Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Spicy mince with green beans

I got this recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's Far Eastern Cookery. It's a Vietnamese dish, and in the original version just a little mince is used to add a bit of variety and protein to the beans, but I've changed it so that it's 50:50.

Cookery books are a great way to learn new dishes, but I do think over-reliance on them can be a problem. In particular, the need for cookery writers to provide accurate measurements can sometimes become an obstacle both to remembering old dishes and improvising with ingredients to create new ones.

Instead of trying to remember exactly how many grammes, teaspoons or centiletres of each ingredient a dish contains, it is often better to think in terms of proportions for the main ingredients and then adjust the seeasoning to taste. With this dish, it's particularly easy: equal amounts of mince and beans, then enough garlic, chillies and fish sauce to create a flavour which is salty and hot without being overpowering.

Ingredients vegetable oil
250 g mince
250 g green beans
2 fat cloves of garlic
2 hot red chillies
2 tablespoons of fish sauce

  1. Chop the garlic and chillies finely, heat the oil in a wok or large saucepan, and fry the garlic and chillies for a few seconds.
  2. Add the mince, stir well to separate, and fry until it has lost its raw colour.
  3. Add the green beans, the fish sauce and a little water, bring to the boil and simmer until the beans are tender.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Scottish meatballs

Continuing my Scottish-themed summer, I decided to make some haggis-inspired meatballs. I have to admit I was rather pleased with them, as they have a nice light texture and a flavour which can only be described as 'haggisy'.

500g beef mince
50 g of oat flakes
1 egg
1 tablespoon of shredded suet
half an onion
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt

  1. Set the oven to 180°C, and oil a large, non-stick baking tray, or a normal tray lined with baking paper.
  2. Chop the onion very finely, then fry gently until cooked. Mix the mince, oatmeal, suet and onion in a large bowl, add the beaten egg, and season with the mace, pepper and salt.
  3. Form the mixture into small balls (about the size of an unshelled walnut), and place on the tray. Bake for 30 minutes, until done.
Mace is made from the outer casing of nutmeg and, together with pepper, is the traditional way of spicing a haggis. If you can't find mace, then use nutmeg instead.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

When I get back to Scotland after a spell away, haggis is always near the top of things I have a real urge to eat. I'm not sure why, but haggis suffers from a bad reputation. I guess it's part of the general prejudice against offal. Anyway, a good haggis is meaty, spicey and oaty. What more could one ask for?

I get mine from Crombie's in Edinburgh. Far better than the fake efforts in artificial casings sold in supermarkets and even by some supposedly reputable butchers. (I name no names!) To cook, I wrap it in foil and boil it gently for about an hour, then remove from the foil and finish it off in the oven for 5 minutes to give it a nice roasted look. Recite "To a haggis" over it as you lovingly slit it open with a sharp knife, and then watch it slowly open out.

Haggis filling is also great as a leftover: I've used it to pep up cauliflower and parsnip soup, and to make a bolognaise sauce.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Courgette fritters

I love courgettes, but have to admit that sometimes I run out of inspiration with them, and end up doing ratatouille or steaming them and dressing them with lemon juuice, so this is a useful addition to the repertoire. In one eating place in Edinburgh I was served them raw in a salad. Not quite sure what was going on there. I guess the cook didn't know the difference between a courgette and a cucumber, which is not exactly reassuring.

We had these as part of an al fresco supper in my parents' garden in Edinburgh. I like the way you just have to get on with it in Scotland, despite the weather. As long as it's not raining AND windy then it's alright to go out in. Too chilly to eat out of doors in the middle of July? Put your coat on!

1 medium onion
olive oil
1 clove of garlic
3 smallish courgettes
4 medium eggs
Plain flour (2-3 tablespoons)

  1. Chop the onion very finely, and fry gently in plenty of olive oil. In the meantime, mince the garlic and chop the courgettes finely. Once the onions are translucent, add the garlic, fry for another 30 seconds or so, then add the courgettes, and cook gently until done. (A good 10 minutes or so.)
  2. In a large bowl, beat 4 eggs. Add the courgette mixture, and then mix in the flour a tablespoon at a time until you have a loose batter.
  3. Heat a large non-stick frying pan with a little oil in it. Once it is hot, use a serving spoon to add as many spoonfuls of the fritter mixture as will comfortably fit into the pan (remember that you will need a little space to turn them). After a couple of minutes the fritters should done on side, so flip them over until they are done, then remove from the pan.

