The weightless salad

Autumn: This morning’s haul from Agde market.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this piece for the Independent on Sunday about my life as a recipe tester and food editor. I described the seemingly endless weighing, measuring, washing, drying, retesting, the tearing of hair and rending of garments (#MyStruggle) in pursuit of the flawless, foolproof recipe for something you might want to make for your dinner. (Or not. There’s a horrifying statistic – no doubt created by an especially sadistic manufacturer of ready meals – that readers never make more than three or four recipes from any book they buy.)

One of the things I love about being on holiday – along with sleeping late, reading a novel in a single gulp, and slummocking about with my hair lazily pulled back into a pony tail – is that holiday cooking is the opposite of work cooking. No measuring, note taking or trying to guess someone else’s intention, just the gentle pursuit of pleasure, inspired by wandering around the market or putting my nose round the cheese shop door and taking a good, life-affirming sniff. 

Today, on the first day of our little holiday, we got up early and made the short trip to Agde for market day. It’s a journey we’ve made many times before, but we’re always here in spring or summer. As we drove through fields of golden-leaved vines, it was almost like visiting a different place. In the market, instead of summer’s peaches, cherries, melons and asparagus there were crates of pumpkins, walnuts and quince. And I bought what I liked, with no idea of what I was going to do with it and no scales to weigh it on when I did, I was cooking by instinct and inclination, changing the recipe as I chopped and grilled. The culinary equivalent of a lie in and a messy pony tail, and certainly none the less delicious for that.

Cabbages and turnips

Pumpkins and chard.

Beautiful dates.

Rose and violet garlic.

My basket of greens and thyme.

After the market, the traditional 10.30am glasses of
beer and wine at the Plazza.
Considerably cheaper than coffee.

From now on, I’m matching my shoes and my vegetables. 
I suggest you do too.

When I’m not cooking, I’m mostly looking out at this.


Stargazy salad, AKA Sardine, black radish and mustard greens
Stargazy salad

As I arranged this salad on the plate, it reminded me of Stargazy pie, the Cornish dish where the heads of the fish poke out of the pastry lid as if caught mid leap. 

I am the very last person to send a salad to do a pie’s job, but if it’s salad you’re after this is a good one. The rich flesh of the fish goes well with the peppery mustard greens and crunchy, fiery black radish. If you can’t find black radish, just use pretty breakfast radishes sliced as thinly as you can.
  
Serves 2-4, depending on how hungry you are and how much bread you might be inclined to eat along with it.


1 smallish black radish, about 120g
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil, not too strongly flavoured  
About 3 tbsps finely chopped parsley leaves
Finely grated zest of a small lemon  
1 garlic clove, minced  

10-12 sardines
A small bunch thyme or lemon thyme  
2 lemons  
The finely grated zest of a lemon plus couple of squeezes of lemon juice
80g pinenuts, lightly toasted, roughly chopped  
A handful of mustard greens, roughly torn
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 

To serve 
Bread and butter, if you like


First, make the salad. Peel the black radish and either julienne it very finely or grate it on the coarse side of a box grater. Dress it with a couple of squeezes of lemon juice and a trickle of olive oil. Toss it with the parsley, lemon zest and garlic, and some salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the sardines.
  
Preheat the grill as hot as it will go (turn it on at least 5 minutes before you want to cook the fish). You can also cook these on a barbecue if you like.
Ready to go under a hot grill

Line a baking tin with foil. Cut one of the lemons into thick slices and arrange them on the tin. Scatter some sprigs of thyme over the top (save a tablespoon or two of fresh, soft thyme leaves to finish the salad with). Place the sardines on top of the lemon and herbs, trickle over a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Grill the sardines until just cooked through – this should take about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on their size.

Dress the mustard leaves very lightly in olive oil. Arrange them on a large plate. Heap the black radish salad in the middle and arrange the sardines around it. Scatter over the reserved thyme leaves, pine nuts and a good pinch or two of flaky sea salt. Serve immediately, with wedges of lemon.
Looks heavenly doesn’t it? 
But I never quite lost fear that seagulls would 
swoop in and steal our lunch…

A day out

 

20140217_121753

An early morning in Rye.

