Saturday, 28 February 2015

Tasting Jerusalem #3 – Rose Water

Dee – Pistachio and Rose Water: What a great pairing, showcased brilliantly with these delicious little cookies.
We referred to the recipe on page 260, but used margarine for shortening, as we were running low on ghee.  This was listed in the accompanying commentary for the recipe as an acceptable substitute and proved easy to work with, especially in the early stages of the mixing of the dough.
After chilling it for an hour, it still had the same soft, springy texture that it had when we first mixed it, but we pressed on.
The dough was very sticky, so required wet hands to mould it into the required shape, but once the cookies were out of the oven, they had baked nicely without colouring.
They didn’t have the expected melt-in-the-mouth texture and weren’t crunchy.  They turned out to be quite cake-like and although we didn’t have coffee with them, I think they would have gone well together.
The tastes were all well balanced; even the usually powerful rose water which, although the most noticeable taste, didn’t obscure the other ingredients.  They weren’t too sweet either, and I think this allowed us to appreciate the subtler flavour of the pistachio.
I’m sure we will be making these again.  The recipe wasn’t difficult, and I would like to see how they taste with ghee rather than margarine as the shortening ingredient.  I need to try them with some cardamom coffee too.

“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ebury Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to  following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook Page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest

(Please note: I have listed the UK publisher and have linked to the UK Amazon site.  The US details are provided on the web site)

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Z for Zimbabwe

Dee:  “For our final entry in our first blogging project we return to Southern Africa, not too far from where we started.  However, the cuisines of Angola and Zimbabwe turned out to be quite distinct.  While both include Western European ingredients and cooking styles, in Angola, these have fused with the older African recipes, wheras in Zimbabwe, the two have remained separate to the extent that two separate food styles exist.  There is a noticeable love of cake and biscuit baking recipes, and I was also surprised to discover how popular fish and chips were in Zimbabwe.  These recipes presumably became incorporated into the cuisine during the time when the British were in Africa, but have remained and are now part of the Zimbabwean cuilinary tapestry.
I found the Zimbo Kitchen web site very useful when researching what to include in the menu, and it was interesting to look through the wide spectrum of recipes.  In the end, it was the section of the web site dealing with the older recipes that I selected the menu from.  These dishes were all simple to prepare and followed a now familiar concept of extracting maximum flavour from relatively few ingredients.  There were more meat stews than I was expecting, but I decided to take the vegetarian route instead.  Some of the ingredients listed, especially the plants, were out of my reach, but I was still able to put a menu together that I was happy with.”

Starter:  Derere (Okra) Soup
Dee:  “I’ve tried okra many times as an ingredient in stews, but never as a main ingredient in a soup, and it was here that I experienced a whole new taste sensation.  The dish was very simple to prepare, consisting of okra, water, onion, tomato and seasoning, with bicarbonate of soda added to the water prior to the commencement of cooking.  The resulting soup was like nothing I have ever enjoyed before.  The slicing up of the okra allowed the sap to flow out and gave the soup a stringy, jelly-like texture, but with a savoury rather than sweet taste.  I’m under no illusion that this is going to have a love-it-or-hate-it effect on people who try it for the first time, but I found it tasty and also quite filling.”

Main:  Bean Curry with Rice rineDovi and Muboora
Dee:  “For the main course we put together a plate made up of a nicely balanced mix of beans, vegetables and carbs
Our taste buds were ready for the curry to be the star, with the rice and greens acting in a supporting role, but in fact it was the humble greens that proved the most enjoyable element.  Continuing the theme of careful cooking to allow great flavours to rise from the simplest ingredients, the greens offered earthy tastes from the leaves themselves, with sweet elements from the cooked tomato and onion.  We had to use spring greens instead of the specified pumpkin leaves, and as I’ve never tried the latter before I’m not sure how different the two taste, but we were very happy with the results from the spring greens.  The thick stems were removed from the leaves prior to cooking and the leaves were then finely shredded.  Bicarb was again added, which may have helped produce the semi pureed texture that we ended up with.
The bean curry, surprisingly, ended up being our side dish, but that certainly does not mean that it was inferior to the rice and greens.  It certainly wasn’t.  It was quite lightly textured and flavoured for a curry, with the vegetables retaining a fresh taste and slight crunch.  We didn’t go for a hot sauce this time, which proved to be a good call as I think that would have unbalanced the meal.
Our initial plan was to serve millet porridge with the greens and curry, but after making it and tasting it, neither of us liked it.  It was far too bitter tasting and had an unpleasant sandy texture to it.  We used millet flour rather than the grains, so perhaps we didn’t use the correct ingredients, but we needed something to replace it with.  That came in the form of peanut butter rice, which was far better.  The addition of peanut butter to the rice gave it a smoother texture and slight sweetness which complimented both the greens and the curry very well.”

Dessert:  Nhopi
Dee:  “Nhopi is supposed to be made with pumpkin, but we used butternut squash instead, which the recipe listed as being a suitable alternative.  This isn’t the first time we have enjoyed squashes as a dessert in African cuisines, and also not the first time we have paired it with peanut butter either, but we’re not complaining as the two go great together.  This was another simple dish to prepare.  The squash was boiled, then mashed, and finally enriched with the peanut butter, before being garnished with milk.  A sweet, tasty and filling end to a great meal.”

