Friday, 28 March 2008

Fish tagine

Now here's a recipe almost custom-made for Saffron and Lemons. It is a quick and easy Moroccan-inspired fish stew containing two of my favourite ingredients (g), and it is just perfect for a weeknight.

The original recipe comes from a cookbook that by all rights should not even be in my collection (as I am holding off buying cookbooks for a while (g)), but one that I could not resist as it was on sale at 50% of its already half-price tag. Who could pass that up...?

It's a Marie Claire title, Kitchen, that has lots of takes on the classics, as well as some mouthwatering-looking creative ideas (that, if nothing else, will certainly provide food photography inspiration). The Marie Claire cookbooks had escaped my notice until a while ago (I try to stay out of the cookbook section, for obvious reasons (g)). But I was impressed by a new one spied at Yurindo earlier this year. It also turns out that Donna Hay published a couple of MC titles when she was their food editor. Anyway, it's good stuff, and interesting to see that the author of this title, Michele Cranston, is another Aussie. (I don't think this is surprising, though, as food is serious business in Oz, and the population composition makes exotic ingredients just another part of the culinary wallpaper. It makes for some fabulous fusions.)

I was so impressed, I think I'll make up this week's menus from Kitchen as well.

As always, I have done a bit of fiddling with the recipe. I do the saffron the Middle Eastern way, and I added a tsp of the tagine spice mix from a little while ago. I think it adds a little something. Anyway, I loved this, and next time will give it a burl with chicken as well.

Fish tagine

4 tbsp olive oil
1 large red onion, roughly chopped
10 saffron threads, ground in mortar with a little salt and dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp tagine spice mix
4 large potatoes, sliced into thick medallions or cut into bite-sized chunks
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
400 g tin chopped tomatoes
1 small cinnamon stick
600 g fish fillets, cut into 4 cm chunks
1 handful flat-leaf parsley [S: or celery leaves as I did]
2 tbsp finely chopped preserved lemon

Serves 4

Heat the olive oil in a deep-based frying pan or flame-proof casserole over medium heat. Add the onion, cumin and tagine spice mix and cook until the onion is soft and caramelized. Add the potato, celery, tomatoes, cinnamon and 250 ml water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. When the potato is soft, season the fish fillets with sea salt and add them to the stew with the saffron water. Simmer for a further 10 minutes, then season with freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with the parsley or celery leaves and preserved lemons.

Tagine spice mix (source: love to cook)

2 tbsp paprika
2 1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground green cardamom


Thursday, 20 March 2008

A Persian New Year 4: Gulab jamun (Milk doughnuts in saffron and rose-scented syrup

There is a scene in one of my favourite films, Ae Fond Kiss, where the male lead (a 2nd-generation Glaswegian of Pakistani descent) gives the female lead (a "wee Irish girl" teaching in a Catholic school in Glasgow) a dish he calls "gulab jamin". It is so exotic sounding, that he has to repeat the name in so his girlfriend (and the rest of us) can get it.

In the film, we see the Irish girlfriend eating a bowlful of white balls, which could be ice-cream. But it was the name that stuck with me. Gulab. Sounds so much like golaab, or "rosewater" in Persian. Anyway some Googling brought up various recipes, some even containing that fragrant ingredient! And just in time for my No Ruz celebration, too.

I chose this one as it had the most detailed instructions, and a syrup of rosewater, saffron and cardamom that sounded heavenly. I've adjusted the sweetness and rosiness of the syrup to my taste, below, and suggest that you play around with the flavours, too. Next time I think I might try a rose and ginger syrup. Or maybe even add a whiff of cinnamon, or...

Since butter is a luxury food in Japan (around 280 yen for 200 g), ghee was not in the cards for me, but my jamuns worked just fine in oil. I also didn't have an hour to reduce fresh milk to the right consistency and used the powdered milk method. It worked a charm! (Although I have to admit I was a bit sceptical; enough to make this the night before, in case I had to abandon it and make something else for dessert (g).)

My Turkish guests reckoned there is something very similar in the Turkish culinary canon, the name of which escapes me now, but sounded remarkably similar to "loukoumas", which Wikipedia gives as a possible Greek version of the desert.

By whatever name, this is a lovely special occasion dessert. All I need now is to find out what those white balls were in the film that sparked my little culinary adventure (g).

