Thursday, September 30, 2010

Herb-rubbed slow-cooked roast pork

When it's your birthday, it's sometimes a good idea to announce that you're gonna cook the birthday dinner yourself. This is especially true when you don't trust anybody else to cook something that you aren't going to find objectionable one way or the other. If you let someone else cook the dinner, you open yourself up to multiple disappointments. The chief one is "I know that you like X and specifically asked to have X for your birthday dinner, and indeed begged me to make X, but I thought just for a change you might like Y, which I have never cooked before but thought in my very deluded mind that you might enjoy, even though it is not what you explicitly requested, and even though I sort of fucked it up. But I am your friend/relative/parent, and I hoped you wouldn't mind."

No, it's better to do it yourself. Which is how I came to be cooking roast belly of pork, potatoes and cabbage on the afternoon of my birthday, because literally nobody else I know cooks belly pork. I love belly pork, partly because it it's a very forgiving cut of pig, not to mention a cheap one (it's nearly impossible to overcook, whereas a regular pork chop is easy to turn into a rubbery puck of sadness) but mostly because it fulfils the dream of roast pork - something that's succulent and delicate at the same time. Why potatoes? Because if the theme is roast pork, you just need roast potatoes, unless you're going Chinese, which I wasn't. Why cabbage? Because the lusciousness of roast pork belly needs a fairly austere green vegetable to balance it and cabbage is about as austere as it gets.

So I bought two lovely pieces of pork belly from Austen Davies' stall at the farmers' market. I had to feed six adults plus one child: my mum, my mum's sister, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my lovely wife plus myself, plus of course the kid. Each of the pieces of pork were too small to feed all those people, but both together didn't fit in my roasting tin. Solution? To cut the smaller one down its length and stick it in the pan next to the other one. A side-effect of this would be that there would be more lovely crusty outside to the pork than there would normally have been.

Roast pork, roast potatoes and cabbage

1 piece of pork belly with skin, preferably on the bone, the thicker the better, c. 1.5-2kg

roasting potatoes (I used Desirees and will admit to missing Ireland, where it's much easier to get Roosters)

1 large white cabbage

bay leaves

juniper berries

caraway seeds

sea salt

black peppercorns

olive oil


a glass of white wine

vegetable stock made with Marigold stock powder

1. Preheat the oven to 220C (200C if you have a fan oven.) Crush a generous pinch of sea salt, a good few black peppercorns, two or three dried bay leaves and about four juniper berries together in your mortar and pestle. Keep pounding till it's a medium-coarse powder. You don't want bits of bay leaf and chunks of berry turning up on your fork. You want to rub this on the outside of the meat to make a delicious crust, so keep pounding away until a perfect stranger who doesn't know what's in the mortar couldn't tell what it is from a casual glance. So, not dust, just a coarse powder.

2. Okay. This is roast pork. You want crackling, right? Crackling is fun. Let's assume that you forgot to ask the butcher to cut off but keep the skin for you, so the skin is still attached. We will now cut through the whole crackling problem with a very sharp knife. You will need to be careful, you will need to be patient and you will need to not cut your hand off.

The skin on the roast pork will probably be more loose at one end than at the other. Go for the loose end. Lift the skin up and slide the blade of a very sharp knife underneath, and then work the blade under the skin, cutting away the connective tissue and pulling the skin gently but firmly upwards as you go, so that you cut the skin off in one piece.

3. Rub the meat all over with the salt/pepper/herb mix, and when it's been rubbed in, place the meat in a roasting tin and place the loose skin on top of it, skin-side-up. If you have any excess rub, it would be a good idea to rub some onto the skin at this point. If you don't, just rub a little salt into it - and I mean a little, preferably Maldon sea salt or your preferred good sea salt, crushed. It'll help give flavour to the crackling.

