Sunday, March 27, 2011

And then there was cashew butter

Katerina was one of my best friends in elementary school. We used to sit next to each other in class and giggle incessantly over inane and silly things, acting our age. We'd chew pink bubble gum until our jaws hurt and blow huge pink bubbles that would then explode and stick all over our faces, making our teacher furious and wishing he'd taught at an all-boys school.

We would make fun of the little boys who tried to grab our attention by playing football right in front of us in the schoolyard during recess, scoring goals and doing victory laps all proud and self-important, like all elementary school boys do.

We would spent countless hours playing with our Barbies and reading comic books or preparing for Saturday afternoon birthday parties. She'd teach me how to ride a bike while I'd teach her how to fall off of one, and we'd spy on her older brother who was so cute every girl had a crush on him.

Raw cashews

Katerina was a sweet blonde girl, taller than any of the other girls in our class or rather in our whole school and feeling awkward about it, but in the end got her revenge on everyone when she became the hot, tall, blonde teenager every guy in high school wanted to date.

Roasted cashews

Katerina's mom was American and even though she'd hate to admit it, she was different. She would speak English at home when all of her schoolmates spoke Greek at theirs; she would have slumber parties where I was the only one who attended them since everyone else's mother was like, "What? A slumber party? What's that?"; she would celebrate a strange holiday called Halloween when all the members of her family would wear spooky costumes and scare each other to bits; she would have peanut butter sandwiches in the mornings instead of milk, crusty bread and sugar (don't ask).

And at this point, the subject swiftly switches from my friend Katerina, to peanut butter. The first time I ever went to her house and her mom opened the huge, double-door American refrigerator that I've never seen anything like before and which I later found out was shipped from the US, was the first time I ever laid eyes on and tasted the glorious peanut butter. Surely, I have eaten peanuts before but what was that creamy, rich, thick, peanut-y spread right here? Where did it come from? Why haven't I known of this before? The gates have opened. And my mom, oh my mom, was in for a heck of a ride.

I'd pester her with unending questions as to when she was going to buy that miracle spread for me. I was urging her to go into stores where I thought I'd spotted a jar. I nagged her every time she'd ask me what I wanted to have for breakfast, lunch, dinner. She'd be bombarded with constant complaints about my peanut butter-less life.

Needless to say, the only chance I had of ever tasting it again was if I went over to Katerina's house and in all fairness to my mom, peanut butter was not easily found in Greece during that time. You could only find it in some specialty food stores in downtown Athens and she wasn't going to search for it.

Sure, it became widely available after a few years and it was in every super market, grocery store, even in my mom's own pantry (!) but what I realized a while back was that I can actually make this stuff all on my own. No additives, no preservatives, no extra salt and a hundred other unidentifiable ingredients, so I did. And I loved it. And then I realized that I can make the same thing with cashews because, let's face it, cashews just taste a whole lot better and they are my favorite kind of nut.

Listen, I can go and on about how spectacularly good cashew butter tastes slathered on a piece of bread; how it melts in your mouth and makes your tongue stick to your palate, making you produce inarticulate sounds for a couple of moments after you've tasted it; how you start spooning it straight from the jar after a while, standing in front of your open fridge, and watching it disappear right before your eyes, because who are we kidding here, we all end up doing exactly that.

So, long story short; cashew butter, I love you. You make my heart beat faster and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And, dear readers, if you've had any reservations on whether you should try making your own cashew butter, I'm sure this declaration of love was enough to persuade you.

Homemade Cashew Butter

Before I came up with this exact recipe, I tried every combination imaginable. Raw cashews with sea salt, unsalted cashews with oil, roasted cashews with honey and salt (the honey made it too thick, it was like stucco), roasted cashews with sugar and oil. Needless to say, numerous jars of cashew butter accumulated on the shelves of my small refrigerator until I finally got the recipe just the way I wanted it.

So, what you'll need? Raw, unsalted cashews, sunflower oil, a little sea salt and a little sugar. Once you roast the nuts for a few minutes in the oven, have your food processor at hand ( I used my brand new beast) and just process the heck out of them. You'll end up with cashew butter that is creamy but has a slight crunch, just the way I like it, and is not too thick. Once you refrigerate it, its consistency will change somewhat and become more dense.

