Tired of cooking the same handful of meals each week, I enrolled on an international cookery course.
The course may have ended, but it's just whetted my appetite....

Join me on a weekly visit to the cuisines of the world, countries from A to Z, and back again!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

T is for Thailand

Where we're going this evening - Thailand

Somewhere else that I am having to look up on the map.  It turns out that Thailand, home of the phonetically funny city of Phuket (that is, if you have the sense of humour of a ten year old), and capital of a thousand innuendos in Bankok is right over by the Philippines where we were a few weeks ago.

It's a on peninsula along with Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanamar, all of which I tend to lump together with a vague 'far east' label.

What I do know about this area is mostly from the Next-doors who enjoy travelling the region very much, and tend to head off with huge rucksacks in that direction for some weeks most summers, like a pair of over-age teenagers on a gap year.

Mind you, although they do stay in some places which are cheaper (with arguably fewer facilities) than the cattery where their two mogs spend their time, they also like their comfort and send back pics via wi-fi from envy-inducing luxurious tropical retreats. 

So what makes Thailand stand out from the crowd...

Thailand has about the same population as the UK, but is about twice the size.  It used to be called Siam until it changed it's name to Thailand in 1939, then back to Siam, then back to Thailand where it seems to have settled since 1949. The name change will confuse anyone watching The Lady and the Tramp song 'We are Siamese, if you please' or watching The King and I in which the King was that of Siam.

The middle ages saw the rise and fall of various Buddhist empires and powerhouses (and there was me thinking that Buddhist were all peace loving), with Thailand becoming a great trading state with the (inevitable) arrival of those great respecters of other peoples' land, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and the good old English.

Astonishingly (given the Empirical tendencies of those above), Thailand was not colonised - the only nation on the peninsular to have retained independence.  Well, good for you, Thailand!  They managed to keep their own affairs to themselves, remaining as a buffer between those countries colonised by the French and those that the British Empire had their mitts on.

These days all is broadly democratic - despite a few hiccups; and Thailand is an 'emerging economy; with a staggering growth rate of 4-5% in recent years (compared to recession in most Western countries) and an unemployment rate of less than 1%. Blimey.

Thailand is a tropical country with natural assets which encourage tourism as well as a rich cultural heritage.  Let's explore more, as we say Sawat dee kah to our Thai hosts, and see what's to eat tonight...

Tonight's Menu...

So what does your average Thai eat?  Well, off the top of my head, I'd say that Thai green curry, and Thai red curry have got to be contenders, but I see that 'lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components' sums it up (thank you Wikipedia).

Well that sounds pretty easy - but looking at the list of ingredients in some of the Thai recipes on line, I started to worry that the ingredients were not going to be easy for me to find here - so I started off with a complete swizz and a cheat, buying a culinary kit to make my first dish a bit easier.

But looking further into the lightly prepared dishes bit, I can see that as long as I have lime, chilies (sweet tai dipping sauce) and fish sauce (called Nam Pla), then I'm in.

I did struggle, though, for a traditional Thai sweet - even when I consulted the Next-doors, there was nothing that they could say that they had eaten which was 'typical' unless I counted the delicious fresh fruit - so tonight, we are all savoury.

Pad Thai Curry - kit from thaitaste.co.uk

Soak noodles in boiling water for a few minutes.  Meanwhile, stir fry prawns/seafood (can use chicken, pork or veg here), then break an egg in the pan and lightly scramble.  Add noodles and sauce supplied, heat through and stir well to combine.

Thai Chicken cakes with sweet chilli sauce - recipe from BBC Good Food

Blitz chicken breasts, garlic, ginger, onion, coriander, chilli & seasoning until well mixed.  Make into cake shapes & shallow fry.  Serve hot with sweet chilli sauce, lime wedges coriander, green salad leaves & shredding spring onion

Thai Beef stir fry - recipe from BBC Good Food

Stir fry beef strips & chopped chilli. Add fish sauce, until sauce is warmed through and the beef is coated.  Serve with rice (I used jasmine rice)

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • To use a big plate for Thai Taste kits - there is a serious amount of food going on here.  If this is indicative of portion size in Thailand, all Thais must be the size of a barn.
  • That the instruction 'put noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water' should read 'put noodles individually in a large saucepan and cover with plenty of boiling water and agitate freely to separate' unless you want your reconstituted noodle strips to resemble a solid noodle block.
  • If you omit the seasoning on your chicken cakes, they will taste of nothing at all, despite the inclusion of all other ingredients, and copious quantities of dipping sauce
  • That the use of just one 'different' ingredient can totally alter the way a dish tastes compared to expectations
  • Not to give in to misgivings that jasmine rice will taste unpleasantly like chewing flower petals.  Palma violets as a child have an awful lot to answer for

And out of 10?

