Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mexican chipotle beans stew (guiso de fabas con chipotle)

y experience of Mexico was short-lived. We walked across the bridge from El Paso, Texas to Ciudad Juarez to have dinner. After the comfort and relative safety of the good ole US of A, Mexico felt dodgy. It did not help that we crossed the border as the sun was setting. Shady characters and roaming youths lurked on crossroads. Snazzy patrol cars wheezed down dark streets, stopping to a screeching halt to check people’s documents. The town is infamous for las muertas de Juarez – hundreds of women violently murdered here since 1993, most cases unsolved. In the beautiful dusk light we trundled on looking for a place to grab a bite.

Touching the base with food is Floyd's idea of a short visit: only a meal in a new country can validate your claim that you've been there. When we finally stumbled over a resto still open at such a late hour, he went safe ordering a steak. I remained true to myself and tried something I had no idea what it was. It turned out a hearty stew with potatoes, carrots, pieces of pork and lots of beans. It was very filling and delicious, leaving a pleasant warm aftertaste of smoky spiciness. In my mind this became for ever bonded with the sense of imminent danger lurking outside.

When back home two weeks later, I made a few attempts to recreate that taste of Mexico. I searched online cookbooks for hints, tweaked the ingredients and cooking times and after a few almost-there tries finally hit the spot. So here we go. It is actually quite simple. Measures are approximate and I don't think Mexican people stick to mathematically verified recipes themselves.
  1. Peel and chop some potatoes and carrots, set aside.
  2. Chop and fry lots of onions in vegetable oil.
  3. Add some smoked bacon and keep frying.
  4. Add the potatoes and carrots. Fry until almost ready.
  5. Add canned beans as desired.
  6. Add some chopped chipotle peppers.
  7. Add some starch mixed well with cold water.
  8. Let stew for a while.
  9. Serve.
As it goes with stews, it tastes better the next day, when al the blessed event of flavour osmosis has occurred.

Cheesecakes @ PAUL, Old Compton St., London

Olga was all over herself about these cakes. I can see why. Crunchy crust, light and moderately sweet, stuffed with blueberries. Rhubarb with its delightful inherent acidity is a great cheesecake idea too. These cakes are in my eyes the star attraction at London's premium class chain bakery shop PAUL. Established in 1889 by some French people, nowadays they are all around the town. Olga's choice was Old Compton Street: perhaps she enjoys the sight of me being drooled over. We enjoyed our time together except the tea that was made by dumping tea bags in warm water. Tsk tsk tsk.

P.S. To PAUL's credit, we received complimentary cups of truly excellent coffee when we complained about the inadequate tea.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Welsh cakes (teisen gri)

I am not a big fan of vacuum-packed commercial pastry. Glitzy packaging only reminds me of how many chemical they are infused with. These little Welsh cakes, however, I bought from a baker at a market in the picturesque village of Abergavenny, South Wales.

Their humble appearance belies an exquisite crumbly texture. This could easily be the only type of pastry where I actually enjoy the raisins. They go perfectly well with the subdued sweetness of the cakes. Their Welsh name is teisen gri, although they are also known as bakestones after the kind of cast iron griddle they are baked on.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mamouniyeh: syrian breakfast porridge (مامونية)

I t is amazing how many ways there are to start a day. And of course I'm talking food, not sex or meditation. I am forever indebted to the French: coffee and croissant provide both kick and indulgence. Once in a blue moon I allow myself a guilty pleasure of full English. Quite often I get a craving for natto, misoshiru or or ochazuke. When I have enough time, I fix myself a heart-warming congee with mushrooms and seaweed. When I get in the rut with muesli and yoghurt, it is time to try something new. After all breakfast means "breaking the fast", returning from slumberful abstinence to the world of palate pleasures.

This time I was inspired by a blog about Syrian food. Mamouniyeh or mamounia (مامونية) is a breakfast cereal common in Aleppo in the North of the country. It is very easy to cook.
  1. Melt a knob of butter in a pan, scoop out the froth. This is how you get ghee that this recipe calls for but may be hard to come by in our area.
  2. Gently roast 2 tbsp pine nuts until golden brown. Scoop them out and put on a plate.
  3. In the same butter fry half a cup of coarse semolina on small fire for about 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add four cups of water and 4-6 tbsp sugar. Let boil until thickens constantly stirring.
  5. Serve with the roasted pine nuts, grilled Halloumi cheese and, if so wish, a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

