Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Turkey Days

‘Tis the Season when a middle-aged woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of Christmas.

But before then, there is… Thanksgiving! yes, of course I know we don’t do Turkey Day in the UK. But as well as being thankful for all the blessings we have, which we always should, Thanksgiving gives us something else (aside from three back-to-back NFL games on TV, making my husband a very happy camper) …

An excuse to roast a turkey!

I’m looking forward to Christmas, notwithstanding the fiasco of last year, all three of us down with some vile, unspecified ‘lurgi’…. mine was doubtless brought on by my Dickensian struggle through snow and ice, back from the fishmonger’s on Christmas Eve, sweating like a pig despite the -20C temps during the coldest winter we’ve had for many years, with a giant capon in a box on my shoulder.

The capon was ordered because my mother-in-law, who will be our only guest, hates  turkey. In an attempt to get round this and still get our fix, we ate out on Christmas for a few years at supposedly classy restaurants; Tom and I chowing down unhappily on slices cut from a ‘log’ purporting to be made of turkey, in a pool of congealing brown gravy made from the finest plastic catering-sized keg, along with soggy roast spuds and sprouts deliberately microwaved to shrivelled bitterness by an aggrieved chef whom I’d annoyed by asking him not to put butter on anything. Eventually, our souls cried out ‘enough!’

Turkey has happy associations for me. Although my late mother was brought up on a farm in Aberdeenshire and got to know the turkeys (or ‘bubbly-jocks’ as they are known in those parts), and so shrank from eating them, she always cooked one for the rest of us. For herself, she ordered salt beef from the butcher a month in advance. That was the only time of year the whole family sat round the same table for a meal, such a modern family we were. The scene resembled one of those old-fashioned gimmick photos, showing a dog, a cat, a mouse etc. all in the one cage, labelled ‘Happy Families’, but still. My two older brothers would sit at table, plainly gunning their engines ready to get out the door to their girlfriends’ families, barely as soon as it could be decently said that the meal was finished; my Dad (Polish, depressive and very emotional), bent silently and sadly over his sprouts; my Mum, wielding her big spoon, warning him sharply to cheer up or else…

Ah yes, it was the whole works… opening presents at four in the morning… the smell of linseed oil to this day reminds me of the mandatory oil painting-by-numbers set I would find in my stocking. I would help to prepare the meal during the morning (I was the lowly menial who peeled spuds, prepped sprouts, stirred the soup, set the table, etc. We finally sat down just in time to eat as the Queen’s speech began. Then I would spend the afternoon washing the dishes while my parents napped. I loved it being alone in the kitchen sneaking the odd extra spoonful of trifle out of the fridge as I washed and dried. Then it would be an evening of TV, the highlight of which would be the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special. You can’t buy memories like that.

So what do we have to be thankful for? We are a middle-aged couple with a collective age of 111, living in an 106 year-old tenement flat, now described by estate agents (realtors) as ‘an ideal starter flat’ (i.e. tiny). We have had ill health on and off for a few years now. Two of our ancient plaster ceilings have caved in within two years, resulting in many months of dirt and struggle and inconvenience and haggling with the insurance people; a massively heavy kitchen cabinet fell off the wall without warning, causing unbelievable damage. My illustration business has all but gone down the pan. We now only know one set of neighbours out of the eight in our ‘close’ (apartment building), all the rest being very young tenants of absentee landlords. They’re pleasant enough, but there’s no sense of community. And we now have rats in our back yard. You could say the past few years have been a bit of a turkey.

And yet, in all three cases of things caving in or falling, I had been in the respective disaster areas just a little while previously, and I escaped injury or worse.The one set of neighbours we do know are good folks, very much on our wavelength, more like friends, with an adorable three-year old who has adopted us as ‘TomanSusan’. I don’t work so much now, but I get more time to look after the house and the hubby, which to tell the truth I rather like; and Tom has a brand new metal hip, which we thought would never happen but eventually did, giving him freedom from pain and new-found mobility (not that you’d ever know, couch potato that he is).

