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Malta On My Mind (Project Food Blog Challenge #2)

September 25, 2010

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!


87 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2010 11:53 AM

    I never heard of Malta till I moved in my apartment. My super is from Malta and her apt aways smells great! I’ll have to try this one 🙂

  2. September 25, 2010 11:54 AM

    Just beautiful. You gave us a creative post brimming with exotic flavors and unique recipes. I’m so glad that you made it on to round two. I will be sending a vote your way!

  3. September 25, 2010 11:54 AM

    Malta has always been on my list as a travel destination. Great post! Good luck with round 2!

  4. September 25, 2010 11:59 AM

    Love the alliteration… Malta on my Mind! 🙂 And love that you conquered your fear of kneading dough. I haven’t conquered mine yet. I still rely on Dennis to make the dough in our household. But maybe someday. Lovely post, Jean. The fish stew looks pretty and tasty.

  5. September 25, 2010 12:19 PM

    This looks like a perfect dish for the upcoming cool weather! Good Luck!

  6. September 25, 2010 12:21 PM

    Malta has fascinated me since I was a little girl. Somehow I had a doll in Maltese dress and I was in love. And if I can expect that bread and soup when I visit – it remains high on my list. Yay for truly getting out of your comfort zone and creating a luscious meal.

  7. September 25, 2010 12:28 PM

    Looks amazing! The presentation and the recipe is just beautiful. Great job!

  8. September 25, 2010 12:39 PM

    I’m so glad to hear that you’ve overcome your fear of kneading bread because I still have that fear. It’s good to know I’ll be able to beat it someday. And that soup looks so vibrant and beautiful. I bet it smelled great. This looks like the perfect almost-fall meal 🙂 You know you’ve got my vote! 🙂

  9. September 25, 2010 1:08 PM

    Good entry. Knew nothing about Malta and the food, but now I know I wouldn’t starve. You did yummy job.

  10. September 25, 2010 1:21 PM

    So this is where those fish bones end up in, sounds delicious. And it’s so nice to learn more about Malta, makes me want to visit it.

    • September 27, 2010 12:01 PM

      Yes, the fish bones/scraps ended up in this soup. I was very happy. My store has even offered to freeze more for me and keep them for me until I need them. Isn’t that great?

  11. September 25, 2010 3:53 PM

    Excellent post!! Congratulations on moving on… I don’t see you stopping any time soon! Nicely done!

  12. September 25, 2010 4:10 PM

    Malta looks beautiful! I am proud of you that you did such a good job on the bread. I too have a bread kneading phobia. I always think that it is not going to rise. I bet it was all delicious. Great post! Good luck on this challenge and you have my vote! 🙂

  13. September 25, 2010 4:40 PM

    Wonderful post! Congrats on overcoming the kneading fear! Isn’t it a beautiful experience? Now I need to try to make Hobz Malti too! It looks wonderful!

  14. September 25, 2010 5:03 PM

    I have relatives in Malta!

    What a fantastic cuisine to select for this challenge! I love your entry!

  15. September 25, 2010 5:09 PM

    What a great choice! I feel I know a bit more about Malta from your post, and the Hobz Malti and Aljotta look fabulous.

  16. September 25, 2010 5:30 PM

    Malta here I come! Or maybe just reserving a vote for you is good enough. Looks great. Good Luck. GREG

  17. September 25, 2010 6:20 PM

    true to your first PFB entry that food transports us to different places, thank you for transporting us to Malta through your dish 🙂 +1 vote from me

  18. September 25, 2010 6:48 PM

    What an educational entry – you did a great job and of course, I really want to try that yummy soup! Best of luck!

  19. September 25, 2010 7:00 PM

    Oh wow… this looks GREAT!!! I can just imagine how good your home smells and I have to try this myself. Glad you stepped outside of your box and shared this with us… you have my vote!!!

  20. September 25, 2010 7:37 PM

    I am completely unfamiliar with Maltan food. What a great choice!!!

  21. September 25, 2010 9:11 PM

    This is so beautiful 🙂 I want to try it now!!

