Black bream with fennel

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

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

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

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

bream raw

Black bream with fennel

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

Ingredients

Black bream:

2 black bream each about 500g

few sprigs rosemary

few sprigs thyme

3 bay leaves

clove of garlic, skin on

splash of olive oil

salt and pepper

Method

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

Fennel with pastis

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

Ingredients

1 fennel bulb, sliced, fronds/tops retained

1tbsp pastis e.g. Pernod

150 ml fish stock

salt and pepper

Method

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

Fried fennel garnish

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

Bream and fennel

Biscuits with Bartok 2 – Soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies

I must admit there’s been a bit of slippage this week on a number of fronts. I have, however, managed to produce my second biscuit for the musicians, a decadent soft cookie oozing with chocolate, complemented by the flavour of fennel seeds. However, a lag means I did this after the gathering. In fact, the visiting musicians sojourn turned out not to be Biscuits with Bartok but Biscuits with Linux. For some musicians, talents extend  beyond music and with help, after several attempts and considerable tenacity, my old laptop has Linux installed and the hamster in the hard drive is on steroids. I thought I had lost it forever after a de-fragmenting disaster.

No more am I chained to my desktop in the office.  I can now sit in comfort by the fire, using one or t’other of the dogs as a footstool and listen to selected vinyl or CDs, since I’m next to the stereo. What better way to blog? Tablet not required for the time being. I’ve been reliably informed by The Man Named Sous, my own personal techni-geek, that the time is not right to invest in a tablet and we will be better placed to buy in a couple of months as new products are on the cusp of release.  I have already decided that although I like my iPhone, the Android system will be the way to go and I have all but ruled out iPad, probably in favour of a Nexus 10. More on that another time.

Biscuit procrastinations

I am embarking on only my second biscuit-making event and I have already been overwhelmed by the choices out there.  Then I was gifted my biscuit epiphany when Cookies, Cakes and Bakes featured some enticing recipes from Annie Bell’s Baking Bible.  I was, of course, obliged to buy the book and although it hasn’t yet arrived, I found a very appealing recipe from it online for soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies.

Mid-week entertainment

One reason for the slippage this week was the rare opportunity to see a tour by Scottish Opera performing at the village hall in Benbecula. Every year, Scottish Opera take their Opera Highlights tour to very small venues in rural and isolated communities around Scotland.  The tour visits Uist every 2 years, visiting Stornoway on alternate years. The troupe of 4 singers plus pianist offer a pared back performance with minimal props which showcases their vocal talents.

I love opera and regularly went to Scottish Opera performances at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh and I very much miss the opportunity to enjoy the live experience, so this concert was a very rare opportunity to hear opera excerpts and not to be missed.  We were very lucky the concert went ahead at all.  The singers were stranded on Barra after a performance there.  The weather closed in and ferries were cancelled.  Fortunately, they made it across in a weather window on the morning of the concert.

The weather had been tricky and perhaps unsurprisingly, the concert was reasonably well attended but not busy as people were reluctant to venture out.  This was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that our mobile cinema, The Screen Machine had set up for a couple of nights. Despite the weather, it had somehow made it through the storms.  This pop-up cinema is Britain’s only mobile cinema.  The theatre folds out from an articulated truck that tours the Highlands and Islands to bring new cinema releases to audiences and really is a fantastic innovation and a lot of fun to go to.  Sitting in the dark watching a blockbuster, possibly in 3D, one can get lost in the performance only occasionally being reminded that you are in a pop-up cinema in Uist when the wind rocks and sways the theatre.

Unfortunately, a clash of programmes such as the cinema and opera on the same night can deplete audiences significantly in such a small community as ours. This could discourage a return visit, for example, I have been to concerts where visiting musicians have had an audience of no more than a handful of people, which is discouraging for them and offers no incentive for a return visit.  It therefore pays for visitors/event organisers to check what else is on any given night and make sure there is not a clash. As residents, we certainly feel that we should attend anything of interest otherwise it could be the case of use it or lose it.

Had the opera not been on, we would have gone to the cinema, although the choices of The Hobbit and Quartet would have pushed it into second place as we saw The Hobbit in 3D in Glasgow before Christmas and Quartet is probably not to our taste.

