Always take your culture with you.

Leaving Crete behind was a doddle for me.  I was five and plane journeys are another adventure with disappointingly small windows.  It was only as me and my younger brother grew older that we began to cling more and more to the scraps of Crete that were still within our grasp.  Vital to our connection was, and still is the food.  Our food.

We were blessed with a fantastic cook in the shape of our mum and even more important was her own passion and skill for creating Greek dishes.  Our weekly menu might include at least one well cooked Greek meal among the chips and potato waffles prevalent on English dinner plates.  The smell of cinnamon in meat dishes and oregano sprinkled on for good measure.  These are lingering memories that mingle with images of whole roasting trays lined with rows of stuffed peppers and bubbling pans of deep red lava dotted with meatball islands.  Finishing every meal by casting aside the fork and tearing up crusty white bread to get every last drop of flavour off the plate.  Every last drop of Crete.

One of our family favourites is without doubt pastitsio (pass-teech-ee-oh).  A dish of this lasted a couple of meals because of its size and in my opinion, the second sitting was always superior- the flavours had completely developed and the dish held itself together well.  Mum reckons it’s best straight out of the oven, but I think that’s her English attitude towards food and I can’t convince her otherwise.

Essentially, pastitsio is a construction job that yields a satisfying outcome.  I would love to demonstrate some sort of skill in preparation or dazzle with exotic ingredients that evoke rural Greece and its traditions.  However, the ingredients are basic and the method couldn’t be simpler.  I’ve adapted the recipe to suit my own taste and lifestyle.  This is another way of saying that I season it just the way I like it and I use ingredients that will allow me to get in from work and still get it on the plate without major effort.

Pastitsio.  My pastitsio.

500g minced beef

1 packet thick macaroni

1 large onion (finely chopped)

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 glass red wine

1 tblspoon tomato puree

2 tblspoons dried oregano

2 tspoons ground cinnamon

1 tspoon ground nutmeg

Cheddar cheese (grated)

olive oil

salt & pepper

1 jar white lasagne sauce

The sauce must be thick.

I always chop the onion and fry it with the mince to begin with.  Before the meat is fully cooked, I add the cinnamon.  Adding it at the start means that the flavour will carry through the whole dish.  Too much cinnamon ruins everything so go easy.  It’s a nice background flavour and nothing more.  I also add the oregano and stir the beef thoroughly.  Once you’re happy that the mince is browned, add the tomatoes and gently simmer.  Add the puree at the same time and stir through.  Once it has reduced a little, add the wine.  I tend to bring everything to a rapid boil to get rid of the alcohol and then reduce the heat after a couple of minutes and simmer.

Tesco started selling this pasta last year.

At this point, it’s a good idea to get the pasta going.  If you can’t get the long macaroni in the photograph, do what my mum had to do for years- use penne.  Cook it according to the packet instructions and set aside in water until needed.  I season the meat sauce towards the end and keep tasting it.  The sauce needs to be quite thick, but not dry.  Once you’re happy with the sauce, it’s time to begin construction of the pastitsio.  I begin with a layer of the macaroni and then alternate between that and the sauce. until I reach the top of whichever deep dish I’m using.  Recently I’ve tended to use a circular ceramic dish because it’s the deepest thing I’ve got and pastitsio is a tower of awesomeness, not a flimsy lasagne.  When you’re nearly at the top, use a final layer of macaroni and then pour on the cheat ingredient- white sauce from a jar.  Some may tut in disgust, but it’s not very often that I make my own bechamel.  If you want to, fill your boots.  Grate or sprinkle the nutmeg onto the white sauce and then top with as much grated cheese is you can lay your hands on.

Macaroni, sauce, macaroni, sauce. You get the idea...

The best thing here is that you don’t need to do anything else until you want to eat.  This can be made in the morning and then put in the oven later that day.  Middle shelf at 180 degrees is enough to heat this through.  Obviously it will depend on how deep your dish is.  Mine was large and needed a while.  It is really important that you let the cheese melt and then go really brown and golden before removing it from the oven.  You can always grill the cheese if it isn’t brown and crispy enough.  My advice on serving is to eat it the next day.  If you really can’t wait, then give the pastitsio time to cool so that it firms up.  This will make it so much easier to cut and serve.  This is key to making a good pastitsio.  It should be able to stand on its own once cut.  It’s filling, but serving it with a nice cabbage salad with oil and lemon really helps cut through the rich flavours.  This is a slice of culture, memories and hearty nourishment.  It’s great at any time of year too.  Enjoy.

