Gloucester Old Spot pork scaloppine with nettle pappardelle

With most of the vegetables in the garden yet to surface, it seems wholly appropriate to utilise our currently most successful garden edible, nettles, and combine these in a meal with some of our local Old Spot pork.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) really is a great plant species, and not just for eating. Don’t be put off by online diatribes about nettles being ‘unpalatable, disgusting or only survival food’, or statements such as ‘nettle recipes exist for the sake of eating an ingredient because you can’, etc, etc. The secret is in understanding when to pick them (young, early season tips only) and how to prepare them to really get the best from them.

Also, I don’t buy the argument that they are a hassle to prepare.  They are most certainly less hassle to clean and prepare than some other veg we grow and prize e.g. globe artichokes. OK, an extreme example perhaps, but comparable with spinach, for sure.

Yes, nettles can be invasive in a garden, but if you have space for a patch they grow (too?) unabated, demand no attention and offer up a welcome lush green and nutritious crop during the hungry gap (our’s at least – it is longer than most). Later on, they are fabulous refuges and food for insects (and corncrake refuges here too), make superb nitrogen-rich liquid plant food and can help activate your compost heap. For all these reasons, I love my garden nettle patches. Of course, you don’t need to have them in the garden, there’s plenty to forage from urban wasteland, woods and meadows.

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You might think that living where I do that a crop of pristine unpolluted nettles should be easy to forage.  Well, it is true that we have significant nettle patches in the garden but nightly visits from deer, the dogs cheerfully marking their territory (including the nettles) and most recently, a wily sheep in occupation, make most of our nettles effectively unpalatable.

Even if I wanted to run the ‘urine gauntlet’, I’m reluctant to take an early crop of young nettle tops from our biggest patches. On occasional years, corncrakes arriving from their long migration take a welcome break in this early cover in our garden, especially if the irises have yet to get going, as is the case this year.

The rasping call of the males resonates for a few nights before they move on to more productive machair areas to establish breeding territories. I was optimistic that a corncrake may visit and benefit from our nettles as cover, but our very late i.e. non-existent spring means there was no cover to attract the first arrivals this year.  They must have felt very exposed on arrival.

I shouldn’t exaggerate about our non-existent spring.  It did occur on Sunday past after all, which was glorious and confusing all at the same time.  I was fly fishing on Saturday wearing 3 layers of fleece, couldn’t feel my fingers and abandoned the outing.  On Sunday, we were bewildered by the novelty of stunning sunshine, but not just that – warmth and managed  t-shirts all day and a swim (for the dogs anyway, I’m not quite that hardy). Monday, same old, same old northerly wind, rain and low cloud.  Where art though spring?  Or please can we cut to the chase of summer?

Spring wildlife spectacular

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the wildlife is undeterred and the breeding season is in full swing.  Lapwings and redshanks show their irritation as I pass by their breeding territories on my local run.  I know exactly when and where to expect the next irate protective parent to rise from the vegetation to give me an earful as I pass by.

I watch the oystercatchers nesting round the bay having their frequent and noisy altercations with a pair of local ravens.  Gregarious eiders also nest around the bay, the gentle and soothing call of displaying males resonates on (rare) still nights.  Females will soon form crèches with their broods to help protect the vulnerable ducklings from predation.

The spring migration is ongoing and we currently have reasonable numbers of whimbrels on passage north, stopping at the bay at the bottom of the garden on their way to breeding grounds from Greenland across to Central Siberia. Male cuckoos make their presence heard and wheatears dart around the garden, a flash of white on the rump making them stand out against the grassy backdrop.

We have had spectacular views of a pair of hen harriers and short-eared owls hunting daily across the garden, often flying within a couple of metres of my office window.  This is very distracting while I am working!  Many parts of our garden have remained largely ungrazed for years and the sward is longer than the surrounding common grazing vegetation, so we have a genuine vole hotspot that is proving very fruitful for the local short-eared owls.

