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Moules Marinières In The Loire Valley, France

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The Château of Chinon stands on the banks of the river Vienne, encircled by vineyards that produce the wines for which the region is famous. Gazing at these tranquil surroundings it is hard to imagine that this was the location of some of the bloodiest conflicts in European history, which played a decisive role in determining the fate of medieval France and England.

Chinon was the principal residence of Henry II, from which he ruled his sprawling kingdom that encompassed both England and a large part of western France. Here he battled not only the French king and renegade barons, but also his own turbulent family, including his four sons who were in a constant state of rebellion. They were encouraged and abetted in their attempts to seize the throne by their mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Henry beat back the challenge from his offspring, but time is always on the side of the young. Henry died while still at Chinon and was succeeded by his second son, soon to become famous as Richard the Lionheart. Eleanor outlived them both, becoming the effective ruler for many years while Richard was off crusading in the Holy Land.

Henry was buried at the nearby Abbey of Fontevraud and he was eventually followed there by both Richard and Eleanor when they died. Now they all lie side-by-side in the silent interior of the abbey chapel. Stepping out from the hush of the tombs into the cloistered gardens inside the abbey, one can only hope that they have eventually found the peace that they certainly never knew in their lifetimes.

Touring vast chateaux can get tiring. Revive yourself with fabulous food in one of their signature restaurants. Often situated right in the sprawling grounds of the chateau, these restaurants feature fantastic, innovative food with reasonable (lunch) prices. Here, you can sit in the shade of an ancient tree, gazing out at spectacularly beautiful gardens while savoring the best food you will eat in your entire trip!

Classic, sophisticated and easy to make, this French favourite will wow your family and friends! Serve with crusty baguette and a crisp salad, and if you have any of that wine left after cooking, serve that too!

Moules Marinières

2 lb fresh mussels, scrubbed

2 tbsp butter

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 large sprig of thyme

1/2 cup white wine

Salt to taste

1/4-1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1/4 cup whipping cream

2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Toasted baguette

Clean mussels and discard any that are open. Transfer to a bowl.

Warm butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic and thyme sprig. Saute for 2-3 min, until lightly softened.

Add reserved mussels, white wine, salt and pepper. Give it a good mix, cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 4 min or until mussels have steamed open.

Pick over with tongs and discard any mussels that haven't opened, as well as the sprig of thyme.

Add cream, parsley and lemon juice, mixing well. Cook 1 min to incorporate.

Serve right away with toasted baguette.

Note: For a thicker sauce, remove cooked mussels from broth and reserve in a bowl. Bring broth to a boil over medium high heat and reduce until lightly thickened, about 2-3 min. Add mussels, mix well before serving.

Serves four

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Ratatouille In The Loire Valley, France

The Loire valley is ideally situated to be the playground for the rich and powerful in France. Close to Paris, and with stunningly beautiful scenery on the banks of the Loire, Indre and Cher rivers, French kings, queens and aristocrats have been building their luxurious châteaus in this region for centuries. Many of the greatest moments of French history have been played out in the halls of these magnificent palaces.

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The château of Amboise is one of the oldest in the region, and reached it's height of glory in the early sixteenth century during the reign of King François I, who grew up there and made it his principal residence. The château of Amboise towers above the Loire river from where it dominates the surrounding countryside.

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François I was a fervent admirer of the Italian renaissance, and he invited many of the great artists of the time to his court, including Leonardo da Vinci. The great painter came, carrying the still unfinished painting of the Mona Lisa in his baggage. He spent the last few years of his life at Amboise, and is said to have died while being watched over by the king. He was buried in a small chapel in the castle, that still stands.

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The most famous château is perhaps that of Chenoceau. Its main halls are built on a bridge that spans the river Cher, creating an iconic image. The stunning reflection of the building in the river and the gardens that stretch out around it attract more visitors than any other site in the Loire valley.

