Bloke in the Kitchen. Chemical assistance

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Degrees of cheating II

It sometimes seems as though the food purveyors of the 21st century are determined that we should all be overweight, with high blood pressure and blood sugar .

Those of us who like to eat a healthy diet without going down one of the extreme routes (raw, vegan, low-carb etc.) can see what appears to be a healthy option on a menu, but when it appears in front of us it’s been tampered with, spiked with things we don’t want but which the providers think we secretly do.

cheat food 1
Boiled eggs, green leaves, tomatoes, a bit of this, a bit of that and an oil and vinegar dressing. All your own work, no hidden bad stuff and a easy as pie (easier, in fact)

One of the best salads I have ever had was a mountain of green leaves served in what looked like a chamber pot. It was exactly what I was in the mood for (serving vessel excepted): the kind of meal that makes you feel good as you eat because you can imagine it doing you good.

Try that in a fast food restaurant and it will come with croutons (i.e. fried bread) and bacon bits (i.e. salt and fat), with a bottled dressing that tastes great but contains who-knows-what. This is a form of cheating that insults our intelligence. We have decided that we’re not going to have the burger and the bun and the fries and the ketchup or the fried chicken with the fat that runs up our sleeves. We know the result will be short on the sort of excitement, comfort or whatever people experience with a  load of hot fat and starch. But these people don’t take us seriously.  It’s like asking for an alcohol-free cocktail but receiving something with a little vodka and a splash of Grand Marnier because we can’t be permitted to miss out on the fun.

Help yourself to a mound of vegetables in a Chinese restaurant and you will more than likely be ingesting monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that has bothered people since its introduction more than 100 years ago. While what we know simply as salt – sodium chloride – has the very well documented result of raising blood pressure (which in most cases is a bad thing), MSG is a bit of a mystery. On the plus side is its undeniable capacity to make things taste more appealing, adding a sort of savoury flavour that is known as umami, it also produces a wide array of symptoms in some people which others may experience to a lesser degree and just describe as generally “feeling a bit weird”.

As the cook in charge of our kitchen, it is our choice whether we use these things, in moderation or at all.

While it would be unreasonable in many cases to not use salt, it’s important to know what needs it (from a flavor point of view) and what doesn’t. A plate with a lot of vegetables, for example, needs a bit of help. If you want to enjoy a muscular dollop of spinach you will need to liven it up with a sprinkling of salt or a small chunk of butter.

Something that recently came out of the sea, on the other hand, needs no such assistance, so your grilled or lightly fried fillet of mackerel benefits just from a squeeze of lemon juice.

You may find that what you prepare doesn’t quite match up to what you are served in a restaurant, but if that is because it doesn’t contain the volume of salt, sugar or whatever, it’s your choice: go against your principles or serve it as you want it to be.

cheat food 2
Nip down the shops and get what? That won’t be necessary, friend.

As for bacon, while it is undeniably one of the stars of the breakfast plate, to throw it into every meaty dish you make is to throw in fat and salt, so it’s worth thinking about that. Similarly, if you add complexity to a stew or some other multi-ingredient dish (curry, chilli etc.) by adding Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, mustard or whatever fancy condiment caught your eye when you went shopping, bear in mind that they all contain salt, so you don’t need to automatically chuck a handful of that in too.

MSG? The simple answer is: don’t do it. Try harder in other ways. Better raw ingredients. Marinate it. Cook it longer. Cook it quicker, whatever it needs. There is nothing traditional about MSG. It’s a modern phenomenon that may eventually be discredited and abandoned.

Proper cooking – making things ourselves, rather than using ready-made dishes – is seen by some as making work for ourselves, and sometimes after a busy day it is a relief to stick a frozen pizza in the oven and switch off. But there is a lot of satisfaction to be had from doing it yourself. And if it doesn’t taste quite like a professional’s version, maybe that’s because they’re cheating and you’re not.

 

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Degrees of cheating

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Regular readers will know that this blog is not about fine food and intricate recipes. It’s about being able to put a decent meal on the table for yourself, your family and your friends. It’s really a branch of the do-it-yourself advice which shows you how to wire a plug, fix a dripping tap or put up some curtain poles. It’s about not being reliant on other people to provide basic services.

