Moules, de-mystified

We get it. Mussels just look…. complicated. Much like other bivalves (oysters and clams, to name the big-hitters), they’re mired in a perceived element of risk- a kind of mollusc roulette, where every fourth shell you reach for could have you in some kind of gastro-intestinal hell-hole before the night is out. Everyone knows someone that knows someone that’s had a dodgy oyster, but in reality the two bottles of white plonk they consumed with it will have left them feeling less than healthy when morning comes, too.

So, I urge you to shed your prejudices, because bivalves are going to save the world*, and with that in mind, you should probably learn to get comfortable prepping and cooking the little gems.

MUSSELS- A ROUGH GUIDE

  1. Buy rope grown mussels- far more sustainable than the intensively farmed alternatives- from somewhere reputable. A good fishmonger (check their EHO rating) is preferable to a supermarket, but a supermarket fish counter is generally a safe bet too. You’re looking for about 500g per person, which looks like a lot, but believe me- you’ll get through them.
  2. Eat them on the day you buy them, or at an absolute push, the following one. When storing, make sure they can breathe. Loosely wrap them in newspaper to spare your fridge, but ensure the top is kept open.
  3. Once ready to prepare, empty them gently into a sink or colander. Rinse them very thoroughly with cold water, and get a system going: whack on the radio, and don’t rush. It won’t take long, but it’s quite a relaxing process if you allow yourself to sink into it.
  4. Take each mussel, and tap it firmly if it hasn’t already closed itself after being showered in cold water. Discard any that don’t shut, are broken or chipped, or feel bizarrely heavy when compared with a similar-sized one- it’s likely to be full of sand, which doesn’t do your dinner many favours.
  5. Remove any ‘beard’ by gently tugging at it (which can feel slightly barbaric, but you really don’t want to be eating it, believe me), and chip off any offensively large barnacles. You don’t have to be particularly precious with the latter.
  6. Once you’ve made your way through your horde, give them a final rinse. Any of the rejects can go into your food bin- I would recommend putting them into an outside one, unless you’re particularly fond of the smell of rotting fish.. it cranks up quite dramatically.
For reference: those that didn’t make the cut.

And a recipe… of sorts

To help demystify mussels even further, we’re not going to give you a proper recipe, because you don’t need one. They’re essentially peasant food, and don’t need over complicating. They’re also great for a fridge forage, and by-and-large work with most flavour profiles you can throw at them. But to nudge you along the way, work to the following:

You need:

Butter. A healthy knob of the stuff.

Something to flavour the butter: think delicate slices of fennel, or celeriac. Certainly a clove of garlic. Perhaps n’duja? Chilli & lemongrass work well. Banana shallots, halved, and shaken gently until golden. Thyme works nicely, especially if you throw in a little pancetta or streaky bacon. The world is your oyster (pun entirely intended here).

Whatever you do, leave it to get to know itself for a few minutes. If you’ve used anything with a fatty element (pancetta or bacon, etc) then make sure this has rendered nicely.

Mussels, obviously: prepped as above, and tossed in your flavoured butter for a couple of minutes,

Clockwise from top: prepped, bearded, cracked

Liquid: Cider is a safe (and glorious) bet. Coconut milk, with a little fish sauce & lime juice, works well if you’ve gone for a more aromatic beginning. White wine or dry sherry. You get the point.

Crank up the heat under your pan, and pour in liquid- you’ll need a decent glug of it, whatever it is. Allow it to bubble away rapidly for a minute, before adding in your mussels, shaking the pan gently and whacking on a lid.

Turn the heat down a smidge, and leave the mussels to steam. It will take about three minutes, and you’ll need to check that the shells have opened up entirely. Don’t boil them to death- they deserve better than that. 

A finisher: Good double cream stirred through the end (once off the heat, but still in the pan) for both white wine and cider, but you can spare that step if you’re looking for something less rich (though I’d like to press its cause here- it’s what I would do).

A final squeeze of lime juice can help with your coconut version- this incarnation often takes more tweaking at the end to balance the flavours, so get a spoon ready to work out what it needs. Fish sauce is your friend, and sometimes a tiny sprinkling of brown or palm sugar dissolved into the liquor can help, too.

Herbs: Coconut milk calls for coriander or basil (preferably Thai, but don’t lose sleep over it), whereas any other soft herb- traditional parsley, or perhaps dill if you’re a fan of aniseed- adds a good pop of colour and iron tang to the dish,

Then…

Crusty bread. Frites. Both of them. Double-carbing is imperative here.

