Tired of cooking the same handful of meals each week, I enrolled on an international cookery course.
The course may have ended, but it's just whetted my appetite....

Join me on a weekly visit to the cuisines of the world, countries from A to Z, and back again!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Q is for Qatar

Where we're going this evening - Qatar

Now given that it was only a couple of weeks ago that we were in the Middle East when we visited Oman, you may be wondering why we're back in the area so soon.  And the answer to that, is how many countries can you think of beginning with Q?  This is it, folks.  Of course, I could have anticipated this and had a different 'O', but I think that we all know by now my ability to plan ahead.  Or not.

I think that it also goes without saying that I know about the same about Qatar as I did about Oman (i.e. not much) just that it's in the Middle East, it's not likely to be overly democratic, and it's probably very rich indeed - let's see if I'm right...

...firstly, Qatar is a small sovereign state sticking into the Persian Gulf with just one border to the south with Saudi Arabia.  It has a ruling family which accounts for all the top posts (Emir, Crown Prince, Prime Minister etc etc) and until 1971 was considered rather poor - until they developed the vast oil and natural gas  reserves, and so they are now very rich.

Looks like my assumptions were all pretty spot on then.

The Qatar peninsular is flat and consists of mainly desert. The average daytime temperature is a sweltering 32 degrees, and there is less than 3" rainfall per year.  The capital, Doha, is sensibly on the east coast, and before the oil became the major source of income, pearl hunting and fishing were the two big industries.

The native population is only 250,000, but the country's wealth has resulted in a huge explosion in building and development, the labour of which has been supplied by huge numbers of immigrant workers - bringing the total population up to just less than 2 million.  A regular melting pot!

So let's say salam wa aleikum to the people of Qatar and see what's on the menu for tonight...

Tonight's Menu...

As you might imagine, with a tradition of fishing, seafood is quite a big deal in Qatar.  Also the many varieties of dates (which you can stick, as far as I am concerned, I'm afraid) and hummus too is part of the national cuisine.

With so many migrant workers, the food is influenced accordingly - by those from Iran, India and north Africa.  Qatar is a Muslim country, so all meat is halal (prepared according Islamic practise), and you aren't going to get pork scratchings round here any time soon.

The most important traditional Qatari dish is machbous, a stew of richly spiced rice with either seafood or meat, so we'll give that a whirl, and I'm going to team that up with pitta bread.

Machbous (Spiced lamb with rice) - recipe from food.com
Saute diced lamb with chopped onion, then add chopped tomatoes, parsley, baharat spice, grouund limes, turmeric and stock and simmer for half an hour.  Add rice and simmer for a futher 20minutes.

Pitta bread - recipe from allrecipes.co.uk
Add plain flour, salt, a little olive oil, a little sgar and yeast in the bread maker pan with water and set to 'dough' (yes, what a cheat I am!).Split the resulting dough into pieces then roll each ball of dough out into a 6" circle.  Cover and leave to rise for half an hour or so.

Sprinkle with sesame and onion seeds then cook in a hot over for 5 minutes until they start to brown.  Revmove from oven and cover immediately with a damp cloth until they go soft.  Split & eat (with lots of butter too, if you are me)

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Changing the spices makes for a total change of flavour - this lamb stew was transformed by adding baharat spices and turmeric.
  • In culinary terms, nigella, love-in-a-mist and black onion seeds are all the same thing.  In gardening terms they most certainly are not - I wonder what would come up if I sowed some of them?
  • Pitta bread is easy if you have a breadmaker to take that tedious kneading business out of the process.
  • Like the ensaymada (sweet bread rolls) last week, the pittas really didn't make it further than the cooling rack once I'd got the butter out of the fridge.  Must work on that will power thing.

And out of 10?

  • for the machbous - a tasty 7/10 - this really was jolly good, and being an all in one recipe, for once the dishwasher wasn't left groaning with overuse.
  • for the pitta bread - a delicious 8/10 - the sesame and black onion seeds really made these very tasty indeed.  I am a fiend for white bread - always have been.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

P is for the Philippines

Where we're going this evening - the Philippines

Compounding my ignorance of quite where Oman was last week, to my shame I struggled to put my finger on the map as to where the Philippines are too.  What was I doing in geography classes?  Actually, I was  learning about hanging valleys and drumlins - but not learning about where places are, obviously.

In fact, about the only thing I can dredge up about the Philippines is that it was ruled in the fairly near past by a pretty unpleasant chap called Marcos, whose wife Imelda had a big thing for shoes.  If that's the best I can do, I'd better get researching...

....so the Philippines are in the far east - the total land mass is about twice the size of the UK, consisting of over 7,000 islands, and with a population about half as many again as the UK.  The climate is tropical, with a diverse range of fauna and flora.

As in so many instances, the Europeans were at it again in terms of deciding that this bit of land would make a fine extension to the county despite it not only being thousands of miles away, but also having a perfectly happy indiginous population.  In this case, it was the Spanish, and they so liked the archepeligo that they even named it after their king, Philip II.

Finally independent in the mid fifties, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president a decade later, but being prevented by the constitution form being able to run for a third term in office, he declared martial rule and carried on regardless for another decade or so before being run out of town - to Hawaii, actually - with his wife and her unfeasably extensive footware collection.

