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, 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...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

M is for Malta

Where we're going this evening - Malta

Tonight's trip is right to the very south of Europe, to the Mediterranean where the tiny republic of Malta nestles just off the tip of Sicily, and a stone's throw from the north African coastline.

There are fewer than half a million Maltese on an island of just 120 square miles. What a tiny country! By comparison, I live near the second city of Birmingham which is just slightly smaller than Malta at 105 square miles, with a population of well over 2 million.

Although small, Malta does not lack historical significance - this stems from being in a strategic position equidistant from Europe and Africa. In fact, there's been a real revolving door of conquerors - the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish, Knights of St John, the French, and - just so we don't feel left out  - the British.

The Maltese are a plucky lot, and did such a great deal for the allies in the second world war that King George VI awarded the George Cross to the whole island.  Life's a bit quieter these days, and Malta is it's own country - and has adopted a policy of neutrality - and is part of the Commonwealth and the European Union.

Malta's strategic position at the top end of the Suez canal means that the main trade is from maritime services, although, what with the weather being rather nice, tourism is important to the economy too.

The Maltese seem to be a superstitious lot (perhaps that stems from having your door kicked in be the next round of oppressors every five minutes), with plenty of quirks and customs, particularly relating to fertility and childraising, some of which are a bit odd (dangle a wedding ring on a thread over the unborn child and depending which way is moves will indicate the sex of the child);, some of which are a bit creepy, if you ask me (avoiding cemeteries when pregnant).

With such a small population, I'm struggling to find famous Maltese (besides the father of a friend of mine at junior school, but he doesn't really count) - but I must give a mention to Darren Attard, who appears in a long list of Maltese dignitaries and politicians; his claim to fame being as 'Australia's best youngest Elvis impersonator'.  Good luck to you, Darren.

On that note, we'd better get all shook up and say hello to the Maltese...

Tonight's Menu...

This is a bit of a tricky one - Malta has a whole heap of influences on its cuisine from all those marauders over the years.  Rabbit seems to be a big deal, as well as some stuffed breads and sweets.

I didn't fancy cooking rabbit, but Lampuki fish seems to come in as a close second in terms of popularity, so that'll do me.

Ghadam tal-mejtin is a traditional almond biscuit dish cooked at the beginning of November to celebrate the feasts of all saints and all souls.  The name translates as 'dead man's bones' and the biscuits are shaped into bone shapes before cooking.  Lovely.  Told you they were a bit weird...

Lampuki Pie (Fish Pie) - recipe from Felice in the Kitchen

Lampuki fish is fried & deboned (I cheated and used cod fillets from Aldi), then set aside.  Gently fry chopped onions, crushed garlic, spinach leaves, chopped tomatoes, peas and lemon zest (I used orange zest).  Optional are chopped olives (yuk! not round here, matey).  The veg and fish are combined then baked in a pie.

Ghadam Tal-Mejtin (Dead Man's Bones) - recipe from About Malta

Whisk egg whites until very thick then beat in almond essence, caster sugar and ground almonds.  Fashion into bone shapes (ha! this is impossible!) and bake. Cover with icing or a sprinkle of icing sugar.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Believe the recipe when it calls for such a large sack of spinach that you struggle to get it through the front door.  Spinach defies the law of physics in that once you've wrestled into the biggest pan you have and forced lid on, within a minute you have a smear of green on the bottom of the pan and that's it.
  • Zest should be used in moderation unless you want your otherwise delicious pie to have a really citrus zing to it.
  • Some recipes are either just wrong, or I seriously misinterpreted something. After beating in the ground almonds into the beaten egg whites, the consistency of the mixture certainly was not shapeable.  Even adding perhaps half as much ground almonds again, it was only just about stiff enough to handle, and then it was sticky, sticky, sticky.  I compromised with blobs.

And out of 10?

  • for the lumpaki pie - a pleasing 7/10 - I think it would be a bit of a faff to buy whole fish then skin and fillet before putting the pie together, but the fillets I bought were perfect.  A lovely taste - if a bit, er, fruity.
  • For the Ghadam tal-mejtin - an unsuccessful 3/10.  I must have cocked something up somewhere - or I should have cross-referenced with another recipe for this dish.  Once the damn sticky mixture was cooked into cookies, they tasted like macaroons, but more chewy.  Not my cup of tea.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

L is for Latvia

Where we're going this evening - Latvia

We are off tonight to right over the opposite side of Europe to the UK - in fact, so far to the east in Europe that Latvia was a part of the USSR, along with the other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia. Now Latvia is part of the European Union having peacefully broken away from Russian rule about 30 years ago.

