Tit for Zutat (Zutat means ‘ingredient’ in German, it’s a pun, ok?)

Thank god you can at least get Heinz ketchup here. What would be the point of living without Heinz ketchup?

Living in Germany has upsides and downsides; culture shocks and culture clashes; pleasant surprises and painful realisations. But these all pale into insignificance when you finally have to come to terms with the most disturbing fact of all: it’s quite difficult to find baked beans in Berlin.


Not just baked beans, neither. Golden syrup, my beloved precious liquor, the only thing worth putting on your porridge   (though in my case the porridge is more of a garnish). Digestive biscuits. Decent toothpaste. And tea, beautiful fragrant tea, English tea that fills you with peace and tranquil contentment. When you really start to notice it, it’s amazing how many basic products and ingredients aren’t freely available just a quick plane flight from home: Ribena (my guilty pleasure), self-raising flour, celery salt, biological washing powder, lined notebooks – ok, the last one is relatively easy to find, but for some reason it seems that the German majority prefer things squarey.

Mostly this is not a bother; even with my manic temperament I find it hard to get excited about biological washing powder, and frankly I couldn’t care less if I never see another square of dairy milk ever again (Ritter Sport: it’s hip to be square). But sometimes you find yourself standing in the centre of Lidl wondering to yourself how on earth you are going to make your famous recipe for [EXAMPLE] without that one special ingredient that the Deutsche don’t even realise exist. What to do? Sub. Sub and improvise like a boss.

Take my chocolate fridge cake, for example. A classic from a cookbook for children which I was given when I was twelve and could easily rival Gordon ‘Furrow-Face’ Ramsay for the terrific recipes it modestly suggests. This cake is so good it makes nuns tapdance. And that is all partly down to a generous glug of golden syrup. In Germany this can’t be found for love nor money (well, you can get it from specialist stores for a lot of money, but there are limits as to how much of one’s savings should be spent on what is essentially just liquid sucrose). Golden syrup is also essential in flapjacks, crucial for chewy cookies, and – somewhat ironically – my secret ingredient in my famous secret recipe for Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Honey is too strongly flavoured and doesn’t give the same toasty flavour; molasses is too ferocious and black, like a demon hound’s blood; and agave nectar can’t be used for baking because it’s too busy doing Bikram yoga and talking about mindfulness. How to replace this unique amber goo?


 

The best substitute for Golden Syrup in Germany is Zuckerrübensirup, sugar beet syrup. This is an interesting substance. It’s a dark, dark, treacly stuff, either pure or as ‘ÜberRübe’, a sugar-beet and glucose-fructose-syrup hybrid, which makes up for its impurity with its hilarious name. It does the job texture-wise and baking-wise, but has an interesting flavour on its own: a rich and caramelly taste which finishes with the kind of nutty, tannic dryness you get from raw beetroot. Most importantly, it is the stickiest substance known to mankind. While making this fridge cake, I was able to glue the lid to my elbow, my spatula to the lid, a piece of garbage to the floor…you cannot contain it. It coats the entire kitchen in a viscous layer of adhesive tar, and after you have cooked with it, every step you tread across the kitchen floor makes that squeaky ‘unpeeling sticker’ noise. It’s delicious stuff though, and I can imagine a spoonful would make a tremendous addition to a tomato stew or a pot of Greek yogurt. 


As for the chocolate digestives, you have an array of different biscuits of the ‘generic brown’ variety to choose from. Most supermarkets do their own brand of ‘Hafercookies’, oat cookies, which are very nice but can sometimes break your teeth. Another option is Hobbits, a Hobnob-copy with a lurid orange packet that looks like it was designed on Microsoft Paint. You might like to use Butterkeks, which are more like Rich Teas in flavour and appearance, but unlike Rich Teas Butterkeks do not make you wonder what you are doing with your life to be subjecting yourself to such a lamentable excuse for a biscuit. I opted for the Hafercookies in a tribute gesture to the beloved digestives of my homeland, but decided to shake it up by adding in some Spekulatius biscuits, spiced little windmill-shaped things from the Netherlands which appear in Christmas and are sold in enormous packages as heavy as a house brick.

Self-raising flour is a tricky one. Normally you would add baking powder to plain flour, but the internet is full of roughly fifteen million different suggestions for what the proportions ought to be. I use 1 tsp to 100g of flour, as a rule of thumb. However, German baking powder seems to be particularly flimsy – perhaps that’s why German cake tends to be a yeasted, hefty thing you could use to prop a door open – so I tend to add one more teaspoon ‘for the pot’, so to speak.

