I like the cold. Snow, frost, ice and clear, pearl-grey skies appeal so much more to me than bright sun and fierce light. But then, I'm a funny old bugger. With the cold comes a fearsome appetite and a need for velvet soups of artichoke or pumpkin; for casseroles of fat butter beans and parsnips; for pork belly and neck of lamb; baked potatoes and roast butternut; treacle sponge and baked jam roll. Food to warm the soul.
The smell of food as it slowly bakes and roasts, stews and braises is half the reason I cook from scratch rather than heat up a microwave-ready meal. The sense of expectation brought about by the herb-scented fug that fills a kitchen as lamb slowly bakes with mint and lemon or the lingering smell of caramelised meat juices and vegetables from a roast of pork loin and beans is what brings me to the table.
The other attraction of slow cooking is that it allows us to use cheaper cuts – those pieces of a carcass that respond to long leisurely cooking in some sort of liquid. These are often pieces of meat with a good ratio of fat, and utilising that fat will only add to a dish's ability to warm as well as feed us. The fat that comes with a piece of pork belly is worth savouring, and this week I made a roasting tin of braised beans whose sauce was made all the more effective by cooking pieces of pork belly in it so that the melting fat enriched the beans rather than burned on to the empty roasting tin.
Add to that a sponge pudding atop a layer of scarlet rhubarb and brown sugar and the soul is well and truly warmed.
Pork belly and beans
While not being the bargain it once was, belly still represents value for money. It comes with or without skin and can be sold with or without its bones. For this recipe you need it with the skin scored by the butcher and the bones removed. There is a generous quantity here. Any that you don't eat at the time can be warmed the next day and served on toast. Serves 4.
dried cannellini beans 500g
bay leaves 3
belly pork, bones out 1.2kg
onions 2 medium
thyme 6 little sprigs
vegetable stock 1 litre
cavolo nero or other dark cabbage 200g
Soak the beans in deep, cold water overnight. In the morning, drain them, tip into a very large saucepan, add three bay leaves, cover with water and bring to the boil. Remove and discard any froth that floats to the surface with a draining spoon, then partially cover with a lid and turn down to a lively simmer. Leave the beans to cook for a good 45-60 minutes until almost tender.
Peel and chop the onions, then soften them in a little oil in a large, solid roasting tin over a low to moderate heat, adding the whole thyme sprigs and a grinding of black pepper. Let them take their time, so the onions are truly soft.
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 8. Drain the cooked beans as soon as they are almost tender, and tip them into the onions and thyme. You should include the bay leaves or, if they look tired, add a couple of new ones. Pour in the stock.
Using a heavy kitchen knife, slice the piece of pork belly into eight squares. Salt the skin generously, pushing the grains down into the slashes on the surface. Place the pieces snugly, but not quite touching each other, into the beans, making certain that the pork stands proud of the beans. Bake for 20 minutes until the crackling is looking pale gold and lightly crisp.
Lower the heat to 160C/gas mark 2 and continue cooking for an hour and 15 minutes. The pork should be crisp on top, soft but not meltingly so. Remove the pork to warm plates.
Place the roasting tin over a moderate heat, shred the cabbage and stir into the beans and cook for a couple of minutes. Finish with salt, stirring it into the beans. Serve with the pork.
Rhubarb muscovado sponge
I haven't tried this recipe with apples, but I am willing to bet it would work just as well if rhubarb is not your thing. Whichever fruit you use it is best not to over sweeten it, allowing the sweetness to come from the muscovado sponge. Custard or cream would be rather wonderful with this, though not essential. Serves 4.
blood orange 1
golden caster sugar 4 tbsp
For the muscovado sponge:
light muscovado sugar 75g
golden caster sugar 50g
ground almonds 50g
self-raising flour 75g
ground ginger ½ tsp
mixed spice ½ tsp
ground cinnamon 2 large pinches
cream or custard to serve
You will need a 1.5-litre ovenproof pudding basin.
Cut the rhubarb into short, cork-length pieces, tip them into a saucepan, finely grate the orange and squeeze, add to rhubarb. Add two tbsp of water and the caster sugar, then bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let the rhubarb simmer gently for about 10 minutes until it starts to soften and give up its juice. Using a draining spoon, transfer the rhubarb to the heatproof pudding basin, press fairly flat and set the reserved juice aside.
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a food mixer and cream until soft and light, occasionally scraping the mixture down the sides of the bowl. Mix together the almonds and flour, ginger, mixed spice and cinnamon. Lightly beat the eggs. A little at a time, add the eggs to the butter and sugar, then slowly mix in the almonds, flour and spices.
Spoon the cake mixture on top of the rhubarb and smooth the surface level. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, covering the dish lightly with foil if it seems to be browning too much. Leave the pudding to calm down for 15 minutes or so before serving with the reserved juice and, perhaps, some cream or custard.
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