April is always one of our best months at the pub the advent of spring brings good cheer (as long as it isnt raining), and people are freer with their wallets than in winter. It is always a bit tricky to know what to put on the menu. We need a balance between light, summery food and something with a bit of oomph, so I look at whats available, then create a few dishes from such provender.
Today I am going to start our springtime gastronomic journey with woodpigeon. I love the birds they are just so available. Someone is always out shooting them and they are often on sale at the butchers. This dish is perfect for a romantic picnic or a rustic bread-and-wine lunch. It is old-school pigeon pâté, quite fine in texture and utterly delicious. Its an easy one (which makes it a good one in my book), and something that can be knocked up in a jiffy.
To follow, I am going to do a ravioli of pheasant. What? I hear you cry, In April? However, it is now legal for chefs to sell game outside the season, so long as the ingredient was shot within it, and I really want folks to start taking advantage of this. I love this dish, which uses home-made pasta. Once you have mastered the knack of making pasta, this is really straightforward. It does, however, require a pasta
machine. These are a great investment and cost only about £25.
Finally, I am cooking a real sunshine dish, but one with a lot of body, using some excellent free-range pork. This is a confit belly of rare-breed pork (I use saddleback), cooked for hours in fragrant duck fat, then roasted to juicy, unctuous perfection and served with crackling, butter beans and cavolo nero, a kind of Italian black cabbage. The pork needs to be done the day before, which means it is a godsend for a dinner-party. Once the confit pork is made it will keep for up to 10 days in the fridge and only take 15 minutes to finish off. Dont be put off by the quantity of duck fat involved you can use it three or four times.
Butter to fry with
10 pigeon breasts
12 fresh sage leaves, chopped
200g (7oz) chicken livers
A splash of sherry vinegar
1 tbsp cognac
Salt and pepper
200g (7oz) melted butter
100ml (4fl oz) double cream
Melted butter for topping
Heat the butter in a pan until it foams. Throw in the pigeon breasts with the sage, allowing them to cook gently for about two minutes per side, then take them out to rest. Place the chicken livers in the pan and cook for three minutes, adding more butter if necessary.
Now pour the sherry vinegar and cognac into the pan. Season. Chop the pigeon breasts up a little and pour the lot into a food processor. Whizz until the mix is really fine, then add the melted butter in a steady stream (if it looks like it is going to split, stop).
Now pour in the cream and stop whizzing. Taste for seasoning and pour into a serving dish. Cover with more melted butter and chill for a day. Serve with toast and home-made piccalilli.
50g (2oz) butter
8 de-boned pheasant thighs and 2 breasts
Salt and pepper
100g (4oz) smoked bacon lardons
2 large shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic
1 sprig thyme
½ pint cider
4 tbsp double cream
2 handfuls fresh parmesan, grated
For the pasta
500g (1lb) 00 flour
A large pinch of salt
5 free range eggs
1 extra egg yolk
Extra flour for kneading and dusting a tray
Water for brushing
A pan of salted water
First, make the filling. In a heavy pan melt the butter and bring it to foaming stage. Add the pheasant thighs and breasts and season. Cook for a minute on each side, then add the bacon, shallots, garlic and thyme. Cook for a further minute, then add the cider.
Pop the pan in the oven and cook at 400ºF/200ºC/Gas Mark 6 for six minutes. Allow to rest for a minute, then tip the contents of the pan into a Magimix and blitz it on pulse until coarse. Place the mixture into a bowl and add the egg, cream and parmesan. Season to taste. Pop this filling in the fridge to rest (it will keep for four days, and freezes well).
Now start on the pasta. Pour the flour into a big bowl and mix in the salt. Make a well in the middle and tip the eggs in. Work the flour in by using your hand as a whisk. When you have a crumbly mess, tip the mixture on to a cold surface and work it together. Add a bit of flour now and then if you need to. Knead, stretch and pummel until you have a fairly firm dough. Cut it into four and flatten out each piece. Put the dough through the pasta machine on its widest setting, then fold it in half and put it through again. Do this eight times until it is really elastic. Now gradually make it thinner by lowering the machines setting each time. For ravioli you want two sheets, about 4in wide and 2ft long.
Lay the sheets on a floured surface and retrieve your filling. Place a small ball of the meat mix every 3in along the sheet. Brush water around and about each one, then lay a slightly wider sheet on top. Cut between the pieces, then squish each one down to remove the air from the ravioli and to seal it. Take a pastry cutter and cut around each one. As they are done, lay them on a well-floured tray. To cook, plunge them into boiling salted water for four to five minutes until the pasta shrink-wraps over the filling.
I like to serve these on leek strips with chanterelle mushrooms and rosemary butter.
Pork belly with cavolo nero and butter beans
1 belly of free-range pork, de-boned
2 litres (3½ pints) duck fat
2 bulbs garlic
4 tins butter beans
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1.2 litres (2 pints) cider
200ml (7fl oz) reduced beef stock
2 heads cavolo nero (or savoy cabbage)
Olive oil/butter for cavolo nero
Salt and pepper for seasoning cavolo nero
Cut the thin, fatty end off the belly, leaving a rectangle that will fit in a roasting tin. Place the meat skin-side up in the tin, then spoon the fat over it. Add the garlic bulbs, each cut in half across, and pop in the oven at 275ºF/140ºC/Gas Mark 1. After 10 minutes the fat will have melted so check that the belly is covered if not, add more fat. Cook for four hours, then remove the pork from the fat. Place it in a roasting tray, press with weighted trays until cool, then refrigerate.
When you are ready to serve, cut the belly into neat three-inch squares, sprinkle each with sea salt and pop in a 400ºF/200ºC/Gas Mark 6 oven for 15 minutes. While they are cooking, rinse the butter beans and toss them in a pan with a splash of good olive oil, a handful of parsley and a squeeze of lemon.
For a sauce, reduce the cider by nine tenths in a big pan, then add the beef stock and reduce again by a half.
Chop the cavolo nero into biggish pieces and blanch in boiling water for six minutes. Remove, squeeze out the water and toss with some olive oil or butter and seasoning.
To serve, place butter beans on the middle of the plate and top with cavolo nero. Slice the belly and lay on top of the vegetables, then spoon the sauce over.
Next month: a shellfish bonanza.