Skip to content

Escape to a desert island – visiting Sir Bani Yas

February 28, 2015

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie“How much does one giraffe eat?” asked the small Emirati boy. “About 75 kilos per day” replied Johann our safari driver. Murmurs of surprise from everyone in the car as we watched three of the tallest animals in the world lollop along in front of our jeep heading towards their feeding area.

We were mid-safari on Sir Bani Yas island (meaning dome of salt) just off Abu Dhabi’s Western coast, the former private island of Sheikh Zayed, late, revered first ruler of the United Arab Emirates. A private Majlis at the highest point of the island is still frequented by the present Sheikh and groves of olive, tamarind, pineapple, mango, banana, apple, orange and lemon trees provide fruit for the palaces. Three types of date palms grow there too and I can vouch for their exquisite sweetness and texture as they are offered as a welcome in reception along with cardamom scented Arabic coffee.

How would you fare if you were stranded alone on a desert island? As a regular listener to Desert Island Discs, I’ve noticed that there are three answers to Kirsty’s question. Some people absolutely dread being on their own and would miss civilisation unbearably, others look forward to the challenge of self-sufficiency and usually plot how they would engineer their escape, the last group welcome tranquility and the appeal of solitude. After a really hectic spell I was definitely in the latter category. Luckily my desert island would be complete with five-star hotel,  so I headed off from Dubai for a simple if boring drive of three and a half hours for a weekend ‘staycation’. Ferries run about every 2 hours to take you on the 15 minutes transfer to the island (your car is safely parked in a special place by the dock).

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard PieThere are three places to stay on the island and a driver took me to Desert Islands Resort and Spa.  The hotel entrance is fringed with a lake dotted with flamingos, while the guest rooms look out on the sea. All three resorts are run by Anantara and the decor of the lobby is African game lodge meets the Far East, which means there’s a touch of elegance but cosy at the same time.

I wandered down to the beach where a row of sea defences, speckled and mottled from the lapping water, looked like the emerging coils of a gigantic sea serpent. Reporting for duty at a cooking lesson at the Samak seafood restaurant actually meant that I dressed up in an apron and a chef’s hat and watched while the real chef cooked and then he looked on as I ate it.  Worn out by all the excitement I poured fragrant oils, from the little urns provided, into steaming hot water, lit a candle (how thoughtful), had a warm bath and an early night.

Breakfast is served in the Palm restaurant and the lighting is a little weird – much better to sit outside. A gargantuan buffet with every item you could conceivably desire covers at least a third of the place, from cronuts to Bircher muesli via Arabic style laban, olives and cheeses to a full English and more. Many people looked as though they were hunkering down to stay and eat for hours. However, my date with Johann was on the horizon so I ordered from the egg cooking station. There’s an omelette they do in  Middle Eastern hotels where they add chopped onion, tomato, cheese, herbs and chilli. This set me up for anything the wild animals could throw at me.

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie

Looping our way through the game reserve in an open sided jeep in early light meant we were up close and personal with hundreds of gazelle-type creatures who were milling around waiting for their feed. Sheikh Zayed saved the Arabian oryx (Al Maha), from extinction when he created the reserve. It’s the national symbol of the United Arab Emirates. He also rescued the black-faced Blackbuck (this curly horned mammal can run at 90 km per hour), the Mountain gazelle (Al Domani) and the Sand Gazelle(Al Reem) ; copious numbers mixed in with deer and other breeds were pottering about munching. They are also munched… more of that later.

The ‘greening of the desert’ was a Sheikh Zayed initiative and the island is planted with thousands of Sidr and Do’ani trees in neat rows (to facilitate irrigation). Grass is planted for grazing and this whole micro-climate attracts a wonderful array of bird-life. Other rulers started to give gifts of animals to Sheikh Zayed and our next aim was to track down some of the big game. The sight of a row of Reticulated giraffe, purposefully moving their impossibly long legs in rhythm was thrilling. They seemed so at home in the landscape and completely ignored us as we parked up close to them while feeding. Ostrich and more assorted gazelle mingled in while osprey glided overhead.

A young male cheetah rested on a hill gazing out over the landscape. He’s one of five who roam the reserve although he has his own fenced off territory to prevent over breeding and excessive fighting (a cub was killed a while back). The cheetah help keep the exploding population of gazelle – now far from extinct – in check as they hunt for their food.

General Manager Mark Eletr takes me for lunch over at the Olio Italian restaurant at the nearby Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort. Thirty private villas cluster around a low-level, Mediterranean style building fronted by a serene, uncluttered (minimalistic?) beach. It’s comfortable, tranquil and elegant without extravagance. There are no real surprises on the Italian menu but the Chef, who has an international pedigree but talks in a voluble Italian accent recommends the special of day. We gaze out over the white sea and azure waves, pausing only to shoo away an overenthusiastic bird which looks like a fluffy grouse which scuttles onto our table now and again. Chocolate volcano cake to follow? Oh go on then.

Lying on a massage table the window to the beach veiled by a gauze curtain and the waves audible through the plinky-plonky spa music was the perfect thing to follow lunch. You could even have your massage on the beach itself in an Arabian style tent. Stress and computer work goes straight to my shoulders so I’ve road-tested many, many massages over the years and this was a good one.