Chenonceau came into the possession of King Henri II, son of François I, who gifted it to his beloved mistress Diane de Poitiers who lived there and built the graceful span across the river. Unfortunately Henri II died in a jousting accident, and his widow, Catherine de Medici became the Regent of France, ruling in the name of her infant son. Catherine had a somewhat jaundiced view of her late husband's generous presents, and forced Diane to return the château. Catherine made Chenonceau her own favourite residence and expanded it even further.

If there is any château that competes with Chenonceau for the title of the loveliest building in the Loire valley, it is that of Azay-le-Rideau.

Azay-le-Rideau is one of the smaller châteaus in the region, but it is a perfect little gem. Set on an island in the middle of the Indre river, it looks like a fairy-tale castle, complete with pointed rooftops on the corner towers. All it needs are Sleeping Beauty and a handsome prince for the fantasy to be complete!

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The Loire valley is famous for its gastronomy. There is amazing food to be found in chic Michelin starred restaurants tucked away in tiny little towns. Opt for the set lunch menu and you will dine like a king at a very affordable price!
Ratatouille, with sweet summer ripened vegetables is a classic from this region and needs only crusty bread to mop up it all up!

Ratatouille

4 tbsp oil, divided

2 cups each, 1/2 inch dice: eggplant, assorted coloured zucchini, assorted coloured sweet peppers

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 large sprig of thyme

2 cups pureed tomatoes, fresh or canned

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley

Warm 2 tbsp oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add eggplant and cook for about 5-7 min until lightly browned and softened. Transfer to a bowl.

Add remaining 2 tbsp oil to skillet. Add onions, garlic and thyme. Saute until lightly browned and softened, about 5-7 min.

Add zucchini and peppers. Saute for another 5-7 min until vegetables are softened.

Add eggplant back to skillet. Cook 2 min.

Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, mixing in gently. Cover and bring to a gentle simmer. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 15-20 min until vegetables are soft and sauce is thick. Remove thyme sprig.

Transfer ratatouille to a serving bowl and sprinkle fresh parsley over top.

Serves four

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Crepes In Versailles

Louis XIV was never a man to believe in understatement. When he decided to renovate his father's hunting lodge in the little village of Versailles, the final result was a palace that still staggers the imagination. It served not just as the home of the king, but also as his seat of government and a residence for all the aristocracy of France. Much of French culture and style was developed in these sprawling hallways, while courtiers conspired and intrigued in a never-ending scramble for power and influence.

The Hall of Mirrors is the most impressive part of the palace. Its walls are lined with mirrors, which in the seventeenth century were an incredibly expensive luxury. The workmen who made them had to be enticed from Venice, at the time the only place where the technology to make mirrors existed. The Venetian government was so enraged at the loss of their monopoly that it dispatched assassins to eliminate the renegade craftsmen.

Every corner of Versailles is stuffed with paintings, sculpture, and furniture, all overlaid with gilt and silk. It remains a remarkable monument to the man who was revered as the Sun King, and enjoyed being portrayed as a Roman god.

The breathtaking splendour of the palace spills out into it's gardens, which are dazzling in their symmetry. Laid out in 1661 by André Le Nôtre, they stretch out into the horizon in an enchanting display of manicured lawns, tree lined hedges and colourful flower beds. As you walk deeper into the gardens, you will see many lovely marble sculptures, imposing fountains and even an orangery with orange and lemon trees.

Taking in the grandeur of the palace and it's gardens can be exhausting. We revived ourselves with a pitcher of cider and crepes! Crisp crepes with lacy edges remind me of South-Indian dosas, made with fermented rice and lentil batter. Stuff them with eggs, ham and cheese like the French or with spicy potatoes as in India and you have yourself a fabulous treat!

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Buckwheat crepes, also known as galettes have a deep, earthy flavour that pairs well with savoury fillings such as eggs, ham and cheese. Serve them with a side of Ratatouille or a fresh salad for a delicious meal.

