Saturday, February 28, 2009

Summer's best: seafood picnic

Picnics are my passion. Strangely, I hardly know any people who are also into this sort of food exhibitionism.

Perhaps, because good picnics take lots preparations and logistics. Carrying crystal glasses in a bicycle bag is, pardon the pun, no picnic.

Seafood is another passion of mine. I arrange assiette de fruits de mer myself: oysters, crayfish, Greenland shrimp, scallops, prawns, bulots, amandes, bigourneaux. I have no idea what one calls the last three in any other language but French. Probably nothing or something Latin as it must be only the French who eat them.

You only need good baguette, mayonnaise, vinegar with chopped shallots to go with it and some dry cider to wash it all down. There scarcely be enough room for raw milk Camembert (the only real one!) at the end of this feast.

You won't believe it but it takes up to three hours to finish this platter as the sun goes down and the city gets engulfed by the purple twilight, the most beautiful light ever. By the time we are done, the table is a mess of cracked shells, shrimp heads and squeezed lemons and we smell fishy.

Huevos rancheros: South American scrambled eggs with vegetables

Huevos rancheros enhanced

ell, this is entirely my own enhanced version of the highly popular huevos rancheros. First I sauté smoked bacon and chopped red onions in olive oil. This is followed by a dash of aceto balsamico bianco, a glug of oyster sauce and a generous grind of black pepper - these tastes should be incorporated into the oils and juices that later will spread across the dish.

Then I add chopped bell pepper, garden eggs, okra and tomatoes. When all the veggies are still crunchy there go 3 free-range eggs. It comes out smoky, peppery, filled with the flavours of all the veggies.

For a complete breakfast: a cup of hot coffee, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (spremuta) and some whole grain bread with sunflower seeds.

Met mamuang thod: toasted cashew nuts with chilies, red onion and lime juice (เม็ดมะม่วงหิมพานต์ทอด)

Met mamuang himmaphan thod (เม็ดมะมวงหิมพานต์ทอด) is a beer snack. I first tried it when I went out with my first boss for the very first time. I did not feel like a virgin but I surely liked this combination a lot. For some reason, it is not awfully common and sometimes you need to explain the waiter or even the cook what you want from them.

It could not be easier:

  • Chop one red onion and 2-3 chilies.
  • Heat a wok, add half a tablespoonful of odourless vegetable oil.
  • Lightly toast cashew nuts. Add salt if you use raw nuts.
  • Mix with onions and chilies, sprinkled with lime juice.
Quick, tasty, savoury, healthy, very Thai, indeed.

Dashi: Japanese stock bases

I n Western cuisines cooks use chicken, veal or beef broth for the base of many dishes. In Buddhist Japan meat consumption was banned so people had to look elsewhere. This is how in Japanese cuisine we now have three basic stocks, dashi (出汁):
  1. shiitake (mushroom, しいたけ)
  2. kombu (kelp, 昆布)
  3. katsuobushi (fish, 鰹節)
They give Japanese food that unmistakable flavour, just a refined hint of natural decay, inherently connected to the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, transience of all creation.

All these basic stocks naturally contain glutamic acid that is responsible for the taste we associate with savoury foods like meat, cheese or mushrooms. In Oriental cuisines this constitutes the seventh taste (umami, xianwei) in addition to sweet, sour, salty, spicy, tart and bitter.

hen isolated, a derivative of glutamic acid, the naturally occurring monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, is used to enhance tastes of food. In the late 80s, it was demonized in the US media as causing the so-called "Chinese restaurant syndrome". In fact, no evidence but anecdotal has ever been found to back that claim. In fact, at the time America found itself in the midst of the Yellow Peril hysteria, searching for a new enemy to replace the Red Peril of the Soviets. Before the extremely convenient myth of War on Terror emerged, Japan and China became the "enemies du jour". In line with this, ubiquitous Chinese takeaways were chosen for a smear campaign. Despite scientific research that disavowed this myth it has persisted in public opinion to this day.

There is one secret however to correct usage of ajinomoto as MSG is commercially known: add it at the very end of cooking and try to avoid rewarming. Actually the same applied to preparing all Japanese dashi from scratch: the broth never reaches the boiling point! Glutamic acid is a natural amino acid and gets destroyed by high heat: this is how overcooking actually kills taste.