Internal spats and wrangling ensued with a number of administrations over the next couple of decades being blighted with political scandals and allegations of corruption. All rather undignified, I'm afraid.  That doesn't stop the Filipinos from being a hardworking bunch - both at home and as expats all over the world - and the country is definitely being tipped as 'one to watch' in terms of development.

As far as the food goes, there's an undeniable Spanish influence but also from their Asian neighbours - however the food is described as 'robust' as opposed to spicy, and although rice is a staple, their Western roots mean that chopsticks are not as widely used as they are in the neighbouring countries.

So let's say kamusta to the Filipinos and see what's on the menu for tonight...

Tonight's Menu...

Characteristic of Filipino cuisine is the counterpoint between putting something sweet with something salty - the custom is to serve everything together rather than in courses, which rather underlines the practise of lots of bold sweet/sour/salty tastes all bunged together in one shebang.

Vinegar is a common ingredient - which I thought was very odd as I think of vinegar as British, for some reason, something to do with fish and chips not being the same without it, I guess - and also sweet rice.  So I'm opting for hopefully a bit of all the flavours for that authentic Filipino experience.

Adobo is a stew like dish with vinegar and soy sauce; the sweet bread rolls are served with a sprinkling of sugar and grated cheese; the champorado is a sticky chocolatey rice pudding - it all sounds like it's going to be an explosion in a tasting factory, but let's see how we get on.

Chicken Adobo with rice - recipe from filipino food
Brown onion, garlic in a pan then add chicken (or pork - I used turkey), soy sauce, vinegar, paprika, bay leaves & some water. Simmer for 30 mins.  fish the meat out of the pan and brown for a few minutes in a separate pan before returning it to the stew.  Thicken with a little cornflour, season and serve with rice.

Ensaymada  - recipe from the internet
Mix easy blend yeast, dilute evaporated milk, sugar, melted butter, egg yolks and sifted plain flour in a bowl then knead and leave for an hour to rise.  Divide the dough in portions, roll into snakes then coil and place in muffin cases.  Leave to rise for another hour then brush with butter and cook.  Cool completely then slather with butter, dust with sugar and top with grated cheese.

Champorado - recipe from food.com
Cook pudding rice on the hob with water, until thick and creamy   Add cocoa powder, sugar, and a few drops of vanilla.  Serve with a swirl of cream or condensed milk.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Co-incidence is a funny thing - I always have vinegar in the cupboard - because you do - but rarely use it.  In fact it will be a good couple of years since I had call to - except this very morning on reading a tip on how to remove limescale I used the entire bottle on the bathroom taps.  The bathroom now smells like a chip shop, and - yet again - I am to be found hot-footing it up to Aldi on the corner early evening in order to secure a vital cooking ingredient.  This point to be subtitled 'what was that about reading the recipe in advance?'  On the plus side the taps are sparkling.
  • In the adobo recipe, browning the meat after it is simmered rather than at the start of the recipe would appear to serve no purpose but to use yet another pan which will then need to be washed up
  • Sweet bread straight out of the oven requires more will power that I possess to leave to get cold before slathering with butter, sugar and cheese.  
  • It's mighty tricky to take photo of cocoa rice pudding without it looking like a cow pat.
  • Hmm - I have also learnt - looking at the pics above - to either provide some sort of marker in order to give a sense of scale, or to always use the same size plates for my dishes.  That is not a giant tomato in the first pic, that is a side plate. Equally, the rice pudding is on a saucer, that is a teaspoon.  However, it still looks like a cow pat.

And out of 10?

  • for the chicken adobo - a solid 7/10 - the inclusion of soy sauce and vinegar gives this stew a real zing.  One to do again.
  • for the ensaymada - a whopping 9/10 - in fact the only thing that knocks this sweet bread/butter/cheese jobbie off the top spot is the fact that (for the most part) I followed the recipe and a left the bread to cool before garnishing with sugar/butter/cheese.  The ones that I nicked straight off the cooling tray were magnificent.
  • for the champorado - a reasonable 5/10 - chocolate is generally good, and this was ok, but I like a rice pudding as it is, thank you.  This one certainly does not win on the beauty stakes, and given that enjoyment of food is dependent on more than just the taste of the dish, this is certainly marked down on looks.  Tough old world, ain't it?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

O is for Oman

Where we're going this evening - Oman

A trip to the middle east tonight, to the sultanate of Oman.

My knowledge of all the countries that make up the Arab world in the Middle East is a bit on the hazy side, and I tend to lump them together as being all extremely dry, extremely rich, and extremely un-democratic - let's see if I'm right here.

First up, Oman is pretty sparsely populated - the sultanate is a bit bigger than the UK, but only has about 5% of the population, a quarter of which lives in the capital Muscat on the north east coast.  And why are so many people living in the capital?  Because the landscape is pretty inhospitable.  In fact, with temperatures averaging nearly 29 degrees C, and the annual rainfall only 4", I'd be living in the city with air conditioning as standard too.

A moderate bunch, the Omanis (relative to the rest of the region) - despite being an absolute monarchy (a one man, one vote system - the Sultan is the man, he has the vote), there is a parliament which does have at least some legislative powers.

