I swear I ate and cooked best in my second and third year of university, weird though that seems – I mean, my first year was definitely full of lukewarm toast and trying to stay alive in a flat made of damp breakfast cereal held together with cobwebs (if it weren’t for that vigilant spider army my flat probably would’ve fallen down. Thank you spider army, I respect and fear you still) – but by second year I’d hit my stride. Living in a marginally less cold and damp flat felt like occupying a palace and importantly, I had both the time and the means in winter to make a ton of stews and casseroles and soups and slow-cooked things. Going into the office-job life obliterated that, because there’s no time during the day and when you get home you want feeding immediately, and going into hospo means I just eat when I can, and that might be 3am. But as a student: goddamn. All that free time during the day between lectures, searching out super cheap cuts of meat or soaking dried chickpeas because it cost less than canned, baking a cake so we’d be warmed by the oven’s heat – I’m totally not nostalgic for that time, or anything, but I also don’t want another winter to pass me by without somehow making the most of food that suits the icy weather.
(I went back to my very early days of writing this blog post just to make sure I wasn’t making this all up and glorifying the past and if anything, I undersold it. I used to make pudding every night! In one of my blog posts from November 2007 I talk about how sick I am of blind-baking pastry for pies! That’s how often I was making pastry by hand for homemade pies and tarts! Last year I literally did a blog post about cinnamon sugar on toast and a McDonalds burger. It was a difficult time, sure, but still.)
I believe it’s without even the slightest bit of hyperbole that I say my life would be unmitigated and incomparable garbage without Kim and Kate, the two earth-angels whom I call my best friends. Remember that Because You Loved Me song by Celine Dion? “You were my strength when I was weak, you were my voice when I couldn’t speak, you were my eyes when I couldn’t see, you saw the best there was in me” etc? I never understood that song when it was first on the radio and/or everyone’s mum by law had a copy of that cassette so it was perpetually in the background. I was like…is she singing to her boyfriend? Or is she a pet rock singing to their owner? Seriously, if you imagine a small rock with googly eyes stuck on it singing this song to someone it makes so much sense than a human singing it, so utterly codependent and clingy and bodily needy it is. It’s definitely sung by a small rock.
At least that’s what I thought, until my aggressively supportive and beautiful friendship with Kim and Kate. Then, at last, did I understand the lyrics to Because You Loved Me. (“You’ve been my inspiration! Through the lies you were the truth!”) I’m like, ah, this song is chill and not at all hysterical. The lyrics are calm and normal.
So between all that and me wanting to get back into slow-ass cooking and, monumentally, Kate being very close to travelling through the UK and Europe for a month (excitingly for her, tear-stainedly fraught for the rest of us) I decided to make the three of us a lavishly rustic, simple lunch before my shift at work on Sunday. It all came together despite attempting a recipe I’ve never tried before, the upshot of which is, if I can manage to throw this together in the middle of three ten hour shifts then all you need is a passing interest in cooking and a small amount of motivation and you can definitely achieve some version of this yourself with massive ease.
Nigella Lawson’s magical cookbook Feast inspired both the recipes I made – firstly, a red and gold root vegetable stew with turmeric and saffron from which I used a Tunisian meatball dish as a starting point. Kate is vegetarian and Kim can’t do garlic or onions so my result ended up having about two ingredients in common with what was on the page, but that’s how inspiration works, yeah? The second recipe, a Georgian cheese-stuffed bread called Nana’s Hatchapuri, was more direct – I just fiddled with the quantities a little to make it more affordable. Speaking of affordable, feel free to leave the saffron out of the stew – I just have a ton of it around because I’m the kind of person who gets given food by people for my birthday etc (which I love) but in all honesty the turmeric completely does the trick as far as flavour and colour. I don’t care about the tautological goldenness though, the doubling down was a pleasingly luxuriant note in an otherwise, let’s face it, highly plain stew.
Anyway, both were SO GOOD. And somehow so do-able. The vegetable stew I made more or less effortlessly the day before and just left it on the hob, ready to reheat. The cheesebread – despite the lengthy looking recipe below – was made very quickly before Kim and Kate got to mine, and once I’d let them in – my hands covered in flour – I just shoved it in the oven while we joyfully mixed orange juice and Lindaeur that Kate had both bought and brought from the nearest dairy.
nana’s hatchapuri (georgian cheesebread)
my gently adapted version of Nigella’s (who had already adapted it from a woman named Nana, so) from her book Feast.
six cups plain flour
two cups thick, plain yoghurt
50g very soft butter
one teaspoon baking soda
one teaspoon sea salt, or a pinch of regular table salt
one 250g tub of ricotta cheese
two large handfuls of grated mozzarella, like, the super cheap stuff
150g feta cheese
one more egg
Set your oven to 220 C/450 F and place a baking tray in the oven to heat up. Put the flour in a large bowl, and mix in the yoghurt, eggs, and butter till a soft, sticky dough forms. I used a wooden spoon to stir in the yoghurt and eggs and then my hands to work in the butter; you end up looking like your hands belong to zombies, but it’s very effective! Otherwise just keep on stirring. Add a little extra flour if it’s toooo sticky and knead this in with the baking soda and salt, which should leave you with a springy, soft ball of dough. Cover and leave it for 20 minutes.
