It started with a plate

It’s fascinating what can be the source of inspiration for a particular meal. Of course, a specific recipe book or a browse around the farmers market or a food store, are the most common ones. But this particular recipe, perhaps unexpectedly was inspired by a plate. Browsing homeware store like Heal’s is my guilty pleasure. I never knew how obsessive I can get with tableware! There’s a term widely used in film studies, particularly in relay in to the portrayal of women in classical Hollywood cinema – scopophilia (the pleasure of looking). Well, when I came across a display of hand made tableware collection by a South African designer, Mervyn Gers, I got a mean case of scopophilia. Who knew that a plate could have such a strong appeal.  Pricey it was, but I just knew I had to have one (well, OK, two). So I brought my new treasure home, getting excited at the thought of what wonders can be served on these plates. It was the cool off-white elegance of its simplicity with a slight quirky touch of uneven edges that inspired the idea for a dish: new potatoes, fennel and artichokes braised in lots of butter and lemon juice, generously sprinkled with dill and olive oil. It turned out beautifully monochrome and perfectly multi-layered in flavour from sharp, to earthy, and creamy. This was just the perfect marriage between the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of eating.
Since then this meal has become a regular on my table and on the particular plate. It goes beautifully with any white fish as well as on its own. Here’s what I did, and strongly encourage you to do the same.

Makes 4 portions

2 medium fennels
12 medium/small new potatoes
2 artichokes
1 small white onion
1 lemon
a huge bunch of dill
150gr butter
Extra virgin olive oil
Maldon salt
Black pepper

Method

Cut each potato in half lengthwise
Thinly slice the fennel (lengthwise) and onion
Core the artichoke to the heart (you can just buy cored artichokes in olive oil, if feeling lazy or pressed for time)

Heat the butter in a large pan and place the potatoes in a layer, sprinkle with salt and fry for 5 minutes.
Top it with fennel, onion and sliced artichokes hearts, add more salt, lemon juice, a bit of water, cover with lid and cook on medium heat for 30-40 minutes or until all ingredients are cooked through. Keep adding water and butter if needed.
Top with lemon slices and sprinkle with dill lots of dill and olive oil and cook further for 5 minutes.

If making as a side to fried fish, then give yourself extra 5-10 minutes to prepare the fish too. I used a fillet of sea bream here.
Make 3 incisions on the fish skin, salt on both sides and place in a pre-heated pan with olive oil and butter, skin side down. Cover with a lid and fry on medium-high heat for 5-7 minutes. The skin will get wonderfully crispy and golden while the white flesh will remain soft and moist. No need to turn over.
Plan the cooking so that both dishes are ready at the same time.

Once both are good to go place them a gorgeous plate (take a picture *optional) and enjoy. Voila!

Sunday pickles

One of the things that I love most about cooking is the spontaneity of ideas and inspirations, how one thing can lead to something entirely new and surprising.

Last Sunday I felt an odd compulsion to pickle (as one does). So I looked around the kitchen shelves and in the fridge to discover some perfectly pickle-worthy beets and cauliflower. Being a complete rookie pickler I turned to my favourite cook books for advice, and have found what I was searching for in Honey and Co’s cookbook, which, I have to shamefully admit, remained under-explored up to this point. They had just the perfect recipes for both – a cinnamon infused sweet beets and cumin and  turmeric bathed cauliflower, both with a decent hint of chilli. There is something slightly mad-scientist-like about the process that gives a child-like joy of playing around with ingredients, mixing up odd concoctions, sterilising jars, and leaving the mysterious mixture to work its magic over days. The excitement of opening that jar after the required period has passed is pretty special, more so when the final product is oh-so-good. The alchemy of pickling prompted an urge to create a meal that would complement my debut creations. You can’t just pickle and forget about it, if you know what I mean. So here’s what I have done:
The pickled beet makes a perfect starter course when combined with a yoghurt-dill-sumac dip. All it takes is a mix of 5 table spoons of Greek yoghurt with 3-4 pinches of sumac, a finely chopped handful of fresh dill and an addition of garlic-infused olive oil with a teeny pinch of salt. Yum! The rich and sharp flavour of sweet-cinnamonie-slightly-bitter-bayleaf beets works magically well with the creamy refreshing and slightly tangy presence of the dip.
The pickled cauliflower called for more cauliflower on the table. So I made some whole-roasted ‘steaks’. Again the method could not be more simple.
Take a small cauliflower, discard the leaves and cut of the bottom stalk (although there is this great no-waste tendency to roast the entire veg as it is, I am yet to master that skill). Place the cauliflower on a sheet of tin foil, in a cup mix some olive oil, sea salt, toasted and ground coriander and cumin seeds, and smother the veg in that mix. Wrap it in tin foil and bake on 200C for about 40 minutes. The two types of the same veg work really well as a duet and can be brought together even closer with a sweet potato-tahini dip, as an option.
An all time favourite alternative to and cross between humous and mash, this dish is a regular on my table. Use two large sweet potatoes. Cut in 4 wedges, smother in olive oil and season with sea salt and a bit of cinnamon. Bake on 250C or as high as your oven can go, until perfectly soft and slightly candied. Once it has cooled down, remove the skin and place in a food processor with 1/4 to 1/2 jar of tahini and a very generous glug of olive oil+an equally generous pinch of salt. Blend until it reaches a silky smooth consistency. This paste is amazing on its own with any kind of bread but also as a base for the cauliflower ‘steak’.
I was pleasantly surprised how my unplanned pickling compulsion turned into a beautiful, delicious feast which I have enjoyed with my friends and quite a few glasses of red.
And the best thing about this experience is that the jars of pickles are still half full and will last a while (if I let them) and there’s a bit of sweet potato-tahini dip waiting for me in the fridge, so without further ado I will have to indulge myself in a little late-evening snack.

