Thursday, December 31, 2009

...and a Happy New Year!

Being home in Greece for the holidays feels like time travel. Nothing changes at my grandmother's house where the whole family spends the holidays. And the holidays mean one thing and one thing only for my family. Food, food and... food! Planning meals, shopping for meals, preparing the food for meals, cooking meals, eating meals while discussing the meals, cleaning up after the end of each meal, planning meals for the following days. This is a vicious cycle I tell you! And of course I'm caught in it. I have to do my part, not that I'm complaining. Cooking is as important to me as for the rest of my clan. It's just that when three home cooks -my grandmother, my mother, and I- try to organize the festive family meals and cook them, chaos is the appropriate word to describe these occasions. We each think that we can contrive the best menu possible and the fact that each one of us has their distinct cooking style and method, makes it even more difficult to reach common ground on these menus.




My grandmother, being the more traditional cook, wants to prepare every single dish she has been preparing for the past forty years, proud of her heritage and always wanting to please every single member of the family. My mother, the spontaneous cook, wanting to try things that she'd never attempted before, gleefully and with the enthusiasm that is characteristic of her personality. I, the innovative cook -at least to my family's eyes- always trying to introduce new ideas and flavors that usually contradict the traditional greek concept of what Christmas and New Year's menus should include.
I can assure you that we eat extremely well during these days. No matter which menu we decide to choose eventually and who is the head cook for the day, it always turns out to be a magnificent experience for us and our loved ones.




This year I tried to familiarize myself and the family more with chestnuts. I've always eaten them in turkey stuffing or roasted, but never as a soup.
During the holidays, on the busy shopping streets of Athens, you can find stands where corn on the cob and chestnuts are being roasted on an open fire and sold to the passers-by. To those wanting to get warm standing by the fire, picking with greed yet carefully the flesh off, from the almost blackened from the fire, shells of the hot chestnuts and savoring them.
I wanted to create that same feeling of warmth and comfort with a soup made of chestnuts. Mission accomplished. This is a rich creamy soup full of flavor. The woody, nutty taste of the chestnuts complements the tartness of the port, and the addition of fresh vegetables and butter composes a sweet mixture that gives pleasure in every mouthful. The cream comes at the end to round up all the flavors and to give a smooth texture to the soup.
It's a scrumptious soup worthy of a New Year's dinner, served as a starter. It will most surely intrigue your guests' palates and they'll look forward to what's coming up next on your menu.











Chestnut Soup with Port

There are two ways to peel whole chestnuts. One way is to peel them with a sharp knife when they're raw. First peeling the outer, hard layer and then the inner soft hairs, leaving the flesh of the chestnut exposed. The other way is to boil them first and then peel them. I prefer the first method since I believe it is easier and less cumbersome. When you try to peel chestnuts after you've boiled them, you tend to lose a large amount of the flesh in the process since the shell tends to stick very hard onto the flesh, making it difficult to remove it.






Yield: 6-8 first-course servings

Ingredients
670 g whole raw chestnuts (2 3/4 cups raw peeled chestnuts)
1 cup celery, chopped
1 1/3 cup carrot, chopped
1 cup onion, chopped
125 g butter
240 ml (1 cup) Ruby port
5 fresh thyme sprigs
950 ml or 4 cups good quality chicken stock, preferably homemade
120 ml (1/2 cup) cream, plus a little more to pour on top of soup when serving
A pinch of white pepper
Salt
Créme fraiche (optional)

Preparation
Place the raw peeled chestnuts in a medium-sized saucepan and fill it with water. Bring to the boil over high heat and then simmer over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes or until the chestnuts are soft. Drain them in a colander and leave them to dry while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and add the onions, the carrots and the celery. Lower the heat to medium and sauté the vegetables until they become soft, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes. Add the thyme and port and let simmer for 3 minutes. Place the chestnuts in the pot and stir well so that they get coated with the port and butter. Cook for 4 minutes and add the chicken stock and white pepper. Bring the mixture to the boil and then simmer over low heat, with the lid half-open, for about 40 minutes. Remove the lid and let simmer for 10 more minutes.
Once soup is cooked, discard the thyme sprigs and pour soup in a blender*. Purée in batches until smooth and place in a clean pot. Stir in the cream, check for seasoning, and reheat the soup gently over very low heat, stirring. Ladle soup in warm bowls and pour a little cream over it or a small spoonful of créme fraiche.
Serve immediately.


*You can alternatively use an immersion blender directly into the pot and purée the soup.


HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!!!



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Monday, December 21, 2009

Cranberry delight

Most mediterranean countries rarely use fruit in traditional savory dishes and that is certainly true for Greece. I suppose it's the fact that there is such a plethora of vegetables that one can pair meat or fish with, that there's no actual need to substitute with fruit. So fruit is used mostly for desserts or just enjoyed on their own in all their freshness and deliciousness.





