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Tags:   Skills,   Going out,   Cooking

By Colin Fitz   -  July 02, 2014

Ta’ Marija Restaurant in Mosta is a multiple winner of the national award for the best Maltese food restaurant. Knowing he was brought up in a family famous for its long-standing catering connections, SWAG asked its patron, Ben Muscat Jnr, to share some of his food-related stories and secrets.


When and how did you learn to cook?


I had quite an interesting upbringing as a child as we used to live inside Palazzo Pescatore at St Paul’s Bay. All the restaurant and kitchen staff were very much like family to me and I often got to help out while watching the chefs prepare excellent home-made Chicken Kievs, cannelloni and fresh fish. 


Summers in my teenage years were busy helping out in our pizzeria. My friends always got a special treat thanks to my mega-pizza and burger creations which saw all the tasty ingredients we could think of stacked on our hungry plates. 


I also remember helping in the Whisper Steakhouse kitchen some summers and this is where I had my first experience in using a charcoal grill. It’s also where I came up with my special Flambé Steak Diane recipe which remained in my repertoire when trying to impress girls in the years to come.


What are your favourite ingredients?


Since time now is so precious, having become a father to the adorable Mia not long ago, I find cooking pasta the quickest dish to prepare. My pasta al tonno sometimes has very few ingredients if I’m using fresh tuna; other times it includes onions, garlic, anchovies, cherry tomatoes, kunserva, fresh basil, capers, chilly olives and a final touch of home-made pesto. 


However, on a leisurely, free Sunday I love to prepare roasts with my favourite local pork, crackling and roast potatoes. It sometimes takes six hours to cook with its different stages of oven temperatures, sealed and open baking and gravy preparation. It’s a long process but the results are to die for!


How health-conscious are you when cooking or planning meals?


My wife Nadine and I go through various stages of dieting and healthy eating, so exciting salads with avocados, fresh herbs and roasted nuts, cleanly grilled fresh fish, poultry or meat, and savoury soups are the order of the day. But I must admit I can’t help, on occasion, using butter, cheeses, cream and bacon with the added glory of food fats to give that divine taste to our food.


What's your signature dish?


I particularly enjoy cooking Malta’s traditional rabbit in a stew style with a simple rabbit sauce to savour with spaghetti. Although this could be viewed as an easy dish, the timing of preparing the various ingredients, and the few key ingredients themselves, makes all the difference in having an excellent result. My training in this came from my family and the chefs at our restaurant.  This is a signature dish with a secret preperation method I will carry to my grave… and hopefully also enjoy in the afterlife!


From what you’ve been saying, we assume your cooking has been popular with your friends and with your dates over the years…


I sometimes reminisce with friends about our late teenage years, when I’d open the pizzeria in the early hours after a night out, and we’d cook and devour a 12-inch burger with fried eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon, pork sausages and maybe a slice of tomato. It baffles me that we did not show these unhealthy traits on our bodies then. Nowadys my calorie counter now would surely explode! 


As for dating, although its now a thing of the past, I guess that being able to offer a finely prepared dinner with wine and music to suit to a new date made my courting experiences quite a unique experience.


Has one of your meals ever been such a success that it’s still toasted and talked about today?


I keep being asked by my in-laws – and a very demanding in-law in particular! – and friends for a repeat performance of my slow-cooked roast pork and potatoes. It requires a lot of time so I don’t do it often, but the effort is really worth the time spent. There are inevitabely calls for seconds when I make it.


What would you cook your partner as surprise, romantic treat? 


Since having our baby last year, dining out has become a rare occasion, so my wife and I make our home-made dinners as special as possible even though the TV-couch meals are also welcome.


My special dinners usually involve setting up a table and chairs on our little garden balcony, a lighting candle and some chillout music we both enjoy. Now that summer’s here, they are usually accompanied by a nicely-chilled white wine, preferably a Sauvignon Blanc. 


I’m happy to say that a well-prepared main meal of meat or fish, presented nicely with some grilled vegetables followed by a simple dessert of fresh fruit and a tasty yogurt or ice-cream have always put a smile on my wife’s face. A good meal requires some preparation though. It has to start earlier in the day with a visit to our local fishmonger or butcher. 


Please share on of your favourite recipes with SWAG’s readers…


Sure! Here’s one of my trade-mark recipes: roast shoulder of pork with pork belly, in brief. Go through it to list the ingredients.

1.     Cut scores in the pork and rub salt, pepper and olive oil.

2.     Place in the oven at maximum heat for 30 minutes.

3.     Add fresh rosemary and cover in cling film and tinfoil.

4.     Place in the oven at 170 degrees for 4 hours.

5.     Add carrots, shallots, garlic and sliced potatoes at the bottom of the tray and cover in meat stock.

6.     Place the pork shoulder on vegetables and baste with juices from previous cooking.

7.     Place the pork belly on top of all and oven roast for one hour at medium heat.

8.     Give the dish one final oven bake at high heat for 30 minutes.

9.     Cover in tinfoil and rest for 10 minutes before serving.



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