These days hardly anyone prepare dashi from scratch though. Imagine having to make broth every time before you start cooking a meal! Katsuobushi stock is sold in granules as in the picture but I make kombu and shiitake stocks myself. I just bring water with a few pieces of kombu to about 90 degrees or soak dried shiitake in water overnight. I use both to cook Western food too as it adds a whole dimension to the taste!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Liquid aphrodisiac: Jamaican mannish water (goat soup)

Or should it rather be afrodisiac with an 'f'?

Never mind that mannish water, the Jamaican goat soup, looks a bit like chunky Thames water, it tastes quite alright! I fixed it with potatoes, okra and garden eggs (which are, in fact, eggplants) but as the recipe varies from household to household any other veggies are fine too.

It is supposed to increase male sexual drive (women are excluded from this) but I don't know if it had much effect on me. It is hard to notice with my depressed serotonin levels. At any rate, mannish water, hearty and spicy, proved great comfort food on a gloomy February afternoon.

So there you go:
  1. Wash well a goat's head or an equal amount of goat's meat.
  2. Put in a large pot and cover with cold water. Add a few cloves of garlic, bring to boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for a couple of hours.
  3. Add all or a few of the following, chopped into bite-size chunks: green plantains, yams, taro root (a.k.a. cocoyam), carrot, seeded and peeled chayotes, garden eggs, okra.
  4. Add some chopped habanero pepper to taste, a few sprigs of thyme and salt. Simmer another 20 minutes.

A bowl of goodness: Taiwanese seafood and mushroom noodles (海鮮麺)

o, they are going to have JUST noodles?" thought I watching Taipei's smart office crowd going down on their lunch. For an Asian outsider, noodles may not sound like a meal. In Russia noodles are considered lowest grade junk food popular amongst trumps, students and washed-up bachelors.

That is all because nobody cares to fix them properly relying solely on whatever they find in the instant packages. However, with a bit of imagination it is very easy to recreate the kind of gorgeous meal I saw in Taiwan. It is healthy, filling and delicious, a little constellation of delightful chunks and pieces. The recipe couldn't be more simple: put everything in a bowl, pour boiling water, microwave for 3 minutes. Below are the ingredients I usually use.

  • two types of shrimp,
  • squid,
  • baby octopuses,
  • clams,
  • mussels.
  • konbu,
  • wakame.
A smidgen of toasted black and white sesame seeds livens up an already vibrant mix even further.

I made this one Korean style, flavoured with kimchi, but I also make it, with the help of some herbs and condiments, in a variety of other styles:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dim sum : touch my heart! (點心)

Dim sum is supposed to be lunch food only, something you grab in between business appointments. At dinner you are expected to take your time with your family. Since I am not burdened with either, I can do as I please. So when I'm lazy I just fix me dim sum.

I line a bamboo sieve with a banana leave. Its gentle scent transfers to the dough with hot steam and make simple lowly buns a culinary delight.

While the pot is steaming away, I make my own Thai-style dip:
  • a glub of Thai chili sauce;
  • juice of one lime;
  • a clove of garlic, crushed (NOT chopped!);
  • a sprinkle of fish sauce;
  • a wee splash of Kikkoman soya sauce;
  • chopped fresh coriander.
Twelve minutes and, voilà, lazy bachelor's dinner is ready!

Stuffed Russian bell peppers

Russian food is much influenced by the cuisines of Russia's own Near East, which consists of Caucasus, Central Asia and the Muslim nations of the Volga basin.

Stuffed bell peppers are one of such Oriental goodies that quite commonly appear on the Russian table. It is a festive dish and takes some time to prepare but the result is totally worth the fuss.

Equal quarters of mince, cooked rice, chopped onions and a pre-stirfried and pre-seasoned vegetable mix go into the stuffing. I gentrify the original recipe with a few sophisticated touches:
  1. I use tartare mince which is low-fat;
  2. Rice is cooked with quarter less water than necessary, thus it helps trap the juices inside the peppers;
  3. I add shiitake and Iranian spices in the veggie mix;
  4. I steam the peppers in a glass of white wine added at the bottom of the pot.
I have found that Chilean white wine from the Pedro Jiménez variety of grapes, it goes perfect with my stuffed peppers. It is dry with just one tone of passion fruit that rings like an A sharp. It is slightly gassy and tastes the best when left in the glass to warm up and oxidise a bit.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jamaican cerassie/corilla herbal tea

Regular tea or coffee after 3PM gives me insomnia for the next night. That is why I am very big on herbal teas and infusions.

In Russia, herbal teas are a part of daily life. Mint, linden blossoms, rose hip, nettles, St. John's wort and willowherb are both commonly self-administered for medicinal purposes and enjoyed just for their flavour.

