Sour Soup

The thing about being a chef is never having any free time. A normal working day is at least 13 hours long, not including the necessary wind down into drunkenness after a busy service; days off are spent either catching up on normal life (shopping, laundry, friendships) or else in full recovery mode. This is tolerated because of the mix of monomania and bloody-minded machismo that fuels most kitchens. The majority of chefs are either totally obsessed with food, to the exclusion of all other interests, or else in love with the camaraderie that comes from working long hours in close proximity, masochistically driven to work harder, longer, better. Or both.

 

The problem, for me, was that working full time in a kitchen didn’t give me the chance to indulge my love of food. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – I contributed to the menu, and had carte blanche when it came to specials, so it’s not like I was ‘creatively stifled’- but the pace and demands of a busy kitchen meant I had no time to try longer projects. I was getting more interested in older, slower processes, in pickling and fermentation and salting and curing, and there was no way I could do that. I couldn’t start making something that would be ready in 5 days, a week, 2 months – it was busy now!

 

Unsurprisingly, then, when I quit to concentrate on freelance catering and popups, I got into preserving straight away. I’ve written before about pickling, and I’ve done a fair bit of smoking and salting, but the most satisfying thing for me has been cultivating a sourdough mother. I’ve always wanted to do this since reading about the psychotic baker Adam in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential,(“Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”) and even more since reading the St John and Justin Gellatly cookbooks, but it always seemed too complicated and time-consuming. Well, I’ve got loads of time now, and it turns out to be not that complicated at all. You just have to treat it like a little pet.

 

I’m not going to go through the actual process of creating the mother – I just followed Gellatly’s recipe, swapping grapes for the rhubarb and adding a little live yoghurt – nor give any recipes for bread, as I can’t pretend to be anything other than an enthusiastic amateur. I will, however, give you an answer to the question “what else can I do with this weird pet bacterial culture?” It’s a good question. It takes quite a lot of motivation and time to make sourdough every day. You can leave your mother in the fridge to go dormant, but that seems a little dull. Luckily, a Pole of my acquaintance pointed me in the direction of this rather odd soup.

 

ZUREK (SOUR RYE SOUP)

This is weird, and needs judicious seasoning. If you like the tangy taste of rye bread, though, this is delicious, warm and filling. Serves four.

You’ll need to feed your starter some rye flour the day before.

VEGETABLE BROTH

2 onions, diced

2 sticks of celery, sliced

2 carrots, quartered

2 cloves of garlic, peeled

a few juniper berries

a few peppercorns

a few bay leaves

Put everything in a pan, and cover with water (a litre or thereabouts). Bring to the boil, and simmer for about an hour. Strain and discard the vegetables, which have done their job.

SOUP

About 150g sourdough starter

the broth

2 tbpsn of chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, or 1 of dried

A big dollop of sour cream

extras

Just whisk the starter into the broth while heating gently, until it comes to a nice simmer. Leave it for about 5 minutes, then add the herbs and your extras. This being Polish food, these should definitely include some sausage – raw smoked sausage, sliced and then boiled in the soup, ideally, although I used Mattessons smoked sausage (sorry, all Poles) – and maybe some bacon too. Any sort of cured pig, in fact, would be good, a savoury hit to counteract the sourness. Hard-boiled eggs and diced boiled potatoes are usual, I think, although the soup is already quite heavy. Greens, cabbage, some parsley, whatever. When you’re done, stir in the sour cream, heat, but DON’T BOIL AGAIN. It’ll split. Season well with salt and plenty of pepper. Serve with beer, pickles, and rye bread.

His Mother’s Milk

A return visit to Istanbul. There is so much – too much – to be said about the food there, about the glorious collision of Ottoman and Arab, the creeping influences of Eastern Europe and India, its place on the spice route that has gifted it with saffron, pepper, aromats and unguents, the love of produce, of fish still twisted with rigour, gigantic, ruddy tomatoes, organ and muscle and milk. There is so much that I am not going to attempt to say it, at least not now.

