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.

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I’ve always quite fancied the idea of doing an underground restaurant. Unfortunately, my studio flat is so small that I’d only be able to fit in about six people, and two of those would have to perch on my bed with the food on their laps.

So, when my friend Lea asked if I’d help her do a charity dinner party at her house, to raise funds for her sons’ primary school playground, I didn’t need to be asked twice. In fact, I said, instead of me just helping her, I’d cook the whole meal.

And that’s how I found myself preparing a squid and aubergine stew at 7am on Saturday morning. (As you are well aware, I love my food – but I’ll freely admit, even I struggled with squid at that hour in the morning!)

I’d suggested to Lea that I do a kind of Turkish/Middle Eastern-themed meal, which she was very happy with. So, we started with a spicy Turkish lentil soup, which I learned to make at a cookery course I did last summer in Istanbul, and which gave me the opportunity to convert a few more people to my essential Turkish ingredient, pul biber. To go with the soup, Lea bought a couple of loaves of fantastic Turkish bread from a local bakery.

For the main course, alongside the aforementioned squid and aubergine stew, I made another Turkish dish called turlu turlu  – a recipe I got from the Moro cookbook. This is one of those dishes that belies its simple ingredients. A tray of aubergines, courgettes, baby turnips and potatoes is seasoned with allspice and coriander, and roasted for about an hour. Then, once cooked, a combination of tomato passata and chickpeas is poured over the top, and the whole lot is garnished with plenty of fresh parsley and coriander. The last dish of the main-course triumvirate was saffron rice.

Finally, for pudding, I turned to a recipe by Dan Lepard that I cut out of The Guardian – a peach saffron cake, which I served with some plain yoghurt.

Some very satisfied customers waddled home late that night, and Lea raised more than £100 for the school playground, which is fantastic. I had a lot of fun cooking the meal, and can’t wait to do something like this again. Now I just need to find someone else willing to lend me their kitchen and dining room.