Slowly fried

Soffritto means gently-fried, I am told. And so is this post, I guess…. Ten months in the cooking. Whoops. It’s not that things have not been cooked (they have), just that they have not made it onto the camera or the page.

Both the radio silence and the sudden resumption can be explained by the fact that I started maternity leave yesterday. Baby’s due in 10 days, and now I don’t have to schlep to work every day (and then slump on the sofa in a pregnancy coma of an evening, before failing to sleep a wink all night), I can get down to business. 10 days to nap as much as possible, and fill the freezer with meals, so that (when the naps are no longer possible, and cooking is beyond me) we can defrost some deliciousness, and not rely too much on the local takeaway scene.

One day of batch cooking down, and there’s already 20 meals in the freezer (we never knowingly undercater in this family) – 14 portions of Bolognese ragù, and 6 of timpana, plus a pot of soup to get me through the next few days without resorting to the Beef Monster Munch (just kidding – nothing can keep me away from the Beef Monster Munch!).

All these are based on the aromatic loveliness that is a soffritto. Finely chopped celery, carrot and onion, fried slowly and gently in olive oil until they soften and the flavours all mix up gloriously. They impart depth of flavour and sweetness, and can be used as a base for all kinds of meals.

Basic Soffritto

6 celery sticks, finely chopped
5 fat carrots, finely chopped
4 large white onions, finely chopped
Generous glug of olive oil
Sea salt

In a big cast iron pot over a medium flame, gently heat the oil. Add the vegetables and the salt, and stir to cover them all in the oil. Cook slowly and gently, stirring regularly, until the vegetables are all softened, but not yet brown. Turn the heat down if you need to to stop them catching, but the volume of veg (and the high water content) should help them to steam-soften, rather than fry brown.

Soffritto of onion, celery and carrot

 

Bacon and Barley Soup

4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons cooked soffritto
2 small potatoes, peeled and in 1cm cubes
2tsp tomato paste
1L chicken stock
150g pearl barley
Oil, salt and pepper

Fry the bacon in a bit of oil, until just brown. Add the cooked soffritto, and mix well so the vegetables are all coated in the bacon fat. Add the potato, and cook gently for 5 minutes or so, until just starting to soften, but not brown. Add the paste, stir and cook another 2-3 minutes.

Add the stock, and bring to the boil. Once boiling, add the barley and turn down a touch to simmer for 30-40 minutes, when the barley should be cooked and the soup thickened a bit. Season to taste, and serve with grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

Bacon and barley soup

 

My Bolognese Sauce (apologies to the people of Bologna for lack of authenticity!)

Makes about 20 very generous portions

One portion of soffritto (as above)
200g chopped pancetta
2kg minced meat (I used half pork, a quarter veal and a quarter beef)
Parmesan rind
5 bay leaves
Milk, oil, butter, salt and pepper
400 ml passata
1 tube tomato paste
1 glass white wine

Remove the soffritto from the pan, and add the pancetta and another glug of oil. Cook slowly so the bacon fat softens and starts to brown. Add the mince and the bay leaves, breaking the meat up thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring regularly, until brown. This will take a while as all the water will need to evaporate first – maybe even half an hour or so. Get it to brown without burning.

Once the meat is brown, return the soffritto to the pan, along with the parmesan rind and the tube of tomato paste. Stir well, add a couple of knobs of butter, and cook it out gently for five more minutes. Add the wine, stir again, and wait til it’s mostly cooked off, before adding the passata and a pint of milk. Bring it up to the boil, and then turn it down to a very low bubble. Simmer for 3-4 hours, until all the flavours are melded together, and it’s thick and delicious. If it dries out too much at any point, top up with a bit of milk or water. Finish it off my mixing in a final 50g butter.

Bolognese

Timpana (sort of… actually, baked macaroni, or Imqarrun il-forn)

Serves 6 as main meal, 10-12 as a starter

1L Bolognese
600g dried macaroni, freshly cooked and drained
2 eggs, beaten
2 hardboiled eggs, chopped
Salt and pepper
100g grated parmesan
100g grated cheddar

Gently mix together all the ingredients except the cheddar. Pour them into a greased pyrex dish or tin, and sprinkle the cheddar over the top. Bake in an oven at 180 for around an hour, until the eggs are set and the cheese melted and golden.

