Wednesday, August 18, 2010
With a succulent, firm texture and a fine, slightly sweet flavour, monkfish invites comparison with other 'luxury' seafoods such as lobster and scallops. Unfortunately monkfish has become so popular that there is now concern over stock levels. Full card-carrying ethical consumers may want to avoid monkfish altogether.
It is a particularly versatile fish, well-suited to many different treatments.
Monkfish has long featured in regional dishes of the Iberian Peninsula and (to a lesser degree) France. There are scant historical references to monkfish being eaten in the UK before the mid-twentieth century, but its popularity here has exploded in the last 20 - 30 years. It is now highly sought after by fishing vessels in the waters around southwest England, western Ireland and western Scotland.
The European monkfish - Lophius piscatorius - lives largely in coastal waters from northern Europe through the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It is a demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish, found at an unusually wide range of depths; from relatively shallow waters to more than a kilometre deep.
It is a rather grotesque looking fish comprising of a huge head and mouth attached to a long tail. Also known as the anglerfish, it has a flexible filament growing from its head and ending in a piece of bioluminescent tissue (known as an esca) which it dangles in front of its mouth as a bait. It even has a spare fishing-rod which grows its own esca should its primary one be bitten off. A voracious predator, its diet mainly consists of other fish but it is known to occasionally catch seabirds.
Monkfish is low in calories and a good source of protein. It contains useful amounts of vitamin B3 (required for proper functioning of the metabolic system), potassium (controls the balance of fluids in the body) and selenium (an antioxidant that also helps the immune system).
The main edible part of the monkfish is its tail. This has usually been separated from the rest of the fish by the time it reaches the supermarket or fishmonger's (presumably due to the head's ugliness and/or unwieldy size) and so you may not be able to rely on the usual visual indicators for fresh fish (bright, unsunken eyes and moist, shiny scales). Buy from a trusted supplier and use your sense of smell to be sure of the freshest monkfish.
After purchase, keep monkfish well chilled and use within 24 hours (or freeze for up to 3 months).
Remove the skin and membrane (or ask your fishmonger to do this). The tail has a single bone running down its centre, making it easy to prepare and eat. The tail yields two fillets that can be cooked whole or cut into chunks. Alternatively, cut the whole tail across the bone into medallions (cooking fish on-the-bone can enhance succulence and flavour).
Excellent results can be obtained with a variety of cooking methods. Pan-fry in a little hot oil for 2-3 minutes on each side, or roast in a hot oven (220°C) for around 30 minutes until firm to the touch. Monkfish is also delicious when poached, steamed or barbecued.
In sushi restaurants, ankimo is a highly esteemed delicacy made from monkfish liver; a sort of Japanese foie gras.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Fresh, young runner beans are a gem amongst the many wonderful vegetables available during the summer. At their best they are at once tender, succulent and bursting with flavour. There can be few better ways of serving runner beans than piled onto a plate alongside meltingly soft roast lamb, roast potatoes and gravy.
Runner beans are a good source of vitamin C, folic acid and fibre.
Look for pert well-coloured pods that snap easily with a crunch to reveal a fresh and juicy inside. The smaller and younger the better; oversized or withered beans aren't worth bothering with.
Runner beans will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days but, as with all legumes, the beans' sugars start turning to starch after picking and they are best eaten as soon as possible.
Wash the beans, top and tail, and remove the stringy bits running up both sides using a small knife or vegetable peeler. Some sources recommend soaking the beans before cooking. Very small and young beans can be served whole, either raw or briefly cooked. The majority of runner beans on sale are larger and need to be finely sliced (diagonally) so that the skin cooks relatively quickly, before the seeds have become too soft. Slicing is easiest with a bean slicer or similar hand-held gadget.
Runner beans can be boiled, steamed or stir-fried. They are best cooked until on the soft side of al dente (particularly when larger) for maximum flavour.
In many rural areas of Mexico it is common for the starchy roots of the runner bean plant, as well as the beans, to be used in cooking.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
The blackberry season spans the end of summer and the beginning of autumn and their usage can be adapted accordingly. During August we like to enjoy blackberries served simply with a little sugar and a lot of cream. They're also great muddled into a cold martini on a balmy evening. Later, we inure ourselves to the onset of autumn with deliciously comforting hot pies and puddings made by combining blackberries with the first apples of the season, to devastating effect.
Blackberries are more highly prized as a food in Britain and Northern Europe than anywhere else in the world.
Rubus fruticosus is the Latin name for the European blackberry, also known as bramble. Like the raspberry, it is an aggregate fruit and relative of the rose. It is a highly adaptable and fast-growing shrub, found in hedgerows, woodland, meadows and wasteland. It is a good pioneer species (early coloniser of a habitat) as it can grow in poor soil and its prickly stems help protect other plants' young shoots from being eaten.
Blackberries are packed with antioxidants, including vitamin C and ellagic acid, which may provide protection against cancer and chronic disease. Their many tiny seeds make them a good source of fibre. They also contain salicylates, a group of analgesics that include the active substance in aspirin.
