Foraging on my doorstep 1: Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

This short series of posts focuses on very locally foraged free food gathered predominantly from the shoreline near my house.  First, a rich starter of mussels with a decadent cream sauce featuring the heady anise-heavy combination of pastis and fresh tarragon.

cockles and mussels

Warning of significant digressions in this post, skip to recipe at bottom of the post to avoid same.

Windows of opportunity

I have been making the most of the short windows of opportunity that the stormy and erratic weather has presented here on North Uist.  Given the fairly unrelenting storms since the beginning of December, one either grasps the nettle and heads outside to embrace the squall, or cowers indoors to suffer from cabin fever.   The latter is not an option for me, not least because I also have to get out for daily dog walks. That said, some days have been so wet and windy, the dogs have declined to leave the house for all but the shortest periods. Sensible animals. The forage and beach walk in the photo was atmospheric and perhaps most surprising, not a drop of rain fell on us. Hector the Frisbee King is captured mid-catch.

beach view 1

beach frisbee catch

I was also away for half of January, so the break has meant the weather has not quite been able to grind me down thus far. I also have come to the realization that I have to be pragmatic and accept that my aim of regular blogging will be challenging this year and I anticipate more erratic and less frequent posts, not least because I am away for a period again at the end of this month and we hope to start renovating the house thereafter.

The planned house renovation continues to grind along at a glacial pace. We have experienced delays that were not anticipated as a consequence of what should perhaps politely be described as differences of opinion between ourselves and planners / building control about the design and layout or the substantial re-modelling and extension of our crumbling croft house.  Thankfully, these issues now seem to resolved (we hope) and we can now begin to make tangible progress.

Granite and metal

While away, we took advantage of the opportunity to look at various fixtures, fittings and finishes we may include in our renovated home.  We had a productive day in Glasgow visiting stonemason yards to select a slab of granite for the bling large island that will form the centrepiece of the kitchen. Job done, we went to see groove metal titans, Lamb of God at the 02 Glasgow Academy in the evening.

We chuckled at the ironic dichotomy of our daytime middle-aged middle class exploits to locate granite and discuss soft furnishings for our renovation project versus the fret-melting aural assault of the evening metal gig.

Lamb of God did not fall short of our expectations, delivering a set of unrelenting brutality and vitality, much to the delight of the typically good-humoured metal-loving audience. The 2,500 capacity venue is an old Art Deco cinema in the Gorbals area of Glasgow’s south side.  It stands in isolation on the road, the Art Deco features having saved it from demolition, unlike the buildings that once stood around it. The venue is a gap filler between small intimate venues like King Tut’s and big hangars like the awful SECC.  It was a well-chosen venue for this sold out gig. I captured the atmosphere of the gig with a few video clips. One is below. Warning: it is a bit sweary.

It’s the first gig I have been to for quite a few years where my ears were ringing afterwards, I think probably due to the awful set up for one of the support bands (who never seem to have the benefit of the mixing desk) resulting in mic feedback of scratchy ear-spitting delivery. I recall gigs in the 80’s and early 90’s were often unbearably, painfully loud (literally), until decibel limits were reigned in a bit, much to the benefit of the audience.

Age concern?

The audience had a diverse age range, perhaps not surprising given Lamb of God have been around for 20 years or so, band members being about the same age as us. between them they sported more hair and beardage than the entire audience put together. I must admit, although both The Man Named Sous and I still love going to these heavy gigs, we no longer have the requirement to enter the throng of the ‘pit’, being squashed and ricocheted off bodies to cross this central void in the audience, passing bodies over our heads to reach the front (or indeed, being passed high on a sea of hands ourselves).  In this case, we could predict the massive size of the pit, so big at times it became less dynamic and almost pedestrian. We kept out of the way and enjoyed the whole spectacle from a fantastic elevated spot 1/2 way back.

The benefit of attending these gigs over the years is that you get more relaxed about self-image.  Youth brings out the desire in fans to wear their music on the outside, be it a t-shirt or other typical metal paraphernalia.  While we were waiting in the car to go into the gig (we also no longer queue in the rain until a venue opens), we saw a couple of young guys get out of their very metal 4 x 4 in comfy hoodies and trainers.  They then proceeded to get biker boots and knee-length leather coats out the back of the car and don them before strolling, more credibly, over to the venue across the road.

Those longer in the tooth have of course gone through this and paid the price with heat exhaustion. I was once close to passing out as a result of wearing a fully lined bikers jacket at the front and have had numerous pairs of favourite DMs crushed and scuffed in the affray.  I also had the left sleeve of that battered old bikers jacket completely ripped off at a gig in the 1980’s.  No malice intended! Now we are older and sensible, we deposit coats in the cloakroom, patiently queue at the end to retrieve them and favour t-shirts, comfy jeans and old trainers, should we end up wearing a pint of beer thrown exuberantly in the melee. That said, we still prefer standing gigs, seated gigs being routinely rejected.

Classical misconceptions

Someone recently said to me that they were surprised by my taste in music because I ‘didn’t look like someone who listened to metal’.  WTF?! This left me perplexed and wondering how they think I should look, being a professional woman in my early 40’s. Clichés came to mind: Piercings? Tattoos? Crucifix (large, inverted)? Bullet belt? Spandex? (!). Although The Man Named Sous sports the more credibly clichéd long hair and beard associated with rock generally, he also likes prog rock, yet I have never seen him wear a cape or wizard’s hat and he has no propensity to stick kitchen knives between the keys of our electric piano.

For me, connections between metal and image evoke nightmarish flashbacks to 1980’s ‘hair metal’, dreadful commercial manure I never considered to be part of the metal genre: Poison, Motley Crue, Ratt, etc and all the base banal misogynistic baggage and superficiality that came with that Sunset Strip scene.

