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.

I fear I have been neglecting you recently.

Having spent a wonderful ten days relaxing in France with my lovely mother and her equally lovely kitchen – where I was able to do some serious cooking and blogging – I was then plunged into the chaos of bed-hopping and job-hopping in London for three weeks. I had so much fun catching up with friends and family (plus earning some much-needed money by freelancing at a couple of glamorous fashion magazines), but it barely left me time to breathe, never mind cook and blog.

So, here I am, back at a place I am very happy to now call home – in Istanbul, with my terrific Turk, Suleyman. And very eager to get back in the kitchen.

I arrived back yesterday, and despite waking up this morning to a couple of still-full suitcases and a mound of washing the size of Everest, what was the first thing I did? Throw on some clothes and drag poor Suleyman to the local market, of course.

It’s blummin’ cold here at the moment, and wet with it. So I knew I wanted to start off by cooking something cosy and comforting. As I was perusing the selection of vegetables on offer at Sultanahmet market, I suddenly remembered a recipe I used to cook a lot, but hadn’t made for a very long time. I can’t remember where I got it from, but it’s described as a Greek fish stew.

The important elements of the dish, as far as I could remember, were fish – obviously – courgettes, carrots, onions, garlic, plus a touch of chilli and a few peelings of orange zest. This, I thought, was just what I needed – Mediterranean comfort food.

A quick dash through icy rain to the fish market resulted in a bag of red mullet, a wee sea bass, some prawns, and a couple of dinky silver fish that I’ve eaten here before but couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what they’re called.

After a warming glass of red wine (the heating’s not great in our flat, or, at least, that’s my excuse), I got to cooking. I chopped a couple of onions, a couple of cloves of garlic, a chilli and a carrot, and popped them in a wide, deep saucepan, along with two or three thick slices of orange zest and a couple of bay leaves. I poured in enough water to just cover the ingredients, added some salt, pepper and a good glug of olive oil, brought it all to a low simmer, then left it until the vegetables were just about soft (about six minutes). Then I added a diced courgette and one of those giant radish-y type things I’ve mentioned before. (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in the original recipe, but I had one, and thought it would go quite well with the other ingredients.)

In the meantime, I cut the fish into equal-sized chunks (discarding heads and tails), cored and chopped a large tomato, juiced the remains of the orange and chopped up a big handful of fresh parsley.

Once the vegetables were cooked to an al-dente texture, I added the fish and chopped tomato. The fish took only four or five minutes to cook, and, with about a minute to go, I added the orange juice and parsley. Once I’d checked the seasoning and given it one last stir, I popped the lid on, turned off the heat, and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

So, there we had it. A steaming pan of slightly spicy, slightly zesty, totally yummy Greek fish stew, served with Turkish bread, Turkish wine and a great big helping of hungry gusto. Mmmm…

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.

Süleyman and I live fairly near an area called Kumkapi, which is famous for its fish market, right on the edge of the Sea Of Marmara. Across the dual carriageway and a block or two inland is a small square with several cobbled streets leading off it, where you’ll find wall-to-wall fish restaurants – often full of tourists, but equally popular with the locals.

As I have often mentioned, the fantastic thing about Istanbul is that you can walk barely a few minutes from a busy, touristy area and find something completely different. And this is the same in Kumkapi.

One of the streets leading off the fish-restaurant enclave is what used to be one of the main Armenian areas of Istanbul, most of whom left in the 1950s. It’s now populated mostly by Gypsy families, which makes it, in my eyes, fascinating. Shabby, yes. Run-down, definitely. But there’s something very beautiful about it, too.

And it’s never more vibrant than on Thursdays, market day. So, despite having to lug my shopping bags a little bit further than I’d ideally like, this place has become my favourite shopping destination.

As well as plenty of regular market stalls, there are many people who just turn up with whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on, pile them up on any spare bit of pavement, and Bob’s yer uncle. Above is Kumkapi’s watermelon man, set up outside a little mosque.

