Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Greek lamb

An acquaintance of mine who just started reading my blog, asked me the other day if I was a vegetarian. I guess I can see where he's coming from. I haven't posted a recipe containing meat of any kind since the beginning of February and the total number of meat/poultry recipes on the blog is fifteen. I actually couldn't believe it when I counted them. Only fifteen?

Truthfully, I have no idea how this happened because, dear reader, I'm not a vegetarian nor I think I could ever become a vegetarian. The thing is, I love meat, I just choose not to cook red meat often. Chicken, I have every week.

When I do eat red meat, I make a big deal out of it. I want it to be special and I always cook dishes that I absolutely love, like pork souvlaki, mousakas, grilled rib-eye steak, keftedakia (meatballs), a good kokkinisto (veal in tomato sauce), or pastitsada.

By the way, I desperately want to share with you my recipes for all the aforementioned dishes that I haven't shared with you already, and it will happen, one at a time, I promise. We're off to a very good start with this one though. Greek leg of lamb roasted in the oven with potatoes.

You know, everybody thinks that Greeks eat lamb all the time. Let me tell you this, we don't. Us Greeks love lamb but it's a special occasion-kind of meat. We always eat it on Pascha (Easter day) and it is usually reserved for celebrations and Sunday big family lunches, where grilled lamb chops and lamb roasted in the oven are special treats. Oh, and mousakas and pastitsio, two famous Greek dishes that I'm sure you're familiar with, are never made with minced lamb but with minced veal.

Ok, now that I got that off my chest, let's talk about this dish, my favorite lamb dish. Whenever I cook it, I'm instantly transported back to my childhood, when I would wake up to the smell of lamb roasting in the oven. My mom would always slow cook it for hours, making everyone crazy with hunger.

This is the way I've learned how to cook it, no frills, no flamboyant preparations, just simple flavors that depend on the quality of the lamb. Preferably spring lamb, which is the lamb of choice in Greece.

The combination of crispy skin, flavorful, succulent meat with lemony, garlicky accents and melt in the mouth potatoes that are fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside, is a magnificent one. There's no going back to any other kind of lamb dish after tasting this one, trust me.

Arni me Patates sto Fourno (Greek Oven-Roasted Leg of Lamb with Potatoes)

The way the potatoes are cut for this dish, a traditional Greek way to cut potatoes for oven-roasting, is called "kidonates", which means like a quince, because they resemble quince wedges. Cut in this way, the potatoes take a longer time to cook, which is why they're added to the roasting pan from the start along with the lamb.

It's best if you trim the excess fat off the lamb, leaving just a thin layer of it that will keep the meat juicy, not only because it's healthier but also because the fat tends to make the flavor of the lamb very heavy.

Serve the meat on individual plates, arrange some potatoes on the side and drizzle with the cooking juices. Put some dijon mustard, or any other kind of mustard you prefer, on the side of your plate and dip your forkful of lamb in it. That's the way to go. Along with a glass of white wine, yes white wine works with lamb, believe me, or a cold glass of beer, a rocket salad or a Greek Horiatiki salad, and of course lots of bread to dip in the juices, you're all set. Enjoy!

Yield: 4 servings

1½ - 2 kg leg of lamb, on the bone, trimmed of extra fat
6-7 large, floury potatoes, peeled and cut in large wedges ("kidonates")
2 large lemons, freshly juiced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
150 ml good-quality olive oil (I always use extra virgin)
250-300 ml water
1 tsp dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: roasting pan, large enough to hold the lamb and the potatoes

Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius.

Place the leg of lamb in the roasting pan and score it on 8-9 different places (bottom and top of the leg), making small incisions that will fit half of a garlic clove. Squeeze a garlic clove-half into each incision with your thumb and scatter the rest of the garlic clove halves on the roasting pan.
Arrange the potato wedges around the lamb, in one layer. Sprinkle the lamb and the potatoes with salt, black pepper and dried oregano on all sides.
Drizzle with the olive oil and add the lemon juice over the lamb and potatoes.
Add the water on the bottom of the roasting pan and jiggle the pan around to mix the liquids.

