Friday, 17 February 2012

A new definition of comfort food: Smoked Haddock Risotto

A couple of posts back I wrote about how, at this time of year and with the arrival of (finally!) some proper winter weather, then food-wise it was all about big meaty stews and hearty soups, and then I went ahead and wrote up a chickpea and spinach dish just to be contrary/prove there was an alternative.  That last bit was plainly unnecessary.  Looking back over the posts I’ve published since the turn of the year proves me to be a liar: it’s apparently not about meat, stews and hearty soups at all - or at least only one post in 9 covering any of that would certainly suggest not – it’s mainly about fish and veg.  So to continue in the same vein, here’s the smoked haddock risotto I promised in my last fishy post.  Of course, what this time of year is really about, foodwise, is comfort food, and this particular dish meets every kind of definition of comfort food I can think of.  In fact I’d have to say it pretty much provides a definition in itself.

First thing, of course, is to get yourself some smoked haddock, by which I mean natural smoked haddock, which you will find on the fishmonger’s slab in a pale and interesting shade of golden beige, NOT a lurid chrome yellow.  I the food snobbery and hate to make any statement that might be interpreted as such, but really – bright yellow smoked haddock?  Why?  Who the fuck’s idea was that, and how did it catch on?  Stop it, all right?  Just stop it.

Anyway, once you have your haddock, slice an onion and a bulb of fennel, in roughly equal quantities, and make a bed of them in the bottom of a suitable risotto making pan, along with a few fronds of the fennel leaves if the bulb has them, and a twist or two of black pepper.  Lay your haddock fillet on this bed and pour over a glass of white wine.  You need to cover the onion/fennel bed, but the fish itself doesn’t need to be submerged.  Cover the pan and put it over a lowish heat to bring the wine to the simmer and gently poach the fish for little more than a minute, maybe as many as two for a particularly thick fillet, once the wine is simmering.  Err on the side of underdone at this point.

Remove the fish and put it in a dish, pour the poaching wine over it, leaving the onion and fennel in the pan.  Add a little olive oil and a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves – and maybe a little finely sliced or crushed garlic, although this is one of the few instances where I’d be inclined to make a risotto without – you may also want to turn up the heat just a little, until the onion and fennel are just turning soft and translucent.  From this point on you are simply making a risotto in the usual way, adding the rice to the onion base, then half a glass of wine and hot fish stock a ladleful at a time (my stock was made from the frames of the sardines – or rather ‘aloha’ - I’d filleted the week before, and put in the freezer for quick and easy stock making when needed: I just put the frozen carcasses in a pan with a stick of celery, a carrot and an onion, all very roughly chopped and a sprinkling of herbs and spices, cover with water, bring to the boil and gently simmer for about 20 minutes.)

While the risottos cooking, add a good handful of frozen peas to the dish of haddock and poaching liquid, and a smaller quantity  of rinsed capers (I’d suggest a pea:caper ratio of 4:1 or thereabouts.  The capers are, of course, optional, but then so is everything in a recipe…).  There’s no need to cook the peas, the residual heat from the poaching liquid will do most of that and they’ll finish cooking with the risotto.

When the risotto is just a fraction short of done add the dish of fish, peas, capers and wine, a final splash of hot stock and stir it all through.  Add some fennel fronds, torn celery leaves and/or fresh parsley.  Stir it all through, letting it cook together for a minute or two, no more, and serve up.

Simple, beautiful, comforting and very delicious.  And, credit where it's due, even if it can be only vaguely assigned: I owe the idea for this dish to a customer who came into the wine shop where I work part time, asking for a bottle of wine to cook it with - and of course to drink with it.  I'm afraid I can't remember who he was, or even what wine I recommended, but it would definitely have been something light, crisp and fresh, but with real depth of flavour and just a hint of aromatics - perhaps an Alsace pinot blanc, or a Spanish verdejo.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Fish heads, fish heads, eat 'em up, yum!

I roasted a couple of mackerel with fennel and tomato the other night.  This is a dish of my own devising - I wouldn't go so far as to claim its invention, it is, after all, just roasted fish with a handful of fish friendly veg - and one that I used to do a lot, so much so that it would be a definite contender for my 'signature dish' were I pretentious enough to claim to have such a thing.  I'd not done it for a long time.  I really don't know why.  It is cheap, easy and unfailingly delicious.  I've written the recipe up before, almost exactly a year ago, I note, which makes sense.  As I said then, it's a perfect dish for this time of year.  On that occasion I roasted fillets, this time I did the whole fish (as with the seabass variation here), which I have to say, I think is the best way to do it.

As I already had some fish stock in the fridge - left over from making a smoked haddock risotto, which is perhaps my new favourite rice/fish dish and will, I promise, be written up next – I didn’t even have to take the heads off the fish for stock making, and I always prefer to serve a whole fish, head and all.  I just think it looks better on the plate.  As long, of course, as you aren’t cooking for guests who might be squeamish about such things.  Of course my gut instinct with regards to guests like that is simply not to invite them in the first place, but it’s not that big a deal and it’s not worth jeopardizing a friendship over.  Really it’s not.  Nearly, but not quite…

Becca and I, of course, have no such problems…

Monday, 6 February 2012

Let it snow - as long as you've got tins of chickpeas (or other beans) in your larder

Snow!  It’s winter at last.  That would make hearty stews and chunky soups the obvious choice.  And it’s not always wrong, or boring, to take the obvious choice.  Often, with food at at least, the obvious is obvious on account of being simply right and appropriate.  Don’t call it ‘obvious’, call it ‘seasonal’ and not only does it not read as wrong and boring, it’s suddenly both fashionable and worthy.

