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.

One of my oldest and dearest friends was staying with me in Istanbul last week. We had lots of catching up to do, and as she is as much of a food-lover as I am, most of that catching up was done over meals of some kind or another – starting over the heaving breakfast table, continuing over lunches of köfte or kebaps with lots of bread, then topping it all off over afternoon teas of baklava, and dinners of a million kinds of meze plus grilled fish, chicken shish or lamb chops.

So, as I waddled home from saying goodbye to my friend at the airport on Sunday, I thought it might be a good idea to curb my eating habits for a few days. However, healthy eating, for me, still has to mean tasty eating – and the easiest way to inject some interest into a somewhat basic meal has to be with strong flavours, such as garlic, chilli, and, in this case, capers.

My weekly market shop was a few days away, so this was going to be a real ‘store-cupboard essentials’ meal. A quick fridge-check, and I saw I had potatoes, tomatoes and onions in abundance, plus some runner-like beans that were on their last legs (ahem, ‘scuse the dreadful pun). And tucked into the corner of the top shelf was a jar of long-forgotten capers. Good thing they keep forever, because, as soon as I saw them, I knew that was the flavour I was looking for.

I’ve often used capers in tomato sauces for pasta, and as I had a kind of potato/tomato-ey stew in mind for dinner, I saw no reason not to use them for this dish.

So, I roughly chopped an onion and a couple of garlic cloves, and fried them in some olive oil. When soft, I added a couple of potatoes cut into small cubes. After giving them a few minutes in the olive oil, I added a chopped tomato, some tomato purée, a couple of bay leaves, some of my ever-essential pul biber (a Turkish chilli, for those of you who haven’t yet come across my obsession with this spice), poured in enough water to just cover the potatoes, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, and left it all on a low heat to bubble away.

For some strange reason, I always find potatoes take longer to cook if they are in anything other than plain salted water, and this dish was no different. Despite being in small chunks, it took almost half an hour to get the potato really soft – which was fine, as it gave the flavours in the stew a chance to really deepen. About halfway through cooking, I added a couple of spoons of chopped capers, and checked the seasoning.

And that, dear readers, was simply that. Some steamed beans on the side, and here was a healthy meal, making good use of some store-cupboard leftovers, and, most importantly, it was delicious.

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.

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…

Last night I discovered my new favourite vegetable dish – saffron cauliflower. And, because the recipe is by Yotam Ottolenghi, I suppose I have to take back a comment I made a while ago about his recipes being too complicated.

I spotted the dish on The Guardian website, in a feature it does each month on seasonal vegetables. Cauliflower is one of my favourite veggies at the best of times, but right now, it is really delicious. And this recipe combines it with one of my favourite spices, saffron.

It was one of those fortuitous moments where you find a recipe that is new, tasty-looking, simple to put together AND you have all the ingredients to hand. The only thing I left out was the sultanas (yucky, evil little things that they are).

The cauliflower I had was a fairly small one, so I decided to cook the whole thing. I ate half of the dish last night with some of my leftover roast chicken on the side, and am currently munching on the rest of it for lunch (combined with some tinned butter beans), as I type this.

I’m sure this will be making very frequent appearances in my kitchen from now on, and it’s certainly changed my attitude towards trying out Ottolenghi recipes…

Last night I used the remains of the weekend’s fishy purchases – the mackerel. I’m very fond of mackerel, but it is fairly oily so I like to cook it with something quite sharp, to offset the fatty taste (which I know is what a lot of people don’t like about it).

In among the vegetables I’d bought at Borough Market on Saturday was the first of this this year’s chicory. I love bitter salads, and this crispy leaf is definitely one of my faves. I usually eat it raw in salads, but it can be cooked too, and I thought its flavour would be perfect with the mackerel.

So I cooked the chicory in some olive oil, before adding a leek, for some sweetness, then flavoured the braise with some rosemary, a bay leaf and a splash of Balsamic vinegar. As a side dish to the mackerel it worked really well, but if you want to make it into a veggie main course, a tin of butter beans goes with it very nicely.