Author: The Levels

Salt Beef & Pickles

Salt Beef Brine Preperation
Salt Beef Brine Preperation

When I first moved to London many moons ago I worked as a secretary for an ex bare-knuckle boxer who ran a business based on Hatton Garden.  Back then, the area was still populated with hundreds of small studios all involved in the gem and jewellery trade. From buyers to setters to designers everyone’s prosperity revolved around bling. The street was filled with a mix of glitzy showrooms and the mansion blocks that housed the worker bees in their one room workshops.

When all the punters had left for the day and the merchandise was safely locked away the pubs came alive with the gossip, quarrels and trades of the day. With a taste for gold and a love of the extraordinary I was drawn to the characters and community that circled around this little London village.  I made lots friends amongst the diamond-geezers and always had someone to share a drink with at the end of a long day. Chief amongst them was Ricky.  He was 6ft 4, rough, tough, very East London but blissfully fabulous.  One night he didn’t turn up for our allotted wine’o’clock meet, nor the following night.  It was a week later when one of the setters told me that he’d been found dead in his studio having apparently taken his own life with a shot gun.  We all knew that there was no way this was suicide but  the long arm of the law didn’t reach as far as the gold squabbles.

About 6 months later I was sitting in a cafe at the very end of the street when a beaten up red Fiesta pulled up onto the pavement and 2 middle aged men jumped out.  “Lucy – we’ve been looking every where for you doll” one of them shouted.  “Shame about Ricky, but these things will happen when you don’t do as you’re told.  Now, Phil tells us you’ll be wanting to take over Ricky’s work – interested?” My simple answer –  “NO!”

Salt Beef
The Beef

My brush with a life of gem crime was (thankfully) incredibly short but my time on Hatton Garden did leave me with a love of Salt Beef sandwiches served on sour-dough with lashings of wallies (gherkins to the rest of us).  This Christmas I decided to have a go at making my own – a long but relatively simple process which I’m hoping will have delicious results.  I’ve taken inspiration from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for this recipe but made a few of my own changes / additions.

Ingredients:

For the Brine

  • 5 litres of water
  • 500g of dark brown sugar
  • 1.5kg of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons of juniper berries
  • 8 bay leaves
  • A handful of fresh thyme

The Beef

  • 2kg of Beef Brisket
  • 1 carrot chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 celery stick, chopped
  • 1 leek, chopped
  • 1/2 garlic bulb

Put all of the ingredients for the brine into a large heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to the boil and let it simmer for about 2 minutes.  It doesn’t matter if all of the salt doesn’t dissolve. Take off the heat and let the brine cool completely.

When the brine is cool, place the beef into a non metallic container and pour the brine over it.  If the beef floats hold it under the brine with a heavy non-metallic object – a piece of wood works perfectly. Leave the 2 kg piece of beef in the brine for 5 days (no more).

Remove the beef from the brine and soak in fresh water for at least 24 hours; changing the water at least once.  When you’re ready to cook the beef put it into a pan with the vegetables and garlic, cover with water and bring to the boil.  Simmer for around 2-2.5 hours on a low heat.

We’ll be serving the Salt Beef on Boxing Day with The Blonde’s sour-dough bread and loads of homemade pickles made by the divine Tamsin.  The perfect antidote to left over turkey.  I wonder if I’ll have a new set of diamonds to compliment the feast?!

Balsamic & Prune Stuffed Chicken

I’m a girl raised on the Somerset Levels. Even though I now live up in the hills, the timeless beauty of this part of England never fails to grip me and I will forever be inspired by it’s dramatic landscape. It’s thought that the county of Somerset derives it’s name from this low lying area that was too wet to farm in winter but rich and fertile in the summer – hence Summerlands.  Kitchen Bakehouse Mince Pie

Farming and food remains an important part of the economy here and there are some amazing local producers and retailers dotted around the towns and villages that rise from the wetlands.   One of these is Kitchen Artisan Bakeshop in Langport. Founded by Peter Ridley a former royal butler to William and Harry, this bijoux but exquisitely presented bakery uses local produce to create the most scrumptious of goodies.  When I visited this week there was a pile of perfect macaroons in shades of silver of gold, mince-pies that stood tall and thin, scones both sweet and savoury, panettone and all manner of breads.  I went for the scone with roasted red peppers and black olives. The oiliness of the red peppers was a great match for the crumble of the scone and even though I’d promised to save a bit for my little boy I’m ashamed to say I wolfed the lot!

