(not really) Pumpkin risotto

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I have a confession to make.

When I first arrived, I couldn’t afford to buy arborio rice here.  So, in that first year, I didn’t make any risotto, one of my customary meals back in the UK.  Thereafter I got so desperate for the comfort of cooking and eating risotto, I managed to convince myself that it didn’t matter if I used jasmine or ginger flower rice (a Cambodian medium grain rice) instead of arborio, carnaroli or any different type of risotto rice.  I’ve merrily been making and feeding this pumpkin ‘risotto’ to many of my friends, using whatever rice I had at hand.  Believe me, there were no complaints.  Spicy, and gloriously ochre with the sweetness of fresh coriander.  Who would turn down this dish?IMG_8847

However, a few months ago it all changed.  My friend Robert gave me some of his delicious bacon, mushroom and spinach risotto (which I need to try cooking myself!) made with arborio rice.   And the realisation of the error of my ways overwhelmed me.  It just ain’t a risotto without risotto rice! How had I duped myself into thinking that this chewier, creamier textured rice could be replaceable?

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So, yes.  You can make this not-really-risotto, pumpkin risotto (what am I supposed to call it now?) with any grain of rice that you have.  But don’t call it risotto.

It’s really simple to make.  I make it a lot as pumpkins are pretty much available all year round in Cambodia, but not always strictly as a risotto.  I really appreciate the fact that here you can buy however much of the pumpkin that you’re planning on cooking with: you just ask the market seller to cut off however much you need.  In contrast, I don’t think that I would have made this in the UK because I didn’t really buy pumpkins.  I didn’t really know what to do with a whole big pumpkin and I didn’t shop in those places that sold different varieties of smaller ones.

I adapted the original recipe to add in a bit more spice, with extra cumin, chilli and coriander.  Lastly, there’s the grown-up version with the added white wine.

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Recipe for Pumpkin Risotto, adapted from BBC Good Food

Ingredients

  • 400g pumpkin, seedless and peeled
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 5 garlic cloves (but garlic isn’t as strong here, so perhaps 2 if your garlic is strong)
  • 1 onion
  • 200g risotto rice
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 litre of hot vegetable/chicken stock
  • 125-250ml (or more) dry white wine
  • 25g cold butter
  • 50g parmesan cheese, grated (for vegetarians, choose an alternative or omit altogether)
  • generous bunch of coriander, roughly chopped up
  • spring onion, chopped up (optional)
  • 2 red chilli peppers
  • salt and pepper
  • optional lime wedges to serve

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4/Cut the pumpkin into fairly even 1inch/2.5cm cubes.  As you can see from the photo, I don’t worry too much about being precise.  Coat it with 1tbsp of vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper.  Bake in the oven for about 30 mins.
  2. Meanwhile get started on the risotto.  Crush the garlic and chop up the onion.   If using spring onions, then finely chop up the whites of the spring onions, reserving the green part as a garnish for later.
  3. Heat the rest of the oil on a gentle heat in a medium sized pan and fry the onions, garlic and spring onion until the onions are soft.
  4. Now add the cumin and rice, being careful not to let it catch on the bottom of the pan.  Stir so that every grain of rice is coated in the spice.
  5. Add the wine and let it deglaze the pan, by stirring it around the bottom of the pan.
  6. Next, adding the stock about a ladleful at a time is the accepted wisdom but I’m pretty imprecise about this.  I think that add however much you need so that it just covers the rice and the rice won’t burn at the bottom of the pan.  Stir and stir until the stock has disappeared this helps release the starch from the rice).  Then add in a bit more stock.   *As you’re doing this, multi-task with step 7.*  Continue until the rice is cooked but still has a wee bit of bite – this is al dente.  Add another generous ladleful of stock, this helps to create a sauce,  and the butter.   Cover with the lid to help the butter melt.
  7. Check on the pumpkin and remove from the oven once they’ve been baked.  Grate the cheese, roughly chop up the coriander, finely slice the chilli peppers and the greens of the spring onions (if using).
  8. Once the rice has been cooked, add the pumpkin, cheese, coriander, spring onions and the chilli peppers. And stir through to mix well.  If you’d like a bit of zest, sprinkle some lime juice on top.  Et voila – enjoy.

The verdict?  A satisfying meat-free meal, which my friends, khmer and western, enjoy eating.  I especially like this paired with kimchi.

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Oh so yummy, festive, orange, cranberry and chocolate bread

oh so yummy, festive orange, cranberry and chocolate bread

Merry (belated) Christmas everyone!

It’s funny the foods that you crave.  I keep surprising myself with what my tastebuds hanker after.  My latest three cravings are mature cheddar cheese and milk chocolate digestives.  Those two cravings kicked in a year after I moved and as I didn’t buy or eat a lot of cheese in the UK, can you see why I surprised myself?!

My friend Hannah came to spend Christmas in Cambodia this year.  I asked whether she’d like to bring out a selection of cheeses out with her so that we could have a cheese and wine evening.  And she did!  She had an unexpected 24 hour delay in Doha, and amazingly the cheese survived!  I don’t think that I’ve ever relished the flavours of each of those cheeses, as much as I did that evening!  Thank you, Hannah.

A selection of beautiful english cheeses, trying to disguise themselves as pac men. Thank you Hannah!
A selection of beautiful english cheeses, trying to disguise themselves as pac men.  The camembert is baking in the oven. Thank you Hannah!
Hannah and Esther waiting patiently for me to take this photo and finding it very funny!
Hannah and Esther waiting patiently for me to take this photo and finding it very funny!

I said three, right.  Well, there’s this bread…

I’m pretty sure that Sainsburys does an AMAZING chocolate, cranberry and orange bread at Christmas time.  I’ve eaten it pretty much every year since discovering it.  Except last year.  Last year, was my first Christmas in Cambodia and I couldn’t find any cranberries, frozen, fresh or dried in the whole of Phnom Penh.  Not that I could search very far and wide because of my poorly left knee.

orange, cranberry, chocolate bread

I’ve been thinking about this eating this bread for a couple of months now.  So in November, I bought a bag of dried cranberries whilst I was in Australia to bake it as my festive loaf.

dark chocolate chunks dried cranberries

I couldn’t find a recipe for this bread online.  So, I modified Richard Bertinet’s cranberry and pecan bread recipe from Dough to recreate one of Sainsbury’s festive bread creations.  I loved it.  Hannah loved it.  (She’d never heard of or eaten it before – WHAT?!?!? and she lives in the UK!)  It smells intoxicating and the flavours balance and complement each other perfectly.  We were happy to eat it, just as it was.  No spread, it doesn’t need one.  If you want to, you could try eating it with cheese, like we did.   Surprisingly it works.

Three things:

  1. Make sure that you use chocolate chunks and not chocolate chips.  Chocolate chunks are bigger and taste more satisfying than chocolate chips.
  2. Make it a white loaf.  It’s meant to be a festive treat.  Don’t spoil it by adding more fiber to it.
  3. The chocolate makes it a messy bread to cut and eat.   That could be because it’s just a wee bit warmer in Cambodia than the UK at this time of year… But I dare you to resist eating it when it’s fresh out of the oven!

