Monthly Archives: July 2010

peas, broad beans, mackerel

Some thoughts on fresh peas, their upsides and downsides, a bit of praise for Italian summer soups, and what gooseberries have to do with mackerel.

The thing I like most about fresh peas is the light clatter they make tumbling from their pods into a large porcelain bowl. At least for the first few pods. Unusually for a chilled-out sort of kitchen task, I find shelling peas gets a bit samey after a while. I love the steady ladle-by-ladle progress of a risotto, or the tricky picking of a great spider crab, or cutting little crosses in the stalks of brussels sprouts. But there’s something irritating about pea pods that defies deftness, or it does in me. And then, once shelled and blanched, the peas themselves always turn out to be rather starchier than their bagged-up, frozen siblings. Not that that’s always a bad thing. Maturation isn’t a byword for deterioration and it’s good to taste a pea that’s developed starchy qualities out of the original, sometimes almost sickly, sweetness which freezing preserves so well. But unless you have your own in the garden, so that they go from plant to pot in a matter of minutes, a certain off-sweet, off-peak, off-the-boil starchiness is pretty much what you come to expect from fresh peas.

(If you do have your own in the garden or on an allotment, they’re probably at their most satisfying snaffled straight from the plant. I found this out when mum and I were house-sitting for some friends a couple of weeks ago.)

Most of the time, then, I stick with Birds Eye’s finest – or even just comfortingly utilitarian bags of Basics garden peas (“a little less sweet, still go down a treat”). But today I bought some fresh ones off the market and, though still pert, they’d started to get a bit starchy round the collar – so I thought I’d make soup. And I’d pair them with broad beans for another lovely texture and flavour of summery pulse.

This is an Italian take on these two ingredients. Italian soups tend either to be brothy – lovely light meat stocks with little dumplings, pieces of pasta, lightly cooked vegetables, slices of poached meats – or really thick: thick soups which combine ingredients in various states and textures in order to show off a spectrum of different qualities. In this way, very few, very humble things – stale bread and tomato, white bean and parsley – become something quite glorious. In this case with peas and broad beans, some will be whole, some pureed, some coarsely chopped, some will be cooked longer so that they disintegrate into nourishing mush, some are only blanched so they retain a green, tender life and are added at the end. The whole is very thick, like a rough purée, and is a great vehicle for a swathe of good olive oil. Some flakes of salt over the top, a few lactic, savoury curls of pecorino, are certainly in order if the fancy takes you. Thick soups like this are always best eaten warm, not hot.

Following the soup I had a couple of fillets of mackerel. Here I’ve served it with crushed new potatoes in a Dijon mustard dressing, which is rather tart and vinegary. I’ve then spooned a sharp little vinaigrette over everything and added a few flakes of salt round the plate. This counters the richness of the fish. I also think it’s important to season the fish itself quite heavily before cooking. What makes these oily fish – sardines, mackerel etc – so satisfying when cooked over barbecues in the south of France or elsewhere in the Med, or just under the cottonwool clouds of home, is not so much the woodsmoke (though of course it contributes a great deal) but the wonderful crust that forms on the outside: a savoury blistering of the skin and fat with lots and lots of coarse sea salt. Salt, as much as acid, really does the job of making fat, rich things delectable. (If not delish!) This is especially important when frying fish: things can get all too blandly oily.

I was going to have it with gooseberries, but the lady on the market stall said that gooseberries are over for the year – the green ones, that is; the little pinkish ones they call (absurdly) “eating gooseberries” are still around. I’ve seen several chefs on television/in magazines under the impression that the combination of gooseberries and mackerel is either something very modern, or something rather medieval or eighteenth century. That’s true, but really the idea has always been quite current. Elizabeth David gives a good recipe in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (and suggests the pleasant addition of a little ginger). She also points out, interestingly, that the French name for gooseberries, groseilles à maquereau (groseilles being redcurrants), associates them already with mackerel. She assumes that this has something to do with their frequent pairing. But I wonder whether someone with an keen eye for the picturesque didn’t notice a sort of similarity between the beautiful veining of gooseberries and sheeny mackerel scales, and think, Ah oui! mackerelcurrants!

I don’t know.

cold beef, slaw, green curry

Some thoughts on wine and hot food. Recipes for green curry and a couple of Thai(ish) salads.

There are days, rare ones, when I won’t drink wine. It’s not often that I don’t want to, and not always because I’m thinking, just today, I ought not to – for my liver’s sake. Rather it’s because I want food that will obliterate anything decent I might drink with it. So, for myself I rarely make very hot and highly spiced things – simply because it means I won’t, can’t, have wine. I remember Nigella Lawson saying that there are two kinds of people, drinkers and eaters. I’m not sure about that exactly, but, on most days, press me to choose between a glass of good French wine and all the curries in the world and I’ll take the wine. I suppose, in that respect, I’m one of life’s drinkers.

