Grilled mackerel

This week I started a part-time Masters in London Studies at Birkbeck College. At the tender age of 35 I find myself a student yet again. This is the fourth Masters course I’ve started, and hopefully, in 2 years time, it will be the third one I’ve finished.

The MA I dropped out of was in Modern British History at Hallam University, which I enrolled on back in ’95. At the end of the first term I was faced with the horrific prospect of writing a 3000 word essay on Britain’s pre-war tariff and trade policies. At that point I did the decent thing and fell on my academic sword, returning with relief to my job as second chef at Scottie’s Bistro.

My tutor on that course was a legendary climber, Paul Nunn, who died in a Himalayan avalanche the same year I quit. I only found out when I stumbled across his obituary in the paper. He was a lovely, funny, bearded northern bloke and I was very sad to hear the news. I hadn’t even known he was a climber. I learned later that he’d inspired an entire generation of British mountaineers, including Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fame.

So I am once again a slave to the reading list and the seminar schedule. The cash I save on cheap cinema tickets and 10% book discounts will go towards buying cartons of Bulgarian merlot and paying hefty library fines. After 6 cold hard years in the labour market, it’s good to be back in the warm fluffy bosom of academia. Whether I’ll have time to do much blogging over the coming months is another matter. I’ve already started another blog for recording my research ideas and course notes, but I can’t see that one crashing into Technorati’s Top 100 any time soon.

Which is a pretty long-winded way of introducing what I had for dinner tonight.

Grilled Mackerel with Swiss Chard and Carrot

This recipe came with the Riverford newsletter a few weeks ago, and I’ve made it several times since. It’s colourful, tasty, and makes you forget you’re eating carrots. Again.

1. Peel some carrots and slice thinly on an angle (about 3 carrots per person seems about right). Boil until al dente, then drain.

2. Take a big handful of chard per person and seperate the leaves from the stalks. Chop the stalks into 1 inch pieces and boil ’til tender. Drain. Now also boil the leaves and drain when cooked.

3. Chop a garlic clove or two and some red chilli finely. Heat some olive oil in a wok or saute pan and add the garlic and chilli. Stir a couple of times and add all the vegetables. Saute for a few minutes to let the flavours mingle. Season, and, if you like, dress with another glug of strong, peppery olive oil.

4. To serve with grilled mackerel: Get a nice plump shiny-eyed fish. Chop off ‘er head and gut ‘er. Make diagonal scores in both sides of the fish. Rub salt, pepper and oil into the scores, the skin and the cavity. Get the grill nice and hot and bung her under. 4 or 5 minutes each side should do the trick. Serve with a wedge of lemon.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a learned article on the water supply in 16th century London to attend to.


Potato and Onion Frittata

September 21, 2007


Hailing from land-locked Derbyshire I’ve never developed a strong attachment to the sea. Coastal towns make me a little nervous, partly, I think, because the sea cuts down your escape options. From wherever I’m standing I like to be able to move quickly in any direction, just in case.

Nonetheless, Mopsa’s mussel-foraging expeditions on the Cornish coast do have me feeling a tad jealous of his coastal lifestyle. London has a surprising amount of wild food, but unfortunately there’s no shellfish to be found clinging to the arches of Tower Bridge.

So here in the city we have to make do with what the veg box man brings. Last night was the first evening for a while that Maths Chick and I managed to sit down and have a meal together, and I cooked up a homely frittata from Marcella Hazan to mark the occasion.


Potato and Onion Frittata for two

1. Cut four or five small potatoes into 1cm cubes. Shallow fry in medium-hot oil (enough to come 1cm up the side of the pan) until cooked through and golden brown all over. Drain on kitchen paper.

2. Slice an onion finely and add to the oil. Continue to fry, on a lower heat, until soft and golden.

3. Whisk up 5 eggs in a bowl, season well and add the fried potatoes and onions. Add a good grating of parmesan at this stage if you like.

4. Heat some butter in a deep frying pan until it froths a little. Pour in the eggy mixture and turn the heat down to low straight away.