Place the pan on the low rack of the preheated oven and roast for about 2 hours (for well done), turning the potatoes (being careful not to break them up) and lamb over halfway, and checking from time to time to see whether the potatoes need more water. You don't want them to be dry.
If you like your lamb rare or medium-rare, you may want to check it after 1 hour and 15 minutes. Make a cut with a knife in the middle of the leg and check the color. If it's too pink for your liking, cook it for a little longer.

Remove the pan from the oven, allow to stand for 10 minutes and then serve.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

For a spring day

There's nothing that screams Spring more than fresh, green asparagus.

About a month ago, I ate my first asparagus of the year. It was more of a ritual rather than a simple act of eating. It began with the careful selection of the bunch, they had to be firm, smooth and brightly-colored with tightly-closed tips, and when I brought them home, I immediately placed them upright in a large jar, filled it halfway with water and put them in the fridge.

They didn't stay there long. The next day, I chopped off that woody part of the stem, even though they were so tender there was hardly anything to cut off. I thought about boiling them or steaming them but no, they were so young they deserved more than that. They deserved to be eaten raw.

There's nothing more delicious than raw, fresh green asparagus.

I poured some Greek extra virgin olive oil in a small ramekin, placed the sea salt next to it as well as the black pepper mill and we started eating spear after spear just like that. Dipping and salting and biting, dipping, salting, biting. It's the small things, I tell you.
I could have paired them with lamb chops or shaved them into a salad with mint and some sautéed lemony fresh peas, which I actually did the following week, but just like that, raw, they satisfied every craving I had for them.

Asparagus will make their appearance on my dinner table many more times until the season is over. I foresee asparagus tartines with walnuts and pecorino; this salad, which is one of my all-time favorites; grilled, charred asparagus, which is a beautiful thing, full of smoky flavor and nutty goodness; oven-roasted with Spanish smoked paprika, either hot or sweet; asparagus pesto, draped over an oven-baked piece of fish, which I actually made this past week and I'm still daydreaming about. I have to share it with you soon.

But let me tell you about this dish. Blanched asparagus with a lemon sabayon. There's no surprises when it comes to pairing asparagus with lemon, it's a match made in heaven, but pairing them with a lemon sabayon, is like walking on cloud nine. Literally, your taste buds will feel like they're inside a little savory fluffy cloud.

Sabayon is the French version of the Italian zabaglione which is a foamy, custard- or mousse-like dessert that is made by whisking eggs, sugar and white wine over a bain-marie until lightly thickened and frothy. This is a savory version. One that incorporates butter and lemon into the fluffy egg mixture, resulting in a light sauce, reminiscent of the Greek avgolemono.

The lightness of the sabayon, its foamy, smooth like lightly whipped cream texture and its subtle lemon flavor is such a perfect pairing with the nutty earthiness and slight sweetness of the green asparagus. With a glass of white wine and some good sourdough bread, there's nothing I'd rather eat for lunch on a hot spring day.

Green Asparagus with Lemon Sabayon
Adapted, just a tad, from Raymond Blanc

This savory lemon sabayon can not only be paired with asparagus but also green beans, pan-fried fish fillets like sea bass or salmon, or poached chicken.

Making sabayon is pretty straightforward but you need to be careful not to scramble the eggs. Keep the water of the bain-marie at a bare simmer. The sabayon mustn't get too hot during mixing, otherwise it will become grainy. The whole process is rather quick though, so you don't need to worry too much.

Yield: 4-6 salad servings


for the sabayon
3 large egg yolks (around 60 g)
60 ml cold water
50 g unsalted butter, melted, hot
2 tsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper

for the asparagus
1-1 ½ kg fresh, green asparagus
a little extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper

Special equipment: hand-held mixer, fine sieve


for the sabayon

In a large, heatproof bowl, add the egg yolks and the cold water. Beat with a hand-held mixer on high speed, until the mixture becomes pale in color and fluffy in texture and quadruples or even quintuples in volume.

Set the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water (bain-marie). The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water otherwise the eggs will scramble. Continue to beat the mixture with the hand-held mixer, on medium speed, until it starts to thicken, for about 7 minutes. If the mixture begins to steam, remove the bowl from the heat, continue beating the mixture and return after it has cooled down a bit.
When the mixture reaches the soft-ribbon stage (when you lift up the beater and let the sauce drip inside the bowl, you can see a ribbon forming on the surface), remove the bowl from over the pan and slowly beat in the hot melted butter (hand-held mixer on low speed). Add the lemon juice and beat again for 10 seconds. Season with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper and have a taste. Adjust seasoning if needed.

