Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Rice Breakfast unravelled

I recently made a culinary discovery that changed my life. It’s an obvious one and dare I say that for half of the world’s population this will hardly be a revelation. Wanting to prepare myself dinner one evening I decided to cook a meal from the only two ingredients I desired; eggs and rice. Two staple foods and not much that can go wrong in the way to instant gratification. I cooked the starchy white rice for 15 minutes, seasoned it with salt, pepper, a dash of olive oil and a squeeze of a lemon, and topped it with a poached egg that bled out onto the rice when slashed open with a knife. I have cooked this recipe since, modifying the type of rice or substituting it for other cereals, as well as used various spices and seasonings, while maintaining the core of the recipe: cooked grains topped with a poached egg.

Rice plays a key role in my kitchen and on my plate with the variety of rice depending on the mood I’m in: Plain rice is for comfort; the white soft grains coat the inside of my mouth like a security blanket, while coarse brown rice adds to the equation a nutty, rough finish. Stirred with salt, pepper, olive oil and finely chopped dill, the rice is my secret hiding place in the land of pasta and Parmigiano. I prefer black rice when it is dressed with an Asian style sauce of raw garlic, ginger, fish sauce, red chillies and lime, and caramelized onions, green lentils and a pinch of cinnamon transport plain white rice to a Mediterranean Mujadara.

The visit schedule to the rice farm in Piedmont had mentioned a ‘rice based breakfast’. All it took was these three words to appear for my expectations to spiral out of control.

We had arrived at the rice farm late at night and were greeted by a smiling man who showed us to our rooms in the farmhouse. The boiler was broken and the 24 of us had gone to bed without the prospects of a shower, but with a rice breakfast to look forward to.

The next morning breakfast was served a short walk away at the farm estate. Coffee arrived followed by a bowl of cookies that turned out to be made of rice flour. Nowhere near an egg on rice. I would have to wait until lunchtime, I thought while trying to stay positive.

Following breakfast Rinaldo introduced himself as the owner of the farm. He was a tall, thin, broad shouldered man in his mid thirties, dressed casually yet elegantly, in a matching pair of designer jeans and a sweater. His slim physique did not reveal the hardship of farming rice, nor did his delicate, nail bitten hands.

The schedule between breakfast and lunch was a busy one; we were told of the farm and organic rice farming, went out to the rice fields and took a tour around the feudal estate before returning to the dining room.

Rice featured heavily on the menu. A starter plate contained three mounds of cooked plain rice. No salt, no pepper, no nothing. We were to test, taste and talk about rice.

I have a soft spot for rice. It’s a source of immense comfort. But it’s a raw material, a foodstuff. It thrives on companionship and requires love and attention that come in the form of oils, spices, vegetables and proteins. Sending rice on a plate stripped bare is the culinary equivalent of standing in front of your classmates wearing nothing but underwear. The following dish was two mounds of white risotto. I was visually undernourished. One mound was made from Rinaldo’s rice, the other was of a competitor brand with the two types barely distinguishable. I may not have been able to differentiate the two mounds by looking at them, but tasting them revealed their true personalities. I tried the whiter risotto first. It took a few seconds for the rice to accustom to the new environment inside my mouth, before collapsing into an array of textures and levels of hardness. It was like reading a first draft of random thoughts; It was all over the place. The second risotto had a uniformity to it as if all the grains of rice knew they were part of a bigger idea, all cooked to the same degree and none with a desire to stand out from the crowd, the way I like it.

Throughout the entire day Rinaldo did not crack a joke nor release a smile, but what he lacked in sense of humor and a lightness of being, he made up with his rice.

When the two balls of rice ice cream came out it was all over. There were no eggs on rice that day.

A saying in Hebrew literally translating to ‘expectations are for pillows’ comes to mind. A frugal allocation of words to meanings in the Hebrew vocabulary has expectations and pillowcases sharing a word between them. I guess I’ll go and make my bed.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Shattered Fantasy of a Rice Breakfast

Slow fish

Dried fish

Salted fish

Fish soup

Fried olives stuffed with fish

Misto fritto (variety of fried fish)

Breaded clams

Pasta with frutti di mare

A day in slow fish.