Latvia is a quarter of the size of the UK, but has a population of just 2 million people - one of the least populous European nations.  The northern European climate is of cold winters and long cool summer days.  The country is quite low lying, but is covered in swathes of forest and fertile arable land, with a long coastline to the Baltic sea with bright sandy beaches.

Latvia's landscape is mostly unspoiled with a high predominance of state protected national parks and reserves.  Boy, it's pretty. Walk through those resinous fir forests and smell the turpentine.

So it's unspoilt and tranquil and has a strongly performing economy (even in these straightened times) - I'm liking the sound of this very much.

The good people of Latvia are said to be reserved, tall and blonde - the women pretty, the men with moustaches, and are called horse heads by their Baltic neighbours.  The national sport is football, followed by ice hockey (as you might imagine with a country of such cold winters) and - more unexpectedly - basketball.

Although I'm struggling to come up with many household Latvian names (couple of footballers play in the Scottish league, but that's about it), the chap who came up with the idea of using rivets to strengthen denim seams in jeans is from Latvian (Jacob Davis), as is Arvids Blumentals who moved to Australia after the second world war, to mine opals, hunt reptiles and study the aborigines. There is a crocodile monument erected in his Latvian home town of Dundaga - and the film Crocodile Dundee is based on him.

With that, I think that we are more than ready to head northeast and say sveiki to our Latvian hosts...

Tonight's Menu...

Traditional Latvian cuisine tends towards the peasant-like - grey peas and ham hock, and rye bread a big fixture, but not to be put off, I find that there are also Russian and Scandinavian influences which are all to the good.

I would have like to have tried the traditional bacon-filled rolls, but I'm still unsure of my bread dough making skills, so settled for a salad with cured sausage instead, served with rye bread; along with a passing nod to tradition with baked onions.

Also on the menu is an apple loaf which looks good to be eaten as a desert or as cake. Excellent.

Rasols (Sausage Potato Salad) - recipe from Latvian Stuff

Combine cooled boiled chopped potatoes and chopped hard boiled eggs with cooked peas and chopped Polish sausage.  Cover with a dressing made of sour cream and mustard & season to taste.  Chill for a few hours to let the flavours develop.

Latvian Style Baked Onions - recipe from food.com

Thickly slice onions and saute in bacon dripping. Put into baking dish, cover with breadcrumbs (I used rye bread breadcrumbs, just to get into the spirit of the thing) and grated cheese.  Bake until browned.

Apple Loaf- recipe from Latvian Stuff
Cream butter & sugar, them add egg yolks & vanilla then sift in flour and baking powder, combining with a little milk.  Whisk egg whites until stiff then fold in.  Put into a loaf tin then press apple slices into the batter.  Sprinkle over sugar and cinnamon & bake in a moderate oven.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • If you are boiling large potatoes in their skins, per the recipe, either the potato centres will remain semi raw with the outside cooked, or the centre will be cooked and the outside virtually mashed as the potatoes are cooled and the skin peeled off.
  • Polish kabanos sausages are rather tasty, but then they damn well should be at £4.50 for six skinny peperami lookalikes.
  • If you are making the dressing by using double cream and souring it by whisking in a little lemon juice, being too vigorous with the whisk will result in something not out of place served with a cream tea, as opposed to suitable to use as a dressing.
  • Baked onions are unfussy.  I felt like a Latvian peasant from the middle ages.
  • Poking apple pieces into cake batter is extremely messy, with no discernible benefit over - for example - stirring the pieces into the mixture in the cake bowl before putting in the baking tin.
  • If you've bought double cream with the duel purpose of using in the dressing (see above) as well as to serve with the apple cake, do remember to keep some to one side to use as intended, rather than forgetting and using it all up making the dressing.

And out of 10?

  • for the sausage potato salad - a rather mediocre 5/10 - I'd use small salad potatoes if I did this again which would cook quickly and evenly in their skins and chop up cleanly without disintigrating.
  • For the baked onion - a nice enough 6/10 - a seriously budget-concious dish, although it would be rather more tasty with a couple of sausages chopped in too.  
  • for the apple loaf - a lovely 8/10 - the apple pieces make it moist and cinnamon and sugar give a really crunchy topping. Yum.  Even better, I suspect, with cream.