Archive for May, 2011

May 19, 2011

As a starter a cappuccino, please

Asparagus cappuccino with cinnamon air

Would you start your dinner with a cappuccino? If you are Italian, of course you won’t even finish your dinner with a cappuccino, let alone have it as an amuse-bouche.

However, this is what I did tonight. And I can’t advise you strongly enough to do the same, asap.

It all started with a restaurant.

I have already told you about my favourite restaurant here. When I lived in Wales my favourite restaurant was exactly the opposite type: posh food, made only with local, seasonal  ingredients, run by local people, in a stunning location. The restaurant was renown to be among the ‘fine dining’ ones in the area, thus we waited quite a while before trying it: posh places ended up all too often in the same ol’ barely edible food and a double price tag.

When we did go there eventually, we were truly sorry for not having eaten there before. We were truly sorry for having previously wasted our money in other restaurants, posh or not. The dining room had just a few tables and was set in a stone cottage, immersed in an ”area of outstanding natural beauty”, in front of the ocean. Part of the charms was due to the cozy, homely atmosphere given by the huge stone fireplace in that tiny, dark room. We knew the food was different the moment we were served home-made bread of two types, both really good: finding good bread in Wales was harder than finding the Holy Grail. The menu was seasonal, local, well thought after, and cooked with skill . You see, eating out in Wales was an adrenaline sport: we tried a new place not much with the expectation of getting good food, but more with the hope of avoiding food poisoning. On the other hand, I have cooked some of my most amazing meals there: local produce was nothing short of stunning.

May 15, 2011

Need a spring clean? Risi e bisi

Risi e bisi

Sometimes I need comfort, but not too many calories.  I need to pair a boost of spring energy with a warm hug. I need to have something exciting enough to fulfill my taste buds, without challenging them with exotic flavours. There is  one food to match the bill. Risotto. Namely, risotto ai piselli.

In Italy piselli are heralds of spring – early spring. Here up North they are more of a herald of Summer, but never mind: the important thing is that I know that every year I can count on my fix of fresh peas. Shelling the plump pods, getting my nails green, already feels like healing from whatever is aching. I love the way the pods crack open and fill the air with their sweet smell. I love running my hand in the fresh bounty of peas. I like them so much that when they are really tiny I’d eat them raw, until I feel a bit queasy.

Today I bought fresh peas for the first time this year. My partner had already made me promise – weeks ago! – that I’d hold my usual culinary experiments and cook the very first peas in form of a ‘humble’ risotto. One of his favourite dishes, and I have to admit, now that I think about it, also one of mine. I never feel like cooking risotto: I used to eat so much of it growing up, that I have developed a thick crust of indifference to it. I will not accept any risotto less than outstanding, and it would rarely excite me. But when I actually cook it, well, it feels like meeting a friend after a long time, and finding out that the years did not change you in the end, and you still are really fond of each other. A very good feeling.

May 13, 2011

Smoky, fresh, sour, nutty: a lentil salad

Lentil aubergine salad

This salad looks a bit demure. It can be given a makeover with a nice presentation, on special occasions, but some people will keep thinking it is just another boring vegan blob. As if someone had invited also the ugly sister to a dinner party just to please the beautiful one.

It does not smell particularly strong – maybe a whiff of sour and mint if you go really close, but when it is at room temperature, it does not really hit.

And then you taste it, and it explodes. It smacks you in the face with smokiness, then unfolds its complexity as you chew through it. Fresh and sour notes come in, then meatiness and a hint of sweetness as you tackle the lentils, while the slightly bitter, crunchy, nutty walnuts predominate as you chew them last.

The heart of this salad is smoked aubergine, the one used for baba ghanoush dip.  I had never smoked an aubergine before starting to learn about Middle East food. I always thought the natural destiny for an aubergine, the right, glorious end  for its charming black beauty,  is to be deep-fried in olive oil. More often than not I ended up playing it down, pan roasting it in cubes with just a bit of oil, roasting it in the oven, cut into wedges, or even grilling it, sliced. A defeat for taste.

May 9, 2011

Zum Grillen

Barbecued mushrooms

It is again that time of the year where white signals of smoke dot the valley.

