Thursday, 23 July 2009

Marrow Madness

What a whopper!
There comes a time in a man's life when he starts to think about marrows and what to do them especially when he has an abundance of them on his allotment. I've had one residing in my fridge for over a week now and have visited the green behemoth daily, staring at it long and hard whilst squatting on my haunches and scratching my chin before finally letting out a puff of exasperation and closing the door. You see the problem is that I find it hard to get excited about this particular vegetable, which is just an overgrown courgette after all. In its infant state, it is actually quite versatile, you can use courgettes to make pasta sauces, to put in risotto, fritters, soups, salads, souffles, to make tarts, cakes, chutneys and not forgetting that you can use the flowers also (which I have yet to do). But it is my opinion once they grow into marrows they become bloated, tasteless and quite boring, like some faded Hollywood starlet. Still, I decided that last night something must be done. This marrow should not be destined for the great compost heap at the end of my garden, it should end up in my tummy.

During the week I did a bit of recipe research on t'internet or twitter to be more specific and it seems that there are quite a few nutty marrow fans out there with various random ideas as to how to use the damn things. Stuffed marrow with minced pork and prawn in black bean sauce, grated marrow with chilli and garlic and marrow cannelloni were amongst some of the suggestions that came back to me. I must admit despite my reservations, they all sounded pretty appetising and I will certainly give them a go in the future but when a further google search led me to a certain chain-smoking ginger gnome on the BBC website, I thought "This is it! This is the one!".

I am of course talking about Mr Anthony Worrel Thompson who proposed a two pronged assault to enlighten the taste buds to the delights of marrow with his recipe of Chorizo, pepper and couscous stuffed marrow and rosemary roasted marrow.

I am pleased to report that it was all very easy to prepare and as there was just the two of us, I simply peeled and halved the marrow that I had been coveting all week for the separate parts of the recipe. I did deviate slightly by cutting one half into thin slices rather than keep it whole for stuffing. The reason being I wanted to employ a tip from Niamh to salt the marrow to draw out some of the water and condense the flavour. By slicing it thinly, I figured the process would be quicker and then I could layer the slices and couscous mix in a shallow dish making a kind of lasagne type affair. Of course I didn't figure on some of the slices having seeds though the middle (ha and I have the cheek to call myself an allotmenteer!) but what the hell, seeds are meant to be nutritional powerhouses aren't they?!

I'm melting, I'm melting!
The end result was a pleasant surprise. The roast marrow with garlic and rosemary married up quite well with the parmesan as it melted nice and gooey over the chunks . As for the couscous construction, the background flavours of mint, coriander and lemon gave it a real summery lift with the chorizo adding a lovely spicy contrast. I think that perhaps next time I would salt the marrow a bit longer as it was still a little bit too watery tasting for my liking but the flavour certainly wasn't as bland as I've encountered before. Saying that, I've just realised that I haven't really explained why I didn't rate this vegetable in the first place. You see. back in my yoof, whenever it was served up at the family dinner table, it used to be simply boiled or steamed (just the way Dad likes it) so can you understand where I'm coming from now? But maybe after this experiment and a couple more, I could get a little crazy for it myself.
Roasting pepper (or is that burning?)

Couscous mix

Chorizo, pepper and couscous layered with sliced marrow and rosemary roasted marrow

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

How to Kill A Mountain Lobster

About a month ago now, we journeyed to the countryside for a much needed 2 night break in Herefordshire without the kids, visiting the very lovely John and Yvonne who have been friends and our foodie partners in crime for many many years now. John in particular is the yin to my culinary yang. Whenever we meet, food and what we should be cooking is often the subject of heated debate with liberal quantities of wine fuelling the fire. If I were ever mad enough to start a restaurant though, it would be with this guy. Saying that many years ago, the four of us all trekked down to Padstow and during the week long stay, John and I attended a two-day fish course at Rick Stein's Seafood School. By the end of the week, the pair of us were convinced that we were the next Pierre-White/Ramsay combo and that we should seriously consider going into business together. Then on the final evening of our holiday, we got the Monopoly board out and within half an hour were ready to punch each other's lights out. Again wine fuelled the fire here but still, it didn't bode well for a partnership starting out on a new enterprise. Just imagine the bank manager's face as we turn up with a business plan sporting black eyes and missing teeth. We still talk about it though so maybe, one day.

