More Figs Please and Another Lovely Cake

I am a late comer to the sweet, exotic taste of fresh figs. I put this down to the fact that I didn’t grow up with a fig tree in the backyard, and so I never tasted fresh figs as a child. If I mention figs to those of my mother’s generation, they always respond with the word ‘jam’, indicating that fresh figs didn’t feature in their cooking repertoire but knew them only in jam. Figs, until recently, were not sold in fruit shops and markets, being difficult to transport and keep. You either learnt to love them or hate them based on your ready access to the fresh fruit. Figs now appear in our markets, especially farmer’s markets, and often fetch a grand price.

The laughing fig

In Italy, figs have been associated with Cucina Povera, poor rural or peasant food based on seasonality. Many amusing idiomatic expressions centre around the humble fresh fig. If you say ‘mica pizza e fichi‘ you are indicating that something you have, such as a fine wine or a new purchase, was quite expensive, not like pizza and figs which are cheap and commonplace. Another expression- non importare un fico secco, ( doesn’t matter a dried fig) means something is of little importance, not unlike the English expression ‘not worth a fig’ or ‘couldn’t give a fig’, the latter phrase now modernised in Australia, a land not shy in embracing creative variations of the ‘F’ word, to ‘couldn’t give a fuck’, or ‘a flying fuck’. Given that fresh figs are now too expensive and fashionable, figgy expressions may become obsolete, unless you grow them yourself.

Before cooking. Lay the cut figs on top of the cake batter.

Ottolenghi’s Fig, Yoghurt and Almond Cake

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar, plus 1 tsp extra
3 large free-range eggs
180g ground almonds
100g plain flour
½ tsp salt
Scraped seeds of ½ vanilla pod or ½ tsp vanilla paste
1 tsp ground star anise
100g Greek yoghurt
12 figs

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Line the bottom and sides of a 24cm loose-based cake tin with baking parchment. Put the butter and sugar in an electric mixer bowl, and use a beater to work them well until they turn light and pale. Beat the eggs lightly, then, with the machine on medium speed, add them gradually to the bowl, just a dribble at a time, adding more only once the previous addition is fully incorporated. Once all the egg is in, mix together the almonds, flour, salt, vanilla and anise, and fold into the batter. Mix until the batter is smooth, then fold in the yogurt.
Pour the batter into the lined tin and level roughly with a palette knife or a spoon. Cut each fig vertically into four long wedges, and arrange in circles on top of the cake, just slightly immersed in the batter. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 170C/340F/gas mark 3 and continue baking until it sets – about 40-45 minutes longer. Check this by inserting a skewer in the cake: it’s done if it comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool down before taking it out of the tin and sprinkling with a teaspoon of caster sugar.

Fig, Yoghurt and almond cake.

Summer Buddha Bowls

Buddha bowls have made a mysterious appearance around here lately. They are deceptive little meals. Initially, they seem easy enough- shove a few things in a bowl, grab a fork or chopsticks and plonk yourself and filled bowl in front of Netflix, then veg out – literally. But once you get into the building stage, you may find yourself led down a culinary rabbit hole, creating more and more interesting elements to complement your initial idea.

Buddha bowls, otherwise known as macro or hippy bowls, have been around for a few years, spreading from the inner suburban haunts of the hipster to outer suburban cafés and the countryside. According to the urban dictionary, ‘Buddha bowls are packed so full that they have a rounded belly appearance on the top much like the belly of a buddha’. While I’m not one for succumbing to food trends, I love a hippy macro buddha bowl in summer, so long as certain conventions are followed.

A fine Buddha Bowl is one where the individual elements and flavours complement each other culturally and ethnically. I tend to apply this general principle to other plated meals too. I don’t like mixing Middle Eastern foods with Asian, or Mediterranean with Indonesian, though I have eaten some culturally mismatched foods in cafes which make me cringe. I like to start with a particular cuisine- Japanese, for example, then ferret around the pantry and fridge finding elements that build on that theme. You could add more guidelines: there should be contrast in colour and texture and the composition should be appealing to the eye and not look like a dog’s dinner. Try to include one grain, preferably a wholegrain, the macro element, and some form of protein- such as egg, fish, pulses, beans, or tofu, as well as fresh uncooked vegetables, something pickled, seeds or nuts, and a good dressing. Your bowl doesn’t have to be overflowing like a fat Buddha- a few contrasting elements with some good flavour is all you need.

