The Mint Shop

The Mint Shop

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Nordic Tales

The North has always fascinated me. The northern the better. Perhaps it is the legends of trolls, giants, and fairies or the bleak and bare landscape or the sense of remoteness from the crowds. One or all of these reasons made me want to travel to Iceland and I never did. Until last May when R. was invited to present a paper.

It is lucky that Easyjet flies up there saving up a considerable amount of money and going during that time of the year is not very pricey either being off season. Many of our friends seemed concerned we would have found terrible weather but in fact it was sunny most of the time. Of course, we left Spring in Cambridge to plunge back into Autumn. But that was expected and we were prepared.

The countryside is enchanting. At times resembling the farthest points of Scotland, at times filling imagined lunar scenes with its black sand and conic stone and mossy bumps. It must be hard living there. The wind cuts your face and there is nowhere to hide. Flat and bare. People must be inevitably helpful as nobody would survive (or at least used to) alone.


We mainly saw Reykjavik with its coloureful houses, rough port, and calm roads.



But we also ventured ourselves with a little Japanese hired car to the Lagoon of Jokulsarlon passing waterfalls, vulcanic beaches, and fields of heather. The lagoon is a 4 hour drive but well worth it. Translucent blue blocks of ice breaking from the nearby glacier and drifting towards the sea to die on the shore under a pale sun. 


Exceptedly food is focused around fish. And as I love fish I was happy. Icelandic fish'n chips was what we were welcome with. And fish stew - plokkari. We had one each for a few days and every time the recipe was different. The stew in particular changed from one place to another depending on the amount of milk, broth, and vegetable added. In a reasonably priced, stylish but simple place near the harbour we tasted it with local beer (Viking, what else?) and rye bread, slightly sweet and soft.


If you don't like fish, don't dispair. You can always live on Icelandic hot dog (a mix of different type of meat and unknown!), lamb soup, and cinnamon buns!

We loved the stew and tried to reproduce it at home. Here is the recipe that we followed:

500g smoked cod or haddock
500g potatoes
350ml milk
1 white onion
35g butter
3tbsp flour
2 tbsp chopped chives

Bone, skin and flake the fish. Heat the milk gently on low heat. Peel and chop the potatoes into small cubes. Cook in salted water.
Chop the onion and sprinkle with flour. Melt the butter in a pan and cook gently the onions until golden brown.
At that point (having kept an eye on the milk as it shouldn't boil) pour the milk over the chopped onions. Stir and add the flaked fish.
Add the potatoes and cook for another 10 minutes until all flavours have combined. Season to taste.

The first time was finished under the grill with cheese on top. The second time was left in a slightly soupy way. The last time was almost like an undone fish cake. Serve it with steamed vegetables.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The joys of slow cooking

It has been a very long time since I have opened this page, so long that my browser didn't even remember the name of the site, so sad! But it feels good to be back and hopefully I will manage to write a few posts here and there to share the culinary discoveries I have made during my travels.

Most of 2014 until the Summer has been a mad year of travelling with Jordan been visited four times, Lebanon three times, and new discoveries like Uzbekistan and Egypt. I promise I will dedicate a post to each of these amazing places! And of course one of the joys of being around has been the new flavours and smells. And this time it's been even nice as my family could join me - the medina was the perfect place for E to run around!

I consider myself fortunate for having the opportunity to spend time with locals every time I go somewhere - I certainly avoid tourists traps and are revelead secrets and tricks of traditional dishes. When we visited Morocco last March I was opened the doors to the real tagine, a world of turmeric, pulpy raisin, and juicy chunks of meat.

Tagine is nothing other than a stew, normally lamb cooked slowly and on low heat in a wonderful clay pot, the tagine, which gives the name to the dish itself. Of course the Moroccan stew can be achieved with any heavy pan but if you do have the chance to purchase one, besides looking beautiful in your kitchen, does help as it uses less liquid than a casserole and the sauce becomes more intense. Needless to say that to make sure you can indeed use the tagine this has to be of natural clay and not glazed.


 Spices like ginger or cardamom never appear in any real Moroccan dish and if so only because of influences from either Asia or Turkey. Likewise the real tagine is never served with couscous, which is a dish on its own - usually served on Friday at lunch time (and never for supper) and shared with family (or colleagues), but with simple flat bread that is torn and passed around the table.

