Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We interrupt this program...

...to show you some snippets from this past week. Oh, and share some waffles with you.

I can't get enough of watching windmills. I don't know what it is with them but, especially when they're in action, I think they have the power to hypnotize me.

Rotterdam is the second largest city in The Netherlands and the largest port in Europe. It is a busy, vibrant, multicultural city but in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, you can find this. Het Park. The Park.

There's nothing more relaxing than going for a walk around this park. It's so calm, so serene.

Texel island in North Holland. The scenery of this island is breathtaking.

Dunes and fields of purple flowers.

The beach at sunset.

Sea shells creeping out of the sand.

The sky.

The seals at Ecomare.

Texel is famous for its sheep and of course, their wool.

Texel, where the strawberries are plenty and strawberry jam is perhaps the most delicious I have ever tasted.

Case in point. The breakfast of the last couple of mornings. Bread with butter and strawberry jam. See? Whole strawberries!

And waffles with strawberry jam.

S gave me a waffle iron last month as a present and I have been going crazy making waffles ever since. They're so quick to prepare and so unbelievably tasty, they're verging on sinful.

Crispy yet soft, fluffy, light and slightly sweet, they are perfect with honey, strawberry jam or fresh fruit, for breakfast. Topped with chocolate spread and/or ice cream, they make the ideal dessert.
And if you're feeling a bit adventurous, add some parmesan cheese in the batter and serve them with onion jam. They make a mean snack or appetizer.

The only limit is your imagination and trust me, you'll become addicted to these waffles in no time. Which of course can only be a good thing, right?

Classic Waffles

This recipe is quite light on eggs, butter and sugar so you can splurge on the toppings. Be generous and creative.

If you enjoy the flavor of vanilla, you can add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract to the batter.

Yield: 14-16 standard-sized waffles

300 g all-purpose flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
85 g caster sugar
100 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
500 ml whole milk

Vegetable oil for oiling the waffle iron

Special equipment: waffle iron

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Create a well in the middle and add the sugar, eggs and melted butter.
Add the milk gradually while whisking together all the ingredients.
When you have added all the milk, whisk vigorously to break up any lumps in the batter. In the end, you should have a slightly thick and smooth batter.
Let it stand for about 1 hour, covered with a clean tea towel.

Lightly oil and preheat your waffle iron.

Whisk the batter and add a portion of it in the waffle iron. (Portion depends on the size of your waffle iron). Ensure that the batter fills all grooves and close the lid. Don't open it for a couple of minutes because the waffles need time to set and create a skin. If you open the iron, the waffles might break up.
Cook them for 4 minutes or until they have taken on a golden color.
Take them out with the help of a rubber spatula and continue cooking the rest.

Serve them immediately, as they tend to go soggy fairly quickly. Top them with jam, honey, syrup, preserves, chocolate spread, fresh fruit, ice cream or anything your heart desires.

You can keep the batter in the refrigerator for a couple of days, in an airtight container.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Evolutionary food

It is widely understood that what led to the brain development of our species, was a change in diet. The introduction of seafood into homo sapiens' diet was key to the evolution of modern man. It is only natural then that we all have an affinity for eating fish and shellfish. Or you'd think so.

I'm constantly surprised by how many people prefer eating fish sticks from a box bought from the supermarket rather than real, fresh fish from their local fishmonger. I'm amazed when a friend of mine says she gets grossed out by the fact that she needs to clean the fish or break up the shells of shellfish before eating or cooking them.

C'mon people. There's nothing better than seafood. I know that, sometimes, taking bones out of a red mullet when you're extremely hungry is kind of an ordeal but the taste is reward enough. Yes, it may be time-consuming to clean mussels properly but unless you've made my Greek mussel pilaf, you haven't realized what you can do with these little mollusks.

And don't let me get started with shrimps. Who is able to resist shrimps? That sweet aroma and flavor of their juicy, white-pinkish flesh is something out of this world. Those early homo sapiens knew something when they turned to the sea to feed their hunger.

Shrimp, prawns, whatever you like to call them, are extremely versatile and this dish is a shining example of that. It is an Egyptian-inspired recipe of sautéed shrimps with a tahini and garlic sauce and a sumac, cumin seed and pistachio dukkah.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with dukkah. I discovered it about two-three years ago when I had the pleasure of eating it at an Egyptian friend's house who happens to be an extraordinary cook to boot. Dukkah (also spelled dukka or duqqa) is an Egyptian nut and spice mix that is served mainly as part of an appetizer ensemble along with pita bread and olive oil. And the experience goes something like this; you take a piece of bread, you dip it in the olive oil, then in the dukkah, and then you eat it. It truly is an experience.

