Friday, 29 July 2011

Dab, dab, dab

The dab is, along with the flounder, apparently widely considered the ugly duckling of flatfish, and that’s not because it’s going to grow up into a beautiful swan any time soon.  That seems harsh, and not just because, let’s face it, the other members of the flatfish family hardly have much to write home about in the looks department, either, but also because there’s nothing at all wrong with the dab in the flavour department – and that’s the important thing here.  In fact I’d go so far as to say the dab tastes really very good indeed, by no means blatantly inferior, in either flavour or texture to the more commonly eaten and highly regarded varieties of sole, and I’d suggest rather superior to most plaice I’ve ever eaten (although that is, of course entirely a matter of personal opinion, utterly subjective and entirely dependent on the quality of the fish and the cooking)

One distinct – and objectively demonstrable – advantage that dab has over its more celebrated brethren is that it is, as a direct consequence of the low regard in which it is held, cheap.  Very cheap.  Becca and I were up on the Suffolk coast for the weekend, and came back with four dab, on account of the fishmonger reckoning one each was not enough for a meal (they are quite small) but they still set us back less than three quid.

And yes, these dab were bought from a harbourside shack, and thus, in theory at least more or less direct from the fisherman, with minimal transport and middleman costs, so you might well expect them to be cheaper here than they might be if they showed up on your neighbourhood fishmongers slab, or even (the chance’d be a fine thing) in your local supermarket.  But I have to say, in my experience, that fish bought from the harbourside shacks in Southwold at least, really isn’t a great deal cheaper than from my regular Stoke Newington fishmonger (although considerably so compared to Islington’s Nigel Slater endorsed and priced accordingly Steve Hatt’s). 

The real advantage, of course, of the harbourside shack is:
A.  that the fish is fresher, almost literally pulled straight from the sea.  On several occasions we have been advised against buying the dover sole for dinner on the grounds of it being too fresh. And:
B.  They have dab.  Most regular fishmongers (if the word regular can be applied to fishmongers these days, any fishmonger at all being, sadly, such a rarity) don’t bother stocking them, on account of people not buying them, what with them being the ugly duckling of the flatfish world and all.  There is of course a big fat slice of chicken and egg pie that goes along with that.  I reckon if fishmongers did put dab on their slab, at anything like the price Becca and I paid in Southwold, then they’d find that there would be quite a lot of people prepared to buy it.

Which would be a good thing.  Which brings me to the best thing of all about dab.  This is a fish that the marine conservancy people actively want us to eat more of.  A fish we can eat not only without even a hint of guilt souring the pleasure, but a dash of smug self-righteousness to season it.  Yum.  Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, in the dab chapter of his fine Fish book, goes so far as to propose – somewhat satirically – the formation of an organisation he calls SPUDF, the Society for the Promotion and Understanding of Dabs and Flounders, which he seems to intend more for the promotion of eating than understanding the fish in question, but never mind.  I wouldn’t go so far as to encourage you to join any kind of club, but if you are lucky enough to have a proper fishmonger near you, keep an eye out for dab on his slab, and if he doesn’t have any, ask him to get some in for you.  You, and I suspect he, won’t regret it.

As for cooking it, like pretty much any fish, particularly any fish as fresh as these ones, it really couldn’t be simpler.  Just dust in lightly seasoned flour and whack it in a good hot frying pan.  A couple of minutes a side (always slightly longer on the first side than the second though) and straight on to the plate. 

Becca and I also returned from Southwold with a small handful of foraged samphire.  Beautifully tender and almost luminously bright green.  These I dropped into the pan of boiling potatoes literally seconds, maybe thirty, before straining off the water.  Then I seasoned them with the zest and juice of half a lemon (the other half to be served as wedges alongside the fish), a good splash of extra virgin olive oil and a grind of black pepper - probably not salt, as the samphire will bring enough of that to the table.  Very simple, very delicious and, probably, actually cheaper than chips.

And contrary to the fishmongers advice a dab each was enough.  More of a light supper than a hearty dinner, but still, it certainly didn’t seem worth frying up the extra fish once we’d polished off the first.  Which left us with two small dab (the four we originally had came in two distinct sizes, two larger, two smaller) for the next day.

