Baigan Bharta – Spiced Smokey Aubergine/Eggplant 

How’s everyone getting on? Not having the January blues I hope. It’s a bit cold and dreary back here in London and snow is  forecast, but I hope that this post will lift your heart and spirits and that you’ll see the world in colour once again. I thought you would be intrigued to see beautiful Jodhpur below. We recently spent a few days in this magnificent city, wandering the streets and soaking up the electric atmosphere.

I’ve been trying out some of the lovely recipes that I sampled in India in the comfort of my warm cosy kitchen this week. I’ll be sharing lots of them with you here on the blog over the coming weeks. Today I wanted to show you a wonderful aubergine dish – or eggplant as it is known to my US followers. It is similar to my baba ganoush, but with an Indian twist due to the spices.

Before I show you the recipe however, I wanted a moment to talk about chillies. I often get asked which chillies I use in my Indian cooking. When it comes to fresh green chillies I opt for the ones that are small and thin – but not the Thai birds eye, which are far hotter. The chillies I buy are slightly largely and longer, but still thin compared to the more bulbous ones.

In Kolkata I visited so many wonderful markets but the one above – Bow Bazaar – which is more of a wholesale fresh produce market, had a magnificent array of fresh produce. These chillies are similar to the ones I buy here in the UK.

So back to the recipe for this week. Please do give it a go and share the results on your social media outlets with the #chilliandmint and link me @chilliandmint.

Have a lovely weekend everyone.

 

Baigan Bharta – Spiced Smokey Aubergine/Eggplant 

serves 4-6 (served with some other dishes)

2 large aubergines

2 tbsp oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1 inch fresh ginger, finely grated

4 garlic cloves, finely sliced or chopped

1-2 fresh green chilli, finely sliced

1 tsp salt, to taste

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp coriander powder

4 medium sized tomatoes, cubed

 

  1. First you need to place the aubergines over a flame. If you have a gas hob then this works really well. If you do not you can place in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the flesh softens, although it won’t have the same smokiness as over an open flame. If you are smoking it over a flame/gas hob it will take around 8 minutes, but you need to use tongs to turn it over so that it is ‘burnt’. Once it is soft and the sides have shrivelled remove from the plan and place on a plate to cool.
  2. Remove the charred skin from the aubergine and run under water to remove any excess skin. Place in a bowl and mash using a fork or potato masher.
  3. In a non-stick pan add the oil on a medium/low heat and add the cumin seeds. Allow them to fizzle in the pan for 15 seconds or so before adding the red onion, fresh chilli, garlic and ginger. Move around the pan to soften for 5 minutes.
  4. Add the spice powders and salt and move around the pan.
  5. Add the tomatoes and aubergine and move around the pan for a further 3-5 minutes.
  6. Serve warm – you can add some fresh coriander on top or eat it as is.

You can serve this at room temperature, but personally I love it hot with a paratha or chapati.

 


Snap Shot of India and a delicious Indian breakfast recipe – Pongal

Happy New Year to you all. I have just returned from three glorious weeks in colourful, warm-spirited India (hence my lack of blog posts). I have seen and experienced so much that it feels that I have been away for far longer. I feel uplifted and invigorated and have returned to cold chilly London with a positive outlook and excitement for the year ahead.

If you’ve never been to India then I urge you to go. It’s incredible and, like Africa, seeps into your soul and never leaves you. It’s frenetic, chaotic and providing you leave your Western ways and customs at home, you can acclimatise to the way of life there pretty quickly. It’s crowded, intoxicating and full on, but remember to breath and relax and you will begin to enjoy everything about this magical country. I was pretty active on Instagram so if you are keen to see some of the Indian street life, food and people, then please follow me over there as well. Here are few snaps to whet your appetite.

We spent 9 days in beautiful Kolkata, visiting family and generally relaxing and seeing more of the city. Followed by a two week tour of Rajasthan. I have lots of tips and suggestions on the food front, but I am presently writing an article that I hope to get into one of the magazines or newspapers – so watch this space. The photo of ‘papri chat’ below gives you an idea of how epic the street food is in Kolkata. It is commonly thought of as the street food capital of India.

The best way to get under the skin of any city is to pound the pavements on foot and see everything up close. It’s an overload of the senses and truly engaging. In Kolkata one day, we walked 10km along the Hooghly River – a distributary of the Ganges River – and saw everything from the Mullick Ghat Flower Market, people bathing in the river, a wedding couple, the cremation ghats (I particularly wanted to show my children this, as death is dealt with in very different way in India and it is nothing to be afraid of), the district of Kumortuli Pally – Kolkata’s Potter’s community, to the Marble Palace.

Rajasthan was the second part of our trip and whilst, on paper, the trip sounded rather exhausting, it was in fact not the case. We combined culture and sights with relaxing in beautiful surroundings and meeting the local people. Staying in the Aravalli Hills, in a stunning heritage hotel in a small rural village, was a highlight. It you are planning a trip to Rajasthan, make sure you book a night or two at Rawla Narlai – where you will get to meet this fine gentleman, who I think without doubt has the best attire of any hotel staff I have ever met.

Without overloading you on my first blog post back, let me introduce the recipe that I wanted to show you today. To give you a brief back story, I was poorly for a few days with Delhi belly (not from street food but from a ‘smart’ hotel dinner). After eating next to nothing for a few days I wanted to eat comforting food that would ease me back. At our hotel in Delhi ‘pongal’ was on the breakfast menu. It’s actually a south Indian breakfast originating, I believe from Tamil Nadu. It is often referred to as ven/ghee/kara or milagu pongal but the one in the hotel simple said pongal, so I will go with that. It is made with rice and a small yellow lentil called moong dal – which you can order online from Asian Dukan in the UK. It didn’t look dreadfully appetising, but my goodness it tasted wonderful. A cross between a savoury porridge and dal – not dissimilar to Chinese congee, but in my mind – better.

