Bessara

One of the most comforting and easy to prepare soups for the winter months is Moroccan Bessara.  I first came across this delicious dish on my first trip to Morocco. I traversed the country with a young driver called Abdel ‘adim who was an expert in street food and Moroccan music… the best introduction to the simple dishes of the country as well as a stunning collection of tunes.

I still love eating bessara in the Medina of Fes el Bali with a fresh loaf from the neighbourhood bakery and mint tea made by one of the experts of the medina. Can’t think of anything better on a cold day!  If you can’t find ready peeled and split beans, you will have to soak and skin the whole beans (an extremely tedious business).

Bessara

500 g dried small peeled broad (fava) beans
6 cloves garlic, peeled
salt
extra virgin olive oil
ground cumin
hot paprika

Pick over and rinse the broad beans.
Put them  in a saucepan with the garlic, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Do not salt at this stage!
Skim any scum that rises to the surface and simmer for an hour or until the broad beans are soft and starting to fall apart.
Stir well with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot to make sure that they do not stick and burn and mash them against the sides of the pot until a thick soup is obtained. (or puree with a mixing wand).
Stir in 1/4 cup of olive oil, salt to taste and 1 tbsp cumin and cook for a further five minutes.

Serve in small soup bowls. Pour another tablespoon of oil onto the surface of each bowl of bessara, sprinkle with extra ground cumin and serve with hot pepper or chilli on the side.

Fresh bread and fried eggs make this a filling and satisfying meal.

NB Fresh cumin is of the utmost importance as is the quality of the extra virgin olive oil.

Violet Ice-cream

After quite a bit of thought and fiddling around, I finally came up with a violet ice-cream recipe.  Not too much colour… very subtle flavour, most of it coming as an after-taste, like most perfumes  (think truffle, jasmine… an ethereal waft that floats between the nostrils and the tip of your tongue).

Violet Ice-cream

4 egg yolks
135g sugar
400 ml full cream milk
100 ml heavy cream, chilled
1 tbsp Monin violet syrup
1 tbsp violet liqueur (Creme de Violettes)
2 drops pink food colouring
2 drops blue food colouring

Heat the milk with half the sugar taking care not to let it boil.
Beat the yolks with the remaining sugar until the mixture is thick and white.
Slowly pour the heated milk over the yolk mixture, beating well.
Return the mixture to the saucepan and simmer, whisking continuously, until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon.
Make sure it doesn’t boil.  If you have a candy thermometer, the temperature of the mixture should reach 85°C.  Remove from the heat immediately. Stir well and add the chilled cream. Flavour with the violet syrup and liqueur and tint with the food colouring.
Cool completely and churn in an ice-cream churn.
Garnish with fresh or crystallised violets.

Imperial Mandarins

Winter is officially here… the weather in Melbourne has been crisp but deliciously sunny – the leaves are still falling and the air is misty.   Couldn’t resist buying a bunch of the first white jonquils to appear and am loving their heady perfume. Piles of shiny mandarins are in all the fruit shops and markets, golden, fragrant and juicy.  Time to make the first Mandarin Sorbet of the season. My take on sorbets is that they should taste more like the fruit than the fruit itself… with that third dimension that  I like to call the IMAX effect… !  Adding an alcohol made from the same fruit used to make the sorbet gives it a depth and smooth texture that is otherwise hard to achieve without adding too much sugar and making it oversweet.
An ice cream churn is a must to get the smooth, ice free texture that makes your sorbet so perfect – I’ve had my trusty Simac Il Gelataio for nearly 30 years.  (It’s a huge monster but I wouldn’t be without it… the results are perfect every time and it has only needed a service twice since I’ve owned it.) It lives on a shelf in my pantry and never comes out except for spring cleaning.

Several types of mandarins appear as the season progresses but only the Imperial variety is fragrant enough for making sorbet with a flavour to make you swoon.

MANDARIN SORBET

500 ml mandarin juice
250 ml simple syrup (1:1 sugar/water)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp finely grated mandarin zest (use fine microplane)
2 tbsp Mandarin Napoleon liqueur

Combine all the ingredients in a jug and chill.
Taste for sugar and acidity adding more syrup or lemon juice if needed.
Churn until smooth.  Transfer to a container and freeze for a few hours to let the flavours develop.

A little salad of fresh mandarin segments tossed in a tbsp sugar syrup and a tsp Mandarin Napoleon is a lovely accompaniment.