Gulab Jamun

This is such a delicious recipe that does NOT translate well into English. I've seen translations of "cake-like fried milk balls in scented syrup" and seen people scratch their heads and go, what? Well, bear with the translations here, there's not too much of a western equivalency that I can think of. The name literally is gulab meaning rose and jamun- the only thing I can think of is a round fruit of the same name. (If anyone knows better let me know!) The synopsis...milk is boiled down into a thick, fudge-like consistency and mixed with the slightest bit of flour to form a dough, formed into balls, fried slowly in ghee (butter oil) and then when golden, put to soak in rose-scented sugar syrup. Wow! What's not to love? The consistency of the balls are tender and delicious, almost half cheese, half custard. You'll have to try and describe for yourself. I'm giving two methods for making the dough..the longer, traditional method and the easier, faster, thank-you-for-powdered-milk method. I'm also including a how-to for ghee, since frying the jamuns in ghee makes such a difference in taste. Oil...bleh :( Note: Work time is for the powdered-milk method and does not include ghee if you have to make it, which usually takes around 20 minutes. Also, does not include soak time. by Mina the Brat

50 min 20 min prep
24 gulab jamuns

Traditional Method
1 liter milk
1 1/2 tablespoons flour

Powdered-Milk Method
2 cups powdered milk
1 1/2 tablespoons self-rising flour [S: Mix 3/4 tsp baking powder into 1/2 a cup regular flour to make self-raising flour]
1/2 cup warm milk
1 teaspoon ghee or butter

Scented Syrup
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups water
2 tablespoons rose water or 1/2 teaspoon rose extract
1/2 teaspoon saffron (powdered, and optional)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder (optional)

1 lb butter, -unsalted is best but salted will work in a pinch

To Make Ghee: Put the butter in a good saucepan and bring to a boil on medium heat. Then reduce to low. Now this is what will happen as the butter slowly simmers.
Moisture will be evaporated out of the ghee. The white protein-solids from the butter will sink down to the bottom of the pan and slowly turn golden. A foam will rise to the surface, and as it cooks will form a bit of a crust. The butter will cook into a gold color as well, and it will have a slightly nutty smell. When the moisture is gone, the ghee is done. Decant the oil and save the delicious golden buttery bits on the bottom of the pan for toast, or mixed with veggies or potatoes. If you've used salted butter, you don't want to use it on toast- the salt will knock you out, but it's still good in potatoes or whatnot.

To Make the Scented Syrup: Combine sugar and water and bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add rose water or essence.

Traditional Method: Use a heavy-bottomed pan because the milk will stick. Use a non-stick pot if you have it. Boil the milk down over medium heat, while stirring, until it forms a paste. Add the flour and mix into a smooth paste. Oil your hands and roll them into uniform balls, place them onto a buttered plate and set aside.

Powdered-Milk Method: Combine the warm milk and ghee together. Mix the
powdered milk and flour together and sprinkle slowly into the wet mix to form a dough. Oil your hands and form uniform balls (about 24) and set aside on a buttered plate.

Cooking the jamuns: This is the most delicate part of the operation. Gentle, low heat is a must. Use a wok or karai for best results, with the ghee about 2.5-3 inches in depth. Heat the ghee on low to 215 degrees. Slip in the balls, one by one. They will sink. No touching at this point. Gently shake the pan to move the balls and keep them from getting too brown on one side. After about 5 minutes they will begin to float. You will notice them getting bigger. Now, use a wooden spoon or equivalent to gently agitate and keep them evenly browning. The ghee will slowly get hotter as the balls cook. After about 20 minutes, the ghee will have risen in temperature to around 245 degrees and the balls should be nice and golden. Remove a ball and put it in the syrup. If it doesn't collapse after 3 minutes, remove the others and add to the syrup. If it does collapse, fry for another 5 minutes and try again. Let soak for 2 hours at least before serving.

Serve room temperature or warmed up.


PS Do try to check out Ae Fond Kiss. It handles the potential disconnect between religions with a sure and balanced hand (it's directed by Ken Loach), and the opening scene, a scathing rejection of "the West's definition of a Muslim" alone is worth the price of entry (if you can understand the Glasgow accent (g)).

A Persian New Year 3: Aash-e reshte (Iranian noodle soup with beans, spinach and fresh herbs)

There is, it seems, some controversy over the role of this filling, fresh-tasting soup in the Persian New Year celebration. On the one hand, my favourite source of wisdom on all Iranian culinary things, Najmieh Batmanglij, calls it an essential part of the No Ruz spread. Meanwhile, my dear Iranian friend M says it is really just a snack, and that fish and rice dishes are the celebration's main event.

Well, I'm not going to argue the point with an Iranian, so I'll just straddle the line, and say that it is a dish traditionally eating by some Iranians at this time of the year, and leave it at that (g).

Chock full of beans and herbs, this contains, as my dear Turkish friend Se put it, "a week's nutrition in one bowl." It certainly packs a punch in terms of flavour but, in fact, it only contains a tiny amount of spice, and turmeric, at that. The secret's all in the onions, garlic and fresh herbs.

The original recipe is (of course(g)) from Najmieh khanom's New Food of Life. I made it exactly to specification last year, but reckoned there might be a bit much spinach in it for my liking. I also thought I could speed things up a bit with the pressure cooker. Even still, you'll want to start this a couple of hours in advance of when you plan to eat it. It's another one of those Slow Food Sunday meals, then.

