Monday 15 November 2010

Can't cook? Won't cook

I don’t cook. It’s not that I can’t but rather that Adrian loves the whole malarkey so much that really, it would be cruel to butt in. I’ll knock up the odd batch of scones but, apart from that, my repertoire runs to toast. Even before I met Adrian I was a bit of a faddy cook. I don’t like preparing meat; I positively baulk at handling fish – so, by default, I was pretty much vegetarian. So the second part of our River Cottage experience set a few alarm bells ringing. We were going to learn how to prepare and cook pheasants. We? As in me?

Now we live in full-on pheasant country and eat a heck of a lot of the birds. And, before people wave their hands and shout ‘cruelty’ I would just say that I’d eat game any day over factory-farmed meat. If you’re a full-on vegetarian, then fair enough – but if you tuck into chicken, sorry, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

Anyhow... We were met in the kitchen classroom by several brace of pheasants. Hmm, brace. In other words, two. One each. I got as far as spreading the legs on mine and rearranging a few tail feathers and then thought, sod this. Let Adrian be the caveman; I’ll be in charge of seasoning. He was in seventh heaven – normally he just carves the breasts off pheasants (far too lazy for all that plucking) but now he was learning all kinds of clever new techniques.

I’ve never been on any kind of cookery course (at least, not since school – at which thought memories of Christmas log appear unbidden with a Proustian taste of nasty chocolate icing in the mouth). The River Cottage approach is delightfully ad hoc. After we (note the royal we) had extracted the meat from our pheasants, our teacher Steve waved a hand at the large table behind him and said we could gather whatever other ingredients we fancied for a game stew. Adrian eyed up the wild mallard breasts longingly but was steered in the direction of legs (moister apparently and hence better for long cooking). We decided on a pretty traditional version (see recipe at end) and Adrian set to sautéing the meat while I chopped vegetables.

I liked the attitude of the teaching staff. If you were happy being left to your own devices, that was cool. If you needed help, they were there in an instant, offering suggestions. It’s not remotely precious, not remotely patronising.

While our stews merrily bubbled, we whipped up a fruit cake each (yup, just like that). Then we were dispatched to the yurt (total heaven, with a huge woodburner in the centre) to sip elderflower champagne while the kitchen was transformed into a dining room for lunch.

What can I say? A second day of gargantuan feasting. But it was huge good fun and I’m coming round to the idea of cooking...providing, that is, I have kitchen elves to provide me with ready-prepared meat and to whisk away the dirty pots and pans. Oh and a brace of madly cute River Cottage chefs wafting around to tell me that my efforts are ‘perfect, darling, just perfect.’

Now then, this is NOT turning into a food blog... However, for those that are interested, the recipes follow....

Badger Ales Game Stew
Serves 6

2 tablespoons rapeseed or sunflower oil, or dripping
250g home-cured bacon belly, or bought pancetta, cut into chunky cubes
1.5kg mixed game, cut into large chunks
2 onions, finely sliced
2–3 large carrots, cut into big chunks
2 celery stalks, sliced
6–10 juniper berries, bashed slightly
2 bay leaves
A large sprig of thyme
At least 300ml beef, venison, chicken or game stock
300ml Hall & Woodhouse beer, of your choice (we used Poacher’s Choice)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil or dripping in a large, heavy-based frying pan, add the bacon and fry until it is lightly browned and the fat runs.
Transfer to a casserole dish. Now brown the meat in the same pan, in batches, transferring it to the casserole as soon as it’s well coloured. Add the remaining oil or dripping to the frying pan, then add the onions and sweat until soft but not coloured. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Transfer to the casserole and add the juniper berries, bay leaves and thyme.
Pour a little of the stock into the frying pan and stir well for a few minutes to deglaze the pan, then add this to the casserole too. Pour over the remaining stock and the beer, adding a little water too, if you need it – the liquid should cover the meat by a good couple of centimetres. Season with pepper, but no salt, as the bacon will be quite salty.
Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, at a very low, tremulous simmer for 2–3 hours, until the meat is completely tender, skimming any scum off the top as you go along. You can also cook it in a low oven, about 120°C/Gas Mark ½, with a lid on.

presentation not our strong point!

