Thursday, 29 November 2012

red pepper and feta soda bread

There are few things that work against freshly homemade bread - it mostly has a lot going for it. Getting a puff of gorgeous steam aroma in your face when breaking a cob straight out of the oven; the flavours of the baked goods filling the house; knowing exactly what’s gone into it - no preservatives or additives; making it specific to your requirements by adding whatever flavouring you see fit; a sense of accomplishment in transforming a few basic key staples into something of substance and sustenance; not to mention the difference in the quality of taste and texture compared to supermarket offerings. If all of this is true, then why doesn’t everyone make it every day?

It’s because there is also some level of skill and more importantly, time, that is required when making most breads from scratch.  You will often need to knead the dough.  This involves working and stretching it either by hand or using an electric dough hook, making the dough smoother and softer and developing the elasticity of the gluten in the flour. It also evenly incorporates air and any additional ingredients.

You will then usually need at least two proving periods. This follows kneading and is a rest stage that allows the dough to rise, caused by the activated yeast creating air bubbles which in turn expands the dough. The gluten developed in the kneading stage holds on to the gas bubbles.  The dough will often double if not triple in size and will take a couple of hours to do so.

I’ll admit, to a lot of people this probably sounds like a lot of work and too much hassle just for a loaf. Which is an understandable argument – it does helps to actually savour the process itself.  But what if I told you that there was a delicious bread that could be knocked up and in the oven within 15 minutes, that required no kneading, no proving, no weird ingredients, and still tasted delicious?  I think you would jump at the chance to try it out, and rightly so. Welcome to the world of soda bread.

Soda bread uses baking soda as a leavener in place of yeast, and so does not require the kneading and proving stages normal loaves need to allow the yeast to get to work. It has four basic ingredients: flour, buttermilk (don’t be put off by this – you can use a standard milk and lemon juice replacement – see below), baking soda and salt.  The reaction between the buttermilk and baking soda produces bubbles of carbon dioxide, helping the dough to rise.  You’ll be left with a fairly dense, moist and hearty result. Great for a winter day.

Sweet roasted red pepper and feta cheese soda bread

Blink, and you’ll miss it being made. A great staple to turn to if you're out of your daily.

Makes one loaf
This recipe is very adaptable - you can add grated cheddar and chopped raw onion, or chopped pitted olives and sun-dried tomatoes, or any other flavour combination you come up with. I've chosen sweet roasted red peppers from a jar and the leftovers of some feta I had.  You can also add some wholemeal or malted flour to the mix (as long as you keep the same overall quantity of flour) for added texture.

500g plain white flour (add other flours if you wish but keep the overall amount)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
400ml buttermilk (see Tip below)
3 red peppers from the jar
Half a pack of feta

Tip If you want to knock this up without having to get any special ingredients, you can very simply make your own buttermilk with two ingredients you are likely to already have – milk and acid – either lemon juice or white vinegar. I’ve never purchased ready made buttermilk for my soda breads, although it is readily available in supermarkets if you want to. All you do is add 1 tbsp of your chosen acid to 1 cup, then fill the rest of the cup with milk.  Repeat this and pour the contents of the cups into a jug until you have the volume you need (i.e. 400ml). Leave to stand for 5-10 minutes at room temperature. The milk should look curdled.  Stir et voila – buttermilk.

Heat the oven to 200C and line a baking tray with baking parchment or silicone paper.

Put all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and mix well, then stir in the buttermilk to form a sticky dough so all the flour is incorporated. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape it quickly into a ball with floured hands.

Put the dough on the baking tray. Mark it into quarters using a sharp knife cutting deeply into the bread, almost but not quite through to the base. Dust with some flour.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the loaf is cooked through - it should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the base. Leave it to cook on a wire rack.

Consume within one day, ideally. I suspect it will be gone within one hour.

If you want a light and fluffy homemade loaf, then I’m afraid soda bread won’t tick these boxes and you will need a yeast based recipe.  And that should be something to embrace and enjoy. But if you want something quick, satisfying and equally delicious, then this is an absolute fail-safe and is almost impossible to mess up.

A fantastic loaf for baking novices and the tenured alike. Do it tomorrow.

Afiyet olsun.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Lima in London - Review

braised lamb shoulder / coriander & pisco jus
/ black quinoa & white grape
I’ll be the first to admit there isn’t a huge amount I know about Peruvian cuisine, other than what the odd Facebook holiday snap has taught me from friends who have undertaken the obligatory year of travelling before starting any real work (pangs of envy fully acknowledged), opting for South America rather than the equally well-trodden Far East. Which is that they eat guinea pigs (what a philistine).  But what I did know was that I certainly would not turn down the opportunity to learn more, an offer in the form of an invite to visit Lima (alas, not the actual city) in London with two very good friends.

Our table was booked for 7pm and on arrival, I was greeted by a young woman very pleasing to the eye who directed me through the narrow channel running along the length of the bar at the front of the restaurant.  It lead to about 15 tables at the rear against an understated but sophisticated neutral backdrop, interrupted by a burst of colour from a piece of abstract art on the back wall and a scattering of bright Inca patterned cushions.

Lea & I
The menu was brief – a telling sign in the confidence of its content.  Yet it still managed to result in many minutes of painfully toying between the offerings - their highly appraised sea bream ceviche or duck crudo to start? The crab or confit of suckling pig for main? They were fighting it out on the page and in the end I ordered none of the aforementioned, instead succumbing to the octopus and the lamb. Along with one of Peru’s signature cocktails of which we all indulged in – a pisco sour.  These were served light and frothy, depositing the remnants of a milky moustache from the whisked egg whites whilst leaving the mouth reeling from an invigorating, lip-puckering sourness with every sip. I could very easily start every morning with one of these.