The next day we were having a house barbecue with our downstairs neighbours, and the two small dab obviously weren’t going to go far between the six people there.  But I took Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall up on another of his suggestions, and made an improptu snack starter of dab sandwiches.

First I filleted the fish.  I had thought that filleting flatfish, particularly small ones would be a difficult and fiddly thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The skeleton of the dab is thick, platelike and almost plasticky in texture, and it both guides your knife and allows the flesh to slip from the bone like it’s designed to be non-stick.  Each side of the fish yields two small, roughly triangular fillets.  These I marinaded briefly in a squeeze of lemon and a little olive oil, then dusted, again, in lightly seasoned flour (a dash of paprika in there this time, along with salt and pepper) and grilled quickly on the barbeque.  Each fillet went into half a warmed and split pitta, with a dab (sorry) of sorrel pesto, and went down really well.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

More sorrel, in a (pesto-ish) crust, on trout.

As I said in my last post, we have a lot of sorrel from the garden.  I described how we used it for a risotto, and to make a sauce for pasta.  Another classic use for it would be soup – as mentioned in a reader’s comment - which I’ve been meaning to get round to doing but for whatever reason have failed to do so.  I really must, and maybe finally get round to doing the feature on soups I’ve been (vaguely) intending to post here for a while now.  

Another obvious use for sorrel, given its zingy, citrusy tang, is as a partner for fish.  Properly sustainable fish of course.  After the whole eel farrago, I feel obligated to feature the kind of fish that not only is it ok to eat, but that we really should be eating more of (of which more later…)*

Anyway, thinking about sorrel, as I was, and about fish, it occurred to me that something I hadn’t done for a while, that used to be a staple of mine, was some kind of fish under a herby crust.  Which of course also used to be a staple of gastropubby, bistro-y kinds of menus up and down the land, and which – it also occurred to me – you just hardly see any more.  Not, I think, because gastro pubs and bistros have entirely renounced the fish they used to herb crust on ethical grounds, because the fish are still there (on the menus that is, even if increasingly not in the sea), it’s just the herb crusts that have gone.  Which is fine, the restaurant business is about fad and fashion as much as any other, but I hadn’t been consciously aware of following those trends myself, at home, in my own kitchen.  I suppose, however, in the food we eat, as much as in the clothes we wear, we are all – at least the vast majority of us - followers of fashion, even if not dedicated, or even conscious ones.  It’s just impossible not to be unless you’re a self sufficient hermit, growing your own food and making your own clothes.

Not that I could honestly claim that my decision to put a herb crust on a fillet of trout in 2011 was in any way an act of rebellion against the forces of fashion – a culinary ‘fuck you’ to Anna Wintour, if you like.  I just thought I hadn’t had that for a long time.  And it’s nice.  Even if it does take you right back to the noughties.  If not the nineties...

First I made my herb crust, or, to be honest, not so much a crust as a paste.  In fact very similar in many ways – similar consistency, similar technique, similar sorts of ingredients – to pesto, but of course to call it that would cause purists to throw up their hands in horror.  Many years ago, when Simon Hopkinson – who is in most ways I can think of an admirable, and by many reliable accounts, a genuinely nice man, but I can’t help but feel is something of a culinary snob - had the cookery column in The Independent’s Saturday magazine, I remember him waxing indignantly disdainful about any variation on the basil/garlic/pine nuts/olive oil combo of ‘authentic’ pesto.  He also, however, described it as “that lovely, Ligurian, lotion” thereby painting himself so thoroughly into Pseud’s corner, that I feel free to scorn his disdain.  Besides which, one could argue that as the name derives from the method of preparation (from pestare, to pound, or crush, the same root as our ‘pestle’ as in pestle and mortar) rather than the ingredients, then it would apply to any number of variations.  Nevertheless, it would be potentially misleading to call what I did pesto, so I won’t.  It was, however, very much in the pesto style.  Or pesto-ish, if you prefer.

I shelled 75g (shelled weight) of pistachios (the one tedious bit of the process), and blitzed them in the food processor with 100g of sorrel leaves, the zest and juice of a small lemon, 1 big fat clove of garlic, a thumbnail’s length of red chilli, and just enough good extra virgin olive to get the consistency right (a thick paste, just like pesto).  This made a lot, enough to thoroughly crust four good sized trout fillets, and leave at least as much again to keep in the fridge, which it will happily for a week or so, for use as, whisper it, pesto.

