22 January 2015

Stellar Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks

A few weeks before Christmas, Farmer's Choice Free Range Ltd got in touch with me via my Twitter page, to ask whether I would be interested in developing a couple of recipes for them to include on their website.  Well, how could I say no?  I've worked with Farmer's Choice on occasion and I know that their produce is terrific - and to develop one recipe for them would be a marvellous opportunity, never mind two of them.

So, after a bit of an email chinwag and conflab about what main ingredient to use, we came to the conclusion that lamb would be a great subject. Hence, this post deals particularly with the fantastic lamb shanks that arrived in the big and exciting box, but there will be another one (or two) involving the wonderful piece of rolled shoulder of lamb that arrived at the same time.  Something to look forward to!

Now these lamb shanks weren't just any old lamb shanks, they were e-flipping-normous, at 500g or so each.  Beautifully meaty and although they appear a little pricey at £11.20 for the two (price as at January 2015), they really are whoppers.  I could easily see just one shank feeding two children, off the bone, of course.

There were many reasons for wanting this recipe to be a little bit special, not least the fact that Farmer's Choice wanted to put it on their website.  (It's here, if you are curious!)  The quality of the lamb was the primary reason, as something so good just demanded respectful and celebratory treatment.

I had an image in my head of how I wanted the lamb to look on the plate - deeply coloured, richly flavoured and supported by a substantial, delicious sauce.  Initially, I had a quick peep at what lamb recipes they had already - as I didn't want to inadvertently echo someone else's ideas.  Knowing what to avoid is as valuable as knowing what to include!  I also asked on a couple of Facebook pages - Rhubarb & Ginger's included - about people's favourite lamb shank recipes.  The general consensus of opinion seemed to really rate any recipe that had red wine involved with it.  Red wine wasn't an obvious choice for me - and because of that, of course I had to go with it.

I knew that I wanted to use the slow cooker with the lamb shanks, as being well worked leg muscles, they would require long slow cooking to achieve that buttery, melting texture that is so mouthwatering.  As a consequence, I pondered additional ingredients that would cope well with slow cooking and lend their flavours to the meat.  Ingredients such as carrot, leek and celery along with herbs such as rosemary and mint - both of which are traditional herbs for lamb.  Now the traditional "sweet thing" that accompanies lamb is redcurrant - redcurrant jelly, ordinarily.  However, having just been through Christmas, cranberry was very much in my mind and I decided to go with the subtle dryness of cranberry as opposed to the high sharpness of redcurrant.  I thought that perhaps the acidity from the red wine would be better matched with the cranberry.

I had the basis of a tasty recipe, involving simple, traditional ingredients together with an economical, labour saving cooking method.  Of course, the fact that the very idea of all these ingredients coming together in a completed dish made my mouth water, was another good sign.

The method of cooking and preparation went well, the shanks behaved themselves in the slow cooker (didn't dissolve or stay raw!) and as I served the meal both the aroma and the look of the thing were so promising.

I had tasted all the way through the cooking process, checking for seasoning, tartness, sweetness, balance of flavours etc. and the finished article was just divine.  The meat was so soft you could cut it with a spoon, it just dissolved in your mouth with tenderness.  Juicy and so flavourful, I was thrilled.  Mmmn, so, so, delicious that the eating of it had me smiling in pleasure.  This was my son's first experience of a lamb shank and he was just as happy as I was.  He declared it to be "absolutely great!" and professed to be "in little diner's heaven" - which is high praise, believe me.

I served the lamb with some parsley mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.  The sauce is packed with goodness and needs something like mashed potato to absorb all those lovely flavours.  You won't want to lose a bit of it just because you don't have a spoon to hand!  I found the parsley gave a nice fresh note to the comforting notes of the lamb.

This is the kind of recipe that you can use for a special Sunday dinner, a romantic dinner for two or a dinner party with friends - who will, I am sure, be requesting the lamb shanks again upon return visits!

Trimmed and ready to be seared
Now as for Cook's Tips, I have a few for you.

