The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The eternal quest for the best Hot Chocolate!

One of the annual traditions in our household is putting up the Christmas decorations on the first weekend in December – this is accompanied by lots of steaming hot chocolate and, of course, homemade gingerbread biscuits.

I fully admit that I am a bit of a Hot Chocolate perfectionist. So often, when I order the ‘Special Hot Chocolate’ on a menu I find myself disappointed – it’s always either not hot enough, not thick enough, not creamy enough or the worst crime, just not chocolaty enough!

This has led to a multitude of experiments at home, trying everything from Spanish recipes, to cocoa powder based recipes with cream and even butter, custard based recipes and, of course, all the brands available at both the supermarkets and delis.

I finally concluded that Jersey milk and real chocolate makes the best and simplest Hot Chocolate – perhaps with the addition of a glug of Baileys or rum for the grown-ups, and there are no end of small additions to make my basic Hot Chocolate extremely festive and child friendly. Winter without Hot Chocolate is like Christmas without Santa, and when the colder weather comes, there’s nothing more satisfying than making a real ritual out of its preparation.

Recipe:

Per Person:

50g of good chocolate (dark or milk or even white)

150ml jersey milk

I make mine in a Pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, combing the ingredients with a small whisk, never allowing the bowl to come into contact with the water. This creates the most indulgent drink, patience is the key here, slow and steady wins the chocolate race.

This is a very rich drink so serve in small cups with your choice from the following toppings and additions:

Family Friendly

Whipped cream and grated chocolate

A couple of drops of peppermint extract, whipped cream and a little crushed stripy candy cane

1/4 tsp cinnamon per serving

1/4 tsp ginger per serving

A couple of drops almond extract, cream and toasted almonds

Whipped cream and crushed smarties

marshmallows, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce

Whipped cream and drizzle of warmed salted caramel sauce

Vanilla extract and a grating of nutmeg

Adults Only

A tablespoon of your choice of liqueur per serving, some of my favourites include:

Tia Maria, whipped cream and crushed coffee beans is delicious

Cointreau, cream and grated Terry’s Chocolate Orange

Baileys, whipped cream and chocolate flake

Whisky and a sprinkle of ginger

Amaretto, cream and crushed Amaretti biscuits


The Pheasant Philosophises in Gascony: Market Musings

PoudenasAlmost twenty-five years ago, my parents bought a large, honey coloured stone village house on the borders of three French departments; the Lot-et-Garonne, The Gers and The Landes. Three departments with extremely different culinary influences yet all exceptional in their own way.My first ever piece of food writing was for my GCSE English coursework portfolio. I wrote about French Markets, they enthralled me with their colours, smells, tastes and vibrancy. I had always enjoyed writing but when I wrote about food and drink it was like coming home. Every holiday I made it my business to learn everything I could about the local French food – I tried it all and discovered so much.

So, twenty-years later, what’s changed in rural France? 

The village hasn’t, the markets haven’t – although there has been a wonderful resurgence in artisanal beer which has proved very popular with my other half. The pace of life is still the same…a few more shops open on Monday than used to, and one or two of the supermarkets are opening on Sunday mornings. There have been small injections of more contemporary culture – only this morning I spotted a designer coffee stall offering lattes and syrup-garnished cappuccinos; but in general, my little part of South-West France has remained the same and that is quite wonderful. 

I think the British could learn a lot from the French attitude towards food – they are proud of their regional dishes, simple as some are, and in Britain we too have a great deal to celebrate, culinarily. Whilst France is synonymous with fine dining, rural France indulges differently – not in the most elegant and visually perfect – but in the freshest and most nutritious, children are fed well from an early age, their palates are educated, they’ll often choose salad and fruit over some fake sugary concoction. Unlike the UK, France is not at the height of an obesity crisis, although twenty years ago it was rare to see any obesity in the county, today it is about – something which has fallen in line with the expansion of ready meals and highly processed products arriving in the great, overly lit hypermarkets which are sadly now ever present. 

Inherently though, there is a good nutritional underpinning and food is celebrated. Families gather together to share a meal, the summer evenings offer nocturnal markets showcasing the very best the region has to offer, there are feasts dedicated to individual dishes – the Gascon Garbure for example – which is a wonderful hotchpotch of meats boiled with vegetables and sometimes white beans, then served with great reverence – I suppose it’s a little like our Welsh Cawl, that ever boiling stock pot which had been part of Welsh culture for centuries. 

This morning I visited one of my favourite local markets, about 30 minutes drive away. The town of Eauze, in the Gers, is famed for its Roman remains and the market which snakes through the streets on a Thursday morning is one of those places that tourists hope to happen to happen upon to tell friends about at home. Divided into two halves, one for clothing, household goods, gifts, jewellery and the like and the other – my favourite – is in the lower square under the shadow of the trees and is, of course, the food market.

Packed into a relatively small space are dozens of traders – some selling a few vegetables or eggs from their gardens, some on a much grander scale. It’s like Pandora’s box, around each corner is something delicious waiting to be discovered. 

