Maltese Seasonal Spring Food!

Finally, spring is here! Looking at the calendar, the start of spring is widely acknowledged to be on the 20th/21st of March, that is, that time when light and darkness, the length of the day and night, are of equal measure. After that day, we start to realize that sunset is taking place earlier, and sunrise starts to be further off as well. During this time, the weather slowly starts to get warmer, the grass looks a little bit greener, and a large number of fruits and vegetables come in season.

Unfortunately, it is also a time when allergies seem to get stronger. Our bodies contain toxins, regardless of how healthy we are. This is why spring is also the time to flush out these toxins and one natural way to do this is by eating a lot of those greens which are in season, in order to cleanse our digestive system.

Broad beans, also known as fava beans, butter beans, or ‘ful’ in Maltese, contain an amazing amount of nutrients. In addition to a lot of fibre, they also contain Vitamin K, zinc, copper, iron, magnesium and the energy-providing Vitamin B. Ful also contain folate, which participates in building cells and metabolising amino acids. It is essential for growth (therefore needful for children and young people, not to mention pregnant women), cell regeneration, and the production of healthy red blood cells. Added either as a side-dish or mixed into an entrée, they definitely add a boost, not only to your energy levels, but also to your taste. 

Broad beans are the main ingredient in a popular Maltese spring dish – this is Pea and Broad bean soup, that is, ‘soppa tal-ful’ in Maltese, which is generally prepared with oats, vegetable stock, onions, peas, broad beans, milk, mint, parsley, and other herbs.

Artichokes (qaqoċċ in Maltese) are another spring vegetable. These are very beneficial as they can help in lowering blood sugar and blood pressure levels, and prevent inflammation. In particular, artichokes are enemies to ‘bad’ cholesterol and heart diseases, in that they not only reduce lipoproteins (which carry cholesterol in the blood stream), but also increase bile production in the liver, which in turn gets rid of cholesterol in the body. Artichokes also bolster the immune system, as well as being a rich source of fibre, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, calcium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and other beneficial minerals. Since they have the highest antioxidant levels out of all vegetables, they are also a primary means of defence against the effects of free radicals that can lead to a number of dangerous conditions, such as the creation of cancerous masses.

Filled artichokes, or ‘qaqoċċ mimli’ in Maltese, is a tasty Maltese recipe popular in spring, which consists of filling the leafy artichokes with a mix of tasty ingredients. The ones most commonly used include Maltese crumbled loaf, anchovies, tuna, garlic, capers, olives, and parsley.

For those who are not much into vegetables, strawberries might prove a tastier alternative. In addition to antioxidants, strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, folate, potassium, manganese, dietary fibre, and a number of other important nutrients. This heart-shaped fruit is also good for the skin, since its acidic nature causes it to remove excess sebum, that is, excess oil on the skin. Strawberry juice is also very effective in lightening skin blemishes and acne scars, and it can also be used in face masks to nourish and revitalize the skin. There are only 49 calories in one cup of strawberries, making strawberries a tasty and healthy way to lose weight, The health benefits of the strawberry also include improved eye care, proper brain function, relief from high blood pressure, arthritis, gout, and various cardiovascular diseases.

Generally, I prefer to eat fresh strawberries with milk or cream, however there are also those who eat them dipped in wine, not to mention children, who seem to prefer the old-fashioned strawberry and almond tart. In the end, of course, it is only a matter of personal taste. Strawberries, for me, carry the taste of spring. Chilled and with no extra ingredients or embellishments, they are the perfect snack.

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Herbs for Cooking and Healing – Rosemary!

Would Maltese food taste as good, if we didn’t add herbs to it? Many Maltese recipes would lose their special taste if we left out certain key herbs and spices. Rosemary (klin in Maltese), a herb which is native to our shores, is one of these. Being indigenous and pertaining to the mint family, this herb tends to grow on rocky outcrops and valley sides. Its habitat and also growth is similar to that of wild thyme, and these plants are often found growing side by side on our cliffs. It does not need a lot of water and grows well even when left to fend for itself.

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Rosemary is a very useful herb. Often called names such as ‘Dew of the Sea’, or ‘Old Man’, it was mostly well-known in folk medicine for boosting memory and improving one’s mood. A study conducted in 2016 by Northumbria University aimed at proving how the scent of rosemary oil could titillate cognitive emotions and researchers in fact found that a percentage of the test subjects exposed to the aroma of rosemary oil could in fact, perform better in feats of memory. It is no wonder that in ancient Greece, students would wear rosemary garlands during their exams!

