pulled pork

Pulled pork: the ultimate comfort food.
Pulled pork: the ultimate comfort food.

‘So here’s the deal,’ I said. ‘I’m going to set this up right. I’m going to do the work, give you a lot of love, and make sure you’re all good to go. But once you’re in that oven, it’s over to you, buddy. I’ve done my bit. And we both know that if you don’t pull correctly at the end of it, that is not entirely my fault.’

Such is the conversation I had with a shoulder of pork this morning.

Sugar and spice. And a few other things.
Sugar and spice. And a few other things.

Slow cooking is meant to be a relaxing process, but I can’t deny that there’s a little anxiety that always goes along with making pulled pork. Will it actually pull? Will it burn before it gets to pulling stage? At the end of this rather nerve-wracking day of cookery, will I have something to show for all my patience and devotion?

If you read any articles about the art of barbecue, you’ll discover that there’s an entire science behind it. You need a good amount of fat in the cut of meat, because there needs to be plenty of collagen running through the muscle fibres. The pulling texture occurs when the network of collagen denatures, turning into gelatine. This starts to happen at 70C (160F), so most recipes recommend cooking pork low and slow until it reaches an internal temperature of 87C (190F).

Wonderful. But do I sound like the sort of person who would have a meat thermometer handy?

Is pulled pork that hasn't been pulled just a roast?
Is pulled pork that hasn’t been pulled just a roast?

Reassuringly, I’ve never made pulled pork that hasn’t – well, pulled. Sometimes it’s been slightly more difficult than other times, sometimes it needs a bit of extra cooking, but it always comes good in the end.

Good pulled pork is smoky and rich, sweet and dense, moreish and juicy with that silky mouthfeel from all that gelatine. It speaks of long summer evenings with friends, a barbecue and an icy beverage, as well as cold nights huddled over deeply satisfying winter suppers. Since it’s cheap to make and feeds more people than you’d expect, it almost always features on my party menu.

Rich, dense and moreish – who can resist pulled pork?

Pulled pork
1.5kg pork shoulder
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
3 onions, roughly sliced
6 cloves garlic
1-2 cups apple juice

Preheat the oven to 220C.

Oil the bottom of a baking dish and place the onions and garlic in it.

Rub the mustard into the pork, then mix the salt, sugar and paprika together and work it over the shoulder. Make sure you get it into the nooks and crannies.

Place into the baking dish, skin side up.

You want to blast the shoulder at a high temperature for about 1 hour. After that, take it out, add a cup of apple juice and cover with foil.

Cook at 150C for 4-5 hours. The hotter your oven, the more likely it is that you’ll need the extra cup of apple juice, so check it halfway through. If you’re away all day, you can lower the temperature to 125C for 8-9 hours. Always give yourself an hour at the end before you need to serve it, in case it hasn’t cooked to pulling temperature.

Remove from the oven and stand with foil on for 20 minutes. This helps the meat relax so you can pull it. It’s easiest to do this with two forks – I do it in the pan so the meat soaks up the juices at the bottom.

low-fodmap meatballs

low-fodmap meatballs are comforting, delicious and safe for friends with IBS
Low-fodmap meatballs are comforting, delicious and safe for friends with IBS

One of my dearest friends is following the low-FODMAP diet to combat IBS, and it can be a little challenging to stick with the ‘no wheat, onion and garlic’ rule when you’re eating out. It’s not impossible, but I’ve seen the struggle – poring over menus, referencing the extensive list of prohibited foods and interrogating waiters as to the contents of a dish while your dining companions wait to order. A menu becomes a minefield and what should be a lovely, free and happy choice based purely on what you feel like eating becomes stressful, difficult and a little isolating.

Serve with rice or rice pasta for a FODMAP-friendly meal
Serve with rice or rice pasta for a FODMAP-friendly meal

So sometimes we eat in, and whenever I have her around I like to make something she can eat safely and share with everyone else. It’s maybe a little complicated, but with a bit of creativity and an understanding of good substitutions, everyone can tuck into the same dish.

The simple act of sharing – good food, a cheeky glass of wine and lots of laughter with friends – is a powerfully healing experience. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend!

