Hello? Anybody there?

Okay, it’s been a while, but in anticipation of getting back into a kitchen of my own in a month or two, I’m testing the blogging waters again with the occasional post – when kitchen equipment allows.

At the moment, I’m flat-sitting for my good friends Nick and Kerry in the relatively uncharted territory (for Bare Cupboard, at least) of north London. So, while they’re tramping the snow-covered hills of the Lake District, I’m basking in the glow of their tiny but perfectly formed kitchen.

Kerry had thoughtfully pointed me in the direction of a small food market held each Saturday in front of the Tufnell Park Tavern, so I pottered along there yesterday and, among the olives, sourdough levain and free-range eggs, was the thing to inspire this post – a piece of beef shin from organic farm Galileo. I’ve never cooked with that particular cut before, but it was cheap and I was in the mood for something slow-cooked, tender and saucey, so it fitted the bill.

I’d already picked up a couple of nice plump artichokes at the local Turkish grocer for a bargainous 75p each, and was wondering what to do with them. I don’t know whether some dim and distant memory of a recipe was lodged in my subconscious, or it was the inspired genius of my own brain (I like to think it’s the latter), but for some reason I thought a beef and artichoke stew sounded like a very good thing indeed.

And the internet agreed. When I searched for beef and artichoke, I found any number of variations on that theme, so at least I knew the flavours would go well together. I found a good basic recipe for a beef shin stew – without the artichokes – by Jamie Oliver, and liked the idea of the herbs and the cinnamon he used, so decided to go for that, with my addition of a bulb of a fennel, some shitake mushrooms that needed using up, and, of course, the artichokes.

I cooked it according to Jamie’s recipe, but added the fennel and artichokes about half way through the cooking time, because I didn’t want them to turn to a complete and utter moosh. Which turned out to be just the right amount of time. (I actually snuck a taste of the meat after I’d browned it, and, oh boy, did it taste good. And it was surprisingly tender even before it had simmered away for three hours.)

Well, let me tell you, the smell alone while the stew was cooking was incredible. Why the neighbours weren’t breaking down the door, plates in hand Oliver Twist-style, is beyond me. Instead, it was just me – although, unlike Oliver, I did have some more.

After a rather long hiatus, I’m back, back, back. Over the next few weeks, as I try and settle myself back into UK living, I’ll be staying with various obliging friends around London. And, in return, I’ll be doing my best to cook some delicious meals for them. So, I’m kickstarting the blog again, by giving you a sample of my cooking using ingredients that are available in other people’s cupboards.

So, here I am at my friend Claire’s lovely house in Peckham. And oh boy, does she have a kitchen after my own heart. Huge five-burner cooker, double oven, well-stocked with Le Creuset and Sabatier, and, best of all, a great big dining table in the middle of the room. My dream set-up – you can cook for friends while they’re in close enough proximity to chat and drink with.

However, right now, I’ve got the place to myself, while Claire and her kids are on holiday, so my soft return to blogging is a dish for one. And, surprise surprise, it involves pork. (Yeah, something tells me it was never going to work, me living in Muslim country.)

Being a party of one on a Sunday is no reason, in my eyes, not to have a roast. And the small piece of pork tenderloin I found myself with is perfect for that. Because it’s small, it cooks very quickly, and a decent piece gives you a wee bit of leftovers for lunch the next day.

In the fridge were a few bags of herbs (remainders of a lamb shank dish I’d cooked the week before, but had too much red wine by the time I took photos of it, and they turned out to be far from bloggable quality…). I chopped up a big handful of rosemary, thyme, sage, fennel seeds, chilli and garlic, and rubbed it all over the tenderloin, along with a good glug of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper.

One of the vegetables I missed most in Istanbul was fennel – you get the dried seeds very easily, but no one seemed to have heard of the fresh vegetable part of it. It’s something that seems to go with everything, but it tastes particularly good with pork. So, I quartered a bulb and chucked it into the roasting pan.

Into an oven of about 190ºC (gas mark 5) it went, for about 35 minutes (the two pieces pictured were about 150g each). It’s long been the belief that you have to blast the hell out of pork – not a hint of pinky-ness allowed. But after eating very rare pork in a Spanish tapas restaurant a few years ago, I have well and truly disabused myself of that notion. And, in fact, a report came out recently in the UK that said it was perfectly fine to cook pork to à point.

