Fit for a Masterchef challenge

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Tuna tartare prepared for a previous dinner. Lighting conditions were impossible for photos of yesterday’s dinner.

The guests are about to arrive in 40 minutes, you are around 30 minutes into your food preparations but given the choice of menu you have to cook everything at the last minute. Your kitchen equipment all runs on electricity. And suddenly there is a power-cut and you don’t know when it will be restored again.

This would be a challenge fit for an episode of Masterchef or the French version Top Chef where the chefs are given countless challenges to try and cook their way out of a tricky situation.

Yesterday evening Malta suffered a nationwide power cut and the challenge to continue with my plans was probably fit for a future episode of Top Chef.

The cause of the power-cut was a fault in a  generating unit in the power station followed by an explosion at a distribution centre resulted in the whole of the island being without electricity for several hours.

The temperature is still high, above 30C, and the small gas lamp is emitting heat making the conditions in the kitchen pretty tough. But amid these adverse conditions there is hope. The first part of the meal does not require any cooking. The choice is now either to fire up the gas barbecue or else a gas hob which is picking up dust in the garage and has not been used for many years.

Given a pasta dish is involved we opt for using the gas hob and not the barbecue to continue. But the oven remains in the garage and we need to quickly create a make shift kitchen. Out comes an old table which will serve as the main base from were to cook once it becomes necessary.

A gas cylinder is now connected to the gas hob and oven but the focaccia we have prepared to serve with the fish starters cannot be placed in this oven because it is too small. We decide to bake it after the dinner instead.

In the meantime, the wine bottles are open and we start with raw fresh prawns and a tuna tartare. This is the prelude to a roller coaster ride of an evening. From now onwards it is running to and fro from the garden just outside the kitchen to the garage on a lower floor. I forget countless ingredients or pots and pans and have to run back to the kitchen every so often.

The grilled calamari and the clams cooked in garlic and wine will cook pretty much at the same time. Once everything is sorted out, the cooking starts and within minutes we are enjoying the second part of the starter.

The water is now boiling ready for me to throw in the linguine. Luckily the main course is not complicated by any stretch of imagination. Still, it required a few runs back to the kitchen to get one thing or another. First I forgot the pan I was going to cook the sauce in, then I needed a solution to drain the pasta while making sure it remained al dente.

The main course would require just 10 minutes to prepare. While the pasta cooked, I prepared the sauce for the linguine with bottarga di muggine (mullet roe). First I fried the garlic in extra virgin olive oil, drizzled some white wine and added cherry tomatoes. As soon as the pasta was cooked (more al dente then usual), I ran to the kitchen with the large pot to drain the water and then back to the makeshift garage kitchen where after adding the bottarga to the sauce, we added in the pasta, stirred a bit before finishing off with some rocket and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Power cuts and water cuts are a very sore point in Malta and subject to great political controversies and discussions both because of their recurrence since the 1980s despite millions in investments to sort out the problem.  Since I no longer live here, it seems like it happens less often though in the news it was reported that the last nationwide power cut occurred in January.

When it happens, however, it allows for countless discussions and arguments but also points of reflection worth pondering about.

There are the lessons one takes:

  1. Be prepared.
  2. In whatever situation you find yourself in, you need to always have a plan B. Its not about being paranoid but about ensuring resilience.
  3. Turn adversity into positivity.
  4. Enjoy the moment.

 

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Recipe 5: Raw marinated prawns with orange zest

IMG_5184The cicadas are screaming like there is no tomorrow, it is impossible to walk in the sun as the temperature soars above 30C. To joke, some people bluff that if it gets any hotter, they might fry an egg on their car bonnet. This is life in the Mediterranean on a hot summer’s day.

To refresh oneself in these conditions, water is essential, either to drink and rehydrate or else to jump into and cool down. Then comes the evening and the cicadas make way to long lazy evenings, preferably outdoors. There is a smell of burning charcoal wherever you walk. People are outdoors because the houses inside still retain the heat that has accumulated during the day.

As the sun starts to set, a nice breeze suddenly arrives. This is the time to enjoy the fruits of ones work.

