Every year, I still find myself amazed when Valentine’s Day comes around, as it seems to have such a huge following nowadays.
People plan romantic meals for two well in advance, whether that’s dining out or trying something at home to impress their loved one.
I have to admit that, because I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for years – and now having two young boys – my wife and I have never really made a big celebration of the day. When we do get the rare opportunity to have an evening to ourselves, it tends to be enjoyed when we’re away, or on dates that are personally special to us. On those special occasions, nothing beats sharing foods – big platters of our favourite dishes laid in the middle of the table to enjoy and linger over.
When Valentine’s Day arrives, many people’s thoughts turn to ingredients considered to have aphrodisiac qualities. In the past, I’ve suggested oysters, lobster and champagne to get you in the mood but this year I wanted to suggest something different; a recipe that’s bound to make you feel as though you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, but is actually pretty simple if you find the best ingredients and take your time over the preparations.
For me, nothing beats the classic French dish fruits de mer – a glorious celebratory platter of the freshest, most tempting shellfish, with a few of those aphrodisiacs featured in there too. Aside from any romantic connotations, this is any seafood lover’s heaven. It is a dish that can be appreciated and enjoyed slowly. The real joy is in the sharing – opening each shell and enjoying the treasure inside. It’s a dish I love to share with my wife Michaela on the few occasions we get to dine out together.
People always think about shellfish as being quite romantic and it really is a lovely way to eat. You break down any barriers by getting lost in the dish, which forces you to use your hands, get stuck in, share the best bits and go on this journey round the sea. What could be more fun?
As well as being a great dish for sharing, this recipe is often thought of as real chefs’ food. We work during the hours most people enjoy dinner but this is gloriously light and I often indulge in it after service if a bit of a celebration is called for. My colleague Dominic Jack, from Castle Terrace Restaurant, and I will head along to Ondine to enjoy Roy Brett’s fruits de mer and take the time to catch up and share ideas.
The beauty of making this dish yourself is that there are no rules. You can use any kind of shellfish you like and it’s a great way to introduce or try some of those wonderful forgotten or less used shellfish. Cockles and clams are a great find if you can source them from your local fishmonger and are largely under-rated. The small, heart-shaped shells of cockles contain small, delicate morsels of flesh that you can enjoy raw or, alternatively, you can steam or boil them depending on your taste. They are available all year round and though you need to prepare them gently, they have a delicious salty flavour.
Razor clams – or ‘spoots’ as they are also known for the way they ‘spoot’ up the water – are relatively easy to get hold of and are superb. The secret is not to over-cook them or they will end up chewy and unpleasant. Make sure you always remove them from the pan as soon as they spring open.
Langoustines are one of my favourite Scottish ingredients. The colder the waters in which they are fished, the better they taste, which is why Scottish langoustines are known as some of the very best in the world. If you are going to buy them live, make sure they are still moving. And often the bigger ones are better value as you’ll get more fleshy meat from them.
We’re so lucky to have access to these wonderful ingredients fresh from our shores and a visit to your fishmonger is the best place to start for the freshest produce. Buy the seafood as late as you can – if you can buy it on the day, all the better. It is sure to impress on any night of the year.
FRUITS DE MER
You can use any fresh shellfish for this recipe – whatever your fishmonger has fresh that day
150g cockles (or winkles)
6 razor clams
6 scallops in their shells
1 whole crab
For the court bouillon
1 fennel bulb
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 shallots, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
2 cloves garlic
1 carrot, diced
6 cardamom pods, crushed
For the mussels and razor clams
splash olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
150ml white wine
1 tsp chopped parsley
1 lemon, cut into quarters
seaweed (to garnish)
Wash all the shellfish. Run the shells lightly under cold water and remove the beards, sand and impurities from the cockles, clams, mussels and razor clams.
To prepare the court bouillon
This is a stock that will allow the flavour to infuse into the shellfish.
Add the fennel bulb, fennel seeds, chopped shallots, peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, carrot and cardamon pods to a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil and cook for ten minutes.
Add the cockles and cook for five to ten minutes.
Add the langoustines and cook them for three or four minutes, then remove both the cockles and langoustines and set aside.
Remove the roe from the scallops if you wish, but I like to leave it on as it makes it look more dramatic.
Poach the scallops in the court bouillon for two or three minutes, then also set aside.
To prepare the crab
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Make sure the water is well salted as this will bring out the flavour in the crab. Holding the crab from behind, carefully plunge it into the boiling water. When it hits the water the temperature will drop.
Bring the water back to the boil and, as soon as it starts bubbling, remove the pan from the heat, leaving the crab to cool in the water for ten to 15 minutes.
Remove the crab from the water.
To prepare the mussels and razor clams
You want to prepare the mussels and razor clams traditionally with a sauce of white wine, shallots and parsley.
Heat a frying pan and add a splash of olive oil. Add the shallots, white wine and parsley and heat over a medium heat.
Slowly add the mussels individually, then place a lid over them as soon as they begin to open. Remove the mussels and set aside.
Add the razor clams to the shallots and white wine and cook just until the razor clams open and no more, before removing from the heat.
To prepare the oysters
To open the oysters simply press your knife into the hinge, slipping the blade along the shell, avoiding spilling any of the juices.
For me, this dish is always best if it’s cooked just before eating as you want it to be as fresh as possible. If the shellfish are still warm, it doesn’t matter.
Take a deep platter of crushed ice and place all the shellfish on top. Add sliced lemons and seaweed to garnish.
Serve with lots of fresh bread and home made mayonnaise.