Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Smoked mussels with king cabbage, purple potatoes, sea rosemary and blood orange

One the most important lessons that I have learned in food is to cook seasonally. It is so effortlessly easy to plan new dishes by simply picking and choosing ingredients that grow together and are harvested at the same time. I used to be a slave to supermarket convenience, where shelves are packed with seemingly evergreen produce, and believed that seasonality was a pompous and irrelevant trend. But it’s all in the taste; a locally-grown asparagus spear in May is massively superior to a bendy Peruvian counterpart in the autumn. Squashy summer tomatoes are packed with sweetness, having not travelled under the duress of taste-zapping refrigeration. Shellfish are much fitter and healthier when the seas are cold. Even better is that most seasonal ingredients combine beautifully, with dishes becoming mere simple assemblies on a plate, each ingredient singing in harmony. It’s dead easy to work out what’s in season right now, ask your local greengrocer, fishmonger or butcher, or there’s a ton of information online. 


This dish is wintry produce at its best. January king cabbages always bring a smile to my face with their sprawling, messy leaves; like a teenager’s fringe splattered with greens, purples and blues. This year’s blood oranges have just arrived too, along with beautiful sweet Sicilian lemons. A plate of shredded cabbage dressed with these, a pinch of salt and some good oil would be enough, but I decided to go a step further with the inclusion of mussels.

Mussels are still cheap as chips, and one of the best ways of feeding a crowd on a budget. Cooked simply and classically with white wine and garlic and served with chunks of French stick, I’d defy anyone not to be happy. A touch of smoke lends itself well to their strong molluscy flavour, so I decided that a bit of DIY smoking was in order. I can definitely recommend having a go yourself, it’s easy to set up and great fun experimenting with different ingredients. So far I’ve used it with meat, fish and cheeses, but I’d like to expand to vegetables too. I reckon broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes would all work well.

Sea rosemary was a bit of an impulse purchase after I spied a punnet sitting tucked away on a greengrocer’s shelf. Having never cooked with it before I was keen to have a try and give it a go. Tasting a little like samphire, its acts as a seasoning for the potatoes, giving the dish much more of a seaside feel. Never fear if you can’t find it, parsley, tarragon, chervil or samphire will all work a treat.

Serves 2


For the smoked mussels:

3 handfuls of large, live mussels, debearded 
1 large handful of hay or straw 
The peeled zest of 1 blood orange

For the cabbage:

1 large wedge of January King or Savoy cabbage, cut into rough ribbons

For the purple potatoes:

1 large handful of small purple or violette potatoes 
1 handful of sea rosemary, leaves picked

For the dressing:

2 blood oranges 
1 large unwaxed lemon 
4-5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

To finish:

1 small bulb of fennel, finely sliced with a vegetable peeler 
The fronds from the fennel


Wash the potatoes and pop them into a saucepan with a good pinch of salt. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then simmer for 15-20 minutes, until cooked through. Allow to cool slightly, then peel away the skins with the help of a sharp knife. Transfer the peeled potatoes to a bowl and add the sea rosemary leaves.


Make the blood orange dressing by squeezing the citrus juice into a small bowl. Add a pinch of salt, then whisk in the olive oil. Pour 3-4 tablespoons of the dressing over the warm, peeled potatoes and stir to coat. Put the rest aside for use later.

Bring a large saucepan up to a high heat. Tip in the mussels and a splash of water and cover with a lid. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until all of the mussels have opened. Transfer to a bowl and pick the meat out of the majority, leaving a few in their shells. Pour the liquor from the mussels back into a saucepan.

Top up the mussel cooking liquor with about a cup of water and bring back to the boil. Blanch the king cabbage for 1-2 minutes, until al dente. Drain and transfer to a bowl, then toss with a tablespoon of the blood orange dressing. 


Line a large saucepan with foil, and arrange the hay and peel to one side. Tear off a smaller piece of foil, and use this to hold the mussel meat so that it forms one layer. Place this sheet to the vacant side of the pan (it’s ok if it overlaps the hay a little). Using a match or blowtorch in a well-ventilated area, set fire to the straw and immediately cover with a lid. Allow to smoke for 5 minutes. Very carefully remove the smoked mussels, making sure that the hay is properly extinguished.

To plate up, arrange the mussels, potatoes and cabbage leaves onto a plate, making sure to include the sea rosemary. Top with the fennel shavings and fronds. Finish with an extra splash of the dressing and serve.  

