Sunday, October 31, 2010

Have I told you... much I love lentils? Yes, I think I have. It was back in January when I first posted about my favorite legume, declaring my ever lasting love for them and sharing with you my family's recipe for Greek lentil soup.

Ever since I was a kid, I had a thing for lentils. It was the only legume I enjoyed eating and that soft spot for those dark round jewels was all my mom needed to make her life easier. I profoundly objected to any attempt she made to feed me healthy food so the fact that I was eager to taste her lentil dishes brought her a sigh of relief.

The thing is though that, all these years my lentil repertoire was limited. It seems that I have been stuck in tradition, cooking lentils the way I have always been cooking them, not attempting to jazz them up a bit or pair them with something other than tomatoes, onions and garlic. Not that there's anything wrong with that but sometimes you just need a change. Especially if you're like us who eat lentils almost twice a month.

A while ago, I had bought a packet of Puy lentils planning to use them in some kind of special lentil dish I was hoping to find. They have been sitting in my kitchen cupboard for a couple of months when I finally realized I had to do something with them.

The previous day, I had bought some smoked trout that I've been dying to make a dish of, and thought I would pair the two. Some ideas came to mind but when I searched through my recipe archives and came across a lentil salad with smoked salmon, ricotta cheese and citrus fruits, I knew that was it. I swapped the salmon for the trout, tweaked and adjusted some of the ingredients and cooking processes, and it became the perfect salad.

Puy lentils or lentilles du Puy as they are called in French, are lentils from the volcanic region of Le Puy-en-Velay in south-central France and they are the only lentils in the world that are identified by area of cultivation. Puy lentils are small, green-black lentils with a blue marbling that have a very rich flavor and a superior quality. They are preferred for use in salads because they hold their shape when cooked, retaining their firmness, and don't disintegrate easily.

It was the first time I was using Puy lentils and I was pleasantly surprised by their 'al dente' texture and their nutty, earthy, peppery taste. The smoked trout with its pungent, aromatic flavor and rich texture paired excellently with the lentils, and the soft, creamy ricotta cheese rendered its sweetness to the salad.

The juicy, plump grapefruit wedges gave a welcomed sourness and the dressing, with its flavors of orange and lemon juice, olive oil and ginger, created an ideal concoction that balanced all the flavors in the salad in a unique way.

And it looks good, doesn't it? The Puy lentils resemble small pebbles from some exotic beach, the coral-hued trout and the bright colored grapefruits pop right at you and the white of the ricotta cheese creates a great contrast.

Puy lentils on the left, light brown lentils on the right

This salad can definitely be served at a special dinner, accompanied by a glass of good Chardonnay, or it can work as a light but fulfilling lunch or supper. Served either way, it surely makes a spectacular dish.

Warm Puy Lentil Salad with Smoked-Trout, Ricotta Cheese and Grapefruit
Adapted from Gastronomos magazine

This salad may have complex and intricate flavors but it's extremely easy to prepare.

If you can't find Puy lentils, you can use small, brown or green lentils. Even though they are different, the use of the common lentil surely doesn't mean that your dish will be any less flavorful or attractive.

As you boil the lentils, you will notice that the color of the water becomes almost black. At the end of the cooking process the lentils will have changed color. From green-black with blue marbling they become dark brown with some dark green markings.

In case you can't find ruby red or pink grapefruits, which are slightly sweeter than the yellow ones, use only yellow grapefruits.

Yield: 6 salad-servings

250 g French Puy lentils
150 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed
50 ml lemon juice, freshly squeezed
90 ml extra virgin olive oil
15 ml red wine vinegar
4 g (1 tsp) fresh ginger, grated
100 g onion, finely chopped
350 g smoked-trout fillets
250 g ricotta cheese
1 large yellow grapefruit, cut into wedges with pips, peel and white pith removed
1 large ruby red or pink grapefruit, cut into wedges with pips, peel and white pith removed
10 g flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped, plus a little extra for sprinkling on top of the salad
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: colander

Before you cook the lentils, it is important that you pick them over. Sometimes you can find spoiled or blackened lentils, or small stones or debris among them that you have to discard. Just lay the lentils on a plate in small batches and pick them over carefully.

Pour 1 liter of water in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan, put on the lid, and let water come to the boil over high heat. When it comes to the boil, add the Puy lentils along with ¼ tsp salt, lower heat to medium, put on the lid and let lentils cook for 15-20 minutes, until they soften but remain 'al dente', meaning firm but not hard. (Check the lentils after 15 minutes have passed, especially if you're using regular lentils since they cook quicker than Puy lentils).

