Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Inspiration






Yes, this is a food blog, but there are so many things that inspire me, that I can't help but wanting to share them with you.

Who knows, perhaps this will be a regular thing around here.
Tell me what you think!


I believe I have told you what a huge Woody Allen fan I am. This latest documentary on PBS about his life and work, left me even more impressed by this multitalented man and legendary filmmaker. I lurve Woody.

This is what you get when a prima ballerina, wearing ethereal clothes by Chloé, dances to music by Philip Glass.

Ashley Rodriguez's video on how to make a gradient cake with rolled fondant. She makes it look so easy. (Ashley writes the wonderful food blog Not Without Salt).

Have you ever considered dining in the sky?

I love creative couples, and iconic Dutch fashion photographer duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, are a fascinating one. The music video for Bjork's Moon, from her latest album Biophilia, is the perfect combination of their imaginative visual creativity and Bjork's evocative musical talent.

I'm not at all good at DIY stuff but this I have to try; how to make your own distressed wood background for photographs.

This and this are my favorite television series of late.

Mikkel Adsbøl is a Danish food photographer. Check out his work. His photographs are stunning.


See you soon with a recipe!


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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Two Years






I can't believe it's been two years since I wrote these words.


Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for joining me on this creative gastronomic adventure.



We've only just began!



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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The second mode

I have two cooking modes. The fancy, "over-achieving" mode in which I make everything from scratch, and the quick and easy cooking mode, aka the I'm-too-tired-to-cook-anything-but-pasta mode.






The first mode is the one I get into when I have a lot of time on my hands, a lot of energy and a whole lot of patience. It is during such days that I feel like I can conquer the world with my cooking, and I create dishes like Greek feta-filled breads and small hand pies, or desserts like saragli and bars of chocolate dulce de leche with shortbread crust.






The second mode is my everyday mode. It's the mode I get into when I come home from a busy day, and can't or won't cook anything that takes more than half an hour to prepare. Those days are usually salad, pasta or grilled chicken days.






Yet, this type of cooking for me, need not be uninspired. The outcome doesn't have to be a boring plate of food. See, I love my food and dinnertime is special for S and me. It's our time; when we catch up on our day, when we have the chance to unwind over a glass of wine, enjoy a plate of good food and feel that we are doing something special, even if we're staying in.






Dishes like this one are meant for such evenings. A plate of pasta that is easy and quick to prepare, but that is also elegant and deeply flavorful. Spaghettini with mushrooms, olive oil and garlic.






There's something really comforting and relaxing in the idea that you can make a plate of scrumptious food in less than half an hour. And there's no need to be fussy over the ingredients. Choose your favorite pasta, it doesn't have to be spaghettini, some mushrooms, from the fancy chanterelles to the common button, any kind you have on hand will do, even dried ones that if you give them some time in warm water they'll do wonders for the dish, some good olive oil, garlic and cheese—parmesan, pecorino, kefalotyri—, anything with a tang and a strong umami flavor to match the meatiness of the earthy mushrooms.






And, if your day has been particularly challenging, then play your favorite music in the background, serve the pasta in your most beautiful plates, have a glass of wine and toast to the small, everyday pleasures and to the simple things that bring you joy.












Spaghettini with Mushrooms, Olive Oil and Garlic

The "sauce" for this dish is created by adding wine to the sautéed mushrooms and a little pasta water (water that the pasta has been boiled in) if needed at the end.
I used a white Bordeaux to liven up the dish but you can also use a Sauvignon Blanc.

Don't skip adding the parsley on top. It's not a garnish; it really brings a freshness and vibrancy to the dish.
I also love this dish with pappardelle, tagliatelle or spaghetti.

Serve the pasta with a simple green salad tossed with olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar, and have the cheese on hand at the table for further grating on top of the pasta. I always need more cheese on my spaghettini.






Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients
200-250 g spaghettini
3 Tbsp plus 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium-sized garlic clove, finely minced
100 g button mushrooms, sliced
50 ml white wine
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
Parmesan cheese, for grating on top of the pasta

Special equipment: grater, colander


Preparation
In a medium-sized skillet, heat the 3 Tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat and add the garlic. Turn heat down to medium and sauté for 30 seconds, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the sliced mushrooms along with some salt and pepper and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the wine and cook for a further 2 minutes. You don't want all the juices from the mushrooms and wine to evaporate. You need them in order to make up the "sauce".

In the meantime, prepare the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to the boil over high heat and add the salt, followed by the spaghetti. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard), or cook to your liking. Be careful though, spaghettini cook very quickly because they're very thin pasta.
Reserve 60 ml (1/4 cup) of the pasta water and drain the spaghettini in a colander (but don't shake the pasta), discarding the rest of the water. Return pasta to the pot and add the mushrooms, making sure you scrape every last drop of the liquid out of the skillet and into the pot. The starch from the pasta will create a light "sauce".
Mix well with a large fork or a pasta fork, add the 1 Tbsp of olive oil, and if you find the pasta to be too dry for your liking, add some, or all, of the 60 ml of pasta water you reserved earlier.
Toss pasta well and serve while it's hot on two dishes.
Sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley and grate a generous amount of parmesan on top.






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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dutch apple pie

After four years of living in Holland, after four years of speaking just basic Dutch, the decision was made. S and I started taking Dutch language lessons. Better late than never.






It's not hard to get by in Holland with only English, at least in cities with an international character like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, where we live. Most people speak English and unless your work demands it, you don't have to learn Dutch. Besides, it's a difficult language.






But now is the time for us to learn it. Perhaps because we're tired of not understanding what's been said on the news about Greece (especially during these past months), perhaps because we want to be able to socialize more with Dutch people rather than only with other expats from Europe or elsewhere, or maybe because we realized that with everything that's been happening in Greece, we are better off living in Holland.






Thoughts of moving back to Greece no longer cross our minds, at least not until further notice. That is until we are able to find a decent job there without having to kiss someone's ass, until we are not obligated to bribe a doctor to take care of us when are in need of his services, until the thought of starting a family in Greece doesn't scare us to death, until people start reading history and stop voting the way they have been voting for the past couple of decades, until we can live with dignity and feel that we have a future in our own country, until, anyway, all the things that made us leave our home in the first place four years ago, actually change.
But I digress.






I may have only just started learning the Dutch language properly, but I have already managed to delve into Dutch cuisine. Granted, it's not the most celebrated cuisine in the world nor is it exceptionally imaginative or unique, but it has some very good characteristics, especially in the baking/pastry department.






Case in point, the Dutch apple pie (Hollandse Appeltaart), Holland's magnificent national pastry. It dates as far back as the Middle Ages and it is said that during that time, because ovens with temperature control didn't exist, baking time was measured by the number of prayers a person had to say until the pie was ready.






The Hollandse appeltaart is displayed in the windows of every café, bar and bakery in Holland. It is famous the world over and the Dutch are very proud of their sweet, apple creation. Quite rightly so, I'd say. Even though I'm not a fan of fruit pies and tarts, I must confess that this apple pie is amazing.






It differs from apple pies from other countries in many respects, mainly in that the filling contains raisins, cinnamon and lemon juice and that the crust is not your basic tart crust, but one reminiscent of Pasta Frola (or Pasta Flora as we call it in Greece), which is something between pâte brisée and cake.






You line the bottom and the sides of a spring-form pan with the dough, which is a cinch to make, and then you fill it with small pieces of apple that have been mixed with raisins, sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice. Thin, round strips of dough are latticed on top, decorating the pie, but leaving the apples still visible underneath. The pie goes in the oven and when it comes out, it is brushed with an apricot glaze, which gives it a beautiful shine.






It is eaten preferably warm, straight out of the oven, and is always served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. The Dutch apple pie is not very sweet, since it doesn't contain much sugar and the apples used in the filling are of a tart variety, and it has a very unique flavor.