When the meat is cooked, taste the stew and season. The juice will be thin but well flavoured; if you prefer a thicker sauce, you can strain the liquid off the meat and boil to reduce and thicken it, then return it to the pan. Serve the stew with a dollop of good buttery mash and some steamed cabbage, sprout tops, kale or other greens.

Badger Ales Fruit Cake
Serves 12 (ahem....not in this house it didn't!)

225g light wholemeal cake flour or spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
A pinch of sea salt
1 rounded teaspoon ground mixed spice
150g dried figs
150g stoned prunes
150g dried apricots
85g orange marmalade
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
300ml Hall & Woodhouse beer, of your choice (we used their Applewood cider)
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g light muscovado sugar
4 medium eggs

Lightly grease a 20cm spring form cake tin and line with baking parchment. Put the flour, baking powder, salt and spice into a bowl and whisk lightly to aerate and combine.
Use kitchen scissors to cut the dried fruit into chunky pieces – cut each fig into about 6, removing the hard stalk, and each prune and apricot into 2 or 3. Combine them in a bowl. Warm the beer or cider and pour over the chopped fruit in the bowl.
Beat the marmalade with a fork to loosen it, then stir in the lemon and orange zest. Combine the marmalade with the dried fruit. Allow to steep and cool.

Put the butter and sugar into a large bowl and beat well until very light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour/spice mix with each. Fold in the remaining flour with a large metal spoon, then fold in the marmalade and dried fruit as lightly as you can. Try not to overmix it; everything should be just combined.

Spoon into the prepared tin and place in an oven preheated to 160°C/Gas Mark 3. Bake for 1½ hours, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool completely in the tin.


Milla said...

is this "the revelation"?? Cooking I'm sorted with (elves would be a good christmas present, though) but I need one on the wonders of housework - ain't going to happen is it.
Are you still nano-ing??? Floundering terribly. Think The System is fed up with changing my re-jigged predicted date. Something in 2014 at the current rate of (non)-progress. Need a course in getting-on-with-it-itis, too.

Frances said...

Jane, I do like the sound of that school day. It must have been great fun. Sorry, but those recipes have no chance of being tried out in my miniscule kitchen! Shame too, because the dishes must have been absolutely fabulous.


Exmoorjane said...

Milla: I'm with you on NaNo - realised I can't do 2K words a day (which is what I need to do now) - at least not words that make any kind of sense...

Frances: Darnit....I'll have to find out the micro-version (not microwave, I hasten to add!)

Wally B said...

Kitchen work can be a lot of fun, especially when it is shared, and there are copious amounts of wine (or beer).
Long winter afternoons can be transformed into culinary adventures, and always with a beneficial result. I do miss game here as it is almost impossible to buy.

Ladybird World Mother said...

Bum. Could have used that fruit cake for my christmas one!! but that was blinking well made at weekend so grrrr.
You must feel well and truly stuffed... almost feel full just reading about it. More please!x

Maggie Christie said...

I'm doubly jealous now following on from the feast in your previous post. I actually like plucking pheasants. It's a very satisfying past time. A former boss of mine used to hang hers until the legs 'fell orf'. She was nuts.

Rob-bear said...

The only pheasants to which I've ever gotten close were ones I was observing through a pair of binoculars.

Sounds, indeed, like Adrian was in cookery heaven. And you even made a fruit cake! Good for you. (You've got more talent than you're letting on.)

Such a delightful time. Wish I were there.

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

Yes, definitely one for me. Think something like this to forward to would be great just now. Will pluck, slice, do complicated things with knives and will always eat. This is the answer.

Esther Montgomery said...

This brings back childhood memories of smelling singed feathers as the last stubs were burned off pheasants after plucking.

Agreed about chicken. I'd rather live free and cosseted as pheasants are than to live in a cage till I died.


Posie said...

I bet the various aromas wafting around the kitchen were heavenly, was mightily impressed Jane, well done would so totally fit into farm life here now..well once you have mastered the fish

Fran Hill said...

A very tasty post. Gargantuan feasting is my kind of feasting.

Fennie said...

We're both fans of River Cottage. And this sounds a great course. I hate following recipes. So much more fun just experimenting and seeing how things turn out. But glad you are inspired. Ah yes, Elves, bless 'em. Never there when you need them unfortunately. Have to do the whole lot myself.

Michelloui said...

This sounds great--I love the ad hoc nature of it. And I love your point about eating game vs farmed chicken. Quite right!