Foraging on my doorstep 2: Cockle chowder with chorizo

This hearty, flavoursome chowder is a welcome and warming treat following a day outdoors in the ongoing winter squall here in the Outer Hebrides. This includes time spent at our local cockle strand harvesting this delightful free food.

cockles 2

Foraging for cockles provides exhilaration in the form of fresh air, a bit of graft – and the potential threat of a fast rising tide to keep you on your toes.  This small and wonderful bivalve beast Cerastoderma edule is almost ubiquitous around the coast of the UK. It can be found in soft intertidal substrates from sand to gravel to a depth of about 5 cm. From population estimates, it is the UK’s second most abundant bivalve after that featured in my last post, mussels.

In terms of commercial availability, cockles are almost exclusively harvested from wild populations, unlike mussels which are available predominantly from cultivated populations. Cockles normally live for 2-4 years and growth is rapid in the first 2 years, slowing with age and they can live for up to 9 years.  Late autumn/early winter is the best time to collect cockles as adults often lose weight over the winter.  Despite the fascinating life history and population dynamics of cockles, I cannot afford further digressions down that road, otherwise,  I might never finish this post.

There are extensive cockle strands both north and south of our house. Although the density of cockles is not necessarily very high, the cockles are large and flavoursome. We opted to go south, equipped with a rake and a bucket and sussed out with keen eyes where the best spots may be to collect as the rising tide encroached, scraping delicately and diligently across the sand surface to feel the cockles just below the surface with the rake.  I have also done this with a cutlery fork, or my hands, all require a lot of bending and scraping, a tactile, worthwhile experience.

We ought to be ashamed that the humble yet delicious cockle is no longer relished across Old Blighty.  This most traditional British seaside favourite still has a toehold of popularity in the East End of London, but most harvested stocks are sadly consigned for export to more appreciative nations.

The small cockle harvesting industry here is no exception. That said, the most notable cockle strand in the Outer Hebrides is indeed exceptional. The breathtakingly beautiful bay of Traigh Mhor on the northern tip of Barra is the most notable cockle strand on this island chain. It is also the only place in the world where scheduled flights land according to the tide.

Landing or taking off from the beach at Traigh Mhor on Barra is an experience that is on many a bucket list.  It has topped polls as the world’s most spectacular landing spot for a flight.  I have been lucky enough to land on and depart from this famous cockle strand many times. Below is the ‘runway’. Credit to HIAL for photos 1,2 and 4.

Barra runway

The short 20 minute flight  I often took southwards from Benbecula to Barra skirted low along the western machair dune ridge of South Uist before cutting across the Sound of Barra, flying close to the island of Eriskay and the spot where the S.S. Politician sank in 1941. This famous wreck inspired the book, ‘Whisky Galore’ by Compton Mackenzie. Indeed, the author is laid to rest on Barra, near the airport.  Many will better recall the highly entertaining 1949 Ealing Studios film comedy based on the book – bad accents and all.

11743373-landing-at-barra-airport

Sadly, due to Local Government cuts, the delightful direct flight between Barra and Benbecula was removed from the schedule. This lifeline link between Barra and the rest of the Uists being permanently cut, despite much local protestations.  More is the pity as a result, local workers commuting and on occasion, in summer, tourists, get stranded on either side of the sound when the ferry cannot run, but a plane would have otherwise flown.  Very frustrating.  It is still possible to enjoy the experience of landing and taking off from Barra, but flights now only run between Glasgow and Barra, the inter-island experience gone, possibly forever.  I am glad I have memories of the experience – both positive and less so.

Flybe-Twin-Otter-at-Barra-Airport-Outer-Hebrides-Scotland

We treated my mum to a flight from Benbecula to Barra for her birthday a couple of years ago. The weather was ideal and the experience was perfect for my parents.  We incorporated a walk along the scenic sands of Vatersay and lunch at Cafe Kisimul in Castlebay. Excellent hand-dived scallop pakora, local lamb curry and some of the best coffee available on the Outer Hebrides.

cr_mega_8_Barra Beach Landing

I have had less pleasant experiences leaving Barra on that short flight.  Following a difficult and controversial meeting, all ferries back to Uist were cancelled due to gales and myself and my colleagues were ‘lucky’ to be able to secure seats on the flight back to Benbecula.  I put the howling gale to the back of my mind and whimsically hoped the flight might be cancelled.

Not so. It landed on the beach in a shower of sea spray, we boarded and within 3 seconds of prop engine thrust, we were up and off, almost vertically, close to cracking our heads on the low roof of the tiny Twin Otter as it bounced about, rapidly and confidently gaining altitude, apparently more rapidly than any plane I have ever flown in. Despite the noise of the wind, the rest of the flight was uneventful and we landed smoothly,  safe back on Terra firma in Benbecula in 15 minutes, flying so low we were below the clouds and could take in the breathtaking views of the coast.

Cockle chowder with chorizo

This is a simple recipe that demands only the best quality ingredients: fresh, sweet cockles, quality chorizo and super-fresh local free range eggs.

First, prepare the cockles.  To avoid grit, leave the cockles in seawater overnight to allow them to filter out as much sand as possible before cooking. This recipe is a variation of a Rick Stein recipe from Rick Stein’s Seafood.

Ingredients

2.5 litres of cockles, cleaned
1 litre of water
25g butter
50g chorizo, diced
50 ml Noilly Prat
1 leek, sliced,
4 tomatoes, skinned and finely sliced
2 waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tbsp. double cream
2 large free range eggs
juice of 1 lemon
handful of chopped parsley or chervil
salt and pepper

cockles

Method

  • Put the cockles in a large pan with about 150 ml of the water and the Noilly Prat and cook at a high heat for 3-5 minutes, shaking occasionally until they are all open.
  • Decant into a colander over a pan to retain the cooking juices. Take the meat from the shells, once they have cooled at little.
  • Melt the butter in a large pan, add the chorizo and cook until it gains a bit of colour. Add the leek, celery and skinned tomatoes until soft.
  • Pour the cockle cooking liquor (minus the last bit to avoid adding sand) and water into the pan.  Add the potatoes and simmer the chowder until these are soft.
  • Add the double cream and cockles and season.
  • Whisk the eggs and lemon juice in a bowl.  Add a hot ladle of chowder to this mixture and add to the pan. Stir and allow to thicken over a low heat.  Sprinkle on parsley/chervil and serve with crusty homemade bread.

The driech smir outside will soon be forgotten…

cockle chowder

Foraging on my doorstep 1: Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

This short series of posts focuses on very locally foraged free food gathered predominantly from the shoreline near my house.  First, a rich starter of mussels with a decadent cream sauce featuring the heady anise-heavy combination of pastis and fresh tarragon.

cockles and mussels

Warning of significant digressions in this post, skip to recipe at bottom of the post to avoid same.

Windows of opportunity

I have been making the most of the short windows of opportunity that the stormy and erratic weather has presented here on North Uist.  Given the fairly unrelenting storms since the beginning of December, one either grasps the nettle and heads outside to embrace the squall, or cowers indoors to suffer from cabin fever.   The latter is not an option for me, not least because I also have to get out for daily dog walks. That said, some days have been so wet and windy, the dogs have declined to leave the house for all but the shortest periods. Sensible animals. The forage and beach walk in the photo was atmospheric and perhaps most surprising, not a drop of rain fell on us. Hector the Frisbee King is captured mid-catch.

beach view 1

beach frisbee catch

I was also away for half of January, so the break has meant the weather has not quite been able to grind me down thus far. I also have come to the realization that I have to be pragmatic and accept that my aim of regular blogging will be challenging this year and I anticipate more erratic and less frequent posts, not least because I am away for a period again at the end of this month and we hope to start renovating the house thereafter.

The planned house renovation continues to grind along at a glacial pace. We have experienced delays that were not anticipated as a consequence of what should perhaps politely be described as differences of opinion between ourselves and planners / building control about the design and layout or the substantial re-modelling and extension of our crumbling croft house.  Thankfully, these issues now seem to resolved (we hope) and we can now begin to make tangible progress.

Granite and metal

While away, we took advantage of the opportunity to look at various fixtures, fittings and finishes we may include in our renovated home.  We had a productive day in Glasgow visiting stonemason yards to select a slab of granite for the bling large island that will form the centrepiece of the kitchen. Job done, we went to see groove metal titans, Lamb of God at the 02 Glasgow Academy in the evening.

We chuckled at the ironic dichotomy of our daytime middle-aged middle class exploits to locate granite and discuss soft furnishings for our renovation project versus the fret-melting aural assault of the evening metal gig.

