Archive | September, 2013

Spicy Butternut Squash with Sage

27 Sep

In exactly 185 hours and 29 minutes, my mom will be landing at LAX airport. In about 184 hours, we’ll roll into a full-fledged panic and do things like finally clear off the dinner table and dust behind the bed posts, and things like that. It’s a good thing mom arrives once a year, as otherwise our dining room table house would never be available for eating thoroughly cleaned. If it’s anything like 2 years ago, our kitchen floor will be drying whilst I go and pick up mom at the airport.

Last year, however, she missed her connecting flight at JFK airport and we had a gratuitous 2 hours to clean vowed to “..never EVER!!!!..” fly via New York “..ever!!!!..” again. The combination of being 69, arthritic, thoroughly jetlagged and not speaking enough English to ask where to go next, made for a seriously grumpy capuchin monkey senior when she finally did come down the escalator in Terminal 5. Throw in an 18+ hour journey, and she collapsed in an audible coma in our guest room by 08:00P. I hope her transatlantic flight treats her better this time around. Play nice, Atlanta!

I remember the first few years that I lived here, I missed everything from Belgium and my grocery wish list was as long as from here to Baja California, including, but not limited to: Maggi bouillon cubes, Kwatta choco, Vondelmolen peperkoek, Royco minute soup, Lotus speculaas, Cote d’Or chocolate, Sultana raisin cookies and Sirop de Liège… all things I thought I couldn’t possibly live without. She even smuggled in a 24-count tinderbox of the finest Cuban cigars at one point, as I thought it would make a nice Valentine’s present for my then boyfriend. Oye, the excess luggage I have subjected my aging mother to, have earned her the privilege of bossing me around for 9 days…(and I’m counting on her lack of English proficiency here!) Nowadays, my desired Belgian grocery list isn’t nearly as long, but there are just certain things you either can’t afford here or can’t find in the store, such as ‘Piment d’Espelette’.

‘Piment d’Espelette’ is a spicy pepper from Espelette, a picturesque village nestled in the Pyrenees in the Southwest of France, in the Basque region by the Spanish border. A stroll down its cobblestone streets, reveals balcony upon balcony draped with endless bunches & strings of these lovely red peppers, which are drying in the blistering afternoon sun. As a matter of regional pride, this pepper is so famous, that it has been given a protected designation by the European Union, ensuring that only peppers grown in the Espelette region may be labeled as ‘Piment d’Espelette’ (an ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’). The small pepper is red when ripe & mature, and relatively mild. When dried, Espelette peppers turn dark, with a slightly smoky & hot peppery flavor that can be intensified with roasting or sauteeing, and is commonly used in the Basque cuisine of Northern Spain and Southwest France. Heat-wise, ‘Piment d’Espelette’ is similar to smoked hot paprika, but not quite as smoky as paprika. Either way, smoked hot paprika would be a good substitute for Espelette pepper, however, for the purists, you can order ‘Piment d’Espelette’ online from specialty grocers, but be prepared to sell your first born shell out cold hard cash.

If you never taught that refined French cuisine could teach your palate anything about heat, I suggest you splurge and order a jar of this stupendously flavorful pepper. It’s a ‘finishing’ spice – meaning it can turn a bit bitter if cooked for too long – and extremely versatile. The recipe below holds the perfect balance between the sweetness of winter squash and the spicy smokiness of the ‘Piment d’Espelette’.

20130927-183634.jpg

Spicy Butternut Squash
(Adapted from a recipe out of ‘Chili Pepper Magazine’, 2008)
– 4 Tbsp of good quality butter
– 1 large shallots, thinly sliced
– 2 Tbsp of loosely torn fresh sage
– 2 Tbsp of Piment d’Espelette
– 1/2 cup of honey
– a pinch of salt, to your liking
– 1/2 cup of dry white wine
– 1/2 cup of vegetable stock
– 2 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and sliced into ‘fries’ or cubes.

Preheat oven to 450°F.

In cast iron skillet or large sauté pan, melt the butter, and sauté the shallots until translucent. Stir in the honey, wine and stock. Season with salt only.

