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, 23 January 2013

T is for Thailand

Where we're going this evening - Thailand

Somewhere else that I am having to look up on the map.  It turns out that Thailand, home of the phonetically funny city of Phuket (that is, if you have the sense of humour of a ten year old), and capital of a thousand innuendos in Bankok is right over by the Philippines where we were a few weeks ago.

It's a on peninsula along with Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanamar, all of which I tend to lump together with a vague 'far east' label.

What I do know about this area is mostly from the Next-doors who enjoy travelling the region very much, and tend to head off with huge rucksacks in that direction for some weeks most summers, like a pair of over-age teenagers on a gap year.

Mind you, although they do stay in some places which are cheaper (with arguably fewer facilities) than the cattery where their two mogs spend their time, they also like their comfort and send back pics via wi-fi from envy-inducing luxurious tropical retreats. 

So what makes Thailand stand out from the crowd...

Thailand has about the same population as the UK, but is about twice the size.  It used to be called Siam until it changed it's name to Thailand in 1939, then back to Siam, then back to Thailand where it seems to have settled since 1949. The name change will confuse anyone watching The Lady and the Tramp song 'We are Siamese, if you please' or watching The King and I in which the King was that of Siam.

The middle ages saw the rise and fall of various Buddhist empires and powerhouses (and there was me thinking that Buddhist were all peace loving), with Thailand becoming a great trading state with the (inevitable) arrival of those great respecters of other peoples' land, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and the good old English.

Astonishingly (given the Empirical tendencies of those above), Thailand was not colonised - the only nation on the peninsular to have retained independence.  Well, good for you, Thailand!  They managed to keep their own affairs to themselves, remaining as a buffer between those countries colonised by the French and those that the British Empire had their mitts on.

These days all is broadly democratic - despite a few hiccups; and Thailand is an 'emerging economy; with a staggering growth rate of 4-5% in recent years (compared to recession in most Western countries) and an unemployment rate of less than 1%. Blimey.

Thailand is a tropical country with natural assets which encourage tourism as well as a rich cultural heritage.  Let's explore more, as we say Sawat dee kah to our Thai hosts, and see what's to eat tonight...

Tonight's Menu...

So what does your average Thai eat?  Well, off the top of my head, I'd say that Thai green curry, and Thai red curry have got to be contenders, but I see that 'lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components' sums it up (thank you Wikipedia).

Well that sounds pretty easy - but looking at the list of ingredients in some of the Thai recipes on line, I started to worry that the ingredients were not going to be easy for me to find here - so I started off with a complete swizz and a cheat, buying a culinary kit to make my first dish a bit easier.

But looking further into the lightly prepared dishes bit, I can see that as long as I have lime, chilies (sweet tai dipping sauce) and fish sauce (called Nam Pla), then I'm in.

I did struggle, though, for a traditional Thai sweet - even when I consulted the Next-doors, there was nothing that they could say that they had eaten which was 'typical' unless I counted the delicious fresh fruit - so tonight, we are all savoury.

Pad Thai Curry - kit from thaitaste.co.uk

Soak noodles in boiling water for a few minutes.  Meanwhile, stir fry prawns/seafood (can use chicken, pork or veg here), then break an egg in the pan and lightly scramble.  Add noodles and sauce supplied, heat through and stir well to combine.

Thai Chicken cakes with sweet chilli sauce - recipe from BBC Good Food

Blitz chicken breasts, garlic, ginger, onion, coriander, chilli & seasoning until well mixed.  Make into cake shapes & shallow fry.  Serve hot with sweet chilli sauce, lime wedges coriander, green salad leaves & shredding spring onion

Thai Beef stir fry - recipe from BBC Good Food

Stir fry beef strips & chopped chilli. Add fish sauce, until sauce is warmed through and the beef is coated.  Serve with rice (I used jasmine rice)

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • To use a big plate for Thai Taste kits - there is a serious amount of food going on here.  If this is indicative of portion size in Thailand, all Thais must be the size of a barn.
  • That the instruction 'put noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water' should read 'put noodles individually in a large saucepan and cover with plenty of boiling water and agitate freely to separate' unless you want your reconstituted noodle strips to resemble a solid noodle block.
  • If you omit the seasoning on your chicken cakes, they will taste of nothing at all, despite the inclusion of all other ingredients, and copious quantities of dipping sauce
  • That the use of just one 'different' ingredient can totally alter the way a dish tastes compared to expectations
  • Not to give in to misgivings that jasmine rice will taste unpleasantly like chewing flower petals.  Palma violets as a child have an awful lot to answer for

And out of 10?