It’s better reheated on the second day, so plan to make it ahead.

For actual timpana, instead of baked macaroni, replace the cheddar with a sheet of puff pastry, and an egg wash.

Timpana, or baked macaroni

New Year Download

It’s been a while.

I think my last post was a lengthy whinge about how I never get to cook on Christmas Day. It’s fair to say I (briefly) took back that sentiment on Day Three (or, rather, Night Three) of the Great Rocky Road Challenge (40 gift bags of Rocky Road?! Why not!). Having only one appropriate tin did not entirely help, when it meant having to chop up another 120 inch-cubes of the stuff before I could start the next batch.

We actually ended up doing loads of lovely cooking over the break, aided by a week in a gorgeous cottage in Donegal. It was sunny, but freezing. Cue fires, Borgen, comfort food and, now, yet another New Year Health Kick. Plus ça change.

We pledged not to cook anything we’d cooked before, resulting in some new winners, and additions to the weeknight rota. This is a brief round up of some of the highlights of the festive period.

Camembert Tourte

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Camembert tourte

This is from The French Market, by novelist Joanne Harris. I think I’d describe it as a baked bubble and squeak – spuds and cabbage roasted with chilli and garlic and an egg, topped with tomatoes and camembert. Perfectly gooey and crispy all at once. I have just bought another camembert for a second go this week.

Hummus, pimped

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Pimp my hummus

Not really a recipe. Supermarket hummus made A-To-The-Mazing with a dollop of warm roast veg, toasted pine nuts, and an excessively generous glug of olive oil. Heaven.

Saffron orzotto

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Saffron farro

This one’s from Nigelissima. Farro,  saffron and loads of parmesan. We ate it on New Year’s Eve with some slightly disappointing lamb shanks.

Garbure

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Garbure

Another delicious beast from Harris’ French Market. A ham and bean soup, served on top of stale bread and blue cheese (in this case a lovely Cashel Blue – not so French, sorry). I can’t say enough about how good this was.

Lebanese flatbreads

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Lebanese flatbreads

This is a variation on a recipe from the massive,amazing Lebanese Kitchen cookbook. My version is basically chicken shawarma on top of fluffy flatbreads, with red onion and pine nuts. This could almost compete with pizza’s place in my heart…

Rocky Road

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Rocky road. Or perhaps rocky motorway?!

We made three of these monsters. Three. That’s 390 squares. 39 gift bags. Blimey. We used Felicity Cloake’s How to make the perfect… recipe from the Guardian, and mixed it up a bit on the flavours. Two were for ‘grown ups’ (dark chocolate, stem ginger, ginger biscuits, almonds, boozy dried fruits) and one for ‘children’ (more milky choc, m&ms, honeycomb, chopped up milkyway).* Insanely rich, and insanely moreish. Dangerously delicious!

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Oh Lord, I know this is basically diabetes on a plate, but it was bloody lovely. I thought I’d burnt the caramel, but I think I caught it just on the turn, and the slight bitter tang took the edge off the sweetness. I wish I didn’t know how easy this is to make now!

Aubergines

Aubergine Parm

Aubergine Parm

Aubergine parm is the Food Of The Gods. I have nothing more to say on the matter.

* many adults (the husband included), unsurprisingly, appear to prefer the kiddy version.

Christmas is coming…

…so let the baking commence!

We don’t host Christmas, so there’s not so much of the frantic turkey-basting, sprout-scoring, cake-feeding panic that you read about how to avoid in the colour supplements.  But, for a Very Keen Cook, that’s a touch of a disappointment. I want the chaos, the gravy-splattered recipes, the timetable planned down to the last minute that inevitably goes out the window at 9am.

I have to create opportunities to cook.

