Slip sole in seaweed butter by Stephen Harris

105 slip sole.jpg
Slip sole photographed by Toby Glanville

I liked the idea of serving the fish alone on a plate. It was a statement of intent. And it was provocative – I knew I would get people saying it needs some vegetables or potatoes. But I disagreed, people just needed to concentrate on the fish, reunited with seaweed on a plate with the help of a bit of butter.

Serves 4

Oil, for greasing
4 x 250 g/9 oz slip soles, skinned and heads removed
8 x 15 g/ ½ oz discs Seaweed Butter [see below]
sea salt

When ready to cook, preheat an overhead grill (broiler) and arrange the slip soles on an oiled and lightly seasoned griddle pan. Cut thin slices of the seaweed butter and arrange a couple of slices on each fish. Place under the grill for 3–4 minutes. Baste at least once to ensure each fish is completely covered with the butter. You should see some signs of shrinkage at the bones.

Remove the fish from the grill (broiler) and leave to finish cooking on the hot pan for a further 3–4 minutes. Season very lightly and serve straight away.

Seaweed butter
This is the amount of butter we make at the restaurant. It keeps well in the refrigerator for up to a week and freezes very well, but you can also scale down the recipe to your needs.

Makes about 1.5kg/ 3 lb 5 oz

100 g/3½ oz fresh gutweed or sea lettuce (enough for 20 g/ ¾ oz dried seaweed)
2.5 kg/ 5 lb 8 oz (10 cups) crème fraiche, chilled
22.5 g/ ¾ oz (4½ teaspoons) sea salt

After gathering the seaweed, wash it very carefully and then dehydrate for 3 hours at 80oC/175oF. Check carefully for any shells or foreign objects, then put into a food processor and pulse to small, rough flakes. Store in an air-tight container.

Put the bowl of a stand mixer into the refrigerator to chill. Put the cream or crème fraîche into the cold bowl and beat at high speed with the paddle attachment. After about 5 minutes the cream will really stiffen up and you will hear a splashing sound as the buttermilk separates out from the buttermilk.

At this stage I turn down the speed and cover the bowl loosely to prevent liquid spraying everywhere. Continue beating until the buttermilk and butterfat separate completely. Be patient as it may take another 5 minutes or so.

Turn off the machine and strain off the buttermilk. Rinse under cold running water and strain again. With the machine on its lowest setting, mix in the salt and dried seaweed until fully incorporated.

Knead the butter between two pieces of wax (greaseproof) paper to squeeze out the last of the buttermilk. Finally, shape into a cylinder or a round pat, wrap in wax (greaseproof) paper and store in the refrigerator.

Extracted from The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29.95 Phaidon
Buy the book

Cook more from this book
Salmagundi
Warm chocolate mousse

Read the review

Read an interview with Stephen Harris

Salmagundi by Stephen Harris

191 salmagundi.jpg
Salmagundi photographed by Toby Glanville

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a salmagundi. I love the word itself – it’s the seventeenth century name for an English mixed salad – and of course I’m very keen on dishes that are truly seasonal, as it means I can focus my efforts on selecting produce at its very best, ideally straight from my own garden, instead of having to source ingredients from a supplier, which might not be up to the same standard.

Back in the early days of The Sportsman, while I was still dreaming of the perfect salmagundi, I visited Michel Bras’ restaurant in the Aubrac plateau of France. One of his most famous dishes is the gargouillou – a salad that contains up to twenty different vegetables, all prepared separately. The waiter explained that the name comes from a traditional peasant soup, which can contain many different ingredients, depending on the season. I knew immediately that this would be the blueprint and inspiration for my own Sportsman salmagundi.

Back in the restaurant kitchen I gathered together as many ingredients from the restaurant kitchen garden as I could find, all in their prime. It was early July, which meant I was spoilt for choice: there were baby peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes and many other things, as well. And then it was a question of playing around with bits and bobs from the different sections of the kitchen. I selected some vegetable purées, a handful of fresh herbs and flowers, crunchy soda breadcrumbs, a buttery sauce, and I started to have some fun!

I began by decorating the plate with some artful smears of purée and topped them with a cooked baby carrot and a few cubes of roasted summer squash. Next, I flavoured the buttery liaison with a pinch of curry powder and warmed through my freshly picked vegetables: my aim was to maintain their intrinsic ‘snappiness’ – they didn’t need to be cooked, just barely warmed through – and I wanted their sweetness to be enhanced by the earthy flavour of the curry. I arranged a poached egg on the plate, spooned over the warm vegetables and finished the dish with some leaves and flowers and a scattering of breadcrumbs, to represent soil from the garden. The end result was a visual delight, as well as being utterly delicious.