Soundtrack:  Leonard ‘Karikoga’ Zhakata – Ndingaite sei?
Dee:  “This album, from 1998, is a fast paced collection of complex melodies and rhythms, played mostly on highly tuned guitar, drums and percussion.  All the songs are lengthy affairs, the shortest being just over 7 minutes.  The songs are not structured in the way that ‘western’ songs are.  They sound more like they are developed in layers; first with the rhythms, then the guitar and finally the vocals.  An occasional trumpet also adds to the sound.  Another great accompaniment to tonight’s meal.”

And there ends our project to sample cuisines that were previously unfamiliar to us.  It’s been a fascinating few months for us, and we hope that you have enjoyed reading about our meals as much as we have enjoyed researching, cooking and of course eating them. 
We have found some great new recipes, cooking methods and ingredient combinations, and have learned much about what is cooked and eaten across the world, and listened to some great music as well.
Our curiosity with trying out new food and drink will carry on, and there remain many cuisines and cooking styles that we have yet to experience.  In fact, a book about Burmese cuisine has just found its way into our collection; so that will be another first for us.

In terms of where we go now with the blog, we’re enjoying our involvement with Tasting Jerusalem, so will be continuing with that.  There are a number of food and drink related events which we will be attending over the next few months, so there will be a few reviews on the way covering those, and we have started sketching out a new long term project, to be unveiled soon, so please do stay around.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Tasting Jerusalem #2 – Sumac

Na’ama’s Fattoush
Dee –This is where we begin the process of catching up with the rest of the group, and we have gone back to January 2013, when the first featured ingredient, Sumac, was revealed.
We have both been keen on sumac for quite some time now.  Its deep red colour and sharp citrussy taste can add an extra dimension to many savoury dishes.  It appears in several recipes in the book, either as an ingredient on its own or as part of the za’atar spice blend.
The recipe that I have chosen to showcase it in is the magnificent Fattoush on page 29, where it is the final garnish to a colourful salad containing a mix of vegetables, bread and dressing.
There can be many different interpretations of Fattoush.  Some are quite simple while others, such as this one, are more elaborate.  The list of ingredients is quite long, and the salad can take a while to prepare, especially if your preference is for finely chopped ingredients, as mine is.  But this work more than pays off as soon as the finished salad is first tasted. 
When I make this, I make the whole quantity, which serves either 6 as a side dish, or 4 as a main course for lunch.  I keep the dressing in a separate container to the dry ingredients, so that if there are any leftovers, there will be less chance of them going soggy.  This isn’t something that should be left for any longer than one day as it is all about freshness, and it loses this quite quickly.
The salad is assembled first by adding the bread to a bowl, followed by the dressing and then the vegetables.  All of this is tossed together, and the sumac is then sprinkled over the top.  It is thus given pride of place and allowed to show off its colour and retain its distinctive taste.  A fine tribute to a fine spice.

“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ebury Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to  following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook Page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest

(Please note: I have listed the UK publisher and have linked to the UK Amazon site.  The US details are provided on the web site)

Book Review: Southern Italian Family Cooking by Carmela Sophia Sereno

Before buying this book I had tried a bruschetta recipe from it which had been shared on the Carmela’s Kitchen web site: click here for link.The bruschetta was included as part of our recent ‘Evening of Verdi and Italian Country Fare’ click here for link and proved a big hit.
The theme of simple but tasty food is continued throughout the book, which has been written with a clear confidence drawn from a wealth of experience.  This is a prerequisite for any author presenting recipes for such familiar dishes as Lasagne, Pizza and Tiramisu; all now household names far beyond Italy.

As the title suggests, this is a collection of recipes which have been passed down over the years for preparing at home and served to family members both young and old.  Because a number of ‘base’ stocks and sauces are used as a starting point for many of the recipes, the task of catering for groups of diners becomes easily manageable once the initial preparation is completed.  The instructions are simple, nothing is intimidating, making this a good starting point for newcomers to Italian cucina povera (in English this is 'poor kitchen' but its true definition is of a rustic style of cooking, using the great flavours of fresh, seasonal ingredients).  In addition to the recipes themselves, there are also cook’s tips, which provide a nice extra touch.

The recipes are divided into chapters covering antipasti, savoury and sweet baking, vegetables, meats, fish, pasta and risotto.  The final chapter provides a list of recommended store cupboard essentials.  Most of what is listed here is readily available, though some of the meats and cheeses may prove tricky to find away from a good delicatessen.  That said, the list also acts a useful glossary for the new cook.
We were quite confident that the recipes would work out well, and chose a main course, a side and a baked dessert.  Jay did the cooking and managed to co-ordinate all three dishes without any problems.

For the side dish, we made Spinaci al Pomodoro (Seasonal Spinach with Crushed Tomatoes). 
We’re just at the beginning of the best season for spinach, so this recipe fitted in well with the cucina povera spirit.  It was recommended to be enjoyed with crusty bread and a glass of red wine, neither of which we had this time, but we still enjoyed it with our main courses and a glass of white wine.  The spinach, tomatoes, garlic and basil could all be tasted, and it also turned out to be just as enjoyable when eaten cold, as we discovered the next day.