In a large bowl, toss the squash, onions and torn sage leaves with the shallot mixture. On a baking sheet, spread everything in a single layer, and bake. After 15 minutes, toss things around so everything browns on all sides. Roast until tender, about another 5-10 minutes or so. Remove from oven, and dust all sides lightly with ‘Piment d’Espelette’.

Cheesy Brioche Rolls with Bacon & Rosemary

24 Sep

“What shall we do with all of this bacon?”, said no one in my family ever. With a constant flux of at least 3 packages of bacon in our small apartment fridge, we embrace ‘Emergency Bacon Preparedness’… You know, for those nights on which you don’t feel like shopping for dinner groceries, but you don’t feel like pizza either?

Bacon is a drug hearty. It makes everything 10x better than it already is. And let’s admit, if there is any processed meat that could potentially be conceived as candy by your taste buds, it would be the crunchy sweetness of salty bacon. No? So when I won a $75.00 gift certificate of the LA Farmers Market during an industry event a few months ago, I knew exactly where I was going to spend the bulk of it: ‘Huntington Meats’. Just like so many small family-owned businesses in this Mecca of deliciousness, the folks at ‘Huntington Meats’ take great pride in their butcher’s craft. Besides the tasty quality of their meats, there’s something eerily familiar about an apron-wearing, fat-bellied man presenting me with a brown paper slab of house-cured & hand-crafted peppered bacon.
I regret that corporate America is slowly but surely edging out small businesses like this. Personally, I enjoy buying meat from a rosy-cheeked butcher, or seafood from a charming blue-tiled monger that smells a wee bit salty and beckons passers-by with a giant neon-flickering smiling mussel. Places like that make me happy. The people who own these types of stores, take pride in their craft and life’s work, and somehow they make me feel like I matter.

When I was younger and still lived in Belgium, these are the kind of places my mother would take us to on her weekly Saturday morning grocery runs. We’d be hectically crisscrossing all over town in her old Ford, and loading up the car with freshly baked pastries & bread from the sweet smelling bakery on the corner of our street or we’d stop by the smelly cheese shop and pick out the finest Cabrales or Brie to eat with our crusty French bread… Wherever we went, everything was freshly sliced, diced, cured, chopped and/or packaged… with love. We had a grocery store nearby, but mom considered that to be mostly for non-perishable stuff. Like peanuts, cat food and laundry soap.

The LA Farmers Market brings this community-minded way of grocery shopping back. If you haven’t been, you urgently have to plan a vacation around this place. Tucked away next to a fancy, overprized open-air mall, the market itself is surprisingly humble and quaint. And none of the boobs Gucci-clad ditsies with electric pink patent leather Hermès handbags actually shop here, for reasons unbeknownst to me because this place truly offers the finest foods in the county. The bustling, colorful market is a bit overwhelming at first sight, but once you get passed the crowded chaos and ‘see’ the vintage appeal of the mint green colored plastic picnic tables, you’ll feel like you’re in foodie heaven.

20130924-181533.jpg

With so many fabulous eateries, ranging from hot Brazilian roasted meats to Spanish tapas and spicy N’awlins drunken shrimp, you’re in for a real treat. And with most meals being under $10.00, you can splurge and eat your belly full without breaking the bank. Finally, there are the handful of purveyors of fine foods, my favorites being a toss up between ‘Tusquellas Seafood’ and ‘Huntington Meats’… Last Saturday, I walked away from the latter with just a little over 2 pounds of house-cured peppered bacon and 12 hot Italian sausages for nary $38 and change.

So what I am doing with all of this bacon? How about some cheesy brioche rolls now that soup season is officially open?

20130924-193856.jpg

CHEESY BRIOCHE ROLLS WITH BACON & ROSEMARY
(Adapted from a recipe for French ‘pistolets’)
– 1 lbs of bread flour, sifted
– 5 eggs, beaten + 1 more for the egg wash
– 5-6 slices of bacon (or more)
– 1.5 oz of fresh yeast or 1 packet of dry yeast
– 1/2 cup of whole or 2% milk
– 1/3 cup of finely chopped fresh rosemary
– 1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan
– 1 Tbsp of sugar
– 1 tsp of sea salt
– 1 tsp of baking powder

Preheat oven to 400F.

