Spiced game stew

Quick! While it’s still game season! Many good butchers will do a pack of mixed game; cubes and chunks of whatever they’ve got, and I think mine had at least venison and pheasant in it. D’you know, I didn’t really look that hard.

Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed Christmas this year as the season of spices, and I’m still in the mood for putting exotic warmth and depth into anything that will take it. A rich, melting game stew can definitely take it. The load of spices add a great deal of intrigue to the simple stew. I’d serve it to royalty without blushing or mumbling “sorry ’bout the ‘umble fayre, ma’am”.


Spiced game stew (serves 4)

1lb mixed game, cubed
1 tbsp plain flour
3 rashers smoked streaky bacon
1 large onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 turnip, cubed bite-size
1 carrot, chopped bite-size
1 chunk of celeriac, cubed bite-size
5 star anise
5 black cardamom (or green)
5 cloves
1 stick cinnamon
2 bay leaves
½ dried chipotle chilli (opt.)
1 glass Madeira
¾ pint beef stock
  1. Get a big casserole dish really hot on the hob. Dry-fry all the spices (except the chilli and bay) for a minute, then set them aside but leave the dish on the heat
  2. Season and flour the game, then brown it in a knob of butter. Set it aside in a bowl
  3. Add another knob of butter and start frying the chopped onion and celery. Chop the bacon and add it, frying everything up and scraping up the burnt bits from the browned meat.
  4. Next toss in all the other vegetables and keep frying for another 5-10 minutes, moving it about occasionally so none gets burnt
  5. Now add back the meat, all the spices (chop the chipotle up), the glass of Madeira and then the beef stock. I’ve said ¾ pint, but basically you want enough to almost cover everything, with the odd little island of meat or veg still visible
  6. Put the lid on the casserole and pop it in the oven at 170C for 1½ hours, at which point the meat should all be beautifully tender and the vegetables soft and soused with flavour

You know what, you can substitute the turnip, carrot and celeriac for about the same amount of many other veggies. Try parsnip, or a squash, potato, swede, maybe even j-chokes? You can leave out the chipotle chilli, although it only adds warmth; there’s not enough to raise a sweat. You certainly don’t need to use Madeira, either port or red wine would be fine, or indeed a bottle of dark ale (use less stock).

This stew wants to be served on a plate with one starch and one green. Mashed potato and purple-sprouting broccoli, or roast potato and curly kale, or whatever else you can dream up.

The one thing that might annoy the royal dinner guests would be the bits of whole spice in the stew. I’d fish out the cinnamon and bay leaves, but the other bits are too fiddly. Then again, this lot are used to finding lead shot in their game! They aren’t going to mind spitting out the odd clove.

Pork sous-vide(ish) and chestnut

Here’s a question for you. If it’s possible to cook fillet of beef by leaving it in a hot water bath at 50C for several hours… would you cook yourself if you stayed in a hot bath for just as long? Scary thought.

That’s sous-vide, by the way, for anyone who hasn’t come across it. Your meat is vacuum-sealed in a special plastic bag by a special little machine and popped in a special hot water bath that can keep the water at a precise temperature for several hours, or even a couple

of days for some meats. Meat tender, flavour locked-in, still pink but safely cooked, it just remains to pan-fry for a minute each side to give it some attractive colour.

I don’t have any of this special equipment, but surely a big saucepan, a milk thermometer and some clingfilm would do the trick? How very Blue Peter.

I settled on pork tenderloin and got a couple of nice steaks from the butcher. The water bath was actually the easy bit. After getting my biggest saucepan up to 62C I just put it on the tiniest hob on its lowest setting and – give or take the odd tweak – it stayed pretty much steady for the 1½ hours needed. For the vacuum I used plenty of clingfilm and tried to wrap the steaks very snuggly, then tied off the ends with string. It looked pretty good to me, but there were a couple of air bubbles which resulted in slightly uneven cooking as the water isn’t transmitting heat properly at those points. Worse, it also turned out that water got in during the cooking process. So: my pork was properly cooked, still very moist, quite flavourful, but not pink and firmer than I had wanted due to the bit of poaching that took place.

The rest of the dish worked a treat, so feel free to enjoy the recipe but either (a) cook your pork the old-fashioned way, in a pan for five minutes each side; (b) invest in proper sous-vide equipment; (c) perfect the clingfilm Heath-Robinson technique and tell me how you managed it!