4. Now, leave the meat to sit for a good half an hour while you get the veg ready.

5. Half-fill a large saucepan with water and salt it lightly. Peel as many spuds as you want (I usually estimate about two per person - like most things, they shrink in the cooking), cut each medium-sized one into two pieces and each large one into at least three. Roast potatoes do not like to be perfectly smooth spheroids. Edges and corners helps them become crispy. Do not hesitate to hack off the end of a potato if it has dodgy-looking bits in it. Rinse the spuds before you put them in the water - it washes off the starch, which you don't want. Place spuds in cold water. Turn the water on for the spuds and cover the pan.

7. Your pork has now been sitting in the kitchen for about half an hour, and because you salted the skin, the skin is probably starting to exude a little moisture. Dab this off with a bit of kitchen towel, as crackling is less likely to happen when the skin is damp. Stick the pork in the oven. This is the bit where I usually lean down and watch through the door as it starts to sweat. I don't know why I do that.

8. You are now cooking your spuds in water. What the hey, some of you ask, aren't we making roast potatoes? Nigella Lawson, who I respect greatly, has a very good rule for roast potatoes: you need to cook them for longer than you think, at a hotter temperature than you think. Therefore, you need to start cooking them at the same time as, if not before, the meat. To get them crispy, they need to be fluffy when they hit the pan of hot fat or oil in the oven. To get them fluffy, you have to parboil them first. Let them come to the boil and take the lid off when the water boils, otherwise it'll boil over. Let them cook until they are tender enough that you can fairly easily stick a fork into them. (Don't try to test them by sticking a sharp knife into them. You can stick a sharp knife fairly easily into anything, so it will give you a false positive for tenderness. A fork is more reliable.)

9. Pour some olive oil, or your preferred fat (please, not butter or margarine - the former will burn and the latter is bad for you) into the bottom of a baking dish and stick it in the oven. You need to let this get hot before putting the parboiled potatoes in it, and that will take a good ten minutes. After your pork has been cooking for about 25 minutes, turn the oven heat down to about 150C. This will sort-of slow-cook the pork (it's actually too hot for real slow cooking, but it gives you time to do other things).

10. When your potatoes are tender drain them, leave them for a couple of minutes to dry off a bit, and then give them a quick glug of olive oil and transfer them to the baking dish to roast.

11. Congratulations. Most of the work is done. Sit down. Have a glass of wine. You can leave your pork and potatoes in the oven for a good hour and a half while you read a book, get ready for the party, chat to your guests about reality TV or Richard Dawkins or whatever floats your boat. Apart from the next bit.

12. Forty minutes before showtime, wash the cabbage, chop it into shreds and wash the saucepan that you cooked the spuds in, if you haven't already. As soon as it's clean, you will recycle this saucepan to cook the cabbage in. See how I save you washing up? When it's clean, half-fill it with water, put the water on to boil and cover it.

13. Twenty minutes before showtime, take the pork out of the oven and let it rest. The next bit is crucial: right after you've taken the pork out, whack the heat up in the oven to about 220C, take the skin off the pork (it'll probably look like it's almost but not quite crackling) and lay it on top of the spuds.

14. Next, blanch the cabbage in the boiling water for just a few minutes. There are two ways to cook cabbage; one way is to do it for about three hours, the other way is to do it for about five minutes. Every other way leads to nasty cabbage.

15. When the cabbage is blanched (like, two minutes in boiling water), take it out and cool it down in cold water. Rinse the saucepan. When you're ready to serve up, heat some butter in the saucepan, plus a few crushed caraway seeds. Finish off the cabbage by sautéing it lightly in the butter. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the top if you're feeling frisky.

16. Deglaze the sticky brown goo in the roasting tin with the white wine and veg stock that you made at some point, scraping up the goo with a wooden spoon so that it dissolves into the liquid. Let this boil so that it becomes a piquant jus for your pork. Your crackling should have puffed up nicely in the twenty minutes that it was away from the pork, sitting on top of the potatoes. If not - call me and we'll discuss it.