So that’s what I did with my tenderloin. A couple of boiled tatties and some peas on the side, and this was a very tasty return to a traditional(ish) Sunday lunch.

Clove at first sight…

January 9, 2011

Christmas and new year’s eve are pretty much non-events for me and Süleyman – mainly because he has to work both evenings, but also because there just isn’t the same emphasis on those particular holidays in Turkey.

I have to say, it doesn’t bother me too much, but what I do miss is the chance to cook something special for the two of us.

Luckily, it’s Süleyman’s birthday a week after new year, and that day he doesn’t have to work. So I always use the opportunity to make a fairly big celebratory meal.

This year, Süleyman expressed a desire to have something along the lines of the slow-cooked lamb shanks I’d made last year when our friends Meryem and Özgür came for dinner. But, said Süleyman, could I do it with cloves? It turns out he’d eaten a lamb dish with cloves in a restaurant a few years ago, and had loved it. I told him I was pretty sure I could come up with something.

What I did come up with was a recipe for duck with prunes, plus various other herbs and spices, one of which was cloves – courtesy of an old post by David Lebovitz. Looking at the list of ingredients – red wine, cloves, bay leaves, thyme, orange zest, pancetta (which I replaced with a spicy beef sausage called suçuk, as porky products are nigh on impossible to get here) and garlic – I saw no reason not to substitute the duck with lamb.

So, on the morning of Süleyman’s birthday, I set to work. I heated some olive oil in a nice deep frying pan, and when smoking hot, added the shanks and browned them all over.

While they were sizzling away, I started peeling some baby onions that I’d decided to add to the dish. And what a flippin’ pain that turned out to be. Not only were they fiddly beyond belief, but the fumes were so powerful I ended up with streaming red eyes. I only managed to deal with about half the bag, and I have a strong suspicion that the rest of those little buggers are going to be sitting in my vegetable rack for rather a long time.

Once I’d cried a river over the onions, I removed the lamb shanks from the pan, added pretty much a whole bottle of red wine, let it bubble away for a few minutes, then threw in all the other ingredients. David’s original recipe calls for the meat to be put in the oven at this point, but as regular readers will know, that’s not an option for me, being oven-less. So, instead, I simply put a tight-fitting lid on the saucepan, turned the heat way down low, and let nature take its course.

Cooking lamb shanks this way, I have found, is just as good as using an oven, but it does take a little longer to make the meat really soft and succulent. But, as the birthday boy and I had plans, after an hour or so of cooking, I turned off the gas, with the intention of finishing it later.

Süleyman and I then toddled off to Istanbul’s Pera Museum to see a stunning exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And, I have to say, the intense colour and passion in Kahlo’s paintings put me in the perfect mood for the intense flavours of the dinner waiting for us at home.

Another couple of hours of cooking was needed once we got back. So, while the lamb was gently simmering, and Süleyman and I were getting gently sloshed on some more delicious red wine, I somehow also managed to conjure up some mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. About half an hour before the lamb was done, I added about 200g of stoned prunes to the mix, which provided a gorgeous sweetness to the whole affair.

Dinner was served – and, if I do say so myself, it was truly scrumptious. Lamb in Turkey has quite a strong flavour (I get the impression the animals are slaughtered at an older age than in the UK), so it held up to the clove-y aroma wonderfully. And what’s more warming on a winter’s night than a spicy lamb stew? Not much, I can tell you.

I don’t think Süleyman would mind me saying his taste in food is perhaps a little traditional. Traditionally Turkish, that is.

The Turks, I am discovering, are very protective of their customs – and cooking in particular. So, although this means you can go to pretty much any restaurant here in Istanbul – and most people’s homes, too – and get an amazing Turkish meal, it’s harder to find decent non-Turkish food.

And, as much as Süleyman loves his grub, he can sometime be a weeny bit suspicious of some of the dishes I cook – simply because it’s something he’s not familiar with.

So, when I pointed out some slices of vivid orange pumpkin at the market the other day, and asked if he liked it, I wasn’t surprised when he told me he’d only ever eaten it as a sweet – as that is the traditional Turkish way with pumpkin.

