Here comes the mushroom man

November 4, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, while wandering around Kumkapi market, I spotted a man sitting at the side of the road with a shoe box on his lap. The shoe box was full of wild mushrooms of all sizes, shapes, colours, and probably levels of edibility. Clearly mushroom season had started.

Being a huge fungi fan, I was sorely tempted to buy some, but something told me it perhaps wasn’t the most sensible thing to do. And I may well have been right – Suleyman later told me there are occasionally cases of people coming to sticky ends at this time of year, after consuming wild mushrooms that had been picked by someone who doesn’t know their Cantharellus cibarius from their Cortinarius rubellus.

So, I was delighted to see a stall at Fatih Pazar yesterday overflowing with what were clearly carefully selected mushrooms.

A halting conversation with the vendor resulted in the information that this was a selection of field and forest fungi from the region around the city of Bolu, about half-way between Istanbul and Ankara. It’s an area known for natural springs, high mountains and pine forests, so I was hoping its vegetation would reflect that unspoilt environment.

With prices starting at about £3 a kilo, I barely knew where to start. It would have been very easy to walk away with several kilos of mushrooms, but even the greediest of gourmands can consume only so much. So, after examining the fungi fare on offer, I went for what I think are saffron milk caps. (Unfortunately, my Turkish is nowhere near good enough to have come to that conclusion from my chat with the mushroom man, and I had to do some internet research instead – but if anyone knows different, please do tell me.)

My shopping companion, Mireille, and I decided to walk home from the market – which is a good hour away from home – so I had plenty of time to think about what I was going to do with my bag of goodies. By the time I got back, I was starving, and knew exactly what was going to become of my mushrooms – sautéed saffron milk caps with garlic, thyme and lemon juice, atop some toast.

The large meaty mushrooms were perfect for this. They held together well in the frying pan and were strong enough in flavour to take on the garlicky, herby aromas. A squeeze of lemon juice stopped the whole dish from becoming too heavy, but, nonetheless, the results were a hugely satisfying autumnal late lunch.

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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.

The thing about all this seasonal food here in Istanbul is that sometimes it just gets a bit tedious. I know, I know, I really shouldn’t complain. But when you’ve eaten aubergine every bloody which way it is possible to eat aubergine, sometimes you just want something, well, that’s not aubergine.

And then, suddenly, it all changes. Of course. Because that’s what happens when the seasons change.

After a month of extreme heat (well, extreme to my delicate British sensibilities), the weather has quite suddenly turned. Although still nice and sunny, the temperature has dropped significantly, and long sleeves are the order of the day.

With that chill in the air has come a change in the food on offer in the markets, the most exciting of which is, for me, the arrival of anchovy season. Apparently it’s the cooler sea water that has them swimming in their thousands down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea.

And, all I have to say to that is, “Come to mummy!”

I love these little fishies – in tins, in olive oil, in salads, but best of all, fresh, dusted in seasoned flour and fried. And these ones I bought in Kumkapi market were small enough to eat whole – I, for one, cannot be bothered trying to gut tiny tiddlers like this.

In spite of their size, fresh anchovies pack quite a flavour punch, so I decided to have something quite simple and fresh-tasting with them. I’d bought some baby leeks, and at the back of my mind I remembered a recipe I’d seen in Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food (do I use any other cookbook?) for leeks with yoghurt sauce. Perfect, I thought.

So, while I steamed the baby leeks, I mixed together a tablespoon of olive oil, a couple of heaped tablespoons of yoghurt, a squeeze of lemon juice, a grinding of pepper and salt, and a handful of chopped parsley. Claudia suggests first cooking the yoghurt with an egg white and some cornflour to stop it curdling, but I couldn’t really be bothered. And, luckily, the sauce pretty much held together fine as it was.

Once the leeks and yoghurt were ready, I simply rolled the anchovies in flour seasoned with salt and my store-cupboard essential, pul biber, then quickly fried them in a small amount of very hot olive oil. They crisped up well and were absolutely delicious with the fresh sweet leeks and tangy yoghurt sauce.

Unfortunately, due to Süleyman’s working hours, we don’t get to eat together in the evenings very often. So, although we’ve been having fabulous breakfasts and hearty salad-filled lunches, yesterday, it was great to have the opportunity to cook something a bit more elaborate for someone.

That someone was my friend Mireille, who brought her delightful little one-year-old son Cebriel over to my flat in the afternoon. The afternoon drifted into the early evening, when I rustled up a light meal for us all.