So yes, by all means, fill your casserole with big lumps of meat, and leave to cook long and slow in a low oven while you go out and build a snowman, or simply snuggle up in front of a blazing fire (or the TV) with a bottle of something rich and red.

But when it really snows, sometimes it’s a question of conjuring something filling and heartwarming out of what you have in the larder.  After all, you may very well wake up to a winter wonderland without a kilo of either pork belly or oxtail in your fridge, the cheeks of neither ox or pig, no shanks of lamb or pork; and if you are actually snowed in – or simply don’t care to venture out into the teeth of the blizzard - no means of getting any.

Tinned pulses are something I would always hope to have in my larder – at least one, preferably all, of chickpeas, cannellini, borlotti and butter beans, any of which can supply the protein basis of a hearty winter meal.  Tinned tomatoes too, of course, are a constant staple.  This time of year the chances are I’ll also have a parsnip or two and some carrots, and of course a bag of potatoes and a few onions.  As long as you have these few items and some tasty stock (in your fridge, freezer or out of a tub of Marigold instant veg stock, another basic larder staple I’d never wish to be out of) you have yourself dinner.

The other day, finding myself with a single parsnip and carrot, and just a few potatoes in the larder, half a tin of chopped tomatoes and half a bag of spinach in the fridge I decided to use them all up to make a delicious and heartwarming wintery version of chickpea and spinach stew, served alongside a layered potato, parsnip and carrot bake – a kind of winter veg gratin or boulangere, I guess.

The chickpea stew is a not particularly adapted version of the Spanish tapas classic garbanzos con espinacas, a brilliantly versatile dish that’s equally suited to being a side dish or the main feature of a meal, can be served hot or cold, winter or summer alike – and perhaps the best thing about it is it’s so quick and easy to make.  Just fry some onion with garlic and spices add the chickpeas, a little stock, stir in a big bunch of spinach at the end and Bob’s your Mum’s brother.  Or you can add a few other bits and pieces as I did.  On this occasion, a few mushrooms and that half tin of chopped tomatoes.  You could easily add a little shredded bacon if you wanted to, or even better, chorizo and/or morcilla (or good old British black pudding).  If you don't have chickpeas, any of the other regular beans will make a perfectly adequate substitute, but the slightly crunchy texture of the chickpea is best suited to this dish. Other, softer beans will lend a different, not necessarily inferior, character to it.

For the winter veg Boulangere

1 parsnip,
1 carrot
4 potatoes (floury ones like King Edwards or Maris piper)
1 onion
250ml stock (any stock you like, I prefer a strong flavoured stock like beef for this dish, but if you’re making it to go with the chickpea dish above, then the same, lighter, stock you’d use for that is just fine)

Finely slice the root veg, to no more than the thickness of a pound coin, thinner if you can - perhaps the thickness of a two pence piece. Slice the onion rather thicker.  Most recipes then simply advise constructing the dish by layering all the components in your gratin dish raw, I have found that this is often unsatisfactory – the different components, cooking at different rates tend not to soften and combine as you’d wish.  My trick is to put the sliced potatoes into a pan with the stock and bring them to the boil and straining of the stock.  This does create a little more washing up and makes handling the hot potato a little trickier, but I find the finished result is worth it.  I also quickly soften the onion in a frying pan, in a little olive oil, with some finely sliced garlic, thyme leaves and salt and pepper.  Then I layer the gratin dish.  Always start and finish with a layer of potato, what you do in between is up to you, but in this case I went potato, onion, parsnip and carrot together, onion, potato.  Then pour over the hot stock, enough so it's just visible at the level of the top potato layer - don't flood the dish.

Bake in the oven at around 200, for about half an hour.  You might want to turn up the heat at the end to get a golden top layer, or finish it under the grill.

For the Chickpea stew (or Garbanzos con Espinacas if you prefer, and I think I do)

1 x 400g tin of chickpeas (you can of course use dried, they are superior in texture and flavour, but less convenient and it’s convenience that’s key here)
1 small onion (red for aesthetic preference, but regular yellow is fine)
Spices (any or all of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, lightly crushed, a pinch of turmeric or saffron, salt and pepper, obviously)
Half a dozen or so chesnut mushrooms chunkily sliced or halved/quartered depending on size)
Half a tin of chopped tomatoes (or two or three fresh tomatoes skinned, deseeded and chopped)
A couple of big handfuls of young leaf spinach
250ml hot stock (ham, chicken or veg)

Gently fry the onion with the garlic, chilli and spices in a little olive oil till the onion is softening, then add the mushrooms (and tomatoes if you’re using fresh ) and cook for about another minute or two before adding the chickpeas and the stock, cook together for about ten minutes, at a gentle simmer, preferably covered.  Immediately before you are ready to eat, throw in the spinach and stir it through.

If you want to add bacon or chorizo, do that right at the beginning.  If I was going to add blood sausage, I’d do so at the same stage as the mushrooms.  If you’re using dried chick peas you will obviously have had to soak and cook them first.