Saturday, 30 April 2016

Griddled langoustines with smashed cannellini beans, charred asparagus, chilli oil and mint

Four years ago today, I dusted off the saucepans and started Sam Cooks Food. Back then, as I rolled out that pasta sheet on the one serviceable clear worktop in my tiny North London kitchen, little did I know how much a little writing project would spiral to become a massive part of my life. I originally intended the blog to be somewhere where I could document my experiments with new ingredients, and more advanced cooking techniques; something that I’d found frustratingly little of elsewhere. After four years I can’t believe how much my cooking has developed and evolved, and more importantly, how much I’ve learned. And happily, I still get the same kick out of messing about in my kitchen as I did on day one. I always see cooking as a continuous learning cycle, and I’m definitely still just scratching the surface. That’s not to say that this blogging lark hasn’t royally pissed me off on occasions. On many occasions I’ve struggled to find the time or motivation to start typing. But it’s always a massive weight off my shoulders when I do. 

Aside from all that self-indulgent cooking philosophy nonsense above, I was basically just dead chuffed with everything today and wanted to celebrate a little. This week has been truly knackering, but with inspiration from a heaving fish slab at work and the seduction that comes from a sunny springtime evening, I dashed home to cook myself a feast before the light faded.
At 5pm I turned the ‘Open’ sign on the door around was away, armed with three astonishingly lively Scottish langoustines in my bag. On the twenty minutes it took me to walk home, I managed to work out a quick recipe and source a few key ingredients. I always take for granted the excellent produce available so close to home. To accompany my langoustines from the West Coast of Scotland, I bought some Wye Valley asparagus, unwaxed lemons and a couple of bushy bunches of fresh herbs. That was me set, and within thirty seconds of getting in, the stoves were on. 

I’ve certainly cooked more refined and prettier plates of food, but today the celebration was in the eating rather than the amount of elements needed to get there. So here’s to another four years and beyond!
Serves 4
6 live langoustines 
12 asparagus spears, halved vertically
For the smashed cannellini beans:
400g cooked cannellini beans, drained 
A handful of wild garlic leaves 
Zest of 2 lemons and the juice of 1 
1 bunch of mint 
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
For the chilli oil:
2 red chillies 
5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
For the crispy mint leaves:
2-3 springs of mint, leaves picked 
500ml of vegetable or olive oil, for frying
To finish:
½ a lemon 
A few grinds of black pepper 

To make the chilli oil, roughly chop the red chilli and tip into a small food processor. Pour in the olive oil and add a sprinkle of salt. Turn the engine on and mix until very well combined. Pour into a bowl and set aside for at least 20 minutes. Once the oil has had a chance to infuse, strain through muslin into a clean bowl. Set aside while you prepare the rest of the dish.
Clean the food processor bowl and tip in the drained cannellini beans, the wild garlic, mint and lemon zest and juice. Blitz together until everything is smooth. With the motor still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Taste for seasoning, and add more lemon, salt and pepper as required. 

Pour the vegetable or olive oil for frying into a saucepan, and set onto a medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot, carefully fry the mint leaves in small batches. After 15-20 seconds, transfer them to a plate lined with kitchen roll to drain.
Heat a heavy griddle pan until smoking hot.
Quickly and carefully kill the langoustines by cutting vertically through their heads with a sharp, heavy knife. Make a second cut through the tail to split them in two. Remove the dark intestinal tract, and the small stomach sac from the head.
When the griddle is up to temperature, add a splash of oil. Cook the asparagus first, for 1-2 minutes on each side, until slightly charred. Remove to a side plate and keep warm.
Season the langoustines and coat all over with a little more oil. Griddle them (in batches if necessary) split-side down for a minute and a half. Turn them over for an additional minute, then use tongs to transfer them to the same plate as the asparagus. Squeeze the lemon half over the top.
To plate up, spoon a generous amount of the smashed cannellini beans onto each plate, and scatter some charred asparagus on top. Add three langoustine halves per plate. Finish with a few of the crispy mint leaves, a tablespoon of the chilli oil and a grind of black pepper.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Lobster spaghetti

Mum looked concerned. “What is in that box Sam?”. “OH GOD, is it alive?”. Dad had a wry smile on his face, and looked like a boy scout who had discovered a new project. Mum inched back into the doorway as dad opened the lid to reveal a pair of glistening and energetic lobsters. Lunch. This was only the second time in my life that I have bought live lobsters. The first was the day after I proposed to my wife. They are and will always be a proper treat, a symbol of celebration. The native lobster season was only a week or two old, and as soon as the first delivery came into work, I just knew I had to cook with them. Mottled, and in places electric blue in colour, they are truly beautiful creatures; a world apart from the budget ‘lollipop’ lobsters that have been all over the press recently. Although this visit wasn’t a birthday or event, on the rare occasions when I get to cook for my parents, I like to go to town. 

