The Life of Briam

21 May 2020

There were signs this week of life slowly beginning to return to some sort of normal.  Cafes and terraces are set to open once again in Almaty from next week and the streets are busier. We’re not planning on changing too much at the moment and, in the meantime, we’re content to continue our armchair culinary travels.

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Half-way there – assembling the briam…

Greece has been in the headlines this week with the news that its beaches are reopening and it’s preparing to open its borders to tourists next month. This news brought back memories of holidays in the Greek islands and the great food in the tavernas. One of our favourite dishes is briam (pronounced bree-AM) – a delicious stew of oven-roasted seasonal vegetables.

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Briam – good enough to eat

As usual, we’ve taken a few liberties with the recipe, omitting aubergines (usually a key ingredient) as they are not quite in season in Almaty yet, so foodie purists please look away. We’ve added carrot and spinach to the usual potatoes and courgettes and then cooked it slowly in a tomato sauce. We’ve also topped it with some breadcrumbs to enclose our briam.

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The name briam has an interesting history – it is a borrowed word – there is no letter ‘b’ in the Greek alphabet, instead this sound is represented by combining the letters ‘μ’ (m) and ‘π’ (p) – ‘μπ’. Many Greeks call this casserole tourlou tourlou (all mixed-up), so briam could have come from Greeks who lived in Anatolia until the mass population exchanges in the early 20th century.

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Briam and salad

 

In the Ottoman era, there was a word biryan, spelt büryan in modern Turkish, which refers to a side of lamb cooked slowly over charcoal in a pit in the ground – a speciality of Siirt in the Kurdish area on the borders with Iraq and Syria. This in turn could come from Persian, where biryan means roasted (notice the similarity with India’s biriyani). Whatever the name’s origin, it tastes great!

Ingredients (serves 4)

For the bake:

  • Two courgettes (approx 300 g)
  • Four potatoes (approx 300 g)
  • One carrot (approx 100 g)
  • 200 g spinach
  • 75 g breadcrumbs

For the tomato sauce:

  • One red onion
  • 250 g tomatoes
  • One bunch of parsley
  • 20 capers
  • 25 ml olive oil
  • One teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 250 ml vegetable stock or water

Method

  1. Make the tomato sauce first. Heat the oil in a heavy based pan, add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop add the chopped onions and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally. After five minutes reduce the heat and add the chopped tomatoes. Stir and simmer for ten minutes then add the stock, chopped parsley and capers. Cook until the liquid has reduced by half.
  2. Cook the spinach for a few minutes until it is beginning to wilt and then set aside. Cut the potato, courgette and carrot into 1 mm slices and put a layer of potatoes, then courgettes and then carrots into a greased baking dish. Add the spinach and pour half the tomato sauce over the vegetables. Add another layer of potatoes and courgettes and then pour the remainder of the tomato sauce over the layers. Spread the breadcrumbs over the top.
  3. Cover with tin foil and bake in an oven at 180 c for around 1.5 hours. After an hour, remove the foil and cook for another 20-30 minutes until the breadcrumbs go start to go a golden brown colour. Keep an eye on it to make sure the breadcrumbs aren’t burning. Serve immediately with a fresh salad – it’s also great when it’s cooled down a bit.

 

 

 

KCC’s Lockdown BBQ – a char-grilled chapati feast

14 May 2020

After a couple of months of lockdown, a bit of garden envy is setting in as we hear about people getting outside and having barbecues. With no open space in the flat other than an enclosed balcony,  it was time to get inventive in order to get some char-grilled food.

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It’s barbecue time!

We’re fortunate to have a gas hob, so with some creative use of tin foil (some of it salvaged from last week’s chocolate fest!) and a rack from the oven, KCC came up with an improvised BBQ grill.

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A char-grilled platter

Use whatever vegetables are available – we had courgettes and green peppers, and cook them over the open flame, turning regularly. We grilled some halloumi as well. We cooked the jacket potato in the oven and made our own chapati, a flatbread from the Indian sub-continent, to serve with the indoor barbecue.

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KCC’s chapati: ideal for a BBQ

Chapati recipe (makes 4):

  • 150 g wholemeal flour
  • 75 ml water
  • 50 ml oil ( we used olive oil, but you can use whatever you have handy)
  • A pinch of bicarbonate of soda

Method

  1. Sieve the flour into a large, ceramic mixing bowl and add the oil and bicarbonate of soda. Combine with a wooden spoon or your fingers until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Slowly add the water until you have a fairly elastic dough – not too wet and not too dry. Knead for ten minutes and then leave covered with a tea towel for an hour or so.
  2. Heat up a non-stick frying pan or a cast iron pan. Divide the mixture into four and form into balls. Flatten with your hands and then use a rolling pin to roll the dough into 1 mm thick rounds. Cook over a high heat on both sides until the chapatis take on a leopard-spotted look as in the picture above.

