Get your skate on…

January 22, 2013

When looking for somewhere to live, I have a feeling I’m led by my nose – or stomach – as I always seem to end up in areas that have a great supply of foodie wonders. And my current location is no different.

Tucked into a lovely little nook where Peckham, Honor Oak and East Dulwich meet, I’m a stone’s throw from such a fantastic variety of shops, cafés, delis and pubs that I’m never at a loss for inspiration.

The best thing is that around 90% of them are local, independently owned places, and that’s just great in this age of the Tesco Metro-type faux-local shops (which, in my opinion, are far more damaging to small independent shops than the monoliths on the edges of towns).

Last night’s dinner was a perfect storm of ingredients pretty much entirely bought in my little nook. A skate wing from a fish stall in Northcross Road; olives, tomatoes and yoghurt from the Turkish supermarket over the road; sprouting broccoli and cauliflower from Herne Hill farmers’ market (okay, a wee bit out of the nook, but still in the SE region).

Bare Cupboard gives you wings

Bare Cupboard gives you wings

The starting point for this meal was the skate wing. I really wanted to do something other than the usual caper butter with it, so when I came across a recipe for John Dory with broccoli sauce in Anna Del Conte’s Amaretto, Apple Cake And Artichokes, and remembered I had some rapidly fading sprouting broccoli in the fridge, I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

A search through the far corners of my fridge resulted in a rather sorry looking piece of cauliflower, so I thought I’d better use that up quick before it became too floppy to do anything with. But I needed to do something sharp and flavourful with it, otherwise I was likely to end up with a somewhat bland, sweet meal.

And then, in a moment when it felt like all the food gods were smiling on me, I found a recipe in Angela Hartnett’s A Taste Of Home for cauliflower, tomato and olive salad – all of which I had in my fridge.

Angela Hartnett and Anna Del Conte – two of my favourite cookery writers

Angela Hartnett and Anna Del Conte – two of my favourite cookery writers

The salad was a piece of parsley to make. Cut the cauliflower into smallish florets, cook until just tender, leave to cool, then mix with tomatoes and olives, and a glug of vinaigrette. Who would have thought the combination of cauliflower and olives would taste so good? But take my word for it, it does.

Cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

Cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

On to the fish.

To make the sauce, sauté a finely chopped onion or shallot in olive oil (Anna’s recipe says butter, but I was looking to make it a bit lighter) in a shallow saucepan or heavy frying pan with a lid. Using a vegetable peeler, take off the tough outer skin of the broccoli stalks, then finely chop the whole lot, leaves and all.

Once the onion is soft, add the broccoli and enough fish stock to just cover the vegetables. Simmer for a good 20 minutes or so, checking the stock hasn’t evaporated, adding more as necessary. Towards the end of cooking, I also added a big handful of parsley, just because I had some that needed using up – but it also gave the sauce a more vivid green colour.

Sautéing finely chopped sprouting broccoli

Sautéing finely chopped sprouting broccoli

Once the broccoli is really soft, bung the lot in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add a bit more of the fish stock if it needs loosening. Put the sauce back into a clean saucepan and keep warm while you cook the fish.

The broccoli sauce, waiting for its skate wing

The broccoli sauce, waiting for its skate wing

Anna’s recipe for the John Dory says to cook it in white wine – I forgot to get any, so instead I oiled a baking dish, placed the skate in it and covered with fish stock and a good squeeze of lemon juice. I baked it for about 20 minutes at 190°C.

Another minor adjustment to Anna’s recipe was that instead of adding cream to the sauce, just before serving, I plopped in a spoonful of natural yoghurt. I’m not a massive fan of creamy sauces, and as the broccoli was quite sweet, I found the touch of sharpness from the yoghurt gave it a bit of life.

Skate with broccoli sauce, and cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

Skate with broccoli sauce, and a cauliflower, tomato and olive salad on the side

The skate wing I had was pretty huge, so half of it was more than sufficient. The other half went in the fridge and was a very tasty lunch the next day, with another bit of salad on the side.

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A big tart

July 14, 2010

The other day I got a marriage proposal. Not from the man currently awaiting my arrival in Istanbul. But from the lovely Lene, my friend whose spare room I’m currently occupying.

We’d spent a very profitable but tiring morning selling off my excess baggage at Chiswick car boot sale, then returned home to make tea for our friend Helen and her two kids, Eric and Agnes.

Despite having got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, we quickly made cake, scones, sandwiches, salads and dips – and it was our impressive teamwork that led Lene to suggest I should not, in fact, move to Istanbul, but stay in London and marry her instead. I told her that if things didn’t work out with Süleyman, I’d definitely consider the offer!

And I’m certainly loving the way we’ve just clicked living together – easily sharing the cooking and household chores, and having someone to talk to when the practicalities of moving to Istanbul become a little overwhelming. In return, I’ll make sure I’m around to cook for her boys when she wants to go out (and to send Dexter to bed before he falls asleep in front of the television with his Xbox in his hand).

