Thursday, 28 February 2013

Ebony Inside

Polpette di Melanzane con Cuore di Oliva & Salsa di Pomodorini
Eggplant "Meatballs" with Olive Center and Cherry Tomato Salsa

Eggplants and olives are made for each other- but being as they are both on good terms with basil and tomatoes, I thought I should bring them together this evening and let them get to know each other a little. My first experience with eggplant "meatballs" or fritters, was not the best and alas I was left with a sense of disappointment... I couldn't help thinking that there had to be a way to turn something that sounds like a great idea into an equally grand reality. And so behold- my version!

Most recipes for eggplant fritters entail a soft cheese center and deep frying- 2 things I am not fond of, right from the get-go. They were also a little too soft and didn't quite have enough bite for my taste... sigh! But fortunately, these are easy problems to remedy- and this is how I managed to do it and to make something that was much more satisfying for me- and hopefully for all of you good people too!

Most recipes call for the eggplant to be baked in the oven first, then scraped out and puréed- but I decided to try something completely different. I started off by peeling and finely slicing my eggplant- I had half of one of those beautiful, large, purple Italian eggplants- but the equivalent amount would be one regular, medium-sized black one. I popped the finely sliced eggplant, half a clove of garlic and half of a finely chopped onion into my steam-rack, popped it into a saucepan with a little water and let it steam away for 15 minutes. I have one of those little stainless steel inserts that opens up like a little Sputnik satellite... I love that thing- it is so useful- especially for this preparation!

After 15 minutes, the eggplant was lovely and soft, as was the garlic and onion- and the flavors were wonderfully infused together- excellent stuff! I let it cool for a few minutes and then using a wooden spoon, squeezed out the excess moisture, straight through the steam-rack which of course serves as a wonderful sieve in this case- practical! The next thing I did was to add a handful of chopped parsley and basil, some salt and pepper and a good sprinkle of bread crumbs. I stirred everything together briskly with a fork until it began to form into a firm consistency, adding more a little at a time until it was nice and firm- I suppose it will depend on the size of your eggplant and how moist it was. 

Next, I cracked an egg, beat it, added half to the eggplant mixture and set half aside to bread the meatballs later on. Now that the egg was added, the mixture was smoother, but softer. I then added a nice sprinkle of grated salted Ricotta cheese- a small handful and again, as much bread crumb as needed to make it into a firm enough consistency to shape into balls. I rolled the balls out with moistened hands, so that they would not stick and were easier to manage, flattened the balls out a little on the palm of my hand, pressed a black olive into the center of each one and then folded the mixture together into a ball again. All that needed to be done then, was to dip them first in the beaten egg dip and then into more bread crumbs ready for frying... so easy!

I fried the eggplant balls in just a little olive oil in a regular non stick pan- they worked perfectly well and I preferred not to deep fry mine, but of course that is also an option! In any case, whilst they were frying away, I made a basic, rustic, cherry tomato salsa, by frying together the other half of the finely chopped onion and garlic clove, a little finely chopped basil and the cherry tomatoes, which I cut into quarters- it only took 5-6 of them for one generous serving. After sautéing them in a little olive oil for 5 minutes or so, I added a tablespoon of tomato paste, salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of cayenne and a tiny pinch of cinnamon. I deglazed the frying pan after a minute or so of adding the paste, with enough boiling water to cover the base of the pan, stirred everything together well so that the paste was totally dissolved and then turned the heat down to a low simmer for 4-5 minutes.

By that time, the eggplant balls were wonderfully golden brown and crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside- with that tangy black olive in the middle- yum! What a wonderful combination with the zingy tomato salsa! A basil leaf or two as a garnish and a light sprinkle of grated salted Ricotta, a last drop or two of olive oil... and dinner was served!

And yes- again I am sure you are going to love it!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Savor the Flavor!

Melanzane alla Menta con Polenta al Pomodoro & Ricotta
Minted Eggplant on Tomato Polenta & Ricotta

Some flavors go together wonderfully- like eggplant, garlic and mint for example, or polenta, basil and tomato. So what could be better than the combination of these great combinations? With their full, rich flavors combining with fresh ricotta cheese, this was wonderful but simple vegetarian meal, ready in perhaps 30 minutes and perfect to warm you up on a Winter's night...

These are wonderful, classic Italian flavors and ingredients and this is good, healthy, down-to-earth food and that is the best part of it! I love food that is as good for you as it is tasty- just good fresh produce, tasty herbs and spices, low fat, high flavor and no fuss! I neither like junk-food nor pretentious "gourmet" tomfoolery- keep it real and make it fun!