Much easier to lump that varied cuisine into a few, very broad and simplistic categories. Firstly, you have the fish restaurants. Some are great, some are awful, most are much of a muchness – a selection of mezze to start, salads, grilled and fried fish, chips. Like I said, these are all pretty similar, at least on first inspection – it’s only when you start looking more closely – the exact selection of mezze, for example, the precise doneness of the fish – that they start to reveal their differences. Something for another time, perhaps.

Secondly – and this is a huge and varied category – you have the street food. Kebabs, yes – including ones we would recognise as doner or shish, but also the glorious, gravy-soaked tantuni, the fat-and-sweetbread-sausage called kokoreç – but also pilafs, potatoes, dubious molluscs, crisp flatbreads topped with lamb… you could wander the city all day, with a different snack every hour.

These foods, though – from restaurant or street – are not the food of Turkey. They are very much a product of Istanbul, of a dining and a drinking culture on the one hand, and of graft and city grind on the other. The food elsewhere in the country – as represented by a few restaurants – is relaxed, more varied and expansive, more redolent of home cooking than the fill-up-and-fuck-off haste of city cuisine. The undisputed king of these Istanbul restaurants is Çiya, in the heart of Kadikoy. As much an anthropological and historical project as an eatery, this restaurant – or restaurants, rather, with a few branches on the same street – serves an eclectic and ever-changing selection of mezze and main courses from all across Turkey, as well from Syria, Armenia, and other related cultures.

We had a pickled, twiggy sea vegetable there, stuffed lamb intestine, a yoghurty celeriac dish that seemed a distant cousin to remoulade; salads of purple herbs and soft white cheese, a heavy paste of beans and dill; and rich, long cooked meat dishes of beef and quince. This dish, though, is one that really stuck in my mind, as it seemed so un-Turkish. Apart from the typical Middle Eastern combination of lamb and yoghurt (which seems to have been concocted just to annoy the Jews, if the Lebanese dish ‘His Mother’s Milk’ is anything to go by) the flavours seem Northern, comforting and hearty – although with that light, green freshness that is typical of Turkish food.

SAKIRIYE

This recipe is as close as I could come at home; I think the original had vegetables not readily found over here. Enough for 4, with rice and bread and salad.

LAMB
1 breast of lamb, boned
1 onion, halved
2 cloves of garlic
1 red chilli

SAUCE
500g yoghurt – ideally live, which’ll be really tangy. If not, squeeze in some lemon at the end
1 tbspn cornflour
1 leek, halved, sliced, and washed
a handful of chard stalks, chopped (you could have the leaves on the side, blanched and dressed)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
2 tspn dried mint
olive oil
salt and pepper
pepper flakes, sumac, and fresh parsley, to garnish

Cook the lamb first. You could use other stewing cuts, diced, but breast is what I got. Place in a casserole with the vegetables, cover with water, season and bring to the boil. Cover and put in a gentle oven for a couple of hours until really tender.

For the sauce, you first need to temper the yoghurt. This is easier than it might sound – although I must admit I cocked it up the first time. All you are doing is stabilising it so the emulsion of fat and liquid doesn’t split when heated. First put the yoghurt in a large bowl, and really beat it until it loses its structure and liquifies. Then mix the cornflour to a paste with cold water, and beat than in too. Really make sure it’s mixed.

Scrape into a pan, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly – in one direction only, apparently, though I haven’t tested this. As soon as it starts to putter, turn it right down and simmer gently, stirring now and then, for 5 minutes or so, until it thickens nicely. I don’t know if it’s saveable when split; try not to let that happen. Just don’t let it get too hot. Thus nurtured, the yoghurt will last for a day or so in the fridge and will be able to handle a certain amount of cooking.

Ok. Sweat down the vegetables in a little oil – you want some structure, not a stewy mush – and then add the mint. When the lamb is ready, add this too, and stir in, letting everyone get acquainted, and encouraging the meat to break down further. Add your stable yoghurt, bring to the boil and let it all simmer, stirring some more, for around 15 minutes. Season liberally and garnish with spices and herbs.

There you are – fresh, comforting, filling.