January: Five things I’m lovin’ this month

What a crazy-busy month! It always takes a week or so for January to get rolling, but once it did this year, I was back to back with work. Just the way I like it! Here are a few things that have got me through the busy month.

1. Za’atar from the Palestinian tent, Global Village, Dubai

An old Palestinian lady behind a stall at the back of the Palestinian tent looked up at me smiling as she handed over a fresh piece of pitta, dipped in olive oil, and then covered with her lemony fresh za’atar. She handed me piece after piece, with different za’atars on to try. I selected the ones I want and when I asked for 200 grams she laughed: as most spice sellers do when I ask for my tidily western quantities. This Za’atar is out of this world good. Za’atar blends can be a bit dusty- particularly if they’re too heavy on the thyme. This one is heavy on the sesame seeds and sumac. I asked a Lebanese friend where the best place to buy Za’atar is in Dubai and she agreed with me. Here’s the link for more info about Global Village.

2. Unroll me

Until 2 weeks ago I would wake up to at least 30 newsletters in my inbox every morning. Then I saw a friend tweet about this amazing website. I was very pessimistic. A promise to get rid of all my unwanted subscriptions to newsletters? In 2 minutes? Impossible. I was wrong. Five minutes later, I’d set my email up with them and received a promise that I wouldn’t get any more emails from companies I unsubscribed from. And I didn’t. I’ve spent hours previously unsubscribing one by one, email by email. This service is amazing. And free at the moment!

3. Wingsters

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Shameless plug, but nonetheless a very well deserved one, for my friend Ahmed and his amazing Wingsters restaurant in the Marina, Dubai. Ahmed has opened Dubai’s first themed mobster-style Buffalo wings restaurant. As someone who has visited the city of Buffalo wings, where they were invented, over ten times, I feel qualified to tell you that these are the real deal. For the daring amongst you, he’s running an ‘initiation‘ – a challenge only the hardest of chilli lovers should take on to confront his spiciest sauces and come out alive on the other side. Succeed and you’ll earn your photograph on the wall of fame. For those less adventurous the Buffalo wings rock my world. His make-your-own milkshakes are pretty darn good too. Not to mention how good his food photography is…. 😉

4. Frying Pan Adventures

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I met Arva, who runs Frying Pan Adventures in December and as soon as I met her I knew I had to join one of her tours. I went on the ‘Arabian Food Pilgrimage’. I can’t wait for my Mum to visit again so I can take her on this, and then follow it a few days later with the ‘Little India on a Plate’ tour. From start to finish Arva’s energy and enthusiasm for the food and history of the region was infectious. Although we didn’t cover a large distance physically, in food we went from Egypt, to Palestine, to Syria, Iran and back to Egypt. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but our group of 12 tried desserts made from a type of root which can also be used as soap, learnt how to make falafel and ate ice cream with our hands. I’ve lived in the Middle East for five years and learnt more than I ever expected to. Wonderful.

ps. I’ve just noticed they’re number 1 for activities to do in Dubai on Trip Advisor. If that isn’t a recommendation I don’t know what is!

5. The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage

This is the kind of book you open up and dig straight into. Some books I work my way through, and bookmark with post it notes and scribbles about the type of occasion on which I might make something. not this one. Book propped up, cupboards open, oven on. As I received this for Christmas my husband was bombarded in the first week of the new year with fresh, healthy, home-style Lebanese food. I didn’t hear any complaints. The book is well laid out. The recipes are not complicated, perfect for the beginner. As a Lebanese friend told me the other day- a Lebanese person would never refer to a recipe book, they’d use their mother’s recipes. Well for those of us without Lebanese mothers, this is the book to use. I particularly enjoyed the sumac crusted tuna. Recipes to come on here soon. And on that note, I’m off to my kitchen to cook from it!

Beetroot Gazpacho

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This weekend I headed down to Safa Park to check out the recently opened Ripe Market. Wow. Dubai’s artisans have really gone from strength to strength over the last couple of years. There was beautiful Christmas decorations, locally made pottery, imported rustic furniture, locally made bags, home-made cakes, delicious coffee stalls, juice bars, and gorgeous hand-made clothes. There must have been at least 100 stalls there of really great quality produce. Marbrook Dubai!