For the polenta, I started off with a little finely chopped onion and garlic, which I sautéed in just a little olive oil until the onion became translucent and then I added a good pinch each of both finely chopped basil and parsley. Next came a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, which I stirred in well for a minute or two- this gets rid of any bitterness you might get if you just squeeze it in straight from the tube... apparently ;-) 

I then deglazed the pan with boiling water, stirring up all of the good flavor and dissolving the tomato paste until it was just a light, red broth and there was just enough water in the frying pan to cover it. I seasoned it with salt, pepper, a little nutmeg, a leaf of bay and a pinch of cayenne, then added 3 tablespoons of polenta... this was plenty for one generous serving. I stirred it in and of course it soon absorbed all of the water and became a thick paste... so I thinned it down with a little more water and let it bubble away at a low simmer, stirring occasionally. I repeated this procedure a further 2-3 times in the duration of the cooking time of a further 15 minutes... but whilst I did that, I prepared my minty eggplant in a second pan.

The eggplant, cut into bite-sized chunks, went into a very hot frying pan with just a little olive oil. I seasoned it with salt and pepper right from the beginning- the salt helps the eggplant exude its own liquids and for it to cook more quickly. I then added a small onion, chopped and a little crushed garlic, along with a handful of finely chopped fresh mint and parsley. The other spice that I added was just a tiny pinch of cinnamon and I also added a little squeeze of lemon- but that was it. Basically the mint and the garlic were the most important flavors- the lemon just goes to "lift" the tastes with a little freshness and the cinnamon makes it blend well with the tangy polenta. 

So stirring both pans at the same time, in one, I browned my eggplant and in the other, I blended my creamy, rich polenta... perfect timing! I kept the heat rather high on my eggplant and the oil at a minimum... as long as it is moving, it won't stick, it will brown and it will be delicious!

I served them together with a blob of fresh ricotta cheese, a sprinkle of chili flakes and a drizzle of good olive oil... and let me tell you- this simple plate of poor peoples food made me feel like a king! try it- it's a feeling you will like too!

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Layer Bake

Funghi, Pancetta, Porro, Peperone & Ricotta in Pasta Filo al Forno
Bacon, Mushroom, Leek, Pepper & Ricotta Filo Bake

Life can sometimes be difficult and complicated... that's exactly why dinner should not! It should be easy, preferably quick to make and in the best case fun to make! This dish is a combination of each of those things... plus it is super-tasty! So, what's not to like?!?

This was basically a way to use up the last of the filo pastry and mushrooms I had in the fridge- it had to be done! Sometimes the best ideas are born of such necessity and the results can be really great- I love to make the most of what I've got when I cook! It teaches you improvisation, economy and balance in the kitchen- and you are not going to learn any of those things from a cook book!

Obviously, this is very easy to make, as the filo pastry is the star of the show here and all that you need to do with it is to crisp it up... but when it comes to the filling, well, that is another story entirely and one where you can make the most of what you have in your fridge. Today, I started off with a handful of finely chopped bacon and 5-6 mushrooms, which I cut into sliced and sautéed together with no added fat in a non-stick pan, until the mushrooms had a nice golden tan. I then added just a tiny bit of finely chopped garlic and a handful of chopped parsley and chives. I tossed everything together and then seasoned with salt, coarsely ground black pepper and a tiny hint of lemon juice.

In the meantime, I brushed my baking dish very lightly with olive oil and then the 5 sheets of filo pastry, which I then laid out inside the baking dish. I covered the outer edges of the pastry with foil to keep it from turning brown to quickly, but popped it into a hot oven at 300°F for 5 minutes for the base of the pastry to bake golden brown whilst I finished the filling- this would help the base not getting too soggy from the filling, as filo dough is so delicate...

By now the mushrooms were nicely done, so I added a couple of yellow baby bell peppers and about a 5" chunk of leak cut into fine slices. I let them cook gently and in the meantime chopped another handful of parsley and chives to add to the fresh ricotta cheese. For this baking dish-sized serving it only took 2 tablespoons of ricotta. I added a tablespoon of olive oil to it, a teaspoon of honey, salt, pepper and a little finely grated salted ricotta. I whisked this mixture together until it was nice and smooth- the combination was really delicious!

I took the pastry base out of the oven and then added the mushroom mix and a few blobs here and there of the seasoned ricotta. I gave it a last sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper, a light drizzle of olive oil and then popped it into the oven for 5-10 minutes until it came up to temperature and became lovely and crispy golden brown on top- easy! Tasty! and fun! I sure hope you all like it!