  • for the Pad Thai Curry - a reasonable 5/10 - the seafood and sauce very tasty, the stuck together noodles definitely to be avoided next time.
  • for the Chicken Cakes - a so-so 5/10 - you would think that this would have had a bit more get up and go about it - but I could have been eating slightly hot sponge for all this tasted of chicken.
  • for the beef stir fry - a very tasty 8/10 - definitely the hit of the night.  The most simple thing in the world to prepare, and the jasmine rice an excellent complement.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

S is for Spain

Where we're going this evening - Spain

Now here we are on more familiar territory.  In my not-so-well-travelled life, I have been abroad many times, but in all but two instances, that has always been to Spain (or more accurately to Tenerife).

I love it - so much so that I have spent more years than I care to think about (and certainly more money than I dare think about) attending night classes in order to learn Spanish.  The ol' grey matter is not cut out for languages, though, and despite working hard and gaining a GCSE along the way, something refuses to 'click'.  I can read a newspaper (generally), and order food - and even write a letter, but don't try to talk to me in Spanish unless you want me to look back at you blankly.  Hey ho.

That does not stop me appreciating the good food - and the weather isn't too shoddy either - so what else do we know about Spain?

About twice the size of the UK, Spain has just about three quarters of the UK's population.  It is occupies a prominant possition to the west of Europe with borders to France and Portugal, and it's but a short hop across the Strait of Gibralter to north Africa.

In the late middle ages when it was very fashionable to jump on a boat and claim the first bit of land you came to as yours, the Spanish where right up there with the Brits 'exploring' the world - which is why so much of South America has Spanish as their first language.  In fact, Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the world.

Spain is a Catholic country, a Monarchy and has a well developed economy.  Well, it is now - Spain was troubled by a civil war in the early 1930's after which General Franco ruled for the next thirty years.  Once he died in 1975, the monarchy was restored, economic growth flourished, and even those troublesome regions always wanting to go it alone settled down with some autonomous rule agreed.

More recently, Spain has joined in with the rest of Europe, and enjoyed good income from tourism - although what with property prices having a serious hiccup, corruption at local government level and a world recession affecting tourism, things aren't so good for the Spanish now.

Mind you, part of the problem, it seems to me, that in common with some of the Greeks and Italians, certain sections of the Spanish population think that taxes are something that happen to other people, but then wonder why there is no money in the pot to pay out for pensions, schools, hospitals, infrastructure etc etc.

Whilst this rumbles on, at least there is a fine climate to enjoy, and the food is terrific - so lets say hola to our Spanish amigos and see what's on the menu...

Tonight's Menu...

The national dish of paella - short grain slow cooked rice with meat/fish/seafood - is a cert here, but it is difficult to choice what else to cook, as we are severely spoilt for choice.

In the end, I decided to put a number of tapas dishes together, and thought about  the ones that I most enjoy eating when I am away.  Tapas are small dishes traditionally served in bars with a drink - like a small dish of nuts, or a cube or two of tortilla; olives; or maybe a bit of chorizo and cheese.  Tapas as we know it now is a bit more substantial - if the traditional portion can be likened to going to he pub and having a bag of crisps with your pint, the modern day tapas is more like having a sandwich at the bar, and a bowl of chips too.

Let's see how we get on.

Paella - recipe from my head
Coat paella rice with oil in a wide pan, then add chopped onion, sweet peppers and garlic and fry until fragrant.  Meanwhile keep a pan of stock/white wine just warm on the hob.  Gradually add the stock/wine to the rice, ladle at a time & let the rice absorb.  Once nearly soft, add fish pieces/prawns/cooked white meat/peas.  Give it all a stir & serve with crusty bread.