Violet Time

Violet products

I was visiting friends in the country last week. It was a grey day and the autumn colours were rendered even more brilliant for having been washed by the rain. The rain let up just before I arrived and a quick tour of the garden before lunch had me lusting after the huge crop of violets peeking out from under heart shaped dark leaves.
Melancholy, cool days with the pigeon-breast skies and falling leaves that herald the arrival of winter winter have me  feeling like changing my summer fig perfume for Penhaligon’s Violetta and snuggle on the couch under a soft woolen throw with a good book and relaxing music. A little vase of fresh violets always makes me smile too.  It is a shame they have such a short vase life although I have found that, if they are sprayed with a light mist of water several times a day, they can last up to four or five days.
I keep a little tin of Violette flavoured “Les Anis de Flavigny” pastilles on the side table or in my handbag. These are violet flavoured sugar drops concealing a grain of  real aniseed… a wonderful pick me up and mouth freshener. (I prefer Orange Blossom and Rose flavours the rest of the year)

If a friend comes to visit, we may have an Aviation Cocktail made with Creme de Violette liqueur or, if that is too much trouble, a glass of sparkling white wine  or even plain water with a splash of Monin Violet syrup to set the mood.   This season, with all these wonderful violet products as well as a fresh supply of crystallised violets in the pantry, I may just try to make some violet icecream…. shall keep you posted.

Purim

Today is the Jewish festival of Purim commemorating the salvation from annihilation of the Jewish community of Persia thanks to their Jewish queen, Esther, around the 4th century BCE.
The above link gives full details of the festival as well as the customs and foods associated with its celebration.
It is a joyous time, especially  for children who dress up  and are allowed to make lots of noise in the synagogue to drown out the name of Haman, the villain of the piece, each time it is mentioned during the reading of the Book of Esther. It is traditional to send gifts of food and drink to one’s family and friends and to make charitable donations to the needy.  It is a festival where drinking to excess is not only permitted, but encouraged!
My sister, cousins and I dressed up for Purim in the mid 1950s

The traditional pastry baked on the occasion of Purim is known in Hebrew as Oznei Haman (Haman’s ears), a triangular pastry filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves and, these days, other more modern fillings containing chocolate.  My favourite recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish food.

OZNEI HAMAN

For the dough:
250g flour
pinch salt
2 tbsp sugar
2 drops vanilla extract
150g unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
2-3 tsp milk
I egg, lightly beaten with 1 tsp milk to glaze

Poppy seed filling:
150g ground poppy seeds
175ml milk
2 tbsp honey
4 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp sultanas
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter.

To make the dough, process the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor.  Add the butter, cut into small pieces and process until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs then add the vanilla extract, egg and milk and process until the dough forms a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 mins.
To make the filling, simmer the poppyseed and milk in a small saucepan for 5 minutes or so allowing the milk to be absorbed.  Add the sugar,  honey and sultanas and simmer for a few more minutes.  Off the heat,  stir in the lemon zest and juice, mixing well.  Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Divide the dough into 4 parts.  Roll out one quarter of the dough to a thickness of 3mm (keeping the rest of the dough chilled in the refrigerator).
Using a 7.5cm fluted cutter, cut out rounds.  Place a heaped tsp of filling in the centre of each round and pinch the sides up to form triangular pastries.
Brush with the egg wash and bake of 10-15 minutes until golden.

Allow to cool before CAREFULLY transferring them to a serving dish.  They are quite fragile.

If you have the time, you can make half sized pastries to serve as petits fours… more fiddly to make but very elegant!

Kenya Photo Safari

It is mid March 2011 already and I haven’t made a post since before Christmas last year….  the truth is that I have just been taking time out to reflect and spend more time with family and friends.
I did, however, have a wonderful trip to Africa late in January… a photography trip organized by Ryan Snider of Socially Responsible Safaris and David Duchemin, world and humanitarian photographer.
The other photographers on the trip were a fantastic group and we exchanged ideas, forged friendships and had many funny moments together. I just loved Kenya, the landscape, light, people and, of course, the extraordinary wildlife.  A picture is worth a thousand words though…. here are some of my favourite images from the trip.

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Christmas Hams

Every year, Donati’s Fine Meats in Carlton is named in food publications as the supplier of one of the best hams in Melbourne.
People have a standing order year in year out and Leo Donati, pictured above, gets his production going for what is probably his busiest and most stressful time of the year…. producing enough hams to satisfy the seasonal demand.

I took this picture of him last week, while he was still smiling…..  This week it will be hard to get into the shop. People will be queued up 6 deep collecting their hams, turkeys etc. for Christmas lunch.

Luckily for me, I am not cooking this Christmas…. having been invited by my lovely friends…. so I won’t have to queue.

If you have missed out this year, you can always try Leo’s ham and other products after Christmas and all year long.

Donati’s Fine Meats
402 Lygon Street
Carlton Vic 3053
(03) 9348 2221

Wishing all my Christian friends a very Happy Christmas!