How to make mayonnaise

Mayonnaise is easily Russia's national dressing. Although often derided as fatty and unhealthy, in Russia it outsells every other type of commercial condiment including ketchup: the Guinness Book of Records insists that the Russian city of Ekaterinburg is world's leader in mayonnaise consumption.
A Ekaterinburg-native friend of mine told me that when back in the 90s Russian factory workers tried to mess with the newly imported Italian mayonnaise-making machinery by using less expensive ingredients and more water, it would stop working. According to him, that's why Eketarinburgers have been enjoying properly manufactured mayo ever since.
It is somewhat ironic that the jarred variety with all the creepy chemical additives, very likely substandard eggs, inexplicably added sugar and excess of salt is so popular despite mayonnaise being one of the simplest and cheapest sauces to make at home. It takes just about 5 minutes to whip up a bowl of mayonnaise. Here how it goes:
  1. Mix well one very fresh egg yolk (I buy biodynamic free-range organic eggs from Orchard eggs) with a tablespoonful Dijon mustard. Both need to be room temperature.
  2. Add little by little one glass of your favourite vegetable oil while whisking vigorously making sure that all oil is incorporated in the mixture before adding any more. Only use up to 30% of olive oil as it tends to make your mayonnaise taste bitter.
  3. Now for the flavouring. Mix one tablespoonful aceto balsamico bianco, some finely ground sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and whisk the mixture in. That said, I use Thai fish sauce instead of salt for the extra kick and add crushed garlic to make aioli. You can also add finely chopped estragon, anchovies, etc. - let your imagination run free!
  4. In case your mayo comes out too thick, whisk in a tablespoonful of water.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

How to make plain rice exciting: turmeric rice recipe

Many Westerners and Russians do not seem to like Asian style steamed rice. Though I do not share the sentiment, I kind of can see how one could find it bland and unappealing. So here is a simple way how to make rice more exciting:
  1. Rinse rice seven times and cover it with cold water. (Check if interested detailed rice-cooking instructions.)
  2. Add a pinch of salt or a slug fish sauce, a piece of butter and a teaspoonful of turmeric powder. Also add a few cloves, a few cardamom pods and a stick of cinnamon broken into smaller pieces.
  3. Cook as usual.
  4. Chop a handful of cashew nuts and half a handful of dry apricots and add to the cooked rice. Mix well. You can also substitute apricots with white raisins (it not for nothing that Sangli, world' largest turmeric trading centre is also Asia's most important place of raisin trade).
  5. When serving, sprinkle some chopped coriander leaves on top.
I serve this rice with anything: from grilled fish to Indian curries. In fact, it is good enough to be a dish in its own right. The aromatic crust that forms at the bottom of the cooking pot (see the picture above) is absolutely scrumptious.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Turkish chargrilled sardines in grape leaves (asma yaprağinda sardalye)

My first visit to Istanbul was, in hindsight, quite traumatic. Back in 1999 I was a hardcore vegan and the sight of all the Turkish goodies sizzling tantalisingly on charcoals left me scarred for years.

That is why I have put myself through a self-administered culinary therapy. I recreate all the stuff I missed out on then in Turkey, here in London. Kuzu pirzola, grilled lamb chops, is a good example.

When I received the good news that I was accepted to the SOAS postgrad school, I celebrated Russian style, with a barbeque. The difference was that it was alcohol-free and apart from the scrumptious hand-made Colombian sausages I bought at Brixton Market, I also made Turkish sardines wrapped in grape leaves. I nicked the recipe from wonderful Ghillie Başan's mouth-watering Turkish cookbook. As all great things it is quite simple.
  1. Make marinade of olive oil, grated lemon rind, juice of the lemon, aceto balsamico bianco, clear honey, one crushed chilli pepper, sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Whisk all ingredients together well. The quantities are not arbitrary. The rule of thumb is that the marinade should come out pleasant to taste, a balanced mix of sweet, spicy and sour.
  2. Cover gutted and scaled sardines with marinade and let stay for a couple of hours.
  3. Wrap the sardine in grape leaves and baste them with the marinade.
  4. Grill on white-hot charcoals for a couple of minutes on each side. Do not overcook: when the eyes are white, it is done.
  5. I serve sardines with grilled vegetables (tomatoes, bell peppers, aubergines, courgette, onions, garlic) and turmeric rice.

Grape leaves for stuffing and wrapping

Wrapping is a great way of cooking. Russians use cabbage leaves, Thais - pandan leaves, the Chinese - lotus leaves, the Japanese - bamboo leaves, Indians - banana leaves, Mexicans - corn husks. In Laos and Vietnam they stuff food into pieces of bamboo trunk. The whole shebang is about letting the wrapping flavour permeate the rest of the ingredients.