I resolved to change his view of this vegetable and bought some with the intention of making something savoury with it, but not really knowing what. When it came to using the pumpkin, I noticed I also had some jerusalem artichokes left, and it occurred to me that the two might go very well together.

I was, however, fully aware that it could result in a rather odd concoction – and if my tastebuds thought it odd, then god knows what Süleyman would make of it. Oh well, nothing ventured, I thought.

So, here’s what I did. I roughly chopped a red onion and sautéed it in olive oil along with a chopped clove of garlic. I wanted the flavours to be resolutely Mediterranean, so I added a couple of bay leaves, and a sprinkling of dried thyme and rosemary. Once the onion was soft, I added the jerusalem artichoke and pumpkin, both of which had been cut into smallish cubes. I added enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, seasoned well with salt and pepper, then left it all to simmer until cooked. (This actually took much longer than I thought it would – the pumpkin, in particular, I was surprised to find, took a good half an hour to become really soft and sweet.)

About ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, I added a chopped red pepper and a couple of skinned and chopped tomatoes. Finally, to make the dish a little more substantial, I made use of some minced beef I had left over. Here, the mince is very fine, in readiness for it being made into köfte. This means it’s very easy to squish together into tightly bound wee balls, with no need to add egg or breadcrumbs.

I rolled my mince into walnut-sized pieces and simply dropped them into the cooking juices of the pumpkin, artichokes, tomatoes etc. They took barely five minutes to cook through.

And what did this bizarre assortment of ingredients taste like? Well, the delicious earthiness of the jerusalem artichoke really permeated the whole dish, and, added to the sweetness of the pumpkin and a hefty hint of beefiness from the meatballs, it was a surpringly tasty combination.

And, luckily, even Süleyman thought so.

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.

A bit of a cheek

May 9, 2010

This morning, I realised there was no getting away from the fact that, in less than a week, I was moving out of my flat.

Although I’m moving out for all the right reasons, and have an exciting future ahead of me with Suleyman in Istanbul, I’ve found it virtually impossible to motivate myself to start packing up the lovely little flat I’ve lived in for nearly ten years.

In fact, the only thing I’ve successfully managed to pack away is the contents of my freezer – into my stomach! And, in the end, today was not much different.

Last night, I decided that, if I was going to get to grips with the idea of sorting out my stuff, I’d need something to look forward to at the end of the day – and by ‘something’, I of course mean food.

Apart from a number of bags of herbs (which I’m coming to terms with having to chuck at the end of the week), my freezer contents had been reduced to a couple of chicken thighs, some tomato curry sauce made with my little sis’s home-made tikka sauce (more of which later in the week), some frozen peas, and – most tantalisingly – a beef cheek and some of my home-made beef stock, which I made a couple of months ago to use with a venison dish.

The reason for the beef cheek’s residency in my freezer was simply that I’d seen them in The Ginger Pig in Borough Market a couple of weeks ago, had been pleasantly surprised by the price, and thought I’d have a go at cooking them. I’ve eaten pig’s cheeks (or bath chaps, as they are traditionally called), which I’d thoroughly enjoyed, but had never come across the beefy version before.

So, last night, out of the freezer came the beef cheek and the beef stock with the idea of some lovely, unctuous, slow-cooked stew for a Sunday supper, after a hard day’s packing.

In the end, I couldn’t find a recipe using this cut of meat in any of my cookbooks, so turned to the internet – which delivered to me a dish from an Australian magazine called Gourmet Traveller for Spanish beef cheeks. Now, as I have mentioned on many an occasion, the Spanish flavours of paprika and saffron are two of my favourite ingredients, and as this dish included both, I couldn’t resist.

As always, I did a bit of adapting – with no sherry or sherry vinegar in my cupboards, but a glass of red wine and a splash of red wine vinegar to use up, I simply used the latter instead. I also added some shitake mushrooms to the dish, and didn’t bother with the olives. (I used shitakes on the advice of the mushroom man at Borough Market, who said they’d hold up to the strong flavours and slow cooking.) Other than that, I followed the recipe as described.

