Iskander Kebab

Iskander Kebab

We are spoiled for choice in Vienna with lots of different ethnic shops, markets, and restaurants. This is especially true for all things Turkish as the city is home to a large population with Turkish background, many of whom are second and third generation immigrants whose parents and grandparents came to Austria as guest workers back in the 60′s and 70′s. Lucky for us, they have brought their delicious cuisine with them, and döner kebab has undoubtedly become one of the most popular fast foods in town.

I love visiting the Turkish bakeries with their trays full of rows of neat little squares of sticky baklava (which I can never resist), piles of lokum (Turkish delight) in different flavors, big blocks of helva, fluffy white bread in all shapes and sizes, and pide (Turkish pizza) with delicious toppings. There’s always a heavenly smell of yeast, flour, sugar, and nuts wafting around these bakeries that is at once comforting and exciting.

Last spring, we decided it was time to finally go to the source of all this culinary greatness and make a trip to Turkey. Unfortunately, the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano had other plans for us in store and forced us to cancel our trip the day before we were supposed to fly out. So I am even more excited that we’re giving it another try in April, and if all goes well, we’ll really make it to Istanbul this time!

To get us in the mood for our upcoming trip, I made one of my favorite Turkish dishes, Iskander Kebab. The little meatballs are much better if made the traditional way, flame broiled over an open fire. Since it’s still too cold for any outdoor BBQ activities, I put them under the grill in my oven. Not perfect, but still tasty! If you don’t like lamb, ground beef works equally well. This dish is usually served with a layer of pita bread at the bottom, but I prefer to serve it with Turkish bread on the side instead. It’s great for mopping up the sauce.

If any of you have been to Istanbul and have some tips or advice to share (food, sights, shopping, etc.), I’d love to hear from you! Given my weakness for ceramics and textiles, I’m afraid the luggage situation will get very ugly…

Iskander Kebab (serves 4)
2 cans finely chopped tomatoes
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
750g ground lamb or beef
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
2 onions, peeled and grated or very finely chopped
2 cups plain whole milk yogurt (Greek works best), at room temperature
1 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
salt, pepper
extra parsley for garnish

1. Put the tomatoes, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and sugar in a small pan. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and let simmer until the mixture starts to thicken and is slightly reduced.
2. Puree with a stick blender until you achieve a smooth consistency.
3. Put the ground meat, parsley, onions, salt, and pepper in a food processor and process until the mixture resembles a fine paste.
4. Shape the mix into little meatballs with your hands and grill to your liking.
5. In a small bowl, mix the remaining olive oil and paprika.
6. To serve, first put a layer of tomato sauce in each bowl, then add several spoonfuls of yogurt, drizzle with the paprika oil, sprinkle with pine nuts and top with the meatballs (kofta). Garnish with extra parsley.

Enjoy!

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Sri Lankan Pumpkin Curry, Coconut Sambol & Dahl

Sri Lankan Pumpkin Curry with Coconut Sambol and Dahl

I hope everyone had a great weekend. Mine was spent in a frenzy of cooking more Sri Lankan dishes, perfuming the whole house with intense aromas of curry leaves, chillies, ginger, and coconut milk. It was so much fun, although I needed some serious chill time after all the chopping and stirring. But definitely worth the effort! One of my favorite things about traveling is sampling new foods, exploring markets, and seeing how culture and the availability of local ingredients come together in specific cuisines. Recreating dishes at home is a fun way to feel transported back to far away lands, even if only for the duration of a meal.

These flavorful Sri Lankan dishes work beautifully together, with the coconut sambol (or pol sambol in Sinhalese) serving as a spicy condiment to kick things up a notch or two. You can either anchor this meal with Sri Lankan samba rice (a white rice with very small, pearl like grains, similar in size to Sushi rice, but with quite a strong flavor) or naan bread. Both make a great base to soak up all the delicious gravy from the curry and dahl. If you can’t find Maldive Fish (small chips of dried tuna that are a staple of Sri Lankan cuisine and are used to add saltiness to dishes), you can substitute with Japanese bonito flakes. Roasted curry powder is available at Asian supermarkets.

Don’t be put off by the list of ingredients – all three dishes are very easy to make, and they can be made a day before you serve them. The dahl in particular tastes better the next day when all the flavors have had time to “mingle”. Left overs from the dahl and sambal are great for a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with rice, naan bread, or even simple white bread, and a nice cup of Ceylon tea.