Germans love grilling. Even at Christmas markets there is always a grill stand, with a spectacular round grill hanging from the ceiling, suspended over glimmering charcoals. They grill the much-loved Wursts in all varieties, but also Frikadellen (the über-fatty original of hamburgers), and pre-marinade steaks, mainly pork. There was a recent article on the  local newspaper about how local political representatives decided to volunteer for grilling for charity – the CDU, the right-wing, conservative party, has decided to take care of the Würstchen, while the SPD, the more left-wing party, is going to barbecue pork steaks. Whether the Greens were offering a vegetarian option was not reported, but highly unlikely in my opinion. It was specified however that in order to simplify the organisation, the public should bring the drinks – that is, beer. Both parties are quite moderate in their positions anyway, and the newspaper made it clear that no political connotation would be given to food choice. Here is the picture appearing on the original article:

Another different grilling contribution is given by the numerous Gastarbeitern (guest workers) of Turkish origin who live here. I recently read a book written by a German-Turkish journalist, who grew up in Duisburg, a stone’s throw away from where I live. The title is sweet – “Einmal Hans mit sharfer Soβe”,  Hans being  the archetypical German boy. The title can be translated as : ‘A Hans served with hot sauce, please’. A phrase you’d use to order a kebab. Such a pretty way to capture the author’s torn identity between being German and Turkish, especially when it comes to finding the right man. She herself does not cook, but devotes pages and pages to her mom’s epic cooking and her dad’s equally epic barbecues. Allegedly in Berlin the Turkish habit of grilling in all spaces of public green, particularly in front of the Parliament, has caused some initial grumbles among the Germans, who, after an adjustment period,  have actually joined the Turks in their grilling frenzy.

May 4, 2011

Cinco de Mayo and spicy cocoa brownies

Spicy cocoa brownies

One of our closest friends here is a couple from the US. They introduced us to Thanksgiving, and tomorrow we are going to celebrate together Cinco de Mayo. Originally a Mexican historical event, it is felt strongly by the Latino community in the US and as such adopted by all the people, especially my friend, who comes from California. We have been chasing ‘the best Mexican food of Nordrhein-Westfalen’ together for quite a while now: my friends love Mexican food and they miss it considerably. So far we have had no luck. Even the best Mexican food here seems to be pretty mediocre. So, tomorrow we are going to have a real fiesta at their place. I volunteered to bring dessert and decided it had to be a chocolate one.

I actually use my blog quite a lot: after all, I am collecting here my favourite recipes with my own notes, which is definitely useful, at least for me. I was quite shocked then when I realized I had not talked to you about the best cocoa brownies yet – a recipe by Alice Mendrich I’ve been making for quite a while, and I’ve also been sharing with all the people who have tasted them. There is something about these brownies that the others don’t have. I normally prefer chocolate to cocoa in cakes; however, although chocolate brownies are good, to me they miss some essential brownie quality. I can’t really explain it better than that, but I always had the feeling that chocolate brownies were a mere fattier and sweeter version of molleux au chocolat. These cocoa ones are totally satisfying on their own, on the other hand. Maybe, like Deb says, it is that they taste as if they may come out of a box, in a good way, and I associate that mouthfeel with brownies. Anyway, I’ve found myself baking this recipe in many occasions: it is totally fuss free, very good, and it does not require me to have chocolate bars at home when I want to whip up a batch. Chocolate bars are not a cupboard ingredient to me. They tend to disappear too quickly to qualify.

May 2, 2011

From Germany to Afghanistan: a few recipes

Afghan turkey and cauliflower stew

If I were to invite you out for dinner where I live, I would bring you to my favourite local restaurant, an Afghani restaurant.  Before eating there, I had no clue about Afghan food. Then one night – I think it was summer – for some reason our scheduled plan failed, we needed food, we did not feel like the same ol’kebab, and we decided to try this one, a bit randomly. I remembered driving past it while house hunting: the apartment we saw that night was the creepiest one ever, for the record, but it was worth going there just for noticing this place. ‘Kabul Restaurant’.

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