Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lumpfish caviar. An ugly truth.

According to the United States Custom Service, ‘Caviar is the eggs or roe of sturgeon preserved with salt. It is prepared by removing the egg masses from freshly caught fish and passing them carefully through a fine-mesh screen to separate the eggs and remove extraneous bits of tissue and fat’.

Caviar is a textbook example of the way food exposes the gap between, and the intersection of, ethics and aesthetics. This can be summarised by the phrase: ‘it’s wrong, but it tastes so right’.

It’s not just that it comes from an endangered species* or that is has been periodically banned from importation (and hence illegal) in several countries or even that the roe is extracted by a process which can be described as involuntary-fish-abortion**. It is that caviar costs about £6000 / $US 10,000 per kilo***, which, to pick a country at random, is roughly equivalent to the average annual income of someone living in South Africa, home of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, or ten times the average annual income of someone in say, Nepal****.

Caviar is a nutritionally pointless food, used mainly as a garnish and status symbol. Pretty, shimmery, salty, food-bling.

The lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus), by most accounts, is not a pretty fish. “Benthic species dine upon sessile invertebrates and mollusks. Pelagic species target prey they are capable of overtaking, namely slow-moving jellyfish and ctenophores.”***** That is, they don’t really swim that well so they kind of just hang around sucking on the bottom of the ocean. They also don’t really have scales. Think of them as the marine equivalent of being directionless, balding and middle aged.

In their favour is where they fall in terms of sustainability. Whilst the statistics on biomass are sketchy, these are fish that eat low-ish on the food chain, and are caught in coastal waters, mostly by small fishing boats.

Enter the strange world of caviar substitution. Of course, fish other than sturgeon have salty, pop-in-the-mouth, shiny eggs. Affordable, visually stimulating and an easy addition to canapés.

By every measure, caviar is ethically questionable. But lumpfish caviar? Not so much - very clever and a little bit fancy – tiny little piles of coloured lumpfish caviar on fried potato rosti with sour-cream. I was going to buy smoked salmon, but the little jars of roe were the same price and would have the same sea-saltiness that matches so well with potatoes.

Once you get over the deep unattractiveness of the fish, the fact that their ovaries are essentially surgically removed (after death), the double processing (involving a doubling in production related transportation), the addition of artificial preservatives, additives, colourants, the high salt content and the fact that this, like caviar is an imported, nutritionally-valueless, flavourful garnish, lumpfish caviar is brilliant.

More honestly: the more I have explored the whole ‘caviar substitute’ concept the more dissatisfied I have become. Reading the label, I discovered emulsifiers and thickeners and preservatives, and of course, artificial black and red colouring. I don’t buy jam, for goodness sake, because of the added gelatin (what, pectin not good enough now?) or corn chips because of ‘anti-caking agents’ – what on earth was I buying the fish-egg equivalent for? And the food miles? It’s from the Atlantic, ie, the other side of the globe. The whole enterprise was clearly idiotic.

But more than this: I’m left with the feeling that I’m in buying into the whole tiny-sea-water-popping-spheres-is-cool-and-luxurious lie, and this becomes, I think, a validation of the inherent class distinctions involved in caviar consumption. Acceptance and desire for the obtainable emulation of caviar somehow reinforces and justifies the fuss – the legend – around caviar caviar.

And that is an ethical choice that no amount of culinary-glitter should obscure.

Next time I’ll buy half a dozen local fresh un-shucked oysters for about ten bucks.

* ie
** Note that I am pro-choice, but I am not sure that fish are able to exercise choice, and at any rate, I believe that the production of caviar occurs without sturgeon consultation. Weirdly, most sturgeon caviar production does not involve killing fish as the roe producing fish are far too valuable to kill. They do perform this kind of fish abortion – mostly surgical, but increasingly less invasive methods of roe-sack extraction are being used.
*** This is for beluga caviar, according to


The book by Jon Johannesson Lumpfish Caviar – From Vessel to Consumer (FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS Rome, 2006) is an excellent resource on lumpfish. Possibly the only such resource on lumpfish.