Today’s macro hippy buddha bowl followed a Japanese path and tasted clean and sustaining. It  included:

  • brown rice, cooked, cooled a little, then dressed with sushi dressing and black sesame seeds
  • tofu chunks, fried, then glazed in a miso and mirin sauce
  • pickled cucumber and red onion with ginger for crunch
  • fresh mustard leaves, shredded
  • young radishes

It was one of my ‘holier than thou’ bowls, perfect for the post-Christmas season, the umami element, the warm miso sauced fried tofu, saving the dish from total puritanism. I also considered adding some torn nori. Steamed green beans tossed in browned sesame seed sauce might have gone well too, or a sliced avocado. On market day, a crunchy fried miso glazed small fish would be a good addition. The thing is to use what you have that sits comfortably within a particular country’s culinary framework and that includes using a neutral flavoured oil, and not olive oil, if heading down the Asian path.

When does a bowl become a share platter? New terminology for old ideas. The Medit bowl made from Puy lentils, dressed in olive oil and sherry vinegar, parsley, shallots, goat’s cheese, black olives, toasted almonds. Served with croutons.

Last week’s bowls included a Mediterranean bowl for two ( pictured above) and an Indian feast. To be fair, Indian bowls are as old as Buddha himself. While the rice and dhal are cooking, begin creating small add ons- baked cauliflower with whole cumin seeds, toasted almonds, hard-boiled eggs, and a simple raita, made from yoghurt and cucumber or mint. At this time of year, fresh mango chutney adds a seasonal sweet touch.

The Indian bowl. White rice, hard-boiled egg, baked cauliflower in Indian spices with toasted slivered almonds. Masoor Dal, tomato salad, Raita with mint, mango chutney.

Today’s pickle was made as the rice cooked. It goes well with Japanese meals and makes a nice crunchy change from the commercial pink pickled ginger. It is not one to store.

  • 2 small cucumbers, finely sliced
  • one red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 cup rice vinegar/ or apple cider if improvising
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced/grated ginger.
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes.

Layer vegetables in a small jar. Mix the sugar, salt and vinegar, stir until blended and pour over. Leave for one hour.

Part of today’s culinary rabbit hole- a crunchy fresh pickle.

Happy Holidays dear readers.

In My Kitchen, December 2017

I’ve been dithering around in my kitchen since returning from our long trip and am feeling totally uninspired. Where’s the menu and those kitchen fairies who clean up? Returning to an overgrown vegetable patch, and the loss of 13 chooks, courtesy of Mr Fox, has robbed me of fresh ingredients, my backyard larder and the inspiration for most of my meals. When I look back on my December posts from the last four years, I can see energy, seasonal fruits and vegetables, garlic braiding, Italian biscuits, summer fruit cakes and short breads. This year, none of those things have happened -yet. 

Making do with what’s available, I made a huge batch of dolmades using leaves from our grape vines. Blanched in boiling water for two minutes then drained, they are ready to rock and roll. Although tedious to stuff 65 little parcels, once made, they become a staple in the fridge for hot summer nights, preserved with oil and lots of lemon juice.

The berry crop is huge this year, especially the boysenberries. They make a sweet addition to home-made yoghurt, something cool and luscious for breakfast. Making the weekly yoghurt is such an easy thing. I’m finding that 1 litre of organic milk creates a firmer and tastier yoghurt than the cheaper milks. Yoghurt is added to tahini and lemon for a quick drizzling sauce for falafel, or as the basis of tzaziki, or whipped through puréed mango for lassis, or served on the side with red lentil dhal and a few stir fried greens.