For the main, we chose one of the four pizza recipes in the book: Pizza Marinara.
This cheeseless pizza is described in the book as being the first ever Neapolitan pizza, with toppings of tomato sauce, garlic and dried oregano.  Because of the relatively short ingredient list, we paid a little more for the passata used in the tomato sauce than we normally do, and the difference in taste was far greater than the difference in price.  Definitely a lesson learned there.  Another lesson, from the pages of the book was to place the pizza dough onto the baking stone before adding the toppings.  This proved a revelation for us, and we would have been happy to pay the cover price of the book for this tip alone.  We had managed to get our fully-loaded pizzas in the oven prior to this, but only by enlisting the help of liberal quantities of semolina.  
This was a seriously good pizza.  The base had a nice light texture, admittedly without the charred spotted look of pizzas baked in specialist ovens, but cut easily and had a crisp outside and softer inside.  As previously mentioned, the passata made for a fantastically rich tomato sauce.  The garlic and oregano were both distinguishable in the taste.  This proved to be another example of ingredients being allowed to deliver great flavours on their own terms.  Jay’s preference was for a pizza with mozzarella, which we made the next day, but I preferred this one.

To finish, we went for Torta con Limone e Polenta (Lemon and Polenta Cake)
Often lemon can overpower a cake but it was kept under control in this one.  I liked the crunchy texture that was provided by the polenta, and the finished cake yielded a much lighter texture than I was expecting.  It was baked in a loaf tin, and we ended up leaving it in the oven for 5 minutes longer than the time specified in the recipe, but once it was done it was a good even bake with a soft crumbly texture.  It firmed up as it cooled to room temperature, but we were so eager to try it that we cut the first slices off as soon as it was cool enough to handle.
The book recommends dunking slices of the cake into a cup of espresso coffee, but we had some mascarpone left over so mixed some icing sugar in with it and used that as a rich, sweet, creamy accompaniment.  Delicious.

Before closing it’s also worth saying a few words about the book itself.  It is a 216 page paperback with a cover price of 8.99GBP.  All of the text and illustrations are printed in black and white and there are no photographs.  Considering the size of the marketplace that recipe books now compete in, the book still manages to exude a style and charm all of its own.  The cover, with its off-white colour, illustrated logo and slightly distressed text communicate perfectly the idea that this is a collection of tried and tested family recipes.  Another plus point is that the recipes are arranged in such a way that there is no frustrating page turning with recipes which run onto more than one page.  The order of the chapters is easy to follow and the index at the back is organised by ingredient as well as by recipe.

We only sampled a few of the recipes for this review but I can say with confidence that we will be cooking from it again, and we are both very happy to welcome it into our collection.

Reviewed by Dee 20th February 2015

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Y for Yemenite Jews

Dee:  “The vast majority of Yemenite Jews now live outside of Yemen itself, but they have retained a few distinctive recipes which we felt were worth exploring. 
The dishes that we chose had simple sounding titles, but turned out to be quite complex, with a number of different textures and flavours in evidence.  The savoury elements of the meal were strong and rich tasting, further enhanced by the spice mixtures.  In contrast, the cookies and coffee that we enjoyed for dessert were more subtle and provided an almost calming effect, if such a thing can be imagined in the context of a meal, after the boldly flavoured courses that preceded them.  This contrast provided a sense of balance to the meal and although pleasantly full by the end of it, we didn’t feel over-faced.
Taken together, these recipes made for a most enjoyable meal.”

All recipes apart from the Zhoug are from ‘Arabian Delights’ by Amy Riolo

Yemeni Sweet Sabbath Bread (Kubaneh)
Dee:  “Could this have been our most ambitious baking project so far?  It was certainly a challenge, but it was central to the chapter in the book, so I knew I had to at least attempt it.  
Basically it is a yeasted bread that is baked at a low temperature in a covered pot overnight.  It is served by being broken into sections rather than in slices, and is listed as being enjoyed with eggs and tomatoes.
I added a little wholemeal flour to the dough as I was running a bit low on white flour, but otherwise used the ingredients that were listed in the recipe.  I used some of the Seville Orange marmalade that we made a few weeks ago to enrich the dough.
Unfortunately our oven doesn’t go as low as the temperature stated in the recipe, so I had to bake the bread at Gas mark 1 and hope for the best.  I ended up baking it for about six hours in total, rather than the specified eight.  It was tricky getting the timing right as I had to keep checking the dough every half hour or so to see how it was getting on.
Finally, once it was out of the oven and had cooled down, I was happy with how the loaf had turned out.  It was a little tough on the bottom, but the rich brown colour that the bread had taken on looked pleasing, and the taste was equally rich, with an interesting sweetness and fruitiness provided by the marmalade.
We enjoyed the bread first as a starter with some cherry tomatoes which we just seasoned and roasted in the oven.  This proved an excellent match.  It was a savoury dish, but with a nice balance of sweeter flavours coming through from the marmalade in the bread and the natural sugars from the roasted tomatoes.  We also added a little Zhoug to the tomatoes, to give them an extra spicy kick.”

