Saturday, 6 November 2010

Self preservation society

There are so many things in the food world that you imagine are complicated to make – or perhaps it’s simply that we’ve all got so used to buying them ready-made that we don’t consider actually doing it ourselves.

Preserving is one such thing – and now I’ve realised how easy it is – and how rewarding and how good the results can be – I want to do more and more.

For some time, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing my own duck confit, but had had no luck buying duck legs on Broadway Market (and you can forget supermarkets for such things).

If that sounds a bit extravagant, it should actually work out cheaper than buying them ready-made. I bought a tin of two a few weeks ago – it made a lovely mid-week supper – but the tin was over a tenner. This is a bit bonkers, really, since it’s essentially peasant food.

Nipping to Borough Market briefly, I picked up two very large duck legs for comfortably under £5. Okay, I needed to buy the duck fat too, but that can be recycled over and over for confit once I’ve got going and assuming I decided to do it again. So in other words, after an initial investment (still be cheaper than the tinned variety), my own duck confit will get cheaper and cheaper.

Using the recipe in Hot Sun, Cool Shadow by Angela Murrills (she also points out that there are as many views on how to make duck confit as there are people who make it and, France being France, it causes arguments about which way is best), I mixed course salt with black peppercorns, a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic and a couple of a bay leaves, and then rubbed it into the legs. Then they went in a bowl, were covered in cling film and spent the night in the fridge.

This morning – brighter, clearer and colder than it’s been of late – saw three jars of duck fat decanted into a pan and heated to shimmering, at which stage the duck legs were carefully submerged in the liquid fat, a lid popped on and the heat turned to a minimum.

Being big legs, they got around 90 minutes like that. Then, after being tested with a skewer, they were allowed to cool a little before being carefully lifted out and placed in a large – and sterilised – jar. The fat was then brought back to the boil and sieved into the jar, over the duck legs.

At which point: ‘Argh! I haven’t got enough fat to completely cover them!’ The end of the legs were uncovered. Fortunately, La Bouche is open on a Sunday, so I bolted up the road and they found me two small jars in a backroom. Saved! That was heated while I donned Marigolds and washed up a number of very greasy items, and voilĂ ! Now the legs are safely covered with golden fat, slowly beginning to cool.

And so to the next part of the weekend’s preservation experiments.

Having opened a bottle of liquid pectin to save my quince and medlar jelly last week, I wanted to use it up. So I was contemplating all sorts of jelly and jams.

But once up on Broadway Market, I spotted some delightful mini plum tomatoes on the Isle of Wight tomato stall (which won’t be around for much longer this year).

Earlier in the week, I’d seen a recipe for a tomato and chili jelly online, but it slowly dawned on me that what would be better was a tomato and chili chutney – perfect for the forthcoming festive season.

Like so many other things, chutney is not something I’ve made before. So, with chillis in the house and two punnets of plum toms in my bag, I headed back to the kitchen via the internet, where I checked out further recipes.

The one that caught my eye was a Jamie Oliver one for ‘cheeky chilli pepper chutney’.

So I decided to use that as a guide. I took my tomatoes and halved and de-seeded them (around three dozen of the little lovelies), which also served to remind my newly scarred hands of the morning’s play-fight with Otto: ‘Ouch!’

After draining on kitchen paper, all the halves were placed skin side up on a foil-covered baking tray and placed under a hot grill (about 10cm from the heat source). Two red chillis were also halved, roughly de-seeded (there’s a point to chili seeds, whereas tomato seeds add nothing by way of flavour) and roasted in the same way.

It takes around 15 minutes under my grill, but you can easily tell when they’re done: the skins are charred and, in the case of the tomatoes, were already rising off the fruits as though trying to remove themselves. I removed all the skins, roughly chopped the chillis (the tomatoes didn’t need it) and decanted all the fruits into a bowl.

Then came a small onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped and set to soften in a little olive oil. Improvising, I added green peppercorns (there was a jar in the fridge) and a couple of bay leaves.

When the onion and garlic were softened, the tomatoes and chillis went into the pan, with salt, a very roughly estimated amount of brown sugar and an equally roughly estimated amount of light Balsamic vinegar (one for dipping bread). And then it was all left to simmer away.

Still doing this on something of a wing and a prayer, I decided to consult Delia, the goddess of cookery basics. The Complete Cookery Course revealed that the key to knowing when a chutney is ready is that you can take a spoon through the mix – and it doesn’t instantly fill with the vinegar.

That stage was reached in relatively short order and the mix was decanted into a small jar. It’s cook’s privilege to test, of course, and on the basis of a licked spoon, it’s going to be gorgeous and with a very nice bit of heat.

Delia says you shouldn’t touch a chutney for three months: now it’s ‘only’ seven weeks until C*r*s*m*s, so it won’t have quite as long as she asserts, but at least by doing it now, it’ll have some time to mature a bit.

I look forward to some with cheese. And talking of cheese, last week I found something called Kidderton Ash in Waitrose. Courtesy of Butler’s Farmhouse Cheeses, this is a lovely, delicate goat’s cheese that’s dusted with ash before it’s skin forms. Very nice.

And my rapid sortie to Borough gave me the opportunity to pick up some wonderful Gorwydd Caerphilly and an aged Gouda: the latter is lovely and nutty – the damage to the reputation of Dutch cheeses by the plastic, low-fat (it’s beloved of dieters) excuse for cheese that is Edam reminds me of the damage caused to the reputation of German wines by Blue Nun and Black Tower.

But such delights aside – although never out of reach – it has been a very satisfying weekend on the preservation front. Now all I have to do is wait.

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