Which is what I did last night. Lene, being a bit of a yoga bunny, headed off for an evening of bending into strange shapes, while I fed Dexter (Wesley still making very rare appearances, thanks to a summer of parties stretching ahead of him).

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dexter is a pretty adventurous eater (especially considering he’s a young vegetarian), and is always willing to try new dishes. But it’s still something of a challenge for me to come up with veggie meals that he and the rest of us will enjoy.

So, a trawl through my trusty folder of cut-out recipes came up with this delicious-looking French tomato tart, which I’d seen on David Lebovitz’s blog. I decided to buy the tomatoes from Lina Stores, the lovely old Italian deli on London’s Brewer Street, and thought, rather than the French goat’s cheese David suggests, I’d stick with the Italian theme and try some of that country’s cheese instead.

A chat with the lady behind the counter resulted in me buying a nice big chunk of flavourful Fontina, which I thought would be the perfect foil to the sharp mustard base of the tart. (Dexter tried a slice of it while I was preparing the tart, and declared it his second favourite cheese, after brie!)

The beautiful, plump plum tomatoes combined with some fresh herbs direct from Lene’s garden gave the tart a truly summery flavour. So, on the side, I kept it seasonal and made a crunchy radish and gherkin coleslaw with mustard mayonnaise, and one of my all-time faves, cauliflower, fennel and celery salad with a lemon dressing, from Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food. We also ate several slices of my latest loaf of sourdough bread, slathered in lots of butter.

This is the kind of food I could just eat mounds of in the summer – and, luckily, Dexter felt the same. Although, we did manage to leave a few morsels for Lene…

To market, to market…

June 29, 2010

Last Saturday, I made my first trip to Borough Market since moving away from the area. As I’m relatively settled for the next four or five weeks in Clapham with my lovely friend Lene and her two equally lovely sons Wesley and Dexter (are you embarrassed yet, boys?), I thought I should get back into the cooking swing of things.

It was both comforting to be back on familiar territory and a little freaky, knowing that it wasn’t actually, strictly speaking, my territory any more. However, the (several) bags of goodies I managed to purchase in a very short space of time made up for any hesitation I may have felt.

Unfortunately, what I did forgot was that it was no longer a quick five-minute stroll along the road back home, but that I had to drag my bags to Clapham on a very hot and sweaty Tube. Not nice. Luckily, my memory is short, and once I got thinking about what to cook, the journey was soon forgotten.

Lene spends most Saturday nights DJing, and as she was booked to play in both Brighton and London last weekend, I said I’d make dinner for her, Dexter, and Dexter’s friend Jacob, who was having a sleepover, so she could get herself ready to go out. (Wesley, having just finished his GCSEs, was nowhere to be seen…)

Now, I don’t have much experience cooking for kids, and the impression I get is that many are not too open to the idea of unusual flavours and ingredients. However, not being particularly tolerant of fussy eaters, I decided to just cook what I wanted to cook, and see what happened.

So, the menu was fried plaice fillets (courtesy of Shellseekers), delicious, organic new potatoes, and saffron cauliflower with olives – an Ottolenghi recipe I’ve made before. On the side, we had a huge loaf of my absolute favourite bread – a tortano ring from The Flour Station, which is an Italian bread made with potato flour.

Well, I’m pleased to report that the meal went down very well with the two 12-year-olds – although, being nice, well-brought-up boys, they could have just been being polite.

But, hopefully, the empty plates were a sign they were telling me the truth!

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.

Last night was the turn of my friends Nick and Kerry to help me clear my cupboards. In the spirit of my self-imposed challenge to use up as much food as possible before I move out of my flat next month, I set out to make a meal that involved only dry goods and store-cupboard essentials that I already had – buying only fresh stuff. And I pretty much succeeded.

So, clockwise from the top, the menu consisted of chicken poached with saffron and cinnamon, baked saffron cauliflower (both of which I’ve written about in previous posts), spicy Iranian potato croquettes (from good old Claudia Roden’s New Book Of Middle Eastern Food) and, lastly, a recipe of my own, spicy tomato and spinach couscous, which is flavoured with my Turkish pul piber/tomato paste and some fresh oregano.

We also ate our way through a fair amount of the rosemary and nigella seed sourdough I wrote about in my last post, accompanied by a piece of lovely strong Spanish cheese (another recommendation from my friend over at The Aubergine Files, the name of which I can’t actually remember – but hopefully he’ll let me know what it was…).

Pudding was a concoction of crème fraîche, Greek yoghurt and raspberries, topped off with some of my lemongrass and ginger biscuits (I had some of the dough in the freezer, left over from the last time I made them).