I have seen them hunt successfully on a number of occasions, once taking a short-tailed field vole literally from under the kitchen window.  I never tire of watching their graceful billowing flight.  One owl has regularly taken to saving energy by scanning the grass in the garden while perching on a favoured fence post.

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Another rare and spectacular wildlife watching experience happened this week.  For the first time since we have lived in this house, we had a visit from an otter in the bay at the bottom of the garden.  It is not at all rare to spot otters here and we have had many very close encounters, but our bay is unlikely to form the core part of an otter territory due to the large component of the day when the tide is some distance out of the bay.

However, this young otter appeared to be exploring the area with a view to establishing a territory.  It ran up and down the grassy slopes at the bottom of the garden, methodically exploring overhanging rocks some distance from the shore, before returning periodically to play and feed in the seaweed on the rising tide. It was delightful and a privilege to have such prolonged views of this secretive mammal from our window.

Nettles: weeding and feeding

My pristine young nettle tops were picked from my raspberry beds where no marauding beasts have access.  This served to let the new rasp shoots have more space and light to grow. I find this to be the only downside to applying old manure (pig in our case) to permanent beds – weed seeds proliferate.  The nettles are small beer though – I’ve got my hands full with the chickweed later in the season.

I have a pretty extreme reaction to nettle stings, so I harvest using heavy-duty rubber gloves – gardening gloves are not robust enough and I learned my lesson the hard way when I was stung through them.

Although sensitivity to stinging nettles does vary between individuals, my sensitivity has very much increased as I have got older.  I remember, like most children, running through nettle patches and coming out with the familiar white blotches and associated red rash, but it never really hurt as much as just irritated slightly. I would just grab a dock leaf (Rumex spp.), rub it vigorously over the affected area, usually my knees, until my skin turned green from the dock and then continue on my merry way.

Now, even the slightest brush against the youngest stem covered in the small silky irritant hairs, which contain histamine, serotonin and formic acid among other things, is to be avoided. These hairs generate the familiar rash but this is coupled with considerable pain.  Although the rash looks the same, the pain stays and I can feel the effects for up to 2 weeks after being stung and the area of skin remains tingly and sensitive, which is a bit disconcerting. I wonder how common increased sensitivity is with age and expect it isn’t unusual, just unpleasant!

Preparing your nettles

I wanted to incorporate the nettles into pasta.  The best way to deal with them for this is to blanch the young tips, plunge them into boiling water for 3 – 4 minutes, then refresh in ice cold water to retain the vibrant colour.  The stings are now gone and the nettles can be handled.

All stems should be removed and the leaves squeezed lightly before blitzing in a food processor to a fine texture.  The nettles then need to be squeezed hard to remove as much moisture as possible as this will impact on the texture of the pasta.

Nettle pappardelle

I wanted to make a rustic hearty pasta to accompany the pork and thought pappardelle would be a fitting choice for the nettle and to complement the gutsy flavour of the pork scaloppine. I have used the same pasta recipe for about 20 years as it has never let me down.  It is from Nick Nairn’s first book ‘Wild Harvest’. The standard recipe calls for 150g of flour (plain, but I use ’00’).  For this recipe I used 180g to offset the additional moisture the nettle brings to the mix.  I got away with it.  Just.

Ingredients

180g flour, ’00’ or plain

1 whole egg, medium

1 egg yolk, medium

80g of fresh young nettle tips, rinsed, blanched and refreshed, trimmed and blitzed

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Method

  • Combine the flour, eggs, blitzed and squeezed nettles together in a food processor for 2 – 3 minutes. The mix should resemble fine breadcrumbs, not be gooey.  Add a bit more flour if it is.
  • Tip out the dough and knead briskly for 1 minute.  Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to rest for an hour.
  • Cut the dough into 2 pieces, flatten each with a rolling pin to 5 mm thick then roll and refold the dough 7 times until you have rectangles about 8 x 18 cm.  This is important to work the gluten to get a shiny dough and gives the correct al dente texture after cooking.
  • Using a pasta machine, set the rollers at the widest setting, pass through the dough and repeat, reducing the roller setting with each pass until the penultimate setting.  Pass through at this setting again and hang up to dry for at least 5 minutes.
  • Lay the pasta sheet out on a lightly floured surface and roll before slicing about 2 cm wide to produce rustic pappardelle ribbons. Hang them up again until you are ready to use them.
  • To cook, place in salted boiling water, bring back to the boil and cook for 2 – 3 minutes.  Check the texture as you cook.

