A Festive Cook-along to celebrate the closing of 2020

2020 was a year which, for many of us, was curate’s egg – good in parts. Once reached, November proved to be as gloomy as ever. The second lockdown didn’t have the novelty of the first, or the weather to go with it. Minds were gloomy, as were skies. Days were dark, and the vaccine seemed a long way off.

Many fought the blues with reds and golds – lights, baubles, and tinsel – whole streeets ablaze. But in Britain at least Christmas cheer was tempered by endless Brexit negotiations and then by the discovery of a new, more contagious Covid variation.

What to do? At the end of the first lockdown we organised a Saucy Dressings cook-a-long which brought a geographically scattered group together and really did raise the spirits.

So we thought we’d do it again.

Matthew Pennington and Mark McCabe

Tried and Supplied founder, Domini Hogg, suggested Matthew Pennington to run the session. “He’s a real character…. and he’s got a creative, innovative attitude.”

Mathew and his younger brother, Iain, founded The Ethicurean Project twelve years ago. Their unusual restaurant is nestled in a Mendip Victorian orchard and kitchen garden – where they are enthusiastically working on ways to build soil health. During Covid they’ve launched a very British Vermouth, opened a pop up on John Lewis’ Garden Society rooftop and gone on to feature alongside chef Michel Roux Jnr on Channel 4’s Hidden Restaurants.

So they’ve been busy. But by some miracle over this period they have also managed to introduce ‘Living Wage Employment’ for their team and to remove the dated practice of tipping by adding service charge for their guests.

The brothers credit the success of their Somerset-based restaurant on head chef, Mark McCabe. Mark is an ambassador for The Burnt Chef Project – a campaign committed to burning away the stigma and shame associated with mental health for hospitality professionals.

Mark is also keen on supporting mental health through food fermentation and gut health.

Both Matthew and Mark are passionate about the mega-science of fungi and mycology.

How would all this filter through what we were aiming to produce?

Matthew advised “We have two recipes that we will make that’ll be ready for the festivities a few days later; a cocktail for us to enjoy while we cook, and two vegetable dishes, one of squash and the other for hispi cabbage. I guess with a loaf of bread to hand you should have enough to eat on the night.” He adds, “much of what we teach are technique-led recipes that allow for seasonal variation and entirely different changes in style. Once the classmates have the method they’ll have carte blanche to experiment and create, change ingredients to their preference.” 

The Saucy Dressings’ team hates restraint – they thought that sounded wonderful! And if the last year has taught anybody anything, it’s how to enjoy experimenting and being creative with what is to hand.

The menu

On the night:

  • Cocktail: Blackberry, bourbon and sage Collins.
  • Whole roasted squash with mushroom and vinegar butter
  • Whole spring greens with hazelnut dukkah

Ready for Christmas:

  • Pear and Thyme Shrub.
  • Spiced Winter Vegetable Ferment: Brine Method

The preparations and the substitutions

We sent short biographical details of all the participants to Matthew and Mark.

They sent all of us, ‘vegetable engineers’ (VEs) as they called us, a shopping list of ingredients together with some instructions for about half an hour of preparation which we were told would be useful to have got done prior to the session.

A lot of substitutions were made:

  • We couldn’t find the bourbon in our household, so we substituted whisky
  • A number of VEs weren’t keen on butternut squash – cauliflower was substituted, and I’m not sure if that wasn’t better… it was wonderful – mostly due to the mushroom and vinegar butter.
  • Some people didn’t like pear – we substituted apple, but you can make a shrub out of any fruit – Matthew suggested quince or frozen plum
  • Hardly anyone could find aniseed, we substituted with fennel seeds

One VE reported:

“I am afraid I wasn’t as prepared as last time.  Various crises at work have meant too many long hours, and the local shops let us down, no celeriac, no squash, no hazelnuts (no hazelnuts! extraordinary).”

This sort of experience was fairly typical of all of us.

Which all went to prove that Matthew was right, he and Mark were teaching more of a method that handing out rigidly-to-be-followed recipes.

Finally, Matthew requested, “Can I suggest everyone has their oven set to 210ºC just prior to joining and that one jug of boiled and cooled water is set aside?”

importance of preparation
It’s a good idea to get everything ready beforehand.

The role of the cocktail

We started the session at 4.00 pm at the end of the pre-Christmas week. Most participants had had a frantic week (one VE had moved house just two days before), and were a little wary of the shrub and fermented vegetables. As one VE commented:

“Definitely out of my comfort zone with scrubs and ferments so all fascinating to learn.”

Thus starting the session with a cocktail (which turned out to be quite hefty) was a stroke of genius. As another, by this time slightly unstable, VE commented:

“That was just wonderful!! I drank all four portions of the booze, utterly delicious.. What stars they were, and they made it all seem relatively easy.”

This Collins is about as far removed from the classic Tom Collins (made from gin, lemon juice, sugar and soda water – follow this link for a post on this) as you can get. What the two have in common is fruit (blackberries), a spirit (bourbon), and sugar. Matthew added sage as a rather successful twist.

Matthew told us that you could substitute the sparkling water for ginger beer, and one VE experimented with this, reporting that their drink went down without too much trouble.

The SD team went the most off the rails with the cocktail: they had to substitute the bourbon for whisky; they made the drink in glasses which were too small – so very little water (shame!); and they were a bit too disorganised and over-enthusiastic, so although they made the sugar syrup, they forgot to drop it in. Their cocktail was effectively whisky and crushed fresh blackberries… which they reported was ‘not bad at all’.

blackberry bourbon cocktail
The VE making this version used the more classic gin.