Just a word about the name. Aash is a kind of thick, ingredient dense Iranian soup. Reshte is noodles. The noodles, as we learn in New Food of Life, "represent the choice of paths among the many that life spreads out before us. Eating [the] tangled strands is like unraveling the Gordian knot of life's infinite possibilities in order to pick out the best." The noodles bring good luck and fortune, apparently, and aside from No Ruz, are also eaten when embarking on other new endeavours for good luck.

Interestingly, noodles are also eaten at the New Year (Dec 31/Jan 1) in Japan, in the hope that their length will bring long life to the eater. I have to say that Japanese toshi-koshi soba ("year-crossing" noodles) are far simpler to prepare than aash-e reshte, but I rather like making this dish in the early spring as well. You can never have too much New Year's luck, after all (g).

You can read more about No Ruz, and even find another of Najmieh khanom's recipes here. Since fabulous food ideas and recipes are often to be found on the NPR site, I will also add the link to my the web hangouts.

Aash-e reshte: Iranian New Year's noodle soup with beans, spinach and fresh herbs

2 tbsp olive oil
3 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup cooked red kidney beans
1/4 cup dried white beans, washed
1/4 cup dried chickpeas, washed
10-12 cups water
1 cup lentils
4 cups homemade beef bone broth [S: I used the lamb broth left over from making the Iraqi dish I made earlier; not very PC of me, I know]
200 g Persian noodles (reshte) or linguine, broken in half
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh spring onions
1 cup chopped fresh dill
2 cups coarsely chopped fresh parsley
400 g fresh spinach washed and chopped
1 1/2 cup liquid whey (kashk) or sour cream, or 1/4 cup wine vinegar [S: I substituted yogurt]

For the garnish (nana dagh)
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp turmeric
4 tbsp dried mint flakes, crushed

1. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large pressure cooker and saute the onions and garlic over medium heat. Add salt, pepper and turmeric. Add white beans and chickpeas and saute for a few minutes. Pour in 8 cups water and bring to boil, skim the froth as it forms. Put on the lid and bring to pressure, then cook on low pressure for 15 minutes (or simmer for 45 minutes in a regular pot).

2. Add lentils and beef bone stock. Bring to pressure again, and cook on low pressure for another 15 minutes (or simmer for 55 minutes). Check whether the beans are done

3. Add the noodles, chopped spring onions, dill, parsley and spinach. Simmer, stirring from time to time until the noodles are cooked (in Iran, they would be well past al dente). Add salt and pepper, and extra water if the aash is too thick.

4. Stir in the whey (or sour cream, vinegar or yogurt), saving a dollop for the garnish, and mix well with a wooden spoon.

5. To prepare the garnish (nana dagh), brown the onion and garlic in oil in a non-stick frying pan. Remove from the heat, add the turmeric and the crushed mint flakes and mix well.

6. Pour into bowls and garnish with the mint mixture and a dollop of whey (or yogurt).


A Persian New Year 2: Muhammara and a light-as-air white loaf

When I have a party, I usually try to make something from the culinary repertoire of the homelands of all my guests. This time we were having a celebration for No Ruz, the Persian New Year, which is also celebrated to some extent in other countries that were once under the Persian empire, and among the Kurdish people living in Iraq (as we know from my friend Zanmei's blog) and way over in the east of Turkey. In the rest of Turkey, from where my guests hail, the day is apparently known as the Spring Festival.

Anyway, having yet to suss out any special foods eaten in Turkey during this festival, I went ahead with a lovely Turkish red pepper and pomegranate (again!) dip, known as muhammara, that is totally to die for. I have two recipes for this, one in Alyar Esen Algar's Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen (mentioned earlier), and the other in Australian food legend Stephanie Alexander's opus magna, The Cook's Companion. (This is the point where I get to say what a joy it was to dine in Stephanie's eponymous Melbourne restaurant with the YM (then 18 months) in tow. The food was, of course, to die for, but the fact that boisterous young folk were welcomed so warmly only sealed the restaurant's place in my affections. Regrettably the restaurant is no more, but the memories remain.)

Anyway, I made Stephanie's version again, as it always gets such rave reviews whenever I serve it.

I made it this time with breadcrumbs from the Argentine chimichurri bread I made the other day because Japanese commercial bread contains ingredients that are no-nos for Muslims, and anyway, who is going to complain about more flavour, right? I served it with my dear friend H's bread, which the YM is forever asking me to make (being perhaps the only person in the world doesn't like more flavour in his bread (g)). I was out of wholemeal flour, so used all white flour, substituting 10 g of oatmeal for 10 g of the total weight of flour. It turned out a treat.

Being a starter, I only cut half the loaf, but it quickly became obvious that the Young People around the table wouldn't be satisfied with that. They managed to demolish the whole thing in about 2 minutes, and could easily have polished off another loaf if I'd had it!

