Kung Po Prawns

Stir-fried food is the ultimate fast food, taking literally less than 5 minutes from hot oil to finished dish. Obviously, that means that once you start cooking things move fast so you need to be well organised and have all your ingredients weighed-out, measured and chopped before you even think about turning on the gas. Though the ingredients list looks long there really isn’t much to it, and preparation should only take 15 minutes even if you take your time.

I made this a couple of nights ago; once we had used our fingers to clean every last drop of sauce from our bowls – and the wok, and the serving spoon – my wife said that she didn’t like Chinese food, but she loved this. What she really meant was that she loves Chinese food, real Chinese food, but she doesn’t like the food that you get from Chinese takeaways.

If Chinese takeaway food is your only experience of Chinese-style cooking then you are in for an extremely pleasant surprise, and this dish is an excellent way in to a delicious, filling and healthy cuisine. All the ingredients are readily available from UK supermarkets, so please don’t try and substitute say, black peppercorns for the Sichuan peppercorns, they are very different and it is the interplay of the various aromatic components of the sauce that make this such an amazing dish.

This is excellent served with Beijing rice, or your favourite noodles.

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RECIPE – feeds 2

For the crispy prawns:

1 tbsp sichuan peppercorns, dry-fried and ground

a good pinch of sea salt

2 tbsp cornflour

12 large raw king prawns, tails on

6 tbsp groundnut oil

For the stir-fry:

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 medium red chilli, finely chopped (seeds left in if you like it hot)

1 red and 1 yellow pepper, chopped into 1.5 cm chunks

For the sauce:

2 tbsp lemon juice

2 tbsp hoisin sauce

1 tbsp dark soy sauce

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

For the garnish:

a bunch of fresh coriander, leaves and stalks, chopped

a small handful of dry-roasted peanuts (optional)


METHOD

In a large, NOT non-stick pan over a high heat, dry-roast the sichuan peppercorns until they are aromatic. Be careful not to scorch them, then turn them out on to a plate to cool.

Prepare all the other ingredients.

Once the Sichuan peppercorns are cool, use a small coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle to grind them to a fine powder. In a large shallow dish combine with the cornflour and salt then roll the prawns in the mix until they are thoroughly coated, set aside for now.

Combine the sauce ingredients, set aside.

Heat a wok over a high heat, when hot add the 6 tbsp of groundnut oil and swirl it around the wok to coat all surfaces. Get it very hot then add the prawns, cook for about one minute, the prawns should be just turning pink. Remove from the heat and quickly, using a slotted spoon or ‘spider’  (a large open-mesh spoon, used a lot in oriental and wok cooking), remove the prawns from the wok and set aside on a plate.

Reheat the oil, add the chilli and garlic and stir fry for around 15 seconds, then add the chunks of red and yellow pepper. Stir-fry for 1 minute then add the sauce and bring to the boil, put the prawns back in the sauce and remove from the heat. Garnish in the wok, and serve.

I promise, you will fall in love with this dish.

 

Prawn Etouffee with Cajun Rice

My wife and I both love spicy food; not just Indian curries but also Italian food made with plenty of lemon and chilli, rich and creamy Thai dishes, and our most recent discovery: the Cajun cuisine of Louisiana, which finds yet more interesting ways to use a limited range of spices to make a whole new set of flavour experiences.

Prawn Etouffee is a traditional Cajun dish that uses a very dark, rich roux made from vegetable oil and flour. It was a new way of making a roux for me, and it takes a fair bit of bravery and constant whisking to get it dark and flavoursome without it burning. It’s well worth the effort though, this tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before, and I love it.

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RECIPE – serves 2

For the seasoning mix:

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp freshly ground white pepper

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/2 tsp dried thyme

For the sauce:

1/2 small onion, finely chopped

1 stick of celery, finely chopped

1/2 green pepper, finely chopped

3 tbsp vegetable oil

3 tbsp plain flour

400 ml fish stock

30g butter

200g raw king prawns, peeled

4 spring onions, very finely chopped

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped


METHOD

Prepare all of your ingredients before you do anything else, and combine your seasoning mix in a small bowl. Also combine the onion, celery and green pepper in a small bowl.

In a large pan, over a high heat, heat the oil until it just starts to smoke. Add the flour gradually while whisking constantly, keep it on the heat. Keep on whisking over the heat until the flour and oil are fully combined and smooth, by now you should notice that the roux is starting to change colour. The longer you cook and whisk it the darker it will go. You need to get the colour to a very dark brown; be brave, just keep on whisking and if you think you are ever in danger of burning it just lift it away from the heat for a few seconds – just keep on whisking.

