Thursday, 30 April 2009

Packing up my knives

All packed up...

Like any true food obsessive, I often let my stomach pick my holiday destinations. Aldeburgh? Fresh seafood straight off the beach. The Cotswolds in Spring? Bunches of pencil-thin asparagus. Wales? Salt marsh lamb.

But my epicurean adventures are often thwarted. I spend weeks combing the internet for the perfect COD (Cottage of Dreams), ticking off the list of log fires, oak beams, large table for lazy breakfasts and five-hour lunches, pub within stumbling distance. I get there to find I may be in the middle of Britain’s overflowing larder, but the kitchen has been stocked by some Spartan soul who seems to think that a desire for anything other than a knife too blunt to open a paint tin is a sign of moral weakness. It’s enough to make you want to commit assault and baterie de cuisine.

Too often, rented holiday houses are where old kitchen equipment goes to die. Ovens struggle to generate enough heat to warm butter. Chopping boards the size of beer mats languish in cupboards alongside charcoal-encrusted roasting tins which last saw meat when it was on ration. You could spend the best part of your holiday trying to match up the festival of aluminium pans with a host of wobbly-handled lids. When you do, the largest one will hold just enough potatoes to feed a Hobbit on Atkins.

So here’s a plea to Britain’s COD owners. Log on to ebay. There’s a category called Kitchenalia (Kitschenalia?) where people seem to be prepared to buy all manner of geriatric rubbish in the name of ‘shabby chic’. Flog all that stuff and invest in: a decent knife, three good, heavy pans, a chopping board and a roasting tin.

Mercifully, it’s not always so. Tomorrow we’re off to France. (Dear God, where’s my passport? In the spot where I was sure it was lies only my Arsenal season ticket which, while it may open the doors of heaven, will not open the doors to France.) We rent from a woman who knows the importance of oyster shuckers, lobster crackers, champagne flutes. This is wonderful, as it means my baggage allowance won’t be taken up with half of John Lewis’s basement - I have been known to take my food processor on holiday; it needed a change of scene. But still, I’ll be taking my own knives. And a couple of cookbooks. Just the essentials.

Monday, 27 April 2009

For Karen, with love (and a licked spoon) x


My friend Karen lives in Upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes Region - an area which, because of her, I now think of as the Finger Lickin' Region.

A couple of years ago, she came to London for the first time and - instantly and rather poetically - came down with the worst cold of her life. Instead of running down Sloane Street, gathering heavy shopping bags until the rope handles cut off the circulation in her fingers; instead of meandering along the Thames by the Houses of Parliament and then strolling up Westminster to see that same view captured in misty, opalescent glory by Monet in the National Gallery; instead of, oh, just having a really lovely time, she spent most of her trip curled up on our fat red sofa covered in my Moroccan blanket, our cats sitting guard, sphinx-like at her feet.

Karen is incredibly gracious. As she reclined there, like a Twenty-First Century Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she made it seem like this was exactly the trip she’d always dreamed of, greeting every cup of tea or bowl of soup as though it were a miraculous thing. One day I made her poached eggs on toast and you’d have thought I’d treated her to the tasting menu at the Fat Duck.

I owe Karen a lot, for her friendship and wisdom, for her bountiful good humour and encouragement, but for our purposes, I owe her credit for the title of my blog. We end our many emails across the ocean with silly, often foodie, good wishes. One day, she signed off ‘Love and a licked spoon, Karen x’. It encapsulates everything that’s important to me – friendship, food, fun. So Karen, this is for you, and anyone else who really, really wants to know how to poach an egg.


I love this Turkish recipe for its simplicity of execution and complexity of flavour. An egg is a miraculous and wonderful thing, so please don’t torture them in one of those hideous egg poacher contraptions. They result in eggs that look like something from a joke shop or, worse, a 1970s boarding house dining room.

Some people add vinegar to the poaching water as it helps keep the white together but, however little I add, I can still taste it so I leave it out and rely on my little whirlpool to keep the shape. Don’t add salt to the water – this will make the white spread out more. Season after cooking. In this case, paprika, chilli and mint should do the trick.

