Thursday, 31 October 2013

Yummy Mummy!

Mummie di Melanzane per "Halloween"
Halloween Eggplant Mummies

I have to confess, that I myself have never "celebrated" Halloween. Growing up in England, of course the name of this spooky celebration exists, the imagery exists, the scary movies exist... but at least where I grew up, and especially in our house- there were no costumes or any trick-or-treating. It really IS an American celebration... and that is fine! Thanksgiving doesn't exist over here either and we still enjoy our turkey, albeit a little latter in the year at Christmas- the world is a strange place!

And in strange places, such as my kitchen, strange people like me, eat strange things like this! We don't have any of the traditions of candies or sweet treats over here, except of course for the occasional decorated cupcake or muffin- but that doesn't mean we can't at least have a little fun with our food! Or to put it more precisely- that can't have a little fun with mine!

This fun little idea was a great way to make excellent use of a lone eggplant, some cherry tomatoes, herbs, spices and mozzarella... and some of the last of the filo pastry that had patiently been waiting for me to come up with a smart idea to make use of it! I don't know how smart the idea was... but here it is!

I would love to tell you that kids are going to love this dish... but the kid that ate it was me :-) This was a nice and spicy creation, flavored with Ras el Hanout and a little cayenne, but of course, as many children will not be keen on eggplant in the first place, this may well be a way to get them to at least try it. By either reducing the amount of spice or skipping it completely and relying on the tomato, basil and mozzarella that go into the filling to win them over, this could be the start of some good culinary revelations for them. And on the plus side of things should they be keen on trying them... there will just be more for you to enjoy!

The first step is to peel and halve the eggplant and then to make a slanting cut into the flat side, about an inch from the outer edge, as you can see in the photos. Try to cut a little of the eggplant away, so as to leave room for the filling, and then steam the 2 halves for 5-6 minutes until it starts to go soft and to turn slightly translucent. 

In the meantime, stay busy and prepare the filling- which was in this case, for 1 eggplant, 3 cherry tomatoes, a half ball of Mozzarella, some chives, parsley and basil and a tablespoon of Ras el Hanout. I seasoned with salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of cayenne and drop of olive oil. I stirred these all together well and let them sit and marinate whilst I took care of the eggplant and the tangy tomato sauce to go with it...

I took the eggplant out of the steamer and let it cool off, but sprinkled it with a little salt on the inside whilst it was still steaming. Whilst it was cooling, I finely chopped a shallot and half of a clove of garlic along with 5-6 cherry tomatoes, which all went into a saucepan together with a drop of olive oil. I fried it at a relatively high temperature for 2-3 minutes, seasoning with salt, pepper and a hint of nutmeg, then added a splash of sherry vinegar and a pinch of sugar- hisss!! I then added 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and enough water to dilute it down to a thin sauce. I then reduced the temperature and let the sauce just barely simmer for the remainder of the cooking time, with a couple of leaves of basil added to give it a nice perfumed aroma.

Now that the eggplant was cool, it was easy to fill with the spicy tomato and cheese mixture and then to press the cut-out part back into place. And the next thing of course, was to prepare the filo-pastry "bandages", which I made by simply rolling up 3-4 of the paper-thin pastry sheets and then cutting it into narrow strips. I laid the strips out, criss-crossing slightly, on my work surface and then laid the stuffed eggplant, upside-down on top.

I then folded and laid the strips shut on the rear-side and carefully flipped my Mummies head over. I then poured just a touch of olive oil onto my hands and carefully picked it up again, squeezed it a little and then placed it gently face-side up into a non-stick pan. This squeezing and the hands moistened in oil made the filo pastry moist and that is very important as it does actually need to brown a little, as well as coming up to temperature again. And speaking of which, the 2 mummies heads then went into the oven for 10-15 minutes at around 250°F, to warm-through, dry-out and crisp up. After 15 minutes, the pastry was crispy but not too brown... but that was nothing that couldn't be fixed by a very light drizzle of honey- and this was the time that I added those slices of black olive for the eyes and made a nice deep cut to create the mouth... what fun! Back into the oven it went and then out it came again, after just 1-2 minutes under the broiler, nice and brown and delicious!

