Category Archives: fish

Oh I do like

…to be beside the seaside, oh I do like a sardine for my tea, oh I do like to roll my spuds in may-on-naise, and some fine green sauce, Tiddely-om-pom-pom! 

My Dad was 70 on Saturday and so, agreeing a week of merrymaking was in order, we are all – all being the celebrated one, Mum, my brother Ben, Kate, their little boy Stanley, my sister Rosie, Paul, their little girl Beattie, Luca and I – staying in a farmhouse in Penare in Southwest Cornwall. Even the pretty persistent rain hasn’t dampened our spirits (actually that’s a lie, it drenched our spirits on Wednesday, thank god for the fudge) or appreciation of the pure loveliness of this part of England.

Secluded, seductive wood-fringed pebble beeches and tiny, unspoiled coves punctuate the undulating coastline. Serpentine cliffs provide a craggy and fierce backdrop to white-sand beaches and the turquoise ocean. Vast gorse and heather covered moorlands are dotted with hairy buttercups and grazing ponies. There are quaint shops in every town, village and hamlet whose sole purpose is selling clotted cream fudge. The ratio of pubs to people is excellent. Dark-green pastures and lush, often magnificent gardens thrive and thrill in Cornwall’s unique damp, warm and almost tropical micro climate.

We’ve been threading our way through leafy lanes over babbling brooks (Really! proper bona fide babbling brooks) in search of tiny fishing villages where we take alternating gulps of salty sea air and local beer. We’ve been to Lizard lighthouse, Roskilly ice-cream farm, Helford, Kynance cove, Gillan cove (where we happened upon a keg of beer on the beach with a note attached inviting us to help ourselves) and St Ives, which is, despite the crowds, twee shops and nostalgia for its artistic heyday, as luminous and lovely as the art it inspired.

We’ve eaten well, Cornish crab, whitebait with proper tartare sauce, hake baked with potatoes, almost perfect fish and chips, local lamb with new potatoes, Cornish yarg, Cornish blue, broad beans, butter lettuce and curly kale from the local allotments, raspberries with sugar and thick, yellow clotted cream, sea-salt and caramel ice-cream (that rivalled anything from my favourite gelateria in Rome), copious quantities of clotted cream fudge, treacle tart, gooseberry fool, gooseberry tart and on Tuesday evening sardines.

My brother Ben undertook the fishy investigations and arranged to pick up 18 freshly caught sardines from the Cadgwith Fishseller. I’m not sure we should have driven down to this exquisite tiny end-of-the-world fishing village wedged into a cleft in the silver-grey rock. But we did. ‘Bloody tourists‘ a local (a crusty old sea-dog no less) snarled as we snaked the car back up the long and winding road with our spankingly fresh fish.

This post should be tagged Bencooks as my brother took charge of both cleaning the sardines – slitting along the bottom of each fish from the throat to the rear vent, then pulling out the innards and rinsing the inside of the fish – and then cooking them – perfectly it must be said, charred on the outside, tender within – on the BBQ. He also made mayonnaise, by hand, whilst sipping locally brewed, optimistically named doombar beer.

I thought I’d already written about making mayonnaise, I’ve certainly rattled on about how much I like this glorious, creamy, silky- smooth ointment of egg yolks, oil and lemon juice, a home-made concoction incomparable to even the smartest commercially produced jar full . But having trawled backwards through my sporadic posts (my shoddy index of recipes was no help) it appears I haven’t. This then, seems like an opportune moment.

I avoided making mayonnaise for many years, believing it to be fiendishly difficult and liable to curdle, split or suffer some other terrible egg suspension/emulsion fate at any moment! Then one evening a few years ago, whilst leaning up against my friends kitchen counter, glass in hand, my tongue a-wagging, she whipped up some mayonnaise. Just like that. No fuss, no palava, no curdling. I peered into her bowl of glorious yellow ointment, ‘What was her secret?’ I whispered in case I really was mayonnaise jinxed and my voice split her master bowl. She looked bemused. There was, as far as she was concerned, no secret and certainly no reason for mayonnaise anxiety (which is rather like pastry and custard anxiety only worse.) Making mayonnaise was, with sound advice and practice, a pretty straightforward affair.