I have a couple of other tasty Indian breakfast recipes on this blog – Upma  and Hoppers or Appam so thought this might be a good one to add to the list. You can make it the night before then leave it in the fridge until morning. Simply add a little boiling water to bring it back to life, and hey presto you have a deliciously subtle and tasty Indian breakfast. It’s also perfectly tasty to eat for lunch too so you can make a batch and eat it as you want over a couple of days.

 

Pongal

serves 4-6

120g basmati rice

120g yellow moong dal

900ml cold water

1 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)

10 approx cashew nuts

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

1/2 tsp roughly broken up black peppercorns

1 tsp grated/chopped fresh ginger

1 stem of fresh curry leaves (Sainsburys now sell them)

1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped, optional

pinch of asafoetida/hing

pinch of turmeric powder, optional

1tsp salt, to taste

handful of freshly chopped coriander, leaves and stems

  1. This first part is optional, but it gives the dish a slightly more smokey flavour. Dry roast the dal until it begins to bronze slightly. It will take a couple of minutes, but use a wooden spoon to move it around the pan so that it does not burn. You can omit this part and simply go to 2. should you wish.
  2. Add the rice and place some water in the pan. Move the spoon around the pan then discard the water by gently pouring it out – you don’t need to use a sieve. Repeat twice and then add 900ml cold water.
  3. Leave to simmer for around 20-25 minutes, by which time the rice and dal will be soft and the water soaked up. If it becomes too dry simply add in a little more water.
  4. Using a potato masher, mash the rice and dal so that it gets broken up and more ‘mash’ like in appearance. Place to one side whilst you do the next steps.
  5. Using a frying pan, add the ghee. Once it has melted add the cashew nuts and gently move around the pan for 30 seconds before adding the cumin and mustard seeds, black pepper. They will begin to pop, so make sure that your heat is on low.
  6. Now add the fresh ginger, turmeric (optional), asafoetida, curry leaves and green chilli (optional). Move around the pan for 20 seconds or so and then add the contents of the pan into the rice and dal mixture.
  7. Move around the pan and add salt to taste. Add more water if necessary. Check to taste and heat up again if necessary. Add some freshly chopped coriander and serve.

With these cold, dark mornings we are having in the UK, what better way to start the day than with some delicate spices in a comforting bowl of Indian pongal.

More exciting Indian recipes and photos next week. Have a good weekend in the meantime.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chiang Mai Noodle Broth – An alternative Boxing Day recipe

Before we know it Christmas is upon us, so I thought I would get this recipe out early for you so that you can menu plan in advance. Whilst it is a Thai dish, it’s origin is actually from Burma and is very similar to the Malaysian laksa. I have cooked it for many years and whilst I tend to use boneless chicken thighs, I was thinking it would also work equally well with leftover turkey too. So if you are feeling the urge for some zing and heat on Boxing Day this recipe may just tick many boxes. You can make your own red curry paste (see at the bottom of this post for the recipe), should you want to make it completely from scratch or you can use a bought paste, which will speed up the process and make it pretty hassle free. I find this brand works well. The garnishes are important as they add texture, colour, flavour and taste so don’t hold back when plating up.

 

Chiang Mai Noodle Broth

serves 4

500ml coconut milk

2 tbsp red curry paste *

500g boneless chicken thighs cut into bite sized pieces OR turkey leftovers

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1 tbsp dark soy sauce

3 tbsp fish sauce

1 tsp sugar

salt to taste

1 lime, juice only

600ml chicken stock

250g egg noodles (dry or fresh)

 

Garnish

1 shallot, finely sliced

2 spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal

fresh red chilli, optional

fresh mint, 1 handful

fresh coriander 1 handful

crispy fried onions – I buy these from this website

 

  1. In an non-stick pan add one third of the coconut milk and bring to the boil. Move it around the pan, with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes by which time the milk will separate and little bubbles will form on the surface.
  2. Now you add the red curry paste and mix together until smooth with the coconut milk.
  3. Add the chicken and coat completely in the sauce. Move around the pan for a  few minutes, before adding the rest of the coconut milk, soy sauce, fish sauce, chicken stock. Simmer gently for 12 minutes. Taste test and add a little salt and/or sugar as necessary. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice.
  4. Meanwhile boil water in another pan and add the egg noodles, and cook according to the pack. Normally only takes a few minutes.
  5. Strain the noodles and then plate up in the following order. Make sure you have deep bowls – or pasta bowls will work well.
  6. Place the noodles in the bottom of the bowl. Next add some chicken/turkey. Next carefully ladle the liquid into the bowl and then scatter the garnishes on top – or place on the table for people to serve themselves.

 

 

To make your own red curry paste

You will need:

3 red bird’s eye chillies

2 shallots, peeled

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 tbsp galangal or ginger, peeled and chopped

1 tbsp coriander stems, chopped

1 tbsp kaffir lime zest or 2 lime leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp shrimp paste

1 tbsp lemongrass, chopped

  1. Blend all the ingredients together in a mini blender or pestle and mortar to form a paste. You won’t need to add any water as the juice from the galangal/ginger should provide this.

 


Indian Scotch Eggs

On my first trip to Kolkata – 13 years ago – I was introduced to my new extended Indian family, going from home to home, meeting a bevy of smiles and warmth behind each door. Every household we visited offered food in great abundance – either a full meal or some delicious snacks. I struggled a little with the sweet treats, not having a sweet tooth, but the savoury snacks were something else.

As we normally saw three or four different families on average each day I had to be diplomatic when it came to eating. Not eating would be disrespectful, so I had to pace myself. One of life’s more pleasing conundrums. One snack that really stood out was Indian Scotch eggs, which were just so heavenly. Unlike your traditional Scotch egg which has sausage meat covering the egg, this one has spiced potato and has half a boiled egg per ball.