It goes without saying that a crisp local cider or decent white wine doesn’t hurt to have in arm’s reach, either.

*Extra reading:

I mentioned flippantly at the beginning something about bivalves saving the planet… whilst this might have been a slight exaggeration, there really is a lot to be said for opting for mussels, whelks, clams et. al. over a fish & chip supper. It’s no secret that our relentless dredging of the seas to feed ourselves is wreaking havoc on the environment, and our ability to ignore that impact is rapidly decreasing. Put simply? We need to create new eating habits. We all know the headlines- less meat, better meat, seasonal food, local food, etc. etc. Hidden in amongst all of that is ‘EAT BIVALVE MOLLUSCS.’ The TL;DR on them is simply this- they don’t require ‘feeding’ in their farming, their harvesting is lower impact than anything else (particularly for rope-grown varieties), and they’re far more locally available than most of the fish flooding our markets (most our shellfish, for instance, comes from east Asia). But here’s a link to a great piece with a little more detail: 

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jan/23/aquaculture-bivalves-oysters-factory-farming-environment#:~:text=When%20it%20comes%20to%20aquaculture,includes%20oysters%2C%20mussels%20and%20clams.

… which is obviously from The Guardian, because what else would you expect from a hipster restaurant in an underpass?

A personal favourite read on molluscs (a niche category, admittedly) is the beautifully witty ‘Consider The Oyster’ by one of my all time favourite food writers, MFK Fisher. 

And with that, I shall leave you to your de-bearding…!

Aimee x

Half-a-dozen things you can do with oranges that aren’t marmalade

This might not be our most elegantly-titled post, but sometimes it’s good to be blunt about things. Nor is it a poetic ode to tangerines or the rest of the orange family; instead, it’s a brief and practical guide to things you can do with oranges that aren’t marmalade.

Two things we feel compelled to mention: firstly, we have nothing against marmalade. It’s glorious. We just feel as though the canon on marmalade-making probably doesn’t need adding to by us- ask your granny/neighbour/pam the jam for their best recipe, and you’ll be in safe hands. Secondly, we’re aware that we like to pipe on about ‘eating local’ quite a lot, and appreciate that you don’t tend to see ‘sumas being harvested on these shores too often. They are, however, seasonal within their individual varieties- Valencia oranges are one of the few Summer season citrus fruits. The vast majority actually reach their peak during the winter months, and provide a pretty welcome spike of flavour in amongst all the root veg and brassicas we associate with these darker, greyer days. As such, to ignore them on the basis we can’t cultivate them in the UK feels a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouth. A winter without tangerines, blood & Seville oranges hardly bears thinking about… or so we think, anyway.

And so, here it is- an frustratingly vague list of some things you might want to do with oranges that perhaps you hadn’t thought about:

Chicken, or any other poultry you might have to hand

This is hardly mind-blowing gastronomy, but it’s worth a reminder- lemon might be the obvious bedfellow for a chicken, but orange (or clementine) can work in much the same way, evoking Mediterranean, homely vibes. But take it in an entirely different direction- seek inspiration from the East, and combine with ginger, or anise, or pink peppercorn. Or, look towards South and Central America: ‘pollo asado’ is a glorious Mexican dish that makes the most of their smoky chillis, and will probably help wake up your taste buds after the relentless richness of all the Christmas fare.

Pickles

We’ll spare you a lengthy guide on pickling, here. Instead: any of the pickles you might routinely make, consider adding in some finely shredded orange zest. It gives depth to a piccalilli, and spike to anything lighter. We put some into our pickled fennel, along with pink peppercorn, which we then heap onto burrata. What *doesn’t* sound great about that?

Cake

On a similar vein, we’ll just politely suggest that you consider adding a little zest to your next baking foray; it’s unlikely to upset the chemistry at work in a cake recipe, so feel free to work with any tried-and-tested favourites. It works fantastically with anything chocolate/rye/ginger based, but also any lighter sponges- particularly if almonds get a look in.

Salads

Controversially, we believe salads have the power to really come into their own during the winter months. December to March see the arrival of the best salad leaves- think radicchio varieties (especially tardivo), castelfranco lettuce, chicory… frankly a limp and tasteless iceberg shouldn’t get a second thought, and a winter leaf salad makes a far more vibrant side to a heavy slow cook than your standard boiled or buttered green. These varieties look as stunning as they taste, and all pair phenomenally with winter citrus fruit. Blood orange is our favourite, but the (technically non-orange) pink or ruby grapefruit should get an honourable mention, for sake of balance.