When your roux is a very dark brown remove it from the heat and immediately stir in your combined onion, celery and green pepper, and half the seasoning mix. Keep on whisking it all together until the roux and the pan have cooled sufficiently that you can safely leave it for a minute or two and nothing will burn. That should only take a minute or so.

Meanwhile, bring the fish stock to the boil. While continuing to whisk the roux and chopped vegetables, pour the stock in and return to the heat. Keep cooking and whisking until the sauce that you have now made is thick and smooth. Set aside while you cook your prawns.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan then add the spring onions and prawns. Cook over a moderate heat for around a minute, until the prawns just start to go pink, then add the sauce and the remaining half of the seasoning mix. Stir well.

Serve in a bowl with a mound of Cajun rice in the middle, garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Universal Barbecue Bean Burgers

It’s a bank holiday in England, as usual the weather is a bit iffy, and we are off to a barbecue. Not being a fan of greasy burgers and mystery sausages (the mystery being: what meat is this?) we always take a brace of beanburgers with us. Everybody laughs, as if pointing fingers at the weird kid in school: “Burgers? That Vegans can eat? Yeuch!”

Then they try one, and I discover that I didn’t bring enough…


RECIPE – makes 4 large or 6 smaller patties (they are filling) 

1 tin of black beans, drained and roughly mashed

30g butter (or 2 tbsp olive oil if cooking for a vegan)

1 red onion, finely chopped

140g mushrooms, any kind, finely chopped

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed

a bunch of parsley, chopped (stalks and all)

1 sping onion, trimmed and finely chopped

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

4 tbsp gram flour

1 tsp Marmite

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


METHOD

Roughly mash the black beans, ensuring you keep enough texture to make the final burger interesting. Prepare the rest of the ingredients…

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Melt the butter, with a little oil (or just oil if you will be making these for vegans) in a large frying pan and gently sautee the onion for three or four minutes until softened but not coloured. Add the mushrooms and soy sauce, continue cooking until most of the mushroom liquor has evaporated, this should only take another three minutes or so. Now stir in the garlic, spring onion, parsley, chilli and black beans. Mix well and cook for a couple of minutes then add the marmite and season to taste with black pepper.

Transfer to a large bowl and stir the gram flour through the bean mixture, the gram flour will act as a binding agent to hold the patty together. Allow the mixture to cool until you can handle it comfortably, then shape into either 4 larger or 6 smaller patties…

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Cover them and chill thoroughly before cooking. They will firm up and can be patted into their final shape when chilled.

They can be pan fried for 1-2 minutes each side until golden brown, grilled for 3 or 4 minutes each side, or barbecued for a minute or so each side. Serve in a bap with your choice of salad and prepare to be quite full – if you can manage two of the larger ones you are a rare breed.

Cod Loin with a Fragrant Curry Sauce

This is a very simple curry that packs a huge punch of flavour. The spicing is bold but it isn’t the kind of curry that will have you bolting for a glass of milk to cool your mouth, instead the spices emerge as layers of flavour that queue politely for your attention.

As this is the first proper curry dish that I have posted here I wanted to use an amazing general-purpose sauce, to show how simple it can be to get great flavour and also how versatile a good sauce can be. I have used cod loin here but you can use any firm white fish loin or fillet, salmon, prawns, lobster, chicken and even pork. Quorn pieces go very well with this and if you want to make it for a vegan just omit the fish sauce, substitute the ghee for vegetable oil and use firm textured vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots, cauliflower) as your key ingredients.

I have specified using curry powder in this recipe – please note that it is my own recipe for curry powder and the recipe below is linked to the recipe for the curry powder. Please, please, please do not use a commercial curry powder in its place, it will be – how can I put this plainly? – crap.

This goes very well with chapatis and coriander rice.

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RECIPE – feeds 2 – 4 people 

One cod loin per person

3 tbsp ghee

1 tsp black mustard seeds

4 bay leaves

4 banana shallots, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a big knob of fresh ginger, about 25g, not peeled but rough bits cut off, finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely sliced

1 birds-eye chilli, finely sliced (optional, for if you like heat)

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp turmeric

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tin coconut milk

small bunch fresh coriander, leaves and stalks separated, stalks chopped finely


METHOD

Prepare all ingredients, combine the curry powder and turmeric with a little water to make a paste, set aside.