Low-FODMAP meatballs (makes 60)
For the meatballs:
500g beef mince
500g pork mince
2 bunches spring onions (green part only), finely diced
5 sprigs of parsley, finely diced
1 tbsp mixed herbs
1 tbsp garlic oil
4 tbsp parmesan
4 eggs
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp pepper
2 tsp baking soda
3-4 tbsp cornstarch

For the tomato sauce:
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
2 x 500g passata
1 bunch spring onions (green part only), finely diced
3 bay leaves
3 mozzarella balls, to bake

Put it in the oven to bake and go and join your friends for a chat.
Put it in the oven to bake and go and join your friends for a chat.

Mix all the ingredients except the cornstarch together with a fork.

The cornstarch is there to regulate the wetness of the mix, so start with 2 tablespoons, mix thoroughly and see how wet it is. You want it to be moist, but easy to handle.

Roll into small balls.

From here, there are a few ways to go about cooking the dish. The easiest is to place them directly into the sauce, top with mozzarella and bake the whole thing for 90 minutes in a 200 degree oven.

Alternatively, you can bake your meatballs separately for 30 minutes so they brown nicely, then place them into the sauce and bake for 30 minutes. This is also a good method if you like to drain the fat from your mince.

Finally, if you don’t have an oven, you can simmer them in the sauce. Don’t stir them at the start as they’ll break up – wait until the egg has cooked and will hold them together. Total cooking time is about 30 minutes, starting with a fast simmer for the first 15 minutes and coming back down to a low simmer.

Serve with brown rice or mashed potatoes.

FODMAP notes: I’ve included parmesan in the recipe, because even though lactose is a no-go, parmesan has very little lactose. I’m not quite sure what it is about the ageing process, but hard cheeses have far less lactose than soft cheeses and milk.

Having just said that, mozzarella is also on the safe list for FODMAP. Nevertheless, some people are super-sensitive to lactose, so leave it out if you have to.

pork and water chestnut dumplings

Mardi Gras pork and water chestnut dumplings
Pork and water chestnut dumplings

Next week marks the beginning of Lent, traditionally a period of sacrifice, penance and atonement.

Even if you’re not a religious person, I think it’s a good idea to become acquainted with these concepts, because undoubtedly at some point in your life you’ll experience these things, difficult as they are. And after all, towards the brighter shade of the same spectrums lie indulgence, forgiveness and acceptance.

To me, Lent is a thoughtful period in the spiritual calendar; a somewhat sombre time of reflection on the notions of love and strength of will. But before all that solemnity kicks off, there’s Mardi Gras (‘Fat Tuesday’ in French), which must be celebrated in the traditional manner – with richer, fatty foods on the last night before the Lenten season. Presumably this would use up the last of the goods and also keep people sane during a period of fasting.

I know most people eat pancakes – and believe me, I fully intend to participate in that too – but I thought it fitting to celebrate the beginning of a season of love by making these delicious little pork and water chestnut dumplings.

Dumplings are something special.
It’s impossible not to love a dumpling.

There’s something very special about dumplings. They always make me think of home; from the initial laughter-filled all-hands-on-deck preparation method and the proud presentation of neat rows of adorable little parcels (with the inevitable teasing about a few of the misshapen practice shots), to the family dinner at night and sharing the rewards with loved ones. There’s nothing more deeply satisfying than biting past the delicate pastry into the juicy filling and the flavour flooding your mouth and seeing smiles all around and thinking I helped to create this moment.

I’m always dazzled by the powerful combination of sweet pork, fiery ginger and sharp vinegar, and amazed by the complexity of flavours in Chinese cooking. Savoury and moreish, these tiny treasures go perfectly with a sharp and sweet dipping sauce.

Pork and water chestnut dumplings – makes 40
For the filling:
500g lean pork mince (see note below)
3 shallots, finely chopped
8 water chestnuts, diced
4 shitake mushrooms, diced
3 tsp grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tsp corn flour
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tsp sesame oil

To wrap:
40 x gyoza wrappers

To serve:
5 slivers of ginger
Black rice vinegar or distilled sugar cane vinegar
Light soy sauce

dumpling ingredients
dumpling ingredients

Just reading the list of ingredients can feel a bit daunting – goodness, is all that really necessary, Kahmen?

