I’m back in France at my mum’s just now, and had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Le Mans at the beginning of the week. Yes, we all know it’s where the 24-hour car race takes place, but really, there is so much more to this beautiful medieval city.

On my last morning there, I had just enough time to nip down to the marché des Jacobins (every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 7.30am to 12.30pm) to see what the local stall-holders had to offer. Located under the gaze of the stunning St Julien cathedral, it has to be one of the most beautifully located markets ever.

In other respects, it’s a fairly typical market, but, of course, typical rarely means boring when it comes to French produce. This is a funny time of year for fresh fruit and veg – the last of the winter stuff well and truly over, and the delights of spring not quite kicking in. But, still, the market was pretty much busting at the seams with lovely looking food.

Radishes being one of my favourite nibbles, I couldn’t resist buying a large bunch of the crunchy gems, pictured below. Just behind them is a kind of salad called mâche, something you don’t see very often in the UK. It’s one of my mum’s favourites, so a large bag of that was purchased, too. We also bought some dandelion leaves, which were dotted with tiny buds of the flower and had a surprisingly sweet flavour.

As well as the fresh stuff, there were inevitably a number of stalls selling bread. I noticed that a lot of places in Le Mans sold what was called traditional baguette, and when I tried some, I realised it was a kind of levain baguette. And delicious it was, too.

Despite being pretty restrained with our purchases, once Mum and I got home, we realised we did have rather a large amount of lettuce-y type things to munch through. So, for lunch today, I made a large salad of mâche, dandelion leaves, radishes, chicory, celery and cherry tomatoes.

I rustled up smoked salmon omelettes, with herbs from Mum’s garden, to eat alongside the salad, and, with the sun shining and temperatures heading towards 20 degrees, we sat outside for what felt like the first summer lunch of the year. Lovely.

Good mornings…

February 5, 2011

My boyfriend is a barman. Which means most evenings I have to amuse myself in the kitchen. And, although we get to have breakfast together every day, there’s only so much you can do with an egg and a slice of toast – what with me not being much of a cornflake girl.

So, when Süleyman arrived back from his early-morning gym session the other day with a box of quails’ eggs, I was a little more excited than perhaps I ought to have been at the sight of a foodstuff. (One of his workout buddies gave them to him – a slightly odd gift, maybe, but one that was much appreciated, nonetheless.)

While looking online for ideas of how to incorporate them into our morning meal, I found a very pretty picture of poached quails’ eggs, so thought I’d give it a go too. And, as you can see from the photo below, I had some success… as well as some squidgy disasters.

I served them on toast with a good splash of olive oil, some pul biber, and a few of the usual Turkish breakfast accoutrements – olives, cheese, tomatoes and parsely. Simple enough, yes, but what really surprised me was just how tasty the wee things were – a flavour that was completely unproportional to their size.

Süleyman’s off the the gym again on Monday – and I’m just looking forward to what he’ll bring back next time!

Here comes the mushroom man

November 4, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, while wandering around Kumkapi market, I spotted a man sitting at the side of the road with a shoe box on his lap. The shoe box was full of wild mushrooms of all sizes, shapes, colours, and probably levels of edibility. Clearly mushroom season had started.

Being a huge fungi fan, I was sorely tempted to buy some, but something told me it perhaps wasn’t the most sensible thing to do. And I may well have been right – Suleyman later told me there are occasionally cases of people coming to sticky ends at this time of year, after consuming wild mushrooms that had been picked by someone who doesn’t know their Cantharellus cibarius from their Cortinarius rubellus.

So, I was delighted to see a stall at Fatih Pazar yesterday overflowing with what were clearly carefully selected mushrooms.

A halting conversation with the vendor resulted in the information that this was a selection of field and forest fungi from the region around the city of Bolu, about half-way between Istanbul and Ankara. It’s an area known for natural springs, high mountains and pine forests, so I was hoping its vegetation would reflect that unspoilt environment.

With prices starting at about £3 a kilo, I barely knew where to start. It would have been very easy to walk away with several kilos of mushrooms, but even the greediest of gourmands can consume only so much. So, after examining the fungi fare on offer, I went for what I think are saffron milk caps. (Unfortunately, my Turkish is nowhere near good enough to have come to that conclusion from my chat with the mushroom man, and I had to do some internet research instead – but if anyone knows different, please do tell me.)

My shopping companion, Mireille, and I decided to walk home from the market – which is a good hour away from home – so I had plenty of time to think about what I was going to do with my bag of goodies. By the time I got back, I was starving, and knew exactly what was going to become of my mushrooms – sautéed saffron milk caps with garlic, thyme and lemon juice, atop some toast.

