Monday, 31 December 2012

"Jerusalem" by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

This year my Christmas present from my Mother-in-law was a copy of the book "Jerusalem", co-authored by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

This is at first sight a cookbook, but once you get into it you see that there is more to it than that. It is a book about culture, history and inter-personal relationships as well as about food. It explores the many diverse historical and cultural threads that are interwoven in this complex and fascinating city - a city that has great significance for three of the world's greatest religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Yotam and Sami were both born in Jerusalem and lived there as young boys, but there the similarity ends. Yotam's family is Jewish, whereas Sami's is Palestinian, so you can imagine that there are major differences between their backgrounds, but both have a love for food and cookery that transcends this barrier, and they are now business partners. As the book says: "It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it - what have we got to lose? - to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will."

Those of you who are familiar with Yotam Ottolenghi's work will know that he is not a vegetarian, but simply a person who has a particular love of vegetables. It won't surprise you to learn therefore that non-meat dishes are predominant in this book, although meat dishes are also included. I was also struck by the relative simplicity of many of the dishes, and I felt that I would probably be able to make most of them with this book's guidance. There are for instance lots of salads that need little if any cooking - only assembly and presentation. For example this fattoush made to Sami's Mum's recipe:- [A fattoush is a salad that includes bread as an ingredient]

By the way, the photography in this book is stunning. It is of two types - photos of food, by Adam Lovekin; and photos of people / places by Adam Hinton. For me, a book about food or cookery is a let-down if it does NOT have good photos, because I find it hard to visualise recipes through text alone. No concerns on that score here. It's hard to single out out any dishes as "special" in a book like this. There are just too many candidates. So, I have chosen some based on looks alone.

This one is Eggs with Lamb, Tahini and Sumac. How about that for a colourful plateful?

This one is probably very good for you: Watercress and Chickpea soup with Rose Water and Ras al Hanout.

For the meat-lovers I chose this one: Kofta b'sinyah - lamb kofte made with pine-nuts, garlic, parsley, chilli etc, etc.

But for sheer theatre, try this: Maqluba - a very complicated-sounding dish involving rice, chicken, tomatoes, aubergines, cauliflower and a whole mass of flavourings. It is made on what I would call the Tarte Tatin principle - in that it is inverted once cooked. But what a stunner to look at if you get it right! (Which is evidently not easy.)

You know I don't eat fish, but I feel obliged to show you at least one photo to represent the fish section of this book. Even I think this looks "nice", just as long as I don't have to eat it! This is Pan-fried Mackerel with Golden Beetroot and Orange salsa.

And then of course there is a section on sweets and desserts... This is Poached pears in white wine and cardamom.

And then... No, I mustn't show you the whole book. You must go and buy it yoursef. You will enjoy it; it's a very desirable book!

It is a very educational / informative book too. I particularly enjoyed reading about the very different spices and flavourings used in Jerusalemite cuisine, such as za'atar, sumac and chrein. These are not commonly encountered in British cookery and are hard to imagine - though the explanatory text in this book is very helpful in this respect. This is what they say about za'atar: "Za'atar is sharp, warm and slighty pungent, almost at one with the smell of goats' dung, smoke from a far-off fire, soil baked in the sun, and - dare we say it - sweat." Can you imagine it now? In fact the standard of the descriptive writing in this book is what sets it apart from most "cookbooks". Every recipe comes with its own little bit of history or description, or a personal anecdote from one of the authors. It is definitely not just an anthology of recipes! I'm very impressed with this book, and can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Plans for 2013

Just like every other gardener I'm sure, I have been using some of my leisure time over the holiday period to consider garden plans for the forthcoming year.

 I know that lots of gardeners (particularly beginners) will have been discouraged by the poor weather conditions in the UK during 2012, which made for a dismal harvest of many vegetables.However, having been gardening for quite a while now, I know that our weather conditions vary a lot from year to year, and I accept that 2013 may be completely different. I also note that some crops did better in 2012 than they usually do, presumably becuase they didn't suffer any water shortages. For instance I normally have to spend several hours a week watering my Runner Beans, which in my dry sandy soil need a drink almost every day in a "normal" Summer. In 2012 I hardly needed to water them at all, and they did brilliantly and produced a huge crop. I won't be in a hurry therefore to change my whole gardening strategy just because of the weather.

