The Pleasures of Pitta

I find myself torn between the Scylla of ending up with a blog that only updates once a year (though I suppose at least that would be nice and regular) and the Charybdis of turning into a monothematic food blog, since my last post was on that subject and the thing I’ve just thought about writing is too. Still, since it would seem a shame to put up such a short post just to say I was thinking about posting, I suppose it’s better to steer more towards the latter danger than the former one.

Recently I find myself eating quite a bit of pitta bread. It’s always been a bread product that I have enjoyed but in the last few months it seems to have become my go-to bread and I have discovered that it’s even more versatile than I thought.

A few months (or perhaps a year or two) back, I came up with an idea which is probably not entirely new in the grand scheme of things but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t (consciously, at least) borrowed it from anywhere. This is a tasty snack that I call a zapped cheese pitta and is essentially what happens when pitta bread meets cheese on toast (described by Bill Bailey as the National Dish of Wales). Or rather, what happens when I get a craving for cheese on toast but realise the only bread I have to hand is pitta and then decide that the microwave is quicker and easier than the grill.

Zapped cheese pittas are easy enough to make. First take one or two (or more, if you’re making for several people or feeling especially hungry) pitta breads, cut or tear them open and put in some thinly sliced cheese (as with regular cheese on toast, I usually use cheddar but a whole range of different cheeses work and give some quite pleasingly different results), stick them on a plate and microwave them for about a minute, leaving to stand for a short while and proceeding with caution as the cheese can get pretty hot. I quite often add a little bit of mustard, especially when I’m using cheddar. I’m sure other condiments could be used too. I suspect brie and cranberry would work nicely, and that reminds me of another pitta-related snack that I’ve enjoyed several times in the last few months…

Bacon butties (or sandwiches, if you prefer) are one of life’s great joys (and one of the reasons I don’t think I’d ever entirely convert to vegetarianism) and can be nicely enhanced by a slice or two of brie (and quite possibly some cranberry sauce, though I’m not sure I ever tried that). In recent months, most of the bacon butties I’ve consumed (pretty much all, sadly, without brie – although some have been enhanced by other delights such as maple syrup instead) have been put together with pitta breads. For these I might gently zap the pittas in the microwave to warm them through, and if I’m feeling decadent I may slide a bit of butter into them before piling in the bacon, but actually they work fine with cold pittas and no butter, just letting the heat from the bacon warm them through.

That last one was a bonus, as I didn’t actually have bacon butties in mind when I started writing this post. The thing that prompted it was in fact my discovery this evening of a perhaps surprising combination: a pitta noodle sandwich!

At the moment I am stuck in my office awaiting a meeting later on and don’t have access to my usual cooking facilities and ingredients, so I had a pot noodle for dinner. When I say “pot noodle” I mean one of the nice spicy ones from East Asia – this one from South Korea, I think – that are a bit cheaper and, IMHO, much tastier than the western version (which I pretty much never eat). To go with it, I had a couple of pittas and a chunk of slightly stale cornbread. I started with the cornbread, as that most needed using up, and it soaked up quite a lot of the liquid from my noodles so when I got on to the pittas I decided to try putting some of the noodles into the pitta rather than dipping it into the broth. It turned out to be very tasty (although I suspect not super healthy) and is probably an idea I’ll try again sometime.

Meanwhile it’s nearly time for my meeting, so I’d better publish this and go and wash up my fork.


Two sweet finds

Last Saturday I found myself at the other end of town from my usual stomping grounds.  This gave me a chance to nip into Aldi and pick up some of their pesto sauce, which I think is rather better than the one sold by my regular supermarket.

It was fairly crowded in the shop and I was in a bit of a hurry so I just dived in, grabbed 3 jars of red pesto (noticing that they didn’t seem to have any green in stock – not a problem as I prefer the red anyway) and made for the checkout.

Only later, when I got home and went to stow my purchases, did I realise that I hadn’t actually bought pesto after all.  Instead I’d picked up jars of a “Creamy and Smooth Tomato and Mascarpone Stir-In Pasta Sauce”, which happened to be in very similar looking jars (from the same manufacturer) as the pesto ones, and in the place I’d usually expect to find them.  In fact, outwardly, there was little apart from the writing on the label (which, admittedly, does fairly clearly say “Tomato and Mascarpone Sauce” rather than “Pesto Rosso”) to distinguish the two.

This is probably not something I would normally have bought unless it was on a particularly good special offer (actually it may have been, since it cost me about 50p less than I was expecting for 3 jars of pesto) but I decided that, since I’d got it, I might as well use it.  Like pesto, it appears to be the sort of thing that you can just stir into some freshly cooked pasta, though I’m sure you could do fancier stuff with it as well (I recently discovered that pesto works well in bubble and squeak, but I digress).  That’s what I like about pesto, incidentally, the fact that it’s very versatile and particularly useful for being able to put together a tasty (and reasonably nutritious) dish very easily when you’re in a hurry or feeling tired.

