Sunny days and the Middle Eastern kitchen

We are only officially about four weeks into spring, and I already feel excited by the prospect of eating healthier, more colorful, and more interesting food. Winter has its charms, without a doubt; but I am bored with the endless array of heavy pasta sauces and uninspired meat and potato dishes- invariably followed by filling, artery clogging desserts. There was a time when I used to think that spring eating was all about salads, swapping chocolate for fruit and the occasional light pasta dish. But I always had the nagging feeling that I was somehow missing out on something- as though the warmer months meant eating as though I were on a forced diet. And unless drastic measures are called for, I have never been a fan of diets.

That was until circumstances conspired to remind me of all the Middle Eastern cuisine I’d been brought up on; I remember a kitchen constantly stocked with ingredients as colorful and diverse as fresh figs, olives, aubergines, juicy legs of lamb roasted with apricots, saffron rice and yoghurt with mint and cucumber. Tons of garlic was added to just about everything, and every meal without fail was finished off with a traditional glass of fresh mint tea, served in elegant, elongated tea glasses. My favorite midday treat was a whole chopped avocado with a bowl of tabouleh- bulgar wheat salad with finely chopped mint and parsley, onion, garlic and lemon juice. My mouth is watering just remembering it. So far, however, I can just imagine the response of the majority of readers: that all sounds lovely, but only if you know a thing or two about Middle Eastern cooking. But that’s the beauty of this cuisine: it relies heavily on fresh produce and spices, and as long as you have these then the rest takes care of itself. A weekly staple in my kitchen takes a great deal of inspiration from this principle: chicken marinated in cumin, chili powder and garlic along with a mound of salty, buttery couscous, fresh mint and a plate of roasted aubergines, red peppers and courgette. Spice the chicken, throw it in a pan, be patient enough to stir the couscous for 5 minutes with a knob of butter and roast the vegetables. Now what sounds difficult about that?

Middle Eastern cooking is strongly Mediterranean in flavor and influence, and is consequently one of the few cuisines which is both mouthwateringly tasty and incredibly nutritious at the same time. Watching your weight and bored of bland, low calorie meals and snacks? Then look no further. An unabashed foodie who couldn’t care less about their weight? The same applies to you. As most Middle Eastern food is quite rich (taste wise) it means you don’t need to pile it on your plate like there’s no tomorrow. Olives smothered in garlic or a piece of baklava followed by mint tea both make great snacks, and offer a slightly more interesting taste experience than a chemically processed yoghurt, or yet another muesli bar. Hang on a minute, some of you will be frowning- baklava is saturated with sugar and fat. What’s nutritious about that? Well, you’re right. In a way.

By definition baklava, like many Middle Eastern sweets, contains a lot of sugar. But no E numbers. No colorings. No artificial flavorings. I’d rather have one little square of something which I know has been freshly made that day by a real person, using identifiable ingredients such as honey, pistachio nuts and pastry, than a machine processed ‘muesli bar’ which contains a whole lot of hidden and very dubious sounding chemical additives. This applies to Middle Eastern cuisine as a whole. It relies on simplicity. But you do need to realize that (sometimes pricey) fresh herbs are a necessity and that chopping all those vegetables does take time. So whilst you do not need to be a culinary genius to master this style of cooking, you do need patience. You should also remember that the supermarket is generally quite unkind to consumers who wish to buy exclusively fresh, unprocessed ingredients. Go to your local Middle Eastern grocery store and you will marvel at the fresh baked bread, the shelves bursting with fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables and the seemingly endless array of spices. You will also probably feel quite annoyed at having allowed your local supermarket to have ripped you off for so long. Support small businesses and get your shopping done for less!

So next time you’re feeling bored and uninspired, consider Middle Eastern cuisine as an option. It’s fresh, it’s affordable, it’s healthy and it’s ridiculously tasty. Better than all of these, it is so easy. I might even have to start pestering my colleagues to make this the subject of a future app… until then, I’ll go back to daydreaming about my mother’s roasted lamb and apricots.

The mystery of the incredible shrinking café

Any self respecting urban resident considers his or her local café as a sort of holy grail. Regular café goers will also state, quite vehemently if pressed, that cafés are not just places to get the daily caffeine fix, but local institutions- places to meet, exchange ideas, catch up on their browsing of internet news sites, complete their university assignments and polish off a good book. And a piece of chocolate cake or two.

