Well, I have packed, moved, cleaned and had a little cry. And now I am homeless. Homeless, but very excited about what the future holds.

However, I do feel like I need some time to get both my mental and physical energy levels back up again, so I’m going to give myself a bit of a break from blogging.

Luckily, my little sister (whose spare room I’m kipping in at the moment) has a beautiful, big, well-equipped kitchen, so I’m sure I won’t be able to resist for too long the temptation to roll up my sleeves and grab a wooden spoon.

In the meantime, appropriately for the mood I’m currently in for reminiscing, I thought I’d have a look back at what I’ve written so far on And The Cupboard Was Bare, and remind both you and myself of some of my favourite posts.

One of the first dishes I wrote about – an anchovy and cherry tomato risotto – was a perfect example of the philosophy of this blog… that it’s so easy to make a tasty meal out of very ordinary ingredients that are sitting around in your cupboard and fridge.

Another recipe of mine that came about thanks to some random ingredients was one of my most successful cakes – a pear, almond and vanilla sponge. I’ve made this many times since my original post, and it just seems to get better and better.

The vanilla for this cake came from one of my many trips to Istanbul – which, of course, can’t be missed from this mini round-up of blog posts.

As well as vanilla, the most regular purchase of mine from Istanbul’s Spice Market is pul biber, a red pepper spice that comes in flakes or paste, and in varying degrees of saltiness and heat.

I have discovered innumerable uses for this unusual and tasty spice, from tomato and cauliflower soup to carrot and sesame guacomole and it has definitely become a store-cupboard essential for me.

Unfortunately, not all my foodie purchases in Istanbul have been as successful as pul biber, as I realised when I was, um, ‘persuaded’ to buy something that was described to me as lemon salt. It turned out to be little more than citric acid. As determined as I was not to waste the stuff, I couldn’t find any good use for it, so in the bin it went.

One of my most avid readers and commenters is my mum (thanks Mum!). And it really is because of her that I’m so passionate about food and cooking. She is a great cook herself, and from a very early age, taught me to eat and cook well – which is why the above photograph of my sister and me eating artichokes in about 1973 is such a treasure to me.

But I don’t only have photos to remind me of my foodie childhood – I also have a number of kitchen utensils that used to belong to my mum to bring back memories.

From an ancient Tala measuring cone to an equally well-used and well-loved chicken brick, these are my ‘madeleines’ – the things that instantly bring back a memory of a certain time or place.

And soon they will be providing me with a set of very different memories, when they are transported to my new kitchen – and my new life – in Istanbul.

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A bit of a cheek

May 9, 2010

This morning, I realised there was no getting away from the fact that, in less than a week, I was moving out of my flat.

Although I’m moving out for all the right reasons, and have an exciting future ahead of me with Suleyman in Istanbul, I’ve found it virtually impossible to motivate myself to start packing up the lovely little flat I’ve lived in for nearly ten years.

In fact, the only thing I’ve successfully managed to pack away is the contents of my freezer – into my stomach! And, in the end, today was not much different.

Last night, I decided that, if I was going to get to grips with the idea of sorting out my stuff, I’d need something to look forward to at the end of the day – and by ‘something’, I of course mean food.

Apart from a number of bags of herbs (which I’m coming to terms with having to chuck at the end of the week), my freezer contents had been reduced to a couple of chicken thighs, some tomato curry sauce made with my little sis’s home-made tikka sauce (more of which later in the week), some frozen peas, and – most tantalisingly – a beef cheek and some of my home-made beef stock, which I made a couple of months ago to use with a venison dish.

The reason for the beef cheek’s residency in my freezer was simply that I’d seen them in The Ginger Pig in Borough Market a couple of weeks ago, had been pleasantly surprised by the price, and thought I’d have a go at cooking them. I’ve eaten pig’s cheeks (or bath chaps, as they are traditionally called), which I’d thoroughly enjoyed, but had never come across the beefy version before.

So, last night, out of the freezer came the beef cheek and the beef stock with the idea of some lovely, unctuous, slow-cooked stew for a Sunday supper, after a hard day’s packing.

In the end, I couldn’t find a recipe using this cut of meat in any of my cookbooks, so turned to the internet – which delivered to me a dish from an Australian magazine called Gourmet Traveller for Spanish beef cheeks. Now, as I have mentioned on many an occasion, the Spanish flavours of paprika and saffron are two of my favourite ingredients, and as this dish included both, I couldn’t resist.