For information on sustainable seafood is great (if you’re in North America at least), and they also outline their ranking methodology, which can help you make decisions about species not on their list.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On how quince paste melted my runcible spoon*

Quince. Botanical name: cydonia oblonga. Fruiting plant. It is the is the only member of the genus Cydonia. Turns the most fabulous brilliant deep red from its raw creamy-yellow when cooked over a long period. Naturally rich in pectin and tanin. Perfect for jam and jelly and stews.

No one really knows what a runcible spoon is**. Conjecture abounds: possibly it is like a spork, with bowl and prongs, or a splade, with serrated sharp edge and scoop. Or shallow and long handled. Or wooden.

Like the word runcible, quinces are unique. Unlike the word runcible (which is made up) quinces are an ancient fruit, grown since time immemorial, unchanged and unchanging. The Akkadians ate them, as did the Persians, classical Greeks and Romans. Apicius gives recipes for them (baked in honey or stewed with leeks), and Song of Solomon mentions them.

To my mind, this is a runcible spoon, capturing a sense of both runny and dribble, both of which describe the woeful melted plastic that occurs when you FORGET TO REMOVE THE DAMN SPOON WHILST BOILING QUINCE PASTE ON THE STOVE WHICH IS VERY STUPID.

Melted plastic does a grave disservice to any kind of conserve or jam-like substance. Thankfully, I did manage to remove all traces of the spoon from the quince paste, although the spoon itself is unsalvageable and has been consigned to the rubbish bin. Perhaps the wooden spoon would have been a wiser choice.

And still: I continued to persevere with the quince paste. Yes, I am even going to eat the damn stuff. It took me hours and hours to even get to melted-plastic point.*** Not to mention the 1.8kg of beautiful, misshapen, just-ripe quinces that I bought on a whim at the market just because they are in season, and divine-smelling and so terribly old-fashioned and retro and grandma-y and well, cool, in the same way that an original 1950s prom-dress is cool when you just happen to find it in a vintage shop and it fits and is made of silk and is fabulous.

Quinces even smell old-fashioned, a deliciously sweet musky perfume that reminds me of the powder-puffs that classy old ladies use.

Quinces are vintage, and vintage is in.

And quince paste is the quintessential quince recipe. Sweet and floral and tangy served with a cheese platter, or equal tasty as a jam, it is nanna-ish and more-ish. Have it with sherry.

* It is a universal law that whenever anyone ever eats, cooks, smells, looks at, thinks about or in any way is exposed to quince that they must think about the Owl and the Pussycat. This, of course, is because the Owl and the Pussycat ‘dined on mince and pieces of quince’.
** Edward Lear’s poem continues: 'Which they ate with a runcible spoon'. This was one of the many words he invented. Poets are allowed to do that.
*** I may have misunderstood the phrase “
weekend herb blogging” which I now believe means, ‘write about it over the weekend’ not, ‘spend all weekend engaged in cooking it and then melt a spoon in it’. I assume that Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once would encourage my attempt to cook the spoon itself, and Chris at Mele Cotte might focus on the quince and not the spoon as the requisite ‘herb or plant ingredient’.

Quince paste

Quinces. Water. Sugar. Roughly half as much sugar as quince, by weight. I used 1.5 kg quinces (raw) and 800 g sugar.

Rub the quinces to remove any of the dusty fine hairs on the skins. Quarter.

Cook the quinces in water, lid on, for about 45 minutes, until the quinces are softish. Strain, reserving about 1 cup water.

Mash the quince through a china cap. Discard the seeds and skin. (Some recipes suggest peeling and coring, and then adding this to the pan in a muslin sack – I have no muslin, so I discarded that stuff in the straining process, but if you do have a neat muslin sack, you can just discard it and then use a blender to pulp the quince, which is easier).

