Friday, August 27, 2010

Shellfish addiction

The worst possible time to be having a cold is during the summer. The heat is unbearable, the sun is shining, the beach beckons and you have to stay inside with a runny nose and a sore throat, feeling cold and weak. While everyone else is having refreshing drinks and ice cream, all you need is a hot cup of tea and chicken soup to warm you up. It's a terrible feeling, and those who have colds during this time of year are the unlucky ones. And the unlucky one here is me. Well was me, until about four days ago.

The worst thing about having a cold any time of the year is, to me, the temporary loss of the sense of taste and smell. C'mon, all of you out there who love to cook (and eat) must surely sympathize with me. How can one cook if they can't taste or smell their food? It's like driving blindfolded. It is impossible. I absolutely hate it.
Last week, as well as the better part of this week, was spent without any serious cooking whatsoever. I was completely frustrated but then, all of a sudden, I could taste. I could smell. I was happy. So I did what I always do when I'm happy—I cooked.

I have been wanting to share this recipe with you since summer began but as I've said many times before, "so many recipes, so little time". Having a cold last week and a sensory deprivation to boot, I was daydreaming about flavors and different dishes and this one sprang to mind immediately. Like one of Pavlov's dogs hearing the bell ring, I began salivating. I knew it was time for me to cook the dish; Greek mussel pilaf.

Last summer, while I was visiting my family in Athens, I went out to lunch with my mom to an amazing seafood restaurant I haven't been to before. We had the most exquisite lunch with lots of catching up, lots of wine and two of the best seafood dishes I've had in a long time. The first was a king prawn spaghetti and the second was a mussel pilaf.

Mussel pilaf is a traditional Greek mussel and rice dish which I grew up on. It was one of my favorite dishes and I used to nag my mom to cook it for me almost every week. I had a thing for rice as well as a shellfish addiction. I loved mussels and that love still runs deep.

So that day, when I tasted that particular mussel pilaf, I was inspired. It was excellent. Its taste was really close to the one my mom always used to make but it had that extra oomph, that thing that makes your taste buds tingle. The next day I jotted down what I could remember from the dish, the ingredients, the flavors, the textures and after a few days I tried it myself, adding my own touches. It came out perfect. It was the best mussel pilaf I have ever made and, dare to say, tasted. I was ecstatic.

This is the mussel pilaf I'm sharing with you. It is the best you'll have and I'm not exaggerating. The flavors are subtle and full, and you can taste all the sweet richness of the mussels without any of the other ingredients overpowering them but rather complementing them. It is a forkful of the Mediterranean Sea.

Red and green peppers, garlic, loads of dill, green onions, raisins, olive oil, wine. The wine is as important in this dish as the mussels and the rice. It doesn't have to be expensive but it has to taste good. Great chefs always say that you must never add wine that you don't enjoy drinking to your food. If it's not good enough to drink, it's not good enough to cook with.

You need a light, dry white wine with lots of acidity for the mussel pilaf. I used an exceptional wine, the Greek variety of Assyrtiko. It is a sprightly wine that originated from the island of Santorini and it is unique in its taste and quality because of the volcanic soil that the grapes grow on. Another wine you can use is a Picpoul de Pinet which is a French wine from the Languedoc region that is very crisp and has a mineral edge. Even though Assyrtiko and Picpoul de Pinet are the best choices for this dish, they are a bit pricey and may be difficult to find. The safest alternative is a good Sauvignon Blanc.

This dish is subtle and light, perfectly balanced, bursting with flavors and aromas of the sea. The sweetness of the raisins and peppers, the zing of the garlic, the freshness of the dill and green onions, the succulence of the mussels as well as the floral aromas of the wine give this dish an incomparable taste. The textures are fantastic combining the moist, firm rice and pine nuts with the juicy, plump mussels and soft raisins. The colors are wonderful, with the greens and reds of the vegetables, yellow, orange and off-white of the mussels and blue-black of their shells.

