Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fudgy cocoa and strawberry brownies

I have talked about strawberries so much in the past five and half years on this blog that sometimes I feel I have nothing more to say about them.

But then strawberry season starts and suddenly I’m overwhelmed with joy and it’s all I want to talk about. Their juiciness, that spectacular red-pinkish color, their small yellow seeds that stubbornly and, often irritatingly get stuck between my teeth, that aroma—oh the aroma—that penetrates the nostrils and lingers long after you’ve tasted them.

I love them in ice cream, both types, with tsoureki or any sweet bread for the perfect spring bread-and-butter pudding, in a salad dressing, jam of course, in refreshing drinks, in crispy galettes, on top of puff pastry tarts, inside beautifully moist cakes.

One of the best flavor combinations for me is chocolate and strawberry. I love pairing the two, especially in ice cream, scooping one flavor on top of the other, creating my ideal ice cream cone, but what I discovered recently is that I adore this flavor combination in brownies as well.

They are fudgy, moist, dense and deeply cocoa-y with a caramel flavor coming from the brown sugar without being too sweet. The strawberries hiding inside make for the best surprise as you bite into one of them and their juices run out while the aroma hits your nose and, suddenly, the flavor is refreshing and slightly tart.

It is such a simple yet rewarding treat that’ll make you enjoy this glorious fruit in yet another way. It’s pure heaven.

Fudgy cocoa and strawberry brownies

Use the best quality cocoa powder as it will make a difference both flavor- and texture-wise.

I keep them in the fridge because the cold makes them even fudgier and denser, but they are equally delicious at room temperature, albeit softer.

Yield: 16 squares

140 g unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus extra for greasing the pan
250 g soft light brown sugar
85 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¼ tsp salt
2 medium-sized eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
60 g all-purpose flour
200 g fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped

Special equipment: wire whisk, square baking pan (18x18 cm or 20x20 cm), baking paper

Butter the bottom and sides of the pan and line the bottom and sides with a piece of baking paper.

Place the butter, sugar, cocoa powder and salt in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (bain marie) and keep stirring until the butter is melted and you have a homogenous mixture. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the mixture is smooth, remove bowl from the top of the pan and set aside to cool slightly.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

In a small bowl, add the eggs and the vanilla and mix with a whisk. When the butter mixture is lukewarm, add the eggs and whisk vigorously to combine. Then add the flour and beat with a wooden spoon until fully incorporated. The mixture should be smooth and there shouldn’t be any visible white patches of flour. It will take about 20 stirs to achieve that. Add the chopped strawberries and fold them in the mixture being careful not to break them up.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, smooth the top with the back of the wooden spoon and place on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs attached. Start checking at the 30 minute mark to make sure you don’t overcook the brownies. Keep in mind that they will continue to cook as they cool down. Also, if the toothpick comes out clean, it means that the brownies will be dry rather than fugdy.

Once the brownies are ready, take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool for about 20 minutes. Then, remove the brownies from the pan by inverting it onto the wire rack. Remove and discard the baking paper and allow the brownies to cool completely. Invert them onto a cutting board and cut them into 16 squares. I find, however, that it is easier to cut these after you have left them in the fridge for half an hour.
Also, as I have already mentioned, I prefer to keep them in the fridge rather than at room temperature, as they are fudgier and denser that way. But you can keep them at room temperature if you wish. They will be softer and feel less dense.

Keep the brownies covered, at room temperature, for 3-4 days or in the fridge, wrapped with aluminum foil, for 5-6 days.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Chole Bhature (Indian spicy chickpea stew and Indian puffed fried bread)

One of the many reasons why I enjoy being part of an international organization is because I have the opportunity to work with people who come from all over the world. Getting to know them and their culture is an incredible experience that helps me grow in more ways than one. It broadens my mind as well as my view of the world and its inhabitants.

We all have things in common no matter where we come from and of course, one of the things we all share is food. Having the opportunity to learn about the food culture of different countries through my colleagues is extraordinary. And sometimes those friends and colleagues also know how to cook. Some of them are very good at it.

Having the privilege to eat in their homes, see how they set the table, how they serve the food, their rituals of eating, isn’t only a culinary experience but also a cultural one. It is so exciting to be able to share it with them and I always enjoy inviting them to my own home as well and giving them a glimpse of the way Greeks eat.

Having long talks with some of them about food, recipes and ingredients from their home countries is such a valuable learning experience that I couldn’t get from cookbooks or blogs. Some of them are willing to share their recipes, others are tight-lipped and secretive about revealing anything but the names of dishes and a few are willing to share the secrets to a dish. A former colleague of mine from India did share with me the secrets to one of her beloved recipes, chole bhature, a chickpea stew served with puffed bread.

