“24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Blog Posts.” This is the idea behind the global ‘live-blogging’ event organised by Foodbuzz. The team called for entries from bloggers around the world. The task? to create a unique meal, an ‘ultimate meal’, in fact. Now my ultimate meal changes on an almost daily basis but something I always feel passionate about is the fabulous cooking history we have in this country, which often gets a bit of a bad rep. So, get yourself comfortable with a glass/mug of your favourite tipple and let me tell you a little food story about a few things British.
When I first started this blog, I chose the name Food Stories because I wanted the name to reflect the way that food experiences form such an intimate narrative running throughout my life. The dishes and ingredients we are surrounded by obviously play a part in shaping our tastes and culinary identities and although I enjoy cooking and eating food from cuisines the world over, I think it is important to celebrate the produce that can be found right on my own doorstep.
So why did it take so long for people to realise that the UK has some truly wonderful ingredients on offer? For some reason, people in Britain were not always interested in eating high quality, slow, seasonal food – my how times have changed! Now you have to think about getting up early to race to the farmers market and beat the crowds as eager shoppers crowd around the new season’s asparagus and Jersey Royal potatoes. People are demanding higher standards and are more interested than ever in the provenance of their grub. There is a resurgence of interest in traditional dishes – check out my British One Hundred for a personal list. I for one can’t get enough of this UK food revolution and I am so happy to be cooking this meal, an opportunity to champion some fantastic ingredients and put a twist on some traditional dishes.
The British summertime has now well and truly drawn to a close and the past couple of weeks have brought a chilly nip in the air. Despite this, today is bright and sunny, which is what I had my fingers, toes and everything else crossed for, as this meal will be eaten al fresco. Throughout the summer, my partner and I have enjoyed so many evenings together on this balcony, lingering over good food and wine, chatting until the sun sets and listening to the sounds of the city in the background. This meal is like a farewell celebration of summer evenings and a nod to the changing seasons, welcoming the new autumn produce.
As I said, this year the weather has already turned cooler and we have experienced more than our usual share of rain. You might not think it, but there have been benefits to this unusual weather and one of those is an extended samphire season. For those of you not familiar, samphire is a succulent, which grows around the British coastline and has the most wonderful flavour of the sea. It is fantastically unique, has a totally addictive crisp texture and is the perfect (and I am not exaggerating when I say perfect), accompaniment to fish. It is delicious when cooked simply with butter but for this meal, I am using it in a warm salad together with spinach, lemon-scented, tangy sorrel and – a really traditional British snack – the humble cockle. Did you know that a cockle is actually capable of jumping? Not just a pretty face.
I have always had a fascination with the (sadly dwindling!) UK seafood stall, where you may also purchase delights such as whelks, mussels and eels. Eels? Yes, really. As many of you know, I am a Londoner but even I can’t really stomach the jellied variety. Prepared differently however, the humble eel can be totally delicious, which is why I am including a piece of smoked eel as the crowning glory to this salad. And so the first course is nearly finished – just a warming through of the leaves, samphire and cockles in butter and a splash of malt vinegar for a British sea side feel. Oh, and a final sprinkling of seaweed salt, because I’m feeling well, a bit flash.
The main event this evening is a dish that has many memories for me – it is a stargazy pie (an updated version – not the traditional pilchards…). My Dad’s side of the family are Cornish and I spent many summer holidays there as a child. I remember quite clearly the moment I found out about the Stargazy pie. A quick phone call to Dad and he told me the name of the pub (of course it was in a pub) – the Ship Inn at Mousehole. Yes it is a real place but no, it’s not pronounced as it sounds – more like “mowzel” and is renowned for fishing, not mice. The stargazy pie is traditionally baked on Tom Bawcock’s Eve (23rd December), when the residents of Mousehole gather to celebrate the efforts of previous resident Tom Bawcock who reportedly made efforts to relieve the tiny fishing village of famine.
My childhood memories aside, the pie recently came to public attention when Cornish chef Mark Hix revamped it for The Great British Menu using rabbit and crayfish and won through to cook for an Ambassadors dinner at the British Embassy in Paris. The dish not only captured the heart of the British public, but also my partner Chris who demanded we re-created it when we visited his family recently in France. They already had a rabbit and some langoustines when we arrived – it was meant to be. The final pie was stunning (the pic below is pre-baking). I would like to claim the glory but it was Chris’s mum who did the lions share. Just check out the way those langoustines are holding hands.
