I’ve been wanting to attend a cooking course ever since I can remember. I’d always imagined it would be in the South of France, that the weather would be perfect, and I’d consequently spend the afternoon sipping wine, reading, and taking leisurely strolls. That dream is still on my bucket list, but in the meantime I found something that fit right into my schedule – a course at the Mediterranean Culinary Academy. They have a few to choose from at the moment, as well as a couple of one-off workshops that focus on a specific dish  (e.g. pasta) or cooking techniques (e.g. braising).

Kotopoulo Kollyva pilafi and Imam biyaldi in the making

There’s quite a bit to choose from even when it comes to the courses – from the cuisines of coastal France and Spain, to the cuisines of regional Italy, or the cuisines of the Maghreb and the Arab Levant. There was something about a memorable meal on a balmy summer night in Greece that steered me towards the Cuisines of Greece and Turkey.

That’s me in the MCA apron

The courses run over 4 weeks, with weekly 4 hour sessions that include time to eat what you’ve just cooked and chat over a glass of wine or two. During the sessions you learn a little bit about the history of the area, and that helps you appreciate the subtle differences in the flavours you’re about to recreate. It’s good to remember that each dish is the result of the cultural heritage of the particular area. That doesn’t just mean that the ingredients must be available, but also depends on the lifestyle, how long the inhabitants could be in the area, the political ongoings, the weather, the soil, and the means available to the locals.

There’s something about these recipes that felt deeply familiar, like a life I knew – and simultaneously, they tasted exotic and foreign, new.

Of course the chefs – Michael Camilleri, Stephen La Rosa, and Keith Abela – make it look easy. Their patience, enthusiasm, guidance, and light-heartedness are choreographed into the lessons. Besides going through the recipes at hand, you’re also encouraged to observe knife techniques and learn general tips and tricks. The MCA kitchen is super comfortable to use, and quality tools are at hand to make your life easier. Obviously the experience here is rather luxurious compared to cooking in your own home. Someone else has provided the ingredients and anything else you might need to prepare the dishes. It is communal and you can ask questions at any time. You’re also being supervised in a way, so that if you’re about to make a mistake or need help before messing things up, someone if there to catch your fall, or stop your pie from burning as it were.

I’ll never forget the first lesson where Chef Stephen La Rosa demonstrated how to butterfly a fish. My first thought was: no way, baptism of fire, I’m going to make a mess, my fish is never going to look like THAT. Surprisingly, by following the simple steps, every one of us in class got it right. We delicately removed the fish’s spine and other bones, replaced its guts with fragrant wild greens, closed it up and cooked it beautifully. I have rarely been so proud of myself in the kitchen. It’s amazing what a good demonstration can do.

Chef Stephen La Rosa demonstrating how to clean up the fish

During the second lesson, we were teamed up and given 3 or 4 recipes for each team. There were no demonstrations this time (which I found a tad disappointing) but by the end of it, we all completed our recipes successfully. Needless to say, there was a huge feast at the end of the lesson, more food than we could handle, so we all ended up taking a doggy bag home to relive the flavours again the next day.

Day 2 – a feast of mezes

Overall I would say that if you’re into cooking (and eating) this is a course that will continue giving after it is over. It helped me rediscover my cooking mojo, recognise what tools I needed to help me cook better, and regain confidence in trying out new flavours. A course that provides knowledge and joy that is well worth it in cost, time, and effort. Thank you, MCA for a very pleasant experience that will keep on giving.

Day 4 – You learn how to make a divine baklava

Level: Competent cook with basic skills

Value: This seemed too expensive at first, but considering the experience, the quality ingredients provided, and that dinner (i.e. the fruits of your labour) + wine is included – overall it is a fair price

Venue: It’s not so difficult to park close to Sappers Street after 5:30pm, the kitchen is well-equipped and very comfortable to use

Chefs: Knowledgeable (with specialisations in different fields), easygoing, approachable, patient.


My kitchen is generally well-stocked, but when the time for my weekly or bi-monthly ‘big’ shopping spree is due, I find myself with a weird mixture of ingredients. I pride myself in having a particular talent of making a meal out of almost anything. Over the years I’ve learned to buy some extra staples for these desperate times. Even though I’ve often read lists of pantry staples to always have on hand, I think that many people will prefer to develop their own. Not everyone needs to have an extra jar of peanut butter, for example.

This recipe came about at such a time. Luckily, aside from chickpeas and lentils (which I always tend to have on hand) I also had a packet of pearl couscous. By the time the pearl barley was ready to serve, I had the whole meal ready. That’s how quick it was. However, I did trick my man into thinking I had been cooking for a whole hour…

For around 4 portions, you will need:

  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 medium white onion, roughly sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 150-200g yellow lentils
  • 500ml water or stock (if using 2 tablespoons of curry, water is enough)
  • 1-2 tablespoons yellow or red curry, according to taste
  • coconut oil or oil of choice, to cook
  • optional spinach, rinsed and roughly chopped

Method:

Boil some slightly salted water to cook the barley / rice / couscous according to the instructions. You may also choose to serve this dish with a side salad or naan bread.
Cook the onions, garlic and curry paste until the onion is translucent, taking care not to burn the garlic.

Add the lentils and water/stock. Cook for around 12-15 minutes, or until the lentils are soft. Stir occasionally and if the mixture starts to dry up, add some more water, a little at a time. Add the chickpeas and coconut milk in the last few minutes, lowering the heat and cooking until the whole mixture is hot. If you’re using spinach, add it now also. Try not to let the coconut milk boil.

Serve hot. The dahl reheats well and can keep for a few days in the fridge.


This article was originally printed on The Sunday Times of Malta here.

Between meals in New Orleans

I like to think of New Orleans fondly as New York’s younger, raunchier sister, who’s got more than a touch of a feisty European in her. I don’t know many places which are quite as musical. Day and night, in most random bars and even some cafes, musicians and singers are passionately belting out tunes.

Eating and drinking

New Orleans is a haven for seafood lovers, think of Po boys, so many different kinds of oysters, jambalaya and gumbo. It might not be worth going for the higher-end places, simply because the street food- style places offer delicious dishes. The fancier options might tend to lose their authenticity and layers of flavour. You must try the oysters raw or grilled, they’re usually comparatively affordable, rather large, and served on the half shell with an array of condiments (read: hot sauces).

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