Is it as good as mum's?

Twice cooked pork.

As enjoyable as a dish might be, it is rare for me to want to eat the same meal two days in a row.  It would have to be very special or pizza or both for me to consider it.  Having roasted up a treat with the jerk pork, I had the task of eating my way through quite a lot of meat.  What could I do with meat that was already cooked?  Sandwiches?  Yes, some pork with chutney or apple sauce would be good, but not for dinner.

In Szechuan cuisine, there is a dish cooked on lunar feast days called twice cooked pork in which boiled pork belly is sliced thinly and fried with vegetables to create a new dish.  The roasted pork had a lovely, firm, yet moist texture that I thought would be ideal for slicing and frying.  Before I knew it, I was quartering onions and reaching for my big bottle of Thai sweet chilli sauce.  I’m not talking about something that looks like it came from a hotel mini bar with a blue dragon on the front.  I’m talking about a big daddy bottle of the real deal.  Tonnes of garlic, beautiful chillies and a very runny texture.  All at a fraction of the price, I might add.  Once done, I made some egg fried rice and tucked in.  I’ve found a new favourite in this dish.  It’s simple and ready in five or six minutes.  If only everything in life was such.

Thin slices fry quickly.

Twice cooked pork.

Thin slices of roasted pork

2 onions quartered

Handful of fresh coriander (chopped)

2 tblspoons vegetable oil

Enough Thai sweet chilli sauce to coat the pork

Slicing the pork was fun.  I then cut it into pieces ready for frying.  I heated up the oil in a wok until it was almost smoking and then threw in the pork.  I was greeted with a satisfying hiss and lots of spitting as the water in the pork made contact.  I added the onion, tossed it together and poured in four seconds worth of chilli sauce which was enough to satisfy my craving for sweet and spicy fun and sufficiently cover the pork.  I added the chopped coriander which gave the dish nice colour and freshness.

This dish ticks all of my boxes for a quick and tasty meal.  I’ve said that I don’t like to eat the same meal on consecutive days, but I might make an exception in this case.

The flavours in this dish are really fresh.

Salty and sweet?

It’s frustrating if you find yourself wishing to buy particular products that are unavailable because of high demand or worse still, because they don’t exist.  I’ve found the latter to be almost unbearable and being a resourceful young man, I often resolve the situation by making things myself.

A few years ago, Nestle brought out chocolate covered pretzels in the UK.  They were a flop, but they won my undying love.  Salty and sweet at the same time, they had the same qualities that drew me to peanut butter (another food that seems to polarize opinion).  Needless to say, the packets of salty awesomeness began to dwindle on local shelves and it wasn’t long before I was forced to take matters into my own greedy hands.

I find that these chocolate covered pretzels last only a matter of hours because they are very easy to munch on.  Today I dunked some in melted white chocolate (because it’s what was in the cupboard), but I adore dark chocolate and would sooner use that to coat the pretzels.  I used giant pretzels and laid them out on baking paper, but the normal sized pretzels are great too.  You can throw a load into a bowl of melted chocolate and gently fold them into the silky sweet fun!  Great for sharing?  No!  I can’t think of anything worse!

A half dunk looks cool.

Jerk pork roast.

Wonderful friends of ours live a couple of hours away and have access to numerous varieties of ethnic cuisine.  Thriving ethnic communities with distinct identities and sumptuous food culture pepper the residential areas close by and allow my friends the option of sampling these delights every now and again.  One place that they rave about on account of the “amazing gravy”, has become a by-word for spice and home-cooked soul food and I haven’t even been there!  I was the grateful recipient of a jar of their sauce which can be used in a number of ways including as the base for a rich and spicy gravy.

As I said, my cultured friends of food live a couple of hours away and I’m not prepared to drive there and back every time I run out of this special sauce.  That was part of the motivation behind my attempt to create a really strong marinade that could perhaps take the place of the amazing gravy.  It’s taken a few weeks of trial and error, but I think I’ve made a recipe for a very potent and versatile sauce.  It’s easy to make and I reckon it would work with chicken as well as pork.

Jerk pork roast.

