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Pick farmers markets – don’t pick on them

July 9, 2014

Do you buy from farmers’ markets? Are they a sustainable alternative to supermarket domination or, as recent media reports would have you believe, an expensive luxury?

Farmers’ markets in the UK have been on the rise since the first one opened in Bath in 1997. Is this success as result of people wanting better quality, fresher produce, to support small producers and family farms who were going out of business due to the dominance of supermarket buying policies? Or is this because shopping at markets is a status symbol for the pretentious, wealthy and trendy?  The ‘build them up and knock them down’ mentality of the British tabloid press has led to some unfavourable coverage for markets recently. A couple of weeks ago there was an article by Rose Prince in the Daily Mail. ‘Have you been duped at the farmers’ market?’ screams the headline. This was a follow-up to an equally incendiary piece quoting Jay Rayner who accused farmers’ markets as being ‘costly’ and ‘for snobs’.

Last Saturday I visited Stroud Farmers’ Market which was celebrating its 15th birthday in operation. They sky was grey, there were frequent showers, but the market was packed with a variety of shoppers enjoying the atmosphere, tasting and shopping. This used to be a place where you would never contemplate leaving the ring road. The town centre is now full of interesting independent shops. We enjoyed a cup of tea in one of several cafés which were all doing good business. When interviewed in a local paper, market co-founder Kardien Gerbrands (known as Gerb) recalls “When we started the Made in Stroud shop in 2000 we used to have a joke about whether this year’s tourist had been in. Nowadays we have tourists in all week.’

Because I’m away from home I’m not in charge of the shopping and cooking, my purchases from the market were few and could be considered luxuries not staples.  I bought local cherries from a stall that only sells one type of fruit each week from their fruit farms which changes through the season. I tasted and bought some of the best charcuterie I have ever eaten made from good quality, local pork. A vegetarian millet and onion bake was carried home for veggie teen.  The vegetables on display had been picked that morning and the choice was amazing. I bought some creamy, new potatoes coated with earth (the ones we’d had from the supermarket were like bullets).  The produce available was abundant, fresh and varied. There was quality and variety I had not seen in the supermarket, plus by shopping this way the supply chain is shorter (the opaque and complex way most of our food is bought and sold accounts for scandals such as the horse meat affair).

The findings of Channel 4’s recent the World’s Best Diet demonstrated that the best diets were the ones that consisted of the least processed foods. Looking at the range of produce available at the market, you might conclude that Britain should be in the top ten, but take a glance at the stock and promotions in supermarkets.  It’s estimated that just 1% of men and 2% of women were obese in the 1960s (when there were very few supermarkets) compared to a quarter of the UK population today.

On the day after the Stroud market, I visited another town in Gloucestershire which could do with some TLC. Co-op dominates the shopping choice for food and I wanted some bread for our picnic. There were rows of Chorleywood method, mass-produced sliced bread in plastic (mainly white or blends) or bread rolls that were so stale they were rock solid. I could not buy edible, healthy, wholemeal bread rolls or a small loaf; the choice was simply not available for any price.

Supermarkets have been taken to task by the media in the past, so why should farmers’ markets be immune? Here’s Gerb’s response on Twitter to the Jay Rayner article:

If this blog post seems like commentary from a wealthy ‘snob’ then I hold my hands up and admit to being one. I am privileged to have enough money to make the choice to buy better quality produce; but why should good food (fresh, unprocessed and healthy) be available only to those who can afford it? I grew up in an era before supermarket domination within a family where money was very tight. We wore second-hand clothes and didn’t have a car or a telephone; but we ate really well. Our diet followed these principles long before Michael Pollan coined the phrase “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It was an economic choice; could we eat that way now on a similar budget?

I think the tone of the recent articles is a kind of snobbery. There wasn’t a Range Rover to be seen near the Stroud market; just members of a community enjoying a market that has brought countless benefits to the town and environment.  The BBC Food Programme has documented initiatives where veg box schemes have given local people access to cheap, fresh, local vegetables and fruit. These schemes are run by people who want a change in the way we live; in contrast to the ‘big four’ which are driven by share holder value. Industrialisation of the food supply has been held up by some as the only way to feed the masses but it doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job right now; a third of the world’s food is wasted.

As a tourist to the Stroud market you may think my commentary is not as valid as those who live, work and shop there regularly. However, the farmers’ market where I buy my weekly veg every single week of the growing season has also been under the cool gaze of Rose Prince and The Daily Mail.  I met Rose Prince while she was shopping there although the images printed in article are from the fruit and vegetable stalls next to the fish market in Deira (where they do sell imports from the region) not the market at Emirates Towers (where the produce is all locally grown in the U.A.E); the title of the article inaccurately describes the market as ‘sort of local’.  Shopping direct from the growers saves me money as it is much cheaper than the supermarkets (for freshness there is no comparison). While I do not agree with a lot of what Jay Rayner says, his comments have been taken out of context by the Daily Mail. He does champion ‘big food’ including supermarkets as the only answer; treating food as a commodity is why we are seeing so many problems – read this if you want to know why I think he’s wrong. Also, many market traders have answered back to this well publicised article.

So I’m raising a glass and a cheer for the 15th birthday of Stroud Farmers’ Market and all the producers of good food and produce. It will take more than these few articles to change my mind about farmers’ markets but will their negativity have an impact on others? What’s your experience of farmers markets?