Last week, Séan and I took a trip to Rye. It’s an hour and a half or so from London, and in those miles we swapped London brick for black-and-white timbers, shrieking sirens for squawking gulls, organic quinoa muffins for homemade Victoria sponge.

I don’t drive and, with the advent of SatNav am no longer called on to assist in the misery of navigation, so I gaze out of the window reading the road signs – local names Peasmarsh, Appledore, Pett, Guestling and Winchelsea, rolling around on my tongue, soft and sweet like honey.

We had the good fortune to be there in Scallop Week so we ate scallops for lunch in a little café and brought some more home to cook for dinner.

I don’t know about you, but around about now – the mornings are lighter, afternoons linger, I dare sometimes walk the dog without wearing a hat – I have had quite enough of brown food. All of those stews, daubes, braises and casseroles which were so appealing only a few weeks’ ago no longer appeal. Something sparky. Bright colours. Fresh. So I made this salsa almost as soon as I got through the door. It takes only a few minutes or so and is very good.

IMG_20140217_123134

Church Square

20140217_122841

Stained glass window, St Mary the Virgin Church


20140217_121901

A more modest window. This lovely bookshop is, indeed, minute.

IMG_20140217_123456

A pretty display of succulents in someone’s front window. I’m never knowingly undernosy.

20140217_134555

I find myself in agreement with this sign in one of Rye’s many antique shops.

IMG_20140217_151327

The fishmonger and game dealers’ where we bought our scallops.

 

Scallops with mango and avocado salsa

IMG_20140217_190940_edit

This serves 2

3 spring onions, white and pale green part only, finely chopped
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 small red chilli
½ small cucumber, diced
Small handful coriander, tough stalks discarded, roughly chopped
1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
Juice of a lime
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

As many scallops as you think you can eat – we went for 5 each
A bit of oil, a dab of butter
Wedges of lime to serve

To make the salsa, combine all of the ingredients, season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the scallops.

Pat the scallops dry with kitchen paper. You can cut the coral off if you prefer. I don’t. I think it looks pretty, I like the taste and I’m not running a restaurant where such pernickertyness seems important.

Warm a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Melt the butter and oil together. Season the scallops with salt and pepper and put them in the pan. The pan shouldn’t be crowded; do them in two pans if necessary. Fry for a couple of minutes until golden then turn and cook for a couple of minutes more. The most important thing is not to overcook them.

Serve the scallops immediately with some of the salsa and wedges of lime.

Perfectly purple in every way

Prosperosa Aubergines & Purple fruits

You know I’m very easily led. I went into Stoke Newington Green on my way back from the park to pick up some lemons and within five minutes had a basket full. ‘I only came in for lemons,’ I said to the young Turkish man behind the counter. He smiled.
“Everybody does that, comes in for one thing, ends up with a lot more.”

Right by the counter (again, my downfall at the counter) was a box of round aubergines, labelled Rosa Bianca though to me they looked more like Prosperosa. With glossy, deep violet skins, these fat beauties are the most gorgeous aubergines of all. Their flesh is creamy and rich, with none of that mashed-tea bitterness that some aubergines have. Use them just as you would a normal aubergine in baba ganoush, ratatouille, or in thick slices on the grill. Or try this pretty salad. It really is enough for two but I’m afraid I ate it all myself.

Roasted aubergine and garlic salad

Roasted aubergine and garlic salad

Serves 2

1 large prosperosa or rosa bianca aubergine, or 2 ordinary aubergines
8-10 cloves of garlic
3-4 tbsp olive oil
¼ – ½ tsp chilli flakes
A few bay leaves
A few sprigs of thyme
70g pine nuts
Some pomegranate seeds, optional
A small bunch of coriander, tough stalks removed and roughly chopped
1 small red chilli, halved, seeds and membrane removed and diced
1 tsp pomegranate molasses, optional (if not using, a few wedges of lemon instead)

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Yoghurt sauce

2 tbsp greek yoghurt
1 tbsp tahini
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 6.

