#11: Maltese Qaqocc Mimli and Hobz Biz-Zejt

Yup, I made two things again. Luckily, neither recipe involves a lot of steps, so I should be able to fit them both in one post.

Before I get to discussing my Maltese dishes, I want to apologize for my increasingly erratic and slow blogging schedule. If you’ve read the “about me” page (or know me in real life), you’ll know that I have some significant health problems, including chronic illness. Most of the time I manage pretty well, all things considered, but in the last few weeks, on top of my fun bout of stomach flu and assorted stressful goings-on in my life, I’ve been dealing with some pretty unpleasant illness-related complications. I should be okay in the long run, but in the meantime, I have to spend most of my time lying down. This makes cooking and blogging a whole lot harder, seeing as I have not yet installed a bed in my kitchen or developed telekinesis. (Which is really unfair – I mean, in comic books, if somebody is disabled or sick, they always have some super-cool power that pretty much makes up for being blind or not being able to walk or whatever. I think it is perfectly reasonable of me to feel that if I have to be sick, I should at least be able to sauté onions with my brain.) So things may be a bit slow around here for the foreseeable future, but I’ll still be plugging away at this project, and hopefully I’ll be able to get back to my weekly schedule soon.

Anyway, on to Malta! Unsurprisingly, given its location, Malta’s food seems to be significantly influenced by Italian food, but it’s definitely got its own distinct personality. One aspect of that personality that became clear as I sorted through Maltese recipes is that the Maltese appear to be big fans of stuffing things with other things; I quickly found recipes for stuffed zucchini, stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers, and stuffed squid, but the one that rang my mental “jackpot” bell when I read about it was qaqocc mimli: stuffed artichokes. I love artichokes, and the idea of stuffing them full of tasty things sounded pretty darn amazing.

That probably ought to have been enough for me, but I’d already read many references to hobz biz-zejt (literally, “bread with oil”), which some sources called the national food of Malta. (The other major contender for “national food of Malta” is stewed rabbit, and while I will go to a fair amount of effort for this project, buying a rifle, learning to shoot it, and going after the local bunny population is pretty far over the “fair amount of effort” line. It’s possible that I’ll make a rabbit dish somewhere down the line if I happen to discover a place to buy rabbit meat, but today is not that day.) As it happens, several of the same ingredients are used for both qaqocc mimli and hobz biz-zejt, none of the additional ones were particularly expensive or difficult to acquire, and hobz biz-zejt takes mere minutes to prepare. And it definitely sounded tasty, so I decided that I’d make hobz biz-zejt while the artichokes were cooking and thus try two Maltese foods without significantly adding to my workload.

So, shall we start with some artichokes?

THE PROCESS

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Look at all those yummy green things! (Also some yummy sort of beige-ish things and dark brown things and black things and white things and yellowish things and…uh…anchovy-colored things!)

I began by rinsing my artichokes and then sticking ’em in a couple of large pans filled with salted water to soak for half an hour or so. (According to the recipes I read, this makes them slightly easier to “open” in order to stuff them later on.) While the artichokes were soaking, I started making the stuffing.

The first step in the stuffing-making process was to take my sourdough loaf and tear it to bits over a large mixing bowl. (I found it fastest to slice it up and then tear the slices to bits, but use whatever loaf-destroying method you prefer!) Next up, I roughly chopped my parsley and mixed it in with the crumbled bread. Then I chopped the capers, Kalamata olives, and anchovies pretty finely, and added them to the mix along with the minced garlic. (If you’re leery of anchovies, I will note that, used sparingly, they just add a bit of salty, smoky, tangy flavor. You do want to make sure they’re chopped very finely, though, because any remotely big piece of anchovy will definitely overwhelm other flavors. If you’d still rather skip them and have vegetarian qaqocc mimli instead, you might want to add a few extra olives and capers to make up the difference flavor-wise.)

