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West African Inspired Mussels and Chips…

 

West African inspired mussels and chips

Much and all as I love summer, the months without an ‘R’ in curb my ability to eat shellfish as much as I’d like. So thank goodness for the humble mussel which can be eaten all year round. I love them in the summer as a light simple supper that doesn’t need much standing over a hot stove (normally because of the high temperature outside, but this year so it doesn’t cut into my watching TV under a blanket time…)

The French style is most common with mussels and although I love it, I wanted something a bit fresher and punchier.  Some fat scarlet tomatoes from O Talho caught my eye on the way back from Dagon’s and I’d just picked up some picture perfect red chillis from the Wing Tai Asian Supermarket. But as well as the warmth from the capsicums, I wanted some tingle and my mind went to the pod of alligator pepper a friend had gifted me after we shopped in the Village one Saturday.

Alligator pepper pod

Highly prized in West Africa, especially Nigeria where the Yoruba incorporate it into naming ceremonies for babies, this pepper comes in a dry pod that looks like an alligator’s back and has a warm bite of pepper mixed with a slight hint of cardamom. I’ve mainly seen recipes for it involving fish and tomatoes so I knew it was likely to work with my mussels. I have no idea how authentic this might be though…

West African Inspired Mussels and Chips: serves 2 comfortably

  • 1kg bag mussels
  • 1/2 pod alligator pepper
  • 2 banana shallots or small onion
  • two handfuls of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 red chilli or 1 tsp hot sauce
  • 150ml water
  • 2 tsp oil
  • 4 sweet potatoes

First clean your mussels well. Pull the beards from them and discard any that are already open and that don’t close when tapped or that are broken. Leave them to soak in cold water to clean out any grit while you turn your attention elsewhere.

Heat the oven to 200℃ and then peel your sweet potatoes. I used orange fleshed ones from the supermarket. Cut them into chips, making sure that they are all roughly the same size and thickness so they cook evenly. Toss in a light coating of oil and then cook. I used a mesh tray like this which cuts the cooking time and washing up, but you are using an oven tray, they’ll take about 25 minutes.

About ten minutes before the chips are ready, finely dice your shallot and cook in a small amount of oil on a moderate heat until softened but not coloured. If using the chilli, cut finely and add to the shallot. Keep the seeds in if you want more heat. Then take the alligator pepper pod and scoop the seeds out and grind them in a pestle and mortar before adding to the shallot and chilli to cook out slightly. Cut your tomatoes in half and add to the pan. You don’t need any extra seasoning.

When the tomatoes start to collapse slightly round the edges, add in the cleaned wet mussels to the pan. Pour the water on top and put the lid on and cook for about 3-4 minutes or until the mussels have opened and the tomatoes are thickening the juices. Take off the heat and leave the lid on while you dish up the sweet potato fries on a separate plate. Then serve the steaming hot mussels in bowls with a good amount of the tomato rich liquor and then dig in.

The best way to eat mussels is to use the empty shell to pick the meat out of the next. Discard any mussels that haven’t opened and enjoy each flavoursome mouthful as the warmth of the chilli and alligator pepper builds a tingle on your lips and the pile of shells grows. Best eaten with a ice cold beer, a roll of kitchen paper and some non judgemental friends to hand!

 

This post first appeared over at Brixton Blog celebrating all our lovely local shops.

 

Warm Octopus Salad

 Warm Galician octopus polpo salad

 The more I cook, the more I realise I want to cook. Each meal becomes a fabulous opportunity to do something I want to and something to be savoured. We all have our trusty standbys and favoured dishes, but when the chance to do something completely new comes along it thrills me. So when Liz* from Brixtonia suggested getting together and cooking fresh octopus, I was all over the idea. I’ve never met seafood I don’t love and it seemed like a perfect challenge.

I have to admit that I didn’t have a clue what to do with our eight legged friend so luckily Liz has access to a stack of cookbooks with some good ideas and emailed me several, mainly from Rick Stein. We pondered over two and couldn’t quite decide on which so thought we’d combine them both. But first up was getting our items. We needed a trip to the market.

Saturday morning saw us up relatively bright and early and in the queue at Dagon’s for our octopus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again many times, Dagon’s is the jewel in Brixton Market’s crown. They have a vast choice, good quality, are excellent value and have friendly and helpful staff. I try to go at least once a week and I must admit I get a real kick out of being recognised by the staff there now. It’s like visiting the 50s high street but with more women’s lib and better banter.

They talked us through buying the octopus and we went for one whole cleaned octopus. I forgot to weigh it when I got home but it cost us a very reasonable £4 for the whole thing. We also picked up some samphire, a kipper fillet for me and a mackerel for Liz and the whole lot came to an even eight quid. Can’t say fairer than that. We got everything we needed and a box of Alphonso mangoes we just wanted and then got down to the cooking.

Galician Octopus Salad (From Rick Stein’s Spain)

  • 1 clean octopus
  • 400g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  •  2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp paprika (of your choice)
  • 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper if not using hot paprika.
  • 1 tbsp salt

This is so simple it’s untrue. Take your cleaned octopus and put in a pan just covered with water and the tablespoon of salt and bring to the boil. Then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to an hour. That’s it. That’s how you cook an octopus. We didn’t tenderise it in anyway, either by freezing and thawing or bashing it against the rocks or anything else. We shoved it in a pot of water, left it well alone and went and had a glass of wine and a good gossip.

Octopus

After an hour, we came back and lifted the octopus out of the cooking water and left it to cool on a plate. It had turned the beautiful mauve we both associated with Spanish octopus dishes and the tentacles had curled in beautifully. We added the potatoes into the remaining cooking water and brought them to the boil until tender but still al dente. Then heat the olive oil, add the paprika and cayenne and fry the potatoes until golden and crispy.