Turkish pomegranate and red pepper spread

Makes 1 1/2 cups [S: Note that the measures in this recipe are Australian. Use the measures in brackets if you do not have a set of Aussie measuring cups]

1/4 cup (62 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (125 ml) fresh mixed-grain or sourdough breadcrumbs [S: I used some of the Argentine Chimchurri bread from earlier: yum]
1 tsp cumin seeds, crushed
1 large red pepper, roasted and peeled
60 g walnuts
1 tsp freshly chopped garlic
1/2 tsp hot chili past or to taste
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp (40 ml) lemon juice

Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a small frying pan and saute breadcrumbs and cumin, turning frequently, until lightly golden and smelling wonderful. Remove from heat and tip onto a plate lined with kitchen paper. Roughly puree red pepper, walnuts and chili paste in a food processor, then add crumbs, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and remaining oil. Taste and adjust balance with salt and, if necessary, more pomegranate molasses and lemon juice [S: I've mistakenly added 2 tbsp of pom molasses before and thought it tasted great!]. Scrape into a container and cover. The spread will keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Auntie H's light-as-air bread maker white loaf

15 g honey
210 ml water
180 g white bread flour
100 g wholemeal bread flour [S: also works if the wholemeal flour is not of the bread making variety]
17 g butter, diced
5 g salt
10 g powdered milk
10 g dry yeast

Place ingredients in the pan of the bread maker in the order recommended by the manufacturer and bake using the white bread function.


A Persian New Year 1: Sofre-ye haft sin

Happy New Year again, again. We celebrate them all here at Saffron an Lemons. December 31, January 1, Chinese New Year, and now the Persian New Year, or No Ruz. And, as it happens, we get the day off here in Japan for the spring equinox (Shumbun-no-hi), too. (Not that we need an excuse for a party, mind (g).)

Plus, my dear Turkish friend Si had just graduated from her master's course the day before, so this was a double celebration, with Turkish friends in attendance.

I had had my multi-national menu in mind for a while: the traditional Iranian noodle soup (which I made for my dear Iranian friend G and his wife last year), a terrific Turkish dip that was sure to go down a treat and a new recipe for an interesting sounding Indo-Pakistani dessert. But I thought I would give the decorating side of No Ruz a go this time, too .

The Sofre-ye haft sin (seven S's spread) is like the Christmas tree of the Persian New Year celebration. Seven items begining with the letter sin (S) in Persian alphabet are placed on a tray or table cloth, alongside other symbolic items.

In my first attempt, the items are (clockwise from the top):

Tulips (non-S): My substitute for hyacinth flowers (sonbol); representing the coming of spring
Orange floating in water (non-S): Symbolizing the Earth floating in space
Garlic (Seer): Representing medicine
Vinegar (Serkeh): Representing age and patience
Greenery (Sabzeh): Representing the rebirth of nature in the spring (normally this would be a bowl of sprouted lentils prepared a couple of weeks in advance)
Coins (Sekkeh): For wealth and prosperity
Sumac (Somagh): Representing the sunrise and the triumph of good over evil
Eggs: Represening fertility
Apple (Sib): Symbolizing natural beauty and love

One big omission in my haft sin is a goldfish going swimity-swim. The fish (representing life and the the star sign Pisces, the last of the year) is absent mainly because I didn't have time to get one, but also because I'm not sure a fish would enjoy our normally dark entranceway, where I set up the haft sin.

(There may also be some residual fear that it would do like the goldfish in the French film Amalie (an all-time favourite) and try to go walk-about outside the fishbowl. You might laugh, but our last fish (a boring old loach) did a Houdini on us, escaping through the finger-thick hole in the lid of its tank (the night before we flew out to Iran, funnily enough), only to be found, months later, ossified under the hifi a good 2 m away from its former watery home!)

Another is the lack of a religious book or other spiritually important tome (often a book of Hafez poems). I do have one of those (and also, more importantly to me, several books of Rumi's poetry), but alas, they are far too big for my little haft sin.

Which reminds me. I have photos of a real haft sin at the real Iranian embassy in Tokyo (circa 2006), which I needed to visit several times in order to convince the powers that be that we were an okay risk for tourist visas. (Obviously the campaign was successful in the end (g).) I'll look them out and post one in the next couple of days...

And here it is. You will note that this haft sin has both a Qoran (on the stand) and a book of poetry; so all the bases are covered, I guess (g).

You can read more about haft sin here, the source of most of the information above.


Nigel's dal and pumpkin soup with chimichurri bread

It was the start of the YM's spring break, and already he was going stir crazy, so I sent him off to the local public library to get some books (and get out of the house for a bit). He insisted that if he had to go, I should have to, too. Fair enough.

I was in for a very nice surprise to find not only a great book on spices (a Japanese translation of a Dorling & Kindersley edition, it turns out), but also that the English language section has been greatly expanded since the last time I was there (admittedly too long ago). And best of all, what did I spy but my hero, Nigel's 2006 hardback, The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater!!! Ah, the joy of getting back together with an old flame! Ah, the familiar flutter of excitement and anticipation that gets you into the kitchen before you've even finished reading the recipes.

