My breakfast priorities shift in the wake of Nights Before. Usually I’ll just have fruit. And maybe something oaty — overnight soaked, crisped up into granola, or cooked to porridge. But last night’s dinner was morcilla-stuffed squid, red wine lentils, scallops fried in chorizo oil…All that, two friends, and plenty of wine.
So, wrapped in a paisley dressing gown older than I am, and confronted with the prospect of a merciful morning off work, I have a hangover to face head on. The kind of hangover that makes a zombie of me and an event of breakfast. I’m well practiced at this sort of event though. I can cook up the kind of cure I need, even still half-asleep.
I need spice. I need sweet, sour, savoury — aggressive flavours to wake me up and clear my head. Most of all I need eggs.
I get the oven baking hot. I line the bottom of a little cast-iron pan with slivers and chips of cecina de Leon. I layer diagonal slices of celery, and jags of fleshy homegrown tomatoes over the top. I chop in an ember of chilli and pulverise half a salt-preserved lemon. A sprinkling of za’atar, sumac, plenty of black pepper. A splash of red wine vinegar and a morsel of honey.
Into the oven it goes, and in the oven it sits, as I set about fixing coffee with lazy hands and stiff fingers.
It comes out again when the cecina has turned crisp like bacon. The vegetables above are soft and aromatic, but the cecina has stopped any of them from sticking. I make divets in the mixture with a spoon and crack in two eggs, shake over Turkish toasted chilli flakes, and return it to the oven for a final spell.
I stretch, trying to remember bits and pieces of yoga, as I wait. But mostly I’m thinking about breakfast, and making coffee disappear.
And when I eat it, it ticks all the boxes. The cecina is savoury and crispy and chewy. The vegetables are a lovely confusion of sourness and sweetness — treat celery right, and slowly, and it’ll get smooth, aromatic, sugary like rhubarb. The spice is layered throughout, and the eggs are a binding rich ooze. I scoop it up with a heel of toast, and think about how I should probably be writing…
My parents dabble in smallholding. They keep chickens, grow vegetables, keep bees, all in a small patch of West London round the back of a council estate.
My grandfather on the other hand lives out in the middle of nowhere. He has more space and so he dabbles in bigger things. My mum went to visit him recently and came back with a pretty substantial amount of lamb offcuts. Or at least, it felt pretty substantial to me as I spent my morning trimming the fat from pieces of breast, shoulder knuckle (whatever that is), and other anonymous bony bits, until I had enough usable meat to be going on with.
I spent the afternoon and a slice of my evening turning it into dinner.
A lamb khoresh, with butternut squash, prunes, and tamarind, to be precise.
I worked with a strong Persian influence, coupling fruit with meat, and strong fragrant spices. “I would say it was the shit, if I do say so myself”. In concocting a dish from what I had to hand, I may have stumbled upon a go-to.Slowly cooked soft-melting meat, in a dark, rich, tart sauce. Sweet prune flesh to suck from the hard stones.
Served with a tomato and cucumber chopped salad with za’atar vinaigrette. And a mixed long-bean salad with a garlic, whole spice, and lemon zest dressing. All the vegetables were homegrown, with the exception of half a red pepper snuck in with the beans.
I even tried to my hand at a cheaty little shortcut to making Turkish-style lavash bread. Gorgeous for mopping up the khoresh’s juices, and therapeutic to knead, and knead, and knead again. I may also have slathered a bit with nutella and some macerated blackberries for dessert, ending my meal in a kind of bastardised black-forest gateau…
There’s this charming little mini-chain of Mediterranean style coffee/wine/sherry/tapas places in London, and they go by the collective name of Fernandez and Wells. (I say ‘coffee/wine/sherry/tapas’ in that order because that’s what I tend to get from them, from most often to least.)
They’re a guilty pleasure of mine. Mostly because there’s one around the corner from where I work, and it’s where I spend most of my breaks, paying for their coffee instead of getting free coffee at my own shop, and reading whatever I’m reading at the time. Basically because their coffee is to die and rise again for.
I’ve gotten to be a regular enough customer that I seem to have stumbled into getting a discount. Maybe they think I work there, given how frequently I’m there, and how I tend to have a haggard mid-shift look about me. Maybe it’s a tacit regular’s discount? Maybe they just feel sorry for me? Regardless, I don’t mind, and tend to stick the difference into the tip jar anyway.