I have been trying to replicate the recipe ever since and I think I am pretty close so I wanted to share it with you all today.

 

Indian Scotch Eggs

makes 6 

5 medium potatoes, peel and boiled then mashed

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp garam masala

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp garlic-ginger paste

1 tsp salt, to taste

2 small fresh green chillies, finely chopped

handful of fresh curry leaves, finely chopped – optional

4 eggs

breadcrumbs – either freshly made, panko or bought

4 tbsp sunflower/vegetable oil for frying

 

  1. First peel and boil the potatoes until they are soft. This usually take around 10-12 minutes. Drain and then mash until smooth. Do not add any butter or milk. They must not be too wet.
  2. Meanwhile boil 3 of the eggs by placing them in a pan of cold water and then once it is simmering, turn it down and leave to cook for a further 8 minutes so that they are completely hard. Once cooked drain and immediately put in a bowl with ice and cold water – this will allow you to peel the egg really easily. Leave the eggs to sit for a few minutes before peeling them and leaving them to rest on a plate
  3. Add the spices, garlic-ginger paste, chillies, fresh curry leaves if using, salt and mix in thoroughly. Allow to cool before handling the potato.
  4. In a shallow bowl add the remaining egg and whisk.
  5. In a separate bowl add some breadcrumbs.
  6. Halve the eggs, lengthwise. Take a small amount of spiced mashed potato into your hand and place the egg, yolk side down, onto the mashed potato. Gently cover the whole egg with the potato to create a ball. Place to one side whilst you do the same to the remaining eggs.
  7. Now take one potato ball at a time and gently roll it in the whisked egg followed by the breadcrumbs then place on a plate. Complete the rest.
  8. Heat the oil and when it is hot gently fry each potato ball, a couple at a time, turning at intervals so that the breadcrumb coat bronzes nicely. Place to one side, whilst you complete the rest.
  9. They are wonderful eaten hot, but equally you can serve them at room temperature – perhaps perfect for a train journey.

I like to eat them with a chutney. My tamarind and date chutney works really well.

 

 

 


Homemade Gravlax with a Dill, Mustard and Lemon Dressing and Pickled Cucumbers

With Christmas fast approaching I thought a homemade gravlax recipe might come in rather useful. Smoked salmon always makes an appearance on Christmas day, but I think a homemade gravlax might make a welcome change. This Nordic dish is very simple to prepare as ultimately you are simply curing the salmon in salt, sugar, fresh dill and gin (or vodka/schnapps).

I tend to use the container that the salmon comes in to cure it, which makes it all very straight forward and fuss free. If you want to add a pink hue to the gravlax, simply add a small grated beetroot when you add the fresh dill to begin with. Sometimes I also like to add juniper berries, which I crush and add to the curing ingredients (no more than 2 tsp). I like to cure the salmon for 48 hours, by which time it has hardened and taken on the wonderful flavours it has been curing in.

The end result can be made into canapés, of presented as a starter in the middle of the table. I like to make a lemony, mustard and dill dressing and for some crunch pickled cucumbers works a treat.

Above gives you an idea on how it would look as a table centre piece for a starter and below as a canapé, or in my case, lunch with a mug of miso soup.

 

Homemade Gravlax

Serves 4-6 as canapés or starter

500g salmon fillet, skin on (bones removed) this one is perfect

100g fresh dill, finely chopped, leaves and stalks

2 tsp freshly ground white pepper

2 tbsp gin (or vodka or schnapps)

70g flakey sea salt

80g caster sugar

2 tsp freshly ground juniper berries, optional

1 small beetroot, peeled and grated, optional

  1. Using a hand blender (or by hand) other than the salmon, mix all the ingredients together to form a green sugary salty rub.
  2. Using the container that the salmon has come in, or a container that the salmon comfortably fits, add half the rub. Place the salmon on top – flesh side down – and then cover with the remaining rub. Make sure the salmon is completely covered. Cover with a lid or cling film and place back in the fridge for 48 hours, turning a couple of times throughout this period.
  3. Before serving, remove most of the rub by gently running it under some cold water. Pat dry with kitchen paper. You want some of the dill to remain on the salmon.

 

**********

 

Thirty minutes before serving you need to make the pickled cucumbers.

Pickled Cucumbers

1 whole cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced (a mandolin is great for this)

1 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tsp flakey sea salt

1 tbsp caster sugar

1/2 tsp coriander seeds, optional

 

  1. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  2. Squeeze out the excess moisture (there will be quite a lot), and then place in a serving bowl or on the serving platter.

**********

 

Whilst the cucumber is pickling, clean out an old jam jar with a lid.

Mustard and Lemon Dressing

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 small lemon, juice only (I like it quite lemony, so perhaps add 1/2 juice of a lemon first and add more once it is all mixed together)

1 tbsp caster sugar

pinch of flakey sea salt

50g finely freshly chopped dill

2 tbsp sunflower/olive oil

 

  1. Place all the ingredients in your jar, secure the lid and mix thoroughly. Taste test and add more salt/sugar/lemon to taste.
  2. Place in a bowl ready to accompany the gravlax and pickled cucumber.
  3. Store in the fridge if made ahead of time. It will last for well over a week in the fridge.

 

 

 

 

 


Membrillo – A Labour of Love

Ok, I am going to come straight out with it. THIS IS A LABOUR OF LOVE. It’s my first time making membrillo – Spanish quince paste – you know the one often found on a cheese board that tastes delicious with a slice of manchego cheese. They are found in great abundance in the autumn/fall. My lovely neighbour had a huge glut of quinces from her tree so said would I like a bag. Naturally I said ‘yes’ and after showing me all the glorious creations that she was making in her kitchen – membrillo, as well as quince jelly, I was truly inspired. Her passing words to me was that it was a labour of love, which I didn’t quite fully register.

