Thursday, 23 May 2013

Pan roasted black bream with crab, confit fennel, asparagus, clams and sea purslane

As I wrote a couple of posts ago, I have recently been pretty obsessed with cooking fish. I tend to do this with food; I will go through stages of really concentrating on one group of ingredients, or method of cooking and will use it in lots of things that I make. Previously it has been adding breaded, deep fried things (see cod cheeks, pork cheeks and oysters in the last few months), or asparagus which I can’t get enough of at the moment. The fact that the very short British asparagus season is in full swing, and combines with fish so beautifully means that they take high priority on the menu. And simply both ingredients are delicious and I take great pleasure in eating them.

This dish came about in a bit of an accidental way. The ingredients and concept are classic enough, but the finished meal was not really what I intended when I started thinking of what to cook. For the last few weeks I have had some wacky idea in my head about curing an oily fish, initially sardine fillets, in rhubarb to create a fresh tasting, vibrantly pink element to a dish which also included some chargrilled fillets for contrast. I imagined that it would produce a lovely looking little salad, and couldn’t wait to get experimenting with it. Flaw in my plan no.1: when I enquired to my local fishmonger about sardines, I was told that they were ‘pretty scarce’ at the moment. That was the sardine thought grounded, but fair enough I would use the trusty mackerel instead. So off I went to the fishmongers on Sunday, and as my luck would further have it, a good weekend had seen them cleared right out of mackerel. Bugger. 

I’m rubbish at creating quick, inventive things to cook on the spot, so I felt really thrown at that point and a little panicked that I was just going to buy a load of random things that wouldn’t come together. This is where the joy of a local, independent fishmonger came in. After a quick chat, it was decided that black bream is really in season, and would work perfectly with the ingredients that I planned to use. They are pretty mad looking fish, with big heads and dark silvery flanks, but fillets that you get from them are amazing, very similar to seabass. Along with the clams and purslane that I also bought, to my delight I was also given a bag of freshly picked white crab meat. Menu sorted I left a happy bunny (apart from the flat tyre I got on the way home...). Thanks a lot to the excellent as always Jonathan Norris in Victoria Park village. 

This dish is pretty simple to put together, with the only time consuming thing being the fennel confit. Once this is made everything else can be prepared and cooked quickly. Cooking fish is something that takes experience, as it only takes a minute or two to overcook and ruin, but with a little practice it’s dead simple. The key is to make sure that the pan is hot before you add the fish, and that you cook it skin side down for the majority of the time.   

Serves 2


For the bream:

1 black bream (or gilthead will be fine), filleted and pinboned
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1/2 lemon, juice only

For the confit fennel: 

2 bulbs fennel, finely sliced, fronds kept for garnish
600ml olive oil, or enough to just cover the fennel
2 bulbs garlic, whole
150g white crab meat
1 lemon, juice only
Salt and pepper

For the asparagus puree:

8 asparagus stalks, heads removed and kept for pickling
30g butter
1/2 lemon, juice only
Salt and pepper

For the pickled asparagus:

The heads of the 8 asparagus
200ml white wine vinegar
3 tbsp caster sugar
6 black peppercorns

For the clams:

1 small handful clams
1 glass white wine

For the samphire:

1 small handful samphire, rinsed
1 tbsp butter
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

To finish:

1 small handful sea purslane, rinsed
Fronds from the fennel

To make the confit fennel, put the sliced fennel and whole garlic in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with the olive oil. Cover the top of the oil with a cartouche and set on a low heat for 35-45 minutes, or until very tender. Drain well, discard the garlic and set aside. 

Take the prepared bream and crab out of the fridge and allow to get to room temperature. If the fillets are big then cut into two neat pieces. 

For the puree, fill a medium saucepan with salted water and bring to the boil. When boiling, add the asparagus stalks and boil for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Drain and transfer to a food processor with the butter, lemon and seasoning. Blitz well, then taste and adjust if needed. Set aside in a warm place.

