Monday 30 January 2012

A house in a bowl of sea soup

When Chotto-ma was just 6 months old, we bundled her up one night, boarded a very rickety plane and flew to a bowl of sea soup. It's also called a caldera - the Greeks pronounce it with a soft 'd', a long purred 'r', and a voice drizzled with olive oil. The caldera had once been a thirsty volcano. It had greedily sucked in some of sea, and now had boats and fish swimming in its mouth. Our little whitewashed house was in this caldera; stuck inside the belly of the bowl with magic Aegean glue. There was a thin strand of old windblown steps to take us up to the bowl's rim. A little blue-white town flapped around this ancient rim, held in place by giant, invisible clothes pegs. The town was called Oia. Perched on the island of Santorini.

Nothing prepares you for the absurd beauty of the Greek islands. Not the movies. Not Lonely Planet. Nor the glossy posters behind the glass of hungry travel agencies.

In April, the islands are as quiet as a secret. The locals go about their business; their walk unhurried, their smiles as uncomplicated as the white light bouncing off the rough white walls. A few Japanese hold hands with their tripods. And donkeys clip-clop up and down the winding steps.

You walk into a restaurant that is full, only to realise that it's full of the family that runs it. Sisters, brothers-in-law, uncles, cousins, pet dogs, they all sit at the tables, eating and drinking and laughing loudly with their heads thrown back. Then we'd walk in, and they would take a break to serve us what they had in their kitchen - fresh fish caught that morning and grilled in the wood-fired clay oven, creamy mushrooms, tomatoes smothered in olive oil, little parcels of feta and bowls of lemony, green olives.

When you take a boat, float away from Santorini and wash up on one of the other islands, life looks even more unhurried. In Ios, the streets were empty, except for a handful of people who hadn't given in to the afternoon siesta. Amongst them was a village girl who led us through an armful of alleys to a taverna where we had one of the best meals we have ever eaten. Everything was cooked by the owner's old mother, and served on family crockery. George, the owner, sat with us at our table, ladling food on our plates. Talking to us about the Lamb Kleftiko while it fell off the bone, about the pan-seared cheese, and the secret recipes that his mother guarded like gold.

On the islands in Greece, the sun melts one day into another. And you forget how long you've spent floating from one island to another; or walking down long, empty country roads. The sun shines into your eyes, then warms your back, and finally sets into the sea in an immodest show of colour. Like a carnival dancer in long, loud feathers.

The salty taste of the Greek islands stays on your tongue for a long, long time. They follow you back, and start living in your kitchen. And sometimes, when you're missing the house that hangs precariously above the Aegean soup, you cook yourself something that takes you back a little.

Peppers stuffed with spicy feta


12 small peppers
150 gms feta, crumbled
A small bunch of parsley, chopped
1-2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
A pinch of cumin
2 slices of brown bread

Mix the feta with parseley, chillies and cumin.
Cut the tops off the peppers, empty out the insides, and stuff them with the feta, leaving a little space on top.
Tear off a bit of bread, and stuff it into that little space on top of each feta-filled pepper. This stops the cheese from melting out.
Put the heads back on each pepper, and put a cocktail stick through each to keep them from opening up.
Put then into a pre-heated oven at 200°C for 15-20 minutes.
Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

{midweek monochrome}

Then she says, “I know you’re an artist, draw a picture of me.”
I say, “I would if I could, but
I don’t do sketches from memory”

The moment of brilliance in Dylan's 16-minute 'Highlands'. If only he'd stopped at 'memory'.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Don't fuss with us

I had four pears sitting in my kitchen for a long time. Yes, I know there are only three in the photograph, but that's because three looks better than four. Better balanced. Which is odd, given that it's an odd number.

Anyway, these four pears sat longer in my kitchen than any pear before them. First they sat near the window, then they moved to the spot between the microwave and the toaster, and finally settled down next to the teapot. They weren't your usual pears, and I didn't want to eat them the usual way. They were a beautiful shade of red - something between the red of a brick wall, and the red of the dog-eared Jane Eyre that I found in the market last week. But the most wonderful thing about these four pears was that they smelled of roses. Every time I walked into the kitchen, I would take a long breath in. Four voluptuous red pears, and they made my kitchen smell of deep crimson roses.

I had to do them justice.

So I waited, and the four pears waited. Till D thought that this still-life installation was destined to die a slow death. Finally, on the fifth day, when the scent of roses was at its heaviest and sweetest, I realised that these pears were not meant to become a fancy tart. Don't fuss with us, they said to me.

They wanted to be kept simple.

So, I poached them till they were soft and translucent, and we ate them with cream and roasted almonds. The tender, sweet flesh melted in our mouths, the roses still sealed in. We sat in silence, late in the night, with our mouths full of fruit and flower.

Poached pears, with cream and roasted almonds


4 ripe pears
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 cups water
1 tsp lemon juice
A handful of almond slivers, lightly roasted
Single cream, to serve

In a saucepan, mix the water, sugar and lemon juice and bring to boil. Then lower the heat and while the syrup simmers, peel the pears. Cut them in half and slip them into the simmering syrup, and cook till the pears are tender, and look almost translucent. I cooked mine for about 25 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let the pears cool down in the syrup. We ate ours while they were still warm, with cream and roasted almonds.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

{midweek monochrome}

It's one of the places to get authentic Vietnamese food in London. A tiny, unassuming cafe hidden away in the bustle of the city's business district. We reached there at the very peak of our hunger, only to learn that it was closed on Sundays. It will have to be on my to-do list - it was recommended to me by Uyen, who runs one of the most popular Supper Clubs in London, and a very exciting Vietnamese cooking class that I must learn from some day.