I opened the first jar for lunch yesterday and was very impressed by the lovely, creamy taste.  On that occasion I also threw in some sweetcorn that I had left over from the previous night’s dinner (tuna pasta – yes, I do eat quite a lot of pasta).  This evening I used up the remainder of the sauce jar just with pasta and it was still very delicious.

I found an old pesto jar waiting in my recycling box, so I was able to compare the labels.  To my surprise, the tomato and mascarpone sauce actually contains fewer calories (and also less fat, sugar and protein, though marginally more salt) than the pesto.  I guess that’s probably due to the fact that nuts (well known to be a good source of fat, sugar, protein and energy) are a staple ingredient of the latter.

Now that I’ve discovered this sauce, I’ll probably continue to get it from time to time, though I hope that Aldi hasn’t stopped stocking their pesto sauce since it’s a very useful addition to my food cupboard.

I made another exciting culinary discovery recently too.  I’d been given a little pot of cream cheese (something I don’t usually buy, though I quite enjoy eating it from time to time) by somebody who couldn’t use it and I randomly thought to try it on bread with honey.  It was very tasty and is definitely another one I’ll try to remember for future use.


On The Fine Art of Compromise

This year I have celebrated (and blogged about) both Pi Day and Tau Day.

If you read slightly between the lines of my Tau Day post, you may have correctly got the impression that, in principle, I’m in favour of the idea of  τ, which is the  same as 2π (i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius), as the more fundamental constant (mainly because it gets rid of the factor 2 in quite a few formulas and therefore renders them a little bit more concise and beautiful) but, because I tend to be (or at least think of myself as) quite pragmatic (or maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist), I don’t see any great likelihood of τ replacing π in general usage anytime soon (and, looking on the bright side, at least π gives us the opportunity to make jokes about pumpkins).

With all that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that I particularly enjoyed today’s installment of the xkcd comic.

Of course, pau isn’t a Greek letter.  According to my favourite fount-of-much-knowledge, however, it is an alternative name for bao (aka baozi), a type of Chinese steamed bun which, co-incidentally cropped up in an episode of Firefly (just to link this into yet another recent post on my blog).  Therefore, if we were to adopt the compromise solution of pau instead of pi or tau, we could celebrate by eating bao (and perhaps watching Firefly, or at least the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”).  It’s an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that the word bao sounds very much like the Welsh word baw, meaning mud and often used as a euphemism for certain other similarly coloured but somewhat less pleasant substances, as in the phrase baw ci (“ci” being Welsh for “dog”).

There is apparently also an Indian bread, from Goa, called pau, and a Hawaiian feather skirt called a pāʻū.   These could also make an appearance in a celebration of Pau Day.

Not bread alone

I have long been intrigued by the idea of квас (or kvass as it is usually transliterated, although the final consonant is not doubled in Russian), a fermented drink made from rye bread, popular in Russia and other eastern European countries.

Unfortunately it is not generally available in the UK (or at least, I’ve never seen it for sale here) and I didn’t manage to get any on my school trip to Russia in 1991 (which is probably about the time I first learned about it) or any of my subsequent visits to eastern Europe (although they have been confined to Romania and Hungary, neither of which are particular hotbeds of kvass fandom as far as I can make out).

The idea has occurred to me several times over the years to try and make my own, but it is only in the last week that I’ve actually got round to digging out a recipe and having a go.  I’m drinking the results as I write this and I have to say that it is interesting rather than especially pleasant.  I did read somewhere that kvass is an acquired taste and that does appear to be the case.  I can imagine myself growing to quite like it, if I keep on brewing it regularly enough, but on my initial acquaintance I’m not all that enamoured of it.

Of course, since I’ve never tasted kvass before I don’t know if what I’m tasting now is what it is supposed to taste like or just a result of my recipe, ingredients or technique not being up to scratch.

The essential method for brewing kvass (at least according to the recipe I used) is to dry slices of rye bread in the oven (mine ended up slightly toasted, so I possibly had the oven a bit too hot, although it was on the lowest setting), then steep them in not quite boiling water for a few hours, strain, add yeast and sugar, leave in a jug to ferment for a few more hours (I left it overnight) before putting in bottles (with a few raisins – I used sultanas as the nearest alternative I had to hand – optionally lobbed into the bottles, presumably for extra flavour), leaving at room temperature for about 3 days and then refrigerating and drinking before too long.

Kvass is slightly alcoholic, as you would expect from a fermented drink, but the alcohol content is pretty low (usually no more than about 1%, I gather).  I didn’t get round to trying to calculate the alcohol content of this first batch, although I do have a hydrometer which I could have tried to use.

It’s possible that the bread I used contained too much wheat and not enough rye flour, as I had a very limited choice in my local supermarket (essentially two different sorts of mixed wheat/rye loaves and no rye flour for making my own).  I only made a very small batch – about 1 litre, which I put into two bottles (with a little bit left over, which I tried drinking as “flat kvass” straight after the initial fermentation) and I have now just finished the second bottle (I had the first one a couple of days ago, shortly after I’d transferred them to the fridge).