Finally, finally (and this isn’t late!).  Hope that you have a wonderful New Year’s Day celebration and wishing you all the best for 2015.

orange zest

orange, cranberry and chocolate dough

Ingredients for my oh so yummy, festive Orange, Cranberry and Chocolate Bread.

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 7g fast action yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 350g water – you can do 350ml but weighing it is always more accurate I think.
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 100g dark chocolate cut roughly into chunks
  • 100g dried cranberries

Method

1. Put the dark chocolate, cranberries and orange zest in a small bowl and give it a good mix.  I discovered that the orange zest actually starts plumping up the cranberries while you’re making the dough – cool!

2. In another medium sized bowl, weigh out the flour, add in the yeast and give it a quick stir to mix it into the flour.  By mixing the yeast with flour first, I don’t worry about the salt touching the yeast and thus deactivating the yeast.

3. Now add in the salt, give it a stir.  Then add in the water.   Use a dough scraper, or your hands to combine the water and flour together as much as possible before turning the mixture out onto your work surface.  It is quite a wet dough to begin with, so don’t worry.

4.  Knead until the dough is springy and smooth.  This probably takes about 10 minutes but it depends on what method you use and how wet the dough was to begin with.  I use Richard Bertinet’s slap and fold method.

5.  Now transfer the orange zest, cranberries and chocolate into the medium sized bowl you used for the dough mixture.  Then, lay the dough on top and spread it out so that it envelops the entire surface.  What you’re going to attempt to do next is wrap the dough around the chocolate and the cranberries and mix it so that you can combine them with the dough.  Doing it this way in the bowl makes it a much neater, efficient process, than if you were to do it on a work surface.

6. Once the chocolate and cranberries are combined with the dough, turn it out from the bowl briefly.  Add a little bit (about a tablespoon) of vegetable oil to the bowl to prevent the dough from stick to it as the dough rises.  Cover with cling film or a wet tea towel and leave it rise.  I leave mine to rise in the fridge for a couple of hours so that the flavours have longer to mature.  You could leave it at this stage, in the fridge, for a couple of hours to 2 days.

7.  Prepare a baking tray by lining it with baking paper, or covering it with a layer of semolina so that it doesn’t stick to the tray.  Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto your work surface.  Push your fingers firmly into the dough to leave dents.  This is a much gentler way of knocking the air out.  While you’re doing that try to shape it roughly into a rectangle.

8. Next, strengthen the dough.  Mentally divide the dough into three sections.  Take a third of the dough to the centre and push it down firmly in the middle with the heel of your hand.  Then take the other third of the dough to the centre and push it down firmly with the heel of your hand.  Finally fold the mixture in half and again push it down firmly with the heel of your hand.

9.  This next bit is up to you.  I cut my dough into two halves and shaped one into a circle and the other into a square-ish loaf.  You can shape it into one or as many loaves as you wish.    Cover with damp tea towel or oiled cling film.  Let them rest until they have doubled in size again.  In the meantime, preheat the oven to 250°C/480°F/Gas Mark 9.

10.  When the dough is ready, cut deep, clean incisions in it to help create shape and release gas.  I made a hash (#) sign on one loaf and cut three slices on the other.  I then sprayed the tops of them with water to create a bit of steam as they bake.  (My new electric oven doesn’t like it when you spray the inside of the oven with water.)

11. Whack them in the oven.  After 10 minutes turn the oven down to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7 and bake for 40-50 minutes.  Check that the bread is ready – it should sound hollow when you tap it’s bottom.  If not, set the timer for another 5 minutes and check again.  Let them rest for at least 5 minutes before you enjoy and devour it.

orange, cranberry, chocolate bread

 

Linda Bareham’s Portuguese Pork and a new abode!

Linda Bareham's Portuguese Pork

First of all, sorry that I haven’t posted in a long time.  Three very important things have happened.

  1. I moved into my very own apartment for the first time since moving to Cambodia.
  2. After my holiday in the UK, I’ve been injected with a new dose of enthusiasm to embrace life in Cambodia with all it’s ingredients and flavours.
  3. I started a new job.  I’m now an English Language Teacher at a Language School in Phnom Penh.

The third point is very important.  It goes a long way in explaining why I haven’t posted anything on the blog in recent months.  I’m really enjoying the work but adjusting to a new job is taking up a lot of my energy.  Even more so, as I’m teaching every evening during the week.

Portuguese pork ingredients

But, excitingly it’s the first and second points that motivated me to make more use of local ingredients and cook this dish.  Finally having my very own space for the first time in 10 months was so exciting.  I even baked Orange and Cardamon shortbread to herald in this new space that I could call home (which I’ll post once I’ve perfected the recipe).  Admittedly, I probably should have been putting my energy into packing boxes when I made them.

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what actually happens in my kitchen

My new kitchen comes equipped with a two burner gas cooker, typical of many Phnom Penh kitchens.  So, recently, I’ve delved back into Linda Bareham’s One Pot cook book and discovered recipes that I can make easily here.  I realise that I’ve written about the adjustment to sourcing various ingredients for baking or learning various processes because I can’t find the ingredients in the form that I want.  Well, it’s been a similar thing for cooking with local ingredients here, or perhaps it’s been an even greater learning curve.  I like cooking with local, seasonal produce.  Back in the UK, I would quite often ask market stall holders how I could with new ingredients.  But, to do that in a foreign language with unfamiliar ingredients is quite a challenge.  It took me 6 months to brave buying fresh meat from the market.  That may sound silly to you.  However, imagine a market place, where there are various meat stalls.  Some have live chickens, plucked chickens or various slabs of pork meat, hanging from meat hooks.   Then, add the smell because, of course, it’s all unrefridgerated and unpackaged.  Now, can you picture the flies lazily circling round before resting on one piece of meat and then moving onto another.  I’m just not used to it, coming from the UK.

Spinach wrapped in a banana leaf

So, I asked a lot of questions to khmers and seasoned expats before plucking up the courage to venture out on my first solo meat shopping trip.  Here, the recommended wisdom is to go fairly early in the day, before 10.30-11am.  Prod and smell the meat to know whether the meat is fresh or a day old.  I’m still learning how you do that without insulting the seller.  But then, there’s the added complication of language.  How an earth do I say chicken breast in khmer?  How do you ask for it without the bone?  How do I make sure that I don’t get ripped off by a market seller out to make a lucrative deal from an unsuspecting foreigner.  That first time when I bought fresh chicken breasts from the market, I spent an hour deboning the chicken breasts, when I got home.  That didn’t stop me from celebrating it as a major achievement.

chop pork into 1inch chunks

In fact, the first time I made this dish was the first time I’d ever bought pork from the market.  I couldn’t tell you what cut of pork I ended up bringing home, but I think that it was pork fillet.  I made it for my Simon and Becci when they had just moved house.  We all declared the dish a success.  Then I made it again with the addition of spinach because I was craving more greens in my diet.  This time, I served it to some of my khmer friends and they liked it too.  Hurrah!

pork in a cumin and lime bath

I adapted the recipe slightly.  I substituted limes for lemons and added a wee bit more heat by adding in more chilies.  I try not to cook with MSG and the khmer ‘knorr’ chicken stock powder is full of it.  So, I substituted sea salt for chicken stock, or make your own stock, if you want.  Linda specifies red onions, but I can only buy shallots here.  I’ve used shallots and white onions, depending on what I had in the fridge.  I’ve specified how much garlic to use, if it’s a normal-strong garlic bulb.  I find that the local khmer garlic is a much milder variety, so I’ve also taken to doubling the quantities of garlic specified in recipes.  And apparently it helps to ward off the mosquitoes.

