Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A touch of lavender

Whenever my mom comes to visit us in Holland, we take turns in the kitchen. There are days when she cooks for us the traditional Greek dishes that I miss from home, days when I'm in heaven because I get to taste her cooking that I crave almost every single day.

Her stunning tyropita, mousakas, dolmadakia and giouvetsi are among the dishes she makes, with me hovering over her, trying to memorize her movements, her pinches of this and that, her special touch.

And then there are the days when I cook for her. I'm eager to introduce her to new flavor combinations and ingredients that she doesn't use in her everyday cooking and I always try to impress her with my special desserts and savory meals that she normally would not make at home.

There are some dishes though that are not particularly fancy or extravagant or that different, except perhaps for a single ingredient that once you add it to a dish you otherwise are familiar with, it changes everything. The dish is transformed, it becomes unique and surprises you with its flavor.

Lavender is an ingredient that I never used to enjoy. I've had it in desserts, cakes in particular, but it mostly reminded me of my underwear drawer. Eating it was never a pleasant experience. And then I tried a recipe by Rachel Khoo, for a lavender, lemon and honey-marinated roasted chicken. After the first bite, I became a convert.

Who knew lavender could taste this good? I was smitten by the taste of the chicken with its juicy flesh and crispy, caramelized skin. The sweetness of the honey, the floral and slightly herby quality of the lavender, the freshness and acidity of the lemon, everything was fantastic.

Such a simple dish, such en effortless combination of flavors and aromas, it swiftly became a staple in my house. Along with some small potatoes with their skins still on and a refreshing rocket salad, it's one of my favorite chicken dishes.

Honey, Lemon and Lavender-Marinated Roasted Chicken
Adapted from The Little Paris Kitchen

Make sure your lavender is appropriate for culinary use. The amount of lavender in the dish is not a lot and it's not overpowering, so don't be afraid to use it. It gives such a wonderfully aromatic dimension to the dish.

Also, choose your honey carefully; you want to use one whose flavor you enjoy and that it's not overwhelming.

Yield: 2-4 main-course servings

1 chicken, about 1,200 g, cut into 6-8 pieces*

for the marinade
1 heaped Tbsp dried edible lavender
2 garlic cloves, mashed
The leaves of 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or ½ tsp dried thyme)
4 Tbsp good quality olive oil
4 Tbsp runny honey
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon, freshly squeezed
Freshly ground black pepper

*I always cut the chicken into six pieces; legs, wings and breasts. You can also cut it into eight pieces, separating the legs into thighs and drumsticks, but I prefer not to because they remain more juicy.

Special equipment: mortar and pestle (optional), plastic wrap or plastic bag appropriate for storing food

Place the lavender in the mortar and slightly crush it with the pestle, cracking open the dried buds. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, place the lavender on a clean surface, like your kitchen counter or a cutting board, and crush it with the back of a wooden spoon.

Prepare the marinade
In a large bowl, add the lavender, garlic, thyme, olive oil, honey, lemon zest and juice and a little black pepper and mix well with a spoon.

Add the chicken pieces to the bowl and coat them well with the marinade. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or, alternatively, place the chicken pieces with the marinade in a plastic bag suitable for storing food and seal it. Allow the chicken to marinate for at least 45 minutes, or up to 4 hours. If you choose to marinate the chicken for more than 1 hour, place it in the refrigerator. Take it out of the fridge 20 minutes before you put it in the oven, to allow it to come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius / 390 Fahrenheit.

Place the marinated chicken in a roasting tray large enough to fit all the pieces in one layer, drizzle the marinade on top and add salt to taste.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and roast the chicken for 40-45 minutes, until the chicken takes on a golden brown color and the skin becomes crispy and caramelized. Also, if you insert a knife or skewer on the thickest part of the chicken pieces, the juices should run clear and not reddish in color. Don't cook for longer because the chicken will dry out and become tough.

Serve in dishes along with the delicious juices from the pan. They are perfect for dunking your bread in.
I usually serve this dish with small potatoes with their skins on that I have boiled in salted water and then oiled lightly with olive oil. You can also serve it with puréed, fried or roasted potatoes, or with rice.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Name day cake

In Greece, we celebrate our name day (ονομαστική εορτή), and mine was last Sunday, the twenty-second of July.