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Pork scaloppine with prosciutto, capers and balsamic vinegar – a fitting accompaniment

Ever since I got a hold of our local Old Spot pork, one particular recipe has been pouting at me and I knew it would work very well with this nettle pasta.  I saw this recipe on the The Garum Factory blog pages.  The pork is sumptuously blanketed in prosciutto with pungent sage delicately folded within which also shines enticingly through the prosciutto. The sauce is perfect with the pork – and the nettle pappardelle.

Jody and Ken are not just accomplished chefs, but Ken is also a superb photographer.  His images capture the essence of this recipe and my photos would simply not hold up to their exquisite gallery of images that accompany the recipe. I do not reproduce the recipe, but it can be found here.  Thank you Jody and Ken.  It was really delicious!

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

Harissa chicken with chickpeas, olives and preserved lemons

After 3 months on a cool larder shelf, the long anticipated wait to try my preserved lemons is over. I incorporated them in this suitably North African supper dish, which delivers a nice balance of piquant flavours with a combination of harissa, spices, olives and preserved lemon. I used chicken thighs as I always consider this brown poultry meat to be superior in flavour and more moist than chicken breasts. It is also more economical, an important consideration when using free range chicken. My updates about gardening, fishing and wildlife follow or you can cut straight to the recipe at the bottom of the post.

The Hebridean weather pendulum

The harissa chicken casserole could be eaten at anytime of year.  It has a sunny, refreshing, summery disposition, yet has the depth of flavour and warmth that are reminiscent of casserole comfort required in cold weather. The schizoid personality of the dish then perhaps matches the spring weather here at the moment: wild swings from calm periods with blue skies to short sharp shocks of wild, squally downpours rolling in on weather fronts from the Atlantic.  Then there have been a few days of persistently strong gales of 30-40 mph.  The relentless nature of these days makes dog walking fairly tedious (when facing the prevailing wind, at least) – and as for seed sowing – tricky.  Even the broad beans are likely to be cast out of my hands in the gusts.  Carrots? Forget about it, the seeds would be cast in the wind and likely end up germinating somewhere on the west side of Skye.

Gardening with grit

With another long term forecast for a week of wind and unsettled weather, I have decided to ignore our typically erratic Hebridean spring weather and am determined to make the best of the light nights to get on with planting and sowing. I did, after several attempts, manage to dive out between showers and plant my potatoes, having spent a week of evenings and two weekends digging the soil over in readiness, including removal of 2 huge rocks that had fell into the centre of the old blackhouse from the walls.

The second rock levered out with deer posts - it took us over an hour to remove it

The second rock levered out with deer posts – it took us over an hour to remove it

Intact collection of bottles and jars from the blackhouse

Intact collection of bottles and jars from the blackhouse

Within the walls of the old blackhouse, where there once stood an inn, then a post office (before the war, we think), we gathered quite an inventory: remains of one sheep, 4 broken teapots, countless spoons, bottles and containers, mounds of broken crockery, ink pots and a candlestick!

Planting potatoes is not the most stimulating job, but made that bit more interesting by trying to do so between the showers, looking up, trying to judge when the next one would hit as the black clouds of doom and rain sheets approached from the west. The best indication is always the preceding acceleration in wind speed, the blast serving as a warning that you are most likely to get pounded by heavy rain at any second. Then it is over in minutes, sunshine and fragments of blue sky allowing a window of opportunity for more planting.

