A Scandi-style birthday supper

September 24, 2017

It’s my birthday today (happy birthday to me!), and to kick things off, I invited my best gals round for dinner last night. Most people look forward to being cooked for on their birthday, but for me cooking is such a pleasurable task, it makes my day if I have the time and space to make a really special meal for my really special friends.

As is often my way, I had one specific ingredient in mind around which I wanted to build the meal – and last night’s dinner was all about a jar of Danish pickled plums. Last week, I’d bought a punnet of bog-standard supermarket plums to make a cake with, but I ate one and it was so utterly tasteless, I couldn’t bring myself to use them. I didn’t want to waste them, though, so I dug around and found a Diana Henry recipe for Danish pickled prunes in her brilliant Salt Sugar Smoke book. I simply replaced the prunes with my plums, and followed the rest of her recipe. (I’ll definitely be making them again, so will post the recipe another time.)

I thought a fish dish would be suitably Scandi, and the gentle sweetness of smoked haddock would be a perfect match for the sharp pickle. Wanting to keep things relatively simple, I went for a one-pot recipe, and the result was baked smoked haddock and fennel, with lemon zest and chives.

I made a tomato and quick-pickled red onion salad for the side, plus some simply boiled baby purple potatoes (which I was very happy to spot at the veg shop, as they are utterly delicious).

Baked smoked haddock and fennel

Here’s the recipe for the fish:

Serves 4
600g smoked haddock (the natural stuff, if you can get it, in as large pieces as possible)
8 whole peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 bay leaf
400ml milk
4 bulbs fennel
zest of half a lemon
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
400ml fish stock
olive oil
1 small bunch chives

1 Put the haddock, with the skin still on, in a single layer in a large pot. Add the peppercorns, fennel seeds and bay leaf, and pour over enough milk to almost cover the fish. Put the lid on the pot, slowly bring to a gentle boil, then turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly in the liquid.

2 Heat the oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Trim the fennel bulbs, reserving any decent fronds. Quarter each bulb, then slice each quarter in half again. Place the fennel slices in a baking dish so they are tightly packed but in a single layer.

3 Scatter the lemon zest, chopped fennel fronds and garlic evenly over the fennel slices and grind some black pepper over. Strain 200ml of the milk the fish has been cooked in, and add to the fish stock, then pour this over the fennel. This should come to almost the top of the fennel. If you need more liquid, add some more of the fishy milk. Drizzle some olive oil evenly over the top of the fennel.

4 Bake in the oven for about 30-35 minutes – the liquid should have reduced by about half, and it should all be nicely browned – then place the whole pieces of haddock on top of the fennel. Drizzle a little more olive oil on the fish, and grind a little pepper over it. Taste the liquid in the dish, and if it needs it season with a little salt.

5 Bake in the oven for another 10 minutes, until the fish is starting to brown a little, then scatter with a good handful of snipped chives. Serve with boiled potatoes and your vegetable or salad of choice – and something pickled if you have it.

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Cake and friends

February 11, 2013

Bloody typical.

Just as I get all enthused about writing my blog again, I come down with a bout of flu on a par with the bubonic plague (without the dodgy armpit sores, thanks be…) (is it okay to talk about armpit sores on a food blog?).

After six days in bed, and more time off work than is good for my bank balance, I’m downright desperate to be back to fiddle-like fitness.

The worst thing about all this is the complete lack of interest I’ve had in food. I’m sure a lot of it is thanks to my tastebuds dying a death – when food becomes nothing but texture and consistency, well, Michel Roux could be standing over me with the finest coq au vin and it might as well be a Findus frozen lasagne.

So, while I await the return of my taste and energy levels, here’s one I made earlier…

My friend Marian is one of my biggest fans. She’s always going on at me to enter The Great British Bake Off, or make her a cake, or set up my own cafe, or make her another cake.

Now, as much as I (normally) like eating, I think baking a cake for someone else is right up there at the top of my list of pleasurable activities. So when Marian asked me to make a birthday cake for her boyfriend a couple of weeks ago, I… actually, that’s a lie. She didn’t ask at all. I told her I was making it, and that was that.

The boyfriend, I was informed, was a fan of carrot cake and chocolate cake. And, as I am most definitely not a fan of carrot cake (and what’s the point of making cake you can’t enjoy yourself), chocolate it was.

A few years ago, I made a chocolate and orange marble cake for Little Sis’s birthday that had both looked and tasted great. Cutting open the cake to see swirls of chocolatey and orangey sponge gives it quite a professional look – even though it’s actually really simple to make. The recipe is from Leith’s Baking Bible, which is a must-have book for anyone who makes cakes regularly.

