I’m a sucker for spicy octopus tentacles…

Spicy Portuguese-style octopus stew

I bought a big bag of frozen octopus for a few quid on a whim before Christmas from an Asian supermarket: every now and then I’ve idly wondered how I’d be best tackling them in the kitchen. I’ve often thought some kind of Iberian treatment would be good – garlic, olive oil, onions and tomatoes would be natural bedfellows – and after my recent visit with Miss South to Estrela, where the polvo was divine, I was tempted by tentacles.

A cursory scout on the web for Portuguese octopus recipes didn’t provide anything definitive, but then I often spend a bit of time online just to get inspiration from flavours and pairings of ingredients. I had a range of directions to follow, a range of references, and a healthily stocked kitchen, so I decided to freestyle it a bit. The aim was to end up with a warming and spicy octopus stew. I think I nailed it…

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Mister North’s souper noodles…

I was out with some friends in Manchester yesterday and we decided to eat in Wagamama, previously a reliable and solid choice for utilitarian Asian food. Their first branch in Manchester opened a decade ago, and provided good competition to local chain Tampopo. Wagamama tended to be more Japanese-oriented, and I credit it as being the place to get me interested in expanding my knowledge of Nipponese nosh. I and my companions were, however, massively underwhelmed by last night’s meal: I think the chain has become more focused on homogeneity and profit margins in the last few years. Either that or my palette has become a lot more discerning…

So today I resolved to make up for my mediocre yaki soba with something a lot more delicious. When I go to Manchester, home of one of the biggest Chinese populations in Europe, I like to stock up on Asian goodies from one of the many fabulous Asian supermarkets. Fresh udon noodles, green Asian brassicas, random sauces, and staples of my store cupboard such as bonito and kombu seaweed. So yesterday I filled several bags with the above and other delicious morsels – wasabi peas, roast duck, Chinese sausages – and revelled in the prospect of a fresh and filling bowl of goodness for my tea.

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A little taste of Lancashire

Boiled Onions with Lancashire Cheese and Poached Egg

I bought Simon Hopkinson’s new book, ‘The Vegetarian Option‘ at the start of the year, in an attempt to broaden my culinary outlook and provide new dishes to keep my veggie friends happy. Well, that was part of the reason: Hopkinson’s one of my very favourite food writers, and the next best thing to sitting down with a warming meal in the winter is curling up with a great cookbook. Happily this is as good I as expected; chock-full of wonderfully simple recipes, evoking tastes and memories of warmer, more verdant seasons. That’s not to say he neglects winter staples in favour of summery salads: there are some rib-stickingly good sounding suggestions to tantalise the reader’s imagination.

One recipe in particular caught my eye: Boiled Onions with Cheese and Poached Egg. Aye, you read that right… it sounds like the kind of food you might feed an Edwardian invalid, but Hopkinson absolutely raves about it, and the photo next to the listing beckoned invitingly. He’d come by it via the Three Fishes in Mitton, a Lancashire pub with a fine reputation which has been on my ‘to-visit’ list for years. I’ve still not made it there, but tonight I made the dish, and it was everything I could’ve hoped for, and more. Rich, savory, silky and oh-so-comforting. You’ve got to try this.

  • 250g onion
  • 25g butter
  • 175ml water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a good portion of cheese (preferably tasty or crumbly Lancashire)
  • generous pinch of sea salt
  • light pinch of pepper
  • curly parsley to garnish

Chop the onion into small, regular-sized pieces, then add it to the water, butter, seasoning and bay leaf in a saucepan. Bring this to the boil, then down to a gentle simmer, covering for 20-30 mins. When the onions are soft and silken, transfer them to a small dish, sprinkle the grated cheese on top and melt under a grill. Don’t let the cheese brown, just let it become molten and coalescent in the broth before garnishing with chopped parsley and a freshly poached egg. Eat while hot.

One last thing: the recipe calls for white-skinned onions and white pepper to keep a traditional appearance and texture. I had neither to hand, but it still tasted and looked great.

The Ultimate Roast Potato?

I am almost comically stereotypically Irish in my love of potatoes. I always keep a bag of spuds in the house and few things tickle me more than having a new potato recipe to try. Unsurprisingly one of my favourite cook books is The Humble Spud and I intend to eat my way through every recipe possible in it.

While thinking about the Christmas dinner, my eye was drawn to the page with Roast Potatoes with Sesame Seeds, more commonly known to particularly to Americans as Hasselback Potatoes. These are basically a potato prepared for roasting as normal, but cut 3/4 of the way through with a knife to resemble a tuberous stegosaurus before being roasted in the oven as normal.

These ornate little spuds require no par-boiling or even peeling, shaking, coating with flour or semolina or any other trick of the trade to crisp them right up. They fan out gently in the high heat of an oven to create a gorgeously golden, extra crispy roastie thanks to the increased surface area due to the extra splits in the spud. They take no longer to prepare than the average potato for roasting, and if you place your potato in a spoon to cut it, you will stop yourself slicing right through it.

I have prepared these twice in advance of the Christmas dinner. First time round I placed them in a plastic bag and shaken in oil and seasoning, then placed in a roasting tray of hot oil and cooked for about 40 minutes in a 220 C oven, they crisp up  beautifully even without tthe magic addition of goose fat. Second time, I just wanted to double check they hadn’t been a crispy figment of my imagination… and I was not disappointed in any way!

I made these a focal point of the Christmas meal, using my mum’s plentiful stash of goose fat to make these even crispier and melt in the mouth. I didn’t add the sesame seeds suggested in the recipe to add some extra crunch as I forgot on the day. I certainly be experimenting with topping these with parmesan or garlic or chili throughout the year. Any other suggestions would be gratefully received!

Spot the spud just by the gravy...