Ratatouille

A (very) long time ago, when I was a student, I ended up working nights in a small French, basement restaurant in Leeson Street in Dublin – La Belle Epoque. I have no recollection of either how I got the job – dishwasher à la kitchen hand and general dogsbody- or retained it for most of the academic year because the restaurant never seemed to have any customers. Jack, one of two full time chefs, said something about the previous owners not having paid their telephone bill so the service was suspended and the new owners – my employers – refused to pay the outstanding charges. So, no phone and hence no reservations and the only customers we used to have were the very occasional punters dropping in on the off chance and, sometimes, the music group Dubliners and that was only because Jack, I think, was one of their mates.

Anyway, among other delights, like unlimited access to ice cream sorbet and gargantuan meals that the chefs would prepare every night – for themselves and the other staff – I fell in love with a simple, rustic-style vegetable dish – ratatouille that always seemed to be available.

Years passed and it slipped, like so many other things, from my memory until recently, travelling along the south shore of the Black Sea, I came across variations on a theme and fell in love with it all over again.

Back home I made it myself for the first time but my wife was aghast at the amount of olive oil I used and I may very well have been a little bit heavy handed there, I admit.

Anyway, jump to the present and, foolishly perhaps, after a sustained and concentrated boozy December, I decided to abstain from all alcohol for the month of January and while I was considering the difficulties that might impose upon me, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and become vegetarian for the month as well, in addition to submitting myself to some form of daily exercise – it is summer here after all and the beach is only a few kilometres from where I live. Anyway, casting around the other day, bored and listless – Day 10 alcohol free – I decided to cheer myself up with a succulent dish of summery vegetables of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and tomato.

Taking advantage of my wife’s temporary absence I commandeered the kitchen and all the paraphernalia I would need and decided to cook the vegetables separately first, then combine them to cook to a glorious creamy stew.img_2568

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil,

1 large eggplant, roughly diced,

5 garlic cloves, chopped,

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,

2 zucchini, sliced into rounds about as thick as a doubloon or a sovereign (!),

2 large onions, diced,

4 red capsicums, roughly diced,

1 kg tomatoes, seeded and chopped,

1 400g can of tomatoes,

Bunch of thyme, parsley and basil, chopped,

1 Tablespoon of sugar

img_2570I decided to cook the veg separately. But, as an alternative to frying the eggplant, which would soak up a huge amount of oil, I decided to toss the diced eggplant in a little oil in a plastic bag and then spread it in a single layer under a very hot grill to brown, before tipping the lot into a large bowl.img_2579

img_2574I heated a generous splash of oil in a heavy-duty casserole dish over a low heat and lightly fried the chopped garlic along with a generous sprig of rosemary. I scooped out 2/3 of the garlic and discarded the rosemary before adding the zucchini and sautéing until tender, then added it to another bowl.img_2575

Next up, I returned the pan to the heat and added just a splash more oil, another third of the garlic, and sautéed the onion, and capsicum until tender. Once again I dumped the lot into a dish as before. By this stage I had too much stuff for my casserole dish so I img_2587combined all the cooked vegetables into a large pot and added the seeded and chopped tomatoes along with a tin of toms which I whizzed in the blender before simmering the lot gently for about 1½ hours. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning and stir in the chopped basil. I also used dried thyme and marjoram as I had forgotten to pick up some fresh stuff.

img_2591Serve with a soft-boiled poached egg, so the yolk can anoint the delicious vegetables.

As I mentioned, I seem to have made rather a lot but leftover ratatouille has many possibilities – fill a long, crusty bread roll with it or slather it on a slice of sour dough toast. A small amount of ratatouille makes a lush filling for an omelette or scrambled eggs along with some chopped pitted black olives and a little fresh goat’s cheese or coarsely grated Parmesan. Yum-oh!

Braised Duck with Ginger

I thought I would take a break from my recent attempts at Caucasus cuisine and do something different. I get a bit tired of chicken so I recently bought a duck – a first for me. I could have just bunged the whole thing in the oven, I suppose, but I decided to go down this rather lengthy process of braising the brute and then actually cooking it, hoping it would cut some of the fat for which duck is notorious.