Zhoug is a fiery hot Yemeni relish made from green chillies and a mixture of herbs and spices.  I have heard it referred to as ‘green harissa’, and although it is one of those recipes which every cook has their own version of,  I have always made mine much hotter than harissa.
There isn’t a recipe for Zhoug in the book, so this is my version of it;

6 green chillies, stalks removed
3 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic, crushed in a pestle and mortar with a little salt
10g flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
25g fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 tablespoons water

1  Grind the cardamom pods (shells and seeds), peppercorns, caraway seeds and salt together to a fine powder.
2.  Chop up the chillies, reserving the seeds, and add to a food processor with the crushed garlic herbs, water and ground spices.
3.  Blitz everything together to a fairly coarse consistency.  Do not over blitz it.
Zhoug can be added to salads, soups and stews, and pairs extremely well with tomatoes.  Be careful with this version though, as it is very hot indeed. 

Chicken Soup (Hasaa bil Dajaj)
Dee:  “This soup took quite a while to make, but was well worth the effort.  The recipe called for the chicken and vegetables to be cooked together, and then for the chicken to be cut up and returned to the strained broth.  We shredded the chicken rather than chopping it up, and found that this worked very well, ensuring that some was included in each spoonful.  The picture below shows how this looked.
However, before we served the soup, we decided to include the vegetables, so blitzed them in a food processor, then returned them back to the broth.  The results are shown below;
This made a heartier soup, and a surprisingly good winter warmer.  The flavours of the spices really came through, and the shredded chicken was still very much in evidence.  The finished soup only needed a touch more salt as it was well flavoured, and we were pleased to have plenty left over for another couple of servings each at least.”

Shortbread Cookies (Nayem)
Dee:  “The only place I have seen Nayem mentioned is in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s book ‘Jerusalem’ which describes them as a Yemenite Jewish version of the better known ‘Ghorayeba’ cookies, but with cardamom included in the ingredients and a clove, rather than an almond, garnishing each cookie.  There is a recipe for Ghorayeba in Arabian Delights which includes cardamom in the ingredient list, so I proceeded with that.  I added a little water to the dough, which wasn’t part of the recipe, but helped enormously with binding the ingredients together and also with shaping the cookies.
I baked them for 15 minutes in total, and they didn’t take too long to cool down.  The taste wasn’t as overly sweet as I was expecting, and there was only a mild spiciness considering that strongly flavoured cardamom and rose water were included.  The cookies were still a great accompaniment to the cardamom flavoured coffee that we enjoyed them with."

Soundtrack:  Ofra Haza – Fifty Gates of Wisdom/Yemenite Songs
Dee:  “This album was released in 1984 and opens with the original version of 'Im nin alu', which she had a hit single with a few years later.  The version on this album is more stripped down than the single and for me is the better for it.  This, and the albums seventh track, 'Yachlivi Veyachali' are my personal favourites.
The album is a fascinating mix of traditional sounding songs given a contemporary studio production.  As one would expect, the vocals soar and enchant, but the multiple layers of percussion are also high in the mix, sounding in parts like drumming on old oil cans and sheet metal.  There is also some electronic percussion, but this is far less noticeable.
The album contains eight songs, with most being between four and five minutes each.  They all have a similar pace but slightly different melodies.  The majority are quite happy sounding, and it is not hard to imagine them being performed with accompanying dances.
It was another good choice of soundtrack to our meal, making for a great atmosphere all round.”

Next week we reach the end of our world cuisine project, and our journey ends not too far away from Angola, where it began:  Z for Zimbabwe

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Tasting Jerusalem #1 – Turmeric

Grilled Fish Skewers with Hawayej
Dee –My first Tasting Jerusalem entry is the February 2015 ingredient, Turmeric.  I’ve often thought that if spices were school children, Turmeric would be the one that’s always tugging the teacher’s sleeve and demanding attention.  It’s strongly coloured, strongly flavoured and dyes everything yellow.  A little goes a long way: Too much of it can ruin a dish.  With this in mind, I had a good long search for a suitable recipe and eventually settled for Grilled Fish Skewers with Hawayej and Parsley (page 226).  The Turmeric is a key ingredient in the Hawayej, which is a spice mix that has its origins in Yemen.
I prepared the full quantity of Hawayej but only used half the quantity of fish, and they were fillets as well which weren’t ideal for skewering but that was all our local shop had.  I mixed up the marinade yesterday and gave the fish about 18 hours in total to marinate, which exceeded the maximum of 12 as stated in the recipe.  I also replaced some of the parsley with coriander as Jay isn’t keen on too much parsley.
Once that was done, the rest of the meal was fairly simple to prepare.  Jay was on frying duty and also took care of the Rice and Orzo (page 103) that we love so much and thought would go well with the fish, while I prepared the Yoghurt with Cucumber (page 299) and a simple salad of finely chopped red onion, quartered miniature plum tomatoes, red wine vinegar and olive oil.
Jay cooked the fish on the skewers but as we suspected, it was a little too thin and delicate to withstand much turning.  It cooked fairly quickly though, and a pleasing mix of crunchiness on the outside with a softer texture was achieved.  We had to de-skewer the fish to serve it, and had some marinade left over, so we cooked it up with a little lemon juice and used it as a nice garnish for the fish, along with some coriander leaves.  Neither of these flourishes were specified in the recipe but they made the fish look better and added to the taste.
The minted yoghurt went nicely with the spicy fish, as did the rice and orzo.  The salad provided a fresh and sharp dimension to the meal, and we added about half a teaspoon of Zhoug (page 301) for an extra kick.
We both loved this meal, with its contrasting textures and flavours, and once the marinade had been sorted out, it was fairly quick and easy to prepare.  Perfect for lunch.
This was a great start, and we are both looking forward to next week’s Taste of Jerusalem.
One final note:  If this write-up was of interest, we are cooking a Yemenite-Jewish meal tomorrow, so look out for the accompanying blog enty."