However, I have decided on one significant change. I plan to grow a larger quantity of fewer types of veg. In my enthusiasm to cram in as many things as possible, I have ended up with a number of very tiny harvests, which have not been particularly satisfying. This is not to say that I will have little variety in my garden: I will probably end up with 50 different things instead of 75! The following are definitely on my list:-

Runner Beans - Scarlet Empire, Aintree and a new one being offered at a very good price by T&M - Firestorm
Broad Beans - Witkiem Manta, Bunyard's Exhibition and Aquadulce
Climbing French Beans  - Cobra and possibly one or two others
Parsnips - probably Gladiator and Panache again
Beetroot - the old faithful Boltardy
Tomatoes - blight-resistant Ferline, newcomer Orkado, and ever-reliable Maskotka, plus "a few" others - maybe Sungold and Cherokee Purple
Purple Sprouting Broccoli - Rudolph and Red Spear
Summer Broccoli - Tenderstem
Cavolo Nero - Black Magic
Brussels Sprouts - I'll have another try with "Brilliant" now that I have acquired a bit of experience with them
Radicchio - Firestorm and Palla Rossa
Endives - various ones left over from previous years
Lettuces - various (will include my favourite Fristina)
Turnips - Golden Ball and one of the purple-topped ones like Atlantic
Shallot - Longor again since they did pretty well last year
Potatoes - to be grown in tubs, so mostly small "salad" varieties, but alsothe gourment ones Pink Fir Apple and Ratte
Carrots - several of the very small ones, to be grown in containers - e.g. Mignon and Mini Finger
Cucumbers - a couple of the small outdoor varieties - including Iznik which did well last year
Sweet Peppers - including the Garnet ones that Stephen sent me
and of course: Chillis - several types, including Black Prince. Scotch Bonnet and some of those I brought back from Turkey

This list could go on for a long time! And I haven't even mentioned the perennials such as Asparagus, Blueberries, Raspberries and Strawberries, or the herbs... So you see, there is no danger of Monoculture in Mark's Veg Plot.

Other plans for 2013 include:
  • getting the first crop from my Woodblocx raised bed - it will probably be tomatoes and cucumbers
  • re-potting my two standard Bay trees which have been declining in vigour
  • making a "micro-pond" to provide drinking water for animals, birds and insects
  • finding a permanent home for the little Fig tree that is over-wintering in my garage (possibly a big pot on the patio?)
Things I want to acquire include some more of those excellent Stewart self-watering pots (for more tomatoes), and some bigger pots for the Blueberries. My little plastic greenhouses will probably also require replacement covers, or possibly complete replacement!

One thing about this gardening hobby is that there is always something that needs doing, which is great as long as you enjoy it! So what are you guys planning for 2013???

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Inspirational harvests

This is the time of year when many of us gardeners give some serious thought to what they will grow in the following year, prior to ordering their seeds. I know that lots of people (like me) spend many hours poring over the seed catalogues, weighing up the pros and cons of the myriads of seeds on offer, trying to envisage what they can squeeze in to the space available.

Today I'm offering you a collection of photos which may provide you with some inspiration. They are all collections in their own right - photos of harvests that include more than one fruit or veg. (NB: Not all these photos are from this year.)

You probably guessed this, but all those photos are of produce grown in my own garden, so hopefully ample demonstration of the fact that you don't need a huge space to grow nice veg - just some forethought and planning!

Now, where did I get to? Only to about page 3 or 4 of that seed catalogue...

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Ultimate Nepalese Cook Book

Some of you may know that many years ago I served in the Army for a while. I was in a Gurkha regiment, whose soldiers are mostly from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. I remain interested in anything to do with Nepal, so you can imagine my delight when Jane managed to get me this book for Christmas:-

It is a book about Nepalese / Gurkha cookery, written by a man called Pemba Lama, who served in the British Army as a Gurkha chef, and who has subsequently gone on to teach Nepalese and Oriental cookery in the Defence Food Services School, based in Aldershot (about 4 miles from where I live in Fleet).