Actually, despite all those unfriendly mountainous gravel-desert baking hot regions, Oman does have a decent bit of coastline, so fishing does provide a proportion of income along with tourism, and of course, the oil.

For once, it was not the Brits who had a crack at planting a flag half way around the world when stumbling across someone else's land, but the Portuguese, who occupied Muscat for some 150 years, building an impressive fortress, still standing today, 500-odd years later.

Despite the unrest in the region which has affected so many middle eastern countries in the past twelve months or so with greater democracy demanded (and in this case rather squashed by the authorities, albeit with a few concessions to people power), Oman is rated as quite stable within the region, and well developed.

I can't do you much in the way of famous Omanis, but fact of the day just has to be that according to the Times Online, Oman is home to the world's only camel-backed bagpipe military band.  Goodness!

So whilst we are all boggling over that little gem, let's say marhaba to the good people of Oman...

Tonight's Menu...

The main religion in Oman is Islam, so we aren't expecting much in the way of pork going on here.

The cuisine is varied, but with rice and meat (often marinated) usually served.  I plumped for a pasta based dish, though - with mince and tomatoes, oddly similar to a bolognase sauce but with cinnamon giving the dish a twist.

Desserts are on the sticky persuasion with dates and honey big favourites - dates not so much with me, however (yuk!), so I've gone for a doughnut based recipe, fried in oil and served dipped in honey.

Macaroni Bechamel - recipe from desitwist.com

Cook a good portion of macaroni and set aside.  Brown the same amount of mince & add chopped onion & garlic; tomato sauce, parsley, oregano, salt, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and some water. Simmer for 10 mins or so.  Meanwhile make a bechamel sauce with butter, flour, milk and a stock cube, stirring until thick, smooth and creamy.

Mix two thirds of the sauce with the macaroni, then pour half the macaroni/sauce into the bottom of a deep dish. Layer the meat, then the rest of hte macarni/sauce.  Top with the remaining sauce and sprinkle with ground cinnamon.  Bake in a high over for half an hour.

Luqaymaat  - recipe from desitwist.com

Beat together flour, milk, sugar, melted butter and egg, yeast and a little salt and ground cardamon.  Cover and leave to rest for an hour.  Stir, then scoop tablespoonfuls of batter into hot oil and fry the little balls until lightly golden.  Drain well on kitchen paper, then drizzle with honey and serve.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Amazing how the addition of a couple of spices take this distinctly lasagne style of meat and pasta from Italy to the Middle East.
  • If it looks rather like lasagne, I expect it to taste like lasagne, and it's a bit odd when it doesn't - so much of the taste of food is via the eyes.
  • Reading the recipe ahead means that you can go some way to avoiding an unholy mess in the kitchen as well as personal injury.  The doughnut batter was very sloppy - I was supposed to 'dampen fingers and scoop a tablespoon of batter with four fingers together then use your thumb to slide the batter in the hot oil'.  I used a tablespoon - rather a lot of potential for disaster on many fronts there.
  • Previous comment with regard to oil holding on to the last thing that was cooked in it still stands.  The oil still has a fishy niff, as did the resulting doughnuts. 

And out of 10?

  • for the macaroni bechemal - a lukewarm 5/10 - if I had been expecting more of a sweet cinnamon taste to the dish and less of a lasagne taste, I may have enjoyed it more.  As is it was, I kept wondering why I couldn't taste more cheese with the mince and pasta (answer: there was none in the dish. D'oh!)
  • For the luqaymaat - a so-so 4/10 - they were ok (if a bit on the fishy side when they came out of the pan, but they really do not lend themselves to hanging around to eat later, an experience akin to eating a fish flavoured cotton wool ball.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

N is for New Zealand

Where we're going this evening - New Zealand

We're off on a long-haul trip tonight, all the way to the other side of the world.  I must confess my ignorance here - if you'd have given me a pin to put in a map where New Zealand is, I would have put it totally in the wrong place, somewhere close to northeast of Australia - not miles away to the southwest.  Live and learn already!

So what do I know about it?  When I think of New Zealand, I think of Anchor butter which we used to have when I was growing up, New Zealand lamb, and latterly, as a magnificent film set backdrop to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Also, New Zealanders and Australians get a bit huffy if you mix them up (same as the Americans and the Canadians when we Brits plonk them all in the same bracket).

Now let's go and do some homework to find out more...

The two islands that make up New Zealand are very slightly bigger than the size of the UK, but the New Zealand population is just four million compared to the UK's sixty million.  I suppose they need all that extra room to graze cows for butter and to raise lamb.

If your wondering why the official language is English despite being literally half way around the world, 12,000 miles away, it's because it's one of those place that our very own intrepid Captain Cook came across - an extraordinary feat - and decided 'we'll have that' despite there already being a perfectly happy native Maori population who were minding their own business.

Actually the Dutch beat the good Captain to it - briefly - but after a quick scrap with the locals which they lost 4 to 1 in terms of people killed, they scarpered & left Cook to have a crack at it over a century later.

The native Maori people were laid back enough despite our usual strong arm tactics of planting a stick in the ground and called it 'ours', and were happy to be widely converted to Christianity and everyone seems to rub along well enough.

New Zealand has been independent of the British parliament for the past sixty or so years as opposed to having legislation from the Palace of Westminster (which must make governing an awful lot easier), although it is still a staunch member of the Commonwealth with the Queen as head of state.