With food, though, there is any number of shortcuts, a huge array of ready-made options in the shops, takeaway Chinese and Indian food, pizzas, chip shops, fried chicken places and so on.

So why bother to do it yourself? Three reasons.

  1. It’s cheaper
  2. If you made it, you know what’s in it
  3. It’s the natural thing to do and there is a feeling of satisfaction about it.

In all the recipes we have looked at over the last year or so, not one has contained anything expensive, not one has been difficult and not one has been time-consuming.

They don’t contain hidden quantities of salt, fat or chemical additives that might be tomorrow’s health-scare headlines.

It amazes me that the best customers of the takeaway food joints seem to be low-income families. It astounds me that you see unhealthy-looking physical specimens adding to their woes by the crap they’re eating (and washing it down with sugary fizzy drinks).

It saddens me to hear people almost proudly saying they can’t cook. It makes me wonder what other elementary human skills they have yet to master and in fact have no intention of mastering.

And yet it is they who need the help most, so today we’re going to look at ways to make their life easier.

One thing that even professional chefs will grant the rest of us is permission to use ready-made pastry. That means we’re going to be making pies and suchlike, which are often synonymous with excessive calories and salt, but if it gets someone in the kitchen like a novice with a self-assembly wardrobe because he is clearly not going to be making his own from scratch, then fine.

Similarly, there are jars of pasta sauce, so all you have to do is boil the pasta, heat this stuff and pour it on.

The world is full of curry powder and paste, so all you have to do is supply some cooked meat or defrosted prawns and, again, apply heat, mix and serve – once you’ve mastered the art of boiling some rice, that is.

cheating 1
This one even lists the ingredients, so why not make it yourself?

This is the one that gets my goat, as it happens. What could be easier than throwing a few spices into a pan yourself and creating a taste over which you have some control?

When I lived in Tobago, little sister island of Trinidad, I was writing some features for a tourist magazine and one of the subjects I was given was a local speciality, curry crab (they don’t say “curried”).

There’s a place by a popular beach with a cluster of curry crab cabins, so I went there and found a legendary woman who had been making this for decades, as did her mother before her and so on. I asked her what the main ingredients were. “Well, curry powder,” she began, and I missed the rest of it because I was so disappointed that she was not really doing it herself after all.

Perhaps I was 100 years too late and really needed to have gone there before mass production and ease of distribution made it so easy to be lazy.

It’s a similar story in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a relatively unspoilt group south of the Bahamas. Their speciality? If, like me, you were hoping for something exotic involving their legendary big pink-shelled seafood, conch,  or coconuts or some root vegetable we’ve never heard of, you would have been as dismayed as I was. The national dish is macaroni cheese. And not even home-made, but shop-bought packet garbage. For a special occasion, eating out, many would go for fried chicken.

It is the reverse of the old Crocodile Dundee line, where the veteran bushman is extolling the virtues of eating a certain type of beetle. “You can live on it. But it tastes like sh*t.” In this case it would be, “It tastes great. No nutritional value, but the carbohydrates might just keep you alive.”

cheating 2

So here, for the benefit of the absolute novice who is almost too lazy to breathe and doesn’t really want to go to the trouble of chewing food, is this week’s recipe. Buy a packet of dried noodles, the type with some “flavor” already in them. Boil some water and soak the noodles in it until they’re soft.

Slurp it down and collapse into your armchair with a bright green soft drink. And good luck to you.

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Tropical chicken stew

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

It is very easy to get into a rut with our cooking, churning out the same old stuff week after week because we know how to do it and we know people like it, but it can get predictable.

One way to freshen things up without overtaxing the brain is to do similar things with different ingredients.

For instance, chuck a bit of meat in a casserole dish with some carrots and potatoes, add a stock cube and some water and you’re making a stew.

But if you use chicken and some less common vegetables, it’s just as easy but tastes completely different. Tropical vegetables are easy to find in most places these days, and people don’t use them because they don’t know what to do with them.

Today we’re going to make a tropical chicken stew with aubergines, okra and plantain.

Tropical veg
Fresh from my garden in the tropics? No, but photographed there

Aubergines, the smooth, shiny purple things also known as eggplant, are a doddle. Cut off the green bit where the stalk is, cut them up and they’re ready to go. We used to be told to lay salt on them to remove the bitterness, but I don’t find them bitter at all. They’re not fantastically flavourful, in fact, but they add texture.