I served them up with the tangy tomato sauce and a sprinkle of parsley and basil, which was excellent in contrast to the crispy pastry and the soft, juicy, spicy and cheesy interior... and which made the whole thing perfect!

So whether you attempt to treat your kids with this or not- it will definitely be a nice treat for grown-ups and fun eye-opener for your Halloween celebrations! Or just a yummy evening meal as it was for me! 

In any case- no matter how silly it may appear, the flavors are exceptional and there are many worse ways to prepare an eggplant, haha! Try it and see!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Going Nutty for Dessert!

Crema di Frumento al Pistacchio, con Cardamomo, Coriandolo & Albicocca
Pistachio Cream of Wheat with Cardamom, Coriander & Apricot

One of my favorite, simple, sweet treats, is cream of wheat... which is maybe not exactly haute cuisine and is definitely underrated. It is also proof that some of the best things in life are modest and unpretentious. And I like that. So this evening, I decided to put this most simple of desserts in the limelight and raise it up to a higher level that I definitely deserves!

I decided to keep things simple, but to add a little exotic flavor and spice with cardamom and coriander, some fruits sweetness from diced, dried apricots and depth of flavor from some lovely, ground Sicilian pistachios- which sounds pretty good, right? It also looks pretty good! And I'll be damned if it didn't actually taste fantastic as well!

The great thing about this, is that although it sounds and indeed tastes much more exotic and complicated than some plain-old cream of what- it is hardly any more difficult to make! The important thing is that you want to get plenty of flavor into the milk before adding the wheat- and I did that like this...

For each portion (1 cupful) of wheat, I added 1 cardamom pod and maybe 10 coriander seeds to 3 cupfuls of milk. I popped open the cardamom pod and fetched out the black seeds, which I ground along with the coriander seeds with my mortar and pestle and added to the 3 cups of milk. I brought this to the boil and let it simmer for 2-3 minutes and then added 3 tablespoons of ground pistachio and let it continue boiling for 2-3 minutes more.

After 3 minutes had passed, the milk had a nice pale green color from the pistachio, but the color and delicate flavor will diminish if it cooks for too long, which is why I let the milk and spice have a head start before I added it. In any case, at this point I removed the milk from the heat and sprinkled and stirred-in the 1 cup of ground cream of wheat, nice and swiftly, so as to avoid causing any lumps.

Next came the apricot- I would say 2 dried apricots can go into each portion. I cut each apricot into 4 strips, then turned then once and cut the 4 strips in 4 again- that is the size of dice you want to have... not too big and not too small!

The wheat thickened up very quickly- of course the pistachio also "binds" the liquid quite a lot, so I slowly stirred-in more milk until it became the right, thick and creamy consistency. I added a little pinch of salt and then sweetened mine with honey- you can of course use sugar or even Stevia as I often do, but this evening I decided that the pistachio would harmonize really well with honey... so there you go! It only took 1 tablespoon of honey to get it sweet enough for my taste- try it and see what you think and you can always add more!

After 5 minutes of gentle simmering and serving, it was lovely and thick and creamy, with a rich spicy flavor and just begging to be served-up! I added a generous sprinkle of pistachio to mine and one more apricot, cut into thin slices as a garnish, for a nice blast of flavor and color and also to add a little chewy texture to the creamy wheat... yum-yum!

There are plenty of more sophisticated and refined desserts out there I'm sure- but this was pretty delicious in all of its modesty! I am sure, had there been any left over, that it would also have tasted nice chilled... but I will have to find out if that is true next time I make it... because it was all gone in next to no time whilst it was still smoking hot. this time around! I think probably the same thing will happen to all of you too! Try it and see!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

1 Potato, 2 Potato, Hot Potato- Soup!

Zuppa di Patate, Porro, Bresaola e Aneto
Potato, Leek, Bresaola Ham & Dill Soup

So it is cold, you are home late, want a little something to warm you up but not a big, heavy meal... the thing to do is to open a can of soup- right? Wrong! Oh please- nobody is so exhausted or pushed for time that they need to resort to such awful, processed food- seriously! Am I ranting? Maybe a little. Sorry. I will be calm now and tell you how to make a delicious real soup in just 20 minutes. Deal?

