Moon Festival

One of my most favourite festivals in China is the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is the second most important Chinese celebration of the year after the Lunar New Year (Spring Festival celebrating the Chinese New Year). It is also called Moon Festival or the Harvest Festival and falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is at its apogee and at its brightest symbolizing ‘completeness’.

Many legends are associated with this festival and the one I prefer refers to Hou Yi, God of the Sun, who was only allowed to visit his beloved wife, Lady Chang Er, on the moon, once a year. Legend says that the moon shines brightest on that day because of their love.

The Chinese word for round has a similar pronunciation to the words reunion and perfect. This festival is a day for family reunions and the traditional gifts are ‘moon cakes’, round baked cakes in the shape of the moon. The traditional filling used to be a simple egg yolk – symbolizing the moon, surrounded by white lotus paste or red bean paste, and sometimes with assorted nuts and dried fruits.

In Chinese culture, Moon Cakes symbolize a host of good things:

  • The circle (shape of the Moon Cake) is a symbol of harmony.
  • The round shape stands for family unity and symbolizes the cycle of life, connecting the past, present, and future
  • It also symbolizes long life and good health

In the 14th Century, messages were contained inside Moon Cakes for secret communication promoting a rebellion against the ruling Yuan Dynasty, which had been founded by Kublai Khan. It was eventually replaced with the Ming Dynasty and the story says that Moon Cakes were credited with the victory.

In the 1990s, I used to drive to the Tan Zhe Si Temple, outside of Beijing, to view the Moon on this spectacular evening. One time, a friend of mine from Hong Kong flew specially to Beijing on the occasion. She had heard so much from me about spending the night watching the Moon at the temple that she could not resist and eventually made the trip. The night was truly spectacular and especially when the Moon appeared between two ancient and majestic pine trees. Enjoying Moon Cakes and a bottle of wine, we surely saw Lady Chang Er on the Moon as the ancient pines were slowly moving in the gentle breeze and singing their special tune.

Nowadays, the sky is literally the limit with regards to Moon Cake fillings. People can enjoy, in addition to traditional savoury moon cakes, many sweet options such as chocolate moon cakes and ice cream moon cakes.

Traditional Beijing moon cakes

Traditional Beijing moon cakes

Also, Beijing has its own types of Moon Cakes made without egg yolk, smaller and less opulent than traditional ones. They are called Zi Lai Hong and Zi Lai Bai. The former is darker and has the distinctive taste of sesame oil and sweet osmanthus paste. The latter is filled with walnut, raisin and dry osmanthus.

Enjoy!

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A Taste Of Tuscany

When I was a little girl and lived in the mountainous region of western Slovakia near a village called Dobra Voda, my mother told me about her first trip to Italy just before she graduated from college. She talked about the wonderful culture, the many palaces, museums, and art pieces, as well as the liveliness of the piazzas, the friendliness of the people and the superb countryside of the Mediterranean country

The food had also a great impact on her. I remember how vividly she described eating her first oysters in Napoli, the delightful ice creams in Rome and the many dishes she truly enjoyed all along her trip.

In 1968, I went to Italy for the first time and I fell in love with Florence and Tuscany. I first went to see the famous Ponte Vecchio with the many little shops that long ago used to be butcher shops and now are mostly souvenir shops. And then, we travelled around Florence by car stopping here and there as we wished. As far as one could see in the distance, there were hills, beautifully kept vineyards and groves of olive trees and orchards, fields of sunflowers and other flowers. My love for Italian food dates from this first trip where we stopped in many little trattoria that served beautiful pazanella (salad of bread and fresh vegetables), and delightful pasta accompanied with a glass (or two) of Chianti.

Here are a couple of recipes that I like very much:

Chicken Breast with Oven-roasted Tomatoes and Olives

Chicken Breast with Oven-roasted Tomatoes and Olives

Chicken Breast with Oven-roasted Tomatoes and Olives

Ingredients for 4 persons:

– 4 tbsp of olive oil

– 4 chicken breasts cut into slices

– garlic (5 cloves)

– 1 cup pitted mixed green and black olives

– 8 tbsp of cut up flat leave parsley

– 4 oven-roasted tomatoes* sliced into half moon pieces

– ¾ of a cup (or more if needed) of red wine

– 1 cup of chicken bouillon

Directions

• Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

• Heat the oil in a saucepan, dredge the pieces of chicken in flour and cook on each side for 4 to 5 minutes.

