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…

Hello? Anybody there?

Okay, it’s been a while, but in anticipation of getting back into a kitchen of my own in a month or two, I’m testing the blogging waters again with the occasional post – when kitchen equipment allows.

At the moment, I’m flat-sitting for my good friends Nick and Kerry in the relatively uncharted territory (for Bare Cupboard, at least) of north London. So, while they’re tramping the snow-covered hills of the Lake District, I’m basking in the glow of their tiny but perfectly formed kitchen.

Kerry had thoughtfully pointed me in the direction of a small food market held each Saturday in front of the Tufnell Park Tavern, so I pottered along there yesterday and, among the olives, sourdough levain and free-range eggs, was the thing to inspire this post – a piece of beef shin from organic farm Galileo. I’ve never cooked with that particular cut before, but it was cheap and I was in the mood for something slow-cooked, tender and saucey, so it fitted the bill.

I’d already picked up a couple of nice plump artichokes at the local Turkish grocer for a bargainous 75p each, and was wondering what to do with them. I don’t know whether some dim and distant memory of a recipe was lodged in my subconscious, or it was the inspired genius of my own brain (I like to think it’s the latter), but for some reason I thought a beef and artichoke stew sounded like a very good thing indeed.

And the internet agreed. When I searched for beef and artichoke, I found any number of variations on that theme, so at least I knew the flavours would go well together. I found a good basic recipe for a beef shin stew – without the artichokes – by Jamie Oliver, and liked the idea of the herbs and the cinnamon he used, so decided to go for that, with my addition of a bulb of a fennel, some shitake mushrooms that needed using up, and, of course, the artichokes.

I cooked it according to Jamie’s recipe, but added the fennel and artichokes about half way through the cooking time, because I didn’t want them to turn to a complete and utter moosh. Which turned out to be just the right amount of time. (I actually snuck a taste of the meat after I’d browned it, and, oh boy, did it taste good. And it was surprisingly tender even before it had simmered away for three hours.)

Well, let me tell you, the smell alone while the stew was cooking was incredible. Why the neighbours weren’t breaking down the door, plates in hand Oliver Twist-style, is beyond me. Instead, it was just me – although, unlike Oliver, I did have some more.

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…

Clove at first sight…

January 9, 2011

Christmas and new year’s eve are pretty much non-events for me and Süleyman – mainly because he has to work both evenings, but also because there just isn’t the same emphasis on those particular holidays in Turkey.

I have to say, it doesn’t bother me too much, but what I do miss is the chance to cook something special for the two of us.

Luckily, it’s Süleyman’s birthday a week after new year, and that day he doesn’t have to work. So I always use the opportunity to make a fairly big celebratory meal.

This year, Süleyman expressed a desire to have something along the lines of the slow-cooked lamb shanks I’d made last year when our friends Meryem and Özgür came for dinner. But, said Süleyman, could I do it with cloves? It turns out he’d eaten a lamb dish with cloves in a restaurant a few years ago, and had loved it. I told him I was pretty sure I could come up with something.

What I did come up with was a recipe for duck with prunes, plus various other herbs and spices, one of which was cloves – courtesy of an old post by David Lebovitz. Looking at the list of ingredients – red wine, cloves, bay leaves, thyme, orange zest, pancetta (which I replaced with a spicy beef sausage called suçuk, as porky products are nigh on impossible to get here) and garlic – I saw no reason not to substitute the duck with lamb.

So, on the morning of Süleyman’s birthday, I set to work. I heated some olive oil in a nice deep frying pan, and when smoking hot, added the shanks and browned them all over.

While they were sizzling away, I started peeling some baby onions that I’d decided to add to the dish. And what a flippin’ pain that turned out to be. Not only were they fiddly beyond belief, but the fumes were so powerful I ended up with streaming red eyes. I only managed to deal with about half the bag, and I have a strong suspicion that the rest of those little buggers are going to be sitting in my vegetable rack for rather a long time.

Once I’d cried a river over the onions, I removed the lamb shanks from the pan, added pretty much a whole bottle of red wine, let it bubble away for a few minutes, then threw in all the other ingredients. David’s original recipe calls for the meat to be put in the oven at this point, but as regular readers will know, that’s not an option for me, being oven-less. So, instead, I simply put a tight-fitting lid on the saucepan, turned the heat way down low, and let nature take its course.

