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.

Summer on a plate

Roast chicken with potatoes

Summertime, and the eating is easy. Crisp frisée lettuce glistening with mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette, mussels in every way, almost every day, merguez on the grill, earthy Puy lentils tossed with last night’s leftovers and transformed into lunch. These are the things I love.

And now, I have an accomplice. My lovely nephew Angus is here in France with us and he wants to learn how to cook. He is 16, sweet, clever, funny, kind. He is also a keen rugby player, over six feet tall, and tells me he has to eat no fewer than 4,000 calories a day. Apparently not all of these can be in the form of Nutella. This is a new challenge for me, as I spend most of my time trying to figure out how I can stop myself from eating 4,000 calories a day. At least he’s strong enough to help me carry mountains of food up the hill, (almost) without complaint.

We spend our mornings reading the regional newspaper, the Midi-Libre, together. This is of mutual benefit. He’s improving his French and, as we always seem to start with the sports section, I’m improving my knowledge of rugby. Want to know anything about the French back row? Ask me. This is not something I ever thought I would say.

By the time the newspaper is folded away, we’re on to the really big issue of the day: what shall we have for lunch? If it were up to Angus, it would probably be roast chicken. This is the recipe I’ve promised him will impress the girls. I hope you like it too.

Angus’s perfect roast chicken

We buy most of our meat from M Greffier’s Boucherie Artisanale on the rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. I asked M Greffier for a nice, roasting chicken and he enquired how many it was for. I said five, but explained that the towering teenager beside me was included in that number. He raised an eyebrow and came back with the plumpest bird I’ve ever seen, which he wrapped in pink checked paper and then placed in this highly appropriate bag.

J'aime mon boucher!

All wrapped up

200g unsalted butter
1 small bulb of garlic
A good handful of herbs – tarragon, parsley, chervil
A nice, plump, free-range bird of about 1.5-2kg
A bay leaf
A small onion, peeled and cut into quarters
2 lemons
A small glass of white wine
Salt and pepper

You will, if you read this blog, almost certainly want:
Some potatoes

The fiery dragon herb, Tarragon

Take the chicken out of the fridge a good 30 minutes to an hour before you want to roast it. Preheat the oven as high as it will go.

Chop most of the herbs and two cloves of the garlic very finely and pound them into a paste with about two thirds of the butter. Carefully loosen the skin of the bird with your fingers and stuff most of the butter underneath it (save a piece about the size of a large walnut), massaging it between the breasts and the skin. Season the inside of the bird with salt and pepper and place the remaining herby butter inside, along with a few sprigs of parsley and tarragon, the bay leaf, onion and the rest of the head of garlic, unpeeled but cut in half horizontally to expose the centre of the cloves. Spread the rest of the butter over the skin of the chicken, season with salt and pepper and place in a roasting tin. Cut the lemon into quarters and squeeze them over the bird. Place the squeezed-out quarters inside the cavity too. Pour the glass of wine into the roasting tin and put the bird into the oven to sizzle for 15 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 and cook for about an hour – Remember to baste it every 20 minutes or so – depending on the size of the chicken, until the juices in the thigh run clear when pierced with a knife. Squeeze over the juice of the remaining lemon, cover loosely with foil and leave to rest for 15 minutes or so before carving. Any you do not eat at the first sitting will remain perfectly flavoursome and moist for leftover sandwiches and salads.

A little bit of butter Mixed with herbsStuffed under the skinThe cavity ctuffingDrizzle with lemon juice 

If you want to make some roast potatoes to go with the chicken (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), peel about 1kg of potatoes, cut them into quarters and parboil them for five minutes in lightly salted water. Drain them and let them steam for a bit in the colander so that they lose some of their moisture. When the chicken is about 25 minutes from being cooked, remove the tin from the oven and place the potatoes around the bird, turning them over in the fat. Return to the oven and when the chicken is done, squeeze over the lemon, put the bird on a warm plate to rest and put the lemon pieces in with the potatoes. Turn up the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6 and cook until golden, giving the tin a rattle once or twice. These potatoes won’t be as crisp as the ones I describe in my classic roast potato recipe but they will be deliciously lemony and bathed in the chicken’s herby juices.

