Category Archives: starter

Black diamonds of the kitchen – truffles…

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Our house is located roughly 30 minutes from one of the most renowned truffle markets in the France, if not the world – Lalbenque Truffle Market in the Lot.   If you look up ‘Truffle’ in Larousse Gastronomique it states, “The Black Truffle of Perigord and that of the Lot are the most highly esteemed.”  By all accounts the truffles were so highly rated that a railway spur was built specifically to connect Lalbenque to Paris so that the restaurateurs in the capital could enjoy this delicacy.

The truffle market is held every Tuesday from December to March and makes for very good ‘people watching’.  The few times I have been it has been easy to spot those who have travelled down from Paris as they wear smart clothes and have well-polished shoes in stark contrast to the locals who are dressed in weather-beaten clothes that are better suited for the cool winter days.

The market is divided up into individual and wholesale sellers.  Just outside the Mairie, two tables are set up where individual truffles are sold in small cellophane bags with the prices clearly marked. On the other side of the street the wholesale sellers line up on long wooden benches and present their bounty in wicker baskets lined with gingham material, normally a small piece of card is visible indicating the weight of the truffles inside.

At 2pm the sale commences for the individual truffles, you need very sharp elbow and a fierce determination to battle your way through the crowd in order to purchase your prize.  I have watched in admiration the old ladies who beat their way to the front to get a 20g truffle for a price in the region of €17-20.

 
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On the other side of the street it is a more serious affair.  There, the proud truffle hunters stand behind their baskets fielding questions about the weight and quality of their truffles.  A rope barrier separates the buyers from the sellers and creates a path for the council officials to pass ensuring that procedures run smoothly.  The all-important matter of price is not allowed to be discussed until 2.30pm once the whistle has been sounded.  Once this happens things turn somewhat frantic as the buyers rapidly negotiate a price to be paid in cash there and then.

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The last time I went to Lalbenque was just before Christmas.  At one end of the market there was a lot of excitement.  As I approached it soon became clear why – there was an enormous basket, filled to the brim with truffles, said to weigh 8kg.  It was estimated that the basket hamper would sell for around €7,500-8,000 – a little out of my price range…  I spoke with several people and they informed me that a bounty of this size is a real rarity and is unlikely to happen again.

Sadly, I was unable to buy any truffles at this market.  However, on Christmas Eve our local market at Caussade had a small truffle stand where I was able to buy 2 very small ones weighing 17g in total.  The first thing I have to say is the smell of the truffles was extraordinary – having left them in the car whilst I did the shopping when I returned the car was filled with the fragrant scent of truffles.

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On getting them home, I decided to use them as a garnish, firstly in an omelette (which I am pretty sure you’d all be able to make…) and then secondly on top of some smoked salmon bellinis.  Truth be told, the truffles lacked taste and were somewhat disappointing as they were very dry despite having been sliced into wafer thin slithers.  It is arguable that they would have benefitted from having been softened in a little melted butter, but I felt that this would have overwhelmed their flavour.  However, for me, I am pleased I bought them if only for the enjoyment I got from their smell as I drove home.

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Smoked Salmon Bellinis (makes – 15-20)

Ingredients:

  • 1 egg
  • 3 heaped tbsp plain flour (roughly 100g)
  • 1 heaped tsp butter (melted)
  • 40-50ml milk
  • pinch of salt
  • 200g smoked salmon (cut into 1” squares)
  • 2-3tbsp crème fraiche
  • ½tsp horseradish sauce (optional)
  • pepper (for seasoning)
  • 5-10g truffle (finely chopped, for garnish – optional)
  • 15-20 small parsley leaves
  • vegetable oil (for cooking with)

Steps:

1.  Firstly make your bellinis, by whisking the egg, milk, flour,salt and butter together in a bowl – add more milk as needed until you have a batter with the consistency of thick pouring cream.

2.  Heat a little vegetable oil in a non stick frying pan.  Drop a small spoonful of the batter into the frying pan (so that you have small bellinis roughly 1” – 1”½ in size).  Cook the bellinis on each side for 30 seconds to a minute, or until they are golden brown.  Continue cooking the bellinis in batches until you have used up all of the batter.

3.  In a small bowl mix the crème fraiche, horseradish sauce and pepper.

4.  Spoon a little of the mix onto each of the bellinis, top with a piece of smoked salmon and then garnish with either a pinch of truffle or a parsley leaf.

[Note:  You can vary the flavour of the bellinis by adding ½tsp if dill or ½tsp of finely chopped chives to the batter mix before cooking].