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Fun fact: I vastly underestimated how much stuffing one could fit in an artichoke, so if you’re thinking “that doesn’t look like a whole loaf of sourdough bread in that bowl!” you are entirely correct. I actually made the stuffing twice, because the first version, which you see here, only stuffed two of my four artichokes. Artichokes are apparently very hungry vegetables, because they’ll go through a lot of bread before they feel stuffed!

Somewhere in the middle of all that chopping and mixing, I also went back and fished my artichokes out of their baths and shook them off over the sink, so that they would have a little time to dry off before the stuffing was finished.

Once all those ingredients were mixed together, I sprinkled on the salt and pepper, added the olive oil and a quick dash of lemon juice, and kneaded the oil in a bit with that big spoon (and, when I got bored with that slower method, my fingers) until the stuffing felt slightly moistened and stuck together enough to be, well, stuffable.

It was now time to decapitate (and, uh…de-stem-itate?) some artichokes. First, I whacked them against the side of the kitchen table a few times to loosen things up a bit, and then I cut them horizontally just above the top of the stem, taking off the lowest leaves in the process. The goal here is to get them to have a nice flat bottom so that they can stand upright. (Lucky artichokes – I wish I could stuff myself full of sourdough bread while still maintaining a nice flat bottom, or at least one flat enough that I could fit into my old favorite pair of jeans again. But given the choice between a flatter bottom and cooking and eating tasty things, I’m probably going to stick with the second plan, because despite what dumb slogans might have one believe, quite a lot of things taste as good as skinny feels. Including almost everything I’ve made for this project so far, in my not-so-humble opinion! Anyway, back to the artichokes.) Next, I sliced off the tops of the artichokes, so as to lose most of those evil little spines so I wouldn’t get stabbed while stuffing the things. They now looked a little like oversized green roses:

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Roses are red, artichokes are green, sugar is sweet, and so is…um…spleen? (Paging Dr. Lecter…)

Next step: actually stuffing the artichokes. I found it easiest to work from the outside in, while making sure each and every leaf had a portion of stuffing on it. For the harder-to-open leaves in the middle of the artichoke, what seemed to work best was to wedge one finger in there to open things up, ready a spoonful of stuffing, and then push it in right after pulling my finger out. Since wedging stuffing into all those crevices forces the leaves apart, by the time you’re done, the artichokes should look even more like flowers, assuming the flowers you’re used to are typically stuffed with breadcrumbs and parsley and so forth. If not, then they probably look slightly less like flowers, but they’re shaped even more like flowers.

qaq5
See? Pretty floral, right? (And yes, I AM too lazy to clean the artichoke stems and crumbs and parsley leaves off the table before taking pictures. I am a firm believer in cleaning my table precisely once per cooking session, no matter how many photos I want to take before then.)

Once all four artichokes were well and truly stuffed, I got out my largest cooking pot…at which point it was quickly apparent that my largest pot was not going to be nearly large enough to hold all the artichokes in their stuffed state. Luckily, a family member remembered the existence of a pot so ginormously huge that we keep it in storage rather than in the kitchen cabinets, in case we ever want to cook a whole turkey or something in it. It was fetched, the artichokes fit inside beautifully (just close enough together to help keep each other upright, but not so close together that they’re being squished), and that problem was solved. (If you don’t have a ginormously huge pot, you have two good options. First, you could just put them into multiple pots. For all that it’s good to have them all together to keep each other upright and ensure they’re all cooked fairly evenly, I don’t honestly think they would have fallen over without each other’s support, and this is a pretty forgiving recipe when it comes to cooking times, anyway. Second, you could halve (or quarter!) this recipe. I think these artichokes are best served as a shared appetizer, in which case one of them will feed a few people, so unless you’re having a huge dinner party or want to eat them as an entree instead, you probably won’t actually need to make four at a time.)

