Thursday, 27 December 2007

Sweet little Christmas pies and pomegranate cocktails

I like to have our Christmas pies before Christmas dinner as a sort of welcome-to-Christmas thing. You never know if some of your guests may be late (though this hasn't happened yet in Japan), or perhaps the turkey wants more cooking than anticipated (not this time). Or maybe the cook just needs more time to get it together in the kitchen without having her guests starve to death (highly likely (g)). Anyway, who has room for them after Christmas pudding in any case.

To welcome G and M this year, we had these scrummy little pies and pomegranate cocktails.

I use Nigella Lawson's pie idea, making the dough up with orange juice instead of water, and adding various goodies to a bought jar of mincemeat (Robertson's, of course) in good time.

I was a bit worried about these and the Christmas pud, because an Iranian foodie had not only failed to see any connection with her own culinary heritage in these, she even declared them to be "vile". Ooops.

Well, I beg to differ! In fact my dear friend G even pronounced Christmas pudding to have a nostalgic taste for him. Perhaps he was just being nice, but he did have seconds of the pud, so it is not so disgusting to all Iranians, apparently (g).

Obviously I need to do some more research on this, though. If only I could remember where I first read about the fabled Persian connection...

Christmas pies


1 jar ready-made fruit mincemeat
1 grated apple (1/2 if using a huge Japanese apple)
3 tbsp rum or Grand Marnier (optional)
50 g flaked almonds, roughly chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange
Some grated zest from the lemon and orange

Stir together sometime in early December and keep in the fridge until needed.


240 g plain flour
120 g cold butter (or half butter, half lard)
Couple of tablespoons of cold orange juice with a pinch of salt added

Measure flour into bowl and add the cold fat, cut into 1 cm dice. Put this in the freezer for 10 minutes, then blitz in the food processor until the mixture resembles oatmeal. Tip into bowl and add orange juice one tablespoon at a time until the dough looks as if it is about to come together. Kneed very lightly and divide into two balls which you flatten and wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Roll the dough to about 5 mm thickness and cut out circles and stars for the top.


Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Use the circles to make the bases (I use a 6-hole muffin tin, making 6 at a time because I have a tiny Japanese oven). Fill each with a scant teaspoon of the mincemeat mix (it spreads in the oven) and top with a pastry star. Brush on some milk if you feel like it, and bake for 15 minutes or until a nice golden brown.

Pomegranate cocktails

The original recipe for these called for pomegranate juice, but that is a sold here at a super premium price due to some health fad that is going on. I substituted pomegranate molasses and water, which gave the cocktails a rusty mud hue, but who cares about that when it tastes this good. I wonder what it would taste like if made as per instructions...

3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
Apple lemonade (or fizzy apple juice sharpened up with some lemon juice)
Pomegranate seeds to garnish

Bring the pomegranate molasses, water and cinnamon to the point of boiling. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool completely and refrigerate until needed.

To serve, place 1 or more tbsp of the pomegranate mixture in a wine glass and top up with apple lemonade. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.

For an alcoholic version, substitute dry sparkling wine for the apple lemonade. Alternatively, you could just use 1 tsp of straight pomegranate molasses instead of the cinnamony mixture. Either way, to your health!


Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Nigel's wild rice, pomegranate and prosciutto salad

Christmas tends to come early in Japan as the 25th is a normal work day, but the 23rd a national holiday for the Emperor's birthday (how kind of him to think of us poor expats in timing his arrival (g)).

This year, I thought I'd push the boat out a bit with tradition, since I thought our dear Iranian and Japanese guests may not have had a "real" Christmas dinner before. But I did want to include pomegranate, as it is a seasonal fruit in Iran, also, being a significant feature of the Yalda, or Winter Solstice celebration (December 22). How lucky for me, then, that pomegranate also seems to be in vogue in the UK this year. So I immediately snapped up this gorgeous salad from Nigel Slater's column in the Guardian for my Christmas menu.

Aside from tart little pomegranate rubies that pop pleasingly in your mouth and festive-looking green parsley, the salad's dressing contains the juice of not one but THREE citrus fruits. What could be more perfect for a blog named Saffron and Lemons!?

As for the prosciutto, well I could take it or leave it, personally. The cost to flavour ratio was not really there for me (but I did forget to flash-fry the papery slices in my haste to get stuck into it).