There are some fascinating New Zealand people.  I must include the New Zealand all blacks Rugby team in this category, simply as they perform the native Maori war dance or haka before each match.  Scares the life out of me, anyway.

The aforementioned Peter Jackson is from New Zealand, as is actor Russell Crowe and opera singer Kiri te Kanawa - but for my money, the most marvelous New Zealander is Burt Munroe, the garden shed motorcycle enthusiast and engineer who at the age of 68 raced his beloved Indian Scout motorcycle across the Bonneville salts flats to set a number of speed records, one of which still stands today.  The tale was told in the excellent film The World's Fastest Indian staring Anthony Hopkins.

Back to the important stuff - with their beautiful scenery, can-do attitude and relaxed way of life, lets say hello to New Zealand...

Tonight's Menu...

The main dish had to be lamb - I'm used to eating the succulent roasted meat with a sweet redcurrant jelly, garlic, rosemary or mint sauce, or slow cooked with red wine; but this recipe has a real oriental influence and is cooked with ginger, sherry and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce.

Pavlova is a traditional New Zealand dessert (despite Australia laying claim to it too) - pavlovas are often made as children's birthday cakes, decorated with fruit, or sweets and chocolate and candles.

I fancied something to snack on too, so these scone-like cheese puffs look spot on.

Lea and Perrins Lamb Chops - recipe from food.com

Marinade lamb loin chops in a mixture of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, sherry and grated ginger for quarter of an hour or so in the fridge. Pan fry & serve with salad.  I took out the chops and poured left over marinade into the pan for a couple of minutes then used this as salad dressing.

Pavlova - recipe from about.com home cooking

Whisk egg whites until stiff. Beat in sugar and a little cornflour.  Fold in vanilla extract.  Spoon onto baking parchment - either one large or smaller individual nests - bake in a low oven for an hour then turn off the oven and leave the meringues in overnight.  Fill nests with fruit and cram then decorate with more fruit, chocolate sprinkles etc.

Downunder Cheese Puffs - recipe from food.com

Beat egg and milk and bead in sifted flour, baking powder salt and grated cheese.  Put large teaspoonfuls on a greased baking tray and cook for ten minutes in a hot oven.


The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • If this food is typical of New Zealand's cuisine, I would like to move there tomorrow - although I would soon become the size of a house, particularly through piling pavlova and cheese puffs down me at every opportunity.
  • To think ahead and read the recipe in good time - pavlova was enjoyed for Thursday breakfast rather than Wednesday dinner as the meringues have to be in the oven overnight
  • Read the damn recipe properly - it is only now whilst writing up that I see that I should have filled the meringues with fruit and not just put it on top.  I thought there was a bit of a cream overload.
  • The zingy marinade really adds a new - and extremely tasty - dimension to how to serve lamb
  • Cheese puffs should be made with caution.  Far too many of them disappeared off the baking tray before getting as far as the cooling rack, and more disappeared before they got as far as the cupboard.
  • Have I mentioned that I would like to move to New Zealand? 

And out of 10?

  • for the Lea and Perrins lamb chops - a delicious and difficult to beat 9/10 - the only reason that this didn't get full marks is that I didn't trim quite enough of the fat off the loin chops, although that is hardly the fault of the recipe. Utterly delicious, to be added to the repertoire.
  • For the pavlova - a very tasty 8/10 - so easy to knock up, although you do have to think ahead. as meringues take so long to cook.  Would have been even better with more fruit in the nests.  
  • For the cheese puffs - a fabulous 9/10 - easier and quicker to make than cheese scones and just as tasty.  One teeny criticism is that they don't taste quite as good the next day, having gone a bit spongy.  I can think of a solution to that particular nit-picking issue though...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

M is for Malta

Where we're going this evening - Malta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight's Menu...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Result

And what have we learnt?

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

And out of 10?

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

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

L is for Latvia

Where we're going this evening - Latvia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight's Menu...

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

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

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

Rasols (Sausage Potato Salad) - recipe from Latvian Stuff

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

Latvian Style Baked Onions - recipe from food.com

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

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

The Result

And what have we learnt?

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

And out of 10?

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

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

K is for Kenya

Where we're going this evening - Kenya

Tonight's journey is over to the east of Africa, somewhere about half way down (just below the sticky-out bit) to Kenya.  This is our first trip to what used to be known as the Dark Continent back in the 19th Century when a goodly portion of the world was painted pink.

Kenya is well over double the size of the UK, with about three quarters of the population - half of whom live in the capital Nairobi. Geographically, it has it all - with three permanently snow topped mountains (mt Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa), the largest tropical lake in the world, wildlife rich grassy savannahs, humid tropical conditions and arid desert and semi desert land to the north east.  You can see why tourist safaris are such big business.

The more I read about Kenya, the more I want to go and live there - besides that varied and beautiful landscape, it is one of the richest countries in Africa with a good mix of trade including agriculture, and manufacturing, and has its own oil supply.

Admittedly there has been some political squabbling with some rioting after recent elections, and problems with corruption, but the solution (besides the international community knocking a few heads together) of a government made up of a grand coalition so that everyone has a say (but not much gets done), and much power devolved to the regions seems to have brought stability.

