Monday 12 December 2011

Baws for Thought

hurricane bawbag, gourock
Bawbag-battered Beachfront, Gourock
It could only happen in Scotland: we get a great big storm; some Glasgow wit christens it #HurricaneBawbag; it goes viral on Twitter; some US news networks think it's an official name and report it as such.

If you don't get the joke then I suggest you look it up. The storm itself wasn't really much of a joke, with some major structural damage across Scotland and widespread loss of electricity. We get a lot of storms here but they are usually from a southwesterly direction, while 'Bawbag was a northwesterly belter.

We lost our own electricity for a couple of days but made the best of it, putting the little-used Morso stove into action as a focus for concerted huddling. It was also perfect for keeping a pot of cinnamon-infused coffee piping hot. We whipped up an omelette on a wee gas stove for sustenance.

There is something special about those few nights every few years when there is no electricity. Families sit together, primarily for warmth, but end up in conversation in the absence of any other distraction. Anecdotes and stories are, just for a while, passed from generation to generation in a way that was once routine. The primal glow of the fire (and perhaps the odd dram or two) fuel the warmth of the openness and humour.

Gastrobeach was scarily spectacular in the storm. Great white sheets of spindrift whipped across the bay, obliterating the view across to the mainland. Our front windows are now covered in a film of salt spray. Only the seagulls seemed to be willing to tough out the storm on the wing; no gale seems violent enough to curtail their enjoyment of riding the gusts.

There will be many more storms this winter and they will all change the complexion of the beach in interesting ways, presenting (I hope) renewed foraging opportunities. I'm running short on dried sea lettuce Ulva lactuca, which has become an essential seasoning ingredient for use in my fish recipes and instant soya cup soups. I'm sure there will be plenty available, strewn like bright green rags all over the lower shore.

The wind's picking up again as night falls. But it's the familiar soggy southwesterly. I know its modus operandi and I shall not fear its wrath. Well, at least I hope we're not talking 'Baws again.

Monday 5 December 2011

Simple Soupy Twist

The first snow of winter is here. A quick freeze/thaw/freeze cycle has formed a sheet of frozen sleet just perfect for sustaining a layer of delicate snow. I'm aware of that wonderful soft silence that comes with the sound-insulating quality of new snow. The mainland mountains are entirely greyed out behind a foreground curtain of drifting snowflakes.

Ducks dabble in the bay as the feeble dawn approaches. The heron doesn't hang around long after presumably finding the pickings a bit thin and somewhat frozen.

It's thick soup weather. And we came up with a gem of delicious soupy-twistery yesterday. We had boiled up a chicken carcass for stock with the intention of just adding barley to make a simple and tasty chicken broth. Upon visiting the fridge to collect up the bowl of wee bits of meat stripped from the carcass prior to boiling, we found some other interesting leftovers.

Those little clingfilm-covered bowls of leftover bits and bobs have a tendency to build up. And there's a certain joy in being able to offload the lot into one coherent recipe. The bits in question were: a bit of homemade Thai curry paste left over from making a fish curry a few nights before; a bowl of coconut milk left over from same; some cooked green cabbage from the night before. I put the whole lot in with the chicken stock, chicken bits and barley, then boiled it up for an hour. This made for a pretty special soup: warming chickeny goodness with soft barley and the soothing aromas of coconut and lemongrass.

I hate throwing food away and I get a little annoyed with myself when I have to do it. It gives me a vague feeling that I've made a miscalculation somewhere that has meant that I haven't used the food efficiently and timeously. A hard-working cook for a mother and an extended family full of Scottish Presbyterians will do that to you.

Try experimenting this Christmas: Offload your leftovers by creating imaginative and colourful flavour combinations that haven't come out of any recipe book. You might just discover something wonderful and in using up all your leftovers you will be, at least in this regard, free of sin for a while.

Monday 21 November 2011

Ling when you're Winning

common ling drawing
Common Ling, from Wikipedia
I bought a piece of ling from the fish man last week. This was a nicely de-boned fillet but, if you ever see a whole one, you might be mistaken for thinking it was an anorexic cod or a conger eel. It is, in fact, a member of the cod family but its eel-like appearance can be a bit off-putting for the novice fish cook.

I think the species we get here is the Common ling Molva molva. It is apparently a voracious predator that likes to hang around wrecks and rough ground. Sound like anyone you know? I hope not. There is also a Blue ling Molva dypterygia which looks even more like an anorexic cod but I'm pretty sure it's predominantly the Molva molva that is found in Scottish waters.

A method for cooking ling didn't immediately spring to mind for me. It has quite tightly-grained and firm flesh compared to cod but, from what I could remember of the last time I cooked it, it doesn't have a very strong flavour. I had a quick look through a few recipes and adapted one to match the ingredients I had available. It ended up as a quite respectably chefy-looking pan fried ling fillet on a bed of flageolet beans, peas and bacon.

The cooking method was fairly simple. First, fry up some garlic and finely diced onion and allow to soften. Next, turn up the heat and add in some chopped bacon or pre-prepared bacon lardons and fry until the bacon starts to brown. You can add in some finely chopped chorizo if you like - this will add some extra bite and saltiness to the dish. Drain most of the liquid off a tin of flageolet beans but keep the liquid to hand. Add the beans to the fried bacon and onions and also chuck in a handful of frozen peas. Let that lot fry for a couple of minutes then add in some of the bean juice and turn down the heat to a slow simmer.

While the bean mixture is simmering, cut the ling into portions and season with plenty of salt and pepper. Get your frying pan really hot (rapeseed oil is great to use for high-temperature frying - I often use Ola or Borderfields Scottish rapeseed oil) then put in the fish, flesh side down. Allow it to brown nicely before turning it over to the skin side. Once the skin side has crisped up you can turn down the heat until the fillet is cooked through but still moist.

Finally, add some cream to your bean mixture and allow it to heat through but not boil. Serve in a large shallow bowl with the ling perched on top of the bean mixture for genuine chefiness-look.

You could easily make this recipe without the flageolet bean and just use the frozen peas but I think if you were doing it that way you'd need to crush the peas in order to let the flavour out. I love flageolet beans and they always go really well with bacon, or any other cured meat for that matter.

You can probably tell I'm getting into cosy winter hibernation mode with this kind of food. It's hearty and filling, comes in a big bowl and doesn't really require the use of a knife to eat it. But the peas-only version of this recipe would make a perfectly acceptable summer dish along with a glass of chilled white.

The weather has turned to smirry, gloomy November grimness but I'm going to turn all the lights on and ignore it. No point in sitting here in the dark. Need to catch some rays, artificial or otherwise. But that's a different fish story altogether.

Monday 7 November 2011

Full of Beans

What a beautiful November morning. The sun is blazing through the window and I am squinting to read what I'm typing. Yes, I have blinds, but they are staying resolutely up today so that I can absorb as much of this precious daylight as possible.

I've just recovered from a nasty stomach bug so am feeling full of the joys of health and vitality today. And coffee. My first cup of coffee in a week! Bliss.

I got up early(ish) yesterday to watch the sunrise. It's a fairly slow process at the moment because of the sun's very low arc in the sky. It seems to meander along behind the mainland mountains for quite a while before finally putting in a full appearance. But that lazy rising gives plenty of time for optical fireworks as the light morphs and beams its way to full blazing glory.

Later in the day we drove to Balmacara and took a walk in the forest before scrambling down to the shore. My wife made arrangements of brilliant red and yellow leaves then photographed them against ivy, moss and rock backgrounds. We rounded off the walk with an al fresco cup of stupidly-sweet Aero hot chocolate, from the wee shop.