I made this yummy soup out of 2 potatoes, 2 slices of Bresaola ham, about 4" of leek, a quarter stick of celery, a little milk and some fresh dill and chives. There is very little fat in it, no artificial flavoring and I promise you that it will be so tasty and satisfying, you will think twice about opening a can again next time...

So- first things first! I scrubbed the potatoes nice and clean, cut them into quarters and put them into a saucepan with enough milk to cover them by an inch or so. I added salt, pepper, a bay leaf, a little nutmeg and a hint of cayenne and brought it to the boil, then reduced the heat to a low simmer and let it bubble away gently for the next 15 minutes.

In the meantime, I got busy with the other ingredients- the first being the Bresaola ham, which I cut first into thin strips and then into small flakes. These went into a dry frying pan, where they were stirred and roasted for 4-5 minutes until they became crispy, crunchy and dry. Obviously you can use any other ham or even bacon- whatever you like best, but something lean that will add a bit of crunch and a smokey flavor is what works best. I set the crispy Bresaola flakes to one side and turned my attention to the other ingredients...

The next thing that went into the hot pan was the thinly sliced leek, to which I added a light drizzle of olive oil. I let it sizzle for just a minute or so, whilst I finely chopped a handful of dill and grated the quarter stick of celery in order to reduce the cooking time- clever, eh?

I added these to the leek, stirred it through quickly and then deglazed the pan with enough hot water to cover the base and to boil everything together in just as much water as was necessary- this gave me a nice, intense broth to add to the soup and to give it a great flavor base.

After 15 minutes of boiling, I poured off the milk, which had become wonderfully flavorful through having the peel of the potatoes still in there, through a coffee filter into a bowl, just to be sure to remove any sand that may have still been on the peel (you never know). I then poured it back into the saucepan and added the contents of the frying pan.

The next thing I did was to squeeze the potato pieces through a ricer- a very practical way to do this as the peel remained in the ricer whilst the soft potato came through in a nice, fine mash- perfect to add to the milk and broth and to create our soup out of!

One thing you do not want to do with potato soup or mashed potatoes for that matter, is to put them into a blender or any other high-speed machine- this will guarantee that whatever you are cooking will turn into glue! Don't do it! Just stir the potatoes back into the broth with a whisk and they will soon disintegrate and become smooth and creamy all by themselves... well ok, maybe you will need to give them a bit of "elbow grease" as they say in England and whisk for a while- but nothing too dramatic! The high speeds of the machines will spin all of the starch out of the potato though and that is what becomes glutinous and not so nice... just sayin' :-)

All you need to do now is to fish out that bay leaf and to adjust the soup. It may well be too thick - in which case you can add more hot water or milk. It may need a little more flavor- but hold back on the salt, as you still have that salty ham to add, remember... add a little nutmeg if necessary- that is something that always goes well with leek and potatoes.

The final assembly happens when you serve the soup up of course- meaning that once you have poured it into your bowl, a generous sprinkle of chives, a few sprigs of dill, a couple of tablespoons of those crispy ham flakes and some coarsely ground black pepper can now be added- yum! That should be enough flavor for you! It certainly was for me... and it sure was a comforting treat! 

Opening a can may have taken 10 minutes less time and been a little less work- but really... you deserve better! And you can do it- so please do, do it... and enjoy! 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Folded in Gold

Torta Salata di Pollo, Dragoncello, Finocchio, Pomodro, Miele & Senape in Pasta Filo
Chicken, Tarragon, Tomato, Fennel, Honey & Mustard Filo Pie

You know, I never did like chicken pie, it was always too bland for my liking and on the few times that I ate it, a little stringy and dry tasting. Despite it usually being drenched in gravy, it just always tasted rather dull. Surely I could do better, I thought this evening- and with a couple of yummy ingredients, indeed I did! With some wonderful, crunchy and flaky filo pastry, tangy Dijon mustard, aromatic Tarragon, juicy tomatoes and a little sweet honey to add a little more character, I whipped up this lovely little pie in next to no time- and of course I am right here, right now,  to share how I did it with all of you!

Of course the combination of chicken with tarragon is nothing new- neither is honey and mustard. But taking all of these things, combining them with a few extra ingredients and filling them into a light and crunchy filo pastry, was indeed new to me this evening... and I am happy to be here to tell you just how wonderful it was!