Pass the sabayon through a fine sieve to get rid of any small pieces of egg. Leave it aside until needed. You should end up with a fluffy, aerated mixture that is light and smooth.

for the asparagus
You can read here on how to clean, peel and trim the asparagus.
I didn't trim mine because they were very young and tender spears.

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to the boil. Add a little salt to the water, followed by the asparagus. Blanch them for 3-4 minutes, or until they are tender, without putting the lid on the pan. You can test them by inserting the tip of a knife into one of the spears. Be careful not to boil them for too long, they need to be a little crunchy.
Drain the asparagus and immediately run them under cold running water to cool them down and to stop them from cooking further.

Note: Blanching means to plunge raw vegetables or fruit into boiling water, and boil them for a few seconds to a few minutes (depending on the fruit/vegetable), until they slightly soften but still retain their crisp texture and vivid color.

In a large plate, drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil and add a sprinkling of sea salt. Grind some white pepper on top and coat the asparagus lightly with the olive oil. You don't want them to be swimming in olive oil though.
Alternatively, you can just sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper and forget about the olive oil. The dish will be lighter. Your choice.

Arrange the asparagus spears onto a large serving plate and drizzle over the lemon sabayon. Serve immediately.

You can keep the sabayon in the refrigerator for a day, it is equally delicious served cold as it is warm. It will probably lose some of its fluffiness but none of its flavor.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hot chocolate sauce

On Friday night, I made ice cream. Well, I say Friday night but I started at around eleven-thirty so I guess, technically, it was Saturday morning when I finished. I know not many people make ice cream in the middle of the night but when a craving hits, I get a little nuts.

See, on Thursday I shared with you this strawberry ice cream and when I actually posted it, S and I had already finished that batch. When Friday evening came around, after a light dinner, we started thinking of said ice cream. We even sat on the couch, opened up S's laptop and stared at the photographs, something I don't do often, just so you know. Our craving was reaching dangerous levels.

I needed to take matters into my own hands. I had the strawberries, I had the icing sugar, I had the milk, I also had that glare in my eye which indicated I had the right amount of crazy, so I went for it. I even had the energy to cut up some fresh strawberries to put in there. I told you they're a great addition. Just make sure you don't cut them too big, like I did—I mean, c'mon, what do you want from me, it was midnight by that time—, teeny tiny is what you want, otherwise when they freeze, they'll be impossible to bite into.

At around one o'clock in the morning, we had our soft-serve ice cream. No time to freeze it properly as you can imagine, but oh boy was it perfect with that mousse-like texture. Strawberry ice cream cravings were instantly cured and we went on to watch another episode of In Treatment.

The next day, I started on part two of this ice cream saga. Because I'm not that crazy as to make a hot chocolate sauce in the middle of the night. No, I made this the next day.
I promised you I was going to share with you a chocolaty accompaniment for the strawberry ice cream and I always keep my promises.

It's a rich, velvety hot chocolate sauce that you can use not only on top of your favorite icy treat but also waffles, crepes or even profiteroles and meringues. It has an intense chocolate flavor due to the high percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate (I only use the bitter stuff, 70% cocoa solids) and it's incredibly smooth and creamy. I don't think there's much more you can ask from a chocolate sauce, no?

Hot Chocolate Sauce
Slightly adapted from Sauces: Savoury and Sweet

This is a pretty straightforward recipe but it makes quite a lot of sauce. It's best served the moment you prepare it but I found that if you keep it in the fridge, you can scoop out a little to feed those late-night chocolate cravings. It tastes kind of like dense mousse.

You can surely reheat it in order to be able to pour it over ice creams, but you need to be a bit careful not to burn it. The safe way is to reheat it au bain marie. The less safe but easiest way is to use the microwave. Be careful, it burns fast. You need to set the lowest watt setting and give it mere seconds. Check it and nuke it again if needed.

Here are some ice creams you can pour this hot chocolate sauce over: strawberry, dark chocolate, white chocolate.

