Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What I've been up to in the kitchen

I have been cooking a lot lately but not blogging much about it.
Bad blogger, bad.

I have been making all kinds of food that worked and made complete gluttons out of S and me and, ehm, some that didn't.

I'll share those that did work because I'm vain and too proud to share with you my kitchen fiascos.
Well, the truth is I just rarely take pictures of the flops.
They annoy the hell out of me.

Greek gemista. My favorite dish, ever. I used to go straight for the stuffed peppers but now I prefer the stuffed tomatoes. People have the right to change opinions and cravings, right?

See the recipe here.

Spanakopita. Spanako-pita. Spa-na-ko-pi-ta. S-p-a-n-a-k-o-p-i-t-a. The majestic.
That's Greek spinach pie to you.

See the recipe here.

Kritharokouloures aka Greek dried barley rusks. Traditional recipe from the island of Crete. By making these, I managed to bring a small part of the island into my little expat kitchen.
My favorite combination: kritharokouloures + kefalograviera (Greek cheese much like Gruyère) for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The first time I made chocolate ice cream. A complete success thanks to my ice cream god, David Lebovitz.
S, in between spoonfuls of ice cream, staring at me with disbelief: " are you sure you made this?"
I think he had a death wish.

(I made it again! Check out the recipe)

It was S's birthday last week. I made chocolate truffles to bring to his office for his co-workers. The ones with hagelslag (Dutch for sprinkles) were a huge hit. The Dutch loooove their sprinkles.
(Recipe here)

P.S. Some of the photos were taken with S's iPhone that's why their quality is not the best. (By the way, I can't stand iPhones, I don't get why everybody has one, I had to say it, sorry baby)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to reconstitute and store dried mushrooms

Dried mushrooms have an intense flavor and are very useful to have around since you can use them in all kinds of dishes. By reconstituting them you will not only have some delicious mushrooms on your hands but a flavorful liquid that you can incorporate into your soups, stews or sauces.

The most commonly used dried mushrooms are porcini, chanterelles, shiitake, black trumpets and morels.

In order to reconstitute them, place the amount of dried mushrooms you want to use in a bowl large enough to accommodate all of them.
Pour warm water over the mushrooms and let them stand for 25-30 minutes, until they are softened.

The amount of water depends on how much mushrooms you will use— you will need 3/4 cup (180 ml) water for 15 g of dried mushrooms, 1 ½ cup (260 ml) water for 30 g and so on. The mushrooms need to be fully covered by the liquid.

Alternatively, you can soak the mushrooms in stock, wine, sherry or brandy in order to give them more flavor.

Once the mushrooms have rehydrated, take them out of the bowl, squeezing them with your hands in order to release as much liquid as possible back into the bowl. Now you can use them in any kind of dish you want, just like you would with fresh mushrooms.

Don't throw away the liquid because it is full of flavor. Pass it through a muslin cloth or a coffee filter in order to get rid of all the grit and dirt, and use it in your dish as a substitute for any other liquid such as water or stock, or reserve it for later use.

Keep in mind that when dried mushrooms are rehydrated they increase in size tenfold so don't go overboard with the amount you use.

Store dried mushrooms in airtight containers with tight-fitting lids (thus ensuring that no bugs/insects will infest them) and keep them in a dark and dry place or even in the refrigerator or freezer.
As long as you keep them dry, they can last indefinitely. They must not get wet or damp, because they will rot or mildew.

Keeping them in individual portions and individual packages (like small airtight plastic bags) extends their life. If you keep them in a large container which you open and close regularly, you let moisture inside thus ruining them.

If you ever find even one bug/insect in your dried mushrooms, throw them all away.

You will find this helpful in the following recipes:

Mushroom Soup with Leeks and Thyme

Spaghettini with Mushrooms, Olive Oil and Garlic

What is umami?

Umami is the fifth basic taste. The other four are: sweet, bitter, sour and salty.

The word umami is Japanese and it means "good flavor".

The umami taste has been discovered in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist and is defined as a savory, meaty or brothy taste found in foods like meat, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, soy sauce, green tea and others, that is imparted by glutamate (an amino acid).

In the '80s, various studies proved that umami constituted a legitimate fifth basic taste.

How to store nuts

There have been many times that I have bought different kinds of nuts in bulk and have thrown most of them away because they have gone rancid or stale in a matter of days. That was before I learned how to store them properly. You can save money by storing nuts properly since they will keep for many months.

