Foraging on my doorstep 3: Dulse and beer bread – with my salt beef

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe that included the most obvious bounty on my doorstep – seaweed, in this case, dulse. I have coupled this with my first attempt at preparing salt beef, using a fine quality brisket of Aberdeen Angus. This unique combination produced a sandwich of some distinction, well worth the effort to collect the dulse and time to brine the beef.

In the process

As mentioned before, I am not a hardcore forager because in some respects, I don’t believe in tokenistic use of foraged ingredients. Seaweeds, if not appropriately processed, carefully considered and balanced to be an integral part of a dish can fall into this category. Dulse, however, I have discovered, does have significant merit as a distinctive ingredient that brings novel and intriguing flavour dimensions to a dish.

I am slightly limited in my experimental explorations with seaweeds as I currently don’t have a dehydrator, a tool that would give me more flexibility in using seaweed as an ingredient. Given that we are on the cusp of renovating the house and in the process of packing stuff away to facilitate the incredible mess that will ensue, buying more kitchen gadgets, normally something I would be looking for an excuse to do, is not on the cards.

Help with kelp

Dulse harvest

Dulse harvest 2

It is not the best time of year to be collecting dulse – end of summer / early autumn is optimal, but where there is kelp, it can usually be found at anytime of the year. I began thinking about recipe ideas, as possible contributions to Fiona Bird’s next book – based around culinary explorations with seaweed. The least I could do was come up with some ideas for Fi, Champion of Hebridean seaweed. See also my review of Fiona’s fabulous last book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen‘.

On a sunny but very windy day, we combed our local beach for living kelp that had been cast ashore (as opposed to the masses of dead plants, detached and usually devoid of dulse).  The holdfasts (‘root’) of living kelp plants still grip hard to the boulder substrate on which they are growing and are often thrown high up this beach during storms, well above the kelp zone, therefore making them easy to find.

So why, you may ask am I looking for kelp but intend to forage for dulse?  Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is a red seaweed that is epiphytic on several species of seaweed, notably the most abundant kelp found along the west coast of the Uists, Laminaria hyperborea. The stipes (‘stems’) of this important algae are often festooned with dulse, which has a ribbon-like appearance at this time of year, having been ripped and shredded by the force of stormy seas. These kelp plants live for up to 15 years and dulse tends to found associated with older specimens. Dulse also grows on rocks and mussels in the intertidal zone.

The kelp Laminaria hyperborea, tangle, to give it one of its common names,  is an incredibility important species, notably for these islands. The most apparent benefit of beach cast tangle (as well a few other seaweed species) is that it is traditionally collected from beaches after winter storms and utilised by crofters as a natural fertiliser for crops.

However, it is the unseen benefits provided by these kelp forests that extensively fringe the west coast here that make them so important.  Kelp (actually an umbrella name for a number of ‘forest-forming’ macroalgae) has been described as an ‘ecosystem engineer’, a wonderful term that perhaps, rather simplistically, may be described as any organism  that creates or significantly modifies habitats.  North American beavers and termites are often cited as the more obvious examples.

Kelp forests are extremely dynamic and productive with high biodiversity, acting as a habitat and refuge for many organisms and are important for nutrient cycling and energy capture.  Of key importance to this low-lying island chain may be the capacity of kelp forests to offer a degree of protection to coastal zones from flooding and erosion by acting as a buffer, reducing the velocity of approaching waves during storms.  A recent paper that gives an excellent synthesis of the functions of kelp can be found here. 

My life is currently awash with kelp – not just in my spare time used foraging for dulse,  at work I am currently managing a research project focusing on kelp.  A world of weed indeed!

As you can see, the dogs thought harvesting dulse this was a great game and quickly cottoned on to what we were trying to do.  They excitedly began seeking out kelp stipes. Unfortunately, when found they then proceeded to chew off and eat the dulse, or run around with the entire stipes hanging out of their mouths, nonchalantly chewing them while running amok.

Dulse and beer bread

I was aware that the flavour of dulse is complemented by ale and, in wishing to continue pushing the envelope with my recent bread making exploits (more on these another time), decided to pair the two flavours in a loaf.  I have been making a lot of ale rolls recently and was intrigued to experience how the dulse may alter the flavour and texture of my basic ale roll recipe.

