Simple pleasures

Whilst trying to deny that we were on the brink of recession and ignoring the sensible thoughts going on my brain, I didn't think twice to shouting "YES" to join friends for dinner at famed Chicago restaurant, Alinea earlier this winter.  I guiltily ate all ten courses... almost licked each plate. Drinking an aperitif of Champagne, Pineau des Charentes and Campari, I felt that they had mixed it just for me.  Did someone tell them that Campari was my mother's favorite?  How did they know Pineau des Charantes takes me back to summers in France? 

So I ate a dish served on a pillow of smoke that smelled of autumn leaves (enough said) and drank an heavenly Pinot Noir I know I'd never be able to afford in a bottle.  Sure I felt pretentious, but I couldn't help enjoy every minute of it.  I'll never be able to re-create the frozen mozzarella thingy that was mind boggling, or the smoke... and I guess that's the point. 

When it comes to what gives us true, consistent pleasure, it's the simple things.  Simple tastes, well seasoned, that when put together and perfected, can be just as memorable, if not more.  A plate of sliced garden tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper is how I'll always remember my grandfather.  Every summer lunch was always a buffet of cold-cuts, pickles and cottage cheese, tomatoes and pumpernickel bread.  

An omelet is another one of those basic dishes that I can have any time of the day.  With a glass of wine, it is one of my favorite suppers.   An omelet always seems a bit fancy to me... romantic even. I can't resist the scene from one of my favorite films and two of my favorite actors, "Something's Gotta Give", with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, where they are eating an omelet straight from the pan with wine by candlelight.

In fact, it's the omelet that many cooks are measured by.  I've recently watched Gordon Ramsey barking at the poor presenters of the Today Show in New York as he heaves their eggs into a nearby bush.  I love watching the You Tube clip of Julia Child making an omelet.  She'll take you through every step, including how to hold the pan  in order to get it on the plate properly, which is hilarious.

If you're going to be serious about an omelet, and I am,  then there's no better place to start than the truly amazing Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking... she even wrote a book called An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.   

Anyways, I digress.  I'm rambling on about eggs, and they are a part of another easy supper that has it's own history: fish cakes- a real tradition in England that started out as a humble left-over dish.  You can make these with any kind of fish you want- salmon, cod, crab, smoked fish... anything really.  You can leave the capers out, you can add dill, lemon juice, horseradish, finely chopped chilies, Tabasco.  Go on, experiment.  

I'll be honest, I've tried a ton of different recipes.  I do like a Thai version of these, but this recipe is classic and delicious.  I always find it a challenge not to have fish cakes fall apart on me, so I think the key is to put them in the fridge for a while.  The fine breadcrumbs in this recipe also helps with the binding.

I see a theme coming on, but this recipe is again from a London restaurant.  Hold tight readers and I will vary in the very near future.  It's another from the Books for Cooks Favourite Recipes collection- something I've been cooking a lot from lately.  Quaglino's isn't a place I'd rave about, but it's a London institution in its own right... a little 90's for my taste.  But they do make a damn fine fish cake.

Fish Cakes with Creme Fraiche Tartare Sauce
Adapted from Quaglino's: The Cookbook by Richard Whittington and Martin Webb

For the fishcakes:
1 1/4 cups milk
8 oz of smoked or fresh or mixture of haddock fillets 
8 oz of potatoes, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
a handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp capers, rinsed and chopped
2 hard-boiled free range eggs
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp flour
1 egg beaten with 2 tbsp milk
1 cup fine breadcrumbs
2 tbsp sunflower oil

For the tartare sauce:
1 tbsp capers, drained and finely chopped
1 tbsp cornichons, drained and finely chopped
a few sprigs of tarragon, leaves stripped and finely chopped
1 tsp creamy Dijon mustard
2/3 cup creme fraiche
salt, black pepper
lemon wedges to serve

Put the milk in a shallow pan, bring just to boil and add the fish.  Simmer gently for 5 minutes.  Take the fish out and flake the flesh.  Add the potatoes and onions to the milk and boil until the potatoes are soft.  Drain the potatoes and onions and put back into the pan over a low heat to dry out before mashing.  Mix the mashed potatoes, onion, garlic, flaked fish, chopped parsley, capers, chopped egg and season with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and nutmeg.

Mix the tartare sauce by adding all ingredients together.  Season to taste.

Divide fish-potato mixture into flour, roll into balls with floured hands and flatten into cakes.  

At this point, I would definitely recommend putting them on some parchment paper on a baking tray in the fridge for at least an hour... even over night.  It makes them not fall apart so easily.

When ready to cook, dip each cake in flour, then beaten egg-milk, then breadcrumbs.  Heat the sunflower oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat.  Fry the cakes until golden, about 5 minutes each side.  Serve immediately with the tartare sauce.  

Serve with lemon wedges and a simple salad.... and of course, a glass of wine.

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