Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Game For Adventure - Roast Grouse

The glorious twelfth (or, in the case of this year, the thirteenth, Since UK law says that the start of the season cannot fall on a Sunday), the day grouse become 'fair game' for the year and still the busiest day in the shooting calendar.

It is a date revered by hunters and game lovers alike, with Tom Parker-Bowles proclaiming, 'that first taste of young grouse is one of the sweetest of the year, made all the better by the interminable wait. It's superior even to the first thrusting spears of asparagus or the native oyster's wobbling folds.' Seasonal, local, a little bit special, and somewhat of an acquired taste; on paper pretty much the perfect 'foodie' food.

Until now the charms of the little heather-munching birds had passed me by. I suppose I saw it more  as treat for the Barbour jacket and Land Rover set, rather than something that you could grab from Tescos on the way home for a quick post-work dinner. But that was all soon to change when the Ewing and I spent the afternoon in Oxford last week.

One of the very best things about Oxford is the covered market; from flowers to a fry up, from barbers to butchers, all human life is here under one roof. I love visiting, as it always involves leaving laden down with the most amazing goodies. Depending on the seasons I have picked up perfect little bloomy pyramids of goats cheese, wonderfully ripe black figs, bitter radicchio, flaky meat pies, plump Oxford sausages and some of the stickiest lardy cake you will ever encounter.

This trip proved to be no different; as soon as I saw the little blue/grey grouse sitting in the window of M Feller the butcher, I was sold. We also grabbed a couple of wood pigeons, a bit of a bargain at two quid a pop. A good thing, too, as our brace of 'grice' came to £27 quid, the price you pay for a bird in the first week of the shooting season. (Wait until September to see the prices drop, or even later in the year for older birds more suited to autumnal braises and stews.)

And so the next afternoon, on the hottest day of the year thus far, I found myself grappling with a bag of slightly sticky, slightly bloody carcasses. My biggest fear as I unwrapped them was that they would still contain their slippery innards; luckily they had been (mostly, save a few missed squelchy bits) gutted, but I still wasn't fully prepared for the gruesome looking, hairy claws tucked up inside their bodies. Ordinarily I'm not too phased by blood and gore, I actually quite like the feeling of raw meat, but I did find myself pulling a variety of comedy grimaces as I decided whether or not to cut the feet off. In the end they had to go, as well as all the stray feathers that were randomly sprouting up through the purple skin.

As well as the the blood and claws there was also the matter of the smell. Exacerbated no doubt by the stifling heat of the kitchen, the musky, rich aroma was pretty hard to handle. Apparently it comes from the birds heather-rich diet. Who knew the innocuous looking moorland shrub could be quite so overwhelming? Apparently the spruce grouse who, unsurprisingly, subsists on a diet of coniferous evergreens, tastes a little like a pine-scented air freshener. An rather less than appetising thought.

Undeterred I stuck a sprig of fresh rosemary in the bird's cavities, slathered some butter on the breasts and covered them both in a rasher of streaky bacon. (Purists may scoff at this addition, but bacon makes everything better, right?) Then, following the advice from the butcher, I whacked them in a hot oven for half an hour along with the leftover pigeon carcasses (I had removed the breasts) to help make the gravy. (Grouse is a very lean bird, and overcooking it will leave you with grey, dry and stringy meat.)

With the birds out the oven and resting under a tent of tinfoil, it was time to make the gravy. I tipped the remaining contents of the roasting tin into a pan, added a dollop of cranberry sauce, a glug of  white wine and some chicken stock, before reducing it down and straining it to make a nice, glossy sauce for the grouse.
To go with the birds I decided to keep it simple. Traditional accompaniments seem to revolve around crispy potato 'game chips' and variations of the humble loaf; toasted breadcrumbs, slices of toast, often spread with the bird's offal or fois gras, and bread sauce being the most common. As the idea of a rich, hot sauce usually seen on the Christmas dinner table, didn't seem to appealing, and I couldn't face any more heat in the already stifling kitchen, I decided to go with some cheats game chips, and sent the Ewing to the shops get a bag of kettle crisps. To finish a bunch of locally grown watercress, again from the Covered Market.

I wish I could say it was some sort of epiphany, but sitting at the dinner table feeling hot and fractious, noticing little bits of grouse guts still splattered up my forearms, I felt more like a school child being made to finish their chewy meat and lumpy custard. The grouse itself was perfectly cooked; red at the bone, nicely rested and with soft and juicy meat and great gravy, it was just difficult for me to properly enjoy the flavour as the pervasive aroma, sadly not damped by roasting and covering in bacon, proved a little too much.