When you buy unpacked nuts, it is best that you try them first. You never know how long they have been standing there. But even if you buy the packed ones, that doesn't ensure that they will be fresh so make sure you store all nuts immediately. Keep also in mind that nuts in their shell keep for approximately twice as long as shelled nuts.

Peanuts, pecans and walnuts are more susceptible to spoilage whereas almonds and cashews are among the least.

Nuts have a high fat content which makes them become quickly rancid. Their flavor and smell changes through oxidation by oxygen in the atmosphere or by the action of microorganisms, resulting in unpleasant flavor and odor. The only way to prevent this from happening is by storing shelled or unshelled nuts in the refrigerator or freezer. The cold keeps the oil in the nuts more stable so they don't go bad quickly.

Nuts also tend to absorb flavors from other stored products so it is best if you store them in a tightly sealed (airtight) container such as a plastic jar or bag, preferably though in glass jars. This way they won't lose water or absorb flavors and odors from other products in your fridge.

Nuts stored in this way, will keep in the fridge for 6 months and for 1 year in the freezer.

Rancid nuts will ruin whatever you put them in so be sure to taste a sample before you add them to a recipe, making sure that they are still good.

Nuts have been used in the following recipes:

Caramel Spiced Popcorn

Endive Salad with Apples, Walnuts and Roquefort Cheese with Raspberry Vinaigrette

Greek Yoghurt with Greek Thyme Honey and Walnuts

Homemade Cashew Butter

Gevulde Speculaas - Dutch Speculaas Cake filled with Amandelspijs (Dutch Almond Paste)

Greek Beetroot Purée with Potatoes and Walnuts

Greek Semolina Halva with Cinnamon and Blanched Almonds

Marzipan-White Chocolate Bites with Ginger

Pepernoten - Small Traditional Dutch Spice Cookies

Sautéed Shrimps with Tahini and Garlic Sauce and a Sumac, Cumin Seed and Pistachio Dukkah

Spiced Nuts

Saragli (Greek Individual Rolled Baklavas)

Speculaas Cookies

How to sterilize glass jars

Sterilizing glass jars is extremely important if you want to preserve jams, marmalades, jellies or chutneys. It is unhealthy and risky for you to do otherwise.

Preheat your oven to 100 degrees Celsius.
Wash the glass jars and their lids with soap in hot water. Place them, while still damp and without touching the inside of the jars and lids, on a baking tray lined with a clean tea towel. Make sure you place them open sides up. Put the tray in the oven for 35 minutes.

Take tray out of the oven and carefully pour your hot jam, jelly, marmalade or chutney inside the hot jar. Be careful not to touch the inside of the jar. Close the lids tightly (not too tightly).

At this point, you can turn the jars upside-down and leave them to cool completely. You can keep them in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

If you want to preserve the jam/chutney/marmalade for longer outside the fridge, then fill a large, heavy-bottomed pan with water and once it comes to the boil, fully submerge the glass jars in it, placing them in the pan upright, with the lid side up. Leave them in the boiling water for 10 minutes and then, using tongs, carefully remove them from the pan. Allow the glass jars to cool completely. Check to see if the lids have sealed. If a lid of a jar hasn't sealed properly, put the jar in the refrigerator and use it first.

Store the filled jars in a cool, dark and dry place. Once you open them, place them in the refrigerator.

After this process the jam/chutney/marmalade/jelly can be kept for up to a year unopened.

Important: Don't recycle mayonnaise, jam, mustard or any other jars for your canned goods. Buy new canning jars and once you have used the lids once, buy new lids. Never use the same lids twice.
It is also important to inspect the glass jars for scratches, chips or cracks. They must be in pristine condition.

You will find this helpful in the following recipes:

Cherry Tomato Jam

Cranberry Chutney

Homemade Fig Jam

Nectarine Jam

Pomegranate Molasses

How to handle hot chilies

There are chilies that are very hot, so extreme caution is needed when you handle them.

When handling fresh hot chilies (like Thai red chilies for example or these devilish Scotch Bonnets) it is best to wear rubber gloves. Otherwise you need to wash your hands thoroughly after working with them and avoid contact with your eyes, mouth or nose.

Removing the seeds and the inner membranes of the chilies will ensure that they will be less hot when consuming them.

Make sure you know how hot a chili is before adding it to your dish. Otherwise you may ruin it and the taste of the dish may not be what you expected.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Green spears

I don't have a recollection of ever trying asparagus when I was little. I only remember that I associated them with some foul taste and that I never ever wanted to lay eyes on them. I think I might have even been scared of them.

