Friday 29 January 2010

Keep ‘em peeled

Keep ‘em peeled

This morning, we were woken at 3.30am to find a rather unpleasant person helping himself to Sean’s phone from his bedside table. Sean roared. I screamed a strange, animalistic scream that seemed not to come from my own mouth. Unpleasant Person took off down the stairs, out of the front door, into our car and away.

Mercifully, we’re not hurt and nothing we can’t replace was taken. Two wonderful policemen arrived within five minutes, all reassuring calmness and kindness, followed by a delightful Scene of Crime Officer who carries the tools of her trade in a bubblegum pink leather case.

The UP did take our camera and the laptop I keep in the kitchen. This means normal posting might be suspended for a little while until they can be replaced. In the middle of this, ‘The One Where The Spoons Got Burgled’, episode, I did have a wry smile at the thought of someone trying to offload my laptop in a local pub. I use it almost exclusively for writing and adjusting recipes, trotting between stove and keyboard, invariably my hands covered in offal, oil, tomato sauce, crumbs, so it’s a little gummy. There’s so much butter and flour in its workings it might, without too much exaggeration, be called ‘computer en croute’.

For the record, Barney slept through the whole thing. At the foot of our bed. He is officially the world’s worst guard dog. What can I say? He’s a lover not a fighter.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Stay at home soup

Ready to eat...

I wanted to make soup to go with my khacahpuri so, casting my Georgian bread in the role of posh grilled cheese sandwich, what else could I choose but tomato soup?

In the middle of winter, fat, juicy tomatoes just begging to slip from their skins and transform themselves into soup are as elusive as the all-over tan. Buying these poor, flavourless January specimens is about as tempting (and likely) as getting my legs waxed. So I rely on tinned tomatoes to give me my lycopene fix. All the better because they, and the rest of the ingredients in this soup, are always to be found in my cupboards so I don’t even have to venture out into the dreich afternoon. More fireside time, always a plus.

At this time of year, I seldom team tomatoes with their constant summertime companion, basil. I want the earthy, warming flavours of cumin and paprika, a bit of heat to warm me from the inside out. This combination will keep me going until trotting along to the shops, market basket tucked into the crook of my arm, is a pleasure not a chore and the tomatoes on offer are more fragrant than the packaging that contains them.

Tomato and red lentil soup

Tomato and red lentil soup

1tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp sweet paprika
1 ½ tbsp concentrated tomato puree
1x400g tin of chopped tomatoes
Pinch of sugar
600ml chicken or vegetable stock
140g red lentils
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Yoghurt and dill or coriander to serve

Serves four.

Warm the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium-low heat; add the onions and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring from time to time, until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic , cumin, paprika and tomato puree and stir for a couple of minutes. Tip the tomatoes, sugar and stock into the pan and simmer for 10 minutes, then pour in the lentils, season and simmer for 25 minutes, partially covered. Adjust the seasoning and puree until smooth in a food processor or with a stick blender.

Adding the lentils


Return the soup to the pan, cleaned if you’re feeling very virtuous, add more stock or water if it seems a little thick, and warm through. Ladle into warmed bowls, dot a little yoghurt over the top and sprinkle on your herbs. I was swept away on a cloud of Russian nostalgia so I used dill, but coriander would be equally good.

Saturday 16 January 2010

How I learned to cook

What a way to start... 
In 1990 and 1991 I lived in Moscow, on the seventh floor of a concrete block in Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad. Had our apartment been on the right side of the building, we would have looked out on a towering bronze statue of Lenin, his coat flapping in the wind as he gazed sternly towards Gorky Park. As it was, we looked out onto a car park full of faded, boxy Ladas and shiny, boxy Volvos. At night, rats performed their own ravenous ballet in the open rubbish bins.

We had a full-time maid, Katya, and a driver, Uri. This sounds grand but in those days it was mandatory for foreigners. It was how, during the last, brittle glimmers of the communist super power, the authorities kept track of what we were doing, who we were seeing.

