Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beef & Stilton Pie

Having well and truly stuffed myself with turkey (no pun intended) and ham over the Christmas Holidays, it was finally time to move on to everyone’s favourite food group: Beef. So at this most festive and joyous time of year, let’s celebrate these ungulates and give thanks for the delicious meaty goodness which they stubbornly bestow onto us. If you ask me there’s absolutely no better way to pay homage to our recently deceased cud-chewing friends than by slow-cooking them, enshrining them in pastry, and serving them with a healthy pile of mash. Moo.

I found a variation of this recipe online several months ago and now, having tried and tweaked it several times, I think I’ve truly cracked it. This pie is sensational - make it.
To start, you’ll need a 10-12 shallots - I’m making two pies so the quantities are doubled. Back in the day during my brief stint as a chef I can remember doing a lot of rubbish jobs, and peeling two dozen shallots ranks up there with the worst of them. Needless to say it was an emotional experience. Grab yourself a chair, stick some good music on and try to hold back the tears.
Fry off the shallots in a bit of butter over medium heat for about 10 minutes until they start to brown. I added a bit of sugar to give them a nice caramelised finish - the sweetness really cuts through the rich sauce when you bite into the pie. Take these off the heat and set aside.
For a large pie, you’re going to need about 500g of stewing beef - shin is an excellent (and cheap) cut, but any type of frying steak will do perfectly, as you’re going to slow-cook it for several hours until it’s lovely and tender. The key to this recipe is time (and thyme, actually).
Cut the beef into man-size chunks and brown off in some butter. If I were writing this at the peak of my university tenure the recipe might’ve ended here with a baguette, a splash of ketchup and couple of Carling...thankfully my tastes have moved on slightly. Add a couple of tablespoons of flour - which will thicken the sauce - and cook for a few minutes, stirring to make sure the meat is coated.
Add about 300ml of beef stock, and the same of a good quality dark beer. It’s a bit of an overused cliche in cooking, that you should never cook with anything you wouldn’t normally drink, but it really does hold truth. The alcohol is going to cook off, and you’re left with just the flavour of the beer sitting there in your food - might as well be something you enjoy drinking! In pies, for me, the darker and richer the better and so I went with a Hook Norton’s Double Stout (4.8%), described on as:
A blend of malts gives Double Stout a character all of its own. Black malt enriches the colour and teases the palate with an unmistakable ‘toast’ flavour. Brown malt gives it the dryness.
I couldn’t taste the toast myself...but I did taste a damn good beer. Luckily for me, two pies meant I needed just a splash from a second bottle and got to enjoy the rest myself - it is Xmas after all. (How long before I can’t use that anymore?)
To the pot add; a few sprigs of thyme, a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire Sauce, a few teaspoons of parsley (fresh preferably but if your parents have dropped the ball on their herb garden as of late then dried works just as well), and a good grating of nutmeg. Season with salt and black pepper, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for at least 2 hours. With about 15 minutes of cooking time remaining add back the shallots and a good handful of chopped mushrooms - remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Aside from mashed potato (a pie’s best friend), my favourite thing to serve with this pie is braised red cabbage. A thoroughly underrated vegetable in my opinion and rarely seen outside of the Christmas Season, (when my Grandma does her best to spill it all over her shirt/lap/the floor) the sharpness of the cabbage works a treat with the pie. 
My recipe couldn’t be simpler; 1 red cabbage cored & sliced, 2 bramley apples, grated, a few sliced shallots (more peeling...), one red chili pepper, a handful of sultanas, a sprinkling of cinnamon, a few generous spoons of brown sugar and 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar. Throw everything in a baking tray and stick in the oven at about 180C for an hour to an hour and a half, mixing all of the ingredients together regularly. 
Shortcrust pastry, as I’ve recently discovered, is incredibly simple to make and whilst shop-bought is admittedly slightly simpler, there really is no substitute for homemade. 
I personally do not think a pie counts as a pie unless it has both a top and a bottom crust. It needs to be completely self-supportive if removed from the baking dish, otherwise it’s just a casserole with a pastry top. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway - for one whole pie, you’ll need 250g flour, 110g butter, a pinch of salt and a jug of about 100ml of water. Cube the butter and mix in with the flour and salt until you have a breadcrumb-like consistency. Slowly add the water until the pastry binds. Done. Wrap in cling-film and stick in the fridge for about 15 minutes.
Divide the pastry into two, roll flat onto a floured surface and line a buttered baking dish with the bottom and side crust. Flatten around the edges, trim off any excess and prick the bottom with a fork several times. I’m told this helps the bottom layer get crispy - for all I know it does absolutely nothing, but I still do it. Place a layer of baking parchment inside and fill with baking beans or anything else that is solid, heavy and will withstand high temperatures. I use coins when I’m back home, but be inventive...go nuts. Stick back in the fridge for just a few more minutes (this stops the pastry from shrinking back, and then blind bake in the oven at 180C for about 10 minutes.
And now you’re basically there. Remove the pie base from the oven and fill with the filling mixture. Crumble up some stilton and add this to the dish, sprinkling on top and pushing into the sauce as well to make sure it’s evenly spread throughout. 
Make an egg wash by mixing an egg with a little bit of water and brush the edges of the pastry before rolling out your top crust, carefully placing on top. Crimp the edges with a fork, poke a few holes to let the steam escape and, if you’re like me and have nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon, use the excess pastry to decorate the pie as and how you see fit. Finish off by brushing the pie with the egg wash and sprinkling some thyme and rock salt on top. 
Bake for about 50 minutes at 180C. Eat delicious pie. Receive praise and adoration.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Mushroom Risotto