This perennial evergreen plant has needle-like leaves and small purple, white or blue flowers. Apart from being used as a fragrant essential oil, it is also frequently burnt as an incense and used in cleaning and beauty products. Extracts from its flowers and leaves are also used to treat a variety of disorders, since it contains antibacterial and antioxidant rosmarinic acid. Its oil extracts also contain anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and antiseptic properties. Rosemary contains a significant amounts of Vitamin A, which is mostly renowned for providing vision protection, healthy skin and mucus membranes, as well as containing Vitamin C, which synthesizes collagen, the protein required for optimal blood vessels, organs, skin, and bones. It also contains manganese, iron, potassium, fibre and copper, among other beneficial properties.

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It is worthwhile to note that when dried, rosemary is more concentrated. Fresh rosemary on the other hand, can be used to make flavored olive oil, as well as for a number of tasty recipes. A good idea would be to mix fresh rosemary with softened butter or Greek yoghurt to create a delicious sandwich spread. Some well-known traditional Maltese recipes which use rosemary as one of the main ingredients include rabbit in gravy with rosemary and bay leaves, lamb stew, lamb rack with rosemary sauce, and poultry marinated in rosemary and olive oil. Another succulent dish consists of fresh lampuki, or any other kind of fish, baked after being marinated in lemon juice and rosemary.

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Rosemary, both fresh and dried, can be bought from any farmer, spice shop, or apothecary in Malta and Gozo, however if you prefer to grow your own, rosemary plant care is pretty easy. It is better to start the new plant off from another plant’s cutting, rather than the seeds. Rosemary needs well-drained, sandy soil and at least six to eight daily hours of sunlight. Rosemary plants prefer to be dry, so be careful not to water them too much.

This article was written by me and originally published on http://livinginmalta.com/miscellaneuos/maltese-herbs-rosemary/

Mini-break in Sicily – Day 4 – Mount Etna!

My short mini-break ended with a bang – in more ways than one.

First of all, we had planned this day to be the climax of the trip. We had booked a Jeep ride up Mount Etna, and were very fortunate in that, even though generally such a tour caters for 6-8 people, since it was December there wasn’t a high demand at this time of year, and the private tour was just that – private, meaning that we were to be the only two people with the guide!

That was very fortunate considering the fact that in the middle of the night, I had woken up suffering from sciatica. My back was really killing me and I had seriously thought about not going up Mount Etna at all. My condition was so chronic that my whole left side, starting from my lower back down to my left leg, was totally frozen and very painful. I could hardly walk. Which is why being alone with the guide helped a lot, as he could keep a slower pace, while also helping my boyfriend aid me walk.

As you’ve probably realized, even though I was feeling awful, I still went up the mountain! I couldn’t miss such an opportunity which might never come again!

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After we met our guide and explained my situation, we started driving up the mountain while we joked, talked, and learned about it’s history and volcanic formation. There have been various eruptions and lava flows, which created a multitude of craters, caves and rock formations over the years all around Mount Etna. In fact, on the way we stopped to admire just such a crater. The red soil, which once had been lava, was truly beautiful. The colors deepened and changed depending on how many years had gone by since the eruption. I did not know this, but the guide told us that even though during the first few years, the earth where lava flowed was arid, afterwards it actually became more fertile than normal and it led to the cultivation of certain plants and trees, which were very special. If, for example, one was to plant fruit trees, these would produce fruits much redder in color than usual, and with a particularly strong flavor and taste. There was quite a market for this kind of produce.

Afterwards, we continued our journey up Mount Etna. I could actually see the fuming craters even from far off, and I was so excited as they kept getting closer and closer! The weather was quite warm and the sun was shining, it was all so amazing and I was really glad I hadn’t cancelled the trip, even though my pain did not abate during it.

At last, we arrived at the visitor’s center which is almost at the top of the Mountain. We stopped and walked around, that is, I tried to walk while leaning on my boyfriend. The panoramic views were more than worth the pain!! I found out that our guide was also quite a spiritual person, in that he believed in the pull of the earth and that certain points of the land are special, which I do too. Mother Earth is truly a force to be reckoned with.

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We also went down into a cave which had been naturally formed and excavated with the passage of the lava-flow. There are many like it around the volcano.

Lastly, the guide took us for a short walk on the other side of the mountain, through a dense and beautiful forest that had sprung up in the wake of the oldest eruption. We had to climb up some rough terrain, which was not easy for me without the use of my left leg, however I had the help of two strong burly men (my bf and the guide), so I managed wonderfully. Again, the panoramic views of the other side of the mountain, and the small villages and towns of Sicily which one could admire in the distance, were more than worth it.

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In the evening, we went to eat at, I admit, one of the tastier and most delicious places I’ve been to in my life. This was an agritourism – a farm where they served very fresh, traditional and typical food of the region, all of it produced and cultivated by the family who took care of the restaurant themselves!

I am just so in love with Sicilian food! In my opinion it is the best cuisine in the world! And the portions… phew!!!

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P.S My sciatica did not get any better by the way. When we got back home, I had to take a week off sick from work and stay in bed for days before I could walk without wincing.