In this case, the recipe below is the essence of simplicity. What you need is a good relationship with your fishmonger. Tell him or her what you have in mind, make sure what you are buying is extremely fresh and then let the ingredients do the showing off. Nothing tastes of freshness as these raw marinated prawns.

Serves four as part of an antipasto. With this I served some grilled calamari and a tartare of tuna (see recipes in subsequent posts).

Ingredients

  • 12 fresh prawns
  • One lemon
  • Zest of one orange.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Maldon sea salt (You can use fleur de sel)

Method

1. Clean the prawns. Remove the head, peel the skin one by one and rinse in cold water. Then remove the vein. What I do is cut a very small incision in the middle of the prawn and then remove with the blunt edge of the knife. Clean them again in cold water.

2. Place the peeled raw prawns in a plate or bowl. Add the juice of one lemon and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (the best you can find). and then mix the prawns with the mixture to ensure that the prawns are all covered with the mixture. Then add the zest of one small orange of top for added acidity and freshness and sprinkle some salt on top.

3. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve (within two hours).

4. Enjoy.

Drinking recommendation: Raw prawns have a certain sweetness which cuts through the acidity of the lemon juice and orange zest. This dish screams Southern Mediterranean so I would stick with an acidic wine from South Italy. A Falanghina or Fiano d’Avellino from Campania would work extremely well as would a fresh Insolia from Sicily. I would also recommend it with a Vermentino from Sardegna, Tuscany or Liguria

 

Book review: Shadows in the vineyard – the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine

Vineyards in Burgundy

What kind of man the cellarer of the Monastery should be

1) As cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from the community, one who is sound in judgement, mature in character, sober, not a great eater, not self-important, not turbulent, not harshly spoken, not an off-putter, not wasteful.

2) but a God-fearing man, who will be a father to the whole community

3) He is to have charge of all affairs

10) He must regard the chattels of the monastery and its whole property as if they were sacred vessels of the altar

(Chapter 31 of the Benedictine Rules, as posted in English inside the Burgundy’s Abbey Notre Dame de Citeaux)

So starts the book, Shadows in the Vineyard, the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. The author Maximillian Potter admits at the end of the book that when he came to write this story for a magazine and later turned it into a book, he knew very little about wine. This is all the more amazing because the book reads very well, has incredible details and history of the wines of Burgundy. On top of it all, he recounts a true story which happened in 2010 and which threatened to ruin the wines of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Now for any serious wine lovers, the wines from this Domaine are the holy grail of wines. On just about any list of the world’s top 25 rated wines you will normally find seven wines from this wine house: the Richebourg, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee-St Vivant, Montrachet and Romanee-Conti.

Burgundy wines are well known for their finesse, particularly if they are well made. But finding these well-made wines is not as easy as it seems.Made from Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red), no other region is as complicated even for wine experts as Burgundy. The reason is that this north, it is very difficult to make wines and therefore terroir plays a very important if not crucial role in the wine production. With so many appellations based on villages (87 in total) and vineyards shared by some 3,5000 winegrowers it is no wonder that Burgundy wines can be confusing.

Getting your way through Burgundy wines is like getting a very thorough geography lesson. You need to know the villages, where the vineyard is, in which part of the hill it is and whether it faces the sun or not.

You need to know why a wine from a village may cost double or triple the price of another which is produced just across the road but from another village.

There is therefore a certain allure to Burgundies, and when you discover well made Burgundies even from small producers, you normally return to buy these wines time and time again first because a well made Burgundy wine is fantastic.

But the wines from DRC as the Domaine is often known are among the world’s most sought after wines and also unfortunately unaffordable to many.

Few people knew about the story to poison these wines. So when I spotted this book, I was immediately curious. I actually thought it was a work of fiction and had to check the story out before I actually bought the book,

The author writes beautifully about the wines and the Burgundy region, the plot reads like a thriller and makes you really curious to find out what finally happened.

I will not spoil the story of the book but if you are interested in wine, want to discover a bit more about Burgundy and read a different sort of book related to wine, then I highly recommend it.

 

 

What I enjoyed reading this week (6)

Here is a list of interesting articles I have come across this week. Enjoy your Sunday with these nice reads.