To pickle the asparagus tips, put the sugar, white wine vinegar and peppercorns in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. When the sugar has dissolved, put the asparagus into a small bowl and cover with the pickling liquid. Set aside.

Put the cooked fennel into a saucepan and gently warm up on a medium-low heat. Season well and squeeze over the lemon juice. Keep heating through as you finish the other elements of the dish.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan to a medium-high heat and add a good glug of olive oil, 2-3 tablespoons. 

While the pan is getting hot, put another small pan on a medium heat and melt the butter for the samphire. When melted, add the rinsed samphire and seasoning and cook for a minute or two until just al dente. Squeeze over the lemon and keep warm. 

Also put a small saucepan on a medium-high heat for the clams. When hot, pour in the clams and add the white wine, which should bubble straight away. Put a lid tightly over and shake the pan a couple of times. Cook for a minute or two until the shells open. Remove the clams into a bowl, and pour the white wine liquor into the fennel saucepan along with the white crabmeat. Mix well and taste, adjusting seasoning and acidity. Cook for another minute and take off the heat. 

When the frying pan is hot, season the bream fillets all over and gently place skin side down, holding them flat to the pan with your fingers for a couple of seconds to stop them curling up. Cook for 2-3 minutes on the skin side only, and while this is happening baste the flesh side with the hot oil, running the back of the metal spool down each fillet. This will gently cook that side too without the need to flip the fish. After 3 minutes the skin should be crispy, add the butter and lemon and remove from the heat while you plate up. 

Spoon a good tablespoon of the asparagus puree onto the middle of each plate, then lay some of the confit fennel on top. Place the cooked bream onto the fennel, then place the clams, pickled asparagus, samphire, purslane and fennel fronds around the edges. Squeeze over a touch more lemon and serve.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Restaurant review: Caravan King’s Cross

I first stumbled across Caravan a few weeks ago when out for a drink with an old friend. Looming dramatically in the beautifully renovated Granary Building as you walk across the open rear of King’s Cross I was filled with excited anticipation. Hype and rave reviews sprawled across the internet suggested that this was the place to visit, and I couldn’t wait to sneak a peak. I was not disappointed; the space inside was wonderful. A big room transformed into an intimate, electric atmosphere with an open kitchen and working coffee roaster. It was Tuesday and packed, noise loud from chatter and an hour wait for tables. We decided not to wait on this occasion but I was taken, and instantly booked a table for Katie and I for a week later. 

I spent that week raving about this new place behind King’s Cross to anyone who would listen for long enough, and counted down the days until finally Saturday night came. Kate and I have had the fortune of eating at some great restaurants recently, and I couldn’t wait to show her this new place that I had discovered. 

But when I opened the door this time something was different. Things seemed brighter, quieter and far less of a bustle, and instead of competing with talk circulating the room we were conscious of sharing our conversation with the table an elbow away. This was a minor thing really, and we were soon salivating over the menu. And it was an impressive list, the sort where you wanted to eat everything. I instantly knew that I would be jealous of whatever Katie chose, so we decided to share. The menu was split into a number of options, from picky bits, small plates, mains and pizzas, and reasonably priced too. We went for a couple of starters followed by the lamb gnocchi for Katie and a pizza for me. 

Those first two plates were a joy. One held a large dollop of creamy burrata, vibrant with pesto and crumbed olive, and the other slabs of jalapeno cornbread with a chilli butter. Two things unlikely to be found together on a menu anywhere else, but the flavours were terrific and portions just right. Our snug table neighbours saw this and ordered the same. First course in and very impressed. 

I really wish that we had have just ordered more of the small plates and left it at that, as our mains were a different story. I don’t really have much to report about the serrano ham, jalapeno and Taleggio pizza. Admittedly a meat and chilli pizza is a far from inspired order, but a good pizza is a thing of beauty, and I could have stopped off at half a dozen understated Italian restaurants between Stoke Newington and Kings Cross and got something so much better. There was nothing offensive with this pizza, it was just underwhelming. Fair enough it was £7.00, but I would much rather have paid double and had something a bit better executed. It came with a garnish plate with chillies, herbs and oils which was quite cool, but that pizza needed so much more than that to revive it.