Cassoulet for dinner tonight, I think. We've loved it ever since our first giant French tin of it. We make our own now: soaking the beans (mostly haricot or cannellini) overnight; rapid boiling them; then bubbling them up with frankfurters, pre-roasted pork belly slices, thyme and tomato puree. The meaty surprises are great but, for me, cassoulet is really all about the soft and savoury beans. Get those right and your cassoulet will work perfectly, whichever recipe you use.

November can be a grim month, so I intend to savour the good days like the softest of savoury cassoulet beans. There may be repercussions.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Free Birds

sea eagle off skye
Sea Eagle off Skye, courtesy of Wikipedia
We're having some odd weather for late October: a warm but gusty southeasterly wind and daytime temperatures of around 16 degrees. The humidity alternates between torrential downpour and tenuously blow-dried.

I dunked myself in a choppy sea yesterday. I reckoned the sea temperature of around 12 degrees wouldn't be too painful. I've certainly felt worse but I wouldn't call it pleasant. The water was murky with stirred-up sediment and dark waves pushed me back towards the shore.

The balmy autumn weather and stiff breeze seem to have struck a chord with the birds. As I drove along the road yesterday I saw them everywhere, singly and in groups, just hanging on the wind, subtly adjusting their wings and feathers moment by moment to remain stable. A lone buzzard hovered at car-roof level; a group of crows floated high above the house (would be great if they would do that again for Hallowe'en); seagulls maintained station above the white-capped waves in the bay.

Talking of birds, we saw a Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla from the Armadale ferry a couple of weeks ago. It seemed to have been following a fishing boat along with a gaggle of other birds. It peeled away and swooped in close to the window of the ferry. They are huge, with a wingspan of up to eight feet, and have a distinctive white tail. The woman across from us insisted at volume that it was an Osprey.

Filtered sunlight has just broken through the clouds lending the autumn grass a pale-gold sheen. The sun is a wan yellow smudge, low in the sky.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Piering into my Past

An impromptu trip to the pier at high tide last evening brought a flood of childhood memories. I used to spend so much time there; mucking about in boats at high tide and searching for oysters at low. I remember falling off the pier one low tide while trying to scramble up the side. I landed right next to a rusty but sturdy fisherman's knife. It cleaned up nicely and my mother still uses it today.

We ordered food at the bar then strolled down to the pier with G&Ts in hand. The tide was intoxicatingly high. A beautiful evening; a warm breeze set gentle waves lapping over the top of the pier. It was good to see creels on it again.

The bay where the pier is located faces north, so it's an ideal place for yachties to tie up in choppy weather. Our worst winds are usually south-westerly, so anchoring in a north-facing bay is a good thing. But last night's influx wasn't about choppy weather; just a lovely evening bringing idyllic notions of friendly pubs and cold beer, I think.

The food was excellent: rack of lamb with a rich red-wine sauce, followed by fruit crumble and icecream. A Wednesday trip to the local hostelry seems a great way to break up the week. But it's the kind of place that usually warrants more than just "a quick pint". We behaved ourselves last night and felt the better of it this morning.

The tide is peaking around 8.30 this evening. A wee dip before dark might be in order.

Monday 19 September 2011

Here We 'R' Again

It may have not have escaped your attention that September has an 'r' in it. That's a (very) rough reminder of the fact that the sea temperature is now dropping again and it's safer to commence collection and consumption of tasty bivalves.

In a spirit of determined foraging enthusiasm my brother, my wife and I headed for the shore on Saturday afternoon; rake and bucket in hand. We had intended to collect surf clams but the tide wasn't really big enough to reveal the sandier areas where surf clams are more abundant. So we settled for a decent pile of juicy cockles which we found further up the shore in the gravelly areas.

As usual we ended up separating off into different parts of the bay, following our own personal cockle-finding trails. My wife was scanning the bottom of a small stream when she saw what she thought was a bubble. She prodded it gingerly, fully expecting it to have been produced by some sea creature still hidden in the adjacent seaweed. It turned out instead to be a clear marble.

My brother made a delicious chowder with the cockles (and few surf clams) we had collected. He used some squat lobster stock that I had in my freezer left over from my party a few months ago. He added smoked haddock, potato, onion and milk and, finally, some cream and the cockles and clams. An excellent start to the shellfish-foraging season and a reminder of the need for hearty comfort food and good company during the cold, dark months ahead.

My wife reckons I'm losing my marbles when I go swimming in the cold sea. After her peculiar find on Saturday I'm starting to wonder if that might be literally true.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Foamin' in the Gloamin'

We had some spectacularly choppy weather whilst over northeast in August. The north wind really drives in there, raising huge breakers pushed up by great underwater outcrops of rocks. The rocky shores alternate with sandy bays to provide great variety for the abundant local surfers; both beginner and verging-on-insanity hardcore.

On one of the wet and windy afternoons we wandered down to the seafront to watch two particularly dedicated exponents of the art. They were surfing into a boulder-strewn cove with enormous lumps of rock just below the surface where they repeatedly tumbled off their boards and into the roaring sea, after weaving in on the foaming crest of some formidable wave.

Watching the surfers I could see where the ninth wave superstition (about the ninth or tenth wave being the big one) comes from. The big waves seemed to come at quite regular intervals and we found ourselves getting exasperated at the surfers for missing the biggest and best! It's just an illusion, though. The timings of the complicated wave pattern interactions of crest and trough are impossible to predict in an environment with so many lumpy variables.

Crazy, perhaps, but I did admire their skill: Two wiry guys pitting themselves against the mercy of the brutal ocean just for the brief thrill of riding on the crest of a wave. Humans are really odd.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Blite About Now

We took a stroll across the salt flats a couple of day ago to collect more samphire. It's starting to turn a little red on top and the stems are becoming woody, which is a sign that the best of it is over. It's certainly plentiful just now but becoming a bit of a hassle to prep. From the stonier areas of the upper shoreline we also picked Sea Blite Suaeda maritima, which I have recently discovered is also edible. It's an attractive plant that looks a bit like an odd little conifer with fat blue-green 'needles'.

I've never bothered to look up any recipes for samphire. I just blanch it in boiling water then add in lots of butter and pepper. Trust me, you won't need to add any salt. You can cook the sea blite in the same way, so you're as well to just put it in the pot along with the samphire. I did use some of the sea blite in the creamy sauce I made to go with a couple of nice chunks of cod. I fried the cod quickly in a very hot griddle pan along with some paprika (the sweet kind this time but it's also great with the hot 'Pimentón Picante' variety), then added in some finely-chopped sea blite. Finally, I dolloped in a load of double cream and some of the 'stock' from the samphire and sea blite. You can put the cod back in the sauce to warm for a couple of minutes but make sure your sauce doesn't end up boiling away to nothing: This is quick cooking.

Sea blite has a texture similar to samphire but it tastes slightly different. My wife thought it had a mild asparagus flavour. I hardly ever eat potatoes but I can imagine that sea blite and/or samphire would be excellent sprinkled over some hot, floury and well-buttered spuds.

Sea blite is another halophile (i.e. salt-loving) plant. We may usually think of extremophile organisms as being the likes of bacteria living close to hot, deep-sea volcanic vents or thriving buried beneath the Arctic ice, but these hardy little annuals are also true extremophiles. What a tasty wee marvel of evolution.

