Another quick and dirty one today. This recipe’s a great addition to a table full of tapas. Good prawns, sweet, fat and succulent, are at their best when treated simply. Here, they’re just flavoured with garlic, piri-piri chilli peppers and olive oil, and cooked very quickly.
I get a bit repetitive with the following whinge every time I blog about prawns, so skip this paragraph if you must – but the lack of availability of raw prawns with their heads and skins still attached in this part of the country (and, to be honest, in many other parts too) absolutely infuriates me. If you’re in Cambridge, you can sometimes find big, whole tiger prawns at Seatree on Mill Road (a fish and chip shop with a small wet fish counter). I’ve not had great success with the fish stall on the market, which smells far more strongly than a good fish seller should. Aside from this, you’re out of luck for dedicated fish sellers. Get into the supermarkets early and you might get lucky; there are sometimes raw prawns in the freezer cabinet too. Good luck with heads and shells, though; as you can see, I wasn’t able to find prawns with heads although I did get lucky withs shells. Both add flavour – there’s real depth of flavour in those shells, and the squishy bits that some people call brains (actually the prawn’s hepatic organ) are really delicious if you can get around the squick factor. Do not hang out with Chinese families if the squick factor is a problem for you. We tend to crunch those shells and suck the brainy bits out at the table, and it’s only partially because we think they’re totally delicious. At least ten percent of our motivation is to put off the people we’re eating with so they leave some extra prawns.
South African piri-piri peppers are botanically indistinguishable from Thai bird’s eye chillies (cili padi or phrik khi nu if you’re in an oriental supermarket). Use whichever you can get your hands on.
To serve two with crusty bread to dibble in the juices, you’ll need:
750g raw prawns with shells and heads on (500g if, like me, you couldn’t get your hands on heads and shells – mine had shells but had been decapitated.)
5 fat, juicy cloves garlic
2 bird’s eye or piri-piri chillies. These are very hot, but if you’re brave you can add another one.
4 generous tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon parsley to scatter
If your prawns are frozen, defrost them thoroughly and dry them on paper towels.
Warm the olive oil over a medium flame in a large frying pan and throw in the roughly chopped garlic, Sauté, keeping everything on the move, until the garlic is softening and giving up its scent (about a minute). Add the prawns and chopped chillies to the pan and continue to sauté until the prawns have turned from grey to pink (3-5 minutes). There is nothing as good as the smell of prawns cooking with garlic – your kitchen will smell wonderful.
Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the parsley. Eat immediately, while they’re still piping hot.
They sell something very similar to these in one of my local delicatessens, but rather more mayonnaise-y – and they sell them for about £1 per pepper, which is a simply amazing markup when you consider that a whole jar of the things, unstuffed, will only cost you about £2.50. Add a small can of tuna and a few ingredients which you probably have in the fridge already, and you’ve got (if you’re making them at home) a very inexpensive and very easy canapé, which you can make well in advance of any party you might be serving them at.
I spent years under the illusion that Peppadews (a brand name rather than a botanical name) were some sort of fruit which wasn’t related to the chilli. I think that perhaps I was a victim of some 1990s marketing. They’re actually a round chilli pepper, which grows in the Limpopo region of South Africa (cue chants of “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river” from all those of us who absorbed Kipling’s Just So stories at our mothers’ knees), and is processed to remove the seeds, then preserved in a sweet pickling mixture. Removing the seeds reduces the chilli’s heat, and it also leaves a nice, tidy hole in the top of the chilli which is just right for pushing stuffing into.
You want something salty, savoury and assertive in a stuffing here, that won’t get overwhelmed by the sweet and strong fruitiness of the chillies. Tinned tuna and capers are a really good match here. To fill a jar of little chillies (which will serve 4-6 as a nibble with drinks), you’ll need:
1 jar Peppadew peppers
1 small can tuna
Juice of ½ lemon
1 heaped tablespoon crème fraîche
1 stick celery, cut into tiny dice
½ shallot, cut into tiny dice
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 heaped tablespoons chopped parsley
Easy as anything: just mix everything except the Peppadews thoroughly in a bowl, and use a teaspoon to stuff the peppers with the mixture. Chill before serving.
It’s a total mystery to me how Catalan cuisine, out of all the cuisines in the world, could have given birth to the ultra-complicated school of molecular gastronomy headed up by Ferran Adria. Catalan cooking, in its non-molecular state, is centred in simplicity and great ingredients; there’s a growing collection of super-simple tapas here on Gastronomy Domine, all of which are typical of the region.
