Lift your spirits high! In choosing my dish(es) for this edition of Is My Blog Burning?, I decided to turn to one of the great drinking nations for inspiration: England. I am not claiming that the English are necessarily the biggest drinkers in the world (the Czechs beat them in beer consumption per capita) but they are an experienced and enthusiastic lot. To tell the truth, I nearly forgot about this edition of the Is My Blog Burning and so did not have anything prepared before leaving on a long weekend in the Poitou-Charentes Wednesday evening. This, too, influenced the menu: we invited four English friends to Sunday lunch.
And what do you serve five thirsty Brits on a Sunday afternoon? Well, I tried for an elegant pub lunch: a salad of pears poached in port wine with Stilton cheese, followed by a steak and ale pie and apple pancakes flambé to finish.
Although I prepared lunch for six people, I think the quantities would have been better for serving four. No one went away hungry, but this was in part because I included a cheese course between the pies and the dessert.
This is the first time I have tried poaching pears in wine and it certainly will not be the last. They took on a lovely spiced flavour that complimented the Stilton extremely well. If you can't find Stilton, try a mild blue cheese.
1 cup ruby port
2 juniper berries
1 cardamon pod
1 piece of star anise
1 very small cinnamon stick
4 pears, fairly ripe but not yet falling apart
1 bag of rocket lettuce
3 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp raspberry balsamic vinegar
100 grams (or more) Stilton or mild blue cheese, crumbled
handful of walnuts (optional)
Core, peel and slice the pears in thickish wedges (about 1/2cm thick). Place them in a saucepan or deep frying pan with the port, juniper berries, cardamon, anise and cinnamon over a low heat. Cook for ten or fifteen minutes, until the pears are softened somewhat but still hold their form well. Set them aside in the marinade to cool. Arrange washed rocket on salad plates and drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. (My vinegar came in a pump-action bottle, which is quite handly for spreading evenly on salad.) Arrange the cooled pear slices on the salad and sprinkle cheese and nuts over them. I forgot the nuts at the store, but still think they would have been nice on the salad. Save the reserved marinade as it is too delicious to throw away.
Steak & Ale Pie
This is the dish that caused me the most concern. I'm American, not British and here I was trying to make a traditional British dish for a group of British friends. Okay, it's not rocket-science but still it made me a bit nervous. As always in times of need, I turned to the English standard of traditional cooking: Mrs. Beeton's cookbook. And, as usual, it gave me a few good tips and left me thinking "I'm not going to spend THAT much time on it..." (For those of you unfamiliar with her, Mrs. Beeton was a much-admired Victorian lady who set down the rules on All Things Domestic in her Book of Household Management, from cooking to cleaning to how to deal with your servants. These days, they usually only include the cooking bit in the reprint of her famous book.) Mrs. Beeton's recipe called for stewing the meat for two and a half hours before putting the pies in the oven for two hours. Given the fact that I got home from the store at around twelve and guests were due at one-thirty, this was not practicable.
So this is my own recipe, culled from Mrs. Beeton's tips and a few recipes on the Internet. It got rave reviews, even from our friend Craig-from-Newcastle who should know a good pie when he sees one.
800 grams of beef (just under two pounds)
4 cloves of garlic
1 Tbs butter
3-4 Tbs olive oil
several dashes of Lawry's salt
1/4 cup flour
250 grams (2 cups) mushrooms
12 baby onions (roughly)
1 can of Boddington's (around a pint)
1 tsp Better than Boullion Beef extract
2 puff pastry pie crusts
salt and pepper to taste
several dashes of Worcestershire sauce to taste
2 small bay leaves
1 Tbs dried thyme
Roughly chop the garlic and start it softening in the butter and one tablespoon of the olive oil. Chop the onion and add it to the garlic. When they are all soft, remove to a large saucepan with a slotted spoon. Slice the beef in bite-sized strips and toss it with the flour and Lawry's salt. Working in batches, quickly brown the meat in the frying pan from the onion and garlic mix, adding more olive oil as necessary. You'll need to turn the heat fairly high to brown the meat properly. As each batch of meat is cooked (you don't need to worry overmuch about how cooked as it will be stewed for a good long while), add it to the large saucepan with the onions and garlic. When all the meat has been added to the saucepan, remove the frying pan from the stove - you will not need it again for this dish. Peel and slice the carrots in disks and add to the meat and onion mixture. Clean and thickly slice the mushrooms and add them to the pot. Clean and trim the baby onions and add them to the pot, cutting in half any that seem too big for a biteful. Pour about half the beer into the pot and put it on a medium flame. Once the liquid has come to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer. Add the teaspoon of beef extract, the bay leaves and thyme and stir well. Taste the sauce for salt and pepper. Simmer for an hour, adding more beer as necessary. Taste from time to time for salt and pepper and add some Worcestershire sauce towards the end, to taste.