The meal began with a presentation of a delightful amuse-bouche along with our bread basket, in the form of a shot glass sized serving of wonderfully creamy and coating pale yoghurt with the characteristic tang of acidity from one of quality, shocked with a bright green coriander sauce.

The starters soon arrived and were quite glorious in their presentation – my octopus was braised and served on a bed of white quinoa alongside lilac polka dots of an incredibly intense olive sauce.  The charred edges of the meat that caught the pan were crisp and concentrated in their flavour, marrying very well with the fruity familiarity of the olives.

braised octopus al olivo / white quinoa
/ botija olive bubbles
duck crudo / algarrobo tree honey /
shaved fois gras / ghoa cress

Lea was keen to sample the ceviche of which there had been many favourable references to in various reviews. Whilst looking delicate and dainty in the bowl, I knew nothing about what it contained and immediately assumed a bout of food envy on Lea’s part when compared to the presence of Mel’s silky duck slithers, or the chunky charred tentacles on my plate.  

I duly and politely dipped in a spoon to sample the unassuming milky liquid housing pieces of barely opaque fish. And, well – the mere half teaspoon of this nectar was enough to nearly blow me right out the front door with its chop-walloping splendour.  The barrel gun impact of sourness and salt with an allium and chilli presence exploded on the palette, the tongue smacking the roof of the mouth in reflex to such a taste sensation.  Coupled with the spanking fresh sea breem it contained and the crunch of the salty corn kernals for texture, it was really something else - a whole paragraph dedicated to a dish I didn’t even order says something. 

I subsequently found out post-meal what a ceviche is – at its most basic it is raw fish marinated in citrus, salt and seasonings with the acid in the juice denaturing the protein in the meat in a similar way that cooking does. Or in other words, something I need much more of in my life.

All hail the mighty ceviche
- with sweet onion skin & inka corn

Plates were cleared and our mains were delivered while I was still preoccupied with thoughts about the dish that got away. However, I had a new task to address sitting under my nose and in need of attention – a neat hunk of braised lamb shoulder lavished with a coriander and pisco jus, alongside black quinoa and white grape. 

The meat was beautiful - a concentrated and slightly sticky crust encasing soft and moist flesh providing almost no resistance against the fork. The snippets of sweet from the grape worked very well in contrast to the deep flavours from the lamb. 

Mel’s confit of suckling pig was generous in its portion size with a sticky richness and a perfect amount of bite from the puy lentils, and Lea’s crab was an absolute riot of natural fresh colours, almost arresting in their iridescent quality.

crab / purple corn reduction
/ huayo potato / red kiwicha

Lea ordered the dulche de leche ice cream which was pleasant when I sampled it, particularly with a touch of the set Amazonian maca root honey smeared onto the side of the bowl. I had the cacao porcelana which is essentially very similar to chocolate fudge – the crunch and teeth-sticking quality of the blue potato wafers worked well with the silky texture of the chocolate, along with the hint of sharp sweetness from the mango. 

Mel ordered the Andean kiwicha (another South American super grain like quinoa) with sheep’s milk, purple corn and pineapple jelly, and a cinnamon crust. Contrary to all the other dishes, this one didn’t look as appetising on the plate.

dulche de leche ice cream / beetroot emulsion
/ amazonian maca root honey
cacao porcelana 75% / mango & hierbabuena granita
/ blue potato crystal

Whilst still good, I felt the desserts were the weakest of the courses. However, the sheer unadulterated joy provided from the previous dishes was so all-encompassing that it really didn’t matter. The meal, my company, and the whole evening was a full on pleasure steam train ploughing through the Peruivian landscape and absorbing all it had to offer. It was a sublime way to spend a cold Monday evening, and I shall without a doubt be returning.

Afiyet olsun.

Lima on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A bit of crumpet

Yesterday was a long day. One of those involving far too much public transport. Around four and a half hours on a train from London to Manchester and then back again.  The return journey included the passengers from a previous cancelled train so every seat was taken, and then some.  They blasted the heating, the train manager had an incurable bout of verbal diarrhoea, passengers were coughing and sneezing all over the shop, I was very tired, and still travelling into the late evening – it was the last place I wanted to be.  Add to that one and a half hours of London tube travel and I was more than ready to call it a day.

But there was a silver lining – today I would be working from home. While sweating it out on the train with the warm, stale air circulating the generous sniffles and coughs around the carriage (I really don’t like public transport – respect to all the folk who endure it on a daily basis), I needed a distraction, and so started to think about what I could rustle up the next day. I fancied exercising some baking skills - something I could get proving before starting work at 9am and that would be ready to eat at lunch - I then also recalled the slab of excellent French butter I had in the fridge. I quickly came to the conclusion that whatever I did make would need to be eaten warm with a knob of the soft pale gold leaving a glistening trail along its journey, paying a nod to gravity by gently cascading over whatever baked goods I would decide on. The perfect platform for the butter to take centre stage?  Why crumpets, of course.


Makes about 20

This is one of Paul Hollywood’s recipes from How to Bake. And as he rightly references, crumpets are in fact cooked in a pan or on a griddle, so it’s not technically classed as baking.  However, it does include yeast.  So in my eyes, this is still baking but the method of cooking is just different.

450g plain flour
1tsp caster sugar
14g instant yeast
350ml skimmed milk
350ml cold water
1 tsp salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
Sunflower oil

Sift the flour into a bowl and add the sugar and yeast.  In a pan, heat the milk until just warm – about blood temperature, 37C.  