Firstly, when trimming the lamb shanks, don't be scared to remove the skin.  Personally, I think the sight of waterlogged, flabby skin on an otherwise glorious lamb shank is off putting in the extreme.  Because of the long slow cooking, the skin has no choice but to appear this way - and if you're keen to retain the flavour from it, you can always drop it into the slow cooker individually and fish it out before serving.

Remember that this is a long slow cook, so you'll need to defrost the lamb the night before and get cracking with preparation in the morning, to achieve the seven hours' cooking that is necessary.

A few tips as regards the ingredients - firstly, I found that using whole cranberry, cranberry sauce is preferable to the mashed up version.  That way, you stand more chance of tripping over a whole cranberry on your plate, which is an absolute delight.  Secondly, when chopping the fresh parsley, make sure to include the parsley stalks.  They won't be discernible on the plate, but the flavour is very valuable in the sauce.  Lastly, a vote of confidence for the award winning Essential Cuisine's Lamb stock.  Without doubt, the best lamb stock for a quality recipe.  If you haven't tried their range of stocks yet - where have you been?

My last tip for you is regarding the flour paste thickener for the sauce.  Make sure to take the pan off the heat before adding the paste and make sure to mix, mix, mix and stir, stir, stir, to prevent it setting into a gelatinous lump on the bottom of your pan.  Once incorporated into the sauce, it is then fine to replace onto the heat - but carry on stirring - the only way to ensure a lump free sauce.  You can thicken the sauce to your satisfaction, then set it aside until you are ready to heat it back up and serve, if necessary.

If, as I did, you find you have much more sauce than is required, for goodness sake don't throw it away.  Decant it into a bowl and refrigerate it for a tasty lunch the following day with some crusty bread.  Luscious!

Well, there you have it.  Enjoy the process, the cooking and most of all, the eating!   

Veggies and herbs, all ready for action

Ingredients :

2 tbsp olive oil
2 x 500g lamb shanks
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery
1 large leek
2 carrots
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
10g salted butter
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped fine
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dried mint
400ml full bodied red wine
400ml lamb stock
125g cranberry sauce
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp plain flour.

Method :

1.  To begin, take the celery and remove the strings from the back of each stick.  Chop one and a half sticks finely and the remaining half, into bite sized pieces.  Place in separate bowls.  Chop two thirds of the leek finely and one third into bite sized pieces and place into the corresponding bowls so as to keep the finely chopped and bite sized pieces separate.  Chop two thirds of the peeled carrots finely and one third into bite sized pieces and place into the corresponding bowls.

2.  Take the parsley and remove the stalks from the leaves.  Chop the stalks and add to the finely chopped vegetables' bowl.  Reserve the chopped leaves for use later in the recipe.

3.  Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan until really quite hot.  Add the lamb shanks, sprinkle with a little sea salt & black pepper and sear them on all available sides until golden and caramelised.  Place them into the slow cooker with the bite sized vegetables and switch to low.

4.  Reduce the heat under the frying pan to moderate and add the onion, garlic, bay leaves and finely chopped vegetables.  Cook for some 5-10 minutes, until slightly softened.

5.  Add the butter, rosemary, dried mint, a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

6.  Stir to combine and allow to sweat and cook through a little more until the vegetables are somewhat transparent and softened and the herbs have become aromatic.

7.  Increase the heat under the pan, add the red wine and bring to a lively boil for some 2-3 minutes.

8.  Add the lamb stock, cranberry sauce, Worcestershire sauce and chopped parsley leaves.  Stir through and reduce the heat under the pan, back to moderate.

9.  Once the flavours have had 5 minutes or so to mingle, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  I doubt you will require more salt, but I needed to add more pepper at this stage.

10.  Place the flour into a small bowl and wet down with water until it forms a loose, pourable paste.

11.  Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the paste in a thin stream to the sauce, stirring very well and constantly.  Continue to stir until the paste has been accepted into the sauce.

12.  Pour the sauce into the slow cooker, giving everything a little stir to ensure everything is coated.  Replace the lid and cook for a minimum of 7 hours, returning to turn the shanks in the sauce, every 2 hours or so.  Depending on the size of your shanks, you may need to turn the slow cooker up to medium as you go.

13. When the cooking time is up, ladle the sauce from the slow cooker to a saucepan.  Turn the slow cooker to low in order to keep the shanks warm and run a slotted spoon through the sauce, returning any vegetables you may catch to the slow cooker.

