Sirocco

“Often, the simplicity of Eastern cuisine is overlooked when, in most cases, the real food of the East is humble, uncomplicated and simple.”

Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana is a triumphant sort of cookbook, and hopefully we’ll do a bit of writing on it later this year as a Classic.

Rightly award-laden, bought by the shelf-load, Persiana was praised by more or less everyone. I sort of compare it with the deep blue dreaminess of Mamushka, because both these books inhabited the same kind of emotional cooking space at the same time – for me anyway. It sits up there with some of the really top books this decade, and for many of us, brought a completely new thinking to the kitchen.

Stunning follow-up Sirocco takes a slightly different approach. As the title suggests, and as Ghayour says in the introduction, here it’s about the impact of her cooking heritage on the style of food she makes & eats herself daily – a rolling spicy influence from East to West. A good example would be the Kofta Hamburger, say. But despite this culinary mixing throughout, the orangey, cardamom evocative flavours of Persiana abound. Whatever familiarity we might find in a set up like a bacon roll or a burger in Sirocco, the recipes still have the delicate stitching of faraway magic from Persiana.

The charm gets to you. When I was cooking like mad from the book this week, I kept half-expecting to spot other Ghayourmands out and about – in the Co-op, say – piling up on the lemons, beating each other up over the last jar of sumac for thirty miles, their fingerpads as yellow as buttercups from all the turmeric.

You could lean across and whisper to them, “Sirocco?”

And they’d nod. Big wide smile. A conspiracy of newfound kitchen glee like a shared secret passion for skinnydipping and eating flatbread at the same time.

I recount this silliness, because cooking from Sirocco is immense fun. And this is in large part because of the sheer flexibility of many of the recipes, as they are described, and in practice. Ghayour encourages substitution, imagination, seasonality. It’s really particularly exciting stuff and more than anything else, learning – about ingredients, about other places, traditions, people – is what I love most about good cookbooks. I think a lot of the really positive response to Sirocco just comes from the sheer enjoyment of this cooking.

The first thing I tried was the Loqmeh (Mouthful) Spiced Lamb Kebabs and honestly, this dish is just absolutely outstanding. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the tipping point into full-on Tom Kerridge concept lushness, but for me I suspect it’s the harissa oil – layers of fresh yoghurt, spring onions, coriander and almost yellowy spiced lamb are drip-drop finished by this rich red sunset-coloured oil.

The Lamb Kebabs are not difficult, not at all, but absolutely gorgeous. When cookbooks provide recipes like this, they’re going to win every time. If properly amateur cooks like me can cook them –  usually more given to smoke-alarm ringing crestfallen food – the fun is as indelibly settled as the aforementioned turmeric to every surface in the kitchen. It’s a joy, really.

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Another example of this startling food is the Lemon, Turmeric & Black Pepper Salmon. Like the kebabs, this is another dish that has a sort of confident simplicity about it. It has the kind of assurance my Uncle had when he was still working – he was a plumber – as he just fixed stuff before your eyes with the tap of a wrench in the right place. Ta-da! Like this sureness, the tablespoon of pepper in the salmon is something brave I’d never try.

Depth-charged in the pepper and turmeric, the initial expectation for the fish was that the process might end up like all the times I’ve freestyled a bit of salmon. Something wrapped in foil, based loosely on a half-remembered idea from watching Jamie some night half-cut, i.e. alright, but an identity crisis like most of the stuff I make up. The truth of the thing, when Ghayour’s salmon emerges from the oven, is that it is just utterly sublime. I had even thrown in a really good bit of salmon so this was just rubbing it in.

We all have our black book recipes, the ones we memorise, learned from Mam, cook without thinking. Some cookbooks will add a meal or two to this repertoire. Sabrina Ghayour’s beautiful & simple salmon is going in there, right now. It’s in. You know when you take one mouthful of a dish, and the pleasure receptors fire up and switch off your capacity to speak: the ‘mmm’ thing? That’s this dish, for me.

Yum, yum, flakey salmon yum.

What else? The bacon pittas. Fantastic. Here I am making pitta breads, I was thinking. Look at me, I was thinking: Pitta breads, no hands! Okay, they didn’t turn out exactly like pitta breads, but they turned out like something that was delicious to eat. In fact, I made them once more when I cooked the lamb kebabs again. Not only does the book encourage experimentation and substitution, but in this way lots of the dishes seem to speak across the pages to each other. Very like Persiana. Pitta breads no less!