Frustrating as this was, I had no excuses to prevent me from getting on with organising the polytunnel for the coming season.  Despite a couple of rips which we patched, the tunnel has stood up remarkably well in what is its 4th season.  We feared the plastic would be shredded during the first winter, so we are delighted that the plastic has almost made the anticipated 5 year lifespan, even out here. My chilli and tomato seedlings, raised in a heated propagator are robust and strong.  Pea and beans in sown root trainers will be ready for planting next week and a plethora of herbs have germinated, including 5 varieties of basil that I will sow successionally across the summer.

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Strawberries in planters protected in the tunnel

Strawberries in planters protected in the tunnel

Chillis- 6 varieties

Chillies- 6 varieties

Robust tomato seedlings

Robust tomato seedlings

I am as organised as I can be for this time of year – for planting at least.  There is a lot of construction, maintenance and repair work to be done – gates to be repaired and built, fruit cage to be constructed, deer fence ongoing, dry stone walling, ad infinitum….  I don’t want to think about all that too much, best focus on one task at a time or the list becomes overwhelming. To add the ‘to do’ list, we have started thinking seriously about the timeline for extending and renovating the house, a task that will become all-consuming next year.

Adverse angling

The initially cold spring, followed by windy weather has impacted on our fly fishing results too and the brown trout are still fairly deep and inactive. A trip to South Uist for a fly fishing competition last week was a damp squib. The beautiful and productive machair loch, Loch Bornish yielded nothing for the 15 or so anglers present – after 5 hours in the cold and wind.  The highlight was a flock of 90 whooper swans present on the loch in the afternoon.

whooper swans

This week’s outing was arguably even tougher.  40 mph winds whipping the line erratically across the choppy waters of the vast Loch Caravat that nestles within the remote interior of North Uist.  Blanked again.  Still, I did get nice views of black-throated divers.  We walked for miles along the west shore of the loch, the only shore we could fish from with the prevailing wind behind us.  Ironically, at the end of the outing The Man Named Sous caught a fish about 10m from where we started fishing.

loch caravat

BBC Outer Hebrides wildlife spectacular

The week, the mobile cinema of the Highlands and Islands, The Screen Machine was here in Lochmaddy, North Uist.  As part of the programme, they offered a special preview of the a new flagship BBC wildlife documentary series, an episode of which is devoted entirely to the Outer Hebrides. The series is called Hebrides: Islands on the Edge (there’s lots of info in this link) and it is part of the BBC’s up and coming ‘Wild Scotland’ series of programmes. The screening featured episode 3, covering the Outer Hebrides and it was indeed spectacular – and a Screen Machine sell out.

screen machine

hebrides on the edge

The production team of Maramedia have worked on filming this BBC commissioned series for the last 3 years and I have been lucky to be involved with some of their activities, in a very small way.  There have been many contributions from the numerous knowledgeable naturalists across these islands that have helped to support the production team to obtain the spectacular footage.

The director Nigel Pope engaged with local people and naturalists from the start, meeting with the committee of our natural history society, Curracag, which I chaired until recently, calling upon the expertise of our members and very capable naturalists in the wider community.  I also provided some licensing advice for filming of protected birds during the series in my previous job. Nigel and his crew are extremely experienced and knowledgeable about the ecology of the species they film.

He very kindly provided a talk for Curracag members about his work on the series and that of the world renowned wildlife cameramen who shot it.  Nigel and the crew previously worked on other BBC wildlife spectaculars including Big Cat Diaries and Life in the Freezer. At the time of the talk last summer, Nigel had not decided who may narrate the series and was looking for suggestions.  It turns out they did very well in obtaining the services of a high profile Scottish star, actor Ewan McGregor and his narration worked very well on episode 3.

The series is not about hardcore natural history but is excellent eye candy that provides an insight into the character of these islands and their inhabitants. I think the footage in episode 3 captured the essence of the scenery, weather and wildlife of the Outer Hebrides perfectly. Some of the footage, particularly of divers, is incredible.  I have no doubt it will do wonders for wildlife tourism in the Outer Hebrides, which deserves to be put on the map as a special destination to see a unique combination of species in a spectacular setting.  The wildlife and scenery were, after all, key reasons why we ended up living here in the first place. If you have the chance, do watch the 4 part series on the BBC or the web, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Making preserved lemons

And so to the recipes. I have at least 6 different variations on recipes for preserved lemons and have not tried all of them.   I prepared some as a Christmas present for my mum and they worked so well, I could not resist making more when I saw bumper amounts of lemons in a local shop at 20p for 6. The recipe is very simple.  Once prepared, the lemons are best left for at least 2 months.  I left these for 3 months. Here, I have used Ottolenghi’s recipe.

