Friday, 23 May 2014

Roasted dab with shellfish, samphire and brown butter

With my last blog post taking the best part of a week to make, it’s a refreshing change that this recipe is one of the simplest that I have ever written. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending hours in the kitchen making something complicated, but I only get the chance to do that every so often and most of the time I’ll get back from work and just chuck something in the oven. And this was exactly what happened here. 

I’ve recently started a new job working with Jonathan Norris in Victoria Park. As a business that I have championed loads as a customer previously, I’m loving being involved on a more hands on level; for someone like me it’s just fantastic to be surrounded by such top quality produce. As I’m new to trade though I’ve had a lot of quick learning to do, and I can tell you that it’s a totally different thing to gently fillet a fish in the calm of your own kitchen than when there’s a paying customer peeping over your shoulder! I’ll also be expanding my recipe writing, and in the near future we are launching a blog with fish dishes throughout the seasons. Even just a few weeks in, my whole perception of shopping for fish has been turned upside down. I often agonised for weeks thinking up dishes designed for specific fish and always visited the fishmonger with a preconceived idea. I now know to be much more open-minded. That much lauded phrase ‘catch of the day’ really does exist, and sometimes we have been able to buy a certain species of fish that is extra-special. 

And yesterday at the market stall, the humble dab was one of those fish. As I had never cooked or even tried one before, Jon suggested that I took one home for dinner. To say my mind was blown would be an understatement. When the slab is full of glistening seabass, turbot and red mullet these dull-looking, wallet friendly flat fish are easily overlooked, but the quality of eating was just sensational. When produce is that fresh creating a recipe is a doddle; cook simply with a few well-matched ingredients. 

White fish with brown-butter, shellfish and loads of lemon is an all-time classic, and it is often difficult to want anything else. So nothing new here, just a deeply, deeply satisfying meal. I have talked up the simplicity, and the only thing that slows the preparation is the purging of those inconvenient clams. To create a lovely mixture of seafood (we cringed when I sarcastically described this as a fricassee…) I would promote their inclusion and attempting this timely process. Ideally you would soak them slowly whilst at work, but alternatively leave them out and bulk up with the other shellfish. Either way, once that hurdle is climbed this meal is ready to stuff in your face within a matter of minutes. 

Serves 2 


For the dab:

2 whole dab, gutted and trimmed if required 

40g butter, cut into small cubes 
3 lemons, two sliced into thin rounds 
Olive oil 

For the shellfish:

4 live razor clams 

1 handful live cockles, plus a little flour for purging 
1 handful live clams 
1 handful live whelks 

For the brown butter sauce:

100g butter 

½ a lemon, juice only 
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped 

For the samphire:

2 handfuls of samphire 
1 garlic clove, finely chopped 
20g butter 
½ a lemon, juice only 

Prepare the shellfish first. Purge the cockles for at least a few hours in plenty of water combined with a small amount of flour. Change the water a few times during this process to try and get rid of as much grit as possible. Rinse the other shellfish lightly to clean. 

When ready to start cooking, heat a medium-sized saucepan to a high heat and when hot, add the razor clams and a splash of water. Cover, give the pan a good shake and steam for a minute or two until the shells open. Pour the clams into a bowl topped with a sieve to collect the cooking liquid and allow to cool. Repeat this process with the clams and cockles. When you just have the whelks left, add 500ml of water to the pan and salt well. Bring to the boil, then simmer the whelks for 3-4 minutes. Drain the whelks but this time do not reserve the cooking liquid. Trim the hard feet from the whelks and razor clams, separating the firm edible tube of flesh from the latter and cutting into thin strips. Leave some of the other shellfish in their shells and pick the rest, then set aside. 

Preheat the oven to 180⁰C. 

Line an oven dish big enough for both fish with greaseproof paper and arrange on the lemon slices. Season all sides of the dab well and rub with olive oil then place side-by-side, dark side up on top of the lemons. Bake for 10 minutes, then rub the butter lightly onto the tops and return to the oven for another 2-4 minutes. When cooked, squeeze over the remaining lemon. 

When the fish has a few minutes of cooking to go, melt the butter for the sauce in a medium saucepan over a moderate heat until it starts to turn a nutty brown colour. When very close to serving, squeeze in the lemon, season and add the cooked seafood and parsley, stirring lightly to combine and heat through. 

At the same time as making the butter sauce, melt the butter for the samphire in another pan. Soften the garlic over a medium heat for a minute, then add the samphire and a good splash of the reserved shellfish cooking liquid. Cook for a further minute, then squeeze over the lemon and taste for seasoning.

