Having a (cheesy) ball at Carluccio’s

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Cheesy balls. Or hot and salty cheesy balls to be more accurate!
At the risk of this blog sounding like a South Park sketch I can honestly say I’ve had my fill of cheesy balls.
There were pesto ones, mozzerella ones, and spinach varieties of the spherical treats offered around in vast quantities as part of the stylish launch party for Carluccio’s latest venture at the Trafford Centre.
An invited crowd quaffed prosecco, munched the most appetising appetisers seen around these parts for a long time and looked forward to eating top notch food in the previously unlikely setting of the mall of malls.
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Much has already been reported on the gigantic chandelier and the lavish fittings but last night was all about the food – and the great man himself was there (pictured right) to see the proceedings get underway.
I was particularly impressed with the presentation of the finger food on offer. How about this beautifully simple way of serving up ham and breadsticks for example.
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Or this alternative to pineapple and cheese on sticks. A whole assortment of mozzerella, basil and sun-dried tomato served in a pizza inspired display.
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There was also a mountain of Parmesan chunks with balsamic, the biggest tub of the biggest olives ever seen, not-too dainty helpings of beef and horseradish plus any amount of recipes involving cheese shaped into globes.
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So after the munchies have been munched, what’s on offer for paying customers. Well first glance at the rather stylish menu reveals that it won’t break the bank.
There’s a selection of mouth-watering sounding salads from £3.95- £6.50, pasta at around £7 and main courses including Milanese chicken at £8.75 and sirloin steak at £12.95.
The selection is pretty traditional, with desserts leading off on tiramisu and the promise of Italian blended coffees.
So while we didn’t get the opportunity to sample the menu, last night’s launch party certainly whetted my appetite for a bit more shopping in the near future.

Macaroni with mushrooms and purple broccoli

I made this recipe out of what I had in the fridge but am so pleased with it I’ll share it here. The earthiness of the dried mushroom complements the fresh purple broccoli perfectly. What an undervalued vegetable that is and reminds me of my happy allotment days! This recipe is quick and easy too – it took less time to make than to drink a cup of tea.
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What you need

6 ripe plum tomatoes.
Good handful of purple sprouting broccoli spears.
8 closed cop mushrooms.
75g dried Porcini mushrooms.
6 chopped spring onions.
1 chopped garlic clove.
Bunch fresh parsley.
Teaspoon of chopped red chilli.
Enough macaroni for two people.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Grated Parmesan cheese to taste.
What you do
Set the dried mushrooms soaking in warm water.
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Saute the spring onions, garlic and chilli in the olive until soft.
Start the macaroni cooking in salted boiling water.
Peel the plum tomatoes by immersing in hot water and then chop and add to the pan.
Drain the dried mushroom and chop into the mixture.
Add the chopped parsley.
Stir until hot throughout and toss with the cooked macaroni.
Season and sprinkle with the Parmesan.
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That’s it.
Have you got a recipe for me? If so send it here and tell me a bit about yourself.

Welcome home fish pie

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What could be more welcoming and comforting than a home-made fish pie? In need of something reassuring to cook on my return home from abroad I sought out a good fish pie recipe on the internet.
First up came Jamie Oliver’s take on the homely favourite. “it’s a cracking recipe that does it for me” says Jamie.
Didn’t do it for me though.
I have had a version of the celebrity chef’s “fantastic” recipe prepared for me before – FFF (Fussy Female Friend) once did her own take on this to cheer me up after a particularly grotty working week. In her own inimitable way, FFF replaced the cream with yoghurt, the butter with olive oil and the creamy mash with sliced new potato. Very health conscious is FFF!
Her version was just the ticket but I didn’t fancy this original Oliver recipe when I looked more closely.
Firstly cooking the boiled eggs with the potatoes? Does that mean the advice my mum always gave me that you should never use the boiled egg water because it causes warts isn’t true? I’m sorry Jamie but I’m just not prepared to risk it.
Also serving fish pie with baked beans and tomato sauce isn’t fantastic – it’s overly sweet and too sloppy.
So my search continued to this excellent effort.
The step-by-step pictures are great and it does work. I did make a couple of adaptations to make this even easier.
* Put frozen peas directly on top of the fish mixture underneath the potato. They cook in the juices in no time and the finished item looks better without the peas mixed in.
* Add some prawns to make it a bit fancier.
* Make a small amount of parsley roux (butter, flour, milk and plenty of fresh parsley) to add into the milk mixture and pump up the flavour.
The resulting dish – delicious. Every last scrap demolished so I thought it worth passing on.