When I got home I decided that bread was my “thing” for the day and that what I needed was a roast chicken with sweet and sticky stuffing.  I’m a big believer that the gravy and stuffing are the best part of a roast and I always make an effort with this part of the meal- but more of that another time.

This Balsamic and Prune stuffing for the chicken can work equally well with turkey on Christmas Day just double the quantities.  The stickiness of the reduced balsamic and the prune is, I think, the perfect accompaniment for the chicken. Make sure you’re using a well raised, free range, medium chicken (the non free range taste like cardboard so you’re doing yourself a favour by spending a few extra ££s as well as being kind to chicken-kind ) .

Ingredients: 

  • 1 medium free range chicken
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 3 rashers of streaky bacon
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • 3 oz of prunes
  • 1 oz of roughly chopped hazelnuts
  • 1 egg
  • 5 oz of breadcrumbs
  • salt and pepper

Method:

  • Dice the bacon and fry off in the butter on a medium heat with the chopped onion until the onion is soft
  • Add the balsamic vinegar and keep on the heat for 1 minute to reduce the liquid.
  • Finely chop the prunes and add to the pan with the hazelnuts.
  • Add the breadcrumbs.
  • Combine over the heat and add the seasoning.
  • Take off the heat and when cool add the beaten egg.
  • You’ll now need to stuff the chicken with the mixture.  My method is to gently loosen the skin from the breast meat with my fingers to create a space for the stuffing. Very carefully push the stuffing into this space again with your fingers. Do not tear the skin! You can then secure the neck skin together with a cocktail stick to keep the stuffing in place.
  • Place the chicken on a rack cover the breast with a little duck fat or butter and season well with salt and pepper.
  • Place the chicken on the rack in a roasting pan and cook according to instructions or until the juices run clear.

I served the chicken with confit tomatoes, cauliflower with a mustard cream and smashed potatoes. YUMMY!

If you’d like to visit the Kitchen Bakeshop then you can find their website with directions here http://www.kitchenlangport.co.uk/

Muffin’s Famous Christmas Cake

I’m not normally one to name and shame but sometimes I feel the need to warn the world (and by the world I am in fact referring to my small but perfect Somerset existence)  about a truly disastrous eatery.  This place is The Enmore Inn on the outskirts of the divine little village that I call home.Christmas cake

From the outside the pub looks like a broken down miners welfare club and inside does no better.  I was greeted by the new landlord who was smoking by the entrance in a dirty chef’s coat illustrating last night’s service in streaks reminiscent of a poor man’s version of the dessert trolley.

What really upset me though was the smell when I walked through the door.  It made me gag and wish for rescue, I couldn’t breathe and was momentarily struck dumb by the waves of vile odour. It was I fear, my own version of the stench of Elizabethan London and put me off time travel for good. If Peter Capaldi ever comes calling I know now what answer I’ll be giving. Cigarette smoke mixed with stale beer, bad food, deep fat frying and dirt was all around me clinging to my skin, clothes and coating  the inside of my throat.  What ever food they were serving I was not eating and will never be going back.

This little trip did however get me thinking about smells and how they invade our memories and drive our desire to eat (or not!).  I once had a bad bout of flu that started while I was making slow cooked lamb which has put me off sheep for life while the smell of garlic butter transports me to The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport where we ate lobster till we popped, drank, swam and swayed all summer in this perfect All American paradise.

As Christmas approaches we’re bombarded with the scents of pine, cinnamon, clove, ginger and orange.  Richly warm and intensely evocative, to me these are the memories of my childhood.  This made me decide to share with you all my Grandmother’s Christmas Cake recipe that we’ve been making here as a family for many many years and is as famous to us as all of the other traditions we hold dear as a family.  We affectionately called her Muffin hence the title of this post.

Ingredients

  • 14oz of self raising flour
  • 8 oz of rich Somerset butter
  • 10oz of soft brown sugar
  • 1 pound of mixed fruit and cherries
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 a pint of milk.  This can be substituted for Somerset Royal Cider Brandy, freshly squeezed orange juice or a mixture of all three.
  • 4/5 teaspoons of mixed spice

Method

  • Soak the fruit in the liquid over night or for 12 hours in a cool dark place and keep well covered.
  • Melt the butter and sugar in a heavy bottomed pan.
  • Add the fruit with it’s liquid  and the spice.
  • Simmer on a very low heat for 15-20 mins.
  • Allow to cool
  • Beat the eggs
  • Add the eggs and the flour and stir in well with a wooden spoon until the mixture is combined.
  • Poor into a deep cake tin (size will depend on how you want your cake to look – either short and fat or tall and graceful!).
  • Bake on a low heat (150 degrees) or in the bottom of the AGA for 1.5 to 2 hours.
  • Half way through the cooking place a piece of baking parchment over the top to prevent burning.

