My Favourite Crispbread

To start, let me just say that I love this recipe. It’s easy, inexpensive, low-carb, gluten-free, vegan (if you care about such things!), contains 0% guilt, and, best of all, is delicious. I hit upon it when we were doing a keto cycle and needed something on which to spread my homemade liver pate. I found a similar recipe on the web, adapted it a little, and bingo. So I will keep this intro short, and get right to the good stuff!

 

Ingredients

feel free to double the amounts if you want an extra big batch

  • 1 ½ cup mixed seeds – flax, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, etc. (Note: you can use chia seeds too, but will need to add more water to the recipe as they soak up a ton of it)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons psyllium husk powder – Don’t omit this, it’s important for binding the dough. You can buy this online or at health food shops. Make sure it’s unflavoured!
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 ½ cup of water – start with this, you may need more
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder (This is optional. It makes the crispbread puff up a little, which you may or may not prefer.)

 

Method

  • Preheat your oven to 175°C/350°F
  • Put the seeds, psyllium, baking powder (if using), and salt in a food processor and blender. Blitz until ground. You can either leave it a bit chunky or grind it into a sand-like consistency depending on your preference and your device, but don’t let it start to turn into butter.
  • Add the water and mix into a uniform batter. It should be thick, stirrable not pourable. Let sit for about 10 minutes for the water to be absorbed, making it more dough-like. You may need to add a bit more water, but do it in small amounts to ensure you don’t make it too watery.
  • Spread the mixture on a baking tray covered with parchment paper or baking mat, ideally something non-stick. Use a spatula or similar device to spread the dough into an even layer around the tray. I aim for about ⅛” / 3 mm thickness, but you can make it thicker if you prefer. The thicker it is, the longer it will take to cook, though.
  • At this point, I like to score it into sections. I actually use a pizza wheel for this, but a knife works too. Be mindful you don’t cut through the parchment or baking mat beneath. This step is optional, as you can break it into pieces once cooked. However, if you prefer a more uniform size and shape of the servings, then scoring is key.
  • Pop it in the oven and bake. Timing here can really vary depending on the thickness and water content of the dough. I usually start to check on it after about a half hour, and then every 10 minutes or so. Ultimately you want to ensure that it is completely crisp all the way through. If the edges start to brown, but the middle is still not crisp enough, break off the ends so they don’t burn.
  • When you’re satisfied it’s all nice and crisp, take it out off the oven and allow to cool. Then break it up into servings and either eat immediately (it will be hard not to, even when it’s hot!) or store in a cupboard in a paper bag or uncovered container to maintain crispness.

I hope you love this crispbread as much as I do. Enjoy!

 

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Can You Learn to Love Liver?

liver pateLiver. Be honest, for most you, your first reaction to that word would be something along the lines of yuuk or eeew! I can empathise. I spent much of my life avoiding the stuff at all costs. Growing up in a somewhat meat-phobic household, this wasn’t much of a problem when I was young. I was never force-fed liver just because it was good for me!

Well, good for you it certainly is. Very good. To quote Dr. Josh Axe, “When we typically think of superfoods, we think of things like green leafy vegetables, berries from the Amazon, cocoa, green tea and other plant foods. However, certain animal foods are also highly valuable due to their rich nutrient content, especially organ meats (also called offal), which is exactly why they have been included in traditional diets for thousands of years.” (Check out the full article here.)

So, yes, liver should be considered a superfood. For one, organ meats are between 10 and 100 times higher in nutrients than corresponding muscle meats. And to put this into perspective with other non-meat foods, every nutrient found in beef liver occurs in higher levels in the liver than in apples and carrots! Check out a chart detailing this nutritional info at the bottom of this very good article by Chris Kresser.

While you’re at it, have a look at these articles from Andrew Weil and Weston Price.

“But isn’t liver potentially bad for us because of the toxins?” you may ask. Here’s what Chris Kresser has to say: “A popular objection to eating liver is the belief that the liver is a storage organ for toxins in the body. While it is true that one of the liver’s role is to neutralize toxins (such as drugs, chemical agents and poisons), it does not store these toxins. Toxins the body cannot eliminate are likely to accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues and nervous systems. On the other hand, the liver is a is a storage organ for many important nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and folic acid, and minerals such as copper and iron). These nutrients provide the body with some of the tools it needs to get rid of toxins.”

That said, you should only ever buy high-quality liver. Organic is a must, and ideally grass-fed in the case of beef and lamb. Stay away from anything CAFO! The good news is that even high-quality liver tends to pretty cheap, certainly cheaper than comparable muscle meat.

But isn’t liver high in fat?” Yes, liver and other organ meats are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. However, despite years of having the contrary drummed into us, plenty of recent research indicates that there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease. Research also suggests that we’ve been misguided about the relationship between dietary cholesterol and increased heart disease as well. But that topic is worthy (and lengthy) enough for its own article, so I’ll leave it there.

Okay, by now you should be pretty convinced that liver is healthy for you. But you may still be thinking. “Yeah, but it’s gross!”  Well, okay, I admit preparing raw liver is a little disgusting, but I’m going to show you a recipe that is very easy and, in my humble opinion, rather delicious. And this is coming from a confessed liver hater! I’m talking about good old liver pate.

Pate is a great way to easily incorporate the health benefits of liver into your diet. It’s one of our main go-to in-between-meals foods these days, so I always try to keep some in the fridge. Snacking without guilt!

 

A few notes before the recipe:

  • I use chicken or lamb’s liver as they tend to have the most mild flavour.
  • Don’t fear the fat! There is a good amount of fat in pate, but as long as it’s good fat, eg organic animal fat and butter, coconut and olive oils, etc., you shouldn’t worry about it. Especially so if you’re already following a low-carb diet.
  • I’m very imprecise with my measurements. I prefer to cook using taste and experience, so apologies to anyone who prefers detailed amounts of ingredients. Besides, mindfully adding ingredients will make you a better cook, rather than just blindly following recipes. Don’t worry, though, I do give guidelines.