Serves 2

1 small garlic clove
A good pinch of sea salt
About a teacup full of whole milk yoghurt
3 tbsps unsalted butter
½ tsp of sweet, smoked paprika
2 eggs, the fresher the better
A pinch of chilli flakes (I use Isot, the finely crushed chilli flakes from Urfa, but any will do)
A sprinkling of dried mint (optional)

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. As we all know, a watched pot never boils, so make the sauce while you’re waiting. On a board, chop the garlic clove into a paste with the salt. Whisk it into the yoghurt and set aside. Warm the butter in a small frying pan over a medium-low heat until melted. Add the paprika and chilli flakes, stir and remove from the heat.

Gently break the eggs onto two saucers. When you have the water at a good, rolling boil, stir it vigorously with a wooden spoon until you have a swirling vortex. Tip one of the eggs into the middle of the whirlpool and watch as the white folds over the yolk. Cook for two to three minutes depending on their size, until the white is set and the yolk still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and put onto kitchen paper to drain. Repeat with the second egg.

Spread half of the yoghurt onto each of the plates, top with an egg, trickle over the paprika chilli butter and sprinkle on the dried mint. Eat immediately.




If you want to make this for a brunch and don’t fancy doing poached eggs for a dozen people on a sleepy, Sunday morning, do what chefs do and cook them the day before. Poach as above and plunge them immediately into a bowl of iced water. Refrigerate and then, when you’re ready to serve, warm them through for no more than 30 seconds in boiling water.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Another day, another David…

01 - The finished tart

Do you remember I told you Lady de B and I joked about setting up a catering business out of the back of a vintage Bentley? Well, we don’t have the wheels yet but we do have our first gig. My friend Paula asked me to cater her wedding in September - marquee in her country garden, bunches of blowsy, old-fashioned roses and herbs on the tables, mismatched plates and a hog roast for 120 happy revellers. Richard Curtis, call your production designer…..

Paula wants canapés, big salads to go with the roast, puddings and gorgeous English cheeses, and later, little bits of biscuity heaven to go with tea and coffee. I’m excited. Excited and scared. I’ve never done anything this huge before. So I called Vanessa, AKA Lady de B, who as well as being a wonderful cook, is queen of the clipboard and list. Between us, we’re going to do it. Last night we had our first planning meeting at De Beauvoir Mansions and I made a French Onion Tart to take along for our supper. It’s based on Elizabeth David’s Tarte à l’Oignon or Zewelwaï, the lovely tart from Alsace, from her book French Provincial Cooking.

I thought of calling this post ‘I have cried salty tears…’. I know this is a lot of onions, but it’s worth it - they all cook down into the most deliciously sweet, lusciously melting, creamy mass. You’re eating essence of onion, and that’s never a bad thing.

Tarte à l’Oignon, or Zewelwaï

My lovely dad, who is stoical and uncomplaining in the face of all kinds of adversity, hates to chop an onion almost more than any other domestic task. I think of all of the things I’ve ever done, he’s most impressed by my capacity to slice and dice my way through a mountain of onions without the aid of goggles, gin or Valium.

250g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, very cold, cut into small cubes
1 tbsps olive oil (not extra virgin)
A good pinch of sea salt
2 eggs
2-3 tbsps iced water
1.2 kg onions, finely sliced
6 egg yolks, very well beaten
284ml pot of double cream
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

01 - A bowl of onions

02 - Chopped onions

Cooked Onions 1
Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and pulse briefly a few times – you still want little, pea-sized pieces of butter in the mix. Drop in the eggs and pulse a few more times. Turn it out into a bowl and add the water a little at a time, stirring gently with your hands or a knife to bring it together into a ball – you may not need all of the water. Place the dough on a floured surface and with the heel of your hands, lightly stretch it out into a ragged rectangle. Fold it over in three sections, rather like you would a business letter, and repeat the process a couple of times. Do it all very gently. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least a couple of hours so that it loses all of its stretch.

Butter a flan tin (mine was 19x29cm) and dust lightly with flour. Roll out the pastry so that it is quite thin. Line the tin with the pastry, pressing it gently into position and trying not to stretch it. Don’t trim it yet – put it into the fridge for half an hour or so to chill down, then trim it just before you fill it.

While all the pastry palaver is going on, make the filling. Melt the butter in a large frying pan with the oil over a medium-low heat. Tip in the onions with Cooked Onions 2a good pinch of salt and stir until they’re all coated. Turn the temperature down to low and cook the onions until they are soft, translucent and starting to turn golden. Stir them from time to time to make sure they’re not sticking. This took about an hour, on the lowest possible heat. Season well with salt, nutmeg and plenty of pepper and allow to cool down a bit. In a jug or bowl, whisk together the cream and well-beaten eggs then pour over the onions and stir until everything is combined.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.

