Articles in Fish
Tonight’s the night. It’s kippers for tea. I eat them about once a year, usually in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness when I am consumed by a deep craving for the gently smoked herrings that were one of the mainstays of the British Empire. I thoroughly enjoy their succulent, salty sweetness, but I usually have to lie down afterward, while the kitchen is impregnated with their particularly pungent, unmistakable aroma.
Kippers demand to be eaten with mountains of toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea — never coffee, which fails to provide the right touch of astringency to offset the oily richness. They also need silent concentration to avoid stuck bones; indeed, your only companion should be a copy of “The Times” (as long as you don’t choke over the letters page).
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With its mineral flashes of pewter, gold and amber, and bronzed flesh, the kipper is a magnificent beast but not for those who faint at the sight of a fish bone. Yes, you can buy fillets but that is like listening to a Spotify compilation of Mozart “hits” instead of watching “Figaro” at the Met.
Kipper dyes were introduced during World War I to compensate for reduced smoking times brought about by cost-cutting measures. Scottish smokehouses invented the commercial coal tar dye Brown FK (for kippers). The habit stuck and many kippers are still treated with colorants, which give them a brassy Hawaiian tan or radioactive glow.
Where the best kippers are produced
The best undyed artisanal kippers, glossy and plump, are produced in Scotland (Loch Fyne, Mallaig or Stornoway, in particular); the Isle of Man (their famous Manx kippers are small and delicate); Craster in Northumberland; and Whitby in Yorkshire (split through the back rather than the belly).
Alas, in Britain, the humble herring no longer commands the everyday popularity it once had, as captured in the words of an old Scottish folk song, “Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring is the fish for me.” Pardon the pun, but the tide is starting to turn and they are expecting large numbers for the annual Herring Festival that takes place in Clovelly, Devon, in mid-November.
Once, herring, or “silver darlings” as they are also known, swam in shoals as large as armies. By 1913, more than 6,000 Scottish girls migrated south to England’s east coast each season, following the catch in a kind of fishy transhumance. The fishwives slept in tumbledown shacks known as kip houses — from which the British slang term, “having a kip” derives.
As the century progressed, a price was paid for overfishing. Changing tastes also caused a decline, perhaps because of the herring’s association with poverty. Good management has since increased stocks, and herring is back on bistro tables, especially now that the health benefits of oily fish are widely recognized.
How a herring becomes a kipper
To turn the herring into a kipper, it is gutted, split along the backbone, opened out and lightly salted, and hung on wooden pegs or “tenterhooks” while it is cold-smoked over oak or beech wood. Surprisingly, the kipper in its present form dates back only to the early 19th century, when a Northumbrian curer launched his “kippered” herring on the London market, borrowing the term from a technique used with salmon. The best kippers are a skillful blend of smoke and salt, with gentle but lingering flavors and buttery moist textures.
In its state-owned heyday, first-class travelers on British Rail used to be able to enjoy their legendary breakfast kipper, served on starched tablecloths by smartly uniformed stewards as the train chugged through a green and pleasant land. The Brighton Belle rail line was particularly renowned for its grilled kippers, which were much loved by the actor Lord Laurence Olivier who campaigned in 1972 to save them when British Rail tried to drop them from the menu. Olivier would have them for high tea when rehearsing in London and traveling home to Brighton — accompanied by a bottle of Champagne.
Oh, you long-lost railway kipper, resplendent amidst the rattling china and silverware … I must stop before I come over all poetical … but somehow I fear no verse will ever be written about the vegetarian sausage or bacon baguette.
Cooking your kipper
Broil: Dot with butter, place in a foil-lined pan under a medium-high broiler and cook for a few minutes, flesh side up (you are really just re-heating the kippers rather than “cooking”). Serve with freshly ground black pepper and lemon wedges.
Jugging: Remove the heads (if you prefer), fold the fish sides together. Place into a large jug. Fill with boiling water and cover so the kippers are immersed except for the tails. Leave for five minutes then pull out by the tails. Serve with a lump of butter on each. Perhaps the least odiferous of the techniques.
