Thursday, 26 January 2012

Killing the Ducks

I see duck occasionally in the local supermarkets around here and sometimes I am tempted, but they are invariably just fatty with little real flavour.  I have a friend who rears poultry and she has given me some of her ducks in the past.  They really are a different beast.  Much smaller and not as meaty and somehow the fat seems different - not so lardy.  My passion at the moment is Cassoulet so rather than buy a "lardy" duck I decided to get some from my friend.  However, she said although she had some ready to go she did not want to kill them.

I decided if I was prepared to eat them, then I should be prepared to kill them right?  Now, I have never killed anything in the past but how difficult can it be?  Two ducks arrived yesterday evening in a box.  I was also getting a new Khaki Campbell for egg laying and she was duly transferred into the duck house.  The time came to kill the other two and cautiously I opened the box.  Inside were two male Aylesbury ducks, white fluffy with yellow legs.  The "puddle-ducks" of my childhood.  I picked one up gently and could feel his little heart pumping with fear.  My son and a friend were here to do the job.  My one request was that I did not want to see the actual act but that they must make it fast.  My son looked scared and apprehensive and I was thankful that I had brought up a human with a love and respect for animals.  He had looked up on the internet how to do it and settled on the River Cottage method.  Hugh said they are the most difficult animals to kill as they look so cute!  Not an easy comment to read when you are about to do the job.

The two of them gently took the duck from my arms and carried him out.  Two hits and he was dispatched but they had to hold him for a good few minutes while he continued to twitch.  The second one was the same and then we had to start plucking.  My son informed me he had been dreading it but it was easier than he had thought and at least he was happy it was fast and humane.

Plucking is a nightmare and not only do they have the familiar duck feathers they have a deep layer of "eiderdown", beautifully soft and white.  I was tempted to try to save some.  We spent over an hour trying to remove all the quills and gave up and decided to gut them.  I wanted to save the livers and the heart so we removed these carefully.

Today we have to finish trying to remove all the quills, which may be easier now they are cold.  I am hoping to confit the legs today and remove the breasts from one and to roast the other.

How do I feel now?  Well last night I had nightmares about finding my new hens running around headless.  So it certainly has had an effect on me and I did not even watch the act.  But at least I know that these ducks were reared free to roam and had a natural, happy life.  I think it would get much easier to do subsequently but the first time is always going to be difficult.  One comment that stuck with me was from my son.  He said "it's just as well we are not trying to conceal a murder scene, because if we were, we would not have done a very good job"!

Killing Ducks   Khaki Campbell  Aylesbury  River Cottage  Duck Recipes

Sunday, 22 January 2012

My Cassoulet

I love big hearty dishes at this time of year and simple one-pot ones are the business. I have had Cassoulet a few times in Carcassonne and I love it, I call it "proper food".  My version is my attempt to re-create the original.

I have made duck legs Confit a few times but it you don't have any, use chicken thighs.  To Confit duck legs, sprinkle sea salt over them and some fresh thyme and leave overnight somewhere cool.  Next day rinse off the excess salt and place in a casserole.  Cover with duck or pork fat and place in oven for about 4 hours at a low heat.

To use chicken thighs, season and rub with some rape seed oil, Sear them on a hot pan until browned all over.
If using pork belly it needs a bit of cooking first, so roast in a hot oven for half an hour and turn down and cook for at least another half an hour. This can be done in advance while you are using the oven for something else.  Alternately just use some pork gigot chops seared on a pan same as for chicken.
Brown the sausages and when cool cut into chunks.

While the meat above is cooking prepare the rest of the dish.

