Sunday, 17 October 2010

beetroot soup

everyone always assumes that the yugo food was the standard eastern european fare: grey meat, lots of potatoes, cabbage and beetroot. the reality is different: bosnian food in particular has more in common with what you find in turkey than in krakow or bratislava.

the fact that bosnia was under turkish rule for half a millennium is the obvious reason for this. they left their legacy in every aspect of life: food, language, architecture, mentality and anything else you can think of.

but considering where bosnia is, they were never going to have it easy: their food jostled for position with the cuisine of the austro-hungarian empire. to this day, in any half-decent patisserie in sarajevo you will find both the sweet, syrupy concoctions of the middle east and north africa (baklava, kadaif, tulumbas - universally recognised from aswan to mostar) to the tortes and strudels more commonly found in viennese coffee houses.

climate is the other reason. although bosnia is mountainous, with the exception of the fertile plains of the north, it has a proper continental climate. this means summers hot enough and long enough to grow decent fruit and veg.

for some reason, veg doesn’t feature much in my mind’s eye. all i can see is fruit: tiny wild strawberries, bought from equally tiny mountain women in headscarves and carried home from the market as delicately as you would a dozen eggs to avoid bruising; ripe plums and damsons in colours from apply green to deep, velvety purple of a fresh bruise; small gnarly apples, each with a worm inside. there were also soft, overripe green figs (the kind that is almost untransportable which is presumably why you hardly ever see them here) and cherries brought in small quantities from places like mostar and trebinje, and you could practically smell the sea and sun on them.

there were vegetables as well, of course. the very first greens after the winter warranted a great deal of excitement, and rolled-up filo pies would suddenly feature the very dark green metallic leaves of spinach or swiss chard. the excitement would fade by the end of summer – in fact, as kids, we used to dread the detour to outside markets to pick up massive bags (made of red netting) full of peppers, aubergines or marrows. the reason for such huge quantities was that this was the time to convert the glut into something to be enjoyed during the winter. the trip to the market involved a lot of haggling and tutting and shaking of heads, before money was exchanged and bags loaded in the back of our zastava. i don’t know if it is my imagination but those peasants with big, fat bags of produce were also themselves bigger and fatter than their mountain counterparts who would sell bitter greens or bilberries earlier in the summer.

anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying we didn’t eat a great deal of beetroot. in fact, i cannot recall a single instance where we consumed it as a vegetable. my memory is probably playing tricks on me but i only even remember dad juicing beetroots in one of his concoctions that was meant to ‘cleanse the blood’ when you were a bit run down or had a cold: it was beetroot, apple and orange and tasted of muddy fields and sweetness. it always makes me smile when i see that kind of stuff sold in health food shops now.

beetroot soup is a recipe for beetroot haters, in my opinion. for some reason, it comes out less earthy than eating beetroot either raw or roasted, which is what i would normally do. everyone seems to enjoy it.

what vegetables you use as a base is up to you – i don’t think there is any need to be prescriptive when it comes to soups – but you do need decent stock. i don't mean to be a food ponce but it makes all the difference - it's the soul of the soup. mine was the leftover roast chicken stock, which had boiled down to almost jelly-like consistency. i would also say don’t skip the creme fraiche at the end – the fat adds that little bit of extra creaminess but, more importantly, the slightly sour note balances out all that sweetness.

for four

4-5 large beets, scrubbed (they always say that in recipes but i rarely scrub because the skin gets peeled off)
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1-2 sticks of celery, chopped
1 medium leek, chopped
2 pints chicken stock
100ml creme fraiche
olive oil
a splash balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

preheat the oven to 200C.

make a large parcel from some tin foil – i tend to tear off a big piece, fold it in half, then seal the edges by pleating the foil a couple of times on three sides. you will be left with a tinfoil bag of sorts. put it in a roasting dish and put all the beetroots, whole and unpeeled, in the bag. add a splash of vinegar, a splash of water and a good glug of oil, plus some seasoning. seal the last edge of the parcel and place the tray in the oven to roast. it will take at least an hour and in reality more like two. the beetroot should be soft when pierced with a knife but don’t worry about it too much – you can always cook it in the soup for a bit longer (and it's no big deal even if it's a bit raw).

when the beetroot is cooked, take it out of the oven and leave to cool. peel off the skin – either with your fingers or the potato peeler. chop the roots roughly into quarters.

now, in a big pan, fry the vegetables gently. don’t brown them – just allow them to become translucent and soft. this will take ten or so minutes so be patient. add the chopped beetroot, let it cook for a couple of minutes, and top with the chicken stock. cook for another 5-10 minutes until all the vegetables are cooked through.