17. Cut the pork into thick slices and serve with a good piece of crackling, a few roast potatoes, a helping of cabbage and some jus from the pan. As you can see from the picture at the top, the potatoes weren't as crispy and golden as they might have been. But the pork made up for it. Oh yeah.

This particular meal was helped enormously by the fact that the meat was really, really good - flavourful and incredibly cheap. Two large slabs of it cost me £8 each. I dunno how they make a profit on that but I am very smug that half of one of those pieces is still nestling raw in my freezer, waiting for me to do things to it.

You wouldn't want to eat this every day. But for a birthday, it works.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Potato dauphinoise

I think my posts are becoming too long, so I've put the recipe at the top for a change.

The potato can be lots of things: comforting (baked), succulent (roasted), sociable (chips). But there's only one way with potatoes that's actually sexy, and it's potato dauphinoise: slices of potato cooked in a garlicky cream and then baked in the oven with a light cheese topping. Meltingly soft, it should have a cheesy-garlic twang and the sauce should flow into the embrace of whatever gravy or jus you've managed to coax out of whatever else that you've cooked (in last night's case, a very small shoulder of lamb that I'd marinaded in thyme, garlic and olive oil and which had unfortunately been completely eaten by the time I took the photo.)

This is my recipe, anyway. You'll need:

1 medium-sized baking potato per person;

n + ((n/2)-1) crushed (but not mashed) garlic cloves per person, to a maximum of n=8, where n is the number of people you're making it for - so if it's just yourself, use 1 garlic clove, but if there are two of you use two, and if there are three of you use 3.5, and if there are four of you use five, and so on, but I wouldn't ever use more than eight cloves;

c. 300ml of double cream - you will need more if cooking for more than two people;

a sprig of thyme;

a bay leaf;

a handful of grated mature cheese - Gruyere is traditional but I used a mixture of Red Leicester and Parmesan last night, thereby making this Potato Dolphin.

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly. The traditional thing is to slice them about a 1/4-inch thick, but last night I used my beloved mandoline slicer and got wafer-thin slices to see what would happen.

2. Place the potatoes, cream, garlic and herbs in a saucepan, season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and heat the cream until boiling. Turn down the heat and simmer for ten minutes.

3. While the potatoes are cooking, rub the interior of a baking dish with half a cut garlic clove and then smear it with butter.

4. When the potato has been simmering for ten minutes, fish out the garlic and herbs and throw them away. You don't want to be eating big chunks of garlic and sprigs of thyme. Next, pour the potatoes and cream from the saucepan into the baking dish, grate the cheese over the top (or scatter it over the top if you already grated it) and bake for forty minutes.

5. When it's tender and the cheese has formed a nice brown crust on the top, take it out and let it sit for ten minutes. This is essential! Why? Because otherwise it will be a.) volcanically hot and b.) too runny. You want it to congeal slightly and settle down before serving it. Or rather trying to serve it, because it will ooze.

6. Cut in portions like a creamy potato-based lasagna and serve with grilled or roast lamb - or steak, if you're really not worried about your arteries. This dish is crying out for browned, rare meat and winey juices.

This was my most successful dauphinoise ever. Not because of my years of experience and innate genius, but because the potatoes were sliced so thin. Sometimes my dauphinoises are heavy and starchy, but in this one the potato was almost but not quite melting into the sauce. Big thanks to my friend Niall Markey, chef-turned-farmer, who gave me the mandoline in the first place in an act of unprompted generosity. (Niall also makes the best pizzas I have ever eaten.)

I am not a huge fan of potato. I was brought up on boiled potatoes as a kid and if there's one process a potato shouldn't have to undergo, it's being peeled and boiled in water, and then served up just as it is, as if it were fit to eat. I don't like mash. I can more or less do without chips, unless I'm having either steak & frites or moules & frites. Apart from dauphinoise, which is a rare and guilty pleasure, I only love potatoes two ways: roasted and fried. The point of a potato, for me, is not the boring fluffy white stuff but the crisp golden crust surrounding the fluffy white stuff. There's a fair amount of work entailed in getting a potato to that state (peeling, pre-boiling, draining, cooking in hot fat) and so I can seldom be bothered to, thankfully for my cholesterol levels.