Steaming: This variation originated at a Blackpool seaside boarding house landlady, quoted by Sheila Hutchins in “Grannie’s Kitchen” (1979). Stand a colander over a pan of boiling water and spread a piece of foil in it. Place the kippers onto the foil and cover with the pan lid. Steam for 5 minutes.
Baking: Wrap the whole fish in a foil parcel, and bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Serve in the parcel.
Uncooked: There was a fashion in the 1960s and ’70s for uncooked kippers. They were boned, sliced thinly and marinaded in oil and lemon juice. Jane Grigson, in “Good Things” (1971), suggested thinly sliced raw fillets should be “arranged in strips around the edge of some well-buttered rye bread with an egg yolk in the middle as sauce” and served with vodka or schnapps.
Kippers on the bone are usually sold in pairs (for example, two herrings each split and “butterflied” flat, the flesh side of one placed on top of the other).
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer
Ingredients, per person:
1½ cups cooked kipper flesh (This recipe also works well with other smoked fish.)
¼ stick of unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese
juice of 1 lemon
Cayenne pepper or paprika (to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh-chopped parsley
1. Blend or mash the kipper with the butter, cream cheese, lemon juice, cayenne and parsley.
2. Press into a ramekin or one larger pot, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours.
3. Serve with crackers or buttered toast and a lemon wedge.
Main photo: Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.
I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”
I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.
The tide turns on mussels
If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.
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New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.
Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.
Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.
Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.
There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.
The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.
Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.
I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.
Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course
5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)
3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup
1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup
½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish
1½ cups dry white wine
1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small
Big pinch of saffron
Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper
½ pound cavatelli pasta
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.
2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.
3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.
4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.
5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.
6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.
7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.
Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”
In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”
Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.
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In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.
First written mention of clams in chowder
There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”
The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.
A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”
Cape Cod chowder is the best
This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.
Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.
A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.
A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.
Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.
Raw milk first used in clam chowder
The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.
Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.
Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.
One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.
- 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
- 2 quarts water
- 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
- ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
- 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
- Salt, if necessary
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Common or oyster crackers for garnish
- Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
- Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
- Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
- Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
We all know the cliché that opposites attract and, in what could be called a fruitful marriage of opposites, two vastly different ingredients from opposite sides of the world are perfectly paired in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish.
Ackee and salt fish is not just the national dish — it’s the favorite breakfast of every Jamaican across the globe. What makes this dish original and surprising is how well two distinct ingredients combine to create a dish that’s complex and simple, subtle and bold and, ultimately, delicious. The delicate nutty taste and soft texture of the fruit ackee tempers the sharp, saltiness and firm dry texture of salt fish.
With the addition of our standard “Jamaican seasonings” — Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions and scallion, and served with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed calalloo and “Johnny Cakes” or fried dumplings – this extraordinary dish is a feast for the palate and a breakfast you won’t soon forget.
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Although the pairing of ackee and salt fish makes for a beautiful union, some unions are not meant to be monogamous. As well as ackee and salt fish work together, we also love to cook them separately, pairing them with unexpected ingredients and flavors. For instance, ackee loves bacon, gets along very well with curry, has great synergy with Parmesan and has a seamless connection with coconut. Salt fish, while less gregarious, complements yam, parties well with lime and forms a perfect bond with cilantro and flour dumplings of any kind.
From West Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship
Ackee, for the uninitiated, is a savory fruit with a thick red skin that forms a sealed pod when unripe. Once ripened, the skin opens to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, the fruit originally came to Jamaica on a slave ship — it is believed that many slaves would carry the ackee seed as a talisman for good luck.
Unfortunately, ackee has a bit of a bad rap as the bad boy of Caribbean cuisine because it can potentially be poisonous if incorrectly prepared. For many years, like another famous Jamaican export, its importation to the United States was banned. Be assured, however, that it is perfectly safe to eat, although Jamaica seems to be one of the few countries in the world that dared to try to figure out how to do so — leaving us as the only island in the Caribbean where it’s part of the daily diet.
To render ackee safe for consumption, the skin must be open before picking. The pegs, once removed from the pod, are then prepared by removing the seed and a red ‘thread’ embedded in the flesh of the peg. (This is the poisonous part.) The fruit is then boiled in salted water.
