Where has the year gone? This weekend I’m back at Penshurst Farmers Market for our annual Game Day with wonderful Kieron and Lucy of Kieron’s Game, cooking up the very best of locally sourced birds and beasts on my portable hob for visitors to try. Last year was so blowy we had to call it a day after an hour or so when the gazebo under which I was cooking threatened to take off but, as the glorious autumn colours in my garden testify, this autumn hasn’t yet seen many gales and, as I write, the forecast for Saturday is cold but clear.
I’m always so pleased at the enthusiastic response from many who come up to our stall as I cook up different dishes, many vowing they really don’t like game but once they try it, are persuaded otherwise. I’ve said it before – the modern version is a world away from the strong, overly ‘gamey’ tough meat that many remember having tried and not enjoyed in the past.
Make local game the meat of choice this month as the season is well under way for birds such as pheasant, partridge and wild duck. Venison is available both farmed and wild in many markets, and makes a healthy choice as most wild game has 5% to 7% fat, compared to red meat such as lamb with 25% or more, depending on the cut. The lower fat content means careful cooking to avoid letting the meat dry out, so the old traditional slow cooking methods in stews and casseroles should be reserved for older game birds. Today’s meat has been very carefully selected and prepared by your game dealer; it’s no longer hung to quite the same stage of ‘gameyness’. Less strong and much more tender, it calls for more modern, time-friendly techniques such as flash-frying, grilling or even home smoking are better suited to lean, tender cuts. Look online for ideas as plenty of chefs are discovering the joys of cooking with game. Amongst the dishes I’ll be preparing will be my own favourite pheasant breast recipe, marinated in thyme, lemon and red chilli then griddled. I’ve just put it into writing as part of a menu for Waitrose Weekend newspaper so pick up a copy next weekend (it may be the one after that?).
What else to look out for this month….
We’ve had a glorious autumn with golden days and enough rain to keep the garden growing but now the clocks have gone back and it’s that time of year again when short days and cold nights mean we all crave a little comfort from the kitchen. Slow-cooked casseroles, homely dishes such as the mashed topped game pie recipe below, rich flavoured roasts and warming puds all fit the bill perfectly. So wrap up, put on some sensible shoes and head out for a trip to your local market for inspiration.
This is the month to get organized and place your orders for Christmas treats to pick up at the December markets so go prepared with your shopping list to ensure you get just what you want. Spread the shopping load in the run up to the festivities next month and stock up on chutneys, mincemeat, jams and jellies along with goodies for the freezer to keep you going during the party season. Pates, Scotch eggs, pies, breads and cakes are made with locally sourced ingredients and will all freeze well, perfect for feeding unexpected guests.
If you want to slow cook for great comfort eating, look out for the cheaper cuts of venison and pair with some fattier pork to keep the dish moist, or choose beef, lamb and pork – shin of beef, belly pork, or lamb neck all cook down to meltingly wonderful mouthfuls of flavour, perfect for colder days. Remember that most stews, pies and casseroles actually improve in flavour from being cooked and stored for a day or two in the fridge before serving. I double up and put some in the freezer to make the most of this keeping benefit!
Colder coastal waters at this time of year make for the highest quality fish and seafood, and as the temperature drops the range available just gets better. At the luxury end of the scale, treat yourself to the very best crab, lobster and oysters. For fish, Dover sole, turbot and halibut are rightly considered the very finest eating by cooks and chefs. But also this month why not try some of the lower cost alternatives as many are at their best. Brill is a real discovery if you haven’t tried it before – a firm white flesh full of clean flavour that only needs simple cooking. Or opt for healthy mackerel and herring, full of valuable Omega 3 fish oils. Shellfish including oysters, scallops and mussels are also all good this month.
Root vegetables are at their tastiest now and perfect for mashes, gratins and roasts – they improve with the cold and you will notice a marked difference in flavour from locally sourced varieties compared to supermarket specimens. Look out for parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, swede and turnips. Try cooking peeled, cubed celeriac with a couple of cloves of garlic in the cooking water then mash with a big dollop of locally produced butter to go with venison or roast beef (or use in the recipe shown here). Main crop potatoes are full of texture and flavour and the varieties available in your own area are worth exploring. Ask the stallholder for advice on which potato to buy – the right one, floury or waxy, will make all the difference to the finished dish. The brassicas really come into their own this month too – kale, spring greens, Brussels sprouts and all kinds of cabbages are wonderful in stir-fries, soups, and hashes or just steamed with grated nutmeg and more butter! And red cabbage cooked with apple, spices and red wine is another seasonal treat to go with rich pork, or maybe a roasted wild duck.
Apples, pears and plums have been in abundance this year, all benefiting from the cool wet spring so try as many local varieties as possible – Bramleys are perfect for using in mincemeat and Christmas pudding so buy them ready for stir-up Sunday at the end of the month. Carry on making chutneys and pickles and remember the eating varieties can also be used in tarts, puddings and cakes.
An everyday favourite, shepherd’s pie, transforms into something even more satisfying than usual when made with local game such as venison – perfect comfort food! And we are all lucky enough to have easy access to the best quality game here in Kent by simply visiting the local farmers’ market. I’ve made it with venison mince here with some pork to stop the mixture being too dry but you can use wild boar, rabbit or pigeon or a mixture. You can also make it with leftovers from a roast venison joint but just cook the base for 10 – 15 minutes
Serves 4 – 6/Prep 20 minutes/Cook 1 hour
2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
500g venison mince
250g minced pork
1 – 2 tsp Ras al Hanout spice
1 – 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp redcurrant jelly
4 tbsp chopped flat-leafed parsley
500ml good beef or game stock
500g floury potatoes such as King Edward, peeled and cubed
1 large swede, peeled and cubed
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced
30 – 50g butter (I like my mash buttery so add to your taste)
50g strong cheddar-style cheese (I like to use Winterdale Shaw), grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/fan oven 180C/Gas mark 6. Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan or sauté pan and cook the onion and carrot for 3 minutes until softened. Add the minced venison and pork and break up with a fork. Sprinkle with the Ras al Hanout and fry for a few minutes until lightly browned.
2 Stir in the Worcestershire sauce, redcurrant jelly and chopped parsley. Add the stock and seasoning and bring to the boil. Simmer half covered for 25 – 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the liquid is reduced.
3 While the mince is cooking, place the potatoes, swede and parsnip in a pan with enough cold water to just cover. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes until tender. Drain the vegetables thoroughly, return to the pan and mash until smooth. Add the milk and the butter to the pan and beat into the mash. Season well and spoon over the top of the mince mixture. Rough up the surface with a fork then scatter with the cheese. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes until the top is golden and bubbling. Serve with peas or steamed broccoli.