Sunday, July 25, 2010

Spicing things up

Swimming in the beautiful, clean waters of the Mediterranean Sea with the sun beaming on your bare shoulders and cheeks, feeling the hot sand between your toes as you run towards the shielding shadow of a seaside taverna, eating freshly caught fish while a cool, summer breeze blows across your face, drying your salty hair—there is nothing that can compare to that. Being on summer vacation on a Greek island is one of the best experiences in the world.

Last summer, my vacation was just like that and it was perhaps the most amazing I've had in my whole adult life. Spent on a Greek island that I fell totally in love with; Kefalonia. This summer though, no Greek island vacation for S and me. We are left reminiscing the wonderful time we had last year. Being in Holland during this summer is all too different. There are no dreamy Aegean or Ionian beaches, light blue seas and island sunsets. No, here we have the not so appealing deep North Sea, crazy summer winds and this year in particular, a peculiarly insane weather.

Holland is notorious for its fickle weather, especially during the summer. The day can begin with a slight chill, followed by lots of sunshine and then, when you least expect it, the rain can pour down on you, soaking you right down to your underwear in a matter of seconds, only to be followed by a reappearing sun. I had to learn to deal with it.

This year though, the Dutch summer has become envious of the Southern European one. The temperatures have risen to unprecedented highs making the heat impossible to bear. Sure, being from Greece I'm used to high temperatures during summertime but when I lived in Athens, my apartment was air-conditioned. Here, I only have a meager fan—I never thought I'd need a bigger or better one—which is very close to producing its last current of air. I believe we've used it to death.

All this heat paired with the awful humidity, had made it impossible for me to spend any time in the kitchen. This I think angers me the most about this blazing hot weather. I, not being able to stay in the kitchen for more than a few minutes, me, not wanting to cook anything; this is preposterous. And just when I was beginning to believe that all hope was lost, a sudden breeze came bursting in. A rejuvenating, refreshing light wind finally began blowing through the wide open windows of my apartment, making its way into the kitchen. That was it. I was back!

What I had missed the most, was grilling. But don't go thinking that I'm referring to an open barbecue grill. I'm living in an apartment with a small balcony that overlooks other people's grills. There is no room for fancy stuff like that here. Just a convenient grill/griddle pan that actually manages to heat up the whole seven square meters of the room I call my kitchen.

We really love burgers in this house and by burgers I mean burger patties, not the traditional American burgers even though, let's be honest, we never say no to one or two (or three) of those. Being Greek, burger patties are automatically associated with souvlaki, where you take a Greek pita, wrap it around a couple of patties, add tomatoes and tzatziki and you're set. But we were not in the mood for a Greek souvlaki. We wanted to change things up a bit. The taste buds need a change from time to time, don't they? Keep them in shape. We were in the mood for a little spice; a little Indian spice.

The general idea here is the same as souvlaki. Pita, burger patties, some chopped vegetables, onions and instead of the Greek tzatziki, raita. Raita is an Indian yoghurt-based condiment, flavored with spices and finely chopped vegetables or even fruit. Indian food is rather spicy so the raita works as a cooling agent. The acidity of the yoghurt cools the mouth down creating a pleasant sensation, taking away the heat of the spices.

Chicken is the meat of choice in this recipe, mixed up with a number of different spices like paprika and cumin. The raita echoes the flavor of the chicken burgers with the addition of roasted cumin seeds and the sultanas, which are golden raisins, give a welcomed sweetness to the whole dish. The grilled pita halves are filled with the reddish-hued chicken burgers—a color rendered to them by the spices—sliced cucumbers, red onion and flat-leaf parsley. They are full of flavor, with the spices waking up your senses. The slathering of a spoonful of raita on top of the burgers adds another level of complexity to the dish and brings your palate to life.

Serve these delicious chicken pita burgers at a grill party—if you're lucky enough to have a yard and a barbecue grill that would be perfect—accompanied by raita and an array of sliced vegetables like cucumber, beefsteak tomatoes and carrots. To wash everything down, have an Indian beer like Kingfisher or an Australian Shiraz red wine. They are the ideal complement to this Indian-spiced dish.

Indian-Spiced Chicken Pita Burgers with a Cumin and Sultana Raita
Chicken burger recipe adapted from Everyday Food

I wouldn't suggest you skip on making the raita since it complements the chicken burgers perfectly. They are not the same without it.