Outside of Jamaica, ackee is readily available in cans and can be found at online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Freshly cooked ackee is creamy and buttery with a mild nutty taste that’s neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. When raw it has a waxy texture but canned ackee, which is already cooked, has a more mushy consistency. In any of its forms, ackee is a great ingredient to have fun with in the kitchen as it can be prepared in many interesting and unexpected ways. For instance — ackee tacos?
Salt cod preparation takes time
Salt cod, known as salt fish in the islands, is cod that has been preserved by drying after salting. It is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Salt cod was a part of the Triangular Trade that developed between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of sugar, slavery and rum in the islands.
High-quality North American cod was always sold in Europe. But traders also sold a lower-end product of poorly cured salt fish called “West India cure” to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian planters had no desire to dedicate any land to the production of food for their slaves and instead relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment.
In exchange, European traders received sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, tobacco and salt, which they took back to North America and Europe. Trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia was so high that, in 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Halifax to facilitate the thriving trans-Atlantic trade. By 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia had become the first bank to expand outside of the United States or United Kingdom when it opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trading of rum, sugar and fish.
To prepare salt fish it must be soaked in fresh water for at least an hour; it is then boiled till the flesh of the fish flakes easily. If still too salty, it is boiled some more, drained, scraped of its skin, flaked with your hands and, only then, does the laborious task of picking out the bones begin. Although deboned and de-skinned cod is certainly available in many markets, in the Caribbean we still like to do it the old way — because it’s so much more fun.
In honor of this beloved Jamaican breakfast dish, we share two breakfast/brunch recipes, that celebrate each ingredient on its own. We encourage you to expand your breakfast horizons and give these a try — any time day or night.
Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books
In this dish we combine a traditional quiche custard with pure Jamaican love by adding our national fruit (and popular breakfast item) ackee and crispy bacon. Throw in tons of flavor with the Scotch bonnet, scallion, tomato, garlic, thyme and Parmesan cheese, and you have a winning brunch. If you don’t have coconut milk on hand, use 1½ cups heavy cream instead of the cows and coconut milk mixture.
- ½ pound (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
- 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling pinch of sea salt
- Up to ¼ cup ice water
- 1 cup whole milk
- ½ cup canned coconut milk
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
- Sea salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
- ½ Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 (8-ounce) package bacon, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons sliced scallion
- 1 bunch fresh thyme, chopped
- ¼ cup finely chopped tomato
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped bell pepper
- 1 (18-ounce) can ackee
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- To make the quiche crust, combine the butter, flour and salt in a bowl with your hands until crumbly. Add just enough ice water to form a dough and knead until it comes together. Form into a ball, then, on a floured surface, roll the dough into a round about 14 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch quiche pan and press the dough gently into the bottom and sides. Weigh down the dough with raw rice on a piece of waxed paper and prebake for 20 minutes. Set on wire rack to cool until ready to fill.
- Meanwhile, to make the custard, in a medium bowl combine the milk, coconut milk, eggs, mustard and nutmeg and whisk together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to bake.
- To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, Scotch bonnet and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the bacon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Spoon off the excess fat and stir in the scallion, thyme, tomato and bell pepper; cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Add the ackee,season with salt and pepper, and mix in the Parmesan. Let cool.
- To assemble the quiche, place the ackee and bacon filling in the pastry shell and smooth the top. Pour the custard over the filling, distributing it evenly with a fork. Return the quiches to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the custard has set. Cool slightly before serving.
Trini-Style Salt Fish and ‘Bake’
Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
All our islands cook salt fish (salt cod) in one way another for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. As our childhood years were spent in Trinidad we favor this Trini version known as “buljol.” Salt fish is often served alongside some kind of fried dumpling, some fluffy and large others smaller and more dense. In Jamaica we serve salt fish with Johnny Cakes, small round fried dumplings. Other countries such as Trinidad and Guyana call them bake. Here we pair this traditional Trini saltfish with our version of a bake — a hybrid recipe inspired by the bakes served in Trinidad, Guyana and Belize. If you have any left over, these little breads can be great topped with cheddar cheese and Guava jam or even just butter and jam.