It's breezy outside but dry for the moment. Some respite, at least, from recent deluges. With any luck the clouds will blow away by tonight to allow us a clear view of Ursa Major. We were out last night trying to spot the supernova in M101. Using the binoculars we did find a little smudgy patch of light that looked different from the surrounding stars, but nothing conclusive. Not much to look at from our perspective but I think an exploding star 21 million light years away is certainly worth trying to spot.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Swimming in the Rain

The light over our front-door waterworld has just changed. The sky is a uniform grey/white but there's just enough brightness getting through to lend the grass and abundant foliage a garish green hue.

This tide has just turned from its impressive height and I'm just back from swimming in it; core temperature still relaxingly low and ready for some strong black coffee. Crows dot the lichen-covered rocks protruding from the sea. Sluggish waves radiate out from the rocks, creating odd interference patterns with their neighbours.

The mountains of the mainland are completely obscured by the wall of grey/white smir. This created the odd impression, as I swam in the rain, of an ocean world fading into infinity. I'm getting stronger and the cold-shock hurts a little less but I don't think it will ever feel comfortable.

I wonder about our human disconnection from cold water. Up until relatively modern times people would have come in daily contact with cold water: bathing; washing clothes; walking miles in the rain to find food and shelter. But it's different for us today: we can remain warm and dry pretty much all the time. We don't have to develop a tolerance for cold conditions if we don't want to.

A sea-skimming heron has just scattered some of the crows from their perches. They settle back down and continue their silent vigil.

Time for that coffee now. Thomsons (a fine Scottish firm) Rocco with a dusting of cinnamon. Back to the land of warmth and comfort I go.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Wolffish Grin

I'm still smiling after a fantastic holiday week in the northeast of Scotland. It's not the most popular holiday destination in Scotland but we love it. The weather is better than over here in the west, although you often get a cold breeze from the north along with the bright sunshine. We lived on seafood and coconut icecream, walked along the windswept and seafoam-spattered coast and swam (well, I did) in the perishingly-cold North Sea.

The foodie experiences were numerous, so I won't try to shoehorn them all into this blog post, but one was particularly interesting and new to us. I was determined to try seafood that I hadn't come across before, so when I saw 'Rock Turbot' in the local factory fish-shop I was intrigued and had to buy some. The 'Rock ____' euphemism is often used where the actual name of the fish doesn't sound too appealing, so I knew it was nothing to do with Turbot which, in any case, would cost around four times the price.

I pan-fried the firm-fleshed fillets with some garlic and seasoning then took them out of the pan. I added some dry cider and reduced it right down to a tasty sauce before putting the fish back into it for a couple of minutes. It was the best mystery fish we had ever tasted.

On returning home I did some research and found out that 'Rock Turbot' is another name for the Northern Wolffish. This was a coincidence as we had seen Wolffish in the marine aquarium in Macduff a couple of days after eating our 'Rock Turbot'.

I went sea-swimming shortly after getting back home. It was a great way, for me at least, to ease into a post-holiday mindset. Yes, of course it was cold, but not as cold as those North Sea waves crashing over my head. Hardly surprising, I suppose, that the other forty-odd people in the sea had been wearing full wetsuits.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Pure Morning

Something is happening to me. I feel driven to go swimming in the sea, even when I know it's going to be painfully cold. I went in this morning, around 8 o'clock. It's a beautiful day but the sea is always going to be bitter at that time in the morning. The tides are still very high from the recent new moon and that seemed like such an invitation - I knew that I could walk in over the submerged grass of the salt-flats and quickly get to swimming depth.

The world looks different from absolute sea level: bigger and wetter. This morning was flat calm except for a few rippled patches which sparkled with dazzling brilliance. Majestic silence and salty ozone tang. A lone Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), perched on a quickly-vanishing rock, spread its coal-black wings to dry off in the hazy sunshine.

The afterglow must be the habit-forming element of sea swimming. I really feel the drop in my core temperature not only while in the sea but for up to an hour afterwards. That literal coolness seems to bring on a coolness and calmness of mind.

I had slept well after a lovely evening which had involved some tasty seafood treats. I bought a handful of juicy prawn (you may call them langoustine but that's because you're pretentious) tails from the fish van. I cooked them, shell on, in a very hot frying pan along with some home-grown garlic, butter, pepper and olive oil. We also had pan-fried haddock with new kale from the garden, to which we had added some flash-fried chorizo. I cooked the haddock in the oil from the chorizo. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc proved the ideal wine-flavoured accompaniment.

I'm not actually on holiday at the moment but it certainly feels like it. Maybe 'holiday' is a state of mind. Why have I never thought of that before? Why hadn't I thought of sea-swimming before, when it's almost on my doorstep? Why am I typing rhetorical questions when I could be brewing a nice pot of coffee. This 'holiday state of mind' is catching.

Monday 18 July 2011

The Man Who Played with Samphire

It's been a great few days for our own produce (all my wife's work really) coming, literally, to fruition. The salad leaves are so much more interesting than the often-moribund bags of uniform green stuff you buy in the supermarket. Even the flowers on the bolting rocket are tasty - kind of hot and nutty - a bit like the way I get after too long in the sun. The strawberries are great too, and we had bumper helpings of them last night along with dollops of double cream.

Yesterday was wet and windy but we resolved to defy its grey menace and headed for the shore. We were just out for a stroll, trying to avoid the stir-crazy sensations that often take hold on the numerous rainy summer days here. As we headed towards the salt-flats we remembered that it was a good area for finding Samphire (really Common Glasswort Salicornia Europaea) at around this time of year. I've written about Samphire before (blog entry 'Walking on Samphire') but last time I picked it a little later in the year and it had started to get a bit 'woody'. The time window for picking it at its best must be rather short because it was quite small when we picked it yesterday. Looks like the first week of August might be ideal. We tried to nip of just the top part of the larger growths, leaving the lower part and roots in place to, hopefully, sprout again.

We collected up the salad leaves and strawberries from the garden on our way home from the shore, and also dug up some small garlic bulbs. I made some mojo with the garlic and a slightly-squishy avocado. I spread some of the mojo on a couple of salmon fillets then baked them in foil parcels in the oven for 20 minutes. We ate the salmon along with the blanched, buttered and peppered samphire and the dressed salad leaves to which I had added a few chunks of feta cheese.

I've just opened the window. The sun is now blazing down and has dried up the saturated deck in short order. It's going to be a beautiful day so I intend to get my work done then go out and enjoy it. Better than getting hot and nutty in here.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Belly Flops

A bright but breezy day. I can hear the cries of oystercatchers from the deck. The tide is half way out and the salt/seaweed smell of Gastrobeach is strong on the breeze.

Yesterday was warm and sunny - so much so that I decided to go for a swim at the end of the working day. I flip-flopped (in the shoe sense) past my wife, who was busy in the burgeoning garden, and headed for the shore. The high tide made the immersion process easier because I was virtually up to waist-depth after simply stepping off the salt-flats and into the water. It was cold but at least shocking-and-breathtaking cold rather than screaming-out-loud cold. I got fairly comfortable swimming in the shallows but then became over-enthusiastic and struggled through a deep stretch. I was left feeling exhausted and a little queasy. I think I need to build up more slowly.

We've been away for the past couple of weeks; first in Fort William then over east in Auchmithie again. We went to Brown's Restaurant in Fort William for an anniversary celebration meal. The food was impressive, if a little on the pricey side. 'Pan seared king scallops set on crisp pork belly served with a caramelized apple and maple syrup puree' was my weapon of choice. The pork belly was deliciously crisp and the scallops were cooked to perfection. They had left the orange roe (sometimes called the 'coral') on the scallops, which always gets the vote from me. I have no idea why some restaurants remove this - perhaps sloppy preparation technique or maybe just plain ignorance. The apple worked well in the puree but the maple syrup was, for my taste, too sweet. I don't want my 'surf and turf' to taste like dessert.