Tapas - recipes from 'Tapas' by Love Food from Parragon books
Spanish potatoes - fry halved new potatoes in a little oil with sliced onion and sweet pepper.  Add a little chili & mustard then add passata and stock and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender.
Sauteed garlic mushrooms - sautee mushrooms & garlic in olive oil, leave on a low heat until cooked then add a squeeze of lemon & serve in a dish with a sprinkle of parsley
Garlic tomatoes - halve small tomatoes, place cut side up in a roasting dish, tuck in thyme sprigs and garlic cloves.  Drizzle with olive oil and roast  until tomatoes begin to char.  Squeeze garlic over tomatoes & serve with parsley garnish.
Prawns in garlic oil - fry chopped garlic and hot chilis in briefly in oil then add large prawns.  Keep turning prawns till coated with oil and heated through.  Give a squeeze of lemon and serve with crusty bread
Albondigas (meat balls) - mix beef/pork mince with breadcrumbs, an egg, milk and grated parmesan with nutmeg, salt and pepper.  Make into small balls & saute.  Add sauce (made of chopped tomatos, onions, & basil) and simmer until meatballs are cooked.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Overcooking paella rice will make your final dish not dissimilar to a savoury rice pudding.
  • There is something to be said for putting more wine in the glass, and less in the paella.  After all, the paella is pretty happy to have veg stock used instead, which cannot be said for my wine glass
  • Albondigas as made by mama in the Tenerifian kitchen do not taste like the ones I made tonight.  I should have stuck with my first instinct which was to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the mention of including parmesan cheese. 
  • The Spanish like garlic - and it's a good job that I do too, as I reek of the stuff, as does my kitchen, clothes and will do for ages yet, I suspect.
  • Small portions of a lot of different stuff is a faff, even if each dish is pretty simple to make
  • Not to neglect the drink - just because I knew that I wasn't going to do a sweet for this evening's dishes, I missed a prime opportunity to made a whacking great jug of sangria.  Or maybe it wouldn't taste the same without the sea/beach/sun? In the interests of research, I should have given it a whirl. 

And out of 10?

  • for the paella - a tasty 8/10 - this marred only by the fact that I overcooked the rice slightly - although the mixed smoked fish, meat and prawns were delicious
  • for the tapas - a solid 7/10 - the prawns (not shown) were particularly good and very much akin to the 'real thing' - also the potatoes similarly authentic in taste (although they could have been spicier).  The mushrooms & tomatoes were great, and so easy.  The whole was let down slightly by the albondigas - I know that each kitchen will have it's own favourite recipe, but really - what was I thinking with parmesan cheese?  Certainly worth trying to find a recipe to give a more familiar taste. Or I could just go back to Tenerife.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

R is for Russia

Where we're going this evening - Russia

Having been to some smaller countries recently, we are now going to somewhere MASSIVE in the shape of Russia.  In fact, Russia is the largest country in the world, beating Canada into second place.  It is a whopping seventy times the size of the UK, but with only two and a half times the population of the UK, Russia can be a lonely place to be.

When thinking of Russia, two things pop into my mind - it's bloody cold, and they all drink vodka.  Of course, this is a huge generalisation - but a flick through Russian recipes does seem to have a common vodka theme, and I don't recall any big brands of Russian sunwear.

After a lot of feudal fighting in the middle ages, Russia settled down under the leadership of Michael Romanov, and remained under Romanov rule - with some family spats - for the next 300 years. But it all blew up with the first world war - Russia was not prepared for the fight, and was left in a state of economic and political collapse, culminating in the overthrow (and execution) of the monarchy, and the bolshevik uprising in 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Union.

Communism and rigid state intervention remained the order of the day until the early 1980's when in an attempt to stimulate economic growth, political constraints were loosened.  This gave a voice to the disgruntled, leading to reform and the break away of former Soviet states and to the dissolution of the Soviet Union some 20 years ago.  This now leaves the country in a complicated federal system with some semi autonomous regions, and some not, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin - a man who hasn't let democracy get in the way of being in the top job for the past decade or so.

Vast and sparsely populated as Russia can be, it's not all peasants herding their goats on the steppes and living in yurts - Russia is the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world, and is therefore rather rich, and has the ninth largest economy in the world and is expanding rapidly.

Russia does culture rather well too.  The architecture is breathtaking - all those onion domes in Red Square - and the Bolshoi Ballet, not to mention composers Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The Russians like their sport too - ice hocky, football and basketball are all popular.

Famous Russians - apart from the historical figures of Lenin, Stalin, Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great - include actor Yul Brynner, Anna Kournikova the tennis player, and of course Rudolf Nureyev.

And who can forget Rasputin, the anti-hero, as made famous by Boney M...

And what of the food?  We can expect lots of hearty warming dishes - after all, the winters are long - and yes, vodka is often on the table to accompany the evening meal.

That all sounds pretty promising, so let's don our ushankas (that's those cosy fur hats with the ear flaps) and say  Приветw to the Russians...

Tonight's Menu...