Pour the filling into the pastry case (yes, that’s right, no blind baking – hurrah!) and put the tin on a baking sheet. Bake for about 30-35 minutes until golden. Eat hot. You can certainly eat it cold – I had leftovers for breakfast this morning and it was delicious – but the pastry will lose some of its melting flakiness.

06 - Ready to eat


If you want to serve this when you have friends round for lunch or dinner and you'd like to avoid last-minute panics, line the flan tin and make the filling a few hours ahead. Pop everything in the fridge until about 45 minutes before you want to serve it, then assemble and bake at the last minute.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Of paint and pastries

Pilavunas on parade

For days now, I have been thinking about the salty-sweet Cypriot bread rolls called pilavuna on the Turkish side of the island’s Green Line and flaounes on the Greek side. I decided to make them for breakfast today, to soften the blow of watching Chelsea’s rather casual 2-1 defeat of Arsenal yesterday. Who knows? If Fabianski hadn’t mistaken the half way line for the mouth of the goal, and Adebayor hadn’t played like he was having a kick about at the beach rather than playing in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, perhaps I would have been celebrating victory with çilbir, that lovely red and white Turkish breakfast dish of seasoned yoghurt topped with a poached egg and trickled with melted butter stained with paprika?

A moment when hope still sprung eternal

But rolls it is. I was first introduced to them by our friend Nash Khandekar when we moved into our house six years ago. Nash almost wasn’t our painter and decorator.

We’d just bought our house. It was sound, but needed some TLC (I mean, I like lime green walls and a glitter ball as much as the next person, but perhaps not in the room where I intend to eat breakfast for the foreseeable future). I arranged to have a few companies come over and give us quotes, my very own Decorator Idol. There was the Irish one, whose curling brogue and patched sweater did a great job of disguising his capacity for gouging on prices. The Polish one with graceful manners but almost no English. The posh Home Counties one who seemed to have become a painter and decorator in response to a not-entirely-worked-through midlife crisis... And then there was Nash, who was delightful and charming and entirely won my mother over. I declared him ‘Too smooth by half’. Until the quotes came in and he was the cheapest (by half) and I decided that delightful and charming was something I could live with.

And live with we have. Ever since, we’ve called on Nash and his brother Sean whenever we need something doing in our house or garden. I remember one freezing November day when Nash was smoothing grout between the paving on the terrace he’d just laid for us (having first placed pennies beneath the slabs for good luck). His olive skin was a grey with cold. I told him to stop for the day and his response? ‘No, the Bangladeshi in me is keeping me warm and the Irish in me is keeping me working.’ How could you not love a man like that?

When we were restoring our house, Nash and his team worked alongside us to make our six-week deadline. He promised it would be finished on time, and on moving day I pitched up at the house at 8am to find him putting the final licks of paint on the sitting room walls, leaning on a broom for support and a full day’s growth in his beard. He’d been up all night, but he made it.

In those six weeks, I listened to more Talk Sport radio than I ever thought possible and we ate with Nash and his gang, sitting on the floor, our buffet of pides or kebabs from the local take away spread out on the wallpaper pasting table. One afternoon, he sent his wiry young assistant Chefki out to buy snacks and he came back with warm pilavuna. We ate them greedily with cups of tea while Nash prodded shy Chefki to tell us the tale of when he played professional football for a team in the Ukraine, scoring on his debut and ending up the local hero, his picture on the front page of the paper. Chefki is no longer the shy teenager, but he’s as lovely as he always was, married to Hattie, his once-lanky frame bulked out with muscles. Every time I bite into a pilavuna, I think of those happy, exhausting weeks working on our house and the friendships forged over paint, football on the radio and tea breaks at the pasting table.

PilavunaPilavuna Ingredients

These are traditionally made at Easter, from a seasonal cheese called flaouna. If you can’t get hold of flaouna – and let’s face it, I live in the middle of a Turkish area and even I can’t always get hold of flaouna – a mild Cheddar or an unsmoked Gouda might be nice.

