I’m back in France at my mum’s just now, and had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Le Mans at the beginning of the week. Yes, we all know it’s where the 24-hour car race takes place, but really, there is so much more to this beautiful medieval city.

On my last morning there, I had just enough time to nip down to the marché des Jacobins (every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 7.30am to 12.30pm) to see what the local stall-holders had to offer. Located under the gaze of the stunning St Julien cathedral, it has to be one of the most beautifully located markets ever.

In other respects, it’s a fairly typical market, but, of course, typical rarely means boring when it comes to French produce. This is a funny time of year for fresh fruit and veg – the last of the winter stuff well and truly over, and the delights of spring not quite kicking in. But, still, the market was pretty much busting at the seams with lovely looking food.

Radishes being one of my favourite nibbles, I couldn’t resist buying a large bunch of the crunchy gems, pictured below. Just behind them is a kind of salad called mâche, something you don’t see very often in the UK. It’s one of my mum’s favourites, so a large bag of that was purchased, too. We also bought some dandelion leaves, which were dotted with tiny buds of the flower and had a surprisingly sweet flavour.

As well as the fresh stuff, there were inevitably a number of stalls selling bread. I noticed that a lot of places in Le Mans sold what was called traditional baguette, and when I tried some, I realised it was a kind of levain baguette. And delicious it was, too.

Despite being pretty restrained with our purchases, once Mum and I got home, we realised we did have rather a large amount of lettuce-y type things to munch through. So, for lunch today, I made a large salad of mâche, dandelion leaves, radishes, chicory, celery and cherry tomatoes.

I rustled up smoked salmon omelettes, with herbs from Mum’s garden, to eat alongside the salad, and, with the sun shining and temperatures heading towards 20 degrees, we sat outside for what felt like the first summer lunch of the year. Lovely.

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.

Baked eggs with leeks

March 13, 2010

The end of the week found my fridge in possession of a couple of eggs, a leek and some rather wrinkly cherry tomatoes.

Two eggs are not enough to make a tortilla, and I didn’t really fancy an omelette, so, after a few minutes of pondering, I came up with another of my childhood favourites – baked eggs.

It really is the perfect way to deal with leftover vegetables, because you can use pretty much anything as the basis of this dish.

I sautéed the leeks with some garlic until soft, then added a couple of spoonfuls of frozen peas. When they were cooked through, I mixed in the halved cherry tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and put the veg in an oiled, ovenproof dish.

Making a couple of little wells in the mixture, I broke the eggs into the leeks, and baked for about 10 minutes, so the yolks were still nice and runny. And a big hunk of crusty bread was the only addition needed to make the meal a particularly satisfying supper.

Last night, I wanted one of those super-quick suppers that involve very little thought or effort. Of course, omelettes fit that bill perfectly, and with a leek and some mushrooms in the fridge, I decided that would be my filling.

Until recently, it had never occurred to me to add spices to egg dishes, but they seem to go very well together. I also like adding soy sauce and sesame oil to the beaten eggs to make a Chinese-flavoured omelette, and I thought the leeks and mushrooms would work particularly well with this.

So, I gently fried the sliced leeks and mushrooms in a little vegetable oil, and added some grated ginger and garlic and a chopped red chilli. To two beaten eggs, I added about a dessertspoon of soy sauce and a dash of sesame oil, and when the vegetables were nice and soft, I poured over the eggs.

My intention was to let it cook through, rather like a tortilla, but it became clear very quickly that I would need more eggs to do this. And I’d just used my last ones. So, instead, I flipped it over into an omelette – which is why it looks a bit rough around the edges!

Anyway, it was a quick, filling, tasty supper – and that, really, was the point.

And the cupboard is full…

February 13, 2010

I have that wonderful Saturday morning feeling. I’ve been to Borough Market, my fridge is full of fresh, tasty delights and a whole weekend of culinary adventures is ahead of me. Oh, and I’ve just had breakfast.

Today it was chicken livers and a fried egg on soft white bread. Yes, it’s shop-bought sliced white, but come on, even the most dedicated foodie has to have some kind of guilty pleasure! (Although I did wait until I’d taken the photo before slopping tomato ketchup all over it…)

A spicy Sunday brunch

February 7, 2010

With a lazy Sunday ahead of me, guess what I decide to do with my time? Yep, cook. Starting with brunch, of course. (Actually, I’m only calling it brunch because it involves some serious spice, and I don’t want to put too many of you off by suggesting you eat chillies for breakfast!)

This is a dish I’m sure I got from a recipe somewhere, but it’s gone through so many incarnations, that I can’t actually remember what the original was. Anyway, today’s version incorporates the pul biber/tomato paste mix I got in Istanbul, instead of the fresh chillies I’ve used in the past.

I fried half a thinly sliced onion until soft, then added half a tin of tomatoes and a teaspoon of the spicy tomato paste (but you can just use some dried or fresh chilli – however much or little according to what you can stand on a Sunday morning). I added enough water to make it fairly saucy and let it simmer for a few minutes to incorporate the flavours.

