Monday, 28 January 2008

Abgusht: Persian lamb soup with chickpeas and red kidney beans

The Young Man of the house is in the habit of asking unanswerable questions like what fruit I like the best and what is my very favourite thing to eat. I guess he's trying to come to grips with living with a foodie mother. But how is one supposed to choose? Can anyone really commit to something like that?? Especially when there are exciting new things to try every day?

That said, like others I do have some perennial favourites, most of which probably make the category because I get to eat them so rarely. Things like Saffron-Mama's clootie dumpling (something like a fruitcake boiled in a cloth square), black pudding and haggis, the Hong Kong fried noodles I used to eat 3 or 4 times a week, really good cheesecake and Saffron-Papa's famous Boxing Day mango ice-cream (ahh, the joys of Christmas in sunny climes...).

But I do have some absolute favourites that I can whip up myself, any time I want to. And abgusht (literally "water-meat") is one of them.

I've made this so many times now (for the YM, mind (g)) that I can't remember when I first made it, or even whether it was before or after the big trip we took to Iran. I do have fond memories, though, of supping on this lovely soup-stew-cross in Esfahan, a city that is surely one of the most beautiful in the world.

The YM and I were with a lovely young Iranian expat whose name translates as "freedom" (make of that what you will, but she herself said it is a bit of a political statement). She was back visiting family with her sweet 11-month-old son, and we met on the flight down from Tehran. Peckish after wandering around the old-world bazaar that surrounds the incredible Imam Square, we stepped into one of those delightful local restaurants where all the world seems to fall away and all sense of time is forgotten. The whole scene is set for laid-back (literally (g)), convivial dining. After removing your shoes, you step up onto a raised, Persian carpet-covered wooden platform that is circled on three sides by low railings. There, you can laze back, stretch out and generally chill like you are in your own living room.

While you wait, the YM is marveling at the jewel-coloured patches of light that tiny stained glass windows are projecting onto the capet, and you are busy contemplating the culture that adores colour and light so much that coloured mirror mosaic encrusts even the ceilings of restaurants that ordinary people frequent. It truly is magical.

After a while, the waiter brings your order of abgusht in tall black earthenware pots called dizi (which is what the dish is called in restaurants). He pours the steaming, vaguely citrusy, saffron-scented broth into bowls and offers to mash the remaining meat, vegetables and beans for you with the special mashers he's brought for the purpose. It is all so rich and tasty, the surrounds so relaxed and idyllic, that you wonder if perhaps you've found a piece of heaven right here on earth.

Although I can't recreate the atmosphere of that lovely restaurant in a tiny Yokohama flat, the scent and taste of Najmieh khanom's abgusht recipe from The New Food of Life transports me right back to Esfahan every time.

There are several variations on this recipe using different legumes, but this is the one we had as dizi in restaurants in Iran.

This time, I used lamb and beef to clear out some freezer space in preparation for a big cook-up I am planning next month.

I use a pressure cooker for this and tend throw cooked beans in at the end rather than cooking them in the same pot as the abgusht. That way the beans, normally ready in less than 5 minutes under pressure if they've been soaked overnight, don't disintegrate long before the rest of the dish is ready. You should use less water in this case (I used 1 litre). The soup should be very watery, though. I also substituted a 400 g can of whole tomatoes (drained) for the fresh ones.

Abgusht: Persian lamb soup with chickpeas and red kidney beans

1 kg leg of lamb (with bones)
2 large onions, peeled and quartered
1.2 l water [use less if pressure cooking or using pre-cooked beans]
1/2 cup chickpeas
1/2 cup red kidney beans
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into halves
4 tomatoes, peeled and sliced [Saffron: or a 400 g tin of whole tomatoes, drained]
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 whole dried Persian limes (limu-omani), pierced [S: if you have a choice, the pale dried limes are better than the almost black ones in this dish], or 1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 2 tbsp hot water
1 tsp Persian allspice (advieh) [S: I use my "Special Spices"]

1. Place the meat, onion, and water in a large pot. Bring to the boil, skimming the froth as it forms. Add the chickpeas and red kidney beans [if using dried], turmeric, salt and pepper. Cover and let simmer for 1 1/2 hours over low heat [or under low pressure for 40 minutes].

2. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon, pierced Persian limes or lime juice, saffron water, advieh and more water [if needed]. Continue to simmer 45 minutes over low heat [or about 8 minutes under low pressure].

3. Test with a fork or a knife tip to see if the meat and potatoes are tender. Adjust seasoning.

At this point you have a choice: either serve the broth separate from the meat, vegetables and beans, mashing these into a paste, or serve as a soup in bowls. Either way, Najmieh khanom suggests that the dish be served with Persian pickles (torshi), a platter of spring onions, radishes, fresh tarragon, basil and mint (sabzi-khordan) and lavash or pita bread. (We have it with rice.)


Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Nar eksili patlicanli kofte: Turkish meatballs with roasted eggplant and pomegranate-tomato sauce

By now it is apparent even to me that my taste for pomegranate is not going to be contained to the Christmas season. Then again, if you've got a bottle of pom molasses (also known as pomegranate syrup or paste, but never grenadine), why not flaunt it, eh? (Although it will live happily in the fridge for a year or more so there really isn't any hurry...)

