Friday, June 24, 2011

Escape

The weather last Saturday was bleak. Dark skies, pouring rain, howling winds. In other words, a typical Dutch summer day. But I had other plans. I wasn't about to give up on my Saturday. I was not going to sit around the house complaining about the horrible weather. No.



View from my kitchen window


I got off my warm, cozy bed, I ate my rich in fiber breakfast and decided to brave the glorious, greener-than-green, Dutch countryside. But first, I had to wake up my sleeping boyfriend. A huge task, not to mention a perilous one, but someone had to do it. I abide by the belief that persistence leads to success so eventually, after a few tries, I managed to wake him up and come out of it unscathed.






This girl right here though, is a bona fide city girl who can't just venture into the wilderness without good reason. It's not easy being exposed to that much clean air and open fields. I need an incentive.
Cheese! Milk! Butter! Eggs! Fresh! Straight from the cow!
Were these enough to convince me?
Oh, yes!






We jumped in our car, delicious cookies in hand (sent to me by Ioanna from Greece), S sat comfortably on the passenger's seat playing dj on the car stereo while I was the designated driver for the day and we headed to a dairy farm just thirty minutes out of The Hague.






Thirty minutes out of The Hague. Thirty minutes out of the city. Thirty minutes away from all the hustle and bustle, you come face to face with this.






And this






And this






This dairy farm, located just 3 kilometres outside the city of Leiden, makes one of the best Leidse cheeses in The Netherlands. Boeren-Leidse met sleutels kaas (P.D.O.) is a farm-made cheese originating from the Leiden region in the province of South Holland that can be recognized by its red-brown coating and the official seal depicting the keys of the city of Leiden on top. It is a semi-firm, low-fat, raw cow's milk cheese made from skimmed milk and the addition of whole cumin seeds and has a creamy, sharp and spicy flavor that is quite unique.






The addition of spices to cheeses is very common in The Netherlands and dates back to the 1600s when the Dutch East India Company controlled the world's spice trade. The Dutch grew accustomed to the taste of spices and their new exciting flavor was quickly incorporated into their local cheeses.



Whenever I look at this photo, I start singing this song



The farm we visited, called "De Keizershof" (The Emperor's Garden), is run by the Van Leeuwen family since the late 1970's. Apart from their Leidse kaas, they are also famous for their Boeren-Roomboter (Farmhouse Dairy Butter), which is a very rich butter, made with the cream that's scooped from the surface of the milk which is used to make cheese. Both this butter and the Leidse cheese are in the Ark of Taste, which is an international catalog of food in danger of extinction that is maintained by the global Slow Food movement.






This is real farmhouse butter and it is delicious. We bought half a kilo (oh yes we did) and the first 250 grams were gone in a matter of a couple of days.
We smeared it on top of a pain rustique,






a whole-wheat bread,






and this Dutch corn bread.






We also wouldn't pass on the opportunity to buy a dozen of freshly laid eggs from the farm hens—who were running around freely and happily making the farm dog crazy (who by the way fell in love with S and followed him around everywhere)—and two liters of raw (unpasteurized) cow's milk.






S asked the farmer whether we should boil the milk before drinking it and another guy waiting to buy his own milk laughed at our ignorance. "This is good for you", he said with a heavy Dutch accent. "Drink it as is".






After we left the beautiful farm, we stopped by another dairy farm nearby that sold freshly churned ice cream. Naturally, I couldn't resist having a taste. It was one of the most flavorful ice creams I have ever had. Incredibly creamy with a subtle milky undertone.






We couldn't wait however to get home. We couldn't wait to try the butter and the eggs and the milk and the cheese we'd bought.






My instinct, as soon as I see eggs, is to fry them, sunny-side-up. It is the way S prefers them as well. And let me tell you, they were unbelievable.






The following day, I started wondering what I could do with all that raw milk besides the obvious and then I saw Deb's (of Smitten Kitchen) recipe for homemade ricotta. I thought I had just hit the jackpot. I prepared it the same day, using just raw milk, no cream, and it came out perfect. I couldn't believe I had made my own cheese. S absolutely loved it.






