Blog - Curry Twist

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.
Try your hand at another easy French classic - Moules Mariniéres.

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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Tomato Bread Soup In Orvieto

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Orvieto, situated right on top of a huge volcanic cliff, rose majestically in the distance as we drove up. Surrounded by a lush green valley dotted with vineyards, olive groves, farm houses and cypress trees, it's sheer height seemed all the more imposing up close. Instead of braving the steep cobbled streets, we took the funicular right into the heart of town.

Here we were charmed by beautiful old buildings, balconies spilling with flowers and narrow streets going up and down, affording us plenty of exercise! The town is small and easy to walk around in. Corso Cavour, it's main street is where the action lies. Lined with shops, bars, restaurants and cafes, it is a fun place to people watch as you leisurely sip a glass of wine or savour a gelato.

The most breathtaking sight in all of Orvieto is its magnificent Gothic Duomo (cathedral). One of the finest we have seen in Italy, it has charming candy stripes inside and out, glittering mosaics on its facade, and fabulous bas reliefs on its pillars. Inside are gorgeous frescoes by Signorelli which always draw a large audience. There was a beautiful wedding going on inside when we visited, adding to the wide eyed wonder of the crowds!

One of the sights we were very keen to see was Orvieto underground. A labyrinth of about 440 caves, dating back to Etruscan times, these are a fascinating glimpse of life lived centuries ago, when people sheltered here when the city was under siege by the Romans. These caves have also been used to raise pigeons, as storage and wine cellars as well as WWII bomb shelters.    

Orvieto produces some of the best wines in the region and has many excellent wine bars dotted around town. We know because we tried a good many of them anytime we wanted to rest our feet! And since we couldn't possibly have wine just by itself, we also got to sample some of the famed local wild boar charcuterie, cheeses and pates.
One of the restaurants we ate in - Al Pozzo Etrusco, had fantastic pasta. I ordered hand made pasta in a chickpea flour meat sauce. It was so unusual, earthy and delicious, unlike anything I'd had before and it reminded me so much of Indian cuisine as chickpea flour is used in many of our dishes too, although with loads of masala!

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This rustic, hearty tomato bread soup is one of my favourites and is very simple and satisfying. I've used fresh tomatoes here and roasted them to concentrate their flavours. You can just as easily use canned tomatoes and skip the roasting step. I like to use fresh bread as I love the way it soaks up the soup, turning into soft, velvety pillows of flavour that are a delight to eat!

Tomato Bread Soup

2 lb (about 10-12 large) ripe fresh tomatoes, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus a few extra for garnish

6 tbsp olive oil, divided, plus extra for drizzling over top of soup

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

1/4-1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

3 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 1/2 cups small diced/torn Italian bread, crusts removed

Preheat oven to 450F. Line a baking tray with parchment.

Combine tomatoes, garlic, basil, 4 tbsp of the olive oil, salt and pepper in mixing bowl. Spread in a single layer on tray. Bake for 30 min until tomatoes are roasted, lightly browned and giving up their juices. Reserve.

Warm remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in skillet over medium heat.

Add onions, saute until lightly browned and softened, about 5 min.

Add red pepper flakes, saute 30 sec till fragrant.

Add reserved roasted tomato mixture, broth and bread. Mix well, cover and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 min or until soup has thickened and tomatoes have broken down completely. Stir occasionally, mashing tomatoes gently.

If soup is too thick for your liking, thin it down with some more broth or water. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, garnished with basil leaves.

Serves four

Tomato Salad With Grilled Eggplant Confit In Siena, Tuscany

Siena, with it's magnificent Gothic architecture, captivated us from the first moment we saw it. This beautifully preserved city exudes medieval charm and made us feel magically transported back to the 12th century!  

We delighted in losing ourselves in it's warren of narrow lanes and steep steps....

which opened up unexpectedly to a breathtaking view of the glorious Tuscan countryside....

or a glimpse of a church on top of a hill....

or led us to one of the most unusual and beautiful piazzas we have ever seen - Piazza Del Campo. This Campo, a world UNESCO heritage site, is laid out in a unique, sloping accordion shape with a semi circle of buildings around it.

