Search This Blog

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Puttanesca, On Request

So, after my post on the delicious Davanzati Sauce, I had someone ask if I've tasted or made a Puttanesca that I really like...
Well, yes!

I was going to write a new post about Tuscany - the wedding, the subtle differences in taste between the food in Florence vs. the surrounding countryside - and it's coming, it's coming, but I didn't want this to get lost in all the excitement.

So since your wish is my command, dear reader, last night we made Puttanesca (a very yummy one, if I may say so myself) and ate it with garlic marinated barbeque chicken.
Dont ask.
Ok well - if you really want to know - I'd eaten too much spaghetti in Italy, we didn't have any in the house, we did have some chicken though, and lots of garlic, both of which I wanted to use up, it was one of those lusciously warm summer nights in London where it's light (and warm) out till 9, our new barbi needed using, and I like looking at my roses while we eat.

Are you convinced? It's ok if you're not. And even if you are, I suggest you stick to Spaghetti. There's a reason why normal people eat Puttanesca with Spaghetti....

So, here you go!
Here's what you need:

- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tbs capers, drained
- Small tin of anchovies in olive oil (approx 30g) OR 1 teaspoon anchovy paste
- 2 handfuls big black olives, pitted
- 2  cans tomatoes, drained and chopped (this is about 14 ounce or 400gram)
- 3 small dried red chiles, crushed
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves (or 1 tbsn dried oregano works just as well)
- 1 handful fresh basil or parsley, both do the trick
- Salt/pepper, to taste

Right. Now, Sid didn't know (still doesn't) that Puttanesca has anchovies. He won't touch it if he finds out. My point is - with the mix of all the other ingredients, it doesn't taste fishy at all, but if it alarms you, just skip the anchovies altogether and use a few more capers.

So, here's how you do it:
Fry the garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, chiles, and oregano in a little olive oil for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and continue to cook for 5 minutes, until you have the sauce reduced to the consistency you like. Add seasoning, remove from the heat, rip the basil leaves over it, and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Salty (from the anchovies), spicy (from the chillies) and wonderfully fragrant (from the garlic).

Done!

By the way, last night - my chicken had a simple marinade of crushed garlic and olive oil. Sid did the manly thing and barbequed it (on our new barbie, thanks Subhi and Gareth!), I made a salad - a simple affair, with a mix of Boston and Romaine lettuce combined with sliced fennel, and cherry tomatoes, dressed with olive oil and vinegar. And we used this easy-to-make, hearty, delicious Puttanesca as a dipping sauce for the chicken.

Yummy.
But still - please stick to Spaghetti!

Ciao for now!

Friday, 29 July 2011

Umami from the land of Michelangelo

Sorry for the prolonged absence. I hope you've missed me. There’s a good reason though – I’ve been on Holiday. Technically speaking of course, I am always on holiday. But this was an actual Holiday. With a capital H. A Holiday away from London - i.e. from Gymboree, Songsters with Neal, Amanda's Action Club, Aquatots et al.

Phew.

All thanks to our friends Ryan and the beautiful Harriet for choosing to have their wedding in splendid Tuscany. And for inviting us of course.

The wedding was just outside Monteriggioni, (a tiny - 38 sq meter - walled city that looks like something out of the imagination of our good friend Walt) and had a backdrop more visually stunning than anything I have ever seen in any movie. But more about the wedding – and Tuscan food (swoon) in my next post.

For now, it’s Florence.

The heart of the Italian Renaissance, the birthplace of Chianti, the land of beautiful people and home to what has to be some of the tastiest food I have ever had the pleasure of sampling, Florence is an open-air exhibition of art and culture, food and wine. A true treat for the senses.

Which after much back and forth with dates and schedules and such, we were able to squeeze in on either side of the wedding. And wow, was it worth it!

We stayed at the very charming Hotel Davanzati, run by a trio of very charming men: Tommaso, his father Fabrizio, and his grandfather Marcello. All in ascending order of charm. I’m madly in love with Marcello by the way, but don’t tell anyone.

Now, here’s a fact: Sid and I travel around the world like people possessed.
I’ve always been sort of nomadic (genetic malfunction), and since we’ve been married, I’ve dragged Sid (willingly or unwillingly) along. And now of course, we drag Ranbir (willingly or unwillingly - but usually willingly) along as well.

Wanderlust. A beautiful and addictive thing.