1-1.5kg pork shoulder

110g soft light brown sugar

As much all spice powder as you can stand

8 cloves garlic

1 bunch spring onions (chopped)

2 red chillies (chopped)

Large chunk of fresh root ginger

2 tblspoons soy sauce

2 tspoons salt

1/2 tspoon cinnamon

1/2 tspoon ground nutmeg

I used a hand blender to combine all of the ingredients into a thick, strong-smelling mixture.  I made cuts into the pork and wore a pair of gloves to rub the mixture into it.  The combination of garlic and chillies have the potential to really make your hands stink so it’s worth wearing some thin plastic gloves.  I made sure that the sauce was worked into every part of the meat and I left a really thick covering all over.  I wrapped the whole shoulder in cling film and put it in the fridge for twenty-four hours.

I brought the meat back up to room temperature for an hour before cooking.  I roasted the pork uncovered at 230 degrees for half an hour and then lowered the temperature to 160 degrees.  I cooked it for another hour.  Normally, I would have taken the meat out after an hour and a half or so.  However, the sun was blazing and the dog needed walking and I had to think quickly.  I turned the oven down to 75 degrees and went out.  When I got back an hour later, I tentatively lifted the pork out of the oven and inspected it.  Sure enough, it had a thick, black, crusty coating as I’d hoped.  The sugar had caramelized to form a casing over the meat and had prevented flavoursome juices from escaping.  There was hardly anything in the bottom of the roasting tin so it was lucky that I hadn’t planned on making gravy from the pan juices.  Upon cutting into the pork I found it was cooked all the way through and luxuriously moist!  I’ve included an exclamation mark there because I was genuinely surprised.  I’d expected the meat to be dried out and tough.

Ready to be carved.

Carving the pork was a joy and I dished it up with roasted sweet potatoes and sweetcorn.  I don’t know if it’s authentic, but it was very tasty.  I cut off some of the fat from the pork into strips and threw them in with the sweet potatoes to crisp them up and add flavour.  I have to say, that I’m looking forward to using the marinade on some chicken thighs and serving them with rice.

Crispy pork crackling and roasted sweet potatoes!

Rainbow bright.

The marinated pork is roasting as we speak.  Just got enough time to throw in a simple rainbow trout recipe from last week.  My skills with fish are limited, but I make an effort to buy fresh fish once a week to keep everyone in good health and prevent myself defaulting to pizza.  Last week I spotted some really fresh rainbow trout that stood out from the display of ocean delights.  The eyes were really bright and clear which is a good indication of freshness.  Don’t bother checking the gills as everyone tells you.  They can be cleaned and don’t really guarantee a fresh catch.  There’s no disguising a milky, lack-lustre eye.  I decided to buy a whole trout and use fresh herbs from the garden to flavour it.  We enjoyed it with salad and baby new potatoes.

Fresh as it comes.

Steamed rainbow trout with lemon & fresh herbs.

1 whole rainbow trout (cleaned with head removed)

2 lavender stems with buds

1 handful fresh scented thyme

1 handful fresh Greek oregano leaves

1 handful fresh parsley

3 garlic cloves (halved)

1 lemon (sliced)

butter

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

After cleaning the trout and making sure that the cavity was clear, I simply arranged slices of lemon and garlic inside.  I washed and drained all of the herbs because they were straight from the garden and I didn’t fancy enjoying the nuances of our mini ecosystem on my tongue.  With that done, I kept all of the herbs in tact and stuffed them firmly into the trout.  I was tempted to tie the fish to prevent the herbs falling out, but this was supposed to be a quick meal with no fuss so I put a knob of butter on top, seasoned the fish and drizzled some olive oil over it and wrapped it in foil.  I find it easier to lay the fish on the foil at the very start so that I can just bring up the edges to form a parcel without having to move the fish.

Into the oven (middle shelf) at 180 degrees for 25-30 minutes.  By sealing the fish within foil, the water and lemon juice evaporates, but can’t escape.  This effectively steams the fish giving it a very soft texture and mellow flavour.  The skin comes away easily once cooked and all that needs to be done is to remove the herbs and pour the juice over the fish before serving.  Almost any herbs will work and I’ve had good results with salmon fillets too.  Definitely one for summer.  I think a few of these in separate foil parcels could easily be served up with bowls of salad and potatoes for folk to dig into.  One trout can serve two which again, means less effort.