To make this lovely little individual pie, of course I needed some nice lean chicken- in this case 1 nice, plump breast was plenty. I chopped it into bite-sized pieces, dipped it into flour briefly  and sautéed it in just a small pat of butter. Whilst it was beginning to fry, I added a handful of fennel, cut into chunky bite-sized pieces too, then seasoned it with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg.

As soon as the chicken had turned from being pink to white, I added just a little crushed garlic, and a handful each of both finely chopped chives and coarsely chopped tarragon. Now that the chicken was beginning to brown-off a little, it was time to deglaze the pan with a nice splash of white wine. An extra half glass of wine for the chef is an optional, but recommended addition to ensure the dish works out nicely ;-)

As soon as the wine had loosened up all of the good flavors from the base of the frying pan, I added a heaped tablespoon of Dijon mustard and stirred this in well- as soon as that had happened, I added enough milk to dilute the now rather thick coating on the chicken into a smoother and lighter cream. There should be enough flour on the chicken to have caused the wine, juices and milk to thicken to a bechamel-like sauce, but if it DOES end up being a little too liquid, you can always add either a little cornstarch or flour diluted into milk in order to thicken it up again.

I checked the seasoning for salt and pepper and added more as necessary, and then turned off the heat. At this point, I added 4-5 cherry tomatoes which I cut in half and stirred into the mix. I didn't want to add them too early as I wanted them to remain intact and not to simply cook-in to the sauce and turn it pink, I wanted them to retain their juicy consistency and character. 

For the filo crust, I lightly greased my little baking dish with olive oil, simply using my fingers, then took 4 sheets of filo pastry and rubbed them over lightly with oil too. I wanted to have a slightly different flavor than the typical butter enriched crusts and found the olive oil to be a little richer. You can used a brush to do this if you prefer, but being as you are going to need to use your hands to do the rest... I just didn't see the point!

Into the dish the pastry went, carefully eased into place and pressed gently into the edges. And then in went the filling- the important thing being that it is nice and saucy but not too liquid- keep the consistency a little thicker so that the meat stays moist and delicious but it doesn't simply soak through the pastry. 

All that remained to be done now was to fold over the excess pastry and to seal the pie shut. I moistened my fingers again to do this and patted the pastry down flat- remember- the more folds you have, the crunchier and flakier the result will be!

I baked the pie in a pre-heated oven at 300°C for 10-15 minutes until the pastry was lightly brown and beginning to crisp-up, then took it out, added a light drizzle of honey for the glaze and popped it back in for a  further 2-3 minutes, including maybe a minute or so at the end under the broiler to take it right to the edge of deliciousness- yum! But keep your eye on it- that pastry is paper-thin after all and you wouldn't want it to burn!

And there you have it- a crispy and delicious little pie, with a honey-glazed pastry to compliment the mustardy, tarragon chicken inside- so tasty and so good! With with just a little flour and milk to thicken the sauce, not as heavy as a bechamel and the small amount of olive oil in the filo crust, also lighter than the usual butter... just a nice, lighter touch to a great, tasty meal! And one that I hope you will enjoy too!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cooking Up a Storm- alla Norma!

Penne Rigate alla Norma "Sbrigativa"
Quick & Easy Penne Rigate alla Norma

Penne alla Norma- the Sicilian favorite pasta dish, delicious and easy as can be- and guaranteed to please at any time! There really isn't much to add or take away to the combination of eggplant, tomato, basil and grated salted ricotta cheese... but sure enough- I managed to do just that and to make the classic dish just a little healthier and a little swifter to prepare... 

The traditional preparation calls for the eggplant to be fried first and then added into a tomato sauce- which is fair enough. It just takes a little time and quite a bit of oil- sadly. It is the oil and the amount that gets soaked into eggplant that always puts me off frying it- but I came up with a way to do a little dodge in the preparation, skimp on oil and save time- and I did it like this...

I cut the ends off the eggplant, then halved it lengthways, and then cut the halves into slices of about 1 inch. I sprinkled them with salt and let them sit for 10-15 minutes in the usual manner, then squeezed out the excess water that appeared (and thus the bitterness) and popped them into a hot frying pan which had just enough water in it to cover the base. 

