Thursday, July 23, 2015

#412 Sea Kale

“It’s a shame that seakale, our one English contribution to the basic treasury of the best vegetables, should not be more eaten”, says Jane Grigson in her Vegetable Book, “it is not often in the shops, so you have to grow it yourself.”

Yes, this recipe had been vexing me somewhat and started to make some enquiries about getting hold of some for planting in my allotment. I did a little research into it, and it seems that it is quite a simple cropping plant to grow, though it does have to be forced, i.e. grown in the dark or buried so that as it grows through the soil no light penetrates, making the stems pale and tender. It has been compared to asparagus in its delicacy and mild but delicious flavour. Anyone who grows their own asparagus will know how much of a pain weeds can be, well it seems that in seakale the problem can be averted because you can simply mix sea salt into the soil, killing weeds and adding to the seakale’s vigour. It’s win-win. Indeed, so vigorous, this rare treat results in such ‘bulky crops’ that they are ‘greedily eaten by…livestock’, says The Country Gentleman’s Magazine of 1869.
Wild sea kale in its natural habitat (photo:

If growing is not your thing, then you could try and forage some for yourself. Wild seakale, or Crambe maritima to give its Latin name, is not a common plant; this is because of its rather specific gravel or stony beach habitat. There are not that many of those, except on the south coast of England and parts of Ireland. If you have holidayed in one of these areas, one of the things may have noticed is the total lack of plant life there. Unfortunately, the plants do get somewhat trampled over by people and their beach gear. According to John Wright in his very good book Edible Seashore (part of the River Cottage Handbook series) reckons you are best looking in the fringes of the beaches where the vegetation is less disturbed. If you do find one – remember where it is so the next January or February, you can pile on some gravel and force your own to collect in April.

After all the reading I did, I happened to ask my greengrocer if she ever saw any at market. She said she’d never even heard of it! That’s how much it has fallen out of fashion. Then, quite unexpectedly, she rang me the next day and said she had seen some. Before I knew it, I was clutching six precious packs of beautifully pale yellow fronds. As soon as I got home I cooked them, using Jane as my guide, of course. This is what she says:

Simply tie in bundles and cook it in boiling salted water or steam until just tender. Drain it well, and serve with melted butter, in the same way as asparagus.

I chose to boil tied bundles of it in just a centimetre of salted water for two minutes exactly, drained it, and then served it on thickly-cut hot buttered toast with a poached egg on top plus a twist or two of the salt and pepper grinder.

#412 Seakale. What a delight this rare treat was. It was of a very delicate flavour that was a little like asparagus, it certainly did not taste like kale or any other cabbage as you might expect. Cooking it very briefly, was definitely the way to go, such mild aromas would soon dissipate into the cooking liquid, and some books say to boil it for fifteen minutes! It cost a fair amount though, so I think I will have a go at trying to grow some on the allotment next year. 8/10

Monday, July 13, 2015

#411 Brains with Curry and Grape Sauce

Brains have never really been that popular in England, often banished to a messy tray, at least that’s when they could be found at all. They’ve made appearances in other British cook books but they are few and far between.

The final nail in the coffin for the brain in British cuisine was surely the BSE or ‘Mad Cow’ crisis of the 1990s where cows were infected by a prion which causes the disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). A prion is an infectious protein, and is therefore not alive, and cannot be denatured by regular heat-treatment. It may have been derived from the prion that causes the encephalopathy in sheep known as scrapie, but this link is unclear.

The BSE prion infects the CNS causing the brain to appear spongy under microscopic observation. The symptoms, unsurprisingly, are behavioural: infected individuals become solitary, aggressive and frenetic, they become anorexic and their milk yield drops dramatically. Eventually they lose all coordination. BSE is all-consuming, infecting not the just the CNS but the peripheral nervous system, bone, intestines, placenta and tonsils. It is also found in saliva and excrement, and can sit in the soil perfectly viable for years. I remember watching the pictures of the wretched stumbling beasts on the television news in shock and in horror as they were bulldozed into mass burning graves. A total of 4.4 million cattle were killed during the crisis.

