slow cooking | The Proof of the Pudding

As I’ve discussed before, pork is one of our favourite meats in this household. Apart from shoulder, which is a gorgeous cut if you want melt-in-the-mouth pulled pork, pork belly has to be our favourite piece of pig. It is a rich, indulgent, flavoursome bit of meat, due to the high fat content, and although it’s probably not wise to add it to your weekly meals, it’s the perfect choice for a special dinner. An added bonus is that, due to this high fat content, it is a very cheap cut (the piece I bought for the recipe below cost about £3, which is far, far cheaper than an equivalent piece of roasting beef or lamb, or even a small chicken).

The main appeal of pork belly is the mouth-watering crackling that you can produce from the skin and the layer of fat below, but the meat underneath should not be overlooked. If cooked right, the meat in pork belly should be tender and juicy. In order to achieve both crispy skin and succulent meat, the cut needs a combination of quick, high blasts of heat and slow cooking at a low temperature. I’ve cooked pork belly many times in the past, but this was the first time I did a flash cook at a high temperature both at the start and the end of cooking. And though I do say so myself, it was the best pork belly I have ever cooked. Are you sold yet?…

Ingredients (serves 2-3) 700g boneless pork belly 1 tbsp fennel seeds Salt and pepper 1 large onion, sliced 3 garlic cloves, skin on, crushed

Glass of white wine

For the gravy: 1 tbsp corn flour

1 chicken stock cube, made up with 250ml boiling water

Method 1. Gently bash the fennel in a mortar and pestle to open the seeds and release the flavours. Rub into the underside of the pork belly, along with a generous grind of black pepper.

Are you sold now? Seriously, I’m salivating just now just writing about it…

Two weekends ago Ross and I spent three wonderful nights staying in a yurt on West Moss-side Farm in the Trossachs. West Moss-side is an organic farm and arts and crafts centre, owned by the lovely Kate who made our stay so special and relaxed. Kate rears organic Shetland cows, hires out three large yurts, runs craft workshops and has a gallery showcasing local artwork. We arrived to a glorious sunset and were blown away by the inside of our yurt: candle-lit, covered with cosy rugs and blankets and decorated with wild flowers. The yurt is furnished with a double bed (much more like sleeping indoors than camping, though you do still have the sound of rain on canvas at night and walking outside you are in the middle of a field), a well-equipped “kitchen” area including a two-ring gas stove and grill, a sofa bed, coffee table and a wood-burning stove. The wood-burning stove is primarily used to heat the yurt (much-needed in Scotland, even in the spring), but there is also an oven compartment which we were informed could be used for cooking….so, naturally, we had to give it a go!

This post is a little different to normal. We are in no way wood-burning stove experts (as I will demonstrate in just a moment), but we had a lot of fun experimenting with different recipes and I think by the end we had learned from our mistakes and got the hang of cooking in a wood-burning stove. So I’m going to take you through our wood-burning stove learning curve, and if you do want to vaguely follow any of these recipes then you too can learn from our mistakes and hopefully improve on our own attempts!

No-Knead Crusty Le Creuset Bread
I’ve been desperate to try out this recipe for a while now, after seeing various blogs rave about the results from this no-knead Le Creuset white bread recipe. Of course, you don’t need to have a Le Creuset pot to make this loaf, any pot with a lid and thick base will do. However, I was given a beautiful Le Creuset pot by my grandparents years ago which I use for everything from Bolognese to curry to one-pot roasts. It seemed (to optimistic minds) like the perfect recipe for cooking in a yurt – ridiculously simple, no kneading required and cooked inside a pot in a hot oven. It all began so well. We whipped up the simple dough on our first night. We’re talking flour, yeast, salt and water, mixed in a bowl. Simples. We left it overnight as directed and were delighted to wake up to a bubbly, risen mixture.
Still optimistic, the dough shaped easily into a lovely soft ball. The pot heated in the oven and we popped the loaf in to cook.

Here we learnt our first wood-burning stove lesson: there is no thermometer. I mean, obviously we knew this beforehand, but we hadn’t quite appreciated what this meant. Although the stove was giving out a fair amount of heat, it was nowhere near hot enough for the bread. Throwing the oven door open after the instructed time, ready to tip out our freshly baked bread and slather it in butter, we were confronted with a sad, pale pot of porridge. Still clinging to our bread dreams we decided to shut the oven door again and keep our fingers crossed. After double the original cooking time the crust of the bread finally looked like, well, bread. In fact, the crust of the bread was pretty tasty, but as you can see the overall loaf fell a bit…flat.

The inside of the bread just hadn’t ever cooked through properly, which was a shame as when you ripped into it the dough had a nice structure. I will definitely be trying this recipe again in my own electric oven at home, but I still believe it would work in a wood-burning stove if the temperature was hot enough when the bread first goes in.

Slow-cooked Beef Brisket
After our disappointing bread, we dusted ourselves off and moved on to the piece of organic brisket that we had bought from Kate. We gave the cut a rinse and popped it inside a pot with red wine, butter and plenty of salt and pepper.

Surely with ingredients like that nothing could go wrong? Here we learned our second wood-burning stove lesson: it is extremely tricky to regulate the oven temperature. We covered the pot in foil, got the fire going and left the beef bubbling (or so we thought) while we went out for a sunny bike ride. A few hours later we returned and opened up the pot. The sight that met our eyes was not appetizing: grey beef with a slightly raw underside. Panicking slightly (or panicking a lot, if you’re Ross) we removed the foil and stoked the fire until it was roaring. Another couple of hours later we had another peek and were confronted with a blackened piece of beef. Panicking slightly again, we left the meat to rest and got the accompaniments ready. However, when we cut into the brisket and removed the outer layer, the inside was as melt in the mouth as you’d like. The meat was easily shredded with a fork and the cooking liquid had reduced to make a tasty sauce.

Kate’s organic Shetland beef has a strong, unusual flavour, resulting from a combination of the breed of cow and the 100% organic home-grown feed, and we loved it. A success. We were pleased, and full.

Garlic Mushrooms and Roasted Sweetcorn

By our final night we had learned our third wood-burning stove lesson and were sticking to it: keep it simple. We cooked vegetables which didn’t rely on a steady or specific cooking temperature and timed frying our sirloin steaks according to how they cooked. The mushrooms were piled in a ceramic pot with large knobs of butter, lots of crushed garlic cloves and a generous amount of seasoning.
The results were absolutely delicious and a perfect partner for the steaks. The corn was just simply covered in foil and came out juicy and a little blackened round the ages.

Slathered in butter and sprinkled with salt, they were delicious.

Baked Camembert
We had learned our three lessons. There’s not much to elaborate on here. Melted cheese + red wine + fresh baguette = heaven.

We had a really enjoyable time playing around with the stove and overall I think we did pretty well for first-timers. We will be back to West Moss-side Farm, without a doubt, and maybe next time cooking in the stove we will hit the ground running from the start. Maybe not.

I hope you enjoyed our wood-burning stove journey. Don’t worry, we’ll be back to regular recipes that you can be confident will actually work next time!

If you have any experiences with cooking in wood-burning stoves then I would absolutely love to hear about them…