In the Near East, a vaguely defined area spanning from Greece and Romania to Armenia and Syria, grapes leaves (a.k.a. vine leaves) enjoy a wide coinage. Their flavour is not that strong but the pleasantly sourish kick they bring to food is well worth the trouble of wrapping. My parents are lucky to use fresh ones from their garden but I have to buy them jarred. Most of the preserved varieties I see in Europe are imported from Turkey. I buy mine in an Iranian-run shop at Brixton Market. The first dish I cooked in London using grape leaves was charcoal grilled sardines.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Russian sunflower halva (подсолнечная халва)

Many dishes that Russians think of as their own hail from Russia's own Near East of the Volga region, Transcaucacus and Central Asia. Those cuisines are little known outside the former Soviet Union and unjustly so. It is a true cornucopia of flavours and amazing ingredients. It combines such diverse culinary traditions as Georgian, Tatar, Uzbek and Kazakh. To the Western mind they all may seem as an inscrutable jumble of 'stans while in fact they differ from each other as much as, say, Iceland and Bosnia in Europe.

Halva is one of such traditional Russian treats that are Oriental in origin. It is made from finely ground kernels of sunflower seeds mixed with sugar into a smooth crumbling mass. Sesame seeds can also be used but this kind of halva is considered (in Russia anyway) to be inferior to the sunflower one.

It is nowhere to be found in London, so every time I have to bug my Russian visitors to bring me some. It is quite sweet and rich both in taste and texture. The flavour is that of lightly roasted sunflower kernels. It also packs in some serious calories, although all vegetable-based. A couple of small chunks is normally enough to keep you from craving sweets for at least a day. Halva's lush sweetness goes amazingly well with coffee's aromatic bitterness. I have it sometimes for breakfast when having no appetite for anything more substantial.

Peculiarly enough, the cheaper sorts of halva, sold en gros, actually taste better then the fancier vacuum-packed ones.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Draycott Blue cheese from Somerset

I love all things obscure and bizarre. On my last forage to the Cheddar Gorge in Somersetshire, I stumbled upon this rather lovely cheese, Draycott Blue. It is named after a village where it is made, three miles from Cheddar Village.

It is made from unpasteurised milk and that is why it is not commercially available outside the area. It tasted very lovely: moderately sharp, low in salt, with a rather mild finish, resembling Bleu d'Auvergne. The only way to get hold of it without driving to Somerset is to buy it online.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Solid Guinness: Russian Borodinsky rye bread (бородинский хлеб)

There are only two countries in the world that use live yeast for commercial bread-baking: Austria and Russia. This kind of bread can cause minor stomach problems for first-time visitors but luckily there are also more regular kinds of bread on offer.

owever, I was brought up on the old-fashioned kind. In my childhood, sweet-tasting Borodinsky rye-bread with coriander-seed-encrusted ears was a favourite treat. Its earthy aroma and heavy dark brown are like nothing else in the world. If anything at all, it is very much like solid Guinness.

These days friends occasionally bring a loaf from Moscow. It's much lighter on rye now, perhaps, to appeal to modern tastes and I can't feel but cheated in a way. It goes well with a slice of Cheddar or with smoked capelin roe and cucumbers. Last time I fixed it with slices of pheasant-and-pear sausage, French black pepper mustard and what can you do without cucumbers!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Russian dainty: physalis jam (варенье из физалиса)

hubarb, elderberries, pumpkin, green tomatoes and aronia - what is common between them? My Mom makes amazingly delectable jams from those.

This is one of her wonderful concoctions: physalis jam. It is not really your traditional Russian preserve but as it is made by a Russian woman in the midst of the Russian countryside from berries grown in Russian soil I might as well categorize it as a Russian dessert.

The land of eternal winter for Westerners, Russia has intensely hot continental summers. My parents grow on their estate peaches, grapes, walnuts and olives as well as a host of exotic flowers and vegetables from as far afield as Argentina and Thailand. In Southern Russia orange and lemon orchards as well as tea plantations are a common place. So much for stereotypes.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

On quest for real Cheddar

eneral de Gaulle once famously quipped about how France has 365 sorts of cheese while Britain has but two. In fact, while France was preserving its cheeses, Britain was busy fighting a war as a result of which (or mostly, rationing and austerity measures) the number of cheese producers tumbled from 3,500 before the war to 100 after it.