Ingredients for chocolate and garlic, er, no… chocolate and orange marble cake

Ingredients for chocolate and garlic, er, no… chocolate and orange marble cake

All you do is make a traditional sponge batter, split the mixture in two, then add orange zest to one half and cocoa powder to the other.

Spooning the orange and chocolate batters into the tin

Spooning the orange and chocolate batters into the cake tin

Then place alternate spoonfuls of the mixtures into your tin until it’s all in. Roughly smooth the top, then get a clean knife and slowly draw a spiral from the centre of the batter outwards. Just the once. This will combine the two batters just enough to create a great marble effect once cooked.

A chocolate and orange marble cake, with a big hole in the top. Well, I had to make sure it was cooked…

A chocolate and orange marble cake, with a big hole in the top. Well, I had to make sure it was cooked…

Cooking this cake, I came to the realisation once and for all that my oven is pretty damn efficient. Maybe a little too efficient. Hence the great crater in the top. Next time, I’ll remember to turn the temperature down a wee bit. But luckily for this cake, it was being iced, so I could disguise the slight amateurishness of its appearance.

The Leith recipe also suggests sprinkling grated chocolate on top, which is okay, but I think random little chippy bits of chocolate doesn’t always look that great. I thought I’d attempt some proper curls for this one, and while researching the best way to do it, came across a fantastic tip. Instead of all that faff with melting the chocolate, pouring it onto a sheet, cooling, scraping etc etc etc – you do it with a vegetable peeler!

As long as the chocolate is properly room temperature (if it’s too cold, the curls just shatter), and you hold it over the cake so you don’t need to try and pick them up, it really does the trick to great effect. As you can see here…

Decorated with chocolate icing and curls, the cake is ready to go

Decorated with chocolate icing and curls, the cake is ready to be delivered to the birthday boy

The cake went down very well, although I’m not sure the boyfriend was too keen on half a Peckham pub singing him happy birthday in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. But hey, you want cake? You have to sing – or at least be sung to – for it.

So long in the making, and so short in the eating…

So long in the making, and so short in the eating…

Get your skate on…

January 22, 2013

When looking for somewhere to live, I have a feeling I’m led by my nose – or stomach – as I always seem to end up in areas that have a great supply of foodie wonders. And my current location is no different.

Tucked into a lovely little nook where Peckham, Honor Oak and East Dulwich meet, I’m a stone’s throw from such a fantastic variety of shops, cafés, delis and pubs that I’m never at a loss for inspiration.

The best thing is that around 90% of them are local, independently owned places, and that’s just great in this age of the Tesco Metro-type faux-local shops (which, in my opinion, are far more damaging to small independent shops than the monoliths on the edges of towns).

Last night’s dinner was a perfect storm of ingredients pretty much entirely bought in my little nook. A skate wing from a fish stall in Northcross Road; olives, tomatoes and yoghurt from the Turkish supermarket over the road; sprouting broccoli and cauliflower from Herne Hill farmers’ market (okay, a wee bit out of the nook, but still in the SE region).

Bare Cupboard gives you wings

Bare Cupboard gives you wings

The starting point for this meal was the skate wing. I really wanted to do something other than the usual caper butter with it, so when I came across a recipe for John Dory with broccoli sauce in Anna Del Conte’s Amaretto, Apple Cake And Artichokes, and remembered I had some rapidly fading sprouting broccoli in the fridge, I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

A search through the far corners of my fridge resulted in a rather sorry looking piece of cauliflower, so I thought I’d better use that up quick before it became too floppy to do anything with. But I needed to do something sharp and flavourful with it, otherwise I was likely to end up with a somewhat bland, sweet meal.

And then, in a moment when it felt like all the food gods were smiling on me, I found a recipe in Angela Hartnett’s A Taste Of Home for cauliflower, tomato and olive salad – all of which I had in my fridge.

Angela Hartnett and Anna Del Conte – two of my favourite cookery writers

Angela Hartnett and Anna Del Conte – two of my favourite cookery writers

The salad was a piece of parsley to make. Cut the cauliflower into smallish florets, cook until just tender, leave to cool, then mix with tomatoes and olives, and a glug of vinaigrette. Who would have thought the combination of cauliflower and olives would taste so good? But take my word for it, it does.

Cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

Cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

On to the fish.

To make the sauce, sauté a finely chopped onion or shallot in olive oil (Anna’s recipe says butter, but I was looking to make it a bit lighter) in a shallow saucepan or heavy frying pan with a lid. Using a vegetable peeler, take off the tough outer skin of the broccoli stalks, then finely chop the whole lot, leaves and all.

Once the onion is soft, add the broccoli and enough fish stock to just cover the vegetables. Simmer for a good 20 minutes or so, checking the stock hasn’t evaporated, adding more as necessary. Towards the end of cooking, I also added a big handful of parsley, just because I had some that needed using up – but it also gave the sauce a more vivid green colour.