I get excited every time I discover a new type of caffeine-free beverage. This time I stumbled upon Jamaican cerassie or corilla at Brixton Market. The tea comes out rather bitter but it is purported to cleanse blood and purge pimples. But for those alleged properties I don't see why anyone would drink this willingly.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thank God for globalisation and mass migration: ethnic groceries in London

"Sesame oil, almonds in slices,
Dried lotus leaves and Indian spices,
Bunches of French herbs tied up with strings
Those are a few of my favourite things."

This is the kind of sight that makes my head spin from excitement: stacks and rows exotic foodstuffs whose names and uses I don't know. I can spend days exploring stores like this.

More stuff to make me fall over myself: exotic recipes from Brixton Market.

Phat phak ruam mit: Thai stir-fried vegetables (ผัดผักรวมมิตร)

Time to take a break from carnivory: phat phak ruam mit are traditional Thai stir-fried vegetables, spicy, delicious and aromatic.

Cooking takes about 5 minutes but you need the right ingredients in the correct succession to achieve the right taste and flavour.
  1. Chop finely half a head of garlic and Thai chilies: 1 for bland, 2 for lightly spicy, 3 for moderately spicy (pretty much the limit for Westerners).
  2. Wash very well a pound of pak soi (Chinese cabbage) and a pound of kang kong (water spniach). Cut into 4-5-cm pieces. Actually, any robust green leafy veggies will do, like mustard greens, spinach or kale. Lettuce and ruccola will not.
  3. Cut 6-8 button mushrooms (champignons) and a couple of tomatoes. If the mushrooms are small, leave them whole. If you use cherry tomatoes, cut them in halves.
  4. Put the wok on the highest heat, wait for it to get piping hot, then add 2-3 tablespoonfuls of odourless vegetable oil (olive oil WON'T do!)
  5. When the oil starts smoking, tip the garlic and chillies with a tablespoon of dried Thai anchovies (optional). This may end up in a spectacular semi-explosion of pungent smoke and even flames, fear not! Make sure to keep the kitchen door closed though.
  6. When the garlic is golden brown, tip the mushrooms, tomatoes and veggies starting from the bigger chunks, e.g., the whites of pak choy.
  7. Stir vigorously for a minute or so to make sure all the bits get exposed to the heat thoroughly.
  8. When everything is still crunchy, add some fish sauce and oyster sauce - soya sauce for veg(etari)ans - to taste, turn down the heat and stir once again.
In my vegan days in Thailand, the superbly hunky cook I befriended in my soi's neighbourhood restaurant would add a pack of silky tofu to my veggies about at the same time as fish and oyster sauce. I do it these days too, for the good memories' sake.

One thing you really need to keep in mind: DO NOT OVERCOOK, everything should be just lightly cooked and stay crunchy. 5. to 8. really takes under 2 minutes.

Phat phak ruam mit in Thailand is featured nearly in every dinner to balance animal protein intake with vegetable fibre. Well, it is never worded so but the principle is just that.

Let my people have some beef: Jewish bagels in London

Before Brick Lane became Little Bangladesh it was a Jewish territory. Little remains from that time but two bagel shops. They both are extremely popular. I went today to Beigel Bake where authentic Jewish mommas dispense plain and stuffed bagels at very attractive prices.

Bagel with smoked salmon is just £1.30 while when stuffed with salty beef it will set you back to the tune of £3.30. Add extra 20p for a slice of gherkin. Mustard comes free.

I find these bagels taste more British than Jewish, that is like they have been boiled for a couple of days with no salt or spices. Hundred and fifty years of catering to Cockney tastes do rub off on you. I really missed the smokiness of Jewish bagels in Montreal.

Simple lunch pleasure: grilled goat cheese sandwich

Culinary delights don't have to be complicated. It is mostly down to quality ingredients and right combinations.

This grilled goat cheese sandwich takes 5 minutes to fix. First, I sprinkle delicious sesame bread I buy from a Brazilian grocer with a few drops of aceto balsamico bianco and olive oil. I cut the cheese (no puns here) into thin circles and line them on the bread. Three minutes under grill is enough to turn the dry and sharp mass into drippy
flavour-oozing deliciousness.

Now tomato wedges and some Italian lettuce mix and your lunch is ready!

This is the French goat cheese I use: crottins de chèvre, "goat drops". What a poetic name.