That said, English cheddar is one of the most popular cheeses in the world. To achieve this status a sacrifice was made: cheddar has lost its capital C and has become a generic name produced anywhere but the original place, the Cheddar Village in Somerset.

It is on quest for this real, AOC West Country Farmhouse Cheddar that we went there. Coincidentally, it is situated in a picturesque Cheddar Gorge, described by Robinson Crusoe's author Daniel Defoe as a "deep frightful chasm". These days it is a busy tourist attraction where real Cheddar is manufactured from the milk sourced within 80 miles from the Wells Cathedral. What makes Cheddar different from other cheeses is cheddaring, where heated curd is kneaded with salt, and of course maturing in the caves of the Cheddar Gorge.

In our age of marketing gizmos there are a slew of Cheddars with fancy and even bizarre flavours: from whiskey and cranberry to marmite and mango-and-ginger. I find it hard to buy in this gimmickery and prefer to stick to the time-proven good ole plain Cheddar. It is truly a great world cheese: pleasant to taste, versatile in use and easily recognizable.

There is an online cheddarometre that will help you determine the optimum thickness of cheese for your sandwich. If you are crazy enough to use it, enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sambal manis: spicy Indonesian relish

ambal manis means "sweet sauce" in Bahasa Indonesia but such a simple name belies an amazing explosion of tastes.

Finely chopped chillies, onions, sugar, galangal and garlic are fried in vegetable oil to achieve a highly delectable balance of spiciness ad sweetness. Strictly speaking, sambal manis is a relish as it is a rather thick paste. It is much milder than its more famous cousin, sambal ulek, which is basically crushed chillies with some salt. S-s-spicy!

There is sometimes a confusion because another, very different condiment is called sambal ketchap manis. It is a mild soya sauce and tastes nothing like sambal manis.

I buy it ready made. The best one I found is from Koningsvogel of Rijswijk, Holland while the one by Conimex tastes quite vile.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bao Zi Inn: the house of Szechuan-flavoured muck

ow do people become food critics? For some it is the lucky combination that gets them the job: liking free meals and being friends with the editor. Issue in, issue out they churn out rambling nonsense but who cares: the content is there and the advertisers pay.

I don't have good referrers for my quest for good Chinese food in London. I don't yet know any Chinese people here. That is why I read what food critics write. Or, more correctly, I have just stopped doing that. Because many of them do not seem to know peanuts about food.

I just went to Bao Zi Inn, a Chinese eatery in Newport Court, Covent Garden, based on a review in Time Out. Granted, there are differences in opinions. But how can you praise to the skies veritable muck that, despite your insisting on the opposite, has just the names of the dishes to do with authentic Szechuan cuisine? While in London's Chinatown at best you can have forgettable meals, this one is several notches beyond that.

Despite Time Out's claim that Bao Zi Inn has brought about a culinary revolution, I witnessed all classic Chinatown fodder crimes:
  1. stodgy noodles in flavourless broth;
  2. snivel-like starch-based "gravy";
  3. main ingredients pre-cooked in bulk in the morning;
  4. dishes made of combinations of 2 and 3.
Our spinach salad was made well in advance and had a stale taste of overmature vinaigrette. It also contained a handful of peanuts boiled into perfect tastelessness - nice touch! Six miserly pork dumplings (I recognise the type I sometimes buy frozen) came in sesame oil with dry chilli concoction sold for 3 quid a bottle in the supermarket round the corner. They were accompanied by a bowl of water they had been boiled in with a few shavings of spring onions sprucing up its sad appearance.

Two skimpy spoonfuls of mapo doufu had no trace of aubergines or mince, just silken tofu and pre-made "Szechuan gravy". The same gravy was dolloped on overcooked soba in our "spicy Szechuan noodles", perhaps the most uninspiring and insipid since a bowl of instant noodles at a railway station in the Russian countryside back in 1999.

We stood up from the table half hungry and 35 quid poorer but the worst was the horrid aftertaste of a trashy Chinese eatery.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Little Korea: budget hotties

But it it would be too spicy!" quoth our waiter when I ask where is our kimchi we were supposed to have as a side order. Well, well, well, you did not see me eating spicy yet. From our faces and accents he must have gathered we can't take hot peppers but why would we come to a Korean restaurant then at all?

Little Korea is tucked away at the very beginning of Lisle Street in Covent Garden. It is a cafeteria-looking budget eatery with an extensive Korean-Japanese menu. I stumbled upon it when walking around Covent Garden with my visitors from Amsterdam but they refused to eat "foreign muck", so I kept it until a more auspicious time, namely, Floyd's visit.

