To market, to market…

June 29, 2010

Last Saturday, I made my first trip to Borough Market since moving away from the area. As I’m relatively settled for the next four or five weeks in Clapham with my lovely friend Lene and her two equally lovely sons Wesley and Dexter (are you embarrassed yet, boys?), I thought I should get back into the cooking swing of things.

It was both comforting to be back on familiar territory and a little freaky, knowing that it wasn’t actually, strictly speaking, my territory any more. However, the (several) bags of goodies I managed to purchase in a very short space of time made up for any hesitation I may have felt.

Unfortunately, what I did forgot was that it was no longer a quick five-minute stroll along the road back home, but that I had to drag my bags to Clapham on a very hot and sweaty Tube. Not nice. Luckily, my memory is short, and once I got thinking about what to cook, the journey was soon forgotten.

Lene spends most Saturday nights DJing, and as she was booked to play in both Brighton and London last weekend, I said I’d make dinner for her, Dexter, and Dexter’s friend Jacob, who was having a sleepover, so she could get herself ready to go out. (Wesley, having just finished his GCSEs, was nowhere to be seen…)

Now, I don’t have much experience cooking for kids, and the impression I get is that many are not too open to the idea of unusual flavours and ingredients. However, not being particularly tolerant of fussy eaters, I decided to just cook what I wanted to cook, and see what happened.

So, the menu was fried plaice fillets (courtesy of Shellseekers), delicious, organic new potatoes, and saffron cauliflower with olives – an Ottolenghi recipe I’ve made before. On the side, we had a huge loaf of my absolute favourite bread – a tortano ring from The Flour Station, which is an Italian bread made with potato flour.

Well, I’m pleased to report that the meal went down very well with the two 12-year-olds – although, being nice, well-brought-up boys, they could have just been being polite.

But, hopefully, the empty plates were a sign they were telling me the truth!

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.

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…

The final countdown

April 22, 2010

Either I’m proving the adage that life begins at 40, or I’m heading for a mid-life crisis – because, at the age of 41, I have decided to make some scarily bonkers changes in my life.

Part One of these life-changing events takes place in less than a month, when I’ll be moving out of my lovely bijoux Borough flat, putting my stuff into storage, and then living out of a suitcase for a couple of months. The aim is to live as rent-free as possible until the end of July, at which point, Part Two kicks in, and I’ll be heading out to Istanbul to move in with my boyfriend Süleyman.

As excited as I am about finally living with Süleyman, I think I’m going to find it just a little heartbreaking to move out of the place I’ve called home for nearly ten years – not least because my second home, Borough Market, is five minutes down the road.

So, to try and distract myself, I’ve set myself a challenge… to literally empty my food cupboards by the time I move out in the middle of May.

Looking through my cupboards last night, I realised I didn’t have a vast quantity of stuff to get through (I’ve always been quite good at not buying useless ingredients that I use once and never again), but there are still one or two items I’m not sure what to do with.

How I’m going to use up a nearly full bottle of rose water and an unopened tin of black treacle in four weeks, I just don’t know! Any suggestions will be gratefully received.

I’m actually rather fond of my ramshackle collection of spice jars (pictured above), so I think I might try and take them with me to Turkey. What the customs officials at Istanbul airport will make of an odd collection of powders, seeds and pods is anyone’s guess. But I’ll just put Midnight Express out of my mind, and run the gauntlet!

So, it looks like I’ll be eating lots of lentils, rice, couscous and quinoa over the next four weeks – but I’m certainly going to try and come up with as many variations on those themes as possible. And, as I generally make lunch to take into work every day, that gives me five more opportunities every week to make a dent in my supplies.

I won’t be using much of anything tonight, though, as Little Sis and I are going out to eat with our grandmother at our favourite north London restaurant, the Singapore Garden. But I’ve got some friends coming over for dinner this weekend – so, Nick and Kerry, beware! You may be finding a rather odd concoction of dishes on your plates come Saturday night.

A spring-loaded salad

April 20, 2010

I recently read a news story about how the long, cold winter we’ve just had has affected the English asparagus crop. And, although you’d usually expect it to start making an appearance about now, this year we wouldn’t be seeing anything until May.

So, as a big fan of this vegetable, I was more than a little pleased to see a great basketful of lovely, fresh green asparagus at the Secretts Farm stall at last Saturday’s Borough Market.

