Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Game on.

I hate January. More specifically, I really hate the approach of 31 January, and with it the looming tax deadline. Doing my tax brings out that peculiar combination of impending doom and instinctive avoidance tactics that reminds me of algebra and nuns. Last night I had two choices: start my tax, or gut and dress the game birds. It was a no-brainer. I won't lie to you: dressing birds is never a task I particularly enjoy, but it was still preferable to that mountain of receipts in my study.

A few things about getting birds in feather: first of all, you know what you've got: cocks or hens, old or young birds. That's useful because you will cook them differently. Younger birds, and especially hens, can take more straightforward roasting. An old cock wants putting in a pie, pot roasting with a lot of moisture, or jointing and pan-frying. Secondly, there's the cost difference. I was looking on-line last night and saw dressed pheasants for around £7 each. You can buy a brace of birds in feather for £3. Thirdly, and I know this won't appeal to everyone, but it makes you to come to terms with the fact that what you're eating was a living, and usually a rather beautiful, thing. A lot of carnivores I know will think I'm mad, but I think occasionally skinning a rabbit or preparing game birds gives me more respect for all of the meat that I eat.

So there I was, last night, skinning my birds while my tax receipts glared at me from the dining room table.

I've never done partridges before, and they were a total doddle. The dressed birds are only about the size of pigeons, so a brace should feed two people (just about). I was inspired by reading my friend Jo's facebook yesterday to joint my pheasants. I plan to get a few more roasting birds for the deep freeze, so having a few legs and breasts about for pan-frying or making soup now is a good idea. One of the pheasant legs was pretty badly shot up, so I decided to chuck it in with the carcasses for stock - especially because Jo had also mentioned yesterday that she was making pheasant soup. I still have a memory of eating pheasant soup over 20 years ago at the wonderful (sadly demised) La Fourchette restaurant in Wayne, Pa. That was the first time I ever ate pheasants or truffles, and it was one of those Damascene meals that probably helped to turn me into the saddo you see before you today. Like many wonderful dishes, I have wanted to taste that soup again ever since. It never occurred to me to try amd replicate it - it was beautifully  light and elegant, two qualities that usually describe neither me nor my food. However, last night when the stock was bubbling away, I caught a whiff and thought, "Chestnuts." Pheasant and chestnuts is a winner, so why not in soup? And a food memory from all those years ago kind of assembled itself in my head. For lunch today, I gave it a go.

It was one of those lovely times when the flavour that I intended actually comes quite close to the flavour on my plate. Moreover it was dead easy to make, and I will probably serve it as a starter the next time anyone comes over for dinner (you've been warned). So, without further ado...

Pheasant, chestnut and Bramley apple soup
Serves 3 ordinary people or 2 greedy ones. (16 WW ProPlus Points per greedy serving.)

For the stock:

1 - 2 pheasant carcasses, plus a leg
a few stalks of fresh thyme and 2 bay leaves
1 onion, quartered

Cover the carcasses and herbs with water, season, and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface. Leave to cool. Strain the liquid through muslin or a clean tea towel placed in a colander so you get a lovely, clean stock. Strip the meat from the leg (being careful to avoid the needly little tendons) and any residual nice bits of meat from the carcasses, breaking or shredding it into small pieces. You should have about 100g of meat and a couple of pints of stock. Chuck everything else away.

For the soup:

1 onion
1 carrot
100g pheasant meat
half a Bramley (or other cooking apple)
16 chestnuts (vacuum-packed)
30 ml double cream
15 ml half fat creme fraiche
pinch of cinnamon

root vegetable crisps and fresh parsley, to garnish

Put the stock into a large, clean saucepan. Add chopped and peeled carrot, onion and apple. Add whole chestnuts. Cook for 20 - 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and liquidise with a stick blender. Return to heat and reduce until slightly thickened (about 10 minutes). Whisk in the cream and creme fraiche. Stir in pheasant meat and cinnamon, and return to the hob. Warm through gently, removing form heat when it is just coming back to the boil. Season well. Garnish with root vegetable crisps and parsley (avoid beetroot crisps as they will "bleed" into the soup) and serve.

Oh - look at the time! And I still haven't done my tax...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Sometimes, things are right under your nose.

  I've been living in this bit of Lincolnshire for 4 years now, and I thought I'd got it sussed from a foodie point of view: you can come by most things, but not all the time, and you do have to make a fair bit of effort.

How did I never know about this?

Simple, really: the other side of the A1 is another country - they do things differently there. Daft as it sounds, a dirty great busy A road acts as something of a psychological barrier (even if it's no longer a physical one, thanks to the new-ish flyover). Burton Coggles is only a few miles from my house, but I'd never been there. So a big thank-you to Elly, who told me about the shop over tea this morning. She lives a stone's throw from Burton Coggles, so I called into the shop on my way home.

The shop and the pub (and quite a lot of other things locally) are owned by the Easton Estate, one of the two big estates in this area. The game is shot on the estate, and at this time of year they must have tonnes of it - hence the ridiculously cheap price of £3/brace for pheasant and partridge. I got a brace of each. They will get you most types of game on request - rabbits, hares, ducks...there were even a couple of Canada geese hanging. They also sell local beef, pork and lamb - the lamb, pleasingly, comes from my village. The other produce is sourced as locally as possible, with lots of it coming from the Fens. And it's a lovely little place, too:

(photos from their website - I don't think they will mind)

To pay for my booty I had to go next door, into the exceedingly cosy pub, all chunky furniture and blazing log fires. I could have cheerfully found a perch and settled in for the afternoon.

The slightly longer and sunnier days of the past week have made me start to feel restless, and I'm inspired to get out and explore a bit more. The church at Burton looks well worth a nose around, and there's Easton Walled Gardens down the road, which are apparently rather lovely - and open just in time for the snowdrops.

So roll on springtime. I'm ready for ya. But first we need to see off these guys:

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Resolution Road

One of life's eternal dilemmas: can you be a food obsessive and not be a lard-arse? Nigella seems to manage it through channelling all weight gain into her breasts. Being a mere mortal, I find I'm just huge all over. I could go on for hours about the reasons why I'm fat, but I'd only bore you and myself. Suffice to say, I could never stop loving food. I love the process of cooking at least as much as eating, and I love other people eating and loving my food the very best of all.

So this year's goal: to continue enjoying good food, but to bring my proportions down to a more healthy and manageable level. It's a goal I've set numerous times for myself in the past, but I am hoping that recording it here will provide sufficient motivation, as well as the potential for widespread public humiliation if I wimp out.

A source of inspiration is the new Weightwatcher's Points Plus plan. I like Weightwatchers - it's really just re-training yourself to eat more healthily. The new plan is particularly good because it contains an allotment of points each week for unexpected events or a special treat: a drink in the pub with friends, a meal in a restaurant, or a good, home-cooked Sunday lunch - with pudding, of course. You can enjoy these things without feeling you've "blown your diet" and gone off course. This is something that has nobbled me numerous times in the past, so I'm greatly encouraged by the idea of being able to maintain motivation while still enjoying nice things to cook and eat. I'm doing the plan on-line rather than going to meetings, so I will post my weigh-ins, along with any new recipes (some nice, and some plain naughty) here. I'm hoping to lose a whopping 6 stone this year, so we're talking about a marathon rather than a sprint.

So thanks in advance for any words of support or encouragement - and if anyone fancies losing a bit of weight and would like to be my weight loss buddy, let me know - we can spur each other on!