And then, I grew up.

Growing up means accepting responsibility for your own actions, being able to learn from your mistakes (I'm still trying to master that), having perspective when things don't go your way and having perspective when things do, but for me, growing up meant one more thing. Broadening my eating habits.

I'm not going to bore you with the details of my dietary changes or the “aha” moments that I’ve experienced when I tasted different green stuff that I once vowed not to ever put in my mouth.

What I am going to tell you is that the first time I seriously tried asparagus—and by seriously, I mean actually eating a whole spear and not tossing it after the first reluctant bite—was a moment of glee and surprise. I had no idea those little suckers tasted that good.

Just so that I'm not misunderstood here, I am talking about the green asparagus and not the white. Those chubby white ones don't sit well with me at all.

Rooibos tea leaves

Dressed in a hollandaise sauce or with a simple drizzling of Greek extra virgin olive oil, green asparagus are something out of this world. Paired with oranges and a rooibos tea dressing, they are impressive.

I don't know how many of you have tasted rooibos tea but take it from someone who only drinks tea when they have a serious case of sore throat, it is amazing. It is naturally sweet, with a floral and nutty aroma and a vibrant reddish-brown color.

Originating from South Africa and specifically from the small region of Cederberg where the rooibos plant exclusively grows, rooibos tea, meaning red-bush tea, is considered more of an herbal drink rather than "real" tea. It is regarded as extremely healthy due to its high levels of antioxidants and minerals, its lack of caffeine and tannins, and its suggested abilities, among others, to protect against cancer and to improve the immune system.

The leaves of the rooibos plant take on their distinctively red, almost terracotta color during the oxidation and fermentation processes. Non-oxidized leaves of the same plant yield another type of tea, the green rooibos tea which has a lighter color, a milder herbal flavor and far more antioxidants and nutrients than the regular one.

The dressing for this roasted asparagus salad called for a rooibos syrup scented with cinnamon, orange, lemon and honey (be still my heart) and I don't know how to say this without sounding trite but it is p e r f e c t. Simple as that.

As for the rest of the salad, the green asparagus are roasted in the oven just until they're crisp and tender and the juicy oranges are segmented to reveal their lush flesh. Asian flavors are added to the dressing in the form of rice vinegar and sesame oil that give an exotic punch to the salad whereas the ginger, garlic and olive oil perk up the flavor even more. A final sprinkling of toasted peanuts gives added texture to the dish and once you put the first bite into your mouth, you're in for a heck of a ride.

Roasted Green Asparagus Salad with a Rooibos and Orange Dressing
Adapted from Wining & Dining

I like to peel my asparagus. I'm fussy like that. Plus, S has issues with the texture of unpeeled asparagus. But if you get your hands on some fresh, young asparagus and especially if they're thin, I would suggest not peeling them at all. You just need to snap off the bottom part of each spear.

I used tea bags to make the rooibos tea for the syrup but you can certainly use leaves instead.

By the way, I have to tell you that I discovered an exceptional Greek olive oil here in Holland, "Bio Sitia Organic" from the island of Crete, and I am overjoyed because, unfortunately, it is easier to find Spanish or Italian olive oils here rather than Greek. I hope someone does something about this soon. The market is hungry for Greek products. In Holland, Greek products are either non-existent or extremely pricey, which automatically makes them non competitive. I use only Greek olive oil in my cooking—always have and always will— and there's just nothing else like it out there. Whenever I travel to Greece I have to bring back with me large amounts of the stuff, yet this one I found in a small super market near my apartment is becoming my favorite. It is more of a finishing olive oil rather then the one you'd use to cook with and it has a very deep, rich yet delicate flavor. If you happen to find it where you live, use it. I can't recommend it enough.

Yield: 4 servings


for rooibos tea
3 rooibos tea bags
250 ml boiling water

for rooibos syrup
400 g sugar
250 ml rooibos tea
1 medium-sized lemon, halved
1 medium-sized orange, halved
1 ½ cinnamon stick
170 ml honey (I used orange blossom honey)

for the dressing
50 ml rooibos syrup
80 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed
10 ml rice vinegar
10 ml Asian sesame oil
1 ½ tsp orange zest
1 medium-sized garlic clove, mashed
1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
Black pepper, freshly ground

for the salad
500 g fresh green asparagus, cleaned and trimmed
2 small oranges
10 ml plus 10 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp spring onions (green parts only), thinly sliced
35 g unsalted peanuts, peeled

Special equipment: sieve


Make the rooibos tea
In a small jug, put 3 bags of rooibos tea and add the boiling water. Let stand for 15 minutes.