Sri Lankan Pumpkin Curry (serves 6)
1 teaspoon basmati rice
2 tablespoons freshly grated or desiccated unsweetened coconut
1 onion, finely chopped
1 sprig curry leaves, fresh or frozen
100ml coconut milk
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
500g pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3cm cubes
2 small green chillies, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Maldive fish flakes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric (curcuma)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
300ml coconut milk
pinch of roasted curry powder plus more for serving

1. Roast the rice in a roasting pan for about one minute, then add the grated coconut, onion, and curry leaves, stirring until the coconut turns brown (be careful not to burn it).
2. Put the mix in a mortar and pestle (alternatively, use a food processor), and pound until a paste forms.
3. Add the coconut milk and mustard seeds to the paste and mix well.
4. Put the remaining ingredients in a pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the pumpkin is tender.
5. Sprinkle with some roasted curry powder before serving.


Coconut Sambol (makes about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely ground
1 tablespoon Maldive fish flakes
1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder or flakes
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
1/2 fresh coconut, grated; or 50g desiccated unsweetened coconut mixed with 50ml water
juice of 1/2 lime

1. Place all ingredients except the lime juice in a mortar and pound with a pestle. Alternatively, use the back of a spoon to mash down the ingredients.
2. Add lime juice and stir well. The sambal should have a hint of lime taste, but it should not be sour.


Dahl (serves 6)
250g red lentils
1 teaspoon ground turmeric (curcuma)
2 long dried red chillies
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
2 garlic cloves, mashed
5cm piece ginger, very finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
50g ghee
1 sprig curry leaves, fresh or frozen
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds

1. Put the lentils, turmeric, chillies, onion, and tomato in a pot.
2. Add 5 cups of water and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the lentils are starting to break up.
3. Heat the ghee in a pan and add the garlic, ginger, cumin, curry leaves, and mustard seeds and cook until the mix begins to brown (about 5 minutes).
4. Add the spice mix to the lentils, and simmer until the mix has thickened, but is still somewhat soupy.

Enjoy!

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Minestrone alla Genovese

Minestrone alla Genovese

Spring is in the air! I don’t know about you, but after the long winter I am so ready to cook light and fresh dishes with lots of vegetables. Ok, so I admit this may also have something to do with the fact that I’ve been indulging in too much cake recently, but I am tired of subzero weather food. When March rolls around, I officially declare the end of winter cooking and eagerly await the arrival of delicate spring produce and herbs at the market. I rummage through my cookbooks and cooking magazines and rediscover old recipes like long lost friends.

Like this colorful Minestrone alla Genovese, which is brimming with vegetables and gets an extra dose of flavor from bright green pesto alla Genovese that’s mixed into the soup. Served with crusty white bread, it makes a nice light and very satisfying lunch. If you are pressed for time, you could use store bought pesto, but nothing compares to the home made version. Most pesto that you get at stores contains very little (and very low quality) olive oil and usually has cashew nuts mixed in as a filler. Real pesto contains neither sunflower oil nor cashew nuts, and I promise you will never want to go back to eating the store bought version once you have made it yourself.

Minestrone alla Genovese (serves 6)
120g finely chopped onion
70g chopped celery
70g carrots, peeled and chopped
70g chopped leek
250g potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
120g chopped zucchini
150g ditalini (or other short pasta)
70g frozen peas
1l vegetable stock
extra virgin olive oil
40g grana padano or parmiggiano reggiano
20g pecorino sardo, grated
20g pine nuts
20 large basil leaves
garlic
salt

1. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot.
2. Add celery, carrots, onion, and leek and cook for about 5 minutes.
3. Add potatoes and zucchini and cook for 1 minute.
4. Add stock and pasta and bring to boil.
5. About 3 to 4 minutes before vegetables are tender and pasta is al dente, add frozen peas and pesto (recipe see below).
6. Serve with crusty white bread.

Pesto
1. Using a mortar and pestle, gently smash the basil and pine nuts with a small amount of finely chopped garlic.
2. Add 60g extra virgin olive oil, grana, pecorino, and a pinch of salt, grinding everything to a smooth paste.

Enjoy!

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Mardi Gras King Cake

Mardi Gras King Cake

It’s my favorite day of the year to be in New Orleans – Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday), the culmination of the annual carnival season. Mardi Gras day is an official holiday in New Orleans. Everyone is out there in costume, watching Rex and Zulu, the two big parades, second lining in the French Quarter (i.e., following a marching band and dancing along to the fat tunes of the tuba, drums, and trumpets), enjoying a cup of gumbo or a plate of red beans and rice, and of course, admiring the incredibly beautiful handmade costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians. Mardi Gras day is New Orleans at its best. If it was up to me, every day would be Mardi Gras, but I guess it wouldn’t be special anymore.