We were too busy with noisy party celebrations in Auchmithie to get round to the seafood. All too often we seem to drive through Arbroath and forget to pick up any Smokies. Fortunately, though, it's quite easy to get them by mail-order these days. Someone did bring some delicious poached salmon along to the party. But cakes and desserts were the order of the evening. I don't know if there is some east-coast ordnance about it being dishonourable to arrive at a party without a tray groaning with cream-laden cakes and pastries, but it certainly felt that way.

Back here the salad leaves are growing well and I'm looking forward to simple summer dishes involving big chunks of protein accompanied by hot and tangy, dressing-slathered foliage.

Monday 27 June 2011

Shedding Inhibitions

Ethiopian Djimmah coffee this morning. It has a smoky aroma that my wife says reminds her of the smell of a tobacconist shop she visited with her grandad as a child. The sun has broken through the wall of rain cloud which prevailed all weekend. The grass is still saturated but the sunshine and stiff breeze should soon dry it off.

On the few decent days we have had I've been out working on the roof of my shed. I got sunburned and bashed up my hands but I enjoyed myself. It was good to get away from the desk and computer for a while. My shed is now strong and dry and I've started fitting the electrics. Who knows what mad-scientist-style adventures I'll get up to in there once it has the power. I might even saw some bits of wood in half.

I haven't been on Gastrobeach much the past few weeks. Oh, apart from to go swimming at around 4am, just as the sun was coming up. The temperature was only 8 or 9 degrees. The experience was, literally, breathtaking. I warmed myself afterwards (at least psychologically) with a wee drop of 'An Sgailc'.

The experience did remind me how much I love to swim in the sea. Cold-tolerance is the problem, though. It's possible to acclimatise yourself to cold water by swimming regularly in cold water and/or taking cold showers but the adaption only seems to last for a few months then you're back to a very painful square one.

The grey weather masks the effect of the very long days which now extend to about 19 hours. Perhaps that makes it a little easier for the body clock to adjust. I don't know but I'm trying to be optimistic. Sleep patterns do get severely disrupted at this time of year. We have blackout blinds in our bedroom to help us deal with it but you have to remember to leave them open a bit (or open them a little when you first awake) otherwise, without an alarm, you would just sleep right through.

The garden is really coming together as all my wife's hard work starts to pay off. Brilliant colours are now showing through the lush green of the flower bed. This morning the colours provide a vibrant underscore to the sparkling blue/grey sea and the hazy mountains beyond.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

You Shall Have a Fishy in a Dishywashy

I forgot to mention the salmon we had at the party! It was really moist and delicious, and hand-flaked to perfection. But, most interestingly of all, it was cooked in the dishwasher.

My wife had heard something about this technique so she looked it up online and insisted, in the face of some determined opposition, that it be cooked in the dishwasher. I didn't find any of this out until I was eating it at the party. And then it came across just as surreal and wonderful as the rest of the goings-on.

The dishwasher technique is a novel way of steaming the salmon. Don't forget to wrap it in foil before trying this. My wife said she had read several cautionary tales from people who had put the fish in the dishwasher unwrapped and found, to their initial puzzlement and horror, that it had dissolved into pink drain-sludge, leaving nothing but a floppy bone.

My wife prepped the salmon by stuffing it with a good bundle of fresh garden herbs and seasoning with some lemon juice, salt and pepper. She said that it didn't cook on the first cycle so she had to put it to the highest heat setting, around 70 degrees centigrade, on the top rack, to get the desired result. My friend then sat and gently flaked the whole thing, and it was a big salmon, even going to the trouble of saving the cheeks which he says are a delicacy. Before serving, they added more seasoning and a sprinkle of Garam masala.

I shouldn't really have to say this but, if you want to try this yourself, don't put any detergent in the dishwasher along with the salmon. I'm sure Finnish-style salmon is lovely but Finish-style maybe not so much.

Monday 30 May 2011

Squats Entertainment

Sunshine! We've seen incredibly little of it this month, and May is usually the best month for weather in the north-west Highlands. Instead we've had twice the usual rainfall and what feels like a never ending cycle of storms. One of the few moments we were able to make it out of the house this weekend we spent rebuilding the blown-over 'trellis' netting for the beans to grow up. The beans don't look too keen in any case.

Never mind. I want to discuss party food. My wife managed to get hold of some Squat lobsters ('squatties' or 'squats' as we call them) for the party. This was no mean feat given that some poor soul had to take his boat out in decidedly non-clement weather specifically to get them! I'm very grateful, anyway, because they were delicious. I prefer squatties to prawns - they have a meatier texture and are, in flavour, more like lobster than prawn. You might assume this, given the name, but they are not really lobsters at all and are more closely related to certain types of crab. The variety we mostly get here - the Long-clawed Squat Lobster Munida rugosa - definitely has the look of a big unhoused hermit crab.

Talking of crab-like things, one of my more unusual gifts was a miniature bottle of vodka with a scorpion in it. The text on the bottle informs us (reassuringly) that it's a 'farmed scorpion' and quite edible. Now that would be a job-title to have - scorpion farmer. I'll be quite happy to chow down on the scorpion. I have no particular fear of eating insects and I find it odd that we are happy to eat insect-like creatures from the deep but turn up our noses when they come from the land.

We also had some fantastic meat and cheese at the party. My wife ordered up a Spanish Salchichon (cured sausage) and a whole (one kilo weight) Manchego cheese. If you've never tried Manchego I heartily recommend getting hold of some and eating it with the traditional Membrillo quince jelly. I should have tried some with the orange tequila jellies my brother had made - could have been an interesting combination.

The enormous cake, bagpiped in by my nephew, went down well, although I singularly failed to get the joke intrinsic to the cake (something to do with fork handles and four candles). Then there was the brain: my wife and friends had made a thick raspberry-flavoured jelly custard and set it into a mold to form a neat cerebral hemisphere. It was hilarious to see the reactions as guests were handed wobbling dollops of simulated cortex on black paper plates. The kids didn't bat an eyelid - they're right at home with gruesome-looking food.

Another blog post and I still didn't really fit it all in. This is a great way of spinning out the birthday fun! I really do believe in making the most of those precious gatherings with family and friends. I have a large family and it's not easy for us all to get together. When we do manage it, in the good times, I think we make a pretty good job of celebrating in style with food, drink and music.

I'll leave you with that thought and with this beautiful sunrise photo taken by my wife as we meandered home after the party. I think it's a testament to her keen eye and steady hand that I only had to straighten it by 3.5 degrees in Photoshop.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Gathering Storm

A wild week in many respects. I've just experienced a large and zero-ended birthday with much accompanying merriment. My wife, my family and my friends went out of their way to make sure that it was a birthday I will never forget. All quite wonderful and a bit overwhelming.

Knowing me as they all do, they made sure that food would be a central part of the event. I was treated to a bar meal out a local hotel on my birthday where I consumed a large bowl of mussels. The day before the party there was a fortuitously low tide and I went foraging on Gastrobeach with some family and friends. I realise that we're into May now, and I wouldn't normally be collecting much shellfish (particularly bivalves) at this time of year, but it has been so cold that I thought it unlikely that we'd have any problems. We raked up a lot of small surf clams, picked large wilks off the kelp and fat mussels from the rocks. I also took a bit of bright-green sea lettuce for seasoning. I showed my brother-in-law the fine art of catching razorfish the old-fashioned way, and managed to break the shell of it in the process.