Another frugal standby is Pasta e Ceci, one of my favourite soups. I ordered it twice while in Italy this year and on both occasions I was disappointed. I put this down to the use of canned chickpeas, which retain a bullet like texture when used whole in these soups, and the lack of depth in the accompanying brodo, which should have hints of rosemary, a touch of chilli and tomato and good olive oil. The old Italo- Australiane, the Italian women migrants who cooked for their families in the 1950s and 60s, brought with them the old contadine ways of  turning cheap ingredients into something deeply satisfying through slow cooking, herbs, and knowledge based on tradition. Modern Italian restaurant cooking has lost much of this old knowledge and has turned to economical shortcuts and speedy cooking. 

I have resumed bread making. Despite our local and wonderful artisan baker in St Andrews, I can turn out two large loaves for $2 and there’s no need to leave home. It’s a way of life now thanks to Celia.

Last week’s loaves. I need a new slashing tools. Everything is blunt.

And in my kitchen are these gorgeous gifts from Alberto’s family in Pavia, Italy. His grandmother edged this tablecloth and napkin set. The work is exquisite. Grazie ad Alberto, Dida, Stefania e Claudio per la vostra meravigliosa ospitalità e amicizia durante il nostro soggiorno a Pavia.

Hand crocheted edging by Alberto’s grandmother.

Two litres of Campari jumped off the duty-free shelves on my way back into the land of Oz. I developed a taste for Spritz in Como, but based on Campari, Prosecco and soda, rather than Aperol which is not so pink and a little too sweet. Summertime drinks by the pool? You bring the Prosecco.

Hand over the pick stuff.

Thanks once again Sherry for making In My Kitchen happen so smoothly each month. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more posts on the kitchen theme: you might even find the C word in some of them.

 

Herb, Spring Onion and Zucchini Fritters

The Sagra di Zucchini continues at Casa Morgana as the crop picks up speed, and it’s a race to snare modest sized zucchini before they turn into giants. Zucchini fritters make a very satisfying and economical lunch, but rely on a couple of other key players- abundant herbs and good quality fetta cheese- to push the flavour from bland to gustoso. There are many varieties of fetta available in Melbourne, especially in the Greek delicatessen at fresh markets. At last count, my favourite Supermarket Deli in Brunswick stocked around 12 varieties. As this dish only requires a small chunk, I prefer to use Dordoni fetta, while I’m happy enough to use cheaper fetta cheese in Spanakopita or Tiropita.

Mucever,  Zucchini Fritters Turkish style.

  • 700 gr zucchini, coarsely grated
  • salt
  • 1 bunch spring onions/green onions/scallions white and green finely chopped
  • 170 gr fetta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose/plain flour ( try chick pea flour for a GF version)
  • olive oil for frying.

    simple luncheon dish.
    simple luncheon dish. Mucever.
  1. Place the zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Let it sit for 1 hour to drain. Lightly squeeze out the moisture and dry with paper towels.
  2. Place the zucchini in a large bowl and mix in the spring onions and herbs. Then add the eggs and mix well. Finally sprinkle over the flour and mix. Add salt and pepper.
  3. Heat a large skillet or frying pan containing a thin film of oil. Drop tablespoons of the batter into the oil, spreading them to make thin, small pancakes. Cook until golden brown on both sides.
  4. Serve hot with yogurt and mint sauce.

This recipe is from my favourite cookbook, a battered copy of From Tapas to Meze, by Joanne Weir, 1995.

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Early morning pick.
Thank you bees
Thank you bees

 

 

 

 

A Plum Dessert, Naughty not Haughty.

The plums are ready. They are the highlight of summer. My mother likes to remind me every January about the amount of plums she ate during her ‘lying in’ period after my birth¹. Her hospital room window faced a heavily laden plum-tree: she ate stewed plums for 10 days. Perhaps that accounts for my passion for plums- it came through the milk!