Not that I am suggesting for a minute that metal is highbrow. Metal as a genre is often treated as a bit of a joke, labelled as blue collar, often being perceived as frivolous, ludicrous or unsophisticated .  Thrash.  More like trash, I have heard more than once. Some of it certainly is, particularly when OTT mashinations are performed in earnest, but some of it is tongue in cheek.

Understandably, it can be easy to criticise what appears to be, at face value, an unfathomable attrition of noise (sometimes white). Some of it is indeed vacuous or unlistenable.  Cherry picking the best of the very many genres and sub-genres that are labelled as metal (prog, math, groove, black, doom, nu – to name a few). If the wheat is separated from the chaff, some challenging and original gems of motivational music can be discovered (Tool -Ænema; Opeth – Blackwater Park; Mastodon – Crack the Skye). This is highly subjective of course!

Extreme music (encompassing metal) may form the backbone of my music collection, but I do listen to many other genres (with the exception of some forms of jazz), including classical music and opera. Classical music is not so diametrically opposed to aforementioned extreme music.  Parallels can be drawn between the musical and structural complexity: shifting time signatures, inclusion of polyrhythms, prodigious mastery of solo instruments, layers of sound and contrasts of sonic light and shade.

Classical music can be light music, analogous to soft rock (neither are to my taste), or deep and dark e.g. Shostakovitch: Symphony No.5, more akin to black/doom metal, also Wagner, very obviously. It is not therefore uncommon or surprising to find many people who can become immersed in both genres. Interestingly, no one has suggested I have the look of someone who listens to classical music. Further ridiculous clichés are imagined: twin set and pearls, blue rinse….

There is also for some, the pseudo intellectual supposition that classical music is in someway superior, in quality and depth, at least.  I don’t subscribe to this argument. Evidence from opera libretti would suggest subject matter can be banal and literary content as weak as may be surmised for other musical genres.  I have had the unfortunate experience of mistakenly buying opera tickets for performances where the libretto was translated into English instead of being displayed in translation by supertitles. A ruined experience indeed. I can accept the ludicrous plots and extreme melodrama of wonderful Italian opera for the entertainment that it is. This forgiveness comes from hearing a libretto sung in the language that it was originally intended.

While I draw these parallels here (and I’m not the first to do so), my personal and singular distinction between classical and metal is motivational.  The emotion and power of Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor, Op. 85 is undeniable, but only the driving and relentless tempos of bands like Lamb of God and Pantera can make me run faster.  Both should be credited for my improving 10 km pace.  No matter how loud I crank up Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, I know it would not achieve my continually improving pace….

Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

I have discussed collection and cleaning of mussels in detail in a previous post when I prepared the classic Moules Marinière. Here, this dish is best served as canapés or light starter as it is pretty rich. For those regularly following my blogs, the addition of pastis to the recipe will come as no surprise – it is one my all time favourite and much used accompaniments for fish and shellfish.

Ingredients

1kg of mussels, cleaned

splash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, sliced

50 ml of pastis e.g. Pernod

a few grinds of pepper

200 ml or so reserved mussel cooking liquid

3 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped

100 ml double cream (optional)

Method

  • Put a glug of olive oil in a large pan with the shallots and garlic, fry gently to soften for 5 minutes.
  • Add the pastis and allow the alcohol to evaporate off before adding the mussels.
  • Cover with a lid and wait 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan vigorously occasionally until all mussels are open and cooked, discard any shells that don’t open.
  • Strain off the cooking liquid into a pan, taking care to leave the last of it in the pan, lest it contain some grit.  You should have about 200 ml. Reduce this down slightly, by about 1/3.
  • Add the double cream and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes to reduce,  thicken.  Add the chopped fresh tarragon. Season with pepper.
  • While the sauce is reducing, etc, loosen the mussels and place each on the half shell, ready to receive a topping of the tarragon and pastis cream.
  • Top each mussel with a generous spoonful of sauce.  Place under the grill for a few minutes, or in a hot oven for 10 mins (180C) and serve with your finest homemade crusty bread.

mussels with pastis and tarragon

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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.

argyll 3

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.

argyll 2

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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Black bream with fennel

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

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

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

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

bream raw

Black bream with fennel

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

Ingredients

Black bream:

2 black bream each about 500g

few sprigs rosemary

few sprigs thyme

3 bay leaves

clove of garlic, skin on

splash of olive oil

salt and pepper

Method

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

Fennel with pastis

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

Ingredients

1 fennel bulb, sliced, fronds/tops retained

1tbsp pastis e.g. Pernod

150 ml fish stock

salt and pepper

Method

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

Fried fennel garnish

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

Bream and fennel

Beef cheeks: An aromatic casserole of great comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beef cheeks: two prepared and ready for marinating

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

Marinade for beef cheeks:

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

200 ml red wine

2 tblsp olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 celery stalk, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

1 spring of thyme

2 bay leaves

1 star anise

zest and juice of an orange

a few grinds of pepper

For the beef cheek casserole:

2 tblsp olive oil

500 ml red wine

1 tblsp tomato puree

750 ml beef stock

salt and pepper

Method – Aromatic beef cheek casserole

Set oven to 170oC

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

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

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

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

Celeriac puree

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

Ingredients

1 celeriac’root’

500ml chicken stock

100 ml double cream

salt and pepper

Method

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

Braised fennel with pastis

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

Ingredients

1-2 fennel bulbs, sliced

30g butter

200 ml chicken stock

1 tsp sugar

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

Zest of half an orange

salt and pepper

Method

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

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

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

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

Simmer gently for about 10 minutes until tender and serve.

Plating up

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

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