The pie was that good with langoustines that I wanted to make it again and so came up with an all-fish version, harking back a little more to the original. I used chunks of monkfish for a rather decadent pie (best eaten as an occasional treat, due to concerns over stock levels) and finished with those beautiful pink langoustines. To accompany the pie – what could be more British than mushy peas? I am going to arouse controversy now by saying I actually prefer a lighter mushy pea to the traditional marrowfat version. I like the fresh flavour and bright green colour. To finish the dish, I made a fennel scented version of the famous cockney parsley sauce known as ‘liquor’. The sauce is traditionally served with pie and mash, to form a meal which has been eaten all over London since the 18th century. Pie, mash and eel shops can still be found in London, mainly in the East End, including Manzes which has been going since 1902.
When I started to think about a finish to the meal, I just couldn’t get the idea of a summer pudding out of my head. Traditionally, the pudding is a glorious combination of summer fruits, such as raspberries, redcurrants and strawberries, encased in a layer of white bread (or brioche, if you like that kind of thing – which I do). The pudding is then left to rest (preferably overnight) while the bread absorbs all the wonderful berry juices and stains a dark pink. It essential that you serve the pudding with cream. As I said, it’s no longer summer in Blighty but I still came across some plump raspberries, which are also enjoying the benefits of a rainy summer. I supplemented them with some blackberries and blueberries and served the pudding with clotted cream infused with an elderflower liqueur.The beautiful perfume of the elderflower works really well with the summer pudding and would actually be even better (I think) splashed in with the berries.
By this point the sun is setting behind our flat and is casting the most incredible light across the park in front of us – an orangey-red glow. We muse about the meals we have enjoyed together on the balcony and also the food we have grown there, tomatoes, salad leaves, herbs and (almost) potatoes. I feel proud of the meal I’ve created because many of the ingredients bring back dear memories. The day has been pretty much perfect, shopping at Borough Market this morning for the ingredients (here’s my photo tour) then home to the kitchen for a good few hours of non-stop cooking with a few glasses of good wine. Out to the balcony to enjoy some unexpected but oh so welcome September sunshine, conversation, laughter, wine and of course, some damn fine fare…
Salad of Cockles, Sorrel, Spinach and Samphire with Smoked Eel
Simply warm through a handful each of spinach, samphire (blanched), sorrel and cockles in a little butter, adding a splash of malt vinegar at the end. Heap onto a serving plate and warm through bite size pieces of smoked eel. Sprinkle with seaweed salt.
Stargazy Pie with Monkfish and Langoustine
I adapted the recipe from Mark Hix’s version here. Instead of the rabbit, I added monkfish when the sauce was cooked and replaced the crayfish with langoustine. I also used a litre less stock.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook two peeled garlic cloves for 10 minutes. Add 3 generous man-handfuls of frozen petit pois and cook for 3-4 minutes, then drain. Return the peas and garlic to the bowl, then add 2 heaped tablespoons chopped mint, a knob of butter, some seasoning and a splash of milk. Pulse with a blender.
Parsley Liquor with Fennel (adapted from this recipe)
I followed the recipe to the letter, although I softened some very finely chopped fennel in the butter at the beginning, before adding the flour. I also added a touch more malt vinegar.
I made two puddings in 12 cm moulds. Each pud was enough for 2 people
Take 400g berries (I used raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, which is unusual. Normally red summer berries and currants are used) and add to a pan with 1 tablespoon water and 50g caster sugar. Heat through very gently until the sugar is dissolved and the juices of the berries have started to run. Line the pudding dish first with cling film – leaving a large overhang and then with slices of brioche, taking care to overlap and patch where necessary. You don’t want any juice leaking through. Fill with the berry mix – almost to the top (saving some for sauce) and seal with more brioche. Spoon some of the remaining juice onto the top, seal up with the cling film and put something like and unopened can on top to weigh down. Leave in the fridge overnight.
For the cream, I just mixed a good dash of elderflower liqueur with some clotted cream. To serve, loosen the pudding by pulling gently at the cling film and turn out onto a plate. Spoon some of the remaining juice and fruit on top and round then edge and finish with a dollop of cream.