And so the advice: eggs at room temperature, a heavy bowl which doesn’t slide all over the counter, a small whisk, adding the oil (a mixture of groundnut and olive oil) very very slowly, whisking energetically between each addition and – the vital bit – practice. Lots and lots of practice, so you – and I know this might sound pretentious – learn feel the moment when the yolk and oil transform, seize really into an ointment, when the speed you add the oil is instinctive, when the texture feels right – feels like mayonnaise. And if it does split? Pour yourself a glass of wine and then add a drop of boiling water to the mixture. If that doesn’t work start again with another egg yolk in a clean bowl. Beat the yolk and then slowly whisk in the curdled mixture.

But enough talk of curdling, let the whisking begin.

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 225 ml groundnut oil
  • 75 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the groundnut oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Dollop on Tiddely-om-pom-pom!.

May I recommend serving your home-made mayonnaise with freshly grilled sardines, waxy new potatoes, a spoonful of salsa verde and a slice of lemon. And for pudding (our tea this afternoon, my niece Bea was beside herself with cream induced excitement) raspberries with sugar and Cornish clotted cream. I hope you are having a good summer.

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Filed under Eggs, fish, food, In praise of, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Just call me anchovy.

My second name, after my granny, is Alice. The Italian for anchovy is acciuga or alice.

I was devoted to anchovies long before I came to Italy. When I say anchovies, I am of course talking about preserved ones – I was in England remember – fresh anchovies like the ones above, came much later. The anchovies I knew were imported from Italy or Spain, fresh from the sea once, but subsequntly gutted, brined, matured and the curious pinky-brown fillets packed in salt, or more commonly olive oil. We bought anchovies in olive oil, neatly tucked into slim, oblong tins with a key and a roll back top.

My devotion, my taste for little salty fish actually began a few years before the slim tins, when I was a small girl. It began with a pot, my Dad’s pot, of Gentlemen’s Relish. Gentlemen’s Relish for those of you who aren’t acquainted with this marvelous concoction, is a paste of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices also known as Patum Peperium. It was created in 1828 by an Englishman called John Osborn. It comes in a very particular round, squat pot – that used to be ceramic but sadly nowadays is made of plastic. The paste is a dull greyish brown but has the most wonderfully distinctive flavour; strong, salty and hardly surprisingly, a heady fishy taste. My Dad used to have it – he still does – on toast. Just as I write in my parents kitchen in London, my Dad, sitting across the kitchen doing the crossword, is peering over the top of the newspaper, brow furrowed and insisting in the same voice he adopts when talking about the perfect cup of tea or the best bitter orange marmalade. “Quite thin slices now, you don’t want great big thick doorsteps. no, no. You want thin slices of hot buttered toast onto which you spread a cautious layer of Gentlemans Relish“. Gentlemens Relish is also title of the terrific BBC drama about the Victorian painter, pornographer and photographer Kingdom Swann. But I digress.

When my first proper boyfriend pulled a face at the anchovy on his pizza, it cast a big black cloud over our future. Could I really go out, could I even like never mind love, a boy who didn’t like anchovies?  The relationship ended soon after, there were clearly irreconcilable differences. It was amicable but we haven’t remained friends.

I was thinking about this post as I walked across the park yesterday, on my way to teach small Italian children English songs. It stuck me that anchovies are indispensable, that they are the splendid and intensely savoury seasoning in many of our favourite things. Vincenzo calls them le palle (the balls). They appear in green sauce (salsa verde), on pizza marinara and pizza Napoli and in Salad Niçoise. Anchovies are the kick in the heady dressing for Puntarelle, the punch in tapenade and the oompapa in montpellier butter. Draped over hard-boiled eggs, melted into butter for bagna cauda, tucked into courgette flowers along with mozzarella, with roast lamb, squashed on bread and butter, great things all of them. Anchovies melted in olive oil provide the distinctive foundation for four of my favourite pastas; pasta e brocolli, Pasta alla puttanescaSpaghetti with tomato and anchovy sauce and Pasta with sardines and anchovy breadcrumbs.

And then there are fresh anchovies.