Pork tenderloin with chestnut sauce (sauce is enough for 4)

2 pork tenderloin steaks
2 rashers smoked streaky bacon
For the sauce:
1 stick celery
2 shallots
1 clove garlic
200g cooked+skinned chestnuts
1 tsp fresh thyme
50ml Madeira
400ml vegetable stock
2 tbsp cream
2 tsp truffle oil
  1. Slow-fry the bacon until it is cooked crispy, then reserve the bacon fat and let it cool
  2. Season your steaks, put them on your clingfilm (in your sous-vide bag), pour the bacon fat on, wrap them insanely tightly (use the vacuum machine to seal the bag) and pop them in the saucepan (water bath) at 62C for an hour. Or pan-fry the steaks in the bacon fat after making the sauce!
  3. Chop the shallots, celery and garlic then fry them softly in a good knob of butter until golden
  4. Reserving 6 chestnuts, chop the rest and add them to the pan along with the thyme. Turn up the heat, then pour in the Madeira and let it bubble and reduce until just a sticky coating on the veg
  5. Pour in the stock, then simmer it for 25 minutes. You could use ham stock, or perhaps 50/50 with the veg stock
  6. Add the cream, give it another 5 minutes, then add the truffle oil and blend the sauce until smooth. Check seasoning
  7. Halve the reserved chestnuts, chop up the bacon, and fry them together in a little butter for a couple of minutes – they make a nice addition to the pork

I served this with a round of black pudding, some button mushrooms fried in butter and garlic, and a small bunch of red grapes. The whole dish was pleasantly autumnal and yet surprisingly light. No potato, rice or pasta because the chestnuts seemed to give enough starch. However, I think there’s any number of other vegetables that would go well here: pan-fried celeriac cubes, parsnip mash, shredded cabbage, braised celery…

Enjoy!

Goulash

Growing up, and then starting to cook at University, I can remember the horrible meekness of cookbook recipes where strong flavours were concerned. I don’t know if this stemmed from war-time deprivation and paprika rationing, or if it was just a timid British palate. Bolognese with a pinch of herbs, chicken jalfrezi with a teaspoon of curry powder. Thankfully we’ve mostly got it out of our systems. But nevertheless, look for a recipe for goulash and you’ll still find plenty out there that call for “1 teaspoon paprika” or – ohmygosh – for a really raunchy dish: “2 teaspoons paprika”. American recipes seem equally pathetic when it comes to putting in flavour.

Try two tablespoons. And make it smoked paprika while you’re at it. And stop buying those stupid little jars of Schwartz spices. If you’re going to do any authentic Indian cooking or even give enough punch to your goulash then you’re going to be through a jar in one (maybe two) recipes.


There’s no such thing as “the” goulash recipe; it’s not a classic French dish, it’s a peasant stew or soup enjoyed right across eastern Europe. But from my own experiments I can confirm the following: (1) a bit of tomato is good, but not a whole tin – treat it like a bolognese and it won’t be right; (2) be cautious trying to add root veg – it feels like a natural thing to do, I know, but when I tried parsnip it added nothing to the goulash and beetroot was decidedly wrong; (3) beef definitely works out better than pork, although the addition of any kind of preserved pork sausage is a winner.

This is my recipe, but I have to say it varies a bit depending on what I have to hand.

Goulash – serves 4

½ kg braising steak, cubed
30g butter
2 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large red pepper, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
1 tbsp hot smoked paprika
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp worcester sauce
1 tsp dry-fried and ground caraway seed
½ pint strong ale
½ pint beef stock
2 tbsp soured cream
1 tbsp chopped parsley
  1. In a large casserole, fry the onion in the butter for 5-6 minutes on a medium heat.
  2. Take the dish off the heat, add the paprika and still in.
  3. Back on the heat, add the garlic and the steak, fry until the steak is browned all over – the juices from the meat should prevent the paprika from burning.
  4. Add the beer, stock, tomato puree, worcester sauce and thyme. Stir, season, cover and cook on a low simmer or in the oven at 170C for at least 1.5 hours but preferably 2.
  5. Add the red pepper, tomatoes and any potato or parsnip you want. Check the seasoning while you’re at it. Cook for another 40 minutes or so.
  6. When it’s done, either stir in the soured cream and chopped parsley or add them on top after serving.

