper that Al-Qaeda are raiding allotments to create bombs".

May I just say I think this is fantastic, Captain Mainwaring and his gang are alive and well.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Bread of Heaven

So after weeks of feeding, peering, sniffing, tasting and head scratching, the day of reckoning had come, it was finally time use my starter to bake some sourdough bread and see if all the effort had been worthwhile. The process of the baking according to St Sam and Sam is laborious in itself, taking 3 stages of preparation and roughly 18 hours from to start finish and it was during this last drawn out stretch, that the doubts began to creep back in.

The first stage takes place the night before, you have to take 450gms of strong white flour, 700mls of water and 250gms of your sourdough starter, mix it together in a bowl until smooth, cover and then leave until morning. Funnily enough that night I dreamt that I was in a huge supermarket where the only thing sold was bags and bags of flour, row upon row, aisle after aisle. I've read that dreaming of flour denotes a frugal but happy life so perhaps it was a good omen although f you buy the stuff in your dreams then apparently its a sign of an approaching illness. I can't remember going through the checkout though so I think we were going to be safe.

In the morning you proceed to the second stage where hopefully the mixture will have risen a little bit and yes mine did so we were on track. Adding a further 450gms of white flour and mixing in 3 teaspoons of fine sea salt you then beat the dough with your hands for 5-10mins until it becomes smooth and elastic. Recalling a free dvd pinched from a food magazine years ago, I went for the Richard Bertinet method of kneading where you lift the dough mixture with your fingers, flip and slam it back down and repeat. I'm not sure if it was entirely necessary and it is a noisy way of doing things especially at 6:30 in the morning but I wanted to ensure that I got as much air within the dough as possible. Leave for 10 mins and then give it another pummelling, after which you divide the dough and fill two oiled loaf tins (in my case one loaf tin, one casserole pot) just over the half way mark and dust with flour. Cover the tins with tea-towels and then leave for 3-5 hours to prove, depending on the room temperature and activity of the starter the dough should rise to just over the top. It was shortly after this point that my headache started.

After an hour, I had a quick peek under the towels and saw that nothing had happened, the dough was just sitting there, flat and lifeless. I thought that perhaps it wasn't warm enough so I switched the oven on then I checked half an hour later, still nothing so I turned up the floor heating we are lucky to have in the kitchen. 10 minutes later, still nothing so I turned on the main central heating. 5 mins later, nada, nothing, zilch , zero so I closed the kitchen window. At this point I also decided that to keep continuing to check on the bloody thing was going to drive me up the wall so I popped out on an errand. When I got back after about an hour, I checked again and finally success, the dough was rising. My wife was milling about stripped to her underwear and the babies were sitting around just in their nappies but bloody hell, yes the dough was rising! I left it for the full 5 hours in the end and perhaps it could have risen a bit more but it was light and springy to the touch.

So at stage 3, off the tins went into the oven, heated to 230 degrees centigrade, to be left alone for 30 minutes. After that time is up, the loaves can be taken out of the tins and baked for a further 10 minutes or so to form a nice brown crust. The loaves are then to be left to cool completely, the temptation to carve a slice off when bread has just come out of the oven is always great for me but I managed to resist. The end result? Well St Sam and Sam mention that if the bread has split or cracked in anyway then it hasn't proved enough and mine had but for a first attempt in terms of taste I was very happy. The crust had a nice crunch and the bread was moist and definitely moreish with that distinctive tang. There's still room for improvement, especially when proving as it was a little too heavy in texture, the starter could do with a boost maybe and I could also reduce the salt slightly but with time and tweaking I think I can only get better at baking sourdough. It's just simply satisfying to eat something that you have taken time and care to create, I just hope my heating bill doesn't make me weep too much at the end of the month.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Meat is Murder

Now I consider myself to be a fully fledged carnivore and have been known to scream “I demand to have some flesh!” on several occasions but the meat feast that was presented to me last night left me totally speechless and just a little bit apprehensive. For last night my wife and I went to Buen Ayre, where the men are men and the cows are almost certainly frightened.

