PHEASANT WITH APPLES AND CIDER OR VERJUICE
The sharp character of some of our apples (Grenadier, early Worcester, Peasgood's Nonsuch and, of course, the Bramley) offers a knife-edge with which to cut the rich, fungal taste of game birds. Pheasant, partridge and
wild duck are all flavours that benefit from the bite of damsons, sour
cherries, bitter oranges or a good sharp apple.
As a teenager, I probably ate more pheasant than I have ever done since. We lived in deepest Worcestershire, Dad was a good
shot (he trained as a gunsmith) and the birds
would often loiter on the lawn, a shimmer of
bronze in the autumn light, asking to be lunch.
The traditional way to get round the lack of
natural fat in game birds is to cover their
breasts with fatty bacon, so it melts and
bastes the birds as they roast. But moisture
in the pan can work too, in the form of wine
or stock, so that the air inside the oven is
A batch of small apples tucked around the bird can help. The fruits split and froth up in the pan,
issuing sweetness and, hopefully, a shot of cider-spritz into the juices in the roasting tin (there are often onions and bacon in there, too). To the pan, I add cider or a glass of verjuice – the light, fruity liquor ('taint wine, 'taint vinegar) made from unfermented grapes. It can be difficult to find, so I buy two bottles when I
ENOUGH FOR 2
medium onions 2
unsmoked streaky bacon rashers 4, cut into short lengths
a little butter
sage leaves 3 or 4
verjuice, dry cider or white vermouth 250ml
bay leaves 2
small, tart apples 4-6
Peel and roughly chop one of the onions and put it into a roasting tin with the bacon and a little butter. Leave to cook over a moderate heat until the bacon fat has turned opaque and the onion is starting to soften. This is a 10-minute job. Add the sage, then pour in the verjuice, cider or vermouth.
While the bacon is cooking, set the oven at 220C/gas mark 7. Rub the pheasant all over with a little butter, salt and black pepper. Cut the remaining onion in half and tuck it inside the cavity with the bay leaves. Place the buttered bird on top of the softened onions, slit the apples around their middles, then tuck them around the bird and roast for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 180C/gas mark 4 and continue cooking for 30-40 minutes, depending on the bird's size. It should be juicy, very slightly pink inside, and the skin should be amber-gold. The aromatics in the tin should have the deep, appley scent of autumn, especially if you have used cider for want of verjuice.
To serve, I tend to put the bird on the table in its roasting tin, deal out the apples, bacon and onion, carve the bird as best as I can, then spoon over the thin, flavoursome juices from the tin.
A HOTPOT OF SAUSAGE AND APPLES
A rich and heart-warming supper for a freezing night. I tend to go for a fairly plain pork sausage here, but a slightly garlicky one might work, too. Any apple will do, but a dessert apple is less likely to collapse than a "cooker".
ENOUGH FOR 4
dried flageolet or haricot beans 250g
olive oil 2 tbsp
large garlic cloves 3
fennel seeds 2 small pinches
bay leaves 2
thick, nicely seasoned pork sausages 8
large dessert apples 2
plain flour 2 tbsp
Madeira or medium-dry sherry a glass
stock 1 litre
grain mustard 2 tbsp
Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Drain and bring to the boil in fresh unsalted water. Simmer for about 40 minutes, checking their progress now and again. Drain and set aside.
Peel the onions, cut them in half, then cut each half into six or so thick segments. Warm the oil in a casserole over a low to moderate heat. Put the onions in the pan and leave them to colour lightly, stirring them from time to time so that they don't stick or burn.
Peel and finely slice the garlic, then add it to the onions with the fennel seeds and bay leaves. Push the mixture to one side (if your pan is on the small side, then remove the onions and return them later). Cut the sausages into short lengths, add them to the pan and lightly brown them on all sides. Meanwhile, peel, core and quarter the apples. Cut them smaller if you wish, but the smaller they are, the more likely they are to break up. Mix the sausages with the onions (if you removed the onions, return them to the pan now), then stir in the flour and the apples. Cook for 5 minutes or so, then gradually pour in the Madeira or sherry and stock, stirring. Add half the mustard, season with salt and black pepper and leave at a low simmer for a good 25 minutes.
