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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Wine is a big subject and this article is like summarising a whole year’s news in 1,000 words. But…
There is more pretentious rubbish written about wine than on any other subject. Sure, it’s a complex matter and taste and smell are more difficult to describe than sights and sounds, but that is no reason to resort to absurd terminology.
You could see Chateau Whatever described as “ rich in tannins, heavy on the palate, with a petrolly nose and an astringent finish”. So was it nice, then?
I want to know how something that smells of petrol and ‘causes contraction of the body tissue’ (that’s what astringent means) could be pleasant to drink.
Now obviously you can’t just say things are tasty, light, drinkable and so on, because those are vague terms and you’re not really telling the reader anything that isn’t, anyway, nowadays stated on the label by the people who bottled it. But however sophisticated your palate is, I don’t want to know that there is a faint trace of cow dung in there somewhere.
So, having dissed the connoisseurs, what exactly is this wine-drinker’s answer? Well, five things.
Don’t be afraid of wine.
Try new things.
If you like something, remember it.
If you don’t like something, remember it.
Consider who’s going to be drinking it.
Don’t be afraid of it. It’s only wine, and if you pay attention to what you’re drinking, you will know what to look for and what to avoid next time.
Try new things. It’s important, though, to do your experimenting in private. If you buy something you’ve never had before and it’s beautiful, that’s great. If it’s horrible (or perhaps there is nothing wrong with it but you just don’t like it) there is no harm done.
Consider who’s going to be drinking it. All you need to do is get something that you and your guests will enjoy, whether it be to drink in your home or theirs. If someone likes the sort of Californian rosé wine that should really be in the soft drinks department, get a bottle of that. And something else for yourself.
Pay attention and remember what it was like. If it was good, look for it again. If you didn’t like it, make sure you don’t get it in future.
COWBOY MASTER TIP
The more you learn about wine, the more you will realize that you know nothing.
What do I know about it? I worked for several years for a chain of wine shops in London and every evening we used to open a bottle and try it.
Our rationale was this: when a customer who knows and trusts you asks what something is like, you can’t just tell them what it is supposed to be like. We were providing a valuable service to the customer.
And I still feel like I know nothing, in the context of the millions of wines, blends and vintages I have yet to try.
What year? Vintages are for experts and not for us to worry about at this stage (but despite the saying, old is not necessarily better).
Another old saying: red with meat, white with fish – but now people are saying that’s rubbish. Well, like a lot of clichés, there is some truth in it, so it’s worth bearing in mind unless you really know what you’re doing.
Let’s imagine you’re having a seafood salad to start and roast turkey for the main course.
By all means choose a white for the seafood, but make sure it’s dry, not sweet. Italian Pinot Grigio is all over the place these days and with good reason, because it is dry, has a certain amount of flavor and is usually quite okay: reliable.
You could go for Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay, both of which have a more pronounced taste which you may or may not like.
My personal favourite is another Italian: Verdicchio, which comes in a distinctive bottle shaped not unlike a woman, with a nice balcony tapering to the ankles. Verdicchio is not terribly, gaggingly dry, but it’s certainly on the dry side of the line.
For your red, the world is full of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and you often find Pinot Noir too. These are the names of the grapes they’re made from, which gives you a rough idea of what they’re like. Shiraz is thick and strong-flavoured (and is another name for the French grape syrah). Malbec is heavy too.
Beaujolais is light. It’s made from the gamay grape, which isn’t very common otherwise, and is generally better young – no more than three or four years to be on the safe side.
Rioja (pronounced reeokka), from Spain, used to be thick and oaky, but they don’t mess around with it so much anymore. It’s just good, quality wine – and doesn’t have to be expensive.
If grapes mean nothing to you, you could try trusting a country. The Italians, French and Spanish all have an excellent reputation. With other countries you might find a gem, but you might not.
Cheap Californian wines tend to be easy to drink. The connoisseur might say they have all the character blended out of them, but when the name of the game is to keep your not-fussy friends happy, the popular Californian names should do it.