 

A Central Asian Chocolate Odyssey

07 May 2020

With Almaty’s lockdown showing tentative signs of easing – we’re now allowed out to exercise as well as shop, a bit of a celebration is called for and a root around the cupboards produced a splendid horde of country-themed, Central Asian chocolate .

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The Tower of Central Asian Chocolate

We unearthed some bars of chocolate named after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – perfect for a blindfold taste-test to see what Central Asia’s finest chocolate tastes like. To keep it interesting, we entered a wildcard – chocolate infused with kurut (a wind dried fermented milk product) from Kyrgyzstan.

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A cheesy wildcard with some great design work

Here are the blindfold taster’s notes:

  1. Dark but not too bitter, a bit orangey, quite like a hare – nice!
  2.  Unusual, something Englishy, something a bit like a fox, not very sweet, nice!
  3. Sweeter than the others, like a soft horse, chunkyish feel.
  4. Tobleroneish, darkish, a little bit bitter and chewy; like a naughty monkey.

Can you guess which description goes with which bar?

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Check in the comments below for the results…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lockdown Brunch: Bubble and Squeak

30 April 2020

Nearing the fifth week of lockdown here in Almaty, Kazakstan. We’ve found that one of the ways of coping with this situation it to try and stick to as normal a routine as possible. This means logging on in the working week to see if there’s any work around and then trying to switch off from everything as much as possible at the weekend.

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Bubble and squeak: the great British hangover cure

With this in mind, we’ve come up with a classic weekend, switching-off brunch featuring that classic British comfort food  – bubble and squeak, or fried potato and cabbage cakes to the uninitiated. You really can’t beat a good fry-up after a hectic evening spent zooming and netflixing and supporting the local viniculture industry.

Bubble and squeak takes its name from the sizzling, spitting sounds the mixture makes when being fried. Its a great way to use up any leftovers you have – you just need the base of mashed potato and boiled cabbage. We’ve spiced it up with some coriander, cumin and turmeric and also added in some fresh spinach. Serve with baked beans and a fried egg to get your weekend off to a flyer.

Ingredients (makes four hearty cakes)

  • One large potato
  • 100 g cabbage
  • 50 g spinach
  • Two spring onions
  • One teaspoon cumin seeds
  • One teaspoon turmeric
  • One teaspoon coriander
  • Oil for shallow frying

Method

  1. Cube the potato, cover with cold water and bring to the boil in a heavy-based pan. Simmer for five  minutes and then add the finely chopped cabbage along with the coriander, turmeric and cumin seeds. Simmer for another five minute and than add the chopped spring onion and spinach.
  2. Drain off any excess liquid then mash all the ingredients together with a fork or a potato masher.  Season with salt and black pepper according to taste. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Form the mixture into golf ball-sized pieces and then place in the frying pan. Flatten the balls with a spatula or fish slice and fry on a medium heat. After five minutes, turn the bubble and squeak over and cook for another five minutes until a golden-brown colour on both sides.

 

Lockdown Lunch: Get Stuffed!

23 April 2020

Nearing four weeks of lockdown in Almaty and supplies are holding up surprisingly well, especially now that spring greens are beginning to come on tap. This week our local veg shop had rocket, celery and sorrel – all the makings of a peppery green salad to perk up the lunch menu.

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Spring greens coming on tap in Almaty

We’re coming to the end of our super-sized cabbage, which was bought in the early days of lockdown, so we decided to use the remaining leaves to make cabbage rolls, a popular dish in eastern and southern Europe.

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KCC’s Stuffed Cabbage Leaf

We stuffed the leaves with some rip-red risotto, a recipe we made a few years back that combines coarse bulgur wheat with beetroot and walnuts (if you want a gluten-free option, you can use arborio rice or pearl barley instead).

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Simmer the stuffed cabbage parcels in a tomato and herb sauce for thirty minutes for a winning lockdown lunch. It makes for a tasty veggie take on that beloved Ukrainian / Russian dish, golubtsi, or ‘little doves’, or dolma as they are dubbed in some parts of the Mediterranean and into the Caucasus.