Ingredients

  • Liver, 250-500 grams or so
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • A few cloves of garlic
  • Coconut oil, ghee or other good oil for frying, 1-2 tablespoons
  • Allspice, a few teaspoons
  • Butter, 1-3 tablespoons or more depending on the amount of liver
  • Port/other sweet wine and/or balsamic vinegar (optional)
  • Salt (Himalayan or good sea salt) and pepper

 

Start by trimming off any sinew from the liver. Don’t worry if there are a few bits left. You can cut the liver into small pieces if you like or leave it in the big blobby shapes it comes in. Whatever’s easier for you to manage in the pan.

Heat the oil and fry the onion over a lowish heat so it caramelises nicely without browning too much. (though feel free to brown them if you prefer your onions that way) Adding a little salt to the sauteing onions can help reduce burning.

When the onions are looking soft and golden (not incinerated), raise the heat a little and add the liver. I like to add the garlic at this point, too, so it’s not as well done as the onion, keeping more of its intensity. Turn the pieces every few minutes so they brown on all sides.

When the liver’s about halfway done, you can add a few glugs of port or other sweet wine if you like. You can use dry wine too, but I prefer a touch of sweetness to help cut the richness of the liver. The alcohol will cook off in a minute or so, so safe to serve to non-drinkers. (Note that the port will impart a dark colour to the finished pate, so if you’re all about aesthetics you can skip this ingredient.)

Continue sauteing, stirring every minute or two until there are no more blood droplets on the outside of the liver pieces. Most chefs suggest leaving liver a little pink in the middle – feel free to cut pieces open to check. My own thoughts are that the texture might be a little smoother when they’ve got some pink left, but the taste shouldn’t be any different.

When it’s all done, let the mixture cool before adding it all to a food processor, along with salt, pepper, and – if you want a bit more bite and sweetness – a tablespoon or so of balsamic vinegar. At this point, you’ll also want to start adding butter and allspice.  Good butter really helps this recipe, and if you’re squeamish at all about the aftertaste of liver, it helps reduce that. So, too, does allspice, so you’ll want to use a good amount of both of these. Start with a smaller amount, though, blitzing the pate into a smooth paste, and keep adding more of each (as well as salt and pepper, if desired) until you find a nice balance of spice and richness.

You may find that you need to thin the pate out a little bit, as it can get pretty thick. I just use a bit of water, using a spatula to scrape the sides, and blitz some more. Some people use milk, or even cream (yeah, baby!) for this, but I think it’s rich enough with lots of nice butter.

Once it’s all blended nice and creamy, and seasoned to your taste (always taste your food whilst before serving!), you can scrape it into a container or two, let it cool and eat it or pop it into the fridge. I often freeze half the amount so I can have back-to-back batches without worrying about one going off. Freezing will degrade the texture a little bit, making it slightly more crumbly, but it still tastes great.

Spread the pate on some nice bread, use it as a dip for crudites or, hell, just eat it with a spoon. We’re low-carb (and this pate is too!) so we love it with carrot or celery sticks, or even better, homemade crispbread.

This approach to cooking liver has turned me from a hater into a fan, and I hope it can help you, too, to learn to love liver!

liver pate with apple slices

Don’t Be Sour About Kraut

saurkraut

As a kid growing up in New York City, sauerkraut meant one thing to me: the salty slop you slathered all over a hot dog purchased from the ubiquitous Sabrett carts to drown out the awfulness of said hot dog. That, and mustard…lots of mustard. (I never understood ketchup on dogs – to me that was reserved for burgers, but I digress.)

I never appreciated sauerkraut until much later in life, and certainly never realised the health benefits of it. Of course, those benefits were pretty much non-existent in the kraut of my youth due to over-processing, pasteurisation, and likely inclusion of all sorts of unpleasant and/or unnecessary additives.

But now, due to the growing awareness of the importance of good gut microbiome, the humble kraut has undergone something of a resurgence. It may be that it never really went away in certain cultures. That is certainly the case with kimchi, essentially a Korean version of sauerkraut (but with many more ingredients) that has continued to be a staple of Korean cuisine. And certainly, you’ve always been able to find kraut on the menu at many eastern European restaurants, not to mention the aforementioned NYC hot dog carts, and of course the glorious Reuben sandwich (which, by the way, if you haven’t tried, you owe it to yourself to do so).

I won’t bore you too much with the history of this saline side dish, rather my aim here is to show you how easy and inexpensive it is to make your own super-nutritious and tasty kraut at home with a minimum of fuss and mess. Okay, a minimum of fuss, perhaps. Mess can certainly be a part of the process, at least the way I make it. But don’t let that dissuade you, it’s worth it!

Before I dive into the method, a word about commercially-produced sauerkraut. Anything bought in a shop that doesn’t need to be refrigerated will have been heat-treated to kill any unwanted bacteria. Unfortunately, this process also kills all of the good bacteria, removing the primary health benefits of ‘live’ sauerkraut. The lactic acid fermentation that occurs in uncooked, unpasteurised kraut contains live lactobacilli and beneficial probiotic microbes and is rich in enzymes. The fibre and probiotics can improve digestion and promote the growth of healthy bowel flora, protecting against many diseases of the digestive tract. Check out these articles for more information on how good gut bacteria can also improve your immune system, and reduce anxiety and depression.

It is possible to find live sauerkraut in shops, mostly of the ‘health food’ variety, but considering the minimal cost of the ingredients, they tend to be quite overpriced. So why not make your own? Here’s how.

Start with a cabbage. It can be any type, green, white, red, Savoy, etc. Personally, I prefer a firm red or white cabbage as they tend to keep the best texture, but it’s your choice.

red cabbage

You’ll then need some salt. Please use sea salt, or even better, Himalayan pink salt, anything but iodised table salt. To be accurate, you ideally want a 2% saline solution. The easiest way to think about this is in grams. For every 100 grams of cabbage, you’ll need 2 grams of salt (100 grams x .02 = 2 grams). But, to be honest, I usually just use one tablespoon of salt for a medium sized cabbage. You can always add less salt to start, and then add more to taste. The cabbage should be salty, but not offensively so.

The salt content is very important, however. The salt draws moisture from the cabbage to create a brine. This brine creates a good environment for the proliferation of ‘good’ bacteria but discourages the stuff we don’t want in our kraut. It’s not foolproof, though, and sometimes you do get some unwanted mould or slime, particularly if you’ve under-salted your cabbage. Fortunately, I haven’t yet experienced this first-hand. Apparently, over-salting can prevent your friendly bacteria from growing too. If you suspect you’ve added too much salt, you can give the cabbage a rinse and start again.

