Get your skate on…

January 22, 2013

When looking for somewhere to live, I have a feeling I’m led by my nose – or stomach – as I always seem to end up in areas that have a great supply of foodie wonders. And my current location is no different.

Tucked into a lovely little nook where Peckham, Honor Oak and East Dulwich meet, I’m a stone’s throw from such a fantastic variety of shops, cafés, delis and pubs that I’m never at a loss for inspiration.

The best thing is that around 90% of them are local, independently owned places, and that’s just great in this age of the Tesco Metro-type faux-local shops (which, in my opinion, are far more damaging to small independent shops than the monoliths on the edges of towns).

Last night’s dinner was a perfect storm of ingredients pretty much entirely bought in my little nook. A skate wing from a fish stall in Northcross Road; olives, tomatoes and yoghurt from the Turkish supermarket over the road; sprouting broccoli and cauliflower from Herne Hill farmers’ market (okay, a wee bit out of the nook, but still in the SE region).

Bare Cupboard gives you wings

Bare Cupboard gives you wings

The starting point for this meal was the skate wing. I really wanted to do something other than the usual caper butter with it, so when I came across a recipe for John Dory with broccoli sauce in Anna Del Conte’s Amaretto, Apple Cake And Artichokes, and remembered I had some rapidly fading sprouting broccoli in the fridge, I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

A search through the far corners of my fridge resulted in a rather sorry looking piece of cauliflower, so I thought I’d better use that up quick before it became too floppy to do anything with. But I needed to do something sharp and flavourful with it, otherwise I was likely to end up with a somewhat bland, sweet meal.

And then, in a moment when it felt like all the food gods were smiling on me, I found a recipe in Angela Hartnett’s A Taste Of Home for cauliflower, tomato and olive salad – all of which I had in my fridge.

Angela Hartnett and Anna Del Conte – two of my favourite cookery writers

Angela Hartnett and Anna Del Conte – two of my favourite cookery writers

The salad was a piece of parsley to make. Cut the cauliflower into smallish florets, cook until just tender, leave to cool, then mix with tomatoes and olives, and a glug of vinaigrette. Who would have thought the combination of cauliflower and olives would taste so good? But take my word for it, it does.

Cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

Cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

On to the fish.

To make the sauce, sauté a finely chopped onion or shallot in olive oil (Anna’s recipe says butter, but I was looking to make it a bit lighter) in a shallow saucepan or heavy frying pan with a lid. Using a vegetable peeler, take off the tough outer skin of the broccoli stalks, then finely chop the whole lot, leaves and all.

Once the onion is soft, add the broccoli and enough fish stock to just cover the vegetables. Simmer for a good 20 minutes or so, checking the stock hasn’t evaporated, adding more as necessary. Towards the end of cooking, I also added a big handful of parsley, just because I had some that needed using up – but it also gave the sauce a more vivid green colour.

Sautéing finely chopped sprouting broccoli

Sautéing finely chopped sprouting broccoli

Once the broccoli is really soft, bung the lot in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add a bit more of the fish stock if it needs loosening. Put the sauce back into a clean saucepan and keep warm while you cook the fish.

The broccoli sauce, waiting for its skate wing

The broccoli sauce, waiting for its skate wing

Anna’s recipe for the John Dory says to cook it in white wine – I forgot to get any, so instead I oiled a baking dish, placed the skate in it and covered with fish stock and a good squeeze of lemon juice. I baked it for about 20 minutes at 190°C.

Another minor adjustment to Anna’s recipe was that instead of adding cream to the sauce, just before serving, I plopped in a spoonful of natural yoghurt. I’m not a massive fan of creamy sauces, and as the broccoli was quite sweet, I found the touch of sharpness from the yoghurt gave it a bit of life.

Skate with broccoli sauce, and cauliflower, tomato and olive salad

Skate with broccoli sauce, and a cauliflower, tomato and olive salad on the side

The skate wing I had was pretty huge, so half of it was more than sufficient. The other half went in the fridge and was a very tasty lunch the next day, with another bit of salad on the side.

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Adventures in Antakya

January 15, 2011

I’m spending a few days in the south-eastern Turkish city of Antakya, very close to the border with Syria. I’ve come here because I’ve heard it’s very different from the rest of Turkey, not least because it was once part of Syria (from 1918 to 1938) when that country was under French rule.

For me, the clearest way to witness the cultural history of this fascinating place is in its food. So I was very excited to visit the city’s main food market today. Although many of the fruit and vegetables were similar to those I find in the markets in Istanbul, the thing that really sets it apart was the people selling the stuff.

The immediate difference, in my eyes, was that there were many many more women behind the stalls. I don’t know why, but you just don’t see women doing that kind of work at the Istanbul markets.

