Foraging on my doorstep 3: Dulse and beer bread – with my salt beef

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe that included the most obvious bounty on my doorstep – seaweed, in this case, dulse. I have coupled this with my first attempt at preparing salt beef, using a fine quality brisket of Aberdeen Angus. This unique combination produced a sandwich of some distinction, well worth the effort to collect the dulse and time to brine the beef.

In the process

As mentioned before, I am not a hardcore forager because in some respects, I don’t believe in tokenistic use of foraged ingredients. Seaweeds, if not appropriately processed, carefully considered and balanced to be an integral part of a dish can fall into this category. Dulse, however, I have discovered, does have significant merit as a distinctive ingredient that brings novel and intriguing flavour dimensions to a dish.

I am slightly limited in my experimental explorations with seaweeds as I currently don’t have a dehydrator, a tool that would give me more flexibility in using seaweed as an ingredient. Given that we are on the cusp of renovating the house and in the process of packing stuff away to facilitate the incredible mess that will ensue, buying more kitchen gadgets, normally something I would be looking for an excuse to do, is not on the cards.

Help with kelp

Dulse harvest

Dulse harvest 2

It is not the best time of year to be collecting dulse – end of summer / early autumn is optimal, but where there is kelp, it can usually be found at anytime of the year. I began thinking about recipe ideas, as possible contributions to Fiona Bird’s next book – based around culinary explorations with seaweed. The least I could do was come up with some ideas for Fi, Champion of Hebridean seaweed. See also my review of Fiona’s fabulous last book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen‘.

On a sunny but very windy day, we combed our local beach for living kelp that had been cast ashore (as opposed to the masses of dead plants, detached and usually devoid of dulse).  The holdfasts (‘root’) of living kelp plants still grip hard to the boulder substrate on which they are growing and are often thrown high up this beach during storms, well above the kelp zone, therefore making them easy to find.

So why, you may ask am I looking for kelp but intend to forage for dulse?  Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is a red seaweed that is epiphytic on several species of seaweed, notably the most abundant kelp found along the west coast of the Uists, Laminaria hyperborea. The stipes (‘stems’) of this important algae are often festooned with dulse, which has a ribbon-like appearance at this time of year, having been ripped and shredded by the force of stormy seas. These kelp plants live for up to 15 years and dulse tends to found associated with older specimens. Dulse also grows on rocks and mussels in the intertidal zone.

The kelp Laminaria hyperborea, tangle, to give it one of its common names,  is an incredibility important species, notably for these islands. The most apparent benefit of beach cast tangle (as well a few other seaweed species) is that it is traditionally collected from beaches after winter storms and utilised by crofters as a natural fertiliser for crops.

However, it is the unseen benefits provided by these kelp forests that extensively fringe the west coast here that make them so important.  Kelp (actually an umbrella name for a number of ‘forest-forming’ macroalgae) has been described as an ‘ecosystem engineer’, a wonderful term that perhaps, rather simplistically, may be described as any organism  that creates or significantly modifies habitats.  North American beavers and termites are often cited as the more obvious examples.

Kelp forests are extremely dynamic and productive with high biodiversity, acting as a habitat and refuge for many organisms and are important for nutrient cycling and energy capture.  Of key importance to this low-lying island chain may be the capacity of kelp forests to offer a degree of protection to coastal zones from flooding and erosion by acting as a buffer, reducing the velocity of approaching waves during storms.  A recent paper that gives an excellent synthesis of the functions of kelp can be found here. 

My life is currently awash with kelp – not just in my spare time used foraging for dulse,  at work I am currently managing a research project focusing on kelp.  A world of weed indeed!

As you can see, the dogs thought harvesting dulse this was a great game and quickly cottoned on to what we were trying to do.  They excitedly began seeking out kelp stipes. Unfortunately, when found they then proceeded to chew off and eat the dulse, or run around with the entire stipes hanging out of their mouths, nonchalantly chewing them while running amok.

Dulse and beer bread

I was aware that the flavour of dulse is complemented by ale and, in wishing to continue pushing the envelope with my recent bread making exploits (more on these another time), decided to pair the two flavours in a loaf.  I have been making a lot of ale rolls recently and was intrigued to experience how the dulse may alter the flavour and texture of my basic ale roll recipe.

The flavour was malty, full and distinctive. The dulse gave a new dimension and depth of flavour, soft texture, even bake and a pleasant smell that was incomparable with any loaf I have made before.  The colour was interesting, slightly tinged with yellow and the keeping qualities of the loaf appeared to be very good, although I admit, it didn’t perhaps last long enough to really test that out…

As mentioned, there are benefits to drying the dulse before use but without a dehydrator, I decided to try using it fresh. After checking the dulse for inhabiting species and removing them, I rinsed it thoroughly under the cold tap for a few minutes.  I then placed it in a bowl of warm water for half an hour, before drying it with a kitchen towel and then blitzing it quite coarsely in a food processor. I have no idea what the standard practice for fresh dulse is, but presumed this would remove creatures, salt and soften it a bit. It seemed to work.

