Spring is very much on the way in Languedoc – the almond trees have been blooming for some time now, and I just had to share the wonderful flowers with you!
And what better way of celebrating spring than to cook some wonderful food with good friends. We got together once more in Narbonne, this time to try our hand at tapas, fish baked in salt, and key lime pie. As before we started our food-fest with a trip to Narbonne market halls. The selection there is just too wonderful, and great discipline is required not to come away with far more than one needs!
The sepions are tiny squid and we got some for the tapas. The fish came from the stall just around the corner. We decided that we needed two and ended up with around 3kg of seabream for the seven of us – too much??
One of my favourite stalls is to one side and stocks a selection of wonderful dried hams and other Spanish charcuterie. The hand-cranked machine is used to cut beautifully fine slices of dried ham, and it’s fascinating to watch the ham falling like silk ribbons onto the waiting paper. We got some for our tapas, and I bought some more to take home for later in the week. After a few more stops for creme fraiche, bread and a few vegetables we headed back to the ranch again, weighed down with bags.
As so often I got too stuck into the cooking and as a consequence did not take nearly enough photographs. I promise to try harder next time!! 🙂
The recipe we used for the fish came from Jamie Oliver; I’ve included a link to it here. The salt mix contained lemon zest and fennel seeds, along with egg and a little water. So here are the two seabream, already stuffed with parsley and basil, on a bed of salt. The fishmonger had gutted the fish for us, and explained that one of them had the roe inside, so he’d emptied them both via the gills instead of cutting the belly open. Soon they were covered with the remaining salt mix and set aside while we prepared the rest of our feast.
Our tapas selection included some stuffed cherry bomb peppers, bought at the market, tomato toasts (slices of toasted french bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and half a tomato and drizzled with a tiny bit of olive oil), serrano ham, and baby squid. Have you ever prepared squid? Well, I hadn’t either!! There’s a kind of hard, bone like plate inside the soft body, which needs to be removed and the tentacles need to be pulled off the body, which needed to be emptied and cleaned. Messy work! the “beak”, the squids mouth, needs to be cut off the tentacles along with the eyes. Eventually I got them all done, and after rinsing the larger bodies were cut into pieces. The squid were cooked very briefly with some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley. There must have been some ink left as they turned black-ish (no, not burnt!!), and they did taste delicious.
For dessert there was key lime pie. Well almost, as the limes came from Mexico instead of Florida, but that was good enough. The recipe we used comes from this website. We’d initially planned to make two different versions, one which was to be baked and the other which sets without baking. In the end we made two different types of crust but only made one filling, which turned out to be more than enough.
Making the filling is very simple, the lime peel is grated into a bowl, the limes are then juiced and the condensed milk and creme fraiche mixed with the remaining ingredients – it does thicken magically as the recipe says! Poured into the prepared crust and chilled for a couple of hours, then decorated. We decided that the creme fraiche to decorate/serve would have been overkill.
Look at those beauties!! They did taste every bit as good as they looked and we did eat them both!
Now back to the fish: Jamie’s recipe says “Pre-heat the oven to full whack” and to cook the fish for 15 minutes. I do like his ideas but I intensely dislike sloppy instructions like that – every oven is different and “full whack” just doesn’t do it for me. The fish monger in the market hall had told us to cook the fish at 180 degrees for 40 – 45 minutes and that’s what we did. It turned out absolutely perfect, juicy and tender. I found that the fennel seeds and lemon zest in the salt mixture added no flavour whatsoever, so I would skip that next time. Interestingly enough, the fact that we had left the fish to stand for about 45 minutes meant that the salt had had a chance to penetrate the flesh of the fish.
We did attempt Jamie’s recipe for aioli, which promptly split, despite following instructions. So we started again using an egg yolk as the base and added the split mixture slowly, resulting in a very delicious aioli, which went very well with the fish.
We also opted to make a different salad to go with the fish, with endives and citrus fruit, to counterbalance the richness of fish and aioli. All in all a wonderful meal, and everyone agreed that they would be happy to cook the fish in a salt crust again. Do give it a try, and let me know what you think!
And here is one last picture of the almond blossom for you…