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Feature Article: A life of brine… or how I made a great bird fantastic

brine in a bucket ready for the turkey
A fine brine, ready to work its magic.

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with salt. Now before the health police bang me to rights over daring to start a food blog article with such a provocative statement, I should point out that this is a positive thing as far as my cooking is concerned. You see, I haven’t become fixated with over seasoning my meals, far from it. However, I have discovered the age-old techniques of preserving food – and potentially enhancing the way it cooks – that are salting and brining.

A wee while ago on Scrumptious Scran I mentioned how – inspired by Tim Hayward’s excellent Food DIY – I decided to attempt producing my own salt fish – salted coley, to be precise. The process was both straight forward – merely involving parcelling the soft fillets in sea salt – and fascinating, as the liquid was sucked from the flesh turning it stiff and dry. And when ready to cook with the salt fish all that is to be done is to rehydrate them in a few changes of fresh water for 24 hours or so. I can testify that when incorporated in croquetas the salt fish was delicious, with deep seafood flavour that wasn’t salty at all.

home cured salt fish on a plate
Delicious, home-made salt fish.

And that delicate, yet significant, flavour change is something key. Certainly the primary function of salting food is to preserve it, which is why the process was so popular in the days before refrigeration. But the way salt interacts with meat, fish, and even vegetables can also enhance the taste and texture of the foodstuff. I shall spare you the detailed chemistry lesson, but basically salt reacts with the proteins in the foodstuff to subtly change their structure. This can ultimately transform the tenderness and succulence of your salted food of choice, in addition to how it tastes. Treating food with salt is certainly not a dry subject though, oh no. I am talking brine.

I first became properly aware of soaking food in salty liquid – which is basically what brining involves – when I got my hands on Jane Grigson’s inspiring book, Good Things (to Eat). Although originally published in the early 1970’s the passion for great British ingredients and culinary traditions expressed in this work are still current today. And it features a whole chapter on salting meat, including Grigson’s own recipe for brine, which basically consists of equal parts of sea salt and brown sugar dissolved in water. Yet interestingly, it also features the addition of aromatics – such as bay leaves, juniper berries, and peppercorns – which impart subtle notes of flavour to the meat that is soaked and preserved in the liquid.

Now we are in the depths of January the festive season might seem just a distant memory, but the Christmas just past provided an opportunity to dip my toe into the pond of brining. Turkey is the festive bird of choice at Scrumptious Scran Towers, primarily because my father-in-law is pretty traditional when it comes to Christmas dinner. I always try and get the best quality turkey available – bronze of feather, free-range, organic, probably called Horatio or something similar – to ensure two things: that the meat actually tastes of something; and that it isn’t dry. Choosing top quality usually delivers. But having witnessed a festive TV programme where Nigella waxed lyrical about brining one’s turkey for 24 hours before cooking, I wondered if this could make an already great fowl even more tender and flavoursome, as La Lawson claims.

a turkey in a bucket ready for brining
Horatio the turkey, ready for a brine bath.

So at lunchtime last Christmas eve Horatio the turkey was deposited into a lidded plastic tub together with sufficient salt, sugar and water to make a brine, and a whole host of herbs and spices – bay leaves, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, star anise, peppercorns, juniper berries, clementine juice and peel, thyme, parsley and onions. Then into the fridge it went, until about an hour before cooking Christmas dinner was due to commence, whence it was drained, dried and brought up to room temperature. A mere two and a half hours in the oven – I certainly wasn’t going to overcook the turkey, as much as I wasn’t going to undercook it either – and the bird looked and smelled perfect. But how did it taste?

To be honest, it was blinking amazing. My father-in-law proclaimed it was the most moist, tastiest turkey he had ever sampled. The flesh was truly tender and not at all dry – which was down to more than just the quality of the bird, as the brining process helps lock moisture into the meat. And it had an almost mild gamey flavour, somewhere between guinea fowl and pheasant, but also with a very subtle hint of the aromatics that had gone into brine. This is certainly how I shall prepare our turkey from now on, but brining is not just for Christmas, as Jane Grigson’s recipes for salt duck and spiced salt beef clearly demonstrate. Watch this space!

clams/ fish/ Galicia/ prawns/ Seafood/ soup/ Spanish

Recipe: Flavour fiesta – Caldo de pescado (Galician fish soup with clams and prawns)

Caldo de pescado fish soup.
Delicious Caldo de pescado.