So we count our blessings, which at the time of writing include our small turkey, defrosting merrily in the fridge. I will potter happily in the kitchen and Tom will soak up the sports, as will I when the dinner’s all done (although with American football I have only the most rudimentary idea of what’s going on).

If you do celebrate Turkey Day, have a smashing time and don’t work so hard that you forget to enjoy it.

Roast Turkey
(serves 4-6 hungry buggers)

one 9-10 lb. turkey
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
the turkey neck and giblets, cut up small
4 oz. unsmoked Pancetta, finely chopped (ordinary bacon will do too)
a mixture of finely-chopped vegetables – onion, leek, celery, carrot, swede (rutabaga)
10 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 pts. water
juice of ½ lemon
4 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon
50 g. butter
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. dried sage
1 tsp. onion powder
rashers of streaky bacon (you will need about three 250g. packs)
1½ tsps. cornflour (cornstarch)
a little redcurrant or cranberry jelly

Wash the turkey and remove the giblets, and dry thoroughly. Cover with cling-film and put back in the fridge.

In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat the oil. Add the turkey neck and giblets, the Pancetta, the vegetables, peppercorns and bay leaves. Cook very gently for about 20 minutes. Add the hot water, and simmer for about an hour. Top up with a little more water if it gets to looking dry.

Just before the end of this time, take the turkey out of the fridge – this is about ¾-1 hour before the start of cooking time.

Strain the stock, remove any excess fat from the surface, and set aside.

In a roasting pan with a rack set in it, pour 1 pt. of the giblet stock and the lemon juice.

Under the skin of each side of the turkey breast, thread 2 rashers of unsmoked streaky bacon. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 and place the oven shelf in a position where the turkey’s centre will be smack-bang in the centre of the oven.

In a small pan over a low heat, gently melt the butter, and add the salt, the dried sage and the onion powder. Let the mixture cool a little so it is still liquid but not hot. Brush the bird with this mixture, including inside the wings. Re-fold the wings. On the breast, lay rashers of streaky bacon in a lattice pattern (you will need three 250g. packs).

Lay more bacon on the legs and wings. Place the turkey breast-up on the rack over the stock in the roasting pan. Place a meat thermometer in between leg and body, not touching the bones. Rub some butter on a large piece of aluminium foil and cover the bird with it.

Calculate the roasting time as 20 minutes per pound, plus an extra 20 minutes. A 10 lb. turkey should take about 220 minutes.(3 hrs. 40 minutes). Place the tin in the oven.
Baste the meat three or four times during cooking. Inject some of the basting liquid under the skin of the breast.

Top up the tin with a little more stock if necessary. When the bird is ready, the meat thermometer should register at least 75°C. ‘Rest’ the bird for 30 minutes before carving. Pour the stock out of the tin into a saucepan, and remove any excess fat.

In a small bowl, mix together the cornflour and the water. Add this ‘slurry’ to the gravy and stir until thickened, or alternatively use a little ‘packet’ turkey gravy. Add a little redcurrant or cranberry jelly, if liked.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Sole Food

Sole Food

As I said before, I didn’t use to be able to cook. No matter how I tried, and I really did, I had the ability to turn a pork chop or a steak into shoe leather. However, I’m beginning to lose the guilt feelings about that now. Maybe it wasn’t all my fault after all.

Every now and then I get what can only be described as a craving for red meat. I do not mean to offend the vegans and vegetarians I number amongst my friends, but… sorry guys… I am a hopeless carnivore.

Meat eating is a hot-button issue for a lot of folks. A few days ago I read a local agony aunt column. The feature problem was maybe not so serious on the face of it. Six months ago the writer, a woman, became a vegetarian. She’d been happily married for four years. As I read on, I could tell this situation had all the makings of a disaster.

