pasta - 2Confession: I am not that into pasta. I can’t really put my finger on why, but it really just doesn’t get me excited about dinner. But my reality is that I feed kids every single night and they do get to weigh in on the weekly menu plan. Also, I am really fond of my sanity and what can possibly be easier than pasta?

Read More →

ugly tomahtoI am a fair weather tomato fan, and I mean that in the best way. I just think that the sad, cottony, flavorless orbs on offer in winter are simply not worth the trouble. I have learned to make due with grape tomatoes for the kids’ snacking and I am fine with tinned Romas for sauces. But I will never just buy a tomato from a grocery store in the winter and put it on a sandwich or a salad or anyplace else.

Flip the calendar to summer and I can’t get enough. All shapes, sizes and colors get thrown into salads, pasta, rice, eggs. Tomato sandwiches on toast with salt pepper and mayo? Perfection.

tomatoes, feta, arugula, basil, olive oil and sea saltThis salad is also perfection for me. Read More →

Maybe it is the fact that the sun finally arrived.  Maybe it is the fact that Spring vegetables are beginning to show up at the market.  Maybe it is just that I have enough time to finally sit down and write a blog post.  Whatever it is, it is good.  And I know it isn’t just me because I just finished an amazing Saturday on Portobello Road making lovely food from fruits and vegetables that we bought from Portobello & Golborne Markets.  Three lovely women from Leiths joined me and the crowds were happy and social and enjoying the day and the market.

  Read More →

 

Our first visit to Portobello Market was shortly after we moved to London. I hadn’t settled in yet and felt very much like a tourist. And, like tourists from all over the world, I loved it.  It is huge (long, more accurately) and changes with every block.   It is colorful and vibrant and diverse and fun. There is a reason it is one of the most visited markets in the world. Read More →


I am a city girl.  Raised in Washington, D.C. A bit Northern, a bit Southern.  But definitely a city girl.  My mother was my first cooking teacher.  She knows nearly everything there is to know.  Seriously.  She grew up in New Orleans, and this culinary perspective permeated our home meals and has dramatically influenced my taste in food.  Mom is also a city girl, but was very close to her many many relatives who live in the rural (read: swampy) areas beyond Orleans Parish.  My mom is adventurous.  She is old-fashioned and cutting-edge, classical and alterntive, traditional and iconoclastic.  She is one of the most interesting people I know.  She also enjoys my reports of exotic, innovative, historic, divine or awful food discoveries more than anyone.  She is also my resource of first resort for cooking questions.

What follows is a recent email exchange with mom.  I really love the hell out of her.

*     *     *     *     *

From: ME

To: MOM

This morning at the farmers market they had live prawns!  Live wiggly little shrimp!  They were so freaky.  I saw them selling the last ones.  Next week I will get there EARLY!

*     *     *     *     *

From: MOM

To: ME

“Prawns”  Bless your little “British” Heart.  When we used to catch shrimp, we would eat them as is.  Raw.  Cajun sashimi?  Amazing taste of the sea.  Try one if you manage to catch some at the market next week.

*     *     *     *     *

From: ME

To: MOM

Did you just pop them in your mouth?  YIKES!

*     *     *     *     *

From: MOM

To: ME

We used to peel the raw shrimp if they were big. Sometimes we caught tiny ones and just decapitated them before popping them into our mouths.  Tiny, tiny river shrimp were so sweet and the shells were so soft as to be almost non-existent.

Fifty or sixty years ago, shrimp were so plentiful in Lake Pontchartrain that we would catch them with throw nets from the seawall on Lakeshore Drive only a mile or two from your grandparents house.  We’d go out with their friends Josie and Adolph in the evening, set lanterns on the seawall to attract the shrimp, and catch buckets of them. Mama would pack a picnic supper and we’d have a grand time. The breeze off the Lake kept the Mosquitos from eating us alive – and of course they were still spraying with DDT.

*     *     *     *     *

Last Saturday, my in-laws were in town.  My mother-in-law and I got up early and got to the Notting Hill Farmers Market at 8:30.  None of the stalls are allowed to do any business until 9am but we were already the 4th people in the queue at the Christchurch Fish stall.  By the time the market manager rang the bell, there were another 15 people behind us.  There weren’t many prawns that day, and my heart broke a little as each person ahead of me took some home.  But they lasted just long enough, and we bought the last half kilo.  Unsure of my mother’s “cooking” instructions, I asked the fisherman how to prepare them. “I put them in a pan with a little oil and just fry them up.”  As simple as that.

When lunchtime rolled around, we pulled the shrimp (and cockles and mussels) out of the fridge for a visit.  In case you have never seen a live shrimp (I hadn’t), here is news: they jump.  They can jump out of a colander.  They can jump out of the sink.  But don’t worry.  If your dog is anything like mine, you won’t have to chase them around the kitchen.  She’ll just gobble them up.  And really enjoy it.  Yes, my house is a circus.