Tip: Adding a little water to dry ground spice powders to make a paste ensures that they don’t burn when added to a hot pan. It also allows the flavours to begin to develop even before you cook with them.

If you are ever adding powdered spices to a very hot oil (e.g. when cooking stir-fry in a wok) then make the paste using vegetable oil rather than water.

In a large pan, melt the ghee over a medium heat then add the mustard seeds and bay leaves, cook for approximately a minute then add the shallots, garlic, ginger and chilli. Cook for a few minutes until soft and aromatic then add the curry powder and turmeric paste. Cook for a minute or so, stirring the paste around to distribute it around and coat the other ingredients, then add the tomatoes, fish sauce and coconut milk. Bring to the boil then simmer for five minutes.

Turn off the heat, make sure your fresh coriander stalks are finely chopped and add them to the sauce; stir them in thoroughly and now let the sauce sit for as long as you possibly can. This sauce gets better with time, so try and make it in the morning or early afternoon for the evening meal. If you can make it the evening before it will be even better.

When ready to eat, gradually heat the sauce up and when it reaches a boil add the cod loins (or other fish) and simmer for 5-8 minutes until it is just cooked – it will continue to cook in the sauce, even off the heat. Scatter chopped fresh coriander leaves over the top and serve.

If using chicken or pork it should be cut into fairly small chunks and added with the tomatoes and coconut milk. By the time it comes to reheat it the meat will have slowly cooked through.

If using vegetables they should also be cut into fairly small chunks and added with the tomatoes and coconut milk. Check the vegetables for firmness before reheating to serve and cook on for as long as necessary to cook to your liking.

If using Quorn, that should also be added with the tomatoes and coconut milk.

 

Faux Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Pie

I hear you ask: what is a faux chicken pie?  It’s a chicken pie without any chicken in it – and before you ask what is the point, let me tell you that when my father and grandfather ate it on Sunday evening they had no idea that there was no chicken in it.

It’s all thanks to the magic of Quorn, a meat substitute that has improved enormously in the past few years. I don’t generally like substituting for the real thing, but when I am cooking for hardened meat-eaters of my parent’s and grand-parent’s generations as well for my vegetarian wife, I have the choice to either carry out a con trick or cook two meals. Well, the con trick will win every time.

When I revealed what they had just eaten there was general amazement and a reappraisal of how good vegetarian food can be. I can prove it too; I was supposed to take a picture of the two pies that I had made before they went on the table, but people were hungry. I ended up taking a picture of the last little piece of the one pie that was left after four hungry people had eaten their fill. The pitiful amount remaining speaks for itself.

I used two smaller 9 1/2 inch oval pie dishes this time, but usually make it in a larger, deep 12 1/2 by 9 1/2 inch oblong dish. Don’t worry overmuch about what you cook it in, just use what you have.

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RECIPE – comfortably feeds 4 people

50g unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

2 large leeks, trimmed and thinly sliced

50g plain flour

300ml semi-skimmed milk

300ml vegetable stock

1/2 tsp fish sauce

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, finely chopped (or 1 tsp dried tarragon)

250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced

350g Quorn chicken pieces

75g cheddar cheese, grated

500g puff pastry, block or ready-rolled

1 egg, beaten

 


METHOD

Melt the butter with the oil in a large pan and gently fry the leeks over a low heat for ten minutes, until soft but not coloured.

Mix the flour with a little of the milk to make a smooth paste (no lumps!) and when the leeks are soft add the paste to the pan with the rest of the milk and the stock. Turn the heat up to high and, stirring constantly, bring to the boil. Simmer until the sauce is thick and smooth and any lumps that may have appeared are cooked out.

*Tip: Many people are rightfully worried about thickening sauces with flour, having suffered disgusting lumpy sauces in their childhood. Fear not, it is a problem easily avoided if you only take the time to continually whisk and stir your sauce while it comes to the boil. If you leave it while you go and do something else then you will suffer lumpy sauce, so look after it.

Now add the fish sauce (it will smell disgusting but gives the sauce a lovely depth of flavour when cooked in), the mustard and tarragon. Add the mushrooms and simmer for a couple of minutes, check the seasoning, then add the Quorn pieces and stir thoroughly. Remove from the heat, stir in the cheese, and put aside to cool completely.