Luckily the Ewing was far more easily pleased and happily tucked in red in tooth and claw, proclaiming it quite delicious and even managing to eat the rest of mine (once I had disrobed it from its crispy bacon coat). And me, well, I still had a pile of crisps and a bottle of red to enjoy.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Roscoe's Root Beer Ribs

I've always wanted to be my own pit master. I love all smoked food, from sausages to 'sausage' cheese (that fabulous, processed Austrian stuff, that tastes a little bit like licking a railing). Finally, after years of being either sans garden or sans a barbecue with a lid, I finally had both.

Anyone remotely familiar with American barbecue will know that it's very far from our, cremated on the outside and bloody in the middle, burger and drumsticks. While British grilling is a fun way to get food poisoning and sunstroke at the same time, American barbecue is food that has been cooked by hot smoke over an indirect heat, often for many hours. 

Make no mistake, this is serious business. Barbecue competitions are a chance for large groups of grown men to gather together round a pit of flames for the weekend, often staying up all night to tend the fire, while partying and drinking their way through huge coolers of beer. Reputations are won and lost on the bark on your brisket or the rub on your ribs.

Up to now my only experience of this mythical beast had been watching the Food Network or reading my collection of obscure US Barbecue books (including Peace, Love and BarbecueHoly Smoke and Smokestack Lightning). Trips to the States had seen me staying well above the Mason-Dixon line, so I knew the only way to truly experience this smoked meat goodness for myself was to try it at home.

Turning your own barbecue into a smoker is a pretty easy, but rather extended process. Give yourself a full afternoon to cook your ribs, and if possible, choose a day when your neighbours aren't planning to attempt to enjoy their smoke free garden.

To start you'll need a barbecue with a lid. I always line the bottom with foil (makes cleaning easier). You only want charcoal under half of your grill space (the meat shouldn't be cooked over direct heat) so I divided the space under the grill with two clean house bricks. On the side your meat will be smoking place a metal pan (disposable foil ones are ideal) half full of water This will help produce a little bit of steam and stop the meat drying out.

To produce the smoke you will need some charcoal (I got my coals burning using a chimney starter) and some wood chips. You can usually pick these chips up from good garden centres, often in a variety of different types that will flavour your food in different ways. I used applewood, a mild wood with a natural sweetness. You could also use cherry, Hickory (a very full-flavoured smoke), maple or oak. The chips need to be soaked in cold water for at least an hour before you want to use them.

Once the coals are white hot tip them onto half the barbecue (leave a couple of coals in the chimney to start the next lot of charcoal burning) then add a handful of soaked wood chips. Place the grill on top of the barbecue then place your meat (ribs bone side down) or fish onto the side above the pan of water. Place the lid on the barbecue, close the vents and leave to smoke. Now you're barbecuing!

Check the temperature as the meat is smoking (I use a probe thermometer, pushed through the top vent). The key to good barbecue is low and slow; ideally you need to hold the temperature somewhere around 120c-150c for perfectly smoked ribs. If the temperature is rising too much open the lid and add some more soaked wood. If it is too low try opening the vents, or, if that doesn't work, try adding a few more coals. Regardless of the temperature you will need to rotate the meat and check the coals roughly every half an hour as you smoke your meat.

The time your barbecue will take to cook will vary, obviously, depending on what your cooking. Salmon or trout may only require an hour or two to get nicely smoky while still remaining moist, while a large piece of brisket can take a good twelve hours until its ready to eat. Ribs will take somewhere in between. Baby backs, like the ones I cooked, should take about six hours. I tested them by holding them up at one end and seeing when the meat started to gently pull away from the bone.

When the meat was cooked to my liking I brushed on plenty of home made barbecue sauce and placed the ribs over a direct heat for five or ten minutes on each side to form a good glaze, before wrapping them in foil and  putting them back on the other side of the grill to rest.

Half an hour later and they were ready to serve with some fresh coleslaw, more beer, more barbecue sauce and plenty of napkins.

