Muscat's got a small-town feel, best expressed in the extreme likelihood of bumping into someone you know, wherever you go; always knowing who to recommend to a friend for any service or product they might need; and my favourite, which is when you walk into a restaurant or cafe and the staff automatically send our your usual. I like it a lot, it feels like an episode of Cheers. You know - sometimes you want to go where everybody knows what you order.

I have this experience in Moorish (where the coal guys start stoking up a lemon mint shisha on my arrival); and at the Intercontinental's Tomato restaurant the ebullient Chef Mario sends out his famous frittelli and pesto when Maurizio and I come in. Amazingly light, fresh-fried strips of pizza dough that puff up and come to the table salted and hot. It's so tasty. It's my favourite way to spoil my appetite.






With great responsibility comes great power. As I explained to my two young nephews who recently came to visit, adults have a lot of Stuff To Do, but we can also Do What We Like. Nobody will stop us, for example, if we choose to have a breakfast consisting of, say, a bowl of Nesquik-infused milk and chocolate muffins and Oreos for dipping.

There are many foodies who prefer tiny bites of fabulous dishes to hunkering down to a huge portion of good food - the gourmets rather than the gourmands. Thai is one of those cuisines that normally appeals more to the former; you can eat a series of exquisitely scented, light dishes and get up from the table feeling satisfied, but not full. 

Last night Maurizio and I were invited to sample some of the Thai food currently on promotion at Shangri-La's newest restaurant, Asia, and I have to say we proved tradition wrong, and ate like absolute water buffaloes.

There were seven courses on the set menu, starting with a pretty little stuffed betel leaf, which sat there looking all innocent and tasty but had a chilli punch in among the fried shrimp and lime. Then came a gorgeous clear broth, Tom Yam Gung, which I would have tipped the bowl up for if Asia wasn't packed full of media personalities. 

The star of the show though was the rib dish in peanut sauce. Show me "slow-braised" on any menu and I'm there. The meat fell tantalisingly apart on the fork and the sweetness and thickness of the nutty curry was the perfect complement. So good I could have had a vat of it. After that we still had to check out the lobster and seabass dishes - the lobster one was sadly devoured before I had the chance to take a photo of it, but the rich red sauce pictured below is what it spent its last moments in. A good way to go.












Experts will advise that you should pause regularly during a meal to evaluate whether you're full or not. And I hear in some cultures it's polite to leave a bit of food on the plate; it signals to the cook that he or she has provided in plenty. That's not the culture in my house.

I am what is called greedy. Not indiscriminately. But if something is delicious, I'll eat every last morsel. So at home we portion accordingly. Hence this roast dinner: a chicken each, and two clean plates. 

(Favourite bits: the caramelisation on the bird, and the whole roast clove of garlic, infusing the rest of the vegetables and providing a little package of immune-boosting tastiness.)









I travel for work twice a year at least, long-haul to the USA. (Don't worry, I won't revolt you by blogging about airline food.) Once you're out of your geographical culinary comfort zone, you have to work a bit harder to get the good stuff. You have to find food to fit your taste, your budget, your timeframe, your immediate needs, and your social boundaries. 

In Vegas, home of the largest fashion trade shows in the world and therefore a regular destination of mine, it's easy to find decadent buffets and stunning contemporary cuisine at renowned restaurants. But I'm there for work, and on my own, so the last thing I want to do after a ten-hour day at the shows is get fancied-up and go for a 5* dinner alone. On the other hand there's no question of me grabbing a pre-packed, processed glob of some plastic-wrapped additive-fest off the shelves of the convenience store. I'm not a junk food person. I hate eating poor-quality food, even resent it. And it's not good for business; I get cranky if I don't have good food.