My memories of Gurkha cookery revolve mainly around the "Dhal Bhat" - a term that means literally "Lentil Rice", but one generally used to mean a complete meal that would normally include not just rice and lentils but also curried meat and vegetables, plus a whole host of side dishes, breads, poppadoms and assorted condiments. It is a term used in a similar way to that in which British people would say "a Curry". Nepalese food is somewhat similar to Indian food, but usually less spicy, since that sort of heat is often delivered by chilli-based side-dishes. Gurkha soldiers are very energetic people and despite their diminutive size can eat vast amounts of food, so portions are large!

In view of the above, I was somewhat surprised to see so many obviously non-Nepalese dishes in Pemba's book. However, he explains that these days Nepalese cuisine is heavily influenced by Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and other oriental styles, simply because Gurkha soldiers have travelled around the world a lot more than was formerly the case, and now want a more varied diet. For example, fish is not widely available in the hills of Nepal, but retired soldiers returning to their homeland are apparently now demanding Sweet-and-Sour Prawns, Battered Cod, and steamed Sea-bream!

However, I'm pleased to say that the book does still include some of the old classics. This is the sort of thing I used to encounter quite frequently - Sherpa Lamb Curry:

The lamb curry would probably have been accompanied by some of this - Curried Dahl Masuri.
[Note: The word for cooked lentils or similar pulses is written in this book as "dahl", but we always used to call it "dhal" - not that it matters, since it sounds the same when you say it aloud! In similar fashion, we always used to call this particular type of dhal "Masoor".]

Now this one is one of our all-time favourites - Alu Dam: Potatoes in a spicy tomatoey sauce. It is a very simple dish, but very tasty too. It was always included as one of the elements of a Gurkha "Tipan Tapan" (a selection of finger-foods served during any special event, such as a Dashera party.)

The book itself is rather amateurishly produced. For instance there are a couple of places in which a recipe is illustrated with the wrong photo; and there are a few errors in some of the ingredients lists. Sometimes the recipe instructions themselves are incomplete, or leave something to your imagination, so you would have to be careful when making the dishes, or else rely on prior knowledge to fill in the gaps. In a funny sort of way, I find this reassuringly authentic, because this is so typical of the way Gurkhas work. Attention to detail was never their strong point! Also, you should note that there is limited narrative content in this book - it is mostly just the recipes, so you will not learn a huge amount about Nepalese cuisine or culture from it. However, as you can see from my photos above, the book is very extensively illustrated with some smashing photos taken by Tony Jones.

Anyone who likes Indian food, and to a lesser extent anyone who likes Chinese food, will definitely find recipes of interest in this book.  The book retails at £14.99, which sounds a bit pricey for a 160-page softbound book, but (and this comment is aimed mainly at the British audience), some of the proceeds from sales of this book (£2 per copy, I believe) go to the Gurkha Welfare Trust, a well-established charity supporting serving and retired British Army Gurkha soldiers and their families, an eminently worthy cause.

If you are interested in acquiring this book, or even just looking at more photos and recipes from it, visit this website:-

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Boxing Day ham

Like the majority of families in the UK, our Christmas Dinner is based on turkey. But in our family we have established a tradition that on Boxing Day we eat roast ham. As many of my readers will know, the Head Chef in our household is my wife Jane, and I have to admire her for the fact that only 24 hours after feeding the family the full Chistmas Dinner ensemble, she sets-to and produces another amazing meal. A roast ham demands a fair bit of work. Jane uses the Delia Smith recipe from many years ago, which involves removing the skin from the part-cooked ham, scoring the fat in a criss-cross pattern, basting it with a sweet mixture of honey (or in our case Sweet Freedom) and mustard, and studding each diamond shape in the fat with a clove, prior to finishing off with another spell in the oven. The result is stunning!