• Take chicken out of the frying pan, dry them on a paper towel and place them in a baking dish.

• Mix together all remaining ingredients, place it over the chicken and pour the red wine and half of the bouillon.

• Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Take it out and turn the slices of chicken. Check if you need to add the other half of the bouillon. Put it back in the oven for 20 more minutes. Serve with rice.

Remark: This recipe works also beautifully with fillet of pork.

* Oven-roasted tomatoes:

Halve four tomatoes, put in an oven-proof dish. Mince 4 cloves of garlic on the tomatoes and sprinkle one tbsp each of thyme, oregano, rosemary and basil. Add salt and pepper. Pour ¾ cup of olive oil and let it cook slowly in the oven on 160 degrees C for 1 hour. Take it out and pour the oil over the tomatoes and put in back in the oven for another hour. DELICIOUS!

Eggplants Parmegiana

Ingredients for 4 persons:

– 3 medium size eggplants thinly sliced

– flour for dredging eggplants

– 2 cups sunflower seed or grape-seed oil for frying eggplants

– salt/pepper

– 4 cups of tomato sauce (using 8 to 12 fresh tomatoes depending on size or 2 tins of peeled tomatoes)

– 1 cup of fresh basil leaves torn to pieces or half a cup of dried basil

-100 gr. of grated parmesan and 200 gr. grated mozarella mixed together

Directions

• After washing the eggplants, slice them thinly, add salt and let it drain for 30 minutes.

• Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

• Rinse the eggplants and dry them well.

• Lightly dredge the sliced eggplants in the flour, fry in the oil for 4/5 minutes, drain on paper towels and salt them.

• Put some tomato sauce on the bottom of the baking dish and add a layer of eggplant, then another layer of sauce, sprinkle with fresh basil leaves, parmesan and mozzarella.

• Repeat the process until all eggplants are used finishing with tomato sauce basil and parmesan/mozzarella.

• Bake in the oven for 40 to 45 minutes.

• Serve four people generously.

Bon appetit!

Peking Duck

Peking Duck oven at Xiao Wang Fu copy

The Origin of Peking Duck

Peking Duck is a ‘must-try’ specialty for visitors to Beijing and to other places in China for this matter. There has been talk that China will try to enlist this dish and other Chinese specialities on UNESCO’s Global Intangible Cultural Heritage List in the years to come, which so far only includes a few culinary items, among them ‘French haute cuisine’.

Little do people know that this dish actually originated in Nanjing (the South Capital of China for many dynasties in Jiangsu Province) as revealed in a museum that opened earlier this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the ‘Quanjude Restaurant’, once recognized as the best Peking Duck restaurant in China.

As the story goes, Peking Duck was first baked in the Imperial court kitchens of Nanjing and the dish only came to Beijing when the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor moved his seat north in the 15th century. In 1864, when Quanjude was established, the owner apparently employed some chefs who had worked in the Imperial Palace. They used the same ‘hanging up technique’ to roast the duck in a clay oven with hardwood from peach or pear trees. They also kept the Imperial way of carving the duck at the table, showcasing their slicing skills in what is, to this date, a veritable ‘tour de force’.

Duck diplomacy

According to Quanjude, which boasts of having sold 196 million ducks around the world, Peking Duck has played its part in Chinese international relations. Its chefs used to accompany Chinese diplomatic missions overseas and the dish used to be served during official banquets.

Closer to us, it is said that former Premier Zhou Enlai once mentioned that ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’, ‘Maotai diplomacy’ and ‘Roast Duck diplomacy’ were three great manoeuvres in the arsenal of Chinese diplomacy. Incidentally, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, during their landmark visit to China in 1972, were served this dish at the Great Hall of the People.

Serving Peking Duck

Peking duck is prized for its thin, crisp skin, and lean meat. To get there, the process is quite brutal. Fattened ducks are slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated and rinsed thoroughly with water. Then air is pumped under the skin through the neck cavity to separate the skin from the fat so the fat can easily melt during the cooking process.