I was always going to fall for this recipe, really. Not only does it showcase my current fruity favourite, it also gives me a great excuse to try out those "hot spices" that my Turkish friend gave me. Aside from the molasses, there is nothing particularly exotic here, but the combination is definitely not your everyday meatballs (kofte), that's for sure.

The tender and juicy kofte are richly savoury by themselves, but the sweet-sour sauce really takes them to another plane. Most of the recipes I have for kofte/kufteh/kofta (and all the other variant spellings) call for de-crusted bread steeped in water and squeezed out. This technique really does make the meat extra succulent, and should not be reserved just for Middle Eastern-style meatballs and patties. For the spices, I substituted 2 tsp of "hot spices", and it provided just the right heat for me. (I'll definitely be trying to hunt down a recipe for this spice blend.)

This recipe comes from Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen by Ayla Esen Algar. As you will see from one of the reviews on Amazon, this book may not please those that need pictures of the food to entice them into giving something a go. All things being equal, I have to say that I'd rather have more prose on the historical and cultural background of a country's cuisine than a few colour plates, and in Classical Turkish Cooking, Ayla hanim more than makes up for the lack of photos with her fascinating and poetic insights into the food of her homeland. It is erudite stuff, and in that, she's right up there with Claudia Roden in my book. And that is praise, indeed.

Although it is a relatively slim volume, there are many more recipes I want to have a go at sometime. One being the stuffed mussels that my dear friend U insisted I try in Kadikoy just half an hour or so after we'd stuffed ourselves silly with grilled kofte, white bean salad and 2 huge glasses of homemade ayran (the Turkish take on lassi). She said they were her absolute favourites, but I have to admit I did pause to consider whether, sitting so pretty and gleaming all tucked up in their shells in the hot Turkish sun, they might not trigger some unpleasant tummy situation I would live to regret. As it happened, these lemony and allspicy dolmas of the sea ended up being one of my very favourite things to eat in Turkey. How lucky will I be if I can find mussels in Japan big enough to permit the stuffing. But I digress...

Nar eksili patlicanli kofte: Turkish meatballs with roast eggplant simmered in a pomegranate-tomato sauce

If pomegranate syrup is not available, use pomegranate juice sharpened with lemon juice, or a fruity vinegar.

Kofte mixture

2 slices of bread, crust removed
450 g twice-ground lamb (beef can be substituted) [Saffron: I used chicken and it was lovely]
1/2 onion, grated
1 1/2 tsp freshly ground cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 to 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tender long green peppers, Hungarian peppers, or 2 poblanos [S: these are not readily available here, so I left them out]

4 or 5 Japanese eggplants [S: I think she means regular nasu around 8 cm long, not naganasu, although I used naganasu and didn't come to grief]

Pomegranate-tomato sauce
4 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
5 scallions [spring onions], white and green parts, chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp pomegranate syrup
Chopped flat-leaf parsley

To make the kofte, put bread in small bowl with water and let soak until soft. Squeeze dry by hand and put in bowl with lamb, onion, spices, olive oil and parsley. Shape into small kofte [S: I made mine balls about the size of walnuts] and pan grill them in a hot cast iron skillet brushed with oil. Place the kofte in a heavy shallow pan in one layer, and set aside. Roast the peppers directly over a gas burner until brown blisters appear on their surface. If you are using the poblanos, they will take a little longer to become soft and you will need to peel and halve them.

Roast the eggplants directly on the gas burner until black and charred. Cool, peel, and cut off the stems. Then cut them into 1/3-inch-thick [S: I did them into 1.5 cm] rounds and place them over the kofte in the pan.

To make the sauce, cook the tomatoes in olive oil, mashing down with a fork for 4 or 5 minutes. Stir in the scallions and pepper flakes and cook until the mixture forms a watery sauce. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the pomegranate syrup or whatever substitute you have. Stir in half the parsley and pour the sauce over the kofte. Cover and simmer, adding 1/4 cup water [S: I didn't think the sauce needed it], over low heat about 20 minutes, until the eggplant is soft and the kofte are hot. Serve sprinkled with parsley.


Friday, 18 January 2008

On hearing my foodie heroes speak

I was listening to a podcast on the BBC this lunchtime and one thing leading to another, as it does, discovered Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. Knowing it was the BBC, the very name conjured up visions of matriarchs, all smelling of lavender and violets, sitting around discussing the proper way to grow petunias, knitting patterns, oh, and plum jam (on which topic the film Calendar Girls offers some humourous enlightenment).

It wasn't all that bad, and while not exactly hip, the programme's Food and Cooking section does have lots to offer food junkies in need of a hit. And so it was that I heard for the first time the voices of two of my biggest foodie heroes (Nigel Slater, Diana Henry), and one (Anissa Helou) who is almost certain to join their ranks when I finally relent and purchase her book Modern Mezze.

Knowing them only by their written words, I was surprised by how un-posh Nigel sounded, and how down-to-earth-Irish Diana did. Diana, especially spoke nothing like I imagined she would. After all, it was her Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, and its Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bent, that started this cooking quest to begin with. (And whose latest book, Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, has promised to deliver very soon, just 3-5 weeks after the ordering; how am I supposed to wait so long!?)