Preserved lemons and olives are the classic match with chicken, while lamb is normally cooked with dried apricots, raisin and sometimes almonds. Onions are always the start for any tagine to which spices get added gradually, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, and chilli/paprika to build flavour and colour. The meat is then quickly golden up and then let to fall apart throughout a good number of hours with some stock which you must remember to season according to taste. Once everything is in, you can forget about it and relax - well, do check from time to time in case the water gets completely absorbed as otherwise you will get a rather burnt stew...

One last advice: if you decide to prepare a chicken tagine always use thighs (or a mix of thighs and leg keeping the bone on as they are a lot tastier than breast) while in case of lamb tagine the best is to get a leg and diced it leaving the bone in the stew while it cooks as it releases extra juice and flavour.

Lamb Tagine

For 4 people

1 red onion
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp cumin seeds crashed
2 tsp paprika
1 cinnamon stick
1 garlic clove
100ml stock
100g dried prunes
3 tbsp runny honey
600g lamb shoulder
chopped tomatoes

Slice and chop the onion very finely and golden it in 2 tbsp of olive oil and a knob of butter. Add the spices (except the cinnamon) and the garlic and toss well together.

Add the prunes, the cinnamon stick and the lamb chopped into cubes and make sure the spices coat the meat well. Add the honey and then once the meat is half way cooked add the water and tomatoes. Cover with the lid and let it simmer for at least an hour.

Serve with chopped fresh coriander and if you want shaved almonds and pomegranate seeds.

This time I was in Rabat, a wonderful coastal town with a strong European feel but with an authentic Berbere heart which you hear at every corner of the old town.


Friday, 29 November 2013

An autumnal English risotto

It is always flattering to be asked to write a specific post after having tasted one my dishes so that the recipe can be tried again. And it often seems to happen with those dishes that I normally find very modest and unexciting, pasta or risotto in particular.

I may have already told that recently I have come to the resolution of living more seasonal and this involves among other things buying from our neighbourhood greengrocer that sells uniquely products of local farmers. This guarantees gazing at pillows of cauliflowers, sticks of leeks, and curly cabbage rather than strawberries, melons or tomatoes. I find it more and more wrong. Am I becoming too extreme? Might it be age?

Anyway, one of the consequences of the "go-with-the-seasons" resolution is to be out and about and do activities that make us feel part of the seasons. So when a friend told me about the possibility to go hunting for mushrooms with an expert guide in a near-by forest (Thetford Forest) I grabbed that opportunity and packed a flask of hot (mushrooms) soup, wicker basket, sharp knife, and husband & son!  

Luckily we had a guide. Of all the wonderful looking mushrooms that we indiscriminately picked in a flurry of excitement only three of them got saved - the rest would have made us from mildly to violently sick. Not encouraging. However, they did taste good.


One of our fellow-hunters even found a huge piece of porcino to my astonishment as I didn't believe they live in England. Perhaps it didn't taste as good but it looked genuinely porcino. Having abandoned first thoughts of mugging the lucky guy I decided to go back next year and try my luck harder.

Given our scarce loot I decided to prepare a risotto by adding some fresh chestnut mushrooms as well as some dried porcini. And of course my secret weapon, a porcini stock cube!

For 2 lucky people

180g arborio rice (risotto rice or alternatively even long grain rice)
1 garlic clove
half a shallot
50g butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 sprig of thyme
100g chestnut mushrooms
a handful of wild mushrooms
a handful of dried porcini
50g Parmesan

Chop the shallot very finely and crush the garlic clove with the palm of your hand. Melt in a large frying pan the butter and add the oil. When they start sizzling add the onion and garlic and let them caramelize slowly. Discard the garlic.

Add the rice and toss it for a few minutes until it has absorbed the butter/oil thoroughly.

Soak the porcini in warm water and once they have expanded chop them into small pieces. Chop also the rest of the mushrooms and cook them in a separate pan with a bit of oil, the discarded garlic clove from the previous pan and the thyme.

Make the stock adding to 500ml of warm water the cube until it dissolves. Add the water to the rice and let it simmer keeping turning so that it doesn't stick to the pan.

Half way through cooking - you need to try the rice to be able to tell that - add the mushrooms and let it cook for a bit longer. If the water has all dried up and the rice is not cooked yet add more warm water.

