First and foremost…my heartfelt thanks for helping me advance to the next stage of Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog contest–yippee! Now the challenges get harder! For this round, the objective is to create an “ethnic classic that is outside your comfort zone or are not as familiar with“.
While I had a vague notion to select an African dish for this challenge initially, another idea fell into my lap and it turned out not to be a great departure from the original one. I chose a north African neighbor: Malta.
Why Malta? The country wasn’t even on my radar. Malta came up in conversation over dinner with friends during my recent vacation. A debate arose about where exactly the tiny republic lies in the Mediterranean and as most wine-fueled conversations go, we quickly moved on to another topic and Malta was forgotten…but not for long. On my way home, the country profiled in the airline magazine was…Malta. Decision made.
The Republic of Malta is an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea that sits at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. While the country is tiny with a land area of just 122 square miles, it is rich in heritage as a result of centuries of occupation by the Sicilians (6o miles away, original inhabitants), Greeks, Phoenicians, and Arabs. Its proximity to Africa and years of British colonization also had a hand in influencing the culture.
But these interesting tidbits are beyond the scope of this post. My focus will be on the simple, rustic qualities of Maltese food. The country boasts a diverse cuisine with, literally, a melting pot of flavors. Maltese classics include Italian-inspired pasta dishes like ravjul (ricotta and parsley stuffed ravioli) and imqarrun il-forn (baked macaroni), as well as African-influenced ones like stuffat tal-fenek (rabbit stew). But in an effort to embrace this second challenge wholeheartedly, I selected two recipes that would encourage me to take some steps outside of my cooking comfort zone: Hobz Malti (sourdough bread) and Aljotta (fish and garlic soup).
The challenges were twofold I discovered. Besides tackling two recipes I’m not familiar with, I also had to educate myself about Maltese cuisine and find authentic recipes using the web as my sole resource. Normally, I rely on my cookbook collection and tried-and-true recipes online to prompt me to try something new. In this case, my previous assertion (Challenge #1) that the web is teeming with information was perfectly applied. Despite not having the time to order a Maltese cookbook and my favorite recipe sites proving that Maltese food is not yet mainstream, some diligent effort produced Maltese recipes that warranted trying. However, the success of this project remained to be seen.
Hobz Malti (Recipe here)
What could be more perfect for this challenge than for me to tackle my fear of kneading bread dough? I’ve shared my anxiety about this here, relying on no-knead bread recipes as a substitute. Hobz is a staple in the Maltese diet (a source of pride even), akin to the baguette in France, and is characterized by its crisp/chewy crust and a soft inside. It requires the use of a sourdough starter, multiple rising periods, splitting the starter and refreshing it, adding more flour and water to the other half and kneading it until the dough is smooth and silky and waiting for it to rise again. Due to the complexity of the recipe, the author actually recommended using the New York Times n0-knead bread method. But…been there, done that.
I’m pleased to report that my first attempt was a success! Following the recipe exactly and help from a lovely blogger friend (to confirm my understanding of a baking term) yielded wonderful results. No, my dough wasn’t perfectly smooth and silky after kneading it and yes, I had to refer to a YouTube video for the proper kneading technique. My bread did not bake as tall as the hobz I spotted on Google images (and next time I’ll use a banneton) but where it matters, I succeeded. Armed with a very hot oven and my trusty pizza stone, I was able to produce a crispy, chewy crust that I’ve never been able to manage with my no-knead recipes. This was truly a milestone moment and I am so happy to now possess a sourdough starter that will allow me to enjoy this bread again and again.
Aljotta (Recipe here)
Aljotta is a fish and garlic soup, another classic in Maltese cuisine that takes advantage of the Mediterranean’s bounty. Typical of most foods with humble origins, aljotta uses all parts of the fish to make a rich fish stock and is made more substantial by adding tomatoes and rice. It is present in most Maltese menus.
While less daunting than hobz, I was still apprehensive about making this dish. The challenge was not in the complexity of the recipe but in my fear of coming face-to-face with another salmon head to make my stock. A cringe-inducing experience, this earlier, unsuccessful attempt left me relegating any fish stock recipes to the bottom of the pile.
Fortunately, my neighborhood fish vendor gave me halibut scraps for the stock and I supplemented with cod fillets to complete the dish. Simmered with lots of chopped garlic, onions and fresh tomatoes and marjoram, this soup would rival any cioppino in San Francisco. The broth wasn’t fishy yet it tasted of the sea. The sweetness of the tomatoes was detectable, as was the freshness of the garlic and marjoram. Delicate and hearty all at once, I skipped the rice and used my hobz to happily mop up all the goodness in my bowl. Even my fish-loving-but-not-in-a-tomato-based-soup husband loved it.
The verdict? If this is the kind of fresh, humble, simple food I can expect to taste in Malta, it just might earn a spot in my places-to-visit list.
* Voting opens for this challenge on September 27. If I’ve earned yours, please cast your vote here. Thanks!