Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mushroom heaven – and some cracking pork

If the miserable weather has made gardening difficult, it has made food no easier. The body wants a change – lighter foods, different tastes. But the continuing cold has had a different impact.

Over Easter, I experimented with an Italian approach: a first course of cauliflower, served with a drizzle of my very best virgin oil and some of last year's nasturtium ‘capers’, both of which added a lovely burst of pepperyness.

It worked really well and was followed with grilled lamb chops with lemon.

That’s a great way to enjoy vegetables – although, even more than with the traditional British way of serving your greens, it depends on quality. The ‘caper-style’ nasturtiums are really pleasing.

One of the advantages is that it’s so much easier to ensure that the vegetables are cooked precisely as you want them.

There was also a roasted chicken: done River Café style, cooked for three and a half hours: it was as enjoyable as ever, succulent and flavoursome.

For those who haven’t tried it before, the method is simple.

Heat your oven to 80˚C (fan). Place your bird the usual way up in as tight-fitting a dish as possible, stuffed with … well, whatever you fancy, really.

The recipe in River Café Two Easy suggests rosemary, sage and garlic. In this case, it was garlic, some thyme from the garden and a couple of getting-past-their-best lemons, quartered – simply because that was what was in the house.

You then add approximately 200ml of water to the dish and pop it in the oven for an hour.

After that, turn the bird over and cook for a further hour. Then give it a third hour back in its original position.

Take it out, massage butter into the flesh, season, add 100ml of white wine or vermouth – again, it can depend on what you have in or taste; and frankly, a little more water will ensure it’s cooked fine. And then place back into the oven, with the temperature now turned up to 170˚C, for half an hour.

Ridiculously easy – and wonderfully effective.

In what was rather an Italian weekend, a big pan of homemade minestrone proved once again how this classic, done properly, is comforting and tasty and hearty, yet it has a freshness about it too, that makes it perfect for such times.

If all the ingredients are fresh, it’s really an early summer soup, but frozen peas will do (blanched rather than adding straight to the pan and bringing down the temperature) and tinned tomatoes and borlotti beans also help.

The pancetta was British, incidentally, from Downland Pork. And very nice it was too, as are all their products.

And so this last weekend, the Italian theme continued.

On Saturday, it was time for mushroom heaven.

Perhaps few things are worse than mushrooms cooked so that they become rubbery. But mushrooms treated well are a thing of wonderful flavour.

So here’s an idea, adjusted and adapted from a Gordon Ramsey recipe to make it simpler.

Take a shallot or two, a stick of celery, a couple of cloves of garlic and a little red chili. Chop finely and cook gently in olive oil until softened.

Add either white wine or vermouth – or just stock.

If using booze, you need about a glassful, and then reduce by half and then add about another generous glassful of vegetable or chicken stock and reduce again by half.

If using just stock, use two large glasses full to start with.

In the meantime, take some dried mushrooms and rehydrate them in a mug of boiling water. Strain the mushrooms and add the liquid to the pan with the alcohol and stock.

Chop these mushrooms finely, together with approximately 400g (for two) chestnut mushrooms.

Strain the booze/stock mixture and return the liquid to a clean pan, discarding the flavourings.

Add the chopped mushrooms and simmer gently until cooked. To this, add a good tablespoon of double cream and heat gently.

Serve over tagliatelle, with plenty of chopped flat leaf parsley to garnish.

That is a heavenly dish of mushroomy pleasure.

And a simple a salad of endive leaves and segmented blood orange, with a straightforward vinaigrette, makes a perfect starter.

Not that that was the only Italian-influenced dish of the weekend.

For Sunday dinner, a piece of belly pork had been purchased from Downland.

In the morning, I pounded fennel seeds in a mortar, together with a couple of cloves of garlic, the zest of a lemon, and some dried thyme and oregano, before rubbing it into the scored skin of the pork.

Covered, that went back into the fridge to marinade.

Later, the oven was heated to 180˚C (fan).

The meat had coarse salt rubbed into the scores and was then laid in a dish with a large glass of white wine. Again, vermouth or plain water would work absolutely fine. Or, for that matter, dry cider.

It was cooked for half an hour before the temperature was reduced to 150˚C.

You do need to watch the liquid and add a little more if it dries out.

It was roasted for a further two hours before being rested in a warm place for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, scrape all the meaty fragments from your oven dish and either pop it on the hob or decant everything into a pan to do that.

If there’s a lot of fat, you can get rid of some of that, before adding a teaspoon of plain flour and whisking in.

Cook gently and add liquid as needed – either boiling water or vegetable water from anything you’re cooking as an accompaniment.

So Italian in one sense, but with a gravy that was 100% British – and utterly gorgeous.

The crackling wasn't quite crackling – you could pour boiling water over it before cooking (or adding the rub) but I decided against that. On the other hand, the meat was glorious: sweet and tender and wonderfully satisfying.

And to accompany, garlicky, crushed, roasted spuds, with sliced leeks on the side.

Easy food, but wonderfully tasty and just hitting the right notes for the weather.

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