  • for the Pad Thai Curry - a reasonable 5/10 - the seafood and sauce very tasty, the stuck together noodles definitely to be avoided next time.
  • for the Chicken Cakes - a so-so 5/10 - you would think that this would have had a bit more get up and go about it - but I could have been eating slightly hot sponge for all this tasted of chicken.
  • for the beef stir fry - a very tasty 8/10 - definitely the hit of the night.  The most simple thing in the world to prepare, and the jasmine rice an excellent complement.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

S is for Spain

Where we're going this evening - Spain

Now here we are on more familiar territory.  In my not-so-well-travelled life, I have been abroad many times, but in all but two instances, that has always been to Spain (or more accurately to Tenerife).

I love it - so much so that I have spent more years than I care to think about (and certainly more money than I dare think about) attending night classes in order to learn Spanish.  The ol' grey matter is not cut out for languages, though, and despite working hard and gaining a GCSE along the way, something refuses to 'click'.  I can read a newspaper (generally), and order food - and even write a letter, but don't try to talk to me in Spanish unless you want me to look back at you blankly.  Hey ho.

That does not stop me appreciating the good food - and the weather isn't too shoddy either - so what else do we know about Spain?

About twice the size of the UK, Spain has just about three quarters of the UK's population.  It is occupies a prominant possition to the west of Europe with borders to France and Portugal, and it's but a short hop across the Strait of Gibralter to north Africa.

In the late middle ages when it was very fashionable to jump on a boat and claim the first bit of land you came to as yours, the Spanish where right up there with the Brits 'exploring' the world - which is why so much of South America has Spanish as their first language.  In fact, Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the world.

Spain is a Catholic country, a Monarchy and has a well developed economy.  Well, it is now - Spain was troubled by a civil war in the early 1930's after which General Franco ruled for the next thirty years.  Once he died in 1975, the monarchy was restored, economic growth flourished, and even those troublesome regions always wanting to go it alone settled down with some autonomous rule agreed.

More recently, Spain has joined in with the rest of Europe, and enjoyed good income from tourism - although what with property prices having a serious hiccup, corruption at local government level and a world recession affecting tourism, things aren't so good for the Spanish now.

Mind you, part of the problem, it seems to me, that in common with some of the Greeks and Italians, certain sections of the Spanish population think that taxes are something that happen to other people, but then wonder why there is no money in the pot to pay out for pensions, schools, hospitals, infrastructure etc etc.

Whilst this rumbles on, at least there is a fine climate to enjoy, and the food is terrific - so lets say hola to our Spanish amigos and see what's on the menu...

Tonight's Menu...

The national dish of paella - short grain slow cooked rice with meat/fish/seafood - is a cert here, but it is difficult to choice what else to cook, as we are severely spoilt for choice.

In the end, I decided to put a number of tapas dishes together, and thought about  the ones that I most enjoy eating when I am away.  Tapas are small dishes traditionally served in bars with a drink - like a small dish of nuts, or a cube or two of tortilla; olives; or maybe a bit of chorizo and cheese.  Tapas as we know it now is a bit more substantial - if the traditional portion can be likened to going to he pub and having a bag of crisps with your pint, the modern day tapas is more like having a sandwich at the bar, and a bowl of chips too.

Let's see how we get on.

Paella - recipe from my head
Coat paella rice with oil in a wide pan, then add chopped onion, sweet peppers and garlic and fry until fragrant.  Meanwhile keep a pan of stock/white wine just warm on the hob.  Gradually add the stock/wine to the rice, ladle at a time & let the rice absorb.  Once nearly soft, add fish pieces/prawns/cooked white meat/peas.  Give it all a stir & serve with crusty bread.

