Wednesday, 29 June 2011

One last slice of Belgian waffle

Although no other meal on our trip across Belgium and the Southern Netherlands would match the terrific lunch we enjoyed at Kamu in Antwerp, that’s not to say we didn’t eat well elsewhere.  In Belgium in particular there is no shortage of excellent places to eat.  With the current strength of the Euro against the pound, the prices are consistently high, but so is the quality – and that’s got nothing to do with exchange rates.

Apart from mussels and other seafood, the main local speciality, a staple of almost every menu, was stoofpotje, or stew, available in a number of variants, but most commonly beef, slow cooked in the reliably fantastic local beer.  Not exactly, necessarily, the ideal summer dish, but it was normally the cheapest option on the main course list, so perhaps it was as well that this June in Belgium was scarcely blazing.

The best example of stoofpotje we came across was at Bistro den Huzaar in Bruges.  I had assumed, from the name, that the cooking there would be a Hungarian influenced take on Flemish cuisine, and their pig cheeks braised in kriek, with cherries could easily have been Eastern European in origin.  Then again, as I’d already observed, the Belgians themselves are big into their cherries – as the very existence of kriek to braise your pig cheeks in would testify – so I couldn’t say for sure whether there is any substance to that assumption or not.  Either way, the stew, which arrived in an earthenware casserole with it’s lid sealed with puff pastry, was rich and deeply flavoured, with just the right balance of savoury and sweetness, and the meat sumptuously tender.  Definitely something I’ll be looking to recreate at home some day soon.  The casserole, incidentally, contained plenty enough stew for two.  This was not untypical of Belgian restaurants, which are generally as unstinting in their portions as their quality, to the point that although their prices are high, I wouldn’t say they were expensive for what you get on the plate.  Perhaps the solution is to just order one starter and one main between two, but I don’t suppose that would endear you to your hosts…

Den Huzaar also supplied a couple of the other highlights of the week’s eating, in my starter of goose liver parfait, which was served with fruit bread and a sour apple compote, and Becca’s mango sorbet dessert.

It was also the place I was first inspired to take a photo of the after dinner coffee.  It wasn’t the last:

Bistro den Huzaar, Bruges, Belgium
Brasserie van Loock, Antwerp, Belgium
Zoete-Genot, Arcen, Netherlands
En Passant, Hulst, Netherlands

By a number of accounts, Belgian restaurants have a pretty poor reputation for service.  But I have to say, that wasn’t our experience at all, and, come on, if someone goes to that much trouble with the presentation of your coffee, then surely you can cut them a bit of slack elsewhere?  The service we received, with a couple of individual exceptions, was generally charming, friendly and accommodating.  It tended towards the informal, which I like, but I could see it running the risk of erring on the side of casual to some tastes.

Thinking about informality of service reminds me of one more meal that merits a mention.  Perhaps perversely it was at an Italian deli and trattoria in Bruges called Trium, into which we’d stopped in search of a prosciutto panino or something similar to take away by way of a budget lunch, but were then tempted to take a table by the delicious smell and, for me at least, the promise of pasta alle vongole on the ‘suggesties’ board.  Also, being Italian, staffed, it seemed, entirely by Italians, it provided something of a break from the minor but persistent shame of our complete lack of Flemish in the face of the near universally impeccable English of the waiting staff we encountered.  However, when I asked, in Italian, for the pasta alle vongole, out Italian waiter appeared caught out, said he wasn’t sure if the vongole were available today, and that he’d have to talk to the chef.  The chef, in the true sense of clearly being the man in charge, rather than the man doing most of the actual cooking, emerged from the open kitchen and came to our table. “You want the clams?” he asked, in English, jovially but with, perhaps, just a hint of underlying threat.  I nodded, having mentally prepared myself for speaking Italian and finding myself speechless in English. “I do you clams, with potato, some beans,” he said.  I looked at him, unsure whether we were misunderstanding each other, or if he was pulling my leg.  I opened my mouth to say, no, I don’t need potatoes or beans, just clams and pasta, but he held up his hand to shut me up. “You want clams,” he said. “Trust me.” And he walked away.