I have a good choice of hearty Russian dishes to try, but by absolute chance, last weekend the restaurant review in the Daily Telegraph was for a Russian joint called Mari Vanna, and so I took my cue from there.  Golubtsi is one of those dishes with a thousand variations, however the basic premise is minced beef/veal/pork mixed with variety of herbs/pepper and breadcrumbs/oatmeal/potato then wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked in a mushroom/tomato sauce or stock.

That dish was happy to be accompanied by green salad and bread, but what to do about a sweet?  I chose this cake recipe because the author says 'we used to eat this on Christmas Eve when I lived in Russia'.  How charming!

Mind you, just because this is what happened in that household is not necessarily indicative of Russia as a whole, I guess.  After all, it is a tradition in our house to have something called a Fred Time (i.e. shorthand for a cup of tea, as popularised by the Bernard Cribbins 1962 hit, Right Said Fred ', which featured the recurring line, 'had a cup of tea'....).

Growing up, I had no inkling this phrase was not common parlance, and was mystified when I used it in the first week or two of secondary school to blank stares, just as we were all getting our pecking order sorted out.  I suspect that I never recovered from the status of 'a bit odd' in the eyes of some.  But there ya go.

However - onwards and upwards...

Golubtsi (Russian Cabbage Rolls) - recipe from food.com
Soften cabbage in boiling water & separate leaves. Remove hard stalks.  Meanwhile, mix beef/pork mince, grated potato, oatmeal soaked on milk, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, ginger, dill, parsley, horseradish and minced garlic.

Put a tablespoonful of the meat mixture in each cabbage leaf and roll up.  lace in a casserole dish.  Make a sauce of condensed mushroom soup, water, tomato puree, tobasco & Worcestershire sauce.  Pour over the cabbage rolls & bake for an hour in a medium oven.

Yacklavach - recipe from ruscuisine.com
Blend a little butter with brown sugar.  Beat in eggs, lukewarm water, flour, and - oh yes - a whole heap of vodka.

Pour the batter into a lined cake tin or muffin cases & back  until golden. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Meatballs are meatballs, wherever in the world you go.  These are padded out with grated potato and oats rather than breadcrumbs, but plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say in France.
  • Wrapping mince in cabbage leaves does make for handy portions - although it all tastes a bit -uh - cabbagy if you overcook/reheat the dish.
  • Trying to cream 6oz of soft brown sugar with just over an ounce of butter is always going to be hard going.  Not so much creamed, as grainy.
  • The proportion of liquid to creamed sugar/butter/egg/flour makes for a creamy batter.  
  • Adding a goodly amount of vodka to the mix makes transffering the (now sloppy) batter to muffin trays an eye-watering experience
  • Vodka might be flavourless, but a good party game is asking your guests to guess the mystery ingredient.  First to get it right is an alcoholic wins.Actually, I suspect that the alcohol 'bakes out' - or I could be pulled over for being 3-buns-over-the-limit...?

And out of 10?

  • for the golubsti - a reasonable 6/10 - the mince mixture is good, but this doesn't do much more for me that meatballs do.  It has give me a couple of ideas to spice up meatballs though - and actually, the sauce was very nice.
  • for the yacklavach - a tasty 7/10 - actually, although these little buns (served warm with ice-cream) did have a certain 'something', they were put me more in mind of a sweet cake in the manner of a ginger cake than of alcohol.  

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Q is for Qatar

Where we're going this evening - Qatar

Now given that it was only a couple of weeks ago that we were in the Middle East when we visited Oman, you may be wondering why we're back in the area so soon.  And the answer to that, is how many countries can you think of beginning with Q?  This is it, folks.  Of course, I could have anticipated this and had a different 'O', but I think that we all know by now my ability to plan ahead.  Or not.

I think that it also goes without saying that I know about the same about Qatar as I did about Oman (i.e. not much) just that it's in the Middle East, it's not likely to be overly democratic, and it's probably very rich indeed - let's see if I'm right...

...firstly, Qatar is a small sovereign state sticking into the Persian Gulf with just one border to the south with Saudi Arabia.  It has a ruling family which accounts for all the top posts (Emir, Crown Prince, Prime Minister etc etc) and until 1971 was considered rather poor - until they developed the vast oil and natural gas  reserves, and so they are now very rich.

Looks like my assumptions were all pretty spot on then.

The Qatar peninsular is flat and consists of mainly desert. The average daytime temperature is a sweltering 32 degrees, and there is less than 3" rainfall per year.  The capital, Doha, is sensibly on the east coast, and before the oil became the major source of income, pearl hunting and fishing were the two big industries.

