Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Muhammara - Syrian roasted pepper dip

I've always wanted to go to Syria. And though I finally have a passport that's free of those Israeli stamps that would stop my journey right at the border it would seem I'd better hold off those travel plans for now. And focus on food travelling instead.

Muhammara is originally Syrian dip made of roasted pepper and walnuts that has since gained popularity around Middle East. It gets the name from its red colour. It is a great addition to a meze table as a dip for pita crisps or crudites, as a spread in a sandwich and as a cold sauce for grilled meats such as köftes or pinchitos.

Muhammara has a distant relative in the Eastern European cuisine as well:  this is similar to adjiki- paste that I have encountered both in the market halls of Tallinn and the Ukrainian Pelmenit- restaurant in Kallio. And it does have more than a passing resemblance to the Spanish romesco sauce.

Each Fatima and Aisha has her own way of doing it - this is mine. Feel free to alter it and make it your own carefully guarded family recipe! The key ingredients are roasted peppers, a couple of spices and toasted walnuts.  Some recipes call for breadcrumbs to thicken the sauce, but mine is bread-free and , as such, gluten- and carb-free. Though walnut is the traditionally used nut for this, it does have a tart taste that not everyone likes, so it could be substituted with a milder tasting nut or almonds.

I used a 260g jar of roasted piquillo peppers that I also used for Pimientos Rellenos. If you roast your own peppers (see instructions here) you will need three largeish ones.

This was a great opportunity to put that pomegranate syrup to use - it hasn't seen much action since those Syrian chicken livers!
3 roasted red peppers
100 g walnuts
1 garlic clove
1/2 chilli
1/2 onion
1,5 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1/2 tsp paprika powder
1-2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
dash of lemon juice
salt, black pepper

Toast the nuts either on a dry pan or in the oven at 175°. Keep an eye on them and be careful not to burn them! Roast the peppers and blizz all ingredients in a blender apart from the spices and oil. Toast the spices on a dry pan for a while and then add oil. Mix and pour into the blender. Add pomegranate molasses and lemon juice to taste and season. I'd recommend to let this sit in the cold at least for an hour before serving as this helps the flavours to develop and come together. This also thickens the texture. Scatter some freshly ground black pepper on top and serve with parsley, lemon and toasted pita.

And no, after the previous flatbread fiasco I did not make my own pita. Though the Arabic flatbread I served with the chicken livers might work as well...
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Monday, 29 July 2013

Mad about the markets vol. 2

An urban dweller like me, living in the concrete jungle without a freezer or a car is not - courtesy of the previously listed reasons - often found storing and pickling the harvest from her own garden for the winter. Nor can she be found squatting over the berries in the woods. Or foraging wild mushrooms. No matter how much I would love to. Luckily city's market halls compensate that nature-free existence and they too are brimming with seasonal produce right now.

The produce might be local, but the prices are often just plain loco.

Local vs. imported-debate has many facets. Carbon footprint? Quality? Freshness? Local jobs? As a foodie I love places like this and realize that they don't stay in business out of the admirers' oohs and aaahs alone - they have to earn a living by selling those goods. But I really don't understand who can afford to shop at places like this? A colleague of mine has a summer place surrounded with woods full of wild berries and mushrooms that produce so much harvest she has enough to delight us long into the following summer. "Go! To the woods!" she can be heard ranting in the coffee room at this time of the year, waging her own mutiny against the extortionate prices.

And though I am - occasionally anyway - willing to pay extra for the local produce (for the reasons listed in the first paragraph I don't exactly have a choice), last trip just might have broken the back of this consumer's proverbial camel. I knew I needed some chilli. But couldn't remember if I had some back home. So I bought one. Just in case. And since they had Finnish variety too, I conscientiously went for that one. I thought I'd heard the price wrong, but as the lady at the counter repeated it I found myself paralyzed with outrage and couldn't but hand over the money. €1.90? For one chilli

Screw specialty shops - I'll be doing my foraging in the generic, uncharming supermarket aisles from now on.

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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Soup Sunday: Italian wedding soup

Soup Sunday continues with the Italian theme, though today there will be no pasta. Though some recipes do call for that, too. Today's soup is Italian wedding soup, though calm down, I've not been sucked into the vortex of wedding planning (though I probably should try and get excited about it). This soup got its name as a result of a misunderstanding.