That morning, I’d realised I had some very soft-looking peaches and apples in the fridge, and decided I needed to do something with them quick, or they’d end up in the bin (a complete anathema to me, as I’m sure you’re well aware).

I am without oven at the moment, so had to cook the fruit on the top of the cooker – and, it struck me, the perfect thing to do with them was to make a compote. The Turkish word for compote is ‘komposto’, which rather sounds like something you throw on your vegetable patch – but luckily, the compote I made was far too good for that!

I simmered the peeled, cored and chopped fruit in a syrup of water, lemon juice and sugar, until the peaches and apples were deliciously falling apart. Then I just left the sweet, slightly tart mixture to cool.

Although the weather isn’t anywhere near as hot and humid as it was when I first arrived, it’s still fairly baking – not weather you’d immediately associate with bowls of steaming soup. But, spotting a full bag of carrots at the bottom of the fridge, I knew that was exactly what I fancied eating yesterday.

And, with perfect serendipity, I found in one of the few cookery books I managed to drag over to Istanbul (Claudia Roden’s A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food, natch) a recipe for Turkish carrot soup, or havuç çorbasi.

After softening the carrots in lots of butter, then simmering in stock until it all turns into a deliciously sweet purée, something rather special is added. After making a basic roux with butter, flour and milk, three egg yolks are added, making it a stunning yellow colour. Then, just before serving the soup, I stirred in the eggy roux, and served.

This incredibly tasty soup manages to be rich and hearty, yet, thanks to the sweetness of the carrots, really quite refreshing for a hot summer’s evening. I’m sure it’s going to be one of my future favourites.

For pudding, we had spoonfuls of chilled compote alongside Turkish yoghurt. Now, I think I’ve talked about this before, but Turkish yoghurt is something else. Even thicker, if it’s possible, than Greek yoghurt, it is perhaps a little more tangy. But the reason is has the edge for me is that it comes with a yummy skin on top. I know that’s something not to everyone’s taste, but, like the skin on rice pudding, you either love it or hate it. And I love it.

Inspect my gadget!

May 1, 2010

I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to kitchen equipment. Give me a good sharp knife and a wooden spoon, and I’m happy. However, I have recently been introduced to the delights of the mandolin.

Now, all I previously knew of this gadget is that it regularly slices off the ends of chef’s fingers. But when the nice people at Oxo Good Grips sent me one and I tried it out once or twice, I did wonder what I’d been doing all these years without it.

This one has a very useful wedge-y bit at one end, which hooks over the edge of the bowl you’re slicing into, so it’s super-steady. Plus, my stress levels at using this dangerous kitchen weapon were somewhat reduced by the grip thing that sticks securely to whatever you’re slicing – so your fingers don’t have to go anywhere near that scary-looking blade.

And, most importantly – it’s really fun!

Last night, I used the mandolin to slice some marrow, which I sautéed with mint, lemon zest, pul biber (a Turkish red pepper spice) and lots of garlic.

Once soft and a little browned, I chucked in a grated carrot that needed using up, some leftover roast chicken I’d had in the freezer, plus a handful of parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. A little salt and pepper was all that was needed to make a delicious, fresh, tangy supper, that conveniently used up some more of my freezer stocks.

A plaice in my heart

April 12, 2010

A couple of years ago, my mum and I did a fish cookery course down at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage in Dorset.

We were shown how to prep any number of different fish, from mackerel and sole to crab and oysters. Once we amateurs had done mauling these poor creatures about, they were taken off to the kitchen where the professionals cooked them up for us to eat.

It was a really fun day, but I have to say, I haven’t really used any of the skills I learned since then. However, when I bought this lovely, bright, fresh plaice at Devon Fish in Borough Market on Saturday, and the guy asked me if I wanted him to fillet it, I decided I really had to have a go myself. And, I don’t think I did too bad a job of it!

I reckon, as long as you have a really sharp little knife and take things slowly and carefully, a flat fish like plaice is the ideal thing to start your filleting with.

I’d bought the plaice to go with a recipe I recently discovered on The New York Times website for leeks with anchovy butter. I’d always thought I wasn’t very fond of leeks, but have recently come to the conclusion that what I didn’t like was leek and potato soup, so have been making up for lost leek-time recently.

I simply pan-fried the plaice fillets in some olive oil, with a little salt and pepper, and served the leeks on the side. I had substituted the shallots with red onion as I’d forgotten to buy the former. And, although the onions were slightly crunchier than they ought to have been, the dish was really delicious.

However, it was a little heavy on the butter for my taste, so I might try it with a mix of butter and olive oil next time. But there definitely will be a next time.