Yesterday, as I opened the fridge and realized that there are no more fresh eggs, no more raw cow's milk, no more farmhouse butter, I decided that that thirty-minute drive to the country will be one that I'll be taking again and again.







Farm DE KEIZERSHOF
Van Leeuwen Family
Noord Aa 4
2381 LV
Zoeterwoude
The Netherlands


Slow Food Nederland



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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Inside the pod

What do you do when you want to post a recipe but you're not in the mood to write anything about it? Do you worry that your readers will take it personally and assume that you're too bored to address them? Will they think that you believe the recipe is boring even though you took the time to post it? Will it diminish the value of the recipe itself if a story is not attached to it? Will anyone care at all because, let's face it, who reads whatever the hell you're writing anyway?






These questions are on my mind lately whenever I sit down to write a post.






Perhaps because I'm not in the best of moods these past few weeks. I've been cranky, sad, gloomy, anxious, angry and many other negative things that I don't care to mention. I have been struggling to post anything, hell, it's been hard to do anything lately. Blogging is perhaps the last thing on my mind.






Ever since my dad passed away four months ago I've been going through the motions.
It seems like I'm doing whatever I have to do to stop myself from thinking too much about... everything.






Even though I have two degrees in Psychology I feel like I need to be reminded of the basics. I need to tell myself that "It will take time"
"I shouldn't force myself to feel a certain way"
"I need to go through this at my own pace"
"I mustn't be reluctant to rely on the people I love"






I have been trying to conquer my nearly constant bad mood in many ways and one of them is by keeping my mind busy with this blog of mine. Yet, it's futile. As soon as I hit "publish", it's me again. With my negative thoughts and feelings.






Food has always managed to put me in a good mood. It still works some days. Others not so much.



Feta drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with dried oregano


S told me the other day as we were eating a bowl of these fresh peas that cooking is the only form of art that has an immediate and tangible outcome and offers instant gratification. I believe he's right.






Cooking; that's the art form I practice every day in my kitchen although I doubt if my everyday culinary creations can be considered art. Yet, this dish can.
The mellow, sweet flavor of the fresh peas, the starchy sweetness of the potatoes, the vibrancy of the dill and green onions make this dish artful in all its simplicity.













Arakas me patates (Greek Fresh Peas with Potatoes, Green Onions and Dill)

This is a classic Greek dish that belongs to the category of "ladera". Ladera means "with oil" or "oily" (ladi is the Greek word for oil) and denotes dishes, specifically vegetable dishes, that are prepared with olive oil and without the addition of any other type of fat.
There are two varieties of ladera: a) vegetables that are braised or baked in an olive oil and tomato sauce and b) vegetables that are braised or baked in an olive oil-based sauce without tomato and with the addition of different fresh herbs.
This dish is of the second variety.

Ladera are a huge part of Greek cuisine and one of the reasons why it is considered among the healthiest in the world. They are peasant-style dishes that rely on the freshness of the ingredients used, they celebrate the importance of vegetables and olive oil in the Greek diet and are consumed all year round, though they are especially flavorful during spring and summer when fresh Greek produce is abundant. They are also the preferred type of dishes to be consumed during periods of fasting, like Lent.




Ladera are always accompanied by big chunks of cheese like feta, manouri or kefalotyri and lots and lots of crusty bread.

I make this dish of peas with potatoes all year round, almost twice a month, using frozen peas (usually petit pois) whenever I can't find fresh ones, that work beautifully in this dish. They require a bit more cooking time though, about 25 minutes more than fresh peas.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
1 kg fresh peas in their pods (after shelling them I ended up with 475 g) or 500 g frozen peas
150 ml virgin olive oil
4-5 potatoes, medium sized (about 600 g total), cut into approximately 3 x 3 cm cubes
8-10 small green onions, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
300 ml tap water
30 g (about 1 cup) fresh dill, divided into stems and leaves, finely chopped plus a little extra for sprinkling over the dishes
Salt
Black pepper, freshly ground


Preparation
Rinse the pea pods well under cold running water. Shell the peas and discard the pods, keeping the shelled peas in a bowl. Do not rinse them.