I got the idea for this from Claudia Roden's book Arabesque, which covers Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. I quite often skim books at friends' houses or in bookshops and then have a bash at producing the recipe (or a bastardised version of it) later. Not having the book in front of you relieves you of any anxiety about whether you should or shouldn't be following it step by step. Cookery should also involve invention, improvisation and innovation. Otherwise you might as well make Airfix models (although admittedly they don't taste very good).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pan-fried mackerel fillets in oatmeal

Apart from the opportunity to drink real beer, one of the things I love in Edinburgh is shopping at the farmers' market. This may seem a bit odd, as I live next door to the central market in Cadiz. Visitors to Spain are always impressed by the market, and rightly so. It has an incredible range of really fresh fish, and also has loads of fruit and veg, butchers, a superb olive stall, a couple of stalls selling snails and fresh herbs, spices, a baker, and so on. In short, it's a great place to shop and I am really grateful to have it on my doorstep.

However, forcing my way through the crowds as I fill up my shopping trolley is not always the most relaxing experience. (And even more so as the old market is currently being refurbished and the stallholders have been temporarily crammed into a large marquee.) Another problem is that, because the stalls are generally not owned by the producers, they tend to duplicate each other. The butchers' section, for example, consists of about 20 different stalls, but they sell more or less the same things, at more or less the same prices. (Fortunately, there is one butcher who sells his own produce, and who has supplied me with some of the most delicious beef I have ever eaten.)

The farmers' market movement in the United Kingdom was inspired by outdoor markets in France rather than those in Spain, and I had always suspected that this involved a bit of mythologising, as is often the case when people in the UK talk about eating habits in other countries. On our journey back from Cadiz to Edinburgh at the beginning of this summer, we stopped off for a few days at Annecy (in the Haute-Savoie department, on the Swiss border), to visit our friend Catherine and her daughter Alice, who had been spending a year in France. It was my first time in France since a holiday there as a 15 year-old, and I loved it. There was the strangely enjoyable experience of being somewhere where I didn't speak the language (including asking for a 'minced' loaf, rather than a sliced one, in the baker's), there was superb bread, croissants and pastries, and cured meat, and there was a great farmers' market, which was surprisingly similar to the Edinburgh one. (If anything, the Annecy one felt a little more touristy, and less down-to-earth. Click here for some photos taken at both markets.)

At a purely physical level, arriving in France direct from Spain felt like entering the Thinnifer Republic after a spell in the Fattypuff Kingdom. (A sensation which was felt even more sharply in reverse when flying up to Scotland from Geneva Airport. I made it to the departure gate with Sammy and Carmela, looked around and realised that I was surrounded by fat people reading books. Welcome to the UK - we're fat, and we read!) Hardly anyone in Annecy was fat. I'm not sure if the reason is healthy eating, frantic exercising, obsessive dieting or whether chubbies are quietly removed from their streets and turned into saucisson. (Or perhaps just too scared to go out in the first place.) My grandfather, Sam, who had a fair-sized belly, used to love visiting the States in the 1970s because he felt normal there, and being a bit of a Thinifer I had much the same feeling in France. Unlike the Thinifers, however, I do not subsist on a diet of dry spaghetti. (Spain, while not close to challenging Scotland for the title of fat man of Europe, does a pretty impressive line in adipose adolescents and bulging 20-somethings. Obesity crisis in the making?)

What I really like about the Edinburgh farmers' market is the stallholders' enthusiasm for their products, and the fact that you are always likely to come across something new. Although each stall is quite specialised this seems to act as a spur to innovation, so the raspberry and strawberry stall has an incredible range of different jams and chutneys, in addition to the obvious cuts, the venison stall also sells venison sausages, haggis and pies, and smoked venison, and so on.

When I went to the market today, the guest cook at the Slow Food Edinburgh stall, the chef from Creelers, was cooking mackerel in oatmeal. (This is the traditional way of cooking herring in Scotland, and I suspect it would also work well with the fresh anchovies I sometimes buy in Cadiz.) It's really simple to make, but the fish must be spanking fresh, and you must fry in butter rather than oil. I copied the man from Creelers and used stoats porridge oats bought at the neighbouring stall and containing a mix of rolled and flaked oats. The traditional recipe for herring would use pinhead oatmeal, soaked overnight.

4 large or 8 small mackerel fillets
plenty of butter
porridge oats


  1. Spread plenty of porridge oats on a plate, and season with salt. Coat the mackerel with the oats. (The fillets should not be too dry, to help the oats stick to them, although even so the coating will be uneven.)
  2. Heat plenty of butter in a large frying pan, and fry the mackerel fillets in it, turning once. They will cook quickly so a couple of minutes per side should be long enough.