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French Onion Soup with Cheese Croutons

I know it is a little late, but … Happy New Year to one and all!  I hope that everyone has had a suitably indulgent Christmas and New Year.  I have just returned from a trip to the UK –  just in time as the snow arrived two days ago and we have been snowed in ever since.  However, as I type this blog the first snow plough is passing along the top road, doubtless to the dismay of our neighbours’ children who are enjoying a ‘snow day’.

This type of weather demands warm food and I can think of nothing better than a good soup.  If you have got the time then French onion soup is delicious.  The secret to a good French onion soup is taking the time to let your onions soften completely otherwise you don’t get their beautifully sweet flavour coming through (and I think we all know about the side effect of uncooked onions…).

This type of soup tastes infinitely better if you use a good beef stock, not only as it gives a slightly richer flavour than a chicken stock, but it deepens the colour.  This is really a soup to try, but just make sure you don’t rush it. Enjoy.

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French Onion Soup with Cheese Croutons (Serves 6)

Ingredients:

For the soup:

  • 1kg onions (finely sliced)
  • 2/3 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
  • 1tbsp sugar
  • 4/5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1l stock (preferably beef stock)
  • 2 ½ glasses dry white wine
  • Seasoning

For the cheese croutons:

  • 6 slices of French bread
  • 100g grated Emmental or Gruyere

Steps:

1. Gently heat the oil in a large pan.

2.  Add the onions and sugar, cover with a lid and cook very gently, stirring occasionally for 30-40 minutes on a low heat until they are soft.

3.  Add the thyme and the wine and cook for about 10 minutes on a slightly higher temperature.

4.  Then add the beef stock, season well and cook for a further 10-15 minutes.

5.  Just before you are ready to serve, remove the sprigs of thyme from the soup and make your croutons by toasting the slices of French bread, scattering over the cheese and then melting under a medium grill for 1-2 minutes.

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Cauliflower and blue cheese soup

Cauliflower is fairly good value at the moment and I have been trying to think of some different things to do with it.  As cauliflower and cheese is a classic combination I thought I would try it in a soup.

I found that blue cheese works well in the soup as it adds a salty creaminess that doesn’t overpower the flavour of the cauliflower. By adding crème fraiche, I found that it enhanced the creaminess of the cheese and helps to make the soup silkier.  The lardons give yet another texture – especially if you can make them golden brown and slightly crunchy.  However, they aren’t strictly necessary but are a nice addition.

I served this soup with homemade cornbread which added a light sweetness which lifted the soup, however good French bread would work just as well.

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Cauliflower and blue cheese soup

Ingredients:

  •          1 medium cauliflower (cut up into medium sized pieces)
  •          1 onion (diced)
  •          2 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
  •          2 bay leaves
  •          1 small bunch of thyme (tied together)
  •          1 ½  litre stock (vegetable or chicken)
  •          50g blue cheese (e.g Bleu d’Auvergne)
  •          3 heaped tbsp crème fraiche
  •          ½ tsp pepper
  •          50g lardons (for decoration, optional)
  •          oil (for cooking with)

Steps:

  1. Place the onions, garlic, thyme and bay leaves in a large pan with a little oil and sweat on a medium heat until the onions are soft.
  2. Add the cauliflower and stock, bring up to the boil and cook until a knife goes easily through the cauliflower.
  3. Remove the thyme and bay leaves then, liquidise the soup.
  4. Put the soup back into the saucepan and add the crème fraiche, crumble in the cheese and season.
  5. Cook for 4-5 minutes stirring occasionally.
  6. Meanwhile cook the lardons in a hot saucepan until they are golden brown and crispy.
  7. Serve the soup with a few of the lardons scattered on top with some French bread or cornbread.

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Rabbit and Pork Terrine

Last week I went into a local store (Quercy Frais) to buy some pork to make a terrine.  On asking the advice of the butcher, I was informed that if I wanted meat for a pâté I should wait until Thursday when they held their weekly pâté promotion for seasoned pâté meat at 3€ / kg.  Thinking this was a great deal we decided to go for it.  So, on Wednesday we placed an order for the number of kilos we were after (15kg) and went back in to collect it on Thursday.  What we got is a combination of pork meat, pork liver and pig fat that had been seasoned and coarsely ground.

Please note when I set out to make my terrine I was looking to buy 1kg at most.  However, after much discussion at home we decided to make up a variety of different pâtés in various quantities.  I think in total we have around forty 400g pots which are now stashed away in the larder ready to be opened when they are needed.  Despite our forward thinking and marking each of the pots with a marker pen before they were placed into a huge vat, the pen markings came off the pots during the cooking process – so now it is a case of a lucky dip when selecting our pâtés…

Over the course of the next week or so I will blog all of the pâté recipes.  First up is a Rabbit and Pork Terrine,  I made it by first poaching the rabbit simply because I find it easier to get the meat off the bone after cooking.  I then added a selection of spices, fruit and vegetables that complimented both of the meats very well.  By wrapping the terrine in streaky bacon it held its shape making it far easier to cut into slices.