Tip If you don’t have a thermometer, you can still tell if you have the desired temperature - if you put a finger in the milk and it feels neither cold nor warm, then that will be because it is close to your own body temperature i.e. the desired temperature.

When the milk has been warmed, add the water to the milk.  Then beat the liquid into the flour to make a smooth batter.

Cover the bowl with cling film and leave it to sit in a warm place for a couple of hours.  I always use a very low oven for the proving stage of any baking, at around 40C – it’s likely to be the warmest place you’ll have in your house and means this stage happens quicker.  The batter should more than double in size before dropping back down, and will be full of holes.

Beat the salt and bicarbonate of soda into the batter with a wooden spoon, then leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Heat the largest frying pan you have (or even better, a griddle if you have one) over a low heat.  Dab a little oil onto a piece of kitchen paper and rub over the inside of some crumpet rings as well as the hot surface of the pan, then stand the rings in the pan.

Standard cookie cutters can be used for the rings.  It’s unlikely you’ll have a few of the same size, so feel free to use ones of different sizes as I did.  If one side of your cookie cutter is crimped, put the flat side against the pan.

Pour enough batter into each ring to half fill it and cook for around 6-8 minutes (depends how thick they are), until the surface is set and filled with holes.  In the picture on the left, the top and bottom crumpets are ready to be turned over.  Remove the rings and turn the crumpets over. The first side should be well browned, the second just golden. Repeat to cook the rest of the batter.

Serve straight away with butter, or leave them to cool then toast before eating.  Once cooled, these can also be frozen.

If you have trouble detaching the ring from the crumpet, use a sharp knife to slice round the edge of the crumpet and it should come away. Don’t worry if some batter is left on the ring.

Tip The more rings you use cooking each batch, the quicker the cooking process will be.  However, it’s more likely the size of your frying pan will be what restricts your speed.  If you have two frying pans, I’d get them both cooking 4 rings simultaneously to half your cooking time.

Warning - I take no responsibility if you end up gobbling each one with butter as it leaves the pan and there are none left for the people you live with. Apologies to them in advance.

Alfiyet olsun.

Monday, 19 November 2012


There are few feelings more enveloping in their warming comfort on a stiffly bitter evening than those conjured up by a big plate of hot and steamy carbs – specifically pasta.  In my opinion, the best pasta dishes are the most simple.  If you have some wonderful al dente linguine, parmesan, quality olive oil and black pepper, there’s often not a lot else you need to achieve full satiety.

With pasta comes the obligatory associated calories (of which I try my best to keep at least a lazy eye on), and so I regard these dishes as treats rather than regular occurrences.  But when I do throw my hands up in defeat after a long day at work, with a rumbling stomach doubled over in anticipation at the very thought of rolling in the digestive presence of an over-sized portion of pasta, there are three winter recipes I almost always turn towards.  One is pasta with chestnuts, mushrooms and a parsley pesto; the second is a Turkish pasta dish involving halloumi (a white cheese from Cyprus) and dried mint (I’ll save those two for another day); and the third is the classic and well-loved pasta carbonara.

Bacon with eggs is a flavour combination older than time itself, and one of the best.  Couple that with the filling qualities of pasta and the nutty saltiness of a hard Italian cheese, and you’ve got a plate of satisfaction able to transport anyone to their happy place.   

The recipe in this post is Matt’s take on the classic, and classics are there to be interpreted and provide a base for experimentation.  But if you want to be a purist about this, then by all means please do – I fully support it and it is the recipe I was brought up with when my mother would regularly make the dish.  To do so, just omit the parsley and mushrooms.  But if you fancy at least an attempt at the inclusion of one of your five a day (albeit a sorry one) to keep the guilt pangs at bay, as well as the wonderful extra flavours they bring to the plate, then keep them in.

There are a few additional rules I would strongly recommend.  These again lean towards a purist stance, but I favour them as I believe they provide the best taste sensation:

Rule number one – No to cream
The carbonara sauce should NOT include any cream, only eggs.  It’s an unnecessary addition that only renders the dish heavy and too rich whilst adding nothing to the flavour.  The common theory is that it was introduced by restaurants looking for a short-cut to achieve the creamy quality of a carbonara sauce, without having to contend with the perfect timing required when adding eggs to a hot pan and ending up with a creamy sauce as opposed to pasta alla scrambled eggs. If you find a restaurant that doesn't use cream in its carbonara, return.

Rule number two – Pecorino over parmesan
Use just pecorino. Or use a combination of pecorino and parmesan. But don’t only use parmesan.  It’s just a bit too overpowering in its cheesiness and claggy when melted when a lot of it is used (the quantity of cheese as well as the obligatory quality is necessary for this dish) .  Pecorino is made from ewes milk and is slightly lighter than parmesan, with an excellent level of saltiness.

Rule number three – Panchetta over bacon
Contrary to the photograph, you really want to source some quality pancetta instead of bacon.  Bacon is more of a last resort, but it’s an acceptable alternative when it is all you have in the fridge (as in this case) and an evening trip down to a decent supermarket is unlikely.

Rule number four – No black pepper? Forget it
You need black pepper, and lots of it.  Not having freshly ground black pepper to hand is in my mind a situation severe enough to not bother even starting the dish. Also, what sort of kitchen doesn’t have black pepper? If this is your kitchen, shame on you my friend.

Linguine Carbonara alla Matt

Makes enough for two people.

