Recipe: Crab and prawn croquetas

Picture of crab and prawn croquetas with lemon slice and a glass of beer.
Hot croquetas, warm day, cool beer, perfection!
A couple of posts ago on Scrumptious Scran, I reviewed José Pizarro’s excellent cookbook of Spanish cuisine, Spanish Flavours. Following on from the review, I really wanted to try one of the recipes from the book for the blog; proof of the pudding (or pagination) is, after all, in the eating. So packed is Spanish Flavours with alluring recipes, one might think my choice of what to cook would be a tricky one, but this wasn’t the case at all. Newly armed with my trusty deep fryer, I knew I was going to attempt my take on José’s recipe for crab and prawn croquetas.

Whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Spain, or in a decent Spanish restaurant in the UK, I always make a habit of sampling croquetas, where these are on offer. And to be frank, you would be hard pressed to find a Spanish bar or restaurant that doesn’t serve some version of this tasty little tapa, so ubiquitous is the dish throughout Spain. Crisp and golden on the outside, yet soft, moist and flavour-packed on the inside, the beauty of croquetas lies both in their simplicity and versatility. Fundamentally, all a croqueta consists of is a thick béchamel sauce with assorted ingredients added to flavour this. This mixture is then chilled, formed into lozenge shapes, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried.

They key to making decent croquetas is ensuring the béchamel sauce is suitably thick but silky smooth, and choosing an appropriately flavoursome additive to incorporate in this. And there are many such ingredients from which to choose. I’ve sampled delicious chicken croquetas in Barcelona, ones flavoursomely made with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, in Madrid, and a fantastically fishy variety containing bacaloa (salt cod), in Seville. To be honest, it’s possible – within reason – to enhance a croqueta with whatever flavouring ingredient takes one’s fancy. Also, every bar and kitchen will have its own tweaks for each basic croqueta variety, making for a joyful pastime that is bar hopping and trying to asses which serves the best.

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Prayers answered at The Safari Lounge

Safari Lounge entrance.
A wildly great pub lies inside.
If I were religious, I would swear my prayers had recently been answered. For years I have been chanting the mantra “please might someone open a decent pub, with really good food, somewhere between Jock’s Lodge and Leith Walk”. But Edinburgh’s equivalents of the goddesses Edesia and Bibesia must have been sat atop Arthur’s Seat with their fingers in their ears – until now!

For the last few weeks, as I trudged back and forth between Scrumptious Scran Towers and my place of work in central Edinburgh, I noted that the old Station Bar on Abbeyhill’s Cadzow Place – a very traditional Scottish boozer – had been shut for a bit of a repaint. Then the posters appeared in its picture windows, announcing the arrival of The Safari Lounge. Might this be, at last, a decent new boozer in Edinburgh’s East End? Praise the lord! Or lady, or whatever be your deity of choice.

So this Friday, JML and I dropped by to see what pleasures this revamped Victorian bar might hold. Oh my! Walking into the place it doesn’t immediately look like a lot has changed. There is still much of the dark brown tongue and groove and ornate plaster work in evidence, except the walls are painted a subtle tangerine and white - taken together all vaguely reminiscent of a liquorice allsort. The original wooden bar has gone (despatched to another venue, to allow the nine rotten joists that lay beneath it to be replaced, apparently). And at the end of its subtly trendy replacement is a small kitchen – but what a kitchen…

A busy bar and kitchen at the Safari Lounge.
A busy bar and kitchen.
As we ordered drinks at the bar and scouted round for a table, it became apparent that the place is much bigger than I had realised, with a comfy, offset area to the rear of the bar, and a separate “Tiger Room” beyond that. Our drinks arrived – chosen from a great range of lagers and craft beers – together with a couple of menus. And that is when I realised why this place is confident enough to site an open kitchen at the end of the bar. At first glance it may appear a typical pub menu of salads, mezze, ‘lite bites’ hotdogs and burgers. Yet read on, and it isn’t just your standard bar food at all. It’s a menu put together with real care and thought.

So, we ordered a main each of a “Safari Dog” and a “Momo Fuku” Pork Bun, accompanied by a side of skinny fries and the intriguing “popcorn mussels” and watched mesmerically as the two chefs in the open kitchen grabbed ingredients and cooked and assembled the dishes before our eyes. Within ten minutes of ordering, the food arrived. JML had chosen what transpired to be very posh hotdog – a meaty, flavoursome sausage nestling in a brioche roll, drizzled in a mustard dressing and surrounded by a tangy onion and cider chutney. It was simply smashing. My shredded pork belly buns – there were two – consisted of beautifully succulent meat with vinaigrette coleslaw, all encased in ghostly white rice baps. Intriguing in how they looked, delicious in how they tasted. Both mains were served with a generous accompaniment of freshly prepared, perfectly dressed salad.