Labne, baked plums, seeds and nuts

I have also been pondering the words plum and plummy in English phrases such as “Speaking with a plum in your mouth” or “He has a plummy accent” and “She has a plum job”. Most Australians would consider a ‘plummy’ accent to be a mark of haughtiness, the term used with disdain in a country relatively free of rigid class distinction. However, if you want to practise speaking with such an accent, pop a small plum in your mouth which will force you to make drawn out “o” noises, with a rather slow and deliberate vocalisation. Another site advises “putting a pen in the mouth, horizontally, forcing you to enunciate your words more and to talk more slowly, giving your words an extra second or two to fully come out of your mouth. Pausing also works, because pausing allows the person you’re speaking to digest all the words you’ve just said.” The assumption here might be that the speaker feels herself to be terribly important and the recipient rather slow and definitely inferior. There you go; proof that those who seek to speak in such a way have soft, plum filled brains. It would be advised, at least in Australia, to lose such an accent very quickly if you don’t wish to be considered imperious, affected and in-bred.

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Plummy Dessert

But then who wouldn’t want a plum job? The notion of easy work, perhaps ‘soft’ like a plum, came about to distinguish well paid positions involving little work compared to those involved with physical labour. The term is still used today to denote highly paid work. In the 1600s, ‘plum’ was a British term meaning £1000, a serious amount of money in those days.

It looks like plums have a lot to answer for.

A Plum Dessert, an original recipe influenced by something I may have either read or eaten. Please play with it. The ingredients are few and flexible but the result is delicious.

  • Fresh Blood plums or Satsuma plums
  • Brown sugar
  • Yoghurt
  • Nuts and seeds. I used almond flakes, pepitas, sunflower seeds and pistachio

Get a tub of yoghurt and make plain Labne. It is a simple process which will take one day. Cut the blood plums in half and remove the stone. Place on a baking tray lined with baking paper and sprinkle with a little brown sugar over the each of the cut plums. Bake in an oven at 180ºC until soft, until it oozes with red juice. Pop the nuts and seeds onto another paper lined baking tray, sprinkle with a tiny amount of brown sugar, and bake for a few minutes the oven. Watch like a hawk. Mine went a bit too brown but I still enjoyed them. If you are sugar phobic, don’t add any, though the juices won’t run so lusciously.

Dollop a generous scoop of Labne onto a serving plate, cover with plums and juice, and sprinkle with the nut mixture. Eat for breakfast, lunch or tea or anytime in between.

plummy breakfast
Plummy Breakfast

¹A 1932 publication refers to lying-in as ranging from 2 weeks to 2 months. It also does not suggest “Getting Up” (getting out of bed post-birth) for at least nine days and ideally for 20 days. In my mother’s time, ( throughout the 1950s) it was 10 days before ‘getting up’ after giving birth.

My, how things have changed.

 

Zucchini Bhaji, Gluten-Free Vegan Snacks.

Zucchini Bhaji
Zucchini Bhaji

Here they are again, the summer zucchini growing like triffids, their dazzling yellow flowers opening loudly in the sun, enticing insects to enter, then closing snugly with the tramonto or sunset. Their fruitfulness is always a mixed blessing as most zucchini growers will attest : there are always too many for one household. Catching them while they are discreet in size is part of the game- come back from a weekend away and you’re in for a rude surprise. Big ones sap the energy of the plant, reducing flowering and productivity. The larger zucchini are also rather bland in flavour, a case of bigger not being better! Constant harvesting is wise, as it is with all vegetables. Pick often and be rewarded.

Morning bees busy with cross pollination

Many folk  have a swag of favourite recipes for dealing with their annual zucchini glut, I am sure. I have at least 20 standby recipes and am always looking for more. Throughout summer, we use zucchini in:

  • simple soups,
  • fried and tossed through pasta alla carbonara
  • grated and incorporated into fritters, patties and bhajis
  • combined with cheese into old-fashioned baked slices
  • gutted and refilled with ricotta and baked in the oven
  • pickled with mustard seed
  • grilled to lay on a pizza
  • substituting eggplants in a parmigiana bake
  • vinegared with balsamic and garlic
  • sliced vertically into carpaccio salad
  • fried with their friends the tomatoes to make Provéncal tians and tarts
  • grated into breads, muffins and cakes

They are summer’s green gifts. When their day is done, sometime down the track in Autumn, we say Addio for another year.

