Sustainable Fish

It all started with a pack of wild Alaskan salmon I bought at my local Waitrose grocery store. My first reaction was shock at seeing sockeye from the U.S. west coast way over here in London. My second reaction was surprise at how cheap the price was – a bargain at 6.99GBP for two portions. In the U.S. I would pay $20/lb and up. There were a lot of unanswered questions in my mind about how the fish got here and whether it was a better choice than farmed salmon, which is omnipresent throughout the UK.

This lead me to a class on sustainable seafood at the Billingsgate Seafood School in Canary Wharf. It started at an eye watering 6 a.m. and was headed up by the bubbly C.J. Jackson, Chief Executive of the school. We started off with a tour of the market, which was bustling at that time in the morning.

billingsgate-fish-market-E9BWAJ

C.J. gave us the lowdown on sustainability and origin of product at every stop. Asian distributors are bringing in more exotic varieties, like these parrot fish.

IMG_3601

Lots of native species were front and center, such as these pretty lobsters.

IMG_3596

A dresser full of live eels gave me the quivers!

Seaweed harvested around the U.K. is becoming more and more popular.

IMG_3594

Gorgeous farmed oysters from the island of Jersey.

IMG_3593

After the tour we reconvened above the market. There are conference rooms, a comfortable dining room and a full-on professional kitchen. Kippers, buttered toast and coffee were served. For those new to kippers, the cook said, “They taste just like bacon” , which they did, if a tad bonier!

Presenters from some of the biggest wholesalers were up next. Direct Seafood, New England Seafood and the head of the Norwegian Seafood Council all gave background and updates on sustainability in the marketplace.

There are several certification organizations and watch dog groups that share information on wild fish as well as oversee farmed seafood. The most noteworthy for the consumer are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). MSC certifies through a third party rating system what wild seafood is sustainable; in 2017 just 12 % of wild caught seafood was certified. Therefore farmed fish and shellfish is important to the future supply of protein to feed the world. The ASC oversees the operation of seafood farms verifying they are environmentally and sustainably managed. The MCS produces “The Good Fish Guide“, a valuable tool that consumers can use to determine which fish are the most sustainable, both farmed and wild caught.

It is ultimately up to the consumer, however, to make sure they are getting a fully sustainable product. If the packaging is labelled with an MSC or ASC sticker then you can be assured you are getting the most sustainable seafood on the market. If there is no label then you need to ask questions. For wild fish, find out where the fish comes from and how it was caught. For farmed seafood, ask where the farm is, what type of food the fish is fed and if any antibiotics are part of the diet. Download the Good Fish Guide app to your phone so you can refer to it.

The listings for what is sustainable are shifting constantly so it’s more imperative than ever to be informed. By voting with your pocketbook you can reduce the negative impact on the environment and contribute to healthy oceans while enjoying wonderful fish and shellfish.

By the way, that wild Alaskan salmon I get from Waitrose, is labelled with the MSC label. The carbon footprint is high for getting it to London from Alaska but it may just be more sustainable than farmed salmon and to my palate, it tastes better.

 

IMG_3610

Garlic and Herb Butter Oysters

1 dozen ASC certified oysters

75 grams salted butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 garlic cloves, minced

Preheat oven to 200C. Shuck the oysters and sit each one in the cup of a muffin tin to keep the liquor in tact. Mash the butter with the garlic and parsley and divide the mixture between the oysters. Roast in the oven until the butter melts and the oysters are just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Serve with fresh lemon for squeezing.

Advertisements

Cheese for Dinner

IMG_3534

It’s the season for Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, a gooey, buttery round of cheese from the Jura region of France. It’s made in the winter months when the cows come down from the high mountain pastures and don’t produce as much milk. During the spring and summer the milk is used to make Comte cheese but with the decrease in production volume in winter, the unpasteurised milk goes into the delicious washed rind wonder Vacherin.

