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.