Saturday, 16 February 2013

Friction Burns

I am stuck. Not from the snow, although I have seen snow. Thick flurries. Slow flurries (thankfully no McFlurries). Flurries swirling in such dizzying fashion that looking out at them through the window I have wondered if I was actually in a snow dome and waiting for a giant hand to shake it some more. I have seen rain, sheets of water bouncing off the path, Scotch mist hanging in the air, swirling with the wind. Mud, floods and ice. Coldness, so penetrating, so bitter I am wrapped in a big jumper over several layers wanting to say something in Danish: Jeg er sulten! Jeg vil lave mad til alle! (Or something like that).

Either way, I am stuck, unable to move as I am avoiding spending any money. There is a certain friction between my bank manager and me that if we were connected by crocodile clips I could summon enough energy to get warm. So I am in the kitchen hugging an old gas oven for heat and finding there is nothing to do. Nothing. Grease prints of my nose, lips and finger tips on the window pane are testament to that.

The poet Burns brings an upside to all this bleakness. As an ‘Anglo Angus’ (someone who dons a plaid skirt and goes commando once a year) I feel I should do something for Burn’s Night. I have game for a stew in the freezer (I bought it earlier!) but want to do something different to accompany the meat, something traditional but with a slightly Gothick twist that is thrifty and reflects my circumstances.

With the cold, warming and filling food, like oats, comes to mind, but a gruel-like ‘mash’ does not sound appealing. And yet... (rubbing chin with fingerless gloves) I have always wanted to see just how far I could go with the savoury side of oats, for example, the classic dish of herring rolled in oats. Nigel Slater in his OFM column shows how diverse they can be, with oat dumplings and venison in port (it must be the North London air that our hands reach out for the same ingredients... I bet his flat is warmer!) My decision made, I will do a variation on a similar theme.

A slow cooked meaty venison; iron rich gamey flavours. And to serve with it? A stock based porridge of oats, a little Parmesan cheese, some chilli flakes to give it a thistle like prickle.


500g Diced Venison
100g Pancetta cubes
1 Onion diced
1 Carrot cubed
1 Celery stick diced
2 Garlic cloves crushed
500ml Stock
500ml Red wine
1Tbsp Tomato puree
2Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
Small handful of Juniper berries pressed with the back of a knife
1 Rosemary sprig, good size

150g Porridge oats
450ml Chicken or Vegetable Stock
A handful of grated Parmesan to taste
1/2tsp Chilli flakes
Flat leaf Parsley chopped for garnish


Put the oven on to 130C, 250F, gas 1. Heat a frying pan, fry the carrots a little first before adding the onion and celery. Place them in the casserole. Next fry the pancetta cubes until the fat is rendered down, remove to the casserole. Now season the venison lightly, sear in the hot frying pan until browned on each side. Keep to small amounts, four to five pieces at a time, to prevent sweating. Deglaze the pan with a splash of the wine, pour into the casserole, add the remaining liquids, the balsamic and stir in the tomato puree. Throw in the berries, the rosemary sprig and the garlic, put the lid on and place in the oven to braise slowly for a couple of hours, or until the meat breaks easily when you test it with a knife.

When the meat is cooked, strain the liquid into a pan and return the meat and vegetables to the casserole to keep warm. Turn the heat up and reduce the liquid until the flavour is good and it is a cream like consistency (you may need to slake some corn flour into the sauce if the flavour is ready before the sauce is thickened). When you are happy with the sauce, pour it into the casserole.

Meanwhile, melt some butter in a pan and pour in the oats. Once they start to absorb the butter, add the chilli flakes and pour in the stock (this can be done while the sauce of the venison is reducing). Stir constantly, making sure that there is enough liquid. When it is just ready (only a few minutes) throw in the grated Parmesan, enough to give it flavour but not so much that there is no other flavour (a small handful). You could add a tablespoon of double cream at the last minute to enrich this further, making it less ‘Miserables’ and more a marveille.

The result?

Moistened fibrous meat should break apart with the gentle persuasion of the fork, and it does, just; a saline, marmite-y hit comes from the reduction of the stock based sauce and red wine; in contrast, a hint of sweetness from tomato puree and balsamic vinegar, and, herbs; well, to get a stew that brings back memories of childhood, with joyously heady aromas that hit your nose the moment you walk into the kitchen, the home, you needed to throw in juniper berries and rosemary didn’t you?... oh yes, and then the oats.

A mouthful of glutenous, gruely, savoury sensation, a slight prickle from the chilli, and hints of husk that define it as not being a ‘mash’ or puree. It is hearty. Heartier than the braised venison itself in the warming, internally glowing manner (a true “Not-the-nine-o’clock-news-Ready-Brek- Windscale” sense. Does anyone remember that? Me neither!) Rich and stuffing enough to eat by itself, but sadly its visual appeal would make Anne Hathaway balk! (Almost beige wallpaper paste to look at, I will have to work on how it can best be presented).
My mouth is filled with a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures, food aimed at seeing off the cold weather with a thermal hot water bottle longevity; a lyrical mix of gastronomic metaphors that potentially do credit to the The Bard race through my mind, as I pace around the flat like a lady in labour, holding my well filled, round and slightly aching stomach (yes, it was filling). The cold snap continues but so warmed up with this ‘thermogruel’ am I, I could book a beach holiday in Solway Firth (not according to my bank manager though).