Sunday, 11 February 2007

On food shopping

Last year, my time spent scouring the winter sales landed me the following bargains. At Harvey Nicks, London's answer to Barney's, I scored a can of mispriced Ortiz ventresca tuna. Liberty's, the quirky, classy, designer haven, yielded up a bottle of Oliviers & Co. sherry vinegar. My final visit, to the vast expanses of Selfridges, forced an impulse buy. A bespoke bag of my favourite jelly beans (the banana, peanut butter and watermelon flavours, all underrepresented in the standard mixes) was the only thing that kept me from bursting into tears in the middle of women's sportswear.

Simultaneously in search of luxury (thank you, grandma) and bargains (thank you, mom), and with a backside somewhat larger than the rest of my size 0 self, I am not a very successful clothing shopper. So while I await the arrival of J.Crew in London and attempt a new jogging regimen (once prodigious, it has been replaced in recent years by an equally prodigious cheese-eating regimen), my consumer impulses invariably send me in the direction of the nearest food or wine retailer.

Here at least, I am rarely thwarted. With an Aladdin's cave of a European deli just down the road, a job on the city's best Parisian-style food shopping street and the possibility of a weekly sojourn to the justifiably renowned Borough Market, I've ample opportunity to pay homage to both maternal influences. In the last two days alone, our larder has gained the following:
  • 2 creamy crottin du chevre, sold by a charming, if incomprehensible, purveyor at Borough
  • delicate, slightly scraggly new season rhubarb, which was stewed with a handful of frozen raspberries (we give this the elegant moniker pink goo)
  • very dirty, sweet-smelling dwarf parsnips
  • a bargain bowlful of blood oranges, which I hope are bloodier than their plain-as-as-navel exteriors suggest
  • a bag of the city's best truffles, only slightly irregular
  • my first ever dried beans, bought with pocket change and used to make this
  • two slices of fantastically succulent bresaola, the ideal complement to a not-so-small glass of amontillado
  • a bottle of lush, lemony Vermentino, which paired with anchovy and rosemary-topped hake (did I mention the intimidatingly tattooed local fishmonger?) to make the best high-low meal of the weekend

I happened upon hake, and Sophie Grigson's fantastic recipe for it, this fall. Without question, this is the best fish dish I've ever made.

Hake with Anchovies and Rosemary (adapted from Fish to serve 2)

Total time: 45 minutes; Active time: 15 minutes

1-2 cleaned hake (heads left on, please), totalling about 1 1/2 pounds; 5 anchovy fillets, rinsed if salt-packed; 3-4 tbsp olive oil; 2 cloves garlic; 3-4 full sprigs fresh rosemary; 1 handful bread crumbs, ideally fresh and coarse; lemon; salt and pepper

Heat the oven to 350. Place the cleaned fish snugly in a lightly-oiled, oven and broiler-proof dish. Stick at least 1 rosemary sprig inside the cavity(ies). While the oven heats, gently heat olive oil, chop the anchovies and fry gently. When they have nearly melted (3-5 minutes), add the garlic, coarsely chopped, frying for another minute before removing from the heat. Pour this mixture over the fish, reserving a bit for the insides. Chop the remaining rosemary, mix with the bread crumbs and place on top, trying to cover the surface area fully. (Concentrate on the area surrounding the backbone, not the cavity.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in oven. The fish will likely take about 30 minutes to cook through and colour; you may choose to baste mid-way through with the excess oil in the pan. If the fish feels done but the crumbs have not yet browned, place the dish briefly (2-3 minutes max) under the broiler.

This is difficult to serve neatly. In my experience, it's preferable to portion it directly from the dish, adding lemon juice and additional salt and pepper to taste.

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