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Ingredients

6 unwaxed lemons

6 tbsp sea salt (I use Maldon Salt)

2 sprigs rosemary

1 large red chilli

Juice of 6 lemons

Olive oil

Method

  • Sterilise a jar big enough to hold all of the lemons
  • Wash the lemons and make a deep cut all the way from the top to the base so you are left with 4 quarters attached at the top and bottom of each lemon.
  • Stuff each lemon with a tablespoon of salt, opening up each of the slits and stuffing it in.
  • Push them tightly into the jar and leave in a cool place for a week.
  • After a week, remove the lid, press down the lemons hard to squeeze out their juice and add the juice of 6 lemons, rosemary and whole chilli and cover with a thin layer of olive oil.
  • Seal the jar and leave it in a cool place for a least a month, but the longer the better

You can swap the rosemary and chilli for any appropriate flavour that you like.  I also prepared a batch with coriander and caraway seeds.

Harissa chicken with chickpeas, olives and preserved lemons

This recipe was inspired in part by the availability of my preserved lemons, but also because I have been reading Paula Wolfert’s tome, ‘The Food of Morocco’ to increase my understanding about the delightful cuisine of the country. Her introduction serves to remind the reader that Moroccan ingredients are fairly simple and that some amazing food can be made from a few well selected cheap cuts of meat, combined with herbs and aromatics and pulses and grains to produce honest dishes with incredible depth of flavour.  I try to incorporate those ingredients that typify this ethos here.  I think I am at the beginning of the process of understanding Moroccan food.  I have a long way to go, but will relish the journey.

Chick peas – try to find time to soak and boil dried chick peas in preference to tinned. They are worth the extra effort as they have a much deeper more intense almost meaty flavour.

Harissa – This is easy to make, but on this occasion I used some authentic Moroccan harissa paste purchased for about £1 for a big tub from a shop on Golbourne Road, London.

Ingredients

8 chicken thighs, bone in (free range if possible)

200g dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked (or 1 400g tin, drained)

2 tbsp Harissa paste

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 fennel bulb, finely sliced

1 large onion, finely sliced

1 tsp cumin seeds, dry fried and ground

1 tsp coriander seeds, dry fried and ground

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 preserved lemon, pulp removed, skin rinsed and finely chopped

150 g mixed black and green pitted olives

200ml chicken stock

olive oil

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 170C

Method

  • Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and sear them in a casserole dish with some olive oil over a medium heat until lightly browned.
  • Remove and allow to drain on some kitchen towel.
  • Add the onion and fennel to the casserole dish, then the garlic, cook until soft and translucent. Add the harissa and spices, stir gently.
  • Return the chicken to the casserole dish, add the chickpeas, olives, chopped preserved lemon and stock.
  • Put in the oven for 45 minutes to allow all the flavours to infuse into the meat and chick peas.  Serve with cous cous and flat bread.

harissa chicken

Ceviche – courtesy of North Uist brown trout

I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I last wrote a post.  As anticipated, the return home a couple of weeks ago means we have had to hit the ground running – too much to do, so little time, plus fabulous, though freezing weather.  This, combined with the clocks changing at the weekend means we have almost switched to our outdoor feral lifestyle that longer days bring. Oh, and the ensuing meatfest – continued delivery of greylag geese, requiring plucking and preparation (I have also tried some curing, we will see if it works…). We also took delivery of half an old spot pig from our neighbour, butchery of which commenced this evening. More on that subject another time, soon.

