Tuesday, 10 September 2013

When autumn leaves you hankering for comfort

Chard from the potager
The return from France was followed by several days of continued high temperatures (and high humidity), which managed to give the sense that summer was set to continue for a while.

In fact, one of the first things that we became aware of getting back to Blighty this year was just how much earlier the sun seems to set in the UK – party, of course, because of the hour difference, but it still left us feeling that the world was closing in rather suddenly.

However, at the end of last week the temperature had dropped too and, by the weekend, one could sense autumn on the wind. When that happens, food has to change.

The delivery, while I was away, of Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food gave me a starting point, and the discovery within its pages, during my Saturday morning browse with coffee and notepad, of a dish involving chard, was enough to inspire.

In this case, it was pan-fried grey mullet on a bed of chard, with a butter sauce. Fortunately, since mullet isn’t always readily available, the recipe also mentions bass. I found some of that without any problem.

The sauce is made of two finely-chopped banana shallots, with white wine, white wine vinegar and water, all of which are measured accurately to 75ml each and then reduced to a glaze. It has cream stirred in and is then seasoned with lemon juice.

I suspect that there were shortcuts taken in the editing of the book. The picture shows a smooth sauce, but no mention is made of sieving it to remove the shallots. I chose to do so, since that made sense. There’s also a strange, contradictory instruction on the chard.

Okay, with an ounce of culinary experience you should be able to work around such things, but you still don’t expect such issues in a book that was hardly dirt cheap in the first place.

That said, the sauce was delicious, although you really do need to reduce it to a glaze at the first stage, which I didn’t quite manage (you fret that there’ll be nothing left).

The chard – our first from the potager – was nice, and still remarkably tender, given how long it had been growing. It’s cooked in water and butter and lemon juice.

The fish fillets are pan fried, having had the skin side lightly floured. That, I will say, is a superb way to cook fish – and very easy.

Kerridge says to put it in a little oil (I used olive oil), floured skin side down, and leave until you can see that it’s almost cooked through.

Then it really only does need a minute on the other side.

Sunday, however, was set aside for Cooking Without Any Book Anywhere Near (well, not open at any rate).

To start with, a piece of braising steak, bought from Matthew, was trimmed and cut into large pieces, joined in a bowl by a diced carrot, a chunked onion and a chopped stick of celery, plus a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns and (secret ingredient coming up) a good strip of orange peel.

That last item is very much a southern French influence, used in daubes.

A bottle of red wine went over it all and the bowl was covered in cling film and popped into the fridge over night.

The wine in question was a JP Chenet syrah shiraz (under a fiver from Ocado, so complying with Raymond Blanc’s assertion that you should never pay more for wine for the pot).

I picked it because that syrah that we’d had at La Balette was so smoky a taste that I thought the grape would go well with the beef.

Beef, cooked in a southern French style
Fast forward to Sunday morning.

Everything was drained, the wine reserved and the meat separated from the vegetables.

Each piece of beef was then patted dry individually – it’s the only way to do it if you’re going to get it dry enough to brown, but if the pieces are large, it’s hardly very onerous.

Next, a couple of carrots were peeled and cut into large slices, a large onion was diced, four cloves of garlic were peeled and smashed, and a couple of sticks of celery were sliced.

Shortly before we went away, Blanc had been demonstrating, on his new TV series, slow cooking. And to cook a piece of beef, he’d put it in the oven at 160˚C (fan) for four hours.

I’ve been using 150˚C for four to five hours, and it’s been just missing the completely melted point by a tiny amount. A case of: nearly there!

The basis for my 150˚C was that most books that deal seriously with slow cooking – “seriously” meaning more than pretending that 90 minutes or two hours is an example of the method – talk of a low or medium oven.

However, in this case, I preheated the oven to 160˚C.

And then some dripping was melted in a large sauté pan, and all the pieces of meat were browned before being popped into a Le Creuset casserole.

The onion and garlic went into the fat and was softened a little, before a dessert spoon of plain flour was sprinkled on top and stirred in. After a minute cooking, a ladle of the reserved wine was added and stirred carefully in, before another followed.

That too all went into the casserole, together with the other vegetables – three more bay leaves, another couple of strips of orange peel, plenty of black pepper and a shake of ground ginger. The aim was to add a hint of warmth, but not a discernible ginger flavour.

Mixed gently together, the rest of the reserved wine was added, a piece of foil placed over the dish with the lid on top, and then into the oven.

After four hours, it was essentially done. The meat was flaking, the wine had reduced and thickened and sweetened gloriously.

Since it was earlier than I’d intended, I added a little boiling water to thin the liquid and gave it another hour, with the heat reduced to 150˚C. I added some pitted black olives at this point.

After that, it was served with a helping of boiled basmati rice.

I was absolutely delighted with this: finally, I’d got the wine to a taste and consistency that you find if you eat such a dish in France.

The flavour that the orange gave the dish was wonderful. The meat was flaking and the vegetables were all cooked.

As a slight diversion: carrot is remarkable, in it’s ability to be cooked for hours without falling apart.

And reheated gently, it also served well for an easy Monday night supper.

Finally, it seems, I’ve sussed slow cooking. Next up will be something a bit more northern, with beer – and a similar cooking time. Perhaps it’s time for a Vlaamse Stoverij again? Autumn does have its advantages.

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