If you are familiar with Nigel, you'll know he offers up no-nonsense grub that does exactly as he says it will. Whether that be to "uplift", "excite" or, in this case offer up a soup that is "soothing, yet capable of releasing a slow build-up of heat from its base notes of garlic, chili and ginger; a bowl of soup that both whips and kisses." (Whoa, there!)

The only thing disconcerting about this book, is that my Nigel, as British as they come, is suddenly talking about cookies, cilantro and all-purpose flour and lbs and Fahrenheit. In short, he's speaking the American dialect, as this, apparently, is the American edition (could they not just have put the Americanisms in brackets like the rest of the world does?).

This soup is a joy, for all that (although I am guessing it will be called red lentil (or at very least dhal) and pumpkin soup in the non-localized edition (g)). And the caramelized onion topping simply moreish.

The Argentine chimichurri bread recipe is one I snaffled from Allrecipes years ago and is still my very favourite bread maker recipe. It is full of aromatics, and the smell as it bakes has me salivating every time. I often ramp up the amount of herbs (usually more than doubling the amount in the OR), and have added thyme and rosemary on occasion, too. If you have a bread maker, I really recommend this recipe.

Nigel's dal and pumpkin soup

1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
ginger, a walnut-sized knob
1 cup + 2 tbsp red lentils
1 1/4 tsp turmeric
1 1/4 tsp chili powder
2 cups pumpkin [S: a quarter of a Japanese pumpkin, or a piece the size of your cupped hands; don't peel or chop it yet]
1 small bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped

For the onion topping:
2 medium onions, cut into thin rings
2 tbsp oil
2 small hot chili peppers, halved, seeded and chopped finely (or to taste)
2 cloves garlic

Peel the onion and chop it roughly [S: but not too roughly; the cooking time is short]. Peel and crush the garlic and put it with the onion into a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan. Peel the ginger, cut it into thin shred and stir that in too. Add the lentils and pour in 6 cups of water. Bring to the boil. then turn the heat down to an enthusiastic simmer [S: don't you just love Nigel's way with words!]. Stir in the ground turmeric and chili powder, season and leave to simmer, covered, for 2o minutes.

While the soup is cooking, peel the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds and pulp, wrap in clingfilm and microwave on high for 5 minutes or until tender. Open the wrap to let some steam out, and when cool enough to handle, peel and chop the flesh into fat chunks. Set aside.

To make the onion topping, peel the onions and cut them into fine rings. Cook them in the oil in a shallow pan until they start to colour. Cut the chilies in half, scrape out the seeds and slice the flesh finely. Peel and finely slice the garlic and add it with the peppers to the onions. Continue cooking until the onions are a deep golden brown. Set aside.

Remove the lid from the lentils and turn up the heat, boiling hard for five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, then add the cooked pumpkin. Puree the soup in the blender (for safety, a little at a time) until smooth [S: or use a stick blender right in the pot], then pout it into a bowl. Stir in the roughly chopped coriander and check the seasoning. I find this soup likes a more generous than usual amount of salt.

Serve in deep bowls with a spoonful of the spiced onions on top.

Makes 4 good-sized bowls.

Argentine Chimichurri Bread

"Oregano, parsley, onions, garlic and a dash of cayenne pack plenty of punch in this bread machine loaf. Use it for sandwiches, or try it toasted."

1 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar [alcohol-free vinegar if making for Muslim friends]
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped onion
3 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
3 tablespoons wheat bran [or porridge oats]
3 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons active dry yeast


1. Place ingredients in the pan of the bread machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer. Select Basic or White Cycle; press Start.


Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Rocket fuel: Ginger cooler (and a brush with fame)

A couple of weeks ago, an exciting e-mail dropped into my box: Lucy Hawking, co-author of the kids' book George's Secret Key to the Universe (co-penned with her father, Stephen "Brief History of Time" Hawking) would be speaking to the Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers. Would I like to go along? Well, with the YM reading that very book, I snapped up the opportunity, thinking that the chance to meet the author would certainly speed the reading along (g).

I had phoned ahead to check that it would be okay to bring along the YM, definitely not a writer of children's books, and knew that older young people were more than welcome. In the end, though, there was only one other underage non-writer there, and what a shame that was. Turns out that Lucy Hawking is not only one of the most personable of writers, but also an engaging and inspiring presenter for her target audience (8--12-year-olds).

In addition to the latest on the solar system, the focus of the first of what is to be a trilogy of George books, she gave us some insight into her father's work, his appearance on The Simpson's, the sheer determination and effort it takes for him to write (suffering a neurodegenerative disease, he "types" each letter with the movement of a cheek), their experiences together on a zero-gravity flight, and lots more that should rightfully have had a roomful of young minds buzzing with possibilities.

So what does all this have to do with ginger cooler??

As it happens, while hearing all about actual and imaginary space travel (the computer that launches George and his friends into space being the only deviation from hard science that Lucy was allowed to take, apparently), I had some of my very own rocket fuel in the making right at home!