You can serve goulash on a bed of plain rice, but equally good is with a hunk of crusty bread or some mashed potato. Really good is making Polish potato pancakes to go with it. Goulash has a great affinity with cabbage; you can go the whole hog and serve sauerkraut on the side, or just plain boiled and sprinkled with a little vinegar. If you like to tone down the spice then just stir more soured cream into the pot after cooking. Or only use sweet smoked paprika. Oh, and as with many spicy slow-cooked dishes you’ll find the goulash even better if you cook it the day before and re-heat!

Enjoy.

Review: The Wellington Arms, Hampshire

Last Christmas we took a break from festivities entirely. In the middle of travelling around the world for a year, we found ourselves in Cambodia and in the town of Siam Reap. Essentially a tourist service centre for the astonishing ruins of Angkor Wat. And there wasn’t the tiniest hint or mention of Christmas anywhere. Not at our hotel, not at the temples, not even in the gift shops and eateries of the town. There was just one opportunistic restaurant that had planted a pair of scantily clad Santa-ellas outside the door to tempt in tourists who were hankering for something seasonal. We steered well clear.

We had tried to escape from Christmas a few years ago, to the Caribbean. Yet in spite of the pina coladas and beach weather, we still managed to get a full turkey lunch on Christmas Day. And last year, once we left Cambodia for Thailand we were forced to endure a horrendous New Year’s Eve gala dinner at the only hotel we could find a room in Krabi. So hurrah for Cambodia, one place where you truly can escape from Christmas if you want to.

Returning to the bosom of the family this year, it turns out that we have a new Christmas tradition; going out on Christmas Eve for dinner at the Wellington Arms, a pub just fifteen minutes from my brother’s house in the wilds of Hampshire. More accurately, between Basingstoke and Reading. This was only my second visit to “The Welly”, but I recalled enjoying the first one greatly and was looking forward to it.

The Wellington is absolutely charming, inside and out. It certainly isn’t a pub. My rule is: if the only place for a drinker to be is propped up at the bar, then it’s a restaurant. Gastropub. Whatever. I was talking of charm. It’s a tiny place, furnished in such quintessentially country pub style that you feel you could walk out of the door into The Shire and tip your hat to Bilbo Baggins. Before we went I was alarmed to hear that they had been “doing an extension” – this so often means a soulless add-on that greedily doubles capacity at the expense of atmosphere. Needn’t have worried; the extension adds a whopping three tables and already looks like it has been there a hundred years.

Other reviewers have already remarked on the basket of hens eggs and the hand-knitted tea cosies offered for sale on the bar, so I won’t. But I do have to echo others in saying that a huge part of the Wellington’s charm is Simon, who looks after front-of-house and is clearly absolutely in love with his establishment. Along with his friendly young team he welcomes and cares for his guests very well indeed. Oh, and his mum knits the cosies.

Now of course I should turn to Jason, Simon’s partner in the kitchen, and our Christmas Eve dinner. The menu is entirely in keeping with the zeitgeist: classic pub dining, all very well executed. Yes, I know I can’t use zeitgeist in reference to a restaurant. Bah humbug. My duck liver parfait was creamy and rich, with a distinctive flavour of port coming through that usually gets lost. Seasoning seemed light, but then Maureen found all the pepper at the bottom of hers. Lovely toast with it. Further praise was heard around the table for twice-baked cheddar souffles and the smoked salmon with tangy horseradish and roasted fennel salad.

My venison pot pie was splendid and comforting, the venison still fibrous but falling to pieces, the root vegetable and gravy a deep, satisfying mush. All topped with a big glossy cap of golden brown puffy pastry. It arrived at the table somewhere near the temperature of an active volcano – luckily the steam provided a warning. Maureen’s posh cottage pie also arrived at near volcanic heat, but although tasty there wasn’t much to justify the label “posh” except for some of the meat being finely chopped rather than minced. Sides of chips and sprouts were good, but the peas deserve a special mention: served plain and slightly crushed, they were sweeter and more flavourful than any other peas I can remember. One of those little “how did they manage that?” dishes.

Pudding was bravely attempted following some belt-loosening. I had a lemon posset covered in sweet blueberries, and I cannot think of anything else in this world more deserving of the adjective “luscious”. Perfect marriage of lemony sharpness and creamy richness. The rest of the table were on the sticky toffee pudding. Now, there is an easy test for a sticky toffee pudding. Scrape the toffee sauce and cream aside and try some of the pudding on its own. If the actual pudding is tasty and moist enough that you could enjoy the whole thing with no sauce or cream, it’s a good sticky toffee pudding. The Wellington do a great sticky toffee pudding. Almost black, with good bitter notes, and remaining moist but surprisingly light. Quite important this, as the toffee sauce lake is generous and jolly rich.

