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…

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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.

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.

Friends reunited…

April 2, 2010

One of my regular commenters is my old friend Gabby, an ex-Brightonian who now lives with her husband in Hokkaido, in northern Japan. (Okay, officially she’s my little sister’s old friend, but I’ve managed to elbow in on her too.)

She’s most definitely a fellow lover of good food, and my posts often torment her with reminders of dishes from back home. So, when she told me she was coming over to England for a couple of weeks, I had to get her round for dinner.

In the end, I actually decided to cook not a British meal, but a dish I discovered in Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food, which has become a real favourite of mine – duck with pomegranate and walnut sauce.

I’d bought a bottle of pomegranate molasses in Istanbul last year, and found this recipe when I was trawling through all my cookbooks to find out how to use it. I’ve made it a number of time with chicken, but this is the first time with duck.

The meat is cooked long and slow, and the resulting sauce is rich, gamey and sweet. It deserves to be well savoured, so on the side I made a couple of simple dishes – a delicate saffron rice, and slow-cooked courgettes with garlic and parsley, which is from a recipe by Skye Gyngell of Petersham Nurseries.

Although it wasn’t British, the flavours of the meal were still a long way from what Gabby generally eats in Japan, which is what she likes when she comes over here. Judging by the empty plates, I think she enjoyed her short trip to the Middle East via south London!

‘Scuse the delay in posting anything new since the weekend, but I was rather cooked out after the dinner party on Saturday night. (Now I definitely know I’m too old to be a professional cook, if I’m exhausted after one night of full-on cooking!)

Anyway, I managed to rustle up something vaguely interesting tonight, in the shape of tagliatelle with some leeks and courgettes, doused in plenty of lemon, garlic and parsley.

In a large non-stick frying pan, I fried slices of courgette in a little olive oil, until nicely browned on each side. Then I removed them to a plate, added the sliced leek to the same frying pan, and a couple of sliced cloves of garlic.

Once the leeks were soft, I put the courgettes back in the pan, added a good squeeze of lemon, some chopped fresh parsley and seasoned with salt and pepper.

The weather was noticeably warmer in London today, and my supper tonight really brought some spring flavours to mind. I just hope I’m not being a bit premature with thoughts of spring…

Clay-pot chicken

January 23, 2010

Quite often, if I’m home on my own on a Friday night, I’ll cook something a bit special for dinner. And, as yesterday was pay day (hurrah!), I thought I’d go the whole hog and roast a chicken.

I posted a while ago about my ancient clay pot for cooking chickens, which is what I used for my meal last night. I rubbed the chicken with a grated clove of garlic, a teaspoon of pul biber (the Turkish red pepper spice I’ve mentioned before), a teaspoon of ground cumin seeds and some olive oil.

If you must have crispy skin on your roast chicken, I wouldn’t bother with this clay-pot method. It may produce the most juicy, succulent meat, but it doesn’t do much for the skin. Which is why I often take off the lid and turn the oven up high for the last 10 or 15 minutes of cooking, so it has at least a little colour to it.

With the chicken, I had some braised leek and courgette, seasoned with more garlic and parsley, so that – in the spirit of this blog – I had an empty fridge, ready to be refilled this morning.

When I was about six years old, we lived just outside a small village in the Scottish Borders, called Coldstream. Our house backed on to the River Tweed and, sometimes, my dad – a keen trout fisherman – would head down there with his fishing rod at about 5 o’clock in the morning. As long as he didn’t lose all his flies by catching them in his thumbs or earlobes (which happened with grim regularity), he would return in time for breakfast with the most delicious baby brown trout. I realise now just how incredibly lucky we were to be able to eat like this, but at the time, it seemed normal.

I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a trout that compares to the ones my dad caught, but, despite that, it’s still one of my favourite fish.

Tonight – even though the weather hasn’t warmed up one iota – I wanted some altogether fresher, lighter flavours than I’ve been eating recently. (Isn’t it funny how your tastes for certain foods can change so dramatically from one day to the next?) So I poached a trout fillet in a little stock with a couple of bay leaves chucked in, and had some griddled courgettes on the side. The salsa is one of the simplest and tastiest combinations, and goes well with many different kinds of fish, meat and vegetables.

Make enough for two by combining 2 tablespoons of roughly chopped fresh parsley with 4 chopped anchovy fillets, a heaped teaspoon of rinsed capers, the juice of half a lemon, a splash of a good strong-flavoured extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Some classic flavours to go with a classic fish.

Back in cold, grey London but – despite really missing Süleyman and Istanbul – foodwise, I’d been really looking forward to eating some vegetable dishes that didn’t involve tomatoes, aubergines or green peppers! I got back too late to get to Borough Market on Saturday, so headed off to the supermarket on Sunday and filled my basket with a marrow, a cauliflower, some courgettes, lots of carrots, onions and salad, and an organic chicken.

Despite my cravings for some British veggies, I found I couldn’t quite leave Istanbul behind, and decided to poach the chicken with some saffron and a cinnamon stick I’d bought on Friday from the Spice Market. The garlic in the photo comes from Süleyman’s home town of Tunceli and, although it looks like a bulb, it is, in fact, a single clove.

I put the chicken in a large casserole pot with a finely chopped onion, poured in enough water to almost cover the bird, added a good pinch of saffron, a cinnamon stick, the garlic and plenty of salt and pepper. Once it came to the boil, I turned the heat down very low and let it cook for about an hour and a half. By this point, the meat was literally falling of the bone, so I removed the chicken to a warm plate, and reduced the liquid over a high flame. The aroma of the spices was absolutely mouthwatering – and so warming and comforting, it was perfect for the shock of arriving back into the depths of a British winter. A squeeze of lemon over the cooked chicken and some simply steamed cauliflower, courgette and sweet Chantenay carrots on the side, and I was beginning to feel a little less ‘home’-sick for Istanbul.

There was plenty of meat left over, some of which I’ll put in the freezer, and the rest I’ll use in a salad to take to work for lunch. And, thanks to the cooking method, it should stay nice and moist.