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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ovens above!

November 14, 2010

I am with oven – finally! Unfortunately, it’s not my own. I’m staying with my mum in France for a week or so, and as is expected of the mother who taught me much of what I know, cooking-wise, her kitchen is well designed, fully stocked and an absolute joy to work in.

Now that I have an oven at my disposal, I’m certainly making the most of it, and reached for the ‘on’ switch almost as soon as I had walked through the door. (I tend to do most of the cooking when staying with Mum – something that gives pleasure to both of us.)

I never have to worry about there being a lack of fresh vegetables, herbs and all sorts of foodie extras at Mum’s, and I can usually find pretty much everything I need for a recipe, no matter what it is.

Mum had some chicken legs in the freezer that she wanted used up, so, after an inspection of her fridge, I found the perfect accompaniments – a large bulb of fennel (one of my favourite vegetables, and impossible to find in Istanbul), a bag of mushrooms and some red onions. Which, in my eyes, added up to baked chicken and fennel.

So, I thinly sliced the fennel, a red onion and a handful of the mushrooms, scattered them evenly in a largeish baking dish, then added a couple of sprigs of rosemary (from the garden), finely chopped, and a couple of roughly chopped cloves of garlic.

I poured over enough hot stock and some white wine to just cover the vegetables, seasoned with a little salt and a fair old grinding of black pepper, then popped it into an oven heated to about 220º for 15 minutes or so. I often find that vegetables take much longer than you’d imagine to soften in an oven, so thought I’d give the fennel et al a head start.

While the vegetables were beginning to cook, I browned the chicken legs – which I’d jointed, so they wouldn’t take quite so long to cook either. Then they were added to the now semi-cooked vegetables, and placed back in the oven for about half an hour at 180º.

Once the chicken was cooked, the skin beautifully crisp, and the fennel soft and sweet, all that was left to do was steam some broccoli, and spoon up. There was plenty of juice left – in fact, I’d probably put in a bit too much liquid to start with. But, never one to be wasteful, I simply used it to make a leek and mushroom soup the next day. Both were delicious.

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…

L’heure de l’apéro

August 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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