Mint Sauce

mintAugust and September is the best time to harvest summer mint leaves for mint sauce – a versatile ingredient that is great in salad dressings as well as roast lamb.

Mint is an amazingly versatile herb equally at home in both sweet and savoury dishes, able to lift new potatoes or fresh peas to new levels of flavour or cut through rich curry dishes in raita.  Summer always brings a glut of mint to our garden, and the leaves are strewn extravangantly over even the most unlikely of meals (‘Any mint with your beans on toast?’).  But in these happy times the memory of winter lurks menacingly in the distance, and the time comes to squirrel away some of the leaves to secure the bright flavour for the coming seasons.

Mint Sauce

Ingredients
A handful of fresh mint leaves, stalks removed
Cider vinegar (enough to cover)
1tsp sugar

1. Chop the mint leaves finely.
2. Place in a ‘Kilner’ type jar as in the above photo.
3. Press down and pour in enough cider vinegar to cover.
4. Add sugar and mix thoroughly.

The sauce is ready after a few hours, but you’ll find the flavour will improve after a few weeks.  As well as the usual uses with roast lamb, mint sauce is great in salad dressings – mix a few tablespoons with honey, cracked black pepper and olive oil for a fantastic summer salad dressing.  Maybe not this summer though – looking out of my window it’s starting to feel distinctly wintery already…

Roasting on a Kettle Barbecue

charcoal
Photo: Stefan Wagner, trumpkin.de

We’ve all enjoyed crispy black sausages with that soft pink centre from the hands of enthusiastic but inept barbecuers, and most of us have probably been responsible for our own crimes against cooking over coals – but there are a few sure-fire methods that guarantee success on the barbie.  One of the best is done by turning the whole barbecue concept on its head and using it to roast rather than grill…

Singed Eyebrows

A few years ago, a friend cooked some burgers on a battered old kettle barbecue we’d found in the back garden of our rented house.  They were fat and round, hand-made and juicy, but the way he cooked them was unlike anything I’d seen before – he put the lid back on the bbq during cooking!  He claimed he was trying to reduce the temperature and cook them evenly from all round.  I thought he was mad – reduce the temperature?!  What about the roaring furnace heat that we all know is an essential part of barbecuing?? How can it be a barbecue without singed eyebrows? But sure enough, when he took the lid off a few minutes later – they were cooked evenly, top and bottom, and with no burned bits.  It was like magic.  And they tasted incredible, the way you imagine bbq food should (but never does) taste. The way I barbecued would never be the same again…

When it comes to barbecue cooking, we have to look across the pond to the US for the real expertise.  Now this is a nation that knows how to barbie – rows and rows of huge meat joints draped over grills the size of aircraft hangars which make our disposable foil tray barbies look rather pathetic (‘How you gonna fit a cow on that boy?’). Kettle barbecues (such as those made by Weber) are as commonplace as sandwich toasters, and few Americans would let the season or climate dictate whether they could fire up the grill.  Dare I say it, if fine cooking is French, then barbecue most definitely belongs to the Americans.

Smokey Barbecue Flavour

American ribs, Photo: Christian Matias

                                               Photo: Christian Matias

Roasting on the barbecue instead of cooking directly over the coals is a great way of reducing the heat, increasing the overall cooking time available, and making the whole process more friendly and familiar like oven cooking, while maintaining the fantastic flavour that you get from barbecue cooking.  Many recipes advise starting in the oven and finishing on the barbie for 15 minutes, but by roasting on the barbecue you’re getting as much smokey barbecue flavour as you can into your food.

You’ll need a kettle barbecue (i.e. one with a lid) which are now widely available.  Maintaining a consistent heat in a kettle barbecue can be fraught with difficulty; at any one time the temperature is either going up or down, but never remaining constant. It can be like navigating a barge – you only see the results of your actions when it’s too late to make any changes, or you over compensate and end up way beyond where you aimed for.  One easy way of maintaining a constant temperature with no fuss is the ‘Minion Method’.