As soon as the eggplant went in, on went the lid and I let it steam for a minute, then took the lid off, flipped the eggplant over and lightly drizzled it with olive oil. The initial steam-bath, lets the pores of the eggplant swell and will with moisture, which stops the oil from immediately being absorbed. Now you can carry on cooking/frying the eggplant at a high heat as usual and yes it WILL begin to brown in next to no time!

Season with pepper and a little nutmeg- it probably has enough salt from the "curing" before we started to fry it, and keep flipping it over and pressing it down with a wooden spoon... there will be a little "hiss!" as you squeeze out the moisture a little, but this in turn will create enough steam and moisture in the pan to cook the eggplant further without you needing much more oil at all. After just 5-6 minutes the eggplant should be lightly brown and coming along nicely! And in that time, you should have managed to bring the water to the boil for the pasta- so in it goes!

When the pasta goes into the water, in another frying pan, start sizzling away a little chopped onion and garlic- you will only need a small onion and 1 clove of garlic for 2 portions of pasta. As soon as the onion is translucent, add a pinch of pepper and salt, stir well and begin cutting 5-6 cherry tomatoes into quarters. In the time it takes you to do that, the onion will have browned nicely- and in go the tomatoes- make sure to keep the heat up high! Add pepper, a pinch of chili or cayenne if you like, and stir quickly and constantly until the tomatoes fall apart- which WILL happen quickly!

Now drain the pasta, which should be just al-dente after the 7-8 minutes you have needed so far, but leave a little water in the saucepan. Back to the tomatoes- which should almost have cooked away to nothing. add a good tablespoon of tomato paste and stir this in well. This needs to cook-in at a high heat for a minute or so... and yes, the pan will be looking pretty dry now! No need to worry, because this is the time to add the pasta with that little bit of excess water...

...and again there will be a big "hiss!", a blast of steam, and as soon as you stir it in, the sticky goodness from the bottom of the frying pan will transform into a nice slick coating of tomatoey goodness before your very eyes :-) Yum, yum! Next of course, you need to add the eggplant and stir those in too- it just gets better and better!

Add a generous amount of basil- simply tear the leaves and mix them in, add a little olive oil just for the flavor and sheen, a good sprinkle of coarsely ground black pepper- and dish it up! All you need now is the grated ricotta and you are ready to go! All dressed up in a nice sauce that is not a sauce and as easy as can be! And yes- this is also a dish you are going to love... just as much as everyone in Sicily does too!

A Pair of Pears to Answer Your Prayers

Torta di Sfoglia di Pera "Santa Maria", Uva Secca & Mandorle
"Santa Maria" Pear Tart with Almonds & Raisins

Time for another of my Sunday Morning sweet-treats... because if I deserve it- YOU deserve it ;-) Yesterday I was out of town, so I didn't have a chance to go shop at my beloved Frankfurt market hall. The only things I managed to pick up were a whole selection of herbs, some excellent Sicilian eggplants... and these lovely little green and blush peaches called "Santa Maria". I thought to myself, "what a pretty name" and took a carton with me. They just looked like regular peaches and it is the season after all. 

I wasn't familiar with the variety, but I was at an out-of-town store and there was precious little else that caught my eye... "so I thought, just take them with you- you know what pears taste like!", which is true. But the thing is... these did actually taste a little different! And if I had known that yesterday... I would have taken 2 cartons with me instead!

The "Santa maria" pears are very firm and juicy- a flavor much more like a Japanese "Nashi" pear than a regular green or Williams Christ pear. They are sweet and very crunchy and hold up their shape well during cooking or baking which is excellent.

To make this simple but pretty tart I used a half roll of puff-pastry, 2 pears, a handful of almonds and a handful of raisins. But believe it or not, that will make a lovely small pastry that is just big enough to share- or to eat all up on your own if you are as hungry as me!

I started off by cutting-out a circle dough, large enough to line my little pastry form and then cut one long, straight strip, also making use of the serrated-edged roller- just because it looks a little prettier! Obviously, in any other circumstances a knife is all that you need- but today I felt like using my little tool :-)

I used the circle of dough to line the baking dish of course, folding it into place so that it would fit inside, which gave it a nice home-made touch!