Monday, February 23, 2009

High Tea At The Brighton Grand

"Yeah!" The swarthy waiter confirms that I can, in fact, have some more milk. Fifteen minutes later it arrives with a reminder that we have to vacate the premises shortly as a private party will be starting.

he tea room of the Grand, Brighton's poshest hotel has none of the intimate quietness you expect from 5-star hotels. A raggle-taggle army of waiters dashes around finger-licking customers. The constant clatter and clink-clank rises to the high wrought-iron ceiling. Coats are piled on the arm-chair backs, gusts of chilly draft travel across the carpeted orangery. It has the atmosphere of a café at a railway station where travellers just drop by for a 23-pound cup of tea to kill time before their train.

To give credit where it's due, the tea is flavourful, the sandwiches and muffins are tasty and the cakes, if a tad on the greasy side, are decent. But you can get the same at your neighbourhood tea room and it will only set you back a few quid. Posh places charge more for the exclusive atmosphere and best quality of everything. Sadly, the Grand does not deliver either.

De Vere Grand Hotel is on the seafront at 97-99 Kings Road, Brighton. Full Afternoon Tea at £22.50 per person plus service.

P.S. De Vere is not related to Bubbles De Vere from Little Britain. I think it should though.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Asturian fabada: pork and beans stew

Fabada is an Asturian dish from Northern Spain made of beans and pork. I was lucky enough to buy the pork mix - tocino, morcilla, chorizo and ham - in Madrid and the fava beans you can buy in any market in Amsterdam.

Beans are always a bit of a pain to cook but I managed to restrain myself from buying canned ones and went through the whole nine yard of trouble cooking them myself. Considered the amount of gas I burnt doing that, meat might have been a more enviromentally responsible option after all, whatever the tree-hugging mafia may claim.

Friday, February 20, 2009

How to cook tempeh - best recipe with cooking tips

tempehTempeh is an Indonesian product made from soya beans. I first encountered it in Jakarta where my friend's cook fixed a vegan dinner for me with meat replaced by fried tempeh. When raw, it smells yeasty and mushroomy and tastes bland and doughy. When cooked, it has a lovely meaty texture and a nutty flavour reminiscent of fried bacon.

It is delicious with freshly made long-grain rice and sambal manis (mind you, it is NOT he same as sambal kecap manis, which is a sweetish soya sauce!) This is how I had it for the first time in a remote mountain village on a stopover during our 25-hour Trans-Sumatran Death Trip From Hell back in 2001.

It took me some time to replicate that taste. There are a lot of tricks of trade that you need to know to fry your tempeh perfectly:

  1. SMALL EVEN PIECES: Cut the tempeh loaf into even 3-4-mm cubes, this way they all will get cooked evenly.

  2. CAST-IRON WOK: Heat very well a thick-bottomed pan/wok. Heat is distributed evenly in such ironware making sure that everything is cooked well.

  3. HOT ODOURLESS OIL: Pour about 1.5 cm of non-smoking cooking oil (mustard rapeseed or grape seed oil is good, olive oil will NOT do) and wait until it gets hot. I normally wait until it just starts ever-so-lightly smoking.

  4. AMPLE OIL: Don't save on oil, if you've poured too much you can always strain the tempeh and cut the rest with a paper towel. If you don't put enough oil, you'll end up with a soggy, anaemic final product.

  5. EXPOSE ALL PIECES TO OIL: Add the cut tempeh and make sure it gets all covered with oil immediately. This will form a crust on top of each tempeh cube that won't allow it to soak in too much oil.

  6. KEEP STIRRING: Make sure the tempeh cubes get evenly fried on all sides.

  7. MODERATE HEAT: The fire should be medium high. If it is too high, tempeh will get burnt, if it is too low, tempeh will absorb too much oil and end up greasy and soggy.

  8. DON'T OVERCOOK: Fry until crisp and dark golden brown, NOT dark brown. See the top picture, that's where you should stop.

  9. ADD FLAVOUR: A dash of fish sauce or shoyu for veg(etari)ans closer to the end adds flavour and saltiness.
It comes out so good you can have it as a snack on its own, or use it instead of meat in various dishes. Just remember it does not need any additional cooking. Also don't let it soak in sauces too long, as it will become soggy. The quickest yet supremely delicious dish you can make with tempeh is gado-gado.

The right kind of
tempeh is hard to come by. A lot of truly weird stuff is marketed under that name. In London, where I live now, they sell what looks more like vacuum-packed goobers. At £4.65 for 100g it must be celebrity goobers. Every time I have visitors from Amsterdam I have to ask them to bring me some real tempeh. Thanks to Holland's past colonial connections, even local chain supermarkets carry it there. Your best bet would be be asking around in your local Indonesian restaurants where they get hold of their tempeh. Or you can make it yourself from beans and tempeh starter available to order online.