The duck is then soaked in boiling water for a short while before it is hung up to dry. While it is hung, it is glazed with a layer of maltose syrup/sugary water, and the inside is rinsed once more with water. Having been left to stand for 24 hours, the duck is then roasted in a wood oven until it turns shiny brown and the skin is crispy.

It is usually carved in front of the diners and served in three courses. First comes the skin, then the meat, and finally a soup of the duck’s bones with celery and cabbage. Steamed thin wheat-flour pancakes or steamed wheat-flour “lotus buns,” are served in bamboo baskets. The meat is accompanied with spring onion, cucumber sticks (and sometimes carrot and garlic) and sweet bean sauce. The diners spread sauce over the pancake, which is wrapped around the meat and the vegetables and eaten by hand as a sandwich.

Where to enjoy Peking Duck in Beijing   

Traditional and well-established Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing include Quanjude and Bianyifang, both centuries-old establishments, which have their own style: Quanjude is known for using the hung oven roasting method, while Bianyifang uses the oldest technique of closed oven roasting. Both have very large operations visited by loads of tourists, Chinese and foreign, on tours. The “Sick Duck” in Wangfujing and Xiao Wang Fu at Ritan Park are also popular alternatives.

In the up-market brackets, two restaurants are regularly amongst the top Peking Duck restaurant’s yearly listings, namely Dadong and Duck de Chine.

Dadong’s restaurants are named after Mr. Dong Zhenxiang, the owner and former chef. He now operates four restaurants in the city serving thousands of meals a day. While traditional and succulent Peking Duck remains THE star on the menu, he has created his own culinary style blending east and west. The culinary fare is contemporary and creative and totally different from any other Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing.

Duck de Chine operates two restaurants in Beijing, both in courtyard setting with contemporary décor and touches. The menu is more traditional than Dadong’s but the Duck is not carved at the table. It is perfectly served at the right temperature and accompanied with their own sauce and garnishes.

A newcomer, Jing Yaa Tang, the Opposite House’s Chinese restaurant in Sanlitun, opened last year and established itself as one of the top contenders for best Peking Duck. The garnishes include less common options such as garlic chips and melon, while the sauce is blended with crushed dates and honey, turning the whole experience to a different level.

And Made in China, serving authentic Chinese Northern cuisine and located at the Grand Hyatt, still has a host of followers.

Enjoy…

 

Arugula Salad with Roasted Eggplant and Sweet Pomegranate Dressing

Arugula Salad with Roasted Eggplant and Sweet Pomegranate Dressing

Arugula Salad with Roasted Eggplant and Sweet Pomegranate Dressing

Yield: 4–6 servings                   Preparation time: 1 hour

Arugula is not everybody’s favourite due to its sharpness/pepperiness but I do appreciate it especially combined with a host of ingredients bringing in different tastes and flavours. Sometime ago, I read with interest a salad recipe combining arugula and soft buttery eggplant and I created my own. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Ingredients

Eggplant

  • 2 medium-size eggplants
  • Olive oil to brush the eggplant slices
  • Sea salt

For the dressing

  • 2 tsp whole fennel seeds
  • 2 clove garlic
  • 3 Tbs balsamic vinegar
  • 3 Tbs honey
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 large handfuls arugula leaves
  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves (or one small tomato)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup toasted peanuts
  • 3/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (basically half a pomegranate)

Preparation

Eggplant

– Preheat the oven to 200°C.

– Peel and cut the eggplants into thick rounds of about 3 cm/1 inch thick

– Brush both sides with oil, sprinkle with sea salt and place on a shallow baking sheet. Place in the oven to roast until golden and cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes on each side.

– Remove, cool completely and slice each round in half. Set aside.

Red onion and peanuts

– After slicing the onion thinly, have it sautéed 2 minutes with a teaspoon of oil so it loses a bit of its sharpness. Let is cool down and add one spoon of apple vinegar to marinate.

– In the same pan, quickly have the peanuts sautéed (3 mins) so they get a bit of a smoky flavour (I actually use a mix of peanuts with red chili, a common treat in China).