Actually, they both sounded like the sort of friends you’d want to have over for eats round the table for hours and hours. I’m sure they’d be just as good company as the have been in print, even if they sound nothing like they do on the page (g).


Tagine of pumpkin and chickpeas

So, how are those preserved lemons coming along?

I made mine earlier (in November, in fact), so they were just coming good when I decided to make this happy tagine for a friend who sometimes takes the same train as me in the morning. He suffered a not-so-minor health setback a few months back, so I wanted to make something that would be both cheery on a cold winter's night and virtuous, health-wise. This tagine was just the ticket. Although it sounds and tastes a bit exotic, it is a total doddle to make (just don't tell my friend (g)).

I originally got the recipe from the website of The Age, but it shows up on Cuisine as well (where you can see how it looks when a professional photographs it (g)). While I suspect this may not be authentic Moroccan, it is in the Moroccan style and the preserved lemons are Moroccan through and through so I will tag it "Moroccan". If authenticity is an issue, stay tuned as Moroccan is one of my all-time favourite cuisines, and I will come back to it and the preserved lemons again before too long.

I've made this a few times before, so for a change, I decided to make it a bit chunkier than usual. And since I had some yummy sweet winter carrots, they made it into the pot as well. What did not make the pot was the saffron--my own fault, for not reading the recipe properly--but the tagine was no worse for it.

I served it with rice as a main course following the "two dips" in the post below, and everyone was pleasantly full at the end of the meal.

Tagine of pumpkin and chickpeas

1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp dried chilli flakes
1/4 tsp saffron threads, steeped in 100ml hot water
500g pumpkin, peeled and cut into large pieces
2 waxy potatoes, peeled and cut in half
half a 400g tin tomatoes [Saffron: I didn't need a spare half tin so I threw the whole lot in]
2 zucchini, sliced
1/2 a preserved lemon, chopped
cooked cous cous or rice, to serve
1/2 cup yoghurt
1/2 cup coriander leaves

Put the chickpeas in a pot with plenty of cold water and boil for 30 minutes. Drain.

In a large pot, heat the oil and butter and cook the onion and garlic until soft and lightly golden. Add the spices (except saffron), cook for a couple of minutes, then add the partially cooked chickpeas, saffron, pumpkin, potatoes, tomatoes and just enough water to cover. Season with salt and simmer gently until the potatoes are almost soft (about 30-40 minutes). Add the zucchini and preserved lemon and cook for 5 more minutes or until the potatoes and pumpkin are soft (but not mushy).

To serve
Serve with cous cous or rice and a dollop of yoghurt and some freshly chopped coriander. If you like it hot, serve a little harissa on the side (available at delis and some supermarkets).

Serves 6.


Two meze dips: Tzatziki and tarator

I have been having what in Japan we call a "my-boom" (personal "boom") in meze (or mezze) this last little while. It seems I just can't get enough of dips and nibbles these days. I think it is the zippy taste, and the fact they are so healthy.

Now I know that in some countries a whole section of the supermarket fridge is given over to commercially produced dips, but Japan isn't one of these.

Though, having made a few at home myself, I don't know why anyone wouldn't bother to make their own. I mean, it's not exactly hard to throw a few things you are likely to have in the kitchen anyway into a bowl and stir them up.

As it happens, two different sources of meze dips I have been using recently are actually one and the same: Anissa Helou's Modern Mezze.

Here is one from each.

The tzatziki recipe calls for Greek-style yogurt, which is not exactly a supermarket staple in Japan. You can substitute 600 g of plain yogurt, strained in a kitchen sheet-lined sieve for half an hour or so. It gets creamier the longer you drain it and also makes a great substitute for sour cream and creme fraiche, which seem to be popular in recipes coming out of the US and UK. If you are using it in a dish that needs further cooking, wait until the very end so you don't break it.

The tarator was another one of those revelations for me. I mean, how many recipes are there where water is not a cooking medium or soup-base, but an integral ingredient? Without it, you are not going to get the lovely pale colour of this dip. Incidentally, tarator seems to be a generic name for sauces/dips containing nuts (at least in Turkey).


This dip is found with slight variations in Turkey [Saffron note: where it is known as cacik (pronounced "jajik"). Live and learn!], Greece, Lebanon and Syria. The following recipe is Turkish in origin. For a Lebanese or Syrian version, replace the dill with 1-2 tbs powdered dried mint [Saffron: I made the Lebanese version and it tasted just like the Greek dip we had in Australia].

Serves 4

4 small Middle Eastern cucumbers or 1 regular cucumber [Saffron: I used 1 Japanese cucumber and quartered it lengthwise, sliced it then squeezed out the juice by hand in the Japanese way]
sea salt
450g Greek-style yoghurt [Saffron: see note above]
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
2-3 tbs chopped dill
paprika, for sprinkling
dill sprigs [Saffron: if using dill (g)]

If using small cucumbers, halve lengthways and slice thinly. If you have a standard cucumber, peel, halve, deseed and grate, then salt slightly. Let it sit for about 15 minutes, then squeeze to get rid of excess moisture.