Other ingredients are interesting because while widely available, they’re also just different enough to behave in a funny way. Whipping cream, for example, has about 7-10% less fat in it than good old British heart-attack whipping cream, so although it does whip up nicely it takes fifteen sweaty minutes of frantic whisking to get there. For this reason the Germans have invited ‘Sahnesteif’, a kind of whipping catalyst, but I refuse to use it on principle; if I wanted weird additives in my cake I wouldn’t bother baking it myself in the first place, and what better way is there to show your love than a big mound of cream whipped with dediated elbow grease alone. Kidney beans are another weird one – and I certainly don’t advocate mixing them with whipped cream wherever the heck you are. Kidney beans in Germany have sugar added to the canning liquid; not enough to make them a delicious pudding, but just enough that they taste disarmingly sickly. Perhaps this is a plus point if you want to puree them and make them into a Vietnamese bean cake, but otherwise it’s a strange and unwelcome addition to something that has its place in wholesome, chunky winter stews et al. Since living in Berlin I have learnt to always rinse my beans (which, incidentally, I hope will one day become a widespread euphemism for something hilarious: “Don’t just stand there rinsing yer beans, get a bloody move on!”).

It’s an adventure in my little Berlin kitchen, and usually the results aren’t too unpleasant; the chocolate fridge cake, with the substitutes of Zuckerrübensirup, Spekulatius and Hafercookies, a generous heap of quality German chocolate and topped off with some Gummibärchen (does that count as fusion cookery?) disappeared effortlessly down people’s gullets, and I can still make a mean Chili sin Carne. Whipping the occasional pot of cream now counts as exercise, which is keeping me trim, and my cakes do rise obediently for me despite the lack of proper SR flour. You just have to know how and what to sub. And maybe in the end give up and go and buy a cake from Lidl instead.

***Super-chocolate-fridge-cake (Schoko-Keks-Kühlschrank-Kuchen)***

200g plain chocolate
100g butter
5 tbsp golden syrup/light Zuckerrübensirup
225g of your favourite biscuits
4 tbsp mixed dried fruits (try to throw in at least a few glacé cherries if you can – candied ginger is also a winner here)
4 tbsp of your favourite nuts
A hefty pinch of salt
Gummibärchen to taste

1. Melt the chocolate, butter and syrup in 20-second bursts in the microwave, stirring in between, and then give them another quick burst once melted to fudgify them.
2. Pound the biscuits into crumbs and rubble of different sizes, and stir in the fruits and nuts.
3. Mix in the chocolate gloriousness, and stir until thoroughly combined. 
4. Pour into a baking tray lined with parchment and press the mix down with a cold metal spoon so that it is nicely compacted.
5. Arrange gummy bears (or other confectionery) on top according to your personal aesthetic taste.
6. ‘Bake’ in the fridge for 2 hours or so to firm up, then cut into smallish chunks – warning, this is outrageously rich.

Guten Appetit!

Discoveries of an unhinged chef

Ahh, aubergine. Probably the most delicious sponge you’ll ever eat.

I’ve always cooked like Frankenstein (“It’s Franken-STEEN!!”). I stitch recipes together, shove mystery things into boiling liquids, do unexpected things to unexpected vegetables, and all with the express determination to eat whatever the heck I create, no matter how strange or indigestible it might be. Sometimes, this does not end well – particularly now that I am living on my own and therefore have free reign in the kitchen to cook as insanely as I want. However, my years of dedicated experimentation is all carried out with the ultimate goal of making recipes better, difficult techniques easier and good food…well, good-er. I want to dispel stupid cooking myths and make exciting discoveries; I want to make tofu taste incredible and find a way to cook kohlrabi without it smelling like farts (still no success); I want to find at least ONE HUNDRED different uses for my melon baller which I got one year for Christmas. Yes yes oh yes

In honour of the current GMBerlin kitchen, which has seen me through some rough times (and caused a good few of those rough times plus I may have set fire to my hair once or twice) I thought it was time to publish a few of my most proud discoveries so that you, too, can cook like a crazed Berliner, tinkering away at the stove, cooking up joy with her hair ablaze.

1. Aubergines. If you fry them, you end up using half a bottle of oil which all gets soaked up and turns this healthy vegetable into a sweaty, oily slab. If you stew them, they disintegrate entirely. Roasting them is awesome, but if your oven door hangs open like the messiah’s tomb, you may want to forego this technique. BUT there is a magic secret way! Cut the aubergine into 1cm thick slices and let the slices cook on the surface of a hot DRY pan until they start to brown on one side and get damp on the other. Then flip the slices and brown/almost blacken them on the other side. This sweats out their moisture so you can then finish off the cooking with a brief sauté in a splash of oil, a flip in a wok with the rest of your stirfry, or simply longer spent browning on each side so you get that charred, barbeque effect in the photo above. The flavour intensifies and sweetens, and the flesh gets a bit more meaty rather than soggy in texture.