The Quorn should go in frozen but will quickly thaw in the hot sauce, and will cook gently as the sauce cools.

When ready to cook, heat the oven to 200C / 180C Fan / Gas 6.

Roll the pastry out until approximately the thickness of a pound coin. Ensure the filling is completely cold otherwise the butter in your pastry will melt and your pastry lid will be a soggy disaster.

Brush the edge of your pie dish with water, lay the pastry on top with an overhang all round. Press and crimp the top and edge all round, trim away any excess pastry, brush the pastry with the beaten egg and pierce a steam hole in the centre.

Bake for approximately 35 minutes until the pastry is a deep golden colour and has risen.

Serve with a mound of smooth buttery mash, garden peas and a smile – don’t tell anyone what is in it until they have finished eating.

 

Warm Salad of Trout, Watercress and Spelt

“Things that grow together, go together.”

I have a terrific book on my shelves, ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’, by Niki Segnit. It’s a very handy reference when you have something in the fridge and you’re trying to figure out what to use as an accompaniment; it’s also handy to refer to if you have had a wacky idea, just to check that those flavours really will work together.

On the subject of trout and cress it has this to say: “not so much a pairing as a reunification. Trout feed on the more tender leaves of watercress but they’re really after the sowbugs, tiny crustaceans that live in its thickets.” Having had the idea, and knowing that we would be attending the Watercress Festival at the weekend, I knew to look out for some trout in the farmers’ market that is at the heart of the festival. I would have preferred to have got hold of brown trout, which has a more fulsome flavour than the rainbow trout which was all that was available there, but it was no problem – all I had to do was ensure that I gave it a little help by putting other flavoursome elements around it.

Hitting the books, I found that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pairs trout and watercress with pearled spelt (in his excellent book ‘Three Good Things’), with a strong sauce that cuts through and enhances the flavour of the fish. I was thinking of using horseradish, which goes brilliantly with salmon so should work here (and it does by the way), but I always prefer to make everything if I can, rather than opening a jar.

There was still something missing though, I thought Hugh might have missed a trick by limiting himself to just three main ingredients. What I now had planned reminded me a little of kedgeree, and of course egg and cress are a classic combination, so would eggs work here? I always presumed that the eggs in a kedgeree only really work because of the way they interact with the curry flavours; the flavour thesaurus indicated that it wouldn’t be a disaster and you’ll never know unless you try it. I’m not spoiling the plot by telling you that of course it worked, otherwise the eggs wouldn’t appear in the recipe below.

It’s enormously satisfying when a faint idea blossoms into a recipe that you will make again and again; for mere amateurs like me it is a fairly rare occurrence, there will always be more failures along the way than successes. There’s always more to learn though, and a failure isn’t really a failure when you can learn so much from it. The main point here is to remind you that it’s okay to experiment. Don’t be afraid of ‘failure’; just read recipes, steal bits of them, adapt parts of others, play around with flavours and textures and see what happens, it can be great fun and if you can make cooking fun your eating will be fabulous, just like it is here.

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RECIPE – for 2 people as a main course, for 4 people or more as a starter

1 rainbow or brown trout, 500g or so, or two smaller fish

1 onion, sliced

2 tsp black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

a handful of parsley stalks, gently bruised

150g pearled spelt

1 tsp bouillon powder (I use Marigold)

2 good handfuls of watercress, large clumps separated

a handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped

2 duck eggs, boiled for 7 1/2 minutes and set aside

For the dressing:

50g plain yoghurt

1 tsp English mustard

juice of 1/2 lemon

a small pinch of sugar


METHOD

Lay the fish in a pan deep enough that you can completely cover it with water. Add the onion, peppercorns, bay and parsley stalks. Bruise the parsley stalks first, by gently pressing down on them with the flat of a knife.

Bring to a gentle simmer and poach the fish for 8-10 minutes. The exact time will depend on the size of your fish but be very careful not to go over – the fish flesh should be just translucent as it will cook on slightly. Lift the fish out and allow to cool completely before peeling the skin off and lifting the flesh from the bones. Try to keep the fish in fairly large chunks.

While the fish is cooling, strain the poaching liquid through a sieve to remove the onion, peppercorns, bay and parsley. Season with a teaspoon of bouillon powder and carefully adjust by adding salt, a tiny pinch at a time and testing after each addition.

You will now have a delicious fish stock, bring it to the boil and add the spelt. Simmer for 20-30 mins until the spelt is soft but still has a nutty ‘bite’.