Look I don’t want to put you off, just to simply say there are a few steps and therefore involves effort to seek a reward. The children’s book about the hen who made bread and asked for help from the other farmyard animals, came to mind when I spent a considerable amount of time sieving the quince through a sieve.

So a few things of importance to note. Quince are not like apples or pears, other than in appearance. Their bitter flesh means they are almost exclusively for cooking instead of eaten raw. To core them is super hard, even with a sharp knife and after grazing my finger I thought that the best way to deal with them was to simply peel them and quarter or half them and then put them in water to boil – along with the lemon rind and vanilla pod. After 45 minutes I turned off the heat and in fact left them overnight to rest until morning. If you do this earlier in the day then you can simply removed the vanilla pod and then blend them, pips and all. What comes out of the sieve – with a bit of hard work with the back of a spoon –  is a very smooth paste, that resembles baby puree. At this stage the colour is a mellow yellow.

Then you need to weigh the amount of pureed quince and then whatever the amount is, you place the same amount of granulated sugar in a large pan. Keeping on a low heat you stir at intervals for an 1h 15 mins. The quince changes from yellow to more of a red hue. Then the final stage is to put it into an ovenproof dish, which you line with parchment paper, greased with a very little coating of butter. Pour the contents of the pan into the dish and place into a low oven 125 degrees F for a further hour, by this time it will be a deep blood red colour.  Leave to cool completely before removing the greaseproof paper and the now hard membrillo from the dish. Cut it up into the sizes you wish to portion up. I cut mine into 9 large cubes, which I wrapped in foil and placed in the fridge. According to my neighbour, they can last for a year in the fridge. If any mould appears in time, it’s simply a case of removing the top layer and continuing to eat. Waste not want not springs to mind. I will give these out as some of my edible Christmas gifts, maybe accompanied with some Manchego cheese.

 

Membrillo – Spanish Quince Paste

best eaten with a hard cheese such as Manchego, or game or pate.

1 bag of quince (mine weighed in at this stage to 2.5kg)

1 vanilla pod, sliced in two

juice of one lemon

2 strips of lemon peel (yellow part only)

granulated sugar (the same amount exactly as your pureed quince – mine came to 1.254kg)

 

  1. Peel the quince and cut them in half or quarters if you can. Place in a large pan and cover with water and add the vanilla pod and lemon peel. Boil away gently for 45 minutes, or until they are soft.
  2. Strain the water, remove the vanilla pod and discard, but keep the lemon peel with the quince and then blitz in batches in your blender.
  3. Take the blended quince and put into a sieve and using the back of a spoon sieve through the contents. The pips and cores will remain, but what comes through the sieve is a really smooth paste, similar to baby puree. This part takes effort to do persist and don’t give up.
  4. Once it has all being sieved (congratulations the hard bit is over), weigh it out and then place in a large sauce pan. Place the same amount of granulated sugar as quince puree into the pan along with the juice of a whole lemon. Simmer, stirring at intervals, for the next 1h 15 mins, by which time the quince puree will have gone a reddish colour – but not the colour of the final membrillo, that only comes when it goes in the oven.
  5. Using an ovenproof dish – I used a large square baking dish 25cmx25cm – line it with greaseproof parchment paper and coat with a little butter. Place the quince paste into the dish and then place in a low oven at 125 degrees F for a further 1 hour.
  6. Remove from the oven to cool completely before removing from the tin and sectioning up into large squares or rectangles. Cover individually with foil and place in the fridge.
  7. Perfect as gifts and eaten with some delicious hard cheese such as Manchego.

 

 

 

 

 


Toasted sourdough with goats cheese, broad beans, watercress and radish and a simple leek and potato soup

Here in the UK we’ve been enjoying blissfully balmy weather this October. To date, I have yet to don my winter coat, which would have been unheard of in past years. As such we’ve not been craving heavier stews and curries, but instead continuing to enjoy lighter food that we would eat in the summer months. So when my friend Vritti, the founder of Binge Magazine (have you bought your copy yet? I took a couple of the photos, including the front cover and one of the articles – you can buy your copy here), made a whirlwind visit to London from Dublin, I wanted to cook something fuss free, light and delicious for lunch.

I adore sourdough bread, so opted to make toasted sour dough with goats cheese, radish, watercress, lemon zest and pink peppercorns with a honey, lemon dressing. Lots of colours, textures and flavours each complementing one another.

On the side I cooked a simple leek and potato soup that was both light and flavoursome.  I garnished with a dollop of creme fraiche and fresh chives adding another layer of flavours. Both dish are relatively quick to rustle up and can be made a little in advance as the toasted sourdough is best eaten at room temperature and the soup can be heated upon the arrival of your guests.

 

Toasted sourdough with goats cheese, broad beans, watercress and radish

serves 4

150g broad beans (frozen or fresh), boiled and skins removed

6 large pieces of fresh sour dough

2 cloves of garlic

150g smooth goats cheese

3 handfuls of fresh watercress (you could also use rocket)

4 pink radishes, finely sliced (I find a mandolin great for doing this, but be careful about your fingers!)

1 tsp pink peppercorns, roughly ground

1 lemon, zest only

salt (optional – I find you don’t need any due to the goats cheese)

 

dressing

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp running honey or agave

juice from 1 small lemon

  1. First boil the broad beans for 4 minutes and when cool de-pod them and place to one side.
  2. Next make the dressing, taste to test the balance is right for you. If it is too acidic then add a little more honey.
  3. Place the sour dough under a grill and when it is delicately bronzed turn over and repeat. Be warned it burns easily so really monitor this process.
  4. Remove the toasted sour dough from the oven and rub the garlic cloves over each piece so that a hint of garlic lingers on each piece.
  5. Spread a generous amount of goats cheese on each piece of toasted sourdough. Layer up all the other ingredients: broad beans, watercress, radishes. Sprinkle with lemon zest, pink peppercorns and salt if using.
  6. Finally sprinkle, using a teaspoon, the dressing over all the pieces. Cut each piece of sour dough in half and plate up.