The native population is only 250,000, but the country's wealth has resulted in a huge explosion in building and development, the labour of which has been supplied by huge numbers of immigrant workers - bringing the total population up to just less than 2 million.  A regular melting pot!

So let's say salam wa aleikum to the people of Qatar and see what's on the menu for tonight...

Tonight's Menu...

As you might imagine, with a tradition of fishing, seafood is quite a big deal in Qatar.  Also the many varieties of dates (which you can stick, as far as I am concerned, I'm afraid) and hummus too is part of the national cuisine.

With so many migrant workers, the food is influenced accordingly - by those from Iran, India and north Africa.  Qatar is a Muslim country, so all meat is halal (prepared according Islamic practise), and you aren't going to get pork scratchings round here any time soon.

The most important traditional Qatari dish is machbous, a stew of richly spiced rice with either seafood or meat, so we'll give that a whirl, and I'm going to team that up with pitta bread.

Machbous (Spiced lamb with rice) - recipe from food.com
Saute diced lamb with chopped onion, then add chopped tomatoes, parsley, baharat spice, grouund limes, turmeric and stock and simmer for half an hour.  Add rice and simmer for a futher 20minutes.

Pitta bread - recipe from allrecipes.co.uk
Add plain flour, salt, a little olive oil, a little sgar and yeast in the bread maker pan with water and set to 'dough' (yes, what a cheat I am!).Split the resulting dough into pieces then roll each ball of dough out into a 6" circle.  Cover and leave to rise for half an hour or so.

Sprinkle with sesame and onion seeds then cook in a hot over for 5 minutes until they start to brown.  Revmove from oven and cover immediately with a damp cloth until they go soft.  Split & eat (with lots of butter too, if you are me)

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Changing the spices makes for a total change of flavour - this lamb stew was transformed by adding baharat spices and turmeric.
  • In culinary terms, nigella, love-in-a-mist and black onion seeds are all the same thing.  In gardening terms they most certainly are not - I wonder what would come up if I sowed some of them?
  • Pitta bread is easy if you have a breadmaker to take that tedious kneading business out of the process.
  • Like the ensaymada (sweet bread rolls) last week, the pittas really didn't make it further than the cooling rack once I'd got the butter out of the fridge.  Must work on that will power thing.

And out of 10?

  • for the machbous - a tasty 7/10 - this really was jolly good, and being an all in one recipe, for once the dishwasher wasn't left groaning with overuse.
  • for the pitta bread - a delicious 8/10 - the sesame and black onion seeds really made these very tasty indeed.  I am a fiend for white bread - always have been.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

P is for the Philippines

Where we're going this evening - the Philippines

Compounding my ignorance of quite where Oman was last week, to my shame I struggled to put my finger on the map as to where the Philippines are too.  What was I doing in geography classes?  Actually, I was  learning about hanging valleys and drumlins - but not learning about where places are, obviously.

In fact, about the only thing I can dredge up about the Philippines is that it was ruled in the fairly near past by a pretty unpleasant chap called Marcos, whose wife Imelda had a big thing for shoes.  If that's the best I can do, I'd better get researching...

....so the Philippines are in the far east - the total land mass is about twice the size of the UK, consisting of over 7,000 islands, and with a population about half as many again as the UK.  The climate is tropical, with a diverse range of fauna and flora.

As in so many instances, the Europeans were at it again in terms of deciding that this bit of land would make a fine extension to the county despite it not only being thousands of miles away, but also having a perfectly happy indiginous population.  In this case, it was the Spanish, and they so liked the archepeligo that they even named it after their king, Philip II.

Finally independent in the mid fifties, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president a decade later, but being prevented by the constitution form being able to run for a third term in office, he declared martial rule and carried on regardless for another decade or so before being run out of town - to Hawaii, actually - with his wife and her unfeasably extensive footware collection.

Internal spats and wrangling ensued with a number of administrations over the next couple of decades being blighted with political scandals and allegations of corruption. All rather undignified, I'm afraid.  That doesn't stop the Filipinos from being a hardworking bunch - both at home and as expats all over the world - and the country is definitely being tipped as 'one to watch' in terms of development.

As far as the food goes, there's an undeniable Spanish influence but also from their Asian neighbours - however the food is described as 'robust' as opposed to spicy, and although rice is a staple, their Western roots mean that chopsticks are not as widely used as they are in the neighbouring countries.

So let's say kamusta to the Filipinos and see what's on the menu for tonight...

Tonight's Menu...