You will find a great article about wine fraud and counterfeiting from wine searcher here which is food for thought especially for the risk it involves of buying expensive wines. For those in the know, drinking wines from Fleurie or Morgon may no longer be considered as inferior pleasures.

Have you ever wondered in awe about wine sommeliers and their incredible depth of knowledge about wines. Here you will find what it takes to become a master sommelier.

Chablis is a fantastic wine region and wine that is excellent with seafood. Here you will find a great lesson about Chablis.

Fast food has a very bad reputation for health. However, eating in restaurants might not be any better according to a study.

If you are heading to Amsterdam any time soon here is a list of 10 pop-up restaurants or food hotspots you can find in this Dutch city.

In Valletta head to Cafe Cordina for the perfect coffee

IMG_5149It is a cliche that has been written about many times but one which has stood the test of time. Valletta is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen. It is Malta’s capital city with a population of just under 7,000.

Known in Malta as il-Belt (the City in English), it is essentially a Baroque city build in the 16th century built just after the Great Siege of Malta when the country was under the rule of the Order of St John. I will give you an insiders guide to Valletta in the coming days.

But in the meantime, I will share one cafe which you should not miss when you are in Malta. Practically, every visit by locals to Valletta has to include a stop in one of the many cafes which can be found in this architecturally stunning city.

There is however one cafe, which stands above the rest because of its stunning location, tradition and quality and because it has the only coffee counter on the island. This is Cafe Cordina. A walk down Valletta’s main street, Republic Street leads you to this popular cafe which serves probably the best coffee on the island. After you pass the Law Courts, walk another 100 metres. To your right you will see the National Library and in front of you is the President’s Palace and St George’s square.

Walking into Republic Street you will find Cafe Cordina just before you reach the palace. It is to your left opposite another landmark, the national library. If you are heading to Valletta early in the morning to avoid the crowds, then you can just order an espresso or a cappuccino and stand by the coffee counter (just like in the main cafes in Italy) and watch as the city slowly wakes up and locals enter for a quick coffee before they head to work.

coffee baristaCoffees are being prepared constantly and there is a lot of hustle and bustle but this is all part of the fun of the experience. The barista will probably make you the best coffee south of Italy.

The cafe has been open on its site since 1944 and since then has grown to comprise tea rooms, a pasticceria, a coffee bar and an ice-cream parlour.

Pastizzi at Cafe Cordina
Pastizzi at Cafe Cordina

If you have skipped breakfast, or you have decided to stop here after some sight-seeing you can do like the locals and order ‘pastizzi’. These are pastries stuffed with either ricotta or peas. The ones at Cordina are not the same as the ones you find in the many shops selling pastizzi around the island. Nevertheless, they are excellent.

People watching at Cafe Cordina is also part of what is on offer. The Cafe has a beautiful terrace in the square in front of the national library. If you stay at the back, you have a view of the National Library. At the front end, you will have a view of the Casino Maltese in front of you (built by the Knights of St John) as the Treasury and on your right the President’s palace also built by the Knights.

Malta's Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace in Valletta. Next door to Cafe Cordina.

Recipe 4: Pasta with fresh tuna and slivered almonds

IMG_0327The good fresh fish shops in Mediterranean countries are a joy to visit. When you have a kitchen available, all you need is to just follow your instinct and choose what is fresh and appealing.

A visit to my favourite fish shop in Malta led me to fresh tuna, which at the moment is available in abundance and incredibly cheap.

What I miss most about the Mediterranean is sea urchins or what we call in Maltese rizzi and in Italian ricci. I have been dreaming of a Spaghetti ai Ricci for a rather long time now. It is the thing I probably miss most from my home country

But alas it was not available at my fish shop and it seems unlikely to be available anytime soon (probably the restaurants at this time of year buy whatever they can find given it is peak tourist season).

There was an incredible choice but given the fact that the fresh tuna looking incredibly good, I opted for penne with tuna. The following is the recipe.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 500 grammes fresh tuna diced
  • 500 grammes pasta (I choose penne but you can also opt for something else)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 green olives chopped
  • 4 fresh tomatoes
  • 60 grammes slivered almonds
  • 125ml of white wine
  • A handful of fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar.