BBQ Roasting – The Minion Method

Like all great discoveries, the Minion Method was created as a result of not reading the instructions.  In an astoundingly relaxed approach to competitive cooking, Jim Minion bought his first Weber Smokey Mountain (an elongated version of a kettle barbecue used for smoking) on the morning of a tournament, and essentially invented this method on the fly rather than waste his time looking at the manual.  There are several variations, most with the aim of allowing ‘low and slow’ cooking periods of 10 hours plus at 100-120 C (225-250 F), but for the hungry and impatient the method I’ve outlined below is a great way of turning a kettle bbq into a consistently heated oven for a period of around 4-6 hours maximum.

1. Place 8 briquettes on one side of the kettle (on the bottom grate), then a firelighter and 8 more briquettes on top, as in the diagram below.  Light the firelighter using a long match.  Put a foil tray on the other side of the bbq with a small amount of water in it (and some herbs such as rosemary and sage if you like). Allow the briquettes to burn in the uncovered barbecue for 20-40 minutes until all of the charcoal is grey.

Minion1

2. Arrange 32 more briquettes in 2 layers around the lit charcoal making sure that all charcoal is touching another piece (meaning each piece will light off the one next to it).  Put the top grate on, place the lid over the kettle and bring the temperature to around 175 C (350 F – this should take around 5-10 minutes), then put your joint above the water bath and put the lid back on.

3. Leave the bottom vent on your kettle open, and reduce the top vent to around half open:

kettle bbq temperature gauge

Tips
– Use the best quality briquettes you can, as some have nasty chemical additives that can taint the food – Australian Heat Beads are a safe bet and available at most supermarkets or online.
– Baste the joint every 30-45 minutes, preferably with a liquid containing a high amount of fat (if you can get to the liquid collecting in the water bath then this is ideal).
– The joint will brown as it is cooking – this method is ideal for cooking joints that will roast for a long time (4 hours+) such as pork shoulder or pork belly/ribs, or it can be used to barbecue a whole chicken.  If you find that the skin is not crisp enough at the end, finish it in a very hot oven for around 15 minutes (alternatively you can do this at the start before cooking on the bbq). You may also be able to crisp it up by moving it over the coals near the end of cooking, making sure you turn it often.
– If you need the cooking temperature higher or lower, begin with more or less lit briquettes (the added coals don’t effect the cooking temperature, only the length of cooking). If you are looking for a smokier flavour, scatter pieces of woodchip throughout the unlit coals to produce a constant stream of smoke.
– If you own a Weber kettle barbecue they have a handy temperature indicator built into the lid, alternatively you can use an oven thermometer or even just close your eyes and hope for the best! 
– If you want to cook other items at the same time, you can put fast cooking food such as steaks, burgers, sausages and small meat portions on top of the coals, but try to lift the lid as little as possible in order to maintain the heat.
So instead of treating your family and friends to the usual blackened burger/sausage combo this bank holiday weekend, why not try roasting whole chickens or pork shoulder joints on a kettle bbq.  And don’t let the British weather stop you – as long as the air vent holes are not directly above the coals or meat, there’s nothing stopping you from cooking in the rain (you’re on your own keeping yourself dry though).

Jamón Ibérico – Fine Food with No Bitter After Taste

Jamón Ibérico, an artisan product that is not only renowned for its flavour, but also shows the benefits of good animal welfare.

On a trip to Barcelona a few years ago, a work colleague described with great enthusiasm a Spanish ham made from the meat of black pigs left to roam free in the mountains and eat acorns.  Beyond my surprise that pigs ate acorns (though of course Piglet was very keen on them), the idea seemed very romantic, and a far cry from the questionable animal welfare practices that plague most mass-produced meat products.

Jamón Ibérico is becoming well-known across the world, and is an artisan product of such a standard to be mentioned in the same breath as caviar and champagne.  The hams come from the black Ibérico pig or ‘pata negra’, a pig with layers of fat running through the muscle which allows the hams to be cured for much longer (two years or more).