Spruce up your diet with my vegetarian recipes from all over the world!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Russia meets the Steppe: manty

ozy or manty is another dish Russians borrowed from their steppe neighbours. It is enjoyed along a vast swathe of land from Mongolia to Russian Finn-Ugric Northwest.
The legend has it that Genghis Khan's hordes learnt this kind of cooking in China. The name is also said to derive from Chinese mantou (饅頭) even though manty is more like baozi (包子).

As is the case with most dishes from the area, the ingredients are simple and the outcome is well worth the labour-intensive and time-consuming preparation.

  1. Mix 3 cups flour, 1/2 water, one egg, a tablespoonful of vegetable oil and a pinch of salt. You may need more water as flour types vary from country to country. Russian flour made from soft wheat requires less water.
  2. Knead continuously for 30-40 minutes into perfect homogeneity which is essential for the right result. Cover and put in the fridge for at least 40 minutes.
  3. Mix mince or, even better, finely shredded meat with an equal amount of finely chopped onions (apprx. 6 onions per 1 kg of meat) Originally, fatty chunks of meat were used, very much prized during the harsh winters of the inhospitable Eurasian interior. Modern urbanite life calls for healthier options: I suitably use Tartare mince. The only condiments really needed are salt and pepper, I use best quality: hand-raked Guerdaine sea salt and powerfully fragrant Vietnamese peppercorns.
  4. Roll the dough into thin rounds apprx. 12 cm diametre. Wrap 2 tablespoonfuls of mine but leave a tiny hole left at the very top.
  5. You can buy multi-level manty steamers in Russia but I don't have one. I use a bamboo sieve lined with a banana leave instead, that's my Asian background for you. Steam 40 minutes on a very high fire. This brings out juice from the onions and the beef to produce copious amounts of aromatic bouillon.
  6. Manty are eaten with hands. The trick is to bite off the tip and drink the juice lest its splashes out. Be careful: it will be piping hot!
Traditionally manty are served with a mixture of melted butter and vinegar (tastes way better than it sounds) but I make a dip of sour cream and horseradish - also very Russian. To make them Turkish, you may add some sumac to the mince and serve with yoghurt and garlic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thai green curry (gaeng khiao waan) - แกงเขียวหวาง

I follow the authentic recipe to cook Thai green curry - gaeng khiao waan. It is so good it needs no improving.

It starts with lots of chopping and slicing:

  • 2-3 stalks of lemons grass (chop off the dry tops and use them to make infusion), chopped;
  • 4-5cm galangal root, sliced;
  • 3-5 chillies, chopped;
  • half a head of garlic, peeled and finely chopped;
  • a few kaffir lime leaves, leave them whole or tear big ones in halves.
First in a medium-heated thick-bottomed pan goes a nice glub of odourless vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, there goes garlic. When it just becomes golden the rest of the herb mix follows to be shortly joined by 2-3 tablespoonfuls of fried chilli paste.
When all this goodness becomes fragrant, I give it a generous dash of fish sauce. Then I add half a pack (about 125 g) of creamed coconut milk and slowly whisk in two tins of coconut milk. The point is to infuse the milk with the flavours of the toasted herb mix.

At this stage I add gre
en peppercorns, Thai basil and tiny Thai round aubergines that give the final product that unmistakeable flavour you can smell the moment you step out of the plane in Bangkok. I let it all simmer until a thin greenish film of oil appears on the surface and then add the rest of the ingredients:
  • a skinned breast of chicken cut into bite-size pieces;
  • white round aubergines cut in halves(also known as garden eggs in Africa);
  • string beans;
  • button mushrooms.
When the chicken is done you can serve it with boiled jasmine rice. You can supplement chicken with seafood but then add it at the very end.

Here is a theme song for this fragrant Thai meal:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pié d'Angloys cow milk cheese

ome cheeses are only to get hold of in France. Mostly it's cheeses made from raw milk that are difficult to transport. Pié d'Angloys is made from pasteurised cow milk but I fell in love with it from the first bite.

Decadently smelly and drippy inside it is reminiscent of a very ripe brie. As you may have guessed from the picture of a tiled roof house, it hails from Burgundy. As far as I know, it is sold in the Francophone zone only (France, Southern Belgium, Luxembourg, Western Switzerland). It seems a recent - post-WWII - invention but what it lacks in pedigree it makes good in taste.

