Time to cut the 'gras/ Salmon provencal

Monday, April 28, 2008
With the smell of the approaching summer drifting off the oil seed rape fields all over the Cotswolds, it can mean only one thing - it's almost time to cut the ‘gras.
Sightings had been reported on several local menus, and as I stopped at Collis, the market garden just before Evesham on the Broadway road, there were several bunches on the shelves in the shining sun and I couldn‘t resist.

In the vale of Evesham, home of English asparagus it’s time for the early crop already.

While on holiday in Venice, some 6 or 7 years ago I picked some asparagus up on the rialto market (we‘ve since found the market on St. Margherita‘s Square, or the veg barge) and wanting to try something new (yes, chefs do cook on holiday as well) rolled it in olive oil, stuck it under the grill till soft then, looking in the fridge, found some parmesan, as you do, and gratinated it, thus starting my obsession with asparagus and parmesan.

Last Friday I grilled it again. Though this time without parmesan - it accompanied a bistro style dish of Salmon provençal with dauphinoise potato, pepper coulis and balsamic.

The salmon is marinaded in and grilled in tomato sauce. If you grill it (on a conventional grill) skin side up the skin turns crisp and becomes the best part of the whole dish. If the skin is burning before the salmon is cooked, you just need to reduce the heat of the grill. If you are chargrilling dip into flour as explained earlier to avoid it sticking. In season you could use wild salmon. I did last year and it was a complete revelation. Worth every penny.

Ref: Asparagus and parmesan

Ratatouille macaroni cheese pronto

Courgette, cheese, onion and tomato, as it was called, was a summer staple in the Benson family when I was young and the courgette plants were proliferating daily. On the days when the sun was strong you could watch them grow by checking them at various points from the morning till the evening.

In Devon my grandparents had a warmer, sunnier climate so they could grow aubergines too - which at that time was quite exotic as we were just on the verge of globalising our food tastes as a country. Aubergines were added to their ratatouille, when they weren't being used for aubergine fritters.

Hunger is the mother of food invention. This dish was cooked up in less than 5 minutes, and is a take on our old Courgette, cheese, onion and tomato with a few extra Mediterranean additions.

What I added:

  • Courgette sauteed (leave them without stirring to colour - that is where the flavour is)
  • Cooked frozen red onion
  • Parma ham
  • Tomatoes (fresh, tomato sauce, or left over cooked tomatoes from breakfast)
  • Sun dried tomatoes (if they come with capers in the oil for flavour add those too)
  • Cooked macaroni (Cook day before or in the morning and refresh under cold water before leaving in fridge to save time)
  • Water (to make a little steam to heat the macaroni. By the time it has all reduced the pasta is hot)
  • Grated cheese
  • Fresh herbs - depending on what you have - chives, basil

What you can add:

Anything you like.

You're all heart

Monday, April 21, 2008
Offal has always featured in the Benson family repetoire for as long as I can remember - kidneys and scrambled egg, kidney and sausage, liver and bacon, steak and kidney, cold tongue with salads. But it wasn't till 2 years ago I ventured as far as tripe and that was on La Rambla - it was worth the wait. And it wasn't till last week I tried cooking heart - and it wasn't even Valentines Day.
Remove the top of the heart. You can leave in the aortas et al. I prefferred to remove them - as you remove the veins from kidneys or liver because they are tough.

You just need to slip a super-sharp knife around.
I filled them with a mixture of minced lamb, breadcrumbs and fresh herbs. Then sealed them (with gives you the caramelisation flavour) in a hob-to-oven cassrole dish.
Then braised in red wine sauce, onions & thyme for 4 hours. If you have ever experienced tough heart (the edible variety) it was probably because they were just not cooked long enough. Mustard creamed potato makes a great accompaniment.

Canary pudding

Sunday, April 20, 2008
Now with real canaries. Only in the dreams of Sylvester though.

Canary pudding gets its name it is thought from the canary yellow colour from the lemons it contains. For full recipe click here. The secret to the lightness is beating the butter and sugar as long as you can - and adding the eggs slowly enough so they increase in volume from the air. Short cuts are OK, but an all-in-one method just won't be as light.