200g linguine
2 x large free range eggs, beaten
Chestnut mushrooms, roughly chopped
Panchetta or bacon – one pack
Handful of flat leafed parsley, very finely chopped
30g of finely grated pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

Bring a large saucepan of well salted water to the boil. Add the linguine and cook until al dente.

Add the grated cheese to your beaten eggs in a bowl and ensure all fully combined.  Add lots of black pepper to this egg and cheese mix.  When you think you’ve added enough, add some more.  A bit more following this, would still not go amiss.

Meanwhile, cut the pancetta into lardons (if it didn’t already come that way) or the bacon into lardon sized pieces.

Heat a large, deep frying pan over a medium-high heat (woks are good for this), add the oil and mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until they’ve expelled their juices.  Drain off the mushroom juices into a bowl, then add the pork to the pan and fry until crisp and golden. 

Add a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta water to this pan to help the cooking sauce along, and add your parsley.

Drain the pasta (don’t worry if it’s not completely dry), tip it into the frying pan with the pancetta, mushrooms and parsley, add the mushroom juices back to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the juice flavours.

Remove the pan from the heat (this is important before the next stage), then add the beaten egg and cheese mixture, tossing everything together very well.  The heat from the pasta and mix will cook the eggs enough so that they’re not raw, but not scrambled – a wonderful creamy and coating consistency.

Season with additional black pepper and more shavings of the cheese.

Eat immediately in warmed bowls while piping hot.

A plate of food surely divinely intervened.

Alfiyet olsun.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

burger and lobster - review

Burger and Lobster, Dean Street – delivers what it says on the tin.  It serves burgers (one way), it serves lobster.  And nothing in between.  The burger is cooked to your preference, comes with lettuce, tomato, red onion, thick cut bacon and a square of processed cheese.  The 1.5lb lobsters can come hot, whole and in shell, either only steamed or steamed followed by a lick on the grill.  To accompany it, a garlic and lemon butter sauce.  Alternatively, you can request the lobster cold and in a brioche bun.  All dishes are £20 and all are served with a tin of thin cut fries and a small side salad.

For a menu with just three items on it, a good range of palettes are in fact catered for here. Not many people would turn down a thick juicy burger prior to a night painting the rest of Soho red, or for a brisk bite to eat after a theatre showing.  And for those who are after some lighter, posh chow and a photo opportunity, a whole deep pink lobster spread-eagled on a huge oval plate meets the requirements.
It's a venue that has no qualms about its brazen lack of accomodating the vegetarian, and I like that.

My two friends
Mel and Reggie accompanied me to dinner, meeting early in order to avoid as much clipboard queue at the door as possible – the restaurant only takes reservations for groups of six or more.  We had all arrived by 6.10 but weren't seated until 6.45.  The venue is cavernous, with a single floor of diners and a huge area downstairs where the toilets could be found, and probably the kitchen.  The format of the dining area are booths and tables, it’s aiming for high-end fast food and a quick turnaround. The odd lobster tank was visible - I suspect these only for display with the big guns that actually supply the kitchen surely needing to be almost room sized in order to meet the huge demand for crustaceans over the evening.

Once seated in the already heaving restaurant, we were greeted by a spritely, American-esque red head who attempted to crack jokes and informed us in her spare time she fenced competitively.  She reeled off the three piece menu – there’s nothing on paper as there isn’t really a requirement with such few items. All three of us came for the lobster which at the same price as the burger, is much better value. My two companions ordered them steamed whereas I requested the steamed then grilled option.  They arrived within a few minutes, huge and attention seeking, ceremoniously placed on our table before us.  Glance over your shoulder or at the table to the side of you, and you’ll see at least one person with a camera or phone taking a picture of themselves and their dining partners raising huge claws towards a cheesy smile, like a sea-dwelling trophy. The concept of this place has unashamedly cashed in the average client's unquenchable thirst to share every waking moment of their existence with the rest of the globe via social media, and why not. That's a lot of free advertising.  

Provided with your meals are disposable plastic bibs with a characteur on the front of what looks to be a stereotyped French waiter with a curled mustachio. While we took the obligatory photograph with these wrapped around our necks, I noticed the waiter that had served our meals was identical to the drawing on the front of bibs. Turns out he’s Sicilian, his name is Michaele and there was a story about his face and the bib somewhere in what he was saying, but his wonderful thick accent and the general noise in the venue prevented me from deciphering it.  Not to mention the fact Michaele’s attention was fully directed at Reggie, with Mel and I not even getting a look in. Funny that.  

All in all, my lobster was ok. The meat wasn’t as sweet as I would have wanted.  The lick of smoke was welcomed, but the thicker parts of the lobster were chewy.  My companions said theirs were fully tender, so I put it down to the effects of the grill causing some rigor in the flesh.  The butter sauce whilst having hints of garlic, had no evidence of citrus as advertised.  Acidity was much needed to cut through everything on the plate and so I had to request some wedges. The crustacean comes with the main parts already separated so you can get on with extracting the meat with the lobster fork provided, but the flesh in some claws were inaccessible and required a lobster cracker. With the waiter pre-occupied with other customers, we all promptly started to bash the claws on the table with the handle end of our knives to create an access point for our lobster forks.  Turns out this was a very effective way to grab the attention of the staff – lobster crackers swiftly delivered.