As expected, the apple flavor is prominent yet it is accompanied by small taste explosions of juicy, sweet raisins. The cinnamon complements the fruit perfectly and the crust is crumbly and at the same time soft and light. If you want to get a real taste of Holland, then all you have to do is make this Dutch apple pie.










Dutch Apple Pie - Hollandse Appeltaart
Adapted from Dutch Cooking

Traditionally, this apple pie is made with a Dutch variety of apples called Goudrenet, which is a tart (but not too much) apple. If you can't find those, use Granny Smith apples or any other kind of tart apple. Be careful though, you don't want to use apples that are too tart, otherwise you'll end up with a sour-tasting apple pie.





Yield: 1 apple pie / 8-10 pieces

Ingredients

for the filling
1 kg tart apples, like Goudrenet (which I used) or Granny Smith
Juice of 1 medium-sized lemon, freshly squeezed
70 g caster sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
50 g raisins (I used sultanas)

for the dough
175 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan
175 g all-purpose flour
175 g self-raising flour
175 g caster sugar
1 large egg
½ tsp lemon zest, freshly grated
1 Tbsp water
Pinch of salt

1 Tbsp dried breadcrumbs

for the glaze
70 g apricot jam
30 ml (2 Tbsp) white rum (or water)

Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving
Ground cinnamon for sprinkling over the top

Special equipment: 22 cm spring-form pan (7 cm deep), fine sieve, stand or hand-held mixer, pastry brush


Preparation
Put the raisins in a small bowl along with a cup of hot water and let them soak for 15 minutes.

Prepare the filling
In the meantime, in a large bowl, add the lemon juice. Start peeling, coring and cutting the apples into small pieces, placing them in the bowl as you go. Stir them around in the lemon juice every once in a while, so that they don't discolor.
Drain the raisins, squeeze them with your hands and add them to the bowl along with the sugar and cinnamon. Mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula. Set bowl aside.


Butter the bottom and sides of your spring-form pan generously.

Preheat your oven to 180-185 degrees Celsius.

Prepare the dough
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), beat the butter on medium speed with the paddle attachment (or with your hand-held mixer), until softened and creamy, for 1-2 minutes. Sift all-purpose and self-raising flour directly into the bowl and add the sugar, salt, lemon zest, water and the egg. Mix all the ingredients with your hands and knead until you have a smooth, shiny, soft yet pliable dough that's not sticking to your hands. It will come together very quickly and easily. If it's too dry, add a teaspoon of water and if it's sticky, add a little bit of all-purpose flour.


Cut off a third of the dough and leave it aside.
Take the rest of the dough, shape it into a ball and place it in the middle of the spring-form pan. Using the back of your hand, press the dough over the bottom and up the sides of the pan. The dough should come up to 2/3 of the height of the pan. Try to spread the dough as evenly as possible.
Sprinkle the base of the pastry case with the dried breadcrumbs, which are used to soak up the juices from the apples, so that the base doesn't become soggy.
Mix the filling once more with a spoon or spatula and empty it into the pan. It should fill the whole pastry case.

Take the piece of dough you left aside and divide it into smaller pieces. Roll each piece into long, thin round strips and use them to decorate the tart, lattice style. See photos below.


Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the crust takes on a golden-brown color.

Prepare apricot glaze
Ten minutes before the pie is ready, prepare the glaze by putting the apricot jam and the rum (or water) in a small saucepan. Heat the jam over medium heat, until it comes to the boil and then immediately remove from the heat.

When the apple pie is ready, take it out of the oven and immediately glaze it, using a pastry brush. Allow the pie to slightly cool inside the pan and then remove the sides of the pan. Allow to cool completely and if you want, move the pie onto a platter or cake stand.


The pie is eaten either warm or at room temperature. Serve with a dollop or two of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and sprinkled with a little ground cinnamon.

It is best eaten the day you make it, as well as the following day.
It can be kept at room temperature, covered, for 2 days (3 tops) but as the days pass, the crust will become softer and more cake-like.