2.i. Mushrooms. Are a bit like aubergines. Also tend to be soggy or greasy and rarely nicely browned. Mushrooms are also perfect for the above technique: dry-fry them, chopped, until they stop releasing any liquid and stop making that weird squeaking noise. Then fry them briefly with some oil to produce the most mushroomy, intense, delicious pile of breakfast wonderment – also good on pasta. Or anything.


2.ii. Mushrooms always taste better when they have a generous splosh of soy sauce added. It doesn’t make them taste ‘asian-y’, it just makes them taste…well, it’s the difference between a plate of pleasant grey fungus and a plate of savoury joy. I now do this step whenever I cook with mushrooms, even if they’re being added to something like a frittata or a stew.

3. Tofu’s weird. I bought some because I was dead impressed about some friends of mine who were upping their protein intake with all kinds of spacey vegetarian voodoo like tofu, seitan, tempeh, and faifoomh. The last one is made up and I bet you didn’t even realise. I experimented with the tofu and found that it’s good and very nutty but somehow a bit plasticky in aftertaste, like when you used to sometimes suck your toys when you were little. The answer? Spread marmite on your dry tofu before cooking it. Sounds insane; looks insane; tastes goddamn great.

4. Always have cream cheese in your fridge. Although it seems like a rather one-trick pony – spread on toast, with or without salmon…err, that’s it – it is one of the most useful things you can have on hand and makes a thousand different dinners. You can stir a blob of it into soups or pasta sauces to make them creamy and rounded in flavour; you can mix it with puréed vegetables and parmesan to make your own creative pesto; you can mash it into mashed potatoes with garlic and black pepper for days when you are tired of life, and mix it with crumbled goats’ cheese for a much better goaty version of ricotta, which everyone knows tastes of cold nothing anyway.

5. Respect the French and their Mirepoix. Mirepoix is supposed to be the base of every recipe and it’s essentially a diced onion, a diced carrot and a diced stick of celery gently sweated in the pot before the rest of the recipe kicks in. It makes your cooking taste wonderfully rounded and aromatic, and yes it also helps you to get your five a day yawn yawn yawn. Seeing as celery costs as much as a liver transplant in Germany I’ve had to forego that part of the magic trilogy, but I still find that a grated carrot cooked with my diced onion at the start of a recipe adds a lot of flavour and texture – and health smugness.

6. Fry your tomato puree. This sounds moronic, but if you add the tommy-P to the pot at the very beginning with a glug of oil and cook it for a minute or two until its colour changes it tastes much less metallic-raw and starts to go mellow, sweet and intense. 

7. Don’t peel butternut squash. The peel is good for you and really delicious, with a chewy toothsome texture. Also, kiwis are totally fine eaten skin-on without peeling – I promise it doesn’t feel like eating a man’s hairy leg, even if you think it might like I once did.

8. And finally – avoid painful accidents. Be very careful tasting penne for doneness in case it machine-guns a spurt of boiling water onto your vulnerable tongue. Don’t leave a wooden spoon in the flame of your gas hob, especially not for a good few minutes until you smell smoke. Don’t think it will be fine to remove corn-on-the-cob from boiling water with a spaghetti spoon. Don’t let pickled gherkin juice squirt into your eye somehow. And when squeezing your tomato puree out of the tube, be careful that the tube doesn’t suddenly and unexpectedly bend backwards and ejaculate a stream of red hell all over your clothes and legs. Hypothetically speaking, of course.   

Sticky summer evenings – time for Tzatziki Tzalad!

Three seconds after this photo was taken, the entire bowl spontaneously burst into flames.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot. Sad-dogs-lying-on-the-pavement hot. People-eating-ice-cream-at-10-am hot. Invasion-of-psychotic-fruit-flies-everywhere hot. After months and months and months of perpetual greyness, Europe is being rewarded for its patience with an intense burst of all its missed summers delivered in one portion. People don’t know whether to be overjoyed or to succumb to the misery of being so very, very sweaty. Children have started quietly dissolving into tears on the S-Bahn, confused and upset that they are simply so uncomfortable and why the hell can’t mum do anything about it like she usually does?

But the worst thing about dealing with the heat in Berlin is that it’s a constant toss-up between two very different, very potent and very annoying evil forces. On the one hand, you have the hot summer, damply packed into every room like wads of cotton wool. The unmoving air which makes the excel spreadsheet swim in front of your eyes until you feel like hurling the Macbook against the wall and running away, laughing maniacally. That humid heaviness on your skin, like someone’s warm hand pressed against your face.