If you don’t have sorrel, then young leaf spinach will do the same job.  And/or any combination of green leafy herbs.  Swap the pistachios for pine nuts, and use just basil, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil, and you will have made actual pesto.  Simon Hopkinson would be proud of you (particularly if you’d used a pestle and mortar, rather than a food processor).  The pine nuts would make it a fair bit pricier, but you could easily halve the quantities I’ve used above and still have plenty.

The trout I bought whole and filleted myself, because I actually find that an enjoyable and satisfying thing to do, and you get the leftover frames to make a tasty fish stock from.  You can of course get your fishmonger (if you’re lucky enough to have a proper one) to do that for you, but filleting really isn’t tricky, as long as you have a good sharp knife – and if you haven’t, but are interested enough in cooking to be reading this, then I strongly recommend you go out right now and buy one.  Either way, though, if you can, do buy your fish whole, rather than as pre-cut fillets.  That way you check them out for freshness – bright, clear eyes, shiny skin, red gills are what you’re looking out for.

Once you have your herb or sorrel paste/pesto, and your fillets of fish, just lay the fillets skin side down in a dish, and coat their fleshy sides thickly with the paste.  Heat a big enough frying pan, lightly oiled, on the stove, and when it’s good and hot put the fillets in, still skin side down, and fry them, without moving them in the pan, for a couple of minutes.  Meanwhile, heat your grill.  Once the skin side of the fish is done, and the skin crispy and golden, just whack the whole pan under the grill and cook the top side.  Again, a couple of minutes, maybe three or four at the most, depending on how hot your grill gets and how close to the heat your rack gets your fish.  Obviously you want the top of your crust to brown but not blacken, so it’s just a question of judging by eye.  Don’t worry too much about finely judging the fish itself – cooking under a crust like this means it will certainly be done by the time the crust is the right shade of brown (unless it’s a very thick fillet, but is well protected from overcooking and drying out.

I served my trout with new potatoes just boiled, and dressed with a sprinkle of salt, a good grind of pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a grating of zest, a little olive oil, and a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley.  Plain and simple.  Just like things used to be in the good old days (of the noughties/nineties...)

Which just leaves us the question of sustainability and/or the eco impact of trout farming to consider.  My understanding is that freshwater pond trout farms have much less damaging environmental impact than sea/sea loch salmon farms, for instance, and I’ve also heard that rainbow trout simply will not thrive at the same sorts of stock density as salmon (and brown trout not at all) thereby ensuring a better standard of welfare for themselves, so, all in all, farmed trout is a good option.  I have to admit, I haven’t been able to back that understanding up with much hard evidence, at least not via the medium of Google.  There’s lots out there telling me that salmon farming is bad, and wild caught salmon worse, but not much that covers trout at all, and most that I did find came from distinctly partial sources connected to the aquaculture industry itself (pro, funnily enough) or campaigning organisations like PETA (anti, would you believe), so I chose to ignore them and not post links.  In the absence of any better, more reliable information, then I’ll stick with my original understanding – at least until someone credible and unbiased points out where and why I’m wrong – and continue to buy farmed rainbow trout as long as they look like healthy, happy fish.  Not that a dead trout on a slab of ice is ever going to look actively happy, but you know what I mean.

*Next up, dab.  

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A surfeit of sorrel

 I have to admit that our garden has been less than prolific in terms of produce for the kitchen this year.  This would, I must confess, be mainly down to the almost total absence of green in my own fingers, but I could probably also point some of the blame towards the hot dry spring being followed by a cool, wet summer, rather than vice versa.  One thing that has thrived, for all that, is sorrel.

This may be - at least according to our downstairs neighbour, and veg plot sharer, Sam, to whom must go pretty much all the credit for anything we do actually harvest - on account of sorrel being essentially a weed, but nevertheless, we have plenty of it, and it’s very tasty.  And as much of it as we harvest, the more of it seems to grow back (which is, I have to say, a suspiciously weed-like characteristic)

If you’re not familiar with sorrel, then it’s a spinachy sort of a leaf, strongly flavoured with a bitter, citrus sour tang.  Too strong, bitter and sour – to my mind at least, Becca disagrees – to use raw as a salad leaf, but lightly cooked (which mellows it), or even just whizzed up in the food processor with a few other flavours to round it out, it makes the perfect basis for a zingy partner to fish, a sharper, brighter tasting alternative to spinach, or a star ingredient in it’s own right.

