Saturday, 28 May 2011

Fried banana and Manouri crumble

The first of the summer fruit are here, a cause worthy of celebration and Shavu’ot is just around the corner, also marking one of the best holiday foods of the year.

The Jewish calendar is rooted in the farming calendar, which, in biblical times, depended only on natural precipitation, ie no green houses or out of season crops. Celebrations often mark annual agricultural cycle, on occasions such as planting, first fruit, grape harvest, grain harvest and the reaping seasons.

It is not clear how and when this day turned into a fully blown lactic festival, marked with all things dairy. It is nothing short of a vegetarian fiesta bursting with anything fruit, veg and cheese from cheesecakes of sorts to quiche, pies flans, crepes and tarts celebrating the seasons’ offering.

The timing is excellent, following a long line of meat extravaganzas beginning in Passover and the traditional leg of lamb, to the traditional Passover BBQ, the Mimuna BBQ, independence day BBQ and finally, Lag Ba’omer, the night- time bonfire BBQ. For one guilt- free day meat is sidelined to the corner, and lambs, calves and chicks get to see another day. No death, dying or making sacrifices here, and all the better for it.

I recently tracked down Manouri cheese at the covered market, and whilst it is not a local cheese as such, it is local in the larger scale of thing, arriving from the relatively neighbouring Greece. The whey remaining from the production of goats’ or sheeps’ milk Feta cheese is cooked to a semi soft fresh white cheese with a texture reminiscent of ricotta. It is used in both sweet and savoury dishes, either fresh or cooked, and it really comes to life when fried. Unlike Haloumi cheese, there none of the (rather pleasing) rubbery- chewy texture. Instead, a crispy golden brown crust forms, protecting a soft and runny warm filling.

If you can’t get hold of Manouri, Haloumi cheese will make a good, yet slightly more savoury substitute.

Fried banana and Manouri crumble

Serves 2


2 bananas, sliced to 1cm thick rounds

100 gram Manouri cheese, crumbled

1-2 tsp good quality honey

Several mint leaves

½ lemon, zested

A pinch of cinnamon

A handful of pistachios, shelled and roasted in a dry pan

A knob of butter at room temperature, for frying

  1. Heat a grill pan or a griddle over medium heat. When hot, brush the banana rounds with the melted butter on both sides and fry, about a minute on each side. Set aside.
  2. In a clean pan, melt the butter. Add the crumbled Manouri cheese and fry, stirring frequently, until the cheese has a golden tan.
  3. Place the fried bananas in a serving dish or 2 individual dessert bowls and top with the fried cheese crumble.
  4. Using a spoon drizzle honey and sprinkle the lemon zest, mint leaves, cinnamon and roasted pistachios. Serve immediately.

Note: cherries will make an equally wonderful substitute, as would apples and pears, when in season. The addition of crushed gingerbread cookies would not go a miss either.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Walnut squares

Almost 2 months ago Dana and Amit left to the far far east. Before they left we all met on a breezy Friday afternoon in a small patch of grass by the park. To our left an avant-garde theatre group was in the midst of rehearsals, hanging down from trees and making screeching sounds. To our right, fluorescently bright jacket donning folk carried around rakes and gathered scraps to build a local igloo.

I came to the spring picnic carrying a tray of the ‘take-away walnuts version of pecan pie’. The time consuming pie crust was replaced by a crumble pressed tightly and baked. The pecans were substituted for walnuts and mixed with brown sugar and grape molasses, turning gooey and sticky once baked. A dollop of sour cream rounded it all up, as always does.

Grape molasses is not that common a product, but if you can get your hands on a bottle- do. Traditionally, in both Turkey and Bethlehem the locals practice Islam, so instead of wine making, the grapes are preserved in the form of raisins and molasses, also called Dibs. The must is boiled and cooked down similar to date and carob honey, and the molasses, traditionally, is mixed with tahini for a quick and natural sweet spread. I also use it in baking, cooking and dressings. The dark syrup is less sweet then honey or maple syrup, a tribute I’m always happy to encounter. Not- too- sweet sweets are under valued, I find, and these walnut squares are just that- just sweet enough.

By now, D&A, I imagine, are somewhere on the far side of the globe, enjoying what I hope is the best foods of their lives; Bahn Mi, steaming Pho, rolls, dumplings, prawns, rice and all sorts of herbs.

It aint half bad around here either. x

Walnut squares

Heavily adapted from Saveur

(About 20-25 squares)

100gr cold unsalted butter, diced

1 cup + 2 Tbs AP flour

2 tbs + ½ cup dark brown sugar

¾ cup grape molasses (substitute with date honey or maple syrup)

1 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely

¼ tsp salt

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Sour cream, for serving

  1. Heat the oven to 175°C. Butter and flour a square brownie baking pan and set aside.
  2. In a food processor, add butter, 1 cup flour and 2 Tbs brown sugar and process until combined.
  3. Transfer the sandy mixture to the pan and using your fists, press evenly and tightly into bottom. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining flour, sugar, molasses, walnuts, salt, and eggs until combined.
  5. Pour the mixture over the baked crust and bake until golden brown and set, about 30–35 minutes.
  6. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.
Note: for variation, try using different types of nuts , or a mixture of various nuts and seeds.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Iceland snapshots