You’ll also need a sealable jar for the cabbage to ferment in. And finally, you’ll need a little time. That’s it, no other ingredients necessary (I told you it was easy). Here’s the method in a nutshell:

Ingredients

1 cabbage

1 tablespoon salt

Peel off the outer layer or two of the cabbage. Try and keep them relatively intact, as you’ll use them later. Then slice the cabbage into fine pieces. This can be done by hand or with the shredder attachment of a food processor. With a firm round cabbage, I tend to quarter it, cut the core off each section, further slice each section in half, and the finely chop the remaining pieces. But I’m pretty handy with a knife. If you’re intimidated or just can’t be asked, cut it into eighths and feed each piece into the food processor. Easy peasy.

quartered cabbage                     cutting cabbage                    finely chopped cabbage

Put the shredded cabbage in a large bowl. Add the salt and then stick your hands in the stuff and mush it all around for 10 minutes. Some people skip the kneading step, but I find it really useful to draw the water out of the cabbage to create the brine. It can sometimes get a little messy, though. Word of advice – if you’re using red cabbage, don’t wear white clothes! Also, if you’ve got a cut on your hand, better wear some rubber gloves, or that salt will make you beg for momma.

After 10 minutes, you should have a liquidy mass of cabbage that will have shrunk sizably. Scoop the cabbage and brine into a suitably-sized jar. Take the reserved outer layer(s) of the cabbage and place it inside the jar, on top of the shredded cabbage, and press down so that it’s below the liquid line if possible. If you’ve got a little cup, ramekin, or another object that fits fairly snugly inside the jar, this will help to press it down and keep the cabbage submerged, which you want as it will help prevent any unwanted mould from growing on the cabbage.

cabbage in jar

Store the jar at room temperature out of direct sunlight. Every day or two, see if you can press the cabbage down a little more into the brine. How long the kraut will take to be ready is not an exact science. I usually give it a taste after about a week. Once it starts fermenting, it will get tangier and tangier, so you should decide when it’s ready by your taste. If it just tastes salty, but not tangy, or just a little tangy, put it back and check it in another day or two. When it finally tastes how you like it, remove the layer of cabbage from the top and stick it in the fridge where it will last a long time.

What to do with it?

Eat it, duh!

But seriously, I love to put a few spoonfuls in all types of salads to give them a little extra zing. It also goes nicely alongside a pork chop, sausage, or on top of a stew. Try not to heat it too much, though, to keep the friendly bacteria alive. And if you ever find yourself in possession of an NYC hot dog that you feel compelled to actually eat, now you know what to do!

 

Boning up on Broth

Bone-Broth

After last week’s veg-centric post on the wonders of cauliflower, I’d like to go to the meat side for something quite different, but no less healthy. If cauliflower can be considered brain food, then perhaps the subject of this post, bone broth, could be thought of as gut food, given its well-established gut-healing properties. However, to leave it at that would be selling it short, as it contains a myriad of health benefits. But before I elaborate further, let me step back a second.

What is bone broth? At its most simplistic level, it’s just boiled bones. But isn’t that just stock, you may ask, like the stuff that comes in little cubes from the supermarket? Well, not quite. They share some similarities, but in reality they’re a world apart. Stock cubes, and even most liquid stock, bought in shops have a lot of added flavouring but none of the natural goodness that comes with slow-cooking bones for long periods of time. I might add that, technically, stock is made from bones and connective tissue, whereas broth is the liquid that meat has been cooked in. However, for some reason, bone stock is more commonly referred to as bone broth. If you know why this is, please leave a comment below. For the purpose of consistency, let’s call it bone broth.

Why bone broth? Let’s start with the health benefits.

  • Have you ever heard chicken soup referred to as Jewish Penicillin? If so, it’s because it’s been used for ages to help cures colds and ills. But what is it in the soup that gives it this reputation: the bones! Or rather, what’s in the bones that gets transferred to the broth over the long cooking time. For one, there’s a natural amino acid called cysteine, which can thin the mucus in your lungs and make it less sticky, enabling it to be expelled more easily.
  • Then there are the minerals: calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus for starters. All stuff your body needs, and bone broth delivers them in an easily-absorbable package.
  • Do you have joint issues? Throw away your glucosamine + chondroitin tablets, as the collagen in bones, tendons, ligaments, and other flexible tissues, is broken down during the cooking process into  gelatin, which gives your body the raw materials to rebuild your own connective tissue, especially tendons and ligaments. It also enhances your skin, nails and hair – my wife swears by it!
  • I mentioned gut food previously. This is because bone broth contains both Glycine and Glutamine, two amino acids that can really help rebuild your gut lining.

I could go on and on. If you want to read a bit more about the health benefits of bone broth, check out the following articles, or just Google bone broth. There’s loads of great stuff out there on it.

Eat This:Bone Broth
Bone Broth—One of Your Most Healing Diet Staples
Bone Broth Benefits for Digestion, Arthritis and Cellulite

Finding good quality bone broth in shops can be a tricky affair. Some good butchers sell it, and there’s even a restaurant in NYC called Brodo which specialises in it, but the best way to get hold of it is to make it yourself. Fortunately it’s really easy! This is especially the case if you have a slow cooker, and if you don’t, I recommend you get one.  They are pretty cheap and very useful. Some, like the one I have, are actually rice cookers with added slow cooking features. Bonus! You can make your broth in it, and then use the broth to make your rice. But I’ll go more into how you can use your broth later.