1 day in slow fish and 3 days in Piemonte was on this week’s schedule. Plenty to look forward to: fish, good wine (Barolo and the likes), good cheese (the only thing separating us from France are the Alps) and a visit to a rice farm. In keeping with tradition, it rained most of the time. It was even cold. Mostly nourished on good wine and cheese, fruit, vegetable and greens were kept to a minimum; we can’t have those in the way of real food now, can we?

The latest additions to my ever-growing list of favorite food stuffs is beer and malt. A visit to Baladin brewery was an eye opener regarding both. I finally managed to separate the association I make between the aromas of beer and the stale vapors rising of a pub floor. This makes drinking beer a more enjoyable experience.

Tasting malt was also a revelation; I am unsure as to why these toasted sweet caramelized grains are not a household item; in yogurt, on salads, in bread and pastry. Dare I say it, maybe even in ice cream!  They should be eaten, chewed and enjoyed in their original form as grains, not only as flour or a beer ingredient. This calls for a REVOLUTION. 

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Anything but Italian

As I decided not to go home for Easter it was going to be the next best thing and the closet place to home: London. Familiar, nostalgic and what used to be a place of residence for 7 years of my life, there are shops I like, restaurants I return to, dishes I re-order, food I buy, friends I meet and galleries I visit.

This was the perfect opportunity for my annual visit and three full days were ideal. Any less and I would stress, anymore and I’d be broke. The weight limit restriction of the cheap airline flight I bought also meant I had to restrain myself. I decided to take this opportunity to top up my intake of ‘other’ food; food that would be as far as possible from Italian food and vary my diet to something other then pasta and Lambrusco. It was not a matter to be left in the hands of fate and before leaving Italy all of my meals were scheduled and prebooked including the company they were to be enjoyed with.As with all best laid plans this too had not followed through (I can report back a success ratio of 75%).

There were several highlights such as the banana jam on a croissant for breakfast at Ottolenghi and the salt beef on rye bread sandwich at Selfridge’s food hall. I had more dim sum in three days that is probably good for me, though its probably good for me to be happy, so that’s my rational for doing so.

The tasting samples at the stalls of borough market were a meal in itself, covering cheeses, chutneys, tofus, olive oil, linseeds, cakes and cured meat. I nearly lost my balance after viewing a raclette being made. Half a wheel of cheese is heated up (a device has been specifically designed to hold both halves while a heater alternates between them, bringing the cheese surface to melting temperature.) and then scraped, or poured, as was the case, onto a plate of boiled potatoes and small gherkins and pickled onions.I know, I know, my mouth was drooling too, and my eyes popped out at that very moment.

I had also craved Indian food. Nothing fancy, but old familiar favorites available from every curry restaurant; some poppadoms, a lot of coriander, chutney, vegetable dishes, rice and yogurt. A reservation to the best Indian restaurant as voted by Londoners proved I may have asked to much. The pepper vapors inhibiting my breathing upon entering should have triggered an inner alarm. But they didn’t. All the dishes ordered, including the usually cooling and soothing raita were filled with peppers including the fried okra which had peppers stuffed where once were seeds. My stomach was on fire and nothing could put it out. This was the hottest meal I had ever had, which made tasting the food impossible, as well as missing the target point of my craving.

I am recharged and ready for more variations on a theme; pasta, risotto, and pork.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Palm Pastry diaries

Click here for my blogpost on the 'The new gastronomes'.
Click here for my previous post.

Note: The featured muffin was baked by Marchelle based on Ottolenghi's carrot apple & pecan muffin recipe.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Coffee Tasting

The many years of daily coffee consumption and intensive taste- bud training were my magic tool when a moment of truth presented itself in the form of a blind tasting.
With it came the realization that from a tasting of various single blend varieties, I prefer the starbucks one...
My pallette is conditioned by popular demand...
My taste buds have been violated...