Today, it being mid June, I picked up some delicious local strawberries, absolutely on the point of perfection (so perfect in fact that they had to be eaten rather quickly after lunch), deep, green courgettes with their smooth, tactile skin, and deep, vibrant red cherries from the Gers. There were the first of the season’s melons – still an expensive treat until July when they fill the markets in abundance with that sweet smell which begs you to buy them. There were haricots blancs, haricot vert – the vendor snapping the fine beans to display their crisp freshness. A little further on were organic cheeses; goats, cows and sheep, wrapped in waxed paper and proudly displaying their ‘Bio’ credentials. Another stall was packed with glistening barrels of olives, all varieties and flavours – beside which were drums of preserved fruit from the sweet local prunes of Agen to the candid pineapples of the exotic West Indies, and littles packets of spices from across the globe. 

What is wonderful about France, is the opportunity to regularly buy exactly the amount you need. Markets are held daily somewhere in the area, most towns are no more than a 30 minute drive apart and there is no shame in buying three tomatoes, 100g of olives or a handful of cherries. There is certainly less waste, which, in this age of over excess and a throwaway economy, is surely welcome. 

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Autumn Recipes: A Roast Golden Beetroot Mezze, with Honey and Pomegranate #nationalhoneyweek

Roast Golden Beetroot Mezze with Honey and Pomegranate IMG_0586

We are now firmly in Autumn’s grip and what’s left of the leaves are falling fast. One of the most vibrant and plentiful winter vegetables in the Beet, be it the rich red of the classic Beetroot or their bright, vibrant orange and yellow cousins, far less familiar but equally as delicious. Roasted, cooled and marinated in a honey (well it is National Honey Week) and pomegranate dressing, this is delicious mixed with couscous and a sprinkling of Ras al Hanout for an autumnal, Moroccan inspired side to grilled meat or fish, or simply as a Mezze with some olives, hummus and flatbreads for a light lunch or supper. For a greater kick, I add a little Harissa paste to the olive oil before drizzling over the raw beets.

This  keep well in the fridge for up to a week and, besides the beetroot, all the ingredients are store cupboard friendly.

finalbeet


Ingredients

Serves 4 – 6

3 medium Golden Beetroot

1 tablespoon of good Olive Oil

1 tsp Harissa (optional)

A good pinch of sea salt

Black Pepper

For the dressing

4 tablespoons of good olive oil

1.5 tablespoons of tarragon or white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon of runny honey

4 teaspoons of  Pomegranate Molasses (try here)

salt and pepper to taste

Pinch of Ras-al-Hanout spice blend (to taste)

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees c (or 160 degrees c fan)

Cut the Beets in half and place, face up on a non-stick baking sheet

Mix the Harissa (if using) with the Olive Oil and drizzle over the beets. Season generously.

Roast the Beets until golden brown and tender when pressed with a skewer, mine took about an hour but anything between 45 minutes and 2 hours is quite normal – dependant on size – but do make sure you check every twenty minutes to or so to turn and prevent burning

When they are cooked, cool and once just warm, peel off the outer skin

Cut into slices about 4mm thick

To make the dressing whisk all the ingredients together until you have a salad dressing style emulsion

Pour over the warm Beets

Refrigerate for at least three hours to allow the Beets to soak up the marinade

Serve with a a scattering of fresh parsley and a drizzle of Pomegranate Molasses


In praise of Squash

  
The squash family are very much in season at the moment; whether it be the familiar Butternut, the inelegant Onion Squash, the Turk’s Turban or the versatile Spaghetti Squash – and those are just a few – squash is both nutritious and surprisingly tasty and for those low-carb devotees contains only 8g per 100g. 

   
  Gloucestershire grown Squash from www.overfarmmarket.co.uk

 
Each variety is very different in taste, and there are so many ways to enjoy them. Classically, a good first dip into the world of the Squash is with a soup. Butternut Squash soup makes a lovely light lunch choice – and is surprisingly sustaining.

Autumn Spiced Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 6-8

Peel and dice one 1kg Butternut squash, making sure to scoop out the seeds

Fry one large onion  in 30g unsalted butter until the onion becomes translucent 

Add one small diced chilli, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp turmeric and stir in the butternut squash 

Make up 1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock (I use the gel pots) as directed and pour over the vegetables

Cover and reduce the heat, cooking for about 30minutes until the squash is very soft

Remove from the heat and blend with a stick blender or blender

Season to taste – if the soup is a little thick add a little more stock, if it is too thin reduce over a medium heat 

Serve sprinkled with some freshly chopped coriander and finely diced chilli – some wholemeal Indian flatbread eats very well with this soup 

Today, for lunch, I had a bit of a leftovers moment. I roasted some chunks of Onion squash, with the skin left on, with olive oil and a little salt and pepper, once they began to soften I added chunks of ripe fig and a drizzle of local honey. Serving as I salad, I drizzled with the caramelised figgy honey juice and topped with some small pieces of Bleu d’Affinois – a very mild French blue-rinded cheese (had I had some Welsh blue Perl Las www.cawscenarth.co.uk it could have been even more local). This melted beautifully in the soft buttery squash whilst the fig lifted the flavour and offered an autumnal decadence to the very simple dish.