When a friend of mine told me this week that he was going to try one of the recipes from my blog, but had to go out to buy some cumin first, I was quite proud but mostly incredibly amused. 'Buy cumin?!' I scoffed with a pretentious chuckle. 'You don't have any? Why don't you take some from our store-cupboard, would you like it ground or in seeded form?' Admittedly, I found it strange...but then again, most people would probably find it strange that I have two kinds of cumin in the house. And most normal people wouldn't have three half-empty bags of arborio rice lying around calling out for a mid-week risotto. But I don't particularly care - I bloody love risotto.
For something that seems a bit fancy and provokes a fair amount of 'ooh, get you' - risotto is so simple to put together, providing you're willing to put in a little bit of time and effort. If you've got 45 minutes to spare, a sturdy wooden spoon and a pair of strong're laughing (and eating risotto whilst you're laughing). You're also gonna need: 1 onion, a couple cloves of garlic, about 300g of arborio risotto rice, parmesan cheese, some parsley, butter, good quality mushrooms, 1.5 litres of chicken stock, and 100ml of white wine or dry Cinzano. (Special thank you to my sister to providing the Cinzano, and also to Wills & Kate for providing a reason for my sister to provide the Cinzano. I don't think I'm alone when I say that we need more Royal Weddings.)
We used these oyster mushrooms which, apart from tasting delicious, look really awesome. As a kid I never used to like mushrooms, these days I absolutely love them. Throw some chestnuts in a bolognese, a fat portobello on a steak..they're just so much fun, guys. I also learnt this week that mushrooms are neither plant nor animal...which, I'm not going to lie, totally blew my mind. Anyhow, keep a few aside as a nice chunky garnish and roughly chop the rest, stalks and all.
Sweat off the diced onion and garlic in a bit of olive oil, throw in the chopped mushrooms and let them saute for a couple of minutes. Bask in the amazing oniony/garlicy/mushroomy smell that starts to take over your kitchen. Happy days.
Tip in the rice and cook off for a minute or so, stirring constantly and making sure it's completely coated in the oil - pour a bit more in if you need. Add the wine, stirring until the alcohol's cooked off. Now's when you need to show some patience - pouring the stock in one ladle at a time, stirring to make sure the rice has absorbed all of the liquid before you add any more. This should take about 30 minutes or so - having an open kitchen and a decent game of football on the TV helps a lot. Having an open kitchen and a poor game of football on the TV does not.
Good food, good beer. I made my way through a couple of these whilst cooking. If I have learnt one thing from Christmas shopping this year it is this: if you're going to buy somebody beer, and you're going to buy them this beer more than a week before Christmas, they're probably not going to see this beer. (Reminder - I need to buy more beer...)
Saute the leftover whole mushrooms in a little bit of butter for a minute or two, tops. A generous seasoning of salt and pepper and that's all they need. If you like mushrooms, these are going to taste amazing. If you don't like mushrooms, you probably shouldn't be making mushroom risotto.
Once the stock has all been absorbed, and the risotto has a nice al dente texture, then you're good to go. Take it off the heat, finish with a nice chunk of butter, a good handful of parmesan and some chopped parsley. Serve to friends, let them tell you it was delicious, make them do the washing up. Finito.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Minted Lamb Burgers

