Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Going German in the kitchen again

With the new year now well under way, it’s nice to find something different to eat.

Boxing Day left behind it a wake of ham: a boiled ham with sour brown shallot sauce is our one guaranteed Christmas eating tradition – and the only one with big left overs.

We started with ham, with jacket potatoes and pickles on the side – the pear chutney I’d made back in September was finally opened and proved to have lovely depth of flavour.

Then there was ham, egg and chips – with the latter cooked in dripping from Mary.

It's worth pointing out (again) at this point that real chips are just so, so much better than the frozen ones – and cooking them now involves no more hopeful cubes of bread tossed into the fat to see if it’s hot enough. This time, I remembered that one of my cook’s thermometers would tell me exactly the right moment.

Ham, of course, can go between slabs of bread. And it can sit on a plate with sautéed potatoes and carrots à la Robuchon.

These are sliced no thicker than 0.5cm and cooked gently for 25 minutes in a pan with butter, sugar, a pinch of salt and water just to cover, and topped with a disc of parchment paper that’s cut to shape and has four holes speared into it.

The disc is then removed and the cooking continued at a slightly higher temperature for a further five minutes.

And then there are the pickles again.

By which point, one is getting a tad bored of ham – thank goodness it’s now done!

And what better way to celebrate the end of something that started with a German dish – that sour brown shallot sauce gets a mention in Thomas Mann’s Nobel-cited Buddenbrooks – than with another German dish?

Indeed, some of you may have spotted that, for all my love of French food, lunch on Christmas Day was a bit northern European/Baltic in fashion.

Much as I am a Francophile in so many ways, the older I get, the more I feel a sense of northern-central European roots.

So today was the perfect time for herring with a bacon gravy – or Hering mit speckstippe as it is properly known.

It is a dish that I was introduced to some years ago by George, and it combines sweet with sharp quite beautifully. It's also enormously comforting.

Dice some streaky bacon – smoked or not, that’s your choice.

Take an onion or two and chop to similar-sized dice – not too small, because you don’t want this all to melt away.

Pop these into a pan with a little fat and cook very gently until they’re soft and caramelised.

When he ontroduced me to the dish, George suggested vegetable oil: I suspect he realised that, at that stage in my culinary development, lard would have been a step too far.

Serve over plain boiled potatoes and herrings decanted from the container you bought them in.

I used Mrs Elswood's sweet herring fillets (£3.99 for 500g). You'll often find them in the kosher sections of shops.

The bacon was unsmoked (12 rashers for £1.85). I used six.

I admit that the onions were a bit of a treat – I'd spotted Roscoff onions in La Bouche just before new year and bought a string; many chefs recommend them. Okay, not as cheap as your usual onion (they actually have AOC recognition in France), but boy, are they gorgeously sweet!

So was it good? Was it ever!

It's a magnificent, simple dish – but not one you're likely to find in any cookbook. And thus I have George to thank for telling me about it in the first place – and thus being allowed to spread the word.

I did some frozen peas on the side too, so that it provided two portions of fruit and veg for the day, plus loads of other goodies. And as illustrated above, it's not expensive.

But it really is a wonderful dish.

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