Postcards from the edge: Part I

Lamb meatballs with minted yoghurt

If you are one of the rather lovely and incredibly discerning people who have followed my blog from the beginning, you may remember back in April when Lady de B and I took on the terrifying (did I say terrifying, obviously I meant exciting) task of catering for our friend Paula’s wedding . Well, the happy day has almost dawned. It’s next Saturday.

The last few weeks have been a blur of bunting and ribbon, table linen and vintage plates, cocktail try outs and canapé platters. And now the cooking is starting in earnest. This week, I’m going to be typing and prepping at breakneck speed, to share with you some of the dishes we’re hoping will launch Paula and Jack deliciously into married life.

If you are the praying sort, I’d be very grateful if you could throw up a few good wishes for a couple of more hours in a day and sunshine on September 5…

Lamb meatballs with minted yoghurt

Dipped

I first made these tasty meatballs for my best friend Victoria’s thirtieth birthday and I’ve made them a million times since. They’re simple and delicious, full of the Middle Eastern flavours I love. I found them in the October 1995 issue of Gourmet and I’ve tinkered with them just a little bit. In the original, they’re rolled in black and white sesame seeds which makes for gorgeous presentation, but one of Paula’s guests is allergic to sesame so I’ve left them out. In the past, in a hurry, I’ve simply mixed the sesame seeds in with the meat rather than rolling them and they were great, too. So sesame, sans sesame, I hope you’ll get rolling and try these out yourself.

Makes about 50.

The Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1kg minced lamb
1 tbsp dried mint
1 tsp salt
½ tsp allspice
A good pinch of cinnamon
2 cups of breadcrumbs, about 140g
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tbsps currants
Freshly ground black pepper

For the yoghurt dip:
About 300ml whole milk Greek yoghurt
A good handful of fresh mint
A generous pinch or two of salt

Warm the olive oil in a small frying pan over a low heat and fry the onions, with a good pinch of salt, until very soft and slightly golden, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for a couple more minutes.

Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly before mixing in the mint, salt, allspice and cinnamon – it’ll smell heavenly at this point. Add the lamb, breadcrumbs, currants and eggs and combine gently but thoroughly. It’s best to do this with your hands as you’re less likely to over-mix. Overmixing makes the meatballs a bit heavy, which is not what you want at all. At this point, break off a small piece of the mixture and fry it in a little oil until golden and cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some black pepper if necessary.

Mixing Mixing…

Testing Testing…

Rolling Rolling

Ready Ready.

Take tablespoons of the mixture and roll them gently into balls. You can do this up to a day ahead, cover and chill them in the fridge, or you freeze them at this point as I’m doing.

You need to get the yoghurt dip going a few hours before you want to serve the meatballs. Line a sieve with muslin or kitchen paper and set it over a bowl. Tip the yoghurt into the lined sieve and let it drip, drip, drip away in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight. Just before serving, discard the liquid in the bowl and stir the mint and salt into the creamy yoghurt.

Preheat the oven to 220C/450F/Gas mark 8. Place the meatballs on a baking tray and bake for 8-10 minutes (15 minutes from frozen), rattling the tin half way through, until lightly browned and just cooked through. Serve warm with the yoghurt dipping sauce.

It takes a village …

Patriot jellies
Our friend Stuart could be the sweetest person I know. He has a supernatural ability to divine whether an occasion merits a cup of tea or a stiff gin, he remembers birthdays, charms small children, sends puppies and kittens into paroxysms of joy just by his gentle presence. He’s also gloriously handsome, a quality he wears as carelessly as an old overcoat. Stuart’s always taking care of everyone else so we couldn’t let his 30th birthday pass by without, for once, taking care of him, fêting his fortuitous presence in our lives in a fittingly exuberant manner.
Lady de B and I decided a few weeks ago that we would host a party for him in her garden. He’s Australian, so we thought a posh surf and turf barbecue would be appropriate, a late lunch starting at three o’clock. Simple.
Lady de B and I spent days connected by the umbilical cord of telephone, email and Blackberry discussing the merits of raspberries over passion fruit, marinades or rubs, platters or bowls. We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we called in the troops. Helder and Steve wired the garden for lights and sound; Kim sent over a restaurant’s worth of white china; Séan got up at 5am to collect flowers and fruit from New Covent Garden market; James spent Saturday morning blowing up inflatable kangaroos and hanging them from the trees along with enough flags and bunting to do an ocean liner proud; Paul ran around town collecting loaves, meringues and prawns; Sarah graciously served up lychee martinis and elastoplasts into the early hours; Alex and the beautiful seňoritas washed a mountain of dishes. We ate and drank and danced until three in the morning.
P1160281Sunny startTime to stop taking pictures!
And then, on Sunday, we did it all again. Ten of us assembled to tidy up and rehash the scandals of the night before. It was a beautiful day so we laid the table in the garden and served up a banquet of leftovers and gossip. By seven o’clock, as we sipped reviving glasses of Sauternes and spooned soft Valençay cheese onto slices of walnut bread, I think we all felt very lucky indeed, blessed in the friendships that have steered us through heartbreak and triumph to find us all together, sitting in the dappled sunshine on a Sunday afternoon in July.

