Sunday, August 17, 2014

As Good As It Gets

Something happens to the air n August: summer is far from over, the sun still beats down on you with great vigour, but as soon as night dims the light, a chill just settles in. The windows are no longer kept wide open throughout the evening, cardigans are dug out from the back of the closet...I'm still in denial of the imminent demise, and I have found the culinary equivalent of that too short summer dress I wear over leggings just to feel like Summer and I are still hanging out.

It's called dukkah. Hailing from Egypt, this condiment has several different spellings, and can take all sorts of forms, but it is essentially crushed nuts with spices. It is traditionally served with bread and olive oil, but it has infinite uses. It can be sprinkled over any and all matter of foods that need a kick of exoticism, or simply a bit of added crunch. The nuttiness twined with spiced warmth feels like a lazy summer day, and we can all use more of those!

Although, I've only recently been introduced to dukkah, it's been all the rage in Australia and New Zealand for a while and has greatly evolved from its original incarnation made with hazelnuts. The version below combines a few different nuts and seeds, but you can play around with the ingredients and proportions to suit your taste and cupboard content.

Yields 250g or about 1cup

50g/ ¼cup each blanched almonds, pistachios, cashews, and white sesame seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tsp back peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 clove garlic
2 lemons, preferably unwaxed or organic

Heat a frying pan until nearly smoking, and dry toast the seeds and nuts individually. Alternatively, the seeds and nuts can be toasted in a hot oven until golden brown.
Using a mortar and pestle, or a food processor, crush the toasted nuts until most are reduced to a fine dust and others are still coarse chunks.
Crush the toasted spices along with the salt until fairly fine. Leave the sesame seeds whole.
Zest the two lemons, and grate the garlic clove. 
Mix all the ingredients together.

Sprinkle over anything immediately, or keep in an airtight jar indefinitely -if it actually hangs around for that long. Dukkah is great for jazzing up hummus that is a little too blah, or adding a hint of nuttiness to a salad. But I think my favourite thing so far is to have dukkah simply sprinkled over a tomato. Divine!

Bon app'!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Salt of the Earth


Have you noticed any changes lately? It was so subtle at first that some of you may have missed it.... Yeah, I thought so, nothing gets past you! The days are getting shorter. It was hardly noticeable at first: one day, you're puttering about the garden until ten; the next, you slink out of work and it's pitch-black. And yet, August is far from being the end of Summer. For those of you who live in places where the night sky still offers unfettered views of the stars, there are the Perseids to look forward to on  August 12th. Can there be a better excuse for organising a midnight picnic? I don't think so.

I would normally suggest that a late night nosh be kept simple -more along the lines of liquid nourishment...-but if you need something a tad more substantial to sink your teeth into, how about a quick pickle to munch on? This pickle was inspired by a summer snack my mum often dishes out: cucumber sticks and miso. Instead of eating some gloopy, creamy dip with crudités, we would get a salty, savoury hit with each bite of cucumber. It is rather addictive.

Any miso paste can be used for these pickles, however, if you are a bit of miso novice, start with white miso. It tends to be sweeter and milder than the darker miso. In fact, I would stay away from the really dark miso (such as buckwheat) for this recipe, as their pungency may overpower the other flavours. While I normally use lemons for this pickle, you can play around with other citrus such as yuzu for a more authentic twist or even grapfruit.

Misozuke Pickles
Yields about 2cups/500ml

100g/4oz radishes
½ a cucumber
3 Tbs miso paste
1 lemon

Top and  tail the readishes, and cut in half.
Quarter the cucumber lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Chop into chunks more or less the same size as the halved radishes.
Zest and juice the lemon.
Mix all the ingredients together.

The pickles are ready to eat right away, but are best if they are allowed to rest for at least 20 minutes before being eaten. They will keep in the refrigerator for about three days. Serve these pickles alongside any Asian themed meal, or as an accompaniment for drinks.

 Bon app'!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Make Lemonade

Sometimes things do not turn out as well as expected. It happens to the best of us, and when it does, one should not despair but make lemonade from the lemons handed. Last year, the healthy growth on the potatoes foretold a glorious harvest, but resulted in nothing much. This year, the potatoes succumbed to disease and only gave a meagre crop. At least there was still enough for dinner for two!

Having no garden to speak of at the moment, I would never think to grow onions on the balcony. They take more room than it's worth. However, I just could not resist these decorative onions! They're so pretty, and -technically- edible as well. Even the bees can't resist them.

This cute fellow is North American wild garlic (Allium canadense). It packs a punch in its flowers and bulb, but has been known to be toxic in large quantities. Dogs should be kept well away from these.

I keep reading headlines about the end of summer (I know, crazy eh?), Summer is here for a while longer, so let's not dismiss her just yet. It's passion fruit season. Yes indeed! And there is no need to buy imported fruits: you can grow them yourself. It seems unlikely, yet passion fruits do rather well under less than tropical climes as long as winters are not too chilly. Where winters are frosty, passion flowers can be grown in pots, and brought indoors in the autumn. London gardens are rife with them, and if you are in the know, you can reap an abundant harvest. The more common passion flowers are rather vigorous vines, and are much too aggressive for a balcony garden, so I've been good about not succumbing to the temptation of getting a plant for myself.  

Until I met this little lass. She was too pretty to resist. And while I have yet to see any fruits forming, I remain hopeful...

Bon app', and happy gardening!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hampton Court

What started out as a rather ominous day turned out to be rather auspicious. All week, rainy weather was forecasted for today, and it wasn't until yesterday that I got a twinge of hope that a sunny window could open up in the afternoon. The ground was wet when I stepped out in the morning, and the air had a definite chill, but the sun was in full glory by the time I stepped off the train to make my way to the Hampton Court Flower Show.