It would have been foolish to ignore Mark’s recommendation of Amwaj for a sundowner and I lost count of the photos I took of the dramatic colours over the ink black lapping sea in the sweep of the bay while sipping an excellent Negroni. A fire pit was lit against the chill of the evening, the soundtrack was relaxing funky jazz, but eventually I tore myself away to eat authentic Middle Eastern food on the terrace.

Up at dawn the next morning, I walked round the lake and followed a group of gazelle trotting ahead at a wary distance. Flamingos were silhouetted against the rising sun and I counted five heron swooping up and down on the water. It was utterly peaceful and the 5km solitary amble the perfect foil for the noise and lights of Dubai.

At breakfast, I had my own wildlife display when jays spotted the remains of my poached eggs on toast. I sat very still and watched as they got braver and braver, one hiding behind the teapot and then popping out to dive in for the spoils.  The lady who said she was afraid of animals while on our safari would have hated it but this feeling of being on the edge of nature was the highlight of the stay for me.

My room on the ground floor opened onto a small terrace and when I wasn’t eating, drinking or communing with nature, the warm sun, pleasant breeze and sound of the birds all did their stress-busting magic.

One last meal, which sadly was a bit rushed due to my imminent departure by ferry was nevertheless really special. The Al Sahel Villa Resort is within the reserve itself and another small collection of private villas in surroundings modeled on the African bush . My table at the Savannah Grill restaurant looked out onto an area of trees and bush grass where it’s possible to book private dining at night. Gazelle grazed leisurely on the lawn, a peacock wandered over to inspect me and any thoughts that a bobotie spring roll might not work as a concept or be too greasy evaporated as I took a bite.

The return journey by chauffeured four-wheel drive and ferry had all the services of a short flight, with a departure lounge and baggage handling. I even had someone to load my bag into my car on arrival. My desert island experience renewed my mind, body and spirit, the kilometres slipped away and it was a bit startling to find myself back in Dubai’s chaotic metropolis.

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie

There are many reasons why you’d visit Sir Bani Yas Island. As well as the wildlife and safari, you can kayak or play tennis. There are bikes for hire for a whizz round the island, they’re the ones with a motor for those who want to save their legs. You can dive offshore, go horse-riding and of course there’s the spa. You can even take a tour of the remains of a Christian monastery dating from the 6th Century.

Is it a culinary destination too? I ‘d expected standard hotel fare, a quality international menu without any excitement. In fact given my frazzled state they could have served me Marmite on toast all weekend and I’d have been happy. There was an element of the same old, same old, but with a noticeable difference. The island isolation seems to have unified the culinary team to meet the demands of the guests above and beyond the norm (you can’t go down the road for an alternative so the chefs try to make something you’ll like). The ‘ceviche’ at the Samat restaurant was precooked as most of the guests don’t like raw fish (sadly I do!). They did however make the most delicious steamed sea bream however and do not serve endangered hammour on any menu for environmental reasons. GM Mark told me that they couldn’t ignore the issues faced in the seas lapping at their shores. Big tick of approval there.

The Middle Eastern food at Amwaj was really well executed showing off the talents of Lebanese chef. It wasn’t the hummous, muhamarra and Dijaj Meshwi that showed off the high quality here although they were all delicious. It was the spankingly fresh salad of whole lettuce, cucumber, tomato and herbs demonstrated respect for good ingredients. The cocktail list (to go with the setting sun and fire) was excellent, but the Lebanese wine the only palatable red choice by the glass (a Portuguese Merlot? seriously?).  It’s worth visiting the Olio and Savanna restaurants for their settings alone but the enthusiasm and skill of the head chefs shone through in the dishes I tasted. The filled seafood pasta flavoured with squid ink by the Italian chef was outstanding especially when watching the waves lapping at the shore a few metres away.

Savanna was a place I could have taken root at and spent the whole afternoon watching the gazelle graze, the peacocks wander and the long grass wave in the breeze. I thought the bobotie spring rolls sounded odd but ordered them anyway and was won over as the thin, crisp, perfectly dry pastry crumbled to reveal a spicy, meaty filling paired with a homemade fruity chutney.  The strength in the hotel team is that several of this band of mixed nationalities and backgrounds have worked together for years within the region and patently love what they do. A special mention has to go to one chef who popped up whenever and wherever I ate (his name and title was so complicated but he’ll know who he is) . He appeared late at night down at Amwaj to make sure everything was OK and made a superb poached egg for me for breakfast.

The hotel was relaxed and informal for families and kept thinking how much my girls would have adored this trip when they were younger. My visit in January meant that the hotel was quite quiet and there was a crisp breeze coming off the sea – it gets hotter and busier as the weather warms up but like most UAE dwellers, I get enough sun. For me it was the ultimate weekend decompression chamber, getting closer to nature, peace and solitude in comfort and style.

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie

Sir Bani Yas Island - My Custard Pie

I was a guest of Anantara for the weekend (excluding the Spa), all opinions my own. Find more details about the resort here. It’s possible to fly to the island from Dubai with Rotana Jet but they didn’t respond to my enquiry.

