Sunday, 11 June 2017

Elderflower Vinegar

Flavoured vinegars bring to mind a foodie gift that no one uses, in a pretty bottle from a posh deli. At least that was until I started experimenting with making shrubs; flavoured vinegars for drinks and cocktails, and suddenly I've become a bit more interested...


At Cook House at the moment we have vinegars infused with pineshoots, cherries, raspberry and black pepper, lovage and parsley, and most recently Eldeflower. I've got a long list of other things that I want to get on the go as they come in to season; full tomato stems on the vine, fennel, nasturtiums, gooseberries, rhubarb...

The Elderflowers are out everywhere at the moment, it seems to be a bumper year as I've spotted their big white blousey flowers waving at me everywhere I go. I have a good spot near Cook House that I pass when I walk down in the mornings so I filled a bag as soon as they appeared.

I've made batches and batches of Elderflower cordial in the past, but wanted to do something a bit more interesting with them this year, and something that I could add to the preserving shelves and use all year round. I'll have to think of something else to do with them too as there are just so many it seems rude not to.


I gave the flower heads a gentle shake to get rid of the tiny black bugs that love them so. Some of these will no doubt get in to the vinegar, but you can strain it through a cloth before you use it and it'll be fine. I went for the most straight forward approach for this vinegar, no heating or additional flavours. Simply fill a jar with flower heads and pour over good quality white wine vinegar. That's it. Give it a bit of a shake to get rid of any air pockets and then leave.

I've been giving it a bit of a swirl everyday and after a week the smell was delicious, really powerful Elderflower, stronger than the vinegar. Sometimes it can smell a bit sickly sweet for me so it works well in vinegar which balances it out. It is great in salad dressings, drinks or a spritz over BBQ'd meat or fish in place of lemon.


I have left the flowers in for two weeks so far and it is smelling and tasting very good. I strained some off to use in a cocktail at Cook House's Spring dinner evening last week (you can see photos here). We served 1 part gin, 2 parts lemon cordial, 1 part Elderflower vinegar and topped up with soda water. It was delicious! The cocktail aspect has definitely got me thinking about what to pop in the next jar of vinegar that might go well with a gin...


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Lovage Salt

I don't know why you don't find lovage in the shops alongside the likes of parsley, mint and dill. It's very easy to grow, keeps well and has grown in Europe for centuries.

Some friends gave me a cutting of it a few years ago to go in the allotment, it took well and we now have a huge bush of it that requires no looking after at all. I hadn't really known it's flavour much until then as you rarely come across it.



The leaves are used like a herb and you can eat the root too, but I'm yet to dig it up, the seeds can be used too. It's flavour is similar to celery, celeriac and parsley, but I enjoy it more than all of them, slightly more pungent and complex. If you just eat a leave straight off the plant it is pretty intense, it works best in small doses to complement other things.

I love it in a tomato salad, in a leek and parsley soup, in a mayonnaise; it works really well with roast chicken which is how this salt came about, a simple idea but lovely sprinkled over moist roast chicken and it's buttery juices. I have chopped it up and mixed it with crème fraiche before and stuffed it under the skin of a chicken before it goes in the oven where the cream and flavours sink into the meat as it cooks.

I have used it in sweet stuff too, to flavour a panna cotta, and while going through a phase of candying everything last year I candied little sections of the stem. It's delicious as something sweet, a bit like angelica, lovely sweet fennel like flavours

This salt also works well with other herbs; like thyme, sage or dill. Simply chop the herbs finely and mix with an equal quantity of Maldon sea salt. Mix them together and I find it best to put it in the sun and let it dry out over a few days. The water will gradually evaporate and you are left with a delicious flavoured salt that can go on roast meats, salads, soups, bloody mary's, whatever you fancy...



If you want to try this with roast chicken, I would smear it all over with butter, squeeze over the juice of half a lemon, pop the lemon in the cavity and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes very hot, about 220˚C, then 40 minutes at 190˚C for a relatively big chicken. When it is done leave it to rest for 15 minutes then carve it into the buttery juices in the tin and sprinkle with lovage salt.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Butter & Cardamom Buns

I was back at the School of Artisan Food again this month, for their Food for Thought lecture weekend; not as a speaker this year, but a guest. Which meant I could fully enjoy it with no nerves. It was a brilliant weekend last year and proved so again this year. It's almost a bit overwhelming listening to that many fascinating speakers.