Zucchini Bhaji with minted yoghurt

Zucchini Bhaji

These little fried morsels are a cross between an onion bhaji and a vegetable pakhora. They don’t last long, and are often eaten as they exit the wok and don’t make it to the table. This recipe would feed two very greedy people or make snacks for four. It can be doubled for a family- kids love them. Different spices may be used, such as cumin or coriander. The batter needs to be thicker than cream but not too stiff.

  • two medium zucchini, grated
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • ¾ cup besan/chick pea flour
  • ¼ cup rice flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teas salt
  • ½ teas garam masala
  • ½ teas chilli powder
  • 1 garlic clove crushed
  • ½ cup or so water
  • plain oil (not olive oil) for frying

Grate the zucchini and leave in a colander, covered with a weight, for 1/2 hour or so. Slice the onion.

Make the batter by mixing the dry ingredients with the water. Also let the batter sit for 1/2 an hour or more, un refrigerated so that the batter begins to ferment a little.

Add the vegetables to the batter and mix well. Add oil to a wok and heat until a bread piece sizzles. Deep frying is recommended as the fritters stick to the pan with shallow frying and tend to retain too much oil. If the temperature of your oil is hot, the bhaji should fry quickly. Turn once or twice using tongs, and then draining on paper towels.

Serve with Podina Chutney if you have an abundant mint supply, or a mint laced yoghurt dressing.

This snack is gluten and lactose free and vegan. Many zucchini recipes, quite by chance, are.

Crisp zucchini bhaji snacks.

 

 

Rajma Curry and Back to the Budget.

I’ve indulged in a few wanton and delicious splurges lately. One involved a long lunch at a nearby restaurant. Mr Tranquillo and I, tired of picking, prepping and pickling produce, agreed it was time someone else cooked our lunch. We chose Mercer’s Restaurant in Eltham, not only because of it’s ‘hat’ awards over the years, but also because the menu looked like it might please my very fastidious palate. The degustation menu for two looked perfect, and at $90 each, a steal. The whole experience was delightful and exquisite: the setting, elegant with soft lighting, the staff discreet but well-informed, the food exceptional, cheffy but very good. No photos were taken. I was rather pleased to discover a vacuum in my camera’s memory card slot. It was a sign not to spoil a heavenly experience with the tedious, pedestrian business of the taking of photos. Enough said. Just go to Mercer’s when you need to be spoilt.

As an antidote to this splurge, and in keeping with my resolution of the New Year, I now return to my $1.00 per head feasts with this Rajma Masala recipe. The Indian ( Hindi) word for red kidney bean sounds more exotic than the English, the latter with allusions to tie-dyed hippydom. This is a classic Indian vegetarian curry.  Break out the Bollywood and dance as you prepare your simple feast. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARajma Curry for 2 (or many as part of a larger banquet)

Ingredients

  • 200 gr red kidney beans/rajma
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium to large tomatoes, chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves + 1 inch ginger, peeled and chopped + 1 green chilli, crushed to a paste in a mortar and pestle ( or small blender)
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • ¼ to ½ tsp red chili powder
  • ¼ tsp turmeric powder
  • a pinch of asafoetida
  • ¼ tsp to ½ tsp garam masala powder
  • 2 cups of stock or water
  • 2 to 3 tbsp cream
  • salt