Seeking out street food in Abu Dhabi

February 21, 2015

“When they opened the gates in Al Ain, people were running in”, this nugget of information from one of the Abu Dhabi street feast traders mobilized us to action. Determined to sample something from every food truck that had been shipped from the UK, Sam, Shiyam and I positioned ourselves and three different trucks ready and waiting to be their first customers. Chopped onions were being unwrapped, tubs of browned halloumi carried past, grills heating up. With the sun going down over the Abu Dhabi Corniche the temperature was perfect for punters but pretty steamy if you were in a small van next to a shimmering hot plate. As Brits out during the depths of a UK winter, the lobsters weren’t just on the grill, many had overdone the sun and were glowing pinkishly. They were all stoked for another busy night.

Paul from Donastia Social Club answered my questions and while he turned the chops on the grill so the fat crisped up perfectly and the sweet scent of cooking lamb filled the air. I returned triumphantly to our little table with my lamb cutlets with a pea puree and confit broad beans and we pooled our spoils. The lamb would have graced a restaurant menu perfectly – nothing junk food about that – and the local fresh ingredients shone through. The stall holder from Big Apple Hot Dogs had brought his 98% meat, natural casing sausages from the UK and they were fat, peppery and laden with sauces. A lot more ‘mmmm-ing’ from our table – actually that might have just been me. I’d been sceptical that someone could make cheese on toast exciting. Raclette cheese mixed with cheddar and some onion in a a perfectly toasted sour dough sandwich tasted as good as it sounds. The Cheese Truck were now vying for second place my streetfood rankings. Slightly greasy churros were dunked into cocoa laden dipping sauce from Churros Bros.

Diving off for the next round, I headed for The Roadery in their blue van called ‘Pam’. The guys were already rusting up some bracos, a flat bread freshly made from flour and baking powder and freshly cooked into a British taco (their own invention). The tongue was not ready so I plumped for Wagyu beef cheek. The girls taking the money had volunteered to help and had driven down from Dubai after work. Dan Shearman who delicately assembled my braco brings nose to tail eating and sustainable food to the street. Served in a slender bamboo tray, this was another plateful which would have easily made it onto a good restaurant menu. The Roadery – please move to Dubai permanently.

Back at the picnic table we finished off a very rustic looking pizza made in the back of a tiny Ape van. Brothers James and Thom Elliot documented their journey as they drove it back from Italy – hence Pizza Pilgrims –  and now recreate Neapolitan-style pizzas in London. The sauce tasted as though it had been made from fresh tomatoes – another big tick. The Indians Next Door were so friendly and genuine, just like their food. This was the best value all night with a freshly made roti filled with slow cooked chicken curry. I’d braved a rapidly expanding queue for ATE street food among groups of Emirati ladies – it was great to be among locals in Abu Dhabi (more rare in Dubai). Brioche sliders were being filled with slow-cooked lamb, chicken or beef – I plumped for the latter two which were good but not great compared to the previous meaty offerings… however this is all relative as you’ll see later.

We chatted to local traders as well, like Tahir from the fabulous Moti Roti, Jones the Grocer team (who had sold cheese to the Cheese Truck!), and the Biryani Pot guy (from the Purple Honey group) but our priority was to sample what the visitors had brought. Gasping for a drink the final truck was really welcome – Yogusensi and one of each was ordered. We tried ‘Pink lemon…aid’ (lemon, apple, black grape), ‘Cosmic Energy’ (beetroot, ginger, apple) and ‘Hail King carrot’ (carrot, orange, ginger, apple). There were all super fresh and beautifully balanced. I didn’t think I’d every rave about juice but these were top notch.

Leaving the throng, with live African drumming music in the background and the chefs demo area in full swing, we made our way back to Dubai. Shiyam couldn’t resist taking us to one of his favourite dosa places on the way though. Picking our way to a small canteen style restaurant across from an old-style Indian cinema, vada and dosas filled with chillies and peppercorns were passed through the white tiled hatch on metal plates. Vegan and gluten-free, this was delicious food to please a crowd and we just about managed to make a fair-sized dent in the crispy, golden discs.

The food had been stellar, so what made it different from the ‘street food’ movement which seems to be creeping into the Emirates? Firstly, the people who man the vans cooked and sourced the food. There had been a mix up with suppliers when the arrived so they hit the local markets and all we talked to were raving about the amazing choice and produce from the fish and veg souks. They all loved Lulu’s too. While some are growing businesses (like Pizza Pilgrims) most are one or two person operations who took a huge risk in removing their vans from the streets of London for the two months it takes to ship them here and back. They are only as good as the last meal they serve in a very competitive street food environment so it has to be great (and not just about image). The food is made for the street and unlike most of the new UAE trucks are not restaurant pop ups.

Where to get real street food in Dubai?

I’m a fan of Moti Roti  which started as a small stall at the Ripe market when it was in the Courtyard. Although Tahir doesn’t cook everything he’s always at every outdoor event they attend. Like the London traders he started on the street. For me, the current restaurants in a van fall into two categories a) restaurant pop ups and b) fast food vans (some on a par with 1970’s burger vans in quality and some very expensive). I tried a wide range of the food at the Al Quoz Street Nights event last night and although some of my favourite restaurants were there, most did not deliver in taste or portion size (too huge and difficult to eat). They are better off cooking in their own kitchens. The ‘ATE’ sliders which we’d thought just OK the night before, knocked spots off anything I tried there.

