A Halloween Birthday

It is Cora’s birthday tomorrow again so of course some time has been given over during the last few days for preparations.

That preparation started, in part, on Saturday morning with the purchase of the biggest pumpkin they had from the greengrocers on Oxton Road. Time was then spent on Sunday morning looking for a suitable face to first of all be marked out on the side of the pumpkin in black ball point and then carefully carved by father and children with a variety of sharp knives.

There was, of course, some friendly discussion between father and children as to who should do what. No fingers were lost and we now have a proud pumpkin.

This evening we had Cora’s favourite supper – noodles.

For Cora all she really needed was a plate of noodles in broth – anything else would be a distraction and extraneous to the noodle eating to be done.

That would have been boring for the rest of the family so peppers and baby corn were sliced, garlic, ginger and spring onions diced  and chicken breasts chopped. Similar chopping was applied to a lump of tofu for the vegetarian option.

The woks were taken up from the basement, cleaned off and put on a high heat with a glaze of corn nut oil.

Ten minutes later we were done and sat down slurping at the table. The sauce was a combination of bottles that needed using from and cupboard – mostly fish sauce and plum sauce and a teaspoon or so of red curry paste that has been lurking in the fridge and looks like it needs eating up.

It was not quite all finished and there should be enough left for me to have cold for lunch tomorrow.

We listened to the dream pop of Beach House – not that anyone else in the family noticed.



Earlier in the week I mentioned that I had picked up some bags of Moghrabia from a middle-eastern food shop on the Cowley Road in Oxford. You don’t see Moghrabia very often in your local Sainsbury so if I spot some bags on a shelf I like to stock up. Earlier this year I bought five kilos from a shop on Edgeware Road.

I first came across recipes for Moghrabia or Moghrabieh in the first Ottolenghi cookbook. It is also known as giant couscous and that is basically what it is, made out of durum wheat and water and dried to a small hard nut. Like couscous it is a food of the Middle East but it features in cooking along the North African coast.  You are most likely to come across recipes for it books of Lebanese or Morroccan cooking.

Shortly after I was given the Ottolenghi book for Christmas we went to Australia for the first time and I came across Moghrabia on a menu in a restaurant in Melbourne. It was our first lunch in Australia have flown the night before over  25 hours in a plane. We had been up early and had spent the morning walking around the city in a daze. Bar Lourinha http://www.barlourinha.com.au/menu.php was the first mention in the guide book and although it was a further walk out of the centre we headed there for lunch.

It was mid afternoon by the time that we got there and and we took our seats at one of the high tables. Having had my curiosity piqued by the mention of Moghrabia in the Ottoleghi book I was obliged to order it when I saw it on the menu. It was served with a lamb stew and was delicious – small nuggets of forgiving pasta that took up the juices of the stew. When we got back to Sarah’s later that afternoon she told us we had been lucky to get a table at Bar Lourinha as it was normally packed at lunch time.

Back at home in England I was determined to track down a source for Moghrabia. On the internent I came acrss a site that specialised in Morrocccan food and was able to order a supply from there but it was expensive. Matta’s http://www.mattas.co.uk/on Bold Street would sometimes have it but only in small 500gr bags. So I was very happy when I came across the shop on the Edgeware Road that had countless bags of it on its shelves and even more pleased when I found it in Oxford last week.

I will have to speak to the people who look after The International Store on Oxton Road to see if they can get it in.

We had Moghrabia last night. I made one of the recipes I had seen in the Ottolenghi book – barbecued quail with mograbiah salad. I substituted the quail with chicken as I knew that quail would be too much to get past the children. It was all very simple. I started by making the marinade in a large heavy pestle and mortar. Cumin seeds, ground cinnamon, cardamon pods, all spice berries, tumeric, paprika and salt were all ground to a fine powder before I added garlic, ginger honey and olive oil. Once this was thoroughly mixed it was slathered over a chopped chicken. A vegetarian option was made by chopped aubergines and peppers being mixed with the same marinade.

It is not necessary to cook Moghrabia. All it needs is to left to soak for half a day. The small hard nuts take up the moisture and expand, softening but retaining some bite. As an alternative you can boil them for a few minutes but you need to be careful not to overcook them.

Once we were almost ready to eat the chicken pieces went into a hot oven for 40 minutes. The Aubergine and peppers followed 15 minutes later. To make the salad I chopped some good handfuls of parsley and coriander which was then stirred into the Moghrabia together a good squeeze of lemon juice, the half dozen red tomatoes I had rescued from the greenhouse and more oilive oil. I heated this in a pan before we ate it with the chicken and vegetables.

There are still about 5 large bags of Moghrabia in the basement which should hopefully do me until I next come across it.

Gubbeen chorizo and a side-note about mussels

This evening I cooked the last of the Gubbeen chorizo sausage left from the cheese fair we had at the end of September. I had smuggled it out at the end of the afternoon, the last pack of sausage in the basket. Since then it had lurked at the back of the fridge, not quite forgotten, waiting for a Friday evening when I was feeling the pinch.

