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.

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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.

Day one: A day of firsts

What a day. I’ve sampled my first hubble bubble(shisha) pipe, been a passenger in a car with nine people crammed inside for the first (and probably last) time and taken in my first views of Damascus at night from the Syrian mountains.
Seems the surprises just keep on coming.
A traditional Dasmascene breakfast kicked off the day rather late once I’d recovered a few hours of sleep. breakfast.jpg
Incredibly salty local cheese, pickled turnips and olives, hummus, yoghurt and boiled eggs were a tonic. All beautifully presnted and film-wrapped across every inch as if some Christo-inspired kitchen assistant was improving his craft – even the spout on the teapot was clingwrapped!
After a brief business meeting I was treated to a true Arabic experience in a vast coffee shop.
Every table had the hubble bubble on the go. Not unlike the atmosphere in a pub, people gather for a chat, to smoke to share with friends. hubble.jpg
Although smoking really is no longer my vice – when in Rome!
The tobacco is fruit flavoured – in this case it was apple – and because it flows through water isn’t hot or acrid in the slightest. (And no, there are no other drugs involved). The ornate pipes are delivered to each table with waiters dropping round and topping up red-hot chunks of tobacco mixture for as long as customers stay.
And it’s not just the odd cafe where this happens – it seems to be standard across the city. I must conceed it is a very social way to interact with people, but eating and sitting around in a smokey atmosphere just feels alien to those of us for whom the UK smoking ban can’t come quickly enough.
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A late lunch or early tea (it took that long to order, serve and enjoy) took the form of a feast of traditional dishes in a multi-level restaurant on the Old City.
Sitting at tables on a mezzanine floor above a courtyard with orange trees I was treated to a whole range of dishes thanks to a Syrian journalist’s family and their hospitality. feast.jpg
We had Arabic spiced pot roast chicken, craked wheat dumplings filled with spiced lamb, fatta and hummus, pickles, a pancake stuffed with creamy chicken and mushroom, tabboulleh and – french fries.
This was all washed down with an amazing mint lemonade – just stuffed with crushed mint leaves – and followed by yet more smoking.
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Walking through the amazingly narrow, cobbled streets of Old City where the upper floors of the building nearly touch overhead, an old Buick seemed to appear from no-where to take us all to the mountains above Damascus to see the spectacular view of the city at night. If you’ve ever attempted to get five adults and four children into a car you will appreciate the squeez. Two adults in the front seats, three in the back and the children ranging from a 14-year-old to a three-year-old down the centre of the car.
Speeding over the bumpy roads through the chaotic traffic was a hair-raising experience – and one that prompted some second looks from other motorists.
As we sipped hot chocolates (and did some more smoking) in one of the many restarants on the high ridge over the city I certainly did marvel at the view. And wonder what more surprises are in store.

Knickers singing all the way

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On my travels again, this time to one of the countries named as part of the so-called “axis of evil” – Syria. Leaving behind the relative safety of Manchester for a week in Damascus is certainly a first for me. It’s a work-based trip to carry out some online training at a national newspaper in Syria but of course I’ll also be checking out the food.
So with the prospect of everything I do and see being a first, I’ve been doing some research.
And on my favourite topic of food, one thing I learned from this extensive travelogue is that its not unusual to see a person carrying a live sheep through the streets.

Seems a bit extreme to my spolit Western eyes but, according to this photographer, refrigeration isn’t standard in most households so taking the animal home is one method of ensuirng the lamb is fresh.

A bit of a contrast to departures at Heathrow (pictured above) where not only can you browse in Harrods but you can pass those hours waiting for your flight feasting on lobster and caviar. The best I could do at Manchester was a pannini – isn’t it time we raised our game a bit?
Although anyone researching this part of the world can’t avoid genning up on the extremly sensitive political situation some of the stranger facts that I’ve gleaned about this fascinating and cultured country bizarrely includes the existence of singing ladies’ underwear.
According to the New Statesman (which isn’t prone to flights of fancy) the range of lingerie on offer in Damascus would leave Victoria with a rather red-faced Secret.
Thongs with tweety-pie decorations which sing Kajagoogoo songs and even bras which play through a rendition of “Old MacDonald”. Now those I have got to see!
I’ll update the blog as often as is feasible. It looks like there could be some surprises in store.

Where to eat for 24 hours in New York

Here’s the long-awaited 24 hour guide to eating in New York. (The pictures are still irretrievable).
For breakfast;
Pershing Square. This is near the fantastic foodie must visit Grand Central Station. It’s exactly what you want from a true NY diner. It’s busy, the atmosphere is all hustle and bustle, the waiting is attentive and friendly and the food is just fantastic. However you want your eggs – they’ll be done to perfection. If you’ve got a sweet tooth (and I mean SWEET) then the blueberry pancakes will be worth a spin. As ever in NY the coffe is great and the tea appalling.
For lunch;
Live it up at Fresh. Just near Brooklyn Bridge they do fish in here like no other. Its a sophisticated atmosphere with clean blue decor and a subdued style of waiting. I’ve been told the owner is also the main fish supplier to all the restuarmnats in NY so, this being his own place, one can only assume this place gets the freshist plaice. It certainly seemed that way. As a birthday treat I tried thin, raw slices of flounder with a dill dressing followed by a dish which is apparently as commonplace as steak and ale pie over there called lobster roll. What I got wasn’t quite what the name conjured up in my mind. Looking almost like a hot dog this lobster in mayo was served in a brioch style bread roll. It was a little sweet for a repeat order but an interesting all-American eating experience all the same. The desserts were just amazing – if you keep to fish for the mains I always think you can go a bit over the top on the puds. Himself hasn’t stopped talking about the goat’s cheese ice-cream (not yet sourced back home).
For dim sum;
Mandarin Court, Mott Street, Chinatown. We really lucked out at this place. By complete chance out of the many hundreds, possibly thousands of restaurants in this part of the city we stumbled into this one. Having wanted to see what the Big Apple’s Canal Street was like (just to compare to our own) we wandered down a side street where the Mandarin Court beckoned. The low ceilinged, fairly dingy dining room set with basic tables and chairs didn’t look much. But then came the trolleys. Piled up with every type of dim sum imaginable. The staff didn’t appear to speak even one word of English and food was so quickly dispatched that you worried it might fall on the floor. But what food – the prawn roll was amazing and the spinach dumplings out of this world for their texture and taste. We ordered from what seemed like endless trollies, starting to get anxious about the bill. So when it arrived at the equivalent of £8 for both of us including green tea we could hardly believe it. Added to that, on our way out we spotted the Michelin star rating. Well-deserved too but where else in the world are you going to get Michelin grade Chinese for so little money? When oh when will be able to say the same about Manchester?
For a sophoisticated bar snack;
We didn’t stray far here anbd didn’t feel the need. Our hotel, The W on Lexington Avenue provided an uber cool backdrop for a drop of Merlot sitting by an open fire and tucking into a plate of flatbread, dips and salad. The only thing we were missing was an Apple Mac staring at one as you slurped your cocktail appeared to be part of the scene.
Still hungry?
Well we honestly didn’t find anywhere that was bad so just give any place a try – you might just strike it lucky.
If you’ve got any recommendations for New York, send them in below. A return visit is going to be planned at some stage.