Monday, 25 February 2013

Chick-Peas Please!

Zuppa di Ceci, Lenticchie & Cicoria
Chick-Pea, Lentil & Dandelion Green Soup

Believe it or not, there are a few "convenience products" that I actually think are pretty wonderful and always make sure to have in the house. Canned tomatoes- pretty unbeatable! Frozen peas- couldn't be any fresher bought fresh! And canned chick-peas too- already cooked to perfection and just needing to be heated and enjoyed... perfect for a cold Winter's night when you just want to relax and enjoy a comforting hot soup!

I would never buy a canned soup, but canned pulses are a good thing- as long as they have nothing added. Of course you can still soak dried chick-peas over night, the old fashioned way... but let's face it... that does not make them any fresher! So, given the choice over the 2 options of how to enjoy chick-peas that are not fresh from the pod- the freedom to be able to spontaneously pop open a can and enjoy straight away, rather than planning ahead a whole day  makes this question a no-brainer in my books! So pop that can and let's get cooking!

I have always loved the combination of legumes, preferably mixed as in this case, and bitter greens-  even way, way back when I was a kid, growing up in England. All of my schoolmates would be eating cottage pie, fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding... and my mom would be cooking up pots of these old-time dishes from The Old Country... aah, memories! But these kinds of meals were inexpensive enough for it to be easy to feed 9 hungry kids- and tasty enough to keep them happy! And you will like it too I'm sure!

I started mine off by finely dicing, carrot, onion, celeriac (or you can use regular celery if you like) and sautéing them all in a little olive oil for 4-5 minutes, with a little salt, pepper, finely chopped garlic and a leaf of bay. In the meantime, wash and finely chop the dandelion greens and measure 1 cup of lentils, ready to add in a few minutes. 

Next, add some tomato paste and stir it in, then add the greens and the lentils and just enough boiling water to dissolve the paste and to pick up all of the good flavors. You can substitute the dandelion greens with cabbage, kale, spinach or any other greens you may prefer- but I had these at home at the moment and in they went! I topped up the saucepan with more boiling water, adjusted the salt accordingly, reduced the heat to a low simmer and let the broth boil away for 10-15 minutes until the lentils were almost cooked.

When the lentils were good, but still had a little too much bite to them, I added the chick peas and a drizzle of olive oil. I let the soup come up to the boil, then reduced the heat to a slow simmer and let it gently bubble away for 5 minutes more- by which time the broth had thickened nicely and was rich with flavor and chick peas and lentils were tender and delicious! I served it up with a good pinch of dried chili flakes and a last little drizzle of olive oil... and the cold and the snow were a thing of the past! Yum, yum, yum! 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

All Together Now!

Pollo al Aceto con i Mirtilli, Cicoria e Puré di Patate
Vinegar Chicken with Blueberries, Dandelion Greens & Mashed Potatoes

There are some dishes, where the ambitious Chef will insist that you "get a bit of everything on your fork when you try it", in order to fully appreciate the complex flavors and how they work together so well as a whole. Well... I made one of those dishes this evening!  So make sure you have a large fork because there is a lot of flavor to be taken in here!

I love vinegar chicken- made the way mother makes it back in Sicily, with red-wine vinegar and onion- a simple and tasty affair... but I wanted to up the stakes a bit and make something a little more complex and a little more fun. And that handful of blueberries was just staring at me in the fridge... hoping that it would live another day and be added to tomorrow morning's breakfast yogurt... No such luck! I decided to turn the vinegar chicken into a sweet and sour version instead and to serve it up with some mildly bitter dandelion greens and gentle mashed potatoes. With some cool herbs and spices to bring all of those flavors together and to take them to a whole new level.. behold!

This was actually very easy to make. I started off by boiling the potatoes and steaming the greens as the same time in the same saucepan on my little steam rack... I love that gadget! One cool thing I did was to use a trick I picked up from one of my favorite Chefs, Heston Blumenthal. Don't panic- but the thing to do, is to scrub the potatoes well before peeling them- and then to keep the peel and to boil it in milk at a low simmer for as long as the potatoes take to cook. I will explain in a few minutes... it isn't as crazy as you may think!

Whilst the potatoes boiled, I began frying the chicken drumsticks in a little olive oil with some crushed garlic and ginger. I seasoned them with salt, pepper, a pinch of cinnamon, a sprinkle of paprika powder and sprig or two of rosemary. I kept rolling them around until the chicken was lightly golden on all sides and then added a good splash of balsamic vinegar and about a cupful of water, then popped on the lid and let the chicken simmer and steam away for around 15-20 minutes at a medium low heat.

