Monday, August 31, 2009

Bulmers: English perry

unny that I had to have the "taste of the English summer" on its last day. At least, this is how Bulmers' pear cider has been promoted for last few months. Even the absence of a TVset in my place did not save from the ubiquitous advertising.

It is not that I caved in, it's more down to abysmal choice of summer drinks in my local Sainsbury's where I have paid my first ever visit. I gave the highly cringeworthy 3-litre PET bottle of cider a wide berth and was left with the only option. Luckily, it turned out rather delightful: sweeter and milder than French poiré, Bulmers pear cider is, truth be told, easier to join in its own right.

I remember reading somewhere that the word perry is not used commercially any more because its perceived fuddy-duddiness may turn off the highly coveted youth market.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Franco Manca - the minimalstic house of real pizza

Pizzas only make annual cameo appearances in my dietary calendar. Somehow, the idea of stodgy crust with anaemic topping smothered in gooey cheese that most pizza chains churn out does not hit my appetite button.

There are lucky exceptions, however. Brixton Market's Franco Manca is one of those precious few. I ventured there only after I had made sure that the chefs there speak very little English, which is a sign that they haven't yet succumbed to the local penchant for food boiled for six hours in industrial taste-removing solution.

The menu is limited to six pizzas and one salad but Franco Manca makes them with minimalistic panache. All ingredients are sourced from organic Italian and British producers and no pizza is topped with such atrocities as pineapples or broccoli or overcrowded with toppings. It is also the best way to maintain quality control (that is how McDonald's, for example, keeps everything tasting the same across the globe: just few items on the menu).

We had a daily special of pizza bianca with wild boar ham and ruccola (£6.50) and meat lover's pizza rossa (£6.80) with really aromatic chorizo from Brindisa and basil. The oven-baked crust made of leavened sour-dough was so good I could eat it plain. The ham was real dry cured wild boar and was superbly delightful with thin wedges of lemon and ruccola. The chorizo pizza was more mainstream but none less enjoyable.

Pro's: Pizzas baked to utter perfection. Very affordable.
Con's: Cramped seating. Only open until 5PM.
In a nutshell: The house of true pizza excellence.

Franco Manca
4 Brixton Market Row
London SW9 8LD

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Anatolian bulgur pilaff with vegetables (sebzeli bulgur pilavı)

never grow tired of Turkish food. I love the sheer variety of a cuisine that has incorporated so many ancient culinary traditions and given them a new lease of life in a very creative way.

Bulgur, cereal of cracked and parboiled wheat, is very popular in Asia Minor and the Fertile Crescent. In Syria they make scrumptious kibbeh out of it but in Turkey's Anatolia it is the base for pilaff . It is a very filling yet healthy dish, suitabel for vegetarians.

Here is the recipe:
  1. Lightly fry pine nuts, almond and pistachio flakes in clear butter. Scoop them out once golden yellow.
  2. In the same butter fry dry bulgur, constantly stirring, until it starts giving out a pleasant nutty flavour.
  3. Pour twice as much water as there is bulgur in the pot and put on smallest fire to steam.
  4. Meamwhile, peel and cut julienne one big carrot. Fry it in a small amount of clear butter until just slightly crunchy.
  5. De-stone and roughly chop two handfuls of dates.
  6. Once the bulgur is ready (apprx. 25-30 min) - it needs to stay slightly chewy, not too fluffy - add the carrots, dates and nuts, mix well, allow to stay in the covered pot.
  7. Finely chop and generous bunch of fresh coriander leaves and mix with the pilaff.
  8. Serve hot with a dollop of Turkish natural yoghurt on top of each serving.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Welsh whelks: consumed where harvested

n many ways Wales reminds me of France, especially Brittany. The architecture, the feel and look of the towns and villages, the rugged coastline. And now the food.

Northern European aren't kin on seafood. They boil, fry and smoke every trace of its flavour as if the smell of sea reminded them of something traumatic. That is how I came to a conclusion about ichthyophobe nations. However my visit to Wales has put a chink in the armour of my theory.

