Thursday, 11 December 2014

Chilli venison casserole with chocolate

I made this Mexican 'mole' inspired casserole in the slow cooker at the weekend and, apart from having to deal with all the shallots, it was very easy indeed. What's more at this time of year it's so useful to literally throw several ingredients in the pot and a few hours later, as if by magic, have a delicious warming meal. My slow cooker was a Christmas gift from my parents last year and we use it constantly. As well as being an incredibly efficient bit of kit, there is something deeply reassuring about knowing that dinner is taken care of and you can get on with your day.

This is based on a recipe from Slow Cooking: Best New Recipes by Annette Yates and Norma Miller which doesn't look or sound terribly inspiring, but has become my slow cooking bible. It serves 6 people.

900g stewing venison, cut into cubes
3 rashers of streaky bacon
12 shallots, peeled and sliced into quarters
2 red chillies, seeds removed, finely sliced
150g cranberries
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
400ml stock (ideally venison or beef)
150ml port or red wine
freshly ground black pepper
55g dark chocolate

Firstly preheat the slow cooker to High. Place everything apart from the chocolate in the slow cooker, cover with the lid and cook on Low for 6 to 8 hours. Everything goes straight in without having to fry the meat or shallots/onions first. Just before serving stir through the chocolate and check the seasoning. You might need to thicken the sauce slightly if it's a bit thin with some cornflour mixed with water.

The ingredients cook down beautifully resulting in a warmly spicy dish and meltingly tender venison. As a crunchy garnish I made a gremolata with a handful of breadcrumbs fried until golden with butter and a crushed clove of garlic, combined with finely grated orange zest and chopped parsley.

Served with steamed cabbage and a bottle of Rioja Reserva, it was a perfect winter meal.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Home made candied peel

This is a real winter favourite and something I make most years as Christmas gifts – what's not to love about home made candied peel, especially dipped in chocolate. You often see recipes for it in the run up to Christmas as it's photogenic and sounds so luxurious, but they are rarely honest about how long it can take. The method hinges on the sugar syrup dried out fully and this depends on the atmosphere. Last year mine weren't ready in time for Christmas after leaving them for a week to dry out and I think all the damp weather was the problem. However, if you start now and use a warm airing cupboard (or low oven if it comes to it), you should be fine.

You can use any citrus fruit, but I prefer orange as it goes better with chocolate. Select unwaxed fruit or failing that, scrub the skins thoroughly. Divide 6 oranges into quarters and carefully cut away the flesh from the pith and peel. Slice this into strips or leave in larger pieces to use in cooking (cakes, buns, mincemeat etc). Place in a large saucepan or preserving pan and cover with water. Over a low heat simmer until soft. Drain away the water and repeat the process. Strain the fruit and reserve the cooking water for the syrup.

Make a syrup by dissolving 600g granulated sugar in 300ml water, bring it to the boil and let it bubble until slightly thickened. Add the cooked peel. Over a low heat allow it to simmer gently until the peel has absorbed all the syrup – this might take two hours or so and swirl the pan occasionally in case the peel is sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Once all the syrup has been absorbed, arrange the peel on drying racks spaced so the air can circulate. I put the racks on large trays lined with cling film or baking parchment as the sticky syrup drips off the fruit and makes a real mess (I learned this the hard way first time around). Rearrange them every couple of days.

Once fully dry, if you like, dip the peel in melted dark chocolate, alternatively, larger pieces can be snipped up to use in cooking. Store in airtight containers. To say it's better than shop bought candied peel is quite an understatement. It's fabulous with Vin Santo, but Tokaji and other well flavoured sweet wines also work beautifully.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A walk around Banyuls sur Mer

On holiday in France in the summer we took some time out for a leisurely stroll around Banyuls. Banyuls sur Mer is overshadowed by its neighbour Collioure, but this makes it much more enjoyable to visit. Parking is less of a problem (or you can take the bus that runs along the coast during the season) and you don't have to negotiate gawping tourists wherever you go.

Banyuls has oodles of character and a charming sedate elegance. It has the gently buzzy vibe of a small beach resort, but you're always aware of the dramatic terraced vineyards and olive groves in the near distance. Here in deepest Catalan France, you never forget that Spain is only a few kilometres down the coast. However, strolling around the town is not as relaxing as it sounds as you'll see from the pictures – there are a lot of stairs involved. It's well worth it, though, as the views are so spectacular and there'll always be something delicious to sip afterwards.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Argelès and Le Racou

I was in two minds about writing this as it feels like I'm sharing a secret. However, I'll tell you about one of my favourite places in Roussillon, the far corner of Mediterranean France where we spend our summer holidays. Le Racou is a small, unshowy beach resort just south of Argelès before the coastline becomes more rugged and continues through Collioure and Banyuls before it reaches Spain.

Argelès is a large sprawling place catering to mass tourism, but particularly well know for its campsites (previously used by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, but rather more luxurious now). It has a long, straight, wide beach and popular with families. There is an old town further inland, but the coastal resort Argelès Plage grew with the advent of the railways, and, if you scratch the surface and look away from the crowds swarming around the shops, bars and restaurants, there are several elegant streets of fin de siècle villas. All along the seafront are beautifully maintained gardens overlooked by some of the town's finest buildings. To those early holidaymakers stepping off the train from cool northern France, this must have felt like heaven.