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Dreaming a Weekend

Suppose I had a weekend to design. a weekend that flows spontaneously, revolves around food, good wine and friends, is active but leisurely, it might be something like this:
The journey will begin on Friday as I will start the weekend a day earlier, traveling to Fair Verona for VinItaly, the annual national wine expo. It might be foggy and wet when I leave, but by the time the bus will arrive in Verona the sun will be out and not a cloud in sight. I will stroll around the historical centre, passing by piazzas, several churches, a Duomo and some balconies, before settling down in a small Osteria in a quiet square far from the crowded tourist areas. There will be an internal courtyard with tweeting birds and several locals that will enjoy the sunny noon with a cool Spritz. A light lunch would be topped with a tasting of the local ice cream.

Once nourished, I will be ready for some wine tasting. Perhaps some Barolo, followed by Barbaresko, and a Brunello di Montalcino. That would be a drunken ending to a nice day.

Saturday would be an early start, catching the bus with friends to the organic market set up in Parma. A sheep's milk ricotta canollo at just the right size, leaving me wanting more would be the ideal snack at mid morning. A quick train ride would then transport me to Modena. Unfortunately though, it would rain pretty much all day. However, Modena is equipped with a Mercato Coperto, a covered market, providing shelter from the rain.
I would probably buy apples from Trentino, Sicilian strawberries and fresh fava beans, but would also wish I could by so much more…

Opposite the market would be a small trattoria called Trattoria Aldina. A flight of stairs would lead to a restaurant full of diners and a long line of locals waiting to be seated. Two mammas in the kitchen would prepare the food while the waiters serve as 'Italian speaking only ' menus, reciting the dishes on offer for each course once the previous course has been cleared. I would order the Lasagna, being the local specialty, and it would not disappoint, it would be the mother of all lasagnas and bring a new meaning to it. I would also enjoy the panna cotta in blueberries sauce for dessert.
In the afternoon I would return to Parma to a pizza night at friends' house. We would take turns making pizza, creating individual interpretations and variations of toppings on baked dough, allowing for each carb creation to be fully enjoyed and appreciated.
I would slip under the covers late at night, exhausted, slightly drunk as I have been steadily drinking since noon, full and happy.
On Sunday I would have friends over for a planned spontaneous brunch, enjoying some bubbly wine with healthy cereal and grain based salads mixed with local and seasonal fruit and vegetables brought over from various markets and countries recently visited (such as a barley, feta, pear salad, a lentil, chorizo, fava and tomato salad, a farro, red peppers and olive salad, and a fresh peas and feta salad). For dessert I would make a strawberries, apple and pear crumble to accompany a macchiato. I would spend the rest of the afternoon sitting under the sun, outside a café in the local piazza emptying slowly, yet steadily, 6 bottles of bubbly wine with great company.
This would be my weekend. This was my weekend: Unplanned and surprisingly perfect.

I am grateful.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cretan Diet

4 months ago I took a life changing step, leaving my old life behind to pursue my passion. Today, my daily routine is a constant amazement as are the challenges I am faced with; an anthropology paper on the consumption of ice cream, or a week in Crete, for an in depth account of the 'Mediterranean diet' are recent examples...
Every day presents challenges that test and reinforce my commitment, dedication and passion.
I would not survive otherwise. I never thought I could eat so much in one week: wild green, freshly baked breads, cheese, fried cheese, fried potatoes, fried anything, yogurt dripping souvlaki, grilled meats, lamb, pork, chicken and beef, octopus, calamari, fish, baklava, semolina, fried dough balls, to name a few. The daily eating fests began early with freshly baked pastries that can or should be had, followed by large, rich, multiple course meals.
A testing of my digestion system, perhaps, but my eyes are always hungry, and so I wouldn’t miss a bite of anything. One of the more difficult challenges caught us all by surprise at an organic pig farm following a usually large lunch. Suspecting nothing we entered the visitors' reception room only to find a long table dressed in a white table cloth all set up with stewed, braised and fried pork, some potato chips, more bread and a wild herb and nuts salad.
The sound of jaws dropping and hitting the floor was quickly replaced with internal stress bells from within.
This initial shock reaction/ reflex soon passed and then we all sat down, ate, drank, and enjoyed the food. It was a good meal that was unfortunate enough to find itself between two other large meals.
This is my job now. My profession. I no longer eat simply when 'I'm hungry'. That’s not good enough. when next will I be in Crete, offered 4 meals a day of the best Cretan food has to offer, not needing to deal with choices or confusion, and have it all set against the sublime Cretan backdrop?
good food will always find a home in me.
The only thing is, I am not sure that what we ate in the space of a week can qualify as the healthy, balanced Cretan diet.
On arrival I was surprised at how it all felt familiar; the climate, the daylight and the food reminded me of home.
It seems that 4 months of hardcore conditioning deep into Italian gastronomy had taken their toll, and the sight of raw, wild greens, fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, tender meat of happy lambs and free range piglets, grilled chicken soaked in yogurt, dishes drenched in olive oil, small pockets of fried cheese, fried phyllo pastry decorated with nuts and cinnamon, coated in a honey, sticky syrup, made me oh so happy.
Some highlights: Olive oil mill- At last a visit to an olive oil mill!
A first hand account of an olive turning to oil was long overdue. This was celebrated on the mill ground with bread dipped into warm (not too warm, this is cold press) olive oil straight from the press, Raki and those small, cinnamony fried pockets of home made cheese.

