A few weeks ago a very kind friend gave me some runner beans. Shame on me I didn’t know exactly what they were! I know it’s stupid. I can see you rolling your eyes. In my defense though, I never really seen them, or ate them, neither here nor in Malta. (I could have been living on Mars…) On the rock (what we *Maltese*, not *Maltesers* please, sometimes affectionately call our little island) you can get broad beans, known as ful, almost everywhere. Many like to eat them raw, shelled of course, with their outer coating removed. There’s something therapeutic about doing all this while watching your favourite tv show. (Like CSI perhaps?) In Malta you can find them cooked in minestra (a variant of the Italian minestrone), simply cooked with garlic and tomatoes, or in our famous bigilla, a tasty concoction which has cooked beans as the base ingredient, crushed, to which you add olive oil, garlic, chilli if you like spice and any herb you fancy. Anne and Helen Caruana Galizia suggest using either marjoram or mint – the latter grows like you wouldn’t believe in Malta. (See The Food and Cookery of Malta, Pax, 1999.)
We were talking about runner beans…? Yes. So I didn’t know what to do with them. J kept telling me that they don’t need to be shelled, but I would’t listen. I did eventually though and after doing some quiet research (quiet because he didn’t see me, ha!) I simply washed them, sliced them diagonally, sort of diamond-shaped, finally chopped an onion, squashed two cloves of garlic, chopped some chorizo and some fresh parsley, lightly cooked everything up in a pan and bam, it’s ready.
In the meantime I had a couple of rainbow trout in the oven and there you have a great meal on the table in 30 minutes. The same method and ingredients can also be used with any kind of green vegetable. Kale is fantastic and full of good things, and broccoli too. You won’t have any excuse not to eat your veg or 5-a-day. Enjoy!
I have been wanting to incorporate more fish in my diet for quite some time. So for the past few weeks I have been having fish for dinner on quite a regular basis. I have forgotten how much I love fish. I was never a very fussy eater, even as a child, or so my family tells me. I did not have a taste for vegetables and goodness knows how my mum managed to give me those, but I do think that on the whole I was good. I remember my grandma cooking lunch for us one day. On the menu: lampuki. (Maltese people are crazy about fish and I am one of them!) So my nan gave me a lampuka, gently fried in some oil and butter. I ate it with my hands to make sure I didn’t swallow any bones. (Xewk in Maltese – nice word! Though that happens to me every time…ugh.) The fish tasted of the sea. She was so impressed (my nan that is, not the fish) that she turned to my mum and said: “look at the skill!” I felt so proud. Sounds silly I know, but it’s the honest truth. I must have been around six years old at the time. Now I’m in my thirties and that memory has stuck with me. Food is almost always associated with memories, whatever our age. Lately I heard that many people in Malta have been having trouble finding lampuki this summer. Which brings me to ask are we just selling quality food to restaurants and leaving households without decent fresh local fare? (Also gone are the days when we could get those lovely, juicy, crinkly, beautiful tomatoes which we simply ate with good crusty Maltese sourdough bread and plenty of olive oil, salt and pepper. Such a shame.)
The taste of the Mediterranean is easily replicated at home, not to worry. You need the freshest fish you can get hold of: I used rainbow trout and last week I bought sea bass. Also the lovely James Tanner recommends sea bream because it’s in season at this time of year. I asked him how to cook the trout. In a tweet he suggested pan frying it and finish with capers, lemon, parsley and butter. Then I had a little setback – I had some capers preserved in salt from Malta but as in some things in life realised at the last minute that I had finished them. So instead I placed the fish on some roughly chopped onions in kitchen foil and cooked everything al cartoccio. To shop for fresh fish, look for nice clear eyes. The recipe (for 2) goes something like this:
- 2 sea bass, trout or any fish you might like (gutted and cleaned by your lovely fishmonger)
- 1 big onion, roughly chopped
- 4 lemon slices
- salt and pepper
- 4 tablespoons white vermouth (not dry, or white wine)
- 2 tablespoons butter (one on each fish; not margarine please)
- 2 tablespoons cream (optional, but makes for a better sauce)
- a scattering of olive oil on each fish
- This is easy. Preheat the oven to 175ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4. Get two big pieces of kitchen foil cut into two big squares and place them on a large baking dish.
- In each of piece of foil put: half the chopped onion, 2 lemon slices, salt and pepper, 2 tablespoons on vermouth or wine, 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon cream (you can leave this out) and some olive oil. You could also scatter some herbs. I love mine with fresh parsley, but other herbs such as tarragon, marjoram or dill are all good.
- Different fish require different cooking times. For the first time in years I have decided to switch off the fan in my convection oven. The sea bass took around 25 minutes to cook and the rainbow trout took 20 minutes; it is smaller in size.