Lamb of God did not fall short of our expectations, delivering a set of unrelenting brutality and vitality, much to the delight of the typically good-humoured metal-loving audience. The 2,500 capacity venue is an old Art Deco cinema in the Gorbals area of Glasgow’s south side.  It stands in isolation on the road, the Art Deco features having saved it from demolition, unlike the buildings that once stood around it. The venue is a gap filler between small intimate venues like King Tut’s and big hangars like the awful SECC.  It was a well-chosen venue for this sold out gig. I captured the atmosphere of the gig with a few video clips. One is below. Warning: it is a bit sweary.

It’s the first gig I have been to for quite a few years where my ears were ringing afterwards, I think probably due to the awful set up for one of the support bands (who never seem to have the benefit of the mixing desk) resulting in mic feedback of scratchy ear-spitting delivery. I recall gigs in the 80’s and early 90’s were often unbearably, painfully loud (literally), until decibel limits were reigned in a bit, much to the benefit of the audience.

Age concern?

The audience had a diverse age range, perhaps not surprising given Lamb of God have been around for 20 years or so, band members being about the same age as us. between them they sported more hair and beardage than the entire audience put together. I must admit, although both The Man Named Sous and I still love going to these heavy gigs, we no longer have the requirement to enter the throng of the ‘pit’, being squashed and ricocheted off bodies to cross this central void in the audience, passing bodies over our heads to reach the front (or indeed, being passed high on a sea of hands ourselves).  In this case, we could predict the massive size of the pit, so big at times it became less dynamic and almost pedestrian. We kept out of the way and enjoyed the whole spectacle from a fantastic elevated spot 1/2 way back.

The benefit of attending these gigs over the years is that you get more relaxed about self-image.  Youth brings out the desire in fans to wear their music on the outside, be it a t-shirt or other typical metal paraphernalia.  While we were waiting in the car to go into the gig (we also no longer queue in the rain until a venue opens), we saw a couple of young guys get out of their very metal 4 x 4 in comfy hoodies and trainers.  They then proceeded to get biker boots and knee-length leather coats out the back of the car and don them before strolling, more credibly, over to the venue across the road.

Those longer in the tooth have of course gone through this and paid the price with heat exhaustion. I was once close to passing out as a result of wearing a fully lined bikers jacket at the front and have had numerous pairs of favourite DMs crushed and scuffed in the affray.  I also had the left sleeve of that battered old bikers jacket completely ripped off at a gig in the 1980’s.  No malice intended! Now we are older and sensible, we deposit coats in the cloakroom, patiently queue at the end to retrieve them and favour t-shirts, comfy jeans and old trainers, should we end up wearing a pint of beer thrown exuberantly in the melee. That said, we still prefer standing gigs, seated gigs being routinely rejected.

Classical misconceptions

Someone recently said to me that they were surprised by my taste in music because I ‘didn’t look like someone who listened to metal’.  WTF?! This left me perplexed and wondering how they think I should look, being a professional woman in my early 40’s. Clichés came to mind: Piercings? Tattoos? Crucifix (large, inverted)? Bullet belt? Spandex? (!). Although The Man Named Sous sports the more credibly clichéd long hair and beard associated with rock generally, he also likes prog rock, yet I have never seen him wear a cape or wizard’s hat and he has no propensity to stick kitchen knives between the keys of our electric piano.

For me, connections between metal and image evoke nightmarish flashbacks to 1980’s ‘hair metal’, dreadful commercial manure I never considered to be part of the metal genre: Poison, Motley Crue, Ratt, etc and all the base banal misogynistic baggage and superficiality that came with that Sunset Strip scene.

Not that I am suggesting for a minute that metal is highbrow. Metal as a genre is often treated as a bit of a joke, labelled as blue collar, often being perceived as frivolous, ludicrous or unsophisticated .  Thrash.  More like trash, I have heard more than once. Some of it certainly is, particularly when OTT mashinations are performed in earnest, but some of it is tongue in cheek.

Understandably, it can be easy to criticise what appears to be, at face value, an unfathomable attrition of noise (sometimes white). Some of it is indeed vacuous or unlistenable.  Cherry picking the best of the very many genres and sub-genres that are labelled as metal (prog, math, groove, black, doom, nu – to name a few). If the wheat is separated from the chaff, some challenging and original gems of motivational music can be discovered (Tool -Ænema; Opeth – Blackwater Park; Mastodon – Crack the Skye). This is highly subjective of course!

Extreme music (encompassing metal) may form the backbone of my music collection, but I do listen to many other genres (with the exception of some forms of jazz), including classical music and opera. Classical music is not so diametrically opposed to aforementioned extreme music.  Parallels can be drawn between the musical and structural complexity: shifting time signatures, inclusion of polyrhythms, prodigious mastery of solo instruments, layers of sound and contrasts of sonic light and shade.

Classical music can be light music, analogous to soft rock (neither are to my taste), or deep and dark e.g. Shostakovitch: Symphony No.5, more akin to black/doom metal, also Wagner, very obviously. It is not therefore uncommon or surprising to find many people who can become immersed in both genres. Interestingly, no one has suggested I have the look of someone who listens to classical music. Further ridiculous clichés are imagined: twin set and pearls, blue rinse….

There is also for some, the pseudo intellectual supposition that classical music is in someway superior, in quality and depth, at least.  I don’t subscribe to this argument. Evidence from opera libretti would suggest subject matter can be banal and literary content as weak as may be surmised for other musical genres.  I have had the unfortunate experience of mistakenly buying opera tickets for performances where the libretto was translated into English instead of being displayed in translation by supertitles. A ruined experience indeed. I can accept the ludicrous plots and extreme melodrama of wonderful Italian opera for the entertainment that it is. This forgiveness comes from hearing a libretto sung in the language that it was originally intended.

While I draw these parallels here (and I’m not the first to do so), my personal and singular distinction between classical and metal is motivational.  The emotion and power of Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor, Op. 85 is undeniable, but only the driving and relentless tempos of bands like Lamb of God and Pantera can make me run faster.  Both should be credited for my improving 10 km pace.  No matter how loud I crank up Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, I know it would not achieve my continually improving pace….

Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

I have discussed collection and cleaning of mussels in detail in a previous post when I prepared the classic Moules Marinière. Here, this dish is best served as canapés or light starter as it is pretty rich. For those regularly following my blogs, the addition of pastis to the recipe will come as no surprise – it is one my all time favourite and much used accompaniments for fish and shellfish.

Ingredients

1kg of mussels, cleaned

splash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, sliced

50 ml of pastis e.g. Pernod

a few grinds of pepper

200 ml or so reserved mussel cooking liquid

3 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped

100 ml double cream (optional)

Method

  • Put a glug of olive oil in a large pan with the shallots and garlic, fry gently to soften for 5 minutes.
  • Add the pastis and allow the alcohol to evaporate off before adding the mussels.
  • Cover with a lid and wait 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan vigorously occasionally until all mussels are open and cooked, discard any shells that don’t open.
  • Strain off the cooking liquid into a pan, taking care to leave the last of it in the pan, lest it contain some grit.  You should have about 200 ml. Reduce this down slightly, by about 1/3.
  • Add the double cream and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes to reduce,  thicken.  Add the chopped fresh tarragon. Season with pepper.
  • While the sauce is reducing, etc, loosen the mussels and place each on the half shell, ready to receive a topping of the tarragon and pastis cream.
  • Top each mussel with a generous spoonful of sauce.  Place under the grill for a few minutes, or in a hot oven for 10 mins (180C) and serve with your finest homemade crusty bread.

mussels with pastis and tarragon

Halibut wrapped in prosciutto with sauce vierge and roasted leeks

As a memorable autumnal end to my home-grown tomato season, I incorporated the last of my super-sweet Sungold tomatoes into sauce vierge. A perfect match for white fish,  I brought the sauce together with halibut fillets wrapped in prosciutto. The delicate white fish and salty, sweet ham delivered harmonious and balanced flavours with this tangy and refreshing sauce. This sauce also made the most of my remaining fresh basil and chervil of the season and the dish included another of my incredibly successful Allium crops of this year – leeks, roasted until soft and succulent.

I am the Red Queen (again)

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

                      The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

I revisit this quote of my first blog post which I tentatively posted a year ago this week.  A first anniversary seems like a good time to reflect on this first year of blogging.  Given the flavour of the frenetic activity of the first post, one thing certainly hasn’t changed, I still feel like The Red Queen and this is reflected in my inability to post regularly over the last couple of months.  Time to get back on track, or at least try…

First ‘Blogiversary’

When my nascent blog emerged, I was sure it would function well as my much needed recipe and garden diary and it does. I have used it regularly to remind myself of recipes I would otherwise never have noted down and repeated.  It is a huge time saver on that front.