Spread it on your favorite type of bread or use it in your favorite stir-fry or curry dish or even in a sauce to accompany a chicken satay.

Makes 1 heaped cup

250 g raw, unsalted cashews
30 ml (2 Tbsp) sunflower oil (or other mild-flavored vegetable oil)
½ tsp sea salt flakes (I used Maldon) or ½ tsp regular sea salt
½ tsp caster sugar

Special equipment: food processor

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with baking paper and spread the cashews on top. Place the sheet on the middle rack of the oven and roast them for 7-8 minutes, stirring them halfway through so they roast evenly on both sides. Keep an eye on them so they don't catch on top.

Let them cool and then place them in a food processor. Process them until quite fine and add the sunflower oil. Grind the cashews until they release their oil and become creamy, for about 3 minutes (they shall be slightly grainy but if you want, you can process them until they liquefy which will take more time, about 5-6 minutes in total). Scrape down the sides of the bowl of the food processor halfway through with a rubber spatula.

Add the sea salt flakes and sugar and process for 1 more minute.

In case you like your nut butter crunchy, add a few more cashews at the end of processing.

Empty the cashew butter in a clean, airtight, glass container/jar.

You can store it in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bribes and other courtesies

So, for the last six months, this guy who owns the apartment right next to ours is trying to renovate it. And I'm saying trying to because that's the only way I can explain the fact that he's taking so long to complete the damn job. It sounds like he's demolishing walls each and every day (how many walls one small apartment can have??), starting from 8 am and finally letting his sledgehammers/drills/chainsaws/torture devices down, around 10 pm. That's including weekends, mind you.

Geez, what do I have to do to stop this? Give him one of these?

Do you think eclairs can work as a bribe?

If so, I would be very happy to know since, you know, I'd hate to think that I only made these so that I can expand my waistline.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Hi everyone. I'm back. And I would like to thank each and every one who sent me an email or wrote me a note, for your kind words. I really appreciate it. You guys are so sweet. And you know what? I missed you. I missed writing here. I missed coming to this space of mine.

It's been difficult this past month but I'm slowly making my way back to normalcy, if there's anything like that in life; normalcy. Anyway.
Just look at everything that's been happening around the world, like in Japan and in Yemen or Libya and you'll realize that life can be anything but normal.

This past week I have been back in the kitchen big time. I'm really craving things, mostly in the form of soups and all things spicy. Perhaps it's because of this winter, which insists on sticking around even though every person in the Northern hemisphere is sick of it and wishing for spring to begin already.

I have been making Dutch pea soup and the classic Greek chicken avgolemono soup on one hand and on the other I have been making Indian butter chicken and Indonesian beef satay, trying to keep my palate in shape and on its toes.

And then suddenly I stumbled upon a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi which combined both of my latest obsessions, soups and spiciness, and one of my long-standing obsessions, lentils. A Thai coconut milk and red lentil soup with crispy fried shallots. This has swiftly become my favorite soup of this winter and why not spring too.

This soup is so flavorful and healthy and spicy and fresh and hot and aromatic and soothing and, did I mention hot? Well, it is a Thai soup after all. And Thai cuisine is one of the most spicy and hot cuisines in the world.

Apart from being spicy though, Thai cuisine is one of the most harmoniously balanced cuisines in terms of flavors and textures and one with great diversity due to the influence of the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese on the style of cooking.

The marriage of sour, sweet, hot and spicy notes is accomplished by the use of fresh herbs, coconut milk and oil, ginger and galangal, kaffir limes, lemongrass, spices and the notorious curry pastes. Jasmine rice is one of the most popular varieties of rice in Thailand and is served with most dishes, whereas vegetables form the foundation of the Thai meal.

Nam pla, which is the Thai fish sauce, is one of the basic ingredients in Thai cooking, the same as salt is to the Western world. Fish sauce is a pungent, salty sauce made from fermented fish and is used as a condiment in stews, curries and soups as well as a dipping sauce or a marinade.

