Monday, 26 April 2010

Held to Ramsons

Ramsons, probably better known as wild garlic (or Allium Ursinum), is an edible plant species native to the UK. What's more it is bang in season right now. It grows abundantly in moist, wooded, shaded areas and is easily identifiable by its unmistakable pungent garlicky smell and long vibrant green leaves. It carpets British woodlands throughout spring and towards the end of the season it bursts into bloom with beautiful delicate white flowers.

Foraging for wild garlic is straight forward, in fact it is so abundant that the term "foraging" really constitutes an embellishment. There isn't a need to "forage" at all; if you're out and about in the English countryside at this time of year it's almost impossible to miss. Avoid lily-of-the-valley; whilst it looks similar it is toxic, but easily distinguished from ramsons by the lack of garlic smell. Also be wary of ramsons leaves that are growing within leg-cocking range of passing dogs! You should avoid climbing fences, trampling wild flowers and definitely don't dig up the bulbs, but with the application of a little common sense and restraint there really shouldn't be a problem - wild garlic thrives and spreads rapidly so there is no issue to helping yourself.

Unlike its domestic equivalent, wild garlic is prized for its leaves rather than its bulb. The bulbs are edible, as are the flowers which make a pretty garnish, but are much smaller with no separate cloves. The leaves are very similar in taste to domestic garlic, although milder & reather more understated - despite the suggestion of pungency hinted at by the strong smell.

Ramsons have many culinary uses: the leaves are delicious raw or cooked and work well in salads, soups and stews. The leaves are wonderful cooked in an omlette or risotto. I can't wait to try this rabbit and wild garlic risotto from Gordon Ramsay at some point.

However, I was a bit short on time here so opted to make some wild garlic pesto. It will also keep in the fridge for a good few weeks.

Start with 100g freshly picked wild garlic leaves. Discard any coarse stalks, damaged leaves or any stray pieces of grass, but you don’t really need to wash it (unless you’ve picked it from road side verges or are unfortunate enough to have been afflicted with the modern day obsession with "germs"). Throw the leaves into a blender with 50g pine nuts & 150 ml rapeseed oil and blitz for about a minute until everything is finely chopped. Of course you can do this in a pestle and mortar if you prefer. Finally stir in 50-60g finely grated mature hard cheese (I used parmesan, as it was what I had to hand, but something like Quick’s goats cheese would make a great alternative and be more in keeping with the English theme) & ½ - 1 teaspoon sea salt

Fill into clean sterilised jars leaving a space at the top. Press it all down firmly with the back of a spoon to remove any pockets of air (trapped air can cause the pesto to go off). Swirl another 50ml of oil over the top of the pesto to seal the surface. When you come to use the pesto, stir it well before spooning out. Make sure the surface of any pesto remaining in the jar is completely covered with oil before you return to the fridge (this is critical if it is to keep well).

The end result is lurid green and the amazingly fresh, garlicky taste will perk up any number of dishes. I've served it dolloped onto pork chops and with bacon lardons for a pesto pasta, but it could equally be swirled into mashed potato or smeared onto pizza or a baguette for a quick garlic bread.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Fleece, Addingham

The Fleece in the village of Addingham, near Ilkley, is a regular haunt of ours. I generally tend to dislike the term "gastro pub" but I guess that best describes what they do; it's a fully functioning local village pub that serves great pub food. I feel that this in itself shouldn't set it aside from any other pub in the country, but unfortunately it does.

From the outside it’s a handsome 17th Century coaching inn, inside a very traditional pub with low ceilings, Yorkshire stone flagged floors, log fires and an eclectic mix of old furniture, paintings and paraphernalia. It is relaxed and informal yet can get very busy, but at least this means that there is always a vibrant atmosphere.

More significant than the comfortable surroundings though are their attempts at resurrecting Yorkshire's respectable tradition of honest food and good ale. There are always local beers on tap - usually Black Sheep, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, Tetley’s Cask and Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippin. There is a decent wine list and they stock a range of delicious Frobisher's fruit juice.