Buckwheat Crepes

Crepe Batter:

3/4 cup buckwheat flour

2/3 cup (1/2 cup+2 tbsp) all purpose flour

Salt to taste

2 eggs

11/2 cups milk

1/2 cup water

4 tbsp melted butter, divided

Crepe Toppings:

Grated Gruyere cheese

Thinly sliced ham

Freshly fried eggs

Combine both flours and salt in large mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water and 2 tbsp butter until well blended and lightly aerated. Let stand 15 min.

Warm 1/2 tsp butter in large non stick frying pan or crepe pan set over medium heat.

Add about 1/3 cup of the batter and swirl the pan in a circular motion to evenly distribute the batter in a thin layer over bottom of pan.

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Cook until batter dries up on top and edges are crisped, about 1-2 min.

Sprinkle some of the grated cheese on crepe, top with ham and a fried egg.

Fold over edges of crepe in a rectangular package, leaving just the egg yolk exposed. Sprinkle some salt over egg yolk if desired.

Cook some more until crepe bottom is crisped up to your liking, about another min.

 

 

Serve crepes hot off the stove and repeat with remaining batter, butter and fillings.

 

Serves four

Croque Monsieur In Paris

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"I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles", run the lyrics of the Cole Porter song, and we agree with him wholeheartedly. A walk along the Seine under a brilliant blue summer sky is enough to remind us why Paris is as close to perfection as any city can get.

The sights of Paris, such as the Eiffel tower or Notre Dame cathedral, are so iconic that even people who have never visited France are familiar with them. And yet, every time you see them they still take the breath away. In Paris recently for just a few days, we managed to pack in all the highlights and marvel anew at our favourite sights.

The grand boulevards of Paris, lined with magnificent buildings, are designed to awe visitors. No matter where you are you can always have a vantage point that offers a sweeping vista from which to appreciate the beauty of the city.

In spite of the monumental scale of the city, the true charms of Paris have to be appreciated at a much smaller scale. From the narrow cobbled streets echoing with history, to stores that sell kitchen equipment whose design does not appear to have changed in centuries, there is enough to keep you occupied for a lifetime of browsing.

One of my favourite stops is E. Dehillerin. Featured in one of Anthony Bourdain's TV shows, it is also where Julia Child used to shop. Oh, how easy it is to lose yourself for hours in the narrow aisles stuffed with every imaginable cookware you could possibly desire!

Paris food markets are like no other in the world, overflowing with an astonishing range of produce, cheeses, baked goods and meats. We made our way to Rue Mouffetard early on a Sunday morning for some breakfast and shopping.
Not only is there a buzzing flea market happening on this long, winding and lively street, there are also produce stalls, fresh seafood, baked goods and many, many varieties of cheese. Wind your way around groups of chatty locals, admire street performers, soak in the ambiance and grab some foodie souvenirs to bring back home!

Paris was where café culture was invented, and it is still where much of the life of the city still unfolds. Books were written, philosophies discussed, conspiracies hatched and revolutions planned on these café tables. Just sipping a cup of coffee at one of these tables will give you a thrill of connection with famous personalities gone by!

The food we ate in Paris was always spectacular. Trying out traditional French dishes such as Pâté en Croûte, Terrine and Croque-Monsieur, while sitting at a table outside and watching the world go by, just made it so much more memorable!

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The ultimate French bistro food, Croque-Monsieur is easy to make, perfect for brunch and loved by everybody!
For another classic Paris bistro dish, try French Onion Soup!

Croque-Monsieur

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp all purpose flour

1 cup warm milk

1-1/2 cups grated Gruyère cheese

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: ground black pepper, herbes de Provence, smoked paprika, ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp prepared grainy or Dijon mustard

8 slices country style bread, about 1/2 inch thick each

8 slices ham

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a baking tray with parchment.

Melt butter in skillet set over medium heat. Add flour, stir until incorporated, about 30-45 sec. Add milk, whisking until smooth and slightly thickened, about 30-45 sec. Add 1/2 cup grated cheese and stir until melted and smooth, another 30 sec.