Mix the cucumber, yoghurt, garlic and dill together in a bowl. Taste and adjust the salt if necessary. Spoon into a serving dish and drizzle with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with paprika and serve garnished with dill.

Tarator (sesame dip)

Serves 6

It is essential to serve this simple dip [when having] falafel, but it's also very good with crudités, or thinned with water to make a salad dressing.

5oz/140ml tahini
Juice of 1½ lemons, or to taste
3½ floz/100ml water
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

Put the tahini in a bowl and gradually stir in the lemon juice, alternating with the water. It will thicken and then gradually get thin to the consistency of double cream. Taste as you go, since you may not want to add all the lemon juice [Saffron: or you may want to add even more (g), in which case you might want to give priority to the lemon juice over the water]. Add garlic and sea salt to taste and mix well.

There, easy wasn't it?


Thursday, 17 January 2008

Avgolemono: Greek chicken soup with lemon and egg

My formative years were spent in Melbourne, Australia, which is said to be the biggest "Greek" city outside of Greece itself (though this may be an urban legend...). Certainly, the Greeks have made Melbourne their own and when I was growing up, Greek restaurants, culture and especially humour were very much in evidence, the latter particularly on TV. You would think that this steady diet of all things Greek would somehow rub off on me in the kitchen, wouldn't you?

Sadly, it did not. But I am happy to correct this oversight now. After all, Greece is still very much within the saffron and lemons realm, and better still, I received a delightful cookbook for Christmas that is sure to make the journey very pleasant indeed.

It is called Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes and it was love at first sight when we first met in a suburban bookshop in Melbourne just before Christmas 2006. But I didn't buy it then. No, not even though it was on sale (showing a great deal of restraint, I have to say (g))! Something about suitcase weight limits and the mounting pile of foodie necessities that were coming back to Japan with me. The dried fruit, nuts, spices, tamarind paste... That sort of thing. We must all suffer for our art, I suppose.

When the next gift-receiving (g) opportunity rolled round, Cloudberries was right up there on my list, but some other lucky soul had nabbed the copy and I was left in unrequited cookbook love purgatory. Luckily, Saffron-Mama and Papa took pity and got me the book (and another long-term lust, Nigel's Appetite) for Christmas 2007. And it was really worth the wait.

The book is described as a "culinary memoir" and in it our gracious hostess, Tessa Kiros, guides us through the kitchens of her upbringing (her mother is Finnish, father Greek-Cypriot, there is some Russian in there as well; oh, and she spend some of her childhood in South Africa, and now lives in Italy).

Just like Tessa, the book's an eclectic but accessible mix, and her evocative, and yes, charming writing will have you running to the kitchen (and if that doesn't, the luscious photos certainly will (g)).

Anyway, I thought I would christen my copy with avgolemono. The reason being that Saffron-Papa and Mama have a Greek-Cypriot friend whose chicken with lemon and egg I have heard rave reviews about on more than one occasion. Tessa's is a Greek version, but I would be more than happy to hear from any Greek-Cypriots who may wish to comment on it.

(It should be noted that Falling Cloudberries has chapters on both Greece and Cyprus, and the cuisines do appear to be distinct enough to warrant this. Perhaps Cypriot cuisine is a happy mid-point between the tables of Greece and Turkey? The culinary clues Tessa leaves us certainly seem to suggest this...)

There is no photo today as the extended cooking time makes the chicken literally fall off the bone when you attempt to remove it from the pot. But it is all for the good. The addition of lemon and egg to the resultant flavourful broth makes it both soothingly velvety and slightly sharp at the same time. It is totally beguiling.

At Tessa's suggestion, I added a bouquet garni and a few bay leaves to the broth. You will end up with a lot of soup, so this is perfect if you are having a crowd over. If not, it jells up nicely once it cools, making it souper (g) easy to store for later reheating without inadvertently creating a puddle at the bottom of the fridge.


Serves 4

1 chicken (about 1.3 kg)
1 white onion
1 celery stalk with leaves, cut into large chunks
1 large carrot, cut into half
A few parsley stalks
A few black peppercorns
100 g (1/2 cup) long-grain rice, rinsed
2 eggs
Juice of 2 lemons

Rinse the chicken well and put it in a large stockpot with the onion, celery, carrot, parsley stalks, peppercorns and a good sprinkling of salt [Saffron: at least 2 tsp]. Cover with about 3.5 litres (14 cups) of cold water and bring to the boil.Skim the surface with a slotted spoon, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 1/2 hours, skimming occasionally. Lift the chicken out onto a plate with a slotted spoon [Saffron: I needed a pair of tongs, and even then the meat just melted from the bone]. Strain the broth through a sieve, pressing down lightly on the vegetables with your wooden spoon to extract the flavour. You should have about 1.5 litres (6 cups) of broth. Return this to the saucepan, add the rice and cook over medium heat for another 15 minutes or so, until the rice is cooked.