Travel to KinoVino Greece with Despina Siahuli

There’s a lot of awareness around the negative effect of social media on our lives, as it allegedly alienates people and makes us all but social. Yet, my personal experience proves completely the opposite. The world of foodies on social media is quite an amazing one and the ‘notorious’ Facebook and Instagram helped me connect with some of the most remarkable people and make new friendships. In fact, the edition of KinoVino Greece would not have been possible were it not for social media.

I have been a fan of Maltby street market and especially its Greek stall. However, I have to admit that I was so focused on the food that I have stupidly missed the loveliest chef behind it – Despina Siahuli. And then, I got a message from her expressing interest in KinoVino and proposing to collaborate on a Greek edition. That got an immediate YES from me.
After a few weeks of exchanging messages and likes on Instagram we finally met up and it immediately felt like I’ve known Despina for ages. We chatted for hours over wine and olives, almost forgetting about KinoVino ‘work’. Planning and prepping for the event was an absolute delight – we were on the same page about everything from general food philosophy to more specific elements of table design and food presentation. I have been conjuring up images of the table setting for weeks before the event; leaning towards a very organic rustic feel, I knew I wanted to use brown paper instead of a table cloth and use bread and herbs as part of the table decor (no baskets, no trays, just bread on the table). So when Despina told me about a traditional Greek way of serving food in parchment paper (no plates!), it was the perfect light bulb moment. I almost squealed with joy when I saw Despina’s menu and the final result was as delicious as I thought it would be. It really is amazing how a chef’s personality is reflected in their food: charming, honest, unpretentious and hearty. For someone who is so good with food, Despina is really modest and that’s what makes her food even more appealing to me. Indeed, self-effacement is a true sign of professionalism.
There were a lot of happy diners around the room (what can be a better sight for a dinner party host?) as well as some requests for recipes. So I have decided to have a little chat with the chef about her food and share a few of her delicious recipes.
Where does your love of food originate from?

My family. Every family get together in Greece is an all day feast. The food preparation is a ritual, a labour of love – mums and grandmas want to please everyone in the family. When I cook for my guest it’s feels like I am cooking for my family.

Why have you decided to become a chef?

Greek food in London is often anglicised. I just wanted to feed people the food that I grew up with, the Greek food that I love to eat.

How would you describe your cooking style?
Honest. My food captures the essence of Greek cooking – freshness, seasonality, simplicity and sharing – without being constrained by national borders.

Why is it important for you to preserve your national cuisine?

It’s my memories, my heritage. It’s the food I grew up with, the food I crave, the food I miss.

Where do you go when you want to treat yourself gastronomically?
My latest favourite is Oklava, Selin Kiazim is a great Chef, I absolutely adore her food. St. John’s it’s my all time classic.

Do you cook at home?
Every day!

What is your favourite thing to cook?

I love cooking brunch, although it’s something that it’s not that popular in Greek cuisine. One of my favourite recipe is eggs kayiana or trapatsada – scrambled eggs, in rich tomato sauce topped with feta. I remember my father making us kayiana – using fresh eggs from our chickens and those beautiful ripe tomatoes that we used to grow in our summer house in Greece.

Where and when can people (who missed out on KinoVino Greece) get to try your food?
I will be running a residency in March and April at Machine No3 a lovely bar in Hackney. You can find more info here.

Do you have any plans of opening your own restaurant?

Time will tell.

Which two recipes would you like to share with us?
Gigantes plaki with spring greens from Epirus, and Soutzoukakia, fragrant meatball from Smyrna.

Gigantes with seasonal greens from Epirus

This recipe comes from Epirus in northern Greece, where they grow plenty of giant butter beans which they cook with tomatoes and wild greens. To make it easy you can use chard, kale or spinach.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients.

500g dried gigantes beans or butter beans, soaked overnight

200g red onion, chopped

3 small garlic cloves, chopped

2 bay leaves fresh or dry

6 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp sweet paprika

150g carrots, peeled and chopped

150g celery, peeled and chopped

1 tbsp sweet red pepper purée or tomato purée

350 gr tin chopped tomatoes

2 tsp salt

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

250g chard or kale or spinach, washed and chopped

a big handfuls fresh parsley, chopped

Preparation method.