I was, as I am sure you would understand, much too busy looking at -and desiring- plants that I did not have the room to own, so there is little evidence of the show's splendour. However, I did manage to gather my spirits a little to take a few snaps.

I'm always bowled over by the dahlia displays, since one rarely ever see more than a handful of variety in any given garden. 

So I can't help myself when I see two or three dozens exhibited side to side: it kind of feels like a family reunion!

There were so many beautiful plants and flowers that I found myself going round and round the marquees so that I could get a second, third and fourth look at specimens that I could not have for myself. I was rather taken by the Alliums (onion family), and have brought home three little pots. 

If only I could magically increase the size of my garden...

Happy gardening!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hello Stranger!

Oh, hey, it's been a while... I know, I keep zoning out, making excuses for disappearing... It's been a crazy busy summer, I don't know where the time has gone. The garden -despite being so tiny- has been keeping me on my toes, and the near drought conditions we had been experiencing up until this week have been relentless. The thirsty plants that feed me seemed like more of a priority.

But I have been thinking up LOTS of things to write about, and if I can just get around to sitting down to type everything, I just may have a few posts up my sleeves this month. On my mind -and in my belly- at the moment are gyoza. Though these little dumplings are now most often called by their Japanese name, they are originally of Chinese origin and were once known by the moniker 'pot sticker'.

The dumplings are wrapped in a round, wheat-based dough and folded much like Polish pierogies or Russian piroshki. The pastry is easily found in most Asian shops, though if you have the time and stamina, it can be made by hand. Gyoza wrappers are not to be confused with wonton wrappers which are square, and usually contain eggs, or shumai/har-kau wrappers which are made with rice flour and tapioca starch.

The pastry is often sold frozen, but I prefer to buy pastry from the refrigerator since any left-overs can be frozen. I also try to get the thinnest pastry possible as thick pastry results in doughy dumplings. However, there are rarely any indications on the packaging as to the thickness of the pastry, so if you do end up with doorstop wrappers, you can thin them out yourself with a rolling pin.

Gyoza are traditionally filled with minced pork and/or chopped prawns, but anything can be turned into a filling: as I eat mostly vegetarian fare, I replace the minced meat with crushed firm tofu. The most basic ingredients are garlic, ginger, spring onions, and Chinese cabbage, all in obscene quantities. Anything else is up for grabs. I sometimes even throw in left-over bits of cheese, if it's kicking about. The filling in the following pictures is composed of the above basic ingredients, tofu, bits of Cheddar, and kimchi, a spicy Korean pickled cabbage.

Yields 50 dumplings

50 sheets gyoza wrappers (about 300g/10.6oz)
250g/8.8oz firm tofu (more or less 2 blocs) -you can substitute with prawns, minced pork or chicken
5 green onions
5 cloves of garlic
5cm/2" piece of ginger
4 leaves of Chinese cabbage
½tsp salt
ground pepper 
vegetable oil

Optional additions: mushrooms; kimchi; diced cheese; grated carrots, daikon; Asian pickles such as bamboo shoots

Place the tofu blocs in a colander over a bowl, and weigh down with a plate. Let sit for at least half an hour (at room temperature), or up to a day (in the fridge).
Wash the green onions, and finely chop. Trim and peel the garlic and ginger, and mince or grate on a fine grater.
Wash the Chinese cabbage leaves, cut into three or four lengthwise strips, and chop.
Mix together the cabbage, green onions, garlic and ginger, and season with the salt and pepper. Let sit for 15 to 20 minutes. 
Grab the veg mix by the handful, and squeeze out as much juice as possible: you want the filling to be very dry.
Remove the weight from the tofu, and pat dry with a paper towel. Crumble the tofu into the veg mix.
If using any optional additions, chop finely, and squeeze out any excess juice before mixing into the veg.  

To fill the dumplings, set up a production line: fill a bowl with cold water, have a baking tray or a plate ready for the finished dumplings, remove the wrappers from the packet, have a few teaspoons at the ready, and clear out a section of your worktop.
Dip a finger in the water bowl and dampen the edge of one pastry sheet.
Place a teaspoonful of filling in the centre of the pastry: it is of the utmost importance not to overfill the wrapper!
Fold the pastry in two, and pinch the edges shut.
Crimp the dumpling by folding the edge over and over, just as you would a paper fan. 
Line the dumplings onto the baking tray, and proceed with the rest of the wrappers.
The gyoza can be frozen at this point, and cooked (from frozen) at a later date.

To cook the gyoza, heat a large frying pan to medium-high. When hot, add a tablespoonful of oil in the pan, and swirl about.
Place the gyoza in the pan, side to side, touching their neighbours is fine.

Leave the dumplings to fry until their bottoms are nicely crisped and golden brown.
Add about 1cm/½" of water to the pan, and cover with a lid.
Steam the dumplings until the pan goes dry, about 3 minutes.

If you are cooking frozen dumplings, double the amount of water added to the pan, and leave to steam for at least 8 minutes, to ensure that the filling is completely defrosted and cooked through.
Slide the dumplings onto a plate and serve immediately.
Before cooking another batch, wipe the the pan clean, then add more oil.

Gyoza are traditionally served with a dipping sauce made of strong mustard, soy sauce, white vinegar and chili oil, but really, any dipping sauce will do. If you are filling your gyoaza with different stuffings, fold the wrappers in different manners in order to tell them apart: the edge can be scrunched together to form a little hobo's parcel; meet up three sides together to make triangular Hamentaschen, or make a four sided version.

Alternatively, you can do the Shanghai fold: Pinch the edge in one hand, and with the other, crimp one half of the pastry. With the pinching hand, press the crimped edge to the flat back. The resulting dumpling should have a curved backside and a bulging front.

Bon app'!

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