Dressing

– Put in a blender and crush the fennel seeds and garlic to make a paste. Add the balsamic vinegar, honey, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, pomegranate molasses and olive oil. Whisk together to emulsify the dressing. Set aside.

Salad

– Wash carefully the arugula leaves and dry it well. In a large bowl, lay the arugula leaves. Sprinkle the onion and tomatoes, and season on top. Add part of the dressing and toss to combine it well.

– Scatter the eggplant slices on the salad, peanuts and pomegranate seeds and drizzle some dressing all over.

– Serve immediately, with freshly baked bread on the side.

Bon Appetit!

 

 

RED Revolution At Gevrey …. And In China

New Contributor

Please allow me to introduce my business associate and friend, Dominic Bauquis, who will start contributing to this blog.  Dominic came to China in 1994 and he “fell in love” with the country as I did 10 years earlier. He will share his thoughts, interests and experience and you will find his posts under Today’s China and Culinary Journeys & Wine Roads. I hope that you will find his first post (placed below) of interest.

Maria Boyd

RED Revolution At Gevrey …. And In China

Gevrey-Chambertin wines are among the most famous produced in Burgundy, one of the few regions in the world where the diversity of red wines is not based on growing a plethora of grape varieties, but only pinot noir (and gamay in specific areas), and where subtle differences in soils, hillside exposures and weather translate into very different wines.

In contrast to Bordeaux where international investors have established a strong presence for decades, the Burgundy region is made of relatively small estates run by winemakers whose properties are mostly passed down from generation to generation.

1.Gevrey

Foreign ownership is relatively rare but it is changing fast with Chinese buyers leading the way. Last year (2013), Louis Ng, the long-serving chief operating officer of Macau gambling tycoon’s Stanley Ho’s SJM Holdings, snapped a deal for an unprecedented 8 million Euros making headlines in the region. His target was a 900-year old estate in the hand of the Masson family since the mid 19th century.

It was the first high-profile estate to be sold to a Chinese billionaire in the region, which made this deal controversial among local winemakers. Similar deals are most likely to happen again in the future keeping in mind that more than 40 wine-growing properties in Bordeaux were sold to Chinese personalities and investors over the past several years including Château du Grand Mouëys to tycoon Jin Shan Zhang and Château Monlot to Chinese film star Zhao Wei.

Gevrey Vineyard

Gevrey Vineyard

It must be noted that wine consumption in China is increasing considerably and has doubled twice in the last five years.  Drinking (mostly red) wine is now trendy and upscale restaurants (regardless of the food they serve) now offer extensive wine lists covering old and new worlds and Chinese wines.

Indeed, domestic production has increased four times over the past 10 years and international wine groups are increasingly present in this market. Initially, joint ventures were created to start vineyards from scratch. Bordeaux’s “Taillan Group” was one of the first to start red wine production in the mid-1990s in the vicinity of the Great Wall, north of Beijing. Last year, “Moet Hennessy”, announced a plan to start producing sparkling wine on a new 60-hectare vineyard in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. They are also planning to produce red wine in Yunnan Province. Another heavyweight, “Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild”, is developing production in Shandong Province.

Vineyard in Ningxia, China.

Vineyard in Ningxia.

Changyu is the oldest and largest Chinese wine maker. It was founded in Yantai (Shandong Province) in 1892 by Zhang Bishi, a high-ranking Chinese diplomat. Today, In Yantai alone, the company has more than 5,000 hectares of vineyards spread along the city’s coastal areas, which lie on a latitude similar to that of Bordeaux’s wine-producing region.

Chateau Changyu-Castel in Yantai.

Chateau Changyu-Castle in Yantai.

China is now the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. The way the country will be able to produce high quality wines in the future will be a fascinating process to observe. For sure, the market has a huge potential for growth (domestic production and import). It is expected to increase by 40% within the next three to four years to reach over 400 million unit cases. It would make China the largest global wine consumer in the world!

Dominic Bauquis     

 

Celeriac Recipes From Slovakia

Celeriac is one of my favourite root vegetables and, in last month’s issue of New Western Cuisine, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Chef Xu Long’s article presenting this healthy vegetable.