The large meaty mushrooms were perfect for this. They held together well in the frying pan and were strong enough in flavour to take on the garlicky, herby aromas. A squeeze of lemon juice stopped the whole dish from becoming too heavy, but, nonetheless, the results were a hugely satisfying autumnal late lunch.

Since arriving in Istanbul, I’ve realised what a huge difference the provenance of ingredients makes to the flavour of a dish. I’ve always been aware of this, obviously – especially when I was lucky enough to be living five minutes’ walk from Borough Market. But it really hit home this week when I made a Tunisian fish tagine, which I first tried back in London earlier this year.

The recipe (by good old Claudia Roden again) has quince as one of the vegetables, but as I hadn’t been able to get hold of any, I had left them out. I had also used mackerel the first time, which, after eating the same dish this week with lip-smackingly fresh sea bass, I realised was completely wrong.

This time, I used the right fish and the right vegetables – bar one. As I couldn’t find the required turnip here in Istanbul, I picked up something that looked remarkably similar…

No, your eyes do not deceive you – that is a radish. And yes, it’s the size of a baby’s head. I don’t know what it is with Turkey and improbably large vegetables, but sometimes I feel like I’m in that Woody Allen film Sleeper, when he discovers the giant vegetable patch.

Anyway, back to the business of cooking…

I simmered all the vegetables – onions, carrots, green peppers and radish/turnip, plus a tin of cooked chickpeas and the heads and tails of the fish in water. Although the recipe didn’t ask for it, I also bunged in a couple of bay leaves and a sprinkling of pul biber.

The stock was left to cook for an hour or so, until all the vegetables were really soft, and the fishy flavours beautifully melded. Then I removed the heads and tails, added the whole sea bass and the sliced quince, and simmered for another half an hour.

Another item this dish is supposed to have, but doesn’t seem to be easy to find here, is couscous. So, instead we had some amazing Turkish flatbread called gözleme, which was stuffed with chopped walnuts.

The bread was a spur of the moment buy, but went so well with the sweetly delicate flavours of the tagine, Suleyman and I agreed, it was a culinary match made in heaven.

Feeling a bit fresh

September 25, 2010

As wonderful as the fresh produce is here in Istanbul, because the markets very much rely on local, seasonal vegetables and fruit, there is often not much choice in the actual variety of what’s on offer.

Yes, I love the full-flavoured tomatoes, sweet red peppers and deep purple aubergines, but I have been craving a bit of a change in my diet. So, when I spotted a large pile of gorgeously bright green broccoli piled on a market stall a couple of days ago – something I hadn’t seen for sale here before – I grabbed as much as I could carry.

It’s always been one of my favourite vegetables, and I could have easily have just munched my way through the stuff raw. But today, for lunch, I made the next best thing.

Lightly steamed, I combined the broccoli florets with shredded raw red cabbage and carrot, then piled the lot onto a mixture of lettuce and rocket, and dressed it with a vinaigrette made with some Turkish “grape vinegar” – essentially Balsamic vinegar, but as it doesn’t come from the Balsamic region, I guess, technically, you can’t call it that.

On the side, is a simit – a ubiquitous Turkish snack, usually described as bagel-like. There are men with little carts on virtually every street corner selling these bread rings, and they are really tasty. Before baking, the rings are dipped in molasses, then coated in sesame seeds to give them their unique flavour and texture.

Afterwards, still on my fresh and raw tip, I decided to cut into another new find for me – a teeny , tiny melon. I’m not sure what kind of melon it grows up to be, but they are sold as small as 3-4in long, and when I showed it to Süleyman, he said, “Mmm, yummy.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when I decided to eat it. I say unfortunately, because I actually really didn’t like it. It kind of tasted like a cross between a cantaloupe melon and a courgette, but not very strongly of either.

In fact, I just couldn’t eat it at all, so put the untouched half into the fridge for Süleyman to finish off later, and decided to have something I know I like – fresh figs.

Now, this is when the seasonal thing comes into its own in Istanbul. It’s the perfect time of year for fresh figs, and I’m stuffing myself silly with them at the moment. My favourite way to eat them is with a great dollop of yoghurt on top. Which is exactly how I finished my lunch today.

So fresh and so healthy, it made me feel rather virtuous!

L’heure de l’apéro

August 5, 2010

Having felt like something of a whirling dervish over the last couple of weeks (albeit one with the permanent fixture of a glass of wine in one hand), I’m now having a relatively settled week in France with my mum.

Inevitably, the glass of something, um, refreshing is still making a regular appearance. And, being France, an apéritif means there is always something to nibble on alongside whatever it is you’re drinking.