Remove skillet from heat and mix in salt, pepper, herbes de Provence, paprika, nutmeg and mustard. Set aside. béchamel cheese sauce will thicken further as it cools.

Toast bread lightly. Place 4 slices of toasted bread on work surface. Spread 1 heaping tbsp of the béchamel cheese sauce evenly over each slice. Layer 2 of the ham slices over top of each slice of bread. Sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese evenly over ham on all the slices. Top with remaining 4 slices of toasted bread. Press down gently to hold filling.

Spread another 1 heaping tbsp of the béchamel cheese sauce evenly over bread, then sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese over each slice.

Carefully place sandwiches on parchment lined baking tray. Bake for 10 min or until cheese is melted and tops are lightly browned. If desired, brown tops under broiler for 1 min.

Slice sandwiches in half and serve warm.

Serves four

French Onion Soup In Montmartre, Paris

Monmartre embodies the most romantic side of Paris. From the stark beauty of the Sacré Coeur basilica to the cobbled streets that wind through the neighbourhood and the lively bars and cafés on every corner, it is easy to see why generations of artists came here to work, carouse, and create La Vie Bohème! Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, and many others lived here, experimented with new styles and in the process invented modern art.

It is still possible to see glimpses of the windmills and vineyards that formed part of the original village of Montmartre, but it has become too popular a place for many rustic charms to survive. So many films have been made with Montmartre as a backdrop that it is well known around the world, attracting thousands of tourists every year.

However, when you walk through one of its narrow alleys late at night after the crowds have gone home, you can still imagine what it was like a century ago. The steep, narrow, atmospheric streets and the lovely, gracious buildings lining them evoke a sense of days gone by.

In spite of the popular image of Monmartre artists and their models starving in freezing attics, reinforced by countless songs, books and movies, one can eat very well there. Cafes, bistros and bars set up impromptu seating on footpaths, street corners and squares. The sounds of laughter, conversation and the clinking of cutlery mingle with inviting aromas wafting around.

Although we ate in many a brasserie, Cafe Wepler was one of the most memorable. For over a hundred years Wepler has been the hangout of choice for artists, writers and famous personalities and it is still impressive with it's food, furnishings and art. My favourite bistro dish, and one that I invariably ordered everywhere, is French onion soup. I just love how it's warm, comforting flavours fill me up with contentment!

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You too can create that Paris bistro feeling with this easy, satisfying recipe. The secret to deep, rich flavour is in the sautéing of onions. They have to be done long and slow to develop that characteristic sweetness, colour and aroma of this soup.
For a delicious and unusual variation, try French Onion Soup with Lamb, or another Paris bistro classic - Croque Monsieur.

French Onion Soup

2 tbsp each: unsalted butter, olive oil

1 large sprig of thyme

2 large onions (such as Vidalia or Spanish), halved and thinly sliced, about 4 cups

1/2 tsp sugar

1 tbsp all purpose flour

1 cup dry white wine

900 ml broth, chicken or beef

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: ground black pepper, smoked paprika

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

4 thick slices of baguette

4 slices Gruyere cheese

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish, optional

Warm butter and oil in deep heavy skillet set over medium heat.

Add thyme and onions. Sauté, stirring occasionally until all the liquid is cooked off and onions are lightly browned, about 30 min.

Add sugar; continue to stir and sauté onions until they are a deeper brown, about 15 more min.

Add flour, cook 1 min.

Add wine and cook for 1 min until it bubbles, scraping up the burnt brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add broth, salt, pepper, paprika and vinegar, stirring well to incorporate.

Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 1 hour until onions are very soft and soup is slightly thickened. Remove thyme sprig.

Ladle soup into 4 individual oven proof bowls. Preheat broiler in oven.

Toast baguette slices lightly and top each bowl with a slice. Lay the sliced cheese over top. Place all the bowls on a large oven safe tray.

Place tray with soup bowls about 8 inches away from broiler and broil until cheese melts and browns lightly, about 1-2 min. Sprinkle parsley over top, if using.

