A dab of heat

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Like a lot of people, I struggle to find an economical way of feeding large amounts of people with fish: it is rarely inexpensive and nor should it be bearing in mind the time and effort it takes fishermen and women to catch and land their bounty. I am a dab hand (sorry) at stretching a few fish into bright curries, mash topped pies and little round cakes hiding nuggets of melting cheese but for me, the ultimate luxury is a large white plate topped with a single perfect fish, prepared simply, served whole. And if you choose to serve sole or plaice, flounder, skate or brill (turbot, is sadly out of the question) to several diners then the pounds rack up: some of these are high end fish for high days and holidays and none are cheap as chips any more.

This is where the dab should take a bow. They are prolific breeders in the cold dark waters of the North Sea and around the UK in general and are capable of breeding within two years, when they are only fifteen centimetres long. A precocious ability to reproduce explains in part why dab are so numerous and they are also a reliable catch because they will apparently feed in both daylight and darkness, gliding silently onto sandy beaches, estuaries and anywhere where rock clusters and sandy bottomed gullies have attracted the sea creatures they, in turn, feed upon. Their price reflects this and when I visited a local fishmonger, Fish Burwell LTd in Newmarket, I bought a bag full of dabs at only £1,75 each for fish that weighed in just over a pound (usual for a sold dab). They were beautifully fresh- still in rigor- irridescent, splodged with marmalade coloured spots and I bought them as nature made them although they are a lot easier to fillet than roundfish if you wish to serve them in this manner.

On the fishmongers slab, you’ll notice it has beady dark eyes on the right side of its body and skin the colour of wet sand at Walton on the Naze. Take it home and rub your fingers over its uncooked flanks and you’ll feel a roughness like a kittens tongue, pushing against the pads of your fingertips. You can cook them with head and fins attached and they tolerate pan, grill, oven and flame happily, without breaking up- a result of that determined and pliable skin which makes great eating too. The flavour is rich – a result of their marine diet of prawns, molluscs, shellfish and small crustaceans- and the meat falls away from their cartilaginous skeleton with a light touch of the fork.

I’ve written before about how I think what we refer to as ‘trash fish’ will gain popularity as it becomes the marine equivalent of nose to tail eating and dabs are a prime example of an under rated commercial fish, often disposed of when caught as by-catch by trawlers although things are changing. The fishing industry has realised there is a need to create a market for dab and other by catch. In the past they’ve been regarded as little more than flotsam and jetsam, not worth landing and certainly not worth the fuel miles to port where they would no doubt have lingered behind unsold. However there is a long way to go as of yet, with skippers having to return to shore with their entire by-catch, regardless of whether it can be eaten or sold. This is a terrible waste of fish, time and fuel, especially when fishing crews report that some by-catch fish might well have survived a return to the sea. Ultimately, the inability to return under-sized fish to the seas can only harm future stocks. Even if the by-catch has perished, all is not lost as indigenous marine animals such as birds and other fish would eat the discarded fish or their carcasses would decompose on the ocean floor, releasing essential nutrients into the water and sea-bed.

The Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, DEFRA and the Marine Institute have all been working with people employed in the fishing industries to reduce the amount of undersized catches. The recommended strategies have included an increase in the size of the mesh in cod nets. From the first of January 2016, all whiting, haddock, prawns and hake will be subject to an extended ban on by-catch, as part of measures being phased in by the European Commission to tackle the problem of by catch which resulted from its previous quota system. However, this has its critics because Irish and British waters are heavily fished by fishing crews of boats registered to other mainland European countries. These can continue to catch the most lucrative fish whilst Irish and British vessels are moored in port because they have reached their quota of caught fish.

The Burwells fish team had this to say about the problem: “By catch is being reduced by a change in legislation allowing fishermen to land more product avoiding the need to throw by catch back into the sea. As a fishmongers we promote the use of less know fish on a daily basis.”

Asked about their own stock, they told me: “We stock fish such as Dabs, Hake, Gurnard on a regular basis along with a recipe for people to try it with. We believe that some of the lesser known varieties of fish hold a lot more flavour and are also lighter on the wallet too. We would like to see people eating more Hake, Gurnard, Red Fish, Whiting and Coley.” Certainly, whenever I visit, I enjoy that interaction, the chance to gain more knowledge about what I am buying, about what I ought to be eating more of and what could benefit from a ‘ piscine close season’ because stocks are getting a bit too low for comfort.