The single worst thing I have ever been served in a restaurant was a 'baked potato' in a place in Ballinasloe, undoubtedly one of the worst towns in Ireland (although it did have a surprisingly brilliant secondhand bookshop in which I scored an ultra-rare copy of Richard Farina's uncollected writings for 35p); when the baked potato finally appeared, it turned out that they'd peeled it, wrapped it in foil and heated it in the oven. That was the sum total of what they did to it. Because of course, there's a whole bunch of classic French recipes for potatoes that seldom if ever get tried, such as pommes fondant (olive-shaped bits of potatoes fried lightly then cooked in stock until the stock boils away and glazes the spud), potato croquettes (potato puree enriched with egg, formed into clumps, rolled in egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fried - hell yeah, I'm doing that one of these days), potatoes boulangéres, which my dad used to make: slice potatoes and onions thinly, alternate layers of them in a well-buttered baking dish, cover with stock and bake until they can be cut with a spoon. (The best way to do them is to place your meat on top, so that the meat juices run into the potato-onion mixture. My dad used to use chicken portions but lamb is also good.)

I hardly ever eat potato dauphinoise. I think the first time I ever ate it was in Pierre Levicky's much missed bargain bistro Chez Jules, in Dublin in the mid-90s. It used to be possible to go to Chez Jules and order a steak, potato dauphinoise and a bottle of wine on a student's budget. I think he did it by having very few things on the menu and using cheaper and more interesting cuts of steak than the usual sirloin and fillet, because Chez Jules was almost certainly the first place I ever tasted ribeye. The kitchen was semi-open and there was a constant sense of things exploding into huge bursts of flame as the chefs tossed glugs of wine into hot sauté pans. I had many memorable meals there, or maybe it was just a very few extremely memorable ones. The Chez Jules project died in Dublin because the Irish went straight from not having much of a taste for food to having a need to be seen to be spending a lot of money on it, and so a great but inexpensive idea like Levicky's became a place that Dubliners thought was beneath them, and we ended up with shitty rip-off joints like Cafe Soho (formerly the utterly contemptible Cornerhouse, if I remember its accursed name correctly). Levicky is back now, at least in my new town, and he has the same menu as before. Good man.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fast food in the home #2: hardcore chicken

So my last post was nobly vegetarian. This one isn't. This is a love letter to some of my favourite and most hardcore ingredients: chicken innards.

Most of us who eat meat at all have eaten doner or shawarma, that uncopyable kebab house dish for which you have to acquire a tower of spiced meat and an upright rotisserie grill, and in fact you may as well not bother because you can't fit those things into your kitchen. I am very fond of gyros, pronounced more or less like gear-oss, which is the Greek version. In northern Greece, at any rate, this is as likely to be made from pork than from lamb, and it will generally consist of shreds of grilled meat that's been cooked on the usual giant vertical rotating skewer, then sliced off and dumped in a thick piece of Greek pita bread which likely as not has been dunked in hot oil (it's a heart attack in a paper envelope) and garnished with a few chips, some sliced red onion and squirts of mustard and ketchup. Is it nutritious? Not especially. Is it tasty? Hell yeah. The best I know is from a cafe in Salonika the name of which escapes me, but my favourite gyros place is a tiny one-room outlet on the seafront of a small seaside town in northern Greece. It's called 'Spiros Gyros'. Spiros is the owner. Yes, it rhymes.

My favourite cookbook of all time is probably Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, not because I cook from it all the time (I don't) but because it's just such a great read, and this is one recipe that she actually doesn't give in it. This is Mo'arav Yerushalmi (the exact spelling depends on how you transliterate Hebrew into English), aka Jerusalem Mix, and it supposedly originated with the mixed grill that the British forces brought to Palestine during the mandate period (1922-1948). Roden describes it as being cooked on metal grills round the back of Jerusalem bus station. If that doesn't get your taste buds throbbing, you have no soul.