Whisk the eggs until they are fluffy. Add the lemon juice. Add a ladleful of hot broth to the egg, whisking to stop it scrambling. Whisk in a little more broth, then add the whole lot to the pan. Return the saucepan to the lowest possible heat for a few minutes to warm the egg through. Add some salt and pepper and serve immediately. If you like, shred on of the chicken breasts and scatter over the soup. Serve the rest of the chicken as a second course.


Sunday, 13 January 2008

Preserved lemons

I love fruit. Here in Japan, fruit is highly seasonal. And winter brings a cavalcade of citrus fruits to tempt the palate, quench the thirst and boost your vitamin C intake.

The variety of citrus in Japan is phenomenal: green-tinged early-picked mandarins herald the end of summer; regular ones appear in time for the gobble-fest at New Year. The fragrant triumvirate of kabosu, sudachi and yuzu adds zing to Japanese food from autumn right through the long winter. Ponkan, sweet and juice-laden iyokan (which I eagerly await each year), tangellos, grapefruit, oranges... Whether for their juice or their peel, citrus fruits are exactly what you want when it looks like the sun may never again break through heavy winter clouds (although it seems to finally have done so today in Tokyo).

But to my mind, the ruler of the citrus domain is... Well, given the name of this blog, I'm sure I don't need to spell it out (g).

So, the time has come to get down to it with some recipes showcasing the ever fabulous lemon.

But first we need to make some preserved lemons. These are the "salty lemons" that opened my eyes to the fabulous epicurean treats that are out there in the world just waiting to be "discovered".

It is amazing that something so mind-blowing (to me, anyway) is so easy. All you need is a clip-top jar, lemons and salt. That's it! Oh, and the most important ingredient--time.

Through some kind of strange alchemy, these three ingredients give you not "salty lemons", but something altogether more delectable. A lovely mellow but tangy fruit, whose peel (and pulp, if you want, and who wouldn't want?) adds a fresh and fabulous dimension to so many Moroccan dishes. You can also add them to meat sandwiches in place of pickle, use them to brighten up a simple green salad or salsa, or just gobble them on their own. The "juice" somehow morphs into an unctuous syrup, that is just begging to jump into some salad dressing. (Lemon aficionados may even find a teaspoonful pinched from the jar a very sharpening way to jump-start a brain addled with the cold.)

Here they are, pictured with the original jar that my dear friend N brought from Australia (the contents long since savoured with relish).

Preserved lemons

1 Choose organic lemons, if you can. Scrub them with dish-washing detergent and rinse them very well, then pat dry.

2 Cut the lemons in quarters lengthwise, but not all the way through to the stalk. Fill each lemon with a heaped tablespoon of salt and place in the (sterilized, if you're worried about salt-resistant germs) jar, pressing down heavily as you go. Once the jar is filled with lemons, fill it to the top with juice from additional lemons, then seal. It is important to keep the lemons immersed in the juice so that mould does not form. (Although Claudia Roden tells us that any white mould that forms is harmless, and should just be wiped off. Not that I've ever had mould, but in case you do.)

3 Turn the jar over and press down on the lemons each day for a week, topping up with more juice if you need to. Leave to mature for a month on the counter, then store until needed in the fridge. These will last a very long time. Depending on how salty you like things, you can wash the salt off before you use them. I don't usually bother, though, and just adjust the salt in the dish accordingly.

For me, preserved lemons were a total revelation. They can be addictive, and even cause abnormal behaviour in users, such as strange urges to tour the world in search of other culinary treasures. You have been warned!


Friday, 11 January 2008

The spice of life!

Some time back, I was asking my dear Turkish friend Se about a Turkish spice blend whose name translates as "hot spices". She hadn't heard of it then (Turkish cuisine varying significantly from area to area), but recently got back to me to say that a friend of hers had, and had just brought some of that very mix back from Turkey. Better still, she would even give me some! Wahoo. I can't wait to try it in some kofte that I am planning to make soon.

I have been collecting herb and spice blend recipes found on the Net for a couple of years. Mainly because I can't let a tasty-sounding mix I come across in a recipe go un-researched, and also because I regularly use 2 US cookbooks--Saving Dinner and Saving Dinner the Low-Carb Way--to make up my weekday menus. Both of these contain lots of herb and spice mixes that I may only use once or twice a year; not enough to warrant buying a bottle (assuming I can find one), particularly when I have just about all of the required herbs and spices loose in two cupboards, a drawer and on the counter top--the places a foodie must stash her spices when she has a kitchen the size of a shoe box (g).

So, to keep all these recipes together and allow me to declutter the little bits of paper I have them scribbled down on, I am retyping them here so that others can also enjoy them as much as I have. Naturally, I tip my cap to the kind people who shared them on the Net to begin with.