Add the beans to the sauce, season with salt and black pepper and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes. It is ready when the sausages are fully cooked and much of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the second spoonful of mustard and continue to simmer for a minute or two, remembering that mustard loses its interest if cooked for too long.
EARLY AUTUMN APPLES ON HOT TOAST
You could feel it: something wonderful was happening. The air had a cider-like note, part sweet, part rotten. Shoppers hugged knobbly brown paper bags to their chests. I felt the need to hurry in case I missed something. Around the corner, outside the cheese shop, customers jostled around a stack of open wooden crates. The first of the autumn's apples had arrived.
A sucker for a Russet, I buy them by the bagful. Any will do: Egremont, Ashmead's Kernel or St Edmund's Pippin. Rosemary Russet is a treat and a half. The aniseed notes of its flesh flatter a lump of Gloucester or a jagged crumb of Caerphilly. Heat will sometimes bring out a hidden waft of orange. I roll them over and over in my hand too, rubbing their scabby roughness with my thumb.
I arrived home with a bag of early Russets, Cox's, Worcesters and the regrettably named Scrumptious. After I had crunched enough, I sliced yet more of them up, keeping their skins intact, and let them soften in a pan with enough butter and sugar to give them a thin coating of caramel. Then I tipped them on to fresh toast and spooned unpasteurised yellow cream over them.
MAKES 2 ROUNDS OF TOAST
small dessert apples 4
a little lemon juice
golden caster sugar 2 lightly heaped tbsp
raisins or sultanas a handful
ground cinnamon a knifepoint
2 slices of toast made from brioche, nut and raisin bread or a milk loaf
Quarter the apples, core them, but leave the skin on. Slice the apples thickly, then toss them with a little lemon juice. It will stop their flesh browning and balance the sugar.
Melt the butter in a shallow pan. Before it froths, stir in the sugar and leave to bubble for a minute or two. Introduce the apples, letting them cook for 5 minutes or so over a moderate heat till soft. Stir in the raisins or sultanas and cinnamon.
Have the toast ready. I like it to be hot and lightly crisp. As soon as the apples are soft and lightly coated in caramel, tip them over the toast. A tub of cream, thick and yellow, would be quite wonderful here.
A SINGLE-CRUST PIE FOR PARTICULARLY JUICY PLUMS
Asked to define the "bliss point" in a culinary sense, I would venture to suggest the underside of a pastry crust where it meets the fruit. Still crisp and sugary on top, it is moist, almost sodden underneath with sweet-sharp, scarlet juice. But some fruits can produce so much juice that the bottom crust collapses. Plums are particular culprits. The answer, a single crust on top of the pie. Fine in dispensing with a soggy bottom, but as a pastry lover I feel robbed.
My version uses a top crust of shortcake thickness. Intensely crumbly, this solves the riddle of how to get enough crust when using a particularly juice-producing fruit. The pastry crust here is thick but very tender, and will crumble as you serve it. Occasionally cream is called for with a pie, and this is just one of those occasions.
ENOUGH FOR 4
For the pastry:
golden caster sugar 100g
an egg, lightly beaten
plain flour 175g
baking powder ½ tsp
a little milk for brushing
For the filling:
ripe plums or greengages 800g-1kg
golden caster sugar 2-3 tbsp
ground cinnamon a knifepoint
Cream the butter and caster sugar in a food mixer till light and fluffy. Mix in the lightly beaten egg, then gently add the flour and baking powder. Remove dough from the mixing bowl and roll into a ball on a heavily floured work surface. Knead the dough for a minute or two until smooth and soft. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and refrigerate for about 20 minutes.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Cut the ripe plums or greengages in half and remove their stones. Cut the fruit into large pieces, toss with the caster sugar and cinnamon and put into a lightly buttered 20–22cm baking dish.
Roll out the pastry on a floured board, then lift carefully on to the pie. There will be a little left over. The crust is very short and it really doesn't matter if it tears as you lower it over the fruit. Some of the juice will probably erupt through it as it cooks anyway. At least I hope so.
Brush the pastry lightly with milk and bake for 40 minutes. The pastry should be pale-biscuit coloured. Dust with caster sugar and serve warm with cream.
