Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Moussaka Perfected

This is my new favourite dinner. I've tried every permutation and combination and reckon I've hit perfection. Big statement I know but......

I have discovered that you must use lamb. The Greeks don't raise a lot of beef as they don't have the pasture for it. But forget those packets of minced lamb you get in a supermarket. They are invariably greasy and muttoney. The best lamb by a country mile is leftover lamb from a Sunday roast. Just scrape every last bit from the leg or shoulder, including grizzle and fat and with a good knife dice it all up so that it's fine but not like mince.

The next must use ingredient is cinnamon. It's non-negotiable. It's the combination of a spice that's normally used in sweet dishes that gives moussaka it's signature flavour. The last is red wine. The amount you use is up to you. But the more the better.

After that the other ingredients are my own touches. Fresh mint and oregano just seem to work really well with the cinnamon, red wine and lamb.

So here you go. Bear in mind this is a leftover recipe so all measurements are based on what you have. Also if you want to use substitutions I have put them in brackets.

Moussaka Recipe

Cold leftover lamb diced up finely (or at a push lamb mince)
2 aubergines sliced
1 red onion
1 white onion
2 fat cloves of garlic
Half a tin of chopped tomatoes (or passata)
A good squeeze of tomato puree
A good glass of red wine
1 teasp of ground cinnamon (taste and use more if you like)
A handful each of oregano and mint chopped
Salt and pepper

Fry onion and garlic in some olive oil until soft. Add lamb and stir for a few minutes. Add cinnamon. Add tomatoes, tomato puree, red wine. Finally season and add oregano and mint. After about 30 minutes simmering taste and adjust adding more cinnamon, wine, salt, whatever you think you need.

While the above is simmering put the sliced aubergines in the oven on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and put in oven at 180 deg C. They need to just soften for 30 mintues or so.

Layer the aubergines and the lamb mix in an ovenproof dish.

For the topping I have used creme fraiche, Philadelphia, Greek yoghurt. All work equally well. So whatever you have in your fridge.

But you will need about 200g of cheese, yoghurt or creme fraiche and one egg. Add the egg yolk and whisk. Whisk the egg white and fold it in at the last minute. Add a good twist of black pepper and salt and grate some Parmesan into it. Pour this mix over the meat and aubergine. Grate some more Parmesan and pop in the oven at 180 deg C for 40-45 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and some fresh, crusty bread and the rest of the red wine if you have any.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Pig in a Day

Back in October I was invited to the Saveur Food Festival for the Night of a Thousand Feasts to fund raise for the School of Food in Thomastown Co. Kilkenny. We got a tour of the building site (a disused boys' primary school) which was to become the headquarters, by Francis Nesbitt. You can read about it here.

Then recently a Twitter pal Helena Fitzgerald tipped me off that there was a pig butchery course coming up by Stephen Lamb from River Cottage. I just had to go back to see the completed project and I also wanted to get some ideas for what to do with my own pork.

So yesterday I headed off south early in the morning. The day was spent running through the finer points of butchering a side of pork. What struck me is there is not a great deal to it provided you have the right equipment and the space. A side of a pig takes up a whole lot of counter top.

Stephen began the day making a statement that his two favourite ingredients were fat and salt. A brave man but he needn't have worried, he was preaching to the converted.

It was hands on with everyone taking a turn at doing something, gently guided by Stephen. We removed the leg first. There are two sides to a pig obviously, but bet you didn't know one is called bowed, the other flat. Stephen explained to us that the flat side is the side the pig likes to lie on and may be determined by the way it lay in the womb. When he said this I realised that I had noticed my boar always seemed to lie on his left side and his coat is always flattened and matted here.

Rodney, the resident chef in the School of Food then came in with the other leg which had been boned out and soaked in a brine solution overnight before gently simmering for hours. A participant asked him the exact cooking time. His reply "I'm a chef, I don't measure or weigh". I love that. A man after my own heart. You just know when something is cooked. He was then going to roast it in cider, slathered in mustard, honey and brown sugar which he was going to reduce and use as a glaze. It was going to be our lunch. Lots of mouths were already watering.

Then we isolated and gently pulled out the tenderloin or the fillet. He said newbies like myself may not notice that their butcher can easily whip this out and return your pork to you minus it. I actually have had this happen.