At one side is Siena's medieval seat of government, the Palazzo Pubblico, with it's majestic Torre del Mangia rising into the sky. You can climb 400 steps up this tower for fabulous views of the city and countryside below.

The famous Renaissance era Fonte Gaia or Fountain Of Joy is here as well, where people used to gather 600 years ago to get water and exchange gossip. It is still a favourite place for tourists and locals to hang out, take pictures and gossip!

The Campo is also where the famous Palio (horse race) is run, where important events have been held for centuries and where everyone gathers to sit at one of the many cafes lining the piazza while watching the world go by. People treat the red brick lined campo rather like a sandy beach, to stretch out under the sun for a snooze, eat an impromptu picnic or simply take a break in between sightseeing.

One of Siena's most awe inspiring sights is its Duomo (cathedral). You can see tantalizing glimpses of this eye catching striped black and white marble structure from various parts of the city, beckoning you to come inside and marvel at it's many wonders. The classic Italian Gothic striped design is carried on it's interior as well and the mosaic panels on the floor, the works of art by famous artists such as Michelangelo are fabulous to behold.

Some of the best food we had in Italy was here in Siena. There were so many good restaurants and so many unusual dishes to try that two days weren't enough! Grilled eggplant confit was on many restaurant menus, served in interesting, creative ways. We ate it stuffed into puff pastry envelopes for appetizers, folded into warm pasta to make an unusual and satisfying main course, and served atop thick slices of tomatoes as a superb salad. That salad was so addictive that I have been making it regularly ever since! Delicious, summery and refreshing, it is perfect for lunch, needing only some crusty bread to complete the meal.

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When I grill the eggplant, I also throw some sweet peppers and onions on the barbecue, then chop them finely when charred and add to the eggplant confit for additional smoky deliciousness.

For more tasty tomato recipes, check out Caprese salad and Bruschetta.

Tomato Salad With Grilled Eggplant Confit

1 medium eggplant

1/4 cup each: extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chopped fresh basil leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 tsp toasted ground cumin seeds

1 lb (about 4) ripe heirloom tomatoes of assorted colours, sliced into rounds

250g (about 8 oz) fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

Grill eggplant in a barbecue, oven or stovetop until charred and soft. Cool and discard outer charred skin. Transfer pulp to a chopping board and mash well with a fork. You should have about a cup of eggplant pulp.

Combine eggplant pulp, 2 tbsp each of the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and chopped fresh basil as well as salt and pepper to taste in a bowl. Mix in the toasted cumin. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or longer for flavours to blend.

Arrange tomato slices on serving platter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Top tomato slices with mozzarella cheese, then add a dollop of eggplant confit.

Drizzle remaining olive oil and vinegar over top.

Scatter remaining fresh basil over salad.

Serve right away.

Serves four

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Bruschetta In Pisa

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Pisa is about an hour's train ride away from Rome, but feels like a world away! With it's famous leaning tower drawing huge crowds, Pisa still manages to exude laid back charm and an unhurried pace of life.

Most visitors go to Pisa to see the leaning tower. As you enter the Piazza dei Miracoli, set amidst plush green lawns, you realize that there is so much more to marvel at than just the tower. Dating back to the 12th century, this piazza is breathtaking in the sheer majesty of it's historic monuments.
There is the fabulous Duomo (cathedral) with a beautiful baptistry adjacent to it, the camposanto or cemetery where many famous people are buried and finally the Campanile or the bell tower, which definitely has a very pronounced lean!

Climbing up the tower is a fantastic experience in itself. After making our way up 296 steep steps to the very top, we could feel a very definite tilt! Holding on to the railing, we walked around admiring the fabled views of the city below. Coming down was quite another experience - the marble steps have been worn smooth from centuries of use and can get quite slippery. Best to do what everyone else does and come down barefoot for a better grip!

We were in Tuscany at the height of the tomato season and bruschetta was on every restaurant menu. That burst of pure joy from tasting juicy sun ripened tomatoes, drenched in fruity olive oil, scented with fresh basil, served atop thick slices of garlicky crusty bread is like none other. How can something so simple taste so good?! The secret lies in choosing good bread, fresh ingredients and the best olive oil you can find. Together, they make magic.