1 onion finely chopped
1 stick celery finely sliced
1 carrot chopped
2 cloves garlic crushed
About quarter of a butternut squash cut into chunks
4-5 good quality thick sausages (browned and cooked)
Strip of pork belly cut into bite sized chunks
4 chicken thighs or confit duck legs
2 tins of cannellini or haricot beans or a bean mix
Fresh thyme and sage
Good quality chicken or beef stock
A good glug of white wine
A squeeze of tomato puree or about half a tin of chopped tomatoes

Saute the vegetables in some rape seed oil. Transfer to a casserole dish.  Add in the meats and the beans, the stock, puree, wine, herbs and season.  Simmer the cassoulet for about an hour in a low oven or on the hob until the vegetables are soft and it has become almost creamy looking. About 20 minutes before you want to serve it add in the chunks of butternut squash.

Serve with crusty bread and a good hearty red wine and enjoy!

Tip - I cook beans in a pressure cooker and freeze for use later.  I also cook double the meat and freeze half for use in another cassoulet and then when you are in a hurry you can prepare the dish in the time it takes to chop and saute the vegetables.

Cassoulet   Duck Confit  Carcassonne  Food  Hearty Stew Recipes

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Marmalade Time

It's that time of year again when the Seville oranges appear in the fruit and veg shops all around the country.  The oranges are smaller, more irregular, sometimes blotchy green, thick skinned and not as shiny as the oranges we peel and eat.  They are also unbelievably bitter but they make the most tart, zingy marmalade you can imagine.  To be honest, I hate making marmalade but I love it: so every year at this time, I get on the phone to my mother to get me some oranges.  It's still difficult to get the oranges around here and she is usually getting some for herself anyway.  This year I have some in my freezer left over from last year.  You can freeze them and to be honest I have never noticed any difference in using frozen from fresh.

I have tried every type and available recipe over the years but the one I have settled on, with my modifications is Delia Smith's recipe for a long slow-cooked marmalade but I shorten the process as I don't like the colour too dark.  I also omit a lot of the peel as I prefer jelly to lumpy bits.  But, the beauty of any recipe is, as long as you don't interfere too much with the underlying principles then you can tailor it to your own taste. 

Her recipe is spread out over two days but I condense it into one as it is a palavar and I always want to get it over and done with.  But - the biggest bonus of all is making a marmalade cake with the left overs which won't quite fill your last jar.  This is the best cake ever and if you don't believe me then try it and let me know how you get on.

Delia Smith's (modified by me) recipe
1.35kg Seville marmalade oranges
2 lemons
5 pints of water (I use less as I can't fit that much in my pot)
2.7kg granulated sugar (I also use less usually 2kg of sugar to this quantity)

You need a preserving pan and some muslin.  First off you wash the fruit and put in your pan with the water and bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer, cover and leave the oranges to poach for about 3 hours or until they are soft.

                             Simmering the oranges to soften

Scoop the fruit out and allow to cool.  When cool, cut the oranges in half and scoop out the flesh and pips and place in a pan.  Add some of your poaching liquid and simmer for 10 minutes.  When cooled strain the contents of the saucepan into a sieve lined with muslin.  Allow to drip through and then when it is cool enough to handle catch it and wring it squeezing all the juice and liquid out.  Do this with a pair of gloves as it is very acidic and burns your hands.  It is also very therapeutic and you can imagine you are wringing someone's neck - bit like kneading bread!  You should be left with just spent pulp in your muslin which you can put in your compost heap.

                          Straining the pulp through muslin

Next slice up your skin for your "bits" the size and quantity is to your taste.  Add these slices into your poaching liquid and the stuff you squeezed out of the muslin.  Delia says to leave this overnight, but I just crack on.

Put the pot on a low heat and gradually bring up to just below boiling point and start to add your sugar.  Add your sugar gradually, stirring to dissolve.  Then when you are sure it has all dissolved bring to a rapid, rolling boil and set your timer.  This is the difficult bit.  After 15-20 minutes you need to test for a set.  Have a few saucers in the fridge chilling.  When you are testing turn the heat off under the pan as it is very easy to overshoot "setting point" and you will have to go for a "second set".  Spoon out a tablespoon of your marmalade onto a chilled saucer and put in the fridge for a few minutes.  Remove and run your finger through it - if it wrinkles then it is set, if not put heat on and re-test in another 5 minutes.  I have to say there is no fast way to do this and you just have to be patient.  It can take from 15-45 minutes!  Don't despair - it will set eventually.  Alternately use a thermometer but this just gives you an idea when the setting point is close and marmalade takes it's own time.

