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In the corner of my office is an ugly little bookcase. It’s about 60cm long, the sides are not quite at right angles to the bottom and it wobbles. I don’t throw it out because I made it. In fact it’s one of the first things I remember making. Obviously there had been embarrassing hand-coloured Christmas cards for Mum and one of those desk tidies made of toilet rolls for Dad, but the bookcase, built in a school woodwork class, was the first thing I remember planning, cutting, fitting, fettling and finishing, the first thing I took home to my family with a surge of pride.
The bookcase was the beginning of a life of making things. I was an obnoxiously practical little kid, always assembling and disassembling anything from Airfix kits to pet rabbits. In fact, in a childhood that sometimes felt disorientating and scary, I grew to trust a basic mechanical understanding. If you understood how things worked, how they fitted together and why they did what they did, there were fewer unpleasant surprises.
I made model planes, fixed bicycles, learnt to strip down car engines. I screwed up plenty of things but I learnt a lot more. Later I was lucky enough to go to one of those art colleges where you learnt everything from welding to screenprinting, film-making to letterpress. In none of these individual skills did I particularly excel, but I and the people around me set great store in understanding. Each creative action improved our appreciation of our materials, of practical design, of the history of a craft and of art in general and our place in it. I wasn’t a tailor but I knew enough about cutting a suit to talk to one. I wasn’t a mechanic but no one was ever going to tell me a gasket was blown when only the timing needed adjusting, and I’d always be able to clear a blocked drain.
In spite of my ugly bookcase I didn’t go on to be a cabinet maker, or a car mechanic, or a tailor – these days, in fact, I write about food – but though I love the flavours, the smells and the sensual pleasures of cooking, I’m still fascinated by the craft elements. Quite aside from how bloody marvellous it tastes in a sandwich, home-cured bacon is an opportunity to understand more. Butcher the pork and understand the animal better, brine the meat and feel how its texture changes and how its chemical make-up becomes hostile to bacteria. Watch the meat firming up and connect with the generations of smallholders who killed their prized pig and stored its meat through the winter. And, finally, whack off a thick slice and cook it up for the family.
There’s quite marvellous bacon to be had from your local artisan butcher, from the deli or even at a pinch from the supermarket, so nobody is suggesting that you cure your own, once a month, for the rest of your life. But just once is enough to make the connection – to understand bacon, its history and its cultural significance in a far deeper way than from the glib rubric on the back of the pack.
Across much of the world, “food DIY” is a way of life. In the US and Europe, recreational hunters are used to butchering their kill, smoking, drying or otherwise preserving it, often in a suburban garage with equipment bought from a local hardware store. While in the UK air-drying a ham might be considered an obscure hobby or something left to specialists, in Italy or Tennessee you’re just as likely to find one hanging in the garden shed as a bike or a lawnmower. These exercises in preserving are not seen as the weird pursuits of a food freak but just part of the seasonal duties of the household, like clearing the gutters or burning dry leaves.
In the UK, where food preservation is taking place, it’s seen firmly as a rural pursuit, something that goes with a Barbour and an Aga, but in US cities recently there has been a move towards urban DIY. Food lovers have begun building smokehouses on balconies and bread ovens on rooftops, and hanging salamis out of windows to dry. These new urban DIYers couldn’t be further from the image of the Little House on the Prairie homesteader or back-to-the-land hippy, instead sporting tattoos and piercings and getting very, very serious about meat. There’s even a political edge, a sort of punk/anarchist “seizing the means of production” that recalls the Diggers or the allotment movement. Now, as then, there’s something empowering about grasping back food production from industry and middlemen, and a dignity in providing for your family.
The instructions overleaf can be treated as ordinary recipes but it’s better to take them as starting points for your experiments. I treat cooking and preparing food as an adventure, so instead of trying to be comprehensive I have shamelessly picked out those projects that are the most fun, the ones that will, I hope, inspire your own adventures. Of course, you might get bitten. There are artisan bakers, charcutiers and cheesemongers at farmers’ markets all over the country who have rediscovered these techniques and used them to change their lives. But to begin with, let’s just acknowledge that, in a strange, geeky way, these skills are a pleasure in themselves and worth trying if only once.
Curing & Salting
“Gravad lax” is Swedish for “buried fish”, which harks back to the time when fishermen would save part of their catch by burying it on the beach. Presumably the salt in the sand had a preservative effect and a degree of fermentation held off decomposition. Today, things are a little better organised. Nobody is suggesting that you should bury your salmon in the garden, but you can entomb it in a salty rub, some cling film and a fridge for a couple of days and produce something magical. I have no idea what the Swedish for “sublime” is, but it’s le mot juste for this stuff. Because the cure imparts a good flavour and changes the texture, this is a great use for the sort of farmed salmon that might not ordinarily stand your scrutiny.