Once they were all in the ginormously huge pot, I carefully poured water in around them to a depth of about two inches.

qaq63
I lost a few breadcrumbs and pieces of parsley in the process, but I’m pretty sure there was still enough of both inside the artichokes. I mean, it’s possible that you’re looking at this picture and thinking, “Gosh, those artichokes look far too empty,” but if so, I think you’re setting some pretty unrealistic standards for me, and only my mother is allowed to do that. (No, I’m still not going to completely overhaul my life and go to medical school, Mom! I don’t even like medicine! I still kinda freak out at the sight of blood! LET ME LIVE, WOMAN.)

I slowly brought that water up to a boil, and then put the lid on my pot, turned the heat down, and let it gently simmer for about 50-55 minutes. Like I said, the cooking time here is fairly forgiving, as long as you keep the heat low and don’t let the water boil away. Once it got to about 40 minutes, I started periodically testing the artichokes for doneness by gently tugging on a leaf. Once the leaf came away easily in my hand, I knew they were ready. I carefully scooped them out of the pan with a large slotted spoon, put one of them on a plate, and added the finishing touches – a generous drizzle of olive oil and a lighter sprinkle of lemon juice. Then it was ready to eat!

qaq7
I’m all (arti)choked up with pride at how cool these ended up looking!

THE VERDICT

Tasty! And super attractive, which is nice, too.

Eating one of these is almost like having your artichokes with a dip, except each leaf has been pre-loaded with dip for your convenience. The tenderest leaves, near the center, were the tastiest, since they did the best job of absorbing flavors from the stuffing, but all of it was pretty good!

If I make these again (which is likely if ever I’m hosting a dinner party and want to get some oohs and ahhs, because seriously, these look spectacular in person as an appetizer offering), the main change I’d like to make is upping the quantity of olives and capers, and maybe adding some more lemon juice to the stuffing from the start, because I think they could have used just a little more intense flavor in the stuffing. Other than that, they were pretty excellent.

THE INGREDIENTS

4 large globe artichokes
1 loaf of sourdough bread
1 bunch fresh parsley
3 tsp garlic, minced
15-20 Kalamata olives, diced
3 tbsp capers, diced
6 anchovy fillets, diced
5 tbsp olive oil (plus more for drizzling)
dash lemon juice (plus more for drizzling)
dash salt
dash pepper

On to the hobz biz-zejt!

While the name is “bread with oil,” it’d probably be better described as “bread with a bunch of tasty stuff on it, i.e. an open-faced sandwich.”

As I mentioned above, this recipe shares several ingredients with the qaqocc mimli:

hobz1
It does add roughly 300% more tomato products, though. (Yes, I know percentages don’t work that way and 400% of 0 tomatoes would be 0 tomatoes, but “this adds three tomato products” didn’t sound as catchy, okay?)

(As I also mentioned above, I significantly underestimated how much bread I would need in order to fill four artichokes – which meant that it was lucky that I like sourdough bread enough that I’d gone ahead and bought two loaves just to be safe.)

So, about those three tomato products. One thing that came up over and over when reading about Maltese food was “kunserva,” a Maltese tomato concentrate that is essentially the national condiment. Many articles and blog posts I read stressed that everyone in Malta eats kunserva, everyone has a kunserva recipe, everyone pines for their grandmother’s homemade kunserva, and so on and so forth. While there do exist companies canning Maltese kunserva and selling it outside of Malta, I couldn’t find anywhere near me that sold such a thing. Since I wasn’t up for an elaborate, time-consuming process of concentrating and sun-drying my own tomatoes, I was going to have to improvise a little. And so I hunted for descriptions of what kunserva actually tastes like, and what I gathered was that it is a little like our tomato paste, but tangier and sweeter. I also saw a few recipes for hobz biz-zejt that suggested that, if one did not have kunserva, one could make acceptable hobz biz-zejt by slicing a fresh tomato and rubbing the cut side on the piece of bread. I decided that, since I like tomatoes a whole lot, I would both try to approximate kunserva and do some tomato-rubbing for good measure.

