Sunday, 10 April 2011


do you want war first or food first? maybe do war and get it out of the way? ok? good.

just over twenty years ago, the war started. i say 'the' war because for me there is only one war that matters (not so for anyone older than about 65). and i say ‘started’, although wars don't really start like that, not in a clean, precise way that giving them a date would indicate (like first day at school, or christmas holidays).

the weird thing is, croatia had been on fire for a year and we, a couple of hundred miles down the road, behaved as if nothing was going on. i've said it before but it's true: we’d watch the fighting on telly like it was beirut or tel aviv or any of those places we associated with wars, tv reports of tanks on dusty roads and men with kalashnikovs and scarves around their heads.

we knew there’d be no trips to dubrovnik that year and that we wouldn’t be visiting zagreb any time soon. but those people fighting in slavonia or shelling dubrovnik? they had nothing to do with us. we saw refugees from croatia at university but they were ‘normal’ and in our ignorance (arrogance), it may have crossed our minds they had lost homes or suffered but we didn't treat them as if they had. we treated it as if they'd just chosen to move (as if you'd abandon zadar or sibenik in january, in the middle of the school year, to come to sarajevo!).

some of the people at uni had fought in croatia too. denis from prijedor, who smoked incessantly and exhibited a nice collection of nervous twitches and distant looks, told us stories about vukovar and watching his best mate getting blown up in a tank ahead. he was into guns’n’roses and he wrote ‘i don’t need your civil war’ on the inside cover of the notebook i took with me when i left home (to revise, thinking we'd be back in a week or two). i found his tall, spiky handwriting years later living in a miserable house in birkinhead with a bunch of fuckwits, and it choked me for days.

we used to stand huddled in groups smoking cigarettes in echoey concrete hallways of the philological faculty in sarajevo, talking about how “croatia” - a prematurely-given synonym for the worst kind of civil war bloodshed imaginable - could never happen in bosnia. we'd say it with that strange excitement people get when they feel themselves to be a part of some disaster, something newsworthy. (for that feeling to be delicious and sublime, the disaster has to be proximate enough to be scary but distant enough to have little direct bearing on your life. like watching a car crash from behind the wheel of your own untouched vehicle). little did we know we’d end up being headlines for 3 years of every news bulletin on every channel. a

and now food. i know piperade looks like a plate of cat sick on some rocket leaves. or even human sick. but it's a breakfast of champions or, if you think eating vegetables for breakfast is weird, lunch. it's a good way of making something a bit more filling out of some eggs.

you can make it as easy or as complicated as you like. i've made it with peppers from jars and with the ones i've grilled myself. also with tinned and real tomatoes. having said that, it would of course work best with some great summer produce - that's when you'd really notice how amazingly simple and delicious it is.

it's not a quick recipe, i grant you - though using jars/tins will shorten it.

for four
2 tbs olive oil
2 red peppers
1 green pepper
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
400g peeled and chopped plum tomatoes - i usually don't bother peeling
a pinch of chilli flakes
a sprig of thyme
6 eggs

peppers first. you need to massage them with oil and then either grill them under the grill, whack them straight onto an open flame if you have a gas cooker (maybe skewered on metal skewers for ease of turning but be careful because they get very hot), or use a griddle pan. you want them all chargrilled and soft. when you think they're done, let them cool just a little and then put them in a plastic bag or in a bowl covered with clingfilm. they steam a little, making them easier to peel. discard the seeds and stalks, peel the skin and cut them into pieces.

peel and slice the onion thinly. stew gently in olive oil, then add the garlic and cook until they're soft but not coloured. be patient - i think the onion softening always takes longer than you think. now add the peppers and tomatoes, season with chilli flakes and thyme, and cook for about 15 minutes until the moisture has all but evaporated.

break the eggs into a bowl and whisk. add to the pan with peppers and tomatoes and stir over gentle heat until the eggs are scrambled. taste and season. serve immediately, maybe over some ham or with salad.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

haddock with romesco sauce

it officially being spring, we did some spring cleaning last week. what prompted this rare bout of proper (as opposed to superficial) tidying up was not the spring itself but the realisation that we might not be able to move into a bigger place any time soon. i think i am permitted to sound like a 37 year old that i am and moan just a little about property prices in our area. it's bloody expensive to live here. all we want is another room and a little bit of outside space - i shouldn't have to sell a kidney in order to get it.