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  1.  Rinse and soak the beans in enough water overnight or for 8 hours. The next day, discard the water and rinse the beans again in fresh water and cook in a pressure cooker, or on the stove till soft and cooked.
  2. Heat oil in a large pot or wok. Add cumin seeds and let them crackle and brown a little, then add the onions and cook gently until soft and caramelised
  3.  Add the ginger/garlic/chili paste. Stir and saute for 5-10 seconds on low heat.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes. Saute for 2-3 minutes till soft.
  5. Add all the spice powders- turmeric powder, red chilli powder, coriander powder, asafoetida and garam masala powder and stir through until the oil separates from the masala.
  6.  Add the drained beans to the mixture. stir through. You may decide not to add them all.
  7. Add 1+ 1/2 cups or stock, water or bean cooking liquid to the mixture and add salt to taste.
  8.  Simmer uncovered for 10-12 minutes or more till the curry thickens slightly.
  9. Mash around a third of the bean mixture in a mortar and pestle and add back to the mixture to thicken the curry.
  10.  When the curry has thickened, add the cream and stir through. Check seasoning.

Serve with rice and cucumber raita. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Simple Cucumber Raita

  • small cucumber, peeled , seeded, diced.
  • 1 cup plain yoghurt
  • small handful chopped coriander
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of cumin seeds and mustard seeds
  • a little plain oil.

Mix the yoghurt and cucumber together, add the chopped coriander and a little salt. Heat the oil in a small frying pan, add the seeds till they pop and brown and add to the yoghurt mixture, Return mixture to fridge to cool further. Make this ahead of time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In My Kitchen. January 2015

Another year ticks over, resolutions have been made, private reflections and observations about the things that are important. After those meditations on the first of January, the year brings on a mad rush of adrenalin as I attack the kitchen like some crazed Befana on a broom, sorting through the pantry, the larder, the fridges and cupboards, trying to restore some order after the Christmas mayhem. Out they go, all the old chutneys and jams, some of them smelling so delicious even though they are three or more years old. The chickens are in for a jammy feast, with old dried foods from the pantry thrown into the mix, hot water stirred through, fire burn and cauldron bubble. When the hurlyburly’s done, I’ll sit down to a chilled white wine and contemplate this summer post. There is no photo of me here -you, my reader, must imagine a wild unkempt hairdo and an unflattering old Bali Dress used for these jobs.

In the remaining clear space on the bench, there are some rather handsome Christmas gifts gracing my kitchen. The first is a heavy-duty blender from my eldest son. Its powerful motor works like a dream. So far we have had mango, ice, banana and orange juice smoothies, brain numbingly cold and healthy, reminding me of the fruity concoctions made in Chiang Rai, Thailand. This now lives in the industrial zone in my kitchen.

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This gorgeous cake tin was a KK gift from my sister-in-law. Jo. It has a perfect seal. I seem to be making more cakes these days. How did she know?

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Loads of zucchini are landing on the shelf and ending up in summer soups. My diet has turned basic and simple this month. You can’t clean like a mad witch and cook too!

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I now make my own yoghurt weekly.  It is another routine, along with the sourdough bread, that has slipped into my life. It is so simple, especially if you have a nice big thermos. Boiled milk, cooled to warm, with a tablespoon or two from your last batch of yoghurt is whisked through, then into the thermos it goes for six or more hours. Too easy. Using this large vintage Japanese thermos, I can now make two litres at a time, enough yoghurt to go with curries, to make tzaziki and other dips, Greek cakes and so on. There is nothing better than a breakfast of home-made yoghurt and a compote of fruit, especially poached cherries.

yoghurt and special Japanese thermos
yoghurt made in my Vintage Japanese thermos

The things you find in the pantry!! I seem to have cornered the market in Indian dhal and bulgar. These, combined with fresh garden produce, will form the basis of my $1.00 meals. I’m on a mission to eat the contents of the pantry and to shop less – one of those New Year reflections about simplicity, waste and healthy eating.

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Having finally mastered the pressure cooker, which has been hiding in a kitchen cupboard for a few months, the lentils, beans and chickpeas are having a work out.

Prior to Christmas, I found a monster 3 kilo bag full of Tagliatelle nests at Psarakos in Thornbury. Once opened, they are now stored in one of my big bread bins. These nidi only take 5 -6 minutes cooking and, with the tomato and basil glut on the horizon, will form the basis of more cheap eats.