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Tortellini in brodo with cime di rapa

Last week dicey farming conditions created a “courgette crisis”, sparking newspaper headlines and shopper fury at empty supermarket shelves. Never has the humble courgette been so in demand, and the people of twitter rejoiced when new stocks finally arrived. For me this highlighted the gloomy state of eating in this country, and the frankly bonkers casual reliance on supplies of a summer vegetable in the middle of January. Despite the bleak weather, the winter months throw up some amazing produce, bang in season right now and much more perky than a sad box of zucchini that’s had to be flown in from who knows where. Surely people can have a little imagination and use what’s being harvested locally right now, which would surely be better for the food and farming system as a whole? January is clearly proving to be a ranty month for this blog, what with the torrent in my last post. I wonder what’s going to be on the receiving end of my food wrath next week. 

Back to the recipe, something inspired by some decent food telly of late. I’ve been really enjoying the latest series of Rick Stein’s Long Weekends, providing the perfect blend of holiday escapism and his reassuring kind of food commentary that hasn’t changed in decades. You know what you’re getting with half an hour with Rick. It’s certainly nothing new, with a focus on fish and markets, yearnings for Padstow and countless swimming clips, but sometimes it’s nice to switch off rather than another programme on this year’s food fad, or another revelation that my favourite food is going to be the end of me. In one episode, Rick was in Italy wolfing down tortellini handmade effortlessly by a brilliant bunch of ancient women, and I had to have a go at making some myself. Served swimming in broth, it looked the perfect thing to combat the icy weather of late.
I was pleased to see some beautiful cime di rapa when picking up ingredients from my excellent local greengrocers in North London. These greens are often referred to as ‘turnip tops’, and are similar to very fine broccoli in taste and texture. Although it can be quite hard to track down outside of the capital, kale, chard or sprouting broccoli can be used perfectly as a substitute and should be widely available right now. Beaten with ricotta, parmesan and prosciutto, it makes a lovely rich filling for dinky little pasta dumplings. The broth made from chicken bones and shallots is simple and warming, the type that often provides just what’s needed when feeling the brunt of these cold months. Adding the parmesan rind is a great tip that I picked up a few years back, and it’s worth freezing them for such an occasion.
Serves 4
For the pasta:
200g ‘00’ grade pasta flour, plus a little extra for dusting 
2 medium eggs, plus 1 extra for brushing 
A pinch of fine salt 
1 tbsp olive oil
For the filling:
1 large bunch of cime di rapa 
100g ricotta cheese 
8 slices of prosciutto, chopped 
1 small garlic clove, grated 
20g parmesan, grated
For the brodo:
600-800g chicken bones or wings, cut into small chunks 
3 shallots, halved lengthways with the skin left on 
3 garlic cloves, crushed 
2 bay leaves 
6 sprigs of thyme 
1 glass of white wine 
The rind from a piece of parmesan (optional)
To finish:
Grated parmesan 
Extra virgin olive oil 
A handful of cime di rape

Start by making the brodo. Heat a glug of olive oil in a large saucepan until hot. Season the pieces of the chicken carcass and brown well on all sides, in batches if necessary. Remove to a side plate, then add the shallots cut-side down. Fry for a minute or two, until well caramelised. Return the chicken to the pan along with the garlic and herbs and cook for a further minute. Add the wine and reduce by half, then cover with 2 litres of water. Drop in the parmesan rind and a pinch of seasoning. Cover with a lid and gently simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. When the broth is cooked, strain through a sieve into another large saucepan, and discard the now spent bones and vegetables. 

To make the pasta dough, tip the flour into a large bowl and combine with the salt. Make a well in the middle, then crack in the eggs and pour in the olive oil. Use a fork to whisk the eggs and oil, gradually incorporating the flour until a dough is formed. Transfer to a clean surface and knead well for 8-10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic in texture. Wrap with cling film and pop in the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Whilst the pasta is resting, make the filling. Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Sprinkle in a generous pinch of salt. Fill a large bowl with ice-cold water. When the water is boiling add all of the cime di rapa to the pan and simmer for 2-3 minutes, until the stalks are just tender. Use tongs to transfer the cooked greens to the cold water to halt the cooking process, then drain. Separate out roughly a handful to use as a garnish later and set aside. Squeeze as much of the water from the remaining leaves and stalks as possible, then transfer to a food processor. Add the garlic, parmesan, prosciutto and some seasoning and blend well, until everything is finely chopped. Spoon in the ricotta and pulse a couple more times to combine. Scrape the mixture into a bowl. 