Back at the house we cleaned and sorted our various finds. I fried up some onions, garlic and herbs in a large pot, then tossed in the surf clams (plus a few cockles). I let them cook for a few minutes then added a wee pot of ready made Cullen Skink, milk, double cream and seasoning. Meanwhile, my sister prepared the mussels by checking them and removing the 'beards'. There's no point in trying to scrape the barnacles off these wild mussels because they are absolutely encrusted with them, and it's not as if they would do you any harm. We simply steamed the mussels with some white wine and added cream just before serving. I boiled the wilks (winkles) and plonked the pot on the table for easy access by the snail-eating contingent.

What a feast. We served up the surf clam chowder in bowls on top of plates and put some decent crusty dunking bread on the table. I sprinkled chives and dried sea lettuce (I burned the first batch) over the chowder. This kind of food if very messy and a lot of fun. It's also the kind of food you pay a fortune for in fancy restaurants. My sister commented that the mussels were much bigger and tastier than any vacuum-packed supermarket variety she had ever tried. Even the humble wilks were sweet and delicious.

I forgot to take any photographs of all this.

And this was just the build-up to the party! I think I'll have to put the rest in another blog post or I'll be typing all day. I recommend letting everybody know what kind of food and drink you like so that you get lots of it whenever you have a high-numbered, zero-ended birthday.

The other part of the wildness has been the weather. We've never seen anything like this in May. It's often changeable but is not usually veering crazily between sunshine (with rainbows) and hailstorms with 90mph gusts of wind. I guess I'll just have to hunker down with the remains of the party food and my several newly-acquired bottles of malt whisky.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

It's Raining, Menhir

What a difference a week makes. Last time I was writing about scorchers, this time it's dreich and bucketing rain with the impenetrable blanket of Nimbostratus back in residence. The weekend was OK though; a few cloudbursts but some bright and breezy spells in between.

We took a stroll down the road, then back along the shore. My wife collected this large piece of wood that looks to be off an old boat. I don't know exactly what it is but it's pleasingly rust-streaked, holed and pockmarked, so we've planted in the garden as a sort of flotsam menhir.

I keep an eye of Scottish politics. It's not like you could really miss it the past few days. I was very interested to note, from a Gastrobeach point of view, that the new Scottish Government will be seeking control of the Crown Estates, which means that rights to the use of the coastal seabed and foreshore could be handled by the Scottish Parliament in future. It would be good to know that the Queen no longer had strange archaic rights to the native oysters on the shore in front of my house! On a less flippant note this change would, of course, be of huge significance to all those involved in inshore fisheries and offshore renewables in Scotland.

I think I forgot to mention that we got the submarine hatch barbecue fired up last week. We were only cooking boring pork chops and sausages but it was a pleasure to be able to cook outside without being troubled by midges (they haven't quite started yet).

I'm ready for a large mug of coffee now. There's a wee bit of 'rocco' left. It says on the packet that it is, "A quality arabica blend of South American coffee beans and the Mocha bean". It's certainly chocolatey.

Just thought of the title for this blog entry. That's pretty bad. Perfect.

Monday 2 May 2011

Always the Sun

A scorcher. We don't get many but this one has class. We knew it was coming and actually (and this really doesn't happen often) left stuff outside that we would normally bring in at night. Had to sleep with all the windows open. It was so tranquil that we could hear boats chugging in the bay, a cuckoo, an owl, seagulls and oystercatchers all at the same time.

It's easy in this part of the world, during the winter months, to forget that the sun exists. Days are short and the sun is often blotted out by thick grey cloud. But that only serves to make the impact of the sunshine seem greater when we do get wonderful days like this. I sometimes wish it wasn't the case that our mood cycles are connected to the weather but I think that there's plenty of evidence here that it's true. The people seem to bloom, sometimes quite exuberantly, along with the plants when the sun comes out.

We spent yesterday with our wee nephew, starting the day (at his insistence) paddling in the bay as the tide turned and came in over the warm sand. The water was very cold but he and I ventured out up to our waists before deciding that the kudos of taking the plunge just wasn't worth the pain. A wee girl from up the road heard his cries of delight and came down to the shore, dragging her mother in tow, to see what all the fuss was about. I think she got in as far as her ankles before bursting into tears. My nephew later found a starfish, Asterias rubens I think, and we got a great photo of him displaying it proudly for the camera.

We got a bit of weeding done, in between visiting family and lounging on the deck. The dandelions are running riot this year but at least they pull out easily. Buttercups are my arch enemy because they certainly don't.

It was definitely a gin and tonic evening - who were we to argue? Hendrick's Gin is a wee bit unusual with very distinct savoury, herby flavours. They recommend that you drink it with ice and cucumber but I've never been very sure about that. I once ordered a Hendrick's and tonic in a Glasgow pub and the barmaid enthusiastically served me up what looked like a glass of salad. There were a few strange looks from my pint-drinking colleagues.

I hope you can't overdose on vitamin D because I probably got more yesterday than I've had in the last six months.

Tuesday 26 April 2011


A glorious Spring day with the full works: bees buzzing, birds twittering, a cuckoo (which woke me around 4am), brilliant sunshine, morning coffee on the deck in a T-shirt, hazy mountains, bright red tulips in bloom. There's nowhere quite like this place on a sunny day, but I daresay you think that about your place too. At least I hope you do.

Just back from a mini tour of Scotland, from west to east, taking in Fort William, Glasgow and Auchmithie. We've had astonishingly good weather throughout and a wonderful time meeting up with friends, doing some culture (including 'Drawing on Riverside' at the Kelvingrove), playing music and having excellent meals.

Our hotel in Glasgow was located down by the Clyde with panoramic views along the river in both directions. We skipped the hotel breakfast most mornings (sleep was more important), opting instead for late brunches in town. The giant Salade Niçoise platter at Patisserie Francoise in Byres Road was particularly memorable: salty anchovies, tuna, hard boiled eggs etc. That's my kind of breakfast.

Good dinners were not hard to come by either. The delicious, crunchy, deep-fried whitebait starter followed by enormous portion of chicken kebab at The Greek Golden Kebab could have fed at least two. Somehow I managed. Cail Bruich was an accidental but fortuitous find. They were doing a sort of 'pre-theatre' Spring menu which was very reasonably priced. I finally got to try Steak Tartare there, and now I think I'm hooked. Can't quite suss the Gaelic, though. Will need to ask my dad. It's become trendy to use Gaelic for 'Scottish Contemporary' style restaurant names but it needs to be correct, otherwise it just looks silly.

Over east in Auchmithie, the genuine birthplace of the 'Arbroath' Smokie, we dined out at The But 'n' Ben restaurant. I went for the simple and mouthwatering buttered Smokie for starter, followed by venison for main. The But 'n' Ben is a great little place and I love the fact that it hasn't changed since the first time we went there several years ago.

The image I've posted, and also this blog entry title, are down to the poignant reminder from our visit that the fishing is now truly over for Auchmithie. Last time we visited there a few rotting, but still floating, boats were tied up in the crumbling harbour. Those same boats are now on dry land with hulls rotted through.

'Rosebud' was once some east-coast fisherman's pride and joy.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Kale Surprise Reprise

As a follow up to my article Kale Surprise from a few days ago, I thought I would return briefly to the subject to mention the joys of the kale top sprouts.

One of my brothers (I have several) mentioned to me that they're very good to eat - just like sprouting broccoli. So we gave it a go. I should point out that, if you're going to use them, pick them before any of the yellow flowers begin to show, otherwise they'll be bitter. I was able to break them off quite far down because the stems were quite succulent and I knew that they would soften up nicely during cooking. If they seem at all fibrous at the point where you snap them then consider cutting off a bit of the stem until you are just left with the head and a shorter but juicier and less stringy piece of stem.