Still, lovely as their food all looks - from the slates of fresh sandwiches to the jamon hanging in their windows; not to mention what appears on their menus, and on the plates of other customers - I can’t quite afford their prices, and I’m rarely hungry at work. Still, I like thinking about food when I’m not eating it. So I check out their menus anyway. There’s one thing that’s fascinated me, looking at it for a few days now:
Something they call Khlea-style Eggs. Khlea is, as far as I’m aware, basically North African meat confit. The F&W one, however, uses Cecina de Leon: Spanish smoked and air-dried beef. Cecina is something we sell in the shop, and that I’m a middling-to-large fan of, and that I tend to take home bits of pretty often.
With a lovely big end piece of cecina in my fridge at home, and with today being the start of my weekend, and a bit of holiday for my dad, I decided to get up and cook my own version of F&W’s khlea-style eggs.
Home-laid eggs fried with cecina de Leon. Served on grilled ciabatta with a salsa crudo of homegrown bull’s heart tomatoes and little tomatillos and crunchy sweet red pepper. Small Batch Roasting Company Blue-Note Blend coffee, made in a moka pot for once. And peaches pilfered from my place of employment for dessert.
I’ve drawn my conclusions. First, this breakfast was a success — even my dad liked it. Second, cecina de Leon fries like streaky bacon but less pointless and less fatty-salt. Third, tomatillos cut beautifully through both the darkly savoury cecina and the rich eggs. Fourth, I have no idea if this is even remotely similar to what F&W call Khlea-style eggs, but to be honest, I’ve got my own way of doing this now, and so I hardly care…
It’s not just the ingredients I use that change with the seasons. In Winter I’m all about comfort cooking, lazy cooking; rich flavours and low slow cooking. Everything I want from a dish, straight from one pot and into one bowl. But in Summer I’m about sharing plethoras of small plates. Lighter flavours shown off in simpler clear-cut dishes. Things that can be made ahead of time, served at room temperature, or cobbled together in the last hours of sunlight left in the day.
Dinner tonight was very much a feast of the latter variety.
Three bold little salads and a take on salt and pepper squid, all plonked down in the middle of the table, with everyone expected to help themselves. Then help themselves to seconds. And thirds.
Red rice with grilled vegetables, toasted nuts, and dried fruit.
Camargue red rice is awesome stuff. Nutty, and with a chewy texture, it makes a fantastic base for salads in Summer. In Winter I use it in rice bowls, stirring an egg into the hot grains alongside julienned vegetables and literal gallons of hot sauce, grumbling and shivering as I spoon it into my frowning face.
But I’m getting off track…Here, I grilled some homegrown courgettes and an aubergine then sliced the charred flesh then tossing it with the rice. Toasted almonds added crunch to contrast the silky veg. A dressing that contained, among other things, fresh orange juice came together with hibiscus za’atar and golden sultanas to give a fruity floral chewy kick. Though in retrospect I would’ve preferred barberries or dried sour cherries to the sultanas, for the sake of balance.
Finished with lemony saffron yogurt for drizzling.
Mixed bean salad with homegrown jalapeños.
My little bit of comfort in amongst all this freshness. Because there’s something I find incredibly satisfying about the texture of half-soft beans with a touch of spice and a bit of limey zing. As if they know, in another life, in another season, they might’ve become properly good baked beans instead…
Homegrown mixed leaves, arranged around a well of sweet peppers, and homegrown heirloom tomatoes, and cucumbers.
My iconoclastic take on salt and pepper squid.
As far as I’m aware, the original dish is a Cantonese classic. So that’s where my influence began, but my other loves in food had a fair say throughout preparing this dish. I marinated the generous bites of squid in lime juice, tenderising and part-cooking them like one would in a Peruvian ceviche or tiradito. But I also added sherry vinegar and crushed Szechuan pepper.
The trick with squid and octopus and so on is cooking it either very quickly or very slowly. This time I cooked it quick, stir-frying it hard and fast, then removing the squid to an earthenware dish while I reduced the marinade to sauce the whole lot after. Cooked for only about two minutes, this squid was gorgeously tender, delicate, but spicy.
Dinner was lovely. And quick. And lazy. And all those things coming together is a rare delicacy in itself. But I didn’t take any photos. Even so, that doesn’t stop me talking, does it? Few things do.
So I quickly marianted the mysterious white fish fillets in light coloured soy sauce, shaoxing rice wine, and a bit of toasted sesame oil and Thai fish sauce. While doing so, I also figured out that they were probably bass and haddock. But I wasn’t absolutely certain. So the most important ingredient in my marinade remained mystery.
Steamed them gently for just under ten minutes. After that, they were at the sweet spot between tender and firm, and delicately flavoured, and moist. The fact that they were free also helped the flavour.