Use a pasta machine to roll out the rested dough until it reaches the thinnest setting, using the spare flour to dust if necessary. Lay the finished sheet across the worktop. Break the remaining egg into a bowl and whisk, then use a pastry brush to lightly cover the surface of the pasta. Dot small half-teaspoons of the filling at intervals along the sheet, allowing 6-8 per portion, then cut around with a small pastry cutter. Fold the pasta around the filling to form a half moon, sealing around the filling using your finger and thumb. Bend the two pointed corners back around the filling and press together to form a tortellini. Transfer to a well-floured plate and repeat with the rest.
Bring the strained brodo to the boil. Arrange the spare whole cime di rapa into the bottoms of each bowl.
Shake any excess flour from the tortellini, then lower into the brodo. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to transfer to the bowls. Top up with the broth, and drizzle over a little olive oil. Finish with a generous grating of parmesan and serve.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Crab with marinated raw sprouts, sprout flowers and parsley

Where has all of the time gone? Work was a hectic flurry of oysters, lobsters and smoked salmon before Christmas, then a well-earned break spent catching up with family and attending a lovely wedding up north. Then there has been trying to get to grips with the exciting yet mega stressful house build project that Katie and I are currently undertaking, all punctuated by an unpleasant and hugely boring bout of cold and flu, which I’ve been trying to shake off for what feels like forever. All of those days branded ‘update blog’ on my to-do list seemed to nestle into distractions, and somehow it’s now the middle of January. How!? Anyway, finally I have managed to turn back to these pages and write another recipe. I’m really determined to not let things slip too much with this blog, and I’m really looking forward to another year of cookery exploration.

Now that Christmas is over, everyone seems to have forgotten about Brussels sprouts. Some with true relief, and others because the only place for a sprout is beside a golden, shimmering and utterly bone dry turkey. Well not me. I’m happy they still reside in constant stock at my local greengrocers. And there’s so much more to sprouts than Christmas lunch, they work a treat in this recipe.
I really hate eating salads in January. Not because I hate salads, but because it makes me feel like I’m conceding to the masses of hysterical New Year detox bullshit that’s everywhere right now. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthily, and there’s nothing wrong with dieting sensibly, but recently it all seems to have gone way out of control. Guilt has always been a massive force in food and marketing, but now you’re frowned upon unless your chocolate cake is made from some sort of weird cashew and date concoction, And don’t even think about eating it if it contains the merest mention of white flour. Ugh. It’s all so draining. Although I’ve always been happy with a balanced diet, which could involve a broth one evening and a cheese-filled hamburger the next, I worry about the confusing, dangerous signals that all of this gives to less confident eaters. It’s time that food and food writing was about celebrating ingredients again, not about banishing them from our diets. 

So yes, a salad. But the focus of this salad is some very special crabmeat. There are few things in cooking greater than boiling up a whole crab, before meticulously picking every last scrap of meat from the still warm shell, ideally surrounded by piles of bread and mayonnaise. But I appreciate that some don’t have the time and space, and that it might not be appropriate for the moderately squeamish. Failing that, there are some excellent hand-picked, unpasteurised crab products available, that allow this little plateful to be prepared in a matter of moments. The bright, fresh shellfish contrasts with the bitter sprouts wonderfully, with dinky capers and fiery chilli flakes adding a welcome kick along the way.
Serves 2
For the white crabmeat:
250g unpasteurised white crabmeat 
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the brown crabmeat:
100g brown crabmeat 
½ a teaspoon of Dijon mustard 
1 lemon, zest and juice 
4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the sprout salad:
1 handful of Brussels sprouts, trimmed and finely sliced 
1 handful of sprout flowers, leaves peeled 1 large bunch of parsley 
½ a small clove of garlic 
1 tbsp capers 
1 pinch of dried chilli flakes 
1 lemon, zest and juice 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Tip the brown crabmeat into a food processor and add the mustard, lemon zest and a good pinch of seasoning. Blitz until well combined. With the engine still running, slowly pour in the olive oil, until the mixture is light and emulsified. Stir in the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. 

Make the dressing for the greens by combining the lemon zest and juice, capers, grated garlic, dried chilli flakes and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil.
Put the sliced sprouts, sprout flower leaves and roughly torn parsley into a large bowl and toss evenly with the dressing.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the white crabmeat and taste. Add salt and pepper if necessary.
Spoon a good dollop of the brown crabmeat onto each plate and arrange a pile of the white meat next to it. Scatter some of the dressed salad to the side and serve.