Pan-fried pollack with pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

The core elements of this recipe are a suite of delicious things considered inferior, discarded or overlooked.  I wanted to champion three very deserving ingredients: pollack, scallop coral and samphire, by combining them in a luxuriant recipe to celebrate these, some of my favourite local ingredients. Each of the 3 elements of this dish can be collected sustainably by hand here at the right time of year.

Pollack (or pollock) is a Gadoid fish in the same family as cod. Despite having a similar texture, flavour and smell as cod, pollack is often considered to be inferior, by both shoppers and sea anglers and is consequently cheaper, being used as a substitute for cod, including illegally. A recent article in The Guardian highlighted that cod and chips could indeed be ‘a load of pollack’ as Trading Standards identified that it was being used as a cheap substitute for cod in shops, restaurants and fish and chip shops.  There is also the question of sustainability.

pollack

Despite the pressure on our fragile cod stocks, as a nation, we are still generally pretty conservative and traditional about what fish we think we prefer. Most people, tasting both anecdotally and in blind taste tests cannot tell the difference between pollack and cod. However, the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF), representing UK fish and chip shops expects cod to remain the most popular choice for its members and the public. Anyhow, I’m not about to preach the virtues of sustainability any further as HFW manages this more than adequately with his well-oiled media machine.

Pollack is one of the most common seafish that can be caught with rod and line around our Hebridean coasts and is one of our favourite white fish.  It does need to be well seasoned, appropriately cooked and served with carefully selected ingredients to bring out the best of its flavour, such as this recipe with a rich, flavoursome sauce.

Scallop coral, the orange roe attached to the prized white scallop muscle is also a deserving ingredient routinely (and inexplicably to my mind) discarded, or at least not served with the white muscle in many high end UK restaurants.  It has a rich, sweet and intense and yes, some people consider strong, perhaps overpoweringly distinctive flavour, but that robust flavour can be turned to ones advantage. The coral does cook at a slightly different rate from the white adductor muscle, but I still don’t see a need to discard it entirely.  Why not just cook it separately?

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These big fat healthy corals were discarded from hand-dived North Uist scallops, and were given to us by our seafood wholesaler friend as they were not wanted by the customer.  I snapped up several bags of them, freezing them in small batches for use later.

If there is any ingredient that perhaps signifies the height of summer for the coastal forager it is samphire. Ever associated with fresh summer breezes and sea air, the salt marsh indicator genus Salicornia has become a hip restaurant favourite over the last few years. Yet it is almost overlooked along our coasts being ubiquitous in shallow, slack water inlets, bays and lagoons, wherever you see the cushions of pink thrift, a month of so later one can almost predictably find marsh samphire.

I say marsh because it should not be confused with rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), an edible umbelliferae and the lonely, sole species of its genus. Marsh samphire (Salicornia spp.) comprise a genus that can be difficult to separate into individual species, especially earlier in the season, and are also known as glassworts. Marsh samphire ashes were historically used to make soap and glass, hence the common name.

Salicornia spp. are just becoming apparent here and a couple of weeks ago I found the first nascent plants emerging from the estuarine mud a stones throw from my house. Now is the time to harvest this seasonal beauty.

samphire

As with anything caught, gathered or collected by oneself, Salicornia should be considered a valuable and precious resource. Whatever is taken, it should only be enough for the pot.  Nothing should be wasted. This way, its seasonality and uniqueness can be savoured absolutely.

The sun is out!

I left Uist on Monday on the ferry, the mist was hanging low over The Minch, a bit of a pea-souper requiring the ferry to sound its foghorn.  When I got to the other side, the Isle of Skye appeared to be a different continent – balmy, sunny and hot.  I had meetings in Argyll and it was delightful to drive through wonderful west coast scenery (I saw trees!) on the warmest day of the year so far in Scotland.  The tourist hotspots around Skye, Fort William and Loch Lomond were buzzing with masses of holiday makers and day trippers soaking up the bewilderingly hot and sunny holiday weather.

The Rest and Be Thankful north of Loch Lomond

The Rest and Be Thankful north of Loch Lomond

I endured spectacular views over Loch Fyne from my hotel and had breakfast in the sun before getting down to the day’s work.

Evening view of Loch Fyne

Evening view, Loch Fyne

Breakfast view, Loch Fyne

Breakfast view, Loch Fyne

Having wrapped up my work after 2 days, I headed north up the west side of Loch Fyne and could not resist taking a short break at the famous Loch Fyne Oyster Bar at the head of the loch, a place I had not visited for about 20 years and my goodness, it had changed, and was no longer just the shed serving fine seafood that I remember. It looked particularly plush following a recent renovation.

