Friday, 2 March 2012

A bit nipsville

We’ve had a fortnight of serious cold, which as I sit down to write about warming food, appears to have abruptly ended. The beautifully odd frozen fountain on the 18th century square where we live has melted without me having got round to taking a photo. It grew, splash by splash, as the cold days passed, to a spectacle of ogreish deformity. It was a sight to see... Sorry.

Red cabbage has helped keep us warm. Always cheeringly colourful, it can do sharp, spicy and crisp as a counterpoint to a calm, warming stew; or still spicy but less sour, sweet with apples and a tickle of muscovado – warming on its own, but at its best with the magnificence that is a confit duck leg; or enriched with duck fat and onions, and simmered with wine or beer. Served in a great steaming mound with smoked sausage, spuds and bacon, all cooked in the same pot. A dish to warm like a bonfire on even the most nippy of nights.

The latter is a choucroute for people who don’t like choucroute or sauerkraut, as the germans call it. It is my way of not needing to buy the perfectly white, fermented cabbage from Alsace, which is a strange taste I’ve only recently, gradually, acquired. I served it with some great cheap bits of confit duck at my last cave soirée. Still flavoured with juniper and cloves, it is sweet where the proper choucroute is sour. And, whereas the cooking liquor is traditionally strained off, I like mine, so I include it as a thin but rich and tasty gravy. It's almost garbure, the  thick stew/soup from the Bearn region, made from duck and cabbage. Whatever you call it, it'll warm the cockles of your heart!

Red Choucroute

½ to 1 whole red cabbage, depending on the size and how many you want to feed), thinly shredded
3 or 5 onions

A couple of cloves of garlic

An extremely large dollop of duck fat
1 bottle of cheap, very dry white wine. Or continental-type lager, 750ml.

Some kind of stock, homemade is best, obviously, but a cube will do. Failing that, a bit of water.
A teaspoon of juniper berries, crushed up

A couple of whole cloves
A tablespoon of coriander seeds (if you have them – you can do without)

A bay leaf
Salt and pepper

A firm-fleshed potato per person
3 or 4 carrots

Some or all of the following including at least one smokey thing:

A chunk of smoked or unsmoked pork belly (streaky bacon)

Smoked sausages

A ham hock (simmered separately for an hour or so – in water with a bay leaf, onion, carrot, peppercorns, a few fennel seeds and a bit of garlic. This will make great stock. You can use some of it below, and make soup from the rest)

Confit duck (I use wings and neck -cheap-, but leg is great, gizzards wouldn’t go amiss...)

Just make sure there is enough meat for everyone to have some of everything. Bearing in mind that this is a meal for greedy people.

The long bit is shredding the cabbage. Try to slice as thin as you can, but don’t chop your fingers off... It’s a good exercise in knife skills, actually. If you’re including the ham hock, get it cooking before you attack the cabbage.  Slice the onions similarly, chop up the garlic a bit and gently fry these two in a large, deep pan (with a lid) in much more duck fat than you think is necessary.

When the onions have softened, add the juniper, bay leaf, cloves, coriander and lots of pepper. Give a stir and add the red cabbage. Mix it all thoroughly so that the duck fat has coated all the cabbage. Turn the heat up. Try the wine/beer. If it’s nasty put it all in the pot. If it’s drinkable pour yourself a glass, the cabbage will have to cope with what’s left.

Add stock to nearly cover the cabbage. Nestle in your bacon and ham hock if you are having one, add a little bit of salt if you’re not. Cover with a snug lid, bring to a simmer, lower the heat and cook, ploof... piffle... plip, for half an hour.

Take off the lid and have a nose. Make sure there is still some liquid. Push your remaining meat into the cabbage. Lie spuds on top of the lot, to cook in the steam. Replace the lid and simmer for another hour or so, adding the carrots on top of the potatoes with half an hour to go.

Open up the pot and have a taste. Is it salty enough? The juices should be sweet, spicy and delicious. The cabbage still a deep purple. Remove all the meat and veg to one side. Pile the cabbage onto a giant serving dish, add a bit of the gravy and arrange the garnish on top. Bring to the table still steaming hot and munch, slurp and sloop with plenty of crusty bread and prodigious quantities of wine*.

*Interestingly, both red and white are good. For our wine and food evening we had:
Rully 1er cru La Pucelle 2009 Domaine Jacqueson (white Bourgogne)
Trousseau Grands Vergers 2009 Domaine Gahier (Red Jura).
Faugères Tradition 2010 Domaine Binet Jacquet (Red Languedoc),
The Borgogne won for me, hands down, bringing out the corriander and complimenting the sweetness of the duck and cabbage brilliantly. The reds were quite different, the Languedoc rich and round, with a bit of spice, which complimented the meat and the smokey flavours nicely, whereas the Jura was in direct contrast to the sweetness of the dish, supplying a sharp side to cut through all the richness, and, let’s face it, fat... Anyway, plenty of good choices on the booze front!!