Bring On The Winter: Garlic shoulder of lamb with potato boulangère

Doco Dom and The Lady Deming have been visiting old haunts in France, and returned with a gift for lucky old me: a big-ass garlic grappe from Lautrec, the town famous for its stinking roses. I was, of course, deeply appreciative, but I was left with a slight problem. Now I have to do the stuff justice.

Garlic is the friendliest stuff with which to cook. The papery coating is the perfect defence against the heat of the oven, and a roasted head of garlic is a brilliant accompaniment to just about any savoury meal. Simply lop the top off, splash over a little oil, and cook for half an hour in a medium oven. The honey-coloured, mellow-flavoured paste that results when you squeeze out the cloves is a delight.

But we can do better than that. Keeping it French, I decided to snag some lamb shoulder, and put together the ideal slow-cooked meal for a lazy Sunday.

 

I'm a recent convert to the ways of the slow-cooked shoulder of beast. It is, to be fair, a dish that requires time. I could get my act together before leaving for work and pop a cut into the slow cooker, I suppose. But really, this is a weekend dish, designed for a bit of kitchen puttering. Particularly if you're smart, and do the potatoes at the same time.

Preheat your oven to 130C, and get on with the lamb. I had a half-kilo lump which will easily serve TLC and I with leftovers. Season it thoroughly, then get garlicking. Skin a whole head of the lovely stuff (it's easiest to bash it with the flat end of a knife or cleaver–the flesh will pop free from the papery husks) and nick off the hard stem. Then make deep incisions into the lamb with a sharp knife, and stuff the cloves into these pockets. Try to make sure they go all the way in. Don't be shy. Shove 'em in there.

Now to the spuds. Potatoes boulangère is the way forward here: layers of potato and onion, moistened with stock and flavoured with the copious fat from the lamb. You need a mandolin to do this properly. No, not the stringed instrument, you fool, the terrifying cross between a knife and a guillotine that has shortened many a chef's finger. Finely slice a couple of onions and four or five big potatoes. And grab some herbs. Thyme is traditional, but rosemary also works brilliantly.

Now to build. You can use a roasting tin, but I find a good deep casserole works just as well. Butter it well first. Pop a layer of potato in the bottom of the pot, then onion, herbs and a grind of salt and pepper. Then repeat, layering spuds, onion, herbs and seasoning until you've reached the top. If you're using Pyrex, then you get to see the result of your labours at the end. Check out this work of art.

 

Then all you do is slosh over a couple of ladlefuls of good stock, pop your lamb on top of everything and shove it in the oven. Then wait, which is probably the hardest bit. Five hours cooking time, slow and low, letting the fat gently render out of the lamb and into the boulangère, giving the garlic time to mellow and soften. Cook it for long enough and the cloves will actually melt into the meat, although I like the notion of squidging the soft garlic around on the plate.

When that five hours is finally done, let the meat rest for twenty minutes, then shred it. If there's a bone on the joint, it should slide free without complaint. Serve the lamb and potatoes with a simply steamed green veg (we had broccoli). You shouldn't need gravy as the boulangère is still quite sloppy. But don't let me stop you from sloshing a little mint sauce on the side.

The whole thing is is rich, herby, rib-sticking. There's nothing harsh about it. Hell, you don't even have to chew that hard. On the day the clocks went back, it was the perfect way to usher in the cooler months.

 

 

The Robin Hood Beer Festival: On Target For Food!

The Robin Hood Beer Festival is a must for any fan of the fine art of brewing. It takes over the grounds of beautiful Nottingham Castle for a long weekend in early October, usually catching the last of the sunshine before England succumbs to the soft rains of autumn. The Festival has been a lock on the Beeranaut's diary for quite a few years now, and 2014 saw a representative quartet (Super Sam, Rev Sherlock, Charmin' Ciaran and myself, El Conojito) jump on the train and hit the Midlands.

