Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Two seasons, two days, two dishes

For all that the sun has had his hat on several times this last week, the evenings are pulling in and the air is cooling.

It is an inescapable fact that autumn is on the way. And it seems that the record-breakingly wet summer, combined with the late burst of sun and heat, could conspire to produce a spectacularly colourful season.

But while we have a while to wait before we see whether that technicolour explosion actually transpires, an itch has started for seasonal comforts on the plate.

And the weekend gone provided opportunities and encouragements to straddle two seasons in just two days and two meals.

With tomatoes both ripe and ripening, a meal was needed that allowed them to take centre stage.

A pomodoro seemed to be the perfect casting solution.

But there was a complication, since doing a traditional tomato sauce requires far more tomatoes than I had.

There seemed to be one sensible way to deal with this.

So, for two, for a main course:

Take a medium onion and chop finely. Sweat gently in olive oil. Add some finely chopped garlic and continue to cook gently.

Chuck in a tin of chopped tomatoes – in just their own juice.

Let that cook gently for a while.

Check the seasoning.

Add the fresh tomatoes – mine were all small enough that they didn’t need cutting, let alone skinning.

Continue to cook gently until the skins have just split.

Serve over pasta.

Adding the whole tomatoes at the end freshens up the sauce and adds a different bit of texture.

It also allowed the chance to really appreciate the baby orange plums, which were light and sweet as anything. It’s almost a shock to the system to taste such tomatoey sweetness in the UK – and it was most welcome.

For Sunday, I’d decided to go down the slow, slow route.

So on Saturday evening, I sliced carrot and celery, cut some rump into large, bite-size pieces and popped everything in a bowl with a bottle and a bit of red wine, plus thyme, bay and juniper berries.

And it stayed like that until late Sunday morning.

The most fiddly part of the job that follows is draining everything – keep the marinade – and then drying the meat. But it’s worth taking a bit of time to make sure it is all dry.

Then take a cut clove of garlic and smear it around your casserole. Add a good knob of lard and melt.

Add the meat – in batches if necessary – and brown.

In the meantime, in a large pan, pop some diced, smoked streaky bacon, and cook gently until the fat is coming out of the meat.

At that point, add a couple of chopped onions and two or three cloves of garlic, and continue to cook gently until the onion and garlic start taking on a hint of gold.

Add a sliced carrot and a peeled, diced potato, plus two large tomatoes, skinned and chopped, and let it all cook gently for a minute or two.

Now add the marinade. Bring it to a boil and let it bubble and reduce a bit for five to 10 minutes.

Decant all of this into the casserole with the meat, and add further thyme and bay (and anything other herbs you fancy, for that matter).

At this point, I popped in a handful of dried mushrooms too. Then everything was brought back to a simmer, the pot was covered with foil and lidded, and placed into an oven that had been preheated to 120˚C, where it sat happily for around seven hours.

In essence, this is a daube. Strictly speaking, that means a particular type of cooking pot, but it’s come to mean a slow-cooked dish, of a style that’s particularly linked with the south west of France.

Previous experience had suggested that two or even four hours was not long enough to ensure that the gravy/sauce was sweet and the meat so tender that you could cut it with a spoon.

The majority of the recipe is from Elisabeth Luard, who suggests, in European Peasant Cookery, “four hours at least”.

I deviated from her recipe by adding the vegetables and herbs to the overnight marinade – and by adding the dried mushrooms later.

One of the joys of now having pretty much (as far as I know) every English-language book about cookery from the area is that you start being able to learn little details.

The dried mushrooms are popular in Foix in the mountains – we spent a couple of nights there last year. They also use white wine instead of red there, according to Paula Wolfert in The Cooking of South West France, but I decided to just take the mushroom aspect of that regional derivation.

We’d spent much of Sunday gardening and had trimmed a lot of herbs right back to encourage bushier growth. So when I put on some rice to serve with the daube, The Other Half suggested adding some of the mint he’d trimmed. To that I therefore added a finely-chopped orange chilli from the garden.

On Monday, it was simply a question of reheating gently for an hour and then serving with heaps of buttery puréed potato.

For yesterday, there was little meat left, but a very meaty and flavoursome gravy/sauce.

I chucked in a tin of chopped tomatoes, some halved, peeled spuds and some halved chestnut mushrooms, and gave it around an hour. And it did delightfully.

All of which also means four days of pretty easy cooking – and perfectly good eating. And what more can you ask for?

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