Iwas chatting to a chef friend recently about his three-month journey across Turkey and Syria, just before civil war broke out. The story of his trip reminded me of my own visits to Turkey, and of how deeply I had fallen in love with its food: fresh, light and vegetable-oriented, it ticked all my boxes – and still does. In particular, it reminded me of Turkish cuisine’s similarities with Mexican food, not least its carefree use of wild herbs and greens, and the popularity of red peppers. Tainted by their association with Tex-Mex and the lazy, stuffed veggie option of the mid-1990s, red peppers have a bad rep over here, but no such antipathy exists in the Middle East. So, this week, I give you a brilliantly simple but exotic, Turkish-accented dish that’s rich in colour and flavour.
Quail with runner beans and roast red pepper and tomato sauce
Whenever possible, buy your spices whole and grind them to order as and when needed: they have so much more flavour than ready-ground. Serves four.
2 red peppers
2 garlic cloves, skin left on
4 ripe plum tomatoes, cut in half
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp thyme leaves
Olive oil, to drizzle
For the quail
1 garlic clove, peeled
4 quails (or 8, if you’re really hungry)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp harissa
700g flat green beans, trimmed and cut in half widthways (if using runners, shave off the tough outer edges)
Greek yoghurt, to serve
Fresh dill, finely chopped, to serve (optional)
Heat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Put the peppers and garlic on one side of an oven tray and the tomatoes skin side up on the other. Season the tomatoes and sprinkle with half the thyme, then drizzle a little oil over everything. Roast the vegetables for 20 minutes, then check on the garlic: if it’s soft, remove from the tray and put in a bowl (if not, give it three or four minutes more). Turn the peppers and return the tray to the oven for five to 10 minutes, until the peppers and tomatoes are slightly blackened. Put the peppers in a bowl, cover with cling-film and leave them to sweat for 10 minutes – this makes them easier to peel.
Meanwhile, get on with the quail. Bash the garlic to a rough paste in a pestle with a pinch of salt, then add the cinnamon, allspice and two tablespoons of oil. Put the quail on an oven tray and rub all over with the spiced oil. Roast for 25-30 minutes in the same oven, until the skin is crisp and the legs come away easily from the sides. Leave to rest for 10 minutes.
While the quail are cooking, peel the peppers, discarding the skins, seeds, pith and stem. Slip the skins off the roast garlic. Put the garlic, peppers and tomatoes in a food processor, add the remaining thyme, harissa and the last two tablespoons of olive oil, then blitz to a coarse sauce. Season to taste and transfer to a medium saucepan.
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil and cook the beans for five minutes, until al dente. Drain, tip the beans into the sauce and stir through. Cook on a low heat for five minutes, so the sauce thickens and reduces, and thoroughly coat the beans.
To serve, spoon some sauce and beans on to the centre of each plate and top each portion with a quail (or two quails). Finish with a dollop of yoghurt and a scattering of chopped dill (if using).
And for the rest of the week…
The sauce is delicious on pasta, too: keep it as it is, or add dairy in the form of 150ml double cream and simmer to reduce for 10 minutes. I particularly love this creamy version on fettuccine, or any wide ribbon pasta such as tagliatelle or pappardelle. Beat some leftover harissa into ricotta and use this as a lightly spiced filling for vegetarian lasagne made with summer chard or spinach. And while we’re rediscovering red peppers, try them sauteed with onions, garlic and fresh tomatoes – with the addition oof heaps of torn basil, that makes a glorious partner for weekend eggs.