The source of the outbreak was the cattle’s feed, where ground up cadavers of sheep and cows were included in their diet. Shockingly, this practise had been going on since the 1920s, so it was just a matter of time before infection spread. In retrospect, it beggars belief that it could ever have been considered a good idea to turn herbivores into not just carnivores, but cannibals

There was of course worry that BSE could be passed onto humans, not just in food but in bovine insulin for diabetics and in bone meal for gardeners. Though bovine-human transmission was possible, there was no real initial evidence to suggest it actually occurred. Nevertheless, in 1996 the EU banned the UK from exporting beef and beef products including semen, embryos, gelatine and fat. Within the UK sales of beef plummeted, the government blaming the media storm. Secretary of State, John Gummer, famously said it was the British public and not the cows that had gone mad. Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, was adamant that there was no link between the new variant CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the equivalent disease in humans). In the Government’s desperation to calm the country and show just how safe British beef was, the Right Honourable Mr Gummer fed his little daughter a beef burger in front of TV cameras. Idiot.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation had been collecting data, and reckoned that nv-CJD was probably caused by the BSE prion. Hogg and Gummer had been desperately slow to act, but now the country had to tackle the crisis swiftly.

The most important and easily implemented regulation was the ‘over 30 months rule’, a simple ban on killing cattle for beef older than 30 months. When it came to using any part of the CNS for food, the cattle must be under 12 months old, with the same rule applying to sheep. Pigs are not considered a risk.

Simple rules such as this helped deal with the crisis swiftly. In 1992 there was 37 000 cases of BSE, in 2004 there was just 90. By 2006 the EU beef ban was completely lifted; now the UK is back in line with the rest of the EU

Now with all this behind us, you can get hold of them from a good butcher. Order well in advance though, and expect to have to buy in bulk.

First of all you need to prepare your brains – you’ll need around 1 ½ pounds of calves’ brains, which I reckon to be 2 sets, or thereabouts. For some advice on preparing and poaching brains, see this previous post. For this recipe, poach them in milk, as you’ll need it to make sauce.

Strain the milk into a jug and slice the brains on a large plate. Keep them warm as you get on with the sauce, a cross between a béchamel and a velouté.

Start by melting an ounce of butter in a saucepan, then stir in a rounded tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon of curry powder. Mix all around in the butter for a couple of minutes, then add ¼ pint of hot chicken stock, adding a little at a time to prevent lumps forming, then add the amount of the milk the brains were poached in. Simmer the sauce gently for 20 minutes, stirring every now and again, then add ¼ pint of double cream

Meanwhile, get on with preparing 8 ounces of peeled grapes. To do this put them in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Let them sit for a few seconds and then strain them. The skin should now peel away with relative ease. When the sauce is ready, season with salt and pepper and tip in the grapes, including any juice. The sauce is now ready, but if it seems a little thick – it should be the thickness of double cream – add a little more stock or milk.

Pour the sauce over the brains and tuck in triangles of bread fried in butter and serve.

#411 Brains with Curry and Grape Sauce. Well I am glad I cooked the other brain recipe first, as this monstrosity would have put me off for life! The sauce was simply horrible; cloying in such a way, that when in the mouth, you couldn’t tell where sauce started and brain finished. The grapes simply did not go with the sauce. Obviously a thing of its time. I enjoyed the fried bread. 1/10.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Chapter 1: Soups - Completed!

All 24 of the recipes within the Soup chapter are now complete and can join Stuffings in the done pile! I must say that many of them are but vague memories; most of them being cooked at the start of the project when I was a poor PhD student. All of the recipes are below in the order given in English Food with their score.

It was quite a mixed bag of recipes, though none were complete disasters or particularly horrible, with the lowest score being a quite good 4.5/10. Though I notice I have been rather generous in my scoring at the start! The average score for this chapter is a pretty decent 6.9, two whole points lower than the Stuffings section.
The first recipe I cooked for the blog: Finnan Haddock Soup

More importantly, there were some real stars that have become part of my regular repertoire, both at home and for the business, such as Green Pea Soup, June Pea Soup, Vegetable Soup, Cawl and Oyster (or Mussel) Soup.