Serves four

 

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Espresso Cardamom Brownies In Ottawa, Canada

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To be in Ottawa on the eve of Canada's 150th birthday is to be granted a rare and special opportunity. Preparations for the event were well underway when we visited and the nation's capital was gearing up to host a giant party to mark the day.

We walked around lovely Parliament Hill where booths, tents and a massive stage were set up. Speeches, tributes, music, fireworks and a visit from Prince Charles and Camilla added to the excitement in the air that even rainy weather couldn't dampen!

Parliament Hill is both the heart of the city of Ottawa and also the location in which some of the greatest moments of Canada's history have been enacted. With beautiful Gothic style buildings overlooking the Ottawa river, it offers spectacular views and is easily the best place to start your tour of charming Ottawa.

Ottawa was selected as the nation's capital because of its location at the meeting point of Quebec and Ontario. Its unique blend of French and English cultures is reflected in its cuisine as well, ensuring that great food abounds in the city! We enjoyed flaky croissants, garlicky escargot, meats simmered in rich red wines and amazing fresh seafood from nearby lakes.

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This grown up version of a childhood favourite comes with a hit of espresso strong enough to make you sit up and take notice. The fudgy center pieces with the molten core and hint of cardamom are the ones everyone fights over; enjoy with a mug of milk or more espresso!
For more recipes using cardamom, read A Craving For Cardamom.

Espresso Cardamom Brownies

4 squares (4 oz) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
¾ cup (1 ½ stick) butter
1-1/2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1-1/4 cups flour
2 tbsp instant espresso powder
1 tsp finely ground cardamom


Heat oven to 350ºF. Line an 8X8 inch baking pan with foil, spray with cooking spray.
Microwave chocolate and butter in large microwaveable bowl on medium 1-2 min or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely smooth.
Stir in 1 ½ cups sugar. Add 4 eggs and vanilla; mix well. 
Stir in 1 1/4 cups flour, ground cardamom and espresso powder.
Spread into foil lined pan.
Bake for about 23 min or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with fudgy crumbs (do not overbake). Store leftover brownies in refrigerator and warm gently in microwave for 10-15 sec, before serving.

Makes 16 Servings

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The Scent Of Cinnamon

“There came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon” says the Bible.
Great spice caravans have crossed the harsh Arabian sands for as long as people have kept records. Envious Greeks swore that Arab merchants were so rich that they used cinnamon for firewood. A Greek text from the fifth century explained that great birds of prey living on sheer cliffs made nests of cinnamon sticks. Arabs distracted the birds with pieces of meat and gathered cinnamon while valiantly beating back attacks.
Given the dangers involved in obtaining cinnamon, the exorbitant prices charged for it were certainly justified. Little did westerners know that the cinnamon that reached Europe came from much further east, grown in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and carried on boats to the Arabian peninsula.

 

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Cinnamon trees are heavily pruned when cultivated, reducing them to the size of a bush. New stems that emerge regularly are snipped off to produce the spice. The outer bark is scraped off the branches and the smooth inner bark shaved off in sections. Once dried, the bark curls into rolls that are chopped into shorter lengths to form the familiar quills that are sold in grocery stores.

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Cinnamon, both whole and in powdered form, is used extensively in South Asian and Middle eastern cuisines. It is used to make many spice blends, to flavour Masala Chai (tea), rice pilafs, marinades and many desserts.
It is a key spice in my marinade here and when these skewers hit the grill, a heady scent of cinnamon and spice fills the air. These chicken skewers make wonderful appetizers or a main course. Serve them with warm flatbread, grilled vegetables and some hot sauce for dipping.
For more recipes with cinnamon, try Egyptian style Grilled Chicken or these Moroccan Chicken kababs or this delicious Lamb Shawarma.

Cinnamon Roasted Chicken With Fresh Herbs

1-1/4 lb boneless skinless chicken breast or thighs

2 cloves garlic, grated or minced

1/4 cup each: lemon juice, oil

Salt to taste

1 tsp each: honey, paprika

1/2 tsp each, ground spices: black pepper, dried ginger, cinnamon, cumin

2 tbsp each, finely chopped fresh herbs: coriander, parsley, mint

1 tsp sumac

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Cut chicken into large bite sized pieces. Place in large mixing bowl.

