Rhubarb ‘cranachan’

Despite the dry weather – it has even been affecting Orkney – rhubarb is still growing well. If you have run out of ideas for recipes why not try this simple dessert? It is as good for family meals as it is for entertaining. I know it’s not a Real cranachan, but it is similar – and what else would I call it?!

Serves 3-4

A traditional cranachan is made with raspberries but it is gorgeous with rhubarb. Add the ginger to the cold rhubarb if using. The colour will be much better if you can choose pinker sticks and I had used forced rhubarb for this picture.

• 3 tbsp pinhead oatmeal or flaked oats from Birsay MIll (if you are here on Orkney)

• About 300ml double cream

• 3 tbsp honey, runny or soft set

• 350g cold cooked rhubarb

• 50g crystallised ginger, chopped (optional)

1. Heat a non-stick frying pan until hot then add the oatmeal and ‘stir-fry’ until golden brown – it will be slow to colour at first but, like pine nuts, will change suddenly so keep a careful eye on it. Turn onto a plate to cool.

2. Whisk the cream with 1 tbsp honey until thick but not stiff. Fold in 1 tbsp of the cooled oatmeal.

3. Assemble the cranachan in individual glasses, layering the rhubarb with the oatmeal, honey and cream. Finish with a little rhubarb before serving.

My kind of salmon

It was salmon that first brought me to Orkney. I had a consultancy to Waitrose supermarkets and was asked to come north to talk all things salmon and to find out if there was a story behind Orkney aquaculture that would interest Waitrose customers. There was!

Salmon remains one of my favourite ingredients and these are some of my favourite ways of cooking it to date: I am certain that there will be many more ideas in the years to come.

Salmon with strawberry sauce is one of my ‘signature dishes’, in as much as it has been a real success for me over many years and right back to my time at BBC Pebble MIll in the early 90’s. It’s a taste of summer for a buffet or just an easy supper dish. The sauce is made by heating some chopped berries, about 150g for 2 people, in 2-3 tablespoons of white or sparkling wine until they lose their gloss. Blitz to a sauce adding tarragon or chervil (or some flat leaf parsley, but it won’t have the same aniseed flavour), salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. You will also need a splash of vinegar: Orkney Craft Vinegar’s Honey and Meadowsweet is perfect but white wine vinegar will also work. The colour is as delicious as the taste!

Salmon curries are brilliant and the fish holds it’s shape pretty well if cut into large pieces and poached gently in the sauce, turning it over just once. I rub the salmon with salt, turmeric and cayenne and then leave it for an hour or two to ‘cure’. Poached in a spiced tomato sauce it is fantastic. Top the salmon and sauce with fried onions in a casserole dish and a generous layer of cooked spiced Basmati rice to bake for an easy curry when entertaining, an easy take on a traditional biryani, a dish of celebration.

Try a Salmon Pie using a packet of ready-rolled puff pastry and a simple filling of cooked salmon and vegetables, with some cherry tomatoes and herbs bound in soured cream or thick creme fraiche. Asparagus, Tenderstem broccoli and broad beans all work really well with the salmon and adding some chervil or tarragon makes the pie extra special.

Salmon is rich and oily which makes it ideal with strong spices. ‘Blackening’ salmon with Cajun spices before pan-frying, flaking and adding to your favourite ingredients for tortillas makes an easy, informal meal. Cajun spiced salmon tortillas are perfect summer wraps and the spice mix, which has ground allspice in it, is available in most good food shops.

Salmon is also a perfect ingredient for salads, working as well with leaves or grains. Either fresh cooked salmon or smoked salmon offcuts are great and don’t feel you have to add 101 ingredients to make an interesting salad bowl: sometimes crisp lettuce, chives, croutons and salmon with a herby dressing is all you need.

Squids In!

The thing about squid is you either cook it very quickly or very slowly: any other elapse of time during the cooking and you get the rubbery result that has, wrongly, put so many people off this fabulous mollusk. When properly cooked it is either meltingly tender or retains a very slight bite: there should be nothing of a thick rubber band about squid at all!