The exception is Ghaf Kitchen who are actually an anomaly as high-end outside caterers and always serve up excellent food (the owner was there taking orders at Street Nights). Baker and Spice also get it right at the Farmers’ Market as they don’t recreate anything from their menu but make simple, fresh food which is excellent on the grill. Otherwise you’ll have to eat ‘street food’ inside in hole in the wall restaurants throughout Deira and Bur Dubai (similar to the dosa place). Visit I Live in a Frying Pan for a whole host of little hole in the wall recommendations and this great post about four street food gems in Satwa by Chef and Steward.

If you are in London look for Kerb, Street Feast and the Real Food Festival – see more on my post about eating out in London.

So if you are in the Emirates today and seeking street food, head to the Street Feast on Abu Dhabi Corniche. For a fantastic vibe, some brilliant street art, music and to eat outside, go to Street Nights in Al Quoz.

It’ll be interesting to see where the street food movement goes next both here and in other big cities. What’s the best street food you’ve ever eaten?

What to read while eating your pancakes

February 17, 2015

Pancake day - mycustardpie.comHappy Shrove Tuesday. This day always makes me smile as it brings back happy memories. My Mum standing at the stove making pancake after pancake – the thin, crepe type not the fluffy American style ones we’ve come to know of late. My sister and I would sit there expectantly eating each one in turn, rolling up the lacy circles, dousing with lemon juice and a sprinkle of crunchy granulated sugar. “Surely you don’t want more?” she’d say in amazement as we got to the end of the first batch of batter, heroically whipping up another jugful and entertaining us with her tossing-the-pancake skills. It was even better when the day coincided with my birthday. A double dose of pleasure in the midst of dark February winter days…

I have to remind myself of this as I sit here at my desk, looking out of the window, the sunlight streaming in, tiny sun birds eating seeds, a hoopoe on the lawn and the palm tree fronds waving gently. Do I make normal pancakes tonight just for KP and me and do I attempt this pancake for veggie teen (who is still on a vegan month)? Perhaps I’ll just stick with nostalgia today make a batch for myself today.

Another thing putting a big grin on my face is the latest issue of Food e Mag.

Food E Mag DxbIt’s a beautiful online food and travel magazine and this is my favourite issue to date. What makes it unique are the authors – it’s founded and written by bloggers within the region (Gulf states and Middle East). Initially brought to life by Sarah and Ishita, the latter is now Editor in chief, with Debbie as Travel and Features editor; it’s a really good-looking title.

This month there are pancakes, of course, courtesy of Gbemi who blogs as Dubai Fit Foodie. I spent a couple of hours with Noreen earlier this year, and she showed elder teen and me how to create a stunning table from bits and pieces anyone can find. Go straight to page 10 to see why we were so inspired.

Prachi‘s dedication to getting children interested in good food and cooking from scratch to set them up for a healthy life has reached the ears of Jamie Oliver. Totally thrilled that she’s just been appointed as a Food Revolution Ambassador. This work is vital in the U.A.E where obesity and diabetes are epidemic (more on page 14).

Until I met Riath – the honey man – from Balqees, I thought all honey was natural. Since then the scales have fallen from eyes and I know how difficult it is to find truly unadulterated, pure honey and only buy Balqees (page 18).

If you’ve ever wondered why I’ve been on seven wonderful Frying Pan Food Adventures, read Radhina‘s article about them. Warning – the pictures alone will make you want to book one immediately.  If you are traveling further afield there is a guide to food tours in Mumbai, Bengalaru, Seville and Prague.

People often ask me where to eat out and I usually point them in the direction of The Hedonista. I thought I knew all the healthy eating places in this city until I read her really comprehensive article (on page 40).

This is just a taste of what’s inside. It’s free and simple to navigate on a tablet (as well as on mobile and laptop). Oh yes – you may have noticed the badge in my side bar. As Food Sourcing Contributor, this month I’ve had a look at ‘superfoods’ and where to find them (on page 8).

Put the kettle on and find somewhere comfortable to curl up with a cup of tea and spend some time getting lost in the delicious pages of Food E Mag. That’s what I’m going to do right now. A few Maltesers may also sneak into my mouth, left over from last night’s supper with friends in the garden. Must share my first experience with cooking a Texas brisket on the barbecue soon – seriously good.

Making pancakes is very simple – this is pretty much how my Mum made them:

Pancakes (or crepes)

  • Servings: 4-6 pancakes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 125g plain flour
  • 1 egg, free range
  • 300ml milk
  • vegetable oil for frying

Method

  1. Put the flour into a medium-sized bowl and make a well in the centre.
  2. Crack the egg into the well and whisk it, slowly drawing in flour from the sides to make a thick paste.
  3. Start to add the milk, little by little, drawing in more flour until you have a thick batter. Whisk all the lumps out (this is easier to do with a thick batter than a thin one).
  4. Whisk in the remaining milk until your batter is the consistency of single cream. If possible leave the batter to rest for an hour.
  5. Heat a very small amount of vegetable oil in a frying pan until so hot that a haze appears. Tip the pan so that it is just coated with droplets of oil. Pour in a ladleful of batter and immediately swirl the pan in a circular movement so there is a thin layer all over.
  6. When the edges are set, gently loosen them from the sides with a knife. Bubbles will start to appear, give the pan a shake, forwards and backwards. If the pancake does not move in the pan loosen it underneath with a knife or spatula. Flip the pancake over with a spatula or by tossing it. Cook for a minute or less (small light brown freckles is what you are after). Slide onto a plate and serve with lemon juice and sugar*. The first pancake is always a bit oddly shaped – they get better.