Add all of the remaining ingredients, except sumac and lemon wedges and toss to mix well.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight for flavours to blend.

When ready to cook, heat outdoor barbecue to medium.

Thread chicken onto skewers, reserving leftover marinade.

Grill chicken skewers for about 12-14 minutes for chicken breast, and about 20 minutes for thighs, turning occasionally and basting with reserved leftover marinade.

When chicken is tender and basting marinade is cooked through, transfer skewers to a platter.

Sprinkle evenly with sumac and serve with wedges of lemon.

Serves four

A Craving For Cardamom

The fifth century Sanskrit epic poem Raghuvansha describes King Raghu’s army marching triumphantly through spice plantations:

Pepper groves

On Mount Mahendra’s skirts, lov’d home of birds,

His forces occupied, as on he marched

To conquest. Trampled by his steeds, the bloom

Flying from the fruit of cardamoms

Clung to the foreheads of his elephants

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Cardamom has always been one of the most prized of all spices in India, treasured for its scent and flavour. The ancient Romans sailed all the way to the coast of Kerala, where it has been cultivated for millennia, to buy cardamom for use in cooking and to make perfumes. They particularly prized the ability of cardamom pods to freshen the breath when chewed after a meal, and they are still used for this purpose in India.

Cardamom plants are bushes with large leaves that grow up to 6 ft in height. Slender stems emerge near the base of the plant and bear delicate white flowers that turn into green pods, each containing several white seeds.

The pods are plucked and dried so that their skins turn into a papery husk that splits open to release the seeds that have turned brown. Whole dried cardamom is often used to flavour rice preparations and curries.

Fresh cardamom, with its strong flavour and crisp bite, goes into chutneys, pickles and curries. Dried seeds, which have a very intense aroma and flavour, are powdered for use in cooking, most often in Indian desserts. Ground cardamom loses its essential oils quickly and you are better off grinding small quantities of cardamom seeds in a spice grinder just before use.

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This unusual curry from Kashmir, infused with the wonderful aroma of cardamom and tinted a glorious red-gold with saffron, is easy to make. For more about saffron, read: The Glory Of Saffron.
For desserts using cardamom in delicious ways, try Espresso cardamom Brownies, Cardamom roll cakeCardamom kahlua tiramisu, Cardamom Halwa Blondies or the classic Indian dessert Gulab Jamun!

Kashmiri Cardamom Chicken Curry

1-1/4 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 8), fat trimmed

1 cup full fat plain yogurt, Greek or Balkan style

Salt to taste

1 tbsp ground almonds

1/2 tsp each, ground spices: cardamom, fennel, black pepper, Kashmiri chili powder or paprika, ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried ginger

1/4 tsp saffron strands

2 tbsp each, chopped fresh: coriander, mint, lemon juice

2 tbsp oil

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 medium onion, finely chopped

Cut chicken into bite sized pieces and place in large mixing bowl.

Add yogurt, salt, ground almonds, all of the spices, saffron and herbs to chicken, tossing well to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to overnight.

When ready to cook, warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat.

Add cumin seeds and sizzle 30 sec. Add onions, saute for about 5-7 min until softened.

Add chicken with all its marinade (scrape everything into skillet) and cook for about 5 min until combined, stirring occasionally. Cover and reduce heat to low.

Cook for about 45 min or until chicken is very soft and tender and sauce has thickened.

Serves four

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The Glory Of Saffron

Order tandoori chicken in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world, and you will find it colored a bright orange. Ask the chef, “Why orange?” and he will probably say that it is tradition – it has always been prepared so.

To understand why tandoori chicken is orange you must go back more than a thousand years, to the days when the great Arab alchemists labored to convert base metals into gold. They discarded one formula after another until they found a magical substance that colored anything it touched gold. They called it zafaran; the English modified the name only slightly, to saffron.

