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.

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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…

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.

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…

Since arriving in Istanbul, I’ve realised what a huge difference the provenance of ingredients makes to the flavour of a dish. I’ve always been aware of this, obviously – especially when I was lucky enough to be living five minutes’ walk from Borough Market. But it really hit home this week when I made a Tunisian fish tagine, which I first tried back in London earlier this year.

The recipe (by good old Claudia Roden again) has quince as one of the vegetables, but as I hadn’t been able to get hold of any, I had left them out. I had also used mackerel the first time, which, after eating the same dish this week with lip-smackingly fresh sea bass, I realised was completely wrong.

This time, I used the right fish and the right vegetables – bar one. As I couldn’t find the required turnip here in Istanbul, I picked up something that looked remarkably similar…

No, your eyes do not deceive you – that is a radish. And yes, it’s the size of a baby’s head. I don’t know what it is with Turkey and improbably large vegetables, but sometimes I feel like I’m in that Woody Allen film Sleeper, when he discovers the giant vegetable patch.

Anyway, back to the business of cooking…

I simmered all the vegetables – onions, carrots, green peppers and radish/turnip, plus a tin of cooked chickpeas and the heads and tails of the fish in water. Although the recipe didn’t ask for it, I also bunged in a couple of bay leaves and a sprinkling of pul biber.

The stock was left to cook for an hour or so, until all the vegetables were really soft, and the fishy flavours beautifully melded. Then I removed the heads and tails, added the whole sea bass and the sliced quince, and simmered for another half an hour.

Another item this dish is supposed to have, but doesn’t seem to be easy to find here, is couscous. So, instead we had some amazing Turkish flatbread called gözleme, which was stuffed with chopped walnuts.

The bread was a spur of the moment buy, but went so well with the sweetly delicate flavours of the tagine, Suleyman and I agreed, it was a culinary match made in heaven.

Feeling a bit fresh

September 25, 2010

As wonderful as the fresh produce is here in Istanbul, because the markets very much rely on local, seasonal vegetables and fruit, there is often not much choice in the actual variety of what’s on offer.

Yes, I love the full-flavoured tomatoes, sweet red peppers and deep purple aubergines, but I have been craving a bit of a change in my diet. So, when I spotted a large pile of gorgeously bright green broccoli piled on a market stall a couple of days ago – something I hadn’t seen for sale here before – I grabbed as much as I could carry.

It’s always been one of my favourite vegetables, and I could have easily have just munched my way through the stuff raw. But today, for lunch, I made the next best thing.

Lightly steamed, I combined the broccoli florets with shredded raw red cabbage and carrot, then piled the lot onto a mixture of lettuce and rocket, and dressed it with a vinaigrette made with some Turkish “grape vinegar” – essentially Balsamic vinegar, but as it doesn’t come from the Balsamic region, I guess, technically, you can’t call it that.

On the side, is a simit – a ubiquitous Turkish snack, usually described as bagel-like. There are men with little carts on virtually every street corner selling these bread rings, and they are really tasty. Before baking, the rings are dipped in molasses, then coated in sesame seeds to give them their unique flavour and texture.

Afterwards, still on my fresh and raw tip, I decided to cut into another new find for me – a teeny , tiny melon. I’m not sure what kind of melon it grows up to be, but they are sold as small as 3-4in long, and when I showed it to Süleyman, he said, “Mmm, yummy.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when I decided to eat it. I say unfortunately, because I actually really didn’t like it. It kind of tasted like a cross between a cantaloupe melon and a courgette, but not very strongly of either.

In fact, I just couldn’t eat it at all, so put the untouched half into the fridge for Süleyman to finish off later, and decided to have something I know I like – fresh figs.

Now, this is when the seasonal thing comes into its own in Istanbul. It’s the perfect time of year for fresh figs, and I’m stuffing myself silly with them at the moment. My favourite way to eat them is with a great dollop of yoghurt on top. Which is exactly how I finished my lunch today.

