Category Archives: Food!

Chard hard, and chard easy

When I think of chard, I  think of the handsome town across the Somerset border with a reputation for toughness (in spite of its boast as ‘The Home of Powered Flight’, which I mean to investigate one day).

The children report a rhyme that does the rounds on the school bus:

We’re from Chard,

We’re well hard,

We just nicked your credit card.

Swiss, rather than Somerset, Chard is  a fashionable leafy vegetable much loved by the Ottomans. This year I’ve grown rows of it, and it has all the virtues: it’s beautiful to look at, with its thick, flat white (or red or yellow) stem and shiny green leaves; far more patient and forgiving than spinach, which tends to bolt; gives you two vegetables in one – the stems can be cooked like celery, the leaves like spinach; and tastes good, too.

Here’s how to do it as a dolma, Yashim style:

Blanch the chard for a second in boiling water, rinse in cold water, and strip the stalks from the leaves.

Make a stuffing by mixing up half a pound of minced lamb or beef, a grated onion, a generous handful of raw Basmati rice, and all the seasoning you want – parsley, thyme, mint, coriander, cumin, allspice in any combination or quantity you like, and of course salt and black pepper. A chopped tomato if you want.

Put a leaf face down on the board, stem end towards you, and lay a thumb-sized roll of stuffing on it. Fold the bottom over, fold over the two sides, and roll it up. Hold it tight until you’ve laid it in a saucepan, so it doesn’t unravel.

Make a dozen.

Pour boiling water or stock over the rolls, to almost cover, and lay a plate on top, to keep them squeezed. Cover the pan, simmer for half an hour until most of the water has evaporated and the rice is cooked, and eat them dressed with some yoghurt beaten with garlic and mint.

We just had it for lunch, and it was very good. It’s a doddle to make, with about five minutes childish industry and thirty minutes to wait, but for some reason everyone thinks it must have been difficult – which may be what you want from cooking, really.

Istanbul reads

Back from a whirlwind visit to the city with two new essentials for anyone thinking of travelling to Istanbul. The first is a book, and a website, called Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets – a lively canter around the food treats of the city. Lots of my favourites in there, and others I hadn’t taken in – street food, stall food, cubbyholes and restaurants, clearly orgainsed by district. Authors Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer have an infectious enthusiasm for discovering new things, and eating them. Lots of photos, good maps, and all in a book so small you can slide it into your pocket…

The website is at

Next essential is Istanbul: The Ultimate Guide by Saffet Emre Tonguç and Pat Yale. These two know their Istanbul like nobody else, and their award-winning new guide is everything it promises to be – thousands of photos, maps, vignettes and snippets of information, taking you into – over and under – everything worth seeing in the wider city.

Both books are available abroad, or you can buy them easily on Istiklal Caddesi, the old Grande Rue de Pera.

Getting the plot right

There are plenty of reasons why writers find it hard to get on with their books. In The Enemies of Promise, the critic Cyril Connolly famously defined one of them as The Pram in the Hall. He did not mention The Seed Catalogue, but then Connolly was not, I imagine, much of a vegetable gardener.

So here I am, ostensibly working on the plot of the fifth Yashim novel, while actually planning another plot altogether.

This our third year at Little Berwick, a hill away from the sea, and we are going for the full cornucopia. In the walled garden, where we inherited two vegetable plots, we have dug four more out of the lawn. Frost and rain, a little of both, have prepared the soil over the winter months and this weekend, trusting in the warmth of Spring, I planted four rows of broad – or fava – beans and two of an onion called Red Baron. Potatoes won’t do in the new plots for a few years yet – there’s too much eelworm under the old grass; and anyway, potato haulms aren’t beautiful. These new beds are going to be as good to look at as to eat. That’s how the Ottomans did their gardens, too, mixing vegetables with flowers.

Old beds and new

So what’s going in? Peas, of course, and shallots; leeks, cabbages and kale; yellow climbing beans – not standard runners, which set too hard and grow suddenly huge and stringy; squashes and courgettes, including the yellow sort; a dozen different sort of salad leaf, including rocket and radicchio, popping up at timely intervals between the rows; and last year’s artichokes, ready to soar this year, with their sculptural grey spikes and purple-greenish heads. I’d like a row or two of colourful chard, and spinach. Turnips for eating raw when they’re small, with a dab of cold butter; carrots for salads, and carrots for winter; beetroot – I’ve been sent a packet of white beetroot seeds by a lady who owns the late Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s bed, so I will sow those.

