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My first husband’s idea of wit was to exclaim, whenever the opportunity presented itself (surprisingly, gratingly, often);  “Anchovies? Smelly little fish!”   The marriage didn’t last long, but if by some warped circumstance we had found ourselves strolling the markets of Vieux Nice last week, I should have been delighted to waterboard him with a vat of poutine in response.

baby anchovies for sale in Vieux Nice

Now, fresh poutine is not smelly but it is most certainly a preponderance of tiny little baby fish: the fry of sardines and, yes-you-guessed-it, anchovies; rather rare, rather restricted and rather delicious, netted strictly by licence, only along the Côte d’Azur between Antibes and Menton, and only for a month at the end of winter (February/March): very local, very special and altogether too good for no-good husbands.  Happily for the peace of the Vieille Ville, I was accompanied by the darling Mr T, whose adult approach to things piscine is a joy, an ichthyic ideal.

Jacques Médecin, controversial erstwhile mayor of Nice, was a passionate advocate of Niçoise cuisine and I quote here from his well-regarded cookbook, La bonne cuisine du Comté de Nice:

A la saison de février, lorsque brille, sur les étals, la nacre de poutine, les rues des villes – vieilles ou nouvelles – retentissent de l’appel des marchandes: “A la bella poutina!  A la bella poutina!”  qui inspira mon vieux camarade de classe Gilbert Becaud dans sa chanson sur les marchés de Provence.

Around February, as the pearly sheen of poutine gleams on the market stalls, town streets – old and new – ring with the call of the vendors: “A la bella poutina!  A la bella poutina!”, the inspiration for my former classmate Gilbert Becaud’s song,  The Markets of Provence [Gastroplod’s rough & ready translation]

and for your extreme pleasure, here’s Gilbert Becaud himself – listen out for him calling “A la bella poutina” at the very end and you will have a charming early-spring echo of  Place St-François in Vieux Nice.


click here for the lyrics (in French)

I took my first and as-yet-only taste of poutine at the Café des Fleurs on the Cours Saleya, in one of its traditional preparations in the form of an omelette.  No surprises here, it tasted just like an omelette with all the briny flavour and savour of very fresh anchovies and sardines, and I did enjoy the sparkle of their teeny-weeny little eyes glinting in the sunlight.
omelette made with seasonal baby fish; sardines, anchovies, in Vieux Nice

French Wiki reference: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poutine_(Nice)

* this poutine has nothing to do with that somewhat-stodgier Québecois fries-gravy-curds speciality also called poutine: although I used to enjoy that version now & then in Vancouver, I know which I’d prefer now…

apartment rental

ephemeral art

Some folk see the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast and some folk see just a piece of toast


whereas I see a Keith Haring in my sink: put some sausages on a tray, bake them in the oven, eat the sausages and make some art while it soaks.  Amazing what you can do with a pound of chipolatas, eh?  But seriously, those earth colours and Rothko edges just blow me away, so I give you a strangely fitting quote from Madonna in Vogue:

“Beauty’s where you find it (not just where you bump and grind it)

or eat it…

and I can’t risk !! resist including a weirdly Chris Ofili-like version of the same phenomenon taken the following morning, complete with stunning glinty bits:

Very little image manipulation went into the making of this post, btw, I just selected for different light settings.

Hugh Fearnley-Wittingshall’s article in the Observer had me all steamed up the other week.  An ice age having passed since I last made a savoury steamed pudding and the extended winter chill providing exactly the right context, it was a touch frustrating to not fancy Hugh’s suggestions. But with an imminent delivery from the Blackface Meat Co. forcing a bit of a clear-out, a little frozen package of mixed feathered game sprang before my gunsight.

Steamed game pudding assembled without suet pastry lid

During the long google-trawl for appealing alternatives I came across Claire MacDonald’s recipe in the Scotsman, which featured an irresistibly fragrant-sounding lemon and thyme suet crust:
lemon and thyme suet pastry lid which more than lived up to its promise after a 3-hour steaming
mixed feathered game pudding in a lemon and thyme suet crust

Delectable, golden suet pastry encased an aromatic cascade of tender morsels:
a great result partnered perfectly by this Pinot Noir from the Pfalz.