The Welsh may not have French seafood platters but at least they eat whelks just the way they do it in France. That is, lightly boiled and sprinkled with vinegar. There are no chopped shallots in this vinegar, instead pepper and salt are the seasonings of choice. The result is not shabby at all: chewy, as it behoves whelks, and smelling of sea. We bought some whelks in the Cardiff Market and had them
with laver bread on the seaside on the lovely Gower Peninsula. As it turns out, it was probably the most appropriate place to do that as Penclawdd, the town most famous for whelks in the UK, is situated there.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Zaatar: Arab spice mix (زعت)

Za'atar (زعت) is the trademark Arab spice from the Middle East, unknown in North Africa. It is a mix of dried and powdered thyme, oregano, marjoram with toasted sesame seeds and salt. It is said to have been around since the times of Ancient Egypt, although to prove it with more certainty will take more evidence.

Like curry powder in India, each housewife has her own special recipe of za'atar. In Palestine, za'atar is a part of the national identity lore. That is why the 1977 Israeli legislation that declared za'atar herbs a protected species is used to harass Palestinians by banning them from gathering wild thyme or za'atar in the West Bank, and confiscating it at IDF checkpoints.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Russian proso millet cereal & porridge (пшёная каша)

ussians eat a lot of cereals: some kind of porridge is a common breakfast. Proso millet is one of those. It is reckoned to one of the oldest cultivated grain in Eurasia due to it drought-resistance.

Eaten for breakfast proso, or pshyonka in colloquial Russian, is boiled in water or milk and eaten with milk or butter. It can also be made into a savoury dish. The best way to make it is to fry it first in butter until it starts giving out a characteristic nutty smell and then boil it in water and add stir-fried mushrooms and vegetables: onions, carrots, pumpkin.

As has been the case with many poor man's staples, proso has recently been rediscovered
as health food. It turns out that it is gluten-free and rich in microelements. It contains as much protein as wheat, about 11% by weight.

Proso flakes are sold in Russian supermarkets for busy people. You can only use them as breakfast cereal because in savoury dishes proso needs to retain its grainy texture.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dastarkhan: London's only Kazakh restaurant

sky-blue flag hanging out of a second-floor window is the only giveaway. No sign, no exotic aromas wafting through the air, no foreign-looking people dashing in and out to hint a passer-by that beyond two floors of a wood-panelled Finchley pub lies an altogether different realm that actually has a thing or two to do with Borat's Kazakhstan.

Once upstairs, smiley Kazakh waiters greet us in a colourfully, if haphazardly, decorated room. “Nomadic” rugs and brightly coloured cushions are piling around low tables. You can choose between sitting on topchans or regular European chairs. The window sills are lined with generic bric-a-brac of unidentifiable purpose and provenance. "Exotic" scrolls
alternate with generic Art Nouveau lamps on the walls adorned with drawings of Chinese-looking trees. Edward Said would be reeling.

My Grandma’s Cossack family in the 19th century founded Kazakhstan’s present capital as a Russian military outpost in the newly annexed lands but my knowledge of Kazakh cuisine is limited to the mysterious word beshbarmak. I always imagined it to be something lamby, succulent and utterly delightful, a kind of herby pilaff reserved for special occasions.

e wade through a multitude of Russian and generic Oriental classics on the menu trying to line up an authentic Kazakh feast. Our only guide are the strange sounding names of the dishes, as the waiters claim everything they serve is Kazakh. Right. Okroshka is a common staple in the Central Asian steppes. Our orders arrive in the course of over three odd hours, mains before starters, all in a very random succession, providing us with ample time to ruminate whether they are actually slaughtering lambs in the basement to cook for us.

First we get what Russians call "aubergine caviar" (£3.50) , stew of finely shredded aubergines with onions and garlic. Olga's nostalgic choice however turns out very bland stir-fried marrow and tomatoes. Our impenetrably friendly waiter insists it is aubergine and we just leave it at that.

Some time later arrives a wicker basket with baursaki (£3.50), deep-fried pieces of dough, which in the ovenless nomadic world acted as bread. Rather bland in taste, they are however, pleasantly not greasy.

Forty minutes of chatting with Olga and two reminders later arrives kuyrdak (£9.90) . What the waiter has promised to be lamb stew turns out to be chunks of liver and potatoes in an extremely economic amount of some onion and tomato based sauce. The liver is way overdone and hard to bite, so we send it back to the kitchen.

