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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

two small aubergines

So as always, I'm a bit late: October the 8th-14th was National Curry Week. But seeing as a good curry is as close to our hearts as queuing and roast dinners, I don't suppose I need an excuse to bring it up. With the 'Birmingham Balti' currently fighting for protected status, and the roots of the humble (if arguably terrible...) Chicken Tikka Masala allegedly lying somewhere in central Glasgow, the curry is about as close to our national dish as one could get.  We all know that for every good one out there there are a hundred or more bad ones, but that's done little to dampen our love affair. In reality, most of the dishes to be found on your average 'Bombay Dreams' or 'Taj Mahal' menus are so far removed from their cultural and geographical roots that you'd be hard pushed to call them Indian, Bangladeshi or anything other than inherently British.

Fortunately, I've been pretty lucky where curries are concerned: my Dad spent the bulk of his childhood living in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, travelling with my Grandad while he lectured physics. The upshot of this? My Nan cooks a mean curry. And we're not talking that Uncle Ben's crap here, either. We're talking two solid days preparing and simmering half a dozen brightly coloured dishes, served with fragrant and authentic sundries to a twenty-strong horde of hungry family members. Personally, I think the key to a memorable curry is keeping it seasonal, and close to its roots: Indian cuisine, for instance, has as many regional influences as Italy does. The following curry has its roots in my kitchen, in October. I can't vouch for its authenticity, but let's face it- this is what we Brits do. We take something foreign and- for better or worse- we put our stamp all over it. Hopefully, this was for better. At least, I enjoyed it.

A winging it, made-up lamb shoulder curry:

  • 750g good quality lamb shoulder, boneless and trimmed
For the marinade:

  • 2 tbsp tumeric
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander
  • 2 tbsp ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp Garam Masala
  • 5 cloves of garlic, mashed
  • Mild oil

For the cooking oil:
  • 2 tsp Kalonji (black onion seeds)
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds

And for the rest...

  • 5 banana shallots, diced
  • 1 large Spanish onion, diced (sweeter than a normal one, but either works)
  • 2-3 green chillis, according to taste.
  • 2 tins of plum tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • Coriander leaves, to garnish
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste

1) Dice the lamb shoulder into 3/4" chunks, and place in a bowl with the tumeric, ground coriander, ground ginger, Garam Masala and mashed garlic. Add enough oil to get the meat covered, and 'massage' it for a couple of minutes. As feeble as it may sound, rubber cloves are heavily advised; tumeric has a knack for transforming your fingers into those of a 60-a-day smoker. Not hot. Set aside to marinate- the longer the better. If you have time for an overnight session then pop it in the fridge, taking it out two hours before you cook it off so it has time to come slowly to room temperature.

A large, non-stick heavy bottomed saucepan. Something
EVERYONE should own.
2) Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, non-stick heavy bottomed saucepan, on a medium heat. The non-stick part is quite important- nothing pervades the taste of a dish quite as successfully as burnt onions. Add the onion seeds, cloves, and cumin and coriander seeds.

3) Once they start to pop and sizzle, add the chilli, onion and banana shallots. Make sure there's enough room in the pan, and add splashes of water if you feel anything is starting to catch. Cook until soft, translucent and smelling sweet.

4) Add the lamb with all the marinade ingredients, and turn up the heat to brown it nicely. Again, there needs to be plenty of room, otherwise it will sweat when you want to be sealing in the moisture, not boiling it out.

5) Once it reaches a lovely golden brown colour (and not before), add the tomato puree, the tinned tomatoes, and plenty of seasoning. Leave to simmer gently over a medium heat for an hour and a half, stirring now and then to make sure nothing catches. Serve garnished with heaps of fresh coriander.

When I cooked this a couple of weeks ago, I served it alongside some oven-roasted butternut squash, aubergine and pumpkin cubes that I'd tossed in some ground cumin, chilli flakes and oil, which I popped in the oven at 180 degrees for just under an hour. It made the meal taste deliciously autumnal, with the added bonus of bulking it up to feed six of us with the pilau rice, chapatis and salad. Another thing to note- sliced banana with curry is really very nice. Try it.

Happy (belated) curry week!

mrs hunt.x

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

words and (food) pictures

A photo of meatballs
And so, as if I didn't need reminding that I'm no longer gorging myself silly in Sicily, it's just started raining again. We now find ourselves unmistakably and unequivocally in Autumn- one of my favourite seasons food-wise, most definitely not weather-wise. Whilst the rapidly shortening days and plummeting mercury herald the arrival of some pretty indulgent, tasty comfort foods, for the time being I'm going to stick my head in the sand and fondly reminisce about the glut of pasta, seafood and litre carafes of wine (litre! Italians sell wine by the litre!)  that helped contribute to the extra half a stone that's stubbornly hanging around.

Since my last post reached almost epic proportions, I'm going to allow the pictures to do most of the talking for this one. It would be a shame to let them go unseen, seeing as they were the cause of several marital disputes abroad (Husband: 'Seriously? It's a meatball. Stop taking photos of a meatball and talk to me. You look like a tourist.') Well, readers, I was a tourist, and unashamedly papped a few hundred photos of my favourite meals and markets. And cats too, but I'll spare you those...  