There is also a great dedication to locally sourced food– meat from the nearby Bolton Abbey estate and local seafood and veggies abound. There is even an allotment out the back.
There are no printed menus; it's all chalked up on the blackboards. There is an ever changing seasonal specials board, loaded with dishes such as warm salad of crispy belly pork, Chorizo Sausage & Black pudding, calves liver and confit duck leg with spiced red cabbage. There is always a good range of steaks and plenty of fish options too – usually Mussels (when in season) & dishes like Cornish whole sea bass stuffed with spinach and chorizo or seared Islay king scallops with black pudding.

Offered alongside the specials is a more traditional pub menu including classics such as meat and potato pie, jumbo Whitby haddock and chips, a classic ploughman's, braised Wharfedale lamb shank, fish pie, roast belly of pork with mustard glaze, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie and half roast organic chicken.

This visit we both opted for a fishy starter. Dave's crab puff pastry roulade with butter sauce and tomato salad sounded interesting, his conclusion was that, although delicious, it maybe didn't quite showcase the fresh crab to its full extent. My Keralan spiced mackerel with creme fraiche and wilted greens was delicately fragrant with warm spices, complementing the oily fish well.

For mains we went for the Wharfedale hand carved sirloin for 2. Served on a huge wooden board with a garnish of mushrooms, tomatoes & onion rings, bearnaise sauce and a dish of chips, this is unfussy pub food at its best. The meat was amazing; cooked medium rare, exactly as requested, juicy and flavoursome. Great fat crispy chips and the rich tarragon laden sauce were the perfect accompaniment. However the whole semi-cooked tomato felt largely superfluous and was ignored, by me at least.

This is gutsy pub food with hearty portions to match. It is rare that we eat two courses here and still have room for a pud. The Fleece meat and potato pie would satisfy even Desperate Dan, it just requires the horns. This time was no exception, the steak had us beat and we had to pass on pud.

I have heard complaints that The Fleece is expensive, in particular many seem to object to the fact that accompanying side dishes are charged as extras. However with mains priced from £9.50 for bangers and mash, even the most expensive items from the standard pub menu are less than £14, I am mystified as to why – I actually think it represents great value. Yes some of the specials are more expensive, but being realistic you would pay similar prices to those quoted above if you ate at your local Beefeater and it would be vastly inferior food! The punters are hardly being fleeced.

Admittedly service is not always consistent; like the food and surroundings it can be "rustic" and at times we have found it to be less than well organized, but this is really the only criticism I can level.

The dishes here are probably at their best when uncomplicated and not overly ambitious. I've never had a below par meal here though and will keep on returning for their solidly executed comfort pub classics.

The Fleece Inn
154 Main Street, Addingham, Ilkley, West Yorkshire, LS29 0LY

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Paella on the BBQ

Paella originates from the Valencian region of Spain and is cooked in a "paellera" (a wide, shallow pan with looped handles), from which the dish gets its name. It would also traditionally be cooked outside on an open wood fire. Given the glorious spring weather we've been having I decided to replicate this and put my own paellera to good use out on the barbecue.

Start by lighting the barbecue as normal. Meanwhile put a good pinch of saffron threads in a saucepan with a litre of chicken stock and bring it to a simmer. Once the flames have died down and the charcoal has a covering of grey ash, set the paella pan on the barbecue grid and heat a good slug of oil. Next add a finely chopped onion and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and sweat them off, stirring for 5 minutes or so until softened and starting to caramelise. Then add 4 chicken thighs and once nicely browned add some sliced chorizo and a chopped red pepper. Once this is cooking sprinkle in the rice (about 300g), stirring until the grains begin to soak up the oil.

A note about the rice; the best rice for paella is bomba, a Spanish short-grain rice that is able to absorb three times its volume in liquid. When cooked, the grains remain separate and do not stick together. The rice in paella should be dry and separate when done, not creamy like risotto. Also, it isn't paella if it is made with long grain rice.

Finally add the hot stock and season, gave it a good stir.

It is a good idea at this stage to push any grains floating above the liquid back under to ensure you are not left with any raw rice at the end. Now leave the paella to cook for about 20 minutes, resist the urge to stir but rotate the pan occasionally so the bottom cooks evenly. If the liquid seems to be boiling off too quickly you may need to add a little more, so have some hot water or more stock handy.
Don't worry about the paella sticking or burning; it is authentic to have a crust or "soccaratis" (the caramelized crust of rice that sometimes sticks to the bottom of the pan) and this is the prize in a well-made paella.

