Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kimia dates - best dates in the world

here are dates, nice dates and then there are great dates. At the lower side of the spectrum are those dry, unexciting dates from your local grocer or supermarket. Then there are dates with someone cute, kind and funny, who makes your heart skip a beat. And then there are Kimia dates: fragrant like wine, lusciously sweet, soft like set honey. As a lot of great food (and good people), they hail from a country from the US Axis of Evil, Iran. And truely so, Iranian gastronomy does sound like something favoured by very wicked folks: rose petal tea, chicken stewed in pomegranate molasses, saffron rice and black caviar. Yes, and Kimia dates for the dessert.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Clams, spinach and butternut squash soup recipe

  nspired by Korean jogae-tang clam soup, I made a few adjustments with some fantabulous results. 
  1. Slow-fry some crushed garlic in some groundnut oil until golden.
  2. Add clams, diced butternut squash, sprinkle with some fish sauce and fry a little.
  3. Add water and bring to a simmer.
  4. When all clams have opened, add roughly chopped spinach and simmer a little more.
  5. Season with black pepper and fish sauce.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Khubz - Arabic bread (خبز‎)

one of the biggest joys of travelling in the Middle East is bread. I can easily track down the nearest bakery, usually a small shack with a clay oven, by the tantalising aroma of khubz wafting through the air. 

I prefer to pronounce خبز‎ the Damascene way, khybyz, that's how I learnt the word in the first place. It invariably invites approving smiles: the accent of Damascus is widely considered the "coolest"in the Arab world.

As far as I understood, the dough for khubz is as plain and simple as it is for Mozambican paõ: just flour, water and salt kneaded to perfection. "All the taste is in the hands."

It only costs one dirham a piece in the UAE so it can make a few side dishes - hommous, some stew and a handful of veggies - go a long way on the cheap.

It is best enjoyed piping hot, while the taste is as good as the smell and it's good enough to eat plain like good French baguette. Once cold, however, the magic goes like Cinderella's ball outfit and reheating only makes it dry and brittle.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Eating seafood in Abu Dhabi's Al Mina market

fter a hands-on and rather nerve-wrecking initiation in Mozambique, I felt ready to try my hand at having a seafood dinner cooked for me in Abu Dhabi's Al Mina market. The procedure is simple: you buy whatever you fancy in the market and have it cooked in the adjacent kitchen. Things are, however, complicated by the complete absence of price tags in the market. Looking distinctly foreign too does not exactly inspire the sellers to make you good offers. 

After a brief wander among the stalls, I opted to go the easy way: go to a restaurant nearby, right on the pier. The formica interior and fluorescent lighting of Al Sayyad did not put me off in the least. I know that designer ambience does not necessarily guarantee a marvelous culinary experience. This time, it did turn out just that: two freshly caught hammour and half a kilo prawn lightly brushed with olive oil and a bit of chili paste and grilled on charcoals. Generous portions of biryani rice and sumac-sprinkled raw veggies to go with. Not exactly dirt-cheap at 155 dirhams for two, but well worth the money spent.

The next day the courage summoned to brave the uncertainty of buying from the market was rewarded.  Unlike Maputo's deafening madness, in Abu Dhabi's seafood kitchen you know beforehand exactly how much you are paying for cooking. No one jumps on your back trying to lure you to their stall.

Well, the ballpark anyway, as the price list is Arabic only. The shop is enjoying a very brisk trade with an ever-present  swarm of customers hovering in anticipation of their fare char-grilled and packed in styrofoam boxes ready to take away. Despite the evident lack of that time-honoured British institution of orderly queuing, it all somehow works out in a seemingly chaotic, yet rather efficient manner. You never know when your turn is going to come up, but the wait is not really that long. A five-minute drive to the hotel later, a couple of nicely chilled near-beers and the backdrop of Abu Dhabi's night lights help our takeaway into a swish seafood dinner. Yes, and we bought the sides, tabbouleh and patata harra, in our favourite Lulu's.

Camel yoghurt

Just when you thought you've seen it all, there you go: rose-flavoured camel yoghurt.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lietuva salad - the latest in culinary nationalism

henever I try to cook Russian, my uncertain memories of what it should taste like tend to mix with the mishmash layers of culinary influences I have accumulated through the decades of living away from my erstwhile mothership. I don’t even know if any Russian actually eats it but for me this particular salad contains all the edible staples of Russianness so many are busy resurrecting these days: turnips, carrots, linen seed.