Grilled mystery fish. It could have been bream. Who knows.
These didn't last long...
Now if our glowing white pallor didn't immediately give us away as Brits, then my blustering attempts at Italian certainly did. Needless to say, we did eventually end up with an assortment of traditional Sicilian anitpasti at our first restaurant that went down rather well. Caponata, found in abundance across Sicily, would most aptly be described as an aubergine, caper and celery relish- that is if if you want to be very British about things and completely strip it of any allure. It's generally a given that most things sound infintely more tempting in Italian. We guzzled that down alongside some arancinette (deep-fried risotto balls flavoured with saffron) and polpette di sarde. Now it took my exhausted, Ryanair-flight frazzled brain a while to translate this into sardine meatball, when intitally I had been convincing myself it was something to do with octopus ('polpo', if anyone cares...). But sardine meatball it was, and 'delicious' doesn't quite do it justice. Paired with mint, pinenuts and just the tiniest hint of aniseed, it's a far more summery alternative to the standard pork or lamb variety.

Sicillian culture has been subject to
countless influences over the centuries, owing largely to its indefensible position bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. However, it seems being conquered time and time again by hordes of knife-wielding men from boats can do funny things to a country, and in the case of Sardinia- Italy's largest island- it's resulted in quite an inherent mistrust of anything that comes from the sea. Like fish. Luckily, Sicilians are far more laid back, and embrace anything they can catch. Sicillian sea urchins are harvested in 'cooler' weather, so I was a bit late (or early, I suppose) for linguine di riccio. Needless to say, there was an abundance of seafood around, and the Sicilians adore a simply grilled fish (see above left- but don't ask me what fish it was, since to this day I can't tell you). And then there's the shellfish: mussels are everywhere. A packed-out backstreet trattoria served me an amazing  zuppa di cozze- a glass bowl of huge mussels in a translucent broth. Unlike the richer Belgian or French moules frites, this was an incredibly simple starter dish- just fish stock, lemon, more pepper than you would ever dare to use yourself, and the tiniest sniff of garlic. Perfect for when you're planning on a marathon six course dinner.

Despite not being native to Italy, tomatoes
have done a darn good job of cementing
 themselves firmly in Italian cuisine.

Letting me loose in Ballaro Market, Palermo's biggest outdoor food market, proved very much akin to allowing a child free reign in Hamleys at Christmas- I demonstrated a complete lack of regard for money, practicality or personal welfare, and had to be reminded on several occasions that marrows were unlikely to survive Ryanair's draconian excess baggage policy, and a lot of the spices on offer would look incredibly suspicious under x-ray scrutiny. Regardless, I still saw fit to purchase a kilo of ripe nectarines, and ate them all more out of spite than hunger. But when you experience a market like this- where everything is so fresh, cheap and seasonal, you can see why Tesco are yet to try extending their reach into mainland Europe. The idea of polypropene containers, Peruvian asparagus and Birdseye fish fingers is quite laughable when you see the local fare on offer.

It was like Christmas had come early...
A vivid display of some seasonal Sicillian veg-
and I didn't even  need to use Instagram.

Now I would be remiss in waxing lyrical about the wonders of Italian produce if I failed to mention street food. Sadly, we live in a country where street food is synonymous with overpriced, cremated sausages bought in a state of utter inebriation, somewhere along Oxford street at 3am, or else scraps of indefinable grey-coloured meat that does little justice to the middle-eastern kebab. But in Sicily, street food is a way of life; at around 9pm, families come out into squares in their hordes, and mill around food stands and plastic tables with arancini, panelle (deep-fried chickpea fritters) and guasteddi. Now, I'm fairly brazen with my eating, and am yet to come across a food I won't sample. That said, I was a little dubious about devouring what is essentially a role filled with calf spleen, lungs and lard. But I did, and it was good, if a rather interesting texture.

Guasteddi- tastes good,
 looks... well... not good.
Genovesi Ericine

I suppose the reason I get so giddy in Italy is because I feel very safe in the knowledge that I can be reckless with my food choices- you know that chances are, you're going to get something damn good, even if it does come under the dubious heading of 'chef's meat special.' A restaurant that looks as ropey as hell from the outside is just as (or perhaps even more) likely to serve you the best meal of your life as the one with the linen napkins and 120EU bill. Good coffee is ubiquitous (no skinny decaff soya lattes or Nescafe here, thank you very much), and one of the best things I put into my mouth came from a dodgy-looking food stand in a train station. Genovesi Ericine- sugar dusted, lemon custard filled Sicillian pastries-served up warm with a cup of strong espresso, made our three-train, two-bus trip to the airport bearable.

But now, back to reality. It's still cold, it's still raining, and I'm definitely in need of some comfort food. So I'm off to make some pumpkin soup, and dream of the sunshine....

mrs hunt.x