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!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

F is for France

Where we're going this evening - France

It's the very shortest of trips tonight, as it is just 26 miles across the English Channel that separates the UK from France.  That and a language, prevailing attitude & temperament and a cultural gulf to disappear into.

So why aren't our nations as close socially as we are geographically?  It can't just be that the British assume that as English is the most spoken language, then we needn't bother (or have the common courtesy) to learn any other, and that the French refuse to speak in anything but their tongue - although the lack of ability to communicate between the common man of the two nations cannot help.

Perhaps the reason lies in the inherent Socialist nature of the French (since all that nonsense with the peasants revolting and chopping off the heads of the nobility with the guillotine), compared to the class-ridden hang-ups of the British.  Or that the French embrace the European Union ideal, whereas the British have always hung about on the sidelines.  Or maybe because we're still sore about being invaded and beaten by William the Conqueror in 1066.  Long time to hold a grudge, though.

Or maybe it's the way the French insist on all this kissing business when you meet up, rather than a firm handshake - mind you, the are French are known for both their romantic nature.  That and their love of fine dining - in fact, quite how the women can be so sexy and chic in a nation which boasts such delicious food, including 400 different cheeses and the best vineyards in the world is some wonder.

You only have to mention Charles Aznavour, Juliette Binoche, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Tautou to see that we are amongst the Beautiful People (although you do get Gerard Depardieu, Marcel Marceau and Jacques Cousteau to balance it out a bit), and the mere mention of Nice and the casinos of Monte Carlo is enough to make you want to suck your stomach, get a pedicure and reach for the Christian Dior latest outfit.

Not really, obviously - as if we were wafting around the French Riviera in our designer frocks and our Chanel No.5, we wouldn't be tucking into tonight's rather tantalising menu, would we?

So let's hail Joe le Taxi and say 'bonjour' to our French amis...

Tonight's Menu...

France's cuisine varies depending on the region - the north and northeast is all hearty stews and root veg (and - perversely - champagne), the south is all Mediterranean oils, peppers, tomatoes, the east and centre is all red wine (burgundy - ha!), great cheese and big-bottom Limousin cattle (for the boeuf bourguignon, which is where we came in.

France produces such great food that I have been spoilt for choice - although, if I am being fair, snails & frog's legs would be an experiment too far for this lily-livered Brit.

I was facing a being-cut-out-of-the-will-moment with the desert, so prudence (and future inheritance of the Kenwood Chef) prevailed, and profiteroles for mum it is.

Boeuf Bourguignon - recipe from that lovely Nigel Slater - yes, I know he is not French, but he is lovely.

Brown pieces of shin beef which have been tossed in seasoned flour.  Remove from pan & lightly fry button onions & button mushrooms (note: I used my shallots) till golden,  Remove from pan & fry a chopped onion & some lardons (or streaky bacon).  Add beef back to the pan with garlic, bay leaves, thyme, a bottle of good red wine (note: I used burgundy, of course (and reserved a small glass for the chef)) and simmer VERY GENTLY for an hour and a half.  Add button mushrooms & button onions& simmer VERY GENTLY for half an hour more.  Serve with steamed potatoes (note: and courgettes, if (like me) you are eating courgettes with all meals currently - including breakfast).

Profiteroles - good old Delia here.

Sift strong plain flour & a little caster sugar onto baking parchment.  Add cubed butter to water in a pan & bring to the boil - briefly - then turn the gas off, shoot the flour/sugar into the pan & mix like mad (note: or with considerable ease with the electric mixer).  Beat in egg & when glossy, spoon mixture onto greased baking sheets.  Once baked in a hot oven, leave to cool having pierced the sides to let the steam out.

Serve with a spoonful of whipped cream in each one, and drizzle over melted chocolate.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Nigel Slater - lovely as he is - does make a bit of a meal of a stew. I just brown the meat then chuck everything in - none of this 'fry until golden, set aside, then...' stuff, and I'm not sure that this gains any
  • The French have the right idea - putting a bottle of wine into anything is bound to be a plus
  • The lovely Nigel suggests that the bourguignon is is better the next day - I couldn't agree more.  Stews are always more tasty/tender after some maturing, I find, and I'm sure that this will be true with this too.
  • I was astonished that a weedy batter spooned out onto baking trays and popped in the oven could transform into pastry puffs - a real 'well, damn me!' moment
  • although the choux buns are a bit boring on their own ('well, damn me' moments notwithstanding) cream & chocolate transform more or less anything.
  • I thought that profiteroles/eclairs had a certain mystique - but no - well do-able, indeed!