Dulse

The recipe provides 2 large loaves and economically uses 1 500 ml bottle of ale. Alternatively, make 1/2 the volume and drink the spare 200ml of ale! Modify according to your preferred method of bread prep. and room temperature.

Ingredients

600g strong white bread flour

200g strong wholemeal bread flour

200g strong malted bread flour

40g fresh dulse, finely chopped

500 ml ale

100 ml water (approx.)

20g instant yeast

20g salt

60g butter

a little olive oil

some semolina for dusting

Oven: 205 C (fan)

Dulse bread

Method

  • Put everything in a bowl and mix until it comes together and tip onto the surface.  Be careful not to add all the water at once in case the dough is too sticky – especially due to the added moisture in the dulse.  Adjust water amount accordingly.
  • Put a little olive oil on the surface and tip out the dough.  Knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is no longer sticky but becomes soft and elastic.
  • Put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and allow to rise until doubled in size.  This may take up to several hours for a big batch like this, depending on room temperature.
  • Tip dough out and fold inwards to knock the air out and cut in 2 before shaping your loaves into your preferred shapes.
  • Place each on a baking tray dusted with a mixture of semolina and flour.
  • Cover with a plastic bag and leave to prove for at least an hour, or until the loaves have again doubled in size.
  • Dust the loaves with a mixture of semolina and flour and slash, if desired, before placing on the oven for 30 minutes.

Dulde bread 3

dulse bread 2

Salt beef: another briny recipe

Although I have always been aware of the existence of salt beef and its origination in Ashkenazi cuisine,  I must admit, I don’t recollect eating it, most probably because it is generally hard to acquire in Scotland and secondly, I have not thought to specifically seek it out. I had a good quality marbled piece of Aberdeen Angus beef and was contemplating what to do with it that would make it special when I came across a number of salt beef recipes online.

Salt beef, it transpires, is remarkably simple to make, so difficult acquisition is irrelevant if you are prepared to make it.  Admittedly, it does require considerable patience during brining.  At this stage, I found myself opening the fridge and staring longingly at the briny brisket, counting the days when it would be ready to cook and consume.

Traditionally, saltpetre would have been added.  This does give the beef its characteristic pink tinge. Although we do have some (for something to do with violin making, not cooking!), I prefer to keep the product more natural, so have omitted it.

Since the beef will languish in the brine for an entire week, it is perhaps not wise to try to undertake this without the benefit of a large fridge. Fortunately, I have one.

This recipe is an amalgamation of several I found online.  I modified the contents of the brine and subsequent cooking ingredients to my own tastes.

Salt beef brine recipe


275g soft light brown sugar

350g coarse sea salt

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 cloves

3 bay leaves

a few sprigs of thyme

a sprig of rosemary

salt beef 1

Method

  • Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large saucepan with  2.5 litres of water, bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve.
  • Once it comes to the boil,  simmer for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
  • Pierce the brisket all over with a skewer and place in a large sterilised, non reactive container (plastic is best) that will hopefully fit in your fridge.
  • Pour over the brine to immerse the beef, weight it down if you can, or turn in the brine regularly.
  • Leave to brine for 1 week.

For the beef 

2 kg (minimum) beef brisket

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 celery stick, roughly chopped

1 leek, roughly chopped

1 bouquet garni of seasonal herbs

1 head of garlic, halved

Method

  • Take the beef out of the brine and rinse it.
  •  Place a pan with the vegetables, bouquet garni and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover.
  • Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach very gently for about 3 hours, or until the meat is completely tender.

salt beef 2

Serve hot or cold.  We preferred it cold, as luxurious lunchtime sandwiches with the dulse and beer bread, some wholegrain mustard and accompanied by small onions I grew last summer, preserved in a sweet and gentle pickle.  There is no doubt about what I will be making with the next brisket I acquire – an outstanding way to celebrate one of the best cheap beef cuts, making it feel very extravagant.

salt beef sandwich

The vile weather continues here, so time for a break. London calling.  Here’s hoping when I return spring will be vaguely apparent (though I did hear an optimistic skylark singing this morning in the short sunshine interlude between the continual low pressure weather systems).

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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

Teacakes: Homage to Tunnock’s – festive or otherwise

Teacakes, of the marshmallow and chocolate variety, may not appear to be the most obvious choice for a festive post.  Pimped up appropriately however, they can become so, lending themselves quite obviously to the form of a Christmas pud.