Into the latter category would fall the risotto that Becca made for us, featuring the sorrel, a sprinkling or two of roasted (and shelled, obviously) pistachios, and some reconstituted home dried mushrooms (ceps and other boletes that we collected and dried last autumn and really must get round to using up before mushroom season arrives again, as it surely will any day now, given the positively autumnal summer we’re currently experiencing).  It was a risotto similar in spirit, if not in particular flavour to the wild garlic risotto featured here, cooked following the usual risotto method (here) with a mix of vegetable stock and the water from soaking the mushrooms, the wild mushrooms added close to the end, and the sorrel stirred through right at the end because if cooked for more than a few seconds it loses it’s pretty bright green colour and goes a rather military looking khaki (still tasty mind).

Keeping to an Italian theme for making use of the sorrel, it will also make a very tasty sauce for pasta.  Or sauces, indeed, because of course the variations available on the basic theme would be essentially endless.  What I did, on this occasion was simply to lightly toast a handful of pine nuts in my pan, then add a little olive oil and chuck in a couple of finely chopped shallots - along with some garlic and red chilli, a little salt and pepper and a few thyme leaves - to soften, poured in a glass of white wine then dropped in a big bunch of shredded sorrel leaves and let them cook down.  Meanwhile I boiled up a pan of pasta, and sautéed a few small chesnut mushrooms, sliced to 3 or 4mm thick.  When the pasta was done, I strained it off – having first added a ladleful of the cooking water to the sorrel sauce, then stirred the pasta into the sauce and the mushrooms, along with some freshly chopped parsley, into the pasta.  It was very simple, and very delicious.

You will notice that I used fusilli.  Which I normally never, ever do, for reasons that, I admit, are largely down to groundless prejudice – I don’t, generally, like fusilli. No particular reason, I just don’t.  On this occasion, for this sauce, though, fusilli just seemed like the ideal pasta shape, as it is for pesto, which in consistency as well as colour this sauce greatly resembled.  And you know what, I really think it was.  Which just goes to show how prejudice can be overcome.  Maybe there’s a lesson in that for the World…

Next I’ll be doing my bit for the World by cooking up some more of our home grown sorrel surplus with some properly sustainable fish…

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pity the Eel (and forgive me)

 So.  The smoked eel I returned from Belgium with.  First of all, I’m really, really sorry.  Sorry because I contributed to what I now believe to be the unsustainable fishery of an endangered species, and sorry also because this post is going to be that most annoying of all injunctions – the ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  Because, yes, obviously, I did purchase and consume a half kilo of smoked eel, and I’m not going to lie to you, it was good.  It was, in fact, very tasty indeed, but still, I implore you not to follow my example.  Please, please DO NOT purchase and consume eel.  Do as I say, not as I did.

The simple fact is that, according to best estimates the population (if that’s the word) of the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) – because, for all my digression on to the subject of the conger eel in my last post, that is, I’m pretty sure the eel in question – has crashed catastrophically over the past thirty years or so.  The numbers of eels reaching European waters from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea having reduced, since the 1970s by at least 90%.  I’ll say that again, AT LEAST 90%.  Maybe as much as 98%.  The species is, therefore, unsurprisingly, listed by the IUCN as critically endangered.  That’s as a species, not just as a menu item.

Eels – stewed or jellied, of course, used to be the staple fast food of the part of London I live in.  That is no longer the case, and the fact that there are just a handful of traditional live eel handling pie and mash shops left in the East End, and that almost nobody regularly consumes jellied eels any more, unless they dress like this, might lead you to assume that pressure had been taken off eel stocks in the past couple of generations.  Taken together with the fact that the Thames is, apparently, cleaner today than at any time since the industrial revolution, then one might assume that London’s river would be teeming with the slithy toves.  But it’s not.  It is, almost entirely, devoid of eel.  In as few as five years, the numbers caught by the Zoological Society of London’s monitoring traps fell from 1500, in 2005, to just 50, in 2009.  And that has nothing to do with jellied eel consumption (almost all of the eels for which have been imported, mainly from Ireland, for many years). 