“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ebury Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to  following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook Page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest

(Please note: I have listed the UK publisher and have linked to the UK Amazon site.  The US details are provided on the web site)

Tasting Jerusalem - Introduction

Dee – The Tasting Jerusalem project was devised by a team of food bloggers in the United States, who have been working their way through Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s ‘Jerusalem’ book, cooking recipes from it and engaging in discussions about the recipes and cooking styles.
Each month, one ingredient is selected, and recipes chosen which the selected ingredient plays a central role in.
As a long-time fan of Levantine cuisine and more recently Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty’ books, I decided that this would be a great project to get behind, so will be cooking and blogging about each new ingredient as it is revealed.
The project has been running for a while now, with the first post that I can find dating back to January 2013, so I’m joining quite some way down the line.  However, it would be a real shame to miss out on what has gone before, so I’m going to be playing catch-up for a good few months.  What that means in terms of blog updates is that I’ll be putting up one ‘new’ entry and maybe a couple of ‘back capture’ entries each month, depending on all the usual factors.  Then, once I’m in line with everyone else, and if the project is still running of course, I will switch to just ‘new’ entries each month.  If that made no sense, don’t worry, it will be much clearer once I’ve put a few blog entries up.

For anyone reading who might be interested in joining the project, the text below provides all the relevant links;

“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ebury Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to  following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook Page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest

(Please note: I have listed the UK publisher and have linked to the UK Amazon site.  The US details are provided on the web site)

Monday, 9 February 2015

X for Xinjiang Region, China

Dee:  “The landlocked province of Xinjiang is located in the North West of China, and shares borders with a number of Central Asian countries, and also Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and the fascinating cuisine of the region contains elements of all of them.  It is meat and carb heavy, with much use being made of strong spices, sauces and marinades.
There are a number of recipes documented on line, and it was quite difficult choosing just one starter, one main course and one dessert.  I was particularly sad to have to leave out a dish of lamb cooked with pomegranate molasses.  It was quite a surprise to find pilaf, kebabs, yoghurt and flatbreads included in Chinese recipes and I wanted to include some of these elements in the menu.
I was happy with what we settled on.  The meal was most enjoyable, and we were pleasantly full by the end of it.  I would go so far as to say that this has been one of my favourite menus so far and am looking forward to try out some more recipes.  Perhaps that lamb with pomegranate molasses.”
Starter:  Grilled Xinjiang Lamb Kebabs with Yogurt
Dee:  “This simple recipe provided a great idea for the starter, even though we made one or two changes to it, first by using minced beef instead of lamb chunks, then by mixing all of the ingredients together, rather than in stages, prior to cooking.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to grill them on a barbeque so had to make do with cooking them first in the oven, then crisping them up in a frying pan.  Not quite the same flavour I know, but we enjoyed them nonetheless.  There was plenty of flavour from both the meat and the spices, which could all be tasted in the finished dish.”

Bread:  Uyghur Neng (Nan) With Cumin and Onion
Dee:  “The Uyghurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang and are of Turkic, rather than Han Chinese, descent and this bread, along with the kebabs, forms part of their culinary identity.
I wanted to include bread in this menu partly because I love to bake bread, and partly because it was unusual to see bread featured so prominently in a cuisine which I had assumed relied on rice as its staple.
The main problem I had with recreating this bread exactly from the recipe was that my oven wasn’t hot enough.  I tried baking the bread in the oven at its maximum temperature for a little longer but wasn’t happy with how it turned out, so tried cooking the breads in the frying pan instead.  This proved much more successful, and the resulting breads are the ones featured in the picture.  The oven baked ones were still edible, but were strategically placed underneath the more successful pan cooked ones in the photo.  I also decided to mix the chopped onions and cumin seeds into the dough rather than using them as a garnish, as I was a little concerned that they might burn.  This proved successful and gave the breads that little bit more flavour.”

Main:  Da Pan Ji (Big Plate Chicken)
Dee:  “This was listed as a popular dish in Xinjiang and appeared a number of times while I was researching the menu, and after sampling it for the first time, it was easy to see why.  Hearty and filling, containing two lots of carbs in the form of noodles and potato, with a sauce enriched by soy sauce and shaoxing rice wine, it proved a surprisingly good winter warmer.  The addition of star anise and sugar provided a distinctive sweetness to compliment the pepper and salt of the soy sauce.  Instead of serving the chicken on top of the noodles, as stated in the recipe, we stirred the whole lot together, which allowed the noodles to take on more of the flavour of the sauce.  Delicious.”