But on the other hand there’s the bloody godawful NOISE of the place. This city is a cacophony, so obnoxiously loud that you sometimes wonder whether things aren’t being deliberately amplified just to make this effect as overwhelming as possible. You cannot imagine the noise; it’s like putting your head inside a metal bucket and having someone beat the outside of it with a massive frying pan. The eternal dilemma is whether or not to have the window open. In the office, it’s an impossible decision. Directly outside our windows – I mean directly, insofar as I could pat one of the builders on the head without even stretching – there is a colossal building works happening on the side of the neighbouring block. 


The loudness verges on being comical. The builders use a lift to go up and down which makes a noise like seven pneumatic drills switched on and thrown into an empty petrol tanker. They chuck large pieces of equipment about, vigorously hammer everything in sight, and – which is probably the worst part – raucously wolf-whistle and banter, probably roused by the beer which all German builders are for some reason allowed to drink while on the job.

At home, the situation is not much better. I live on an astoundingly loud street, where people regularly have fights below my bedroom window and where the local homeless man has a nightly mantra which sounds a little like this: “BAAAAAAAA! AAAAADABABAAAAAA! MNPHNMAAAAAAA! GRRRRAAAAA!” (repeat until dawn) Last night was something special. Despite it being a narrow and rather short little street, it sounded like they were replaying every film in the Fast and Furious series directly under my window. From what I heard, I am certain that at least three trucks did donuts in the middle of the road, then some guys came with low-riders and did drag-racing up and down the street, and then everyone had a big gangsta fight while their hos revved the engines to provide atmosphere. And, as usual, just as I was finally able to blissfully slip into a prayed-for sleep, some men in overalls came with a giant van and started throwing large bins full of glass into the back of it. Cheers guys, thanks for keeping our city green, even if it is 6.30 in the morning.

But to the point: the heat isn’t making things easy. Cooking in particular is pretty much out of the question at the moment in this flat; with a gas hob and an oven whose door droops open like an idiot’s mouth, any attempt to actually cook raises the temperature in the flat to centre-of-a-volcano levels. At times like this, all you can do is make something cool, crunchy and with as little gas involved as possible. And then follow it up with a giant slice of chilled watermelon and a therapeutic session of screaming back at the local homeless man.

***Chilled Tzatziki Tzalad*** 

This is such a perfect summer-night dinner, and I really recommend making it half an hour before you need it so you can stick it back in the fridge and let the flavours broaden a bit while everything gets nice and cold (did you know that cold temperatures increase the tongue’s ability to experience flavour, making tastes seem more intense?). Serves 1, so just multiply as required.

1/2 large red pepper
1/2 cucumber
1 stick celery
1/4 red onion (optional, but I like my quasi-Greek food stinky!)
3-4 generous tablespoons Greek yogurt/quark
1/2 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
Very generous pinch of salt (don’t skimp, this needs to be well-seasoned)
A few grinds of black pepper
*I made this with a bit of chicken I had kicking about in the fridge, but it’s just as good with some chickpeas or white beans instead.

1. (optional) Slice the chicken into chunks, season with salt and pepper, and lightly sauté until cooked through and golden. Put aside to cool, it cannot be used hot.
2. Chop the pepper, celery, cucumber and onion into bite-sized chunks.
3. Mince the garlic. TIP: this is super easy if you lay some clingfilm over the rasp part of your grater and rub the garlic over the top – you can then just peel off the clingfilm with the garlic and scrape it off without getting most of the garlic eternally stuck in your grater.
4. Mix the garlic, yogurt/quark, salt, pepper, mint and lemon juice in a large bowl.
5. Throw in the veg and chicken/chickpeas, then stir everything together well.
6. Pile into the serving dish and chill for 30 mins before serving. Eat with flatbread/pita.

Recipe: Roast-pepper frittata boats (Paprika-Frittatabootchen), and utter amour

The one on the right even looks like a heart! Ignore the fact that it’s full of cholesterol…

*Recipe after the jump, and the rant*

My word, I love this city. I love it in a goofy, greedy way. I find myself spontaneously grinning as I walk down the street, marvelling at the place I have unexpectedly been allowed to live in. My stomach feels a little trembly, like the few days after the moment when you meet someone extraordinary and you can’t stop thinking, “Oof – I think I might dangerously fancy that person…”

Part of the reason why – and why this feeling wasn’t there the first time I moved here – is that this time I feel loved back; I feel as if I’ve been scooped back into the city like a mum scooping her baby out of the bath when it’s gone cold. The generosity of people is astonishing. In little over a fortnight, I have been treated with embarrassing amounts of kindness: I have been cooked delicious dinners and taken to special occasions, I have been invited to gatherings in people’s homes and been allowed to read stories to their beautiful little kids, and in no more than 21 days I have been given countless helpful donations including a toaster, a waffle maker and even a bike. Granted, the bike is almost as tall as I am, but I am determined to figure out a way I can ride it.