I have used fruit in dishes oftentimes, usually in latin- or asian-inspired recipes, but ever since my boyfriend and I moved to Holland, we've expanded our culinary horizons. I started experimenting even more with fruit, incorporating them in numerous main or side dishes and hors d'oeuvres. Well, I know that the Dutch are not known for their excellence in gastronomy, but rather for their lack of, but I'm a firm believer in giving anybody a chance. So the journey began with apples and a try at hachee, then I moved on to pears, and suddenly here comes Christmas, and with it the sight of cranberries all over the greengrocer's stalls and super markets. I had to do something with them. I was mesmerised by their glorious red color and their juicy roundness.






I didn't want to pair them with game meat though, like in some dutch recipes I discovered, I needed something simpler for my cranberry debut. And what is more straightforward than chutney?






This strikingly red concoction has a pungent aroma. Its sweet and tart flavor along with the fiery heat from the chili can excite even the most demanding of palates. Only in the aftertaste you get a slight hint of the garlic and ginger that give an earthy tone to the chutney. It is perfect as an accompaniment to a piece of Stilton or Fourme d'Ambert cheese on top of crostini* and served as an appetiser.






The vinegary and syrupy taste of the chutney becomes more splendid when paired with a big chunk of Parmesan cheese and cold cuts of cured ham or roast beef on a cheese platter, for a night with friends, not forgetting a bottle of your favorite red or white wine.


*Crostini is the italian word for croutons, but it usually implies toasted slices of bread, most commonly baguettes or the Italian bread, ciabatta.










Cranberry Chutney

Adapted from Gourmet

If you wish to make this chutney another time of the year when you cannot find fresh cranberries, you can most certainly use frozen ones. Use them directly from the freezer.
The chutney tastes much better the day after you've cooked it and even better a week after that.





Yield: 2 cups

Ingredients
3 medium-sized shallots, chopped coarsely
1 Tbsp olive oil
320 g fresh cranberries
3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
150 g (2/3 cup) caster sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
20 g (1 ½ tsp) fresh ginger, peeled and minced
A pinch of dried chili flakes or chili powder

Preparation
Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until they become soft but not browned, about 3-5 minutes.
Add the remaining ingredients and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally and making sure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan, until the cranberries just start to pop, 12-15 minutes. At this point you may want to cover the pan, but not fully, so that the berries don't pop all over your stove but still letting some steam come out of the pan. When most of them have popped remove pan from heat.
If you want to serve it the same day, let it cool, place it in a small bowl and serve.

If you want to preserve it, take the hot sterilized jar, making sure you are not touching the inside of the jar, and fill it with the still hot chutney. Close the lid tightly and put it in a cool, dry place for storage.
You may keep an unopened sterilized jar of chutney in a dark and cool place for up to a year.

Once you open a jar of chutney you have to immediately refrigerate it. It will keep for about 3-4 months as long as you don't contaminate it with dirty spoons or hands.
(Read this)




How to sterilize glass jars
Sterilizing jars is extremely important if you wish to preserve chutneys. It is unhealthy and risky for you to store chutneys in unsterilized jars.
Preheat your oven to 100 degrees Celsius. Wash the jars and lids with soap in hot water. Put them, while still damp and without touching the inside of the jars or lids, on a baking tray and into the oven for 35 minutes. Take them out of the oven, fill jars with the hot cooked product and seal the lids immediately.




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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Something real

It's incredible how Christmas television cooking programs make me feel like I am a subspecies of the cooking race. Everyone looks so graceful and pristine, with their flawless make-up and their impeccable clothes whilst cooking a turkey or a ham.
Their nails are all done even though they are supposed to have been cleaning the turkey's bottom and chopping two kilos of onions and carrots for hours, and their kitchens are immaculately clean and dolled up with decorations even though we all know what mayhem a kitchen can become when preparing a festive meal.
It's ridiculous how they want us to "buy" that whole false concept of the home cook. I mean, take Nigella, who is actually the instigator of this post. I was watching her Christmas special this morning on BBC and I realised that her producers must be geniuses of their trade, because they're making me wanna purchase her series of plates and cups so I too can feel like the domestic goddess that she is. Well, you know what? I don't!
I am happy with the messiness of my kitchen when I cook my favorite food for my favorite people. I don't mind when my clothes get spilled with a little bit of sauce, and I don't own every fancy kitchen gadget that exists out there. But I still am a happy and creative cook!
It's a nice fantasy, these cooking shows, don't get me wrong, and I wouldn't be mentioning Nigella if I was not actually watching her programs, and sometimes I am a sucker for the latest fashion in cooking appliances and gizmos, it's just that I wish for something a little bit more real.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Biscuit anyone?