Which is why I love Culinary Dropout at the Hard Rock Hotel. If you had to fit it into a category it would be gastro-pub, but they've tweaked the concept enough to make it a stand-out in its own right. The decor, staff and music create a cool but laid-back vibe that manages to be hipper than the average hotel bar by far, yet still welcoming. The food is fantastic and unpretentious, with the emphasis on seasonality and flavour - I liked seeing "yesterday's soup" on the menu instead of soup of the day (they're right, it always is better the next day). Talking on here last week about salads with a bit of oomph, Culinary Dropout has a great example - kale and sweet potato salad, with roasted cauliflower, goat's cheese, pecans and pear shavings. Toothsome. 

My favourite option though is the antipasti - you tick off what you want and it comes on a platter with fresh crusty bread drizzled with really good olive oil and a bit of sea salt. 


 
 
 
 
What you can't get, you want. There are a few things, living in Muscat, that are not readily available, and that, as a result of that, I find myself craving.
Luckily I travel for work, and when I stop in London, the first thing I get myself is a fry-up breakfast. Not for the bacon (though that's good) but for the mushrooms. Oh I miss mushrooms! Real ones with that flavour of the earth in them. Fried in butter.
This is a mix of chestnut, oyster and button mushrooms, local and tasty, cooked just how they should be, and then...dipped into a perfectly runny yolk of a fried egg sitting on a sourdough slice to sop it all up.





Los Angeles is known for its health-craziness, but this iced tea and cookie from BabyCakes are gluten-free, vegan, sugar-free, soy-free, dairy-free and wheat-free...and they still taste fantastic. That's insane.

Wandering the city streets and stumbling upon a new shop or gallery or cafe is one thing I miss about living in London. Independent, cool little places to discover here in Muscat are a rarity, but of course that just adds to the surprise and delight when you do find one of these hidden jewels.

Mani's Cafe is tucked away on the top floor of Jawharat Shatti Mall. The clues are there as soon as you approach the cafe and see the gourmet goodies stacked at the counter and the chalkboard specials (is there any better universal visual indicator of a funky little eatery?) The menu gets your hopes up with words like homemade. Wholewheat. Organic. And the food really delivers. The soups are tasty and fresh; the pink lemonade for two is delicious and comes in a vintage-style jug. Interesting sandwiches and salads featuring pomegranate seeds and wasabi mayo are such a refeshment to see after the bland offerings in franchise coffee houses here. Mani's cookies are my favourites, perfect warmed up at home or dipped in coffee at the cafe.

  




When it gets cold and rainy in Muscat, you have to make adjustments. Stock up on candles; re-jig your regular routes to avoid likely puddle-ridden areas. And, the menu at home needs to adapt. The first sign of cloudiness brings out in me a desire for warming comfort food. So last week we ran through some classics like chilli con carne, lasagna and beef stew...all delicious but by the time the big rains hit we were ready for a vegetarian option.

Butternut squash, sage and goat's cheese are a beautiful combination, flavourful and perfectly autumnal. We paired these with a filled tortellini usually used in broths and soups for an extra satisfying warmth when the storms are raging.

A lovely light, sparkling and rosey cocktail we had on Valentine's Day. It's white wine, grenadine, soda water and fresh orange slices (and a little of the zest for extra citrus flavour.)

There are probably lots of ways to achieve true tastiness in Italian food - freshness of produce, recipes handed down over generations - but here's one quick tip to add depth of flavour to any broth or liquidy sauce, like in the pasta fagioli below. At the start of the broth, throw in the heel of a chunk of Parmesan and let it simmer along with the other ingredients. It's an addition that will have anyone trying it asking what you put in it, and a nice way to use up the husk of the toothsome cheese that would be otherwise discarded.



Food moments can happen at any time, at any place.

We got peckish on the way back from a day trip to Sifah, and detected the scent of deliciousness rounding a corner of mountain just before the village of Al Khairan.