Morocco with Meera 2011

FULLY ACCOMPANIED SPRING TOUR (UP TO 10 PARTICIPANTS)  26 MARCH – 9TH APRIL 2011

Join me from 26th March 2011 for an exclusive and exciting 14 day adventure in the Kingdom of Morocco.
Early spring will have us touring through areas full of wild flowers.
The cherry blossoms will be out in the Atlas mountains and the Seville orange trees will be in full bloom. A magical time to be visiting Morocco.
Download flyer here. If this whets your appetite, Email me for a full itinerary and costing.

Chanukah 2010


This year, Chanukah, the Jewish feast of lights began on the evening of 1st December or the 24th of the Hebrew month of Kislev.  Chanukah means dedication, consecration or inauguration and celebrates the reconsecration of Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE.  The Temple was reclaimed after the defeat of the Seleucid Empire by the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel force that retook Judea from the occupying forces of King Antiochus Epiphanes who had pillaged and defiled the temple during a Hellenizing campaign that effectively banned the Jewish religion and its practices.

Upon his defeat, legend has it, there was only sufficient sanctified olive oil found in the temple grounds to fuel the eternal flame for a single day but, miraculously, that small quantity burned for 8 days giving the people time to press and sanctify fresh supplies of oil.
The month of Kislev falls at the height of the olive harvest and therefore,  olive oil and fried foods are enjoyed during the eight day Chanukah celebrations. Traditionally, oil lamps containing 8 wells with wicks, plus an extra one serving as the shamash or lighting assistant were lit and placed at the entrance to houses or their front windows to proclaim the victory  and survival of the Jewish religion.

Each night, the shamash taper is used to light an increasing number of  lights commencing with a single light and ending on the last night with all eight lights burning brightly.  These days, eight branched chanukiot or candle holders are more common and households often have a chanukiah for each member of the family.  Kindergarten and school children are given Chanukah projects to make their own candle holders from found objects such as bottle tops and strips of wood.

Chanukah is a joyous festival with gifts, usually of gold coins (these days gold paper covered chocolate coins are also popular), special songs, games and delicious fried foods.  Donuts and fritters are common to all Jewish communities while potato latkes or pancakes are an Eastern European tradition.

POTATO LATKES FOR CHANUKAH

6  medium frying potatoes (eg russett burbank), peeled and quartered
1 small brown onion, peeled and quartered
2 eggs
3 tbsp plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste.
oil for frying

Using the coarse grating blade in your food processor, grate the potatoes and onion and transfer to a bowl.
Beat the eggs and stir into the potato and onion mix, adding the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper.
Set aside to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, spooning off any water that is exuded from the potatoes and that will rise to the top.

Heat 2cm of the oil in a heavy frying pan and drop in spoonfuls of the mixture, frying till golden brown on each side. Drain on a rack.
If making the latkes in advance, they may be reheated in a hot oven.

Date Harvest Morocco

I am missing the beauty of the date harvest in Morocco this year. The colours must be seen to be believed and are so stunningly captured by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in his 1921 portrayal of the Date Market in Marrakech, one of the few paintings I truly lust after.

(Image from Les Orientalistes, Jacques Majorelle, by Felix Marcilhac ACR Edition Internationale 1988,1995)

The oases of the great river valleys in Southern Morocco, the Draa, Dades and Ziz, stretch for miles and are the main livelihood of the local inhabitants.  The succulent medjool date  (medjhoul in Moroccan Arabic) originated in Morocco and is also now widely cultivated in California and the Jordan Valley – our main source of this delectable fruit.

Dates are native to the Middle East and were spread by the Arabs to North Africa and Spain. They are mentioned in the Bible and constituted one of the seven species so important to human survival and ritual, alongside wheat, barley, the olive, pomegranate, fig and grape.”For the LORD thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and (grape) vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and (date) honey;” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)

In 2005 seeds of the Judean date, a cultivar extinct for almost 2000 years, were found by Israeli archaeologists on the site of Herod’s palace on the fortress of Masada. Scientists at the Arava Institute in the Negev managed to germinate one of the seeds and the resulting plant, named Methusaleh after the oldest man mentioned in the Bible, is now about two metres tall.

Following an ancient Arab Tradition, La Maison Bleue in Fes offers arriving guests dates  filled with roasted almonds together with a bowl of orange blossom scented milk.  This sets the scene for the peaceful, fragrant stay in this haven of luxury in the ancient medina of Fes.

Dates are the first food consumed to break the fast each evening during the month of Ramadan and are the traditional accompaniment to Harira soup,  served at the traditional Ramadan Ftour or breakfast.

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