Sautéing finely chopped sprouting broccoli

Sautéing finely chopped sprouting broccoli

Once the broccoli is really soft, bung the lot in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add a bit more of the fish stock if it needs loosening. Put the sauce back into a clean saucepan and keep warm while you cook the fish.

The broccoli sauce, waiting for its skate wing

The broccoli sauce, waiting for its skate wing

Anna’s recipe for the John Dory says to cook it in white wine – I forgot to get any, so instead I oiled a baking dish, placed the skate in it and covered with fish stock and a good squeeze of lemon juice. I baked it for about 20 minutes at 190°C.

Another minor adjustment to Anna’s recipe was that instead of adding cream to the sauce, just before serving, I plopped in a spoonful of natural yoghurt. I’m not a massive fan of creamy sauces, and as the broccoli was quite sweet, I found the touch of sharpness from the yoghurt gave it a bit of life.

Skate with broccoli sauce, and cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

Skate with broccoli sauce, and a cauliflower, tomato and olive salad on the side

The skate wing I had was pretty huge, so half of it was more than sufficient. The other half went in the fridge and was a very tasty lunch the next day, with another bit of salad on the side.

A Sunday pig-out

April 17, 2011

Being a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey doesn’t have a great deal of pork available. And I do love my pork. So when I’m back in France or England, I tend to eat a lot of it. After all, there really is nothing like a deliciously spiced saucisson in France, or a plate of crispy bacon in Britain.

My stay in London has been quite long this time, and I realised today that it’s only two weeks until I head back to Istanbul. Which, of course, I’m really excited about – but, what was the first thing I thought when I realised my UK trip was close to an end? Pork!

So, today, when I said I’d cook Sunday lunch for Lene, my London host (landlady?), and her family, I knew exactly what was going to be on the menu.

Lene is as much into her cooking as I am, and has a fine collection of cookery books. Including a lovely set of Elizabeth David classics. Among which I found a recipe for roast pork with fennel – in her book called Italian Food. But, of course, being a bit of a food fiddler, I couldn’t just leave it at that, and decided to add garlic, rosemary and paprika to the rolled shoulder stuffing.

On the side, I kept to the fennel theme, and made a fennel and potato bake.

And for some extra veggie-ness, some simple steamed chantenay carrots and English peas – with plenty of mint and butter, of course.

And for pud? One of my faves – Dan Lepard’s saffron peach cake, with loads of thick whipped cream.

And now the sofa beckons…

Sounds meh, tastes mmm…

November 11, 2010

I’m thinking of changing the name of this blog to Bare Cupboard & Claudia, after the Julie & Julia film. After all, I seem to be blogging my way through Claudia Roden’s The New Book Of Middle Eastern Food in much the same way that Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.

And today was no different…

I actually made this dish for the first time last week in Istanbul, when I found a bag of seriously softening carrots in the bottom of my fridge. I did what I always do in this situation, and that’s head for the index of a few cookbooks to see if I had enough other ingredients to make something interesting with whatever it is I want to use up.

In this case, I found a recipe that, I have to admit, sounded like something Nanny would have forced upon some sorry Dickensian school-children. Boiled carrot salad. But once I’d read the list of simple ingredients, I had a feeling it was going to taste much better than the name suggested.

Fortunately, I was right. Unfortunately, the photos I took made it look as though Nanny had had a punch-up with the mashed carrots – and lost. Best left for another time, I decided.

And the ‘other time’ presented itself to me today. I arrived at my mum’s in France yesterday, a stopover on my way back to London (only a visit – I haven’t fled Istanbul altogether!), and after a quick rummage in her well-stocked fridge, I found some similarly floppy carrots. Boiled carrot salad for lunch, then.

So, the first step is to, er, boil the carrots. In salted water, with a couple of roughly chopped cloves of garlic. Once the vegetables are super-soft, mash them with a hefty pinch of cumin seeds (I usually just crumble them between my fingertips, rather than grind them to a fine powder), a teaspoon of harissa paste (I used pul biber the first time I made it, and actually thought it tasted better), a splash of wine vinegar (either red or white will do), and a good glug of olive oil. I found that it also needed a bit more of a seasoning with salt and pepper. Don’t mix’n’mash too thoroughly, as it’s tastier when a bit chunky. Leave it to cool a little, then scatter with a few more cumin seeds, a little cayenne pepper (or, in my case, pul biber), and another glug of olive oil.

Mum and I ate it with an avocado salad, some crunchy baguette, and a glass of delicious Muscadet. We both agreed that it was very tasty, and could easily become rather addictive. Nanny would be proud…

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.

The thing about all this seasonal food here in Istanbul is that sometimes it just gets a bit tedious. I know, I know, I really shouldn’t complain. But when you’ve eaten aubergine every bloody which way it is possible to eat aubergine, sometimes you just want something, well, that’s not aubergine.