For Trini-style salt fish (Buljol):
2 cups salt fish, boiled, picked and cleaned
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped onion
1 Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), minced without seeds
1/4 cup cilantro
Salt and black pepper
For our version of bake:
2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup water
¼ cup milk + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
2 cups vegetable oil
1. Combine salt fish with tomato, onion and the Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet) in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a small pan. When very hot, pour it over the salt fish mixture. Add cilantro and season with salt and black pepper as required. Allow to rest at room temperature for about one hour.
2. Sieve together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Rub butter into flour until combined. Gradually add water and milk and mix well with hands until a dough or mass is formed. Knead for about five minutes until smooth.
3. Roll the dough into pieces the size of golf balls (should get about eight pieces of dough), and allow them to rest for about half an hour. Roll it out with a rolling pin or bottle to a 4-inch disk and slice a line in the middle so that it will cook more quickly. Fry in oil, turning over once. When it floats, it is ready.
4. Drain and serve with salt fish. These are also great paired with cheddar cheese and guava jam, or even just butter and jam.
Main photo: The ackee fruit’s nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” courtesy Kyle Books
One of the oddest questions I get when serving fish is, “Does this fish have bones?” My answer is always, “Assume it does.” I answer that way to encourage people to eat slowly, to eat as if it does have bones, because all fish have bones. Even when you buy a boneless fillet of fish, you can’t be sure it doesn’t have a stray bone.
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For the most part all fish in this country, except fish from ethnic markets, is sold as fillets or steaks. Whole fish are hard to find and when you do find them, the selection often is limited to trout or sea bass. Most people who like fish are hesitant about buying and cooking whole fish because they’re not sure how to cook it and not sure they know how to eat it.
You’ll see evidence of this whenever a host or restaurant serves a fillet of fish with a fish knife. That’s silly because one does not need a fish knife with a fish fillet. One uses a fish knife only with whole fish. The purpose of a fish knife is to remove the flesh from the backbone and to scoop sauce on top of that flesh.
I also have noticed a lack of knowledge about fish species and a tendency for cooks to complicate a preparation. Fish can be cooked quite simply because when it is fresh, very little adornment, if any, is needed.
Here are three fish preparations that novices can make. The first is a baked fish that includes a recipe because it is a bit more involved than the other two, but not hard. The second, a griddled fish, and the third, a fried fish, are so simple they don’t require recipes.
- 2 pounds swordfish, in one piece, 3/4- to 1-inch thick, skin removed
- ¾ cup dry bread crumbs
- 8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley plus more for garnish
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Cut the swordfish into four pieces. Slice each piece horizontally, keeping the pieces matched. The reason you are doing this is because a layer of seasoning will be put between the two halves like frosting in a layer cake.
- In a bowl, prepare the seasoning by mixing together the bread crumbs, anchovies, garlic, oregano and parsley, and moisten with the olive oil. This bread-crumb coating should look like wet sand.
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Lightly oil a 12-by-9-by-inch baking casserole. Arrange the four bottom pieces of the sliced swordfish in the casserole and coat them with half the bread crumb mixture. Lightly salt and pepper. Layer the four top pieces of swordfish over the bread-crumb coating and then lightly salt and pepper. Spread the remaining bread-crumb mixture on top of the top layer of swordfish. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top and put it into the oven until the crust is a golden brown and the fish is springy to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
You can make this with cod or red snapper too. Figure on 6 ounces per person. Preheat a cast iron griddle or skillet over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Rub both sides of the fish with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place on the griddle and cook for 10 minutes, turning only once with a spatula, making sure you just leave the fish on the griddle without fiddling with it, touching it or turning it.
A good rule of thumb when cooking fish on the griddle is to cook at this heat for 10 minutes per inch of fish measured at the thickest part. Serve with a wedge of lemon and garnish with parsley.
This can be made with any fish fillet. In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, heat ½ cup extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the fish fillets on both sides in fine dry bread crumbs. Carefully place into the skillet (so the oil doesn’t splash) and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 8 minutes in all. Serve with salt, pepper and a wedge of lemon.
Main photo: Baked swordfish with golden crust. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Think of the platter as a palette, and your vegetables as swaths of paint that fill in the color of the canvas. This is what every August provides as our tomato plants and other garden vegetables are going crazy and this means we should be thinking colorful salads.