There are as many recipes for Jerusalem Mix as there are for a classic fried breakfast. In the case of the fry-up, much depends on whether you use back bacon or streaky bacon, and whether you allow such things as potato farls or black & white pudding. In the case of Jerusalem Mix, it's all about the spices. I only found one recipe for it, which is this one, and I've adapted it slightly to fit the ingredients that were available to me. It's cheap, it's filling and it's a unique flavour clash which is all about conflicting flavours and textures coming together in each mouthful. It's about raw and fresh salad meeting deliciously chewy but succulent and spicy chicken which in turn bounces off the sharp, sour relish. Yes, like sabich, it's just a goddamn culinary metaphor for the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. It's one of my favourite dishes, and since there's very little added fat and that's olive oil, it's not even all that bad for you. You could adapt it into a salad by simply leaving out the bread and tossing the chicken with the salad. But most of all, it's about the pleasure of feasting on bits of the chicken that you don't normally eat.

You will need:

pita bread (at least 1 per person)

slightly more of the following than you think you will be able to eat:

chicken thigh meat, cubed - count on at least one thigh per person because the meat shrinks amazingly during the cooking process;

chicken hearts, liver and gizzards; again, get more than you think you'll need, because they'll shrink during the cooking. Chicken liver should be cut up into large chunks and all greenish bits removed and thrown away (they're bitter). Chicken hearts should be halved lengthways and rinsed to remove any blood. (It's not bad for you, it's just a bit grisly-looking.) Chicken gizzards - cut off the thin greyish flaps and keep the big chunky bits. The other bits aren't inedible, they're just alarmingly tough. It's the gizzards that really separate the sheep from the goats, when it comes to eating this meal.

Baharat spices. I have been using Bart's Baharat mix: "baharat" is just a generic name for an Arabic spice mix, which in Bart's case is comprised of paprika, coriander, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves and nutmeg. Now that I read the list of ingredients, I realise that I could make this up myself; the Bart's mix is fine, but like all spice mixes, you'll probably get better, stronger, fresher results making it fresh, plus you can fine tune the flavours. I also throw in a good pinch of sumac at the end.

Radishes, topped, tailed and sliced

Cherry tomatoes, diced

A few white onions, sliced

A big bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

A good handful of mint leaves, chopped

Red wine vinegar

A clove of garlic, thinly sliced

Olive oil

Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

Mango pickle - see my note on this in the previous post.

1. First, you may as well toast your pita bread now (I put it in the toaster, because...well, I just do.)

2. Next, fry your onion in a little olive oil over a moderate heat until it's soft, golden and caramelising. Don't let it burn. Resist the temptation to season it. You need this onion to be plain, because it acts as an emollient and sweetener in the final sandwich and brings the other ingredients together as a kind of neutral negotiating partner; without it, the chicken and the salad will walk away from the table. If your onion is perfectly cooked but you haven't started the chicken, don't worry, just reserve it. We'll have a chance to reheat it later.

3. When the onion is going nicely, make a salad of the chopped radish, parsley, mint, garlic, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil. Put this in a little bowl. This is what will give the finished thing freshness, sharpness and vitality.

4. Next, fry your chicken. Heat olive oil in a pan and when it's really hot, throw in your chicken thigh meat and innards. Let them colour and then throw in a generous spoonful of your spice mixture. Let it brown and enjoy the delicious aroma. Next, throw in a glassful of white wine, or water, or a mixture of the two. It should boil almost immediately, and make sure you scrape up the brown goo on the bottom of your pan. This liquor will cook the chicken further and differently from the frying. Let it go on cooking until all the liquor has evaporated, and I mean all of it. You want to first fry the chicken, then boil it, then go back to frying it again. The result of this process is that the chicken will acquire a rich brown crust. Taste it - it should be spicy and chewy but also tender.