Feet up the next day…All relaxed
Stuart’s birthday menu
Stuart’s birthday spread ~
Bellinis and Kir Royale
Champagne
~
Muhamarra ~
Muhamarra
Bagna Cauda
Radishes with butter & sea salt
Marinated olives
Roasted Chickpeas
~Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust ~
Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust
Roasted Carliston chillies
Hard core prawns
Director & Lincolnshire sausages
~
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted aubergine & tahini salad
Roasted beetroot & feta salad
Mange tout, green bean, hazelnut & orange salad
Minted new potatoes
Green salad
~
Pavlova with summer fruits
Patriot jellies
Chocolate dipped strawberries
Lychee martinis
~
Colston Bassett Stilton
Parmesan
English & Irish goat cheeses
Homemade de Beauvoir pear chutney
Figs and sultana grapes
Saturday’s pavlova becomes Sunday’s Eton Mess, eaten from one big plate in the middle of the table, with ten spoons.
Eton messEton Mess going.......gone

Happy, happy Easter

Every Good Friday, our friend Richard throws my favourite party of the year: The Easter Jamboree. He and Emma started this tradition a dozen or so years ago for the waifs and strays left in London for the holiday and it has grown so much that up to 50 of us now stay in the city to join the festivities each spring. We take over a first-floor terrace restaurant in Covent Garden for rosé and steak frites, gossip and occasional scandal. What starts as lunch usually ends up in a bar somewhere. This year, 1am found us in Richard’s flat with Séan teaching our Spanish friend Alex to do the Eightsome Reel while I raided the fridge to rustle up spring onion and salmon frittata for the dozen or so merry survivors.

After such a great party, a post mortem is essential. We usually have a lunch here on Easter Sunday where newspapers are read, champagne is drunk and the various levels of wickedness displayed on Friday are dissected in near-forensic detail. Who fell of a chair? Who ran off with that cute waiter? Did anyone break a glass, a limb, a heart?

I spent Saturday in the gently soothing activity of preparing the feast for the following day – hummus and lebneh balls dipped in smoked paprika and toasted sesame seeds, platters of salami, and my first-ever dolma. I spent a happy few hours soaking and filling vine leaves. Sometimes the world – or at least the television schedulers – are kind, so I sat at my kitchen counter and rolled my vine leaves while watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As they simmered on the stove, they filled the house with their reviving and comforting lemony, spicy aroma.


After our Mediterranean canapés, we reverted to trad English for our main course: the tenderest Poll Dorset Spring Lamb from the Thoroughly Wild Meat Company which I seasoned and rubbed with butter and then simply roasted on a bed of rosemary, chopped onion and wet garlic, along with roasted asparagus from the Wye Valley and sweet, boiled Jersey Royals. For pudding, we devoured a strawberry and chocolate roulade and the heavenly Lemon Meringue Bombe from the Unconfidential Cook’s blog.


As we kissed the last of our 15 friends goodbye at 11pm, I was delighted that they’d come, thrilled they’d enjoyed themselves, but secretly excited that they’d left us with just enough lamb to fill a couple of pitas with the last scraps and some scrambled eggs and chopped mint for supper today.

Dolma In the 11 years I’ve lived in this part of London, I must have eaten enough stuffed vine leaves to stretch all the way along Green Lanes and back, from the Turkish part where they’re called dolma to the Greek end where they’re known as dolmades. But I’ve never made them. Seeing a vine press in the Turkish Food Centre pushed me over the edge from consumer to creator.

A 750g package of pickled vine leaves, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then drained, stalks cut off

125ml olive oil
2-3 onions, finely diced
50g pine nuts
250g short-grain rice
50g currants
1tbsp dried mint
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tbsps lemon salt *
250ml chicken stock
1 tomato, grated
A good-sized bunch of parsley, stalks removed then finely chopped
2tbsps finely chopped, fresh dill
1 small lemon, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper

*You can find tangalicious lemon salt in Mediterranean supermarkets. If you can’t get hold of any, use a teaspoon or so of ordinary salt and the juice of half a lemon.

