Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Seaweed for Christmas?

When I saw the news last week that the first licence to gather seaweed in England was issued to Rory MacPhee of Falmouth in Cornwall I initially thought it was granting permission to use the seaweed as fertilizer (being the keen gardener that I am!). Then on reading the article properly I discovered the seaweed licence was for gathering seaweed as food. MacPhee is keen to give seaweed a marketing overhaul, rebranding it as 'sea vegetables' and wants to take seaweed from being the preserve of health food stores to appealing to a wider audience. For more information on Rory visit

I'm glad to see that England's caught up with the times. Seaweed harvesting is a small scale industry in the Outer Hebrides, Northern Ireland and South Wales which is now finding new and wider markets – and seaweed has been eaten for countless centuries along these shores.

Of course as a nation we still have a long way to go to catch up with Japan and China (where over 170,000 tons are consumed per year) but I think it's great that we are starting to realise that we can use seaweed for more than Sushi or as a fried, crispy garnish sprinkled over Asian foods. I am a fan of Laverbread (see Laverbread – the Welshman's Caviar) which incidentally is the same seaweed known as Nori in Japan that is used to make Sushi. However I know that mainstream English, and French cuisine for that matter, traditionally haven't really valued seaweeds. I don't know whether this is because eating seaweeds has been associated with times of scarcity and poverty in the past or whether it is because it has remained a peculiarity of the coastal regions never reaching further inland.

Nevertheless, seaweeds are now big news. Apart from their medicinal and nutritional benefits seaweed dishes are served in 7 out of 10 of the world's top restaurants. Among well-known fans is Heston Blumenthal, who has recommended using Kelp to make NHS food more flavoursome without using additional salt. Heston has also a best selling Steak, Ale and Kombu (Pacific variety of Kelp) Pie for Waitrose and recently served Seaweed Shepherd's Pie to BA passengers in his TV series Mission Impossible. Incredibly kilo for kilo seaweed contains more iron than sirloin steak, more fibre than prunes or bananas and more calcium than cheese.

There are around 650 edible varieties growing along the UK’s 11,000 mile coastline, although only around 35 have ever really been used for cooking. Edible seaweeds can range from delicate saline flavours to a tangy iodine taste. Some are even slightly sweet and others have little flavour at all. Apart from Laver and Kelp the better known edible seaweeds available in the UK are:

Dulse (sometimes called Dillisk, Latin name Palmaria palmata). In Ireland Dulse is dried and eaten as a traditional snack like crisps. It has a delicate salty taste and can be powdered, flaked or finely sliced. Used to add flavour to meat dishes, in soups, salads and added to bread or pizza dough.

Carrageen – (sometimes called Irish Moss, Latin name Chondrus crispus) – A natural setting agent as an alternative to gelatine. Used in desserts such as ice cream, blancmange and jelly, as a thickening agent is soups and even in toothpaste!

Sea Lettuce (Latin name Ulva lactuca) – Used in salads and as a garnish. 

Sea Spaghetti (sometimes called Thongweed, Latin name Himanthalia elongata) – Used just like spaghetti! Or in salads.

Irish Wakame
(sometimes called Badderlocks, Latin name Alaria esculenta) – Used fresh in salads or dried in soups and stews.

There are a fantastic range of recipes using seaweed in both savoury and sweet dishes at Celtnet
here. - including one for Fruit Salad with Kirsched Sea Spaghetti. If you fancy adding seaweed to your Christmas menu Prannie Rhatigan, from Ireland's North West has written a seaweed recipe book Irish Seaweed Kitchen which contains some brilliantly inventive as well as traditional dishes, one of which is Christmas Pudding with Brandied Sea Spaghetti. You can find details at her website

Friday, 9 November 2012

Christmas Chique 2012 – Haagen-Dazs New Ice Moon Cake and Plum Pudding Revisited

Häagen-Dazs have collaborated with British design duo Doshi Levien to create a limited edition Christmas cake. The result is the Häagen-Dazs Ice Moon Cake – which looks an awful lot like an old fashioned Christmas Pudding to me. However it won't taste like one as the cake consists of a pistachio biscuit base, layers of macadamia nut ice cream and meringue and a coating of raspberry sorbet. Each Ice Moon Cake is hand made in the Häagen-Dazs shop in Paris. Only fifty are available in the UK and they retail at £50.00 each. They sound delicious but what intrigued me was their spherical shape – I haven't seen a round Christmas Pudding for years, apart from the ones on Christmas Cards of course.

The cannon-ball shaped Christmas Pudding was an earlier incarnation of our festive dessert. Before the 19th century Christmas Puddings were known as Plum Puddings and were shaped into a ball, wrapped in muslin and boiled (sometimes in beef broth, which sounds revolting but in Medieval times these puddings contained meat as well as dried fruit). The present pudding-basin shape of Christmas Pudding didn't become popular until well into the 20th century.

Christmas Puddings used to be called Plum Puddings as they contained prunes (dried plums). This was before the days when raisins, currants, sultanas and candied peel were readily available. There is a good recipe for Dickensian Plum Pudding by Josceline Dimbleby which I am going to use this year. It serves 8 – 10 people:

1 small pat of butter
350g pitted prunes
100g crystallised ginger
40g walnut halves
225g large raisins
grated rind and juice of 2 large oranges
125g fresh brown breadcrumbs
125g shredded vegetable suet
1 tsp ground cloves
3 large eggs
2-3 tbsp Cointreau or Brandy

Cut the prunes into small pieces and roughly chop the ginger and walnuts. Put the chopped ingredients into a large bowl with the raisins, grated orange rind, breadcrumbs, suet and ground cloves. In another bowl whisk the eggs until frothy and slightly thickened and stir well into the dry ingredients. Lastly stir in the orange juice and cointreau or brandy.

Leave to allow the ingredients to blend together for half an hour or more and then spoon the mixture into your mould or basin. Steam gently for about 6 hours, checking now and then and adding more boiling water if it has evaporated at all. When the pudding is cold keep in a cool place until Christmas Day. Then put in a saucepan as before and steam for another hour or so before serving. Serve on a warmed plate, stick a sprig of holly on top, pour Cointreau or Brandy round the pudding and set it alight . . .

You can buy metal moulds to make round Christmas puddings but I am going to try it the old fashioned way. I have muslin squares that I use for straining pips, flowers and stalks out of fermenting home-made wine so I can use one of these as my pudding bag. Apparently you spoon out your pudding mixture into the centre of a slightly damp muslin square and form it into a ball. Bring the four corners of the muslin square together and tightly twist to seal. Tie firmly with a piece of string.
Choose a large tall pan – a jam pan would be ideal. Tie the pudding to a long handled wooden spoon that you can balance across the rim of the pan. The idea is to suspend the pudding from the handle of the wooden spoon without it touching the bottom of the pan. Pour in enough boiling hot water to cover the dangling pudding. I think a lid of some sort would be a good idea (if you don't have one you could always make one out of foil) as a lid will intensify the heat and steam where it’s needed and won't turn your kitchen into a sauna. Boil the pudding for 5 – 6 hours, checking to make sure the water has not boiled dry and topping it up if necessary.

Once done, drain off the water and leave the pudding to dangle until it is fully cold. Don't remove the muslin. Wrap with foil and keep in the fridge until Christmas Day. To reheat simply remove the foil, follow as before but instead of immersing the dangling pudding in boiling water, steam it over simmering water for 2 – 3 hours.

Wish me luck!