Book Review: 'Spanish Flavours' to savour

Jose Pizarro - Spanish Flavours.
An abundance of Spanish flavours under the cover.
Squinting through my sunglasses in Edinburgh this past weekend it was almost possible to imagine I was in the Mediterranean, as opposed to Scotland. Clear blue skies, glorious sunshine and – best of all – alfresco dining. Eating outside on a balmy summer’s day or evening is one of my favourite culinary pastimes – whether in the UK or somewhere more exotic, such as Italy or Spain. How appropriate then that I found myself sat in the green behind Scrumptious Scran Towers snacking on tapas whilst thumbing through Spanish Flavours, the latest book by Spanish-born and UK-based Chef, José Pizarro.

Growing up on a farm in the western Spanish region of Extremadura, it was whilst he was studying as a dental technician that Pizarro discovered his love for cooking. This lead to him attending cookery school, and ultimately a stint at Madrid’s award-winning restaurant Meson de Doña Filo where he cooked nuevacocina - the deconstructed approach to Spanish cuisine made famous by Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. Fourteen years ago Pizarro relocated to London in order to “try something different”. After achieving this as a key player behind London’s new wave of Spanish eateries such as Eyre Brothers, Gaudí and Brindisa he chose to open his own sherry and tapas bar José, closely followed by his restaurant Pizzaro. So much for the biography…

Regular readers will know that I love Spanish food, and in Spanish Flavours Pizarro demonstrates how well he knows his way around the mosaic-like cuisine which stem from what sometimes appears to be “…seventeen countries all rolled into one”. Identifying links between history and culture, climatic influences, and the use of common ingredients, the book examines in turn the recipes of Spain’s North, East, Centre, South and its Islands. And in doing so, in each chapter Pizarro provides a lyrical snapshot of the flavours, bars and restaurants, and dishes that make these regions so memorable.

As might be expected from an author grounded in nuevacocina, the recipes are not without a twist and turn, an invention that develops Spanish cooking in a slightly different direction. It’s subtle; the sort of tweaking that might traditionally have allowed one village to steal an edge over its neighbour when it came to claiming the best paella. Yet it’s an alchemy grounded in a mastery of really knowing how those ingredients exemplifying Spanish cooking truly work together.

Feature: Time to stop treating food poverty lightly

A foodbank parcel.
Foodbanks are growing in the UK (pic. Trussell Trust)
I had a bit of a wobble last week. Not the kind generated by a panna cotta as it slips out of a mould and onto a plate, either. This wobble was about whether I should be blogging about food at all.

The impetus for my potential about turn in terms of food writing was last Thursday’s BBC1 programme The Great British Budget Menu. Part of a season examining the impact of the financial “squeeze” endured by many people in Britain as a result of the financial crash and government austerity, the premise of the programme was food poverty – but with a twist. As the title suggests, it borrowed elements from the popular Great British Menu series, but this time three “celebrity” chefs were dispatched to investigate how real people’s eating habits were impacted by their being on limited incomes. Having completed their investigations as to how practical (or otherwise) it is to eat nutritiously on a very restricted budget, said chefs then hosted a “budget banquet” – yes a banquet! – that saw them compete to cook the tastiest dish for assembled guests and judges, whilst spending just one pound per head.

Now, I am not criticising per se a programme that sets out to highlight food poverty, quite the reverse. Yet this was an hour long slot on prime-time TV that pretty much failed to effectively get behind the issues that result in so many people in the UK struggling to feed themselves adequately, and the urgent action that’s needed address this inequality.

Instead, we were greeted with a shot of chef James Martin motoring along in his top-of-the-range Audi to assess the dietary inadequacies of a pensioner on the breadline. There was some genuine discussion between chef Richard Corrigan and a family in the Midlands who only have £1.66 per person, per meal to feed each member, and chef Angela Hartnett and a single mother on minimum wage, whose skipping meals to ensure her daughter is adequately fed means she has lost three and a half stones in six months. But then we were treated to scenes that would be comedic – if the issue at hand wasn’t so serious – as each chef trawled round endless supermarket aisles trying, and failing, to shop for ingredients for a meal using the very tight budgets available to the people they had just met. It wasn’t a programme totally without empathy, but it could have been so much more incisive, as Jack Monroe – a women who blogs about how she tries to feed herself and her child healthily, but with minimum resources – so eloquently assesses.

Certainly the programme had a few, short “talking head” interviews with politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as the odd supermarket executive, but there was no real debate about the causes of, and real solutions to, food poverty. And a whole edition of Question Time should be dedicated to the debate as to why in 2013 nearly a fifth of the population of the world’s eighth richest country (in terms of GDP) finds itself battling food poverty. I think what angered me the most was when Prue Leith – chair of the panel judging the “budget banquet” dishes – announced that the programme proved that it is possible to cook well on “next to nothing”. Well yes Prue, I’m sure anything is possible with the support of professional catering facilities and a whole television production crew to throw at the challenge…

Feature & Recipe - Frying delight: When the chips are down…

Really good looking chips (fries)
Golden, crispy & NO brown sauce!
I have a guilty secret. I’ve been coveting a piece of kitchen kit for a while, one that doesn't always have the best reputation as far as healthy eating is concerned. Last weekend, I finally transformed my latent desire into a tangible possession, with the purchase of my first deep fryer. A bargain in the sales, of course.