Beyond some friends and family, I thought very few others were likely to read it, or even find it online.  I am usually pretty reluctant to push its presence, preferring to let readers discover it organically / by accident and lift and lay it as they please. So, somewhat surprisingly, I have acquired about 600 subscribers through various means: WordPress, Twitter and Facebook. Thank you all! Hardly viral, but respect to those tolerant readers willing to stick with my often lengthy and occasionally random digressions around food, foraging, recipes and beyond.

Without starting a blog, I would not have joined Facebook or Twitter and did so initially reluctantly in order to give those who want to subscribe through these social portals the option. My views on both continue to evolve.  I could live without Facebook, which I rarely use, beyond circulating my latest post. Someone once said to me if you were not on Facebook you were a nobody.  Well, like many of my friends who are not subscribers, I was actually perfectly content to be so before I joined and do not feel ‘whole’ having done so!

I like Twitter because it is easily tailored to focus on information exchange and I am grateful for the many foraging and food-related connections made and what I have learned as a result. I enjoy the constraint, brevity and breakneck pace of Twitter.

Blogging has given me a deeper insight into the world of professional cooking, foraging and food writing and has confirmed my initial thoughts that I want blogging to remain firmly a hobby – a way to relax and be slightly self-indulgent. In part, this is because I cannot expand beyond my current commitment to my writing and cooking. Having to sit down and write, or cook without the complete freedom I currently have to do or not do so as I please would take the soul and joy out of it for me.  I have a career I am very happy with that challenges me in different ways and this blog is a foil to that. I am also better qualified to do my job than to enter the professional foodie world.

Then there is the question of integrity regarding products and advertising. There is a fair bit of opportunity to test and review products distributed for free.  I have developed strong views on this over the last year and I will not promote or test products, gadgets, books or endorse businesses in any way except independently. I focus on products and services I buy and use. My opinions are my own and cannot be bought.  If I review a product, book, business, etc, favorably, I do so not to assist in its promotion but because I genuinely endorse the product or service.

I want to again thank all the kind bloggers who over the past year have nominated me for numerous blogging awards.  I am very grateful for the appreciation shown in this way and do feel somewhat guilty that although I always take time to give thanks for each award, I do not pass on the awards in the chain style they demand, something I do not want to impose on other bloggers. For this reason, I would prefer not to accept any blog awards in future, save to pass my thanks and a mention for any nomination, as before.

The best thing of all for me about this first year of blogging has been the wonderful community of other bloggers I have been able to connect with.  What a fine and diverse array of talented writers, cooks and photographers you are!  I have learned so many new recipes and tips from reading other blogs and exchanging comments with many enthusiastic, encouraging and supportive bloggers.  I have connected with writers that cover wider subjects than just food and have found refreshing and varied lifestyles and opinions that keep me greatly entertained and informed, so thank you all!

OK, back to business.  Halibut et al

Halibut wrapped in prosciutto with sauce vierge and roasted leeks 

I should really be sitting on the naughty step for buying halibut.  Unfortunately, it not being a fish I eat at all often, I only realised after my purchase that it was not the sustainable white fish choice I would usually make. Surely I can be forgiven for this rare slip up?

I have had a bumper leek crop this year, not least because, like the garlic, the leeks have been happily dangling their roots in the beds with newly added well-rotted manure.  The variety is, I think, Bandit, a beautiful and robust blue-green variety that seems happy to withstand our winter gales without turning black and ragged.

leeks

The leeks were trimmed, cleaned and blanched in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, refreshed in cold water and dried before being seasoned and placed in an oven (uncovered) at 200C for 30 minutes.  This gave them a soft texture and a delicate, roasted flavour.

halibut

With the leeks prepared and ready to go into the oven, time to deal with the halibut steaks. These were seasoned and wrapped in prosciutto. Simple.

parma ham

The wrapped fillets were pan-fried with butter, a couple of minutes a side, taking care the pan is not too hot or the ham (and butter) will burn.  These were then rested in a low oven (80C) for 5 minutes or so, giving time to prepare a quick sauce vierge, courtesy of my favoured traditional Michel Roux recipe.

Sauce vierge

This is such a simple yet wonderful sauce, one of my summer favourites with fish. Skinning the tomatoes, especially small varieties such as Sungold is a faff, but worth it for the correct texture. Score and drop in boiling water for 30 seconds before removing to make them easier to peel.

Ingredients

80g tomatoes, skinned and de-seeded

200 ml olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

2 tbsp. snipped basil leaves

2 tbsp. snipped chervil leaves

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

6 coriander seeds, crushed

salt and pepper to taste

Method

  • Dice the skinned and de-seeded tomatoes and place in a bowl with the oil, lemon juice,  herbs, garlic and coriander seeds, season to taste.
  • Heat very slightly until it is just warm and serve over and around the fish.halibut 3halibut 2

While the recipe worked quite well with halibut, it is quite a delicate, subtle fish and the flavour did get a bit lost, especially with the prosciutto. The dish could  be improved by using a firmer, meatier and bolder-flavoured fish.  Monkfish would probably be the ideal choice.

Ways to love your lettuce 1: Avocado, lettuce and bacon

For all it is easy to grow and its numerous forms and flavours, lettuce suffers from a poor image. Yet lettuce is no one trick pony, it can be versatile and varied. I am currently immersed in my predictable annual lettuce glut therefore I offer a series of recipes to help love our lettuces. I start with a combination of lettuce, avocados and bacon.

Salad and perceived banality of lettuce

Despite being a very common and popular garden crop in the UK and easy to grow and able to be accommodated even in the smallest garden, there are a lot of lettuce detractors out there. In Britain, lettuce has way too much historical baggage – most of it negative. I also blame the generic, bland term ‘salad’ (the ‘S’ word, hereafter banished from this post).  This descriptor offers no indication of exactly what one may anticipate eating.  It disguises a myriad of possibilities: delightful taste combinations, the subtle interplay of leafy flavours that can create or enhance a dish.

More likely, a plate of blandness is conjured up in the mind: iceberg lettuce and some insipid waterball tomatoes and if you are really lucky, a vaguely water-flavoured addition of cucumber with a tough, dark dyspepsia-inducing skin.  Alternative thoughts may be a sad, soggy and superfluous garnish left on the side of the plate as an afterthought, the limp offering receiving no more than a cursory glance, at best a gentle prod with a fork and thereafter (justifiably) ignored. To add insult to injury, some call it ‘rabbit food’ (whatever that means) and steer clear at all costs.

Beyond lettuce, there are many flavour-packed leaves that transcend the boundaries of our notion of the traditional and can elevate dishes to new levels. The leafy delights of mizuna, komatsuna, red chard, rocket, sorrel, endive, to name but a few, can be discussed another time but as with lettuce they merit a better description than the ‘S’ word.

Lettuces of distinction

As a grower, it can be a bit bewildering looking through seed catalogues to choose which varieties of lettuce to grow; cos, butterhead, crisphead being 3 common descriptions of form.  After trying many different varieties, I have settled down to grow some favourites of different varieties and textures with the odd wildcard thrown in annually.

Without a doubt the ultimate lettuce for me is the big, blousy butterhead Marvel of Four Seasons, an heirloom pre-1885 French variety (Merveille des Quatre Saisons). It is as tasty as it is beautiful with rosette growth in an array of shades ranging from bronze, gold, red encompassing a delicate green heart with ruby-tinged leaf tips.

As the name suggests, it will grow across extended seasons, is vigorous, easy to grow and quick to mature. Being a soft butterhead, it is delicate and can suffer as a result of the strong winds here so I usually plant it next to brassicas for protection.

This is the one and only item I have ever entered in the local North Uist agricultural show.  I did win first prize but was most upset when I collected my lettuce at the end of the day. Its beauty had faded having sat on the show bench all day and it was a shadow of its former glory: saggy and not worth eating.  I felt disappointed by the potential food waste and that I had let competition get in the way of common sense. It made me realise that my priority is to grow my vegetables to eat rather than for the show bench. Growing conditions here are tough enough and I relish eating everything I grow. Maybe if I have more growing space I will re-evaluate and enter some produce in future – and if I develop an interest in competition of any sort whatsoever.

Clockwise from top left Marvel of Four Seasons, Catalogna Lingua di Canarino and Little Gem

Clockwise from top left Marvel of Four Seasons, Catalogna Lingua di Canarino and Little Gem

I also grow Catalogna Lingua di Canarino most years, for its vigor and flavour and Little Gem for its versatility and delicately bitter edge, although it is least vigorous, germination can be patchy and it takes a while to get going outside.  I often braise or stuff the small tight heart leaves of Little Gem. Finally, I grow the winter favourite Valdor to extend the season.