In the meantime, prepare the dressing. In a large bowl, add the orange and lemon juice, olive oil, red-wine vinegar, grated ginger, finely chopped onion and a little salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix everything with a spoon and set aside.

Once lentils are ready, drain them in a colander, discarding the liquid, and rinse them well under cold running water. This will stop the cooking process. Drain excess water from the lentils and add them to the bowl that contains the dressing. Mix everything with a spoon and add the entire content of the bowl back to the pan. Heat the lentils over medium heat for 7-8 minutes without the lid and check the seasoning.
Drain the lentils over the bowl, reserving the liquid (which is the dressing) in the bowl, and return lentils back to the pan (the heat should be turned off) adding the parsley and mixing it with the lentils.

The way to cut the grapefruits is by using a sharp knife. First, cut off the peel, then the white pith all around the fruit, exposing the flesh, and finally, cut free the flesh of the fruit from the membranes that are in between the wedges.

Serve the salad by laying some spoonfuls of lentils on the bottom of each plate. Add on top of the lentils pieces of the smoked-trout fillets, some pink and yellow grapefruit wedges and some crumbled ricotta cheese. Pour a tablespoon of the dressing on top of the salad and sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley.
You can alternatively serve the salad in a big salad plate and let your guests help themselves.

The salad is eaten warm (the lentils must be warm, not the rest of the ingredients) or at room temperature.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Heart Autumn

I love the cold weather; going on evening walks on the streets of The Hague, feeling the crisp air stroking my cheeks, flushing them.

I love that the leaves are turning to all shades of yellow and orange. S pokes fun at me when I try to step on each crunchy leaf I see on the street but that doesn't stop me. I like the sound they make.

I love the smell of lit fireplaces in those first cold nights of autumn, when the slow burning wood emits such a sweet smell that penetrates my nostrils, bringing back memories.

I love sitting on my favorite armchair reading freshly bought cookbooks with that new book smell that reminds me of my school days, when all I wanted was a brand new school bag, lots of well sharpened pencils and fluorescent colored pens.

I love baking my first cookies of the season, yearning for a taste of home.

I love sleeping in; staying tucked in bed while the wind that has been asleep for so many months is now howling outside.

I love the cravings that I have for all kinds of foods aimed to warm me up, body and soul.

I love soup.

I love mushroom soup.

I love that earthy, meaty, umami flavor of mushrooms that is best enjoyed in the form of soup. Not that blended up thing though, where everything is mashed into oblivion, where the textures disappear and the flavors are masked by too much cream, no. A mushroom soup where each slice of mushroom is visible, its texture adding to the tasting experience and its flavor distinct and present in every mouthful.

Cremini and chanterelle mushrooms, soft leeks, thyme, a dollop of créme fraiche. Simplicity in all its glory. Cremini mushrooms are the older cousins of the button mushroom with a slightly richer flavor and a brown appearance whereas the chanterelles are the golden yellow, wild mushrooms of the forest. Their fruity aroma, reminiscent of the apricots and peaches of late summer, and their meaty, chewy texture are perfect for an autumnal soup. The sweet leeks complement the full flavor of the mushrooms giving a light sweetness to the dish. The thyme imparts its earthy, herbal aroma and the créme fraiche adds a luscious note that makes all the ingredients come together beautifully. Served with a glass of Viognier, it's magical.

It's really no wonder this soup is on my mind when autumn knocks on my door.

Mushroom Soup with Leeks and Thyme
Adapted from Rick Rodgers

This soup is very easy to prepare—the "hardest" part being the slicing of the mushrooms and leeks—and it only needs about 40 minutes of cooking in total. It's amazing how so few ingredients can yield so much flavor.

This soup is perfect for lunch or for a light supper paired with a couple of slices of crusty bread, and it makes an ideal first course for a dinner.

Créme fraiche is like sour cream but thicker and less sour. If you can't find it, use cream, whipped to soft peaks.
If you can't find cremini mushrooms (which are nothing but small portobello mushrooms), substitute with large portobello mushrooms cut into small pieces or even white button mushrooms.
If you can't find fresh chanterelles, use dried (15 g for this recipe plus their liquid).
Read this on how to reconstitute dried mushrooms and how to store them properly.