When the cake is cool place in a cake tin and feed with your cider brandy once a week until Christmas Eve.  You can follow your own traditions either by covering in marzipan and icing and a jaunty little Christmas scene or by studding with more fruit and nuts.  The Blonde is a huge fan of marzipan and I’m an ever bigger fan of jaunty little scenes (and brandy) so you know which way we’ll be jumping!

Thank you to http://www.haahandbook.co.uk for the scrumptious image.

To buy Somerset Royal Cider Brandy go to http://www.ciderbrandy.co.uk/

In praise of the traditional Welsh Rarebit

I have a friend who is as beautiful as she is kind.  Many years ago she had the most blisskins of a  job running a PR company that looked after many of London’s most luxury brands.  However, searching for something more than endless champagne and scrumptious canapés with the editors of glossy magazines she quite suddenly upped sticks and moved to the wilds of Yorkshire to raise her two equally beautiful boys.Welsh Rarebit

The point of this story is that when she moved she simply refused to change her outlook on fashion.  This is not a girl who could be converted to tweed and welly boots.  She knew what worked for her and was not about to copy the farmers wives in an attempt to fit in. She’s regularly seen marching across the village green on the school run in skinny jeans and sky-high heels with her Chanel chain bag flying like the most decadent of kites behind her.  I just wish that many of the pubs and restaurants that inhabit the same countryside could copy her example.

I recently managed to drag myself away from Somerset to spend a few days with her and her family.  One night we decided to try out the local village pub that had recently changed hands and was boasting a very impressive looking menu.  I have very fond memories of this pub; of snuggling by the roaring open fire, chatting to the locals and eating super hearty Yorkshire  food that was reasonably priced and reasonably tasty.  You left with a full tummy, a warm heart and a general feeling of the Bon Vivant.

As we stepped in through the renovated front door it was rather a shock.  It had been absolutely beautifully transformed into a cutting edge industrial eatery very much in the style of St John’s.  White walls, reclaimed wooden tables and  all manner of modernity.  The food was as wonderful and innovative as the interior and the wine list impressive but I all the time I was there I was filled with an incredible longing for the old version of this village pub.  I didn’t want this rebooted version of the boozer.  I wanted cigarette stains on the ceiling and a comforting pint of ale.  My bottom longed for the broken down leather chesterfield rather than the old school chair I was perched upon.  I guess I wanted the new owners of this freehouse to have the faith that they didn’t need to completely rip and replace to make it a success.   Comfortable and hearty can be mixed with the very best dining experience as the 2* Hand In Flowers has shown us.  I often feel that the modern restaurateur is so obsessed with making the experience they provide unique that they forget what their public really want.  I’m confident that this little pub tucked away between York and Harrogate will be a huge success but I’m also confident that most of their customers won’t be the locals.

This experience made me long for some of Great Britain’s most traditional of dishes and I’ve settled on heaping praise on the humble Welsh Rarebit.  This dish originates back in the 1700’s and with the use of a good local Somerset cheddar cheese and the addition of a Bath Ale can be claimed as Somerset grub!

Ingredients

  • 25g of butter
  • 25g of plain flour
  • l00ml of Dark Side Ale (Bath Ales) or other dark ale
  • 150g of Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar or other extra mature Cheddar
  • 1 free-range egg yolk
  • 1 tsp English mustard
  • 4 tsp Worchestershire Sauce
  • 4 thick slices of home-made bread
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Method

  • Turn your grill to high or check that the top oven of the Aga is fiery!
  • Melt the butter and stir in the flour, cooking through for about 30 sec to a minute. Add the beer and keep stirring until the mixture is velvety and smooth.
  • Add all of the rest of the ingredients.
  • Toast the bread and then place on a baking tray. Smother the toast with the cheese sauce and then pop under the grill or into the Aga until the cheese is melted.
  • Make yourself a big mug of tea, sit back and enjoy a dish that’s as tasty now as it was 300 years ago with no sign of reboot. Modern life can take a back seat for a while!

Comforting Cassoulet

It’s horribly cold here at Castle Farm, deep in the depths of Somerset. The wind is battering the house and however many pairs of socks I put on and however close I snuggle to the AGA I am still freezing. One might argue that this is just the time to turn up the thermostat but I am blessed with oil central heating.  Cassoulet

Back when I lived in civilisation and had gas gushing into the house I would happily switch the boiler onto constant and revel in the warmth not thinking for one moment about the bill coming my way. Now I have an oil tank that I have to refill I can see the levels dropping day after day as we literally burn through the cash.  This motivates you to hardiness, to eating your lunch in your coat and sleeping in two jumpers.