IMG_2286Someone, I don’t remember who, once told me that duck can have an unpleasant back flavour if not cleaned and prepared properly and the best way to prevent this is to rub the bird all over, inside and out, with grated ginger before giving it a good wash, so that is what I did, leaving it smothered in grated ginger root over night because I didn’t have time to deal with it then.

The next thing to do was cut it up into pieces, legs and wings gave me four pieces plus the actual body which I hacked rather clumsily into four pieces, which along with the neck, gave me a total of 9 largish pieces.IMG_2288

Heat some oil – I used rice bran – in a large pan and braise the duck pieces for about 7 minutes on each side. Because the pieces were quite large, I could only fit three or four pieces in the pan each time so the whole process took about three quarters of an hour.

IMG_2293I drained the duck pieces on kitchen paper and then poured off most of the oil into an old tin can and then peeled and julienned a decent size lump of ginger and stir-fried that in the remaining hot oil until fragrant.

While that was happening, I mixed about 500ml IMG_2294of boiling water with the fish sauce and sugar along with the ground white pepper. I chucked in a few small red chilies from a plant in the garden, not knowing how hot they might be so I only used about 4 small whole ones, seeds and all.

I put the duck pieces into a large pot on top of the julienned ginger and then poured the water, fish sauce, white pepper, salt and sugar on top, turned the heat up and brought the lot to a simmer before banging a lid on the pot and letting it gently simmer away for half an hour or so.

IMG_2297I took the lid off and continued to simmer for another 30 minutes or so until the sauce reduces.

Drain the duck pieces and transfer to a serving plate, and decorate with some (more) red chilies and a handful of parsley, celery or coriander leaves (whichever you have handy). Serve on a bed of white rice and drizzle some of the ginger sauce over the duck.IMG_2301

 Ingredients

1 Duck – about 2.5 kg.

A knob of ginger about the size of your thumb, grated.

2 Tablespoon oil.

2 Tablespoon fish sauce.

1 Tablespoon sugar.

1 Teaspoon of ground white pepper.

1 Teaspoon of salt.

500 ml boiling water.

Some red chilies, at least one but as many as you like.

Another knob of ginger peeled and cut into thin strips.

 

 

Lobio

I suppose every country in the world has some sort of national dish – Ireland – Irish Stew; England – Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pud; Italy – Spag Bol; USA – Hamburger & Fries; Germany – Wurst mit Mayo; Turkey – Lentil Soup (though not quite sure if that is the national dish and in Georgia – the country, not the state in the US – all the restaurants in Tbilisi and wherever else I went, seemed to serve Lobio Nigvzit – a hearty bean stew in a small clay pot. (Apologies to anyone who feels I have misrepresented their national dishes above)

IMG_2256Lobio is, at its most basic, just a thick stew of mashed beans with some or all or the following ingredients – fresh coriander, walnuts, garlic, onions,pomegranate molasses, fresh parsley or celery leaves, mint, chilli flakes, roasted whole coriander seeds, but it can be upgraded with bacon, beef, cheese etc. Here’s my take on the basic – feel free to add extras as you wish, but a word of caution, without any of the extras, it is still a deeply satisfying dish

Ingredients

1 mug of red kidney beansIMG_2241

1 cup walnut halves or pieces, finely ground

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 bay leaves

1 cup finely chopped coriander or flat-leaf parsley, dill, basil, celery greens

1 large, brown onion finely chopped

* 1/4 mug pomegranate molasses or red wine vinegar

 

1 tablespoon ground coriander, or to tasteIMG_2260

1 teaspoon ground thyme

2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon smoked paprika or to taste

Method

Soak the beans, preferably overnight, in cold water but at least for several hours. I used one mug full of red kidney beans and covered them with buckets of water and they had pretty much doubled in size by the next day.

Drain the beans and cover with fresh water, add a few bay leaves and bring to a brisk boil before lowering the heat and letting the beans simmer while you chop onion and the fresh herbs finely.IMG_2258

When the beans are soft but still have distinct texture, add some salt and continue cooking until the beans are softer. Adding the salt too early can keep the beans from becoming tender. IMG_2261Drain but keep back some of the liquid and use the back of a wooden spoon, or a potato masher, to mash the beans on the side of the pot. Remember to remove the bay leaves.

