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.