The opera was thoroughly enjoyable with a programme of popular arias (from La Traviata, Cosi fan tutte and Carmen) and less familiar and intriguing pieces. My favourite was The Executioners Song from Ines de Castro by Scot James MacMillan, an opera commissioned by Scottish Opera in 1996.  The darkly humorous libretto was delivered with conviction by baritone Duncan Rock, his vocal and acting performance stealing the show for me.

The Middle Eight

Sitting next to my vinyl and CD collection brings the opportunity for a blogging soundtrack, not that I can’t do this by using iTunes on the desktop, but the experience isn’t the same.  It’s not as loud for one thing! I also don’t download for a number of reasons; sound quality, tangible enjoyment of holding a CD / record, ownership, for starters. Browsing and selecting music also served to remind me that as well as biscuits, I am procrastinating over gigs too.  Planning trips to the mainland including London and Glasgow over the next couple of months means we will try to tie in a few gigs with trips.  There are a lot of good options coming up.

We have been swithering over whether or not we should get tickets to see Neil Young in June. The fantastic Jeremy Deller conceptual art work below sums this up. This was a phrase borne out of the procrastinations by Neil Young over work commitments when he would regularly ask his manager ‘What would Bob Dylan do?’ Bob Dylan later had the same manager and similarly asked him ‘What would Neil Young do?’ Deller, Jeremy - What Would Neil Young Do? - Conceptual art - Computer print - Other/Unknown theme

We have seen Old Shaky twice before, in 1992 with Booker T and the MGs and again in 1997 (I think) with Crazy Horse.  The venue is off-putting as it is the aircraft hangar that is the SECC in Glasgow.  We have experienced a few less than intimate gigs at this venue and on occasion, poor sound quality.  It’s just too big, as are the ticket prices.  Over the last few years, we have tended to prefer gigs in smaller venues with more sane ticket prices.  The atmosphere is always better with the artist connecting better with the crowd in a smaller setting and vice versa.

That aside and unresolved, the decision will likely be taken out of our hands when the gig sells out. Then came the news that Wilco Johnson, original guitarist with the great Canvey Island blues outfit, Dr Feelgood,  has announced he is terminally ill and is to go on a final blast of gigs across the UK.  Of course, I would love to go, but knew these would sell out quickly and they have, regrettably. Dr Feelgood had a reputation as an engaging live act in the early 70’s thanks largely to Wilco’s stage presence and choppy distinctive blues guitar style. Dr Feelgood have been credited as one of the founders of British Punk, discussed in the excellent film Oil City Confidential which captures the early days of the band’s history.

I listened to a very uplifting and moving interview on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago when Wilco spoke candidly about his illness and his desire to give this last tour while he was still well enough to give his best and thank his fans.  He was so positive and grateful for the life he has lived, tinged with no regret or sadness that he will soon leave this mortal coil.

Smaller venues such as the excellent King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow offers a chance to see contemporary proggers Amplifier. We saw Arch Drude and forward-thinking Mofo Julian Cope there in a memorably intimidating performance. Strikingly tall and thin, he was wearing 6 inch crepe heeled boots and sported face paint, wandered into the audience and stared various people in the audience out.  We hid well away from the front and it was a great gig. We were also very lucky to see another of our favourite songwriters, the thought-provoking Warren Zevon at a small venue in Glasgow not too long before his passing.

To the current, a Richard Thompson gig in Edinburgh is another possibility as well as seeing Polish metal band Riverside.  Devin Townsend has also announced another short UK tour.  That is a given.  Finally, sadly nothing on the horizon from Tool who, after 7 years still can’t seem to decide if they will release an album this year or not.  The band’s enigmatic singer Maynard James Keenan appears to be focussing more on growing award-winning wine at his California vineyard.  Rock and Roll!

Blogging soundtrack:  Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse

Devin Townsend: Epicloud, from the track ‘Grace’;

‘Laugh! Love! Live! Learn!!’

Soft-bake chocolate and fennel biscuits

chocolate and fennel biscuits 055

These were delightful and would not be half as good without the revelatory addition of the crushed fennel seeds, and, to some extent, the apricots.  Genuinely one of the  best cookies I have eaten, really unusual and very chocolatey with the 81% cocoa solids chocolate I used. I’m really getting into the biscuit-baking and don’t really know why anyone would, other than for convenience, buy biscuits from the shops.  Home-made are simple to make, free from the usual additives/preservatives and are considerably cheaper.  I got 36 out of this recipe which was allegedly for 20.  Although they were a bit more expensive to make than last week’s peanut butter cookies, they still worked out at about 10p per biscuit.  That for a real luxury bite of deliciousness.