Taco seasoning mix
1 tbsp mild chili powder (reduce amount if using cayenne; perhaps a couple of shakes)
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp each cumin, garlic powder, paprika, oregano and sugar
1/2 tsp salt

Italian herb mix
2 tsp each basil, marjoram and oregano
1 tsp sage

Mixed spice (this seems to be a Commonwealth mix as it is almost unheard of in the US, apparently)

1/2 tbsp each allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg
1 tsp mace
1/2 tsp each cloves, coriander and ginger

Cajun seasoning mix
3/4 tsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp sweet paprika
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp each onion powder, garlic powder and ground red pepper
3/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp oregano

Non-hot curry powder (a de-fanged mix; you'll probably need to use more of this than regular curry powder)

3 tbsp sweet paprika
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp each ginger, turmeric and coriander
1/2 tsp each cardamom and garlic powder

Fragrant sweet spices (excellent in porridge and sweet things in place of cinnamon)

1 1/2 tsp coriander
1 1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
3/4 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp each poppy seeds, cloves, cardamom and rose petals (rose petals are not essential, but if you have them, put in as much as you like; they're very subtle)

Middle Eastern 7-spice (also known as sabah baharat; interestingly, this recipe has 8 ingredients)

1 tbsp each ground black pepper, paprika and cumin
1/2 tbsp each coriander and ground cloves
1/2 tsp each nutmeg and cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom

Tagine spice blend (I haven' t tried this Moroccan blend, but it sounds delish. It comes from what looks like an authority on spices, from a recipe that is begging to be tried--if parsnips ever show up in downtown Yokohama (g))

2 tbsp paprika
2 1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp each cinnamon and chili powder
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp each ground cloves and cardamom

Turkish baharat (from an excellent online spice resource. You'll also find the kofte recipe I'm going to use to test-run my new "hot spices" in on this site)

2 tbsp each ground black pepper and cumin
1 tbsp each coriander, ground mint and cloves
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cardamom
Pinch of cinnamon

Spice it up and enjoy!

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Traditional Japanese New Year cuisine 2: Ozoni soup and Gochiso buri daikon

As mentioned in a previous post, we were a bit ambitious with our New Year cooking plans this year. Not to worry. By the time it was all ready we could have eaten a scabby horse! (as Saffron-papa so poetically puts it). Luckily, we didn't have to as we had these two lovely dishes to munch on instead.

Edo zoni (Edo-style New Year's hotchpotch)

Ozoni is a lovely little soup, versions of which vary the length and breadth of Japan. Since we are in the Yokohama/Tokyo area, I decided to give Edo zoni a go (Edo being Tokyo's moniker, long before it became the megalopolis it is today). The prawns (shrimp) are for long life, and the yuzu (citron, a small citrus fruit) peel added to ward off colds. You could substitute lemon peel, but it will not have the distinctive scent of yuzu.

You will also need kamaboko, a cooked fish paste that is sold on a wooden block (I used a trendy scallop and parsley one which was devoid the oh-so-unnatural fluoro pink outer layer); mochi, or pounded sticky rice cake; and dashi, Japanese fish/sea vegetable stock (either made from scratch, from granules, or with a dashi "pack" (teabag), as I did). If you use dashi pack, you may find like I did that you need to use more salt. The flavour was very subtle, even for me and I use a light hand with salt as a general rule.

Ingredients (for 4)

4 blocks of mochi
4 small whole prawns
(2 tbsp sake
1/5 tsp salt (a pinch)) = A
2 chicken fillets (or a similarly small amount of chicken leg (I use 1 thigh))
1 small bunch komatsuna greens (or substitute spinach)
4 slices kamaboko (there is not really a substitute but you could try a small piece of cooked white fish)
1/2 a sheet of Asakusa nori (dried laver) (optional)
(5 cups dashi (see above)
1 tsp usukuchi (light) Japanese soy sauce (or to taste)
1 tsp salt (or to taste)) =B
Small amount of yuzu peel

1 Peel and de-vein the prawns (you can leave the heads on). Form into "U" shapes and cook until pink in a small pot with the sake and the salt (A) and about 1/4 cup of boiling water. Trim the chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces and sprinkle with salt. Cook briefly in boiling water.

2 Blanch komatsuna in boiling salted water, drain, squeeze out the excess moisture by hand and cut into 3 cm lengths. Separate into 4 bundles.

3 Crispen the nori by waving it over the heat on both sides, only until the colour changes (a matter of a couple of seconds). Cut into 4 squares. Cut skinny rectangles of yuzu peel and make two cuts lengthwise almost to the end, one from each end of the peel. This will allow you to make a "triangle" with the peel like the one in the photo (admittedly not very professional looking, but it was my first effort, too (g)).

4 Heat the dashi, the usukuchi Japanese soy sauce and salt (B). Add the chicken and simmer briefly.

5 Grill the mochi on both sides, (take care, as it puffs up and burns easily) and arrange in bowls together with the prawns, komatsuna, chicken and kamaboko. Check and adjust the seasoning of the soup, and ladle into the bowls over the over ingredients. Garnish with nori and a yuzu triangle.

Gochiso buri daikon (Special occasion yellowtail with daikon)

I was never really into cooking fish until a few years ago. Something about a residual fear of bones, after being rushed to hospital with one stuck in my throat as a child, I suppose. That and the young man of the house not being much of a fan. However, getting him to eat buri, or yellowtail, has never been a problem. He even fights to get the biggest piece!

We love this unctuous, melt-in-your-mouth fish with its moreish dark bits. Gochiso (a special treat), indeed!