Ironically, it goes by the name of Lietuva salad because it also happens to be of the same colours as the Lithuanian flag. In fact, I am planning on suggesting the Lithuanian embassy here to adopt it as their national dish, kind of like Colombians did with their bandeja paisa.
Since I started my 5:2 regimen half year ago I find myself making it every now and then. First of all, it is super easy to make. Then it does contain both a modest quantity of easily digestible calories as well as a lot of crude fibre to help stave off hunger on my fast days. And, last but not least, it does taste mighty good, especially considering the bare minimum of the effort and cost it requires.

So here how it goes:
  1. Grate some turnip and a couple of carrots.
  2. Chop some parsley
  3. Add some linen seed, a sprinkle of fleur de sel and a dash of pumpkin seed oil.
  4. Mix vigorously by hand squeezing the juices.
  5. Serve with a piece of rye bread.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Burns supper: haggis and deep-fried Mars bar


ondon is one veritable "travel dining without moving" destination. If you wait patiently enough dangling your feet in the flow, all cuisines of the world will come sailing by you. Just grab and enjoy.

It has been six years since I started thinking of going to Scotland. Besides the obvious tourist attractions, I was naturally curious about Scottish cuisine; so much the more that it did not seem likely to come across it anywhere outside its country of origin, even in London.

Well, turns out I was wrong. The time to enjoy Scottish food could not have come at a more appropriate time: the Robert Burns night, the celebration of the life and works of Scotland's dearest son, an 18th-century poet apparently responsible for, by crude estimate, half the Scottish poetry out there.

The centrepiece of what is known as the Burns supper, to which I was most kindly invited, was haggis. Contrary to the belief evidently widespread on the Stateside, it is not an animal but a sheep's stomach stuffed with chopped offal, oatmeal, onions and spices, boiled or baked in the oven. To many it may sound a very odd choice for a celebration meal, yet, just like the rumours of the rampancy of sheep-shagging in Wales, the many a negative review of haggis I had heard proved grossly exaggerated. Served with mashed potatoes and turnips ('tatties and neeps'), and traditionally washed down with copious amounts of whiskey, it is a straightforward, hearty and filling fare, a perfect match for the cold winter weather out there (the Robert Burns day falls on the 25th of January). 

Customarily, an eight-verse poem would be recited over the haggis before carving  it, we did with but the very first one, yet pronounced in an authentic Edinburgh accent (which made the meal ever more delicious):

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
deep fried mars barBy way of dessert, we partook in another venerated Scottish tradition known as "deep-fryin' ye ole bonnie Mars bar". It is very much what it says on the tin: dipping pieces of Mars bar into batter and deep frying them in hot oil. Whoever came up with this must have been a big fan of hot fat and sugar. Now I am the last one to oppose to sweet and high-calorie fat things, but some sacrifices are worth it and some are not. The hollandaise sauce is worth every whopping dollop of butter it is made from. Japanese tempura, feathery and crispy, is a highlight of one's meal as well as easy on the stomach. All the sugar you put into a rhubarb pie pays back manifold in terms of deep sense of satisfaction that hits you the second the pie hits your palate. Deep-fried Mars bars have none of those redeeming qualities. It is just as gooey, repulsively sweet and un-chocolatey as it is in its original form and shape. 

P.S. Apologies for the picture quality. I said it before and I will say it now: smartphones are crap as phones, crap as computers and crap as cameras. Good luck chasing your fave gadget's latest version.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Athens Central Market

Athens central market
he Greek for fresh is 'freskia'. Basically, they invented the word. The same goes for Greek food. Freshness is mostly achieved through using locally grown ingredients, rather than picking fruit before it got around to developing any microbe-inducing sugars, spraying it lifeless with bactericides and transporting it across continents refrigerated.

Greek menus are about the same in every restaurant. There is some regional and seasonal variation but generally you always know what you going to get, very much like in the Middle East. Just like there too, however, the ingredients and execution are invariably perfect. The most basic khoriatiki (Greek salad) of unpretentious cucumbers and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil never stops being moreish because of the sheer cucumberness of the cucumbers and the tomatoness of the tomatoes. Those who have ever tasted vegetables allowed to ripe on the vine, will understand me.