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Linda Bareham’s Portuguese Pork to serve 4 people, as adapted by me.

Ingredients

  • 400g pork fillet
  • 1tsp ground cumin
  • Juice of 3 limes
  • 3 small red chilli peppers
  • 2 onions
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 500ml boiling water with 1tsp sea salt or 500ml chicken stock
  • 2x 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
  • 150g fresh coriander
  • 300g spinach, washed
  • salt and pepper to season

Method

1.  Chop the pork into 1 inch chunks and place them in a bowl.   Add the cumin and the lime juice.  Mix thoroughly.  The lime juice will help soften the meat.  Set aside in the fridge while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Finely chop the onions.  Add the oil and a wee bit of salt to a medium sized pot.  Gently fry the onions for 10 minutes so that they’re softened with a little colour.

3.  Meanwhile, finely chop the garlic.  Slice the chillies fairly small chunks.  I didn’t bother deseeding them because I wanted to add a bit of heat to the dish.  Add them to the onions and cook for 4-5 minutes.  Stirring occasionally and watching that they don’t burn. Add a bit more oil if needed.

4.  Take the pork out of it’s lime bath and add it to the pot.  Don’t throw away the lime/cumin juice!  You’ll use it again in 5 minutes.  Stir the pork so that it colours evenly.

5.  Add the boiling water (or stock if you’re using), lime/cumin juice and chickpeas to the pot.  Turn up the heat and bring it to a boil.  Then turn down the heat and let it simmer.

6.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Linda assures you that there’s a lot of seasoning required.  In the end, I found it easier to crush and finely chop some whole black peppercorns and add them in, rather than grind, twist, shake with a pepper mill.  I agree with Linda.   You’ll need a lot of pepper.

7.  As I can’t buy a bag of spinach leaves easily, I chopped and discarded the bottom bit off my spinach stalks, gave them a thorough wash and added the spinach leaves and stalks to the pot.  Finally, add roughly chopped coriander leaves and stalks.  Et, voila.  Serve with a wholesome crusty loaf or baguette.

Portuguese Pork with spinach

A pre-intermediate lesson on Panzanella

Panzanella 1

The English language and lesson plans.

I think that those are the best two phrases which sum up my life at present.

During this month of July, I’m training to be an English Language teacher, so that I can take this new skill and (hopefully) qualification with me to Cambodia.  I’m doing the intensive 4-week CELTA course and we’ve just passed the halfway mark.  In our most recent tutorials, my teaching practice group had been encouraged to try out materials in the classroom, outside of our coursebooks.  On Monday we had a lesson on using ‘authentic’ texts.  Texts, which are not created for the sole purpose of teaching.  I felt inspired to try it out in my next lesson… which just happened to be the next day.

Step 1: tear up the bread

Me, being me, wanted to try using a recipe as authentic text.  We teach in pairs.  Each person has 45 mins to do half of the lesson.  On Tuesday, I was teaching with Rachel.  We divvied out the skills and the language.  I had listening and vocabulary, Rachel had writing and grammar.

H (imagine it with lots of enthusiasm): “I was thinking that we could do food as a topic and use a recipe to teach it.”

R: Ooh.  Yes.  There’s lots of imperatives and vocabulary that we could be teaching.  I could get them to write a recipe to follow on.

Tomatoes and Panzanella bread

And as I had the enviable task of teaching the skill of listening, I thought that a short video from someone like Nigella would be good as they’re easily accessible on the BBC Good Food or youtube.

Half an hour into drafting out the two parts of our lesson, our teacher tells us that recipes are notoriously tricky to teach because the extensive vocabulary, and more importantly, she reminds us that it is Ramadan and half of the group are muslims.  Perhaps we are being a bit culturally insensitive to teach on the topic of food?  “But,” she tells us, “it’s too late to change the topic of the lesson.”  So, Rachel and I continue with our plans, with a tinge of apprehension.  Enlightened, I wondered aloud, whether Nigella was really the best fit for our group of learners.  “I wonder whether she’s too flirtatious on screen?”  Rachel points out, “the ingredients in her recipes aren’t always normal ones either.”

And this is how I came to be teaching 14 students, a recipe on how to make a Tuscan Bread Salad called Panzanella – i mean, it’s not even an English dish!  However, importantly for our group of pre-intermerdiate learners, the ingredients are few and commonly available and the method is simple.

I had never heard of Panzanella until I watched Simon Hopkinson’s, A Good Cook, a few years back.  I’ve raved about him before to you, haven’t I.  I love his recipes and they have been really doable to recreate.  Panzanella has become my favourite taste the summer salad: the one that I make when I want to taste a bit of sunshine, regardless of the weather outside.  The difference in flavour imparted by sun-ripened tomatoes and good extra virgin olive oil sets it apart.  It’s also simple to make, healthy, easily adaptable to other ingredients and filling because of the bread.  Have I sold it to you yet?  I’ll continue.  How about, it’s a great way to use up any stale bread and it uses ingredients that you’re likely to have knocking around in your fridge and cupboards?

onions, tomatoes, bread, panzanella

Simon Hopkinson’s Panzanella recipe, as I presented it to the class. (The italicised parts are what I’ve edited in since, for your benefit.)

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 5 handfuls of sourdough bread (think of a slice of thick bread as being a handful)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 red onion
  • 6 vine tomatoes – you want about 200-250g.  Try substituting cherry tomatoes (see step 5)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • handful of basil leaves

Cucumber, tomatoes, onions, bread, panzanella

Method

  1. Tear the bread into small pieces and put it into a bowl.  The best bread to use is sourdough bread, but you can use any stale bread.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.  You can always add more seasoning later on.
  3. Add the olive oil and red wine to the bowl.  You don’t have to add in all the olive oil, if you want to be a bit healthier.
  4. Put the tomatoes into another bowl and pour boiling water over them.  This helps the skin to come off.
  5. Remove the tomatoes from the water.  Peel off the tomato skins and cut the tomatoes before adding it to the bread.  If you want to be simplify this step, then you can get away with not removing the tomato skins or use the equivalent weight in cherry tomatoes.  I like removing the tomato skins, not just for the therapeutic value but also, because it softens the feel of it in your mouth when you eat it.
  6. Peel a cucumber and cut it into small pieces.  Add it to the bread and tomatoes.
  7. Cut the onion into thin slices and add it to the bread. Try using red onions or shallots because they are milder in flavour.
  8. Finely cut or crush the garlic cloves before you add them to the salad.  You could reduce the number of garlic cloves if you don’t want such a strong flavour.
  9. Tear up the basil leaves.  This is essential and you must not miss them out!
  10. Finally, mix up the ingredients.  I’d suggest mixing them up with your hands because it always tastes better when you do.
  11. You could serve this on a hot summer’s day for lunch with friends, or on any day that you want a taste of summer.
  12. Don’t forget to pair it with a fruity red wine.