Opposite the watermelons was a lorry loaded, from top to bottom, with peanuts in their shells. I couldn’t resist them and bought a big bag, after pestering this poor man for far too long taking pictures.

As with the watermelon man, this onion seller had set up his wares outside a house – the resident of which is peeking out to see what’s on sale today.

Further into the market proper, I came across a stall loaded with those odd mini-melons I had a run-in with last week. As interesting as they looked, I wasn’t tempted to waste my money (or valuable shopping-bag space) on them again.

Now, pictured above is something you don’t see every day. Yes, those really are cabbages bigger than a human head! The poor boy working on the stall could barely lift one. All the cabbages I’ve seen for sale in Istanbul have been that big, and I’m still trying to work out if it’s because the ground they’re grown in is super-fertile, or if they spray them with some gawd-awful chemical. Either way, I haven’t had the courage to buy one yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

Being Kumkapi, I couldn’t really leave without buying some fish, and I plumped for these amazing fresh anchovies. In fact, when I bought them, I realised just how far I’d come with my Turkish language skills, as the guy on the stall overcharged me, and I managed to get annoyed with him in Turkish, and get my money back!

Finally, at the end of the road, I arrived at a shop selling my all-time favourite Turkish delicacy, kaymak, which I’ve written about many times. I’d been alerted to this particular shop by the food blog Istanbul Eats, and they weren’t wrong when they described the kaymak at Boris’in Yeri as some of the best.

As is often the case with places selling kaymak, a variety of other dairy products is also available. I haven’t yet found a Turkish cheese I really like, so, despite the intriguing window display, I passed on those pictured above. What I did buy, however, was some strained yoghurt. So thick you could stand a spoon up it in, it was sharp, fresh and incredibly creamy – simply the best yoghurt I’ve ever tasted.

So, despite an arm-stretching walk home with all my shopping, tonight’s supper will be a veritable feast. I haven’t quite decided what that feast will consist of yet, but I’m confident it’ll be delicious!

A feast for friends

July 25, 2010

It’s reached that point in my plans for leaving London where I’ve had to start saying goodbye to friends. Although I’m having a big party next week, it’s inevitable that, thanks to the summer holidays, some people won’t be able to come.

Last week, I invited my friends Lea and Nicky over for dinner, because they decided that going to Camp Bestival was more important than waving off their dear friend who’s going to a far and distant land and may never return… Okay, I’ll drop the drama queen act. It’s fine that they’re going away for my last weekend in London, really, it is.

Anyway, back to the point of all this – the food. I decided to cook my favourite saffron poached chicken for the meat-eaters, some grilled whiting sprinkled with pul biber for the pescatarians, plus a Moroccan vegetable stew (which included baby turnips, courgettes, carrots, red onions, chickpeas, turmeric, cumin, and lots of garlic) and couscous for all of us to eat.

This is a dish my mum made regularly when I was a child, and I would always eat far far too much of it. What is it about couscous that allows you to stuff your stomach so full of it? Well, this meal was no exception, and I was left groaning by the end of the evening.

For pudding, I made Dan Lepard’s chocolate honey meringues, which was in last week’s Guardian magazine. In his instructions, Dan said not to make one big one as it would collapse. However, I wanted to slather it with mascarpone and fresh figs, in the manner of a Pavlova, so decided to ignore Mr Lepard and make it whole.

The result was a rather soft, incredibly chewy, almost brownie-like meringue, which, in my humble opinion, was delicious. And the creamy, fruity topping made it extra special.

All in all, it was a pretty indulgent evening, and hopefully I have left Lea and Nicky with some happy foodie memories of me until we see each other again.

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!

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.

A perk of the job…

March 31, 2010

One of the most important parts of my job at the women’s magazine where I work is to suck up to the food editor. After all, he needs to know he has a Deputy Receiver Of Free Stuff he can trust!