The rice has to be creamy but not overcooked - the rice should retain a slight crunchiness - what we call al dente (which doesn't mean that it gets stuck in your that would mean it is not cooked!). Once cooked sprinkle the cheese on top and if you want to be extravagant a few drops of truffle oil.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Snacking in Japan

Before our son would have become too mobile and restless my husband and I wisely decided to come up with a list of places we wanted to visit. Japan was one of these. In our minds it has always been a country of many contrasts, a world apart on many things, and a place where old and new not only meet but at times clash and melt.

The contrast between Tokyo and the countryside is remarkable. From over-crowded roads where people run under the light of adverts and neon packed between multi storey buldings the eye go to peaceful countrysides dotted with modest squared houses sorrounded by small gardens. Japanese people don't like to show off, on the contrary, modesty is probably the word that describes them at best in my opinion.

Everyone is very courteous and if stopped on the street for indications they will resort to anything to help you - once a tired after office hours business man questioned its phone, rang his friend, and stopped several passers-by so that we could find our restaurant! However, if their help is not sought, they won't intervene to assist as it would be considered as an intrusion. Interesting.

Culture is of course reflected in food too. Everything is done with care, attention, and beauty underlines everything. We just loved the way food was presented - even the simplest dish would be displayed with love and great attention to details and a mere biscuit would take a colourful and artful look with pretty papers and labels. One almost feels sorry to open it! (....but we did!)

 Snacks are everywhere even though Japanese tend not to eat on the street (or drink). They rather prefer sit down, chop-stick a few bites while sipping a hot tea or cold beer, and then be back on the road again. I wonder whether they eat in the car...something to research next time we go.

A very tasty snack we had one afternoon sitting in the sun with one of the oldest Tokyo temples behind our backs was fried squid and teryaki chicken skewers. The squid was cut into strips, seasoned, and coated in Panko breadcrumbs before being lightly dip fried. The chicken was sauteed in a sauce of dark soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, and ginger. The result was exquisite.

Refueled with energy and a smile on our face we could do nothing but simply strolling along roads lined up with cherry trees and brighten up by cheerful girls. But more on sakura or cherry-blossom season on my next post!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Liquid Gold for Breakfast

And once again I find myself in a apologizing position being so tremendously late to write this last post on Canada. How many people have wished that days were made of 24 hours? Or we would be able to fill up even those?

If you do forgive me, many thanks! I hope you are not going to give up on me and keep reading. I promise ("parole, parole, parole") to start my three posts on Japan followed by Paris, Tuscany, and Jordan.

I am sure everyone has an infallible recipe to make pancakes and has found the best filling ever. There is indeed a fair amount of debate around how pancakes should be - thickness, sponginess, size, colour, dressing....and I was quite surprised to see that even Canadians vary their pancakes reasonably a lot from home to home - with one family they seemed more like crepes for example (with a hint of burning...perhaps that was not in the recipe!).

This is the recipe that for me guarantees the pancakes we have grown up with years of North American sitcoms, all happy and smiley around a long table with a large bucket of maple syrup poured on top of a massive pile of pancakes - did they eat the full length all in one go I've always wondered?

The secret? A generous amount of baking powder and a good few minutes whipping the eggs.

2 eggs
500ml milk
500g flour
2 tbsp baking powder
50g sugar
25g butter

Melt the butter and let it cool. Pour it in a jug and add the eggs and the milk. Whisk  savagely for at least 2-3 minutes. Mix the flour with the baking powder and slowly add it to the wet mixture continuing whisking. Make sure that you give a circular movement to the whisker so that the egg whites stiffen up slightly.
Let it rest for 10 minutes. You will see that the mixture starts forming small bubbles - this is the air that gets created and that will give that fluffiness to your pancakes.

Spoon out a ladle of the mixture onto a greased (with butter) hot pan and cook on high heat for each side for a minute or two or until golden. Flip your pancake and stack it on a warm plate. Depending on the pan you use the number will vary - if it is a 10-12cm pan you will get roughly 10 pancakes.

The original way to eat them is with a generous amount of maple syrup, blueberries - which you can eat them on the side or sprinkle on top of the pancakes once it's almost cooked - and crunchy bacon. Maple syrup, fruit, and bacon?!? I hear what you think but believe me, it goes well. Plus that's how Canadians eat them, and Canadians in this matter knows best. We had them in Toronto, Brunwsick, PEI (aka Prince Edward Island) and Cape Breton Island and they were all amazing!



Thursday, 15 August 2013

Poutine oui ou poutine non?