Whilst waiting for the next dish we share a bowl of shurpa or sorpa, clear beef soup with potatoes, carrots and onions. A sprinkle of chopped dill on top of it adds finishing touch to this simple consommé. What was advertised as "traditional Kazakh tea" comes in the form of English Breakfast teabags soaking in hot water. Whilst I think how to react, Olga sends it packing too. Good riddance.

Manty, are steamed dumplings filled with finely chopped meat and onions in equal proportions. Normally they are full of aromatic broth spouting fountains of taste into your mouth. This time however the thin dough got torn before they even ended up on our plate, so what we get is boiled meatballs wrapped in tasteless dough - quite a treat for eight quid.

samsa pies (£5) are also filled with meat and onions. The dough is nicely flavoured and it's the only dish this evening that experienced a proper Maillard reaction. Hand-made in the restaurant's kitchen, they are, however, served hot, right from the oven, which is a big mistake: they need to be allowed to "come around" wrapped in cloth. The steam coming from the filling then would make the crust moist and pleasant to bite.

And finally, the pièce de résistance, Kazakh national dish of bes barmak
(£9) solves my childhood mystery: it turns out square pieces of noodle boiled with onions and beef. By this time we are so behind all schedules and tired of waiting that we take it home in a doggie bag. My attempt to take a picture of the culprits of our dining fiasco in the kitchen are greeted with vehement protests. People dodge out of my way like scared hens. I sense a working visa problem there. They sure won't be getting Highly Skilled Immigrant ones here.

Pro's: The only place in London to enjoy Kazakh culinary exuberance.

Con's: Hard to find. Clueless (if friendly) service. Randomly appointed interior. Nothing-to-write-home-about food.

In a nutshell: This act needs to put its stuff together to call themselves a restaurant.

203 Holloway Road
N7 8DL

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mohsen: Persian restaurant @ Warwick Road

I am really eager to make friends with some North Koreans. They must be veritable teddy bears, since the US Secretary of State Office claims the opposite. From my own personal hands-on experience, people from the so-called Axis of Evil countries - Cubans, Syrians and Iraqis - have been most warm-hearted, hospitable and generous people around.

Since Iran became America’s arch-enemy, I simply can't stop thinking of travelling to Tehran for some sabzi, kebab and palsy-walsy time with the locals. The closest I can get to that is to swing by West Kensington to one of Persian eateries there, like Mohsen, that stands apart from the rest of them Warwick Road. It has a certain lingering melancholic vibe to it, one of longing for the days of "swinging Iran," before the black robes, vice squads and gay executions. Its immaculately coiffed and jeans-clad proprietress Mrs. Mohsen’s, epitomises that Iran that is no more. "What are you going to have, darling?" her friendly grin feels like a cup of hot aromatic tea, warming you from the inside.

I admit, I did my homework so I knew what to order. Sabzi (£3, سبزی), fresh tarragon, coriander and mint served with gentle white cheese, most reminiscent of French Caprice d’Anges but featured in the menu under the misnomer of feta. In Farsi it is called paneer or panir. Another starter, kashk o bademjan (£3, کشک و بادمجان), is a paste of grilled aubergines and whey. It all makes a fantastic mix when topped on a flatbread freshly baked in the oven right in the front of the restaurant.

We were not even half way through our starters when our table became crowded with our main courses.

Chelo koubideh (£8, چلو کوبیده) is a lamb kebab, delightfully succulent and gently spiced. The promise of tenderest lamb ever is painstakingly kept I had to chase out of my head the images of cute lambs who contributed to my juicy bites. The classic Iranian pollo rice was excellent - lusciously moist and fluffy. The tomato was grilled in a most amazing fashion with evenly charred skin peeling off effortlessly to reveal the gently stewed scarlet (from the Persian سآقرلآت säqirlāt) flesh.

Khoresh gheymeh (£8.50, خورش قیمه) is a split peas and lamb cubes stew flavoured with wee dried limes. They are supposed to make the lentils more easily digestible. It looks like a kind of curry but tastes like nothing else I have tried from Morocco to Indonesia. The peculiar aroma of the dried limes overrides all, while matchstick-thin potato chips on top add an unusual twist to the texture.

