Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smoked Haddock Pie Cooked In A Wood Stove

One of my favourite bits in Breaking Bad is when Walt White is smuggled away by Saul’s guy, who specialises in creating new identities for people who have worn out their own, to live the rest of his life in the coldest, remotest cabin in New Hampshire.

As the man said, no phone, no internet, no television. He had a wood stove, a month’s worth of tinned food and a winter’s worth of snow. The fixer shows him round the cabin, then points at the log-burning stove and says: “You can cook in there as well.”

It hit a note with me. The getting back to basics thing. Rediscovery of the ancient skills of cooking over wood. I’ve got a wood stove in the cottage I live in, and although I can’t pretend it’s as cold as Walt’s cabin, I bet it runs a close second.

In fact, as I have no TV either, one of my main pleasures is warming my toes in front of the fire, with a whisky in my hand, while watching the flames licking away at the wood (Caveman TV, if you will). Then I make another foray into the darkness of the slowworm-infested garden and reach for the logs and frozen snakes to keep the happy hearth belching its wonderful rays of pale warm.

I sleep in front of the stove some nights, and wake to find cold ash where warmth once lay, and a crick in my neck and cold-numb head from frozen cider. Over the months, I’ve become quite an expert at the fire-burning qualities of beech or oak, and lighting techniques and how many bricks to put in there to retain the heat, and how much to turn the air-inflow knobs to get the embers toasty, without burning through my log collection before the once-a-month supply drop from Saul’s guy, and when to risk a log from the apple tree that died this summer and hasn’t had time to dry.

But one thing I haven’t really tried is cooking in there. My first experience was roasting a fine piece of beef with disastrous results. And I’ll say no more than that. Aside from that, I’ve cooked in a wood-burning pizza oven a friend made. He’d made the thing out of special cement and fire bricks, designed at such an angle that the smoke was kept a few inches off the dough, and so strong a heat that a pizza took barely three minutes. The method was simple enough - just burn a load of logs and once they were embers sweep them into the far corner, and then put the pizza on the red-hot bricks.

I’m trying the same in my stove as I write, burning down five or six sizeable apple and beech logs until they’re reduced to orange coals, and then cooking the smoked haddock pie I’d made earlier.

I was going to cook it in the oven, and heaven knows now it would have been a lot quicker, but I suddenly had a moment of inspiration and thought about Walt’s stove for some reason. And I must admit there’s a lot more skill to this than I first thought. You can’t just buy an RV and drive into the desert, and say: “Let’s cook.” There’s a skill to cooking on a wood stove. This ain’t chemistry - this is art, as they say.

As I sit here writing, I can hear the faint sizzle of roasting pie, but only the faintest, and it’s already been in there an hour. I’ve raked up the embers but now I can barely hear a thing. I’ll check again.

I’ve got to say, it’s a bit of a disaster. The tomatoes on top are barely singed and although the mashed potato top is warmer than it was in the fridge, it barely counts for cooked.

I’ve given the ashes another rake, but next time I’ll definitely start with hotter embers. I could put a couple of small logs on now, and hope they catch, but even if they do they’ll produce flame - which I’m told is not what you want when cooking over wood otherwise the whole thing will just taste of smoke.

Of course, If I’d cooked the fish first I’d probably just eat it now, hungry as I am. But I put the pieces in raw, which is always the best thing to do with a fish pie, so I’m afraid that by digging in, all I’ll find is escabeche.

I’ll give it another five minutes and if the embers haven’t worked their magic by then, I’ll warm up the oven and go back to traditional means...

So anyway back to the pie, which is originally what I was supposed to be writing about, until I got side-tracked by the stupid idea of cooking in the wood stove.

I worked in a small-windowed kitchen above a deli for a year or so, making the sort of wages that a modern day slave would be proud of, and I can’t tell you how many fish pies I prepped. People used to bring their own dishes in so they could pass them off on their own.

It was a dreadful recipe - lovely if you like that sort of thing I suppose, but dreadful if you’re cooking it. And far too rich for me. I’d fillet a huge cod delivered by a racist from Billingsgate Market, then cook a white sauce with onions, white wine and buckets of cream, and then throw in prawns the size of a baby’s fist and chunks of smoked haddock. Then top it all with mashed potato that contained a few blocks of butter and more cream. Then I’d decorate it with grated Davidstow cheddar.

The owner said he followed the Italian school of thought when it comes to fish and cheese and said they should never be served together, but he made an exception for that fish pie. It was rich, creamy and dreary.

This is the exact opposite of that recipe. I suppose once upon a time you could have quite rightly, and without a shade of hypocrisy, called it pauper’s smoked fish pie, but what with the price of fish these days...

What I really mean is, it’s simple, Simple in the extreme. Just the most basic flavours lovingly put together to make that most wonderful of comfort foods - a rip-roaring, bubbling fish pie straight from the oven - or at least it would have been if I hadn’t buggered up the stove.

I’m going to check again. A faint sizzle. I’d be better off holding it over a cigarette. There’s one ember left, and the pie could be described as warm at best.

There’s nothing for it, but to put the oven on, and finish it off using lovely Russian gas. But if you’ve got better wood-burning skills than me, and if you’ve ever lit a fire properly, then no doubt you’ll have better luck.