After 5-7 minutes of steaming, the dandelion greens were almost done, so I set them to one side and let the potatoes continue boiling. The greens then went into a small frying pan with just a little olive oil, crushed garlic, salt, pepper and a tiny pinch of sugar, to be tossed and glazed lightly. 

For the mashed potatoes, I decided to use olive oil rather than butter to give them a light sheen and a smoothness of flavor and I seasoned them with a little salt, pepper and nutmeg as I usually would- but then came the fun part Remember the milk I boiled the potato peel in? Well by now, it had become totally infused with a rich potato flavor from the peel- and so after removing the offending outer layer and straining the milk through a sieve, that is what I used to fluff up the mash with... it was a revelation! One you will like as well- I promise!

By now the chicken was tender and the liquid had practically reduced away completely... no problem! I added a little more oil and a finely sliced shallot, a good pinch of fresh rosemary (I took the old one out as it was looking a little tired) and gave everything a good stir. I turned the heat up high and then added a splash of boiling water to bring up all of the cooked-in flavors from the base of the pan... there was plenty accumulated there! Within 3-4 minutes, the onions had cooked down and were soft and had begun to bind the juices into a light gravy. At this point I added a handful of blueberries, a little honey, a little fresh vinegar and brought everything to the boil for just 1-2 minutes... and then it was ready to serve!

Like I said- try to taste everything at once here- it is so amazing! Deep, rich flavors which are so harmonious when you eat them together that you will be delighted! At least I hope you will... because I most certainly was! Hope you all try it out too!

Sicilian Citrus Sensation!

Insalata di Radicchio, Mandarino & Erba Cipollina
Mandarin Orange, Radicchio & Chive Salad

Orange salad, in its many variations, is one of the most typical, popular and beloved Sicilian dishes. Nothing sums up the instinct, the simplicity and the originality of the Sicilian cuisine than the sublime combination of orange and olive oil, paired with the tang of raw onion. But  of course I have a few ideas of my own based on that same theme- like this one here, which I am sure you will also enjoy!

Many people, myself included, tend to avoid raw onion if possible, because tasty as it may be, it does tend to have an uncomfortable aftertaste and to leave your breath a little bit less than desirable... so I decided to make a milder version. I substituted regular or blood oranges, which would be the norm, for Mandarin oranges, which are in season now and the onion for chives, which give a more subtle yet similar flavor... the combination works very well indeed! And together, in contrast with some chopped radicchio, they make for a wonderful and refreshing salad! So let's get chopping!

The preparation is very simple- as you can plainly see from the photos- the radicchio finely chopped, the mandarin orange in horizontal slices and the generous scattering of chives just speaks for itself. The flavors do too- all we need to do is enhance them a little and that means some good olive oil, salt, coarsely ground black pepper and a pinch of sugar. Sometimes there is nothing more to say and nothing more to do... other than to simply enjoy! And I hope that you do! Buon apetito!

Petals and Berries and Stalks- Oh My!

Pasticini di Filo con Rabarbaro e Mirtillo
Rhubarb & Blueberry Filo Pastries

Rhubarb stalks, blueberries and leaves of Filo pastry are the simple ingredients that make these little open parcels so wonderful. The colors remind me of a Springtime that surely can not be so far away- even though you wouldn't know it here in snowy Frankfurt! But sure enough, this is the first rhubarb of the season and who am I to resist when I see such tender and fresh pinkness on the market? No- it had to be bought- and yes, the finished product was as delicious as it looked... and then some!

The thing I love about preparing rhubarb, is that as long as you can plan ahead, it really takes care of itself. I always use the same fool-proof method and always have perfect results... not for me that squishy, stringy mess that so often gets concocted and served up, cooked to death and sugared beyond the grave. Nope- there can be only one way! Let me just remind you of it again...

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the way to prepare your rhubarb is as follows. First, very carefully, strip away the outer skin as thinly as possible. Sadly, as beautifully colored as it is, it is also extremely fibrous and inedible- so it has to go! The best way to do it is to cut the rhubarb into more manageable lengths of 4-5" first and then to pinch it art the edge of with a small, sharp knife and pull it way- much as you would remove the sinews from a celery stalk... fiddly- but doable! 

Next- turn on your oven to the highest setting- the oven needs to be really hot as the rhubarb is going to spend a long time in there... over night in fact! But fear not- the oven will then be switched off and the rhubarb will gently cook in the remaining heat as the oven cools down again- that is why you need a good amount of heat at the get-go. It is also the reason that this method is so effortless and why the rhubarb remains magically intact and does not fall apart as it would in a saucepan or frying pan if you stir it. But I digress! Let's get back to our preparation...