If I can get some glass up in time (Yashim permitting) I will dive into tomatoes and peppers and try an aubergine or two, and great pots of basil. Coriander, too – the Ottomans used much more in their cooking than the modern Turks.

Last year was superb for fruit – the old pears and apples against the walls did beautifully – but my Italian-sourced seeds were pretty poor, and the courgettes were miserable. This year I’m following with the genius loci and sticking to traditional, domestic seeds – but all ideas for Ottoman-inspired plants and vegetables would be very welcome!

Yashim’s Kitchen III

I don’t know if you’re having turkey this year? Or a goose? We are going for guinea fowl because they are so tasty, with a duck for the crisp skin. I quite like turkey but it makes a greasy stock, and a good stock is what you want for this pilaf.

Mehmet the Conqueror’s Grand Vizier used to serve this as a working lunch in divan, the council meeting held on a Friday. Into it he tossed a gold chickpea for some lucky pasha to discover (or break a tooth on): the Ottoman version of putting a sixpence in the Christmas pudding, perhaps.



Basmati rice

Chickpeas, soaked overnight and boiled for an hour (but tinned chickpeas are pretty handy, too)

An onion

butter, salt, festive stock


Rinse the rice in cold water until the water is clear – this is to remove the starch, which would make the rice too sticky. Leave it to soak while you melt the onions in butter. When they are soft, add the chickpeas.

Drain the rice, stir it into the pan and add enough stock to cover the rice and a little more.

When the stock has all been absorbed, check the rice; it should be a little nutty, but almost edible. If necessary add a little more stock until the rice is almost done.

Now comes the strange pilaf magic: cover the pan with a cloth and a lid. Over a whisper of heat, or none, let the rice steam for fifteen minutes.

Turn the rice out into a dish, helping to fluff it out with a fork.

This rice method sounds like complicated alchemy, but it’s simple really – and it works.


Yashim’s Kitchen II – lamb kebab

Effortless and classic, these kebabs are best gently grilled over a throbbing mass of hot charcoal.


2 lbs boned shoulder of lamb, cut into inch cubes

2 onions

some garlic cloves, crushed

A small handful of cumin seeds


Pitta bread

Red onion, sliced

Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Lemon wedges


Grate the onions into a colander set on a plate, sprinkle with salt, and leave to sweat for twenty minutes. Press the onions down with a spoon to extract all the juice, chuck the pulp and mix the juice with the garlic and the cumin seeds, roasted and crushed.

Stir in the lamb and marinade at room temperature for a few hours, then thread the meat onto skewers.

Sprinkle the pitta breads with water, and grill them on both sides for a minute.

Grill the meat for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Pop meat, onion and parsley into the bread, with a squeeze of lemon, and eat with both hands.



Yashim’s Kitchen – stuffed mackerel

With some trepidation I prepared this rather spectacular dish in front of sixty people at a literary festival one Summer. It was a complete triumph, as you can see from my expression in the photo.

 Yashim cooks this, too, in An Evil Eye.


A large fresh mackerel, not gutted

Olive oil

For the stuffing: A few shallots, scoop of pine nuts, scoop of chopped blanched almonds, scoop of chopped walnuts, a handful of currants soaked in warm water, a few dried apricots finely chopped, and some herbs and spices – generous pinches of cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves, kirmiz biber or chilli powder, sugar and dill and parsley, finely chopped.

Cooking is easy – it’s getting there that’s the challenge. You have to make a small incision beneath the gills, and then draw out the guts, and chuck them away. Lay the mackerel on a board and beat it with a rolling pin, or an empty bottle, making sure you’ve snapped the backbone. Massage the skin gently, to loosen it from the flesh and finally – this is the bit that makes your audience, if you have one, groan out loud – squeeze the whole thing out through the incision below the gills!

It is not easy. Go gently, trying not to tear the skin, as if you were squeezing a tube of toothpaste. You are left with an empty skin, still attached to the head. Rinse it out, making sure to remove any little bones, and set it aside.

Now make the stuffing: sweat the chopped shallots in oil, add all the nuts, and let them colour. Add all the other ingredients except the herbs, and stir them around.

Pick out as much of the flesh as you can from the bones, and mix it into the stuffing, with herbs, a squeeze of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook it through for another couple of minutes. Let it cool a bit, and stuff that mackerel! Use a teaspoon, and gradually fill the skin, squeezing the stuffing right down to the end. It looks like a mackerel again.