I believe every country has its own good share of fats and unhealthy foods. Sometimes the fattier and more caloric it is the better it tastes. Of course there are exceptions - and I would immediately list the Glasgonian deep fried Mars-bar...

This national Quebecois snack seems to be perfect after a long night out and many pints of Labatt as it is salty, fatty, and tasty. To be honest I was expecting something worse than what it was - possibly having experienced the deep fried Mars bar - as every time I mentioned poutine everyone rolled their eyes and sighted. Somebody even admitted that she allowed herself to indulge in it once a year - which made me think that this poutine was deadly poisonous. All it turned out to be was a plate of chips soaked in gravy and covered with crumbs of cheese curd. C'est tout? Oui, c'est tout! So I reckon that a medium portion has only 600cal which in the end is the equivalent of a very loaded pizza.

Poutine seems to be the French variation of the English pudding, clearly not the sweet version but the savoury one like the Yorkshire pudding that is typically eaten with roast beef. Possibly in origin there were no chips but more something like a batter that was then covered with cheese and topped with the gravy from the roast.

I must recognize that the look is not the most inviting but the taste is not bad - if you like those sort of things once in a while. We had ours sitting on a bench in one of the lovely roads of old Quebec City.



It was cute to find "posh" versions of poutines -"gnocchi and fois-gras".

Clearly I'm not going to give you a recipe for this but I might have inspired you to concoct something new next time you come back from the pub.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Canada in a tart

Hopefully this will be the first of a series of posts on Canada. I am sure that many won't expect gourmet dishes from the northern cousin of America but to our surprise we discovered many delicacies which I want to share with you.


Of course maple syrup was at the top of our gourmet trail being probably Canada's n.1 symbol. There are several ways in which this golden gloopy syrup can be used and we had great fun in discovering them. The most fun thing though was to discover how it can very in taste, colour, and smell- a bit like wine, really!  And that most Canadians seem to have an uncle who produces it...

The trees get wired up with a series of tubes that are then channeled into a main pot where all the sap gets collected, then directed into a massive cauldron and boiled for ages until it acquires the desired consistency. And the purer it is the more expensive it gets - and by purity I mean not been mixed with the syrup from previous years or from different batches - so no cuvees please!

One gets so convinced that maple syrup is simply everywhere that I was deadly sure that it was one of the main ingredients of these wonderful tarts...perhaps the trick is given but a combination of muscovado sugar, cream, and butter. These little crumbly melt-in-the-mouth gems that are sold almost everywhere in Ontario - there is even a "butter tarts trail" around the town of Kenilworth where bakeries claim to seel thousands a week - are tiny cases of pastry filled with a mix of  butter (obviously!) and cream that becomes one of the most delicious filling - it is so oozy that there is no point in cutting a tart into half to share the guilt, you've got to have it all or the syrup will form a big lake in your plate leaving even more traces of your gluttony!


Saturday, 1 June 2013

Simple pleasures - a slice of ciambellone

I am often asked what I like cooking best. Certainly not meat and not so much starters for some odd reasons. Pasta, rice, and cakes are probably on top of my list. There is always something so rewarding from making a rich and velvety sauce or to see magic being made under the light of the oven when all of sudden something rises and becomes gold!


In my first months of motherhood I was baking like mad. Not sure why. I have calmed down a bit now to the displeasure of my husband though but I'm sure to the benefit of his waist! And I'm afraid I don't believe in making cakes light by replacing butter with margarine or sweetener instead of either do the proper thing or nothing!

Monday, 18 February 2013

I ricciarelli di Siena - outside of Christmas

I could blame my absence from this blog on my little 7 months old son and the time he needs from me...but in reality it is simply because I started doing other things which distracted me...and perhaps it has also been because I lost a bit of enthusiasm about this come on, do leave a comment, it'll give me a push!

So I am back. After two months of absence. After all it is not that long if you think about it. But it is an eternity compared to my food blogger friends who seem able to cook, photograph, and write about their dishes almost every day.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Migliacci and a Wine Festival

I must start - erm, once again - by apologizing for my long silence. I admit I have been distracted by many other projects (including my almost 5 months' old son) and frankly I have not realized how quickly time has gone. November has literally flown away!

Back in October we went to Tuscany. I have always loved visiting my home region at that time of the year, not only because the roasting heat is gone by then, but also because the hills around Siena turn into a multitude of colours and home tables see some of the most wonderful products like porcini, marroni (chestnuts), truffles, and the first harvested wine.