Characteristic of Filipino cuisine is the counterpoint between putting something sweet with something salty - the custom is to serve everything together rather than in courses, which rather underlines the practise of lots of bold sweet/sour/salty tastes all bunged together in one shebang.

Vinegar is a common ingredient - which I thought was very odd as I think of vinegar as British, for some reason, something to do with fish and chips not being the same without it, I guess - and also sweet rice.  So I'm opting for hopefully a bit of all the flavours for that authentic Filipino experience.

Adobo is a stew like dish with vinegar and soy sauce; the sweet bread rolls are served with a sprinkling of sugar and grated cheese; the champorado is a sticky chocolatey rice pudding - it all sounds like it's going to be an explosion in a tasting factory, but let's see how we get on.

Chicken Adobo with rice - recipe from filipino food
Brown onion, garlic in a pan then add chicken (or pork - I used turkey), soy sauce, vinegar, paprika, bay leaves & some water. Simmer for 30 mins.  fish the meat out of the pan and brown for a few minutes in a separate pan before returning it to the stew.  Thicken with a little cornflour, season and serve with rice.

Ensaymada  - recipe from the internet
Mix easy blend yeast, dilute evaporated milk, sugar, melted butter, egg yolks and sifted plain flour in a bowl then knead and leave for an hour to rise.  Divide the dough in portions, roll into snakes then coil and place in muffin cases.  Leave to rise for another hour then brush with butter and cook.  Cool completely then slather with butter, dust with sugar and top with grated cheese.

Champorado - recipe from food.com
Cook pudding rice on the hob with water, until thick and creamy   Add cocoa powder, sugar, and a few drops of vanilla.  Serve with a swirl of cream or condensed milk.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Co-incidence is a funny thing - I always have vinegar in the cupboard - because you do - but rarely use it.  In fact it will be a good couple of years since I had call to - except this very morning on reading a tip on how to remove limescale I used the entire bottle on the bathroom taps.  The bathroom now smells like a chip shop, and - yet again - I am to be found hot-footing it up to Aldi on the corner early evening in order to secure a vital cooking ingredient.  This point to be subtitled 'what was that about reading the recipe in advance?'  On the plus side the taps are sparkling.
  • In the adobo recipe, browning the meat after it is simmered rather than at the start of the recipe would appear to serve no purpose but to use yet another pan which will then need to be washed up
  • Sweet bread straight out of the oven requires more will power that I possess to leave to get cold before slathering with butter, sugar and cheese.  
  • It's mighty tricky to take photo of cocoa rice pudding without it looking like a cow pat.
  • Hmm - I have also learnt - looking at the pics above - to either provide some sort of marker in order to give a sense of scale, or to always use the same size plates for my dishes.  That is not a giant tomato in the first pic, that is a side plate. Equally, the rice pudding is on a saucer, that is a teaspoon.  However, it still looks like a cow pat.

And out of 10?

  • for the chicken adobo - a solid 7/10 - the inclusion of soy sauce and vinegar gives this stew a real zing.  One to do again.
  • for the ensaymada - a whopping 9/10 - in fact the only thing that knocks this sweet bread/butter/cheese jobbie off the top spot is the fact that (for the most part) I followed the recipe and a left the bread to cool before garnishing with sugar/butter/cheese.  The ones that I nicked straight off the cooling tray were magnificent.
  • for the champorado - a reasonable 5/10 - chocolate is generally good, and this was ok, but I like a rice pudding as it is, thank you.  This one certainly does not win on the beauty stakes, and given that enjoyment of food is dependent on more than just the taste of the dish, this is certainly marked down on looks.  Tough old world, ain't it?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

O is for Oman

Where we're going this evening - Oman

A trip to the middle east tonight, to the sultanate of Oman.

My knowledge of all the countries that make up the Arab world in the Middle East is a bit on the hazy side, and I tend to lump them together as being all extremely dry, extremely rich, and extremely un-democratic - let's see if I'm right here.

First up, Oman is pretty sparsely populated - the sultanate is a bit bigger than the UK, but only has about 5% of the population, a quarter of which lives in the capital Muscat on the north east coast.  And why are so many people living in the capital?  Because the landscape is pretty inhospitable.  In fact, with temperatures averaging nearly 29 degrees C, and the annual rainfall only 4", I'd be living in the city with air conditioning as standard too.

A moderate bunch, the Omanis (relative to the rest of the region) - despite being an absolute monarchy (a one man, one vote system - the Sultan is the man, he has the vote), there is a parliament which does have at least some legislative powers.