Lettuce with avocado and bacon

This post should perhaps more accurately be entitiled ‘Ways to love your lettuce in combination with bacon’ as my trio coincidentally and quite unintentionally all contain some of our own home cured Old Spot bacon. I may well at last get round posting about the Old Spot bacon prep. In fact, I’ve just decided that the third lettuce and bacon combo recipe will culminate with the tale of the Old Spot cure.

Both Marvel and little Gem are included here, for the contrast of the delicate soft butteriness of Marvel and the hearted, gently bitter and refreshing crunch of Little Gem. The recipe is adapted from one in the Wahaca Mexican Food at Home book.

Ingredients

1 Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce

2 little gem lettuce

1 green chilli, finely sliced (I used Hungarian Hot Wax)

1 avocado, diced

3 spring onions, sliced

handful of coriander, chopped

150g pancetta, diced

dressing:

1 avocado

juice of 1 lime

60 ml extra virgin olive oil

1 heaped tsp. Dijon mustard

2 spring onions

small bunch of basil

salt and pepper

Method

  • Put all the dressing ingredients in a blender together and blitz, season to taste.
  • Dry fry the cubes of pancetta until crisp, drain on kitchen towel and allow to cool.
  • Arrange half of the lettuce leaves on a platter (or 4 individual serving plates if you wish).
  • Shred the rest of the leaves and combine with half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli and spring onions and a spoonful of dressing, season, mix and place on top of the lettuce leaves.
  •  Scatter the other half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli, spring onions and coriander over the top.

Avocado 2

Avocado 1

Avocado 3

I served it with rare venison steak and chipotle tostadas, topped with Manchego cheese and Hungarian Hot Wax chillies – a great way to love my lettuce and a cool and refreshing foil for the meaty and fiery tostadas.

venison and hot wax

Sweet foraging success: Razor clams with samphire, summer vegetables and herbs

For the last week I have spent many feral hours indulging in foraging and fishing in the delightfully radiant and balmy summer sun, making the most of the extraordinary weather in the Outer Hebrides. Foraging successes were numerous, although the pinnacle was the delight of foraging for and cooking with razor clams.

Summer arrived this week coincidentally with spring tides.  Syzygy brings extremes of high and low water that offer up numerous though infrequent opportunities for foragers and anglers.

Fly fishing combining fortuitous foraging

Bright and sunny conditions were less than ideal for fly fishing, but nonetheless, we visited some of our favourite spots, huge lochs within the remote interior of North Uist, encountering no one.  The fish were certainly not ‘on’, but I turned this to my advantage and I grabbed foraging opportunities that I stumbled across along the way.

The unremitting sunshine has resulted in a sudden leap forward for many plants and fruits. We may not have the burgeoning hedgerows found in other parts of the UK, but there are plenty foraging opportunities here nonetheless. On one outing to a favourite loch, Loch Hunder, I found a dense blaeberry patch and turned my attention to gathering these wild berries during a lean fishing phase. This was time well spent as The Man Named Sous continued to fish and caught nothing during my foraging hour! The delicious blaeberries and associated recipes will be discussed in a future post.

Loch Hunder, looking towards 'The Lees'

The sprawling Loch Hunder, looking towards ‘The Lees’

Similarly, on a scorching and opportunistic visit to Geireann Mill following on from the North Uist Angling Club open day and barbecue, I sensed the fishing would be almost pointless. As we drew up alongside the loch inlet in the car, I could smell meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) before I saw it and instantly knew how my time would be best spent.  I was not wrong, my fishless companions later returned to the car but I had a bagful of sweet bounty.

The meadowsweet was turned into cordial, as were kind deliveries of elderflowers from the mainland (thank you Fi and mum). Both cordials will feature in recipes in future posts and I am still experimenting with both. 

cordials 004

A return to Geireann Mill on another evening when the heat of the day had passed (can’t believe I can use this phrase in reference to weather here) was simply stunning. As the sun set and the full moon rose simultaneously, there was not a ripple on the water, save for fish breaking the surface to feed on big hatches of caddisflies skimming or landing on the surface.  The silence was only broken by cacophonous yet plaintive calls of red-throated divers on the water and in between these, the gentle splashes of surfacing trout.  Yet again I know that on evenings like this, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Giereann Mill sunset 2200 hrs

Geireann Mill sunset 2200 hrs

Geireann mill moonrise 22215 hrs

Geireann mill moonrise 2230 hrs

Although we did try sea fishing too, it was not quite as fruitful as expected with mackerel very thin on the ground at our usual haunts.  The high tide was so big, we suspect it was not the optimal time and we may have missed any incoming shoals. We were content to give sea fishing another shot at Loch Eport, enjoying the sun and the views but with nothing to show for our efforts, it was time to head home for a barbecue. My parents were visiting, and how novel it was that we could manage to have a barbecue, as well taking my dad on numerous fishing outings.  The weather hasn’t always been so kind during their visits.

My casting spot over Loch Eport

My casting spot over Loch Eport

Equally breathtaking views of Eaval behind me

Equally breathtaking views of Eaval behind me

Spoots, storms and samphire

Samphire is now in optimal condition for foraging, growing bushy, fleshy and succulent without yet turning woody and tired.  I am enjoying it so much that I hope to preserve some before the end of growing season for use later. Just now, I pick it and eat it the same day and used it recently in a recipe with pollack and scallop corals.  The plentiful supply near our house is very convenient and the low tides provided the tantalizing prospect of a seasonal coupling of razor clams and samphire.

Samphire 004 Samphire 010

I joined professional forager Fi Bird on South Uist for a spoot (razor clam) foraging expedition and some gathering tips.  I would highly recommend Fi’s book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ as an invaluable resource for foraging tips and recipes. My review of this excellent book can be read here.

Paddling thigh deep in water and engrossed in spoot-spotting, I was vaguely aware of the towering black cumulonimbus and accompanying stormy rumblings to the south, but wasn’t quite anticipating the hour-long rainstorm of biblical proportions that followed.  A couple of families on the beach cleared off during the deluge leaving us two lonesome foragers. At that stage there didn’t seem to be any point in stopping since we were drookit within a few minutes anyway. The spoots were justifiably wary and pouring salt down the telltale keyholes in the sand where they lay buried yielded a defiant spurt of water, the spoot staying put.

Eventually we hit a couple of good patches, firmly gripping and delicately pulling out the spoots subtly sticking out of the sand. Our hands eventually turning blue, it was becoming difficult to find and grip our quarry and the situation was on the verge of descending into what might very appropriately be called lunacy, so we called it a day. Soaked to the skin and bedraggled, Fi’s carefully prepared picnic looked like a better option accompanied by a cup of coffee and we retreated indoors to warm up and enjoy Fi’s smoked salmon samphire studded bagels.

It was a fun and enlightening afternoon, though no photos were possible as phones / cameras would have quickly died in the deluge! Fi kindly gave me our modest mollusc bounty for dinner. I got home to discover hardly any rain had fallen on North Uist although it was still quite muggy and overcast.

razor display

Razor clams with samphire, summer vegetables and herbs

The last thing any cook wants to do in the middle of summer is stand over a hot stove cooking for long periods.  This recipe avoids the need, as does the main ingredient of razor clams, by default.  The style of cooking and construction of this recipe is the kind of cuisine I get most pleasure from making: very fresh ingredients sustainably sourced by hand, vegetables and herbs picked from the garden minutes before preparation, intricate and time-consuming preparation with precision cooking of only a few minutes required to bring the dish together.

This à la minute cooking style is one I have favoured lately and is perhaps the signature style of Tom Kitchin whose recipe this is (albeit tweaked a bit).  Tom may be considered a celebrity chef, but it was very reassuring when we ate at ‘The Kitchin’ to see that he was present, leading his brigade in service. His undeniably Scottish take on fine dining with complex yet honest dishes containing the finest fresh seasonal produce made the dining experience one of the best we have had recently, so another recommendation.

The chorizo used is very good quality, coming from Lupe Pintos Deli in Edinburgh.  A little goes a long way, so depending on the style and potency of the chorizo, more may be added.

Serves 4 as a starter or light main course

Ingredients

8 razor clams, washed

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

110 ml white wine

1 tsp rapeseed oil

1 courgette, cut into 0.5 cm dice

1 carrot, cut into 0.5 cm dice

60 g samphire, rinsed

40 g cooking chorizo, cut into 0.5 cm cubes

110 ml double cream

110 g young broad beans (podded weight), podded and shelled

50g finely chopped parsley

3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

1 lime, zest and juice

25 g unsalted butter

100g squid, prepared and cleaned, cut into triangles

salt and pepper

Garnish:

3 springs of dill, finely chopped

1 bunch chopped fresh chives

1 bunch of chervil, leaves only, chopped

2 springs of bronze fennel, finely chopped

a few springs of basil (I used Red Rubin for colour), gently torn

a few chive flowers

Method

Get everything chopped and prepared ready to go as this recipe comes together in a flash.