Cut the rhubarb into bite-sized chunks and pop it into a bowl with some other berry- strawberry, raspberry, or in this case, blueberry. This will help to maintain the nice color we lost due to peeling and also to add some sweetness to compliment the tangy sourness of the rhubarb. Sprinkle with sugar and dust with cinnamon, add a stick of vanilla pod and then trickle a little water on them, mix them together and pop them into the oven- simple as that! Leave the oven turned on for the first 10 minutes... go brush your teeth... fold back the covers, pop back into the kitchen, turn off the oven and snuggle down to a good night's sleep!

Next morning you will be greeted by lovely, tender rhubarb and plenty of rich syrupy juices... and a lovely sweet perfume in the air! You will be delighted with the result- there really is no better way to prepare rhubarb! You could use this compote as a side to some ice-cream say, or enjoy it with vanilla custard as they do in England.. but in this case I decided to fill some simple Filo pastry shells with it. I added a couple of fresh blueberries for the sake of the color, and for a mild, fresh touch- but let me tell you how simple those shelly were to make whilst we are chatting away...

I cut the pastry into squares and lightly brushed the paper-thin sheets with melted butter. I then laid them on top of each other, each time taking 2 sheets per layer and having 6 layers in all. I revolved the layers as I went to create a star-shaped arrangement. The pastry was now more pliable die to the butter and I was able to gently drop it into a muffin tray and press it down into shape. On went the heat- around 350°F and as soon as the oven was hot, in went the pastry shells for 10 minutes or so until they were crispy and golden brown.
I dusted the pastry cases off with powdered sugar before filling them, because I prefer the fruits to look shiny in contrast to the snowy outsides- but that is a matter of taste. In to the pastry the fruit went and plenty of those good juices went over the top... delicious!  I added a scoop of plain yogurt to mine, but custard, cream, ice-cream or just so they are a lovely tangy treat you really need to try! I really recommend it!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Fresh from the Market!

i Spaghetti chi Favi, a Muddica e Pumadoru Sicchu
Spaghetti with Broad Beans, Bread Crumbs and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The title of this post doesn't only refer to the ingredients I used to make it- but also to a reminiscence I have of Saturday lunchtimes in Sicily, when I would carry the groceries home from the market, and my mom would have prepared a simple dish like this. It would always be something simple on a Saturday as we would be busy shopping for groceries and then putting them away... any other day of the week mamma would have had more time!

This is a classic of Sicilian cookery- the combination of tender green (broad) beans and tangy sun-dried tomatoes is nothing short of delicious- and in combination with the Sicilian mainstay of toasted bread crumbs, it becomes nothing short of sublime...

You really can't get any easier or more convenient... I am talking about 10 minutes cooking time at the most here! To make this dish, I started off by getting the spaghetti boiling in the usual manner, in well-salted water. Whilst the water came up to the boil, I began to brown-off some bread crumbs with a little olive oil, finely chopped parsley, a little grated parmesan and some pepper. As soon as the crumbs were golden brown I set them to one side to cool. 

In the meantime, the pasta had been boiling for 4-5 minutes. I quickly popped oven the beans, pinched away the tough, outer skin and popped the fresh, young beans into the pasta water, so that they would boil with the pasta for the final 3 minutes or so. 

Whilst the pasta was nearing completion, I heated a little olive oil and added a handful of finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes, some finely chopped garlic and a few flakes of chili. I then drained the pasta, though not too thoroughly and transferred it to the pan, with the tomatoes and garlic oil. I stirred everything together well and let it simmer for a minute or two for all of the flavors to combine nicely... and then I served it up with a touch of nutmeg, some salt, pepper and the toasted bread crumbs, a hint of grated salted ricotta cheese and a light drizzle of olive oil... delicious! Tastes like Spring time... I just wish it would get here a little more quickly!

Rubies and Emeralds

Insalata di Puntarelle, Radicchio & Melograno
Radicchio, Pomegranate & Puntarelle Salad

What else springs to mind when you see this beautiful salad of crisp, green Puntarelle and deep red pomegranate seeds and radicchio Trevisano? They certainly look like edible jewels to me! Especially the always lovely pomegranate seeds- so tasty and refreshing as well as being so pretty to look at!

This is obviously not much of a recipe or method post- it is all about the flavor combination and I can tell you now that it is one that works really well! The sweet pomegranate goes perfectly with the Trevisano and Puntarelle as they are both rather bitter... but if you like regular chicory or endives, you will like these both- the flavor is very, very similar. With a little added honey- it's a winning combination! So this is how to do it...