I was introduced to this cheese by Jared Wybrow at the London Cheesemongers, where it was sitting in the midst of a table laden with cheeses for a progressive tasting. It looked intriguing – all wrinkly and white in it’s wooden box. The box is made from thin strips of spruce, which contributes a subtle piney flavor to the cheese, by the way.

IMG_3533

The exterior is squidgy and, when barely pushed with a spoon, reveals a lovely, golden paste that is fondue-like in texture. My first taste at London Cheesemongers was so luscious and captivating that I had to buy one to bring home.

IMG_3532It made for an indulgent dinner when paired with green salad, bread, crackers and a variety of dried and fresh fruit. That is how I enjoyed mine and I highly recommend it to you. I heated it briefly in the oven in it’s box, which made the inside even more delightfully runny.

IMG_3535Vacherin Mont D’or is the perfect cheese for autumnal and holiday celebrations. It partners wonderfully with sparkling and red wine, cider and seasonal craft beer and would be a worthy addition to a cheese board for Thanksgiving or the December holidays.

So put it down on your shopping list. If you are in London, by all means go visit Jared at London Cheesemongers for the cream of the crop of Vacherin. The season for this heavenly cheese runs all the way through spring so you have some time to get your hands on a lovely round of it.

 

 

 

The River Cafe Still Has It

220px-River_Cafe,_London_05

The River Cafe is a classic that has withstood the test of time by championing a seasonal manifesto, serving top quality ingredients and having great leadership at the top.

It was originally opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray as the employee cafe for Rogers’ husband’s architectural practice. The location was an old oil storage facility right on the river Thames that was turned into a handsome office building with the restaurant at its heart.

A courtyard faces the river with dining tables for al fresco eating during nice weather surrounded by garden boxes filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s quite an idyllic spot.

Many now-famous chefs have honed their culinary chops under the tutelage of Gray and Rogers including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall and April Bloomfield, to name just a few. Gray passed away in 2010, but Rogers carries on the foundations they started together. The restaurant remains dedicated to Italian cuisine in all its simplicity, from fresh homemade pasta to whole fish roasted in the watermelon pink wood oven that’s finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and a squirt of fresh lemon.

IMG_3503

The wood oven anchors the space and many of the standard dishes the restaurant is known are cooked in it – such as that whole roasted fish. But the kitchen is proficient at bringing optimum flavor out of seasonal ingredients and uses many techniques to achieve that.

One example was a starter of creamy burrata, juicy, roasted cherry tomatoes, cracked olives and wilted swiss chard that hit sweet, bitter, salty and creamy on the taste buds. A drizzle of olive oil pulled it all together. Another starter of chargrilled squid was topped with a tiny dice of spicy red pepper so the elements of chewy ocean interplayed with a piquant heat. Lemon, olive oil and a pile of raw autumn leaves completed the dish.

The mains were also examples of simple ingredients brought to the peak of flavor. The kitchen was using many varieties of chicories, both raw and cooked. The bitter bite of  treviso alongside a pan roasted loin of monkfish accentuated the buttery moist fish. Slices of rosy lamb were accompanied by cicoria which contrasted with the meat and a luscious, wood roasted artichoke. A refreshing minty garlic sauce snapped it all to attention. A plate of homemade ravioli stuffed with girolles mushrooms and cheese was the weakest link of the meal, not because it wasn’t done well but more because it seemed boring compared with the flashes of brilliance and color on the other plates.

Prices are high but I would say you get what you pay for. The chance to enjoy a fantastic meal at this gorgeous place that is still going strong after 31 years was worth every pound.

Bountiful Harvests at PYO Farms

This summer I’ve had the chance to visit two farms outside London. We went by train and walked from the station a short distance to acres of brilliant orchards, fields and bushes laden with the bounty of the season. It was so inspiring to walk around picking gorgeous produce from the earth where it was grown – instead of mediocre stuff packaged in too much plastic in the grocery bin!

