Le Serre Nuove – Thoughts from Glasshouses

Food Stories and Recollections

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Welsh Curiosity

There are certain things that the forces of nurture impress upon you. Growing up with a Welsh Dad, and with members of family still living in Cardiff, for me that was alcohol, socialism, rugby and laverbread. Being Welsh or more specifically scouse born, home county raised, half Welsh, these things were unescapable,  as they were traits that emerged at certain times of the year. Most obviously whenever the six nations came about (particularly 1993 and Ieuan Evans’ try), they would lurk in the background and shoot at me when I least expect it. During my student days too, I would invariably get packets in the post from my Gran containing a whole heap of goodies – predominantly her Welsh Cakes. They are unequalled. Period.

Talking of my Gran, she used to threaten me with laverbread whenever I came to stay. Laver is seaweed found on the Gower coast plucked from the rocks at low tide. To make Laverbread it is boiled for several hours and then minced. I think the notion of eating seaweed would always put me off, and that it looks like black mush. Then she cooked me a traditional Welsh breakfast (you get it with cockles nowadays but this is a traditional South Wales miners breakfast) of laverbread, bacon, mushrooms and sausages, when I was about 18 and boy did I realise how good it is. I was amazed about how fresh it tasted and how it tasted like the sea. I found it quite salty, but it compliments the meat really well. With seaweed being increasing popular with the rise of sushi and the significant health benefits it brings, it is a great thing to cook with and something that I really enjoy, particularly when I now go down to the Valleys. Steven Terry is a big fan (from the Hardwick Inn) and here is a great recipe of his here. Below is a great dish I have made a couple of times and I think helps show how versatile the dish is, and what a curiosity it is.

Monkfish & Laverbread Cakes

Monkfish fillets
100g fresh or tinned laverbread
35g fine oatmeal
10g Parsley
6 rashers of bacon (keep the fat)

Grill the bacon over a medium heat, ensuring you keep the fat, until cooked.  Place on a paper towel to remove excess fat. Dice the cooked bacon, and combine the laverbread, parsley and oatmeal in a bowl. Shape into 6 small cakes, about 5cm wide and 2cm thick.  Heat the bacon fat in a frying pan (or use the same pan as you cooked the bacon in), and gently slide the cakes into the hot fry, turning occasionally until crisp on both sides. Drizzle with some lemon juice just before serving if you wish.

To roast the monkfish, season the fillets with salt and pepper, heat a large ovenproof frying pan with some olive oil, and fry the fillets in the pan for 2 minutes. Turn them over and put the pan in a preheated oven (about 220°C) for 6 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Serve with the laverbread cakes.

Yr un peth eto, os gwelwch yn dda.

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Macaroni Cheese

Macaroni Cheese. Pasta in a cheese sauce. Grains with dairy. I think I was about Four. Maybe even Three. Sitting at the dining room table, possibly in a high chair, and I started to cry. I threw something; a spoon? That is not vivid enough in my mind but I certainly remember the crying. I was eating Macaroni Cheese, or Mac and Cheese as I have started to call it now, like my wife, who’s American and how it is always called nowadays. It is one of my earliest memories (I assume my mum made it from scratch but I think she probably used a sauce packet as I have seen her a couple of times), and I can’t quiet remember when it was but I definitely remember the Macaroni Cheese.

The velvety warmth of the sauce, the richness and flavour from the cheese, and the softness and chewiness of the pasta. It is a stable favourite, indeed it has been voted in the top five of comfort dishes in the UK, in most Anglophile countries but where did it come from?

Thomas Jefferson was the first person to serve it in the White House (some even claim he invented it, although I think that has just help popularize it), and one of the earliest recorded recipes stems from The Experienced English Housekeeper, by Elizabeth Raffald. There  is not much variation on the classic dish we now get, albeit without nutmeg. It is probably true that, as with all pasta dishes, there is some origin of it from Italy – but have you ever seen it on a menu there? I was laughed at by an Italian chef when I asked him about it once. I am saw he was thinking of the Kraft version and it being processed American junk.

If I make it nowadays I always keep it simple – macaroni, a bechamel sauce, nutmeg and cheddar. I went through a spell in my teens where I would eat Spaghetti with cheddar and Worcester sauce. It was kind of my de-facto version. It sounds horrible now, and I would have a tendency to use too much Worcester sauce so it swam in it, but it was quick and easy and I made it. Ironically there is a recipe out there that does something very similar, well it doesn’t cover it in worchester sauce and uses bay leaves, and four types of cheese, but it is not that far off. It took me a rather long time to perfect the bechamel sauce to ensure that the flour cooked out enough, the sauce / cheese ratio was correct, and you didn’t overkill it with nutmeg. I discovered very quickly that it is easy to make a bad mac and cheese.

In New York recently I stumbled across a takeaway that is exclusively mac and cheese – even to the extent that they sell it in plastic macaroni (which somehow made it back across the Atlantic). The most decadent version I have ever tasted is with Lobster – which honestly just was silky and succulent, creamy and rich. I am not a fan of it with ham / pancetta (or burgers) – but I really want to see what it would be like by adding some beer to it (a really hoppy one), and experimenting with the cheese – it has to be fairly oily, sharp and nutty. Manchego or Gruyere probably would be a good substitute.  Either way you have to keep it relatively simple or its just not mac and cheese.

But perhaps the best thing about it? A perfect hangover cure when you fry yesterday’s leftovers.

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