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Even near the end of the afternoon service, the establishment was heaving with coaches, people mostly browsing in the shop filled with tasty shellfish produce and more.  However, I had only one thing on my mind.  On such a hot day, there could be nothing more refreshing than indulging in 6 oysters nestled on a bed of ice with a squeeze of lemon and a hint of Tabasco. These slid down all too easily, but were very good value at under £2 each for high quality large, super-fresh oysters. I opted for the rock oysters as I have eaten native oysters but had not tried these non-invasive Pacific imports. These were utterly delicious and I had a pang of yearning for more.

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I found it somewhat baffling that no one else in the bar appeared to be eating the signature Loch Fyne oysters but had settled for fish and chips, although these looked pretty tasty too.

Winding home

Joined by The Man Named Sous who had business in Edinburgh, we wound our way home on another stunning day.  Glencoe was, as ever, beautifully intimidating, the rock amphitheatres of the triple ‘Sister’ buttresses that form part of the complex Bidean nam Bian mountain massif almost overhanging the road, completely exposed without their usual shroud of cloud.

glencoe

glencoe 3

We had a particularly unsettling walk in mist many years ago trying to locate the summit of this mountain, having ascended from The Lost (Hidden) Valley.  It has many false summits. We found out next day, which was crystal clear, looking across while tackling the razor-edged Aonach Eagach (Scotland’s narrowest mainland ridge with a Munro at either end) on the other side of the valley that we had in fact been on a false summit of Bidean, but did not want to risk a slip near the edge of the precipitous Church Door buttress where we made a judgement call to turn back. It was the right call that day.

Aonach Eagach, Glencoe

Aonach Eagach, Glencoe, looking innocuous

We made sure that we left enough time for an essential coffee stop at the recently opened Isle of Skye Coffee Roastery at Kyleakin on the Skye.  A must stop en route from ferry and back through Skye from now on. Check out their Facebook page here. The Man Named Sous indulged in some coffee geekery, including making his first espresso on a lever operated machine. We left with sound advice and some great freshly roasted beans that we are very much looking forward to trying in our own machine. Thank you and keep up the good work!

Despite leaving bags of time, a line of campervans on the road across Skye held up progress quite seriously, all driving on the fast side of slow (as Julian Cope would say). This included one that pulled out from a layby in front of the queue of white boxes in front of us at the breakneck pace of a dehydrated slug. As a result, we just made it Uig in time to drive straight onto the ferry.  Phew!  It did, however, give us time to reflect on the ridiculous and ironically inappropriate names for some of these most un-aerodynamic of road-clogging objects such as ‘Swift’ and ‘Rapide’.

How pleasant it was to arrive back to hazy sunshine on North Uist, an almost balmy evening, no less, which means only one thing – midges.  I retreated inside after watering the veg as no matter how I try, I have never developed a coping mechanism for these irritating biting females of the species.

The Man Named Sous persevered, trying to catch the wily grey mullet that tease us, splashing about in the bay at the bottom of the garden at this time of year.  The stale (pitta) bread trick has continually failed, maybe a bacon lure is next on the agenda, however, they are not getting any of our Old Spot bacon, for sure!

mullet

Pan-fried pollack with pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

So, what do you choose to accompany an allegedly dowdy fish to persuade one otherwise?  I added pastis (Pernod) to the sauce to complement the subtle yet meaty pollack and the salty samphire and robust scallop coral.

The pollack fillets, (one per person) were seasoned and simply pan-fried, skin side down initially for a maximum of 5 minutes, turned briefly then rested in a low oven (80C) for 5 minutes so it was perfectly cooked, being crispy on the skin side, flaky and just translucent in the centre.

Pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

A very simple sauce where the balance of ingredients complements the delicate white pollack flesh. Serves 4.

Ingredients

1 tbsp. butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

8-10 scallop corals (depending on size)

1 tbsp. pastis

60g marsh samphire, washed thoroughly

50 ml vegetable stock

70ml double cream

salt and pepper

Method

  • Melt the butter gently and add the chopped shallot, cook gently for a few minutes until soft and translucent, but not colouring.
  • Turn the heat up to medium and add the pastis, reduce by half then add the corals, stir for a few minutes until they cook and begin to break down.
  • With the heat medium to high, add the stock and cream and reduce by about 1/3.
  • Blitz the sauce in a food processor and pass through a chinois / fine sieve, back into a clean saucepan.
  • Add the washed marsh samphire and cook very gently for 4-5 minutes.  Season to taste and spoon the rich sauce over the pollack . We accompanied this with garlic bread, a ciabatta, courtesy of The Man Named Sous and some salad from the garden.

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Hebridean carrageen pudding with rose water and cardamom

I have recently been busy processing seaweed to make the traditional Hebridean carrageen pudding, with an aromatic twist.  I was very lucky to receive a gift of this red seaweed (Chondrus crispus) freshly picked on South Uist by our very own resident Hebridean professional forager, Fiona Bird. I have been trying to write this post for some 2 weeks, but due to a work trip away and other commitments, I am only just getting round to it now.