So for anyone looking for a substitute, having remembered that pork products are not on sale in their country of residence (g), the substitute is nothing except an extra little grinding of salt. I also found that, using a zester and not a box grater, I had more lime zest than I needed so I only used half. I reckon the recipe would be spot on if you are using the grater, though.

A good way of removing the pomegranate seeds (gleaned from the fabulous Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey) is to score a long line around your pomegrante from the stalk to the base, peel the skin off and break the seeds up in a bowl of water. You can then scoop off any pith that may have got in as it floats while the seeds sink to the bottom.

Wild rice, pomegranate and prosciutto salad

Serves 4-6

125g wild rice
a large handful golden sultanas
a large handful pecans
2 pomegranates
a small bunch flat-leafed parsley

For the dressing
juice of half an orange
zest and juice of a lime
juice of half a lemon
balsamic vinegar - a few drops
olive oil - 2 tbs
12 thin slices of prosciutto
Sea salt

Cook the rice in four times its volume of lightly salted water, covered with a lid, for about 45-50 minutes. It should be tender, but still have a pleasing bite to it. Drain and allow to cool.

Put the saltanas and pecans into a mixing bowl. Break open the pomegranates and
remove the seeds, adding them to the saltanas. It is worth taking great care here, so that none of the bitter white pith surrounding the seeds gets in. Roughly chop the leaves from the parsley - I try to keep the pieces quite large - then stir them in.

Make the dressing by mixing the juice of the oranges, lime (plus zest) and lemon with the oil, vinegar and a generous pinch of sea salt.

Bring together the rice, fruits and dressing and leave to marry for 15 minutes. Cook the prosciutto slices briefly in a hot, non-stick fying pan. They will be flecked with gold in a matter of seconds. Place a couple of heaped tablespoons of the rice on each pile, then surround with the pieces of warm prosciutto.

With every last morsel being polished off, and the young man of the house declaring it "yummy", I think this salad may make regular appearances at our Christmas table from now on (and maybe at other times too).


Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Nanaeya: Iraqi meatballs with garlicky and minty sweet and sour sauce

I've been sitting on this lip-smacking dish for a while, now, not really knowing what to say about it. It is not the Iraqi lamb, eggplant and onion dish I promised earlier (it's not really the season for tomatoes or eggplants, after all), but it is Iraqi.

I made it on Sunday the 16th, and woke up on Monday the 17th to the news that the Turkish government had actually made good on its threat to cross into Iraqi Kurdistan. As someone with Turkish friends, Kurdish friends and friends in Iraq, it just didn't seem the right time to add more fuel to the fire with this, a Jewish Iraqi dish.

But I hope I will be forgiven, anyway, since this bright, sunny dish is the perfect antidote to the winter blahs and, if you are in warmer climes, so much the better, as it is a Passover dish, which makes springtime its usual season.

It is from my very favourite cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden. This is my desert island cookbook. (But I’ll only consent to the island bit if it has a self-replenishing supply of all my foodie goodies (g). Otherwise, it would be sheer culinary torture.)

I don’t know about you, but the cookbooks I like best put the dishes in their historical and cultural setting, teaching me something of the people who devised them and why, and why I would want to cook them. All of Claudia’s books do this, but The Book is in a class of its own (Nigella Lawson calls it the best food book she's ever read; I say it is one of the best books I've read, full stop.)

With literally hundreds of recipes, it covers the cuisines of Jews the world over (Italy, India and China included). Its main focus, however, is the food of the various Middle Eastern Jews. For the stove-top traveller (such as myself), it is a veritable treasure trove to come back to time and again. I encourage everyone with an interest in the food of this region--regardless of their personal brand of religious sentiment (or lack thereof)--to rush out and get a copy of this book pronto.

Anyone with firsthand knowledge of other styles of Iraqi cooking, please feel free to comment on this dish. I love finding commonalities (and differences) in unexpected places.

750 g minced lamb (or beef or pork (!), or...)
Salt and pepper
1 bunch of flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped (I used a Japanese "bunch", which comes in a little plastic coffin minus most of the stalk)
1 1/2 large onions, chopped (or sliced in half-rings for a more textured sauce)
3 tbsp light vegetable oil
6 or more garlic cloves or to taste, finely chopped Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
1 1/2 tbsp sugar or to taste
1 large bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped (I used 1 of those coffins of peppermint and just picked the leaves without chopping them)
2 tomatoes, chopped (optional)

Make the meatballs first: mix the meat with about 3/4 tsp of salt, pepper and the parsley and work to a soft paste with your hands (I use the Asian method whereby you pick up and dash the mix against your bowl a few times until the fat disperses and it becomes paste-like), then roll into balls the size of walnuts.