The roast, whole vegetable with mushroom and vinegar butter

Of the whole menu it was the mushroom and vinegar butter sauce which clocked up the most approval.

Matthew explained that it’s often a good idea to roast large vegetables whole, or simply cut in two. His original suggestion was to use butternut squash (for a great version of this method with this vegetable follow this link), but the chief taster is not a fan of butternut squash so we substituted, very successfully, with cauliflower (for how to roast whole cauliflower, see brilliant, baked brains).

Whole cauliflower, quartered, with mushroom sauce
Whole cauliflower, quartered, with mushroom sauce

The mushroom and vinegar butter sauce

The pièce de resistance of the whole session was unanimously agreed to be the mushroom and vinegar butter sauce, demonstrated by Mark. As one VE commented:

“Favourite taste was the mushroom sauce with the squash- utterly delicious and vital technique to know about. Need to order rather a lot more butter!”

There are a lot of mushrooms remaining once the sauce is made and it seems a shame to throw them out. One VE commented that she

“added the boiled mushrooms used for the sauce and reheated them in some garlic butter.” Then she served them with duck breasts and the hispi cabbage.

making the mushroom vinegar butter sauce
Making the mushroom vinegar butter sauce

The hispi cabbage with dukkah

Also, nearly as popular, was the hispi cabbage with dukkah.

The hispi, or sweetheart cabbage was simply cut in half, with the cut halves coated in sesame oil, and then roasted, cut side down at 210°C for about half an hour.

For more about hispi cabbage, follow this link; and the recipe for Matthew’s dukkah, which was the best ever, is available here.

hispi cabbage
hispi cabbage
Hispi cabbage with dukkah

The pear (or apple) and thyme shrub

Matthew describes this as ‘an apple cider vinegar-based sparkling drink, akin to a squash with more savoury tones lengthened with sparkling water. It has a long shelf-life.’

The chief taster isn’t a fan of pears, so we substituted apples… but Matthew suggested also quince or frozen plum could also work well.

One VE had had some experience of a shrub, telling us, “In the bar of a local hostelry they have a ginger shrub, it is quite alcoholic, 26%, rather like Stone’s ginger wine, but a bit lighter in flavour.

Most of us, however, were shrub virgins. One of us looked up to see the origins and definition, in their trusty (paper) OED.

definition of a shrub
definition of a shrub – ‘slightly’ acidic cordial – you bet!

A comment from one VE was, “I have added vinegar to the shrub which looks very clear and getting more liquid by the day.  I have teetotallers appearing on Boxing day and am going to test it on them.”

apple shrub recipe
apple shrub recipe

Things to do with apple shrub

You can use apple shrub wherever you might use cider vinegar; or where you want to incorporate a strong sense of ‘apple’.

  • use it to make a cocktail – one part shrub: one part elderflower cordial: one part gin
  • use it as you would a cordial – dilute in water to make a refreshing drink
  • use it in a sauce for vegetables: one tablespoon of crème fraîche: one tablespoon of thick creamy yoghurt: one teaspoon of apple shrub
  • for four people, in a wok or deep frying pan fry an onion and a thinly sliced fennel bulb (reserve fronds for garnish) in sesame oil. Once translucent, add half a shredded Savoy cabbage and some crushed caraway seeds. Season with celery salt and Urfa pepper flakes. Add a dash of apple shrub.
  • use it to make a dressing for a blue cheese and walnut salad
  • a considered slurp is perfect with Ottolenghi’s cavolo nero with chorizo, preserved lemon and sour cream
  • try a dash of it in a pilaf of fried and shredded cabbage and fennel, bacon, slivered almonds garnished with fried sage leaves.
  • Add to colcannon.
  • Add to cranberry and rosemary dressing
  • Add to avocado eggs
  • use it as a marinade in which to freeze individual chicken breasts, with olive oil, smoked salt and Urfa pepper. Cook in the marinade, with a little extra apple shrub added in

The spiced winter vegetable ferment (brine method)

Matthew explained to us, “spices are like colours on a canvas. All dried spices can be changed and omitted according to taste, availability and recipe idea. Here we are attempting to make a brine ferment that alludes to mulled wine and is perfect to accompany all the festive meals ahead.” He told us that he had kept vegetables in this way for some two years.

These vegetables give some brightness to a salad, but they also go well with gammon, or with cheese, or with a pork or game pie.

One VE commented:

“Both [the shrub and the vegetables] are looking good today, although I was a bit worried on Sunday morning when the vegetables were looking very frothy.  Now they look gloriously purple and the froth has died down – the beetroot reigns.”

The festive brined vegetables
The festive brined vegetables
The spiced winter vegetable ferment (brine method)
The spiced winter vegetable ferment (brine method) – it does better if you play music to it!
Use the brined vegetables to pep up a salad
Use the brined vegetables to pep up a salad

The final verdict

“That was good fun and we’ve just eaten the product – very tasty! I’m pleased because we do like to eat meat-free meals from time to time and we also have veggie friends for whom we can now rustle up something out of the ordinary.”

“And we had it all [the hispi with dukkah; and the squash with mushroom sauce] with a marinated duck breast. DELICIOUS!”

“What a success your party was. It made one feel that life was normal for two hours.”

In summary, everyone enjoyed the cocktail; and they enjoyed learning the new techniques involved with making shrub and brined vegetables, although how much they will be repeated remains to be seen; everybody loved the mushroom sauce and the dukkah-ed, caramelised hispi, which were both a bit different, and very simple to make.

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