Please try not to judge me, being – as I am – someone who is (usually) an exponent of eating healthily and sustainably. I’m not about to recommend we all gorge ourselves on deep-fried Mars bars at every meal. Ideally, deep fried food shouldn't really be at the centre of anyone’s diet.

Yet there are certain recipes that simply cannot be realistically completed without resorting to immersing ingredients into boiling fat (or preferably oil). Not previously being the owner of a deep fryer has meant I have been missing out on cooking such delights as tempura, salt and pepper squid, croquetas, and “proper” chips (fries, to those of you who are west of the Atlantic).

Now before anyone butts in, I know it isn't always necessary to have a dedicated appliance to deep fry food. But heating up oil in a big saucepan on a stove, and trying to guess how hot it is – with potential disastrous consequences – is not for me. Knowing exactly at what temperature you are frying food is really important in ensuring proper cooking, and also limits the degree of oil that will be absorbed. That’s why I am the proud owner of a shiny new frying device that allows fantastic cooking control, thanks to its nice big variable thermostat. So, having removed the packaging and given the components a good wash, my next task was to decide what I was going to fry first.

Bite Magazine review: A happy return to The Shore

Beautiful hake on courgettes, Puy lentils & pancetta.
Beautiful hake on courgettes, Puy lentils & pancetta.
My second review for Bite Magazine has just appeared on the publication's website, and will hopefully also feature in the August print edition of the magazine.  This time JML and I had the pleasure to return to one of our old stomping grounds, The Shore Bar and Restaurant located, appropriately enough, in Leith's Shore district. You can read a wee taster of the review below, and the full article can be found on Bite Magazine's website. 

A happy return to The Shore

Re-acquaintance with a lost friend can be a marvellous thing. And such was the case when I recently revisited The Shore. Previously a regular haunt of mine, walking into the elegant oak-panelled and mirror-adorned bar that adjoins the restaurant, the welcome was as warm as I remembered.

Heavenly chocolate brownie & caramelised banana.
Heavenly chocolate brownie & caramelised banana.
Looking over the menu, we enjoyed an aperitif whilst awaiting our table – nice to see a place buzzing on a dreich Tuesday. The restaurant (now part of the Fishers group) offers inventive fare featuring Scottish ingredients, with seafood at the centre of a number of dishes.

Seated beside the restaurant’s huge windows, my dining partner and I had high hopes for our starters. We were not disappointed. My squid with chorizo, chickpeas and roast peppers (£6) had a great balance of flavours. Tender seafood, moist pimentón sausage and earthy pulses worked beautifully with a fruity tang and chilli heat. Across the table was a hockey-puck of ham and potato hash cake (£5.75), crisped in breadcrumbs, and generously adorned with hollandaise and poached egg. Real comfort food!

Review: Holyrood 9a - Great Beer & Burgers in the 'Burgh

Holyrood 9a bar.
Trad meets mod at the bar.
Located just a stone’s throw from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Holyrood 9a is a “must visit” if you like decent, reasonably priced pub food, and you are also partial real ale. Combining dark wood panelling, period ceilings and wood-burning stoves with an “industrial chic” bar and lighting, this is most definitely a welcoming establishment that is rarely quiet. A Staff that is friendly and knowledgeable also adds to the pub’s positive ambience.

First time visitors will be struck by the choice of craft beers – hailing from across the UK and even further afield – that are, somewhat unusually, served from the back of the imposing stainless steel and glass bar. A full menu of guest keg and cask ales is displayed on the blackboard at the pub’s entrance, and it’s possible to partake of a 1/3 pint taster before purchasing a full pint of any unfamiliar brew. Decent lagers are in abundance too, with Peroni, Pilsner Urquell, Cobra and Kozel amongst those available on draft, and as if this weren’t enough the pub also stocks nearly 30 bottled ciders and beers.  Holyrood 9a also holds a very decent range of wines and spirits for those not so keen on beer.

Burger, fries & 'slaw.
Burger, fries & 'slaw - resistance is futile...
However, a fine selection of drinks is only half of Holyrood 9a’s appeal, as the venue also offers a great menu of decent pub food, ensuring its shoe-box sized kitchen is always busy. Dominating a pretty extensive menu are the pub’s ‘Gourmet’ burgers which come in a substantial range of variations – from traditional beef through to lamb, pork and chorizo, and even including four vegetarian options. The menu indicates that the meat patties are sourced from leading Scottish butcher, Simon Howie and whatever the base of the burger you decide upon this will be augmented by a substantial array of accompanying sauces and toppings. Your burger of choice lands at your table encased by a toasted sourdough bun and served with sides of fries and home-made coleslaw, all rather trendily arranged on a wooden chopping board.