Makes a dozen pilavuna

750g strong bread flour (actually, I ran out of bread flour so used 500g bread flour and 250g plain flour and it worked out pretty well)
7g fast-acting yeast (a sachet’s worth)
1 slightly rounded tsp salt
20g caster sugar
450ml warm water
2 tbsps olive oil
250g flaouna (see note above for alternatives), grated
100g haloumi, grated
90g sultanas
1 ½ tbsp crumbled, dried mint
The grated zest of a small lemon (This isn’t traditional as far as I can tell, but I like it. You can leave it out if you prefer.)
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs, lightly beaten

To finish:
1 egg, beaten with a little water to glaze
Some sesame seeds for sprinkling over the top

Tip the flour, yeast, salt and sugar into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix to blend. With the beater stirring, pour in the warm water then the oil and beat for about 10 minutes at a medium-low speed (if it looks like the mixer might walk itself off the counter, you’re going too fast) until smooth and velvety. You can certainly do this by hand, but it’s Sunday morning and I’m taking the path of least resistance. Put your dough into a lightly-oiled, warmed bowl, cover with a plastic bag and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.

While the dough is rising, make the filling. Mix together the grated cheeses, sultanas, mint, zest, flour and baking powder. Pour in the eggs and mix to a stiff paste.


Ready for the oven

Pilavuna detail

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Knock back the risen dough and divide it into 12, shaping each piece into a nice round. On a lightly floured surface, roll out into circles about 12cm in diameter. Heap a good spoonful of filling into the middle of each circle. Fold over three sides of the dough to make a triangle, pinching the edges together a bit and leaving some of the filling showing. Brush the pastries with the beaten egg and sprinkle over the sesame seeds. Put on a lightly-floured baking sheet and bake until golden, about 13 minutes. Serve warm or cold, at a pasting table for authenticity.


I love The Arabica Food & Spice Company. They sell wonderfully aromatic blends such as ras-el-hanout and za’atar, and fiery sauces such as their Il Shaytan Chilli Sauce. Their wild mint is picked by a women’s co-operative in Jordan and it’s the most sweetly aromatic dried mint I’ve ever used.

Wild Mint

Friday, 17 April 2009

Slices of heaven


After three hold-your-breath busy days, I was thrilled to spend this morning with one of my favourite people, my godson Luca who is four, no, sorry not four, ‘Nearly FIVE, Auntie Debora’. He’d spent yesterday with his godfather and had a lovely time at ‘Pizza Express, where there’s a POOL on the ROOF!’ Now I know for a fact that they had lunch at Shoreditch House, the chi-chi-la-la members’ club down the road where annual membership costs the equivalent of 70 Pizza Express pizzas.

Luca loves to be in the kitchen. Since he was old enough to sit on one of our high stools, he has done a hero’s job of washing up at our sink. A heap of plastic picnic cups and plates bobbing in the suds would absorb him for long enough for his mum and me to have a cup of tea and catch up.

Baking Cupboard These days, we’re a long way from Fairy Liquid and soggy sleeves. Luca has a patissière’s eye for detail and insists on tasting and testing at every stage, particularly when there’s chocolate involved. There’s always chocolate involved. My baking cupboard is Luca’s Garden of Earthly Delights, with its tubs of sprinkles, crystallised flowers and bags of rainbow sugar. Each container has to be examined and pondered over, before we cut it down to a shortlist of three or four which will make it onto the final cake. Today, our chocolate cake was resplendent with vermicelli, a few yellow sugar roses, a sprinkling of purple sugar and a twinkle of silver balls. We’re nothing if not exuberant.

Luca mixes and Barney watches Luca mixes it up
We also made pizza, proper pizza with a real, thin crust (Richard, I promise I’m not entering into a wicked game of Godparents: The Rivals). Just as we’d debated over sprinkles and sugar roses, so we discussed our toppings in enormous detail. Arrabiata sauce, olives (well, Luca’s Daddy is Portuguese) some dollops of fromage frais and a grating of Parmesan, then some basil leaves and a drizzle of basil oil when they came out of the oven. I have to say, they were a little pizza perfection and when I suggested saving a slice for Mummy, Luca was most emphatic. ‘I am going to eat it ALL. I’m nearly FIVE.’

Great pizza crust

The pizzas

This is a simplified, slightly adapted version of my friend Daniel Stevens’ recipe for pizza from his book River Cottage Handbook No.3 Bread. If you are at all interested in baking bread – and certainly if you think you’d ever like to build a brick oven in your back garden – I’d highly recommend it. He’s a baker from his flour-dusted shoes to his elegant, dough encrusted fingertips. You couldn’t be in safer hands.