Crumble yeast into a small bowl, add sugar & lukewarm milk and stir until dissolved. Set aside for 15 min while you cook the bacon.

Slice bacon into thin strips and sauté over medium heat until cooked through but not crispy. Reserve 1-2 Tbsp of the fat, then drain fat and set aside to cool.

Sift flour into large bowl, add the baking powder, add eggs, salt and foamy yeast mixture, and stir or knead into a doughy consistency. Add in reserved bacon, bacon fat, Parmesan and rosemary, and knead 10-15 min. (tip: you can do this on the ‘dough’ setting of your bread maker!)

Place dough in a lightly greased warm bowl, cover with a clean towel and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free place for at least 90 min or longer, until practically doubled in size.

Flour a clean surface. Tip dough out of the bowl, and knead for another 15 min or so. Divide dough in even balls the size of a small apple, and space apart on a lined baking sheet or place in a greased muffin tin. Cover with a clean, damp towel and allow to rise a bit more over 20 min.

Brush rolls with a quick egg wash made out of 1 beaten egg and a splash of water. This will make them shiny. Bake rolls for 20-30 min, until golden brown and crusty on the outside.

Maple Bacon & Butternut Squash Waffles

18 Sep

When I stumbled upon a recipe for mashed potato cheddar & chive waffles from Joy The Baker the other day, I swear I heard the faint sound of violins. I mean, waffles… with cheeseand mashed potatoes! What could possibly be better than that winning trifecta? And who knew you could put mashed potatoes in waffle batter? But more importantly, who even has leftover mashed potatoes to begin with?!

My inner-Belgian was intrigued, so I baked Joy’s waffles that same night and I thought they were really good. As in ‘I binged on 6 waffles in one sitting’-kinda good, and then impulsively grabbed the last sole survivor this morning for breakfast-on-the-go and ate that one ice cold because I was desperate I was in a hurry. Let me tell you, any waffle that tastes this good after being left overnight on the kitchen counter, should be considered a mortal sin. It made me ponder the question, if this much tastiness can be achieved with cheddar & chives, how wickedly delicious would these waffles be with, let’s say, bacon? And what if we replaced the mashed potatoes with puréed butternut squash for instance? With visions of savory waffle greatness, I took Joy’s recipe and ran with it. Like a thief in the night.

Even malicious recipe-snatchers foodies like me sometimes need a late breakfast-brunch idea, and these Fall-inspired waffles are perfect for those days on which your uterus bleeds uncontrollably you crave something salty & sweet or you need a unique alternative to a dinner roll. The mapled butternut squash mash gives them a subtle sweetness and the bacon adds a salty touch to balance everything out nicely. Now let’s all surf to Joy’s blog, and thank her for the original recipe that sparked this tasty spin off! These waffles are delicious straight out of your hot waffle iron, but they are equally as good the next day, albeit that they lose their crispiness as they cool. Top these babies with a dollop of crème fraiche, and you’ll find yourself in savory waffle heaven.

20130918-142257.jpg

MAPLE, BACON & BUTTERNUT SQUASH WAFFLES
(Inspired by ‘Joy The Baker’)
– 4 Tbsp of unsalted butter
– 1/4 cup of buttermilk
– 2 large eggs
– 2 cups of butternut squash mash (*)
– 4-5 slices of bacon
– 1 large shallot, finely diced
– A pinch of brown sugar
– A pinch of cayenne pepper
– 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
– 1/2 tsp of baking powder
– 1/4 tsp of baking soda
– 1/2 tsp of salt
– 1/2 tsp of freshly ground pepper
– crème fraiche, for topping
(*) Butternut squash mash is simple to make and a healthy alternative to regular mashed potatoes, See recipe below.

Plug in your waffle iron and allow it to heat so it’ll be nice & hot when you’re ready to bake.