Ingredients

125g unsalted butter, diced

200g golden caster sugar

1 medium egg

½ tsp vanilla extract

100g ground almonds

75g plain flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder, sifted

1 heaped tsp fennel seeds

100g dried apricots, chopped

200g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 200C (fan)


Method

  • Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer then beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Add the ground almonds, flour and baking powder and process to a soft dough.
  • Coarsely grind the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and stir into the cookie batter with the apricots and chocolate.
  • Put a big heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto greased baking trays, spacing them well apart and cook them in batches.
  • Bake for 8–10 minutes until golden around the edges but pale within. Leave the cookies to cool for 3 minutes, then loosen them with a palette knife and leave to cool completely.

Enjoy when barely cool and the chocolate is still gooey with a wee cup of tea (as my gran would have said).

chocolate and fennel biscuits 4

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Beef cheeks: An aromatic casserole of great comfort

Ah yes, the vogue for cheap cuts of meat is still current, with many top and ‘celebrity’ chefs featuring cheaper cuts and offal in dishes. Somewhat ironically, this has increased demand for cheap cuts like ox/beef cheeks and hence prices of such cuts have risen.  In fact, most of the big four supermarkets now regularly stock beef cheeks at the butchery counter.

This is indicative of the power of the media-savvy chefs (of which there are many) to highlight cuts of meat that have been forgotten and largely consigned to history. Some of these chefs may have lost their integrity along the way (mentioning no names, well, OK, maybe one – Marco Pierre White flogging Knorr ‘stock’. Shameful), but if promotion by influential chefs results in exposing a few more diners and cooks to these ingredients and encourages use of cheaper or more unusual cuts, that’s no bad thing. Diversification of diet is good.

I don’t recall eating beef cheeks before the current vogue but I have now eaten them three times this year.  The first time was at La Garrigue’s Edinburgh New Town restaurant.  I have eaten in La Garrigue a few times (mainly at their original Jeffrey Street place) and I love the rustic Languedoc food they serve. It is hearty and honest. I also return because of the consistent good service.  Beef cheeks were one course served during a ‘Taste of Languedoc’ evening, slow cooked in a Provençal sauce of red wine, tomatoes and olives. Tender and delicious.

The very next night, we visited The Man Named Sous’s sister and by some bizarre coincidence, beefs cheeks were the main course! Spot the foodie. So, I go from never having knowingly eaten beef cheeks to consuming same two days in a row.  I caveat this with ‘never knowingly’ because I have eaten some pretty unidentifiable meat-based meals abroad, the contents of which were lost in translation (although I vividly remember our French-Portuguese neighbour serving up ‘colhões’ – her description, not mine…).

Beef cheeks second time around were however, quite a different flavour experience from the first. The recipe in question was from Richard Cornish and Frank Camorra ‘s Movida Rustica cookbook.  This called for the best part of a bottle of Pedro Ximenez sherry and an equal quantity of red wine – and half a day in an Aga. I must admit, I was impressed with la Garrigue’s take on cheeks, but the second experience was superior (and I don’t think it was anything to do with the quantities of wine consumed in conjunction!).

Of course, obtaining beef cheeks on North Uist is almost impossible. There is no butcher on North Uist or Benbecula and to seek out these cuts would likely involve considerable enquiry and strategic planning akin to The Battle of Britain.  Although it pains me, I admit to taking the easier option and acquired the cheeks from a quality butcher while on a trip to the mainland.

Beef cheeks: two prepared and ready for marinating

Last weekend, the weather was pretty minging and any work outdoors was written off.  What better excuse to spend the day indulging in slow-cooking the beef cheeks? The dish is all about comfort.  I served the beef cheeks with celeriac puree, pastis-braised fennel, carrots with cumin and orange and baby baked potatoes.  I haven’t included the carrot recipe below but it simply oven-roasted carrot slices with a coating of rapeseed oil, a splash of orange juice and a big pinch of roasted cumin seeds, cooked for 25 minutes at 180oC. Potatoes were the wonderful Red King Edward, superb as mini-bakers.

