A Scandi-style birthday supper

September 24, 2017

It’s my birthday today (happy birthday to me!), and to kick things off, I invited my best gals round for dinner last night. Most people look forward to being cooked for on their birthday, but for me cooking is such a pleasurable task, it makes my day if I have the time and space to make a really special meal for my really special friends.

As is often my way, I had one specific ingredient in mind around which I wanted to build the meal – and last night’s dinner was all about a jar of Danish pickled plums. Last week, I’d bought a punnet of bog-standard supermarket plums to make a cake with, but I ate one and it was so utterly tasteless, I couldn’t bring myself to use them. I didn’t want to waste them, though, so I dug around and found a Diana Henry recipe for Danish pickled prunes in her brilliant Salt Sugar Smoke book. I simply replaced the prunes with my plums, and followed the rest of her recipe. (I’ll definitely be making them again, so will post the recipe another time.)

I thought a fish dish would be suitably Scandi, and the gentle sweetness of smoked haddock would be a perfect match for the sharp pickle. Wanting to keep things relatively simple, I went for a one-pot recipe, and the result was baked smoked haddock and fennel, with lemon zest and chives.

I made a tomato and quick-pickled red onion salad for the side, plus some simply boiled baby purple potatoes (which I was very happy to spot at the veg shop, as they are utterly delicious).

Baked smoked haddock and fennel

Here’s the recipe for the fish:

Serves 4
600g smoked haddock (the natural stuff, if you can get it, in as large pieces as possible)
8 whole peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 bay leaf
400ml milk
4 bulbs fennel
zest of half a lemon
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
400ml fish stock
olive oil
1 small bunch chives

1 Put the haddock, with the skin still on, in a single layer in a large pot. Add the peppercorns, fennel seeds and bay leaf, and pour over enough milk to almost cover the fish. Put the lid on the pot, slowly bring to a gentle boil, then turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly in the liquid.

2 Heat the oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Trim the fennel bulbs, reserving any decent fronds. Quarter each bulb, then slice each quarter in half again. Place the fennel slices in a baking dish so they are tightly packed but in a single layer.

3 Scatter the lemon zest, chopped fennel fronds and garlic evenly over the fennel slices and grind some black pepper over. Strain 200ml of the milk the fish has been cooked in, and add to the fish stock, then pour this over the fennel. This should come to almost the top of the fennel. If you need more liquid, add some more of the fishy milk. Drizzle some olive oil evenly over the top of the fennel.

4 Bake in the oven for about 30-35 minutes – the liquid should have reduced by about half, and it should all be nicely browned – then place the whole pieces of haddock on top of the fennel. Drizzle a little more olive oil on the fish, and grind a little pepper over it. Taste the liquid in the dish, and if it needs it season with a little salt.

5 Bake in the oven for another 10 minutes, until the fish is starting to brown a little, then scatter with a good handful of snipped chives. Serve with boiled potatoes and your vegetable or salad of choice – and something pickled if you have it.

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I’m back in France at my mum’s just now, and had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Le Mans at the beginning of the week. Yes, we all know it’s where the 24-hour car race takes place, but really, there is so much more to this beautiful medieval city.

On my last morning there, I had just enough time to nip down to the marché des Jacobins (every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 7.30am to 12.30pm) to see what the local stall-holders had to offer. Located under the gaze of the stunning St Julien cathedral, it has to be one of the most beautifully located markets ever.

In other respects, it’s a fairly typical market, but, of course, typical rarely means boring when it comes to French produce. This is a funny time of year for fresh fruit and veg – the last of the winter stuff well and truly over, and the delights of spring not quite kicking in. But, still, the market was pretty much busting at the seams with lovely looking food.

Radishes being one of my favourite nibbles, I couldn’t resist buying a large bunch of the crunchy gems, pictured below. Just behind them is a kind of salad called mâche, something you don’t see very often in the UK. It’s one of my mum’s favourites, so a large bag of that was purchased, too. We also bought some dandelion leaves, which were dotted with tiny buds of the flower and had a surprisingly sweet flavour.

As well as the fresh stuff, there were inevitably a number of stalls selling bread. I noticed that a lot of places in Le Mans sold what was called traditional baguette, and when I tried some, I realised it was a kind of levain baguette. And delicious it was, too.