Anyway, I just wanted to show you some of the hard-working, well-worn faces I came across today. They all clearly lead very tough lives, and work very hard. But they were all so kind to me, and insisted I took a sample of whatever they were selling.

This couple (above) were selling the typical Antakyan salty yoghurt, the consistency of which was more like cream cheese, but much fresher and lighter in flavour. Delicious, of course. They also had the driest, wrinkliest black olives I’ve ever eaten – but surprisingly sweet.

As is often the case at this market in Antakya, people come and sell even very small amounts of produce from their smallholdings. This woman (above) came armed with a couple of pumpkins, some homemade cheese and a 2-litre bottle of fresh milk.

The herbs this woman was selling (above) were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. To be honest, at first glance they looked like the sort of thing you end up with after giving your garden a good prune. But absolutely everything in this mishmash was edible – and fantastically flavoursome. But don’t ask me what any of it was – I haven’t got the faintest idea!

This, believe it or not, is a radish (above). They don’t half like their radishes in Turkey. And when they are as sweet and peppery as this one, I can understand why.

My very first meal in Antakya included a black carrot stuffed with minced lamb, rice and spices. Several meals later, I still think that was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten here. I got very excited when I saw this pile of black carrots at the market (above), but sensibly came to the decision that I was not going to be able to stuff a couple of kilos of them in my suitcase to take home.

It seems to be the case in Turkey that the surrounding streets are completely taken over with people selling produce on market day. I like to think this woman has a veritable garden of paradise behind this house, which she heaves onto the street each Saturday. I doubt that’s even where she lives, but it’s a nice thought.

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.

Süleyman and I live fairly near an area called Kumkapi, which is famous for its fish market, right on the edge of the Sea Of Marmara. Across the dual carriageway and a block or two inland is a small square with several cobbled streets leading off it, where you’ll find wall-to-wall fish restaurants – often full of tourists, but equally popular with the locals.

As I have often mentioned, the fantastic thing about Istanbul is that you can walk barely a few minutes from a busy, touristy area and find something completely different. And this is the same in Kumkapi.

One of the streets leading off the fish-restaurant enclave is what used to be one of the main Armenian areas of Istanbul, most of whom left in the 1950s. It’s now populated mostly by Gypsy families, which makes it, in my eyes, fascinating. Shabby, yes. Run-down, definitely. But there’s something very beautiful about it, too.

And it’s never more vibrant than on Thursdays, market day. So, despite having to lug my shopping bags a little bit further than I’d ideally like, this place has become my favourite shopping destination.

As well as plenty of regular market stalls, there are many people who just turn up with whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on, pile them up on any spare bit of pavement, and Bob’s yer uncle. Above is Kumkapi’s watermelon man, set up outside a little mosque.

Opposite the watermelons was a lorry loaded, from top to bottom, with peanuts in their shells. I couldn’t resist them and bought a big bag, after pestering this poor man for far too long taking pictures.

As with the watermelon man, this onion seller had set up his wares outside a house – the resident of which is peeking out to see what’s on sale today.

Further into the market proper, I came across a stall loaded with those odd mini-melons I had a run-in with last week. As interesting as they looked, I wasn’t tempted to waste my money (or valuable shopping-bag space) on them again.

Now, pictured above is something you don’t see every day. Yes, those really are cabbages bigger than a human head! The poor boy working on the stall could barely lift one. All the cabbages I’ve seen for sale in Istanbul have been that big, and I’m still trying to work out if it’s because the ground they’re grown in is super-fertile, or if they spray them with some gawd-awful chemical. Either way, I haven’t had the courage to buy one yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

Being Kumkapi, I couldn’t really leave without buying some fish, and I plumped for these amazing fresh anchovies. In fact, when I bought them, I realised just how far I’d come with my Turkish language skills, as the guy on the stall overcharged me, and I managed to get annoyed with him in Turkish, and get my money back!

Finally, at the end of the road, I arrived at a shop selling my all-time favourite Turkish delicacy, kaymak, which I’ve written about many times. I’d been alerted to this particular shop by the food blog Istanbul Eats, and they weren’t wrong when they described the kaymak at Boris’in Yeri as some of the best.

As is often the case with places selling kaymak, a variety of other dairy products is also available. I haven’t yet found a Turkish cheese I really like, so, despite the intriguing window display, I passed on those pictured above. What I did buy, however, was some strained yoghurt. So thick you could stand a spoon up it in, it was sharp, fresh and incredibly creamy – simply the best yoghurt I’ve ever tasted.

So, despite an arm-stretching walk home with all my shopping, tonight’s supper will be a veritable feast. I haven’t quite decided what that feast will consist of yet, but I’m confident it’ll be delicious!

Feeling a bit fresh

September 25, 2010

As wonderful as the fresh produce is here in Istanbul, because the markets very much rely on local, seasonal vegetables and fruit, there is often not much choice in the actual variety of what’s on offer.