The mussel pilaf is ideal for a summer dinner party, a family lunch or even a dinner for two. Naturally, you have to pair it with the same wine that you used to flavor the dish with. Accompany it with a tomato salad sprinkled generously with Greek dried oregano, drenched in olive oil and red wine vinegar, and make sure there's lots of crusty bread on the table.

Midopilafo (Greek Mussel Pilaf)

The mussels you are going to use for this dish need to be in their shells (live mussels), preferably fresh but you can also use the ones sold packed in water. Don't use the cleaned ones that are without shells or frozen ones (which are already dead) though. The recipe will not be the same and the dish will be nowhere as good.

You will need 1 kg of mussels but since not all mussels you are going to buy will be usable (some will have broken shells while others will not close when tapped) you have to buy a larger quantity of mussels—I would say about 1 ½ kg. Actually I bought 2 kg this time and ended up with a little over 1 kg of good mussels which was surprisingly few, but it happens.

The red pepper I used is a sweet red pepper from the Florina region in the northwest of Greece, but in case you can't find this pepper, you can substitute with red bell pepper.

By the way, did you know that the orange flesh of the mussels indicates that it is a female while the off white, paler flesh indicates that it is male?

Yield: 6-8 main-course servings


for the mussels
1 kg mussels with shells
80 ml dry white wine
3 tbsp water

for the pilaf
75 ml olive oil
6 green onions, white and pale green parts only, sliced
3 medium-sized garlic cloves, minced
1 large, red Florina pepper (or ½ large, red bell pepper), minced
½ large, green bell pepper, minced
50 g (¼ heaped cup) pine nuts
700 g white long-grain rice
270 ml mussel liquid (if you end up with more, add less water)
200 ml dry white wine
80 g (½ cup) golden raisins
1,070 ml hot water (*see note below inside the recipe)
Freshly ground black pepper
15 g (½ cup) dill, chopped plus a little extra for sprinkling over the dishes

Special equipment: colander, fine sieve, muslin or cheese cloth, brush for cleaning the mussels


Cleaning the mussels
I am very meticulous when cleaning any kind of shellfish.
Place the mussels in a large colander and rinse them very well under running water for 3-4 minutes to get rid of the sand and any impurities. Discard any mussels whose shell is broken.
You will notice that there will be mussels whose shell is tightly closed and others whose shell is open. Those whose shell is closed are safe to keep. You need to tap on the shell of the ones that are open and if they close, then you can keep them. If not, discard them, they are dead.
Grip and pull away the beard of each mussel. The beard is a mass of tough, brown fibers that stick out between the two shell halves of the mussel. It helps the mussels (as well as other mollusks) cling and attach to rocks or other objects in the water. If you're having trouble pulling away the beard with your bare hand, use a knife to assist you in the tugging. Give mussels a good scrub with a brush, removing any barnacles that are attached to their shells. Then give them one last rinse and let them drain in the colander.
Read here more detailed instructions on how to clean mussels.

Cooking the mussels
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, add the mussels, the wine and the water. Turn heat on to medium-high and close the lid. When steam starts to get released from the sides of the pan, turn heat down to medium, shake the pan gently and let mussels steam for about 5 minutes or until their shells have opened. Shake the pan every minute or so, in order to ensure even cooking of the mussels. Don't shake the pan too hard because you may break the shells. Be careful not to overcook the mussels because they will dry out and become rubbery. You need them to be plump and juicy.

Drain the mussels and reserve the liquid. Discard any mussels that did not open while steaming. Set mussels aside.
Pass the mussel liquid through a fine sieve lined with a muslin or cheese cloth to get rid of any sand or impurities, and into a bowl. Set mussel liquid aside.

Prepare the pilaf
In another large, heavy-bottomed pan heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the green onions and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes, until softened. Add the minced red and green peppers and sauté them for 4 minutes. Then add the pine nuts and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir it very well around the pan so that it gets coated with the olive oil and vegetables. Sauté the rice for 3-4 minutes and add the mussel liquid, the wine, water, raisins, salt and pepper. Stir well and bring mixture to the boil. Immediately lower heat to very low, close the lid and let rice cook.