So yes, we've travelled a lot. And arrived at the following considered opinion:

India gets you over-the-top luxury; Thailand and much of the rest of Asia gets you discreet, waited-on-hand-and-foot pampering; the Caribbean gets you relaxed, happy-go-lucky joviality; South and Central America get you that genuinely friendly, highly personal touch; and (not counting all the Ritz Carlton’s and Four Seasons of the world) most of North America and Europe, gets you – if you’re lucky – a “functional” experience.

So usually, when we travel within Europe, we travel with no expectations. Most people agree I think, that one doesn’t go to Europe for the hotel; the hotel is merely a place to rest your weary body after a day of seeing what one is there to see. So, for us, if the hotel is centrally located, the room is big enough for 2 people to walk in without heads colliding, the breakfast is somewhat edible and everything else is generally not hazardous to one’s health, we feel we have done well. Functional being the operative word.

Davanzati was a revelation.

Family run and managed, this was more than a hotel. It was a hotel that felt like home. It made Europe look good.

I don’t exaggerate.

Honestly, nothing was ever too much for these guys. Right from the initial enquiry (and I think I would have tested the patience of most normal people with the number of date changes I made) to the final check out, they were polite, friendly and helpful beyond all expectation.  We travelled with a 9 month old and so we did have special requests – extra towel, banana at breakfast, kettle in the room (which they let us borrow – without us having to ask – for our days in the countryside). Without requesting for it (Ranbir has a travel cot) we were provided a proper baby cot in the room, complete with matching bedspread and blanket and pillow all so cute that had I almost fought my baby for it.

Located in the heart of the pedestrian district, the glories of Florence are all within walking distance. Step out just a few blocks and they all burst into view – Giotto’s Campanile, Brunelleschi’s dome, Piazza della Signoria (with fake David) the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Uffizi, the Academia (with real David)...what more can you ask for than finishing your (excellently made) latte and wandering off to meet Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and a whole host of others, a mere few minutes later.

There’s more: Clean, well-presented rooms, thorough housekeeping, plentiful and varied breakfasts, laptop in every room, free wi-fi (huge for Europe) and  free movies (300 of them - in case you’d like to divert focus from David’s wonderful form to that of Daniel Craig).

And the icing on this surprisingly good cake – the remarkable friendliness of ALL the hotel staff. Everyone without exception – from the porters and the house keeping ladies, to Sofia and Patrizia (Tommaso’s mama) at breakfast, to smiley-face barman Pierluigi - was just genuinely friendly, greeting us with smiles, stopping to chat. No matter what you asked for, the answer was always “Si!” Even in our short stay, Ranbir made many good friends. And so whatever else we forget - this, we will always remember. We have christened it the friendliest hotel in Europe.

Of course, in the spirit of honesty, you should know that I am coloured (but only slightly) by the fact that this particular trio of men are all not too hard on the eyes either. Fabrizio’s taken obviously, Marcello is mine, but if you want any more info on Tommaso, you’ll have to go yourself and find out (http://hoteldavanzati.it)

And while we’re on the topic of good looking people, by the way: What is the secret behind the Florentine gene pool??
I mean, there were more beautiful people per square foot in Florence than I have ever seen in all my life. Sid and I were speaking in half-sentences throughout our trip. For instance, Sid would start a sentence, then suddenly we’d see this stunner walk by right in front of us (and I mean stunner. Face, Body, Hair, Skin. 10 on 10). And poor Sid, mesmerized by the vision before him, would forget the rest of what he was saying.
Rightly so.

No dearth of beautiful men in this city either. Kept me on my toes the whole time, I tell you, looking out for these lookers so I could point them out to my husband in the unlikely event (haha) that I saw something he might have missed.

(Funny how men will never point out other good looking men. But us women, we get all gaga and starry eyed when a beauty walks by. Man or woman, it’s all equally exciting. We don’t discriminate. What’s gender in the face of beauty, huh?)

Sorry for all my rambling, by the way. I mean, after all, this is a food blog. But it’s all totally related you know (read on and you’ll get why). And go to Florence, please - and you’ll see how easy it is to get distracted.

Anyway, as we discovered, Florence is Food Heaven and eating in Florence is serious business. The city is full of trattorias, osterias, enotecas, pizzerias and ristoranti, and thanks (again) to the Hotel Davanzati family’s excellent restaurant recommendations, we didn’t eat a single meal that I can objectively call, less than outstanding. We tried places ranging from gourmet (wine pairings, reservations required, waitstaff with immaculate English etc) to absolutely local (rough wooden tables, tattered Italian menus, no one who understood the word “English” let alone spoke it, etc) and while they were very different experiences, the food was equally phenomenal.