5. Cook slowly until mostly set through. Flash under the grill for a few minutes to finish off the top of the frittata if need be.

I served it with julienned cabbage and carrots, steamed then dressed with butter and fresh parsley and tarragon.


Penne with tomato sauce

September 18, 2007

Penne with tomato sauce

I guess posting a recipe for pasta with tom sauce is liking writing a recipe for a cheese sarnie – it’s a patronising statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

My excuse is I wanted to show off a recent addition to my gadget collection – a food mill. Being a luddite I’m suspicious of all things electrical in the kitchen (including my oven) and prefer the reliability and control of grinding, slicing, whipping-up and mushing by hand. I also like the shiny gleaming curves of the mill, and its exuberant handle, which looks like the gear stick on the old Renault 4 my mum had when I was a kid. It’s a bugger to clean, mind.

I guess most people have their own favourite way of preparing tom sauce for pasta, even if it’s just opening a jar of Dolmio. Another excuse for including mine here is that it’s also a way of using up any stray carrots cowering in the shadowy recesses of your veg tray. I like my tom sauce sweet and simple, without herbs, occasionally without even garlic, but always enriched and sweetened at the end with butter.

Tomato sauce for penne

1. Finely dice an onion, a carrot and a couple of sticks of celery. Slowly saute them in butter or olive oil (not extra virgin). After these have started to soften, mash a garlic clove and stir that in.

2. Add a tin of Italian tomatoes (or skinned ripe fresh toms if you’re lucky enough to have a supply) and season well. Cook over a high heat, stirring regularly, for a good 15 or 20 minutes until the toms have broken down and the veg are soft.

3. Pass the sauce through the food mill, using a medium-holed attachment. Put it back in the pan and, if too thick, loosen with a splash of water. Check the seasoning.

4. Add the penne (cooked al dente, natch) to the pan, a good schlep of butter and a grating of parmesan. Mix it all up well and serve immediately. Good olive oil, extra grated parmesan and pepper should be out on the table for everyone to help themselves to.

Penne with tomato sauce

Spice-fried Carrots and Spuds

September 12, 2007

Spice-fried carrots

This dish is an adaption of a recipe from the first River Cafe cookbook. Basically, peel and slice the carrot and spuds into large chunks. Pour a quarter of an inch or so of oil into a saute pan and gently fry some whole spices – I put in a teaspoon each of fennel, poppy and coriander seeds and a whole dried chilli. Cumin would also be good. There was no garlic in the house (shock-horror) otherwise I’d have thrown in a few whole cloves in their skin. Add the veg and gently saute, turning the carrots and spuds occasionally, until nicely browned and cooked through. Season and serve immediately.

I had these with Black halibut, cut in to gougons, dipped in flour and fried quickly at a high heat. I’d never heard of this fish before (also known as Greenland halibut), and it was a tad mushy and mildly flavoured, but nonetheless a decent, and cheaper, alternative to haddock.

Steaming veg

Situation: 12 short hours to next box delivery. Left in fridge: 1 fennel (all frond and no bulb), 1 trusty carrot, a single surviving courgette, half a punnet of mushrooms, the last sorry remnants of once-proud bunches of parsley and tarragon. Mission: produce a meal fit for a middle-manager.

Solution: steamed veg and mushroom butter

Ok, this should be easy…

1. Leave a few ounces of butter out the fridge to soften up. Once soft, use a fork to mash up and soften further. Add finely chopped mushroom, garlic, ham, tarragon, parsley. Season well, loads of pepper please.

2. Steam whatever veg you’ve got, chopped into thick slices or chunks. Tastes better if there’s a good combination of strong colours and shapes. Quartered fennel makes any dish of humble veg look handsome.

3. I didn’t think of this until too late, but… a neatly trimmed poached egg on top would’ve added a yolky richness to the dish.

Current music of choice in the VBD kitchen: Karen Dalton’s ‘You never know who’s going to love you the best’, Dylan’s new album ‘Modern Times’, Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’. Can’t beat the old hippies.