The name of the recipe is both a play on my surname and a homage to Roscoe's Root beer and Ribs, a 'cue joint in, an area not known for their barbecue, Rochester MN. This was a I place stumbled across when rather randomly googling the interweb a little while back. (I have never actually visited, so can't vouch for it's authenticity, but it's certainly got a good name) Root beer, ribs, root beer and ribs. It seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

Roscoe's Root Beer Ribs

For the ribs
However many racks of baby back ribs you want to eat/will fit on your barbecue (between 500g/750g each)

Spice rub
1 cup soft brown sugar
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp fennel seeds, ground

Root beer barbecue sauce
1 can root beer (use cola or Dr Pepper if you prefer)
1 1/2 cups of tomato ketchup
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup apple juice
2 dried chillies
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 heaped tsp of English mustard

Prepare the racks by removing the silver membrane from the bone side of the ribs. This will allow the rub and smoke to penetrate the meat better. 
To do this slide the point of a knife underneath the membrane and pull it off in one piece (holding the ribs with a clean tea towel should help you to grip them).
Mix all the rub ingredients together. Take the trimmed ribs and cover both side liberally with the rub. Cover and allow to marinade for a few hours or overnight. (You can store any leftover rub in a airtight container for next time).
Barbecue as above. Alternatively cook in a preheated 180c oven for an hour or so, or until the ribs are tender (cover with foil if they start to colour too much before they are cooked through).

To make the sauce place all ingredients in a saucepan and gently whisk together to combine. Bring to the boil, then lower heat to a simmer and reduce gently for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Mop on the ribs as above or serve with burgers, chips or chicken.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Blackberry and Peanut Butter Stuffed French Toast

Hooray! After a teriible year in the garden, full of slug ridden cougettes, rotting tomato plants, withered aubergines and bird-pecked rasperry canes, finally some fruits for my labour. Strictly the blackberies growing on the bramble bushes at the end of my front garden aren't solely for our consumption, but living at the end of a cul-de-sac means that we're the only ones that actually walk past them. Hence a great haul of juicy black jewels at the end of every summer, and no one to have to share them with.

Whether you call it eggy bread, pain perdu or poor knights of Windsor, French toast is always awesome. Traditionally a dish created to use up leftovers (pain perdu, rather sweetly, translates as 'lost' bread), it's still about the best thing you can do with a loaf of stale Mother's Pride. (Ideally not actually Mother's Pride, something crusty and delicious would be better, but you get my drift).

I've become faintly obsessed with finding the perfect combination for my weekend brunch. I've tried different types bread including baguette, boule, wholemeal (sacrilege) and split tin; toppings of syrup, jam, Nutella and cream cheese; and served it with summer berries, plums and bananas. I've even tried a savoury version, stuffed with cheese and tomato and served with rashers of crispy bacon. Really rather good; beans on French toast may well have to be my next experiment. 

It's not just for breakfast either; it makes a great summer pud served with grilled peaches or apricots and vanilla ice cream. Or when the weather turns colder serve with spiced fruit poached in port and maybe some creme fraiche for a proper winter rib-sticker.

This effort was borne from some tiger bread that had seen better days, soaked in gold top milk, eggs and a splash of Madeira. The pièce de résistance were the juicy blackberries, freshly picked from the bramble bushes in my front garden, sandwiched inside the bread. I have since modified it to include a layer of peanut butter inside, a master stroke which manages to elevate the, already pretty perfect, original to a true breakfast of champions.

Blackberry and Peanut Butter Stuffed French Toast
Per person

For the Toast
2 Slices of bread (slightly stale is best)
1-2 eggs (depends on size of eggs/slices of bread)
A splash of milk
A splash of sweet sherry or Madeira (optional)
Pinch of cinnamon
A small handful of blackberries
Peanut butter (optional)
Butter or vegetable oil

To Serve
Icing sugar
Maple syrup
Extra berries

Whisk egg/eggs in a bowl, add milk, Madeira and cinnamon and mix well.
If using the peanut butter spread over one side of both slices of bread.
Lay berries in the centre of first slice (peanut butter up), place second slice of bread on top (peanut butter down) and press firmly down around the edges.
Carefully place sandwich in egg mixture and allow to soak into both sides, turning if necessary.
Heat some butter or oil in a frying pan until gently frothing.
Add sandwich and fry until both sides are crispy and golden.
Serve sprinkled with icing sugar, maple syrup and fresh berries.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Two Wedding Feasts

2012 has been a very busy year for the Roscoe family. First the Ewing and I celebrated our civil partnership on Leap Day, with a small, but perfectly formed, city wedding, with a ceremony at Westminster Register Office followed by a reception at Vinoteca in Marylebone. Then my sister, Emily and her fiancé Rob travelled to Italy from their home in Oz for a larger, but no less lovely, August Tuscan wedding. This time we celebrated with a ceremony at Siena Town Hall, followed by a reception at a vineyard just outside the city.

It was never my intention to write about either day. (It may come as a surprise to those who know me, but I didn't take a single photo all day at my own wedding. Rather unusual for someone who has a camera firmly planted in their hand at all times.) But when my sister visited a fortnight before her big day, she rather caught me out by asking 'you will be doing a blog about the wedding feast, won't you?'