Katie’s choice was a glorious looking bowl of gnocchi bound with sauce thickened with meltingly fall apart lamb and olives. As we were sharing I could not wait to wolf down half of my flaccid pizza and get stuck into that, but Katie had other ideas. It appeared that when reheating the sauce, it had been carelessly boiled to a temperature slightly lower than the surface of the sun. The only thing melting that she could taste was the skin on the top of her mouth. Thankfully it had cooled by the time my turn came around, and actually it was really lovely. It was that soft, rich, comforting taste that brings memories of old home cooked family meals and holidays abroad. The texture of the gnocchi itself though was unspectacular, and to be honest I expected more; light little pillows instead of heavy and stodgy. A little critical, but when you go to places with such hype you expect something above average. 

We skipped dessert and went straight for the coffee, and thankfully this failed to disappoint. We were both in agreement that the flat whites were superb, and it was great to sit in the same room where the beans had been roasted. 

We left with the distinct feeling that we had ordered the wrong things, and that we should have just stuck to a wider selection of the small plates that had provided such a good start.  But the experience as a whole is what makes eating out it’s best. I was left slightly fed up of how trendiness was becoming bigger than the thing itself. Some of the food was good yes, but the service throughout the evening had that tinge of glazed smugness to it, like we were just another number walking through the door. We asked for a minute when deciding what to order, and the impatience was clearly visible. The minimal storage layout also slightly irked me; it can be very beautiful having everything on open shelves, but in all honestly I don’t want to know where you store your blue roll. The sign of a really good meal is that you never want it to end, for that last mouthful to keep on going. In this case I wasn’t particularly bothered, and wanted to see what the rest of the evening had in store (half-cut Boris bikes to ice cream cones in Camden proved far more entertaining). 

I think that Caravan would be great for an afterwork drink and snack, or for a quick lunch. But as a full dinner experience it didn’t really cut it for me. Caravan could be brilliant, but it needs to look again at creating a harmonious experience for the customer.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Crab risotto with basil oil, brown meat mayonnaise and tomatoes

It surprises me that it’s taken just over a year for me to post a risotto recipe. Now that the days are longer and it’s a bit warmer, a bowl of light risotto is a perfect midweek dinner to have sat on the balcony in the evening sun. The joy of risottos are they can be as simple or complicated as you want them to be, and they are often a saviour when you need to make a meal out of the scant remnants in the fridge. They were one of the first things that I learned to cook post university, when it wasn’t considered acceptable to live on a diet of lasagne and poorly cooked steaks. My dad also makes a mean risotto, usually the centrepiece of a big family gathering and usually using vegetables that he has pulled from the ground that very day. Good times and full stomachs. 

For this recipe I have returned to an old favourite, crab. These early summer evenings just cry out for a fresh piece of seafood, and I fear that it may be weeks before I’m lusting over a piece of red meat again. My mind has sprung to life with recipes that make the most of light, delicate fish and zingy citrus and herbs. I was particularly inspired by the idea of a crab risotto because I saw it made on Masterchef during the finals this week. On that occasion, the cook made a real mess of it, but in my head it lit a spark and from then I craved it. Luckily, I work just across the road from a good fishmongers so was able to pop over and get my hands on a crustacean that was perfect for the job. Risottos are normally associated with stodgy cold weather meals, but with crab, lemon and basil flavours running through it’s much lighter. I used very similar ingredients in my crab and scallop ravioli recipe that I posted last year and I couldn’t help using them again; they complement the crab perfectly without overpowering. The dish still tastes distinctly crabby - the worst thing you can do to crab or any other shellfish is mask the taste with heavy flavourings. 