Although poorly considered by many people, Celeriac has considerable health benefits as a source of iron, anti-oxidants, vitamin C and polyacetylene, therefore helping the body improve immunity, blood production and resistance against diseases.

I come from Slovakia where we use celeriac mostly in autumn and winter. Here are two family recipes, one from my niece Beatka and one from my mother who was a great cook. It was always a feast for the family to meet at her home and I still regret that we did not sit with her and asked her to write the “Jolanka Maarova cookbook”.

BEATKA’s BREADED FRIED CELERIAC 

(Serves 3 to 4 persons)

Beatka's Breaded Fried Celeriac

Beatka’s Breaded Fried Celeriac

Ingredients

  • 6 small to medium sized celeriac bulbs
  • 10 tbsp. flour
  • 1.5 tsp. pepper
  • 3/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp of sweet paprika
  • 1 cup fine breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. dried parsley or 2 tbsp of fresh chopped parsley
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil, or as needed
  • 2 slices of lemon 

Method

– Peel and slice celeriac into ½ inch rounds. Immediately rub with slice of lemon to avoid discoloration.

– Steam rounds until just tender (must remain slightly crunchy), cool by immersing into ice water, then drain.

– Prepare your mise-en-place consisting of:

– Flour, pepper and salt

– Breadcrumbs, paprika and parsley

– Eggs well beaten (I normally add some milk or cream)

– Heat oil in skillet (there should be about half a centimeter on the bottom of the frying pan).

– Dip each celeriac round (both sides) first into flour mixture, then beaten egg, then breadcrumbs. Fry until golden brown, then flip and fry on the other side. Put on kitchen paper towel to absorb extra oil.

– Serve immediately with lemon wedges, parsley pesto and potato salad.

FILLET OF BEEF WITH HEAVY CREAM “A LA MAMI MAAROVA”

(Serves 4 persons) 

Fillet Of Beef With Heavy Cream “A la Mami Maarova”

Fillet Of Beef With Heavy Cream “A la Mami Maarova”

Ingredients 

  • 2lb of beef (sirloin or filet)
  • 2 or 3 strips of bacon
  • 4 carrots
  • 1 celeriac (can be replaced by parsnip or root of parsley)
  • 2 cups of red wine (medium dry)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 stalk of celery
  • lemon
  • cumin seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp of Dijon mustard

Method (over 3 days)

Day 1

– Peel and cut the celeriac, carrots and the celery in small chunks (1/2 cm each)

– Cook, along with black pepper, cumin, bay leaf and a slice of lemon, in 2 cups of water for about 2 minutes after the water comes to a boil.

– While the vegetables are cooling down, prepare the meat. Rinse it and dry it off with paper towels and then, using a sharp knife, cut slits all around. Insert bacon bits into the openings and season the meat (salt and pepper).

– Place the meat in a container together with the cold vegetables, the onion (cut in half), the peppercorns and add the red wine. Add more water if needed so that at least half of the meat is covered.

– Cover and place in the refrigerator for 48 hours. Turn the meat periodically to get it marinated on both sides.

Day 3

– Take the marinated meat out of the container.

– Heat up oil in a large pot, then lightly brown the meat on all sides.

– Chop up the onion and fry in the oil until it becomes glassy. Then add the rest of the vegetables and about a cup of the marinade.

– Cover and let it simmer for about one hour and a half. Add more marinade as needed to ensure that the meat remains wet.

– Check that the meat feels soft. Take it out and slice it.

– Prepare the sauce by blending the vegetables in the marinade and add heavy cream and Dijon mustard. Adjust the seasoning and let it warm up for 3 minutes.

– Serve with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes on the side.

Enjoy!

Summer Salads I

Temperatures in Beijing are climbing rapidly (it already reached 42 degrees C the other week!!!) and our diet is reflecting this drastic change with a lot of fresh vegetables and salads.

In my story on Exotic Spices and Herbs (please click here to read) I mentioned the cookbook “Jerusalem” that is the source of the following recipes (adapted from the original ones) where the Jewish and Palestinian cooking styles meet and co-exist in perfect harmony.