Cut the aubergine/s into large wedges. Peel a few cloves of garlic. If they’re large, cut lengthways into quarters; if small, halve them. Use a small, sharp knife to cut into the fleshiest part of each aubergine wedge and push a piece of garlic into each little pocket. Bash the rest of the cloves to break the skin but don’t peel them.

Prosperosa Aubergines

Toss the aubergines in a large roasting tin with the olive oil until they’re well coated. Add the whole garlic cloves, chilli flakes, bay leaves and thyme, season well with salt and pepper and toss again. Roast in the oven until the aubergines are soft, golden and starting to char a bit around the edges, rattling the pan from time to time. This should take about 35-40 minutes.

While the aubergines are roasting, warm a dry frying pan over a medium heat and toast the pine nuts, rattling the pan to make sure they don’t burn.

Make the yoghurt sauce by whisking together the tahini, yoghurt and salt and thinning it to the consistency of single cream with a splash of hot water from the kettle.

When the aubergines are ready, remove the bay leaves and thyme. Toss the aubergines and whole garlic cloves in a large bowl with the pine nuts, pomegranate seeds if using, coriander, mint and fresh chilli. Season with a little more salt and pepper if you like. Spoon onto a platter and trickle over the pomegranate molasses or lemon juice and the yoghurt sauce. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Aubergine Salad

Lost Postcards from the edge: Part III

All SetAll set…

Hallloooo out there. Did you think I’d fallen into a vat of butter, flambéed myself to ashes, run off with the groom? A combination of work crises and computer meltdowns and, oh, life has kept me away from you all these past two weeks and I’ve been a very bad blogger. Smack me then read on.

The wedding was heaven – ankle-swelling-bone-achingly-exhausting heaven. The sun shone, the bride looked ravishing, the guests glamorous and the band’s tunes drifted over the trees into the woodland late into the night.

If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘Can you get a wedding for 140 into a mini?’, I’m here to tell you, you can. Lady de B picked me up at 5am the day before the Big Day in her shiny blue car. (When Sean was ill , she used to drive me back and forth to the hospital so often, we christened it ‘The Glambulance’, now I think it needs an altogether more festive name – ‘The Marriage Mobile’ perhaps?)

The passenger seat was pushed so far forward to accommodate pans and plates, wooden spoons, newly-sharpened knives and plastic spatulas, heart-shaped cheeses and wooden trugs of French butter, I had to take out my hair slide to give me a little more room. But this wasn’t all. We had to stop off at New Covent Garden Market to pick up the fresh produce. As we pulled up, the man at the gate did a double take and laughed. Laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes. You can hardly blame him – the Marriage Mobile is about the size of one of the tyres on the huge refrigerated wagons he normally ushers into the market. Somehow, we managed to load trays of raspberries, boxes of herbs and two litre bottles of cream into every spare crevice. But we still had two trays of lemons. In the end, we crammed them into pans and bowls, tucked them into baskets of tea towels and jammed them into the glove compartment. But it still wasn’t enough. We were reduced to throwing them into the back and hoping the dear little things would find their own cosy nests. I’m convinced, months from now, Lady de B will be driving along and the last little citrus will roll forward into the foot well.

We arrived at Paula and Jack’s at 9am and the following 48 hours were some of the most exhausting, exhilarating and blissfully exciting of my life. I didn’t sit down for two days. It was wonderful. I loved it. Everyone else seemed to love it too. When can we do it again?