*It has to be fresh lemon juice and sugar. Keep your maple syrup, chocolate spread and other aberrations sweet toppings for the thick, fluffy kind of pancakes. The only exception is if you are making them as crêpes Suzette!

Pancake day - mycustardpie.comAre you getting out your pancake pan today? What do you think of Food E Mag?

Something bubbling in my kitchen

February 9, 2015

sourdough starterThe windows are wide open during the day, a fresh breeze blows through the house and every surface is coated with a fine dust. Whether this is sand or flour is hard to tell. Before Christmas I waited and waited for a letter that did not come. January arrived and a few weeks in, an envelope covered in colourful stamps was waiting for me on the table. The magic granules from Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, created with flour, water and invisible elements in the atmosphere, had travelled by halfway round the world from Australia. The offspring of Priscilla, christened Prudence by me, was stirred into some more flour and water and started a new life in Dubai.

So in my kitchen this month have been golden, chewy-crusted loaves and the scent of baking; the first steps in my new routine as a regular sourdough bread baker. I started by following Celia’s sourdough 101 guidance then, a couple of overnight loaves. Some have been baked in a Le Creuset cast iron pot, one on a baking tray. With Celia’s straightforward but meticulous guidance, informed by her experience and knowledge, the baking routine has not been arduous at all and the fear factor replaced by curiosity and excitement. Oh, and the bread is very good (don’t judge a book by its cover).

Next I tried a rye loaf, using Dan Lepard’s method from The Handmade Loaf. There are some fantastic passages in the book, I love how inclusive and non-judgemental he is:

The adage here must be to bake with what you have; make the best of what is around you. For some, there is no choice in their minds but to use a natural leaven as the sole ferment within a dough. For others, this is akin to witchcraft, and a madness in an age of convenience. To my mind, a beautiful loaf, wrought with care and consideration, must be the aim;

The dough was like a sticky lump of porridge, impossible to knead or shape properly. The finished loaf was black-tinged, cracked and a bit flattened. It looked dry and overbaked from the outside, but when I cut into it slightly underbaked. However, the taste was sublime, slightly sour, deep and malty. I now have a rye starter (or leaven) in my fridge and I’m looking forward to many more rye loaves in my kitchen… hopefully a bit better looking.

Good bread needs the best cheese, so I’ve been tucking into some English cheeses from the South-West kindly brought back from Devon by Drina of Eaternal Zest.  I remembered a sandwich which I used to order from a little Italian deli in Goodge Street and recreated it for lunch. With beautiful ripe tomatoes from the market, basil from the garden and Astraea olive oil I’ve had it two days in a row already.

So with bread baking, veggie teens month of veganism (thanks to Tidjoori for some lovely organic, vegan products including a mayo) and lots more to tell you about in the pipeline, this is a quick look ‘in my kitchen’. All pictures and editing were done with my new iphone 6 plus using Snapseed, Fuzel, Diptic, Over and Letterglow apps (not all at the same time!).

You can gain admittance to many more kitchens through Celia’s monthly event – look for the list in her sidebar. And thank you once again dear Celia, for welcoming me into the fold of your worldwide sourdough baking family.

What’s in your kitchen this February?

10 things learned from 5 years of food blogging

February 3, 2015

Sourdough with butter on mycustardpie.comAs I swing my bag onto the table, sit down and lean to pat the dog who is scurrying around my feet, my eyes fall upon an envelope covered in exotic stamps. The long drive is forgotten in my excitement to open this slim parcel which has reached my home in Dubai from Australia. A thin plastic bag is inscribed with a name – Priscilla’s offspring has arrived.

Next morning, I’m waiting at the supermarket door as it opens and head directly to the organic, strong, white bread flour. Back home I measure and weigh flour and water into a bowl, stir in the pale yellow granules and I wait. A mysterious gift which has been plucked from the atmosphere that surrounds Celia and combined with some flour and water will be resurrected in my own Dubai kitchen.

My Custard Pie started five years today; half a decade, one-third of the time we’ve lived in the UAE. I can’t remember life without blogging. It’s part of my daily routine, in my blood, and now I’m rising to a new challenge with this sourdough progeny of Priscilla and hope that Prudence will become as central to that same calendar. Alive, exciting and unpredictable… yep that’s a metaphor…

5 years ago

Homemade bread and digestive biscuits

Looking back, cringing, on those first few posts I’m glad to see some constants from the start – bread, cheese, shopping local and, er, Jack Daniels. My head has been turned by some amazing food experiences over the years – truffles, oysters, champagne, gold cocktails and all that malarkey but good bread and cheese is my lunch almost every single day.

Bread baked in 2010 included my first ‘baking day‘ post, Kringel (which was pretty stodgy in retrospect!), Turkish pide, walnut bread, polenta bread, pretzels and kiflice.

4 years ago

This is when my world really started to expand and I started forging friendships online and off that are still lasting today and enrich my life. Sorry if this is starting to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech. The Fresh from the Oven baking challenge was something to look forward – I really miss that event. Recklessly, I joined Joan’s culinary tour round the world on Foodalogue. A bunch of us went to the fish market – little did I know how this group including Sarah and Arva and the rest of Fooderati Arabia would become so dear to me and central to staying sane in this mad city. Maybe the seeds were sown then for Come Dine with Me? Was life less hectic? How did we fit it all in?