* Note: The ratio of liquid to rice usually is 2:1 cups (in this recipe we have about 7 cups of liquid for 3 ½ cups of rice), or add enough liquid for the type of rice you're using (usually indicated on the packet). In case you end up with less mussel liquid than mine, add more water instead.

After 20-25 minutes, the rice will be almost cooked. Open the lid, check the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary and add the chopped dill and the mussels. Stir everything around carefully as to not break the shells of the mussels, close the lid and let cook until all the water is absorbed (10-15 minutes more). You should end up with rice that is fluffy, moist yet a little firm, neither mushy nor tough.

Once ready, remove the lid and add a clean tea towel over the pan which will absorb any excess moisture. Leave it on the pan for 10 minutes, then remove it and serve the mussel pilaf.
You should not eat the mussel pilaf while it's hot but when it's warm.

Sprinkle some extra chopped dill over each plate.

The mussel pilaf is even better the following day as all the flavors have had more time to blend.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The choice

For the past two weeks we've had visitors; my boyfriend's sister with her husband and their two kids came over to Holland from Greece for the first time. We are always so happy whenever our families get the chance to visit us here. We see them once, maybe twice a year and that definitely isn't enough.

The best part about these kinds of visits is the chance we have to show them around Holland and at the same time having the opportunity ourselves to discover parts and sights that we haven't yet seen. That's exactly what happened during these last two weeks. S and I were both tourist guides and tourists. That's some combination.

This small country we call home for that last three years has a lot to offer. Perhaps it's not the best place to be during the summer since there is a lack of decent beaches and seas and the weather acts up every so often, but there is something for everyone here.

In Rotterdam, you can see the most amazingly strange cubic houses (Kubuswoning) that have been standing there since 1984. Being inside one is so curious and disorienting. I became a little dizzy while I was trying to look out the window and I was bewildered by the ability of the people who live there to lead a normal life. I suppose one can get used to anything.

In the same city, with its enormous skyscrapers and the largest port in Europe, you can climb up the Euromast tower and marvel the panoramic view of Rotterdam from 185 meters high. This may not sound high enough to a person living in New York for example but in The Netherlands, this is as high as it gets. The day we visited Euromast was, unfortunately but not surprisingly, a rainy day so our view was limited though still breathtaking. They say that on a clear day you can see all the way to Belgium.

In Amsterdam, one of the best places to visit if you have kids, is the Artis zoo. I have been there three times already (I don't have kids mind you) and I can't get enough of watching all the adorable animals. My boyfriend's nieces were ecstatic, to say the least.
For the grown ups, there are all kinds of museums to visit. I don't know what it is with the Dutch but they have museums for everything. The strangest one of all is the museum of bags and purses and even though I'm a typical handbag-crazed girl, this museum still seems a little too much.

The Dutch countryside is stunning. Endless fields and trees in every possible shade of green you can imagine, masticating cows and grazing sheep, cute ponies and tall, majestic horses galloping around freely are sights so peculiar for a city girl like me, as well as for the little munchkins that visited us from Athens. They were overjoyed by these images that they rarely view and I shared their enthusiasm. All I missed were some mountains, but I was asking too much. In Holland you can't even find a hill let alone a mountain.

A good time was had by all not only while we were out and about but at home as well—especially around the dinner table. I cooked up a storm these past couple of weeks. Being used to cooking for two, I had now four extra hungry mouths to feed and I was elated. S's family also has quite the sweet tooth so there was no shortage of desserts and sweets around. I made marble cakes, chocolate tarts and mango tiramisu, as well as muffins and cupcakes. Having bought my pink KitchenAid a while ago made it easier too.

Since we enjoyed these desserts so much, naturally I wanted to share them with you as well. I left the choice up to you and your pick was the Mango Tiramisu. I secretly wished you would all choose this fruity layered cake because it is just delicious. And this coming from a chocoholic. (To those of you who opted for the chocolate tart, I promise I will post that recipe too at some point).