Florentine food is simple, straightforward, and delicious: Given how basic the ingredients and how simple the cooking style (mostly grilled or sautéed), it has to be the ingenuity of the preparation that creates such a variety of flavour. Everything we ate was excellent, but just to name a few stand-out dishes – Crostini, toasted unsalted bread spread with various pâtés, Ribollita, a thick Tuscan soup made with beans and black cabbage, bistecca alla fiorentina, great slabs of local Chianin beef, pizza with fresh mozzarella and home-made tomato sauce (and any toppings you wish for), Pappardelle with hare, Mushroom risotto, a basic Pollo Arrosto (roast chicken), whole grilled Orata, eggplant parmesan, zucchini with olive oil and garlic... I’m still tasting the food in my head and its driving me a bit crazy.

Unforgettable culinary experiences – all.

But the one dish that swept me off my feet (and carried me away into the rolling Tuscan hills on a white steed), was that ubiquitous and utterly luscious Italian Red Sauce. I had it in several forms over our holiday in Florence – over my pasta, as part of a chickpea stew, cooked with chicken breasts, served over grilled codfish...

Interestingly (and no, they haven’t paid me to write this, I promise) no one did it better than our very own Hotel Davanzati. In fact I only like them because of this. And the good looking trio. But mostly because of this.

So, every evening at 6:30pm, we had Happy Hour at the hotel when the ever-smiling Pierluigi (Lord and Master of the bar) would offer guests glasses of Prosecco (or Chianti for lovers of red). This was no ordinary Happy Hour by the way – it was the full deal: Lights dimmed, candles lit, haunting instrumental music playing – a calm oasis offering respite after a full day of facing the frenetic, passionate pulse of the city.

We looked forward to this every evening. Honestly it was such an incredible way for Sid and me to unwind. And hold hands. And talk. And it was right here, at Happy Hour at the Hotel Davanzati, that I had my most memorable “taste” in all of Florence. Served as an accompaniment to a basket of typical Tuscan bread (plain unsalted, crusty), here it is: A red sauce so unspeakably delicious, it makes my heart skip a beat. This is Davanzati Sauce.

Here’s what you need:

- 1lb ripe, red tomatoes, peeled and diced
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1 peperoncino (dried chilli pepper)
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
-  Pinch of salt

Here’s how you do it:

Chop the garlic finely and heat it in the olive oil with the chilli pepper. Add the diced tomatoes and the parsley. Cook on high heat for about 15 minutes until the sauce is blended to the consistency you desire. Add salt to taste.

Try it. It’s fantastic. It’s Umami.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Confessions of a Meat-Lover: Vegetable Stir Fry

I have to admit to loving meat. Especially seafood. I could never give it up. Hats off to erstwhile carnivorous friends who’ve renounced such pleasures of the flesh and quite happily embraced vegetarianism, without looking back once. I’m counting these friends in my head as I type, and as I tally up the numbers, I notice two remarkable coincidences among my bunch: they are all mostly women, and they’ve all given up meat mostly for  – ahem: LOVE.
As in:

1) Meat-Loving Woman meets Non-Meat-Eating Man.
2) Meat-Loving Woman loves Non-Meat-Eating Man. 
3) Meat-Loving Woman becomes Man-Loving Woman. 
4) And Meat becomes (quite literally) the sacrificial lamb at the altar of vegetarianism.
A true declaration of love. Very admirable, admittedly.
But, call me supremely selfish (go on, I insist) – a sacrifice of this magnitude might be just a tad bit more than I’m capable of.
:0
Thankfully (for me) I’m married to someone who’s said outright on several occasions (very seriously) that if I were vegetarian, “he’s afraid he wouldn’t have been able to marry me.”
No Jokes. (I rarely joke when it comes to food. Or love. Or both as in this case).
But jokes aside, (even though I’m not joking), that is what he says. Which is fantastic really, because I feel positively saintly when I say I wouldn’t give up meat for love.  At least I wouldn’t give up love for meat.
But...I digress.
Now, for a little gobble-smacker such as myself who will probably eat anything and everything under the sun, such discrimination against vegetables, or for that matter food of any kind, is shocking. Absolutely shocking. How I could be married to a food-discriminator of such extreme magnitude is beyond me. But he has other good qualities that balance it out. (Somewhat.)
Anyway, on some level, I have to admit that I don’t entirely blame my blasphemous, food-discriminator of a husband in his vehement refutation of all things vegetarian. Because, truth be told, it’s unfortunate, what the definition of vegetarian food has regressed to these days. What with all the recent health trends pointing to vegetarianism as a healthier way of life, restaurants have been quick to start singing from this, now very fashionable, hymnbook.  And suddenly, you find menus proudly expounding on the health benefits of vegetables with a prominent “v” next to their vegetarian entrees. Except that on closer scrutiny from my keenly observant eye, these mostly refer to delicacies such as: lasagne, Jacket potatoes, penne with tomato sauce, French fries, and so on.  Granted, there’s no meat in any the above, but pray, where are the vegetables? And why is this healthy?
You see, IMHO, vegetarian food needs to be less about having no meat and more about having more vegetables! Lots and lots of vegetables – fresh and flavourful and nutritious! I mean, I have nothing against penne with tomato sauce...
But, penne with tomato sauce? Seriously?
Because, here's the thing: meat lover as I am, I love vegetables. Love them! When I think of vegetables, I think COLOUR. Green spinach, orange sweet potatoes, purple eggplant, yellow corn, red tomatoes, white onions...a medley of colours dancing on my plate, bringing vibrancy and zing and LIFE to my food! And honestly, it is difficult to find as perfect a combination of hearty, healthy and flavourful as a dish of properly cooked, properly seasoned vegetables. They are packed full of nutrients and fibre and vitamin goodness that do wonderful things to your body. And if that’s not convincing enough, get this – vegetables are simpler to deal with in the kitchen than meat:  easier to cut, faster to cook, quicker to clean. Come to think of it, I can eat vegetables without meat (makes me feel like Leona Lewis) but I struggle to eat meat without vegetables (makes me feel like a Flintstone).  No prizes for working out which one I’d rather be!
But here’s the issue I have with vegetables: they have to be cooked just right. Overcook them, and they lose both their nutrients and their flavour. You might as well have the penne with tomato sauce, really. And sadly, no matter how good a cook one is, it’s easy to overcook vegetables. I’ve messed up loads of times! Go Western, and you risk being left with boiled, flavourless pieces of once-upon-a-time-i-was-a-vegetable. Go Indian, and the danger is lots of soggy, overcooked stuff floating around in some funky red-coloured (what on earth is that stuff) rich, overpoweringly spiced gravy.
So, my veggie success stories are always when my vegetables turn out crunchy – in that just-cooked sort of state – crisp-tender, hot off the wok and into my mouth. And for that reason, when I want my veggie fix, I usually stir-fry. I’ve found that this retains, (if not enhances) the natural crunchiness, tenderness and flavour of the vegetables.
Go on, give it a try: It's so easy, it's almost embarrassing that I have a recipe – this is Vegetable Stir Fry.
Here’s what you need:
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (I use more, but this much should be fine for normal people. More below.)
- 2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
- 1/2 cup sliced scallion
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1 large red bell pepper, diced
- 2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage
- 6 ounces snow peas, sliced on the diagonal
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1 cup canned baby corn, rinsed and drained
- 1 (8 ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained
- 1 lb firm tofu, drained and cut into 2-inch squares
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch (blended in water for a smooth paste)