Three courses without drinks works out around £25 a head – remarkable for food this good. I must admit to envying my brother. I can’t think of a more idyllic venue to welcome in the holidays in earnest, but I could also get used to popping into “The Welly” every other week for a convivial feast at any season.

Excuse the duff photos – the light was too cosy and I was too busy enjoying myself!

Mulled chocolate and orange marshmallows

I like joining in on round-ups, it means I have to invent something new now and again. Especially for We Should Cocoa, the chocolate round-up because I don’t normally cook or make anything with chocolate. My interaction with chocolate is typically: (1) buy chocolate, (2) put it down somewhere visible and pass it several times to show willpower, (3) eat chocolate.

In honour of the miserable weather, the Christmas season, and the crappy cups of hot chocolate that we usually get when ordered at a cafe, I have created Mulled Chocolate. And in honour of the delicious homemade raspberry marshmallows our friend Vanessa gave us recently, I’ve added orange marshmallows to the chocolate.

Because this seemed lightweight for a recipe, I’ve also baked some chocolate and orange cookies, to be enjoyed with the hot chocolate or whenever. Merry Christmas!

Mulled chocolate (2 mugs)

2 mugs of milk
100g Montezuma’s drinking chocolate
½ cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods, cracked
2 star anise
1 piece ginger in syrup
1 tiny piece of nutmeg
1 dessert spoon rum

Put the milk in a pan, add all the spices and rum, then heat to a simmer before taking it off the heat and allowing everything to infuse for 10-15 minutes. Now strain out the whole spices, return to the heat, then add the chocolate. Bring it to a simmer again and whisk lightly for a few minutes until the chocolate is thoroughly melted in. The whisking is important: your chocolate will be glossier and more delicious.

Of course you don’t have to use Montezuma’s finest. It’s a 54% chocolate, so you can use a stronger dark chocolate if you want your drink really gnarly, or a milkier chocolate if you like it milky. And of course the rum is entirely optional; if you don’t want any booze in, it still tastes great. Alternatively if you want a really wicked treat then double the rum! Finally, we don’t like our chocolate milky and so I actually used 50/50 milk and water instead of the traditional all-milk drink.

Orange marshmallows (loads!)

To get an orange flavour, I took the peel of 2 oranges (make sure you don’t get any white pith) and added it to the juice of one of them. Then I simmered this down until I had about 50ml of juice after straining the peel out. I added a tablespoon of orange-flavoured spirit (Triple Sec or Grand Marnier). I then used this marshmallow recipe but when adding the bloomed gelatine sheets to the sugar I added this juice instead of the water the gelatine had soaked in. At the whisking-into-egg-whites stage I added a small teaspoon of orange blossom essence and a half-teaspoon of red and yellow food colouring, instead of vanilla essence.

Choc and orange cookies (12 or so)
So many recipes on the internet, I didn’t know where to start. But then I spotted this one, and the use of nutty brown butter seemed different and very promising. Thanks to Delicious Days for this recipe. I used only two-thirds of the amounts, because there’s only two of us after all, so I’ve laid out the recipe in full here:

100g butter
70g dark chocolate
30g candied orange peel
50g dark Muscovado sugar
50g soft brown sugar
30 g granulated sugar
1 large egg
150 g plain flour
½ tsp baking soda
Maldon sea salt
  1. Melt the butter in a small pan and cook it slowly over a medium heat. You want it to brown and give off a nutty smell, but be careful as it burns easily and will then be bitter and rubbish. Pour into a small bowl as soon as it’s right, so it doesn’t continue cooking in the pan.
  2. Leave the butter to cool for 30 minutes, meanwhile chop the chocolate and peel into little pieces
  3. Preheat the oven to 175C and line two baking sheets with baking paper.
  4. Beat the sugars and egg in a bowl for several minutes until creamy and most of the sugar has dissolved.
  5. Pour in the butter (leave any dark dregs in the bottom) and beat for a couple more minutes.
  6. Sift in the flour, baking soda and a pinch of salt, then mix into a dough. Add the chocolate and orange peel, mix to distribute them. Don’t over-mix here.
  7. Scoop dollops of dough onto the baking sheets, leaving space to spread between each. Sprinkle a few salt crystals over each one and stick them in the oven for 12-15 minutes. They will be very soft when you take them out, but become a little firmer once they cool. Should still be chewy in the middle though!

Enjoy!

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