                     Setting point is 105C

When it is set, remove from the heat and leave to stand for 15 minutes,  then fill hot, sterilised jars.  See my post on jam making for other hints.

To make the marmalade cake use a basic Victoria sponge recipe and add a couple of tablespoons of marmalade.  Believe me it is really, really good.

Marmalade   Delia Smith  Seville Oranges  Marmalade Cake 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The French Bakery

I managed a French artisan bakery up until it went out of business due to the recession almost 3 years ago now.  To say it was artisan is almost an understatement.  Everything, and I mean everything was made from scratch and the viennoiserie (croissants and danish) were better than anything you could get in this country and to be fair, on a level with what you could get in France.  We had a team of French pastry chefs and bakers and they were a real eye-opener as well.  In my naivety I thought it was the Irish who had the reputation for being the alcoholics of Europe - that was until I met the French.  I would say that 70% plus of our staff had a drink problem.  However, that is a novel for another time!

We used very expensive ingredients including French flour, primarily Farine de Ble type 65 (wheat flour), but also siegle (rye).  We used all unsalted butter, whole eggs, cream and Belgian chocolate.  This, in addition to all products being handmade including the croissants, rolled by hand, made the product very expensive.  Obviously in the downturn many business cut back on their expensive supplies. We had problems with customers dragging their heels paying up and this in turn led us to not be able to pay our suppliers.  Every month was a nightmare, towards the end, trying to negotiate cheques from our accounts office in order to release supplies from suppliers who had our account on hold.  I had to continually juggle and also shop around for better prices which ended up taking up so much time, it began to take up a large part of everyday.

We operated 3 separate sections, bread, viennoiserie and dessert.  Breads included baguettes, Bretonne baguette, country bread, boule, couronne and brioche.  Viennoiserie was croissant, almond croissant, pain au chocolate, pain au raisin, fruit etoile, torsade and apple chausson.  Desserts were fresh fruit tarts with creme patissiere, lemon tart, chocolate tart, cheesecakes, mousses including feuillantine chocolate, opera, profiteroles (piece montee) and nicest of all La Religieuse.  And this list is only a fraction of what I can remember.

We supplied primarily Dublins' - 4 and 5 star hotels.  Some of the executive head chefs were the bain of my life but some were really great to work with as we often made desserts to order.   We also supplied cafes, restaurants and coffee shops.  Our delivery vans were on the road before 4am and most deliveries were completed by 10am.  The bakery operated 24/7 and we had 3 different shifts.  If I had occasion to go in at night to check something, it was like a whole other world.  A bright hive of activity with the most amazing smells wafting out.  There is nothing like the taste of a freshly glazed pain au raisin or a crusty baguette. 

When I travel now to France, which is several times a year lately, I still compare bakery goods with "ours" and very often they fail to live up to standards; as even in France they have started to cut back on the quality ingredients (butter in particular).  I can always taste the difference in croissant.  But sometimes you find a small bakery in a town that produces the same sort of amazing tastes we did.  And that is heaven and something the French really excel at.

One day I hope to sit down and write in more detail about the experience of managing the bakery and dealing with the French because, when I used to tell friends the stories, they all said you really should write a book.  The only problem is people reading it would think I had made it up!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Real Reason People are Anti-Hunting

The furore that erupted over "that" photo of Rachel Allen today, prompted me to put forward my theory about the real reason people are anti-hunting and field sports.  I should say firstly that I hunted with the Meath Hunt for a good number of years as did both my children from quite an early age.  During that time I was able to observe the type of people who hunt in this country and the type of people who are vociferous in their opposition.  I have overheard some of the "antis" comments while they were demonstrating against the hunt and the vast majority were more against their perceived bias of the participants than any real empathy for the fox.