Whilst the plates seem daunting in their size when first presented, the lobsters aren’t that filling.  And so there was more than enough room for dessert.  Our red-head informed us what was available – a cheesecake or a chocolate mousse with a salted caramel base.  One of each were requested and were delivered in small cardboard cartons.  The cheesecake was far too sloppy – whilst the flavours were good, the texture of the bulk of it was almost liquid.  The chocolate mousse however, with the salted pieces of peanuts covered in caramel, was a sheer delight.  Three spoons attacked the latter and I missed out on the last piece because I was too busy talking.  What’s new. So we ordered a second mousse and promptly devoured it. The three of us were in the full swing of excellent chat when we were very sweetly, but rather annoyingly asked if we could hurry it up a bit.  If a joint is going to serve wine by the bottle, I don’t think it’s fair for them to request you to get a move on when your glasses are still half full - I like to savour my wine.

The staff we encountered were pleasing, particularly Michaele who was quite the fan of my friend Reggie and making eyes at him at every opportunity.  He told us next time we come to request to sit in the area he serves so he could spend some time with us – I’d like to do that.  I will return - I will try the lobster steamed and request extra lemon in advance.  My company was also top notch.  Dinner started at 6 with the intention of it being a civilised and early evening – events didn’t quite go according to plan and we ended up in a cocktail joint dancing on the bar on a school night until the wee hours.  But that’s probably another story.

Liked lots - staff; atmosphere; novelty of a whole lobster on your plate; location
Liked less - waiting for a table; if you get the burger option the value for money isn't as good
Good for - groups of friends; being raucous; taking London visitors to

Alfiyet olsun.

Burger & Lobster on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, 12 November 2012


It’s creeping up behind me. Its horrible, leering presence waiting to pounce.  Biding its time before it makes its move, waiting for a show of weakness before an attack.  No, it’s not a platinum blonde 80’s BBC presenter, but the beginnings of a cold.

And I’m not having it.  It’s a busy time of year, with a hectic social calendar.  I also have lots of things I need to do. Lists to draw up. Gifts to buy. Menus to plan. Curtains to make. Meetings to attend. I do not have the time to pander to the needs of a cold.

And so at the first hint of the fuzzy head, the lack of concentration, that tiny patch of burning in the back of the throat just waiting to multiply and spread, I retaliate.  My weapons of choice – three key ingredients that when combined, create a life giving nectar.  Every glug of broth warming the very marrow in your bones.  This is the thing to consume at the first signs of a cold.  Along with some zinc and Vitamin C supplements.  And I’ll put good money on it working.  Let me know.

Garlic Soup (from La Mancha)

This is a slightly different take on the Garlic Soup with Eggs recipe taken from the excellent Rick Stein’s Spain.

And here’s how he introduces this dish:

“If I were to describe this soup as hot stock with fried garlic, grilled bread and a poached egg, it would sound rather dull, but the fact that it is made all over Spain and is at the very heart of the cooking of Castilla-La Mancha tells you there’s something magical about this combination.”


Makes several portions, but can be drunk by one person over the course of the day / evening.

As much garlic as your family, friends and co-workers will let you get away with.  Try at least a whole head, each clove very thinly sliced.
A kettle full of boiled water
3 chicken stock cubes (I particularly like Knorr)
Olive oil
Pimenton picante (smoked hot Spanish paprika) 
Good quality thickly sliced white bread

Gently fry the garlic in a very decent glug of olive oil in a saucepan until lightly golden, but no darker.

Crumble the stock cubes into the pan and stir until they’ve melted.

Add a freshly boiled kettle of water and bring to a simmer.

Add the pimenton to taste – start with 1tsp and keep going if you fancy it.  I have quite a bit in mine.

Turn off the heat and crack an egg into the pan.  You can do this into a ladle full of the liquid – this way the egg doesn’t touch the pan base and the yolk stays runny.

Grill a slice of bread.  Tear and place at the bottom of a bowl.

Once the egg is cooked, ladle it and some liquid over the bread, until your bowl is full.

Devour and bask in its healing qualities.  Consume the remaining broth during the rest of the evening, slurping appreciatively straight from the bowl or from a mug.

The key ingredient is the pimenton and you can find it in good supermarkets, often in the specialist section rather than in the general spice rack aisle.  Delicatessens are also likely to stock it.  You can see the two brands I use in the images, bought from Waitrose and Selfridges.  
As Rick says, this doesn’t sound like much.  And I’ll be the first to admit the photograph of it is nothing special.  But you simply will not understand the greatness of this simple soup until you try it.  Possibly the easiest thing you’ll ever make, and one of the tastiest.

Don’t ever let your cupboards run out of this exquisite spice.

Alfiyet olsun.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Eating in Marrakesh

Food stock at Stall No. 1 in Jemaa el-Fnaa

I sit here writing this entry on the rooftop of our medina riad, clinging to the last few hours of our time in Marrakesh in the warm November sunshine, with the ubiquitous and obligatory sweet peppermint tea for companionship. It’s a city that has welcomed us warmly, overwhelmed us with its generosity and will be hard to say goodbye to. I shall miss its mayhem, its charm and most of all, its people.  From the softly spoken story telling Nomads and Berbers we stayed with on the fringes of the Sahara, to our always smiling riad hostess and her effortless French elegance at any hour of the day.

There are a few aspects of Marrakesh that have particularly stood out for me during this trip. The first is the skill of the locals demonstrated in their crafts and art, almost irresistible to any tourist wishing to capture a piece of North African design to lavish upon their friends, family or abode. The souks (open air markets) are vast and Ikea-esque in their format - once you've been swallowed whole it's near impossible to escape, especially empty handed. But who would want to? 