This year, we’re not in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and we’re missing it terribly. Especially Mardi Gras King Cake, because it’s simply not Mardi Gras without a King Cake. King Cakes are a European tradition brought to Louisiana by the French and Spanish, honoring the Three Wise Kings who came to Bethlehem on the Twelfth Night (twelve days after Christmas). There are as many different King Cakes as there are cooks, but they all have at least three things in common. The cake is always a round or oval shaped ring traditionally filled with cinnamon. It always contains a plastic baby representing Baby Jesus, and whoever happens to find the baby in his slice has to either throw the next King Cake party, or buy the next cake. And the cake is always decorated in the traditional colors of Mardi Gras – green (representing faith), purple (representing justice), and gold (representing power).

In New Orleans, we always get our King Cake at a place called Randazzo’s. People often line up there around the block just to get the cake. But my husband, who is from New Orleans and the biggest King Cake aficionado you can imagine swears they make the best King Cake on the planet. Unfortunately, Randazzo’s doesn’t ship to Europe, and knowing that my husband can’t go for an entire year without having his beloved Mardi Gras King Cake, I decided to take matters into my own hands and bake him one.

I used this recipe from Whole Foods, but with a couple of minor changes. After the first rise, I rolled the dough into a rectangle with a rolling pin, sprinkled it with cinnamon, and then starting from the long side of the rectangle rolled it up into a tight log. To achieve the typical ring shape of the cake, I simple attached the ends to each other. For the glaze, I omitted the lemon juice, because there simply is no lemon in King Cake glaze. Ever. If you like colored sprinkles or colored sanding sugar, and alternative is to not color the sugar glaze but leave it white and spread it over the top of the cake. Once it has started to dry a bit add green, gold and purple sprinkles or sugar. I’m not a fan of either. Unfortunately, my purple glaze came out a bit too dark making it look almost black in the photo, but my husband said the cake tasted as good as the one from Randazzo’s, and that’s a huge compliment!

Happy Mardi Gras!

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Sri Lankan White Curry

As promised…here is the first Sri Lankan curry recipe! In Sri Lanka, rice and curry means a table laden full of small dishes filled with different types of vegetable and meat dishes in highly aromatic and very spicy gravy (= curry) plus a plate piled high with steaming rice. The rice of choice is samba, which has tiny pearl like grains and is somewhat reminiscent of sushi rice. It is not sticky like Thai rice, but perfect for eating with your fingers (the traditional Sri Lankan way), and for soaking up curries.

I had never heard of a “white curry”, so the first time I ordered one in Sri Lanka, I was not sure what to expect. It turned out to be absolutely delicious (as well as insanely spicy), and I found out that “white” refers to the fact that it contains no red chillies. Instead, it is prepared entirely with green chillies. The beauty of Sri Lankan curries is that they are easy to make and way less involved than they seem. However, cooking five or six different curries for one meal is quite time consuming, so if you are pressed for time, one type of curry plus rice and condiments will definitely do. Firm white fish fillets work best for the following recipe.

A word on the spiciness – it took me a while to get used to the relentless amount of spices and chillies that put an entirely new meaning on “hot”. However, it is the very heat of chilli peppers that brings out the deep and complex flavors of the many spices used in Sri Lankan cooking. Without this fierceness, the dishes just would not be the same. I recommend going easy at first and raising the level of heat depending on how daring you feel. Simply adjust the amount and type of chilli peppers you are using. Generally, the smaller the chilli the hotter it is.

 

Sri Lankan White Curry (serves 6)
2 limes, juiced
500g firm white fish fillets, cut into 2inch pieces
200ml coconut milk
2 teaspoons Sri Lankan fish curry powder (recipe follows)
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon ground curcuma (turmeric)
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, lightly toasted
1/2 teaspoon dill seeds
1 onion, finely chopped
3 small green chillies, halved lenghtwise
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves (picked)
salt, to taste
100ml coconut cream

1. Sprinkle the fish with the lime juice and let stand for 5 minutes.
2. In the meantime, place the onion, garlic, spices, curry leaves, salt, and coconut milk in a pot and bring to a boil.
3. Cook for 10 minutes until the onion is soft.
4. Add the fish and cook until the fish is done (about 7 minutes).
5. Add the coconut cream and stir through, being careful not to let it boil.
6. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for about 10 minutes.

Sri Lankan Fish Curry Powder (makes about 3/4 cup)
3 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
40g coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
2cm piece lemongrass, bruised
1 sprig fresh curry leaves (picked)

1. Dry roast all the ingredients in a frying pan over high heat until fragrant, about 7 to 10 minutes.
2. Remove the lemongrass and curry leaves, and reserve.
3. Grind the spices in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle until you have a fine powder.
4. Add the curry leaves and lemongrass and store in an airtight container.

Serve the curry with samba rice, slices of lime, and mango chutney. Enjoy!

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