So I was rather alarmed when I spotted this report in the New York Times yesterday, warning of the trend of the shrinking café. The aim is to revamp the modern café with little more than a bar and a few stools, not just in one or two establishments, but all across the board. All over Europe and the US. And what justification is given for this cold and merciless doing away with café culture? The need to utilize space as efficiently as possible. Cost cutting. In other words, it simply isn’t practical having us all lounging around, treating our local coffee outlets as substitute living rooms. Many owners, especially of smaller chains, lament the way in which almost every customer without exception now brings a laptop, plugging in and taking up vast amounts of space, the scene resembling “an office without the cubicles”, as one weary manager put it in the same article. My immediate reaction to this was one of self righteous outrage, a moral objection to what these people were saying. It is one’s right, is it not, to linger for hours over a cappuccino whilst reading a book? It’s minimalism gone mad. I mean, I admit: I’m spending about $5 to stay there for two and a half hours. Not a great return economically seen for the owners. But what were they thinking when they put in those wonderfully cushy sofas and low level lighting, not to mention the sublime jazz tinkling in the background? Did they honestly think I’d want to leave?

So now, stools are in, sofas are out. It’s all about maximizing the space. No more lounging. Order your coffee, pay, drink, leave.

Another argument invariably used to support these changes really grates on my nerves: “that’s how they do it in Italy: they go to espresso bars for a quick caffeine pit stop, and leave.” Well, last time I checked, we don’t all live in sunny Milan, where life is enjoyed at a more relaxed pace and coffee is an affordable necessity. Some of us live in rushed, grey and hectic London, where cafés are about the only places left in the whole city apart from churches, parks and libraries where it is possible to find a haven of peace and quiet. Soft tinkling jazz music in the background notwithstanding. And noisy, unchecked toddlers using the sofas as obstacle courses, and the metal trays and spoons as gongs. That brings me onto my next point. Why has nobody dared address this particular scourge? People using cafés as living rooms and portable offices? Unacceptable. Screaming children throwing fits (and sometimes food)? Not a problem. And coffee in London, Seattle and Copenhagen, for example, is quite frankly too expensive to be consumed at the speed with which the Italians drink it. We need to linger over a cup for hours, or we’d be out of pocket.

Some cities are somewhat insulated from these issues, lounging in cafés being such a long established tradition any mention of the kinds of changes outlined above would probably provoke national riots. Spain and France come immediately to mind. Coffee in these countries comes cheap and is a fixed part of the national daily routine. Lingering is part of the continental European mentality. The Dutch are also expert lingerers, but usually only on weekends. The point is, cafés are not like regular shops, so the same economics cannot really be as easily applied. Or maybe they can, but better in some cities than in others. In places where coffee culture has only fairly recently caught on- e.g. in London- people are prepared to pay for all sorts of crazy trends. If enough beautiful young celebrities are seen sipping espressos on London pavements, then this will probably become commercially viable in no time. Ditto in the US. But people need to relax. I am positively convinced that lingering is good for one’s mental and physical well being. And if cafés are no longer there in their original forms to provide this spiritual demand, then different establishments will flourish and compete to provide it instead. Fine by the consumer. Expensive coffee, sofas and jazz music may very well turn out to have been one of the decade’s oddest trends. But the need for relaxation and time away from the demands of modern city life is most certainly here to stay. Let’s just hope those disgruntled owners take heed and keep doing what they do best: good coffee, good music, good chocolate cake.

Cookbooks: the ultimate status symbol

Cookbooks have become something of a status consumer product in recent years, not to be used, but rather, like expensive coffee table books, to be leafed through and admired. That, by the way, is why I am such a fan of Food4Friends: we create recipes for real people, to be used in real kitchens and with real, easily sourced ingredients!

Cookbooks are supposed to be functional. They are supposed to encourage experimentation, not to terrify amateur cooks out of their wits with endless lists of impossible to find ingredients and difficult to use equipment. This point was driven home to me last night in a most hilarious way: I was sitting on the sofa with my other half and we were giggling at Heston Blumenthal’s attempt to pursuade us that miniature whisks and milk foamers were an essential part of every cook’s inventory; same with truffles, caviar and home made fish stock. Is he serious? This is a man who built his entire career on the creation of dishes so bizarre that they resemble science experiments more than food. This all takes place at his renowned and wildly expensive restaurant The Fat Duck, which, we are led to believe, is just like your run of the mill suburban kitchen in every way, even down to the meat smoker. This is the man responsible for introducing snails to almost every trend-thirsty restaurant menu in the country. So whilst it made for entertaining viewing- much as reading his cookbook would make for mildly entertaining reading- I am not convinced in any way whatsoever that this is something I could ever achieve. I am not pessimistic by nature, nor lacking in self-esteem, but I am not about to spend an entire weekend crying into my catastrophic attempts at Champagne and Caviar Tartlets, and, to add insult to injury, then be forced to spend an hour scrubbing some new and hideously expensive piece of kitchen equipment which I am going to use again precisely never.