Here’s how:
In small bowl, add soy sauce, rice wine, red pepper flakes and honey, stir it around and set it aside. I have a manic love for spice, so I always tend to binge on the red pepper flakes. I once went through a phase where for weeks, I’d eat nothing but boiled white rice with red pepper flakes. I’m slightly crazy like that. But you’re not, so 1 teaspoon should be more than enough!
Meanwhile, heat a large non-stick skillet or wok. You know, this is really as simple a dish as they come, but what makes or breaks this dish is a pan or wok hot enough to add smokiness to the flavour. It doesn’t matter if you use an electric stove or gas burner – the secret is letting your pan get as hot as it can. Test it by letting a teaspoon of water drop on your pan – if it sizzles and evaporates on contact, your pan is ready.
Now, add the sesame oil. Seriously - sesame oil absolutely rocks my world! I love the nutty, smoky, pungent aroma it releases off a piping hot pan, and I use it in almost all my Chinese dishes. Try it – but I warn you – addiction is a very real possibility. Anyhoo, next, add the scallions, garlic and ginger, and cook until softened. Stir in cabbage, snow peas and bell pepper and saute until the vegetables are just the way I love them - crisp-tender. Next, while you’re stirring, add the stuff that takes the least time to cook – that’s the baby corn, mushrooms and water chestnuts. Then add in the soy sauce mixture and the tofu.  Cook until the tofu is crisp-browned. Finally, stir in the cornstarch mixture. And bring the whole thing to a boil until the sauce is lightly thickened.
Tadaaaa!!
Serve it over piping hot Jasmine rice and enjoy all it brings to the table:
Colour – a virtual rainbow on your plate – green snow peas, red bell peppers, white cabbage, yellow corn, brown mushrooms! Vary the vegetables as you like. Broccoli or carrots or bamboo shoots could be in a happy family with the ones I’ve used here. Or eggplant if you like. I’m hard pressed to think of something that won’t work.
Texture – crunchy snow peas, crispy bell peppers, nutty water chestnuts, succulent mushrooms, juicy tofu...
Flavour – heat from the chilli flakes, the sharpness of the scallions, the sweetness of the honey, the heady aroma of the sesame oil, the zinginess of ginger-garlic, the tartness of Chinese rice wine...
Yum, yum and yum.
This remains one of my favourite dishes of all time. Hot, tasty, nourishing. And easy.
(Confessions of a meat-lover)