Actually, despite all those unfriendly mountainous gravel-desert baking hot regions, Oman does have a decent bit of coastline, so fishing does provide a proportion of income along with tourism, and of course, the oil.

For once, it was not the Brits who had a crack at planting a flag half way around the world when stumbling across someone else's land, but the Portuguese, who occupied Muscat for some 150 years, building an impressive fortress, still standing today, 500-odd years later.

Despite the unrest in the region which has affected so many middle eastern countries in the past twelve months or so with greater democracy demanded (and in this case rather squashed by the authorities, albeit with a few concessions to people power), Oman is rated as quite stable within the region, and well developed.

I can't do you much in the way of famous Omanis, but fact of the day just has to be that according to the Times Online, Oman is home to the world's only camel-backed bagpipe military band.  Goodness!

So whilst we are all boggling over that little gem, let's say marhaba to the good people of Oman...

Tonight's Menu...

The main religion in Oman is Islam, so we aren't expecting much in the way of pork going on here.

The cuisine is varied, but with rice and meat (often marinated) usually served.  I plumped for a pasta based dish, though - with mince and tomatoes, oddly similar to a bolognase sauce but with cinnamon giving the dish a twist.

Desserts are on the sticky persuasion with dates and honey big favourites - dates not so much with me, however (yuk!), so I've gone for a doughnut based recipe, fried in oil and served dipped in honey.

Macaroni Bechamel - recipe from desitwist.com

Cook a good portion of macaroni and set aside.  Brown the same amount of mince & add chopped onion & garlic; tomato sauce, parsley, oregano, salt, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and some water. Simmer for 10 mins or so.  Meanwhile make a bechamel sauce with butter, flour, milk and a stock cube, stirring until thick, smooth and creamy.

Mix two thirds of the sauce with the macaroni, then pour half the macaroni/sauce into the bottom of a deep dish. Layer the meat, then the rest of hte macarni/sauce.  Top with the remaining sauce and sprinkle with ground cinnamon.  Bake in a high over for half an hour.

Luqaymaat  - recipe from desitwist.com

Beat together flour, milk, sugar, melted butter and egg, yeast and a little salt and ground cardamon.  Cover and leave to rest for an hour.  Stir, then scoop tablespoonfuls of batter into hot oil and fry the little balls until lightly golden.  Drain well on kitchen paper, then drizzle with honey and serve.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Amazing how the addition of a couple of spices take this distinctly lasagne style of meat and pasta from Italy to the Middle East.
  • If it looks rather like lasagne, I expect it to taste like lasagne, and it's a bit odd when it doesn't - so much of the taste of food is via the eyes.
  • Reading the recipe ahead means that you can go some way to avoiding an unholy mess in the kitchen as well as personal injury.  The doughnut batter was very sloppy - I was supposed to 'dampen fingers and scoop a tablespoon of batter with four fingers together then use your thumb to slide the batter in the hot oil'.  I used a tablespoon - rather a lot of potential for disaster on many fronts there.
  • Previous comment with regard to oil holding on to the last thing that was cooked in it still stands.  The oil still has a fishy niff, as did the resulting doughnuts. 

And out of 10?

  • for the macaroni bechemal - a lukewarm 5/10 - if I had been expecting more of a sweet cinnamon taste to the dish and less of a lasagne taste, I may have enjoyed it more.  As is it was, I kept wondering why I couldn't taste more cheese with the mince and pasta (answer: there was none in the dish. D'oh!)
  • For the luqaymaat - a so-so 4/10 - they were ok (if a bit on the fishy side when they came out of the pan, but they really do not lend themselves to hanging around to eat later, an experience akin to eating a fish flavoured cotton wool ball.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

N is for New Zealand

Where we're going this evening - New Zealand

We're off on a long-haul trip tonight, all the way to the other side of the world.  I must confess my ignorance here - if you'd have given me a pin to put in a map where New Zealand is, I would have put it totally in the wrong place, somewhere close to northeast of Australia - not miles away to the southwest.  Live and learn already!

So what do I know about it?  When I think of New Zealand, I think of Anchor butter which we used to have when I was growing up, New Zealand lamb, and latterly, as a magnificent film set backdrop to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Also, New Zealanders and Australians get a bit huffy if you mix them up (same as the Americans and the Canadians when we Brits plonk them all in the same bracket).

Now let's go and do some homework to find out more...

The two islands that make up New Zealand are very slightly bigger than the size of the UK, but the New Zealand population is just four million compared to the UK's sixty million.  I suppose they need all that extra room to graze cows for butter and to raise lamb.