Each sense takes a full on assault as you meander through the labyrinthine alleyways - beckoning hands urging you to come and taste a fresh date or a newly cracked walnut; wafting aromas mingling in the dusty air - cinnamon, olives in brine, donkey manure and young men marinating in too much aftershave; the play of light and colour through intricately forged metal lamps hanging from every available space and the hypnotizing quality of the shifting patterns they cast; the unending stream of rich textiles flowing through the streets - leather, silk, linen, cashmere all fighting for your finger tips; and the familiar white noise of many a foreign city - revving mopeds, the chatter of unfamiliar birds, car horns, banter between locals, the enchanting call to prayer carried on the breeze from the local mosque, stall owners asking you to 'come and have a butchers' and that they'll give me a 'good Asda price'. I don't believe I've ever left a country with as big a bounty of goods as I have from here, along with the unenviable challenge that accompanies such treasures - trying to pack it all safely and stay within the militant Easyjet weight limit. I have everything crossed, particularly for the mirror.

There is then the aspect of the city which I of course came with the specific intention of scrutinising - the culture of food. And I have made several observations.

The sweet life

Mint tea served with almond sweets
Morrocans have a very, very sweet tooth.  Trying to source a dish not containing some level of sweetness was a challenge.  Tagines often contain fruit – apricots, currants, pomegranate, quince.  ‘Fromage’ pastries as labelled in the patisserie were in fact sweet.  Quick snacks and bites to eat are centred around sugar – for example coconut macaroons sold on metal trays throughout the souks or small and sweet almond biscuits. Supermarket bakery departments adorned with bountiful and intricate petit fours, but not a wide range of bread. Pastilla, one of the countries delicacies - a filo pastry parcel containing shredded chicken or pigeon mixed with egg and crushed almonds and topped with cinnamon and sugar icing.  One of the key characteristics of Moroccan cuisine is their ability to blend sweet, savoury, and spices and they do this well and in abundance. But for someone who would choose savoury over sweet any day, it’s a palette that takes a little getting used to.

In addition, mint tea accompanies every conversation, transaction, respite, meal, thought and the general passing of time in Morocco. Each of these small glasses of tea has at least 3-4 heaped teaspoons of sugar in it. I would say the average Moroccan consumes 10 or so of these a day, if not more. Needless to say with dental hygiene routines not equal in intensity to the consumption of sugar, it is all too common to meet folk in their 20's already with a few gaps in their smile. But hey, they are still smiling.

Our journey through the twisted roads of the Atlas mountains en route to our overnight desert trip welcomed us with some spectacular landscapes - deep red earth against autumnal greens, yellows and silver foliage of the valleys running through them. And with a sun low in the sky, the long and dramatic dark shadows cast by the numerous peaks only enhanced the majesty of the surroundings. The journey also unveiled to us the most common source of income after tourism - agriculture. We went past many farms with fields of maize and mint, forests of date palms and lots of wild stock - there were many goats and sheep throughout the landscape we journeyed through.

Drâa Valley in the Atlas Mountains

My food related observation here is that for a country bountiful in sheep and goats, and therefore their milk, local cheeses seem to be almost non-existent. For someone who is a) half Turkish where good local white cheese is next to Godliness - the opinion of myself as well as most, if not all, Turks and b) one of the biggest cheese fans one is likely to encounter, this discovery was an quite a blow. Whenever Matt and I visit a country, the breakfasts are the meals we hold out most anticipation for. This is mostly due to the fact that they are likely to involve a local breakfast cheese – this on some fresh and still warm bread with a slathering of honey or jam is one of life's most welcomed pleasures. Turkey, Italy, Malta, Spain, France all do not disappoint. But alas, Morocco fell short. Seeing no evidence of said cheese after two days in the country prompted me to check with our driver taking us towards the Sahara. He confirmed our observations - there aren't really Moroccan cheeses. He did reference a far off corner of the country that makes some (the name of which I didn't catch) and said it was quite delicious, but otherwise the only cheeses you'll find in supermarkets are imported from France and also, Laughing Cow triangles. I found this a great shame.  But I suppose that while a stretch of the country does neighbour the Mediterranean, this is in fact Africa - a continent with an inevitably different palette and requirements to that of the Mediterranean – the diet of which I am much more familiar with.

There are a few things we ate in Marrakesh that we particularly enjoyed.

Baghrir - a sponge like pancake with little open-air pockets on the top, similar to a large crumpet.  We were served these for breakfast in the riad every morning – delicious with honey.

Riad breakfast with baghrir

Raib - home made Moroccan yoghurt made with orange blossom water and vanilla. A little pot of these were also served with breakfast in quaint glass flip-top jars. One of the best yoghurts I've ever tasted - completely divine.

Berber tagine omellete - something in between a frittata and scrambled eggs, these were cooked in a tagine with tomatoes, onion, coriander and a hefty dose of cumin. Served still sizzling and with a chilli sauce side, of which the waiter informed me was a ‘viagra natural’. Thanks for the tip.

Berber omelette

Ghoriba - 
a coconut macaroon, excellent after dinner with a glass of mint tea. They have a chewy texture as expected from a macaroon, but the semolina content also gives them a wonderful crunch.

Coconut ghoriba

The last and best supper

It's near impossible to visit Morocco and not encounter a tagine or two. They are presented to you with a grand unveiling at your table from beneath a conical terracotta lid, revealing a pyramid of stacked vegetables with the meat of the dish sitting at the centre. We sampled a couple of chicken tagines with preserved lemons. They varied in quality, with the more superior being the one had at our riad. They were OK, but I wasn’t swept away on the crest of a wave of flavour and spices. I'm almost certain I've made better ones. We did have a beef one too, where the slightly charred and sticky edges of the meat pieces stuck to the base and these nuggets of concentrated flavours were very pleasing. But again, not as good as I had hoped or anticipated.