I think I shall probably try at least a few more batches of kvass to see if I can get better results or develop a taste for it.  I think it could be quite a refreshing drink in very hot weather, if we get any this year, and it’s also supposed to be quite healthy.

One of the by-products of the kvass brewing process, at least with the method I followed, was a whole mass of soggy rye bread after the liquid had been strained off.  It occurred to me that this was rather similar to the starting material for a bread pudding (which, again as I make it, begins by soaking (usually slightly stale) remnants of bread in cold water for a bit, before mixing in raisins, spices and sugar and cooking), so I decided to try making it into a bread pudding.  I don’t know if it was due entirely to the extra wetness or whether the fact it was rye bread, but the final bread pudding came out quite soggy despite extra long cooking time.  It was very tasty, and much better than just chucking the bread away, but not the neatest bread pudding I’ve ever made.

In praise of the chapati

India is a vast country and, unsurprisingly, has a very rich and varied cuisine.  Probably because we live in a rather small country half-way across the world from India, we in the UK tend to underestimate the amount of variety in Indian food (and probably in most other aspects of its culture too).  I remember an incident that took place a few years ago, which helps me to resist making this mistake.

I went out for a curry with some friends, one of whom had fairly recently come over from India.  The rest of us were surprised to find that he had never previously come across naan bread, which we had taken to be a standard feature of Indian menus.  My friend came from Assam (in the far north-east of India) and had lived for some time in Bangalore (down in the south) and apparently naan is not eaten (or at least not often) in those places.

That anecdote is a roundabout way of introducing what I actually wanted to talk about today, which is another kind of Indian flatbread: the chapati.  Unlike naan, chapatis are unleavened.  They are very quick, easy and fun to make and are almost always what I go for if I’m making bread to accompany a curry or dal.  I assume that, like naan, they are probably not found everywhere in India but they do seem to be fairly widespread.  They are usually available at Indian restaurants in the UK too (at least the ones I’ve been to) although seem to be a far less popular choice amongst the British public than naan.

I gather that chapatis are traditionally made with a very finely milled, strong (i.e. high-gluten) and usually wholemeal flour called atta flour, but I have found that ordinary plain flour seems to work perfectly well.  Actually, I should probably try to get hold of some proper atta flour so I can carry out a proper comparison.  My method for making chapatis is something like this:

Put some flour in a bowl (I usually sieve it in to ensure that it’s not too lumpy, but if your flour is in good condition that step is probably not vital).  Add a pinch of salt and a dash of oil (olive oil or vegetable oil seem to work fine), then mix in enough water to make a reasonably stiff dough.  You need to be fairly careful adding the water, as it’s quite easy to put in too much and then it’s necessary to add loads more flour to rescue it.  Note that I haven’t specified exact quantities of the ingredients — unlike most baking tasks, chapati-making seems to work quite well with a lob-in-what-feels-right approach to measuring (the same way that I usually approach cooking curries etc.).

I quite often leave the chapati dough to sit for a while before I roll it out but it seems to work quite well without any sitting time.  That’s quite convenient as it means I can whip up a quick batch of chapatis while I’m waiting for my rice to cook (20 minutes, using a method I found years ago in a Chinese cookbook).

Divide the chapati dough into balls (roughly ping-pong ball size — again it’s a matter for feel rather than careful measurement) and roll them out into roughly circular shapes using a rolling pin and plenty of extra flour.  The exact size is not crucial – I usually aim for a little bit smaller than the diameter of my frying pan – and they should be fairly thin but thick enough to be able to transfer to the pan without falling apart.

Heat your frying pan good and hot and then fry/toast each chapati on both sides until it’s beginning to brown nicely.  You can either flip the chapati pancake-style halfway through or turn it with a spatula or fish-slice (I usually go for the first option as it’s more fun).  As with cooking pancakes, you usually have to be fairly patient with the first few, while the pan is heating up.  Later, they should cook fairly rapidly (and if you have an extractor fan it’s probably good to use it, as the cooking can get quite smoky and set off your fire alarms).  It’s not necessary to grease the pan much, if at all.  Usually I put a squirt of spray oil in the pan before I start and that’s enough lubrication for the whole cooking job.

Once cooked, the chapatis can be served as they are, or you can glaze them by rubbing a bit of butter into one or both sides.  That’s a tip I picked up from another Indian friend.  He used ghee (clarified butter), but I generally don’t have that in stock and I’ve found that ordinary butter works fine.

I understand that chapatis are quite often used instead of cutlery in India, which would have the benefit of saving a bit of washing up.  In general, I eat with a fork in one hand and a piece of chapati in the other, using the chapati to scoop up food or to brace it while I pick it up with the fork.  After a few mouthfuls, I eat the chapati piece and pick up a fresh one.  I usually try to save a bit of the final chapati to mop my plate at the end of the meal.

I don’t make chapatis every time I’m eating curry, but they are certainly a useful thing to have in my cooking repertoire.  I have occasionally made up a few chapatis to eat with other, non-Indian, food when I’ve been out of bread and short of time or inclination to make any more complicated loaves.