Ok, every time I complain about the weather, the temperature drops another 4 or 5 degrees. This morning it was -6 Celsius. But I got my wish, the sun was shining! Is this ironic or what?

Well, weather aside, Christmas is just around the corner and this year will be extra special because we're spending it with our families in Greece. We did put up our Christmas tree though last weekend to get in the holiday mood -as if I need any help with that. The kid in me is rearing its happy head. I Heart Christmas.




Twinkle lights around my Christmas tree, brilliant decorations all around the streets, shiny happy people shopping for presents and me tucked away in my little expat kitchen baking Christmas goodies.
If you haven't baked anything yet for the holidays, what are you waiting for? This is the time. Get in your kitchen and make this recipe. It's so easy and so delicious. These biscuits are a little spicy and buttery, just like a proper Christmas biscuit should be. Use your favorite festive cookie cutters for fun shapes and try some icing on the biscuits too. Use your imagination and see where it takes you with all kinds of edible decorations like dried or candied fruits, nuts, sprinkles and dragées. Have fun! That's what the holidays are for.






Roll-out Christmas Biscuits with Maple Syrup and Spices
Adapted from Martha Stewart

While you bake these delightful treats, your home will be filled with the warm scent of spices and maple syrup, and once they're out of the oven you'll be powerless to resist them.
Even though these crispy biscuits can be adorned in many different ways, I prefer them bare and simple. They're the perfect complement to my morning coffee and I assure you they are ideal for those midday or late-night holiday sugar cravings.





Yield: 40-50 medium sized biscuits

Ingredients

for biscuits
125 g (or 1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp) unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed* soft dark brown sugar
2/3 cup pure maple syrup
A good Tbsp of brandy
1/2 tsp ground clove
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1/2 medium sized orange
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

for glacé icing
1 cup icing sugar, sifted
3 Tbsp boiling water
Gel food coloring of your choice (optional)


Preparation

for biscuits
Preheat the oven to 190 Celsius.
Prepare your baking sheet by lining it with baking paper or a non-stick mat.
Place the butter, sugar and maple syrup in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture comes to the boil and then remove from heat. Stir in clove, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, orange zest, brandy and vanilla extract. Then stir in the baking soda and you will notice that the mixture immediately starts to puff up. Add the flour and stir to combine well, until you can't see any more white. Let cool in the pan for about 30 minutes and then put the mixture in plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for about 30 more minutes or until it becomes firm enough to roll out.
Divide dough into two equal pieces. Turn one piece of dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll it out with a floured rolling pin to 0.5 cm thick. Repeat the process with the remaining piece of dough and shape biscuits with your preferred cookie cutters.
Working in batches, place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, 1.5 cm apart, put baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and bake biscuits until crisp, for 6-8 minutes.
Remove sheet from the oven and leave biscuits on it until they cool slightly and their shape sets. Then carefully remove them onto a wire rack to cool completely.

for glacé icing
To make the icing, put the sifted icing sugar in a bowl and add the water slowly, a little at at time, stirring until it becomes smooth. Stop adding water when you like the consistency. You can add a tiny amount of color by using a toothpick dipped into the gel. You can always add more if you want but keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Decorate your biscuits.

Store biscuits in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.





*Packed refers to the measurement of the brown sugar. It means that instead of simply filling a measuring cup with brown sugar thus creating many air pockets, you pack it firmly into the measuring cup, pushing it down until you can't fit any more in.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Brrrrr!

It's so cold these last couple of weeks, it's crazy. Not being a Holland native it's kind of difficult getting used to. My mediterranean blood yearns for some rays of sun and a little bit of warmth. I bet any expat from my side of the woods will have sympathy for me.
But hey, I'm not complaining. I actually like the crisp wind on my face... as long as I can feel my face afterwards. Well it surely wakes you up though! Yesterday I went shopping on the cold streets of The Hague and I was so alert it was kind of bad for my wallet. No bargain sale escaped me! And as you can imagine, I shopped around at my favorite cook shops as well. My best find? The Microplane zester. A bit pricy and maybe I didn't actually need it but I thought I'd indulge myself. I can't help it, I love my kitchen gadgets.


Now, with this kind of introduction I bet you thought a soup was coming up. But no, no soup from me today. I think I have something more interesting for you and a little bit more gratifying.
Fillet of pork, colorful bell peppers, the world's most expensive spice - saffron. How does that sound? Fillet is one of the best cuts of pork and saffron is one of the best spices. So how can one go wrong with this combination? The bell peppers and tomatoes provide sweetness and take away some of the bitterness of the saffron, whereas the luxurious saffron lends its beautiful color to the whole dish. It's a wonderfully tasty and healthy dinner option, special enough for company. You can serve it alongside a bowl of brown rice and make sure you have an ever so slightly chilled bottle of young Beaujolais to pair the dish with.