  22. September 26, 2010 12:11 AM

    Your presentation of this whole meal is so beautiful, I can almost smell the sea surrounding Malta! I was lucky to have had good friends from Malta while I was at college and they often shared with us their favorite Maltese dishes. Thanks for reminding me of how good they tasted!

  23. September 26, 2010 12:15 AM

    Well this looks absolutely amazing. It would get my vote for two reasons. The first one is that we spent a week in Malta a few years ago and I have nothing but fond memories of the island. The second (and probably most important – seeing as this is a food blog!) is that your soup looks fabulous. I want to make it NOW. Well done on the bread by the way – that would take me right out of my comfort zone too.

  24. trissalicious permalink
    September 26, 2010 5:58 AM

    What a coincidence! My seatmate at work is from Malta but I’ve never really explored her cuisine. Now I’ve got something to talk to her about tomorrow – am sure she will be impressed. Congratulations on advancing to the second round!

  25. September 26, 2010 5:58 AM

    Dont’ even know what Malta food is like till now. So great post 🙂

  26. September 26, 2010 7:26 AM

    So now I have a new place I need to add to my “places to visit” list! Delicious presentation 🙂 Congrats on making it to Round 2!

  27. September 26, 2010 9:21 AM

    Jean: This is in the truest spirit of what I interpreted for Challenge 2 of PFB. You went above and beyond going outside your comfort zone and educated yourself both culturally and technically. You’ve certainly piqued my interest in Maltese cuisine. Your Hobz Malti and Aljotta have made me eat with my eyes…professional and beautifully presented!

  28. September 26, 2010 9:36 AM

    Definitely a great entry! You’ve got my vote for sure! Both the soup and the bread sound amazing!

  29. September 26, 2010 10:28 AM

    You did wonderful! It has a decent shape, rose and was edible–that is all you can ask for when starting out. And *I* learned to knead from youtube as well. and I really want to taste this soup—I love garlic so much. I think my dad would die for it–maybe I’ll make it when it gets cooler.

    And good luck!

  30. September 26, 2010 11:47 AM

    I am not surprised Malta wasn’t on your radar! It wasn’t on mine till I ended up meeting a Maltese in London, marrying him and living here for the last 16 years! I am really impressed with your webby research on Maltese food. Sadly, while the Ur-alt diet was as healthy, and home- and hearth- produced as your chosen recipes suggest, it’s dogged by junk food and the nation is dogged by obesity in recent years. If you’re interested in reading a bit more on the ‘state of the (Maltese) nation’s food & diet’, see this: http://www.maltainsideout.com/10513/maltas-traditional-food-healthly-or-not/
    And if you want to try some desserts see this one from my blog too: http://www.maltainsideout.com/361/sugar-spice-and-all-things/
    My son (half Brit, half Maltese) just can’t get enough Cassata at our tempting cafes! An now following your blog to see what other nations’ delights you report on and try out!
    And thanks for coming across Malta! BTW, which airline’s magazine reported on us?

    • September 27, 2010 2:00 PM

      Liz, so glad you found this post. I wish I had come across your article while doing my research. It is disappointing, isn’t it, when simple, honest food takes a back seat to the processed kind. Thanks so much for visiting!

  31. September 26, 2010 11:49 AM

    Beautiful and informative post Jean, I have a friend who is from Malta and I will forward this to her as I’m sure she will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Good luck on your challenge, I’m voting for you:)

  32. September 26, 2010 12:38 PM

    Wow, this is a great post! I would love to try a big bowl of this!!! You’ll definitely have my vote!! 🙂

  33. September 26, 2010 12:56 PM

    Wow, Malta was never even on my radar and I am so glad you introduced to me to it! Coming from someone who also used seafood parts to make my stock, I can see your apprehension, but the soup looks and sounds amazing, definitely something I would like to try. And I am also impressed that you tackled TWO recipes and your fear of bread making! Great work and such a perfect entry. 🙂

  34. September 26, 2010 1:30 PM

    you seem to have conquered your bread making fears, it looks positively wonderful!!! and that soup looks so flavorful, I can almost smell those incredible flavors!! Good luck in this round of the FB challenge!