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For years Iceland was in the back of my head waiting to happen and when it finally did, it took my breath away as I had hoped it would, despite the whales, puffins and Northern lights making a no-show. The earth is agitated, unpredictable and constantly bubbling under the surface, physically and metaphorically. It is a geological playground brimming with glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, hot springs, geysers, snow, sleet, rain and last, never least and always present, the mighty wind.
It was clear from the start that food was to be our compass, leading the way through the innards of the land and weaving the sublime landscape with the local food scape. Despite or rather due to its arctic nature, Iceland, it turned out, had plenty to offer.
With no time to waste, plenty to see and mostly eat, our splendiferous Iceman dispensed us with the culinary itinerary in the shape of a double sided A4 list of foods for the week, categorized. If it weren't for the singed lamb's head, it would have bee a perfect score. The presence of a jaw, teeth and an eyeball proved a tad much...
Within an hour of our arrival we headed to dinner at Dill. Specializing in the New Nordic cuisine, each dish was served in exquisite Nordic china, and in its own particular way explored new ways of having fun with the finest local ingredients. The only thing that hindered the experience was my own personal repulsion of anything celery, that made an unfortunate appearance in one of the desserts.
A day later we enjoyed yet another glorious meal, this time at VOX. Once again we sat down to a 5 hour seasonal tasting menu complete with wine pairing for each dish (personally served to us by the head sommelier and 4- time winner Sommelier of the Year in Iceland- Alba Hough) for what turned into an unforgettable evening of incredible food and a unique insight into the emerging local cuisine.

We stayed at KEX, a biscuit (or kex, as they're called in Icelandic) factory turned boutique hostel in Reykjavik, unlike any other. It was here that I was introduced to Skyr, my first of many. Misleadingly reminiscent of thick yogurt, it is in fact a soft cheese made from skimmed milk. The exceptional buttercup yellow Smjor (butter) and the rich blue-veined, triple-cream ‘Stori dimon’ cheese (named after a local mountain) underlined the Nordic grass- fed- diet effects on the quality of the dairy products.
Not a day passed without the presence of local pastry, from the dense and sometimes sulphuric fried Kleina to crispyAstarpungar, aka ‘loveballs’; sweet yeast pastry dotted with raisins and deep-fried until crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. It’s the simplest things in life that give the greatest pleasures like the dense, chewy doughnuts from the local supermarket, covered in thick dark chocolate tempered to a pleasing crackle and snap sound.

About the local Arctic fish and seafood. Yes, we had Hákarl, rotten shark that proved harmless and reminiscent of a mature hard cheese, especially pleasant with the local rúgbrauð. There was seal fat and yes, the 'surf & turf' in one, the controversial Minke whale (perfectly legal in Iceland). However, it was the Seawolf, redfish, blue ling, langoustines, halibut, Arctic char and blue mussels of which I could not get enough of. Having to settle for fish from the tepid Mediterranean waters on a day to day basis, this was a glimpse into the North Atlantic offerings. I'll put it this way: the biting cold North Atlantic seawaters turn the men into Vikings and fish into superior delicacies, juicy and succulent. Assuming they're fresh and in capable hands as was the case for most part, that is.

Sægreifinn, aka Sea Barron, is a restaurant by the water in Reykjavik, where both Locals and tourist show up for the lobster soup and sea- kebabs. Once we settled down from the stormy weather that hit us on the way, I noticed the walls, covered in local memorabilia and the odd taxidermy. We sat down on the buoys- turned- makeshift seats by one of three long and narrow tables. Conveniently positioned next to the till is the refrigerator, displaying skewered chunks of meat. It was here we tried our first whale kebab as well as halibut, redfish and scallops, all charred to a crisp on the outside, vivacious and succulent on the inside.
Langoustines are a local specialty and are referred to as lobster. At Fjorubodid in Stokkseyri lobsters are the house specialty. The Icelandic lobster soup (complete with bread rolls and butter) warmed us up before the main course: lobsters cooked in butter and garlic arrived. A lemon was squeezed and then, it was all but gone.
It never occurred to me the ease with which I take still air and gravity for granted. As the days passed we hardened, little by little, attempting to acclimatize to the unpredictability of the local weather, from brutally cold wind, sideways- pouring rain, sleet, snow, dark storms and just plain windiness that had waterfalls falling upwards.

There's more foods, adventures, memories, stories and pictures then I could possibly fit in, nor is possible to even attempt to map it into words. I do, however, hope that some of the fascinating and unique landscape and food- scape came across in between the words, lines and images. I still pinch myself in disbelief that it really happened, but also, that it is all but over.
(Ps. Takk Chris & Kate)

Iceland's cuisine:

Should You Eat Like an Icelander? an article by By Jen Murphy on 'Food & wine'

Wikipedia's article on Icelandic cuisine


New Nordic cuisine

Traditional Icelandic food

Lobsters (or what we refer to as Langoustines)

Best Kebbabs from the sea and Lobster soup (again, think Langoustines)

Mark Bittman's article in the NYTimes on Saegreifinn