Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Razor's Edge

Somerset Maugham, an obvious razor clam fan.
     Ok, possibly not.  Who knows?  Go with it and help me tie my bookish references with my food freak tendencies.  The Razor's Edge is one of my very favourite 'coming of age' novels and razor clams are a delectable treat.  There, we arrived in the end.
     These sweet little bivalves can be found all over the British coastline, (and the Atlantic coast from Canada to South Carolina) but are most often harvested in Scotland where they are called 'spoots'.  With a keen eye they can be found on Devon beaches if you can spot the tell tale 'cat's eye' slit in the wet sand.  Approach one of these lairs with caution as razors are very attuned to movement from above.  Pour some salt down said hole.  This will trick the poor sod into thinking the tide is coming in and within thirty seconds or so he should pop up for a look.  Carefully and with increasing pressure pull him from his watery domain.  Hold fast for the siphon of the razor can either rocket him back into the depths or snap off happily to grow again another day.  The razor's flesh is similar in taste to scallops but not quite so forgiving whilst cooking.  Literally a minute or two is all the clams need else they will go very rubbery.  Eat many and with complete abandon as they are very bountiful and not devoured enough in this land.  Another example of how you Brits export your delicacies rather than delighting in them.  Avoid heinous dredged product and May-September whilst spawning.
Steamed Razor Clams, Chorizo & Fried Breadcrumbs

Ingredients for 4 starters:

60gm Fresh white breadcrumbs
Extra virgin olive oil
2tbsp Chopped parsley
1tbsp Unsalted butter
150gm Soft chorizo
20 Razor clams
150mls Dry white wine
2 Minced garlic cloves
Cornish sea salt flakes
Freshly ground black pepper


1) Over a medium heat in a non-stick frying pan, heat 2tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and gently fry your breadcrumbs until golden.  Let cool.
2) Add the chopped parsley and a little seasoning to your crumbs.
3) Wipe the above pan and melt the butter.  Gently fry the chorizo for 1-2 minutes.  Mix with your crumbs.
4) Steam the razor clams in the white wine and garlic until they just begin to open.  1-2 minutes.  Strain and reserve your cooking juices.
5) Reserve the best 12 shells and remove the black and beige gut sac from the clams.  Slice into bite size pieces.
6) Reheat your clams quickly in a fry pan with a little of the garlic wine liquor and small knob of butter.  Season liberally.
7) Arrange your clams back in the shells and top with the toasted crumbs.

To serve:

     Five razor clams per person in three shells are an ample starter.  Drizzle with a little more olive oil and/or any juices left from the reheat.  Serve with a crisp dry white wine or my personal favourite...Pastis.  A 'bring on the summer' starter of sublime simplicity and subtle sophistication.

There is nothing quite like chorizo.
     Chorizo is a pork sausage usually associated with Spain that gains its distinctive colour and taste from dried and smoked red peppers.  Whether fresh or cured, chorizo is a real favourite.  The Brighton Sausage Company do a great fresh one that I like with saffron mashed potatoes and a rich rioja sauce.  Our very own Ellises Farm in the Blackdown Hills makes a fine cured chorzo that can be had at any number of South West farmer's markets or from their online shop.
     Ok, ok...I am actually writing to you about breadcrumbs.  But seriously it has come to my attention of late that you can actually buy breadcrumbs in the hypermarkets.  Come on people.  How much bread do you throw away in a year?  If you have any bread that has gone stale but not yet green, keep it somewhere dry and not in plastic.  It will harden and keep indefinitely, ready for the food processor, grater or even tied in cloth to be beat into fine submission with a rolling pin.  For fresh breadcrumbs, toasting them as above and storing them in an airtight container they will keep for weeks.  So handy in that rainy day cupboard or from the freezer.  Cotoletta alla Milanese, Pangrattato for your spaghetti, real homemade fish fingers for the kiddies...the list is endless.  You have the bread, you have the crumbs.

'There is something irresistibly ludicrous in grave men stooping over a hole, their coat tails pendant in the water, their breath suspended, one hand holding salt, the other alert to catch the victims- watching the perturbations of the sand, like hungry cats besides the holes of mice...'
-George Henry Lewes (Seaside Studies 1856)

Gene Tierney, The Razor's Edge, 1946

Monday, 7 March 2011

Eat Your Words

Books on Food
     No, I don't mean cookbooks.  Books that are about food, written by food lovers, fanatics and freaks.  I lament the decline of the food writer.  I aspire to be one.  We are drowning in dyslexic celeb chef cookbooks full of food porn we don't want to duplicate from recipes that don't work.  Elizabeth David is turning in her grave...what shall become of us?  Does the world really need another recipe from Jamie Oliver?  It says something about British culture that the thick-tongued Pukka Man is England's top selling AUTHOR.  Not top selling cookbook churner, but author.  Good God.  
     So, if we are indeed in a golden age of innovative eating, chefs, restaurants...what have you, let us make the most of this gluttonous period of luck and overindulgence.  Let us gild our minds with lofty thoughts of exactly what is the best risotto rice to use with a gelatinous stock.  Give us leave to argue bitterly as to whether we should tear fresh basil or use a razor sharp knife.  How can life be complete without knowing the true history of the Sticky Toffee Pudding?
     Some of these books may contain recipes but their status is lifted due to prose, fanatical attention to detail and/or usefulness.  Time to get intellectual about sustenance.  Here they are, in no particular order...

30. Dizionario Gastronomico, Oscar Galeazzi

     This book saved our asses at Daphne's.  As Caprice Holdings weeded out the Italians and stacked the brigade with loyalists and, uh, me...we were at a loss to ensure the menu rang true in the correct Italian.  Probably the most used book in my library.