I buy my squid from the Kirkwall Bay Shellfish Company; friendly, knowledgeable people operating from a shed in the food park on the Hatston Industrial Estate. They are the only people that I have yet met who sell monkfish filleted off the bone, which is apparently how many of their customers prefer to cook it. But I digress – it is squid that I am writing about today. These were caught off Westray, which seems to be where much of Orkney’s fish comes from, and they looked fantastic. Always such fun to show in a demonstration with the moment of pulling the quill from the tube guaranteed to be a first for someone in the audience, my first two large squid came completely cleaned but with their lovely tentacles to add texture to my dishes. One squid was a feast for two people, so we had two lovely meals from our ‘catch’.

First up was a version of Salt and pepper squid, with a few chilli flakes for good measure. The flesh was cut into batons which were then coated in milk – cream works better but I didn’t have any – before being tossed in medium beremeal with plenty of seasoning. The tentacles were sliced across and prepared in the same way. I then cooked the squid very quickly, in small batches, in a wok in a little coconut oil, draining each lot on crumpled kitchen towels. Squid is cooked as soon as it becomes opaque: have courage – whip it out of the pan at that stage. Keeping it warm in a low oven I then very quickly wilted some baby spinach in the oil and juices left in the wok to make a bed on which to serve the squid, sprinkled with cracked black pepper and flakes of sea salt, and just a few chilli flakes. Serve with a dollop of mayo if you will but, if the squid has been cooked quickly, it will be moist enough without.

The remaining squid made a delicious ‘store-cupboard’ risotto, enhanced by glorious yellow saffron and bringing more than a touch of sunshine to our dining table. I cut the squid into rings and then the larger ones were cut again, in half, for easier eating. With Spanish cuisine in mind – they tend to opt for onions or garlic and seldom both – I unusually opted for the latter (with my whisky tasting hat on I try to keep my palette fresh and therefore usually avoid garlic these days). I know risotto is Italian but I find the onion/garlic idea a good one to follow for Mediterranean cookery in general! After heating a large frying pan and adding olive oil I drew it off the heat before adding the finely chopped garlic: that’s the top tip for stopping it from burning if there is no onion in the pan. I then added the squid and cooked both over a low heat until the mollusk was opaque before adding the risotto rice with a good pinch of saffron. Once the rice was well coated in oiliness it was just a case of adding boiling water (no stock was available and no extra flavour required) and cooking until the risotto was almost ready: you need tender rice which retains just a bite in the centre. At that stage I added some defrosted (frozen) peas with a little salt and pepper. Once the risotto was of the cooked consistency that we prefer – some like risotto dry while others prefer it almost souplike – I added some grated Parmesan and then finished the seasoning. Then a little more Parmesan on top and the feast began.

Once again Orkney’s rich larder provided me with a fabulous main ingredient for two very different dishes. Living here is a constant culinary inspiration.

Who knew that seaweed, lamb and oranges was A Thing?

Laura Mason and Catherine Brown surely did, ages before me, as their seminal book Traditional Foods of Britain inspired my first attempt at cooking North Ronaldsay lamb.

A legend in gourmet circles and a harsh reality for the farmers that raise it, the lamb comes from North Ronaldsay sheep which are almost feral. They live on the rocky beaches of the northernmost Orkney island, kept from inland pasture by a 13mile long stone dyke which is repaired each year as part of the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival in early August. The hefted sheep have evolved slowly and now seem perfectly adapted to a diet of just seaweed on the beaches which are their home. To my palette the lamb has an earthiness and attitude which not apparent in the salt marsh lamb of South Wales or Normandy. The lambs are also a very different shape in terms of carcass, with small legs and little in the way of belly meat or muscle in the loin and best end.

My first attempt at cooking the lamb was with a boned-out shoulder from last season, which I managed to buy when there were still Seville oranges for sale here on Orkney. Mason & Brown inspired me with the observation that a sauce of Sevilles is a traditional way of serving the lamb. How that came about requires research that I have yet to begin, yet alone complete, but it inspired me to slow roast the lamb on a small pile of beremeal (to start thickening the gravy at the end of cooking), with sprigs of rosemary and 3 sliced Sevilles under the meat. With the lamb resting I then finished the gravy with the vegetable water, sieved it and added marmalade with seasonings. The flavour was Fantastic but I was relieved when our new friends Susan and John announced that North Ronaldsay lamb is not known for it’s tenderness! There is always a big worry for a cook when you entertain new friends and think they will expect too much. These guys passed the test well with their kind comments!

