Posts tagged ‘Middle East’

April 15, 2012

Guest post: how to improve your oven for pizza

Pita bread and pizza stone

Do you ever fantasize about what type of house you’d want to live in if you had access to an unlimited amount of money? Something that you would like to have, if you could and would afford a totally unreasonable luxury? I do, of course; and after careful considerations I have come up with two dreams.

One is a swimming pool – boring, I know, but I just love swimming. I need to sort out the details. I would want a house by the sea, a very warm and calm sea. However an indoors swimming pool makes sense at night or in winter: I’d want some limited winter in my dream world. Or actually, it may well be that my house is close to a very scenic ocean, which produces the most soothing background noise, but makes swimming in the sea a bit tricky. And I can’t rule out the possibility that I am going to learn how to surf and I’d want to live close to a good surf beach – again, not so great for swimming. Anyway. I still need to sort out the details, but swimming pool is totally unreasonable dream number one.

Number two is a pizza oven.

I have always wanted to have one. There is no substitute for a proper pizza oven to have a great pizza, and there is nothing like a great pizza. It is hands down the thing I miss the most of Italy. Such oven belongs to the ‘unreasonable luxury’ world. It is not as expensive as a swimming pool, but running one regularly is a luxury. Those beasts are huge, for one thing, and they need to be heated for hours, so they are just not really compatible with the scales of an average household. I even have a friend who owns one, and we used it once for a party. It was great fun and some hard work. But there are only that many times when I get to invite fifty people. And still, to make really good pizza, you need that proper oven.

So when Heather from Clay Ovens asked me if I would be interested to share with you a few tips on how to build your own stone pizza oven, I could not say no, literally. I had to know more. The Clay Oven Company is a family run business based in London, and they build ovens professionally. They build much more than pizza ovens, actually: I did not realize before how many interesting recipes you can prepare once you have the basic facility of a very hot oven set up and running. Here are the tips they have kindly agreed to share with us. I, for one, can’t wait to try them all.

January 25, 2012

A new love: freekeh

Freekeh salad

Meet my latest food crush. Crunchy and juicy, with a challenging but yielding texture interesting enough to make you want for more, but not actually get tired of it. A subtle whiff of smoke, the smell of a thousand and one nights, and its bronzed hue betray its Middle East origin, while a tiny hint of grass makes you dream of the wild outdoors. Like all love relationships, it wouldn’t work long-term, if it were not good for you.

Meet Freekeh, Green wheat. Think unripe grain, smoked to dryness. Better than it sounds. Easier than it sounds, too. I have never much liked simple whole wheat, but this is another story. This is up there with farro. This is marriage material.

September 11, 2011

A trail from the past

Licorice sticks

I think Italians inevitably have a strongly felt relationship with the past. We see traces of it everywhere. Our particularly grand past left  not only works of arts: it is quite common to walk on carriage tracks on a stone paved Roman highway, or that the basis of our modern water system actually follows a Roman aqueduct. These traces don’t have much to do with the hours of history at school, although an illuminated teacher may bring you to see otherwise. When I was a child I loved reading about the past, about archeology and lost civilizations; what I hated were the hours of memorizing dates and  names of kings and generals and battles. I just could not see what a devastating impact those now boring and sterile events had had on the daily lives of those who lived at that time, how they had changed their world, as well as, in the end, shaped mine.

Now I am a little wiser  but not much more learned, unfortunately. At least, I do recognize the vital role of kings and battles, and anyway this is often all we know. Normal people, people like us, just don’t leave a trail that will be visible after more than a few generations.  Do you have an idea of many generations it is, 5000 years? I certainly don’t. I can’t imagine such a remote past, beyond the few facts historians are able to tell us.