This is both an appetizing and beautiful way to present what usually becomes an accompaniment to grilled foods. Salads of heirloom tomatoes are a favorite this time of year. But remember there are lots of heirloom cultivars besides tomatoes such as purple cauliflower or yellow sweet peppers. And don’t ignore the non-heirloom tomatoes such as Big Boys or Early Girls because they have their uses too.
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There are heirloom varieties of all vegetables, not just tomatoes, and there are plenty of hybrid accidents too. Colored varieties of cauliflower such as the purple one here called Graffiti are not genetically engineered but rather a blend of heirloom varieties, or naturally occurring accidents or hybrids grown from them. Purple cauliflower gets its color from anthocyanins, the antioxidant also found in red wine. It has a sweeter and nuttier taste than white cauliflower. The yellow sweet pepper called for below is usually the yellow version of the cultivar known as cubanelle, but use any yellow pepper you find.
The great thing about summer salads is that they are easily prepared since you’ll be letting the natural flavors and juices of the vegetables themselves tell the story rather than relying on a heavy load of seasoning or dressing. They can also be grilled first if you like and then served at room temperature later.
These platters of vegetables don’t really require recipes, although I do provide them as you could just assemble them following the photos and your inspiration. See the photographs for an idea of how they should look on the platter.
Mussel and Tomato Salad
Cultivated mussels are sold today already cleaned. You can save further time by hard-boiling and cooking the green beans at the same time in the same pot. This salad stands alone but can also accompany simple pasta or grilled meat.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 large eggs
16 green beans, trimmed and cut in ½-inch pieces
2 pounds mussels, debearded and rinsed
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Salt to taste
10 ripe but firm cherry tomatoes
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed (optional)
1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil over high heat, then hard boil the eggs for exactly 10 minutes. After the water has been boiling for 3 minutes with the eggs, add the green beans, and drain both the eggs and green beans together at the 10 minute mark. Plunge the eggs into ice water and shell the eggs once they are cool and quarter lengthwise.
2. In a large pot with about ½ inch of water, steam the mussels over high heat until they open, about 5 minutes. Discard any mussels that remain firmly shut. Remove and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste.
4. Put the tomatoes in a serving platter. Remove all but 8 of the mussels from their shells and scatter them over the tomatoes, tossing a bit. Scatter the green beans around the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the black pepper and pour on half of the dressing. Garnish the edge of the platter with the egg quarters and mussels in their shell. Place the anchovies, if desired, in the center of the platter, making two X shapes, and pour the remaining dressing on top. Serve immediately or within 2 hours, but do not refrigerate.
Tomatoes, Eggplant and Ricotta Salad
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
Olive oil for frying
One 1-pound eggplant, cut into ½-inch slices
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large tomatoes (about 1¼ pounds), sliced into rounds
½ pound fresh ricotta cheese
12 fresh basil leaves
1. Preheat the frying oil in a deep fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 375 degrees F.
2. Cook, turning once, the eggplant slices until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Remove and set aside to drain on a paper towel covered platter until cool.
3. In a small bowl or glass, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper.
4. Arrange the tomatoes in a shallow serving bowl or on a platter and arrange the eggplant arrange them. Drizzle the dressing over the vegetables and then garnish with dollops if ricotta cheese and basil leaves. Serve at room temperature.
Purple Cauliflower, Yellow Sweet Pepper, Tomato Salad
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1½-pound head of purple cauliflower, trimmed
2 large and fleshy yellow sweet peppers (cubanelle)
4 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1½ teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped garlic
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
8 fresh basil leaves
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat then place the whole cauliflower in so the florets are not covered with water and will only steam. If they are submerged you will lose the beautiful purple color. Cook until a skewer can be pushed through the stem with a little resistance, about 10 minutes. Remove the cauliflower carefully so it doesn’t bread and set aside to cool. Cut off the largest and hardest part of the stem and discard.
2. Meanwhile, place the peppers on a wire rack over a burner on high heat and roast until their skins blister black on all sides, turning occasionally with tongs. Remove the peppers and place in a paper or heavy plastic bag to steam for 20 minutes, which will make them easier to peel. When cool enough to handle, rub off as much blackened peel as you can and remove the seeds by rubbing with a paper towel (to avoid washing away flavorful juices) or by rinsing under running water (to remove more easily).