Pound the parsley, garlic,fresh and ground coriander, chilli, thyme and smoked paprika and whole mixed pepper corns in a mortar and pestle. I could find the pestle only and not the mortar so I used my mum’s old food processor, a Moulinex MasterChef 350, which I helped myself to when she was in hospital one time when I was back visiting. My sister assured me that our mum would not be using it again and that I would get better use out of it. And I do. It’s ancient but it still does the job!

Add the pounded or whizzed ingredients to the ground walnuts, also whizzed, and stir well with the pomegranate molasses before adding to the beans.IMG_2262

IMG_2259Fry the chopped onion until golden and add to bean mix. Heat and thoroughly stir in reserved cooking liquid from the beans for desired consistency. Garnish with a few leftover parsley or corainder leaves, or whatever you have!

* pomegranates are a fairly new thing fro me and certainly the pomegranate molasses was a major new addition to my pantry. Tangy and sweet and sour, I bought it in a Middle Eastern style grocery but if you can’t find it, red wine vinegar can be used, I suppose. Incidentally, the pomegranate molasses is lovely mixed with sparkliing water for a really refreshing – and different – drink.

Variation: add chorizo, bacon or yoghurt

Mercimek Çorbasi (lentil soup)

From fancy seafood restaurants nestled in picturesque fishing villages on the Black Sea to a simple local lokanta “a greasy spoon,” in any town I went to in Turkey, the soup was always the same, even if the menu suggested asking a waiter about the Soup of the Day. Inevitably it was lentil soup served with a wedge of lemon on the side along with a bowl of crusty bread.

I’m not complaining about the soup – far from it, in fact I used to look forward to it in every place I ate because it was always different while being essential lentil. I suppose that’s why they called it Mercimek Çorbasi, lentil soup! There were variations from one end of the Black Sea, the Amasra end, nearer to Istanbul and Trabzon at the far eastern end where Georgia begins but always there were lentil, lemon, coriander and cumin seed and garlic. Variations could include carrots, potatoes, pepper, sumac, sweet paprika, dried oregano and dried mint, the whole lot slow cooked before being mashed.

Recently, I have tried just about all the variations and this is the one I like best.

IMG_2207

Ingredients

1 mug-full red lentils                                    1 medium brown onion

1 carrot                                                          3 cloves of garlic

1 tsp cumin seeds                                         1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp sumac*                                                   1 tsp sweet paprika

1 tsp dried oregano                                      2 cloves garlic

1 Tblsp Tomato paste                                   6 mugs of vegetable broth or water

First, I dry roasted the coriander in a small pot over a high heat for about two minutes until I could get their nutty fragrance. Tip them into a bowl to cool. Dry roast the cumin seeds then in the same heated pot, but for a much shorter time – about a minute and set aside to cool.IMG_2209

Chop the carrot and the onion – I used two smallish ones here – and heat the oil in a pan before tipping the carrots in and stir-frying them for a minute or two. Add the chopped onion and squashed garlic and continue to stir-fry.IMG_2210

Grind up the roasted seeds and toss into the onion and carrot mix, along with the tomato paste, paprika and the sumac.

IMG_2212Stir and mix everything thoroughly and then add the red lentils. (I also used a few yellow split peas leftover from something else, probably less than a quarter of a mug’s worth), before adding about 6 mugs of boiling water or vegetable broth – I used a vegetable stock cube.

 

Bring everything up the boil and then simmer, partially covered. Stir every so often until the chopped bits of carrot are mushy and the lentils are very soft.IMG_2215

Let it cool and then whizz it to make a type of puree. If it is too thick, dilute it with more stock. Serve with a wedge of lemon to squeeze into it; a good sprinkle of salt and some warm crusty bread and it is comfort food all by itself.

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OK, OK, I know it might not look the most appealing but it tastes amazing, really!

* Sumac is a small deep red berry, dried and crushed to impart a tangy citrus flavour throughout Turkey and surrounding areas.

Chicken Liver Paté

Ever since I returned from Europe last August 2017, I seem to have had a thing about liver. I’ve cooked it several times, pan-fried with a piquant sauce, in red wine and so on but recently I decided to do a chicken liver paté for a change, to be served with crusty little toasted squares.