That usually works out quite well. In my family, our Christmas Trees buy presents. If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. We all (the whole extended family, all four generations) exchange presents in the normal way (before lunch on Christmas Day, or Boxing Day). Then, after lunch and some games have been played, we crack open the presents from our Christmas Trees. Our trees are prolific shoppers. They also buy for all four generations… Tho they rarely spend more than £4, and tend towards the novelty / functional (shower gel from Grandma’s tree, nose hair clippers from Michael’s tree, pink sparkly Virgin Mary money box from Uncle Paul’s etc).

My tree bakes. Which is pleasing, as I help it (see, this is getting crazier). This year we’re working on getting together 35 gift bags of rocky road. Which I think is about 400 pieces, in a mix of ‘adult’ (boozey with ginger), ‘gluten-free adult’ (see previous) and ‘kiddy friendly’ (milky ways, M&Ms and honeycomb). That’s the mission for the next few nights. Bring it on.

The second excuse for baking is visiting. We’re working on a Sourdough Stollen project (gifts for people we are staying with WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT). One enormous loaf has been baked as a prototype (it’s currently nestling in my handbag wrapped in foil, for distribution to work colleagues), and I’m hoping to improve on it for the ones that will actually accompany us home for Christmas next week.

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Chocolate-pecan-cinnamon cookies

One extra baking opportunity fell into our laps this year – the ‘pop-up cafe’ at Oliver’s church’s Christmas Play. #win, as the young people say. We didn’t do anything fancy – this was an 8am-on-the-day-with-a-hangover job. We made an Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian last week – Chocolate-pecan-cinnamon cookies.

Dead easy, dead quick, dead tasty. They make an incredibly chewy biscuit (they only bake for 6 minutes!), with a lovely cracked sugary top. and have a nice spicy and chocolate flavour. I have to say I’m not overly enamoured with the slight whiff of banana – I didn’t expect to be able to taste it. I don’t know if it was essential to get the cookies to hold together (I doubt it), but I’d probably leave it out next time.

For my Grandma

My Grandma is 90 today. It’s thanks to her that I am a cook, and today I want to celebrate her, and the influence she has had on my life (and my cooking!).

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Lucrezia, Lola, Lella, Grace, Grandma

Her name is Lucrezia. In Malta, she was known as Lella.  To family she is Lola. To English friends, she is Grace (the only reason I can think of is that Grace sounds ever so slightly like Lucrezia).

She was born into a huge family in Malta in 1923, the second youngest of many siblings. I don’t know what her father did for work, but I know they kept chickens – she refuses to eat poultry, as she has memories of birds flapping about that she hates! She lived with her Godparents for a lot of her childhood – presumably because there wasn’t much room at home.

Grandma's the little one in the middle

Grandma’s the little one in the middle

She was 15 when war broke out, and lived the end of her teens through the Siege of Malta. They had huge bombing raids, and very little food or fuel. The island was on the brink of starvation when the Santa Marija convoy limped into Grand Harbour in August 1942.

She is deeply proud of Maltese history, and of the George Cross awarded to the whole population in recognition of the suffering they bore. She told me about the soup kitchens they ate from, and the rumours of unsavoury meat (dogs and rats were mentioned) that people ate to survive. She told me about the three planes, Faith, Hope and Charity, that valiantly defended the Maltese skies. And she told me that one hot day she and her friends got in trouble with a policeman for swimming across from Sliema to Valletta (unsurprisingly this was considered unwise during war time).

I know very little else and, other than the swimming story, the tales she told of the war were stories of Malta’s triumph against adversity, not about her life and experiences. I think she had a boyfriend who died in the bombing, but I don’t know how she felt about that or how it impacted her life. And now I can’t ask her – two years ago she nearly died from a stroke, and has lost almost all of her speech, her ability to write, and a lot of her memories. I wish I’d asked her when I had the chance.

I do know more about her story after the war. I know she met and fell in love with a Military Police Officer called Dennis, and that he proposed after just four days. And I know that she was too scared to tell her mother (and her half a dozen older brothers!) that she was engaged to an English man (and a non Catholic!), so she persuaded her Priest to break the news.