Conversation topics of choice at the kitchen table: bathroom fixtures, the entertainment value of political melodrama (Blair vs Brown), best ever 7-letter Scrabble words, the genius of the opening credit-sequence of the TV show Shameless, crochet.

Hock, carrots and parsley

Maths chick is on school summer holidays. The implications for the quiet life of a gastropunk are serious. My sedate morning routine has been blown away in a whirlwind of juicing, knitting and frenetic breakfast activity. I am no longer lured slowly into wakefulness by the quietly insistent voice of John Humphries interogating some hapless junior minister. The living room is now be-decked with half-knitted cardies and the bathroom overflowing with freshly-dyed skirts. Yes, the domestic goddess is in her full pomp and majesty.

Returning from work, I reclaimed the kitchen after a hard-fought skirmish and cooked up another mini-feast I’ve been fantasizing about since coming back from market with a sturdy ham hock a couple of weeks ago. What could be more English than a combo of boiled pig, pasley sauce and summer carrots?

Hock, young carrots and parsley sauce

Ham hock, parsley sauce and carrots

1. I simmered the hock in water, with a couple of onions, some cloves and peppercorns for about 3 hours. Then I drained the stock off into a bowl, let the joint cool and bunged it in the fridge for a night or two. This evening I cut the meat off the bone into thick, rough slices. You could just use slices of supermarket ham if you prefer.

2. Made a thickish parsley sauce out of a bechamel made of half milk, half hock-stock and a couple of gulps of double cream. I think parsley sauce works best with an extravagant amount of finely-chopped curly parsley – none of your flat-leaved sophistication for this dish, thanks.

3. Just peeled the young carrots and boiled them whole. Didn’t need any salt because the bacon was salty enough.

4. Fried up some whole mushrooms in butter and oil. These had started to go dry so I added a few tablespoons of hock-stock halfway through which re-constituted them nicely and created a potent funghi-flavour.

5. Made mash. You know how you like it.

6. Served it all up and bolted it down with lashings of mustard, Famous Five style.

You can keep your tapa, antipasti, schnitzels, coq au vin, tabbuleh and saurkraut. Let’s hear it for good honest English fayre. Stand up, I say, and sing with one voice…. Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free, da-da-dada-da-daaaa, That are born of thee… dum da-da-da-daaa-da….

Friday night is curry night. Saturday or Sunday is good too. It takes time to cook, and is best enjoyed at leisure, in front of an Alan Partridge DVD or Match of the Day.

Curry Friday

Curry is great for using up old veg – an entire cuisine designed to hide the flavour of gently rotting produce.

This is my all-purpose curry recipe for when I can’t be bothered to wade through Madhur Jaffrey to find an authentic korma or jalfrezi recipe:

Chop a couple of big onions, a few cloves of garlic and a big lump of ginger into small bits. Fry slowly in a big saucepan with several gulps of sunflower oil and/or ghee. When the onion is transparent, blitz with a hand-blender. Now, make a paste of water with a teaspoon or two of ground turmeric, paprika, cumin and coriander. Cook in the onion paste for a good 10-15 minutes. It should be starting to resemble a curry now. Maybe add a couple of chopped tomates at this point. Or not. Season well.

Now add whatever veg you have left-over. Par-cook if using root veg. Just bung in other stuff – cabbage, spinach, peppers, courgettes. Whatever you fancy. Pretty much anything goes in a curry. Towards the end, after maybe 1 or 2 hours of slow cooking, add a flat tablespoon or so of garam masala. This adds a strong fragrant spiciness to the final taste.

Serve with your favourite curry accompaniments. For me it’s got to be minty yoghurt, mango chutney, naan or chapattis (a speciality of her-indoors), dhal. Maybe rice cooked with a couple of cardamon pods and some lemon zest. And a couple of cans of luke-warm bitter.

Then my favourite bit – cold curry for breakfast. Slobby, spicy, oily bliss.