Apart from spices and nuts, dukkah can include also dried herbs like mint or marjoram, chilies, different kinds of pepper and salt. Typically, the nuts and spices are lightly toasted in a dry pan and then pounded in a mortar and pestle along with the rest of the ingredients to a coarse consistency. The resulting blend can be used not only as an appetizer/dip but also as a dry rub or marinade for meats, poultry or fish, and for seasoning or sprinkling over cooked seafood like in this dish.

No one can go wrong with sautéed shrimps and when a tahini and garlic sauce is introduced to the mix, you then have a magnificent marriage of sweet and pungent flavors. The final, generous sprinkling of the spicy dukkah comes to complete the picture with its earthy hints from the cumin seeds, the citrusy zing from the sumac and the nuttiness from the pistachios. Paired with a dry Muscat wine, you have yourselves a summery appetizer that is quite impressive, to say the least.

Sautéed shrimps with tahini and garlic sauce and a sumac, cumin seed and pistachio dukkah
Adapted from Food & Travel

This recipe makes one cup of dukkah but you will not need all of it for this dish. Store the rest in an airtight container, in a dry, dark, cool place for about a month and use it on chicken or other fish, or even to spice up a simple boiled egg by sprinkling some on top. Play around with it. That's what food is all about.

The tahini and garlic sauce pairs excellently with other crustaceans besides shrimp, such as lobster, crab, Mediterranean slipper lobster or even with any white fish.

Yield: 8 appetizer servings


for the dukkah
3 Tbsp shelled, unsalted pistachios
3 Tbsp cumin seeds
4 Tbsp nigella seeds
1 tsp ground sumac
1 tsp sea salt

for the sauce
50 ml tahini
100 ml cold water
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
45 ml (3 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
40 ml (2 ½ Tbsp) lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt, to taste

500 g fresh (or frozen) shrimps/prawns (I used tiger prawns), peeled and deveined
30 ml (2 Tbsp) olive oil

Garden cress, for garnishing (optional)

Flatbreads for serving

Special equipment: mortar and pestle (or spice grinder)


for the dukkah
In a large, non-stick frying pan, add the pistachios, the cumin seeds and the nigella seeds. Toast them over a medium-high heat for 1 minute, stirring often with a rubber spatula so that they don't catch, until they start to release their aromas.
Remove them from the pan and onto a plate and allow them to cool. Place them in a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder) along with the ground sumac and sea salt and grind them to a coarse consistency. The dukkah mixture should have the look of wet sand.

for the sauce
In a medium-sized bowl, add the tahini, cold water, crushed garlic clove, ground cumin and olive oil. Whisk everything together until well blended and add the lemon juice and sea salt just before adding the sauce to the shrimps.

Sautée the shrimps
If you're using frozen shrimps, make sure to thaw them first.
Rinse the shrimps under cold running water and drain them well in a colander. Place them on paper towels and pat them dry.
In the same large, non-stick frying pan that you toasted the spices, heat the olive oil over medium heat and when it starts to shimmer, add the shrimps in one layer. If your pan is not large enough, sautée the shrimps in batches.
Sautée the shrimps until they're lightly golden, for 2-3 minutes on one side and 1 minute on the other for small/medium-sized shrimps, or a couple of minutes longer you're using jumbo shrimps.
Remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and arrange them on a platter.

Drizzle the shrimps with 3-4 Tbsp of the sauce, or more if you want, sprinkle them with 1-2 tsp of the dukkah and serve immediately. Optionally, you can garnish with garden cress leaves.
You can place a bowlful of the sauce and a bowlful of the dukkah on the table, so that your guests can help themselves with more if they wish.

Serve the dish with some freshly baked flatbread.

You can keep the tahini and garlic sauce in the fridge for a day.
For the dukkah, see recipe head notes.

Monday, August 8, 2011

As Greek As It Gets

The salad that I accompany eighty percent of my dinner meals with, is a Horiatiki salad (Χωριάτικη Σαλάτα) or Greek salad as it is called outside of Greece.

Horiatiki means "in the peasant manner" and it denotes the rustic character of the salad with its roughly chopped, colorful vegetables glistening under the rich coating of Greek extra virgin olive oil.