I am attempting to redeem myself having almost entirely missed the opportunity for a festive post.  Storms have resulted in no broadband for 6 days and hence an enforced break from blogging over the festive period, ironically, the first time in months I have had more time to prepare food and post than usual.  So, belated Merry Christmas to all those who sent good wishes, sorry I have been slow to reciprocate.

Festive challenges

The storms here, as elsewhere in the country have had considerable impacts.  We were very fortunate not to lose power on Christmas day, and the Christmas Eve storm was not quite as fierce as it was forecast to be. We also had a turkey-cooking contingency plan.  A friend kindly offered a gas oven should the power go off which thankfully it did not, other than for a couple of minutes.  That said, it was windy enough to affect the radio signal.  We spent Christmas day without broadband, our phone line still is not working and to top it all off, no radio signal.  We felt disappointed not to be able to communicate with friends and family freely, or to listen to Radio 4, as we enjoy doing, on Christmas Day.

That said, our issues felt trivial compared with those unfortunates in the south of England with no power, properties and possessions ruined by flooding and no certainty of when normality may return, with further unsettled weather forecast and flood warnings in place. This really put our minor issues in perspective and our thoughts were with people who will have had a very unpleasant Christmas.

For us, Christmas, in all honesty is no biggie, although we do enjoy the relaxation, chance to catch up with friends and family (although many are dispersed and far away) and indulge.  I know, it is a bit bah humbug, but I cannot help but reflect on the fact that for many people, Christmas is a very difficult time.  This is especially the case for those who have suffered loss or whose loved ones are missing. Many people are not surrounded by family and friends but spend Christmas isolated and lonely.  This must be amplified for many by the general media portrayal of the cliched scenario that Christmas Day is all about multiple generations of family coming together to harmoniously and joyously celebrate around a table groaning with food.  I commend Radio 4 and Channel 4 for reflective coverage of the more difficult but realistic side of this time of year for many people. This year, I have lost my Uncle, a friend, a neighbour (another friend) and, sadly, last week, a work colleague. My thoughts are with those most affected by these losses. Much as I am not at all prone to nostalgia, I will certainly not be looking back on 2013 fondly, and look forward positively to what 2014 may bring. And so, back to food….

A seasonal food summary

While it may be a bit late now to recount in full those seasonally appropriate recipes here, I summarise. Christmas Day was straightforward and traditional.  We enjoyed Eggs Benedict with parma ham on homemade muffins for brunch.  Canapés included slices from a side of local peat smoke roasted salmon we purchased from the Hebridean smokehouse, conveniently only 2 miles from the house. A bit of luxury and well worth it. We also enjoyed goose rillettes, made from confit wild greylag goose legs, another local luxury which only cost me my time to prepare.

Dinner was traditional – local turkey and all the trimmings.  We still enjoy an annual Christmas turkey, something we very much missed when we were vegetarians. Turkey seems to be a bit passé just now, with goose or capon trending, but we regularly eat wild goose, so a free range very local turkey from our neighbour was a much bigger treat. Literally. Dessert was a simple refreshing orange panna cotta with a sharp blackcurrant compote, made during the summer fruit glut and kept in reserve for mid winter.

Dinner was a relaxing affair, but for the point half way through the meal when we turned round to see the Christmas tree lights flicker and a cascade of smoke drifting upwards from a melting light housing on the tree! The Man Named Sous took quick action to unplug the tree and avert disaster. Phew! A new set of lights required for next year.

On the baking front, I made good old traditional mince pies, topped with almonds and frangipane, filled with homemade vegetarian mincemeat I made back in November. The frangipane topping idea is courtesy of Richard Bertinet, the recipe can be found here. The pastry was wonderfully crisp and thin. These mince pies were devoured hot from the oven by our ever eager visiting musician friends just before Christmas.

mince pies 1

mince pies 2

mince pies 3

Stollen also featured, currently trending as the seasonal cake of choice this year.  It was reassuringly solid, about the weight of a breeze block, an indication of its authenticity. It was also delicious with a swirl of marzipan, added non-traditional cranberries and a good hit of ground cloves and nutmeg. This was a gift for a friend and stollen aficionado, and was well received. This was Mr Hollywood’s Christmas GBBO stollen recipe. Darwin also assists as a prop in the photo, looking longingly at the stollen.

stollen

Tunnock’s Teacakes – legendary Scottish product

Finally, a more quirky offering as a tribute to Tunnock’s teacakes. For those not aware of these products of legendary significance for Scottish gastromony, a Tunnock’s teacake should not be confused with the traditional English teacake, an enriched dough sweet pastry roll with dried fruit and spices, usually served toasted and spread with butter.