First, prepare and cook the spoots.  NB The spoots look just as indecent when cooked as they do when you pull them from the sand.

  • Heat a large saute pan or similar (with a tight-fitting lid) over a high heat.  When hot, add the razor clams, shallots and wine and quickly cover.
  • Steam for 30 seconds (no more or you will get Pirelli-textured spoots), they will open.
  • Strain the cooking liquid into a pan and keep aside.

razorclams cooking

  • Take the spoots from the shells when cool enough, remove the digestive tract (worth an online search for tips if you don’t know how to do this), slice the cooked clams thinly at an angle and set aside. Keep the shells for plating up.
  • Heat a teaspoon of rapeseed oil in a pan and over a medium heat, add the chopped carrot and courgette, broad beans, parsley and anchovies. Fry gently for 3-4 minutes and set aside.
  • Take the clams cooking liquid, heat and reduce by half before adding the chorizo, cream, samphire, carrots, courgettes, parsley and anchovies.  Stir and simmer until thickened slightly.
  • Add the lime juice and zest and butter until melted then strain off about 1/4 of the sauce into another pan and add the spoots. Keep warm.
  • Using the other teaspoon of rapeseed oil, heat a pan to cook the squid.  Season the squid and add to the pan once it is smoking and cook for 1-2 minutes until opaque, no more or squid will be rubbery.
  • Add the squid pieces to the spoots and sauce.
  • To serve, put 2 shells on each plate, spoon the spoot and squid mixture into the shell and drizzle the veg and sauce around before garnishing with the herbs and chive flowers.

razor 1

razor 2

Summer garden soup with lemon basil and pistachio pesto

This light soup features the freshest vegetables currently available from the garden. It is designed to be served à la minute, the vegetables barely being cooked to capture and retain the essence of the quintessential flavours of summer, with freshly picked home-grown vegetables and herbs from garden to plate in under 30 minutes.

Why are you posting about soup in the middle of summer you may ask? As a typical Brit, I am unnecessarily preoccupied with the weather. The UK mainland is currently experiencing an enviable heatwave and the hottest July since 2006.  Here in the Outer Hebrides, it is the antithesis: low cloud, rain / smir, mist / fog and wind.  Visibility is currently about 300m. I was supposed to be in Orkney for work this week, but this has not been an option due to the fog causing flight cancellations. We have also now had no mail for 3 days as the mail plane is also cancelled.

I’m not prepared to put a gloss on life here by suggesting the weather (and life here generally for that matter) is always amazing but I do usually resent leaving the island during the summer as there is no place better to be – when we have the weather that is. Once again, I feel so sorry for visitors that arrived in the last week as we have seen the sun for only about 1 hour since we returned from our mainland trip one week ago. In fact, we are trying not to feel sorry for ourselves as radio commentators talk about how glorious the weather is (almost) everywhere and how hot it is while I walk the dogs in the usual fleece and waterproof jacket. I am glad that we will not have more visitors until the weekend and hope the improving forecast is accurate.

In fairness, we had amazing summer last year while the rest of the UK was deluged with rain and floods.  Unfortunately, the relocation of the jet stream to its more usual position further south this summer means the weather is perhaps much more as we should expect it to be here.  That said, it is probably, on balance the worst summer we have had (in terms of sunshine and warmth at least) since we moved here.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (or vacating the island until the murk lifts – not that I can get off by plane!), I decided to celebrate the garden successes I am having with a summery soup and accompanying fragrant pesto. The success of some crops is surprising given the weather, but welcome and the harvest looks and tastes like summer, even if the sky and temperature indicate otherwise. I really enjoy cold soups, but given our current temperatures, a warm soup seems more appropriate.

summer soup garden

Summer garden soup

The vegetables were freshly picked, cleaned and prepared and given the gentlest possible cooking.  I used whatever was in prime condition for picking: chard, garlic, spring onions, chervil and parsley from outside, courgettes and flowers (I know, technically a fruit) and very tasty fine beans from the tunnel.

summer soup

Ingredients

A splash of olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 onion, finely sliced

3 small courgettes (and flowers if available)

a handful of fine beans

a big bunch of chard (about 250g)

4 spring onions

a bunch of chervil

a bunch of flat leaf parsley

1 litre of vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Method

  • Wash, clean and roughly chop the veg (except the onion, finely chop it).
  • Add the oil to a large pan, then the onion and cook gently for a few minutes until translucent then add the crushed garlic and cook for another minute before adding the fine beans, courgette (not flowers), thicker chard stems and stock.
  • Simmer gently for about 5 minutes, add the chard leaves and cook for a further minute before stirring in the spring onions, herbs and flowers. Season to taste and top with some pesto.

summer soup 3summer soup 2

Lemon basil and pistachio pesto

One thing that has been a raging success this year is my basil.  I am growing 5 different varieties (Mrs Burns, Cinnamon, Red Rubin, Sweet Genovese and Italian Giant) and all have been producing well.  I therefore have been spoilt for choice and wanted to make a pesto with a distinctive tang.

Basil - Mrs Burns

Basil – Mrs Burns

basil - cinnamon

Basil – Cinnamon

Basil - Giant Italian

Basil – Giant Italian

Although I used 3 types of basil in this recipe, the variety Mrs Burns is extremely refreshing and lemony and I wanted the citrus zing of this variety to predominate, with cinnamon (more almost anise-like) and Italian Giant adding depth and complexity to the flavour of the pesto, each complementing the vibrant pistachio nuts included. This pesto also works really well with fish and we enjoyed it with baked brown trout.

Ingredients

50g Mrs Burns or lemon basil leaves

10g cinnamon basil leaves

10g Giant Italian basil leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pistachio nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge, keeps for about a week.

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Old spot pork chops with sage beurre noisette and wet garlic

The summer weather on North Uist is currently as wet as my garlic crop. Wet garlic is back in season and without the requisite farmer’s market nearby to acquire this delight in the short growing window, I can make the best of this delicacy from my own garlic crop instead.

For the uninitiated, wet garlic is simply garlic harvested before the bulb and cloves are fully formed.  It has a more gentle, sweet  almost creamy flavour, much less assertive than its powerful dried self, as comes later in the season.  The whole plant can be used: the bulb, stem and leaves, cooked or raw. Don’t pass up on the chance to try some if you are growing your own garlic for storing later. wet garlic Wet garlic triumphalism

The contents of my lovingly tended and meticulously weeded raised beds are suffering with the relentlessly unsettled weather.  I was actually in a state of denial when I recently described my raised bed contents as micro vegetables, they were actually nano-veg and have only now reached the dizzy heights of micro-veg status.  The raspberries have been overcome with chickweed, the early peas are sagging despondently (those that have not detached due to basal rotation in the wind) and the tomatoes are sulking in the sunless polytunnel, having entered a post-second truss torpor.

I can (almost) sweep this despondency aside because my garlic crop is delivering yet again.  I previously covered growing and storing garlic here and once again, it is proving to be my most successful crop.These softneck plants can best be described as thugs, remaining robust and strong despite the adverse weather.  Several visitors have commented on how great my ‘leeks’ (garlic) is looking.  My leeks are in fact spindly bedraggled pencils, but the garlic is truly magnificent. With 150 growing bulbs, I have enough spare to enjoy some wet garlic.

garlic so13 My stored garlic is finished and really can’t make it through storage until this year’s crop yields.  The green shoot that appears in the core of the stored cloves of bulbs in spring is bitter and requires to be removed and is a signal that the storage period is coming to an end. I have learned that any excess bulbs left after May will spoil, so need to manage any surplus by preserving.  It is a tricky balance to stretch the crop out across the year, but I think I’m there.

The great wall of North Uist?

Aside for looking forlornly at my veg and fruit,  we have been dedicating our time to some pretty hefty outdoor chores that we can put off no longer.  The somewhat alarming ‘to do’ list covers some +30 jobs, some of which are fairly ambitious, not least building of a 20m long retaining wall between the house and workshop.

Normally at this time of year, I would be spending time on the island of Mingulay for the annual seabird count (more about that another time), but the time window to help with the wall would have passed if I had gone and how could I possibly miss out on such a fun week, excavating a trench between the house and the workshop to build the wall foundation? Hold me back….

In at the deep end

In at the deep end

It was very tough work, yet another wheelbarrow bit the dust and at one end required extensive and pretty deep excavation to locate firm ground. No surprise, given the extra 150 tonnes of hardcore required for the workshop foundation.