I eagerly grabbed a small handful of spears, and although it wasn’t cheap (it came to nearly £4 for about ten spears), I just couldn’t resist. They found their way into yesterday’s lunch – a salad with, among other things, oak leaf lettuce, and topped off with a nice, soft boiled egg.

Spring, as far as I’m concerned, has properly arrived!

A plaice in my heart

April 12, 2010

A couple of years ago, my mum and I did a fish cookery course down at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage in Dorset.

We were shown how to prep any number of different fish, from mackerel and sole to crab and oysters. Once we amateurs had done mauling these poor creatures about, they were taken off to the kitchen where the professionals cooked them up for us to eat.

It was a really fun day, but I have to say, I haven’t really used any of the skills I learned since then. However, when I bought this lovely, bright, fresh plaice at Devon Fish in Borough Market on Saturday, and the guy asked me if I wanted him to fillet it, I decided I really had to have a go myself. And, I don’t think I did too bad a job of it!

I reckon, as long as you have a really sharp little knife and take things slowly and carefully, a flat fish like plaice is the ideal thing to start your filleting with.

I’d bought the plaice to go with a recipe I recently discovered on The New York Times website for leeks with anchovy butter. I’d always thought I wasn’t very fond of leeks, but have recently come to the conclusion that what I didn’t like was leek and potato soup, so have been making up for lost leek-time recently.

I simply pan-fried the plaice fillets in some olive oil, with a little salt and pepper, and served the leeks on the side. I had substituted the shallots with red onion as I’d forgotten to buy the former. And, although the onions were slightly crunchier than they ought to have been, the dish was really delicious.

However, it was a little heavy on the butter for my taste, so I might try it with a mix of butter and olive oil next time. But there definitely will be a next time.

An Easter chicken

April 5, 2010

London at Easter is surprisingly quiet, and actually becomes pretty enjoyable for the rest of us who haven’t fled to damp cottages in Cornwall or are stuck at Heathrow airport with increasingly grumpy families.

So, after working up an appetite with a long walk along the Thames yesterday, I came home to cook a large roast chicken, which I bought on Saturday at Wyndham’s in Borough Market. They sell a wonderful free-range chicken called Label Anglais, and although it’s not cheap, it’s absolutely worth splashing out on every now and then.

Wyndham’s also gave me a bag of giblets (see pic below), and, as a long weekend off work is just an open invitation for me to cook even more, I made the effort to make some chicken stock, which is now in the freezer for a quick soupy supper later in the week.

I’ll often rub the skin of my chickens with something spicy, but as the weather here is actually resembling spring at long last, I decided to stick with some fresh, herby flavours. So, into the chicken cavity I put a quartered red onion, three or four squished cloves of garlic and plenty of fresh thyme.

As always, I used my trusty chicken clay pot to cook it in. As I’ve mentioned before, the advantage of using the clay pot is that it retains loads of moisture, so keeps the meat really tender.

I also do a little trick that the food editor at the magazine where I work told me about. I cook the chicken upside down for the first half of the cooking time, which means all the juices flow into the breasts. Then, for the last 20 minutes or so, I turn the bird the right way up, and continue cooking wthout the lid on the clay pot, to crisp up the skin a bit.

So, dinner was delicious, juicy roast chicken with mashed potatoes and braised spring greens and peas. Inevitably, there was plenty left over, so I bagged the meat up into convenient little portions and stuck it in the freezer for future lunches and suppers.

Veal chop with frittedda

March 29, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with some old friends in Southgate, which, if you don’t know London, is just about as far north as you can get on the Victoria Line before falling off the end. It is, without doubt, suburbia.

We met in an updated version of an old-fashioned family-run Italian restaurant, called Fantozzi, and, if I’m totally honest, I wasn’t expecting much of the food. So, with that in mind, it was a rather risky choice to go with the veal chop from the menu. However, I was very surprised to find a full-flavoured, gloriously tender piece of meat on my plate. Mustn’t judge a book by its cover, I reminded myself that night.

Last Saturday, while wandering around Borough Market, I thought I’d give the veal chop another go, this time cooking it myself. So I headed to The Ginger Pig to buy one.

One of the best butchers in London, I imagined I’d be getting another succulent, tasty piece of veal. I decided to cook it simply – salt, pepper, a good olive oil and slap it on the griddle pan. On the side, I thought one of my favourite spring vegetable dishes would be perfect.

A Sicilian dish, frittedda is a sautéed concoction of onion, fennel, broad beans, peas and fresh baby artichokes. With a smattering of salt and pepper, plus a pinch of sugar, this dish absolutely makes the most of the flavours of new season vegetables, and goes beautifully with meat of any sort.