So after making a 4 and half hour mind-frazzling drive in the Friday traffic, we finally get to our destination, dump our bags in the hallway and head straight to the garden for a barbecue and cold beers. It soon becomes apparent that the pair are quite excited about plans they have in store for the next day and it doesn't take much convincing to get them to spill the beans.

"Well we thought that tomorrow, we could go to The Hardwick for lunch..." says Yvonne.

"Or we could pop over to Blaenavon and get some real, live lobsters to eat!!" blurts out John.

"What real, live, lobsters you say? Ones that we would have to kill and cook ourselves?" I reply and John grins, nodding his head frantically like an overexcited child on Christmas morning. "Wow, I'm not sure about this", was my first thought, as this was something I've never done before. Still, after some brief discussion we all agreed that night to go down the lobster route as it was more in the spirit of adventure.

Despite getting thoroughly whacked over the head by the booze monkey that night, I was pleased to have woken up fairly refreshed and with no recollection that John had spent the latter part of the evening pouring molten wax on my hand in an effort to keep me awake. As they say no sense, no feeling and over breakfast this brought up an interesting point to consider, before we had even bought them, we should really think about how were we going to do the lobsters in? What would be the most humane way? A quick consultation with the cookbook gave us three options:
  1. Whilst holding the lobster down, take a large, sharp chef's knife and place the tip about an inch behind the eyes and then plunge the blade down and slice through the head.
  2. Place the lobster in a freezer for 2 hours (putting it into a coma), take out and immediately plunge headfirst into a large pot of boiling water.
  3. Place the lobster in a large pot of cold water and bring to a boil, the idea being that the lobster will soon lose consciousness and expire before it gets too hot.

We decided to go for option 2 as that seemed to be the most agreeable way forward plus no-one was brave enough to attempt the first method and the third just didn't seem right at all, sounded far too slow. You could almost imagine the lobster shouting out halfway through "Blimey mate, this bath ain't arf getting hot!" (all lobsters talk with cockney accents by the way)

It was soon time then to get moving and make the drive over to Blaenavon and up until this point, given Hereford's close proximity to Wales, it was my belief that we would be heading for somewhere along the Welsh south coast. When we started to make our way up this steep hillside road after making a 40 minute drive through the valleys, I was starting to feel a little confused. "Where is this place again?" I asked John. "Blaenavon is just at the top of this hill, we're going to Vin Sullivan".

"I can see the sea and the sea can see me!"
"No, you can't, stupid"

At first this did all seem a little bizarre, travelling all the way up some great big bloody mountain to buy crustaceans, even more so when we turned onto this bleak industrial estate. "Funny place to have a fishmongers" I thought, "can't do much business round here". Of course, it turns out that Vin Sullivan was in fact a wholesale catering outfit that supplies restaurants and hotels. And at the front of their warehouse unit, the company has a small shop open to the general public that was pretty much like a foodie aladdin's cave. "Aha, so is this place your dirty little secret?" I said to John and he just smiled and winked. Unfortunately, it was nearly time for the staff to shut up for the day so we could only give the place a quick perusal before getting down to the nitty gritty of picking out our lobsters from a motley crew found in a tank at the front of the shop.