Looking back up from the depths towards the wall foundation

Looking back up from the depths towards the wall foundation

With help of a friend (to whom we are incredibly grateful) and expert in such matters as concrete, shuttering and block laying,  The Man Named Sous has acquired a new range of skills he has been putting to use over the last few weeks. I am merely a fairly ineffective labourer, but that’s fine as I can focus on where my skills lie i.e. go back to looking forlornly at the vegetables. All the foundations done, only 5 pallets of block laying remains.  Easy. Next job, the deer fence…

The Great Indoors

I really enjoy a feral outdoor summer existence here, but the bewilderingly crap weather has forced us to retreat indoors frustratingly often, but that’s not so bad. The Man Named Sous turned his attention to technology and bread, adopting his roles as Technigeek and Boulanger in tandem.

I had suggested he might help me find a replacement for my end of contract iPhone, a task he pursued with exuberance and glee and one that would have made me lose the will to live.  He eventually emerged (sans anorak) having indulged in hours of web surfing to proclaim he had, on balance, identified ‘the best mobile phone in the world’ (allegedly, according to 50 squillion in-depth reviews of the minutiae of the device). Hence I am now the owner of the HTC One, turning my back on iOS / Apple in favour of Android.  What a revelation, there will be no going back for me. I am now spending an unhealthy amount of time fiddling with my ‘phone’. Revelatory and sad but true at the same time.

Goodbye iPhone, hello HTC One

Goodbye iPhone, hello HTC One

The Boulanger skills of The Man Named Sous have been coming along too, assisted by Paul Hollywood’s book ‘How to Bake’ he has produced some magnificent barms, ciabatta, fougasse and baguettes, allowing me to focus on enriched dough recipes, all to be featured in future posts. Get in there!

Summer Music Fest

The summer music festival season is well underway.  It is a very long time since we felt inclined to attend one of these events, Knockengorroch, the Galloway Roots festival circa 2003 being the last. I am still scarred by some of the unforgettably far out experiences of ‘musical theatre’ and white-robed, barefoot tai chi in the mud (observed, no participation for me, thank you). Before that, it was Monsters of Rock 1992, the scars from which were more physical rather than psychological. With Slayer on the bill,  grind and grime were in equal measure.

I am now bewildered as to why anyone would want to go to these gargantuan festivals (not even Bloodstock can lure me) and I don’t remember particularly enjoying any of them, even in my teens. I came across this article in the New Statesmen by Eleanor Margolis that more or less sums up my experience and feelings about these money-spinning behemoths and saves me continuing on an extended diatribe about same.

These days, we aim for small gigs of 500-2000 capacity, optimising the more intimate musical experience at a bargain sub-£30 cost which, in the last couple of years, has included incredible gigs: Mastodon (x2),  Porcupine Tree, The Mars Volta (RIP), Opeth and Devin Townsend (of course).We are occasionally torn about going to the slightly bigger not-quite-stadium size gigs that many of the more popular / mainstream bands we like play. We recently had this quandary about Neil Young who we have seen twice before, also tempted by QOTSA and Black Sabbath, but the combination of ridiculous ticket prices and unappealing aircraft hangar venues is off-putting  Nine times out of ten, on reflection, we don’t buy tickets for these type of gigs (exceptions including Metallica and Dream Theater spring to mind).

Of course, we have been utterly spoilt by seeing so many great gigs in the ultimate venue (since the Glasgow Apollo closed) Glasgow Barrowlands. How we love the place and its sticky beery floors and glitterball, the sprung dancefloor bouncing and flexing as the 2000 or so strong crowd go crazy and acts look from the stage into the roaring mass in disbelief at the response they are receiving (in particular when we saw Robert Plant, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and the late great Gary Moore).

It has a reputation as being one of the favourite venues for so many bands and the electric atmosphere no doubt influenced many of the outstanding gigs we have enjoyed there: Faith No More (exceptional Angel Dust Tour gig in 1992), Motorhead, Mastodon, The Cult, The Black Crowes, Steve Earle, Paul Rodgers, Robert Cray, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Mission and countless others…

So, while most music at mainstream festivals is not really our taste, from the comfort of our sofa, glass of sauv blanc ironically in hand, we could not resist having a peak at the Glastonbury ‘performances’, particularly given the much anticipated (over-hyped) appearance of The Rolling Stones.

We were lucky to see their show at all.  Had they their own way, the ever cash-conscious Stones would have had a filming blackout and sequestered the performance for a lucrative special release DVD or a pay-per-view deal for $40 a pop, as they did for a NY show last year. The band were apparently reluctant to perform for the benefit of BBC TV licence paying viewers, not for money, bien sûr, just issues of control and vanity, minor really.

The band initially told the BBC that the corporation would not be allowed to screen more than a four song set sample of their performance. C’mon guys, you are where your are in your career, no one really gives a monkeys about how you look except perhaps the pathetic Daily Mail.  Most punters just want to say ‘I was there’.

I’m not about to be ageist about the Stones in the way that so many media articles have been. It is not about age.  So many performers that are peers of the Stones still cut it: for example Old Shaky, George Thorogood (my parents saw him 2 weeks ago),  the much older great BB King.  When did The Stones last produce some really exciting music?  1971 as far as I recall from their back catalogue and regurgitating it 42 years later is just not enough to endear them to me. Then there is the  issue of the Stones trying to wring out as much filthy lucre as possible.

We would probably forgive them for all of this if their performance had been in any way memorable. However, it was not and reminded me of a James Brown gig I saw on TV, performed towards the end of his career when he was carried by multiple backing singers, choirs and a plethora of supporting musicians. Credit to Mick for his energy levels, though not his often flat and rushed delivery of songlines but Keith Richards is not the guitarist he once was and it took support from Ronnie Wood et al to prop him up.  That said, his resilience is incredible, it is amazing he is still here. As Bill Hicks said ‘I picture nuclear war, two things survive: Keef and bugs.’

I was quite flabbergasted to read post-gig reviews in the mainstream press describing how The Stones ‘took Glastonbury by storm’ and ‘blew the stage apart’. Really? Emperor’s new clothes or what? Did I miss something fundamental?

Both feeling pretty underwhelmed by The Stones performance, we opted to watch ‘Some Kind of Monster’ again,  a documentary about Metallica directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that Metallica hold any moral high ground over The Stones in some respects. They were the biggest selling US rock  act in the 1990s, then there is all the Napster baggage and the fact that they have not delivered any outstanding albums since 1991 (controversial I know, especially since for many hardcore thrash fans 1991’s Black Album was itself considered to be the band selling out).

That said, re-watching this film was a whole lot more entertaining (though no more musical) than ‘Glasters’ on the Beeb. This 2004 film documents the making of the awful St Anger album at a time when the band are about to implode as a consequence of addiction, conflict, egos, control and the historical baggage of the band and its members, past and present.  There is very little music in the film and you need not be interested in Metallica, their music or heavy metal to appreciate this honest, riveting and at times very tense psychodrama. Highly recommended viewing.

OK time to wind my neck back in.  Where was I?  Oh yes. Wet garlic…

Old spot pork chops with sage beurre noisette and wet garlic

This is a super quick and simple recipe that allows good quality meat and fresh herbs to come to the fore. Beurre noisette (brown butter) is appropriately nutty, flavoursome and a bit indulgent.

The sage I am growing in the herb bed has been established for a few years, does manage to overwinter but is always attacked by some beast or other and looks like broderie anglaise .  The plants I have grown from seed this year are safe in the coldframe and much happier with big index finger-sized leaves and I have used them here. sageThe wet garlic is included in both the sage brown butter sauce and light sauce for the pasta – chopped bulb and shredded green leaves are folded through the pasta. The Old Spot pork chop featured is part of the half pig we bought from our neighbour and butchered ourselves. It is boneless, from the bottom of the loin and simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled.

Sage beurre noisette

Ingredients

3-4 sage leaves, roughly chopped

1 small wet garlic bulb, finely chopped

1/2 tsp. green peppercorns, rinsed

70g butter

salt and pepper, to taste

Method

  • Put the butter in a thick-based sauce pan, heat over a medium heat until it foams gently then add the wet garlic.
  • Cook for a minute or so then add the sage and peppercorns.  Allow to cook for a couple of minutes more until the foaming butter turns nutty brown, and also smells a bit nutty and remove from the heat immediately to prevent the butter or garlic and sage burning.
  • Season to taste and pour over the grilled chop.