14.  If necessary, you can skim any fat from the surface of the sauce, then bring to a gentle boil and allow it to reduce to a thicker, glossier appearance and an intensified flavour.  This is entirely to taste, so when you are happy with your sauce, you are ready to plate up.

Serve the shanks on buttery parsley mashed potatoes with the vegetables from the slow cooker, a selection of fresh vegetables and the gorgeous sauce poured over the shanks.  Heaven!

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19 January 2015

"Pressels" - a new contender in the pretzel market!

Look what turned up today!  A giant, over 2ft long, box containing this black and white box, which in turn contained these three 175g bags of "Pressels" a new, tiny, thin and intriguing alternative to your standard pretzel.

Originating in New York - although produced in Israel - they are now being imported by a company in Essex.  I originally made a comment about air miles, but have been kindly corrected in that they float over to Essex by boat!  So we're talking nautical miles, instead. 

Well, how do they taste?  I've only tested the "Original" (blue bag), so far and I can quite categorically say that they are flipping moreish.  In fact, it is difficult to stop eating them and get on with writing this piece!

Note the size comparison!
Now their selling point is that they contain 75% less fat than ordinary crisps.  However, what they do contain (and they don't shout about this) is palm oil (the farming of which is a leading cause of acreage loss in the habitat of the orangutan, not to mention that it is a significant saturated fat which as you know, we're supposed to be steering clear of).  Tut tut and a black mark.  Purely on these two points, I would have to simply be unable to live without them, to purchase them - and as they're only a pretzel snack, I'm afraid I can live without them only too easily.

However and on the other hand, they contain no artificial flavours, no preservatives, no MSG and no added food colours.

So, while a 25g serving (see the photograph below for what that looks like) amounts to 98 calories with just 1.4g of fat, when you look at carbohydrates, they have a relatively high figure of 17.8g of carbs with 1.3g of that being sugars.  

Just as an interesting point and for those of you to whom this applies, they also carry the "Pareve" sign, which indicates that they are produced relating to a foodstuff made without milk, meat, or their derivatives, and therefore permissible to be eaten with both meat and dairy dishes according to dietary laws - and specifically Jewish law, as they are made in Israel.  Well, that's something new I learned today.

So, it's fair to say that a "healthy" option they are not.  However, as a "I can't put this bag down, these are so nice" snack with drinks, they're the business.  If you're interested in having a better look at them, go to the website at Pressels.com.

I guess it's very much up to you, your conscience and your waistline as to whether you try them if you find them, but be warned - once you start ...... ~rustle rustle~

17 January 2015

Beer & bacon pasta cheese - don't look if you're calorie counting!

Well now, that was a great brainwave, if ever I tasted one.

We were due to have "macaroni cheese" at some point during the week, but although the intent was good, the body was weak and we wound up having pizza instead.  I know, what can you do, eh?  So, inevitably, this gave me time in which to think "Goodness, but this is dull.  What can I do to liven up our standard macaroni cheese recipe?" - which as we all know is sometimes the beginning of the end.

However, in this instance, it worked out brilliantly.

Do you remember my making some beef, ale & cheese soup, way back last year some time?  Well I suddenly remembered this recipe and how well the beer combined with the melted cheese - and it was a short hop from there to combining beer into the cheese sauce for the pasta.

Now I always add bacon to my cheese sauce for a macaroni or pasta cheese, as we're confirmed carnivores who feel a bit short changed if a meal doesn't include meat somewhere along the line.  Plus, bacon goes so well with cheese.  Now, I can confirm that bacon goes very well with an India Pale Ale and cheese, in a sauce.  Oh yes.

Ordinarily, I'd have sweated off an onion and included that, but we had run out of onions owing to the last two having turned to slush when I wasn't looking, so that was a non-starter.  So to include the onion flavour, I rummaged around in the herb cupboard and added a half a teaspoonful of the onion granules that I normally use in barbecue sauces.