5. When the chicken is ready, that's a good time to just toss your already fried onions into the pan for a minute or so, not to cook anymore, just to warm up. Of course, if you are a cook of skill, you'll have timed it so that the chicken and the onions are ready at the same time.

To assemble the dish, take a toasted pita, split it and line the bottom with salad and fried onions. Next, fill it with as much chicken as it can take - it should be full to bursting - and then add some mango pickle on the top. Serve with very cold beer and also napkins, because it will leak oily, orange, fenugreek-flavoured juice as soon as you bite into it. Yes, I know that that thing on the right looks like a really nasty part of the chicken, but it isn't, it's a chicken heart. (Trivia fact: I always thought that the pope's nose was the chicken's ass, but it isn't; it turns out to be the base of the chicken's tail. So, adjacent to the ass, anyway.) Mop up the juice with any remaining pita. Argue. Denounce. Hug.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fast food in the home #1: Sabich

I love making facsimiles of street food more than I like eating the real thing. Those who remember the CJD panic of the 1990s will recall the stories about how eating hamburgers served from little carts will turn your brain to fondue, and I don't know about you, but the whole thing caused me to come to one particular conclusion and to behave in one particular way. The conclusion I came to, which was rigorously founded on a basis of no evidence whatever, was that the government had probably tightened up safety standards on the production of hamburger meat (75% less death-dealing prions by volume!). The pattern of behaviour I adopted, which would seem to be at odds with my conclusion, was that I have never, ever eaten a hamburger from a street vendor. I had never eaten one before CJD came along, but the CJD scare caused me to decide not to as a general rule of life, just as at some point back there I decided that I was never going to become a Mormon. Just because street vendor hamburgers might conceivably be a tiny bit safer now, or at any rate those who make them might conceivably face stiffer penalties for delivering bad ones, that's still no reason to eat one. Unless the vendor can produce, like, a signed letter from the Minister for Health confirming that the burgers are prion-free. Then at least my legal guardians will know who to sue when I'm on a ventilator.

But there are other kinds of street food than hamburgers. I am a big fan of pretty much anything that gets served in pita bread, for example. This is the bit where I should start talking about great fast food I have eaten from around the world, but unfortunately I haven't been all over the world. However, I know some well-travelled people, including my friend Peter Crawley, who is a theatre reviewer for the Irish Times, God help him. Apart from being very intelligent and an all-round good bloke, one of the fine things about Peter is that he once called Chris de Burgh a talentless git, and in return for thus speaking the truth to power he earned the mono-browed one's undying hatred. Peter went to Israel a while ago and came back raving about sabich, a vegetarian fast food. I am normally wary of anything that involves aubergine, but Peter was so eloquent that I asked him to recap his experience for us. Here he goes:

"I'd arrived for a cultural press trip in Israel late at night, and boarded a cheap shuttle bus for Ben Yehuda Street, where I was staying in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, it deposited me in Ben Yehuda street in Haifa, about 100 km away.

Still, I did get to build up an appetite touring through a few ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods en route, where small boys in black suits played with iPods in the blazing sun and street posters depicted Barack Obama as a new Yasser Arafat, smiling beneath a superimposed keffiyeh.

I was famished by the time I got to Tel Aviv, an expensive taxi ride later. The hotel receptionist sent me downtown to a network of narrow streets where she told me "Israelis go to eat" and I was advised to get some shawarma - a kebab, basically. By the time I got there that stall was long closed and the only option was the sabich vendor who didn't seem to keep any sort of reasonable hours.

I had no idea what sabich was, to be honest, and the place could have looked a whole lot cleaner. But even at that hour it seemed popular and I have an instinctive admiration for any name that lends itself to weak puns and that practically needs to be hissed if it's pronounced correctly.