Marianna's workshop- Marianna collects aromatic, medical herbs from the mountains, from which she prepares teas, oils and tinctures based on traditional knowledge. All the products are natural extracts with no s#@$ in them.
She also decorates each shopping bag with dried flowers, herbs, pebbles and shells, and comments that 'they are simply another expression of her'.
I wanted to buy the entire place, but settled for half…

Crete is like nature's supermarket; wild herbs grow everywhere, the sound of ringing goats' bells echoing and the passing herds of sheep on the road are common reoccurrences. For a minute or two I forgot why I insist on living in a city… Crammed in a small room somewhere in the old city of Rethymno to observe a traditional pastry maker make Kadaif and phyllo I noticed the pictures of him on the wall as a young man standing at the exact same spot, doing the same thing; his life spent on a dot mastering his craft.
The device for making Kadaif is basically the integration of a pancake pan and a Gramophone; a large, hot copper disc is constantly rotating, and an arm with several holes releases thin strands of batter onto the disc, cooked immediately and collected. Architecture.

I experienced an accurate souvlaki an hours' drive from Rethymno, on the shore of the Libyan sea, South of Crete.
Post souvlaki pensing: I should have ordered the 'extra yogurt' one…

During a dinner at Manolis taverna in Astipopoulu I had the softest, most tender lamb, every attempt to capture a piece on the fork caused the meat to further fall apart. That’s how soft it was!
The meal was followed by a concert of Cretan music played to us by Nikos Papalexakis, a Lyra musician and a local celebrity. Naturally, this ended with Greek dancing and a visit to his Lyra workshop the following day for yet another musical session.

There is a Cretan method for preparing an octopus. It's not a pretty sight and involves the constant bashing of one onto rocks followed by a smearing action for about 10 minutes, which supposedly relaxes its muscles resulting in tender meat. Of course, the octopus should not be bashed too hard, as that will blow its head out, resulting in a rather gooey, slimy residue on the rocks as demonstrated by Hainer. When Elisa did this the head stayed intact, but slimy residues did find themselves on people's clothes.
The appetizing demonstrations were followed by a fish and seafood meal at Maistros inn I enjoyed so much I had to mention (except for the pasta dish. lose the pasta…).
On our last day in Crete we drove to Anogeia (Crete's highest village) and its surroundings.
In the middle of somewhere we met 2 local shepherds that awaited us by a stone hut. We were greeted with a tasting of a steaming fresh cheese prepared traditionally. The cold air of the dry rocky landscape enhanced the warm, lactic pleasure and a sip of the warm whey was equally soothing, tasting of a milky broth. I would have loved to cook rice in it and perhaps even poach an egg, carefully place it on top and break its delicate skin, releasing the free flow of yolk.
a 'cheese themed' day, we had a bit too many cheese tastings in a short time, what with cheesy pastries for breakfast, a cheese factory visit, and a lunch of pasta with cheese.
There is definitely a thing such as too much cheese.