Tag: Gbejna

meet in your kitchen | Alex’s Kusksu Soup with Beans, Goat Cheese & Eggs

Maltese Kusksu

I’m in love – with my dear Maltese / British kitchen hosts Alex and Benjamin, with their beautiful 400 year old palazzo in Zebbug, their wonderful friends who joined us for a delicious traditional lunch and with the most gorgeous kitchen island I’ve ever seen in my life. A huge slab of Carrara marble on top of a simple wooden shelf took my breath away as I walked into the gorgeous kitchen. It’s one of those rooms that you never want to leave again. It’s welcoming and cozy, with an old fire place on one side, sparkling copper pots and pans hanging on a long limestone wall and a rustic wooden table at a glass door facing a bright courtyard. Here, you can cook, bake, chop and stir in peace and with plenty of space. A lot of the fresh produce comes straight from the garden, the cheese is made by a lady who lives in the village and Alex has enough ideas, energy and creativity to throw fantastic dinner parties on a weekly basis. It’s my Mediterranean heaven.

The house is  a gem and every detail feels effortlessly right. Found and restored by Alex more than 20 years ago, he saw the old walls’ beauty built of thick Maltese limestone. The charismatic man used his sense and sensitivity to bring his home’s true soul to life. Alex believes that everybody can create a nice house but not necessarily a home – a home needs a past, present and future and this palazzo has plenty of them all. It’s a peaceful oasis, tranquil and calm, in the middle of an ancient village. Hidden doors and winding corridors, steps and balustrades cut out of the island’s typical golden stone turn it into a playful labyrinth. The rooms furnished with elegant antiques are surrounded by walls more than 1m (3 feet) thick, the charm is rather introverted, here, the focus isn’t on the world outside but surprises with dreamy views onto the lush green garden and into the courtyard with an almost cloistral atmosphere.

Maltese Kusksu

We met to cook and what is more fitting in this scene than an old Maltese recipe – the traditional Kusksu. The locals call it peasant food, I call it the most comforting, nurturing and scrumptious soup. Thick like a runny risotto, it’s made with lots of onions, concentrated tomato paste, fava beans and peas, enriched with Maltese short cut pasta – the Kusksu pasta resembling couscous – eggs poached in the fruity juices and Gbejna, the islands’ fresh goat cheese. The soft egg and cheese melt into the soup and spread their fine flavors, it’s delicious!

Alex uses the tasty greens from their garden in Gozo, Malta’s sister island. The fertile soil around another old house of his – this time from the 18th century –  supplies the passionate cook and his food loving sous chef Benjamin with fresh produce all year round. I have only seen pictures of Casa Mezzodì in the village of Kercem but it looks like paradise. You can rent it for holidays, unfortunately without Alex in the kitchen, here’s the contact and some pictures.

Alex loves to use his self-taught kitchen skills to treat his friends to casual lunches and extravagant dinner parties. I’m very happy to be one of them, thanks to Benjamin who I’ve been visiting for years due to his amazing treatments. Originally from London, Benjamin left England a while ago to live with his partner on the Mediterranean archipelago and work as a reflexologist. He is simply the best, he knows the foot map and its pressure points so well that I trust him blindly. If you ever happen to be in Malta, I can only recommend you to book an appointment with him – click here if you’d like to get in touch with him.

Maltese Kusksu

Kusksu – Maltese Pasta Soup with Beans, Peas, Eggs and Goat Cheese

Adapted from the fantastic ‘The Food and Cookery of Malta’ by Anne and Helen Caruana Galizia.

Serves 4 as a main.

olive oil
medium sized onions, thinly sliced, 2
garlic, crushed, 2 cloves
tomato paste 3-4 tablespoons
water 2l / 8 1/2 cups
fava beans, fresh or frozen, shelled, the outer skin removed, 350g / 12 1/2 ounces
bay leaves 2
peperoncino, chopped, to taste
salt and pepper
Kusksu pasta (or any other rice sized short cut pasta) 100g / 3 1/2 ounces
peas, fresh or frozen, shelled, 200g / 7 ounces
eggs 4-8
small fresh goat cheeselets (like Maltese Gbejna or soft Chèvre) 4-8
Parmesan, freshly grated

Heat a generous splash of olive oil in a large pan and soften the onions and garlic for about 10-15 minutes, they should be golden but not dark. Add the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Pour in the water, stir in the beans, bay leaves and peperoncino and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the beans are al dente. Add the pasta and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stir once in a while. Add the peas, take the pan off the heat, cover and let it sit for about 10 minutes. Season to taste. Gently slip the eggs and goat cheeselets into the hot soup and let them cook off the heat for a few minutes. Serve the soup when the egg whites are still slightly soft, sprinkle with Parmesan and black pepper.

