Tuesday, 22 March 2011

There will be blood (sausage). 2: 'Heaven & Earth' fishcakes

Call me old fashioned, narrow minded or unadventurous if you will, but as a rule I hate to see the word “fusion” anywhere near a restaurant menu.  And not just because, as far as I can tell, it has now fallen hopelessly out of fashion.  Even in it’s heyday it was generally shorthand for pretentious cooking with too many mismatched flavours, and its appearance usually betrayed the presence of a chef, or restaurateur more concerned with following fashion than expressing themselves, let alone creating something distinctively good in and of itself.  There were, of course, exceptions.  There always are.  Usually you’ll find that the people responsible for something becoming fashionable in the first place tend to be pretty good at it.  In the case of ‘fusion’, by all accounts that was Peter Gordon, of Sugar Club (now defunct), and Providores.  I’ve never eaten at one of his restaurants but I’m told by people whose judgement I trust that his food his very good.  And I’ve eaten at and very much like Caravan on Exmouth Market, which is run, I believe by Peter Gordon protégés, and where I’ve seen him propping up the bar.  And they do ‘fusion’.  But then it makes sense for Peter Gordon (and his protégés): he comes from New Zealand, where of course European and Pacific rim cooking traditions are going to merge. 

Not that it matters any more.  Fusion’s fashion moment has long since past, and there are currently two bandwagons travelling diverging paths: heading in one direction we have the ‘molecular gastronomy’ bandwagon; and in quite another we have the local/seasonal/simplicity bandwagon.  And I think any regular reader of this blog will have no problem guessing which wagon I would be more comfortable travelling on.  Not that it matters – these are fashions, and it remains true: the originators are likely to be doing good and interesting things, many of those following in their footsteps will not be.  For all that what they do is not my kind of thing, I have no doubt that Ferran Adria of El Bulli, and our own Heston Blumenthal, off of the telly, are brilliantly original and inventive chefs, and their scientific approach does in fact enhance our understanding of how cooking works, which is good.  On the other hand I have even less doubt that many of their devotees/imitators are all foam and no substance.  Similarly, while I wholeheartedly believe that Fergus Henderson of St John, and my own former employer, Mark Hix have achieved great and important things in resuscitating British cuisine and altering the way we think about the quality and provenance of produce and our attitudes to meat in particular, I don’t for a minute suppose that everyone who opens a restaurant that ostensibly subscribes to their way of thinking will automatically be plating up great food.  It’s quite possible that it might be really dull.  That said, at least one of the virtues of the Ferguson/Hix philosophy is that it promotes simplicity, while the Adria/Blumenthal model celebrates complexity, and if I have to between two restaurants where I know the chefs to be less talented disciples of either, I know which one I’ll choose, every time.

Anyway, back to fusion:  I may not much care for the word, or what it came to mean on a menu, but on the other hand, I’m all for a bit of good honest mixing and matching.  Or plain old nicking good ideas from cuisines other than your own (or words – like “cuisine”, for instance).  After all, only a fool would, say, disdain olive oil as foreign, and insist that British food can only be cooked in lard.  Or take Heaven & Earth, a sublimely simple dish of black pudding, mashed potatoes and apple that has become something of a signature dish for Mark Hix.  Despite it being German (Himmel und Erde, made, of course, with blutwurst, and hereafter referred to as H&E) and Mark being best known as a champion of British food.  Incidentally, Mark credits his discovery of the dish to my mate Darren – previously mentioned in these pages – who came back from a trip to Germany raving about it, and how, in the original Dusseldorfer version the blut in the wurst was so fresh it would actually bleed into the mash when you cut into it.  Which is, I think, the only reason that readily springs to mind for wanting to go to Dusseldorf.

Of course, there’s nothing ‘fusion’ about Mark’s Heaven and Earth.  He’s just appropriated it wholesale, and translated the name.  It only becomes fusion when you mash it up – quite literally in this case – with something from another culinary tradition.  Like that other and longer standing staple of a Mark Hix menu, the good old British fishcake.  Which is what I did.  So I’m afraid if anyone’s guilty of perpetrating ‘fusion’ here, it’s me.