Despite my delight at the image of all these pigs running through the mountains, gorging on acorns, this is not the case for all Jamón Ibérico – only the pigs designated for ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ status (literally, Acorn Ibérico Ham) enjoy this winter ‘montenara’ period of immense gluttony for 3-4 months.  And as gluttony goes, it’s impressive – each pig can gain up to 2 lbs per day, doubling their weight over the period.  It’s little wonder that the Spanish refer to the pigs as ‘olives on legs’.

In addition to the bellota PDO variety, the range of products produced under the moniker is as confusing as balsamic vinegar, and not always from free range animals.  Simon Majumdar wrote an excellent article in the guardian last year on the different types – look for the aforementioned Jamón Ibérico de bellota, Jamón Ibérico de recebo or Jamón Ibérico cebo de campo which are all outdoor reared.

As easy as that sounds, it may not always be possible.  I bought the ham in the photo above from the excellent Darts Farm in Topsham, Devon. At the time, I knew nothing of these variations, and it was described simply as ‘Iberico Ham’.  I called them to ask if there were any more details on the label for the ham, but it apparently simply says ‘Jamón Ibérico’.

The price was comparable to the bellota variety (compared to the online price from bellota.co.uk), and the taste was incredible, nutty and sweet, similar to a mature cheddar, but with a flavour that kept on changing and developing. It’s something that any meat-eater should taste at least once in their life – a true example of an artisan food with characteristics that elevate it far above mass-produced fair. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I’m sure I could detect a flavour reminiscent of acorns (now I just need to eat an acorn to make sure).

Crucially, despite the price this is not an elitist food. You don’t have to have a ‘sophisticated pallet’ to appreciate it, pure and simple it is just very, very tasty.  Open your mouth, pop it in, close your eyes and enjoy.

I bought about 50g for £5, and it was well worth it even for those few slices.  If I had one complaint, it was that the standard of carving was not up to much (see that chunky looking wad at the front of the plate), so I ended up with scraps and chunks rather than neat wafer thin slices. Next time I plan to glare at the carver throughout the slicing process, and maybe wail dramatically if the slices come out too thick.

I should probably apologise now for making reference to Piglet in a post about ham. Sorry about that.

Steamed Mussels in Rich Tomato and Tarragon Sauce

Mussels in Tomato and Tarragon Sauce

Fresh mussels steamed in a tomato and tarragon broth – a heavenly rich dish dotted with little explosions of sweet tarragon and sharp capers.

Sometimes the best recipes come from an empty cupboard – and this is such a recipe.  I’d been planning to make the traditional moules marinieres with white wine and shallots, however I then remembered we’d drunk the white wine the night before. Ho hum. But what I did have was tomatoes, shallots and a bottle of tarragon vinegar demanding to be used…

Ingredients

All quantities are per person for a main course sized serving.

20-30 mussels, cleaned and debearded
A knob of unsalted butter (about 15g)
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Half a tin of tomatoes, chopped
1 sprig of lemon thyme
1 bay leaf
Bunch of chopped parsley
2 tbsp tarragon vinegar*
6 capers, roughly chopped
Salt and Pepper to taste
Olive oil for dressing

1.  Rinse off the mussels and discard any that don’t close when tapped.

2. Heat the butter on a medium heat, then add the shallots and cook until they turn clear.

3. Add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, chopped parsley and seasoning (not too much salt though as the liquid in the mussels will be fairly salty), turn up the heat.  When mixture is bubbling fiercely, add the mussels and place a lid on the pan.

4.  Shake the pan occasionally, then after a couple of minutes take off the lid and douse with tarragon vinegar.  Put the lid back on and cook for 2 more minutes, still shaking occasionally.

5. Remove the lid, and pour the mussels and liquid into a serving bowl, discarding the thyme and bay leaf.  Scatter over the chopped capers, and dress with olive oil (about 1 tbsp).

This is a simple, rewarding dish that can be made in a few minutes with little fuss.  The tarragon vinegar sneaks inside some of the mussels so that you get occasional sweet bursts, combining well with the odd smidgen of sharp capers and the rich tomato sauce.  Obviously it would be a crime not to dip big chunks of crusty bread in the sauce. People say not to eat the mussels that are still partly closed, but I always crowbar them open and I’m still living to this day.