The mango is such a flavorful fruit which I never used to cook or make desserts with before I moved to Holland. I had only tasted it once or twice and it was always too expensive and rare to get in Greece. But when I moved here, where the mango was as exotic as the orange and the price for either one was about the same, I got to discover this delectable fruit, using it mainly in Thai dishes and salads and of course in various desserts such as this one here.

Mango, raspberries, vanilla seeds, mascarpone cheese, ladyfingers, Grand Marnier liqueur (everything tastes better with a little booze added to it, don't you agree?). The best of ingredients yield the best of desserts. There is no baking involved; all you need is some space in your fridge to let the cake chill. Stacked ladyfingers soaked in Grand Marnier and orange juice, mango slices and mascarpone vanilla cream, topped with more mango slices and a divine raspberry sauce dripping down the sides—the perfect summery, fruity, light, fresh and luscious dessert.

The sweetness of the mango pairs excellently with the sourness of the raspberry sauce and the sumptuous vanilla cream. It tastes like a sweet summer tart and its colors are so vibrant. You just want to dive into it. The hint of orange from the moist ladyfingers and the clear sharpness of the liqueur render a perfect balance of flavors. Its fluffy texture and airy quality make this the ultimate summer dessert that you must try.

Mango Tiramisu with Raspberry Sauce
Barely adapted from Delicious magazine

As with all tiramisu recipes this one also has raw eggs. Make sure the eggs you use are as fresh as possible.
I want to remind you also that raw eggs should not be consumed by pregnant women, infants, the elderly and those whose immune system is compromised.

This is a fairly easy and quick recipe but keep in mind that the tiramisu needs to stay in the fridge for a few hours in order to firm up. It is best to prepare it in the morning if you are going to serve it after dinner.

If you want to make the tiramisu kid-friendly, substitute the Grand Marnier with more orange juice.

I've been thinking that the flavors of this tiramisu would work very well with peeled firm, sweet nectarines or peaches instead of mango. I will try it at some point and I'll let you know about the result.

Yield: 1 cake / 10 pieces


for tiramisu
1 vanilla bean
450 g mascarpone cheese
500 ml cream, full-fat
40 g icing sugar
2 medium-sized egg yolks
125 ml Grand Marnier liqueur
130 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed (juice of 2 large oranges)
270 g ladyfingers
3 large, ripe mangoes (350-400 g each), peeled and sliced* 0,5 cm thick
1 Tbsp butter for greasing the pan

for raspberry sauce
2 Tbsp water
55 g sugar
250 g fresh raspberries (or frozen)
2 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed (juice of 1 lemon)

Some extra raspberries and mango slices for garnishing the plates (optional)

Special equipment: round spring-form cake pan 23 cm in diameter and at least 7 cm high, hand held mixer (or stand mixer), small food processor, fine sieve


for tiramisu
Grease the bottom of the baking pan with the butter and then line it with a round piece of baking paper.

Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and, using the dull side of the knife, scrape the seeds out. Add them to a large bowl along with the mascarpone cheese, cream, icing sugar and egg yolks. Beat everything with an electric hand mixer (or a stand mixer using the 'paddle' attachment) until you have a thick cream.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the orange juice and the Grand Marnier. Take half of the ladyfingers and start dipping them one by one in the liquid mixture and placing them on the bottom of the pan. Be careful not to soak the ladyfingers for too long otherwise they will disintegrate. They only need a few seconds. When the base of the pan is layered with the ladyfingers, spread one-third of the mascarpone mixture on top. Add a layer of mango, using one-third of the mango slices.

Repeat the process by dipping the rest of the ladyfingers in the liquid mixture, layering them on top of the mango slices, then spreading one-third of the mascarpone mixture on top, followed by a layer of one-third of the mango slices. Spread the remaining one-third of the mascarpone mixture on top, reserving the rest of the mango slices to serve.

Cover the cake with cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. I would suggest you refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

for raspberry sauce
In the meantime, prepare the raspberry sauce. Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar and take off the heat. Let it cool slightly and then pour the syrup into a small food processor along with the raspberries and the lemon juice. Process everything until you have a smooth purée and then pass it through a fine sieve to get rid of the raspberry seeds. Chill the sauce, covered with cling film, until ready to use.

