Growing up, pancakes were a staple dinner. Not the fluffy American ones, it was the thin crêpes, rolled up with ham and cheese or lemon and sugar, that my ma would make (she is French I guess). Shrove Tuesday or not, there they’d be, at least every few weeks.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that frying dollops of batter until golden, then eating them hot or cold the next day is so appealing to me. And this doesn’t just apply to pancakes – as long as you can make a mixture to be dolloped or ladled into a hot pan and fried with butter or oil, it quantifies as an acceptable meal.
Scrap the eggs, milk and flour, and bring in beaten eggs and gratings of mature cheese for a quick omelette, or grate leftover cooked potato, combine it with butter and fry up a potato rosti or follow the same rule with just about any vegetables, grated or chopped up and mixed with an egg, a bit of flour and whatever herbs or spices for a humble fritter. These are fail-safe, comfort meals, made up from the back of an almost empty fridge.
For me, fritters are up there in the dolloped and fried category, and indeed, many cookbooks offer up their own versions. Grated seasonal vegetables, beans or leftover grains form the base, livened up with chopped herbs or spices, little orbs of melted cheese, and perhaps bacon for spikes of saltiness. Anna Jones rolls her avocado, quinoa and kale fritters in polenta for extra crispiness, which may be an added faff but probably very worthwhile. Tom Hunt, author of The Natural Cook, adds little bombs of crumbled feta to strips of courgette and herbs and Honey & Co’s Food From the Middle East follow a similar rule, but it’s Ottolenghi’s a’ja bread fritters that I can’t get enough of.
As he explains in his insanely brilliant cookbook, Jerusalem, these Tripolitan fried wonders are, “one among endless kinds of vegetable or herb-based bread fritters and omelettes that are rife all over the city”.
These are more a cross between an omelette and a fritter, using leftover stale bread that’s been soaked in water for a minute (it turns into a gloopy, glue-like substance), which is then drained and combined with eggs, fresh herbs, crumbled feta, cumin and paprika. They might not sound so appetising, but at least try them.
I sometimes serve them as part of a mezze of salads and dips, or eat them cold, stuffed into a pitta or baguette for lunch (especially good on a hangover). Ottolenghi suggests adding leftover grated veg if you like, but I didn’t do that, and it takes nothing away from the end result. Or play with the herbs and spices – as he points out, there are many different variations across the Middle East, so use the bread and eggs as a base and do what makes most sense to you.
A’ja (bread fritters)
Adapted from Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi
Makes 6 to 8 fritters
4 stale white bread slices (80g)
4 large free-range eggs
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
a few fresh chives
a few sprigs of fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, thyme, rosemary or a mixture
40g feta cheese
oil, for frying
Remove the bread crusts, then soak the bread in lots of cold water for 1 minute. Squeeze well. Crumble the soaked bread into a medium bowl, then crack in the eggs, spices, ½ a teaspoon of sea salt and ¼ of a teaspoon of black pepper, and whisk well. Chop and mix in the herb leaves, and crumble in the feta.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium frying pan on a medium-high heat. Spoon 3 tablespoons of the mixture into the centre of the pan and flatten it using the underside of a spoon so the fritter is 2cm to 3cm thick. Fry for 4 to 6 minutes, or until golden, turning halfway. Repeat with the remaining batter, then serve.
Till the next time…
Dry out the discarded crusts in a low or cooling oven, then blitz into breadcrumbs. Store in an airtight jar or freeze, ready for sprinkling on oven bakes.