Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Here comes a spice girl

Yesterday was another of the gloomy but mild days that seem to have characterised this autumn so far, but it was perfect for restocking on stock – and a little experimentation.

The remains of Sunday’s roast chicken needed using up.

Since I'd only travelled back from a weekend’s work in Brighton on Sunday afternoon, The Other Half had not only done the weekend's shopping, but was looking after dinner.

Now, while he fully appreciates the value of homemade stock, he isn't over-enthused by the smell of it being cooked, so we'd deliberately arranged that Monday would be my stock making day, with him out of the flat and the kitchen all to myself (and the cats, who were determined to help).

First, of course, the rest of the meat needed stripping from the bones. But once that was done, all that remained went into my biggest pot, together with the innards, the rest of a bottle of white wine that was hanging around aimlessly, carrot, celery, onion, peppercorns, bay and thyme leaves from the overcast garden, and water almost up to the top of the pot.

And it sat there, gently simmering away, for around an hour – losing little in volume and gaining much in the way of flavour.

Drained and decanted into jars to cool, it was time for a sort of improvised ploughman’s, with Cheddar, Shropshire Blue, lunch tongue, some pickle and a slice of the decent bread that The Other Half had found at the market.

Which does bring me to a little observation.

Having spent the previous days curled up at home with a cold, it seemed to all but disappear once I hit the seaside – and then reboot within an hour of so of chugging into London.

Is the air in this town really so bad?

Anyhow, back to that chicken.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself experimenting one evening with spices, roasting a few and then pounding them in the mortar.

I don’t know what had come over me – I’ve never really been the sort of girl to spice up my life that way.

After all, it’s so easy to use too much, and then the headlines won’t be good for any wannabe cook.

My mother was never much of a one for spices – Christmas cake and pudding, I’m sure, although spice is not what springs to mind when I recall the taste of those.

And my first experience of anything spicy, as an adult, was a disaster.

A friend took me to the Royal Exchange Manchester to see Robert Lindsay in Philoctetes, and since he’d once worked in the restaurant there, treated me to a meal.

Curiosity kicking in, I tried a curry. It blew the roof off my mouth – it felt burnt for days. I didn’t touch spice (or heat) for years.

In recent times, though, my appreciation of chili has developed, but apart from the odd shaving of nutmeg on a custard, spice has been left pretty much in the cupboard.

Yet there I was, roasting mustard seeds and tentatively adding the pounded result to ground ginger and a couple of other things, before it went carefully into the day's dish.

The result was subtle but enjoyable.

So after adding a little spice to the recent slow-cooked venison shank, I decided to try again.

This time, it was a case of roasting more seeds – mustard, black onion, cumin and fennel: don’t ask me how much of each, because I haven’t a clue. It was all about judging by eye what seemed worth getting the pan out for, without doing too much.

It was all pounded merrily and had smoky paprika added.

And so to the cooking.

Two medium onions and three cloves of garlic were diced and slipped into the pan to soften in olive oil, followed by half a thinly-sliced red chili from this year’s crop, and then the spice mix.

Once that was blended through, the meat that I had stripped from the bird followed, to be gently folded in.

Tasting followed, with a general feeling of satisfaction, before a spoon of St Dalfour fig jam was added. The brand is worth noting, since it uses no extra sugar to set its rather excellent conserves.

And to all that was added the trimmings from Sunday’s potato fondants, which The Other Half had rustled up to go with the chicken. Just a few thin slices – but why waste anything?

The whole lot was lidded and cooked very gently for around half an hour, before a dozen halved chestnut mushrooms were tumbled in.

Not long after, with basmati rice nearing completion, there was a final check for seasoning Рand a little salt added Рbefore a spoon of cr̬me fraiche was stirred through.

If the result hardly looked like an example of stunning haute cuisine, it was tasty and satisfying.

And there's a lovely sense of adventure to experimenting with combinations of spices. What will I do next time?

Because one thing's sure: spice won't be consigned to a custard or hot cross buns any longer.

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