And out of 10?

  • for the bourguignon - a solid 8/10 - and I'm sure that it'll be even better when it's matured and cooked up again on in a slow oven all day tomorrow.
  • for the profiteroles - a well-doable 8/10 - I have punctured the mystique of these! They are not difficult at all - although with the cream and choc they are still not an everyday item. Very tasty.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

E is for Egypt

Where we're going this evening - Egypt

For our first visit to the Middle East, we travel across to Egypt, home of the camel, fez, pyramids and the river Nile.

Egypt is four times the size of the UK with half as many again in terms of population and the biggest city is the capital Cairo, known as the city of a thousand minarets. Egypt is a country of great geographical contrasts - the lush and fertile lands around the river Nile contrasting with the uncompromising Sahara Desert to the west of the Country

There's enough politics going on to last anyone a lifetime in this neck of the woods - Egypt is the Arab capital, right next door to Israel, and it's fair to say that there have been one or two dust ups between the two in modern history. The Suez canal, built in 1869 nearly bankrupted the country and led indirectly to British rule (honestly, in Victorian days we did get about a bit) from 1882 to 1922 at which point Egypt was declared independent. More recently, democratic reforms have been implemented following general civic unrest last year.

Egypt has far more that its fair share of culture - from the wonderful Pyramids of the Ancient civilisations to the 101 tales of the Arabian Nights - honestly, its enough to make you want to put on a veil and a pair of curly slippers and learn to belly dance.

Famous Egyptians - apart from Tutankhamen, Cleopatra and Nefertiti - include Mohamed Al Fayed (former owner of Harrods) and Omar Sharif (actor and bridge supremo)

Before I looked into Egyptian cuisine, I was rather worried that it would be all sheep's eyballs and locusts covered in honey due to the country being the home to some many tribes (including the nomadic Bedouin and Nubians), however with the exception of 'halawa' which is made of sesame seed paste and is billed as 'one of the few foods that can tolerate the hot Egyptian weather without going bad' which doesn't do anything for me at all, it all sounds rather good. Not much in the way of pork & beef, of course, but plenty to go at despite that.

So come with me across the desert and say 'salam wa aleikum' to the Egytians...

Tonight's Menu...

Tonight's menu has been a tricky one - Middle Eastern cuisine rather all blends in together, with influences from Africa , Europe and further East.  Ful medames (a sort of broad bean pate) and falafel (chickpeas mashed & fried) are both very popular, but I wanted to cook something more substantial than dips with pitta bread, however delicious they sound.

I nearly plumped for koftit roz - rice meatballs - but having cooked Danish meatballs last week, I wanted a change, so kushari it is.

Roz Bel Laban is known as rice pudding to you and me, but it has a couple of twists compared to how I would make it UK stylee, so lets see how it goes.

Kushari - meatball recipe is from the whats4eats website

Cook rice, lentils & macaroni and mix in a bowl.  Fry onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes, and chili flakes gently until sweet.  Season & pour over the mixed rice/lentil/macaroni and top with crispy fried onion slices (note: that is crispy, and not burnt).

Roz Bel Laban - lots of variation on this one, but I went for this recipe.

Simmer short grain rice with water then add milk, stirring until it begins to thicken (note: I used skimmed milk throughout rather than water, then full fat milk, figuring it would all come out in the wash).  

Add sugar, orange blossom water, cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins, stir constantly until rice is soft (note: using a non-stick/milk pan for this means you aren't tied to the hob quite as much)

When creamy, serve hot.

The Result


And what have we learnt? 
  • Egyptians must have a MASSIVE appetite - I know that I've been converting cups to grammes & reducing the numbers catered for, but even so - blimey - the rice/lentil/macaroni mix would feed a bus load!
  • As it is, a lentil/rice/pasta base is pretty damn bland - but not unpleasant.  
  • Using three pans to provide a base for a meal makes me mighty glad that the new kitchen contains a dishwasher (which is not me).  My dear Godmother throws her hands up at the washing-up generated from my mother's home-cooked dishes when she comes to stay with her - she'd have had a conniption fit at tonight's utensil extravaganza 
  • Spicing up a sauce to suit what ya got (it's called the 'Hazel's fridge' school of cookery - i.e 'here's the base, what's in the fridge to give it a bit of zing') works well.  Love the tomato/onion/chili mix from the recipe with onion topping, but give me a pepper or two, spring onions & a bit of sweetcorn & we really will be walking like an Egyptian!
  • surprisingly, this hob cooked rice pudding is just as good and quicker to produce than my family oven cooked jobbie
  • and this week's 'well, damn me!' moment - the Egyptian version of rice pudding doesn't need a full fat/jersey milk to make, my pallid skimmed milk version tastes exactly the same.  Dieter's dream dish, I suspect.

