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You might see us at parties — the plump couple standing in the corner, looking slightly out of place, hoping that someone may need help in the kitchen. We are only really comfortable with each other or when we are around food, ideally in a kitchen, preferably ours. Everyone has their comfort zone, and we are in our element when there is chopping to do, pots to tend to, nice drinks to pour and something baking in the oven that fills the air with promise.
We may not offer sparkling conversation or clever political insights but we love good company, and what we bring to the table — figuratively, literally — is food.
So if we didn’t manage to sidle into the kitchen at that party and instead found ourselves talking to people, the chances are we would have asked them over for dinner at ours.
We are not ones to plan elaborate menus — we are much more likely to get home 30 minutes before our guests arrive, one of us running around the flat trying to make it look like a place where grown-ups live, the other in the kitchen, unpacking the groceries we picked up on the way, quickly preparing kofta — a dish that transforms our little London flat into a Turkish grill-house, but without the smoke and with very little effort.
The gentle smell of spice coming from the oven is a nice welcome for our guests. Radishes, olives and some bread accompany our drinks, then a tray is pulled out of the oven and placed straight on to the table.
Everyone digs in, passing bread, spooning some sauce, and we relax into the evening and the serious and pleasurable task of dinner.
Lamb and beef kofta with roasted vegetables
|For the tray|
|3||small onions or 2 large (about 350g), peeled and cut into 6 wedges|
|2||red peppers, deseeded and cut into thick strips|
|250g||cherry tomatoes (about 1 large punnet)|
|2||cloves garlic, peeled and crushed|
|2 tbs||olive oil|
|1 tsp||sea salt|
|1||generous pinch black pepper|
|For the kofta mix|
|800g||mixed minced lamb and beef (or you can just use lamb)|
|1||small onion, peeled|
|1 tsp||ground pimento (allspice)|
|1 tsp||ground turmeric|
|1 tsp||ground cinnamon|
|1 tbs||ground cumin|
|1 tsp||table salt|
- Preheat oven to a high setting (200C fan). Place onion wedges, pepper strips, whole cherry tomatoes and garlic in a roasting tray large enough to contain them in one layer. Drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt and ground black pepper. Mix to coat and set aside.
- To make the kofta, break the pitta into a couple of pieces and cover with some cold water. Place the minced meat in a large mixing bowl. Use a coarse grater to grate the onion into the bowl and the finer side to grate the garlic. Add the spices, salt and egg. Squeeze excess water from the soaked pitta and add to bowl. Now get your hands in there and mix really well, until the pitta has become an even part of the mass.
- Divide the mix into 12 large kofta (about 80g each). Shape each into a ball and flatten down a little, then place on top of the vegetables. (If preparing in advance, you can stop at this stage and put in the fridge until you are ready to roast — but you’ll need to allow an extra 10 minutes if roasting direct from fridge.) Roast for 12 minutes, then open oven carefully, rotate the tray and roast for another 12 minutes.
- Serve with plain yoghurt and flatbread — pitta, wraps or a crusty loaf also work well. (Add the bread to the oven for the last three minutes of cooking time to warm.) Garnish with some chopped parsley.
Medias with lamb and feta
There is something particularly pleasing about stuffed vegetables: the hollowed-out vegetable becomes an edible cooking vessel which both gives flavour to the filling and in turn soaks up flavours from the filling.
Also satisfying is the knowledge that someone has taken the time and care to scoop out the vegetables, choose the right filling and cook it gently, so as not to break up the vegetables. This is a preparation that plainly says: time and attention were spent here, for your pleasure. But what pleases the diner does not necessarily please the cook, especially if, like me, they are short of time and slightly lazy in the kitchen.
These stuffed peppers are very easy and quick to prepare but have all the charm of more elaborate stuffed vegetable dishes. Medias is a dish from my home town, Jerusalem, from the old Jewish Sephardi community there, the original Spanish Jews who returned to the city after the Inquisition centuries ago. They have their own language, Ladino, a type of pidgin Spanish, and their own very particular cuisine, a beautiful mix of Spanish and Moorish traditions with Middle Eastern ingredients and sensibilities. “Medias” in Ladino just means “half”, and here it’s used for any type of vegetable cut in half and stuffed. Courgettes are common, as are aubergines and tomatoes, but onions, artichokes, celeriac and beetroot can also be used, though these require a bit of skill to carve well.