The Tunnock’s Teacake is a dome of chocolate filled with marshmallow, similar to Italian meringue, sitting on a shortbread-like biscuit base (also encased in chocolate). The packaging is iconic and distinctive, each teacake encased in striped silver and red foil (milk chocolate) or silver and blue foil (dark chocolate, less common/popular than the milk version).

The Tunnock’s factory is in Uddingston in Lanarkshire and their products even inspired traditional fiddler John McCusker to pen a tune entitled ‘A Mile Down the Road’ in honour of Tunnock’s since he lived close to the factory at one time. Apparently, there is a 2 year long waiting list for tours of the factory, which churns out 10 million biscuits a week including another biscuit icon, the Caramel Wafer.  However, the teacake is not my personal favourite, I always preferred Tunnock’s coconut and chocolate-coated Caramel Log. Controversial.

My attempt to make teacakes came about because of the affection others have for this enigmatic sweet treat (you know who you are!). Pressure came to bear when contestants were set a technical challenge of making them on the Great British Bake Off and a Paul Hollywood recipe was posted online. I was gifted a silicone teacake mould, the caveat being I had to, of course, make some.  I was delighted with the gift and happy to oblige.

Home made teacake homage

I used Paul Hollywood’s recipe.  I usually use very high quality dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids, but stuck to his advice to use lower cocoa solid chocolate, to avoid discolouration / cracking.  It worked very well.  I made a second festive batch with milk chocolate, as a gift for a friend who is a Tunnock’s teacake lover, but prefers milk chocolate.  I used 50% cocoa solid milk chocolate (Co-op Fairtrade), and was surprised how much more delicate and hard to work it was than the dark Bournville I used for the first batch. For the second festive batch, I also reduced the amount of salt to 1/4 teaspoon as I could detect too much salt flavour in the first batch.

teacakes 1

The recipe also wisely advises the turned out teacakes should not be handled as the shiny exterior is easily marked with fingerprints.  Also, they should not be put in the fridge as they will lose their shine.  So, best eaten fresh.

teacakes 2

teacakes 3

Although time consuming and a bit fiddly, the recipe gave good results and they were great fun to make.  Even better, they were very much appreciated and enjoyed by the teacake lovers.  I don’t have a sweet tooth, and this became very apparent when I sat down to eat the teacakes with a few aficionados. The presentation of the teacakes had a sense of occasion and anticipation.

Firstly, these teacakes are massive compared with Tunnock’s. By the time I got half way through, everyone else was finished eating theirs, commenting on the delights of the teacakes and thinking of going for a second one. I however, was feeling slightly queasy at the thought of eating the second half of mine. It was simply too big and sweet for me. The others though there was clearly something wrong with my palate, or the wiring of my brain. One muncher commented with an air of disappointment that he was not able to get the whole thing in his mouth at once, as you could a Tunnock’s (!). There were also heroic tales of entire boxes of 6 being consumed in one sitting. Finally, they are extremely messy to eat, so prepare to roll your sleeves up and to wear meringue from ear to ear.

teacakes 4

The milk chocolate versions were given a festive twist, a dollop of melted white chocolate and some marzipan coloured with natural food dyes transforming them into Christmas puds, giving them that bit more bling required for a gift.  I stopped short of including a blob of mincemeat within each, although I was tempted.  Maybe next year….

festive teacake 2

festive teacakes 1

Hogmanay is almost here, so Happy New Year, all the best for 2014, see you on the other side!

Aromatic port-soaked venison shanks wrapped in Swiss chard

This recipe uses one of the best cheap cuts from our stockpile of local venison – shanks, combining these with my favourite and infallible vegetable crop of this year, Swiss chard. The cooking marinade has a hefty glug of port and serves as a simple sauce, being further enriched with aromatic star anise, juniper berries and herbs. I say sauce. I’m not sure what it should technically be called – it is not a gravy (a thickened sauce), and probably not a jus (unthickened gravy type affair). Sauce. A thin one. That will suffice, for me at least.

As ever, posts and blogging interactions have been restricted by my commitments over the last few weeks.  Hopefully, with Christmas only a week away, I can start to think less about work and building and more about a bit of festive cheer – maybe even produce a festive post?  Well, that might be pushing it a bit. Bah humbug, we will see…

Swiss chard – a stoic vegetable

My Swiss chard crop has been the star of my veg bed greens this year.  Despite perpetual harvesting and hacking, gales and pelting horizontal rain, it persisted, unblackened and magnificently upright compared with my very ragged and battered leeks.