It all goes back to a new blogging friend, Cynthia, I made around the same time. Cynthia has a terrific Caribbean food blog Tastes Like Home, where I found a post on ginger that really got my gastric juices flowing. Cynthia doesn't always post her recipes on the blog, and instead invites you to e-mail her to get the low-down on her fabulous creations. I definitely wanted some of her yummy-looking ginger beer, and I wanted it now!

But, as you may have guessed, I wasn't going to get an instant ginger hit; you need to let your ginger beer mature for 3 long days! And that is how it came to be that I had some ginger-powered rocket fuel ripening away in my kitchen while we were off hearing all about planets and stars and the inconsequentiality of mere millions when it comes to talking about space.

And when I say rocket fuel, I mean rocket fuel. If you're into fresh ginger in any way, here's a way to get a fix in an eye-opening, mouth-poppingly, earth-shakingly invigorating way. It is something I had only otherwise experienced from the herbal liqueur Jagermeister. But here you have it without a drop of alcohol!

Then again, this being so, the deviant mind naturally wonders what it might be like when mixed with something that would actually worry the liver: in this case some white wine (around 2 parts ginger beer to 3 parts wine). Having done the experiment, I am here to tell you that the result is an out-of-this-world ginger cooler. Houston, we have lift-off.

If you want the recipe, you can write to Cynthia, too, at

All I'm going to say is that I used dense Japanese brown sugar, an extra cinnamon stick and more cloves, which made my version somewhat darker than hers, but I thoroughly enjoyed this, both as a non-alcoholic aperitif and as an intergalactic cooler, and will certainly be back for more launches in the future (certainly before the next George installment is published, anyway (g)).


Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Beans by request: Beanless chicken chilli with beans??!

We're on day 3 of our quest to find workable bean recipes for my dear friend Zanmei.

So, you might be wondering why a "beanless" recipe might end up in a feature on beans. But bear with me here. I understand that the recipe author was trying to help us out with a chili recipe that you didn't have to faff about soaking and cooking beans for. But maybe she didn't have a trusty pressure cooker and stash of frozen pulses like we do. So why don't we put the beans back in?

This is my favourite Christmas turkey leftover recipe, so you know it gets made at least once a year (g). It is a total doddle, and again, uses only one (admittedly large) frying pan. The last time I made it was for my crazy old colleague (or more correctly, former colleague, as I'm the elder) V, and his mom, who was visiting from the US. I still had plenty of turkey squirreled away in the freezer back then (turkey is a once-a-year affair for us here in Japan; once it's gone, no more till next Christmas), and the leftover roast really lifted this (in my opinion, of course (g)).

This time, I only had a small amount of turkey breast left, so I augmented it with a pan-fried boned chicken leg, sprinkled with some cumin and S&P before frying (leftover roast chicken would be even better, if you have any), and some lovely white beans, which make a nice contrast to the deep red of the tomatoes. It's all protein, after all. Or "all good," as V would say.

If you can, use lime juice rather than lemon as it really tastes better in this dish. If Iraqi limes are small (like those in Iran), I'd maybe go for the juice of 2 instead of 1.

We eat this with grated cheese and drained yogurt, rolled up like a burrito, and with this in mind, I probably chop the meat and veggies much smaller than the recipe author does. (Is it just me or are American recipes generally a bit fuzzy on how finely you need to do your chopping? I often have to make judgement calls on what "chopped" means.)

The original recipe is from Leanne Ely at Saving Dinner, and was kindly offered free to all members of the FlyLady group some years back. I hope she doesn't mind me reprinting it here (with my revisions), and if Zanmei makes it, I hope she will let us know. I'm sure Leanne would get a kick out of the way her recipe has travelled to Japan and now Iraq (g).

Beanless chicken chili--with beans!

(Use leftover turkey instead of or to supplement chicken)

Serving Size: 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion -- chopped [S: finely]
4 cloves garlic -- pressed
1 red bell pepper - chopped (seeded and deribbed)
1 stalk celery -- chopped
2 jalapeno peppers - chopped (seeded and deribbed) OPTIONAL
1 -2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
1 28-ounce can tomatoes -- broken up [S: that's 2 x 400 g cans for us metric people, or roughly the same amount of fresh tomatoes + 1 tbsp or so of tomato paste]
6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves -- cooked and chopped into 1 " pieces ~~ -- OR -- ~~4 -6 cups cooked turkey, chopped
[S: 250 g cooked beans of your choice, or a mixture]
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro [coriander] -- chopped
Juice of one lime [S: or to taste]

In a large saucepan or skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onion, garlic, celery, peppers and seasonings over medium low heat for about 5 minutes.

Add tomatoes. Simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Stir in cooked chicken and/or turkey and cook until heated through. Before serving, add lime juice and fresh cilantro and stir gently.