Trusting the fishmonger over my mother this time, the shrimp went in a skillet of hot butter (and a lid, just in case they were still jumpy) until they were red and firm.  I finished them with salt and smoked paprika.  We all gathered round the table and ate them with baguette (for sopping up the butter) and loads of napkins.  London meets New Orleans for a beautiful family lunch.

My mom is coming to London for Christmas.  I really hope Christchurch has prawns that weekend.  They were good, but not quite the same without her.

A bonus photo of the stowaways that were tangled up in the mussel beards.  They were live, but too small to eat.

I suspect that the Month of Shellfish is about to transition abruptly into the Autumn of Insanely Busy (more on that later). Before that happens, I had to make sure we got one last batch of cockles in.  I am really quite madly in love with these little suckers.  My dad asked me the difference between cockles and clams.  I wasn’t able to find a consistent answer, but it seems that “clams” can be used quite broadly to include all bivalves except for oysters, mussels and scallops.  Cockles are a subset of clams — fair to say that all cockles are clams but not all clams are cockles.  Is it a meaningless distinction?  Not to me.

Cockles are commonly served as a bar snack here in the UK.  I’d say they taste like a marriage of clams and mussels.  They are easy to cook and we’ve been enjoying our weekly pot of bivalves while the Fours have their dinner.  The best of both worlds — dinner with the kids followed by a proper adult meal once they’ve gone to bed.

silver bells and cockle shells
(the wine, La Clochette, was a coincidence I only noticed after the fact)

After a month of experiments, I’ve settled on this treatment for my molluscs.  I start a pot of water to boil with a sliced up lemon, peppercorns, bay leaves, salt.  Depending on what I have around, I may throw in other herbs or seaweed or a slosh of wine.  I simmer this (5-30 minutes) while I do other things.  When I finally remember the simmering liquid, I toss in the cockles (or clams or mussels) and let them boil for 3-4 minutes (or until they are all opened) and drain them.



Yes, there are more sophisticated preparations.  Yes, I made this up and am probably doing something wrong.  But, if this is wrong, I am not sure I need to be right.  My family devours these so quickly that I would be annoyed if they were any harder to make.  The Fours like to use one empty shell to grab the next little cockle.  They also like to make them talk and put on little cockle conversations during dinner.

I intended to take my camera to the market this morning but I woke up with a headache and was panicked that I was going to miss the good selection at the fish stall.  I did remember the dog and my wheeled bag, which earned its keep today.  Apples, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks — all gorgeous.  But most importantly, I was on a quest for more cockles.  When the 4 year-old eaters in the house request cockles (!), I don’t argue.  Sadly, there were no cockles today and I came home with clams and a cuttlefish instead.  The small eaters liked the clams, but declared that they weren’t as good as the cockles.  Better luck next week?  Or am I going to be chasing ghosts all winter?  I forgot to ask whether they were done for the season.

Also, I really like saying cockles.

 

So about that cuttlefish. My trusted fishmonger promised me that I just had to cut it open here, scoop the guts out and that the little sucker would be good to go. I finally got around to pulling our cuttley little friend out of the fridge before dinner, and… let’s just say this was one of the few times when I have had absolutely no idea what to do with the crazy thing I had lugged home.

What are you looking at?

The body was unexpectedly (and confusingly) hard. There was no obvious place to snip as Obi Wan Fish Guy had led me to believe. So, I resorted to Google and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  These instructions got it done, though I know my food background is somewhat pedestrian when I am humbled by instructions like “the bony ball of mouthparts can be squeezed out in much the same way as you would a squid.” Riiiight. Luckily, it turns out that if one squeezes what appears to be the mouth of a cuttlefish, it does indeed spit out a bony little ball of mouthparts.  Who knew?

Hugh (based on one meeting, I can call him by his first name, right?) notes that “it can be tricky to locate the ink sac among the rest of the messy, soft innards.”  Indeed:

I think I was meant to snip it out cleanly and reserve it for some elegant squid ink stained dish.  Better luck next time.

Now I will admit that the cuttlefish wasn’t a complete lark.  Last week I made a huge batch of chickpeas and had been looking for a seafood pairing for them. I came across a recipe by  Micheal Psilakis for octopus and chickpea confit salad, so the cuttlefish was perfect.

finished chickpea confit

Last night, I made the confit out of my pre-cooked chickpeas.  It was easy and transformed the chickpeas into a rich, buttery base for the cuttlefish.  Better still, I love how make-ahead components simplify assembly of an otherwise complicated dish.  All that was left to do tonight was clean and sear the cuttlefish.  Considering the cleaning was 20x more complicated than I was led to believe, I was so grateful that my chickpeas were done.  And that my husband had brought home a lovely bottle of red wine.  The end result was, thankfully, lovely.  Really, really lovely.  Thanks, fishguy, Hugh, MP… and lots of good handsoap.

Michael Psilakis Chickpea and Octopus (or Cuttlefish) Salad