The presentation of this dish is perhaps a bit uncouth, but flavours hit the spot. So, here is my take on beef cheeks et al.

Aromatic beef cheeks with celeriac puree, braised fennel with pastis and seasonal vegetables 

The beef cheeks were cut in half and marinated overnight.  The casserole recipe couldn’t be simpler and requires very little attention during cooking. The beef is so tender after 4 hours that it is hard to lift out of the pot without it falling apart.

Ingredients

Marinade for beef cheeks:

Beef cheeks, about 750 g = 2, feeds 4 people

200 ml red wine

2 tblsp olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 celery stalk, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

1 spring of thyme

2 bay leaves

1 star anise

zest and juice of an orange

a few grinds of pepper

For the beef cheek casserole:

2 tblsp olive oil

500 ml red wine

1 tblsp tomato puree

750 ml beef stock

salt and pepper

Method – Aromatic beef cheek casserole

Set oven to 170oC

Beef cheeks should be ready for cooking after being marinated overnight. Put the olive oil in an overproof heavy-based casserole dish (Le Creuset are ideal).  Remove the beef cheeks from the marinade, brushing off any veg and pat dry with kitchen towel. On a medium to high heat, sear the cheeks on all sides in the oil until browned.  Remove with a slotted spoon, turn heat to medium.

Strain the veg, herbs and spices from the marinade, reserving the liquid and place marinated veg into the pan, cook until soft but not browned.  Place the beef cheeks back in the pot, add the reserved marinade liquid, the beef stock (I used game stock as I had no beef stock), 500 ml of red wine, tomato puree, salt and pepper.

Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, stick in the oven and leave for about 4 hours until the beef is almost falling apart.

Do check after about 2 hours to make sure that there is enough liquid in the casserole and add a bit of water if it is drying out.  The beef cheeks should remain immersed throughout cooking. They will happily sit on a low heat in the oven while you prepare the rest of the side dishes.

Celeriac puree

Unfortunately, I haven’t successfully grown this faux root so far.  It needs a long time in the ground and I need more growing space first in order to let it luxuriate in the soil long enough to get bigger than the size of a golf ball. The root description is really a misnomer because it is a bulbous hypocotyl, the area of a plant between its stem and roots. The true roots of celeriac are the surface ‘hairs’ that give it a distinctively untidy appearance. Don’t be put of by its looks, it is one of our most delightful root veg.

Ingredients

1 celeriac’root’

500ml chicken stock

100 ml double cream

salt and pepper

Method

Remove the outer surface of the celeriac and cut remainder into cubes about 1cm. Place in a pan with the stock and simmer until tender (about 20-30 minutes).  The stock will reduce down significantly. Add the double cream and simmer for a further 5 minutes.  If it is very liquidy, strain off the excess.  Whizz with a hand blender or in a liquidiser until very smooth and pass through a sieve to get the puree extra smooth.  Check and adjust seasoning, keep warm.

Braised fennel with pastis

The mild aniseed flavour of the fennel is boosted with a splash of pastis and  complements the subtle background flavour of star anise in the casserole.

Ingredients

1-2 fennel bulbs, sliced

30g butter

200 ml chicken stock

1 tsp sugar

1 tblsp pastis (e.g. Pernod, Ricard)

Zest of half an orange

salt and pepper

Method

Slice the bulbs, ensuring you do so along the root (usually the longer axis) so that the slices hold together.  Slices should be about 5mm thick.

Melt the butter in a frying pan on a medium heat and place the slices in as the butter, sprinkle over the sugar to assist in caramelising the slices.

Cook for a few minutes each side until coloured.  Don’t overcrowd the pan, do this stage in batches if need be. They will need to be in a single layer to colour.

Once all slices are coloured, return all to the pan and add the pastis and orange zest.  Let the alcohol cook off for a minute or two then add the stock and season.

Simmer gently for about 10 minutes until tender and serve.

Plating up

I served each half beef cheek on the celeriac puree with lots of casserole gravy and the veg.  I didn’t bother to strain the gravy before serving as it is after all a rustic casserole.  The gravy was thick, rich and intense thanks to protracted slow cooking and should not require reduction or thickening agents.

Aromatic beef cheek casserole with celeriac puree, braised fennel with pastis and seasonal vegetables. Comfort food for a wintery Sunday.