Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Deep Fried Squirrel

Tufty

Well gosh darn dang it y'all, this takes me back. This. Takes. Me. Back. And why I nearly darn fergit jus' how good squirra is. We used ta eat these little critters aaall the time. If Pop weren't fishin' or shootin' or pig greasin', he'd be trappin' and on high days, he'd be fetchin' a whole bunch of these ornery varmints for Mama to throw in the pot. It might be hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch but there'd she be, skinnin' and a guttin', throwin squirra into a pitch of boiling hog fat, faster then you could say "jumping jehosaphat". Which was quite hard to say on account of ma orthodontic condition. There be a lot mouths to feed, 24 in total and we'd truly 'preciate that sweet, sweet meat. Hell, one occasion I witness my lil' brother, Billy Bob Bob Billy Joel eat 12 squirra on the hoof, straight up. Or was that Billy Bob Joel Joel Billy Bob Bob? Anyhows, we had it good in those days. We might be poor folk but hell y'all, we could eat happy off the fat o' the land. Sad to say that last time I had squirra though, was at ma Grandpaw's funeral. Got a toe licked by a rattler so he did. So Pop called for Cletus from across the creek (on account of his medic training in the Army). 5 hours Cletus did spend on ma poor Grandpaw's toe that day, tryin' ta suck the poison out before he realises he got the wrong toe. Hell, the dumb fool didn't even get the right darn foot! Still, made us all holla like coyotes at the table 'membering that story, the day we put Grandpaw in the ground, guffawin', drinkin' moonshine and eatin' some mighty fine squirra. Shoot.

OK, contrary to what you have just read, I do not come from the Deep South, I come from Bromley by Bow. But having served up some squirrel for the first time ever to my family last night, I have to say that I really did get caught up in the romance of it all, this Appalachian style of cooking and spent the best part of the meal trying to converse in the appropriate manner. And have done so ever since. Which I think is starting to annoy my wife somewhat. Especially come bedtime last night, when I whispered into her ear, "Night, night, John Boy".

Of course, you don't have to carry on like an idiot redneck to appreciate the finer qualities of this woodland creature and if you haven't tried squirrel yet, then I suggest you do. I bought 4 of the ornery critters (along with some pheasant) from Wild About Meat, a small but very friendly game dealer based in White Roding, Essex last week and it took a while to decide what route to take. Because it is so lean, like rabbit meat, a lot of recipes suggest a bit of stewing or braising to ensure that it remains tender but during the consideration, I kept hearing the dulcet tones of the King himself reverberate in the back of my mind. So I went in for some deep frying, KFC style as it is an excellent method for sealing in moisture. Although keep an eye on the temperature if you can, my oil was a touch too hot at the start. As for the taste, well squirrel is in texture like a cross between chicken and rabbit but so much sweeter, delicious in contrast to the herby crispy crust from deep frying. And it didn't bother the kids one little bit that they were tucking into Tufty.

Deep Fried Squirrel (cook with Suspicious Minds blaring in the background) - serves 4

ingredients


4 squirrel, cleaned thoroughly and jointed into small pieces, arms, legs and saddle (I discarded the ribs as there wasn't much meat on that part)

1ltr sunflower oil

100gms plain flour

2 tbsp of mixed herbs

1 tsp of cayenne pepper

healthy pinch of salt and ground pepper

pinch of chilli flakes

2 eggs

100ml evaporated milk (tip picked up from Valentine Warner recipe)

lemon, for a quick squeeze over afterwards

Method

Heat the oil in a large deep pan (I used a stock pot) until it reaches 180c, I used the ol' drop a cube of bread in and if it browns in 30 seconds, it's ready trick.

Pat down the squirrel pieces with kitchen towel to ensure that they're really dry.

Combine the flour, herbs, spices, salt and pepper in one bowl and beat the eggs and evaporated milk in another.

Take a piece of squirrel and give it a thorough coating in the egg mixture and then dust thoroughly in the seasoned flour and place on a tray or large plate. Repeat (this can get messy)

When ready, pop your pieces of squirrel into the oil, large pieces first such as the saddle and cook in batches. I used a rough rule of thumb, frying the saddle for 10 mins, legs for 8 mins and arms for 5 mins. Or until they are nice and golden and cooked through. Take out with tongs when done and leave in on a tray covered in kitchen towel to soak up excess oil. Squeeze over some lemon.