Green beans with onions and garlic

Ready to eat

It’s a common misconception on our side of the Channel that in France, all vegetables are served crisp, al dente (an Italian expression, sure, though I’ve found no greater love of crispness there, either). Certainly, when I’m adding French beans to a salad I want them still to have some bite to them, but when I’m serving them hot as a side dish, there’s something very comforting about cooking them until quite soft and allowing them to take on the flavour of some good stock. Even the queen, Elizabeth David, advocated boiling them in lightly salted water for 15 minutes and then tossing them in about an ounce of butter per pound of beans.

This is not a French recipe exactly, rather one made by me from the contents of our French larder and they went rather well with the chicken.

1 large onion, finely diced
2tbsps olive oil
A knob of butter
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
About 400g green beans, topped and tailed
About 350ml chicken stock
About 50ml crème fraîche or whole milk Greek yoghurt
Small handful of toasted pine nuts or flaked almonds
Some finely chopped mint (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large pan over a medium-low heat. Fry the onions gently, with a good pinch of salt, until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for another minute or two before pouring over the stock and simmering, partially covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the green beans and simmer, with the lid on, for about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and boil vigorously for a further 5 minutes until the beans are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated.

In a small bowl, whisk together the crème fraîche or yoghurt with a good pinch of salt (you can add some finely chopped mint at this point if you like). Pour a few spoons of the hot liquid remaining in the pan into the crème fraîche or yoghurt and whisk until smooth. Pour back into the beans and stir to coat and warm through. Stir in the toasted pine nuts or almonds and serve immediately.

Angus Robertson

Another day, another David…

01 - The finished tart

Do you remember I told you Lady de B and I joked about setting up a catering business out of the back of a vintage Bentley? Well, we don’t have the wheels yet but we do have our first gig. My friend Paula asked me to cater her wedding in September – marquee in her country garden, bunches of blowsy, old-fashioned roses and herbs on the tables, mismatched plates and a hog roast for 120 happy revellers. Richard Curtis, call your production designer…..

Paula wants canapés, big salads to go with the roast, puddings and gorgeous English cheeses, and later, little bits of biscuity heaven to go with tea and coffee. I’m excited. Excited and scared. I’ve never done anything this huge before. So I called Vanessa, AKA Lady de B, who as well as being a wonderful cook, is queen of the clipboard and list. Between us, we’re going to do it. Last night we had our first planning meeting at De Beauvoir Mansions and I made a French Onion Tart to take along for our supper. It’s based on Elizabeth David’s Tarte à l’Oignon or Zewelwaï, the lovely tart from Alsace, from her book French Provincial Cooking.

I thought of calling this post ‘I have cried salty tears…’. I know this is a lot of onions, but it’s worth it – they all cook down into the most deliciously sweet, lusciously melting, creamy mass. You’re eating essence of onion, and that’s never a bad thing.

Tarte à l’Oignon, or Zewelwaï

My lovely dad, who is stoical and uncomplaining in the face of all kinds of adversity, hates to chop an onion almost more than any other domestic task. I think of all of the things I’ve ever done, he’s most impressed by my capacity to slice and dice my way through a mountain of onions without the aid of goggles, gin or Valium.

250g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, very cold, cut into small cubes
1 tbsps olive oil (not extra virgin)
A good pinch of sea salt
2 eggs
2-3 tbsps iced water
1.2 kg onions, finely sliced
6 egg yolks, very well beaten
284ml pot of double cream
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

01 - A bowl of onions

02 - Chopped onions

Cooked Onions 1
Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and pulse briefly a few times – you still want little, pea-sized pieces of butter in the mix. Drop in the eggs and pulse a few more times. Turn it out into a bowl and add the water a little at a time, stirring gently with your hands or a knife to bring it together into a ball – you may not need all of the water. Place the dough on a floured surface and with the heel of your hands, lightly stretch it out into a ragged rectangle. Fold it over in three sections, rather like you would a business letter, and repeat the process a couple of times. Do it all very gently. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least a couple of hours so that it loses all of its stretch.