Now, I could spend a long time raving about the quality and choice of beer on offer, and let's be straight up here: The Robin Hood Festival has a larger selection than any other gathering in the country, and that includes the Great British in Olympia. Given the choice, you should be heading here rather than the big shed in London. The surroundings are nicer, the beer is better and, most importantly, the food is amazing. There'll be plenty of bloggers out there talking about the beer. Me, I'm peckish. Let's take a look at the food.

The thing with the Robin Hood Fest is that we're almost more excited about the grub than the beer. We know we're guaranteed a good feed at a reasonable price. We're not talking about duff burgers or a soggy cone of chips here. The scran at Robin Hood is top notch.

It never seems long after we head up the hill to the main marquee before we gravitate to the deli stand. It's lunch-time, after all. This is a shared concern between The Cheese Shop, which is normally based in the Flying Horse Arcade in Nottingham itself, and Melton Mowbray's own Mrs. King's Pies. I dream about the porky goodness encased in a lovely crumbly hot-water crust. A half-pie with a dab of mustard will set you back £2, and set you up for the afternoon. You will note that greedy Conojito had a salami on the side. Dense, meaty and utterly delightful. Rob's top tip: put a whole pie back to pick up for later, along with some choice cheeses. You have to check out the smoked stilton.

Porky bliss

 

While you're picking up treats, head to the Merry Berry stall and snag some chocolate for the significant other. These guys do a roaring trade at the bigger food festivals (they were at Olympia this year) and specialise in creamy buttons and spicy dark chocolate. TLC insists I bring her back the white chocolate with lemongrass. I have a thing for the Scorpion Death Chili Chocolate: absurdly hot, with a burn that just keeps building. Try it, but have a glass of something to hand, because that bad boy is gonna sting.

After an afternoon's connosieuring of fine ales, the hunger struck and we Beeranauts wended our way down the hill to the food stands. Tempted as I was by the maple and beer-glazed bacon, something more substantial was needed. Memsaab, a local curry house of distinction, was serving up good grub for the geezer on the go. A heaped punnet of curry and rice was £6 and it was money wisely invested. Beef Madras or Chicken Tikka Masala, both beautifully spiced and fall-apart tender. If you ask nicely, you can have a bit of both. Don't be embarrassed if you feel the urge to lick your tray clean. Lord knows, I wasn't. Memsaab also did amazing wraps of grilled marinaded meat. I had one of those later in the day. Hey, I was hungry.

As the sun started to ebb and the crowds started to grow, we knew it was time to vacate the site and find a quiet hostelry. For one thing, we'd been on our feet for six hours. But we needed one last snackie to get us on our way. A bowl of duck fat roasties from the appropriately named Duck Fat Roastie company did the trick. Deeply savoury, crispy, crumbly in the middle, intensely addictive. A big bowl was £3, and was enough for 4 greedy boozy blokes. The scraps at the bottom were the best bits, but the whole thing was deliriously good.

Ciaran makes an annexation attempt on the duck fat roasties. He failed.

 

A quiet pint at the Castle Rock Brewery tap by Nottingham's thoughtfully restored train station and we Beeranauts considered the ales of the day. The hits for me were Oakham's Citra (which you can get in M&S, in a slightly rebranded form), Enville's Cherry Blonde, which was the essence of a Cherry Bakewell in a glass, and Nottingham Brewery's own Centurion Porter. But I don't think I had a duff drop all day. Not bad, considering there were over a thousand beers to choose from and I was going purely by instinct.

As ever, The Robin Hood Beer Festival was the best of all possible worlds for the discerning Beeranaut: good beer, great food and a fantastic atmosphere in lovely surroundings. It's probably the highlight of my beer year, and its growing popularity shows that I'm not alone. Maybe see some of you there next October?

 

Your Beeranauts: El Conojito, Rev Sherlock, Super Sam, Charmin' Ciaran. Blue skies, great beer.

 

Thank You For Smoking

As the weather starts to draw in, and you start to think about digging jumpers and coats out of the wardrobe, you might think it's time to pack the barbecue away. Although it's probably past the time of year for you to be standing in front of a blazing grill in your shorts and “Kiss The Chef” apron, you might still get a bit of traction out of that unused bag of charcoal yet.

