Monday, January 13, 2014

An Introduction to Maltese Cuisine: Minestra Tal-Haxix

Besides saving the world as an intern at the NGO I’m working for, one of my goals during my stay in Malta is to cook traditional Maltese foods. And, if the need came up, make them gluten free. It’s a way to further integrate into the culture I’ve thrown myself into, and also a motivation to be more active on Meals with Morri.

It is very apparent that Malta’s cuisine is directly affected by its history and geography, particularly showing strong English and Sicilian influence, as well as representations of Mediterranean (also including Spanish and French) and Arabic (North African, mostly) influence based on the residents on the island. The majority of the country’s foodstuffs has been and is imported, but since it is positioned along important trade routes between Europe and Africa, it had opened Maltese cuisine to outside influences very early on. The food is also heavily season-based and faith-based, two things I look forward to learning about during my yearlong stay.

Since awakening the foodie aspect of myself, I have developed a philosophy about culture: you know a people by the bread they eat. Think about it. It’s absolutely fascinating to observe what sort of bread a culture eats and why, and what flours were used in place of wheat due to geography and access. The bakeries here give off intoxicating aromas of yeast, rising dough, and sweet treats that are said to be wonderful accompaniments to any meal. The Maltese are famous for their baked goods, and sometimes I wish I could say “food sensitivities and health issues be d*mned” and take a bite of their amazing breads. There are days I feel cheated somehow, not being able to know this vibrant culture more because of this minor detail. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to worry about it.

But that’s a post for some other time. This post is about soup, and a recipe that almost overflowed onto the stovetop.

For inspiration in what I wanted to make, I went onto a community website for Maltese recipes. The beauty of this national cuisine is how family-oriented it is and its incorporation of the many ethnicities and cultures that helped make Malta the vivacious country it is today. In other words, it is hard to find a recipe for two, but you can definitely find a meal for eight… or days of leftovers for a Morri living on her own for the first time ever.

The soup I chose was Ministra Tal-Haxix, which literally translates to ‘minestrone with vegetables’. It is the Maltese version similar to the famous Italian Minestrone, a vegetable soup with noodles, a wide variety of veggies, and in this case, favetta. It’s extremely nourishing and filling, and I could imagine families warming themselves up on a rainy winter day (and believe me, it does get rainy) with a hearty bowl as a starter to the main meal.

When I examined the recipe I found online, I also looked at a comment someone posted and included their suggestions into the final product. Instead of turnips, I incorporated the kohlrabi and favetta (split fava beans). And instead of using one pot, I ended up using three. Why? Because vegetables such as pumpkin, cauliflower, cabbage, and kohlrabi add up in bulk, and my soup pot was completely filled to the top with vegetable goodness. That, and I thought the pot I had would be adequate, considering it’s only me in the apartment. But alas, it wasn’t tall enough. So the favetta and noodles were boiled separately to insure a balanced serving for each bowl, and the cabbage was put through the pressure cooker and mixed in when the other vegetables had cooked down. And for the love of soup, people, do not add more water than instructed. I did to cover the vegetables (i.e., perhaps half an inch or a little over a centimeter from the top), and I am still amazed I didn’t make more of a mess than I had.

Regardless, it turned out deliciously, and it freezes well as individual servings. (It’s also great for those wonderful vegetarian partners currently residing in Rome and who is visiting in a couple of weeks [*hint hint*].) You may need to add more water when reheating, because the beans and noodles may absorb more water after the initial cooking process. Warm it up and top it with cracked black pepper, fresh garlic (finely chopped or crushed), and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Minestra Tal-Haxix (Maltese Minestrone Soup)

200 g Gluten free rotini pasta (or a small pasta type equivalent)
250 g Dried favetta*
2 Zucchini, finely diced
4 Medium potatoes, finely diced**
2 Onions, finely diced***
475 g Pumpkin, finely diced****
1 Small cabbage, finely chopped
1 Small cauliflower, finely chopped
2 Celery stalks, finely diced
2 Tomatoes, finely diced
2 Carrots, finely diced
1 Kohlrabi bulb, finely diced
1 tsp. Tomato puree
750 ml Water
2 tsp. Sea salt
Olive oil

Parmesan cheese, finely grated (optional)
Garlic cloves, finely chopped (optional)

Soak the favetta over night and cook in the pressure cooker before putting the soup together.
Boil the noodles as instructed on the package al dente and also set aside.
Chop all the vegetables and place them in a tall pot.
Add the water, tomato puree and salt.
Bring to boil and let simmer until vegetables are tender, and add a spoonful of olive oil. Add the pasta and favetta and keep simmering until the pasta is fully cooked.
Serve hot with the grated Parmesan cheese and fresh garlic. 

Makes 6 - 8 servings

* As I said, favetta are split fava beans. You can soak them the night before and add them with the veggies, or do as I have instructed for the recipe.
** Along with their amazing bread, the Maltese Derby Potato is famous for it’s silky texture, buttery overtones, and usage over a variety of dishes in Maltese cuisine.
*** Preferably red onions (I don’t know the species of the Maltese red onion, only that they are strong and sold locally)
**** Fresh pumpkin is sold by the slice here, which I’m sure will further encourage my pumpkin addiction and put it in everything I eat.

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