Slice the dough in half and roll out both pieces into a rough oval shape around 1.5cm thick, although it’s up to you, really. Circle, square, Mickey Mouse ears, whatever works. I recommend rolling them out on two large pieces of baking paper, that way it doesn’t mess up your bench top and you can then slide it straight onto the baking tray when it’s ready to cook.
In the same bowl that you mixed the dough in – because, why not – roughly mash together the ricotta, the feta, and the mozzarella with the remaining egg. Spread this golden mixture thickly across one of the rolled out pieces of dough, leaving a few centimetres border around the edge. Carefully lay the second rolled out dough across the top of this – if a few holes appear, just patch them up, the dough is pretty forgiving – and roll over the edges or pinch them together securely with the prongs of a fork. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until it’s puffy and golden and bready on top. Give it a few minutes before slicing into it.
root vegetable stew with saffron, cinnamon, and turmeric
a recipe by myself, inspired loosely by Nigella’s Tunisian stew in Feast. This recipe is vegan and gluten-free.
about four sticks of celery
half a butternut squash, or one small crown pumpkin, or that quantity of similar
two tins of tomatoes
one cinnamon stick
two heaped teaspoons turmeric
a pinch of ground cumin
three tablespoons golden sultanas (or dried apricots, chopped roughly)
a handful of sundried tomatoes, chopped roughly
pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, to garnish, plus any green herb you like – flat leaf parsley or coriander would be great here
Using a large knife, finely chop the celery sticks and two of the carrots into small dice – it doesn’t have to be neat, just keep chopping till you have a pile of formless orange and green.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and tip in the carrot and celery. Sprinkle over some salt and allow to cook gently over a medium heat until softened. Meanwhile, chop the remaining carrot into thick cubes or half-moons or whatever you like; slice the parsnip into short sticks, and peel and cube the pumpkin. Throw all these vegetables into the pan and stir them, then add the two tins of tomatoes, the cinnamon stick, the turmeric, cumin, sultanas and dried tomatoes.
Add some salt and pepper, and bring all of this to the boil. Reduce the heat back to low, and then let it simmer for about an hour, adding a little water or stock if it looks a bit too dry. You’re basically done at this point, but you could carry on simmering it for several more hours if you like, or let it to sit and then reheat it the next day – essentially, nothing can hurt this dish. Add more spice or salt and pepper if you see fit. Once you’re ready to serve it, simply scatter it with pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, and bring it to the table. More olive oil to drizzle over would be nice.
Obviously softly sweet pumpkin and parsnip with earthy turmeric and saffron and richly tomato-y sauce is going to be wonderful, all hearty and spiced and twinkling with jewel-like green pumpkin seeds and golden sultanas, but the main attraction was obviously the cheese bread. Three different kinds of cheese? In this economy?
The combination of salty feta, the barging-into-your-mouth melty nature of mozzarella, and mild, milky ricotta is superb, and when surrounded by soft, warm, scone-like bread, leavened only by eggs and baking soda, it’s celestially – almost stressfully – good. Make this, I implore you. My only other proviso is to grind over plenty of black pepper once you’ve sliced into it – the cacio e pepe vibes make it spring to life.
The three of us sat on the floor around my flatmate’s amazing coffee table, toasted to ourselves with the world’s cheapest mimosas, ate heartily, and cackled with laughter at ourselves, half in the funny-haha way and in the oh-my-god-what-is-life-I’m-breaking-the-fourth-wall-to-ruefully-shrug-at-the-studio-audience-haha way. And then I staggered to work, full of cheese and good feelings (one and the same, really) and safe in the knowledge that when I got home there was a billion tons of leftovers.
Extra delightfully, I got to dance with my two best girls last night at Dirtbag Disco, the fundraiser dance party for Ballet is For Everyone. If you’ve ever considered supporting a cause, this is a super nice one. Please keep Kim and I in your prayers and candlelit vigils during Kate’s absence, although having consumed a large quantity of this hatchapuri already this week I see it filling the void that her presence leaves more or less adequately.
PS: If slow-cooked vegetable food appeals, then maybe consider similar blog posts I’ve done, about Penang Tofu Curry and Slow Roasted Eggplant and Butternut with Fried Cauliflower.
title from: Arctic Monkeys, From the Ritz to the Rubble from their amaaaazing first album
music lately: Dirtbag Disco edition
A$AP Rocky/Drake/2Chainz/Kendrick Lamar, F***in’ Problems. This song remains so addictive and the best thing to dance to.
M.I.A, Bad Girls. This song remains so addictive and the best thing to dance to.
Rihanna, We Found Love. This song remaings so addictive and the best thing to dance to.
next time: all I’ve been eating is leftovers from this! But I will make something happen.