Dessert:  Nut Cake
Dee:  “I kept reading about a street food called Matang while researching the menu, and after seeing pictures of vendors selling slices of it from huge cakes which they transported on bicycles, I just had to try it.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find a single recipe for it anywhere, so was left to try and create it myself, based on the photos in the articles and the accompanying commentaries.  I didn’t let this stop me though and set to work creating my own recipe.  An initial attempt at creating something that I thought would resemble the photos was unsuccessful, but I managed to save all the ingredients by returning them to the mixing bowl, adding flour water and egg and going again.
The recipe that follows can’t really be called matang, but it does contain lots of nuts, and also Goji Berries, which are heavily cultivated in Xinjiang.
If I ever do find a recipe for matang I will be more than happy to revisit this blog entry and make it.  I’m sure I will love it, but this will have to suffice for now.  While it lacks absolute authenticity I certainly think it delivers on taste.  Sweet, nutty and slightly sticky.  So, this is what I used and how I made it;

Nut Cake
  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1 cup ground almonds
  • ½ cup pistachios
  • ½ cup cashews
  • ½ cup peanuts
  • ½ cup goji berries (heavily cultivated in Xinjiang)
  • 1 ½ cups butter
  • 1 cup honey
  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 5g salt
  • 1 egg
  • 100g water
  • Preheat the oven to 180/350 degrees.
  • Mix dry ingredients together and stir.
  • Heat the butter and honey and mix until combined.
  • Bake this mixture for 15 minutes, then leave to cool.
  • Measure the flour out into a bowl and mix in the butter/honey/nut mixture.
  • Add the eggs and water and mix to form the cake batter.  (Use a wooden spoon for this.  Don’t bother trying to do it by hand, it will be far too wet).
  • Tip the mixture out into a 21cm square cake tin lined with baking sheet or baking parchment, and smooth it out so that it covers the base of the tin and is smooth on top.
  • Bake for 35 minutes, then if necessary in additional 20 minute stages until a skewer comes out clean and hot when poked into the middle of the cake.
  • Leave the mixture to cool completely in the tin.
  • When cooled, cut into squares and serve.

Soundtrack:  The Uyghur Musicians of Xinjiang – Music from the Oasis Towns of Central Asia
Dee:  “In keeping with the diverse nature of the food we sampled, the music contained on this album was also distinct from what I would normally consider to be traditional Chinese music.  This was more like a natural fusion of Chinese and Central Asian sounds.  There were a number of different instruments featured on the songs, including percussion, stringed instruments plucked, strummed and played with a bow, one sounding like a deeply tuned sitar, a wind instrument that sounded like something you’d expect to hear in Turkey, and vocals, occasionally female but mostly male.  The songs were all quite folky and raw sounding and I imagined them to be all quite old.
I would listen to it again, though probably as a backdrop to my next Xinjiang-themed meal rather than on its own.”

Next week we will be covering another cuisine within a cuisine:  Y for Yemenite Jews

Burns Night Feast 25th January 2015

Dee:  “I’d been looking forward to this feast, as it felt like a continuation of what we had begun on New Year’s Eve.  It was great to find some more Scottish beers to accompany the food, and we were both happily full by the end of the evening.”

To Eat:  Burns Supper

Starter:  Scottish Oatcake Biscuits with onion marmalade
Dee:  “The inspiration for the starter came from one of my favourite Graze boxes; ‘Bonnie Wee Oatbakes’.  I loved the pairing of the oatcake biscuits and sweet but caramelised onion marmalade, and wanted wanted to see if I could make my own version.  I am grateful to Sarah Bailey for providing the recipe for the oatcake biscuits, which worked well.  I baked the dough in a single layer, which I then broke into pieces, rather than diving it up into individual biscuits prior to baking.  The dough was much easier to manage than the previous version, and I liked the idea of flipping the dough at regular intervals during the baking process.  I was pleased with the finished product, which retained a slight chewiness and flavour from the oats.
The onion marmalade was superb.  The key was to cook it slowly at a low temperature.  We were pleased that we made enough to bottle it and use it in future meals but we both agreed soon after tasting it that we were going to keep a fairly regular stock of it in our kitchen.”

Main Course:  Haggis, Neeps and Tatties
Home Cooked
Dee:  “We kept the main course simple as it didn’t need a lot of fuss to prepare it.  The haggis, which was made by Ramsay of Carluke Ltd, Link to Web Site was of very good quality and didn’t need a lot of spices or seasonings to help deliver on taste.  For the neeps and tatties, we simply peeled them, cut them into cubes, boiled them and mashed them, adding a little butter to the potatoes.  No messing about: just a good hearty plate of food, worthy of the toast of single malt whisky which preceeded it.”

Dessert:  Cranachan
Dee:  “This was the first time I’d tried cranachan, so was pleased that it was fairly straightforward to prepare.  I liked the toasted oats, which complimented the softer whipped cream and raspberries.  We mixed the honey and whisky together to make one of the sauces, and mixed sugar in with the crushed raspberries to make the other.  We assembled it in layers; cream, oats, raspberries and sauce, before finishing with the last of the oats.  On reflection, the glasses that we used were too large, but that didn’t detract from the taste.  A classic dessert, deservedly so.”

To Drink:  Four Scottish Craft Beers

Beer 1:  Vital Spark
Tasting Notes said:  “A very dark ale with a glorious reddish glow.  A full bodied ale which is rich in taste with a dry finish.”
Dee said:  “Nice mahogany colour.  Bitter, rich and flavourful.”
Jay said:  “Nice beer.  A little bitter on the finish.”