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A hint of mint and toasted cumin gives this bruschetta a distinctly Indian appeal! For a more pronounced Indian flavour, throw in some cayenne pepper and fresh coriander as well. If you are looking for more tomato recipes, try my Caprese salad!

Cumin Spiced Bruschetta With Mint And Basil

4 large ripe plum tomatoes, chopped

2 tbsp each: chopped or torn fresh basil and mint, olive oil

Flaky sea salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: freshly ground black pepper, toasted ground cumin seeds

4 thick slices Tuscan or sourdough bread

1 clove garlic, halved

Combine tomatoes, basil, mint, olive oil, salt, pepper and toasted cumin in medium bowl. Allow to rest 15 min at room temperature for flavours to develop.

Meanwhile, toast or grill the bread until lightly golden and crisp.

Rub the cut sides of the garlic clove halves all over the bread.

Stir the reserved tomato mixture to combine flavours. Top each slice of toast generously with tomato mixture.

Serve right away.

Serves four

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Fall Tomato Jam In Ontario, Canada

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Fall is my absolute favourite time of year! The trees create a gorgeous kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and golds as their leaves change colour. The days are cool, crisp and filled with glorious sunshine. And best of all, the abundance of fall produce inspires me to get creative in the kitchen!

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Living in southern Ontario, I like to best experience this season by taking long scenic drives through the countryside, along winding roads where we can admire the stunning fall colours. Stopping at farmers' markets along the way to pick up local specialties such as smoked meats, preserves, fruits and vegetables, and savouring them by the side of a serene lake is my idea of a perfect weekend!

Traveling through small Ontario towns  lets you discover hidden gems of restaurants, where chefs use locally grown produce in wonderfully creative ways. The best recipes are those that let the flavour and freshness of the ingredients shine through. It is amazing how a few fresh ingredients, simply cooked can taste so fantastic.

Fall fruits and vegetables, sun ripened and picked at the peak of their freshness have an unforgettable flavour all their own. Although there is a huge variety of fresh produce available this time of year, sun kissed, vine ripened tomatoes top my list of favourites! Bursting with flavour and sweetness, i just can't get enough of them. I end up buying so many that i can't possibly cook with all of them and have to act quickly to preserve them. One of the ways i do that is by making jams and chutneys which let me enjoy their delicious flavour throughout the year.  

This tomato jam doubles as a chutney and is perfect with Indian food. It is also great with toast, crackers, burgers, grilled meats, poultry and seafood! Quite often, I'll just spread it on a thick slice of olive bread and make that my breakfast. Ah, what a way to start my day!

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If you wish to have a milder flavoured jam, pick out the whole garam masala spices at the end of cooking. I usually leave them in and the jam gets more and more aromatic and full flavoured as time goes on! 

Tomato Jam With Whole Garam Masala

10 large ripe plum tomatoes

2 tbsp oil

10 each, whole: cloves, cardamom

1/2 inch stick cinnamon

1/4 piece of nutmeg, optional

1 star anise

1/2 tsp whole black peppercorn

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup each: sugar, apple cider vinegar

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp chilli pepper flakes 

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add tomatoes, bring to a boil again. Remove from heat, drain tomatoes and transfer to a bowl. Cool to room temperature, then peel and chop them roughly.

Warm oil in deep non stick skillet set over medium heat. Add cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg (if using), star anise, black pepper and bay leaf. Saute for a minute, until spices are fragrant and darken in colour. Add tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, salt and chilli pepper flakes.

Mix well, cover skillet partially and bring contents to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook until jam is thickened, about 30 min., stirring occasionally. Tomatoes should be well cooked into a jam like consistency at the end of cooking time. If that hasn't happened, uncover skillet, turn up heat to medium and cook off excess liquid, stirring all the while.

Taste for seasonings, adding more if necessary. Transfer to a sterilized jar and keep refrigerated.

Note: the whole spices in this jam are not meant to be eaten.