A (very late) Ramazan Dinner Story

 

Ramazan is perhaps one of the most important months of the year in Turkey: as a country whose identity is half secular Islam, half modern liberalism – it’s no surprise that the festivities are heartfelt, long and quite a lot of good fun.

However there is also a very foodie side to Ramazan: it is the only time of the year when you can queue for sicak Pide (a round, sesame-seed topped bread) tearing off into it with gusto as the heat burns your hands. Or when you can walk through Balik Pazari (the historical fish market near Galatasaray/Beyoglu district) and go to Sakarya and buy Gullac ( a dessert made with thin layers of gullac sheets made with cornflour, starch and water and drizzled with milk, sugar and crushed nuts and pomegranate seeds.) And dates, of course. Lots of dates.

Now although I am not a practising Muslim by any stretch of the imagination (I love bacon. I love ham. I love pork belly. God, I just love pork.) , once a year during Ramazan, perhaps as a tribute to my birthplace , I tend to fast for a day usually the first day of Ramazan. And that very same evening I invite a very small group of my friends for a Ramazan dinner.

Ramazan tables are meant to be plentiful and full of variety. Although my family never really gave Ramazan dinners, since moving to London 18 years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to be back to Turkey to attend quite a few and to understand exactly what works and what doesn’t.

What I’m lucky in having are friends who are willing to try. I tend to make a lot of odd dishes which might try the palate at first of those who are not accustomed to the spicing or the texture but they are always game , giving it their best shot. The fact that most plates leave the table empty is a testament I think not only to my abilities but their willingness to try to to consume.

So here’s my Ramazan table in very low quality pictures ( I need a camera, I know. ):

This obviously is a picture of the table set out – you can see the various dishes before anyone descended on them.

First up is the magical pide – although the Turkish supermarkets in London seriously SUCK with their quality of pide – TFC (turkish food centre) can sometimes create a specimen which is edible. This is one such specimen.

Raki is obviously the national drink of Turkey. Made with grapes and aniseed, and clocking in at 40 % alc. , it’s strong and hearty stuff, prone to catching those drinking it without respect unawares and making them very, very sorry.

This is Kasar Pane. Kasar is a turkish cheese which is similar to cheedar though perhaps more flavoursome. You can also buy yeni kasar (meaning new kasar) which is less full on flavors and it is this version which is used in this recipe. Cut into discs, rolled in a mixture of breadcrumbs and turkish spices, the cheese is then shallow fried till crunchy outside.

A truly destructive beauty.

Sucuk is a type of sausage made from beef – the beef is cured by being made to hang in bags made out of the intestines of the animal. It’s heavily spiced with garlic and few other bits and is absolutely delicious once shallow fried – no oil needed as it’s quite a greasy cured meat in itself.

Cerkez Tavugu (Circassian Chicken) is one of those amazing dishes which is ever so easy to prepare and yet tastes so divine. Basically you poach the chicken and then use the chicken stock breadcrumbs,walnut, garlic and some other optional bits to create a paste – lay the chicken, cover with paste, mix and then top with paprika.

Really that simple, really, mind blowingly delicious.

One of the stalwarts of a Turkish table is fried aubergines & Turkish peppers (salad peppers which are long and thin as opposed to the common variety in the uk) topped with a tomato sauce made with fresh tomatoes and tons and tons and tons of garlic.

Again, very simple but usually gets demolished within the first half an hour or so.

On this fateful dinner, I also attempted Gullac AND SUCCEEDED! An amazing feat by any standards ,the only problem was that I’d made so much , I had to keep giving them away to my grandmother and other friends over the next week. Lesson learnt: less quantity next time.

And there you have it. My ramazan table – suffice it to say the raki flowed and we found ourselves still at the table sometime around 04.00 a.m. – which is the sign of a good food/drink table in Turkey. It’s the absolute rule of dinner: the eating and the drinking must always be an excuse to enjoy exquisite company.

Now next year, I intend to try making baklava which should certainly be interesting. I just saw that they are selling rolled up layers which you can open to make the dish. Hard work, but I’m willing to try making any dish once. Especially the tasty ones.

 

The Four Roses Experience – Callooh Callay

As some of you might remember from my previous post, I’m pretty much  a dedicated vodka man.