so instead of looking at property websites and getting depressed, we thought that getting rid of a few things would be a cheaper way of having somewhere nice to live than quadrupling our mortgage. i am not going to go into the usual platitudes about how you accumulate loads of junk throughout your life (but it's true).

we embarked on a week-long exercise of transforming the flat. quite satisfying it was too, and not only because it involved buying new things. it was in fact largely to do with freecycling our old sofa, armchair and a few other things. most of it went to a nice young lad who’s just bought a house in walthamstow and ran out of cash to get stuff to put in it. seeing him carry sofa cushions down the road pleased me a great deal.

but the spring cleaning also made me realise how easy both rich and i find throwing things away. i have become wholly unsentimental about many of my possessions, which is odd for someone who is quite sentimental by nature. (i cried when they cut a tree down by our mountain cottage, for god’s sake – if that’s not sentimental, i don’t know what is.)

in my case this might be a remnant of leaving home aged eighteen with one bag. we left so much behind that the idea of getting attached to things seems plain odd.

when we first left, i didn’t really think about it beyond wishing i’d brought along more than five pairs of pants and wondering what bastard would steal my spaceman 3 records. those wardrobes full of skis and ice skates, winter shoes and barbeques, raincoats, gloves and wooly hats – they didn’t cross my mind for years, even when during the first winter in the UK in 1992 when i blankly failed to contemplate the absence of a winter coat. it’s only later when normal life re-started with a splutter that i suddenly remembered and got sad about all that was left behind. black skates, size 9, pigs’ skin. red ski boots, bought second hand in the sarajevo 'department store' by a seemingly reluctant mother, getting shabbier every season. elan skis, 180cm, grey, brand new, with barely a season under their wax. and the rest - most of which i can't even recall now.

looking back at it now, i have no idea how the absence of STUFF, the complete loss of..well...EVERYTHING didn't finish me off. i am sure a part of it was about youth. You don’t really plan for stuff when you’re young – you just go ahead and do it, naively and without fuss. part of it was obviously about not having any choice. getting blinkered about life outside what i had was probably quite sensible – i wasted little effort thinking about what i couldn’t have. it was no conscious decision, it just happened that way.

none of which has anything to do with the recipe! sorry, i am completely off piste at the moment. the recipe was, judging from the pink paper, a cutting from the FT i've been saving for ages. i don't normally do this as therein lies a road to madness (and mess - see above for throwing things away). the fact that i did made me finally cook it. somehow, having moved it from one notebook or cookery book for another, i couldn't bring myself to chuck it in a recycling bin.

the author is peter gordon, who now runs kopapa in covent garden. we were there on christmas eve, and very nice it was too, although everything was a bit too sweet for my taste.

you can, of course, eat romesco sauce with other things. i have blogged about it before but this version is slightly different - and nicer, i think. i have replaced the hazelnuts with half almonds/half pine nuts for no other reason that because rich seems to suffer from some strange reaction to hazelnuts. i would make double the quantity of sauce - it would keep in the fridge for a couple of days.

for two romesco sauce
1 dried nora chilli, or similar, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes
25g blanched almonds and 25g pinenuts - dry fry the nuts together to enhance flavour 75g piquillo peppers from a jar
1 clove of garlic, peeled
1/4tsp finely grated lemon zest
a squeeze of lemon juice
7-8 mint leaves
25ml olive oil

2 haddock fillets
1/2 clove garlic thinly sliced
1/2tsp rosemary leaves very finely chopped
knob of butter
olive oil

i am sure the sauce would be nicer chopped coarsely by hand but quite frankly that's far too much of a palaver so i chucked it all in a food processor and whizzed it up. taste it though and add salt or more juice or mint if you think it needs it. this is best made a couple of hours in advance to let the flavours develop.

preheat the oven to 220C. lay the fillets on a plate skin side down and sprinkle with garlic and rosemary. season, then leave for ten minutes. when you're ready to cook, heat an oven-proof frying pan, add the butter and oil and once they are sizzling, fry the haddock flesh side down for 30 second. turn over, then place in a hot oven for 8-10 minutes, depending on how big your fillet is. to serve, put some buttered spinach or kale on a plate, place the haddock fillet on top, spoon over the sauce and the pan juices.