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Venus Food

“Do you discuss our sex life with your girl friends?” Sid asks me, just like that, casually leaning against the kitchen counter where I am drinking a glass of red wine and mincing garlic with my newly acquired 9-inch Wusthoff knife.
I almost slice my finger.
Wusthoff knives, you see, will slice through almost anything.  An excellent buy.
I look up at my husband to see if he’s joking. But he’s looking at me quite solemnly, his face with that hung-in-suspended-animation, expectant look about it, as though he’s actually waiting for an answer from me. I take an extra-large gulp of my wine.
“What?” I say, though I’ve heard him perfectly well.
“Do you discuss our sex life with your girl friends?” He repeats.
"Nooooooo!" I retort at once, scrunching up my face in abhorrent distaste. Then I add somewhat contemptuously – “Girls don’t do that.”
“Oh,” he says looking both surprised and relieved (more of the latter I think). “So, then what do you girls go on about for hours and hours?”
I put the knife down, just for good measure.  Wusthoffs are deadly, I tell you. Dangerous in dangerous situations.  Like this one’s turning out to be. So I put it down and put my hands on my hips in the manner of a bossy dominatrix (while we’re on the topic and all.)
“I’ll get to all that later,” I tell him. “But is that what you talk to your guy friends about?”
“No, no, never,” comes the prompt reply back. “I mean, yeah, we discuss these things before we get married but never after. Never.”
I believe him, of course.  Sid never lies.  So, I am relieved.  The answer, especially the double “never” (strongly emphasised both times), gives me comfort. But then my mind goes back to analyse his statement in slow motion.  And, sure enough, a flood of questions cloud my already quite-clouded brain.  “So did you discuss ME before you married ME?”
No, no, never, never! (There it is again) - I always knew I was going to marry you.
Right answer. Clever boy. I knew there was a reason I kept him around. But when I look at his face, I can’t help but laugh out loud – my cool, confident, always in-control husband is looking visibly anxious now.
“What?” I say, “don’t give me that look – you started this!”
“Ok, ok – so what do you girls talk about then?”
Real-time status update: uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous) moment has passed. All’s under control now. I consider getting back to my Wusthoff before my kitchen starts smelling of raw garlic.
“Well,” I say, thinking aloud as I help myself to more red wine and continue to work on mincing my garlic into perfectly minced, beautiful little slivers. “We talk about, you know, stuff.  Like shoes and movies and, you know, childbirth and stuff.... ”
 As soon as the words are out of my mouth, of course, I know how ridiculous that sounds.
Sid is looking at me triumphantly.
“Oh come on, you know what I mean” I say defensively, “it's not like we discuss all that at the same time!”
But, I lie. I have often discussed Jimmy Choos and my 22-hour labour all in the same conversation. It’s perfectly natural. Except when you’re trying to explain it to a Martian.
I am just about to down my second glass of wine when Ranbir saves me by waking from his nap. I heave a sigh of relief. For this alone, I think I shall now magnanimously forgive him for my 22 excruciating hours in labour.  Anyway, he’s woken from his nap and now he wants to play. That’s all he’s taken to doing these days, by the way.  If he’s not sleeping, he’s awake (obviously) and when he’s awake, he wants to play.  Which makes for a lot of fun but can be quite exhausting really.  I look longingly at Sid who willingly obliges by going up to have a man-to-man chat (god knows what they’re discussing) and leaving me to my garlic. In which I’ve suddenly lost interest.
Alone, I start to think: about my friendships with my girlfriends and about the void they fill in my life. Because no matter how great my relationship is with Sid (pretty great, I am fortunate enough to report), there are some things that he will never “get.”  Like why “fat days” depress me or why I am  upset by something my dad might have said or why my friend was so upset when another friend wore white at her wedding or how difficult it is for me to think about leaving my baby with a stranger and going back to work. These little things that matter to me, that I need to talk about, that only another woman will understand and appreciate.
And sure enough, while these conversations are often about seemingly trivial things - I bought a pair of jeans today that make my hips look small or found this awesome place on Bond Street that does threading for £7 (I did!), or the cleaning lady didn’t show up again, sometimes it’s the kind of stuff that saves lives (and I’m not being dramatic.) For instance, right after we brought Ranbir home from the hospital, and I was hit by the cold, hard reality that I am now (more or less) solely  responsible for another life (Half the time I hardly know what to do with my own, for God’s sakes), I panicked. Yes, my mother was there, thank goodness, but in reality, it had been 30 years since she last handled a baby.  Sid was there – and heaven only knows he did absolutely everything that I did, except physically feed the kid – but most days, he was as overwhelmed as me.  And so, I reached out to my friends for help. Aimee in Texas, Pooja in Sydney, Shaela in Washington, Meenakshi in New Jersey, Shayaan in Bombay, Roshni in London, Sadia in Pakistan, Shruti in Delhi. “Help me!” I wrote, “I’m doing everything the book’s telling me to do, but it’s not working.  Maybe I am not cut out for this. I feel like a failure.”  And they wrote back, each of them, new mothers themselves, taking the time (a luxury one never appreciates until children) to send me back long messages in support, sharing their own experiences, offering advice and tips and guidance. “We have all been there,” they wrote, “you can do this.”
And you know what?
I did.
But every single day (mostly at 3am) during those first 12-weeks of motherhood, I would read and re-read those missives from all over the globe, offering me hugs and smiles of encouragement. They are what got me through those long, hard nights. When I felt weak, they gave me strength, when I felt fear, they gave me courage, when I felt insecure, they gave me confidence, and when I felt like crying, they made me laugh. Geographical distance was irrelevant – sometimes words are stronger than we give them credit for.
It is interesting how history does not seem to celebrate female friendships; the great friendships we read about are almost always between men, described often in terms of bravery and physical sacrifice (Achilles and Patroclus, Holmes and Watson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Arthur Hallum…and on and on).  I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps, just like the alleged “glass ceiling” in the workplace for women (the theory being that sooner or later, most women face obstacles – family over career – hindering their advancement to the upper rungs of corporate ladders), there is a “glass ceiling” in female relationships too, as we enter into other, more all-consuming ones, in our roles as wives and mothers.
I have learnt, from my own experience, that female friendships (perhaps like all relationships) need work and nurturing. With our closest friends, we come to rely on the consistency that seems to remain, as a comforting constant, even while everything else around us changes. But friendships change too, they grow as we do, and if we nurture them correctly, they can be tremendously rewarding - each new phase revealing something new, something special, sometimes strengthening a bond that you didn’t think could be strengthened further.
And so, I thank all my girl friends for being there for me, as I hope you know, I am there for you. For being a part of my life and making every event special - from the trivial to the life changing – just from being able to share it with you.
Thank you: for encouraging me to buy the highly impractical (but totally beautiful) fuchsia shoes I love, for standing outside the dressing room door to tell me how the dress really looks; for watching Sex and the City (I and II) with me and discussing it animatedly over a watermelon martini; for emailing over your favourite recipes or your discovery of a fabulous new restaurant; for sharing your excitement over your new handbag or a holiday you’ve just booked; for telling me how your heart beat faster when you met the love of your life, or how it melted when your child first looked at you; for giving me, on my birthday, earrings like yours that I told you I loved a long time ago, and that you remembered;  for telling me your deepest secrets and listening to mine (and no – they do not involve our sex lives), for the little fun gossip sessions about mutual acquaintances (do you know who she finally ended up with? Nooooooo!) and blood curdling tales about the in-laws (amazing how much of those long gabfests are taken up by the in-laws –  “What, you too? Omygod, same!” etc. etc.); for not being scared to reveal your vulnerabilities and insecurities and fears, and giving me the comfort to do the same. Thank you for sharing your life with me and being there to share mine.
To my girl friends then, in the spirit of sharing, I give you Spanish Tapas – here are 5 small dishes, just waiting to be shared.  Each takes only about 20 mins to make!
1)            Stuffed Tomatoes (v)
2)            Gambas a la plancha (Pan friend shrimp)
3)            Meatballs in tomato sauce
4)            Ajillo Mushrooms (v)
5)            Spanish Omelette (v)