I say persisted. A raging storm last week meant I had to be pragmatic and accept the blackening blast would be the end of the chard crop for the year.  Now it can only be described as charred chard.

The storm was pretty fierce, there was a lot of flash, bang and wallop as the weather fronts rolled in from the Atlantic, gusts over 80 mph causing the occasional lurch and shudder of our old croft house.  This peaked with a magnificent thunderstorm, the crescendo as it approached accompanied by hail stones battering against the back of the house (and bedroom window),  the tumultuous auditory assault and accompanying spectacular lightning passing overhead about 0400 hrs, rattling the windows and leaving both of our telephone lines fried in its wake.

There was absolutely no chance of getting a wink of sleep, particularly with our baying hounds joining in with the racket to ‘enhance’ the cacophony. I couldn’t resist opening the curtains to stare at the spectacle as the storm approached.  I was rewarded by a gargantuan flash that left me blinded for a few seconds. Although overhead, the thunder could barely be heard for the roar of the wind, hail, dogs, rattling downpipes, etc. We rushed around the house, switching off all the appliances – we have had circuits fried in phones, printers and the cooker in the last few years. Incredibly, though the power supply wavered, it stayed on, as did our broadband.  Until later in the day when, just as I was approaching a critical work deadline, the broadband signal inexplicably disappeared, to be followed by the power an hour later.  Power was restored within an hour, broadband the next day.  It took a week to have one phone line fixed and we are still waiting on the fault on the other to be repaired – nearly 2 weeks later.

Ride the lightning

I have always been fascinated by storm watching, as a child I was transfixed by thunder and lightning, often only to be disappointed by the brevity and relative meekness of our UK storms (although we have discovered they are more frequent and sustained in the Hebrides). Not so when I moved to Portugal and I could enjoy the light show of autumn storms, fork lightning cracking the sky, illuminating the hills surrounding the village.  I delighted in Equatorial storms in Ecuador, predictable weather patterns accompanied by biblical cloudbursts. Most recently, on the Slovakian border with Ukraine, I became completely mesmerised, watching an eerily quiet 3 hour luminescent display of heat lightning while sipping beer on my hotel terrace on a still, balmy evening.  The frequent staccato lightning bolts branched and flickered, repeatedly incising the sky, like cracks running across a pane of glass.

Storms are, of course, to be respected and revered, and can only be enjoyed when you are not in danger. Sadly, the hurricane of 2005 that took 5 members of the same family on South Uist will remain a bleak reminder that one can never be complacent about forecasts. That night changed people’s perspective and sensitivity towards extreme weather across these exposed islands.

The wind speed during last week’s storm isn’t at all unusual for the Uists and such storms, indeed it is going to be the same again tonight. Occasionally some more ferocious storms occur, maybe only once each winter. Last week, the storm pulled tiles off 3 neighbouring properties and we were lucky not to sustain damage.  We are relatively protected from storms by low-lying hills around the house on the side of the prevailing south-west wind, but northerlies like the storm last week have the potential to do most damage to our house.

There have been one or two occasions when the wind has reached hurricane speed that I did become slightly alarmed.  One particular night comes to mind in winter 2009 when wind speeds exceeded 100 mph.  Inevitably, the power went off, then we heard the alarming sound of creaking and a slumping sound.  This was a down pipe shaking loose, pulling with it a clump of render 4 x 4 m off the back of our house.  This storm lifted the roof off a building on St Kilda where wind speeds reached in excess on 120 mph.

Hurricane Bawbag

While these storms can be alarming,  the now infamous ‘Hurricane Bawbag’ was particularly memorable. This name coined on Twitter and was adopted thereafter, notably on the cover of one Red Top next morning, complete with the image of a wind turbine ablaze in Ayrshire.

Burning: The flaming debris from the wind turbines flew off into nearby fields due to the wind

It was quite an appropriate moniker for this scunner of a storm in Scotland, we couldn’t possibly have just called it Bob, Fred or Frieda in a regular Hurricane-naming way.  I note the meaning of bawbag is not provided in reference to the event on Wikipedia but can be found here for the curious. During this hurricane on 8 December 2011, the rest of Scotland got the flavour of wind speeds we experience here during severe winter storms.  Although we did lose power at home, plus 4 gates and a chimney cowl that night, unfortunately, I was not home but ironically in the eye of the storm for a meeting in Edinburgh.

Enduring a storm in a landscape devoid of trees and a few low, dispersed buildings in a rural landscape is an entirely different prospect to experiencing a hurricane in our capital city.  Scaffolding poles, roof tiles, trees and even flying rubbish became a serious hazard while myself and my colleagues staggered through the city centre, trying to avoid getting hit by detritus and being blown into the path of traffic along the way. The proposed festive outing to drink gluhwein at the outdoor continental market in Princes Street was most definitely cancelled.