Bread baked in 2011 – cheat’s sourdough, Khrushchev dough, challah, a quick white loaf, hot cross buns and hot choc buns, tomato and basil focaccia, a white sandwich loaf, courgette cluster bread, Roquefort and pear fougasse, panettone, and a garlic, herb and parmesan festive wreath.

3 years ago

Diving into the back streets of Dubai with Arva was the start of my serial food tourism in her footsteps. I collaborated with Meeta on a food photography course… twice, went to my third Food Blogger Connect in London and had tea with Diana Henry (plus met Antonia Carluccio and cooked with Georgio Locatelli). After passing my WSET Advanced exam, wine started to creep into my posts a bit more regularly.

Bread baked in 2012 – Tangzhong rye bread, walnut and multigrain breads, a breakfast loaf, pita bread, and blueberry and apple salted caramel focaccia.

2 years ago

Life seems to have got a bit crazy and while there was a lot of eating and drinking, there wasn’t as much cooking going on over on My Custard Pie (although I cook from scratch nearly every night). I published a quick post with dodgy pics which has turned out to be my most popular ever (there’s a lesson!). Books have always provided an escapism for me, so maybe no coincidence that my cookbook review section swelled. Veggie teen wrote a guest post about being a vegetarian visiting Mongolia (proud parent). It was an amazing year but a bonkers year.

Bread baked in 2013 – rosemary and date syrup bread, and Rachel Allen’s white soda bread.

1 year ago

No knead bread - mycustardpie.comThis was the year of sifting through opportunities and trying to focus on my own priorities rather than everybody else’s. I got a lot better at saying no and yelled YES to some pretty amazing stuff. Visiting Georgia and India opened my eyes in so many ways. I added another title “Food Sourcing Contributor” on Food E Mag which is a joy to write for. It was a mixed year with one very sad thing that I still can’t bring myself to talk about here, but found solace in bread making.

Bread baked in 2014 – on the blog a solitary no-knead loaf.

What to expect in the future?

Where am I now? Still wandering down the path lead by a trail of crumbs in a slightly random way, following any topic that may prove interesting. Just for the record, there is no money earned directly from my blog, in fact I pay wordpress.com a small fee NOT to put ads on it. This is my little space of the internet which brings me joy, escape, a creative outlet, a place to converse with like-minded people; I enjoy many blogs which bring in loads of dough, but I’ve taken the decision to keep distractions to a minimum. Off the page, so many opportunities and experiences (paid and unpaid) have risen because of it.

Are you thinking of starting a blog or an existing blogger? Or perhaps you wonder what motivates someone to commit hours (days, years!) of their life to pouring thoughts out about food into the webosphere on a regular basis:

10 things learned from 5 years of food blogging

10 lessons learned from 5 years of food blogging

  1. Be focussed. Always keep in mind why you are doing this blogging thing (and be honest to yourself about the answer).
  2. Don’t get distracted by the numbers, followers, fans. Social media is an effective way to connect with like-minded people, exchange views, keep your fingers on the pulse, and introduce your blog to a new readership but chasing numbers can take your eye of point No 1.
  3. Be inspired but not overwhelmed by shiny new and impressive blogs out there. Don’t compare yourself or imitate. Try and develop your own style.
  4. Be genuine. That saying about food, “You are what you eat so don’t be fast, cheap, easy or fake” applies to blogging too.
  5. If you don’t get a thrill every time you post, don’t do it. Blog about something  you care deeply or passionately about.
  6. Always disclose free stuff – people see through it (and in some countries you could fall foul of the law).
  7. Free food, stuff or ‘exposure’ will not pay the bills. Even if blogging for business is not your goal, think before you accept something, consider the amount of time and effort it takes for you to get to and event, pay for transport, write about, cook with it … You could be dedicating that time to something you enjoy more, write about a topic more interesting to you and your readers, or improve your blog.
  8. People in food are generally lovely, generous people. Be open, honest and generous and you’ll fit right in.
  9. Interesting food blogs are written by people who live interesting lives. If you are spending more time writing, promoting etc., than eating, cooking, drinking, then you’ve got the balance wrong.
  10. Enjoy the ride, keep an open mind and you never know where this blogging journey might take you.

Bonus tip:  Learn to use your camera (even the one on your iphone). Your food should be a visual feast and it’s a skill you’ll have all your life.

Five years eh?

Had to share as David Bowie was my first love once upon a time. Indulge me – it’s my blogiversaire.

Wondering about the impact of wheat on our lives or if your relationship with bread is not as rosy as mine, please listen to this podcast about heritage grains. Must listen for all bread bakers too.

Thanks for reading, commenting, supporting. I want to give something back to you for being here for the last five year and I can’t wait to announce the first thing up my sleeve in the next couple of days. Of course it involves food.

P.S. If there’s anything you’d like to see on My Custard Pie — anything that I might be able to help you with or something you’d like to see more (or less) of, please drop me a comment or an email.

P.P.S. If you’d like to keep up with the latest slice of MCP, there are a few options. Have new posts emailed by popping your address in the subscribe box to the right. If you’re a sociable type, you can connect on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Google + and Pinterest.

Cook the week – Kale pesto

January 30, 2015

Maybe this one should be called ‘not cooking the week’ …and I didn’t even shop for it. While I was away for the weekend communing with nature on Sir Bani Yas Island, KP did my market shop… and photographed it (as a joke) too. Veggie teen was away in Bahrain for Young Musician of the Gulf for most of the week, and there were nights out in the mix. So here’s what we ate from the Farmers’ Market and beyond:

Farmers market veg

Farmers’ market veg pic by KP

Sunset Friday – Oh callous, un-caring Mother I am – I’ve no idea what KP and veggie teen consumed on Friday. I was too busy tucking into my own, provided by Amwaj at Anantara Desert Islands Resort on an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi. After watching a dramatic sunset sitting by a roaring wood fire pit I moved onto the terrace to sample some of the Arabic-style menu. It was too dark to photograph but there was a lovely fresh salad centrepiece (if you’ve eaten Lebanese you’ll know what I mean) muhamarra, sujuk (spicy lamb sausages with peppers), falafel, dajaj mashwi (succulent grilled chicken in slightly spicy marinade) followed by fresh mint tea.

Chilli Saturday – A three and a half hour boring, boring drive even after an exquisite weekend is not conducive to cooking. Rather reluctantly I opened the fridge to contemplate supper and spotted a chilli con carne made earlier by KP. Bliss. All I had to do was rustle up something for veggie teen.  This involved defrosting a bean mixture (I cook and freeze ahead), adding some chilli powder, bay leaf, tomato puree, a bit of Swiss Marigold bouillon powder, passata, fresh coriander and yoghurt on the side (I always overdo the chilli!).

Shepherd’s pie Sunday – Awesome beetroot smoothie for breakfast – just had to mention that. Shepherd’s pie – I know, I know, more mince… but KP requested it.  Served with lightly cooked broad beans plus the beany chilli base leftover with mash on top for veggie teen.

Japanese pizza Monday – KP and I sat on our own eating the remains of the Shepherd’s pie with my attempt at okonomiyaki from this recipe. I used banana shallots (kindly sent to me by Chez Charles) instead of leeks and the sauce from this recipe but wasn’t convinced by either. The pancake was rather dry and the sauce too ketchupy for my tastes. Inspired by this about okonomiyaki I’ll give it another go soon (hope KP isn’t reading this).  I also baked a loaf today but that’s a whole other story to be told next week….

Fishy Tuesday – While the cat’s away, the mice will ….eat fish. Neither of my teens can abide fish and make such a fuss about the smell when I do cook it that I give up. Rather sad to see so much (over-fished) hammour still on the slab at Choitrams. I pan-fried some sea bream fillets and served with crushed potatoes and a cabbage, bacon and shallot mixture (KP approved of this version of cabbage) – all inspired by something in my Nathan Outlaw fish book – leaving out the oysters….naturally!

BBC Good Food Awards Wednesday  – I waved in the direction of a jar of kale pesto in the fridge for KP and trotted out in ‘white hot glam’ (who came up with that dress code?) to Conrad Dubai. Rather distracted by too much chatting and excitement to do justice to the food. There were lots of little nibbles at the cocktail reception but I only managed to pause for breath to taste one ‘macaroni cheese’ raviolo with black truffle from La Serre (delicious) and a beef rib slider from I don’t know who. I try to avoid eating farmed salmon due to sustainability and chemical issues but the starter was dill-cured Scottish salmon with caviar remoulade (lump fish roe) which was just ok and then I found the ‘lemon mi confit’ (it was quite dark in the ballroom!). I couldn’t get enough of this candied lemon which was brilliant with the salmon. One to try making at home. The main was a (slightly overcooked for my tastes) beef fillet with mushroom rillettes rossini, pommes Anna, green beans and Perigord truffle jus – all rather nice although I was nattering like mad to the Sassy Mama gals while eating. The less said about the deconstructed Banoffee the better. Random ingredients more like. When will this craze end?

And how to thank everyone who voted for me so that when they announced food blogger of the year my name was announced? Really overwhelming. I am so massively grateful and humbled. You’ve all been so kind with your messages, tweets, emails and calls too. More to be said about this… and right now I just don’t have the words… but THANK YOU.

Table for one Thursday – KP goes out with some chums (a ‘networking event’ ahem) every last Thursday of the month. It’s called ‘Every Second Tuesday’ – work that one out.  I was all set to make a cauliflower risotto for one and to stay in and have an early night to finish this post, but they invited me to come along. So said cauliflower was abandoned and we sat overlooking the water outside at Left Bank at the Madinat. The boys followed their usual order of sharing the bar snacks – who was I to refuse. We tucked into mini-burgers, calamari, edemame, shrimp and crab cakes, chicken tikki skewers and (not on the menu) chips with curry sauce. The Gavi di Gavi was very easy to drink. Ahem.

So not a good week for using my veg – the sweetcorn, aubergine and cauli will be cooked today (somehow). Houseguest arrives again on Saturday so I better get my cooking mojo on. Oh and veggie teen is going vegan for a month. Just off to buy nutritional yeast, bee pollen and quantities of almonds!

Kale pesto

I tinkered with a few recipes to use up kale last week and made this pesto which is really delicious and bright green. Super versatile you can use it over pasta, as a spread or dip or on little bruschetta. Stir in some creme fraiche or cream cheese if you want it creamier. This does make quite a lot so you could halve the quantities, but it keeps in the fridge with a layer of olive oil over the top. Go easy on the garlic – I used two cloves which was far too strong for KP and passing vampires so I’d advise one only.

Kale pesto

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 150ml extra virgin olive oil (I use Astraea)
  • 150ml water
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 175g kale, washed, thicker stalks removed
  • 1 chilli, sliced roughly
  • 1 clove of garlic, sliced roughly
  • 60g walnuts, toasted and chopped roughly
  • 100g almonds, toasted chopped roughly
  • 100g Parmesan or hard cheese
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Method

Put all the ingredients, in the order listed, into a power blender (I used a Vitamix) and using the plunger thing push down under everything is blended and combined. I haven’t tried using a normal blender but I’m sure it would work, just not be as smooth. If you want to store it, put into an air-tight container with a layer of olive oil on the top. Serving suggestions as above. Vary the nuts if you like – this is what I had in the cupboard – the walnuts take the edge off an all almond pesto which might be too sweet.

More kale inspiration? People with digestive issues might not want to eat raw kale so check out Kellie’s gorgeous recipe here. Crisps are my downfall, so a kale version from Dannii is very welcome.

There are so many food stories to tell that I’m going to move this veg round up to once a month with edited highlights. That way I can slip another fish finger sandwich in without you noticing (joke!). Dubai-dwellers, see you at the market. And to all, have an amazing week.

Vegan buckwheat ragu for a solo vegetarian

January 26, 2015

This is how to make a vegetarian or vegan ragu at the same time as you do the meaty one for the rest of your guest or family.

It isn’t about cooking up a huge batch of something vegetarian – you’ve got Ottolenghi Plenty, Malouf’s New Feast and River Cottage Veg as inspiration.  It’s not about feeding a mixed crowd of carnivores and vegetarians either; a huge dish of macaroni cheese, a roast chicken and some warm vegetable salads will take care of that. It’s about cooking, day in day out, for one vegetarian or when you have a single non-meat eating guest for supper.

There are two ways to approach this: either you make a vegetarian meal and everyone eats it or you make your veggie something else. My week is usually a combination of both, but when I’ve had a busy day it can be a stretch too far to make two meals when some are eating meat. This ragu is a compromise. By doubling up some of the stages it’s almost like cooking one dish – and by using similar ingredients you all eat the same sort of flavours. I’ve made many, many versions of this over the years usually with lentils as a base. The buckwheat is a new discovery and works really well – the protein element keeps me happy as a Mum to a vegetarian too. Putting Marmite in is something I thought of very recently as it gives the umami depth of savouriness that can be lacking; I’m wondering why on earth I’ve never done it before.

Vegan buckwheat ragu

  • Servings: 1-2
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • Unsalted butter
  • Onion, celery, carrot, garlic*
  • Tomato puree*
  • Red wine*
  • 100g buckwheat (in Dubai I bought Tesco brand at Choitrams)
  • 400 ml hot vegetable stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  •  a couple of parsley stalks
  • 1 whole dried chilli (optional)
  • dash of vegan Worcestershire sauce**
  • Half a teaspoon Marmite
  • Approx. 2 tablespoons tomato passata
  • Sea salt and black pepper

*The quantities are not given as you just increase the amount you are using for the main ragu.

** Traditional Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies but you can buy vegan alternatives or make your own.

Method

1. Finely chop a generous amount of onion, celery, carrot and garlic for your main meaty ragu. For instance, if your non-vegetarian recipe calls for a medium onion you could use a large one instead. You just need to increase the quantities a little for the whole ‘soffritto‘. Heat the oil and butter together in the pot for the main ragu and sweat gently until the vegetables are soft but not coloured and the onions transparent. Add your tomato puree and cook for a few minutes, then add the red wine and leave to bubble down until reduced to almost nothing.

2. Take a generous tablespoon or two of the soffritto and put into a small saucepan (which has a lid) over a medium heat.  Add the buckwheat and stock, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the bay leaf, oregano, parsley, chilli, Worcestershire sauce and Marmite. Cover and cook for 15 minutes, checking halfway through that it is not drying out.

3. Stir in the tomato passata and cook gently for a further 5 minutes. Add more if the sauce needs loosening. Check that the buckwheat is cooked; it should be slightly firm to the bite. Add sea salt and pepper to taste, remove the parsley stalks and chilli and serve over pasta. You can use a variation of this for a vegetarian Shepherd’s pie too.

Intrigued by buckwheat? Try these vegetarian recipes:  buckwheat and chia seed chocolate chip cookies (Franglais Kitchen), spiced buckwheat and oat porridge (Fuss Free Flavours), buckwheat blini pancakes (Elizabeth’s Kitchen) and roasted buckwheat (kasha) with onions and mushrooms (Coffee and Vanilla).

Sir Bani Yas Island

A view across the lagoon in the dawn light to the Anantara resort I escaped to this weekend. Can’t wait to share more

How do you cope with a vegetarian guest or a solo vegetarian? If the scenario was the other way round, would you as a vegetarian cook meat for a meat eater? Would love to know.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,231 other followers