Updated: Apr 11
I love food and cooking, but it hasn’t always been that way. When I was a child I hated eating – I just couldn’t see the point in it. I used to tell my parents it was a waste of time. I had far more important things to be getting on with – jumping the ditch on my bike, den building, tree climbing, bug catching, newt fishing, building, breaking and burning anything and everything – just not sitting around a table and eating. BORING! Food was just sustenance, nothing more.
Dinner times were painful, I would pick at my plate moving the food around to try and give the illusion that I had eaten more than the absolute bare minimum. As a result, I was small and skinny. You could see my ribs under the skin like a vacuum-packed comb. My mum used to worry and thought I’d never grow. Meals would be supplemented with Floradix and Mighty Mouse vitamin tablets, just to make sure I was getting some kind of nutrients into my system.
The funniest food avoidance story (which still humours and perplexes my dad to this day) revolves around toast! Every morning my parents would make me toast with marmalade (something I pretty much eat everyday now and absolutely adore), they would serve it up to me and then head off upstairs to get ready for work. Once they were out of sight, I would take my slice of toast and creep from the dining room, through the kitchen and then tiptoe down the stairs into the utility room where I’d hide my toast under the dog’s basket. I would then scuttle back to the dinning room where I would sit, empty plate in front of me and wait for my parents to come back down. They would see the empty plate, assume I’d eaten my breakfast and everyone would be happy – flawless plan! Except 1) I used to wear a pair of clogs as slippers (don’t ask me why, mum had a pair and so did I) and it goes without saying that they are not the stealthiest form of footwear. So every morning my parents would hear the tap, tap, tap of the wooden soles as I made my covert journey to the utility room and back (not incriminating in itself, but it certainly aroused suspicion) and 2) we had a very large Briard who was getting more and more agitated and aggravated by the ever growing mountain of toast that was accumulating under his basket.
One (fateful) day, my dad noticed the dog pawing at his basket and decided to take a closer look. He lifted it up to find an enormous laminated heap of stale and moulding toast! The whole scene looked like some kind of YBA visual art installation – think Tracy Emin, but with dog baskets and bread. Fortunately, my dad was so confused and bewildered, he couldn’t really get angry at me – the phrase ‘lost for words’ has never been more perfectly exemplified. The ‘toastberg’ was cleared up in bemused silence before my dad finally looked at me and asked ‘Why didn’t you just feed it to the dog?’...why indeed…
So how did I get from there to the food loving, baking obsessive I am today. Well, puberty I guess! When I hit 13 I developed an appetite and along with it a deep and insatiable interest in food. Having a French mother and a very French grandfather, the opportunity to try all manner of weird and wonderful foods had always been there, I’d just never been tempted – now though I was ready to dive in and explore. So on holiday I would try all the classics; snails, frogs legs, pigs trotters, sheep’s brains, cow tongue, Pâté de tête (Pig head terrine), Museau (Pig snout salad), moules marinière, Paella…you name it, I would give anything a go and in the most part I loved it. At home the food was less ‘challenging’, but amongst your more run of the mill roasts, chops and sausages, I remember dishes of trout with almonds, black pudding with apples, pheasant with grapes, Coquilles St Jacques, boeuf aux carottes, ragu de mouton…again the list goes on. I grew up on a vast and varied diet, lovingly prepared and cooked by my wonderful mum and dad...lucky me!
At 20 I moved out, but don’t think I resorted to beans on toast and jacket potatoes – no way, cooking became my number one hobby. Armed with The Naked Chef cook books and a set of Tesco Chef knives, I spent my weekends in the kitchen rustling up 5-hour lamb, prawn and pea risotto, beef carpaccio, double pork chops with pears, linguine with clams and everything else a self-respecting Jamie Oliver fan boy should cook. After only a few months on my own, my girlfriend (now wife) moved in with me and became the guinea pig for all my culinary experiments. Every week I’d try cooking something new, and together we’d devour the resulting dishes. There were hits and misses, but it was always fun and over time I built up quite a repertoire of favourites – a few I still cook to this day. I started following other chefs; Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein, Valentine Warner, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Heston Blumenthal – revelling in their varied approaches to food and unique cooking styles. There was always something new I wanted to try, and with time and money being no object, we treated ourselves to what we wanted, cooking and eating some wonderful meals.
Then we had children – time gone, money gone! The enthusiasm for food was still there but the opportunity to while away a whole Saturday making homemade pasta and crafting intricate tortellini had disappeared and spending a small fortune on a forerib of beef for a Sunday roast lost its appeal. Quick pasta dishes became the ‘go to’ and the plethora of exciting and exotic meals we used to eat was soon whittled down to a few comforting staples – Cabbage & Farfalle and Sausage & Fusilli on rotation. I’d mix it up occasionally with a mushroom risotto or a leek & chickpea soup, but generally we found ourselves in a bit of a food rut. As the children grew up the repertoire expanded again, but all too often I’d come up against the restrictions imposed by a stubborn child’s palette, ‘I don’t like it’…Ahhh!