Yield: 420 g of sauce, enough for 6-8 people

200 g dark, good-quality chocolate, preferably with 70% cocoa solids, chopped
40 ml cream, full-fat (35%)
180 ml fresh, whole milk
30 g caster sugar
Pinch of sea salt
30 g unsalted butter, cubed

Special equipment: fine sieve

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water and melt, stirring often. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water otherwise the chocolate will burn. Once the chocolate is smooth and melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan and set aside.

In the meantime, in a small saucepan, add the cream, milk, sugar and salt and set over medium-high heat. Whisk until the sugar has dissolved into the liquid and bring to the boil.

Empty the cream and milk mixture into the melted chocolate and whisk well until incorporated. Return the mixture into the saucepan and let it simmer over medium heat for 10 seconds while stirring continuously with the whisk.

Turn the heat off and add the butter, a cube at a time, whisking continuously until all the butter has been incorporated into the sauce and you have a homogeneous, smooth and shiny mixture.

Pass the chocolate sauce through a fine sieve and serve immediately. Alternatively, you can keep it in the bain-marie if you want to serve it a little later. Be careful to keep the water at a bare simmer and stir often, otherwise the sauce will catch.

Once cooled completely, you can place it in the fridge for up to 5 days, in an airtight container. Take out of the fridge the amount of sauce you need and reheat in a bain-marie or in the microwave as described above.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Strawberry fields forever: Part III

I'm pretty sure you're sick of me complaining about the weather all the time. I'm sick of me too. But I can't help it. In Greece, I used to complain that it was always too hot during spring, now that I'm living in Holland, I'm complaining about the opposite.

The thing is, though, that the weather plays a huge part in what I want to eat, what I'm in the mood for to cook, what I'm able to enjoy, or what I can't be paid enough money for to put anywhere near my mouth. Not to mention what an impact it has on my mood. The lack of sunshine is seriously getting to me. I'm so cranky.

I guess it wouldn't surprise you then if I told you that the weather is still bad here, right? Bleak skies, rain, terrible humidity. Still, I am in the mood for ice cream. It's the only thing that can get me out of my funk. Food always does that for me.

The one ice cream I always start ice cream season with, is strawberry. I have been making this one for years and years and it never fails to impress, not only S who is a strict judge of ice creams, but also anyone and everyone who has ever tasted it.

What I want from anything that promises to be a fruit dessert, is that concentrated flavor. That punch in the face and that intensified fruit taste which sometimes is elusive in desserts and especially ice creams. I want that pure, unadulterated strawberry kick and that's exactly what I get every time I eat this ice cream.

The addition of lemon juice, or lime juice if you prefer it, gives the ice cream a little tartness to counterbalance the sweetness of the strawberries and icing sugar, and the absence of eggs makes it particularly light. It is smooth and creamy but without that sticky feel that eggs give to the top of your mouth, making every spoonful even more irresistible.

Ice cream season, here I come!

By the way, have you seen my new header? I realized I was bored with the old one and decided it was time for a change. I played around a little with a photograph I had taken for this post and ended up with this. What do you think?

Strawberry Ice Cream

I used to make this ice cream by hand, i.e. place it in the freezer and whisk it every half hour until completely frozen, but ever since I got my ice cream machine two years ago, I never looked back. Not that you can't make it by hand (I give instructions below on how to do it) but as you can understand, the result will be creamier and smoother.
I have also served this as popsicles (like these cherry sorbet ones), where I just poured the ice cream mixture into the molds or shot glasses and placed them in the freezer to set.

It goes without saying that the more flavorful and aromatic the strawberries you use are, the more flavorful and aromatic the ice cream will be. There is no cream or eggs in this ice cream so the flavor is solely dependent on the quality of the fruit. Bad strawberries will have nowhere to hide here, so take care to choose some good ones for this.

You can intensify the flavor of the ice cream further by adding some tiny, fresh strawberry pieces to the churned ice cream, or you can go a different way and add chocolate chips/chunks. Strawberry and chocolate, the perfect combination. Speaking of which, I'll be back with a special accompaniment for this ice cream in a few days, so stay tuned.