Best fish companions: crème fraîche and dill

Dill and crème fraîche are fish mates made in heaven. You can only improve those with some sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper - but not too much, not to ruin the delicate flavour balance.

Here dill and crème fraîche are happily married to poached salmon and sweet and succulent Greenland shrimp.

In our family this combination is traditionally used for fried carassius, a common Russian fresh water fish with excruciatingly bony but divinely sweet flesh, "karas' v smetane".

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tuna steaks and oven-baked vegetables

ne thing about tuna steaks - they should never be overdone. Pink on the inside, seared on the outside - that's the way to go.

Oven-baked vegetables go well with just about anything and since I got hold of some nice asparagus I served home-made hollandaise which is essentially butter-based mayonnaise.

African cooking staple: fufu flour

There is no denying: I am crazy. When I discover a new kind of exotic foodstuff I am excited like a child.

The first time I heard the word fufu was in 1996 in a song by a New Yorikan poetess Dana Bryant named Food where she sings and ode to home-made meals tracing their lineage back to "five thousand years of history on the Nigerian countryside". The very name of "egusi soup with fufu" evoked colourful images of what traditional African cooking might be like. But I really had no idea.

My first real life encounter with the cuisine of the Black Continent happened in Bangkok
, which has a sizeable African community. I discovered the delights of West African stews and such delectables as fried ram balls. But they did not serve fufu there.

Here in London, Brixton is home to a variety of Black communities from the Caribbean as well as Africa. You can find any imaginable ingredient, except, perhaps, giant snails that were banned from selling for alleged animal abuse. Here I finally found if not the final product then the main ingredient for fufu. It exists in two versions, plantain (savoury kind of banana) and cocoyam (taro root). I am very excited about fixing fufu at home for the first time.

Southbank Slow Food Festival & venison sausages

Yesterday I attended Southbank Slow Food Festival which is essentially 2 rows of tents selling organic and exotic foods: from Portuguese jams and Kentish apple juice to organic ham and pheasant supremes.

All nice stuff but a tad on the pricier side, although still cheaper and actually more interesting than Waitrose. I bought myself 6 venison sausages for 5 quid - quite a bargain actually, as you normally fork out more for chopped pig offals stuffed in plastic. The grilled bit I tasted at the stall was superbly palatable: juicy and flavourful with just two basic tastes of venison and pepper in a perfect combination.

The producer - Manor Farm Game - has a very extensive range of yummies such as duck and orange burgers or pheasant, calvados and garden vegetables pies. I will give those a try next time.

Caveat emptor: real Camembert is only made from raw milk!

One of Normandy’s trademarks and the inspiration behind Dali’s famous The Persistence of Memory, Camembert had a near escape from being sacrificed to cost reduction and mass production. Traditionally produced on small farms from unpasteurised milk of free-range cows, it gains its unique flavour from a variety of local terroirs. It would have stayed a local delicacy but for the advent of railways, when Napoleon III attending the opening of the Paris-Granville line discovers Camembert for the Parisian gourmet table. From a regional curiosity camembert became one of France’s cultural symbols. In recent times however it has fallen victim to its own popularity. The demands for larger production volumes has made manufacturing shift to factories. Economy of scale requires the streamlining of the costs. Farm-raised cows are nowadays fed mechanically mixed fodder and the quality uniformity of milk is the overriding objective. Starting in the late 90s culinary purists and industrial rationalists have been battling over just how much can Camembert depart for the traditional recipe without losing its essence.

ast year things came to head when dairy giants Isigny and Lactalis, which comprise 80% of Camembert sales, demanded that the National Institute of Origin and Quality modify the regulations for their product. To qualify for AOC Camembert needs to be made from raw milk, but the rebel producers insisted that pasteurising or microfiltering milk would reduce the cheese’s susceptibility to potentially dangerous pathogens. The defenders of the terroir, ODC, reasoned that such a step would kill the “very essence of Camembert”. The Laboratory for scientific research of eggs and milk, stated that health risks are "statistically insignificant". Angered, the two producers threaten to renounce their AOC.

The stand-off finally ended on the 18th of September this year with the issue of the PM-signed decree that stipulates the obligatory use of raw milk for Camembert production. Generic camembert however, stays outside this regulation.

Now watch out for the magic words “Camembert de Normandie au lait cru moulé à la louche” on the packaging meaning that you are getting the real deal, not the mass production imitation.

Wild boar medallions, sauce bourguignonne

Wild boar medallions with classic bourguignonne sauce, stir-fried potatoes and grilled vegetables.