To serve, spoon some of the samphire onto each plate and top with the cooked fish. Surround with the cooked shellfish and pour a generous amount of the brown butter over the top.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Salted hake with brandade, crispy skin, charred asparagus, wild rocket and brown shrimp

I was recently lucky enough to spend a glorious week in Barcelona and it inspired me no end. It’s probably about twenty years since I last visited Spain, and where that time I could mostly be found shovelling salty chips by a swimming pool, this occasion was a totally different ball game. As a child I would have been so bored traipsing through busy, smelly food markets but here I was in my absolute element. Endless stalls sold every ingredient imaginable, and Katie and I had many memorable evenings feasting on our bartered treasures. 

One of the things that appeared on practically every menu in town was salt cod in various forms, and I was desperate to recreate it's wonderful flavour into my own cooking as soon as I returned home. Instead of using cod however, I wanted to put a spin on the classic and replace it with a different white fish. Hake was absolutely everywhere in Barcelona, and I couldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work as well. The results were just as comforting, with an amazing intensity and addictiveness. Once I had a first taste of the brandade, I couldn’t help popping back to the bowl every couple of minutes for a sneaky bit more. 

My cooking always tends to rotate in circles of habit, and certainly at the moment I am really into cooking spring vegetables at a really high heat until charred and blackened. This works particularly well with asparagus, baby leeks and spring onions, achieving a barbeque-like taste combined with glorious al-dente texture and moisture. There isn’t much that doesn’t benefit from a few of these scattered on the side, and here it cuts through the saltiness of the fish to balance things just right.

Although not quite as vibrant as La Boqueria, my local greengrocers near Newington Green also keeps stocked up with fresh seasonal produce, making recipe development a doddle. I was looking for a final element to round the dish off, and the wild rocket was an impulse purchase that fitted in perfectly. Rocket is almost a clichéd ingredient these days, but this was very different to the bagged stuff that was made famous by Jamie Oliver a decade ago; these big leaves had substance and a proper peppery hit. 

It’s hard to make the main elements of this dish in small quantities, so you may find yourself with a bit leftover here. But fear not, the preserved fish keeps well and is a great accomplice to so many other things, from pasta to crudité. If all this effort seems like too much, you can easily buy good quality salted cod from your fishmonger and use it in exactly the same way. 

Serves 4


For the salted hake: 

600g hake fillet, bones removed and cut into two pieces 
1kg coarse sea salt 
1 lemon, zest only 

For the brandade: 

1 of the salted hake fillets, soaked and with the skin removed and reserved 
500ml milk 
4 tbsp double cream 
1 large potato, such as a maris piper 
1-2 lemons, juice only 
5 peppercorns 
1 bay leaf 
1 garlic clove 

For the poached hake: 

1 of the salted hake fillets, soaked and with the skin removed and reserved 
250g butter 

For the brown shrimp: 

100g brown shrimp, peeled 
1 tbsp butter 
½ a lemon, juice only 
Pinch of cayenne 

For the charred asparagus: 

12 asparagus spears, trimmed 
Olive oil 
Lemon juice 

For the crispy skin: 

The skin from the hake 
Olive oil 

To finish: 

1 handful of wild rocket leaves, washed 
Extra virgin olive oil 
A few sprigs of fennel herb 

To make the salted hake, mix the salt and lemon zest together. Pour a quarter of the salt into a large, deep dish and place the hake fillets on top. Cover with the rest of the salt mixture, making sure that the fish is well covered with no gaps. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for three days. Once the curing process is over, remove from the fridge and rinse all of the salt from the fillets. Soak in water for 12 hours, changing frequently. 

Pre-heat the oven to 200⁰C. 

For the brandade, sprinkle a little water over the potato and roll in a bit of salt. Bake in the oven for about an hour, or until the inside is very soft. When the potato is nearly cooked, pour the milk into a saucepan with the garlic, bay and peppercorns and heat until almost boiling. When the milk is up to temperature, cut the hake into manageable pieces and poach for a couple of minutes until soft and cooked. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the hake into a food processor and mix into a puree. Take the cooked potato and scoop out the middle with a spoon. Pass this through a fine sieve and then add to the hake. Add the juice of one lemon, half of the cream, 3 tablespoons of the cooking liquid and a good crack of pepper and quickly blitz together. Taste for seasoning and texture, adding more lemon, pepper and cream as necessary. Transfer to a piping bag and set aside until needed. 

Lower the oven temperature to 160⁰C. 

Take the reserved skin from both hake fillets and scrape away any excess flesh. Pat dry with some kitchen towel and place on a lined baking sheet. Top with another piece of baking parchment and another baking tray to keep it flat. Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until very crisp. Break the skin into large shards and set aside. 

Put a heavy griddle pan onto a high heat, melt the butter for the poached hake in a small saucepan and melt the butter for the shrimps in a small frying pan. 

When the griddle is very hot, roll the asparagus in a little olive oil and seasoning. Cook for 2-3 minutes, turning occasionally, until the outsides start to blacken, then transfer to a plate and squeeze over the lemon juice. 

Fry the shrimps in the butter over a gentle heat for a couple of minutes. Finish with the lemon juice, seasoning and a pinch of cayenne. 