It was a bit unnerving to discover that the shop assistant who was serving us didn't know where they came from when asked. "Cornwall, I think or maybe Canada?" she replied with a level of enthusiasm suggested that she was either massively bored or didn't have much going on upstairs. I think it was the latter as the guy who came from out the back to fish our selection out of the tank confirmed they were in fact Canadian. But as he wasn't such a happy chappy either, maybe working on a desolate industrial centre on a Saturday afternoon was just taking it's toll. Maybe they just wanted us to piss off so they could get down the pub. With that in mind, we hastily picked four of the blighters, which were plucked out, placed in a huge polystyrene box and covered with wet paper, paid for and off we went on our merry way. On the way back in the car, we broke the cardinal rule of naming them Ernie, Bert, Pinky and Perky which had reprisals later on.

Is it me or is it cold in here?

When we got back to the house, I think the realisation of what we were about to do that afternoon was slowly dawning on us. The girls for instance, couldn't stand to see us take the lobsters from the box and put them in the freezer. Which is just as well, had they seen their husbands, they would be justified in thinking that they had married a pair of lady boys. I'll put my hand up and admit to squealing as one particularly feisty lobster thrashed about in my hand but John leapt out of his skin just because the fridge door unexpectedly swung open. However, once we got over the nervous giggles and shut them in to an icy doom, I did start to feel pangs of guilt. As we had two hours to kill (no pun intended), it was decided that we should all take a walk to the pub for a couple of pints of Stowford Press which did suppress the pangs somewhat. Upon returning to the house for the second time, the girls then decided that they should have a lie down, though I suspect that they were just wanting to avoid witnessing the inevitable.

Once we were left alone in the kitchen, John and I looked each in the eye and it soon became apparent what we had to do. We had to put a huge stock pot full of water on the hob, pour a load of salt in it, pour a load of wine out for ourselves and wait for it to start boiling. After what seemed like an eternity, the pot started to bubble over so it was time to approach the freezer and retrieve our dinner. As we drew back the drawer, I half expected a lobster to come flying out, covered in frost, screaming, and to try to rip my throat out with it's claws, like something out of a bad horror movie. But John reassured me that they were quite still and that I could uncover my hands from my face. And so it was time to do the deed.

We shoulda used factor 50

John was the first to go, who without hesitation took two out from the freezer and threw them both into the seething cauldron, slamming a lid on top afterwards. As the game plan was to grill them on the bbq, we decided to cook them just under. The rough rule of thumb recommends 10 minutes boiling time for a 1 pound lobster and then you add 3 minutes for each extra pound thereafter. Our lobsters were in between the 1 and 2 pound mark so we went for 8 minutes and after that time, John promptly fished his out, plonked them steaming onto the side and with a triumphant look on his face, turned to me and said "your turn". Taking the remaining two, limp and lifeless from the freezer did feel strange but as I sent them headfirst into the boiling pot and looked down, I felt confident that they weren't in distress and that their end was quick. A few minutes later they came floating back up to the surface, brilliant red and after a few minutes more, I scooped them out. Job done, no worries at all.

By the time our wives had resurfaced, the lobsters had cooled down sufficiently so we removed the claws and split them in two and gave the shells a blast on the bbq before serving them up with a liberal smothering of melted garlic butter and salad on the side. The meat from the tail and claws was still nice and tender with a subtle flavour of the sea which I can only attest to the fact that they were cooked so fresh. In fact combined with the butter, the lobster tasted terrific. The girls were also pretty impressed, despite their reservations earlier in the day but then they may have simply been impressed that they didn't come downstairs to find a pair of wailing men, hugging each other, sobbing with remorse. With this absurd image in mind (yes absurd!), I think my initial apprehension came down to the simple fact that these days, as consumers, we are disassociated from where our food comes from. The majority of us don't make the connection between what comes out of the sea or from the field or barn to what goes on our plates anymore. But to be personally responsible for the death of an animal with the sole purpose of eating it, did embold me with a sense of respect and even gratitute for the lobster, which is surely what we should be thinking all of the time anyway?

It was just a shame that later in the evening I couldn't impart some of this new found respect and gratitude with John as he took £800 off me when I landed on Mayfair. No, at that moment I wanted to put him in the bloody pot.