I topped it with candied lemon zest and served it with lemon anglaise.
Boiled for 6 minutes in water then refreshed, the zest of 3 lemons are cooked in 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water for 10 minutes till translucent.
transferred to a baking mat and pulled apart with a fork to stop them sticking together.
When cool rolled in caster sugar.


1001 Kitchen tips # 22 - Char-grilling or pan frying fish - signed and sealed

Wednesday, April 16, 2008
There wasn’t much salamander space in the Lygon kitchen at the time I was there, and the saucier, veg and fish section all fought for there space on it during a busy service, so there was no chance for us larder chefs. So we would seal the red mullet fillets for our starter, then chill them and flash them in the Hobart convection oven when they were called away.

It was all going fine till one day the beautiful red skinned fillets stuck to bottom of the pan - all the non stick pans had been hidden by other sections for their service later on, and at that point I didn't have the salt trick. I was about to be in trouble - we only had exactly what we needed for the party. The same thing happened to the next ones. Disaster was looming. Then the French saucier showed me this tip which I have used ever since with everything from the red mullet to Dover sole.

If you are using a char grill pan let it heat up for at least 10 minutes. It has to be red hot or you fish, or meat will a) stick and b) only colour so lightly it’s not noticeable in appearance or flavour.
If you are using a pan you have 2 options - 1) have it on a medium-low heat, cook the fish slowly skin side down so the skin crisps, then turn the presentation side briefly to finish cooking. 2) Have the pan on a medium-high heat so you seal (brown) the outside of the fish, then finish it on a baking tray in the oven.

Dip the fish into seasoned flour and shake of the excess.

Then dip in oil (if you are frying you don’t need to do this, you add the oil to the pan instead). Sit on the char grill. I like to press the fish flat so the whole fillet gets even grilling - press lightly though or it will stick to the grill pan instead.

Using a roasting fork, skewer through the middle to turn it 45 degrees to get the criss-cross pattern. Using tongs or a palette knife can destroy the fish at this stage - fish needs to be treated with respect when cooking - it is really soft and can break easily. Slipping the palette knife underneath to turn it, it is easy to cut into to the fish and ruin the appearance.

While it can be cooked all the way on a chargrill - this produces masses of smoke, and often it burns before being cooked through, so we finish it in the oven. For a dinner party the sealing can done earlier in the afternoon before your guests arrive, and before the heat gets up in your kitchen.

If cooking later, allow to cool. If cooking straight away it can go straight in the oven. If you like crispy skin the best way is to grill it skin side up under a medium hot grill (top heat could burn it before it is cooked). On this particular occasion I was cooking at Watercombe House where they only have an aga, so cooked it skin side down on the base of the top oven - which gave a fierce base heat which crisped the skin very nicely. Every oven is different. On the other hand you could be using your barbecue…….

A sting to the palette - cooking with nettles

Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Once cooked the sting is destroyed -so you can eat freely. You can serve nettles as you would spinach with fish, chicken etc. Nettles also make a nice omlette.

  • The best taste comes from sauteeing:
After washing (as shown previously), still wearing gloves transfer to a cloth to dry. Heat olive oil and saute.

The caramelisation on the nettle leaves is where the amazing taste is. Keep turning over so they all get cooked. After a minute when they are almost cooked add a couple of tablespoons of water and leave to evaporate which finishes the cooking while stopping the nettles turning into nettle crisps. Season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.

  • Steamed -

Wearing gloves you can transfer the nettles from being washed in the sink to a large pan. There should still be enough water on the leaves to create steam once you put a lid on top. Cook for 3 - 4 minutes till tender. Squeeze off excess water and season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.

  • Deep frying -

Nettles can be deep fried at about 150 oC as you do with basil leaves and used as a garnish.

Related posts:

1001 kitchen tips #21 - top nettle picking tips
Nettle gluten free soda bread
Irish potato and nettle pancakes for St. Patrick's Day
Sauteed purple sprouting broccoli and courgettes with creamy polenta and nettle vinaigrette


Sauteed purple sprouting broccoli and courgettes with creamy polenta and nettle vinaigrette

  • Creamy polenta - about 50g polenta to 180ml chicken/ vegetable stock and 20ml cream for one rather large appetite or two smaller ones (youcan always re-heat the leftover). Add polenta to hot stock and cream. Add a knob of butter and chopped thyme and cook for a minute.