I always prefer chicken breasts for burgers but you can also use thighs.

You can most certainly use coriander leaves instead of flat-leaf parsley.

I used white (they are called white but their color ranges from beige to light brown) mustard seeds for the raita but you can use brown or even black mustard seeds. Keep in mind though that the black and brown seeds are very pungent and spicy.

Yield: 4 main-course servings / 2 cups of raita*


for raita
450 g plain full-fat yoghurt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper powder
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp white mustard seeds
3 Tbsp sultanas (golden raisins)

for chicken burgers
730 g boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into rough chunks
4 green onions, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 heaped Tbsp paprika
1 ¼ tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder
1½ tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Vegetable oil for greasing the grill
4 pitas, around 15 cm in diameter each
1 cucumber (250 g), thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
20 g fresh flat-leaf parsley, thick part of stalks cut off

Special equipment: large food processor, large grill pan (this is the one I use)


Make the raita
Place yoghurt in a small bowl and add sugar, salt and cayenne pepper. Mix everything with a spoon, creating a creamy mixture.

Heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat and as soon as the oil starts to shimmer, add cumin and mustard seeds. After a few seconds, when mustard seeds start to pop—it is best to place a splatter screen on top of the skillet to prevent seeds from flying all around your stove top—take skillet off the heat and immediately add the sultanas. Stir once to coat the sultanas with the oil and quickly empty everything over the yoghurt. Stir well with a spoon to combine, cover bowl with cling film and place in the refrigerator.

Make the chicken burgers
In a medium-sized bowl, place chicken pieces, green onions, chopped ginger, lemon juice, paprika, cumin, cardamom, cayenne, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss with a spoon to combine everything. Cover the bowl with cling film and place chicken in the refrigerator for an hour to marinate.

Transfer chicken to a large food processor and, using on/off turns, process mixture until the chicken is roughly chopped. Pulse about 15 times but not more because you don't want the mixture to become pasty.
Using your hands, gently shape mixture into sixteen 2 cm-thick patties with a 5-6 cm diameter (2½ - 3 Tbsp of mixture each).
Remember to always wash your hands well after handling raw chicken.

Grill the chicken burgers
Oil your grill and heat over medium-high heat. Once it gets very hot (in order to check, you can pour a few drops of water on the grill and if they sizzle it is ready) add the chicken burgers. Grill for 8 minutes on one side and 6-7 minutes on the other or until chicken is cooked through. Chicken should always be cooked well done.
Don't press down the patties while grilling because they will lose all their juiciness.

Grill pitas
Cut pitas in half crosswise and as soon as the chicken burgers are done, place pitas on the grill. Cook them for 1-2 minutes per side.

Assemble and serve pita burgers
Place two chicken patties into each pita pocket, 2-3 cucumber slices, sliced red onions and parsley.

Take raita out of the fridge and stir well with a spoon. Spoon raita over the pita burgers or serve it on the side.

*Raita can also be used as a dip for different vegetables.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

With a little help from my... mixer

Cooking and baking can be quite difficult without the appropriate equipment, without some useful gadgets and, admittedly, without ample space. Well, I have no space. My kitchen is tiny and filled to the brim. If I as much as consider adding a single spoon to one of the kitchen drawers or placing one more bowl in a cabinet, there's going to be a domino effect of huge proportions. My whole kitchen will fall apart, my entire organizing system will need reexamination and I don't have time for that, believe me.

It's amazing how much stuff I have accumulated since I moved to Holland. What I brought from Greece were the bare kitchen essentials but since then it's like I'm on a mission to fully stock my kitchen. Even after three years, I still think I'm far from completing my task. In the process, I have been driving S. crazy.

I always seem to need one extra soup bowl or a cherry pitter- I had to convince S. that a cherry and an olive pitter are two different things-, chocolate molds, a new grater or an egg beater. The truth is I don't need most of that stuff but they surely make my life in the kitchen easier, not to mention how much quicker I can whip up a cherry pie by having a cherry pitter.

What I never had though during all these years that I've been cooking and baking, is a stand mixer. That workhorse of kitchen equipment, that huge time and energy saver, that magnificent work of technical ability; I never had one. I always used a simple hand whisk or a hand held mixer.