Simply steam the kale 'florets' until they turn a verdant green then add butter and season with a good dose of salt and pepper. I'd imagine they would be excellent in other recipes where you might usually use broccoli, such as one of my favourites - chicken and broccoli pie. This isn't a proper pie, really, but rather a mixture of leftover chicken and steamed broccoli (or kale tops) mixed with white or cheesy Bechamel sauce. Top the mixture with breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan then whack in the oven for twenty minutes or so. Make sure you put plenty of mustard, I think Dijon is best, into your sauce, to give it a bit of 'bite'.

There is an altruistic benefit to leaving the tops to flower, rather than scoffing them. When they open up into buttery-yellow flower the bees go mad for them. My mum keeps bees and she's horrified by the prospect of people removing any potential nectar source that they might use. I left mine to flower last year but, I have to admit, that was only because I didn't realise then that they were so good to eat! But at least I can say that I'm doing rotation: one year the bees get them; the next we get them.

Actually, I think the bees are out of luck. We'll plant some more flowers for them but anything potentially edible is for me!

Thursday 7 April 2011

You say Eider, I say Eider

These Eider ducks really are amazing. We sat, eating our breakfast, watching them eating theirs: The male with his sharply-contrasting black and white plumage and distinctive green band at the back of his neck; the female with muted brown/black plumage but, looking more closely, she seems to have narrow bands of white on her wings. Every couple of minutes or so one or both dived beneath the surface and emerged with a shore crab in its beak. They grabbed their respective crabs by each leg in turn and shook until the leg came off. Once all the offending limbs were removed they swallowed the bodies, complete with shell, whole in one gulp. Well, I say "in one gulp" but there was an obvious lump in the Eider's throat for some time after that almighty gulp.

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the breakfast table this morning. I'm still not much of a twitcher but there is something very relaxing about sitting in a comfortable place watching ducks on a calm and sun-dappled sea, through binoculars. Even when those ducks are busy at the business of tearing innocent crustaceans limb from limb and eating them alive.

It is lovely to see some sunshine today. The weather for the past week has been, frankly, hellish: Nimbostratus cloud incessantly dumping its unwelcome bounty with callous abandon. We did, however, make it down onto Gastrobeach at the weekend. My wife managed to get this nice shot of the male Eider with two females, although he seems to have managed to lose one of them over the last few days.

P.S. Saturday (9th April) will mark one year since I started this blog. I'm glad I did. It has made me pay more attention to my surroundings.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Kale Surprise

It was a celebration weekend and I enjoyed cooking up a few treats: another prawn curry but this time with finely-diced courgette added; duck breast with homemade hoi-sin sauce; cherry muffin pie (not homemade) with baked figs and ice-cream; button mushrooms in with garlic butter and parsley. Cava, of course: Codorniu, which is probably our favourite. Come Monday morning we were feeling a bit mentally deflated and physically inflated. But it was worth it.

One of the staples we have as a regular curry-meal accompaniment is 'kale paneer'. Yes, just like sag paneer but with kale used in place of spinach. I think the 'sag' bit can actually be any kind of greens, so kale works just fine. Paneer/panir is a kind of simple young cheese, which my sister says is quite easy to make. We tend to use whatever cheese comes to hand - the stringier the better - then add some cream.

Kale gets a bad rap and some people consider it only good for animal feed. Well, I'm an animal and I like it just fine. If your kale plants survived the winter (and deer attacks) you may still get some lovely tender leaves before it starts to bolt. At this time of year 15 minutes of boiling (as opposed to about 45 minutes pre-frost) will render it down into tasty and nutritious yellow-green mulch ready for the addition of cheese, chorizo, bacon or whatever else you think might work.

There were two curlews and a heron on Gastrobeach this morning but they've fled as the rain moves in. Curious how seabirds seem to dislike the rain so much.

It's dreich outside but the place is really starting to green-up and that looks bright even in this dim light. Obsessed with greens today, I am. I wonder how it would be with cheese?

Monday 21 March 2011

Perigee Winkle

The Eider ducks Somateria mollissima are back in the bay and displaying their remarkable crab-chomping virtuosity. A pair: the male with its striking black and white plumage and the mottled brown/black female. Both have very powerful wedge-shaped beaks terminating in a small hooked 'overbite' perfect for cracking stubborn shells.

The weekend saw a big tide with the effect of the Supermoon - a full moon at perigee - when the moon is at its closest to Earth on its elliptical orbit. It seldom happens that perigee coincides with a full moon and the combined effect means that the full moon appears some 14 percent larger than usual. The ordinary full moon, technically known as syzygy affects the tide because of gravitational forces of the sun and moon combining to act on the oceans. So the correct term for a full moon at its closest to Earth is really perigee-syzygy. But that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

The full moon was somewhat shrouded by fast-scudding clouds but that only served to enhance the dramatic effect whenever it broke through. It really was dazzling and, when it hung over the high-tide waterworld of Saturday night, quite enchanting. I whipped up a Thai-style prawn curry and, afterwards, we enjoyed a lazy evening of moon-watching and movies.

Sunday's weather was a bit dreich, but the uncovered kelp beds beckoned on Gastrobeach. The low-tide sandbar was dotted with people out to bag a few razorfish.

Scrambling over a rocky kelp bed in loose wellies is not the lowest ankle-break-risk activity you can undertake. You have to keep your arms out for balance and, even then, there is always a fair bit of whooping and stumbling. We didn't find anything hugely interesting apart from some large, pink and featureless jelly-like things stuck to rocks under the kelp. No dinner-potential there. We saw a few sea urchin shells, recently and expertly broken open by seabirds. I couldn't help noticing a good number of large wilks (common periwinkle Littorina littorea) feeding on the kelp, and decided to take some home for a pre-dinner snack. I ate them, with a little help from my wee nephew, with the aid of a pin and flavoured with a dash of balsamic vinegar.

The Eider ducks have gone for now but I'm sure we'll see them again on the high tide tomorrow morning. For me, it's time for strong black coffee to shake the weekend stupor - I've discovered that I like it with cinnamon sprinkled on top. The coffee that is, not the weekend stupor.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Sea Glass Sun

There appears to be a growing interest in 'sea glass' or 'beach glass'. You know, the old bits of broken bottle and crockery, tumbled by the surf until frosted matt-smooth, made pleasing to the eye and hand. Certainly more pleasing to the hand than when newly-broken anyway.

Whilst not being particularly interested in bits of old glass, I do find the subject interesting. What you have here are smashed bits of human-made detritus, turned into 'jewels' by the natural processes of tide, surf, sand and sun. But you also have that all-too-human interest in objects/resources that are in limited supply: It takes a relatively long time to render a jagged piece of glass down into something beautiful, and that gives it a perceived 'commodity' value. It brings out the inner magpie.

I'm sure that craftspeople and jewellery-makers have long been interested in sea glass. And the current interest seems to stem mostly from hobbyists looking to find the largest, most rounded and most colourful (bright blues and reds) pieces. For many I'm sure it conjures up thoughts of peaceful walks along sun-drenched beaches, taking in the salty air, lazily searching the tideline for these bright and tactile prizes. It probably does not conjure images of members of Victorian-era households dumping their rubbish on the shore to be claimed by the sea.

The snow is low on the hills today and the sky is pale grey and ominous. I see a smudge of brightness among the clouds, so faint that I can look at it directly: The sun glowing like an old piece of white/amber sea glass.