Fried Cauliflower with Tahini Dressing

Fried Cauliflower in Tahini Dressing

Fried Cauliflower with Tahini Dressing

Ingredients for 4 to 6 people:

1 kg Cauliflower (2 medium heads)

8 spring onions

180 gr of tahini

Parsley and mint (1/3 cup each) chopped

2 cloves of garlic crushed

150 gr of Greek yoghurt

6 cl of lemon juice

Zest of one lemon

50 cl of sunflower oil

1 tsp of pomegranate syrup

Salt & pepper for seasoning

Mint leaves for decoration (optional)

Method

1. Warm the oil in a large frying pan (medium to high heat).

2. Rinse and dry the cauliflower and start cooking the florets, 3 to 4 minutes each, while turning them around so they are colored evenly.

3. Once ready, place them on paper towel to remove the extra oil and season them lightly.

4. Repeat the operation until all the cauliflower has been cooked.

5. Fry quickly the spring onion in the same oil (1 minute). Then add it to the cauliflower and put aside. Let it cool down.

6. In a large salad bowl, place tahini, garlic, parsley, mint, yoghurt, lemon juice, lemon zest, and pomegranate syrup.

7. Mix well while adding 1/3 cup of water to obtain a smooth paste (with a consistency similar to honey and not too liquid).

8. Place the cauliflower and spring onion in the salad bowl and toss carefully.

9. Check seasoning and adjust it. Eventually, add some lemon juice.

10. Place some mint leaves on top for decoration (optional).

It is ready to serve with pita bread. Enjoy!

Eggplant Sandwich “Meli-Melo”

This dish actually does not originate from Jerusalem but from the nearby city of Ramat Gan, where it was created by Iraqi Jews in the 1950’s. It perfectly summarizes the culinary influences of the region: Arabic, Sefarade, Yemenite and Israeli.

Eggplant Sandwich 'Meli Melo'

Eggplant Sandwich “Meli-Melo”

Ingredients for 4 people:

2 large eggplants

4 pieces of pita bread

4 boiled eggs sliced or cut in quarters

Tahini sauce

4 Tbs of Zhoug Amba *

Spicy mango condiment (optional) – Mango chutney is NOT recommended as it is too sweet and not appropriate for this particular recipe

For the salad

2 medium size tomatoes (200 gr) cut in chunks

1 cucumber (120 gr) cut in chunks

2 spring onions thinly sliced

1.5 Tbs of chopped parsley

For the salad dressing

2 tsp of lemon juice

1.5 Tbs of olive oil

Salt & pepper for seasoning

* for the Zhoug

Mix the following ingredients together with 2 table spoons of water. The paste should be a bit rough and not smooth. It can be kept in the fridge in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks maximum.

35 gr of coriander roughly cut

10 gr of parsley

2 spicy green chillies roughly cut

½ tsp of cumin (powder)

¼ tsp of cardamom (powder)

¼ tsp of cloves (powder)

¼ tsp of salt

1 pinch of sugar

1 clove of garlic (crushed)

2 Tbs of olive oil

Method

1. Slice eggplants in length (2.5 cm thick slices).

2. Salt on both sides to make it release waterand let it rest for 30 minutes.

3. Warm the sun flower oil in a large frying pan (medium to high heat) and place the dried eggplant slices. Count 4 to 5 minutes on each side to have them nicely grilled and cooked in the middle.

4. Place them on paper towel to remove the extra oil and let them cool down.

5. Prepare the salad by mixing tomato, cucumber, and spring onions. Add lemon juice, oil and seasoning and toss well.

Plating

6. Place a pita bread on each plate. Put one table spoon of tahini on top (try to spread it well).

7. Put slices of aubergines on top and add tahini on top.

8. Place egg slices on top and drizzle with tahini.

9. Add a little Zhoug Amba (optional) that is VERY spicy and eventually the mango condiment.

10. Add the salad on top and decorate with chopped parsley.

Alternatively, one can stuff the pita bread with the meli-melo of vegetables but, regardless of the way it is prepared, it is simply delicious!

Exotic Spices And Herbs

When I was growing up it was impossible for my mother to get me to help her with cooking. My mind was definitely not on preparing meals. I was interested in travel and would think of distant lands and exotic shores far away from Central Europe.