For me, there is no other salad that can even compare to Horiatiki in freshness, vibrancy, combination of flavors and utter simplicity which is, ultimately, the main characteristic of all traditional Greek food.

This is principally a summer salad, since its main ingredients—tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers—are at their prime during the summer months but I can honestly tell you that there isn't one day during the whole year that's not a good Horiatiki salad day for me.

In Greece, there isn't a single person (I hope) that doesn't know how to prepare this salad. Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing for the rest of the world. I have never been to a Greek restaurant or taverna outside of Greece that serves a proper Horiatiki salad. They always tend to bastardize it with whatever ingredients they think "fit" with it. I get so annoyed by that.

Horiatiki is made with a number of specific ingredients. It is not a collection of random vegetables and herbs. It is not, "let's put anything in there that is remotely reminiscent of Greece or what is believed to be used by Greeks even if it's not".

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for experimenting and trying new things, adding or subtracting ingredients from a recipe to make it your own or suit your particular tastes but, when it comes to certain recipes and traditional Greek cooking in particular, then I'm a stickler for authenticity.

So, let me set things straight.

Ingredients that should never, ever, under no circumstances, even if you once ate it like this somewhere in Greece, be included in a Horiatiki salad:

—Lettuce or leafy greens of any kind
—Lemon juice
—Fresh oregano
—Yellow or red bell peppers
—Crumbled cheese

Ingredients that should be included in a real Horiatiki salad:

—Tomatoes. The freshest, juiciest, ripest tomatoes you can possibly find, cut into wedges.
—Cucumber. Long, fresh, chilled, peeled, sliced.
—Green bell peppers. The thinner-skinned you can find, the better. Cut into rings.
—Red onion. Strong, pungent, cut into rings.
—Olives. Pit still in. Plump, juicy, shiny, Greek Kalamata olives. Some people add throubes (a wrinkly type of black Greek olive) or even green Greek olives. Be my guest. I can be flexible, see?
—Feta. Greek feta (is there anything else?), hard, salty, creamy and in one large piece.
—Oregano. Greek, always dried and lots of it.
—Olive oil. Greek, extra virgin. My friends from other parts of the Mediterranean will have to excuse me when I say this but, Greek is the best.
—Red wine vinegar. A must. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

You retain the right to make whatever kind of salad you want with whatever ingredients you want but it won't be a Horiatiki (Greek) salad. It will be something else.

What you must always have on hand when you're eating this salad is bread. A big loaf of rustic, hard-crusted bread.
A typically Greek thing to do when you're eating a Horiatiki is a "papara". Papara is to dunk a small piece of bread into the oil, vinegar and vegetable juices that have accumulated at the bottom of the salad bowl, allow the bread to soak up all the juices that it can hold, being careful not to break it up, and then eat it.

Papara in progress

Papara is something you do when you're sharing a meal with friends or family and not when you're at a business lunch. Outside of Greece it is considered a bit rude but I think it's the best thing in the world. You haven't eaten a Horiatiki salad properly if you haven't made a papara.
If you want to be more "courteous" though, you can put a small piece of bread on your fork and dip it into the salad juices instead of holding the bread with your hand. Not the same thing but, eh, what can you do?

Greek dried oregano

Horiatiki Salata (Greek Salad / Peasant Salad)

It would be ideal if you could find Greek dried oregano, Greek red-wine vinegar and good quality Greek extra virgin olive oil to use in your Horiatiki but your salad won't be less flavorful if the ingredients you use aren't Greek.

This salad can either accompany your main meal or it can be enjoyed as your main meal. It can easily become a vegetarian dish or suitable for Lent by omitting the feta.

Always prepare Horiatiki salad right before serving it and since it doesn't keep well in the fridge (it gets soggy really quickly), make sure you prepare no more than you need.

Yield: 2 main-meal servings or 6 salad servings

4-5 vine-ripened tomatoes, about 350 g, cut into wedges
½ large cucumber, peeled and sliced
½ large green bell pepper, cut into rings
½ large red onion, cut into rings
10-12 Kalamata olives
200 g Greek feta, in one or two large pieces
1 ½ Tbsp red-wine vinegar
4-6 Tbsp Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ tsp Greek dried oregano
Sea salt, to taste

Toss together the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onion and salt in a bowl and then transfer them to a medium-sized salad bowl.
Add the olives and the feta on top and sprinkle with the dried oregano.
Pour the vinegar all over the salad and then drizzle the olive oil all over the ingredients.

Serve immediately along with lots of crusty bread.