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.

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.

I was legging it down Berwick Street on Saturday, on my way to an urgent appointment (with my hairdresser), when I was literally stopped in my tracks. The glorious sight that had me skidding to a halt was a market stall selling bowls of baby artichokes for £1.

As you may have realised about me, I get somewhat obsessed with certain ingredients at times, and artichokes is the one that’s doing it for me at the moment – so, there was no way I was going to pass up such a foodie bargain. The artichokes weren’t in the best condition, with many of the outer leaves going a bit brown. But, as those are discarded before cooking anyway, it didn’t really matter.

I’d already taken some pork mince out of the freezer, so decided to find a recipe that would combine it with the artichokes. What I found was a recipe on the BBC website for a pork loin with braised artichokes and courgettes, which inspired me to follow the recipe for the vegetable side of the dish, then combine this with a method of cooking mince that I picked up from Nigel Slater.

In a recipe of Nigel’s for baked marrow with pork mince, he suggests cooking the meat over a high heat until really crispy and caramelised – the crucial thing being not to break up the mince. It’s a fantastic way to cook it, and is a million miles away from the watery brown mush you may have experienced in the past. (If you ever ate lunch at a British school in the 1970s, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to…)

So, as I braised the artichokes and courgettes with lemon zest, thyme and lots of garlic, I fried the pork mince with the same flavourings. The end result is a great combination of fresh and zingy with hearty and meaty.

And, conveniently, I’d just made my latest batch of sourdough bread, so a hunk of that on the side mopped up the mouth-watering juices.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been in the habit of taking my lunch into work with me every day. Usually, it’s a fresh salad of some description. But, now I’m making a more determined effort to clear my cupboards, I’m simply making larger quantities of my evening meal, eating the leftovers the next day.

We don’t have a microwave in our office, so the food I take in has to either be eaten raw or taste okay cold. And not all leftovers are very nice cold, so coming up with dishes that work the next day is an added challenge to my culinary skills.

However, tonight’s supper worked in every respect – as a tasty hot meal and as a cold extra to my lunchtime salad tomorrow.

Artichokes are one of my all-time favourite vegetables, but they can be a bit of a hassle to cook fresh if you don’t have a lot of time, not to mention quite pricey. The tinned ones can taste a little briny, but with the right flavour additions, they’re just as delicious as the fresh ones.

So, for a really quick pasta sauce, fry some onion and garlic until soft. Add a drained and rinsed tin of artichokes, some frozen peas, fresh parsley, mint, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and simmer for just a few minutes until the peas are cooked through. I made the sauce quite dry, so it wouldn’t waterlog my salad the next day, but if you’re just making it to go with pasta, then I’d suggest adding a little water.

So, another day, and another recipe to lower my store-cupboard and freezer stocks…

Veal chop with frittedda

March 29, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with some old friends in Southgate, which, if you don’t know London, is just about as far north as you can get on the Victoria Line before falling off the end. It is, without doubt, suburbia.

We met in an updated version of an old-fashioned family-run Italian restaurant, called Fantozzi, and, if I’m totally honest, I wasn’t expecting much of the food. So, with that in mind, it was a rather risky choice to go with the veal chop from the menu. However, I was very surprised to find a full-flavoured, gloriously tender piece of meat on my plate. Mustn’t judge a book by its cover, I reminded myself that night.

Last Saturday, while wandering around Borough Market, I thought I’d give the veal chop another go, this time cooking it myself. So I headed to The Ginger Pig to buy one.

One of the best butchers in London, I imagined I’d be getting another succulent, tasty piece of veal. I decided to cook it simply – salt, pepper, a good olive oil and slap it on the griddle pan. On the side, I thought one of my favourite spring vegetable dishes would be perfect.

A Sicilian dish, frittedda is a sautéed concoction of onion, fennel, broad beans, peas and fresh baby artichokes. With a smattering of salt and pepper, plus a pinch of sugar, this dish absolutely makes the most of the flavours of new season vegetables, and goes beautifully with meat of any sort.

And the frittedda was delicious. Unfortunately, the veal was more of a disappointment. It was much tougher than the one I’d had in suburbia, and it didn’t have a great deal of flavour. As I said, I’d assumed that coming from a great butcher, it would be a treat of a piece of meat. Hmm, I once again thought, mustn’t judge a book by its cover.

But, not wanting to see it go to waste… oh, okay, because I’m a greedy so-and-so, I still ate the lot.

Not-so-dear deer

March 16, 2010

The Shellseekers stall in Borough Market may sell the best in hand-dived scallops, but the section of the shop I always look at first is its fridge full of game. Previous purchases from there have included wild duck, pheasant and partridge, but this week my eye was caught by some very reasonably priced venison fillets.

The guy behind the counter said that, in his opinion, they were better than the venison steaks, which he was also selling. And, as pack of four small fillets was priced at just £4, I thought I’d give it a go.

Now, the generally accepted way of cooking venison is to marinade then roast it for hours. Remembering that I’d made venison carpaccio for a Christmas meal a few years ago that involved a very brief meeting of meat and frying pan, I decided to give the fillets a bit of a bashing with my rolling pin to flatten them, and sear them in my lovely Le Creuset griddle pan.

But what to have with them? I thought perhaps something that would usually go with lamb might work, so I looked through a few cookery books for something that took my fancy.

I found just the thing in Breakfast, Lunch, Tea – the book from the Rose Bakery. In it was a recipe for lemony artichokes with lamb chops, so I simply followed the instructions for the artichokes, and replaced the lamb with my venison fillets.

The venison was absolutely delicious – full-flavoured, succulent and oh-so tender. And the sweet fresh taste of the lemony artichokes went with it perfectly. In fact, I’d say it’s the ultimate spring dish, with some heartiness to combat the still-chilly weather outside, but a zingy aroma of the (hopefully!) warmer temperatures to come.

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?