For the filling, I peeled the pears and then cut them into quarters and removed the core with a diagonal cut, then cut each quarter into thin slices. I then added the raisins and almonds- a handful of each, a good sprinkle of cinnamon, a light sprinkle of ground coriander seed, a tablespoon of sugar, a shot glass of Marsala (optional) and a pinch of salt. I stirred this together well and began to fill the pastry-lined baking dish along the outer edge only, leaving the middle clear...

Of course, what I then did was to fold the ends of the straight strip of pastry together and drop it into place in the middle of the pie, then fill in the centre with the remaining pear, almond and raisin mix. Yes it is a little fiddly, no it isn't absolutely necessary... but yes again, it does look pretty! haha! So you can either go to the trouble of doing so or not- the flavor will be just as wonderful either way!

I baked it in a pre-heated oven at 350!F for around 15 minutes, until the pastry was nice and puffed-up but still a little plain around the outer edge... and then I noticed the the additional inside strip of pastry was baking as a slower rate, as it was obviously at a somewhat lower height than the outer edges... doh! 

But fear and fret not- if this happens to you, just do the same thing I did and cover the outer edge of the pastry with foil, put a circle of foil over the centre of the pie, and continue baking with upper heat only in the oven, to give the pastry a chance to catch-up with the rest... which it soon does within the space of 4-5 minutes or so- no big deal! 

After that, I removed the foil, gave the pie a little drizzle of honey and popped it back in to brown evenly under the broiler. And I started a pot of coffee brewing... because it was now ready to come out, cool-off and be enjoyed... as I know you will too! The pear still retains a little bite even after 20-25 minutes of baking, but becomes soft and juicy along with the raisins, with that hint of Marsala and the crunch of the almond slices. Yeah- you have gotta love it! Trust me- you will!

Friday, 25 October 2013

And for My Next Trick- Mexi-Vegitation!

Chili con Zucca ;-)
Chili con Pumpkin ;-)

I am sure there are a gazillion and one vegetarian chili dishes and this is no revolutionary idea you are seeing here of course- what it IS though, is me making use of a couple of cupfuls of pumkin I had left-over from last night! Waste not: want not... that's me folks! And this was my supper... which turned out to be pretty tasty- even if I do say so myself! 

Most probably, you have a couple of cans of kidney beans at home too, just as I did. But somehow, they seem like a good idea at the time and then they sit there and never get used to make anything other than the traditional chili con carne. So I decided to make a dish that was a little less traditional and to use them up all the same! And as usual- this was a much quicker and lighter affair, so hopefully you might enjoy it as much as I did too... 

I started off by slicing up a small onion and roughly dicing the pumpkin into small, bite-sized pieces. This was, again, a Hokkaido pumpkin, which is my favorite variety, not just because of the flavor, but also because it does not require peeling... yay! I then added a red pepper- one of those pointy-shaped ones in this case, cut into small strips and fried them together for 2-3 minutes in just a little olive oil, until the onion became translucent. I then added a half teaspoon of cumin, a little finely chopped garlic, a good sprinkle of oregano and dried rosemary and stirred everything thoroughly together.

Next came a good tablespoon of tomato paste which I stirred in and allowed to fry for a minute or so and then I deglazed the pan with just enough boiling water to dilute the tomato paste and to clear the bottom of the frying pan- and yes, a shallow pan is better for this as the larger surface area lets the liquids boil down and reduce quicker and better. I popped-in a couple of bay leaves, popped-on the lid and in the meantime started the rice cooking- this could simmer away for the next 10 minutes unattended just fine :-)

I boiled the rice in the regular, Asian manner- boiling 2 cups of water for each cup of rice- not very mexican- but still the only way to go to get fluffy rice! Season with salt and boil for 10 minutes, then stir once, put the lid back on, and allow to finish cooking in it's own steam and residual heat for a further 5-10 minutes- you can't get any easier than that!

After 10 minutes of boiling the rice and turning it off, I took the lid off the pumpkin and peppers, which had reduced down to a thick consistency, stirred them through and then added half a can of kidney beans, along with some of the juices. I added a little cayenne, a teaspoon of smoked paprika powder, and a little more water, just to keep the sauce fluid enough as the pumpkin and beans will absorb quite a bit whilst they cook. 