29. Aphrodite, Isabelle Allende
      What a gorgeous book.  A savoury and sensual memoir/cookbook.  A rousing and juicy collection of vignettes for your palate's pleasure.  A joy.

28. Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany, Ben Schott
     It doesn't get more eclectic than this.  From the number of peaks in a Toblerone per bar size to the great Parisien zoo feast of 1870 to the traditional seating plan of Amish families...Schott has got it all.  A keeper for the back of the toilet.

27. Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb
      The Cosa Nostra eat well.  You would do well to get lost in this book...or else.

26. The Foie Gras Wars, Mark Caro
     As seen previously in this blog.  An amazing read.  So, before you jump on the bandwagon, get informed.

25. The Taste of Britain, Laura Mason & Catherine Brown
      The definitive guide to regional British specialties.

24. The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy, Alan Davidson
     It isn't all stellar, and it does get a wee bit bogged down under its own weight, but it is worth seeking out the good bits.  All the greats can be found in this tome.

23. Tough Cookies, Simon Wright
     Chefs telling it like it is.  What could be more entertaining?  A light and breezy one or two setting read.  Good insights into a well known pack of battle hardened veterans.

22. Heat, Bill Buford
     Buford is a proper investigative journalist and, more importantly, a food freak.  Few civilians have entered our world more completely than ol' Bill.  Fair dues and a fab read.

21. The End of the Line, Charles Clover
      Read it and weep.  Also a riveting documentary film of the same name.

20.  The Book of Eels, Tom Fort
     Wow!  There must be a certain sense of satisfaction when you kick back, finish writing something like this and think to one will ever exhaust this particular subject more than me...ever.  Awesome. 

19. The Larder Chef, M J Leto
     The definitive guide to this much maligned section of the professional kitchen.

18. Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
     It is almost a cliche to include this book.  It's the book I should have written.  Damn you, Bourdain!  All true...every last beautiful grease stained and morbier stinking word.

17. Anything by Elizabeth David
     To think that it was only a few years ago that I was introduced to the queen of all food writers. Trends come and go but there will always be Elizabeth David.  Thank-you Mr. Hopkinson for the gentle nudging in the right direction.

16. Anything by Simon Hopkinson
     I treasure the drunken lunch served up to me by Simon in his charming London flat.  Best Caesar salad ever.  A true gent and a consummate cook.  Most importantly, his recipes work!  Fancy that.  A rarity these days.  I love his certain take on everything.

15. Larousse Gastronomique
     Ok, you knew it was coming.  It isn't always right and there are some startling omissions...but, come on, an absolute classic.  You just aren't a cook if you don't possess at least one edition.

14. The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
     The other great reference book.  Somehow a bit more personable than Larousse.  The Alan Davidson touch.

13. Cooking for Kings, Ian Kelly
     I cannot even conceive of what life must have been like pre-extraction, pre-gas heat, pre-everything.  This book is a trip worth taking a few times.

12. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

     This should be required reading for all those green, just off the NVQ commis chefs that feel hard done by peeling a few boxes of prawns.  Aww...

11. Anything by Michael Ruhlman
      Where Bourdain gives you the gritty curbside late night punch, Ruhlman remembers the nobility, satisfaction and pride that a chef quietly holds onto as he flops down, thankless, at the end of another murderous day.  And let's not forget The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon, Charcuterie...this guy is a serious heavyweight in the food freak world.

10. The Perfectionist, Rudolph Chelminski

     Never was Marco more spot on- 'At the end of the day it's just food, isn't it, just food.'  A gripping tale of a soldier that forgot.

9. Humble Pie, Gordon Ramsay
     Love him or hate him, you can't say he ain't entertaining.  The big bastard telling it in his very own boastful and defensive swagger.

8. The Apprentice, Jacques Pepin
     A joy to read.  A lifelong relationship with La Cuisine laid bare.  If only today's chefs were brought up through the ranks in this manner.  A humble and subtly humorous memoir.

7. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management
     The Victorian tome par excellence.  You will often be left scratching your head whilst searching for the odd gem, and some entries may even leave you laughing aloud, but Mrs. Beeton will forever deserve a place on the bookshelf and in our hearts.

6. White Slave, Marco Pierre White
     Why is it that we forgive his every transgression?  His Knorr flogging sins, his wild-eyed madness?  Because, of course, he is...Marco Pierre White.  A great read from The Godfather of modern cuisine.

5. Le Repertoire de la Cuisine
     Some books you must simply just 'own'.  You won't use it much, it is dated and much of its knowledge can be had faster and more easily understood elsewhere.  Yet, a classic it remains. Not for the novice or dabbler.

4. Thai Food, David Thompson
     Ok, technically it is a cookbook...but so much more.  David broke the mould with this one.  Digest this and you'll absorb a culture.

3. McGee on Food and Cooking, Harold McGee
     It has been said that without this book, there would be no Heston Blumenthal.  A bible of culinary secrets de-mystified.  I cannot count the times I have stumbled across something in this book and gone, 'ah, that's why it does that' or 'why the hell have I not employed that method?'  Amazing and unparalleled.  

2. The Forager Handbook, Miles Irving
     True, it is not a suitable field guide, and the lack of colour photos let it down, regardless a fantastic book.  Just not for the beginner.  Miles and all at Forager are heroes to chefs across Britain and have helped to change menus far and wide forever.

1. World Cheese Book, Juliet Harbutt
     Truly the world's most complete compendium of all things cheesy.  Wonderfully laid out, a joy to peruse and salivate over.

     There you have it...already I am thinking of a few glaring omissions.  All lists must come to and end somewhere.  Next time...cookbooks!  Real ones.  It might end up being a Top 100.

Elizabeth David R.I.P