Remove the outer leaves from the puntarelle and set them to one side- they will be wonderful cooked in some other dish, but this time around we just want the tender inner "florets" if you will. Wash and remove the separate "pods" from the inside of the puntarelle and lay them out on a platter, then add a few leaves of radicchio. You can obviously substitute these with endives- or even make the salad using only endives and pomegranate... but obviously the red IS prettier! Then add the pomegranate and drizzle lightly with olive oil and honey and sprinkle with salt and pepper. You can add a squeeze of lemon juice or light vinegar, but basically it is the sweet and bitter flavors of the main ingredients that are the stars of the show in this case- just them, honey, salt, pepper and oil and these 3 simple ingredients become transformed in a wonderful way... you'll like it!

Building Up Breakfast

Fiocchi d'Avena al Cioccolato a Strati con Banana e Cocco Croccante
Layered Chocolate Oatmeal, Banana & Coconut Crunch

Yes, of course you all know by now how much I love oatmeal... and banana... and that I only ever get around to enjoying it at the weekend- sadly! So this morning, I decided to get a little bit playful with my favorite combination and to add some chocolate (or cocoa) and coconut into the mix... and to have even more fun by building it up in layers as one might a dessert. And quite frankly- the result was that yummy that I can really imagine serving this up after dinner in a smaller portion- it is pretty filling! But it is also very healthy in this version as you will soon see... so it is a guilt-free treat all the same!

This was a great warm breakfast, for a cold and snowy Frankfurt morning- but I can imagine it tasting equally good cold and refrigerated in the Spring and summer months. The cool thing is that it doesn't take any longer to prepare than a bowl of "boring" oatmeal and that you can improvise with some other fruits or berries. It is the crispy coconut/oatmeal flakes in-between layers that make it so much fun- especially with the chocolate flavor! You're going to love it!

I prepared the oatmeal in the usual manner, simmering it gently with milk (I used skimmed) and a little cinnamon... only this time I added a generous couple of tablespoons of cocoa per serving. I sweetened mine with Stevia- you know the score by now, you can use sugar or honey, yadda, yadda... all I know is I like the idea of totally guilt-free a lot!

Whilst the oatmeal bubbles away, in a dry frying pan, start to toast a mix of coconut flakes and oatmeal- I had about 2 parts coconut to 1 part oatmeal. Here comes the strange part... when the coconut begins to brown slightly, add a splash of water and a very light drizzle of honey and stir it in very quickly. Fear not- I mean just a small amount- basically to dilute the small amount of honey and get it equally distributed all over the oatmeal and coconut flakes... and I am talking about maybe 1 teaspoon of honey max and 2-3 of water! What will happen, is that the flakes will begin to clump together a little and this is when they begin to get really nice. The initial moisture from the water soon evaporates away, but by then it will have done its job and you will have nice, crispy chunks of very slightly sweetened coconut- perfect in contrast to the fresh banana and the hot, creamy oatmeal!

So now you can spoon together your alternating layers of fresh banana, crispy flakes, hot and steamy oatmeal and so on... you will love the combination when you dig into it! Easy, fun- and the way I made it- even healthy! So get stuck in ladies, gentlemen and little people- and enjoy!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Country Comfort

Minestra Rustica di Polenta & Verdure
Rustic Polenta & Vegetable Soup

The temperatures have become so drastically cold again, that it wasn't possible for me to consider anything BUT a soup this evening! There is nothing more comforting on a cold dark night after a long hard day!

All the way home, I couldn't help thinking what it must be like to live somewhere that does not have central heating- say out in the country in Sicily or Italy... and of course the thing that struck me was that at least they would know how to eat to keep away those Winter blues... possibly even something like this...

With just some simple, basic vegetables, I managed to rustle-up this delicious and comforting soup in next to no time. Basically, it is just a freshly made vegetable broth, thickened with a few spoonfuls of polenta- but that is all that you need, trust me! 

I started out with some root vegetables- finely diced celeriac and coarsely chopped celery stalk and carrot, which I briefly sautéed in a little olive oil with some crushed garlic-  I did this to get an intense flavor base for the soup as a starting point. After 3-4 minutes, I added enough boiling water to cover the vegetables and let them simmer on for 5-6 minutes longer. In the meantime, I chopped up a little red and yellow bell pepper, a good handful of parsley- including the stalks of course- that's where all of the good flavor is!