Yield: 6-8 first-course servings

100 g unsalted butter
450 g fresh cremini mushrooms
150 g fresh chanterelle mushrooms
125 g leeks (about 1 ½ large leek), white and pale green parts only
40 g all purpose flour
820 ml chicken stock, good quality
60 ml medium-dry sherry, like Amontillado
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
150 g créme fraiche for serving

Special equipment: mushroom brush, colander

Use a soft brush designed especially for cleaning mushrooms to clean the fresh mushrooms. Otherwise use a damp cloth to clean off the dirt and grit. Don't immerse the mushrooms into water when cleaning them because they are porous and tend to absorb a lot of water—you will end up with flavorless mushrooms. If the mushrooms are too dirty, rinse them quickly under slowly running water and drain them on kitchen paper. If you can't get rid of any dirty spots, use a small sharp knife and cut off those parts.
Cut the cremini mushrooms into 0.6 cm-thick slices. Make sure you cut off and discard the hard lower part of the stems.
Don't cut the chanterelles with a knife but tear them into smaller pieces with your hands. If they are small just leave them as they are.

Dice the leek. Using a sharp knife, cut off the root portion of the leek as well as the dark green leaves which will leave you with the body of the leek (white and pale green part). Cut it in half lengthwise and then cut these two pieces in half lengthwise. Cut these pieces into 0.6 cm squares. Rinse the leeks under running water and place them on a colander to drain.

In a medium-sized stock pot, melt 35 g of the butter over medium-high heat and when it's hot (but not smoking) add half of the mushrooms. Sauté them, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, for about 5 minutes. Transfer them, along with their juices, into a bowl.
In the same pot, melt 35 g of the butter until hot and then add the rest of the mushrooms, cooking them in the same manner as the others. Transfer them, along with their juices, into the same bowl.
The reason we don't sauté all the mushrooms together is because of their large volume—they will boil rather than sauté.

In the same pot, melt the rest 30 g of the butter and when it gets hot add the leeks. Stir them well and put the lid on the pot. Turn heat down to medium and let leeks cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until they soften.
Then add all the mushrooms, along with their juices, to the pot, sprinkle with the flour and stir until flour is evenly distributed.
Add the chicken stock, the sherry, (at this point, if you're using dried mushrooms add them along with their juices/read this on how to reconstitute them first), salt (be careful not to use too much in case the chicken stock you use is already salted), freshly ground black pepper and ½ tsp fresh thyme leaves. Stir everything and bring soup to the boil, stirring often.
Reduce heat to low, set lid ajar and simmer for 20 minutes.

Serve the soup while still hot in small soup bowls, adding a dollop of créme fraiche on top and sprinkling with fresh thyme leaves.

The soup is even tastier the next day. If you want to serve it at a dinner party, you can make it the previous day, leaving you with enough time to prepare the rest of your dishes on the day.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The package

Saturday morning, 8:30 am. The doorbell rings.
The doorbell rings for a second time.

I can hear S grunting next to me, a clear indication that he's not getting up. The doorbell rings again for a third time.
A far less audible grunt. S is somewhere between being asleep and awake. The doorbell rings for the fourth time.
Who can it be? It's Saturday morning. No one I know is up at this hour on a Saturday.

There is no way S is getting up for this. And I, I don't want to get up.
The doorbell rings for a fifth time—persistently.
I get up, quickly. Can't find my slippers, as usual.
I climb down the stairs, slowly, carefully—our building, a four-story Dutch townhouse, is more than a hundred years old and the stairs are possibly the narrowest, steepest you have ever seen. Having to climb down three flights of stairs, since our apartment is the top two floors with our bedroom being on the top floor, is something I do not want to do at this hour.

I finally reach the front door. It's the mailman. He mutters something in Dutch and hands me a package.
I'm still sleepy, my vision is a bit blurry. I think we drank too much wine last night but it was superb. The shots of tsikoudia though afterwards were not such a wise choice. Well, too late...
I catch a glimpse of my name written on the brown paper. Oh, it's for me.

Hungover and tired, I make my way back up. I place the package on the small kitchen table and I head straight back up to bed.
As I'm lying there, catching my breath from this unnecessary early morning workout, I remember. Yes, I was expecting a package; from Greece. No, that can't be it. Not that soon.
I get downstairs to the kitchen. This time I'm wide awake and filled with anticipation. I grab the package. I search for the name of the sender. Yes, that's it.

What the package contained was treasured goods. A number of Greek gems sent to me by the generous Kiki, a talented Greek food blogger and cookbook author. Living in Holland, it is very hard for me to get my hands on good Greek ingredients and various foodstuffs—sometimes verging on the impossible. My family sends me stuff every once in a while and when they visit, they always bring with them extra suitcases filled with Greek olive oil, dried oregano, honey, you name it. This time a friend came to the rescue.