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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Greek octopus

I have always lived near the sea and I can't imagine living anywhere where the sea isn't at walking (or biking) distance. Even if I don't have a view of it from my window, I can still feel its presence and that, in some way, makes me feel free.






It seems that I fell in love with the sea from a very young age. I don't remember exactly when I learned how to swim but I can't remember a time when I wasn't swimming.






We had a summer house by the sea and for three whole months, I'd be at the beach for hours each day either swimming, playing with my friends, or engaging in my other favorite activity; helping my grandfather with his catch of the day.






No, my grandfather wasn't a fisherman, but he loved going diving for mussels and clams, and adored going spearfishing for octopuses. Whenever he'd catch one, he'd emerge from the sea like another Poseidon, trident-type fish spear in one hand, octopus in the other, and my brother and I would go running towards him, eager to see it. It would still be moving and curling its tentacles upwards or inwards, and I just couldn't help but touch his little round suckers.






My grandfather would carefully hand it to one of us and then the real work would begin. We had seen him do it a hundred times and we knew exactly what to do. Under his watchful eye, either I or my brother, would grab the octopus by the head, hold it firmly and start smacking it repeatedly against the seaside rocks. Then we would rub it in a circular motion against those same rocks until it foamed up and changed color, a process called paragouliasma in Greek.






Of course at that age, we had no idea that what we were actually doing was tenderizing the octopus, making it easier for my grandmother to cook it later on the day. What we did know was that we were having loads of fun doing it.






When we'd get home, tentacled trophy in hand, we'd give it to our grandmother who'd prepare it depending on our wishes. She would make htapodi ksidato (marinated octopus in vinegar), htapodi sti shara (barbecued octopus), or htapodi me makaronaki kofto (braised octopus with short pasta).






The latter was always my favorite and it's an all-time classic Greek dish. One that I prepare fairly often in my little expat kitchen. The octopus is first boiled in its own juices, then it is braised in a tomato, red wine and garlic sauce until succulent and finally, the pasta is added to the pan which cooks in the sauce and the octopus' juices.






The marriage of flavors in this rustic dish is purely divine. The sweet, juicy octopus, the smooth yet sharp red wine and tomato sauce and the al dente pasta, combine excellently to create an authentic taste of Greece. This is a culinary peek into my childhood.










Htapodi me Makaronaki Kofto (Greek Braised Octopus with Short Pasta)

People (usually non-Greeks) are intimidated or scared of cooking or eating octopus. They shouldn't. Apart from it being delicious, it is also quite easy to cook. You just need to know how to cook it properly.

If cooked right, its texture is slightly chewy (if it's overly or unpleasantly chewy then that's a sign that it has not been cooked properly), and tender (if it's too soft or tough, it means it has been cooked for too long or too short a time).

The flavor of octopus is very difficult to describe. Unless you have tasted it, you can't really understand its flavor. There isn't any other seafood that has a similar taste or texture to the octopus.

Pair this dish with a Greek horiatiki salad, lots of bread and a good red wine, like a Greek Xinomavro or a Pinot Noir.

Below, I'm giving instructions on how to tenderize, clean properly and braise an octopus. I hope you find all the tips helpful!






Yield: 4-6 main-course servings

Ingredients
1 medium-sized octopus (about 1 kg), fresh or frozen
170 ml good-quality olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 medium-sized shallots, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
500 g fresh Roma tomatoes, cut into small cubes, or 500 g canned chopped tomatoes
4 tsp tomato paste
3 dried bay leaves
120 ml red wine (a Greek Xinomavro or a Pinot Noir)
Octopus juice (from boiling the octopus / I ended up with 400 ml)
500 g short pasta such as canneroni or maccheroni
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: fine sieve


Preparation

Tenderizing the octopus before cooking
If you are lucky enough to have a fresh octopus in your hands, the best way to tenderize it would be to whack it with a kitchen mallet for about 10 minutes until it foams up (unless you're near the sea so you can do what I described above—5th paragraph). Another good way is by freezing it for 6-8 days before cooking it. Let's assume though that most of you will get the octopus from your local fishmonger. Your fishmonger will have already done this for you in one way or another so you won't need to worry about such things.


