Friday, 8 April 2016

Meal 59. Northern Irish Ulster Fry (Brunch)

Fried in generous amounts of Irish butter
This is the first brunch in the history of this blog project. Douglas (or Dr. Doug, as I like to call him) kindly offered this Ulster Fry as the most typical Northern Irish meal, saying most other meals he likes cooking from 'back home' are indistinguishable from just Irish (i.e. Republic of Ireland) meals. And it fits with the (relatively new) tradition of him coming to the house I share with Dr. John to make us breakfast on weekends, something I wholeheartedly support.
Doug, consciously wearing a green t-shirt this morning, regularly ate Ulster Fry while growing up, apparently one of the few meals his dad would be happy to get involved with! It is traditionally a smorgasbord of carbs and saturated fats, featuring potato bread, soda bread, pork sausages, bacon, black pudding, white pudding and eggs, all fried in the famous Irish tea or coffee and some orange juice to cut through the grease. When asked if anything like the 'English breakfast' staples baked beans, stewed tomatoes or mushrooms make an appearance, Doug faux shudders and exclaims:"No, no, no. You can't have anything healthy in there!" With a straight face he then tells us that the portable defibrillator was developed in Northern Ireland to come to the rescue when people have heart attacks while having fatty breakfasts at home. The first part is indeed true (and a nice bit of trivia I can throw around next time I meet a doctor from Belfast). Though this meal doesn't seem conducive to good cardiovascular health, the stats actually show that Northern Ireland is roughly on par with England; within the UK it is Scotland that has significantly higher levels of heart disease.
One of the unique properties of Ulster Fry is that it all goes in one pan, apart from the eggs, which are fried up last.
Adding the bacon rashers...
The topic moves from death and disease to politics...Doug grew up near Belfast and went to school there, Ulster's biggest city, but as he was still very young when the Troubles ended, he implies it has not affected his life all that much. Though he can easily tell you which neighbourhoods (and names) are typically Catholic or Protestant, he went to a 'mixed' school and said there were definitely lots of friendships and relationships 'across the divide.' He feels the sense of difference or enmity that still remains is largely class dependent. Apart from reading a few novels about the topic many years ago, I really do not know much about the issues. Now I learn Ulster is one of the four historical provinces or kingdoms of Ireland (with Munster, Leinster and Connacht) which are now mainly used as divisions for rugby teams. Historical Ulster fits roughly with the current boundaries of Northern Ireland. It is interesting to hear Doug's synopsis of the roots of the Troubles: that Ulster was the most difficult province to control for the British government, so they consciously 'planted' lots of English settlers and gave them the best agricultural land...which sowed the seeds of future discord, leading to the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, exactly 100 years ago (the Dublin memorial this Easter was still a bit contentious). This uprising paved the way for Irish independence a few years later.

Heapings of black pudding and potato bread in the foreground
Doug feels keenly that he has been unable to procure the most typically Northern Irish ingredient of all, the soda bread. However, he scored some top notch branded potato bread from famous chef Paul Rankin, who went to school with Doug's father (just to prove the point it is a small place). The packaging of this 90% potato based bread actually advertises a competition to "Win a Food Break to Belfast!", as it appears Northern Ireland is celebrating 2016 as the Year of Food and Drink. So having this blog entry now is very appropriate, despite neither Doug or I being aware of the fact! Belfast is apparently becoming a bit of a foodie capital, although Doug claims most people there still think the word espresso has an x in it!
The flux between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is fascinating, with a special national anthem commissioned for the Irish Rugby team, which includes players from the whole island. As well - spooked by the impending Brexit - Doug has recently been able to acquire the Irish nationality to twin with his British one. I am proud to say I helped out by authenticating his photos for him, which I was allowed to do as an officially trustworthy veterinarian with a business card and work phone number. A nice touch was the colour of the, of course!
Clockwise from top: fried egg, black pudding, bacon, potato bread and pork sausage. Yum!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Meal 58. Austrian Mohnnudeln, Marillenknödeln and Fritatensuppe

Tanja frying up the dumplings!
Tanja is one of the super qualified interns at the Institute of Zoology where I work now, with an MSc in Nature Conservation. We chatted at some after work drinks about the 'sweet meals' she remembers fondly from boarding school and she offered to make an approximation before she moves on to a new job in Cambridge. Like quite a few of the blog hosts, she has eaten these dishes often, but not prepared them more than a few her mum has specially scanned copies of the relevant pages of her recipe book for the occasion!
She is vegetarian, so the famous Wiener schnitzel will not make an appearance tonight. I heard from the girlfriend of another Austrian friend that the preparation of this breaded pork dish can 'aromatise' the house for hours, if not days.
Instead, Tanja has been shopping, and slaving away in the kitchen for a few hours prior to my arrival to prep for three different veggie dishes.
Fritatensuppe (Pancake soup)
She confesses the Fritatensuppe starter is 'super easy', it's just sliced pancakes in broth and a great use for leftover pancakes. You roll then up and slice them finely, place them in a shallow bowl in a decorative way, then pour over the hot broth. The little curls in the dish look very attractive. She actually does make this regularly, as opposed to the dumpling recipes we will be having for the main course.
Mohnnudeln before they are fried
There are two types of potato based dumplings on the menu tonight: the Mohnnudeln which I can only describe as slug shaped gnocchi: potato dough steamed, fried in butter and covered in poppy seed with a bit of powdered sugar, then served with a fruity sauce. Tanja was planning to have it with plum sauce, but ended up buying a tin of prunes. I have an irrational dislike of prunes after ordering ice cream with chopped up prunes in Vienna more than ten years ago...something about the texture just freaked me out. In a sauce I would probably love them, but in this case, Tanja runs out of time to make a the prune sauce and opts to serve it with strawberry jam made by her grandmother, which is an honour. The jar looks pretty professional, with a store-bought 'Made by Granny' label on the home-made jam.
Prepping the Marillenknödeln