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My Mother’s apricot tree goes on and on, with five kilo picked daily. She poaches and stores them in little boxes in the freezer for winter desserts. Not bad at 92 years old, but I think it’s time I made her jam. Jars in the dishwasher, jars on the bench, nothing like making jam on a 40 degrees celsius (104 F) day. When the blackberries are ready and the temperature even higher, this jam making strega will be working at dawn, or possibly leaving home early to live elsewhere.

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Happy New Year to all, and, raise your glasses, a big Salute to Celia, at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, our wonderful host of this monthly series.

Yoghurt, the Key to Middle Eastern Cuisine.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn their cookbook, Saha, Greg and Lucy Malouf travel to Lebanon and the food of Beirut. The book is a treasure, a coffee table book and useful cookbook all in one, although my copy comes from the library and I may need to part with it soon. In Saha, as in all their other cookbooks, they discuss the centrality of yoghurt to the Middle Eastern diet,

‘Middle Easterners eat vast quantities of the stuff, although not the over-sweetened and artificially flavoured varieties that westerners tend to prefer. Sourness is a virtue in the Arab world, and yoghurt makes an appearance at just about every minute. It is consumed as a refreshing drink, served as a dip or accompaniment to all kinds of savoury dishes, and is also used as a cooking medium in soups and casseroles.’

Throughout this seductive book, yoghurt pops up in all sorts of recipes: there are at least 10 listed in the index.  The dairy chapter uses yoghurt in a hot soup, and two different labneh: yoghurt is included as an ingredient elsewhere throughout the book, in salads, as a marinade and so on.  As this one ingredient is vital to the middle eastern diet, and more importantly, so easy to make, I am including this recipe in the Cookbook Guru’s discussion of Saha this month.  Another actual  Malouf recipe will follow. This one is my old recipe and relies on a few simple bits of equipment.

You will need:

  • a wide necked thermos, or similar thermal food container. (I use a vintage Chinese thermos because I love them!)
  • a strainer or old plastic ricotta basket
  • some muslin or an unused Chux wipe.

    Youghurt equipment
    Yoghurt equipment

Ingredients

  • Two tablespoons of full cream plain yoghurt.  This may be the last one you buy so make it a good one, read the labels and make sure there are no flavours. I can’t see the point in low fat yoghurt. Full cream yoghurt contains only 3.5% fat.
  • one litre of full cream milk.

You may need to double this amount if proceeding on to make Labneh.

Method.

  • place the milk in a saucepan and heat till it just reaches boiling point. Remove from heat.
  • When cool enough to put your finger in, holding it comfortably for 5 seconds, remove any milk skin on top, then add the yoghurt.  Mix well, using a whisk.
  • Add to the thermos which has been rinsed with hot water and drained just before using. Close lids and leave for four or so hours.
  • Put the lovely warm yoghurt into a container. It will thicken further in the fridge.
  • Just remember to save some yoghurt for your next batch. I make this weekly.

    a weekly supply of home made yoghurt.
    A weekly supply of home made yoghurt.

If needing Greek style yoghurt, strain the cooled yoghurt for an hour or more, using muslin and a fine strainer ( I use a plastic ricotta strainer) placed over a bowl. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Save the whey to add to curry gravy, an old Indian trick.

If making Labneh, continue straining the yoghurt, knotting the muslin over the bowl, and place in the fridge for 24- 48 hours.

labne kept under oil in a mason jar.
labne kept under oil in a mason jar.

Greg Malouf adds salt before making labneh: other additions he suggests are mint and garlic. In one of his other cookbooks, Arabesque, he adds 10 roasted and crushed saffron threads, along with 1 clove of garlic crushed with a teaspoon of salt. The latter sounds very appealing.

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It is hard to write about the Middle East, its exotic cuisine and long history without expressing concern over the tragedy of war and the effects on lives, homes and families. At the same time, it is heartening to see how neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Italy, humanely accept the flood of refugees into their own countries, knowing that humanitarian issues come first in this struggle.

I commend the following documentary to you which looks at Italian shipping rescue of refugee boats at sea.

http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2014/s4106724.htm