The same is true of okra, which some may find a bit slimy when you have them as a bindi bhaji. In a stew, though, they make it succulent.

Plantains, the macho big brother of the banana, can be cooked when they are still green (we did that months ago as the Venezuelan dish tostones). As they ripen they get sweeter and when they’re very ripe and you fry them they are very much like bananas, funnily enough. For this recipe we’re going to use them in a medium state, on the verge of turning yellow but nowhere near the black state (at which they are still perfectly edible, by the way).

INGREDIENTS

Chicken thighs or drumsticks

One large aubergine, sliced crossways into half-inch rounds

Half a dozen okra, chopped into half-inch pieces

One large or several small plantains cut in half lengthways and into chunks

One green pepper, chopped

Onions, sliced

Root ginger, not grated but chopped into small cubes

Chicken stock

Soy sauce

Chilli powder

METHOD

Marinate the chicken in soy sauce and garlic for at least one hour.

Fry the chicken quickly just to seal it, and sprinkle a little chilli powder on it.

In the same pan, put the plantain in first and give it a minute or two on its own, then do the remaining ingredients – you will probably have to do them one at a time.

Put all the vegetables and the chicken into a casserole dish and add half a pint of chicken stock plus a splash of red wine and a sprinkling of celery salt (not too much).

Cook in a medium hot oven for two hours, checking occasionally. If it is drying out, add more stock and wine. When it’s ready, squeeze some lime or lemon juice over it

Trop stew
And as the tropical shadows fall across the dining table, dinner is served. I used boneless pieces of chicken this time

VARIATIONS

The plantain provides the carbohydrates, but by all means use potatoes or sweet potatoes for bulk – or mash and serve separately. You could also use yam, dasheen, cassava or one of the other tropical root vegetables, peeled and chopped.

Spice it up with some sort of hot sauce if you like. Chefs in the Caribbean often use white vinegar to liven up this sort of thing. Try a dash and see if you like it.

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Coping with vegetarians

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

A couple of years ago my wife and I were living on a small island in the Caribbean where there was a transient population of expats. A few days before Christmas we met an American couple who had just arrived, didn’t know anyone and were living in a holiday apartment. We already had a few people coming for Christmas lunch but there was a nice big turkey in the freezer, so we invited them too.

I’m the designated Christmas lunch cook, purely because I’m British and therefore am assumed to be an expert in the art of roasting a bird and some potatoes, not to mention making some stuffing and a nice gravy. My wife is Venezuelan and an excellent cook, but roast turkey – and even more so roast potatoes – are outside her sphere of expertise.

I was given the role several years ago and have successfully pulled it off for a houseful of South Americans several times. It’s actually an absurdly simple meal to prepare, but, to adapt an old saying, there really are no difficult questions  – just questions we don’t know the answer to. Whatever; as they say in the playground, “I ain’t scared”.

This new couple were one of those classic combinations: friendly, chatty woman with rather intense, serious, businessman husband. They arrived on time with two bottles of wine: so far so good. Caribbean people are not famous for their punctuality, and two of our other guests wouldn’t turn up until four o’clock although they knew we were eating at 1pm. That’s their problem.

The others arrived nice and early too, and the aperitifs flowed and everyone was relaxed. When I announced that I was going to check on the turkey, Mr Intense suddenly piped up. “I’m vegetarian.”

Resisting the temptation to pin him up against the wall and ask why he hadn’t ****ing told me this in advance, I frantically tried to think of options.

“It’s no problem” he said. “I’ll just have the vegetables.”

He may have been trying to do the right thing and stop me feeling that one of my guests was going to be let down, but even if I did just give him vegetables, there would have to be some gravy, and I couldn’t make it with the juices from the roasting pan.

So I knocked something up with a spoonful of Marmite and some tomato puree. A splash of red wine. Worcestershire sauce. And some black pepper and a sprinkling of cumin powder. Nothing worked. It was edible but it wasn’t good.

I gave the man a big plate of roast potatoes, broccoli, carrots and the butternut squash I had cooked as usual along with the turkey – peel it, slice it, put it in the pan with  about 90 minutes to go and forget about it. So the vegetables were pretty good, and I had something hot and brown to pour over them. I served it up and he ate some of it, but it was probably the worst Christmas lunch he had ever had; it was certainly the worst I have ever inflicted on someone.