If possible, don't - wild berries have a depth of flavour rarely rivalled by cultivated varieties. Take a container and an umbrella (for hooking branches) and search out brambles near you, avoiding roadside or polluted spots. Even in cities you can find blackberries growing on scrubland, canalside paths and in wooded areas.
Alternatively try a farmers' market or a PYO farm (good blackberries aren't widely available in supermarkets as they're difficult to transport intact). Look for plump, dry, darkly-coloured fruit that are neither too firm nor too squishy. Check the bottom of the container for stains from soft and mushy berries. Trust your sense of smell to help you gauge quality and ripeness.
Keep blackberries dry and cool and eat within a day or two. Blackberries freeze well and it's a good idea to get a few bags in the freezer to use with apples in puddings throughout the winter. Spread unwashed berries in a single layer on a tray and freeze until solid before transferring to air-tight bags or containers.
Wash thoroughly before use. Blackberries vary in sweetness so adjust the amount of sugar you add to recipes according to taste.
An extract from How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn:
O, blackberry tart, with berries as big as your thumb, purple and black, and thick with juice, and a crust to endear them that will go to cream in your mouth, and both passing down with such a taste that will make you close your eyes and wish you might live forever in the wideness of that rich moment.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
We love broad beans simply boiled, buttered and served with the Sunday roast. They're also wonderful when partnered with bacon or pancetta.
Broad beans are good sources of protein, fibre, vitamins A and C, potassium and iron. They also contain levodopa (L-dopa), a chemical the body uses to produce dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with the brain's reward and motivation system).
For the freshest broad beans try a farmers' market or, better still, a Pick Your Own farm. Choose crisp-looking unwithered pods.
After picking, broad beans quickly lose flavour with each day that passes. Keep them cool and eat them quick. Freshly picked beans can be frozen very successfully after briefly blanching them.
Split the pods and remove the beans (only the pods of VERY young beans are edible). The pale green skins can be left on or removed according to preference (older, larger beans have thicker, tougher skins). To remove the skins, blanch in boiling water for one minute and then rinse in cold water. Slip off the skins before finishing by boiling or steaming until tender (approx. 2 - 5 minutes).
Habas fritas (deep fried or roasted broad beans) are a delicious and addictive bar snack, popular in Spain.
Monday, July 19, 2010
The artichoke isn't a food to choose when you need a fast food fix. It's a slow food to linger over. Patience shown in preparation and eating is ultimately rewarded by the subtly flavoured leaves and the mouthwatering artichoke heart. You can serve artichoke as a dish in its own right, with a bowl of vinaigrette or lemon butter for dipping.
OR you can use it as an ingredient, adding something special to a salad, pasta sauce or pizza topping.
A single artichoke is the unopened flower bud of the plant Cynara scolymus, a member of the thistle family.
The artichoke contains significant levels of vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and fibre.
Pick artichokes with well-coloured, undamaged, tightly-closed leaves. Fresh artichokes will be heavy for their size due to their moisture content. Smaller artichokes have more tender leaves (baby artichokes may have leaves that are entirely edible); larger ones have bigger hearts.
Sprinkle with a little water and store in a plastic bag in the fridge. Use as soon as possible for maximum flavour.
Remove and discard the toughest of the outer leaves (bracts). Snip off any sharp leaf tips. Snap the stalk off at the base and remove the tough fibres running into the base where possible. Gently prise open the leaves to gain access to the core of the flower. Pull out the central cone of thinner leaves to reveal the inedible fibrous 'choke' (this may not be present in smaller baby artichokes). Carefully scrape this out with a teaspoon, leaving the prized heart in place. Rinse out the artichoke with acidulated water (e.g. water with a good squeeze of lemon juice added) to prevent discolouration.
Iron, copper or aluminium cookware will cause artichokes to oxidise and discolour. Use non-reactive knives and pans (e.g. stainless steel, glass or enamel). Place trimmed artichokes stem end down in a large pot of boiling water to which the juice of half a lemon has been added. It may be useful to place a colander, sieve or other device over the pan to keep the artichokes submerged. Cooking time will be somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes depending on size. Artichokes are cooked when you can easily pull out an inner leaf and the stem is tender. Stand the artichoke stem side up in a sieve to drain and cool. If eating with a dipping sauce, artichoke is best served just warm.
Artichokes can also be grilled or barbecued. Cut in half lengthways, remove the choke, rub with olive oil and grill on a moderate-to-low heat until the base is tender - around 30 minutes.
Pull off a leaf, dip (in hollondaise, lemon butter, mayonnaise, or vinaigrette), scrape the tender portion from the base of each leaf with your teeth and discard the tougher portion. Repeat until all leaves have been dispatched (smaller, thinner leaves may be ignored). When you reach the artichoke heart (cut away the choke if this wasn't done before cooking) eat it with a knife and fork.
Cynar, an artichoke-based spirit, is a popular aperitif in Italy.
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