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I resisted temptation to buy anything other than picking up my veggie box as planned. I’ll be back next week with my shopping list. When I got home I saw I had 5 beets in my box… again. I’ll be honest, I’ve had beetroot in my box every time I’ve bought one and I NEVER know what to do with it. Beetroot reminds me of other root veggies, swede, and turnip, and thick, comforting English stews, crackling fireplaces and long hearty walks in the countryside. What could I possibly make that would work when it’s 28 degrees outside?

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Enter this divine, deep gazpacho soup. Goodness in a bowl, it is at once hearty, earthy and refreshing. It’s the perfect Dubai winter lunch. I used about a third of my veggie box- tomatoes, cucumber, pepper and onion and it served four people.  All organic, all locally grown. The beet leaves can go in too- no waste, extra depth, extra vitamins! This is definitely going to become a regular Saturday lunch for us.

Beetroot Gazpacho

Ingredients

750g tomatoes, chopped

350g raw beetroot including leaves, peeled and chopped finely

1 green pepper

300g local cucumbers (approx 6 small Dubai, or 1 English)

1 small red onion

2 garlic cloves

2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Method

Prepare all the vegetables, and using a food processor, liquidizer or blender, puree together until completely liquid.

Season the soup, and stir through the vinegar and olive oil. If your veggies weren’t cold before you started, put in the fridge to chill.

Walnut Bread

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I made a big mistake the first summer I lived in Dubai. I booked our summer holiday for the end of June. Ramadan was at the end of August. For those of you who are not familiar with summers in the Middle East, the temperatures go off the scale. The hottest temperature our thermometer has recorded in five years is 53 degrees Centigrade, and it hangs in the shade. Ermm… that’s hot enough to fry an egg outside, cause me to faint (numerous times), and HEAT PLATES.  That meant I had 3 stinking hot months ahead of me, with little happening and most people fleeing the heat for cooler climes. The kitchen was my refuge.

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 One of the best things about the heat is that I can use the balcony like an English airing cupboard, for my bread to rise. (In England the warmest part of any house is the cupboard with the water boiler in it, and it’s where we leave our dough to prove). For some reason I find this entertaining even five years on. In the summer when the sun only serves to scorch, I’ve found a use for it. On my balcony pretzel dough doubles, sourdough forms bubbles and doughnut dough rises.

So, here’s a recipe I discovered this summer. This bread is absolutely stuffed full of walnuts, and is divine served with goats cheese and figs. It’s easy to make- I’ve made 4 loaves and they’ve all turned out great. It just requires a bit of time. I normally get started with it on a Saturday morning when I wake up and by the time I’ve finished getting ready for the day, doing a bit of tidying and cleaning, with some low-energy kneading in between the loaf is ready for the oven.

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Adapted from Short & Sweet by the fabulous Dan Lepard who has taught me nearly as much about baking as my Mum.

Ingredients

300g strong white flour, plus extra for shaping

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 teaspoons fast action yeast

125ml red wine

75ml water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

150g coarsely chopped walnuts

oil for kneading

Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Using a liquidizer, blend the wine, water, oil, honey and 50g of the walnuts until smooth. Pour this over the flour and add the remaining walnuts. Stir to make a sticky dough. Cover and leave for 10 minutes. Knead the dough on a lightly oiled word surface, 8 to 10 times only. Oil the bowl slightly and return the dough to the bowl. Leave for 10 minutes. Repeat the kneading process and place back in the bowl. Leave in a warm place for 30-45 minutes until increased in size by 50%.

Line a tray with baking paper, lightly flour the work surface and roll the dough to roughly 15cm x 20cm. Roll the shorter side up to form a tight sausage and place this seam side down on the tray. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave outside again for an hour. Heat the oven to 200 deg C/180 deg C fan/390 deg F/gas 6. Lightly dust flour over the dough with a small fine sieve or tea-strainer and make rapid criss-cross cuts with a sharp knife. Bake for 40 minutes and then leave to cool on a rack.

 

 

Four Minute Magic Pizza

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Four Minutes to make a decadent tasting but healthy, filling, nutritious meal? Can’t be done? Let me show you how.

