In my last review on Scrumptious Scran – for the excellent The Apiary bistro – I mentioned how, at the end of a long winter, we often need something comforting (food-wise) to provide a bit of cheer. Spring, may be about to bring us warmer days and the year’s first crop of fresh produce, but even March can have a wintry sting in its tail.
When we can now skip to the supermarket to purchase out-of-season asparagus jetted in from South America, or fresh tomatoes grown at any time of year, it’s easy to forget that historically during this season people would mostly be cooking with produce harvested the preceding year, and preserved to last through the winter. Personally speaking I think that some of the best comfort food to be made uses these preserved ingredients, and a fine example of this can be found in a steaming-hot bowl of split pea and smoked ham hock soup.
Split peas and flavourings about to be cooked.
There’s something truly lovely about the look of this deep khaki-green concoction, punctuated with pink flecks of meat. But if it looks good, it tastes event better. Drying the peas imparts a really earthy mellowness to them, totally different to the taste of these legumes when fresh out the pod. By salting, then smoking the hock (or hough), the rich meaty flavour of this cut is further enhanced and transformed to yield (once simmered for a couple of hours) tenderly smoky, almost gamey meat. The further addition of good quality stock and some complimentary herbs and spices all combine to produce a splendidly tasty and filling dish. And what’s more, given that the ingredients are usually pretty cheap, it makes for an economical meal, too.
Splendid simmering smoked ham hock (hough).
Now it occurred to me that though this is a traditional dish, it isn’t one that can be enjoyed by non-meat eaters. However, I did think that the recipe could be adapted, leaving out the smoked ham and substituting in its place a couple of (rehydrated) dried sweet peppers, together with a teaspoon or two of smoked pimentón (paprika). This should provide a complimentary contrast in texture to the peas, together with an intense, smoke-tinged flavour. I’d be interested to hear back from anyone who tries the vegetarian alternative, but in the meantime I give you my own take on this scrumptious, winter warmer (with split peas and ham hock). Ingredients
1 smoked ham hock of good quality – I tend to use those from Simon Howie.
500g packet of green split peas, soaked in water overnight.
2 small onions, peeled.
A large carrot, scrubbed and chopped into large chunks.
3 bay leaves – fresh if you can get them.
A couple of sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stalks.
About 1.5 litres of chicken or vegetable stock.
Salt and pepper.
Preparation and cooking
Place the ham hock in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Place in the fridge and soak for 24 hours – changing the water a couple of times – to remove excess salt resulting from the curing process.
Drain the ham hock and place in a large pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and then cover and simmer for an hour and a half or so, until the meat is “fall off the bone” tender. Remove and set aside until the joint is cool enough to handle.
Stud the onions with two cloves each. Place in a large pan together with the pre-soaked split peas, carrots and bay leaves. Cover with the stock (add a little more water if necessary) and bring to the boil. With a slotted spoon, remove any foam that rises to the surface. Turn down the heat and simmer the peas until soft (about an hour or so). When soft, remove the onions, carrots and bay leaves. Add the thyme leaves and either mash the peas, or puree with a hand blender if you prefer a smoother soup.
When the hock is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and any excess fat. Using a couple of forks separate the flesh in strands, and then add to the pea puree. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as required. If the soup is very thick add a little water, then heat through until just simmering and serve in warmed bowls, with fresh bread and butter as an accompaniment.
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.
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.
Fab, finished fish stock.
This flavoursome broth will feed 4 people as a lunch, or up to 6 as a starter.
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
Shell the prawns, keeping the shells and heads aside, and put them in the fridge.
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.
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.
Rinse the clams with cold water in a colander, discarding any that are broken or remain open. Leave them to drain.
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.
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.
Add the two paprikas and chopped tomato and fry for a further minute, stirring.
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.
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.
Add the remaining parsley, stir and then check the seasoning.
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