Maltese Kusksu

What fascinates you about old houses – and especially – their restoration?

I have been very privileged in my life to have been able to do a job I thoroughly enjoy. In my opinion, old houses allow us to revisit the past, which although can never be recreated, is fascinating to dip in to. It gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction to revitalise a period building and adapt it to contemporary living, whilst preserving the atmosphere and charm of past centuries. 

You collect antiques. Some say it’s impossible to stop collecting once you got started, do you feel the same? Where do you look for new finds?

Some of us suffer from Horror Vacui, and I suppose it is fair to say that there is a magpie in all of us. However, jesting apart, an old house needs props, rather like a stage and it is the love of old houses which leads one to forming collections.

I mainly find things at auctions and house clearance sales. I also like rummaging on the barrows at Portobello Road whenever I happen to be in London.

As a passionate cook you host wonderful lunches and dinner parties for your friends. How important are these gatherings for you?

I am a very gregarious person by nature and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see friends and family gathered round the table sharing food I have prepared. Besides, houses need to be filled with laughter and friends, and our house really comes alive when we give a dinner or a lunch party. As my partner is British, we frequently have house guests to stay. This always presents an opportunity ask our Maltese friends to lunch or dinner to meet them. 

When did you start cooking and who or what was your inspiration?

As I have always been (overly!) fond of my food, I remember experimenting with recipes at about 16. Although, I suppose that I started taking cooking seriously in my twenties. One of my earliest inspirations was the great Elizabeth David, who pushed boundaries in her time and was seminal in bringing the Mediterranean cuisine to the rest of Europe. Malta at the time was still very British, with a tendency towards food of the meat and two veg variety, in spite of the great choice of Mediterranean vegetables available in local markets. I discovered a worn paperback copy of Elizabeth David’s Italian Food in the local RSPCA second hand bookshop, and it was this publication that flung open the doors for using local ingredients, and I still dip in to it to this day. Later on I discovered The Food and Cookery of Malta by Anne and Helen Caruana Galizia, and this publication has been my most thumbed cookery book since, as it revives all the traditional and wonderful Maltese dishes.

Some of the fresh produce you use in your kitchen is grown by your gardner in Gozo, from Malta’s sister island, where you also spend a lot of your time. What are the differences between living in Malta and in Gozo?

We are very fortunate to have a weekend house called Casa Mezzodì in the village of Kercem in Gozo, where the garden is looked after by a very special man called George Spiteri. George is passionate about growing indigenous crops using organic methods, and we are very privileged to be able to have these vegetables made available to us.

Gozo is essentially composed of rural communities living off the land and the sea. In spite of the close proximity, Gozitan kitchens produce different fare to Maltese ones. Gozitans being particularly inventive with stretching ingredients, creating delicious pies and stews made with the wonderful vegetables and fresh fish available.

While we rarely venture out to restaurants in Malta, in Gozo we take every opportunity to visit the charming fishing village, turned resort, of Xlendi which is a mere five minutes from our home. There, we visit our favourite waterfront restaurants, and especially enjoy the cheese-less Gozitan “pizza” or ftira as it is known locally, which is topped with unusual layers of thinly sliced potato, tomatoes, capers, olives, anchovies and onions. The freshness of the ingredients, without the heaviness of cheese, on the crispiest of bases is the most heavenly combination.

What do you love about the Maltese cuisine?

The most simple, and frugal of ingredients, are always transformed into delicious dishes, which never fail to please. The stuffing of vegetables with rice, or meat, or fish…the wonderful pies, the vegetable stews, all combine European and Arabic influences and truly reflect Malta’s extraordinary geographical location at the crossroads between North, South, East and West.

Where do you find inspiration for new creations in the kitchen?

This wonderful age of communication has meant that one can browse for hours through fascinating blogs, such as yours, exploring new territory. In a sense, other peoples kitchens are brought in to your own at the click of a mouse, and perhaps, we do not fully appreciate how previous boundaries have now come down.

What was the first dish you cooked on your own, what is your first cooking memory?

I made a pea soup using terribly uneconomical petit pois, and best quality bacon rashers which I had pilfered from the deep freeze in my parents’ kitchen. Despite the velvety sweetness, and the beautiful emerald green colour of the soup, my long suffering mother was unamused that I had helped myself to her ingredients!

What are your favourite places to buy and enjoy food in Malta? 

I pay a weekly visit to the local farmers’ market at Ta’ Qali, which is about ten minutes from where we live. I have my favourite suppliers and will buy aubergines, green peppers and cauliflowers from Serafin, who comes from Siggiewi, which is a neighbouring village. I buy all my tomatoes, salads, cucumbers and qara baghli (the superb local sweet marrows) from Anna who hails from Mgarr. Of course, the produce is all seasonal, so it’s broccoli and cabbages in the winter, strawberries in the spring, and watermelons in the summer. I love cooking and eating according to the time of the year, and knowing that my ingredients have sometimes been freshly picked just hours before being brought to the market.