Makes 4 large pizzas

Slice of pizza 
250g plain flour
250g strong bread flour
5g powdered yeast
10g salt
325ml warm water
About 1tbsp olive oil

A small handful of semolina or polenta for dusting the baking sheets

In a mixer with a dough hook attachment, mix together the flours, yeast, salt and water on a slow speed then stir in the olive oil. Mix for about 10 minutes until smooth and silky (you can certainly do this by hand, it will just take longer). Put your dough into a warm, lightly oiled bowl, cover with a plastic bag and leave to rise until doubled in size. Luca and I recommend Finding Nemo while waiting for the dough to prove.

Whack your oven up as high as it will go and let it come to temperature before you tip the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into four. Mould each quarter into rounds with your hands then roll them out as thinly as you can and place them on your semolina-dusted baking sheets. Add your toppings – as Coco Chanel famously said, ‘Elegance is refusal’, so add them thoughtfully and sparingly. An overloaded pizza is not a good thing (the same principal does not apply to chocolate cake, just so you know). Put them in the oven and bake for about 7 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Eat quickly, in thin slices, with your hands. I could never trust a person who eats a pizza with a knife and fork.

End of pizza days

Luca’s baby brother Leo arrives to help, and looks very fetching in a mixing bowl.


Monday, 13 April 2009

Happy, happy Easter

Every Good Friday, our friend Richard throws my favourite party of the year: The Easter Jamboree. He and Emma started this tradition a dozen or so years ago for the waifs and strays left in London for the holiday and it has grown so much that up to 50 of us now stay in the city to join the festivities each spring. We take over a first-floor terrace restaurant in Covent Garden for rosé and steak frites, gossip and occasional scandal. What starts as lunch usually ends up in a bar somewhere. This year, 1am found us in Richard’s flat with Séan teaching our Spanish friend Alex to do the Eightsome Reel while I raided the fridge to rustle up spring onion and salmon frittata for the dozen or so merry survivors.

After such a great party, a post mortem is essential. We usually have a lunch here on Easter Sunday where newspapers are read, champagne is drunk and the various levels of wickedness displayed on Friday are dissected in near-forensic detail. Who fell of a chair? Who ran off with that cute waiter? Did anyone break a glass, a limb, a heart?

I spent Saturday in the gently soothing activity of preparing the feast for the following day - hummus and lebneh balls dipped in smoked paprika and toasted sesame seeds, platters of salami, and my first-ever dolma. I spent a happy few hours soaking and filling vine leaves. Sometimes the world - or at least the television schedulers - are kind, so I sat at my kitchen counter and rolled my vine leaves while watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As they simmered on the stove, they filled the house with their reviving and comforting lemony, spicy aroma.

After our Mediterranean canapés, we reverted to trad English for our main course: the tenderest Poll Dorset Spring Lamb from the Thoroughly Wild Meat Company which I seasoned and rubbed with butter and then simply roasted on a bed of rosemary, chopped onion and wet garlic, along with roasted asparagus from the Wye Valley and sweet, boiled Jersey Royals. For pudding, we devoured a strawberry and chocolate roulade and the heavenly Lemon Meringue Bombe from the Unconfidential Cook’s blog.

As we kissed the last of our 15 friends goodbye at 11pm, I was delighted that they’d come, thrilled they’d enjoyed themselves, but secretly excited that they’d left us with just enough lamb to fill a couple of pitas with the last scraps and some scrambled eggs and chopped mint for supper today.

Dolma In the 11 years I’ve lived in this part of London, I must have eaten enough stuffed vine leaves to stretch all the way along Green Lanes and back, from the Turkish part where they’re called dolma to the Greek end where they’re known as dolmades. But I’ve never made them. Seeing a vine press in the Turkish Food Centre pushed me over the edge from consumer to creator.

A 750g package of pickled vine leaves, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then drained, stalks cut off

125ml olive oil
2-3 onions, finely diced
50g pine nuts
250g short-grain rice
50g currants
1tbsp dried mint
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tbsps lemon salt *
250ml chicken stock
1 tomato, grated
A good-sized bunch of parsley, stalks removed then finely chopped
2tbsps finely chopped, fresh dill
1 small lemon, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper

*You can find tangalicious lemon salt in Mediterranean supermarkets. If you can’t get hold of any, use a teaspoon or so of ordinary salt and the juice of half a lemon.