Okay, so I’m not always the first person to get the freebies that land on his desk (he has this strange sense of fairness that means everything gets shared out equally in the office…), but last week he did hand me an interesting looking, British-made chorizo, from a company called The Bath Pig.

I left it in my fridge for a few days, because I knew, as soon as I opened the packet, it would be a matter of minutes before the whole thing was gone. And I was almost right.

I started off by adding some to a grilled pepper salad (pictured above), which I took to work for lunch yesterday. The chorizo had a very nice, strong, paprika flavour, but, in my opinion, needed to be slightly more oily. It was very dense, which is great, but just very slightly too dry.

Although, that certainly didn’t put me off making a determined effort to finish it last night.

For supper, I fried up some more slices alongside a clove of garlic and a few scallops, then put them on top of braised leeks, added a squeeze of lemon juice and a handful of chopped parsley, and mopped it all up with some lovely, warm, crusty white bread. Frying the chorizo made it very crispy, and a bit bacony, but this actually went really well with the soft sweetness of the scallops.

Despite my concerns about the texture of this chorizo, I did think the flavour was very authentic. I bought another British chorizo last year, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s online shop, and I have to say that The Bath Pig one was definitely better.

So, if you do come across it, why not give it a go.

Tunisian fish couscous

March 18, 2010

When growing up, my sister and I were lucky enough to have been exposed to some rather unusual foods – unusual certainly for Britain in the 1970s. My mum was always an adventurous cook, but she and my dad had so many international friends – Indian and Pakistani, Italian and French – that she picked up lots of recipes from them over the years.

Punjabi chicken curry, fresh artichokes with vinaigrette, spaghetti bolognese (in the days when most Brits thought pasta only came in a tin) all made regular appearances on our kitchen table. But, my absolute favourite of all these exotic dishes was chicken couscous – by which I mean the proper caboodle of broth, vegetables, chickpeas, chicken or lamb and harissa, plus steamed couscous.

Mum would poach a whole chicken in an enormous pot with baby turnips, carrots, onions and chickpeas, all simmering in a delicious broth tinged bright yellow with turmeric. On top of the broth would sit a vast sieve-full of couscous, steaming to soft perfection.

She always made far more than a family of four could possibly eat, but that family of four would inevitably eat it all! (I don’t know what it is about couscous, but I just seem to be able to fit an inordinate amount of the stuff in my belly.) I can still remember the first time I cooked it myself, as a student in London, after phoning Mum for her recipe – and the friends I have since cooked it for have, without fail, loved it as much as I do.

I still cook it fairly regularly, and every now and then, I have such an urge for those familiar flavours, that really nothing else will do. Which is what happened last night. The only thing was, I had taken a mackerel out of the freezer, and I really needed to eat it, or it would have to be chucked.

Now, I know that there are fish couscous recipes, but I have to admit, I’ve never made one. So, turning to my trusty copy of A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden, I found just what I was looking for.

The recipe I used was described by Claudia as Tunisian in origin, and she said that any kind of fish could be used. I’m not entirely sure that mackerel was the best thing for it, but it worked well enough for me.

Once again, I incorporated a couple of variations on the recipe – but just the replacement of green pepper, which I didn’t have, with some frozen peas, because I always feel like a meal isn’t complete without some green stuff in it! She also said to include quince in the broth, but I certainly didn’t have any of that lying around, so I just left it out. (Although, I’ll definitely give it a shot the next time I see some at the market.)

I’ve become a bit lazy when it comes to cooking couscous these days, and usually just steep the grains in boiling water until they are soft. But I decided to make a bit of an effort with this dish, and cook it properly. Which is why you see the sieve sitting atop the fish and broth in the picture above.

This is a dish that is quite hard to make in small quantities, so I made a pretty large pot, intending to finish it off today. However, that plan somewhat fell by the wayside once I’d started digging in. And, reader, I ate the lot!