 


Leek and Potato Soup

50g butter

3 leeks, sliced

1 onion, finely chopped

2 bay leaves

2 large potatoes, diced

1 vegetable stock cube

water to cover the vegetables

100ml milk

pepper and salt to taste

to serve

creme fraiche and finely chopped fresh chives to serve

 

  1. In a large deep pan heat the butter and once melted add the leeks, onion, potato and bay leaves.
  2. Move around the pan for 5 minutes before adding the stock cube, water and milk to cover the ingredients. I have purposely not given a precise amount of water to be added as I find some people prefer a thicker soup than others. I tend to opt more for the slightly thinner soup.
  3. Leave to simmer for 10-15 minutes, by which time the potato will be soft. Remove the bay leaves and then blend, using a hand blender, until smooth. Add more water if you want to thin out the soup.
  4. When ready to serve, ladle into bowls and add a dollop of creme fraiche and some finely chopped chives.

A great combination that looks colourful and healthy and is packed with lots of fresh flavours.

 

 

 


Shakshuka and Visiting the Dead Sea area of Israel

Our final leg of our Israel trip was to visit the Dead Sea. You can do a day trip from Jerusalem, but we felt it deserved more than a passing glance, besides there was quite a lot to see in the area.

We stayed on the Ein Gedi Kibbutz, which is located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, at the edge of the Judean desert. It was founded in 1953 with its primary focus on agriculture and tourism. The kibbutz is all lush and green owing to a natural water source that runs under it, but the neighbouring area is barren and desolate. There is a hotel within the kibbutz – but we stayed in an apartment at the top of Zahava’s house, who has lived on the kibbutz, with her husband, for over 30 years.

We booked through Airbnb, so it’s easy to find if you fancy going. She and her husband were wonderful hosts, who made us feel right at home. As it was an B&B, Zahava would arrive each morning with a huge tray of delicious food that set us up for the day. We ate on the veranda before the weather got too hot, overlooking the dead sea and Masada in the distance.

As we were based on the Kibbutz we also had all the facilities available to us – pools, tennis courts, running track, supermarket, as well as a restaurant in the hotel. (Its important to note that the Ein Gedi spa by the edge of the Dead Sea – is not located in the Ein Gedi Kibbutz or hotel, but nearby) One evening we also ate in the kibbutz part of the complex, which you would not be able to do if you were simply staying in the hotel. The calm rhythm of the kibbutz dictated out days. In the morning we would head out and explore and then come back and relax in the afternoon before a late afternoon hike in a wadi. The kibbutz is within the En Gedi Nature Reserve, where there are some truly phenomenal hikes.

It’s super hot here as it is the lowest part of the earth, so as well as carrying a lot of water, I also carry an umbrella and wear a swimming costume so that I can soak in every waterfall and pool we pass. Walking in 40 degrees, requires soaking in cold water as often as possible.

The wildlife is also pretty special here. There are a some venomous snakes – I only saw one at night on the perimeter of the Kibbutz, so it’s advisable to wear covered shoes when you are on the hikes.

We also saw lots of Nubian ibex – desert dwelling goats – clambering around precariously upon the slopes of the wadi. You need to be aware of sudden rock fall if they are climbing above you.

Historically the area is fascinating with huge swaths of tourists visiting spectacular Masada. Herod the Great built a large fortress on the plateau as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. He erected two palaces there between 37 and 31 BCE. According to Jewish Roman historian – Josephus, the siege of Masada by troops of the Roman Empire, at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, ended in the mass suicide of 960 people (the Sicarii rebels and their families) hiding there.

The fortress is huge and had impressive ways of redirecting and saving fresh water at the fort, along with swimming pools, cold pools and spas. The mosaics found by archeologist are beautifully intact.

To reach this city you can either take the snake path before sunrise or else use the cable car. It’s one of Israel’s most popular sights but as we were in one of the first cable cars of the morning we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

The other great magnet of the area is the Dead Sea itself due to its medicinal qualities. Sadly the sea has dramatically shrunk in recent years causing great concern. You can read more about this here.

When you go to the Ein Gedi spa you now have to get on a little train pulled by a tractor from the spa to the waters edge. In the 1980’s the water was right up by the spa itself.  Despite the notion that it is impossible to drown in the dead sea, this is a myth and there have been cases of people drowning. You need to keep on your back, not your front, and don’t attempt to swim.

Due to the high salinity, the water feels very heavy, kind of like bathing in salty olive oil,  so if you are on your front you can find it hard to turn on your back. It feels oily and you want to make sure you don’t get any water in your eyes or mouths. Thankfully the showers are in on the edge of the sea so that you can immediately wash the salty water off you as you get out. The medical qualities of the dead sea mud are also well known so make sure you slather yourself in mud (this is back at the spa itself) and then wait for it to dry before showering if off. Your skin will be glowing and you will be feeling pretty radiant.

The other must-see in the area is over in the West Bank – The Dead Sea Scrolls or the Qumran Cave Scrolls. It’s about 30 minutes from Ein Gedi Reserve and a good place to stop on your way back to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. There is an interesting museum there and you can hike all over the area, although those we saw hiking here had ropes and proper equipment so perhaps only for serious climbers.  The scrolls, which are ancient religious writings, were found by a shepherd in the 1940’s in 11 caves near the site of Qumram. You can see some of the caves in the photograph above.