Back when I was working in an office this meal became a regular answer to the question ‘What’s for dinner?’ It uses mostly store cupboard ingredients and less than 5 minutes prep. We coined the word magic pizza and it stuck. Seems magic to me- from fridge to plate in less than ten minutes.

The trick is to use Lebanese flatbread as the base of the pizza. This crisps up really nicely in the oven, and is very thin so you don’t feel stuffed full of carbs. Add some pizza sauce from a jar (the fewer ingredients on the jar the better), and then any ingredients you have in your fridge. A lot of the time we reduce the calories by leaving off the cheese, but of course a nice mozzarella, or goats cheese turns this into a treat.

Last night’s magic pizza was fig, mushroom and thyme. A fab combination. The sweetness of the fig was offset beautifully by the cheese and mushroom, and the hints of thyme made it taste really fresh. I suggest you add things like thyme after you’ve cooked the pizza, but it’s really up to you.

Stuck for topping ideas? Most veggies will work well on a pizza- some of them may need fry or bake before you add them, if cooking times necessitate. Anchovies, fresh pineapple, any herb, cold meats, chicken…. really anything you have in the fridge.

What’s your favourite pizza topping?

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Fig, Mushroom and Thyme Magic Pizza

Serves 1

Ingredients

1 medium Lebanese flatbread

2 tbsp pizza sauce (from a jar, I like American Garden’s)

1/2 fig, sliced

3 mushrooms, sliced

3 tbsp grated cheddar cheese

3 sprigs thyme

salt and pepper

Method

Pre-heat your oven to the highest temperature.

Assemble your pizza using the ingredients above.

Cook in your oven on a pizza tray or a thin baking tray until the edges of the flatbread are golden brown and your toppings are turning brown. This takes about 4 minutes, but will vary depending on your oven. Keep checking it.

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Get Planting! The Easiest Way to Grow Tomatoes

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We have some pretty good weather for growing tomatoes in the UAE, as evidenced by the plethora of local tomatoes in the supermarket. I know very little about growing vegetables on a large scale, but it seems to me that the UAE tomato industry is in the early stages of growth and is just figuring out how it can produce tastier tomatoes, on a larger scale, to a demanding audience. We certainly have the sunshine, maybe they’re just figuring out the technology. The little I do know tells me that you can’t test the value of a seed, or a growing method without allowing nature to take its sweet time growing the plant, the flower and then the fruit. I guess it’ll be a few years til we see really delicious locally produced tomatoes in the supermarket but in the meantime grow your own!

It’s really not too hard- you just need to get started at the right time of year (September to November, not March when the temperatures are searing, as my husband once did), buy some decent sizes pots and good soil, and then some tasty tomatoes from the market. It’s not too late to start right now though. Plant them this week and they’ll do great.

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Firstly, I could launch into a list of suitable items you could recycle and use as a pot, but let’s face it, we live in the Middle East and not many people have old wine barrels or beautiful vintage trunks lying around. I bought some plastic planters from Carrefour, and some pretty ceramic pots from Dubai Garden Centre. Both have lasted me 3 years and still look in very good condition. I scrubbed them out with some washing up liquid in September before adding new soil to get rid of any diseases that may have been festering. I doubt there were any though as they’d been outside in 50 degree heat all summer (yes, you can put your plates outside to warm or fry eggs on cars at this temperature).The general rule, for your pots- the bigger the better. I think my largest is 45cm across and I wish I had bought bigger. Cherry toms will need smaller containers than beefsteaks.

A watering can is useful, but at a stretch you could use a cup. I have a trowel but more often than not use an old spoon.

Ok, so here goes- my so-easy-kids-could-do-it, method for growing tomatoes.

Choose your favourite tasting tomato from the supermarket. What the heck- splash out, hedge your bets, and choose a couple. You can assume that a locally produced tomato will have more chance of success than another.

Fill your container with soil and soak through. It should be damp to touch. Put the container in partial shade. 4-6 hours a day should be plenty in this region. You can always move it if need be.

Take your first tomato and put a hole in it with your thumb. Then bury it in the soil about 3cm deep. You’re done!

Monitor the soil to ensure it’s always damp to touch. You don’t want to over water it as the roots may rot but tomatoes are thirsty. 1 really good watering every 2 days should suffice but it will depend on the position of your pots and how big they are. The bigger the pots, the less frequently they need to be watered.