Much of what I do starts with something read in a book and my search for a nice little pan fish to take kindly to began with Katy Carr’s food adventures in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did Next:

“Soles and muffins she finally decided upon and, as an afterthought, gooseberry jam. ‘Muffins sounds so very good in Dickens you know, she explained to Mrs Ashe, “and I never saw a sole.’ The soles when they came proved to be nice little pan fish, not unlike what in New England are called scup. All the party took kindly to them but the muffins were a great disappointment, tough and tasteless, with a flavour about them of scorched flannel.”

After reading What Katy Did Next, I laboured under the illusion that New England scups were the same as sole which were similar to what we call dabs- I was wrong. Properly known as Limanda Limanda, the dab is a member of the Flounder family and similar in appearance to the sole and plaice, which of course Katy Carr had already noted. The dab fitted the bill for our hungry and on the side of large, family. I was keen to serve whole fish too, because it has always been important for children to understand what ‘real’ fish look like and to not only eat it neatly filleted and parcelled up with all the trickier parts- head, fins, tail, skin- removed and disposed of lest they be too, um, ‘fishy’. But how best to cook it?

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Keep it simple stupid is definitely the mantra here. I like the sound of the Fisherman’s Roll, made with the best of the catch and hence, little added bells and whistles are required, but it requires the dabs to be filleted and I wanted to serve them intact. If, however, you like the idea of this, then ask the fishmonger to fillet the dab and  then dredge them in seasoned flour, fry in olive oil and serve in a buttered soft bap with a squeeze of lemon and liberal shakes of good salt and black pepper. Nigella’s  soft white dinner rolls are a good match, otherwise look for pale flour covered baps sold in independent bakeries- the kind with a soft and spreading girth. In the USA, Parker House Rolls with their buttery glazed tops are delicious with fried fish or pair the sweet, fluffy Hawaiian rolls with the toothsome dab. Hawaiian rolls are yeast risen, enriched with milk, eggs and sugar and were introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who flocked there to work in the sugar plantations in the mid nineteenth century. It is a short and logical step to pair the sweet rolls with the fried fish that Portuguese people so love and together they compliment rather than overload the palate. Spread the rolls with a good unsalted butter, add a slice of tomato (choose Jack Hawkins if they are well ripened) and season the fish well. For those of you without access to Hawaiian bread, use brioche rolls sold in store for burgers- the kind with toffee coloured glazed tops. (Aldi and Waitrose both sell good versions or ask your local indy baker if they make them.)

Fish Burwells LTD enjoy a dab or six and although most of their stock tends to be sold to older customers, there is a decent demand for them locally. The fish team recommend serving them tapas style, using a paillard technique to flatten the fillets out even more before spreading with smoked salmon pate, rolling, eggwashing and shallow frying each one. I’ve seen a more complicated version of this 18th century dish cooked by Chef Michel Roux Jnr from Le Gavroche, who stuffed a Dover sole with lobster before frying in a similar manner. The dish can also be made with trout which was one of the signature dishes of Chef Charles Elme Francatelli who was a pupil of Carême and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen. (From Francatelli’s Modern Cook, 1886 edition.)

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We prepared ours simply in two different ways. First off, the classic pan fry in brown butter after a dredge with seasoned flour, swiftly cooked and tipped onto a plate with little more than a lemon half, plenty of black pepper and Maldon salt. The light flour crust tightens around the flesh as it cooks and the pan juices become deliciously enriched with that nutty, crunchy flour residue. The juices can be sopped with white bread- and it must be white bread to give you that soft deep crumb which becomes deliciously sweet/ soggy when used to sandwich the fish. Secondly, we dusted the fish with powdered achiote (from Seasoned Pioneers if you are in the UK), added salt and a schmear of chipotle paste which can be either freshly made or in a jar from a deli, Waitrose or M&S. ( I use the Gran Luchito or Santa Maria brands in the UK.) The fish was then grilled until it developed a crisp, smoky carapace although you could just as easily pan fry it too. Remember to get the grill decently hot before sliding the fish under it on its protective bed of silver foil.