Anyway, where am I going with these ramblings? What is the point of this blog? Just post the damn recipe already I hear you cry. Well, it was writing up this recipe for Lahmacun that got me thinking – I absolutely love it! It’s new, interesting, appealing, simple and incredibly tasty, and these days that's what I’m after from my food. Yes, there may be more luxurious and complex dishes out there, but on an investment to reward ratio, this dish is right up there, along with Chicken Fricassee, Shawarma, slow roast shoulder of lamb and Koftas.
When we first ate it, it really took me by surprise. Maybe my expectations were low or I just wasn’t anticipating the tongue slapping intensity of the herbs and spices, but either way I was an instant fan – I’ve never looked at a humble pack of lamb mince in the same way again. With minimal effort, time and money you can create something that is intriguing, unusual and exciting to eat. As a family we can sit down together for dinner, devour a couple of Lahmacun, and bar a mixing bowl and a few utensils, there’s not even much clearing up to do – perfect. Everyone’s happy, full, excited by what they’ve just eaten and already anticipating what delights the next meal will hold.
So try something new and give Lahmacun a go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.
250g Strong White Bread Flour
10g Instant Yeast
1 Medium/Large Egg
50g Extra Virgin Olive Oil
50g Whole Milk
50g Warm Water
Flour/Rice Flour for dusting
250g Minced Lamb
1 Large Red Onion
1 tbsp Fresh Thyme Leaves
18g Flat Leaf Parsley
½ tsp Red Chilli Flakes
1 tsp Ground Cumin
2 tsps Ground Cinnamon
4 tsps Ground Sumac
Salt & Pepper to season
30g Pine Nuts or Chopped Pistachios
½ a Cucumber
½ a Red Onion
7g Flat Leaf Parsley
1 Lemon (juice only)
1 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper to season
Put all the dough ingredients together in a KitchenAid and mix on a low speed (1-2) for 5 minutes. If you are making the dough by hand, then use a fork to bring all the ingredients together before transferring it to a worksurface and kneading it for around five minutes. The dough should look smooth, glossy and stretchy. Scrape any dough off the dough hook, cover the bowl with a sheet of Clingfilm and allow to proof at room temperature for a couple for hours or until almost doubled in size.
If you are not intending to use the dough straight away, transfer it to the fridge where it will sit quite happily for 12 to 48 hours. I think the dough benefits from the additional cold proof in the fridge – generating extra flavour, so I recommend making it a day in advance.
Put the minced lamb in a large bowl, along with the finely diced red onion, the roughly chopped parsley and thyme, and all the spices. Don’t add the pine nuts at this stage (they will be sprinkled on the Lahmacun half way through the baking). Using a fork, mix together well, making sure to break up any clumps of mince. Do not work the ingredients into a patty or paste, you want a loose ‘soil’ like texture. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Finely slice the red onion and put into a large serving bowl. Squeeze in the juice of a lemon and sprinkle over a good pinch of flaky sea salt. Use your fingers to mix the ingredients together, pinching and squeezing the onions a little. This will remove some of the harsh, raw flavour of the onion – it’s almost a quick pickle.
Slice the cucumber lengthways and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds, you only want the firm, crisp flesh in this salad. Then cut it up into approx. 1cm cubes.
Add the diced cucumber to the bowl with the onions, along with the roughly chopped tomatoes, the thinly sliced radishes and the roughly chopped parsley.
Mix together with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Divide the dough in two and shape each piece into a loose ball. Creating a round shape now will make rolling the dough into a disk easier later.
Allow the dough to bench rest for 15 to 30 minutes. This will give the gluten enough time to relax into its new shape so it won’t fight you when you roll it.
Using a rolling pin and a liberal dusting of flour, roll each dough ball into a thin disc 3-5mm thick and approximately 25-30cm in diameter. Place each one on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.
Divide the topping mix between the two discs and spread it out evenly right up to the edges of the dough.
Leave the pizzas to rise for 15 minutes while you preheat your oven to 250c.
Bake the pizzas for 10 minutes, until the lamb is crisp and sizzling and the base just cooked with a little colour around the edges. Don’t over cook the pizzas or the base will dry out and not have that nice fluffy centre we’re after. Rotate the baking trays half way through to ensure an even bake and at this point sprinkle over the pine nuts.
Remove from the oven and serve up with the chunky salad on top.