Chole refers to the chickpea stew (also referred to as chana masala) and bhature is the puffed fried bread. I helped her cook this dish at her home once and I learned first hand how to make the stew and the bread. I loved it! It was vibrant, sumptuous and astonishingly hot. I have never eaten anything hotter in my whole life and even though I enjoy spicy food, I had trouble eating that one. She was laughing the whole time I was fanning my mouth with a magazine with every bite I took and she kept insisting that it wasn’t too hot and that she usually adds more chillies. I was stunned!! More chillies than this??

She wrote down her recipe for me and of course I had to adapt it to my own palate, adding far less chillies and also substituting the Kashmiri chilli, a common type of chilli powder used in Indian cooking, for regular dried chilli powder because I couldn’t find any. I have to admit that the recipe yielded a very hot chole but one that I can tolerate.
I’ve been making this recipe ever since and it has become a staple in my home. My boyfriend loves it and I have cooked it for my family in Greece and they all love it too. It is a highly aromatic and flavorful dish, with the soft, plump chickpeas and a rich, dense sauce that is perfect to eat with the bhature, that wonderful puffed up bread which is, admittedly, a bit heavy since it is fried, but also crispy and soft and utterly addictive. My friend’s bhature was better than mine, hers had that perfect puffed up dome and was a bit crispier, but I think I’m getting better at it. Practice makes perfect, right?

Chole Bhature (Indian spicy chickpea stew and Indian puffed fried bread)

The spices are very important in this dish as in every Indian dish. Don’t use the spices that you have hidden in the back of your kitchen cabinets collecting dust for months or even years. They will be flavorless and with no aroma whatsoever. Use fresh spices and better yet whole spices that you grind yourself each time you need them.

Garam masala is a spice mix that can be found in any spice store. In the Netherlands you can find in super markets as well. You can also make it yourself following a recipe.

I always use dried chickpeas that I soak overnight and then boil before using in the chole, but you can use canned chickpeas instead if you prefer (you will need 1 kg of canned chickpeas in this case).

My Indian friend cooks this dish with ghee (Indian clarified butter) but as you will see in the ingredients list, I use olive oil. If you use ghee, the flavor will be more authentic but also heavier.

Yield: 6 servings


for the chole
500 g dried chickpeas
120 ml olive oil
4 large onions, grated or finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, grated or finely chopped
1 hot green fresh chilli, sliced thinly
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp ground ginger
6 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 heaped tsp tomato paste
450 g canned whole tomatoes
3 cups (750 ml) water

for the bhature
250 g all-purpose flour (or maida flour - a type of Indian flour)
50 g semolina flour (from durum wheat)
1 tsp baking powder
1½ tsp salt
350 g yoghurt (not Greek or thick yoghurt)
Sunflower oil, for frying

Fresh flat-leaf parsley or fresh coriander (in Indian cooking fresh coriander is always used but I can't stand its flavor), chopped, for sprinkling on top
Yoghurt (I prefer Greek yoghurt), to serve

Special equipment: colander, grater, fine sieve, plastic wrap, rolling pin


for the chole
See in this post how to prepare the dried chickpeas.

While the chickpeas are boiling, add the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the onions and garlic and sauté for about 12 minutes or until soft and slightly browned, stirring continuously so they don't catch. Add the green chilli and sauté for 2 minutes. Add all the spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilli powder, ginger, garam masala and cardamom pods) at once and sauté for 2 minutes stirring continuously. Add ¼ cup (60 ml) of the water and “deglaze” the pan scraping any bits that have stuck to the pan. Add the tomato paste and sauté for 1 minute. Then add the tomatoes and crush them with the back of a spoon. Add salt and 1 cup (250 ml) of the water and stir well. Bring to the boil and simmer over medium-low heat with the lid open until you have a thick sauce that is not too dry. It will take around 10 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas and the remaining 1½ cup (375 ml) water and stir well. Bring to the boil, put the lid on the pan and simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes. A few minutes before it’s ready, taste and add more salt if needed.

Note: remove the cracked cardamom pods from the pan as they are unpleasant to eat. By now the seeds should have fallen off from inside the pods and the seeds have a pretty awesome flavor.

for the bhature
Sieve the all-purpose flour, the semolina flour and the baking powder into a large bowl, and add the salt and the yoghurt. Knead until you have a firm dough. It may be slightly sticky to the hands but that is fine.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave the dough to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Empty the dough on a clean surface and divide it into small balls (the size of a golf ball). You should end up with about 16. Oil each ball slightly with sunflower oil and roll it out with the rolling pin until very thin. Be careful not to tear the dough or make small folds or the bread will not puff up during frying.