First you need some bones. Any kind will do. Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish, whatever. You don’t have to limit your broth to one type, either. You can mix them, too. It’s important that you start with good quality bones. Ideally organic, and if beef, from cows that have been grass-fed. If you’re wondering why grass-fed, check out this trio of articles that I also referenced in my beef jerky post:

The Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef
Why Grass-Fed Animal Products Are Better For You
Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed

So where do I get my bones? From several places. First, whenever I cook up a roast, be it lamb shoulder, pork belly, chicken, etc., I save any bones. Wrapped up well, they can be stored in the freezer for a really long time until you’re ready to use them, so don’t throw them out!  If I don’t have any bones on hand, I’ll get some from my local butcher. I’m fortunate to have two nearby, M. Moen & Sons and The Ginger Pig, that sell really good quality meat. They will sell bones for cheap, or even give some away for nothing in some cases. Sometimes I order meat online from Donald Russell, based in Scotland, as they sell grass-fed (though not organic) beef at good prices, and if requested, they will throw some bones into an order for no extra charge.

If you are getting bones from the butcher, try to get ones that will fit in your slow cooker or stock pot. Trust me, I’ve slogged away with a hacksaw cutting up big beef leg bones, and it ain’t easy. If in doubt, ask the butcher to cut them for you, as they’ve got the right tools for the job! Also, if you can, try and get some joint bones, as the connective tissue in them is extra good for you. Makes your broth really thick, too, because of the amount of collagen which, if you’ve been paying attention, turns into gelatin.

For this batch, I've used a combination of lamb ribs from the butcher, and some leftover chicken bones from a roast.

For this batch, I’ve used a combination of lamb ribs from the butcher, beef off-cuts, and some leftover chicken bones from a roast.

Some people like to first roast the bones in a really hot oven, say 250C/450F, for 20 minutes or so to brown them and render any fat off them. I’m a bit lazy, and not afraid of a little fat, so I usually skip this step. Place the bones in the slow cooker and fill it with water.  If you have any veg bits that you’re not keen on eating, such as carrot tops, cauliflower leaves, etc., you can add those too. Just give them a rinse first. You can also add some seasoning here if you like. I tend to use my bone broth as part of other recipes which call for their own seasoning, so I don’t add much.  A few peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves are pretty much it. You can opt for adding onions and garlic, as they add nice flavour. I also add a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar, as supposedly it helps leach the nutrients out of the bones. One ingredient that I started adding recently is dried seaweed, as it’s got loads of minerals and good stuff that we don’t normally get enough of. I suppose it might add a touch of salty goodness as well.

I tend to start the slow cooker off on a high heat setting for the initial hour of cooking, especially if I haven’t roasted the bones first. This isn’t essential, but for some reason I feel better knowing that I’ve boiled everything a little first to kill any unwanted bacteria. Then I turn it down to a low heat, and leave it be for 24 hours (for chicken or other small bones) to 48 hours (for chunky beef and lamb bones). The nice thing about using a slow cooker instead of the hob, is that (with the exception of the initial boiling period) it won’t stink up your house with meat smells for days. Also, you don’t have to worry about the liquid boiling off or the gas flame accidentally going out.

When it’s ready to go, strain the liquid into a storage container and chuck out whatever’s left. If you’ve got pets, you can give them a treat with any meaty bits that have come off the bones. You can now either use the broth right away, or (once cooled) freeze it for later use. I usually freeze half of mine.  It’s worth noting that the cooled broth will often have a layer of congealed fat on it. You can either skim this off and use it for cooking, or throw it out if you’re a bit fat-phobic. But remember, this is good fat. Saturated fat has been demonised for years, but people are now getting hip to the misinformation we’ve been force fed by governments in bed with big food companies. Read more here or here.

So, I’ve now got all this bone broth, what do I do with it? Plenty!

  • It makes a great base for soup. I make a weekly pot of veg soup, using broth in place of, or in addition to water. It makes the soup much richer, tastier, and healthier. I could do an entire post about soups, and perhaps I will at some point. Watch this space.
  • Use it in place of water to cook grains. Your rice, barley, quinoa, etc., will taste sooo much nicer.
  • Add it to casseroles or sauces which need liquid. A mixture of bone broth and wine (or port or vermouth) does wonders for a hearty stew.
  • Make gravy with it. You’ll need to season it, and thicken it a bit with flour or corn starch, but it’s dead easy.
  • Drink it as a hot beverage on a chilly day. I usually season it with a bit of soy sauce, but you can add whatever you like.
  • Bathe in it! Okay, I’m kidding with this one. Bone broth is best taken internally.

So there you have it. Bone broth is tasty, healthy, versatile and cheap. The only excuse you’ve got for not using it is if you’re a vegetarian. And if so, I’m afraid you’re really missing out. Ah well, more for the rest of us.

Until next time…

bone-broth-jars

Brain Food

cauliflower brainWhy ‘Brain food’, you may ask. Well, this post is about cauliflower, so the name works on several levels. First, cauliflower is brain food because it’s a good source of choline, a B vitamin known for its role in brain development. But in addition to that squidgy mass in your melon, cauliflower also benefits your heart and digestion, can help fight cancer, reduce inflammation, and all sorts of other good stuff. You can find more details here. Clearly, adding more cauliflower to your diet is a no-brainer. (See what I did there?) Finally, I call it brain food because, quite simply, it looks like brains, and that’s a good enough reason for me!

What’s really interesting to me about this cruciferous powerhouse, though, is how creatively it can be used. Sure, you can simply steam it, sauté it, eat it raw as crudite, or even boil it (though I believe there’s a special place in hell for those who boil vegetables to death), but it starts to get fun when you use it as a substitute for other carbs. I went low-carb about a year ago, dramatically reducing the sugar, grains and starchy vegetables in my diet. I did it for health, rather than weight-loss reasons, though a pleasant side effect is that I can now fit into 15-year-old trousers that I was unable to wear for years.

Because of this change in diet, I had to fill the gap previously occupied by bread, rice, potatoes and the like. I was a real carboholic, so this was not easy at first.  But then I heard about something called cauliflower rice, or cauliflower couscous, as some people refer to it. I confess I was extremely dubious about this initially. But then I figured, what the hell? I do like cauliflower anyway, so why not give it a try? Well, I made it once, and I was hooked. It’s easy, it’s healthy (technically healthful, but that just sounds silly), and most importantly, it tastes good! You can use it anywhere you would use most grains, such as with a curry or Thai stir-fry, in a grain salad such as tabbouleh, etc. I confess I’ve never tried making risotto with it, and suspect that might turn into a gloppy mess, but even if that is the case, there are so many other great uses, it doesn’t have to be perfect for everything.

