One of the things I really love about cooking is discovering something new. To me, it is all about creating different recipes and constantly looking for alternative food combinations and ingredients.
At home, I especially like experimenting to make my cooking more interesting and fun, and prefer to sit down for a full meal rather than just eating small tasters, which is what I do all day in the restaurant.
I'm always on the lookout for new ways to make my food stand out in some way; ways to improve it and take it to a higher level.
Although many chefs enjoy trying different ingredients, it is also a skill to be able to use those ingredients in dishes that will inspire and show the passion and personality of the chef.
I admire those brave chefs who are not afraid to use unusual foods and put their own personal twist on them, and so I enjoy eating food where thought has clearly gone into the preparation and cooking.
One of those special ingredients is sea kale, and I have only just started serving it to my customers at The Kitchin.
In my eyes, it's a hidden Scottish treasure, which is only available for six weeks of the year, usually from January to March. As we are now coming toward the end of the season, I am trying to use it as much as I can and experiment with it in my early spring cooking.
One of my trusted suppliers and friends, Willie Little, introduced me to the rare plant.
It took me a few days to put it on the menu and he kept calling me to ask why. The truth is I really enjoyed experimenting with it and wanted to make the dish absolutely perfect before serving it to my guests. I have since completely taken to this plant and serve it with freshly caught Orkney scallops.
Sea kale is very expensive and can be difficult to get hold of, which means I need to be careful with how I use it. It is one of the few vegetables that is truly native to Britain and grows along the shores of the east coast. Historically, fishermen's wives would cover it with sand and gravel until it was ready then would pick off the shoots and sell it on. However, it is now illegal to pick sea kale or grow it wild.
Sea kale is sometimes known as winter asparagus and I actually get mine from the same supplier as I get my asparagus - Sandy and Heather Pattullo from Eassie Farm, near the Glamis Estate in Angus. The Pattullos are now the only farm to grow sea kale in the whole of the UK and so are very important to me.
Sandy started growing sea kale as a hobby over 20 years ago and still enjoys growing and cooking with it. He starts the process in October and this has been particularly tough season because of the cold snap at the end of the year.
Sea kale relies heavily on specific growing conditions and precise temperatures - usually 15C - to avoid the shoots being damaged.
At Eassie Farm, the crop is force grown, just like its seasonal partner, rhubarb. It has to be picked at just the right time too, to avoid it turning green and bitter in taste. The forcing process creates a real delicacy - white, blanched stems with a subtle, tender, almost nutty flavour, sometimes likened to a cross between asparagus and celery. The blanched shoot is the best bit of sea kale in my opinion and I prefer to use it in my cooking rather than the leaves.
As with a lot of Scotland's wonderful produce, a lot gets sent straight to London and we natives never get to taste it. Eassie Farm sends most of its produce to the capital's food markets or directly to top restaurants such as River Cafe and Cafe Anglaise. However, I'm really lucky that we have a close relationship and Sandy always ensures I get my fair share.
If you try cooking sea kale yourself, don't over-complicate it or cook it too long. All you need to do is give it a brief boil. It can be matched with most kinds of fish or shellfish because its slight sweetness compliments all kinds of seafood. In my eyes, it's a marriage that probably stems from its heritage of growing at the shorefront next to the ocean. It presents a true plate of nature itself.
Roasted Sea Kale and poached egg
100ml white wine vinegar
splash of olive oil
one bunch of sea kale
1 tbsp chopped shallots
2 free-range eggs
Preheat oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Boil a pan of water with the vinegar for poaching the eggs.
Meanwhile, heat a non-stick frying pan, add the olive oil and the stalks of sea kale with salt and sweat gently for three or four minutes. Place in the oven to roast for a further three minutes until tender.
Swirl the water in the poaching pan to create a whirlpool, crack the eggs into a cup then tip gently into the water to poach for three minutes.
Serve the roasted kale on the plate with a poached egg on top.
Scallops with sea kale
1 bunch sea kale
splash of olive oil
1 tbsp chopped shallots
juice of half a lemon
250ml chicken stock
1 tsp chopped olives
100g curly kale
2 extra-large scallops (hand dived)
Slice the sea kale at an angle. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan, add the olive oil and kale and sweat gently for three to four minutues. Season with salt.
Add the shallots and lemon juice and sweat for another minute.
Add the butter and chicken stock and cook with a lid on for six or seven minutes.
Once cooked and the liquid is reduced, add the olives and curly kale. Meanwhile, heat a non-stick pan, season the scallops and cook quickly on either side.
Serve the two types of kale in a bowl with the liquid and the scallops on top.
Sandy Pattullo, Eassie Farm (tel: 01307 840 303)
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 20 March, 2011