The original name comes from the expression "minestra maritata", which apparently refers to how well meat marries with leafy vegetables. At its most puristic the recipe is that simple: chicken stock base, meat (usually in the form of meatballs or sausage meat) and leaves (kale, cabbage, spinach...)

Wikipedia also shed some light on the origins of the tradition of serving this dish around Christmas time in the regions of Lazio and Campania - it stems from the time the areas were occupied by the Spanish! Their version though, known especially around Toledo region, was heavier and meatier than this version, rooted in American-Italian tradition in particular.

As with all the traditional dishes there are more versions than anyone has fingers to keep track of. Some have chicken pulled form the bone, some have pasta, some have beans and/or lentils and varying quantities of vegetables. Mine is very close to the "most traditional", though one tip I did pinch form Food Network's Giada de Laurentiis. Her recipe subsitutes pasta with thin strands of lightly whisked eggs combined with grated parmesan. It does help keep the soup summery and light - and makes the soup free of both carbs and gluten. Based on availability and your own taste you can use just about any leaves you want - Savoy cabbage and bok choy for instance work beautifully. Dazzled as I was about the new harvest I used new onions, new cabbage, fresh spinach and fresh green beans - left from the summer soup- bonanza.

I made the meatballs out of mix of pork and beef to make them less fatty than all-pork-ones, but you can use that too. And I'm sure you could use miced chicken too. In order to keep the soup both carb- and gluten-free I made the meatballs without breadcrumbs/ soaked bread too. If, unlike yours truly, you're not still in the early stages of learning to cook with cheese, you can double the amount of parmesan given below and add an egg to bind it all together.

This yields 6 portions


400 g mince
the zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 chilli
2 cloves of garlic
1 smallish onion
1/2 dl grated parmesan
(or 1 dl parmesan and 1 egg)
2 handfuls of chopped parsley

The soup

1,5 litres good chicken stock
1 large fennel (2 if they're small)
1/2  cabbage head (the whole one was about 550 g)
50 g spinach leaves
100 g fresh green beans
2 handfuls of spring onion stalks (appr. 3 stems) OR 1 onion
2 handfuls of chopped parsley
zest of 1/2 lemon
3 allspice peppers

2 eggs (+2 tbsp parmesan)

More parmesan for garnish

For meatballs sauté finely chopped onion and garlic in a pan with some oil. Once they're soft and translucent mix with the rest of the ingredients. Knead into a smooth mixture and let sit in the cold for about half an hour allowing the flavours to come together. Roll into even-sized balls of desired size. I made 28 balls - do remember that the size also affects the cooking time.

Peel off fennel's outer, leathery skin, remove the hard stalk and slice thinly. Trim the beans and chop into smaller batons. Cut the cabbage in half, remove the hard core and slice into thin strips. If your spinach is fine leaves, use them as are. If they're the big, leathery kind, remove the stalk and vut into thin strips. If using onions, peel the outer layer, cut in half and slice thinly.

Bring stock to boil. Add allspice peppers. Then add the ingredients in cooking order. First fennel (and onion if using), then meatballs (mine took about 7 minutes to cook), a couple of minutes after this beans and cabbage and a couple of minutes before the end spinach. Once the meatballs are done, stir in grated lemon zest, chopped spring onion stalks (if using) and parsley.

Lightly whisk 2 eggs (with parmesan if using) and pour into the soup in a thin ribbon while continuing to stir. Remove form heat and serve with freshly grated parmesan.

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Saturday, 27 July 2013

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara is, in all its simplicity, probably one of my all time favourites. In addition to my Dad's Spag Bol, that is. At its best it's rich and voluptious, without being smothered by a heavy cream sauce.

The most puristic recipes actually don't even use any cream, but the creaminess comes from the egg yolk- parmesan- mixture. If it does, however, look like it's not quite creamy enough, I wouldn't shoot anyone for adding a tiny splash of cream. Especially if the cook in question is still in the middle of her cheese aversion therapy. I can't vouch for the Italians though.

Sure I have been eating quite a bit a lot pasta of late, but on the menu in Hanko Carbonara was one of the dishes I simply couldn't stomach (literally). And I had to put that bucatini I bought from there to use one way or another, right?