Saffron comes from crocus bulbs that flower two weeks in a year, each violet blossom enclosing three orange stigmas. Delicately plucked by hand and dried, a stigma becomes an inch long strand of saffron. A million strands weigh only a little over four pounds, making saffron the most expensive spice known.

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Arab alchemists also developed theories of dietetics, using scientific principles to develop healing sauces. Saffron was the most important ingredient in their repertoire, believed to possess miraculous powers. It had brought them the closest they ever got to creating gold; surely, they reasoned, it had therapeutic properties as well. Saffron became essential to Arab cuisine and the most highly regarded dishes were those with a golden hue. All shades of yellow were thought auspicious: cookbooks recommended using turmeric or safflower if saffron was too expensive.

Medieval Europeans adopted many Arab theories, including those on alchemy, dietetics and cooking. Saffron grew well in temperate western climates and became the most popular spice for cooking. All chefs learned the technique of endoring, basting meats with saffron and egg yolks to give them a golden glow.

India’s Muslim rulers developed a taste for Arab and Persian cuisine, including their fondness for saffron. The seventeenth century emperor Jahangir personally inspected saffron fields in Kashmir. Saffron became the hallmark of royal kitchens, symbolizing richness and sophistication. Indian restaurants still carry on that tradition, striving to obtain the color of saffron even if they have to resort to food colouring when the spice itself is too expensive to use. And they will never, ever, serve tandoori chicken that is not the right shade of orange.

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Although saffron is expensive, a little bit goes a long way, especially if it is of good quality. The traditional, and still the best, way to use saffron in cooking is by soaking it in some warm milk to draw out it's colour, aroma and flavour. Keep your saffron in a sealed bag in the freezer and it will remain fresh for a very long time.

Saffron Rosewater Ice Cream With Pistachios

This addictive ice cream is wonderful served with fresh berries too. If you wish to make it egg-less, substitute a can of condensed milk for the egg custard base. For more recipes cooking with saffron, try grilled Saffron Chicken Tikka or this delicious Chicken Biryani or this unusual Roll Cake!

1 can (354ml) evaporated milk

1 cup whipping cream

1/4 tsp saffron threads

1/4 cup + 3 tbsp sugar, divided

3 large egg yolks

3 tbsp rosewater

2 tbsp unsalted, unroasted pistachios, coarsely chopped

Combine evaporated milk, whipping cream, saffron and 1/4 cup sugar in heavy saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to very low and keep warm, stirring occasionally. Don't worry if a skin starts forming over milk, it will be integrated into the ice cream later.

Meanwhile, half fill a large saucepan with water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Combine egg yolks, remaining 3 tbsp sugar and the rosewater in a rounded bowl big enough to fit over the saucepan without touching the water.

Beat with a whisk until thickened, increased in volume and lightened in colour, about 4 min. Remove from heat and continue beating for 1 more min until smooth.

One by one, add 2 ladles of the warm saffron milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking gently after each addition to bring it up to temperature.

Pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan containing remainder of the warm saffron milk, whisking gently to incorporate. Increase heat to medium low and continue whisking for about 5-7 min until milk thickens slightly. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped pistachios.

Cool ice cream mixture at room temperature for 30 minutes. Transfer to a rounded bowl, cover tightly and freeze overnight.

Remove from freezer, uncover and rest at room temperature for 1 hour or until ice cream is starting to thaw and soften. Break up ice cream into smaller pieces with a knife. Using a hand blender, blend ice cream until it is smooth and no lumps remain. It is OK to have the pistachios remain chunky.

Cover and freeze again for another 2 hours or longer.

Alternatively you can churn ice cream in an ice cream maker, following manufacturer's directions.

Scoop into serving bowls and serve.