Cooked octopus ready to slice

While they are sauteeing nicely, cut the octopus into inch or so chunks, using both the tentacles and the head and body. Take the potatoes off the heat and add the octopus in for a few seconds just to warm it through and coat it with the paprika. Dish up with some chopped parsley (our concession to the other recipe we had planned as well) along with some vegetables if you so fancy (we did steamed samphire and roasted aubergine and tomatoes) and enjoy!

The octopus was firm but very tender without a hint of rubberiness. It was slightly sweet and very flavoursome, especially alongside the potatoes. Slightly salty, intensely umami and crispy round the edges, these were the best fried potatoes I’ve ever had. Simple and packed with flavour, the whole meal was fantastic. We feasted well, but with a few more spuds, the one octopus would easily serve 3 -4 making it good value as well as impressive and delicious. Until now, all my cephalopod ardour was reserved for squid, but there’s another many legged love in my life now I’ve discovered octopus…

 

*Thanks to Liz for her cooking skills, being an excellent guest and taking that fantastic sea creature shot!

Orzo with palourde clams and cherry tomatoes

Orzo Vongole

Orzo with palourde clams and cherry tomatoes

As soon as the sun appears I immediately feel like eating more, but cooking less. It doesn’t feel especially appealing to be in my rather dark kitchen when the great outdoors feels so light and bright. I need food that won’t interfere with my late spring schedule of sitting on the patio with a G&T. It needs to be low maintenance, but not the stodge of those winter casseroles and soups that you can just leave to get on with it. It needs to feel fresh but be packed with flavour. It’s a tall order, but I felt my fishmonger* could point me in the right direction. And there nestled amongst the rather tempting bass and octopus and prawns, was the perfect solution. A bulging net of smooth shelled palourde clams beckoned to me

Clams are most closely associated with spaghetti and this sweet shellfish works perfectly with the tang of tomatoes and the solid base note of pasta. I wasn’t going to stray too far from this classic combination, but I wanted something one pot so there was the minimum of preparation and very little washing up. The packet of orzo I’d picked up in the pound shop was about to have its moment…
I put half a cup of the rice shaped pasta into my saute pan and added three times the amount of water and simmered it until the orzo had swollen in size and there was barely any water left. At this point I added in a teaspoon of bonito flakes and a quarter of a cup of water as a quick fish stock then adding in a couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes and the washed clams. A quick season and a splash of vermouth and the lid went on, allowing everything to steam and infuse for about five minutes or until the clams are open and the tomatoes have collapsed in on themselves making a simple sauce.

The clams add so much flavour to the somewhat neutral orzo and the hints of bonito and vermouth make everything taste much more like you made an effort. There should be just enough liquid at the bottom of the pan to make sure you need a hunk of crusty bread to get the maximum effect from this dish. Scatter a bit of parsley over it all and tuck in with a fork and spoon and a napkin to hand. This is a get stuck in hand on kind of meal and it’s fabulous. 15 minutes maximum from start to finish and you’ve got a bowl just packed with flavour. This is a one pot wonder just as at home as a meal to impress friends or as quick post work dinner when you can’t face chopping and stirring. Either way it only needs a large glass of chilled white wine to make it complete!

*I always go to Dagon’s in Granville Arcade/Brixton Village for fish. They are good quality, have a wide selection, are reasonably priced and super friendly. Treasure them.

Roll up for rollmops!

You can tell I’m half Scottish. I love oats, raspberries are my favourite fruit and I never say no to haggis. But the real clincher is how much I heart herring. I adore rolled them in the aforementioned oats and fried or grilled with anchovy and herb butter, but nothing tops the rollmop. Shiny silver herring soused with onion, spices and cucumber in a handy pot? To me it’s a treat of such delight, I’d be more likely to pick up some pickled fish than chocolate if I wanted to cheer myself up…

So when I found myself with a spare kilner jar recently and espied some beautiful herring on the counter at Dagon’s in Brixton Village (just by Honest Burgers for those wondering) I knew the time had come to take the obsession up a notch and make my own rollmops. I got the fishmongers to fillet the fish and practically skipped home to get a-pickling.

I used this Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe as a guide. I soaked the herring in brine for a few hours, which plumps them up beautifully but does produce a fairly unpleasant odour. So open a window if you can. I then sterilised a clean kilner jar in the oven, while I heated vinegar, allspice, peppercorns, finely sliced onion and dill in a pan. The truly revolting smell of warm vinegar will get rid of any fishiness in the house and made me wonder if I shouldn’t just go back to plastic tubs of soused herring in future…

But the satisfaction of rolling the fillets up, filling the jar with vinegar and herbs and spices and sealing it firmly with a snap won out and by the time the fish went into the fridge, I wasn’t sure if I can manage to wait three days for them to be ready. In the end, I got sidetracked by life and didn’t get to them for a week and they were very much worth the extra wait.

Plump as anything, soft as butter and well flavoured, I cut them with the side of the fork, watching them flake apart perfectly and served them on some lightly buttered sourdough from Wild Caper. They were one of those simple lunches that is in actually fact so good you can hardly believe how lucky you are to be eating it at home. Delicately spiced and super flavoursome, there was no contest between these and the usual shop bought.

I’d definitely use the splash of cider in with the vinegar next time as there was just a bit too much rawness to the vinegar for my liking and it clashed slightly with the soft sweet fish. (Do not go all health conscious and skip the sugar in the recipe. You’ll blow your head off otherwise.) Some cucumber would knock this out of the the park mixed in with the onion and I’ll use some homegrown tarragon instead of the dill, because I intend keeping a jar of these beauties in the fridge all the time now. A few minutes effort makes this a simple treat I can’t get enough of, especially served with some potato salad for an ultimate Northern European feast!