Over a sunny weekend on the Welbeck Estate we listened to Bronwen and Francis Percival talk about cheese, about tracing flavours back to what the cow eats in the field and everything along the way. Nicole Pisani and Oli Pagani spoke about the move from professional Nopi chefs to running school canteens for over 500 children. We heard about biodynamic soil, Pakistani seasons from Sumayya Usmani, spices, the power of food social media from Felicity Cloake, diet myths and gut microbes from Tim Spector, sustainable diets for the future from Professor Tim Lang, small food revolutions and much more besides, it was utterly fascinating, hugely educational and inspiring.


The School of Artisan Food is an amazing place, with the baking at the school being particularly impressive, over breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea we were served sour doughs, focaccias, malt loaves, crackers, cookies and amazing brownies...

I've been baking a bit more recently, we currently have a pork bun on the menu at Cook House. Pork we buy direct from the farm in Medomsley, it's a mangalitza, saddleback, middle white cross and it is so delicious, a real depth of flavour that I've not had the like of before. It seems only right to give it a freshly baked bun each morning. I guess these little buns have similarities with a brioche style bun, slightly sweetened, inspired by reading the Nordic Bakery book.

Get everything ready before you begin. Weigh out 500g of strong white bread flour and add a 7g sachet of dried yeast. Weigh out 75g of sugar and add 1 teaspoon of salt. You can add flavour at this point, I have used ground fennel seeds, ground cardamom or black pepper in the past, my favourite is the cardamom, add half a teaspoon of your chosen spice.

Weight out 75g of softened butter, and beat one egg in a separate bowl.

Heat 250ml of milk until warm, not hot, test it with your finger to check. Remove from the heat and add a couple of spoonfuls of the warm milk into the egg, mix, then add the milk and egg back into the milk pan. Then add in the sugar, salt and spice and whisk until it is all dissolved.

If you are using a stand mixer or Kitchenaid combine everything into the bowl, flour, yeast, butter and the milk mixture, and put it on to mix with a dough hook for 10 minutes.

If you are doing it by hand combine everything in a large bowl, bring it all together with a spatula and then turn out onto a floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes. It is quite a light sticky dough, so you may need to keep flouring your hands.

Bring the dough into a ball and leave it in a large bowl, covered with cling film in a warm spot for about an hour or until it is doubled in size. It starts about the size of a melon. The weather and temperature of the day have a huge difference on how quickly this happens, it won't take long on a warm sunny day and you'll get sick of waiting in the winter! After this time knead again for 10 minutes either by hand or in the mixer.

Now it is time to form the buns, tip out the dough and weigh it, for tiny buns divide by 20 and for larger buns divide by ten. If you do ten they end up roughly the size of a burger bun.

Cut off the correct amount of dough, it is usually about 95g for the larger buns, then holding your hand like a claw with the dough under it, move the dough round in circular motions on the work surface. You might need a little flour if it is really sticky but I find it easier to form without. The motion should be pushing the edges round and under and forming a neat little ball. I then dip the bottoms in flour and place on a baking tray lined with greaseproof a few inches apart.

Cover them all with cling film and let them sit for another half an hour. Then wash the tops with beaten egg and you can sprinkle on seeds or spice too.



Bake at 200˚C, 10 minutes for the tiny buns and approximately 15 minutes for the larger ones. I turn the larger ones after 10 minutes if they are not browning evenly, you want an even golden colour all over and they should sound hollow when you tap the bottoms. Then leave them to rest for half an hour before you dive in...

They are so bouncy and delicious, slightly sweet and buttery and especially good with cold butter or slow roast pork!

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Rhubarb & Almond Cake with a side of Michel Roux Jnr

It's been a very busy few months, with charity and TV taking up all my time, which sounds glamorous but in fact has just been very, very hard work. Something for Syria came to life at the end of February. A night that began as an idea at Christmas to raise some money for the people of Aleppo and escalated into a full on massive do at Wylam Brewery that raised over £30,000; thirty thousand pounds! It still makes me quite emotional. It just shows what you can do when a few of you put your heads together and call on the kind and talented people of the North East...

Just when it felt calm and I could get back to the work and life I had totally ignored running up to the event I got a call from Boomerang Productions; I was going to be on tv... Cook House appeared last week as part of a new series on Channel 4 called Hidden Restaurants with Michel Roux Jnr. The crew spent 10 hours filming at Cook House last summer; who knew there was so much to film in such a tiny space! I was incredibly nervous, thankfully that didn't seem to show through too much.


So one August morning Michel Roux arrived at the door, off we went to the Ouseburn Farm and picked some lovely fresh vegetables and herbs then cooked together at back at Cook House! I lost all sense of what to say, how to move and talk at the same time, how to chop... but thankfully they were a very encouraging and friendly bunch and were also very good at editing! That Michel was a pro, super professional, a really nice guy. Since it has aired Cook House has been inundated with new customers, which is wonderful, and incredibly hard work! I'm definitely going to need a holiday at some point!