3. Arrange the cauliflower in the center of a platter and surround with the roasted peppers and tomatoes. Drizzle with the olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with basil leaves and serve at room temperature.
Main photo: Purple Cauliflower, Yellow Sweet Pepper and Tomato Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
When it comes to national icons, the rest of the world thinks of Britain in terms of the changing of the guard, Shakespeare’s birthplace, Princess Di and good old fish and chips. And, now, the latter is taking to the skies. You could say they’re frying high, except it would be a terrible joke.
National airline British Airways has just introduced a “Flying Fish and Chip Supper” on board various short-haul flights from Heathrow Airport to destinations such as Athens, Greece, or St. Petersburg, Russia.
BA has linked up with the Quayside fish and chip shop (chippy as it is known in the vernacular) in Whitby, Yorkshire, which was recently awarded the prestigious title of “Best in Britain” in the 2014 National Fish & Chip Awards.
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Three excellent fish and chip shops
Despite the sad truth that the standard of fish and chips has long been in decline throughout the UK, honored more in Pavlovian anticipation than the flabby and greasy actuality of stale oil, cheap vinegar and frozen potatoes, there are still some excellent fish and chip shops to be found around the country.
- The Fish House in Fleetwood, Lancashire. The Richardsons are a family of former fish merchants with Marine Stewardship Council certification and superb fresh fish and chips.
- Kingfisher in Plymouth, Devon. This restaurant is also a candidate for everyone’s ideal chippy with sustainable fish and fresh Maris Piper chips — fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
- Frankie’s in Shetland Isles. This is Britain’s most northerly fish and chip cafe and takeaway where you can probably get the best haddock ever known to Scotsman. Chip shop dreams are made of this — and who am I to disagree?
Stuart Fusco, chef-director of Quayside, has been working with BA to give his expert opinion on its sustainable cod fillet and chunky chips. Fusco says in a business travel news release that “cooking up a good batter on board presents some unique challenges,” which may be something of an understatement, given that our ability to taste saltiness and sweetness is reduced by about 30 percent at high altitude.
BA’s menu development manager Sinead Ferguson explains they have to pre-fry both the fish fillets and the chips, “but the length of time we do this for is fundamental to giving the chips and batter that desired crunch.”
History of fish and chips
The technique of shallow-frying fish in oil, originally to be served cold, is thought to have been introduced by Sephardic Jews in 19th century London. At the time fresh fish was widely available from the North Sea, and traders realized that frying the fish helped prolong shelf-life as well as mask any less-than-fresh aromas.
Fried potato stalls were also popular in working-class areas, boosted by the advent of cheap cooking oils, cast iron industrial ranges and patented inventions such as automatic potato peelers.
The great moment when fish met chip, however, plunges us into hot controversy. Some say the East End, others claim Dundee, Bradford, Oldham or Mossley near Manchester as the birthplace of the nation’s chippy. Certainly the borderland between Lancashire and Yorkshire was fertile territory for this new street food: a strong tradition of potato eating; access from the ports via the new railway network; working families who needed cheap, quick and nutritious food.
Although things have never been quite the same since the hygiene police banned the use of traditional newsprint for wrapping paper (which effectively blotted up the fat without steaming the contents), a proper portion of fresh, well-made fish and chips can hit the spot like no other.
However, if there is one thing better, it is a chip butty. To construct, lavishly spread sliced white bread or barm cakes with butter. Fill to capacity with salted, well-vinegared chips, hot enough to melt the butter. Simply divine.
Four Fish Batters
Yield: Each of the following four recipes produces enough batter to deep-fry 4 pieces of fish
1. Dissolve one package of active dried yeast in ¼ cup of tepid water. Sieve 2 cups all-purpose flour and a teaspoon of salt into a bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in 1 cup of tepid water plus the yeast and water mixture; whisk well. Leave covered for a few hours before using.
2. Sift 1 cup self-rising flour with a pinch of salt, then add 1 egg, 1 tablespoon oil or melted butter and ⅔ cup milk to make a smooth batter.
3. Place ¾ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl, make a well. Add an egg yolk, 3 tablespoons beer and a little salt. Mix together. Combine 3 tablespoons milk and 2 tablespoons cold water. Gradually add to the first mixture. Rest for at least 30 minutes, then fold in 2 stiffly beaten egg whites.
