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.

Well, I have packed, moved, cleaned and had a little cry. And now I am homeless. Homeless, but very excited about what the future holds.

However, I do feel like I need some time to get both my mental and physical energy levels back up again, so I’m going to give myself a bit of a break from blogging.

Luckily, my little sister (whose spare room I’m kipping in at the moment) has a beautiful, big, well-equipped kitchen, so I’m sure I won’t be able to resist for too long the temptation to roll up my sleeves and grab a wooden spoon.

In the meantime, appropriately for the mood I’m currently in for reminiscing, I thought I’d have a look back at what I’ve written so far on And The Cupboard Was Bare, and remind both you and myself of some of my favourite posts.

One of the first dishes I wrote about – an anchovy and cherry tomato risotto – was a perfect example of the philosophy of this blog… that it’s so easy to make a tasty meal out of very ordinary ingredients that are sitting around in your cupboard and fridge.

Another recipe of mine that came about thanks to some random ingredients was one of my most successful cakes – a pear, almond and vanilla sponge. I’ve made this many times since my original post, and it just seems to get better and better.

The vanilla for this cake came from one of my many trips to Istanbul – which, of course, can’t be missed from this mini round-up of blog posts.

As well as vanilla, the most regular purchase of mine from Istanbul’s Spice Market is pul biber, a red pepper spice that comes in flakes or paste, and in varying degrees of saltiness and heat.

I have discovered innumerable uses for this unusual and tasty spice, from tomato and cauliflower soup to carrot and sesame guacomole and it has definitely become a store-cupboard essential for me.

Unfortunately, not all my foodie purchases in Istanbul have been as successful as pul biber, as I realised when I was, um, ‘persuaded’ to buy something that was described to me as lemon salt. It turned out to be little more than citric acid. As determined as I was not to waste the stuff, I couldn’t find any good use for it, so in the bin it went.

One of my most avid readers and commenters is my mum (thanks Mum!). And it really is because of her that I’m so passionate about food and cooking. She is a great cook herself, and from a very early age, taught me to eat and cook well – which is why the above photograph of my sister and me eating artichokes in about 1973 is such a treasure to me.

But I don’t only have photos to remind me of my foodie childhood – I also have a number of kitchen utensils that used to belong to my mum to bring back memories.

From an ancient Tala measuring cone to an equally well-used and well-loved chicken brick, these are my ‘madeleines’ – the things that instantly bring back a memory of a certain time or place.

And soon they will be providing me with a set of very different memories, when they are transported to my new kitchen – and my new life – in Istanbul.

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!

Baked eggs with leeks

March 13, 2010

The end of the week found my fridge in possession of a couple of eggs, a leek and some rather wrinkly cherry tomatoes.

Two eggs are not enough to make a tortilla, and I didn’t really fancy an omelette, so, after a few minutes of pondering, I came up with another of my childhood favourites – baked eggs.

It really is the perfect way to deal with leftover vegetables, because you can use pretty much anything as the basis of this dish.

I sautéed the leeks with some garlic until soft, then added a couple of spoonfuls of frozen peas. When they were cooked through, I mixed in the halved cherry tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and put the veg in an oiled, ovenproof dish.

Making a couple of little wells in the mixture, I broke the eggs into the leeks, and baked for about 10 minutes, so the yolks were still nice and runny. And a big hunk of crusty bread was the only addition needed to make the meal a particularly satisfying supper.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite dishes was my mum’s kidney and mushroom sauté. I’m sure it was probably one of her stand-by meals, but I loved it. Which makes it all the more surprising that I very rarely cook it for myself. So, when I found some forgotten lambs’ kidneys in my freezer a couple of days ago, it made me think of this childhood favourite.

I had some mushrooms in my fridge, and was all set to cook my mum’s sauté when I remembered that, years ago, I once cooked kidneys in a tomato and basil sauce. Now, given the option of a tomato-based sauce or a creamy sauce, I choose the tomato one every time. Not for health reasons, but purely because I adore cooked tomatoes.