Enjoy with potato wedges, corn on the cob and salad (suppose it really should come with gravy, grits, dumplings and peanut butter but the choice is yours)


Principle ingredients


Jointed into pieces


Close up


And another shot

Isla loved it


Fin, hmm maybe not so sure

Tufty disclaimer: these squirrels were grey NOT red

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Playground Politics

It's hard to believe that half term is just around the corner and it's also hard to believe just how far the twins have come along since that fateful first day at pre-school. I'll never forget it. I had taken the afternoon off so we could pick them up together. Bristling with excitement, the plan was to go out for a meal and spend some quality time soaking up their experience, expecting fast, gabbled chatter and wild-eyed enthusiasm. Isla poked her head around the door first. She waved and then blinked and then frowned and then quickly disappeared. The curly mop of Fin then came bouncing into view. He knew straight away that our arrival meant it was hometime and immediately he burst into tears. A wailing Isla was soon ushered back out of the classroom and with wavering smiles and open arms, we knelt to receive them. But they wouldn't come. Things got slightly hysterical after that. In full view of the other parents, the pair put on quite a display. Fin leapt for his coathook and would not let go. After 5 minutes, I was practically pulling on his ankles, lifting him in the air, trying to prise him away from the wall as he screamed all the while. Meanwhile, my wife was wrestling with our daughter on the floor, desperately trying to put Isla's coat on whilst she thrashed about the place. Raised eyebrows and furtive glances transformed us into demon parents. 'Oh those poor, poor kids'. But they weren't really poor kids, they just enjoyed themselves a little too much that day.

Like I said, we've come a long way since then. The twins get the fact they can go to school everyday, have fun and glady share events on the walk home. But I am starting to worry that other anti-social elements are starting to fester, which permeate from the very culture of school life itself. It's all to do with birthdays and sweet treats. Now I don't mind this policy of parents offering out mini Haribo bags or tiny Mars bars at the sound of the bell. That's one way of making little Johnny popular on his birthday. We all sing, which makes his day, makes him feel loved and I have nothing against that. The twins are certainly happy as they wander down the school path with cocoa grins. But, well how to put this. Some of the mothers have started baking. And I can't help feeling that now an element of competition is starting to creep in. Which can't be healthy for the kids.

One by one, I've seen them walk in, with puffed up chests and warm glowing cheeks of pride, carrying tupperware boxes filled with sponge slices, bursting with cream and jam, dusted icing sugar, wrapped in pink napkins. Fruit cake and bread pudding has also made an appearance, to be dispensed oversized into small clutched hands but the biscuit was well and truly taken the other day. Someone turned up with cupcakes. Now I am not a cupcake fascist but after seeing the vivid purple and green swirls of buttercream topped with dinky little flowers made from royal icing and that simpering, simpering smile, I thought 'that is it, enough is enough'. So I made some chocolate brownies yesterday for the twins to take in today.

Their birthday is in April but I've told them to keep quiet, I hope they do.

This recipe is taken from St Nige's Kitchen Diaries and I used a large portion of the chocolate I received at the weekend, promoting Chocolate Week. The one week of the year that children, Mums, Dads and dentists relish with joy.

Very Good Chocolate Brownie - 12 portions

ingredients

300gms golden caster sugar

250gms butter

250gms chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)

3 large eggs plus 1 extra egg yolk

60gms flour

60gms finest quality cocoa powder

½ tsp baking powder

method

You will need a baking tin, about 23cm x 23cm, preferably non-stick, or a small roasting tin.

Set the oven at 180°C/Gas 4. Line the bottom of the baking tin with baking parchment. Put the sugar and butter into the bowl of a food mixer and beat for several minutes till white and fluffy. You can do it by hand if you wish, but you need to keep going until the mixture is really soft and creamy.

Meanwhile, break the chocolate into pieces, set 50g of it aside and melt the rest in a bowl suspended over, but not touching, a pan of simmering water. As soon as the chocolate has melted remove it from the heat. Chop the remaining 50g into gravel-sized pieces.

Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder and mix in a pinch of salt. With the food mixer running slowly, introduce the beaten egg a little at a time, speeding up in between additions. Remove the bowl from the mixer to the work surface, then mix in the melted and the chopped chocolate with a large metal spoon. Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa, gently and firmly, without knocking any of the air out. Scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top and bake for 30 minutes. The top will have risen slightly and the cake will appear slightly softer in the middle than around the edges.Pierce the centre of the cake with a fork - it should come out sticky, but not with raw mixture attached to it. If it does, then return the brownie to the oven for three more minutes. It is worth remembering that it will solidify a little on cooling, so if it appears a bit wet, don't worry.

With the food mixer running slowly, introduce the beaten egg a little at a time, speeding up in between additions. Remove the bowl from the mixer to the work surface, then mix in the melted and the chopped chocolate with a large metal spoon. Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa, gently and firmly, without knocking any of the air out. Scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top and bake for 30 minutes. The top will have risen slightly and the cake will appear slightly softer in the middle than around the edges. Pierce the centre of the cake with a fork - it should come out sticky, but not with raw mixture attached to it. If it does, then return the brownie to the oven for three more minutes. It is worth remembering that it will solidify a little on cooling, so if it appears a bit wet, don't worry.

Sea Salt and Valrhona Manjari Orange Chocolate (which was going cheap at Waitrose)


Burford Browns by Clarence Court

I'm melting! I'm melting! Oh what a world!

Before the oven


Soft, moist and fudgy chocolate brownie (much better than any cupcake)

Monday, 10 October 2011

Delirium and Christmas Crackers on the Orient Express

Even after splashing my face with cold water and resting my forehead on the lip of a cool porcelain sink, the heat is fairly unbearable. The luxury of my surroundings doesn't quite allude me. As toilets on trains ordinarily go, this one with teak panelling and fluffy towels has to be nicest toilet that I have ever been in. And I've suffered some terrible toilets on trains in my time. But still, the stifling air is threatening to knock the wind out of my sails. 'Don't pass out', I whisper in the mirror, silently cursing my genetic make up. Gingers, even those on the wane, do not fare well in this kind of weather. I douse my face one more time and glimpse back into the Art Deco frame. Peter Ustinov peers over my shoulder, wearing a gold paper crown, sipping a glass of champagne and in his cod-Belgian accent cheers, "Joyeux Noël mon ami! Are you 'aving a good time?" I slump back onto the throne and think that this has got all too much. 'It's October tomorrow for God's sake, why is it so hot? And why am I wearing this stupid hat?' And then I remember, I am having Christmas dinner on the Orient Express.

OK, it wasn't quite THE Orient Express but as invitations go, this one was still pretty special, to preview Christmas lunch on the British Pullman which leaves Victoria Station at 12:25 prompt and goes on various excursions throughout the year. As you walk up to platform 2, you certainly get a sense of occasion as people mill about in their finery with a jazz band tooting in the background. Actors (at least I hope they're actors) swirl around in period clothes, dancing on the concourse and chat to fellow passengers which all adds to the buzz and bonhomie. When the train arrives, there is a slight pause of hushed reverence before cameras click and the scrum to get on board commences. An octogenarian tramples over my foot in the rush, such is her excitement. Which piques me slightly but who am I to complain, it's quite obvious from her face that she has been looking forward to this trip. It would have been nice if she had waited for her husband though and hadn't left him behind on the platform.

Our carriage is named Gwen, orginally a consort to the Brighton Belle which used to ferry dear, dear Larry from coast to city all those years ago and our private little coop inside is festooned with decorations. The only thing that is at odds with the whole proceedings is the aforementioned temperature. The country is in the grip of an Autumn heatwave and to be honest the last thing on my mind is Jingle Bells. But as champagne is poured and the train lurches forward on it's journey into the Surrey countryside, I settle back into my very comfortable seat and whittle my eyes across the menu:

Tian of Whitby Crab and Atlantic Prawns, accompanied by a Gin and Tonic Gravadlax

Spiced Parsnip Soup served with a Warm Savoury Scone

Seared Fillet of Yorkshire Beef, Creamed Sprouts, Roasted Cocotte Potatoes and a Truffle and Madeira Jus

Great British Cheeseboard and Home-Made Chutney

Chocolate Delice and Spiced Clementine Jelly with a Raspberry and Cranberry Coulis.