4. To make a tempura batter, loosely whisk 1 cup of very cold water and a refrigerator-temperature egg with 1 cup all-purpose flour, ¼ cup cornstarch and a pinch of salt.
A Word About Mushy Peas
Mushy — what a word! You couldn’t invent another that so aptly describes the texture and consistency of this northern delicacy that adds a touch of subtle color to the burnished palette of the fish and chip plate.
Old Cumbrian directions for Pease Pudding, aka Mushy Peas:
1. Soak two cups of dried marrowfat or split green peas overnight with a pinch of baking soda.
2. Drain and place into a pan with a sliced onion. Cover with water and simmer for 2 hours until soft and the water absorbed.
3. Purée until thick but still somewhat lumpy, then add 2 tablespoons butter, a beaten egg, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Reheat gently, stirring constantly.
Alternatively, buy a tin of Lockwood’s Mushy Peas (and tart up with a bit of fresh mint).
Main photo: Fish and chips with mushy peas to go from Armstrong’s Fish and Chips in Prestwich, Manchester. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Finns treasure their solitary excursions into the endless woods and forests that fringe the 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands of their hauntingly beautiful countryside. Throughout the summer and autumn, they prefer to keep their meditations on the beauty of the natural world to themselves: They rarely go in large groups, privacy is valued, and the social code generally prohibits more than a brief nod to anyone they meet. And, of course, they sensibly like to keep their prized foraging spots to themselves.
Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms, other types of plant-hunting have become nearly forgotten skills. Foraging was associated with war-time hardship (dandelion roots, for example, were used as a substitute for coffee) and rejected in favor of status-symbol, shop-bought food. However, Helsinki-based chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. And it’s not just a way of finding food for free, but of celebrating healthy produce and enlightening minds.
As Tallberg says, “Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their qualities with the minimum of processing.”
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Catching the foraging bug
“I was just knocked out when I tried it,” Tallberg recalled, “and when I came back to Finland, I realized I was living in a big green supermarket. The Everyman’s Rights Code allows anyone to pick anywhere except someone’s back garden or protected species.”
Tallberg does not consider wild plants as substitutes for cultivated vegetables and herbs, but as important ingredients in their own right, both in terms of taste and their nutritional qualities.
Taking advantage of one of Finland’s long summer days, Tallberg and I went foraging on a tiny island that lies within Helsinki’s city limits. We were surrounded by a surprisingly wide variety of edible plants: mild, strong, crunchy, coarse, fragrant, bulky, delicate. Less than an hour later, he served me the best salad I have ever eaten. And the cheapest.
Highlighting wild herbs and plants
The use of wild herbs and plants has become a hallmark of many modern restaurants in Finland and elsewhere — Noma in Copenhagen led the way with its version of the new Nordic Cuisine. But Tallberg wants to introduce (or re-introduce) wild plants to the home cook.
As we explored the thickets of greenery, Tallberg gave me a lesson in plant-hunting. The patches of wild strawberries, with tiny, twinkling fruit, were easy to spot and Tallberg showed me how to string them on a blade of grass to transport them safely home. Carpets of exquisite purple and yellow heartsease (Viola tricolor) were delicately perfumed with vanilla. And Japanese rose bushes (Rosa rugosa) were in bloom, their petals shocking pink against the dark green leaves.
After that, plant identification became trickier. Tallberg is adamant you should not eat or even pick any plant you cannot recognize with absolute certainty. If in doubt, leave it out, he advises.
“Start with the ones (plants) you already know to get you going,” he advised as he presented me with a bunch of sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which he describes as a smaller, more elegant version of common sorrel. “Many people think it’s a noxious weed, but it’s lovely with fish and shellfish or green asparagus.”
“When you find a new plant, stop and go back some 10 meters and walk towards the plants again. This way you will be able to make observations about some essential feature, such as color, height, leaf shape, scent and so on.”