Pork fillet with Bell Peppers and Saffron

You can use either saffron threads or powder for this recipe. Saffron threads have a more powerful and richer taste than powdered saffron but they need to be soaked in water in order to release their flavor. Powdered saffron dissolves easily in foods.




Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
500 g pork fillet, cut into small cubes
1 green bell pepper, cut into strips
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
2 large tomatoes, sliced
3 green onions, sliced
2 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
10-12 saffron threads or a dash (1/16 tsp) of saffron powder
1 Tbsp hot water
4 Tbsp olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation
If you're using saffron threads place them in a small bowl and pour the hot water over them. Soak the threads for 20 minutes before starting to cook the dish. Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork pieces and brown them lightly. Remove them from the pan and add the green onions and bell peppers and sauté lightly. Return the pork to the pan and add the tomatoes, the water with the soaked saffron or the saffron powder if that's what you're using, salt and pepper. Stir everything around so that the ingredients get mixed together, lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until the meat is almost cooked. During this time the vegetables will release their water thus flavoring the meat along with the saffron. Remove the lid, turn heat up to medium and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated (you don't want the meat to be completely dry). Remove from heat, sprinkle with the parsley and serve.


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Friday, December 4, 2009

It's clementine time

I love the smell of citrus fruit. That pungent, sweet smell of oranges, that fresh scent of lemons, mandarins and of course clementines - which are a cross between a mandarin and a navel orange - always tickle my nostrils and stir up memories.

Mostly it reminds me of home. Walking down the street or simply going to my back yard and just picking fruit from the trees which are always full, especially this time of year. Bitter and navel orange, mandarin and lemon trees grow everywhere in Greece. It's such a beautiful sight and such an inspiration for cooking as well.



I always get so excited when I see the first clementines of the season making their appearance at the stalls of my local greengrocer. So many recipes go running through my head. From a simple clementine juice packed with precious vitamin C to an elaborate clementine sweet souffle, there's so much to choose from.



So, with no further ado, let's get cooking! I have two recipes for you today. One savory and one sweet.
Take your pick!



Chicken Breasts with Clementine Salsa
Adapted from Bon Appétit

The juicy clementines and sweet cherry tomatoes balance perfectly with the heat of the chili and the freshness of the cilantro and basil. The chicken breasts are moist and tender making this colorful dish very special and very healthy indeed. It would be a great dish for a dinner with friends paired with a chilled white wine.


Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
4 chicken breast halves, no skin (about 150 g each)
4 clementines, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/2 cup red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup celery, finely diced
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh coriander leaves (cilantro), roughly chopped
4 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/2 cup clementine juice, freshly squeezed (from about 6 clementines)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation
Place the chicken breast halves between two sheets of plastic wrap and using a mallet, pound chicken to a 1 cm thickness. This is not only a way of reducing cooking time, since the meat is thinner but it is also a way of tenderizing it.
To make the salsa, mix the diced clementines with the cherry tomatoes, red onion, celery, basil, coriander, lime juice and 2 Tbsp of the olive oil in a medium bowl . Add salt and pepper and toss.
The salsa can be made 2 hours ahead and can be kept covered, at room temperature. Uncover chicken and sprinkle both sides with salt and chili powder. Heat the remaining 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and add the chicken. Cook until it is slightly browned and cooked through, about 4-5 minutes per side. When the chicken is ready, remove from skillet and place onto a platter.
Add clementine juice to the skillet and boil until it's reduced to 1/4 cup. Be sure to stir often, about 2 minutes.
Drizzle the sauce over the chicken and spoon the salsa over. Serve immediately.



Clementines in Spiced Ginger Syrup
Adapted from Gourmet

This is a highly aromatic and spicy yet very light dessert. The honeyed orange flavor of the clementines marries well with the peppery heat of the ginger and the spirit of the spices. Its Algerian origin makes it an exotic pick for a dinner party dessert.


Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
4 green cardamom pods
2 whole star anise
1/2 cinnamon stick
6 clementines (alternatively you can use mandarins)

Preparation
In a small saucepan place the water, sugar, ginger, cardamom pods, cinnamon and star anise. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and leave to infuse, covered, for about 15 minutes. Strain syrup through a sieve into a bowl and discard the solids. Cover the bowl and chill the syrup until cold, for at least 2 hours.
Peel clementines, making sure to remove the white pith as well. You may want to use a knife to do that. Then cut fruit into 1.5 cm thick rounds and put in a serving bowl.
Add syrup and chill, covered, for at least 1 hour.
You can keep them in the refrigerator for up to 3 days at most.


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