Readership, you may recall that I have been playing around with the notion of smoking my food. Certainly, our recent trip to Seahouses and the beautiful kippers and smoked prawns that they served up sharpened my appetite for all things hot-cured. Let's not forget, autumn is a time of bonfires and woodsmoke. Why not use that to our advantage?

Oh yeah. Daddy likee.

Now, my slightly cobbled together smoker is a testament to what can be done with an unassuming starting point–to whit, a lidded barbie from B&Q that we picked up half price a few years back. It's never really done the job, sadly, somehow managing to take ages to come up to heat. I'm an impatient man when dinner time is near, and it's very tempting to just slap that steak on my cast iron griddle, especially if I'm just cooking for the two of us.

But really, a lidded barbecue is all you need to start smoking. WIth the addition of a thermometer that gives you the optimum temperature for cooking with smoke, you're away.

Now, I mentioned that I'm not a patient man, but this method of cooking will teach you how important that virtue is. There are no shortcuts when you're smoking food. When you're cooking ribs or a pork shoulder, you need to be thinking in terms of 12 hours or so, 8 at a bare minimum. Fish or chicken won't take as long. Maybe six hours. The serious players in the US barbecue scene put their meat on overnight. The really dedicated guys sleep with their ovens, all the better to tweak the temperature or wood mix.

Slow and low, that is the tempo. The Beastie Boys said that, and who are we to argue? Do not allow your coals to go over 225 degrees (farenheit, that's about 110 celcius). I find it's best to just use one of those little bags of self-lighting coals, which will heat up and cool quickly, but hold enough residual heat to keep things ticking over nicely. If I need to change over, It's just a case of covering the meat in foil while I dump another bag in.

 

Steam train

 

You'll need wood in there as well, of course, soaked for an hour or so beforehand so they'll smoke rather than burn. Some barbies have a tray in which you can spread the chippings. If not, just form a rough bowl out of a couple of sheets of foil and pop the wood in that, next to the meat or fish. A sturdy jug of water will help to keep the atmosphere in the oven nice and moist too, helping the smoke to permeate deeper into your dinner.

The choice of wood is yours, and most garden centres have a reasonable selection (or, of course, there are online resources). Oak's better for fish and chicken, the more robust flavours of mesquite work brilliantly with beef and pork. Play around, see what works.

IIt may sound perverse after you've got up at six in the morning and spent all day watching a barbecue puttering away, but it's really nice to char your meat a little on a grill once it's smoked. It's the double cooking that makes the end result so mind-blowing. We had some pork ribs recently that, after 8 hours smoking, I drenched in Sweet Baby Ray's (the one and only barbecue sauce, accept no substitute) and blasted on a hot griddle. The end result was full of smoky flavour, absurdly rich and unctuous. Even TLC, who normally won't go near a rib, had three or four.

It's early days for me with this technique, and I'm absolutely guaranteed to have messed something up (all advice, hints and tips welcome, drop 'em in the comments if you would be so kind). I haven't even touched on the complex subject of wet and dry rubs, marinades and sauces. Again, any suggestions are very welcome.

But I'm eyeing up the bag of chicken in the freezer, thinking about a big bag of prawns, maybe a side of salmon. And considering how nice the sharp autumnal air in my back garden is going to smell with the sharp tang of woodsmoke in it.

 

 

The American Burger

The chunk of time between sixth form and college was tough for me. I didn't get the grades I needed for university, so I had to stay behind while a lot of my friends, the best and brightest of my year, went off to study. My girlfriend was one of those that left. She went to Cambridge, and she found someone else. Someone who was, you know, there. I read the Dear Rob letter on a busy Victoria Line train into work. I burst into tears in a packed tube carriage.

Like I said, tough times.

Family life was equally interesting. Mum and Dad had split up while I was studying for 'A' Levels, and as I studied for retakes, I realised I needed to take some time away from the tumult of life with my mum and brothers. I had become one of those sensitive teenagers who wrote poetry and moped constantly. With a broken family home and my romantic life in tatters, I suffered as no young man ever had before or would after.