  • Nettle vinaigrette - Squeeze steamed nettles (the water they hold makes the vinaigrette dark). Whizz in the proccessor with vinigrette. Add warm water to thin the vinaigrette down to spooning consistency.
  • Sauteed courettes and purple sprouting broccoli - Saute courgettes first. Add PSB after a minute. Leave till well coloured - that's where the flavour is, add a little water at the end to make steam which finishes the cooking. Season with salt, pepper and a little balsamic syrup.

Ref: 1001 kitchen tips #21 - top nettle picking tips


1001 kitchen tips #21 - Top nettle picking tips

Now is the season for nettles - pick them while they are young and tender.

1. Choose your nettle patch carefully. I found mine on the bank of the river Severn. Make sure:

  • You are away from dog walking routes (obvious reasons)

  • You are away from arable fields (crop sprays/ pesticides)

  • The soil isn't sandy - sandy soil gets splashed up all over the nettles when it rains and however much you wash them they will still be gritty.

  • There hasn't been recent floods around your nettle patch - the nettles near the bank were covered with sludge.

  • Avoid nettles under trees -they suffer from birds and whatever the tree decides to drop.

2. Get the marigolds out to avoid the sting.

3. Pick just the tips - they are the most tender part. The bigger the leaves get the more fibrous they are.

4. Wash them well in water when you get back - again use the marigolds.

Related posts:

How to cook nettles
Courgette and nettle fritters with nettle pesto

Open ravioli of cod, asparagus and mozzarella gratinated with parmesan, wild nettle pesto

Pearl barley risotto with wild nettles, roasted purple sprouting broccoli, artichokes and nettle pesto (This was part of a week long event - scroll down to Thursday on this link)

The BNT brioche crown (that's home cured bacon, wild nettles and home grown tomatoes - an epic)

Beef olive with nettle, sun dried tomato and basil stuffing

Beans on toast (or if you prefer: Homemade gluten free nettle bread with beer baked cannellini beans and nettle pesto)

Irish style potato (and nettle) pancakes for BBC Radio Gloucestershire St Patricks Day

Nettle risotto with grilled scallops and nettle pesto


Squid curry

Monday, April 07, 2008
If your squid has been prepared already,

all you need to do is check for the cuttlebones which are found inside. You can then cut the squid into rings, leaving the tentacles whole - they are the best bit.

Dry-fried fennel, cumin, caraway and coriander seeds, ground cinnamon and nutmeg. This is mixed through the squid and left to marinade as I did with the pork.

After a few hours, fry the squid on a high heat to get a good caramelisation (flavour). Then add chicken stock and add half a red chilli (depending on size) and a curry leaf. Bring to boil then turn heat down to simmer and cook for 20 minutes - no less. This is for the same reason as cooking stewing beef - the proteins tighen up during cooking, then break down through longer cooking.

If too much liquid is evaporating and the pan is going dry add a little hot water, otherwise it will burn.
After 20 minutes add coconut milk and allow to heat through. Add chopped coriander, then sprinkle with coconut flakes (as made before).

Serve with rice pilaf.
Ref: Kalamarakia Krasata

Kitchen tips # 20 - Easy trim beans

How often do you resort to those ready trimmed beans? It might save chopping time for those evenings when you have had a long busy day, but how long do they stay fresh? They seem to be cut and left in warehouses for a few days before being distributed, then held in the shops' warehouse, so by the time you take them off the shelf the ends are brown already - not very apppetising.

Stick with the un-trimmed beans. This is the almost instant way to cut them.

1. Leave them in the packet. Tap them on the board lightly so all of the ends are together.

2. Trim the ends through the sellophane. I use the razor sharp pastry knife for this.
3. Turn round and repeat with the other end.
4. Cut them in the middle.

Then you can cook them and mix them with Jerusalem artichokes as seen in February.