This is all a sign of how lucky I am to know the people I do here, but it is also a symptom of Berliners. They appear gruff and vaguely annoyed with you, but most of the time when it comes to the crunch they would rather do something nice to or for you than something nasty. Most days I experience a friendly word or gesture that just seems to go slightly further than the standard British approach of ‘you must be old, an adorable infant or the local vicar to qualify for my niceness’. Today I was browsing in a second-hand clothes shop, and the two women manning the store decided to have a coffee together – and even though I was the only customer, and was leafing through the cardigans at the other end of the room, they called over to me, “Would you like a coffee too?” I turned them down gratefully, and then idiotically managed to ask to buy the only jacket in the store that was the shop-owners own jacket that she’d just propped up on a chair. They then asked if I wanted to sit down with them and at least have a glass of water or something

Another exciting present that has been given to me is the flats. In my current flat, and the one I am about to move into, I have been entrusted with a person’s home and all of their special things. I – me, a person who could easily accidentally set someone’s cushions on fire with nothing but a cup of tea and a rice cracker – have been allowed to treat these places like my own. 

In the UK there is no such thing as a ‘Zwischenmiete’, where you can rent a person’s whole flat while they go abroad or work in another city or something for a while, and I suspect this comes partly down to the general vague suspicion the Brits tend to harbour. What if the person looks at your Important Documents? What if they rifle around in your drawers and touch your knickers? What if they have a big party, and invite lots of immigrants with drugs and extramarital children? Also, in the UK, we are scared and worried in a small amount of our consciousness for a large amount of time. We would be concerned about the safety of the idea, and we would worry that something would go appallingly wrong. The final nail in the coffin is our love of real, fortress-like privacy; someone living in your place while you’re not there is like a stranger looking in your handbag, it feels like an invasion and a violation of something sacred to only you. But these laid-back and trusting people have allowed me to use their duvet and loo roll and olive oil as much as I like. And most excitingly and dangerously of all, I have been given my own kitchen to play with for the first time in my life. 

Waffle maker and toaster aside, my kitchen is a little less well-equipped as I would like. My tea-cozy is currently a massive piece of wadding that I had left over from making a tea-cozy for someone else (don’t ask), folded over and pinned into a big square envelope. I have one saucepan just large enough to heat up two tablespoons of beans in it, and one pan so large you could boil a sheep’s head in it. And when I needed to make a cake for a very important birthday, I had to whittle together a set of scales using two yogurt pots, some string and a coat hanger. 

This recipe requires very few tools, which makes it perfect for now. I want to share this recipe with you because it is a Guten Morgen Berlin special, an original recipe, which I have previously only shared with close friends. I am going to feature more recipes because I want to be more Berlin and give things without being asked. This one is one of my favourites, partly because it’s healthy and delicious, but mostly because it comes in a boat.

*** Roast-pepper frittata boats *** (preheat oven to 180C)

Ingredients (multiply each by the number of people being served):
1 red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 a small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large egg
A splash of milk
I tbsp herb or spice of your choice, or pesto
1 handful of any veg you like, chopped finely (this was a spring onion and mushroom affair – also good are courgette, leek, kale, sweetcorn, peas…)
1 small handful of grated cheese or smoked bacon
large pinch of salt and pepper
oil

1. Slice the pepper in half and cut out the seed head while leaving the stalk section intact. Rub with oil and pop into the oven for 10 minutes to soften, then remove (you can do step 2 while they’re in there). A muffin tin is a great help here, as it keeps the peppers stable so they won’t leak or fall over later.
2. In a pan over medium heat, cook the onion and garlic in a glug of oil until they are soft and translucent.
3. Add the other veg and bacon if using, and continue to cook everything until it is all soft and cooked through. Take the pan off the heat.
4. Beat the egg and mix in the herbs, salt and pepper and cheese if using.
5. Add the milk into the cooked veg and scrape the pan to get all the delicious glaze off the bottom, then pour this mixture into the egg. Divide this between the pepper boats and top with cheese if you like.
6. Return the pepper-boats to the oven for 30 mins, until the middle is set and the tops look golden. Serve with jacket potatoes, crisp salad and ideally to people you like a huge amount.


