Autumn: This morning’s haul from Agde market.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this piece for the Independent on Sunday about my life as a recipe tester and food editor. I described the seemingly endless weighing, measuring, washing, drying, retesting, the tearing of hair and rending of garments (#MyStruggle) in pursuit of the flawless, foolproof recipe for something you might want to make for your dinner. (Or not. There’s a horrifying statistic – no doubt created by an especially sadistic manufacturer of ready meals – that readers never make more than three or four recipes from any book they buy.)
One of the things I love about being on holiday – along with sleeping late, reading a novel in a single gulp, and slummocking about with my hair lazily pulled back into a pony tail – is that holiday cooking is the opposite of work cooking. No measuring, note taking or trying to guess someone else’s intention, just the gentle pursuit of pleasure, inspired by wandering around the market or putting my nose round the cheese shop door and taking a good, life-affirming sniff.
Today, on the first day of our little holiday, we got up early and made the short trip to Agde for market day. It’s a journey we’ve made many times before, but we’re always here in spring or summer. As we drove through fields of golden-leaved vines, it was almost like visiting a different place. In the market, instead of summer’s peaches, cherries, melons and asparagus there were crates of pumpkins, walnuts and quince. And I bought what I liked, with no idea of what I was going to do with it and no scales to weigh it on when I did, I was cooking by instinct and inclination, changing the recipe as I chopped and grilled. The culinary equivalent of a lie in and a messy pony tail, and certainly none the less delicious for that.
Cabbages and turnips
Pumpkins and chard.
Rose and violet garlic.
My basket of greens and thyme.
After the market, the traditional 10.30am glasses of
beer and wine at the Plazza.
Considerably cheaper than coffee.
From now on, I’m matching my shoes and my vegetables.
I suggest you do too.
When I’m not cooking, I’m mostly looking out at this.
Stargazy salad, AKA Sardine, black radish and mustard greens
As I arranged this salad on the plate, it reminded me of Stargazy pie, the Cornish dish where the heads of the fish poke out of the pastry lid as if caught mid leap.
I am the very last person to send a salad to do a pie’s job, but if it’s salad you’re after this is a good one. The rich flesh of the fish goes well with the peppery mustard greens and crunchy, fiery black radish. If you can’t find black radish, just use pretty breakfast radishes sliced as thinly as you can.
Serves 2-4, depending on how hungry you are and how much bread you might be inclined to eat along with it.
1 smallish black radish, about 120g
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil, not too strongly flavoured
About 3 tbsps finely chopped parsley leaves
Finely grated zest of a small lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
A small bunch thyme or lemon thyme
The finely grated zest of a lemon plus couple of squeezes of lemon juice
80g pinenuts, lightly toasted, roughly chopped
A handful of mustard greens, roughly torn
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bread and butter, if you like
First, make the salad. Peel the black radish and either julienne it very finely or grate it on the coarse side of a box grater. Dress it with a couple of squeezes of lemon juice and a trickle of olive oil. Toss it with the parsley, lemon zest and garlic, and some salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the sardines.
Preheat the grill as hot as it will go (turn it on at least 5 minutes before you want to cook the fish). You can also cook these on a barbecue if you like.
Ready to go under a hot grill
Line a baking tin with foil. Cut one of the lemons into thick slices and arrange them on the tin. Scatter some sprigs of thyme over the top (save a tablespoon or two of fresh, soft thyme leaves to finish the salad with). Place the sardines on top of the lemon and herbs, trickle over a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Grill the sardines until just cooked through – this should take about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on their size.
Dress the mustard leaves very lightly in olive oil. Arrange them on a large plate. Heap the black radish salad in the middle and arrange the sardines around it. Scatter over the reserved thyme leaves, pine nuts and a good pinch or two of flaky sea salt. Serve immediately, with wedges of lemon.
Looks heavenly doesn’t it?
But I never quite lost fear that seagulls would
swoop in and steal our lunch…