A CHINESE-STYLE PORK ROAST WITH PLUM GINGER SAUCE
The rule is that a sharp sauce is needed with pork to cut its fattiness. More important, I think, is the fact that the sauce should flatter the gamey notes of the meat. Apples do this well enough but gooseberries do it better, having more natural sharpness than any "cooking" apple. Plums and damsons flatter the flesh of the pork as well as the fat, and their fruity notes blend harmoniously with the pan juices.
The Chinese flavours here demand something other than potatoes as an accompaniment, so I go for some dark green cabbage, coarsely shredded the width of pappardelle and cooked in a very little water till bright emerald green. No butter, just vital, earthy greens to contrast with the richness of the meat and its sauce.
ENOUGH FOR 4-6
a piece of pork belly about 1.5kg
Szechuan peppercorns 2 tbsp
sea salt flakes 3 tbsp
ground anise 1 tsp
For the sauce:
sharp plums or damsons 900g
sugar 3 tbsp
fresh ginger a large knob about the size of a walnut, peeled and cut into matchsticks
star anise 4
salt ½ tsp
smooth red wine vinegar 2 tbsp
Put the pork in a shallow dish. Warm the Szechuan peppercorns in a non-stick pan till they start to crackle a bit, then remove from the heat. Grind together the salt, toasted peppercorns and the ground anise. Easiest with a pestle and mortar, but you can also do it with a plastic bag and a rolling pin. You want a fine, beige powder. Rub the spice mixture over the pork and its skin, cover lightly with greaseproof paper and set aside for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight in the fridge. This is for the dry marinade to work its magic.
To make the sauce, put the plums or damsons into a colander and give them a good rinse under cold running water, pulling off any stalks and leaves as you go. Tip the fruit into a stainless steel saucepan (aluminium will taint sour fruits such as plums), add the sugar, water, ginger, anise and salt and bring to the boil. Leave to simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the fruit has burst and the sauce has thickened to a deep purple-red. Stir in the vinegar and simmer for 5 minutes more. Watch that it doesn't become too thick or catch on the bottom; it is inclined to get a bit jammy at this stage.
Put the sauce somewhere to cool or, if spitting out stones at the table really isn't your thing, sieve it first: tip it into a large sieve set over a bowl and push the fruit through with a wooden spoon. Keep going till all you have left is a few stones. Set aside; you can warm it up just before you serve the pork.
Roast the pork in an oven set at 200C/gas mark 6 for about an hour, basting occasionally. Leave to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving, and pass the sauce around at the table.
A CAKE FOR MIDSUMMER
Raspberries and apricots are rippled through the soft, almond-rich crumb of this pretty cake. I sometimes add a few rose petals and an extra handful of raspberries at the last moment, or perhaps a light scattering of icing sugar.
ENOUGH TO SERVE 8-10
golden caster sugar 175g
ripe apricots 200g (4 or 5)
self-raising flour 175g
ground almonds 100g
milk 2 tbsp
Line the base of a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin with baking paper. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.
Cream the butter and sugar in a food mixer till pale and fluffy. Halve, stone and roughly chop the apricots. Beat the eggs lightly, then add to the butter and sugar a little at a time, pushing the mixture down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. If there is any sign of curdling, stir in a tablespoon of the flour. Mix the flour and almonds together and fold in, with the mixer on a slow speed, in two or three lots. Add the milk, and once incorporated add the apricots and the raspberries. Scrape the mixture into the tin and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes. Test with a skewer: if it comes out relatively clean, the cake is done. Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes in the tin, then turn out on to a plate, decorating as the fancy takes you.
BLACK GRAPE FOCACCIA
I have added blackberries to my sweet focaccia but black grapes are more traditional. Excellent with mild cheese.
ENOUGH FOR 8
strong white flour 450g
easy-bake yeast 1 sachet (7g, 2 tsp)
sea salt 1 tsp
caster sugar 1 tbsp
warm water 350ml
For the topping:
sweet black grapes 400g
olive oil 2 tbsp
caster sugar 2 tbsp
a little icing sugar
Put the flour in a large bowl, add the yeast, the sea salt (if you are using coarse salt, crush it finely first), then the sugar and warm water. Mix with a wooden spoon, then turn the dough out on to a generously floured board and knead lightly for 5 minutes or so. A gentle pummelling will suffice.