However I am also very fond of Gin, Raki and various assortment of spirits. In fact you could possibly say that there isn’t a spirit or a drink I’m not willing to try to learn about.

Except whisky/bourbon. Whisky and Bourbon used to burn, hurt, not agree and do all manner of things to me.

However this has all changed in the last year or so.

Sometime in the last winter, I attended what can only be described as a Burns Night Feast with matching whiskies and a tasting afterwards.

At the time, I was in the throes of a horrible cold – and even though I was trying the whiskies just because of the Burns connection, I found myself enjoying a few of them. A lot.

So over the past year I’ve been slowly trying whiskies, trying to find exactly where my tastes lie – trying to educate my palate.

Ditto Bourbon. So when I heard that Calloh Callay was going to host an evening called The Four Roses Experience , I jumped at the chance.

Any excuse to learn a bit more.

Arriving in Calloh Callay we decided to first have a cocktail before heading upstairs – I was dying to re-try their Sazerac.

You see, last week I went to the cocktail bar at Rules. And it seriously  changed my world.

I had the world’s best Sazerac – at least the best Sazerac ever made in my world.

Callooh Callay’s was good but still the winner by a clear mile is Rules.

Anyway up the stairs we trotted to the small and intimate JubJub Bar where the friendly waitress presented us with some lovely Sweet Manhattan’s made with Four Roses and a small taster glasses of Four Roses Small Batch.

Oh and a lovely little water jug of which I took a picture.

Dan came over after a little while and gave us the background on Four Roses. A very famous brand, the distillery has existed since 1888 – they were apparently the only bourbon to produce alcohol during the Prohibition. And once the Prohibition was over, they were one of the first labels to still have stock which guaranteed them pretty much a solid standing in the market place.

Then a Canadian company takes over Four Roses and everything goes to hell. The company start producing their own blended whisky, the distillery is made to stop producing bourbon the way they always had and the brand’s name becomes associated with something cheap and nasty. Something I was aware of as cheap detectives and hoodlums in pulp novels seem to drink Four Roses – it’s quite common.

Then the Canadian company went busy, Kirin Beer buys Four Roses and immediately lets them start distilling the old, original way. Hence the brand trying to reintroduce itself into different markets.

All in all it was very interesting: Dan also explained a bit about how Four Roses was made: 51 % corn and rye – apparently Four Roses has the highest content in any U.S. bourbon.

He also talked about the complicated rules surrounding bourbon production including having to use a new barrel each time – apparently the rules are 6 pages long.

The common variety of Four Roses is made from a mixture of ten barrels – Small Batch is made from four and Single Barrel as the name suggests will be from a single barrel.

Dan also told us of Marriage which until now had only been sold in Kentucky because it was extremely limited – 1200 bottles in total (or so my hazy memory says) – it’s, if I remember correctly, again made from 4 barrels but each barrel is chosen by the Master Distiller and can be very special ie 10, 20 years old.

He said they were planning to bring to London 120 bottles of this stuff to sell – through The Whisky Exchange – in September.

Trying the small batch I found it very pleasant: strong flavour, a little cherry on the nose and quite sweet.

We asked Dan if there was any chance of trying any single barrel so he kindly got us a taster of that each.

Now straight, this was heady, strong stuff: I found it almost overpowering. However having added a drop or two of water it became a different beast: a slight hint of vanilla, very strong characteristic of rye – I was almost shocked by how pleasant it tasted to me.

After Dan moved onto a different table to talk them through the tasting, we ordered some Bourbon Sours made with Four Roses. Lovely and dry, we both enjoyed them quite a lot.

All in all a terrific evening and my eternal gratitude to both Callooh Callay and Four Roses for a chance to try some thing a little different.

Chicken Saag (Sort Of) – A First Attempt

So tonight to use up all the stuff I’ve got in the fridge I decided to make chicken saag. Well , more specifically I decided to make chicken and saag as well as rice and combine all three on a plate.

The saag recipe is used is here: http://www.route79.com/food/saag.htm

Before I started – I defrosted the chicken thighs and legs, washed them thoroughly and marinated them in cumin and black pepper.