Traditionally this is, of course, made with spaghetti, but I just love that plump chewiness of bucatini. Another key ingredient is black pepper, which needs to be freshly ground from the mill. I believe in that ready-made-powdered stuff even less than I believe in baby Jesus and will not abide by it at a restaurant table either. Freshly ground variety has more kick to it and inspired by Finnish Cacio e Pepe - blog I gently toasted mine on a pan, which really took the fragrance to a whole new level.

I admit: in authenticity stakes this has nothing on its Roman cousins - they would probably kick this one's arse for the use of garlic alone but I love it. Usually I make this out of bacon, but often I use Serrano ham - seeing how that's something I have lurking about most of the time. This time I used taquitos (those chunks of serrano ham used in cooking that the beans were cooked with in habas con jamón we had in Benalmadena).

In Tel Aviv I've even had Carbonara with duck (how decadent is that?) and seeing how last time in Spain I found some duck ham (so unbelievably rich and yummy - especially with cranberry jelly!) I just might have to give that a go too...!

The quantity of yolks needed depends of the type os pasta too - bucatini is quite a bit thicker than spaghetti, so you will probably need more of them to provide the kind of creamy coating this dish calls for.

For 2

2 portions of spahgetti/ bucatini (à 75-100g)

100 g bacon/ Pancetta/ lardons/ Parma ham/ Serrano ham/ taquitos
2 cloves of garlic
1 dl grated parmesan
3 -4 egg yolks
(depends on the size - if yours are really big, even 2 might do. Mine were small.)
black pepper

Separate tolks from the whites. Whites can be used for meringues or macaroons. Beat the yolks lightly and mix in the cheese. Roast bacon/ ham in a pan until crunchy. Keep the heat fairly moderate, this way they don't burn, but crispen up nicely rendering the fat.

Lift the bacon/ham off the pan and if they are very fatty, drain on kitchen towel. Leave some aside for finishing the portions.

Depending on the amount of fat your meat has left behind (a couple of tablespoons would be ideal) add some butter in the pan (yikes! I know! I just find that butter adds the kind of richness that works better than oil with the salty edginess of bacon and parmesan) and sauté finely sliced garlic over gentle heat. Last thing you want it to fo is to get colour and burn - then it's just bitter. A.k.a. bad.

Once garlic and the residual fat have cooled a bit, add them into the yolk-cheese-mixture. Wipe the pan dry and toast some black pepper in it.

Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. Once it's a little but shy of al dente, lift it into the pan with the black pepper. No need to drain it first - a little bit of the starchy cooking liquid won't hurt. Toss in the bacon bits and cook for a while until cooked (add some more pasta water if needed). Remove from the heat and quickly fold in the yolks and cheese. If you do this while the heat is still on, the eggs start scrambling which we don't want. The heat of the pasta (and any residual cooking water) will make sure the final product will be cooked to creamy perfection.

Divide onto plates (preferably heated with some boiling water - feel free to use the pasta water) and sprinkle the remaining bacon bits on top. Grate some parmesan on top. And why not some more of that black pepper, too. Because of the cheese and bacon there shouldn't be need to add any salt at any point.
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Friday, 26 July 2013

Finnish-Swedish summer paradise

As much as I've been raving about those idyllic places Southern Sweden seems to be full of (like Vaxholm and Grinda), our recent roadtrip went to show that Finland isn't doing too bad in that department either. In Spain we daytrip and explore new places with Livingstonian lust almost every day, but it's so easy to forget just how much there is to see in Finland too. Just a couple of hours away there's a gateway to our very own summer paradise!

Not only did our micro-holiday in Coastal Finland have stunning scenery and charming little towns in store, but we were also in for some delightful surprises. In Degerby, in the middle of ingenstans, we found a little deli that stocked fresh sausages, scallops, fresh basil and lobster among other things. Ok, so the lobster was frozen. But still! My neighbourhood shop in Central Helsinki doesn't come anywhere close! They even make their own Serrano ham on the coast!

We continued our journey from Hanko with a picnic in Tammisaari.

In Hanko a gloriously tanned and handsome (in that wholesome, sail-boat-owing Swedish way) young man handed me an invite to a jazz festival. In Swedish. According to Vegetarian and Tzatziki champion I have my conservative, pearl earringed, blonde chignoned, sweater-seemingly-carelessly-wrapped-around my shoulders- attire to blame for that. High on all this idyll I decided to become a Swedish-speaker too when I grow up. Until I realized that in Swedish I sound like a total chav...

