January 25, 2012
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.
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May 13, 2011
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.
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April 4, 2011
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.
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November 5, 2010
This week is probably the most beautiful one here. The woods, which are dark and green and gloomy in summer, and dark and bare and gloomy in winter, turn into a festive array of yellow, red and green. They manage to bring a little joy to the overcast days.
I am no fan of autumn. I never understood its charms when living in Italy: to us it is just the rain season. It can rain for weeks, with no breaks (this is happening right now in Italy. Looks like someone up there wants to wipe out all the dirt, which sounds like a good idea, actually; but the ones who get wiped away are never the right ones). In a place like the UK, where it rains most of the summer, autumn can be much sunnier than summer itself. It is a beautiful period. I still remember one poem by Emily Dickinson, which I happen to remember by heart: ‘The morns are meeker than they were.. ‘. I have good reasons for remembering it. When our English teacher made us analyse it for a test, the whole class, 30 reasonably well learned students, concluded it was about spring. How can you say something positive at all about autumn? Take 30 random Italian guys: we won’t understand a thing about autumn charms. The poem is very clear, but we were all so sure no one could speak about it in such terms, that we happily ignored all evidences.
With time, I have learned to appreciate this season’s subtleties. Every autumn I also rediscover squash, one of my favourite ingredients ever. The farmers market is bursting with beautiful squashes, but the famous butternut is not the best one around. The winner here is the small Hokkaido, bright orange, together with a very dense and sweet one with a thick and dark green peel, not unlike Kabocha. Also pumpkins are quite flavourful.
I try new recipes when I am so inclined, but I like squash so much that every time I develop a series of simple go-to favourites, which are what I cook most times, on a daily basis. I had years where most of the pumpkins would go in pasta (I love gratin pasta with savoy cabbage and pumpkin) or just mashed with garlic or shallots and some herbs. This year I often go for soups and roasted squash.
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October 4, 2010
In the relatively small town where I live, there are many foreigners. More foreigners than ‘original’ Germans, possibly: I asked a friend of mine if she had heard about integration problems here, and she laughed and answered: well, possibly some Germans have a few difficulties …
The Italian community is one of the largest, and they have been here for roughly two generations: I meet people more or less my age (20-30), who will tell me ‘Anch’io sono Italiano!’, proud of their origins, and then switch back to German , because actually they were born here and the Italian they speak is the home version, rich of dialect influences, which I often don’t understand.
The guy who sells me potatoes every Saturday, together with his German girlfriend, is the smiling and friendly son of a Sicilian couple. A few weeks ago a new type of potatoes appeared, called ‘La Ratte’, twice as expensive as the normal ones. Salad potatoes, long and twisted. Of course I had to try a few – this is potato heaven after all! ‘You are going to see’ – he told me in Italian ‘these are the Ferrari of the potatoes’ – and then he added laughing, in German ‘though I would probably sell more if I told the Germans they are the Mercedes..’
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May 14, 2010
German food is most of the times very simple and quite hearty. At least in this region, the simpler, the better. Local ingredients are superlative and they don’t really need much more than a simple cooking. Germans know that and they love to eat tons of their best ingredients when they are in season. It is hard to describe the obsession around asparagus right now. I mean, also in other countries you see asparagus everywhere when the season comes, but you don’t see ‘Hier Deutsche Spargel’ on the windows of every shop remotely related to food. Remotely. If they sell something edible, you can bet they’d offer you asparagus right now.
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April 4, 2010
And here is the recipe for the Insalata di Carciofi I had at Roscioli, in Roma. It contains both warm and cold artichokes, so it plays with temperatures; it plays with consistency, as it contains soft cooked artichokes, crunchy raw artichokes, and very crunchy toasted pine nuts. But what really won me over is the flavour symphony. Artichokes at their best are bitter at first taste, with extremely sweet undertones revealed afterwards. This salad complements the flavour by adding the bitterness of rocket and walnut oil, so that the sweet component of artichokes shines; the nutty walnut taste is amplified by the toasted pine nuts. A fresh note of acidity comes from the raw artichokes dressed with lemon juice, and more freshness comes from the herbs the artichokes are cooked with, I think they were originally coriander and ‘mentuccia’, a mint relative that is traditional with artichokes in Rome. I used only coriander and it worked quite well.
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November 12, 2009
I knew it existed, and still I ignored it until a while ago. I urge you not to do the same mistake. It is one of those ingredients that will spice up, quite literally, whatever food you are preparing.
Harissa is a red spicy paste from North africa. It contains chilli, grilled bell peppers, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin and other magical ingredients. The first harissa I consciously tried (I’m sure I had it in Lebanese restaurants, but this does not count, as its flavour was probably blended with whatever else I was eating), I made it myself using Ottolenghi’s recipe. It was veeeery good even if my starting ingredients were a bit bland (UK supermarket stuff level, if you want to know what I am talking about), but then, all Ottolenghi recipes are. However I decided it was not worth bothering doing it, unless on special occasions. Then I saw it ready-made in my local Middle East store, and I decided to give it a try. Can you picture that endless, diverse variety of sauces and condiments you have in your fridge and cupboard, those you use when you cook Mexican or Japanese or Thai style (or Italian, of course :)), and then ignore them for the rest of the week/month/year, until the due date is well due, or you move, or maybe you cook again xxx-style? I was ready and willing to add yet another ingredient to my almost endless list. I don’t mind them at all; actually I quite like spending half an hour looking for the tamarind paste in the bottom of the fridge whenever I need it – rarely, that is – and instead discovering in a corner that new miso paste (new a few months ago) I have not tried yet. And harissa was small, cheap and not very smelly, so it demanded little commitment on many sides.
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October 29, 2009
I am starting to feel the strain of not having a proper kitchen. I feel a bit bored and uninspired, and I keep doing all over the same joyless foodstuff – light, nutritious and boring. Of course then, I need to compensate and stuff myself with chocolate. Today however at lunch I prepared something surprisingly nice I’d like to share with you. My lunches are always very quick to make and have to be light – I start working immediately afterwards. I usually throw together whatever sits in the fridge in a big salad bowl, and that’s it (sooner or later I’ll forget any reservation and tell you of some crazy stuff I have cooked for myself on these solitary lunches – I’m sure you love as well the feeling of experimenting in total freedom just by yourself). However today I felt cold and sad and I needed something warm and a little crunchy – crunchy food always makes me smile.
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October 14, 2009
Chickpeas and peppers salad
aka: Can I burn bell pepper’s skin using electric plates?
I went back to Italy for a weekend. I brought home a kilo of local grower’s bell peppers, still in season (it is still summery warm, there).
My favourite way to prepare peppers is to burn their skin and peel them. It is time consuming but they are unrivalled that way. I must warn you that it is worth bothering only if they are fleshy enough, otherwise they just turn to nothing. Now apparently you can burn peppers by putting them in the oven, or over a direct flame; I have always used the second method, and I always make extra peppers when I have a barbecue, saving them for a rainy day. Then when all the skin is charred, you put the hot peppers either in a paper bag and then in a plastic one (mummy’s way) or in a container with a very tight fitting lid (my way, since I live in places where they don’t sell bread in paper bags, unfortunately). When they are nearly cold, or cold, you take off the skin, possibly with the help of some kitchen paper, or if the peppers are very strong, also under running water (quicker, but they do lose some flavour). You then cut them and remove seeds, and here they are. Great for freezing too.
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