Cooking lamb shanks this way, I have found, is just as good as using an oven, but it does take a little longer to make the meat really soft and succulent. But, as the birthday boy and I had plans, after an hour or so of cooking, I turned off the gas, with the intention of finishing it later.

Süleyman and I then toddled off to Istanbul’s Pera Museum to see a stunning exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And, I have to say, the intense colour and passion in Kahlo’s paintings put me in the perfect mood for the intense flavours of the dinner waiting for us at home.

Another couple of hours of cooking was needed once we got back. So, while the lamb was gently simmering, and Süleyman and I were getting gently sloshed on some more delicious red wine, I somehow also managed to conjure up some mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. About half an hour before the lamb was done, I added about 200g of stoned prunes to the mix, which provided a gorgeous sweetness to the whole affair.

Dinner was served – and, if I do say so myself, it was truly scrumptious. Lamb in Turkey has quite a strong flavour (I get the impression the animals are slaughtered at an older age than in the UK), so it held up to the clove-y aroma wonderfully. And what’s more warming on a winter’s night than a spicy lamb stew? Not much, I can tell you.

It’s baking in here!

November 17, 2010


My joy at having the use of an oven continues unabated, with the production of a cake I first made in my very early baking days. It’s a gateau aux carottes, courtesy of the king of the food bloggers, David Lebovitz.

Never having been much of a fan of the carrot cake, this recipe caught my eye precisely because it has hardly any carrot in it. It actually has more in the way of nuts, and being a huge fan of nutty cakes, I thought I’d give it a go.

David’s recipe lists almonds as the nut of choice, but I had a bag of lovely homegrown walnuts, given to us by my mum’s friends Sue and Barry, so I decided they’d make a perfectly respectable replacement.

These particular walnuts were quite small, and had the hardest shells I’ve come across. It took me quite some time to get them all out – a task that was done under the watchful eye of Lottie, the miniature Schnauzer, who is partial to a nut or two. (Actually, what am I saying, she’s partial to pretty much anything that’s edible…)

The final weight of the nuts wasn’t quite enough, so I topped it up with some oatmeal. I remembered that this cake came out quite flat and biscuity, so I though the addition of some oatmeal would add a flapjack-like texture (and flapjacks are my mum’s favourite sweet treat, so I knew she’d approve).

One other adjustment I made from David’s original recipe was to do something I often do with cakes, and that is replace some of the required amount of caster sugar with brown sugar. I find it gives a lovely caramely flavour, which is just delicious – especially when, in this case, it’s combined with nuts.

It turned out to be a big ol’ cake in the end, but thanks to the brown sugar, nuts and oatmeal, it’s one that just gets better and better with time. Which is lucky, because, as partial as Mum and I are to a cup of tea and a slice of cake, I think even we’d struggle to polish off this in a single sitting. And one thing’s for sure, it’s too good to waste.

In my last post, I was a bit harsh about the humble aubergine. It’s easily done in a country where this shiny purple beast is as ubiquitous as the chip in the UK.

But it took an English food writer to remind me that there are many delicious things to be done with it. Last week’s Observer had Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall singing the praises of the aubergine, and one of the recipes he vocalised about was baba ganoush.

Not strictly a Turkish dish, it nonetheless has many of this country’s favourite ingredients – aubergine (natch), tahini, lemon, garlic, olive oil, parsley, chilli flakes (or, in my case, pul biber) and cumin seeds.

In fact, when I looked in my cupboards, I had all I needed to make baba ganoush, except the tahini (and the yoghurt, which was optional anyway so I just didn’t bother with it).

The tahini situation was easy enough to rectify with a trip to my local supermarket, which stocked tons of the stuff at about £1 a bottle.

The recipe called for roasting the aubergine until the skin blisters, but I still have no oven, so I simply put them in a dry non-stick frying pan over a good, high heat.

It didn’t take long for the skin to crisp up and the flesh to soften, after which I chopped up the latter (and nibbled on the former), then combined it with the rest of the ingredients. The amount of aubergine I was left with was actually far less than Hugh’s required amount, so the rest of the ingredients were all guesswork.