Warm half of the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and sauté the onions until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the pine nuts and fry until they begin to turn golden. Add the rice and fry, stirring, for about 5 minutes until the rice is well coated in the oil. Add the currants, spices, dried mint and lemon salt, stir and pour in half of the chicken stock and simmer gently until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock and simmer again, stirring quite frequently, until it is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the grated tomato, fresh herbs and a good few grinds of black pepper. Cool.

Line a large, heavy casserole with a good layer of vine leaves (check through the ones you’ve soaked. They’ll inevitably be a few that are too small or torn – use those.) and a couple of slices of lemon.


Now, let the rolling extravaganza begin. Place a leaf in front of you, vein side up and the broadest part of the leaf facing you. Put a spoonful of the mixture about 1cm up from the base of the leaf. Fold over once, then fold in the sides and roll. I was daunted by warnings of not overfilling the leaves in case they split while cooking, so mine were a little thin. A think a good, rounded tablespoon of filling would be perfect. Line the base of the casserole with a layer of stuffed vine leaves, packing them in quite tightly. Place a couple of slices of lemon on top and make your next layer. Keep rolling and layering until you’ve used up all of your leaves and rice mixture. Pour over the rest of the olive oil and about 300ml of boiling water. Put a vine leaf press or a plate on top of your dolma to stop them bobbing around in the liquid and simmer very gently, covered, for about 35-45 minutes until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Serve warm or at room temperature.

It doesn’t get Leadbetter than this…

Yesterday’s trip down memory lane to dinner parties past inspired me to revisit some of my early culinary experiments, so here they are, more or less as I made them 30 years ago with a bit more booze and a bit more seasoning thrown in to mark the passing of the years. And to celebrate being old enough to drink.

Gingernut log

I remember going to Chittock’s on Newgate Street to seek out sweet, crunchy, fiery crystallised ginger from Mr Chittock, a proper, white-coated grocer as neat as his immaculately ordered shelves. If you ever find yourself in Bishop Auckland, you should drop in. I think his daughter runs the shop now, selling lovely Wensleydale cheeses, pease pudding, and delicious ham.

Chittock’s used to sell carlins too, also known as maple peas or pigeon peas (because they were fed to the ubiquitous pigeons). In the North East, Carlin Sunday precedes Palm Sunday. Traditionally the carlins were soaked overnight then boiled up with perhaps a ham bone thrown into the pot for extra flavour. Then the peas were fried in butter or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and a splosh of malt vinegar.

Anyway, I digress… onto the sweet treat that is the gingernut log. I made this from memory, adding the sherry to make it a little more interesting. You know, it wasn’t bad! Margo would have been proud…

350ml double cream
160g gingernut biscuits, about 3 per person
1 tbsp of ginger syrup from a jar of stem ginger (optional)
50ml of sherry – I used Palo Cortado, but any medium sherry would do
A few tablespoons of crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
40g dark chocolate

Serves 4

Lightly whip the cream with the syrup until it forms soft, cloudy peaks. Spoon a line of the cream down the middle of your serving plate – this will form a sort of ‘glue’ which will stop your biscuits rolling all over the place.

Next, pour a good couple of slugs of sherry into a bowl and quickly dip a biscuit into it – don’t soak it in the bowl, the sherry and the biscuit should have only the briefest flirtation, any longer a courtship and the biscuit will crumble into mush. Spread a good spoonful of cream onto the biscuit and then stand it on its edge on your serving plate.

Continue dipping and spreading, sandwiching the biscuits together on the plate to form a log. Next, spread the remaining cream all over the biscuits in a generous coating then scatter over the crystallised ginger. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and then spoon it over the log. Chill for at least four hours before serving in fat slices.

Tuna pâté

When I made this as a child, I think all it involved was beating a can of tuna into a paste with the same weight of butter and a dash of vinegar. Hmmm. There’s only so far down memory lane a girl is prepared to go. I made this today, it’s more of a spread than a pâté – the kind of thing you could probably throw together from the things in your cupboard. It’s good as an open sandwich and would be quite tasty on small bits of toast to go with drinks. If I’d had any dill, I think that would have been a good addition too.

100g of tinned tuna, drained weight from a 160g tin
40g unsalted butter
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 spring onion, very finely chopped
A good squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast and chopped hard-boiled egg and gherkin to serve

Beat the butter, mustard, spring onion and lemon juice together until smooth. Stir in the tuna, breaking up the bigger chunks. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve on hot toast, with chopped boiled egg and gherkins.