So, I fried half an onion, sliced thinly, in some olive oil, along with a chopped clove of garlic. The kidneys were chopped up into fairly small pieces and added to the onion once it was soft. Some sliced chestnut mushrooms followed, then half a tin of tomatoes, a teaspoonful of my pul biber paste from Istanbul, and a little seasoning.

Once it had simmered for 5 minutes or so, I added a few chopped basil leaves, and – just because it was there and needed using up – a handful of chopped parsley.

My mum always served her kidney and mushroom sauté with rice, but I thought, with the tomato and basil, that pasta would be the thing to eat with my version – which it was!

Measure for measure

February 5, 2010

I think it says something about my family and their attitude to food and cooking that I consider my old Tala measuring cone to be something of an heirloom.

It was pretty ancient even when my mum owned it, and I remember clearly her forbidding us to wash it or – god forbid – put it in the dishwasher if it was only being used for dry goods, just in case the measuring marks started to wear off.

For a long time, it was the only measuring device I owned – no glass jug with millilitres marked up the side, or even a pair of scales to weight out grams and ounces. Just my trusty Tala.

And, even now, when I have everything from the tiny shot-glass sized measurer pictured here (another weeny gift from my sister. Hmm, I’m beginning to see a pattern here…) to a trusty 2-litre Oxo Grips jug, my Tala is often the first thing I reach for.

Hopefully, one day, it’ll be passed on to another generation of foodies.

A foodie is born…

January 13, 2010

When my sister and I were quite young, my parents would regularly abandon us to go gallivanting round Paris on holiday. (My dad lived there for a while before he and my mum got married, so had a lot of friends there.) The only upside to these traumatic childhood events was the goodies they would bring back with them.

This being the early 1970s, the exotic items we are so used to nowadays weren’t available in the UK, so my parents would often come back from France laden with things like garlic, wine and, most exciting of all, fresh artichokes. I, apparently, developed quite a taste for them, and Mum and Dad would often have to sacrifice a few leaves to the five-year-old staring dolefully at them while they tried to enjoy their dinner.

The occasion captured in the above photo was the first time Ailsa and I were allowed to have an entire artichoke for ourselves, and was taken in our house in Edinburgh in about 1974. The story goes that when Mum told us what we were having for dinner that evening, I looked up at her, my eyes welling up, and gasped, “A whole one…? Just for me…?”

And thus, my foodie destiny was assured.

What are your childhood food memories? Are there any meals or foodstuffs that stand out as particularly memorable from when you were young?

Blast from a kitchen past

December 10, 2009

Chances are, if you grew up in the 1970s, your mum had one of these. And, if your mum was anything like mine, this clay crock pot languished at the back of a cupboard for most of that decade. After being carefully packed and unpacked, and moved from London to Scotland to Brighton to France, finally, 40 years after my mum first bought it, this one found its way back to London and my kitchen. Where it, ahem, languished on top of a cupboard for several years.

It was a major kitchen clear-out that eventually inspired me to use the pot. I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw the thing away, so I decided if I was going to keep it, I’d have to use it. A phone call to my mum and some intensive Googling, and it was clear that this could become my new favourite utensil. Although you can apparently cook pretty much anything – from potatoes to prawns – in it, I’ve only used it for chicken. And, I have to say, I now don’t roast a chicken any other way.

The pot is soaked in cold water for about 10 minutes before you put the chicken in, and the steam that this creates in the hot oven effectively poaches and roasts the meat at the same time. The result? The juiciest, most succulent roast chicken you’ll ever taste. (If I’ve tempted you at all, I think you can still buy these clay crocks in Habitat. I certainly recommend giving it a go.)

Isn’t it funny that, despite all those high-tech gadgets available to the home cook nowadays, the old ones seem to still do the job just as well – if not better? What things do you remember from your childhood kitchen?

UPDATE Some more research has led me to discover that this thing is actually called a chicken brick. And apparently Habitat first started selling them in 1966 – which must be about when my mum bought hers. Ooh, I have an antique in my kitchen.