And how was the lesson? (I don’t normally ask that at the end of a blog post on food!  Told you my life is about the English Language and lessons plans at the moment.)  The panzanella video with Simon Hopkinson went down really well with the learners, they learned some new words but then I got unexpectedly bogged down for 5 minutes trying to explain basil to the group.  I learned that asking, “What is basil?” is relating noise to notion (there’s some TEFL jargon for you!), and that is not the way to do teach new vocabulary!  I ran out of time to do all the planned activities because of my basil moment, so I wasn’t too sure how it had gone when I finished my part.  The group did appear to be enjoying the subject matter, even with it being Ramadan.  Then in Rachel’s part of the lesson, I was delighted when the learners reproduced the vocabulary in the recipes and produced some really detailed, high quality writing in their recipes.  In fact, our observer really praised Rachel and me on our learners’ outputs.

Well done, pre-intermediate class in room 118!

This weekend I have an assignment to write and a lesson to plans, so I’d better get back to it.  I leave you with this one question – how would you describe/define basil to english as a foreign language learners?

Panzanella

Learning to make Ouzi with Ola and her mum

ouziouzi parcels
I aim to post a blog entry once a month. You wouldn’t think that it would be a difficult task. However, this is the month of September and I feel like I’m running as hard as I can on an upward inclining treadmill, which is about to spit me off because of the amount of work and time required to prepare for the start of an academic year at university, both at work and in the residential life team. I guess, the feeling is intensified this September because I had to move into a new flat, learning the ropes of a new role and area with my promotion to the role of deputy warden, meeting a new team of tutors, looming work deadlines… I’m going to stop trying to explain now because it’s beginning to sound like I’m whinging.

Besides, amidst all the change and chaos, I decided to take a two weeks holiday to Jordan. A luxury, I admit, in September.

So, as the rain beats down against the window of my new study/dressing room, I’m thinking, ‘was it really only a fortnight ago, that I was eating breakfast on a balcony in 30°c, listening to the tannoy of the scrap metal truck making it’s way around the neighbourhood, looking forward to my first arabic cookery lesson?’ I want to go back to that morning, when I made my way to the apartment, drinking in the sun and lingering slowly past the jasmine flowers that seem to overhang the walls on every street corner, so that I could inhale their fragrance one extra breath.

I guess the best thing to do in my case then, is to make some Ouzi.

On holiday, I learned that Jordanian women love FOOD. I had tremendous fun interacting with them whilst eating together, sharing cakes, talking flavours and recipes, helping with cooking. Maybe this is the same for all Arab cultures? I hesitate to generalise. One really interesting cultural food fact that I learned is, that the smaller you dice the tomatoes and cucumber that go into your salad, demonstrates how much you care for your guests. More effort goes into cutting up your salad veg finely, you see. I’d never thought of it in that way before!

The opportunity to cook together with Ola came out of a conversation Ola and I were having about okra! I smile as I remember this because I was telling her that I really don’t like the slimeyness of cooked okra, which prompted her to share a recipe with me. I still remember the arabic for okra (bamieh). Oh my random memory! When Ola mentioned how nice it would be to cook together, I seized on the opportunity – yes please! I’m only here for a fortnight, but I love learning new dishes! My British friends, also asked whether they could join in too. We’d agreed to keep okra for another event and settled on making Ouzi, which is a traditional Jordanian rice dish, that can be served as a rice dish or rice stuffed filo parcels. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that every Jordanian mother has their own family recipe for Ouzi, like the Brits do with roast dinners?

jordanian oven
 

An arabic oven
We met at Ola’s mum’s house. What a privilege and because we were there, I experienced baking with an arabic oven! What did I learn?

  1. Arabic mixed spice is entirely different from UK mixed spice. More savoury rather than sweet. Shall I post a recipe for one later?
  2. An arabic oven automatically has a grill function, by design.
  3. Arabic curry powder is different from UK curry powder, but I don’t know how, so I’m going to use the british stuff for the timebeing.

I’m going to write this recipe a bit differently. It’s in 3 distinct bits and I thought about writing the ingredients list for each separately. I’ve seen a number of recipes laid out like that. However, I think that in this case, it would be annoying NOT to have the whole list of ingredients at the beginning because there are so many spices that go into each stage.

 

ouzi spices

 

Please don’t let the long list of ingredients put you off making this delicious dish. I’ve written down the recipe as Ola’s mum taught me; would it help you to imagine that most Jordanian women would add their own variation of spices to this?

To give you an idea of the flexibility of flavouring in Ouzi, I’ll let Ola interject: “you can add more spices other than cinnamon to the meat (first step) if you like. but even if you don’t it won’t matter because all the flavours will blend at the end, so every spice will add to the flavour regardless of the step at which you add it.”

So, what ingredientsdoes one need to make Ouzi for about 8-10 people?

  • 454g/1lb ground beef or finely diced steak
  • ground cinnamon
  • curry powder
  • chicken or vegetable stock
  • ground green cardamon
  • ground cumin
  • arabic mixed spice or bokharat
  • ground black pepper
  • salt
  • 400g frozen peas
  • 600g or 4 cups of dry basmati rice
  • raw, blanched almond slices/halves
  • 16 sheets of filo pastry
  • ghee or melted butter
  • sunflower or vegetable oil
  • water
  • 1tbsp of freshly chopped parsley

You’ll also need:

  • 2 large baking tins, preferably roasting tins.
  • A soup bowl or ramekin, which you will use to help you shape and stuff your filo pastry sheets with rice.

I think that once you have everything out and ready, then it’s pretty easy to cook and assemble. So, let’s begin.

Cooking the meat

Ingredientsfor the meat part:

  • 454g or 1lb of beef mince, or finely diced beef steak
  • ½tsp cinnamon
  • 1tsp salt

Method:

1. Brown the beef in a frying pan or the stock pan that you’re planning on using for the rice. As the meat is browning, add the cinnamon and the salt. Once the meat is browned, empty it onto a dish.

cooking ouzi meatadding spices to peascooking ouzi rice

Cooking the rice and vegetables

Ingredients for the rice:

  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 400g frozen peas, defrosted in cold water and drained.
  • 600g or 4 cups of basmati rice, rinsed and soaking in cold water
  • 1tsp ground cardamon
  • 1tsp cumin
  • 2tsp arabic mixed spice
  • 1tsp curry powder
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 3 stock cubes
  • boiling water
  • 3 handfuls of raw, blanched almond slices

Method:

1. Put the sunflower oil in the stock pan and add the peas and 1tbsp of salt. Do this on a medium-high heat. Cover the pan to allow the peas to steam for about 5 minutes.