When he returned, some ten minutes later it was with a huge bowl of linguine, with, as promised, not only clams, but potatoes and green beans stirred through it.  Plus a vast platter of mixed cured meats that made up the antipasto di carne that Becca had ordered.  I only realise in writing this that at Trium we had indeed followed the ordering policy I proposed above, but we did, and in fairness, it didn’t seem to make us unpopular.  When we suggested that we would probably be sharing, far from being put out, he just brought an extra bowl for Becca, and then took the plate of meats away, insisting pasta first, then meat, was the proper order.

Linguine alle vongole, with potatoes and green beans is, clearly, an authenticist’s nightmare.  It’s just plain wrong.  Regular readers, though, will know that I am far from an authenticist, so it is with a deal of pleasure that I can report that, contrary to all known rules, it was actually really very good.  Clear proof that the rules of authenticity are there to be broken.  When we were done with the pasta, and the chef returned with Becca’s plate of cured meat, he asked how we found his version of linguine alle vongole.  He seemed particularly delighted when not only did I say I enjoyed it, but pointed out that if he tried serving it up in Italy, everyone would think he was crazy. “It’s La cucina Italiana,” he said, “but done my way.”  Good for him.

And just to round things off, and only because I think the picture’s pretty, here’s my steak tartare from Brasserie van Loock in Antwerp.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

More Belgian waffle: Window shopping.

 The Belgians love their food, they really do.  And they love to put that love on display.

They take their cherries particularly seriously, this supermarket in Ostend had three different grades, at €5.50, €8.50 and €11.50 a kilo.  The €11.50 cherries were probably the best I’ve ever tasted.

 I first came across these small, flat, pale fleshed and utterly delicious peaches a couple of summers ago in Germany, since when they have started to appear more and more frequently over here too.  But what are they properly called?  I’ve seen them described as wild or flat, and on Ridley Road market yesterday they had whole bowls of slightly mouldy looking examples for a pound, labelled as doughnut peaches.  I tend towards Wild Peaches, but would advise against doing a google image search on the term to verify that, unless you want to see more of Peaches Geldof than I, for one, really need to…

 And obviously they love their fish,  even if, in Ostend, they do some pretty weird stuff to it. It’s the combination of fish and Belgium, I suppose – it was inevitable that things would get a little surreal…

There is a little colour distortion on this pic, but I swear, not much...
 In Antwerp, it got slightly less surreal:

The pics above were from a snazzy and expensive deli, specializing in cooked and cured fish, right in the tourist heart of Antwerp, while the fish in the pics below were on display in a neighbourhood fishmongers in the generally tatty district of Zurenborg, just South of the zoo, I think on Rolwagenstraat.  Those slices of squid in the middle pic are the biggest and meatiest I’ve ever seen, at a good inch thick, but the charming and very friendly proprietress assured me that they were very tender.  As well as the shop, she also ran a fish café, specializing in seafood tagines, a few doors down the street that was open only for lunch and only between 12 and 2.  It was one of the few great disappointments of our trip that we didn’t find ourselves in that neighbourhood in that time slot on either of our remaining days in the city.  It's called the Orangerie.  If I'm back in Antwerp any time, and I hope I will be, it'll be high on my list of places to visit.

 Generally in Belgium a lot of stuff comes in shades of beige, taupe, and mushroom.  It is, I think, a palette that reflects an undemonstrative, self effacing aspect to the national character.  When it comes to some things though, like the fish salads in Ostend above, or candy they really let themselves go wild...

To the point of making sweet shops look like they belong in the red light district…

And then there were the pastry shops.  Becca must have hated these, all that butter, eggs and cream.  Whipped cream in particular.  Slagroom, as the Flems have it...

And, of course, chocolate...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Belgian waffle

Waffle for illustrative purposes only. No actual waffle appears in this article.

This week Becca and I have been travelling across Belgium and a little bit of the Southern Netherlands, doing a research trip for a project of hers.  We’re staying in B&Bs all the way, so no facilities, so no cooking I’m afraid.  For this week I’m mainly just the driver.  Which doesn’t mean of course that food isn’t still high on the agenda.