The first time was on one of the hotter-than-hades days we had this summer in London. Dripping with sweat, my pal Therese and I picked buckets of raspberries, oozing, ripe strawberries, corn and beets. It was a bit of a hateful trek back to the station with bags heaving on our shoulders, drenched from the heat but I made the best strawberry pie and tucked raspberries in the freezer for later. The corn was the best I’ve eaten in England ever.

As summer faded into fall, the farm was beckoning again. This time ripe plums weighed down branches like jewels, apples perfumed the orchards and fields of pumpkins colored the landscape.

The relief and joy of being out of the city and in fields of produce ready for the picking could be the reason why I came home with about 40 pounds of stuff – everything from cooking and eating apples to plums and quince to green beans and more corn. Yikes!

It’s been fun exploring recipes and plotting how to use all of it. Like a squirrel putting away nuts for winter, I’ve been canning, making jam and freezing the harvest for the cold months ahead.

The PYO farms are open until the end of October and many of them have family activities on the weekends like corn mazes, hayrides and pumpkin picking. Check out www.pyo.co.uk to get a list of farms in your area. You can also filter your search by type of produce. The farms I went to were Secrett’s in Surrey and Hewitt’s in Kent, both about 1.5 hours from central London by train and foot.

It’s well worth the effort to get your hands on the freshest fruit and veg out there and it soothes the soul too.

IMG_3425

 

Quick Pickles

I first tasted refrigerator pickles when my brother Peter brought a batch to a family gathering. They were crisp and cool and salty with lots of garlic flavor and they were gone in a flash.

IMG_3137

Quick fridge pickles are super easy to make and perfect for midsummer when the bounty of cukes, hot peppers, garlic and dill are all at their peak.

IMG_3134

This is one of those non-recipe recipes that you can customize to your preferences. Start with ultra fresh cucumbers, either just picked from your garden, the farmers market or the store; slice them about 1/2″ thick. Peel cloves from 1/2 head of garlic; cut the cloves in half if they are big. Pick the sprigs off a bunch of dill and set aside and have handy a mix of spicy hot peppers and well as mild ones.

 

IMG_3138

You’ll need a clean jar with a lid. I use a 24oz. Kilner jar with a clip seal lid but any glass jar will work. Ones that are wider are easier to pack but I’ve also used quart Mason jars with success because that was all I had.IMG_3135

Put 1 teaspoon each of black peppercorns and coriander seeds in the bottom of the jar. Add a layer of cucumbers, a few garlic pieces, a couple small, hot peppers and a layer of dill sprigs, add a larger pepper if you are using. Continue layering in this manner until they reach the top of the jar. Make the top layer cucumbers, small peppers and garlic only to save yourself from having to sift through soggy dill to get to your first pickles.

Put 2 1/2 cups water, 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a bowl and stir until salt dissolves. Pour this over the ingredients in the jar until all pieces are submerged. Put the lid on and gently turn the jar upside down a couple times to distribute the flavors evenly, then put into the refrigerator.IMG_3144

The pickles are ready in as soon as 8 hours. The longer they sit in the brine the more flavorful they get. You can use them as an appetizer or on a burger or sandwich. I also like adding them to potato salad for a salty garlicky burst and to the fermented sauerkraut I’ve been noshing with sausages lately. Frankly, they are amazing with just about anything savory and can become addictive. Feel free to add less garlic and to change up the peppers. Sometimes I will use only jalapeños because I love their heat and flavor, other times a combination of hot as hell and mild ones so feel free to experiment. The peppers are also an interesting ingredient to add to recipes or put in cocktails. Speaking of drinks, I want to try using some of the brine in a gin cocktail similar to the dirty martini idea. If it’s any good I’ll post about it.

 

 

 

A Penchant for Potatoes

The British love their potatoes! In my local grocery store here in London, there are about 15 varieties at any given moment.

IMG_2919

There are potatoes for baking, frying, steaming and mashing.

IMG_2917-2

There are big ones, small ones and “new potatoes” in red and brown.

IMG_2915

There are ones in bulk and ones in bags and heritage varieties like La Ruffe, Charlotte and Albert Bartlett Elfe.