My experience with hand held mixers has been long and painful; both for me and the mixers. The first one I ever used was the one my mother bought one day after she grew tired of whisking everything by hand. I was little and I loved my mom's new gadget. After trying to use it in various ways that the manual specifically stated it should not be used, like mixing mud with stones or trying to make a hole in the wall with it, I broke it. I cried for a week.

The second one my mom bought, which lasted surprisingly long, was slightly better in quality than the previous one and it still proudly remains in my mom's kitchen cabinet. When I moved out of my parents' house, my mom bought one for me as an apartment warming gift. The mixer and I were happy together for quite some time. It was handy, it did all the work for me without me breaking a serious sweat but then it all started going downhill. One day, as I was preparing my favorite marble cake, I felt it heating up, my hand started having a burning sensation and at the same time a noise started coming out of it, something that resembled a death rattle for mixers and after a while, it was gone. I will always remember it fondly.

When I moved to Holland I got a new one. It served me well during these past three years and I'm sure it will continue to do so for a long time. But for about a month now, my trusted hand held mixer has been replaced by my new acquisition. Yes, after years of anticipation and longing, I finally have my very own stand mixer. My brand new, pink, KitchenAid Artisan stand mixer. I had to get rid of my bread box and hang my two extra spice racks on the wall to make room for it, but it was all worth it.

Ever since I got it, I have been using it like crazy. I've made bundt cakes (perhaps my favorite kind of cake), bread, meringues and since I bought the ice cream attachment as well, I've made lots of ice cream, mainly strawberry. I have no idea how I managed all these years without one and it looks so damn cute too. A machine able to whip, blend, mix, combine, stir, knead; it's like a dream come true.

Since it's been so hot these past couple of weeks, I didn't want to bake anything but I was in dire need of something sweet. Ice cream of course was an option but I already had too much of that. And then it came to me. A couple of years ago I had discovered a recipe of white chocolate cups filled with a chocolate and mascarpone cream that was spectacular. That's what I wanted to make. So I did.

White and dark chocolate, mascarpone cheese and sugar, cream and orange zest. That's all you need. The white chocolate cups are adorable and deliciously sweet. The filling is a mousse-like combination of mascarpone, orange zest, dark chocolate and whipped cream. The discrete orange flavor cuts through the sweetness of the white and the intensity of the dark chocolate, creating a balanced and incredibly flavorsome dessert.

These impressive-looking filled chocolate cups are a chocoholic's fantasy. They're as rich as chocolate can get but they don't make you reach for a glass of water after the first bite. The light, fluffy, luscious mousse is contrasted by the texture of the firm white chocolate, making every mouthful an exciting event. They are served cool which makes them perfect for hot summer days but don't go thinking that these are only heat wave-appropriate. Serve them any time of the year, every time you want to savor an exquisite chocolate dessert.

White Chocolate Cups filled with a Mascarpone and Chocolate Cream
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

Needless to say that the quality of the chocolate makes all the difference in how these small desserts will taste. Go for high quality white and dark chocolate.

I used a dark 55% chocolate for the filling but if you don't like your desserts too sweet then you can use a 70% chocolate.

Yield: 10 white chocolate cups

230 g good quality white chocolate, chopped, at room temperature plus extra for shavings
130 g good quality dark 55% chocolate, chopped, at room temperature
250 ml cream, full-fat
3 Tbsp plus 1/2 tsp sugar
250 g mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 tsp orange zest, freshly grated

Special equipment: one 12-cup muffin pan, 10 paper liners, hand held or stand mixer

Put chopped white chocolate in a heat-proof bowl and place bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Don't let the bottom of the bowl touch the water. Melt the chocolate, stirring it around with a rubber spatula and once completely melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan.

Creating the white chocolate cups requires two coatings of chocolate.
Take one paper liner and put 1 Tbsp of melted white chocolate inside. Place it in the palm of your hand and using a pastry brush, coat the sides and the bottom of the paper liner evenly. Place it in the muffin pan and repeat process with the rest of the paper liners. Place muffin pan inside your freezer so that the chocolate becomes firm, for 40 minutes.

Remelt the remaining white chocolate in the bowl according to the aforementioned process in case it has become hard.
Take out of the freezer one paper liner at a time (this ensures that the first chocolate coating will not melt, especially if it's summer and your kitchen is hot) and put 1 Tbsp of melted white chocolate inside. Using the pastry brush again, coat the sides and the bottom of the paper liner evenly, creating a second layer of coating. Place each paper liner in the freezer as soon as you're done. Leave muffin pan in the freezer for a further 1 - 1 1/2 hour so that the chocolate sets completely.