I’ve heard people say that it’s tricky to find wines that go with “Asian” flavours (all of Asia is one, you understand), but that it can be done. It’s pretty much always white. You could, they say, have a heady Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a spiky new world Sauvignon blanc. But then I’m not keen on Gewürztraminer (I find that it’s too much like sickly rose-water – and I’ve absent-mindedly ruined too many soups and gravies with it – but I’m open to persuasion) and no less keen on being thwacked around the chops by a brutal bottle of Aussie. So when it comes to food that it’s tricky to match with wine, I’m happier to forego the plonk that’s meant to “stand up” to it, rather than drink something I’d more normally save for getting the stains out of my dress shirt.

So today has been an alcohol-free day. If I’m going to drink something with this sort of food I want something made of lychees or mangoes. I could murder a mojito – but best, just today, to be kind to my liver. When I’m in Asian mode, by which I really mean south-east Asian mode – specifically, today, Thai – I want a bit of zen, a bit of purloined virtue. These salads (see recipes and photos below) give just that: they’re light and make your head spin on a high of chilies and punchy aromatics. But that’s somehow very calming – and their lean, crisp qualities induce a good sense of guiltlessness.

The chicken curry, my version of Thai green curry, is not as rich as some, containing minimal coconut, but thick instead with a reduced paste of naturally sweet melting shallots, onion, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, coriander. Vibrant red chilies cut in half and cooked along with the chicken and its sauce give their kick to the stew, but can be eaten themselves, revealing delicate pepper notes. It’s what fresh chilies are all about: heat, yes, but fragrance too. And I want that kind of complexity if I’m not having wine. I sometimes feel, perhaps unfairly, that the flavours of the region strike one note, or one harmony: salt, sour, sweet and hot. But then, that’s sometimes what you want. Delicacy has its place, but sometimes only full-on sensory assault will do.

It’s not the time, though, for good wine. Instead I get my liquid calories by finishing with hot milk, sweetened and scented with coconut and cardamom. It’s inspired by those Anglo-Indian rice puddings, but without the stodge. Now if that’s not virtue…

I will not win any friends, probably, with these recipes. But I like them and as far as I am concerned they ring of Thailand. The important thing here is fragrance and freshness.

Beef salad

Sear some good rump steak very briefly and allow it to cool. Make up a dressing of a chopped red chili, a tablespoon of chopped coriander, a teaspoon of crushed ginger, a teaspoon of sugar, the juice of half a lime, a tablespoon of fish sauce and a tablespoon of water. Slice the beef as thinly as possible and lay over leaves of lettuce – here I’ve used little gems, which are very good. Spoon over the dressing. Strew over it a small handful of chopped roasted and salted peanuts (it is traditional to have roasted and ground rice) and a few more leaves of coriander. Serve immediately.

A kind of a slaw

This slaw is reminiscently Thai but is, really, a bit anglicised – a slaw because it has finely shredded white cabbage. Shred it and dredge it with salt. Squeeze it in your hands to bruise the cabbage, soften it, and get the osmosis going. It’s like a light curing. Leave it for ten minutes. Next shred a carrot. Make a dressing with a teaspoon of shrimp paste, a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar, a tablespoon of fish sauce, lots of chopped red chili (more than you think wise). Now rinse off the cabbage, dry it and add the carrot. Toss in the dressing. Tear off a generous bunch of coriander and add that. Finish the salad with a handful of chopped roasted and salted peanuts. They add a pleasing occasional texture and salty richness.

Green curry

Serves two. Into a processor put four peeled shallots, four cloves of garlic, the tender parts of two sticks of lemongrass, a thumb of ginger or galangal if you have it, the stalks off a large bunch of coriander, lightly chopped and two kaffir lime leaves. Blitz this not quite to a puree. In a pan boil a few ounces of water along with three or four ounces of creamed coconut. Continue boiling down until it splits. Now wait until you hear the solids begin to sizzle in the hot coconut fat. Put in the paste and cook fairly gently for five minutes. Add to this four good-sized chicken thighs (leave the bones in as they add a great deal of flavour to the sauce and the meat) and cover with water. Cut three or four red chilies in half and add those. I don’t like to deseed them. Add a good splosh (to taste of course, but this needs to be fairly salt in my view) of fish sauce. Leave to simmer gently for twenty minutes. I like to take the curry off the heat and leave it to stand for ten minutes to cool slightly, for the chicken to rest and the flavours to develop. Now finish it off with lime juice. Serve up with a handful of coriander leaves and the beautiful, gleaming red chillies on top.