  1. Drain the beans, cover with fresh water add the bay leaves and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook for 1½-2 hours until the beans are just tender.
  2. Gently soften the onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil for 5 minutes. Add the carrots and the celery. When soft, stir in the paprika, pepper or tomato purée, chopped tomatoes, 200 ml water, salt and pepper.
  3. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Use a hand blender to puree the vegetables
  4. In a large pan add some olive oi and gently soften the chard/ kale/ spinach and take off the heat.
  5. Preheat the oven to 160C/ Gas 3.
  6. When the beans are cooked, drain them and mix with the tomato and chard sauce, adding a further 2 tablespoons of olive oil and half the quantity of the chopped herbs.
  7. Transfer the chard/ kale/ spinach to a casserole pan, add on top the beans and drizzle with the remaining olive oil and bake for 35–40 minutes until the beans are tender and the sauce thickened and bubbling. Add the rest of the herds and serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Soutzoukakia, fragrant meatball from Smyrna

Soutzoukakia was introduced to the Greek cuisine in the beginning of the 20th century and has its origin from the city of Smyrni or modern day Izmir.

Serves 4-6

For the meatballs:

800g minced beef

4 cloves of garlic, minced

2 whole fresh eggs

1 tablespoon of ground cumin

1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon

50 g olive oil

6 slices of stale bread soaked in red wine and squeezed dry, crust removed

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 bunch of finely chopped parsley

For the tomato sauce:

600 gr tomato passata

1 finely chopped onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

200 g red wine

1 tablespoon tomato paste

olive oil

1 tsp sugar

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1 bay leaf

150 g Green olives

 

Preparation method.

  1. In a large bowl bring all the ingredients together and knead very well. Cover the meatballs mixtureand leave it in the refrigerator for at least 30 min.
  2. In the meantime preheat the oven to 180°
  3. To prepare the tomato sauce for the soutzoukakia. In sauce pan add olive oil and fry the onion and add the garlicin low heat, for about 15 minutes until the onions are tender. Add the red wine, tomato passata, tomato paste, sugar, cumin, and the bay leaf. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer until the sauce starts to thicken.
  4. Bake the meatballs. Drizzle the baking tray with some olive oil and start shaping your meatballs into oblong shape. Bake the meatballs for approximately 35
  5. Once your soutzoukia are baked add them carefully in the tomato sauce and stir gently. Leave to simmer in very low heat for 15 minutes, enabling the meatballs to absorb all the wonderful flavours from the tomato sauce.

Spice up your Valentine’s meal

Falling into the Orientalist trap, I have to admit that I do find something very sensual, indulgent and seductive in the idea of the Middle East. As clichéd as it might sound, the vibrant colours of the spices and the incredibly rich flavours they produce, constitute the most alluring of all cuisines to me. So I decided to take the classic Russian meal – borsch and pirozhki (not to be confused with the Polish pirogi) as a departing point, and turn it into a Middle Eastern-infused delight. As a result I got a meal perfectly suitable for a Valentine’s dinner or for any other time of the year, when you want to treat yourself: a harissa-spiced beetroot soup served with feta, dill and walnut boreks.

For the soup
Makes 4 portions

½ white onion, chopped
½ carrot, grated
4 medium beetroots (use roasted or boiled)
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp harrisa paste
1 tsp of red wine vinegar
1 pint of water
Maldon salt to taste

Method

Roast the spices in a hot pan until they ooze the aroma, take off the heat immediately so they don’t burn. Heat the olive oil in a medium pot then add the onion and carrots and sweat for a few minutes. Add the roasted spices and salt, and cook for a few more minutes. While this is cooking, grate the beets and add them to the pot together with the tomato paste and harissa. Let them cook together for 3-5 minutes and then add the water. Bring to boil and let it simmer for 5-10 minutes. Add the vinegar and salt to taste.

For the filo parcels
Makes about 5 large parcels

200 gr. of feta cheese
2 handfuls of walnuts
medium bunch of dill
2-3 tbsp of olive oil
zest of ¼ lemon
juice of ½ lemon
4 tbsp of pomegranate molasses
1 pack of filo pastry at room temperature
olive oil for brushing
sesame seeds for sprinkling

Method

Put all of the ingredients in the food processor and blend until a paste is formed; it is up to you to decide how crunchy or smooth you’d like it to be. Lay out a sheet of filo and brush it with olive oil. Fold in half lengthways and place a full teaspoon of the mixture on the bottom left corner. Fold left corner down to make a triangle, then make a next triangle by folding it from bottom left up and so on until all of the pastry is rolled and you end up with one triangular shaped parcel. (Watch a YouTube video if what I’ve just said makes no sense at all). Brush with more oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds, before placing in a preheated oven. Bake for about 10 minutes at 200C.

Serve together with the beetroot soup while still warm. Ideal for dunking into the soup but can be enjoyed as a starter too with some red vino!