**NUTRITION NOTE: Nutritional information reflects using chicken breasts, not turkey. The carb count will be the same. Per Serving: 283 Calories; 13g Fat (41.1% calories from fat); 31g Protein; 11g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 82mg Cholesterol; 273mg Sodium. Exchanges: 0 Grain (Starch); 4 Lean Meat; 2 Vegetable; 1 Fat.


Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Beans by request: Fiesta casserole

So, day two of our bean fest. This is an easy one to whip up. Only one frying pan is needed, and once it's in the oven, you can do the dishes and make life easier for yourself after dinner.

This recipe comes from Leanne Ely, who started out as a helper of the home organisation guru FlyLady. She's since built herself a successful business "saving dinner" as the Dinner Diva, and authored several cookbooks of easy, workable everyday recipes, neatly bundled into 1-week packages that follow the seasons. I use them a lot (when I can't be bothered thinking too hard about the menu for the week to come), and have been inspired to try some odd-sounding combinations which have sometimes ended up working rather well.

It is quite the adventure, really, as I haven't got a clue how much is in, say, a can of stock or stick of butter, and have no access to certain ingredients, like BBQ sauce (which I can now make easily enough by myself), turkey bacon (??) and provolone cheese, even if I know what they are. So I substitute whatever I think, and get on with it.

My dear friend Zanmei may have to do the same with this recipe. Are corn chips available in Iraq? They're optional, and I didn't use them this time, either, because the supermarket didn't have them this week. How about salsa? I use a 240 g jar, which is roughly a cup, but some chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers might well suffice. Sour cream is always replaced at our place with strained yogurt, which works fine in the oven, too. And spicy chili beans are readily substituted with whatever beans are on hand (pintos, today), a dash of cayenne and some water (if necessary).

We eat this with tortillas, but lavash or whatever the local flat bread is will do just fine. Or rice, or potatoes, or... (g)

Fiesta casserole

Serves 6

1 pound lean ground beef [S: as always, any mince is fine]
1 (15 ounce) can spicy chili beans -- undrained
1 cup salsa (jarred, your favorite)
2 cups coarsely broken tortilla chips
1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
4 medium green onions -- sliced (1/2 cup)
1 medium tomato -- chopped (3/4 cup)
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese (4 ounces)
Tortilla chips -- if desired
Shredded lettuce -- if desired
Salsa -- if desired

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook beef in 10-inch skillet over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until brown; drain. Stir in the beans and salsa. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally.

Place broken tortilla chips in ungreased 2-quart casserole. Top with beef mixture. Spread with sour cream. Sprinkle with onions, tomato and cheese. Bake uncovered 20 to 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Arrange more tortilla chips around edge of casserole. Serve with lettuce and salsa.

Per serving: 381 Calories; 15g Total Fat; (34% calories from fat); 25g Protein; 6g
Dietary Fiber; 39g Carbohydrate; 61mg Cholesterol; 770mg Sodium Food Exchanges: 2 Grain (Starch); 2 1/2 Lean Meat; 1 Vegetable; 0 Fruit; 1 1/2 Fat; 0 Other Carbohydrates


Monday, 3 March 2008

Beans by request: Caribbean rice and peas

My friend Zanmei, who teaches in Iraqi Kurdistan, has asked for some bean recipes so she can put her shiny new pressure cooker through its paces.

Personally, I tend to make make my beans in batches, soaking various kinds overnight on a Saturday, and cooking them up one after the other the next day. They don't take long. Around 2 minutes under pressure for white beans (the beans in baked beans, also useful in Turkish cooking), 3 minutes for chickpeas (you can never have too many of these (g)), about 5 minutes for red kidney beans (excellent in abgusht and today's recipe), and around 6 minutes for giant butter beans (which I would eat more often, except they cost over 700 yen for a 350 g bag!).

Once they cool down, I wrap them in recipe-sized portions and put them in a nice, big freezer bag so I'll always have beans on hand whenever I need them.

The recipes I will post here in the next few days are therefore not the kind where the beans get cooked for hours and hours. Actually, these are all quick dishes that I cook on a weeknight, so they have to be fast.

Today's recipe is from Mary Berry's Complete Cookbook, one of my favourite cookbooks for non-saffron & lemons-type recipes. I have an older edition than the one in the link above, but I imagine the book's main features are still the same. Like the chapter introductions, which feature a photo and short description of all the recipes, divided by cooking time. This makes it super easy to choose dishes that are not going to be too taxing in the madness that is a weeknight in the Saffron household. Top marks to Mary, and to publishers DK, too.

I've chosen this dish as I think Zanmei will be able to get just about everything she needs for it. Except maybe the bay leaves. I know that thyme is used in Turkey, so I'm imagining it is also available in Iraq, though I am sure Zanmei will put me right if I'm wrong. I believe that she will have access to something that will substitute for the bacon (I know they have chicken jambon in Iran; something like that will do). Tomatoes are only available in Kurdistan fresh or in paste form, apparently, so I guess this will only work during the tomato season. Anyway, I love it, and it has had rave reviews from guests whenever I've made it for a party.