So here’s how you make cauliflower rice:

Take a head – or half a head if you don’t want to make too much – of washed cauliflower. Remove the leaves and the tough core. Chop it up into reasonably small pieces, and chuck them in a food processor.

P1050224

Pulse it on and off for a bit until you’ve got grain-sized pieces. Don’t do it for too long or it will start to turn into puree. This could be fine for some recipes, but not what we’re looking for here. You may be left with the odd larger chunk or two, but you can either just eat these while you’re cooking (my technique of choice) , or re-process them afterwards.

P1050226

Tip the rice out of the food processor. You can now use it raw, sauté it in a little oil or butter, or nuke it for a minute or two. Really, whatever is your preference. Try it different ways, and see what floats your boat. Personally, I prefer sautéing it, but I can get a little lazy so often just chuck it in the microwave. If it’s going to be soaking up a lot of sauce anyway, it doesn’t need much of its own flavour.

 

Another creative way to use cauliflower is to make mashed potatoes. But of course without the potatoes.

First, cook the cauliflower. You can steam, nuke, boil or bake (at about 180C) the chopped-up florets. If baking, you may want to cover the cauliflower with foil to avoid the edges burning.

When the cauliflower is cooked soft, mash it by hand, or better yet, puree it in a food processor or with a hand blender, along with any other texture or flavour enhancers you like, such as butter, milk, cheese or garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste, and voilà, cauliflower mash! At this point you can still add other bits and bobs, if you like, such as spring onions, chopped olives, etc. Have it as a side, or use it to top fish, shepherd’s or cottage pie instead of potatoes.

 

Now here’s where it gets really interesting: cauliflower crust pizza

Once again, when I first heard of these, I was extremely doubtful. I mean, mimicking rice or potato is one thing, but pizza crust?!? That just sounds mental. However, since I do consider pizza to be nature’s perfect food, and missed it terribly on the low carb diet, I decided to give it a try. My first attempt followed a totally vegan recipe, meaning no eggs to bind the dough together. Ultimately, it was okay, but using chia seeds to bind the cauliflower crust together created a crust that was very much unlike a real pizza base. So I hunted around for an alternative recipe. I found one on the BBC Good Food site which seemed worthy of a try. I only followed it for the crust recipe, mind you. I’m enough of a seasoned cook (ha ha) to make a yummy sauce on my own, but I’m always grateful to have something to work from, which I can then modify as I see fit, or depending on what ingredients I actually have to hand at that moment.

For the base, you’ll need:

1 cauliflower (about 750g/1lb 10oz)
100g ground almonds
2 eggs, beaten
dried oregano
a little salt and pepper

Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Remove the leaves from the cauliflower and trim the stalk end, then cut into chunks. Pulse half the cauliflower in a food processor until finely chopped, as described previously. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining half. Spoon the cauliflower in a bowl, and microwave for a few minutes until softened. I don’t like to specify cooking times for nukers, as they really vary a lot, so I suggest starting with three minutes, have a look, and add more time if the cauliflower isn’t soft enough. In my microwave, a reasonably large cauliflower is soft enough after about 5 minutes. Tip onto a clean tea towel and leave to cool a little. Once cool enough to handle, scrunch up the tea towel and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the cauliflower (this is important!), then transfer to a dry bowl.

P1050228P1050233Stir in the ground almonds, egg, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and grease with oil or butter. Mound the cauliflower mix into the centre of the tray, then use a spoon and your hands to spread out into a round. (Or be a rebel and make it a rectangle.)  I’d aim to make it approximately 2-3 cms/ 1/8″ thick.

P1050238Bake for 15-20 mins until golden brown and starting to crisp a little at the edges. Again, the timing will depend a lot on your oven, as well as how thick you’ve made your crust. The BBC recipe doesn’t say this, but I’ve had good results flipping the crust over when it’s nicely browned on one side, to ensure it’s set all the way through. You’ll have to be quite gentle if you do this, though, to keep it from falling apart.

While the base is cooking, or even better, before you start it, you can make the sauce. For this you’ll need:

1 can/pack chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 garlic clove (or more if you’re a big fan), crushed or minced
1 onion, chopped as fine or chunky as you like it
1 stick of celery, minced finely – optional
1 carrot, minced finely – optional
olive oil or butter

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Start by sautéing the onion with a little salt in the olive oil or butter. If you’re using the celery and carrot as well, to make a soffritto (which I recommend!), add those here as well, and cook until they’re all very soft, stirring regularly. Then add the garlic, cooking it for a few minutes. Some people add their garlic right at the beginning, but I find, particularly if it’s chopped finely, it can burn easily, so I add it later.

P1050235Pour in the chopped tomatoes and tomato purée, and leave to simmer gently for a little while. Keep an eye on it, giving it a stir now and then. You want the sauce to get nice and thick, which can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes. Make sure to give it a taste, and add salt and/or pepper as needed.

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For toppings, the world is your oyster. Not that I’d recommend putting oysters on pizza, mind you, but whatever floats your boat. I prefer one or more of the following:

mozzarella cheese (mozzarella di bufala is the best!)
fresh basil
grated parmesan cheese
olives
mushrooms
pepperoni, chorizo or ham slices
sliced bell peppers
aubergine slices
more garlic and/or onions
chilli flakes or fresh chilli slices

Really, just about anything you like can go on pizza.  Depending on how al dente you like your veg toppings, you might want to pre-cook them a little.

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When your base and sauce are ready, it’s time to assemble the pizza. Spread the sauce thinly out on the base, almost to the edges. Then spread whatever toppings you’ve chosen on to the pizza (but save the fresh basil until after it’s done) and bake at 240C/220C fan/gas 8 for around 10-15 minutes, making sure not to let anything on top burn. Remove it carefully from the oven, and either slice it into wedges, or just tuck into the whole pie. Note that, unlike standard pizza, this crust may be a little too delicate to pick up slices by hand. I suggest using a knife and fork. That’ll also keep you from devouring it too quickly, something I am certainly guilty of!

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So there you go. Just a few examples of some great dishes to make with the humble cauliflower.  And if you want even more ideas, check out some really cool alternative cauliflower recipes here. Your brain will thank you.

cauliflower brain

(Northern) Lights, Camera, Action!