Each morning, I asked Katya ‘How’s the weather?’. In winter, she had a special glint in her eye. ‘Oh, minus 25°C,’ or, even better, “Minus 30°C!” “That’s very cold,” I’d say, taking a quick, comforting slug of steaming coffee. “Oh, it’s not so bad. It’s just the way I like it!” she’d say, unpeeling coat, hat, scarf and gloves from her short, round body and changing her thick boots for dainty patent leather shoes. No wonder Napoleon and Hitler didn’t stand a chance against these people.

Our flat had a sitting room, two small bedrooms a kitchen and a bathroom. I could, with a little stretching, have dusted the whole place from the hallway. Not much for Katya to do. I was 24 years old, excited, a bit scared. I’d had a few Russian lessons from a long-lashed, razor-cheeked Serb called Zoran in a bedsit in Earl’s Court. I’d just about mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and learned how to say zdrah-stvooy-tee. I remember thinking that it was hardly surprising a nation with such a long word for ‘hello’ had a reputation for being unfriendly.

So Katya became my Russian teacher. We drank tea and talked. Sometimes we went out and talked. Sometimes we bought ice cream, even in winter, or hot beef pastries from vendors outside the Oktyabrskaya metro station. She taught me how to use the underground and take a tram, how to pay in shops. (See something in a cabinet and ask to look at it, ask the sales person for a ticket, queue up at another counter to pay for it, go back to the first counter with your receipt and collect your purchase, which would then be carefully wrapped in brown paper. You better not be in a hurry.) And, most importantly, she took me to the markets.

I loved the huge Centralny Rynok, the Central Market, the best. In the main hall, there were flower stalls selling chrysanthemums with creamy, billowy heads the size of turnips and carnations dyed lurid shades of electric blue, stalls heaped with walnuts and raisins, strings of dried mushrooms, barrels full of pickled cabbages and cucumbers, boxes of perky lettuce, crates of potatoes and carrots, bunches of dill, coriander and parsley as big as a Cossack’s fist, little bundles of thyme and bay, baskets of lemons and oranges. Citrus fruits were brought up from the southern republics in suitcases by gold-toothed sellers who took advantage of air fares fixed by the state years ago, so selling a few lemons was enough to pay for their 2000 mile round trip between Tblisi and Moscow.

Behind the main hall, there were two long, low buildings. The one on the left sold meat, everything from rows of waxy piglets to legs of lamb, ribs of beef and enormous slabs of pork. In the white-tiled building on the right, stout women with white overalls buttoned tightly over their woollen coats sold milk, yoghurt, cream and cheese in old jam jars and brown paper bags filled with eggs.

In London, I’d bought fruit and veg from the cheerful blokes on Berwick Street Market, tiny, beautiful single-girl lamb cutlets from the butcher on Brewer Street, sardines from the fishmonger on Endell Street, garlicky slices of salami from I Camisa on Old Compton Street. When I left work late, or towards the end of the month when funds were running low, I’d pick up things for dinner at Sainsbury’s on the Finchley Road. Neat. Clean. In Moscow, I was thrown into a world of grubby vegetables and strange cuts of meat sold by men in dirty aprons. Katya taught me to hunt down the finest produce, negotiate the best prices. I enjoyed, for the first time in my life, a sense of the seasons passing. After a long winter and chilly spring, the first strawberries, tomatoes and French beans were more tempting than gold.

In a city where pensioners lived on 90 roubles a month, less than I’d pay for a leg of lamb, I learned not to waste a scrap. In my kitchen on the seventh floor, I cooked simply and entertained a lot. There were few restaurants, so we often ate in each other’s homes. I’d packed Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, I think because I imagined reading her sensual prose would see me through a bleak Russian winter. But I cooked from it, working my way through its pages, tumbling my Russian vegetables in her French dressing, turning fat little mushrooms into her champignons a la provençale and transforming those Georgian citrus into crème a l’orange. Julia Child said, ‘You learn to cook so that you don't have to be a slave to recipes.  You get what's in season and you know what to do with it.’ Well, in those dark winter months, I had time, great ingredients, a warm kitchen, an eager audience and, most importantly, Mrs David at my side, teaching me from her recipes how to cook without recipes.

So there you have it. How I really learned to cook. From Russia, with love. And a licked spoon.


Khachapuri The khachapuri is on a board I bought in Moscow and have used almost every day since.