It was raining when I visited  last weekend so didn’t take my big camera and all pics are on my iphone. To see more, read an earlier post about the Stroud Farmers Market.

Simple and in season July – now open

July 1, 2014
Summer pudding

Summer pudding

A new baby is always an excuse for a celebration and how lucky for this particular baby to be born at the end of June. My friend and fabulous food blogger Ren has just welcomed baby Matthew into her gorgeous family. I know from personal experience that a summer birthday is best. Compare my birthday parties in February (a few friends, pitch black outside, going home in the freezing cold) with my sister’s (the lawn full of friends, the sun beaming and a summer birthday tea). That summer tea always included strawberries picked, in abundance, from our garden, sprinkled with sugar and served in cut glass bowls with cream.

So while Ren juggles a new baby, a family, recipe development, and her successful blog, I’m very honoured to take the reins of ‘Simple and in Season’ for this month. It’s an event to share recipes based on seasonal ingredients – a topic very close to my heart.

I’m flying to the UK tomorrow for my annual catch up with my family and home country. A big part of the excitement is the prospect of eating new potatoes, rainbow chard, watercress and, of course, English strawberries.  The Stroud Farmers Market is always a source of inspiration. I’ll be posting from other people’s kitchens and if you’d like to share a ‘Simple and in Season’ recipe…..

Simple and in Season - enter your post on mycustardpie.com

Here are some guidelines:

Read the following and then add your recipe with a link to your post in the comments section below. 

  1. Come up with a dish using any produce that’s in season right now where you live – savoury or sweet, any seasonal produce you fancy including fruit, veg, herbs, meat or fish – it’s up to you.
  2. Post the recipe on your blog and link it back to this page – My Custard Pie – Simple and in Season and to Ren’s Simple and In Season page:
  3. Please feel free to use the image/badge above on your blog post.
  4. Post your recipe by the 31st July 2014.  I’ll do a round-up post of all the entries as soon as I can after that.
  5. You can take inspiration from anywhere – adapt a recipe from your favourite cookbook, try something from a magazine, make up your own creation or share a family favourite. The usual rules apply when using someone else’s recipe; please get permission from the author to post it or adapt it in some way stating how/why you’ve changed it.
  6. Enter as many recipes as you like. You can link posts entered into other blog events or carnivals as long as it involves a seasonal food item (and fits in with their rules).
  7. By entering your post, you are giving me permission to add a photograph to the round-up. I will link back directly to your post when I include you.
  8. On Twitter or Instagram use the #simpleandinseason hashtag or mention @mycustardpie or @RenBehan and we’ll share the love.

I’m very excited to be guest hosting this event and really looking forward to seeing your entries – my guess is a LOT of strawberries :)

What are you making with seasonal produce in July?

P.S. Simple and in Season July is now closed – thanks for your lovely entries. I’ll get the round up as soon as I can (celebrating my daughter’s 18th on 1st August and traveling that weekend so might be a few days into August).

Iftar in Dubai

June 28, 2014

Ramadan Kareem. The start of the Holy Month was announced this evening here in Dubai, by the shot of a cannon in Safa Park as the sun went down. It’s a month of contemplation, prayer, abstinence, charity, spirituality, family gatherings and a lot of eating.

For non-Muslims, there is very little hardship – just the closure of most coffee shops and restaurants during the daytime and not being able to eat in public. The benefits for all is a city that’s more relaxed and peaceful and the chance to break the fast with people in a huge variety of places with a wide range of special dishes.

In case you didn’t know, Iftar refers to the first evening meal when Muslims break their fast before the Maghrib prayer, just after sunset. Traditionally three dates are eaten first. Suhoor is the last meal eaten before dawn and the fajr prayer. These two meals are eaten during Ramadan when Muslims fast between the daylight hours and replace the usual three meals a day.

Like last year, I’ll be away in the UK for most of Ramadan but had a sneak preview of a few Iftar events this month. If you’d like to know what’s on offer in Dubai or fancy sampling some here are a few ideas – including some unusual ones:

Under the stars

Ramadan falls during one of the hottest months of the year in 2014 (it follows the Hijri calendar) and the weather is likely to be very humid and hot even at night. Locals still love the tradition of relaxing under canvas like their ancestors although they now live in cool buildings in this modern city  and The Palace offers a way to do both. In a beautiful setting, under light strewn palm trees, with a clear view of the Burj Khalifa and the top of the Dubai fountains to the right, tents fringe the gleaming aqua pool. Each tent has air-conditioning, which is quite effective (one side of the tent is gauze so it’s not icy cold) and waiters bring a variety of dishes from the a la carte Suhoor menu. It feels secretive and luxurious with a real touch of Arabian nights. Ewaan restaurant also offers an extensive Iftar buffet which can also be enjoyed in a larger communal tent attached to the hotel. The tents need to be booked and are 1600 AED per 8 people minimum spend – the menu is a la carte.