Method

1. Boil enough water for the pasta. I normally calculate around 1 litre for every 100 grammes of pasta.

2. When tuna is in season, fresh tomatoes are also in season therefore use fresh tomatoes for this recipe. I normally pierce the tomatoes and place them in boiling water for 30 seconds. They can then be peeled very easily. Remove the seeds and then chop finely.

3. Chop the garlic. Pan fry the garlic in around 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Just before it starts to colour add the tomatoes and stir. Add the sugar and salt and pepper to taste and stir occasionally for around 10 minutes.

4. While the tomato sauce is cooking, finely dice the tuna and slice the olives. Add the olives to the sauce after around 10 minutes.

5. In another pan, brown the slivered almonds making sure they do not burn. If you are using a non-stick pan you do not need to add anything. (You can also do it in a grill but make sure they do not burn). Once they have a golden colour remove from the heat.

6. Throw the pasta into the boiling water (that has been adequately salted) and cook according to instructions. (For al dente pasta, I always stop the cooking at least one minute before the instructions since I mix the pasta to the sauce and continue cooking for around a minute).

7. Once the pasta is cooking, add the tuna to the sauce and the white wine and increase the heat to medium. You should make sure that the tuna is not overcooked. Once the tuna has coloured keep the sauce warm. Add the slivered almonds and shredded basil and season to taste.

8. Drain the pasta and then add to the sauce and continue cooking for around 1 minute. Serve immediately with an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to taste.

Wine suggestion: It is summer and this is a summery pasta dish with fresh Mediterranean ingredients. Tuna is a versatile fish which can even be enjoyed with a light red wine. However my recommendation would be a nice Sicilian white wine. A blend of Chardonnay and Insolia (the Angimbe from Cusumano for example) would work wonders with this dish. Most pasta dishes marry well with Italian wines. Another option for a white wine would be a Falanghina from the Campania region. A Vermentino from Sardegna or Tuscany would also work well.

Knees to Chin: Asian, fresh and healthy

20140805-001908-1148186.jpgThe area around Place Chatelain in Brussels is one of my favourite places to just walk around, just sit down for a drink or eat. It has a superb ‘village feel’ with many boutique stores which are a breath of fresh air in cities that are starting to look the same with the common branded high-street stores.

It is one of the first areas of Brussels I discovered when I moved to this city nine years ago. And it is constantly evolving though it hasn’t lost any of its charm. Old places which have stood the test of time are complemented by new establishments which open from time to time and which hope to also become regular fixtures of the area.

Recently we stopped for a quick bite at Knees to Chin, a newish place on Rue Livorne, in between Avenue Louise and Place Chatelain.

The concept is very simple but effective. If you are looking for a quick and healthy lunch this is the perfect place. They make rice paper rolls which you find in Asia. Using fresh ingredients these rice paper rolls are extremely good particularly on these warm summer days.

At Knees to Chin they make six different rice paper rolls with a great choice of fish, meat and vegetarian rolls. You can also opt for the lunch menu with a choice of either two or three rice paper rolls and a bowl of rice finished with a great peanut sauce and sesame seeds or a salad.

The place is very small but has a very welcoming interior design, I liked the display behind the counter with white and green ceramic tiles and the use of upside down colourful jars as hanging lights.

The rice paper rolls I tried were the prawns with mango and fresh mint topped with an avocado sauce, the chicken with pears and rocket served with a peanut sauce and the duck with green apple and caramelised onions served with a sesame sauce were all fresh and very tasty. The bowl of sticky rice was excellent.

The great thing about Brussels is that more and more great spots with interesting concepts are opening. These places thrive because of good service, excellent food and word of mouth. If you are in the area you should give it a try.

Verdict: the concept is good and unique for Brussels. The produce is fresh. For a quick and healthy lunch don’t hesitate to go if you are in the area.

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You can find Knees to Chin in rue de Livourne 125, Brussels.  This small restaurant is closed on Sundays. Check out their website for opening hours since these will change after 31st August.