My newly minted sister-in-law, Katie, has family in Barcelona and studied Catalan at university. She and my brother married just outside Barcelona, which afforded them the perfect opportunity for a wedding meal made up of course after course of delicious tiny nibbly tapas, alongside a whole leg of Iberico ham (complete with a knife-wielding dude to carve it), three enormous dishes of paella cooked over propane burners and enough fruit tart (standing in for wedding cake) to sink an armada.
Pan con tomate, as you’ll have guessed if you’ve ever visited Barcelona, was on the wedding table (alongside chorizo al vino, padron peppers, positive gallons of sangria, and some garlicky prawns, croquetas, boquerones and other bits and bobs I’ll blog recipes for later on). It might just be the recipe with the best ease-of-making to total-deliciousness rating ratio in the world. I’m not even going to list amounts below – it’d go against the whole nature of the thing.
Quality of ingredients is always important, whatever you’re cooking; but if you’re making something this simple it becomes absolutely paramount. You should look for a really dense bread (not wholemeal) with a decent chewiness to it. And the tomatoes – hoo boy. There is no point in making this recipe at any time of year when you can’t get a decent supply of juicy, fresh, large tomatoes. You’re best off by far with tomatoes from your own greenhouse, and the things that resemble red potatoes from the supermarket should be avoided at all costs. Reckon on using half a tomato on each slice of bread. Your garlic should be plump and unblemished, and your olive oil the very best you can get your hands on.
Good sourdough bread
Very ripe, large tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt (I like Maldon salt here)
Grill the slices of bread until golden, and rub each slice with the garlic pieces, which will wear down to nubbins as you go. Cut a tomato in half and rub it on a garlicky slice of bread, pushing as you go to make sure the juices and seeds are pressed into the piece of bread. Discard the pulp.
Pour a generous slug of olive oil over each slice of tomato bread, and sprinkle with a little salt.
These are fantastic just on their own, and can be made even better by laying a slice of raw Iberico ham on top before taking a bite.
The Japanese have a business philosophy called kaizen, which means continuous improvement. No matter how slick a process is, kaizen says that constant small improvements can – and should – always be made.
I have a deep suspicion that Celebrity Cruises are practising kaizen.
I’ve been invited on the inaugural cruises for Celebrity’s last three Solstice-class ships. These enormous floating palaces are the largest and swankiest in Celebrity’s already pretty large and swanky fleet, and although plenty of what’s on board will be recognisable across all four ships, there have been changes in each new launch – some, like the tweaks to Murano’s cheeseboard, so small you might not even notice; some surprisingly large, like the wholesale transformation of Michael’s Club from a cigar bar to a craft beer venue. If you read my reviews of the previous ships in the fleet, you might remember my bafflement at the inclusion on the last three ships of a glass-blowing studio. That’s gone on Silhouette, to be replaced by a prepossessingly calm and comfy cabana area on one of the ship’s lawns (these ships all have lawns – an amazingly difficult thing to maintain in the salty atmosphere at sea, but maintained they are, and handsomely) and a new barbecue restaurant.
I only had two days on board to explore all the changes, and two days is nothing like long enough to work your way around all the menus on board. The standard dining, and unlimited standard drinks (a variety of beers, wines and spirits) are all included in the price of your cruise. The included dining covers the huge formal dining room; the buffet, which stretches over nearly an entire deck; the pool deck grill, serving chilli, nachos, hot dogs and other poolside goodies; a terrific gelato bar down on deck 5; sandwiches, patisseries, tea and coffee in Cafe al Bacio; cocktails and nibbles in several bars; and the odd little treatsome canapé left in your room if you’re travelling concierge or Aqua class.
All this means that once you’re on board, there’s really no reason to spend any extra money on eating or drinking – but if you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty motivated by food and don’t mind spending a little more for something a bit different. For those who are looking for something special, Silhouette houses a number of other drinking and dining venues, all with different ambiances. I wrote about Qsine (an additional $35 per head) at the restaurant’s launch on Eclipse, and the whole interactive eating experience has proved so popular (you have to admit that a burger is much more fun when you’re squizzling your own sauce on it and draping it with your own idea of the right amount of fried onion) that they’ve introduced another interactive dining venue on Silhouette. The Lawn Club Grill, up on the top deck, where you’ll pay an extra $30 per person, has DIY pizzas for the kids, and DIY flat breads for you. The real draw, though, is the barbecue element where New York strip, filet mignon and rib-eye steaks, snapper, salmon, veal, lamb and a big selection of kebabs are available for you to grill yourself to your own liking at your own table. If you’re not up for barbecuing your own dinner, the chefs will do it for you – but where’s the fun in that? There are some pretty special accompaniments on offer, which will be delivered to your table. Allergies prevented me from trying it myself, but I’m told I must encourage you to sample the lobster macaroni cheese in particular.
