Hand-dived scallops and samphire with Marsala and porcini sauce

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

An alternative fungi foray

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

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

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

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

Scallops and samphire with a Marsala and porcini sauce

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

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

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

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

Serves 2

Ingredients

3 or 4 hand-dived scallops per person

a handful of samphire, washed

Sauce:

15g dried porcini, rehydrated,

75 ml porcini reserved cooking liquid

100 ml double cream

75g pancetta, finely cubed

1 shallot, finely chopped

50 ml Marsala

10g unsalted butter

salt and pepper

Method

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

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

scallop final

scallops final 2

Ways to love your lettuce 1: Avocado, lettuce and bacon

For all it is easy to grow and its numerous forms and flavours, lettuce suffers from a poor image. Yet lettuce is no one trick pony, it can be versatile and varied. I am currently immersed in my predictable annual lettuce glut therefore I offer a series of recipes to help love our lettuces. I start with a combination of lettuce, avocados and bacon.

Salad and perceived banality of lettuce

Despite being a very common and popular garden crop in the UK and easy to grow and able to be accommodated even in the smallest garden, there are a lot of lettuce detractors out there. In Britain, lettuce has way too much historical baggage – most of it negative. I also blame the generic, bland term ‘salad’ (the ‘S’ word, hereafter banished from this post).  This descriptor offers no indication of exactly what one may anticipate eating.  It disguises a myriad of possibilities: delightful taste combinations, the subtle interplay of leafy flavours that can create or enhance a dish.

More likely, a plate of blandness is conjured up in the mind: iceberg lettuce and some insipid waterball tomatoes and if you are really lucky, a vaguely water-flavoured addition of cucumber with a tough, dark dyspepsia-inducing skin.  Alternative thoughts may be a sad, soggy and superfluous garnish left on the side of the plate as an afterthought, the limp offering receiving no more than a cursory glance, at best a gentle prod with a fork and thereafter (justifiably) ignored. To add insult to injury, some call it ‘rabbit food’ (whatever that means) and steer clear at all costs.

Beyond lettuce, there are many flavour-packed leaves that transcend the boundaries of our notion of the traditional and can elevate dishes to new levels. The leafy delights of mizuna, komatsuna, red chard, rocket, sorrel, endive, to name but a few, can be discussed another time but as with lettuce they merit a better description than the ‘S’ word.

Lettuces of distinction

As a grower, it can be a bit bewildering looking through seed catalogues to choose which varieties of lettuce to grow; cos, butterhead, crisphead being 3 common descriptions of form.  After trying many different varieties, I have settled down to grow some favourites of different varieties and textures with the odd wildcard thrown in annually.

Without a doubt the ultimate lettuce for me is the big, blousy butterhead Marvel of Four Seasons, an heirloom pre-1885 French variety (Merveille des Quatre Saisons). It is as tasty as it is beautiful with rosette growth in an array of shades ranging from bronze, gold, red encompassing a delicate green heart with ruby-tinged leaf tips.

As the name suggests, it will grow across extended seasons, is vigorous, easy to grow and quick to mature. Being a soft butterhead, it is delicate and can suffer as a result of the strong winds here so I usually plant it next to brassicas for protection.

This is the one and only item I have ever entered in the local North Uist agricultural show.  I did win first prize but was most upset when I collected my lettuce at the end of the day. Its beauty had faded having sat on the show bench all day and it was a shadow of its former glory: saggy and not worth eating.  I felt disappointed by the potential food waste and that I had let competition get in the way of common sense. It made me realise that my priority is to grow my vegetables to eat rather than for the show bench. Growing conditions here are tough enough and I relish eating everything I grow. Maybe if I have more growing space I will re-evaluate and enter some produce in future – and if I develop an interest in competition of any sort whatsoever.

Clockwise from top left Marvel of Four Seasons, Catalogna Lingua di Canarino and Little Gem

Clockwise from top left Marvel of Four Seasons, Catalogna Lingua di Canarino and Little Gem

I also grow Catalogna Lingua di Canarino most years, for its vigor and flavour and Little Gem for its versatility and delicately bitter edge, although it is least vigorous, germination can be patchy and it takes a while to get going outside.  I often braise or stuff the small tight heart leaves of Little Gem. Finally, I grow the winter favourite Valdor to extend the season.

Lettuce with avocado and bacon

This post should perhaps more accurately be entitiled ‘Ways to love your lettuce in combination with bacon’ as my trio coincidentally and quite unintentionally all contain some of our own home cured Old Spot bacon. I may well at last get round posting about the Old Spot bacon prep. In fact, I’ve just decided that the third lettuce and bacon combo recipe will culminate with the tale of the Old Spot cure.

Both Marvel and little Gem are included here, for the contrast of the delicate soft butteriness of Marvel and the hearted, gently bitter and refreshing crunch of Little Gem. The recipe is adapted from one in the Wahaca Mexican Food at Home book.