Steamed Game Pudding

lemon & thyme suet pastry
300g plain flour
1 TBS baking powder
150g shredded suet
1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
about 1 TBS fresh thyme leaves
a little cold water – approx 50ml

Butter a 1.5 litre pudding basin. Put the suet in a mixing bowl and sieve over the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Add the lemon rind and thyme leaves then, initially stirring with a fork, add only just enough cold water to make the pastry come together in your hands.

Cut off about a quarter of the pastry and roll it to a circle of the same diameter as the top of your pudding basin. Roll out the rest of the pastry nice and thinly and use it to line the pudding basin.

game filling
500ml bold red wine – I used corked Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon
5 or so juniper berries, crushed, and a sprig of thyme
375g pack mixed feathered game pack from Waitrose
50g button mushrooms
1 TBS flour, seasoned with salt & pepper
2 shallots diced fine
a bayleaf
1 can game consommé

Boil the wine with the juniper berries and thyme to reduce by half, then leave to cool: strain. Check over the game pieces, removing any obvious sinews, and toss them with the shallots and mushrooms in the seasoned flour, making sure everything is lightly coated. Pack the lot loosely into the pastry-lined pudding bowl and carefully pour over the reduced wine.  Inveigle the bayleaf into the centre. Help the wine soak down by easing a knife or spoon handle between the chunks of filling, then top up with game consommé to almost cover; if there’s any left over heat it and serve as extra gravy.  Lightly dampen the edge of the pastry disc then place it on top of the pud and seal together the edges all around. Put a disc of baking parchment over the pastry then double wrap the whole in tin foil, leaving plenty of room for expansion by making a pleat over the top. Put this package on a trivet in a large saucepan and pour in boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the pudding basin.  Cover and steam gently for 3 hours.
Remove from pan, unwrap gingerly, then invert onto a deep-rimmed dish and serve with buttered kale, steamed carrots and a large serving of pride.

Disclaimer

Thrilled to bits with this magical dome I made it again last weekend with the Blackface equivalent: not such a good result by any stretch. Whereas Waitrose game packs consist solely of our feathered friends, Blackface’s Game Mix seemed much more of a four-footed mixture – frustratingly not identified on the pack. Cut larger, some bits were frankly gnarly and the whole better suited to quick searing followed by a long, slow braise than relatively rapid steaming-from-raw. Mr. T. liked it fine but he’s a carnivore’s carnivore and enjoys a good chew.  This showed up the one big disadvantage of a steamed pudding: it requires a leap of faith as there’s no way of checking how it’s coming along and you simply have to live with the consequences once it’s cut open; quite the Pandora’s box.  So, no more game pudding until next autumn but hey, we’ve got a mighty game stew to look forward to before this winter’s out…

Update:
I emailed Blackface to ask what was in their game mix and their very prompt reply stated:

You received your order on the 18th February therefore the seasonal game pie mix would have contained approx 70% venison and the remaining amount made up with woodpigeon, rabbit and hare.

so there you go!

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valentine pinks

Cured meats, two of our favourite convenience foods: sitting on the left side of our slate roof tile we have saucisson with pimento and mustard seeds and on the right,  prosciutto crudo – home-carved from the boneless joint I scooped at Lidl just before Christmas…

£14 at Sainsbury's March 2009
….add rosé Champagne, one of my favourite things to drink, and we had the raw ingredients for a very Happy Valentine’s Day.  This Taittinger was an unusual tawny-orange, possibly from the extra year’s bottle age and meatier than most, possibly from the Pinot Noir, maybe the terroir: whatever the reason, it stood its ground with the charcuterie.  Sighing with satisfaction I could only hope everyone was having such a lovely, lazy afternoon last Sunday: everything came up roses.

Valentine’s Day luxuries without spending a fortune

  • Saucisson with pimento and mustard seed £3.99 new at Waitrose (paid £1.49 on sell-by date)
  • Prosciutto crudo joint £11.74 at Lidl (about £8 a kilo as far as I recall)
  • Taittinger Prestige Rosé £14-ish on the sale shelf in Sainsbury last Spring – total bargain! – now £36 approx.

btw: it was quite something to see the bunfight at the steak counter in M&S on Saturday – don’t these people have any imagination?