I got a sales pitch from a fast-talking Israeli-Arab, nonetheless, who loaded up a pitta bread with mysterious squidgy contents from a simmering pot (which I presumed was potato) and then layered it with hummus, harif, cucumber and tomato salad. He paused dramatically over a trough full of a viscous orange-coloured sauce. "Do you want amba?" he asked. "Ok," I said. "Are you sure? You'll get sweats in the night. You'll wake up wanting more." "Um, alright?" I said.

The first bite felt like a conspiracy of mush, loosely held together in the floury pitta, full of new flavours. It filled the mouth, soft and tender. You had to eat slowly. It demanded to be savoured. It was everything I needed when I needed it and I knew too that the satisfaction it brought was also probably unrepeatable - I'd never be as hungry, or as relieved to have arrived somewhere safely, or have been as adventurous given more familiar options.

Thank you Peter. The cheque is in the post. My own recipe is adapted from one I found on the most excellent blog of Michael Natkin, and I chose it because it doesn't involve potatoes, a vegetable I had too much of as a kid and now actively avoid.

You will need (for four people):

A packet of good pita bread - the pita you get in Asian shops tends to be bigger and cheaper than the stuff you get in supermarkets, although it can sometimes disintegrate on you.

2-3 large aubergines, peeled and cut into slices about 1 cm thick

Four hard-boiled eggs, quartered. (for perfect hard-boiled eggs without grey yolk, place eggs in cold water, bring to boil, boil for minute, turn off heat, leave for ten minutes and cool under the tap). If you want to make vegan sabich, leave out the eggs.

Good hummus, either shop-bought or your own

Tahina (optional)

2 red onions, sliced

1 cucumber, peeled and finely diced

Plenty of cherry tomatoes
, finely diced

Some topped, tailed and sliced radishes (optional

The chopped leaves of about five sprigs each of flat-leaf parsley and mint

Mango pickle. Not mango chutney, which is usually sweet, mild and jam-like, but mango pickle, which is sour, hot and fenugreeky - the Israeli product, amba, is apparently a puree, but the only kind I can get is Indian or Pakistani and has chunks of mango in it, but the spicing and general effect is the same. It should be a bright orange colour.

Red wine vinegar

Olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Toast and split your pita in advance, because if you try and assemble this with freshly toasted pita you'll drop it.

2. Make a salad with the onion, cucumber, tomato, parsley and mint. Wait until the last minute to dress it, so it doesn't wilt.

3. Sauté the aubergine slices a few at a time in olive oil, until they're nicely browned. The aubergine will first absorb all the oil, but as it cooks it will give up the struggle and the olive oil will ooze out of it again. You can keep the slices warm in a warm oven (50C) if you like.

4. Serve dressed salad, pita, hummus, tahina, eggs, fried aubergines and pickle in bowls and let everyone assemble a mighty sandwich.

5. Eat, accompanied by ice cold beer, preferably at the end of a long journey.

This meal, as Peter says, is the source of many rivalling recipes and theories and claims: 'I never thought conflict in the Middle East would spill into a very filling sandwich.' For the record, he didn't get night sweats and neither will you, probably. But you will want more.

Before I finish: the tomatoes in this particular sabich were outstanding, and came from J & M Craig. I bought them at the Edinburgh farmer's market. Best tomatoes I've had this side of the Mediterranean; eating them, you were reminded that tomatoes are actually a fruit.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Plans and Cakes

Today's entry is largely a chronicle of failure.

I am aware that I probably eat too much meat, and in an attempt to do something about this, I've instituted the meat-free Wednesday rule: whatever we eat on a Wednesday can't have any meat in it, although that doesn't mean that it has to be vegan or even strictly vegetarian. Fish is okay, although it's slightly a cop-out. Since tonight I was only going to be cooking for myself, the Tortemeisterin having made other plans, I had decided last night that I would go old-school vegetarian and make falafel in pita with hummus. From scratch, too.