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Third time lucky? Sue and I were certainly hoping so as we blearily pulled on our way-too-warm-for London-winter puffy coats at 4AM, and dragged our bags to the waiting taxi. This would be the third consecutive year that we were to venture to the Arctic Circle in search of the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights. The previous winters, we had travelled to Norway and Sweden, where we did encounter teases of nature’s awesome night time light display, but although the trips were very enjoyable, they hadn’t satisfied the desire, the lust, the need to experience this incredible natural phenomenon in its full glory.

So here we were, in mid-December, creeping towards the shortest day of the year, venturing north once again. We chose Sweden, but this time a different location: Abisko, in Swedish Lapland. This tiny village and adjacent National Park is known as one of the best places in the world to spot the lights due to its location in the middle of the Auroral Oval, and the generally clear weather conditions, both important factors in Aurora spotting. Abisko also boasts the Aurora Sky Station, a mountaintop destination that, at 900 metres, offers amazing viewing. But more on that later. First we had to get there.

The flight portion of our trip was fine. There’s really something to be said for travelling at an ungodly hour during an off-peak time of year. The airport was a breeze, and our first leg to Stockholm was practically empty. It left us wondering if budget airline Norwegian could even be making a profit on this flight. Perhaps they sold enough crisps and instant coffee to break even. After a brief stopover in Arlanda, we boarded a much fuller flight to Kiruna, a city literally on the move (and home to the famed ice hotel). Whereas the scenery flying into Stockholm was grey with only a smattering of snow on the ground, the area around Kiruna was a winter wonderland, a veritable sea of white. Unfortunately, the sky did not look so inviting. In fact, we were quite concerned as the local forecast was clouds, snow, more clouds, and even more snow. Not conducive at all to sky-watching. But we couldn’t back out now, so we hoped for the best.

By the time we picked up our rental car at the airport, it was nearly 2pm, and already pretty much dark. At this time of year so far north, a few hours of light a day is all we were going to get. When planning the trip, we actually considered this a potential benefit, as it meant more night time in which to see the Aurora. However, the reality is that it’s unlikely to see the lights until ‘proper night time’ anyway, so we were left with much of the day to spend in the dark. Therefore we were going to need lots of food and drink!

We’ve travelled a lot in Norway and Sweden, so learned a long time ago that self-catering is the way to go when travelling here. Restaurants are usually very pricey and not terribly good value, and booze, when you can get it, is shockingly expensive. I mention ‘when you can get it’ because we only remembered when hitting the supermarket in Kiruna, that you are only able to purchase wine and spirits in special state-owned stores called Systembolaget. Fortunately, with the help of our old friend Google, we were able to track down the town boozery, and stock up on enough red wine for the trip.

The drive from Kiruna to Abisko, whilst only about 100kms, turned out to be a bit hairy, with icy roads, occasionally blinding snow, and a moose that fortunately just got across the road before I had to seriously test the anti-lock brakes. We passed another car that hadn’t been so lucky, but at least a passing truck was giving them a hand pulling them out of a snowbank. Needless to say we were very relieved when finally arriving intact at the Abisko hostel (oddly named Abisko.net) where we were to spend the next four nights. We had been fairly ambivalent about accommodation prior to the trip, as the small handful of options in town had some quite mixed reviews. In the end we settled on the hostel as, at least if we were going to have pretty basic accommodation, we wouldn’t be paying through the nose for it. In the end we were very happy with our decision. The staff was super friendly and helpful, we had a private room with a toilet, the kitchen was reasonably well equipped (though I always bring my own sharp knife when self catering) and, perhaps most importantly, they gave us warm snowsuits, boots and mittens!  As the temperature was forecast to be -2C to -14C, we would be practically living in these.

A short recce around town clarified that Abisko was truly a one-horse town…assuming that horse could wear reindeer skins and thermal underwear all winter. It was cold! And not a human in sight. This was fine with us, though, as it was nature we came here to see, not people. We couldn’t avoid them at the hostel, though. When making dinner (which seemed to be quite a gourmet standard compared to the frozen pizzas everyone else was eating), we encountered a number of our fellow tourists. It seemed that nearly every guest was either American or Chinese. A little odd, although I suppose somewhat understandable given the size of both countries’ populations.

Afterwards it was time for our first Aurora hunt. We bundled up, and trudged across town to the lakeside, where supposedly viewing was good when the lights were shining. Lo and behold, the clouds of earlier dissipated, the stars came out, and brought with them our first Aurora sighting of the trip. Yes! We hung about for an hour or so, snapping oodles of pictures, trying to remember how to work the camera that we last used the previous winter in Norway. Experimenting with various ISOs, shutter speeds, etc., all the while trying to keep my fingers from getting frostbite. The convertible mittens/fingerless gloves Sue bought me last year worked well, but could only do so much. What I really needed was to stick my hands in the sliced-open belly of a dead tauntaun. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Star Wars reference)

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I should stop here and say a few things about the Aurora Borealis. The lights are formed by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere, and are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. Auroral displays can appear in many colours, depending on the types of particles. Green is the most common, caused by oxygen molecules.

It’s also worth noting, as people always ask, that the experience of seeing the lights with the naked eye is different from what comes out on film. When the activity is strong, you can see the lights ‘dance’ as they shift and pulsate, but the colours seen are rarely as intense as they appear on photographs. They are fainter, and more greyish/white. Still magical, though. And there’s the added surprise, when after 30 or so seconds, the beautifully coloured Aurora appears in the viewfinder and you know you got the shot!

The next morning was to be our dogsledding experience, which we had arranged with the hostel, as they own their own dogs and sleds. We had a wonderful time dogsledding on our previous Sweden trip, so were looking forward to it. We were slightly nervous, though, as some other guests had said they had fallen off the sleds repeatedly in their go at it the previous day. Ah well, if we were going to fall, at least it should be on to soft snow.

There were 12 guests for sledding – quite a big group – and we were each to get our own sled, so it took some time rounding up the 48 huskies required and harnessing them to the sleds. In teams of 4 to a sled, they needed to be arranged in a specific way so as not to try to fight or fuck each other as we were sledding. To prevent the latter, most of the teams were single sex. As it would turn out, the female teams tended to be the fastest. Girl power!