Weigh. Add an equal weight of sugar.

Return to a saucepan, with reserved liquid.

Simmer for about four hours until thick, goopy, and dark, dark red. Remember to scrape the bottom of the pan regularly, but also remember to remove the spoon from the pot. When thick enough that you can still see the bottom of the saucepan after you pull the spoon through, pour into a greaseproof paper lined tin and bake in an over at 50ºc overnight to dry out (6-7 hours should do it).

Cool, cut into pieces, wrap in greaseproof paper. Refrigerate. Eat with delicious cheese. Or spiced mince. Or spread on toast or scones. Serve with equally quaint and old-fashioned elderflower cordial.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hazelnuts: also edible (especially with butter and Brussels sprouts)

The hazelnut is charmingly winter-blooming and pollinating, with fresh fruits harvested in the summer. Like most nuts they store perfectly in nature’s packaging (the shell, silly) and hence can be enjoyed in mid-winter, while the trees trail long blossoms on bear limbs.

And yet. The hazelnut, in literature and cultural tradition, occupies an ambiguous position.

Despite evidence that hazelnuts were cultivated and harvested on a large scale as early as 9000 years ago, the hazelnut features not as tasty treat, but symbolic riddle.

For Hamlet, only bad dreams stood between him and reign over infinite space, as defined by the bounds of a nutshell.* Elsewhere in Shakespeare, Queen Mab rides around in the some empty hazelnut shell, perpetually in motion distributing, one suspects, those same bad dreams.** Julian of Norwich had visions that the whole of the universe is a hazelnut in g-d’s palm***, Grimm’s fairytales suggest they keep us protected from snakes and vipers and all venomous things****, and Druidic legend suggests that a particular hazelnut-fed salmon imparts wisdom to the person who in turn eats the fish.*****

From Druidic folktales to Grimms’ fairtales, the mystic writings of mediaeval Saints to Shakespeare, the hazelnut repeatedly represents a profound metaphysical and moral contradiction.

Over and over, the edible is rendered inedible, and the physically real, metaphysically impossible. How could we think to eat the whole of creation? How can something real, tangible and mundane also be said to be infinite space? How can the whole of the universe be observed from a standpoint outside of the universe? Why fish-enhancing or reptile-repelling?

Why not just eat the damn things? Butter, salt, sprouts, hazelnuts.

No fairy queens, no troubled princes or wizards, no mystic saints or salmons or mothers of g-ds. Just brown butter sauce and toasted hazelnuts and braised Brussels sprouts.

* Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II. Scene II:
[Hamlet]: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a
king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
** Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act I. Scene IV:
[Mercutio]: Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
*** Julian of Norwich The Showing of Love Chapter V
**** Jacob Ludwig Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm The Hazel Branch
***** The bradán feasa

Braised Brussels sprouts with brown butter and toasted hazelnuts

Serves 4, as a side

100g hazelnuts
400g Brussels sprouts
60g butter
½ cup water
Sea salt

Toast the hazelnuts in large pan (or roast in a moderate oven) until golden. Remove from heat and rub with a tea-towel to remove the skins. Set aside.

In a large non-stick pan, stir 20gs butter into the water and bring to a simmer. Add sprouts and a pinch of sea salt. Cover and simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes, adding a little more water if the pan dries out before the sprouts are cooked through.

Remove the Brussels Sprouts and set aside. Add the remaining butter and hazelnuts and cook over a low heat until the butter is brown. Return the sprouts to pan and coat with butter sauce. Serve with roast chicken or grilled salmon.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fool’s marigold – winter risotto, with mushrooms and leeks

“Winter tarragon ... is more often than not incorrectly sold to the unsuspecting as French tarragon”.* I, reckless and naive buyer of herbs, may have unwittingly stumbled upon a fake-tarragon fencing racket.