 

 

Welcome to Cafe Noor

As someone who has been in love with food for ages and been becoming increasingly drawn by the idea of a career change, I was extremely excited to learn that my London-based friends, costume designer, Alexandra Kharibian, and her musician husband, Dominic Millard, are taking that much-coveted step and opening a café in Brighton. Inspired by Alexie’s Armenian heritage as well as the couple’s extensive travels in the Caucasus, Café Noor (Armenian for pomegranate) is the first place in Brighton, and one of the few in the UK, to offer its guests an authentic taste of this beautiful cuisine, full of exotic spices and fresh herbs. I am a big admirer of Caucasian/Persian food, so Café Noor’s menu is pure poetry to my eyes and my palette. What makes this place even more attractive to me, and I hope it will to you too, is that both Alexie and Dom are not severing all ties with their cultural backgrounds, and instead are planning to incorporate them into the life of the café. Café Noor has a lovely basement space, which is asking to be used for intimate gigs, film screenings and any other type of cultural gatherings. Our pilot session of KinoVino in October proved that this place could indeed become a cultural-foodie hub in Brighton.  The creative touches are evident in the style of the cafe: a very quirky centrepiece of a bar, made of second-hand doors, beautiful light fixtures punctuate the space, some authentic Armenian rugs on the walls, and of course pictures of Sergei Paradjanov, the patron saint of restless creative souls, as well as posters of his films.

Only two month old, but already very popular with the locals, Café Noor is currently open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, but is planning to introduce dinner service soon too. I have recently visited Alexie and Dom in their new environment to sample the food and do some food styling and photography for them (my first endeavour outside my own Instagram account), and I could not have wished for a more prefect Saturday. While Dom works in the front of house, charming the hell out of all customers (there are a lot of regulars already), Alexie works her magic in the kitchen. Naturally I was extremely drawn to spend as much time as possible with her, to learn the new tricks. Having had the pleasure of cooking with Alexie for our sold out KinoVino event in August, I could not wait to taste her food again. Those lucky ones, who have attended our Caucasus-special KinoVino, will remember Alexie’s gorgeously lush honey cake. And it is one of the house specialties at Café Noor, available all day, and yes, it is as good as I’d remembered it. Other tea-time treats include tahini and walnut biscuits, which I have devoured with a small cup of fragrant Armenian coffee, made in a beautiful copper coffee pot, brought from the region. If you are the lover of spices and new flavours than Café Noor’s repertoire of dips will be a delight! Served with home-made pitta bread (gluten free version is also available), these little pots of vibrant colours and scents range from a more classic red pepper humous to (my personal favourite) muhammara. The specialty of the house is a gorgeous lahmajun, served with yoghurt and sumac dip; I could only try the veggie version, but I have no doubt that the meat one was as excellent. This Armenian pizza is the most popular dish in the house, rivaled only by shakshuka, meat and vegetarian, but Alexie has also introduced a vegan variation, which features small mushrooms stuffed with spinach and pine-nuts.

Café Noor’s repertoire of drinks is equally exciting and imaginative – from the gorgeous Armenian coffee it expands to fresh rose petal tea, fresh cinnamon tea and fresh thyme tea! The latter two were an instant sensation for me and I can’t recommend them enough. For those who live by the dictum ‘In Vino Veritas’, Café Noor has a beautiful selection of quality Georgian wines. While I haven’t yet tried all of them (something to be improved on my next visit), the majority of the wines have my stamp of approval. Not only are they delightful on their own but most importantly they go so well with the food menu. If you really want to heighten your experience at Café Noor (and of life in general), than you should treat yourself to the magical potion called Chacha. A beautifully fiery Georgian drink, a relative of Rakija, grappa and vodka.

Seriously impressed and inspired by Alexie’s and Dom’s achievement, I could not resist asking some questions about this project in hope that it will inspire my own courage to pursue my passion.

 

How did the idea of Café Noor came about?

The pomegranate is such an iconic part of Armenia and the region and when you go to Yerevan there are pomegranates all over the place, ceramic ones, jewellery inspired by the beautiful fruit, and of course in the food!  We felt it was a very visual link to the cooking and the country.  Noor also means ‘light’ in Farsi, which we thought was fitting too!

How long did it take for the café to open its doors?

It took us about two and a half months to complete the refurbishment – which we project managed ourselves with help from a very experienced friend who is a fantastic handy man!  We had been chasing the property for a while and so had planned in detail how we would like to design the bar and space.  We wanted to create an open, welcoming space with a flavour of the Caucasus!

Was it difficult to move to a new city and find your customers?

In one word – yes – but we really put the ground work in.  Dom and I spent a year before finally getting the keys to our cafe working in cafe’s and bars in Brighton & Hove.  We lived in a couple of different parts of the city, got to now the area, local traders, who was selling what and where.  We discussed what we felt was missing and how our business might fit into the competitive and varied catering scene.  Brighton is so different from the metropolis of London, word spreads – fast!  But we sucked up all our experiences, and learnt quickly, it was a roller-coaster but extremely exciting!