You can roll the fish in flour and fry it, or better still brush with oil and set it under the grill, hot, until the skin begins to blister.

Finally, with a very sharp knife, slice the mackerel thickly, lay it on a plate like a fish, and serve with lemon wedges.

Yashim’s kitchen I

Yashim, the protagonist of four novels in the award winning detective series set in 1830s Istanbul, is more than a sleuth – he’s also a great cook. In his apartment in Balat he prepares some of the dishes for which the Turks, with their long Ottoman heritage, are justly famous: not for nothing is Turkish cookery described as one of the three great cuisines of the world, along with French and Chinese.

Yashim loves cooking, which gives him time and space to think, and readers seem to love his recipes just as much. Like a turban glimpsed on the street, a draft of sweet coffee or the slender shadow of a minaret, Yashim’s dishes help to recreate the flavours of Istanbul – its abundance of seasonal vegetables, fresh fish drawn from the waters of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, the ubiquitous soups and grilled lamb, the yoghurt and the spices that scent the air of the Egyptian Bazaar.

Each of the novels, beginning with The Janissary Tree, has figured several recipes perfected in the sultan’s kitchens – although the fish stew which appears in An Evil Eye, the latest in the series, is really a Greek fisherman’s feast, and the recipe for that – kakavia – can be found here on my blog.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting some new recipes for readers to try – maybe for some people they’ll suggest a break from turkey leftovers (I mean the bird, not the country)!

The quantities are not precise. As I wrote in Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire: ‘The French emperor Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, spent a week in Istanbul as the Sultan’s guests in 1862. The Empress was so taken with a concoction of aubergine puree and lamb that she asked for permission to send her own chef to the kitchens to study the recipe. The request was graciously granted by their host, and the chef duly set off with his scales and notebook. The Sultan’s cook slung him out, roaring, ‘An imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes, and his nose!’

Be warned.

Get Yashim’s cooking on Kindle – free here!

We thought this would be fun for Yashim mystery fans – a mini e-book with some new recipes from Yashim’s kitchen.

You can download it here for free – provided you aren’t in the UK. An Evil Eye comes out in Britain on July 7th, so there’s some sort of embargo. Don’t blame me.

If you enjoy it, do pass it along so that everyone can have a go!

Greek fisherman’s stew: kakavia

In An Evil Eye, the fourth Yashim mystery, Yashim and his friend Palewski are invited to share a meal with some Greek fishermen. I’ve promised to give the recipe, so here it is. It contains one ingredient that sparks off a considerable debate about whether it is good for you, or not. I leave it to you to guess which one!

The main thing about making kakavia is to stay relaxed. You’ll make a fish stock using heads and bones (fishmongers call them ‘frames’, and give them away), a sofrito as a base, and then put in the fish to cook. If you like mussels, for instance, use them too. It’s catch-of-the-day stuff,nothing set in stone, but don’t use oily fish like salmon or mackerel.

The stock – easy. Just simmer a bunch of heads and bones in a pint or two of water, along with a pinch of salt, a few peppercorns and a bayleaf.

That’ll take about half an hour, so now you can get the sofrito underway. This is my favourite bit, because you can use your imagination to throw in anything you like, if you think it will be tasty – chilli if you want, chopped leek maybe, garlic (I would), and thyme. A few sliced potatoes are good – put them in as soon as the onion begins to soften. It’s really useful to have a heavy-bottomed pan, like a casserole, to take this part slowly – melt two or three sliced onions in olive oil until they turn clear, even a bit sticky, and then stir in a few chopped tomatoes, and simmer it down. I believe that a high-sided pan is best for this. So does Yashim.

Look to your fish. You might have 2-3 lbs (a generous kilo) of mullet, cod, hake, bass in any combination, but try to keep a mix of fish; have it filleted – skinned, too, if you like – and keep the pieces at least an inch square, or bigger.

When the stock is done, strain it into the sofritto – all hissing steam and then a comfortable bubble. Use as much stock as you want, depending how soupy you’d like this kakavia to be. I make it thick, so that it can be soaked up with bread, because the children seem to weary of eating soup. Not Yashim’s problem, of course.

Now stir the fish pieces into the stewing pan and simmer them for about ten minutes, till done but not collapsing. Mussels five minutes before the end, if you use them.

Good bread, squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper on the table.

Καλή σας όρεξη! Bon appetit…