When I was little, I was always disappointed about the fact that my name day was smack in the middle of summer because that meant no party, no gifts and none of my schoolmates calling me up to wish me a happy name day. Everyone was on vacation.

Now, it's not as important. I don't really celebrate it but I take it as an opportunity to treat myself to a good meal and enjoy a decadent dessert, which I usually prefer to make myself.

This year though, my mom visited from Greece especially for my name day and I was extremely happy. And while we were thinking of making an intricate and rather difficult dessert for the occasion, we decided to go on a completely different direction and make something simple and summery. Sometimes, those are the best desserts.

We made a lemon, polenta and yoghurt cake with apricots poached in a vanilla and cardamom syrup, adapted from a recipe by the adorable Australian chef, Bill Granger.

The cake contains sunflower oil instead of butter, something that admittedly made me apprehensive, since I don't particularly enjoy cakes that contain vegetable oil. However, the result was amazing. The cake was light, just perfect for the hot days of July, fluffy, fragrant from the lemon, and pleasantly crunchy from the polenta.

The poached apricots, filled with the aroma of vanilla and the spiciness of cardamom, transform this simple cake into a unique dessert.

I'm treating all of you for my name day. Grab a piece and have a wonderful day!

Lemon, Polenta and Yoghurt Cake with Poached Apricots
Adapted from Bill Granger

It's best to use apricots that are not too ripe, so they don't disintegrate when you poach them. Naturally, the more aromatic and flavorful they are, the more delicious they'll be once cooked.

This dessert is not too sweet and if you enjoy sour flavors in your sweets, you may want to add a little more lemon juice to the apricot poaching liquid.

The great thing about this recipe is that it doesn't require a mixer. You do everything by hand and it's so easy too. Gotta love that.

Yield: 10 servings


for the cake
200 g all-purpose flour
100 g polenta
2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
200 g soft, light brown sugar
200 g Greek strained yoghurt, full-fat (I use Total)
125 ml sunflower oil
Zest of 1 lemon
50 ml (3½ Tbsp) lemon juice, freshly squeezed

a little butter or sunflower oil (I used butter), for greasing the pan

for the poached apricots
30 ml (2 Tbsp) lemon juice, freshly squeezed
130 g soft, light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthways
3 cardamom pods, bruised
240 ml tap water
8 apricots, halved and stones removed

Special equipment: round springform pan 22-23 cm in diameter, baking paper, fine sieve


for the cake
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius / 350 Fahrenheit.

Using butter or sunflower oil, grease the bottom and sides of the springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a round piece of baking paper (see here how to do it) and grease the bottom again.

In a large bowl, add the all-purpose flour, the polenta and the baking powder. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
In a medium-sized bowl, add the lightly beaten eggs and the sugar and beat well with the wooden spoon, until the mixture is light in color. Add the yoghurt, the sunflower oil, the lemon zest and juice and using a whisk, beat well, until the ingredients are well blended.
Add the yoghurt mixture to the flour mixture and whisk gently to combine until there are no lumps. Don't overmix because the cake will become tough instead of fluffy once baked.

Empty the cake mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top with the back of the wooden spoon. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven, place it on a wire rack and allow the cake to cool in the pan.

for the poached apricots
As the cake bakes, prepare the apricots.

In a medium-sized saucepan, add the lemon juice, the sugar, the vanilla bean, the cardamom pods and the water. Place over medium heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the prepared apricots, turn heat down to low and simmer for 3-5 minutes or until they just begin to soften. Be careful not to overcook them. You don't want them to become mushy and start to disintegrate. It's best if you stay close to the pan.

Remove the apricots from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate. Once they are cool enough to handle, remove their skins carefully.

Turn heat up to high and boil the poaching liquid for 5 minutes or until it becomes syrupy. Pass the syrup through a fine sieve and discard the vanilla bean and cardamom pods. Allow the syrup to cool completely.

Once the cake has cooled completely, remove it from the pan, peel off the baking paper and place it on a platter or cake stand. Don't invert it on the platter. Place the poached apricots on top and drizzle with the cooled syrup.
Serve cut in wedges.

You can keep the cake covered, at room temperature, for 4-5 days. The poached apricots can be kept in the fridge for 1 week.