More info at The Palace Downtown Dubai

Lavish

Throughout the month, Dubai hotels are laden with buffets, groaning under the weight of traditional dishes for Iftar and Suhoor. If you are going to experience one, I recommend starting with the Burj Al Arab. Drive over the bridge to this manmade island taking in the most breathtaking views of Dubai’s shoreline with the Persian Gulf either side. Valet park while enormous crucibles shoot dramatic flames up into the air and, if you are lucky, the building itself performs a multi-coloured light show. Once inside the senses are assaulted by colour, fish tanks, fountains and gold. You could dine at the Al Iwan restaurant (which I sampled last Ramadan) or you could experience the grandeur of the Burj ballroom complete with gigantic ice sculptures, Arabic musicians, Turkish-style ice-cream server and, of course, an extensive buffet. I’ll be honest, it’s all a bit theatrical, with a man serving tamarind juice from gigantic receptacle he carries on his back with causes him to bend double to pour a glass, with a jingle jangle. The food is a good range of the usual staples. My tip is to bag an area on the upper level which has curtained divans and backgammon sets. Hide yourself away until the early hours taking a peep at the goings on downstairs or the incredible view. Scrabble is also provided. Enough said.

More information about the Burj Al Arab Ramadan choices here.

A good alternative on this scale is Asateer at Atlantis. This is a beach front tent with live cooking stations and buffet, games such as backgammon and chess, Arabic oud players and a monochord artist. My friend Dima has a great post about it here.

Best Arabic food

Ok I haven’t eaten at every single Arabic restaurant in Dubai, but I’ve dined at Nawwara in the JW Marriot Marquis twice and both times the food has been utterly divine. You can spot someone who has lived in the Middle East for a long time by the respect they show hummus; they will sigh quietly and roll their eyes to heaven when someone says how easy it is to whip up a batch with a can of chickpeas and some olive oil. Everything here is prepared with such attention to detail it’s sublime including the super smooth, creamy, nutty, utterly scrumptious hummus.

I love the decor which is white, modern and airy (beautiful at lunchtime where the light streams in and enabled me to take these pics). There is a water feature through the middle which lends a cooling backdrop and remind ones of the falaj system of watering crops.

When we tried the Iftar menu as a preview we asked several times “Is this really the mount of food people will get?” We were replete after the beautiful mezze and after a brave attempt on the main courses we took doggy bags home.  At 195 AED per person, from sunset until 9pm, this Iftar includes mezze, savoury pastries, fish and meat course, delicious Arabic desserts and fresh fruit, all served to the table (not a buffet).

More information about Nawwara here.

The heartbeat of the city

Regular readers will know that I’m a now a serial food tourist in my own city and have been on five Frying Pan Food Tours. There is always more to discover and Arva (tour leader extraordinaire) and the crew have devised something special for Ramadan. Incorporating many of their favourite places, they explore how Muslims of many different nationalities break their fast and spend the Holy Month. Worth doing if only to watch the sun go down over the shimmering creek but there’s so much more. More info here.

In the House of the Mosque

Ramadan in Dubai - mycustardpie.com-23

Imagine slipping the first date into your mouth and taking your first sip of water inside the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque. The Majlis Cafe has recently opened its doors within a building in the mosque courtyard. You can gaze at the carved minarets through an arched window as dusk falls and listen to the prayer while sampling a very elegant Iftar. The cafe is part of the camel milk group so you can sample this as is, within cheese in some of the dishes or in a variety of different types of Al Nassma chocolate.

Over Ramadan the cafe will be open in the evening and has a special Iftar menu. Afternoon tea-style, there is a savoury version including sweet potato, foul, muhamarra and chickpeas, and a sweet option including balaleet (a traditional Emirati dish containing rice and egg). Both choices include a glass of camel milk and a selection of juices and are 50 AED per person.

More information about The Majlis Cafe here.

The  Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding also holds events through Ramadan which are well worth booking.

*The heading for this paragraph was inspired by a book set during the time of the Revolution in Iran – highly recommended read.

Home cooking

I always crave comfort food after a day where food has been forgotten in the rush. Baker and Spice have put their legendary breakfast dish on the dinner menu during Ramadan. I am of course talking about their phenomenal shakshouka which comes hot and bubbling from the oven served in a cast iron dish with eggs cooked to your liking. For me the eggs have to be runny so I can dip pieces of their excellent sour dough bread into the golden yolk mixed with the spicy, tomato and pepper stew underneath. Perhaps I can squeeze a shakshouka supper in before I go…

Take away and home delivery is available throughout Ramadan from Al Manzil and shakshouka matbukha on the evening menu at 95 AED (feeds two) at all branches.

More information about Baker and Spice here.

I’m intrigued by Tom and Serg‘s Ramadan plan. They will open during the evenings (they normally close at 4pm) for roast dinners. Rule the Roast starts at 7pm each night with a choice of roast meat or fish with all the trimmings. There are three sizes of roast at 80 AED, 95 AED and a family pack for 290 AED.  It looks as though the only vegetarian choice is stuffed aubergine with tomato and mozzarella (as veggie teen hates aubergine we won’t be going for the family pack!) Elder teen will be happy with the Yorkshire puddings though. For an extra 35 AED you can have pudding with things like traditional apple crumble and bread and butter pudding on the menu – but will there be custard? See the menu here

Artificial flavours and a lot of MSG spring to mind with most good value Asian restaurants, but hidden gem Wok It (near Bur Juman on the Trade Centre Road, opposite Centrepoint) make everything from scratch from fresh ingredients including their sauces. They make an addictively good street food dish called martabak telor which is worth the journey alone. Wok It will be open from sunset until 1 am every day during Ramadan. (Excuse the pics taken on iphone).  More information about Wok It here.