So yes, despite the damp patch forming on the back of my shirt, I'd say that there are definitely worse ways to spend a Friday afternoon. In fact, everything was pretty damned perfect as the food and service was equisite. The subtlety of the juniper in the salmon was a great match for the rich creaminess of the crab. The delicate, salty cheese scones were lovely to dip into the sweet and spicy soup. The beef fillet, cooked medium rare was beautifully tender. The cheese was dispensed in generous fat wedges and dessert was both clean and refreshing yet also decadent and fulfilling. All dispensed with quiet, attentive but unintrusive service and cooked in a kitchen with barely enough room to swing a cat. Like I said, it was all pretty amazing really.

And for £300 a head, well you would expect that at the very least, wouldn't you.

This of course is where I struggle slightly to make the sell because that is rather a lot of money. I do have to ask myself, if I hadn't been invited, would I ever stump up the cash for such a trip? I am not sure and it's funny but during our journey, the subject of a rather costly pop-up popped up in conversation. Everyone at the table (except the PR of course) concluded that that ticket was just too expensive and yet slowly, after making the collective statement, I think a certain irony dawned on all of us. Christmas lunch on the Orient Express is very expensive too. But in order to justify it, I think I have to come back to that excitable octogenarian, who by all accounts was celebrating her diamond anniversary that day. You see, what the Orient Express offers is that once in a lifetime experience, that grand sense of occasion, that one thing to do before you die. A lot of envious eyes widened when I told friends and family that I had dined on the British Pullman. One Uncle said "don't tell your Aunt for gawd sakes, cos then I will HAVE to take her, she's been banging on about it for ages". That wouldn't have happened if I had mentioned the words 'Thomas Keller'. And so, with much history, heritage and romance behind the brand, I would say that it is very much worth it in that respect.

As for watching the trainspotter who ran off the edge of platform 2 whilst filming our departure, well it would have been worth shelling out £300 for that too*.

Thank you to the Orient Express for a wonderful, if somewhat sticky afternoon. The Christmas Lunch excursions start on December 4th, bookings can be made here.

"Ha, did you hear that chap broke his poor old leg"

Hors d'oeuvres

Tian of Whitby Crab and Atlantic Prawns, accompanied by a Gin and Tonic Gravadlax


Spiced Parsnip Soup served with a Warm Savoury Scone

The scenery on a beautiful Winter's day

Shampoo

Seared Fillet of Yorkshire Beef, Creamed Sprouts, Roasted Cocotte Potatoes and a Truffle and Madeira Jus

Chocolate Delice and Spiced Clementine Jelly with a Raspberry and Cranberry Coulis

The "Tornado" - hand built steam engine which travels out only twice a month

Possibly the smallest kitchen in the world?

*That didn't really happen but it would have been so funny if it had, eh?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Autumn Coleslaw and Hemophobia

'Deep breath now. Come on Dan, you can do this. Be a brave boy. Just press and slide down. Slowly press and slide down. Gently does it. Nice and easy. Press and slide down. That's it, press and slide down. There we go. Press and slide down. Ah, we've got some rhythm going now. Up and slide down, up and slide down. Oh, this is not so bad. Up and slide down. God, I should use this more often. Up and slide down, up and slide down, up and slide down. Ha ha! This is great! Up and slide down. Come on Dan, let's get down to it, let's get down to the very last nub. Ditch the tea towel now, be brave. Up and slide down, up and slide down, ohmygodImgonnadoit, up and slide down, up and down, up and down, up and down, up and deyOOOWOOOOOONAHYAFUCKA!!!'

Plastic clatters over porcelain, eyes shut tight and a stubby, sausage finger is plunged into my mouth. I wait for the flow of copper to envelope my taste buds, wait to cough and spit. But nothing comes. Instead, I feel the rough edge of a fingernail scratch my tongue so I pull my digit out and examine the damage. Shorn off at a jaunty angle and down to the quick on one side, the nail looks odd but I am grateful that on this occasion, only keratin was sacrificed and not flesh. I glance at a small piece of carrot on the floor and then into the sink. A wicked blade, set against black, winks and flashes it's straight, steely, menacing smile, as if to say, "got you again." I grimace back with narrow, vengeful eyes and consider fetching a hammer from the shed. But then soon enough, this rarely used Christmas present, this instrument of torture is packed away, consigned to the dark place under the stairs. And it is only then, that I sit down and sadly think to myself, 'why do I ever bother with that poxy mandoline?'

