The Oldest has a penchant for hunting horns. None of us hunt, or even ride for that matter, but the horns have come in handy for one very specific reason: when the kids are outside mucking around, and the noise of the river is drowning out all means of communication, we blow on one of the horns, which can be heard all over the valley. Within minutes, the kids come swarming in from the fields. It’s amazing how well this works, and that they respond at all, being, er, at a certain age of independence.
We also get non-verbal communications from our neighbours across the river, whether intentional or not. We know who they are, and we see them in the lanes, but we never see them by the river. Yet we know when they have been there by the magnificently balanced piles of rocks that they leave behind. I feel like these cairns are a little wave to us across the water.
This may make it sound like we live in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes it seems like that. Despite attempts to guide delivery drivers to our house, we get annoyed and befuddled calls from these poor souls who, once they have driven up and down the one-car lanes, backed up for the occasional car coming towards them, and finally managed to get a phone signal, find that they are nowhere near our property. (Silly them; we told them that they are only near when they have no mobile signal.)
As an aid to them, I always let them know that there is a handy sign at a turnoff very near our house, the turnoff where the drivers are NOT supposed to turn but to go straight, down the hill and deep into the valley where we are. But something in their sat nav compels them to turn. Come to think of it, perhaps it’s because the sign has no apparent usefulness that it has become nothing more than a support for vines, totally hidden with greenery, thus rendering the drivers even more bemused.
The only person who seems to really know how to find us is the postman, but that’s only helpful for mail coming in, and even that took a little explaining. Unlike in the States, the postman doesn’t collect the outgoing post, so our guy was particularly baffled by the red flag on our American-style mailbox.
When the Author explained what it was for, our postman, ever inventive, decided not to let it go to waste; whenever we have mail, he raises the flag to alert us. It’s very jaunty, and I like the communication.
However, to send out post, we need to go to the postbox at the end of our lane. This postbox, a beautiful red remnant of the Victorian era, gets a lot of action, but not necessarily from us. One year, a swarm of bees decided to take up residence, and the Author and our dear friend Ruth donned their bee suits to take charge. The postman arrived and gave them the key, then he backed off as they captured the surprisingly heavy swarm in a cardboard box and drove it the quarter mile to our house.
Other creatures like this particular postbox too. Maybe because we are in Devon, land of mists and moss, we have an inexhaustible amount of slugs and snails. The slugs seem content to amble about our garden and munch on our flowers, or sneak into the house through the cat flap (or even on Mr Bumble himself), but the snails have a more esoteric appetite. They like to slide into the bright red postbox and nibble the glue off the envelopes that trustworthy souls have deposited to pay their bills or to send loved ones an old-fashioned missive. When your mortgage payment hasn’t gone through and the bank calls looking for answers, I suppose “The snails must have eaten my payment” ranks up there as one of the best, but perhaps not the most believable.
Of course, there are even other ways to communicate. I’ve been seeing memes that say “Cooking is love made visible” (a riff on “Work is love made visible”, which Kahil Gibran wrote in The Prophet). Does my cooking communicate love? I like to hope so, but it’s not always easy to know. There are things I make that the kids have adored and scarfed down with abandon, but other times the same dishes are met with grumbles and pouts. Maybe their tastebuds have changed. Or maybe, the three of them being of that age, it’s just a communication blip.
Turkish Lamb Pizza (Lahmaçun) & Pickled Vegetables
(Adapted from From Tapas to Meze by Joanne Weir, and Arabesque by Claudia Roden)
This meal is one that the five of us always like, even with the teen and ‘tween hormones in full swing. Maybe because it has the word “pizza” in it, the kids have yet to respond badly to it, no matter what their moods. It even transcends The Poppet’s aversion to chewing meat, and it has the added bonus of being finger food, which, frankly, is just fun. Plus, and this is the most important bit, it is fricking delicious.
So why Turkish pizza? Maybe because food this good isn’t going to stay in one place. Good news travels fast; either that or it turns out – surprise surprise – more than one culture has thought to put spiced minced lamb on some flatbread. There are variations of this all throughout the middle east, but this version is hands down the best I have had. It’s a combination of dough for Lahma bi Ajeen (a Lebanese version, from Arabesque) and topping of Lamaçun (the Turkish version in From Tapas to Meze). I’ve never met Claudia Roden or Joanne Weir, but I know we all would get along famously, because they cook exactly the way I like to, taking inspiration from all over the Mediterranean, and their recipes never disappoint. If you can get your hands on a copy of either of these books, do. In the meantime, you can start with this recipe.
I’ve adapted the topping slightly, upping the quantities of spice and seasoning and omitting a call for tomato paste, which to me always tastes a bit “tinny”. The dough recipe is fairly straightforward, so please do not be put off by making this; even inexperienced cooks can make bread. You just need to plan ahead so the dough has time to rise. The rest of it is pretty easy, and if you can recruit some willing helpers to roll out the pizzas, so much the better. Because these pizzas are small, and the topping is already cooked, once you pop them in the oven, they’ll be ready in just a few minutes.