My second attempt was much more successful as I opted to stew the lamb. We were back in Sussex and I had invited foodie friends to dinner so took another boned out shoulder with me – frozen, in hand luggage, which was good as our suitcase somehow did not travel with us!! By mid-March Sevilles were long since gone and so blood oranges and marmalade had to provide the citrus notes in the dish. I stewed the meat slowly for 3 hours on the hob with onions, the sliced oranges with their pith and some fennel seeds. I then let the stew cool and skimmed off the surface fat before adding a small jar of marmalade and cooking for a further hour. Meanwhile I had dried and crushed some more orange peel – which was not necessary but delicious – and added that with some kale (another Orkney staple) and some cavelo nero. I had also cooked some shredded kale with a little oil to make a Chinese-restaurant style crispy topping which I then mixed with some shredded wild garlic leaves, the first of the season, for the top of the stew when serving. Wow – what a success, with spicy potato wedges and a fresh salad of baby leaves: it was a meal which got our friends to realise that we have not moved to an ingredient abyss and that the food scene on Orkney is every bit as good as I had been telling them! PS – of course we all tucked in far too quickly for me to take a picture of Recipe Number 2 – you’ll just have to believe me and one day I will make it again…

Diana Henry’s marmalade cake – the myorkneylarder way

Since publishing my original post about this cake I have been asked for the recipe by Barony Mill who mill the beremeal and so here it is.

Serves 10

Diana’s recipe from The Daily Telegraph caught my eye when I was in the middle of marmalade making – there’s always that little bit of preserve over that will not fill a jar but is perfect for baking – or even adding to beef, pork or chick pea casseroles. I opted to make Diana’s cake but, of course, as a spur-of-the-moment bake, I did not have all the ingredients that she specified. So, here’s Diana’s recipe as written, with my notes and tweaks following on. Being new to Orkney and rapidly becoming a beremeal devotee I had to add a little of that too…. recipes are only ever a starting point!

Use a good marmalade – the cheapest you can find will not do. I generally just sift icing sugar over it, but you can glaze it with some melted marmalade if you prefer.

175g (6oz) butter

175g (6oz) soft light-brown sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten, at room temperature

125g (4½oz) dark, coarse-cut marmalade

finely grated zest of 1 orange

juice of ½ orange

175g (6oz) brown self-raising flour

Butter and base-line a loaf tin measuring 22 x 12 x 6cm (8 x 4¼ x 3in).

Beat the butter and sugar in a food mixer until light and fluffy. With the machine running add the egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in the marmalade, zest and juice. Sift the flour and add the bran from the sieve back into it. Fold into the batter with a metal spoon. Scrape into the tin and smooth the top.

Bake in an oven preheated to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for 35 minutes. A skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean. Leave for 10 minutes, then turn on to a wire rack, peel off the paper and set the right way up. Leave to cool (though it is lovely, if rather crumbly, when still warm).

Here’s the myorkneylarder version. It’s all as above but ….

• I used caster sugar.

• I used the juice of 1 Seville orange – they are generally not as juicy as sweet ones.

• I used 160g white SR flour + 40g fine beremeal with a pinch of baking powder.

• I found the mixture did curdle with all the acidic juice but it quickly recovered when the flour etc was added.

• I’m baking in a bottle gas oven which does seem to have very pronounced temperature zones, so I baked for 45 minutes at gas mark 4 but a rung below the centre, to minimise the cake over-browning on the top. Temperature to dial is only correct exactly in the centre of a gas oven but, if you bake a lot, you will get used to the vagaries of your own oven very quickly.

• The Seville juice made this cake for me: it was a fabulous flavour and brought out the nuttiness of the beremeal.