Christ, I was insufferable.

Dad, at the time, was living in a small house in Wanstead, and I moved in over that summer of 1985 to get my head together and sort out enough of an improvement in my grades to get the heck out of Essex. It was a peaceful time. I looked after Dad's shop (he was even good enough to call me the manager) to earn my rent and a little beer money, wrote and studied.

And Dad started to teach me how to cook. It was, he said, an essential skill for when I set off on my own. Also, he'd had to bloody learn when mum kicked him out, so he was going to pass the pain on. He had a limited repertoire, gleaned mostly from the two cookbooks on his shelf, but one treat was always his American Burgers, a recipe he'd found in a newspaper and carefully noted down in his round, solid cursive.

Common knowledge now is that burgers are at their best treated simply, with care taken as to the mix of fatty and lean meat used. Back then, Dad used what he had, knowing that the flavours and spices that went into the burger would give it the right taste. They became a weekly treat for us, one that we would often cook together, with the tape player blasting out Bruce Springsteen.

The other week, TLC and I drove up to Essex to visit the 'rents. Time has been kind. Mum and Dad got back together during my first year at college, buying a new house and making things right with each other. I had done enough to get a place at the Dorset Institute Of Higher Education (now Bournemouth University) and packed my bags for the south coast in the autumn of 1986. In one of those bags was the notebook in which I had cribbed my favourite recipes from my time with Dad. The American Burger was in there, of course. It was a connection to home, and to a peaceful, healing time.

Dad doesn't cook very often anymore, but when he does the grub is always good. We had a sort of indoor barbecue on the Saturday night, and he pulled out the big guns. The American Burger was on the menu. He still has the notebook in which he wrote the recipe, stained and brown from decades of use. The Burger tasted just as delicious as it always had. I had no Proustian moment connecting me to the tumultuous past, no great epiphany. But I have fond memories of cooking with my Dad in that summer, as he and Mum gently negotiated a truce, then the rebudding of a romance.

I'd like to share that recipe–as best I can, anyway. You can't get the Knorr onion soup mix it recommends any more, so you'll have to manage with what you can find. Dad uses an Ainsley Harriott mix, if that's any help. If you do have a fatty mince blend, then you can probably get away without the egg. But try it as is, just to give you an idea of the flavours of my bumpy adolescence.

 

AMERICAN BURGERS

  • 1lb minced beef
  • half-package Knorr dried onion soup mix
  • one raw egg
  • seven squirts, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
  • three squirts of Tabasco
  • one tablespoon of Daddie's Sauce
  • four shakes of garlic salt
  • half a chopped onion

 

Mix together. Makes 3

Cook in hot frying pan, cover, 2-3 minutes each side.

Extras:

  • white sesame-seed bun
  • iceberg lettuce
  • Kraft cheese slices

 

A Quick Summer Traybake

Those working weekday dinners are such a bind. The clock's ticking from the moment you get in the door to the second that food hits the plate. You want something that's nutritious, tasty and above all quick. Is it any surprise that, as the hardest-working nation in Europe, we've fallen back on ready meals, pasta or pizza? When you've done a full day's work, gathering up the energy to sort out dinner is tough.

But there are ways and means. Although I'm the first to admit that I sometimes fall back on rigatoni with sauce from a bottle, there are other alternatives for that dull Wednesday evening when the tempation is high to roll past M&S or the chippy. How about this summer traybake–really easy and full of the flavours of this golden season?

As you walk in the door, get the oven on and preheating to 200C, and put a pan of water on to boil. I have been known to do this before I take my jacket and shoes off. Now you may kiss the partner and tickle the cat.

Once the water's bubbling, throw in some salt, then a handful per person of new potatoes. They'll need ten minutes to parboil. Now grab a sturdy roasting tray. Chuck in some chicken thighs or breasts, cut into slightly bigger than bitesize pieces, a thickly sliced red onion, and cherry tomatoes. Leave them whole. If you don't have cherries, normal size ons are fine, but quarter them.