My first experience of paté was when my father, back in the early 1970’s, used to bring home a thick, yellowed plastic tube of liver paté after he had experienced it on one of his European hoildays. The tube was about as thick as my forearm and filled with a flavoursome paté but whether it was chicken, pork or paté made from something else I have no idea. I do have a memory of my father piling half-an-inch of butter onto his finger of toast before balancing another inch thick of pate on top of it and relishing the lot along with a half bottle of wine and then going for a “snooze” on a Saturday evening before friends arrived to play cards and drink whiskey and sodas!

The first step was to check the liquor cabinet but no luck there – no brandy or cognac and not even the remains of a Christmas bottle of port. So, first step – off to buy booze and pick up the chicken livers, as well, I suppose.

IMG_1352I bought a cheap bottle of French brandy – bottled in France, VSOP and so on but still cheap as chips compared to the heavy hitters like Martell, or Remy Martin or Hennessey, but never mind, I’m just going to chuck it in with the livers.

I ended up buying about 500g of organic, free range livers and a handful of shallots and off home to assemble everything – Brandy, butter, liver, shallots, garlic, a sharp knife and a few sage leaves from the garden.

First off, wash the livers in cold water and snip off – I used a scissors here – any sinewy bits or anything that looks less than appealing, IMG_1354although when dealing with a handful of chicken livers, there’s not a lot to be said there. Not like a calf or a pig liver, which is a bit more of a substantial handful.

IMG_1353Anyway, next, chop the shallots and garlic finely. I used three large shallots which, when peeled, became about 8 or 9 cloves as well as three large cloves of garlic. In the end, I threw them all, along with half of the sage leaves into a food processor and whizzed them for less than thirty seconds.

Tip a generous lump of butter into a heavy fry pan, add in a glug of olive oil and when the butter foams, toss in the chopped shallots and garlic and the sage. Stir it around for a while until it softens and smells good and then chuck the livers in on top. IMG_1355Shake the pan and give it a stir if you want and flip the livers over after two minutes or so. I added two full measures of the brandy then and let the liver IMG_1356simmer for a minute or two. I fished out a large one and cut it in two to check the interior pinkness.

When satisfied, that the livers were cooked but still had a tinge of pink inside, I turned the heat off and let things cool down a bit before tossing them all into the processor again and giving them a good whiz. My butter, which I hadn’t put back in the fridge, was nice and soft now so I put a chunk of that into the processor as well as another shot of brandy, reasoning that most of the earlier alcohol would have cooked off.IMG_1361IMG_1357

The penultimate step then was to scoop the mixture out of the blender and into a fine metal sieve. At first it seemed – and looked – impossible to force the liver mixture through the sieve but by dint of elbow grease and a large wooden spoon, I managed to mash the stuff through the sieve. IMG_1364The sieve became quite heavy and when I turned it over, all of the finely sieved paté was stuck to the underside of the sieve. I scraped it off with a palette knife and dumped into two ramekins I had ready. It looked gorgeous – a rich chocolaty colour and a smooth, silky finish.

I smoothed the ramekin dishes with the back of a spoon and then wiped around the dishes with a tissue to make it neat. A sage leaf on top for decoration and then, finally, more melted butter poured over the paté to seal it and prevent it from oxidising and turning an unpleasant colour. Bingo – a delicious party snack.IMG_1369IMG_1366

Piquant Liver

One of the things I looked forward to most during my European Peace Walk through Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy was exploring local cuisine, delighting at the newly discovered variety and novelty. The obverse of course is also, unfortunately, true. Ill-prepared, bland tourist fodder or the ubiquitous pizza or kebab,IMG_0866 usually on offer in the same low-grade style cafe – sometimes the only thing available in villages along the route of my walk – so I congratulated myself when, after a fairly gruelling walk of 30k plus, I arrived in Postojna in south-western Slovenia and looked forward to a good meal.

A lusty male choir in the chilly town square made sitting on the outdoor terrace of Hotel Kras unattractive and there were no seats in the bustling, brightly lit restaurant inside, but the waitress recommended another restaurant a few hundred metres away but, when I arrived, it was another pizza restaurant and it was closed.

Hunger began to make the prospect of a kebab seem feasible especially as a light rain started. A policeman mentioned a restaurant in the “red house” on the far side of the square but that too seemed to be closed as there were no lights on. Despairing, I walked around to the car park at the back and there was a lighted staircase leading to a basement restaurant, bright, warm and cheery inside.

