Simply topping

Whichever way you slice it, you can make a meal of toast. Just leave the baked beans out of it, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Now isn't toast a wonderful thing. Especially when the cold weather sets in. It gets you started in the morning, but then we tend to forget about it for the rest of the day. Most of us don't make much of toast, beyond putting baked beans on it, but it can host all sorts of savoury and sweet toppings if you give it a chance.

Now isn't toast a wonderful thing. Especially when the cold weather sets in. It gets you started in the morning, but then we tend to forget about it for the rest of the day. Most of us don't make much of toast, beyond putting baked beans on it, but it can host all sorts of savoury and sweet toppings if you give it a chance.

And popping your bread in a toaster isn't the only way to make it. In fact a toaster can cramp your style. The days of the flowery or wheatsheaf toaster are over, but some of the ones that replaced them are so complicated you may need to go on a course to work them. Since the element went on my retro, ticking toaster, I get by fine with the char-grill in the middle of my well-worn Britannia cooker. It gives a slight charred flavour that varies depending on what was last cooked on it. I just turn it on before I get in the shower and 10 minutes later it's perfect for that morning slice.

In the evenings I use the grill for pan Catalan - toast rubbed with a garlic clove and olive oil, then rubbed with a ripe tomato until it goes mushy. This is a perfect base for some freshly sliced Iberico ham or cheese, or eaten by itself. Tapenade on toast, anchovies on toast and bruschetta are other simple but sophisticated snacks you can knock up with little more than a few slices of bread.

All you need is a loaf at the ready. I try to keep different sorts - ciabatta, focaccia, sourdough, brioche - pre-sliced in my freezer, so I can select the right sort of base for whatever topping takes my fancy. Otherwise, as I live on my own, most would end up in the bin. Then all you need are a few store-cupboard extras such as anchovies, cheese and eggs. And fat. If you're a Sunday roast regular, there's nothing better than having the beef dripping on toast with some Maldon sea salt and a few turns of black pepper. Goose or duck fat makes a good alternative. You may turn your nose up at the thought, but I bet you haven't tried it. It's simply topping - unlike those shocking tins and jars of toast toppers they used to have in the Seventies.

Herring roes on toast

Serves 4

Herring roes - also known as soft roes or milts - are normally sold frozen or defrosted but can occasionally be found fresh in spring and early summer. The frozen ones cook quite nicely and, treated correctly, no one will know.

400-450g herring roes
150g butter
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
4 x 11/2cm thick slices of bread, a small bloomer-style loaf will do
60g capers, drained and rinsed
1tbsp finely chopped parsley

Dry the herring roes on some kitchen paper. Heat 50g of the butter in a trusty heavy frying pan or, better still, a non-stick one. Season the roes and cook them on a medium heat until they are golden brown - they will curl up during cooking. Meanwhile toast the bread. When the roes are ready pile them on the toast. Melt the rest of the butter in the pan, add the capers and parsley, and spoon it over the roes.

Wood pigeon on toast with hedgehog fungus

Serves 4

Wood pigeons are at their best now and, as game goes, they are plump, cheap and tasty. But any game birds like grouse, partridge or wild duck will do here. Hedgehog fungus are what the French call pied de mouton and are deliciously meaty scattered over the pigeon - you do need a meaty wild mushroom for this.

2 wood pigeon, oven-ready
200g hedgehog fungus or another meaty wild mushroom, trimmed and sliced
1tbsp olive oil
A couple of knobs of butter
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of bread from a smallish-diameter loaf such as ciabatta
A handful of small salad leaves

Pre heat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.

Season the pigeons and rub a little of the butter on the breasts. Roast them for 15-20 minutes, keeping them nice and pink. Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a frying pan and gently cook the mushrooms, seasoning and stirring every so often. When they are soft, add the parsley and the rest of the butter. Cut away the pigeon breasts with a sharp knife and slice them into 4 or 5. Toast the bread, and place on to 4 plates. Arrange a few salad leaves on the toast and lay the breasts on top. Scatter over the mushrooms and spoon a little more olive oil on top if you wish.