On a related note, it is worth mentioning how impervious Greeks are to their markets being photographed. In about every country I remember sooner or later some uniformed bozo will start breathing down your back squealing "No picture, no picture!", probably because of the vitality of the secrets of chicken legs, cottage cheese and parsley to the security of his Motherland, lest they be revealed by a foreigner all over the blogosphere. Never in Greece. That takes a bit of guts to be so confident about what you sell.

Athens central market

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Best Chardonnay ever: Quantum, Domaine Boyar, Bulgaria

Bulgarian Chardonnay
ou sure know how tricky finding a good Chardonnay can be. That particular sought-after Chardonnay flavour, when tipped just a notch off the right balance can vary from noxious, as in many a New World brand too ripe from too much sun, to uninspiringly faint like in a French one from a bad year. Getting it just right requires a lot of skill and, even more importantly, time-tested knowledge of what a good wine should actually be like. Way too many a kiddy grape juice like tipples out there are a testament to the rarity of such expertise.
The only thing amiss in this Bulgarian Chardonnay brought back from a trip to, surprise, Bulgaria was its somewhat incongruous name, Quantum. Then again, it could have been a nod and a clever allusion to the film, A Quantum of Solace. Witty enough, yet too far-fetched for a wine, if you ask me. However, everything else was utter perfection: the balance of acidity, the understated flavour, the bisquity nose, the round finish. In fact, practically every Bulgarian wine I have sampled was superlative or very close to it, reminiscent of the consistency and Olde-Worlde elegance of, who would have ever thought, Chilean wines. At least when it comes to wines, the  image of horse-cart-riding and cabbage-munching uncouth and dim Eastern Europeans doggedly propagated by Murdoch's evil empire could not be farther from reality.

We paired it with a plain boiled Canadian lobster for one of our traditional welcome-the-Americans dinners. Last two years we have dropped the "turf" part from the menu as an outdated and not really such a wise tradition, and it works just fine.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Saffron rice.. wthout saffron

ave you ever been frustrated with saffron like I am? The pesky bugger may give that sought-after flavour to your Persian rice, yet it is so finicky in handling. It is never really enough to offer an ample, full-bodied flavour, it needs to be pre-chopped and pre-soaked before you even dare to use it, then the flavour so easily escapes when cooking, and to boot it does not even colour the rice uniformly, leaving it instead tantalisingly spotted here and there. 

Luckily, by pure chance, I have discovered a mighty alternative to it, giving everything we have been begging saffron to deliver for so long, as of yet to no avail. Ta-dam, here enters the perfect couple: dry dill and turmeric powder. By some strange twist of fate, when paired together, they produce the flavour identical to saffron, at a fraction of the cost and effort, The colour too, albeit lacking saffron's reddish notes, with the addition of dill's dark green acquires a depth, elegantly finishing off with the golden brown of the tahdeg (caramelised crust). 

I also truncate the elaborate Persian procedure in favour of the more  straightforward, yet nonetheless effective Asian steaming method. Few more tricks that make this saffronless saffron rice a hit with my discerning guests.
  • Add butter generously. I use about 70 g for 11 handfuls of dry rice. Butter is good for you: French people eat a lot of it and don't get fat. Junk food, snacking and eating on the run  - that's what makes you fat, not butter.
  • Add a dash of sea salt. Without salt, your rice will come out bland and boring. I use fish sauce because it gives an additional level of depth to the flavour, thanks to the naturally occurring MSG, which is not bad for you.
  • When the rice has been brought to a boil, stir it up to make sure that the dill is evenly spread. Very important: do that while the water has not yet been completely absorbed into the rice. Thus you will ensure that the rice does not turn into a solid slab, allowing for passages for the steam to travel through it, which is how the whole shebang actually gets cooked.