The people who hunted were from every walk of life - farmers, professionals, titled and manual workers.  Everyone who hunted had both a love of, and respect for the countryside.  Most were into hunting for the joy and freedom of galloping through fields and the excitement of clearing huge ditches, drains, stone walls, gates and barbed wire.  The feeling of being at one with your horse as he shivers in anticipation when the hunting horn is sounded.  I always remember my daughter's pony used to get so excited when we arrived at a hunt he was often in a sweat before he even got out of the horse box.  Every horse loves hunting with a passion.  I only ever "saw" one fox caught in all the years I hunted and I didn't even witness the actual killing as the hounds caught him in gorse bushes.  In contrast I have seen hundreds of foxes killed on the roads.  I have seen foxes lead hounds on a right merry dance as one sauntered up one side of a ditch with the hounds in full cry on the other side hunting in the wrong direction.

The anti-hunt lobby have been vocal at their perceived cruelty of hunting.  However the fox is classified as vermin and therefore the population must be controlled.  The fox is a natural predator as are the dogs that chase him.  The people who hunt are not a rabid, bloodthirsty mob.  I never met one person who expressed a wish to see any fox killed while on a hunt.  The only sentiment ever expressed was that we got a good chase which led us over decent country (by country they meant good jumping).

The hunt members are very far removed from the idle-rich landed gentry with their nose-in-the-air.  They are, for the most part decent, hard-working people who love horses and animal and outdoor pursuits.  They are considerate of road users, land owners and each other.

I have always wondered why the anti-hunt lobby don't turn their energy into doing some good for animal welfare and employ their energies against intensive, factory-farming which inflicts real cruelty on animals.  Intensively farmed animals in this country have probably the worst life imaginable.  Instead they concentrate their energy on an animal that has for the most part a natural, wild life and against the people they perceive to be something that they are not.

                  Myself and my daughter hunting St. Stephen's Day, Kells, 1999

Fox Hunting   Meath Hunt  Rachel Allen  Anti Hunt Lobby  Fox and Hound

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Years Thoughts and Resolutions

If I could find the magic way to lose weight whilst still being able to enjoy my food and wine then wouldn't I be onto a good thing?  Every year I make a resolution that this will be the year I get back to my ideal weight so as to be able to wear all the clothes I can't bear to throw away, but to date I have not managed to.  It's not that I am obese or even hugely overweight but I do need to lose a few kilos.  I am fit and I eat healthily although I do have a sweet tooth.  When I was younger my friends used to wonder how I was so slim despite the fact that I ate probably twice as much as they did.  One even told me that one day it would catch up with me and she was right.  It has caught up with me now. 

I can't say that I want to get fit because as I said I am reasonably fit.  I have two dogs who torture me if I don't walk them.  It's not as if they haven't plenty of space to run about and exercise themselves but they never seem to bother and only charge around the fields if I am with them. 

I want to try to raise pigs this year and have made a resolution to do this although I am dreading getting too attached and not being able to bring myself to kill and eat them.  I am a real soft touch when it comes to animals.  Even a wicked rooster who used every opportunity to attack me; when he eventually got killed I couldn't bear to eat him.  It just seemed wrong especially as a few hours before he was running around my garden. 

But my primary resolution has to be the desire to finally take an idea I have and turn it into a business opportunity.  I suppose I am bit scared to take the plunge and feel a bit like a sky diver standing at the door of a plane trying to decide to jump.  I know that once I jump I will probably be fine but it's just getting the courage to make the move.  My grandfather was a supreme entrepreneur and I often wonder why I did not inherit that gene.  I wish he was alive to ask him had he similar doubts but he died at the age of 45 from a heart attack.  But in his short life he certainly lived - built up a business, went broke and built the business back up again.  My father tells a great story that when the second world war broke out he knew that petrol would be rationed so he dug two holes in the garden for underground tanks and filled them.  However, the government then issued a directive that the only cars allowed on the road were to be driven by doctors and priests.  He was one of the few people who actually had a car at the time so he would have been very obvious on the road. 

                                                      My grandfather on the left