So, as well as getting through good amount of spices, dry goods and bits and bobs from my freezer, I also served up a pretty cosmopolitan selection of dishes – with elements from Iran, Turkey and France, Greece, Thailand and Spain, it was a veritable world tour in one kitchen.

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…

A good pulse…

March 24, 2010

A while ago, a friend asked me if I had ever cooked the same thing twice since starting this blog, because, as far as he could tell, I wrote about something completely different every time.

Well, I now have to admit there is something I cook with great regularity, but haven’t blogged about it… until now. And that’s dhal.

I absolutely love dhal, and will happily eat my way through a big pot of the stuff on its own. Although, having said that, the great thing about it is that you can not only eat it on the side of other curries, but add any number of things to dhal and it becomes a substantial dish in itself – a kind of dansak, I suppose.

Some of the ingredients I often add to dhal include peas, leftover chopped-up chicken or lamb, spinach, prawns, tomatoes… Like I say, pretty much anything goes.

Last night, I made my basic dhal recipe, and had a cauliflower curry on the side. The cauli recipe is the same one as my sweet potato and cauliflower dish, but just without the sweet potato.

I’m sure there are as many different ways of making dhal as there are people who eat it. And I’m not sure if I got my version from a recipe somewhere or just made it up as I went along.

I always use red split lentils, and add a good pinch of ground cloves and cardamon seeds, which is what I particularly like about my recipe – although I’m sure, if they’re not your bag, you could leave them out.

Anyway, its appearance may not get top marks from the Masterchef guys, but sometimes substance has to win over style.

As much as I love lamb, chicken, fish, er, any other kind of meat, I do tend to eat a lot of it in Istanbul, and often come back craving large quantities of vegetables. My time in Istanbul also reminds me of just how lucky we are in the UK to have such a huge variety available to us.

In Turkey, even in the big supermarkets, the vegetables available are pretty much all grown in the country, with very little, if any, imported. Which is, on the one hand, a great thing, as you know there won’t be much of a carbon footprint attached to the aubergines and green peppers you’re consuming.

On the other hand, however, it doesn’t half get tedious eating the same things, day in day out! Anyway, as I currently have the best of both worlds, I can eat wonderfuly fresh, locally grown produce in Istanbul, and then come back to London and take advantage of everything that’s on sale in our full-to-brimming shops here.

Which is what I found myself doing last night. A quick trip to the supermarket on my way home, and my fridge was full of cauliflower, Savoy cabbage, leeks, carrots, plus a big bag of frozen peas for the freezer. And, like a kid in a sweet shop, I wanted a bit of everything, so did pretty much that with a hearty bowl of soup.

Here’s what I put in it: cauliflower, peas, half a tin of tomatoes, some fennel seeds, a teaspoon of pul biber paste, garlic and some chopped parsley. Simple, tasty and the perfect way to satisfy my vegetable cravings.

Who’d have thought that a hospital meal could inspire my dinner last night.

My friend Nicky was not very well recently, and spent a week in a rather depressing south London hospital. Inevitably, the food was dire, which didn’t help one iota in getting her appetite back – until her doctor told her, “You need to be an Asian vegetarian!”

So, for one week only, that’s what she was. I was with her on a couple of occasions when her meal was delivered, and, you know what? For hospital food, it wasn’t half bad!

If anything can make you crave a certain kind of food, I reckon it’s the mouthwatering fragrance of curry. So, when I noticed a large head of cauliflower in my fridge that needed eating, alongside a sweet potato, I knew exactly what my Friday-night dinner was going to be.

Usually, I like my curries hot, hot, hot, but chillies didn’t feel like the right spice to add to cauliflower and sweet potato. So I popped some black mustard seeds and whole cumin seeds in hot vegetable oil, then cooked the cubed sweet potato, followed by the cauli florets. A teaspoon of turmeric added some appropriately curry-coloured yellows, and a sprinkling of fresh coriander finished it off at the end.

Thankfully, Nicky is back at home and well on the road to recovery. But I think it might be a while before she fancies a curry again!

A souped-up supper

January 12, 2010

If there was ever a time for comforting, hearty soups, it’s now. The weather may be getting very slightly milder, but it’s still chilling me to the bones. So tonight’s supper was a winter warmer I adapted from a recipe I cut out from The Guardian a couple of years ago for braised cauliflower with cherry tomatoes. This is another case of me taking the essential flavours of a recipe and adapting it into something of my own.

I added a spoonful of the tomato/pul biber paste that I used in the omelettes I wrote about in Istanbul. But regular tomato paste with a good pinch of chilli will do the job just as well. It also has some ground fennel seeds in it, and I would strongly suggest you don’t leave them out, because they really do add another very tasty dimension. Finally, some chopped fresh basil gives the soup a deliciously fresh lift.

Tonight I added some couscous, to make it extra hearty, and with some toasted pitta on the side, this is what I call real comfort food.