Fish

Oily fish (mackerel, trout, salmon), or shellfish (particularly scallops) all marry very nicely. The latter two also benefit from a nice injection of chilli at the same time, if you’re that way inclined.

Carrots

Ah, this one is no secret. But a handy little tip to inject extra flavour into your roasted carrots on a Sunday: par boil them in squeezed OJ with any aromats or woody herbs you have to hand, before draining and finishing off in the oven with all the other malarkey. Win.

Negroni(s… because it’s never just one)

We would be utterly remiss in not mentioning a lata favourite- equal parts gin (pick a local favourite), sweet vermouth and campari, stirred with ice, poured over fresh ice, and garnished with a neat wedge of blood orange. Now what on God’s green earth could be a happier place than that?

Here’s to January… it ain’t all bad 😉

xx

Comfort, in cake form

If there were ever a time to go easy on oneself, we think perhaps this would be it. Whilst the days are getting incrementally longer, there’s no pretending that the lack of daylight seems to have a knack for making Lockdown 3.0 even harder than its predecessors. And so, we think it’s all about finding joy in the little things- things that might, in another time, have made you feel self-indulgent… even guilty. It might be a lie in. It might be that 5pm G&T. Or, most joyful of all, you might choose to seek comfort in cake form.

We’ll humble-brag enough to say we’ve had the recipe for this particular cake requested enough times to merit putting it in public domain, and a chilly, dark Sunday afternoon in January seemed to fit the bill nicely.

Pear, cardamom & hazelnut cake

For the pears:

3 Williams Pears, as ripe as possible, de-cored and cut into 6ths

Juice and zest of 1 lemon (preferably unwaxed, but if not it’s worth rubbing gently under hot water to remove the outer layers of wax. Trust us).

5 tbsp brown sugar

2 pinches of ground cinnamon (not ‘sweet’- regular is preferable here)  & 1 cinnamon stick

2 cardamom pods, crushed

1 star anise

1.       Place the pears and the rest of the poaching ingredients into a small, heavy-bottomed pan

2.       Cover with water (just) and the poach gently until tender and the liquid has reduced slightly. Remove from heat, remove pears from liquor, and reserve both.

For the crumble topping

100g plain flour

75g fridge-cold salted butter, cubed

2tbsp plus of demerara sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 small handful toasted flaked almonds

1.       Using cold hands, crumble the butter into the flour until it reaches breadcrumb stage, with a few good clumps. Add in the other ingredients.

For the cake base:

175g butter, cubed and slightly softened

85g caster sugar

85g light brown sugar

80g blanched hazelnuts

2 free-range eggs

165g plain flour, mixed with 2 ¼ tsp baking powder & a pinch of salt

3.5 tsp cinnamon powder

1 tbsp whole milk

1.       Grease and line a 23cm springform tin, and preheat your oven to 170 degrees.

2.       Beat the butter and two sugars together with electric beaters until creamy and whipped. Don’t skimp on this stage.

3.       Meanwhile (but whilst paying attention) toast your blanched hazelnuts in a dry pan until you can smell them, and they’ve turned a tempting golden colour. Remove them immediately to a board and chop them finely. If you use pre-chopped and roasted, these will still need going over with a knife.

4.       Add in your two eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate in between.

5.       Gently add in your flour mixture, your chopped nuts, and your cinnamon, using a spatula. Make sure you try to retain all the air in your batter.

6.       Gently loosen the batter with the milk, and then spread (with a light hand) across the bottom of your tin.

7.       Place the pears across the batter carefully, and then top with the crumble mix. Sprinkle with a couple of tbsp of demerara sugar, and place into oven for 53 minutes.

8. Whilst the cake is cooking, reduce the pear liquor until syrupy. Once your cake is out of the oven, pour syrup gently over the top whilst still warm.

Because we’re a restaurant and we have the time (and inclination) to be a little fancy, we serve ours with pear crisps- mandolined slices of pear dried slowly in a low oven, drizzled with honey and then dipped into more chopped hazelnut. We then top it off with a big ol’ scoop of Chiltern Ice Cream co. Brown Bread ice cream, which we’re smug enough to say they make just for us (but you can still get your hands on, if you ask us nicely). But, do what you like, and garnish with whatever else brings you comfort. Perhaps that G&T? 