A bit of beremeal in my marmalade cake

I’d book-marked a marmalade cake by Diana Henry as a cake to make – a rare event as I usually make up my own recipes (it’s how I earned my living before I ‘retired’). Anyway, I did tweak it a bit, including adding a little beremeal to the flour to give it that Orkney touch. Now, I am not the world’s greatest baker and am well aware that there are many Orcadians who bake beautifully, but this cake is delicious! Diana used soft brown sugar and wholemeal self-raising flour – I had neither of those. What really makes the flavour for me was using the juice of a left-over Seville instead of a sweet orange when she calls for the juice of half an orange. It’s definitely a January/February marmalade-time cake from now on! The cake was cut while still warm after being glazed with a little more marmalade. Diana’s recipe is here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/9533441/Marmalade-loaf-cake-recipe.html.

Westray Wife, a farmhouse Orkney cheese

We’ve had a spell of unusually cold and snowy weather here on Orkney – the snow is usually kept away by the tempering effect of the salty sea. That said, soup is always a staple of winter fare and there’s nothing better with it than some good bread and farmhouse cheese.

Farmhouse cheese in these Northern Isles means one dairy, Wilsons of Westray, and the Westray Wife is the flagship cheese of farmers and cheesemakers Jason and Nina. A semi-hard, washed rind cheese produced from the milk of their Ayrshire cows, Westray Wife is the cheese that has most frequently been in our fridge since we arrived here.

Ayrshire milk is traditionally creamier than that produced from Friesian cattle – anyone, like me, who remembers Duchy Originals starting up might recall that their milk was originally from Ayrshires when it was solely from the Highgrove herd. When we lived in Sussex the local herd at nearby Goodwood was also Ayrshires: the breed has long been associated with great quality milk for both drinking and for cheese making. Having tasted Westray Wife I was not at all surprised to learn that the Wilson’s herd was not black and white but chestnut red and white.

Washed rind cheeses are most usually semi soft and the dipping – or washing – increases the flavour of the cheese as it ripens, a process which it hastens. It also makes the cheeses smell – think Epoisses or Stinking Bishop and you will know what to expect. Westray Wife, although ‘aromatic’ when ripe, does not need to be kept in the garage and can safely be allowed into the house! It is a harder cheese, more akin to a single Gloucester. The washing helps to develop the flavour in a relatively young cheese and might also help keeping qualities in the Orcadian climate. The brine wash reflects the maritime atmosphere of the islands – other communities use the alcohol to hand, e.g wines and spirits for French cheeses (especially those of monastic origins) and apple juice from the cider apple of the same name for Stinking Bishop. Just a thought – I wonder what a whisky washed cheese would taste like?!

I like to buy Westray Wife from Kirkness & Gorrie, the deli in a hidden courtyard opposite St Magnus Cathedral in the middle of Kirkwall. At the moment it is the only place that we have found that sells it ‘off the block’ and not pre-packed. I like to eat the rind of the cheese – of course you can – and have found that the tasty outer can get stuck to the wrapper on the pre-cut and wrapped portions.

I have yet to meet Jason and Nina. Having moved into our new home at the beginning of October there hasn’t yet been the opportunity to head to Westray, one of the most northerly of the Orkneys, to say hello and visit the farm, but we shall go, just as soon as we can. Westray was the first outer island that we visited on our initial holiday here about 15 years ago. We had some of the best fish and chips ever in the Pierowall Hotel: this blog serves notice that we very much hope that they are still as good! Roll on the better weather and to meeting the Wilsons and chatting all things cheese. Then to going for fish and chips afterwards!

I’ve cooked my goose – in a pie!

In the winter months in Orkney you can buy a meat that is decidedly different – wild greylag goose. Only a few licensed game dealers are able to offer wild goose and it sells very quickly, so I picked up a packet of the filleted breasts in Shearers as soon as I saw them. William Shearer is an amazing shop and one that you will hear much more of as I settle into my new life here in the Northern Isles.

This weekend the goose was defrosted and minced – it was so vividly red with not a speck of fat. I cooked it into a slow, rich ragu for pasta in a very Italian style. There were leftovers for the next day, the inspiration for a goose pie with the other ingredients that were in the fridge. It was simply filo pastry, ragu, spinach and quark, with some olive oil, nutmeg and seasonings. I’ve written the recipe for a traditional Bolognese sauce so that everyone can make it – you will have to come up to Orkney if you want to make it with goose.