And so it started me thinking; how nice to write something about our totally different, but equally memorable, wedding feasts. Food friends and family all coming together to celebrate two such special occasions; the perfect opportunity to write about the very best days, and very best meals of my life. 

Our wedding feast was held in the private wine cellar at Vinoteca. An intimate and cosy venue that provide the perfect backdrop for our festivities.

To prepare our feast we were lucky enough to have the services of Will Leigh, who arrived as head chef at Vinoteca Marylebone via stints with greats such as Rowley Leigh, Jeremy Lee and Paul Rankin. Will proved to be not just a skilled chef, but a generous host; tolerating our visits to the small private kitchen, which we could see from our table, and answering our questions with good humour. We even shared a drink with him off duty, after bumping into him at a Soho pub later in the evening.

Another advantage of choosing Vinoteca was their carefully selected wine list, featuring a selection of hand picked bottles from all around the globe. Deciding what to drink certainly proved a bit of a challenge; in the end we decided to pick the wine based on memories that were special to us.

To start was a Jansz NV Brut Cuvee (Tasmania, Yarra Valley & South Australia). Chosen to toast absent family and friends who were sadly in Australia for the big day, and as a reminder of our Antipodean trip for my 30th birthday.

Main - 2010 Rueda Verdejo ‘Cuatro Rayas’, Agricola Castellana (Castilla y Leon)/2010 Rioja Vendimia, Bodegas Palacios Remondo (Rioja). We picked two Spanish wines for the suckling pig; chosen for absent friends in Spain, and memories of times we all spent together the previous summer in Madrid.

Desert/cheese - Tawny Port, Casa Santa Eufemia (Douro, Portugal). And finally a Portugese number, in remembrance of our visit to Porto and all the wonderful ports we sampled while there. This was the first proper holiday the Ewing and I went on, and still one of the loveliest I can remember.

Toasts and speeches out the way, starters were a selection of platters to share; goat's cheese and fennel salad, potted shrimp with wheaten bread, and a selection of Spanish cured meats and olives. Despite all the excitement, I managed to get around to sample all of these, and all were excellent. The sweet, creamy shrimps being particularly memorable.

It was great having sharing dishes; not only can you pick and chose exactly what, and how much, you want to eat, but sharing and passing things around also helps create a very friendly and sociable atmosphere (a few glasses of fizz helps, too). And while the flavours were certainly bolder than the usual 'soup or pâté, chicken or fish', options we needn't have worried; everybody got stuck in and all plates were returned to the kitchen wiped clean.

The Pièce de résistance. This was one of the two suckling pigs prepared for the feast and it would be hard not to be wowed by such a  magnificent spectacle. Even those who preferred not to look their dinner in the eye gave little gasps when these appeared from the kitchen. Although we were given the option of carving these ourselves, I rather sensibly suggested that the kitchen would be a far safer place for any theatrics involving sharp knives.
For such a special occasion these made the perfect centre piece, and what's more they tasted incredible too. The skin glossy skin was a great mixture between chew and crackle, the meat served in sweet, succulent shreds that really did seem to melt in clouds of porky loveliness. All the rich fat was nicely cut through with a tart apple sauce and the bitterness of some perfectly cooked purple sprouting broccoli. Much praise for their spuds too; not usually a roastie fan, these were truly brilliant, and it is my regret that I could only manage a couple.

Time to cut the cake! (The photographer had gone by this point, so thanks to our lovely friend Kam for the photo.) As you will probably be only too well aware the Ewing is a confirmed chocoholic. Not a 'ooh, I quite fancy a bit of chocolate right now', girly chocoholic, but a full scale, 'God help you if you stand between me and the last one in the box' chocoholic. Which at least made choosing what type of cake to have whole lot easier.
As we were off to Paris the next day we didn't want a multi-tiered or overly fancy. Just the largest amount of chocolate in the smallest amount of cake. Luckily, when speaking to the venue while planning, a suggestion of Will's 'garbage cake' was made. Named for the fact that everything is chucked in the bowl together, rather than any detritus it may contain, this was the perfect confection for the cocoa-loving bride.

Two gloriously dense truffle-type cakes, accompanied by bowls of billowy whipped cream, it went down a treat. Even after the richness of the courses before, Grandad happily polished off two large portions. High praise indeed.

Sadly I didn't get to ask what all the different types of cheese were on our Neal's Yard cheeseboard; happily one of the cheeses was the magnificent Tunworth. This was a cow's milk cheese from Hampshire, made in the Camembert mould, with lovely nutty, mushroomy notes. Unknown to me until the wedding, it has now become a firm favourite. A truly lovely cheese and a great find. Other cheeses included a Innes log and a spiky Strathdon Blue, as well as a few more, equally tasty, unidentified specimens.