● Get your fishmonger to cut two matching fillet pieces, one from either side of the same fish. It’s better if they can be cut square, for reasons of neatness and economy. In order to kill any parasites present freeze the fish for 24 hours and then defrost in the refrigerator.
● Grind together 150g of sea salt, 150g of caster sugar, 30g of coriander seeds and 50g of black peppercorns with a pestle and mortar and lay the two salmon fillets skin side down on a sheet of cling film. Finely chop 200g of dill and spread a thick layer on each fillet. Add a thick layer of the dry cure, pressing it on, vigorously, then lay over 10 whole sprigs of dill to create a retaining layer on the side you’re going to flip over. Turn over one fillet and fit it on top of the other, cut side to cut side, rotating it so that the thick edge of one fillet fits on top of the thin edge of the other, then wrap the whole sandwich tightly in several layers of cling film. Store in a bowl, in the fridge, for 48 hours.
● Unwrap the cured fish, pat it dry and scrape off most of the cure and the chopped dill. Now lay it skin side down and take thin diagonal slices, which will include a lovely green layer of the cure along one edge. Serve with bread or boiled potatoes, “fox sauce” and shots of icy vodka.
The traditional sauce to accompany gravadlax translates from the Danish as “fox sauce”. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but it sounds more mysterious and interesting than honey, mustard and dill sauce, which is effectively what it is.
● Put 50g of cider vinegar, 50g of muscovado sugar, 50g of honey, 50g of Dijon mustard and 30g of vegetable oil into a blender and blitz.
● Chop a bunch of fresh dill, discarding any woody stems; bruise a little with the end of a rolling pin or the handle of your knife and stir it in. If you want to be really authentic, you can also stir in a spoonful or so of any curing liquid remaining from the fish.
We used to have a fantastic tradition of salting meat in the UK, though not perhaps with the same self-publicising élan as other nations (York, Wiltshire and Bradenham have been names associated with various hams, and our bacon was ever legendary, but they were never really star players on the international platter of cold meats), but, perhaps because we like our bangers fresh and our bacon salty, we’ve never quite got around to drying the stuff.
It’s a shame, really, because everyone else has got something hanging out the back: bresaola, jerky, droëwors, Bündnerfleisch, biltong, kabanosy, lap cheung, chorizo, saucisson sec and innumerable others. We Brits, on the other hand, have even had to nick the word “charcuterie” from the French.
But the only thing vaguely disturbing about making salami at home is how easy it is, and the result is an entirely different animal to the leathery staple of the supermarket deli. The texture is softer, fudgier, the flavours clearer; the fat and meat taste cleaner, with none of the rancid edge of long-stored “products”. In fact the only downside I can find in staring at a length of home-cured salami is knowing that I won’t be able to stop until I’ve finished it.
Note that in this recipe we’re working with minced and chopped meats, which have a much larger surface area than single-muscle meats, and are therefore an easier target for bacteria. When making salami for air-drying I’m even more careful than usual about cleanliness in the kitchen, and I don’t recommend trying the recipe without using the Prague Powder.
1kg pork shoulder
200g pork backfat
2.5g Prague Powder #2 per kg of meat
1 clove of garlic
2.5g fennel seed
2.5g cracked black peppercorns
1. Place the meat in the freezer for half an hour to make it easier to handle.
2. Remove bones, skin and any stringy connective tissue from the shoulder and slice the meat around 1cm thick. Cut each slice into batons, then across into dice.
3. Go over the pile roughly with a big chopping knife so that part of the meat is more finely and irregularly cut. You can skip this phase if you like your salami chunky; spend ages on it if you like it smoother.
4. Cut the backfat into 1cm dice.
5. Combine the chopped shoulder meat (it should be around 800g) with the cubed fat (200g) and weigh accurately. The proportion for curing is at least 25g salt for every kilogramme of meat. Add your Prague Powder #2 to the salt first and mix it thoroughly.
6. Select your flavourings. You can go wild, but I’ve stayed basic: one clove of garlic and 2.5g each of fennel seed and black pepper. Grind the flavourings with a pestle and mortar, mix them with your measured salt, then work it all into the meat mixture with your hands. You can also try paprika, rosemary, orange peel or pretty much anything else you fancy. If you’re feeling particularly French you can add 150ml of rough red wine.
7. Chill the stuffing mix for a couple of hours while soaking the casings, then stuff away. Twist and cut your salamis to length, tie off the ends of the casings and secure with string. Make a loop at one end.
8. Examine the salamis carefully and use a needle to pierce the skin and relieve any air bubbles. As the skins dry and tighten they’ll tend to drive out excess air, but it will need an exit point.