Mind you, it's not all good news in that there is still grinding poverty in some areas, with terrible droughts affecting food production and starvation and infant mortality a big deal, and many people relying on international aid.

Culturally, Kenya is very diverse with different tribal communities in the various regions - the best known being the Maasai (although quite a small proportion of the population).  I have to confess that I can't bring any famous Kenyans to mind - except the runner David Rudisha who was fabulous in this Summer's Olympics - but research shows that the chap who photographed the African famine in 1984 (think the original Band Aid) was Kenyan, and - bizarrely - Roger Whittaker.  There's one for the pub quiz for you.

On that note, let us join the wildebeest migration and the lions of the Great Rift Valley is  and say habari to the good people of Kenya...

Tonight's Menu...

Not realising that tonight's meal would consist of curry and rice, I had a Caribbean curry dish out the freezer yesterday - how would the two compare to each other?

I nearly didn't do this rice dish - after all, the Caribbean pepper rice is so fabulous, how could it be bettered?  But the alternative Kenyan dish to the rice was something called Ugali, which is cornmeal and water boiled up, and also goes by the name of 'cornmeal mush', which I doesn't sell itself to me.

I had a good choice of deserts mostly involving tropical fruits, but being out of homemade biscuits, I spotted a recipe for Kenyan biscuits called maandazi, which should hit the spot.

Kuku Paka - recipe from whats4eats.

Puree onion, ginger, chili & garlic with a little oil & water then fry with curry powder and cumin until fragrant.  Add chopped tomatoes and browned chicken pieces (I used turkey) and coconut milk and simmer for half an hour or so.  Stir in chopped coriander leaves & season to taste.

Pulou - recipe from whats4eats

Rinse rice thoroughly and leave to soak in cold water for half an hour.  Fry a cinnamon stick, cardamon pods, peppercorns, cloves briefly then add a thinly sliced onion and saute until translucent.  Add the drained rice and stir until the grains are coated.  Add twice the volume of water or stock, cover and simmer until absorbed.
Maandazi- recipe from Kenya travel ideas

Sift flour and baking powder into a bowl, add sugar & a pinch of salt.  Beat in egg & water to make a dough.  Rest for half an hour then roll out and cut into biscuits.  Deep fry until golden then drain on absorbent paper.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Home made curries using similar ingredients taste very different to each other.  Just a couple of different spices change the whole character of a dish.
  • I'd be surprised if a Kenyan would recognise the taste of this particular pulou rice, unless they too were using homemade stock in the form of beef & red wine gravy.
  • the reason that we traditionally use butter or some other sort of fat in our biscuits is to differentiate these from bread or dumplings.  Or doughnuts, which is what the maandazi taste like.
  • if you insist of re-using oil to deepfry, don't be surprised if your maandazi have a faint taste of the previous thing you cooked - in this case, fish. 

And out of 10?

  • for the kuku paka - a delicious 8/10 - easy to prepare from scratch, and I suspect that - like most stews - it'll be even better second time round once the flavours have developed.  One to add to the culinary repertoire.
  • For the pulou rice - a solid 7/10 - a different taste entirely to the Caribbean rice, but the spices added a sweetness which was very tasty.
  • for the maandazi - a disappointing 4/10 - deep fried biscuits are not a culinary revelation here, and I don't think this one will make it into the recipe book for future ref.  It's not just that they taste slightly of fish (which doesn't help) but even dusted with icing sugar they are rather like doughnuts without the tasty jam filling.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

J is for Jamaica

Where we're going this evening - Jamaica

Back across the Atlantic this evening, where we are going to the Caribbean again.

There's a good reason for this - the obvious alternative for J was Japan, and I really don't feel up to tackling sushi - but unless I want to go for Java, I'll have to man up by the time we get round the alphabet again. 

Although a big island in the Caribbean, with fewer than 3 million inhabitants and just 150 by 50 miles in size, it is just a twentieth of the size of the UK. It's part of the Commonwealth, with the Queen as head of state,and was under British rule from it's foundation in the 17th Century until 1962.

Despite not being a heavyweight in the history stakes, as Egypt, Greece and Italy are, the influence of Jamaica on world culture cannot be stressed highly enough - part of the reason the Jamaican culture has spread around the world, is that Jamaicans are a well traveled lot, and have emigrated to Cuba, American and in absolute droves to the UK in the 1950's when we invited them all to the great motherland.

Mind you, I can only imagine the bewilderment and disappointment as the Windrush fetched up at Tilbury Docks in 1948 in the rain and all those eager immigrant faces heading for a new life were faced with post war austerity, terrible weather and a not altogether warm welcome (to our shame, frankly).

There must have been a lot of misgivings along the lines of 'I've left my family, wall to wall sunshine, blue seas, sandy beaches and a relaxed way of life to be a bus driver? What was I thinking?'

But where the Jamaicans go, music is not far behind - they've given us Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Decker, Shaggy, not to mention the late and very great Bob Marley. And that's just the reggae - they also brought SKA music and the two-tone movement of the 80's which I grew up with is a direct descendant.