If your wondering why the official language is English despite being literally half way around the world, 12,000 miles away, it's because it's one of those place that our very own intrepid Captain Cook came across - an extraordinary feat - and decided 'we'll have that' despite there already being a perfectly happy native Maori population who were minding their own business.

Actually the Dutch beat the good Captain to it - briefly - but after a quick scrap with the locals which they lost 4 to 1 in terms of people killed, they scarpered & left Cook to have a crack at it over a century later.

The native Maori people were laid back enough despite our usual strong arm tactics of planting a stick in the ground and called it 'ours', and were happy to be widely converted to Christianity and everyone seems to rub along well enough.

New Zealand has been independent of the British parliament for the past sixty or so years as opposed to having legislation from the Palace of Westminster (which must make governing an awful lot easier), although it is still a staunch member of the Commonwealth with the Queen as head of state.

There are some fascinating New Zealand people.  I must include the New Zealand all blacks Rugby team in this category, simply as they perform the native Maori war dance or haka before each match.  Scares the life out of me, anyway.

The aforementioned Peter Jackson is from New Zealand, as is actor Russell Crowe and opera singer Kiri te Kanawa - but for my money, the most marvelous New Zealander is Burt Munroe, the garden shed motorcycle enthusiast and engineer who at the age of 68 raced his beloved Indian Scout motorcycle across the Bonneville salts flats to set a number of speed records, one of which still stands today.  The tale was told in the excellent film The World's Fastest Indian staring Anthony Hopkins.

Back to the important stuff - with their beautiful scenery, can-do attitude and relaxed way of life, lets say hello to New Zealand...

Tonight's Menu...

The main dish had to be lamb - I'm used to eating the succulent roasted meat with a sweet redcurrant jelly, garlic, rosemary or mint sauce, or slow cooked with red wine; but this recipe has a real oriental influence and is cooked with ginger, sherry and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce.

Pavlova is a traditional New Zealand dessert (despite Australia laying claim to it too) - pavlovas are often made as children's birthday cakes, decorated with fruit, or sweets and chocolate and candles.

I fancied something to snack on too, so these scone-like cheese puffs look spot on.

Lea and Perrins Lamb Chops - recipe from food.com

Marinade lamb loin chops in a mixture of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, sherry and grated ginger for quarter of an hour or so in the fridge. Pan fry & serve with salad.  I took out the chops and poured left over marinade into the pan for a couple of minutes then used this as salad dressing.

Pavlova - recipe from about.com home cooking

Whisk egg whites until stiff. Beat in sugar and a little cornflour.  Fold in vanilla extract.  Spoon onto baking parchment - either one large or smaller individual nests - bake in a low oven for an hour then turn off the oven and leave the meringues in overnight.  Fill nests with fruit and cram then decorate with more fruit, chocolate sprinkles etc.

Downunder Cheese Puffs - recipe from food.com

Beat egg and milk and bead in sifted flour, baking powder salt and grated cheese.  Put large teaspoonfuls on a greased baking tray and cook for ten minutes in a hot oven.


The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • If this food is typical of New Zealand's cuisine, I would like to move there tomorrow - although I would soon become the size of a house, particularly through piling pavlova and cheese puffs down me at every opportunity.
  • To think ahead and read the recipe in good time - pavlova was enjoyed for Thursday breakfast rather than Wednesday dinner as the meringues have to be in the oven overnight
  • Read the damn recipe properly - it is only now whilst writing up that I see that I should have filled the meringues with fruit and not just put it on top.  I thought there was a bit of a cream overload.
  • The zingy marinade really adds a new - and extremely tasty - dimension to how to serve lamb
  • Cheese puffs should be made with caution.  Far too many of them disappeared off the baking tray before getting as far as the cooling rack, and more disappeared before they got as far as the cupboard.
  • Have I mentioned that I would like to move to New Zealand? 

And out of 10?

  • for the Lea and Perrins lamb chops - a delicious and difficult to beat 9/10 - the only reason that this didn't get full marks is that I didn't trim quite enough of the fat off the loin chops, although that is hardly the fault of the recipe. Utterly delicious, to be added to the repertoire.
  • For the pavlova - a very tasty 8/10 - so easy to knock up, although you do have to think ahead. as meringues take so long to cook.  Would have been even better with more fruit in the nests.  
  • For the cheese puffs - a fabulous 9/10 - easier and quicker to make than cheese scones and just as tasty.  One teeny criticism is that they don't taste quite as good the next day, having gone a bit spongy.  I can think of a solution to that particular nit-picking issue though...