This is the second in a series of blog posts about my time on a goat farm in France. The introduction (which explains most of the madness) can be found here. I’d read that before this one if you want to get the full picture, but this will still be entertaining for you nonetheless.
“Veal?” I said, examining the white paper package in front of me. “Isn’t that, like very lean beef?”
“Yeah, sorta.” Greg shrugged a little. “It’s just young beef I guess. Evelyne usually just boils it in crème fraiche but yanno, she’s about as far from a natural cook as it gets.”
He chuckled but I shuddered, remembering last night’s meal. With the groceries from the market sitting expectantly on the table in front of me, I peeled back the paper which the veal was wrapped in and found some slimy looking, pale steaks staring back at me. My immediate thought was that they resembled what might occur if you were to carve up the inner thigh of a human being, but I tried to shove that thought into my mental filing cabinet of ‘descriptions which should under no circumstances be associated with the food we eat’. This filing cabinet is starting to overflow and I should really transfer it to the cloud. Or a horrific piece of food-writing for the Fence Magazine. Ahem.
“I’ll be honest,” I said, not quite making eye contact with Greg, “I don’t really cook with veal at home.”
The only time I’d ever used it before was when I found a veal steak reduced in the Morningside Waitrose for 45p on my ‘I’m bored off my nut and need a walk’ lockdown visits to elicit some rare form of social contact with Bert, one of my best pals who worked on the butcher counter there for a wee while. I’d cooked it as I would have done most steaks, blasting each side in cast iron on high heat, then basting everything with butter, garlic and rosemary (the latter stolen from a university-owned hedgerow) towards the end of cooking. I’d found the meat itself relatively flavourless, despite it being on the bone, and salting it for an hour and a bit beforehand. So what the bloody hell could I do with 6 boneless, skinless, pallid veal steaks, thrust into my hands by an ever-busy and breathless Evelyne, who disappeared in a puff of chaos every 45 seconds?
God only knew at this point but I started by salting them. This is important for lean meat which might otherwise dry out, as dry-brining (a fancy term for ‘burying them in a layer of table salt’ a few hours before cooking) would enable me to lock in moisture and get a nice sear on them, something desperately lacking if one decides to boil them in unseasoned dairy product. Here’s the science behind dry-brining if you’re interested. This all happened at 11am, by the way, and I was due to cook them for lunch, around two hours later.
I decided I’d do a classic meat and two veg meal, treating the veal as I would a typical beef steak, or more accurately, a pork loin, as that’s what it reminded me of most. I knew it’d be like chewing on a bit of inner tube if I got it wrong, but even if I cooked it perfectly, I had a feeling I couldn’t rely on the meat alone in terms of flavour. This called for a sauce. Funnily enough, I’d had an argument with a friend a few weeks prior who claimed that his enjoyment of steak was based solely on his choice of sauce. I’d called him a wanker at the time because obviously it’s all about the fat content of the cut you go for, but I sorely regretted this quip now, because, well, the meal I was just about to put together was hinging on the quality of its lubricant. He had a point after all. But before I could even think about peppercorns or blue cheese, or mushrooms, I needed to devote some brain cells to consider how to put together a full meal for six using only the one working ring on a hotplate and a very limited set of ingredients including 5 tonnes of courgettes.
While the veal was osmosising (new progressive verb form just dropped) I made a plan. Firstly, I would fry some thinly sliced courgettes with some nice olive oil in a griddle pan to get some char marks, then lay it on a plate and crumble over some goats cheese and grate over some lemon zest. I’d call it a salad, and it’d look like the ones you’d drool over in a glossy magazine. This could be served at room temperature, so I decided to start on this immediately. Spit-spot.
When that was done, covered and chilling in the cave* I had a think about kale. There was a big garden choccabloc full of the stuff, so I was kind of obliged to use it. I asked Ryan, one of the other volunteers, to fetch me some while I made everyone a cup of tea. He did so, reappearing with enough greenery to overstuff a chaise-lounge, which I then set about washing and de-stalking. Once sufficiently stripped of its tough core, I massaged the kale leaves with some salt and olive oil. I think I’d seen this on tik tok (well, an Instagram reel of a tiktok because I’m old) once so gave it a go, hoping to tenderise the tough leaves somewhat. I then left them to vibe in a bowl to be sautéed later while I began on the veal, as we were about half an hour away from lunch at this point: the courgette charring had taken longer than expected.
To prepare the veal, I patted the moisture off each steak with kitchen roll and scraped away any excessive salt. I then covered them in black pepper, a sprinkle of oregano and some dried thyme, and got a new pan super hot on the one working ring. A lack of extractor fan, smoke detectors or fire alarms in the farmhouse meant I wasn’t worried about the olive oil being a bit smoky – and yeah, my hair and clothes would soon smell like whatever I was cooking but with any luck it’d all be worth it. I laid the steaks, two at a time to avoid overcrowding, into the pan and let them do their thing for around 2 minutes on each side. I then found another pan to slide the cooked steaks into and cover with foil, keeping them warm on the other, dodgy, ring of the hotplate burner. Because I had so many to do in quick succession, I couldn’t really baste them with butter and garlic at the end of cooking each time, so decided these flavours would have to appear in the sauce instead.