If I had known in advance I would probably have tried to get some giant mushrooms and treated them like meat, frying them in butter with some crushed garlic. I’ve done that before for veggies and it went down well.

But that is the mistake we carnivores make: we try to use non-meat items in a meaty way.

vegetarian 2
Pasta with quickly-cooked broccoli and parmesan: dead easy and covers all the bases from carbs to protein She doesn’t eat cheese? Stall them for five minutes and I’ll scrape it off

Non-meat mince, usually made with soya, is better now than it was a few years back, so you can do your Bolognese or your chilli or shepherds pie, but sometimes using something as a meat substitute just doesn’t work.

My advice if you have a vegetarian in the family is to get them involved.  They have experience of this and you don’t. So get them to come up with some ideas – things they have eaten in restaurants or at other people’s houses. You’ll get the hang of it in the end, but at first you’re a guitarist being asked to play the piano. So stand up for yourself. Do your best and do it with love, but don’t pretend you’re suddenly an expert.

And don’t be made to feel bad. Like it or not, vegetarians are very much in the minority, and to expect the rest of the world to have lot of tricks up their sleeve especially for them is at best unrealistic and at worst arrogant.

If they will eat fish, that’s not so much of a problem. There’s plenty you can do with a can of tuna (fish cakes, salads with rice or pasta) or some prawns and other seafood (curry, paella, Italian stuff with a can of tomatoes and some herbs).

But if you’ve got someone who tells you he or she doesn’t eat anything with a face, or one of those other remarks that make you feel like some bloodthirsty caveman, you’ve got some learning to do. And you are entitled to take the time to do it.

Bloke in the Kitchen. Bean jar

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

The bean is not one of the aristocrats of the food world. It’s a worker, a foot soldier, doing a valuable job in its unglamorous way. It’s nutritious, satisfying and easy to use.

So what exactly is a bean? According to the dictionaries, it is a seed that grows in a pod. That’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Seeds are what enable a plant to reproduce, and usually it’s the fruit in which they come that we’re interested in. But in this case, we rarely eat the actual pods (green beans, runner beans etc. being obvious exceptions. With most beans, it is them that we eat, and therefore their reproductive function is purely to make more of themselves. Almost a selfish existence, you might say.

beanjar 3

Be that as it may, there are plenty of ways to eat beans, and we’re going to look at just a few.

Chilli con carne is an obvious one, the red kidney beans somehow perfectly suited to being cooked with minced beef, onions and chilli powder or fresh chillies. We’ve featured that already, many months ago, but you can still find the recipe on this site.

Black beans have appeared here twice, once with the Venezuelan corn breads, arepas, and again as part of an Aztec salad – so that’s once hot and once cold, which emphasizes the bean’s versatility. If you buy them dried, they will need to be soaked and cooked, but that’s hardly rocket science, and most of them come pre-cooked in cans anyway.

I’m particularly fond of black-eyed beans, which work well in stews or even mashed up and fried with onions and a few herbs, a bit like fish cakes, but can also be eaten cold as part of a bean salad.

In Africa the brown bean is popular because it’s cheap, versatile and easy, which is what beans in general are all about.

And then there are haricot beans, known in some countries as navy beans.

The national dish where I come from is called beanjar, and it’s nothing more than a bean stew with some cheap meat cooked in it. There are variations of this all over the world, but Guernsey Bean jar is as good as any, so here is how you do it.

beanjar 1

INGREDIENTS

1 pigs trotter (or some other very cheap meat)
1lb haricot beans
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
1 bay leaf
2 pints beef stock

METHOD

Since this is going to be cooking for a long time, use dried beans, because precooked ones can become too mushy. Soak the dried beans overnight.

Put all the ingredients in a large earthenware pot or casserole dish.

Cook it in the oven on a low-medium heat for a long time – several hours.