It was not until I went to visit my aunt who lived in Hungary that my interest in spices and herbs started to develop. The month I spent with her was an eye opening experience. She took me to markets where they sold traditional Hungarian spices including the famed “sweet and spicy paprika” used in Hungarian fish soup, goulash and a host of other recipes. I also discovered beautiful lavender honey, superb fruits and the spiciest green peppers ever!

I returned home a changed person. My travel dreams continued but this time I also dreamt of various spices coming from distance places as well.

During my first trip to Lyon in France last December, after purchasing a “Persian Cuisine” cookbook by Neda Afrashi and “Jerusalem” written by a duet of chefs, one Palestinian and one Jewish, I decided to look for spices in order to prepare some of the recipes in these two cook books.

My friend Veronique told me that the best place was the original Bahadourian grocery store, a teeming bazaar of exotic products, established in the neighbourhood of La Guillotière.

At the Bahadourian store...

At the Bahadourian store…

Initially, the Bahadourian family members were wealthy farmers from central Anatolia that had to leave during an exodus in 1915. After living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, they eventually settled in France and started from scratch this family-run business in 1929.

Spices galore at the Bahadourian

Spices galore at the Bahadourian

The original 40-sqm shop became over the years a 600-sqm “Ali Baba cavern” full of exotic spices, aromatic herbs, condiments and products rarely found in traditional grocery shops. The smell of saffron, star anise, cumin and hundreds of other products make the visit a unique experience enhanced by the friendliness and availability of the staff eager to help and advise their clients.  Below the shops, the caves have been turned into a real treasure trove where items are carefully stored and products bought in bulk are packaged into small containers/boxes for retail sales.

I eventually bought sumac and saffron that I cannot easily find in Beijing. I also got Espelette pepper, a variety of chili pepper cultivated in the southwest city of Espelette in France and classified AOC. Interestingly, Pere Armand David who discovered the Milu deer for western science was born in this town. The plant, originally from Mexico, is recognized for its perfect balance between spiciness and aroma and I had wanted to use it as a valuable alternative to black pepper and pepper from Sichuan and Hunan provinces for a long time.

Sumac and Piment d'Espelette

Sumac and Piment d’Espelette

Needless to say that these spices are put to good use these days in Beijing and below are two recipes from the cook books I bought in Lyon that I am most happy to share with you!

SPINACH SALAD WITH DATES AND ALMONDS  

From “Jerusalem” by chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds from the 'Jerusalem' cookbook.

Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds from the “Jerusalem” cookbook.

The original recipe uses Pita bread but I replaced it with bread croutons.

Ingredients for 4 people:

1/2 red onion, sliced thinly

1 Tbsp of white wine vinegar (apple cider vinegar is an alternative option)

2 bunches of spinach

100 g of dates cut lengthwise in 4 pieces

30 g of butter

1 Tbsp of olive oil

2 pita bread cut in small pieces

75 g of almonds (chopped not too finely)

2 tsp of sumac

1/2 tsp of chili flakes

For the dressing:

2 Tbsp of lemon

2 Tbsp of olive oil

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Method:

1. Slice the red onion in small pieces and mix it with the vinegar, dates and a pinch of salt. Let is marinate for 20 minutes and drain the remaining vinegar (if any).

REMARK: As I do not like onion raw, I have it sautéed quickly in a frying pan and let it cool down before mixing it by hand with the other ingredients.

2. Rinse and dry the spinach carefully.

3. Put the butter and olive oil in a frying pan and cook the chopped almond and sliced pita bread (or bread croutons) for 5/6 minutes for the bread to be golden and crispy.

4. Get if off the fire and immediately add sumac, chili flakes and salt and mix it well with bread and almond. Let it cool down.

5. Once cooled, put all ingredients in a salad bowl, add the dressing and toss.

STEAMED FISH FILET “QALIEH MAHI” 

From “Persian Cuisine” by Neda Afrashi

Steamed Fish Filet from the "Persian Cuisine" cookbook

Steamed Fish Filet from the “Persian Cuisine” cookbook

According to Neda Afrashi, Qalieh Mahi is one of the very few Persian fish recipes where the fish is not simply fried and it is why I tried this recipe first.