You can prepare the raspberry sauce 3 days in advance and store it in the fridge, covered.

Serve the tiramisu
To serve the cake, remove the sides of the pan carefully. You can also remove the bottom of the pan and place the cake on a serving platter or you can keep it on the pan base.

Before cutting the cake, add the remaining mango slices (or curls if you want your cake to be even more pretty), decorating the cake and then once you cut it into pieces, spoon some raspberry sauce over each piece.

Garnish the plates with either some raspberries or mango slices (optional).

You can keep the cake in the refrigerator, covered with cling film, for up to 3 days.

*You don't need to worry about the mango slices being perfectly cut—at least not the two-third of them that will go inside the cake. You can make some mango curls or use the prettiest of your slices to decorate the top of the tiramisu so that it looks nice.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Decisions, decisions

Cubic houses and vast fields. Water mills and a view of a modern city from 185 meters high. A sea of ordinary people and animals of the jungle. Showing people around Holland is adventurous, fun and even hazardous at times. All is better when you have a slice of cake...

...or tiramisu or tart.

Mango or chocolate? Vanilla cream or mousse-like cocoa cream? Oven or no oven?
These are the questions. Not for me but for you. I made them, I tasted them, I loved them.

I will be back in about a week with a recipe of one of these two desserts. Want to choose which one?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Watermelon + Alcohol x 2 = ?

Ok, there is no messing around here. I love cocktails. I love how they look, I love how they taste (well, not all of them), I love the way they are served—pieces of fruit dangling from the side of the glass, colorful straws standing upright in a pool of liquid fusion, rims coated with salty or sweet granules giving the mouth its first taste of what's to come. But most of all, I love the idea of the cocktail.

Simply by hearing the word cocktail, my mind travels to hot summer nights filled with music playing in the background, sounds of ice cubes fighting in tall glasses, laughter, conspiratorially sweet whispers, bare feet tapping on cool tiles and friends toasting to good times.

An alcoholic-based drink mixed with flavorings; that is the official definition of a cocktail. Flavorings of any kind can be used in one—tropical fruit, honey, vanilla, olives, coffee, caramel or various herbs. This is the beauty of a cocktail. The infinite combinations that can occur from mixing different distilled spirits with sweet, sour, spicy or salty ingredients in order to come up with unique and pleasurable drinks. That's what the art and science of mixology is all about.

Everyone has a preferred drink or cocktail and even though I'm not a heavy drinker, I usually have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer, cocktails are my one alcoholic weakness. Fruity, sweet cocktails are ideal for my taste buds since I don't particularly enjoy very bitter or sour flavors in drinks. So, the addition of watermelon in a daiquiri or a margarita is to me perfection.

Watermelon is my favorite fruit of the summer. It always has been. Up until I was eleven or twelve years old, I was spending about a month each summer on the island of Crete, in Kasteli, a village outside Chania, where my aunt's husband was from. Crete is famous for, among other things, its watermelons; big, juicy, highly fragrant, bright red with dark, black seeds watermelons. My uncle's mother was a farmer who cultivated these gorgeous watermelons and couldn't wait for us to visit so that she would offer us her beautiful fruit to taste. She was very proud of her fruit.

We would all sit under the shade of a huge fig tree that stood right in the middle of her back yard. Right next to us, there would be a large pile of watermelons and she would choose one carefully, cut it open with her hefty kitchen knife, taking out the heart—in Greece, the middle part of the watermelon which is the juicier, sweeter and tastier of the whole fruit, is called the watermelon heart—handing it to us to eat. Without second thought, she would throw the rest of it to the chickens that run crazed all around the yard and they would devour it in a instant. She would go on to cut open the next watermelon and then the next and the next, until we could eat no more.

Naturally, I can't find these succulent watermelons in Holland, so I have to settle for whatever is available, which surprisingly enough isn't too bad. What I have discovered here, are the seedless watermelons. I never knew of their existence until I moved to Holland. They do contain some white-colored seeds but they are very small and soft so I certainly don't bother picking them out of the fruit. This is what makes them fitting for cocktail use.