This small country is pretty good at producing athletes as well as musicians - at the London Olympics this summer, Jamaica not only took the gold and silver in men's 100m, but also all three medals in the 200m. Extraordinary. Their dominance was such that Clive James said in his Telegraph TV review column - 'During the final of the men’s 200-metre sprint, the number of people watching in Jamaica must have been very few, because nearly everybody was in the race.' which made me laugh!

 So let us join this laid back, athletic, musical people from an island idyll and say yes sah! to the good people of Jamaica...

Tonight's Menu...

Still feeling like the cat who's had the cream after the phenomenal success of that Italian Tiramisu last week, will the Jamaican fare hold up as well?

'Jerk cooking' refers to the way meat is seasoned and cooked - generally with a marinade of allspice and scotch bonnet (bloody hot) chillis, then slow cooked.

I've tackled jerk chicken in the cookery course I took (where we came in) with a jerk sauce along with the Caribbean pepper rice - but the Jamaican style bread and butter pudding is new to me. Will it pass the 'inheritance' test? I'll give mum a portion to try when I see her later in the week.

Jamaican Jerk Pork - recipe from class.

Make a marinade by blending scotch bonnet chili spring onion, garlic, bay leaves, pimento seeds, brown sugar, all purpose seasoning,thyme, a little oil. Rub the marinade into pork and leave overnight. Transfer to baking tray and cook in a moderate oven.

Caribbean Pepper Rice - recipe from class
Sweat chopped garlic, onion, pepper in oil. Add grated carrot and rice & stir to coat in oil. Add water & a stock cube, cover & simmer till stock is absorbed. Fork through, add a small knob of butter & sprinkle with parsley.

Jerk Sauce - recipe from class
Blend ground allspice berries/pimento seeds with brown sugar, garlic, scotch bonnet chili,  thyme, spring onions, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, soy sauce and a little water and simmer till reduced. Strain & serve.

Jamaican Bread and Butter Pudding- recipe from Jamaicans.com Break day-old bread into pieces & mix with sugar, cinnamon, ground nutmeg, rum, raisins & a little melted butter then transfer to a buttered baking dish. Mix condensed milk, milk and beaten eggs & pour into baking dish. Cook on a low oven until set.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Scotch bonnet chilis which seem to be a staple of virtually all Caribbean cookery are hot. And that does not just mean 'be careful how much you use in this dish as it might burn your mouth', it means 'despite wearing disposable gloves whilst chopping, and diligent hand washing, putting in your contact lenses at the end of your cookery session is going to be eye-wateringly painful.
  • This rice recipe is fabulously gorgeous and has moved from being 'an exotic dish cooked especially on International Cookery Nights' but a staple in my kitchen
  • Jerk spices are easy to prepare, and assuming that the meat is to hand a day earlier (as opposed to still frozen) this is a quick meal to put together - twenty minutes from lighting the gas to eating the home cooked meal.
  • Jerk sauce keeps well in the fridge for a goodly while, and from previous experience a spoonful added into any rice or pasta dish peps it up no end.
  • When a recipe calls for 'one day old bread', it's a good move to buy the fresh bread, cut off what is needed then freeze/eat the rest. Otherwise you have a great portion of leftover one day old stale bread only suitable for toasting or to stuff the birds*
  • Timing is the key - the photo above of the bread and butter pudding taken on removal from oven looks fab. Two minutes later it had sagged like a soggy souffle.

And out of 10?

  • for the jerk pork - a solid 8/10 - the spices are easy to prepare (assuming you can think ahead 24hrs) and the resulting meat dish is tender and tasty. Do exercise caution on amount of scotch bonnet chilis deployed (and how you handle them)
  • For the jerk sauce - it wasn't necessary really to add anything extra to the jerk pork, but nonetheless, this merits a a tangy 8/10 - again, easy to prep, and keeps in the fridge. A good addition to other dishes
  • For the Caribbean rice - a tried and tested 9/10 - this is well and truly added to the recipe repertoire now
  • The bread and butter pudding is on a 'jury's-still-out' 6/10 - I suspect that this will mellow overnight in the fridge, but on first tastes, the rum is a bit overpowering.

*I'm joking here - I've had to (reluctantly) withdraw bird feeding facilities in the courtyard garden - with two cats in residence, it's far too cruel to tempt the birds to eat tasty soaked bread in milk just to run the risk of them being brought home through the catflap by eager-to-please mogs for my closer inspection. The experience tends to be akin to biology dissection classes.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

I is for Italy

Where we're going this evening - Italy

We're off to southern Europe, after our exotic trip to the Caribbean last week, and we are heading to the Mediterranean to see what we make of Italy.

Long, thin Italy is slightly larger than the UK with about the same population.  Famously, it is shaped like a boot, facing West, ready to kick the island of Sicily lodged at its toe.

Like Egypt and Greece, Italy is another big-hitter in terms of history - the Romans came, saw and conquered  the majority of Europe for the best part of 500 years.  This is another organised and civilised people who brought many innovations to the lands which they overran and occupied.

The Roman Empire introduced road building, trade, art, culture, language, bathing houses and central heating over to the UK - but their civilising influence was not appreciated at the time and we took a technological step back several hundred years once they left our shores.

And although I suppose any invaders are not going to be welcomed with open arms, surely some of the Britons could have said, 'say what you like about those Romans, but they didn't half have some good ideas on roadbuilding/bath houses/military organisation...etc etc.'