Borsch is all well and good, but when I lived in Moscow the foods I enjoyed most were the ones I enjoyed in its handful of Georgian restaurants. Shashlyk, or shish kebab, chicken in walnut sauce, raisiny plov, or pilaf, marinated aubergines…in fact, they were a lot like the dishes I eat now, in Stoke Newington’s many Turkish cafes. The one thing I loved then and crave now is khachapuri, thin breads filled with salty cheese, eaten quickly while they were still hot from the oven. I was thrilled to find a recipe for them in Jill Norman’s delightful Winter Food: Seasonal Recipes for the Colder Months. Jill Norman, Elizabeth David’s editor and literary executor, is an elegant, masterful writer in her own right. If you want to silence that screaming internal yearning for spring, buy this book.

Serves 8

3 eggs
175ml yoghurt
200g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
½ tsp salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g cold butter, cut up into pieces, plus extra for greasing
450g cheese, a mixture of feta or havarti and crumbly white cheese such as Wensleydale or white Cheshire or Lancashire work well

Very fresh eggs Getting it all together.

Feta & Wensleydale Mixture of feta and Wensleydale.

Mix away Mixing the flour in with the yoghurt and eggs.

Flouring all the way Shaping the dough.

Putting the lid on Forming the khachapuri.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Beat 1 egg in a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt. Mix together the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda in another bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the flour mixture to the yoghurt and stir to form a dough. Add a little more flour if it is too soft. Knead into a smooth, elastic dough and leave to rest while you prepare the cheese.

Grate or crumble the cheeses coarsely. Beat the second egg and stir it into the cheeses. Set aside. In Jill Norman’s recipe, she divides the dough into eight pieces, rolls each one on a floured board to a circle of about 12-14cm diameter and puts one eighth of the cheese mixture in the centre. Then she gathers up the sides to meet in the centre and either crimps the edges together to enclose the cheese completely, or leaves them slightly open. I decided to make one large round, so I divided the dough in two, rolled out the bottom into a circle, spread the cheese out on top, brushed the edges with egg and placed the second layer on top, crimping the edges firmly. Put the bread/s onto a large, greased baking sheet. Brush with the third beaten egg and bake for 25-30 minutes until browned. The bread is best served hot or warm. Serve it as a satisfying first course or with a salad as a light meal. I served mine with tomato and lentil soup – I’ll post the recipe next week.

Help Haiti

Since Wednesday, I have been thinking about what I could write about the earthquake that doesn’t sound woefully trite. I don’t have the words. I know that the pictures in the newspaper and on television pull my heart right out of my chest. I am making a donation to Action Against Hunger’s Haiti appeal . Ninety percent of their donations go directly to their field programmes. There are many other charities desperate for anything you can spare. The Times has an excellent list of reputable charities working in the region, including the DEC Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Flipping snow the bird

Ready to eat

Look, I’m not even going to mention the ‘s’ word. It’s not so much the snow (oh, how quickly those January resolutions vanish) I mind, nor the cold, nor the wet, but now, after the first few postcard-y weeks, it’s the absence of colour that’s doing me in. I’m enveloped in a gloomy new palette that runs the gamut from smoke, to mouse, lead pipe and speculum (A lifetime ago when I worked for an interiors magazine, I ordered two litres of emulsion for a shoot in a stylish grey, called ‘speculum’ on the paint chart. I kid you not. Very Dead Ringers). It requires a more subtle level of connoisseurship than I posses to appreciate.

Colourful spices

So I retreat to the comfort of my kitchen Crayola box, more specifically to my spice drawer, and its soul-feeding riot of reds, yellows and rich ochres. I had a brace of pheasant that needed using up and combining the bounty from a chilly Scottish moor with the heat of far away spice markets seemed like the perfect two finger salute to slush, ice and grimy, gritty pavements.

Pheasant chitarnee

Pheasant chitarnee

This recipe is from The Game Cookbook  by Johnny Scott and the entirely life-enhancing, gloom-banishing Clarissa Dickson Wright, only very slightly adapted by me (I had no fresh ginger so used dried, and I added some mustard seeds and saffron, just for the sunniness of it). I’m sure it would be delicious with chicken too.