Cleaning and cutting the octopus
If you get a whole octopus (mantle/sac on) that is not cleaned, you first need to empty the sac of the octopus' innards and ink sac. Turn the sac inside out, remove them with your hands and don't get all dainty on me; you need to do this! Of course, if you buy the octopus from your fishmonger or if it's frozen, the innards and ink sac won't still be inside the octopus' sac so you can skip this step. Only fresh octopuses will have their innards intact.

Using a large, sharp knife, cut the head off. You need to cut at the point right below the octopus' eyes so that you're left with its tentacles and head with sac (see photo No1 below).


You will notice that at the point where all the tentacles meet, right in the middle, there is a hole. Inside that hole is the beak, which is the mouth of the octopus (see photo No2 below). You need to remove the beak. Push it with your thumb until it comes out the other way, through that little hole between the tentacles on the bottom side of the octopus (see photo No 3). In case you can't get it out, remove it by cutting a circle around it with a sharp knife. That's the easiest way.


Now, take the head, and cut it above the eyes, so that you're left only with the sac (see photo No4). That is edible.


You don't need to remove the octopus' skin.

Rinse the octopus well under running water, making sure to clean well the tentacles and the sac (inside and out).

Separate the tentacles by cutting them at the joints (see photo no5).


Pre-cooking the octopus
Place the tentacles and the sac of the octopus inside a large, heavy-bottomed pan with 120 ml (½ cup of water) over low heat. Cook for 20 minutes until the octopus releases its juices. Then remove it from the pan and place it in a large bowl. Pass the octopus juices through a fine sieve and into another bowl, measure it and reserve it. I ended up with 400 ml of octopus juice.
Cut the tentacles into 2 cm-thick slices and cut the sac into similar-sized pieces.


Note: At this point, you're not looking to cook the octopus completely. You are tenderizing it so that it braises more quickly. Don't worry if it's a bit tough.

Braising the octopus, preparing the sauce and cooking the pasta
Add the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan (or a Dutch oven if you have one). Heat it over medium-high heat and add the chopped onions and shallots. Sauté for about 5 minutes until they soften and become translucent.
Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute and then add the octopus pieces. Sauté for 2-3 minutes and add the chopped tomatoes, the tomato paste and bay leaves. Stir well and add the red wine and the octopus juices. If you have less than 400 ml of octopus juices, compensate with water.
Add some salt and black pepper and stir well. Let it come to the boil and immediately lower heat to the lowest setting and close the lid. Braise the octopus for 35-40 minutes, until it's barely done. It must be tender but not soft. Sample a piece and see for yourselves how it tastes and how the texture feels. It must be slightly chewy. The sac will always be tougher than the tentacles. Keep in mind that you're going to add the pasta to the pan, so the octopus will cook for a further 12-15 minutes. You don't want to end up with mushy octopus. That's even worse than tough octopus.

Note: I would advise you to sample a piece of the octopus after 30 minutes of cooking. Not all octopuses are the same and some cook sooner than others. For example, frozen octopuses sold at supermarkets, cook much faster than fresh octopuses and that's because when you place octopus in the freezer, it tends to soften.


You are going to need 150-200 ml boiling water for the pasta, which is going to cook in the same pan. In this particular case, you can add more water but you can't take it out of the pan, so I would advise you to start by adding 150 ml of boiling water to the pan along with the dried pasta. Stir well and allow the pasta to cook. You need to stir every 3 minutes or so, making sure the pasta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan, and you need to check if the pasta needs more water by tasting it. If you need to add more water, always add boiling water.
The pasta needs 12-15 minutes to cook, depending of course on how you prefer the texture of your pasta. Once it is ready, turn heat off, close the lid, and let stand for 10 minutes. Then serve immediately.

This dish tastes best the day you cook it. It will be delicious the next day as well, having a deeper, fuller octopus flavor, but it will be a bit dry. You can't do anything about that; that's the nature of the dish.





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