Tapas - recipes from 'Tapas' by Love Food from Parragon books
Spanish potatoes - fry halved new potatoes in a little oil with sliced onion and sweet pepper.  Add a little chili & mustard then add passata and stock and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender.
Sauteed garlic mushrooms - sautee mushrooms & garlic in olive oil, leave on a low heat until cooked then add a squeeze of lemon & serve in a dish with a sprinkle of parsley
Garlic tomatoes - halve small tomatoes, place cut side up in a roasting dish, tuck in thyme sprigs and garlic cloves.  Drizzle with olive oil and roast  until tomatoes begin to char.  Squeeze garlic over tomatoes & serve with parsley garnish.
Prawns in garlic oil - fry chopped garlic and hot chilis in briefly in oil then add large prawns.  Keep turning prawns till coated with oil and heated through.  Give a squeeze of lemon and serve with crusty bread
Albondigas (meat balls) - mix beef/pork mince with breadcrumbs, an egg, milk and grated parmesan with nutmeg, salt and pepper.  Make into small balls & saute.  Add sauce (made of chopped tomatos, onions, & basil) and simmer until meatballs are cooked.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Overcooking paella rice will make your final dish not dissimilar to a savoury rice pudding.
  • There is something to be said for putting more wine in the glass, and less in the paella.  After all, the paella is pretty happy to have veg stock used instead, which cannot be said for my wine glass
  • Albondigas as made by mama in the Tenerifian kitchen do not taste like the ones I made tonight.  I should have stuck with my first instinct which was to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the mention of including parmesan cheese. 
  • The Spanish like garlic - and it's a good job that I do too, as I reek of the stuff, as does my kitchen, clothes and will do for ages yet, I suspect.
  • Small portions of a lot of different stuff is a faff, even if each dish is pretty simple to make
  • Not to neglect the drink - just because I knew that I wasn't going to do a sweet for this evening's dishes, I missed a prime opportunity to made a whacking great jug of sangria.  Or maybe it wouldn't taste the same without the sea/beach/sun? In the interests of research, I should have given it a whirl. 

And out of 10?

  • for the paella - a tasty 8/10 - this marred only by the fact that I overcooked the rice slightly - although the mixed smoked fish, meat and prawns were delicious
  • for the tapas - a solid 7/10 - the prawns (not shown) were particularly good and very much akin to the 'real thing' - also the potatoes similarly authentic in taste (although they could have been spicier).  The mushrooms & tomatoes were great, and so easy.  The whole was let down slightly by the albondigas - I know that each kitchen will have it's own favourite recipe, but really - what was I thinking with parmesan cheese?  Certainly worth trying to find a recipe to give a more familiar taste. Or I could just go back to Tenerife.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

R is for Russia

Where we're going this evening - Russia

Having been to some smaller countries recently, we are now going to somewhere MASSIVE in the shape of Russia.  In fact, Russia is the largest country in the world, beating Canada into second place.  It is a whopping seventy times the size of the UK, but with only two and a half times the population of the UK, Russia can be a lonely place to be.

When thinking of Russia, two things pop into my mind - it's bloody cold, and they all drink vodka.  Of course, this is a huge generalisation - but a flick through Russian recipes does seem to have a common vodka theme, and I don't recall any big brands of Russian sunwear.

After a lot of feudal fighting in the middle ages, Russia settled down under the leadership of Michael Romanov, and remained under Romanov rule - with some family spats - for the next 300 years. But it all blew up with the first world war - Russia was not prepared for the fight, and was left in a state of economic and political collapse, culminating in the overthrow (and execution) of the monarchy, and the bolshevik uprising in 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Union.

Communism and rigid state intervention remained the order of the day until the early 1980's when in an attempt to stimulate economic growth, political constraints were loosened.  This gave a voice to the disgruntled, leading to reform and the break away of former Soviet states and to the dissolution of the Soviet Union some 20 years ago.  This now leaves the country in a complicated federal system with some semi autonomous regions, and some not, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin - a man who hasn't let democracy get in the way of being in the top job for the past decade or so.

Vast and sparsely populated as Russia can be, it's not all peasants herding their goats on the steppes and living in yurts - Russia is the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world, and is therefore rather rich, and has the ninth largest economy in the world and is expanding rapidly.