In other news the rhubarb is up! So I thought you might like a simple but delicious cake recipe! Heat the oven to 160˚C. Then melt 150g of butter in a pan, once melted set it aside to cool slightly. Combine 225g of self raising flour, 225g of caster sugar and a teaspoon of baking powder in a bowl. Then beat 2 eggs and 1/4 teaspoon of almond essence together in another small bowl.

Prepare the fruit, for this I used 2 sticks of rhubarb cut on the diagonal and tossed in a bit of sugar to take the edge off them. This cake also works well with apples, raspberries, pears, plums... anything fruity you can throw at it I think!

Line a regular cake tin with greaseproof paper, I cut mine into a circle and tuck it in rather than faffing on with different pieces, it also makes it easy to lift out at the end and deals nicely with my slightly leaking cake tin.


Finally combine the flour mix, butter and egg mix. Bring it together with a spatula, it is quite a thick batter like mix when it's done, mix it until it is smooth. Then add 3/4 of the mix to the cake tin and spread it out. You will think it seems like not very much but don't worry. Then lay the rhubarb over the mix in an even layer. Add the final 1/4 of the mix to the centre of the cake on top of the rhubarb. Quickly pop it in the oven and bake for 50 minutes.


It is delicious, one of my favourite cakes, not overly sweet, but buttery and crumbly. The outside of the cake forms a delicious buttery crust and it is soft and fruity in the middle, lovely with a dollop of cream!



Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Venison Loin in Butter, Thyme & Garlic

'Are you interested in a roe deer?' Well yes, in short; regardless of who is asking and in what context. Max the chef at Bistro 46 had a deer going spare 'head off, hoofs off, skin on' did I want it? So I found myself the owner of a new headless pet... I enjoy a bit of butchery, but have only really dealt with game birds and small animals to be honest. The thought of the deer didn't really phase me. I was excited to get to grips with it, really interested, and I like learning new skills. I watched a few videos, but in the end I took it along to Charlotte's Butchery and asked her to give me a lesson, as I was concerned I didn't have the right tools, I need to invest in a few saws...


Charlotte took me through it. Removing the skin to start, which wasn't as difficult as I thought, then breaking down the deer into shoulders, legs and loins. I'd happily tackle the next one myself as it is easy enough to figure out, following muscles and the obvious joints of an animals body. It's an art I think, and one I would like to become better at.





There are two loins either side of the spine that once you know what you are doing are pretty easy to remove. They would serve 4 people, but we ate one between two because that's what often seems to happen in our house and also, we were on holiday. I have to say it is the most delicious venison I have ever had, which could be for any number of personal reasons, but it just was. It was shot near Chevington, just up the road, and I hope it won't be the last venison I can get from Max.



I haven't had a pan large enough on any occasion to cook the loin all in one piece, and it doesn't suffer at all from being cut in half, one end seems slightly thinner than the other, this may be my butchery skills, so it needed a touch less cooking.

Bring the loin to room temperature, for at least an hour, maybe more; then dry it thoroughly with kitchen roll and season generously with salt and pepper, more than you think, as if you were salting a pavement I read somewhere...



Take a heavy non stick frying pan and add a little bit of oil, it doesn't need too much. Then when it is hot you can add the venison, it should sizzle loudly as it hits the pan. Add both halves to the pan, don't move them or touch them or press them, just leave them to cook for 2 minutes. Watch them, the pan should be hot, but if it smells like its burning then turn it down a touch. After 2 minutes turn the loin onto the other side and give it 2 minutes again, it should have taken on a lovely golden colour.

I'm generally more at home with slow cooking, lots of flavours gently mingling together, rather than fast paced hot pans. But I find it exciting, I'm working on becoming more au fait with cooking with fire. Francis Mallmann, Niklas Ekstedt and others are inspiring me. Ideally I would have done this in a big heavy cast iron pan over a drift wood fire on the beach... another time, this time will come.

When the loin has had 2 minutes on each side turn the heat off and throw a big knob of butter into the hot pan, along with a crushed clove of garlic and some thyme. Then start to baste the meat for ten minutes, spooning over the delicious melted butter that has picked up all the flavours of the meat, the garlic and the thyme.