H&E Fishcakes.

You could use any smoked fish for this dish, but I think the strong flavour and robust, almost meaty texture of mackerel – its paradoxical earthiness - will not only stand up best, but be most suited to its name.  Smoked eel, if you could get it (and ethically, I shouldn’t recommend that you try) might be an interesting alternative though.  If you do use mackerel, and your fishmonger can supply them, I would urge you to get a whole smoked mackerel, rather than the vacuum packed fillets you can get at the supermarket.  It’s a bit more work filleting it yourself (but not much, you can just pull it apart with your fingers), but the reward in terms of richness, sweetness and depth of flavour is more than worth it.  Besides which, they are just such beautiful things.

You need to prepare the mash and fry up the sausage and apple in advance to allow everything to cool before you mix it together.  In fact everything up to the final frying can be done well in advance, so it’s nice and easy if you’ve got friends coming round.

Serve with salad or greens on the side - try chard or spinach, wilted with mushrooms and garlic; or broadbeans with red onion and red pepper gently stewed in a light stock.

As usual these quantities are for 2, as a main course – or they’ll do for 4 as a substantial starter

Diced and lightly fried black pudding and apple
400 g mashed potato
2 teaspoons horseradish sauce (or fresh grated horseradish if you can get it)
1 fillet smoked mackerel
60g black pudding (diced, approx 1cm)
1or 2 apples depending on size (peeled, cored and diced, same size or a bit smaller than the BP)

Lightly fry the diced black pudding – so it’s just blackened, not dried out, then drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool.  Do the same to the diced apple in the same pan, just till lightly coloured, you don’t want the apple turning to mush.

Flake the mackerel fillet.

When the mash, black pudding and apple are cooled, just mix everything together in a large bowl, divide into 2 evenly sized balls, shape into thick patties, lightly dust with flour and fry in a lightly oiled pan till golden brown.   Don’t get the pan too hot or they’ll be burning on the outside before heating through.  Depending on the size of your pans and whether you’re serving the fishcakes as starters or mains you might want to make a larger number of smaller patties and cook them in batches.

Black pudding and apple

The combination of black pudding and apple, as in H&E is, of course, one of those natural pairings - strawberries and cream, ham and mustard, liver and onions, pork and, er, apple… - that could almost lead you to believe in some culinary equivalent of Intelligent Design.  Two things just so good together it’s hard to believe that there was no conscious mechanism involved in making them that way.  Well, frankly, there wasn’t.  Just be glad that chance worked out the way it did, and take advantage.  For instance, if you’re roasting pork, throw some apple wedges and slices of black pudding into the roasting tray alongside the meat, to serve up as an accompaniment just as you would stuffing with chicken.  
Roast tenderloin with roast apple & black pudding
Or, at its most simple, just fry up a few slices of black pudding and wedges of apple and place them on toasted or lightly fried baguettes.  These will serve as canapés, appetisers or a light snacky lunch.  Or cube the bread and make croutons and toss the lot together with some leaves to make a salad for a starter or lunch.  Which, come to think of it, reminds me of another culinary crime I must hold my hands up to having commited against poor old H&E: Not only have I subjected it to fusion, I have deconstructed it.  It was one of my first big catering jobs, and it was in a castle in Germany - an actual schloss - and I created a starter salad out of the component parts of H&E, dicing and sautéing the blutwurst, apple and potato.  I was a little nervous, both as an English cook in Germany messing about with a German classic dish, and in serving blood sausage to a party of thirty odd, given how squeamish people can be.  I needn’t have worried: they loved it, and scoffed it all, every last scrap.  Even those people who had claimed to be vegetarian and had originally been served a version without the blutwurst were digging in for seconds from the bowl with it.  I guess the German definition of vegetarian is subtly different from ours: if it’s made from blood, apparently, it’s okay.  I like their style.

Black pudding and apple crostini

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