For the sauce: fry the onions in the oil till soft. Add the garlic and the meatballs to brown them all over (I had to push the onions aside for this manoeuvre). Add chopped tomatoes, if using. Now pour in water not quite to cover the meat and bring to the boil (I needed to skim the scum off). Add a little salt and pepper and simmer for about 25 minutes, until the meatballs are very tender and the sauce reduced, turning the meatballs over once. Mix the lemon juice and sugar and pour over the meat. Cook for 15 minutes more, scattering the mint over in the last few minutes (the recipes adds it with the juice and sugar, but I think it would look better without being cooked so much, and that is what I'll do next time).


Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Wassail and salt caramel

This past Saturday, the young man of the house and I joined friends for some family carolling at a church in Tokyo. Although dear friends O and T have invited us many times, we have either been in Oz or too strapped for time to go in previous years. We will endeavour to get organized a bit earlier from now on, as the British Embassy Choir put on a really good show.

Particularly memorable was a carol I'd never heard before, but one about a subject close to my heart: food!

Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e'er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee

And here is to Colly and to her long tail
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer! I pray you draw near
And our jolly wassail it's then you shall hear

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

Then here's to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

As we know, wassail is both a festive occasion and a kind of liquor drunk on such occasions. A rollicking good-time carol, then. (And doesn't it just make you wonder what might be the cause of Santa's rosy cheeks and good cheer (g).)

After the little ones (and some not so little ones) had sung themselves hoarse, it was off for a quick bite to eat at one of those "family restaurants" I have not frequented in many years. The service was atrocious (do they actually train their wait staff?) but the food was passable (just).

The desert menu, however, did have something of interest: salt caramel ice-cream. Salt caramel is the "it" sweet du jour here in Japan (however, its appearance at this fami-resu probably indicates the boom is on its last legs). I had somehow not got round to trying the stuff, so I gave it a go, and can tell you it was quite delicious, though I could hardly taste the salt.

Today, I had an opportunity to try some truly gourmet salt caramel (from the posh caramelier and chocolatier Henri le Roux, courtesy of one of the translation vendors we use at work) and, intrigued, did a bit of googling.

It seems the salt in Monsieur Le Roux's caramel is in the salted butter, but there are other fleur de sel (a kind of sea salt) caramels where salt is added as an ingredient. Epicurious has some recipes that sound delectable, and once the turkey and pud are out of the freezer this Christmas, I reckon that bitter caramel ice-cream might just make its way in in their place (g).

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Adas polo: Persian rice with lentils and dried fruit

Here in Yokohama the place is jumping in the lead up to Christmas (yes, we have it here but it is more like Valentine's Day, and the somehow KFC and strawberry shortcake have come to be the food traditions) and Oshogatsu, the New Year. It is a time of cleaning house and tidying up loose ends. And also the reason for the absence of new posts on Saffron and Lemons. Hopefully we can still be friends anyway (g).

So, in the spirit of the season, let's tidy up last weekend's foray into Iranian cooking with the recipe for adas polo. It is rather festive, and back when I was new to Iranian food, a dish I (bravely) served it as my offering at a dear friend's Birthday/New Year's party. It seemed to go down well, with the potato crust being particularly popular amongst the (mostly) British party guests.

It is loosely based on a recipe in New Food of Life. The crust, however, is the idea of an Iranian friend, and since I never seem to have much luck with regular rice crusts (probably because I can't bring myself to use the mind boggling amount of oil the recipe demands), I think this is the way to go.

This does take a bit of prep, but it is very yummy and by my reckoning the recipe will feed 10, so you can halve and freeze the filling for use another time.

I use Japanese rice because that is what I have in the house, but you will get better results from long-grain basmati rice if you have it. I also grind my saffron with salt instead of original recipe's sugar. You do as you please! For the dates, you may want to avoid the dry ones that you might have had in sandwiches as a kid if you grew up in 1970s UK. The moreish moist ones are better here, methinks.