Warm half of the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and sauté the onions until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the pine nuts and fry until they begin to turn golden. Add the rice and fry, stirring, for about 5 minutes until the rice is well coated in the oil. Add the currants, spices, dried mint and lemon salt, stir and pour in half of the chicken stock and simmer gently until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock and simmer again, stirring quite frequently, until it is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the grated tomato, fresh herbs and a good few grinds of black pepper. Cool.

Line a large, heavy casserole with a good layer of vine leaves (check through the ones you’ve soaked. They’ll inevitably be a few that are too small or torn – use those.) and a couple of slices of lemon.

Now, let the rolling extravaganza begin. Place a leaf in front of you, vein side up and the broadest part of the leaf facing you. Put a spoonful of the mixture about 1cm up from the base of the leaf. Fold over once, then fold in the sides and roll. I was daunted by warnings of not overfilling the leaves in case they split while cooking, so mine were a little thin. A think a good, rounded tablespoon of filling would be perfect. Line the base of the casserole with a layer of stuffed vine leaves, packing them in quite tightly. Place a couple of slices of lemon on top and make your next layer. Keep rolling and layering until you’ve used up all of your leaves and rice mixture. Pour over the rest of the olive oil and about 300ml of boiling water. Put a vine leaf press or a plate on top of your dolma to stop them bobbing around in the liquid and simmer very gently, covered, for about 35-45 minutes until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Old friends and new discoveries

Click to EnlargeWhat’s the definition of an optimist? Someone who digs out her copy of Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking as soon as the thermometer flirts with anything over 15°C. This weekend, I leafed through my old copy, with its stained pages and broken spine, my name written territorially on the title page. I bought it the summer I graduated, when the world was opening up before me, full of delicious possibilities.

Click to Enlarge
That summer, I shared a first floor flat in a large Edwardian terraced house with three boys. Every second Saturday, I trotted down the stairs to the flat below to give our rent to the elderly son-in-law of the entirely ancient lady who owned the building. He looked exactly like Freud. He even spoke with a refined though pronounced Austrian accent. This would not have been quite so disconcerting had the room in which the transaction took place not resembled so closely the study in the Freud Museum just up the road, complete with antique rugs, heavy wooden furniture and strange little bibelots of mysterious origin and sexuality. I was never quite sure if I should hand over the cash right away or lie down on the sofa and tell him a bit about my childhood first.

Our kitchen was so tiny and prone to condensation that, summer and winter, we had to push open the large sash window every time we wanted to do anything more extravagant that make tea. Still, we managed to throw some great parties, tossing the key down on a string from that same window to our visitors below to save ourselves the trouble of the many stairs. One hot August night, I lay in bed listening to the sounds drifting up through my window from neighbouring houses. Soft laughter, the clack clack clack of a type writer and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain being played over and over again – fresh from a tiny Scottish university, I thought I was living in the height of bohemian splendour.

Since then, this tatty book has travelled with me from a Moscow tower block to summer rentals in the Languedoc, as well as across several London postcodes. It’s been packed away and then hastily unpacked in increasingly large and better-ventilated kitchens. We’re friends. We have history. We can not talk for months, years even, but when we get back together it’s as though we’ve never been apart, fish kebabs, crab soup, omelette aux fines herbes and apricot ice cream, our lingua franca.

So I was surprised to discover a recipe I hadn’t noticed before, one for Maqlub, the Persian aubergine and rice dish more frequently called maqluba or makloubeh. Its name means ‘upside down’ and truthfully, that’s the only tricky part of making this fragrant and lovely dish – inverting the hot casserole requires a cool head and sturdy oven gloves.

Click to EnlargeI went to the Turkish Food Centre on Ridley Road to buy my ingredients. I love it there, tucked away behind the market. It’s like being on holiday (without the sadistically small baggage allowance), with aisle upon aisle of intriguing ingredients and some of the cheapest, freshest produce in London. I always end up buying more than I’d planned. I may go in for a jar of tahini, but I’ll come out with rose petal jam, some marinated olives, a packet of sumac, honeycomb, a pot of lebneh, a loaf of pillowy, still-warm flat bread, huge bunches of herbs... Yesterday, I was quite restrained, restricting myself to things for the maqlub, some fresh green almonds and a few loquats to nibble for breakfast. I was very proud that I managed to swerve the vine leaf press, a slab of earthenware with holes in it I imagine intended to keep dolma from unfurling while they’re cooking. But I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.