Russia does culture rather well too.  The architecture is breathtaking - all those onion domes in Red Square - and the Bolshoi Ballet, not to mention composers Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The Russians like their sport too - ice hocky, football and basketball are all popular.

Famous Russians - apart from the historical figures of Lenin, Stalin, Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great - include actor Yul Brynner, Anna Kournikova the tennis player, and of course Rudolf Nureyev.

And who can forget Rasputin, the anti-hero, as made famous by Boney M...

And what of the food?  We can expect lots of hearty warming dishes - after all, the winters are long - and yes, vodka is often on the table to accompany the evening meal.

That all sounds pretty promising, so let's don our ushankas (that's those cosy fur hats with the ear flaps) and say  Приветw to the Russians...

Tonight's Menu...

I have a good choice of hearty Russian dishes to try, but by absolute chance, last weekend the restaurant review in the Daily Telegraph was for a Russian joint called Mari Vanna, and so I took my cue from there.  Golubtsi is one of those dishes with a thousand variations, however the basic premise is minced beef/veal/pork mixed with variety of herbs/pepper and breadcrumbs/oatmeal/potato then wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked in a mushroom/tomato sauce or stock.

That dish was happy to be accompanied by green salad and bread, but what to do about a sweet?  I chose this cake recipe because the author says 'we used to eat this on Christmas Eve when I lived in Russia'.  How charming!

Mind you, just because this is what happened in that household is not necessarily indicative of Russia as a whole, I guess.  After all, it is a tradition in our house to have something called a Fred Time (i.e. shorthand for a cup of tea, as popularised by the Bernard Cribbins 1962 hit, Right Said Fred ', which featured the recurring line, 'had a cup of tea'....).

Growing up, I had no inkling this phrase was not common parlance, and was mystified when I used it in the first week or two of secondary school to blank stares, just as we were all getting our pecking order sorted out.  I suspect that I never recovered from the status of 'a bit odd' in the eyes of some.  But there ya go.

However - onwards and upwards...

Golubtsi (Russian Cabbage Rolls) - recipe from food.com
Soften cabbage in boiling water & separate leaves. Remove hard stalks.  Meanwhile, mix beef/pork mince, grated potato, oatmeal soaked on milk, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, ginger, dill, parsley, horseradish and minced garlic.

Put a tablespoonful of the meat mixture in each cabbage leaf and roll up.  lace in a casserole dish.  Make a sauce of condensed mushroom soup, water, tomato puree, tobasco & Worcestershire sauce.  Pour over the cabbage rolls & bake for an hour in a medium oven.

Yacklavach - recipe from ruscuisine.com
Blend a little butter with brown sugar.  Beat in eggs, lukewarm water, flour, and - oh yes - a whole heap of vodka.

Pour the batter into a lined cake tin or muffin cases & back  until golden. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

The Result

And what have we learnt?

  • Meatballs are meatballs, wherever in the world you go.  These are padded out with grated potato and oats rather than breadcrumbs, but plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say in France.
  • Wrapping mince in cabbage leaves does make for handy portions - although it all tastes a bit -uh - cabbagy if you overcook/reheat the dish.
  • Trying to cream 6oz of soft brown sugar with just over an ounce of butter is always going to be hard going.  Not so much creamed, as grainy.
  • The proportion of liquid to creamed sugar/butter/egg/flour makes for a creamy batter.  
  • Adding a goodly amount of vodka to the mix makes transffering the (now sloppy) batter to muffin trays an eye-watering experience
  • Vodka might be flavourless, but a good party game is asking your guests to guess the mystery ingredient.  First to get it right is an alcoholic wins.Actually, I suspect that the alcohol 'bakes out' - or I could be pulled over for being 3-buns-over-the-limit...?

And out of 10?

  • for the golubsti - a reasonable 6/10 - the mince mixture is good, but this doesn't do much more for me that meatballs do.  It has give me a couple of ideas to spice up meatballs though - and actually, the sauce was very nice.
  • for the yacklavach - a tasty 7/10 - actually, although these little buns (served warm with ice-cream) did have a certain 'something', they were put me more in mind of a sweet cake in the manner of a ginger cake than of alcohol.