Here’s a marriage where both husband and wife like to buy food and cook; where the wife’s convictions become fanaticism, and she undertakes a crusade against the meat industry and all meat-eaters; and the husband laughs at his wife and dismisses her as a ‘nutter’, and buys and cooks meat all the more just to wind her up; where the wife swears she can smell meat coming out of his pores and becomes physically repulsed by him… that’s one bad-assed stumbling block. I’d love to see a marriage counsellor sort that one out. (Actually, I really would).

Luckily, no such problems for hubby and me.

Anyway, this last weekend the craving struck. So, I raided the freezer for some rump steak. A year ago, at a period of relative prosperity, I bought a small consignment of beef, lamb and mutton from a specialist online butcher. Don’t think I can mention their name but some famous chefs, not to mention HM the Queen, buy their meat from this guy. I defrosted some yesterday and we dined royally. It was literally ‘bloody good’, even after a year in the freezer.

The thing is, the meat was of such good quality, I think it would be impossible for even the biggest idiot to screw it up.

The butcher I bought my rump steak from assured me about the quality of life the beasts had had, and the way they were slaughtered in the most humane way possible. The farms were named and it is actually possible to go and visit them. There were even pictures.

My problem before lay in buying cheap mass-produced meat from the supermarket and freezer stores, not really thinking about how it was produced. It was basically crap and the shoe leather in my frying pan reflected the crappy life the animal had had, and the crappy end it came to.

And come to think of it, it wasn’t all that cheap either.

Some time ago I watched a TV programme where a steer was slaughtered live on TV, in an abattoir, in front of a small audience. Some of the onlookers were genuinely upset. For me, the show had educational value, but I wasn’t upset. The beast was skilfully stunned and was down instantly. It didn’t appear to suffer. Yes, I know it was a highly sanitised show, and not at all how it happens in a wholesale abattoir, but it was fascinating all the same. How a living animal in the prime of life became, in a matter of seconds… meat.

The public outcry afterwards was an eye-opener. How dare they show such a shocking thing on TV? Kids were watching! And as for those well-known chefs who tried their hand at slaughtering animals on TV… disgusting!! Unthinkable!! How could they do that to little lambs or little piggies!

Missing the point, guys.

It came to light in some recent study or other, that a lot of kids when asked where meat came from, said ‘the supermarket’. (It also came to light that a lot of people, not even kids, couldn’t name a piece of broccoli when they saw it).

If people are going to eat meat or poultry they should know, and the younger the better, the processes that result in that turkey twizzler or burger or dinosaur-shaped meat by-product on their plate or, more likely, in their extruded polystyrene carton. 

So, when the craving strikes, we will eat some red meat a few times a year, with as clear a conscience and as much appreciation as possible. My cholesterol is 3.7 and I want to keep it that way. And by the way… that meat wasn’t just bloody good, it was bloody expensive.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Mint Sauce

My idiot-proof way of doing a nice leg of lamb. Just make sure the meat is good quality and you can’t go wrong.

1 whole leg of lamb, about 2 - 2.25kg (4½  - 5 lbs.)
Some olive oil for rubbing
Seasoning - I use rosemary, lavender and oregano salt but any combination of dried herbs and salt would do
A thickening agent, such as arrowroot, cornstarch, beurre manié etc.
6 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon caster sugar
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons boiling water
A large pinch of salt

This method is for roasting a lean joint of meat. Take the meat out of the fridge an hour or so before cooking.

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 8/230°C/450°F.

Unwrap, wash and dry the meat thoroughly. Place on a rack in a roasting tin. Rub with olive oil. Give it a good sprinkling of herbs and seasoning.

Insert a meat thermometer so that the point is in the middle of the thickest part of the thigh. For medium-rare doneness (pink in the middle), the final internal temperature should read 65°C/150°F, so set the thermometer alarm for 60°C/140°F (the internal temperature will continue to rise after the meat is taken out of the oven).