Finally remove the loin and rest it somewhere warm for 5 minutes. Carve into 2cm slices and serve, drizzle a little of the pan juices over the meat on the plate. We had it with some sticky beetroot and red cabbage and some celeriac mash with lots of butter and a bit of nutmeg. The meat is on the rare side of medium rare, and is so beautifully soft and delicious. I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed both of the loins, each as delicious as the other.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Shetland Scallops smoked over Seaweed

The little grey fish van pulled up just as we were about to give up. We had seen a few up in Scrabster; little vans that drive around, you can flag them down and buy fish anywhere you see them. We hadn't found any fish shops and had left a message with a man about some lobster but that was yet to come to fruition.


We've been up in the very North of Scotland for a weeks holiday, just a cottage on a beach, surrounded by sea, big skies, hills and nature.

There were no lobsters and langoustine aboard unfortunately, but plenty of other guys, we ended up with some massive Shetland scallops, a couple of kippers and a wild card of some cod roe. I wasn't sure what to do with it at first, but ended up smoking it by the beach fire and blitzing it into a version of taramasalata that was delicious, considering I guessed how to make it.



I'd read something in Niklas Ekstedt's book about scallops and cucumber steamed over seaweed, so set about making a plan, as when you're staying in a cottage on your own beach that's the kind of wonderful plan you need...

I wandered down and cut some fresh live seaweed from the rocks, you shouldn't use stuff just lying on the beach. I've been reading a bit about seaweeds lately, you can eat all of them in Britain I believe, but some are just disgusting, I plan to dry some out and use it for seasoning. There were a couple of types on the rocks, the one you make nori from and another with bits you can pop, I'm not down with the names just yet. I picked a big serving bowl full.



We built a small fire in amongst some massive rocks, where it would still get plenty of air flow from below, but was a bit sheltered from the winds whistling in off the sea. We got it going using driftwood twigs and dried out seaweed from the beach, topped with some birch logs. Nicklaus always uses birch wood so we followed his advice, he knows what he's doing when it comes to fire, and scallops for that matter...


There are two stages to this; the pan, then the seaweed... So once the fire was pretty strong I put a bit bit of butter into the pan and heated until it sizzled over the fire. I need to invest in some good cast iron numbers for this really. Then add the scallops and cook for roughly two minutes on each side. They will have taken on a lovely golden colour, remove to a warm plate, then add a bit more butter to the pan until melted, stirring up all the scraps of flavour from the bottom of the pan, then remove the pan from the fire.



Now quickly cover the fire with seaweed, all over, you don't want it to go out but conversely you don't want the flames coming through burning the scallops. A nice thick seaweed bed for the scallops to sit on.

I'm not sure whether Nicklaus' version is to steam or smoke these scallops but ours were definitely smoked. I left them on for about 2 minutes on each side, the seaweed began to change colour to a deep green and just as it began to catch fire and flames began to lick through the seaweed we took the scallops off. Season with salt and drizzle with hot butter from the pan.


I loved them, I really hope I get a chance to do this again. They were rich and smoky, but slightly different to a wood smoke taste, more mellow, and you could still taste clearly the sweet soft scallop and the sea. I really loved them, did I say that already... There's something exciting and magical about cooking outside on the fire, it makes everything taste better. We rushed inside to eat just as it started to rain.



Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Pigeon Prosciutto

I want my game to taste of game, I like it hung and full of strong gamey flavour, it's one of the highlights of Autumn for me. These little pigeon breasts do not disappoint in that respect and are full of flavour. The Feathers Inn had too many to deal with so sent some my way, I think about 20, and I wanted to do something a bit different with them.



I've read about duck ham, although not yet tried it out, so did a bit of reading around the subject. I couldn't find anything about any cured pigeon but thought I'd give it a go anyway. I liked the idea of some cured gamey meat with pickled pears and walnuts, it was ticking a lot of autumnal boxes in my head...

Pigeons are pretty easy to pluck, the feathers come out pretty easily and don't generally tear the skin, it becomes harder work the bigger the bird and how presentable you want them to look at the end. I quite enjoy it, it can be quite messy so recently I've been wrapping up warm and setting up outside with a table and a bin bag, utilising the wind to clear up all the stray feathers, rather than intensive hoovering.

If you're giving this a go starting with a feathered friend, gently pull out all the feathers covering the breast, using your thumb and forefinger. Remove all the feathers from the neck, on the shoulders, down under the wings, over the breast and down to its bum... If you were going to roast it whole you would need to continue to pluck the whole bird, remove the head, wings and legs and then gut it, but that's another story and actually quite easy once you've done it a few times.


Once all the breast feathers are removed take a very sharp knife and make an incision down the centre of the skin along the breast bone, then pull the skin back from the meat to reveal the whole pigeon breast. Then pick a side and keep your knife as close to the bone all the way along from neck to bottom, gently running the length of the bird to remove the breast in one piece with as much meat as possible, aiming to leave little or none behind on the carcass. Repeat on the other side. Then there you have it, a butchered pigeon, you will improve the more you do it, I found doing 20 odd quite satisfying and was pretty proud of my efforts by the end.