And out of 10?

  • for the Kushari - a reasonable 6/10 - tasty, but unless you're catering for a busload, the faff of preparing three base dishes on top of a sauce is disproportionate to the tasty (but not extraordinary) end product.
  • for the Roz Bel Laban - a tasty 8/10 - I love a rice pudding, but having to remember to buy special full fat milk in order to make the oven-baked version passed to me by my mother, generally puts me off.  I could not tell the difference with this hob prepared version , bar the fact that I had to keep more of an eye on this hob-made version. A success.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

D is for Denmark

Where we're going this evening - DENMARK

Back to Europe tonight - we're popping across the North Sea to Denmark.

With fewer than 6million citizens, Denmark has less than 10% of the population of the UK - tiny, huh?

But, like the UK, it is a constitutional monarchy - Queen Margrethe II & Prince Henrik head the royal family, and also - like the UK - Denmark is a member of the European Union, but has not adopted the Euro currency.

With it's only land border to the south with Germany, and occupying a strategic seaboard position adjoining both the North and the Baltic seas, Denmark has had it's share of squabbles with the other Scandinavian countries, Sweden & Norway.

Mind you, this is also Viking territory with all that lootin' and rapin' and pillagin' going on over half of northern Europe back when men were men and girls wore pointy helmets with horns on and -er - 'shaped' armour breast plates and sang in a pleasing mezzo-soprano, ushering fallen heroes into Valhalla.

It's all rather tamer stuff now, Denmark being one of the most generous donors of world aid per capita. The taxes are high, but the education, childcare and excellent healthcare are all free.

Famous Danish are actor Viggo Mortensen (be still, my beating heart), fairy tale supremo Hans Christian Andersen, and all-round good egg Sandi Toksvig; and I think that there is no visitor to the capital Copenhagen who has not taken a photo of the the Little Mermaid sculpture in the harbour.

As far as the food is concerned, Denmark is well known for its bacon - a huge export market there - open sandwiches (called something unpronounceable using made-up letters not found on a normal keyboard), meatballs, and of course, Danish pastries.

So come with me on the long haul ferry from Harwich across the North Sea and say 'hej!' to the Danes...

Tonight's Menu...

Tonight's menu has rather written itself.  Apart from the unpronounceable open sandwiches for which the Danes are famous, Danish meatballs also look good - the only hitch here is that there would appear to be exactly the same number of Danish meatball recipes (all handed down from various ancestors) as there are Danes, so I've had to take a middle line.

And my mother has reminded me that being written out of the will is an option should Danish pastries not feature in the first available 'D' spot - so that's pretty much set in stone too.

Danish Meatballs with Creamy Dill Sauce - meatball recipe is from the food.com website, as is the dill sauce recipe

Mix minced veal (or beef mince) with half as much minced pork, egg, breadcrumbs, finely chopped onion salt and pepper in a large bowl with a dash of water.  Knead for a few minutes then split into golf ball sized patties.  Flatten & fry in butter over a low heat until cooked.

Make sauce by making a roux of butter & flour in a milk pan over a low heat, gradually blend in chicken stock, then sour cream & chopped dill. Season & pour over meatballs.

Danish Pastries - a dilemma here - you can make Danish pastries either with dough (like Chelsea buns) or as I did - sort of yeast-based flaky pastry recipe.  

Make a dough by mixing strong & plain flour, yeast & salt with egg & milk. Knead a little & leave to rise for an hour. Roll dough to a rectangle & dot butter over the middle third.  Fold top & bottom, roll out.  Cool for 20mins.  Repeat 2 times.

Mix softened butter, caster sugar, mixed spice, cinnamon, raisins, in a bowl & spread over rolled out dough. Roll up & cut 9 slices.  Put rounds on baking tray - flatten a little, bush with egg & bake. Glaze with icing sugar/lemon juice.

The Result

And what have we learnt? 
  • meatballs are an all-in-one easy-peasy standby recipe which can be adjusted to suit what's in the fridge
  • Sauce with a cream ingredient is velvety smooth when you make it, solid and difficult to resurrect when doing 'leftovers'.
  • 'until you have a smooth, slightly sticky dough' is not a helpful instruction when you've not done this before - 'slightly' meaning what, exactly?
  • being uncertain of the viability of yeast is a disadvantage when embarking on an unknown recipe - has the dough 'risen to twice it's size in an hour'? Or is is sitting like a toad in a hole?
  • trying to roll out dough (which may or not be a bit stiff and/or not well risen (see above)) into a rectangle to incorporate a whacking amount of butter dotted onto, folded, and rolled out again is difficult - especially when the dough is a bit too solid and the butter maybe over soft.  Tendency of folded dough to ooze butter when rolling not a good sign, I suspect  
  • Filling of soft butter, castor sugar, raisins. mixed spice, cinnamon is very good, but I could double the quantities for next time, I think.