I) Stuffed Tomatoes

 - 4 large tomatoes
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, cooled and peeled
- 4 tablespoons light mayonnaise
- 4 pods garlic, crushed
- ½ teaspoon crushed dried red chillies
- 1 tablespoon coriander, chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste

Skin the tomatoes (cut out the core with a sharp knife and make a '+' incision on the other end of the tomato.) Place in a pan of boiling water for 10 seconds, remove and plunge into a bowl of cold water (this helps the tomatoes retain their firmness).
Slice a small bit of the tops and bases off the tomatoes, just enough for them to sit squarely on the plate. Remove the seeds and insides, either with a teaspoon or small, sharp knife.
Mash the eggs with the crushed garlic, crushed chillies, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and coriander. Stuff the tomatoes, firmly pressing the filling down. (The filling must be firm enough to be sliced, sort of like the consistency of mashed potatoes).
Refrigerate for 1 hour, then slice with a sharp carving knife (preferably a Wusthoff!!) into rings. Sprinkle with any remaining chopped coriander

II) Gambas a la plancha

- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 24 medium-large shrimp (about 1 pound), shelled and de-veined

In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt until well blended.
Heat a dry skillet over high heat. When the pan is very hot, add in the olive oil and lemon juice mixture. Working in batches, quickly add the shrimp in a single layer without crowding. Sear for a few minutes. Turn the shrimp, and sear on the other side until both sides are golden brown. When cooked, arrange on a plate, pour any remaining oil mixture over the shrimps and serve hot.

III) Ajillo Mushrooms

- 1/4 cup (2 fl. oz) extra virgin olive oil
-  4 cups (8 oz) mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 tablespoons dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried red chillies, crushed
-  1/4 teaspoon paprika
-  Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the mushrooms over high heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and add the garlic, sherry, lemon juice, dried chillies, paprika and salt and pepper. Cook until the garlic and mushrooms have softened. Remove from the heat, and sprinkle with chopped parsley just before serving

IV) Meatballs in tomato sauce

- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 8 oz ground turkey, lamb or beef
- 1 cup (2 oz) breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 scallions, chopped
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 cups (16 oz) canned plum tomatoes, chopped
- 2 tablespoons red wine
-2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil leaves
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

In a bowl, thoroughly mix together the meat, breadcrumbs, cheese, tomato paste, garlic, scallions, egg, thyme, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Using your hands, shape the mixture into 12 to 15 firm balls.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs and cook for several minutes  until browned on all sides. Add the tomatoes, wine, basil, and rosemary. Simmer gently for around 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked. Season generously with salt and pepper and serve hot.

V) Spanish Omelette – the ultimate Tapa!

- 1/2 pint extra virgin olive oil
-  5 medium baking potatoes, peeled, sliced and lightly sprinkled with salt
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 eggs
- Salt, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the potato slices. Cook, turning occasionally, over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the potatoes are tender. Take the potatoes put of the skillet, but do not discard the oil.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the eggs with a pinch of salt. Add the potatoes, and stir to coat with the egg. Add the egg-coated potatoes to the very hot oil in the skillet, spreading them evenly to completely cover the base of the skillet. Lower the heat to medium and continue to cook, shaking the pan frequently, until mixture is half set. Now flip the omelette in the skillet on its uncooked side. Cook until completely set. Allow the omelette to cool, and then cut it into wedges. Season it with salt and pepper.
Serve. Share. Enjoy. Smile. J