Here, in the grip of another, more moderate gale tonight, it is comforting to know it’s unlikely to be ‘Bawbag II’, although with gusts of 80 mph, power could again be disrupted. A good night then to remind myself of the chard and other veg growing in the garden in mid summer: It won’t be long before it comes around again…

swiss chard

Port-soaked venison shanks wrapped in Swiss chard 

The venison shanks had to be decanted from one of our freezers to accommodate the surprise early arrival of our Christmas turkey from my crofting neighbour. It was also surprisingly large. We were offered a smaller bird, but the caveat was I would have to go round and dispatch it myself.  I declined. Earlier in the year, I could see these free range birds wandering about casually on the croft from our house and hear their calls on still nights. Our bird is a completely different shape from commercially farmed birds, being naturally proportioned, without those implant-style breasts that farmed birds sport. I look forward to comparing it with last year’s bronze turkey.

The venison shanks were slow cooked in a stock-based marinade for about 5 hours by which time the meat is very tender and falls from the bone and can be flaked, removing the most gelatinous components of the tendons and ligaments in which these tough muscle fibres are enmeshed. It is then ready for rolling in chard leaves which are steamed. Lettuce leaves such as little gem can also be used as a substitute for chard, and lamb shanks for venison.

The venison-filled chard parcels were served simply, with a little of the rich and aromatic cooking sauce and some carrots and parsnips from the garden.

Pre-heat oven to 150C

Ingredients

2 venison shanks

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed.

1 onion, chopped

100 ml of port

1 star anise

8 juniper berries, crushed

bunch of thyme springs

1 bay leaf

1.5 litres of game or chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

shank 2

shank 3

Method

  • Brown the venison shanks in olive oil in a large casserole dish, then add the rest of the ingredients to cover the shanks, bring to a simmer.
  • Put the lid on and place the casserole in the oven for 4-5 hours, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough stock marinade to cover the shanks.  Top up with water/stock as necessary.
  • Remove the shanks and allow to cool slightly before pulling the tender muscle meat away from the now gelatinous tendons, ligaments and sinews.  The meat will have already fallen off the bone.
  • Mix a small amount of the cooking sauce with the meat and roll a generous large spoonful in each chard leaf, securing with a cocktail stick, if required.  Steam the parcels for 5 minutes and serve with some of the cooking sauce and vegetables of your choice. I suggest 2 parcels per person.

shank 4

venison shank

Venison liver pâté

This simple recipe is the first stepping stone on the road to gentle re-acquaintance with my blog after an absence of over a month.  This simple, rich and aromatic pâté recipe brought contrasting textures and flavours to a delightful spread of antipasti we enjoyed recently.

It is not every day that a friend turns up at my door with the gift of a venison liver, not even at the start of the stalking season, so the liver was gratefully received, albeit a slightly novel present.  Despite having masticated our way through several red deer hinds since my vegetarian self moved to Uist, this is the first I have managed to get a hold of a liver.

Who knows where they go.  I hold no secrets about the whereabouts of the North Uist deer liver mountain.  Perhaps because they are the deer’s best kept secret, they don’t get as far as the punter, and who could begrudge the hunter or stalker this most glorious component of The Fifth Quarter?  Not me. Well, most of the time…

November? Already?

Had it not been for my extensive travels over the last month, reminding me that it is indeed already November due to the potentially looming travel disruption of flights and ferries, I think I would still be under the misguided apprehension that summer had just ended.  Time has flown past these last two or three months and the winter is winging past at a frightening rate. Not a bad thing, most people would argue.

Work commitments have taken me away from the island for large chunks of the last month and I have been on one of my typical circumnavigations of Scotland.  Meetings in Perth, Oban, Aberdeen and Inverness, additional stopovers in Skye, Glasgow and a flying visit to my parents (literally).  I felt like a pinball ricocheting around Scotland in planes, trains and automobiles (and ferries).

In truth, most of the time I enjoy these excursions off the island – good chance to catch up with friends, family and colleagues along the way, visit cities, shops, see more people than sheep on a daily basis. However, I have clearly spent far too many nights staying at the hotel next to Glasgow Airport, pending flight next morning.

One night last week, between trips, I was home and woke up with a start when I heard a plane fly over.  Slightly baffled for a few minutes, I assumed I was in that hotel next to Glasgow Airport, only to find to my relief when I came to that I was in fact at home and that the air ambulance had just flown over! No doubt the sound of its arrival would be a relief to a patient in need too.