Grandma and Grandad on their wedding day

Grandma and Grandad on their wedding day

They married in Valletta and stayed there for a few years. My Grandad worked in a tailors’ shop, and (from the pictures I have seen) they had a wonderful life. A few years later, a little girl was born (my mother) and then another (my Auntie Louise). Then, when my mum was about 5, they moved to England. I don’t know what triggered this, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to leave the small-town old-world sunshine island, surrounded by family and friends, to go to cold, wet England.

She experienced racism, missed her family and, horror of horrors, could only buy olive oil from the chemists. She was not a fan of British food, and was particularly snotty about suet puddings. But she loved Guinness and Whiskey. Food culture clash aside, it must have been a real struggle, and I think there must have been times she was very lonely.

But she must have found comfort in cooking, and in food from home. She cooked, and cooked, and cooked. It’s the thing I always remember growing up – Grandma’s cooking. Cakes, big lunches, family festivities. There was always something freshly baked, and every single day, until my Grandad died, she would make a 3 course lunch (soup or pasta to start).

She didn’t only cook Maltese food, but there was a lot of it. Timpana (baked macaroni, with ragu and egg) was, and is, a firm favourite. Bragioli (stewed beef olives, stuffed with garlic, egg, bacon and parsley) was wheeled out for special occasions. And there were many, many pastizzi (mini pasties of puff pastry, filled with ricotta, egg and salt). Actually, ricotta got quite an airing. Grandma used to make her own, before it became usual for the supermarkets to stock it, and later she used to like trying the different supermarket brands and declaring which was the least awful. She’d mix it with icing sugar and pipe it into dates at Christmas, or make makeshift kannoli out of brandy snap biscuits.

Every Easter, without fail, you’d be asked if you wanted a fish, a duck or a basket. Easter meant Figolli – almond-filled iced biscuits in traditional shapes to symbolise resurrection and new life. When I was young, my Figolla seemed enormous – bigger than me! It also came topped with a Cadbury’s cream egg. Maltese traditions with an English twist. Tastes might have changed, and children of the 80s like me might prefer the egg to the biscuit, but the Figolli didn’t change. One each, every year, until her stroke stopped her cooking. That’s why every Easter, I make Figolli too. They’re messy, time-consuming and I suspect some people would prefer a chocolate egg, but I’ll make them anyway. They’re smaller than Grandma’s, spicier, and covered in crazy neon icing, and don’t tell Grandma I’m using her sister’s recipe…

I’m lucky that Grandma wanted to pass on her cooking traditions to me. Some of them, I haven’t adopted. She must have told me a hundred times how to stuff an artichoke with tuna.  I’m still never going to do it. I can’t imagine myself stuffing a shin of beef either. Maltese cooking always seems to involve stuffing something. Often with bacon, parsley, garlic and an egg (“then you put an egg!”, she would say).

She’d also delight in collecting recipe cards from magazines and supermarkets for me. I must have the full set of Sainsbury’s cards a dozen times over. I was less keen on them, though I’d try to be appreciative. I wanted to know more about the egg-putting.

One day I went to Grandma’s for lunch (how much do I regret not doing this more when I had the chance?) to find a red envelope (no doubt recycled from Christmas) with my name on. Inside were written out her favourite recipes for me.  They are Silver Spoon style, with no quantities and wonderfully vague instructions (“add 1 or 2 eggs according to how much mince you’ve got” and “if you get stuck, phone me up”). They are the recipes of a woman who didn’t need recipes to cook this food.

I’ve made one or two of them – but not enough. Perhaps I’ll celebrate her 90th birthday year by trying them all out. I know she’d like me to tell her about it, even if she can’t offer advice now. I’m glad I have them – her gift to me.

Me and my Grandma at her 90th birthday lunch

Me and my Grandma at her 90th birthday lunch

There are three things that spring to mind when I think of what my Grandma has passed on to me. Faith, family and food. All put into practice yesterday, as her children and grandchildren  gathered with her for Sunday Mass in her nursing home, followed by a slap up lunch. We moved then to my Auntie’s house for more celebrations. She tutted “I don’t know how you can eat after that lunch” as she piled up plates of more food on the table. But she didn’t mean it. Feeding people is how we show our love in my family.

