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

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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

Hand-dived scallops and samphire with Marsala and porcini sauce

This is a last hurrah for hand-dived scallops and seasonal samphire as well as a need to satisfy my yearning for some fungi. While the Fruits of the Sea may be plentiful here in the Outer Hebrides, I can only read in envy about the wonderful selection of fungi currently being foraged with enthusiasm on mainland UK.

An alternative fungi foray

It’s not to say we do not have some fungi here, we do but they are not the big gusty flavoursome favourites that I craved for this dish. We are very limited by the range of habitats, and importantly, lack of woodlands for a good diversity of edible fungi.  I particularly miss woodland excursions to collect my favourite, Cantharellus cibarius, which I have known all my life as chanterelle, but that is now somewhat inexplicably referred to almost exclusively as the oh-so-trendy girolle in fine dining establishments.

In trying to find out where this change (or my perception of it) had arisen, I started digging and found a paper by Pilz et al (2003) entitled Ecology and Management of Commercially Harvested Chanterelle Mushrooms. Chanterelles, which actually encompass 4 genera: Cantharellus, Craterellus, Gomphus, and Polyozellus, are commonly referred to as chanterelles because their spore-bearing surfaces appear similar without magnification.

I must admit I got a bit sucked in to the etymology having found an enormous list of 90 vernacular names for chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius sensu lato), from Catalonian name Agerola to Ziza horia (yellow mushroom) of Basque, Spain and France. Indeed the Catalonian language appears to have a diverse and delightful array of names including Vaqueta (small cow), Ull de perdiu (partridge eye) and Rossinyol (nightingale).

Anyhow, I digress, since alas, I have no fresh chanterelles this year, but I do have some very fine dried porcini, Boletus edulis, also known as cep or penny bun (and many other great vernacular names besides). This fungi has a distinctive nutty, meaty and robust flavour that works very well in a huge array of dishes.  Balanced correctly with other flavours, it can be surprisingly subtle but identifiable on the palate, yet the distinctive flavour cuts through when required e.g. to accompany steak.

Scallops and samphire with a Marsala and porcini sauce

My supply of hand-dived scallops is becoming harder to acquire and the samphire season is pressing on, the plants are now less juicy and slightly woody, tips are now best selected.

I have married Marsala and porcini together before, but not with scallops, so I was interested to see if I could get the balance right, given the sweetness of both the scallops and the Marsala.  To counter this, I added a bit of our home-cured Old Spot pancetta to the sauce for a slightly salty tang, and the samphire also adds a bit of salt for balance.

The porcini were soaked for about 20 minutes in boiling water, squeezed out and finely chopped.  The reserved soaking liquid was added to the sauce to intensify the porcini flavour. I took my eye off the ball for a minute and slightly over-reduced the sauce, so it was a bit thick but the flavours were still balanced.

The method here focuses on the sauce since scallops and samphire are cooked simply and gently. The sauce should be prepared first and kept warm since the scallops and samphire require full attention by way of minimal but precision cooking.

Serves 2

Ingredients

3 or 4 hand-dived scallops per person

a handful of samphire, washed

Sauce:

15g dried porcini, rehydrated,

75 ml porcini reserved cooking liquid

100 ml double cream

75g pancetta, finely cubed

1 shallot, finely chopped

50 ml Marsala

10g unsalted butter

salt and pepper

Method

  • Add 10g of butter to a pan and gently fry the shallot until translucent.  Turn up the heat, add the marsala and reduce by half.
  • Add the porcini and the cooking liquid and reduce by approximately a third.
  • Meanwhile, gently dry fry the pancetta in another pan until slightly browned, drain on kitchen towel and set to one side before adding it to the sauce.
  • Add the double cream to the sauce and reduce until slightly thickened, keep the sauce warm.
  • At this stage, prepare a griddle or frying pan for the scallops and cook just enough to caramelise the outside and retain a translucent centre.
  • Blanch the samphire in a pan of boiling water for 1 minute and drain.

This tasted like a fitting way to celebrate beautiful local scallops and savour the end of the summer samphire season while welcoming the autumnal flavours of fungi.

scallop final

scallops final 2

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

Hebridean langoustines – three ways

The supreme quality of seafood available in the Outer Hebrides is hard to compete with and I feel ashamed that I have yet to champion Hebridean seafood by featuring it in a recipe so far (except mussels, of course).

I am thinking specifically about crustaceans. Recent posts highlighting super-fresh Crustacea by My French Haven (langoustines) and Food, Frankly (crayfish) have further served to remind me to do so, as well as a superb meal cooked for us by friends at the weekend and featuring a star dish of lasagne with local crab.

Langoustines – King of Crustacea

My King of Crustacea award goes to langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus), also referred to variously as scampi, Norway lobster and Dublin Bay prawn. Prawn, the local name here, is confusing nomenclature as they are more closely related, and have a flavour and texture similar but superior to lobster.  Eaten when fresh, langoustines have the sweetest most delicate flavour of all crustacea and indeed, are sublime, but they should be fresh i.e. live when you acquire them.

The life of the langoustine

Langoustines are found where there is suitable muddy sediment, the habitat in which they construct and occupy burrows where they spend most of their time. They can be found in shallow coastal waters a few metres deep, including sea lochs and up to water depths of more than 500m to the west of the Outer Hebrides at the edge of the continental shelf.

They are opportunistic predators and scavengers feeding on marine worms, other crustaceans and molluscs. Females mature at about 3 years old. Mating takes place in early summer, with spawning in September .  The ‘berried’ females carry the eggs until they hatch the following spring.  The planktonic larvae develop, metamorphosing through several fascinating larval stages, before settling on the seabed about 2 months later.