How do you come up with your recipes?

Around the time we announced to our friends and family that we were leaving our careers and lives in London and moving to the sea to open a cafe that sold Georgian wine and Armenian food – (around the same time everyone thought we had lost our minds) – I was given a family heirloom by my sister – a book of recipes that was written by my Grandmother and the group of ladies that attended her Armenian Church in Massachusetts, USA from the 1970’s.  Before this I had learnt from some Armenian ladies that were part of the Armenian community in London, learnt from what I ate in Armenia and Georgia that was good, and picked up recipes over the years from books I found here and there, mostly American Armenian cookbooks.  My grandmothers book was, however, a turning point – as cheesy as it sounds, it was like a sign I was on the right track – a hand me down through the generations from a woman that survived a genocide, made a journey around the world from Armenia to the USA at the young age of fifteen, and lived until she was 96!  I use these recipes as a guide, a basis on which to build and adapt to modern tastes.

What are you culinary influences?

There are many amazing middle eastern cook books that I use as a bit of a bible, including Claudia Roden, the brilliant Armenian cook Sonia Uvezian and of course I always feed in a bit of Yotam Ottolenghi wonderfully wide range of salads and middle eastern veggie dishes!

What are top 3 ingredients that you can’t live without?

Thats so hard!!  Probably Tahini, lemons and garlic – they are in parcticarly everything I cook!  And a little bit of lemon juice adds that zing and freshness that is so distinctive in Cafe Noor cooking.  Can I have parsley as well?!

How do you source your food?

We researched our suppliers for several months before we confirmed our menu, and used our experience from having worked in the local area in cafe’s and bars for the year beforehand.  Luckily, we live in Sussex which is bountiful in wonderful butchers, diaries and most importantly – breweries!  Obviously food from the Caucasus requires regular deliveries of pomegranates, fresh herbs and a wide variety of nuts and spices!  I find that the most important part of sourcing suppliers is finding products that are the best quality, and what you like to work with as a chef.  Tahini is so important for example – a backbone for a lot of my recipes, and it took a while to find the right Tahini and trying many different suppliers!  For me it is also important to know that the meat we use is sourced responsibly and I have to say the Brighton Sausage Co. are about as good as it gets with butchers – they are flexible, interested in our business and we have a great relationship with them.

As a non-professionally trained cook, was it hard to step into the professional kitchen?

I’d say that hardest part is getting over the feeling that you aren’t a ‘properly trained’ chef – and in many ways I’m not – but I have a lot of passion and commitment to Armenian & Georgian food.  It means a lot to the community to keep our cooking alive, our language alive and many other parts of our culture modern and relevant.  Armenians have fought very hard to survive, and truly when I think about what the food means to community – it really spurs me on!  My father was an extremely enthusiastic cook too, and it was all a way of keeping in touch with his Armenian roots.  Suddenly Gorden Ramsey doesn’t sound so scary!   I also did a little bit of training in the wonderful kitchen at Honey & Co – and if you want to learn about how to run a great kitchen – there is no better place to go.  Sarit at Honey & Co. was king enough to give me a few words of advice on starting a restaurant, and those words have gone a long way!!

What is it like to work with your husband?

In many ways it is wonderful, we are so close and work together every day, so you know what the other is thinking and it is easy to discuss choices you need to make.  In other ways you have to do a lot of growing up in the relationship and be very patient!!  I wouldn’t have it any other way….for now!!

What kind of menu do you plan to serve during dinner services?

A variety of foods from Armenian & Georgia and further a field into Iran and Syria.  These foods have a very close relationship to one another and marry up perfectly on the dinner table!!  It is also nice for me to have an opportunity to spend more time on a menu, other than our everyday menu!

Are there any special events coming up in Café Noor?

On the 13th Feb we I am collaborating with the wonderful Natalie Griffiths – the London based Armenian-Iranian chef.  We will be cooking up a feast of Armenian-Iranian dishes and we are really looking forward to it!  We are also investing in a projector screen, and various speakers etc!! So watch this space – or rather www.cafenoorbrighton.com

 

 

 

 

Rosa’s Hand

At my recent Jewish-themed KinoVino event, I screened a beautifully moving documentary, Oma and Bella. Directed by Alexa Karolinski, the film tells the story of her grandmother’s life-long friendship with Bella, and their inexhaustible love of cooking and feeding their dearest. Their amazing life-stories, reminded me very much of my own great grandmother, who was the heart and soul of my family, raising both my mom and me in an abundance of love and delicious food.