As always, I did a bit of adapting – with no sherry or sherry vinegar in my cupboards, but a glass of red wine and a splash of red wine vinegar to use up, I simply used the latter instead. I also added some shitake mushrooms to the dish, and didn’t bother with the olives. (I used shitakes on the advice of the mushroom man at Borough Market, who said they’d hold up to the strong flavours and slow cooking.) Other than that, I followed the recipe as described.

So, did I get my packing done? Did I hell! But I did have the deliciously beefy, full-flavoured supper I’d planned. I know where my priorities lie…

I have a feeling that today’s general election is going to leave something of a bitter taste in my mouth – I don’t think I’ve ever entered a polling booth feeling quite so pessimistic.

So, last night I thought I’d attempt to relieve that bitterness with a little sweet treat – something that not only used some of my cupboard stocks, but also has a vaguely political edge to it.

Parlies – or Scottish parliament cakes – are, in fact, biscuits originating from Edinburgh about 300 years ago. Made with black treacle and ginger, they curiously became extremely popular with members of the then Scottish parliament – hence the name Parlies. I have no idea why these particular biscuits should gain such an odd following, but such is life…

The recipe I have is from one of those dinky little regional cookbooks that you can buy in souvenir shops in chocolate-box villages everywhere from the West Highlands to Cornwall.

The list of the ingredients suggested using black treacle or golden syrup, but, as I have an amount of both that needed to be finished (plus, if I’m honest, black treacle is not one of my favourite things), I put a spoonful of both in.

All the ingredients are combined into a fairly firm biscuit dough, then spooned into roughly shaped blobs on a baking tray. Into the oven for about 20 minutes, and out come some toffee-coloured, fairly soft biscuits.

Me being me, I couldn’t resist trying one straight from the oven, and although it was nice enough, I wasn’t entirely sure what James VI and his comrades were so enthusiastic about.

However, once I’d left the Parlies to cool, they turned into the most delicious crunchy, spiced, treacly biscuits.

Well, I’ve cast my vote, and now we just have to wait for the results. So, in the meantime, I shall settle down with a cup of coffee and a couple of Parlies…

I was legging it down Berwick Street on Saturday, on my way to an urgent appointment (with my hairdresser), when I was literally stopped in my tracks. The glorious sight that had me skidding to a halt was a market stall selling bowls of baby artichokes for £1.

As you may have realised about me, I get somewhat obsessed with certain ingredients at times, and artichokes is the one that’s doing it for me at the moment – so, there was no way I was going to pass up such a foodie bargain. The artichokes weren’t in the best condition, with many of the outer leaves going a bit brown. But, as those are discarded before cooking anyway, it didn’t really matter.

I’d already taken some pork mince out of the freezer, so decided to find a recipe that would combine it with the artichokes. What I found was a recipe on the BBC website for a pork loin with braised artichokes and courgettes, which inspired me to follow the recipe for the vegetable side of the dish, then combine this with a method of cooking mince that I picked up from Nigel Slater.

In a recipe of Nigel’s for baked marrow with pork mince, he suggests cooking the meat over a high heat until really crispy and caramelised – the crucial thing being not to break up the mince. It’s a fantastic way to cook it, and is a million miles away from the watery brown mush you may have experienced in the past. (If you ever ate lunch at a British school in the 1970s, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to…)

So, as I braised the artichokes and courgettes with lemon zest, thyme and lots of garlic, I fried the pork mince with the same flavourings. The end result is a great combination of fresh and zingy with hearty and meaty.

And, conveniently, I’d just made my latest batch of sourdough bread, so a hunk of that on the side mopped up the mouth-watering juices.

Inspect my gadget!

May 1, 2010

I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to kitchen equipment. Give me a good sharp knife and a wooden spoon, and I’m happy. However, I have recently been introduced to the delights of the mandolin.

Now, all I previously knew of this gadget is that it regularly slices off the ends of chef’s fingers. But when the nice people at Oxo Good Grips sent me one and I tried it out once or twice, I did wonder what I’d been doing all these years without it.

This one has a very useful wedge-y bit at one end, which hooks over the edge of the bowl you’re slicing into, so it’s super-steady. Plus, my stress levels at using this dangerous kitchen weapon were somewhat reduced by the grip thing that sticks securely to whatever you’re slicing – so your fingers don’t have to go anywhere near that scary-looking blade.

And, most importantly – it’s really fun!

Last night, I used the mandolin to slice some marrow, which I sautéed with mint, lemon zest, pul biber (a Turkish red pepper spice) and lots of garlic.

Once soft and a little browned, I chucked in a grated carrot that needed using up, some leftover roast chicken I’d had in the freezer, plus a handful of parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. A little salt and pepper was all that was needed to make a delicious, fresh, tangy supper, that conveniently used up some more of my freezer stocks.