  35. September 26, 2010 1:52 PM

    Beautiful photos ! Congrats on overcoming your fear of bread making your two dishes are amazing. I’ve seen several documentaries on Malta but this is the first time that the food has appealed to me! Parfaite 🙂
    Looking forward to your 3rd challenge 🙂

  36. September 26, 2010 3:16 PM

    Well done, Jean! Beautiful photography, excellent geography and history lesson, and simply amazing food. Competition in round 2 is stiff!

  37. September 26, 2010 4:59 PM

    I don’t fear kneading dough myself, as evidenced by my twisted-steel pretzels. 🙂 Elegant way to make use of our local flora to address a faraway classic: Maltese cioppino and sourdough—I love it!

  38. September 26, 2010 5:28 PM

    i love that you went for a country that no one has heard of. great job.

  39. September 26, 2010 7:18 PM

    That sounds lovely! And your photos are amazing!

  40. September 27, 2010 8:19 AM

    Sounds wonderful!!

  41. September 27, 2010 9:28 AM

    Awesome awesome job with this post! I don’t know much about malta either but I’ve heard it’s amazing so it’s on my list of places to visit. Your bread and soup look just as amazing!

  42. September 27, 2010 9:49 AM

    Way to go on challenge number two! I’m so glad that your bread turned out a success! Everything you made for this challenge looks absolutely amazing, and you know you’ve got my vote again this round!

  43. September 27, 2010 11:46 AM

    Great blog post and you have earned my vote!!

  44. September 27, 2010 12:47 PM

    Voted! And I have always wanted to go to Malta!

  45. September 27, 2010 1:05 PM

    Very authentic dish, exquisitely executed…Congrats! You have my vote!

  46. September 27, 2010 1:54 PM

    Very nice choice, I like…I like it allot 🙂

  47. September 27, 2010 2:15 PM

    Wonderfully educational AND entertaining! Congrats on your success with the bread! Unfortunately I cannot eat any seafood but I am sure it was definitely good as you shown through your post.

    I voted for you in PFB and wish you much luck in your endeavors. Great job!

  48. September 27, 2010 2:36 PM

    Great post and a beautiful dish. Good luck moving to the next round!

  49. September 27, 2010 3:24 PM

    Woohoo!! you conquered your bread fears!!! The bread has come out so lovely!!! This is an awesome entry.. {voted}!!

  50. September 27, 2010 3:29 PM

    Ok, Malta is the coolest choice of cuisine I’ve seen so far. Voted! I loved this post, Jean – the photos are gorgeous and the soup looks absolutely delicious. I am a little worried that you don’t like fish heads though…because that means most likely, you won’t like what I have planned for round 3 (if I make it).

  51. September 27, 2010 3:53 PM

    Great entry you have! I love your dedication for this challenge! Finally, something from Malta. I guess you’re the only one who featured Malta for the #2 challenge. Good luck to us! you have my vote!

  52. September 27, 2010 5:06 PM

    Yes, your aljotta rivals any SF cioppino I’ve ever seen! So glad you’re competing in the second round and that you’ve conquered your fear of kneading bread. Both are creative and unique recipes that should send you to Round 3! You’ve got my vote 🙂

  53. September 27, 2010 5:23 PM

    Great post…and gorgeous pics!

    Kelly

    http://www.barbaricgulp.com/2010/09/project-food-blog-classics-challenge-2.html

  54. Sarah permalink
    September 27, 2010 5:37 PM

    This is really lovely. I LOVE your pictures, especially with the starfish. I voted 🙂

  55. September 27, 2010 7:52 PM

    Great post! You have my vote.

  56. September 27, 2010 8:00 PM

    looks delicious. Love the presentation too. of course I voted for you!

  57. September 27, 2010 8:30 PM

    Thanks everyone for your encouraging comments! It has been such a delight to read all your positive feedback. Thanks for your votes, too. Much, much appreciated! 🙂

  58. September 27, 2010 8:33 PM

    Hi Jean, It feels like forever since I visited your blog! 😦 Congrats on round 2! This post is beautiful and I love the soup and bread – it looks absolutely delicious. And the presentation is a winner! You totally deserve to win! 🙂

  59. September 27, 2010 9:44 PM

    Malta seems like an unatainable dream but you have turned it into a reality for me through a lovely dish. Thank you for the amazing message you left me!