Caribbean rice and peas

Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
8 spring onions, sliced
3 smoked bacon rashers, rinds removed, diced [or the equivalent of chicken jambon, or whatever is halaal]
2 garlic cloves, crushed
250 g long grain rice
1 x 200g can tomatoes [S: I use 1 x 400 g can and adjust the stock accordingly. Since tinned tomatoes are hard to come by in Iraq, substitute fresh and maybe a tablespoon or two of tomato paste]
3 tbsp chopped parsley
2 bay leaves [S: optional, I suppose (g)]
1 small green chilli, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced
1/2 tsp each turmeric, cumin seeds and dried thyme
1 x 400 g can red kidney beans or black-eyed beans, drained [S: or equivalent of pre-cooked beans]
375 ml chicken stock
1 lime, cut into wedges, to serve

1 Heat the oil in a pan, add the spring onions, and cook for about 5 minutes or until the bacon is crisp. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes.

2 Add the rice and stir to coat the grains in the oil. Add the tomatoes with their juice, 2 tbsp of the parsley, the bay leaves, chilli, turmeric, cumin and thyme, and cook for 2 minutes.

3 Add the beans and stock and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over a low heat for 15 minutes until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

4 Sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve at once, with lime wedges.


Sunday, 2 March 2008

Ingriyi: Iraqi sweet and sour meat and aubergine

When I was but a stamen in the bud of the family crocus, Saffron-Papa was in the habit of making lazy Sunday dinners that would get started around 3 pm and eaten 3 or 4 hours later.

Often it would be a big pot of soup, or a roast or what have you, that he would get started early and leave to do its thing, popping back in from time to time only to check its progress as the afternoon wore on. He could enjoy the motor racing or whatever the sport of the day was, and produce something very tasty for dinner--without breaking into a sweat.

These days we call it Slow Food, and if anyone had suggested then that one day I might like nothing better than puttering about the kitchen producing a meal that might take hours to reach perfection, I would have wondered if they were delirious.

However, it seems that genes do sometimes have their way, and now it is my turn to pass on the lazy Sunday supper tradition.

I've made the recipe below several times now, but the first time I made it was the weekend after "shock and awe". It was a little act of solidarity with the people of Iraq as their country was invaded by the US and its hangers on, such as the countries of my birth and later residence. Not one of our finest moments. At that point I did not have a lot of Iraqi music (I'm still open to recommendations, if anyone has any. Hint, hint (g)), so I cranked up a classic Antipodean protest song by the cult band Midnight Oil, which starts with the line: "US forces give the nod/ It's a setback for your country". As protests go, mine was decidedly ineffectual, but I did learn a new dish and gain an appreciation for the culinary arts of a country unlucky enough to be in the cross-hairs of the US.

This is another recipe from Claudia Roden's masterpiece The Book of Jewish Food, where she tells us that it "became the traditional festive and Sabbath dish of the Bombay [Jewish] community, which was formed in a great part by Jews from Iraq." Well that's not so surprising I suppose, since lamb and tamarind are staples in India, too.

Anyway, it is the perfect dish for one of those lazy Sunday afternoons we were talking about earlier. The only thing that requires any close watching is the caramelising of the onions and frying of the eggplant [aubergine], which you can do at the same time, anyway.

I cook the meat under low pressure for around 40 minutes, which is plenty of time to sort the onions and eggplant.

I would also suggest adding a little more tamarind paste (say half a tablespoon) for extra oomph.


Serves 8 or more

1.25 kg lamb or beef, cubed
2 large aubergines, weighing about 1 kg, cut into 1.25 cm slices
1 kg onions, sliced [S: 3-4 large onions]
sunflower oil for frying
1.25 kg large tomatoes, peeled and sliced [S: thickly; say 4-5 large tomatoes]
2 tbsp tamarind paste
1-2 tbsp sugar, or to taste

Simmer the meat in water to cover with a little salt for 1 1/2-2 hours, until tender [S: about 40 minutes under low pressure].

Sprinkle the aubergine slices with salt and leave for 1 hour to draw out their juices.

Fry the onions in 3 tbsp of oil over low heat till very soft and really brown, which gives them a caramelized taste [S: adding a pinch of salt to the onions is supposed to speed the caramelising process].

Rinse and dry the aubergine in a tea towel, then fry briefly in very hot oil [S: I slice the eggplant fairly thick, so it is better to fry them over medium heat until tender as they don't cook much more in the oven], turning over once, until lightly browned. Alternatively, you can brush the slices with oil and cook them under the grill [S: perhaps in other countries with grills larger than 2 slices of toast... (g)].

In a [deep] baking dish, assemble layers of aubergine slices, drained meat (keep the stock), onions and tomatoes, sprinkling each with a little salt and pepper.

Heat about 250 ml of the meat stock in a small pan and stir in the tamarind and sugar. When the paste has dissolved, pour evenly over the layers. Bake at 180 C for 30-40 minutes. Serve hot with rice.