24 hour Party Pork.

I rarely make the decision to cook or bake something for the same reasons.  Hunger is not usually the driving force.  Even eating is sometimes sidelined when the sheer need to create something takes me.  Today, curiosity has dared me to make a very strong marinade for pork and by golly I’ve done it.  Said pork is now covered in the marinade and is wrapped in clingfilm in my fridge.  Tomorrow I’ll be roasting the pork and finding out if a whole load of garlic and spices can yield something special.  I’ll share the results and the recipe regardless of outcome.  Until tomorrow, friends of food!

Lettuce doesn’t make it healthy.

Not only does a love of food bring endless joy through the cooking and eating experiences that come each day, it can also lead to a heart attack.  Cheerful, yes, but if you’re greedy and prone to smothering things in butter, sugar, oil and more butter, then you have to be realistic about these things.  Sadly, I am a man of excesses when it comes to food.  I don’t smoke, so I’ve bought myself an extra few years.  I drink rarely and usually in moderation.  It’s my need to eat large amounts of things that I love that I suspect will be my undoing.

I love eating different things and trying new dishes.  However, I can’t resist a good burger.  When I choose to have a burger, I make a real effort to make it interesting.  My view is in for a penny, in for a pound.  Yesterday was no different.  I whacked a burger in the frying pan, threw in some back bacon, and added some sliced onion rings too.  When the burger was cooked and the bacon crispy, I began piling everything onto a toasted cheese-topped bun.  Below is a list of how it all stacked up (top to bottom).

Really fresh leaves and tomatoes are important.

Top of cheese-topped bun

Le Roule

Beef patty

Fried onions

Crispy bacon

Sliced vine tomatoes

Baby lettuce leaves

Dijon mustard

Bottom of bun

No revelations here, but man, it was a real treat.  Le Roule and bacon burgers rule.

Honey & cinnamon smoothie

I’ve never liked the taste of milk.  Even as a youngster, I was one of the children who did not have milk at school and though I tried desperately to like it, my opinion did not change over the years.

Chocolate milk is a different story altogether.  Early memories of drinking it through a straw dropped into the triangular hole made by my mum’s tin opener remain with me to this day.  There was a rabbit on the front of the tin and complete contentment in my whole being.  Chocolate milk soothes me in a way that very few other food stuffs do.  Super cold, super sweet and super refreshing.  It evokes memories of being in my mum’s kitchen in Greece and it comforts me no end.  Childish, yes, but it has benefits too, since I need my share of calcium and protein too.  Okay, the sugar doesn’t benefit my teeth, but ask me if I’m worried.

Chocolate milk may be my go-to drink at any time of day, but after years of hitting the stuff hard, my eyes began to wander.  I needed a new sweet milky drink.  Drinking Carnation condensed milk wasn’t gonna be sustainable.  Thankfully, upon moving to Hong Kong, I found a wonderful smoothie joint that had an endless menu of smoothies with all kinds of exciting ingredients and combinations.  I quickly became hooked on these fruit-filled blends of health and goodness.  It wasn’t long before I’d purchased my own blender, partly so that I could experiment, and largely because my wife could see that I was spending a silly amount of money on what was essentially ice and mushy fruit.

I’m not the biggest fan of fruit so blending them up with other tasty ingredients is ideal for me.  After moving back to England, the blender went into the back of the cupboard.  “Next to the toastie machine?” I hear you ask.  No!  I make toasties all the time!  What’s the matter with you?

Now I’m back in full blender mode and throwing in all sorts to appease my monstrous desire for tasty fun.  I went through a phase of adding milk, chocolate milk powder and a slice of cherry pie before blending it all.  I’ve been going through packets of Oreos in recent weeks as they have found themselves thrown into the milky depths of my blender.  Today, I tried something a little more healthy.  I blended 450ml semi-skimmed milk, 5 tablespoons of honey flavoured Greek style yoghurt, half a teaspoon of cinnamon and a tablespoon of Greek mountain honey.  It was delicious, but not sugary enough for me, so I threw in a load of Demerara sugar to make it hit the spot.  I’ll be trying lot’s of different things over the next few weeks, but if anyone has any suggestions, let me know and I’ll give ’em a whirl!

There seems to be a theme here…