I’d never seen fresh anchovies until I came to Italy, or perhaps I had – after all they are not unheard of in The UK and we had enough French holidays –  I just hadn’t noticed. I spotted anchovies at the fish market in Naples first, it must have been my second or third day in Italy so everything was still a blur. I saw vast crates of them in Palermo and Messina, but it was in the fish market in Catania, early one morning, where I had my first close encounter of the fresh anchovy kind.

The fish market in Catania is a crude, noisy, rough and raw place. All my romantic notions about wandering through a Sicilian fish market at the crack of dawn were washed away with the bucket of bloody, murky fish water that was thrown, hurled rather, in front of my feet into a dark drain. But it’s an extraordinary place, full of life and soul, blood – and quite literally – guts. And of course, there is fish. There aren’t really stalls as such, a wooden bench here and another there. On one, a vast belly or side of tuna, beside it, a man brandishing a knife. On another table half a swordfish, sword skyward, as sharp as the knife hovering over it. There’s a man on a little stool, around him boxes of calamari and tiny neonati, like frogspawn and opposite him a woman with a baskets of tiny Calamaretti and moscardini. A very tall man presides over a table awash with sliver sardines, shining like newly minted coins. On a more orderly table sit lines of handsome, silver bream, Spigola, rose-red mullets and beside them, like something out of 2000 leagues under the sea, a disconcertingly large octopus. There are mysterious, foreboding but fascinating fish, unfamiliar to my English eyes. The curious, spiky, sea urchins ricci di mare make me shudder with delight. There are unruly piles of scampi, fat, grey and tempting but sallow next to piles of brilliantly coloured pinky-orange prawns. Nearby another man is crouched beside a plastic mat bestrewn with a vast, sprawling, shimmering heap of small, slender, slivery-blue anchovies.

Fresh anchovies have fragrant, delicately flavoured flesh. They are related to sardines and mackeral and have the same firm, slightly oily flesh but a notably milder flavour. Their size – they are generally about 3′ or 4″ long – means they are more tender and delicate. I have learned to prepare and cook anchovies with Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela. They are her speciality.

First the cleaning. Anchovies are a great way to get to grips with gutting and preparing fish if like me, you’re a novice. Along with artichoke taming and mixing the perfect batter, preparing these lovely little fish is one of the most satisfying kitchen skills I have acquired in the last couple of years. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. Sleeves up and no fuss! Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish – fanning it out like a butterfly – ready for the next stage.

As with preserved anchovies, Italians love, respect and do marvelous things with fresh ones. They grill them just so, they coat them with batter and plunge them into hot oil, they dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs and shallow fry them until crisp and golden. Our friend stuffs them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, herbs and parmesan, sprinkles them with olive oil and bakes them in the oven. Carmella fans them out; like the spokes of a wheel, in a shallow pan, sprinkles over olive oil and parsley, then cooks them very gently so they fry and steam at the same time. Delicious stuff.

But maybe one of the nicest ways to enjoy the delicate flesh of fresh anchovies is to marinade them in lemon juice, a slosh of red wine vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped garlic for about 5 hours. The acid in the lemon and vinegar literally cooks the flesh, turning it opaque and rendering it firm, tender and sweet. To serve, you pour over more olive oil, sprinkle over some finely chopped parsley and maybe a little crushed chilli. They are best eaten as an antipasti or simple lunch, nudging the fillets onto the corner of some crusty bread, mopping up the oily juices with more bread as you go.

There are many ways to make alici marinate, which are worth exploring if you like anchovies. Meanwhile to begin, this is Carmela’s recipe adapted by me.

The anchovies will keep for a few days but they are best made in the morning for lunch, or early in the afternoon in time for supper. These are one of my favourite things.

Marinated anchovies (Alici marinati)

Serves 3 for a light lunch with plenty of bread and green salad or 5 as a starter.

  • 500g fresh anchovies
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • The juice of two lemons
  • A generous 1/2 cup or 150ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • a pinch of crushed dried peperoncino / chilli

First clean and prepare the anchovies; Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish ready for the next stage.

In a bowl mix the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic.

In a shallow glass or ceramic dish, large enough to accomodate half the anchovy fillets in a single layer, arrange half the anchovies – they will be quite delicate. Then pour over half the marinade. Arrange the second layer on top of the first and pour over the remaining marinade.

Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow it sit for at least 5 hours before serving. This is best done at room temperature, but if it is very hot, slide the dish in the fridge for 4 1/2 hours and pull out for the last 30 minutes.

Before serving, sprinkle over the parsley and pepperoncino (chilli) and pour over a little more oil. Bring the dish to the table and encourage people to serve themselves reminding them to spoon over some of the marinade to mop up with bread.

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Filed under antipasti, fish, food, rachel eats Italy, recipes

In praise of salt cod

I didn’t really know anything about salt cod, apart from the obvious cod-that- is-preserved-in-salt, until I moved to Italy, which is five years ago now, time it seems does fly.

I had seen salt cod in London, stiff, salt crusted, mysterious and rather foreign behind the glass counters of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian delicatessens, and our local Jamaican minimarket in Hackney – known affectionately as the bong – often had a heap of ‘saltfish’. But I have to admit I screwed my face up, declared it peculiar, quite ugly, odd smelling and then thought no more about it.

I must have been in Rome about a year when it finally dawned on me; the Baccalà al’ agro dolce I’d eaten and loved in our local trattoria (Bucatino in Via luca della Robbia, a rowdy, boisterously good, no-nonsense Roman eatery thats worth making a note of for your next trip to Rome); the sublime filetti di baccalà, plump fish fillets, battered and deep fried from the venerable fry shop of the same name just off Campo de ‘Fiori (another note worthy address); the curious white fillets of baccalà desalinating in the vast water-filled tubs standing brim full outside shops and market stalls; the scent of baccalà that curled up the communal staircase on Fridays, the traditional day to eat fish in Rome, they were all salt cod. Baccalà was not – as I first thought – simply cod, it was salt cod. The curious and delicious fish I’d fallen in love with in Rome was the mysterious and peculiar specimen I had turned my nose up at for all those years.

For those of you who don’t know, salt cod – the Italian Baccalà,  Spanish bacalao, Portuguese bacalhau and French morue – is fresh codfish which has been split lengthways, heavily salted and then partially dried to preserve it. The best salt cod comes from the Lofoten Isles in Norway where a whole industry and way of life has grown up around the fishing, salting and drying of cod. Salt cod has a long and complicated history, it dates back to medieval times and the earliest methods of preserving food under salt. To really understand the deep significance of salt cod would be to really understand the history of codfish, of salt, of international trade and politics; the history and power of the Roman catholic church and it’s days of abstinence; the discovery, exploration and exploitation of the new world; the dark story of slavery and colonisation. Mark Kurlansky tells this story beautifully in his book Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world.

Back in Rome, having discovered that I didn’t just like but adored salt cod, I began buying it. Vincenzo was most supportive of my experimentation ‘va benissimo‘ he said ‘è la mia pesce preferita (favourite fish)‘ and did that rather quaint Italian gesture of food approval, the one where you put your index finger to your cheek and twist.

Now, if the first hurdle with salt cod is it’s odd appearance and particular smell, the second hurdle is the soaking, ah yes, the soaking. Salt cod can only be used after having been soaked in frequent changes of fresh water for at least 18 hours in order to soften the flesh and remove the salt, umm, roll eyes. And there’s more, a third hurdle, mastering the soaking, it takes practice, too short and the salt cod is tough as old boots and very salty, too long and it’s tasteless and wooly, rather like a wet jumper. Are you still with me? This process and practice puts salt cod firmly in the slow food category, but that’s a good thing isn’t it ? Aren’t we all trying to embrace more slow food ?  Yes, soaking is a bit of a fuss, especially the first time, but then you discover the intriguingly delicious nature of salt cod and the mild palava of soaking feels utterly worthwhile.

Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, large, soft flakes of succulent, opaque flesh which like all good fish, reeks of the sea. It also has other qualities, an extraordinary texture from the salting, the flesh is firmer and has slightly chewy, toothsome quality, soaked properly salt cod is beautifully seasoned with a pleasingly pungent taste.