 

I am going to leave you with a classic Israeli dish that is found throughout the Levant. Shakshuka is a delicious breakfast dish – although of course you can eat it at any time of day. It is basically poached eggs in a spiced tomato sauce with crumbled feta and parsley or coriander sprinkled on top. Everyone has their version but this is mine. It’s a big hit in my house and is super straight forward and easy to execute. Perfect for a filling breakfast before school/work as it takes 15 minutes to make from start to finish.

Shakshuka

serves 4-5

2 tbsp oil

1 white onion, finely diced

1 garlic clove, finely diced

1 sweet red pepper (these are the long ones, but bell peppers are also good), sliced lengthways and then finely sliced crossways

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp smoked paprika powder

1 tsp salt

1x 400g tin of plum tomatoes, chopped in the pan

3 large fresh tomatoes, finely diced

50ml water

4 eggs (or 5/6 depending on how many you are feeding)

To serve

1 handful of crumbles feta

1 handful of fresh coriander

 

  1. Heat a deep frying pan and add the oil.
  2. When hot, add the onions followed by the garlic and gently heat. After a couple of minutes, add the pepper, salt and spices. Move around the pan to soften for a further couple of minutes.
  3. Add both the tinned and fresh tomatoes and stir in well.
  4. Add the water and simmer to allow all the ingredients to soften and infuse. Leave for 8 minutes so that it thickens.
  5. Make a hole in the mixture and break an egg into this hole. Repeat, leaving a good gap between each egg.
  6. Place a lid on the pan and leave to simmer on a moderate-low heat for 3-5 minutes, by which time the eggs should be cooked but still soft. Leave for longer and increase the heat if they have not cooked sufficiently.
  7. Just before serving, scatter the feta cheese and fresh coriander. Spoon onto plates with some flatbread or sourdough to mop.

 

 

 

 

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Iraqi Jewish Kubbeh and Exploring the Galilee and Golan Heights

Nimrods Fortress

OK my absolutely TOP TIP when you visit Israel – maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but I reckon you are curious to visit. Am I right? Buy a National Parks Pass. I had no idea they had so many, but there loads with various ruins, waterfalls, forests and deserts. Providing you go to more than three (which you will) it makes sense to buy the pass. When you go off on a hike the important thing is to take loads of water, wear covered shoes, and if you want shade, carry a small umbrella.

Ramparts of Nimrod’s Fortress in the foreground and Banias Nature Reserve in the distance

The Golan Heights area, in the north of the country,  was pretty empty of tourists, but the scenery was stunning. This may have been because it is pretty close to Syria, so most tourists keep away, but we found there was lots to see, it felt safe and we never went closer than 10 miles to the boarder. We even went through an area, which becomes a ski resort in the winter months, with Mount Hermon looming large nearby. Nimrod’s Fortress is a must-see. It takes the mantle of the biggest castle from the time of the Crusaders in all of Israel, a mountain-top stronghold spanning back to the 13th century. You can clamber all over it with virtually no one else there. Below the fortress are the Banias forests with rivers and waterfalls.

Golan Heights is also perfect terrain for vineyards so if you are up for a bit of wine tasting you might want to consider visiting any of the following: Adir winery, Dalton winery, Pelter winery, Chateau Golan, Galil Mountain winery. 

We ended up visiting Jezreel which had some really fine wines with a grape that I don’t often come across – carignan. We learned some super interesting facts about the wines in Israel; such as the fact that many of the wines are kosher – meaning that only religious Jews can be involved in its production. It has to be sealed twice before it can be touched by moderate/non-religious Jew. Had we accidentally touched any of the barrels below, the wine would have had to be discarded immediately. They are trying to appeal to not just a Jewish audience and are beginning to export to the UK. If you are in the wine business then I would highly recommend a trip to Israel to try out the wines. One of the red’s I tried at Jezreel was the best red I have had in ages.

We based ourselves in a house (via Airbnb) in the hills behind Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee – just south of Golan Heights. Tiberias itself was rather built up and did not have many redeeming features if I’m honest, although we did enjoyed a couple of delicious meals at Avi’s restaurant in town. We also drove to the other side of the lake one evening and ate in the Kibbutz En Gev, which had some tasty food.

Dinner at Kibbutz En Gev

Our reason for basing ourselves in this area for a few days was that it was well located to explore the northern region of Israel. The place also feels very familiar as a lot of the sights we visited are spoken about in the bible stories we were told as children – feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fishes (Tabgha), the sermon on the mount (Church of the Beatitudes). The fresh water Sea of Galilee itself is little changed over the centuries. It still has big waves – this surprised us – beautiful sunsets and fish to catch. We bathed in its cool, refreshing waters every day to cool down after a day of touring.

Sea of Galilee from the Church of the Beatitudes

On one day we visited a fascinating archaeological site within Megiddo National Park called ‘Tel Megiddo’ or ‘Armageddon’, as it is known in Greek. During the Iron Age it was a royal city and was of particular importance due to its strategic location overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Some Christians believe this will be the site of the final battle between Jesus Christ and the kings of the Earth who will go to war, as outlined in the Book of Revelation. Interesting stuff, whether you believer or not.

Megiddo

After wandering around the heat, the best thing to do is to submerge yourself in cool waters. Thankfully there is a national park called Gan Hashlosha, also known as Sachne that  is often described as one of the most beautiful places in Israel –  a real-life garden of Eden. It’s basically a series of natural spring pools (at a constant 28 degree Celsius year round). After you’ve swam the length of one you get out and climb into the next. Little fish also swim in these pools and have a tendency to nibble your toes if you take too long to get out – you’ve been warned! There were many families enjoying a day out, cooking their own BBQ lunches and swimming in the pools. There is also an archeological museum here, but we spent our times relaxing in the pools instead.