Meanwhile I thinly sliced some homegrown red-stemmed chard, and carrots, and rounds of courgette, and Chinese leaf, and white cabbage and got a wok screaming hot ready to stir-fry it. The thick stemmy bits, and the carrots first — the bits that’d take some cooking. Then five minutes later, the rest, wilting down just long enough to stay crunchy. Then immediately tipped into a bowl to let my wok cool.
I decided a sauce was what this needed. My flavours so far were clean and clear and a touch of the robust might add some pleasant pepp. Or maybe I just wanted to use some sichuan pepper — let’s face it, I always do.
So I sliced garlic, and ginger, and about four strong homegrown spring onions. Then fried them in the same wok, in a little more sesame oil. This time the temperature was low. I added the remaining marinade left over from the fish, and as I watched the lot bubble together, I tossed in a big pinch of sichuan flower pepper, and another healthy dose of Turkish toasted chilli flakes.
The spices, individually, are a kind of cool lemony fire, and a nutty warmth. Together, their aromas mingled, and helped me realise I was hungry as all hell.
Decanted that potent dram of sauce into a little dish, with a spout for drizzling. Moments later, dinner was served. What felt like only minutes after that, it was gone.
Prayers for fair weather: a weekend spent barbecuing.
Yesterday was taken up entirely by cooking and eating. The sunshine decided to show, and the warm weather with it. And so I spent the day with an old friend, stood around a smoldering pile of charcoal and white embers, laying protein over the heat and watching as wondrous transformations took hold.
Pork shoulder with an aromatic shawarma-style rub. Sizzle steaks in a lomo saltado marinade. Merguez sausages and lamb koftes with dried apricot. And halved aubergines with chopped lemon and ground sumac. Gorgeous stuff but beside the point. Onto today.
Today seemed a bit less certain. I expected rain and was pleasantly surprised — as you’ll always be if you expect the worst. So we spatchcocked and marinated a chicken. After hours of music and drinking and salad making, we fired up the barbecue again.
Cecina de Leon and mixed olives. Cecina being gorgeous stuff from the charcuterie counter at work. Smoked and air dried leg of beef, chewy and darkly savoury, with a rich salty-smokey and slightly spicy flavour.
Homegrown golden beetroot and golden sultanas, with a dressing stem ginger syrup, rice wine vinegar, olive oil, and sumac and salt and pepper. I wouldn’t have known it until I came up with this little gamble, but the sweet syrup from a jar of preserved stem ginger, coupled with smooth rice wine vinegar is a match made in heaven. The earthy sweetness of golden beetroot is an awesome carrier – and a gorgeous colour – to couple with both.
Roasted homegrown beetroot hummus, with toasted cumin seeds and walnut.
Julienned homegrown cucumbers and tiny carrots, with a salty vinegary mustard seed dressing. A crunchy fresh astringent sharpness to cleanse the palate of the other sweet and spicy flavours.
Homegrown broad and fine beans, blanched, with lemon zest and juice, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper.
Spatchcocked and chargrilled free-range chicken with a pomegranate molasses peri peri marinade. The marinade was zesty and spicy, with bird’s eye and aji limon chillies, rustic herbs like thyme and oregano, and the particular pointed sweetness of pomegranate molasses. I also made a milder relish out the last reserved quarter of the marinade, slowly caramelising it with tomatoes, peppers, and onion, alongside a little dijon mustard and more lemon juice. My take on the Portuguese/West-African classic: it took to the chicken with time-honoured enthusiasm.
Griddled homegrown courgettes with charred cherry tomatoes and courgette flowers. Because we’re at the beginning of a glut, and have established a rule that, whatever else dinner might involve, at least three courgettes must disappear in the process of its production. And so we beat hopelessly against the tide…
Note: I wondered about a tahini dressing, perhaps with smoked paprika involved. But I couldn’t find the tahini, and got bored with my fruitless hunt halfway through it. Next time, maybe.
Sweet potatoes and carrots, roasted with a mixture of za’atar, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses. Soussed with a sauce of sherry, dried figs, golden raisins, and slices of some strange chewy fig ‘sausage’: we’d had it in the fridge to use with cheese for who-knows how long — I decided its time had come. Couldn’t quite decide whether this made it a reduction, or a mixture of macerated fruit, or what. But in food, what’s on your plate and in your mouth tend to be more important than what’s in a name.
Oh. Some very pretty pistachios also made an appearance. I really like the petally purple colours they give to this dish’s palette. Speaking of purple…
Slow-roasted homegrown beetroot with green lentils, caramelised onion marmalade, and crumbled mature goat’s cheese. Which, for me, wins the award for the week’s most surprising comfort food.