In the picture above I included whole capers, but found it a little too intense (and they all slid away into the sauce), hence the recommendation to chop them. Also, chuck a little bit of white wine in there if you like, why not, assuming you haven’t drunk it already…

*tarragon vinegar is pretty easy to make – stick a few sprigs of fresh tarragon into a bottle of white wine vinegar, wait a few weeks, voila – tarragon vinegar.

Early Sloes

Sloes in Cornwall
First sloes of the year?

 

Early August sloes abound in the South West of England, but if you’re looking to make sloe gin, you’ll need to wait until September or ideally after the first frost…

 

 

No-one can forget their first taste of sloe gin – glistening scarlet, sweet and sticky, usually proferred with great ceremony by a proud host or hostess and rarely limited to a single glass…

Traditional wisdom states that sloes should be only be picked in October or November, after they have been softened by the first frost and are truly ‘ripe’ (though I defy anyone to eat one straight from the tree without pulling a face like an angry baby and spitooning it skywards after the first bite).

But this is something of a cache 22 – to wait for the best fruit results in the smallest harvest, as the birds and squirrels are less particular about the sourness of these plump little berries. The Cottage Smallholder tried an excellent experiment a few years ago (article here), and found that although the post-frost October berries produced the best, a compromise can be had by picking in September and freezing overnight to simulate the effects of a frost.  Alternatively, pick them at different times, and treat yourself to the ‘Finest Reserve’ sloe gin some time in early December (go on, it never lasts beyond Christmas anyway).

 

Balsamic Vinegar – How to Spend Less & Get More…

Trying to choose from the army of balsamic vinegars now available in supermarkets can be a confusing experience – but can you get a better quality product without breaking the bank?

During my early childhood, my parents try to disguise the fact that I was a generally unpleasant child with the fashionable new-age diagnosis of an ‘e-numbers allergy’.  All of the brightly coloured psychadelic delights that peppered my friends lives were gathered up and disposed of, and I was put on a restricted diet that would make a puritan seem indulgent.

Given that I grew up in the 1980s, a time when food manufactures were enthusiastically heaping mountains of exotically named chemicals into anything that stayed still long enough, this resulted in my mother having to prepare almost every item of food herself and maintain close relationships with all health food shop owners in a 30 mile radius.

Aside from the shopping and cooking requirements, my diet was an administrative nightmare  – elaborate packed lunches in advance of any trips, pre-emptive phone calls were made to bewildered parents hosting birthday parties, and my mother would painstakingly explain at great length to blank faced waitresses that any remotely unnatural ingredient would cause me to turn scarlet and ascend the curtains at speed.  The real low point was when a stony faced B&B owner in North Wales took my colour allergy a little too literally and served me a pallid plate of cod and cauliflower…

But despite my ambitions to make up for such a chemically deprived youth, my initial adulthood enthusiasm for unnaturally coloured goodies of all kinds gradually dimmed, and I developed a snooty disdain for the few foods that still contain artificial colourants today.  I will obsessively study the ingredient lists of even the most innocuous products, and while the usual suspects have mostly been brought into line (think smarties and party rings – the bain of any e-number restricted birthday party attending 7-yr old), those that remain are an somewhat unexpected.

Gherkins with ‘Tartrazine’ yellow food colouring? Horseradish sauce with ‘Titanium Dioxide’ (also in paint and sunscreen in case you’re running low)? But one of the real surprises is an ingredient that most of us have in our store cupboard, and would consider a traditional and natural product.

Balsamic vinegar is a relative newcomer as a staple larder ingredient – helped along in no small part by the liberal glugs dolled out by Jamie Oliver over anything from roasted tomatoes to barbecue sauce, it now has an ever growing section of the supermarket dedicated to it, and enjoys a place in cupboards across the land.  It has gone beyond being a simple alternative vinegar in salad dressings, and many of us will now happily bring it out to enliven summer strawberries or as a foil to garlic and rosemary in lamb marinades.

