Food: Mother tongue

Forget wood-roasting for a moment, and give your meat an old-fashioned, British boil. Photograph by Jason Lowe
With all the searing, grilling, pan-frying, charring and oven- roasting, it is heartening to know there are still some of us who enjoy a good boil. And, incidentally, how else does one "roast" other than in an oven? But before someone points out the merits of "wood-roasting", an oven fuelled by wood is still just an oven - albeit a very hot one - as any domestic cook from Hastings to Hartlepool will tell you. You see, they have all energetically demolished their pantries to build one after reading the River Cafe Cookbook.

Now I am a huge fan of the River Cafe - its cooks, its delicious food and its wood-fuelled oven. And they know a thing or two about boiling meat, and so produce one of the finest bollito misto (boiled mixed meats and poultry, etc) this side of Bologna.

The term boiling, of course, is not strictly accurate here. This particular culinary motion requires the gentlest turn of the gas tap to achieve an initial simmer, gradually followed by the merest shudder, which is all that should be noted on the glistening surface in the cooking pot. Making a simple stock requires the same instructions and dedication. The results of both operations, to the happy cook, are the very essence of kitchen pleasures.

The British kitchen has long been associated with boiled food. Such dishes that have historically hummed over the back of the fire are notable: boiled mutton with caper sauce, boiled ham with Madeira sauce, boiled brisket (both salted and otherwise) with carrots or savoury dumplings, and various sweetened suet puddings - roly-polys, duffs, more dumplings and, of course, the festive plum pudding.

Salted ox tongue remains one of my favourite meats to boil. Thoughtfully done, the results here can be magnificently good. As with boiled mutton, a generous platter of fondant slices of salted tongue welcomes a welter of mildly piquant, judiciously creamed, English caper sauce flooded across its rosy countenance. Piquant is good with boiled tongue - salsa verde, the increasingly ubiquitous Italian herby green relish (now seen accompanying everything from grilled monkfish to fried chicken), has always shone most brilliantly when generously smeared over soft and juicy pieces from a quietly simmered ox tongue. And, of course, with bollito, too.

In the best of Kosher kitchens, another delicious relish made from beetroot and horseradish (known as chrain) is the traditional tracklement to both boiled tongue and beef. In France, it might be sauce ravigote or gribiche - both being a thickened vinaigrette based upon strong Dijon mustard, herbs and capers, emulsified with a simple oil. To use a fragrant oil such as olive - although it may be seen as the sine qua non of all oils for dressings in these days of lemming cookery - would be quite wrong here. The neutral oil is intended to carry the sauce rather than to flavour it. Just needed to get that off my chest, you understand ...

Anyway, to return to tongue. Unless it is Christmas time, when the more choosy supermarkets might wish to interest their choosier clientele by providing a freshly salted ox tongue to cook, press and traditionally present cold in deep red slices, your local butcher is going to be the best place to go when you fancy tongue. Now you may need to order it beforehand, but this should cause little problem to an enterprising family butcher. But here is how to dish up some hot tongue, with our very own English caper sauce.

Boiled salted ox tongue with caper sauce, serves 4-5

These days, salted tongues usually arrive in a plastic pouch, swimming in pink and briny juices. Firstly, cut the bag open and rinse the tongue well in warm water. Pat dry and place in a roomy pot. Cover with cold water and slowly bring to a gentle simmer. Once the surface of the water is covered with a light layer of scum, and small bubbles are breaking through, lift out the tongue with a slotted spoon and rinse under a cold running tap. Chuck out the water, clean out the pot and put the rinsed tongue back in.

Now add two peeled onions (one of them studded with five cloves); three small carrots, peeled and sliced in half lengthways; two small leeks, trimmed and washed; three sticks of celery, cut in half; two bay leaves; two to three sprigs of thyme; and several peppercorns. Cover everything with cold water and, once more, bring up to a gentle simmer. More scum will settle on the surface, so remove it with a spoon. Once this is done, allow the tongue to murmur gently for about one-and-a-half to two hours, depending on its size. After 90 minutes, check from time to time by running a thin skewer through the meat; as soon as there is little to no resistance, the tongue is cooked.

Remove it to a dish, scrape off any bits of clinging vegetable or herb, then strain the stock through a sieve into a clean pan and keep hot over a meagre flame. Once the tongue is cool enough to handle, carefully peel off its skin and discard. Return the tongue to the steaming stock to keep hot, while you make the sauce.

for the caper sauce

40g butter

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

40g flour

350ml of the tongue stock

1-2 tbsp of vinegar (decanted from the jar of capers) to taste

salt and white pepper

1 dsp smooth Dijon mustard

1 tsp redcurrant jelly

1 tbsp capers, squeezed of excess vinegar

75ml double cream

1 tbsp chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a saucepan and fry the onions until pale golden. Add the flour and cook over a low heat, stirring for a couple of minutes until lightly coloured. Stir in the hot stock slowly, until thickened and smooth. Add the vinegar, seasoning, mustard and redcurrant jelly. Allow to simmer gently for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into a clean pan and whisk in the cream until smooth and of a custard-like consistency. Introduce the capers and stir in the parsley. Simmer once more for a couple of minutes and spoon over the tongue, which should be served cut into thick, juicy slices. Mashed potatoes, of course.

Sauces ravigote and gribiche

Two of my most beloved lotions of the school of thick French vinaigrettes. Both, once more, include the useful, sharp little caper. And, incidentally, do not waste your money on those expensive teeny-weeny fellows, which should only be used in their own right, sprinkled into a salad, to garnish smoked salmon or spooned into the little cavities left by the removal of a cold lobster's stomach pouch once the critter has been halved and dressed. Here it is the fat and juicy capers that are correct (as is also the case for the previous recipe), as they have a great deal more flavour.

Each of the following sauces can be successfully spooned over hot tongue. Sauce ravigote is more loose than gribiche, having only onion and herbs to carry in suspension, whereas the latter is bulked out with chopped boiled eggs. Neither - as I have often seen of late in recipes from the misinformed - should include chopped gherkins. These are for tartare.

More importantly, however, never think to mix the two recipes, for there is a strange reaction that occurs when raw onion is mixed with chopped boiled egg. When these two are left together for a period of time, they will cause your carefully made sauce to taste of engine oil - or, for the terminally associated like me, it is the taste of the smell of well- oiled Hornby 00 railway track. If serving hot tongue with the following sauces, boiled or steamed potatoes (peeled, please!) are right and proper.

base sauce for both recipes

Use a small liquidiser, hand-held blender or food processor.

1 heaped tbsp smooth Dijon mustard

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

4-5 tbsp warm water

150-175ml sunflower or groundnut oil

Put the first four ingredients into the goblet of your chosen machine. Switch on and blend until smooth. With the motor still running, add the oil in a thin stream until a homogenous, creamy dressing is achieved. The result should have an almost jellied consistency to it, limpid and pale yellow in colour. Tip into a bowl and stir in the appropriate garnish:

for the ravigote

half a small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 tbsp coarsely chopped capers

scant tbsp chopped tarragon leaves

scant tbsp chopped parsley

for the gribiche

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and finely chopped or grated

1 tbsp coarsely chopped capers

1 tbsp chopped chervil

scant tbsp chopped parsley

Leave both sauces to mature at room temperature for 30 minutes.