Yes, I love the full-flavoured tomatoes, sweet red peppers and deep purple aubergines, but I have been craving a bit of a change in my diet. So, when I spotted a large pile of gorgeously bright green broccoli piled on a market stall a couple of days ago – something I hadn’t seen for sale here before – I grabbed as much as I could carry.

It’s always been one of my favourite vegetables, and I could have easily have just munched my way through the stuff raw. But today, for lunch, I made the next best thing.

Lightly steamed, I combined the broccoli florets with shredded raw red cabbage and carrot, then piled the lot onto a mixture of lettuce and rocket, and dressed it with a vinaigrette made with some Turkish “grape vinegar” – essentially Balsamic vinegar, but as it doesn’t come from the Balsamic region, I guess, technically, you can’t call it that.

On the side, is a simit – a ubiquitous Turkish snack, usually described as bagel-like. There are men with little carts on virtually every street corner selling these bread rings, and they are really tasty. Before baking, the rings are dipped in molasses, then coated in sesame seeds to give them their unique flavour and texture.

Afterwards, still on my fresh and raw tip, I decided to cut into another new find for me – a teeny , tiny melon. I’m not sure what kind of melon it grows up to be, but they are sold as small as 3-4in long, and when I showed it to Süleyman, he said, “Mmm, yummy.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when I decided to eat it. I say unfortunately, because I actually really didn’t like it. It kind of tasted like a cross between a cantaloupe melon and a courgette, but not very strongly of either.

In fact, I just couldn’t eat it at all, so put the untouched half into the fridge for Süleyman to finish off later, and decided to have something I know I like – fresh figs.

Now, this is when the seasonal thing comes into its own in Istanbul. It’s the perfect time of year for fresh figs, and I’m stuffing myself silly with them at the moment. My favourite way to eat them is with a great dollop of yoghurt on top. Which is exactly how I finished my lunch today.

So fresh and so healthy, it made me feel rather virtuous!

Keep calm and carry on…

August 29, 2010

Yesterday saw my first attempt at making a cake here in Istanbul. Although, as I have no oven, it was a no-bake cake – a no-bake pistachio and dried cherry cheesecake. In fact, it ended up being a no-bake, no-scales, no-cream cheese, no-mixing bowl, no-electric beater pistachio and dried cherry cheesecake.

Which was fun.

The adventure started when I tried to find cream cheese. The recipe I used, a favourite of mine by Nigel Slater, actually calls for mascarpone – but I knew that would be a fruitless search in Istanbul, so thought cream cheese would be an easier option. How wrong I was.

If there is such a thing as cream cheese in Turkey, I have yet to find it. It was suggested I use something called ‘krem peynir’, which, literally translated, does actually mean cream cheese. The guy in the shop promised me it was “without salt”, so I took my chances. Unfortunately, once I got it home and opened the pot, I discovered it had the taste and consistency of flavourless Dairy Lea.

Which was nice.

The next challenge was the dried cherries. The challenge wasn’t in finding the things, the challenge was in pitting them. Yes, the cherries were dried with their stones still in. However, as I utterly loathe sultanas – the recipe’s suggested alternative to the cherries – I decided that scraping off the shrivelled flesh was still preferable to those squishy little fruits of the devil. It was, but only just…

An hour later, with fingers the colour of Sweeney Todd’s, I started on the actual cheesecake. First step, cream the butter and sugar. Not as easy as it sounds when you have no mixing bowl, no electric beater and no scales to measure the quantities. What I did have was a large saucepan, a wooden slatted spatula and an extensive conversion chart to work out how many dessertspoons of sugar make up 75g.

After I quickly lost count of how many spoons of sugar I’d chucked into the saucepan, I gave up and got to work on the creaming. And worked, and worked, and worked. Do you know how difficult it is to cream butter and sugar in something that doesn’t have the smooth, rounded sides of a mixing bowl? Try it. It’s harder than you think. I managed to reasonably combine the two ingredients but didn’t get much further than that. Then it was time to add the krem peynir…

Which was a joy.

What I want to tell you is that it had the consistency of a handkerchief during a heavy cold. However, I’m a lady, so I won’t. (But it did…) Once again, an electric beater would have come in handy at this stage. But I tried my best, than gave up and chucked in the rest of the ingredients. Including the pistachios – which were supposed to be finely ground, but my knife skills weren’t quite up to that job, so roughly chopped had to do.

With all the ingredients (kind of) combined, it was clear that the consistency wasn’t quite right. It looked a little runny and more than a little grainy. But I poured it on top of the biscuit base, put it in the fridge and hoped for the best.

This morning, I cautiously opened the fridge, and was amazed to see a well-set pistachio and dried cherry cheesecake. It was still definitely too grainy for my liking, but a couple of slices later, and the general consensus was that it was good.

Which was nice.

Really.

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.