The pasta sauce is really more of a dressing with a splash of olive oil, throw in a small chopped bulb of wet garlic, cook for a minute then add a chopped portobello mushroom, cook for a couple of minutes, add some halved cherry tomatoes and some shredded wet garlic leaves and then fold through your pasta of choice.  Done and dusted in under 30 minutes. pork and sage butter 2   pork and sage butter 1This was served with a cheerful salad of leaves and flowers from the garden. Sunshine in a bowl, given the absence of same from the sky. first salad   And finally it is Wimbledon final tomorrow.  C’mon Andy!

An alternative meat and two veg

For those readers fond of the double entendre, I should first say that by this I am referring to the meaning pertaining to food, i.e. the British stereotypical standard, run-of-the-mill, unremarkable dinner, with a meat and two kinds of vegetable.  It is still a bland dinnertime trap that it is easy to fall into in the UK, especially at home, but also when eating out.

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and unusually, I was visiting my parents that weekend.  I don’t often see my mum on the day, as we live so far away, so I thought as a gift I would prepare dinner.  Considering all the stupendous meals my mum has cooked for family and friends over the years it’s the least I could do.

The problem with eating out on Mother’s Day, much like Valentine’s Day or Christmas is that it is not always advisable to visit any but the finest restaurants in my experience. Somewhat understandably, menus are more designed for mass catering on such days, restaurants are invariably busy and noisy and staff overstretched. Often generic  ‘Mother’s Day set menus’ are on offer that are not necessarily representative of what an establishment usually serves.

My alternative meat and two veg was delivered for main course consisting of sirloin steak, beetroot and sweet potatoes.  In a final attempt to purge Ottolenghi recipes from my brain (actually this is a lie, I will not be able to resist, but temporarily, at least), I chose to adapt  these from his column in The Guardian as I considered these to be as far from the bland meat and two veg image as a dinner could achieve – without actually removing the components that exemplify the concept.

Harissa marinated beef sirloin with preserved lemon sauce

I found this complement of ingredients irresistibly attractive. I bought local Aberdeen Angus sirloin steaks from a very good local butchers.The slices of steak were not too thick and were given no more than a flash fry and rested.  The flavour of this quality beef was exceptional. Although the sauce was described as preserved lemon, and this was the hook that drew me towards it, in actual fact, it predominated of tomatoes a bit too much for my palate.  That said, the addition of sweet roasted yellow peppers and some Hungarian sweet paprika as well as chilli flakes enhanced the depth of flavour and the preserved lemon gave a distinctive tang which accompanied the marinated steak well without overwhelming its flavour.

Ingredients

1½ tbsp harissa
4 beef sirloin steaks, trimmed (about 750g total)
Salt and black pepper
2 large yellow peppers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
400g tin chopped Italian tomatoes
½ tsp flaked chilli
¼ tsp Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tbsp preserved lemon skin, thinly sliced
2 tbsp chopped parsley

Method

For the sauce:

  • Rub the harissa into the sirloin steaks, season with a quarter teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and leave to marinade for at least an hour (or in the fridge overnight).
  • To make the sauce, roast the peppers in the oven for at 200C for 45 minutes until charred all over. Place in a bowl, cover with clingfilm until cool, then peel them and cut into long, thin strips. Discard the skin and seeds (my mum kindly did this bit while we were walking the dogs).
  • Heat the oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Fry the garlic for 30 seconds on medium heat, add the tomatoes, chilli, paprika, a quarter teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for seven minutes.
  • Add the pepper strips, preserved lemon skin and parsley, and cook for seven minutes, until the sauce thickens but is still easy to pour. Set aside and allow to come to room temperature.

For the steak:

  • Preheat the oven to 100C. Place a ridged griddle pan on a high heat and, when smoking hot, add the steaks and cook for a minute a side.
  • Transfer to a baking tray and rest for 4 minutes, for rare, 6 if you prefer medium. Serve with the sauce.

harissa steak

Roast beetroot salad with yoghurt and preserved lemon

I have always enjoyed the pairing of beetroot with roasted cumin and the extra dimensions of the fresh dill and chicory delight and amuse the palate with contrasting and complementary  layers of flavour.

Ingredients

600g beetroot
2 tbsp olive oil
1½ tsp cumin seeds
1 small red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
20g preserved lemon skin, roughly chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
30g dill, roughly shredded
Salt and black pepper
3 tsp tahini paste
200g Greek yoghurt
1 chicory, cut widthways into 0.5cm slices

Method

  • Heat the oven to 220C. Wrap the beetroots individually in tin foil, place on a baking tray and roast for 30-60 minutes, depending on size and quality – check that they’re done by inserting a knife: it should go in smoothly. When cool enough to handle, peel, cut into 0.5cm-thick slices and transfer to a mixing bowl to cool down.
  • Heat the oil in a small frying pan and add the cumin seeds. Cook for a few minutes, until they start to pop, then pour the seeds and oil over the beetroot. Add the onion, preserved lemon, lemon juice, half the dill, a teaspoon of salt and a grind of black pepper. Mix well.
  • Transfer to a serving bowl. Stir the tahini into the yoghurt and add to the salad, along with the chicory. Give it a minimal stir, so the yoghurt and chicory mix in only slightly and there is still some clear distinction between the red and the white, with some pink ripple. Sprinkle over the remaining dill and serve.

beetroot salad

Roast sweet potato with red onion, tahini and za’atar

I have saved the best ’till last. I have made this roast sweet potato dish before and it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the best vegetable side dishes I have ever eaten.  The colours of the dish are intense and appealing but as much as it looks delectable, the flavours combined are truly mind-blowing.  The first time I made this I served it with chicken, hazelnuts and rosewater. The fact that most of this side dish was demolished before we got round to eating the chicken is testament to its deliciousness .  It served yet again to remind me that vegetarian food can be more delicious than so many meat-based dishes.

Although the recipe can be found in ‘Jerusalem’ using butternut squash, I prefer sweet potato so substituted accordingly.

Preheat oven to 200C

Ingredients

700g of sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
1 large red onion, cut into wide slices
3 tbsp olive oil
1 1/4 tsp Maldon salt
a few twists of black pepper
3 tbsp tahini paste
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, pounded into a paste
3 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp za’atar
handful coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Flaky sea salt

Method

  • In a bowl mix the sweet potatoes and onion with the olive oil, a teaspoon of Maldon salt and a few twists of black pepper.
  • Spread the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 30 minutes, or until the vegetables have taken on some color and are cooked through and charred a little. You may need to pick out the onion earlier, lest it burn. 
  • While the vegetables are roasting, make the sauce. Place the tahini in a small bowl along with 2 tablespoons of water, lemon juice, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey. You might need to add more water or tahini, depending on consistency.
  • Toast the pine nuts in  a frying pan until golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts to a small bowl.
  • Spread the vegetables out on a large plate or a serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts, followed by za’atar and the parsley. Add a few flakes of the Maldon salt and serve.

sweet potato

Black bream with fennel

We don’t have much time to go sea fishing at the moment, and given the dwindling supplies of fish in our freezer, last week, I swung past the harbour at Grimsay and bought a couple of locally caught black bream.  I almost stopped for some langoustines, but resisted the temptation and instead chose this fine sustainable and economically priced fish.

This lovely firm-fleshed and sweet fish is a treat I have not eaten for many years.  Black bream (Spondyliosoma cantharus) were readily available at my local market in the Algarve, usually called sea bream (generically referred to as porgies in the US) and if you go to a fishmonger, not to be confused with the farmed gilthead bream. 

Black bream are wild fish found around the inshore shelf in North Europe and the Mediterranean.  It is a benthic/demersal shoaling species, often found associated with rocky or weedy reefs and also wrecks.  It is a carnivore with catholic tastes and feeds on invertebrates, crustaceans, encrusting algae and small fish. Black bream are protogynous, meaning they start out as females and then become male.  This form of sequential hermaphroditism is common in fish and can be triggered by internal and/or external factors.

Fascinating life history aside, it is currently considered to be a sustainable fish to eat in the UK. It is particularly good prepared as a whole fish, being attractive, robust and relatively easy to prepare. Black bream do require to be thoroughly de-scaled to remove the tough scales from the body and the sharp, spiny fins, notably the dorsal, should be removed before cooking.

bream raw

Black bream with fennel

This fish is easy to pan fry whole, skin slashed and gently stuffed with herbs.  I served the fish with fennel cooked in two different ways – braised with stock and pastis and also fried in a bit of olive oil and crushed garlic that the fish had been cooked in. I added some raw fennel tops fronds as garnish as well as spring onions. I served this with some baby red King Edward jacket potatoes.