Which, I have to admit, in Belgium, makes the agenda pretty pricey.  Our journey – at least the Belgian leg of it – started in Ostend.  When Becca was first planning this trip, a few weeks back, she posted a question on Facebook, asking her friends if they could recommend any places worth visiting in Belgium generally, and specifically anywhere to eat well, and cheaply, in Ostend.  Our friend Darren, previously mentioned on these pages, pitched in with a reply that read something (no, I believe exactly) like: “HA HA HA HA”.  We thought at the time that he was probably just recycling the hackneyed notion that Belgium is boring and therefore that the very idea of there being anywhere in it worth visiting was inherently absurd, and didn’t dignify him with a response.  In retrospect, and given that Darren is very well travelled, particularly within Northern Europe, it seems likely that it was the notion of there being anywhere cheap to eat in Ostend that he was ridiculing.  Eat well: yes.  Eat cheaply: fat chance.

One of the things you get used to, living in London, is that the cost of living is generally pretty high.  One of the compensations (and there are many) is that when you travel, eating out tends to be much more affordable.  Ostend, however, just makes you wonder how come you don’t eat out all the time in London, what with it being such a big, fat bargain… Seriously. 

You’re in Belgium, you’re by the seaside, you think you really probably should just have moules (or mosselen) frites.  And indeed, yes, you really should.  But you will have to pay over twenty Euros for the privilege.  Still, you might as well, because any other main course is going to be that price, or more.  Unless you want to subsist entirely on spaghetti bolognese and omelettes – which is what Becca and I had for lunch, respectively, on our first day, and which, of course in her case would come down to a choice of spag bol or spag bol.  Every meal.  It also has to be said that, even without taking price into consideration, the low countries are not the best place to be for a dairy allergic food lover.  They do love their butter, their milk and cream, and their eggs.  Often whipped up together with chocolate.  Or indeed in the  form of waffles

Anyway, that first night, in Ostend, in the most highly recommended mossel bar in town, I chose the  mosselen look (garlic mussels).  Becca couldn’t, because – yes – they put cream in the sauce (or at least that’s what are waiter said, and he was so solicitously helpful otherwise I wouldn’t wish to cast aspersions on his accuracy here, but I have to admit I could detect little trace of it in mine), so she had a fillet of dorada, with a tapenade crust instead.  The mussels were good, undoubtedly, very good indeed.  But they were still just mussels.  And, frankly, for twenty four Euros (or around twenty one fifty in old English pounds at the current rate of exchange) they have to be pretty fecking amazing mussels, or not mussels at all.  I couldn't really say they were better than the mussels I did myself on our trip to Dorset a few months back, and at that price they really had to be several times as good, and –without wishing to blow my own trumpet here – within the mussels spectrum, I just don’t think that’s possible.  Not that my mussels were as good as they were on account of any skill of mine, but because any mussels dish depends almost entirely on the quality of mussels that go into it, and there’s simply a limit to how much better than those Dorset beauties a mussel can be (that limit being not much).

So were these moules frites worth it?  I gues I’d have to say yes, and no.  No, not in the greater scheme of things twenty odd quid will buy you the world over.  But yes, in the specific context of other available items on an Ostend menu.  Becca’s dorada, by the way turned out to be a big, thick, chunky, flaky fillet, quite unlike the fine textured sliver of sea bream we’d expected, so maybe a problem with the translation (our own, Im sure, not the restaurant’s) there.  It was good though, but again, it’s worth had to be measured against the other menu options rather than in the greater scheme of things.

The Ostend experience set the tone for Belgium, although, to be fair prices did ease (slightly) as we travelled on to Bruges (counter intuitively), and Antwerp (perhaps more predictably).  We did though, come across one exception in the course of our trip.  One quite exceptional exception.

We arrived in Antwerp at a little after one pm, parked up and dumped our bags at our B&B in a tatty, but reputedly bohemian inner suburb, by which time it was getting on for one thirty, which in our experience, was starting to get tight for finding a place for lunch (the Belgians tend towards strictness in lunch being available between 12 and 2).  Our (charming, garrulously helpful) host at the B&B recommended a place just next door but one, which he said was a newly opened and pretty fancy place, but offered a set lunch menu for just €15 which was very good value.

We almost didn’t take him up on his recommendation, largely on account of not being able to see in to the dining room from the street - always a problem when trying to assess a potential lunch venue – but after a quick scout around the immediate surroundings we ended up back there and thought we’d give it a go, if for no other reason than that we had no more than €15 Euros to lose.  And, as it turned out, a great deal to gain.  Not least a strong contender for the best value meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant. 