¿Cocido? ¡indeedo!

2 bowls of chickpeas and pork products Spanish-style

Chickpeas – a gift from the gods and a staple over here at Gastro Towers.   They’re notoriously tricky to cook, but ever since I learnt their secret of success – do it in earthenware and keep them hot & wet until tender, by the way – it’s been plain sailing.   In hommage to one memorable lunch in a Barcelona working man’s café (no trendy tapas types in that rinconcito) I riff on their basic premise: legumes long-simmered with barely identifiable cured pork products;  nuggets of ham, chunks of chorizo and morsels of morcilla bobbing about amongst root vegetable hunks dropping anchor in a spicy broth.  Add a tangle of shredded cabbage and you have a warming one-pot dish that improves over however long your leftovers last: an unbeatable bowl full of beautiful flavours.

chickpea chorizo stew with ham and morcilla

When it’s been a while since the last time I refer as always to the ever-reliable Elizabeth Luard’s The Food of Spain and Portugal.  When chickpeas are the legume in question I work from her recipe for Cocido Madrileño, but adapt the meat main players to match those inhabiting my fridge;  I suggest you do the same until comfortable with the routine, which stripped down to skeleton basics is cooking everything together on a long, steady simmer.  Get the chickpeas right and the rest follows suit.  Don’t know about you but I think when it comes to traditional recipes, striving for authenticity out of context is an absurdity, what’s imperative is to stay within the spirit.  And I like to think I do…

Cocido Madrileño comes to Kent – serves 2 twice

250g dried chickpeas (a cup and a half or so)
optional but nice: a pinch of saffron, lightly toasted – I do it in a serving spoon held over a gas flame
2 teaspoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 onion, cut in sixths through the root, stud 3 segments with a clove
2 ribs celery, in 2cm slices
2 large carrots, sliced in 5cm hunks
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 juvenile turnips, chopped in 2cm pieces (no need to peel if sufficiently young)
same again but with waxy potatoes (if you remember, unlike me)
2 bay leaves and some parsley stalks tied into a faggot – these silicone cooking bands do a great job
1/2 a small savoy cabbage, shredded fine
olive oil

Indispensable Meats, rations approximate

  • dry-cured ham or bacon, cut into lardons – about 100g?
  • chorizo – 1/2 a supermarket one
  • morcilla – 2 or 3

Ms Luard utilises a chicken in her cocido but I don’t fancy that idea at all and would rather stick with pork: remember what I said about authenticity!

Method

Rinse, then soak chickpeas overnight in plenty of water in their earthenware pot. Drain, then add enough water to cover by 5cm.  Add the ham and chorizo (in one piece), onion, celery and carrots, plus garlic cloves and the faggot of herbs – don’t stir in any of these additions, just let them sit on top of the chickpeas – then top up with water to barely cover them.   Pour  over a couple of quick glugs of olive oil.  Place over gentle heat and replace lid.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour.

Reach down with a spoon through the vegetables to the chickpeas and retrieve a couple to check if they’re tender.   They should be, but if not cook another 30 minutes or so and check again.  When all is well add the turnips, potatoes and cabbage: stir these into the pot and return to a simmer.  Place the morcilla on top and cook through gently for half an hour to an hour – whenever you’re ready to eat, this stew will happily oblige.  Retrieve and discard the herbs, slice the chorizo thickly and remove the strings, if any, from the morcilla – which should have broken up into delicious crumbly bits and stained the cooking liquid an enticingly dark hue – then return these to the cooking pot, stir about a bit then ladle generously into shallow soup plates.  Serve with some good, honest bread and sleep well afterwards.

Here’s a nifty little tool – not complex enough to call a gadget – I found in a smalltown mall in the Canadian hinterland a few years back.  Microplane call it their “Try Me” Zester.   At 6.5 by 3.2 cm I find its only trying aspect is trying to find it amongst the flotsam and jetsam of my kitchen drawer.  So I solve that little problem by keeping it on the window sill: it makes short shrift of a clove of garlic, zests a lemon in seconds, grates Parmesan in a trice and cleans in the wink of an eye.  As long as I have this I see no rhyme or reason in acquiring a full-size version – for a start where would I put it?   Priced to match its size the only downside is that it’s not available in Europe…