As with everything else that I cooked for this meal, simplicity was key. After being carefully and respectfully dispatched, we sat around the kitchen table preparing the meat. Mum came around to the idea and got stuck in too. We kept on sneaking little nuggets into our mouths, “just to check” dad would say. It’s a miracle that any was left for lunch. Pasta was the only option I even considered when planning the meal; I wanted to maximise the focus and flavour of the lobster, faffing about with them as little as possible.
This dish is broadly based on Angela Hartnett’s lovely recipe. Although I really get a lot out of making pasta myself, I took her advice and stuck to dried pasta for a greater contrast in texture. Funnily enough she was right, and what could have been a laborious process was ready in minutes. The other main element for this recipe is the tomatoes. I’m spoilt in London by the easy availability of beautifully ripe, sweet tomatoes, and it really is worth seeking out the best you can get.
From the burrata, to the asparagus, and finally the lobster spaghetti, it was a lunch that I will remember with a smile for years to come. A precious morning of cooking, chatting and catching up. Of course after the plates were cleaned, mum still managed to force feed me a slice of delicious and rich chocolate cake, and cheese was offered from the fridge. Then within the hour I was back on the road, plodding around the M25 planning what I will make next time. I can’t wait.
Serves 4 

2 large live native lobsters, approx. 800g-1kg in weight
For the pasta sauce:
2 good handfuls of small, ripe cherry or plum tomatoes 
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped 
6 spring onions, finely sliced 
1 red chilli, finely chopped 
1 glass of dry white wine
For the pasta:
400g good quality, dried spaghetti
To finish:
½ a lemon, juice only 
A handful of fresh basil leaves

First prepare the lobsters. Put them in a freezer for about 30 minutes prior to cooking. Fill a large saucepan with water, salt really well and bring to the boil. When the water is a rolling boil, drop the lobsters straight in (or poach one at a time if the saucepan is not large enough for both) and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until the shells turn a bright red colour. Transfer the cooked lobsters to a plate and allow to cool. To strip the meat, split the lobsters in half using a heavy chef’s knife and discard the small stomach in the head and the dark intestinal tract. Pull the tail meat away from the shell and cut into chunky pieces. Crack the claws and excavate all of the flesh. Transfer the chopped meat into a bowl along with any of the soft brown meat from the head. Keep the shells to make soup, stock or oil for another recipe. 

Fill a large saucepan with water for the pasta and salt well. Bring to the boil. Add the spaghetti and cook as directed on the packet.
While the pasta is cooking, drizzle a good glug of olive oil into a separate large frying pan or saucepan and set on a medium heat. When hot, add the garlic, spring onion and chilli and fry for 2 minutes until softened. Raise the heat slightly and add the wine, allowing it to boil and reduce by half. Finally add the lobster meat, tomatoes and a good bit of seasoning, stirring to combine and heating through for a final minute or two.
When the pasta is cooked, use tongs to transfer it to the pan containing the sauce. Toss together really well, until each strand of pasta is coated with sauce. Add a spoonful or two of the pasta water to the pan if the sauce needs loosening up.
Pile the spaghetti onto each plate and scatter over the basil leaves. Finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

New season asparagus with anchovy, mint, parmesan and butter

Following on from the burrata mentioned in my last post, my second course of lunch was all about the asparagus. Every year I wait with excitement for the first British asparagus to hit the shelves of my local greengrocer. To me, the beautiful, soldier-like prongs are always confirmation that Spring proper has arrived. Of course, demand has ensured that it is available year-round in the supermarkets from Central America and the Middle-East, but I try to only eat it for the few short months that it is harvested over here. The freshness and taste is so distinct from those that have travelled thousands of miles, and it is something to be truly cherished. 