Ingredients (serves 3-4 people)

  • Four large cabbage leaves or eight smaller ones
  • (See here for the stuffing: rip-red risotto)

For the tomato sauce:

  • Three medium tomatoes
  • Three spring onions
  • Three sprigs of parsley
  • One stick of celery
  • One tablespoon tomato paste
  • One teaspoon mustard seeds
  • two or three basil leaves
  • 25 ml olive oil
  • 100 ml water

Method

  1. Separate the leaves carefully from the cabbage. Place in boiling water for five minutes to soften. Put the leaves in cold water and then drain. Cut out the tough, lower bit of the stalk (about 2-3 cm). Place a tablespoon of filling above the cut and then fold and roll the leaves into cigar shapes.
  2. To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop, add the chopped spring onions, celery and parsley. Cook for five minutes and then add the chopped tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and water , stir well and bring to the boil.
  3. Lay the stuffed leaves in an ovenproof baking dish and pour the hot tomato sauce over them. Cover the dish with tin foil and bake at 200 c for thirty minutes. Sprinkle the cooked cabbage leaves with basil leaves before serving with a green salad.

Lockdown Lunch: Red-hot Hummus

16 April 2020

We’re now nearing the end of the third week of Almaty’s lockdown. Life has settled into a pattern of venturing out as little as possible and relying more on what we have stored away. After a delve in the cupboards, we came up with one of the stalwarts of the staple food world – a pack of dried beans.

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KCC’s Red-hot, red bean hummus

After soaking in cold water overnight, these red beans can be used in endless ways – from soups, stews and curries to burgers, salads and dips. We’ve gone for a easy-to-make red bean hummus; you’ll just need to add tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and some spices. Serve with flat bread and salad for a tasty lunch.

Don’t worry if you haven’t got any tahini on hand, you can make your own by toasting some sesame seeds and mixing them with olive oil – here’s a link to last year’s post on DIY tahini.

Ingredients (makes around 300 g)

  • 250 g cooked red beans (reserve 50 ml of the cooking water)
  • Two tablespoons tahini
  • 25 ml olive oil
  • One lemon
  • One garlic clove
  • One teaspoon cumin seeds
  • One teaspoon sumac
  • Two teaspoons red chilli flakes
  • A few sprigs of coriander

Method

  • Mash the beans with a potato masher or a fork and add the tahini. Mix well then add olive oil and lemon juice and blend until you get a smooth consistency. If the hummus is too thick, use some of the cooking water, Add the minced garlic and spices and mix a bit more with the fork. Garnish with a few beans, a drizzle of oil, a sprinkling of chilli flakes and a sprig of coriander.

 

Lockdown Lunch: Kicking off with Kısır

9 April 2020

We’re heading towards the end of the second week of serious lockdown here in Almaty.  Our local shops remain well-stocked with basics (we’re not supposed to go further than 500 metres form home) and the greengrocer’s reopened after closing for a week, so fresh vegetables are readily available.

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Basic kısır with radish

For this week’s Lockdown Lunch we’re making kısır, Turkey’s bulgur wheat salad answer to the Middle East’s tabbouleh salad. Kısır is one of those dishes that everyone has their own recipe for, but the basic ingredients are fine bulgur wheat, onion, chilli pepper, tomato paste, olive oil, lemon juice parsley and pomegranate sauce.

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Kısır with olives and tomatoes

We’ve added some radishes, tomatoes, spring onion and black olives to the standard package above that can be eaten as a main meal (you might want to add some nuts or beans for a protein punch) or as a side salad. If you are on a gluten-free diet, then you can use millet in place of bulgur wheat.

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A fresh kick for your kısır

Kısır is easy to prepare and it benefits from sitting in the fridge overnight – leaving more time for all those Zoom parties and, of course, the Tajik football season, which kicked off last weekend.

Ingredients (for 3-4 servings)

  • 100g fine bulgur wheat
  • 200 ml vegetable stock or water
  • One medium onion
  • One medium tomato
  • One spring onion
  • One garlic clove
  • Ten black olives
  • Two tablespoons tomato paste
  • 25 ml olive oil
  • One lemon
  • 25 ml pomegranate sauce
  • Few sprigs of parsley
  • One teaspoon chilli pepper flakes
  • One teaspoon cumin seeds
  • One teaspoon sumac

Method

  • Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the cumin seeds and fry until they start to sizzle. Add the finely chopped onion and mashed garlic and cook for a few minutes over a low heat, stirring occasionally. Add the chilli pepper and sumac and stir.
  • Add the fine bulgur wheat and stir to cover the grains then add the stock or water, Add the tomato paste, pomegranate sauce and the juice of half the lemon. Stir and bring to the boil. When boiling, turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave to stand for 30 minutes or so until most of the liquid is absorbed.
  • Fluff up the grains with a fork and add the grated radish, sliced spring onion and chopped parsley. Mix together and put in a salad bowl. Before serving, garnish with lemon and/or tomato slices and black olives.