Ingredients

1 Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce

2 little gem lettuce

1 green chilli, finely sliced (I used Hungarian Hot Wax)

1 avocado, diced

3 spring onions, sliced

handful of coriander, chopped

150g pancetta, diced

dressing:

1 avocado

juice of 1 lime

60 ml extra virgin olive oil

1 heaped tsp. Dijon mustard

2 spring onions

small bunch of basil

salt and pepper

Method

  • Put all the dressing ingredients in a blender together and blitz, season to taste.
  • Dry fry the cubes of pancetta until crisp, drain on kitchen towel and allow to cool.
  • Arrange half of the lettuce leaves on a platter (or 4 individual serving plates if you wish).
  • Shred the rest of the leaves and combine with half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli and spring onions and a spoonful of dressing, season, mix and place on top of the lettuce leaves.
  •  Scatter the other half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli, spring onions and coriander over the top.

Avocado 2

Avocado 1

Avocado 3

I served it with rare venison steak and chipotle tostadas, topped with Manchego cheese and Hungarian Hot Wax chillies – a great way to love my lettuce and a cool and refreshing foil for the meaty and fiery tostadas.

venison and hot wax

Stornoway black pudding bon bons, Angus asparagus and Gloucester Old Spot pancetta

Last week, after a 5 year campaign, Stornoway Black Pudding at last received its deserved Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, under the EU’s Protected Food Name (PFN) scheme. It is not often that these islands on the fringe of Europe have a gastronomic accolade bestowed on them. What better reason to indulge in my favourite blood pudding.  It might be mid-week, but what the heck…

In fact, this post is one in celebration of prime Scottish ingredients at different geographical scales; National: Angus asparagus; Regional: Stornoway Black Pudding; Local (very): my neighbour’s Gloucester Old Spot pig for our home made pancetta.

In the land of the deep fried Mars Bar

It is unfortunate indeed that Scotland is synonymous with bad food – not least deep fried everything – indeed it could be argued that this recipe, in part, reinforces the stereotype.

When I lived / worked abroad (in Portugal, Hungary) and on excursions across Europe and beyond, I came to appreciate how different our food culture is from that of a sizeable chunk of the planet – we had no daily food market culture and yet it is such an intrinsic part of life elsewhere.  It is something I have long admired and missed about living in Southern Europe.

It is worth reflecting on this because I think in the last decade, a lot has changed. We have become aware of the value of food provenance as well as eating locally and seasonally. Farmer’s markets bring new insights into good British artisan produce.  Perhaps the tide has turned, we just need to look a bit harder in the surf to find the gastronomic gems.

I think this is the essence of the problem we face as British consumers trying to seek out the clichéd ‘Best of British’, it can be hard to find, and you have got to work (comparatively) hard to get a hold of the best. This is exemplified by the efforts one must go to here to seek out the very best produce but be reassured, there is no doubt it is here.

In Uist, we export the finest seafood in the world to continental Europe, principally France and Spain.  I am lucky since if I want live langoustine, lobster or crab and hand-dived scallops, I know where to source them.  I know where and how to collect local shellfish and where to catch trout / seafish. I can forage for seaweed, samphire, nettles, herbs.  However, all this takes considerable local knowledge, effort and that thing that life always seems be short of – time.  Here in particular, food really has to matter to enable one to access the best. It does pain me that often visitors ask where they can get local seafood, fish and meat.  The answer in never straightforward.

And so to our fine produce…

National gem: Angus Asparagus

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If it was not for Fiona Bird (see my last post reviewing her book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’), I would not have become aware of the suppliers of fine Scottish asparagus from Eassie farm, Glamis, Angus.  Fiona has roots in Angus and after a recent trip, kindly left me some of this fine product at a specified drop off point (again – this time the Cal Mac ferry office, Lochmaddy – thank you Fi and staff).

Eassie Farm asparagus is suberb quality and supplied to London’s Covent and Borough markets as well as fine dining restaurants across the UK such as The Kitchin, Edinburgh (one of my favourite restaurants, more on that later).  I can see why discerning customers would seek it out.  This is probably the best asparagus I have eaten. Of course, I have tried and failed spectacularly to grow it here.  However, I think after tonight’s asparagus excursion, I am determined to try again.

More about the Angus asparagus can be found here. Asparagus production is not Eassie farm’s only talent, they also produce sea kale, and I really hope to try some of that in future.

Regional delight: Stornoway Black Pudding

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This genuinely wonderful product joins the ranks of Champagne, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton Cheese and another Scottish favourite, Arbroath Smokies. The PGI status now guarantees the provenance of this iconic Scottish product. This status can only be described as Stornoway Black Pudding if it is produced in the town or parish of Stornoway on Lewis.

It is intrinsically linked with the food heritage of these islands and black pudding has been made on crofts in the Outer Hebrides for hundreds of years.  PGI will hopefully eliminate the threat to the pudding posed by  imitation “Stornoway Style” black puddings, produced elsewhere that are invariably, in my experience, inferior products.

Stornoway Black pudding is produced by only 4 butchers in the Stornoway area. It is rich, moist, decadent, delicately seasoned and every bit as distinctive and unique as the delectable Spanish morcilla and French Boudin noir.

Local hero: Gloucester Old Spot pork 

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Except for the occasional tweet about the progress of our Gloucester Old Spot pig butchery, sausage and bacon making, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to include this wonderful produce in a recipe for a post.