Firstly we were greeted warmly and casually and, in response to our rather tentative initial enquiry, were assured that Becca’s allergies wouldn’t be a problem as they tried to keep the cooking light and simple, and get away from the traditional Belgian reliance on butter and cream all over the shop (they didn’t use that phrase).  The set menu consisted of a starter of (cream free) courgette soup, and then a choice of lobster salad or lamb and mint tagliatelle – dairy, but not egg free as our host  realised as he was saying it.  Never mind, Becca was quite happy with a lobster salad, and I took the pasta.  We each ordered a beer.

The courgette soup was vividly green and so deep and punchy in flavour that it seemed literally beefy to the extent that we couldn’t decide what stock it might be made with, I eventually plumped for a peppery chicken stock, but if you’d told me it had been beef then I would have confidently withstood any attempt to knock me down with a feather.  It was rather more surprising when our waiter checked with the kitchen and informed us it was a purely vegetable stock.  Which just goes to show.  Along with dairy, you don’t necessarily need meat to generate flavour.

If the soup was good, and it was, seriously, then the mains were simply spectacular.  Becca’s lobster salad in particular – just look at the picture – which was just not a lobster salad but a whole seafood extravaganza.  A full half lobster in the shell, a bunch of big fat prawns, mussels and chunky fillets of at least two different fish (one of which was easily recognisable as red mullet).  And generous quantitities of chargrilled courgette and aubergine for good measure.  It’s a measure of how good my pasta dish was – with it’s kofte style chunks of richly spiced mince, and big mint leaves stirred through like you might expect wilted spinach to be (and in fact like wilted chard was) - that I wasn’t resentful in the slightest.  There was courgette in there, too, the ubiquity of which suggested the chef was dealing with a glut.  Which in turn, far from being a problem, suggested that someone's own garden was involved in the provenance of their veg - and how much more local, seasonal - and probably several other current restaurant buzzwords - can you get than that?  It tasted fresh from the garden too.

And if that wasn’t enough, then look what arrived when we ordered coffee:

And, not only that, but, entirely unprompted, though after a slight delay, as soon as they remembered Becca’s allergies, they brought her a plate of big chunks of juicy, grenadine red water melon to go with her coffee instead.

All of this, including our beers, came in at €20 a head, or around €3.50 a head less than a standard Ostend pot of moules.  By any standards, this is astonishing value.  I only hope they can continue to offer it – when we were there, admittedly on a Tuesday lunchtime, we appeared to be covers 6 and 7 of that service, and by the time our mains arrived we had the restaurant to ourselves.  If any readers of this blog find themselves in Antwerp – or even in the area – in time for lunch, then I’d urge you to get yourselves to Kamu, at 28 Draakstrasse in the Zurenborg district of the city, and hope they’re still doing the €15 menu.  But if you’re looking for a fine dinner, at a more representative price, then I couldn’t recommend the cooking highly enough, whatever it might end up costing.

I better stop now, as I hadn’t intended to write much at all, just a bit of introductory blurb to accompany pics from the trip.  Never mind.  That can wait till next time.

Lobster salad at Kamu, Antwerp.  Bargain of the week/year...

Monday, 20 June 2011

Roast chicken

 Becca’s parents came for Sunday lunch last week, and we’d originally planned to eat out on the patio area at the end of the garden that we’ve newly liberated from undergrowth and general debris.  Maybe a barbeque, maybe a version of that smoked mackerel salad I wrote up a few weeks ago.  This plan, of course, was weather dependent, so, of course, after weeks of almost unbroken sunshine, this was the weekend it chose to piss down.  I would demand thanks from the farmers of Britain, but I think our Sunday lunch plans, if they played a part at all, would have been a very small part in guaranteeing rain compared to BBC Radio 5Live spending the whole week trailing the “Drought Special” they’d be running that Friday.  A special which I gather ended up consisting of reporters standing out in fields in East Anglia like so many drowned rats, shouting to make themselves heard over the deluge, and insisting that, no, really, farming was in crisis on account of he unprecedented and catastrophic absence of the very thing that was presently threatening to wash them into the North Sea.  Ah, God, gotta love him.  He may display a dismayingly laissez faire attitude when it comes to war, pestilence, famine, and, indeed, drought, but he does do a nice line in irony.

