A recent discussion about authenticity in food banging about on Twitter got me thinking.
Traditional grub, cooked a certain way since time immemorial, has its place. It’s tough to beat a proper Irish stew, a Margherita pizza, or paella sizzing in the plancha. The notion of fancying up those pure, simple flavours is tantamount to heresy to many people.
Fair enough. But then the kitchen has always been a place of experimentation, where you’re entitled to muck about, to play with your food. Lest we forget, many of our favourite meals were created out of a moment of inspiration, moving away from the holy text of the cookery book. Curry, for example, made for the first time by a chef on a train to Lucknow in the 1860s, faced with a demanding customer who thought his mutton was just too dry. In fact, many British tea-time favourites are bastardisations of regional cooking. Spag bol? Italians would never eat a ragú with round noodles.
There are times when you have to work with what you have and what your heart and belly are telling you to cook. Those inspired moments are when your food can really shine. Hence the quote marks in the title to this piece. The dinner I cooked after a day’s gardeneering isn’t really a Turkish specialty at all. But that, Readership, is how I roll when it comes to whipping up something good to eat.
Start with lamb mince, 500g for two hungry gardeneers. I toasted up a teaspoon of cumin and another of coriander seed in a dry pan until they wafted warm fragrance around the kitchen. Then I smacked them around in my mortar into a fine powder. Yes, you can use a spice grinder. But I like doing a percussion solo with my toasted seeds. Add some paprika, a little finely chopped ginger and a couple of cloves of garlic. I had a head of smoked garlic, which I’d roasted the day before until it went soft and unctuous. Ordinary is fine, but if you get a chance to cook some off beforehand, it does make a difference.*
Now grab some herbs. Mint and oregano, perhaps some thyme. Parsley, fur shure. Grab loads of mint. Chop finely (again, I go old school with a blade, but there’s nothing wrong with a quick blast in the Magimix or even Jack Monroe’s scissor and tea-cup method. Like I say, whatever works for you). Put half the mint and a little of the herb mix to one side for the Tzatziki and further shenaniga further down the road.
Now, add your herbs and spices to the mince, and mix well. Use your hands. Get squishy with it.
When everything’s incorporated, take a palmful of spiced meat, roll into a ball, then shape it down into a small patty. You should get 8 out of the mixture. Pop ’em on a tray, cover and let them rest while you get on with the sauce. May as well get a pan hot on the stove, cos this next bit won’t take long.
I’ve never been quite sure of the difference between tzatziki and cucumber raita, so I use the same recipe and just change the name depending on what it’s going with. Call it Rob’s All-Purpose Mint, Yoghurt and Cucumber Sauce if you like. That’s pretty much the recipe right there.
Into half a big pot of natural yoghurt, mix in mint, some grated and squeezed-out cucumber, a finely chopped spring onion, and a little salt. Maybe some capers if you’re in the mood for an extra pop of flavour. Done. Pop in the fridge. Time to fry your koftas.
You notice my koftas aren’t sausage shaped and on skewers. Why? Well, I don’t have enough skewers, for one thing. For another, they’re easier to fry in a pan in a patty form. For a third, they fit better into a pita shaped like that. I point you again at the inverted commas in the title.
Aaaanyway. Hot non-stick pan or griddle. No extra oil. This is lamb, don’t forget, and perfectly capable of lubricating itself. Pop in as many koftas as will fit in a single layer, without crowding. With a big enough pan, you should be able to do the lot in one go. Five minutes a side, please. Resist the tempation to fiddle. In fact, while the koftas are developing that delicious favoursome crust, there’s one last bit of business.
Take the reserved herbs from earlier, and grate over a lemon’s worth of zest. If you have the energy, a little veeeery finely chopped garlic and chili would be nice too. Done? Great. Now you can turn your koftas.
While they’re on the second half, warm through a few pitas under a grill. They go straight onto your serving plates.
Assembly time. This may be over-stating the obvious, as by “assembly” I mean “put on plates.” Pile your koftas up attractively, and sprinkle over your herb and lemon finishing mix. Big dollop of tzatziki on the side. Eat with a cold beer, a crisp green salad or maybe some potato wedges if you’re feeling greedy.
Like I say, completely untrad, but totally delicious. Authentic is fine, but in my kitchen, things get done my way.
*Roasting garlic? Couldn’t be easier. Chop off the pointy bit to expose the top of the cloves. Cradle in a scrunched sheet of foil, then pour over a little oil, grind on some seasoning, and perhaps a little wine. Wrap up firmly, and stick in a hot oven for half an hour. Leave to cool. Squishy, mellow, deeply flavoured.