 

 

Whistle while you gherk

Possibly my proudest achievement of my life so far

Ok, so perhaps my ‘heimatsickness’ for Germany is going a little too far these days, but when I was shopping in my local LIDL a few months ago I spied a little packet of gherkin seeds for a meagre 50p and just couldn’t resist it. Suddenly I had an opportunity to   combine two of my greatest loves: growing veg, and Gewürzgürken (pickled gherkins). The cute little things grew lovely, lime-green shoots by my kitchen windows, then perked up in the polytunnel to ridiculous spiny triffids which were soon completely festooned with tiny, black-sprigged gherkins that looked like fat little hairy caterpillars. Unlike every other plant in the garden, which in this squelchy damp weather have been savaged by marauding armies of slugs as BIG AS YOUR THIGH (RIP cavolo nero, purple sprouts, pak choi, mint, chinese radishes, fennel, pattipan squash, cucumbers, runner beans…) the gherkins seem to be repulsive to those undulating bastards, presumably because their leaves feel horrendous: they are covered in a stubbly five o’ clock shadow of minuscule spines and feel very raspy indeed. We fed them and watered them and loved them like our children. 

Then, one day, I opened the polytunnel to discover pendulous, bloated sea-cucumber-like things hanging from every branch and realised that if I didn’t do something with these babies soon they would probably grow and thicken even more and snap their branches, rolling down the hill and crushing myself and the house like the Indiana Jones boulder. It was time for another one of my favourite experiments/hobbies: pickling.

I’ve been jamming (bop shoo wah wah wah) since I was quite young, as we used to have a colossal blackcurrant tree which would yield great bushels of rich indigo berries which made enough jam to coat entire acres of toast. But as I get older and my hair goes – well, not grey, but certainly more yeti-like – I have developed a crazy, insatiable obsession with pickled and sour things like gherkins, onions, picallili, sauerkraut, all kinds of erroneous veg as long as they are soaked in delicious vinegary juices. Now my family simply have to sigh and put up with it when instead of filling the house with sweet fruity aromas the entire place suddenly clouds with mists of choking boiling acid. It is very, very worth it.

There are three methods for pickling: hot, cold and fermented. Fermented pickles, like sauerkraut or kosher dill pickles or kimchee (did someone say kimchee?! Quick, get me my neon wayfarers and retro pullover!) need  to be left in a warm place in a brine, so that all the ‘good’ microbes can process the food and create the vinegar solution as part of their growth process. The reason why I avoid this method like the plague is that it is exactly as gross as it sounds. Huge frothing jars of warm, gently rotting produce, people. They can get carried away and explode or overflow into your clean, linen-smelling airing cupboard, or you might have an exciting batch that develops toxins! Frankly, leaving questionable and marshy-looking tubs of fermenting organic material around the house is my grandmother’s job and she does it very well without even trying, so I leave it to her.

Cold pickles on the other hand are how things like pickled onions are made and I don’t tend to use this technique either, because you simply drown the stuff in your vinegar mix and then wait for MILENNIA while the flavours infuse and mellow. Now, no offense, but no small sour onion is worth three months of waiting; I could easily die before I ever get to try the darn things. So hot pickles is the one for me: you just have to pour your hot infusion over the produce, which partially blanches it, and then they’re ready in two weeks. Yes, it involves boiling a vat of hot salted vinegar which sizzles into your eyes, nose, ears and any other vulnerable mucous membrane, but it is quick and most importantly creates delicious and crunchy pickled goodies. Mmmmm…

 

What could be more satisfying than growing, picking, processing and finally eating something from the very beginning of the flowchart? I urge you all to try jamming or pickling, making your own chutneys or ketchups – it is so easy and there is nothing better than garnishing your dinners with condiments that you know have never even seen a factory. It’s like living in the stone age, man!! It is sustainable living on a tiny scale, but you have to start small to get bigger, and these gherkins are like a sour, pungent symbol of the dawning of a new age – of that I am certain. They came out deliciously; sweet, tangy, spicy and ultra-crisp. Hoorah! Have a go at my recipes and get your own specimens going!

To prepare your jars for pickling, you need to sterilise them by putting them in an oven and heating it to about 140C – but don’t put them straight into a hot oven as the quick temperature change will make them shatter.

Basic delicious balsamic pickle (good for sliced red onions, shallots, peppers, or any crunchy veg) – makes 2-3 large jars, so you need enough veg to fill them
500ml white wine vinegar
100ml balsamic vinegar
1/2 tbsp salt
70g white sugar
1 tsp black peppercorns
350ml decent-tasting water

1. Bring the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2. Let bubble gently for 5 mins – meanwhile, chop your veg into chunks about 1cm thick.
3. Take a hot jar out of the oven and wrap in a towel or teacozy to prevent it getting cold. Quickly pack in the veg, then pour over the hot juice until everything is covered. 
4. Repeat this with more jars until you’ve used up all your produce. Let any air bubbles come to the surface, then screw the lids on before the jars get cold.