Also up on the top deck, you find The Alcoves, a pretty little lawn with eight cabanas which can be rented by the hour or the day. Picnic baskets are available here for a price, and there’s also waiter service for drinks and snacks. These new venues replace the glass-blowing studio that’s been on the top decks of previous ships (I have never been able to get my head around the presence of a seagoing glass-blowing studio), along with a $5 dining venue (one of a few on board), The Porch. Here, you’ll find paninis and salads. It’s a lovely quiet spot if you’re looking to get away from the hurly-burly of the pool area, one deck below.
Tuscan Grill ($30), Blu (complimentary for Aquaclass passengers), Qsine ($35) and Murano ($35) are still the first-class restaurant lineup at the back of the ship on the fifth deck, which is the deck where those with a care for their stomach will be spending most of their time. There are changes down here – Murano is now offering a champagne afternoon tea, with some terrific little finger sandwiches, strawberries, pastries and the inevitable scones, jam and clotted cream. In the spirit of kaizen, little changes have been made to dishes I’ve eaten in these restaurants on previous ships: I’m not quite sure exactly what’s happened to Qsine’s Disco Shrimp, but it’s gone from a merely-quite-good dish to an absolute must-order, sweet, tender and very, very tasty. Ceviches are also very good now, and any dish which has its origins in the SW of America is pretty much guaranteed to be worth ordering: Chef Jaques van Staden’s Las Vegas roots do show now and then! Murano’s duck foie gras and rilettes dish has turned into a foie and confit plate, the confit appearing in a Moroccan pastilla, crisp, paper-thin bric pastry doing great things to its texture. What used to be a tomato coulis in this dish is now candied mango. On my first visit to Murano, two ships ago, I didn’t feel it was really competitive with top-class restaurants on land, but it’s now pulling its weight: witness the sea bass (picture at the bottom of this post), previously a bit tired, salty and dried-out; now succulent, elegantly sauced and good enough that you’ll be dibbling your bread on the plate when you’ve finished the fish.
Murano is probably the most romantic spot on board for dining, with private-feeling booths and a clever layout to make you feel remote from other diners. I’d especially recommend it to those cruising to celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary. Portions are still enormous. This is a direct result of the ship’s American ownership and international clientele. This feels a bit odd in a fine-dining restaurant, but when someone feels like giving me a gargantuan portion of foie, I am not going to complain.
Get chatting to your server. The staff on board these ships are universally friendly and helpful – and if you make friends, as we did with the utterly charming Anne Toures, a chef de rang at Murano, you might find the service elevates itself to superhuman levels. Anne, after a couple minutes’ chatting about blue French cheeses (I’d been wittering on about how it’d be nice to see a blue that wasn’t a Roquefort on the large chariot de fromages), disappeared and came back with a piece of Rochebaron from Auvergne for us that hadn’t made it to the cheeseboard – soft, blue, with an ash-rolled rind and completely new to me. A real treat.
I love watching the way these ships evolve. I love being surprised every time I visit by the force-ten smiles of every single member of staff, the shimmering cleanliness of everything on board, and the clever little features like the ice bar, and the Enomatic machines in Wine Masters (charge a swipe-card, and organise your own tasting – there are some really exciting wines on offer in here). I love waking to the sound of the sea, I love that I can retire to a Deck 11 treehouse, of all things, if things get too much; and I love the fact that there’s an iLounge and a Bulgari shop on board. Keep at the kaizen, Celebrity – you’re doing a great job.
A big thank you to Celebrity Cruises, who invited me and Dr W on the inaugural sailing of their new Solstice class ship, Silhouette. We spent the weekend swanking around the Mediterranean, drinking far too much champagne, soaking up the sun and nibbling on canapés.
I’ve got a few hundred pictures to edit, fifteen twinkly decks and a whole weekend’s overeating to write about. While I’m busying myself about that, you might like to whet your appetites for the post I’ll be putting up later in the week with some photos.