Show me the green

They look like happy, fat monsters. Where did I put my googly eyes…

Whoever first had the idea to sell small bunches of herbs in the supermarket was a wily genius. Portioned herbs have got to have the highest profit margin of all the world’s commodities; sure, gold is expensive per gram, but presumably less expensive than the 1.60€ one is expected to pay for three small leaves held together by the world’s smallest elastic band. Plus, gold doesn’t then wilt into inedible sinews just hours after it has been taken home from the shop. German and English supermarkets share this one depressing attribute: all herbs are sold at a heart-stoppingly high markup, packaged in an oversized plastic sarcophagus. It does seem especially cruel in Germany, though, because these are a people who truly love and respect the art of the noble herb.

Herbs play a huge part in the cuisine and the culture over here. From herbal tea (mmm, ok) to herbal remedies (hmm…) they are given the credence they deserve, and anyone with a balcony is essentially a social pariah unless they festoon said balcony with huge bushes of aromatic foliage. Along with bakeries and ‘apothecaries’, there are equally astounding numbers of florists’ scattered along every street, and in every one, amidst the bouquets and the decorative bamboo and the slightly strange wreaths made out of spraypainted lichen, there are always herb plants – interesting and nice herb plants – ready to be taken home and goaded along the rails of a balcony somewhere. It is a joy.

A cup of German herbal tea is nothing like the green-tea-bitterness that one usually encounters in the UK. It is actual real herbs steeped in hot water, and at the best cafés that means a hearty bunch of sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and all sorts in a big hot fragrant vat. It can be quite disarming if you have grown up in a household with English roast dinners; while it certainly tastes healthful and fresh, it is also inescapably like drinking a cup of very bland gravy. 


Of course, if you know the right times and the right places, your access to herbs is joyful and unfettered. In summer, at the start of gherkin season (don’t be ridiculous, of course there’s a gherkin season, you philistine) supermarkets sell vast bunches of dill – for the picklin’ – even including the big yellow polleny flowerheads. The view alone of such a vibrant and pert crop in amongst the usual fruit and veg is something wonderful and exciting, and something you just don’t get in the UK. Nor are the enormous sheaths of herbs you can buy at the Turkish markets, where you will find a bundle of coriander the size of a newborn baby for fifty cents and a cheeky wink. And at the Potsdam Castle there is even a whole planted border where glossy bushes of basil form the central foliage in a bed that margins the front of one of the most spectacular custard-coloured buildings (although naturally one is discouraged from picking the bedding plants and making a quick pesto). 

Anyhew, this all comes around to two recipes which evolved out of a pack of sage I bought last week. Unfortunately I was forced to go to Real to buy it – a supermarket which prides itself on stocking everything you could ever possibly need and which surgically extracts painful wads of cash out of your wallet for the privilege. Having invested in my tiny coffin of priceless leaves, I used a few to make a fancy dinner for my neighbours, and the couple of sprigs I had left over just seemed far too valuable, and simply had to become the centrepiece of all my cooking for the days to come until I had savoured every last cell of their tasty foliage. Strongly herbed, piping and toasty; this is perfect winter fodder. And boy, do we need it over here; it’s hovered around -11ºC for long enough that this morning a quick walk to my workmate’s house became an interesting voyage of discovery where I learnt that one’s gums and eyelids can go perceptibly numb in strong cold winds. I hope you make both of these comforting treats this week and enjoy them with my favourite winter remedy of all: a giant glass of lip-smacking red wine.

Herby stuffed red onions

Vegetarians suffer under the constant tyranny of stuffed vegetables. If it isn’t goat’s cheese or spinach and ricotta, the one thing any vegetarian will invariably be presented with at a restaurant or dinner party is a stuffed something. Not a bad thing, but gets a little old. This is a slightly more unusual variant, though, and the shiny purple skins of the onions makes it a bit of a showstopper too.In short: yummy.

Makes enough for one tasty dinner; multiply quantities depending on how many mouths there are to feed, you popular rascal, you.