I therefore must apologise, fellow bloggers, for my reduced interactions – I haven’t had as much time to read and comment on your lovely blogs as I would like recently. Also to those vegetarian readers for the meatfest.  There are some vegetarian posts in my log jam of drafts, please bear with me!

Springtime?

I’m not going to go on about the weather, in fact it is really beautifully clear and crisp here and has been for the last two weeks.  It certainly looks like spring more than it feels like it, the vegetation is slow to grow and the lapwings look a bit perplexed about the lack of cover in their favoured nesting areas behind the house.

The arrival of spring was qualified last week by the birth of the first lambs on the croft behind our house.  I had a walk up and watched them gambolling around the temple a few nights ago.  The trio are two twins and a single who were engrossed in a competition of head-butting and leaping off rocks and bucking wildly before I interrupted. The field will soon be full as new born lambs are let out of the barn with their mothers and the cacophony of displaying waders and shrill bleating will reach a crescendo by Mid-April.

lambs

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Fishing at last

The brown trout fly fishing season has now started.  We went out last Saturday in conditions that were the most inhospitable I have ever fished in, so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers and hence the line, winds 35 to 40 mph).  Strong winds don’t usually deter us – or the fish, but the biting cold was insufferable and after an hour, we gave up the pointless exercise and went home.

The weather remained pretty static over this week, and it didn’t require a soothsayer to foresee another fishless outing.  With too much to do in the garden, I opted out and left The Man Named Sous to experience the challenging Loch Hosta unaccompanied.  I have fished this bowl-like machair loch 5 or 6 times and despite it’s reputation for good fishing, I have always blanked.

I know, I should take my role as the current Chair of North Uist Angling Club more seriously.  I’m such a lightweight.  At this stage, I think it would be pertinent to point out that I have not been selected as Chair in a bun fight between those with the best angling prowess across the Isles.  No, I happened to be one of the very few present in the room at the time of the AGM who did not already have a committee role and did not raise sufficient objection not to be awarded the accolade.  In fairness, it at least saves the same 3 or 4 people from having to take on the role for a year. In fact, it is our very efficient secretary who keeps the club running smoothly, the only unique role for the Chair being a short speech at the annual dinner at the end of April.

Progressive gardening

I am glad that I stayed in the garden and had a very productive day.  First I checked my seedlings. Thanks to the very stable environment of my new heated propagator, half of my 8 chilli varieties have germinated.  I planted tomatoes, a plethora of herbs and organised my rotation for the raised beds.

Then, with some trepidation, I decided to start excavating the inside of the old inn, the ruined blackhouse in the corner of our garden where I have resolved to grow potatoes in this year, this covered in a previous potato-based post.

A couple of years ago, we covered over the inside of the ruin with weed suppressing fabric and stored wood and other materials on top of it. After a struggle to drag off the heavily vegetated fabric, I began digging and to my delight found no mat of weed roots and an ideal soil texture almost free of stones. Almost. The next day I did have to get help from The Man Named Sous to remove a rock pile from the centre, as a well as a huge stone that had fallen off the building and into the centre.

It took 2 of us about an hour to dig it out and roll it onto the surrounding walls as it must have weighed at least 100kg. As ever, there is always the expectation that you may find some buried treasure.  Well, I did, but it amounted to nothing more than the remains of a long dead sheep and a couple of neat ink bottles. The dogs thought it was an awesome way to spend a Saturday – digging holes, spraying me with soil and eating roots.  What more could a dog want?

Hector posing in the new potato patch.  Gardening rocks! Literally.

Hector posing in the new potato patch. Gardening rocks! Literally.

Brown trout ceviche

trout

I was delighted that The Man Named Sous did bring home a fish, a 1lb 3 oz brown trout, despite the less than perfect fishing conditions – glare and cold. Ceviche is one of our favourite trout dishes and a really great way to enjoy exceptionally fresh wild fish.

Ceviche is invariably the first dish I make at the start of the new season which also signifies the start of longer and (hopefully) warmer days, a dish I associate with summer, barbecues and eating al fresco (usually while wearing a fleece in North Uist). Sadly, when I visited Ecuador, I was still vegetarian so I have not yet had the opportunity to experience the dish other than that of my own concoction.