Unless you go out with an experienced forager, it helps immensely to consult a book, such as Tallberg’s “Wild Herb Cookbook,” or take a course about native plants at a local community college. Websites, such as NatureGate, are also helpful. But, as Tallberg says, “Be sensible: don’t go harvesting herbs or plants along highways, on areas sprayed with herbicides, or near factories. Also avoid foraging near golf courses or other areas where herbicides or other pesticides may have been used. Consider sustainability and don’t tear out all the roots. The tools you need are the same as used in gathering mushrooms: a basket and a small knife, although I also include scissors in my basic tool kit. If you’re picking nettles, wear gloves.”
Able to identify culinary plants
As he gathered samples of chickweed, fat hen and sweet cicely, Tallberg said he could identify more than 80 varieties of culinary plants but was still learning.
“I get so excited when I’m out foraging — I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how polypody (Polypodium) is a natural flavor enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves or lichen and flavor them with juniper salt. … And then I remember I’m still in Helsinki — it’s crazy! Foraging has given me a new angle on life, not just gastronomy,” he said.
Tallberg has built a business supplying wild ingredients to other chefs, has written several books on the subject and acts as a national consultant and Finnish food ambassador. He was awarded the prestigious Finland Prize for his work with food, nature and conservation.
As we meandered, Tallbert was a companionable and enthusiastic soundtrack, “There are many different types of dandelion. … Oh, look, there’s some orpine. They’ve got juicy, succulent leaves and tops, and you can use them like a salad leaf or toss into a jus. … Ooh, just found some Polypodium vulgare, that’s quite liquorish and good for fish and game. … A bit later in the year, this is where I’ll find bilberries, rowanberries, wild raspberries … Wild yarrow will bring herbal tones to a salad. … I use maple leaves, when they’re young and shiny, like vine leaves. … Chickweed are like pea shoots but milder and more mellow and add volume to a salad.”
Back at his flat, he explained the building blocks of wild salad making: “You’re looking for acidity, aroma and sweetness.”
To the haunting music of Aino Vena, we drank refreshing Nordic Koivu, birch sap water, as Tallberg made a vinaigrette with a splash of sea buckthorn juice. The salad was vivid and intense. I could feel myself getting healthier as I ate. Together with an omelette, local goat’s cheese and yogurt with wild strawberries, violets and bee pollen, it was the real taste of Finland.
- Yield: 4 servings
- Four 7-ounce pork chops (use first-class pork for this dish)
- 2 handfuls of fat hen
- 2 tablespoons strong mustard
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Olive oil
- Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
- Season the pork chops with sea salt and pepper, brush with oil and fry on a hot cast-iron pan until just cooked.
- Cook the fat hen in water flavored with honey and salt for a couple of minutes, drain, toss with a drop of olive oil and serve with mustard.
- * This goes well with Carrots With Sweet Cicely
Carrots With Sweet Cicely
Yield: 4 servings
14 ounces small carrots
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons honey (brown sugar or treacle will do, too)
2½ cups water
half a handful of sweet cicely, finely chopped
2 ounces butter
1. Peel the carrots (unless you are using new season ones that have a thin peel containing plenty of flavor).
2. Place all the ingredients in a pot (apart from the sweet cicely), covering the carrots with water. Cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and a shiny butter glaze remains. Add the sweet cicely.
Steamed Fillet of Salmon With Ox-Eye Daisy Shoots
Yield: 4 servings
4 (4-ounce) pieces of salmon, boned
1 cucumber, sliced lengthways
4 tablespoons salad dressing*
Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
1. Season the salmon pieces with sea salt and pepper, steam them for about 3 minutes and leave to stand in room temperature for about 10 minutes, after which they will be ready.
2. Peel the cucumber, spoon out the seeds and cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices (with a cheese slicer or mandolin cutter).
3. Toss the shoots and cucumber in the salad dressing, season with sea salt and pepper and serve with the salmon at room temperature.
* Salad dressing
2 generous cups of cold-pressed olive oil
1¼ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup white wine vinegar
1½ tablespoon dried tarragon
4 medium-size garlic cloves, sliced
4 to 5 ounces Dijon-type mustard
Juice of half a lemon
1. Mix the ingredients in a jug blender or with a hand blender, and strain them by pressing through a strainer with a small ladle to ensure all aromas are captured.
Recipes are from: “Wild Herb Cookbook” by Sami Tallberg (2012), available in both Finnish- and English-language editions.
Main photo: Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson