The final count is in; there will be sixteen of us round the table on Christmas day… and I’m doing the cooking. There are a few butterflies but mainly I’m excited to spend a day eating drinking and making merry with my family and some friends who go back for eons. It does mean it’s important to keep ahead on the preparations and I try to tick off something every day. A combined feast means that there are dishes that absolutely have to be on the table for someone. Brussels sprouts and parsnips are non-negotiable for my lot; bread sauce, sage and onion stuffing and bacon wrapped chipolatas for another family; and one friend always asks “we will be having that red cabbage you make, won’t we?”. We will.
I thought this would be perfect for making in the slow cooker and it is. There’s no real difference in effort between making like this or in a cast iron casserole in the oven, but it’s much more economical as it just needs to braise away for a few hours – and the slow cooker uses the same energy as a light bulb.
As all my Christmas food, I think that less in more when opening the spice cupboard and advise you once again to leave that cinnamon stick and cloves alone. A crisp, fresh red cabbage plucked from the ground near Dubai, bought at the farmers’ market and chopped within hours of getting home, needs very little added to it – although one of those things is red wine. Quelle surprise.
Braised red cabbage - slow cooker
- 1 small red cabbage (about 1 kg)
- 100g butter plus a drizzle of olive oil or 100g ghee
- 1 small red onion, chopped to medium dice
- 1 dessert apple, peeled, cored and chopped coarsely
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 60ml red wine
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Parsley (see note below)
1. Remove any limp or discoloured leaves from the outside of the cabbage and cut into quarters. Cut out the thick white core from each quarter and then cut into fine shreds (you could do this in the food processor). Rinse well and drain.
2. Heat the butter and oil, or the ghee (clarified butter) in a very large frying pan. Add half the cabbage and cook for about a minute until it starts to wilt. Remove to the slow cooker pot with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining cabbage. Add the onion and apple and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring often. Add the red wine vinegar and the red wine and season. Pour the whole lot into the slow cooker.
3. Cook in the slow cooker on the auto setting until tender to the bite but not too mushy. Start checking after 2 and half hours – you can leave it slightly firmer if you are freezing and reheating. Taste before serving and add seasoning and a dash more red wine vinegar if required.
Note: As this is for the Christmas table I have garnished it with flat-leaved parsley – and jolly festive it looks too. This is in spite of my usual strict adherence to Prue Leith’s advice not to garnish with anything that has not been used in the dish. Dill would work really well here too.
Linking up to Ren Behan’s wonderful Simple and in Season round up event.
What absolutely, categorically, HAS to be on your Christmas or celebration table?
We picked our way through stems of marigolds with their puff-ball flowers of tangerine, ochre and vermillion. The air was alive with the wings of butterflies which fluttered leisurely from bloom to bloom. A lady wrapped in a dappled fuschia sari darted away from seiving grain from chaff and took refuge in a hut made of sticks. A young Mother and her daughter strolled, not so casually, through the flowers knowing full well how photogenic they were. Adil caught a little black bee by the wings to show to the group. Rashed pulled the seeds from a dried flower head and displayed the spiky treasure in the palm of his hand.
In rural Rajasthan we saw many marigolds; they are used in abundance in religious ceremonies, but here they were planted as a companion crop to deter pests.
Calendula Officianalis or ‘pot marigold’ attracts beneficial insects and has natural antimicrobial properties.
It’s not a practice used widely by the visiting U.A.E. organic farmers at present, but Rashed explained that when he uses the petals in his chicken feed they lay eggs with yolks as golden as the marigolds. This small trade of knowledge between an Emirati farmer who has decades of experience with an Indian farmer who is drawing on a legacy of centuries of toil, trial and error on the land, encapsulates what this whole trip was about.
The sun warmed our backs and we wandered back past cows, haystacks, down a lane which looked like it could have been plucked from the English countryside, to drink tea with the farmer and his family.
I traveled from the U.A.E. to Rajasthan, India in November 2014 with four organic farmers on a knowledge-exchange trip with Indian organic farmers, organised by Baker and Spice and Down to Earth. This is the first in a series of short stories about a weekend full of fascinating experiences.
Just in time to wish you a Happy St Nicholas day. My Polish Aunt and Uncle would appear every 6th December bearing sweets for us children; in fact even while I was temping at jewellers one Christmas during my late teens, my Aunt appeared holding a bag and uttered the familiar phrase “A strange man stopped me in the street and said give this to Sally,” – the strange man being, of course, St Nicholas (or Santa Claus). So today has to be about something sweet.
I was given a box of shop bought truffles the other day. Fair enough they were from a supermarket not a specialist chocolate shop but one bite into the waxy, sweet, cloying ball of confectionery was enough and I threw the whole lot in the bin. Such a shame as really good chocolate truffles are divine, and this is from someone who doesn’t worship at the altar of chocolate very often.
The party season is just kicking in and unless you’ve bought costly, scented candles in bulk, you may be scrabbling round in the next few weeks to find the perfect little something for the hosts along with the obligatory bottle of plonk. Fresh cream, butter, chocolate and alcohol combined with love and care into moreish morsels. Who could resist that? You’ll be welcomed with open arms.
Cradled in tissue paper, housed in a pretty box, they make luxurious gifts. Also good dotted about the Christmas dinner table prior to the entrance of the pudding (for pudding haters or just to go with coffee).
A word of warning though: Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES be tempted to make them (or anything in fact) with cooking chocolate. You might as well make them with lard they’ll taste so bad and you’ll never gain entry to a party ever again.
Homemade chocolate truffles - two ways of lacing them, with options
- 1 vanilla pod
- 300ml fresh, extra thick double cream (or the heaviest thickest cream you can buy)
- 300g dark (plain) chocolate minimum 58% cocoa solids*
- 300g good quality milk chocolate*
- 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons brandy
- 2-3 tablespoons Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
- 25g cocoa powder or cacao
- Pour the fresh cream into a small saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthways, scrape the seeds into the pan with the tip of a sharp knife, then add the whole pod too. Bring just to the boil then turn off the heat and leave to cool for about 20 minutes.
- Break 200g of the dark chocolate into small pieces and put in a heatproof bowl. Melt the chocolate. I find this easiest by microwaving on medium power for 4 minutes. Alternatively sit the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water making sure the base does not touch the surface of the water. As soon as the chocolate has melted, take off the heat and beat in 25g of the butter with a wooden spoon until smooth. Repeat with 300g of milk chocolate (check after 3 minutes in the microwave) and the remaining butter.
- Remove the vanilla pod from the cream (you can rinse, dry and add this to caster sugar for homemade vanilla sugar). Measure half the cream into each bowl of chocolate mixture and stir in thoroughly. Add brandy to the dark chocolate mix and Frangelico to the milk chocolate.
- Pour each bowl into a separate shallow tray lined with greaseproof paper or baking parchment (a square cake tin is ideal). Leave to chill in the fridge overnight. Alternatively you can pour each mixture into freezer proof containers and freeze for a month or two.
- Put the cocoa or cacao powder in a shallow dish. If you are in a warm climate, like Dubai, whack your air conditioning up high. Shape the dark chocolate mixture into balls and roll in the cocoa. Chop or grate the remaining dark chocolate into small fragments. Shape the milk chocolate mixture as before and roll in the grated chocolate. Place them on greaseproof lined trays and chill for about 8 hours (or overnight). If you are in a cold climate, remove from the fridge for an hour before serving so they soften slightly. If giving as a gift in Dubai, I would put the finished truffles in the freezer and transport in a cool box to the recipient.
Variation: Replace the brandy with Disarrono and roll the truffles in ground almonds. You could also leave out the alcohol and add a few drops of real almond essence (don’t overdo it).
*Good quality chocolate is expensive but don’t be tempted to skimp. Read the labels for the cocoa solid content (the higher the figure the better it is). Go for 85% Lindt (or more) if you like a really rich, dark taste. Good quality supermarket own brands can be cost effective – I use Carrefour or Waitrose when needing a lot of chocolate. Lindt is not very much more in price and far superior – especially for the milk chocolate. And I repeat – cooking chocolate is an aberration and never to be used….never, ever.
For more sweet inspiration to give as gifts or serve up as Christmas treats try Neapolitan Marzipan Chocolates (on Fab Food 4 All), Chocolate Hazelnut and Raspberry fondants (Franglais Kitchen), Cardamom-flavoured Cranberry Christmas cookies (Fuss Free Cooking) and White Christmas fudge (The Hedonista). Chef and Steward has a great idea for an edible present here too.
Is there a festive ritual from your childhood that you remember?
Even if you’ve already made your Christmas pud, don’t stop reading. Cook or reheat it on Christmas day without the need to constantly check the boiling water level, no rattling pan taking up a ring space and without your kitchen turning into a steam room.
My slow cooker is the best purchase I’ve made in years; why on earth did it take me so long to get one (a head-scratching rhetorical question for sure). With Christmas coming up I’ve found so many ways it’ll make festive cooking a lot easier. It’ll have a permanent place on my counter well into the New Year.
My pudding received its first steaming on the day after Stir Up Sunday this year but, regular readers may not faint at this news, the fruit had been soaking in alcohol for two weeks beforehand. I used Nigella’s recipe as I love dousing it in sweet, rich, coffee-like Pedro Ximénes sherry (PX). I couldn’t get hold of a cooking apple so used a carrot instead and I buy bags of mixed vine fruit from Waitrose to minimise odd leftovers, plus I added some mixed spice.
I usually grease traditional pudding basins and do all the greaseproof paper and string malarkey, but I was in such a rush this year that I turned to the infinitely simpler but less photogenic plastic ones with snap on lids (from Lakeland). Nigella’s mixture filled 1 x 2 pint (1.2 litre) basin and 1 x 1 pint (600 ml) basin (why they still use Imperial as we’ve been going metric in the UK since the early 1970’s I can’t fathom). The size was important as a 1.7 litre one (OK, OK, 3 pint) won’t fit in my slow cooker.
Slow cooker Christmas pudding
- Turn your slow cooker onto high.
- Stir up all the ingredients from your favourite Christmas pudding recipe.
- Grease 1 x 2 pint (1.2 litre) basin and 1 x 1 pint (600 ml) basin with butter and snap on the lid (if plastic). If using conventional pudding basins, grease the insides with butter and line the base with a circle of greaseproof paper. Fill with the mixture and top with another circle of greaseproof. Cut out two generous circles of greaseproof paper per basin, pleat in the middle and secure tightly with kitchen string tied under the lip of the pudding basin, looping the ends over the top to make a handle.
- Place the basin into the slow cooker and fill the slow cooker with water so the level is three- quarters of the way up the side of the pudding.
- Replace the lid of the slow cooker and cook on high as follows: 600ml (1 pint) for 8 hours; 1.2 litre (2 pint) for 10 hours; 1.7 litre (3 pint) for 12 hours
- Leave to cool and store in a cool, dark place.
To reheat on the day: Preheat the slow cooker for 20 minutes, put the pudding in and pour enough water to come to three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pudding basin. Cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours (subtract 1 hour for the smaller pudding and add 1 hour for the larger pudding – you will smell the scent of delicious Christmas pudding when it is ready).
To set light to the pudding: Warm about 125 ml of alcohol (brandy or vodka) in a small saucepan (but do not boil). Dim the lights in the dining room and bring the pudding to the table. Pour the warm alcohol over the pud and set light to it (a barbecue lighter is ideal). Walking in with a flaming pud looks dramatic but you are courting danger.
Don’t worry if you haven’t made your pudding yet – it’s not too late. If you really can’t face making your own, don’t beat yourself up over buying a good shop bought one. If you are in Dubai, and want one with alcohol, I spotted some tiny puds laced with 10-year-old The Macallan whisky in MMI; if you search the forums a few home bakers are making them; and you can feed a store-bought one with brandy for a few weeks just as you would for a Christmas cake.
Watch out for more slow cooker festive recipes over the coming weeks. Have you made your Christmas pud and what will you be serving it with?
The wonderful, energizing, exciting thing about life in Dubai is its diversity. One morning, you could be sitting on the floor of a wooden boat, sharing black tea with a group of sailors, their faces gnarly from their oceans travels, missing teeth due to their habit of sucking sugar cubes with their tea. In the evening your eyes could be dazzled by a beautiful Emirati bride, who arrives completely alone and enters a vast ballroom the size of several football pitches. This did happen to me on one single day in October – and I also fitted in a dinner of miniature canapé of British classics with some lovely friends and a baby shower/book club meeting within the same 12 hours.
When did life get so crazy? It sort of crept up on me as I wondered why, halfway through October, I was a little tired. Our 20th wedding anniversary, a fine wine tasting, an encyclopedic gin masterclass, discovering the best and most challenging yoga ever. I dipped my toe into celebrity culture for a fleeting moment or two, made enjoyable by having a laugh with old friends; and was invited on radio to talk about my visit to Georgia and food festivals in Britain.
I went to India with four farmers from the U.A.E. Back in Dubai, I met Polish apple growers. There were visitors from the UK, Autumn weather cooling for the first barbecue of the season, meeting the man with the most expensive tongue in the world, making my Christmas cake, eating a feast cooked over a fire by a German lady camel breeder in the desert. Honestly, I’m not making this up. Contrary to popular belief, I do not blog for a living, so this was around work and family demands. I am not complaining though….and here are the highlights:
Places to drink
Mint Leaf of London The guys at Mint Leaf really know their stuff and guided our all female group of spirit lovers (contact me if you are interested in joining) through a mind-bogglingly interesting gin tasting with some superb cocktails to match.
Hakkasan Every wine is tasted with a range of dishes by a panel (which I joined for one session) before it makes to to the wine list at Hakkasan. Impressive quality control.*
Cave I got together with wine-loving friends to investigate Grenache – coincidently Rhone wines were the theme in October and I also tasted some beautiful Burgundy at Cave, Conrad Dubai courtesy of Le Clos (if you are a regular customer you’ll make it to their invite list).
Places to eat
La Petite Maison KP and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary dinner at La Petite Maison. The service is impeccable. The really knowledgeable female sommelier guided us from an extensive list of wine available by the glass (rare for Dubai). Every dish was simply cooked, beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. My only regret is that I ordered the rabbit as I subsequently read this. Very pricey but top of my list for special occasions.
La Serre Ex-LPM chef Izu Ani has made waves at La Serre and I was invited to sit at the Chef’s Table for an evening organised by Restronaut and Badoit water. Chef Izu delves into different cultures and tries unexpected ingredients – I’d never had cassava on a fine dining menu – and really gets to understand the defining notes of the cuisine and translates them in his kitchen. The whole turbot in a salt crust was a highlight and the 50 hour braised beef short-ribs. His interaction with his team of chefs (from all corners of the globe) was also fascinating to see and their mutual respect was evident. A real pleasure to witness. Chef and Steward’s interview with Chef Izu is well worth a read. The next Badoit dinner is on 16th December at Traiteur, Park Hyatt.*
Rivington Grill We sat on the terrace with our guests from the UK overlooking the coastline right down to The Palm and beyond …
Baker & Spice, Souk Al Bahar …all visitors love the combination of sitting on the terrace, gazing up at the Burj Khalifa and eating the best shakshouka in town for breakfast…
Ravis …but they had one request we couldn’t refuse. The infamous Ravis in Satwa.
Creekside … the new ‘must do’ spot for visitors and residents. Serving Emirati classics with a twist which you can eat while watching the abras dart by.
Bystro Since its recent makeover, it’s my favourite new place in Umm Suqeim 2 for meeting people. Decent casual food, nice staff, reasonably priced.
The Hamptons Cafe Booking essential for this cafe that looks like it’s been transplanted from a Ralph Lauren interiors catalogue onto Jumeirah Beach Road. Need to consult my personal shopper before I go next time, but I loved it. Don’t judge me.
Sumo Sushi options are abundant in Dubai but when I get a craving for maki I have my favourite places. The newly refurbished Sumo Sushi and Bento in Town Centre Mall is worth a visit for a relaxing sushi lunch (and I made an origami crane at the opening).*
Lafayette Gourmet catering British classics in bite-sized nibbles beautifully executed by Russell Impiazzi and his team from Lafayette Gourmet. The ‘go-to’ place for event catering – Their new event manager has hot-footed it from the Admirable Crichton in London. The occasion was another Food Photography workshop by Meeta; I’ve hung up hat from being involved but it was a pleasure to be toasting another succesful event – with 24 carat gold suffused, sparkling, non-alcoholic white wine!
Asia Asia Pier 7 has to be the perfect venue for Winter dining in Dubai as all the restaurants have huge outdoor terraces with stunning views across the Marina. KP tested Simon Rimmer’s The Scene and enjoyed the traditional comfort food menu, Fume got my thumbs up for its down to earth menu, casual vibe and well-priced wine list. A bit flummoxed about Asia Asia and largely agree with this review (giving it another try tonight).
Bussola It was difficult NOT to eat Italian during two weeks in November as the Italian Cuisine World Summit hit Dubai. A bevy of Michelin starred chefs cooked at a variety of restaurants and events and I was invited to dinner at Bussola. I’d forgotten how just lovely it is to sit on their terrace overlooking the sea; we had 2 star Michelin Chef Lionello Cera to thank for our set menu of various fishy delights – Chef Lionello’s father was a fisherman and he never cooks meat. For more about the summit visit my friend Dima Sharif who did an amazing job as ambassador for the event.*
Sitting with sailors Clambering on board a trading dhow moored on the Dubai Creek and sharing tea with a group of sailors was an experience so removed from my everyday life. And then twelve hours later I was doing this …
Guest at an Emirati wedding Her image is projected in grainy black and white onto huge screens showing her slow deliberate progress along a curved catwalk to a raised platform, her lacy, white train rearranged at intervals by a team of ladies dedicated to her appearance, while the rest of the all-female audience, coated in jewels and the most immaculate make up and gowns, gazes in appreciation. While a romantic, orchestral theme booms around the room, it takes this beautiful bride about 15 minutes to reach a dias where she elegantly seats herself on an ornate banquette. We join the queue to have our photograph taken with her. Her impeccably groomed close friends join her first, taking selfies on their phones although sharing them is forbidden in case men see them unveiled. This was my first experience of an Emirati wedding and invited by one of the first members of our Fooderati Arabia group of UAE food bloggers. I was wide-eyed as I sat at one of well-over a hundred round tables bedecked with magnificent floral decorations. The guests all looked as though they had spent a whole day in the salon with immaculate hair, make-up, eyebrows, nails and stunning gowns. A lavish buffet, some dancing and then veils went on as a male delegation arrived including the bride’s father, the bridegroom and her father-in-law. More photos with the bride who donned a discreet lacy white veil. An evening I will never forget.
A feast over fire I can’t wait to tell you all about sitting under the stars in the desert eating a traditional Emirati feast cooked over an open fire by a German lady camel breeder…
Pushing my boundaries
Moonwater and Terrasol Yoga I’ve tried several yoga classes but they were either too boring or too fast (like yoga aerobics… all those sun salutations!). Cate’s wonderful sessions of Vinyasa flow yoga are challenging but so rewarding. I not only feel fitter, stronger and more flexible but my energy levels and breathing has improved (I’m mildly asthmatic), my concentration and focus is better and it helps with mindfulness – which I’m trying to practice after reading Ruby Wax’s Sane New World. The icing on the cake is that while practising in a candle-lit room you can glimpse the Burj Al Arab’s lit-up antics through the window. Highly recommended – join her at the Surf House – more info here.
Dubai Eye Feeling the fear and doing it anyway – why do you think I’m a blogger hiding behind my screen?! Actually managed to take a deep breath and enjoy being on the Travel Show on Dubai Eye. Thanks to Mark Lloyd and Lucy Taylor for making me feel at ease while reliving the delights of Georgia and British Food Festivals. Listen here…
Cle Probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year, headed up by Greg Malouf. Having tasted his food before, I was eager to go. The black interior (more like a nightclub) and celebrity presence (Kloe Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Hrithik Roshan, Irina Shayk, Alessandra Ambrosio and Akon) overshadowed the food which had some glitches (hard to avoid with a brand new operation and for this number of people). High points included an amazing salad, Dom Pérignon all night and lovely Greg who, unlike the crowd, is low-key, gentle and kind. With a terrace overlooking DIFC, and some weeks to iron out the kinks, now is the time to visit.*
Nobu The chance to taste dishes from Nobu chefs around the world all in the Asateer tent at Atlantis was too good an opportunity to miss. Nobu himself obliged with poses to camera – he seems quiet but I think he enjoys the limelight. The yuzu martinis were actually the stand out taste for me – perhaps this sort of subtle, carefully created food needs a calmer environment (like Nobu’s garden). I spoke to Millie Mackintosh at the request of elder teen and she seemed very nice. Thoroughly enjoyable evening with good friends.*
Majlis Gallery When the Majlis Gallery asked me to host one of the forty artists descending on Dubai for their 25th anniversary celebrations I was happy to say yes. June Bartlett was that artist, both talented and charming, and strolling around the beautiful space of the gallery and chatting to so many amazingly creative (and often rather eccentric and humourous) people was completely energizing. I bought a Khaled Al Saai calligraphy which will hang on my wall close to a beautiful drawing of Oman from June. It’s the first place I recommend to visitors but residents often forget about this treasure of a place.
International Writers Centre Further along the creek, all sorts of exciting cultural things are happening. The neglected Shingdaga area is having a restorative shot in the arm and the Dubai International Writers Centre is just one project. A beautiful evening with traditional Emirati cooking, a film, some speeches and poetry readings including one by Ben Okri – all in an open air space amid traditional buildings.
Al Serkal Avenue “Come and see Tony’s chair” was the subject of a friend’s email, inviting me to visit a piece of furniture her husband had designed. I’m so glad she did as the open day at this collection of art galleries and studios within the warehouse district of Al Quoz was enervating and very cool. There was a small collection of street food vendors too. And the good news is it is doubling in size (opening in 2015).
Book club I need to give a shout out to my fantastic book club – a wonderful group of ten ladies of four different decades in age and seven nationalities. Since September we’ve discussed Tanamera by Noel Barber (a vivid account of war-time in Singapore although I had issues with the author’s portrayal of women), The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (a page-turner with not much depth), A girl is a half-formed thing by Eimear McBride (challenging, Joyce-like and harrowingly depressing). We threw a baby shower orchestrated by the American member of our group – believe me, the baby bottle drinking and nappy (diaper) games were an eye opener.
You couldn’t make this up
“Please come and meet the man with the world’s most expensive tongue – at the only 7 star hotel in the world”. So I sat in the ballroom of the Burj Al Arab and met Costa’s Master of Coffee, Gennaro Pelliccia. Gennaro had worked his way up through the ranks of Costa Coffee (which started as a small business run by the Costa family in the same area of London) from a temporary job while at University to chief taster. He talked us through the art of cupping which is used to taste every batch of coffee beans that arrive at Costa for quality control. Gennaro’s tastebuds are honed to detect potential faults and his decision could lead to a batch being rejected. We all had a go at cupping and a few people were guided through the process of making a cup of coffee – much harder than it looks. Gennaro had been a gentle speaker, very modest, gentlemanly and with a slight reserve. I assumed that he’d be a super-taster (a genetic predisposition to having a heightened sense of taste which affects about 15% of men and 35% of women) but he said not. His tasting ability was learned from constant practice. Out of all the journalists and media in the room who was the person to request that he pose with his tongue out? Ahem, some food blogger. There was a media storm as Gennaro transformed into the coffee-tasting equivalent of the lead singer of KISS with a bean on his tongue.
As the ‘Autumn’ comes to a close, wonderful Dubai winter temperatures have finally arrived and with them, the first abundant harvest of local vegetables. The first of the new season of the Farmers’ Market was truly a joy and I returned with my bags full to KP’s eye rolling (which is interpreted as ‘how on earth are we going to eat all that veg?’). Ten farms have stalls this season including one that’s reaping its first crops, called Organic Oasis, and run by the first female farmer owner at the market, Shaikha. It was fantastic to meet her (we had a big chat about parsnips). Astraea produces beautiful olive oil from their family olive grove on a Greek island called Samothrace. Anastasia, the owner of the grove was at the market this week to help Costa her son who lives in the UAE. She brought along some dried wild herbs from the island which had been gathered by a woman’s cooperative. Baker and Spice treated a group of bloggers (including me) to a market breakfast showcasing the menu that comes off the grill. My favourite is the English muffin made with spinach, stuffed with wilted spinach (from the farmers) and a fried egg. This is my kind of food shopping.
Food E Mag I almost forgot to mention this fantastic online food magazine created by some Fooderati Arabia chums. Proud to announce that I’m the ‘food sourcing’ contributor. December issue out soon but in the meantime please browse Autumn…
With beautiful temperatures, a few clouds in the sky and a hint of some rain, and months of outdoor living ahead, Dubai is a marvellous place to be right now. A good time to wish everyone in the United Arab Emirates a very happy 43rd National Day.
*I was an invited guest to events marked with a star – but with no obligation to write anything and all opinions are my own.
The Dubai Rugby 7s is one of the biggest weekends in the calendar, especially popular among expats. I remember first visiting in 1995 when you could stroll along the open sided main pitch and find your place in the sparsely filled stands. The side pitches were all sand and the teams mainly local and from around the region. These days it’s a huge event with international teams as well as local, women’s tournaments and school teams battling it out. It used to be all about the rugby, the dressing up and the drinking. Food was an afterthought with huge queues for a cheap burger or greasy fish and chips – except for in corporate hospitality where everything is a bit too fancy (although we’d sneak in for the shawarma stand). Now, thank heavens, food has improved a lot even in the cheap seats – OK it’s not Masterchef but there are some reasonable choices and even healthier nosh. I did a good trawl round of the eating and drinking options last time and have snaffled a sneak peek of what’s coming up this year. Whoever is the ultimate tournament winner, 2014 looks like the best yet for grub.
Raise a fork for pork
Sharing the most exciting news first. Regular readers will know the pleasure I derive from eating a sausage in the street when I’m in the UK so ‘The Big Breakfast’, a stand dedicated to pork, is music to my ears. Fancy Irish smoked back bacon, griddled to perfection in a soft white bap? Or ‘The Full Monty’ where said bap contains Irish bacon, British banger and black pudding? They even have a ‘hog burger’ in a Welsh soda roll. Race you there?
Hot for dogs
If your tastes for meat in a bun are more US-driven there are many options. There will be American Hot Dog carts serving Classic American Hotdogs (their capitalisation not mine) with onions, mustard and ketchup. Plus within Bidi Bondi there’s a Champions Hot Dog Menu which offer a South Pacific Island Dog (topped with mango and pineapple slaw), a North American Dog (with onions, mustard, pickles and tomato sauce), a South American Dog (with chimichurri and beef chorizo salsa) and a French Dog (caramelized onions, wholegrain mustard aioli and Gruyère cheese). As outside the pork zone the dogs are made of chicken. However, I could be converted.
The Rugby 7s is now massively popular with families, with a special stand dedicated to children-friendly, non-drinking fun. No need to resort to the usual junk food offering with Giraffe around – they even have salad on the menu!
This is the kind of thing you can expect: Pasta Margherita (Roasted cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and rocket), Giraffe Deluxe Veggie Burger (broad beans, peas, potato and spinach), Popcorn chicken (chicken fillet bites with skin on fries), Fish Finger Burger (breaded haddock goujons, with tartare sauce, tomato and lettuce in a soft white bap), Tunisian Feta Salad (marinated feta, quinoa, green beans, red pepper, cumin roasted squash with mixed leaves and Salsa Verde) and Thai Green Chicken Curry (with roasted butternut squash, green beans, and fragrant rice). I like that they offer two sizes of many dishes so you can cater for little tummies without waste (and at lower cost).
Bidi Bondi has more on the menu than just hot dogs too.
Fast food favourites
Burgers and fish and chips still have a place at the festival. Left Bank, the popular casual eatery and bar at the Madinat, is flipping and frying again this year.
At the Left Bank Fish and Chip Shop, the fish is hand-battered pollack from New Zealand served with chunky chip shop chips (thankfully not fries). Curry sauce and gravy are optional extras.
There’s a choice of three at the Left Bank burger joint. The Cheeseburger is made of New Zealand Angel Bay beef, the chicken burger also comes with cheese, onions and tomatoes and the Veggie Burger is ‘a rustic mix of broad beans, peas, potato and spinach, seasoned with aromatic spices.’ Veggie teen will be delighted.
If you fancy a pie you can get one from the Pie Face Cart.
Yes, they self-censored when they came to the U.A.E. The chain with the whizzy green bikes and pro-biotic, 10 grain crust is back at the 7s again. Their opening was possibly the first blogger event I was ever invited to!
If you manage to snaffle a ticket in hospitality a range of catering awaits you depending on which section you are in.
If you fancy a sandwich see Costa info below…
All the food stands sell the usual sodas and water. They are harder to obtain at the booze outlet. Do make sure you drink enough water throughout the day as dehydration and sunstroke is not pretty.
Costa Coffee is on hand for your caffeine fix with four main locations and a Costa Ice station. They will also serve fresh food including a festive turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwich.
My favourite hang out is at the MMI Wine Bar which overlooks pitch 2. Don’t expect fine wine tasting just quaffable wines from Australia which are not overpriced (for a Dubai event). A bottle of Aussie Sauvignon Blanc is AED 120, with the wines on offer predominantly by de Bortoli Wines (from cool climate, Yarra Valley, close to Melbourne). There was a nice rosé that which I sipped as the sun went down last year…
As always there are very popular Heineken bars (which turns into a packed, noisy and very funny party as the night goes on) and Strongbow Cider Garden area. If you can’t be bothered to go to a bar (or leave your place in the stand) there are mobile Heineken men to pour you a drink from the tank on their backs.
Other things to know
- As always, cash should be exchanged for drink tokens on arrival. If you don’t spend them all there is a range of places to spend them after the event including Al Hamra Cellar in Ras Al Khaimah.
- Fibber Magees is does back of house catering – worth knowing if you are an international player, social player, ref or ball kid!
- You’ll be able to check out the menus, location, leave pictures and reviews on zomato.com/rugby7s – I’ll post the link when it’s live.
- Dress up – or at least have your camera ready – the costumes get wilder every year.
I’m not saying that the Dubai Rugby 7s is a gourmet paradise but the food is definitely moving in the right direction and catering to a broader family audience. What would make it better? A street food village would be awesome with a few more Asian flavours on the menu – where is the curry? Push the boat out more with the classics – I’m thinking about the amazing pickled eggs served by Brisket Belle for instance, wouldn’t they be great with the fish and chips… and some really good herby, fresh, tartare sauce plus some calamari on the menu? I’m sure there is a market for cocktails at the rugby too. However, the quality has improved, the choice is better, the huge queues are a thing of the past.
See you at the Rugby 7s? I won’t be the one dressed as a prawn!
Immersing dried fruit in booze so it all plumps up, giving the juicy, sticky mixture a swirl now and again, weighing the ingredients, creaming the butter and sugar, stirring it all up with a wooden spoon in my huge Mason Cash bowl, wearing my favourite pinny and pretending to be a domestic goddess (or even the domestic goddess!). All this I love. But there’s one bit of the Christmas cake making I’m not so enamoured with – in fact positively dread. It’s the baking.
Lining the tin is a faff but I’m fine with that. It’s the other stuff that bothers me. Wrapping some layers of newspaper round the sides with brown string so the tin doesn’t scorch the outside (or buying those expensive cake tin insulators you’ll only use once a year). The inevitable rise and crack of the top and those blackened raisins. Watching it like a hawk so it’s perfectly cooked through. Trying to balance a piece of paper on top to stop it over-browning when the fan blows it away. It’s all nerve-wracking stuff.
The answer is to bake it at a lower temperature and longer time. No need to wrap the outside, the cake stays level and a nice even colour all over. If your oven has a range of internal temperatures (mine does) it won’t make a huge difference. I’ve tried it and it works perfectly. OK there was one hitch – we had to get the taxi to double back as I’d forgotten to take it out of the oven when we went out for the evening. Luckily it was so good-tempered that there was no harm done. Thank you to Ruth Clemens of The Pink Whisk for this tip. In fact I used her quantities for my cake too.
This recipe assumes you’ve been lovingly soaking your fruit in booze for weeks by making Christmas Old Soak. You could do it for a week and then make the cake – you might have to heat the fruit to evaporate any excess liquid first. Or you could make a different recipe and feed religiously (Tamasin Day Lewis from All You Can Eat is a good one and this ‘Make and Mature’ recipe looks good too).
Christmas cake (inspired by the Bourke Street Bakery and Ruth Clemens)
- 225g butter, softened plus extra for greasing
- 150g soft, light brown sugar
- 70g soft, dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of black treacle or molasses
- 2 teaspoons raw honey
- 1 heaped teaspoon marmalade
- 5 eggs, large and free range
- 285g plain flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons mixed spice
- 50g ground almonds
- 1 quantity of Christmas old soak
You will also need some of your chosen booze to feed the cake after it is baked. I used Jack Daniels Single Barrel for the soak so I’m using it for feeding too. Ruth reckons you’ll need about 150ml but I’m less measured about it and go by eye.
- Preheat the oven to 130 C or 110 C fan oven. Arrange your oven shelf so it is towards the lower part of the oven ( about 1/3rd of the way up from the base).
- Grease your tin with butter and line the base and sides with greaseproof paper or baking parchment.
- Using a stand mixer or a wooden spoon and bowl, cream the softened butter and both types of sugar together until the mixture is light (in colour) and fluffy. Beat in the treacle or molasses, raw honey and marmalade.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. My mixture always curdles so I add half a tablespoon of flour before the first egg and in between each additional egg.
- Fold in the sifted flour, mixed spice and ground almonds.
- Add the Christmas old soak fruit and stir well to combine making sure no pockets of flour remain.
- Spoon the cake mixture into your tin (or tins) using a spatula to remove every last morsel from the bowl and to level the top. I used a 15 cm round tin this year and also filled 3 giant muffin cups (approx. 6cm each) for mini cakes. The large tin must be at least 7cm deep. Ruth has a handy guide if you want to use a different sized tin.
- Put all the cakes into the oven. Remove the small cakes after 1 hour, testing that they are done by inserting a skewer or toothpick into the centre. This should come out clean or with a few crumbs attached. Remove the large cake after 3 hours (start checking half an hour before).
- Remove the cake from the oven, put on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely in the tin.
- Once the cake has cooled, remove it from the tin. Place the cake on a large piece of baking parchment or greaseproof paper and use a bamboo or metal skewer to make lots of holes all over the surface of the cake without piercing through the base. Feed the cake with 1-2 teaspoons of booze, dripping it carefully over the top of the cake.
- Wrap the paper over the cake (use two pieces at right angles if necessary) and so the same with a piece (or pieces) of foil. Put the wrapped cake in a tin or container with a lid that seals tight so nothing can find its way in (especially in Dubai) and leave in a cool place (not the fridge).
- Feed your cake 2-3 teaspoons of booze every 4 days until most of (or all) the alcohol is absorbed (don’t feed if the cake appears wet). Don’t feed the cake for the final week to give the surface a chance to dry before icing.
- You can decorate your cake up to a month ahead although mine is usually made during the last
Shall we decorate along together? I’ve got a few easy icing ideas up my sleeve. See you in a few weeks time.
P.S. If I’ve got you feeling festive, head over to Festive Food Friday on Taming Twins for all sorts of Christmassy ideas.