IMG_2920

But my favorites this time of year are the raggedy-skinned Jersey Royals that have the distinctive terroir of the island where they are grown. These spuds are planted in the rich, well-drained soil of Jersey in the English channel and fertilized with seaweed from the island’s shores. The tubers have been grown in this manner since 1878 and have even been awarded a Protected Designation of Origin by the EU. The taste is golden and buttery with a texture that takes well to being roasted and crisped in the oven.

IMG_2978IMG_2979IMG_2980IMG_2981

My favorite way of preparing these is to scrub the skin well under water then roast them whole in a hot oven (180C) until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Smash them down using a potato masher until they are somewhat flattened; don’t worry if some of the fluffy innards spill out, that just makes for more bits to get crispy. Drizzle each tatty with a generous amount of good olive oil then sprinkle judiciously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pop back in the oven for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are golden brown and crunchy.

IMG_3042

You could sprinkle the finished Jersey Royals with chives or dab on some sour cream or creme fraiche or eat them just plain. I like to make extras then fry them up the next day for breakfast with eggs – or just snack on them right out of the fridge!

The scruffy spud from the island of Jersey wins my vote every time. And all those other potatoes can find a home in someone else’s shopping trolley!

 

 

Hidden Gem in Central London

I recently had the pleasure of dining at The Vincent Rooms which is part of the Kingsway College culinary program. The “rooms” consist of two restaurants: one is the more casual Brasserie with a modern European menu; the other is the Escoffier Room, which offers a weekly themed 5 course tasting menu.

Famous alum have passed through the cookery training here and gone on to make a name for themselves including Jamie Oliver, Aisley Harriot and Sophie Wright, to name just a few.

The beautiful Brasserie looks over verdant Vincent Square and has lovely paneling, wooden floors and natural light. The tables are all dressed with flowers and cloth napkins and, although there is an upscale air to the place, all staff are welcoming and professional (if a tad shy and nervous). All the food and service is provided by students in the culinary classes who are overseen by professional chefs and maitre d’s.

ebb18e_c6d5ba0f2d6245eea57aef834e22aac0mv2_d_4928_3280_s_4_2

The first thing my pal Rene and I noticed was the outstanding basket of home baked breads that were delivered to the table. The sliced multigrain was our favorite and we even asked for more of it, which isn’t something we would usually do. Each bite was hearty and wholesome with a delicate crumb and wheatie flavor.  All varieties of the bread baked on the campus as well as homemade chocolates and other goodies are for sale in the lobby of the restaurant so you can pick some up for home on the way out.

We ordered glasses of Prosecco to wash down all those carbs and chose fresh fish dishes for our mains. Rene got the pan seared haddock (£13), which came with lentils and spinach. The skin was caramelised to a deep golden and the filet sat in a satisfying puddle of creamy lemon butter sauce.

IMG_2731

I ordered a gorgeous piece of grilled sea bass (£14) atop a pile of leafy greens, shaved carrots, dill and delicate spring onions. The fish had perfect grill marks and a smattering of caper sauce completed the plate.

IMG_2729

We ordered a stellar dessert of panna cotta (£5.50), which we chose as almost a test to see what the kitchen could do. Often this dessert has a rubbery texture from too much gelatine and not much depth, however the Vincent version did not disappoint. Creamy and rich, with a haunting vanilla finish, the dessert was satisfying and came with delicate homemade cookies.

the-vincent-rooms

Overall, this is a top notch eating experience with quality of food and service that far outweighs the prices. Keep it in mind if you are in Westminster touring the sites or have theatre tickets in the area, you won’t be disappointed.

The Vincent Rooms has just launched a new website that makes it easier to book a table, look at menus and find our more about the program however I’m still secretly hoping that it won’t get too popular – best to keep secret gems a little secret.

You can read more of my reviews on Time Out London:

Enoteca Rosso, Bobajam, Nusa Kitchen, Soho Coffee, Sama Bankside, Ivy Cafe Blackheath