The Italians, like the Portuguese and the Spanish are passionate enthusiasts of salt cod and have evolved marvelous ways to cook it. Baccalà al’agro dolce is salt cod, bright with tomatoes, cooked in wine and vinegar moderated with sugar and flavoured with red pepper, pine nuts and sultana’s; Baccalà alla pizzaiola from Naples is salt cod covered with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, capers, plenty of oregano and baked in the oven; the delicious Baccalà all vientina, salt cod on a bed of onions slowly softened in olive oil, covered with milk and then baked in a very low oven for about two hours; Filetti di baccalà, which I have already mentioned, plump pieces of salt cod, dipped in batter, fried until crusty-coated outside and succulent within.

There are dozens of salt cod recipes I would like to tell you about – many of them come from Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela who is a quiet master of soaking and cooking baccalà – but I fear this post is starting to feel as long as the soaking required for a big fat piece of salt cod. Therefore, I have chosen just one, my favourite. Its not just my favourite recipe for baccalà, it’s an all time favourite recipe and one of my preferred things to eat, brandade di morue.


Brandade di morue is a heavenly invention, a creamy white purèe of salt cod, potato, olive oil and milk flavoured with lemon juice and garlic. It’s a speciality of the city of Nimes in the Languedoc province of France called but the origins of this recipe are probably Italian as it is very similar to the Venetian baccalà mantecata as described by the wonderful Gillian Riley.

‘Soaked baccalà is pounded with a little garlic and olive oil in a pestle and mortar to make a smooth thick paste; this is transferred to a pot and beaten with a wooden spoon, gradually adding a light olive oil drop by drop until the fish has taken up what it can handle, which can sometimes be diluted in the process with warm milk, to make a light and pungent cream’

This is one of our favourite suppers, we open a bottle of Pieropan Soave, tip some black olives in a bowl, make a big pile of toast or fry little triangles of bread in olive oil, then we sit scooping up the warm, creamy pureè and telling each other how much we like brandade.

Salt cod can seem difficult to find, have patience, it is probably hiding behind the counter at your local Portuguese, Spanish or Italian delicatessen. Look for a nice piece of cod from a center cut where the fish is thickest and at its most succulent.

I’ve got into the habit, as is so often the case, of following Simon Hopkinson’s recipe for brandade di morue because it works so beautifully.

Brandade de Morue or cream of salt cod

Adapted from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and other stories

  • A large potato (roughly 175g /6 oz) peeled and cut into large chunks
  • salt
  • 200ml/7fl oz good quality olive oil
  • 200ml/7 fl oz whole milk
  • 3 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
  • 450g/1llb salt cod fillet soaked, drained and boned
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • black pepper

Boil the potato in salted water until cooked, drain ( I put the potato back in the empty pan and back on a low flame for a few seconds so the water still clinging to the potato evaporates.) mash, rice or mouli the potato while it is still hot and then keep it warm.

Put the milk and crushed garlic in small pan over a low flame and very gently heat until only just warm but not hot.

Heat the olive oil gently in a small pan, it must remain tepid or the oil will disintegrate and ruin the whole preparation

Put the cod in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil, then switch of the heat. leave for 5 minutes, then using a slotted spoon remove the cod to a plate. Take off the skin and pick out any bones, flake the fish and then put it in a food processor.

With the motor running, alternately add the olive oil and the garlicky milk until you have a thick a thick, gloopy paste the consistency of thick cream. This can be done by hand, crushing the fish with the back of a wooden spoon and then adding the oil and milk very gradually and alternately and stirring vigorously with great patience and considerable energy.

Turn the mixture into a bowl and then beat in the mashed potato using a wooden spoon, not too much or the mixture will go Gluey. Stir in the lemon juice and black pepper, taste, add salt if necessary.

Transfer to a serving dish or shallow bowl and then serve with black olives, plenty of toasted country bread (or triangles of bread fried in olive oil) and wedges of lemon.

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Filed under fish, In praise of, olive oil, patè and terrines, rachel eats Italy, recipes

Bottarga di muggine or grey mullet bottarga.

I have to admit that for some time I called bottarga, bottega. Finally a friend quietly suggested that maybe (she is a gentle and diplomatic soul) I meant bottarga, ‘bottega‘ she explained ‘is Italian for workshop, you don’t really want one of those with your spaghetti.’ A mild mistake I know, but I can’t help but cringe and screw my face up when I think of it because I inevitably think back to a certain supper, one of the first at which I actually felt bold enough to use my Italian in front of strangers, and I banged on about spaghetti alla workshop.

