Although it is unusually mild, the light is starting to fade and I’m aware of the long fingers of winter tugging at my mood. Over the decades I’ve found ways to manage the seasonal blues. Spending time in the fresh air during daylight hours definitely helps, whether it’s a stroll in the park or pottering in the garden. Wrapping myself in gorgeous woollens also lifts the mood as does surrounding myself with golden and russet hues, whether in the form of fabric or flowers. In short, come autumn I look to pique my senses to keep the blues at bay, and no where more so than in the kitchen.
As it’s still warm, I am not yet longing for hearty stews, ragù or fish soups, like Mr M’s superb venison goulash, a rich pheasant ragù or a steaming cullen skink. Instead I look to foods charged with herbs or spices to soothe my melancholic disposition and, in particular, to tapas/meze style food inspired by the Mediterranean, Maghreb and Levant.
A mix of meze
An array of small flavoursome dishes not only tantalises my sense of smell and my taste buds, it also looks good on the table. What is more, in my experience, the more tasty a dish is, the more satisfied I feel with smaller portions. How many of us feel replete after tapas or meze starters in a restaurant?
At the weekend Mr M and I enjoyed a particularly satisfying meze meal. Pretty much everything on the table was homemade and some of the ingredients had been homegrown too for good measure.
The dishes included aioli, using The Zero Waste Chef’s recipe and homegrown garlic, served with crudités, including our carrots; hummus, once again complete with my garlic and smoked paprika (but minus tahini for allergy reasons); chestnut mushrooms sautéed in oil and, yes, garlic; the last of the fresh garden beans cooked in tomatoes and our oregano; and some flatbread that I rustled up.
And in true contrary style, the meal was all the more enjoyable as virtually all dishes were served in bowls made by yours truly… Talk about taking homemade to its natural and gloriously satisfying extreme!
Flatbread, an ancient staple
Flatbread is ridiculously easy too make. This humble ancient staple is barely given a second thought but is worth having in your armoury as it is a quick and efficient way of making at least some of your own bread.
For two people simply, take 4 oz of plain or bread flour, stir in half a teaspoon of salt, a small glug of olive oil (officially half a tablespoon but I tend to work by eye and feel) and about half a small glass of warm water (approximately 75 ml). Knead the ingredients together by hand to form a smooth dough. It’s worth doing this manually as the mix is easy to manipulate and it allows you to gauge when the dough starts to feel elastic. This consistency is a sign that the gluten in the flour is working, which makes the flatbread puff up a little despite the lack of yeast.
Set aside the dough in a bowl for 30 minutes to an hour. Recipe books tell you to wrap it in cling film but as I consider film one of the most pointless plastics known to man, I just cover the bowl with a tea towel. After all, it’s a method that has worked fine for centuries!
Just before you’re ready to serve dinner heat a frying pan or griddle. Turn the heat up high but don’t add any fat. Break the dough into walnut sized balls and roll them out very thinly. (Use plenty of flour on the counter top/pastry board to stop the breads sticking!) Pop a flatbread in the pan and cook it for about two or three minutes on the first side. Don’t flip it over till it starts to puff up. Then give it a couple more minutes on the other side. Pop the bread in a bowl or basket and cover it with a tea towel or serviette to keep it warm while you cook the others.
Maximum benefit from minimum input
Although making flatbread is really easy, it’s worth making more than you need – I typically make double the amount – as it will keep for a day or two. I generally reinvigorate the flatbreads in a dry frying pan before serving them but you could just pop them in the toaster for a few seconds. Cut them into triangles or strips and serve them as an alternative to nachos or pita bread with aioli, tapenade, guacamole or bean paté, particularly as it is almost impossible to make these in small portions.
Alternatively, you can heat the flatbreads in the pan for a few minutes to soften them and pile them up with a beans, chilli or leftover chicken, some soured cream* and a healthy helping of salad and serve them as a light supper.
Food is a great way of beating the winter blues, and by taking inspiration from the lands around the Mediterranean, dishes needn’t be large, complicated, meat-heavy or expensive to have a real impact!
* If like me you’re not a big fan of dairy products and struggle to finish a whole tub of cream, don’t bother buying soured cream. Instead go for double cream. Use half of it for desserts (e.g. stewed fruit, crumbles, scones…) and squeeze some lemon juice into the rest to achieve a taste similar to soured cream. It saves money and avoids waste!