Dill pickled gherkins/cucumber (makes 3 large jars)
6 medium gherkins or 1 1/2 regular cucumbers, quartered lengthways and sliced into 2-inch-long sticks
1 large white onion, thinly sliced 
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp mixed pickling spices or spice of your choice
2 tbsp salt 
750ml cider vinegar
500ml decent-tasting water
big bunch of fresh dill
200g granulated sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds

1. Sprinkle some salt on the gherkin sticks and leave in a colander to drain a bit.
2. Bring all the ingredients except the gherkins, onion, garlic and dill to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. 
3. Let bubble for 5 mins.
4. Arrange the gherkins, a few slices of onion, about 1/3 of the dill and a clove of garlic in a hot jar, and pour over the hot juice. Repeat with all the jars.
5. Same as above; leave to settle, and then lid up. 

I hope to smell your vinegary gases on the horizon, loyal reader. Enjoy your pickles in exactly a fortnight from now!

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Guten Appetit Berlin!

For those of us blessed with both a stomach and a tongue, Berlin is the best place to be. For all the stick Germany gets for its cuisine (which, incidentally, can still be brilliant) the sheer variety and quality of produce and cookery one enjoys here is truly luxurious; going to any one restaurant always has me feeling a slight twinge of regret simply because to eat at one inherently involves not eating at one of the thousands of other incredible places in the immediate vicinity. Germany has done the same as Britain in that while its own cuisine is still there and available, being dutifully revisited and upheld, they are doing their best and most exciting things in embracing all other genres of cooking and doing them really, really well; the photo above is of a bruschetta stand at the market where they slice you a surfboard-sized plank of fresh bread, load it with tomatoes and parmesan and rocket and roast veg, add a glossy slick of really good olive oil and present it to you with a beaming grin for just 2.50 Euros. I’ll wait a moment while you mop up your drool.

The Friedrichshain/Boxhagener Platz farmers’ market every Saturday is close to torture because it is simply four long rows of things like this arranged into a neat square and heaving with hungry people. Among the homemade tortelloni and glistening stuffed olives and myriad Wurst-hawkers you will find the fish smokers, creating a smell so divinely fishy it made me want to buy an Aran sweater and a pipe.

  There is a man selling eye-wateringly delicious-looking savoury tarts and a woman wearing multiple chiffon scarves who makes her own mother-of-god-that’s-good-marshmallows. I bought a bunch of radishes as puce as a smacked buttock for mere pennies and then met a man who makes his own barbecue sauces from scratch; the steak sauce was so good I have to put his website on here so that you will all go and buy some for your dads immediately.

Eckart Sossen – just, so… yumsville.

But it’s not just the ultra-yuppie domain of the farmers’ market where you’ll find the good eats, and of course it’s not the kind of place where poor self-pitying students are likely to go for any real food shopping unless you count casually trying free samples of everything on offer until you’ve eaten enough to sustain you for a couple of days. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter what your budget is in this city, for your two Euro buck you can still get a hell of a lot of bang. Case in point: Mio. This minuscule bistro will take your spare change and in return give you a huge segment of Turkish Fladenbrot heaving with (get ready for it): vegetable croquettes, stuffed vine leaves, walnut paste, houmous, couscous salad, sheep’s cheese, yoghurt dressing, olives and sheer bloody human good will. Mercy, it’s tasty. If you want something sweet go to Olivia on Wühlischstraβe, where the hand-made chocolate truffles cost less than at Fassbender and Rausch and will make you see god or whichever deity you choose to hallucinate at the time. The tables in the Turkish markets all over Berlin have bow-legs from the sheer weight of the glorious vegetables piled high and sold cheap, and I may have already mentioned that there are one or two places around where you can get some fairly good bread too.

If you’re eating out, you will quickly learn a whole new level to the meaning of ‘spoilt for choice’. Here are some of my personal recommendations; try them, love them and wink at the Maitre D’ for me.

Sigiriya – lip-smacking and hilariously complicated (there is a two-page key to the spices they put in the various dishes and it took me about four hours to read the menu to my friend visiting from the UK) Sri Lankan food served in portions so huge you will start squeezing food into your kidneys just to make room to finish it all.
Schwarze Pumpe – a reassuringly small menu packed with hearty and delish food and completely without fuss; also features a charismatic and cheeky waiter/barman who one imagines listens to people’s wife troubles as he polishes the drinks glasses with a rag close to last orders. 
Pizza Pane – ok, pizza places are a dime a dozen, but this one’s worth a dollar at least. You can watch your pizza in the making from conception to birth and they are so crisp, so thin and so delicious they make my heart ache with joy.
Papaya – oh, the wanton soup. Fast, delicious, reasonably priced Thai food that comes in enormous buckets and with adorable carrot flowers because I’m easily pleased like that.
Knofi – some of the things in this Turkish deli-restaurant may cause scenes similar to that one in When Harry Met Sally, except this time she’s not faking it.