  60. Sweet Artichoke permalink
    September 28, 2010 4:36 AM

    You have my vote!
    Malta is one place I dream of visiting and both your bread and soup look delicious! The pictures are beautiful!
    I will visit again soon 🙂

  61. foododelmundo permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:25 AM

    Malta has never been on my mind, but by golly it is now!
    Thanks for such a lovely post, you’ve got my ♥ vote! Hope we both make it to round three!

  62. September 28, 2010 11:40 AM

    interesting. Making bread is hard but very satisfying. I like the styling.
    Voted. (See my entry here: http://www.foodbuzz.com/project_food_blog/challenges/2/view/869)

  63. September 28, 2010 1:07 PM

    Jean, this looks absolutely delicious! Malta, who would have thought?? Congratulations on conquering your bread fears, and on a wonderful post!

  64. September 28, 2010 1:32 PM

    WOW! This is a great post. Makes me want to go to Malta. I chose Morocco. You have my vote.

  65. September 28, 2010 10:03 PM

    voted.

    congrats on pulling off the challenge. wonderful job!

  66. September 29, 2010 2:02 AM

    Great post and way to go on stepping outside of your comfort zone – both in the cuisine you selected and making bread using a sourdough starter. You’ve got my vote.

  67. September 29, 2010 9:24 AM

    I also have a fear of bread (well, baking, but certainly not eating)! I actually tried to conquer my fear by making challah for rosh hashanah this year… it came out ok, but was definitely not the right texture. Good for you for making a delicious looking sourdough hobz! All of your pics look beautiful… I’m rooting for you!

  68. September 29, 2010 2:40 PM

    Your bread turned out amazing – the texture gives it that rustic charm, embracing the Malta culture and cuisine. I will have to add Malta on my list as well once I start my honey-year next year! So much to look forward to! Bonus for your beautiful presentation; you got my vote!
    Lick My Spoon

  69. September 29, 2010 10:02 PM

    this looks incredible- love your overhead shots. you have our vote!

  70. September 30, 2010 5:11 AM

    Your soup looks delicious and your bread is gorgeous! What a super comfort meal. Good luck in this round!

  71. September 30, 2010 10:04 AM

    Wow! Makes me want to visit!!!

  72. September 30, 2010 12:17 PM

    Beautiful and worthy of a vote. My sister dated a Maltese guy for a while and visited there, but I don’t recall her saying much about the food. Now that that I’ve had a primer, though, I’ll know what to expect if I ever get that far 🙂

  73. September 30, 2010 12:41 PM

    I’ll definitely have to try this out very soon! Good luck!

  74. September 30, 2010 4:16 PM

    Better almost-late than never : )
    You’ve done a lovely job. My vote’s in. Good luck!

  75. October 2, 2010 7:03 AM

    The bread looks gorgeous! Glad you took that challenge head on!

  76. October 8, 2010 12:23 PM

    I’m going to Malta this Sunday. I can’t wait. I found your blog while trying to find something about Malta cuisine or food worth to try.

    • October 8, 2010 1:19 PM

      So glad you found this page. I’ve never been to Malta so I’m jealous. I hope you have a wonderful time. 🙂

  77. March 21, 2011 11:40 AM

    Well done for this post as I am Maltese Chef, I certainly enjoy this blog post about my country. I also offer some Maltese recipes on my Food Blog for those who still wants more Maltese Food for there dinners 🙂

  78. Chloe Waterfield permalink
    February 1, 2012 2:37 AM

    Ahhh, some of our best Maltese recipies here, I can almost smell them! We have so many wonderful cooks, both professional and otherwise, and some great restaurants too. I went to a fantastic one the other day, great food and service, and great value for money; http://theavenuemalta.com I really reccommend it 🙂

    Keep up the great writing, you have some real quality content here! 🙂

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