Pour the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and heat it over medium heat. Add the green onions and sauté them lightly for 1 minute. Add the chopped dill stems and sauté them for ½ minute. Add the cubed potatoes and sauté them for 2-3 minutes, stirring often. Add the shelled peas (or frozen peas) and stir them around the pan with a wooden spoon so that they get coated with the olive oil. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, turn heat up to high and let it come to the boil.
Cover the pan with the lid and turn heat down to low. Let peas and potatoes simmer for about 20 minutes (or if using frozen peas about 45 minutes), until they are tender.
Just before they're ready, about 5 minutes before, stir in the rest of the dill (the chopped leaves).
The peas should not be mushy. They should remain crisp and juicy.

Note: do not overcook the peas otherwise they'll lose all their flavor and freshness.

Serve immediately, sprinkling some extra chopped dill on top of each plate.
This dish can also be served at room temperature, as is common with all Greek ladera dishes.







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Monday, June 6, 2011

Greek snacking

I like to snack. No, I love to snack. I'd probably say that there are many times when I prefer it to regular sitting-at-the-table-and-eating-out-of-a-plate kind of thing. Anyone with me on this?






Of course when most people hear the word snack, their minds immediately jump to unhealthy food. Packaged, processed foods like potato chips and cheese puffs. That's not the kind of snacks I'm talking about even though just between you and me, I can't say no to these Greek potato chips with oregano or these chips that I found here in Holland, ever.






A bag of fresh baby carrots, baby roma tomatoes or mini cucumbers, various fruit like cherries and grapes, homemade sandwiches, kritharokouloures and nuts have always been my go-to snacks but nothing, absolutely nothing, beats good homemade Greek pies.






Greek pies come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and they are the quintessence of Greek food. They can have a number of different fillings and the dough can be made with various ingredients and in different ways thus giving each pie a distinctive texture and taste.






Meat, cheese, greens, olives; these are the preferred pie fillings. The main ingredient is usually mixed with herbs like dried oregano, mint, fresh dill or parsley and the amount of filling is always subject to personal preference. The dough that is most used for pies is phyllo but us Greeks also love puff pastry as well as kourou, which is a type of short crust pastry.






Feta cheese is the most popular ingredient for filling any kind of pie and I have to admit, it is one of my personal favorites. Cheese pie or tyropita is sold in every bakery across Greece and it's only rival is another classic pie, spanakopita (spinach pie).






There are as many recipes for pies as there are Greek cooks. Everyone has their own recipe that they swear by and this is mine. Well, my grandmother's to be exact but I don't think she'll mind me sharing it with you. These individual cheese pies (tyropitakia) and meat pies (kreatopitakia) are the taste of home for me. I literally grew up on these.






The melt-in-your-mouth dough is made with Greek strained yoghurt and a generous amount of butter and once baked in the oven, it becomes puffy, flaky and crispy on the edges. The filling of the cheese pie is the glorious Greek feta which is combined with just one egg that allows the tangy, creamy flavor of the cheese to shine through, whereas the filling of the meat pies is lean minced beef that is sautéed in a skillet with onions and finished off with a good sprinkling of chopped fresh dill.






Eaten while sitting in front of the computer, trying to work, write a post or getting lost in pinning inspirations on this site, munched while watching Roland Garros on tv (I'm a huge Nadal fan by the way), nibbled while riding the train back home from work or shared among fellow protesters/indignados in every large city in Greece, these pies are the portable dream snack.












Tyropitakia & Kreatopitakia (Greek Individual Cheese Pies & Meat Pies)

I like making my individual pies rather substantial. I like a lot of filling. Feel free to make them smaller if you want.

The dough for these pies is a version of the Greek kourou dough, made with yoghurt and butter which is the best version in my opinion. There are other versions that contain margarine, olive oil (like this one) and are made with or without yoghurt.

I always grate the onion in a large box grater for the meat pie filling. This way the onion is less crunchy and gives a different overall texture to the filling. If you can't bother grating the onions, you can whiz them in the food processor until they are almost puréed.

If you don't like the flavor of black sesame seeds use white instead or skip them altogether. I usually sprinkle with sesame seeds just the cheese pies.






Yield: 35 individual pies (17 cheese & 18 meat pies) about 14 cm long and 4 cm wide each

Ingredients

for the dough
800 g self-rising flour
½ tsp sea salt
380 g unsalted butter, softened
480 g Greek strained yoghurt, preferably 2% fat (Total brand is the one I use)

for the cheese filling
300 g feta cheese
1 large egg

for the beef filling
2 large onions, around 370 g total
260 g lean beef, minced
40 ml (a little less than 3 Tbsp) olive oil
20 g (a small bunch) dill, finely chopped
50 ml water
Salt
Black pepper, freshly ground

1 small egg, beaten, for brushing over the pies
3-4 Tbsp black sesame seeds, for sprinkling over the pies

Special equipment: grater with coarse grating surface, stand mixer (optional), large baking trays, baking paper


Preparation

for the dough
In a large bowl, add the flour and salt and stir with a spoon. Add the rest of the ingredients for the dough and knead with your hands until you have a smooth dough that is pliable and somewhat soft but doesn't stick to your hands. Don't overwork the dough because it will tighten up and be tough when you bake the pies.
Note: Alternatively, you can make the dough in a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.


Shape the dough into a ball and let it rest in the bowl at room temperature for 15 minutes, covered with a clean kitchen towel. If the temperature in your kitchen is very hot, put the dough in the fridge for 10 minutes instead.

for the beef filling
In the meantime, grate the onions using a box grater (coarse grating surface) and add them to a large skillet/frying pan. Add the olive oil and cook over medium heat until the liquid from the onions has evaporated, for about 8 minutes. The onions shouldn't be browned. Add the minced beef and sauté lightly stirring often. Add the freshly ground pepper, chopped dill and water and let beef cook for 10-12 minutes over low heat. Don't put the lid on and make sure to stir regularly. Add salt and take pan off the heat.
The filling should not be very wet otherwise the pies will be soggy.
Allow the filling to cool.


for the cheese filling
Grate the feta cheese using a box grater (coarse grating surface) and put it in a medium-sized bowl. Break the egg inside the bowl and stir with a spoon until you have a homogenous mixture.


Roll out the dough
Divide the dough into 35 pieces and shape them into balls the size of a small mandarin. Working on a clean surface, take each ball and roll it into a croquette shape (see photographs above).

Note: as far as the dough is prepared and kneaded properly, you will not need to flour it in order to shape it and roll it out. Also, you will not need a rolling pin but just your hands since the dough is pliable.

Take each croquette-shaped dough piece and using your fingertips, press the dough outwards in order to spread it open and create 17 x 9 cm rectangles with a thickness of around 0,4 cm.

Preheat your oven to 175 degrees Celsius.

Prepare the cheese & meat pies
Place the filling along the center of each rectangle lengthwise.
For the cheese pies place 3/4-1 Tbsp of filling and for the meat pies 1-1½ Tbsp of filling on each piece of dough. Don't spread the filling towards the edges of the dough because you'll not be able to seal them properly.
Fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges together, pressing down to form rolls and tuck the two far edges inwards (see these photographs). Place the pies, seam side down and spacing them well apart because they will puff up during baking, on a baking tray lined with baking paper.
Brush the pies with the beaten egg and sprinkle some with all of them with the sesame seeds.

Place them on the middle rack of the oven and bake them for about 40 minutes, until they take on a golden-brown color.
Take them out of the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool.
Continue baking the rest of the pies.

Eat them the same day, warm or at room temperature. They are equally delicious the next day without the dough becoming soggy and losing its crispy and buttery texture.

Keep them at room temperature, lightly covered with aluminum foil, for a day or two although I highly doubt they'll last that long.







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