Happy Sunday

xx

A post about aubergines

We *suppose* we ought to open with, ‘Well, hey there! Welcome to the Little Lata Blog. It’s nice to have you.’ We hope to provide you with a little inspiration, a bit of light-hearted (often irritatingly vague…) instruction, or, if nothing else, a pleasant respite from the bleaker corners of the internet as 2020 continues to go tits up.

Before we turn to the main purpose for today’s post (aubergines, FYI), we thought we would mention three things that might cheer up the end of the week:

  1. David Attenborough has joined Instagram, and already made it the best place on the Internet.
  2. A dog was rescued from a 30-foot hole in North Carolina using beef jerky to lure it to safety, which is the kind of light relief we all need to hear about at the minute.
  3. Apparently it is now autumn. This means multiple things- the return of the Knitwear & Pumpkin Spice Latte Selfie across all forms of social media; something of a Groundhog Day with every polite exchange you might have between now and Hallowe’en (‘I don’t know where the year’s gone!’/’I can’t believe it’s bloody October!…’ ad infinitum), and… we launch our new autumn menu! 

As such, we thought we would treat you to a recipe. We have just about enough business savvy to not kick off with something we’re going to try and sell you over the next three months, but instead are going to let you into the carefully guarded secrets of a Lata favourite; the caponata.

The late summer heat left us with a glorious glut of aubergines that you can still get your hands on, and the recipe itself is a beautifully reliable stalwart of Sicillian cooking. Like most Italian recipes, it’s seasonal, fiercely contested (every Sicillian will tell you THEIR caponata is the *only* way to cook caponata) and starts with a relatively frugal collection of ingredients made to sing with love, and the quality that comes from being at their best. It also epitomises what we at Lata love best about southern Italian cooking- contrast, unabashed discord between the sweet and sour elements, and zero attempt at subtlety. 

Our recipe has been tweaked endlessly by me over the years, but I’m pretty happy with this version. The chocolate adds richness, which is balanced out by the acidity of the wine, vinegar and capers. The tip is to use everything in season, and for goodness sake- salt, drain, and brown off your veg properly! There is little sadder than a pale, flobbery caponata soaked with oil. Whack on some good music, pour yourself a glass of Primitivo, and take your time. We’re in Sicily now- there’s no rush.

The dish can be served warm or cold, and will keep for a week nicely- if it lasts that long 😉

Caponata Agrodolce

3 large aubergines, diced to roughly 2.5cm

3 large courgettes, ditto

Table salt, a good handful

Veg oil

A few sprigs of thyme

Extra virgin olive oil

3 large red onions, sliced

450g ripe plum tomatoes, diced roughly (into 8ths, approximately)

120g cappucine capers, drained

120g pitted kalamata olives

2 tbsp brown sugar

120g sultanas

200ml red wine (nothing you wouldn’t still drink- that Primitivo would do nicely)

100ml red wine vinegar

3 tbsp grated dark chocolate- as good a quality as you can get hold of. We use callebaut.

Toasted almond flakes to garnish

Flat leaf parsley, to garnish

Mint leaves, to garnish

Salt the diced aubergine & courgette liberally, tossing well to coat. Leave this to drain in a colander over the sink for a minimum of 30 minutes.. Pat dry with a jay cloth (or decent kitchen roll).

Heat 1cm of veg oil in the largest pan you have until it passes the breadcrumb test (bread will sizzle and turn golden upon being dropped in), and batch-fry the aubergines and courgette with the leaves from the thyme sprigs until golden. Don’t overcrowd the pan, and allow oil to come up to temperature in between. Drain the batches on kitchen paper and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan on a medium to low heat. Fry the red onion with a pinch of sea salt until it softens a little, and begins to take on colour.

Add your diced  tomatoes in for five minutes or so, stirring gently.

Add in your drained capers, pitted olives, sultanas, sugar, vinegar & grated chocolate. Bring to an enthusiastic simmer, before adding the aubergine & courgette back in. Lower to a more relaxed bubbling for an hour.

Serve at room temperature for the truly authentic experience, with toasted flaked almonds, torn mint, parsley and an extra glug of decent extra virgin olive oil. Warm foccacia and the rest of that Primitivo will help things along just beautifully.

That’s all for this week- keep an eye on our Instagram where we’ll no doubt be bombarding you with content about all the lovely new menu dishes. Until then keep being nice to each other, and try to remember that a good plate of food with people you love is enough to fix most things.

Love,

Aimee

www.latalata.co.uk