Despite a few tentative waits in departure lounges scanning the forecasts on my phone and hoping the flight would go, and occasional turbulent flights and tricky landings, pleased to say I mostly avoided the dreaded cancellations. All but once that is when a technical fault caused a ferry to break down, delaying my arrival home by 12 hours.

With a substantial workload and pre-Christmas deadlines looming, I am glad I can be back home to focus and get my teeth into meeting the deadlines before the festive break. That’s the plan, at least!

Sad Song

In the interim between my last post and this, one of the true originals of music, Lou Reed died.  Not such a Perfect Day.  Lou Reed was a true artist and a musical pioneer who has influenced and shaped rock music landscape for decades.  His often wonderfully idiosyncratic and deadpan, droll delivery of his unique and thought provoking lyrics had perfect musical accompaniment. His guitar style was special – distinctively assertive yet bare bones. His work has been and will always be part of the musical highlights of my life.

While it is totally understandable, it is also pity that most of the obituaries and tributes in the music (and popular) press focused on his early years with the Velvet Underground. No denying this brilliant and ground breaking work and the 1972 solo Transformer album that followed.  However, that was very knowingly hip and cool.

It was between 1989 and 2000 that his work really spoke to me.  I still regularly play his 1989 album New York with such gems as Dirty Blvd, Romeo Had Juliette and Strawman, which contain some of his best bile-laden lyrics.  The albums Songs for Drella, Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling and Ecstasy complete the album quintet that best summarises what I value about his work.

We saw him in Edinburgh when he toured for the Ecstasy album.  He was at his cantankerous artistic best: acerbic, contrary and expressive, everything one should expect from Lou Reed at a gig: an unmalleable, difficult and complex personality laid bare.

Planning ahead

Earlier, I was talking of plans and the ball is finally rolling with our plans to renovate and extend our crumbling croft house. In between trips away, we have been working with our architect to finalise the plans.  After numerous iterations, we are pleased to say these plans are complete at last, thanks to the help of our patient, can-do architect.

It would be much easier in many respects if it was a new build.  Working with old houses brings constraint, challenge and additional costs, not least because we must pay VAT at 20% on the renovation and extension, unlike a new build.  We had considered flattening the house and starting again, but only fleetingly.  We bought the house with our eyes open and in part because it would be a challenging, exciting and alarming project. We knew it would require total renovation and extension, and the time is nigh.

A few people have asked me if I intend to blog about the renovation and extension project of our old croft house. I would like to, if nothing else but to document the process for our own benefit and reflection later. Given I can barely maintain this blog at the moment, it doesn’t look that likely for now but I may change my mind. More on the build in future posts. For today I have had my fill.

Just before I tackled this post, I had spent a considerable amount of time researching bathroom extractor fans online. After 30 pages of looking at dull plastic objects that pretty much all look the same, fulfill more or less a similar purpose, some quieter or more powerfully than others, I lost the will to live.  So here I am.  Venison liver pâté.

Venison liver pâté

It does seems a pity to deconstruct this most perfect and healthy of red deer livers to pâté, but the result was well worth it.  The deconstruction was , however, less than pretty. Mincing deer liver is not for the faint-hearted and the resulting passage of the organ through our electric mincer was reminiscent of the remake of the Evil Dead, a splat and sprayfest that we recently enjoyed  This resulted in me shielding the kitchen from the ensuing bloodbath with a bin bag screen around the mincer. Photographs have been deliberately withheld, lest they be blocked by my server. Don’t be deterred!

liver 1

Before mincing, the liver must be prepped by removing all membranes and vessels before use.  This left about a kilo of liver to work with, enough for 2 terrines. The inclusion of minced pork belly to add texture meant the pâté was somewhat a hybrid between a terrine and a classic pâté, but I thought the addition of the pork was necessary to add fat for moisture and to balance the intensity of the rich and powerful gamey liver.

The pate was served with home made two seed crackers, my own rowan and apple jelly, various salamis, Sicilian Castelvetrano olives and Great Glen Game’s wonderful smoked venison (see Twitter @GreatGlenGame). This is one of the wonderful charcuterie products they sell.  I have been trying in vane to get a hold of some for a while.  Each time I pass Roy Bridge, unfortunately, it is after shop closing, otherwise I would stop by for some.  I managed to pick up some at a new deli that has sprung up in Portree, Skye.

The olives and salami come from our great new Island Deli on Benbecula.  How fantastic it is to at last have our own fresh cheese and charcuterie selection, as well as good coffee from this new island business.

antipasti

The ingredients below are for 1 terrine.

