One of my oldest and dearest friends was staying with me in Istanbul last week. We had lots of catching up to do, and as she is as much of a food-lover as I am, most of that catching up was done over meals of some kind or another – starting over the heaving breakfast table, continuing over lunches of köfte or kebaps with lots of bread, then topping it all off over afternoon teas of baklava, and dinners of a million kinds of meze plus grilled fish, chicken shish or lamb chops.

So, as I waddled home from saying goodbye to my friend at the airport on Sunday, I thought it might be a good idea to curb my eating habits for a few days. However, healthy eating, for me, still has to mean tasty eating – and the easiest way to inject some interest into a somewhat basic meal has to be with strong flavours, such as garlic, chilli, and, in this case, capers.

My weekly market shop was a few days away, so this was going to be a real ‘store-cupboard essentials’ meal. A quick fridge-check, and I saw I had potatoes, tomatoes and onions in abundance, plus some runner-like beans that were on their last legs (ahem, ‘scuse the dreadful pun). And tucked into the corner of the top shelf was a jar of long-forgotten capers. Good thing they keep forever, because, as soon as I saw them, I knew that was the flavour I was looking for.

I’ve often used capers in tomato sauces for pasta, and as I had a kind of potato/tomato-ey stew in mind for dinner, I saw no reason not to use them for this dish.

So, I roughly chopped an onion and a couple of garlic cloves, and fried them in some olive oil. When soft, I added a couple of potatoes cut into small cubes. After giving them a few minutes in the olive oil, I added a chopped tomato, some tomato purée, a couple of bay leaves, some of my ever-essential pul biber (a Turkish chilli, for those of you who haven’t yet come across my obsession with this spice), poured in enough water to just cover the potatoes, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, and left it all on a low heat to bubble away.

For some strange reason, I always find potatoes take longer to cook if they are in anything other than plain salted water, and this dish was no different. Despite being in small chunks, it took almost half an hour to get the potato really soft – which was fine, as it gave the flavours in the stew a chance to really deepen. About halfway through cooking, I added a couple of spoons of chopped capers, and checked the seasoning.

And that, dear readers, was simply that. Some steamed beans on the side, and here was a healthy meal, making good use of some store-cupboard leftovers, and, most importantly, it was delicious.

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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…

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.

Bulgur it!

September 15, 2010

As is generally the way in Turkey, Süleyman works a six-day week, so, on his day off, I like to try and cook something special for our evening meal.

And that was certainly the intention this week. The menu I had planned included a dish of sautéed carrots with a garlicky yoghurt sauce (sarimsakli yogurtlu havuc sote), a bulgur and tomato salad (kisir), köfte and something with aubergines (Süleyman’s favourite vegetable).

However, after a day of running around getting the week’s accumulated chores done, I was too whacked to start thinking about juggling so many dishes in the kitchen. So, in the end, we ate a meal that was more or less a combination of the above recipes – just leaving the carrot and yoghurt dish for another time.

Remembering a Nigel Slater recipe of old for bulgur and aubergines, I got to work on this one-pot wonder. As I had some beef mince to use, I simply added this to the mix, plus some pul biber paste, and, because I have a rather huge jar of the stuff, I used dried instead of fresh mint.

A good sprinkling of parsley finished it off nicely, and, although a fair way from my original idea of an evening meal, it was nonetheless very tasty – made all the more so by the fact that I didn’t have to knock myself out cooking it!

Tomorrow is my last night in the UK (and no, I still haven’t even started to pack yet – eek!), and my lovely little sis is taking me to Brighton’s Drakes Hotel for dinner. (I apologise in advance to the waiters for the two blubbing blondes sitting in the corner of the restaurant.)

But tonight, I made my last home-cooked meal in the UK, and it was a can’t-be-beaten British roast chicken, sprinkled with my favourite Turkish spice, pul biber – perfectly combining my past and future foodie lives.

Nuf said. See you soon in Istanbul! xx

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.

Well, I have packed, moved, cleaned and had a little cry. And now I am homeless. Homeless, but very excited about what the future holds.

However, I do feel like I need some time to get both my mental and physical energy levels back up again, so I’m going to give myself a bit of a break from blogging.

Luckily, my little sister (whose spare room I’m kipping in at the moment) has a beautiful, big, well-equipped kitchen, so I’m sure I won’t be able to resist for too long the temptation to roll up my sleeves and grab a wooden spoon.