We've always made our own burgers, and have done for as long as I can remember - it's a real traditional American thing. Twenty-odd years ago, when my family first moved from Britain to the States, my dad was sent down to the supermarket to buy some burgers for a barbecue we were planning. He was quickly convinced - via the medium of lynch mob - that Americans make their own burgers. Good old American meat. Good old American onions. Good old American herbs and spices. Two decades and several hundred patties later, you still can't beat burger night.
My burgers all pretty much start with an onion and a good chunk of garlic. Anything goes after that. I'm also putting together a tomatoey/herby/yoghurty chutney which I'm sort of making up as I go along.
I first realised that I was more than a little bit obsessed with cooking a few years ago, when my sister asked me what I wanted for Christmas. 'A Jamie Oliver Mezzaluna' - I said. It's things like that which make me cool. Still, I've got a Jamie Oliver Mezzaluna and that's the important thing.
Lamb mince, red onion, garlic, teaspoon of cumin, green chili, mint, salt and pepper.
My problem with making burgers is that I often try to show off and feed somebody a burger the size of their head. I resisted the urge to split the mix down the middle and instead made three - one for lunch tomorrow perhaps.
Homemade chips are a treat as well. Cut chunky, par-boil for just a few minutes, toss in pre-heated oil with some bashed-up cloves of garlic, rosemary and sea salt - cook in a hot oven, 40 minutes or so.
I put this photo in partly to show what I put in the chutney (tomato, red onion, mint and coriander, lemon, cumin and yoghurt), but mostly because if you blur your eyes it looks a bit like the Ivory Coast flag. Might annoy Didier Drogba with that on Twitter later...
And that's that - job done. I served it in some warm focaccia bread (M&S, obviously) with a slice of cucumber for a bit more veg, and a dollop of the chutney. Can't go wrong. All in all, today was an enjoyable day off work. Let's do it all again tomorrow.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Gingerbread House

Call me a scrooge, but I've struggled to get into the Christmas Spirit so far this year. Perhaps it's because I've been so busy at work, perhaps it's the incessant rain beating down on the North of England that turns everything a miserable shade of grey. Perhaps, (and this is the most likely) I'm just a grumpy dude who needs to lighten up once in awhile. Having said that, when Charlie suggested that we make a Gingerbread House this weekend my eyes lit up like a 6-year old on Christmas morning...I couldn't be more excited.

So we headed off into town for candy...lots and lots of candy. 
lots and lots of candy
Being a Sunday, we decided to kick the day off with a trip down to the local for a full English washed down with a pint of the black stuff (or in Charlie's case, a J2O). Every now and again there's absolutely nothing better than a couple of reheated sausages, overdone eggs and a soggy mushroom - it's good to be British.
fried stuff...
So we quickly rounded up the necessaries, including a rather hefty bag of pick-and-mix from my new favourite shop - Sugarcane...I could quite literally spend hours in there. I'm like a kid in a candy store (it had to be done).
I'd never made gingerbread before, and as it turns's an absolute cinch. You will need...
  • 250g butter
  • 200g dark muscavado sugar
  • 7 tablespoons golden syrup (or if you run out, like i did, substitute a couple tbsps of dark just as well)
  • 600g plain flour
  • 2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 4 tsp ground ginger

Gently melt the butter, sugar and syrup, then mix into the dry ingredients until it's a nice elastic, fudge-like consistency. Let it cool, roll it out on a floured surface to about 1/2 cm thickness, cut out the walls, sides and any other shapes you're going to need and transfer to baking sheets.
 Bake at about 200C for 12 minutes or so, until the gingerbread just starts to brown around the edges. I found that it expanded big-time (the gingerbread, not...nevermind), so pull it out quickly (stop it) and whilst it's still warm trim it back down to the right size (sick). Let cool.
For the icing, either cheat and buy a tub of Royal Icing (which, admittedly, we tried to do..but were unsuccessful in our search), or find yourself an able-bodied girlfriend with strong wrists to whisk together 2 egg whites and 500g of icing sugar to make a thick, sticky icing.

And that's that. Use the icing to cement the foundations together, let it harden and then - if you're like my girlfriend - clean everything up, set up 'decorating stations' and have some good, organised fun. If you're like me, throw everything on the table, shove sugar in your face and go nuts creating the kind of bonkers house that only Krusty the Clown on an acid trip would ever consider inhabiting. Now it's Christmas.