So, abandoning plans for eating al fresco, a roast chicken seemed the obvious choice.  And obvious doesn’t necessarily mean bland, or boring, or bad.  Innovation and originality are virtues in cooking as in all other areas of life, but the tried and trusted and the familiar have their places too.  Culinary tradition is generally regarded as a good thing – something people are having to work hard to revive in Britain – yet how would tradition come about if everyone had always conformed to the pressure to innovate.  What if everyone had always said, ‘no, we couldn’t possibly roast a chicken this weekend, we had roast chicken last week, or the people next door did, or we hear some people in the next village did last month.”  What then?  Well, we’d miss out on a lot of roast chicken, for a start – that’s what then.  And that would be terrible.  On the other hand, we’d be spared all that guff about ‘authenticity’, so, swings and roundabouts, as, indeed, in all other areas of life…

Becca looked at me askance when I chose the big fat organic chicken at the farmers market that came to £12.50.  Yes it was more chicken than we needed for lunch for four, but that was exactly what made it good value.  It wouldn’t just do Sunday lunch for four, but there’d be meat enough left over to make Monday night dinner for two, plus several rounds of sandwiches, and then the carcass would be good for enough stock to make a risotto say, and a soup big enough for a dinner in it’s own right.  Which makes £12.50 stretch a long way.  And yes, you can pay a lot less for a similar sized chicken, but do I really need to rehearse that argument for the benefit of anyone reading this blog?  I’m sure I don’t, but to summarise briefly, not only is cheap (i.e factory farmed) chicken ethically just plain wrong, it’s nutritionally poor, tastes of (at best) nothing, and any stock derived from it might as well be water (which is what it will largely consist of in the first place.  Water and antibiotics, which is a whole other reason to have nothing to do with it).  So just don’t, okay?  Becca’s askance look was just a flicker.  Gone before I had to even think about justifying myself.  Let alone the chicken.

Like the factory chicken argument – just don’t – I hardly feel I need to tell you how to roast a chicken.  That’s pretty much grandmother and sucking eggs territory (why that expression, by the way?  Whose grandmother ever sucked eggs?  Who sucks eggs full stop?).  Needless to say, though, when I roast a chicken, I don’t smother it in butter – although, I confess, before Becca, I would have done.  Olive oil and lemon juice do the job just as well, and are unarguably healthier – even if you’re not allergic to the butter – but that’s not the reason I’d choose them now even if I was roasting a chicken for a meal Becca wasn’t eating.  I’d do that because I’ve come to think it tastes better – lighter and fresher – particularly for a roast chicken in the summer, even if it is peeing it down outside.

I rub the outside of the bird in the zest and juice of a lemon, plenty of olive oil, a scattering of thyme leaves pulled fresh from the pot on the flat roof of the bathroom, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, of course, inside the bird as well as out (I do have a tip here, and that’s to pregrind and mix your pepper and salt – I use my pestle and mortar – so you can scatter it single handed, meaning you have an available hand to manipulate the bird).  I stuff the inside with the squeezed halves of the lemon used to dress the outside, a lightly crushed head of garlic and halve another lemon, squeeze it and chuck that in for good measure, along with a handful of hard herbs (thyme, rosemary and sage). 

Then I roast it, either directly in a roasting dish, or, because in my oven I can, on the rotisserie. Rotisserie roasting has the advantage to the chicken of magically  keeping most of the juices on the inside, producing deliciously moist, tender and richly seasoned flesh.  It is, however, to the disadvantage of any veg you’re roasting with your chicken, because, obviously, for the same reason, there are fewer tasty chicken juices dripping all over them (unlike the truly wonderfully chickeny roast potatoes you can get from an Italian Rosticceria, but then they have the advantage of having twenty chickens turning on a rack over them).  Once again, swings and roundabouts.  On balance though, I’d have to say, rotisserie every time.  And if you find yourself in the market for a new oven, try and find one with the option. 

Whatever roasting method you use, the basic technique’s the same.  Start the oven good and hot – at least 220 – for the first 20 minutes, then turn it down to around 160 for 45 minutes to an hour – more or less, depending on the size of the bird.  When it’s done the juices should run clear and the legs pull off with a gentle tug and a twist.  Leave it to rest for at least twenty minutes before carving or jointing – I prefer jointing.  Just pull off the legs and wings, then run your kinf down either side of the breast bone and slice off each breast as a single piece.  Big chunks of meat are, to my mind, always more satisfying than itty bitty slices.