In contrast, Le Racou feels intimate and tucked away, fringed by pine woods and nestling against a dramatically rocky promontory that marks the beginning of the Côte Vermeille. Le Racou is at the end of a sweep of straight coastline that runs pretty much all the way from the Rhône delta and the Camargue. Unlike the beaches further north, the sand is less fine and gives your feet quite a tingling workout, but it doesn't matter as you'd have been charmed by then.

Many of Le Racou's beach huts were built to temporarily house Spanish exiles during the 1930s, but now make desirable holiday accommodation. Just the one paved road accesses the village, otherwise there is a network of sandy tracks. A few old fashioned bucket and spade shops punctuate the main road, along with a boulangerie, a smattering of bars and restaurants and a couple of hotels. There are a few newer developments tastefully screened by the pines, but they don't spoil the laid back, uncommercial atmosphere.

Apparently previous communities have wanted to make Le Racou independent and, with its chilled out, alternative vibe, you can see why. It's great that it's managed to retain such a bohemian outlook. It reminds me of Le Canon on Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast with its oyster huts, and Gruisson further up the coast near Narbonne with its fisherman's shacks on stilts (where the movie Betty Blue was filmed) – distinctive, relaxed places with an easy nonchalance. Just what holidays should be all about.

Le Canon

Le Canon


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Banyuls Sangria and the Côte Vermeille

I've been visiting Roussillon regularly for maybe 15 years now, but I'm amazed that this summer was my first taste of a certain, rather potent local speciality – Banyuls Sangria. The effect it has on you is rather like an expertly mixed gin and tonic. It takes hold of you and presents the world as a better place. When you're already in a rather lovely place, the effect is all the more powerful.

We were driving south along the coast to Banyuls and just before getting there we stopped at an attractive little bay, the Plage des Elmes, for lunch. The beach bar here (Le Sun) is known for its Banyuls Sangria, so the non-drivers settled in happily. You have to remember how close you are to Spain in this Catalan corner of France, so this interpretation the drink makes a lot of sense. Basically, it's local red wine (ideally Collioure) with Banyuls and (for good measure) brandy. It's sweetened to taste with sugar and flavoured with orange. Either you can slice oranges and leave them to macerate in the boozy red wine concoction or add some orange juice. Some recipes suggest doing this the day before and allowing it all to macerate. When you're ready to serve add some lemonade. To be honest, ours didn't taste diluted at all, so leave it out if you prefer!

It was a treat to enjoy this within sight of vines and in such a spectacular location. Banyuls is on the Côte Vermeille (the Vermillion Coast), the craggy, intricate stretch of coastline where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean. Maybe it was the sangria, but it was amazing experiencing the landscape and the remarkable rock formations so intimately.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Duck, cherry and beetroot salad with Lambrusco

A couple of weeks ago we were treated to a particularly memorable meal at Quo Vadis that featured a main course salad of duck with cherries and beetroot, topped with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. It was the perfect dish for a warm summer evening. Grown up and satisfying, yet not too earnest – large pieces of crisp, salty duck skin were a deliciously naughty touch.

We had friends round for dinner last Friday and I recreated it as a starter. Flicking through my new copy of Diana Henry's A Change of Appetite I noticed a recipe for goat's cheese and cherry salad in which she macerates the cherries in brandy or grappa, along with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and lemon juice. I used kirsch, olive oil and apple balsamic (I don't yet have any white balsamic) and found the dressing didn't need any lemon juice, leaving them for a couple of hours or so before combining with salad leaves, sliced cooked beetroot and the flesh and skin from duck legs I'd roasted earlier. The crunchy breadcrumbs were made by roasting chunks of bread in the pan used for the duck. Once they had dried out I scraped the pan thoroughly to incorporate all the tasty duck bits and then pounded the toasted bread in a pestle and mortar.

We enjoyed it with a bottle of Albinea Canali Lambrusco Ottocentonero from the Wine Society (a steal at £7.95) – dry, fresh and appetising with plenty of lush cherry fruit and spot on with the salad. It was a steal at £7.95, but has (not surprisingly) sold out. However, their other Lambrusco would also be worth trying, but keep an eye out elsewhere, especially while dining out, for proper dry examples (not to be confused with the naff sweet versions of the past). Following New York's lead, interest in this 'forgotten gem' is growing in the UK where, for example, Ottolenghi restaurants report booming sales. Great news for summer drinking.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Greek hospitality

For the best part of 20 years, since one of my best friends hooked up with and then married Nikos from Athens, I have been at the receiving end of generous Greek hospitality. Our recent visit culminated with a memorable lunch at their weekend house on the coast in Nea Makri near Marathon. As is usually the case in good weather, the food is cooked on the grill in the garden – in this case squid and octopus for starter, followed by a large, family-sized sea bream.

The food is always wonderfully simple, showing off local, seasonal ingredients. My friends are fortunate in benefitting from a family-owned olive and citrus grove and they make their own vinegar and wine (like many Greek households). We made a vinegar and oil dressing for the squid and octopus, whereas the fish was dressed (anointed) with an emulsion of lemon juice and oil. We sipped some ouzo with the starter (octopus and aniseed are a match made in Mediterranean heaven) and salty, mineral Assyrtiko from Santorini was ideal with the fish. Plenty of bread and salad were passed around.

My friends tend to round off a meal with fresh fruit, so we climbed up onto the roof and picked apricots from the tree and ate them gazing across the water to the island of Evia. A distinctive and memorable end to our holiday. Efharisto poli!