2. Now, comes the fun part of adding all the spices to the peas. Give it a good stir. Break up the stock cubes and add them to the peas as well. You can add a cup of water at this stage, if you think that the peas are starting to burn a bit.

3. Boil the water. Meanwhile, drain the rice and add it to the stock pan. Cover the rice with enough boiling water so that it the rice will steam cook at the end. I’m not very good at measuring out water for this, but I believe it’s something like 1 cup of rice:1¼ cups of water?

4. Bring the water to boil, then cover the rice and peas in the pan with a lid and leave it for 10-15 minutes on a very low heat, until the rice is cooked. Test it – it should be light and fluffy. No al dente nonsense.

5. Heat 1tbsp of sunflower oil in a frying pan and on a medium heat, fry 3 handfuls of the almonds until they brown. Leave to one side until the rice is ready.

frying almondsfrying almonds2mixing rice and meat
6. On a big serving dish, put out half of the rice, then half of the meat. Mix it up. Then repeat until you have used up as much rice and meat as you’d like. Ola’s mum said to us that we can put the rice and meat together in whatever proportion we like, according to taste. Now at this stage, you can add the almonds and eat it just like this. That’s what I did when I made ouzi by myself after my cooking lesson. See below. If you tilt your head, there’s thank you (shukran) written with almonds in arabic.

shukran ouzi
 

serving up ouzi
Or…. you can also wrap up the rice in filo pastry, which is what Ola and her mum taught us to do.

Assembling the filo parcels

Ingredients:

  • The fried almonds
  • The ouzi rice, cooled.
  • 16 sheets of filo pastry
  • ghee or melted butter
  • sunflower oil
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

You’ll also need the baking trays/roasting tins and ramekin/soup bowl at this point

Method:

1. So, you need to leave the rice to cool completely now before adding it to the filo pastry. Otherwise, Ola’s mum shared that from her experience, the filo pastry will break when you come to wrap up the rice with them. She advised preparing the rice part in the morning when making Ouzi for dinner, in order to give the rice sufficient time to cool down. However, if you have left it too late or are impatient, you can speed up the cooling process by laying the rice out as a thin layer on a BIG serving dish so that the rice is exposed to as much cold air as possible. If you want to use warm rice, then on your heads, be it!

bowl to shape ouzi parcelslaying in the filo pastry
2. While you’re waiting for the rice, preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 you could fry the almonds and prepare the baking trays by generously greasing them with oil. When the rice is ready, get your ramekin or soup bowl out, the almonds and the filo pastry sheets. (For the sake of ease, from this point forward, let’s call the ramekin or soup bowl, a bowl.) Cut the sheet so that it’s 2½-3 times the size of the dish that you’re using. It’s possible to cut away extra pastry, so err on the larger size when you first begin.

3. It’s assembly time 🙂 Flour the bowl if you want to doubly make sure that the pastry won’t stick to the sides. Gently place one sheet of filo pastry on top of the bowl, so that the centre of the pastry sheet is in the bowl and the sides of the filo sheet are comfortably overhanging over the edges of the bowl. When we assembled them, Ola used 2 sheets because the pastry broke when we only used one. It’s worth experimenting to find out what will work, but don’t use anymore than 2 filo sheets per parcel. Press the pastry to the sides of the bowl.

layering the ouzi parcelfolded ouzi parcel
4. Add a tablespoon of almonds and then use a large spoon to add the rice until it reaches the top of the dish. Fold the layers of the filo pastry over the top, so that it begins to look like a parcel. You want to have enough pastry on the top so that when you invert the bowl, there will be enough there to form a firm base. Tear away any spare pastry from the top and store it, just in case you need to patch anything up!

5. With one hand on top of the folded sheets, carefully invert the dish and hopefully you’ll get the satisfaction of seeing an unbroken filo parcel appear. Lay the parcel, folded sheets down, carefully on the greased baking tray and move onto the next one. If you find that the filo sheet has torn, gently take it apart and use an additional filo sheet to assemble your parcel again. When lots of them appear on a baking tray, I think that they look like perfect white pillows.

2 ouzi parcels on the golots of perfect parcels of ouzichecking ouzi for baking
6. When they are all assembled, brush them with ghee or melted butter, and cook them in the oven for 3-5 mins, until the parcel bottoms are browned. Check by lifting them up with a spatula. Then take it out and put them under the grill for an additional 2 minutes to brown the tops of the pastry. Essentially, we’re making sure that the pastry is cooked.

baked ouzi parcelsserving up ouzi
7. When the tops are brown, take them out the oven and sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley. Et, voila – your ouzi parcels are ready to be served. Ola’s mum served them with laban, which is thick natural yoghurt which as slightly soured, and baked chicken.

Do you know what makes this really more-ish? The almonds. The nuts add texture, taste and totally complete the dish. When I made ouzi the next day for 13 friends, I made a slight variation of the recipe and missed out the wrapping in parcels bit, in the interests of time. Also, I burnt the almonds and I could have added a bit more salt. Even then, the resounding verdict from the lunch guests was ‘Zaki’ (Tasty). In conclusion, this seems to be a pretty fail-safe recipe.

Thank you Ola and Ola’s mum.

me assembling ouzialison assembling ouzi
 

 

I can smell summer BBQs: here’s easy, peasy, juicy Beef Burgers

I do love how summer smells.

What does summer smell like in your part of the world?

These are my current summer notes from my part of the world:

Freshly cut grass,

Pimms and lemonade,

Honeydew melons,

Lancome Midnight Rose,

salty sweat and soltan sunscreen (let’s keep it real!)

and

The charcoal smoke of barbeques!

bbqjuicy beef burger

I like spotting faces in places, can you spot the faces?

This beef burger recipe originated from Meagan (my Canadian friend from Oreo Cheesecake fame!). Meagan said that she didn’t know how to cook, but produced great cheesecake and these juicy homemade beef burgers. Maybe they have a much higher standard of home-cooking in Canada compared to the UK?!

She never told me the recipe when she lived in the UK. Was it because she was stunned that none of her UK friends had ever thought to make their own burgers and was worried that our brains would get fried by the complexity of it?

I’m joking. I think it was just me, at that point, who couldn’t getthat home-made burgers could be so easy to make. When I visited Meagan and Darren a few years ago, in Canada, I watched Meagan make them in less than 10 minutes: that’s how she convinced me of the utter ease of this recipe. Oh winter BBQs! That’s another great thing about Canadians. It was the beginning of March, there had been lots of snowfall, temperatures had plummeted to -25C during the day, and Meagan and Darren decided to put on the BBQ. A gas one that sits out on their porch, naturally. Why not?

But back to the subject. These home-made beef burgers are really easy and quick to make, cheaper and much tastier than any you’ll buy in a shop. I think that there are three reasons why these burgers are so simple to make:

  1. They use ingredients that most of us have in our cupboards.
  2. I use porridge oats which eliminates the step of making bread crumbs or crushing cream crackers.
  3. I use spring onions instead of onions, because no matter how finely I chop white or red onions, the onions always cause my burgers to fall apart in the cooking process. Spring onions provide the flavour and the burger holds together.