So, making imitation kunserva was the first step. I diced several sun-dried tomatoes, and mixed them into the tomato paste along with a pinch of sugar and a dash of salt. I put that aside while I cut two thick slices of bread. (Actually, I put it aside while I made the artichokes, because I figured giving it a while to sit and absorb flavor from the sun-dried tomatoes would only make it tastier, so I made my faux-kunserva before anything else. I don’t know that the extra couple of hours made a huge difference, but it didn’t seem to hurt any.) If you can’t find plain, bagged sun-dried tomatoes rather than the ones that are canned in olive oil, the canned ones would work just fine, too (maybe even better, since those often tend to be pre-diced), especially since the next step was to pour olive oil onto a shallow plate, and then dunk one side of each slice of bread in it, gently squeezing out the excess in any bits of the bread that got over-oiled. (One can also make hobz biz-zejt with toasted sourdough bread, in which case you presumably wouldn’t have to do the squeezing bit.) Once I had a nice, even coating of olive oil on one side of each slice of bread, I put my slices olive oil side up on a plate, cut my tomato in half, and started rubbing one half on the bread.

At this point, I realized that the whole tomato-rubbing thing would probably have worked better with pre-sliced bread (or toasted bread), because the slightly uneven surface of soft sourdough bread that I’d cut myself with a rather dull bread knife was less inclined to absorb tomato juice from the rubbing than to fall apart from it. So while the descriptions I’d read of the tomato-rubbing option told me to rub until the bread turned pink, I actually just rubbed until the bread turned a slightly pinkish-tinged version of olive oil green. Oh, well. I had my jury-rigged kunserva, and so the tomato-rubbing was mostly a backup plan, anyway. Accordingly, I spread a layer of faux-kunserva over the bread.

hobz22
The sun-dried tomato chunks kinda make it look less attractive and more clumpy, but (a) they’re worth it, and (b) they’re about to get very thoroughly covered up, anyway.

At this point, I had actually reached the end of the list of defining elements that make this hobz biz-zejt as opposed to some other kind of open-faced sandwich. That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to stop here when making hobz biz-zejt, though! Instead, it means that at this point, you’re meant to pile on more toppings out of a long list of options, some of which are more common than others. Since I was aiming for as much authenticity as possible, I went with ingredients that almost every recipe for hobz biz-zejt I saw suggested as popular choices. So, in order, I layered my hobz biz-zejt with canned tuna, sliced pickled onions, sliced Kalamata olives, capers (chopped into halves, because I had some fairly large capers, as capers go), torn parsley leaves, and a dash of salt and pepper. The end result might not have been quite so spectacular-looking as the qaqocc mimli, but it was still pretty attractive!

hobz32
Maltese food wins all the food beauty pageants. True story.

THE VERDICT

Delicious!

While this is, as I said, pretty much just a fancy-looking open-faced sandwich, it’s a really tasty fancy-looking open-faced sandwich.  I don’t know if my faux-kunserva accurately approximated the taste of real kunserva, but I do know it made for a darn tasty sandwich spread, especially combined with the olive oil, and all the other ingredients played very well together. I actually ended up making hobz biz-zejt for my lunch the next day, and the day after that as well, since I had leftover faux-kunserva and this was an eminently craveable quick meal. Honestly, I think I may have liked this even better than the qaqocc mimli, although they’re different enough both in flavor profile (despite the overlapping ingredients) and in the situations in which one would most likely serve/eat them (i.e. fancy dinner party appetizer vs. quick lunch) that it’s hard to make a direct comparison. I think it’s the improved ratio of deliciousness to time and effort required that nudges hobz biz-zejt into a slight lead for me.

When (not if) I make this again, I’ll change nothing at all, unless I happen to be out of one of the ingredients or something. This was great, and I have no doubt it’s going to be a frequent quick, tasty lunch for the rest of my life.

THE INGREDIENTS

For the “kunserva”:

1 can tomato paste
handful of sundried tomatoes, diced
generous pinch sugar
dash salt

For the rest of the sandwich:

sourdough bread, cut in thick slices
tomato
canned albacore tuna
pickled/cocktail onions, chopped
Kalamata olives, chopped
capers, chopped
fresh parsley
salt & pepper to taste

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