Healthy

You would have thought that fasting during the day for a month would lead to weight loss. For a lot of people it’s quite the contrary and over indulgence through the evening combined with less exercise can be a real problem.

Bestro, a small restaurant in Lafayette Gourmet specialising in a completely raw, vegan menu is offering the Freedom Iftar over the Holy Month. They will have an extended range of dishes, served buffet style to allow people to sample the full menu. They have called it The Freedom Iftar as it is free from all the usual challenging things like sugar, gluten, dairy and meat. It’s 100% vegan, locally sourced where possible (due to the weather at the moment) and organic (nearly 100% of the menu is organic). The Iftar buffer is 120 AED  per person for all you can eat including water and iced tea. Hayley has also created a drink called the sunrise suhoor smoothie for takeaway only. It is designed to hydrate, nourish and give slow release energy, containing coconut water, chia, cacao, sun warrior protein powder and activated barley.  The menu dishes and drinks will also be available for take away during Iftar opening hours.

I’ve tried a lot on the Bestro menu and can vouch that it’s extremely tasty and satisfying – my favourite is the raw pizza (and the almond milk drink made with raw cacao).

More info about Bestro here.

Another new opening is Omnia Gourmet by Silvena Rowe. Set within a souk that overlooks a fishing harbour in Jumeirah 1, this is worth seeking out for a variety of restaurants there. The painted mural walls and cane chairs of Omnia Gourmet give it an cosy, casual feel and it’s from here that ‘Slim Ramadan’ menu can be taken away.  This is a healthy eating plan of salads, raw and ‘free-from’ dishes packed with texture and flavour to keep you on the straight and narrow. In fact Chef Silvena says she lost weight last year by following this diet.

More info about Omnia here and a write up by my friend Ishita here.

The Landmark Group has launched the Beat Diabetes Ramadan Cook Book, which is available to download for free here.

A flight of fantasy

Qbara is the hottest new place in town offering modern Arabic cuisine. On the evening that I tried out the food at an Iftar ‘preview’ for media, the place was busy with at least fifty per cent of the clientele in national dress. The transformation of this circular building from Planet Hollywood (fake fur lined walls, garish decor and loud music) to its new reincarnation is quite incredible. The space is open, the walls lined with squares of carpet (it works much better than it sounds), with an elegant bar and window into an open kitchen. On the bar side there’s a carved wooden wall which at times throughout the evening starts to move – a bit like Harry Potter movies. The panels slide in and out, the shadows of flocks of birds swoop over the surface and a chandelier swings to and fro. It’s amazingly clever and all projected (this is hard to believe).

The modern take on Iftar sticks to tradition while throwing in a few unexpected notes into the mix. A carved silver platter dotted elegantly with an array of vegetables, salad leaves and herbs was a dainty version of the usual Lebanese vegetable arrangement but a truffle butter formed the surprising and really moreish dip. The hummus, mutabal and pickles were decent, the broad beans and feta really good and the harira soup (lentil and roast pumpkin are other choices) had me scooping up every last mouthful even though I knew there was much more to come. Small plates to share are next including falafel salad, a brilliant tomato,watermelon and shanklish (a sort of cottage cheese) dish and soft shell crab ‘saj’. My favourite of the mains to share was slow cooked lamb ‘ouzi’ style – all were good although the chicken tagine didn’t deliver the preserved lemon flavour its title claimed.

A slate plate of bite sized desserts ends the meal including some exquisite Turkish delight. At 180 aed per person (including a range of juices and drinks) this is a great way to enjoy Iftar in a place with its finger so firmly on the pulse of this modern city.

More about Qbara here.

Getting away

Alila Jabal Akhdar

Alila Jabal Akhdar

And finally if you fancy getting away from it all, there are a couple of new hotels in Oman which are high up on my wish list. They’re offering some attractive deals over Ramadan too. Firstly the Alila Jabal Akhdar, a resort nestled high up (2,000 meters above sea level) above a dramatic gorge in the Al Hajar mountain range. The other is the Salalah Rotana Resort situated between frankincense lined mountains and freshwater springs along the Indian Ocean.

In the spirit of Ramadan

If you haven’t visited Mawaheb in the Fahidi Area (behind the Majlis Gallery) I urge you to do so. It’s an inspiring and very worthwhile initiative. Madinat Jumeirah offered twenty students and faculty at `Mawaheb from Beautiful People’ the opportunity to create a painting inspired by the Arabian architecture of the Resort and the famous animated Emirati cartoon, Freej. They met the characters following a private screening of the Freej movie that took place at the Madinat Theatre.
The painting they created will be on display and available for viewing throughout the month of July at Al Majlis, Madinat Jumeirah. Mawaheb is an art studio located in the historic Al Fahidi neighbourhood that offers young adults with special needs an opportunity to channel their creativity through painting, sculpture and mixed media. Well worth a look.

Further reading: Visit The Hedonista for an insight into Ramadan in the UAE  and don’t miss Dima Sharif’s daily post every single day during the Holy Month.

There’s a really useful guide for available lunch options at independent eateries (hotels all offer food through the day) by Geordie Armani and Foodiva. Well worth bookmarking for when you need a bite to eat during the day during Ramadan in Dubai.

