So Katie goes away for a few days with work, and in that time the kitchen somehow sprouted a makeshift smoker. And I don’t know why I haven’t done it before!
This was a very spontaneously thought out and prepared lunch. All I knew that day was that I wanted to make something with sardines, but for the life of me I couldn’t decide on what to do with them. I had thought of curing them in blackcurrant juice, which might have looked beautiful but tasted frankly disgusting, or simply grilling them, which wouldn’t have been very original for me. It got to the point where I was cycling back from the fishmongers with a bag of fish and still didn’t know their fate. And then the idea of smoking them came into my head.
Although I like to stretch myself and try as many different cooking techniques as I can, I have always thought that smoking was a step too far for the amateur cook. Only spending vast amounts of money on a purposely built, outdoor smoker would make this possible, and I had one scribbled down next to a sous-vide machine and double oven on my unrealistic wish list. But although cold-smokers might be a little more difficult to recreate, a makeshift hot-smoker turned out to be a doddle to make. Just make sure you open the windows and turn the extraction fan on! Anyone really interested in homemade methods such as this should check out the writing of Tim Haywood. Not only is it funny, but the things that he makes with often household items are brilliant and inspiring.
I thought that I would be able to make a smoker out of a very deep oven tray with a cooling rack suspended above, all sealed up with trusty foil. And I was kind of amazed that it worked, and that I didn’t burn down the flat in the process! The fish really was delicious, lovely and moist in the middle and smokey on the outside. As for the flavour of the smoke, I just experimented with a mixture of thyme, pink peppercorns, rice and sugar. This might not be the right thing to use for seasoned smokers, but it worked just fine for this dish. I only wanted to lightly smoke the fish, but you could leave them in for longer to achieve a crispier, stronger result. Instead I finished the cooking with a blowtorch to crisp up the skin. It was a treat, and could well be the start of a whole lot of experimentation.
The rest of the dish was formed by things I was lucky enough to have at home. I had clams in the fridge for a meal the next night, and the mayonnaise was made out of store cupboard ingredients. All in all it took me about half an hour, although the kitchen was a proper mess by the end!
Serves 2 for lunch
For the sardines:
3 whole sardines, scaled and gutted
Salt and pepper
For the smoker:
3 large handfuls of rice
1 large bunch of thyme
2 tbsp pink peppercorns
2 tbsp caster sugar
For the clams:
30 clams, cleaned of grit
1 glass dry white wine
For the steamed leeks:
2 young leeks, washed and cut into long rounds
1 tsp butter
Salt and pepper
For the crispy cavolo nero:
3 leaves cavolo nero, shredded finely
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 lemon, zest only
Salt and pepper
For the saffron and lemon mayonnaise:
2 egg yolks
1/2 level tsp english mustard
1 garlic clove
Splash white wine vinegar
Small pinch saffron
300ml rapeseed oil
1-2 lemons, juice only
Salt and pepper
First get the smoker ready. Line the bottom of a deep oven tray with foil and scatter over the rice, thyme, pepper and sugar. Put a shallow bowl with a little water in at each end, and use these to support a cooling rack a couple of inches above the base. Create a lid out of a few sheets of tin foil, making sure that it will seal properly and sit a couple of inches above the cooling rack. Set aside for lighting later.
Now make the mayonnaise. Add the garlic clove, salt and pepper to a food processor with a small bowl and blitz well. Top up with the mustard, vinegar, saffron and egg yolks and mix again until well combined and very frothy. Leaving the mixer on, pour in the oil in a very slow trickle, getting steadier as you reach the end. The mayonnaise should be very thick and emulsified. Squeeze in the juice of one lemon, mix again and taste. Add more lemon and seasoning as required, then transfer to a squeezy bottle.
Prepare the sardines by removing the head, cutting open the belly cavity and removing any innards. The next step is to butterfly the fish by carefully running the tip of a sharp knife between the fine ribcage and the flesh on each side, then slowly easing the backbone free with your fingers. Cut them at the tale end so you are left with both fillets connected and bone free. Cut into separate fillets and put onto a plate. The key with handling the sardines is to be very gentle as the skin and flesh tears really easily.
Put the oil for the cavolo nero into a medium frying pan and set to a medium-high heat. When hot, add the shredded leaves with the lemon zest and seasoning. Cook for a minute or two, of until very crispy, then remove to a plate lined with kitchen roll. Grate over the nutmeg, mix well and check the seasoning. Set aside.
Heat a medium saucepan to a medium-high temperature. When hot, add the clams and cook in the dry pan for a couple of seconds before adding the white wine. Cover the bubbling pan tightly and gently shake a couple of times. Cook until the clam shells open, about 2-3 minutes, then transer to a bowl. Remove the clams from the shells with a spoon, keeping about ten of the shell halves for plating up. Set aside.
Half-fill a saucepan with a steaming attachment with salted water and bring to the boil.
When the water is nearly boiling, start up the smoker. Run a blowtorch over thyme and rice mixture in the bottom of the oven tray until charred and smoking, then put the tray on the hob over a medium heat and seal with the foil. While the smoker is heating up, dry the outside of the sardines with kitchen paper, season well and rub with a small amount of oil. When the smoker is hot and the cooling rack is up to temperature, carefully lay each fillet skin down on the rack and quickly reseal the edges. Check after 3-4 minutes; the fish should be cooked and the skin starting to turn a golden colour. Carefully remove the fillets from the rack using a palette knife and place skin up on a plate. Using the blowtorch, run the flame over the fillets until the skin starts to crisp up.
While the fish is smoking, steam the leeks for 3-4 minutes or until jest tender. When cooked, brush with a little butter and season.
To plate up, position 5-6 pieces of leek onto each plate. Lay three sardine fillets per portion, and scatter some of the crispy cavolo nero around the plate. Arrange the clams over the top, leaving some of them in their shells, then dot the mayonnaise in the gaps.