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Rabbit and Pork Terrine

Ingredients:

Poaching the rabbit:

  • 1 large rabbit
  • 2 onions (cut into quarters)
  • 2-3 carrots (cut into chunks)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves (keep in their skins)
  • 1 tbsp juniper berries
  • 1 – 2 litres chicken stock (enough to cover the rabbit)
  • seasoning

For the terrine:

  • 800g poached rabbit meat (removed from the bone)
  • 800g pork meat for pâté (alternatively use a combination of pork belly, pork shoulder and pig liver and season well)
  • 2 onions (diced)
  • 1 tbsp juniper berries (crushed)
  • ¼ tsp allspice (crushed)
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 garlic cloves (from the poaching pot squeezed out of their skins)
  • 400g apricots (roughly chopped)
  • 2 eggs
  • 15-18 thinly sliced rashers of streaky bacon
  • 3 bay leaves (for decoration)
  • 1 tsp peppercorns (for decoration)
  • butter (for greasing)

Steps:

Step 1 – Prepare your rabbit:

1.  Preheat oven to 160C fan.

2.  Place the rabbit, onions, carrots, garlic, juniper berries and seasoning in a casserole dish (with a lid) pour over the stock until the meat is covered.

3.  Cover and place in the oven and cook for 2 hours.

4.  Once cooked remove from the oven and allow to cool.

5.  Strip the meat from the bones of the rabbit and cut up roughly.  (Keep the stock to make a soup later in the week).

 

Step 2 – Prepare your terrine

1.  Combine the rabbit meat, spices, onions, garlic, apricots and eggs in a bowl.

2.  Add the pork meat and mix well.

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3.  Prepare your terrine dish by greasing with butter and then lining the sides with the streaky bacon.

4.  Pack the rabbit and pork meat into the terrine dish pressing down firmly.

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5.  Wrap in the bacon, place the bay leaves and peppercorns on top with a final knob of butter.  Cover with the lid.

6.  Place in a roasting tin that has been half filled with boiling water.

7.  Place in an oven at 160C fan for 1 ½ hours.

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8.  Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before placing in the fridge for at least 24 hours.

9.  To serve, remove the terrine from the dish by warming in a little hot water for a few minutes, run a knife around the edges and then tip out onto a plate.

10.  Serve with, some French bread and gherkins and/or chutney and/or red onion and port marmalade.

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A hearty chestnut soup

Given that chestnuts are very much in season at the moment I thought I would share another recipe in quick succession.  We ate this today for lunch and it was ideal after a long morning of painting.  I did all the preparation for the soup first thing so that I could literally throw everything in a saucepan and cook it when I came back into the house for lunch.

The soup is a wonderful combination of flavours, the carrots and chestnuts provide a certain sweetness, whilst the lardons add the right amount of salt to give it balance. The soup was fresh and filling and I am fairly sure we will be enjoying another batch of this again next week!

 

A hearty chestnut soup

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium potatoes (peeled and diced)
  • 2 carrots (peeled and diced)
  • 2 baby/small leeks (sliced)
  • 12-15 chestnuts (see chestnut preparation)
  • 100g lardons
  • ½ tsp thyme
  • 1 litre of good stock
  • seasoning
  • oil (for cooking with)

Steps:

1.  Place the lardons in a saucepan with a little oil and cook for 2-3 minutes on a high heat.

2.  Add the carrots and potatoes, stir well and cook for 1-2 minutes.

3.  Add the stock, leeks, thyme and seasoning, stir and cook for 10 minutes.

4.  Finally add the chestnuts and cook for a further 5 minutes.  Serve.

Venison pasty

This weekend a member of the hunt came over bearing a side of roe deer as a thank you for allowing them to shoot on our land; so on Monday it needed to be butchered into manageable pieces.  After about an hour and a lot of knife sharpening I had a huge leg, a long slab of fillet, a kidney and about 2 ½ kilos of stewing meat packed away in freezer bags.  You might be wondering where the shoulder went – as the deer was shot just behind the foreleg it meant there were bits of bone fragment and shot around the shoulder.  Consequently, it was easier to clean and remove the bits of bone fragment from the shoulder by cutting it into stewing meat.

In France they do not tend to hang meat (in general) for very long – in this instance the deer had not been hung at all!   Therefore I was interested to see how it would affect the tenderness of the meat given that I was not going to be slow cooking it before putting it in the pastry.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the deer was not at all tough.  What I must stress however, is that it is incredibly important to try and remove as much of the sinew, veins and membrane as you can before you cook the meat.  This can be very time consuming, but it is worthwhile as it stops the meat becoming chewy or tough.