There are so many places I want you to try that I shall have to stop there to save myself looking like a hog; us poor gourmands have a hard time keeping our figures in a place like this. And don’t even get me started on the breakfasts…

Oh no, time for a cookery post

As you may have noticed from the minor hints here and there in this blog, I am a rather keen cook and look forward to the making of my dinner even more than the eating of said meal just because the science and art of it it something I find fascinating. In my opinion there is little more satisfying than watching all the various chunks and slices of ingredients slowly meld and mingle into a whole that is almost certainly a lot greater than the sum of its parts; just as interesting is when it goes wrong and you can try to figure out why exactly it did go wrong as you chew your way through a suspiciously sugary stew or weirdly foot-smelling Auflauf. Cooking is the ultimate definition of crafting to live, the process of taking time and developing your skills so that you can produce something creative and pleasing which just so happens to be essential to you getting through the day. Or, to put it less pretentiously, I grew up making cupcakes with my mother and the minute I had to start making full meals for myself I geeked out on it like I do with everything. If, incidentally, you are interested in the mechanics of cooking I heartily recommend the following: Cooking for EngineersCooking Issues and, my favourite, the wonderful American show Good Eats, whose sinewy-faced host Alton Brown addresses one tiny theme each week and talks you through all the various important things you ought to know about that one recipe or ingredient, enacting the scientific bits with sock puppets or men dressed as vegetables. This show is worth watching, if nothing else, for the sheer entertainment of watching him slowly puff up like a baking muffin as he goes through the years of presenting and eating and piling on layers of chub, before suddenly losing them all and, bizarrely, simultaneously recovering from his male pattern baldness. 


However, while I am never averse to spending a good two hours getting elbow deep in a really complicated recipe (thanks a lot, Gary Rhodes), on a weekday after hours of stretching your miserable face into a smile of joyful fun and running around with infants there is not much appeal and what one really wants is something easy, relatively fast and goshdarned lecker. This, my friends, is where my secret weapon comes out: roast vegetables. The most adaptable thing you can ever learn in cooking is to roast veg, and in the rest of this post I will show you how.
 
You see the photo at the top? That is roast veg and goats’ cheese salad. It looks like I spent ages mincing about the kitchen peeling and marinading and slicing and tossing things to produce a vaguely toffish salad. Actually, the whole thing took half an hour to make and was laughably easy, the only difference between this dish and a bowl of casually thrown-together pasta sauce being that this feels like a treat rather than the results of casually throwing whatever you stub your toe on into a saucepan like I do the rest of the time. Here, then, is how to roast any veg you feel like:
 -chop your veg into evenly sized chunks
-throw the chunks into a mixing bowl
-chuck over a lug of olive oil, a good pinch of salt and black pepper, one crushed garlic clove and then stir the veg about until they are all coated and shiny-lookin’.
-spread out on a baking sheet and roast for about 20-25 minutes at about 210 degrees Celcius until they are soft and a little bit blackened at the edges…mmm…
 As a rule of thumb, you can roast any of the following things and I have given the approximate times they take to roast in this way if they are chopped up: peppers (20 mins), onions (20 mins), butternut squash/pumpkin (20 mins or 45 if simply halved), potatoes (30 mins), sweet potatoes (20 mins), courgette (15-20 mins), aubergine (15 mins), tomatoes (15 mins), whole garlic cloves (20 mins – these are great mashed into gravy or salad dressing), mushrooms (15 mins), carrots/parsnips (30 mins), sprouts (15 mins)…there are honestly too many to list all of them. But in case you don’t think this is worth trying, let me convince you. Roast veg are so super adaptable you could cook with them every day and have something different at the end. Slice them big lengthways and stack them up in a bread roll with halloumi or bacon to make a kick-ass burger. Roast a mix of similar veg and puree them with stock to make an excellent soup. Roast lots of teeny cubes and mix them with couscous to make a tasty side dish. Whisk up an egg with some peas and herbs and pour into 10-min-preroasted pepper halves, then bake for another 20 minutes to have an awesome frittata. Toss them with pasta, mozzarella and pesto. Serve them as fancy-looking antipasti. Roast veg in long sticks to make dippers for houmous or sour cream. Hell, roast fruit and eat with vanilla ice-cream for the easiest pudding ever (though use a different oil here, please!). 


For the minimal effort you put in, you get caramelised, soft and crispy wonderfulness every time. You can use different oils or toss the veg with added pesto or balsamic vinegar for more depth of flavour, use dried herbs or even add in some bits of chicken or meatballs for a really great pita bread filling. Are you feeling hungry yet? Me too. It’s time to graduate from boiled carrots and try something far more deceptively fancy, my friends. Guten Appetit!