This does not go for all professional cooks. I am inexplicably biased towards Nigella: Jamie too. They have done an excellent job of making cooking glamorous again, and although their recipes sometimes blur the line between imaginative and overly fussy, they remain just in reach of the realms of possibility; within the boundaries of ‘I could make that’. This is important. They create beautiful and functional recipes at the same time, as time-consuming as they may be. But if I am going to be perfectly honest, sometimes I stare at my ever expanding cookbook collection and feel a certain amount of guilt. The guilt of years of neglect, of always complaining  I don’t know what to eat when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes just waiting to be tried. Why? Because these are recipes that, though beautiful, always seem to be made up of at least ten steps. And I don’t mean to sound lazy here, but after a whole day’s work do I really have the energy to follow ten recipe steps, one of which includes making my own pastry? Does that really fall under the category of ‘easy’? Last night for some reason I decided I had had enough of all this, and pulled out a copy of 100 Pasta Sauces (all hail Food4Friends!). I selected a salmon and garden pea sauce and whipped it up for the two of us in about twenty minutes tops. Why can’t we see more of that in the majority of cookbooks on the market? Not to mention the huge expense of the latter: your average Nigella book will cost you dearly (about 25 euros on average). What you are paying for a lot of the time is, of course, the brand. The recipes in these books are inevitably alternated with quirky little stories about the wonderful lives of said cooks. Call me cynical, but whilst I adore these titles for their escapist qualities, when I have a hungry man to cook for and I’m so tired I can barely be bothered to put a pizza in the oven, am I really going to have the mental attitude and physical capacity required for Nigella’s Fish Pie? Or Jamie’s Leg of Lamb? Cue an emphatic and resounding NO.

I feel I must pay homage to the iPad at this point, for making it possible for humble foodies like ourselves to develop and publish affordable, beautiful and functional recipe collections for those who want to expand their culinary horizons but don’t know how. Cooking does not have to be complicated to be good. Somewhere along the line we confused these things, and ended up with books we can’t really afford and definitely can’t use. Well I for one have had enough. End the trend!

By Zeena Price

Market musings- or, how I learned to enjoy the weekly food shop again

Tomorrow, foodies, is market day. In our little corner of the world, anyhow. Market day is a blessing for several reasons. It is one of the only occasions which gets me out of a bed at a reasonable hour on a Saturday morning, thus freeing up the rest of the day for nice things (like writing). It also seems to have become a regular meeting spot for family and friends: every time I have ever gone to the market on a Saturday I have bumped into at least two or three acquaintances, causing impromptu chats over coffee which never would have taken place otherwise. Market day is one of the only days in the week I can be found wandering around with a basket loaded down with fresh, colorful produce and yet struggle to spend over 10 euros. The sad truth is, that for the rest of the week I am as guilty of purchasing out of season, eye-wateringly expensive fruit and veg from my local supermarket as the next person. But come market day, those nagging doubts about having given a good portion of my monthly income to said supermarket chain have all but disappeared. Doing one’s shopping at the market somehow feels more responsible. There’s no need for the middle man! Give it all to local producers and help the local economy!

Most importantly, though, it is definitely one of the only days in my week when I am prepared to step out of my culinary comfort zone. My favorite instance of this is my partner’s made from scratch Goulash Soup. Every single ingredient is agonized over, from the carrots to the coriander, for what must feel like eternity to my patient partner- but isn’t that half the fun? Supermarkets are so rushed, so hectic- it’s every man for himself there. I swear someone actually elbowed me the other day to get the last baguette. Never would you witness such behavior at the market. Yes, it’s full of people shouting, and yes, they do seem to mysteriously start packing up earlier and earlier each week, but these flaws are more than made up for by the aesthetic advantages of the market going experience: color, texture, smell, and often taste. And all of this minus the chemical overload and migraine inducing neon lights. I enjoy the spontaneity of market day. Much of the time, we will go there just to walk around. We might only come back with some fresh bread and cheese, and for some inexplicable reason a whole cupboard’s worth of fresh herbs and spices. But never ever will you hear the words ‘spaghetti bolognese’ uttered in a tone of desperation, the standard and well-rehearsed answer to the question: ‘what are you in the mood for this evening?’