I regret not asking my Grandma more about her story when she could communicate. And I regret not eating more of her food while I had the chance. But I’m going to make up for it by cooking those recipes, baking those Figolli and by passing on some of that love for faith, family and food to my own children one day.

Happy Birthday Grandma. I love you, and may you be with us for many more birthdays. And I’ll be bringing some dates stuffed with ricotta next time I come to visit.

Baked Rice - Ross il-forn

Baked Rice – Ross il-forn

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Maltese-style shepherds’ pie (with an egg, naturally!)

Penne with ricotta

Penne with ricotta

Timpana

Timpana

Bragioli

Bragioli

Steamed beef

Steamed beef

Patata fil-forn – Maltese Roast Potatoes

Patata fil forn

Patata fil forn

I think these potatoes win the prize for lowest effort to highest tastiness ratio. You chop things, chuck them in the oven, salivate over the delicious smells, then scoff in large quantities.

They go with just about everything. We usually have them with fish (try sprinkling a few fennel seeds on top), but they perk up any roast dinner too. And they’re extra special with a bit of meaty goodness – slow cooked shoulder of lamb finished off on top of these spuds is a work of art.

There’s a bit of an art to the cooking of them… They pretty much steam to begin with and then, once they’re cooked and most of the liquid gone, you whip the foil off to let them roast. But the time it takes to steam them is a bit of a moveable feast…. So be prepared to check them and keep cooking if they’re still hard. It’s very hard to be patient, especially as the braising onions give off the most delicious whiff for the whole cooking time. But there is not much mankier than a raw potato, so stick it out.

It’s worth it for the deeply savoury flavour, and the softness of the bottoms of the potatoes contrasted with the crunch of the crispy, salty, pepper tops.

Maltese Roast Potatoes - before

Maltese Roast Potatoes – before

Ingredients

800g potatoes, peeled and sliced to 1cm
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Method

Drizzle oil over the base of the oven dish. Spread over the garlic, and about half of the onion slices.

Lay out the potatoes in one layer.

Cover with the rest of the onions.

Pour water into the dish so it is 1.5 – 2cm deep – all the potatoes should be touching the water, but they should not be covered.

Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle the tops with plenty of salt and pepper.

Cover tightly with foil, and bake for around 45 minutes in a hot oven. After 30 minutes, check and see if the potatoes are cooked (poke with a knife). It might take up to an hour.

Once the potatoes are soft, remove the foil and roast for about half an hour, until the tops are crunchy and most of the water has evaporated.

 

 

 

Buns, buns, buns

Sweet ricotta and raspberry kolaches, fresh from the oven.

Sweet ricotta and raspberry kolaches, fresh from the oven.

My sourdough starter is known affectionately as Celia. Until last month, she had only ever been used in the making of savoury bread…. daily bread, pizza, flatbread, focaccia – quite a range, but all along the same lines.

Then I stumbled upon sourdough surprises. My first attempt at breaking out of the bread, bread and more bread rut was a mixed success. Delicious, but very flat, muffins. I had gone in with high hopes that my Celia could make anything rise, and she underperformed.

So this month, I was determined to make it work.

This month’s bake is the kolache. Confession – I have never heard of this bun. But apparently it is originally Czech, and is particularly famous in Texas, where the immigrant Czech community have made it mainstream.

It’s a soft, enriched, brioche-style dough, baked in rounds with a fruity or a sweet cheesey filling (apparently it can also be savoury, but thanks but no thanks).

Not being given a recipe to follow, I based my dough-mix on this method from King Arthur Flour, and soured it up using this method (180g of starter replacing 90g of flour and 90g of liquid for every 500g flour).

The dough was super-super-easy to mix up. It was incredibly wet, but a stand mixer gets over that hurdle, and in any case it was clear that once the melted butter cooled, the dough would firm up.

Glossy and elastic.