I have tried a few ceviche recipes and I tend to ring the changes depending on the amount of each citrus fruit I have at the time, these essentially ‘cook’ the fish.  A reliable recipe for anyone making ceviche for the first time is the River Cottage Sea Fishing Handbook which I have used here.

Filleting fish

Filleting fish does take a bit of practice, the secret is a very good quality and exceptionally sharp and slightly flexible filleting knife.  I use Chroma Type 301 Japanese steel knives which I find very balanced and more comfortable to use than Global, for example. The Chroma filleting knife is very long, flexible, and sharp enough to shave with.  I know this because this is how The Man named Sous, a knife sharpening expert, tests the sharpness of blades (on his arm, I should add, he has a beard!).

These knives are very difficult to sharpen as this must be done on a whetstone, with the correct bevel being applied to each edge of the blade, which varies according to if you are right or left-handed – so I am told. The knife makes filleting very easy.  There is no need to scale the fish for this dish as the skin is not used, although you will need to remove the pin bones.

trout fillet

For ceviche, my preference is for delicately thin slices of the translucent flesh.  Provided the ceviche is eaten relatively quickly, they will not go mushy. These are removed along the length of the fillet, each being thin enough to see the blade of the knife through.

trout fillet 2

trout fillet 3

Ingredients

500g fish fillets – brown trout in this case

juice of 3 limes

juice of 2 lemons

juice of 1 orange

1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 tsp caster sugar

1 red onion, peeled and sliced

2 celery stalks, finely sliced

salt and pepper

Method

  • Slice the trout or your chosen fish as described – if you proposed to leave the fish in the acidic mixture for longer than a few hours, make the fish slices a bit thicker than I have.
  • Pour over the citrus, add the chopped vegetables, sugar and season with salt and pepper.
  • Mix carefully and leave in the fridge for about an hour, it will go paler as a result of its acidic immersion.
  • Serve with crusty bread – I chose broa bread and enjoy with a refreshing glass of white wine.

ceviche

Addendum – Parasites and fish

Thanks to Ken at The Garum Factory, I was reminded that I forgot to include a fundamental point in my blog, so much so I thought it should add a bit more info to highlight it. That is wild fish, fresh or salt water can contain parasites that have infectious stages capable of infecting humans, because we are mammals, we are potential hosts for some parasites.

Fish lightly ‘pickled’ in citrus juice, such as ceviche is essentially raw and therefore there is an elevated risk that you may eat a fish containing infective stages of parasites.

Parasites – a life less ordinary

The evolution and ecology of parasitism is a subject I would discuss ad nauseam. As a zoologist, I have always been fascinated by the behavioural ecology, life histories, pathological and immunological effects of parasitism. They are very specialised organisms capable of controlling the behaviour of their hosts to ensure their lifecycle is completed e.g. by releasing chemicals that alter the behaviour of an animal to make it more vulnerable to predation – there are many examples out there in the literature.

Parasitology formed a big component of my academic education.  My PhD focussed on parasitoids – not quite the same as parasitism but with the same evolutionary origins.  Parasitoids differ from parasites because they always kill their host to complete their lifecycle whereas a parasite needs to keep its host alive to complete its lifecycle.  Many insects are parasitoids, this being a relatively common insect life history.  To offer an analogy, the ‘Alien’ films illustrate the life history of a typical parasitoid. The alien is a parasitoid and needs to kill her host to successfully produce offspring. She lays her egg in a human host which is somewhat gruesomely killed as the nascent alien emerges  I digress.  Back to parasites of fish.

Looking for evidence of parasites

Parasites occur naturally in wild fish populations and as an angler, I have gained a bit of local knowledge and experience about which lochs contain fish with parasites, or heavier parasite loads.  I am also familiar with what the main species infecting our fish look like at different life stages within the fish and this helps me make a judgement call about whether I can use the fish for ceviche, cook it, or not use it at all.