It was simple enough to pull together. Chorizo always loves lentils. So I started with some finely chopped onion in olive oil to which I had a couple of squashed, crushed cloves of garlic and a small carrot cut into pieces not much bigger than a lentil.

After that had cooked through on a high heat for a few minutes I emptied into the pan the lentils, two good handfuls from one of the two packs in the cupboard. All it needed then was a bay leaf and lots of water before being left to boil until the lentils were cooked.

Whilst the lentils were cooking I fried off a chopped rasher of bacon in some oil and allowed the chorizo sausage to gently cook through. The lentils took about half an hour. There can be a tipping point with lentils between a mush and a small forgiving pod with some bite left. We got to the right side of that point this evening, the liquid almost cooked down.

So the lentils were added to the pan with the two sausages, seasoned with salt and pepper and left for a few minutes more for the flavours to mingle. Just before serving I stirred in some chopped parsley.

On a side note I spoke to Dad this morning from the Cottage in Ireland. He had just come from the pier where he had been scrapping off the thick folds of mussels which had gathered on the bottom of the pontoon over the last few years. They must have looked so good to eat, perfectly sized nuggets of seafood. He had been warned against them and I reminded him of the harvest we had taken two years ago; they had been as sweet a bowl of mussels you could hope to come across and left some us four hours later criss-crossing the Cottage to the toilets for relief.

Sexing mackerel

In 1897 Walter Garstang MA. FZS late Fellow of Lincoln College Oxford set about an investigation of a mackerel’s stripes. He was interested in trying to establish if there was a difference between the populations of mackerel that swarmed through the seas off the coasts of Ireland, England and the United States. He satisfied himself that mackerel taken from American waters differed from those taken from around Europe. Although he was able to describe an Irish race and an English race from Channel and the North Sea the differences in the fish taken from European waters were too slight to be significant.

His investigation is perhaps more interesting for his describing of how the fish he eviscerated came to his laboratory in Plymouth and his conclusions as to whether a mackerel could be sexed by its stripes.

As to the source of fish he collected a sample of 1,500 giving instructions that specimens should be forwarded fresh (but damp) by post, if in small quantity; or in seaweed or ice by train, if in quantity. They came as follows:-

October 1897 an excellent sample of 100 fish from Newport, Rhode Island conveyed from New York to Plymouth in the refrigerator of an express steamer of the Hamburg-American Line.

From Brest another 100 fish caught by hook and line and forwarded on ice direct to Plymouth.

Several hundred fish from each of the following regions: the west and South coasts of Ireland, the English Channel, and the North Sea including two Irish consignments dated Kinsale, July 30th and September 3rd, 1897 caught with nets off the Old Head of Kinsale and forwarded by a Mr James Carroll, fish merchant.


He acknowledged that the visera of the fish from Brest and some of the Irish samples were so rotten owing to the delays in transit that it was not possible to record their sexual condition.  One imagines that Mr Garstang had few if any friends at this time.

I first came across the suggestion that mackerel could be sexed by its stripes in a book about British food I was leafing through in a shop. As usual I looked under mackerel heading to see if there was an interesting recipe; there wasn’t, but in the description of the fish there was a bald assertion that it was possible to tell the difference between the male a female fish by the shape of their stripes.

This sounded too good to be true. When we pull them out of Dunmaanus Bay they all look the same. Some maybe bigger than others but the stripes all looked the same angry black scrawl across their backs.

I put the book down but the comment stayed with me and over time I tried to find if there was any truth in the suggestion. I was eventually able to trace the story back to a book by Edward Donovan (1768 – 1837) The Natural History of British Fishes published in 1808. I have not been able to track down a copy of the original book but 40 years later he was quoted in Yarrell’s History of British Fishes as having said “the males have these dark tranverse bands nearly straight; while in females these bands are elegantly undulated.” No further clue is given to the source of the this statement but it would appear to have been taken up as curious remark to be idly included in any short essay on mackerel.

Having examined his 1,500 fish one of the first conclusions Garstang came to was that there is no truth in the tale that it is possible to distinguish the sex of mackerel by the shape of their bars.

Subsequently I put thequestion to Bruce B. Collette, PhD, Senior Scientist, NOAA Fisheries Systematics Laboratoryin the US, who told me by way of a late night email that so far as he is aware there is no scientific data to support the idea that male and female mackerel can be distinguished by differences in their striping. In fact most species of pelagic fishes, including tunas and mackerels of the family Scombridae, show no external differences between the sexes. The dolphinfish is one of the major exceptions to this rule.

Having acknowledged all that it is difficult to think of mackerel as anything else but a male fish. Out of the water and caught in the hand they are nothing but erect and tumescent straining against the restraining clasp.