Last weekend was another of those food milestones that mark the year’s progress: the first English peas. And the crop from Puntarelle in Bermondsey Spa Terminus was great – plumper than expected for this early in the season, but sweet as they should be. I had to stop myself popping as many into me as into the bowl during podding.
To celebrate, we cooked two dishes that put peas to the fore. One presented itself when Risi e Bisi was the feature of Felicity Cloake’s ‘How to Cook the Perfect…’ column in The Guardian just a few days earlier. The other was a new (for us) dish for us from Rick Stein, full of the flavours of the season. Both are what I think of as weekend dishes – although neither is particularly time-consuming (except that for the rice you need up to an hour for the stock to infuse and reduce).
Risi e Bisi
I haven’t cooked a lot from Felicity Cloake’s column, although I sometimes save the recipes to return to, but this one was, by design, perfect timing. If you haven’t come across the column, the concept is that Felicity tests recipes for the same dish by several different chefs or writers and takes the best bits to create her own composite. It is always interesting to see how recipes differ, sometimes reflecting their era and the availability of ingredients, and to recognise the way chefs introduce their own trademarks.
The risi e bisi recipe that Felicity came up with was a hit with us. It resulted from her trying out recipes from Marcella Hazan, Russell Norman, Katie Caldesi and, of course, Elizabeth David and Nigella Lawson.
The link is to the column and the recipe, so I won’t repeat that here, but it’s worth making a few additional points:
- In my view, this has to be made with fresh peas because at least some of the early summer flavours come from the pea pod stock. And podding a kilo of peas can be therapeutic! Nigella’s alternative suggestion is to use frozen peas and to puree them. That might well be worth trying when peas are out of season, but my guess is that the flavour and the texture will be very different.
- You do need to stir regularly, although not as often as with a risotto. Since the intention is to end up with a soupy dish, it seemed intuitive to me to add each new ladleful of stock a little before the previous addition had been fully absorbed. I’ve no idea if this makes a difference, but it made me think that I was making something soupier than risotto.
- Felicity says that Venetian vialone nano rice is the best, and produces a creamier texture. I’ll have to take her word for that (this is, I realise, the point of her column!) because I used carnaroli, which seemed fine.
- I used smoked streaky bacon rather than pancetta, cutting it into thin strips. This may have made the dish too smoky for some tastes, but we liked it.
- I went with the Russell Norman/Nigella option of garnishing with chopped mint, rather than parsley. I am not sure I would do that again, although the match with the peas is obvious. Having said that, I was using some slightly tough mint, which may have produced a less favourable result.
- The quantities in the recipe did for two handsome starters and there was enough left for a couple of lunches. Since I hadn’t used all the stock, I reserved the remainder to use when reheating the lunch portions. I could therefore retain some of the flavour and the soupiness. It was a better day-after dish than a risotto.
We have a few months of peas ahead. At least in the first part of the season, while the peas remain young and sweet, there’s no reason not to make risi e bisi with fresh peas – and I thoroughly recommend Felicity Cloake’s version.
Braised Monkfish with Lettuce, Peas and Smoked Bacon
This is a variation of a dish from Rick Stein’s Fish and Shellfish (which may well mean a version was in one of his earlier books). Even more than the risi e bisi, it’s a dish of the late spring/early summer. The plump, sweet peas are an important part of that, as is the lettuce, and we were also able to get some nice, fat salad onions, rather than the more common thin straight spring onions. They added to the seasonal flavour.
Rick Stein makes the dish with ling but we went with monkfish instead – from the ever-excellent Sussex Fish at Borough Market. We had a big slice from the upper end of the tail, which yielded two chunky pieces when taken off the bone. Rick suggests John Dory and even Dover Sole as other options, and I imagine any firm-fleshed fish would work.
Since the recipe is not up on an original site – although, like me, some other bloggers have posted it – I have included it in full below, with tweaks to reflect the ingredients I used and slight differences in technique. A few points:
- I exactly halved Rick Stein’s ingredients to give a main course for two.
- As with the risi e bisi, I used smoked streaky bacon rather than Rick’s suggested pancetta. This may not have looked so attractive – I can picture the crispy pancetta resting more nonchalantly against the fish – but the smoky flavours were good.
- I am not sure that I would make this with frozen peas. I suspect they could be a bit lost and you would certainly miss the firmer texture of freshly-podded peas.
- It took me longer to reduce the sauce than the recipe’s suggested 3-4 minutes (step 3) – probably more like 7 or 8 minutes. The lesson would seem to be that this needs to be done on a really vigorous simmer, and therefore I have kept to 3-4 minutes in the recipe
- The fish braises on top of the vegetables and sauce and the cooking time will therefore vary according to the size of the fish. Rick Stein suggests 7-8 minutes for ling, while I added a minute or so more for our sizeable monkfish pieces and (perhaps more by luck than judgement) that was pretty much spot on. The beauty of braising monkfish is that the fish absorbs some of the spring-summer flavours of the vegetables.
- I added parsley at the end. The recipe suggests chervil as a possibility, which I am sure would have worked well too. A little tarragon might be another interesting option.
This could easily be served without any accompaniment but, it being the time of year, we had some minted Jerseys alongside.
This really is a seasonal dish. I heartily recommend it. Full recipe below.
Recipe: Braised Monkfish with Lettuce, Peas and Smoked Bacon
To serve two (half the original Rick Stein recipe ingredients, which were to serve four).
- 2 pieces of thick monkfish, off the bone and skinned (the original recipe is for ling and suggests 200g per person)
- 50ml chicken stock
- 50g butter
- 6 salad onions, trimmed and cut into 2cm pieces
- 2 little gem lettuce hearts, cut into quarters
- 175g fresh peas (400g or so when still in their pods)
- 3 thin rashers of smoked streaky bacon, rinds removed and each rasher halved
- 1 scant tbsp chopped parsley or chervil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper (the original recipe specifies white pepper)
- Season the pieces of fish with some salt. Warm the chicken stock – there’s not much of it so take care not to let it reduce (you could start off with a little more to allow for this).
- Melt half the butter in a wide, shallow pan with a lid, add the onions and cook gently for 2-3 minutes, until tender but not browned. Add the lettuce and turn over once or twice in the butter.
- Add the peas, warm chicken stock and some salt and pepper and simmer rapidly for 3-4 minutes, turning the lettuce hearts now and then, until the vegetables have started to soften and about three-quarters of the liquid has evaporated.
- Put the pieces of monkfish on top of the vegetables, cover the pan with a lid and simmer for 8-9 minutes, until the fish is cooked through (a little less for smaller pieces of fish).
- Shortly before the fish is cooked, heat a ridged cast-iron griddle over a high heat and grill the bacon for a minute or two on each side, until crisp and golden. Keep warm.
- Uncover the casserole dish, dot the remaining butter around the pan and sprinkle the chopped parsley (or chervil) over the vegetables. Shake the pan until the butter has melted and amalgamated with the cooking juices to make a sauce. Serve the fish on top of the vegetables and sauce, garnished with the grilled bacon.