We were all in a line, brakes firmly applied as the dogs were really raring to go. When given the go-ahead from the staff, we were off. Almost immediately, a driverless sled shot past. The girl behind me had apparently fallen off right at the start, but the dogs had no interest in waiting for her to get back on, so dashed on ahead. This didn’t bode well, but as it turned out, this was to be the only separation of sled and rider for the trip.

We spent the next hour and a half zipping along the trail through the beautifully peaceful snowy woods. One of the great things about dogsledding is the absence of noisy vehicles you would have if you were, say, snowmobiling. Kind of akin to sailing vs. motorboating. It really makes you feel at one with nature.

Sue was riding ahead of me, and her enthusiastic team of bitches (can I say that?) kept running right up behind the rider in front of her, so she had to apply the brakes frequently. Therefore, we were never quite able to build up the head of steam we had in our previous sledding experience two years previously. Also, because there was only one person per sled, the sleds were lighter and less stable, so we had to brake more going around turns and down hills. Still, it was great fun. Pretty hard work, too, holding on for dear life, operating the (very!) manual brakes with our feet, and helping the dogs up hills by pushing along with our legs. When we returned to the kennel, we got to bring the dogs back to their pens, unharness them, have a little cuddle, and get in some photo ops. All in all, a good morning.

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We spent the remainder of the day lunching and then exploring the outskirts of the village. The latter was much slower going than expected as walking in our super heavy (but very warm!) snow boots felt like we were wearing ankle weights. We hiked to the edge of the National Park, but as it was mid-afternoon, we were losing the daylight, so decided to save the park for the next day, and head back to the room for some warmth and to catch up on some videos.

After another gourmet-by-hostel-standards-dinner, we indulged in a Scandinavian institution: the sauna. The word sauna is of Finnish origin, and the Finns are perhaps the most obsessed with them. Supposedly most Finnish embassies, even in hot countries in the Middle East, are equipped with saunas. Not sure how nice a sauna in Saudi Arabia would be, but hey, I’m not Finnish so who am I to say?

Though not quite as ubiquitous, saunas can still be found around the rest of Scandinavia, and we were fortunate that our hostel had their own. They run it quite strictly: showers before entering are required, your own towels and swimsuits are forbidden, no bare bums on the benches, etc. And in proper Scandi style, use of any towels other than to sit on are discouraged. So essentially you’ve got a mixed-sex nude sauna. Shyer people (and never-nudes!) can rent a towel to wrap around, but many people didn’t seem to bother.  The best – and perhaps worst as well – part of the experience was running outside every 15 minutes or so to roll in, or throw snow all over oneself. An intense experience, but one that left us incredibly relaxed afterwards. Supposedly good for the immune system too!

That night we once again ventured out in search of the Aurora. We did see a little activity, but not enough to keep us outdoors in the bitter cold. The following evening was to be our big night out at the Sky Station, and we were banking on some quality viewing, so decided to save our fingertips for then. So back to the room for more wine and videos!

Friday was new moon day, particularly good for Aurora spotting, as there is minimal moonlight to obscure your view. That said, it’s a misconception that you can’t see the lights when there’s a large, or even full moon. The real enemies are clouds and, much to our chagrin, they were out in great numbers again. The weather forecast for the evening didn’t look brilliant either, but one thing we’d learned in our brief stay in Abisko so far was that the weather could change quite quickly, sometimes for the better, so we weren’t panicking yet.

We spent the (vaguely) sunlit portion of the day hiking through the National Park, along the snow-covered Kungsleden trail. King’s Trail in English, it runs about 440 kms from Abisko in the North to Hemavan in the South. It’s a popular through-hike route, but not so much this time of year. Still, the snow-covered woods lit by the pink twilight, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, were beautiful, so we spent a couple of hours enjoying traipsing through the winter wonderland.

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That evening we scraped the ice and snow off our rental car and drove the whopping 3 kms to the National Park to the lower base of the Aurora Sky Station. Here’s where guests get kitted up in extreme cold weather gear to board the chairlift for the 20 minute ride up to the 900m high upper station. We already had our snow suits from the hostel so we didn’t need to take advantage of this, but it’s important to be prepared as there are no cozy gondolas here, or even one of those pull-down covers some ski lifts have. This is a proper old school, fully exposed chair lift, and, given that it was about -10C, those 20 minutes could seem like an eternity if one was underdressed. Fortunately we weren’t, and there wasn’t much wind, so our ride up was quite peaceful and pleasant.

Arriving at the top, there was no Aurora activity visible through the clouds so we went inside to get the lay of the land. We had opted to splash out on the exclusive dinner offered at the station partly in celebration of our anniversary, and partly because, if the weather turned out miserable, and we couldn’t see the lights, at least we would have a bang-up meal to show for the evening. We stripped off some of our layers, and were treated to a welcome cocktail of warm lingonberry juice with vodka. A perfect way to take the chill off, but just as soon as the last of the drinks were sliding down our gullets, somebody came inside and informed us that there was some Aurora action happening outside. Thinking it would be too slow to fully kit back up again, we grabbed hats and gloves and dashed outside. Lo and behold, the now familiar electric green was dancing right above us. Cool! I was fumbling to open my tripod and get the camera settings right, so didn’t really get much in the way of photos by the time the lights faded, but it was good to see that there was activity happening, and that, if we got some more clear skies that evening, we were likely to be in luck. So back inside for the start of our four course gourmet dinner.

And gourmet it was. As we had hoped, the menu was a modern twist on some Nordic classics. For starters there was cured arctic char (similar to smoked salmon) on crisp bread with pickled onion and scallop cream. This was followed by a scrummy mushroom soup with juniper fried pork and pickled chanterelles. The main consisted of topside of moose with potato puree, black kale and sea buckthorn sauce. The dessert was vanilla pannacotta with cloudberry cream and chocolate crisp. Yum! I should also mention that everything was prepared in a tiny open kitchen with minimal supplies, not even any running water! Pretty impressive.