When the meat is tender and the sauce delicious, remove from the flame, preheat the oven to 200C (375F) and roll out the puff pastry dough. (This is where I should explain how to make a puff pastry dough, but my method has always involved buying it pre-rolled from the store.) Place one of your oven-proof deep bowls upside down on the dough and trace a disk about 3/4 an inch (1 cm) from the edge all the way around the bowl. Make four of these disks. Slice four long thin strips from the edge of the dough, each long enough to make the circumference of the bowl. Click here to see the pies in progress!
Fill each of the bowls with the beef filling. Wet your finger and trace it along the edge of the first bowl. Take a long strip of dough and lay it all the way around the edge of the bowl. Wet your finger and draw it along the ring of dough. Cover the bowl with one of the disks of dough. With a knife, make two small slits in the center of the pie in a v-shape and push the dough through to make a small hole for the steam to escape. Repeat with each of the bowls. If you don't have enough fancy bowls (or any) you can make do with a small rectangular casserole dish, but the presentation will not be as nice. Place the bowls in the oven on the top rack and bake for 45 minutes to one hour. If the tops start to get too brown, cover them with brown paper from a grocery sack or some wax paper. Keep a bit of an eye on them though - mine got a little overdone. Serve the bowls to your guest as soon as you take them out of the oven - they will look impressive despite being extremely easy to make! Click here to see how the pie looks when you make it in a rectangular casserole dish. (I ran out of classy oven-safe bowls!)
Apple and fig pancakes flambéed with Calvados
This recipe did not turn out as well as I had hoped, but I think the fault was with the cook (who was by now tired) and not the recipe. So the recipe below is slightly altered from what my guests were offered - I would use more of the port sauce next time, and cook the apples a little more. They were still nice, but (as the Critic pointed out) not as nice as the rest of the meal. He does know how to give a compliment.
For the filling:
3 apples (I chose Boskoop, a lovely apple eaten raw, not too sweet, but also able to hold together when cooked)
2 Tbs butter
3/4 cup port wine marinade (see above)
3 fresh figs
For the pancakes:
1 cup flour
1 tsp sugar
1 cup milk (plus a bit more to thin to desired consistency)
1/2 cup Calvados (apple brandy/applejack)
vanilla ice cream (optional)
Beat the flour, sugar, egg and milk and set aside for at least 20 minutes.
Core and slice the apples and fry them in the butter until tender. You may need to do them in a few batches, depending on the size of your pan. When they are all tender, but not falling apart, put them in the pan with the port wine and raise the heat. Reduce to a thick, sweet glaze on the apples. Slice the figs and reserve them.
Put a tiny, tiny amount of butter in a nonstick pan and heat until frothy. Pour 1/4 or less of the pancake batter in the pan and quickly tilt the pan to spread evenly in a large disk. Don't worry if the first one doesn't turn out great - mine never does. When it is cooked enough, flip to cook the other side. Remove to a warm plate and continue making pancakes. This recipe was sufficient for seven pancakes on my pan - six plus the initial one that never works very well.
Fill each of the pancakes with stewed apples and fresh fig slices and arrange them on a large platter. Heat the Calvados in a small saucepan. Once it is hot, pour it into a large metal ladle. Apply a flame (from the match) to the ladle to set the Calvados on fire and carefully pour over the pancakes. Obviously this looks more impressive on an evening with the lights out, but it still tastes pretty good in broad daylight. Serve each pancake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
And so there you have it: a tipsy lunch. Actually, as two of us are pregnant I had to ensure that most of the alcohol burned away leaving flavour but no substance. Still, it was an inspiring subject for this month's Is My Blog Burning? event and the others were able to wash it all down with the proper beer and wine!