  • Once ready, fluff up the rice. At the bottom, you will find a deliciously caramelised crust, tahdeg. Serve it separately, it tastes like savoury cake. Don't drag our feet though: it's only good while it's warm. To make your rice fit for a celebration table, the Nowruz only being a couple of months away, mix in some finely sliced dried apricots or sultanas as well as pistachio or almond flakes.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pkhali - Georgian answer to hommous (ფხალი)


hiz together in a blender:
  1. A can of red beans (although my Mom would also use nearly anything veggie-like: boiled cabbage leaves, freshly boiled spinach, cooked beet roots, fried aubergines, etc.)
  2. A handful of walnuts.
  3. 1-3 cloves of garlic.
  4. Half a handful of coarsely chopped parsley or coriander leaves.
  5. A glug of olive oil.
  6. Some salt (as I do, I use fish sauce)
  7. A generous sprinkle of khmeli-suneli (ხმელი სუნელი), an indispensable Georgian mix of dried herbs, which is best made at home as supermarket versions are invariably inferior. Simply mix equal shares of dried mint, basil, marjoram, parsley, oregano as well as bay leaf powder, ground coriander seeds and black pepper. If you can get hold of dried hyssop and fenugreek leaves, by all means add those too.
Spread some on grilled bread and decorate with a sprinkle of pomegranate sauce (sold in Turkish shops as nar ekşisi) and finely chopped coriander leaves.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How to cook bulots (whelks) the French way

 have always bought bulots (whelks) in France. Farmed mainly in Normandy, these gastropods are well-fed, lush and always sold cooked - or so I thought as I had never bought them outside France. Until one late London afternoon I stumbled upon them in Brixton Market. Just when I lined up baguette, mayonnaise and white wine and got ready to eat them, quelle horreur, they turned out to be raw!

So, I had to add another survival skill to my collection: cooking whelks. This is how you do it.
  1. First of all, soak your whelks in cold water for at least an hour. Tht way they will release their droppings into the water so you won't have to eat them.
  2. For half a kilo of raw whelks you will need two litres of water, 50 g of salt, one bay leaf, a prig of thyme, a teaspoonful of white vinegar and a generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.
  3. Bring everything to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
  4. Allow to cool down in the resulting court bouillon.
  5. Serve, just as I did, with home-made mayonnaise, baguette and white wine. This time I flavoured my mayonnaise with a paste made out of crushed anchovies, garlic and walnuts mixed with some Modena vinegar. A Parisian would hyperventilate and swoon but my Languedoc brethren and sistren will sure understand me!

How to improve hommous

 am not that dedicated to make hommous from scratch. However, the supermarket variety is just too dull and basic, the price of becoming Britain's favourite cupboard commodity.

A few add-ons I came up with never fail to land me adoration from my lunch/dinner guests. I am going to share my little secrets with you today. This is what I add to hummus to give it the extra zing-boom-bang:
  • 1 tbsp of za'atar (Levantine thyme)
  • a dash of Persian lime powder (failing that, lime juice)
  • a glug of extra vrigin olive oil
  • a sprinkle of garlic powder
  • a wee tad of fish sauce for the naturally occurring MSG.
The quantities indicated are not precise because you need to arrage everything to your own heart's content. Good luck!

Samphire (also okra, fern and bamboo shoots) kimchi

he only reason why Koreans do not make kimchi out of  samphire is because samphire only grows in North-Western Europe. Should it favour East Asia too, I have no doubt it would have long been part of the gorgeous sanchae or sansai, wild vegetables commonly used to make pickles in Korea and Japan.

Last month I decided to correct this Mother Nature's oversight and made kimchi out of Norfolk samphire. Fresh, crunchy and naturally briny, it is perfectly complemented by ginger and pepper. Depending on how much you make, the amount of  ingredients will vary, so I will rather give proportions than exact quantities. You should make enough kimchi base paste to smother the main ingredient comfortably.

Kimchi base ingredients:
  1. equal quantities of minced garlic and minced onion.  
  2. double quantities of rice porridge and gochugaru (hot pepper flakes, can be substituted with gochujang)
  3. quarter quantity of minced ginger and fish sauce. 
  1. Rinse samphire well and remove the woody parts. Cut into equal pieces.
  2. Mix the kimchi base ingredients. Fold the samphire into the mixture.
  3. Cover with a lid and leave to ferment at a room temperature for 24 hours. When bubbles start showing, the process has kicked off. Give it all a good stir, move to a cold place, ideally a few degrees above zero degree centigrade. A few days is normally enough to complete the fermentation: keep checking until you are satisfied with the taste.
P.S. I also use bamboo shoots, okra, string beans, turnip, daikon (mooli) and fiddlehead fern (warabi or gosari) for my kimchi preserves. Bean sprouts are rather delicate in texture so they can be simply mixed with the excess of juice from already made kimchi and left overnight in the fridge. Kimchi out of bean sprouts and samphire do not hold long, so finish yours within a week or so.