Monday 7 March 2011

Clamorous Glue

I can see from my newly-acquired Gaelic 2011 Moon Calendar that we are currently on a skinny but waxing crescent. 'The Moon' is 'A' Ghealach' (roughly pronounced 'Uh-Yalach') in Scottish Gaelic. March is, rather boringly, 'Am Màrt' ('Am Marsht'). The result of this moon, Gaelic or otherwise, is that the tide is still low, though not low enough for razorfishing.

I'm quite content for now to view Gastrobeach from the comfort of my (also newly acquired) 'constant contact' office chair as there is a biting wind blowing and snow is, once again, settling on the tops. A few hardy (or foolhardy) daffodils are now poking through the bank at the back of the house. It had been feeling quite Spring-like. It's only when the flowers begin to show some colour that you realise quite how dark and grey the landscape has looked. Those tiny dots of colour really stand out against this backdrop. And I am glad to see them.

'Constant contact' (as per my chair) reminds me of the book I'm reading at the moment. 'Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload', examines, among other musings on modern communicative practices, why people undertake activities like blogging. No firm conclusions yet, and I don't expect there to be any. Some days that vague, scatter-gun, one-way conversation that constitutes a blog post just feels like the right thing to be doing. 'Communications Overload' is a strange concept to me anyway. I'm a filter feeder, somewhat like a clam, when it comes to communications. That's it, I'm a communications clam.

Quick recipe tip to throw in as part of this particular scatter-gun post: Celery and cashew nut soup. Sounds an unlikely combination, I know. But somehow the cashew nuts blended in with the celery take away that wishy-washy, gloopy 'celeryness' and provide a really rich and satisfying flavour. It's an odd but lovely marriage of the virtually non-calorific (the celery) and the ultra-calorific (the cashew nuts). I'm not going to explain the rest of the recipe because that's about all there is to it. Just chuck it all together, cook it and whizz it. It'll be fine.

So, I'll just leave you there with those images of nutty soup and filter-feeding bloggers (have I got that the right way round?). Enjoy your dinner, some good company if you're lucky and, perhaps, ignore the phone if it rings. Just make like a clam.

Monday 28 February 2011

Dazed and Confused

It is a dazzling February morning. The overnight frost on the windows has melted away, in what appears to have been seconds, to reveal a hazy but brilliant vista of moody mountains and forbidding blue sea. I have to look askance at it to avoid blinding myself.

I woke at 7 and checked my alarm clock/phone to find that the battery had died during the night. The alarm had been due to go off at 7.05. I must tune down my body clock. Accidentally sleeping late would be something of a novelty.

The crows in the field next door have begun their raucous morning vigil. They start their ragged chorus at dawn so it's bearable at this time of year but, in a couple of months time, it will begin to wear a little thin. I've never paid the crows enough attention to establish their species but they could be Rooks (Corvus frugilegus), as there are signs of grey on their beaks. Frugilegus is Latin for "food gathering" - how simple and apt.

Not that this relates to carrion birds but I should just mention the excellent venison burgers, from Lochaber Game Services, that we had for dinner last night. It's unusual to be able to get venison burgers with absolutely no "filler" in them. Venison is treated like a luxury but it should be cheap and easily available here given the number of deer roaming the roads.

I really need to wake myself up so will have to resort to the "nuclear" option: Finely ground French coffee, roasted to within an inch of carbonisation. Brewing it to produce drinkable coffee is a black (sic) art and failure to strictly adhere to the gram-precise measuring requirements will result in something that tastes like burnt tyres and ensures that my body clock will not be required again for some time due to the fact that sleep will not be an option.

Monday 14 February 2011

The Tail of the Monk and the Stone

Having a friend/friends to stay is a great incentive (and excuse) to get some nice fish in and indulge in some hearty gastronomic adventures.

Last week presented such an opportunity so I scanned my latest favourite fish recipe book, 'The Billingsgate Market Cookbook' by C.J. Jackson, for some inspiration, then took to the Co-Op to find some ingredients roughly equivalent to the ones given in the recipes. And from there onward to the butcher (?!) to collect a lovely big monkfish tail. Later I even managed to accost the flighty fishman on his weekly hurtle from east to west, and purchase a goodly pile of mackerel fillets.

I'm not great with recipes. I mean, I'm not 'stone soup' (I'll explain later) with them, as my mother can be. But I feel I have somehow failed if I actually follow one without modification. Thus it was with my monkfish recipe. It was roughly equivalent to one given for scallops in 'Billingsgate' but I thought that the monkfish would work well, as it can take strong flavours. I dislike pfaff (sounds like an ingredient) in recipes so 'Billingsgate' is a cookbook after my own heart: a bit too 'luverly jubbly' and 'eating battered cod and mushy peas with me old nan' in places perhaps, but satisfyingly stripped-down and straightforward with a minimum of fuss. Unlike that last sentence.

Monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) is a member of the not-overly-attractive Anglerfish species. It has an enormous head (they are sometimes known as Headfish) and a relatively tiny body and tail. All the eating is the body/tail part, although I'm sure you could make a fine if somewhat scary stock with the head. They are sold without the head on and are easy to prepare: pull off the tough skin from head end towards the tail; slice away the slimy membrane; cut tight along the edge of the pin-bone-free backbone on either side to release the fillets.

The meat is dense and succulent. It was commonly used in place of prawns for making 'scampi' - what a waste. I simply fried some thickly-sliced chorizo then set it aside while I cooked up the monkfish in the delicious red chorizo oil. I added red pepper (home grown) and a little red chilli before returning the chorizo to the pan and adding lemon juice, parsley and seasoning. Served up with couscous with some sundried tomato chopped through, it's sure to put a little Mediterranean (sic) into your bleak Highland winter night.

Oh, nearly forgot the stone soup. You've probably heard it: the fairytale of the hungry pauper who manages to get into the castle for a meal by telling the king that he has a magic soup-making stone. He tells the royal cooks that they simply need to add water, meat, vegetables and seasoning to a large pot with the 'magic' stone in it and it will make some of the best soup they have ever tasted. My wife tells a version with a nail in place of a stone but I reckon a rusty nail might add some nice irony (ironey?) flavours.

The rather circuitous reference to the stone soup and my mother's cooking is to do with the way she has been known to treat recipes. It seems to me that she'll look at the ingredients then choose ones that are so far removed from those given that there's perhaps no semblance of the recipe in there. One example is a Banoffee (banana and toffee) pie which she told my wife she wouldn't like, my wife not being a fan of bananas. It turned out that the 'Banoffee' pie was actually Malteser (which my wife is certainly partial to) chocolate pie.

Perhaps you'll find recipes more fun if you take them with a pinch of salt. No, there's something wrong with that sentence too.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Hail Razor

Welcome to February. I read a short story last night in which the months were personified. February was a rather nondescript character.

Our February began with a ridiculous hail storm at around 1.30am. My wife called it a "comedy hail shower" because it was laughable that just when you thought it couldn't get any louder, it did. I ventured downstairs to see how big the hailstones had been (stupidly large) to find the alarm lights flashing on the car, presumably from the hail-battering it had taken. There was no alarm sound, though, which I thought was strange. How are you supposed to know your car alarm is going off if it's silent? That isn't a philosophical question. If I hadn't gone downstairs I suppose we would have just found the car battery flat in the morning, and would not have been able to understand why.

Today the sky has cleared somewhat. But a stiff breeze, the 'mild' temperature and lurking black clouds almost certainly herald more stormy weather.

