Tuesday 21 February 2012

The Shellfish Gene

We hit the surf clam motherlode on our last foraging trip. There's a particular place in one of the streams flowing back down to the sea which must have just the right combination of temperature, nutrients, sand and wee stones to provide them with an ideal home (surf clam style). They were still small but we have learned from experience how tasty they can be in a chowder.

My brother found an enormous shell from a recently-deceased native oyster Ostrea edulis. I'd never seen a true oyster shell that size; it must have been fully 16 centimetres across.

We also found a decent number of cockles and my mother insisted on collecting a load of wilks, common whelks, limpets and slightly gritty mussels. We banned those from the ensuing chowder. She also accepted a gift of a large bag of razorfish from a passing salt-wielding forager.

It took us about an hour and a half to clean and prep all the shellfish. We scrubbed them all and removed the beards from the mussels, then I cut open the razorfish and extracted the tastiest bits. My brother made a base for the chowder which included stock made from prawn shells, cream, herbs and potatoes. He then added the surf clams and cockles to cook until the shells opened. Meanwhile I boiled up the mussels, limpets, wilks and whelks in a separate pot. A dusting of flaked chipotle, garlic salt and chili-sauce provided the appropriate flavourings for the razorfish, which I then attempted to flash fry. I must now admit to having a condition known as frying-pan-not-hot-enough-because-my-mother's-stove-is-rubbish rage. I'm seeking treatment but it's quite specialised. The razorfish ended up rather rubbery as a result of half-boiling in the pan rather than truly frying. They were better raw as my brother conceded until I pointed out to him that the pieces were still moving at the time he tried one.

We already had enough shellfish to feed a rugby team and make 70s-style shell-covered table lamps for all their extended families, when my mother announced that this lot was just our starter and that we were also having main course and dessert. The chowder was rich, flavoursome and wonderfully messy to eat. I also managed a few mussels, a couple of bulots (whelk) and even a vulcanised limpet.

Another excellent family meal scavenged from Gastrobeach for free (apart from the smoked ham joint and chocolate ice cream).

Thursday 16 February 2012

Seashell Sanctuary

It's been an uplifting, gastronomic and romantic few days on and around Gastrobeach. It is amazing how a long weekend at home can turn into a wonderful and fulfilling mini holiday. And having that extra time coinciding with decent tides at useful times of day is neatly serendipitous. Lots to talk about, so I may spread it over a few blog posts.

I decided to cook a special meal on the Friday evening, to kick off the long weekend in style. The food available in the supermarkets here is often boringly generic so I took to the wee shops to gather my main ingredients: a couple of juicy venison steaks from the butcher and around half a kilo of fresh prawn tails from the seafood deli.

I fried up garlic and parsley with a lot of butter and some rapeseed oil, then added some lemon juice to make a hot, lemony garlic-butter dip. I simply plunged the prawn tails into boiling water for a couple of minutes. If you've never experienced the messy delights of shelling hot prawns at the table, and eating them dipped in tangy garlic butter, then you may be the sort of person that got scolded by their mother for being a messy eater and has now developed an unhealthy complex or two. You'll certainly be the sort of person that is missing out.

I had seasoned the venison steaks and marinated in Port for an hour or so. Using the garlic-butter pan (complete with tasty caramelised garlic bits) I began making a reduction for the steaks. A good glug of cassis, some more Port and a couple of teaspoons of blackcurrant jam, added to the leftover venison marinade, made for a rich sauce reduction. I boiled some chopped celeriac and potato then whizzed (with some lemon juice and butter added) to make a smooth puree. Venison steaks are excellent flash-fried but they are quite dense, so you'll need to fry them for a bit longer than beef steaks to get to the equivalent level of cookedness. I left ours quite rare but then rested them for a while out of the pan while I fried some baton-cut courgettes in the meat juices. I then returned the steaks to the pan for a final heat. Somewhat better than the pizza and a movie I had originally planned.

There was dessert too: chocolate and vanilla cheesecake by those people. We now have loads of those wee glass dishes they come in, but they make passable ramekins if you are a ramekin sort of person. Is that a person that likes little rams? The liquid accompaniment to the whole meal was a refreshing cava de Codorniu.

Saturday was dry if a little overcast. Humans ventured onto the shore around 2pm to follow the still-receding tide line. My brother and mother joined us for a "fun but serious" forage. We were mostly seeking surf clams to form the basis of a bumper seafood chowder but were often distracted by the other fascinating sea-life revealed by the low tide. The image I've used is a wee taster of this: a hermit crab in a beautiful conical shell.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

All Wellie and Good

Orion from Ayrshire
A beautiful winter shot of Orion over the Ayrshire coast. Photo by John Spooner via Flickr.
It's a crispy-cold and sunlit day, with scratchy snow showing on the mainland peaks. It looks like t-shirt weather from in here but, at around 2 degrees with windchill outside, I wouldn't recommend it.

The bright, dry weather and longer days have been thoroughly liberating. My wife came home from work early on Monday and we had time for an hour-long trek along the 'flotsam' side of the bay before the light was gone. Along the way we spoke to a friend who had caught up with us in his quest to claim a dented blue plastic barrel, which he intended cut down and use as an animal feed container.

We made it as far as the jaggy rocks two-thirds of the way towards the point before accepting that we were running out of daylight. The wobbly, rounded stones along this stretch of shore aren't conducive to surefootedness in low light, especially when you're wearing too-big Argyll wellies. My wife has snug snowboots with chunky and grippy soles, so she was somewhat more gazelle-like (in relative terms) than me in the failing light.

The views (combined with the cold air) were quite breathtaking. Two ships passed in the dusk far out in the Sound. A heron hunched, old-man-like, in the steel-flat water. They seem to like these low light conditions - I assume that it's easier for them to spot the flash of small fish than when the sun is higher in the sky.

The bright stars of Orion were just beginning to show in the east as we tramped, happy and becalmed, up the drive to our cosy-warm house.