Ten minutes or so before you think the spelt is done, boil the duck eggs for 7 1/2 minutes (if you can’t get duck eggs then use large hens eggs and boil for 6 mins) then set aside to cool slightly before cracking and peeling the shells, taking care to keep the eggs intact.

Drain the spelt and set aside while you make the dressing, by whisking together all the dressing ingredients.

On a serving platter gently combine the fish and spelt, dress with the watercress and parsley leaves, cut the eggs in half (the yolks should be soft but not runny) and place on top, then drizzle with the dressing.

This is lovely served warm as described; leftovers can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days and it is still delicious cold.

 

Tagliatelle with Prawns in a Chilli Brandy Sauce

I love the way that pasta allows you to create impressive dishes with minimal effort. If I had to choose my favourite cuisine it would be a tough decision, but I’m sure I would settle for eating Italian food every day for the rest of my life if I really had to, and I wouldn’t complain. It’s the flavours; just a handful of good ingredients, carefully chosen, lift each other to new heights.

What is there to dislike about Italian food? It is generally quick to prepare, quick to cook, inexpensive and utterly delicious. It’s food for life.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

25g unsalted butter

2 tbsp olive oil

2 banana shallots, peeled and finely chopped

12 cherry tomatoes, quartered

1 tsp chilli flakes

4 tbsp brandy

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

225g tagliatelle

12 raw king prawns, peeled but tails on

a small handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Melt the butter with the oil in a large frying pan over a moderate heat and fry the shallots, stirring occasionally, for a couple of minutes until soft and aromatic, but not coloured.

Meanwhile, bring a very large pan of salted water to the boil, ready for your pasta.

Increase the heat, add the tomatoes to the frying pan with the chilli flakes and a pinch of salt and cook for a minute or so. Add the brandy and cook on for a further minute to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook for a couple of minutes then turn off the heat, check the seasoning and put to one side.

Cook the tagliatelle in the boiling salted water until al dente, it will cook on a little in the sauce. If using dried tagliatelle nests this will take approximately 6 minutes, if using fresh then it will take as little as two minutes.

One minute before the pasta is ready, bring the frying pan back to a high heat and add the prawns, stirring occasionally. By the time the pasta has cooked and you have drained it, the prawns should have just turned pink and will be ready. Add the tagliatelle to the prawns and sauce, toss thoroughly then scatter the parsley onto it, give it one final toss through and serve alongside a bowl of undressed rocket.

Time this right and you can have it on the table within ten minutes from chopping your shallots – it’s seriously impressive fast food!

Hake with Puy Lentils, Rocket and Salsa Verde

I recently discovered hake and my first thought was: where have you been all my life? It has a similar texture and mouth-feel to cod, but has a lovely flavour all its own (whereas cod can actually be quite bland) and – most importantly – it is sustainable. You may not be able to find hake where you are, but you can use any firm-fleshed white fish so feel free to substitute cod, pollack, coley, haddock or whiting.

This recipe started life in a great book by Lucas Hollweg entitled ‘Good Things to Eat’, an aptly-named book that I heartily recommend. The salsa verde, in particular, is all his and the way it is used here elevates what would be a good dish into a great dish. This meal is never going to win any awards for beauty, there’s a little too much brown going on, but it does a great dance on your taste buds…

It looks like there’s a lot of work to do here given the length of the ingredients list, but if you read the method you will see that it will actually take very little work and the biggest job you face is chopping the vegetables finely.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

For the salsa verde:

a big handful of flat-leaf parsley

a handful of basil leaves

a handful of mint leaves

6 anchovy fillets in oil, drained

2 big garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 tbsp capers, drained

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the lentils:

150g dry puy lentils

4 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

leaves from one sprig of rosemary, finely chopped

2 tbsp tomato puree

1 bay leaf

720ml water

120g bag of rocket

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the fish:

2 thick white fish fillets or loins, skin on if possible

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

25g unsalted butter

olive oil


METHOD

First make the salsa verde: grab a big bunch of flat-leaf parsley in your hands and tear it in half so you end up with mostly the stalks in one hand and mostly leaves in the other, put everything into a food processor. Strip the leaves from a bunch of mint and a bunch of basil, add them to the food processor along with the anchovies, garlic, capers, mustard and vinegar. Turn the food processor on to continuous action, and slowly drizzle olive oil into the chopped leaves mixture until it becomes a finely chopped sauce that is the consistency that you want it to be. Depending on how you like your sauces you may need to use as much as 125ml of oil. Empty into a bowl, season very carefully and set aside.