Make the rooibos syrup
In a medium-sized saucepan add the sugar and rooibos tea. Squeeze the lemon and orange juice into the saucepan and add the halved fruit as well. Add the cinnamon sticks and bring the mixture to the boil over medium heat, stirring continuously until the sugar is dissolved. Lower heat and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the honey and bring heat up to high. Stir until the honey is dissolved and bring syrup to the boil. Remove saucepan from the heat and let syrup cool and come to room temperature.
Sieve the syrup over a medium-sized bowl, pressing the fruit halves firmly so that all the syrup comes through. Discard what's left inside the sieve and place syrup in the fridge, uncovered, for about 1 hour, until cold.

Note: you will need 50 ml of the rooibos syrup for the dressing. You can keep the rest in the refrigerator, in an airtight container, and you can use it to dress a fruit salad or drizzle over ice cream.

Clean, peel and trim the asparagus
Rinse asparagus under cold running water.
The end, woody part of the asparagus needs to be snapped off. There are times when that part is clearly visible because its color is yellowish or white instead of green. There will be other times though that it will be green but still woody.
In order to snap off the woody parts of the asparagus, take the end of the asparagus between your thumb and forefinger, holding the top half with your other hand, and bend it until it snaps. It will automatically snap at the part where the woody part ends and the fresh, juicy part starts. In some asparagus this breaking point will be lower and at others it will be further up the tip. Don't worry about that.

It's best if you peel the asparagus with the help of a potato peeler. Peel them along their length, leaving the tips intact.
If the asparagus you're using are very young and tender, you don't need to peel them.

Note: asparagus should be consumed just a few days after you've bought them. Keep them covered in a damp kitchen towel and store them in your fridge's salad crisper for 3-4 days.

Prepare the salad
Once you have cleaned and trimmed the asparagus, place them in a bowl filled with cold water. Make sure they are wholly immersed in the water. Leave them like that for 15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Arrange the asparagus on a rimmed baking tray in a single layer and drizzle them with 10 ml of olive oil. Roll them back and forth until they are covered with a thin layer of olive oil and put the tray on the middle rack of the oven. Roast asparagus for about 10 minutes until tender and crisp, turning them once or twice so that they cook evenly on all sides.
Take tray out of the oven and place asparagus on a dish to cool.

In the meantime, cut the oranges 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.

Toast the peanuts in a small frying pan over medium heat, until they take on a light golden-brown color and start releasing their oils. Be careful not to burn them, they catch easily, and shake the pan oftentimes while toasting them. Once ready, coarsely chop half of them and leave the rest whole.

Prepare the dressing
In a medium sized bowl, add all the ingredients for the dressing and whisk well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble the salad
In a large salad plate, arrange the roasted asparagus and orange segments. Garnish with the spring onions and sprinkle the peanuts over the salad. Pour the dressing on top and drizzle with a little (10ml) olive oil. Serve immediately and enjoy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I had to show you these

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw these,

and these.

Oh, and these just seem kind of plain now, right?

These are pineapple-strawberries (or pineberries),

and these are raspberry-strawberries (or strassberries).

Both were insanely expensive but I had to have them. I couldn't resist the opportunity to savor them.

Both are softer and smaller than regular strawberries and have a sweet taste and smell. The combination of flavors is evident by their names but the strawberry flavor is doubtlessly dominant.

If I were in Greece this Sunday, I would be using them to make something special for my mom, who I haven't seen in so long and who I miss very, very much.

Instead, I will have to enjoy them all by myself. Er, I mean with S.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Orange craze"

What I have discovered about the Dutch these past four years that I have been living in The Netherlands (I can't believe it'll be four years this month) is that they drink a lot of beer. And I mean, A LOT. Well, I didn't actually need four years to figure that out. A night out on the town the first time I visited the country pretty much made it obvious.

In Greece, you have a beer when you go out to a bar or a club and then you move on to the "real" stuff like vodka, tequila, whiskey or a good cocktail, not to mention the copious amounts of ouzo a Greek person can consume in one outing. But here, it is like there is no other drink on the planet other than beer. Ok, I know Holland is the king of beer producers but still, c'mon, it's only beer.

To any beer enthusiasts out there: "Please, don't shoot"

The Dutch may drink a lot of beer on any given day but on one particular day of the year they can drink every other nation under the table, and that's including the Czechs, Irish and Germans. That day is Koninginnedag; Queen's Day.

