Wednesday, 24 October 2012

An open letter to PETA


When you have made as much noise about the poor state of British poultry and pork farming as you have about foreign furs and foie gras; when you have hounded the owners, shareholders and decision makers of McDonalds, KFC, Tesco, ASDA, Bernard Matthews, Chicken Cottage, Sainsbury’s, Nandos, 3663 etc etc etc about the billions of tons of cruel and destructive meat they sell each year; when you have put your single-minded, ill-thought, juvenile approach style behind you and actually used some sense and decency to appeal to the wider public in a hope to persuade them to make more ethical choices, only then should you feel comfortable emailing my personal email address asking me to pay heed to your blind-sighted, inverse snobbish, pseudo-emotional and vaguely threatening campaign against an issue which is responsible for an infinitesimal proportion of the animal cruelty you should be trying to end.

Get some perspective.


Monday, 6 February 2012

Mersea spoils: Dover soles as cheap as chips

If there's a question mark over the provenance of some of the seafood, the same cannot be said of the wet fish counter at The Company Shed. Brimming with plaice, flounders, sprats and soles so perky they can't have travelled further than day boat-to-building, the exception being salmon which can only have been Scottish. As well as rigor-stiff freshness another giveaway is the price, almost half of what you'd give a decent London fishmonger.

They had as many Dover soles as sprats on this occasion which may have further reduced the damage, and at £15/kg (you'll often pay upwards of £25/kg) for generous one-portion fish it would have been rude and silly not to.

Who you looking at?

Ironically, Dover sole is easier to deal with when it's a few days old so I had a fight to pull off the sandpapery dark grey skin (I left on the white). If stored appropriately Dovers can be eaten up to two weeks after they've been caught, which probably tells you something about their popularity with restaurants.

You make a slit across the tail and pull the skin off across the body, which is a complete ballache - 20 minutes! - when the fish is just out of the water. Thanks @LeCafeAnglais and @angus_macnab for the fishy tips!

I grilled the fish for 3-4 minutes either side with just seasoning and a bit of butter for company. A caramelised fennel, tarragon and lemon zest butter (finely sliced fennel slowly cooked in butter until golden brown, fresh chopped tarragon, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt. What can't you make better with more butter?) to pour on the finished fish and some roasted squash on the side and job's done. Firm, sweet, delicate and succulent fish, almost worth the Mersea trip alone.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Mersea Island, The Company Shed, the only way is Essex

Just sixty miles from London, Mersea Island is a great weekend getaway if you like buckets of cheap seafood, a handful of decent pubs and very few people for miles around. I dare say it's a busier fish kettle mid summer but then you don't get yer oysters and the weather is probably rubbish anyway. Go now, it's good.

When Sheds Collide

The draw for many is The Company Shed, barely more than a shack on the shoreline serving straight-up seafood and very little besides. Fancy it ain't, but ours would be a nicer world for a few more honest places like this. Communal tables decked out in wipe clean tablecloths, BYO bread, wine and mayo and a wall of help yourself glasses give the place the warm informality of a very relaxed supper club. Even in chilly, off-season January it's totally full, so arrive either by midday and grab a seat or a good half hour - apparently up to two hours in busier months - before you want to eat, stick your name on the list and toddle off and build a sand castle.

How much of the menu is locally sourced is questionable - I've yet to eat a tiger prawn pulled from British waters - but everything we ordered save for a bowl of slightly gritty mussels was damn fine. We left the cold mixed platters alone preferring to spend a bit more - we're talking a mere few quid - on individual plates of seafoody stuff, all a well-rehearsed exercise in simple-but-great. It went a bit like this, this being two meals' worth given we were so happy on day one we returned for seconds the next.

Colchester native oysters. You can bet your boots on the bivalves not having travelled far. A salty, zinc-fuelled slap and proper taste of the sea, served on a built-for-purpose oyster plate (I NEED ONE OF THESE IN MY LIFE PLEASE?). When in Rome...

Big prawns, little prawns, E5 bread. The Hackney Wild sourdough is so very awesome that it's all I'd consider taking with me. Team it with oyster stout - containing actual oysters! - from the Mersea Island Brewery and Vineyard and a load of hot-dang seafood and you're basically winning. Sweet, succulent crevettes at a pound a pop - very reasonable - and a bowl of small prawns left me crying out for a blob of good mayo but were nonetheless delicious with a healthy squoosh of lemon.

Stonking-fresh scantily dressed crab - just seasoning and no messing it seems - and tiger prawns hot from the grill with aioli. A few pounds a plate and as good as the best tapas in Seville (good, then).

More hot stuff. Massive, perfectly - barely - cooked scallops grilled with streaky bacon and cherry tomatoes, served with baby leaf salad (such frippery!), flour-dusted, seasoned sprats with bread and butter, oysters grilled with Parmesan and cream. All excellent, the scallops and the oysters particularly so.

Play with your food, eat your friends: the remnants.

And the damage? You can't really spend more than £15 a head unless you're an enormous fatty, and I can eat Quite A Lot

...proven by this. Very fine fish and chips at the West Mersea Oyster bar after sinking a few at The Victory. Homemade tartare sauce, mushy peas, the lot.

So stick a fork in me, I'm done. A great weekend of great seafood and a reasonable quantity of decent beer. Still winning.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Stew fried aubergine

Embracing Penury as the new January, here's my attempt at recreating Gourmet San's stew fried aubergine at home*. It's basically a salty, oily, sugary, umami-y slap around the face with a silky aubergine. So, pretty good, then.

*if you've yet to visit Gourmet San, this review should jolly you along a bit.

To serve six as a side, three - four at a miserly push - as a main with sticky rice

2 big aubergines
2tbsp (heaped) fermented soy bean / miso paste
1tbsp (heaped) caster sugar
1tbsp rice wine vinegar
200ml hot water from the kettle
Sunflower, vegetable or groundnut oil for frying
1 white onions, finely sliced
1tbsp light soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Handful chopped coriander

1. Cut the aubergines into big fat chips, roughly 6cm long and 1.5cm wide (don't lose sleep over exact measurements). Scatter them across a board or work surface, sprinkle with salt and leave for 20 minutes.

2. Mix together the soy bean paste, sugar, rice wine vinegar and water until combined.

3. Give the aubergine pieces a cursory wipe with a bit of kitchen paper and heat a wok until medium hot. Batch fry the aubergine slices until golden brown; stir almost constantly and don't be too shy with the oil (couple of tablespoons per batch). Put the aubergines on kitchen paper once fried.

4. Once all the aubergine pieces are browned, turn down the heat down medium-low, offer a prayer to the gods of heart disease prevention and add a final sloosh of oil to the wok. Stir fry the onions for a few seconds, then add the soy sauce and garlic. Continue to stir fry until the onions are soft and have a bit of colour, then pour in the saucy stuff. Turn up the heat until it's all nice and bubbly then taste and add a bit more of whatever you think it might need; you want a balanced salty/sweet/slightly tangy/savoury thing going on without any of the aforementioned attributes dominating the taste. Once you're happy with the flavour, chuck in the aubergines and cook for a further 5-10 minutes, until they're all gloopy, squishy and delicious.

5. Add the coriander, stir a bit, then serve with sticky rice and a healthy dollop of Sriracha sauce.