As once again I failed to get hold of my sanchae bibimbap, I went for one with seafood in a hot plate (해산물비빔밥). For the price (£5.99), it is quite a treat even though the seafood mix comes from the frozen section of the supermarket. I won't act a prissy purist, I use it myself.

Floyd had a jjam-bbong (짬뽕), which actually is the same as Japanese champon, just spicier, a generous bowl of spicy-ish udon with veggies and seafood. I must say the way I fix it is much more exciting, but don't we all think our cooking is the best! However, to give due credit jjam-bbong was hearty and honest.

The banchan (Korean side dishes customarily accompanying bigger orders) consisted of three entries.
  • Firstly, rather bland if not inedible kongnamul (blanched bean sprouts) that lacked the sesame flavour I expected.
  • Secondly, somewhat insipid courgette pickles.
  • Very nice classic kimchi from Chinese cabbage, done just the way you expect, crunchy and spicy.
As it goes with Asian food and two big guys who regularly work out, that did not quite feed our faces. The bulgogi with rice (불고기 덮밥) we decided to share turn out very nice, if obviously not freshly cooked just for us. Luckily, it was not of the slimy texture of constantly reheated muck that you get all too often in many a Chinese grease joint in the area. For five quid you can't ask for more.

I love Korean food for the punchy kick of fresh flavours and, of course, hot chillis. I love the smell of gochujang and barbecued meat, what a blessed combination! The hwe moochim, a Korean cross between sashimi and spicy carpaccio that I always get in this place is always a very special treat.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Nan bao - better than Viagra

ince the topic of aphrodisiac food seems to have attracted quite a bit of attention here, I will write more about these magic tablets. Although not technically food, they are pure herbs.

While in the West Viagra brings short-term benefits without addressing the root of the problem, the Chinese have taken a more holistic approach. Nan bao (男宝), meaning 'male treasure', is a mix of herbs that fixes your whole system so that you have more sexual drive. It takes two weeks to finish the treatment course, but its benefits lasts long.

Nan bao can be bought in most Chinese pharmacies. It is not covered by most basic insurance policies but then again you do not need a prescription for it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Grilled seafood @ Tunnel Restaurant, Gibraltar

Whatever they say, Gibraltar is a great place. After all how can South of Spain not be nice: hot sun, wrought-iron balconies and the smell of southern flowers in the air. One thing that is tricky there is the dining scene though. See, it is a British territory and as it is their concept of food is stuck in the 70's Britain: chippies and curry houses. To top it off, as the majority of the working population goes home to Spain after the office hours, the place becomes virtually deserted. The contrast between the hustle-bustle of the afternoon and the echoing silence in the evening is amazing.

Luckily, on our only evening there we were saved from the ignominious fate of eating fish and chips on a vacation when we stumbled upon the Tunnel Restaurant on Casemates Square. Mariscos asados for two set us back 25 quid and included red and white fish, prawn and squid. The Spanish know better than to deep-fry last bits of taste out of seafood: ours was grilled just right, leaving the insides juicy, with appetising sear marks on the outside. Volumewise it was enough to feed to big hungry men to the point of nearly bursting by the seams.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Marine cornucopia: assiette de fruits de mer

I t is my birthday, that is why I will write about my single most favourite dish. No it is not sushi, but its European equivalent, the French assiette de fruits de mer, seafood platter.

I discovered its pleasures on my first trips to Normandy. Unlike in Holland, where I lived then, the French do not feel compelled to deep-fry every bit of taste out of fish and seafood. Half is consumed raw or blanched. No heavy sauces are used so that one can enjoy the gentle fragrance of the gifts of the deep brine.

First year I would just go to France and order it in a restaurant, granted Amsterdam is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the French border. As my French improved and I learnt the names of seafood I started arranging my own platters, put them on ice and take them back home. You can by a ready-made one for 20 euros on Auchan but it takes the fun out of it.

If you are too intimidated to do your groceries at a French market (I used to be), go to the poissonnier section in Auchan and pick

  • a lobster,
  • a crab,
  • a box of oysters,
  • then shrimp,
  • bulots (whelks) and amandes (cockles, aka poor man's oyster) half a kilo each,
  • perhaps some crevettes grises (brown shrimp) and bigourneaux (periwinkles) if you like those (I do!)
Then get some lemons, baguettes, mayonnaise and a couple bottles of Muscadet or cidre brut and you have a slap-up seafood dîner for two. Drive on to a scenic location for an additional aesthetic kick.