If that sounds a bit unscientific, consider this: my grandma lived opposite a bakery and she, like many women in the area, had an arrangement with the bakers. Since the ovens in which the bread was baked were always hot but not always in use, the women would take their bean jars there in the evening, to be put in the oven until it was time to start making bread. When the women went back in the morning to collect their pots, the beans, meat and stock had been cuddling all night and had melded into a delicious meal for the family.

beanjar 2
This is how famous bean jar is in Guernsey. Artwork by twodegreesnorth

VARIATIONS

Some people use butter beans, 50-50 with the haricots. Black-eyed beans would also do the job.  As stated in the recipe, although a pig’s trotter is traditional, some other humble cut would also work: shin of beef, even cowheel (although you might not get a lot of meat to eat, just flavour).

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Simple seafood

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

seafood 2

Seafood is one of nature’s delights. Much of it comes in little, bite-size pieces, cooks in no time and is endlessly versatile.

The exceptions to that are octopus and squid, so we will leave them out this time.

For this recipe we’re going to use prawns (shrimp if you’re speaking American) and scallops, if you can find some.

In restaurants nowadays you often find prawns with the tail shell still on, or even completely shell-on, and one reason for that is that they shrink and the shell helps them retain their size and shape.

But it’s a faff, as we say in the UK, taking the shells off when they’re hot and covered in oily sauce.

The alternative is to cook them very quickly. Just look at them: small and thin and fairly soft You can cook them in seconds, and that’s what we’re going to do

seafood 5
Scallops with the roe…
seafood 4
…and without

INGREDIENTS

Large shelled prawns /shrimp, raw or cooked, defrosted

Scallops (and don’t get rid of the orange part – it’s the roe, sometimes known as coral, and it’s fine to eat – very tasty.

One or two large fresh tomatoes

Fresh chilli pepper

Garlic

Chives

Fresh ginger

Lemon zest

Cilantro

METHOD

Heat a little butter in a good, heavy frying pan.

Add the chopped chili, grated garlic, chopped chives and grated ginger

Cut tomatoes in half and grate them (yes, grate them) into the pan

Just give this a minute on a fairly low heat. You’re not really cooking anything, but combining it and bringing out the flavour.

Add the scallops

Throw in the prawns, turn the heat up to medium and let them sizzle.

If they’re already cooked, all you want to do is warm them.

If they’re raw, give them a minute or so, until they lose their transparent look.

Grate in some lemon zest and squeeze in a little juice

When it’s hot, chop some cilantro or parsley and throw that in. It just gives some extra freshness to the dish.

Serve with rice, noodles or even spaghetti.

It’s light and fresh-tasting, with the citrus and herbs sparkling along with the natural salty sea flavour.

seafood 1
And it should look something like this

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Chilled cucumber soup

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

There is a question that has not troubled many of the world’s intellectuals but which I am going to address here: what is soup?  Dictionary definitions tell us that a soup is a liquid food made by boiling meat and/or vegetables, and of course that is usually the case.

But why do we have to involve heat in this?  At the risk of putting a curse on the hot summer the UK has been experiencing, the last thing you need when the weather is like that is something to warm you up, which is one of soup’s traditional roles. Why shouldn’t we make soup without heat?

It’s like saying that making a salad is not cooking; we associate cooking with heat that changes the natural state of something. But to prepare a combination of vegetables and olives, peppers and so on is to make a meal, and that is the object of the exercise.

Chilled soups are called chilled rather than cold because chilled sounds more appetizing than cold. We looked at a quick and easy tomato-based gazpacho a few weeks ago, and today it is the turn of that other salad staple, the cucumber.

To describe this recipe as simple is like saying Marilyn Monroe was quite attractive or The Beatles were fairly good. This recipe is a piece of cake. As long as you have the right ingredients and an electric blender, you can do it.

One great thing about soup is that it feels like it’s doing you good, and it probably is. When using raw ingredients as we are here, it’s doubly good. Vitamins, minerals, hydration: it’s like an injection of liquid good health.

Cucumber soup

INGREDIENTS

Cucumber (half a large one per person)

Yellow pepper

Spring onion

Stock cube (vegetable or chicken)

Lemon juice

METHOD

Peel your cucumber(s) and scrape the seeds out. If there is plenty of juice with the seeds, see if you can strain that out to use. Chop the cucumber into two-inch pieces and put it in the blender. Crumble the stock cube in. It is important to use a dry cube. If it’s a sticky one, you’ll have to dissolve it in hot water first and cool it, which is okay but takes time. The powdered stuff called boullion is a good option.

Add as much water as you need, bearing in mind that a lot of it needs more cucumber and stock. A few ice cubes would be good too.