You shared a recipe for Kusksu on eat in my kitchen, what are the memories you connect with this dish?

We always had Kusksu on Good Friday when we were children, as this dish satisfied the very strict Roman Catholic fasting obligations. Once you had eaten it for lunch, it was very filling and would keep you going until supper time. It is a firm favourite of mine as it truly reflects Malta’s cosmopolitan cuisine, and besides, I get to use the broad beans, peas, and onions which George Spiteri has grown in Gozo.

If you could choose one person to cook a meal for you, who and what would it be?

Kelina Sultana was a Gozitan cook who worked for dear family friends. Sadly she died some years ago, but her lampuki pie (local fish pie) was the best I have ever tasted, and I would love to taste it one more time.

You’re going to have ten friends over for a spontaneous dinner, what will be on the table?

It depends entirely upon what is in the fridge! For example, looking right now it would probably be a pasta dish using a variety of fresh vegetables, or a risotto with some chicken stock I made yesterday.

What was your childhood’s culinary favourite and what is it now?

As a child I loved my mother’s lasagne. Today it would be a risotto a la Milanese.

Do you prefer to cook on your own or together with others?

I am quite happy cooking on my own, but really appreciate it when my partner Benjamin offers his assistance as a sous chef.

Which meals do you prefer, improvised or planned?

Either, I have no preference at all. Both can be fun, and have their appeal. 

Which meal would you never cook again?

Farfalle with strawberry sauce, courtesy of Sophie Grigson in the London Sunday Times. Fortunately, I had offered our guests a trio of pasta dishes, so it was easy to avoid the disastrous results of combining strawberries with pasta!

Maltese Kusksu

 

Maltese Kusksu

 

Maltese Kusksu

 

Maltese Kusksu

 

Maltese Kusksu

Gozitan Pizza with Ricotta, Goat Cheese and Potatoes

Gozitan Pizza

This is one of my favourite summer treats whenever we visit the island Gozo in the Mediterranean: the fabulous local pizza! It’s shaped like an open galette, the rim fold up to hold the richest filling a pizza has ever seen: ricotta mixed with goat cheese and eggs, topped with potatoes and crushed black pepper. I love it!

Every year, when I pick up my first Gozitan pizza of the summer from my beloved Maxokk Bakery in Nadur I open the box with hungry impatience to start the feast. We always drive to a near-by park above San Blas beach to savour our pizzas, it’s tiny but full of pine trees and oleander. The few wooden benches allow the most amazing view of the bay! While they others wait to get there, I’m often the only one nibbling on the first piece. No matter how hot is, it can be noon, the sun at its peak turning the inside of the jeep into a sauna, but nothing can stop me from enjoying this moment that I always long for like a child. The bakery calls this pizza a Ftira, not to be confused with the popular Maltese Ftira sandwich that I wrote about in July while we stayed on the islands. The bread for this sandwich and the pizza are made of the same dough, hence the same name.

Back to the pizza, I decided that the time had come to give this recipe a try, here at my home, to have  some sunshine on our plates at least – and it worked! I used my normal pizza dough and baking technique, I just folded up the sides for the authentic look and to hold it all together. The filling is rich, there is no way around it, it needs lots of ricotta and it doesn’t make sense to spare on calories in the wrong situation (and here, it would be wrong!). Luckily, my Maltese sister Emma had just given us a package of Gozitan cheese while she was here to visit us, the strong peppered Gbejna made from local goat milk. As long as you don’t live on the Islands of Malta, you will have to miss out on this treat but you can use any other strong, firm substitute.

If you get in the mood for pizza, here are some more recipes:

Pizza Bianca with Preserved Lemons, Chèvre and Rosemary

Spinach Pizza

Pizza with Grilled Aubergine and Pecorino

Gozitan Pizza

 Gozitan Pizza with Ricotta, Goat Cheese and Potatoes

I start to prepare the dough 2 hours before I bake the pizza to give it enough time to rise and I bake it on a hot baking sheet which has a similar effect to a pizza stone.

For 2 round pizzas you need

For the dough

plain flour 350g / 12.5 ounces
dry yeast 1 sachet (7g / 1/4 ounce)
water, lukewarm,  190ml
olive oil 5 tablespoons
salt 1 teaspoon

Combine the flour with the yeast and salt, add the lukewarm water (you might not need all of it) and olive oil and mix with the dough hooks of the mixer for a few minutes. The dough shouldn’t be moist and sticky at all, more on the dry side. Continue kneading and punching with your hands until you have an elastic dough ball. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with a tea towel and let it rise in the warm oven (35°C / 95°F) for 45 minutes (top/ bottom heat and not fan-assisted!).

