Saturday, 19 December 2009

Pomegranate molasses, Château Musar and memories of Lebanon

This week, at a Christmas party at my daughter's nursery, I was chatting to another parent about unusual ingredients available at a local food shop, Phoenicia in Kentish Town. Pomegranate molasses was mentioned as he fancied the sound of it, but wasn't sure what to do with it. This took me straight back to an extraordinary holiday in Lebanon. We went as wedding guests of the Hochar family of Château Musar and spent several memorable days in this fascinating country. As soon as we arrived in Beirut we went straight out to get some food. Despite being quite late in the evening, it was still very warm and, sitting outside in a bustling street, we enjoyed a fabulous spread of mezze that included chicken livers cooked in pomegranate molasses. As it was so distinctive (and as I love offal) I have tried to recreate this dish back in London, quickly sautéing the livers in a hot pan, pouring in some of the molasses to coat and almost glaze them – delicious. As the dish is quite rich, it's probably best served with wedges of lemon with some fresh parsley sprinkled over or, if you find the pomegranate molasses too cloying, you could add a splash of balsamic vinegar during the cooking to make the dish a bit more tangy. With a slice of toasted sourdough bread and a handful of some green leaves (watercress would ideal) this is a really tasty starter or light supper.

Late-night mezze in downtown Beirut.

Woman making flatbread.

Bottles ageing in the cellar at Château Musar.

Lunch at the Hotel Palmyra after visiting Baalbek.

Late afternoon in Byblos.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Port and the magnificent Douro

Now with Christmas almost upon us, I've been busy stocking up on plenty of goodies to eat and drink. Depending on your taste, certain things become staples at this time of year and in our household port is a particular favourite. It's great having a bottle handy to serve at the end of a meal with some cheese, nuts, dried fruit and chocolate or just to sip slowly at the end of a busy day. I absolutely adore complex, nutty, mellow tawny port – the older the better, but I also love sweeter, fruitier vintage port and seeing how it evolves with time. Either way, it's a warming, soothing treat.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be included in a visit to Porto and the Douro organised by the Symington Family, producers of Graham's, Dow's, Warre's, Quinta do Vesuvio and Smith Woodhouse. I joined a party of leading sommeliers and we stayed at the elegant, historic Quinta dos Malvedos, having taken the train up the Douro valley from the city of Porto. This journey along the river is truly breathtaking and combining it with a couple of days in the characterful, bustling city of Porto would make an ideal trip for a long weekend. The cultural significance of these places has been formally acknowledged as the historic centre of Porto and the Douro valley vineyards are now classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

It's almost ironic how this wild, dramatic, sunbaked region produces a wine so suited to winter drinking and I hope these pictures, taken during our springtime visit, provide a bit of warmth on a cold December day.

Looking across the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia from our hotel in the Ribeira district of Porto.

Enjoying the journey.

Steep terraced vineyards typical of the valley.

Pinhão station.

This detail of traditional local tiling depicts the grape harvest.

Leaving Pinhão station.

Arriving at Vesuvio station.

Quinta do Vesuvio.

Early evening drinks on the terrace at Quinta dos Malvedos.

A view of the valley showing the dry, flaky schistous soil.

Another view of the Douro.

Back in Porto looking across the river towards the port lodges (with brand names on the roofs).

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Spiced carrot soup with lime: winter warmth with an exotic twist

Big fanfare: this is the first recipe I've posted on the blog. Despite sounding a bit mundane, it ticks so many boxes. This is seasonal, warming, healthy, inexpensive and utterly delicious (that's why it's here!). If you read my recent review of Texture, you'll have seen what's possible with dull, worthy sounding winter vegetables. Here we have the humble carrot – read on to see what you can conjure up quickly and easily for a tasty lunch. You could even serve it as a starter for a dinner party as it looks so enticing with its deeply autumnal, yellow/orange colour which is complimented by the nuts (ideally with a glass of aged amontillado sherry). It freezes well, too – I pour a ladle or two into freezer bags for individual servings. I've cooked versions of this for many years, but this recipe is based on one I recently found in Sainsbury's Magazine, but I'm afraid I can't recall the author as the name doesn't appear on my torn-out page. The fresh ginger and lime provide a tangy, aromatic lift to the already complex flavours.

2 onions
oil for frying
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp peeled and grated ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
1kg carrots, sliced (you can leave the skin on if you like, but make sure they've been washed and scrubbed)
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock

to finish:
1 tsp brown sugar
juice of 1 lime
sea salt to taste

Peel and roughly chop the onions and add to a large pan of warmed vegetable or olive oil (sometimes I'll use chicken or duck fat if I have some handy in the fridge). While they are cooking, add the garlic and, once the onions are translucent, add the spices. Continue cooking, stirring, for a couple of minutes, then add the carrots and stock. Allow to come to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and gently simmer until the carrots are tender (over a low heat you could leave it for 30 minutes to an hour). 

Using a hand blender liquidise the soup until smooth. Stir in the sugar, lime juice and season with the sea salt. The soup is now ready to serve or can be allowed to cool and be frozen.

I like serving the soup with a spoon of yoghurt (or crème fraîche) stirred through and sprinkled with toasted cashews or pinenuts. The original recipe suggests seasoning with some of the Moroccan spice, sumac, just before serving which adds even more fragrant tanginess. Gorgeous.