2 medium-sized red onions
6 leaves of sage, finely snipped
2 tbsp couscous
4 mushrooms
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp grated parmesan (be generous, the more the better!)
2 tsp dried thyme (or 1tsp fresh)
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil/butter

1. Slice a small amount off the bottom of the onions so they will stand up on a baking sheet without rolling all over the place. Cut a substantial ‘lid’ off the top of the onions. Leave the skin on.
2. With the aid of a small knife and a sharp teaspoon, dig away at the interior of the onions until you have a substantial hole inside each one, with about 2-3 layers of onion making the thickness of the walls. Drizzle a bit of olly oil into each onion and pop into the oven for 10 minutes.
3. Chop up the onion you have excavated along with the mushrooms and the garlic, then sauté in a little butter or oil in a small pan for 5 minutes until the mushrooms have softened and the onion is cooked through. Add the couscous, herbs, papper and parmesan and stir to combine.
4. Take the par-cooked onions out of the oven and fill with the stuffing, then pop the lids on top and bake for 25-30 minutes. (You can pop the leftover stuffing back on the hob in the saucepan and add water, bit by bit, until the couscous is soft, and then serve the onions on a bed of this extra deliciousness).
5. Take the onions out of the oven and serve with veg and a baked potato. Remember, don’t eat the skins!

Velvety ‘lush’room soup – serves 2

This soup is one of the best things I have ever done with an hour of my life. It is stonkingly delicious and good for you. Yes, you really do need the cream. No, you won’t regret it.

1 punnet of mushrooms
1/4 of a head of celeriac
1 medium carrot
2 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1 small handful dried mushrooms (pricey, I know – your best bet for cheap ones are the Asian supermarkets. Still, if you are waiting for payday (or if you are simply a velociraptor) you won’t go far wrong with a couple of rashers of smoked bacon instead)
8 sage leaves
500ml chicken/vegetable stock
75ml whipping/double cream
1 tbsp white flour
salt and pepper
no potatoes. Seriously, no potatoes. They have no place in any good soup.

1. Chop the mushrooms, onions, celeriac and carrot into small dice, and finely chop the garlic. Sweat everything but the mushrooms in olive oil over a low heat.
2. Add the mushrooms (and the bacon if you are using it) and sprinkle the flour over the top. Continue to stir and cook over low heat until the mushrooms are softened.
3. Add the dried mushrooms, sage leaves (whole) and stock. Simmer very gently for a further 15 minutes until the celeriac and carrot are thoroughly cooked through. 
4. Stir in the cream (add more if you need – it should have a soft, velvety feel to the broth but shouldn’t be over-rich) and add salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the soup is piping hot and serve. If you are a winner, you will have remembered an old lump of baguette in the cupboard and made garlicky croutons. I didn’t have any baguette but it was still good with crackers and cheese.
 
 

  
 

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!

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!

The crash-test-dummy chef

Who cares if it tastes good when it’s this shiny?

Cooking as a student can tend to be as perfunctory as the kitchen you are given. With a couple of hobs (typically caked in grease, dried bits of spaghetti and unidentifiable burnt clag), an oven of unreliable temperature and about fifteen centimetres squared of fridge space to put to your disposal, generally one is hard pressed to find the capacity and the energy to be creative within such an arena. This has always been tragic for me, because I am the kind of cook who loves to experiment with their cooking and try out things that wiser, more forward-looking people might consider foolhardy. I am known, for example, for my endless quest to try to bake every foodstuff imaginable into some kind of vegetable ‘boat’ (aubergines, peppers, courgettes and other canoe-like things seem to work best so far, but I think a butternut squash viking longboat could very well be feasible with the right approach). If I don’t have a recipe for something, I won’t just look up one recipe but will look up ten and try to amalgamate them all into what I like to think is the ‘ultimate’ version of said idea, often with similar consequences to those you might achieve if you did the same thing with genetic manipulation. More and more my cooking is veering towards the technical and the queer: pickling things, making praline from scratch, seeing what should and should not be made into a flavour of soup…the next on my list at the moment is home-fermented sauerkraut, although I fear I may be banned from having a jar of fermenting cabbage nestling frothily in a cupboard in the house.

But this is one of the joys of having my own kitchen back. I don’t have to worry about who I might offend or freak out by my experimentations, and finally I have the means to go as wild as I always dream to. In my student kitchen, I had one of each Important Thing: one mixing bowl, one saucepan, one stockpot, one chopping knife…here, thanks to a rather gourmet family, I have access to ginger graters, woks, every spice and herb under the sun, working scales…hell, I have even been reunited with my beloved-but-too-embarrassing-to-take-to-university melon baller. Our kitchen is incredible. We have a wok hob, an enormous gas burner specifically designed for woks and enabling yesterday night’s delicious teriyaki salmon stir-fry. We have two ovens, a wide one for roasts and a tall thin one for pizzas. We have a fridge with a tiny cupboard built into the door just to keep the milk in. Here I am in my element.