Here are some snapshots of the day. I just hope I didn’t get too much butter on the lens and they’re not too out of focus – there wasn’t much time for pictures in the middle of assembling all of the deliciousness, so I hope you’ll forgive me. In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you some more of the recipes, but for now I give you…

Paula and Jack’s Wedding Menu

Canapés

Three crostini:
Potted mackerel, crème fraîche and dill;
Goat’s cheese, figs and Parma ham;
Roast butternut squash with feta and thyme

Muhamarra, roast red pepper and walnut dip, with crudités

Persian lamb meatballs with a mint and yogurt dipping sauce

Spinach, ricotta and pine nut filo parcels

~

Dinner

Spit roasted hog and lamb

Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano

Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil

Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad

Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous

Green salad with vinaigrette

Sweet potato gratin with sage and crème fraîche

Minted new potatoes

~

Pudding

Lemon posset with blackberries and lemon shortbread biscuits

Chocolate, raspberry and almond brownies

~

Cheese

Cropwell Bishop Stilton

Heart-shaped Neufchatel cheese

Hawes Wensleydale

Pears, grapes and figs

Paula and Jack’s apricot and ginger wedding chutney

~

The marqueeBunting ahoy…

Mismatched vintage china Mismatched vintage china.

The top tableGorgeous scabious, roses and stocks mixed with herbs in little posies. Note the olives in vintage teacups and you can just see the jars of wedding chutney on everyone’s seat.

The kitchen Getting ready for the wedding. Our little army of helpers and ‘waiters in waiting’ in Paula and Jack’s kitchen.

The meat roasts The hog and lamb roast.

The buffet The buffet.

 Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad.

 Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano

 Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous

 Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil

The archer, the baker, the vinaigrette maker

Lunch laid out

We’re staying in a house built into what remains of the metre-thick walls of the Twelfth Century town hall. The steep, narrow staircase to the terrace is carved out of city’s ancient ramparts, complete with arrow slits where Languedocien archers kept watch over the plain towards Sète and the sea. In the 1600s, less grandly, it became the stables of the Maison d’Estella, home to the Counts of Agde. You can still see the archway in the kitchen, beneath which the Count’s horses nudged and snuffled. Later still, in the Eighteenth Century, it became a boulangerie.

C18 baker's oven

The Eighteenth Century baker’s oven, from the days when the house was the local boulangerie.

Half an arch

The archway, a reminder that the pretty sitting room was once home to the Counts’ horses.

Candle'd arrow-slit

An arrow slit in the wall on the way up to the terrace.

When we opened up the house, it smelled bosky, musty, slightly foxy, the centuries of damp creeping into the stones over the winter, claiming back the sleeping house. Today, after a couple of days, it smells of coffee and garlic, fried onions and the pot of basil sitting on the kitchen counter. I bought some ‘room cleansing’ incense cones from the man in the market who, when the days are hot and slow, takes a nap behind his stall, his cinnamon mutt stretched out beside him on the warm pavement.

Radish, salt & butter

I haven’t cooked much. I’ve arranged pâtés, saucissons and cheeses on the heavy chopping board, laid out radishes with butter and crunchy sea salt, steamed a bit of asparagus, roasted a chicken, tossed a few heads of lettuce in mustardy dressing. So I’m embarrassed. All I have to offer you is vinaigrette.

Steaming asparagus

Salami & Medjool dates

Vinaigrette

This is my basic, everyday vinaigrette. Sometimes I mash a small clove of garlic into the salt before whisking it into the vinegar; sometimes – to go with steamed artichokes, for example – I leave the vinegar out all together and use lemon juice instead; often, depending on what I’m serving, I stir in some freshly chopped herbs at the end.

1 tbsp white or red wine vinegar, or cider vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
A good pinch of sea salt
3 tbsps olive oil

Whisk together the vinegar, mustard and salt until the salt has dissolved – salt won’t dissolve once you add the oil, so if you don’t you’ll be left with crunchy crystals in your dressing. Slowly trickle in the oil, whisking as you go, until you have a beautiful, silky emulsion. When I dress lettuce, I spoon the smallest amount of vinaigrette into the bottom of the bowl and then turn over the leaves gently with my hands until everything glistens with the merest slick of oil. It’s just not very kind to overwhelm sprightly young leaves with too much vinaigrette. If you wish, dress them sparingly and serve extra vinaigrette in a little jug on the table so people can help themselves.

