Saturday, 17 March 2007

Northern Delights

"Cockles and mussels, alive alive oh!". An Irish song of course, but it could well be adopted in these parts. Us Geordies have had a love affair with the mollusc that cling to our landlines in their vast numbers that go back to when time began. And rightly so, as they are cheap, plentiful and delicious.

Think of a classic mussel recipe now, go on. What is it? I can bet you have Moules Mariniere on your mind yes? And what a fantastic recipe it is. Very simple to make, variations aplenty, it is and will always remain my wife's favourite. Trying to think of more classic mussel recipes then becomes a struggle. A Northumbrian recipe for mussels involves cooking the mussels in boiling water, usually sea water (I would not recommend that now of course) and taking the flesh from the shells. Make a thick sauce involving a roux, wine, milk and cream which was then poured onto the mussels and eaten with hunks of bread. Bring it up to date with the addition of a good cheese and herbs then flashing it under a hot grill. Hey presto, mussel gratin.

As children, we used to call cockles a name that I can't repeat here, but it still makes me laugh. Sold in small paper cups on South Shields beach, drowned in vinegar, they made for a face clenching treat that often crunched as you chewed due to the grit inside the cockle. A much lovelier way of preparing cockles is as an addition to a hearty soup. Cockle soup is a recipe that derives from Newcastle Upon Tyne, the original containing just onion, celery and a thick cream sauce. Lovely, but bland. I've brought the recipe bang up to date with the addition of another food loved in these parts, leeks. Add a few potatoes, a hint of garlic and some fresh herbs, it makes for a very tasty and plentiful treat that celebrates the area in style. "Cockles and mussels,whey aye, whey aye oh!".

Cockle, Leek and Potato Soup
Serves 2

2 leeks, halved, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2 large potatoes, cut into 1cm cubes
3 large handfuls of cockles (sorry, no measurement as I picked them from the fishmongers myself!), washed thoroughly.
250ml white wine
200ml single cream
Fresh parsley and chives
Salt and pepper
Olive Oil

1 - Bring a large pan of water to the boil and simmer the potatoes until tender. Drain and reserve some of the water.
2 - In a large pot, heat some olive oil and sweat the leeks and garlic slowly until soft and aromatic.
3 - Pour in the wine, bring to the boil and reduce slightly. Tip in the cockles, place a lid on the pot and cook for 1-2 minutes until the cockles pop open in a satisfying manner. At this stage, you can tip the liquor through a fine muslin cloth to extract any grit that may linger. Personally, I'm hardened to the grit and don't bother, it will be scarce.
4 - Pour in 100ml of the potato water, the potatoes and the cream, and cook for a further minute. Season, but go easy on the salt as the cockles will release salt. Stir in a good knob of butter.
5 - Pour into large bowls, sprinkle liberally with the fresh herbs and eat with crusty bread. Delicious.

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