It is important to examine the fish externally, gut and clean the fish as soon as possible to reduce migration of parasite larvae into the muscle (although sometimes they will already be there anyway). Also, I slice the fillets very finely.  Providing my examination has given the fish the all clear to the filleting stage, the translucent fillets are easy to see through to check for larvae, a bit like the practice in commercial fish preparation where fish are examined over candling tables, the light shining through fillet to reveal and allow removal of parasites from the flesh.

I would not eat a raw thick fillet, just in case. I would not use fish for ceviche  if I found parasites in the muscle or gut and I would not eat fish with parasite cysts in the flesh at all – even cooked.  Sometimes evidence of parasites can be seen on the outside of the fish and there is the option to return it.

Trout and parasites

The brown trout (Salmo trutta) includes both purely freshwater populations and the diadromous (moving between fresh and salt water) form, sea trout.  Sea trout migrate, spending most time in the sea only returning to freshwater to spawn (so technically they are anadromous).

Parasitic worms known generically as helminths to zoologists, fall into 2 broad categories: roundworms (nematodes) and tapeworms (cestodes). Both are found in brown trout.  Roundworms such as Anisakis simplex are marine in origin, the definitive host (host in which they reproduce) being mammalian – dolphins or whales.  Sea trout can be infected with these worms, but not freshwater brown trout as caught in Loch Hosta. This is an entirely freshwater population of trout. The one most common parasites for freshwater populations is the tapeworm Diphyllobothrium latum.

The fascinating lifecycle of a common parasite

Adult tapeworms of Diphyllobothrium latum can reach remarkable lengths – up to 12m and are found in mammal hosts.  So where does the trout come in?  Well, brace yourself.  Like the lifecycle of many parasites, it involves multiple hosts and life stages and is extraordinarily complex. I have simplified it a bit so you might still be awake at the end of the explanation!

The definitive host – mammal

Adult tapeworms live in a range of definitive mammal hosts, including humans. They are long flattened pale worms composed of nothing more than the scolex (head), neck and the lower body. Each side of the scolex has a slit-like groove, which is a bothrium (tentacle) for attachment to the intestine. They have no mouth and feed by absorption.

They are hermaphrodites that self fertilise (which makes evolutionary sense) and many millions of eggs are continually produced and released in segments called proglottids and leave via the digestive tract.  They can survive for up to 3 years once outside the body.

The first intermediate host – copepod

Hosts e.g. otters here excrete the eggs which make their way into freshwater bodies and streams.  This is where the next host comes in – a small aquatic crustacean called a copepod eats the eggs and the tapeworm larvae hatches within the copepod.  Here it lives for a few weeks, changing form again to an infective procercoid phase.

The second intermediate host – trout

The infected copepods are eaten by trout. When inside the trout, the proceroid migrates to the flesh of the fish and further develops into another form called the plerocercoid. This is the infective stage for us mammals and of most interest to the angler. It is a cream coloured worm, those I have seen are in the region of a few mm wide by 2-3 cm long. If the fish is caught and this infective stage is in the flesh and its presence goes unnoticed and the fish is eaten raw, the parasite has successfully completed its lifecycle and it is back in the definitive host – possibly me!.

Ceviche – don’t try this at home?

In the end you have to weight up the risk against experience, but you are not confident about what you are looking for, if in doubt, cook or freeze your trout.

Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

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

The Red Queen Again

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

So many choices, not enough space

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

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

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

The final shortlist

My final culinary shortlist for growing this year is:

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

Nearer 30 than my estimated 15!

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

hyssop, borage, phaecelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intensely Herby recipes

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

Vegetable boullion

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

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

The last jar of my summer boullion

The last jar of my summer boullion

Ingredients – my summer vegetable boullion

250g leek

200g carrot

200g turnip

100g celery

50g sun-dried tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

100g parsley

10g mint

10g rosemary

5g summer savory

5g sage

250g salt

This amount made 3 jars

Method

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

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto

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

Ingredients

25g nasturtium leaves

25g basil leaves

25g rocket leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge.
Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto – green and glorious

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