Kiki's package included orzo, mastiha (mastic), sumac and other spices and most importantly, petimezi (grape molasses/non-fermented grape syrup). Petimezi is the sweet viscous liquid product that comes from boiling grape-must for a long time over low heat. It is a natural sweetener that is as old as wine and along with honey, was commonly used by the ancient Greeks. It is rather expensive since the process of its production is lengthy and the yield is small. It takes five liters of grape-must to produce about two liters of petimezi.

Its flavor is sweet with a hint of spice and its aroma is pungent, heady and so incredibly tempting. Petimezi is used regularly in Greek cuisine in savory dishes—its nectarous flavor being used to enrich sauces that accompany lamb and pork as well as fish. The most common use of this dark-colored syrup though is for making different kinds of sweets like moustalevria, which is a grape-must pudding and moustokouloura, grape-must cookies. Moustokouloura are my favorite traditional Greek cookies.

I had a debate with myself whether or not to post this recipe because these cookies, let's face it, are not particularly appealing. I'm a firm believer that we eat with our eyes first and these are not so pretty to look at but they are very healthy; perhaps the healthiest cookies out there. And what they lack in looks, they more than make up for in taste. Petimezi imparts its unique sweet flavor to the cookies—a flavor that can't be described, a flavor you have to experience for yourselves. Cinnamon and cloves are the spices that not only give a beautiful fragrance to the moustokouloura but they complement perfectly the taste of the petimezi. The richness of the olive oil rather that that of butter completes the picture, making these cookies irresistible.

There are two types of moustokouloura; the hard ones and the soft ones. Each category has its own loyal followers who swear by their preferred texture of the cookie. Hard moustokouloura have a biscotti-like texture and are perfect to dip in coffee whereas the soft moustokouloura are chewy and crumbly. The ones I make though are somewhere in between. Not being a fan of either type, I make mine medium-soft, or medium-hard, depending which way you want to look at it.

These mocha-colored cookies are ideal for dipping in your morning Greek coffee or your afternoon tea without disintegrating (an oh-so-important characteristic of a good Greek cookie) and without causing you to chip a tooth when biting into them, they are slightly chewy, just enough to make you realize you're eating moustokouloura but not so much that you want to reach for a toothpick, and naturally, they are finger-licking good.

Moustokouloura (Greek Grape-Must Syrup Cookies)

These Greek cookies are traditionally made in early autumn when the grape-must, called 'moustos' in Greek, and petimezi are fresh (even though petimezi keeps forever). They are very easy to prepare and they need to be baked in the oven for only 15 minutes.

There are different versions of these cookies that contain either grape-must or petimezi (grape-must syrup). They are both called "moustokouloura" in Greek.
You can find petimezi in Greek or Middle-Eastern stores.

Yield: about 30 moustokouloura (cookies)

550 g all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
300 ml light flavored, good quality olive oil
110 ml petimezi (grape-must syrup)
110 g sugar
1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
60 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed
½ tsp baking soda

Special equipment: stand mixer or hand held mixer, 2 large baking trays

You can either make these cookies with the help of a stand mixer or with a combination of a hand held mixer and... your hands, for bringing the dough together.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl), add the olive oil, grape-must syrup (petimezi), sugar, ground cinnamon and cloves. Turn your mixer on to medium speed and beat the ingredients for 2-3 minutes.

In a small bowl, add the orange juice and baking soda. Stir with a spoon so the baking soda dissolves and becomes frothy. Empty this mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer (or the large bowl) and continue to beat at medium speed.

Add the flour-baking powder mixture little by little into the bowl of your stand mixer (or large bowl), beating at medium speed until incorporated and until you have a homogeneous, soft dough, about 5 minutes. If you're using a hand held mixer, once a dough starts to form, switch to using your hands.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Line the bottom of two baking trays with baking paper.

Empty the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 1 minute. It will be pliable and oily but don't be scared of it; it should be like that. Cut the dough into smaller pieces and using your hands, roll the pieces into 2 cm-thick x 17 cm-long cylinders. If you find it difficult to roll the dough with your hands (if the dough is soft), use a piping bag to form the cylinders. Take each cylinder and shape it into round cookies with a hole in the center (see photograph above).

Place cookies, spaced apart, on the two baking trays. These cookies will spread while baking and puff up only a little. They will also form small cracks. All this is because the dough is soft, which is exactly what you want in order for the cookies to become soft and chewy.

Put the first batch in the oven, on the middle rack, and bake for 13-15 minutes, until cookies are golden on top and a bit soft when pressed in the middle. Be careful because they catch easily on the bottom so you may want to check them after they have been baking for 10-11 minutes.

Once ready, take them out of the oven and onto a wire rack to cool.
Continue baking the second batch.