So what have I learnt about English soups now that I have cooked so many? Well the main thing is that we love it – there are so many different kinds from simple hearty ones that are intended to be a complete meal such as Cawl or Mutton and Leek Broth to light and seasonal ones, delicious as a starter or light lunch like Tomato Soup and June Pea Soup. The final recipe to be cooked in the book – English Hare Soup – is just a single example of the very rich and darkly opulent soups you would have expected to be served in grander houses.
Tomato Soup

English soups are diverse and delicious, but one thing I do notice is that there are no complex soups that are loved, whose recipes are discussed and argued over between families and within households like the French Pot-au-Feu, Bouillabaisse and Cassoulet.

Soups and stews have evolved greatly from the few vegetables, herbs, cereals and scraps of meat and bone we simmered together in times past into an amazing array of delights, but the main thing I have learnt comes straight from those early pottage-makers – how to improvise with whatever you have to produce something nourishing and delicious.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

#410 English Hare Soup

So here we are at the final recipe for the Soup chapter, ending on a blinder that couldn’t be more English, rich with claret and spiced with mace and Cayenne pepper.

I don’t really know why it took me so long to try this one; though rarely found in abundance, hare is not exactly difficult to find in season. Maybe I just kept missing the boat every year. The hare I used in this recipe I picked up from the excellent Northwest Game. So it’s not just the last soup recipe, but the last hare recipe too.

If you want to know more about hares have a look at this previous post.

This recipe comes from Antonin Carême, the legendary French chef, who worked himself from homeless child to probably the most influential cook ever. A genius patissier, he first attracted attention making elaborate edible sculptures to sit in the window of the patisserie. After some proper training he set down working on sauces, coming up with the classification of the four mother sauces, the base of all sauces in French cookery; a system still used to today. He spent quite some time working in Britain and was briefly chef to the Prince Regent. He’s appeared before on the blog, on recipe #317 Skuets, a dish comprised of sweetbreads, bacon and mushrooms cooked on a skewer, served with bread sauce.

To make the soup, heat 3 ounces of clarified butter in a flameproof casserole or large saucepan and fry until brown either a jointed young hare or the head and forequarters of an older, tougher hare. As it fries, toss in 4 ounces of diced unsmoked bacon or salt belly of pork

Once everything is a delicious brown, add a heaped tablespoon of plain flour, stir to cover the meat before add ½ bottle of red wine or claret and 1 ¾ pints of beef stock or consommé. On a medium heat, let the contents come to a bare simmer. As you wait for that to happen, pop in a large onion studded with a clove, a good pinch of Cayenne pepper, and ½ teaspoon each of ground mace and black pepper. Also toss in a decent bouquet garni, embellished with extra springs of parsley, rosemary and marjoram.

Simmer everything together very gently until the meat is tender and comes away from the bone easily. This can be anywhere between 1 ½ to 3 hours, depending on the vintage of the hare. Pass the soup through a strainer and fish out the joints, stripping the meat from the bone and cutting it into neat pieces. Salvage any pieces of the bacon and salt pork too. ‘Discard the remaining debris’, says Jane.

Return the strained soup to a cleaned pan, season with salt, and add 8 ounces of small mushrooms. Let them simmer for a few minutes before adding the hare meat and cured pork. If you like, add a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly.

#410 English Hare Soup. I think if I had cooked this soup at the beginning of this project, I wouldn’t have been able to take the gaminess of this dish. However, after eating my through several game recipes and species, I am a real convert to it and couldn’t recommend this soup highly enough (except perhaps to the uninitiated). It was beautifully rich – too rich as a starter – and I ate it over several days, where it became more and more delicious with every reheating. It’s a style of cooking game that has fallen out of favour recently, where game appears in more familiar settings such as burgers or warm salads. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, as it introduces a new generation of people to the wonders of game. Anyway, I digress. A great soup for a great evening in front of a roaring fire. 9/10.