The yougn waiter talked us into having a dessert, but we were an easy prey from the start. It turned out as lush as Persian poetry. What was listed in the menu as humble ice-cream (£3) turned out a sensational mix of real-pistachio flavoured creamy excellence and rose-water sorbet exuberance laced with crunchy ice noodles (!). The texture and the flavours were like nothing else you can find in high-street icecream parlours. Zoolbia and bamiyeh (£3) are pieces of deep-fried dough drenched in honey syrup - it actually tastes a huge deal better than it sounds! Iranian tea turned out to be cardamom flavoured, a nice addition to the symphony of aromas of our dessert.

Pro's: Highly delectable food. Reasonable pricing. Friendly service.
Con's: A bit off the beaten track - or is it actually a pro?
In a nutshell: A great place for introduction to Persian cuisine.

152 Warwick Road
London W14 8PS
Tel: 020 7602 9888

Friday, August 7, 2009

Russian smoked salmon and mackerel roulette (рулет из копчёной ставриды и горбуши)

ussians are very big on smoked fish. In any supermarket you will find a wide variety of various sorts, sometimes somewhat off-the-wall for a Westerner. This one is my favourite: salmon and mackerel roulette. It's just what it sounds like: deboned filets of two fishes rolled into a neat bundle and smoked. The dryish flesh of gorbusha salmon is perfectly spliced with the oily mackerel.

In the Communist times, salmon was one of the hardest to come by types of fish. We would have had it only for the New Year's - the modern Russian equivalent of Anglo-Saxon Christmas. These days it the cheapest one, my parents buy it to feed their cats. Sometimes we like to ponder over what the Communists might have been doing with all "red fish" (that is how different types of salmon are collectively called in Russian). We always come to very humorous conclusions, like they would have shipped it all to feed the Cubans or perhaps even eaten it all themselves. No one knows or even bothers to know the real answer...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ryazhenka: Russian baked milk yoghurt (ряженка)

any Russian delicacies are not transportable – they should be consumed when freshly cooked. Ryazhenka is a creamy yet lean drinking yoghurt that does not travel well and hence is not available outside Russia. It has a smooth taste and a vaguely smoky flavour.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Okroshka: Russian cold summer soup (окрошка)

Russian winter may be cold but Russian summer is often smouldering. It is 29 degrees outside as I am writing this in the midst of the Russian countryside. When the thermometer goes up that high, Russians switch from borscht to cold soups. The most popular one is okroshka. Essentially, it is a meat and vegetable salad served in kvass – a hearty Russian bread drink.

The recipe is rather easy:
  1. Put a jar of kvass in the fridge to allow it cool.
  2. Chop boiled beef or chicken breast, boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, cucumbers, radishes into 0.5-cm cubes.
  3. Drown the mix with kvass just to cover it.
  4. Garnish with fresh chopped dill, spring onions and sour cream.
  5. Serve.
Instead of meat or chicken you can put boiled salmon (as in the picture) - a tasty and healthy, if not the most conventional, variation.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Öçpoçmaqlar: Tatar meat pies (Өчпочмаклар)

Russia is home to over hundred different peoples. As they have always lived amongst or next to Russians, their culinary contribution to Russian culture is immense yet often unnoticed. Many dishes Russians consider their own are in fact anything but. When I was a kid, I had the chance to observe this process of gastronomic osmosis in work.

One day my Mom came from work with a piece of paper covered with hand-writing. It was a recipe she got from her Bashkir colleague, a teacher of French at the school where my Mom was Director of Studies. The recipe was for Tatar pies. The Tatars and the Bashkirs are Muslim peoples hailing from the Volga basin. Culturally, they are quite close; at least they seem to share many dishes with minor variations from region to region.

Ichpichmaks (or echpochmaks - also spelt öçpoçmaq, plural
öçpoçmaqlar, meaning triangles) look very much like samosas or empanadas but have a hole on one side because they are baked, not deep-fried. The dough is based on sour milk while the filling is invariably raw meat (lamb or beef), potatoes and onions. That is quite unlike Russian pies made from leavened dough and pre-cooked filling. These days it is one of our family's favourite pies.

The recipe is rather simple and they come out very tasty.