And then, suddenly, it all changes. Of course. Because that’s what happens when the seasons change.

After a month of extreme heat (well, extreme to my delicate British sensibilities), the weather has quite suddenly turned. Although still nice and sunny, the temperature has dropped significantly, and long sleeves are the order of the day.

With that chill in the air has come a change in the food on offer in the markets, the most exciting of which is, for me, the arrival of anchovy season. Apparently it’s the cooler sea water that has them swimming in their thousands down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea.

And, all I have to say to that is, “Come to mummy!”

I love these little fishies – in tins, in olive oil, in salads, but best of all, fresh, dusted in seasoned flour and fried. And these ones I bought in Kumkapi market were small enough to eat whole – I, for one, cannot be bothered trying to gut tiny tiddlers like this.

In spite of their size, fresh anchovies pack quite a flavour punch, so I decided to have something quite simple and fresh-tasting with them. I’d bought some baby leeks, and at the back of my mind I remembered a recipe I’d seen in Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food (do I use any other cookbook?) for leeks with yoghurt sauce. Perfect, I thought.

So, while I steamed the baby leeks, I mixed together a tablespoon of olive oil, a couple of heaped tablespoons of yoghurt, a squeeze of lemon juice, a grinding of pepper and salt, and a handful of chopped parsley. Claudia suggests first cooking the yoghurt with an egg white and some cornflour to stop it curdling, but I couldn’t really be bothered. And, luckily, the sauce pretty much held together fine as it was.

Once the leeks and yoghurt were ready, I simply rolled the anchovies in flour seasoned with salt and my store-cupboard essential, pul biber, then quickly fried them in a small amount of very hot olive oil. They crisped up well and were absolutely delicious with the fresh sweet leeks and tangy yoghurt sauce.

Unfortunately, due to Süleyman’s working hours, we don’t get to eat together in the evenings very often. So, although we’ve been having fabulous breakfasts and hearty salad-filled lunches, yesterday, it was great to have the opportunity to cook something a bit more elaborate for someone.

That someone was my friend Mireille, who brought her delightful little one-year-old son Cebriel over to my flat in the afternoon. The afternoon drifted into the early evening, when I rustled up a light meal for us all.

That morning, I’d realised I had some very soft-looking peaches and apples in the fridge, and decided I needed to do something with them quick, or they’d end up in the bin (a complete anathema to me, as I’m sure you’re well aware).

I am without oven at the moment, so had to cook the fruit on the top of the cooker – and, it struck me, the perfect thing to do with them was to make a compote. The Turkish word for compote is ‘komposto’, which rather sounds like something you throw on your vegetable patch – but luckily, the compote I made was far too good for that!

I simmered the peeled, cored and chopped fruit in a syrup of water, lemon juice and sugar, until the peaches and apples were deliciously falling apart. Then I just left the sweet, slightly tart mixture to cool.

Although the weather isn’t anywhere near as hot and humid as it was when I first arrived, it’s still fairly baking – not weather you’d immediately associate with bowls of steaming soup. But, spotting a full bag of carrots at the bottom of the fridge, I knew that was exactly what I fancied eating yesterday.

And, with perfect serendipity, I found in one of the few cookery books I managed to drag over to Istanbul (Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food, natch) a recipe for Turkish carrot soup, or havuç çorbasi.

After softening the carrots in lots of butter, then simmering in stock until it all turns into a deliciously sweet purée, something rather special is added. After making a basic roux with butter, flour and milk, three egg yolks are added, making it a stunning yellow colour. Then, just before serving the soup, I stirred in the eggy roux, and served.

This incredibly tasty soup manages to be rich and hearty, yet, thanks to the sweetness of the carrots, really quite refreshing for a hot summer’s evening. I’m sure it’s going to be one of my future favourites.

For pudding, we had spoonfuls of chilled compote alongside Turkish yoghurt. Now, I think I’ve talked about this before, but Turkish yoghurt is something else. Even thicker, if it’s possible, than Greek yoghurt, it is perhaps a little more tangy. But the reason is has the edge for me is that it comes with a yummy skin on top. I know that’s something not to everyone’s taste, but, like the skin on rice pudding, you either love it or hate it. And I love it.

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…

Quite often I find myself with one ingredient that I want to eat and I’ll base a meal around it. Last night, it was a green pepper.

Green peppers usually mean Spanish food to me, so I turned to a cookbook I often wax lyrically about, and that’s the Moro one. And, yet again, it came up trumps.

In it, I found a recipe for a chicken and prawn paella, all of the ingredients for which I had – except the prawns! So it became merely a chicken paella, and it certainly didn’t lack anything for not having the seafood in it.