I used a cure of 3 parts fine salt and 1 part sugar as I wanted a slight sweetness to it. I added some black pepper, torn up bay leaves, some rosemary and some crushed juniper berries. Sprinkle half of the mix over the bottom of a flat container that will fit all your pigeon breasts, then cover everything with the other half of the cure.

I wasn't sure how long to leave the pigeon to achieve what I wanted, but I put them in one afternoon and checked them the next morning and they were done. I had imagined 2 or 3 days but it was much quicker. The cure had turned to liquid, in turn drawing the liquid out of the meat, the meat had become harder and more solid over night. Remove the pigeon and rinse under cold water, then dry them off with some kitchen roll. I left them out to dry in the air for a few hours, but they are ready to eat straight away. They are rich and gamey, delicious, with a salty hit. I was really pleased with them.




After eating a whole one straight off and patting myself on the back a bit I wondered what to do with them. Curing something always feels a bit like magic to me, you've created something quite complex by doing something quite simple, I always feel a great sense of achievement! I put these guys into a salad that was delicious with bitter radicchio, sweet pickled pears, toasted walnuts and the salty rich irony pigeon, it worked really well.



Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Goat Mince Ragu

All through October chefs and restaurants all over the country were taking part in something called 'Goatober'. I've got to say, it's not the catchiest of titles, but you get the jist, goats and October being the important bits.

Goatober is the brainchild of Heritage Radio Network Executive Director, Erin Fairbanks, and renowned New York cheesemonger, Anne Saxelby. An annual campaign every year in October in the US. In 2010, Heritage Foods USA partnered with a dozen goat dairies around upstate New York and Vermont to purchase their unwanted males, who, as unable to produce milk for dairy products, are killed at birth. Over 50 New York City chefs agreed to feature goat on their menu for the full month of October including Gramercy Tavern, Babbo, Spotted Pig and Bar Boulud and the campaign’s success has continued to grow to year on year.


This year James Whetlor of Cabrito, a relatively new company bringing British goat into the mainstream food market, has been championing the event over here in the UK. I decided to get involved as I really do like goat and was keen to support James, and also my local goat suppliers The Goat Company based up in Morpeth.

This Goat Mince Ragu recipe has been on the menu at Cook House all month, I'm serving in on toast smothered in delicious Doddington cheese. It is also great served with pasta, in a lasagne or with some buttery polenta.

To start finely dice 1 onion, 1 carrot and 1 stick of celery, then add to a big pan with a pinch of salt, a bay leaf, 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 15g butter and cook slowly until soft and turning golden, for about 15 minutes. 


While this is going on add 4 large tomatoes cut into quarters, or the equivalent amount of cherry tomatoes to a small baking tray with a couple of cloves of garlic, add a splash of olive oil, and a pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar. Then roast at 200˚C for about 20 minutes, until soft and starting to brown. Then remove from the oven.


Grate into the onion mix, one clove of garlic and a few sprigs of finely chopped thyme and stir through. Add 1kg of goat mince, this will serve 4 generously. Gently stir the goat mince on the heat until it is browned and breaks up evenly. Then add 2 heaped desert spoons of plain flour and stir through, allow this to cook for 5 minutes. Then add 2 heaped desert spoons of tomato puree and stir through and allow to cook for another 5 minutes.



Add the roast tomatoes to a blender and blitz until totally smooth and then stir this into the goat mince, post flour and tomato puree. Add a big pinch of salt, lots of ground black pepper and a teaspoon of sugar and stir to combine. It will begin to smell and taste delicious at this stage. You're looking to layer as much flavour into the pan as possible, the golden veg at the beginning and then these delicious roast tomatoes all help that along.

Then add about 600ml of beef stock and a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce; preferably homemade stock made with roast beef bones simmered for a few hours with stock veg, which will yield the most delicious results. Then let the mince simmer for an hour, covered, very gently, so it's just moving. If it seems too thick add a little more stock. After an hour remove the lid and if it seems like there is a bit too much liquid, take the lid of and turn the heat up and let it reduce for about 15 minutes, stirring now and again so it doesn't stick to the bottom. Turn it off when it is the desired consistency, check the seasoning and let it sit for 15 minutes, just to let let it settle and for all the flavour to come out. It is even better the next day, so if you can make it ahead that is ideal...

To serve, pop it on toast with lots of grated cheese, or stir through some pasta, again top with cheese, or layer it up into a homemade lasagne, making sure to top with cheese!