I added the peppers and parsley and then topped everything up with more boiling water, reduced the heat to a simmer again and let it continue boiling for a further 5-6 minutes... in which time I cleaned and chopped some mushrooms and cherry tomatoes- they were next in line- along with 2-3 tablespoons of polenta- these all went in next, along with a little grated nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, a splash of olive oil and a tiny squeeze of lemon and the handful of sliced leek. I let the soup simmer for a good 9-10 minutes, my which time the vegetables were nice and tender, the broth was good and tasty and the polenta had thickened everything nicely to make it thick and hearty and delicious!

The finishing touches were a sprinkle of coarsely ground black pepper, a scattering of fresh, chopped chives and a drizzle of olive oil... so warming and sooo good! Natural central folks! Try it- and you'll like it! Enjoy!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Pump Up The Pizza!

Pizza con Pomodoro, Zucca, Mozzarella, Olive e Basilico
Pizza with Tomato, Pumpkin, Mozzarella, Olives & Basil

Of course I am not suggesting making a pizza that is thick when I talk about it being "pumped up"- thick based pizza is a pretty awful affair (unless it is a Sicilian "Sfincione" ;-) No, no... I am talking about adding some delicious grated pump-kin to the topping! A much more interesting and delicious matter altogether!

Pumpkin is a great ingredient to enjoy in savory dishes as well as sweet- but of course its natural sweetness is what makes it so yummy- especially in the case of say, a Hokkaido, or in this case, a butternut. I had a nice chunk left in the fridge from last night barley recipe... not quite enough for a full meal in itself, but plenty for a tasty treat like this. Once grated up, it was all ready to go and just 15 minutes away from becoming an incredibly tasty pizza... lucky me! And lucky you too- because I am about to tell you how to make it... 

As usual, on a weekday night when I want to get things done quickly, I turned to a store-bought "fresh" pizza dough- the kind you get on a roll, all ready to bake and perfect for this kind of affair. I have to admit that I can not be bothered to go to the trouble of making a pizza dough from scratch for one small pizza- it doesn't make sense to me. Nor does it strike me as particularly interesting for you, if each time that I post a pizza idea, I go through the litany of mixing flour with warm water and yeast, kneading, rolling etc. yadda yadda yadda... Nope! Let's assume you have your dough ready- as I did... and cut to the chase! The only important thing you need to know when I make pizza at home- is that I use my frying pan to make it- but of course you already know that... so cut the dough into a circle the size of your non-stick pan, drop it inside and get ready to have some fun! But turn on your oven first to the highest setting to have it hot and ready to go in a few minutes!

It's all about the topping, so let's get started with that. The first thing that goes on top of the dough, is some "passata"- a basic tomato sauce base of pureed, cooked tomatoes. Next came a sprinkle of finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper. I then spread out a few blobs of mozzarella cheese and then in between the cheese, the grated pumpkin. I grated the pumpkin with a little nutmeg and then added sliced black olives and a few slices of shallot all over the pizza, so that there was a nice even spread. A little more salt and pepper, a light sprinkle of fresh thyme and a drizzle of olive oil, especially over the pumpkin. 

Next thing is to do is to pop it onto the stove, also at the highest setting. Whilst it is getting nice and hot and toasted from below, wrap the handle in aluminum foil so that it will be protected for its 5 minutes in the oven... because after 5 minutes on the stove top, that is all it will take in the oven to be ready, crispy, golden and as perfect looking as mine... you are going to love it! because it tastes even better than it looks!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Cook that Shakes the Barley

Orzotto Sfizioso
Yummy Pearl Barley!

I made this meal, mostly for the benefit of a couple of dear work mates, who moth must have been badly traumatized in their childhood, with horrible experiences of being forced to eat even nastier concoctions with barley... and I just don't get it! So- Bene and Lucienne- what do you think of this? :-)

I used the word "sfizioso" in the Italian description of this dish- which means delicious, yummy, tasty... take your pick! it means anything that is good about food! And there was plenty that was good about this- but all good, down-to-earth stuff and as always with my dishes, pretty quick and easy to make too!

This looks very similar to a risotto, and had I not added pumpkin into the mix, I may well have prepared it in the traditional matter too- but that would have meant a longer cooking time, more stirring- and overcooked and soft pumpkin. So no- I used a pot and a pan- so I could boil the barley on it's own, ahead of the other ingredients and to save time and effort that way... common sense is your best friend in the kitchen!

So, the way I went about it was to boil the barley on a low simmer for a good half hour in salted water- and similarly to the boiling of rice, I used twice the amount of water to each measure of barley. So in this case it was 2 cups of barley and 4 of water... which makes a very generous serving!