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All through the meal, we were peering out the window, checking the station webcam, and occasionally peeking out the door to see if there were any lights action happening. But, in the middle of the main course, the waiter informed us all that we might want to get our gear on, as there was definitely something outside worth seeing. So we did, and boy, was it! The sky directly above us was on fire, bright green beams dancing across the sky. They felt so close we could practically touch them. One of the local guides said this was an extremely powerful display, one of the best he had seen. We were ecstatic. Months before we had taken a punt on booking our sky station trip for this evening, and our timing couldn’t have been any better. The Aurora was magical. After all these years, we were finally experiencing the Northern Lights as we had dreamed of.

I was snapping away furiously, or at least as fast as one can when having to wait 30 seconds between shots. The lights were actually moving so fast at times that the slow shutter speed caused quite a blurring out of the patterns, creating some rather impressionistic photos. Plus, the red lights shining out from the station gave a colorful contrast to the electric green of the oxygen particles. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Geminid Meteor shower was at its peak, so there were also occasional shooting stars skating across the sky. I’m always torn at moments like this between getting the shot and enjoying the views with my eyes. Ultimately I settled for doing a bit of both. Eventually the lights faded a little, and we returned to our now lukewarm, but still delicious, filets of moose.

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After dessert we headed back outside for more fab lights action. Perhaps not quite as intense as the ‘main course’ show, but still beautiful and satisfying. By this point the station had opened up to the general public – diners can arrive three hours earlier than standard visitors – so lots of people were milling about. There are limited tickets sold each night, though, so it never gets too crowded. We stayed for a while longer, and finally headed back down the chairlift around 11PM, as the clouds had rolled in so there was nothing much to see anymore. We were still buzzing from the experience by the time we reached the hostel and crawled into bed.

For our last full day in Lapland we decided to try our hands (and legs…and feet) at cross country skiing. We had done this a couple of times before, but were still pretty green. The hostel provided free skis and boots (another plus of staying here!), and there was a skiing trail right in town, so all very easy. We spent an hour or so sliding around the snow, working up quite a sweat and an appetite for our last hostel lunch of the trip. We agreed that if we lived in such a climate, cross country skiing would definitely have to be a main form of exercise during the winter. But we would most certainly need to learn how to go down hills properly!

After dinner we hit the sauna again. This too, is something I could really get used to. Feeling calmed and refreshed, we ventured out for our final evening of Aurora spotting on the trip. Once again we were rewarded with good activity, and some good photos to show for it. For some reason, I didn’t feel the cold much that night. Perhaps it was the residual effect of the sauna. Or perhaps just the warmth of contentment.

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Sunday morning brought the brightest sunlight we’d encounter on the entire trip, so I used the opportunity to shoot some pics of the village and its surrounds. Then we packed up and drove back to Kiruna, guided by the pink-orange dawn light seamlessly transitioning to red twilight skies. Although we could have easily stayed longer, we were extremely satisfied, having achieved all we’d hoped to on this arctic adventure. As it turned out, three was indeed the magic number. But I’m still looking forward to four…and five…and beyond.

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The Lamb Lies Down on Moxon Street

Just a quick one here on what’s probably my favourite meat: Lamb (Okay, maybe bacon aside, but IMHO that porky goodness occupies its own space in the carnivore’s universe!)

For my wife Sue’s birthday, I gave her a butchery course at the Ginger Pig here in London. Some of you may be thinking, ‘Gee, that’s not a very romantic gift.’ Maybe not, but trust me, she liked it. And I did, too, as I got to go along on the 2nd voucher I bought. Woo!

The Ginger Pig is well-known for selling excellent quality meat from its seven London retail locations. The course was being run out of their Moxon Street location in Marylebone, an area filled with ridiculously chichi shops displaying 5 items of clothes, priceless antiques, or Rolls Royces. There’s even a shop dedicated solely to buttons! Fortunately, the butcher shop was down to earth, and not snooty in the slightest.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a lamb carcass laid out on an enormous butcher block. Fortunately, it appeared we would not need to first hunt down and slaughter the evening’s subject. That was a relief.

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Our tutor for the evening, a proper old school London butcher named Perry, gave us the lowdown on what we were to expect. We were to learn all the different cuts that make up the lamb, then try our hand at some butchery techniques, followed by a big old meal of, yeah, you guessed it, lamb. Sounded good to me!

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And good it was. Perry proceeded to carve up the carcass into its multitude of cuts, encouraging the students to try a cut here and there. We learned a little about knife technique, using the sharpest knives I have ever encountered. Good thing we were provided with a sparkly safety glove. A little reminiscent of Michael Jackson, though I couldn’t imagine him ever doing this. Of course, there was the ubiquitous meat saw as well, not at all dissimilar to the metal-cutting hacksaws I’ve got in my tool box at home. Sue even got to have a go with it, practising her ovine surgery skills.

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Eventually the entire lamb was broken down into all of its cuts. In addition to the familiar leg, shoulder, chops and rack, we learned about some of the often overlooked cheaper cuts which are delicious when slow cooked, such as the scrag end (neck) and breast. The latter is apparently best cooked up similarly to a pork belly. I’ll definitely be giving this a try sometime soon!

Then the class had the amusing task of trying to put the whole carcass back together, a real 3D meat jigsaw puzzle, and not as easy as you might think!

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For the final educational portion of the class, each student was given a massive lamb shoulder, and the directive to bone it, ideally without making a complete mess. Again, more of a  challenge than you might expect, particularly as the shoulder blade is completely hidden within the flesh, creating quite a meticulous procedure to remove it without cutting the whole shoulder in half. But in the end we managed it.

To be honest, I found that easier than the final step, which was to roll and tie it up. I realised years ago, when taking a sailing class, that knots are not my strong point, and this was strongly reinforced as I struggled mightily to bind it up. But Sue gave me a hand after she finished hers, and we were gifted our massive lamb shoulders to take home with us. 3 kgs without the bones, and a usual price tag of £50 each!

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For the grand finale it was time to eat! Huge trays of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and shanks were brought out to us, along with lovely buttery mash and, most appreciated, numerous bottles of red wine, which flowed down oh so nicely.

Stuffed and tipsy, we packed up our carnivore swag, which also included several kilos of lamb bones destined for our stock pot, and dragged ourselves home. Good thing we love lamb as we wound up eating it for the rest of the week!

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