For the poached hake, cut the fillet into bite-size pieces and lower into the butter. Cook over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes until just cooked through. 

Toss the wild rocket leaves with the asparagus at the last minute so they pick up some of the lemony, oily dressing. 

To plate up, pipe a few generous dollops of the brandade onto each warmed plate. Place on the asparagus spears and arrange some of the poached hake and crispy skin around and on top. Add a few of the wild rocket leaves and fennel sprigs and scatter over some of the shrimps. Finally drizzle over a little of the extra virgin olive oil.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Restaurant review: Mayfields, London Fields

Perhaps more than anywhere in London, Hackney seems to be full of evolving small spaces. A wasteland becomes a garage which becomes a studio, boutique shop or café. Small greens have become community growing spaces and bike shops are squeezed into every nook and cranny. Suddenly small strips of shops down quiet roads have been transformed into interesting hubs of passionate small-traders. Wilton Way is one of them. A few months ago I was supping a much needed coffee at the lovely Wilton Way Café when I noticed that one of the tiny units opposite now held a cluster of tables. It was all very understated, some pine here and grey there, a bit like a smart restaurant had put all of its tastefully-dressed tables into storage. But the sparkling glasses housed wine and the seats sat casual lunchers chattering and clattering crockery. I was intrigued, and the best bit was the chalk board outside, charmingly handwritten with what looked like a masterclass of seasonal produce. 

Research soon followed this discovery, which of course wasn’t a discovery at all. High praise came from all directions and it seemed like Mayfields was already the darling of both the food blogger and the newspaper critic. Photos of the food appeared to justify this, achieving that tricky thing of making choreographed food look like a natural assembly of beauty. I was overjoyed when on a random Friday, my mother-in-law suggested that the three of us try to sneak a late table. It was about time too, and by the time we visited it seemed like an itch that I had been waiting to scratch for weeks.

And it is why with such anticipation that I am sad to say that I just didn’t really get it. It had started so well. The staff had managed to squeeze us in on a busy evening, and the throbbing room drummed up that kinetic feeling of excitement. The menu backed this up with yet another selection of dishes that sounded slightly unusual, but had always been made for one another. Katie rolled her eyes as we ordered the duck hearts, but stuck out for the ‘brill’, which is so often just that. 

The asparagus with lardo and egg yolk looked smart and tasted better, creating an amazing amount of comfort for such small contents. Those pesky hearts followed, and Katie squealed as I marvelled the satisfying simplicity of plump, pink hearts cut with tangy herb. So far so good, and a slight betrayal of my earlier statement. But the scallops that came next just couldn’t fight through the citrus dressing and peppery radishes. It was all very subtle, too subtle for me and I lusted for that wonderful sweet caramelisation that occurs when the molluscs meet a hot pan. At this point it also started to become clear that each plate came as its own independent ‘course’. A strange discovery given that I had asked the staff about ordering before we started and this hadn’t been mentioned at all.

The presentation of all dishes remained consistently staggering throughout, and the next dish to hit our table was a piece of perfectly cooked lemon sole cleverly hiding under scales of fine daikon. The liquorice provided a different and challenging twist to the more normal aniseed pairings of fennel or perhaps pernod, but as interesting as it was I don’t think I’ll ever wake up in the night craving it. The initially comforting warmth crept and crept, and the mellowness was a bit much by the last forkful. It was all very clever and showy, something that continued into the brill that followed. As we had misguidedly ordered two, this was the first proper time to get stuck in, but what should be championed as royalty of the sea turned out tough, and swamped by a merge of other things flying around on the plate. Again simplicity sprung to mind and a beautiful moist tranche hanging out with some lemon and artichokes, far away from a tasteless powder and random onion.

Thankfully the desserts were much more successful, although after the seemingly structured ‘one plate at a time’ routine with the savoury courses, it was a little odd to have both puddings and cheese plonked down in front of us all at once. Where things before might have been taken a step or two too far in places, technique was set aside for joyful marriages in flavour. The almond cake with lemon curd and strawberries hit those comforting nostalgic baking memories, whilst the chocolate mousse and lime leaf ice cream gave the deep satisfaction that the evening had long been craving.
I could have eaten all of those final dishes to myself. And I think that this was fundamentally what was lacking in the evening. There is a wonderful satisfaction in eating a delicious plate of food, savouring every last mouthful at your own pace while your friends and family do the same. Here each plate was isolated, instantly attracting analysis as three forks dove in for the same piece of lardo. That relaxing dynamic was removed. As such I only felt like I experienced a fragment of much of the food that I ate at Mayfields, that I was missing the key part that bound some of the dishes together. Clearly the food is skilfully made, for almost unrivalled value for money in a brilliantly inventive location. But sitting in that small space it seemed like a parade of showy techniques and daring ingredients pairings, without fully getting to grips with what the diner really wanted.