(Serves 2 with seconds)

4 large potatoes
300g smoked haddock
2 medium onions
2 garlic cloves
Salt, Pepper
Large knob of butter
3 level dessertspoons of flour
1 tomato
I tbsp chopped parsley
1 teaspoon mustard

Peel the potatoes, dice, and boil in a saucepan for 20 minutes or so until cooked. Then mash while hot with a bit of the potato water and a splash of milk.

Meanwhile, chop the onions and garlic finely. Melt the butter in a pan and gently fry the onions and garlic for about five minutes until they are soft. Add the flour, and over a low flame, stir for a minute until the mixture has become a paste.

Then add a ladle of the boiling water from the potatoes, mix well, then add another ladle until the mixture has loosened. Then add half a pint or so of milk, a little at a time, stirring all the time, until you have a fairly thick custard consistency.

Add the mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Remember to slightly underseason it with salt as the salt from the smoked haddock will also add flavour. Turn the heat off and add the peas and the broad beans. Then chop up the parsley and add to the sauce.

Skin the haddock fillet, running a sharp filleting knife from the tail to the top, at a slight angle to the board, and slice the fish into one inch or so pieces. Get a pie dish - about 10 inches across or so - and fill with the sauce. Decorate the sauce evenly with the smoked haddock pieces. Then top with the mashed potato. Slice the tomato and decorate the top, then sprinkle with pepper.

Put in the wood stove for an indeterminable amount of time, or cook for 40 minutes in an oven at 180C.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Parsley Soup: An Indubitable Hangover Cure

Don’t ask me why, but I find this soup makes a great hangover cure. Perhaps it’s because I associate it with the time I lived in London and would restore my flagging spirits and woollen head when I eventually rose on a Sunday afternoon, all a quiver with shakes and punched kidneys, and a liver a French farmer would be proud of, a dreadful thirst for milk, and vague recollections of the night before and the night before that, and disturbingly-vivid dreams of being captured by cannibals, and shrunken heads, and then I would wander out, and as the pub singer goes have a beer for breakfast and one more for dessert, and then head down to a pie and mash shop in Peckham, and fill myself with mashed potato.

Not the hideously-rich, sauce-like pomme puree stuff Marco Pierre White and a young, podgy Gordon Ramsay would knock out in those Harveys days, with the steaming potatoes straight into the Robot with a hod’s worth of butter and hot milk, and whizzed and topped up with more milk until it came out like pale custard.

But simple mashed spuds with just a suggestion of margarine and a cup of the river water they were cooked in. And soon, but never quite soon enough, everything would be alright with the world, and then I’d have that awful, kick-in-the-stomach start that tomorrow was Monday and I’d have to be somewhere dreadful like Hastings, with a notebook in my hand, braving the sneers and gob from the fag chuffers outside the magistrates’ court.

But it wasn’t the mashed potatoes and the dreadfully cheap and mean, but strangely acceptable Sweeney Todd pies, but the sauce, or liquor, that accompanied them. Made from, or at least claimed to have been made from, the Thames water that the eels were boiled in, with onions and pepper and bay leaves, and a garden of parsley so that there were more green specks than grey. I used to love mixing that parsley liquor with the mash and then covering the whole lot with a clattering of white pepper.

Anyway, they say food reminds you of hangovers, or vice versa. And I can positively posit that this very simple soup really does the job when it comes to banishing the evil-spirits aftermath of the morning after, when you wake feverishly with the taste of rum and lime juice in your throat, and a mint you know didn’t come from toothpaste, as you wake crumpled on the floor, the wood burner long gone out, and your face as ashen as the mound that remains of last night’s logs, and a Robben Island cold in your bones, your head rattling as though filled with dried acorns, and knowing you forgot to eat again.

And despite the hunger, there is very little you can face but parsley and potatoes, and certainly not last night’s hardly-touched kebab sealed with lamb-fat candle wax as it surely will be if the trails down your jacket are anything to go by, and then realising the pie and mash shop closed long ago, and besides you live in the country now and the nearest is a 39-mile drive.

And as you brave opening your eyes once again, and mentally scan the churlishly-empty pantry, and a dim hope ascends with bitter juice humming of rum, as you realise you’ve just about got enough ingredients to make a steaming pot of parsley soup. And an hour or so later, you’re very glad you did as you metal-scrape the last with bread, your spirits restored and last night’s bottles cleared, and a smugness that you remembered to put the bin out for once after tripping over next door’s cat, the apple missing like an England seamer, and then remember that the next day you won’t have to be in Hastings, but somewhere far, far worse.

(Serves 2 with seconds)

2 medium onions
3 medium potatoes
Knob of butter
3 garlic cloves
One massive bunch of parsley
One litre of boiling water
Salt, pepper
Natural yoghurt
Cayenne pepper

Chop the onions  and add to a saucepan with the butter, and fry over a medium flame, stirring from time to time. Peel and dice the potatoes and add to the pan. Chop the garlic and add to the pan. Fry for a few minutes until the onions have softened.

Wash the parsley well in a tub of water to ensure any grit sinks to the bottom, then slice off the stalks and chop them finely. Add to the pan and fry for another minute or so. Boil a kettle and add about one litre of water to the pan.

Simmer until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a knife - about 15 minutes, depending on the flame and type of potatoes and what altitude you’re cooking at, and other immeasurables.

Chop the rest of the parsley and put in the pot and simmer for a minute, then blitz in a liquidiser or use one of those blender sticks, or just attack the soup with a potato masher. Season to taste with salt and pepper. It goes very well with a dollop of yoghurt and a generous dusting of cayenne pepper, if your stomach can handle it.