9. Weigh each salami and label it with ingredients, date and weight. Calculate what your target weight will be – minus 30 per cent from moisture loss – and write this on the label too.
10. Hang your salamis inside for a couple of days while the skins tighten and become papery. Then move them outside to dry. Choose a place where they’re under some cover, in clear, circulating air and protected from animals and birds. If you have a shed or garage it might do, or you can rig up a simple hanging cage. A dry white mould is acceptable on the outside of the skin, but patches of fur or coloured mould should be washed off as they develop with a weak solution of vinegar in water.
11. Your salamis will be ready after a month of hanging. You’ll know they’re done when they’ve lost around 30 per cent of their weight. They’ll be softer in texture than most cheap shop-bought salamis (which have often been quite literally hanging about for years) and infinitely more delicious.
If Brits ever think about cooking outdoors, it’s likely to be a barbecue. If they’re well-off it will be a gas-fired monster, dripping with accessories and probably requiring a “comedy” apron to operate; if they’re broke it will be a cheap tin affair, loaded with briquettes and firelighters, or one of those tinfoil disposable jobs. It’s a shame, because cooking outdoors with fire should be an exciting way to add new flavours and textures to food. Charcoal, even the good stuff, is wood that has already been burnt once so that any aromatic element has gone.
A clambake is another of those excuses for a joyous, rambunctious group eating session based around a cooking method that’s almost as old as mankind. On the East Coast of the US, clambakes are often held for whole communities, using pits dug with backhoes and hundreds of kilos of seafood. The method I’ve outlined here is a little calmer and can be performed far from the beach by the simple use of a metal wheelbarrow and some materials from the local garden centre.
Whip the front wheel off the barrow if you have ambitions to use it again – the tyre will melt and burst in the heat otherwise. Pour a bag of sharp sand into the bottom of the wheelbarrow and create a dip in the centre. Build a good hot fire in the dip, using a bag of barbecue charcoal, and insert into the glowing coals half a dozen rocks around the size of a tennis ball – granite or similar boulders are good, while shale and flint have the tendency to crack and split alarmingly. Keep the fire burning merrily for an hour or two, until a drop of water vaporises immediately on hitting the rocks.
Soak a sack in water and lay it over the hot stones – you’ll need to work fast so that it doesn’t dry and scorch – and immediately top with half a bag of seaweed. (Ask your fishmonger nicely when ordering your shellfish – seaweed is sold at fish markets, where it’s used in fishmongers’ displays.)
Pour your shellfish in a single layer in the seaweed along with ears of sweetcorn (still in the husk) and baking potatoes wrapped in foil. Cover the lot with the rest of the seaweed, another layer of damp sacking and a second bag of sand.
By spreading the sand and patting it down carefully you should achieve a pretty good seal around the food – pack on extra handfuls where steam escapes. You can check the temperature inside the clambake with a probe thermometer and you’ll see that it rises very quickly and holds stable.
Cooking time depends on the amount of food you have inside the chamber, but half an hour will do a reasonable-sized lobster and a couple of kilos of clams and mussels.
Both lobster and crabmeat can be potted in the same way as the more traditional shrimps: by sealing in butter. If you’re cooking a fresh crab, you can pot a mixture of the white and brown meat and if you’ve bought a cooked lobster, this can be a terrific way to add moisture and flavour back into the shredded meat. If, on the other hand, you can find raw frozen lobster tail or, better still, you’re not averse to “homarcide”, then try the recipe below, which harks back to Escoffier and uses a broadly similar technique to create possibly the most decadent starter imaginable. In technical terms what’s going on here is very similar to the terribly fashionable “sous-vide” technique, though obviously in a far more DIY way.
1 raw lobster tail (weights vary wildly)
Around the same weight of clarified butter, plus a little extra to seal
Pinch of black pepper
Pinch of ground mace
½ bay leaf
1. Slice the lobster tail into 0.5cm rounds.
2. Warm the clarified butter to 85C and add the seasonings.
3. Pack the lobster slices into a preserving jar, pour over the melted butter through a sieve, and seal. Choose your jar size carefully so that it’s well packed with meat before adding the butter, otherwise you’ll end up with lobster-flavoured butter rather than butter-flavoured lobster.
4. Lower the jar into barely simmering water so that it comes halfway up the sides of the jar. The lobster will be cooked in 10-12 minutes.
5. Lift the jar out of the water, open it and break the meat up a little with a fork before closing, tapping to remove air bubbles, cooling and chilling.