No, the decline of the eel population, and the decline of the cockney culinary tradition appear to have been coincidental, in both senses of the word – happening at the same time, but unlinked by cause and effect.  So where have all the eels gone?  And if Chas’n’Dave are not to blame, who is?

While fashion and, I suspect, modern squeamishness, have led to the crisis in jellied eel consumption and subsequent demise of traditional pie and mash shops in London’s East End, eel appears to remain a popular, and rather more upmarket, item on Belgian and Dutch menus.  Even this, though, is small fry compared to the Global sushi market’s demand for Unagi.  But, it would seem that not even the world’s appetite for Nigiri can be held wholly responsible for the precipitous collapse of European eel stocks.  Quite what is responsible has yet to be definitively identified, and no doubt overfishing to feed a growing global sushi market plays its part, but that’s not the whole picture, and to even begin to grasp that we need to take a closer look at the eel’s biology, and in particular the mysteries of its life cycle.

The European eel is arguably misnamed, because it doesn’t start its life in Europe at all.  Rather, all Anguilla Anguilla are hatched in the Sargasso Sea, near the Bermudas, from where they are carried, as microscopic larvae, on the currents of the Gulf Drift, on a journey North and East of several months, to the coastal waters of Europe.  On reaching the colder European waters the larvae metamorphose into the tiny, transparent ‘glass eels’ that then seek out fresh water, making their way into the river systems of Western Europe where they will, slowly, mature.  Finally, at the age of fifteen or twenty years old, they will return to the seas and embark on their long final migration back to the Sargasso where they will spawn, once, and then die.

The complexity of this life story, then, makes the eel dependent on (and thus vulnerable to) a plethora of factors, related and unrelated, ranging in scope from the global to the very local.  This makes pinning the blame for the species’ decline onto any single factor both impossible and pointless.   That it’s some combination of overfishing, climate change (pretty much every model of global warming charts a severe weakening, or complete cessation of the Gulf Drift – in which case the absence of eels from our tables may well be the least of our worries), habitat destruction and pollution (particularly the accumulation of plastic detritus in the Sargasso Sea), would appear to go without saying.  And those last three items kind of make it all of our fault.  Whether we eat eel or not.  Or, maybe it’s just that the eel itself and its, frankly, implausible lifecycle is just an evolutionary dead end that was always doomed to extinction, sooner or later – which just happens to turn out to be right about now.

Oh, and the fact that the majority of eel we might eat, be it jellied, smoked, stewed or sushi, is farmed doesn’t much help either, in case you were wondering.  Not only is there the question of the environmental impact of this form of acquaculture to be considered, but there is, even more compellingly, the inescapable fact that all farm raised eel start off life as wild creatures who are caught – still in vast numbers – in their juvenile glass eel form, and thus removed from the potential breeding pool, never to be returned to it.  A particular problem for a species which takes so long to reach sexual maturity and then only gets one shot at procreation

Ultimately, it seems clear to me that the fact of the eel’s decline being not necessarily solely, or even principally, the result of over exploitation is neither here nor there when it comes to choosing whether or not to eat it.  The simple fact is that this is a species potentially on the verge of extinction, for whatever reasons, and we really can’t justify its consumption.  So does that make me a hypocrite, or just a smug bastard, to be telling you about the eel I consumed?  Or can I lay any claim to honesty?

What I will say is that, when it comes to eel in its smoked form, anything you might chose to do with it is entirely and eminently do-able with smoked mackerel - that longstanding favourite of this blog - the two being very much in the same area in terms of flavour, texture, aroma and colour – all the key features of a foodstuff.  I will not lie to you, though.  While similar, our eel was both sweeter and more intensely flavoured, and somehow managed that intensity without being so all pervadingly, and lingeringly, fishy smelling as mackerel can be.  Still, is that really worth your conscience?  Not mine, I think.  Nor, in future, can Unagi be, much as it has always been one of my first choices from the sushi conveyer…

So here’s what I did with my smoked eel.  Just imagine I’m using mackerel, which shouldn’t be hard as it’s basically just a version of the mackerel and potato salad I’ve written up here before, but specially modified to incorporate the Belgian leeks we came home with, as well as the eel.