The short answer is yes; dumplings are meant to be complex and balanced so every bite is a joy. But the good news is that you can take each ingredient and add it directly to the mixing bowl as soon as it’s ready, so they’re really simple to make.

Combine all the filling ingredients and mix well. Yep, that’s it. Dumpling mix done and no MSG in sight.

If you’re planning to freeze dumplings, dust the tray with cornflour. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I forget to do this and it always ends in torn dumplings and tears the next day.

On a clean flat surface, lay out a set of dumpling wrappers – I think about nine at a time is about right because if you prepare too many they’ll dry out before you can get to folding them.

Lay about a teaspoon of mix in the centre of each wrapper. I find it easier to fold later if you shape the mix into a sausage now.

Ready to be folded
Ready to be folded

Dab the rim of the wrapper with water and fold over into a half circle, pinching the edges together. If you like, you can crimp them slightly to give the classic gyoza look. One down, thirty-nine to go.

You can either steam the dumplings for 8 minutes, or you can fry in a medium pan with oil, then add some water to create steam and cover for 4 minutes to help the insides cook.

I haven’t given quantities on the dipping sauce recipe because everyone has their own preference. In general, people recommend that you start off with equal parts vinegar and soy and then adjust to taste. I like a sharp sauce, so 2 parts vinegar to 1 part soy is about right.

NB: Interestingly, dumpling recipes always tell you to use fatty meat and with good reason – the juicier your dumplings, the tastier they’ll be. However, a quick look at the fat content in regular mince was enough to scare me right off, and I opted for lean mince, which you’ll be glad to know turned out just fine.

party parcels

It's the party season, and we mean to do it well.
It’s the party season, and we mean to do it well.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, which means one thing: indulgence.

I love the way London does Christmas. It’s cool and crisp outside, cosy and warm inside, and people wander around town wrapped in scarves and beanies, noses pink from the cold and eyes sparkling with the twinkling lights of Oxford Circus and Regent Street.

The Grinchiest Grinch couldn’t fail to be caught up in the magic of this festive time of year.

The sadness at being away from those I love at home and abroad is somewhat tempered by the whirlwind of parties and irresponsible merriment. At any other time, drinking every day would basically render you a functioning alcoholic, but December is the exception: parties are simply the order of the month.

These party parcels are quick and easy to make and impressive to look at. Warm, filling and delightful, they’re perfect for a relaxed gathering – just add mulled wine, good friends and plenty of laughter.

Trio of Party Parcels: ‘Plant, Parma and Pumpkin
Eggplant parcel:
1 square of puff pastry, roughly 12.5-15cm in length
1 slice eggplant, about 7.5mm thick
Half a teaspoon of harissa paste
1 slice mozzarella cheese, about 5mm thick

If it isn’t already done, cut the puff pastry into a square. I used reduced fat ready-rolled puff pastry, but go with what you like.

Cut a square of pastry.
Cut a square of pastry.

Place the eggplant in the centre and top with the harissa paste.

Eggplant and harissa is an amazing combination.
Eggplant and harissa is an amazing combination.

Add the mozzarella.

Eggplant, harissa and mozzarella. It just works.
Eggplant, harissa and mozzarella. It just works.

To form the parcel, take two corners of the parcel and pinch together.

Wrapping the parcel.
Wrapping the parcel.

Crimp hard along the seam, folding over slightly to get a better seal.

Pinch along the seam.
Pinch along the seam.

Fold the other corners up in the same way, crimping as you go.

One party parcel.
One party parcel.

Truthfully, mine sort of popped open in the oven, so if you don’t want this to happen you can prick the pastry with a fork.

Parma parcel:
1 square of puff pastry, roughly 12.5-15cm in length
1 slice Parma ham
1 slice mozzarella cheese, about 5mm thick
1 slice pear, about 5mm thick
4 yellow pickled jalapeño slices

Take the square of pastry, and lay the Parma ham so the bulk sits in the middle and hangs off the side of the pastry square.

Isn't Parma ham delicious?
Isn’t Parma ham delicious?

Place the pear and jalapeños on top, followed by the mozzarella.