6. Once everything has reset, pour on a further layer of clarified butter.
7. Serve in the same way as potted shrimps but with considerably more smugness.
Have you ever wondered how we ended up with the fast-food options we have? It’s certainly not because they taste awful … it’s usually because they are simple things to make delicious out of the cheapest of ingredients, because they are full of big, fat flavours that please the maximum number of people and because they’re almost impossible to mess up. Recreating some of these favourites isn’t just fun, doesn’t just give us something amusingly ironic to serve to our mates, but it helps us to understand what’s good and bad about “junk” food.
It would be really easy to dismiss the doner kebab with a series of well-worn gags about food poisoning, “elephant’s leg” and a long string of drinking anecdotes. To be fair, the great cylinder of mystery meat, rotating in the late-night snack bar, may well conceal all the elements of a nutritional horror story, but then that’s probably a logical market-forces response to an audience who are too drunk to discern and too broke to pay more than £2.50 for emergency nourishment. In fact, the doner is assembled from cheap but flavourful offcuts of lamb (usually halal), minced to the point of emulsification with a little seasoning and some cereal binder. Lamb is a naturally pretty healthy meat – grass-fed, impossible to battery farm – and the same process of chilled fine-grinding is also used to make mortadella, saveloy, kosher salami, frankfurter and even supermarket breakfast sausages.
Slices from a giant, hot, free-range lamb meat loaf with fresh salad, in a hot pitta. Hell, that’s a sustainable health food. If we can find a way to rescue and repackage it, then the dodgy doner takes meat wasted in the trimming of a decent-quality meat and turns it into the kind of thing your personal trainer would implore you to snack on. If you have any remaining doubts about the doner, our own St Elizabeth David took broadly the same ingredients – lamb breast, breadcrumbs, flavourings – and used them to make the legendary Lamb Ste Ménéhould. Funnily enough, nobody ever associated her with strong continental lager, fighting on the night bus or weeing against lampposts.
● Lamb breast is an often neglected cheap cut. It comes as a thin sheet formed of interleaved layers of muscle and fat and is usually served rolled and stuffed with a breadcrumb mixture. Cut 500g of it into 2cm squares and chill them in the fridge before passing once through a mincer, using a coarse plate. The whole of this process should be carried out at as low a temperature as possible so that the fat in the lamb doesn’t get a chance to melt before it’s emulsified. In commercial preparation, the butcher would probably add a little transglutaminase, known as “meat glue”, which is a blood extract that does exactly what it says on the tin. Meat glue means that the ingredients will hold together without you having to be so careful about the emulsification. It’s harmless, present in many prepared foods and ready meals, but it doesn’t appear on the shelves of your local supermarket so let’s press on with the Old School method.
● Add around 100g of stale breadcrumbs, 7.5g of salt, a good grind of black pepper and a medium onion, coarsely grated. Mix thoroughly, using a rubber spatula, and place back in the fridge to chill down again.
● Add 2.5g each of ground cumin and coriander seed and a couple of cloves of grated garlic, then mince the chilled ingredients again through the finest plate, which should render a smooth, meaty pâté. In making something like a hamburger you want to keep the mixture loose, to allow a good texture when cooked; with doner meat we’re looking for as near a homogeneous slab of flavoured protein as possible, so you can’t overwork it – as long as the whole thing remains as cold as possible so the fat can’t soften and escape.
● You could cook the meat in a regular terrine dish, but bear with me here. Honestly, it’s worth it. Clean a big, empty food tin – mine used to contain about half a kilo of puréed spinach – and line with two layers of cling film. Be careful of the edge, it’s lethal. Work the chilled mixture quickly, podging it through your fingers until it looks homogeneous, then form it into fat burger shapes that will just fit into the tin. In the real thing, discs of the paste are piled on to a skewer, which gives the shape and a slight horizontal grain structure. We’ll try to keep to that idea. Pack the pucks into the tin and then close the cling film tightly to seal the top.
● Place the tin in the bottom of a big casserole and fill with boiling water to about half its depth. Put into a medium oven, around 150C, and cook until the internal temperature reaches 75C – mine took around an hour and a half. Then turn the oven off and leave for 15 minutes while you prepare a salad mix, like a dry coleslaw, dressed with lemon.
Turn out and unwrap your mini-elephant leg and trim the bottom so that it will stand on end on an oven tray or metal plate. To serve, play a blowlamp over the surface of the meat and then slice vertically, stabilising the cylinder with a carving fork if necessary. If you’ve ever spent a night on the lash, the rest of the assembly process will come back to you through the haze the minute you see the chilli sauce, the tahini, the yoghurt and the freshly toasted pitta. If it doesn’t … drink more.
To order “Food DIY” at the special offer price of £19.99 including free p&p (RRP £25) please call the Penguin Bookshop on 08430 600021, quoting “Food DIY/FT” and isbn 9781905490974. The offer is subject to availability, and open to UK residents only. Customers should allow up to 14 days for delivery.