I put on a pan of new potatoes (anyas in this instance) and while they were boiling I chopped one of the leeks in half lengthways, then sliced each half reasonably, but not too, fine.  Then I chopped three or four stems of the fine celery and sautéed both up with just a little finely sliced garlic and red chilli in a generous amount of olive oil.  Once the potatoes were cooked I drained them and stirred them though the pan of leek and celery (off the heat), adding the zest and juice of half a lemon and a good grind of black pepper, then flaked in the smoked fish and a sprinkling of capers and halved and pitted black olives.  Then I left it all to cool.  It’s entirely up to you how much you want to let it cool - all the way and serve at room temperature; or serve it as a warm salad.  Either’s good, but I’d tend to favour warm.  Whatever temperature you want to serve it at, mix in the salad leaves at the last minute so they’re crisp and fresh and don’t go soggy – check the seasoning and add a few spoonfuls of a good mustardy vinaigrette if you feel it needs it.  This was a distinctive and utterly delicious variation on the smoked fish and potato salad.  And of course it would work just as well - maybe not quite as sweet but considerably more conscionably - with mackerel.


Help me to salve my conscience and make amends for the whole eel eating farrago by joining me in signing up to Hugh’s Fish Fight right here, to champion sustainable fishing practices, reform the European Common Fisheries Policy, and put an end to the absurd practice of enforced discarding of perfectly good (and thoroughly dead) fish.

And don't just sign up, help spread the word - click below to share the link on Facebook.

And don’t spare the horses…

Now I know that some (many?) of you will think I should also be apologising for coming home from Belgium with horse meat.  Well, sorry, but no, I’m not.  Sorry that is.

Maybe for buying it from a supermarket (a Carrefour Express in Knocke), vac packed and bearing the label “Cock’s Fresh” (Ha! Sorry, I couldn’t resist), but not for it being the flesh of a horse.  Personally I’ve never really understood the sentimental squeamishness we traditionally have in this country to the idea of horse meat, let alone the hypocrisy in how differently we regard horses and cows, pigs and sheep.  I wouldn’t eat dog, but that’s because a dog is a scavenging carnivore, not because I regard it as man’s best friend.

Whatever.  This ‘filet de cheval ex doux’ was lightly cured so that it had the texture of fresh, raw meat, sliced very fine, with a deliciously sweet, delicately smoky flavour.  It would have been quite serveable as carpaccio, and made thoroughly excellent sandwiches with tomato, rocket and some pickled cucumber.  Nice horse.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Bringing Belgium back home – stoofpotje and, oh dear, eel.

 We didn’t return from Belgium empty handed, of course.  Mainly beer, it almost goes without saying, both Belgian and Dutch, but also a handful of the slender young leeks that we’d seen growing in flat field after flat field in the course of our drive across Zeeland and Flanders; a bunch of slender stemmed celery – mainly used for soup according to the nice lady in the shop and bought simply on the basis of being something you don’t generally see at home; a large and knobbly tomato; a big bag of those luscious cherries (the mid priced ones, we were using up left over Euro change by this point); and a six inch length of smoked eel.

Of these, the item I was most excited about was the eel, although I have to admit there was at least a hint of the thrill of the illicit about that, because I was not at all sure about the sustainability, and therefore ethics of eel fishery.  If I’m honest, deep down, I knew it was wrong, but I was trying to fool myself with the notion that the main problem with eels is that their life cycles are so little understood that it is practically impossible for anyone to say with certainty what a sustainable level of fishing of them might be.  And I didn’t even know which particular eels this eel was.  The common – or rather, as even then I kind of knew, critically endangered – freshwater eel, or some bigger, meatier marine eel, like a conger.  They certainly looked big and meaty, and they were definitely being sold by the sea, so maybe that’s what they were.  Conger eels show up frequently, if not regularly, on the fish stalls at Ridley Road market, back home in Dalston, and they certainly look like one of those ugly bugger by-catch fish that we really should be eating more of to ease the pressure on the fished to annhilation stocks of the old familiar staples like cod, haddock and tuna, not that I ever have.  But somewhere in the back of my mind was the recollection that one of the reasons, other than fear - have you ever looked at a conger eel? - that I never had, was that Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, in his Fish book, had told me that the conger is a species we really shouldn’t be eating at all, on account of their taking a long time (up to fifteen years) to reach sexual maturity, and even then only breeding once in a lifetime.  And we certainly shouldn’t be eating it unless we’ve caught it ourselves, and even then only occasionally and with a deal of what should be, at least partly, guilty pleasure.  Okay, so I didn’t recall all of that, word for word, just the general prohibition – I needed to look up the details of the conger’s breeding cycle once I’d got home – but, either way, oh bugger.

