Friday, February 16, 2007

Kippers and Red Herrings

Look at this beautiful, beautiful fish. It’s a Scottish kipper, a smoked herring. They split the herrings along the back from head to tail, gut them and soak them in brine. Then they hang them up on tenter hooks (the metal hooks used originally to fix wet cloth to a frame (a tenter) so it dried straight), hang them on racks and smoke them in big kilns.

Kippering is one of those methods of preserving fish, mainly salmon and herring, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. The word kipper is certainly Old English, and the most likely derivation is from the Old English kippian, to spawn. Spawning fish are not good to eat fresh, but they turn up in large numbers, so kippering is a good way to deal with a glut. The crude smoking process also used to turn the fish a golden red, hence the expression red herring. In the 1840s John Woodger of Seahouses, in Northumberland, decided to adapt the old salmon-kippering process, gutting the herring and smoking it slowly over oak for 6 to 18 hours. Modern methods preserve even more of the original colour of the fish, and it glints gold and silver, with a blue black back and a white belly.

Anyone who grew up in the North of England, or Scotland, will remember kippers for high tea, often on a wintery Saturday, with bread and butter and tea. If you’re lucky you might get them in a good hotel as a cooked breakfast, but they were out of favour for a while because there were some disreputable evil colours in the cheaper curing processes. Now they are big on the menu again, because they are oily fish and we all know about oily fish don’t we?

You can jug them, bake them in foil, fry them or eat them raw. But I prefer them grilled, with a knob of butter to slide around over them under the grill. And all you really need to go with them is good fresh bread and butter.

If, however, you would like something more in the way of a vegetable, let me offer to you a recipe for colcannon from none other than Dame Helen Mirren. And here it is:

Ingredients for Colcannon

1 lb/450 g kale or cabbage, finely chopped

7-8 fl oz/200-225 ml milk or cream

2 small leeks or green spring onion tops, chopped

2 lb/900 g potatoes, preferably Irish, diced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

A pinch of ground mace

4 tbsp butter melted


Cook the kale or cabbage in a large pan of boiling water until very tender, then drain and keep warm. Put the milk or cream in a small pan with the leeks or spring onions and simmer until soft. In another saucepan, cook the potatoes until tender, then drain and mash them.

Mix in the leeks or onion tops and enough milk or cream to give a creamy consistency. Add the kale or cabbage and season with salt, pepper and mace. Drizzle with the melted butter and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb…

I know, it’s Valentine’s Day. But it’s also the week of the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival, and frankly Yorkshire forced rhubarb is a great deal more exotic and interesting than scentless roses and overpriced chocolates.

Mine came from Daylesford Organic, the posh farmshop-in-the-Cotswolds run by Lady Carole Bamford. Well worth a day out for excellent produce, beautifully presented, and a rather good lunch to boot.

Rhubarb originates from the Russia/China border area. It has been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes, usually in a dried form as a laxative, and it was first grown in England in the 1760s for scientific purposes at Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens. It grows like a weed in everyone’s garden later in the year, but the early crop is forced, in darkness, and harvested by candlelight. The hub of this winter activity is in Yorkshire, and in Wakefield they have a festival in February to celebrate the arrival of the new crop. Forced rhubarb is delicate and fine in flavour, nothing like the coarse stalks that come later.

But you’re right, today is Valentine’s Day, so what could be more romantic than a pink vegetable that is harvested by candlelight? I liked the sound of some of the recipes for Rhubarb Confit, but my friend the Allotment Owner and Rhubarb Connoisseur has issued dire warnings about not interfering with the fragile flavour of early rhubarb, so I am doing it the simple way, with just a little orange juice and grated orange rind, because I want to serve it with wild duck.

(And now might be a good time to offer up a word of gratitude to the great god Tesco, who has so bountifully bestowed upon us the gift of unwaxed oranges, which is good news indeed for the grating public.)

Wild duck with rhubarb and orange compôte

The compôte
3 sticks forced rhubarb, chopped into ½″ lengths
4 tbsp caster sugar
½ zest of 1 large orange

Juice of 1 large orange

Put all ingredients into heavy bottomed saucepan, stir gently to amalgamate, and simmer very gently covered until rhubarb is tender. Remove lid and allow liquid to reduce for about five minutes. Leave aside with lid askew.

The duck

Olive oil
1 mallard
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 400ºC

Anoint the duck with olive oil. Pour a thin layer of oil into a heavy ovenproof pan and bring to smoking point. Sear duck on all sides. Season with salt and pepper and place pan, covered, in oven for ten minutes. After ten minutes, uncover and test for doneness. The duck may well need another five, even ten minutes. Allow to rest for at least five minutes.

Serve with rhubarb compôte, greens and mashed potato.

(If you are cooking for your True Love, your mashed potato should be faultless. Cook the potatoes until they are soft all the way through. Drain thoroughly and dry on low heat. Mash completely. Add hot milk and whip until your wrist aches. Adjust seasoning and add unsalted butter to taste. Whip again until you are exhausted. Only then will your True Love know how much you care. Your mash will be soft and velvety and voluptuous. Who needs chocolates?)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Spelt (2)

This is just a post script to the spelt story (see post passim). I think that spelt is now my wholemeal of choice and I continue to be extremely enthusiastic about it. It goes well with rye and this loaf is almost entirely spelt with one handful (only) of rye. The resulting flavour is more complex and interesting, but the rye does not dominate, or affect the rising adversely.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Mussels and the Mesolithic

Down on the south coast of England early man has left signs of his presence. In the Middle Stone Age our hunter gatherer ancestors collected shellfish and cooked them by placing small round pebbles from the fire in water held in skin bags. We have evidence of the little stones, sometimes known as pot-boilers, and heaps of shells piled in middens. Archaeologists even found a ring that they think was used to keep the mouth of the skin bag open. The diet would have been good, if a bit monotonous, but I always think that the amount of energy available from the food must have been just about balanced out by the energy expended to collect it.

With global warming our native shellfish are already packing their bags on the south coast and heading north, for cooler waters. And so, balancing out energy expenditure and energy saving, I motor to the fishmonger and purchase a net of mussels.

Glistening with all the dark colours of the deep, navy to ochre, and linked by the seaweedy looking byssus which held them to a Scottish rope, mussels will be fine for a couple of days in the bottom of the fridge. When you come to prepare them, wash them under running water, pull off the tough byssus with a sharp knife, and discard any that stubbornly refuse to close. The great thing about rope grown mussels is that you avoid the sand which is otherwise a given and was probably a real problem for our ancestors.

A little kick of chilli doesn’t go amiss with shellfish, so my ingredients, for two people, are:

A net of mussels
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 cloves garlic
2 shallots
1 medium sized, hot red chilli
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon
Big splash of white wine or vermouth
Small bunch parsley

Prepare mussels as above. Crush the peppercorns roughly. Chop garlic and shallots. Remove seeds from chilli and slice finely. Soften all together in the olive oil. Add lemon juice and wine/vermouth to pan and allow to bubble for a moment. Chuck in all the mussels and put lid on pan. Give it a good shake to distribute the mussels, and another a minute later. The shellfish will steam open in a couple of minutes. Chop parsley and toss on top. Serve with lemon and warm bread.

And if you have any left over, they will be great the next day as a sort of tapa. Refrigerate overnight and serve at room temperature, with lots of bread to mop up the spicy juices.

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