Yield: about 670 g of ice cream

300 g fresh strawberries*
190 g icing sugar
375 ml fresh, whole milk, cold
½ tsp lemon or lime juice, freshly squeezed

*I haven't tried it before, but I guess you can make this ice cream with frozen, and thawed, strawberries as well.

Special equipment: fine sieve, small food processor or blender, ice cream machine (optional yet preferable)

Rinse the strawberries under cold running water, hull them and cut them in half. Place them in a food processor or blender and purée them. Pass the strawberry purée through a fine sieve to get rid of the seeds.

In a large bowl, add the icing sugar and the strawberry purée. Combine using a wire whisk until you have a homogeneous mixture that doesn't have any icing sugar lumps in it.
Add the cold milk and whisk well.
Add the lemon (or lime) juice, whisk, and give the mixture a taste. You can add a little more lemon juice if you think it needs it.

Pour the mixture into your ice cream machine and churn it, following the manufacturer's instructions.

Alternatively, if you don't have an ice cream machine, empty the strawberry ice cream mixture into a container suitable for the freezer. Place the mixture in the freezer, take it out after 40 minutes and whisk it very well. You can also use a blender, or even a stick blender.
Continue doing the same thing every half hour, until it's too thick and frozen to beat or whisk. The whole process will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on how strong your freezer is.

You can keep the ice cream in your freezer for a week but I doubt if there'll be any left after a couple of days.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Purslane, anyone?

It seems like the seasons are going in reverse right now in Holland. Winter is back, with a vengeance. The radiators are on full blast, my woolen socks are once again covering my feet and I feel the need to eat hearty stews and warm beverages.

The markets though are in a different mode. Spring produce is abundant and I'm constantly dazed by the variety of green vegetables and colorful fruit that is on offer. I'm in a bind. What to go for?

Of course fresh produce always wins in my book so yesterday, when I went to my greengrocer's, I spotted strawberries, green asparagus and a bunch of purslane that I needed to bring home at once.

Today, I made strawberry ice cream and I ate purslane. A lot of it. We ate it in a salad for lunch and then later, for dinner, it was served alongside a juicy fillet of grilled sea bass.

In Greece, when someone talks too much and too fast, we say that they must have eaten purslane. It's because purslane gives such a pleasant, refreshing feeling to the mouth that one might get the urge to talk more than usual. I, even though I've had my fair share of the leafy green weed today, will not say too much.

All I'm gonna say is that if for whatever reason you haven't tasted purslane yet, do it. The green, succulent leaves have a somewhat sour, lemony tang and the thin, tender stalks have a peppery kick that is reminiscent of rocket.

Purslane gets a bad rap because it grows everywhere, even back yards and roadsides, but this weed is so incredibly flavorful it surely doesn't deserve to be shunned.
Why don't you give it a try?

P.S. Strawberry ice cream, coming soon!

Purslane Salad with Cucumbers, Red Onion and Feta

One thing that would complement perfectly the flavors of this salad would be a handful of black olives, but unfortunately I was out. I will definitely add them the next time I prepare it though, which will be very very soon.

This salad will feed comfortably two people for a light lunch. Pair it with some rustic bread and a glass of white wine or serve it alongside a piece of fish or chicken, or even a beef steak for dinner.

The quantity as well as the thickness of a cut vegetable make a difference in the overall flavor of any dish. I love slicing the cucumber and onion in this salad super thin so that their flavor isn't prominent and does not overpower the taste of the purslane. Eh, I also needed an excuse to test out my new mandolin, which is perfect. The old one went right in the bin.
If you don't have a mandolin, slice the cucumber and onion as thinly as you can with a sharp knife.

Yield: 2 servings

200 g purslane, leaves and tender stalks
1/3 of a large cucumber, very thinly sliced (about 20 slices)
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
100-150 g feta
1 ½ Tbsp red wine vinegar
4-5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Special equipment: mandolin (optional)

Rinse the purslane under cold running water and drain on a clean kitchen towel or kitchen paper.
I don't bother chopping it up. I just separate the upper leafy part from the long stems and cut the stems into manageable pieces.

Toss the purslane with the sliced cucumbers and red onion and sprinkle with the salt. Arrange in a salad bowl or platter, crumble the feta with your hands over the top and drizzle with the red wine vinegar and olive oil.

Serve immediately.