Simply put, where is the fun if you’re not playing about in the kitchen? It seems unsurprising that so many people find cooking a chore when they haven’t yet realised how exciting it is to never do the same thing twice, but to always be experimenting. Of course, you have a cast of a few recipes you’ll make regularly because they’re familiar and failsafe, but even these recipes are fun if you have a go at tweaking them every time, coming up with endless variations on an identical idea. There is definitely a point in seeing the same Shakespeare play performed by two different theatre companies. If you catch my pretentious drift.

Every time I eat out, then, I am looking for things I can be having a go at or doing differently myself. Recently my dad bid for a table at the River Cottage Canteen in an auction and we gourmets made the three-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage all the way there to the Temple of Hugh (my idol. Oh Hugh.) simply for the love of seeing what expert cooking can be. 

  The fish and butter bean stew was eye-rollingly delicious and the yoghurt pannacotta equally so, but in a way I most love that it was here that I learnt to chuck a handful of raw chopped spring onions into a fresh bowl of soup right before serving. Thank you, Hugh: my green soups now have a crunchy, crispity, oniony bite like a gluten-free crouton, and I stole the idea from you. 

Having the freedom and the curiosity (coupled with a complete lack of fear of things going wrong; this is usually even more entertaining than if they go right) to muck about in the kitchen is the most brilliant thing about cooking. It is seeing if you can make one recipe work in a totally different way (could you do eggy bread with a crumpet?), or making your own version of something you buy in a packet (home-made custard creams are on the list) or recreating something you once had but for which there is no recipe to be found. And this is what I’ll leave you with today, a real summer-holiday-project of a recipe. It’s time consuming, complicated, but so much fun to make and very very pretty when it’s done. The kind of recipe you joyfully spend a whole afternoon of your weekend making, just to see if you can. I made up the recipe based on a cake I once shared with my mother on the top floor of the Galeria Kaufhof in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hence the name. Enjoy.

Krazy Kaufhof Kake

This cake is made of three layers: a fruit jelly, a crème patissière (a light vanilla tart custard) and a gateau sponge. I know there are kiwis in the jelly layer but I would advise against them in hindsight; they have an enzyme in them which prevents jellies from setting fully, which might be why there may have been a slight degree of…disintegration…during processing.


Jelly layer
lots of seasonal fruit (Berries-yes. Mango-oh yes. But not fresh pineapple or kiwi as they have jelly-destroying enzymes)
1 pint clear fruit juice or dilute cordial (I used white grape)
1 sachet gelatine


Crème Patissière
2 egg yolks
50g sugar
175ml milk
splash of vanilla essence
15g plain flour

Cake base
2 eggs
65g caster sugar 
65g plain flour
2 tbsp warm mater
splash of vanilla essence

1. Make the jelly: warm up about a fifth of the juice in the microwave, then add the gelatine and and stir until it is completely dissolved. Add the rest of the juice and stir together. Line a springform tin with clingfilm and arrange the fruit in the tin. Pour the jelly over the fruit and leave to set in the fridge for 4-5 hours.

2. Make the cake: Whisk the eggs and the sugar with an electric whisk until they are light and frothy. Stir in the vanilla and warm water, then sift and fold in the flour bit by bit. Pour into a lined, greased and floured springform (the same size as the one for the jelly, or just pop the jelly out once it’s set and use the same tin) and bake at 180C for 12-15 mins until golden and springy on top. Cool for 5 mins, then remove from tin and let cool completely.

3. Make the custard: Whisk egg yolks and sugar together until light and thickened, than add the flour and mix together. Heat the milk in a pan until simmering and pour onto the eggy mixture, whisking furiously. Return the mix back to the saucepan and heat, whicking constantly, until it’s thick and creamy. Stir in vanilla and let cool.


ASSEMBLE! Spread the custard onto the cake base and chill for about 10 minutes in the fridge to firm it up. Then, carefully but swiftly turn the base over onto the top of the jelly. Wiggle slightly if they’re not quite in line, then put a plate on the cake base and turn the whole thing upside down to make it right-side-up (yes, that does make sense). Gingerly remove the plate which is now on top to reveal a glistening jelly vision of wonderment. Devour with whipped cream and lots of booze.