Blitz it until the cucumber is liquid.

Chop a yellow pepper into small cubes. Chop the green part of the spring onion into small pieces. Slice some more cucumber thinly for decoration.

If you have time, chill this in the fridge for a while so it’s really cold.

Pour the soup into big bowls and float the cucumber slices. Sprinkle the pepper and spring onions on top.

Serve with nice crusty bread, French or otherwise, and butter.

The peppers are like croutons, something crunchy in the liquid, and the spring onions add a touch of bite to the flavor.

Add some freshly ground black pepper, but no salt, because there will be enough in the stock.

COWBOY TIP/OPTIONS

If you can only get red peppers, that’s fine, but green ones might be a little bitter. If no spring onions, chives would be good. If you have some radishes, you could cube them and they will add a bit more peppery crunch.

This is not the only cucumber soup. You could use melon, prepared like the cucumber, but then you’re in sweet, fruity territory, so don’t use the spring onion. Maybe use cubed apple instead of the peppers.

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Orange and salami salad

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Fruit and savoury things are, in my opinion, best kept apart. In the bad old days of the 1970s, when the British still thought there were only two cuisines – English and French – and that spaghetti came in tins,  it was rare to find a decent menu that didn’t offer duck à l’orange, partridge with blackcurrants or something equally gruesome. You would order it and it was supposed to be sophisticated, so you would flick your long hair away from your moustachioed face, adjust the tight waistband of your flared trousers and get on with it.

So I was highly and pleasantly surprised to discover a combination that actually works. It is served cold, doesn’t cost much and anyone can do it: sliced oranges and salami with olive oil. Use it as a starter or have plenty of it and supplement with a salad of rice, pasta or potato.

Orange and salami
It’s quite small and thin, so you might want to give everyone two or three. Or you could stack them, like a burger

Perhaps the only obstacle this presents is persuading other people that it’s a good idea and you haven’t finally lost your mind. But if you can do that – assuming you have persuaded yourself and agree with me – suddenly a whole new world has opened up and your imagination can break new ground.

So without further ado, the recipe.

INGREDIENTS

Big, juicy oranges

Salami of your choice

Olive oil

Green olives

METHOD

Slice the oranges thinly and cut the peel off if you like (although there is no need).

COWBOY TIP

Don’t peel the orange first and then try to slice it, because it will fall apart and you’ll have a mess  to deal with.

Place a slice of salami in the middle of a plate. Just one if the salami is wider than the orange, or three in a triangle if it is smaller.

Put a slice of orange on top. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and add a little freshly ground black pepper. Not too much, because the pepper can overpower the dish and change it dramatically on your tongue. And don’t add salt, because there is plenty of that in the salami.

For a garnish, do something arty with the olives. If you see a pomegranate on your travels, you can stud the dish with those little gems.

And that’s that. Genius or madman? Your guests will decide.

 

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Picking fresh crab

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

(Up to your eyeballs in) Fresh Crab

Don’t worry, this is not difficult and the instructions are quite brief. But first, I would like to tell you a story. If you just want the recipe, skip down to Ingredients.

When I was a kid, living in Guernsey, my brothers and sister and I went to the beach every day in the summer holidays, and the whole family would spend Sundays down there. Twenty minutes’ walk, seven on a bike, two in a car. When the tides were right we would pass the time shrimping and cockling.

When the tide was down (like many Guernsey people, for me the tide comes up and goes down, not in and out) we would take our shrimping nets and frisk the long seaweed in the shallow pools near the water’s edge. Shove the net in and bring it back slightly raised to catch any shrimps that were hiding in the weed. Put them in a bucket of seawater and when we had collected enough, take them up to where the family was camped.

For the cockles we would take a garden hoe or rake and again just frisk the surface of the sand, a few inches deep, and see if we could find any of the little clams.

When we had the food we would build a little fire from driftwood, sit an old saucepan on it and quickly boil the shrimps and cockles, then eat them with our hands, with some French bread and perhaps a bit of salad.