A definition is probably my best option here as I have a tendency to beat around things, bushes, recipes, the point.

Bottarga is fish roe, extracted with its membrane still intact, lightly pressed, cured in brine and dried in the sun. There are two kinds of Bottarga, that of grey mullet (bottatge di muggine) or tuna (bottarga di tonno.)

Mullet bottarga is beautifully strange and curiously shaped, like a flattened teardrop or tongue, it’s colour ranges from deep red- amber to brilliant orange- yellow. The best comes from the female thin lipped grey mullet, most notably those fished from the waters of Cabras, a lake off the western shore of Sardinia. Good mullet bottarga is hardly surprisingly, expensive, but not exclusive if bought in small quantities.

bottarga

The first time I ate bottarga was in Sardinia in a trattoria near Olba, it was August and we had just spent the day on the beach, we had sand between our toes, our noses were freckled and our skin was pleasingly tight and salty. The bottarga was sliced paper thin and served with olive oil and lemon.

The flavour of good mullet bottarga is quite curious at first, my palate was confused when it encountered the first sliver. It takes a moment, at first you are not sure, the texture is a little waxy, then its melts and the flavour begins to open up in your mouth, a soft creaminess, a delicate fishy, briny, warm almost spicy sensation fills your mouth. The flavour lingers, opens up some more, a hint of something pleasingly metallic (yes, I know but I am only being honest) it lingers some more, you taste buds are at work, negotiating the soft but intense sensations of warm, spicy, salty, fishy, creamy. Finally you realise you have eaten something quite extraordinary.

Later, during the same holiday I ate spaghetti alla bottarga for the first time, the neutral base of pasta providing a perfect foil for the curiously delicious bottarga. On another occasion I ate slivers of it tossed with green salad and a small dish of warm cannellini beans topped with gratings of this amber delicacy.

Back home, this was no holiday romance, since that hot August day, we have eaten bottarga with spaghetti more times than I care to remember. We slice it thinly and squash it on hot buttered toast, it has perked up various bowlfuls of cannellini and (possibly one of my favorite ways to eat it) been grated modestly over scrambled eggs – not exactly the height of sophistication but just divine.

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Filed under fish, food, rachel eats Italy

Fergus Henderson’s Salt cod, Potato and Tomato.

salt-cod-pots-and-tom-1

I have been mulling over how to write this post for 3 days now, I have started it at least 5 times only to delete everything, put the computer to sleep and mull some more. You see, I just can’t seem to find the appropriate and fitting words to pay tribute to a chef , a restaurant, a book and a recipe.

The 4 objects of my procrastination are chef, Fergus Henderson, his restaurant St John, his book, Nose to tail eating and his recipe, salt cod, potato and Tomato.

My usual list of superlatives and excessive adjectives for praise just don’t seem right for the above 4, even though many of them are bouncing around in my mouth like a class of unsupervised over excited, hyperactive 5 year olds when I think of any one of this quartet – brilliant, inspiring, cult, classic, tour di force, awesome (did I ever say that, ok, slap my face and wash my mouth out with salt water). I would like to write something that at least vaguely honours the style of all 4, unpretentious, straightforward, without an ounce of hyperbole. So, how about, just great, oh, and considering this is all about food, lets put the emphasis on the latter part of the word, as in grEAT.

To write something I am vaguely happy with, maybe I need to take myself back to when I first encountered Fergus Henderson’s cooking about 8 years ago. My  friend Joanna took me to St John. It had been open about a year, we ate in the bar, anchovy toast, welsh rarebit, hard boiled eggs with celery salt, a salad with crispy pigs tails, roast bone marrow with parsley salad. I knew nothing about the fast growing fervour for this white, cavernous, ex- smokehouse of a restaurant, even less about the man at the stove with a penchant for cooking way beyond the fillet. I just knew the place was wonderful, the food simple, honest, original and utterly delicious, the staff really nice and the experience, well great.

Lots of visits ensued, usually with Joanna, occasionally in the restaurant but mostly in the bar, each experience like the first, great. I bought the book, I took it home, its great. The recipes, to make that simple, honest, original and utterly delicious food are, yes, GREAT.