6 onions, finely chopped
3 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsps fresh coriander, chopped
6 green cardamom pods
1-2 red chillies, finely chopped
Pinch of saffron
2 pheasants, cut into serving portions
1x400g tin of chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve: basmati rice, yoghurt, more coriander

Warm the oil over a medium-low heat in a large saucepan. Cook the onions gently in the oil until they are golden. Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric, mustard seeds, coriander, cardamom, chillies and saffron and cook for a further couple of minutes.

Add the pieces of pheasant to the pan and sauté, turning occasionally for about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and vinegar and cook for 30 minutes until the pheasant is well coated with the thickened sauce. If the dish is a little too sharp, add a pinch of sugar. Serve with basmati rice with yoghurt and coriander over the top.

Monday 4 January 2010

I’ll raise a tart to that…

The table's set By the way, we never eat anyone’s health, always drink it. Why should we not stand up now and then and eat a tart to somebody’s success?

Jerome K. Jerome

So I’m still picking glitter out of the floorboards and suspect I will be for some time.

We returned from my parents’ just in time to prepare our New Year’s Eve party, planned as an elegant dinner for six - all (bar one heavenly Portugeezer) people we’d spent Millennium Eve with. I was looking forward to it, rather loving the fact that in a world where things change at a terrifying pace, some friendships remain constant. Those who were dear to us then are dear to us now, their presence woven like the weft through the (time) warp of our lives. But then, over the course of the morning, the party grew to twelve adults and four children. More linens, more glasses, more food, more fun. More angels at my table.

Sean and I spent a happy day getting everything together. We chilled champagne, roasted meats, peeled vegetables, whisked dressings. I made a delicious chocolate cake, but given our increased numbers I needed a second pudding I could pull together from things in the larder.

I made some mincemeat in November. Not just any mincemeat either, the world’s best mincemeat, from Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook No2: Preserves, fat with fruit and fragrant with brandy. I’d used up half the jar making mince pies for the highlight of my social calendar, The Dog Walkers’ Christmas Party in Clissold Park, but I still had quite a bit left.

Mince pies in the parkA cold party......with warm mulled wine At least someone dressed up!The dog walkers’ party in Clissold Park

I threw together a quick tart, with pastry from the freezer, a couple of thinly sliced apples and a walnut-y crumble topping. If you have any mincemeat left over, it’s a great way to use it up.

At 4am, surrounded by a flotsam of plates and glasses and ends of cheese, I sat at our marble counter with my dearest friend in the world sipping the last of the champagne as our husbands and her children dozed in beds and on sofas around the house. We’ve known each other for almost twenty years. Our lives have changed a lot. But the one thing that drew us together in the first place remains constant. Neither of us ever wants the party to end. We may not be dancing on the speakers any more, we may have swapped the night bus for taxis and (sometimes) cava for premier cru, but we’re always there, ‘talking nonsense’ when less doughty, more sensible souls are tucked up in their beds. How lucky I feel to be entering a new decade doing the very thing that has brought me so much happiness over so many years. So here’s to nonsense, here’s to old friends and new ones, here’s to constancy and here’s to change. I’ll raise a tart to that.

Happy New year!The spreadA bit of beefHoping for some beef... Damian's new motto

Mincemeat crumble tart

Mincemeat crumble tart

1 sheet of ready-roll all-butter shortcrust pasty
2 crisp eating apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
About 200g mincemeat, enough for a nice thick layer
180g plain flour
70g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
50g finely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Butter a 22cm loose-bottomed flan tin.

Line the flan tin with the pastry, letting the excess hang over the sides, and place on a baking tray. Line with baking parchment filled with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and baking beans. Brush some egg wash over the base and put it back into the oven for eight minutes. Trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife.

While the tart shell is baking, make the crumble. Whisk together the flour and sugar. Rub in the butter until it is the texture of coarse crumbs. Stir in the walnuts.

Line the tin with a layer or two of sliced apples, spoon over a good thick layer of mincemeat and sprinkle on the crumble topping. Bake until golden, about 35-40 minutes. Serve warm or cold with custard, cream or crème fraîche.

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