As energy prices rise I am rather thankful for my oil tank.  Not only are you more cautious about using energy but each time you fill the tank you can haggle and barter yourself to a good deal by playing the local suppliers off against each other. If only it were this easy to drive a deal with the Big 6 we would all have a lot more money in our pockets.  The Blonde and I have quite heated debates about the rights and wrongs of privatisation of the energy supply market but rather than bore you all with that here, can I offer another suggestion of how to keep warm as toast as we march into winter?

Cassoulet is rich and warming comfort food at it’s very best.  Originating in Southern France this delicious sausage delight is named after the pan it was traditionally cooked in. After a long hard day beating off the cold in the garden this is the perfect treat for all the family.  It’s best eaten with chunks of home-made bread, perfect to dip into the steaming sauce.

Ingredients

  • 250g of mixed beans
  • 800g of tinned chopped tomatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 400g of sausages
  • a good squeeze of tomato purée
  • 1/4 pint of stock
  • 2 teaspoons of Herbes de Provence
  • salt (to taste)
  • pepper (to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • splash of vegetable oil

Method

  1. Soak the beans in water overnight.  Drain and then boil vigorously for 10 minutes.  Drain and set aside.
  2. Chop the onions and garlic
  3. Melt the butter with a splash of oil in a medium sized casserole dish on the hob.
  4. Fry off the onions and brown the sausages in the casserole.
  5. Add the garlic and fry off but don’t let it burn.
  6. Add all of the remaining ingredients.
  7. Bring the Cassoulet to the boil and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
  8. Transfer to a medium oven and cook for at least 75 minutes.

PS – I nicked this photo from Delia as I’d eaten ours before I remembered to take a picture!

Somerset Beef

We’ve had 15 house guests here at Castle Farm over the course of the last week and I don’t think I’ve done so much washing up since my time at Brownie Camp. That particular incident and my objection to Fairy Liquid led to a telling off from Brown Owl and my untimely departure from this hallowed organisation.  Somerset Cider Brandy

The Brownies today appear to be just the kind of club I’d have loved.  These fearless tank-girls are all in pursuit of wild adventures and are feminist to the core but back in the day it was all about learning how to be a good mothers-help, getting your knitting badge and learning how to cover a book in sticky-back plastic. I wanted to learn how to light fires using a magnifying glass, make money from selling lemonade and how to rule the world – sadly these vital life skills where deemed suitable only for the boys.    Now I’m all grown up I still shudder at the thought of dancing round a toad-stools  but my love of entertaining means I’m happy to live with the washing up.

One thing the Brownies did teach me was to be prepared when it came to domestic planning. So, with many mouths to feed this week I’ve embraced Aga cooking and have been perfecting my one pot wonders.  These are the staple of any house party when the hostess would rather be tucking into champagne with her guests than cooking at 8 o’clock as they can be prepared the day before they’re needed.  My Somerset Beef recipe is a rather tasty take on boeuf-bourguignon, drawing inspiration from the French classic while using the very best of Somerset produce.

You’ll need

  • 1.5kg/3lb5oz of braising steak (preferably raised in Somerset!) cut into pieces
  • 3 tbsp of Somerset rape seed oil (vegetable oil if you can’t get it)
  • 4 large onions cut into chunks
  • 2 sticks of celery cut up
  • 1 litre of Scrumpy Cider (normal cider will do if you can’t get hold of the good stuff)
  • 5 cloves of garlic finely cut
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 50g/2oz unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp of plain flour
  • 375g/12oz of mushrooms (what ever you can find or forage) 
  • 450ml or a pint of stock
  • 5 tbsp of Apple Brandy

How to Cook

  1. Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a large saucepan. Add one of the onions, the garlic (both cut up) and celery and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the cider and the bay leaves. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
  2. Place the beef in a large bowl and pour over the cold cider marinade. Cover and keep somewhere cool (and away from your greedy dogs) overnight.
  3. Drain the beef from the marinade. Keep the marinade safe.
  4. In a frying pan heat of some of the butter and a little oil and fry off the rest of the onions.  Then add and brown the beef in the pan. Tip all of this into a  casserole dish.
  5. Deglaze the pan with some of the marinade and tip this liquid into the dish.
  6. Stir in the plain flour, the remaining marinade and stock into the casserole dish.
  7. Bring to the boil, cover and place in the bottom oven of the Aga (or a low heated normal oven) for 4-5 hours or until the beef is very tender.
  8. Halfway through cooking, heat the remaining oil and butter in your frying pan brown off the mushrooms – finish off with the brandy and cook down for a couple of minutes.
  9. Add the mushrooms to the casserole.
  10. You can either eat this straight away or keep safe and cool for 24/48 hours when it can be re-heated.

