Into Temptation

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If you pushed me to describe my style of cooking, or the food I most like to eat, I would, I think, after considering “nose to tail”, “vaguely Italianate” and “messing about”, settle with some hesitation on a long sentence involving the words “ingredient-led”, the hesitation being because the latter is such a popular, buzzy phrase that my gut assumption is that it is probably meaningless, or at least wildly overused; I think, though, that my gut is, on this occasion, wrong. All food is ingredient-led, my inner grumpy old man declares – it is, after all, made of the bloody things – and this is sort of true; you are always, at least, at their mercy. The implied dichotomy, I suppose, is between food that is ingredient-led and food that is technique-led, which could be rephrased as a debate between Italian food and French food, or at least the way those two cuisines are popularly understood.

The pinnacle of classical French cuisine is, of course, the sauce, without which no piece of protein can be considered a proper dish; the saucier is the master craftsperson of the brigade, and the so-called mother sauces, which certain food publications still seem to think we should know all about, are the Ten or rather Five Commandments of this dying religion. True to form, the defining features of these sauces are largely the techniques used, in each one, to thicken a selection of basic ingredients – the kind of ingredients that don’t get to lead. You’d get them all for free in the cupboard on Ready Steady Cook, with the possible exception of tomatoes, the sauce of which is at any rate a late and somewhat out-of-place addition to the canon. The technique most often used is the roux, one which I associate much more with Delia Smith and macaroni cheese, lasagne, gravies cooked up in the roasting tin than with French cuisine, partly because it has been superseded, as a thickening method, by various other techniques since the days of Escoffier; then it was everywhere. Imagine making a roux for a tomato sauce – in fact, that’s a good way to contrast these two imaginary styles of cuisine. The French cook takes fruit of any stripe, peels and purees them and thickens with a roux, seasoning to cover any indifference of flavour; your hearty Italian, on the other hand, simply cooks the best tomatoes she can find, reducing them to a delicious sauce.

It has often struck me, in fact, that culinary ages could be defined by their sauce-thickening techniques, from the breadcrumbs and crushed nuts of the Middle Ages through the various experiments with flours and fats which coalesced into the roux and into beurre manie, through the uses of egg yolk in combination with various substances and up to the late 20th century obsession with reduction, concentrating flavour into sticky near-solids which, often enough, make everything taste the same. Molecular gastronomy, I suppose, gave us not thickeners but lighteners; the emulsion, often now declared as such on otherwise sparse menus, remains extremely popular, having received a boost from the Spanishisms of original gastropub the Eagle and that institution’s alumnodes at Moro; aioli has become the default cold emulsion to the point where a certain chip shop of my acquaintance offers a so-called ‘garlic aioli’. So, as they say, it goes. Alongside these mayonnaises, which might contain wild garlic, Jack-by-the-hedge, fermented seaweed, fermented squid ink or fermented chilli (to take a short sample from our own menus) sits a newly-respectable style of sauce, that made of actual ingredients you would want, separately, to eat.

Broadly speaking, these can be split into yoghurt sauces and green sauces, the latter based not on the French sauce verte (another kind of mayonnaise) but on the Italian salsa verde, and both stand or fall on the quality of their ingredients. If your sauce consists of either harissa or tahini stirred into yoghurt, or of vast piles of herbs simply seasoned, then those few things had better be good. I once put a dish on the menu solely because the parsley we had was so good it deserved to be front and centre, a pungent hit of chlorophyll; that, I suppose, is ingredient-led cooking – it led me by th’ nose. Good thick Greek yoghurt is good enough to eat with just a little salt and pepper, with that dairy trick of a rich, sour blandness, so far from the thin, grainy, homogenised ‘natural’ stuff as to be a completely different product. Once you have it, there is very little that needs doing to it, and although such things are not short on technique – you will soon get bored of making salsa verde if you lack in knife skills – the technique and thus the recipe and indeed the final dish proceed with at least the natural logic of dreams directly from some quality inherent in the ingredient itself, or so, at any rate, you tell yourself while elbow-deep in mackerel viscera and wondering what the hell you are doing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.