Cooking at Stall No. 1
Four days of similarly underwhelming tagines sent us towards Jeema El-Fna on our fifth night, the square and market place central to the old part of the city (the medina). Each evening as the sun slips away under the horizon, hundreds of cooks and waiters cart their equipment, ingredients, table and chairs into the square by donkey, setting up for another night of frenzied cooking and serving. This is the place to eat in Marrakesh. Under every stall, long stainless steel tables are covered with paper (replaced after each customer) or just wiped down between servings. Benches are crammed with locals and tourists alike sitting elbow to elbow. Dishes are served on stainless steel plates with a round of bread of which you pick up your mouthfuls - only the tourists request cutlery and that's at the risk of it being rinsed in a bucket of tap water - best avoided. And don’t bother asking for a serviette – there are none.  The cooking areas sit within a circle of tables for each stall - men toiling at every station for supply to meet demand. Calloused and scarred hands revealing the longevity of the cook, no longer even flinching at the popping and splatting of searing pan oil onto their skin. The bellowing cooking smoke rolling out from under the canopies and spiralling into the night sky can be seen from some distance.

Your appetite is only restricted by your imagination and bravery is embraced in the square - from cauldrons of boiled snails served with toothpicks to separate meat from shell; whole goats heads on a plate including brains and eyes; tripe and testicles; and everything in between. Alas, I'm not that brave.  So on our last day we took a seat at stall No. 1 as advised by many favourable online recommendations. It also seems to be the only stall out of 100 or so run by a woman. Turns out, this was the best meal we had in Marrakesh. And it was the cheapest, with the least amount of frills – and isn’t this just always the way.

First we were presented with a khübz each – a round and flat loaf with a small plate of almost luminescent tomato sauce to dip it in.  We ordered starters of spiced and smokey aubergine dip called zaalouk, alongside cooked chopped spinach. For mains we had a mixed brochette (grill) with skewers of chicken, lamb, beef, merguez sausages with their hot and wonderful oiliness bursting between your teeth, and kefta - minced balls cooked in a tagine.  And my goodness, the meat was truly excellent.  I’m rarely successful in eating lamb cooked over coals as I always find it too chewy. But the lamb with this meal was impeccable – tender as if beaten into oblivion, marinated in a sublime set of spices, breaking away in your fingertips from the skewer.  The keftas were generously spiced and incredibly tasty, with the rest of the meat following suit.  To accompany them, Matt ordered a vegetable couscous.  Of which I had little intention eating.  I saw it as a fodder dish to ensure you leave full, rather than something you order to specifically savour the taste of.  I mean, how good can a vegetable couscous be?  After all, it’s just couscous – with vegetables.
VERY - is the answer to that.  I’ve never tasted a couscous like it – nothing like the bland and boring couscous I’ve had back home, that can only be saved with lashings of lemon and mountains of parsley.  This couscous had none of the flavours of the Mediterranean that I’m used to or would expect from this dish, but was absolutely delicious and far superior.  After the first mouthful with a hunk of bread as my utensil, I cast a wide eyed and confused gaze at Matt:

‘Matt – have you tasted this?
Isn’t this couscous?
Bloody hell it’s so good!
I don’t understand, how can it be so good?
What’s in it?’

And so on.

I’m not sure what sent this humble grain into the next dimension for me.  But it tasted rich, buttery and had a beautiful creamy texture.  I don’t even think there was that much to it, but it worked so well with the spiced meat whilst also valiantly standing it's own ground.  I would have been happy just to have eaten that.  Needless to say, I promptly ate more than half to Matt’s great disappointment.

The whole meal came to just over 100DH, which was around £8 for the two of us.  Wet wipes at the ready, we handed over a note, paid our compliments to the woman running the gaff, and wondered over to a lady balancing a tray on her hand with the other on her hip, to buy a couple of macaroon biscuits for dessert – about 20p each.  Climbing two flights of stairs to a balcony café overlooking the square, we ordered a mint tea for two, sat back and absorbed the atmosphere of the outdoor spectacle that is Jeema El-Fna on our last night.  Sated, smug and contemplating a return.

Alfiyet olsun.

Friday, 2 November 2012

roast red pepper, spinach and goats cheese tart

It’s the last couple of days before we’re off for a week. Off to a bustling city full of heady spice, labyrinthine alleyways and turbaned potion sellers.  I’ll tell all on my return – but safe to say I’m expecting some excellent material to write about when I do.

The process of getting to the destination you seek out when it comes to travelling is more often than not plagued with mediocre meals and insipid flavours

The majority of us (who can’t justify flying anything superior to economy) are either faced with a Boots meal deal to take on the plane (is there anyone who doesn’t choose Innocent for the drink?) or worse, decide to risk the in-flight meal - a brick of a chicken breast which when hacked into is as hot as the sun, alongside an array of sorry excuses for vegetables that have been microwaved into another dimension.  Top that with a dessert so sweet you won’t get a wink of sleep and a stodgy side roll. Delicious.

So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands by taking a picnic, of sorts.  I’m after something that we can have to eat the night before we leave, can sustain us en route to the airport and on the flight, is easily transportable, is in separate portions, and can be eaten cold. And if possible, something that demonstrates a bit of skill.

The word ‘tart’ comes to mind.

Roast red pepper, spinach and goats cheese tart

Makes 8 slices

A bit like a quiche but with a healthier yoghurt and egg filling rather than cream and egg – great hot or cold.

For the shortcrust pastry

Makes enough to line a 23cm/24cm (9”) tart tin.  Make sure your tin is loose bottomed.