To add some substance, I threw in a large handful of chopped parsley, a couple of chopped basil leaves, then seasoned with a little salt. I made a well in the middle of the sauce and broke in an egg. With a lid on the pan, I left the egg to poach in the tomatoey liquid for about 4 minutes.

Some bread in one form or another is essential for this dish, to make the most of the lovely runny yolk and spicy sauce.

Breakfast bliss…

January 16, 2010

I love Saturday mornings. It’s my favourite time of the week. An early visit to Borough Market is always followed by a long, leisurely breakfast, lots of coffee and the newspaper.

Having more time to cook, my Saturday breakfasts can often turn into fairly extravagant affairs. This morning, I knew exactly what I wanted – a fried egg with some garlicky mushrooms (plus a good handful of parsley), and tortano bread from The Flour Station in Borough Market.

Tortano is an Italian bread made with potato flour, and it’s one of my favourites. Conveniently, The Flour Station makes small(ish) tortano rolls as well as the large rings, which is how they are usually made. And the rolls are precisely the size, texture and flavour that just begs to be topped with a fried egg.

Catch the birdy!

January 6, 2010

Round the corner from Süleyman’s flat there is a little stall that sells live quails. The cages are perched on a wooden trestle table, with boxes of quails eggs surrounding them. The wee birds look healthy enough to me – although I’m no expert on that kind of thing. And I suppose the least you can say about the set-up is that you’d know the eggs were fresh.

As I was taking the photo, the guy running the stall kept saying “doner, doner” to me, and I realised he was explaining the final destination of the balls of feathers in front of me. Forget doner kebab, it was doner quail on the menu that day! And that was when the evil carnivorous devil on my left shoulder appeared and told me I just had to have some quail.

Often, when I’m keeping Süleyman company while he’s working late at the bar, we’ll get some food delivered from a traditional Turkish grill restaurant nearby called Buhara. Usually we have something simple, like lamb köfte with aubergine, and the yummy – although ubiquitous – tomato and onion salad. After my conversation with the quail man, Süleyman mentioned that Buhara has grilled quail on its menu. So, guess what I had for dinner last night…?

One thing no-one can ever accuse me of being is squeamish about where my meals come from!

Curds and wahey!

January 4, 2010

Yesterday, our lovely friends Meryem and Özgür took Süleyman and me for breakfast. We drove out to Beşiktaş, an area of Istanbul out along the Bosphorous coast, to go and eat something that has become a bit of an obsession for me. Called kaymak in Turkish, it has been variously described to me as a kind of Turkish clotted cream, the skin off the top of yoghurt and condensed milk. What it actually is, though, is simply curd. Eaten at breakfast, generously smeared on crusty white bread and drizzled with honey, it is fresh-tasting and delicious.

When I told Meryem of my passion for kaymak, she said we must go to a place run by an 85-year-old third generation Greek immigrant called Pando. Opened by his great-grandfather in 1895, the family has been serving breakfast in the tiny shop ever since.

The menu is basic – kaymak and honey with fresh bread sprinkled with carraway seeds, followed by an omelette with a few sliced tomatoes and olives. The traditional drink with this is a glass of hot milk, which comes from a great steaming bowl that’s kept on the go all day. This, however, I really couldn’t stomach, so I stuck with the Turkish tea.

Sadly, it looks like old Pando may the last of his family to keep this special place going. So, I’m really glad that I had the chance to eat there before it disappears.

Spice up your life

January 2, 2010

Any visit to Istanbul must, of course, include a visit to the city’s spectacular Spice Market. From fresh, crunchy pistachios to juicy, sweet dates to pungent, yellow Iranian saffron, everything the dedicated foodie could desire is available in plentiful amounts.

But, as is often the case with these kinds of places, it has become something of a victim of its own success. Packed from dusk till dawn, often with not an Istanbul native in sight (apart from the shopkeepers), it can be somewhat overwhelming and come across a little like a tourist theme park. However, walk one street to the west of the Spice Market, and you find yourself on Tahmis Sokak, the street were the Turks do their shopping.

And this is where the shops are that sell my new favourite condiment, pul biber. ‘Biber’ is Turkish for red pepper, and pul biber is the dried flaked variety. I first tasted it when I did a cooking course here in Istanbul, at the Cooking Alaturka cookery school. We were shown how to use it in a delicously simple tomato and onion salad, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It has a much more subtle flavour than straightforward chilli pepper – a bit smoky and a bit sweet. It’s made in paste form too, and the helpful man at the shop where I first bought it suggested I mix it with tomato puree.

I’ve used it to add flavour to stews, soups and pasta sauces, but my favourite way is in what I’ve come to call a Turkish omelette. Add a spoonful of the pul biber-tomato paste mix to a couple of eggs, beat well and then cook the omelette. Sprinkle over a good handful of fresh parsley, and Bob’s your Turkish uncle!

This morning, I tried it out on Suleyman, alongside the more traditional Turkish breakfast of olives, cheese, yoghurt, baby cucumbers and – the only concession to an English breakfast – toast. And he thoroughly approved!