Disclosure: I was guest at the Iftar previews for Nawwara, Qbara, The Palace, The Majlis Cafe and the Burj Al Arab (as they start at the beginning of Ramadan) – all opinions are my own.

Where to go for Iftar in Dubai during Ramadan 2014 - mycustardpie.com

How will you be spending Ramadan? How does it impact on your life where you live?

My cherry amour

June 26, 2014

Cherry, almond, spelt muffin on mycustardpie.comMy Dad pulled the oars of the small, wooden rowing boat. I sat in the prow facing him, with a huge paper bag of cherries in between us. I rolled each smooth globe round my tongue before biting into the sweet flesh, juice exploding into my mouth, before I spat the stones into the lake.

Do you have an early food memory? Cherries remain my favourite fruit not just for the taste. Eating fruit in season is like waiting for a series of Christmases. As June begins I’m keeping my eyes peeled for cherries, knowing that it’s about the second week when small cartons start appearing from Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. As soon as a I bite into the first one I know more than ever that it was worth boycotting the perfect (and perfectly astronomical in cost) ones flown from the U.S. which seem to be available for much of the year.

Going to the commercial fruit and veg market in Al Awir, Dubai, has been on my ‘to do’ list for the longest time. In the meantime, a stroll past Baker and Spice in Al Manzil souk will always bear fruit – the best, seasonal fruit of the region.  Last week I left with a bag of nectarines from Lebanon (that rewarded a first bit with a dribble of juice down the chin), some intensely fragrant, white peaches from Saudi Arabia, and a whole carton of Hungarian cherries. Now I know that Hungary is a bit of a stretch if calling them regional but the air miles were considerably less than the bulk of imported fruit here and they are definitely in season. They had that perky, firmness showing they were liberated from the branches a few days ago (rather than weeks or months). Their rich, deep sweetness was balanced with the tiniest spritz of tartness which makes you reach in for just one more… just one more….

I had big plans for at least 5-6 kilos (or maybe more…I didn’t weigh them) of cherries. My shortlist included a cherry slice recipe and cherry maple meringues from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet and an Iranian pickled cherry preserve from Diana Henry’s Salt, Sugar, Smoke. Black Forest combinations were whirling round my head, a compote for dolloping onto overnight oats, claufoutis, a cherry fool….

All this came to nothing as the best thing to do with fruit this good is to eat it as is…. and we did… kilos and kilos of them. Looking at the final small bowlful in the fridge I needed something quick! These muffins are very wholesome in taste and ingredients. Low-gluten due to the spelt (for those who are watching this) and very low in sugar, they make a good, healthy, breakfast muffin. They are mealy, crumbly to the bite with the contrast of the juicy cherries. I might have over-used the word juicy in this post – I just couldn’t help it!

Cherry almond spelt muffins on mycustardpie.comNote: I used a base recipe measured in cups for this and adapted it significantly but retained the proportions. It should have made 12 but the amount was only enough for 9 – which shows the flaw with cup measurements (her cups were obviously much larger than mine!). When I make these again I’ll scale up the proportions and change the amounts below. You’ll want 12 – trust me.

Cherry Almond Spelt Muffins

  • Servings: 9
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 100g ground almonds
  • 75g spelt flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • scant 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 45g soft light brown sugar plus about 4 teaspoons extra
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 2-3 drops of real almond essence
  • 55g butter, melted
  • 130g natural yoghurt
  • 170g cherries
  • 9 whole almonds
  • icing sugar for decoration (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Put paper baking cups into a muffin tray.
  2. Stone and halve the cherries.
  3. Place the ground almonds, spelt flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and sea salt into a bowl and stir lightly to combine. In another bowl, put the sugar (keeping aside the 4 teaspoonsful), eggs, extracts, melted butter and yoghurt and whisk to combine thoroughly. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry being careful not to overmix. Set aside 9 cherry halves and lightly fold in the rest.
  4. Spoon the mixture evenly into the 9 baking cups (I use an ice cream scoop).
  5. Top each muffin with a cherry half, an almond and a sprinkling of the reserved sugar.
  6. Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown. A skewer should remain clean or have a crumb clinging to it if the muffins are cooked. Cool on a rack and serve dusted with icing sugar if you like.

Variations: Substitute the melted butter with raw coconut oil, omit the eggs and increase the baking powder to 2 teaspoons to make them vegan. For a sweeter muffin, coat the cherries in a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup before adding to the mixture.

Cherry, almond, spelt muffin on mycustardpie.com

 

Joining in with Ren Behan’s lovely Simple and in Season event, Cooks Joy Bakefest #32 and Four Season food challenge (theme of red) from Delicieux, Eat Your Veg and The Spicy Pear.

What’s your favourite fruit? Do you buy fruit in season?

 

The pomegranate connection

June 22, 2014

Iranian and Azerbaijani cookbook reviews - www.mycustardpie.comCould you ever write convincingly about a country you have never visited? A while ago, on Open Book* an author (whose name evades me) confessed that he’d written extensively about China without ever having set a single foot over its borders. For years, as someone who spends most of their life reading in one way or another, I would have been agreeing with him but now know that nothing can prepare you for the reality of travel.