Serves Four

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The Story Of Pepper

“Bales of pepper are brought to market from each house, and gold received in exchange from the Roman ships is brought to shore in sackfuls” wrote a second century Tamil poet. Pepper was the most eagerly sought after spice in ancient Rome, and could be obtained in only one place: southern India. The word ‘pepper’ also comes from the same source: it is derived from the Sanskrit pippali. Both black and white pepper were prized in ancient Rome, but only the more expensive white variety was taxed. Black pepper was considered such an essential commodity, used by even the poorest citizens, that it was exempt from all customs duties.

Black Peppercorn

 Though Europeans ate a great deal of pepper, they knew little about how it was grown. A fourteenth century book claimed that:  "Serpents keep the woods that pepper groweth in and when the woods of pepper are ripe, men of that country set them on fire and chase away the serpents by violence of fire. And by burning the grain of pepper that was white by kind, is made black."
Reality is a little less exciting. Peppercorns are the berries of a climbing vine that grows over 50 feet tall in lush tropical jungles, twining itself around trees for support.

Green unripe berries are picked and boiled in water, after which they are sun-dried until they shrivel and turn black. Pepper vines were first cultivated millennia ago in the hills along the coast of southern India, and some of the best varieties such as Malabar and Tellicherry still come from Kerala where pepper is an important spice in local cuisine.

Fresh green peppercorns, picked right off the vine are often used in Kerala curries for their crisp, spicy bite.

Green Peppercorn

Green peppercorns are produced by picking and drying pepper berries well before they are fully mature. Their flavour is much milder than that of black pepper.

White Peppercorn

To produce white pepper, berries are picked when ripe, soaked for several days in water until soft, and the outer skin and pulp rubbed off leaving only the white seed. White pepper is much less aromatic than black, but some cooks prefer using it to avoid having unseemly black specks in light colored sauces.

Red Peppercorn

Pink or rose peppers create much confusion, because they are not related to pepper vines at all. They are bright red berries that grow on trees that are part of the cashew tree family,   and have a mildly peppery taste when dried.
Different preparation techniques - frying, toasting or grinding, bring out widely different flavours from pepper. Pepper grinders filled with a blend of whole peppercorn in all four colours can be found in supermarkets for adding a final flourish of colour and flavour to a finished dish.

Crispy, peppery paneer skewers make delicious appetizers for a summer barbecue. Eat 'em right off the grill while their insides are still soft and gooey!
If you're looking for variety, try Tandoori Paneer, Pepper Roast Chicken or Saffron Chicken Tikka With Black Pepper

Pepper Paneer Tikka

400g Paneer (Indian cottage cheese)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch piece ginger, minced

2 tbsp each: oil, lemon juice, plain Greek/Balkan style yogurt

Salt to taste

1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper or mixed pepper blend, divided

1/2 tsp each: garam masala, paprika

2 tbsp each: all purpose flour, fine breadcrumbs

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Cut paneer into 2 inch long X 1/2 inch thick slices (about 10-12 slices) or cube into bite sized squares. Place in deep mixing bowl.

Combine garlic, ginger, oil, lemon juice, yogurt, salt, garam masala, paprika and 1 tsp of the pepper in small bowl, mix well to blend.

Pour over paneer in bowl, tossing gently to coat completely. Cover and refrigerate for one hour or longer up to overnight.
Note: Let paneer soften at room temperature an hour before grilling, to make it easier to thread onto skewers.

When ready to grill, heat barbecue to medium high. Soak small sized bamboo skewers for 15 min in cold water.

Thread paneer onto skewers without overcrowding.

Combine flour, breadcrumbs and remaining 1 tsp pepper in small flat plate.

Roll each skewer of paneer in prepared breadcrumb pepper mixture till lightly coated all over.

Place on grill and cook covered until lightly browned and slightly crisp, about 7 min per side, turning skewers once. Brush lightly with additional oil at the end of cooking, if necessary.
Note: Paneer can also be cooked in the oven without skewers. Heat oven to 450F. Place paneer pieces on parchment lined tray and bake for 12 min. Place under the broiler for 2 min to brown tops lightly.

Serve right away with wedges of lemon.

Serves four

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