When the dough is well risen, divide in two parts, and roll them out in two circles on a very well floured working surface. Each should fit on a baking sheet. Cover with a tea towel and let it rise for another 10-15 minutes.

 

For the topping

ricotta, 500g / 1 pound
firm, aromatic goat cheese (peppered Gbejna is best), finely chopped or grated, 150g / 5.5 ounces
parmesan, grated, 70g / 2.5 ounces
organic eggs 2
black peppercorns, crushed in a mortar, to taste (if you don’t use peppered cheese)
medium sized potatoes, boiled, peeled and thinly sliced, 6
olive oil

Whisk the ricotta, goat cheese and parmesan and season with pepper to taste before you mix in the eggs. Add a little salt if necessary.

 

The pizza

Set your oven to 260°C / 500°F. My oven has a pizza setting but you can also use top / bottom heat. Put the baking sheet on the bottom of your oven to heat it (for about 10 minutes).

Take the hot baking sheet out of the oven, turn it around and place it carefully on two stable wooden boards or mats as it will be very hot. Quickly put one of the risen dough discs on the baking sheet, spread with half the ricotta filling leaving a rim around it. Arrange the potato slices on top and fold up the rim, gently pushing it onto the outer potatoes. Sprinkle with a little pepper and olive oil and bake for about 8 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown and the ricotta filling is set. Repeat with the second pizza.

Gozitan Pizza

 

Gozitan Pizza

 

Gozitan Pizza

 

Gozitan Pizza

 

Gozitan Pizza

Hobz biz-Zejt u Tadam and more delicious Goods from the Maltese Rock

Malta

Today I will share some special food with you! I got a wonderful gift from Emma, my boyfriend’s sister who lives in Malta and came to visit us for a few days. She put a big smile on my face when she opened her bag and I saw all the nice food she brought for me (well, not just for me actually). Emma knows which food I love and miss so much from her home island in the Mediterranean, especially now that it’s been a few months since I was last there. Her gift reminded me of the taste and smell of this island which I got to know so well over the past years, during so many holiday trips and summers we spent there. Our family and friends, the food, the sea, so many memories connect me to this rock in the Mediterranean (this is what many Maltese affectionately call their home island).

This is a very personal introduction to Maltese food through my eyes and taste buds.

Whenever I’m in Malta, first thing in the morning I go to a wonderful traditional bakery, St. Josephs Bakery in Msida, to buy the most amazing white bread with the perfect crust. Every Maltese is proud of this bread and it’s famous for good reason. There are two different types of bread, the big loaf called Hobz Malti (Maltese Bread) and the round Ftira with a hole in the middle. Usually, I cut thick slices off the loaf, dip them in olive oil and spread the sweetest tomatoes and some crushed pepper on top which makes the Hobz biz-Zejt u Tadam (Maltese bread with oil and tomato). There is also a famous (and quick) beach version which is made with Kunserva, a concentrated tomato paste full of ripe Maltese tomatoes and some mint or basil in between two slices of this amazing bread. There’s nothing better than sitting on the beach after a long swim, this sandwich in your hands and your fingers staining with juicy tomatoes and olive oil – I love it!

Malta

Fruits and vegetables are heavenly in this sun kissed place, strong and honest in taste, ripe, with the flavours of a soil rich in clay. There’s not much water, but the sun and the ground make up for it. My taste buds are always disappointed when I’m back home and have to get used to the store bought quality again. Maltese sausage is another speciality I’m very fond of as it’s full of spices, the meat is coarse, its taste so strong that you can season a meal with it. Dairy products are limited, this rock isn’t really made for cows, but the Maltese make a strong cheese from goat milk which is called Gbejna, delicious tiny round cheeselets. There are two kinds, the hard one which is a bit salty, great for salad and pizza, and the soft one, milky and mild. On the photos you see the hard ones from Gozo, Malta’s sister island.

One of my favourite places is Busy Bee Confectionery where I get my daily dose of delicious cakes and pies. I love their sweet Mediterranean specialities like Cannoli, Cassata Siciliana and Ottijet (figure of 8 shaped tea time cookies with sesame seads). Unfortunately the Cannoli didn’t survive the flight very well so I can’t show them to you. On the savory side there is Qassata tal-Irkotta (a round short crust pie filled with ricotta), Pastizzi tal-Irkotta or tal-pizelli (puff pastry filled with ricotta or peas) and a huge Torta tal-Laham (Beef Pie), filled with tasty beef stew.

The colourful sweets are Perlini, filled with almonds, a traditional Maltese carnival treat.

Go visit and enjoy!

Malta

 

Malta

 

Malta

 

Malta

 

Malta

 

Malta