Through books, I thought I was doing quite a good job of getting to know the food and food culture of the wider region where I live. I’d visited Turkey and eaten Persian food cooked by Iranians, read about the influence of the Ottoman empire, been to India, munched my way through banquets of delicious Pakistani food, but never seen a connection. Until I visited Georgia. It was as though the missing culinary jigsaw piece had been found down the back of the sofa.

“An Azerbaijani cook book? How soon can you send it?” I nearly bit the publisher’s hand off as they offered me a review copy. My hunger was not just for the recipes but how this country fitted into the rich culinary landscape of the Caucasus and the legacy of centuries of marauding invaders. A new title on Iranian cooking also seemed like serendipity.Ajarbaijan-cookbook-review-mycustardpie.com

The Azerbaijani Kitchen – a cookbook by Tahir Amiraslanov and Leyla Rahmanova

Azerbaijan (‘Land of Fire’) is known as one of the cradles of the ancient world and, like Georgia, situated at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. With over 100 recipes covering pilafs and kebabs, stuffed vegetables, grains, dough and noodles, fermented milk dishes, drinks and sauces as well as the usual meat and fish, this is a wide-reaching introduction to Azerbaijani cuisine. In the introduction, however, Abulfas Garayev (Minister of Culture and Tourism) says this is only a limited sample and there are many regional variations. He also mentions that health-giving and curative benefits are claimed for many of the dishes (ending with the exultation “And may your candle always be alight!”).

What I liked

This book is beautifully produced and while written in English, also gives many of the Azerbaijani translations. The head notes of the recipe give the context of the dish and the instructions are clearly laid out.  Some of the images are better than others but all look appetising and the typography and graphics give it a lovely feel. I had wondered about the differences between Georgian cuisine and Azerbaijani food. There are a lot of shared combinations of ingredients especially  walnuts, pomegranates and cherries plus a reliance on copious amounts of fresh herbs, however the population is mainly Muslim so there are no pork dishes (in contrast to the Georgian’s passion for it). Rice is prevalent rather than bread and with a coastline on the Caspian sea the Azerbaijanis love their fish. Pickles don’t feature at all, but they have in common the tradition of putting everything out on the table at once for everyone to share.

What I’d like to cook

In common with Persian cooking (see below), the cooking of rice is a serious thing. Steamed rice pilaf sounds simple but it has many detailed steps and includes a gazmakh. This is a disc of dough made of flour, oil, sour cream, yoghurt and a little sugar. It’s rolled out and placed at the base of the saucepan, under the rice. A lamb and herb recipe where the meat is stewed in sour grape juice and infused with a large amount of coriander, dill and dock leaves (or spinach) and served with the steamed rice sounds fresh and vibrant.

I can’t ever resist a stuffed vegetable recipe and Uch Baji or Three Sisters is on my list; the three are aubergines, peppers and tomatoes stuffed with lamb, onions, herbs and turmeric then served with garlic yoghurt.

Adding eggs to a meat or vegetable dish so that it is covered with an omelette-like blanket is called chyghyrtma. Clay pot cooking is also explained with a lamb stew containing chestnuts, chickpeas and prunes. The stew or piti is simmered for a long time in earthenware and served as two courses, a liquid as a soup, eaten with flatbread, followed the other portion of the dish.

Ordubad Kyuftosi is a meatloaf of generous proportion for feasts or large family gatherings. The recipe comes from the city of Ordubad and is a multi-layered explosion of flavours by the sound of it – a lamb and rice mixture, wrapped around chicken breasts studded with sour plums or cherries. It’s served sprinkled with dill, doused in its cooking liquor and accompanied by hard boiled quails eggs, chickpeas, salad and sumac. What a show stopper!

Any new cookbook that arrives in our house is seized upon by the teens and KP and given a good once over. I suspect the chapter on offal (ichalat) could consist of way more than four recipes – fried mutton offal (jyzbyz), calf’s foot soup (khash), minced lamb’s liver (ezme) and sheep offal hotpot (saj ichi). The introduction alludes to the thrifty nature of Azarbaijanis and their aim to utilize every part of the animals they eat (just as it should be).  Sadly, I’m the only offal eater in our house so this chapter may remain untested for quite some time (and did not receive the best welcome by the discerning trio).

Conclusion

A beautiful and thorough introduction to a cuisine that most people like me, I suspect, will not know anything about, let alone have tried. It invites you to go on a journey of discovery through the vibrant recipes packed with herbs and fruits, as well as knowing a bit more about the history and culture of this intriguing country. (which is top of my list to visit next).

Iranian Cookbook-review-mycustardpie.com

From a Persian Kitchen – fresh discoveries in Iranian cooking  by Jila Dana-Haeri

This is a follow up to Jila Dana-Haeri’s first book New Persian Cooking: a fresh approach to the classic cuisine of Iran and the earlier work is referred to often in its pages. Where the first book was an interpretation of well-known Persian dishes that are cooked all over the country, this volume sets out to highlight the variety and diversity of dishes from North to South, and juxtapose sweet and sour with spicy and aromatic.

It is a book that took a while to grow on me. Although the author thanks the photographer profusely for “the wonderful photography which has brought these dishes to life”,  I thought the close up pics really didn’t do it justice. There didn’t seem to be a food stylist on hand either. The pictures of the author’s garden were far more enticing than the food and this just doesn’t cut the mustard these days.

