I bought this little book in the gift shop of the São Jorge castle in Lisbon. From there I wandered down the hill, through the maze of streets making up the old Alfama district, drinking in the atmosphere and stopping to taste the delicacies. I had different types of pastéis: the famous custard tarts, pastéis de nata, as well as savoury salt cod ones, pastéis de bacalhau – excellent with a cold Sagres beer. There was a delicious cake too, toucinho do céu – literally translating as ‘bacon from heaven’ – although it is made of almonds and has nothing to do with bacon.
On the walls were printed photos of former residents, together with little descriptions of who they were and how they were known in the neighbourhood. Everyone had a nickname and, it seems, a definite place in the district. Hence their memorials near the houses where they lived. Alfama was being gently haunted, an old city of ghosts. The dead return to repair what has been broken.
It seemed to me that Lisbon didn’t need much repairing. Perhaps a little touching up here and there, perhaps a little more polish to the azulejos or finesse to some of the food. You got salad with your meal whether you liked it or not. I returned home with all my senses heightened and stimulated: there was flavour to everything I wanted to taste again.
As always a recreation has to be an approximation. A packet of frozen pollock fillets substituted for the salt cod, in any case pretty handy things to have in the freezer. They can be defrosted in a pan of boiling water – in their packaging – and used in all sorts of ways, from kedgeree (which I must make one day) to curry, to a simple pan-fry to roasting to poaching.
Everything else was easy to find, and I was excited about putting green peppers to good use. An unfashionable vegetable due probably to its lack of sweetness, but I could see it working really well here as a slightly bitter note offsetting the flavours of the reduced wine and tomatoes. Once I’d cycled down to Twin’s to buy bay leaves I was ready to go.
Super easy supper. Everything put in the pan and layered, with the potatoes, onions and peppers all of similar thicknesses and the fish fillets – I used three, I think – nestling in. I brought the wine to the boil then it simmer on a low heat, lid on, while I got on with other things. After about 30 minutes I checked and found everything had melted, the ingredients all collapsing into one another but not dissolving completely. Just a bit of bread to soak up the pan juices and it was ready to go.
In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….
Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.
‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.
Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.
So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.
In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.
First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry. Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.
I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.
My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.
And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.
Twin hobs, toaster and an un-proven cupboard. Ever since I moved in to this apartment I’ve been intrigued by a certain fitting in the kitchen. The cupboard beneath the principal chopping area, usually used to house saucepans and most of my crockery, has behind it a radiator. Now I should say that I have no input in the heating situation in my apartment, as it is centrally controlled throughout the entire building. It is turned on in mid-November and switched off mid-March, virtually regardless of the outside temperatures. Beginning of the third month and the weather is getting milder, yet the heating pulses on.
Well. The idea occurred to me relatively early in my tenancy this cupboard, as well as an invaluable storage space, could at times double as a kind of proving drawer for bread products, such as one finds in some ovens. The temperature within is consistently warm, about that of a disappointing bath. Never mind it’s taken me over two years to try this out (lack of oven a key factor), my enthusiasm for this blogging project has given me the oomph – aided by the dull weather on a day off – necessary for the experiment.
Waking up I was initially sceptical of being able to easily locate yeast within the environs of my apartment. I live in a quiet and unfashionable district, well away from the expat communities who might have better access to better-stocked western-style supermarkets, and I didn’t fancy my chances of finding said raising agent in the local shops – although, thinking about it, that was shortsighted given its presence in various bread products, including these.
Never mind. I got to cycle down to my favourite local, run by a woman I will call Twin, and found a sachet. Bonus exercise. Recipes I read for bread call for, variously, strong, or hard flour. I bought a packet of something called all-purpose flour and, obviously, the proof will be in the eating….
Actually I had no idea what kind of bread I was going to make. My preoccupations lay virtually solely with the aforementioned experiment meaning, typically, I was more concerned with the process than the result. And yet. As I went about the morning, doing laundry, tidying up, ideas began to formulate, as they will. I thought about what I had in my other cupboards, and in the freezer, and eventually I had a picture in my mind. A picture of beef stew and flatbreads. Slow Saturday cooking.
The scene was set. Not only did I have the ingredients, the time and the methodology, I also had things to listen to. One of these days I will publish a post about the things I have on in the background while I am cooking. At the stove and the train window are my favourite places to listen, to music or other. Today I had albums by these old favourites and this marvellous new discovery as a soundtrack but, best of all, piping in from sunny climes over eleven thousand kilometres to the south-east, this. If there’s anything better than cricket commentary on the radio I don’t want to know about it.
Baking calls for some precise measuring. That’s what the baking people will have you think. I found a basic recipe and adjusted the quantities to fit a smaller amount because as much as I wanted to try this out I didn’t want to be eating flatbreads for the next seven days. Not having any scales I wasn’t sure of the flour-yeast-water ratios so improvised by using measuring spoons my mother had thoughtfully given me at Christmas – figuring out that 1 millilitre equals 1 gram.
To make the flatbreads a bit more funky I augmented the dough mixture with a good couple of teaspoonfuls of za’atar, and once everything was combined I placed it, covered, in the un-proven drawer….
….approximately an hour later, or could have been less, or more (I fell asleep), the dough looked like this….
A proven success!
Buoyed by my small triumph I set about the stew with zeal. The beef was cubed and sprinkled with smoked paprika, salt and pepper, before being quickly browned then removed so that the carrots, red onions, garlic, star anise, thyme and rosemary could jostle for flavour favour in the pan. Once these had softened I added a tin of tomatoes, some stock (a cube) and the beef again. Lid on, heat to a simmer. I rinsed and chopped some kale in preparation as obligatory green addition.
I still had to cook the bread. After a bit more kneading – I don’t mind that – I oiled up the baking tray and set the oven dials for fifteen minutes on the highest heat. Rolling the bread out proved (ha!) to be interesting. I used, first, a bicycle pump and then a hand mixer to achieve the desired stretched flatness. The pump gave a more even roll but was basically inadequate because of its appendages which didn’t permit a direct contact with the bread surface after the initial roll. The mixer did not roll evenly but was more generally efficacious.
While the bread puffed up in the oven I cooked the kale in salted boiling water and threw in with the stew, now ready. The flatbread turned out to resemble a piece of driftwood but, fortunately, tasted pretty good – crisp exterior and soft inside, with the za’atar taste nice and mellow throughout. A grating of clementine peel over the stew was a perky afterthought.