I think my baba ganoush ended up being a bit heavy on the tahini, but apart from that it was was pretty darn tasty, and was great as a snacky lunch with some crusty spread sprinkled with carraway seeds.

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.

Bulgur it!

September 15, 2010

As is generally the way in Turkey, Süleyman works a six-day week, so, on his day off, I like to try and cook something special for our evening meal.

And that was certainly the intention this week. The menu I had planned included a dish of sautéed carrots with a garlicky yoghurt sauce (sarimsakli yogurtlu havuc sote), a bulgur and tomato salad (kisir), köfte and something with aubergines (Süleyman’s favourite vegetable).

However, after a day of running around getting the week’s accumulated chores done, I was too whacked to start thinking about juggling so many dishes in the kitchen. So, in the end, we ate a meal that was more or less a combination of the above recipes – just leaving the carrot and yoghurt dish for another time.

Remembering a Nigel Slater recipe of old for bulgur and aubergines, I got to work on this one-pot wonder. As I had some beef mince to use, I simply added this to the mix, plus some pul biber paste, and, because I have a rather huge jar of the stuff, I used dried instead of fresh mint.

A good sprinkling of parsley finished it off nicely, and, although a fair way from my original idea of an evening meal, it was nonetheless very tasty – made all the more so by the fact that I didn’t have to knock myself out cooking it!

Keep calm and carry on…

August 29, 2010

Yesterday saw my first attempt at making a cake here in Istanbul. Although, as I have no oven, it was a no-bake cake – a no-bake pistachio and dried cherry cheesecake. In fact, it ended up being a no-bake, no-scales, no-cream cheese, no-mixing bowl, no-electric beater pistachio and dried cherry cheesecake.

Which was fun.

The adventure started when I tried to find cream cheese. The recipe I used, a favourite of mine by Nigel Slater, actually calls for mascarpone – but I knew that would be a fruitless search in Istanbul, so thought cream cheese would be an easier option. How wrong I was.

If there is such a thing as cream cheese in Turkey, I have yet to find it. It was suggested I use something called ‘krem peynir’, which, literally translated, does actually mean cream cheese. The guy in the shop promised me it was “without salt”, so I took my chances. Unfortunately, once I got it home and opened the pot, I discovered it had the taste and consistency of flavourless Dairy Lea.

Which was nice.

The next challenge was the dried cherries. The challenge wasn’t in finding the things, the challenge was in pitting them. Yes, the cherries were dried with their stones still in. However, as I utterly loathe sultanas – the recipe’s suggested alternative to the cherries – I decided that scraping off the shrivelled flesh was still preferable to those squishy little fruits of the devil. It was, but only just…

An hour later, with fingers the colour of Sweeney Todd’s, I started on the actual cheesecake. First step, cream the butter and sugar. Not as easy as it sounds when you have no mixing bowl, no electric beater and no scales to measure the quantities. What I did have was a large saucepan, a wooden slatted spatula and an extensive conversion chart to work out how many dessertspoons of sugar make up 75g.

After I quickly lost count of how many spoons of sugar I’d chucked into the saucepan, I gave up and got to work on the creaming. And worked, and worked, and worked. Do you know how difficult it is to cream butter and sugar in something that doesn’t have the smooth, rounded sides of a mixing bowl? Try it. It’s harder than you think. I managed to reasonably combine the two ingredients but didn’t get much further than that. Then it was time to add the krem peynir…

Which was a joy.

What I want to tell you is that it had the consistency of a handkerchief during a heavy cold. However, I’m a lady, so I won’t. (But it did…) Once again, an electric beater would have come in handy at this stage. But I tried my best, than gave up and chucked in the rest of the ingredients. Including the pistachios – which were supposed to be finely ground, but my knife skills weren’t quite up to that job, so roughly chopped had to do.

With all the ingredients (kind of) combined, it was clear that the consistency wasn’t quite right. It looked a little runny and more than a little grainy. But I poured it on top of the biscuit base, put it in the fridge and hoped for the best.

This morning, I cautiously opened the fridge, and was amazed to see a well-set pistachio and dried cherry cheesecake. It was still definitely too grainy for my liking, but a couple of slices later, and the general consensus was that it was good.

Which was nice.

Really.