Put chopped dark chocolate in a heat-proof bowl and place bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Don't let the bottom of the bowl touch the water. Melt the chocolate, stirring it around with a rubber spatula and once completely melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan. Let chocolate cool completely.

Make some white chocolate shavings. Take a chilled bar of white chocolate and place it on a cutting board, wide and smooth side up. Using a cheese slicer, scrape the top of the chocolate bar thus creating shavings or even small curls of chocolate.
Alternatively you can use a vegetable peeler. Hold the chocolate bar in you hand and run the vegetable peeler over the thinnest, narrowest side of the bar. Set shavings aside.

Place whipping cream and sugar in a large bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer) and beat with a hand held mixer (or using the whisk attachment of your stand mixer) until soft peaks form. Set aside.

Place mascarpone cheese, cooled melted dark chocolate, vanilla extract and orange zest inside another large-sized bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer) and beat with a hand held mixer (or using the paddle attachment of your stand mixer) on medium speed until smooth, for 30-40 seconds. Do not overmix because it will become stiff.

Fold in the whipped cream in three batches, using a rubber spatula. Transfer mousse to a pastry bag fitted with a closed or open star tip or a standard pastry tip.

Take the muffin pan out of the freezer. Take each filled paper liner and carefully remove the paper from the chocolate, exposing the white chocolate cups. Be very careful not to break the cups. Line a large serving platter with baking paper and place the white chocolate cups on the paper. Fill each cup with the mousse. Don't fill the cups all the way up. Garnish the tops of the mousse with the white chocolate shavings, place cups on individual plates and serve.

You can store the filled chocolate cups in the refrigerator, on a platter lined with baking paper so that they don't stick to the platter, covered, for 3-4 days.

Let them stand at room temperature for a minute or so before serving, unless the temperatures are too hot. In that case, serve straight from the fridge.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

And now for something completely different

The Greek football team traveled all the way to South Africa and tried their hardest to go through to the next round of the World Cup. Unfortunately, they didn't make it. It all came to a sad end a couple of weeks ago when we lost to Argentina. The Netherlands on the other hand are in the final. Hup Holland Hup! (Go Holland Go!).

Ever since I moved to Holland I don't only support my own country's football team but my adoptive one's as well. I'm becoming quite the fan. I love how these boys play ball. No, I'm not an expert, S. is. When the World Cup started, I had to be reminded all over again what an 'offside' is, who the men wearing those all-black uniforms and using a whistle are and why there is a big dot painted in front of the goal line.

My boyfriend was getting pretty angry with me each time I asked any irrelevant, to him, question during the matches but I did a good job at figuring things out in the end. So, after the first couple of weeks, I was the one looking forward to the next game.

I was cursing at the tv whenever a footballer was being selfish and didn't pass the ball, I shouted at the tv whenever the referee (yes, the one with the all-black uniform and the whistle) gave a yellow card to the wrong guy and I was celebrating by doing the winner's dance (um, you don't want to know what that is) whenever we won. I was also entertaining S., who was constantly laughing while witnessing my complete transformation to a proper football fan.
Well, there is another reason I like watching football. C' mon, what woman wouldn't enjoy watching cute guys running around all sweaty for an hour and a half. Isn't that why women watch sports anyway?

So, Sunday evening. The big match. The Netherlands against Spain. What a match that will be. If Holland wins it's going to be huge, naturally. The Dutch are immensely proud of their football team. All of Holland will be painted orange (the national color), vuvuzelas will be heard all the way to Australia and I will be celebrating along with the Dutch. Wish Holland good luck!

Watching a game of football can be quite a thrill. Especially when it's the final of the World Cup. That is as suspenseful as can get. So, instead of biting your nails or fidgeting in your chair nibble on some of these treats. I know I will.

Spiced mixed nuts with brown sugar and paprika and spicy, sweet popcorn cayenne, cinnamon and hazelnuts. You are going to love these. I assure you. The crunchy almonds, pecans, cashews and hazelnuts are covered in a blanket of spice and heat. This is a deliciously luscious, sticky, crisp, salty, fiery, fragrant snack.