10 minutes of gentle simmering later, the pumpkin and peppers were moist and tender, the beans were already pre-cooked in the can, so obviously, all they needed to do was warm through- and yes... it all tasted terrific as the flavors had mingled and intensified wonderfully! Still- this s the right time to check that it is spicy enough, as the initial heat does diminish somewhat as it cooks into the pumpkin and beans... so I added a splash of Tabasco, just to give a little boost, a teaspoon more tomato paste, a splash more boiling water, a good pinch of finely chopped parsley and a little squeeze of lemon. 

And once this was nicely mixed together and the sauce had thickened down again it was ready to serve! I did without any such additions as cheese, sour cream or anything like that- the only further addition required in my opinion was a little sprinkle of freshly, finely chopped parsley- which was what made this into a healthy and delicious dish. Yes- I do like to do things differently... and I hope that you do too! Enjoy!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Sensational Under the Sheets

Lasagna con la Zucca, Pomodoro & Basilico
Pumpkin Lasagna with Tomato & Basil

Everybody loves lasagna- that much is for sure. And although I always try to make healthy food, that was not my main motivation in making this totally different version of the classic dish- nope! I just wanted to make something that was doable with the ingredients I had at home and that wouldn't take so long! That's fair enough, isn't it?!? But the fact that it IS a much lighter version, that it is vegetarian and that it is made from start to finish in only an hour might make it interesting for you too... follow me and take a look!

Basically, all I really wanted to do this evening was to finally get around to using some of the little pumpkin I bought on Saturday. Oh, it keeps for ages I know... but I was simply in the mood for it! I thought of making a soup, which is also a Winter favorite, but decided I wanted something a little more satisfying and filling- a nice comfort food dish for a cold evening that I could spoil myself with a little. And I came up with this idea...

To make this double portion here, I needed just 2 cupfuls of grated pumpkin, 10-15 cherry tomatoes (depending on their size), an onion, a little garlic, tomato paste, milk, basil and 5 sheets of oven-ready lasagne. Of course the Italian word "lasagne" simply means "sheets" or "layers" and the whole fun the dish is building up layers of filling between the pasta sheets. 

Usually that means alternating layers of tomato sauce with ground meat and bechamel sauce, with lots of grated cheese, but in this case I decided to make a sauce using grated Hokkaido pumpkin and tomato, flavored with nutmeg to taste similar to a bechamel and made lightly "creamy" tasting by adding milk. No flour and butter as in a traditional bechamel- and therefore with a lot less calories... but trust me- the flavor is still all there! 

So to get things started, I finely chopped a small onion and a clove of garlic, and got them sizzling in a deep frying pan with just a pat of butter. Whilst that was happening, I coarsely grated the pumpkin and turned on the oven to get it nice and hot... multi tasking is important!

Once the onion had become translucent, I added the pumpkin, stirred it through and let it sit and brown for a while, whilst I sliced up the cherry tomatoes. As soon as the pumpkin started to brown, I added about a handful of the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of tomato paste and stirred them into the mix. Of course by now, the pan was beginning to seem a little dry and things were beginning to stick to the bottom a little- which is just fine! That is all good flavor in there, and a good splash of boiling water was all it took to loosen everything up and to bring everything together. Before I knew it, what had looked like a a messy fry-up just a minute before was transformed into a rich, thick sauce. 

A little water turned all of those tasty ingredients into a sauce- but it was actually still more of a thick paste at that point, so what I added was milk, plain and simple, stirring in little by little until it was the right consistency. And of course the whole thing needed to be seasoned! Salt, pepper, grated nutmeg, a tiny sprinkle of cinnamon and a hint of cayenne- simple but good flavors! I let the sauce simmer for just a couple of minutes whilst I grated a little salted ricotta and parmesan, plucked a few nice, large leaves of basil and got ready for action... it was now time to assemble that lasagna!

I spooned some of the sauce into my baking dish and then laid down the first pasta sheet and spooned sauce on top of that as well. I added a few slices of cherry tomato, then tore up and spread out a couple of basil leaves, sprinkled a little of each the parmesan and the ricotta, added a little fresh pepper and nutmeg and repeated this procedure until the sauce was all used up- as I said, 5 sheets deep in this case. The final layer of course needs to be nicely coated in sauce and of course cheese and then the whole thing needs to be covered in foil and baked at 300°F for half an hour. 