We bought half of one of my neighbour’s Old Spot pigs a few weeks ago.  I could see the two Old Spots wandering around the croft from my office window until their demise and I am delighted to say I know they had a wonderful time, freely rooting around in their luxurious field and quarters until their time came.

It is widely understood that pigs are very intelligent and sensitive animals and no secret that there are welfare issues associated with pork and derivative products such as sausage (if indeed it is pork!) and bacon we can buy commercially in the UK.  I do not choose to consume this kind of pork.

To use the cliché, to buy free range, slow grown pork of a heritage breed is a totally different animal. I will focus more on the butchery, sausage and bacon making of the Old Spot in a future post. For this recipe, we wanted to include some of the dry cured bacon we made from the pork belly.  Some of this was kept in chunks and frozen to provide us with pancetta-style lardons for recipes such as this.

This green bacon is as far removed from average shop bought bacon as you could imagine. It is succulent and flavoursome without exuding water (commercial bacon is usually injected with water to speed up curing) and is not overly salty.

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Stornoway Black Pudding bon bons, Angus asparagus and Old Spot pancetta

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Originally, this recipe was set to feature hand-dived scallops since scallops are a tried and tested combination with asparagus.  Unfortunately, the weather has been a bit rough for the last week for the divers to get out.  I’m trying hard not to complain about the atrocious weather we are having, in fact, it doesn’t feel like spring has yet started and the vegetation and garden are testament to that fact.  However, this weekend, I saw the first few broods of greylag geese and the short-eared owls are hunting around the house, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to tell whether it is November or May!  I have the utmost sympathy for visiting tourists – not least cyclists, I have been there and it is not pleasant.

The elements of this dish offer no great innovations in combination, but they work.  If it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it – just use the best quality ingredients available, which is what I have tried to do.

The bon bons are simple to make and are deliciously soft and sumptuous and packed with flavour. They are simply shaped spheres of Stornoway Black Pudding coated in seasoned breadcrumbs with Parmesan cheese and parsley (parsley from the garden, home made breadcrumbs).

The asparagus was simply sauted.  This approach was inspired by Tom Kitchin and his “à la minute” style of cooking, where the sauce is prepared just before serving, very fresh and captures the essence of the asparagus. I had watched him demonstrate a similar recipe to students on the new BBC series ‘The Chef’s Protégé’ this week and it seemed like the most respectful way possible to treat this high quality asparagus.

Advice for asparagus: Because asparagus spears are tapered, unlike when contained in an asparagus steamer, when sauted, the tips cook at a faster rate than the more woody bases.  To compensate, remove the green outer layer from the bases of the spears at about 4 cm from the bottom.  That way your spears will sauté evenly and the tips will not be soggy and over cooked.

I used the best quality balsamic vinegar and Jerez sherry vinegar to finish the sauce. This provided the right balance of acidity to accompany the rich elements of the dish. Timing is all for this dish and each of the elements have to come together within a couple of minutes, so get everything prepared in advance to bring it together quickly.

Ingredients

For the Stornoway Black pudding bon bons:

1 Stornoway black pudding

200g white breadcrumbs

50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

plain flour

2 tbsp. parsley, finely chopped

salt and pepper

1 egg, beaten

Groundnut / sunflower oil for deep frying

For asparagus and sauce:

10 fresh asparagus spears, bases trimmed

2 more asparagus spears, shaved for raw garnish

250 ml chicken stock

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. Jerez sherry vinegar

a splash of rapeseed oil

salt and pepper, to taste

Pancetta:

150g pancetta, chopped into lardons

a splash of rapeseed oil

Method

  • Roll pieces of the black pudding about the size of a walnut, coat in plain flour, then egg, then the herby breadcrumb mix: breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, parsley, salt and pepper.
  • Trim and remove the outer layer from 10 of the asparagus spears.  Shave the last 2 spears using a potato peeler – these will be served raw on top as garnish.
  • Heat the oil ready to deep fry the black pudding bon bons.
  • Sauté the asparagus spears in a little rapeseed oil in a sauté pan over a fairly high heat, keep them moving.  When they have gained a bit of colour, and start to produce some liquid, but are still firm (1 – 2 minutes), add a ladle of chicken stock and quickly cover to sauté.  Keep a close eye on the asparagus, keep it moving and add a little stock at a time, as required.  Cooking will take no longer than 5 minutes. The asparagus should flex but be firm with some bite.
  • Deep-fry the black pudding bon bons until they are cooked through and the crumb coating is golden.  Be sure the oil is not too hot or they will burn on the outside and be raw in the middle.
  • At the same time (!) gently fry the pancetta in a frying pan, bringing together all 3 elements to be ready at the same time.
  • Remove the asparagus from the sauté pan, add the butter, allow it to start to bubble up through the asparagus liquid and chicken stock, whisking then add the Jerez sherry and balsamic vinegar.  Allow to cook for a minute or so to evaporate off some of the vinegar. Season to taste and serve, garnish with the raw asparagus and drizzle over the sauce.  Simple!

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