It still (just) being the season, I served this chicken with roasted Jersey Royals and asparagus (plus a few shallots).  I brought the potatoes to the boil in a pan for just ten minutes, dropped in the trimmed asparagus spears to blanch right at the end of those ten minutes, and drained almost immediately.  Then I tossed the potatoes and asparagus together in more salt, pepper, lemon juice and zest and olive oil – you could also add some rosemary and/or thyme - and put them in to roast in the tray, either around the chicken, or in this case under it, for the last twenty minutes or so (having already put the shallots in at the time of turning the oven temperature down).  When you take the chicken out to rest you might want to whack the heat up again for a few minutes, just to get the potatoes nice and golden.

The next day the weather had improved, a bit, and only temporarily, but enough to make a salad in order for dinner.  Which was good.  Because a chicken, bacon and avocado salad was quick, easy and delicious – almost ridiculously so on every count.  And I’m entirely sure I don’t need to tell you how to make one of those…

Chicken, avocado and bacon salad, with rocket, romaine, red onion, cherry tomatoes, parsley and basil, and sauteed potatoes on the side.

And at the risk of boring my regular readers, just to say that there's still time (if you're reading this before the 24th of June, that is) to vote for me in the 2011 OFM awards.  Just click here.  If you want to...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Loving the Razor Clam.

Anyone who loves seafood has to love razor clams, but not necessarily unambiguously.  They’re tasty; they’re big; they are, if not to the eye of every beholder, exactly beautiful, then at least striking, with the cut throat razor shells from which they get their name.  What’s not to love? Well, they can be a bit on the chewy side, particularly the big ones, but that’s no problem to anyone, like me, who’s a big fan of squid, octopus, cuttlefish – pretty much anything from that end of the seafood spectrum that makes some people – poor, benighted, fools – shudder and think ‘Ick. Rubbery.’  None of these things should, of course, be rubbery, not unless they’re badly (generally over-) cooked, but they can, I grant, need a little chewing (and what’s wrong with chewing?). 

No, the one potential problem with a razor clam, for even the keenest seafood lover, lies in its appearance.  In the long, white, bifurcated tube of (admittedly rubbery looking) flesh inside the razor shell.  Look at it too closely, and there is something undeniably David Cronenburgy about it.  Particularly the mouth (I prefer to think) part at the end.  I recommend not looking at that.  And definitely not thinking about it.

So, while not looking too closely at one, let’s turn our thoughts to eating razor clams.  Probably the best I’ve had were at Barrafina in Soho - very simply done, with just a little garlic and parsley, if I recall correctly.  These were small, no more than about 10cm long, which may well have been a key factor in how delicately tender they were.  I have to admit though, that I’m not entirely sure whether it’s really okay from a sustainability point of view to be eating small, presumably young clams.  Let them grow, give them time to breed.  Also, you need fewer big ones to fill your plate.  I do think though, that the bigger meatier clams do need a little more going on than just a little garlic and parsley to keep them interesting and appealing to the end (and, perhaps, to keep your mind off the whole David Cronenburgy thing).

When I think of seafood, I pretty much automatically think of Spain (no coincidence, then, that the best I’ve had should have been, if not in Spain, then at least at, in my experience the best tapas bar in London) so if I’m looking to add something a little more to a seafood dish, then chorizo – which as I’ve mentioned before makes a great partner to seafood anyway (and I’m not alone on this) – is always likely to be among the first things to spring to mind.  I had a couple of Theobald’s little cooking chorizo in the fridge, so I diced up one of those.  I’d already marinated my clams in the zest and juice of half a lemon, garlic, chilli and olive oil.

In a heavy bottomed, lidded pan I first dry fried the diced chorizo, then tipped the clam marinade into the pan for a few moments sizzling, then the clams themselves.  Just a splash of white wine (about half a glass of whatever you’re drinking), cover with the lid for about two minutes, uncover and chuck in a generous handful of roughly chopped parsley, and you’re done.

In season, as it is now, and available either free if you’re near an appropriate part of the coastline, or cheaply from any decent fishmonger, a handful of samphire, just blanched in fresh water (certainly no need to to add salt here!) is the perfect accompaniment to any fish or seafood.