Season the fish with salt and pepper and set aside while you cook the lentils.

Put the lentils into a large bowl or saucepan and cover with water; using your fingers swirl the lentils around to clean them. The water may go cloudy; if so, drain the lentils and repeat until the water stays clean. Drain the lentils and set aside for a few minutes.

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a large pan and over a gentle heat sweat the vegetables, garlic and rosemary under a piece of parchment for up to ten minutes.

*Tip: Sweating vegetables under a piece of parchment is known as using a cartouche. It is a way of cooking that simultaneously sweats and steams the vegetables, extracting maximum flavour in minimum time.

Cut a square of baking parchment that is slightly larger than the surface area of your pan, push it down so it sits on top of your sweating vegetables and then tuck the sides down so the vegetables are completely covered. Keep the heat low and after a few minutes check to see that nothing is catching on the bottom of the pan, then re-cover and continue to sweat them until they are as soft as you need them to be and the aroma is filling your kitchen.

Now stir in the tomato puree and cook it out for a minute. Now add the lentils, water and bay leaf. Do not add any seasoning of any kind at this stage – it will render your lentils tough and probably inedible. Bring to the boil then simmer for anything between 20 and 40 minutes depending on the age of your lentils – keep on checking, they should be tender but retain a little bite.

Drain, but retain the cooking water and remove the bay leaf. Stir in the final 2 tbsp of oil and 4 tbsp of the cooking liquid; you may now dispose of the remaining cooking liquid. Mix in half the salsa verde then season generously but carefully. Stir the rocket through the lentils, cover and keep warm while you cook the fish.

Heat a large frying pan until it is very hot, then add 2 tbsp of oil and lay the fish, skin down, in the oil. Turn the heat down a little and cook the fish without disturbing until the skin is crisp and the flesh has cooked about 2/3 of the way through. Carefully turn the fish over and at the same time drop the butter into the pan, as it melts use it to baste the top of the fish and cook for a further minute. The fish should be just cooked and the exact time it takes will depend on the thickness and type of fish that you are using.

Plate up into bowls, laying the fish on top of a mound of rocket and lentils. Drizzle a little oil over the fish and dot the top with a few spoonfuls of the remaining salsa verde.

This dish sits alone, if you feel particularly hungry it will go alongside a simple green salad but it needs nothing else.

Roasted Sea Bass with Potato Gratin

The smell of roasted fish and potatoes is everywhere around the Mediterranean; it’s a classic pairing and deservedly, deliciously so. Too many amateur cooks are scared, literally scared, of cooking fish though. I must confess that I used to be as well, the problem being that sometimes if you take your eye off it for even 30 seconds then you run the risk of it overcooking. The solution is simple: know how long your piece of fish is likely to take to cook, and keep your eye on it when the time gets close!

Cooking a whole fish gives you a little more leeway than cooking a slim fillet, but that doesn’t mean you should be complacent – even the best cooks can get distracted at the critical moment. This though is as foolproof as a fish dish ever gets: a delicious fish sitting atop a fantastically flavoured, light and aromatic gratin. This is food that makes you feel good, which is what all food should do.

A quick word about preparing the fish: before cooking it should be gutted and have its gills and scales removed. This is a simple and straightforward task, though descaling can get a little messy as the scales have a tendency to land all around the kitchen (when I do it I put the fish in a carrier bag in the sink – that’s the voice of hard-won experience). There are many guides and tutorials to fish preparation available on the web, so I won’t rehash that information here. Suffice to say that though I am perfectly capable of preparing a fish myself, I won’t do it if I don’t have to – I have other things to do and there are people out there called fishmongers who will be happy to do it for you if you only ask them.

I have occasionally found myself at a supermarket fish counter, spotted something that I would like to cook and I have asked the person behind the counter to prepare it for me, only to be met by a blank look and be told that they only sell them, they’re not qualified to prepare them. On each occasion I have walked away. In my view you have no business selling nature’s bounty if you know nothing about it. I would rather put myself out and travel somewhere else, to a fully-trained professional who cares about his work and can answer my questions about where the fish came from (and when), and offer suggestions on the best way to cook them. Sure, I may pay a bit more for it, but when it comes to fish you definitely get what you pay for.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

 

2 whole sea bass about 300g each, cleaned, de-gilled and scaled

3 sprigs of rosemary

zest and juice of 1 large lemon

750g potatoes, peeled and sliced 3 or 4 mm thick

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

6 anchovy fillets in oil, drained and chopped

2 tsp dried thyme

a good pinch of saffron, shredded

4 tbsp olive oil

20 cherry tomatoes, halved

75 ml vermouth

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Heat your oven to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7.