Situated in Broadway Market, Hackney (where all the Nathan Barleys have seem to have decamped to from Hoxton) Buen Ayre is an Argentinean restaurant that specialises in steak, steak and more steak. This restaurant seems fairly unassuming from outside, with the interior décor being equally no-frills, but once you set your eyes on the massive barbecue suspended from the ceiling under sizzling hot coals, you immediately get what this place is all about. The grill is loaded with different cuts of meat and sausage and is kept under the eye of a chef who makes it all seem quite effortless. If I had been standing there, sweat would be flying everywhere, over the bar staff and over the customers which would have been very off putting.

We were shown to our table by our waiter, a Bobby Gillespie look-alike who was so spaced out that one suspected he shared the same penchant for narcotics as his name sake. It took a little while for Bobby to get it together but he eventually fought off the fairies dancing on his head and brought the menu over which presented a wide selection of animal protein in various guises with the occasional side salad thrown in. It is at this point that I should have made a note that our hosts Al and Emer (who had been before) were making noises about going straight to the main. But gutso here wanted to kick off with the marinated ox tongue so everyone else followed suit with starters of Serrano ham with palm hearts and empanadas, south America’s answer to the Cornish Pasty. Al then recommended we all go for the parrilladas which is a kind of mixed grill for two served on a brazier.

I think the last time I had a mixed grill was in some Beefeater type fare, where the skinny lamb chop clings desparately to the bone, your sausage is actually a saveloy and the rump is as tough as your old man’s boots but I trusted Al, he likes his meat. Then these two troughs of beef turned up and I thought he had made a mistake. “Alan, you’ve ordered for a wedding banquet you fool! How can we afford this, let alone send it back?”. The girls looked stunned by the spectacle and clutched at their throats nervously. Even Al looked worried and remember he likes his meat. “This does seem to be a bit more than usual” he whimpered but what where we to do? Well of course there was only one thing for it, we would plough straight on and go for it, thus sparing us the humilation of telling Bobby we’d got our order wrong, bugger the cost.

So the verdict? Well the different varieties of steak were indeed very good, cooked medium rare, succulent and tender. The pork sausage was chunky and garlic and the addition of melted provolone cheese added an extra touch of indulgance but it was the black pudding that was a real revelation. By Emer’s own admission of it being the best she’s ever tasted (and coming from Ireland that’s saying something), I’d have to agree. Almost velvet in texture, moist and richly flavoured, I would have been happy to have a plate on the stuff on its own. Except of course I couldn’t have done really, I think the protein overload would have sent me spinning out into the street to pick a fight with a Nathan by flicking the trilby of his head and suggesting that his jeans weren’t tight enough.

With that in mind and the fact that our colons were crying out in agony, we all sensibly stopped at around the halfway mark .When we managed to slow our heartbeats down and finally catch our breaths, Al stretched up his long arm to ask for the bill and a doggy bag figuring that if this meat extravaganza was going to cost us an arm and leg then we’d damn well want to take the leftovers with us. The damage came to under £30 a head which for starters, half a cow, side orders and two bottles of wine was not bad all. It was still perplexing though that we got so much and we could only come to the conclusion that in such a busy restaurant the chef can only keep so much on his barbecue at a time. What with juggling the orders and keeping everything at steady rate of service, there must come a point when he has to off-load or risk overdoing the steak so we must have simply come in at the right time. A good theory when you think about it, at least there no waste and everything goes to the customer.

Either that or all the leftover meat goes to Bobby which would explain everything, the poor guy is so stupefied by his intake of amino acids, he doesn’t even know what planet he’s on.

*So focused was I writing about the food, I forgot to mention the wine as chosen by my good wife was the Finca La Linda, Malbec 2004, from Argentina naturally, of which wines I have little experience of tasting. Still I’d say this was a fine drop which was neither heavy or light going very well with our meal. The menu also points out that its balanced tannins obtained through three months ageing in French oak. I wouldn’t really have a clue about that but I’m learning.

Oh and I forgot my camera : (