If there is ever a piece of kitchen equipment that is exacting, vicious and cruel, it would have to be the mandoline. I appreciate the benefits of clean, uniform slices of vegetable which look very pretty and everything but seriously, what benefit is there to be gained by running your fingertips so perilously close to a guillotine. Health and safety bureaucrats will point out here that these devices often come with guards, which are supposed to clamp onto your vegetable and protect your hands from danger. You only have to try this once to realise that the endeavour is quite useless. Many an ungainly potato has rolled away and onto the floor in the past, escaping it's dauphinoise destiny. So it comes down to the bare knuckles, or bare bones even. To use a mandoline efficiently, really you have to use your hands and maybe a tea-towel to maintain a grip, which is hardly a concession to safety (although I have heard of chefs doning kevlar gloves, a good idea). As a result, I rarely use my mandoline.

Why am I wittering on about mandolines anyway? Well yesterday, I made some Autumn coleslaw as featured in Skye Gyngell's first book, A Year In My Kitchen and had just cause to fetch the beast out of it's hiding place. Skye's recipe takes a whole batch of vibrant, crunchy, seasonal fruits and vegetables such as apples, red cabbage, beetroot, carrot and fennel and guides the reader to finely slice each one. Now she makes no mention of using a mandoline to do this but feeling adventurous, I felt it was high time that I showed the damn thing just who was boss.

With fingers hesitant and trembling, I adjusted the setting on the dial and picked up a carrot and slowly but surely, dragged it over the blade length ways to create fine silky ribbons. I trimmed and relieved the fennel of it's tough outer leaves and repeated the process again. Next came the yellow beetroot and I soon began to get into the swing of things, upping the tempo, actually beginning to enjoy myself. By the time I started on the red cabbage, Vivaldi began to fill the kitchen, well my mind at least, resonating through my soul, the imaginary orchestra guiding me, goading me to slice faster and faster. The apples were blitzed in an almost orgasmic frenzy, each sliver was sent flying up into the air before floating back down, landing like feathers. And then, I was done.

I looked down at my work, all layered upon a wooden board and over the counter top and then at my steady, straight hands. No nicks or cuts were to be seen. I won. I tamed the mandoline.

Later that evening, enjoying this wonderfully piquant, sweet salad with some herbed chipolatas and a jacket potato, my wife noticed that there was something different about me. Had she detected my new found confidence maybe? An exuberant force of nature? A boastful vim, the kind that erupts when one smites their own enemy?

"You've got a cut on your nose", she said.

And just then, from under the stairs arose a deep, cackling, hollow laugh............

Autumn Coleslaw - serves 4 (based on Skye Gyngell's recipe and what we had in the house)

ingredients


Quarter red cabbage, finely sliced

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced

1 large yellow raw beetroot, washed and finely sliced (any kind of beetroot will do, we've got loads of yellow growing down the allotment)

2 carrots, peeled and sliced in ribbons

2 Cox apples, quartered, cored and finely sliced

Half a pomegranate, seeded

Handful of cobnuts, toasted in the oven for a few minutes and roughly chopped

Salt and pepper

Juice from half a lemon

A splash of extra-virgin olive oil

dressing

2 free-range egg yolks

1 tbs runny honey

1 and half tbs Dijon mustard

1 tbs cream

1 tbs cider vinegar

200ml mild olive oil

good pinch of dried tarragon (we didn't have any fresh)

method

Place the sliced cabbage, fennel, carrot, beetroot and apple into a large bowl and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Mix all together with your hands and then set to one side.

Tip the egg yolks into another bowl and add the honey, mustard, cream, cider vinegar and tarragon and whisk until nicely blended together. And then, whilst continually whisking, pour the olive oil into the bowl in a nice steady stream so that it emuslifies into a very loose mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stack the sliced slaw into the middle of the plate (or to the side if eating with chipolatas, or anything else) and drizzle the dressing all over. Scatter over pomegranate seeds and chopped cobnuts and serve.

Autumn Coleslaw with Chipolatas and Jacket Potato

Pre-sliced fruit and veg in the Autumn sunshine

The close up