Slash the fish 3 times on each side with a very sharp knife, taking care only to go roughly 5 millimetres into the flesh. Season well both inside the cavity and on the outside, with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a sprig of rosemary inside the cavity of each fish and place them in a dish, pour over the lemon juice ensuring it gets inside the cavity and into the slashes on both sides of the fish. Leave the zest for later use and set the fish aside while you prepare the gratin.

The potatoes need to be very thinly sliced if they are to be experienced at their best, and I recommend using a mandolin to do this. If you don’t own one, buy one – seriously, I am not at all into kitchen gadgets but this is one tool I absolutely rely on. If you have doubts, see how you feel after you have cut 150 or so very thin slices of potato.

In a large freezer bag or similar, toss the sliced potatoes with the garlic, anchovies, thyme, saffron and olive oil. Using a bag is more efficient at getting the oil and other flavours all over the potatoes, it means you won’t drown your dish in oil, which can end up unpleasant.

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Rub a little oil on the inside of a large gratin dish – large enough to take both fish without crowding them – and empty the contents of the bag into it; squeeze, shake and wipe out the bag with your fingers to get every last piece of flavour into your dish. Spread the potato slices out into an even layer, then scatter the sliced tomatoes over the top, followed by a sprig of rosemary. Finally, drizzle the vermouth over everything.

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Place in the middle of the oven for 40 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and are starting to go brown. After 40 minutes, put the fish on top of the hot gratin and drizzle each fish with a little olive oil. Return to the oven and roast for around 17 minutes – start checking the fish at around the 15 minute mark and keep on checking until the flesh is fully opaque. By this time the potato and the tomatoes should have taken on a lovely golden colour, with slightly charred edges – that’s good, there’s real flavour there.

Top the fish with the grated lemon zest and tuck in. All this needs is a couple of handfuls of rocket alongside it, splashed with a little more lemon juice.

 

Linguine with Basil, Lemon and Parmesan

Contrary to popular belief, eating magnificent food doesn’t have to entail sweating for hours in the kitchen preparing Masterchef-style meals. There is a time and a place for that, and for most people it comes on a wet Sunday when you’ve nothing else to do. For most of us our days are full and busy, and when you come home starving but the evening is late what can you cook that is healthy and home-cooked, and will take a mere ten minutes? This is the kind of cooking that Nigel Slater excels at, and I am heavily indebted to him for this recipe.

In these short of time and inspiration situations, pasta is generally the first thing that springs to mind, but what to do with it apart from stir in a couple of spoonfuls of pesto from a jar? My first thought is to add a lemon. Pasta and lemon are a match made in heaven, the bright notes of the citrus lift pasta from a potentially stodgy dish to a light and airy bowl of heaven. The Parmesan used here reacts with the lemon to create a grainy sauce that is not unlike carbonara, only without the bacon, while the basil gently wilts and adds a delicate fragrance.

This is the kind of dish that would cost you a tenner in a smart restaurant but can be made for pennies from a kitchen storecupboard.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

220g linguine

the juice of a large lemon

5 tbsp olive oil

50g finely grated Parmesan

a bunch of basil, leaves only, shredded

Rocket, lettuce and cucumber (for a salad)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Put a very large pan of generously salted water on to boil and when it is bubbling vigorously add the linguine. Set your timer for 9 minutes.

Combine the lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl and whisk together. Tear up the basil and grate the Parmesan, using a microplane grater if you have one, otherwise grate it as finely as you can.

Assemble a simple green salad of rocket, torn lettuce and finely sliced cucumber, drizzle a little of the lemon and oil dressing through it. Light your candles, pour a glass of wine and wait for your linguine to finish.

When the linguine is cooked (it should be al dente as it will cook on), drain thoroughly and return to the pot. Add the lemon and oil, stir thoroughly then add the basil leaves, stir thoroughly again. Now tip in the Parmesan and once again stir thoroughly.

Season in the bowl, relax and enjoy a delicious meal that has taken less than 15 minutes to prepare. A takeaway wouldn’t arrive that quickly…