Then comes the popcorn. Though this is no ordinary popcorn; this is popcorn revamped into a flavorsome, piquant, sweet and tangy gift for your taste buds. Dark brown caramel, hazelnuts and freshly popped corn all tossed together creating a crisp combination that tingles your mouth and makes you want more.

Give some to the demanding male population, otherwise known as your boyfriend's/husband's friends who will be flocking to your house to watch the game and these treats will surely keep them satisfied. Add a couple of cold beers to the mix and they'll all be set.

I love munching on these snacks while watching movies and they are perfect served at a party. You can't fill the small serving bowls quickly enough. Wrap them in some nice glossy paper or a cute box and give them as a hostess gift or take them to office. Just make sure you keep them hidden in your desk drawer otherwise everyone will want some.

Spiced Nuts
Adapted from epicurious

I used a mix of four kinds of nuts but you can definitely use only one kind.
In case you don't want pecans you can substitute with walnuts.
(Read this on how to store nuts properly)

Yield: 4 1/2 cups

2 large egg whites
1 1/2 tsp salt
100 g light brown sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp sweet paprika (preferably Hungarian)
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder
60 g unsalted butter
150 g unsalted blanched whole almonds
210 g unsalted blanched whole hazelnuts
120 g unsalted pecan halves
140 g unsalted cashews

Special equipment: hand held mixer

In a small saucepan, add the butter and heat over medium heat until it melts. Remove from heat and let it cool completely.

Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius.

In a large bowl, add the egg whites and salt and beat them with a hand held mixer on medium speed until soft and foamy. With the mixer still running, add the sugar in three batches and then add the Worcestershire sauce, the paprika and the cayenne pepper. You don't want the mixture to become too thick. It should have the consistency of lightly beaten cream.

Add the nuts and the melted butter to the mixture and stir well with a rubber spatula, making sure that all the nuts are coated well.

Empty the nuts inside the baking tray (which you don't need to grease or cover with baking paper) and spread them evenly around the tray.

Bake nuts on the middle rack of the oven for 30-40 minutes. Every 10 minutes or so, take tray out of the oven and, using a metal spatula, toss, stir and separate the nuts. Spread them evenly again and place tray back in the oven. Bake nuts until they take on a golden brown color. Be careful not to burn them.

Once ready, toss and stir the nuts and move them to a wire rack lined with baking paper. Spread them evenly and let them cool completely. The nuts will become crisp as they cool. Break up any nut clusters and serve.

You can store the spiced nuts in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 to 1 1/2 weeks.

Spicy Caramel Popcorn
Adapted from Rocco DiSpirito

You can use hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans or even peanuts for this recipe.

For a kid-friendly version just omit the cayenne pepper.

Yield: a big bowl of caramel popcorn

200 g unsalted blanched hazelnuts
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon, ground
2 Tbsp corn oil
220 g popcorn kernels
420 g sugar

Special equipment: small food processor

Put hazelnuts, cayenne pepper and cinnamon in a food processor and chop them finely.

Make the popcorn
In a large, high-sided pot, add the oil and one popcorn kernel and heat over medium heat with the lid closed. When the kernel pops, remove it from the pot and add the rest of the kernels. Put the lid on and shake the pot every minute or so while cooking. When there is no popping sound for a 5-second period then your popcorn is ready. Remove pot from heat and empty popcorn into a large bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and toss the popcorn.

Line a large baking tray with baking paper.

Make the caramel
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and keep stirring continuously with a heatproof rubber spatula until the sugar melts and turns a light brown caramel color. Be very careful not to burn the caramel. Also be extremely careful because the caramel will be very, very hot. Don't try to touch the caramel with your bare hands at any point. Don't try to taste it!

Turn heat off and immediately add the finely chopped hazelnuts to the caramel. Quickly stir to combine. Don't stir too much, just enough to coat the hazelnuts.
Working quickly because you don't want the caramel to cool and harden, yet carefully because the caramel might burn you, add all the popcorn to the caramel. Stir well to completely coat the popcorn, pulling caramel and popcorn up from the bottom of the pan. Be careful not to break the popcorn.

Pour caramel corn onto the lined baking tray, spreading it evenly. Let it cool and sprinkle with a little salt. Break popcorn into bite-sized pieces and serve.

You can store the popcorn in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-4 days.