Born in pre-Revolutionary Ukraine, she was the contemporary of the 20th century. Witnessing and enduring all of its harrowing events, from the Russian Revolution, to the Holocaust and the collapse of the USSR, to me she was the embodiment of history. She was born into a Jewish family as Rosalia Leibovna Belenkaia, yet had to obtain a fake passport with a Russian name in order to escape Nazi persecution during WWII. She became known as Elena Leontievna Doubinina, and retained that name for the rest of her life. Somehow, I felt drawn to call her by her real name in recent years, in a symbolic gesture to return her authentic identity that was stripped off by history. Her memories of the WWII and her miraculous escape from the occupied Ukraine are forever engrained in me and what inspires me the most, is that despite having witness and suffered from the worst in humankind, she was one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve known.

‘The hands that raised me’ was the title of my photography A-level final show, which was dedicated to her. I keep returning to her story in an attempt to find a means of relating it through some artistic form. Perhaps that script that’s been sitting in my ‘special folder’ for years now, will materialise into a film one day. But more recently I started to realise that it is also my love of food and feeding that is directly linked to her, so in a way cooking is another form of relating her story. After the war she trained as a pastry chef and it is precisely her sweet cakes and breads that I remember the most. The creamy vanilla of the Napoleon cake and the intensely rich poppy seeds filling of the rugelah are the two tastes that I can recall instantly, although it’s been more than 10 years since I last tasted her food. She had an almost religious respect for food, especially for bread, common amongst her generation, teaching me as a child that is was a sin to throw away bread and waste any bit of food. There was something magical in the way she prepared bread, sometimes waking up at night to check on the proving. The traditional Russian Easter bread ‘paskha’ was particularly special; she would always put on clean clothes and say a prayer before preparing paskhas, asking for God’s help with the raise of the dough. She even had the most amusing habit to tell everyone off who would utter any rude/inappropriate words while the dough was proving, and her classic phrase: ‘Not in front of the dough, please’, has become a bit of a family refrain. From today’s perspective it might seem naïve and odd to treat dough this way yet at the same time there is something awe-inspiring about such an approach. Today I want to share one of her classic recipes, the Napoleon cake, as a symbolic gesture of sustaining the connection and passing on her love of feeding people.

Napoleon Cake
a simpler version of the French mille-feuille

For the pastry

500 gr white flour
250 gr of very cold margarine, grated/chopped
1 egg
pinch of salt
150gr of cold water
1 tsp of white wine vinegar

Mix the flour with egg and the margarine, the same way as you would for short crust pastry. Mix water with vinegar and add to the flour mix until a dough ball is formed. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours. Divide the dough into 8 equal parts and roll each to make a thin discs. Put each in the preheated oven (200C) and bake each for about 4 minutes or just watching them as they start to brown.

For the crème pât

500 ml milk
1 cup of sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp of flour
50 gr butter
1 tsp of vanilla essence or 1-2 vanilla pods

Mix sugar, egg, milk and vanilla in a pot and bring to boil stirring constantly. Add the flour and remove from the heat, stirring continuously. Beat in the butter gradually to avoid lumps. Cool before spreading over the layers. Smother each layer in custard, pressing layers together so that the pastry absorbs the cream. Leave one of the layers aside and once everything else is shaped together crumble the last layer on top of the cake. Refrigerate overnight to enhance the flavours and let the custard really sink into the pastry.

It would have been magical to have a slice (or two) of her cake right now!

 

My festive season

The best way to battle a major case of post-festivities blues (which I am currently experiencing big time!) is to relive the joyful memories by finally writing up the recipes from some of the special December meals. Both Christmas and New Year’s Eve were spent in the small and relatively quiet group of my nearest and dearest, allowing me some time for planning and executing the menu. The best part of the festive season, as well as of any dinner party, is of course that magical moment when you conjure up images of the beautiful tablescape and let your imagination run wild inventing the menu. As the group of eaters was particularly small this year, I decided to bypass all the big classics going instead for a tapas style meal. It was a bit of an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern and Georgian recipes plus a few things inspired by some of my culinary (Instagram) comrades. The highlights of the night were: Persian lamb keftas, fish falafels, mini khachapuri muffins and a spicy fennel-orange pickle salad. So here’s how I made these.

 

Persian lamb keftas:
(recipe based on the one from Sabrina Ghayour’s cooking class)

Makes around 15

500 gr lamb mince
1 onion (finely chopped)
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of ground coriander
1/2 chilli powder
a large bunch of dill finely chopped
2 large handfuls of dried apricots finely chopped
generous seasoning of salt
2 eggs

Chop all the ingredients that need chopping then add them to the mince, eggs and the spices in a large bowl.
Make sure to mix all the ingredients really well (for a good few minutes) so that the meat really absorbs all the vibrancy of the spices.
Form the mixture into small even-sized balls and place in an hot, oiled pan.
Fry the meatballs until really crispy on both sides and they begin to ooze an irresistibly delicious smell.
These are equally delicious hot, lukewarm or cold. A good accompaniment to these would be a yogurt and fresh mint dip with a bit of lemon zest to balance the fiery spices.

