FOOD VS... MIKHAIL BASMADJIAN
Mikhail (centre) with co-stars John Montanaro and Kim Dalli in Angli 2
Mikhail's tuna and salmon negiri suchil
The actor's prawn negiri and tuna maki
Tuna carpaccio with watemelon and mango, part of Mikhail's ideal date dinner
Here's some marinated squid he prepared earlier
Mikhail's red caviar sushi and octopus dish
The Ukrainian-born Maltese star of too many TV series and award-winning plays to mention, turns out to be have quite a dramatic flair for cookery. He explains why the secret of any great dish is to be found in the herbs used in its preparation, and takes SWAG through a mouthwatering menu that no dinner date could resist.
When and how did you learn to cook?
I think, like in any other sphere, in cooking, the most important aspect is observation and trying to recreate what you see via experimentation.
I used to watch my mum and grandma cooking and was entrusted to handle knives at a very young age, so by age seven I was very masterfully assisting my mum in cutting onions, carrots and so on while the pots merrily hissed and spat on the stove.
I remember at that age I was exposed to a farm environment and I used to collect fresh vegetables straight from the fields, eating cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots raw, straight out of mother earth.
I have never been afraid of experimentation – eating tastes and habits are of course standards that evolve out of community life and express opinions that eventually become the norm. But it is up to each and every one of us to question that norm – if nobody did, we would never be eating rabbit in chocolate sauce or having bacon ice cream! And why not? So learning to cook is an ongoing process which requires love, creativity and no fear!
So you consider the art of cooking an important part of the process…
For me cooking is all about inter-ingredient relationships. However before understanding the marriage between for instance a carrot and ginger (with various other ingredients as witnesses and guests) it is important to know what each individual ingredient represents in itself, and what its optimal taste state is.
For instance when I make vegetable curry I cook most of the vegetable ingredients separately first, adding some herbs and spices that bring out their flavour and character, and only then mix them together so they begin to interact. In this way, hopefully, you get to taste every ingredient in its singularity first and then as part of a complex inter-relationship network, surrounded by delicious coconut cream, yoghurt and freshly ground spices and herbs.
As I said earlier, one should not be afraid to experiment. No recipe book will ever give you the exact proportion of ingredients. How many times have you followed the instructions to a T but the result doesnt taste as good as expected or even tastes bland?
Soy sauce is not the answer either! Mix, match and listen to what the carrot tells you.
What are your favourite ingredients?
Actually loving the ingredients is a very important factor when it comes to their preparation and reshaping via cooking, for that is all we are doing – changing their shape and structure. Love, plus the desire to create something that looks great and tastes good are key to successful cooking. For me, the rest is luck!
I love cooking meat: pork, beef, chicken, venison and lamb. Also, any type of fish, prawns and especially octopus. Im proud to say that my octopus has become quite famous at parties, especially among the theatre and TV crowd. Oh, the pressure to keep up my standards. especially when I have to prepare it by the evening and cannot find any fresh basil anywhere! What a nightmare!
For anyone who has watched the TV show Serenity, there is ‘a very special type of hell for people who talk at the theatre’ and also in my case, for people who cook, marinate or in any other way molest a fresh oyster, covering it with sauces, or baking it Kilpatrick with bacon – oysters are to be consumed as they are!
As far as veg goes I cook everything, with mushrooms being my favourite.
But rather than fish, meat or veg, the most important constituents when I cook are herbs and spices. It’s no wonder spices uses to be worth their weight in gold – they changed history. Cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, paprika, nutmeg and mace have become residents in my kitchen.
Moreover, fresh herbs such as coriander, basil, dill, marjoram, thyme, oregano, tarragon, thyme, sage etc are readily available from leading supermarkets.
I recently met a person who has been cooking for the past 30 years, and when I asked him what his favourite herb was he answered: “Oh I have never used herbs or spices before, I’m just starting to discover them!” Please please discover them ASAP I said: that’s 30 wasted years!
Do you like pasta at all?
When it comes to Italian food, I love to make my own tortelloni or ravioli with various fillings and freeze them. My problem when cooking traditional pasta dishes, and I have often been criticized for it, is that there is often more sauce than actual pasta in the plate, but that is just the way I like it! I want to taste the sauce. This is one of the reasons that I rarely order pasta when eating out.
Also, I cannot stand bland food. ‘Tomato with Basil’ doesnt mean cut up a tomato, add two leaves of basil and toss in pasta. There are ways of making the tomato more flavourful without killing the freshness. So for me it’s UMAMI all the way.
How health-conscious are you when cooking and planning meals?
I use extra virgin olive oil, avoid deep frying at all costs and always trim the rib eye from most of the fat. They say the tastiest things are bad for you and without fat there is no taste really.
Seriously, I try to avoid butter and creams where possible and use just enough olive oil for both cooking and dressing. If you really want to avoid all that cream, try a little milk with rice flower: it works wonders. And then while no one is looking, throw in a 100g of butter…
I don’t do desserts unfortunately. I have baked some cakes which turned out okay, and in the future I plan to explore the sweet side. I’m lucky because I have absolutely no craving for chocolate or sweets, so a little ice cream for dessert is just about enough. And the guests usually bring it along with them so it works out fine.
So your cooking’s quite popular…
When I invite people for lunch or dinner they don’t usually complain – moreover, they usually take stuff home and have leftovers to eat for a couple of days. Of course it’s important to ask what people like before inviting them – it’s useless trying to cook trout for someone who only likes steak fish, or does not like fish at all. So I try to clarify preferences before cooking for guests.
What's your signiture dish?
Octopus in garlic with fresh herbs, capsicum peppers and olives.
What would you cook a date to try and impress her?
How’s this for an impressive lovers’ spread?
Fresh oysters with lemon, and a shot of iced vodka. It’s something they taught me in Hong Kong: dish the white wine, down the oyster and down a shot of vodka straight after!
Salmon paupettes with cream cheese, avocado and prawns.
Carpaccio of tuna marinated in fresh herbs and watermelon.
Sushi – some maki rolls with spicy tuna, and some negiri with salmon. This takes time to prepare so she would have to be really special!
And Thai-style king prawns.
Or we could go the meat route: noodles with porcini mushrooms followed by barbequed marinated beef kebabs, served with a mild chilly sauce and small baked potatoes.
White wine to drink and vodka shots with the oysters. Ice cream for dessert. She’ll be asked to bring it…
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