If you’d like some suggestions for producers and suppliers of Somerset meat I can happily point you in the direction of Pynes the Butcher and his amazing farm shop.

Somerset Brandy has to come from The Somerset Cider Brandy Company and Somerset Rape Seed Oil from Fussels   

Brilliant Burgundy Beetroot Chutney

I simply adore beetroot.  I love their earthy sweetness and the fact that you can almost taste the soil they’ve been raised in.  I love their rich Burgundian colour and the Lady Macbethian stains they leave all over your hands and kitchen.  I love that they’re really good for you, rich in folic acid, potassium, magnesium and iron as well as vitamins A, B6 and C.  Beetroot

I also love chutney and here is where two of my passions collide most joyfully.   Beetroot chutney – perfect with pies, divine at dinner time and simply super in a sandwich.

We’ve managed to amass quite a glut of beetroot in our Somerset garden this year and after serving a variety of beetroot inspired dishes at virtually every opportunity we’ve only made a mere dent in the harvest.   So, I’ve turned to chutney!  There’s a wonderful recipe that’s been adapted from my apple chutney recipe, you can increase the quantity as required.

If you fancy an experiment you can also cook up the beetroot leaves as you would spinach. They’re best fried off with a little butter and very yummy with pork.

Simply place all of the ingredients in a heavy bottomed pan bring to the boil and then simmer for approximately 40 – 50 minutes or until the chutney is thick and the beetroot tender.   Ladle into sterilized jars and store for a month before eating. This chutney should keep very happily for up to 6 months in a cool dark place.

3lb beetroot, peeled and diced

1 onion, diced

1 cooking apple, peeled cored and diced

Zest and juice of 1 orange

12 oz of golden or brown sugar

1 pint of malt vinegar

4 tsp ground ginger

4 tsp of grated nutmed

2 tsp salt

The Delights of Autumn

The 90’s were a very good decade for teenage smugglers such as myself. Fashion thankfully favoured voluminous Laura Ashley ball-gowns which provided a cavernous space to hide the quarter bottles of vodka you’d shoved into your pants as you struggled from your parents car to the door of the house or hotel in which you’d spend the next few hours bopping away at a Young Farmers Ball or an out of control 18th birthday celebration.   VERBENA  Bonariensis

As we got older we no longer needed to smuggle the alcohol in and the dresses thankfully became far more elegant but the excitement of getting dressed up in our finery and dancing the night away didn’t diminish. It seemed to me this morning as I walked along the Somerset lanes that the gardening year has much in common with these parties.

Spring sees us getting all excited at the prospect of the party.  Hair is put up, make up carefully applied and we pre-load with a few glasses of champagne to make sure everything will be perfect.  Summer is when the party is in full bloom, everyone’s looking quite beautiful and women attract men like butterflies to the sweetest of roses (whether they want the attention or not!).  Autumn comes and everyone’s looking a bit bedraggled. Stockings are laddered, faces shines where make up has worn away and we’re weeping with tiredness and just a little too much wine.   Winter is  the joyous moment when the survivors breakfast arrives. We’re allowed to snuggle up under blankets, take off our shoes and tuck into enormous plates of bacon and eggs all the while discussing when we’ll meet again.

This year rather than rejecting the dismal end-of-the-night autumnal feeling I decided to embrace the season and to carry on dancing with my garden.  I started to notice the roses that are still gainfully in bloom and the verbena that are shaking their hips in the wind.  The cutest of cyclamen that are fighting for their place amongst the falling leaves and the autumn flowering viola that are bringing  a splash of beautiful ultraviolet colour to the terrace.

The long summer has meant that the dahlias have been given a reprieve and are still acting like the aristocrats of the flower garden drooping their beautiful heavy heads in disdain at the rest of the plot.

This year rather than wishing for winter and the feast to arrive I’ll be collecting chestnuts, playing conkers with the boys and enjoying the burst of colour from the leaves as they turn from glossy important green to the most vibrant of reds.

I almost forgot Halloween and Bonfire Night.  Toffee apples galore!