Tag Archives: onions

Cheese and Leek (or Onion) Pie

Hello! I’m back after two-month hiatus. Did you miss me?

It’s British Pie Week this week so I thought I’d post a recipe for a favourite of mine. The trouble is, I have many favourites, so I came up with a list of four and let Twitter decide. I was very glad to see my favourite won.

Later, I saw the cheese and leek/onion pie was tenth in the top ten favourite UK pies, receiving just 1% of the vote!* Shocking. I think there may be a north-south divide effect at work there; back in the days of my market stall and restaurant, cheese and leek pie was by far the favourite.

The cheese and onion pie or pasty used to be a very important food for the working classes of Northern England, especially Yorkshire and Lancashire: it’s easy to make and the ingredients are cheap compared to meaty fillings. It’s the pie equivalent of the Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit.

The simplest of fillings were made of cooked onion, thinly-sliced raw potato, or cold mashed potato, and grated cheese. On the fancier side, a thick white sauce is used instead of mash. For my recipe I am going somewhere in between to hopefully enjoy the best of both worlds. I use onion and leek interchangeably because either (or both) can be used: I make leek pies as I’m intolerant to onion.

As for the cheese, use a mature kind that melts easily: Cheddar, Lancashire, Double Gloucester etc. The pastry should be a simple shortcrust made with half butter, half lard, but all butter is good too.

Serve the pie with mashed potatoes or chips, with peas and gravy as is traditional, but this pie eats very well just warm with a dressed green salad and some good old salad cream.


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Makes one large pie to serve 6 people (or 4 greedy ones who always have seconds)

For the filling:

50 g butter

1 leek, trimmed and sliced, but with the green left on; or 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced

350 g (approx.) potatoes, peeled and diced (about 2 medium-sized ones)

Salt and pepper

1 tbs plain flour

1 tsp English mustard powder

275 ml hot milk

150 g grated cheese

Pinch Cayenne pepper (optional)

2 tbs double cream

For the pastry:

400 g plain flour

200g salted butter, or 100 g each butter and lard (or shortening)

120 ml water or milk

Egg wash

Start with the filling. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the leek or onion and potatoes, season with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Cook over a medium heat until the leek or onion melts right down. Do this slowly, turning down the heat if necessary – you don’t want to fry them, though a pale golden brown colour is fine.

Stir in the flour and mustard and cook for a minute before mixing half of the milk. When the milk combines with the flour to make a smooth sauce, add the remainder of the milk and combine again.

Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Mix in the Cayenne pepper. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper. It’s a good idea to slightly over season the filling to make up for the comparatively bland shortcrust pastry. Finally stir in the cream and allow to cool completely. I usually make my cooked fillings a day or two ahead of time.

Now make the pastry. Rub the fat(s) into the flour. If you are using unsalted butter, add half a teaspoon of salt. If you are making pastry by hand, unless you have forearms like Popeye, use fats that are at room temperature. If using a mixer, use the flat beater and use cold fats straight from the fridge. Either way, once it resembles breadcrumbs add the water a couple of tablespoons at a time until you have a soft but not sticky dough. Knead very briefly, wrap in cling film and leave it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

After resting, take around a third of the dough and roll out on a lightly floured worktop. I used an 18 cm cake tin because I like deep-filled pies, but a shallow pie dish or flan ring of around 25 cm would work too. Roll out a third of the pastry into a circle. Leave the pastry to rest again for a minute or so before laying it in the tin. Be careful to press the pastry into the corners without stretching it: lift it in carefully. If using a deep dish as I have it’s helpful to fold the pastry into quarters, placing it in the dish or tin and then unfolding it.

Roll out the remainder of the pastry to make a lid. Cut a steam hole in the centre and set aside.

Spoon in the pie filling, but don’t fill it too much – it does expand as it cooks. Now brush the edges with egg wash (I use an egg, or egg yolk, beaten with half a teaspoon of salt). Glue the lid in place, pressing the lid down well.

Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife and then crimp the edges or use a fork to seal the lid. Paint with more egg wash, and if you like add a bit more black pepper. Place in the fridge to set the pastry.

Preheat your oven to 220°C and pop a baking tray on the centre shelf.

(If you have any left-over pastry and filling, make a pasty with it (see here for my Cornish pasty recipe) and bake it with the pie, or freeze it. Both pastry and filling freeze well separately.)