I decided to make some pasties using a little of the stewing meat and the kidney.  Last year I did a sailing course in Falmouth and it was there I discovered how comforting a good pasty can be – particularly after you had spent the entire day getting cold and wet on a boat.  The thing that I noticed when I had tried them was the importance of good seasoning, as it can make or break a pasty, so don’t be shy about using a healthy amount of salt and pepper.  The recipe below would work well with beef or chicken if you can’t get your hands on some venison.  If you fancy making it completely vegetarian just add some other vegetables in the place of the meat, for example carrots, spinach, butternut squash, Jerusalem artichokes, etc..

 

 

Venison Pasty

Ingredients: (makes 3 large pasties)

For the pastry:

  • 8oz plain flour
  • 2oz chilled butter
  • 2oz chilled hard margarine
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 3-4 tbsp water (to bind)
  • 1 beaten egg (for glazing)

For the filling:

  • 400g venison (any sinew and membrane removed and chopped into chunks)
  • 1 kidney (de-veined and chopped into chunks)
  • 1 medium potato (peeled and diced)
  • 1 onion (diced)
  • 2 baby turnips (peeled and diced)
  • 2-3tbsp red wine
  • sprinkling thyme
  • seasoning

Steps:

1. Firstly make the pastry – place the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Cut the butter and margarine into cubes, add to the dry mix.

2. Using your fingers crumb together the mixture (don’t worry if you have a few small bits of butter that haven’t broken down).

3. Then add the water (a little bit at a time) until the pastry comes together and you can make a ball.  Wrap the pastry in some cling-film and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

4. Whilst the pastry is chilling prepare you’re your filling, by mixing all of the ingredients together in a bowl, cover with cling film and set to one side until you are ready to use it.

   

5.Once the pastry has been chilled, remove from the fridge cut into 3 equal sized pieces. Roll out each ball on a floured surface to your preferred thickness, then using a bowl/plate as a template cut out a circle roughly 20cm in diameter.

6. Divide the filling equally between each of the pastry circles.  

   

7. Using a pastry brush, gently brush some of the beaten egg around the edge of the pastry to help it seal when you fold it over into a “D” shape.

8. Seal the pastry together first using your fingers and then take a fork and gently press down on the edges to form a crimped edge.

9. Finally, place the pasties on an oven tray that you have lined with greaseproof paper, brush the outside of the pasties with some of the egg wash and using a knife pierce the top of the pasties twice (this will allow the steam to escape whilst it is cooking).

10. Place the pasties in an oven that you have preheated to 190C fan for 40-45 minutes. Serve.

 

  

Sweet chilli sauce

I don’t remember when I first came across sweet chilli sauce.  However, I know it made a real impression on me when I was back packing around Australia with a friend.  One of our staple meals that could be bought just about anywhere was nachos with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce.  It was great because it was cheap and filling – perfect when you are living on a budget.  However, it was not until we went trekking in Lamington National Park and stayed in a guest house that I discovered the wonders of sweet chilli sauce in a dip.  Since then I have never looked back.

I started trying to make sweet chilli sauce about a year ago.  The first attempt wasn’t a wild success because I didn’t let the liquid reduce enough, subsequently I had a very thin, runny syrup that tasted OK , but wasn’t quite right.  My last attempt worked much better as it was more the consistency of runny honey and I played around with the ingredients a bit and the flavour was really good, not too hot and not too sweet.

Last week I used a combination of the sweet chilli sauce, my Chinese plum sauce and soy sauce to form a marinade for a pork stir-fry.  When I made goat’s cheese pancakes the other day I tried one of them with a little of the sweet chilli sauce and they went together surprisingly well.  But the most common use for the sauce in our house is in dips.

 

Sweet Chilli Sauce

Ingredients: (makes roughly 750ml)

  • 600g sugar
  • 400ml water
  • 400ml cider vinegar
  • 4 garlic cloves (minced)
  • 2 hot chillies (finely diced)
  • 1 ½” ginger (peeled and finely grated)
  • 1 tsp salt and pepper

Steps:

  1. Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and place on a high heat.
  2. Bring it up to a rolling boil and leave it to reduce down until you have the consistency that you are looking for – then bottle.

A simple dip

Ingredients:

  • 3 heaped tbsp crème fraiche
  • 1-2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
  • pepper (to season)
  • 3 chive stalks, chopped (optional)

Steps:

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, season with pepper, taste and add more sweet chilli sauce if needed.
  2. Serve with carrot sticks, crisps etc.