A first guest in meatless January

Cream of Watercress Soup

Celeriac & Salsify Salad with Boiled Lemon Aioli

Cod with Shellfish, Garlic & Parsley Butter, Sauté Potatoes, Kalettes


Time to get this blog back on the road…

Our Christmas Day plate: no more of this in January

In January, we try not to eat meat. We stick to vegetarian on weeknights and veggie or fish at weekends. We have no great health or ethical motivations. It’s just that we eat so much meat in December, a change seems in order. We’re not dogmatic about it – I didn’t feel a total failure when I ordered some gyoza from a street food stall and forgot that I wasn’t supposed to choose mixed meat. But it’s become a habit, and even in this grimmest of Januaries we can still have the comfort food we need to make the world seem a slightly less worrying and dangerous place.

So, what to cook for our first visitor of the year? In fact, this was a menu that we may have chosen even if it hadn’t been January.


Cream of Watercress Soup

An advantage of watercress is that, although it’s harvested all year round, it’s less common in winter and therefore seems to bring some legitimate, non-wintry colour to a dark winter’s evening. So, we started with cups of Cream of Watercress Soup – chilled (or as chilled as it could be after an hour-and-half, which was probably as cold as it should have been on a cold evening). This is a much tried-and-tested Delia Smith recipe, which always delivers. I find that about a third of the ingredients shown in the recipe link is perfect for four pre-starter size cups – ie. more than an amuse bouche but less than a bowl. Being half-Finnish, we use Moomim mugs. This means one bunch of watercress (leaves only), two medium leeks, one medium to big potato, 500ml of vegetable stock. I turn this into a cream soup by adding 75ml of double cream (which is Delia’s method in her Complete Cookery Course book, whereas online she adds tablespoons of crème fraiche to each serving).

On a very low heat, I sweat the washed and sliced leeks, diced potato and roughly-chopped watercress in 25g of butter for about 20 minutes, adding some salt, covering the pan and stirring occasionally. Then I add the stock and simmer for up to 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft. I blend, stir in the cream, season (usually it only needs pepper) and stick it in the fridge (Delia reheats at this point). And that’s it. When serving in bowls, it’s nice to garnish with some small sprigs of watercress, but in cups that just gets in the way.


Salsify and Celeriac Salad with Boiled Lemon Aioli

There is something wondrous about salsify – the transformation of what resembles a muddy branch into pure white, delicate earthiness. Occasionally we do a salsify gratin, but this recipe is our favourite. It’s a mess to peel, but done on the draining board or on sheets of newspaper, it doesn’t create two much devastation. It’s important to rinse the salsify spears to get rid of remaining dirt after peeling and then immediately to acidulate (throw into water with lemon juice) to prevent discolouration.

Salsify and Celeriac Salad with Boiled Lemon Aioli may not look the most elegant dinner party dish – and the photo below doesn’t really do it justice – but it’s a great winter starter. It’s also a bit different – salsify is new to some people and the boiled lemon aioli is mellow and a foil for the earthiness of the root vegetables. This is a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe from his time as the junior columnist in the Saturday Guardian, offering just one vegetarian recipe a week. Since it’s Ottolenghi, there are quite a few steps, but it’s all pretty straightforward.

The recipe link has detailed instructions, so I’ll be briefer. I cover a lemon with water plus 100g of caster sugar and some salt (as usual, I go for less than Ottolenghi’s 15g), bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. The lemon becomes soft and sticky, almost gooey on the outside, and when cool (the lemon, not me…), I quarter it, remove the pips, then put half in a small food processor with 2 egg yolks, 3 crushed garlic cloves, 2 tsp Dijon mustard, some salt and pepper. I blitz to a paste. It’s fine to leave some flecks of lemon: they add some texture and some little spots of more vibrant yellow in the mustardy colour of the aioli. I then gradually add 90ml sunflower oil and 180 ml olive oil. If your food processor allows you to trickle the oils down the funnel, that would be ideal. But with our small processor, which is just the right size for this, I have to add tiny amounts of oil to start, whizzing briefly between each addition before moving on to bigger pours. I wouldn’t make normal mayo in a processor without a funnel because it would be prone to splitting, but this seems more robust and I have never had a problem.

While the lemon is boiling, I prepare the salsify: peeling, acidulating and slicing five spears into 4-5cm batons. Since on this occasion I cut the batons fairly finely, they only needed about 6 minutes of boiling – thicker pieces will require more. Next, I cut c.500g of celeriac into similar size batons and boil these. The recipe says 10 minutes, but this was a little too long for my finer batons and consequently the celeriac lacked some of its usual bite.