To someone who has never worked with crab, especially live ones, they can seem really daunting. However, there is a mine of online information about how to prepare one yourself, with videos and photos to make the directions easier to follow. The best thing to do is just get stuck in and learn as you go along. Once you’ve prepared a couple it gets loads quicker and are even dead easy for midweek after work suppers. Sourcing your crab is important. Always try and buy them live or freshly cooked from a local fishmongers, as they will taste way better and fresher than any supermarket bought alternatives. 

Serves 2


1 crab, cooked with brown and white meat removed and kept separate

For the stock:

2 fennel bulbs, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 red chilli, sliced
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
A small pinch of saffron
1 litre light chicken stock
1/2 glass dry white wine
Legs and claw shells from the leftover crab
Salt and pepper

For the risotto:

1 shallot, finely sliced
Splash of brandy
5/6 of a mug of arborio risotto rice
The white meat from the crab
1 lemon, juice only
30g butter
Salt and pepper

For the brown meat mayonnaise:

The brown meat from the crab
1 egg yolk
Splash white wine vinegar
400ml vegetable oil
1/2 lemon, juice only
Salt and pepper

For the basil oil:

2 bunches basil
100ml olive oil
1/2 tsp caster sugar
Salt and pepper

For the tomatoes:

1 plum tomato
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp caster sugar

To finish:

Red amarinth leaves

First make the stock. Heat up a large saucepan with a little olive oil to a medium heat. When hot, add the crab and lightly caramelise on all sides. Chuck in the fennel, shallot, garlic, chilli, seasoning, saffron and smoked paprika and cook for a couple of minutes until everything starts to soften. Pour in the white wine and bring to the boil to cook out the alcohol. Add the chopped tomatoes and stir through for another minute before adding the hot chicken stock. Bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer and cook for around 20 minutes, until the stock is full of flavour and colour. Strain the liquid through a sieve into another saucepan and discard the shell and vegetables. Keep warm.

Heat up about a litre of lightly salted water in a small saucepan.

Whilst the stock is cooking make the basil oil. When the water is boiling quickly blanch the bunches of basil for about 20 seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon, keeping the same water for use later. Transfer the basil to a small food processor with the oil, sugar, salt and pepper and blitz well until very fine. Taste and adjust if needed. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl or bottle and set aside. 

Also make the mayonnaise. Put the brown crabmeat into a high-sided bowl with the egg yolk, salt and pepper and white wine vinegar. Whisk well until frothy. Carry on whisking whilst very slowly adding the vegetable oil until all of it has been emulsified into a thick mayonnaise. Squeeze in a little of the lemon juice and taste. Adjust the seasoning if needed and pour into a bottle. Set aside. 

To prepare the tomato, score a cross into the bottom of it and put it in the water still boiling from the basil earlier. Boil for about a minute, then remove and plunge in a bowl of cold water. Pull the skins off, then slice segments of the flesh from around the edge. Discard the seeds from the middle. Cut the flesh of the tomatoes into 1/2cm squares and place into a small bowl. Dress with the olive oil and sugar and set aside.

Put a large frying pan or skillet onto a medium heat with a little olive oil. When hot, add the chopped shallot then season and fry for a couple of minutes until tender. Add the rice and cook for another minute or two, stirring to coat the grains. Pour in the brandy and allow to bubble away and cook out. Add a ladle of the hot stock and allow the rice to absorb the liquid before adding the next. Stir regularly. When the rice starts to get plumper and the starch has thickened the mixture, start tasting a grain every so often to judge the cooking. The rice is cooked when soft with a little bite remaining, and it should be wet enough to spread out once dolloped onto a plate. At this point stir in the white crabmeat, butter and lemon. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. 

To serve, spoon a good amount of the rice into the middle of a shallow bowl and shake to spread out evenly. Squeeze a few blobs of the mayonnaise evenly on top and place some of the tomato pieces around the middle. Scatter some of the amarinth leaves over the top and drizzle a little bit of the basil oil around the edge.