Take the pie out of the fridge and place in the oven on the hot baking tray (this prevents a soggy bottom from developing) and bake for 45 minutes, turning down the heat to 180°C when the pastry is a nice golden brown.

*The poll appeared in the Metro back in 2017: https://metro.co.uk/2017/03/09/the-most-loved-pies-around-the-uk-may-divide-the-nation-6498584/

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Two Easy Pickle Recipes

My previous post on pickling went on a bit, so I’ve added these two simple recipes as a separate one. The methods are not particularly comprehensive, so if you haven’t pickled before read the previous post for hints and tips.

Pickled Red Cabbage

As with many recipes for preserving, it’s difficult to come up with precise amounts. It all depends upon how much produce you have and the size and shape of your jars . A certain amount of guesswork is required. If you don’t make enough pickling liquor, you can quickly make more, and if you make too much, keep it in a sterilised jar; you can always use it pickle something else, or use it in salad dressings.

It is a good example of a system rather than of a recipe, but I reckon a good-sized red cabbage will need a litre of liquor. Oh and it’s a two-day affair, so don’t start this the day before a fortnight’s holiday or something:

Day 1:

1 red cabbage, sliced thinly, centre removed

Sea or rock salt

Scatter your sliced cabbage into a colander placed on a deep plate or large bowl and strew with plenty of salt. Cover with a tea towel and leave overnight for the water to drain.

Day 2:

1 litre of cider, wine or distilled vinegar

1 tsp peppercorns

1 chilli

1 tsp Allspice berries

50 g sugar

1 star anise

1 tsp Mustard seeds

Boil the vinegar with the spices and sugar, simmering for 5 minutes. Rinse the salt from the cabbage and pack into sterilised jars. Strain the hot vinegar and fill the jars with the piping hot liquor. Pop the chilli and star anise into the jars and a few of the seeds and berries (for prettiness). Put on lids and leave to mature for four weeks.

  1. Cover cabbage with salt for 24 hours.
  2. Next day, rinse away the salt and pack into sterilised jars.
  3. Boil up the remaining ingredients. Simmer 5 minutes and pour over the cabbage.

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Delia Smith’s Quick Pickled Onions

from her Complete Cookery Course, 1982

“I’m afraid I have neither the strength nor the patience of endure long pickling sessions…so I always use the method below” says Delia.

No faffing about with this one: onions usually need brining or dry-salting. Delia skips this stage, but be warned: they don’t keep as long as regular pickled onions as the excess water isn’t drawn out by the salting process. They’ll keep 4 months maximum.

In her recipe, Delia asks for pickling spice, which you can buy already blended, but have a go at making your own; a keen cook will probably have most of the spices needed anyway! See the previous post for an example.

2 kg pickling onions [or shallots]

1.75 l of malt vinegar (Sarson’s is best)

25 g pickling spice

The first task is to peel the onions. Put them in a bowl and cover with boiling water straight from the kettle, drain and get peeling. The skins should now be relatively loose from their hot water treatment.

Half-fill your jars with onions – 4 1-litre jars will be enough – and share out half of the pickling spices between them, scattering nicely. Top up with the remainder of the onions, and then the rest of the spices. Pour the vinegar in (no need to heat it) and screw the lids on tightly. Leave the onions 8 weeks before eating them.

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Know Your Onions

It is an exciting time for those that grow their own onions because onion season is in mid-flow. It was probably a while ago that the onions themselves were picked, but they generally grow through a short period of drying before they are used in the kitchen or put into storage over the wintertime.

I’ve never grown them myself, but I feel that when it comes to cooking and eating onions, I really know my, er, onions. (Funny saying that; there is one theory that it was invented by etymologists working on the Oxford English Dictionary who coined it in great admiration of one of the best and most knowledgeable grammarians of the day, a certain C T Onions. How I wish it were true, but it seems that is actually American. Oh well.)

I love onions and they are one of the most loved vegetables, they are certainly the most used vegetable in the world – there is not a single cuisine I can think of that doesn’t use them. In Western cookery, onions make up one of the trinity of stock vegetables alongside carrots and celery; and there are countless recipes that begin with slicing or chopping an onion before browning in butter or oil. They are a universal seasoner of foods, a ubiquitous seasoning that is not always detectable, but if it were to be omitted you would miss them.