What I liked

After a shaky start and going back to the book many times, I kept noticing the little snippets that combined to make a patchwork quilt of information which really brought the book alive. For instance, ‘In Iran they say that if the rice becomes sticky, you know the cook is a novice.’ I like the way the author draws on the entire culture from poetry, to gardens and carpets, to the impact of geography and history, and even how people sit down to eat. She also mentions Iran’s rich tradition of wine making which, although forbidden today, stretches back over thousands of years and references pepper Persian literature and fables. Iran’s abiding legacy to the wine world is the grape Shiraz (or Syrah) – its rich spiciness is a good match with a wide range of Persian food.

There is no doubt that this book took a long time to write and research; it’s meticulous in its detail, from the recipes to the glossary. The chapters are arranged in cooking styles: Aashes, aabgushts and eshkenehs –  soups from thick and rich to thin ones containing egg; khoreshes – stews with thick sauces served with plain rice; khorak – meat, fish and vegetables cooked in various way but with little or no sauce; rice – the hallmark of Persian cuisine; appetisers; side dishes; and finally shirini – sweet things. This final chapter is packed full of all sorts of intriguing recipes from marzipan berries to cucumber jam.

I was surprised to see no mention of the Unani tradition of classifying and pairing ingredients into to sardi (cool) or garmi (hot). This was covered extensively in my other Iranian cookbook Pomegranates and Roses which is a good counterpoint to this book.

What I’d like to cook

Aabgusht-e meeveh is an exciting-sounding soup with a huge list of fruits and flavourings. Lamb is seared then simmered with onion, turmeric and dried limes (these are used a lot in Gulf cookery), split peas and fruits such as apple, quince, sour cherries, plums, apricots and prunes are added at later stages along with saffron. All the khoreshes appeal – I like that kind of slow cooked comfort food – especially chicken and Seville orange khoresh.

Roast chicken stuffed with mixed nuts, orange and lemon juliennes is based on a traditional recipe from the Azerbaijan province in the North-West. It differs quite considerably from the roast chicken recipe in the book reviewed above, which has walnuts, pomegranate and plum sauces and cherry fruit leather,  although both are united in their sweet and sour aspects. (It’s interesting that a recipe for lamb soup is very similar to the one for Azerbaijani piti).

Date halva (halva khormaee) is very similar to something I was served here in Dubai as a Ramadan speciality and comes from Bushehr on the other side of the Persian Gulf. The Suhan-e asali, little piles of almonds coated in caramelised honey, flavoured with rosewater and topped with pistachio would make a great topping for some of the traditional ice creams in the book, including cardamom, and melon.

Conclusion

This book rewards indepth reading and long perusal and is a fantastic resource and reference for Iranian food from all regions. It will compliment other books you have on Persian cooking and is a good read as well as meticulous in instruction. It’s just a shame that the photographs don’t do the dishes justice – although there are many other lovely images in the book, just not of food, in the main.

Review From a Persian Kitchen - mycustardpie.com

More details

The Azerbaijani Kitchen by Tahir Amiraslanov and Leyla Rahmanov is published by Saqi books. From a Persian Kitchen by Jila Dana-Haeri is published by I.B.Taurus. Both offer an interesting range of non-fiction books about this region – well worth a browse.

Both books were sent to me as review copies – my opinions are my own – they will certainly remain on my shelves and contribute many jigsaw pieces to learning about a big swathe of countries and culture not too far from the shores of the U.A.E.

Map of the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran

*Open Book is a collection of programmes on BBC Radio 4 about books. Books and Authors is hosted by Mariella Frostrop. I download the podcasts and listen (via iPhone) on my early morning dog walk.

Have you cooked or eaten Iranian or Azerbaijani food? Have you visited either country? Would you cook these sort of dishes?

The death of an innocent in Kathmandu

June 20, 2014

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.comAfter a lunch of momos in central Kathmandu, we wandered through the throngs of protesters on motorbikes (another story), past painted holy men and women begging to be paid for taking their picture, to Durbar Square and into the Hanuman Dhoka. After meandering through corridors and rooms of the Tribhuvan museum of costumes and artefacts of former kings, we found a large open courtyard (Nasal Chowk) where something was definitely ‘going on’.  Soon we realised it was some sort of celebration with crowds of Nepalese families dressed in their most flamboyant robes, picnicking and lounging around a raised platform. Very old men wearing saucer-shaped hats, sand-coloured jackets and white swathes of cloth, reclined in plastic chairs, occasionally chatting on their mobile phones. In one corner of the square, the body of an animal lay discarded on the ground – this should have given us a clue.

We strolled around, taking pictures of the architecture and peeped into another small courtyard where a water buffalo was gently chewing away while more holy men gathered and chatted. Back out in the sunlit expanse, a band of musicians started to bang drums, strike cymbals and blow discordant horns. People crowded onto the dias and the buffalo, draped with garlands, was led out and disappeared into the throng. The crowd got more are more frenzied, the noise of the band more strident, reaching a final crescendo of shouting.

We realised, quite suddenly, that we had witnessed an animal sacrifice.

The crowd on the platform started to move. One by one, from young children to old men, they knelt quickly in front of a small sort of canopied altar to touch a holy man which also contained the animal’s head, thrusting their own heads near to the petal strewn beast before leaving to make way for the next worshipper.