DON’T BUY THE CHEAPEST. Wines are arranged at ‘price points’, so you will find loads atone level and then a leap to loads at another. You will occasionally find a little miracle that costs next to nothing, but not often, so spend a little more if you can.
Q. Aren’t corks supposed to be better than screw caps?
A. That’s a kind of snobbery. Corks are traditional, but when buying cheaper wine, screw caps are more reliable. When a wine is described as ‘off’ or ‘corked’, it means it tastes dirty, bitter, musty, contaminated. You are much more likely to come across this when there is a cork in the top. So go for a screw cap.
Like learning to cook, finding your way around wine is a long process, but it’s good fun. Basically, keep trying different things and you will teach yourself.
Here we go again: fancy foreign stuff. But as always, this is so easy you’ll be amazed you didn’t think it up yourself.
Foreign name: what does it mean? Well, moules is mussels and mariniere means in a style associated with sailors (mariners). People living by the sea would quite likely be sailors or fishermen, and their wives would have had access to mussels because they grow naturally on rocks on the shoreline. So the train of thought centuries ago must have been: why not eat them?
THE COOKING IS NOT THE HARD PART HERE. IT’S A PIECE OF CAKE. PREPARATION IS THE THING.
COWBOY QUESTION Q. How many mussels do you need?
A. About two cereal bowls full for each person, depending on their appetite.
You will probably be buying them from someone standing behind a counter, so you have the old-fashioned advantage of being able to ask somebody for help. If it’s an actual fishmonger, he or she will know exactly how to help you. But even a general supermarket assistant should at least be able to adapt your cereal bowl measurement. A bowlful is probably about what you would get if you scooped a load out with both hands.
Get too many rather than too few. The edible part is much smaller than the shells, and if you’ve got more than you need you can just cut down on the amount of bread you’re eating as filler.
Now, you will need a big pan, maybe a huge one if you are cooking for several people. Look at your mountain of mussels: have you got something that can handle them? You only want it half-full at the most.
Back in your kitchen, sort through the mussels by hand. They should be closed. If you find a few that are open, throw them away, because they are off, dead, poisonous. Dump any broken ones too.
Now, they have little bushy things growing out of them. These are known as beards, and you need to get rid of them. Just pull them out and discard them. Scrub the shells and if some have big barnacles, knock them off with the blunt side of a large knife (just so they don’t spoil the appearance).
Give the mussels a good rinse to get rid of any sand that may be lurking.
That’s it: you’re ready.
Dry white wine (or dry cider – even better, in my opinion)
Parsley, thyme, bay leaf
Cream (not the thick stuff, just whipping cream)
Melt some butter in the bottom of your cavernous pan (don’t get it too hot), chop the onions and garlic and throw them in along with the thyme and bay leaf. Just give it long enough for the onions to soften. Don’t let them go brown.
Chuck the mussels in and add a couple of (wine) glasses of wine or cider.
Put the lid on the pan and cook for just a few minutes, shaking or stirring a few times.
DON’T GO AWAY OR DO SOMETHING ELSE. As soon as the mussels are open, they’re done.
Add a cup of cream and some chopped parsley and mix it all up
DO NOT AUTOMATICALLY ADD SALT. The mussels will contain more than enough sea salt as it is.
Serve in big bowls with good, crunchy French bread to dip in the liquid.
When they were cold, we threw out those that were open. Now that they are cooked, get rid of any that are not open.
COWBOY QUESTION Q. How do you eat them? Knife and fork?
A. Pull out the mussel from one small-to-medium shell and eat it. Then use that shell with your fingers and thumb to extract the rest.
When you’ve eaten all the mussels, enjoy the juices by dipping the bread in or use a soup spoon.
Dry white wine is the traditional accompaniment, and Muscadet is the most commonly used of all. But any dry white – Pinot Grigio, Verdicchio, whatever – will be fine.
Or some dry cider, of course, especially if you have cooked with it. Technically that is moules fermiere (fermier = farmer).