Despite being pretty restrained with our purchases, once Mum and I got home, we realised we did have rather a large amount of lettuce-y type things to munch through. So, for lunch today, I made a large salad of mâche, dandelion leaves, radishes, chicory, celery and cherry tomatoes.

I rustled up smoked salmon omelettes, with herbs from Mum’s garden, to eat alongside the salad, and, with the sun shining and temperatures heading towards 20 degrees, we sat outside for what felt like the first summer lunch of the year. Lovely.

A big tart

July 14, 2010

The other day I got a marriage proposal. Not from the man currently awaiting my arrival in Istanbul. But from the lovely Lene, my friend whose spare room I’m currently occupying.

We’d spent a very profitable but tiring morning selling off my excess baggage at Chiswick car boot sale, then returned home to make tea for our friend Helen and her two kids, Eric and Agnes.

Despite having got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, we quickly made cake, scones, sandwiches, salads and dips – and it was our impressive teamwork that led Lene to suggest I should not, in fact, move to Istanbul, but stay in London and marry her instead. I told her that if things didn’t work out with Süleyman, I’d definitely consider the offer!

And I’m certainly loving the way we’ve just clicked living together – easily sharing the cooking and household chores, and having someone to talk to when the practicalities of moving to Istanbul become a little overwhelming. In return, I’ll make sure I’m around to cook for her boys when she wants to go out (and to send Dexter to bed before he falls asleep in front of the television with his Xbox in his hand).

Which is what I did last night. Lene, being a bit of a yoga bunny, headed off for an evening of bending into strange shapes, while I fed Dexter (Wesley still making very rare appearances, thanks to a summer of parties stretching ahead of him).

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dexter is a pretty adventurous eater (especially considering he’s a young vegetarian), and is always willing to try new dishes. But it’s still something of a challenge for me to come up with veggie meals that he and the rest of us will enjoy.

So, a trawl through my trusty folder of cut-out recipes came up with this delicious-looking French tomato tart, which I’d seen on David Lebovitz’s blog. I decided to buy the tomatoes from Lina Stores, the lovely old Italian deli on London’s Brewer Street, and thought, rather than the French goat’s cheese David suggests, I’d stick with the Italian theme and try some of that country’s cheese instead.

A chat with the lady behind the counter resulted in me buying a nice big chunk of flavourful Fontina, which I thought would be the perfect foil to the sharp mustard base of the tart. (Dexter tried a slice of it while I was preparing the tart, and declared it his second favourite cheese, after brie!)

The beautiful, plump plum tomatoes combined with some fresh herbs direct from Lene’s garden gave the tart a truly summery flavour. So, on the side, I kept it seasonal and made a crunchy radish and gherkin coleslaw with mustard mayonnaise, and one of my all-time faves, cauliflower, fennel and celery salad with a lemon dressing, from Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food. We also ate several slices of my latest loaf of sourdough bread, slathered in lots of butter.

This is the kind of food I could just eat mounds of in the summer – and, luckily, Dexter felt the same. Although, we did manage to leave a few morsels for Lene…

Fishing for compliments…

January 25, 2010

This weekend, my shopping at Borough Market was all about fish. I’d recently noticed a new-ish stall and, yesterday, took a closer look. It was selling a small but perfectly fresh selection of fish that had come direct from some Devon boats, and when I checked the prices, it was significantly cheaper than some of the other more established fish stalls in the market.

A box of shiny silvery-black mackerel caught my eye, so I asked for one, plus a small-ish squid. Then, as I was about to pay the whopping £3 for the two items, I saw two large roe sacks.

“What fish is that from?” I asked. “Sea bass,” the guy informed me. “You can have it, and your other bits, for a fiver.” Now, in my books, that’s an offer you don’t refuse!

The mackerel has gone in the freezer for later in the week, and I’ll have the squid tonight, but last night I decided to eat the roe while it was super-fresh.

Some online research led me to discover that bass roe is something of a delicacy in the States, where it’s cooked simply by poaching in some stock. So that’s what I did. Although, me being me, I had to add something else – and this time it was a lemon and chive sauce.

Once cooked, the roe resembled a fishy boudin, but the tiny eggs gave it a very smooth texture. It was quite mild in taste, with just a hint of sea-saltiness – but it was very rich, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to eat the whole thing.

I’m not sure it’s something I would bother buying if I saw it again, but hey, you have to try these things once in a while…