And out of 10?

  • for the meatballs - a solid 7/10 - nothing hugely special with these, but tasty and a good texture.
  • for the creamy dill sauce - a velvety 8/10 - now this was good - making a white sauce with stock is always a good move, and adding in soured cram made it really smooth, the dill added something and made it all very nice indeed
  • for the pastries - a tame 6/10 - nice try, but more practice needed here - I suspect that they are not difficult if you've go the knack of it.  It's all down to experience I think - if I could get these to meet mum's approval it would be easy to knock these out time and again

Thursday, 9 August 2012

C is for Canada

Where we're going this evening - CANADA

Tonight we are off to Canada - I'm not afraid of the big countries!  Canada is the bigger bit of the North American continent, with a population of about half that of the UK.  Told you about the wide open spaces, didn't I?

Canada is a real melting pot of nations, with many influences from immigrants from Europe shoving the native First Nation people rather out the picture for many years.  Although there is now much recognition of the heritage of the country with reserves established in law, and the province of Nunvut with a majority inuit population.

Canada is in the Commonwealth, with our very own Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state - Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall visited this year as part of the Queen's diamond jubilee tour.  Mind you, Canada also has huge French influences, with French and English both being official languages.

Half the country is covered in forests, and it is home to the grizzly bear, moose, caribou and beaver. Famous Canadians include actors Dan Ackroyd & Jim Carrey, model Linda Evangelista, singer Bryan Adams; newspaper mogul Conrad Black, and (sorry to mention it) disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson.

Talking of sport, Ice Hockey is a big deal, as is lacrosse, and Canada have won 13 Olympic medals to date in the current London games.  And just to prove that Team GB lets someone else play in the velodrome, Canada won a bronze medal in the Women's team pursuit.  Well done, you.

So get your snow shoes on and mush those huskies as we experience a taste of the big country...

Tonight's Menu...

Sorting out tonight's menu was tricky - how do you sum up a nation as big and diverse culturally as Canada?   There's no single national dish, just things which are popular in the various provinces - cuisine that has been imported along with the immigrants.  If I was to really get down to brass tacks, I'd look at traditional First Nation food, however that could involve moose, and (I kid you not) porcupine; native berries and not much in the way of veg.

Fortunately, there are a number of Canadian ladies who I 'know' from another hobby, and I was able to ask for opinion from Nova Scotia in the East, British Columbia in the West, Saskatchewan in the middle and Yukon in the north which has been an invaluable help.

So it's a fish dish from the east coast and a treat from the west coast.  Then the one dish which does seem pretty universal - poutine.  Now, I'll be honest, it sounds utterly vile with it's soggy chips and melty stringy cheese with gravy - and the web sites promoting its glorious unhealthiness do not help - but then I didn't embark on cookery round the world in order to just do the familiar, so in for a penny, in for a pound.

Pollock Montreal - recipe is from the Allrecipes.com website (with other research from other websites)

Put the pollock (note: I used haddock) in a buttered dish and season with paprika & black pepper; top with slices of onion, green pepper & tomato.  Cook in a medium oven for 15 mins till the fish flakes easily, then turn off the oven, top the dish with a couple of cheddar slices (note: I used Canadian cheddar. just to get in the spirit of the thing) and put back in the oven for the cheese to melt for a few minutes.

Poutine - recipe is from the matadorn life website, with additional gloating about how shockingly unhealthy the dish is from Knights Canadian. Not sure why anyone in the world would want to cook this after reading the latter link.  Anyway.

Fry chips, top with cheese curds (note: I used grated mozerella), smother with piping hot gravy.

Nanaimo bars recipe is shared by Paulette of Sweet P Quilting and Creations.  Nanaimo bars were thought up by a housewife in the town who entered her recipe in a magazine cookery contest.  She won, the bars are now Canada-wide famous.

Melt butter, cocoa and sugar in a pan, stir in a beaten egg, coconut, ground biscuits & chopped nuts (note: recipe calls for grahams wafers, which we don't get here - research suggests using digestive biscuits instead), stir, press into a deep tin & chill.  Add a second layer of creamed butter, icing sugar, vanilla and cream, and chill again.  Top with melted chocolate.