I enhance the basic sauce with some Asian savvy: shiitake instead of white champignons gives it a more powerful mushroom fragrance.

Sunkissed Côte de Roussillon made a lovely accompaniment for the viande de sanglier (somehow this sounds better in French).

Another Brixton find: Jamaican locust fruit

Living in Brixton is like living on an exotic island with British weather. Every overcast day brings a sunny discovery.

I found this strange fruit yesterday at Brixton market. The Jamaican vendor insisted this is the biblical locust that Jesus Christ sustained on while in the desert. Although it is beyond certain that the Gospel was on about a kind of grasshopper, a good source of protein in many cultures, I didn't argue with the good man and bought a piece of his merchandise.

This bean pod like thing turns out a native of the Caribbean and South America, known as West Indian locust fruit or "stinking toe" (Hymenaea courbaril). It is supposed to be very smelly but I found it anything but. It tastes somewhat like freeze-dried vanilla icecream with strong grassy overtones. The pod is so hard I had to put it under a foot of my bed and drop it from a 20-cm height.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nando's Portuguese peri-peri chicken

Nando's is Portuguese chain restaurant in the UK serving mostly chicken. It is said to be quite good so I decided to see what the hype is about. I was on my own so I got a takeaway.

Well, it is not bad at all. They mixed up my order so I ended up with plain chicken instead of hot so I yet to find out what peri-peri is all about but it was not bad anyway: flavourful, smoky and not greasy. They use fresh, unfrozen chicken and you can taste that, espeically if you've ever tried Tesco's fried chicken that tastes like chicken-flavoured toilet paper.

What you see on the picture minus the salad, which I added myself, set me back £6.10, which is very good for London.

Curiously enough, in Japanese piri-piri stand for spicy, could there be a connection? After all the Portuguese are responsible for introducing chilis to Japan.

France meets Italy: Béchamel aux fruits de mer with conchiglie pentacolore

Béchamel aux fruits de mer with conchiglie pentacolore is a happy Franco-Italian marriage. I fix this whenever I don't have much time to cook as the recipe is easy and delicious.

Conchiglie pentacolore is seashell-shaped pasta. It is coloured green (spinach), red (tomatoes), white (natural), yellow (curry) and black (squid ink). It goes without saying, it should be done al dente.

For the souped-up version of traditional béchamel I melt a nice knob of butter in a thick-bottomed pan. Then there go a dash of whole allspice berries, cloves and peppercorns, a bay leaf and a wee pinch of ground nutmeg to infuse the butter with their flavours. To make the roux I use equal parts of wheat flour and corn starch. The latter is an Asian influence, it makes the sauce light and translucent. I mix the flour mix and the butter with a whisk on low fire until it becomes golden blonde, you don't want to go any darker with béchamel.

When the roux has cooled down (very important!), it is time to whisk in equal parts of scalded double cream, white wine and home-made shrimp stock. I let it all simmer on small fire stirring periodically with a whisk. The result is a symphony of savoury flavours, laden with natural glutamates that give it that very taste that the Japanese call "koku" (full-bodied).

At the very last stage I add a handful of seafood into the still simmering sauce and turn the heat off.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Afrikan Kitchen Gallery: The Haute Cuisine of Africa

For African restaurants in London African Kitchen Gallery does what Jamie Oliver did to British cuisine taking a hearty if very simple fare of dubious salubrity and turning it into a toe-twirlingly delicious yet healthy extravaganza of tastes and flavours. The result is so amazing I would have to give each dish on their menu a separate detailed description. It is like explaining the cuisine of an extraterrestrial culture so much more advanced culinarily than ours.

Take, for example, one of the starters, moyin moyin which is a sort of bean-and-tomato paté. The amazing thing is that despite it being very herby with the ever so smooth and fluffy texture resembling none of the original ingredients, you palate will instantly recognise what it is made of. Moyin moyin is served with what I would compare to African green pesto, buttery and flavourful.

Or the deliciously flavourful egusi beef stew that I had on my first visit. Served with perfectly cooked - moist yet fluffy - bean rice it was just the right amount of spiciness to underscore, not overpower the tastes of the main components.

The food is so exquisitely delicious that I do suspect there must be some African magic involved but when I think rationally it could be down to their policy of using organic ingredients and nothing artificial. So used are we to the anaemic industrially produced edibles from the supermarkets that the taste of natural and honest food can come as a true revelation.

There are more imagination-sparking items on their menu that will warrant more visits here, like lamb with mango, curried goat stew or wild spinach with melon seeds. I quit being vegetarian years ago but their asaro, yam and sweet potatoes in pepper & tomato sauce, sounds scrumptious.