Gan Hashlosha

I love a good view, especially an elevated one, so before sunset we headed to Belvoir National Park and drove to the highest peak so we could see the whole of the Jordan Valley, with Jordan in the background.

View over the Jordan Valley towards Jordan

Before and after sunset. Totally stunning.

Continuing with the theme that I will incorporate every travel post with a recipe I ate on my travels, today I wanted to show you how to make kubbeh (kubba/kibba), which I mentioned in my post on Jerusalem when I visited Azura restaurant. It’s an Iraqi Jewish recipe that is typically eaten in the winter months, so perfect to eat in the months ahead here in the UK. As I made so many kubbeh – around 24 of so, it made sense to show you two different varieties – one yellowy green and the other red. The kubbeh taste the same, but the soup they are in is very different. The red is sweeter from the beetroot and the yellowy/green is more zingy from the lemon.  What you can do is freeze the patties, pre-cooking, and then use them at a later date if you don’t want to cook them all in one go.

Kubbeh is made with semolina (although I have seen some recipes with 50% plain flour and 50% semolina). They are then filled with minced beef with a hint of cumin, paprika and onion. You can add touch of cinnamon should you wish or perhaps pine nuts; you can be as inventive as you want.

Jewish Iraqi Kubbeh

Makes around 24

2 tbsp olive oil

500g minced beef

1/2 white onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp smoked paprika

salt and pepper, to taste

*******

640g semolina

400ml warm water, add gradually

1 tsp salt

*******

 

  1. Heat the oil in a pan and add the onion and garlic. Gently move around the pan to soften for 3 minutes before adding the mince, followed by the spices and salt and pepper. Leave to bronze for 10 minutes, moving the mince around the pan from time to time. Place to one side to cool whilst you prepare the semolina.
  2. In a bowl add the semolina and salt and then gradually add the water. Use your hands to help bind the semolina together so that it comes together like one large play-doh ball. Leave to chill in the fridge for 10 minutes and then remove from the fridge and break off a golf ball size portion of the dough.
  3. Flatten the dough out in your hand and then place a teaspoon amount of spiced beef into the centre. Bring the sides up towards one another and cover so that the semolina dough completely covers the beef. Pat into a round shape and place on a plate whilst you complete the rest.

 

EITHER

Beetroot Kubbeh

1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 white onion, finely chopped

pinch of cinnamon

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1/2 tsp cumin powder

salt and pepper

2 tbsp tomato puree

juice of 1 lemon

1.5 litre water

4 beetroot, peeled and chopped into match sticks

 

  1. In a deep pan heat the olive oil and add the white onion and all the spices and salt and pepper. Move around the pan to soften for a couple of minutes before adding the tomato puree.
  2. Add the water and lemon juice and mix into the ingredients.
  3. Place the beetroot in the pan and gently submerge half the kubbeh. Keep on a low simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring a few times so that the kubbeh don’t stick to one another.

Serve with fresh parsley.

OR

Greens and Chickpea Kubbeh

1 tbsp oil

1 leek, finely chopped

1 celery, finely chopped

1/8 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 preserved lemon, finely chopped

1 tin (400g) of chickpeas

1 chicken stock cube

1 litre of water

3 tbsp cubed marrow, optional (I had some that needed eating so popped it in)

3 rainbow chard leaves and stalks, finely chopped

salt and pepper to taste

 

  1. In a separate saucepan, heat the oil and then add the leak and celery and let them soften for a few minutes before adding the spices.
  2. Add the preserved lemon, chicken stock, chickpeas and water.
  3. Now add the marrow (if using), rainbow shard and gently add the kubbeh patties and gently simmer for 20-30 minutes

To serve add some fresh lemon – quartered and some fresh parsley and mint.

 

Which would you choose?

 

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Seven Things to Do When Exploring Jerusalem

Jerusalem is an absolutely fascinating city on many levels. I loved it. Whether you are religious or not, you can’t help but be hypnotised under it’s spell. My advice is to give the city time. Don’t do a whistle stop tour ticking off the usual suspects and leaving within 24 hours. We stayed for three days and to be honest I would have loved a couple more to explore further and just watch the world go by. People watching in this city is something else.

  1. Hire a Guide

Whilst we did a lot of exploring on our own, we did book an excellent ‘Three Religions Holy City Walking Tour’ of the old city via Viator. We lucked out massively on a hugely knowledgable guide called Joshua Levinson. He was absolutely brilliant. Our tour was a group tour and he kept our attention for 7 hours, both my daughters (12 and 9 years old) were absolutely entranced by all his stories and did not once say they were bored.

If you want to book him directly you can contact him via his facebook. You’ll need a comfortable pair of shoes – be warned that the narrow streets in the old city can be slippery if the shopkeepers have washed their steps outside their shops, and a big bottle of water. I also found an umbrella a great way to keep out of the sun.

The old city is divided up into four uneven quarters – Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim and within these quarters there are subdivisions; for example in the Christian quarter you will also find Ethiopian Orthodox Christians living in an area with their own Ethiopian Monastery Church and dwellings.

 

2. Tea at the Austrian Hospice

Take some time out from the hustle and bustle whilst exploring the old city and go to the Austrian Hospice for tea, sachertorte and apple strudel.  Seriously. Sure it’s surreal eating these Austrian fancies in Israel, but I think it’s these things that adds to its charm. It’s based directly on the Via Dolorosa (the road that Jesus walked on carrying the cross to his crucification).  Built in the style of Vienna’s Ringstrasse palaces, once you’ve found the buzzer to open its large looming doors you’ll be greeted by a peaceful oasis. You can also stay here as well – it’s perfectly located in the middle of all the action, but peaceful at the same time. As a visitor you can also go on to the roof, which affords beautiful views across the old city.