The photo above shows our ham just after coming out of the oven. After the photo, it was covered in foil and allowed to stand for the best part of an hour. During this time, Jane cooked the accompaniments. We always have Parsley Sauce with our ham. This is just as essential as the gravy is with the Christmas Day turkey - a non-negotiable feature. The other "trimmings" are variable. Sometimes we have Cumberland Sauce, sometimes not. This year we used up a bit of the Cranberry sauce left from the previous day.

Along with the ham we always have lots of vegetables. This year we had "new" (i.e. small) potatoes; baby turnips, and Cavolo Nero (the latter fresh from my garden), but it could easily have been carrots, peas and cabbage. Basically anything nice. My Cavalo Nero plants are looking severely depleted now!

One of the best things about this ham arrangement is that Jane always cooks a huge piece to ensure that there will be plenty left over for eating cold. In fact this year, there were only four of us to eat ham on Boxing Day, so we only got through about a third of it. Tonight we plan to have cold ham with chips, grilled tomatoes and fried eggs. How good does that sound??? Much less formal than our meals on the previous two days, but it will probably be just as nice, though in a different way.

Since we enjoyed our supermarket-purchased ham so much, I just want you to imagine how nice was the home-reared, home-killed, home-prepared, home-cured, home-cooked ham that my blogging friend Becky Whitford served on Christmas Day. Follow this link to see a picture of it...Simply Self-Sufficiency

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christmas with the family

We don't do big gatherings in our family. In fact the family is not huge at the best of times, so whenever half a dozen or more get together, then we call it a big gathering. On Christmas day this year we mustered 9.

This is the matriarch: Jane

Jane successfully fed us all with the traditional Christmas Dinner, complete with all the trimmings - and especially her famous gravy! Jane makes the best gravy in the world, and the whole family love it. Roast dinners just wouldn't be the same without it. Talking, of which, here's us at the dinner-table:

(Note the gravy strategically positioned in the centre of the table, in that big white, blue and yellow jug.)

Now to introduce the rest of the family...

Brother Paul, who lives just down the road from us.

Then there's our No.1 daughter, Emma, seen here explaining the finer points of wine-appreciation to her own No.1, Lara

And here's Emma's husband Dave, with their No.2, Holly, having a lesson on pet-care.

Then there's our daughter No.2, Fiona, with her husband Juan Fernando (from Panama). They are the ones who live in France...

Juan's only failing is a rather too pronounced liking for English-style chocolate. Here he is caught in the act of investigating a tin of Cadbury's Heroes...

Getting a good photo of Lara is never easy these days, since she seldom sits still very long:

Holly doesn't move so quickly just yet, though at just under 8 months she is already crawling enthusiastically and looking as if she will be ready to walk any minute now! Nothing under the height of 3 feet is safe any more.

For travelling to and fro, Emma had dressed Holly in this really delightful (and seasonally appropriate) fluffy Reindeer outfit, complete with antlers!

But I really must show you this - Holly's first encounter with a roast parsnip! As you can see, her initial reaction was one of suspicion, but once she discovered that it was edible and moreover tasted sweet and yummy, she ate two of them. With both of her children Emma has used the "Baby-led Weaning" approach, giving them the opportunity to decide when (and how) to start eating proper food, and exposing them at the earliest stage to the type of food that adults eat. Holly was not particularly enamoured of the roast turkey, but she loved the parsnips and the Brussels Sprouts.

For me, this is what Christmas is about these days: being surrounded by the family and watching the joy on the faces of the grandchildren as they open their presents!

Most of our presents for Lara this year were books, because she is very keen on them. Just three-and-a-half, Lara can already read lots of words, and likes nothing better than having a story read to her. Next year's present may have to be a bookshelf...

Talking of books, I want to finish my post today by showing you a brief glimpse of a lovely present that Emma gave me. It is a book (generated online using Blurb) made from text and pictures from my own blog - Mark's Veg Plot!

This book is devoted mainly to a compilation of the photos from my blog that Emma likes best. She must have spent AGES trawling through my Picasa albums, because I have literally thousands of photos these days!

Did you notice that Emma has called the book "...Vol 1"? Allowing room for future additions, no doubt. Thanks, Emma!