Cook the Books - Rick Stein: From Venice to Istanbul

. October 07, 2015
Photography by David Parker.
Cook the Books - Rick Stein: From Venice to Istanbul

This week David Parker reviews the infamous Rick Stein's latest book From Venice to Instanbul, trying his Halloumi Saganaki and a Moussaka with an intriguing backstory.

If you haven't heard of Rick Stein you must be living beneath a rock. He published his first book in 1988 making him a celebrity chef almost my entire life! From Venice To Istanbul is his 24th publication to date. You'd think after 27 years you'd be tired of writing about food – it's only been two minutes and I'm tired of writing about Rick Stein writing about food. But From Venice to Istanbul is packed with delicious recipes. The book accompanies a TV series of the same name, I guess it covers a similar area to that of Anatolia, but I found this book a little more realistic in terms of food you'd actually cook at home, although maybe slightly less interesting.

Usually when I'm looking through a cookbook there's one thing that really stands out to me, something I really want to cook or something I know I want to eat. Often I make and review it for Cook the Books, but sometimes the stand-out recipe isn't long enough for a fair review, isn’t a good enough representation of the book or there isn't any real cooking or baking involved. When this happens, for the sake of the review, I find something that better represents the book, but this time I couldn't resist the Halloumi Saganaki. I had to make it, we'll get to that, but I also needed something that had a little more cooking involved and that made a recipe necessary.

Cue Moussaka! Reading the little blurb to this recipe I discovered it is from Patrick Leigh Fermor's housemaid: apparently she offered to cook him her Moussaka one day and he declined, saying he didn't like Moussaka. Knowing better, she made it anyway and served it without telling him what it was. He loved it and it became a regular favourite. I couldn't pass on a backstory like that!

First I sliced the courgettes and eggplant lengthways, salted the slices and left them to draw out some of the liquid. Once they had been sitting for half an hour little droplets had formed on their surfaces. I rinsed the salt off with cold water and patted them dry with kitchen towel. Then I fried the slices until they browned slightly. I also fried the sliced potato in the same frying pan. 

Then I fried two onions and the garlic in a separate pan. I'm not sure why I needed another pan, but I followed the recipe. When they were translucent and soft I added the minced beef and browned it off before adding in the chopped tomatoes. I don't usually like to cook fresh tomatoes, it seems like a waste when you could just use tinned tomatoes. Also I couldn't find beefsteak tomatoes locally so I just used the biggest tomatoes I could find and a couple more than in the recipe. 

Then I added a bay leaf (pretty normal) and... a cinnamon stick? I double checked that I hadn't stuck two pages together and I wasn't making a trifle pie. Then I put the cinnamon stick and covered to simmer, it smelled very cinnamon-y.

While the meat was simmering I made a béchamel sauce. First I melted butter in a saucepan and then added flour and cooked for a couple of minutes to get rid of any raw flour taste. Then I added the milk a little at a time until it was fully incorporated. I didn't have exactly the right amount of milk because someone drank most of the milk... I think I was 100ml short, I figured I could add some water if it didn't look right but it seemed to turn out okay. I took it off the heat and left it just a little bit, just to be cautious, then whisked in the eggs and added the Gruyere cheese.

Then I was ready to assemble the moussaka: potatoes at the bottom topped with meat, eggplant, meat, courgettes, more meat and finally the béchamel sauce. I sprinkled the remaining Gruyere cheese on top and put it in the oven to turn golden brown. 

It tasted great, my cinnamon fear was misplaced, I couldn't have picked out that there was cinnamon in it if I didn't know I'd put it in myself. The eggplant and courgettes had softened more and they kind of dissolved into your mouth. I think maybe I did need that extra milk – the béchamel was just a little bit too thick, firm almost. 

It was very savoury, lots of umami, very meaty but also sweet and soft. It was lighter than a lasagne but rich and hearty. If I was going to make it again (which I might actually) I think I'd double the amount of vegetables in each layer, they seemed to get a bit lost and I thought they could be more of a focus. 

But back to the Halloumi Saganaki, it's so easy!

I sliced a block of halloumi in half, dipped it in a beaten egg, dipped it in fine semolina. I then fried it in a non-stick frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat until it was browned.

While frying the halloumi, I heated a couple tablespoons of clear honey in a saucepan. I then plated the halloumi and cut into squares, drizzled it with honey, sprinkled it with black sesame seeds, oregano and a few twists of freshly ground black pepper.


The halloumi was so soft and the semolina coating was thin and crispy. It was amazingly salty and sweet, but then you notice a fragrance from the oregano, a depth and bitterness from the sesame and the earthiness and spice of the black pepper. It was a very intense experience. The honey seems to make the halloumi saltier and the halloumi makes the honey sweeter. My mouth is watering just writing about it. Seriously you need to try this, make sure you get good halloumi and good honey and it'll blow you away! (If you're looking for black sesame seeds try an Asian supermarket.)

The Book Cooked
Level of expertise required: Mostly fairly low, although there are a couple of recipes that maybe an absolute beginner might shy away from: making your own pasta etc. But nothing too challenging.
How many trips to the supermarket required? There's bound to be the odd ingredient that'll leave you scratching your head, I found the black sesame seeds easy enough though. A few of the cuts of meat will probably require you talking to a real butcher rather than your supermarket. 
How closely did the dishes resemble the pictures? 8/10: My béchamel wasn't as saucy and my scoop was neater, I think everything else looked pretty good especially that Halloumi... did I mention the Halloumi?
Ease of reading: t's good. I guess the thing with a bigger budget book like this one is that it's probably been edited well and isn't riddled with mistakes (which I have found surprisingly often in other books). There is actually a fair bit of writing in From Venice To Istanbul, all of the stories above the dish are actually pretty interesting plus I like to read them and all of the recipes in Rick Stein’s voice in my head... That's normal, right?
Pretty on the coffee table or designed to be battered through overuse? It could do either quite nicely, it has some great full page photos of the region and markets, farmers, people making food etc. But also I think there are some interesting dishes that would work to add some variation to the regular family meals.  I would say that I didn't find it overly inspiring to look through – it could've done with more variety. I wanted to do a dessert but couldn't find anything I liked the look of.