Fill by ⅓ with sunflower oil a medium-sized, high-sided, heavy-bottomed pan. Heat the oil over medium-high heat. The oil should be hot enough for the dough to puff up quickly but not too hot otherwise the dough will catch and it will take a very dark brown color. The first bread will be a test run. I always keep that first one for me to eat.
When the oil is hot enough, place the rolled out dough gently into the oil, and using a slotted spoon, gently and continuously press the top of the dough, aiding it to puff up. When the bread puffs up, the dough separates, it puffs up and a large air pocket is created inside. Once it puffs up, and it takes on a golden color on the bottom, using the slotted spoon, gently flip it over and fry until golden. It should not take more than 2-3 minutes in total. Remove with the slotted spoon and place on a plate covered with paper towels to absorb the excess oil.
Continue frying the rest of the bhature.

Serving the dish
Serve the chole in big bowls, top them with yoghurt and a good sprinkling of chopped parsley or coriander and eat with the hot bhature. Cut pieces of the bhature and use the pocket to scoop up the chickpeas.

The chole will be even more flavorful the following day. The bhature are best eaten hot/warm.


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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Chicken and beetroot salad with orange, fennel and feta

From the layer cake of my last post to a salad. Huge difference, right? But there needs to be some kind a balance to what we eat. So, salad it is, and my favorite type of salad at that. One that is a full meal, with chicken, to fill you up and make you happy.

This is the type of meal I like on these early spring days, when it’s getting warm and I don’t want heavy dishes but rather light and bright ones. Salads are my go-to dishes during this time of year.

Colorful beetroots—golden, white, chioggia—that make the salad even more appetizing, greens, because I like my salads with a bit of green, feta, because I’m a feta fiend, and chicken, my favorite kind of meat.

With fresh, liquoricy fennel and a citrus dressing with orange zest, lemon juice, honey and olive oil to tie everything together. With crunchy walnuts, because when we eat something it’s not only the flavor that counts but also the texture, and some juicy orange segments, because, yes, we may all have fallen head first into the seasonal strawberries, but there are some luscious and tasty oranges left for us to savor too. So grab them while you still can.

The play of flavors is quite interesting in this salad—refreshing, sweet, sharp, earthy—making it a salad ideal for my palate. I hope it suits yours too.

Chicken and beetroot salad with orange, fennel and feta

Feel free to substitute the types of beetroot I used for regular red beetroot. Just be aware of the fact that red beets stain any other ingredient that has the audacity to share the same plate with them, so if your salad takes on a pink hue, don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Adding it at the last minute and tossing the salad ever so slightly, will save the situation though.

Use a mandoline, if you have it, to achieve those paper-thin slices. A mandoline would also be ideal to cut very thin slices of the onion and fennel.

If you don’t like feta—you don’t like feta????—use any other creamy white cheese you like that is sharp, not sweet.

I used two boneless and skinless chicken breasts that I seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne, and cooked them in a frying pan with a little olive oil. You can use, however, any leftover chicken you may have, from roast chicken to grilled chicken, and it can be any part of the chicken as long as you cut it into bite-sized pieces.

This salad can be eaten either for lunch or dinner as it is quite filling yet light.

Yield: 2 main-course or 4 salad servings

2 large oranges
350 g raw beetroots (golden, white, chioggia), peeled and very thinly sliced
2 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 Tbsp orange juice
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar
1 tsp runny honey
Zest of 1 orange, finely grated
Freshly ground white pepper
150 g mixed baby leaves
½ large fennel bulb, trimmed and very thinly sliced, fronds reserved
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
300 g cooked chicken, chopped into bite sized pieces
80-90 g feta, cubed
50 g walnuts, roughly chopped

Special equipment: mandoline (optional yet preferable), rasp grater

Grate the zest of one of the oranges and place it in a small bowl.

The way to cut the 2 oranges is by using a sharp knife. First, cut off the peel, then the white pith all around the fruit, exposing the flesh, and finally, cut free the flesh of the fruit from the membranes that are in between the wedges. Squeeze the juice out of the membranes and into a large bowl. They should be about 2 Tbsp. Add the thinly sliced beetroot to the bowl along with 1 Tbsp lemon juice and ¼ tsp salt and mix well. Let stand for 15 minutes so the beetroot softens a bit.

Make the dressing. In the small bowl that you added the grated orange zest, add the olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, honey, the remaining 1 Tbsp lemon juice, a good pinch of salt and some white pepper, and using a wire whisk, blend well.

In a large bowl, mix gently with your hands the baby green leaves, fennel, red onion and the chicken. Add the oranges and the beetroot with its juices and mix gently with your hands. Scatter the feta and walnuts on top and finally pour over the dressing. Sprinkle with the reserved fennel fronds and again, using your hands, toss gently to combine all the ingredients.

Serve immediately with some fresh bread and a glass of dry white wine.

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