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…

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In my last post, I was a bit harsh about the humble aubergine. It’s easily done in a country where this shiny purple beast is as ubiquitous as the chip in the UK.

But it took an English food writer to remind me that there are many delicious things to be done with it. Last week’s Observer had Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall singing the praises of the aubergine, and one of the recipes he vocalised about was baba ganoush.

Not strictly a Turkish dish, it nonetheless has many of this country’s favourite ingredients – aubergine (natch), tahini, lemon, garlic, olive oil, parsley, chilli flakes (or, in my case, pul biber) and cumin seeds.

In fact, when I looked in my cupboards, I had all I needed to make baba ganoush, except the tahini (and the yoghurt, which was optional anyway so I just didn’t bother with it).

The tahini situation was easy enough to rectify with a trip to my local supermarket, which stocked tons of the stuff at about £1 a bottle.

The recipe called for roasting the aubergine until the skin blisters, but I still have no oven, so I simply put them in a dry non-stick frying pan over a good, high heat.

It didn’t take long for the skin to crisp up and the flesh to soften, after which I chopped up the latter (and nibbled on the former), then combined it with the rest of the ingredients. The amount of aubergine I was left with was actually far less than Hugh’s required amount, so the rest of the ingredients were all guesswork.

I think my baba ganoush ended up being a bit heavy on the tahini, but apart from that it was was pretty darn tasty, and was great as a snacky lunch with some crusty spread sprinkled with carraway seeds.

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.

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.

A pinch of salt

March 10, 2010

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, I bought something called lemon salt in Istanbul last week. The guy in the shop described it as a natural salt from the east of Turkey, which could be used in cooking for a variety of things. I did a bit of online research on the stuff, and quickly discovered that it is, in fact, citric acid.

Nothing much wrong with that in itself, as citric acid is commonly used as a natural preservative or as a flavouring in things like fizzy drinks – but it certainly isn’t the condiment I was led to believe it was. (I shall be having words with my friend Abdullah the next time I’m in Istanbul!)

However, determined not to let it go to waste, I thought I’d experiment with it in a sweet and sour aubergine salsa. An aubergine had been sitting in my fridge since well before I went to Istanbul, and apart from a slightly squidgy brown patch, which I cut out, it wasn’t in too bad condition. But, I thought, if it didn’t survive the lemon salt, it wouldn’t be too tragic.

I made the salsa as normal, with some paprika, ground cumin seeds and soft brown sugar, and at the end of cooking, instead of adding a squeeze of lemon juice, I sprinkled over a pinch of the lemon salt/citric acid.

The result? Well, there was certainly a strong citrussy kick to it – rather as if I’d added one of those effervescent vitamin C tablets! In other words, it did not taste good.

I’m going to chalk this up to experience, but I’d certainly like to use up the rest of the lemon salt in a rather more appropriate way. Anyone have any ideas?

In the meantime, I’ll post the original recipe for the aubergine salsa, which is, I promise, very tasty.

I was back at my new favourite fish stall, Devon Fish, at Borough Market on Saturday. What I like about the produce there is that it’s complete pot luck as to what you’re going to find. Which, when you think about it, is as it should be, if you want locally caught fish. I’m a bit suspicious when I go to a fish shop and see almost every fish that exists on the planet out on display. I begin to wonder just how far it came and how long ago it was caught.

Anyway, this week’s goodies at Devon Fish included some lovely shiny big whiting. Cheap, fresh and local – what more could you want? When I got it home and looked it up in Sophie Grigson and William Black’s cookery book, Fish, I was amused to see it described as, “old bespectacled fish that sit under woolly shawls… being the archetypal invalid food, together with warm tea and Rich Tea biscuits.”

Yes, whiting may be a very mild, soft, white-fleshed fish, but to me that just makes it eminently suitable for eating with nice strong flavours. In the same book, I found a recipe for a fish stew, the elements of which I already had in my cupboards. And that was as far as I followed the recipe, instead making a very quick, simple sauce in which to poach the fish.

Into a deep frying pan with a lid went half a tin of tomatoes, a pinch of saffron that had been steeped for a few minutes in hot water, about a teaspoon of crushed cumin seeds, a sprig of thyme, a chopped clove of garlic, and some salt and pepper. I simmered this for a few minutes, until the garlic was soft, then added the fish.

A fish like whiting would cook very well whole in a sauce like this, but I sliced it into what I guess are technically called steaks. Whiting has a nice thick spine, with relatively few bones, so it is very easy to pull off the meat once cooked. And thanks to the smallish chunks, it only took about 5 minutes of simmering in the tomato sauce to cook it through.

On the side I had some Savoy cabbage, which I’d actually bought the week before but hadn’t had a chance to use yet. I braised it in some olive oil, adding a few crushed fennel seeds and a little salt and pepper.

The result was a flavourful, substantial fish supper, made in a matter of minutes.

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!

Fancy a nibble?

December 23, 2009

There are some dishes that are so much greater than the sum of their parts, and these fritters are absolutely that. It’s a recipe I picked up from David Lebovitz’s blog (he calls them ‘panisses’), and tried simply because I had some chickpea flour and didn’t know what else to do with it. There are only four ingredients – water, salt, olive oil and chickpea flour – and the batter is super-quick to put together.

Once the batter is cooled, cut into thick fingers, fry them to a nice brown crispiness, sprinkle with cracked black pepper and chunky sea salt, and there you have it – the most delicious nibbly thing that it’s possible to make out of chickpea flour! If you have any batter leftover after you’ve stuffed yourself silly with them (unlikely, but you never know), it freezes very well (wrap tightly in clingfilm).

If you want to vary the flavour, try throwing a teaspoon of cumin seeds into the frying pan before cooking the fingers of batter, or a couple of sprigs of rosemary and a squashed clove of garlic. Both are very tasty, although I prefer them au naturel.