Beer 2:  Fyne Bank
Tasting Notes said:  “Fyne Bank is a peat smoked golden ale that has been brewed in collaboration with Springbank Distillery.  Springbank’s malt is lightly peated and provides a subtle earthy smokiness to the beer.  Mount Hood hops add warm spiced orange to thearoma that’s balanced with toffee notes from the malt ”.
Dee said:  “Clear golden in colour.  Unique earthy taste.  Definitely more peaty than smoky.  It was a perfect pairing with our haggis, neeps and tatties.”
Jay said:  “Subtly smoky tasty ale.”

Beer 3:  Red Rocker
Tasting Notes said:  “Why Red Rocker? Well the Black Isle is famous for its masses of red rock through its soils, and also it has some really cool bike trails right next to the brewery! With an awesome name like Red Rocker we had to devise a beer to match – what better than a red rye based beer hopped to hell and back with American hops in the kettle and the dry hopped with a mix of American and New Zealand hops after fermentation for good measure!  With a malt base containing rye to create a subtly sweet and solid backbone we were able to use some big resinous hops in this beer. We used a mix of Columbus, Summit, Cascade, and Nelson Sauvin to give big bold flavours and a solid bitterness to the beer.”
Dee said:  “Another mahogany coloured beer.  This one was heavy on the hops.”
Jay said:  “Woah! That’s got a lively first taste.  Definitely bottle conditioned.  Needed a careful pour.”

Beer 4:  Panacea
Tasting Notes said:  “A rich stout made with a Belgian yeast strain and aged in whisky cask (Speyside) for four months.”
Dee said:  “Black as pitch. With a strong, sweet aroma.  Smoother tasting than I was expecting.  It had a strong flavour of espresso coffee, followed by a vanilla-like sweetness.  Because it was so big on taste, I would recommend drinking it on its own.”
Jay said:  “Sweet, then malty, then whisky.”

Soundtrack:  Nazareth – No Mean City
Dee:  “A slice of awesome late 70s hard rock to celebrate Burns Night in style.  I haven’t heard all of Nazareth’s albums, but I certainly remember this one, and what a classic it is.  Dan McCafferty’s high pitched yet gritty vocals work brilliantly with the twin guitars of Manny Charlton and Zal Cleminson, and a tight rhythm section underpinning the whole sound.  There are many standout tracks; the laid back semi acoustic ‘may the sunshine’ is probably my favourite, but the anthemic ‘Star’ and piledriving rhythms of ‘claim to fame’ are also highlights.  The six and a half minute title track closed the album off in fine form, making for a good eatin’ good drinkin’ and good rockin’ evening all round.”

Sunday, 8 February 2015

An evening of Verdi and Italian Country Fare

Dee:  The idea for this blog entry originated on Tuesday evening during a chat with fellow food bloggers about favourite recipes using figs.  My mention of a pasta dish that I was fond of which featured them alongside prosciutto drew much interest, so I promised to do a write up about it.  That quickly grew into a menu, to which Carmela’s excellent bruschetta was added.
There are two great recipes here, nothing too complicated and no lengthy cooking required, and with accompanying soundtrack, to bring a bit of Italy to the table on a cold winter’s evening.

Starter:  La mia Bruschetta con ciabatta (My bruschetta with ciabatta)
Dee:  I found this recipe while browsing Carmela’s web site with a view to purchasing her new recipe book ‘Southern Italian Family Cooking’.  At first glance it appeared to be a fresher and healthier version of a jarred condiment containing sun dried tomatoes, olives, capers and garlic all submerged in olive oil that we buy from the local shop, and we both love making our own dips so this one looked promising.
We had most of a jar of rocket pesto which needed using up and after a quick trip to the shop at the top of the road to buy the remaining ingredients we were good to go.  That’s actually part of this recipe’s appeal.  It can be made quickly, as there is no cooking involved, and with ingredients which are easy to obtain.  We chopped the ingredients up fairly small, as we prefer them that way, but they won’t suffer too much for being a little chunkier as the pesto does a good job binding them together.
We enjoyed this with some dried wafer thin bread slices, which are ideal for either bruschetta or scooping up dips. 
This proved a great recipe.  All of the ingredients were distinguishable on the palate, with a nice mix of smooth and crunchy textures from the raw vegetables and the pesto, and it had the freshness that I initially thought it would.  It’s versatile enough to be used in salads, as a dip, a relish or a bruschetta topping, and it was tempting not to just sit there eating it with a spoon once the bread was gone.”