Nearly all gone!

The view from the terrace…

Rooftop View View from the roof

View from the roof

View from the roof

Rooftop Lichin

I’m addicted to your charms

There’s a great Anatolian restaurant near us. My friend Ali used to live next door. Early one evening, her boyfriend Brendan managed to julienne his thumb while preparing dinner so Ali dashed round to her neighbours to see if they had a first aid kit she could plunder in an attempt to stem the bleeding. The chefs, busy prepping for that evening’s service, didn’t really understand what she was saying, ‘My boyfriend’s nearly cut his thumb off, do you have a plaster or a bandage?’ didn’t feature heavily in their Turkish-English phrase book, especially when delivered in a high-pitched, increasingly frantic New Zealand accent.

In desperation, she started miming, throwing out odd words here and there ‘Boyfriend’, ‘knife’, alongside lots of hacking and sawing motions. Suddenly, a dawn of recognition appeared on one of the cook’s faces ‘Ahhh, I know, I help you!’. He came back with the biggest knife she’d ever seen, carefully wrapped in a tea towel. She was very touched to have found such a willing and gracious accomplice in what he clearly thought was her plan to polish off the luckless Brendan.

If they’ll go to such lengths to help their customers do in their other halves, just imagine how seriously they take your dinner. They make the best grilled onion salad ever, one about which I fantasise when far away from home. It’s not on the menu – it comes free with your main course. I’ve been known to order a nicely grilled quail or sea bass or a couple of juicy lamb chops just to enjoy its spicy, sweet and smoky charms. It’s a side dish with aspirations, in this case the understudy is the star, it’s the Peggy Sawyer to the kebab’s Dorothy Brock and it’s getting to be a habit with me.

Turkish grilled onion salad

This is my attempt at recreating the ‘Salad of Dreams’ – if you make it they will come. One of the ingredients in the dressing is şalgam suyu, described as turnip juice, but really a combination of turnips and violet carrots, pickled and fermented in barrels. As well as using it in salads, it’s a popular drink, served very cold with a dash of paprika sauce. It’s supposed to be a good hangover cure. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, like the Prairie Oyster, that fiendish combination of raw egg, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, it works on the principle that you can distract yourself from your wretched state by drinking something completely disgusting.

I know, I know, I lost you at turnip juice, but please persevere. If you can’t get şalgam, you can use a few spoons of the juice from a jar of pickled gherkins to get the essential sourness.

3 medium yellow onions, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
A BIG bunch of flat-leaf parsley
4 tbsps pomegranate molasses
4 tbsps şalgam suyu
A good squeeze of lemon juice
2 tbsps olive oil, plus a little more for brushing
A good pinch of smoked paprika
½ tsp sumac
½ tsp chilli flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the grill and get the coals nice and hot, so they are glowing red underneath with a fine coating of grey ash on the top. While the grill’s heating up, whisk together the molasses, şalgam, lemon juice and olive oil to make a lovely glossy, red dressing, the kind of thing that might tempt a health conscious vampire. Season with the paprika and a little salt and pepper.

Thread the onions onto a skewer and brush them with a little olive oil, sprinkle salt over them and grill for about 4-5 minutes per side until gently charred around the edges. Carefully remove them from the skewers and toss them in the dressing. It seems like a lot of dressing – don’t worry, you want lots so you can mop it up with chunks of bread.

Remove the leaves from the parsley and roughly chop them. Sprinkle over the onions with the sumac and chilli flakes and toss together well. Serve warm, with steak, kebabs, grilled chicken or by itself.

TIP
If you’re using wooden skewers, you need to soak them in water for 30 minutes before cooking so they don’t burn. In the summer, I soak loads and keep them in a bag in the freezer for those moments when I need some instant grill gratification.

APOLOGY
Sorry to ladle heaping spoonfuls of 42nd Street references into a piece about onions, but there are things you should know about a person before you embark on a serious relationship, like a passion for paint balling or a propensity for cross dressing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m addicted to show tunes. There, I said it.