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, 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?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

G is for Greece

Where we're going this evening - Greece

I had rather a lucky escape this week - whilst thinking of where in the world to travel for my next culinary experience, I happened across Goa, and started to look at the Goan cuisine.  I spent quite a few days wrestling with ingredients that not only would I struggle to get hold of, but I had never, ever heard of.

I'd settled on a main course which I thought I could find (more or less) what I needed for and started to assemble them.  It bothered me that I couldn't do a sweet - I didn't know what 'rawa' is, or where to get hold of 'jaggery'.

Never mind, it was the best that I could do, so I started to research the tropical island and it's history.  Except it is not a tropical island, it is a state within India, thus immediately ruled itself out of the running for 'G is for...' - ha!

So Greece it is - and what do we know about this economically trouble nation?  Well, rather more that we know about Goa, for a start, and that's a fact.

Greece is at the most south-westerly part of Europe, and consists of a rocky peninsular surrounded by hundreds of beautiful islands.  The wonderful coastline, sunny Mediterranean climate and white sands make Greece a popular tourist destination.

The country is about half the size of the UK, but with all those idyllic islands, the coastline is the eleventh longest in the world.  The population is 11 million - a sixth of that of the UK - and about a third of those live in and around the capital, Athens.

You thought that we had a lot of history going on in Egypt a couple of weeks ago, well, the ancient Greeks will give the Egyptians a run for their money.  While the Britons were still running about in animal skins and living in mud huts, the ancient Greeks were writing wonderful poetry, watching plays and debating matters of great philosophical import.

More recently, it's all gone a bit wrong for the good people of Greece.  They jumped into the common currency of the Eurozone which held many advantages, but failed to realise the basis premise that even if you can borrow money really cheaply as you are in the club, you do have to pay it back at some point, and if the economy goes a bit loopy because of world recession and you're living above your means, it's going to come back and bite you on the bum at some point.

There are many famous sons and daughters of Greece - Telly Savalas, Maria Callas and Jennifer Anniston are all of Greek lineage - and mum will not forgive me unless I mention Nana Mouskouri, her favourite singer in the whole world.  And who hasn't fallen in love with Greece along with Shirley Valentine?

So let's do Zorba's dance and say Γειά σου to the Greeks...

Tonight's Menu...

Like much Mediterranean cuisine, the Greeks use a lot of olive oil.  Also featuring are goat, herbs and honey. Yum.   Fish is also a big deal, as you would imagine with so much shoreline, and hearty fare generally.  And ouzo to drink, but not round here, thank you.

I've cooked couple of Greek dishes already in the international cookery short course that started all this nonsense off, and I thoroughly enjoyed the lamb parcels with veg (kleftico) and vegetarian moussaka which were on the menu at that point - both of which are now staples in my repertoire as they are easy to make and extremely tasty. Hurrah!

So I've gone for a fish dish with garlic creamed potatoes, and biscuits commonly eaten at Christmas.  Will these dishes join the others in my recipe book?

Bakaliaros Tiganitos - recipe from about.com

Soak salt cod overnight & rinse and rinse again, then cut into 2" pieces (note: I'm all for salted fish where you can't get fresh, but - frankly - I'm not going to walk past the fresh fish counter in order to buy salt cod) Combine flour & water to make a thick batter, season and coat the fish, then fry for a few minutes until golden brown.

Skorthalia - recipe from about.com

Peel and simmer potatoes until tender, them cream with plenty of crushed garlic.  Slowly beat in olive oil and a little white or red wine vinegar to taste.  The potatoes can be left quite stiff, or with more oil/vinegar blended to a dip consistency.

Melomakarona - recipe from about.com

Blend orange zest infused sugar with olive and vegetable oil.  Beat in flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda.  Add in a splash of brandy and orange juice and mix to a dough.  Split into walnut sized pieces and roll into ovals which are flattened slightly with the back of a fork.

Once baked, dip in a syrup made up of reduced honey, sugar, water, cinnamon, and lemon peel, and let the biscuits absorb.  Fish out and press into chopped walnuts (note: yuk - I used chopped mixed nuts) and finish with a sprinkle of cinnamon

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • The batter for the fish was easy to make, being just flour and water. It coated the fish better than I thought it would
  • Leftover flour and water batter mixture can always come in handy to stick down any curling wallpaper that I might have around the house.
  • Hot countries don't use butter to bake with (it would all melt to a puddle) but they do use oil.  Although I've always used cakes/biscuits with butter and not oil, the resultant dough (eugh! greasy!) actually produces extremely tasty cookies.  The texture is different to melted method cookies, or rubbed in method cookies, but rather moorish nonetheless.
  • Be wary of putting sugary syrup over perfectly tasty cookies in case it ruins them.  I don't have huge sweet tooth and have made the error previously of adding syrup to sweet pastries with the result the the whole lot went in the bin - for this tightwad to admit that is very painful indeed
  • If you are making a batch of syrup to steep the cookies in, don't go and have a bath and leave the syrup to reduce over a low heat as (a) it will produce caramel and (b) that plastic spoon that you left in the pan will melt and add a certain something that you had not counted on

And out of 10?

  • for the fish battered bakaliaros - a reasonable 7/10 - nice, but if I've tasted better batter.
  • for the garlicky mash skorthalia - when the consistency is of mashed spuds, this creamed garlic potato dish merits a 7/10.  When I kept some potato aside to add much more oil and vinegar in order to bring it to a dip consistency, a gloopy 5/10. 
  • for the cinnamon orange melomakarona - jury out on the syrup/nuts addition to the cookies (due to having to buy more in the way of honey, not to say a new stirring spoon), but as they are, they are jolly good - a nicely orangy 7/10.  Easy to make - if a different method to that which I am used to.