So fresh and so healthy, it made me feel rather virtuous!

Sunday lunch in Sultanahmet

September 7, 2010

Last weekend, our friends Meryem and Özgür came to our flat in Istanbul’s historic area of Sultanahmet to experience a great British tradition – the Sunday lunch.

Although tasked with cooking them something typical, it was clear a roast was not an option, as an oven doesn’t look like it’s going to make an appearance in our flat any time soon (just saying the word ‘oven’ makes me pine for roast chicken, roast potatoes, apple crumble… *sigh*). And, when I started flipping through all my favourite recipes, I was surprised to see just how many homegrown dishes did actually involve a good roasting.

Conveniently, some homemade hummus was given to me that very morning by my friend Mireille (who has a minor obsession with chickpeas, in which I am happy to share at every opportunity), which I decided to serve as a starter – not exactly British, but delicious nonetheless, and that’s really all that counts at my table.

Roasts aside, another great British staple that regularly pops up in my cookbooks is a good old stew. And, being in the land of the lamb, I plumped for braised lamb shanks (which I was very proud of asking for in Turkish – and the butcher understood me!).

So, I rolled the lamb in seasoned flour and browned it in hot olive oil, removed to a plate, then softened some onion, garlic and carrots in the same oil. I added a good pinch of dried rosemary (unfortunately, I’m finding it hard to get the fresh stuff) and a couple of bay leaves, put the shanks back in, then added about half a bottle of red wine, a good glug of Balsamic vinegar and topped it up with stock until it covered all the meat.

Then I turned down the heat and let it simmer and bubble away for about three hours. After this length of time, the sauce was beautifully dark, full-flavoured – and, I’m afraid, a bit twiggy from all the dried rosemary.

Usually, I’m all for the short-cuts in cooking, and normally would have left the sauce a bit chunky with the onions and carrots. But as this was the first time I was cooking for Meryem and Özgür, I didn’t want them to go home with the memory of nothing but mouthfuls of dried herbs.

So, once the meat was falling off the bone and the sauce suitably reduced, I removed the lamb once again, and strained the sauce, pushing the soft onions, garlic and carrot through a seive to get all the flavour. By this point it was looking a little too thick, so I simply added a bit more water, checked the seasoning, then threw all that lovely soft meat back in the pan, and kept it on a low simmer until we were ready to eat.

I knew the only thing to serve on the side of a saucy dish like this was mashed potatoes, so, to everyone’s delight, that’s exactly what I did. I’d also bought some amazing-looking greens at the market last week, so quickly cooked those down in some olive oil with some more softened carrots and a sprinkling of fennel seeds.

Now all I had to do was conjure up a pudding. And what a treat I came up with.

Again, it was a random flick through my cut-out recipes that inspired me. Remembering the five or six rapidly softening lemons in my fridge, when I came across a recipe for lemon posset, I knew I’d found my pudding destiny.

With just three ingredients – double cream, sugar and lemon juice – posset is such an easy-to-make classic British pud, but I’ve never attempted it before. Although I knew immediately that I’d have to use some ingenuity with it, as double cream is pretty much non-existent here. What there is though, is kaymak, that wonderful clotted-cream-alike that’s eaten at breakfast, smothered on bread and dripping with honey.

So, I simply replaced the cream with kaymak, set the ingredients on to boil and crossed my fingers that it would all come together. Luckily, all that was needed was to pour the cooked mixture through a tea strainer to get rid of some slight graininess, and it set beautifully.

I decorated each posset pot with a little chopped dried cherry and pistachio nut that I had leftover from last week’s cheesecake, put a sponge finger on the plate alongside it, and a very smart-looking pudding was served up.