Click to Enlarge


Elizabeth David wrote: ‘Although this is rather a trouble to make it is one of the best of all aubergine dishes, and the rice, which has absorbed some of the flavour of the meat, is particularly good. A good bowl of yoghourt can be served with it, and a tomato or green salad.’

Click to Enlarge
I’m giving you this recipe as Elizabeth David wrote it, apart from converting it to metric and making some small details of technique more explicit. When I make it again, I might make a few very small adjustments based upon what I’ve read about maqlub since I made it. I might try making the first layer out of sliced tomatoes and I’d definitely brown the mince in the pan once I’ve finishing frying the onions. Elizabeth David suggests you can use raw or cooked meat and I used raw, which clumped up a bit in the cooking process. I think cooked lamb would combine more seductively with the whole dish. I might add a little more seasoning, a pinch or two of cinnamon and nutmeg and a few grinds of black pepper to the meat, and I might toss a few toasted almonds over the top with the parsley.

4 medium-sized aubergines
600g minced lamb or mutton, cooked or raw
200g of rice, I used basmati but any long-grain rice will do
1 onion, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
50g flaked almonds
½ tsp ground allspice
400ml beef stock
1tsp of finely chopped thyme leaves or marjoram

Olive oil for frying – not extra virgin
Parsley, finely chopped, for garnishing

Cut the unpeeled aubergines into 6mm slices, sprinkle them with salt and leave them for an hour. Put the rice into soak in water for an hour. Mix the allspice, thyme or marjoram and garlic with the meat. Rinse and dry the aubergines. Heat about 1cm of oil over a medium-high heat and fry the aubergines on both sides until just starting to turn golden. When you have finished frying the aubergines, fry the onions until soft and translucent.

Brush a round casserole lightly with oil. Put a layer of the fried aubergines into the bottom of the casserole (I used a third, so I would end up with three layers), sprinkle on a layer of meat. Click to EnlargeSprinkle with a few blanched almonds and a third of the onions. Repeat until all of the aubergines and meat are used up, and on top put the drained rice. Pour over half of the stock, cover the dish and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes. Add the rest of the stock and cook for another 30-40 minutes until the rice is almost cooked. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4.

Put an ovenproof serving dish or plate over the pan, carefully turn out the contents of the casserole and put into the oven for another 10-15 minutes. The rice will finish cooking and any liquid left will be absorbed.

We ate it with a few peeled, deseeded and sliced cucumbers tossed in yoghurt with a pinch of sea salt and chopped mint. I trickled a little good olive oil over it just before serving.

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Aubergines. Do you salt them or not? In the past, they were always salted to remove any bitterness and some of their moisture, but with modern varieties it’s not really necessary. I only salt them when I’m going to fry them, as in this recipe, so they don’t soak up quite so much oil – though, be warned, they do still soak it up as keenly as a drunk in a bar five minutes before closing.


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I love Steenberg’s spices, a fantastically extensive range of organic, often Fairtrade seasonings sourced and sold by Axel and Sophie Steenberg in North Yorkshire. They now stock chocolate, vanilla, tea and coffee too.

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I was not an original bride. I did my best to convince Sean that our marriage licence would not be valid without being able to show proof of ownership of at least three Le Creuset casseroles. Nearly 12 years later they’re still going strong. Despite being shamefully overworked and sometimes being the object of much incendiary abuse, they’re still perfect - the same might be said for Sean.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Sunday in the park with paws

This is what happens when you take a box of Doggie Breath Bones to the park...

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Click to EnlargeCharlie and Barney, who don't stand on ceremony.

Click to EnlargeRosie, who is a lady.

Click to Enlarge Gomez, the Colonel.

Click to Enlarge Rosie and Charlie, hoping there's more.

Click to Enlarge Is this thing on?

Click to EnlargeOlivia's ready for her close up.

Click to EnlargeSometimes, after all that fancy food, you want to revert to the comfort of the familar. Barney chews a stick.

Click to EnlargeApple blossom....

....and Magnolia.
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