Butter a flan tin (mine was 19x29cm) and dust lightly with flour. Roll out the pastry so that it is quite thin. Line the tin with the pastry, pressing it gently into position and trying not to stretch it. Don’t trim it yet – put it into the fridge for half an hour or so to chill down, then trim it just before you fill it.

While all the pastry palaver is going on, make the filling. Melt the butter in a large frying pan with the oil over a medium-low heat. Tip in the onions with Cooked Onions 2a good pinch of salt and stir until they’re all coated. Turn the temperature down to low and cook the onions until they are soft, translucent and starting to turn golden. Stir them from time to time to make sure they’re not sticking. This took about an hour, on the lowest possible heat. Season well with salt, nutmeg and plenty of pepper and allow to cool down a bit. In a jug or bowl, whisk together the cream and well-beaten eggs then pour over the onions and stir until everything is combined.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.

Pour the filling into the pastry case (yes, that’s right, no blind baking – hurrah!) and put the tin on a baking sheet. Bake for about 30-35 minutes until golden. Eat hot. You can certainly eat it cold – I had leftovers for breakfast this morning and it was delicious – but the pastry will lose some of its melting flakiness.

06 - Ready to eat


If you want to serve this when you have friends round for lunch or dinner and you’d like to avoid last-minute panics, line the flan tin and make the filling a few hours ahead. Pop everything in the fridge until about 45 minutes before you want to serve it, then assemble and bake at the last minute.

Old friends and new discoveries

Click to EnlargeWhat’s the definition of an optimist? Someone who digs out her copy of Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking as soon as the thermometer flirts with anything over 15°C. This weekend, I leafed through my old copy, with its stained pages and broken spine, my name written territorially on the title page. I bought it the summer I graduated, when the world was opening up before me, full of delicious possibilities.

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That summer, I shared a first floor flat in a large Edwardian terraced house with three boys. Every second Saturday, I trotted down the stairs to the flat below to give our rent to the elderly son-in-law of the entirely ancient lady who owned the building. He looked exactly like Freud. He even spoke with a refined though pronounced Austrian accent. This would not have been quite so disconcerting had the room in which the transaction took place not resembled so closely the study in the Freud Museum just up the road, complete with antique rugs, heavy wooden furniture and strange little bibelots of mysterious origin and sexuality. I was never quite sure if I should hand over the cash right away or lie down on the sofa and tell him a bit about my childhood first.

Our kitchen was so tiny and prone to condensation that, summer and winter, we had to push open the large sash window every time we wanted to do anything more extravagant that make tea. Still, we managed to throw some great parties, tossing the key down on a string from that same window to our visitors below to save ourselves the trouble of the many stairs. One hot August night, I lay in bed listening to the sounds drifting up through my window from neighbouring houses. Soft laughter, the clack clack clack of a type writer and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain being played over and over again – fresh from a tiny Scottish university, I thought I was living in the height of bohemian splendour.

Since then, this tatty book has travelled with me from a Moscow tower block to summer rentals in the Languedoc, as well as across several London postcodes. It’s been packed away and then hastily unpacked in increasingly large and better-ventilated kitchens. We’re friends. We have history. We can not talk for months, years even, but when we get back together it’s as though we’ve never been apart, fish kebabs, crab soup, omelette aux fines herbes and apricot ice cream, our lingua franca.

So I was surprised to discover a recipe I hadn’t noticed before, one for Maqlub, the Persian aubergine and rice dish more frequently called maqluba or makloubeh. Its name means ‘upside down’ and truthfully, that’s the only tricky part of making this fragrant and lovely dish – inverting the hot casserole requires a cool head and sturdy oven gloves.