The Result

And what have we learnt? 
  • try things you are unsure about - you might be pleasantly surprised, but ....
  • ....cheesy chips are essentially the same the world over, by whatever name
  • pay attention to cooking times - a tendency to overcook would not have worked well with the delicate textures and flavours of the fish dish
  • deep frying need not be really, really scary.
  • you can't go far wrong with a recipe combo of butter, biscuits, chocolate and buttercream

And out of 10?

  • for the montreal pollack - a brilliant 9/10 - I would have thought that the cheese would overwhelm the fish, let alone the onion and pepper, but it was a triumph!  Maybe the secret ingredient was the paprika?
  • for the poutine - a non commital 5/10 - I can see it as a starchy comfort food, but frankly, why would you bother when hot toast and butter are quicker and just as tasty?
  • for the nanaimo bars - a solid 7/10 - I like these coconut chocolate jobbies - however, I do regularly make a family recipe along the same lines (but with no cream layer), which I think that I prefer.  My guinea pig tester remarked that he'd had a similar snack with a mint filling, which sounded like an interesting variation - so lots of food for thought there.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

B is for Brazil

Where we're going this evening - BRAZIL

Tonight we are off to Brazil, the largest country in South America.  Home of the Amazon Rainforest, 200 million people; 4,500 miles of coastline and the most exciting football team in the world.

We've not even mentioned the Girl from Ipanema or the world famous Rio carnival; coffee and oranges; author Paolo Coelho and colourful ex-president Lula.

It's an exciting emerging world power, with vast natural resources, six time zones and the greatest variety of animal species in the world.

So samba on down with me as we experience a taste of the exotic...

Tonight's Menu...

The national dish of Brazil is Feijoada, a meat and bean stew - a real project of a dish taking all day to slowly cook in a heavy pot.  I've opted for a fish dish instead, from Bahia, a large state (about the size of France) on the Atlantic coast.  It draws on African origins, and although it is often served with patties or fritters made with mashed beans, it is also served with rice.

I'm also making Brigadeiros - chocolate truffles named after Eduado Gomes, an important military and political figure in the middle of the 20th century.  The reason why you'd name a sweet after an Air Marshall eludes me, even after some research - it seems to be that at a time of national food shortages after the second world war, some cooks took the newly available imported Nestlé products of condensed milk and cocoa powder, made truffles with them and called them after the nearest good looking chap. Bit like naming a new cake after Tony Blair (if you're into that sort of thing) - I can't see it catching on, myself.

Vatapá - recipe is from the About.com website (with other research from other websites)

Fry chopped onion, chili & garlic then add ground cashew & peanuts.  When golden, add bread which has been soaked in coconut milk and fish stock.  Bubble gently for a few minutes until thickened, then stir in cooked prawns and warm through.

Brazilian Rice - recipe is from the About.com website

Fry chopped onion, tomato and garlic in a pan till transluscent and fragrant.  Add rinsed rice and twice the volume of water or stock (I used left over fish stock & water) and cover.  Once virtually cooked, take from heat and cover with a tea towel for five minutes. Serve with the vatapá & garnish with chopped parsley.

Brigadeiros recipe is from the About.com website

Put condensed milk, cocoa powder and a pinch of salt into a pan and stir constantly over a low heat for 10-15 mins until the mixture is glossy and thick (note: this is extremely boring).  Cool, then pinch off portions and roll to make 1" balls.  Roll in chocolate strands. (note: a quick dunk in water makes the chocolate strands stick well to the balls).

The Result

And what have we learnt? 

  • that this round the world thing is definitely a GREAT IDEA!
  • even complicated recipes with loads of ingredients are not difficult to get your head round if you do all the prep at the start.  Prep for complicated recipes does involve using every bowl/cup/chopping board in the kitchen at least once
  • Cats who love prawns are only dissuaded from the worktop by being locked out of the house to peep through the catflap and mew piteously
  • innovations in food production and packaging mean that condensed milk is now sold in squeezy tubes, like primula cheese or toothpaste - amazing!
  • chocolate strands are not a static commodity

And out of 10?

  • for the vatapa - a reasonable 6/10 - the nut/bread/coconut mixture is a bit on the gloopy side - tastes nice, looks not great
  • for the rice - a solid 7/10 - no frills, can't go far wrong with anything involving fried onions
  • for the Brigadieros - a chocolaty 7/10 - bit solid, but fudge-like and good looking enough to be given as presents come Christmas.