So last night I put some dried broad beans and chickpeas in to soak. Why broad beans? I hear you ask. Because Claudia Roden, who is my goddess in the matter of Middle Eastern finger food, advises in the Book of Jewish Food that the best falafel are made not with chickpeas but with soaked, dried broad beans. Fair enough, you ask, but in that case, why chickpeas as well? Because I wanted to be able to compare the two.

The first thing I did to make things difficult for myself later on was to put them both to soak in the same bowl. Why was this a stupid idea? Because if, later on, I wanted to make two different kinds of falafel, I was going to have to unpick the broad beans from the chickpeas, which would take time and therefore put my eventual eating time even further back.
The next thing I did to make things difficult for myself was go out in the middle of the day to have a coffee in the Elephant House and then go to the library to do a bit of preliminary swotting for my Greek class that starts in October, but then not do a proper shop on the way home. The result was that by the time the fussy one had been put to bed and I was good to go with making falafel, it was 8.20PM and I realised that I had no hummus, flat-leaf parsley or spring onions. This meant that a trip to Scotmid was in order. It was at this point that the Tortemeisterin asked a superficially shallow and cynical but actually, as it would turn out, very important, complex and difficult question, which was this:

'Why bother?'

'Because,' I replied with what I imagined was rocklike integrity, 'I've started making it so I'm gonna finish.' This was, in many respects, quite untrue. I had only got as far as soaking the pulses and buying pita bread. I had originally planned to make hummus too, from scratch, but as the evening had worn on it had become pretty obvious that there wouldn't be much hope of cooking chickpeas, cooling them sufficiently and blending them with my ample supplies of tahini in time to have usable hummus by 10pm or so. So, for the hummus, I was going to get some in Scotmid.

But already, the falafel-making plan was becoming perhaps fatally compromised. I took the rubbish out and made my way downstairs, fully intending to pillage Scotmid for all the hummus, flat-leaf parsley and spring onions they had. But I was barely out the door, carrying a bag of rubbish down the road in the cool blue autumn twilight, before I realised that there would be very little chance that Scotmid was going to have any flat-leaf parsley at this time of the evening. Their fresh herb supplies are erratic at the best of times and it's not unusual for even the herbs they have to be black and slimy before you've even bought them. If I had really wanted flat-leaf parsley, I should have gone to the greengrocer on Home Street, who sells the stuff in fat, verdant bunches but who closes at 7pm.

Okay, I told myself. This whole plan rests on whether or not Scotmid has flat-leaf parsley. You can't make falafel without flat-leaf parsley. It is an integral part of the whole thing. If they don't have it, it's plan B, whatever plan B is.

I arrived at Scotmid, picked up a basket and headed for the fresh herbs. And I looked, and I saw that it was in one way bad, because they didn't have flat-leaf parsley but only mint, coriander (my least favourite leaf in the universe) and basil, but in another way good, because it meant that I was no longer obliged to make falafel this evening, and therefore stood a reasonable chance of eating some time before 10.30pm. And when I did finally get to eat something, it wouldn't be bloody falafel, which I like, but which shouldn't be anything like this much trouble.

Which is why I bought a few beers, came home and ordered a Neptune pizza from Italian Connection in Bruntsfield. It has fish in it, so the no-meat rule is observed. The moral of this story? Darwin was right. Those individual members of a given species that adapt best to changing circumstances ensure the survival of the species as a whole.

The day wasn't totally wasted, culinarily speaking. Earlier on, I had been attracted by a big packet of raw peanuts in Sainsbury's that said 'perfect for home roasting'. I bought a packet, came home and roasted some (20 minutes on a baking tray at 200C, or 180C in our case cause we have a fan oven). The results were crunchy, complex and delicious and quite unlike the rather flubby taste and texture of a raw peanut. See the pictures for comparison. In both cases, the peanuts on the left are raw, the ones on the right are roasted.

It has come to my attention that I have been referring to the Tortemeisterin's prowess at cake-making but haven't posted any evidence of it. Here it is. On how and why she made these particular cakes, she refuses to go into any detail other than that they were kid's parties and "It's amazing what you can find on YouTube."