There is something of a guilty pleasure about eating this sweet dish as the main course, and I can imagine the excitement of being at boarding school as a teenager and looking forward to the Wednesday evening delicacies. Tanja says most people will know this dish either from their grandmother or from typical restaurants or ski huts. When she was young she did not actually like the poppyseeds. However, she has started to appreciate them as she grew older and is very happy she could buy a decent sized bag of the seeds at the supermarket down the street in her London neighbourhood of Walthamstow.
The Marillenknödeln use the same potato dough as a base, but involve wrapping it around plums or apricots, adding bit of sugar, then rolling it in breadcrumbs and frying it in butter, a crucial step! Tanja has prepared some bread by drying slices out in the oven. We struggle for a bit trying to come up with an easy solution to make the slices into crumbs, till we hit upon the great idea of making them quickly with a stick blender.
Marillenknödeln in back, Mohnnudeln with jam in foreground
As the dishes near completion, I help set the table and Tanja's British flatmate Ed, a jazz saxophonist, is summoned to join us. Once he sits down, he warily eyes the dishes on offer and slyly asks;"Is there anything green on the menu?!" But no, this is a child's dream, a SWEET DINNER without any vegetables. Though I guess the fruit does count as some of your '5 a day' servings the nutritionists recommend. It is worth noting they would not have this kind of meal every evening in Austria either! As Ed has a sensitive stomach, he eats carefully rationed portions to prevent abdominal agony later on. The food is delicious, and I eat till nothing more fits in. I do feel lucky that I can eat food that is stodgy, fatty, fibrous, spicy etc. without having to take into account how it will make my body feel later! 
Marillenknödeln with apricots and plums in the middle 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Meal 57. Somali Surbiyad

Zahrah is British born, of Somali parents, and we met in Holland, where we shared a meal, cooked by our mutual friend Rahma's Egyptian husband...which included an adventurous avocado chocolate mousse. So far, so international! Back in London, Zahrah kindly agreed to make a traditional meal for the blog, while her (Kenyan-Somali) husband and three of their four kids are visiting Kenya. So it is an intimate affair with just us and her youngest, the adorable two year old Zaki.
Zahrah professes to mainly cook non-Somali dishes at home, and she gets her protein from legumes, beans, eggs or fish most of the time. She says not eating red meat or chicken more than once a month is an emulation of how the Prophet Mohamed ate, and an added benefit is that not eating Somali food all the time keeps her weight in check. Though the fact that she is a keen yoga practitioner and teacher might also have something to do with that!

Surbiyad with zebeeb and a mixed salad
Anyhow, it makes it extra special that today we are getting a truly traditional meal of surbiyad, which is a combination of white basmati rice with extremely tender mutton. The vegetable component consists of courgette, aubergine, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ghee and Indian sounding spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander and cumin seed as well as garam masala. Many of these spices make a return appearance in the chai tea served after dinner! The surbiyad is especially tasty to me as it is accompanied by zebeeb, a combination of raisins, onions, garam masala and coriander powder. I love the combination of savoury and sweet with the aromatic spices. It brings to mind the flavours of Indian and Tunisian meals I have enjoyed in the past. Oddly, the only nugget of information I carried with me on Somali cuisine is that spaghetti was very popular due to the former Italian colonists, so much so that there was even a local pasta factory called Somalpast.
Zahrah with the zebeeb
However, Zahrah gently enlightens me by explaining that her parents were from North Somalia, known as Somaliland, which was a British protectorate till 1960, whereas the rest of the country was an Italian colony. So the spaghetti story only really applies for part of the country. The British saw their protectorate as a good source of meat supplies...and the most important varieties are still mutton, goat and camel meat. Zahrah herself worked in Hargeisa (the capital of Somaliland) for a year just after finishing her Arabic & Islamic Studies at SOAS. It was a WHO posting, and she saw it as a good opportunity to get to know her roots better. She mentions fresh cow milk was actually available, brought round by a lady in a metal urn every morning...the only thing was it would need to be finished in the evening or it would go off. This milk would also be used to make chai tea like we have after dinner, where the milk, water, sugar, black tea and spices are all boiled together and then strained for a reviving drink. We sip the tea and discuss a myriad of subjects, from what British food she missed while away (butter on toast and proper tea) to council housing and the schisms forming within poor communities in the UK due to perceived preferential treatment of newcomers.
I am very impressed by where her life has taken her, with her newest challenge being the exciting opportunity of serving as a muslim chaplain for the UCL hospitals in central London.   
The tupperware with spices (cardamom, cloves and cinnamon) for the after dinner chai tea