Coastal Finland is mainly the domain of the Swedish-speaking population (about 6% of the Finns actually speak Swedish as their mother tongue) and as delightful as our precision strike into the heart of Finnish-Swedish psyche was, we couldn't help but wonder. 

Where are the characters that shape the Finnish-speaking Finland? The homeless drunks shouting profanities at total strangers? The psych ward out-patients one can't not bump into everywhere in Helsinki? The Goth teens with their faces full of safetypins  and angst? I'd gladly trade those in for lobster any day. No matter how frozen...
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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Hello Hanko!

After fuelling myself with carbs at Makaronitehdas my energy levels would have seen me through a marathon. My fitness levels, however, were only enough for exploring Hanko.

Hanko really comes to life in the summer - it is so beautiful and one should definitely make the trip there at least once.

There's plenty of sea which I love and miles and miles of those legendary sandy beaches...

No matter how full one's stomach is, it's hard to say no to the cakes at this cafe, Neljän Tuulen Tupa. It used to be ran by a certain Count (and General Mannerheim) who then went into politics. With a degree of success in that field too - he went on to become the president who lead Finland through war.

Sun didn't exactly spoil us señoritas urbanitas, but with everything else coming together so nicely I couldn't really complain.

Hanko's glorious history lives on in this Southernmost tip of Finland. This used to be a spa town popular among the high and mighty where the elite used to flock, to pass the season in their absurdly beautiful lace-like wooden villas.

I wouldn't say now to one of those Chechocvian dreams either . I would waltz from one room to next in my white linen dress (Miss Havisham, anyone?), twirling my lace parasol, guarding my alabaster skin as to attract a wealthy suitor over to court me.  I don't think the current paramour could afford one of these on top of that Spanish dream...

Luckily many of the old villas have been converted to pensionats where anyone can medicate the angst of depressingly wealthless and parasol-free existence, one night at a time.

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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Macaroni madness in Hanko

Finnish summer is wonderful. But unfortunately it is also short. And somewhat fickle, too. Heat waves and record-breaking temperatures are over before the ink on the headlines (much like the Brits, we Finns are obsessed with weather) promising them has even dried. As I make my way to the beach in my bikini, I pack a cardi. You know, just in case. In the morning as I head to the office, I never know whether I'll be trawling back home 8 hours later in a hurricane or sunshine.

So, summer has a way of making people slightly psychotic. One has to do, see, travel and remember as much as is humanly possibe to squeeze in those few weeks. There are events, festivals and theme days for just about every day of the long-awaited summer.

I've not been safe from the voice stubbornly screaming at the back of my head either, telling me to go do some culture. So, spurred on by that Vegetarian and Tzatziki Champion and I packed the car and headed to Hanko with the latest addition to our circle: a 4-month-old bichon frisé Rocco. I'm not going to tell you who he was named after. But I'm not going to say it didn't have anything to do with certain Italian adult film star either.

The suggestion of a girls' road trip was greeted with squeals of enthusiasm. Though I think something might have gotten lost in translation. "Macaron factory! Is it even legal to drive under the influence of that much sugar?" As I explained that this was a macaroni factory, poor girls thought I'd actually arranged a tour of a pasta plant to ease my longing for proper Italian food.

And though they do in fact make their own pasta here, Hanko macaroni factory (Hangon makaronitehdas in Finnish) is first and foremost a restaurant. And what a restaurant it is...

In addition to pasta that they create with such passion and dedication the restaurant is specialized in quality wines and Champagne. The most eagle-eyed ones probably already picked up on which Champagne house they collaborate with... And I didn't complain - it's not often this yellow favourite of ours is available by the glass, so we kicked the lunch off in rather festive spirits.

Many things sounded interesting on the starter menu but the ones that found their way to our table were Carpaccio and Vitello Tonnato. Carpaccio was excellent. Vitello Tonnato was too, though the outset wasn't too encouraging: Tzatziki Champion, a closeted Italian also makes the best tonnato I've ever had. In this tonnato the vinegary edginess did cut through the rich oiliness of the tuna, but with such intensity that it was a tad too much. So it has to settle for second place in the ranking. Being in Top 2 is not a bad thing by any means. Unless you're Andy Murray, of course.