It's done when the rice has absorbed all the stock and is just tender.

Remove the paella from the heat and cover the pan with foil. Leave for 5 minutes to cool slightly, then stir in plenty of chopped parsley and serve with fat wedges of lemon.


Friday, 2 April 2010

Knight of the Black Pudding

Good Friday's breakfast was black pudding, purchased at the Farmer's Market last weekend, and provided one of life's epiphany moments. I've been eating black pudding all my life but suddenly I realised that these were special; not only part of the history and tradition of the area I am from, but when made properly black puddings such as these are a taste sensation - a true delicacy up there with the best. Those of a more squeamish disposition would no doubt disagree, but they would be wrong and are missing out.

I'd encourage anyone to try the black puddings made by champion black pudding maker and "Knight of the Black Pudding", Andrew Holt. His business, The Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company, is based in Rossendale near Bury and their multi-award winning puds are a revelation; made using time-honoured methods, Andrew's recipe dates back to 1879. Traditional black pudding is made from pig's blood (more often than not these days it is dried blood), pork fat, onion, rusk, pearl barley, oatmeal and a blend of herbs and spices all encased in a length of intestine.

The herbs used vary from one maker to another, each recipe a closely guarded secret. In a Bury black pudding you are likely to find pennyroyal, along with thyme, marjoram, pepper and celery seed. It is the traditional "horseshoe" shape and this characteristic spicing that makes a Bury black pudding special. Pennyroyal has an interesting distinctly minty flavour, often likened to camphor, and it is easily identified in Andrew's rich, spicy pudding; it is quite subtle and harmonises completely with the other spices, yet gives a truly distinctive taste to the soft, moist sausage. There is an even distribution of barley and nuggets of pearly white fat throughout and a natural casing. I can't quite believe that blood can taste this good, but at this rate can see why vampirism may be so contagious!

The black puddings we buy in the UK are already cooked; you just need to reheat them. The traditional Lancastrian way to prepare the individual Bury type Black Pudding is to gently heat it through in water at about 80oc for about 10-15 minutes. The difficulty is that the pudding can burst out of its skin so it is important that they are not allowed to boil, hence the instruction for the relatively low temperature. The pudding is then split it down the middle, opened out on the plate and served with nothing more than salt, pepper, a slick of mustard and maybe some thickly buttered bread. That's it.

The straight "sticks" of black pudding are more usually sliced then grilled or fried - delicious severed as part of a full monty breakfast. Again gentle heat is the key as overcooking will cause them to be dry and hard.

As long as man has slaughtered animals to eat, blood sausages have been in existence and most regions of the world have their own variant of a speciality sausage based on congealed blood; drisheen from Ireland, boudin noir from France, morcilla from Spain, Biroldo from Italy & blutwurst from Germany, to name but a few. There are similar variations found throughout Asia and The Americas. They are revered the world over, so much so that in France there is an exclusive brotherhood known as the Chevalier du Gôute-Boudin - Knight of the Black Pudding. Andrew Holt was sworn into this exclusive group in 1998.

So why do many of us in the UK find the idea of eating blood from an animal that has been killed to provide us with meat so disturbing, even offensive? Most of us are carnivores and happy to consume flesh, fat and muscle (and much worse if you eat cheap sausages, dodgy burgers and kebabs), yet baulk at the prospect of eating blood. I guess it is the word and all it's gory conotations. But ultimately we were responsible for the death of that animal so surely the least we can do is pay it the basic respect of eating it all - nose to tail, everything but the squeak. We really have no excuse, especially when it tastes this good!

Black pudding deserves a more prominent place in our national cuisine. Stirred into mashed potato and eaten with a pork chop or roast chicken leg it makes a simple and tasty supper dish. It is also great added into a Lancashire hotpot or crumbled into a stew to give body and is often paired with scallops for an indulgent treat. For the more adventurous it can be incorporated into any number of imaginative dishes and there are some great recipe ideas on The Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company's website showing how versatile an ingredient it is, from black pudding lasagna to crispy won-tons!

They also do a great "chilli bomb" black pudding, the hot chilli providing a spicy flavour explosion to tingle the taste buds; amazingly good. That's for another day though, this morning it just doesn't get better than simply boiled Bury black pudding for breakfast.