Here’s a picture of the marination process:

I made the saag pretty much as the recipe required – here’s a picture of it just before I added the spice paste:

And because I’d run out of onions (it happens, it’s time to do the weekly shop again) I used fresh spring onions – here’s a totally pointless picture of my chopping board and the onions:

The end result was satisfactory – the saag was nowhere as flavoursome as it should have been but hey, it was a first time effort so I gave myself a rather large error margin – the rice turned out fine , I made it the way we make it in turkey which I maintain is more flavoursome.

I’m also an idiot as I forgot to take a picture of the final plate as I was way, way too hungry.

I am going to a Malaysian curry tasting tomorrow so it’ll be nice to see some professionals cook better food for a change!

Vodka – The True King Of Spirits

I love Vodka.

No, that’s way too noncommittal.  Let’s try again.

I ADORE vodka.

When I want a drink late night , my hand will always go for whatever bottle of vodka is ice-cold in the freezer. No exceptions. (The only time this ever changed was when I was grace with an extremely nice bottle of Calvados last Christmas. It lasted for a few months, this affair. Then I returned to my one true love, Vodka. True story.)

In the past I’ve drank Ivan The Terrible, Wybrowa, Smirnoff (Eurgh! Enough said.), Sputnik, Stolichnya, Stoli Gold, Russian Standard, Russian Standard Finlandia, Absolut, Finlandia (lovely, clean texture. Always a joy to drink), Danska and many more that I can’t even remember.

I thought it might fun to do a post of the bottles that passed through my modest bar in the last 6 months. So in no particular order are my last 6 months of vodka tries with thoughts after the picture.

First up:

Boston Waltz. I first tried this last summer as a birthday gift and came back to it simply because it was a rather terrific little vodka. It’s quite easy to drink neat, it has no discernible afterburn but you can also have it on the rocks in which case a certain sweetness comes through quite clearly. Available to buy at Gerry’s (Legendary Shop In Soho): http://www.gerrys.uk.com/

Next up:

Grey Goose. A friend of mine brought this as a thank you gift from the duty-free shop and it was much appreciated. Now I know that The Goose gets quite a lot of bad press – and I agree that this is not a vodka that completely justifies the price-tag. BUT if you are lucky enough to receive it as a gift or get a 1 litre bottle for a more reasonable price-tag from duty-free then here is a vodka which gives you no opportunity to grumble. It’s fresh, clean, quite sharp and most importantly an absolute joy to drink. My favourite Goose so far has been the pear – I don’t know why but something about the taste of it really got me. If anyone leaves the country soon, I’ll certainly request a trip to the duty-free shop.

Next up:

Akvinta. Now this is sold as a super-premium luxury vodka, a few month ago they had a huge window display at Harrod’s which I saw as I walked past. And again this bottle came to me as a duty-free gift.

At first I bought the hype – but one glass was all it took for me to realise, no Akvinta was not a vodka of choice for any self-respecting connoisseur. Now I don’t know where in the filtration process they go wrong or what the hell is wrong with their grain but Akvinta has a terrible aftertaste, almost medicinal as well as an unpleasant burn regardless of how cold you serve it.

Easy to say that I shall never be purchasing it again. Ever. Not even as a gift.

Next up:

This was on offer at Sainsbury’s and the box in which the bottle came was so attractive that I simply had to try it. (Not that it wasn’t tempting enough to start with.) It’s distilled the same as a standard bottle of ‘Russian Standard’ but has ginseng added to it at one point in the distillation process: So it tastes like Russian Standard: clean, pleasant, goes well with any food especially at a Zakuski table but now with an added touch of sweetness. I highly recommend it to anyone whose stuck at a supermarket and has to buy vodka for the evening.

And now we come to the King of the Bunch:

Chase Vodka. In one word: Amazing. In many words: clean, crisp, sweet, smooth, slight vanilla flavour.

A friend of mine has been going on about ‘Chase Vodka’ – he even bought me a small taster bottle to try – which I duly broke before even getting a chance to drink it. So he bought me another. Which I tried. And immediately fell in love with.