Sprouting broccoli on toast with capers, walnuts and goat's cheese

Serves 4

This is the second season for sprouting broccoli. It appears in the spring and again in the autumn. Also in season are wet or fresh walnuts. They're not as hard or bitter as the dried ones and inside the damp, softer shells the nuts are creamy and crunchy rather than brittle. Instead of goat's cheese you could scatter over Parmesan or Pecorino shavings or even melt some Cheddar on top.

About 16 small, tender, sprouting broccoli, trimmed if woody
4 slices of bread, cut about 1cm thick
18-20 shelled walnut halves, lightly toasted with a little sea salt and olive oil
2tbsp capers washed
4-5tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g soft goat's cheese, broken into small nuggets

Cook the broccoli in boiling salted water for 4-6 minutes until tender. Drain well, season and spoon over a little olive oil. Meanwhile toast the bread, arrange the broccoli on top and place on warmed serving plates. Scatter over the capers and walnuts then a few nuggets of goats cheese. Spoon over some olive oil and serve before it cools down.

Focaccia with avocado, anchovies and Parmesan

Serves 4

This was on the menu at Le Caprice when I started there 14 years ago. It stayed around for a while and then, for some unknown reason, disappeared. I must say I'm not a big fan of avocados except maybe when they're filled with prawns in that retro classic. They are also tricky to buy as they are rarely in peak condition and if they are, tend to have spots of black. Despite all that I have fond memories of this combination.

4 slices of focaccia bread, 1cm thick and cut into slices a little bigger than an avocado
2 ripe avocados
4 anchovy fillets, or more if you prefer, halved lengthways
60-80g piece of Parmesan
2-3tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Peel the avocados, remove the stone and slice them lengthways into about 5 slices. Toast the focaccia on both sides (if using a toaster, be careful it doesn't get stuck) then lay the slices of avocado on top. Lay 2 halves of anchovy over each avocado then shave the Parmesan into thin slices with a peeler or sharp knife. Distribute the Parmesan shavings between the avocados, spoon over a little olive oil and finish with a grinding of black pepper.

Scrambled eggs on toast with bottarga

Serves 4

I always keep a stick of bottarga in the door of my fridge. This dried roe is a luxury but it lasts for ages and a little goes a long way so it's not really an extravagance. You just grate off what you need and keep the rest for later. You can buy it at delis like Love Saves the Day in Manchester (0161-832 0777), Fortnum & Mason, London W1 (020-7734 8040), and the Rivington Deli, 28-30 Rivington Street, London EC1 (020-7729 7083), and direct from the importer from www.vallebona.co.uk (020-8944 5665).

8 eggs, beaten
60g unsalted butter
4-6tbsp double cream
20-30g bottarga, stick preferably or pre-grated
4 slices of good quality white bread, cut about 1cm thick
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Melt the butter in a pan, add the eggs and season. Stir in the cream and stir on a low heat for 3-5 minutes until the eggs are beginning to cook but remain soft and fluffy. Meanwhile, toast the bread. Spoon the eggs on to the toast and grate the bottarga with a fine grater over the eggs.

Pilchards on toast

Serves 4

I say it's time to revive pilchard eating. They are actually large sardines - by definition over 11cm - and are being renamed as Cornish sardines by some supermarkets to try to increase sales.

6 pilchards, or sardines, filleted and any other large bones removed
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
3tbsp olive oil
4 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and then roughly chopped
2tsp white wine vinegar
1/2tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of bread, cut about 1cm thick

Heat the olive oil in a pan and gently cook the shallots for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Add the tomatoes, vinegar and parsley, season and cook for another 2 minutes. Meanwhile season and grill the sardines, with the skin facing up, under a medium grill for 3-4 minutes. Remove from the grill and put them into a dish. Spoon the tomato mixture over and leave for 5-10 minutes. To serve, toast the bread on both sides and arrange the sardines and tomato mixture on top.

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