Fried shallots, which I made to accompany this soup, are widely used in South-East Asian cuisine, especially Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese. They are used as a garnish for stir-fries, curries, soups or fried rice and they are immensely delicious. I love every type of onion there is (and I'm not afraid to say it) but these fried shallots were the cherry on top of this piquant Thai soup. The combination is simply amazing and truly flavorsome. Give it a try and you'll see for yourselves.

Thai Coconut Milk and Red Lentil Soup with Crispy Fried Shallots
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi

If you want to turn this dish into a vegetarian one, just use salt instead of the fish sauce. That easy.

Kaffir lime leaves (fresh or dried) are a bit hard to find in some places (for example Greece) but there's no actual substitute for them. The best you can do if you can't find them is to add the zest of 1 lime for every 2 kaffir lime leaves.

Curry pastes are an integral part of Thai cooking. Curry paste is a finely ground or pounded (traditionally with a mortar and pestle) moist blend of fresh herbs, spices and vegetables, with the main ingredient being chillies.
This recipe calls for Thai red curry paste which you can find in Asian grocery stores. You can also try making your own, using this recipe.

Yield: 6 soup servings

250 g red lentils
45 ml sunflower oil
1 medium-sized onion (about 90 g), finely sliced
1 ½ Tbsp Thai red curry paste
2 lemongrass stalks, beaten and bruised slightly with the back of a big knife or a rolling pin
4 fresh kaffir lime leaves or 6 dried ones
950 ml water
250 ml coconut milk
Juice of 1 lime, freshly squeezed, plus some extra for serving (optional)
15 ml soy sauce
30 ml nam pla (Thai fish sauce) or salt (to taste)
15 g fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped

6 Tbsp crispy fried shallots (see recipe below)

Special equipment: colander, immersion blender or regular blender

Place the lentils in a colander and rinse them under cold running water.

Pour the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and heat it over medium heat. Add the sliced onion, turn heat down to low, cover the pan and cook the onion for about 13 minutes, until it is completely soft. Be careful not to brown the onion.

Add the red curry paste and stir it around. Cook it for 1 minute and then add the lemongrass, the kaffir lime leaves, the red lentils and the water. Stir everything around, cover, turn heat up to high and bring to the boil.
When it comes to the boil, turn the heat down to low and simmer for around 15 minutes, until the lentils soften.

Take the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves out of the pan and discard them. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth and velvety. If you don't have an immersion blender, ladle the lentils into a normal blender and blend the soup there. Then return it to the pan.

Add the coconut milk, lime juice, soy and fish sauce (or salt) and stir well. Place the pan back on the heat (medium heat) and just before it starts to boil, turn the heat off.

Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning by adding extra fish sauce or salt.

Serve the soup in individual soup bowls and top with fresh coriander leaves and/or some crispy fried shallots. Squeeze some extra lime juice on top of the soup to give it that extra zing.

The soup can be refrigerated for a day. Reheat it and enjoy it.

Crispy Fried Shallots

Fried shallots were a revelation to me the first time I made them. I loved them. There was a battle between caramelized onions and crispy fried shallots in my mind as to which is the best onion condiment, but the fried shallots won in the end.

You can try them as a snack or you can use them to top off a salad or a steak, and you can also use the oil you fried them in to sauté just about anything. The oil, which has been flavored by the shallots, will render a beautiful aroma and taste to whatever you choose to sauté.

Yield: about 2 cups

450 ml sunflower oil
160 g shallots (around 8 shallots)
1/8 tsp salt

Slice the shallots thinly in rings and separate them into individual rings.
Spread them in a single layer on paper towels and leave them to dry for 30 minutes.

Pour the oil in a large skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Once it starts to shimmer, test it by dropping a shallot ring inside. It must immediately begin to fry but not burn.
Add the shallots, salt them and fry them for 6-7 minutes. You must keep an eye on them, moderating the heat if needed, because you don't want them to get burned.
After those 6-7 minutes, they should start to brown. Turn the heat off and leave them there for another minute or so, until browned and crispy.

Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels to drain excess oil and cool.

You can use them immediately or you can store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week.