Monday 16 January 2012

The thirteenth year

Yesterday was our 13th anniversary. D and I have been together for 16 years, and married for 13. And right about now, you're starting to get a little worried that this is going to be that kind of post. The kind were I look back, and tell you about all the wonderful times we've had together. Retrace our thirteen-year journey. Then end with the recipe of a heart-shaped cake with a rosebud border.

Stay, I promise won't. I'll take you on another walk instead. It started with D waking me up at 6.30am on Sunday morning with a 'Happy anniversary!'. When that failed to wake me up completely, he said 'Breakfast at Ottolenghi!'. And, that woke me up.

We took the train to the best breakfast in London. And the day that followed kind of sums up our marriage. It was Sunday, loose-limbed and relaxed. The sky was absurdly blue. We decided to pick tube stations on a whim, then get off the trains without a plan. Surprise ourselves. Do whatever took our fancy.

It was a day that we wouldn't change an hour of.


8.30am. An early morning walk through Islington when the streets were as bare as the trees. When the flower shops were just waking up for business, and the bakers were baking their breads.

9.30am. Eating the breakfast that makes Guardian lose its calm. By the chef who is a little bit worshipped. Food by Yotam Ottolenghi. And that's Plenty said.

11.30am. A few stations and a couple of miles later, we found ourselves walking by the river in Richmond, sitting at a Bavarian cafe, and stumbling into a little courtyard market cooking fresh Morroccan food.

2 o'clock. Tapas for the tired, vino for the thirsty. Grilled chorizo and rocket. Gambas, soaked and sizzling in roasted garlic and chilli olive oil. Wilted spinach with raisins and pine nuts. Bread that reminded me of my childhood - toasted directly on fire, and burnt around the edges. Eggs with artichokes and serrano ham. And of course, patatas bravas.

4pm. Coffee by the roadside. A walk to work off that patatas. A train home. And just in time for Sherlock in 'The Reichenbach Fall'.

A day that we wouldn't change an hour of.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

{midweek monochrome}

The sky, last night, looked like one of my daughter's paintings. Her rule is pretty simple - the more stars the better. This sky was better than better.

The whole house was quiet and dark. D and I stood at the window for a long time, looking up at the sky, and whispering. I took a photograph, even though I knew that none of the starry magic would show. It was more a photograph to remember the whispers. But when I clicked the camera, my hands shook, and here's what I got.

I didn't take any more, because this seemed kind of perfect. Questions in void.

Monday 9 January 2012

Some old, some new

The old

We often go out to buy a dozen eggs, or a pair of socks, and come back with books instead. So now, there are books oozing out of the cracks in the walls, and out of the floorboards. The end of the year is a particularly bad month - Santa Claus brings us a lot of books. And then comes D's birthday, which was yesterday. This is what I got for him.

Chotto-ma has her own burgeoning collection, which can no longer be contained in the bookshelves that we have downstairs, and have been demanding a space of their own. We had a battered old bookshelf lying in the shed, which I had bought from a thrift store last year. It was standing there, relegated to a dark corner of the shop. Old and scratched, and with nails rustier than my French. But it was £5, so it came home with me.

D dug out the bookshelf from the musty, murky depths of our shed, while I went to look for the right shade of paint. I have a shelf  under the kitchen sink where I keep my collection of paint cans. I am known to buy acrylics, emulsions and eggshells on a whim, just like one might a pair of shoes. And now own a healthy collection of cans - some Farrow and Balls, a few from the Little Greene Paint Co, some from Fired Earth.

I chose a rich, foresty green for the shelf. Painted it, then distressed the paint till patches of the wood showed through. I wallpapered the inside of the top shelf, and sewed a curtain to cover the lower shelf.

 Here's what is looks like now.

Chotto-ma loves it - her very own bookshelf. And seems to have found many uses for the curtains - sometimes it makes a theatre, sometimes a kennel, a room, a hidey-hole.


The new

And I discovered a new vegetable this week. When I first saw these knobbly brown lumps in the market, I thought I was looking at a kind of yam. Wrong. They were called Jerusalem artichokes. Apart from my need to try most things unfamiliar, I would've bought it just for its name. And I did.

An hour later, I was standing in the kitchen staring at my purchase, without a clue about what to do with it. So, instead of opening my spice cupboard, I open Wikipedia. A bit of reading tells me that Jerusalem Artichokes have nothing to do with Jerusalem. Neither were they a kind of artichoke.  

A root vegetable with an identity crisis - I loved them even before I cooked them.

Cumin-spiced Jerusalem artichokes with chorizo, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns

As it turns out, Jerusalem artichokes have a wonderfully earthy and nutty flavour, and a sweetness that combined beautifully with the salty, spicy kick of the chorizo. This recipe is adapted from one by Jamie Oliver. He doesn't use chorizo, so for a vegetarian version, that's a lovely option.


5-6 Jerusalem artichokes, sliced round
3-4 inches chorizo, sliced round
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled
3-4 bay leaves (I used dried bay leaves)
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
A pinch of cumin
1 tbs olive oil

Heat olive oil in a pan, and add all the ingredients, except chorizo. Chorizo can become quite tough when sauteed too long. Cook the Jerusalem artichokes for about 20 minutes, lifting the lid once in between to give them a stir. Uncover, add the chorizo, and stir for a 3-4 minutes will the chorizo is done. Serve hot.

Serves 2