Saturday, August 30, 2008

Islay seafood

No recipes as such in this post, just a paean of praise to the fresh seafood on Islay.

This is the second year that we've gone across to Islay to spend some time with Angus and his son Joseph (pictured below fishing for crabs). We stayed at the house they have had built there, across the bay from Port Ellen. I was at school and then at university with Angus, and also at university with his partner (and Joseph's mum) Penny, who sadly died three years ago.

For me, there is something magical about the place. A mix, I guess, of the island, the house and its setting, and spending time with people I love.

And, of course, you can also get great seafood there. We bought some live lobsters from a fisherman, and he threw in a bag of crab claws and some velvet crabs for free. Earlier on we had bought some scallops from a little processing plant set up in what I think used to be Port Ellen's schoolhouse, and I also had some magnificent oysters at the Islay Fair.

The scallops were great (and about half the price of what I would normally pay), although the scene was a bit 21st-century Dickensian: a large worksurface surrounded by half a dozen eastern Europeans shucking away frantically. The sort of thing which makes me thankful to have landed myself the relatively cushy job of being a translator.

We took the meat out of the crab claws and Angus used it to make crab linguini. The lobsters were boiled then grilled and eaten with some homemade mayonnaise, the scallops were pan-fried with a bit of garlic, and the velvet crabs were just boiled and eaten plain.

There's not a lot of meat in the velvet crabs, but if you approach them as a large prawn rather than a small crab then you shouldn't be disappointed. (I searched the web for recipes, but mostly came across long and complicated procedures for making velvet crab bisque - crema de nécoras in Spanish - which involved moulis and muslin sieves.)

To dye for
In Britain there's a tendency to think of the work done retrieving meat from shellfish as an inconvenience which may or may not be justified by the prize at the end. In Spain, there are lots of snacky seafoods which involve quite a bit of cracking, biting, poking or sucking. These include crab claws (bocas), winkles (burgaillos) eaten with a pin, and cañaillas, a type of sea snail whose shell ends in a long spike, which provides a handly implement for removing the flesh. (An example of evolution backfiring, if ever there was one!) The scientific name is bolinus brandaris, but their common name in English is spiny dye murex, because their mucus was extracted and used by the Phoenicians to produce Tyrian purple. The dye was one of the ancient and medieval world's most expensive commodities and was used to dye the togas of triumphant generals and of emperors in Ancient Rome. Production eventually ceased with the fall of the Byzantine Empire (1453) and was replaced with vegetable and then modern chemical dyes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cullen skink

This is a lovely simple soup which me and Sammy made for our friends Kevin, Ros, Laila and Aisha when they visited us in Edinburgh. Cullen is a village in the north east of Scotland; skink, apparently, is the Scots word for a shin bone used for making soup. There are no shins in this one, though, just Arbroath smokies, which are delicious whole smoked haddock.

2 Arbroath smokies (whole smoked haddock)
1 bay leaf
whole peppercorns
1 small onion
1 lb of potato

Stage 1: preparation
  1. In a large pan, cover the haddock with boiling water, add the bay leaf and a few peppercorns, simmer gently for five minutes, remove fish from the pan and allow to cool, reserving the water. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and boil them in a little water. Once they are cooked, strain them and mash them until fairly smooth. (Or use a ricer, like Sammy.)
  2. Chop the onion very finely and fry gently in a little vegetable oil. Remove the skin and bones from the fish and break the flesh into smallish pieces.

Stage 2: assembly
  1. Combine the fish and onion in a large pan, with a little of the stock. Add the mashed potato, and then enough stock and/or milk to make a thickish soup. (No measurements or proportions here. It's up to you how thick or thin you want it to be, and whether you want it to be more or less smokey or creamy.)
  2. Stir in a teaspoonful of English mustard, check the seasoning and add salt if required. (The smokies are quite salty, so you may not need much if any.) Gently reheat the soup, being careful that it doesn't stick.

If you can't get hold of whole Arbroath smokies like the ones above, you could replace it with good quality undyed fillet. Whatever you do, don't use the nasty yellow dyed fillets. Far better to just use plain haddock (or cod or whatever else you fancy) and bump up the flavour with some herbs and spices. It won't be Cullen skink, but it will still taste good.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Smoked salmon on rye bread

Good smoked salmon should have a nice smokey flavour which complements without overpowering the taste of the salmon itself.

In Edinburgh, I get mine from my local fishmonger, Something Fishy, who smoke it themselves in the backroom of their tiny shop. I also got some very good salmon over the internet from Ugie Salmon.

I don't see the point of cooking it or even putting it through scrambled eggs. It only changes the texture and obscures the flavour. Instead, I like to eat it on a slice of light rye bread, with a squeeze of lemon and a little black pepper.