4 slices of buri (around 400 g)
(3 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
2 tbsp each sake and mirin) = A
600 g daikon (less than half a big one)
3 cups dashi (see above)
(1 tbsp sake
2 tsp usukuchi (light) Japanese soy sauce) = B
3 tsp vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
(1 tbsp each Japanese soy sauce, sake and mirin
1 tsp sugar) = C
Finely slithered yuzu peel to garnish

1 Marinate buri in the Japanese soy sauce, sake and mirin (A) for at least 30 minutes.

2 Peel daikon and cut into rounds about 2 cm thick. Place the daikon with the dashi in a pot and heat over a medium flame. When it comes to a boil add the sake and usukuchi Japanese soy sauce (B). Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until the daikon is tender.

3 Remove daikon with a slotted spoon and drain well. Arrange the daikon slices in a dry frying pan and heat over a low flame. Brown, covered, on both sides until soft. Drizzle over 1 tsp of the oil and swirl the pan. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

4 Remove buri from marinade. Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan and cook the buri until nicely browned on both sides. Add the Japanese soy sauce, sake, mirin and sugar (C) and continue frying until the sauce reduces (I had my first flambe experience with ours; perhaps the heat was a bit high).

5 Arrange daikon slices (I used 2 per slice of buri) on a plate, top with the buri and garnish with slithered yuzu peel.

Note: All Traditional Japanese New Year cuisine 1 and 2 recipes are from Osechi to kigaru na omotenashi 2008 (Osechi and easy entertaining). Translating them has been a lot of fun because the recipe-writing styles of Japanese and English are so different. Hopefully the transfer was successful.


Saturday, 5 January 2008

Saffron's recipe of 2007: Keema aloo

Sometimes you really hit the jackpot with a recipe, and just can't get it out of your head. This is one of those for me. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it was my taste sensation of 2007.

I found it in the Guardian, a favourite haunt for new cooking ideas. The article that accompanies it is not bad either, so definitely do go and take a look.

The recipe is a Pakistani take on mince and tatties, only far more exciting (g). I cooked it for parties, impromptu engagement celebrations and other occasions throughout 2007, and even took a jar of the spices with me to Turkey to make it for my kind hosts in Konya and Istanbul. I made it there with lamb and with beef, and in Japan with chicken and with the beef/pork mix that is the standard mince here. In all cases, plates have been cleared and (importantly (g)) I am far from tiring of it.

As an aside, my dear host U in Istanbul recognized the dish as similar to something in Turkish cuisine (with different spicing, obviously (g)). If you're reading, U, I'm sure we would all love to try the Turkish version if you have the recipe...

St Google gives up several recipes for tandoori masala powder. Many of them include red food colouring. This one doesn't, and is pretty fabulous. In Japan, you can get amchoor/amchur/dried mango powder (a souring agent) from Ohtsuya in Ameyoko in Ueno (near to Okachimachi Stn). If you can't get it, use extra lemon instead.

I find that no oil is necessary in this, but go ahead if you feel it needs it.

Rasool Bibi's family recipe: Keema aloo

Try eating Keema aloo with chapatis or pitta bread, with a few drops of lemon juice squeezed on top.

Serves 4

455g lamb mince
4-6 green and red chillies
1 medium sized onion
4 medium sized tomatoes
3-4 medium sized potatoes
a handful of coriander
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs chilli powder
1 tbs tandoori masala powder
1 tsp crushed ginger
1 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp crushed black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1 lemon

Chop the tomatoes, onions and chillies and put into a pot with a few drops of olive oil.
Stir over a medium heat for a few minutes.

Add the spices and a few tablespoons of olive oil and heat for around five minutes. Add the mince and a splash more olive oil and stir until the mince looks uniformly cooked.

Meanwhile peel and slice the potatoes and add to the mince.

Finely chop the coriander and add to the pot. Place a lid on top and allow the potatoes to cook right through.

Serve with yoghurt or raita.

Tandoori masala powder

4 tsp ground coriander
3 tsp ground cumin
4 tsp garlic powder
4 tsp paprika
3 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp mango powder (amchoor)
1 tsp dried mint
1 tsp chilli powder (optional; I tend to add the heat in the pot or at the table)

Mix and store until needed in an airtight container.


A note on commenting

I was starting to wonder if anyone was actually reading Saffron and Lemons as no-one has posted a comment as yet.

Then a good friend said she would've left a comment except she was required to give all sorts of information first.

Actually, if you post as "anonymous" (sneakily placed as the bottom option), you can post away to your heart's content without any of that hassle. Blogger sends me your comments by mail, and if you are not trying to sell me Viagra or offer me millions if I only help you to get money out of Nigeria (g), I'll give the okay the next time I check my mail. Easy!

Just sign your comment as something I will understand, as your mail address will not show in the mail Blogger sends me. I comment anonymously in blogs as things like "W in Tokyo" and "Saffron" (g).

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Traditional Japanese New Year's cuisine 1: Osechi tokusen

I've often wondered how I might combine my passion for cooking with my day job as a Japanese to English translator. Mostly I cook Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean food, so unless there is an absolutely brilliant book on the food of these areas written in Japanese that needs translating into English, it's hard to see how I might bring the two together.