Did I say last week that convenience kills creativity in the kitchen? Well, the embodiment of this particular modern ailment is the supermarket. I would be willing to bet that the majority of us stick to the same, tired repertoire of about five or six favorite dishes. When you wonder around the market, though, you’re just looking at the bare essentials and this forces you to start thinking up all manner of delectable combinations. Not a packaged sauce or oven pizza in sight.  I do know people who are quite frankly terrified by the prospect of having to come up with recipe ideas in this way. But don’t be daunted. Just wonder around and see what appeals. In any case, do try and get to your local market tomorrow. You never know what might inspire you, what you might discover, or at the very least: who you might meet for a spontaneous coffee!

By Zeena Price

Freshly squeezed vitamin boost, anyone?

When the clocks go back, the sun starts beating mercilessly down on my single glazed bedroom window, and the terraces begin to fill up with smiling, wine-sipping students at 2 o’clock every afternoon, I know that Spring has announced itself once again. The season of fresh starts, of forming new and sensible habits, after what feels like the dark, depressed hibernation of winter is upon us. We are all familiar with the proverbial purchase of a year’s gym membership for this exact reason. Don’t do it. There’s a far easier, more sustainable, and less soul destroying way of being kind to yourself: and that is getting into the habit of making your own juices and smoothies.

I am aware of the appeal of certain cleverly marketed, wildly overpriced shop-bought versions. These products are so successful precisely because they have cottoned on to the anti ‘mindless consumerism’ movement; they are careful not to include any artificial flavors or preservatives, make impressive efforts with respect to environmental sustainability and persuade us that they are simply making our lives easier by boosting our vitamin intake and saving us time. All of this would be convincing enough but the real clincher for most of us is that they just look so… healthy. Practically all of us consume far less fruit than we should. It almost seems perverse not to buy this stuff. The genius thing about this is of course that in doing so they are persuading us to invest heavily in both time and money in something we could do at home. For free.

But if that isn’t enough to persuade you, I would urge you to consider the argument for variety. What these products cannot possibly offer us is the vast amount of choice found in the fruit and vegetable sections of our local markets and supermarkets. Aren’t you bored with the same three flavors week after week? Shopping for our own ingredients (and this is a theme to which I will return time and again, being very close to my heart) is an essential way of reconnecting with our food, the lack of which has reached epic proportions in most Western European countries. Convenience has killed off our interest, knowledge and creativity in preparing food, and without these our relationship with food has suffered. Food is much more than fuel for the body. So if you only have time for one kitchen ritual this week, then get yourself a blender and start preparing your own juices and smoothies. You’ll have upped your vitamin intake, learned something new and said no to Fruit For Lazy People all in one go.

The healthy side of life

Food4Friends has a new best friend. This friend shows us what healthy, but most of all delicious food is! It’s name? Suitable as always: Food4Health.

These days nearly all of us are searching for ways to lead healthier lifestyles. An essential part of this is, of course, a healthy diet. The motivation to eat healthily can arise out of specific circumstances, such as becoming pregnant or being overweight; whilst some individuals require a drastic overhaul of their diets as a result of being diagnosed with Diabetes. Whether you have special dietary needs or just feel like eating healthily, Food4Health apps will provide you with all the inspiration you need!

Want to learn more about these apps? Just go to www.food4healthapp.com. You can also follow Food4Health on Twitter or Facebook.

Good day!

Food4Friends

Chocolate Challenge

Attention all chocolate lovers: we need your help! The task is simple: send us your favorite, most mouthwatering chocolate recipes, and we’ll give them a go. (It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it). We’ll photograph them lovingly and those which really excite us we’ll feature in our upcoming Chocolate app! We want to be inspired: simple, complex, raw, frozen, dark, milk, white, whipped into a mousse or baked into a brownie- use your imaginations and surprise us! We’re not fussy- but we do insist that any recipe used in the making of this app is truly divine. Only true chocoholics need apply! Everyone has their own unique take on the world’s favorite sweet treat. Why not show off yours? A good excuse to dream about chocolate, anyway…

Think you’re up to the challenge? Then send in your recipes to info@food4friends.com!