Comfort Food #2

Let’s get a couple of things straight: it isn’t necessary to eat loads of meat. You really can get plenty of protein from beans and peas and and nuts and egg. Even cheese, though it’s high in fat (salted cashews and pistachios aside, I can usually eat more cheese than nuts). I’ve read that you get a special good-for-you protein when you eat rice and beans together.  Who knows? It’s a filling combination.

In my latest drive for food which is healthy and interesting to the brocolli-hating, inveterate meat eater (Himself), I’ve struck gold on beans. Tinned beans of any type (butterbeans, adzuki, kidney, cannellini, borlotti are the most obvious) thrown into a big pot with celery, peppers, onions, garlic, tomato puree and tomatoes and simmered till cooked. The addition of some kind of meat, nice but not necessary, is usually fresh or cured pork in one form or another.

Take the 3 bean (kidney, cannellini and sweetcorn) chorizo stew for example. Throw everything you want to eat in one pot and simmer until it’s cooked.

Better still… ‘Confit’ Roasted Pork Belly with Butterbean Stew.
Take a look at the ingredients that went into this; then look in the fridge. Nothing has to be the same, not even the butterbeans.

1 x tin butterbeans, large handful of spinach, .75 x tin of tomatoes and all the juice. 1-2 onions, loads of garlic, a couple of handfuls of small pasta, 3 tblsp worcestershire sauce, 2 tsps sugar and a stock cube with a slug of water.

Make of what you have. Probably not baked beans though.

The roast pork belly pieces were two pathetic strips bought from a certain British supermarket, and blatantly not suitable for confit. Slow cooking method, apparently, not suitable for my time span either. Figuring that the slim pieces could cook quicker anyway, I melted some spoonfuls of goose fat in a roasting dish and fry-sealed the belly strips on the hob. The belly went into the hot fat and stayed on 180-190 C for about 50mins. No flavourings, no salt, no garlic or herbs.

When the stew became thick and gloopy and the pasta pieces cooked through, it was time to dollop it onto the plate and top with the pork, the fat rendered perfectly into a tasty crust. No bread needed, no more meat than that.

Next time I will use pieces of pork belly hewn by the butcher in Kirkby and cook it on a low heat for a lot longer. Can’t wait.

Comfort food

This week is one needing comfort food. No sanguine Thai noodles or salad is going to sort things out. There’s been a cold snap, a brisk shower of sleet and some nasty winds and everyone seems unsettled. At every dinnertime, the only interest I’ve had is in the warmest, most loving food possible.

Introducing…Butternut and Bacon Risotto

Butternut squash goes with smoked bacon for the same reason scrambled egg does; or macaroni cheese. The smooth, light texture turns up alternately chewy and crunchy bites and the flavours are rich and sharp, smoky and salty and that is what we want. Oh yessss siree.

Butternut and Bacon Risotto
Take 1 butternut (of indeterminate age is fine as it turns out), chop into squares and douse in EVOO, salt, garlic, thyme (or anything you have) and pepper. Be brave with the salt. Stick it in the oven on about 200 C for 15-20 mins.

Get the risotto on. This is the version of the day, even if anyone who knew what they were doing would hold their hands over their eyes in horror.

Chop an onion, clove or two of garlic, half a carrot, a celery stick and saute until mainly soft and translucent. Add a couple of handfuls of risotto rice (your guess is as good as mine) and coat the grains in the mulch. Sling in a wineglassful of wine, white or rose, all fine as long as its drinkable. (In my case, Pinot Grigio Rose that had been hanging about in the fridge for a day too long). Stir it until the wine is absorbed and then start adding glugs of stock. All you need do is stir and add stock. Whether you do it in a paranoid frenzy or unhurried and steady, the results will be the same.

As the rice begins to swell, pull out the roasting squash, mix it around and lay a few rashers of bacon over the top. Back into the oven.

This is where the choice of bacon makes all the difference. If you buy cheap, supermarket bacon, full of water and preservatives, it will most likely become hard and tough. Not the effect we’re looking for and even if it’s a cheap product, it doesn’t necessarily follow with a cheap price.  If you buy expensive dry cure bacon, same price, usually less of it, it also hardens but becomes brittle and crunchy or chewy.

When the risotto grains are fluffy and unctuous, suspended in plenty of starchy squelch, tip the squash into the rice, mix until it looks balanced and scissor the more flexible bacon pieces over the top. Stir them in.

Dole out into bowls and crumble the well done (double smoked) bacon over the top and some fresh parsley if you want.



Belly Pork for the Belly’s Soul

Supermarket meat is so desperately limited. Our worlds are firmly shrink-wrapped and hermetically sealed. There is no soul available. Refrigerated shelving is lit with a special type of light that improves the look of red meat and gives white that irridescent glow, shimmering under the polyethylene. Every boxed item looks no better or worse than the next. How to choose between ‘lean pork escalopes’, ‘lamb chops’ or ‘frying steaks’? None inspire freedom of expression in cooking, with their neat little portions and the reduction in fat might make us healthier, but only in one area. What about how much protein we eat? What about our wallets? Those squiddly little ‘lamb chops’ could be as much as £15 per kg, but how many of us look at the wholesale price?

How do we work out how much we really need? Is 500g beef mince excessive? How come you hardly ever get 500g lamb mince? Can you even buy belly pork at the Co-op? Rich, full of fat and flavour, and usually attached to its skin, it’s perhaps a little too rustic for some. But oh… the flavour. And as far as soul counts, flavour is everything.

Every question above can be answered by a butcher. Torn between wanting to sell you as much as your purse can handle and giving you good advice, butchers (who are a breed unto their own in this neck of the woods) are useful sounding boards. The best advice can be listened to; but it doesn’t have to be taken. We all need to work things out for ourselves. Try putting half of the 500g mince into the freezer and bulking out the spaghetti bolognese with mushrooms, onions, peppers and the dreaded courgettes. Chop them up tiny if you have people who ‘don’t eat vegetables’ and unless they are children, they’re unlikely to notice (and it’s impossible for all but the most stubborn to sit there picking them out). Maybe that’s unethical, but courgettes and mushrooms just meld into nothing in a crock pot and is there anyone out there who doesn’t like peppers?

This week’s buy was two strips of belly pork from Steadman’s Butchers on Kirkby Stephen’s Market Street. £2.35 or thereabouts. Quite a steep price, but the meal was worth it.

Note: in future efforts, Magpie would remove the skin before cooking this stew.

Chop/cut/scissor the belly pork into even-sized pieces and fry, skinside down in a couple of generous glugs of oil. Fry for ages; it can take it. It was hard not to create confit of belly pork in the oven and make the bean stew separately, but time was limited and creativity falls into the ditch under pressure.

Wang in roughly chopped peppers (1.5 in this case, but the more the merrier) and onions and garlic and a bay leaf if you have one and let the smells waft about the kitchen. Also a chilli. Or not. Keep stirring it about. Better still, use a non-stick saucepan (but still stir). When you can smell that the peppers are releasing their juices, dump in about a tablespoon of tomato puree. Stir it about, even as everything in the pan is threatening, sizzlingly, to stick. Add some chopped tomatoes (not a whole tin), a can of butter beans and a tablespoon of treacle.

Simmer until everything is cooked through and the belly pork is tender. Salt and pepper it.

Brown rice and briefly sauteed courgettes with singed garlic are perfect light accompaniments. Not much stew is needed to make a full belly and a fuller soul.