Pak Choi, Mussels and Rice

October 30, 2007

Pak Choi with caterpillar

I was surprised last night to discover a plump and chilly caterpillar curled up on a pak choi leaf, surrounded by a number of large, healthy-looking droppings. Its body-to-poo-size ratio was really impressive. It had eaten its way through almost an entire pak choi before a spell in the fridge had cast it into Cryonic suspension.

Fortunately the wee critter had been well potty-trained and confined his efforts to a single one of the four cabbages that arrived with this week’s box, leaving me plenty of untainted leafage with which to cook up this seasonal stir-fry.

A bowl of mussels

Pak Choi, Mussels and Rice

You’re going to need… basmati rice, mussels, pak choi, garlic, chilli, ginger, a lemon, soy sauce.

To start, put the basmati rice on to cook – enough for however many folks you’re feeding.

Wash the caterpillar poo from your pak choi and break them into seperate leaves. If each leaf is too large, break them into more managable sizes. I like my pak choi leaves cooked whole so you get the contrast of crunchy stalk and tender leaf in the same mouthful. And it looks more Ken Hom.

Stir-fry pak choi

Prepare the mussels by pulling off the beard and throwing them in a wok over a fierce heat until they open. Throw away any that remain closed, and remove the flesh from the shells. Strain the mussel juice and put to one side.

Chop the flavourings finely – a couple of garlic cloves, a fresh red chilli and a small knobule of fresh ginger.

Heat some sunflower or corn oil in the wok until smoking. Throw in the pak choi and stir-fry until wilted, ensuring the stalks retain some bite. Next add the garlic, chilli and ginger. Keep stirring for a few seconds to allow the flavours to mingle. Chuck in the mussels next. Stir again over the heat for half a minute or so.

Next add the rice. But not so much that it overwhelms the other ingredients. Again, stir around long enough for the rice to heat through. Add the mussel juice back to the wok.

Finally add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a few glugs of soy sauce. A splash of Thai fish sauce would also be good.

Mussels, Pak Choi and Rice

Herring, oats and bacon fat

October 26, 2007

2 lovely herring

I just wanted to share the sleek, metallic beauty of these two herrings with you. I only get to indulge my plebian passion for these oily little critters when Maths Chick has vacated the building. The pungent smell of Clupea Maxima under a fierce grill is enough to make her dainty nostrils flare with disgust.

Boned herring

The other day I was reading about Billingsgate Fish market back in the 19th century, when it was estimated that 250,000 barrels of herrings, holding about 150 fish per barrel, were sold at the market every year. Which comes out at 37,500,000 herring in total, a large proportion of which would have been eaten by the labouring classes of the capital. It seems that Victorian London went to work on a sprat.

Herring in oats

This dish came about from a lazy mis-reading of a Jane Grigson recipe, which called for a boned herring to be covered in oatmeal, fried in rendered bacon fat and served with plenty of chopped parsley and lemon wedges. I used porridge oats instead of the oatmeal, and despite being both crunchy and chewy at the same time, it wasn’t half bad. But then I’m a Bakewell lad by upbringing, with an inherited faith in culinary mistakes.

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.

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.

Can you kill your dinner?

September 10, 2007

There’s an interesting article about the most humane way to kill a lobster in today’s Gruniad Online.

I’ve tried the ‘boiling from cold water’ method with a very large live crab, thinking the gradually warming water might lull the mighty beast into a painless death-sleep. Alas no, it thrashed around so violently it actually lifted the heavy cast-iron lid off my le creuset pan. I had to pile a number of kitchen appliances on top in order to stop the crabby crustacean escaping and wreaking bloody revenge on my ankles.

A restaurant I used to work in held an annual lobster fest, during which scores of the critters were ritually slaughtered by a knife through the neck, which seemed like a pretty instant, if grizzly, death. While awaiting their fate they were kept in the fridge to make them docile; a pair would occasionally be thawed-out for lobster duels during quiet spells in service. Modest amounts of hard-earned tips were wagered on the outcome of these fights, although generally they showed little interest in either fighting or escaping, appearing more depressed than aggressive. In my experience chefs are pretty hardened/realistic/callous (delete according to point of view) about the welfare of the crustaceans in their care.

Tiny live shrimps, Wimereux, Brittany

I have to admit to having a sharp twinge of guilt when I fried up a plateful of tiny live shrimps in France the other week. Tiny they may have been (too small to even peel as it turned out) but they had a remarkable jump on them. Four or five of them spectacularly leaped out of the frying pan on contact with the hot oil, and I can’t really blame them.

My view on the ethics of cooking live sea-food is, firstly, if you’re going to eat a creature you should be prepared to kill it or watch it be killed and, secondly, you should try and do the ugly deed in the most painless way possible (e.g. not chucking them straight into boiling oil). With lobster, I suspect the old knife in the back of the neck technique might, after all, be the kindest way of despatching them to the Great Rock Pool in the Sky.