blend the soup in batches and return to the pan. check the seasoning – it does need salt but the stock i use is normally salty which is why i don’t go crazy before it’s all amalgamated.

serve in bowls, with a dollop of creme fraiche and some more black pepper ground on top.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

sea bass with rocket

this is one of the last photos for the blog taken with an iphone. proper camera from now on, so hopefully the blog will look a bit better!

when i first started cooking anything other than student or deli food (you know what i mean – pasta and pesto, bagels with mozzarella, that sort of thing), i thought gennaro contaldo was pretty cool. this was before he became jamie oliver’s sidekick, appearing in tv programmes as an italian clown with a stupid hat and an incomprehensible accent.

in those pre-fame days, gennaro ran passione, a restaurant on charlotte street. i lived nearby, on the wrong side of euston road, and spent many a day hanging around fitzrovia. (now pointlessly renamed ‘noho’, this area is still where i’d still like to live. it’s weirdly quiet for somewhere so central, and it has lots of decent shops, pubs and restaurants. it’s a staggering distance from soho as well.)

passione was expensive – too expensive for what i was earning then. when i first started going out with rich, he promised he’d take me there as a birthday treat. but the year it was meant to happen, we managed to get spectacularly drunk the night before on beer and makers mark bourbon at some gig in borderline. that was no chance of ever making it out of the house: i was sick for much of the next day. the year after i had food poisoning from a pre-birthday lunch – chiefly remembered for the worst food i have EVER eaten in london and the fact i wore seethrough trousers (not deliberately; and the food was on top of st george’s hotel by the bbc on regent street. never trust a restaurant with a view, i’d say.).

we did finally make it there and thankfully, i was not disappointed despite the tiny little pinch of anti-climax which was unavoidable. i now think it taught me more about what i like eating – and making for other people – than most other places i’d been to until then. it was relatively simple food – in a way i think most italian food is, and there were no foams or jus or artfully arranged micro salads. it wasn’t an ‘experience’ – it was just food.

first thing i loved: every table had a glass of perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes on the vine. they brought out the olives and bread later but i loved those tomatoes – it seemed like such a perfect start to an italian meal. they were totally unadorned – no oil or salt – and they looked, smelt and tasted amazing. afterwards i thought they may have been decorative - i ate them all anyway.

i can’t remember what i had for starter – there may have been truffle oil involved – but for the main i had a big plate of pasta with some kind of ragu, possibly wild boar, which was the meatiest, most delicious plate of food i had eaten in my life. i think i had tiramisu for dessert, the logic being that you may as well try it when it’s made properly.

so, i loved passione. i wanted to go back but it closed a few years after. gennaro started appearing on telly and i bought the cookery book instead. it may in fact have been the second cookery book i have ever bought. i have cooked lots of things from it – i still use the panna cotta recipe, and i loved the limoncello ice cream. the steak ragu and gnocchi was pretty amazing, as was the aubergine parmigiana.

but then the cookery books multiplied, and i forgot about passione until recently. it may have been a search for a sea bream recipe that finally led me back to it (it’s here:

it was then that i also saw this recipe. it is really easy to make and tasted seriously delicious. no idea why, maybe it was a fluke but i’d recommend you try it just to check. i have departed from the original only in the frying of fish - in gennaro's original, the fillet is fried flesh-side down and the skin is then peeled off. madness, if you ask me - there are few things nicer than crispy fish skin. you could make this with bream or other similar fish.

serves 4

4 sea bass fillets
2 tbs olive oil
25g butter - a knob
4 tbs white wine
salt and pepper

for the sauce:
1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
15g butter
3 anchovy fillets
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 medium courgette, finely chopped
300ml vegetable stock
200g rocket, roughly chopped

make the sauce first. heat the oil and butter in a pan and chuck in the anchovy fillets. cook, stirring, until they have dissolved in the oil. sounds weird but you will see it happen. add the shallots and the courgette and cook gently (i.e. don't brown) until the vegetables start to soften. add the stock, bring to the boil, simmer for a minute and then stir in the rocket. season with black pepper and cook just until the rocket's wilted - a couple of minutes, if that. turn the heat off, leave to cool a little and then whizz in a blender until smooth. return to the pan and stir over high heat with a wooden spoon until nearly all the liquid has evaporated and the sauce has become creamy. remove from the heat and set aside.

for the bass, season the fillets first. heat the oil and butter in a large frying pan. add the fillets, skin side down, and fry for around 3 minutes until crispy and golden. don't poke about with the fish during that time - just leave it to cook. turn over gently and cook for another 2-3 minutes. add the wine and cook until it evaporates.

reheat the sauce gently. spoon over a generous amount on each plate and place the sea bass fillet on top.