Serve with leaves, watercress, and a distinctly average supermarket cabernet sauvignon. Because god damn, it’s already been a hard week.
Excuse my French, but dinner tonight was bullshit. Not in the sense that it was a terrible failure I wouldn’t wish into a dog’s bowl, let alone onto my plate. Just to clarify, it was pretty good — honest. No, I mean it was the product of my bullshitting. Making it up as I went along.
I don’t generally follow recipes. Maybe if I’m cooking a dish with a heritage to it. The sort where every chef from a particular corner of the world thinks they, and probably their grandmother before them, are sole guardian of the One True Path to a perfect rendition of that dish, against which all else pales in comparison. Maybe then I’ll do my research, and scour through dozens of recipes. But I won’t have them in front of me when I cook. I’ll take them in and riff on them, and find my own path.
This might sound like big talk, but it’s more of a guilty admission. I’ve got no attention span. I don’t like being told what to do. There are only a handful of recipe-writers who can muster prose worth the paper it’s written on. For all these reasons and more, I can improvise like hell. But I can’t bake for toffee.
Today I did all sorts of research. I pondered and wondered through plenty of cuisines. I consulted all my recipe books, in search of inspiration. Plenty was forthcoming. And that was just the problem. I couldn’t settle down. So instead, I invented.
Leg of lamb, braised in absurd amounts of red wine till fall-apart tender, with plenty of sumac, and strips of silky aubergine. Rich, dark red and warming, with a touch of sumac tartness, and a soft finish from the aubergine. Though perhaps I should have griddled the aubergine separately? Served one on a bed of the other?
A salad bowl of homegrown leaves, with a heart of diverse lovelies. Homegrown courgette rounds, fried till golden in a little oil skimmed from the top of the stew. Chunks of avocado — not overripe nor immature, for once. Sweetcorn kernels, shucked from the cob, stir-fried with smoked paprika until beginning to pop and crisp. Little tomatoes. Toasted walnuts.
All that, and a little nameless cocktail I concocted. Dark rum muddled with demerera sugar and angostura bitters, mixed with a bit of apple juice and just enough tonic to leave it sparkling, then served over ice with a twist of lime.
Summertime is a food blogger’s best friend. Not only does it mean some of the coolest seasonal ingredients the year will ever give you. It means natural light at dinner time. And that makes for much prettier photos.
Even so, that doesn’t go to say you can be slapdash with your timings. These photos were taken just before sunset, with the day dimming outside. So apologies in advance if it all looks a bit blue and crepuscular. In the midst of an azure evening, and a kitchen painted mostly cyan, what could look warmer in colour than good pastry?
To be specific…
Savoury baklavas – albeit samosa-shaped – with two fillings: stewed peppers with raisins and sultanas; chicken with homegrown chard, lemon zest, and pine nuts. A salad of cucumbers and tiny sweet homegrown courgette, with cumin and black mustard seeds, and a sour-sweet pickle-brine and rice wine dressing. Another salad of homegrown leaves and crunchy asparagus, dressed with sesame and soy.
Shaping the baklavas took a bit of practice. I caught on just as I made the last. But let me tell you, as finales go, it was beautiful amidst its misshapen brothers and sisters.
With honey and vinegar, the stewed peppers were satisfyingly sweet and sour, with chewier gooier moments offered by the dried fruit. And the phyllo pastry does wonderful work in its own right. It doesn’t just make the contents into fantastic finger-food, but keeps it gorgeously moist while still retaining its delicate crunch — a treat for the chicken and chard.
From breakfast onwards, I tend to start thinking about dinner. And as today was a day off, all the more so.
I wondered about all sorts, putting dishes together in my head. And through it all I only really knew that I had some smoked salmon that needed using, and some homegrown red-stemmed chard which might be nice with it.
I entertained ideas of savoury baklavas, and frittatas and empanadas. But my plans ended up foiled, and instead I settled pretty comfortably on the following.
Baked eggs with wilted chard and chilli-garlic yogurt dressing.
Gravadlax with cornichons and rye bread and tartar sauce for those who fancied it.
Homegrown beetroot, caramelised with red wine. Which, I admit, is one of my favourite things to do with beetroot.
Mixed marinated olives, and a tiny leftover teaspoon of caramelised carrot dip.
If this was another kind of blog, I might chitter for a paragraph or eight about the superfoodiness of pretty much everything on the table tonight. But it’s not. And I won’t. I’ll just tell you I’m comfortably full.