Sunday, 6 March 2011

Kitchen Conquests: Where I Come From

This past Tuesday was St. David's Day. David was the patron saint of Wales and it's the closest Wales gets to a national day of celebration. It's a shame we don't make more of it, really. A bank holiday wouldn't go amiss, so we can arrange special events and celebrate properly. It was nice to see little kids going off to school in traditional Welsh costume.....

There are photos of me dressed like this, but I can't seem to find them. Honest. I found out this week that EuroDisney runs a few days of celebration for St. David's Day, which is slightly embarrassing considering it's an American company operating out of Paris.

Still, I marked the day with my own tradition. For many Welsh people, St. David's Day just doesn't feel right unless they've eaten Cawl (pronounced cow-l). It's basically a lamb stew with leeks and other stock vegetables. It celebrates the beginning of Spring by using the new season lamb and adding our national vegetable, the leek. I remember eating it on 1st March in nursery school. When I went to primary school we had a half day at school. While my brother was still in nursery (he's two years younger than me) my mum would take me down to nursery so we could both have Cawl there. I distinctly remember crying the year I realised that would no longer be happening because my brother had moved up to primary school. I was crushed. I was six years old.

Not only is that one of my strongest and oldest food memories, but the way my grandmother makes Cawl is also one of my favourite childhood memories. Strangely, I don't want to steal the recipe. I'm quite happy for her to keep that a secret. I'd rather make mine in a certain way and think of hers as just hers. (If that makes any sense at all.) I love traditional, national or regional dishes where everyone has their own personal way of making it that they think is the best, like Lancashire HotPot or Cornish Pasties. Cawl is Wales' "mine is the best version" meal.

I start with a large amount of diced, Welsh lamb suitable for stewing. I'm never stingy with the lamb. I want everyone to have plenty. I seal it in a deep pan, then add a huge pile of sliced carrots and chopped potatoes. I chop some leeks for later.

I keep most of the potatoes quite large. The meat needs a good hour or so of intense cooking, so the potatoes need to hold most of their shape. I then cover everything with lamb stock and bring it to the boil before simmering for as long as it takes for the meat to become tender. Fresh lamb stock is fantastic, but more often than not I'll use the concentrated stuff. Let's be honest, most people haven't got time to spend their weekends boiling lamb bones. The concentrated flavour is far better than it used to be and it's easier to control the overall flavour of the dish.  I like my Cawl to have a really strong lamby flavour.

Once the lamb is tender and the potatoes are smooth it's almost ready. I add pepper, a touch of brown sugar and check to see if salt is needed. I often find that the salt in concentrated stock is enough. You can, of course, add more if it's needed. At this point I add sliced leeks. It never ceases to amaze me how much just adding the leeks changes the flavour. I boil for another 15 minutes then leave the pan to stand off the heat for about another 15 to 20 minutes before serving. This allows the starch in the potatoes to thicken the liquid, the soft onion flavour of the leeks to permeate the rest vegetables and the dish to cool enough that it doesn't strip the roof of your mouth off.

It was beautiful. Possibly the best I've ever made and probably the first time the potatoes have cooked in such as way that I wasn't even slightly tempted to add flour. Trust me, that is a golden result!

Thursday was a very important day in Wales. We were voting in a referendum to decide whether the Welsh Assembly Government should be allowed to make Welsh laws in 20 areas of government without having to ask Westminster for permission. This was my ballot paper:

I don't know of anyone who voted no. Anyway, this was a total coincidence and more related to the week of St. David's Day than the referendum, but on Thursday I made a Welsh pizza. My local Italian restaurant makes a fantastic one which is topped with leeks, Welsh ham/bacon, cheese and laverbread.

Laverbread is a green seaweed found on the coast of Wales and is considered quite the local delicacy. It's an acquired taste. On its own it can be a little slimy, but I think of the flavour as the essence of the sea. I'd eaten laverbread before but I've never cooked with it. The pizzeria have it on their pizza almost like a small stuffing ball and it has a salty rather than fishy flavour. I soon realised after opening the tin of laverbread that it was far too wet to turn firm the way I wanted it to. I added it the way they do in the restaurant anyway and hoped for the best. It warmed up beautifully but it definitely wasn't firm. I wonder if maybe they mix it with breadcrumbs. I'll have to ask next time.

This was my effort, homemade base and all. It's slightly over-cooked because I left it under the grill to harden the laverbread. Still delicious though.

Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus i bawb. (Bach yn hwyr.)

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