It is therefore a special treat to be able to bring you a couple of Japanese recipes today. They are for traditional dishes cooked over several days, arranged artfully in a three-tiered lacquer box, and eaten over the first couple of days of the New Year.

As it turned out, we were invited to our dear friends M an T's New Year celebration at the last minute, and the cooking I had planned to do ahead of time all had to be done on New Year's Day (after arriving home from alcohol-free but extremely lively merry-making at 5 am). Do not attempt this at home!

There is a good reason I don't cook more Japanese food, and that is that it cannot be whipped up in half an hour after work! This goes doubly for celebratory dishes such as these, although the soup (recipe soon) can be on the table pretty quickly if you have bought in all the bits and bobs you need in advance (though this is essential to any cooking, really).

Kuromame (sweet black soy beans)

These are made with the hope that the eater will work hard and live a healthy life (both of which are mame in Japanese, the same as the word for beans) in the year ahead. This may be the only recipe you come across that calls for rusty nails (no, not the ones made of whisky and Drambuie; actual rusty nails, which are said to improve the beans' colour). Unfortunately we were clean out of rusty nails, but I can happily report the recipe works just as well without them (g). Also note that you will cook the beans in the soaking water so do measure it and don't throw it away!


1 cup kuromame (black soy beans)
3 cups water
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1-1 1/2 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
2-3 rusty nails, wrapped in muslin or similar to ease removal

1 Soak beans overnight in water and salt.

2 Tip into heavy bottomed pot and add rusty nails, wrapped in muslin or similar and bring to the boil. Leave the nails in until the beans are tender.

3 Meanwhile, remove any scum that comes to the surface and add an additional cup of water. Place a greaseproof paper "lid" over the top (to reduce evaporation) and simmer gently, covered, for 4 hours or until soft. Add half the sugar and continue to simmer.

4 After 15 minutes, add remaining sugar and soy sauce. Leave on a low heat until the sugar dissolves, then remove from the heat and allow to cool. Remove beans with a slotted spoon and reduce the remaining syrup a little. Pour over the beans and leave overnight to allow the flavour to penetrate.

Tazukuri (dried fish simmered in soy sauce)

Once upon a time, these fish were apparently used in a rice paddy as fertilizer, resulting in a bumper crop, hence the name "tazukuri", or paddy-making.

I felt these were too salty, but they went down well with guests a day or two later as an accompaniment to Japanese sake. Mine did not stick together, but that just made them easier to graze on in the following days.


30 g gomame (dried young anchovies)
30 g flaked almonds or sesame seeds (lightly toasted in a dry frying pan)
30 ml Japanese soy sauce
30 ml sake
15 ml mirin
Pinch of sugar

1 Pick over gomame, removing the guts for better flavour and spread out on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave for 1 minute on high and remove to a sheet of paper towel.

2 Break up almonds with your hands.

3 Heat soy sauce, sake, mirin and sugar in a small pan over a low heat. When reduced to the point where the bottom of the pan becomes visible, quickly add gomame and mix to coat. This helps them stick together.

4 Sprinkle over almonds. Make small piles of fish with all the heads pointing the same way and place on a sheet of greaseproof paper while still warm. Allow to cool.

Kurikinton (sweet potatoes with chestnuts)

"Kuri" is chestnut and "kinton" refers to wealth. This sweet and moreish paste of gold is made in the hope of calling wealth to the eater in the year to come (we can only hope, eh?). If done by hand as per the recipe, this takes an age. Perhaps the passing the mix through a sieve can be done in a food processor instead?? Either way, I used half the original amount of sugar and it was plenty sweet enough.


500 g sweet potatoes
1--2 kuchinashi (gardenia) pods (Japanese saffron!!)
1 1/4 cups sugar (I used half)
1/2 cup syrup from bottle of chestnuts in syrup (you might need to be in Japan at this time of year for this one)
1/5 tsp salt (a pinch, I reckon)
3 tbsp mirin
10-15 of the bottled chestnuts (I halved them)

1 Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into 5 mm rounds

2 Soak sweet potatoes in a bowl of water as you cut them (to prevent discolouring). Change water a few times until it runs clear.

3 Bring sweet potatoes to the boil. Add water to reduce the temperature of the water, then drain. (Seriously, this is what the recipe says!)

4 Add fresh water to just cover. Add kuchinashi pods, broken in half and wrapped in muslin or similar to ease removal. Place a greaseproof paper "lid" on top (I reused the one from the beans) and simmer, covered, until very soft.

5 When soft, drain the cooking liquid and remove the kuchinashi pods. Shake the pot gently over the heat to dry and flake the sweet potatoes. Add half the sugar (I only added this much) and mix with wooden spoon, mashing as you go.

6 Wet sieve and shake excess water off. Pass sweet potato mixture through with a wooden spoon, using strong strokes in one direction.

7 Return sweet potatoes to the pot and add remaining sugar (if using), syrup, salt and mirin. Mix over a gentle heat.

8 When the mixture starts to thicken and become glossy, add chestnuts and heat gently a little longer, then remove from the heat. It will continue to thicken as it cools, so remove from the heat while still a little "wet". (It should basically end up like very smooth mashed potatoes.)

With best wishes for 2008. Enjoy!