Woodcock are a highly-prized game bird. Despite this, I picked one up at Moseley Market for £7 after a tip-off from Lap, a fellow gastronaut. They are delicious – with deeply-flavoured, dense, breast meat ideally served very rare. But they are less rich and gamey than grouse. Apparently woodcock defecate before flying – this means they do not spoil as quickly from the inside and do not need plucking before cooking. The innards are then traditionally served on toast. Whoever prepared this woodcock didn’t get the memo as it’s cavity was sadly void. Another woodcock treat is to split open the skull and eat the brains which are delicious. Unfortunately my woodcock had taken a shell in the back of the head – presumably by some kind of Sopranos watching psycho farmer. Luckily I had some duck liver and heart left over from Sunday’s lunch, so I could approximate the dish – the offal was treated to a glug of oloroso and served on toast.
Well, I guess as the 21st century rolls on we will all be bitten by Wikipedia eventually. Miraculously, I only just had my first experience. Luckily it wasn’t fatal.
In trying to figure out why my recent attempts at pastrami and salt beef yielded not an appetising pink, but rather a grey-coloured meat, I focused my attention on the recipe I was following which calls for 30g of Prague Powder #1 (aka “pink curing salt”).
I had made my own Prague Powder #1 using the proportions suggested by the Wikipedia page on curing salt. This states PP#1 is 93.75% table salt and 6.25% sodium nitrite OR sodium nitrate.
So 30g of PP1 would contain just 1.825g of nitrate or nitrite.
Didn’t seem like a lot. Perhaps that was the problem?
Yes, indeed I checked some other recipes and saw that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, for example, suggests 50g of saltpetre. Saltpetre can be sodium or potassium nitrate, and I had always understood they were interchangeable in recipes. I figured that would be 800g of PP#1! Quite a discrepancy.
So I rather confusedly asked Tim Hayward who wrote the original recipe if he could figure out why things weren’t working out. It eventually became clear from our discussion and by reference to Google Books, that sodium nitrate is not, and never has been a component of PP#1.
The red colour in meat is formed when nitric oxide reacts with myoglobin. This is a multi-step process. Sodium nitrate (NaNO3) must be reduced to nitrite (NaNO2), a step dependent on bacteria. The resulting nitrite is reduced further to nitrous acid which goes on to form nitric oxide. This explains why you need much more sodium nitrate than you do sodium nitrite (presumably the reaction is slow, particularly with bacteria not wanting to grow in the acutely saline environment of a brine).
In this case, my mistake was fairly benign – sodium nitrate is much less potent than sodium nitrite and the end-result is simply grey meat. But it’s certainly made me think about other potential disasters which might result from an over-reliance on Wikipedia.
How did the mistake on Wikipedia happen?
It’s really not clear from the text. Wikipedia quotes two references for its claim:
The first is a broken link to a file entitled “USA Dry curing salt composition for meat products 2828212” on a server which doesn’t seem to be associated with any reputable food standards authority. Googling is no help tracking this article down.
The second reference is an article which doesn’t even mention prague powder #1 from the Jamaican Gleaner. The Gleaner was, incidentally, Bond and Fleming’s preferred Caribbean newspaper.
Who made the original edit?
Anyway, lesson well and truly learnt. Sodium nitrate is not the same as sodium nitrite, and sodium nitrate is not a constituent of PP#1. And don’t get your chemistry lessons off Wikipedia, or at least, not without consulting an independent reference.
Thanks Tim Hayward for the help! Next time I’ll just buy the pre-made cure from sausagemaking.org.
And I guess I should update the Wikipedia page, right?
Here’s another lovely dish for winter; Jansson’s temptation. Most recipes use anchovies, although according to Wikipedia sprats are traditional. I watched an episode of Hugh where he used tinned sardines instead. In the spirit of experimentation I’ve modified the recipe further. Using smoked pilchards (I like the tins from the Pilchard Works) adds extra depth to the final dish. I also used a mixture of celeriac as well as potatoes, this seems to work well. Panko breadcrumbs on top make it lovely and crunchy. You can probably figure out the recipe from the pictures, otherwise you can follow Simon Hopkinson’s.
Last weekend I picked up a beautiful looking Crown Prince squash at Harborne Market from Akiki Organics that I wasn’t sure what to do with.
Flicking through Simon Hopkinson’s excellent book the Vegetarian Option I found an interesting looking recipe for Pumpkin Paul Bocuse, inspired by a recipe by the legendary Lyon-based French chef.
It couldn’t be simpler – infuse double cream with a garlic clove, season. Slice the top off the squash, remove the seeds and fibrous inside and strain the cream into the cavity. Add a couple of handfuls of Gruyere (the cave-aged stuff Waitrose sell is lovely). Stir it, replace the lid and cook in a hot oven until the pumpkin flesh has gone nice and soft.
To serve, bring the whole thing to the table and scoop the soft flesh into the thick creamy mixture before spooning into bowls.
Very, very good. I served a main course afterwards but it was hardly necessary.
Paul Bocuse is 84.
I’m going back to my roots, so that means salt beef, pastrami, pickles, rye bread, all that good shit. I’ll keep a little diary of my home-curing experiments here.
Attempt #1: Mainly inspired by Tim Hayward’s recent recipe. 2.5kg flat brisket from Jack O’Shea, divided in half. Brine: 4l water, 400g fine table salt, 150g white sugar, 30g prague powder #1, 20g pickling spice (Schwartz), 5g juniper berries, 3 bay leaves. NO garlic. 75g honey. 5 days in fridge. Briefly rinsed. Coated with coarsely ground black peppercorns and coriander seed. An unsupervised smoking over soaked maple chips on the BBQ using 1 bag of coals. When I got back home the internal temperature was 70 degrees (may have gotten hotter). Steamed at 120 degrees for 4 hours in oven using improvised foil steamer but did not work well – became dry, I suspect steam was not circulating properly and was being cooked by dry heat instead. In the end, rescued by steaming over stove in cast iron pan for several more hours. End-result: good flavour, good saltiness, nice understated smoke flavour from the maple – but could be smokier. Texture a little dry. More grey than pink. Here’s a picture of the piece I gave to Tom Baker.
Next time: more prague powder, add garlic to cure, smoke for longer (but cooler) and steam correctly. Perhaps tenderise the meat, and use a fattier cut?
This was eaten, correctly, with Tom Baker’s rye bread, 40% rye – with caraway seeds and some Taylor’s english mustard.
Next up, we do pastrami again, and make heimishe pickles!
The Brass Rail, Selfridges: Their mixed platter is virtually a lunch in itself …