Please feel special because I have especially measured out the ingredients for you in order to give you this recipe. When I make these burgers I normally do a few squirts of tomato ketchup, mustard, a handful or so of oats, a bit of salt and pepper, as many chopped herbs as I fancy etc. So, if you’d like to, you can use my ingredients as a guide, and flavour it as your tastebuds lead you. On the other hand, I do get irritated with recipes that say things like, a bunch of dill or coriander etc., it’s just not helpful when you’re starting out. Oh I remember, back in the day, when I first came across Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef recipes. His personality and style of cooking appealed to me. However, when he wrote things like ‘a glug of olive oil’ it was utterly meaningless and put me off making his recipes. Please! I don’t know what you mean by a glug or a bunch!

This recipe makes 8 medium sized burgers (approx 75g each). I pretty much double the recipe if I want to make more and modify the seasoning (by that I mean everything apart from the beef, spring onions and egg) depending on how it tastes. You can eat raw beef so it’s possible to taste as you go, only if you want to! I don’t mind it.

burger ingredients

Ingredients for Easy, Peasy, Juicy Beef Burgers

  • 1lb/454g minced beef aka ground beef in the US
  • (Highly recommended, but optional) 2 spring onions, finely chopped – I use all of the spring onion including the green bits on the top. I know that some people only use the white bits.
  • 50g porridge oats, or rolled oats
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 3 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 1½ tbsp barbeque sauce (woodsmoke flavour preferably)
  • 1½ tbsp french mustard
  • a shake of worcester sauce – difficult to measure that one, sorry.
  • ½ tsp salt (add more if needed)
  • ½ tsp ground pepper (add more if needed)
  • Optional herb flavourings. Add these according to how you want them to taste, but here’s a guideline: 10 stalks of parsley with leaves – finely chopped, including the stalks and 6 stalks of dill, finely chopped.

Method

1. Get a plate/tupperware box to place the burgers that you’re about to make before cooking them.

pre-mushing the burger

2. Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and mush [mix thoroughly] them together with your hands.

hand sized burgerssarah

3. Wet your hands so that the mixture doesn’t stick to your hands. Pick up a handful of the beef mixture. I weighed this out specially for you guys, and I think that anything between 70-80g is a good size. Gently roll it into a ball, then press it down firmly into the thickness that you want it, so that it forms flat-ish, round-ish disc shape. If you’d like to freeze them at this stage, spread them out on a baking sheet in one layer and place the sheet flat in the freezer. Once the burgers have frozen, you can store them into a bigger freezer bag. Take them out the day or morning that you want to eat them and let them defrost completely before cooking.

4. Barbeque them or grill them – the choice is yours, or if you live in the UK, depends on the weather. Serve as you like. My current favourite is to eat them with fresh bread with some guacamole, freshly cut tomatoes, and salad.

I’ve since taught this recipe a couple of times. Always with a bellyful of laughs and burgers.

yummy beef burgers

Simon Hopkinson’s Cheese and Onion Pie

cheese and onion pie

Last week, I made Simon Hopkinson’s Cheese and Onion pie in celebration of national pie week. I can’t recommend it highly enough. This pie is really tasty and simple to make, and even easier if you use ready-made shortcrust pastry from the shop.

Last summer, when I watched Simon Hopkinson make this on the Good Chef, I thought that he made it seem so irresistably tasty and simple. I don’t think that I’d made a savoury shortcrust pastry pie before this one (correct me if your memory is better than mine). If you want to simplify it with shop-bought shortcrust pastry and don’t count seasoning, then I count 3 cheap and easy to obtain ingredients that go into this pie: cheese, onions, pastry.

Okay, so I realise that the phrase ‘shop-bought shortcrust pastry’ keeps coming up. Reserve your judgement please. I’m making a stand for all of us who struggle to make shortcrust pastry from scratch without it falling apart. I hadn’t realised that there was so much disdain out there for those of us who buy blocks of ready made shortcrust pastry. But when I put them on the conveyor belt at Tesco’s, the cashier and the lady in front of me in the queue immediately tut-tutted me for not making it myself. “It’s so simple, you know to make it at home. You just put it in the food processor and it’s done.” No, believe me! It’s not that simple. I tried your method and Simon’s method and it ended up falling apart like a patchwork quilt. See what a disaster it was the only time I tried making the pastry from scratch.

blissfully ignorant short crustsad shortcrust pastryjust fell apart short crust

1. Blissful ignorance of the disaster to come; 2. Look – the pastry even looks sad!; 3. and it all falls apart.

Note to self: practise making pastry.

Since the summer, I’ve already made this pie four times and I’m no cheese-lover. So I’m pretty much saying that, I love this pie. Admittedly, having watched Simon Hopkinson’s video again, my onions look browner and my pastry more soggy. Even so. I’m choosing to imagine that this pie will get scrummier and scrummier the more I practice making it.

So here’s the yummy Simon Hopkinson’s Cheese and Onion Pie. It does take a while… so choose a moment when you don’t mind waiting at least 2 hours from start to finish.

First step in this pie making is sorting out the pastry side of things. I’ll give you the ingredients for the pastry a la Simon Hopkinson, which means that I’ve got a note of it to attempt it at another time. If you’ve decided on the ready-made stuff then don’t forget to preheat the oven at this stage and grease your pie dish. (read below)

Ingredients for the pastry

  • 60g/2oz cold butter, diced into small pieces
  • 60g/20z lard, diced into small pieces
  • 200g/7oz self-raising flour
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 2-3 tbsp of very, very, very cold water

Alternatively… a 350g block of ready-made shortcrust pastry. Last time, I bought the ready rolled stuff because it was on offer. Tee hee….

Method for the pastry

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 and grease a pie dish 20cm wide. I have used both a pryex pie dish and a loose-bottomed deep flan dish.

cheese and onion pie 3cheese and onion pie 2

2. Place the butter, lard, flour and salt in a food processor and mix until it looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Alternatively place the ingredients in a large bowl and with your fingertips, gently rub the fat into the flour so that it looks like coarse breadcrumbs. You don’t want to be making them too fine because that means that the fat gets too warm.

3. Add 2tbsp of water to bind the mixture. If it looks a bit dry then add in one more tbsp of water.

4. Cut off a third of it and lay it to one side. Roll out the remainder 2/3 of the pastry so that it is 5mm thick and lay it on the pie dish, pressing it against the sides. Remember to prick the bottom of it. Roll out the remaining third of pastry into a circle so that it will cover the pie. Leave it to one side and turn your focus to the pie filling.

frying onions

lancashire cheese coarsely grated

Ingredients for the Pie Filling

  • 25g/1oz butter
  • 3 white onions, sliced
  • 250g Lancashire Cheese, grated
  • approx 150ml cold water
  • Salt & Pepper to season
  • milk for sealing and glazing

Method for the Pie Filling

1. Roughly slice the onions, melt butter in the frying pan on a medium heat and add the onions to the pan. Fry the onions on a medium-low heat. Season with lots of pepper and some salt as you do this. Add 150ml water to the pan so that the onions stay moist. Maybe that’s where I go wrong and allow the onions to brown before adding the water. Next time! Once the onions have softened and become translucent, take the pan off the heat and allow the onions to cool down slightly.