After 30 minutes, the foil can be removed, a little pepper added and the lasagna can continue baking and browning and becoming more and more delicious, whilst the wonderful smell drives you insane with impatience- but it does take just a little longer for the cheese to continue melting and browning and crisping up the lasagna around the edges and it is torture! But it will soon come to an end and it will be a happy ending indeed once you actually can dish it up and enjoy!

I was a little surprised myself at how good this turned out and how wonderful it tasted! The coarsely-grated pumpkin retained a nice consistency, and although of course it is softer than a meat filling, it still had a satisfying bite to it and it still browned up nicely around the edges which was very, very nice!

The milk added a creamy flavor without there actually being any butter, or bechamel added, as I already mentioned- and with the nutmeg the overall taste was very similar indeed- and the pumpkin and pasta soak up any excess moisture very nicely as well. The result is a nice, compact, moist and firm lasagna which is easy to slice up and serve and as rich and delightful as "the real thing"... but different. I like that! Life is too short to keep on eating the same-old same-old anyway! So give this a try and enjoy! I am pretty sure you will if you do! ;-)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Poor Me- Lucky You!

Vermicelli di Grano Saraceno, Lenticchie Rosse & Cicoria
Buckwheat Vermicelli with Red Lentils & Dandelion Greens

You hear a lot of talk about "la cucina povera" and how trendy and clever it is to eat like the "poor" people in Italy do- and the truth of the matter is, that if you actually DO, it actually IS. Because they don't know what is expensive or in-vogue... but they do know what is good for you and what good flavor combinations are. They know how to create a meal from seems like nothing and the most important thing about it is always, always... that it is actually delicious!

So let me share this little dish of deliciousness here with you! What I had was the last little bunch of dandelion greens, left over from Saturday. Basically, I just did not want to let them wilt and go to waste and decided to improvise a simple dish that I could incorporate them into. Along with a couple of handfuls of red lentils and a portion of Asian buckwheat vermicelli, I whipped up this great fusion/hybrid that has the slightly bitter greens of southern Italy, the red lentils of the Orient and   one of the preferred noodles of Japan. 3 examples of simple fare from around the world and one great plate of food right on my table! And maybe, at some point in the future, also on yours!

The first step was to wash the greens thoroughly, as they do tend to be a little sandy sometimes and then to cut them into bite-sized lengths. I then cut the stalks in half or into thirds if they were particularly wide, so that they would be easier to pick up and eat, but also so that they would cook more quickly. I boiled them in ample, lightly salted water for 10 minutes or so until they were relatively soft and then added the noodles. I kept the seasoning with salt relatively modest at this point as I was planning to add salted ricotta later- do take that into consideration if you are doing the same or adding some other matured and salted cheese!

The handy thing about "Soba", or Japanese buckwheat noodles, is that they are sorted, bundled and tied with a little ribbon into individual servings when you buy them... I like that! It just makes it a lot easier and more convenient! So into the saucepan with the greens went the single portion of noodles and 2 handfuls of red lentils. I turned the heat back up to maximum and once the water came back up to the boil, reduced the temperature again to a low simmer and quickly got ready to finish the dish...

In a frying pan, I sizzled a little crushed garlic and a small shallot with a little olive oil until they began to brown- this took just 2-3 minutes, but in the meantime, the pasta was ready and the lentils were nicely "al dente". The Japanese noodles cook a lot more quickly that spaghetti for example and also have a softer, smoother consistency- perfect in this combination with the "nutty" flavor of the lentils and the light bitterness of the greens. 

I drained the pasta off and transferred it to the frying pan, grated it with a little nutmeg and then tossed it in the garlic flavored oil to get it lightly coated and very aromatic. I added a ladle of the cooking water and tossed the noodles, lentils and greens until it became absorbed and the noodles took on a smooth and shiny glaze together with the oil. 

I served them up with a sprinkle of grated salted ricotta cheese, some chili flakes and a last, light drizzle of olive oil. Totally simple, totally quick and totally delicious! Need I say more? Nah- I didn't think so! Except that I hope you try this out for yourselves sometime soon!