And I do, for I recently found out that I have an onion ‘intolerance’, or at least my alimentary canal does. Finding a replacement has been tricky, but I have recently adopted using the finely sliced green parts of a leek along with a clove of garlic. It is strange that I essentially turn myself inside out after eating a cheese and onion sandwich and yet I can happily tuck into the remainder of the onion family: garlic, leeks and chives and not suffer even the mildest discomfort. Anyway, you don’t want to know about all that – I sound like an old woman!

Allium, the Onions

There are around 500 species of plant that belong to the Genus Allium, and botanically speaking they are all members of the lily family, though only a score are important as foods worldwide, and even fewer that are important to the British, though the onion, garlic and leek were all eaten in Ancient Egypt and even appear in the Old Testament of The Bible.

Below is a lovely illustration from the wonderful book Food in England by Dorothy Hartley showing the ‘Most Common or Garden Onions’. Chives and leeks have been omitted as they are suitably different to be considered standalone vegetables/herbs. There are familiar and unfamiliar onions here, and some that have been omitted, like mild white onions. Two that I have never sampled are the Welsh Holtzers and the strange Egyptian, or tree, onion.

I am going to stick to the familiar brown onion that we all know and love in this post. At the foot of the above drawing it is mentioned that onions, bread and cheese ‘are spoken together as Field Fare in our earliest manuscripts’. These three food items would have been bagged up or kept in the pocket of a ploughman or other farm worker for much-needed sustenance throughout the long working day. The original ploughman’s lunch that dates to not too long after the first century when onions were first introduced to Britain by the Romans.

Two Onion Recipes

So many recipes use onions, but so few of them show them off as the star of the show and we forget that onions can be served as vegetables in their own right. Here are two recipes that I think do them justice.

Baked Onions, or Orbs of Joy

This is a very old recipe that has recently been given a second wind by Fergus Henderson the great ‘nose to tail’ chef at St John in London. Looking at his recipe and one written in 1954 by Dorothy Hartley, there is only one difference and that is the type of onion used – a stoic brown onion or a prettier red onion. Use whichever you grow or prefer. Serve with roast game, chicken, goose or beef, using the appropriate stock.

Ingredients

butter

one good-sized onion per person

chicken, beef or vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Smear some healthy knobs of butter on the bottom of a deep ovenproof dish. Peel your onions, cut off the rooty part and sit them in the dish. Pour in enough hot stock almost to cover. Season the tops with salt and pepper. Bake uncovered in a moderate oven, around 160⁰C, until the onions are tender within and caramelised without. Test their doneness with a skewer. If you only have a little stock, cover the dish and only remove it toward the end of the cooking time so they can ‘brown becomingly’.


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Onion Marmalade

I imagined that onion marmalade had been around for ages but only seems to date back to the latter half of the last century. Who knew? This is a recipe of my own concoction and is a top-seller on my stall. There are plenty of dark sweet flavours as well as tart vinegar. I use cider or wine vinegar as well as Balsamic vinegar in mine. Feel free to alter the ratio of the two to your own liking. It makes about 1 litre (2 pints) of marmalade. Have it in a cheese sandwich, with bangers and mash, or with some nice potted chicken livers.

Ingredients

2 kg (4.5 lbs) onions, halved and thinly sliced

5 tbs olive oil

100 g (4 oz) granulated sugar

100 g (4oz) soft dark brown sugar

1 tbs chopped thyme leaves

4 bay leaves

1 ½ tsp salt and ½ tsp ground black pepper

250 ml (9 fl oz)  cider or wine vinegar (red or white)

50 ml (2 fl oz) balsamic vinegar

Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Turn up the heat and add the onion. Using a wooden spoon, coat the onions well in the oil. Add the sugars, thyme, salt and pepper, then turn heat down to medium and mix until the sugars have dissolve. Simmer uncovered for at least 50 minutes on a medium-low heat, until the onions have become deliciously brown and mushy. Take your time, be as slow as possible. If you don’t have 50 minutes or more to spare, wait for a time you do!

Pour in the vinegars and simmer for a further 30 minutes until the liquids have reduced to about one-quarter and are good and syrupy. Let the marmalade cool for 10 minutes then jar as normal.

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