Ed Smith recipes: From anchovies to anise, bitter can be beautiful

Anise, anchovies, cardamom - they are the complex tastes we come to appreciate as we mature,  and here are the best ways to enjoy them, says our new guest food writer

Ed prepares the anchovies and smoky peppers with capers
Ed prepares the anchovies and smoky peppers with capers

There are two ways to look at the evolution of an individual's food preferences. The glass-half-empty, science-led approach is that our sense of taste declines as we age; taste buds die and stop regenerating. The more positive version is that as our capacity to taste changes, we are able to enjoy bitterness more. Our tolerance of highly perfumed aromas grows, too. So, in a way, ageing helps us become more adventurous.

While I still struggle with saffron (toilet cleaner, anyone?), ingredients such as anchovies, capers, coffee, cardamom, anise and bitter leaves have not just grown on me, they've become an essential part of my diet.

The recipes here are for people who have also grown (up) to love these flavours. The first is a perky main course featuring multiple layers of anise. It took me a while, but anise is a flavour I now seek out rather than run from – which is not a difficult quest, as the flavour seems to be everywhere, not least in fennel, tarragon and Pernod.

The second, which you can use as a starter, is actually barely a recipe, more a suggestion to assemble a few complementary ingredients. It's the relatively classic combination of anchovies, capers and peppers with a twist: smoked water in the dressing, well worth searching for online.

The dessert is a cardamom burnt cream. I'm not sure when my hatred of cardamom turned to love, but I think it's a relatively recent development. Years of accidentally biting down on a cardamom pod while otherwise enjoying a curry didn't help. But now I'm drawn to this spice, not least when in a sweet dish.

Ed Smith is the author of the food journal RocketandSquash.com. He was shortlisted as Best Cookery Writer and winner of Best Online Restaurant Writer at the 2015 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink awards

Sausage and anise tray bake

The combination of pork, fennel and orange, plus juice-soaked then crisp-roasted croutons, is a winner.

Preparation: 10 mins

Cooking: 1 hour

Serves 4-6

450ml chicken or vegetable stock (warm)
1 large orange, cut into ½cm slices, then into crescents
8 sprigs fresh tarragon
2 large fennel bulbs (about 600g)
1 large white onion, peeled and cut into 6
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
75ml Pernod or ouzo
2 star anise
8-12 good-quality sausages
1 tsp fennel seeds
300g ciabatta, trimmed of crust and torn into chunks

Sausage and anise tray bake is a winner

Preheat the oven to 190C.

Bring the stock to a simmer in a small saucepan. Lay the orange crescents and 4 sprigs of tarragon on the base of a roasting tray. Trim the tops off the fennel, reserving any herby fronds. Then cut the fennel in half from top to bottom, and each of those halves into 3 wedges through the root. Toss the fennel and onion in 1 tbsp of oil, salt and pepper, then place on top of the oranges. Pour the stock and Pernod into the tray, add the anise and bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, turning the fennel once or twice so it cooks evenly.

Meanwhile, cook the sausages, glossed with 1 tbsp of oil, in a frying pan on a very gentle heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat when they're starting to brown, but before they are fully cooked through.

Once the fennel has had 45 minutes, pour most of the k stock from the roasting tray into a saucepan (leaving ½cm).

Turn the oven up to 220C. Arrange the sausages on top of the fennel. Add the fennel seeds and 2 tbsp of oil to the sausage juices in the pan, toss the bread in that to soak up the flavour and oils, and then dot in the tray around the sausages and fennel. Cook in the top of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, by which time the sausages will be sticky and brown, and the bread golden and crisp. At the same time, boil the stock to reduce it by half.

Roughly chop the leaves from the remaining tarragon and stir through the tray bake with any fennel fronds you kept.

Serve from the roasting tray, pouring the gravy over the top, perhaps with a simple, crisp gem lettuce salad on the side.

Anchovies and capers with smoky peppers

The sweetness of pre-roasted, jarred peppers (surprisingly economic) is punctuated by salty capers and the umami of the anchovies. Eat with well-toasted/near-blackened sourdough bread or ciabatta.

Preparation: 5 mins

Waiting: 20 mins

Serves 4-6

50g tin anchovies in olive oil
4 tsp smoked water
1 heaped tsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Small pinch sea salt
1 tbsp very finely chopped parsley
1 jar roasted red peppers (400g drained weight/4 peppers)
1 heaped tsp capers

Anchovies and smoky peppers with capers – eat with well-toasted/near-blackened sourdough bread or ciabatta  

Pour the oil from the anchovies into a mixing bowl – this will be around 3 tbsp worth. Add the smoked water, paprika, olive oil, salt and parsley (which should be so vigorously chopped it's like dust). Whisk well.

Drain the peppers and cut them lengthways into four. Place these in the dressing and gently mix. Allow the flavours to mingle for 20 minutes or so.

Drape the peppers on a plate. Ensure they're tightly packed but in one layer and, for the sake of presentation, mostly in the same direction. Pour the dressing over the top then arrange the anchovies across the peppers in an alternate direction. Scatter the capers over the plate.

Ed prepares his cardamom burnt creams  

Cardamom burnt cream

Preparation: 10 mins

Cooking: 30 mins (plus 2-3 hours chilling)

Makes 6

300ml double cream
150ml whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tsp ground cardamom
5 medium egg yolks
25g golden caster sugar
30g unsalted shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
3 tsp icing sugar
6 x 100ml ramekins or coffee cups

Ed caramelises his cardamom burnt creams with a blowtorch  

Preheat the oven to 120C.

Pour the cream and milk into a small, thick-bottomed saucepan. Add the vanilla and 2 tsp of the cardamom and whisk to incorporate. Bring the mixture to the boil. Turn off the heat and allow to infuse for 20 minutes.

Whisk the yolks and sugar in a large mixing bowl for 2 to 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Tip the still-warm cream mix into the eggs in three stages, just a little to begin with, stirring the mix after each addition. Once all the cream is in, decant through a sieve into a jug, then divide between the ramekins – around 80ml in each.

Sweet treat: The finished cardamom burnt creams 

Put the ramekins in a roasting tray, fill the tray with water from a just-boiled kettle to halfway up the ramekins and place in the middle of the oven. Cook for 30 minutes then remove from the water (the custard will wobble in the middle but set as it cools). Leave on the side for 20 minutes then refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.

Toss the pistachios in 1 tsp of icing sugar. Just before serving, add a dusting of the remaining cardamom and icing sugar over each ramekin. Caramelise with a blowtorch or under a hot grill. Sprinkle with the pistachios.

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