Watermelon-flavored Daiquiri and Margarita are the cocktails of my choice. Ok, get ready to get dizzy with me. These cocktails may seem to you like girly drinks but trust me, men enjoy them too. I know this for sure. The daiquiri is a mix of rum, Triple Sec, lime juice, watermelon and sugar. The margarita is a mix of tequila, Triple Sec, lime juice and watermelon. Is this simple or what? All you need is a blender and lots of ice and you are ready to start making some cocktails.

These cocktails are slightly sweet, especially the daiquiri which contains a little bit of sugar and they're bursting with watermelon flavor. The rum and tequila taste comes through, making these drinks fairly strong yet refreshing, totally enjoyable and delicious, summery, bright, luscious. Enjoy them among friends, with your significant other or serve them at a cocktail party along with some large plates of summer fruit.

Watermelon Daiquiri

With both the daiquiri and the margarita, you start by puréeing the watermelon.
If you use a regular watermelon, you need to seed it first. If you use a seedless one, then you might want to pick the biggest seeds out. In both cases, you can also strain the purée before mixing it with the rest of the ingredients. I used a seedless watermelon and I actually opted not to strain the purée.

You can substitute watermelon with other types of melon like cantaloupes or honeydews to change things up. They too make great cocktails.

Yield: 450 ml daiquiri / 2 large drinks

220 g (1 ½ cup) watermelon, chilled, seeded and cut into small pieces
22 ml (1 ½ Tbsp) lime juice, freshly squeezed
75 ml (1/4 cup and 1 Tbsp) white (light) rum
22 ml (1 ½ Tbsp) Triple Sec (or Cointreau)
13 g (1 Tbsp) superfine granulated sugar
8 large ice cubes

Watermelon wedges for garnishing the glasses

Special equipment: blender, cocktail glasses

Place the watermelon pieces and the lime juice in a blender and purée it. Add rum, Triple Sec, sugar and ice cubes and blend well for 1 minute, until smooth.

Pour daiquiri in a cocktail glass, preferably chilled, and garnish with a watermelon wedge.

If your watermelon is not very sweet, you can add some extra sugar. Taste and see.

You may also add more rum if you like your cocktails very strong.

Alternatively, you can prepare the daiquiri without adding the ice to the blender but adding some ice cubes in the glass when you serve it.

Watermelon Margarita

With both the daiquiri and the margarita, you start by puréeing the watermelon.
If you use a regular watermelon, you need to seed it first. If you use a seedless one, then you might want to pick the biggest seeds out. In both cases, you can also strain the purée before mixing it with the rest of the ingredients. I used a seedless watermelon and I actually opted not to strain the purée.

You can substitute watermelon with other types of melon like cantaloupes or honeydews to change things up. They too make great cocktails.

Yield: 500 ml / 2-3 large drinks

220 g (1 ½ cup) watermelon, chilled, seeded and cut into small pieces
60 ml (1/4 cup) lime juice, freshly squeezed
60 ml (1/4 cup) silver (white) tequila
60 ml (1/4 cup) Triple Sec (or Cointreau)
8 large ice cubes

Coarse salt for rims of glasses
Lime wedges for garnishing the glasses

Special equipment: blender, cocktail glasses

Take a lime wedge and rub it along the rim the glass, in order to moisten it. Then put some coarse salt on a plate large enough for the entire rim to be dipped at once, spread salt around the plate and dip the glass in the salt. Twirl the glass around so that the salt sticks well to the rim. Shake off any excess salt.

Place the watermelon pieces and the lime juice in a blender and purée it. Add tequila, Triple Sec and ice cubes and blend well for 1 minute, until smooth.

Pour margarita in a margarita or cocktail glass with salted rim and garnish with a lime wedge.

If your watermelon is not very sweet, you can add some sugar. Taste and see.

You may also add more tequila if you like your cocktails very strong.

Alternatively, you can prepare the margarita without adding the ice to the blender but adding some ice cubes in the glass when you serve it.