There was an English menu and the chef’s specialty was braised liver in red wine. No hesitation here, a bottle of red wine – the waiter’s recommendation – and a starter of stuffed wild mushrooms in a nutty sauce and a delicious, rich dish of tender liver slivers, still pink inside.

I have distinct – and delicious – childhood memories of liver with creamed spuds and baked beans but since then I seem to have skipped over offal themed meals, although there was that fantastic liver, bacon and onion dish in the Serasa Yacht Club but that was in another lifetime and a different century! Anyway, inspired by my Slovenian meal, here is my take on liver, for what it is worth.

Ingredients

200 g lamb liver                            1 onion, cut in ringsIMG_0984

3/4 tsp whole black pepper

1/2 tsp mustard powder

1/2 tsp flour

10g butter

1 tsp oil

good splash of medium dry sherry

splash of Worcestershire sauce

1 Tblsp lemon juice

salt

Method

1.Crush the peppercorns and mix with the flour and mustard powder.IMG_0990

2. Heat oil and fry the onion rings for about 10 minutes until brown at the edges. Remove from heat.IMG_0991

Some recommend steeping the liver in milk before flash frying.  I tried both steeping and non-steeping with no appreciable difference.

3. Quickly fry the liver, sliced finger thick. When spots of blood begins to appear, flip them over. IMG_0993They should still be slightly pink inside.

4. Add to the onion.

5. Stir the flour, pepper, and mustard into pan. Soak up all the juices and then add sherry, followed by the Worcestershire and the lemon juice. Thin with more sherry, if necessary.

6. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over liver and onion. Serve with creamed spuds.

Sadly, plating a dish was never my forté but trust me, it tastes better than my photos look!IMG_1002

 

Octopus Salad

In accordance with the Cantonese obsession with fresh seafood, every imaginable mollusc, crustacean and fish were available in open seafood tanks near the pier in Sai Kung, in the New Territories in Hong Kong. Restaurant punters touting for the string of seafood restaurants along the pier would recommend specific fish or shellfish and scrawny youths in oversized Wellington boots would clamber awkwardly along the rims of the tanks and net the particular item ready to be cooked any way you liked.

Out of curiosity, one afternoon, I asked the boy if he had any octopus and he began to scramble over the tanks, net in hand. Amazingly, the octopus saw him coming and made a determined and exciting bid for freedom, rapidly climbing out of its tank into an adjoining one diagonally opposite the net boy. Again and again, he evaded the increasingly frustrated attempts to snare him and I swear I heard it squawk in anguish as it clambered desperately from tank to tank. Enough is enough, I thought and I cancelled my order and had an insensate lobster instead.

So much for the live beast and here in Fremantle, octopus, ready cleaned and vacuum packed, has a justifiable reputation as being one of the world’s best seafood feasts on account of its size, flavour and tenderness.

Ingredients

IMG_0338

1 kg. Raw, cleaned octopus ½ cup white vinegar 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp lemon juice Fresh thyme Fresh mint
1 red chilli (optional) Salt & ground black pepper ½ Tbsp smoky paprika
Romaine / Iceberg lettuce Lemon wedges

Method

  • IMG_0339Wash the octopus by rubbing vigourously with a handful of coarse salt. Rinse well and remove central beak by pushing through from the underside.
  • Bring 3 to 4 litres of water to the boil in a large pot, add the vinegar and place the whole octopus in the boiling water. Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes until the octopus swells in size and turns a delicate pinky-red colour. Test to see if cooked by tearing a tentacle off. If it comes away easily, the octopus is cooked to perfection.
  • Drain and cool.IMG_0346
  • Remove tentacles and cut into bite-sized chunks. Cut the central part of the body up into similarly sized pieces.IMG_0351
  • Deseed and chop the chilli, remove the thyme and mint leaves from their stalks.
  • Place the olive oil and lemon juice, salt and freshly IMG_0349ground black pepper in a large bowl and mix. Add the octopus, chopped red chilli and the roughly torn mint and thyme leaves. Stir to coat the octopus with the dressing and set aside for 1 hour (preferably over night in the fridge) to absorb the flavours. If kept in the fridge, take out 1 hour before serving.IMG_0355
  • Arrange crisp, lettuce leaves on a platter, spoon octopus pieces and dressing over the lettuce and sprinkle with smoky paprika. Garnish with fresh mint and lemon wedges.