I was a very happy lady when it was ready, and just in case you’re asking – yes, I did eat this with my hands! Enjoy!
These are some more photos taken in Malta. I don’t get to go often, simply because visiting the rock is never completely a holiday. What was different this time round is that I did a fair amount of cooking and of course, learning. Cooking rabbit was like an adventure. Sounds a bit silly I know, but I felt like a kid in a candy shop. All it took was a bit of white wine, onions, garlic and spice (sweet mixed preferably but recipes differ in nature), firstly seared in a large pan. My big mistake: not having my trusted notebook with me in case I wanted to write the recipe. I have a bad long-term memory. I learnt my lesson. Same goes for the Bigilla (a typical Maltese dip made out of beans). I still have to find someone who doesn’t like it as much as I do, but you never know.
Enjoy the pics!
[Before you continue reading this, please be aware that I have an updated version of this recipe with better photos and step-by-step instructions.]
Summer’s almost here so I thought that this will be my last chance, at least for now, to write about another lovely traditional treat from Malta. I wasn’t that keen on this when I was young. I always loved my food, but there were some things which I couldn’t stand. Baked rice was in this list but not anymore. To my mum’s chagrin I didn’t like hers as much as my Auntie M’s! (Sorry Ma.) Somehow my Auntie’s was more seasoned and more flavourful, but that could also be my imagination! (Watch the guilt emerge!) I did discover though that baked rice could be good by making a punchy tomato based sauce; that, to the average Maltese may be a bit spicy, but to me it’s heaven on a plate! When I lived in the US (quite a few years back now) I learned to to use more herbs and spices in my cooking and I never looked back since.
While on holiday in Washington DC for a few days in 2003, J and I headed over to a Mexican restaurant with some friends. I remember dreading it at first – I didn’t know how I was going to handle all those spices without drinking gallons and gallons of water. (Incidentally drinking water makes it worse, but that’s another story.) However I *really* enjoyed the Taquito (or flauta) and cheekily asked J: “Why didn’t you tell me that Mexican food is so yummy? ey??”
Traditionally baked rice is made with minced beef, but for a vegetarian option you can substitute with many veggies. Courgettes would be one option, but I prefer butternut squash or diced pumpkin for a sweet earthy flavour; also they are more meaty and contain less moisture. Make sure you add more pepper to cut down on any extra sweetness.
With these quantities you will feed 6 to 8 people, depending always on how hungry you all are. For the sauce you will need:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil and a knob of butter if you like
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped finely
- 3 medium onions, diced
- 500g lean minced beef
- 4 rashers back bacon
- 2 teaspoons mixed spice
- ¼ teaspoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons saffron, infused in some stock (optional – you will *only* need the liquid)
- 580g polpa di pomodoro (I use two 390g cartons/tins)
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- pinch of nutmeg (I know, I know but I couldn’t find one eighth of a teaspoon anywhere!)
- salt and pepper, around 1 teaspoon of each (you don’t need to add loads of salt – remember there’s bacon in here)
For the rice:
- 3 cups/24oz rice (I mix white and brown together but suit yourself)
- 6 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock depending on personal preference)
For binding it all together:
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
As a topping:
- a fair amount of grated cheese (optional but yummy!)
- Place a heavy-based saucepan on the heat. When the pan is really hot tip in the oil and butter, together with the garlic, onion, minced beef, bacon, all the spices, except the nutmeg, and the saffron-infused water. Let these cook for around 10 to 15 minutes. Then add the polpa di pomodoro, sugar, nutmeg, salt and pepper. You may also add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce if you like. Leave it to simmer to let it reduce. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4 before you move on to assembling the dish.
- Mix the rice with the stock, the sauce and the eggs. Place everything in a large dish and bake for around 40 minutes. At this final stage add the grated cheese on the top to cover the rice and return to the oven for an additional 15 minutes till the cheese turns golden.
Comfort food for cozy nights in…Enjoy!
These are only a few simple ideas. One of the most wonderful things to eat whenever I want to go back home without going to the airport is to make Ħobż biż-Żejt. It’s so easy: take one Ftira or two thick slices of Maltese sourdough bread, tomato concentrate, fresh sliced tomatoes of you can, canned tuna, olives, capers, anchovies (optional but I love them), lettuce, spring onions and loads of freshly ground black pepper. I make crusty baps to go with that; unfortunately I don’t find good sourdough where I live.
If you don’t like the sound of this, though I still have to find one person who doesn’t, try making a panino with sliced fresh tomatoes, any kind of cheese you want, spring onions and mushrooms, pepper with a dash of extra virgin olive oil. Now imagine a terrace, fresh air, tea or coffee or whatever you fancy. You might also decide to indulge in something sweet. Summer is definitely in the air…