Ingredients for 4 people:

800 g of fish filets (sea bass or similar fishes)

½ onion, sliced thinly

1 head of garlic

1 Tbsp of tamarind paste

¾ of a liter of water (75 cl)

1 Tbsp of olive oil

2 Tbsp of flour

1 tsp of curcuma (turmeric)

1 pinch of sugar

1 to 2 tsp of spicy paprika

1 cup of fresh coriander

1 to 2 Tbsp of fenugreek

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Method:

1. Salt the fish filets.

2. Chop finely the coriander leaves (stems removed).

3. Dilute the tamarind paste in 0,75 liter of warm water.

4. Slice onion and garlic and have it sautéed in a large pan with 1 Tbsp of olive oil. Add the flour and let it cook for 2/3 minutes while stirring to avoid burning it.

5. Add the curcuma, sugar and paprika and mix it all together.

6. Add the chopped coriander leaves and fenugreek and keep it on low fire for a few minutes until you smell the herbs aroma.

7. Place the fish filets on top (of the onion and herbs), season and add the water perfumed with tamarind (3/4 of a liter). Bring to a boil quickly and then cover the pan and let it simmer on low fire for 30 minutes without turning the fish filets.

8. Serve immediately with your favourite rice.

REMARK:  1 or 2 dried green lemon sliced in halves can be added after the fish filets are placed in the pan.

Enjoy!

Pasta With Kale Pesto

Pasta With Kale Pesto

Pasta With Kale Pesto

I recently prepared a new recipe with Kale that worked very well. Basically it incorporates kale in a pesto recipe, which makes it an interesting option to a more standard kale salad.

Pesto ingredients for 4 people:

4 cups of packed torn kale leaves, stems removed

1 cup of fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup of toasted walnuts

2 to 4 cloves of garlic (based on personal taste)

1 Tbs of lemon

1 Tsp of salt

1/3 cup of olive oil

1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Pepper for seasoning

Pasta

One can select one’s favorite pasta (I prefer penne or fusilli for this dish).

Method

1. Boil water and start preparing pasta.

2. Rinse and dry the kale (hard stems removed) and the basil leaves.

2. Put kale, basil, and salt in a food processor. Pulse until the leaves are finely chopped.

3. Add half of the oil, lemon juice, walnuts, garlic and process again.

4. Add the rest of the oil, the grated Parmesan cheese and pepper. Process quickly to mix it well.

5. Toss with your favorite pasta, add some freshly grated Parmesan on top and serve immediately.

Enjoy!

Easter Boneless Leg of Lamb

With Easter just around the corner, I would like to share my family’s recipe for the Easter Lamb Sunday lunch. Although the original recipe that my Mother passed down to me was for a small goat, I substituted the small goat with a small lamb. Here is the recipe:

Easter Boneless Leg of Lamb

Easter Boneless Leg of Lamb

For lamb:

1 leg of lamb (about 1.25 to 2.25 kg) de-boned if preferred

10 to 12 slices of smoked bacon

2 whole heads of garlic cut horizontally

8 garlic sliced

5 sprigs of rosemary

3 sprigs of thyme

young, small carrots peeled

young, new potatoes well cleaned

salt and pepper

For sauce:

1 clove garlic

4 tbsp of olive oil

bunch of Italian parsley leaves only (the one with flat leaves is more fragrant than the one with curly leaves)

500 ml of red wine

salt and pepper

Method:

1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Make slits all over the lamb and insert rosemary, sliced garlic and part of the bacon.

3. Season lamb all over with pepper, rosemary and thyme.

4. Pour olive oil over the lamb and in a skillet, fry to seal the juices in.

5. Transfer to roasting pan, add the cut up two heads of garlic, the rest of the bacon, sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes, turn on the other side and return to oven for one hour.

6. Add potatoes and carrots and roast for another 45 minutes, basting two or three times with pan juices.

7. Remove from roasting pan and let it sit for about 15 minutes while preparing the sauce.

8. To the pan add 500 ml of red wine, the parsley, salt and pepper and boil on top of the stove. If there is too much oil or fat, remove with spoon and discard.

9. Slice the lamb, arrange with the potatoes and carrots. Pour the sauce over the meat and serve.

Bon appetit!