Adas polo: Persian rice with lentils and dried fruit

3 cups long-grain rice
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp advieh (Persian spice mix) (I use a packet of Iranian spices called "special spices")
1/2 tsp saffron ground with a pinch of salt and dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water
1 1/2 cups lentils
1 cup raisins or sultanas
2 cups pitted dates, chopped roughly
1/2 cup slivered orange peel with bitterness removed by covering with water and boiling for 10 minutes (save extra in the freezer) (or if this is too fiddly, you could probably just zest an orange or two)
1-2 medium potatoes cut into thin rounds about 1.5 mm thick (enough to cover the base of the pan you will use to finish of the rice)

1. Cook lentils for about 10 minutes in salted water. Drain. In a non-stick frying pan, saute the onions in oil, add raisins or sultanas, dates and spices (except the saffron water). Mix well and set aside.

2. Cook rice by your preferred method (the original recipe says to boil in salted water and drain. I use the absorption (rice cooker) method, same as my dear Iranian friends). Transfer cooked rice to a large bowl.

3. In the same pot, gently heat enough oil to generously cover the bottom. Cover with a layer of potato slices. Add rice and lentil-dried fruit mix in layers, sprinkling on a little more advieh as you go. Cover and cook on a medium heat for 10 minutes. Pour over a good glug of oil, 1/2 cup of water and the saffron water. Cover with a clean tea towel or cooking paper to prevent steam escaping and a tight-fitting lid and cook over very low heat for half an hour, keeping a careful nose out for any whiff of burning.

4. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes.

5. Open the pot and remove the saffron-colored rice to garnish. Transfer rice and filling to platter, aiming for a nice mix of color and white, and decorate with the reserved saffron rice.


Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Getting by with a little help from my friends

As it says on the tin (or in my profile, actually) this blog is inspired by my good friend, fellow foodie and blogging mentor, Zanmei. Zanmei was good enough to introduce me on her own blog, Daily Hawler, before the ink had even dried on my very first post here! Actually, she did more than that–she also said some Really Nice Things about me, too (g).

If you are visiting here from Daily Hawler, you don’t need me to tell you what a special lady Zanmei is. Not for her mere dreams of swanning about the world; she’s out there doing it in real life–in Iraq, of all places! And it was from northern Iraq that she set off this summer, travelling all night and the better part of a day to meet me in Turkey. Despite the heat, dodgy taxi drivers and nearly missed flights, she still managed to make it to Goreme, Cappadocia before me and my swanky fully air-conditioned coach from nearby Konya!

So this one’s for you, Zanmei. Long may you travel and chronicle it all for the rest of us that somehow don’t get around to it.

And all of this talk of Iraq reminds me that I have a recipe for Iraqi lamb with onions, eggplant and tamarind that maybe I could dust off…

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Khoresh-e qormeh sabzi: Persian lamb and herb stew

Also known as ghorme sabzi, this dish is, by all accounts, the taste of Iran. I'd read so much about it it had reached almost mythical proportions in my mind before I ever got to try it. Why I did not get round to sampling it when I was in Iran, I'll never know. (Mostly it was a problem of too many things to eat, and not a big enough stomach (despite good intentions). A common enough problem for travelling foodies (g).)

In fact this is just the second time I've made/eaten this glorious green stew of herbs and lime. But since it is an adaptation from Najmieh khanom's recipe in New Food of Life (the definitive Persian/Iranian cookbook in English), you don't just have to take my word for it that it is the real deal.

Now, you will either need to do some shopping or some chopping for this one, as it contains some 7 cups of fresh herbs that need finely chopping and sauteing for 20 minutes before going in the stew pot. Or you can do as I do and get a bag of dried herbs that have been carefully blended in the right proportions for this dish (and this is vitally important, it seems--when I was buying my bag from the good guys at Tehran Shop near Yokohama Stn., one of the GG's friends got so worked up about the difficulty of getting the proportions of meat to beans to herbs just right that he eventually recommeded I just get a tin of the ready-made stew instead!). You will also need dried Persian limes (limu omani), also available from Tehran Shop or your own local stockist of such things. Hunting these things down is all part of the fun, now, isn't it?

I use a pressure cooker for khoreshes and tagines. If you don't have one, just double the the cooking times and add more water, if necessary.