With the mains things got even trickier. Neither one of the companions feast on carbs. Which left me browsing through pasta menu, trying to choose which one to settle for with increasing exasperation. So many choices! Only one stomach! Everything in the menu sounded so inviting I simply couldn't choose. I was breaking sweat and ready to call in Ban Ki-Moon to mediate. Luckily by the time I found myself reasoning that Hanko is a 2-hour drive away so I wouldn't be back any time soon so I'd better make the most of this trip even if meant eating 3 pasta dishes all by myself the help came in the form of restaurant's wonderful and kind staff.

Children's half-portion is available for every pasta on the menu so they offered to make me those. I could practically hear the clouds parting and the angelic choir stepping through, surrounded by the divine rays and blasting out Halleluja.

And so I happily settled for not having to settle for just one and feasted on Fungi, Agnello and Sausage pasta.

Fungi "fragrantly creamy funnel chantarelle - porchini pasta") was indeed so fragrant that Vegetarian couldn't take her eyes off my plate. Wonderful, gently comforting dish. Personally I might have added a drop or two of truffle oil to give the mushroominess just a bit more depth.

I was excited about the next one as it was the most popular dish on the menu: Agnello (chunks of lamb fillet marinated in basil and garlic oil"). For this one too I was left longing for a bit more punch (my own palate is clearly to blame, being used to stronger flavours) and garlickiness. Basil wasn't very prominent, but the pots of herb they have at every table provided a quirky first aid kit. The lamb itself was so succulent I couldn't have asked for more.

In spite of the "doing things from the scratch and sourcing ingredients locally"- spirit the lamb was not from the West Coast, famous for their lamb. It came from New Zealand as the restaurant manager explained that while the Finnish counterpart does meet the quality standards, the availability and price unfortunately don't. Too bad, that. But unfortunately not the first time I've encountered this. Makes you wonder though. I knew that Finnish produce was expensive but that is just insane. How on earth can it be cheaper to fly in meat from literally across the planet than buy it a couple of kilometres away?!

And their pasta? I fear I just might like mine a tad overcooked and limp to a point it would send Sergios into fits of rage. The bucatini in this dish made me promise I'd mend my ways. Bucatini is my favourite and this one, made from the scratch and cooked to perfection was just... well, perfect.

My personal favourite was yet to arrive though. I have already before waxed lyrical about my love of sausage and earlier in the spring I even tried to sign up for a (sold out) "make your own sausage"- workshop.  So naturally I just had to have Sausage pasta ("home-made country sausage in tomato sauce gently spiced with chili"). And I'm glad I did. Personally I might have liked the sauce with a little bit more chilli, but the sausage, bursting with chilli and fennel was every bit as rustic as it could.

By now hunger was the last thing in my mind. But seeing how they don't yet have a branch in Helsinki (they're scouting the perfect location) and how Hanko is 2 hours away and how it's better to be safe than sorry and how 3 is an odd number which surely means bad luck (irrational? Crazy? Greedy? Moi?)...

Three is (a good) company

... so naturally I had to have something fishy too, right? You know, for a balanced view? So Frutti ("mussels and octopus braised in saffron- infused lobster stock") got the honour of serving as my pudding. And a good pudding it was. This pasta didn't swim in the sauce either, but the lobster stock (home-made!) packed so much flavour my shellfish stock was left doing the dishes.

Ice cream isn't made on site, but comes from Caminito in Kouvola. It was superb though. The mint on the other hand is grown in their own garden. I had limoncello instead. Surely it has some digestive superfood effects...?

The decor in this restaurant, housed in one of the old warehouses by the harbour is casual and comfortable. The only thing we didn't particuarly warm to was music- it was more suited for happy hour at a trendy cocktail bar than it was for a leiurely Saturday lunch. Or perhaps I have become that dreaded old fart.

Customer service warrants its own entry: they have that. Bucket-loads. With smile.

Prices for the pasta are a little shy of €20. You can also buy their home-made pasta to take home with you, but cheap it ain't. I bought 2 portions of bucatini (made only minutes before - it doesn't get much fresher than this!) which set me back €6/ portion. But I dare you to find better in Finland. The pricetag for my lunch, consisting of 2 full-size portions of pasta, a large glass of wine and limoncello, came to €72. Was it worthy? Oh yeah. Virginia Woolf, whose quote " one cannot think well or love well if one hasn't dined well" greets diners at the door really needn't worry.
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