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James Strawbridge: Salt and the Art of Seasoning

Salted Cornish Sardines and Tomato Salad


Some dishes originate in a place rather than from a person. This recipe is a celebration of the history of Cornwall and the quality ingredients still available here today. When it is sardine season out in Mount’s Bay, the Newlyn fishing fleet catch plenty of oily sardines. Known as pilchards by the Cornish, sardines are a great sustainable fish option and they respond very well to intense heat under the grill or on the barbecue.

© James Strawbridge

How to Dry Cure Sardines


Salting sardines, or pilchards as the Cornish call them, has shaped the local landscape where I live. Local beaches and streets bear the names of ‘palace’ and ‘cellar’ to indicate they used to be where the oily fish were salted and pressed. There are even huer’s huts dotting the coastline where lookouts would shout to the local fishing boats when a shoal was spotted in the bay.


To me, salting sardines is a simple act of time-travel that we can all have a go at. Sardines can be lightly salted to eat in a day or so, or heavily salted to be stored for a long time. I tend to cure my sardines for between 3–5 days if I’m using them in a stew or a sauce and for just 12–24 hours if I’m throwing them under the grill. You can even cure them for 45–60 minutes if you just want a bit more punch to them when cooking.


Mix all the cure ingredients together in a small bowl (see ingredients list on facing page). Start by salting the sardine fillets with an even layer of the cure mix for up to 24 hours. To do this, rub them gently all over with the cure mix so you don’t damage the small fillets, then leave on an open tray in the fridge. The flesh will darken slightly in colour and they will firm up a little.Wash off the cure under cold running water, then pat dry with kitchen paper.


Salted sardines are delicious cooked on a barbecue or pickled with a sweet, spicy vinegar. Store them in an airtight container in the fridge until you are ready to cook them. They will keep in the fridge for up to 1–2 weeks.


© James Strawbridge

Serves 2


Ingredients:


12 sardine fillets (skin-on)


For the cure:


1 tbsp Cornish sea salt flakes

1 tsp golden caster sugar

½ tsp fennel seeds

½ tsp coriander seeds, crushed

½ tsp dried chilli flakes


For the grilled sardines:



6 dry-cured sardine fillets (skin-on, see above)

2 heritage tomatoes, sliced

1 tbsp olive oil

Pinch of cracked black pepper, plus extra to serve

Small pinch of sea salt

2 slices sourdough


For the salad:


12 cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tbsp capers in brine or vinegar, drained

1 garlic clove, finely diced

2 tbsp chopped basil

1 tbsp chopped parsley

Handful of watercress

6 pitted black or green olives, sliced

Handful of pink pickled onions, drained

2 tsp red wine vinegar

1 tsp olive oil

Pinch of salt


Method


Preheat the grill or barbecue to high. Place the cured sardine fillets on a baking tray with the sliced tomatoes and drizzle with the olive oil. Season with the black pepper and salt. Grill (skin-side up under a grill, skin-side down on a barbecue) for 3–4 minutes until the skin starts to blister and blacken. Turn halfway through grilling, but avoid moving much when cooking to prevent damaging the skin.


Meanwhile, toast the sourdough and prepare the salad in a large bowl. For the salad, toss the tomatoes, capers, garlic, herbs, watercress and olives with the pickled onions and season to taste with the vinegar, oil and salt. You shouldn’t need much oil or salt as the oily salted sardines will perfectly season the dish for you.

Serve the grilled tomatoes and salad on the sourdough toast and top with the grilled sardines. Make sure you pour over the fish oil and tomato juice from the tray and finish with a little more black pepper and a sprinkling of herbs.

 

A Rainbow Pickled Veg Plate


Rainbows spring to mind when you see this on the plate – the pot of gold is realising just how simple these are to make…

Salting vegetables draws out some of their moisture and leaves them ready to draw back in your culinary breath – the calming process of osmosis in action like a yoga class breathing pattern. A slice of cucumber or a ribbon of beetroot can keep its crunch after salting while soaking in the flavours of your choice, immersed in a so-sweet pickling bath.

It’s intoxicating when you start pickling salted vegetables yourself. They provide a kaleidoscope of colours – the entire colour wheel – along with high-frequency tastes, textures coming alive as you bite and the seasoning poised and beaming, shining through blinding rays of delicate primary light.