Gently guiding the knife to remove the tender loin

No brute force needed just a bit of a hand holding the head
Removing the head was a case of gently working the knife in between the vertebrae and having a lot of patience to get it free. He told us here and in the UK many slaughter houses remove the pig's head and they go for dog food. He said in Italy if this happened there would be riots on the streets. The pig's head is full of meat and can be cooked and boned out to make a delicious brawn (using River Cottage recipe). This had been done the previous day and it was also going to be for lunch. He showed us how to remove the pig's cheek and told us how to make guanciale. A delicious specialty in Italy.

There is a lot of meat on the head
Then we boned out the shoulder to mince for sausages. We were also given an impromptu lesson by a retired and incredibly knowledgeable butcher on the course, on sweet breads and more on the general anatomy of the pig.

Removing the scapula in the shoulder

A heavy duty mincer makes light work of the load

I got a go at using the sausage stuffer
The most important ingredient in making sausages is salt. It should be added at between 1 and 1.5%. After that the other ingredients are flavourings and rusk or breadcrumbs for binding the fat. If you don't add something to bind the fat and the flavourings it will all just run out when you cook the sausages. He gave us some good ideas for gluten free binders.

I had a go at using the sausage stuffer and trying to link the sausages.

After this we broke for lunch. Two big tables laid out with the by now glazed and sliced ham and brawn. Loads of very appetising salads and some bread rolls made by the school baker.

After lunch we were back to the mincer to make a coarse pork liver pate. We got to taste it at the end but I have to admit I'm not a fan of pork liver and this was particularly strong. I would be tempted to have a go with my own pig's liver though as when they are fed organically, it's not as strong.  

Mincing the liver to add to the pork and bacon for pate
The final hour was spent showing us how to cure a belly to make streaky rashers or if you leave it long enough pancetta. So easy. All it takes is patience, salt and brown sugar. No nasty nitrates or as Stephen described it (very aptly) a petrol coloured slick on your packet of bacon. Yuk. Bacon does not have a go-off date. He explained it's only thanks to our health Gestapo that we have to use dates at all. The whole idea of curing pork is to preserve it. For months and years. Isn't it amazing how the human race survived before all these "rules"?

Curing pork belly

Then he talked us through making a leg of your own Parma or Serrano ham. This I will definitely try and I have ear marked my wood shed to hang it in it's muslin sack.

All in all a fantastic day out. I learned loads of little things I didn't know and got to meet some lovely people some of whom are planning to start keeping pigs and will visit mine here. 

You have to hand it to Kilkenny. Great vision and foresight to think of turning a disused boys' primary school into such a great facility.

Go and visit.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Tea and Toast

Tea and toast. Those three little words that mean so much to so many. The potential to sooth, comfort, nourish and celebrate.

While I savoured the two slices of toasted white sliced pan yesterday after 17 hours without food or water, I thought about how they have marked memorable moments in my life.

When I was a child recuperating after a bug. My mother making me tea and toast as I gingerly started to eat again. In those days the bread was cut from a milk loaf that had been wrapped in butter paper. The tea from the old tea caddy kept beside the cooker and the tea pot propped on the gas turned low to keep it hot.

When I gave birth to my son 27 years ago in The Cumberland Royal Infirmary (I love the name of that hospital). The toast was of the sliced pan variety, the tea a bag in a small stainless tea pot. Under normal circumstance I would have turned my nose up at it. But after almost 21 hours in labour with the continuous threat of an emergency section over me, I can still remember how good it tasted. I remember looking at my newborn son in the cot beside me, his eyes wide open staring at the world. The memory is so vivid it could have happened yesterday.

In contrast when my daughter was born after a four hour intense labour, I had been given lunch before they stuck me on that dreaded drip. One moment I was relaxing in bed, the next screaming with pain and hammering the buttons on the Tens machine. The tea and toast was more ceremonial before being put in a wheelchair with her in my arms and moved back up to the ward. I remember trying to resist the wheelchair and the midwife by now probably well used to feisty young mothers, say wearily to me "try to walk so." When my legs gave way beneath me I just meekly hopped in.

So yesterday. It marked the end of an era. An era of fertility. Fertility that for the most part I battled to control. When you have something you take it for granted. When it's taken away you feel a loss. I ate my toast and sipped my tea as all these thoughts went through my mind. Relief that the cramping and inconvenience will now hopefully end. Sadness that I will not experience again those wonderful exhilarating moments that giving birth brings.

The toast was white sliced pan, the tea a bag in a small stainless pot. Full circle. The circle of life.

Does tea and toast bring back memories for everyone or am I just strange?