And yet. Laura Kelley, the talented author and learned scholar behind The Silk Road Gourmet, is challenging everyone to get in touch quite intimately with possibly one of the first civilizations in history, the one on chapter 1 of book 1 of a history manual: the Mesopotamians. She has selected a number of recipes of Mesopotamian origin, adding new interpretations to the difficult and controversial translations. Of course the recipes are sketchy at best – but anyway, did you ever try to ask an Italian nonna for a recipe? I gave a try to ‘Meat with licorice’, one of the oldest recipes in the challenge and probably also in history,  which I translated into a fancy looking  gastro-pub style pork tendeloin with licorice sauce. It was delicious. If you have never thought of using licorice with savoury dishes, you should give it a try (I’m not talking about licorice candy, the black sweet strings or rolls, I’m talking about licorice root here – I’ve seen recipes using the black industrial stuff when researching this dish, but the idea really freaks me out). There are already many more interpretations of other dishes there if you want to have a look, from stews to pilafs to dessert, even. And even more dishes waiting for a modern eye revision. Head over to Laura’s and see if anything inspires you. There is a lot to discover.

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.

April 4, 2011

Instant summer fix: roasted tomatoes, rucola, aubergine

Roasted aubergine and tomato salad

Ok, ok, I know, officially spring is coming. I know that soon I will have too much asparagus to cook with and zillions of the best strawberries ever. But in Germany spring does arrive late. Oh so late. Yesterday an English friend of mine was telling us how he’s so fed up with the trees for not displaying any #@&%$? leaves, yet. The weather did turn milder, but the fields are still bare.

So for the moment I’m relying on the usual leeks, potatoes, cabbage, plus more or less tasty imports. I live with a serial tomato eater. When we came back here after being in Calabria for a month, we went to shop for food. While I was all in all quite happy with the selection of products, he bursted out: “Where are the vegetables I can actually  eat?”. He loves Brussel sprouts, potatoes and leeks, but when you grow up with tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, you miss them bitterly. Now and again I buy them because food nostalgia is too strong.

March 5, 2011

Sprouted chickpea falafel: spring is in the air

Sprouted chickpea falafel

Have you ever tried sprouting beans? I hadn’t until about a month ago. I was intimidated, with all the times I had forgotten beans into their soaking water and they fermented, by the expensive and complicated looking sprouting kits at the organic store, and, last but not least, by the fact that some sprouts are poisonous. I have never understood how sprouting works, other than it is an incredibly complex process, involving structural changes in the biochemistry of a seed, which means that what you eat is going to be different. In most cases, better.

February 20, 2011

How to make carrots interesting

Spicy carrot salat

There is always some vegetable that even the most hard-core vegetable lover dislikes. I count myself as a hard-core vegetable lover: I can rant for hours about the secret pleasures of artichokes or the juicy consistency of asparagus. I eat vegetables because they are good-for-you, sure, but mainly I eat them because I want to eat them. I want to cook with them. Whenever I go to the market, I have to stop myself from buying too much. I am a compulsive vegetable shopper, I admit it, and nothing excites me more than a good-looking (and better tasting!) fruit and veggies stall. My vegetable love has always been one of the distinctive tract of my personality: my sister is the one who eats only meat, I am the one who eats only vegs. We are a team, when it comes to eating.

January 21, 2011

An orange binge

Orange Almond Cake

Do you like oranges? And if you do, are you a moderate fan, or could you eat oranges until you change colour?

Here we definitely belong to the second category. I am surrounded by orange lovers.  My sister once had some serious talks with her doctor about orange addiction – allegedly vitamin A toxic effects are to be considered if you eat a kilo of oranges per day, six months a year. Since when I am here in Calabria, I have been eating comparable amounts as well: the father of my partner grows  oranges, mandarins and lemons, and with great trepidation we have watched the oranges get better and better as the season progresses. They will keep improving until March apparently, but trust me when I say they are already the best oranges I’ve ever eaten. They are so good I even forgot to cook with them, apart from the occasional salad. And I do love orange desserts.

October 18, 2010

Cooking rice

Risotto with wild mushrooms

Rice is a visual as much as a taste memory of my childhood.  In the flat part of  Northern Italy where I grew up, it is one of the most visible fields out in the landscape, together with corn and wine. Only, corn is easy to spot only in late summer, thanks to its sky-high (for a child) plants. Wines are naked and almost invisible in winter and often the wines are cut low. Rice is impossible to miss.  For a long period of time the fields are flooded and create a beautiful, haunting landscape of water reflecting the sky, where the only solid objects appear to be the few streets and the birds, often lost in the mist, with a few far away brick houses. Then the fields will explode in the most vivid green later, while sprouting, and then turn to darker colours and eventually to yellow.

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