But despite the history and traditional place in Italian cuisine of ‘Aceto Balsamico’, the version we are most likely to be using is a recently developed commercially produced version which is a far cry from the aged artisan product produced for centuries in Reggio Emilia and Modena.  The massive increase in demand for balsamic vinegar through the 1980s and 90s led to development of products that could be produced quickly and at low cost, and this is reflected in the standard of many of the vinegars sold today – many (in fact the majority) are no more than wine vinegar with sulphur caramel colouring (that’s right, the same colouring that goes into Coca Cola).

So should we all go out and demand ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’, the DOP term guaranteeing the original product, aged to a minimum of 12 years?  Er, not so fast.  The time and effort required to produce such an ingredient commands a hefty price tag – melburyandappleton.co.uk offers 100ml of 12 year old Balsamico Tradizionale for £77.25, the same amount of a 25 yr old is almost double that.  This is an ingredient to be dripped, not glugged!

But there’s no need to resign ourselves to buying poor quality imitations of the real thing.  A little bit of label reading can make a big difference – and contrary to what you’d expect, spending more does not always guarantee better quality.

Andy Appleton, head chef at Fifteen Cornwall, is a man who knows about balsamic vinegar.  It’s an ingredient central to the simple Italian inspired food they serve up every day.

“We don’t used the traditional product as it’s too expensive, but we still use an aged balsamic made in Modena that retails at around £25 for 250ml.  We’ll use the high end balsamic for finishing dishes with a small amount, and use a cheaper product for cooking dishes like our slow roasted pork.  We apply the same principles to balsamic vinegar that we do to the various grades of olive oil we use.”

And it looks like it’s not just the UK that suffers from poor quality balsamic pretenders.  Even in Italy, there are expensive, elaborately packaged products that are nothing more than the usual wine vinegar/caramel/sugar mix.  So how do you choose the best one for your budget? Here’s how.

1. There are now numerous accreditation labels that give an idea of the quality of commercially produced balsamic vinegars. The ‘vine leaves’ system runs from 1 to 4 leaves, with 1 leaf recommended for everyday use and 4 leaves reserved for dripping over desserts and use in small quantities.  Balsamicvinegarguide.com gives a great breakdown of the rating system and how to use each type.

balsamic vinegar leaves

2. The Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) symbol gives assurance that the balsamic vinegar has been produced in the original regions of Italy responsible for traditional balsamic vinegar, namely Modena and Reggio Emilia:

 3. The Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Di Modena (CABM) controls the production of both traditional and commerical products (and were responsible for applying for the PGI status). I can recommend their website – it looks like it was made by a graffiti enthusiast… The label is often around the neck of the bottle:

4. Arguably more important than the above features, use your eyes.  Even with all of the above symbols and labels, you will still find that some balsamic vinegars contain artificial caramel colouring – even organic products can contain added sugar and natural caramel colouring, so check the ingredients carefully. And you may also find great vinegars without these accreditations – Belazu make a great balsamic vinegar used in many professional kitchens.  Aged balsamic vinegars will be thicker than the non-aged variety, so if you’re buying a more expensive vinegar, swill it around the bottle to check the thickness.

5. Most importantly of all – when you get it home, taste it.  If you like it, stick to it, if not, choose a different one next time.  

Using this guide you’ll find that you can get decent quality balsamic vinegar without spending an arm and a leg.  My every day balsamic is a colour and sugar free, 2 vine leaf, PGI, CABM labelled balsamic that costs only 99p for 250ml from a major UK supermarket.

So, when you have finally chosen your vinegar, what do you do with it?  Let’s give the final word to Andy Appleton: “Keep it simple, use it on a rocket salad,  the balsamic will cut through the peppery rocket.  But don’t use olive oil and balsamic vinegar together – you’ve got two quality ingredients that will stand out much better on their own.”

 

P.S. Given that my mother may read this post, at this point I need to say that it is only now I can appreciate how lucky I was to enjoy freshly made blackcurrant jelly, crisp golden wiener schnitzel, salads fresh from the garden and home made pizzas.  But not stewed apple…  

© Dan Main, 2011