Put a bed of samphire on the plate, arrange the clams on that, and spoon over the wine and chorizo sauce.  Delicious.  Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, with whom I often find myself of like mind, has a recipe for just this dish in his Fish book (which is almost, if not quite, as essential as his Meat book – which I’ve mentioned so many times before on this blog, and I think would have to get on to at least the shortlist for my Desert Island book.  Actually I think I would request to have it in place of the statutory bible, allowing me to have the collected works of Raymond Chandler as my free choice.  I’d be happy with that.  And if my luxury item could be a lifetime supply of chorizo, and the beaches of the island supported clams, and maybe a few other choice, and catchable items of seafood, then I’d see very little reason to leave…

Oh, and just a reminder that if you still haven’t voted for me in the 2011 OFM awards, you still can (at the time of writing), up until the 24th of June.  Just click here.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Artichoke Hearts (and minds?)

I did promise that my next post after the last one would be about food but, before I get to that, I do just have to say thanks to everyone who has responded to my shameless appeal to ‘Vote Me’.  The response has been overwhelming, and frankly a little embarrassing.  That post had the biggest single day response to any post I’ve uploaded, and is now my third most viewed of all time (not, of course, that I can assume that any of those viewers have actually voted for me, but still.  My most heartfelt thanks, though, go out to those that have).  Which is nice, but slightly disturbing as it’s not actually about food, which was meant to be the point.  Perhaps I should just give up all this food malarkey (which is a lot of faff, it has to be said) and just go in to politics, or go on the X Factor. Oh well, while I’m working out which song to massacre (is it too late to restart the Hallelujah bandwagon?), or where I stand on gay marriage (pro) or quantative easing (huh?), let’s just have some food, shall we?

Remember those artichokes I wrote up the other week?  What I didn’t get round to saying then was that not only did they provide a showstopping starter for a dinner party in their full (globular? global? round?) glory, but they also – directly or indirectly – fed Becca and I for the next two nights as well.

It’s unusual that you serve something for a fancy(ish) dinner, and get left with the best bits (unusual, but not unprecedented – serve roast beef and there are certainly those that would argue that the cold meat you’re left with the day after is even better than freshly roasted warm meat on the night itself), but once you’ve picked all the leaves off the artichokes you are, of course, left with the hearts.  And those would be, I think by common consent, regarded as the best bits.  And Becca and I got to keep them, to make a quick and easy (and very tasty) pasta supper the following evening.

I just sautéed up a couple of shredded rashers of smoked streaky bacon, added a glug of olive oil, some garlic and chilli (a good sized clove and about a thumbnail’s worth, respectively, each finely sliced), then some sliced chestnut mushrooms, and finally the artichoke hearts, sliced lengthwise into sections about a centimetre thick on the outside of the wedge, and a glass of white wine.  This was all done while the linguine (or spaghetti, obviously) was boiling, and when that was cooked nicely al dente it was just tipped into the pan (always add the pasta to the sauce, not the other way round – more convenient washing up wise, and much better at mixing sauce and pasta and combining flavours, so a win-win), along with a ladleful of the cooking water.  A handful of parsley, a generous grind of pepper, maybe salt to taste (the bacon often provides enough), then just stir it all together and serve it up in a bowl.  And for those who aren’t allergic a quick grating of parmesan over the top.

One word of warning.  If you’re using the stalk segment of the artichoke hearts – and why waste them? - make sure you’ve thoroughly peeled away the outer layer (it’ll pull off easily).  It is edible, but very fibrous and liable to leave stringy bits stuck in your teeth.

You will recall (or read here – either for the first time or to be reminded) that the artichokes were cooked in a big pan of water with plenty of aromatics for flavour.  That obviously left us with a big pan of richly flavoured liquor which made a perfect stock for a risotto.  A perfect stock, specifically, for an asparagus risotto.  Click on those links for the method; all I need to say here is that the combination of asparagus and artichoke flavours was as glorious a celebration of spring and the onset of summer expressed through the medium of vegetables as you could possibly wish for.  You might well choose to wash it down with a crisply chilled rose.  I couldn’t possibly say you’d be wrong.

Oh, and if you haven’t voted for me in the 2011 OFM awards, but you think you might want to, you still can (at the time of writing), up until the 24th of June.  Just click here.