 

Fish Falafels:

(a variation on a recipe by Emma Spitzer)

Makes around 15

2 large fillets of cod
1 tin of chickpeas
1 large bunch of fresh coriander
zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of ground cumin
1 tsp of harissa paste
2 tbs of sumac
2 eggs

A food processor is a really handy companion here (though I have previously made a successful batch of these my finely chopping everything). Whichever way you decide to go, what you need to end up with is a evenly combined mixture which still retains some individual tiny bits of chickpea and fish; blending it into a smooth paste doesn’t really work at the end.
Form the ‘dough’ into evenly-sized small balls … now there are a few ways these can be cooked. The best one is of course deep frying, but if you want to opt for a lighter (and less smelly) version then cooking them in a lightly oiled pan or in an oven works just fine too.
To accompany these little gems you can make a dipping sauce of harissa and yoghurt or if you are going all the way, then use mayo instead of yoghurt.
I am really in love with this recipe and these Middle Eastern beauties have become quite the regulars on my table.

 

Khachapuri-style muffins:

One of the most indulgent, heavenly-creamy creations of Georgian cuisine, khachapuri are flatbreads stuffed with salty cheese, egg and butter. Here’s a refined, lighter version adapted to the cheeses available in the UK. I have also cheated by using filo instead of making a proper rich and fluffy traditional pastry. Technically this is not really a khachapuri, but as this recipe was given to me by my London-based Georgian friend, it still bares a stamp of authenticity.

Makes 6

1 pack of filo pastry
1 pack of feta cheese
1/2 pack of ricotta
1/2 halloumi
1 egg
200 gr of butter (about 50 for the filling and the rest for smothering the pastry)
a generous seasoning of black pepper

Mix grated halloumi, crumbles feta and ricotta in a bowl together with the egg, some melted butter and black pepper.
Use 1 sheet of filo pastry folded in half: butter it generously on both sides and carefully place inside a muffin mould (which also needs buttering, of course).
Load the muffin to the rim with the cheese mixture and cover it with the ends of the pasty that are flowing out of the mould.
Bake in a fan oven at 200C for about 30 minutes or until the pastry gets golden and crunchy.
I have discovered that these muffins go exceptionally well with a chutney, becoming a centre piece of, as opposed to an accompaniment to, a meal. My current chutney of choice is Newton and Pott’s tamarillo chutney.

Fennel and Orange pickle salad

This is officially my new favourite winter salad after sampling it at a dinner party of a dear friend (who happens to be a brilliant chef too).

1 fennel
1 apple
1 orange (zest, juice and flesh)
1/2 red onion
1 small clove of garlic, finely grated
1 tbs of jalapeño brine
large bunch of dill, finely chopped
2-3 slides of jalapeño finely chopped
2 tbs of white wine vinegar
Maldon salt

Mix the liquid elements in a large bowl. Add the finely chopped onion, grated garlic and leave to infuse.
Meanwhile, finely slide the fennel and apple.
Add it to the pickling liquid.
Zest half of an orange, then add the flesh+some juice to the rest of the ingredients.
Add the dill and jalapeños and season with salt.
Leave to sit for about 10 minutes and boom! This will add a kick to any meal. Goes particularly well with the fish falafel and the meatballs (so this pescatarian was told).

An even better way of dealing with post-festivities blues would actually be to recreate this meal immediately!

Borsch risotto with onion chutney

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Stating the obvious, I will say that there is nothing more rewarding than making a delicious meal which ticks all the right boxes. I love cooking for myself and enjoying a meal on my own. But I have to say, it is even more rewarding when your humble effort gets noticed by some of the hottest food bloggers and gets featured on their website. This is what happened with my beloved borsch risotto and onion chutney creation which got featured on The Feed Feed page dedicated to jams, chutneys and jellies. The rest of the recipes on the page are absolutely brilliant. If you decide to recreate this meal, here’s what you do….

For the onion jam:

4 medium white onions or two large
A handful of sultanas
A teaspoon of brown sugar (or to taste)
All spice
A generous dash of balsamic vinegar
Sea Salt
Black pepper
Dash of olive oil
Water
*Makes a small jar

Finely chop the onions and sweat them in olive oil with some salt until soften and golden brown.
Add a little bit of water, sultanas, all spice and sugar, lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, adding water so the mix doesn’t stick. When sultanas and onions are completely soft, transfer the mix into a food processor, add some vinegar and pulse for a few seconds. The mix should not be fully blended into a smooth paste. Transfer into a sterilised jar.

For risotto:
*2 portions
1/2 onion
2 garlic cloves
4 medium beets
200gr arborio rice 1lts veggie stock+cooking juice from the beets
150gr red wine
Sea salt
Black pepper
Olive oil

Roast the beets on full blast heat 200C until cooked. Retain any juices and leave to cool so they are easy to handle. Once cool, grate the beets, and leave a few slices for decoration. Add the beet juice to the veggie stock.
Finely chop the onion + garlic and sweat for about 5 mins in olive oil with some salt.
Add the rice and start stirring. Once the rice has absorbed the cooking juices and changed colour pour in the wine and simmer till the alcohol is evaporated. Continue adding stock until risotto is almost ready. Add the grated beets and stir well so the beets are evenly mixed into the rice. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Leave for another minute or two and then take off the heat.
To serve decorate with some beets slices and a very generous dollop of onion jam, a sprinkle of dill and a dash of excellent olive oil. Some goats cheese would also make a great addition to this borsch risotto!