The one thing I cooked and did get wrong – and this was my fault not the recipe – was the Dark Chocolate, Cardamom & Espresso Mousse Cake. Mostly, I used far too bitter a chocolate, in an already nippy cake from the addition of coffee. But the consistency, the look of it, all superb. And, when I tested it out on the others, I was actually completely alone in not being happy. I suspect I’m in a kind of endless Mars Bar zone when it comes to chocolate, but I also know there’s just a craft to this sort of thing you need to learn.

Having said all this, despite this setback, there was still a kind of enchantment, from the cardamom in the mix for this Mousse Cake, so that the finished result had some deeply evocative taste, redolent of long ago, something I couldn’t pin down then and still can’t. Christmas. My grandmother’s little kitchen. Biscuits. Something …

Unable to sleep one night, I made the Date & Orange Cinnamon Scones in the early hours. Just as daylight was rising, the kitchen was toasting with the scones’ hot orangey blast and a warm baking quietness of the air. When they were ready, I took a walk down to the shore with one of the scones still warm in my pocket. Misty cold & the sea grey as slate all the way to Denmark, eating this zesty sunny disc by the waves felt fine – and somehow very far-travelled indeed.

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Sirocco is beautifully produced, with some stunning photography. I particularly like the ‘aerial shots’ of various dishes that herald the switch of chapters. These capture something of the filled-table, mucho-food ethos of the book, and are superbly done. The illustrations throughout, little flowers trailing across the pages, and a little bit of the colour palette, reminded me actually of Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook in a way. If you have both books, you’ll maybe see what I mean.

If I was to be picky – and really I’m being picky – sometimes I wish cookbooks wouldn’t place recipe text over a coloured or patterned background. There’s a sort of Helvetica minimalist working on me here, and it is churlish, because the quality of this book sweeps that concern away in the overall magic of the thing. Not to mention that on most pages the text is actually placed over crisp and vivid white, in a way that reminds me of the brilliant clarity of Simply Nigella.

Spoiled so far for new books this year by the heartbreaking Florentine, now here we have the sweetie shop, great big bear-hug of fun, colour, clever invention & wild fragrance that is Sirocco.


Update No.1: 13th June 2016

When we were working on our review for Sirocco, the plan was to include the Citrus & Za-atar Chicken. But, best laid plans, no za-atar anywhere. Not in the supermarket, or any of the most likely spots nearby. Such is life. It’s not a usual thing for our local shops to carry,  to be fair, and at the moment, there are Ghayourmands everywhere snapping up these rare jars like dropped tenners …

So, the Chicken got parked. Until this week.

Za’atar back in stock at the supermarket, and driven joyfully back to the kitchen like the Champions League trophy, it was time to give one of the most instantly appealing recipes in Sirocco a go: a whole roast chicken, Sabrina Ghayour style.

It was easy to make, and good fun. I like mixing up big syrupy tablespoons of olive oil with herbs and spices, and once again, the whole scullery was filled with the citrus buzz-scent that so characterises cooking from this book.

You really just mix up the za’atar with cumin & coriander, citrus zest and one or two other bits and bobs and then give the chicken a good old rub in the oily gloup, which is now dark and super fragrant. Then stick it in the oven. It’s good solace for the mind: busy hands and a sparky aroma to clear your head, a straightforward bit of cooking to keep you sane. Accompany the process with an ice sharp glass of white wine, and the day just seems like a better one.

I’m a chicken-rub sceptic. Mostly because I have haphazardly tried this sort of thing before with made up concoctions or poor recipes and the results have been unspectacular – at worst, a blackened husk of burnt crap on the outside with a chicken flesh altered little inside. Sirocco‘s Citrus & Za’atar Chicken is nothing like this at all.

Crispy and delicious skin, sealed into its herby-spicy coating, flesh tender and scented from the coating and the citrus – a proper depth. Something like roast chicken, but then something subtly different, something typically Sirocco & gorgeous.

The thing is: it’s even better cold. Some rubbed chicken concepts – even when they work – are grim when they get cold. The coating on the skin just doesn’t survive, and the impact is totally lost. Not so here. The next day the chicken drumsticks from this recipe, cold and served up with a chirpy salad, were amazing. So much so, that this same rub will have to be applied to a whole bag of them at some point.