That’s it, that’s what I wanted to say, the aforementioned 4 I have been mulling over are, well great. My over excited, hyperactive 5 year old words are bouncing again, stop it Rachel, you have said enough.

Now, the book. Much has been written, feverish admiration, squeals, commotion about FH’s masterful way with lesser used cuts and bits of beasts, noses, tails, spleens, hearts and feet. FH’s reclaiming the inspired use everything, of nose to tail – something French an Italian mothers have never forgotten, that the trotters, necks, kidneys, intestines and to put it bluntly, blood and guts, in the hands of a thoughtful and gentle cook are some of the most delicious, flavoursome morsels you can eat (if meat is your thing.)

The book is nose to tail of the beast heavy, 73 of the 139 recipes. But just say I developed a life threatening allergy to all things beast, (which would be a terrible thing) I would still prize and return joyfully to this book for the fish, vegetable, salad and sweet recipes which are every bit as wonderful as the rest.

Finally to the recipe.

No, I have not developed a life threatening allergy to all things beast, I just fancied some salt cod when I thumbed through Nose to Tail last Wednesday. Actually it wasn’t entirely by chance I chose something starring salt cod, it had been on my mind ever since the day before, when I read that one of FH’s favorite cooking play-lists includes the soundtrack of Zorba the greek and that he fell in love with his wife while dancing to it and discussing salt cod.

Yes, lets discuss salt cod, not in great detail I hasten to add, I will leave that to wikipedia. I know this is another ingredient which provokes delight or revulsion rather than indifference, the particular smelling salted and preserved pieces of cod which when carefully soaked can produce the most delicious platefuls – I should just add that salt cod if different to stock fish which is dried cod.

I fall onto the delight side of the fence and I consider myself lucky – you may say unlucky I suppose, if you fall onto the revulsion side – because Italians are lovers and masters of cooking salt cod, known as Baccalà. You can buy it everywhere here in Rome, where the cooking of salted and preserved cod (the worlds oldest method of food preserving) is shrouded in history, religion and faith, politics and commerce and for many, the weekly ritual of eating it.

baccala

You can buy salt cod ready soaked, but I prefer to soak it myself because its cheaper and if its over salted or over soaked and fuzzy, I am to blame, not left cursing somebody else. There is some soaking time involved, any thing from 14 – 48 hours and about 8 water changes depending on the size of the piece – are you gasping, ok, buy the ready soaked.

So this fine recipe is as I promised before, simple. honest, and utterly delicious.

Flakes of salt cod, its robust yet delicate and pleasingly chewy texture quite unlike fresh cod tossed with roasted small tomatoes, garlic, and pebble like cubes of boiled potatoes. The 4 are dressed simply with the sticky, oily, tomato and garlic juices which collected in the roasting tin and a big handful of chopped parsley.

We ate in warm for lunch with some Focaccia to mop up the juices.

Vincenzo declared it delicious and we raised our glasses to the fine Quartet of chef, restaurant, book and recipe.

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Fergus Henderson’s Salt cod, Potato and Tomato.

Adapted from Fergus Hendersons Nose to tail eating.

  • 8oog vine tomatoes
  • 12 cloves of garlic, peeled.
  • sea salt and pepper
  • about 200ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1kg flavoursome potatoes
  • 1kg salt cod, soaked as required,carefully patted dry, skinned, small bones picked out and cut into 3cm chunks
  • a big handful of parsley roughly chopped

Chop your tomatoes in half and place them with the peeled garlic in a oven dish, sprinkle with salt and dribble over the oil.

Roast in a medium oven, about an hour, until the tomatoes are soft and giving and just a little caramelized at the edges,

Peel the potatoes and boil under tender. Drain and allow to cool enough to handle and then chop into rough chunks.

Gentle poach the cod pieces in a shallow pan of simmering water for 5 minutes and then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen towel.

In a large bowl mix the tomatoes, garlic, potato chunks, poached cod. Tip over the sticky, tomatoey, juices from the roasting tin and another glug of oil if you think it needs it. Add the roughly chopped parsley, season carefully with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Mix the ingredients together gently but firmly so the flavours mingle, the cod will crumble, this is good.

Serve just so with good bread.

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