As the sun went down we would end a long, warm day huddled at the top of the beach, feeling like the Swiss Family Robinson. There might be real life to contend with next day, but for now that didn’t count. The sea was lolling around down on the sand and lapping at the stone pier, and we might get one last swim in before we went home.

crab 1
A Guernsey-style spider crab. It’s one of our ‘things’, along with ormers (abalone to you) and beanjar (sort of pork and beans)

An alternative to this was for my father, an avid skindiver right up to his seventies, to put on his mask, snorkel and flippers and go in search of spider crabs. These are pinky-orange, rounder and knobblier than the smooth, oval, dark red crabs more common in the UK and France. We called those chancres, the French word for crabs, and pronounced shankers.

crab 2
You’ll find these in many supermarkets in the UK, and something similar elsewhere. Lots of meat in those claws

You have to know where to look, because crabs don’t just crawl out of the sea looking for a human being. My Dad showed me where to find them (sorry, that’s a family secret), when (early summer) and at what stage of the tide (fairly low) and I passed the knowledge on to my sons. You pick your way along a rocky promontory, find an easy place to get in the water, swim out a few yards and just float there and look. As the low currents sweep the seaweed around, you might just catch a glimpse of a spider, so down you go, only six to ten feet, take it by the back of its neck and turn it upside down so it stops struggling and folds its legs up. Up to the surface, shove it into the plastic supermarket bag attached to your belt and continue looking until you have enough. And enough means one or two per person.

We found mainly females, which don’t have such big, meaty claws, but they might have the bonus of roe, in little soft lumps or hanging  like bunches of microscopic grapes.

So, if you have fresh crabs and you’re going to cook them, this is how. If yours are ready-cooked, you can skip down to preparation.

INGREDIENTS

Crabs

METHOD

Take a large pan and fill it with enough water to cover the crab. If you have a huge pan you can do more than one at a time, but don’t overcrowd it. They are best cooked the right way up and they  try to climb out as it is.

There are two schools of thought about water temperature: some favour placing the crabs into warm water so they ‘fall asleep’ before it boils. Others get it boiling and then do the deed. This may cause the legs to fall off, but you’re going to be taking them off afterwards anyway.

The meat in a crab is sparse and flaky, so it doesn’t need much cooking. Five minutes or so in boiling water; if it’s a bit bigger, give it a bit longer.

Then take it out using tongs, pliers etc. and leave it to drain and cool.

PREPARATION

If you thought it was strange to see pliers among the utensils, it’s not, because picking crabs can involve a tool box.  Once the crab is cool enough to handle, the first thing to do is break off the claws. They have knuckles every few inches and a joint where they meet the body, and that’s where you wrench them off.

Then with the crab on its back, break the body out of the shell. That means separating the cream-coloured underside where the meat is from the red armour. If you can get a thumb in there, do so, but you will probably need a knife. Force it in at the back or wherever you can around the edge and lever it out.

Make sure there is a roll of kitchen towel on the table and maybe a big bowl of warm water to rinse your fingers in.

You may want to keep the shell to serve the crabmeat in, if you are doing all the work and presenting it to your guests as a fait accompli.

If everybody is going to be involved in the preparation, make sure the table is covered with something disposable and absorbent, such as newspaper pages. And chopping boards or other solid flat surfaces would be good too.

You will need a hammer (with all the tools, obviously give them a good scrub first to make sure they’re clean) and ideally nut crackers. If you have none or only one of them, that’s where the pliers come in.

Clinging to the body is a skirt of pale, soft, fibrous things called dead men’s fingers, which are not edible. Tear them off and discard.

The body is divided into little chambers, each containing some meat. So break it into pieces with your hands or a knife, and get to work scooping the stuff out with a fork, a small knife or any long, narrow object you think will do the job. The prongs that people use to pick up corn on the cob would be good.

By this point in my Dad’s way of doing things there would be a bottle of dry white wine on the go: Muscadet, pinot grigio or something like that.

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This is someone else’s detritus. My table would feature bigger crabs, a hammer and a bottle of wine, but the general idea is the same

When you have got all you can from the body, move on to the legs, Break them at the knuckles and pull off what you can of the exposed strands, then crack them and carefully take off the fragments of shell and pick out the meat.

NOVICE TIP

This is a slow, painstaking process. It’s not like picking a lobster, where you crack it open and there’s a big lump of meat. Here it’s a little at a time. If you’re all doing this together, you can be eating buttered French bread and salady bits at the same time: avocado slices, olives, sticks of carrot and celery, with a mayonnaise and garlic dip – that sort of thing.