Achiote gives the fish a woody, earthy flavour very similar to the taste of the clay cooking vessels we ate from in Northern Mexico and the spice is geographically specific to Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine, although our housekeeper had southern roots, meaning achiote became a regular feature of our northern cuisine. Also referred to as sázone, you can buy ready prepared packets of achiote without added MSG and it lends a vivid yellow-orange hue to foods. Sometimes it is sold as ground Saffron but you’ll know you’ve been had because of its inexpensive price tag. Combined with the schmear of chipotle (which is actually smoked and dried Jalopenos), the result is a deliciously rich and fruity smokiness which doesn’t overpower the dab and allows you to ramp up the accompaniments- maybe serve wrapped inside soft corn tortillas or piled inside fried taco shells with lime, avocado, fridge cool shredded salad and sliced jicama for a vegetal and much needed crunch?

 

 

 

Maple mashed carrots and swede

By Elsa Bostelmann: from a found copy of a 1949 National Geographic
By Elsa Bostelmann: from a found copy of a 1949 National Geographic

When you imagine what a poet might choose as muse or subject, a swede doesn’t easily spring to mind does it? Yet when I sat down to eulogise the swede as one of my chosen foods, I was most surprised and pleased to find that plenty of far more illustrious writers and poets had got there well before me. And they hadn’t all written verse after verse about clotted mud, strafing winds, chapped legs and tight, tense backs although having worked school winter holidays as a potato picker in farms perched upon the high ridges of the South Suffolk Stour valley, I can attest to how tough these jobs are.

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920) The Swede Harvest
Alfred Parsons: The swede harvest

In We Field Women by Thomas Hardy, set on Flintcomb-Ash, the farm in Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we are not shielded from the back-breaking effort that hard manual labour involves though and it is still important that the travails of those who bring us our food are recognised. The poem is narrated by one of the field women who spend each autumn trimming swedes in the rain; cutting off the knobs on the swedes to make them easier to slice up for cattle food. The fact that the job ceased when the swedes became too cold to cut up says much about the bone numbing, frigid conditions they endured, causing hands to become red-raw and cracked from the swede juice as it leaked around the handle of their clasp knives:

“How it rained

When we worked at Flintcomb-Ash,

And could not stand upon the hill

Trimming swedes for the slicing-mill.

swedes – root vegetables The wet washed through us – plash, plash, plash:

How it rained! How it snowed

When we crossed from Flintcomb-Ash

To the Great Barn for drawing reed,

pulling out long straw for thatching roofs Since we could nowise chop a swede. –

nowise – not at all (because the swedes were frozen) Flakes in each doorway and casement-sash:

How it snowed!”

Our dispositions might not be sweetened after a day in a freezing cold field but the frost and snow certainly has a sweetening effect upon many root vegetables and turns the flesh of the swede a darker hue. Cold weather triggers the breakdown of the starch contained in its swollen globular shaped root and they release glucose. Sugar freezes at a lower temperature than water and becomes a super useful vegetal anti-freeze thus preventing the damage that frozen water causes in more tender plants. Come the deepest winter, any swedes left in fields are said to be the food of choice for discerning hares and rabbits- a gnaw-able energy ball if you like- and finding them becomes easy when the freeze-thaw cycle pushes the green, bronze and purple shoulders of the roots upwards until they become a lumpy patchwork on the field surface, crowned with their floppy green leaves.

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Charmingly, for poet Edward Thomas, the sight of a well stored earth clamp of swedes arranged in layers and enclosed in straw and soil is akin to the opening of a Pharoah’s tomb, the roots kept sweet and dry from the ‘moans and drips of Winter’. For hungry people cooking their way through the hunger gap, they are as precious as the jewels and treasures of an Egyptian King and were seemingly stored with similar care:

“They have taken the gable from the roof of clay
On the long swede pile. They have let in the sun
To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds
Unsunned. It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh’s tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.”

Mashed with carrots, roasted and enriched with maple syrup and Jamaican long-pepper, swede comes a long way from its humble roots (sorry!) and simple, country stock. Turned deep-marigold from the heat of the oven with a chewy, smoky-sweet crust from the maple syrup and smoothly fleshed underneath, it is perfect with roasts, accompanying stews and braises and as a bed for a pile of barbecued pork ribs or chicken thighs. The addition of long-pepper adds a complex taste more reminiscent of spice mixes such as garam masala with notes of cinnamon, musk and cardamom. Its effects are cool in the mouth, as opposed to warm, and although the Kama Sutra praises its aphrodisiac qualities stating that long-pepper should be  mixed with black pepper, other spices, and honey, with the promise to  I don’t recommend you apply it externally as the Kama Sutra does- on a cold night, a warm meal cooked for your loved one after a hard day at work is aphrodisiac enough, I find.