I met Fiona a few weeks ago at a soirée on South Uist to celebrate the publication of her new book dedicated to foraging, ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’. Suitably impressed by the diversity of recipes within and some of the delightful nibbles on offer incorporating foraged produce, I ordered a copy which I received last week.

Fiona gave me some wild garlic that evening, foraged in Angus.  Unfortunately, despite being pretty much ubiquitous throughout most of the UK,  it is more challenging to find  on the Uists and I am not inclined to collect it unless it is super-abundant as it is elsewhere. The wild garlic was hence a rare treat which I cooked as a purée with venison.  More on that recipe another time.

The Forager’s Kitchen – a  book recommendation

foragers kitchen and carrageen 001

If you have an interest in foraging in any way, this book is a must to add to your culinary collection. While it is true that foraging is currently in vogue, in reality this is not a passing fad and it has always been there as an underlying component of our food heritage.

Many high end fine dining restaurants currently feature foraged items within dishes on their menus. This book is therefore a timely reminder that making food with foraged ingredients need not be exclusive, complex or challenging but is an accessible and health-giving addition to the cooking experience.

Fiona’s infectious enthusiasm and knowledge for her subject couldn’t but help but make any reader want to have an excuse to get outdoors and see what bounty is on the doorstep. What better encouragement does one need than free food and a comprehensive compilation of recipes to assist the cook to develop new recipe ideas?

Fiona, as well as being an experienced cook and forager (she was a Masterchef finalist) is also clearly passionate about food and its associations with family. Her personal anecdotes within the book and warm and engaging writing style help to bring the foraging experience alive.

The introduction provides essential and sensible guidance about where, when and how to forage, words of wisdom about misidentification and associated risks and a useful kit list for aspiring foragers.

The book is separated logically into 5 chapters covering flowers and blossom, woodland and hedgerow, fruits and berries, herbs and sea / seashore. No matter where you live, there is a chapter that will capture the habitats around you and help you seek out the free bounty within.

There is more than adequate background information on species and where to find them, how to forage for and use them.  There are interesting snippets of folklore associated with many of the species, notably plants. It was lovely to be reminded of the Scottish name for rosehips, ‘itchy coos’. As children, I remember we would tear the hips open and squeeze the seeds down the backs of each other’s school shirts, a prank guaranteed to make anyone itch all afternoon.

The additional ‘Wild Notes’ dispersed throughout the book are a lovely touch, providing the reader with tips to help them develop different ways to expand use of foraged food and broaden their repertoire. Although the cover states there are over 100 recipes, these notes pack in many more recipe ideas.

The layout makes the book very visually appealing and there are many fantastic photos.  The outdoor images in particular cannot help but lure the reader outside to explore local woodland, or in my case, seashore.

There are a lot of excellent tips and ideas that I would not have thought of before as well as many ingredients I had not previously considered using e.g. Scotch quail eggs with sea lettuce – delicious idea. There are many intriguing and inventive uses for the natural sweetener, sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), from smoothies and sorbets to tempura.

What I really like about Fiona’s approach is that it is relaxed, unconstrained and encourages culinary creativity.  You can take her ideas and run with them to develop recipes and interpret the way nature’s larder can be used in your own way. That way, you will have the freedom to enjoy the outdoors while collecting some of your own food during which time you can contemplate what you might produce, inspired by the environment around you.

For me, foraging adds to what lies at the heart of everything that is great about food and cooking – it is a voyage of discovery, with twists and turns provided by intriguing ingredients that can be combined in infinite combination.   Foraging also helps me to get outside my culinary comfort zone and I enjoy nothing more than the revelations it may bring. Hence, this is an appropriate time to introduce my new friend Chondrus crispus.

‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ by Fiona Bird is published by Cico Books and can be ordered online via major internet booksellers.

Fiona also provides regular updates on her foraging activities on Facebook at The Forager’s Kitchen and Twitter (@TheForagersKitc).

I purchased this book and my review in entirely independent.

Carrageen – a very traditional pudding

If it wasn’t for Fiona’s generosity in providing me with freshly foraged carrageen, I’m ashamed to say it might have taken me a lot longer to get round to using this traditional Hebridean ingredient.

carageen raw

I should also thank one of her children who kindly left it at a drop off point i.e. the school in Benbecula.  Thankfully the receptionists didn’t take against keeping the well wrapped weed until I got there to collect it!

This attractive red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, called carrageen here in the Hebrides (also known as Irish Moss, pearl or jelly moss) grows on rocky coasts around the UK and Ireland and around the northern Atlantic. It is a small branched purplish-red seaweed that grows up to about 20 cm but its appearance can vary significantly in both colour and size, depending on levels of exposure to waves and turns quite green or yellow, being bleached in strong sunlight.