The joy of a dish such as this is the way it can be adapted to what’s best during each season. Summer’s glut provides a bounty, of course, but in the winter it works just as brilliantly with root vegetables and a smoked egg yolk. I thought about writing a recipe for this, but in the end, realised that it would be impossible. The best version will come from using this as a rough guide to create your own version from what you have available.

Extracted from The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29.95 Phaidon
Buy the book

Cook more from this book
Slip sole in seaweed butter
Warm chocolate mousse

Read the review

Read an interview with Stephen Harris

Cooking At The Merchant House by Shaun Hill

Merchant House

There had been a ten year gap between The Shaun Hill Cookery Book (also known as The Gidliegh Park Cookbook) and Cooking At The Merchant House when it finally arrived in 2000. In between, Hill had knocked out a vegetable cook booklet for the BBC, contributed recipes to “A Spoon At Every Course by Mirabel Osler, and apparently spent the advance for a book called Masterclass which eventually surfaced as How to Cook Better.

Of course, he was also busy doing other things, such as running a restaurant, consulting for BA and Tescos and the odd bit of broadcasting on Radio 4. But I’m extremely glad he took the time to record the recipes that formed the menus at his wonderful and late lamented Ludlow restaurant.

Dishes such as Warm Artichoke Heart with Peas and Mint Hollandaise; Fresh Goats Cheese Gnocchi and Lobster with Chickpea, Corinander and Olive Oil Sauce bring back fond memories of numerous meals eaten at The Merchant House.

In addition to the excellent recipes, Cooking At The Merchant House goes some way to telling the story of the life of the restaurant.  Hill is a gifted writer of prose and it’s a great shame that there is not more of it. I am told by ‘sources close to the author’ that a great deal more was written and submitted, but was sacrificed to photos and general design considerations. Nevertheless Cooking From the Merchant House remains an essential purchase for any serious cook, professional or amateur.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Cooking at the Merchant House
Shaun Hill
£0.01 Conran Octopus

On the Side: A Sourcebook of inspiring side dishes by Ed Smith

On the sideWhen blogger Ed Smith of Rocket and Squash says in the introduction to this, his first foray into print, that side dishes are ‘often the best bit’ of a meal, it’s difficult to disagree. After all, what’s a steak without chips?

For the most part, Smith looks beyond the obvious – he suggests scorched sweet potatoes with sobrasada butter to go with that steak – and gleefully raids the global larder to brighten up kale and edamame with miso and sweet chilli and add spicy depth to mushrooms with za’atar. Left field ideas like adding yeast to cauliflower puree to provide ‘an (enjoyably) cheesy mustiness’ or coating corn on the cob in gochujang mayo and coconut make for an enjoyable and stimulating read.

It’s a particularly well organised book, with recipes not only grouped into four chapters covering greens, leaves and herbs; vegetables, fruits, flowers and bulbs; roots, squash and potatoes and grains, pulses pasta and rice, but also listed in three directories headed ‘What’s your main dish?’, ‘Where is the side dish prepared?’ (i.e. on the counter, on a hob or in the oven) and ‘How long does it take to make’. That means it’s easy to identify the ideal recipes to suit what’s on your menu, your kitchen set up and time available.

‘Alongside’ suggestions at the end of every recipe make it simple to pick two or three sides that pair with each other to make a meal in themselves (‘I think as eaters we’re creeping away from the idea that there must always be a standout piece of meat or fish in a meal’, claims Smith) or to match with a main course.

There are a few missteps. Smith doesn’t bring anything new to over-familiar dishes like boulangere potatoes, colcannon and cauliflower cheese and some of the recipes including broccoli with tarragon and agretti with olive oil are so simplistic that they hardly warrant inclusion.  But overall, Smith has come up with more than enough inventive ideas to ensure that cooks won’t leave his debut effort on the side.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
On the Side: A sourcebook of inspiring side dishes
Ed Smith
£20 Bloomsbury

Salt is Essential by Shaun Hill

Salt

We are living in gastronomic end times. Culinary Armageddon is upon us. A chef with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns on his horns emerged from the sea and turned the air into carrot. Then, a chef emerged from the earth having two horns, a head like a lamb, his body as a sheep, a tail like a wolf and feet like a goat, speaking with the voice of a dragon, directed his peers to make an image in homage to the Beast of the Sea on the plates before them, wrought from the very memories of their childhood.

And behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had some oysters and some pearls, though never would he taste them, and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And there went out another horse that was red: and he that sat upon him carried moss and lichen, and there was given unto him a great sword. And lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a citrus based confection that tumbled from his grip. Whoops. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was The Death of Gustatory Ambition, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to cook over open fire the beasts of the earth. And the sun turned black, the moon to blood. The sky receded like a rolled blind and the stars fell to the earth.