Once the spuds have had their ten minutes, drain them and throw 'em in with the rest of the meat and veg. Mix everything up and give it a generous seasoning and a good glug of olive or rapeseed oil. Fresh herbs would be nice here too: robust thyme or fragrant rosemary. Oregano works as well.

Then just pop the whole lot into your hot oven, and set a timer for twenty minutes. Time for a beer, perhaps.

After twenty minutes, check the tray, and give everything a stir around. The potatoes should be golden at the edges, the onion soft, the chicken a bit sticky. If it's all looking a bit pale, just give it another ten minutes. Bear in mind that the spuds won't go as crispy as roasties, but they will go fudgy and soft. Half an hour in total is all this dish'll need at absolute maximum.

Once time's up, just mix everything up a bit, squirt over a little lemon juice, sprinkle on some parsley and serve. Looks good, eh?

Now, this dish is really tweakable. You could use little pork chops or thick fish fillets to replace the chicken (if you're using fish, no more than twenty minutes in the oven). If you're feeling bold a whole fish would work beautifully. You could add mushrooms, peppers, some whole garlic cloves, maybe parsnips or steamed sweet potatoes as the weather cools. Have a play, put in the flavours that you love and make it your own.

That's better than an M&S curry, isn't it?

 

 

Chef: satisfying the hunger for a good food movie

The problem with food movies is that they are fundamentally incapable of expressing the two most important things about their subject: smell and taste. Don't mention Smell-O-Vision. A scratch and sniff card can no more evoke a beautifully cooked plateful of food than a kazoo can accurately reproduce Beethoven's Ninth. The end results are the same: faintly amusing but not the experience you want.

That's probably why there have been so few films explicitly about the subject. And of course, they can't just be about food–as much as I enjoy the M&S adverts, I couldn't sit through 90 minutes of them. All the good food movies deal with those aspects of the human condition that we most readily connect with food: love, sex and family. Look at Babette's Feast, where a woman expresses gratitude for the community that has taken her in by cooking them an extraordinary banquet. Or Big Night, a film that tracks the struggle for supremacy between two feuding brothers, which culminates in a remarkable wordless climax where they cook breakfast together. Tampopo contains one of the sexiest scenes featuring an egg yolk that you'll ever see.

Jon Favreau, he of Iron Man and presidential speech-writing fame, has taken a risk with Chef, his latest movie. Food films don't do well at the box office, for the reasons I've mentioned above. But Chef is first and foremost a film about the sacrifices that a really good cook will make to get to the top, and what happens when he's forced to reinvent himself–a process that reconnects him with the things he holds dearest.

OK, Cliffe Notes (and note that from this point, a SPOILER ALERT is in operation). Favreau plays Carl Casper, a top chef who feels as if he's stuck in a rut. It's a feeling that's starting to come out in his cooking. He's filling the house every night, and his boss is happy. But the reviews are stinkers, and Casper is starting to lose his way. After a cake-crushing meltdown in front of his food critic nemesis, Casper buys a ratty old food truck, and goes back to basics, cooking and selling the food he loved back in the day. With his estranged son and buddy line chef in tow, Casper sets off on a road trip that takes in some of America's culinary hotspots, and finds the flavour in life again.

So, it's a bit on the nose from an elevator pitch. But Chef works, for me, because it's good on the details. Favreau spent months in restaurant kitchens, working his way up from herb-chopping to line work. The restaurant scenes feel authentic and sharply observed, down to the way Casper cleans down his station att the end of a shift. Favreau enlisted the help of food truck maestro Roy Choi and Texas barbecue pit king Aaron Franklin to give his film some old-school patina. That's Choi's Cubano that everyone's talking about, and Mitchell serves fall-apart pork shoulder just like the one in the movie every day.