It grows in a wide range of habitats from exposed shores to sheltered estuaries. It is found lower down on the shore from the mid intertidal to sub tidal zone, so the best time to find it is at very low tide, or preferably on a spring tide. The Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) is a tremendous resource for information on all aspects of the ecology of Chondrus crispus and other marine flora and fauna around the UK coasts.

Carrageen is part of the Gigartinaceae family of seaweeds, some species of which have been used historically as food additives all over the world for many hundreds of years. They are harvested commercially, notably in the Philippines most recently and have a multitude of applications in the food industry.  This is because seaweeds from this family have a high content of unique polysaccharides called carrageenans.

Carrageenans bind strongly to food proteins so are particularly useful as thickening or gelling agents to add viscosity to dairy products such as ice creams and desserts. They are added to processed meats as a stabiliser, help to clarify beer and are a vegetarian or vegan alternative to gelatine. They are also used in shampoos and toothpaste and have many other non-food related applications.

Traditional carrageen pudding

Carrageen pudding is still regularly offered as a local delicacy in the Outer Hebrides and in my experience tends to be served with a very soft jelly-like set, much softer than pannacotta.   The dried seaweed is traditionally soaked to soften it, then boiled in milk, strained and sugar is added, perhaps along with other flavours such as vanilla  or whisky.  I have also been served it with soft fruit added.

dried carageen

my dried carrageen

I have only ever used dried carrageen, however, being given fresh carrageen by Fiona was an exciting prospect.  I wanted to experiment with making a carrageen pudding using the fresh weed, but also to dry the rest for future use, much more the normal practice.  A small handful of dried weed (about 10g) is usually adequate to set a pudding with about 600 – 700 ml of milk.

Drying carrageen

Carrageen can be sun-dried, but with our wet weather, I opted to use the oven.  Fortunately, my oven can be set to pretty low temperatures. Here is how I dried the carrageen to preserve it for future use:

  • Carefully rinse the carrageen in several changes of cold water to remove the salt (and the array of small creatures like shrimps and snails).
  • Spin the seaweed in a salad dryer to remove as much moisture as possible, then rub it with a tea towel.
  • Spread it out on a couple of wire racks and put the racks in a very low oven (60C) for about 7 hours.
  • Store in an airtight container or plastic bag, ensuring the seaweed is totally desiccated before doing so.

Using fresh carrageen

Following a browse on the web and through a few seaweed-related books, I was quite surprised to find there is not a lot of information out there about using fresh carrageen for cooking.  A few tweets to Fiona and a bit more info from her gave me a bit of confidence to experiment with making a pudding using the fresh weed. I knew I would need a much larger amount when using fresh than dried to get a set.

I decided a 2 : 3 ratio of fresh weed to milk and added 100 ml of double cream to the strained mixture at the end, i.e. a 1 : 2 carrageen to milk/cream ratio for the finished pudding, along with flavourings and colour. I wrapped the seaweed in muslin and floated the bag in the milk as it warmed. This amount serves 4.

I wanted to add some of my favourite aromatic flavours: rose water and cardamom to the pudding as I have only experienced traditional flavourings. I am delighted to say the pudding set was quite firm, more akin to pannacotta and the texture smooth.  The rose water and cardamom worked very well with the silky textured pudding.

Ingredients

200g fresh carrageen, washed (or 10g dried)

300ml whole milk

100ml double cream

1/2 tsp rose water

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

40g caster sugar

optional extras:

a handful of brambles or other soft fruit

a few drops of natural red food dye

rose petals

a few chopped toasted almonds

Method

  • Put the milk in a pan and add the muslin wrapped seaweed bag to the pan.
  • Slowly bring to the boil and allow to simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes.
  • Press down on the muslin bag frequently with a potato masher or similar to extrude as much of the carrageenan thickener from the seaweed as possible.
  • Pour the mixture through a sieve, into another pan, again, squeezing muslin to extract as much carrageenan as possible.
  • Add the double cream and sugar, heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit before adding the cardamom, rose water and red dye.
  • Pour into ramekins and allow to cool slightly before putting in the fridge to set.

I topped the puddings with some defrosted brambles I picked last autumn but I think they did nothing to enhance the pudding’s flavour and only served to confuse the palate, so would leave off the unnecessary garnish next time – I can put my precious few remaining stocks to better use.  Similarly, the rose petals look pretty, but the aesthetics outweigh their enhancement of the dish – they are a bit dry and papery!  I topped with almonds, just as a change from my usual pistachio choice with this flavour combination, but pistachios would work even better.

carrageen 043 carrageen 046

Mission accomplished, I am now going to watch the second in the BBC wildlife series ‘Hebrides: Islands on the Edge’.  I’m disappointed to report this great series is only being broadcast in Scotland but hope some of you can pick it up on iPlayer or other web resources. It really is magnificent.