Pulling over on the side of the road next to the source of the smell (smoke rising up from a makeshift barbeque), we met the family behind the venture, which is set up right outside their home. The father came over to greet us before getting back to stoking the wood fire that fueled the cooking, and had his son manage the transaction. I like buying from family businesses and especially those showing initiative - a smart move to have a food stand where there isn't another for miles this way or that. For 400 baisas we got one of the tastiest roadside snacks ever, smoky and juicy, with a tangy, herby sauce for dipping.





Maurizio, my husband, is from Rome. He's proud of the fact, understandably - after all, they did do quite a lot for us. Aqueducts and straight roads are all very well of course, but in my opinion it was when the Romans came up with lasagne that they really cemented their place in history. (They also invented cement.) Over the years I've eaten a lot of Maurizio's lasagne; it's the best I've ever tasted and he's kindly shared his recipe, which was in turn kindly handed down from his mother, his mother's mother, and so on back to the original Romans from proper Roman times.

The original Romans' lasagne was squared strips of cooked pasta seasoned with cheese and vegetables. For many centuries Roman lasagne stayed the same, and was called “lasana” or “lasanum” meaning a cooking pot.
In 1300 an anonymous chef, bless him, created different layers of pasta filled with cheese and, a bit later, in 1863, the editor Francesco Zambrini wrote about it in his cooking book. People played around with it a little more over the years, until it came to pass in 2004 that I met Maurizio and found the absolute, perfect, exemplar of all lasagne.


Ingredients for 4-6 people
  • 700 g of Bolognaise sauce
  • 200 ml b├ęchamel sauce
  • 300 g of dried lasagna sheets
  • 100 g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
(Make sure you get the Parmesan with that writing on the rind in tiny dots - all the rest is sub-standard.) 

Preparing the Bolognaise sauce

  • Finely chop half an onion, two garlic cloves, one celery stem and one carrot. Fry them gently in olive oil and add either fresh or dried chillies, according to taste.
  • Add the mince meat, about 500 g, season it with salt and black pepper and let it cook on a high flame until it becomes brown.

  • Now you can add 400 g of tinned chopped tomatoes. (The best brand you can get in Muscat is Cirio, available at Carrefour. It's real Italian tomatoes and comes without the skin.) Add a little salt and let it cook on a very low flame, stirring occasionally, for about 2 hours or until it starts reducing (the longer it cooks the better).



Preparing the b├ęchamel sauce
  • Melt 80 g of butter on a low flame.
  • Add two spoons of flour and keep stirring until it becomes very thick.
  • Add some milk, a little at a time, season it and add a pinch of nutmeg.
  • Keep stirring it, add a little more milk (by now you should have added about 150 ml of milk) and when it starts to get thick and creamy, leave it aside.

    Assembling the lasagne:
    • Cover the bottom of a casserole with the two sauces combined in equal amounts.
    • Then add a layer of lasagna sheets and cover them with the two sauces, as well as chopped mozzarella cheese and grated Parmesan cheese.
    • Repeat this step until the layers fill top of the casserole; usually 4 or 5 layers.
    • Place it in an already hot oven, about 200 degrees. Cook for about 25 minutes and that’s it! Grate a little more Parmesan on top and enjoy! Or, if you do have some leftovers, this is one of those meals that falls into the happy category of Even Tastier The Next Day.
    Funny how a method of cooking can have cultural notions attached to it. I'm from England, and to us, a barbeque is an event. It takes place probably once a year, if you are lucky enough to hold one, or be invited to one, on the single unpredictably, miraculously sunny day of the summer months. And to barbeque must always mean to party. If you griddle food it's not always a party. Except in your mouth. Nobody would expect to be invited round for a frying. But if you mention to someone that you are barbequing, they'll certainly assume you're having a gathering.

    Now being lucky enough to live in Oman, we barbeque in the garden three or four nights a week when it's cool enough, and these are just cosy dinners at home. Which means we've perfected fire-wrangling and sticky ribs, and often throw on some vegetables to have another day too - these charred peppers are in my top five all-time sandwich ingredients.





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