Put in the hot oven and cook for 25 minutes.
Then turn the oven down to between Gas 4-5/185°C/365°F (approx.) and continue to roast. A joint this size will take roughly 1¾  - 2 hours, about 25 minutes to the lb. in total.

Make the mint sauce:
Combine the chopped mint leaves, sugar, vinegar, boiling water and salt together in a bowl and mix well.

When the thermometer says 60C/140F, take the meat out, transfer to a carving tray and cover tightly with tin foil. Let it 'rest' for about 20 minutes before carving.

Pour a little boiling water into the tin and scrape up all the juices and bits with a spatula. Stir vigorously. Pour the liquid into a saucepan and bring to the boil.
Add a little thickening agent to thicken and season the gravy. When the gravy has thickened and reduced a little, remove from the heat. Carve the meat. (This looks really impressive if you do it at the table!!)

Serve with boiled potatoes in butter and snipped chives, and other vegetables of your choice. Pass the mint sauce....

Serves at least 6.

By the way, my birthday is in just under a year, so that will give anyone out there who wants to buy me a present, time to save up for a manche à gigot!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Roast Guinea Fowl

Well! That was easy!

I'm already wondering what the heck I'm doing starting a blog... like I've got anything interesting to say. But here I am, so deal with it. I may be talking to myself for the most part, but that's allowed.

Oh, in case you're wondering, 'sitbynellie' comes from the phrase to 'sit by Nellie' (OK, duh) which means to 'watch and learn' how to do anything, from someone older and more experienced, by literally 'sitting by them' and seeing how it's done. Sort of like one of the old ways of schooling, where younger kids would learn from their older siblings who'd received the lesson from the actual teacher.

I was brought up with the belief that the way to a man's heart was indeed through his stomach (NOT through the chest wall with a large knife). I couldn't cook well at all when young, and I thought I'd never get a man unless I could. As it turns out I married a man who's a picky eater whose God is not his belly.

The sitbynellie method is how I have learned to cook over the years, not so much from cookbooks, but from my family, and at school, and from my friends and in-laws. Tom's 94 year-old mother is the best cook I ever saw, and taught me a lot about good, simple cooking, the importance of what you put in your stomach, the wisdom of getting the very best ingredients you can afford, local if possible, and who has been buying 'organic' for decades, at a time when it was regarded as being only for hippies and cranks.

(Having said all that, I have to say also that I am diabetic and lactose-intolerant so a lot of the recipes I have I can nowadays only make for others, unless I can modify them. Ironic, huh.)

Anyway, this soapbox will not be all about cookery, but I may muse upon many things, and maybe not very cleverly or stylishly. I'm new to the blogging scene, so I'm 'sitting by Nellie' reading and learning from all the rest of you.

Roast Guinea Fowl

Serves 2 generously, and with leftovers

2 oz. butter
5 cloves of garlic, minced, or more to taste
1 tsp. dried Italian-style herbs, or more to taste
zest and juice of ½ lemon
salt and pepper, to taste
1 Guinea fowl, about 1.3 kg.
4 rashers (slices) of smoked bacon
1 tsp. all-purpose flour


In a bowl, combine the first five ingredients. It helps if the butter is softened first.

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 6/200C/400F. Take the guinea fowl, and using the fingers, gently loosen the skin over the breast and push the butter underneath. Rub some on the bird as well. Cover the bird completely with the bacon.

Take an appropriately-sized roasting bag, and put in the flour. Holding the bag closed, shake it about to dust the inside. Place the bird carefully into the bag, and tie the opening tightly with kitchen string or the supplied tier-upper. Snip a tiny corner off the bag, then place the bird in its bag on a rack in a roasting tin, and roast for 1 hour 10 minutes, or until cooked through. (The general rule of thumb is the same as for chicken – 20 minutes per lb. plus an extra 20 minutes.)

Carve up and serve with vegetables of choice!