By this time eating had become rather a struggle (although the port was still going down rather well), meaning much of the cheese was left uneaten. Fortunately the remnants, along with the other leftovers, were carefully packaged up for us to take home.

Waking up two days later in Paris (after a solid thirteen hours sleep), we finally had chance to reflect on the most perfect of days. Incredible friends, fabulous venue, delicious food and drink, and the most beautiful bride in the world (well, that's what the Ewing said...). And, as if it could get any better, we still had the rest of the cheese and chocolate cake to enjoy for breakfast in bed. Wonderful times, wonderful memories.

Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

And now for something completely different; Em and Rob's wedding was held in the beautiful Villa Divole, in the hills surrounding Siena. It was impossible not to be charmed by the stunning vistas and sun dappled vineyards that stretched out all around us. It was also lovely being reunited with friends and family. Although there may be an ocean or two between us now, it is still very special when everyone is reunited, especially when I get to see my dad and little sister again.

Food has always been very important in our family, and I knew that Emily and Rob had paid as much care and attention as Fay and I had to make sure their wedding feast was spectacular. Even before the big day itself we enjoyed a wonderful barbecue in the rose garden, featuring delights such as Parmigiana di Melanzane; beautifully fresh swordfish and tuna; and fabulous grilled meats including local rabbit and pork. I was certainly looking forward to the following day's festivities.

A confession - excitement (and possibly prosecco) meant that I completely missed taking photos of the first two courses of the wedding feast. No matter, as I did manage to get a few snaps of the gorgeous little morsels served as an aperitivi before the main event. Upturned wine barrels and trestle tables groaning under then weight of typical Tuscan tidbits. Sheltered from the fierce heat of the day we were soon tucking in.

An unfortunate malfunction on the 'oldies' bus on the way back meant that the younger members of the party had free reign at these when we returned from the ceremony in Siena (as well as the first go at the prosecco bar). And it didn't take long to make some serious inroads into the grub, despite the veritable feast that was waiting later.

Highlights were the smoky, salty kebabs, that were impossible to eat elegantly, but tasted so good; the perfectly ripe pomodoro and local olive oil on the bruschetta; and some beautifully crisp and greasless zucchini fritti. These piping hot sticks of moreishness made a great contrast with cold glasses of prosecco.

The wedding feast menu. Everything on the tables was gorgeous; from the little bags of sugared almonds to the personally written notes to each wedding guest. It was truly a beautiful setting.

After enjoying a plate of Tuscan antipasti, including fabulous chicken liver bruschetta and selection of salamis; and a plate of pretty much perfect pappardelle al cinghiale (with a wild boar ragu) we moved on to the risotto course. Here the rice was served with zucchini and a giant prawn, as well as a slightly incongruous slice of star fruit. Belts were beginning to be loosened at this point and I had to concede defeat, fearing a blowout before the big event.

Luckily I did manage to hold back as the next course was stunning. The terrible photo above cannot do justice to the most wonderful Tuscan beef and crispy potatoes that came next. I have seldom eaten beef so wonderful, the flavour lasting long after I had chased the last drops of sauce around the plate.

Wines served came from the estate; fabulous Chianti Classico, a rose made of a 85% Sangiovese blend, and a white comprising of a Trebbiano, Malvasia and Chardonnay mix, all harvested by hand.

By now even the gluttons amongst us were faltering, and so time to move up to the terrace for a magnificent croquembouche and a cheese wedding cake, complete with a groom with a ball and chain cake topper.

I'm afraid memories after this became a little hazy, coinciding around the time the Jägermeister was cracked open. My friend, Beth, seems to be the only one who actually ate any profiteroles, and apparently they were great (she ate three portions, which must say something). The rest of the cheese was served up at a dinner in the wine cellar the next day, and was certainly worth waiting for.

To very different sisters, two very different days. But what remained the same was the overwhelming love and support of both family and friends for both couples. The most delicious feast in the world would taste of nothing without people there to experience it with us. I'm not normally given to sentimentality, but at moments like these I really appreciate how very lucky I am.

Halfway through Emily and Rob's first dance, when we all broke onto the dance floor to join them, I finally got to ask Emily, 'is this the best day of your life?' Hearing the affirmative answer made me feel overjoyed that both of us had experienced such wonderful happiness at our weddings. It is a truly special feeling, and even better when it you have someone to share it with.

I now have a lovely brother to go with my lovely sister, as well as the most beautiful and perfect wife I could ever wish for. I think I can say on behalf of us all, a huge thank you to everyone who made both of these days happen. Here's to a very bright future.