When the veals was done, I turned the heat down on the main pan and melted some butter into it. To this I then added two finely diced onions, with some chopped wild thyme leaves I’d found in the woods, and left the lid on for them to cook through for a bit, while I chopped two deliciously plump cloves of garlic into tiny little pieces. I scraped them in, followed by a hefty lug of white wine and a teaspoon of lemon zest, and let everything reduce for a little bit while I asked someone else to lay the table. I then added in a few generous tablespoons of crème fraiche into the wine and onions, giving everything a good stir to homogenise it. Sauce, innit.
Because I didn’t have enough space to keep everything warm at once, I then added the steaks to the sauce (rather than what I’d have done at home, which is keep the sauce warm and pour it over at the table) and kept them on the heat while I fried the kale in a little more butter, a clove of finely chopped garlic and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. This only took a few minutes, by which time, four people, two cats and two dogs were sitting expectantly at the table. During this time, I also added a splash of red wine vinegar, some crème fraiche and some olives to the leftover plain pasta from yesterday to serve alongside it as a sort of pasta salad thing.
This was the first meal I’d made in the farmhouse. It’d taken me around an hour and a half – several eons longer than at home, but I was pleased I’d managed. I brought everything to the table and Greg looked at me like I was some sort of alien, but in a nice way. Evelyne was extremely gushing. Obviously the sauce was a touch too acidic, and I’d used too much olive oil on the salad, and the pasta could have done with some capers and fresh parsley stirred through it, but all in all, it was fine. Greg had seconds, then thirds, then asked me what I’d be making for dinner. Hm.
I suppose that’ll be the next blog post.
Charred courgette salad, serves 4-6 depending on how much you like eating courgettes
- 1KG of courgettes
- Olive oil
- A round of fresh, crumbly goat’s cheese, around 150g
- A lemon
Slice your courgettes lengthways into surfboards around the thickness of a £1 coin. Sprinkle some salt onto them and then get a griddle pan nice and hot. Splash a tiny bit of oil into the pan and use a bit of kitchen roll to distribute it evenly over the ridges. Fry your courgette slices in batches, turning only when you see some nice char marks on the undersides of them. As they come off the pan, arrange them on a nice platter in rough layers, grating a bit of lemon zest here and there. When they’re all done, crumble the goats cheese over and drizzle over a last splash of olive oil finishing with a spritz of lemon. Serve either cold or at room temperature.
- Around 500g of kale, de-stalked and leaves chopped into roughly inch long bits
- olive oil
- freshly ground black pepper
- A clove of garlic
- Half a chopped chilli (optional)
Massage your kale in a large bowl with a pinch of salt and some olive oil then set aside. Gently melt some butter in a large, deep-sided frying pan while you chop a clove of garlic very finely. Grind the black pepper directly into the butter so it goes fragrant. Then, add the garlic into the butter for a minute or two, making sure it doesn’t catch and burn. If you’re using the chilli, chop it finely and add it here. Add your kale to the pan and stir it around for a bit until it wilts. Cook until it’s tender; around 5 minutes. Serve hot as a side.
Veal steaks and weird sauce
You will need
- 6 veal steaks, or pork loins
- Fresh wild thyme, preferably harvested from a French forest at dusk
- 2 onions
- 2 phat boi cloves of garlic
- 250g of crème fraiche (4-5 heaped tablespoons)
- A lemon
- Some white wine, disnae matter what
- Olive oil
Start by salting your veal steaks in advance. It doesn’t really matter when this is – the longer the salt gets to vibe on them, the better.
When you want to cook them, get a pan super hot (use vegetable oil. lard or beef dripping; I only had olive oil to work with and its low smoke point mean that the sear wasn’t quite as good as it could have been on the steaks) and pat them dry with kitchen roll so that there’s no surface moisture left. This is what will get you a nice sear. Fry the steaks in batches for 2-3 minutes per side. Set aside to rest in foil while you make the sauce.
Using the same pan on a lower heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter gently while you chop your onions very finely. Fry them off with a pinch of salt and your fresh thyme, with a good grinding of black pepper in there for luck. Add a lid while you chop your garlic, then add that in when the onions are just going soft; around 6-8 minutes. Add in the garlic and leave it for a few minutes until that’s softened through, then add a glug of wine and a good grating of lemon zest. Let that reduce for a wee while, then dollop in your crème fraiche, giving it a good stir to heat it all through. Serve hot with the steaks.
*a cave – pronounced cah-vey – is a cool, dark room normally underground, traditionally used to store wine. In this case it was full of rusty lawnmower gubbins, and my salad