Malta Diary Food glorious food – a taste of Malta and the Mediterranean
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My early culinary experiences began 70 years ago when as a four-year-old boy, on Sunday mornings, I would sit in the kitchen as my father Frank cooked our Sunday lunch. My mother would be away attending Sunday Mass and my younger brother Edward, then aged one-and-a-half years would sit strapped in his pushchair.
The aroma of cooking smells mingled with the music from my father’s His Masters Voice gramophone, playing old 78 discs of Verdi’s and Rossini’s operas and music, Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
The memories are still very vibrant and very meaningful.
My father was a superb amateur chef and loved to cook and inherited this from his father Gianni who was a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, a supreme cook who cooked for the ship’s RN Officers and NOT the crew, a sharp distinction between preparing roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to that of lashings of sausages and mash, mincemeat stews or fish ‘n chips for the crew.
Two of my granddad’s brothers were also in the RN involved in onboard catering and were known as Messmen, which was the equivalent of a Food Purser. Indeed, one was Messmen to the whole of the RN’s vast Mediterranean Fleet and was based in Alexandria in Egypt.
As a young boy (the eldest boy in a family of 11 children, three of them his elder sisters) when my granddad Gianni’s ship was in Malta, my father would be taken on board and help peel potatoes, carrots and other veggies as well as to whip and stir cream. As I grew older I took the same role in our family kitchen.
From this culinary inheritance, my brother Edward became professional, successfully obtained a Hotel Management Diploma from Heidelberg University in Germany and went on to occupy positions of Food Hall Manager with Myers and Daimaru in Melbourne, Australia.
Naturally, in home cooking he was/is superb and these are some of his traditional Maltese preparations.
GLOBAL ARTICHOKES PUREE
Take six large global artichokes and slice off the bottoms and a third of the top of artichoke leaves. Pack the reduced size artichokes upright in a heavy base saucepan. Fill with cold water reaching half way up the artichokes, add olive oil, a few pepper corns and some lemon wedges. Cover with the lid.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 60 minutes until tender. Remove artichokes from the plan and let them cool. The next step can be the traditional method which is of course preferable and the modern way which is faster but less effective. Whichever way it is important to remove the furry core choke at the base of the leaves.
The traditional way: pick and remove the leaves one by one and bisect them and with a sharp knife scrape off each leaf. Place the removed flesh in a pestle and mortar and pound into a smooth paste adding drop of olive oil. Then according to the final desired taste add four anchovies, two cloves of garlic, four to six sundried tomatoes and one small chilli and continue to pound into a smooth paste but adding more drops of olive oil and garnish with salt and pepper.
The modern way: bung the scraped artichoke flesh and all the ingredients into a food processer and cream.
The finalised puree can be used as topping for boiled and drained pasta or as a pate’.
CHOPPED SPAGHETTI WITH TOMATO PUREE MIX
This was a dish frequently prepared by our maternal grandmother Giovanna; she never wrote down the recipe formally but brother Edward used to watch her cook it and has tried to recreate it.
Peel and finely dice about six or eight garlic pods lengthwise and gently fry in olive oil at low heat and not burn. Add tomato purée with the garlic and mix well. In those days a paraffin cooker was used to heat has to be a low equivalent. Add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar to neutralise the tomato acidity.
When cooled chop the cooked spaghetti in two centimetre pieces and then mix throughout with the purée and allow this to simmer until the pasta fully absorbs the purée mix.
This is a typical southern Italian dish that has become a Maltese favourite – especially in Spring and Summer. There is absolutely no doubt that our culinary palate has been influenced by southern Italian trends as our closest and dearest neighbours – the Mediterranean diet.
Today this is also influenced by “modern” trends of buying frozen stuff and bunging it altogether for a quick preparation.
This is the proper way to make it; it is healthy and highly nutritive.
Take four large peppers (green/orange/red/yellow to give colouring). Slice off tops and deseed, cut into quarters and lightly fry or grill them until the topside is charred brown. Let them cool and peel off the outer skin and put them aside.
Peel two large eggplants (aubergines) and cut into centimetre-wide slices. Fry lightly in olive oil or grill. Slice six marrows (zucchini) slightly thinner than the eggplants and place in a lightly oiled tray.
Place both trays seasoned with pepper and salt in a medium-heated oven turning the contents every ten minutes until they are golden brown. This should take between 30 and 45 minutes for each tray.
Take three large sliced onions and five sliced garlic pods and fry lightly in a pan until they begin to brown. Add a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and mix well. Then add 400 gms of peeled finely sliced tomatoes. Add these to the onions/garlic and add a tablespoon or oregano.
Finally, layer all these in a large dish, with the final layer being the eggplant and tomato mix and brush lightly with olive oil. Place in a medium-heated oven for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool.
The caponata may be eaten on its own or as an accompaniment to grilled fish or grilled meat of choice.
“Pastizzi” are highly prized and sought in Malta and the “cake” sleeves may be made from puff or short pastry and then may be filled with a ricotta mix or a mashed pea mixture which consists of mashed peas, onions and garlic, very finely sliced anchovies and olives, seasoned with finely sliced parsley, and the rolled balls brushed very lightly with melted butter or olive oil.. The closed sleeve is then oven-roasted until golden brown.
ZEPPOLI AND ST JOSEPH’S FRITTERS
These are popular Lenten bites suitable as a snack or at gatherings. Again, their origins are southern Italy, mainly Neapolitan and mainly popular around the feast of St Joseph on 19th March. In Naples they are popular fare prepared by street vendors who fry them in sizzling oil. However, they can also be oven-cooked.
The zeppoli have a base of soft choux pastry which consists of melted butter, a little water, a little salt and a little sugar which are melted and blended over a gentle flame. Flour is then added and mixed and while the pastry is forming drops of egg mixture is gradually added. When cooled this is either rolled in a round ball or formed into several tarts with a centre dent (a base formation used for jam tarts etc).
The round balls are topped with confectionery cream and black cherries placed on top, or the sleeves filled with the cream, covered with pastry and then also topped with cream and cherries.
The fritters consist of mashed deboned fish, fragments of anchovies for taste and very finely sliced onion, garlic and parsley. Balls are formed and cooked in sizzling oil (as in spring rolls), turning frequently until golden and of course not allowed to blacken.
Right, time to roll up sleeves and get down to it.
“Man proposes but God decides and disposes”
An expression to signify that a person may make many plans but ultimately God decides as to the final outcome.