Keep the cookies in an airtight container for up to 4 weeks. They taste better as each day passes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My secret ingredient

Sitting in front of my computer, trying to come up with something to write.
Looking at the blank page and that damn blinking cursor.
Driving me crazy.

Distracted by sounds outside the window.
Not enough energy to even look.
Distracted by the sudden gloom of the skies.
It was so sunny this morning.

Going through the photographs I've taken for this post.
They're pretty.
Colors, textures, flavors, aromas.

I got nothing.

It's not supposed to be that hard.
This is supposed to be fun, remember?
This is not a chore, a "job".

This is not supposed to be something that you have to do but something you enjoy.
This is your baby, your outlet, your own little space in that enormous cyber world where you tuck away your thoughts, your ideas about food, the recipes you fall in love with and, you share all of it with the world.

You don't have to write anything.
Just write the recipe.
Go ahead.

No one needs to know.

A song by PJ Harvey is stuck in my head.
I start to sing.
I love to sing.

I always sing while I'm cooking.
Perhaps that's my secret ingredient.

Purple and Golden Beet Chips with Spicy Sour Cream Dip
Adapted from epicurious

This is a great appetizer for a dinner party and a perfect, healthy snack for those autumn days that you just want to stay inside, watch a movie and nibble on something tasty. These chips are sweet, crunchy, earthy, fresh and totally addictive and the sour cream dip is spicy and delicious.

You can use just purple beets in case you can't find golden ones. Golden beets have a more earthy flavor and are less sweet than purple beets.

Soaking the beets in sugar syrup before baking them accentuates their natural sweetness, making them even more flavorsome.
I had to make two sugar syrups in two different pans. If you soak both kinds of beets in one pan they will discolor and you'll end up with strange-colored beets. Nothing wrong with some psychedelic beets but I want to keep it simple.

Curry powder is not a specific spice but a spice blend. Madras curry powder is a spice blend that originates from the city of Madras in India. It is more spicy, hot and piquant than the normal curry powder but it's not overly potent. If you can't find it or if you prefer milder flavors, use a common curry powder.

The spicy sour cream dip is very versatile and you can use it to accompany all sorts of fresh vegetables and potato chips.

Yield: enough for 4 people as appetizers or, in my and S's case, snacks for 2 / one heaped cup of dip


for beet chips
400 g purple beets
400 g golden beets
240 ml plus 240 ml water
200 g plus 200 g sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

for spicy sour cream
25 g (2 heaped Tbsp) shallots, finely chopped
20 ml (1 ¼ Tbsp) olive oil
1 tsp Madras curry powder
250 g sour cream
1 ½ Tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped plus extra for garnishing the dip
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: kitchen mandoline (optional) , two large baking trays


for beet chips
Peel beets and cut them into 1.5 - 2.5 mm-thick slices using a mandoline or a sharp knife. Don't slice the beets thinner than that because they will burn in the oven. Don't slice the beets thicker than that because they will not dry out and crisp up easily.

make the sugar syrups
Take two medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepans and put in each one 240 ml water and 200 g sugar. Turn on the heat and using a spoon, stir constantly until sugar dissolves. Then place the sliced purple beets in one pan and the sliced golden beets in the other pan. Remove both pans from the heat and let stand for 15 minutes.

Note: If you're using just one kind of beets of the same color then you only need to make one sugar syrup. Combine the ingredients (240+240 ml water and 200+200 g sugar) in one large saucepan and proceed as described above.

Drain the beets in two separate colanders, discard the liquid and let beets stand in the colanders for 15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 100 degrees Celsius.
Line two shallow baking trays (one for the purple and one for the golden beets) with baking paper and arrange beet slices snugly in one layer and not one on top of the other. Sprinkle salt and freshly ground black pepper over them and place one baking tray on the middle rack of the oven and the other on the lower rack. Bake for 30 minutes and then switch positions of the baking trays. Bake for further 30 minutes or until beets are dry. Keep in mind that the beets will shrink during baking.

Take trays out of the oven and immediately place beets on wire racks to cool. They will crisp up as they cool.

for spicy sour cream dip
While beets are baking, prepare the dip.
In a small skillet heat the olive oil and sauté the shallots over medium heat. Stir continuously until shallots are golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in the Madras curry powder and cook, stirring continuously, for 1 minute. Take skillet off the heat.
Place sour cream in a small bowl and stir in the shallots together with the chives, salt and pepper. Stir everything to combine.

Keep dip in the refrigerator, covered with cling film, until it is time to serve. You can prepare this dip the day before.

Serve beet chips on a large platter along with a bowl of the spicy sour cream dip, garnished with some chopped chives.