So, despite using some very un-British ingredients, I was quite amazed at how all the elements came together to create something that tasted, to me, pretty traditional. And hopefully, in the process, I managed to give Meryem and Özgür a taste of my “home” cooking – in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, due to Süleyman’s working hours, we don’t get to eat together in the evenings very often. So, although we’ve been having fabulous breakfasts and hearty salad-filled lunches, yesterday, it was great to have the opportunity to cook something a bit more elaborate for someone.

That someone was my friend Mireille, who brought her delightful little one-year-old son Cebriel over to my flat in the afternoon. The afternoon drifted into the early evening, when I rustled up a light meal for us all.

That morning, I’d realised I had some very soft-looking peaches and apples in the fridge, and decided I needed to do something with them quick, or they’d end up in the bin (a complete anathema to me, as I’m sure you’re well aware).

I am without oven at the moment, so had to cook the fruit on the top of the cooker – and, it struck me, the perfect thing to do with them was to make a compote. The Turkish word for compote is ‘komposto’, which rather sounds like something you throw on your vegetable patch – but luckily, the compote I made was far too good for that!

I simmered the peeled, cored and chopped fruit in a syrup of water, lemon juice and sugar, until the peaches and apples were deliciously falling apart. Then I just left the sweet, slightly tart mixture to cool.

Although the weather isn’t anywhere near as hot and humid as it was when I first arrived, it’s still fairly baking – not weather you’d immediately associate with bowls of steaming soup. But, spotting a full bag of carrots at the bottom of the fridge, I knew that was exactly what I fancied eating yesterday.

And, with perfect serendipity, I found in one of the few cookery books I managed to drag over to Istanbul (Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food, natch) a recipe for Turkish carrot soup, or havuç çorbasi.

After softening the carrots in lots of butter, then simmering in stock until it all turns into a deliciously sweet purée, something rather special is added. After making a basic roux with butter, flour and milk, three egg yolks are added, making it a stunning yellow colour. Then, just before serving the soup, I stirred in the eggy roux, and served.

This incredibly tasty soup manages to be rich and hearty, yet, thanks to the sweetness of the carrots, really quite refreshing for a hot summer’s evening. I’m sure it’s going to be one of my future favourites.

For pudding, we had spoonfuls of chilled compote alongside Turkish yoghurt. Now, I think I’ve talked about this before, but Turkish yoghurt is something else. Even thicker, if it’s possible, than Greek yoghurt, it is perhaps a little more tangy. But the reason is has the edge for me is that it comes with a yummy skin on top. I know that’s something not to everyone’s taste, but, like the skin on rice pudding, you either love it or hate it. And I love it.

New markets…

August 18, 2010

Wednesday is market day in Turkey, and Istanbul is no exception. So, despite a hot, humid, sleepless night, I managed to drag myself out of bed and get to our local pazar in Sultanahmet early enough to avoid the crowds and the daytime heat.

And what a joy it was. I felt like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop – especially when it came to the many and varied salad leaves at one stall. As well as a bunch of gorgeous crisp rocket and the biggest cos lettuce I’ve ever seen, I got a bunch of something the name of which is a mystery to me, but looks like nettles and tastes like nasturtium leaves.

The other intriguing purchase at the salad stall was a bunch of purple basil (on the left in the photo above), but rather than used as a flavouring in a cooked dish, its subtle flavour means it can be used in great handfuls as an addition to a salad. And, I can tell you, with the current high temperatures in Istanbul, I have appetite for little more than a fresh pile of green stuff!

Although, ironically, something I just couldn’t resist were these tiny round chillies (pictured above left). Apparently they are super-hot, but as Turks generally don’t like spicy food, I’ll take that with a pinch of salt. Süleyman rolled his eyes at them, so I reckon I’ll be the only one eating them.

Food is still very much seasonal and local in Turkey, with very little imported. And, boy, can you tell the difference in the quality of fresh produce. At the moment, at the height of summer, there is an amazing array of fruit and veg available (one of my current faves are the huge, plump purple figs sold on every corner), so, if there’s one thing I won’t be feeling homesick about, it’s clearly the food.

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.