It transpired that we’d stumbled upon a Hindu celebration that happens only once every 100 years. After much merriment and celebration, the crowd, led by very frail holy men who shuffled along blessing people in their wake, finally dispersed.

It’s easy to criticise rituals and customs which are different to our own. Undoubtedly the last few moments of the animal’s life was pretty bewildering and stressful. In ‘developed’ countries, we systematically keep animals for food in bewildering and stressful conditions as a matter of course. However, upon reading the guide book, I realised that this killing was modest in scale of some festivals in Nepal where thousands of animals (chickens, goats and buffalo) are ritually slaughtered and the streets run with blood.  We felt privileged to just happen upon this event, a fascinating insight into how religion influences daily life, but were glad we hadn’t unintentionally blundered into a different one.

My friends and I were whisked off from the frenetic square in horse-drawn carriages to the tranquil Garden of Dreams, almost surreal by contrast.

Our visit to Nepal was in May 2012, but I was reminded of this when an email from Compassion in World Farming altered me to the festival of ‘Gadhimai’ which takes place every five years in the Bara District of Nepal, south of Kathmandu. It’s set to happen again this November, and sees tens of thousands of buffalo corralled into a gigantic pen where 200 slaughtermen behead them, one by one, with swords (often taking several attempts to finish the job). As well as the appalling suffering to these animals and the waste of life, The Nepalese Government provides significant funding, which makes this festival possible on this scale. In 2009 the Government paid over £32,000 for animals to be sacrificed which is almost 50 times the minimum Nepalese annual wage.

You may have other views about this, but I’ve added my name to a petition to the Nepalese government and support with Surya Upadhya (Chairman) who has issued this statement, “The Nepalese Hindu Forum UK completely opposes animal sacrifice as Hinduism does not sanction the killing of living beings… There should not be any place for this inhumane, barbaric sacrifice of innocent animals in the name of any religion.”

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.com

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.com

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.com

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.com

A Hindu festival in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.com

Durbar square - Kathmandu - My Custard Pie-17

Durbar square - Kathmandu - My Custard Pie-11

Durbar square - Kathmandu - My Custard Pie-3

Durbar square in Kathmandu - mycustardpie.comI’d be very interested to hear your view on this.

Salt, sharp and citrus – lemons preserve us.

June 17, 2014

How to make preserved lemons - My Custard PieDo yourself a favour and make some preserved lemons today. By writing this I’m joining the throngs of posts dedicated to stuffing lemons with salt and bunging them in jars to luxuriate into a yielding, candied mass, but you’ll thank me for it – I promise.

I think the world is divided into people who like telling people what to do and those who couldn’t care less what others do if it doesn’t have any impact on them. I’m most firmly in the last camp proving that my exultation to follow the few simple steps below is heartfelt.

In a few weeks time you’ll have an ingredient to transform stews, partner with fish and lamb to a level you didn’t dream possible and make salads so lip-smacking that teenagers will demand more (this happened – no joke).

There are versions of this, usually called Moroccan, which add spices such as cinnamon sticks, dried chillies, coriander seeds, bay leaves and cloves. In my quest for citrus-imbued heaven I prefer the clean, sharp flavour of the unadulterated lemon and salt combination.

Jars of preserved lemons make wonderful gifts. Don’t be tempted to dip into them for at least a month but then they can sit in your fridge for about a year (although once hooked I’d be amazed if you manage to keep them this long). I’m going to suggest some recipes and uses – but you’ll have to wait until I’m back from my annual UK travels.

Do try to find organic, unwaxed lemons if you can. As this is impossible here in Dubai, I give them a good scrub in some soapy water and then rinse well.

How to make preserved lemons - My Custard Pie

Preserved lemons

  • Servings: 4-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Preserved lemons

Ingredients

  • 8 lemons
  • 4 heaped tablespoons sea salt

Makes 1 x 500g jar (easily doubled)

Method

  1. First clean your jar – use the Kilner-style/Mason type. Remove the rubber seal and put it through the hot cycle of the dishwasher; or wash in hot soapy water and then dry them in a low oven (140 C) for about 10 minutes. Be careful of the metal bits as they get really hot. Replace the seals once cool enough to handle.
  2. Wash the lemons (as above) if necessary. Cut a lemon almost in half, from the point to the stalk without severing it completely. Repeat on the opposite side so that the lemon is almost in quarters lengthways but joined at the stalk end. Repeat with 3 more lemons.
  3. Put a tablespoon of salt into the cut insides of each lemon and pack them into the jar. You can wedge a cocktail stick into the neck of the jar to keep them wedged down if you like.
  4. Close the jar and leave for a couple of days until juice has started to run from the lemons. Squeeze the remaining lemons and pour the juice into the jar so the fruit is completely covered. Leave in a cool, dark place for at least one month. The lemons will become soft and slightly brown. Once you open the jar store in the fridge for up to a year.
  5. To use, remove the pulp from the lemon and slice or dice the rind and add to a variety of dishes. The salty juice can be used as a condiment too.

Let’s rendezvous in September and chat about what we’re going to do with these beauties. Sneak preview: mashed potato, olives, chicken, fish, tagines, salads and even a cocktail.

 

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