Wednesday, August 20, 2014

It's Now or Never

It's the time of the year to bottle up summer in a jar. Grab the first bushel of luscious, ripe, red peppers you can get your hands on folks! The spirit of summer can well be preserved in a jar of thick tomato sauce, but roasting a tray of red peppers will also preserve summer without taking too much of your time. Although you can buy roasted peppers, they are easy to make, and the flavour will definitely be better. Any pepper can be roasted, including chilli peppers, but do try to avoid green peppers, as roasting them will intensify their bitterness instead of enhancing their non-existent sweetness.

Roasted Peppers

Ripe bell peppers
vegetable oil, for cooking
olive oil, for preserving
1 peeled garlic clove for each pepper, optional

Pre-heat the oven to 250 °C/500°F.
Line a baking tray with foil, and pile on the peppers. 
If using garlic, cut a slit into each pepper, and stuff with a clove.
Drizzle with oil.
When the oven is nice and hot, turn on the upper grill, and place the tray of peppers just above the middle of your oven.
Roast until the peppers become charred and begin to blister, about 5 minutes. 
Using tongs, turn the peppers over, and roast until they are more or less blackened on all sides. It will take about 25 to 40 minutes.
Transfer the peppers to a heat-proof bowl, and cover with cling film or a lid. 
Set aside until the peppers are completely cooled.
Once cooled, the charred skin should slip off easily. Discard the tail and the seeds. 
Keep the garlic cloves.

The peppers will keep in a jar, covered with olive oil, for at least two weeks. However, for long term preservation, it is best to freeze the peppers. To really extend the summer warmth, try the following recipes: Romesco sauce, or a luscious mayonnaise. For something less ordinary, whip up a batch of Muhammara, a regular on North African and Middle Eastern mezze platters. You might have met it under different guises -and with a different name- all over the Mediterranean. In fact, the Spanish Romesco may well be a descendant of the Moors' muhammara...

Yields about 250ml/1 cup

6 roasted red peppers
3 cloves of garlic, roasted if possible
100g/1 cup shelled walnuts
1 dried chili
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 Tbs pomegranate molasses, optional
2 Tbs bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste 
olive oil

In a dry pan, toast the spices individually until they are fragrant. The seeds should be a few shades darker, and the chili should be pliable (no longer brittle). Grind the spices in a mortar or a food processor.
Add the garlic, and reduce to a paste. The walnuts are added next, and roughly crushed.
Roughly chop the peppers. Mix in with the other ingredients, and reduce to a chunky purée.
Season with salt, pepper and the pomegranate molasses, if using.
Add just enough breadcrumbs to make a sturdy, but not overly stiff, mix.
Drizzle with olive oil before serving.

Serve muhammara with fresh or crisp pita wedges, along with some babaghanouj, hummus and perhaps a sprinkle of dukkah. Muhammara is lovely instead of tomatoes on pasta or a pizza base, and is wonderful dolloped over new potatoes -instant potato salad! It will keep for about a week in the fridge, or 3 months in the freezer. If the breadcrumbs are an issue, add a few more handfuls of walnuts to keep the muhammara nice and thick. Although the pomegranate molasses is not an essential ingredient to this recipe, it does lend a pleasing sweet-tartness, but it can be left out if sourcing is difficult.

Bon app'!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

As Good As It Gets

Something happens to the air in 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'!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Summer in the City

Summer will officially be here in a few minutes, and the warmer days really seem to be here to stay. Just as well, because I think that most of us are growing weary of dull skies and drizzly days. The British asparagus season is drawing to a close, but there are many other seasonal produce to look forward to, whether on this side of the pond or the on the other.

June is all about the berries! The British strawberry season, like asparagus, had an early start, but this month also see the first raspberries and bilberries -a European cousin of the blueberry. Nothing says summer like Eton Mess, summer pudding, or a simple bowl of berries and cream!

Garlic scapes and other Flowers
New season garlic, or better known in Britain by its unromantic moniker 'wet garlic', should be available at the end of the month, but what I really look forward to in June are the scapes. The flower stalks are only produced by hard neck garlic, most commonly grown in Canada and in northern regions of France, less so in the UK. The curlicue flower stalks are decorative enough to grace a flower vase, but they truly shine in the plate. Finely chop them into dishes as a substitute for cloves of garlic, or keep them chunky and feature them in a stir-fry.

Just about every plant on my balcony are itching to flower, and many are edible: pansies, nasturtiums, oregano, sage, thyme... The list goes on: generally speaking, if the plant's leaf and stalk are safe to eat, the flower should be too. However, play it safe! If you are unsure whether or not a flower can be eaten, look it up before you throw it in the salad.

British gardeners seem to think that rhubarb can only be picked until mid-June. In North-America, it is a fact that the only way to prevent an invasion of rhubarb plants is to keep picking it until late August... Well, to each his own, but if I had enough room to grow rhubarb, I'd be eating it all summer.

There is a plethora of tasty, seasonal treats to look forward to, so do indulge in the peppery radishes, tender new potatoes, plump cherry tomatoes, and the first wild mushrooms of the year.

Bon app'!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

To Capri and Back

Everyone loves a good Caprese salad. The emphasis being on good: there's no point to a plate of tomato and mozzarella if the tomatoes are rock hard and as flavoursome as cardboard. So obviously, in May, when one is craving a nice salad, the Caprese would not be the first choice. However, if it's the soft mozarella you're hankering after, there is a way.

British asparagus are just about hitting their stride (they should not be far off in North-America), so -not surprisingly- I have been gorging on asparagus whenever possible. In fact, I've made a point of having asparagus at least every other day since the beginning of the month. And I will not slow down until the season ends in a couple of weeks.

So. About that salad. It's really not that complicated. Take a ball of mozzarella or a few bocconcini out of the whey, and leave at room temperature for at least half an hour. Mozzarella has such a delicate flavour that it is best appreciated at room temperature. You do want to use fresh mozzarella for this salad, keep the dried stuff for pizza and lasagne. If splurging is in order, go for some buffalo mozzarella or a creamy burrata. Meanwhile, boil or steam some asparagus until they are just barely done: squeeze a spear or two at the bottom end, if there is some give, they're ready.

Pile the asparagus on a plate -or two if you are sharing. Roughly tear the balls of cheese, and drape over the asparagus. Drizzle with a nice olive oil, or better yet use a nut oil: hazelnut really brings out the nutty notes in asparagus, but walnut may be a little easier to find. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a fresh grind of pepper.

Purists will cry out that a real Caprese salad is NEVER drenched with balsamic vinegar, but this isn't a classic Caprese: it's asparagus with mozzarella. And balsamic vinegar -it needn't be an expensive one- is rather nice over the green spears. There is no need to drown the salad in vinegar, just a few drops are enough to bring out the sweetness and counter notes of wilted grass. (That last remark may sound a little cryptic, but if you've ever had tinned asparagus you will understand...)

No need for sprigs of basil either, they would be superfluous. However, you will need to serve a generous amount of bread with this salad, as you will want to mop up all those lovely juices on the plate.

Bon app'!

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