Once the salsify and celeriac are cool, I add a little warm water to the aioli to make a slightly runnier dressing and toss that through the vegetables. Ottolenghi says to use 200ml of the aioli, but I treat this as a visual thing: I go for a generous amount of the dressing to pull the salad together but not to drown it. I mix in a small red onion, sliced as finely as I can manage, roughly chopped capers (I went for less than Ottolenghi’s 80g), chopped parsley and most of a bunch of rocket. I try to slice off the stringier ends of the rocket – they can get in your teeth otherwise – and put a knife once through the pile of leaves to make sure they are not too big for the salad. A few rocket leaves on top of each serving is the finishing touch.

Something wintry, different and with the silky dressing making it just that bit luxurious too. These quantities make four or five servings, so on this occasions there were leftover for lunch too.


Grilled Cod with Shellfish and Garlic Butter

I cannot find this recipe online – it’s from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes – although there are plenty of variations on the theme on the web. So I’ll be a bit more precise here (the recipe quantities are for four but we were cooking for three). In theory, you could use any flaky white fish – pollock for example – but since we can now use cod from sustainable fisheries with a reasonably clear conscience (as usual, via Sussex Fish at Borough Market), it’s a chance for the classic marriage of cod and shellfish.

For the seafood, Rick Stein suggests a mix of mussels, clams and cockles. On this occasion, we couldn’t get mussels but, less usually, we could find cockles. So we went with clams and cockles and I think I preferred it without the mussels.

First I cook the shellfish (the recipe says 350g; I plan a handful for each person) in a covered pan with c.50ml of white wine until the shells open – less than 5 minutes. I reserve the cooking liquor (I am always surprised how much more there is than the original 50ml), and, when cool enough, pick the meat from most of the shells. I put 300ml of the liquor into a pan and reduce to 2 tbsp.

To c.100g of softened unsalted butter (ie. left out of the fridge for a while) I add two large garlic cloves, crushed with a little salt, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1 tsp brandy and a handful of chopped parsley (25g in the recipe). I like to leave the butter and its additions in a bowl for a while before mashing it all together. Even if the butter is already soft, it’s easier to mash once it has started to amalgamate of its own accord.

I brush both sides of the cod fillets – one per person, skin-on – with melted butter and season with salt and pepper, then grill on a high heat, skin side up for 8-10 minutes, until, the skin is crispy and the fish is at the point of flaking. It’s easier to do this well if you have fish of an even thickness, but we had a mix of a fillet from the thick part of the fish and then two tapering fillets, which cook at different rates.

As the cod is cooking, I melt the garlic and parsley butter in a pan, and add the reduced shellfish liquor, the cooked shellfish (keeping a few in their shells adds to the appearance) and a small tub of brown shrimps (175g in the recipe). I keep the pan on the heat only so long as it takes to heat through – I don’t want the shellfish to cook any more.

I serve with the shellfish and garlic-parsley butter poured over each cod fillet.

Stein suggests serving the cod with boiled new potatoes, which would be fine, but I prefer my version of sauté potatoes: floury potatoes cubed, brought to the boil in salted water and blanched for five minutes, drained, steam dried and then sauteéd in a slice of butter and olive oil, with salt and pepper and frequent sprinkles of finely-chopped rosemary and thyme. The secret to getting these right is to use both butter and olive oil, to start the heat reasonably low, and then to increase it towards the end of the cooking time. The result should be soft, floury insides and sandy outsides.

We also served the fish with the newly-cultivated vegetable called kalettes. At least, kalettes has been the registered trademark since last year. They have been grown for three or four years in Lincolnshire and when we first encountered them they were called something different. They are grown like sprouts on a stalk, but they don’t form into sprouts and so each ‘sprouting’ is like a tiny bunch of kale. They have something of the flavour of sprouts, but with the texture, including a little  stalk, of kale. They’re just that bit different. I briefly steam them, before sautéing in olive oil for just two or three minutes with finely-chopped garlic. I usually add finely-chopped rosemary to braised greens, but it was unnecessary with the kalettes and I’ll omit it next time. Just before serving, I drizzle with a touch more olive oil.

Toblerone Mousse

For desert, Tuula made Toblerone mousse using a recipe from an old Good Housekeeping Christmas magazine. It’s a great variation on chocolate mousse because it’s so unmistakably Toblerone – both the taste and the little crispy hints of honeyed nougat and almond. This meant we came across for the first time the new Toblerone, with its extra-wide spacing, which is of course nothing to do with Brexit and the weakness of Sterling… It looks ridiculous and more reminiscent of a piece of machinery – some sort of ratchet component – than Toblerone’s traditional image of the Swiss Alps. But the lovely mousse didn’t seem to suffer.

And there we have it. Our first 2017 guest during meat-free January.



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