Main:  Penne con Prosciutto e Fichi (Penne with Prosciutto and Figs)
Recipe from ‘The Opera Lover’s Cookbook’ by Francine Segan
Dee:  It was the inclusion of figs in a savoury pasta dish that first drew me to this recipe, and loved it from the first time I tried it.  It’s one of the simpler recipes from the Opera Lover’s Cookbook, which, I have to say, is more at home in the lounge than the kitchen.  Beautifully bound and presented with interesting pairings of food, drinks and opera, and some good ideas for themed menus, but you would not want to get tomato sauce splashed onto the pages.  The recipes also tend to be quite complex, with lots of ingredients which are a bit of a challenge for the home cook to obtain, but this one is quick, practical and distinctive.
Penne with prosciutto and figs has become one of my favourite pasta dishes.  As I said, it is easy and fairly quick to prepare, looks elegant and has a dazzling mix of sweet, savoury, peppery and rich flavours. 
To make it, cut some dried figs into slices, cover them with white wine and leave them to rehydrate while cooking the pasta.  The recipe calls for penne, which I used this time, but tagliatelle also works well.  While the pasta is cooking, cut a few shallots into slices and saute them in some oil or butter in a large sauce pan.  When they are translucent, add the wine and figs and stir to deglaze the pan.  Add enough chicken stock to make a sauce.  I personally don’t think a lot of sauce is needed so I don’t add much stock at all.  Once the stock is in, simmer the sauce until it reaches the desired consistency.  Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and stir it into the sauce.  Garnish with slices of prosciutto, shavings of parmesan, chopped pistachios and pink peppercorns.  There is no need to season the dish as the prosciutto and parmesan contain salt and the peppercorns are part of the garnish.  I like to tear my prosciutto up into smaller bits but it can go on in whole slices, whatever takes your fancy.  And that’s it.  Done.

To finish we had figs again, fresh ones this time, quartered and drizzled with a tiny amount of balsamic vinegar and served with some creamy white goat’s cheddar cheese." 

A note on the wine
Dee: "Fiona Beckett, the Guardian’s wine columnist, pairs figs and parma ham with a wine called Parma Hills Malvasia, which I’ve not heard of before.  The tasting notes describe it as “Intense and aromatic to the nose, with notes of flowers and savoury herbs, it is dry on the palate endowed with excellent structure and lengthy persistence.”, and the serving suggestion state that it is “Magnificent to accompany all preparations with an aromatic base tending to the sweet.”  It’s also highly recommended with fish, seafood and vegetable dishes.  A quick internet search didn’t reveal any stockists nearby, but it’s definitely one to seek out for next time I prepare this meal."

Soundtrack:  Verdi’s Falstaff
Dee: "Our musical accompaniment was the Opera Lover’s Cook book’s recommended pairing for the figs and penne.  As a comedic opera, it wasn’t too intense and matched the fresh, unfussy food very well.  We don’t tend to listen to operas at home and have never seen one performed on stage but it was nice to have this one on while we enjoyed our meal."

Sunday, 1 February 2015

W for Western Sahara

Dee:  “This was one of the most difficult cuisines to research and prepare a menu from.  There were only about four recipes that I could find; a beef tagine being the one not included here. 
I was surprised that the recipes lacked any spices, but the simplicity of the food and the great taste of particularly the Mreifisa made for a good meal.  We enjoyed a few small cups of sweetened mint tea with the food.  We didn’t make it as sweet as it is in Western Sahara, and we were too nervous to pour it into the glasses from a high enough distance to form a frothy head, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.”

Starter:  Stuffed Potatoes
Dee:  “At first glance at the ingredients and recipe for this dish, it didn’t remind me of the Sahara at all.  Perhaps it was developed when the region was under Spanish rule, or perhaps it was served to hotel or restaurant guests.  Whatever its origin, we pressed ahead with it.  We altered the recipe slightly by including the potato flesh in with the beef, tomato and sour cream as we didn’t want to waste it and didn’t know what else to do with it.  Unfortunately this turned out to have been an error of judgment on our part.  The potato suffocated the other ingredients and made for far too bland a taste, even after we increased the quantity of sour cream and seasoning.  It was also quite filling for a starter.  If we make this again we'll follow the recipe more closely and then see what, if anything, needs amending.”

Main:  Mreifisa
Dee:  “This was a real revelation.  Traditionally, camel meat is used, but we made it with lamb instead, which was described as an acceptable substitute in the recipe.  We went for a shoulder of lamb, some on the bone and some off, which was slow cooked with onion, garlic water and salt, then served on a flatbread, which soaked up the sauce.  It was simple to prepare but needed plenty of time to cook, and we found that turning the shoulder at regular intervals helped it along.  When it was finished, most of the liquid had reduced down and the meat was easy to scrape off the bones.  The taste was deliciously meaty with a soft texture and slight sweetness from the onions.  It worked perfectly with the bread, so much so that I don’t think any other pairing would be able to cope with it.”

Dessert:  Wafer Crepes
Dee:  “This is another recipe that we tweaked slightly.  With this one, we thinned the batter out and made it into pancakes rather than crepes.  The only reason was that we don’t have one of those things that you flatten out crepe batter with.  Not sure what they are called.  The finished pancakes were enjoyable and not as sweet as I was expecting.  We enjoyed them with some lemon juice and vanilla sugar.”

Soundtrack:  Aziza Brahim - Soutak
Dee:  “We both enjoyed this album very much.  It was released in 2013, and contains gentle percussive rhythms, acoustic guitar and female vocal.  The majority of the songs seem to merge traditional North West African sounds with a Spanish feel, due to the acoustic guitar, and a subtle jazzy-bluesy element.  The stripped-down ‘Aradana’ is an interesting track, featuring just vocals and drums, but my favourite on the album is the haunting ‘Julud’.  A nice album to listen to in a tent in the desert or watching waves lapping a beach at sunset.  And also of course, while enjoying Mint Tea and Mreifisa.”

Dee:  “We knew the letter X was going to need some consideration, so we started thinking about it a couple of weeks ago.  As there are no countries beginning with X, we’re covering instead the cuisine of a region:  Xinjiang in North Western China.”