First Catch Your Brassica

Vegetables, let’s say, are pretty boring, differentiated mainly by colour and by location of growth – those that sit below the ground are started in cold water, those that flourish above are plunged into hot – and fully deserve their status as “side dish”. Well, they do if they’re treated like that. If all proteins were given the same attention – fish started in cold water, land animals in hot, birds steamed (?) – unbrined, unsauced, and barely seasoned, I imagine we’d have a fairly low opinion of them too. The flavours of most meat we eat come as much from the high heat they are subjected too – the Maillard reactions of sugars and protein – as from any inherent ‘meatiness’, while even plainly boiled animal parts are generally partly or fully cured before cooking, giving the gentle richness of tongue or hams.

Vegetables are much maligned, is the point. One way to rehabilitate them is simply to season the hell out of them, as the Italians do; I’ve talked about this before. That’s what we might call the ham approach. The other, then, is to try different ways of cooking – roast, grill, saute. While not every vegetable can take this kind of treatment, the list of ones that can is sometimes surprising – my favourite quick dinner at the moment is wedges of cabbage, dotted with garlic, anchovy, and black pudding, roasted until browned and topped with cheese – and certainly includes all the brassicas.

The cabbagey tendencies of cabbage and co are brought out only by long boiling, a process which, unless you’re cooking for the toothless (young or old) is totally unnecessary. Stir-fry your sprouts; gently braise savoy cabbages; even, if you must, make kale crisps. Certainly, roast your cauliflower. Everyone, it seems, is doing whole roast vegetables at the moment (I think Tom Kerridge started it), and while an entire cauli makes a nice centerpiece, they do better cooked in florets. Smaller pieces = more surface area = more flavour.

In this stupidly popular dish at the cafe (it’s never left the menu), pan-roast cauliflower is served, Turkishly, with hot spiced butter and cool herbed yoghurt – a pleasing array of sensations. This recipe appears in the forthcoming Suffolk Feast cookbook; consider this a teaser.

ROAST CAULIFLOWER, SAFFRON BUTTER, YOGHURT & PINENUTS

1 nice cauliflower
500g thick greek yoghurt
A small handful of mint and parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp sumac
100g pine nuts
100ml white wine vinegar
1 tbsp caster sugar
Pinch saffron
100g cold butter, cubed
Olive oil
Herbs to garnish (we use more parsley, amaranth and purple basil – purple is good)
Salt and pepper
Make the two sauces first. Stir the herbs and sumac into the yoghurt with some seasoning and a good glug of oil. Set aside. For the saffron butter, first toast the pine nuts over a low heat until patchily brown and smelling faintly of popcorn, then tip into a bowl. Increase the heat and add the vinegar, saffron and sugar, letting it bubble down to a bright orange syrup.
Now, half on and half off the heat, whisk in the butter piece by piece – it’ll split if it gets too hot, if you add the butter too quickly, or if it’s left about for too long. When you have a nice glossy sauce, add the sauce to the pine nuts, and keep warm, next to the oven or over a pan of hot water.
Right. Preheat the oven to 200°C, separate the cauli into florets, and find a pan big enough to hold them in a single layer. Get it hot and add enough oil to coat the bottom. Now add the cauliflower and some salt, and for a moment pretend you are sautéing chicken. Leave the florets to brown on one side, then turn them carefully and let them brown again. Give the pan a shake and pop in the oven to finish cooking, which should only take 5 minutes or so. (You can do the whole operation on the hob if you don’t fancy turning the oven on for 5 minutes’ work – handy if you’re doing something else in it, though).
When the stalks yield to the point of a knife, they’re ready. Make a pool of herb yoghurt at the bottom of each plate, then toss the butter and some parsley through the cauliflower and pile it on top. Garnish with herbs and more sumac. It’s done.

Fish/Fruit

photo(5)

 

I’ve never been a particularly keen fish-eater. Fish depends, I think, more than any other food, on a sense of place for its enjoyment, and while some of my favourite ever meals have been simply- or barely-cooked white fish or shellfish, eaten within pissing distance of the sea, I have never felt much of an urge to recreate them at home. Grilled cuttlefish or prawns, sea urchin scooped from the shell, lose their piquancy without the seasoning provided by the crash of waves and the tang of the salt air.

 

The flavours of oily fish, on the other hand, seem to travel a little better. (Although their flesh does not – the meat is really only good for one day; mackerel fishermen, in times when such things mattered, used to have special license to trade on Sundays so they did not waste their catch). They are more robust, and will stand up to bigger flavours, – smoke and vinegar and punchy fruit – than the vague wisps of fennel and lemon which so often accompany more delicate creatures; this also allows for a little more leeway in the quality of the fish itself. You will never recreate that beautiful bream you ate on the beach, with a squeeze of lemon and a glass of something cold – not with a supermarket specimen, anyway. With oily fish, though, the spices and sauces carry the burden that the flesh can not.

 

Some of the nicest seafood I have ever eaten has been in Turkey, but very often in the form of the fresh, the white, the inimitable. Fish are everywhere, live in buckets or slithering on ice, twisted with rigor, in varieties unobtainable in Britain, and are often very simply grilled or fried. Sometimes, though, for mezze dishes, the treatments are a little more complex. The following is based on a dish we ate in Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul, a very unusual preparation of mackerel, almost confited in a spiced, syrupy oil.

 

POMEGRANATE MACKEREL

For 8 as a mezze, perhaps 4 as a starter, with some bread and salad

8 mackerel fillets, pinboned

2 tsp coriander seeds

 

200ml pomegranate molasses

100ml red wine vinegar

8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

grated zest of one orange

6 banana shallots, thinly sliced

500ml good olive oil

salt

You can leave the fillets whole, or slice them in half widthways and then again lengthways for ease of eating as a mezze, either way, salt lightly and set aside.

In a wide pan (ideally wide enough to fit the fish in one layer, and deep enough to hold all the ingredients) gently toast the coriander seeds until they start to give up their aroma, then pour in the molasses and vinegar. Stir them together, then add the garlic, orange zest, and shallots. Let the mixture simmer for a bit, although you don’t want it to cook particularly.

Lay the fish in evenly, and then pour the oil over it. Warm it over a very gentle heat – you will see bubbles coming up through and from the fish – until the pieces of mackerel are just, just cooked, having lost their translucent grayness. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and set aside – the mackerel will carry on cooking as they cool.

Serve with some of the juices and some appropriate accompaniments.

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.