In the meantime, appropriately for the mood I’m currently in for reminiscing, I thought I’d have a look back at what I’ve written so far on And The Cupboard Was Bare, and remind both you and myself of some of my favourite posts.

One of the first dishes I wrote about – an anchovy and cherry tomato risotto – was a perfect example of the philosophy of this blog… that it’s so easy to make a tasty meal out of very ordinary ingredients that are sitting around in your cupboard and fridge.

Another recipe of mine that came about thanks to some random ingredients was one of my most successful cakes – a pear, almond and vanilla sponge. I’ve made this many times since my original post, and it just seems to get better and better.

The vanilla for this cake came from one of my many trips to Istanbul – which, of course, can’t be missed from this mini round-up of blog posts.

As well as vanilla, the most regular purchase of mine from Istanbul’s Spice Market is pul biber, a red pepper spice that comes in flakes or paste, and in varying degrees of saltiness and heat.

I have discovered innumerable uses for this unusual and tasty spice, from tomato and cauliflower soup to carrot and sesame guacomole and it has definitely become a store-cupboard essential for me.

Unfortunately, not all my foodie purchases in Istanbul have been as successful as pul biber, as I realised when I was, um, ‘persuaded’ to buy something that was described to me as lemon salt. It turned out to be little more than citric acid. As determined as I was not to waste the stuff, I couldn’t find any good use for it, so in the bin it went.

One of my most avid readers and commenters is my mum (thanks Mum!). And it really is because of her that I’m so passionate about food and cooking. She is a great cook herself, and from a very early age, taught me to eat and cook well – which is why the above photograph of my sister and me eating artichokes in about 1973 is such a treasure to me.

But I don’t only have photos to remind me of my foodie childhood – I also have a number of kitchen utensils that used to belong to my mum to bring back memories.

From an ancient Tala measuring cone to an equally well-used and well-loved chicken brick, these are my ‘madeleines’ – the things that instantly bring back a memory of a certain time or place.

And soon they will be providing me with a set of very different memories, when they are transported to my new kitchen – and my new life – in Istanbul.

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.

Last night was the turn of my friends Nick and Kerry to help me clear my cupboards. In the spirit of my self-imposed challenge to use up as much food as possible before I move out of my flat next month, I set out to make a meal that involved only dry goods and store-cupboard essentials that I already had – buying only fresh stuff. And I pretty much succeeded.

So, clockwise from the top, the menu consisted of chicken poached with saffron and cinnamon, baked saffron cauliflower (both of which I’ve written about in previous posts), spicy Iranian potato croquettes (from good old Claudia Roden’s New Book Of Middle Eastern Food) and, lastly, a recipe of my own, spicy tomato and spinach couscous, which is flavoured with my Turkish pul piber/tomato paste and some fresh oregano.

We also ate our way through a fair amount of the rosemary and nigella seed sourdough I wrote about in my last post, accompanied by a piece of lovely strong Spanish cheese (another recommendation from my friend over at The Aubergine Files, the name of which I can’t actually remember – but hopefully he’ll let me know what it was…).

Pudding was a concoction of crème fraîche, Greek yoghurt and raspberries, topped off with some of my lemongrass and ginger biscuits (I had some of the dough in the freezer, left over from the last time I made them).

So, as well as getting through good amount of spices, dry goods and bits and bobs from my freezer, I also served up a pretty cosmopolitan selection of dishes – with elements from Iran, Turkey and France, Greece, Thailand and Spain, it was a veritable world tour in one kitchen.

I’ve been out to eat quite a lot this week, so last night found myself with a relatively full fridge. I thought I’d better try and use as many things as possible in my supper, and, what started out in my mind as a simple meal of omelette, salad and fried potatoes, ended up with a great long list of ingredients worthy of one of Ottolenghi’s finest!

Here’s what I used:

For the omelette: two beaten eggs, spoonful of pul biber/tomato paste, tablespoon of chopped parsley, one grated courgettes, two finely sliced spring onions, olive oil for frying.

For the salad: two tablespoons of frozen peas boiled, half a head of chicory sliced, two or three mint leaves torn up, dressing made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper.

For the potatoes: er, potatoes. Useful tip though, I slice a raw potato, boil it until nearly cooked, then fry in an almost dry non-stick frying pan. Much healthier!

Anyway, the upshot of my very tasty supper was that I will no longer moan about recipes that have lots and lots of ingredients and several different cooking methods involved. Because I really can’t talk, can I!