Peppers are the ones I like best for taste, colour and ease of preparation. All you need to do is cut them in half, remove the seeds and place the filling ingredients inside, then cook in a very simple sauce. The result is beautiful, tasty and nourishing, and needs nothing else to make for a great meal for loved ones, who will enjoy the attention without being any the wiser as to how little time went into it.
Serves 4-6 for dinner
|For the lamb filling|
|40g||parsley, finely chopped|
|1||plum tomato, finely chopped|
|1 tbs||tomato paste|
|1-2 tsp||chilli flakes|
|1 tbs||smoky paprika|
|1 tbs||sweet paprika|
|200g||feta, roughly crumbled|
|½ tsp||black pepper|
|For the sauce|
- Halve the peppers through the stem and remove all the seeds and white pith but leave stem on (just for effect, really). Sprinkle the inside of the peppers with table salt and allow to sit for at least an hour (and up to 24 hours).
- Blend the filling ingredients together to form a smooth mixture but with visible lumps of feta. Then mix all the sauce ingredients together in a jug.
- Heat oven to 180C fan. Shake out any water that has formed in the peppers and add the lamb filling. Place the 12 pepper halves in a deep tray or casserole that will fit them all snugly and cover with the sauce. Place a piece of baking paper on top and cover with a lid or silver foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, baste, turn the tray, cover and return to oven for another 15 minutes.
- Serve with plain yoghurt and/or lemon wedges and fresh rocket.
Malabi with roasted peaches
C and P (as we’ll call them to spare their modesty) are some of the best people we know, the kind of friends that characters on TV shows have — smart, fun to be with but just kooky enough not to make us feel inadequate. They have a beautiful flat and glamorous jobs, and they look great because of the strict health regime C keeps them on: jogging, tennis, golf, yoga. And, of course, they avoid carbs, and have done for years.
This is not the case with us, and we have the waistlines to show for it. My wife being one of the best bakers in the world, there is always something baked and sweet nearby. It is my strong belief that happy is healthy, and nothing makes me happier than cake. But whenever C and P visit we know we have to completely de-carb the meal.
Malabi is a happy solution — a simple milk pudding that you find in many Middle Eastern countries. We used to buy it from street carts: wobbly white pudding set on ice. So nice and satisfying on a hot day and even more so on a hot night. Our version is lovely and light to eat — and although it does contain some sugar, most of it comes from nature’s own peaches.
Makes 6 individual puddings
|For the puddings|
|For the peaches|
|Juice of ½ lemon|
- Have six pretty glasses or dessert bowls ready before you start.
- Mix the milk and cream with the sugar, honey and rosewater. Take out about half a cup of the milk mixture; add the cornflour to the cup and mix to make a paste. Set the remaining milk mixture in a small pan on a medium-high heat; whisk as it warms up and, as soon as you see the first little bubbles, add the cornflour paste in a steady stream, whisking all the time. Don’t be tempted to add the cornflour before those first bubbles, as the mix may not thicken enough. Once the mix starts to boil (it should resemble a thick custard), pour carefully into your glasses. Place in the fridge to cool entirely (don’t wait for the puddings to cool at room temperature — they benefit from the sudden cold).
- Place a large frying pan on the heat to warm. Meanwhile cut each peach into about eight wedges. Sprinkle the sugar into the hot pan — it will start to melt straight away. Once it has dissolved and is starting to colour, add the peach wedges and leave on the heat until they let out a little liquid. Add the rosewater and lemon juice and cook for five minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool in the pan. To serve, top puddings with peach wedges and a spoonful of cooking liquid.
Honey & Co, 25a Warren St, London W1; this column will appear fortnightly
Photographs: Patricia Niven
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