Clever beggars, the Italians - not content with the whole Roman thing, they went on to produce the great explorer Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus; and then there was the whole renaissance movement with Bottecelli, then Michelangelo, and then the brilliant mind of Leonardo da Vinci.

Those Italian brains are still fizzing away today - in the rich industrial north of the country (all sharp suits and sex appeal) as well as the beautiful more agricultural south (all olive groves and siestas).  Whatever the cultural variation, Italy has the bucketfuls of style in whatever they produce - car manufacturers include Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Ducatti; appliance makers Zanussi and Smeg; designers Gucci, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana; then there is Lavazza coffee, Martini, and Pernod.

What is it about those Southern Europeans that makes them so darn sexy?  The French were the same when we were over that way the other week.  Famous Italians include Sophia Loren, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Scacchi and of course Cassanova; of Italian descent we have Frank Sinatra, Madonna and a great chunk of Hollywood A-listers.

I'm glossing over the less savory bits that Italy has given us - like Mussolini, the stereotyping of the Mafia, and of the less than heroic reputation in battle that the Italians seem to have acquired, and I think we should head straight for the food - so let's say ciao to Italy...

Tonight's Menu...

You can't think about Italy without thinking about the staple food of pasta.  I did think about getting the seldom used pasta maker out to do things completely from scratch, but as I also wanted to make some time consuming bread and had some previously fresh lasagne sheets languishing in the freezer for far to long, the pasta maker has stayed in the cupboard.

Any of those rustic breads are pretty spot on, so that's an easy decision as an accompaniment, although any bread making I do tends to be via the breadmaker, so let's see how we get on.

Tiramisu is an easy decision, even without being leaned on by mum - I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, but at a restaurant, this is often my choice,.  Lets see if we can recreate it here.

Lasagne - recipe from my head.

Brown mince & add veg  to suit and tomatoes then simmer to make a bolognase sauce.  Traditional veg are onion, garlic, basil then loads of tomatoes.  Tonight's variation has a bit of bulgar wheat, onion, garlic, mushrooms and courgette along with the tomatoes (note: the reader may query the non-traditional inclusion of courgette - however, the vegetable gardener will quite understand that it being late summer, courgette is a standard ingredient in at least one dish of every meal.  That includes breakfast).

Make a white sauce with butter, flour and milk then add plenty of cheese.  Layer bolognase, pasta sheets & cheese sauce. End with cheese sauce - top with extra cheese & brown on top under the grill.

Focaccia - recipe from Fresh Bread in the Morning

Make a dough with strong white flour, oil, water, salt and yeast & leave to rise (note: I used the dough setting on the breadmaker).  Knock back dough & knead till elastic & smooth.  Pull out to a rectangle about half an inch thick (note: this is virtually impossible as the damn dough being nice and elastic springs back to where it was a minute ago).  Poke depressions with fingers, drizzle with oil & oregano & leave to rise.  Cook in a hot oven, then drizzle more oil & rocksalt & leave to cool (note: the cook who can 'leave to cool' has an unnatural level of will power.)

Tiramisu - recipe from bbc good food

Beat cream, caster sugar, marscarpone cheese & marsala to a whipped cream consistancy.  Soak (breifly!) sponge fingers in strong coffee.  Layer fingers, cream mix, grated choc, and again, ending with cream, choc & dredging of cocoa.  Yum.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Bolognase goes a long, long way.  A 9oz pack of lean mince has gone into six (greedy) portions of lasagne.  
  • As long as you have some meat and loads of chopped tomatoes, you can pretty much sneak anything into a bolognase.
  • Although I cheated in part with making the bread, bread making from scratch is really scary ('Knead until smooth'.  'Leave until well risen'.  These are just two of the bloody useless phrases I came across looking for my focaccia recipe) - although it did turn out good in the end.  Not saying that the next one will though.
  • Any recipe which starts with mixing cream, creamy cheese, sugar and alcohol, then includes biscuits and chocolate is pretty much guaranteed to be a winner.  
  • Another note to read recipes through in full before hand.  In the time it takes to follow the instruction 'dip sponge fingers into coffee...', then turn back to read, '...until covered but not soggy', the sponge fingers are, indeed, soggy.

And out of 10?

  • for the bolognase - a solid 8/10 - it's always a bit of a faff to make, with the meat sauce and the white sauce, and the layers, and the oven cooking afterward, but well worth it.  Tasty and freezes well.
  • for the focaccia - a tasty 7/10 - I'm still wary of bread from scratch - it's getting the knack of doing enough kneading & leaving it the right amount of time to rise properly.  This was good, but it could easily all go wrong next time!
  • a VERY, VERY good 9/10 for the tiramisu.  Quick and easy to make, tastes brilliant - a real success.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

H is for Haiti

Where we're going this evening - Haiti

I'm very much looking forward to my visit to Haiti this evening - whilst on the adult education cookery course earlier in the year, we cooked one or two Caribbean dishes which were extremely tasty.

But I don't know much about the Country except that it has featured in the news most recently as having suffered an enormous earthquake with devastating consequences for the Capital Port au Prince and that the country is really, really poor. Lets have a look and see if my preconceptions are correct or not.