The clever thing about Chef is the way it dials into modern trends in food fandom. Food trucks and real-deal meat-smoking are obsessions with many foodies. Favreau also nails the importance of social networking to the scene: Instagram and Twitter are the way a lot of people initially hear about the hot places to eat, whether that be a Michelin-starred joint or a high-sider on a street corner pushing out the greatest food you can get on a paper plate. Let's also note here that Casper's meltdown is sparked off by a food blogger, not a traditional critic.

Chef is a deeply sensual, warm and funny film, with a great soundtrack of classic Cuban cuts, reggae and blues and solid performances from Favreau and his supporting cast. John Leguziamo buzzes and pops as Casper's line chef buddy, and Emjay Anthony, playing his son, is sweet and charming. I thought it was a shame that Scarlett Johannsen and Dustin Hoffman seem to disappear once Casper gets his food truck (which is a lust object in and of itself: that chrome! that griddle!) and that we didn't see more of Carl's life pre-restaurant in Miami. Where does that love of Cuban food come from? Maybe a director's cut is in the offing. Anyway, I wanted to see more, which has to be a good thing.

With the long-mooted adaptation of chef Anthony Bourdain's autobiographical/crime novel Bone In The Throat finally looking like it's going in front of cameras, there's a chance we could be seeing more interesting movies set in the world of food. On the evidence of Chef, I'd be happy to see more. The film has the highest of accolades from me–TLC and I left the cinema absolutely starving hungry.

 

Rob’s Dirty Rice

There's nothing wrong with plain, simple white rice. It's calming, pure, and my accompaniment of choice to most meals. As a counterpoint to spicy flavours, you can't go wrong. In some cuisines, it serves as a mop-cum-utensil for sopping up a gravy-thick stew.

But the joy of rice comes around when you start adding stuff to it. Risotto. Paella. Fried rice. Biryani. And the Deep South way: dirty rice. Now, my way with dirty rice is completely inauthentic. Regular members of The Readership will be aware that I have a tendency to read through the traditional method, and then merrily go my own way. But know this: my dirty rice is damn tasty and even… a little bit healthy.

Start, of course, with the star of the dish. For this, basmati or sticky rice won't give as good a result as plain ole long-grain. Cook it first, using whatever method suits, and let it cool slightly. My rice cooker, as ever, does sterling service here, and I'm sometimes frugal and forward thinking enough to throw a couple of corn cobs in the steaming basket to cook over the rice. Saves time, effort, energy etc.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a big, deep, frying pan, and when hot, add two teaspoons each of cumin and sweet paprika. If you're feeling frisky, throw a little chili powder in there too. Let that bubble for a minute or so. Now for some veg. Traditionally you'd add the cajun trinity of onion, celery and green pepper. I used a big spring onion and half a red pepper. I was feeling lazy, had a scallion to use up and there wasn't a green pepper in the house. I am unrepentent.

Aaaanyways. Give the veg a couple of minutes to soften, then add a handful of frozen peas, and a few pucks of frozen spinach. This stuff is genius. It softens quickly in a hot pan, adding a shock of greenery and all the benefits of a leafy green, without needing to cook down huge bags of the stuff. A cheeky way of getting some goodness into any stew or ragu.

Now, bear in mind you've just thrown frozen stuff into a hot environment. That means the temperature in the pan will drop, but you'll also add a little moisture, which will create a kinda-sorta sauce to coat the rice. Season, then simmer until the spinach has broken apart and the peas have gone bright green.

Now throw in a handful of raw prawns, and the rice. Stir through, and cook until the prawns have gone pink. A couple of minutes, which should be enough time to heat the rice through. Once all is steamy and sizzly, throw over a handful of chopped parsley, pile onto plates and dig in.

Remarkably, I was organised enough to take a pic of the food. Doesn't happen often...

 

Needless to say, this is astonishingly versatile. Great with grilled chicken or fish, as part of a barbeque, or alongside a spicy stew. You can zazz it up with some cooked chicken, chorizo or sausage, maybe sweetcorn. As a weekday lifesaver, I think this is an essential part of the repertoire.

Oh, and I found myself humming this while I was at the stove. Dirty rice, I want you, dirty rice I need you, oh-whoa…