The Outer Hebridean langoustine fishery

The fishery is extremely important economically for the Outer Hebrides and has been growing since the 1960’s.  Scotland contributes to about 1/3 of the total catch of langoustines worldwide.  Here in the Uists, a good proportion of the catch is made by small local boats using creels, mainly in coastal waters.  This method of fishing is more sustainable than trawling since it causes less ecological damage as it is more selective.  The prawns are also of very high quality as they are less damaged and stressed than trawled specimens. The Scottish Government consider this fishery to be healthy around the Outer Hebrides.

The main markets are for export and most of the stocks caught here are transported live to Spain and France and also to a number of discerning hoteliers and restaurateurs on the UK mainland. Vehicles carrying live prawns can be seen leaving on the ferries most days.  For residents, you have to know where to intercept this prime export at source before it leaves the island.  I am fortunate to have a friend with a langoustine export business, so my prawn quarry is easy to find. I consider it foraging by proxy.  Visitors to the island are likely to have to do a bit of homework to pin down some langoustines while here. While I am familiar with ecology of this species, my friend had provided fascinating insights into the live langoustine business here on the island and beyond.

Cooking with langoustines

Freshly cooked langoustines

There is no doubt that langoustines are luxury produce and therefore are very expensive, especially around Christmas and New Year, when market demands are high and they are in good condition.  Last time I saw them for sale in Glasgow they were £35 a kilo – and that was for dead cooked prawns.  Buying them dead is not without risk as they can be like cotton wool inside and quickly lose their sweetness if they have been sitting around for too long.

I get about 2 kilos at a time and tend to make several meals out of them to celebrate the luxury.  Langoustines are graded according to size and the bigger they are, the more in demand and expensive they will be.  I tend to go for medium/large.

First, out of respect for the animals, they need to be dispatched quickly.  I have a huge pot that I fill with tap water and bring this to a rolling boil.  I place a few prawns in at a time, leave them for about 2 minutes and remove them.  Some recipes I read suggest plunging them into ice-cold water once removed but I think this waterlogs the flesh and risks losing some flavour.  Provided they were only in the pan for a couple of minutes, yes, they do continue to cook a bit, but letting then cool at room temperature seems to work.

The most recent batch I had served me well to make 3 meals and I made absolutely certain nothing went to waste.

Langoustine salad with hot garlic butter, parsley and lemon dressing

This is a recipe I have used for many years and is a variation on a Nick Nairn recipe from his book Wild Harvest 2. Once you have peeled the prawns, this recipe is quick, easy and the flavour combination brings out the sweetness of the prawns.

Ingredients

1kg live langoustines, cooked

50g unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves

2 tblsp lemon juice

zest of 1/2 lemon

a few handfuls of mixed salad leaves

2 tomatoes, seeds and skin removed, flesh finely diced

a handful of chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Method

  • Prepare the cooked langoustines by removing the flesh from the tails.  Keep all heads, claws and shells.
  • Melt the butter with the garlic and lemon zest for a few minutes to tone down the garlic a bit.
  • Add lemon juice then season with a little salt and pepper.
  • Heat this dressing until just boiling, add the prawns, parsley and tomatoes and mix well.  Serve with the mixed leaves, and some fine homemade bread to mop up the dressing.

lango salad

.Split and grilled langoustine with chilli, lime and coriander

This recipe couldn’t be simpler, and with a hot grill or barbecue, is ready in about 3 minutes. Enough for 4 people as a starter, 2 as a main course, but I could easily eat the whole kilo myself…..

Ingredients

1kg of langoustines, cooked

2 garlic cloves, crushed

juice of a lime or a lemon

1 large red chilli, finely chopped

a bunch of chopped coriander

4 tblsp of rapeseed oil

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Mix the chopped coriander, chilli, garlic, lime/lemon juice, pepper and oil together.
  • Split the langoustines down the centre, place on the grill pan and drizzle over the dressing.
  • Cook under a hot grill for 3 minutes, or until just hot.  Serve with lemon/lime wedges.
Split and grilled prawn delight

Split and grilled prawn delight

Langoustine bisque

This recipe is more time-consuming and complex than the last two but uses the remains of the whole animal to provide an outstandingly rich and decadent bisque.

Shells form the previous two recipes ready to use in the bisque

Shells from the previous two recipes ready to use in the bisque

Ingredients

40g butter

1 onion, finely chopped

2 stalks of celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

1 red chilli

1/2 fennel bulb, sliced

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

2 bay leaves

juice of a lemon

a pinch of saffron

1 tblsp of brandy

a small bunch of parsley

1 tblsp tomato puree

1.5 litres of water

500ml fish or shellfish stock

small glass of Noilly Prat

150ml of double cream

Simmering of bisque underway

Simmering of bisque underway

Method

  • Heat the butter until foaming and gently fry the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, chilli, fennel, bay leaves until the onions have softened a bit.
  • Add the Noilly Prat and cook until reduced by half.
  • Add the shells, heads and claws of the langoustines to the pan, crushing them to extract a lot of flavour.  I use a potato masher to do this.
  • Add the fish/shellfish stock and water, tomatoes, tomato puree, most of the parsley and saffron.  Allow to simmer gently for an hour or so.
  • Sieve the mixture into a clean pan, again squeezing all the flavour from the langoustines and add the brandy, cream and lemon juice and season, as required. Heat gently.
  • Serve and garnish with parsley and swirl in some cream.
Langoustine bisque is served

Langoustine bisque is served

lango grill