A few months ago we made these and the Poppet suggested that I make Moroccan pickled vegetables to go with them. It was an inspired choice, and now I wouldn’t eat these any other way. The pickles are very easy to make, especially if you start them at the same time that you make the dough. The hardest part is cutting the vegetables thin enough, but if you have a food processor, you can just run everything past the thinnest blade. The rest is a doddle. (Just so you know how easy it is, this paragraph is almost half of the recipe for the pickles – really! The rest is at the end, after the pizza recipe.)
- 2 tsp yeast
- 50 ml warm water (body temperature or cooler)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 250g room temperature yogurt (I always use Greek yogurt, but use whatever plain yogurt you have handy)
- 4 TB EV olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 500g flour
- 2 TB olive oil
- 1 large onion, minced
- 500g lamb mince
- 1 C peeled, seeded and drained tomatoes, diced (4-5 tomatoes – notes in recipe)
- 1/3 C flat leaf parsley, chopped
- ¼ C pine nuts
- ½ tsp cinnamon, ground
- ½ tsp allspice, ground
- ¼ tsp cloves, ground
- ¼ tsp chili flakes
- .75 tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- 1 TB lemon juice (about 1/2 a lemon)
- 4 TB melted butter
Mix the yeast with the sugar and warm water and leave to prove (i.e. to bubble and/or froth). Put all the other dough ingredients in a bowl, and stir in the proved yeast/water mixture. When it becomes too stiff to stir, turn it out onto the counter and knead it for 8-10 minutes, until it is smooth. (You can also do all this in a stand mixer, with a dough hook.) Put the kneaded dough back in the bowl, and cover with a lid, tea towel or cling film and leave it in a warmish place to double in volume.
You can take this opportunity to make the topping. First of all, if you need to know how to to peel the tomatoes, here’s what to do. Bring a pot of water to the boil. While it’s heating, lightly cut a crossmark into the bottom of each tomato; you just want to cut the skin, not the tomato itself. When the water is at a rapid boil, plop the tomatoes in and let them cook for up to a minute. You may need less or more time; keep an eye on them, because what you are looking for is the skin to start peeling away from the bottom where you have cut. When this starts to happen, remove the tomatoes from the pan and immediately put them into a bowl of cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, you should be able to peel the skin off easily with your fingers. Then cut the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze and poke the seeds out. Then chop the remaining flesh into small pieces.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft. Add the lamb, tomatoes, parsley, pine nuts, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, chili flakes, salt and pepper and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is almost dry. Add the lemon juice, mix well, and turn off the heat.
Preheat the oven to 225C (about 450F).
When the dough has doubled, turn it out onto the counter and knead it briefly, then cut it into 16 (roughly equal) pieces. Roll each piece into a 6” circle and place on oiled baking trays. Top with the filling, spreading it as close to the edges of the dough as possible. Brush each pizza with the melted butter.
Bake for 8-10 minutes, until lightly golden around the edges but still soft enough to fold.
Moroccan Pickled Vegetables
(freely adapted from Postcards from Marrakesh by Andy Harris)
These pickles do need a couple of hours from start to finish, so you will need to plan ahead. That said, you could make them the day (or week) before, and they will be great.
Although the inspiration for this recipe is Moroccan, don’t be limited by geography; use whatever vegetables you want! My favourites are carrots, cucumber, cabbage (both red and white), onions (both red and white), beetroot, courgette, radishes, turnips, swede (aka rutabaga)… they all add a unique taste, and you will never have the same pickles twice, but they will always be delicious. It might go without saying, but I would stay away from potatoes, although I might give sweet potatoes a try.
For five or six people, you will want to start with about 500g (one pound) of vegetables. Wash them thoroughly and slice them thinly, then toss them in a bowl with 120g (1/2 cup) of salt. (Don’t worry about all this salt; most of it will be washed off later, but it is necessary to break down the cell walls and start the pickling process.) Leave the salted veg in the bowl for 30 minutes, then rinse them well with water and drain.
Put the vegetables back in the bowl or a shallow dish and add:
- 5 garlic cloves, smashed or thinly sliced
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 cinnamon sticks
- 2 TB sugar
- 500 ml white wine vinegar
- zest and juice of 2 lemons
Press down to make sure all of the vegetables are covered by liquid. Refrigerate up to 2 hours. Any leftover pickles can be kept in the fridge for quite some time, especially if they remain submerged in the liquid. Besides being a great accompaniment to these pizzas, they would be fantastic as part of a Mediterranean meze platter, or with cold sliced roast beef, or chopped up and added to potato salad; basically, any time you want to add a little zip to a meal.