2. In the waiting time, grate the cheese.

3. Time to layer up! Add half of the onions and spread them out in the pie. Then add a layer of cheese. Follow with a second layer of onions and another layer of cheese.

cheese and onion pie 4

I made the cuts where I had accidentally made holes in the pastry

4. I sometimes forget this step, but try and remember to brush the rolled out circle of pastry with milk, and lay it milk side down onto the pie to cover the cheese and onion mixture. Gently press the pastry cover on the top and press it against the sides to let the air out and also to seal the pie.

5. Cut off the pastry that’s hanging over with a sharp knife. At this point, I decided to copy Simon and make a pretty pattern on the top of my pastry. It’s not very important to do. What is more important is to make three 1 inch incisions in the pastry so that the air can come out while it’s cooking. Then glaze the top with milk.

6. Bake it in the oven for 40-50 minutes. Take it out and let it cool down for at least 20 minutes before cutting into it and taking a bite.

The verdict? MMMmmmmm… Heavenly.

cheese and onion pie 1

Roasted Beetroot and Goats Cheese Salad


roasted beetroot and goats cheese salad

Do you remember how I said that I don’t care much for the taste of beetroot. Well… I take it back somewhat with this beetroot and goats cheese salad. It turns out that I can’t resist anything with a goats cheese and balsamic syrup combination, even when beetroot is added to the mix. I’d make the salad again but tweak it slightly next time.

As I liked it the taste of it so much, I thought I’d make a feature out of this salad: I found it tucked away in the corner of the BBC good food recipe for the beetroot risotto that I made, labelled as another dish that I could TRY out. So I nicked a few beetroot quarters and rustled up this salad as a lunchtime warm up for my piece de resistance – the fuschia risotto. I won’t say it here, but you can imagine what all this beetroot eating did to my insides!

I’ve added some notes to myself in italics. You could try them out as well, if you fancy, or not. Roasted Beetroot and Goats Cheese Salad, adapted from BBC Good Food – serves 2.

Ingredients

  • 250g raw beetroot – about 3 medium sized beetroots.
  • 2 plates of salad leaves. I had rocket, lambs lettuce and some other lettuce leave (i’ve looked it up – it’s oak leaf lettuce).
  • 100g goats cheese
  • Balsamic Syrup/Glaze

Dressing:

  • 2 parts Extra Virgin Olive Oil to
  • 1 part Balsamic Vinegar
  • Salt and Pepper

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F Gas Mark 4 and line a baking tin with foil.

2. Wash, peel, cut and quarter the beetroot*. Coat them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper and roast for 45 mins. Add some extra flavours – could try a herb like rosemary or thyme; honey; balsamic vinegar

*I’ve read that you can peel the skin off a beetroot quite easily once it’s been roasted but I’ve yet to try that method.

prepare to roast beetrootroasted beetroot

3. Wash and dry some fresh salad leaves. Make a dressing from 2 parts olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar, seasoned with salt and pepper but don’t add it just yet. I’d also be keen to try some pumpkin or walnut oil on this salad, just to see what it tastes like with it.

4. When 40 minutes of beetroot roasting time has passed, place a hefty slice of goats cheese on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof or baking paper (makes getting the goats cheese off much easier) and pop it into the oven for 7 mins.

goats cheese

beetroot and goats cheese salad

5. Take the beetroot and goats cheese out the oven. Arrange the roasted beetroot on top (I chose the ones that looked a bit more crisp and caramelised) of the salad leaves. Drizzle the dressing on top. Then, slide the bubbling goats cheese on top. Scatter some nuts on top – maybe some walnuts or pine nuts.

6. Scoosh some lovely balsamic syrup around the salad and… Ta Da! Absolutely delicious.

My tip to you – Don’t miss out the balsamic syrup: it completes the dish by bringing all the flavours together.

finished beetroot and goats cheese salad

A very pink (in fact, it’s fuschia) beetroot risotto!

Very pink risotto

The photo Emily took on Sunday of our colourful meal.

My sister gave me 1kg of homegrown beetroot at the end of July and I have almost used them all up. Beetroot ticks the box of ‘unfamiliar ingredient’ that normally puts me off making a recipe. I’ve experimented with sweet and savoury recipes provided by BBC good food and delicious magazine and it’s taken away some of my unease about cooking with beetroot. My learning points:

  1. Always wear an apron. Beetroot stains are devilish to get out!
  2. Kitchen gloves are a godsend when you need to grate beetroot. It prevents a) bits of fingernail or thumb grated in and b) very pink stained hands.

Sadly, however, my main discovery has been… I really don’t like the taste of beetroot. It makes me purse my lips in a funny way as I eat it because I’m not keen on the flavour. Then, it sits rather uneasily in my stomach. So, there you go. I’ve finally admitted it. In fact, if I was the b-list celebrity being interviewed by James Martin on Saturday Morning Kitchen, I would say that my food hate is beetroot. It has even trumped my previous food hate of congealed cheese.

Which is a bit sad really, because I’d like to like this vegetable. It is so very interesting and colourful. I love how it adds a bright fuschia colour to the dish. Besides, everyone seems to like eating beetroot. In fact, I’ve only ever come across one other person who doesn’t like the taste of it.

You’ll notice I’ve written italicised notes to myself next to parts in the method, with my ideas of how I could adapt this recipe so that it will suit my palate. The thing is, this has had lots of rave reviews on the BBC good food website. I bet they all liked beetroot to start off with. I mean, which silly person, who doesn’t really like beetroot, chooses to make a dish that’s all about beetroot?

Anyway, that is just me and my tastebuds. My friends, Emily and JCT came round to help finish off the beetroot risotto the next day. They liked the flavour and especially the colour. And you know what? I’d love to serve it as a prima plata at a dinner party, because it would serve as such a great conversation starter! So for all of your beetroot lovers, let me tell you about how I made beetroot risotto, adapted from BBC Good Food.

List of Ingredients

  • 500g raw beetroot, washed peeled and cut into quarters. 500g is about 5 or 6 small-medium sized beetroots.
  • 25g butter
  • 1 onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 250g risotto rice
  • a large glass of white wine
  • 750ml hot vegetable stock (or chicken stock, you’re not vegetarian)
  • 2 handfuls of parmesan (about 75g).
  • To serve: natural yoghurt or creme fraiche and sprigs of dill, or a slice of goats cheese, balsamic syrup and a scattering of fresh thyme leaves.

Method

1. Prepare your beetroot to roast in the oven. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a large baking pan with foil. I guess this prevents the beetroot staining the tin. Clean, peel (wear the kitchen gloves!) and quarter the beetroot. Coat with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Put them in the oven to bake for 45 mins.* I’d like to bring out more of the beetroot’s sweetness. So, next time, I think I’ll add balsamic vinegar or honey and maybe some sprigs of thyme.