To make sense (ish) of the title of this blog entry I have included a picture of the razorfish with Gremolata that I had for my lunch last week, the day after my fruitful beaching. I got the recipe out of John Wright's excellent "Edible Seashore", although I used lime zest rather than the regulation lemon. The idea of "flashing" the razorfish under the grill and eating them nice and hot sounds appealing but, in reality, I think they cool too quickly for this kind of cooking. By the time you are halfway through they start to get a bit cold and rubbery and you become all too aware of what you are eating. I think next time I'll stick with cutting them up into small pieces and frying them.

It was, nonetheless, a tasty and filling meal. All that gnashing and tugging brought out my inner Neanderthal (again).

Thursday 27 January 2011

A Sense of Porpoise

We've heard a lot in the news this winter about freezing weather and snow. Here in the North West Highlands, where it is usually wet and stormy in winter, cold weather is often welcome. Cold temperatures mean high pressure which, in turn, means fewer storms and drier weather. It's annoying to hear weather presenters consistently making the mistake that we should all be glad of 'mild' weather in winter.

Today is a case in point. Fairly cold (around -2) last night, and the weather today is clear and fresh with light frost on the ground and the sun splitting the sky. The only clouds are high and wispy-thin. A fat waning-crescent moon still hangs: a fading watermark. Take a deep draught of that chill air and it will clear your sinuses.

My head is clear today, too. A morning TV feature reminded me about "mindfulness meditation" but that's really just another way of describing the process of stopping, taking in your surroundings and "being in the moment". How you do that is up to you. I don't find it easy to plant myself in the present but I know that it feels good when I manage it. The brain is "plastic", so it's possible to change its structure by doing this kind of thing.

Now to the Porpoises. We saw them at the weekend - a pod of three crossing the bay. We didn't get a photo, as they were too far out to sea and didn't hang around for long. They are distinguishable from Dolphins by their shorter and more flattened dorsal fins. They are apparently common here but we've never seen them in the bay before. Probably harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena.

I like porpoises. They don't spend their time engaging in pointless acrobatics like their dolphin cousins, preferring to keep to themselves in order to avoid being attacked - often by those dolphin cousins.

The way they crossed the bay was a case in point - they only broke the surface twice in the whole stretch, and then just for a moment.

Monday 24 January 2011

Nads The Way I Like It

The photo may look like something out of a horror movie but it's actually part of my dinner. You are looking at an opened-up European edible sea-urchin Echinus Esculentus. In the sink you can also see razorfish and some other things that look somewhat like oysters of the feral Crassostrea Virginica classification.

Yesterday was a fun and productive day of gastrobeaching. The moon at around 80% of full combined with very still weather, meant that the tide was low enough to reveal the razorfish sandbank and also some of the kelp beds. It was in those beds that we found three sea-urchins. I decided to take the smallest of the three, reasoning there would be less of it to get through, this being my first attempt at eating one. We also found a good variety of interesting seaweed: loads of sea lettuce and a red dulse-like leafy weed among the thick kelp, and a separate bed of sugar kelp farther on. After gathering our haul we chatted to other foragers on the shore about the relative merits of various razorfishing techniques.

Upon our return home I set about finding out how to eat the forbidding-looking sea-urchin. I trawled through several YouTube videos, most of them set in Japanese restaurant kitchens. The Japanese call the edible parts of the urchin, often served as sushi, "Uni" (oo-nee), and they are considered a delicacy. Their sea-urchins seemed to be of a variety with larger spines and more orange-coloured Uni. Employing the knowledge I had gleaned I took a large pair of scissors and cut into the "vent" underneath the urchin, then outwards and round to remove a circular section, leaving the main part of the shell as neat and intact as possible. While my wife hid, I took a teaspoon and tucked in.

A bit of biology first. While the edible part of of the sea-urchin is colloquially referred to as the roe, it's actually the milt-containing gonads of the creature. This isn't the best thing to bear in mind when it's quivering (from shaky hand) in your teaspoon. Let's be clear about this - the texture of the Uni is not nice. It's cold and slimy in the mouth. The flavour, however, is very good: a rich, sweet and complicated seafood flavour quite unlike any other I have tried. Determined not to waste the calorific bounty provided by this beautiful creature, I ate it all. There was a surprisingly large amount of it.

A gastronome friend has since told me that Echinus Esculentus is not considered the height of sea-urchin gastronomy but, to me, it's more important that I'm eating what's here and available right in front of my house. Eating seafood raw, within half an hour of it being plucked from the shore, will always be an experience.

Who'd have thought that scoffing the gonads of a living echinoderm could be so life-affirming.

Monday 17 January 2011

Souplover Man

Thank you Lidl. Your central Aisle of Teutonic Wonder has again revealed a shining pearl of reasonably-priced kitchen equipment that has surely improved my life.

I like gadgets but I'm not very good at buying them because I keep putting off the purchase of them, never sure of choosing the best one available for my budget. Thus is was with the Lidl hand blender. I spied it in the Aisle of Wonder shortly before Christmas. At £9.99 it looked a steal - solidly built, with a reassuringly workmanlike heft and a burnished stainless-steel shaft. But I abandoned it, reasoning that there was no way that anyone could really make a decent blender with a reasonable motor for £9.99 retail. However, when I went back early in the new year to do some other shopping, I noticed that it was still on offer but that there was only one left. This time it was mine.

My wife and I make a lot of soup. It's so easy, cheap and satisfying to make I've often thought that, if I ever went into the catering industry, I would set up a wee cafe selling nothing but. Before the advent of the Lidl hand blender we had to take our soup and pour it into an ageing Magimix, a few ladles at a time. Now we just boil up the veg (or whatever) until tender then render it down to velvety mellifluousness, in-pot, with a few pulses (sic) of the blender.

We used it to make celeriac soup for Christmas dinner. I could have done with adding more liquid, as it came out a bit thick. But, as we were only serving small cups of it in between other gargantuan courses, it wasn't too filling for the purpose.

The celeriac soup recipe was gleaned from our trusty New Covent Garden Book of Soups. We've found the recipes in our 1996 edition to be reliable. But what are they up to these days? I recently bought a carton of their 'Root Vegetable Medley' and it was horrible: undercooked veg, nasty colour and no detectable salt. What is this nonsense about salt anyway? Sodium is a required electrolyte in the body, and adding salt to your cooking won't do you any harm. It will just make your food taste better.

January can be a hard month. Today is "Blue Monday", statistically the most depressing day of the year. So it's a good time to cheer yourself up by getting out a gigantic pot, a motley-looking assortment of seasonal ingredients and a hefty choppy device (Lidl or otherwise), and souping your way to happiness.

Monday 10 January 2011

Mocha Chocolata Yatter

The snow has all melted away and the cold, damp morning has a real January "back to work" feel. The tide is high and steely-rippled in the meagre dawn light. But it's warm in here and the coffee is hot and fragrant: Cariamanga from Ecuador, given to me as a kind gift by a friend who works there.

Most of the Christmas food-surplus mountain has now been converted into excess waistline. A few ill-flavoured Thorntons chocolates entreat with merciless determination from their yawning box. Come to think of it, most of their chocolates taste pretty poor - mostly of sugar. They're addictive and guilt-inducing, and I only tend to eat them when I have hangover anxiety. Blech.

We polished off the smoked salmon on Hogmanay, after an impromptu foodie get-together back here. You can tell it's a middle-class affair when your guests turn up at 3am equipped with cava and Bombay Sapphire, then send their husbands running (literally) back home because they've forgotten the Comte. We also finished my brother's rather fine spiced, pickled beef - I must get the recipe for that. The "evening" did, of course, finish up on whisky. A cask-strength Caol Ila. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The coffee is working its magic and the world seems a brighter place. Probably because the sun's just come up.