Koninginnedag is a national holiday which celebrates the birthday of the Queen of The Netherlands. Queen Beatrix's birthday is on January 31st but she decided to officially celebrate her birthday every year on April 30th, the date of her mother and previous Queen, Queen Juliana's birthday, as the weather is better in April and tends to favor outdoor festivities.

On Koninginnedag, the Queen—usually accompanied by her sons and their families—visits one or two towns of the country, which vary each year, greeting the people who receive her with fitting celebrations in her honor. These often involve traditional Dutch dances and demonstrations of old crafts.

Koninginnedag is also famous for the vrijmarkt (free market), where people all over the country are allowed to sell freely and without permit anything they want on the streets. Holland literally turns into an enormous garage sale. People lay blankets and sheets in front of their houses, on sidewalks, streets and parks, selling anything from chairs to computers and from books to refrigerators. You are supposed to bargain for the goods and as the day passes, you are bound to get a good deal on just about anything that is left unsold.

The largest vrijmarkt in Holland is in Amsterdam, where thousands of people try to secure a place on the streets of the city to sell their second-hand goods to the almost two-million people who celebrate the Queen's Day in Holland's capital. Vondelpark, which is the largest park in Amsterdam and a gorgeous one at that, is full of children who gather there to sell their cast-off toys and earn a pretty decent allowance.

On Queen's Day, most people wear orange clothing and nearly everyone has an orange accessory on, like a hat, scarf, crazy orange wig, or a stick-on tattoo of the Dutch flag on their cheeks. The streets are filled with orange balloons, orange banners, orange-colored foods and drinks. It's an orange-palooza. And all that because it is the day of oranjegekte, the day of "orange craze". Orange is the national color of Holland, as it represents the Huis van Oranje-Nassau (House of Orange-Nassau), which is the name of the current Dutch dynasty.

Koninginnedag has come to mean more to the Dutch people that just the celebration of the Queen's birthday. It is a day of unity and solidarity, and a day of fun and enjoyment of spring and everything that it has to offer. Which brings me to the drinking and partying part. Yes, that's what this holiday is all about. It even starts the night before, which is officially known as Koninginnenacht, "Queen's Night", where people all over Holland party like there's no tomorrow.

Outdoor live concerts are taking place around the country, dj's are spinning records on public squares, and a lot of beer-selling is happening on the streets by major Dutch beer brands. The largest celebration of Koninginnenacht happens in The Hague, where it actually originated in the early 1990's, when pre-Queen's Day riots were an increasing problem in the city.

Needless to say, this past weekend was decadent in more ways than one. A lot of drinking, eating and celebrating happened. And of course, I had to prepare something special for the day. Something fitting for Koninginnedag, something orange, something delicious and very refreshing since these past days were extremely hot. So, I decided to make smoothies. Mango, orange (naturally), banana and ginger smoothies.

They are perfect. The cooling mango quenches your thirst and the ripeness of the banana sweetens your senses. Then, as you continue to drink, the ginger suddenly hits you. You can feel it at the tip of your tongue and at the back of your throat, burning you just a tad, and you realize that this is no ordinary smoothie. This is potent stuff.
After all the beers consumed and all that alcohol entering the bloodstream, this smoothie feels like manna from heaven.

Who needs beer when you can have something like this?

Orange Juice, Mango, Banana and Ginger Smoothie
Barely adapted from the New York Times

This recipe calls for ginger juice, which is made by putting grated ginger in a cheesecloth and squeezing the heck out of it. The result is a ginger juice which added to this drink, has a brilliant flavor.
If you're not a fan of ginger, add 1/3 of the amount indicated in the recipe. The flavor will be barely noticeable but the smoothie will still have that "je ne sais quois" that will make it unique. You can omit it from the recipe altogether if you really don't like but, it will be your loss!

Dare I say, a little bit of vodka will transform this into a terrific "adult" smoothie. You knew I had to suggest this.

Yield: about 700 ml / 2 large glasses of smoothie

1 large ripe mango, cut into pieces
½ medium-sized ripe banana, cut into pieces
280 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed
3 tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
5 large ice cubes

Special equipment: blender, cheesecloth


Make the ginger juice
Place the grated ginger in a cheesecloth, gather the edges of the cheesecloth together and squeeze the ginger well over a small bowl. You will end up with about 2 tsp of ginger juice.

Make the smoothie
In a blender, add the mango, the banana, the orange and ginger juice, and the ice cubes. Blend well until you have a smooth and frothy mixture.

Serve immediately.