In the meantime, I began to sauté a handful of ground lamb that I had left over from last night with half of a finely chopped red onion, some finely chopped garlic and ginger and a couple of handfuls of pumpkin. This was an unusual little orange and yellow skinned pumpkin, similar to butternut in taste and texture. I fried these together in the fat of the ground lamb only- no added oil or butter... but plenty of added flavors, such as fresh rosemary, parsley and thyme, a little grated nutmeg and a little cayenne. I sautéed everything together for 5-6 minutes until the meat was cooked through, the onion was translucent and the pumpkin had also changed color and begun to soften up a little. 

I then added the barley, which had cooked down, swollen up and absorbed most of the water- but into the frying pan it went, water and all, and was stirred in well. The next thing I added was some tomato "passata"- the basic, pureed tomato base sauce and adjusted the seasoning once it was stirred in well. I let it simmer for a further 10 minutes, so that all of the flavors could infuse together and so that the juices could thicken up nicely... it was really, really good!

To make it better still, just 2-3 minutes before serving, I added a couple of finely chopped cherry tomatoes and a generous handful of finely cut chives- these both added a great fresh flavor and a splash of color... which together with a last generous pinch of coarsely ground black pepper made the humble grains of barley into delicious heroes of the day (or night!). And if you don't think that this looks and sounds delicious my friends... well I guess there is just no hope of ever converting you! But I am pretty sure you are going to love it... I sure did!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Fun Food and No Clowning!

Torta Salata "Arlecchino" con Agnello Tritato, Menta & Peperoni
"Harlequin" Tart- with Ground Lamb, Mint & Peppers

I love food- I love to enjoy my food and I like it to be healthy and tasty- and fun! It is very important to me- but I don't get "all serious" about it like some people. To make too much of an art or a science of food takes the enjoyment out of it in my opinion. Food that is so beautiful you almost feel afraid to eat it, is well... a bit silly in my opinion. Life is too short to be too pretentious about food- let's be sensible but have fun!

This is a simple dish made of simple ingredients- but as nature deemed to make bell peppers such beautiful colors, isn't it a bit of a crime to cook them down to an unidentifiable brown mass? When you can turn them into a kaleidoscope of cuisine instead!

This was put together in just a few minutes, using convenient store-bought puff pastry, a little ground lamb and half each of a red, yellow and green bell pepper. I began by sautéing the slices of pepper in a dry frying pan- there is enough moisture in them that they will cook just fine without any oil and this way, by adding just a little salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar, the flavor intensifies really nicely. I only needed to stir them off and on for 5 minutes or so and they softened up nicely... that's all it took to prepare them!

In the meantime, I started to sauté the ground lamb in another pan- also without adding any oil... there really is plenty of fat in ground meat, even if it is relatively lean. After 2-3 minutes, I added some finely chopped onion and garlic, salt, pepper, a pinch of cinnamon and a little cayenne. I let it sweat down for a while and in the meantime chopped a handful of mint and parsley as finely as possible and added it in, along with just enough pureed tomatoes to cover the lamb. I let it simmer for 4-5 minutes and turned off the heat to let it cool down and to let the flavors mingle nicely... and started preparing the pastry base whilst that happened...

Being as the filling was rather moist here, I decided to use my trick of baking the pastry on a frying pan, so that I could start it off on the stove top and get plenty of heat to the underside, so that it would have a head-start on the rest of the pastry and not become too soggy... nothing would be worse than that!

So I cut out a circle of pastry and a few long strips, which I laid around the outside edge to make a decorative border. I did this by simply folding the strip back on itself, over and over, adding a new strip each time I finished one, until I had reached full circle.

I then carefully laid this into my non-stick pan and turned on the heat... exciting! The first thing that happened was that the butter in the pastry melted and it became very, very soft and looked like it was ruining right before my very eyes! Oh, but I am a fearless one! And I knew that it would soon begin to dry up, crisp up and puff up- and that was my cue to remove the frying pan from the heat and to begin adding the topping!

I simply spooned the minced lamb and mint sauce on top and spread it out evenly- the puffed up pastry soon flattened out and things began to take shape... only the fluted border was still pale and raw, but still- I could already see how nice this was going to turn out- especially with the addition of the colored peppers. Once I had the tart put together and looking pretty, I added a good pinch of coarsely ground pepper and popped it into the oven to finish for 10- 15 minutes or so at 400°F, until it was fully puffed up on top and golden brown. 

The sweet bell peppers are a great addition to the classic combination of mint and lamb, and the fruity tomato makes this into a wonderfully Mediterranean treat that I am sure you will love! Great for parties, as an appetizer... or an evening meal for yours truly!