The cake, without the poached apricots but just with the syrup, is perfect served for breakfast. Enjoy it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A day in Amsterdam, in pictures

This past week, we have been traveling a lot around the Netherlands and we're planning on traveling even more the next couple of weeks. We'll go as far as Germany and Belgium as well.

We're not going home to Greece just yet. Perhaps in September, or October. We generally choose not to make definite travel plans; we're the kind of people who like to keep their options open.

Yesterday we went to Amsterdam. It's a one-hour drive from The Hague and we always enjoy strolling around the streets of the capital, especially when the weather is good like it's been these past couple of days. As you'll see in the photographs, not a cloud in sight. That was a miracle.

I love the blue-black color of the brick buildings.

The canals look muddy but they're so pretty, no?


De 9 Straatjes. The nine streets. A collective name given to nine busy shopping streets in Amsterdam. You'll find some great stuff here. From vintage tables and trays to Dutch cheese and cupcakes.

Dutch fries.

Typical grub in Holland. Frikandel, kroket and burgers machine. Just add money.

Rainbow flag. One of many around Amsterdam.

This is a rarity around here.

De zon. De maan. The sun. The moon.

See you soon with a recipe. A simple, summery dessert, made for a special occasion.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Middle of July

As I'm writing these words, it is raining outside. Not a torrential rainfall but the kind of drizzle that reminds you of the first days of autumn rather than summer. So before I get even more confused and start taking my winter clothes back out of storage, I better start talking about summer fruits. Because they are the only thing right now that can convince me we're indeed in the middle of July.

These past few days, I have been eating fruits like a maniac. I'm compensating for the lack of sunshine and I'm devouring them like there's no tomorrow.

You know how when you buy fruit you can never be certain they're going to taste good? It's like when you first meet a guy. You can never be sure about him until that first kiss. He may look good, he may smell good, he may even feel good, but you can never know until you have gotten a taste of his lips or, in the case of fruit, a bite of their juicy flesh.

This week, I bought the most luscious and delicious wild peaches, nectarines and cherries. I'm sure it was a coincidence. I'm sure that if I go back to the same stall at the market next Saturday, the fruits I buy will be flops.

The quest for the perfect fruit is eternal, so as long as I have some good specimens, I better get the most out of them, right?
I told you about this salad a while back and I have been enjoying it a great deal lately.

It's a stunning salad with a wonderful combination of flavors, colors and textures. Everything you're looking for in a summery salad, really. Sweet and crunchy cherries, salty jamón Serrano, crispy radishes, peppery rocket, creamy goat's cheese and a pungent Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

If you're living in any part of the world that's experiencing a heat wave right now, like my beloved home country of Greece is, then you'll appreciate the refreshing qualities of this salad. I, on the other hand, while I'm enjoying it, I'm daydreaming of sunnier days that I hope will very soon come.

Summer Green Salad with Cherries, Jamón Serrano and Goat's Cheese

You can use any type of cured ham you like in this salad. I particularly like Serrano ham because of its deep and intense yet smooth flavor and its nutty aroma.

Serve it with some crusty bread and a bottle of good, dry white wine or a dry fino sherry.

Yield: 2 generous servings for lunch or 4 salad servings


for the vinaigrette
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp red wine vinegar
5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

for the salad
100 g small, tender lettuce leaves or any other type of green salad leaves you like
100 g rocket leaves
5 radishes, thinly sliced
100 g jamón Serrano, in thin slices
200 g fresh, sweet cherries
100 g fresh, soft goat's cheese

Special equipment: cherry pitter (optional)


make the vinaigrette
In a small bowl, add the mustard, the vinegar and the olive oil. Mix well with a fork or small whisk. Add some salt and pepper and give the vinaigrette a taste. Add more salt and pepper if needed.

make the salad
Using a cherry pitter (or in any other way you know how), pit the cherries and cut them in half lengthwise with a sharp knife.

Rinse the lettuce and rocket leaves under cold, running water and if there are any big leaves, chop them. Drain the leaves, dry them and place them in a large salad bowl or platter.
Add the sliced radishes and cherries and toss the salad.
Drape the Serrano ham slices over the salad leaves and crumble the goat's cheese over the whole lot.
Drizzle over the vinaigrette and serve immediately.