A KinoVino trip to Venice

Co-hosting a dinner is such an amazing way to get to know a new side of your cooking partner as well as to learn something new about yourself. The most recent experience at KinoVinoVenice was definitely an excellent example of this. Cooking with my Venetian friend, Susanna Cappellaro, I have experienced first hand the importance of family tradition and of sticking to the authentic recipes when cooking. Italians really do take their food very seriously and no deviation from the recipes is permitted. Being a more of a free-styler when it comes to recipes I constantly attempted to add something of my own to each dish. This has also taught me the need to appreciate the simplicity and honesty of each ingredient and understand that simple is not necessarily flavourless and boring. I would have never thought that string beans slow cooked with a bit of salt, onion and tomato could be so surprisingly rich in flavour. Of course, it is all about the ingredients that are used, and this is something that is of paramount importance in authentic Venetian cooking, and something I would like to carry over into my day-to-day practice.

I have to admit this particular menu was the most challenging so far, paradoxically, precisely because it was so simple. I have never cooked any of the dishes before and these recipes came directly from Susanna’s mother, so no pressure there to perform well. In order to perfect each dish, we had to do not one but two recipe testing sessions; having friends come over to taste the fruits of our labour and wash it down with a lot of Venetian red wine and prosecco made the experience all the more delightful and rewarding.
Although my knowledge of Italian food does go beyond pizza and pasta, these recipes were completely new to me, and through them I feel I have discovered something original about Venetian food culture. And if this is not the best outcome of forging a new partnership in the kitchen, then I don’t know what is!
Partners in KinoVino crime
Bacalla montecato
A quintessential Venetian creation made from salt cod and milk. Again the preparation is simple, but does require a lot of planning ahead. Get a good quality salt cod fillet from a local fishmonger and soak the fish for at least 24 hours, changing the water frequently. Once the cod has been soaked long enough (in my case it was 48 hours), place it in a pot and simmer in whole milk until cooked. Discard the skin and bones (be as careful as possible to remove them all) and place the fillets into a food processor. Pulse for a few moments to break up the flesh and then slowly add the olive oil while mixing continuously. Add some of the milk until the mixture reaches a light fluffy consistency but is not completely smooth. Use a whisk in the final stage to add more lightness and air to the pate.
I have sinned by adding some onion, garlic, pepper corns and bay leaf to the milk when simmering the cod. Venetians, forgive me, but it did taste wonderful!
I have sinned by adding some onion, garlic, pepper corns and bay leaf to the milk when simmering the cod. Venetians, forgive me, but it did taste wonderful!
Pasta e fagioli
A beautiful soup made of borlotti beans and pasta or pearl barley as in our case.
Soak the beans for 24 hours before cooking. When ready to boil gather all the components for a delicious stock:
  • Onion
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Garlic
  • Rosemary
  • Parsley
  • Thyme
  • Pepper corns
  • Salt

Boil together until the beans are cooked and have soaked up all the goodness of the veggies. Once ready, remove all the vegetables and herbs, and strain the stock.Place the cooked beans back into the pot (but keep some aside) and add some of the stock. Using a blender mash them up into a puré and keep adding the stock until a think soup consistency is achieved. Add the rest of the beans as well as the barely and bring to boil until the parley is cooked. Taste for seasoning and garnish with lots of fresh parsley and excellent olive oil.

 

 

Recipe testing

Behind the scenes of KinoVino Viy: a tribute to Ukrainian food and culture with Olia Hercules

There really is something magical about coincidences, when people cross paths at a particular moment in time to produce something original and inspiring together. This is exactly how KinoVinoViy came about. A university friend, with whom I have reconnected as I was falling in love with the world of food, turned out to have retrained as a chef and was on her way to a highly successful carrier. Another good friend who decided to change her career path and open a café in Brighton. A chance meeting at a supper club with my former film studies student and her friend, who happened to be a big foodie planning to train as a chef. It really was so special when we all came together on an early Saturday morning in the kitchen of Palm2 and knew that we were to have a fantastic day of cooking madness ahead of us. For the next 10 hours or so our venue in the heart of East London was infused with crazy Ukrainian vibes and transformed into a completely different space. Listening to folky-punky tunes (Gogol Bordello and Dakha Brakha) the ladies in the kitchen led by Olia were conjuring up some amazing creations, while my endlessly talented designer friend, Ksenia, worked her magic dressing the set. How beautiful is the experience of women coming together to cook and serve food. I really felt so incredibly proud to be surround by such talent and creativity.

All recipes can be found in Olia’s cookbook Mamushka. ‘Official’ pictures for the night are here.