I have yet to visit Galicia, but it is very much on my ‘to do’ list. Perched at the very north-western corner of Spain, it is meant to be beautifully mountainous and has a much more temperate climate than the rest of the country, thanks to its proximity to the Atlantic. Given Galicia’s closeness to the ocean, and the fact its coastline is more than 1,500 km in length, it’s unsurprising that fishing is a mainstay of the region’s economy. Vigo – Galicia’s main port – is believed to be second only to Tokyo in terms of the quantity of fish landed annually, with an incredible 733,000 metric tons of seafood passing through the port in 2007.

This wee geography lesson is just my way of getting to the point that Galicians love their seafood, and they have some fantastic ways to prepare it. When cooking with good quality, fresh seafood, dishes don’t necessarily have to be complicated. This recipe for Caldo de pescado (Galician fish soup with clams and prawns) demonstrates that fact beautifully. It’s my own take on a recipe that appears in the Casa Moro cookbook, and which originates from one of Moro’s Galician chefs, David Loureiro Martinez.

Ingredients for fish stock.
Stock ingredients – just add water!

Key to this dish is the preparation of fresh fish stock. I go beyond the original recipe, and use bones from the fishmonger and a few vegetables to augment the prawn shells, in order to produce a deeply seafood-flavoured liquid, with just the slightest hint of fennel, onion and carrot.

I also “cleanse” the clams of any grit they may contain, before cooking. This is easily achieved by immersing them in a couple of litres of brine (made up of 35g of sea salt dissolved in each litre of cold water) and placing in the fridge for an hour or two. The brine is effectively artificial seawater, and will encourage the clams to open their shells, thereby allowing sand and grit to fall out.

Home-made fish stock.
Fab, finished fish stock.

This flavoursome broth will feed 4 people as a lunch, or up to 6 as a starter.


Seafood stock

  • Fish bones and/or heads, from your local fishmonger
  • Shells from the prawns (see below)
  • 1 medium onion, unpeeled and halved
  • Half a bulb of fennel, intact
  • 1 medium carrot, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 litres of water

For the soup

  • 1 large tomato, skinned, de-seeded and finely chopped
  • 500g small to medium clams – such as palourdes or venus, (use mussels if clams unavailable)
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
  • ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds (optional)
  • 3 bay leaves – fresh ones if you can get them
  • 3 teaspoons of good quality sweet smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon of hot smoked paprika
  • A good pinch of saffron (around 40 threads), infused in 6 tablespoons of boiling water
  • 100g basmati rice
  • 2 tablespoons of roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to season

Preparation and cooking

  1. Shell the prawns, keeping the shells and heads aside, and put them in the fridge.
  2. Heat four tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan over a high heat. When the oil is hot – but not smoking – add the prawn shells and fry, stirring occasionally, for about 3-5 minutes until they change colour and emit a nutty, seafood smell.
  3. Add the halved onion, carrot, fennel, thyme, and fish bones/heads, followed by the water. Bring to the boil and then simmer over a low heat for about half an hour. Turn off the heat and allow to cool before straining the stock through a fine-mesh sieve and set aside.
  4. Rinse the clams with cold water in a colander, discarding any that are broken or remain open. Leave them to drain.
  5. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil over a medium heat until hot. Add the chopped onion with a pinch of salt and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens and turns golden.
  6. Add the garlic, fennel seeds and bay leaves and fry, stirring a couple of times, for 3-5 minutes – make sure you do not burn the garlic, as it will taste bitter.
  7. Add the two paprikas and chopped tomato and fry for a further minute, stirring.
  8. Pour in the saffron infusion, rice, half the parsley and the fish stock. Bring to the boil and simmer until the rice is cooked, about 10-15 minutes.
  9. When the rice is cooked, add the clams, and once these have opened (after a few minutes), remove from the heat and stir in the prawns to allow these to heat through. If you are using raw prawns make sure that these are fully cooked.
  10. Add the remaining parsley, stir and then check the seasoning.