When thinking about the produce that any new season brings, I always overthink and imagine tens of utterly complicated and ‘impressive’ ways that I can showcase a given ingredient. And although there will certainly be more intricate asparagus recipes coming to this blog in the near future, I wanted the first batch of the year to be a much simpler affair. The star of this dish is the asparagus, and nothing else.
As this came between other courses, I wanted it to be refreshing to eat and quick to prepare. On both fronts it was a winner. With two pans and ten minutes it was on the plates and ready to eat. Although anchovies and parmesan can be relatively heavy ingredients, neither dominated, instead providing a moreish, rich background to the lemony and minty asparagus. The proof of the pudding was the sight of my parents huddled around the butter pan, cleaning any leftovers with chunks of bread.
Serves 4
20 large asparagus spears, trimmed and peeled
For the anchovy butter:
150g butter 
6 anchovy fillets 
1 lemon, zest only 
1 garlic clove 
A small handful of grated parmesan
To finish:
½ a lemon, juice only 
20 or so mint leaves 
20 or so thin parmesan shavings

To make the anchovy butter, drain the anchovies and chop finely. Grate the garlic clove and lemon zest and stir together in a bowl with a little salt and pepper. Add the chopped anchovies along with the butter and grated parmesan, and mix until everything is well combined. Cover with cling film and refrigerate until needed. 

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Heat a separate frying pan to a moderate-low temperature.
Spoon the butter into the frying pan and gently melt, stirring occasionally.
Drop the prepared asparagus into the boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes, until al-dente in texture.
Arrange the cooked asparagus onto each plate and pour over a generous amount of the anchovy butter. Sprinkle over the mint leaves and parmesan shavings. Finish finally with a squeeze of lemon juice and a few cracks of black pepper.


Last week I drove down to Brighton on a whistle-stop trip to see my parents. I’ve reached a point in my life where visiting mum and dad is no longer a needy, adolescent excursion to get my laundry done and excavate every scrap of decent cheese out of the fridge. These days I bring my own shampoo and toothpaste, and I adore the hours spent sitting around the worn marble kitchen table of my childhood, chatting away about mum’s recent paintings or the current state of the allotment (always “a total mess”, which is a total lie). Somehow the time is slower and the air that bit fresher just an hour south of The Smoke, almost a mini-holiday with the doors to the garden flung open and the squarks from resident seagulls a gentle background. 

My parents have always been wonderful hosts, and on all of these fleeting visits I get spoilt rotten. Upon arrival dad will brandish a perfectly-forked, golden cottage pie. You can bet the house that mum will have made crumble or cake. As I sit there stuffed like a pig, mum will plonk coffee and more wine on the table and remind me that “there’s cheese in the fridge”. Recently I have decided to reverse this trend and cook them lunch instead. Although always simple and quick to prepare, it’s lovely to now be the one making the fuss. Living in London also provides me with an almost endless larder of interesting and seasonal ingredients that are near impossible to source elsewhere. Over Easter we feasted on seared scallops with Sicilian lemons and castelfranco radicchio, followed by fall-apart mutton tossed through pici that we had rolled by hand that morning.  

Last week I upped my lunch game. Spring was on the turn and with it emerged a glut of glorious new ingredients. The first asparagus started peeping through the earth, and a large box in my car boot contained a pair of lively, new season native lobsters. To start lunch though, I wanted something stripped-back and easy, that could be plonked down with minimal effort. Burrata has become somewhat of a darling in the modern London restaurant scene, and thankfully through such popularity it is reasonably easy to source these glorious, cream-filled globes. Yet I knew that my parents would never have tried it before, and after years of fridge-raiding, it felt apt to finally provide the cheese.  

Over the last few weeks, Gwyneth Paltrow has taken a bit of a bashing in the food media for including a recipe for fried eggs in a recent cookbook. But in much the same way, to serve my burrata I did little more than scoop the soft cheese from their little baskets and popped them straight onto a plate. Although often served with pickles or vegetables, I drew inspiration from the newly-opened Padella restaurant, where it is served simply with a glug of good oil and some seasoning. And that, along with a few slices of good sourdough, was all that was needed.