I first had swede served with maple syrup at The House on the Green in North Wootton, Norfolk, a little pub with attached restaurant which happens to cook astonishingly great Sunday roasts. Served alongside giant Yorkshire puds and rosy beef, the dishes of cauliflower cheese, maple syrup carrots and swede, peppered cabbage and spring onion mash were sides which shone as brightly as the sunniest frost-sharpened winter day. Here’s my version but do go try theirs.

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MAPLE MASHED CARROTS AND SWEDE

Ingredients: 400g carrots / 2 small swedes/ 2 tbsp maple syrup (I prefer Grade B for extra smoke and complexity)/ salt / Jamaican long pepper

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees and put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Peel and cut the swede into small chunks. Then peel and chop the carrots up into slivers. Place both vegetables into the boiling water and cook until fork tender. Drain well over the sink using a colander and then place back into the saucepan for mashing. Put the pan with the drained swede over a low heat to further dry them out (this will make them fluffier) and roughly mash them. Take off the heat and dribble over the maple syrup and stir it in ensuring it is evenly distributed. Then mash some more until you have a chunky mash: try not to make it too smooth because you want the chunks to catch in the oven’s heat and caramelise a little in the oven. Put the mash into a baking dish, taste and check for seasoning- you might want to salt it more- then rough the mash up with a fork and put into the oven for around 40 mins or until deeply golden and slightly crunchy on top. Take it out halfway through and stir, to ensure maximum caramelisation. Do keep an eye on the mash because you don’t want it to burn.

When it is done, remove from the oven and taste. Grate enough Jamaican long pepper over it to your taste and serve with a large pat of butter on each portion.

Fancy trying squirrel for supper?

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Long eaten across the American Deep South and very popular stewed long and slow, squirrel meat was even included in older editions of that famous American cooking tome The Joy of Cooking as a ‘tender alternative to chicken or rabbit’. It might not be long before people across East Anglia become accustomed to eating this lowest of food-miles meat and with over five million of the bright eyed and bushy tailed beasties hopping across our lawns, parks and forests, the questions has to be ‘what took us so long?’

Squirrel meat is on sale for the first time on the butchery counter at the Elveden Courtyard in Suffolk. Similar to rabbit in flavour, it is a light-coloured, finely textured meat that is low in fat and completely free-range. Its natural diet of berries and nuts contributes to a flavour I can only describe as nutty having eaten it some time ago, coated in a flavoured breadcrumb Southern style and deep fried. I also recommend a paella made with squirrel instead of rabbit or chicken and the great Brunswick Stew, an old Southern one pot meal beloved in North Carolina and Kentucky and which must be made with three specific ingredients to be genuine- okra, lima (butter) beans and squirrel.

One regular Elveden customer, Helen Sturgeon, has already created some lovely squirrel pasties using the meat and food shop manager Richard Howard explains the benefits, “Squirrel from Elveden is wild, nutritious and has virtually zero food miles, coming straight from the estate itself, making for a highly ethical meat.” If terroir is your thing, squirrel meat, like all wild game, is its perfect expression.

The move follows an increase in demand for game from the estate butchers, with venison, pheasant and wild rabbit highly sought after. Although rabbit can be shot all year round, a national decrease in population numbers has led the estate to restrict the numbers shot each month in order to ensure the animals flourish. It is generally advised to avoid eating town squirrels because of the risk of ingesting what they have eaten which may include poison put out to kill rats. Buying squirrel meat from a reputable supplier eliminates the risk.

“Rabbits are no longer breeding ‘like rabbits’,” explains James Holliday, Forestry and Conservation Manager at Elveden Estate. “Nationally, numbers have been in decline over the past few years and have now reached such low numbers we are limiting the number killed in order to maintain a sustainable population.”

The Elveden Estate is located in the Brecks region of Suffolk, an area renowned for rabbit warrening and a unique ecosystem that greatly depends upon controlled rabbit populations to maintain the open and friable structure of the soil, benefiting the huge variety of plants that are specialised to sandy healthland. So while we’re trying to build local rabbit populations up again, why not try its arboreal taste equivalent?

The Elveden Courtyard shops are open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 5pm and Sundays from 10am to 5pm.

For further information, please visit www.elveden.com

Elmer Fudds Brunswick Stew