So - Haiti shares the Island of Hispaniola with it's neighbour the Dominican Republic - Haiti to the left hand side, the Dominican Republic the right hand side.  I was right about the earthquakes - the one I had in mind was in January 2010 and killed about a third of a million people (at a conservative estimate) out of a population of under ten million and left one and a half million people homeless.

Like so much of the Caribbean, Haiti was subject to invasion and colonisation by Europeans - the French in this case, and they went mad cultivating coffee and sugar, importing slaves from West Africa in order to work the land - the French do not come out of this period of history well at all.

Unsurprisingly there was eventually a revolt and turmoil and unrest continued from about the time of the French revolution until the infamous dictator Papa Doc Duvalier brought things to an even keel, even if that did mean ruling with an iron rod and terrorising his own people.

The Country has been involved in various unrests since, but the earthquake followed by a massive cholora outbreak seems to have focused minds somewhat on the more important things in life - namely, life. Oh - it's quite prone to hurricanes too.

I'm struggling with famous Haitians (besides the rather unlovable Papa Doc & his equally charming son, Baby Doc Duvalier), but there is also the Wycliffe Jean, rapper and record producer.  Although Cecile Fatiman is definitely worth a mention too - a Voodoo high priestess who was involved in a ceremony which is said to have sparked the Haitian revolution against the French in 1791 when she slit the throat of a pig and offered it's blood to the assembled, and was possessed by a goddess.

So let's see if we can avoid wax dolls with pins, tarot cards and Baron Samedi, and say bonjou to the stalwart people of Haiti.

Tonight's Menu...

So we have moderately spicy food, but not too hot, rice and beans in abundance, peppers, sweet potato, pineapples and bananas.

I've cooked griots before, and don't see any reason not to cook the dish again - and the caribbean pepper rice was such a success in class that I was tempted to cook it every week, no matter where in the world we were cooking.

The pineapple includes rum and sugar, so I don't need a lot of persuading to give that a go - that and pineapples are on special offer in Aldi at the mo.

Griots de Porc - recipe from class, but similar can be found at whats4eats.

Marinade pork overnight in a mixture of chopped shallots, onion, garlic, chili pepper thyme & sour orange juice (note: I used half an orange & half a grapefruit. And half a dried up lemon I found in the fridge).  Transfer to casserole dish, add enough water to cover & cook on the hob for an hour and a half.  drain, fish out the pork and fry till brown.  Add chopped green pepper, chopped tomato & spring onion, tomato puree, oxo cube and some of the reserved stock & heat through.

Caribbean Pepper Rice - recipe from class

Sweat chopped garlic, onion, pepper in oil.  Add grated carrot and rice & stir to coat in oil.  Add water & a stock cube, cover & simmer till stock is absorbed.  Fork through, add a small knob of butter & sprinkle with parsley. Yum.

Haitian Baked Pineapple - recipe from class with a twist from food.com

Chop a pineapple in half top to bottom then carefully remove the flesh using one of those curved serated grapefruit knives.  Remove the core then chop the flesh & add to a chopped banana.  Sprinkle the inside of the pineapple shell with sugar (note: I used demerara) and rum then pile the fruit flesh back in. Sprinkle with sugar, rum & desiccated coconut & bake.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Read the recipe through in plenty of time.  If you've only just read the words 'marinade overnight' when you have your pinny on ready to go, you are in trouble. You are equally in trouble even if you spot these words a few hours earlier, in the morning when you are getting the meat - which should have been marinaded overnight - out of the freezer.
  • Griots de porc is ahead in the ongoing 'which recipe can use the most utensils' stakes.  By the time the pork had been defrosted then marinaded with chopped veg (and inc. orange juice squeezing); simmered in a pan on the hob; drained of cooking liquor; fried in a pan; vegetables chopped & sweated; stock made & added and cornflour made into a paste to add if necessary (it wasn't, as it happens), I was just about through with pans & paraphernalia and about to start on the next-door's stock of knives/sieves/jugs/pans etc
  • Cornflour needs to be treated with caution - a hasty couple of spoons tipped in a cup and half filled with boiling water will produce translucent gelatinous gloop - fascinating, actually, but not something that I wanted to add to the pan in that state.  Moderation is the key, I think
  • Wray and Nephew authentic Caribbean rum is a somewhat of an investment at £24 a bottle - but then again, it is eyewateringly alcoholic.  Disappointingly (and to my utter astonishment), I'm not keen on the taste - and it galls me to pay all that money for something you will disguise with coca cola. 
  • Pineapples are brilliantly sweet and succulent and juicy.  They are also ridiculously cheap at the mo at Aldi - why don't I eat more of these?

And out of 10?

  • for the griots - a tasty 8/10 - whether it is the marinade, or the cooking method, this is lovely - although a bit of a faff with quite a few stages.  I'll find out what is vital to it's success next time, of course, when I cut corners such that I don't use every utensil in the kitchen to prepare the dish.
  • for the rice - a delicious 9/10 - all rice should be like this.  Suspect that the knob of butter at the end does the taste no harm at all - I've yet to come across a dish that isn't improved with a bit of butter.
  • a citrusy 7/10 for the pineapple - in a stop-press moment, I'm not that keen on the addition of the rum.  maybe it's just too strong a taste?