Glossy and elastic.

The big question was, will it rise?

And, to be honest with you, the answer was NO.

I spent a happy 12 hours away from my dough during its first prove, imagining the plump, shiny ball of dough I would return to. Oh, the many and varied sweet dough buns I would make now I had cracked the enriched sourdough. The stollen. The babka. The cinnamon buns. I was inspired.

And then I returned to look at my dough. And it was, as my mother would say, as flat as a pancake. Maybe there had been a little spurt of growth, but no more than 10%. Doubled in size? No chance.

So, I put it in the fridge for another 12 hours and crossed my fingers.

Not 1mm had it grown. Not a smidge of an increase.

Not one to want to throw away shiny, glossy dough, I thought I’d press on and see what happened.

The shaping was nice and easy, and the dough was a lovely texture to work with. I rested them, squidged holes into them, dolloped fillings in them, covered them up and dumped them by the radiator and crossed my fingers. And, surprise surprise, after 2 hours they were looking markedly plumper. I could even double check by comparing to my before-proving picture. Yep, plumping had occurred.

Kolaches, before second prove.

Kolaches, before second prove.

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And after 2 hours. Definitely plumper.

So, into the oven they went. And plumped up some more, into lovely, pillowy little buns, encasing their delicious fillings.

Maybe I have cracked it after all?

I went for two fillings for my kolaches – raspberry jam, and sweet ricotta. All topped with an almond streusel. I used about half my dough to make 12 buns, and the other half I used to make a Chelsea-bun shaped affair, filled with the sweet ricotta, streusel and pine nuts.

I can now go to bed and dream happily again of all the lovely enriched buns I can make over Christmas, without a packet of yeast in sight.

 

Ingredients

Enriched sourdough:

237ml sour cream
130g sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
112g butter, melted
30ml lukewarm milk
2 large eggs
410g flour (half strong, half plain)
180g active 100% starter
1 tablespoon vanilla essence

Fillings:

Raspberry jam
Sweet Ricotta (1 tub of ricotta, 2 tablespoons caster sugar, 1 egg, 2 tsps vanilla)

Streusel:

80g ground almonds
80g soft brown sugar
60g melted butter

Method

Heat the sour cream and the butter until the butter is melted.

Mix all the dough ingredients on a slow speed in a stand mixer until combined (approx. 2 minutes). It will be very liquid, and seem too runny. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.

Mix on a medium-high speed for 3 minutes. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.

Repeat. By now, the dough should be glossy and elastic, and much less wet.

Cover and leave on the counter for 12 hours. After 12 hours, place in the fridge for another 12 hours – this will firm the butter up, and make the dough easier to work with. The dough rises only fractionally during this 24 hours – do not panic!

After 24 hours is up, shape the kolaches. Flouring your hands, break the dough into 50g lumps, shape into balls and flatten to 3 inch discs. Place in a baking dray (on baking paper) leaving about 1cm between them. The dough will make 24-30 of these.

Cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes. In the meantime, make the sweet ricotta.

With the whisk attachment, beat the egg and sugar on high for 5 minutes, until it forms a thick mousse. Add the vanilla and the ricotta in thirds and beat well until mixed.

Take a wooden rolling pin and dip the end lightly in flour. Push the rolling pin firmly into the centre of each dough ball, and twist round to make a decent-sized indentation.

Spoon the fillings into the dips. Each will take about 2 tsps filling.

Cover and leave somewhere warm for 2 hours. This time, the buns should be noticeably plumper by the end of the time.

To make the streusel topping, mix all the ingredients until it forms a breadcrumb-like mixture.

Sprinkle the streusel on top of the plumped-up buns. Bake in an oven at 180c for about 30 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Oven spring will be excellent, and the buns will be plump and will join at the edges.

Shakshuka

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock.

I’ve just been lucky enough to spend an amazing week in Israel and Palestine.

The sun shone, the sea was warm(ish), and for the most part the food was excellent.