Ingredients

Black bream:

2 black bream each about 500g

few sprigs rosemary

few sprigs thyme

3 bay leaves

clove of garlic, skin on

splash of olive oil

salt and pepper

Method

  • De-scale the bream, snip off the fins and remove the head. 
  • Slash each side of the body 2 or 3 times with a sharp knife and stuff a small sprig of rosemary and thyme in each.  Place a bay leaf in the body cavity and season the fish.
  • Put some olive oil, a smashed garlic clove (skin on) and a bay leaf in a non-stick frying pan and cook the fish for 3-4 minutes each side until the skin is crisp and golden, but flesh not overcooked.
  • Allow fish to rest for a few minutes before serving with the fennel and potatoes.

Fennel with pastis

This accompaniment can be cooked alongside the fish and will be ready about the same time if this is done.

Ingredients

1 fennel bulb, sliced, fronds/tops retained

1tbsp pastis e.g. Pernod

150 ml fish stock

salt and pepper

Method

  • Gently fry the fennel slices in some olive oil until they soften slightly and take on a bit of colour.
  • Add the pastis and allow it to reduce down to remove the alcohol
  • Add the fish stock and simmer to reduce and further soften the fennel for 2-3 minutes and season to taste.  Keep warm until serving.

Fried fennel garnish

This simply involved throwing some sliced raw fennel tops into the pan with the oil, garlic and bay leaf where the bream had been cooked and turning the heat up.  Fry the fennel until crisp and golden and serve over the braised fennel together with some raw fronds for contrasting textures. Garnish with some spring onions if you have some to hand. The fish was delicious and sweet and I can’t figure out why I’ve not been eating it more often. 

Bream and fennel

Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

The weather has remained relentlessly foul for the last 5 days and it has been impossible to get outside to garden, and now I have returned to work.  It doesn’t really matter and I enjoy looking at the sideways squal from my window while I sit at my computer. The first day back always takes some adjustment and I probably bit off more than I could chew.

The Red Queen Again

Following a post-work meeting, I had resolved to kick off my new 10 km running training plan yesterday. As a regular runner, this was not a New Year’s resolution, which I find futile and a bit pointless.  I prefer to run outside but wanted to kick-start my plan with a time trial for 10 km, which meant checking my pace on the treadmill at the gym, and so I was like the Red Queen, quite literally running to stand still.  The shock of an enforced break from running (2 weeks for flu, another for festivities) took its toll on my limbs and although my pace was around what I was aiming for, it was a punishing session…

So many choices, not enough space

The current herb bed with dominating horsradish and a few herbaceous perrenials thrown in.

The current herb bed with dominating horseradish and a few herbaceous perennials and annuals thrown in.

Happily, day two is a rest day from running, and a relief for my quadraceps and this evening was an ideal opportunity to browse seed catalogues and plan what to plant this year. I tend to be systematic and work through groups, e.g. herbs, brassicas, roots, polytunnel crops, herbs and flowers.  I started with herbs and flowers because they cause me less of a quandary.  I don’t grow many flowers at the moment as most of my 3/4 acre plot is mainly unimproved grassland, exposed and browsed by deer.  I concentrate on the smaller areas we have so far brought under cultivation and protection.

I was however somewhat distracted by the arrival of James Wong’s book Homegrown Revolution.  I caught the end of a Radio 4 interview with James back in October, but missed both his name and that of the book and forgot to listen again on iPlayer, so when this book was mentioned on The Garden Deli, I recognised that this was the book referred to in the discussion, so thanks for connecting me with the world of tomatillos and mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum).  The claims that many of these crops can be grown in the UK will be tested to the limit here on North Uist (discussion for a future post?) but worth trying some new exciting veg and fruit to spice up the garden.

I have only one herb bed at the moment, the overspill being housed in pots in the polytunnel, on windowsills and companion planted in the raised beds with other crops. My herb bed is also becoming dominated by horseradish, which will eventually need to be moved although I currently harvest enough to try to keep its vigorous growth in check.

Last year, I grew about 15 different herbs, all but a few for culinary use, and this year there will be a few more additions.  There are some herbs I simply cannot grow enough of, particularly basil, coriander, rosemary and thyme.  I can overwinter both rosemary and thyme in the polytunnel, but it is my excessive pruning that takes the real toll on the plants.  Conversely, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica is established and invasive in the garden and I can never get it under control, let alone use enough of it for cooking.

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

As ever, it’s good to have a mix of tried and tested and new varieties.  The big successes last year were chervil, a must for fish (I still have some outside now). Last summer was my second caraway harvest.  I leave some of this biennial umbellifer to self seed to ensure a yield each year.  These seeds have a very powerful flavour compared to shop bought seeds and I adore them in bread. Finally, I am slightly smug about my coriander harvest.  I used to buy coriander seeds from catalogues but it bolts very quickly here so repeated successional sowings were expensive.  I decided to try the large bag of seeds I had in the kitchen that I bought for cooking at an Indian supermarket in Glasgow.  Amazingly, germination rate was very high and one packet costing 60p has kept me going all year, so I will stick to the same plan for 2013.

I had one or two new herbs I had not grown before.  Summer savory was a winner and essential in many classic French dishes and bouquet garnis.  I was gifted hyssop by Christine at Croft Garden, a herb aficionado. Although I occasionally used it sparingly in the kitchen for vinaigrettes,salads and boullion, its beautiful blue flowers were a real hit with the bumblebees.

The final shortlist

My final culinary shortlist for growing this year is:

Rosemary, thyme (Summer de Provence and English Winter), sage, chervil, chives, bay, oregano (Greek), basil (Sweet, Red Rubin, Cinnamon, Mrs Burns), fennel, anise, coriander, lavender, French tarragon (plants), marjoram, winter savory, summer savory, caraway, parsley (flat leaf and the hardier curly), dill and rocket.

Nearer 30 than my estimated 15!

I have an additional list grown principally for flowers and hence wildlife:

hyssop, borage, phaecelia

The turf roof of the workshop has been established for a year so I am also planning to sow a ‘bumblebee seed mix’ of native wild flowers to grow on the roof.  The turf and soil were sourced locally from machair grassland and the species compliment is mainly typical of this habitat and includes corn marigold, knapweed, corn poppy, kidney vetch and slender vetch.

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

As usual, I will grow copious amounts of nasturtiums for salads, flowers and caper-like berries – also to divert the green-veined white caterpillars away from my brassicas and salads.

Although the garden is decidedly practical at the moment, I hope to design and landscape a courtyard at the front of the house incorporating tiered raised herb beds.  This however, is some way off as this area is likely to be a building site for another year or two.  I can but dream…

Apologies for not including the scientific names, life is too short at the mo and I am focussing on general culinary properties. If there are any startling omissions you think I should try, I would be delighted to have suggestions.  I am sure I could squeeze a few more in!

Intensely Herby recipes

Of course, no post would be complete without sharing a couple of recipes.  Both of these use copious amounts of herbs and are flexible and can be adapted according to what herbs and how much of each you may have or wish to include.

Vegetable boullion

This has become a store cupboard essential for me.  There is nothing wrong with some shop bought powdered boullions, but they do tend to give recipes an underlying generic recognisable flavour. Although I do like to make my own vegetable stocks, I do not always have time or the recipe does not call for stock but a little lift from the addition of a spoonful this boullion. I use it in anything and everything – soups, casseroles, cooking liquid for rice, cous cous, etc.

The boullion stores very well (at least 6 months). There’s a lot of salt in it, acting as a preservative, so I don’t usually season if I add some boullion to a dish. I make a batch in summer and another in winter, by which time the summer batch is finished. I am just coming to the end of my summer batch now. These can vary significantly in character, depending on what veg and herbs are at my disposal at different times of the year, and one has to be careful not to tip the balance too much in favour of particularly strong ingredients – unless that’s what you are aiming for, of course. This is a variation on the recipe in the River Cottage Handbook No 2 Preserves called ‘Souper mix’.

The last jar of my summer boullion

The last jar of my summer boullion

Ingredients – my summer vegetable boullion

250g leek

200g carrot

200g turnip

100g celery

50g sun-dried tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

100g parsley

10g mint

10g rosemary

5g summer savory

5g sage

250g salt

This amount made 3 jars

Method

  • Cram everything into a food processor (there is a large volume of herbs), pulse then blend to form a moist granular paste.
  • Store in sterilised jars and keep in the fridge once open.

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto

Pesto can be made from a wide range of herbs and leaves and I often ring the changes depending on whatever is the current garden glut.  Nasturtium leaves bring an added bit of zing to this pesto. Proportions of the herbs can be altered to taste, or any one exchanged for parsley. Fresh pesto will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.  It’s so good, it never lasts that long here.

Ingredients

25g nasturtium leaves

25g basil leaves

25g rocket leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge.

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto – green and glorious

Now all the planning for herbs is in place, time to move on to veg, but not before we deal with two greylag geese a friend has kindly delivered to us.  I know what we will be doing tomorrow evening….