Over indulgence at the market had led to a basket full of winter root vegetables, brassicas and herbs. In amongst more purple radicchio, broccoli, English spinach, cauliflower, celeriac, sweet potato, quinces and Brussels sprouts than it is perhaps sane to purchase lay the even more indulgent acquisitions. Buddha’s hand lemons, French sheep’s milk cheese. And odd sweet smelling spikey herbs with yellow flowers, at which I had pointed without having a clue what they were.

“Tarragon” yells the girl, across piles of mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes.

Not tarragon. Whence the long elegant dark green smooth tongues? And whither the delightful soft petalled bright egg-yolk coloured blooms? The scent was rich and liquorice-like, with spicy hints of cinnamon or nutmeg. Like, and yet unlike, tarragon. And what of its uncharacteristic mid-winter appearance?

As ever, when confronted with the alarming and the unknown, I came home and consulted the archives.*

French tarragon is a spring-through-autumn herb, which withers during the coldest of the winter months. It has a gentle and subtle liquorice flavour that is easily over-powered.

Tarragon, for the unwary, is a labyrinth of false trails. Beset on one side by ‘Russian tarragon’, a giant washed-out version, in colour and flavour, of French tarragon; and on the other by the mysterious plant “known as winter, Spanish or Mexican tarragon, which bears bright-yellow flowers, is sturdy and neat-looking with firm, dark-green leave and has a reasonably strong, spicy aroma similar to French tarragon”.*

Apparently, winter tarragon is a variety of marigold, and a perfectly safe and delicious substitute for tarragon. Finely shredded and mixed with avocado and fresh ricotta, it was lovely with poached eggs. And dehydrated in the oven and generously crumbed over mushroom and leek risotto, it enhanced the earthiness and creamy starches of the rice.

I may have been duped by the fines herbes equivalent of a fake Gucci bag, but I will always be a sucker for anything so pretty and unusual, and its flavour, rather than some preconceived notion, is what mattered in the end.

* Spice Notes by Ian Hempill

Mushroom and leek risotto with tarragon

The trick to risotto: constant stirring to release the starches around the rice, giving it that ‘creamy’ texture without adding actual cream. Make sure to coat the rice in the oils of the pan before adding liquid, add the liquid gradually as it is absorbed, and try to have the liquid at the same temperature as the risotto.

Serves 4

1 brown onion, finely diced
1 leek, washed and finely sliced (I use the green parts too)
50 g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
12 medium sized field mushrooms (about ½ kg)
1 cup risotto rice (I use Vialone Nano, a particular variety of risotto rice, but aborio or carnaroli are also perfect)
5 gm dried porchini mushrooms, soaked for 10 minute in ¼ cup warm water
2 cups English spinach
1 bunch winter tarragon, or French tarragon (if no tarragon is available, try 2 tsps finely chopped thyme or rosemary) – fresh or dehydrated.
1 litre water, warm to just simmering (you could use chicken or vegetable stock, but I find it’s not necessary)
50 gm finely grated parmesan

In a large heavy based saucepan over a medium, melt the butter and heat the oil. Add the onions and half the leek, stir until starting to soften. Add one third of the mushrooms, stir until softening.

Add the rice, and stir to coat. Add the porchini mushrooms and their liquid, and a ladle full of warm water, stirring constantly.

As the liquid is absorbed, add more warm water, stirring constantly.

Continue until the rice is almost cooked (this takes about half and hour). The rice should have a firm yet yielding texture, and the risotto should have a loose and sticky consistency. Add sea salt to taste.

In a separate saucepan, cook the remaining leeks and mushrooms in a tablespoon of olive oil, with half the tarragon. Set aside when the mushrooms are just cooked. (I do this so that some of the mushrooms and leeks retain a firmer texture when the meal is served).

When the rice is cooked, rapidly stir through the remaining mushrooms and leek, the English spinach and the grated cheese.