The flavour was malty, full and distinctive. The dulse gave a new dimension and depth of flavour, soft texture, even bake and a pleasant smell that was incomparable with any loaf I have made before.  The colour was interesting, slightly tinged with yellow and the keeping qualities of the loaf appeared to be very good, although I admit, it didn’t perhaps last long enough to really test that out…

As mentioned, there are benefits to drying the dulse before use but without a dehydrator, I decided to try using it fresh. After checking the dulse for inhabiting species and removing them, I rinsed it thoroughly under the cold tap for a few minutes.  I then placed it in a bowl of warm water for half an hour, before drying it with a kitchen towel and then blitzing it quite coarsely in a food processor. I have no idea what the standard practice for fresh dulse is, but presumed this would remove creatures, salt and soften it a bit. It seemed to work.

Dulse

The recipe provides 2 large loaves and economically uses 1 500 ml bottle of ale. Alternatively, make 1/2 the volume and drink the spare 200ml of ale! Modify according to your preferred method of bread prep. and room temperature.

Ingredients

600g strong white bread flour

200g strong wholemeal bread flour

200g strong malted bread flour

40g fresh dulse, finely chopped

500 ml ale

100 ml water (approx.)

20g instant yeast

20g salt

60g butter

a little olive oil

some semolina for dusting

Oven: 205 C (fan)

Dulse bread

Method

  • Put everything in a bowl and mix until it comes together and tip onto the surface.  Be careful not to add all the water at once in case the dough is too sticky – especially due to the added moisture in the dulse.  Adjust water amount accordingly.
  • Put a little olive oil on the surface and tip out the dough.  Knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is no longer sticky but becomes soft and elastic.
  • Put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and allow to rise until doubled in size.  This may take up to several hours for a big batch like this, depending on room temperature.
  • Tip dough out and fold inwards to knock the air out and cut in 2 before shaping your loaves into your preferred shapes.
  • Place each on a baking tray dusted with a mixture of semolina and flour.
  • Cover with a plastic bag and leave to prove for at least an hour, or until the loaves have again doubled in size.
  • Dust the loaves with a mixture of semolina and flour and slash, if desired, before placing on the oven for 30 minutes.

Dulde bread 3

dulse bread 2

Salt beef: another briny recipe

Although I have always been aware of the existence of salt beef and its origination in Ashkenazi cuisine,  I must admit, I don’t recollect eating it, most probably because it is generally hard to acquire in Scotland and secondly, I have not thought to specifically seek it out. I had a good quality marbled piece of Aberdeen Angus beef and was contemplating what to do with it that would make it special when I came across a number of salt beef recipes online.

Salt beef, it transpires, is remarkably simple to make, so difficult acquisition is irrelevant if you are prepared to make it.  Admittedly, it does require considerable patience during brining.  At this stage, I found myself opening the fridge and staring longingly at the briny brisket, counting the days when it would be ready to cook and consume.

Traditionally, saltpetre would have been added.  This does give the beef its characteristic pink tinge. Although we do have some (for something to do with violin making, not cooking!), I prefer to keep the product more natural, so have omitted it.

Since the beef will languish in the brine for an entire week, it is perhaps not wise to try to undertake this without the benefit of a large fridge. Fortunately, I have one.

This recipe is an amalgamation of several I found online.  I modified the contents of the brine and subsequent cooking ingredients to my own tastes.

Salt beef brine recipe


275g soft light brown sugar

350g coarse sea salt

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 cloves

3 bay leaves

a few sprigs of thyme

a sprig of rosemary

salt beef 1

Method

  • Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large saucepan with  2.5 litres of water, bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve.
  • Once it comes to the boil,  simmer for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
  • Pierce the brisket all over with a skewer and place in a large sterilised, non reactive container (plastic is best) that will hopefully fit in your fridge.
  • Pour over the brine to immerse the beef, weight it down if you can, or turn in the brine regularly.
  • Leave to brine for 1 week.

For the beef 

2 kg (minimum) beef brisket

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 celery stick, roughly chopped

1 leek, roughly chopped

1 bouquet garni of seasonal herbs

1 head of garlic, halved

Method

  • Take the beef out of the brine and rinse it.
  •  Place a pan with the vegetables, bouquet garni and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover.
  • Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach very gently for about 3 hours, or until the meat is completely tender.

salt beef 2

Serve hot or cold.  We preferred it cold, as luxurious lunchtime sandwiches with the dulse and beer bread, some wholegrain mustard and accompanied by small onions I grew last summer, preserved in a sweet and gentle pickle.  There is no doubt about what I will be making with the next brisket I acquire – an outstanding way to celebrate one of the best cheap beef cuts, making it feel very extravagant.

salt beef sandwich

The vile weather continues here, so time for a break. London calling.  Here’s hoping when I return spring will be vaguely apparent (though I did hear an optimistic skylark singing this morning in the short sunshine interlude between the continual low pressure weather systems).

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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.