As for the healthiness of this dinner, I can quite categorically deny any element of healthiness.  However, as to flavour, well yes it has that in spades.  It also has that soft, warming, filling, comforting thing that anything involving cheese and pasta will deliver - especially on a cold, damp day like today.  Add to all that the bacon - and we all know that a bit of bacon makes everything better - and the crisp, crunchy herby breadcrumbs sprinkled on top and you've got a sure fire winner.

Just don't make this for dinner if you're counting your calories.  Like I am.  ~koff~  Oops.


Ingredients :

1 tsp & 1 tbsp olive oil
12 rashers thick cut smoked back bacon, diced
10g & 20g salted butter
50g dry breadcrumbs
half a tsp dried parsley
half a tsp dried thyme
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp plain flour
350ml India Pale Ale
450ml semi skimmed milk
1 tsp Dijon mustard
half a tsp onion granules
quarter of a tsp freshly grated nutmeg
300g mature cheddar cheese, grated
50g parmesan cheese, grated
40g Leerdammer (or similar) cheese, grated
15g Philadelphia cream cheese
200g pasta - small tubes work well.

Method :

1.  Heat a large frying pan and add the diced bacon.  Fry until the fat has rendered, any water has burned off and the bacon is beginning to turn golden.  Remove the pieces from the pan with a slotted spoon, so as to drain the fat back into the pan and reserve.

2.  Add the breadcrumbs to a bowl and mix in the parsley, thyme and a small pinch of sea salt, along with a good quantity of black pepper.

3.  Melt the 10g of salted butter into the bacon fat and, once melted, add the breadcrumb mixture.  Fry on a moderate heat until the breadcrumbs have taken on the fat and are turning golden.  Do not allow them to burn, so keep them moving.  As soon as they begin to sound sandy and crisp, remove them from the pan.

4.  Take a large saucepan and fill two thirds full with water, which should be brought to a boil and the pasta cooked according to packet instructions.

5.  In a medium non-stick pan, melt the 20g of butter and add the tbsp of olive oil.

6.  Once the butter is melted, add the flour and stir well for 2-3 minutes.

7.  Take the pan off the heat and gradually add the beer, stirring constantly, until you have achieved a smooth textured thick sauce.  Reserve any beer that may be left over.

8.  Swap to adding the milk gradually, returning the pan to a gentle heat to retain the temperature of the contents and stirring very well to prevent the sauce becoming lumpy, until you have a thick coating consistency.  You may not need all the milk, or you may need a little more.

9.  Add a tiny pinch of sea salt, a good quantity of black pepper, the Dijon mustard, onion granules and nutmeg and stir through.

10.  Add all the cheeses and warm through on a gentle heat until they are all melted and combined thoroughly.

11.  Add the cooked bacon and stir through.

11.  Taste and if necessary add a little more pepper - you can add cayenne if you like the heat that it brings.  Add a little of the remaining beer, just to freshen up that beery flavour.

12.  When the pasta is done, drain well and return to the pan.  Pour two thirds of the sauce onto the pasta and quickly stir through.  Serve swiftly into warmed bowls and add a drizzle more sauce over the top.

13.  Sprinkle with the seasoned crispy breadcrumbs.

Serve with garlic bread or a side salad, or just as it is!

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6 January 2015

Spiced Blackberry and Apple Lattice Pie

First of all, a very belated happy Christmas and a happy new year to you all!

I do apologise for being so belated and missing out on posting seasonal goodies, but I've been laid up with a sad case of cellulitis which led to an additional case of gout, in my left leg and ankle.  Not surprisingly, I've done quite a bit of staring at the same four walls from the dubious comfort of my bed, whilst hoping that the painkillers will work for a bit longer.

I'm not quite back on two feet yet - let's say it's one and a half feet, currently - but I do have a nice backlog of yummy things that we ate before I succumbed, to pass on to you.

So, initially, let's go a bit random for Rhubarb & Ginger and talk about dessert pies.  Well, to be specific, a spiced blackberry and apple lattice pie of much loveliness.

The very best time to be making this pie is in the Autumn, when the blackberry vines are laden with fat fruits.  However, as we now have the convenience of that wonder of the kitchen, the freezer, those fat fruits can be picked and frozen so that you can enjoy this pie whenever you so please.