Click to EnlargeI went to the Turkish Food Centre on Ridley Road to buy my ingredients. I love it there, tucked away behind the market. It’s like being on holiday (without the sadistically small baggage allowance), with aisle upon aisle of intriguing ingredients and some of the cheapest, freshest produce in London. I always end up buying more than I’d planned. I may go in for a jar of tahini, but I’ll come out with rose petal jam, some marinated olives, a packet of sumac, honeycomb, a pot of lebneh, a loaf of pillowy, still-warm flat bread, huge bunches of herbs… Yesterday, I was quite restrained, restricting myself to things for the maqlub, some fresh green almonds and a few loquats to nibble for breakfast. I was very proud that I managed to swerve the vine leaf press, a slab of earthenware with holes in it I imagine intended to keep dolma from unfurling while they’re cooking. But I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.

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Elizabeth David wrote: ‘Although this is rather a trouble to make it is one of the best of all aubergine dishes, and the rice, which has absorbed some of the flavour of the meat, is particularly good. A good bowl of yoghourt can be served with it, and a tomato or green salad.’

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I’m giving you this recipe as Elizabeth David wrote it, apart from converting it to metric and making some small details of technique more explicit. When I make it again, I might make a few very small adjustments based upon what I’ve read about maqlub since I made it. I might try making the first layer out of sliced tomatoes and I’d definitely brown the mince in the pan once I’ve finishing frying the onions. Elizabeth David suggests you can use raw or cooked meat and I used raw, which clumped up a bit in the cooking process. I think cooked lamb would combine more seductively with the whole dish. I might add a little more seasoning, a pinch or two of cinnamon and nutmeg and a few grinds of black pepper to the meat, and I might toss a few toasted almonds over the top with the parsley.

4 medium-sized aubergines
600g minced lamb or mutton, cooked or raw
200g of rice, I used basmati but any long-grain rice will do
1 onion, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
50g flaked almonds
½ tsp ground allspice
400ml beef stock
1tsp of finely chopped thyme leaves or marjoram

Olive oil for frying – not extra virgin
Parsley, finely chopped, for garnishing

Cut the unpeeled aubergines into 6mm slices, sprinkle them with salt and leave them for an hour. Put the rice into soak in water for an hour. Mix the allspice, thyme or marjoram and garlic with the meat. Rinse and dry the aubergines. Heat about 1cm of oil over a medium-high heat and fry the aubergines on both sides until just starting to turn golden. When you have finished frying the aubergines, fry the onions until soft and translucent.

Brush a round casserole lightly with oil. Put a layer of the fried aubergines into the bottom of the casserole (I used a third, so I would end up with three layers), sprinkle on a layer of meat. Click to EnlargeSprinkle with a few blanched almonds and a third of the onions. Repeat until all of the aubergines and meat are used up, and on top put the drained rice. Pour over half of the stock, cover the dish and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes. Add the rest of the stock and cook for another 30-40 minutes until the rice is almost cooked. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4.

Put an ovenproof serving dish or plate over the pan, carefully turn out the contents of the casserole and put into the oven for another 10-15 minutes. The rice will finish cooking and any liquid left will be absorbed.

We ate it with a few peeled, deseeded and sliced cucumbers tossed in yoghurt with a pinch of sea salt and chopped mint. I trickled a little good olive oil over it just before serving.

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Aubergines. Do you salt them or not? In the past, they were always salted to remove any bitterness and some of their moisture, but with modern varieties it’s not really necessary. I only salt them when I’m going to fry them, as in this recipe, so they don’t soak up quite so much oil – though, be warned, they do still soak it up as keenly as a drunk in a bar five minutes before closing.


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I love Steenberg’s spices, a fantastically extensive range of organic, often Fairtrade seasonings sourced and sold by Axel and Sophie Steenberg in North Yorkshire. They now stock chocolate, vanilla, tea and coffee too.

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I was not an original bride. I did my best to convince Sean that our marriage licence would not be valid without being able to show proof of ownership of at least three Le Creuset casseroles. Nearly 12 years later they’re still going strong. Despite being shamefully overworked and sometimes being the object of much incendiary abuse, they’re still perfect – the same might be said for Sean.