Three more things I totally dig about this place and probably you will too: one is that it so cosy it feels like dining in somebody's living room richly decorated with African masks and carvings. Two, both proprietors are friendly and always find the time to talk you through the dishes. And last but not least: it is refreshingly affordable for Central London, all main entries are under 10 quid.

Tip: Do try their home-made ginger beer: probably the biggest kick since the invention of processed morphines!

How to make real ginger tea

The humankind has come up with more than one uses for ginger. However, my favourite is to make tea from it. Tea here means hot drink, herbal tea if you will, as no actual tea leaves get anywhere close to the pot.

The recipe is simple, to make 1.5 litres of tea:
  1. Grate a 7-8-cm piece of ginger.
  2. Grind the rind off a lemon.
  3. Tip 1 and 2 into a pot with hot water.
  4. When it cools down somewhat, squeeze half a lemon into it.
  5. Add honey to taste.
The sweet-and-sour combination of lemon juice and honey with the zesty tinge of ginger and lemon rind warms you up from the inside like good brandy. It is ideal for colds or just cold winter evenings.

Garden eggs: finally an eggplant that looks like an egg!

What ever can you not find at Brixton Market!

I was planning to cook abenkwan, Ghanaian palm nut soup, that requires garden eggs as an ingredient. I had little idea what they would turn out to be but there you go: for once eggplants that DO look like eggs.

They are called igba or ikan amongst the Yoruba's of Nigeria, it is referred to as ngilo in Swahili and nakasuga or nakati in Uganda, ntroma in Ghana and jiló in Brazil. I saw them in Thailand where they are somewhat smaller and greener and called makhuea pra. I had no idea they had an English name.

Garden eggs

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Barbeque - most voted by our primeval ancestors

Quebec barbecueI was brought up on barbeque. My Dad would take me cross-country skiing miles and miles into the Sub-Arctic taiga where, after clearing up a little plot from 3-foot-thick snow we would make a camp fire and have home-made munches while waiting for the flame to calm down and the cinders to become white.

parilladaLamb, reindeer, or sometimes even saiga or bear meat as well as whole tomatoes would have been marinated in vinegar, onions, and black pepper the day before. Pre-skewered by Mom, they would then slowly get cooked, becoming deliciously charred on the outside but remaining pink inside. The smoky and tangy aroma of Dad's barbeque is one of the most powerful memories of my childhood.

ince then I have travelled around the world and seen other ways of cooking meat over charcoals: Japanese yakitori and Southern soul barbeque parties, Argentine parillada and Bavarian steckerlfisch, South African braai, Indian tandoori, Turkish fish grilled in vine leaves and Catalan charcoaled with parsley butter.

Best barbeques all around the world share the same secret. It is very simple yet too many people don't seem to understand it. All too often meat is yanked into raging fire only to end up as scorched bits of burnt animal protein. The Main BBQ Principle is so important it should be put to music and chanted as a mantra at dawn and sunset:
The coals must be white
With no flames in sight!
This mantra should also be in every beginner cook's textbook: chicken and rosemary, lamb and mint. These combinations are unbeatable. You can see both on the picture above.
Fish hardly needs any herbs or spices as they would overpower its delicate flavour, just some sea salt, coarsely ground black pepper and a sprinkle of lemon juice are more than enough. To make white-fleshed fish flavour more pronounced it can be soaked Japanese style in the mix of equal parts of sake, mirin and shoyu.

One more rule that can be emphasized enough: always pat dry whatever you barbecue. I use thick kitchen rolls for that. Wet meat yanked on hot coals ends up half-boiled instead  of deliciously sizzled.

Another fantastic way of grilling fish they know in Thailand. Thai fresh-water catfish is gutted, stuffed with  fresh lemon grass, rolled in sea salt and put on grill. It is served with a fiery dip of chopped chillies, crushed garlic and fish sauce.

The same dip is fantastic with Southern Thai grilled fresh-water prawn. They are done à pointe, so that the meat is just done but the buttery innards, called man goong in Thai, remain uncurdled. Delish!
These are great companions for barbecue (see the picture below):
  • kurkuma rice
  • Southern potato salad
  • verdure alla griglia: grilled aubergines, zucchini, shiitake and red onions marinated in mix of olive oil, white wine vinegar, sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • grilled portobello mushrooms filled with sauce of crème fraîche, white wine, oyster sauce and, you guessed it, coarsely ground black pepper.