You could buy a ready made pastry case for this and just work from the filling onwards. But why do that, when you can make it yourself.  It’s one of the easiest pastries there is, and it’s much more fun.  All you’ll need is a rolling pin.  This recipe for shortcrust is from Paul Hollywood’s How to Bake.

250g plain flour
Pinch of salt
125g chilled unsalted butter
2 medium egg yolks
50ml cold water

The golden rule when making this pastry is not to overwork it.  The less handling time it gets, the more crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth it will be when cooked. So once it’s brought together, avoid any further handling.

Put the flour and salt into a bowl and mix together.  Add the butter cubes.  Rub the ingredients together lightly with your fingertips until all the cubes are incorporated into the flour and you’re left with a breadcrumb consistency.

Add the egg yolks and being to mix with your hands, then slowly add the water and mix until a paste is formed that leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

Tip the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball – remember not to overwork or handle it too much.  Flatten the pastry into a rough disk with your fingertips (this will help with rolling out later), wrap in cling film and keep in the fridge for as long as you can – minimum half an hour, over night is really best.

Once chilled, take it out and place on a lightly floured surface.  Roll it out so it’s larger than your tart tin – you want it to line the base, sides and have extra hanging over the sides that you can cut off.  The thickness of the pastry should be just short of the width of a pound coin.

Carefully roll the pastry onto your rolling pin to help you lift it and lay it over your tin. Using your knuckle, push the pastry right into the corners and the sides.  Slice off any excess with a sharp knife while rotating the tin.

Now you need to blind bake the pastry case.  This process partially cooks the pastry before any filling is put into it.  This is needed if the filling would take less time to cook than the pastry, which is the case in this recipe. Preheat the oven to 180C / fan 160C / gas 4.

Prick the pastry all over with a fork to prevent the pastry bubbling and going out of shape – do lots of holes and right to the edges.  You want them as deep as you can without breaking through the base.  Chill the pastry for at least 15 minutes – the colder it is at this stage, the less it will shrink from the sides during baking.

Get a large piece of baking paper much bigger than your tin, and grease one side with butter.  Place the sheet over the tin butter side down, and push right into the sides. Now fill this paper with baking beads (available in cookware shops and good department stores) or uncooked rice.  This weight will prevent the pastry bubbling and ensure an even cook.  Ensure the paper is touching the pastry all over, right up to the edges.

Bake for 10-15 minutes until the pastry is cooked and opaque.  Carefully remove the paper and beans / rice (if any bits are bubbling up at this point, prick again with a fork) and return the empty tart case to the oven for 10 minutes or so, or until the base is dry and crisp and the top edges just start to turn golden.  Leave in the tin and continue with the recipe.

For the tart filling

2 red onions, finely sliced
3 roasted red peppers, quartered (roast them yourself until soft or buy a jar of ready roasted to save time)
4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
200g sliced goats cheese – try and get something French
Fresh thyme leaves
3 medium free range eggs
150ml Greek yoghurt (get the strained Total brand as it has less water content – I used the 0% fat one)
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
Small bag of spinach
Olive oil

Gently fry the onions in some oil on a very low heat for as long as you can give it – you can do this while you’re blind baking your pastry.  The longer and slower they cook, the stickier and sweeter they will be.  For the last few minutes, add the balsamic vinegar and cook until it’s reduced and you’re left with caramelised onion marmalade.

Spread this over the base of your pastry.  Arrange the red peppers and slices of goats cheese, and sprinkle with the thyme leaves.

In the meantime, wilt ¾ of the small bag of spinach in a pan – put 2cm cold water in the pan, add all the spinach, put the heat on medium and keep the lid on.  They’ll wilt in no time.  Drain the spinach and using kitchen towel to soak up as much of the water as possible.  Then chop the spinach up a bit.

Mix the eggs with the yoghurt, add the cool cooked spinach and the toasted pine nuts. Season well with salt and a good amount of black pepper.  Pour this mixture over the tart filling.  Bake in the oven until the filling has set and the pastry edges are golden brown. Serve hot with a side salad of rocket or spinach, or enjoy cold and on the move.

crisp and dry bottom
The goats cheese cuts through the sweetness of the onions and peppers, and the pine nuts provide welcome texture.  The pastry is just wonderful – thin, buttery, crumbly and completely dry.  No soggy bottom – Mary Berry would be proud.

This tart is quite versatile in the sense that you could fill it with anything that doesn’t have a high water content, and then pour the egg and yoghurt mixture over it.  For example roasted artichokes, sun dried tomatoes, charred asparagus spears to name just a few.

Once you have the pastry nailed, you can experiment with any number of fillings.  The yoghurt and egg mixture on top is a great replacement for the high fat cream and egg mixture of a standard quiche, especially if you use a low fat variety of yoghurt.  

I don’t believe there’s any detriment in using the 0% fat Total yoghurt over the full fat – this is a good (but rare) example of there being little difference between the two.

My preference of unsalted butter whenever I make pastry is the President butter from France.  It’s so beautifully pale that when I’ve chopped it into cubes, I must consciously remind myself not to mistakenly think it’s cheese and scoff a piece.  

The aroma it gives off not only when being baked, but even at the very first stage of rubbing the butter into the flour with your fingertips, is completely delicious.  You’ll easily find it in any supermarket.

Sliced and protected with some foil, this tart would do well on its short voyage to the airport. How much of it realistically makes it out the door in the first place though, is a different matter. Two pieces seem to have already disappeared whilst writing this entry.  Dammit.

Alfiyet olsun.

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