Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Grandma's apples (part 1)

"Strong winds in the South West tonight" said the weather man, as I sipped my cocoa, and snuggled into my slippers, the night before setting off for Grandma's little patch of paradise, over looking the mouth of the River Ex.

He wasn't wrong. I arrived at Grandma's to find a garden full of windfall, a spotted blanket of Gala's and Cox's, spread across the lawn. Eager to put nature's bounty to good use, I returned to Dorset with bags full of tart, crunchy apples, and the beginnings of an idea for dinner...

Apple, shallot and Dorset Blue Vinnie tart

Rich, autumnal flavours, working in perfect harmony. The piquant blue cheese is the ideal compliment the slow-roasted sweetness of the apples and shallots. Use bought pastry if you like, but the whole meal homemade version adds a fitting rustic edge (literally) to this dish.

Serves four as a light main

For the pastry
250g whole meal plain flour
a pinch salt
125g butter, cut into chunks, at fridge temperature
1 egg yolk
50 ml milk

For the filling
four to six apples, peeled and quartered
four to six banana shallots, peeled and quartered
a few sage leaves, sliced
olive oil
salt and pepper
three whole eggs, lightly beaten
a dash of milk
200g Dorset Blue Vinnie or other blue cheese

First, make the pastry. In a mixing bowl, rub together the flour, salt and butter so the mixture resembles breadcrumbs (you can also do this in a food processor). Add the egg yolk, and a dash of the milk and mix together. A little at a time, add more milk until the mixture comes together into a dough. If you add too much milk, add a little more flour. Turn out, form into a ball, wrap in cling film, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to medium. In a baking tray, toss the apples, shallots and sage in olive oil, and season. Roast for 20 - 30 minutes until soft, sweet, and almost caramelised.

Roll out the pastry to cover a 25cm pastry tin. Prick the pastry with a fork, then cover with greaseproof paper and rice or baking beans, and blind bake for 15 minutes until just golden. Remove from the oven.

Arrange the apples and shallots into the pastry case, then whisk together the remaining eggs and milk and season. Pour over the apples and shallots. Break the blue cheese into chunks, and dot over the tart, tucking into the filling where you can. Bake for a further 15 - 20 minutes until the egg mixture is set, and the cheese has melted.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Build and bake

After what seems like a fair old slog of double shifts, I’m granted a temporary pass out of the kitchen, with the offer of taking part in the Build and Bake course down at Park Farm.

We start the day in the yurt, with coffee and flap jack, still warm from the oven, as tutors Steve and Gideon explain the running order. We hear this is one of the more hands-on courses, and we can expect to get more than a little muddy. With a chilly breeze in the air, and the sky washed out with shades of grey, it’s time to warm our cockles before getting stuck in. “I know it’s early, but it’s become a tradition,” says Steve, as he pours us all a nip of West Country apple brandy.

And off we trot to the pond, where after a brief lesson in geology, we set about digging up the materials that will eventually become our oven. After having collected bucket loads of the region’s finest Blue Lias clay, it’s back to the farm to get started on the construction.

The clay needs to be mixed with sand in order to be set solid in the correct form. But there are no mixers or machinery here. We have a Tarpaulin and people power, and that’s all we need. Steve informs us that the best mixing method is to dance the twist and rub the sand and clay together with our feet.

In the cold light of day, with no music, we ditch our inhibitions, and hit the dance floor, twisting away with our fellow Build and Bakers. Who knew a plastic sheet full of mud and dirt could be so good for the soul?

Before long, we’ve made a sand former, and built our clay dome around it. After some gentle smoothing, we agree we’ve created something verging on perfection, and retire to the barn for a hot mug of tea.

And now it’s Gideon’s turn. It was Gideon who built the first clay oven at the River Cottage, but now he’s passed the reigns of tutorship over to Steve, allowing him to concentrate on his fortay - bread making. With clarity and simplicity, he explains the basics of of baking, as we collectively mix, kneed and shape our very own dough.

Our oven is not quite ready for use just yet, but thankfully, Gideon has already fired up the larger ‘Spanish oven’ outside, and as well as a large batch of light, airy pizza dough, there’s a spread in the yard with delicious toppings, including smoked pollock, pork rillet, golden beetroot, Dorset blue cheese, bacon, shallots, even wild parasol mushrooms, picked from the pasture where the Park Farm cows normally graze.

Despite being warned that “these pizzas are not our lunch”, we all concoct gourmet combinations, taking turns to man the oven, whilst gleefully tucking into one another’s creations, sipping River Cottage Elderflower champagne all the while. As far as non lunches go, it’s pretty hearty.