And the frittedda was delicious. Unfortunately, the veal was more of a disappointment. It was much tougher than the one I’d had in suburbia, and it didn’t have a great deal of flavour. As I said, I’d assumed that coming from a great butcher, it would be a treat of a piece of meat. Hmm, I once again thought, mustn’t judge a book by its cover.

But, not wanting to see it go to waste… oh, okay, because I’m a greedy so-and-so, I still ate the lot.

A food odyssey

March 23, 2010

Last night’s supper was, give or take, three days in the making. Not because of the cooking time of the dish itself, but because I decided to make my own beef stock as the basis for the sauce in the recipe. And, due to various events over the weekend, I didn’t manage to finish it until Monday night.

My plan was to use the two venison fillets I had in the freezer from the previous week’s shop in an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent recipe in The Guardian for oxtail with star anise.

So, on Saturday, I picked up a lovely bag of beef bones from The Ginger Pig, and started to follow Delia Smith’s classic recipe for beef stock. (I have a couple of Delia’s cookery books, and don’t use them all that often, but when it comes to the basics, like stock, she can’t be beaten.)

The first step was to roast the bones with a few vegetables, before simmering them in water. However, once I’d got the roasted bones out of the oven, I realised I didn’t have time to simmer them for the requisite four hours, as I was meeting friends in town for a drink.

I decided I’d make the stock the following morning, then finish off the dish in time to have a late lunch, before heading down to Greenwich for a friend’s wedding reception on Sunday evening.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s plans were somewhat hindered by a truly stupendous hangover, thanks to someone having the clever idea of going on to a nightclub after a few drinks too many. (Erm, actually, it might have been me who had the idea…)

Anyway, I managed to drag myself out of bed in the early afternoon and set the beef stock on to simmer. The smell was absolutely amazing, and was actually quite comforting as I dozed on the sofa for the rest of the afternoon.

However, by the time the stock was finished, there wasn’t enough time for it to cool (which you need to do so you can scoop the solidified fat off the top), before I had to go to Greenwich. (In any case, I wasn’t really in any condition to cook or even eat a rich dish like venison.)

Day three, and by the time I got home from work, the fat was good and solid on top of the stock, was easily scooped off, and I was finally entering the home straights to finishing the dish.

I had thought that I would follow Hugh’s recipe exactly as it was with the oxtail, and let it braise long and slow in the sauce. But, after reading several online recipes for dishes with venison fillet, I realised it would end up as tough as old boots.

So, instead, I seared the fillets, then removed them to a plate. I made the rest of the sauce and let it simmer without the meat for about an hour. Then, after sieving the bits and bobs out of the liquid, I added the venison, which I’d sliced into thick coins, plus a couple of sliced mushrooms.

I just let it simmer for a few minutes, then served it with noodles. I’m not sure the sauce had quite the depth that it would have had if the meat had been in it the whole time. But it was still very tasty. And I’m definitely going to try it with the oxtail – but hopefully without the hangover.

Not-so-dear deer

March 16, 2010

The Shellseekers stall in Borough Market may sell the best in hand-dived scallops, but the section of the shop I always look at first is its fridge full of game. Previous purchases from there have included wild duck, pheasant and partridge, but this week my eye was caught by some very reasonably priced venison fillets.

The guy behind the counter said that, in his opinion, they were better than the venison steaks, which he was also selling. And, as pack of four small fillets was priced at just £4, I thought I’d give it a go.

Now, the generally accepted way of cooking venison is to marinade then roast it for hours. Remembering that I’d made venison carpaccio for a Christmas meal a few years ago that involved a very brief meeting of meat and frying pan, I decided to give the fillets a bit of a bashing with my rolling pin to flatten them, and sear them in my lovely Le Creuset griddle pan.

But what to have with them? I thought perhaps something that would usually go with lamb might work, so I looked through a few cookery books for something that took my fancy.

I found just the thing in Breakfast, Lunch, Tea – the book from the Rose Bakery. In it was a recipe for lemony artichokes with lamb chops, so I simply followed the instructions for the artichokes, and replaced the lamb with my venison fillets.

The venison was absolutely delicious – full-flavoured, succulent and oh-so tender. And the sweet fresh taste of the lemony artichokes went with it perfectly. In fact, I’d say it’s the ultimate spring dish, with some heartiness to combat the still-chilly weather outside, but a zingy aroma of the (hopefully!) warmer temperatures to come.