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Barbecued seafood with avocado and palm hearts

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

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Shrimps on the barbie: this lot are pretty small, but see what you can find

Seeing actual fish on a barbecue is relatively rare and there is a reason for that. Food tends to stick to the bars on a barbecue and fish is soft, so it is too easy to tear it, break it, and generally make a mess of it. With a nice big steak from some chunky fish such as salmon you might be okay, but other than that it is quite a challenge.

It helps if the bars are shiny and clean, but that means you have to cook the fish first, and anyway, how many of us have the time or inclination to get the thing back to pristine condition? We’ll clean it, yes, scrub it with a scouring pad and maybe take a nostalgic trip down Brillo Pad Lane, but there are likely to be brown spots where it should be gleaming like a lake in a fairy story.

If you’re a real fish fiend and determined to have a go, the best thing is to buy some of those fish-shaped sort of cages. You put a fish inside and close it, and the flesh doesn’t actually touch the barbecue at all. The cage does, and the fish is right next to it, so it cooks but doesn’t stick.

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Fish holders, cages, baskets, contraptions. Whatever you call them, they keep the delicate flesh from sticking to the bars.

The best I can find as a technical term is “fish holder”, so if you’re trying to explain it to the assistant in the shop that sells this kind of thing, you’re going to be doing some descriptive business with your hands.

Alternatively, you could wrap a piece of fish in aluminium foil and slap that on, just as you put it in the oven. A fish fillet, a slice of lemon or some herbs on top, place it on some foil and wrap it up. It won’t have any of the barbecue flavor, but it will cook.

Remember, too, that fish generally takes less time, so however you choose to do it, make sure you don’t overcook it.

Far easier is to use prawns, or some other kind of seafood such as scallops, and because these are relatively small, they are often done on skewers (permanent steel ones or single-use wooden). This means you get kebabs, and you can either make a whole skewer of, say, shrimps, or mix in pieces of pepper or other roastable vegetables.

If you do that, try to make sure the pieces don’t stick out much further than the shrimps or scallops, or they will get burnt before the shrimps are done.

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Cheap disposable barbecue, wooden skewers, some prawns and rings of squid. Elementary, my dear Watson

Squid does pretty well on a barbecue. If you use baby ones, you will need to clean them to get all the gunge out, but once that is done, sling them on the bars for a couple of minutes and they’re ready. For preparation, check out my recipe for Sea-Flavoured Squid: on the homepage, click on the search tool and type squid.

The most important thing to remember when barbecuing anything is that it’s not the smooth, predictable process you find in a good kitchen. Out there you’re thinking on your feet, making it up as you go along and just getting the job done.

Which brings us to the accompaniments. To go with fish there is a great, easy sauce called Chermoula. Click the search tool on the homepage and type chermoula.

Knock up a potato salad. Cut the spuds into chunks and boil them, then cool and drain them and mix in some mayonnaise plus a sprinkling of chopped parsley (mainly for decoration). Don’t be stingy with the mayo. A little salt and pepper and there’s your bulk, your carbohydrates.

You could do something similar with pasta (fusilli, farfalle, penne etc.): cook it, cool it, drain it, add some mayo or even just olive oil and herbs, maybe some diced tomato or cucumber. Radishes, capers… Do what you like: it’s not governed by the Ten Commandments.

As for vegetable salads etc, it is tempting to knock up a standard-issue lettuce-based number, but we all know people only eat a few forkfuls out of a sense of duty.

But if you want to give your guests something they will actually like, here is a fantastic quick salad dish: avocado with palm hearts. It depends on there being some nice ripe avocados available, but let’s assume there are. Any decent supermarket or deli will have cans of palm hearts. They come in a sort of brine to keep them in good condition, and the hearts look like white candles, not a million miles away from asparagus, but with a flavour all their own.

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Palm hearts: the avocado’s secret love

So, peel and slice the avocados – nice big slices if people are sitting down, or you can cut them up if everybody’s standing up, juggling with wine glasses. Open a can of palm hearts and drain off the brine. Lay one or two over the avocado (again, cut them up if people are going to find it difficult to use a knife and fork).

You will hear one three-part question: “What are these things, where can I get some and why have I never noticed them before?” Then a statement-question: “Aren’t they just perfect with avocados.”