Khoresh-e qorme sabzi: Persian lamb and herb stew


2 large onions, peeled and sliced thinly
1 kg lamb leg, cut into stew-sized pieces
3 tbsp oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
4 whole dried Persian limes, pierced in 3-4 places
4 tbsp fresh lime juice
(4 cups finely chopped fresh parsley
1 cup finely chopped fresh chives or scallions
1 cup finely chopped fresh fenugreek
1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander)
(1 3/4 cups dried ghorme sabzi herb blend, soaked in lukewarm water for 20 min and drained)
1 cup cooked red kidney beans (I used beans I had cooked previously and frozen; if using dried, use 1/3 cup and add with the water in step 1)

1. In a large pressure cooker, brown onions and lamb in oil. Add S&P and turmeric. Pour in 700 ml water (or to cover). Bring to boil and skim off scum. Bring to pressure and cook for 10 minutes on low.
2. If using fresh herbs, fry in extra oil over medium heat, stirring constantly for 20 min, or until the herbs become aromatic.
3. Add fried fresh herbs or drained dried herbs and lime juice, bring back to pressure and cook for 40 min on low.
4. Check that the meat (and beans if using dried ones) is tender and add pre-cooked beans. Adjust seasoning and transfer to a large serving dish.

I served this with adas polo (rice with lentils), but plain steamed rice or saffron rice would also be great.


Wednesday, 5 December 2007

On Christmas pudding

The spicy fug that follows as the bowls arrive at the table maybe an hour after the big turkey and ham dinner, maybe more; the rich, warm fruity mass that is just this side of cloying; the light but faintly sweet evaporated milk that goes a gooey brown when you finally get to the end. At least it does at our Christmas table.

I’ve always loved Christmas pudding. Home made, out of a tin or, as more likely these days, out of the microwaveable plastic container it comes in. Doesn’t matter to me. I love it all and look forward to it every year. I’ll even bring a pud back from Christmas visits to Australia to keep in the freezer until the following December. That’s a lot of freezer real estate for a foodie to tie up for a year!

It was only a few years ago, when a dear English friend quizzed me on the evaporated milk bit, that I realized that this is not the way the rest of the world enjoys its Chrissie pudding. Others have hard sauce or custard, or even ice-cream. The sacrilege!

It’s more than a little uncomfortable when someone points out that what you have thought of all your life as being “traditional” turns out not to be! So how did the eva milk tradition begin? We have Saffron-mama to thank for that, it seems. It was a way to lighten up the calories, apparently. Enlightenment, I say! So from the evaporated milk hog, thanks Mum; I wouldn’t do it any other way.

As for the saffron and lemons connection, the commingling of fruit and spice screams out a tie with Persian cuisine. That goes doubly for mincemeat, which in old times did include meat. The Iranians, of course, being masters of the meat-fruit-and-spice concoction. Come this Christmas, perhaps our Iranian guest might be able offer some additional enlightenment...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Grubbying up the crisp first page

Welcome to a brand new blogger's brand new blog.

So, what to do with this spanking new cooking notebook? The possibilities are endless, but perhaps I'll start grubbying up the pages with a small self-introduction so we can get to know each other a bit.

My name is Saffron and I am a greedy eater and hoarder of cookbooks. There, it' s said (g). My twin passions are world music and world food. Preferably authentic and preferably together.

In an ideal world I could just swan about the world going wherever the tastebuds took me, but reality, with its job and family obligations, alas makes this impossible. So I cook it up in the kitchen instead with the help of earlier culinary voyagers like Diana Henry, Claudia Roden, Najmieh Batmanglij and, for busy weeknight dinners, Nigel Slater and Leanne Ely (North American cooking is, after all, exotic to me).

A big part of the fun is tracking down exotic ingredients (for Japan) like orange flower water, dried limes, pomegranate molasses and dried mango powder. Amazingly, these can all be had quite easily in speciality shops not far from home. The Japanese are no slouches in the kitchen, and "ethnic" food has been in vogue for years. Things have changed immensely since I was an exchange student here in the late 1980s!

Anyway, to get to the actual food, here's what I'll be cooking for Christmas this year. It is a blend of childhood and later traditions, and recipes from the Guradian's Food Monthly . I am featuring pomegrate this time in honour of my guests this year G and M, an Iranian-Japanese couple.

Christmas pies and pomegranate cocktails
Nigel's wild rice, pomegranate and proscuito salad
Roast turkey with nut & herb and orange & cranberry stuffing
Nigella's sprouts, chestnuts and pancetta
Nigel's potatoes, mushrooms and garlic
Christmas pudding and evaporated milk

So you see, I am already organized this year. The only thing we have to worry about is whether I will be able to get the pomegranates in the regular veggie shop or whether I'll have to fork out for "gourmet" ones at a posh one.