Last night, we sat outside and sipped a delicious cold glass of Muscat, while eating some lovely, rough local pâté on toasted bread from the boulangerie down the road, accompanied by crunchy cornichons and radishes.

The bread I hadn’t seen before over here – it’s called pain de meule and is made with a very finely stoneground French flour. The loaves are very long and sold in portions by weight, which is useful if you haven’t quite taken to the French way of consuming vast amounts of baguette with every meal.

The French way of l’apéro, however, I have taken to very easily…

A big tart

July 14, 2010

The other day I got a marriage proposal. Not from the man currently awaiting my arrival in Istanbul. But from the lovely Lene, my friend whose spare room I’m currently occupying.

We’d spent a very profitable but tiring morning selling off my excess baggage at Chiswick car boot sale, then returned home to make tea for our friend Helen and her two kids, Eric and Agnes.

Despite having got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, we quickly made cake, scones, sandwiches, salads and dips – and it was our impressive teamwork that led Lene to suggest I should not, in fact, move to Istanbul, but stay in London and marry her instead. I told her that if things didn’t work out with Süleyman, I’d definitely consider the offer!

And I’m certainly loving the way we’ve just clicked living together – easily sharing the cooking and household chores, and having someone to talk to when the practicalities of moving to Istanbul become a little overwhelming. In return, I’ll make sure I’m around to cook for her boys when she wants to go out (and to send Dexter to bed before he falls asleep in front of the television with his Xbox in his hand).

Which is what I did last night. Lene, being a bit of a yoga bunny, headed off for an evening of bending into strange shapes, while I fed Dexter (Wesley still making very rare appearances, thanks to a summer of parties stretching ahead of him).

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dexter is a pretty adventurous eater (especially considering he’s a young vegetarian), and is always willing to try new dishes. But it’s still something of a challenge for me to come up with veggie meals that he and the rest of us will enjoy.

So, a trawl through my trusty folder of cut-out recipes came up with this delicious-looking French tomato tart, which I’d seen on David Lebovitz’s blog. I decided to buy the tomatoes from Lina Stores, the lovely old Italian deli on London’s Brewer Street, and thought, rather than the French goat’s cheese David suggests, I’d stick with the Italian theme and try some of that country’s cheese instead.

A chat with the lady behind the counter resulted in me buying a nice big chunk of flavourful Fontina, which I thought would be the perfect foil to the sharp mustard base of the tart. (Dexter tried a slice of it while I was preparing the tart, and declared it his second favourite cheese, after brie!)

The beautiful, plump plum tomatoes combined with some fresh herbs direct from Lene’s garden gave the tart a truly summery flavour. So, on the side, I kept it seasonal and made a crunchy radish and gherkin coleslaw with mustard mayonnaise, and one of my all-time faves, cauliflower, fennel and celery salad with a lemon dressing, from Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food. We also ate several slices of my latest loaf of sourdough bread, slathered in lots of butter.

This is the kind of food I could just eat mounds of in the summer – and, luckily, Dexter felt the same. Although, we did manage to leave a few morsels for Lene…

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!

So, I have just finished my third week of sofa surfing, and it’s not going too badly. I’m getting used to living out of a suitcase and sleeping on unfamiliar beds. I’m even getting used to not having all my many, many pairs of shoes immediately to hand (or, maybe I should say, foot!).

But, most surprisingly, I’m actually getting used to not having my own kitchen to cook in. To be honest, it’s quite nice to have a rest from cooking every night, and the great thing about staying with friends who are also good cooks is having dinner made for me.

There is one foodie thing that I have not been able to give up on, though, and that’s my sourdough starter. I made a few loaves with it when I was in my old London flat, and took it to my sister’s in Brighton when I moved most of my things there last month. And a rather strange thing has happened – the starter has gone completely bonkers.

It was always a fairly frothy, smelly mess, but since it has had a blast of sea air, it’s just exploding all over the place. I know that it is the yeastiness in the atmosphere that makes a sourdough starter what it is, but I wasn’t expecting this. And when I made my first loaf with it a couple of weeks ago, the flavour was amazing.

I’ve made a point of making some sourdough every weekend since moving in with little sis and her husband (a small thank-you for putting up with me), and I’m happy to say, it’s just getting better and better. Holey, strong-flavoured, moist of crumb and crunchy of crust, it’s become something of a Sunday-breakfast ritual for us.

Even Archie the greyhound is enjoying a few morsels – although I’m not sure I’m too happy about him getting his chops round my hard work. But I suspect I don’t have much say in the matter…

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.