The end of the road

view.jpgBack in Britain. I may have arrived without my luggage (that only got as far as London) but I have had an experience which will stay with me for life. And while I may have not had a sudden revelation on my road to Damascus, there are some valuable lessons in life that travel always seems to impart.
Forget the vile cold I’ve been struck down with and the lack of sleep, the journey brought me into contact with some generous, fun and lively people. The image of the Middle East as a place of oppresive regimes and religious strife couldn’t be more out-of-sync with the secular, open view of the world I encountered in Syria.
As far as the food goes I’ve learned how a proper Tabbouleh should be constructed – mainly chopped parsley, about a quarter chopped mint and chopped tomato – no bulgar and absolutely no cucumber – with lemon juice and a little oil.
I’ve marvelled at the crispy saltiness of the bread sold on the streets and the flowery, fragrance of the herbal tea. I know now that I don’t like unripe almonds eaten complete with their furry coats dipped in salt but that the boiled apricot sweets which are so chewy are a wonderful thing.
I didn’t see any sheep being carried through the streets or singing kickers. I did see a lot of young people enjoying their leisure time and a culture where family life is central.
I’ve experienced traditional hospitality and I’ve truly valued the friendship of strangers who have gone out of their way to be welcoming even when the language could have been a barrier.
It may be goodbye to Damascus, a wave to this view of a city surrounded by mountains, but I feel a return visit could be on the cards.

Home of the stretchy ice-cream

Ice-cream with elasticity. There’s another first. Wandering through the crowded markets of Old Damascus I was led into a cafe where room upon room of people sat enjoying a unique type of ice-cream. Although ices are commonplace across Arab countries, this particular type of ice -cream can apparently only be sampled here in the Old City. The photographs adourning the walls showing the King of Jordan, the Queen of Spain and other such famous figures tucking in to the dish, bear testiment to its special status.
It’s a vanilla and comes sprinkled with crushed pistachio and served in bowls. Made on the premises with the milk and vanilla being transferred from large drum to large drum, solidifying as it goes, it is finally beaten with a large wooden implement a bit like an oversized pestle.
I was told that it is this pounding of the mixture which is unique to this particular product. The resulting ice-cream is creamy and sweet but also has a remarkable elastic property, behaving something like cooked mozzerella cheese.

I do have pictures but sadly the local telecoms provider doesn’t support MMS so will update the blog with pictures when back in the UK.

Aaahhhh tea

Syria is another great tea drinking nation. Tea for breakfast, to help digestion after an evening meal, for a break with friends and oiling the wheels of commerce during business meetings. The tea is strong, more often served black and always sweet with servings of sugar delivered alongside.
So I was surprised to see the familar yellow label Lipton attached to tea bags, on advertising and even adourning kiosks dispensing tea in the street.
For most foreign travel, in my experience, Lipton yellow label means only one thing – flavourless weak tea for which several tea bags are needed to make anything resembling a British stand-your-spoon-in-it cuppa. But here the Lipton yellow label tea knocks Yorkshire Tea into the long grass for strength.
Intrigued about this turn around, I took a look at the Lipton website hoping for answers. Sadly though Syria doesn’t exist on their list of countries supplied. Shame no-body told all these tea sellers.

Lunch? We really must go for a sheep’s head

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Another first under my belt. A sheep’s head for lunch. I think I may have been a little rash to accept the kind invitation to a traditional lunch.
For some reason I thought it would end up being a type of lamb stew – a sort of comforting hot pot in a foreign land. There’s no way I could have imagined the enourmity of what I’d agreed to.
Sunday being a working day in the Arab world (Friday and Saturday are the weekend) it was off to work for me this morning.
Avoiding a serious road crash on the way – something that must be celebrated as a daily achievement with traffic travelling in no particular lanes and with no “give way rules” – my working day finished with the invitation to lunch courtesy of one of the culture journalists at the newspaper I’m working at and a guide book publisher fo the city.
I was shown into the upstairs of a small entranced restaurant into a large clean space where the waiter proceeded to wrap the table with polythene. Innocently I asked what was happening “it looks like they’re preparing for an autopsy” I joked. lambsoup.jpg
Four bowls of thin, brownish soup were delivered.
It was clear and smelled strongly of lamb. Salt, pepper, cumin and fresh lemon were served alongside what was essentially a lamb stock. I tried a few mouthfuls but found it a rather too full on taste.
No need to worry about getting hungry though – a table full of courses soon arrived. First there were lamb’s tongues in yoghurt, then the famed sheep’s head meat, then stuffed intestines, lamb’s feet, stuffed stomach and finally sheep’s brains.
This was a lesson in offal the like I have never seen before, almost an autopsy in fact.
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My hosts tucked in with gusto – sleeves rolled, diving in with hands and thoroughly enjoying the feast. I sampled a little of almost everything (the brains were really too much for me) using techniques I had seen on a television programme where an anorexic explained how she had kept the condition from her parents for years.
Talking a lot, remarking on the food, chopping it up, moving it all about and dropping bits onto other plates.
I think I got away with it.

For the record, just about any part of a sheep seems to taste (perhaps not unsurprisingly) of lamb. It’s just the textures that differ. The head meat was very tender and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from a quality cut of any other part of the animal. The tongues were sweet and tender, the feet very gristly and the stuffed stomach something like haggis. The brains remain a mystery.

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Several hours later, and still feeling a little queezy, I took a walk through the Old City of Damascus. It’s an endless labyrinth of steets selling everything imaginable.
As I turned a corner and waited on the street for the traffic to slow enough to cross the road, a butcher’s shop caught my eye. Hanging outside was something very furry and quite large. I couldn’t work out what sort of animal this might be but, moving closer, I finally understood what it was – a camel’s head and neck.
Suddenly a boring sandwich at my desk seems quite appealing.
The gratuitous use of the camel picture is thanks to AntonioA at Flickr.