3. Try some Middle Eastern Jewish Food at Azura

Modern Jerusalem is culturally rich with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds living together. The food at family-run Azura, located in the middle of the Machine Yehuda Market, or shuk, is an unforgettable experience. It has Iraqi, Kurdish, Turkish and Tunisian influences and the result is sublime. On our first visit (yes we returned it was so good) we felt the best way to experience the menu was to try the tasting menu – obviously! The portions are still large, not your usual tasting menu size, so we ended up taking a doggie bag of goodies home to have for supper.

Highlights from the menu were Azura – Turkish eggplant filled with group beef and pine nuts in a special sauce with cinnamon, okra with tomatoes, Mejadara – a rice and lentil combo, beet kubbeh, a glorious soup made with beet, celery and swiss chard, the meatballs in a tomato sauce, beef sofrito and of course the hummus to kick off the proceedings.

The staff were great, the owner – Moshe – incredibly affable and warm and the food delicious. If you aim for a late lunch getting a table won’t be tricky. It’s closed for supper, but lunch goes on until 4pm. Also don’t go on a Saturday as you’ll find it closed.

4. Linger in Machane Yehuda Market

Since you’ll be going there anyway to visit Azura, make sure you leave time to properly explore the Machane Yehuda Market. It’s the largest in Jerusalem with over 250 vendors selling a wide range of food and clothes. There are also a number of bars within the market, which even at 5pm were pretty buzzing. The sights, sounds and smells are hypnotic and its a great place to feel the vibe of a Middle Eastern style market. If you are staying in an Airbnb and want to cook at home then it’s also a great place to pick up some delicacies.

 

There are a number of food tours available, but it just so happened that the lovely lady, Aliza Press, who welcomed us at our Airbnb (who was a friend of the owners who were away), was a chef and she offered food tours as well as being a private chef. If you drop her an email to AlizaPress@gmail.com she can arrange a time to show her beloved city from a food perspective. Sadly due to timing I could not take her up on her offer, but when I return, I will be certainly be getting in touch. Mention my name and my blog if you get in touch with her.

5. Go eat Pizza and Panzanella at P2

Yes….. seriously….. you read correctly. P2 on Keren HaYesod Street is a small (max 20 covers), unassuming little restaurant where most of seating is up at the bar watching the chefs make the pasta and pizza from scratch – literally. The menu is short, as all good menus should be, but the quality of the food was spot on. We were in awe at the one waiter who served out the tiramisu, made the lettuce salads, served and cleared plates like a whirling dervish, took orders and settled bills for the whole restaurant; it certainly created a buzz. The panzanella salad was the best I’ve eaten – so make sure to order one to share before your pizza. Photo of said salad below.

Below is my take on the wonderful salad that we ate at P2 and the recipe to follow. The combination of the crunchy old toasted baguette, onion rings, cucumber, the creamy mozzarella, salty black olives, fleshy tomatoes, work so well with the sherry vinegar dressing.

 

 

Panzanella Salad

serves 4

4 medium tomatoes, quartered

1 cucumber, cut at diagonal angles

1 small/medium white or red onion, finely sliced

3 tbsp black stoneless olives

2 mozzarella, broken up into bite size chunks

12 small pieces of day or two old baguette, cut into bite sized pieces (I used white petite ficelle hand cut bread that I found at Waitrose)

1 tbsp olive oil

handful or two of fresh basil leaves

*********

vinaigrette 

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp sherry vinegar

1/4 tsp dijon mustard (optional)

1 tbsp lemon juice

salt and pepper

 

  1. This recipe is mostly a case of compiling ingredients. Make sure you cut the cucumber into diagonal bite sized chunks. The different shapes of the ingredients really makes this dish. Place all the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Using a pan, dip both ends of the bread in the olive oil and heat in the pan so that it begins to bronze and slightly char, turn over to bronze the other side and then remove. Place into the bowl with all the other ingredients.
  3. Prepare the vinaigrette in a separate small bowl.
  4. When ready to serve gently toss the vinaigrette over the salad and place in a large bowl for people to serve themselves.

Delicious hey!

6. Deciding Where to Stay

There are lots of options on where to stay in Jerusalem. For us it made sense to book an Airbnb and I found a beautiful apartment in Talbiyeh, a good 15 minutes walk to the Jaffa Gate. The area is safe, quiet, with tree lined roads with beautiful grand houses. Below is a photo of the outside of our apartment.

If a hotel is what you are after and perhaps one with a pool, then The American Colony might be a stylish option. The Austrian Hospice, that I spoke about earlier in this post, looked lovely and might be a good option if you are travelling as a couple or solo traveller. This article by Vogue also has a few other good options.
7. Sunset at the Mount of Olives
Walk up to the Mount of Olives just before dusk to watch the setting sun over the old city. Yes it’s a step – ish climb, but you will be rewarded with a truly beautiful sight. It’s a 15/20 minute walk from Lions Gate in the old city. The walk takes you pass the Garden of Gethsemane as well as the Russian Orthodox church and convent (photo above). It’s a great way to work up an appetite before supper.
There are taxi’s at the top, if you don’t want to walk down, but the evening was so balmy when we were there that we continued down on foot to walk through the old city once the crowds had made their way home.
Jerusalem really is an extraordinary city that I would urge you to visit if you get the opportunity, but don’t get too carried away. I will leave you with these words below written by Lonely Planet about  ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’.
Jerusalem syndrome
Each year tens of thousands of tourists descend on Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps of the prophets – and a handful come away thinking they are the prophets. Jerusalem Syndrome is a medically recognised ailment that occurs when visitors become overwhelmed by the metaphysical significance of the Holy City and reach the conclusion that they are biblical characters or the Apocalypse is drawing near. Doctors estimate the syndrome affects between 50 and 200 people per year, and although many have a recorded history of mental health issues, about a quarter of recorded cases have no previous psychiatric record.
Source: Lonely Planet