Ingredients

500g venison liver, minced

350g pork belly, minced

50 ml brandy

6 juniper berries, crushed

100 ml port

200 g pancetta or streaky bacon

1 egg, beaten

salt and pepper

Set the oven to 180C

Method

  • Mince the trimmed venison liver, then the pork belly.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, except the egg and bacon, mix well, leave to stand for a couple of hours.
  • At this stage, check the seasoning by frying a piece of mixture in a frying pan, adjust if required, according to taste.
  • Line a terrine with overlapping slices of streaky bacon widthways. Combine the beaten egg into the meat mixture then fill the terrine with the mixture.
  • Finish by wrapping the bacon ends over the mixture in the terrine and cover with foil.
  • Place in the oven in a Bain Marie , the water coming 3/4 way up the sides of the terrine, for 1 1/2 hours.
  • Place a weight on top of the terrine, allow to cool then chill overnight before running a knife around the edge, turning out and slicing.

pate 2

pate 1

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.

The last gasp of summer: a duo of foraged flower and berry ripple ice creams

The fleeting Hebridean summer has long gone, yet my store of foraged meadowsweet and elderflower cordials allow for culinary reminiscence of the few warm days we enjoyed this summer. Despite the shortening days and the decidedly autumnal nip in the air (that the midges are impervious to), I incorporated flowers and berries of summer into ice cream to help summer linger on the tongue and in my memory that bit longer.

This recipes is a bit less seasonal than I hoped and a busy August and September have entirely curtailed my ability to post and keep up with my favourite blogs.  These last two months have been exceptionally busy with many visitors, much to do around the house and garden and some work trips which together almost block booked my diary for weeks. It has been lovely to catch up with so many people and a surprise so late in the typical tourist season (we rarely get visitors in winter).

The season for meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) always seems surprisingly long to me, the last few flowers being blackened to oblivion by recent equinoctial gales. Thiperennial herb of the family Rosaceae is common here, as on much of mainland UK. it is usually found along damp roadside verges, in gardens and across swathes of boggy common grazings.

It is obvious, being relatively tall compared with much of the uncultivated grassland vegetation here and the blousy beauty of the delicate creamy fronds draw the eye from a distance, and the scent is distinctively sweet and enticing. A frequent experience while driving round the island in summer is to enjoy catching its sweet almond-like scent on the breeze while waiting at passing places for oncoming traffic to pass on our single track roads.

Meadowsweet

I provided a link to the recipe for my elderflower cordial in a previous post.  The meadowsweet recipe is essentially the same recipe, substituting the volume of elderflowers for meadowsweet flowers.

Cordials at the ready, I received an additional fortuitous gift of a few kilos of blackcurrants and redcurrants from my neighbour and the flower and ripple combination was so obviously calling out to be transformed into ice cream. I decided the blackcurrrants would best complement the elderflower and used the tart redcurrants to pair with the more syrupy meadowsweet. Both berries were turned into coulis to form the ripples.

The ice cream recipe has a traditional rich and decadent custard base, an indulgence necessary to reward time invested in foraging, cordial making and berry picking that culminated in these recipes. All the activity and effort can entirely justify the indulgence, well, that’s my view, at least…

The method for making both ice creams and coulis for the duo is the same, although less cordial is needed for the meadowsweet recipe as the flavour is more powerful.  Below I outline the ingredients for both recipes.

Elderflower and blackcurrant ripple ice cream

Ingredients:

250ml whole milk

150g sugar

500ml double cream

pinch of salt

6 large egg yolks

40ml elderflower cordial

Blackcurrant coulis:

Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.Take 50 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 150g of blackcurrants.  Sieve and fold into the ice cream.

Meadowsweet and redcurrant ripple ice cream

Ingredients

250ml whole milk

150g sugar

500ml double cream

pinch of salt

6 large egg yolks

25ml meadowsweet cordial

Redcurrant coulis:

Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.Take 40 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 125g of redcurrants and the juice of a lemon.  Sieve and fold into the ice cream.

To make the ice creams – Method

  • Warm the milk with 250 ml of the cream, sugar and salt in a pan.  Once warm, remove from the heat.
  • Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and slowly pour the warm mixture over the yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the mix back into the pan.
  • Stir constantly over a medium heat with a spatula until the mix thickens to coat the spatula.
  • Pour the thickened mix through a sieve into a bowl surrounded by an ice bath (to stop the eggs in the custard cooking) and stir until cool, refrigerate then churn.

Swirl each coulis through each ice cream once churned by your ice cream maker.  Fold in at the end of churning if you are making the ice cream by hand

Despite the contrasting colours of the coulis, the ice creams look surprisingly similar in the photographs, although the distinctive flavours of each shine through – guaranteed to fox most people in a palate test!

elderflower and blackcurrant

tasty duo

medowsweet

HTC One  2 September 2013 954