Oxtail & pearl barley soup, and The Cookery Calendar Challenge

Christmas appears to be almost upon us, though it will be a quiet event in our household this year. Last year we went to Prague, having spent much of 2016 to-ing and fro-ing to various distant bits of the world, so we promised ourselves a much quieter year in 2017. That didn’t exactly go to plan, what with buying and renovating a house in Cornwall and going backwards and forwards between here and Turkey, so we shall be very grateful not to have to shop for – and entertain – legions of guests, or to be cooking (or eating) mountains of rich food. We have friends coming for the new year, but we’re looking forward to spending the next few days builder-free, not doing chores and generally chilling out by the fire with a book.

This evening, I am cooking our favourite ham in cider (recipe later) to serve with new potatoes and parsley sauce, some of the leftovers of which will make a lovely addition to Rachel Roddy’s radicchio, pear, fennel, Gorgonzola and walnut salad for a light dinner tomorrow evening. Christmas Day is already sorted, with a lovely plump hen pheasant that we scored last week in Myatt’s, our fantastic local butcher in Falmouth. No starters, puddings or any of the other usual seasonal artery-cloggers, apart from a few mince pies which are already nestling in their baking tin in the freezer, ready to be thrown in the oven at a suitable opportunity. Having spent ten weeks in Turkey determinedly shedding the sorry results of last summer’s Cornish Pasty frenzy, I am not about to throw away all my good work in a three-day eating binge!

Yesterday, I braved Asda while Robin agreed that it would be much more useful for him to stay here and clear up the mess he has made in what I consider to be our conservatory/dining room (I am sure that’s what it said on the house particulars), but which he clearly interpreted to be a giant glass tool shed. On balance, pleased as I am that the tools have gone, I think he may have got the better end of the deal.

Firstly, there was the traffic jam, which was at crawling speed all the way to the Falmouth turn-off. Then there was Asda. Car park wars, trolley rage, couples having lawyer-inducing rows before they’d even got through the door, and apparently an entire nursery full of pre-school children having meltdowns that would bring a nuclear reactor to its knees. Having reached the safety of home, I swore I was not leaving the house again until Christmas is over, with the exception of the promise of a nice walk, of course. (One that doesn’t involve traffic, Asda or other people’s fractious kids).

Now then. Back in September, my good friend Babs introduced me to something called The Cookery Calendar Challenge, which is featured on the blog of an extremely creative cook and home-maker called Penny, who (oddly enough) is based in Glasgow – our home town before we went to Turkey 14 years ago. I have been promising myself I would take part in it, but then house moves, incessant travelling between here and Turkey, and general shortness of time got in the way. The idea is that you choose a cookery book that you don’t often use (or one that is new to you) and try out two recipes from it, then report back on your blog for others to share. Theoretically (and I can see how this would work), it will help to encourage us all to stop eating the same old meals week in, week out. The recipes must be for one course of a meal, not a bake – that would not really fit the bill.

This week, as my first foray into the Challenge, I made Oxtail & Pearl Barley Soup from Rachel Allen’s ‘Recipes from my mother’.

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Inevitably, I tweaked it – I didn’t want to be trying to detach bits of oxtail flesh from the bone five minutes before we wanted to eat, and I couldn’t really see the point of cooking the pearl barley separately in plain water, then adding it cooked to the soup – the whole point of pearl barley is that it both thickens the soup and takes up the flavour of the stock or stew in which it is cooked. So, I pre-cooked my oxtail with some flavoursome bits and bobs, which left me with a glorious beef bone stock, which I then used to make the soup (in which I cooked the pearl barley as I went along). I also added some shredded kale at the end, because I like green things added to my soup. But you don’t have to do likewise of course. The oxtail takes a long time to cook, but once it has come to the boil and you have turned it down, you don’t need to do anything to it at all.

The soup was absolutely delicious, really rich and warming – perfect for a cold night with some crusty bread and a glass of red wine. This fed us twice as a main meal, with more leftovers in the freezer, but the recipe can easily be halved if you don’t want to end up with so much.

Here is the recipe as I made it:

Oxtail & Pearl Barley Soup

(Rachel Allen, Recipes from My Mother)

Serves 4 – 6

For the stock:

1 tablespoon oil
1 oxtail (approx 750g – 1kg), cut into pieces (your butcher will do that)
1 onion, roughly chopped
A few green parts of leeks, roughly chopped
1 carrot, cut into chunks
A celery stick (or some leaves from celery or celeriac), cut into chunks
2 bay leaves
A couple of sprigs each of thyme, rosemary and parsley
A few peppercorns
A couple of juniper berries if you have them

(If you don’t have all the above ingredients, just use whatever you have – as long as there is onion, carrot and celery, you will end up with a lovely tasty stock).

Trim off as much fat as you can from the oxtail. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or saute pan and brown the meat on all sides.

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Add the rest of the ingredients, top up the pan with cold water to about an inch below the tim, put on a lid and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer (covered) over a very low heat for two to three hours until the meat pulls away from the bone easily. Remove the oxtail from the pan and set aside to cool. Strain the stock into a large jug and discard the cooked vegetables. (You can make the stock and remove the meat from the bone the day before if you wish – or both would freeze perfectly if you want to stash the stock and the meat in the freezer for another time).

For the soup:

1 tablespoon olive oil and a knob of butter
2 onions, finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 leek, sliced
2 celery sticks, cut into bite-sized chunks
3 garlic cloves, sliced
100ml red wine
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (Rachel’s recipe said 4, but 3 was more than sufficient)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1.5 litres beef stock (see above – save any leftover stock for another project)
90g pearl (or pot) barley
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
A squeeze of lemon (optional – I didn’t think it needed it)
A couple of handfuls of shredded kale leaves (stalks removed) – optional


Heat the butter and oil in a large pan over a medium heat, then add the vegetables. Stir, then cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for five to ten minutes, until the onions have softened.

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Meanwhile, remove the meat from the cooled oxtail (you will probably find it easiest to just prize the meat away from the bones with your fingers). Discard the bones or give them to your favourite dog.

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Add the red wine, sherry vinegar and tomato paste, and stir well until everything is well combined. Then stir in the stock, along with the barley and the shredded meat. Season generously with salt and at least 10 turns with the pepper mill.

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Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then turn the heat down so that the soup is just simmering. Simmer for around 45 minutes to an hour, until the barley and vegetables are soft. Add the kale for the last five minutes of the cooking, then taste for seasoning and stir in the parsley (and lemon juice if you wish) when you are ready to serve.

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