Once the dough feels elastic and "alive", put it into a floured bowl, cover with a clean cloth or cling film and leave it somewhere warm to rise. It will take approximately an hour to double in size. Once it has, punch it down again, knocking some of the air out. Tip it into a shallow baking tin about 30cm in diameter. Gently knead half of the grapes into the dough, scattering the remaining ones on top. Cover the dough once more and return it to a warm place to rise.
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 7. Once the dough has expanded to almost twice its size, drizzle over the olive oil, scatter with the caster sugar and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, till well risen, golden brown and crisp on top. It should feel springy when pressed.
Leave to cool slightly before dusting with icing sugar. Cut into thick wedges and eat while it is still warm with a fresh, mild cheese. It will not keep for more than a few hours.
FIGS WITH CREAMED GORGONZOLA
On a late summer's evening I will occasionally put a plate of purple figs on the zinc table in the garden together with a lump of blue cheese from Ireland or Italy. We help ourselves, cutting the fruits in half and placing a piece of Cashel Blue or Gorgonzola on their deep maroon flesh. Gorgonzola is often the softest of the blue cheeses. Mixed with cream or oil, it will form a less grainy dressing than the firmer varieties such as Stilton. Ideally, the cheese should be excessively ripe, almost to the point of liquidity.
ENOUGH FOR 4
spicy leaves such as rocket, watercress and mizuna 4 handfuls
For the Gorgonzola cream:
ripe Gorgonzola 250g
double cream 100-150ml
white wine vinegar 1 tsp
To make the Gorgonzola cream, put the cheese in a mixing bowl and stir in enough of the double cream to give a creamy, slightly lumpy sauce. It should be thick enough to spread. Add the white wine vinegar.
Cut the figs in halves or quarters, depending on their size. Divide the salad leaves between four plates, then add the figs and a spoonful or two of the Gorgonzola cream.
POT-ROAST GUINEA FOWL WITH FIGS
A simple pot-roast bird takes five or 10 minutes to prepare, followed by an hour or so of unattended cooking. The result is meat that is both tender and flavoursome, cooking juices instilled with the essence of the meat and only one pan to wash up. The figs here offer a certain harmony to an autumn dish of gentle flavours.
ENOUGH TO SERVE 2 GENEROUSLY
a guinea fowl
rosemary a small sprig
white vermouth such as Noilly Prat a wine glass
half a lemon
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Season the bird with salt and pepper. Peel and roughly chop the onion and put it into a large, deep casserole. Add the rosemary, vermouth and the lemon half, cut in two. Cover with a lid and roast in the oven for an hour, until tender. Halfway through cooking, add the figs cut in half. Check for doneness by inserting a skewer in the thickest part of the thigh. If the juices run clear, the bird is cooked. Serve in thick slices with the onion, figs and juices.
A FABULOUS JAM
I love jam. I love it more than treacle, much, much more than honey and only slightly less than marmalade. It is not just the preserve itself that appeals but the tubby little pot on the table, its contents glistening as you twist off the lid. The way the fruit and syrup fill the spoon as you push it ever downwards, and that sticky dribble that hangs, jewel-like, on the rim of the jar. The jam I use to measure all others was made by the late Dorothy Carter – the most memorable of which was her blackcurrant. When Miss Carter died, the company survived briefly but the magic seemed to go with her.
The pinnacle of jam making for me is blackcurrant. The sharpness of the blackcurrant makes it one of the very few fruits that can cope with the copious amount of sugar in the average jam recipe. This recipe is for a softly set jam with a deep flavour that glows deepest purple-black on your spoon.
granulated or caster sugar 900g
Warm the sugar slightly in a low oven. Pull the currants from their stalks.
Put the fruit into a large saucepan with the water and bring to the boil. As the mixture starts to bubble and the currants burst, tip in the sugar and let it dissolve without stirring. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, turn the heat down slightly so the jam simmers enthusiastically, stirring briefly.
Leave to cook for 10 minutes, then switch off the heat. Have two 500ml preserving jars or four or five smaller jam jars ready. They should be spotlessly clean, sterilised with hot water from the kettle and dried. Spoon in the jam right to the top and seal.