© James Strawbridge

Serves 6 (all the pickled veg together)


2 tbsp fine Himalayan crystal salt


For the carrots:


6 baby carrots, peeled

150ml / ¼ pint mirin

1 tbsp caster sugar

1 tsp shichimi togarashi (a Japanese seven-spice blend)


For the cauliflower:


¼ cauliflower, broken into florets

150ml / ¼ pint white wine vinegar

1 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp sliced (peeled) fresh turmeric root

1 tsp fenugreek seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp dried chilli flakes


For the beetroot:


2 beetroots, peeled and thinly sliced

150ml / ¼ pint red wine vinegar

2 tbsp light soft brown sugar

1 tsp za’atar


For the radishes:


6 radishes, finely sliced

150ml / ¼ pint cider vinegar

1 tbsp caster sugar

4 garlic cloves, sliced

1 jalapeño chilli pepper, de-seeded and sliced

Pinch of dried chilli flakes


For the cucumber:


1 cucumber, crinkle-cut using a retro slicer, or sliced into thin discs

150ml / ¼ pint cider vinegar

1 tbsp caster sugar

2 bay leaves

1 tbsp chopped dill

1 tsp yellow mustard seeds


For the red cabbage:


¼ red cabbage, finely sliced

150ml / ¼ pint sherry vinegar

1 tbsp light soft brown sugar

1 tsp wholegrain mustard

1 sprig rosemary


For the onions:


2 red onions, finely sliced

150ml / ¼ pint cider vinegar

1 tbsp caster sugar

1 tsp ground sumac


Method


Slice all the vegetables thinly and uniformly so that they cure and pickle at a similar rate to each other, except leave the carrots whole and the cauliflower broken into florets. Arrange on a large plastic tray (keeping the different veg separate from each other) and sprinkle evenly with the fine Himalayan salt. Leave for at least 1–2 hours at room temperature or overnight in the fridge below 5˚C / 41˚F.


Prepare all the pickling solutions, one at a time (rinse the pan out between making each solution). In a small saucepan, heat the vinegar and sugar with the corresponding spices until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to the boil. Transfer each of the salted vegetables into separate small bowls, then pour over the matching hot pickling solution.


Toss each veg in its pickling solution to coat evenly and then leave submerged to cool back to room temperature, stirring each bowlful of veg every 5 minutes.


Remove each veg from its pickling solution using a slotted spoon while the veg still has a bit of bite and before it softens too much. Discard the pickling solution, aromatics and spices before serving. Serve all the pickled veg as a colourful side at a barbecue or as a starter with a cooling labneh dip.


Once drained off, these pickled vegetables will all keep together in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 2–3 weeks.

 

Salt Chocolate Truffles with Gorse


Silver birch is my favourite tree and gorse is my favourite flower. Both are leagues ahead of any rivals. There’s a saying down here in Cornwall that kissing is only out of fashion when the gorse is not in bloom – because gorse flowers almost all year long. It’s prolific, fragrant, bright and wild, and I think gorse smells like sweet coconut and cut grass mixed with honey.

When the wind blows on a warm day, the exotic aroma rides vanilla skies as the gusts rise over the coastal paths, forcing you to close your eyes and breathe in the perfume surprise. It’s the closest I will ever come to Caribbean island-living.


© James Strawbridge

Serves 24


For the truffles:


225g / 8oz 70 per cent dark chocolate, roughly chopped

50g / 1¾oz double cream

200g / 7oz Salted Caramel Sauce


To coat:


2–3 tbsp cocoa powder

1 tbsp finely sliced gorse flowers

1 tsp sea salt flakes

150g / 5½oz 70 per cent dark chocolate, roughly chopped


Method


Make the truffle mixture. Over a bain-marie, melt the chocolate, then stir in the double cream. Remove from the bain-marie when it looks velvety and gently stir in the salted caramel sauce, but only stir until the mixture is smooth and glossy (if you stir it too much, it may separate), then put it straight in the fridge to chill.


After 2–3 hours of chilling, the truffle mix should be firm enough to shape into balls. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the truffle mix and form into small, similar-sized balls (each slightly smaller than a walnut – you’ll make about 24). Place on a plate and return to the fridge for 30 minutes to set solid.


For the coating, mix the cocoa powder, gorse flowers and sea salt, then spread out on a marble block or a baking parchment-lined baking tray. Melt the chocolate over a bain-marie.


Dip the truffles into the melted chocolate and then immediately roll in the salty, gorse-flowered cocoa to coat. Leave to set. Store in an airtight container in the fridge and try not to eat all of them at once. I’m lucky if a batch lasts a week in our house.

 





These recipes are extracted from James Strawbridge’s new book, Salt and the Art of Seasoning (Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2023, £27) and are reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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