You will need to thin your tomatoes out once they start coming through. Weed out the weaker, straggly looking plants and keep the healthiest. Don be tempted to keep more than will fit in the pot, this will just result in weaker plants which don’t produce much fruit. 1 plant per 45cm pot is about right.

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Steak your tomatoes using anything you can find once they start to look like they can’t hold themselves. I am still experimenting but Ace Hardware has some good options.

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You should expect to see fruit after about 60 days. It’ll take another whopping 60 days for that fruit to grow and turn red! You’ll need patience!

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Good luck!! Let me know if you have any questions!

Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Onion and Tahini Sauce

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It’s taken me five years of living in the Middle East to experiment with tahini. I have no idea why, perhaps I just didn’t know where to start. I certainly wish I’d started earlier- it’s so easy to use and takes all the flavours up a notch. Tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds and is used throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. It is one of the main ingredients in hummus.

I was given Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem for Christmas. Filled with ingredients which I’d heard of, but never used, it sat on my bedside table, to be looked through and admired, but not dirtied in the kitchen. I finally bought a jar of tahini a few months ago. But this too sat on a shelf unused. When I realised that I had all the ingredients for this recipe in my cupboards already, I knew I had no excuse.

My husband has been pescetarian for 9 months, and one of my best friends is vegetarian. When she comes for dinner I always struggle with what to make. This will be perfect for our next dinner party. No more failed sweetcorn fritters and boring lentil dishes for my guests!

You can make this in advance, but it’s important not to put the tahini sauce on the vegetables until the last-minute. For those readers that don’t live in the middle east, tahini and za’atar area becoming more and more common in the UK and the States with the popularisation of Lebanese food. If you can’t find the ingredients in your local supermarket, there should be a specialist shop not too far away where you can buy these two mainstays of Middle Eastern food.

One of the things I loved most about this is that I hadn’t realised you can eat the skin of butternut squash. Certainly saves a lot of time peeling it!

Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Onion and Tahini Sauce

(Adapted from ‘Jerusalem’ by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi)

Serves 2 as a main course

Ingredients

1/2 butternut squash, cut into 2cm x 6cm pieces

1 x red onion, cut into wedges

1tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp tahini paste

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

1 small garlic clove

15g pine nuts

1/2 tbsp za’atar (optional)

To Prepare

Preheat the oven to 220 deg centigrade / Gas Mark 9

Spread the squash and onion on a baking sheet, pour over 2 tsp oil, season with salt and pepper and toss well. Spread out over the sheet with the skin down no the sheet. Roast for 30 minutes, until the vegetables have taken some colour.  Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Make the sauce. Place the tahini in a bowl with the lemon juice, 2 tbsp water, garlic and a pinch of salt. The tahini will thicken to the consistency of double cream.

Fry the pine nuts with a teaspoon oil until lightly browned.

Spread the warm vegetables on a platter, top with the sauce, sprinkle with pine nuts and top with za’atar.

Sushi and Gardening at Nobu

Last week I had the opportunity to do a quick food shoot at Nobu, in the Atlantis hotel here in Dubai. Nobu is the creation of Nobu Matsuhisa who I was incredibly fortunate to meet and photograph last week when he was in the UAE. Despite having 3 Michelin stars and 29 restaurants to his name, he was remarkably uninhibited and gracious. He spoke at length about the importance of being passionate about our work. We had a great chat about how creatives: Chefs, Photographers, Musicians can’t be truly successful without passion driving what they do.

A week later and I was in the gorgeous sanctury of his vegetable garden. Multiple wooden planters, gravelled paths and moor grass sit in a spacious fenced in private garden. Nobu grow their own herbs- the usual suspects and well as tomatoes, some beans and mizuna (a type of Japanese lettuce which I’m growing too). The tomatoes plants and beans hadn’t fruited yet, so I’m not sure what type they were. Chef said that during the winter most of the herbs come from their garden. I did wonder why, when the space they have outside is so big, they aren’t able to use herbs solely from their garden?

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Here is my first shot from the shoot- a Shrimp Tempura Roll. It was an unusually cloudy day, but I still shot in the partial shade of a palm to get the beautiful soft light.

 

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