Blackberries freeze incredibly easily and defrost really well, so you've no excuse.  Come next autumn, send the entire family out with a plastic container to go and seek blackberry loveliness.  Of course, the other advantage to freezing blackberries is that it will kill any wigglies that may be residing in your fat fruits.  A quick and gentle wash before you freeze them (laid out in one layer on a baking tray is the best way.  You can decant them into a freezer box once frozen and that way, they don't stick together) and a bit of an inspection once defrosted and said wigglies will be a thing of the past.

My blackberries came from my Aunty Joyce's garden and are enormous!  They definitely needed making into a pie, so as to maintain their shape and integrity.  It would have been criminal to have mushed them into a coulis or some such.

It was only as I was making the pastry, that I suddenly thought about the spicing aspect.  After all, I would spice an apple pie - and having made spiced blackberry compote before, I knew everything was compatible.  I think it gave an interesting edge to the fruity flavours that made the pie taste especially home made - which is very satisfying.

Now, as regards any Cook's Tips, the main one I have for you is not to skip the microwaving of the apple pieces.  You see, the apple - particularly if it is a Braeburn - will take a lot longer than the blackberries to cook and you don't want rock hard apple beside soft blackberries.  However, the good thing about Braeburns is that they don't dissolve to mush.  If you don't have a microwave (and I know not everyone does), then put the apple into a pan with a tablespoonful of water and cook on a medium heat until softened.  After that, treat them like the microwaved versions.

Naturally, you don't HAVE to make the top of your pie latticed - you could just lay a piece of pastry across and create a normal type of pie if you don't have the time or inclination to do the latticing.  However, it isn't difficult and - so long as the fruit is cool - only takes a few minutes longer.  It does look good, too!

Likewise, the almond pastry is not essential either, but it does go so well with the fruit and the almonds give the pastry a lovely sandiness that texturally is interesting on the tongue.  However, if you want to make an ordinary sweet shortcrust, who am I to say you nay?

Whatever way you make this pie, the combination of the spices, apples and blackberries are just incredibly homey and scrumptious.  I doubt you'll have much left!


Ingredients :

165g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
25g ground almonds
55g sugar, plus 3 tbsp for the fruit, plus a little for sprinkling
120g chilled unsalted butter, cubed
2 medium eggs, used individually
2-3 Braeburn apples
A good quantity (as many as will fit!) of blackberries
1 tsp ground cinnamon
half a tsp grated nutmeg
quarter of a tsp ground cardamom.

Method :

1.  Make the pastry by stirring the almonds into the flour and adding the sugar.  Stir through.  Rub the butter into the mixture until you have what look like breadcrumbs.

2.  Add one egg - bit by bit - until you have a soft not sticky, dough.  You may not need the whole egg for this.

3.  Form the pastry into a disc, cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to rest for at least 3 hours.

4.  Cut the pastry into two sections - a third and two thirds.  Using the two thirds, roll out and line the pie dish with the pastry, making sure you have no air bubbles.

5.  Line with baking parchment and fill with baking beans, then bake at 180degC/350deg F/Gas 4 for 20 mins, then remove the baking beans and bake again for 10 mins until the pastry is dry and sandy.

6.  In the meantime, sort the blackberries.  You want to remove any that might have mildew or damaged areas.  Peel the apples and cut into small chunks and place in a bowl, then microwave until they are softened and just beginning to break down.  Leave to cool a little.

7.  Once cooled, add the blackberries.  Add the spices and sugar (use your intuition as to how much sugar you will need.  If the apples and blackberries are particularly tart, add a bit more) and toss gently to coat evenly.

8.  Tip the spicy fruit into the part baked pastry, along with any juice.

9.  Roll out the one third piece of pastry and cut long thin strips.

10.  Using the second egg, egg wash around the edge of the part baked pastry, then lay the strips on top of the fruit, interweaving them as a lattice and press down on the ends to "glue" them to the part baked pastry and trim off the excess.

11.  Give the lattice a good egg wash and sprinkle with a little sugar.

12.  Bake at the same temperature as earlier, for 25-30 mins until the pastry is golden, cooked through and the fruit is softly cooked.

13.  Leave the pie to cool until just warm, then serve.

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