Serve with tasty fresh bread, such as sourdough.

Feature/ fish/ Musselburgh/ shellfish/ suppliers

Supplier spotlight – Clark Brothers: A delicious kettle of fish…

Clark Bros, Musselburgh.
Clark Bros, Musselburgh.

Of all the ingredients with which I love to both cook and to eat, fish and shellfish have to rate amongst my favourite. The different tastes and textures to be had from the bounty dwelling in our seas, lochs and rivers are immense. And if properly fished or farmed – and increasingly these days, that is a big “if” – fish and shellfish must count amongst the most sustainable and natural food products to be had.

I’m always a little surprised when some people seem to be a bit squeamish about buying and preparing seafood – but then I was a marine biologist in a previous incarnation. Maybe such trepidation has to do with the alien-like form it can exhibit; all tentacles, shells, antennae and/or bulging eyes. Or possibly it is because people struggle to differentiate between what is fresh and what has exceeded its “shelf life”.

For those nervous about preparing seafood there are some great guides available. In terms of ensuing that what you are buying is good, fresh fish and shellfish just turn detective and use your instincts. Do the eyes and skin of the fish look bright and moist as opposed to dull and dry? Lift the flaps around the neck of the fish and inspect the gills – they should be bright red and not greying. If you pick a fish up it should be stiff and not floppy. Does your fish have a sweet, salty “fresh out of the sea” smell as opposed to a strong ammoniacal odour? Similar rules apply to shellfish, and never buy any bivalves – clams, mussels, scallops – that don’t close their shells tightly when tapped.

And whilst not wishing to be dismissive of supermarkets entirely – some have reasonable fish counters – I would recommend buying your aquatic produce somewhere local, independent, and with staff that can hopefully inform you of exactly when and where that monkfish you have your eye on was caught, and that he’s called Burt… Seriously though, a good local fishmonger will be able to tell you which wholesale market each batch of fish or shellfish has originated from, and if the produce is locally derived, or has been sourced from further afield.

Residing in Scotland, I am fortunate to live in one of the best fish and shellfish-producing countries in the world. Scottish coastal waters are bountiful with a great range of seafood. However, in common with many other countries, not all our fisheries – of fish farms – can be considered sustainable, with certain stocks coming under pressure and some production methods resulting in environmental damage. If you want to ensure the fish or shellfish you are buying is sustainable, be sure to visit the Marine Conservation Society’s online Good Fish Guide

Dover sole & turbot.
Dover sole & turbot.

Being Edinburgh-based, I’m lucky to have some great independent fishmongers a beach pebble’s throw away from where I live. One of my favourites is Clark Brothers. Situated just outside Edinburgh’s city limits on the edge of Musselburgh’s harbour (220 New Street, EH21 6DJ), this fantastic fish merchant has been selling quality produce for nearly 100 years.

The shop is always packed with a fantastically good range of produce, and is constantly busy with customers eager to purchase it. Traditional fish varieties – such as Scottish cod and haddock – rub fins with more exotic specimens, including John Dory, organically farmed seat trout and monkfish cheeks.

John Dory, clams & prawns.
John Dory, clams & prawns.

There is also a great range of shellfish – mussels, langoustines, scallops and oysters of course, but also spoots (or razor shells, to non-Scots speakers) and surf clams. Shellfish commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking is also available, as well as both live and cooked Scottish crab and lobster.

And for anyone needing a little culinary inspiration, Clark Brothers also sell their own, pre-prepared dishes, such as smoked haddock and spring onion fishcakes, and rainbow trout fillets marinated in orange and dill.

Sea trout, oysters & squid.
Sea trout, oysters & squid.

The Clark Brothers staff are both knowledgeable and helpful, so don’t be afraid to quiz them if you need advice on buying or preparing your fish or shellfish. It’s also great to see the fishmongers at work processing and filleting produce as it arrives from the market – the prep area is visible through large windows behind the shop floor. And finally, if you like your fish smoked Clark Brothers cater for this with their own small, onsite smokery.

Watch out for my next blog post, where I shall be cooking with some great seafood purchased at Clark Brothers.

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