But there was a voice of hope. And I turned to see the voice that spoke to me, his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire. And I saw in the right hand of him a book, ‘Salt is Essential’.

It’s been 12 long years since Shaun Hill’s last book, the baldly titled How to Cook Better. In that time we’ve seen the weird excesses of molecular gastronomy (in Salt is Essential, Hill reveals he gave the keynote speech at a biennial workshop in Sicily organised by Nicolas Kurti, the Oxford physics professor who coined the term. Heston Blumenthal took Hill’s spot the next time around and the rest is history) replaced by locavore fundamentalism which in turn has been usurped by a caveman-like obsession with fire and smoke. In the highest echelons of gastronomy, diners feast upon live insects and plankton.

While all this has been going on, Hill has remained aloof, continuing to cook, first at The Merchant House (click the link for my review from 2002) and then at The Walnut Tree Inn, the sort of food that the practical application of his craft for a mind-boggling 50 years has proved to him to be correct. And now he’s distilled some of what he has learnt into the all-too-short 190 pages of Salt is Essential.

Thanks to Kit Chapman’s excellent book Great British Chefs published in 1989, I discovered Hill (who was then cooking at Gidleigh Park) early on in my own personal gastronomic journey and have subsequently read virtually everything he’s published. Over the years, his understated dry wit and pragmatic approach to his subject have wormed their way into my brain and profoundly influenced how I think, and write about food.

For those not familiar with Hill’s take on the world of cooking (I would never accuse him of anything so crass as having a ‘philosophy’ about food), Salt is Essential provides the perfect primer. This is food writing with an iron back bone and as much attitude as Mark E Smith on an amphetamine jag. Chapter titles such as ‘Creative thinking is a bad idea if you know nothing’, ‘A well done fillet makes no more sense than an undercooked stew’ and ‘Soya beans are best left for cattle feed’ are clear signals that we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

In a series of essays and elucidating recipe introductions, Hill combines opinion with practical advice, historical fact with personal anecdote and common sense with hard-earned insight to provide a hugely entertaining and edifying read. So you learn that ‘larger eggs have thinner shells and absorb air more quickly. This means that although fresh, they are more likely to lose shape when cooked and the yolks are fragile’; Worcestershire sauce is a cousin of both Thai fish sauce and the ancient Roman sauce garum, all three being made with fermented fish; and that Elizabeth David’s ancient precursor was a chap called Archestratus from the fourth century BC who knew all about the best cuts of tuna and ‘advised against allowing Italians near your sea bass a they had a tendency to cover the fish with cheese and pickle’ (a scholar of Latin, Greek and ancient history, Hill has been an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter and has written several books on ancient food with Professor John Wilkins, including Archestratus: Fragments from the Life of Luxury about the man himself).

As one of the prime movers of the late 80’s modern British cooking movement that took inspiration from across the globe, it’s no surprise that Hill’s recipes cover everything from risotto bianco to twice baked Lancashire cheese soufflés. Hill is widely travelled with a particular fondness for the Indian subcontinent and his tandoori marinade, made with lots of cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom and cloves is worth the cover price alone.

He also has a particularly good nose for dishes from northern, central and eastern Europe (one of his first jobs was at the Gay Hussar, the famous Hungarian restaurant beloved of politicos in London; his wife Anja is Finnish and has written several books on the food of Finland) such as karjalan piirakka, a rye pastry snack from Eastern Finland, and turos placsinta, sweet cream cheese pancakes from Hungary.

Although a few of the recipes demand a commitment in terms of time, money or concentration (you’ll need 3 kilos of veal bones, a kilo of diced beef shin and 12 hours of your life that you’ll never get back to make a classic demi glace sauce and just the odd five hours to make Hill’s extremely delicious version of baked beans), the vast majority are straightforward yet still likely to expand your culinary repertoire in ways other books might well fail to do. I may not rush to make the Maksalaatikko Finnish pig’s liver pudding with lingonberries, but lamb’s sweetbread pies; malfatti (ricotta and spinach dumplings) or puntarelle salad with anchovy and garlic dressing? Just try and stop me.

While Salt is Essential is aimed primarily at the home cook, I would implore every young professional cook, dazzled by the glittering parade of over-hyped superstar chefs and their weighty art-wank tomes, to read it. For therein lies your, and the dining public’s salvation. Amen.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Salt is Essential: and other things I have learned from 50 years at the stove
Shaun Hill
£25 Kyle Books