After lunch proper, it’s back down to business. We shape our dough into loaves, and leave them to prove once again before baking.

The moment of truth... Apparently, the oven can collapse as it’s hollowed out, but ours seems sturdy enough. Steve conducts the final part of the session, holding his baby girl at his side. It’s less like a lesson, more like a mate giving you DIY tips.

Just as it’s time to leave, Gideon calls over from the oven, where our bread is risen and baked to perfection. With smiles on our faces, and steaming loaves under our arms, we set off up the hill, dreaming of a future of sizzled scallops, rare-roast steaks, freshly baked bread, and slow cooked joints, all from our very own outdoor clay ovens... All we have to do is go home and build them.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Abbotsbury squash box

As seen on my commute to work the other morning.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Beans, beautiful beans

The kitchen garden is bursting at the borders down at Park Farm. The beds are positively chock full with the spoils of early autumn. As we prepared lunch today for attendees of the excellent Pig in a Day course, the gardeners turned up in the kitchen with arm fulls of elegant, leggy runner beans, in need of a suitable home.

Generally runners wouldn't be my first choice accompaniment to a meal, but by pairing them with sweet, slow cooked baby red onions, the subtle earthiness of the beans really comes into it's own. Even if I say so myself, this dish was a bit of a hit down at River Cottage HQ today... Watch out for it in Hugh's column, or perhaps even the next book!

Runner bean and red onion caponata

There are a few steps involved in this recipe, but the effort certainly pays off. We served this as a side dish alongside roast pork loin, but it's more than worthy of being a dish in it's own right. It would also work as an unctuous, autumnal topping for bruschetta. The trick is getting fresh beans, and young, sweet onions.

Serves six as a side dish, two to four as a main
twelve red onions, peeled and halved
lots of olive oil
three or four bushy twigs of rosemary
three or four whole cloves of garlic, skin on and bashed
a few dozen runner beans, podded (the green pods can be composted)
two more cloves of garlic, chopped
a handful fresh sage leaves, finely sliced
a handful fresh thyme leaves, picked and chopped
a teaspoon dijon mustard
a splash cider vinegar
salt and black pepper

Put the onions and garlic in a roasting dish, and coat with lots of olive oil - be generous, as the excess oil will be used to dress the finished dish. Add the rosemary and salt and pepper, then cover with foil, and roast in a medium oven for at least an hour. This will bring out all the natural sweetness.

Meanwhile, pod the beans, then blanche them in salted boiling water for a few minutes until tender. Drain and refresh under cold water. Heat some oil in a frying pan, add the chopped garlic, and cook for a minute or two. As the garlic begins to colour, add the beans and saute for a few more minutes, before lightly crushing a few beans with the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat.

Remove the onions from the oven, discard the rosemary stalks, and pour off and reserve the excess oil, which will now be richly flavoured. Whisk the mustard and cider vinegar into the oil to create a hot dressing. Add the beans to the onions, then add the dressing, then add the fresh sage and thyme. Add the dressing, and gently toss everything together. Check the seasoning. Cover and leave in a warm place for the flavours to meld for 30 - 45 minutes.

Serve with roast meat, or on it's own with bread and salad leaves.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Way out West

A rainy start to my two-week stage at Park Farm, on the Dorset Devon boarder... Also known as River Cottage HQ.

Remains of the day

The sun goes down on Ridley Road Market, East London, as I leave town for Bestival, followed by two weeks at the River Cottage.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Born and bread

Born & Bread: Peckham's finest purveyors wood-fired, sourdough bread to South East London and beyond...

Orders for the day. The B & B boys regularly get through over two thousands loaves in a single day of baking.

Like the loaves I'm learning to bake at the moment, everything is slow risen, using traditional sourdough starters.

And baked in their 1950s designed wood burning oven.

The stove burns something in the region of six cubic metres of wood each week. This might sound like a lot, but it's actually one of the most efficient, and environmentally sound fuels in existence.

The oven in it's glory. Manufactured by JJ Lopez in Barcelona, and built on site seven years ago at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. The ingenious system within channels the heat evenly throughout the huge stone-based chamber.

Another important piece of kit in the bakery. We arrive at the end of the shift, and the beers are out, and reggae is rumbling from the stereo.

The optimum temperature for baking bread is somewhere 240 and 220 degrees centigrade. Dough responds best to a falling temperature, as the stove cools between re-firing. The initial blast produces a good crust, whilst the moist, light centre isn't over-cooked by prolonged intense heat.

Our take home. Ciabattas, seeded flutes, rye, and whole meal. Find out where you can get hold of your own batch here.