So, did I get my packing done? Did I hell! But I did have the deliciously beefy, full-flavoured supper I’d planned. I know where my priorities lie…

I was legging it down Berwick Street on Saturday, on my way to an urgent appointment (with my hairdresser), when I was literally stopped in my tracks. The glorious sight that had me skidding to a halt was a market stall selling bowls of baby artichokes for £1.

As you may have realised about me, I get somewhat obsessed with certain ingredients at times, and artichokes is the one that’s doing it for me at the moment – so, there was no way I was going to pass up such a foodie bargain. The artichokes weren’t in the best condition, with many of the outer leaves going a bit brown. But, as those are discarded before cooking anyway, it didn’t really matter.

I’d already taken some pork mince out of the freezer, so decided to find a recipe that would combine it with the artichokes. What I found was a recipe on the BBC website for a pork loin with braised artichokes and courgettes, which inspired me to follow the recipe for the vegetable side of the dish, then combine this with a method of cooking mince that I picked up from Nigel Slater.

In a recipe of Nigel’s for baked marrow with pork mince, he suggests cooking the meat over a high heat until really crispy and caramelised – the crucial thing being not to break up the mince. It’s a fantastic way to cook it, and is a million miles away from the watery brown mush you may have experienced in the past. (If you ever ate lunch at a British school in the 1970s, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to…)

So, as I braised the artichokes and courgettes with lemon zest, thyme and lots of garlic, I fried the pork mince with the same flavourings. The end result is a great combination of fresh and zingy with hearty and meaty.

And, conveniently, I’d just made my latest batch of sourdough bread, so a hunk of that on the side mopped up the mouth-watering juices.

An Easter chicken

April 5, 2010

London at Easter is surprisingly quiet, and actually becomes pretty enjoyable for the rest of us who haven’t fled to damp cottages in Cornwall or are stuck at Heathrow airport with increasingly grumpy families.

So, after working up an appetite with a long walk along the Thames yesterday, I came home to cook a large roast chicken, which I bought on Saturday at Wyndham’s in Borough Market. They sell a wonderful free-range chicken called Label Anglais, and although it’s not cheap, it’s absolutely worth splashing out on every now and then.

Wyndham’s also gave me a bag of giblets (see pic below), and, as a long weekend off work is just an open invitation for me to cook even more, I made the effort to make some chicken stock, which is now in the freezer for a quick soupy supper later in the week.

I’ll often rub the skin of my chickens with something spicy, but as the weather here is actually resembling spring at long last, I decided to stick with some fresh, herby flavours. So, into the chicken cavity I put a quartered red onion, three or four squished cloves of garlic and plenty of fresh thyme.

As always, I used my trusty chicken clay pot to cook it in. As I’ve mentioned before, the advantage of using the clay pot is that it retains loads of moisture, so keeps the meat really tender.

I also do a little trick that the food editor at the magazine where I work told me about. I cook the chicken upside down for the first half of the cooking time, which means all the juices flow into the breasts. Then, for the last 20 minutes or so, I turn the bird the right way up, and continue cooking wthout the lid on the clay pot, to crisp up the skin a bit.

So, dinner was delicious, juicy roast chicken with mashed potatoes and braised spring greens and peas. Inevitably, there was plenty left over, so I bagged the meat up into convenient little portions and stuck it in the freezer for future lunches and suppers.

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.

Butternut squash with lentils

December 15, 2009

Do you ever look at a recipe that has a list of ingredients so long you find yourself drifting off halfway through? Much as I love the look of his dishes, I’m afraid this is what usually happens when I read Yotam Ottolenghi’s page in the Weekend Guardian. I’ve cut out so many of his recipes – but never cooked one of them. However, if the main ingredients are things I like and am happy cooking with, what I often do is pick out a few things and make my own, simpler version.

That’s what I did with my supper on Saturday night. Yotam’s original recipe was for root mash with wine-braised shallots. Which, in my kitchen, became butternut squash, lentils and shallots, with thyme and red wine vinegar. I’d never thought of combining lentils with squash before, but it is a very tasty and satisfying way of cooking these two humble ingredients. I ate it with a couple of grilled rashers of bacon, but it is easily substantial enough for a meal in itself – perhaps with some greens on the side, if you feel the need.