*I roasted these at lunchtime, so that I could use some beetroot for a lunchtime roasted beetroot and goats cheese salad. The recipe recommended it as a ‘you could also do…’, so I did. But, if you wanted to save on time, you could choose to start on the risotto.

2. Melt the butter in an large oven proof pan that has a lid (if it doesn’t have a lid, then use cover with tin foil). I decided to test out the oven-proofness of my largest sized Judge saucepan for this recipe. (It passed the test.)

3. Chop the onions and garlic and fry them at a moderate heat until soft. Add the rice and give it a good stir so that every bit of rice is coated.

4. Now, my favourite bit – add that glass of wine. Mmmm… Stir the rice some more. Once most of the wine has disappered in the pan, add ALL of that hot stock. Bring to boil for 5 mins, stir, cover with a lid and then pop it into the oven for about 15 mins. Or until the rice is cooked, but slightly al dente.

add all the stock to the pantrying to puree the beetrootunsuccessful puree

5. When the beetroot is done, take a quarter of them and puree them. I put them in a blender and they failed to puree. Hmmm…. Cut the remainder of the roasted beetroot into small chunks. Okay, so a few options here. Next time, cut the remaining beetroot into very small chunks, say the size of a 1cm cube. Better still, if I can figure it out, puree the whole lot!

6. Grate the parmesan.

7. Take the risotto out of the oven, once the rice is ready. There should still be a bit of liquid in there. Stir in a handful of the parmesan and the beetroot puree and chunks. Watch the risotto gradually transform into a vibrant shade of PINK, as you stir and the beetroot colour bleeds into the rice. I loved watching this bit.

Fuschia Beetroot Risotto

8. Serve immediately with more parmesan cheese and a contrasting white colour. The first time, I had a dollop of yoghurt, as I didn’t have any creme fraiche, and a scattering of dill. Sadly, I only had dried dill but I could taste the life that herb brought to the dish. I’d definitely use the fresh stuff next time though. I love fresh dill. The second day, I had a hunk of goats cheese and a squirt of balsamic syrup. Definitely use fresh dill another time but if I’ve used thyme in the roasting process, then how about a few fresh thyme leaves instead of the dill?

beetroot risotto and yoghurt

Sicilian Caponata (Sicilian Aubergine Relish)

Sicilian_Caponata

I fell in love with antipasti when I holidayed in the north-western tip of Sicily last September. In the past, I’d completely avoided antipasti: the magazine diet pages advise against eating antipasti for their hidden calories. I’m not entirely sure what changed my mind, but I had definitely ditched that notion of avoiding antipasti by the time I went on holiday. And I’m glad I did, because it certainly made for a glorious gastronomical adventure.

menu del diaantipasti

breadsicilian restaurant

On our final night we stopped by the beautiful seaside town of Castellammare del Golfo, which was dressing itself up for a feria. Sarah and I both love good food so we wanted to finish our holiday with a delicious italian meal. We chanced upon this newly-opened restaurant and entered on the recommendation of an italian man (who was also a chef!) we bumped into at the corner of the street. He spoke english, having worked in England for a few years, and he was holidaying with his family in the area. I do love those serendipitous moments. I think of them as God showing me favour. Others might call them fortune or chance. I absolutely recommend this restaurant to you, but I’m not sure where it is. Maybe the photo will help you find it. We were served a delicious menu del dia. However, truth be told, I was full after the antipasti. I was ever so apologetic to the chef for leaving food on my subsequent platas.

Before we left the beautiful island, with the aquamarine shoreline, I began to dream up an time when we could eat sunny, sicilian food in the backdrop of a wet, grumpy, english winter. The occasion presented itself when I arranged a sicilian evening with my friends Helen and John, who had been to Sicily earlier in the year. Helen and I decided that we’d only serve antipasti, bread and dessert. We didn’t plan a main course. The benefit of hindsight from our holidays.

Helen made tasty parma ham rolls stuffed with cream cheese and mango and a flavourful french bean, sundried tomato and feta cheese salad. My contribution to the evening: homemade caponata and sicilian bread. (I’ll write about my tentative endeavours into bread making another day.)

sicilian evening

Caponata isn’t much to look at; it tastes spectacular. How do I describe the flavour? Sweet, tangy, a bit crunchy, moreish. Perhaps, one would bluntly call it an aubergine chutney, but that doesn’t sound very appealing to me. The juices from the vegetables makes a beautiful sauce and the aubergines soak it up. Yum. It was one of the antipasti that was constantly served to us when I was out there.

When I found this Antonio Carluccio recipe(which is in his Italia cookbook), one of the things that almost put me off making this dishis the looooong list of ingredients. But then I remembered my resolution to push my culinary self. Besides, I realised that I had most of the ingredients and I only needed to buy capers and olives… and celery and aubergines and tomatoes.. It really does taste pretty special and it is a very simple dish to make. Admittedly the list of ingredients is on the long side. There’s just quite a bit of prepping and chopping at the start.

The recipe recommended you want the pale violet aubergine that is native to Italy. I found it tricky to source in Coventry so I satisfied myself with the deep violet variety.

Oh, and something else to note. Use a really large, deep frying pan, or a large wok. I started out with a frying pan, then swapped it for a stock pan because of the quantity of the ingredients.

Ingredients

  • 600g aubergines (about 3 medium sized aubergines), cut into 1 inch cubes
  • Salt
  • 6-8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, or just olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 celery hearts, cut into little chunks
  • 500g ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 100g pitted green olives
  • 60g salted capers, rinsed
  • 100g slivered almonds
  • 2 ripe but firm pears, cored, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 50ml white wine vinegar

Method

1. In a large bowl, immerse the cubed aubergine in salted water for 1 hour. Then drain and press down firmly on the aubergines in order to squeeze as much water out. Transfer the aubergine onto a clean tea towel and pat the aubergine cubes dry. Prepare a plate with a few sheets of kitchen paper.

2. Heat most of the extra virgin olive oil in the frying pan, or stock pan and fry the aubergine cubes until it’s a golden colour, rather than a bit burnt like mine. Transfer the fried aubergine onto the plate with the kitchen paper, so that as much oil is absorbed. Leave to one side.

fried aubergine caponataadding everything else caponata

simmering caponataadding aubergine, sugar and vinegar

3. Add more oil, if necessary, and fry the onion until soft. Add in all the other ingredients, except the caster sugar and white wine vinegar (really important you leave these out for now). So, that’s the celery, tomatoes, olives, capers, almonds, pears, cinnamon and cloves. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

4. Add the aubergines to the pan, with the sugar and white wine vinegar. Season with salt, if required. Cook for another 10-15 minutes. Take it off the heat and let it cool down.

Caponata can be eaten warm, and believe me, I couldn’t resist a wee taste of it. But it is, oh so delicious, when served cold.

sicilian caponata

This made A LOT. I had loads leftover from the sicilian evening. I took it to a friend’s birthday party later that week, by which time the flavours had matured and we kept going back for some more. I gave some to a sicilian student, I stirred it through pasta to make packed lunches, and finally finished it off with a friend of mine with some bread and salad. It’s really handy to have a few jars of this in the fridge for a delicious lunch, or a contribution to a dinner.