Parma, pear, pickles and cheese.
Parma, pear, pickles and cheese.

Wrap the other end of the Parma ham back over the top so it forms a neat package in the middle of your pastry.

Fold as per the eggplant parcel.

Parma party parcel
Parma party parcel

Pumpkin parcel:
1 square of puff pastry, roughly 12.5-15cm in length
1 slice pumpkin, about 5mm thick (I used butternut squash because that’s what I had lying around)
1 tablespoon chilli jam
1 square cheddar cheese (you can use mozzarella again here, but I think cheddar is nicer for the flavour)

Microwave your pumpkin slice for around 30 seconds and allow to cool.

Take the square of pastry, and lay the pumpkin in the middle and top with chilli jam.

Pumpkin and chilli jam.
Pumpkin and chilli jam.

Add the cheese and fold as per the eggplant parcel.

To cook, take a foil-lined tray and brush with a little oil. Place the parcels on top and brush with a beaten egg.

Brush with a beaten egg for a golden coating.
Brush with a beaten egg for a golden coating.

Bake at 180 degrees for 15 minutes, until the cheese turns molten and the pastry is golden.

party parcels - fresh from the oven
Serve hot and fresh.

They explode into a shower of buttery pastry crumbs when you bite into them, so hand out the plates first. Merry Christmas, everyone!

pork dumplings

Bundles of joy

When my bestie and I want to get really cute, we call each other dumplings.

Is it an insult to be compared to something soft and squidgy, with delicate pudgy folds of goodness? Not at all. Because we love everything about dumplings, from the humble siu mai to the slightly dangerous xiao long bao (it’s like extreme eating). It’s a sign of our affection for each other.

But sadly, a lot of the commercially-produced dumplings in London are filled to the brim with MSG. I’ve got a real beef (boom tish!) with MSG, mainly because I consider it to be a chemical form of cheating, but also because I get headaches when I eat it. Chinese have almost no tolerance for hippie predilections, so the only alternative is to make my own.

I’d never tried making dumplings before, but it’s actually quite simple to do in a tiny kitchen. You make the filling in one bowl, then you just need a small flat surface to make the dumplings and a plate to hold the finished product. It’s a little time-consuming, but it’s compact and easy enough to do.

Now whenever I make these, I think of my bestie, my little dumpling, half a world away.

Pork Dumplings
Makes 48
Dumpling wrappers
500g pork mince (reduced fat if you can get it)
2 cups shredded cabbage (this translates to about 4 full leaves)
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinese wine, white wine or dry sherry
6 tbsp sesame oil
½ teaspoon white pepper
2cm ginger, grated
1 shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely diced
Salt
Cornflour

Whoah, does that look like a scary lot of ingredients? It really isn’t – and it’s really easy to make the mix. Start by taking the shredded cabbage and salting it with 2 tablespoons of salt. Leave it for 5 minutes and you’ll see the leaves have become shiny and wet.

Meanwhile, combine the soy sauce, wine, sesame oil, pepper, ginger, shallot and garlic – basically all of the seasonings for the mix.

Take your shredded cabbage and squeeze very hard to get all the moisture out, then place it in a large bowl and shake it to loosen.

Add the mince. At this stage I always find it a bit easier to shake the mince a bit so it’s nice and loose, which helps the seasoning to go in evenly.

Ok, not that photogenic. But you just know it’s going to be good.

Add the seasoning and mix well, trying not to overwork the mix. That bit is done!

To make the dumplings, take a wrapper and lay it flat on a board. They should be lightly floured so they won’t stick. Mix the cornflour with a little water (room temperature) so it forms a white liquid.

We’re ready to roll.

Place about a teaspoon of mixture into the centre of the dumpling wrapper. If you can be bothered to get fancy, quenelling helps to form the right shape, but otherwise just lightly roll a little meatball. Dab the cornflour water all around the edges, and fold into a semicircle. Pinch the edges hard. You can leave them like that if you want, but I like to try to make mine stand up, so I crinkle and schmoosh a little so they stand up properly.

Dumplings, ready for the steamer!

To serve: steam for 8 minutes and serve with the classic dumpling sauce (vinegar, soy sauce and chilli).