Spoon into deep dishes and scatter over the remaining tarragon.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gnocchi: like it or lump it

The first time I made gnocchi was a disaster. Wanting desperately to impress a potato-mad paramour, I was left with a disintegrating collection of potato flavoured lumps. To be fair, this is what also happened the first time someone tried to make me gnocchi – a chef, and admittedly a very good one, that I happened to date, sought to impress me with the delicate Italian potato dumpling, and proceeded to produce a glue-textured and glue-flavoured bite-seized failure. (The idea behind that, however, was genius: cooked, and then pan-seared with pan-sweated baby spring-vegetables and French butter – it would have been delicious). Turned out as badly as the romance.

I have attempted gnocchi with and without eggs, flour, ricotta, all to varying degrees of failure.

Until recently I was taught, under pressure conditions, by a master*. And managed to produce something that was both flavourful and beautifully chewy with a light consistency. Turns out you have to fail a few times to get a real feel for the dough. So I tried again, with a recipe from a magazine** (which, as usual, I neglected to read correctly, and omitted the egg) – and succeeded in producing light, fluffy and sticky gnocchi that held their shape and absorbed the surrounding flavours.

And then again, mid week, capitalising on my success, I just whipped up gnocchi with caramelised bitter radicchio and peas and vanilla-and-rose-tea-smoked smoked duck. If I sound a wee bit cocky it’s because of the series of failures (romantic and otherwise) that preceded the triumph.

Moisture is the enemy: all the times I have succeeded, the potatoes have been individually wrapped in foil and oven roasted in their skins. I have pressed the potato through a sieve, without mashing (I do not have a ricer). I have kneaded lightly whilst still warm. I have not used eggs, I have not added liquid. I have been serious about avoiding overworking the potato so as to not stretch the starches too much. I have cooked in boiling water, at first one, tested and tasted, and then the remainder, whilst will slightly warm and soft. I have drizzled with olive oil and cooled, and then pan seared in olive oil and butter until slightly caramelised and hot again. I have snuck mouthfuls of just-cooked gnocchi, spinkled with sea salt, as a pre-dinner snack (quality control!).

Apparently, in Italian, the word gnocchi means ‘lumps’, which at once both accurately describes and deflates this incredibly fickle dumpling. I love their rustic lumpiness, their unevenness and general lack of elegance. And yet, when well-made, there is a velvetness, a simplicity that speaks to the richness of clay and the superiority of learned technique. So sublime a goal, I know I have many more years of romance and practice ahead to master the lump.

* Thank you, Matt Moran. You are a bald genius.
Australian Gourmet Traveller, Annual Cookbook 2010


Serves 4

2 medium sized potatoes, approximately 300 g total
150 gm full fat ricotta cheese
50 g finely grated parmesan cheese
120 g plain flour
Sea salt, optional, to taste.

Pre heat oven to 180ºc. Wrap each potato separately in foil, bake in oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove from oven and set aside until just cool enough to handle.

Peel potato and press through a metal sieve. Press ricotta through the sieve, add flour and parmesan, (and salt if using) and mix together with hands until just combined.

Cut into four pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll into a long sausage shape until approximately ½ inch diameter. Cut into 1 inch lengths, pinch slightly. Repeat with remaining peices.

To cook – add batches of gnocchi to rapidly boiling water. The gnocchi will sink to the bottom. As the pieces rise to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a lightly oiled tray.

You can eat then like this – just add sea salt, cracked pepper and little grated parmesan. Or ...

Sauté one finely sliced onion, two crushed cloves of garlic and one finely minced chilli in a little olive over a medium heat until caramelised. Turn heat to high, add 1 small head of torn raddichio and 1 cup of steamed peas and cook for about 5 minutes until soft. Add 50 g butter, melt until foaming. Add cooked gnocchi and cook, tossing pan occasionally, for 3 ish minutes, until caramelised and warm. Serve, with or without smoked duck.