Still, we were on holiday, and local, or perhaps specifically holiday, rules applied.  So ethics didn’t stop us from making sure we picked up a half kilo of smoked paling from one of the quayside stalls in Ostend before catching the Sunday evening ferry home.  These were the same quayside stalls that offered the frighteningly lurid fish salads, but the eel was, aesthetically, of an altogether different, frankly higher, order.  All beautiful gold grained amber skin and vanilla ice cream flesh.

Now we’re home of course, regular ethical standards pertain, and I’ve done my research, and I’m afraid I simply can’t support the consumption of eel.  Which is a bugger, particularly seeing as I’d already written a draft of a blog post telling you all how good it was.  Which it isn’t, it’s very, very bad, and I’m now going to have to write a whole new post, all about how bad it is, and why.  You will however, have to wait for that.

In the mean time, there’s always stoofpotje.

I didn’t come home from Belgium with stoofpotje, of course.  Or even the ingredients to make it, specifically, just the inspiration.  Although I did end up using some of that fine stemmed celery.  I could also have used one of the beers, but I had a large bottle of Leffe Brune in the rack, from when Sainsburys had them at two for a fiver, and I preferred to use that for cooking with, rather than one of the bottles I couldn’t readily replace.  With fortuitous timing, Sainsburys also had a half price deal on Angus beef shin the week we returned from Belgium, so I cleaned them out of the last of that.  One big lump of the beef went straight into the freezer, the other half – or just under, about 650g worth – I cut, or just pulled apart (the structure of shin is such that once you separate the meat from the connective membranes, either with a knife or just by pulling, it largely separates into appropriate sized lumps for stewing of it’s own accord, which is handy of it) into roughly inch/inch and a half dice, which I dusted in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and fresh thyme leaves.  Then I made a stew, following pretty much exactly the same procedure as I’ve described before here, except in this case I chopped the carrots and the onion fine, to match that fine stemmed celery.  I felt justified in calling it a stoofpotje, not only because I made it with Belgian beer (albeit purchased at Sainsburys in Dalston), and in emulation of the stoofpotje we’d come across in Belgium, but also because, at least as far as I can tell from Google, there is no such thing as a definitive recipe for stoofpotje.  Which is as it should be, of course, it being, simply, a stew – translating directly, I presume, as stewpot.  And the idea of there being a definitive recipe for a stew – any stew – is inherently pretty silly.  I don’t even feel the need to christen this one ‘stoofpoje-ish’.

The weather the week after our return was not particularly summery, perhaps fortunately for someone itching to make a hearty beef stew, but still it wasn’t the middle of winter, so where I’d normally be inclined to serve my stoofpotje alongside a big mountain of fluffy mash, for the ultimate comfort food hit, this time I wanted a lighter potato side dish.  Which allowed me to make use of those lovely leeks.  I put some new potatoes (Anyas on this occasion, sliced  into pieces no more than an inch thick) into a saucepan with just enough stock to cover them (Marigold vegetable bouillon, but any good stock you have to hand – be it veg, chicken or beef) and turned on the heat.  While they were coming to the boil, I halved my leeks lengthways and chopped them into sections between a centimetre and an inch long.  When the potatoes had been boiling for about, or just under ten minutes I dropped the leeks into the pan with them, just to blanch, and then almost immediately drained them - pouring off  the stock into a bowl.  I transferred the potatoes and leeks to an ovenproof dish and poured enough of the stock back over to half cover them (give them a good grind of pepper at this point, but salt only if they need it – taste the stock to check).  Then I put the dish into the oven along with the stew for about the last half hour of cooking (or just until the potatoes are cooked through).

Another summery version of a typical winter’s beef stew side dish, was the red cabbage salad I made.  This in place of the pickled red cabbage that I’ve described here before.  I just shredded about a quarter head of crunchy cabbage and added a handful of toasted pinenuts and chopped dried apricots, then dressed it  with a spiky, mustardy vinaigrette and stirred through with a bunch of parsley and tender celery leaves.  This made a deliciously cruncy, crisp and fresh complement to the stoofpotje.