We don’t tend to eat out much (age of austerity, etc), so it was a real treat to eat in restaurants every night. We both love Middle Eastern food, so I was delighted to set myself a Hummus challenge, and strove to eat some every single day. I succeeded, easily – in no small part due to the fact it’s served at breakfast. Glory be. The best Hummus meal was in a snack bar called Lina’s, in the Old City of Jerusalem. Hummus, topped with chickpeas, served with falafal. Chickpeas, three ways. Yes, please, and no, I’m not sharing!

Jerusalem by night, from Notre Dame.

Jerusalem by night, from Notre Dame.

I was delighted to discover that there’s also an amazing blend of food and drink available at the many Christian ‘hostels’ that welcome pilgrims to Jerusalem. The view above is from the glorious cheese and wine bar that runs across the whole roof of the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute, just outside the New Gate to Jerusalem. The view is stunning, and the wine list is excellent. I left my friends on the roof to pop downstairs to the chapel for Sunday Mass one evening – a most convenient location for a wine bar! Sadly, I didn’t get to sample the cheese selection, but it looked (and smelled) very enticing indeed.

One of the loveliest meals we had was with a friend of my husband’s, in a restaurant called Barbra, high up on a hill in Beit Jala (one of the towns that makes up Bethlehem). We had the ‘mixed grill’ – starting with a massive range of traditional dips and salads. Hummus, baba ghanoush, a garlicky thing, a kind of spicy salsa, greek salad… all mopped up with a mountain of pita bread. Once the grill arrived, we were already struggling. 9 enourmous skewers were presented on a beautiful platter. With more bread. Big chunks of spicy chicken and lamb competed with juicy beef shish kebabs studded with big lumps of garlic. Garnished with a mound of charred, blackened tomatoes, onions and spicy chilli peppers. So good. I was full after the starters, but that didn’t stop me.

The view from the restaurant’s balcony was also stunning – though it was desperately sad to hear how much of the nearby hillside (all well inside the Palestinian West Bank) is to be carved up and put on the Israeli side of the separation wall.

This picture shows the hills and the valley which will all be separated from Bethlehem (and the land’s legal owners) by the proposed route of the wall. You can also see one of the many illegal settlements on the hill on the left. Bethlehem is surrounded by these outposts.

The view from Beit Jala. That's an illegal settlement you can see on the hill on the left. All this land - the vines, the olive groves - is owned by Palestinians from Bethlehem. It's proposed the separation wall will run to the right of this picture, cutting off the land from its owners.

The view from Beit Jala. That’s an illegal settlement you can see on the hill on the left. All this land – the vines, the olive groves – is owned by Palestinians from Bethlehem, and all of it is well inside the West Bank. It’s proposed the separation wall will run to the right of this picture, cutting off the land from its owners.

We finished our trip with a few lovely days by the sea in Tel Aviv / Jaffa. This is where I discovered a new favourite – Shakshuka. It’s a traditional North African / Middle Eastern dish made of spicy tomato stew, with eggs poached on top, served with lashings of bread to mop up the sauce. Think Huevos Rancheros, or eggs in purgatory, but middle eastern style. First night home, I made my version of it.

Ingredients

Onion, finely chopped
Garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Olive oil
1 teaspoon tomato puree
1 tin of tomatoes
Handful of sliced mushrooms
Half an aubergine, sliced and griddled
Feta, cubed
2 eggs
Paprika or chilli flakes

1. Slowly soften the onion and garlic in olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook until all the liquid has evaporated. Chop and add the griddled aubergine slices and the cumin seeds, and cook another 5 minutes to let the flavours blend.

2. Add the tomato puree and the paprika, stir and cook another few minutes. Add the tin of tomatoes, crushing them with the spoon. Bubble gently for 20 minutes or so, until thick and dark.

3. Mix in the cubed feta. Then turn the heat up a little. Make two little wells in the surface of the sauce, and crack the eggs into them. Sprinkle a little salt on top. Cook gently (5 minutes or so) until the whites are set, and the yolks are still runny. Serve with pita bread. Dip.

Aubergine and mushroon shakshuka.

Aubergine and mushroom shakshuka.