So imagine my delight when I was given this bottle as a gift – as it can clearly be seen, most of it was drunk during a long vodka table – Chase complements herrings and beetroot and pickles and rye bread incredibly well and I think we could probably have finished it if the drinking had not seem like such a waste of something to cherish.

If you get a chance to try ‘Chase’ do it without a single moment’s hesitation. It’s a brilliant spirit and it’s made right here in good old England.

They also do a ‘Naked Chase’ which from what I understand is distilled from apples and a limited edition ‘Marmalade Vodka’ which is infused with Seville Oranges. Unfortunately Gerry’s has sold out of ‘Marmalade Vodka’ and the only other place seems to be The Vodka Emporium (http://www.vodkaemporium.com/). So if anyone gets to try it or give me a bottle because they really want me to try it (!) (wishful thinking…) please drop me a line. I’d be very interested to hear your opinions.

So that’s the vodka round-up for now. I’m sure more will be added as time goes on. I’ve got my eyes on the new Beluga vodka as well as the Dovgan, and the Parliament Vodka which is purified with milk (!) which makes me extra curious.

Best Advert for a Restaurant

I was walking through Soho the other day and came across what might be the greatest way of advertising your drinks menu – a little Korean restuarant had taken the mighty Chan-Wook Park’s ‘Joint Security Area’ posters and had turned them into posters for their drinks list with the slogan: ‘Joint Soju Area’ – I don’t think I can think of anything more ingenious I’ve seen in the past 6 months to a year.

Here are the pictures I took on my crappy camera phone:

If only all drinks menus could be so entertaining!

Cauliflower Breadsticks – A Tale Of Woe

So last night, I decided to try out a recipe for cauliflower breadsticks – not because they’re low carb and healty and all that clap-trap but simply because I had half a cauliflower left at home and had no idea what to do with it.

The recipe I found seemed like it could work – for those of you who want to try it – here it is:  http://www.lowcarbfriends.com/bbs/lowcarb-recipe-help-suggestions/543886-my-cauliflower-breadsticks.html

To be honest I was mainly sold on that picture so off to work I went.

Here’s the cauliflower dough mix with all the ingredients thrown in:

Cauliflower Dough Before Tranferring it To Pan

And here it is all evenly pressed into the pan:

Et voila!

However the step after this, where you cook it till it all sets and then cut it with a pizza cutter into strips failed miserably. Due to I think way too much cauliflower in relation to cheese and egg, my breadstrips never set.

I’m afraid there’s no picture of my failure as it’s too embarassing. However even in its’ mutant condition I can report that it was tasty – in fact one of the tastiest mushes I’ve ever eaten.

Luckily I had some Chase Potato Vodka sitting around and can chase the blues of failure away fairly quickly.

If I ever do a second try, I’ll be sure to post more info.

Mooli’s – Something to write home about…

As a Turk living in London, one of the things I miss most about home is wrapped treats: in Turkey, the humble sandwich is relegated most of the time for those who don’t know how to have a quick-lunch.

Instead we quite happily focus on pides, durums, lavas’s all filled with a variety of ingredients: from doner to cheese to sucuk to whatever your imagination can bring forth. Add to this the fact that each one costs about £1.50 , you have an unsophisticated but very tasty and filling array of food.

For the past few years, there’s been an ‘burrito’ revolution in London: although there are some very tasty variations among these new places, some of them (actually most of them) end up being bland, kind of comfort baby food.

Having tried most of these, I’d been eating in rotation from the few I thought actually tasted like food – fresh, spicy, with defined flavors.

And now there’s Mooli’s.

I only tried my first one last week and I was rushing off – they were nice enough to serve at 11.30 even though they don’t official open until 12.00 and they even threw in a freebie because it was my first visit: a very pleasant approach which would have been totally wasted had the food not been up to scratch.

But it was.

I had the beef mooli and it was hot and spicy and tender and all the superlative you can think of. I enjoyed it so much that since then I’ve been looking for an opportunity, any opportunity to go back and eat another one – this time I’ve got my eye on the pork mooli.

As I had no idea I’d be writing about it, I took no photos – however I am cheekily posting their image of the Beef Mooli.

Tasty and quick!


If you’re in the centre of town and want a quick, unfussy, tasty and reasonably priced lunch, Mooli’s is certainly the place to go.