Preheat oven to 450F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and place bacon slices on top. Sprinkle bacon lightly with brown sugar and cayenne pepper, and bake at 450F for approx. 10-15 min, until crispy. Set aside on paper towels and allow to cool, then crumble.

In a small pan, melt butter over medium-low heat and allow it to brown. When it’s all melted, it’ll start popping and cracklin a bit, which is the water evaporating out of the butter and giving the butter a yummy nutty flavor. Keep watching the pan and wait for the edges to brown slightly. Once you see browned edges, pour browned butter directly into your cooled butternut squash mash, and whisk in the eggs & buttermilk to combine into a smooth mass. Keep on an eye on this process, as butter can go from tasty browned nuttiness to a burned mess in a matter of seconds!

Wipe pan with a paper towel, and give diced shallots a quick sauté, until they are translucent. It should only take a minute or 2-3. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift flour and add baking soda, baking powder, salt & pepper. Fold in the butternut squash mixture and combine into a smooth batter. Add crumbled bacon and reserved shallots, and stir to combine.

Place about 1/4 cup of the batter in each section of your waffle iron, and cook waffles according to your taste. I like mine crispy and dark, but that’s just personal preference. Allow waffles to cool on a rack, as placing them on a solid surface will make them soggy and limp.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH MASH
– 1/2 small-medium butternut squash, seeded, peeled & cut into in large chunks
– 1 large tan sweet potato (not a red-skinned yam!), peeled & cut into large chunks
– 1.5 Tbsp of maple syrup
– 1/2 tsp of of curry powder
– 2 Tbsp of butter
– salt & pepper, to taste

Boil butternut squash together with potatoes until tender. Give it a quick mash, then and add butter & maple syrup. Mash together, and season with salt & pepper & curry powder.

Slow Cooked Cuban Pork

16 Sep

Yesterday started off like any other in crock pot land. I placed it lovingly on top of my kitchen counter in preparation of a 10-hour interlude with a delicious Cuban roast pork, until suddenly, at the 67-min mark… it died! To add insult to injury, it didn’t even beep or give any other sign of distress, it just went into full ‘crockiac arrest’. It was but a little over a year old, so I can only surmise that a three pound pork shoulder with 30 cloves of garlic was just… too.. much! Since I can’t afford to replace it right now, its tragic death leaves a void in my family and it leaves behind a plethora of kitchen cabinet friends, such as a humongous roasting pan capable of roasting a whole farm animal and a dainty row of 8 stoneware ramekins, in crisp white, for the more elegant affair.

Since I was on a Facebook binge fest enjoying a quiet morning with a cup of coffee, I hadn’t even noticed my crock pot’s ill-fated destiny at first. It was the fact that my living room stopped smelling of citrus- & garlic-infused porky deliciousness, that prompted me to go check the kitchen to see what was going on. My first reaction was a slue of un-Christian and/or inappropriate words, but then that quick wit kicked in and I feverishly pushed all of my slow cooker’s buttons in an attempt to revive it. When my frantic appliance-CPR failed, I created a mess of epic proportion poured everything into my largest Dutch oven and finished braising the pork in the oven. As the pork was cooking, I subsequently spent hours obsessing over what went wrong with my machine, and then ate a handful of milk chocolate chips… for baking… to help me cope with the drama of it all. Shut up.

I thought I wasn’t a big fan of pork, but this recipe has me convinced that I am. My beef with pork (see what I did there?) is that it has a tendency to be too dry when roasted, or you have to marinate it overnight and even then it’s like walking a tight-rope with juiciness. I loved that the recipe below doesn’t require elaborate brining or marinating, and it still came out so incredibly tender & moist, that I almost feel like I should apologize for snarfling down a portion that could have fed a small African village for a week. I made my own ‘mojo criollo’ braising marinade, but you could totally use the bottled kind if you find it in your store… and if you want, you can absolute marinate this pork overnight, you just don’t have to.

20130916-141020.jpg

SLOW-COOKED CUBAN PORK
For the mojo criollo
– 3 cups of fresh Valencia orange juice, which is a more tart or somewhat bitter orange. If you can’t find Valencia oranges, use regular oranges and ‘up’ the lime juice to 3 limes.
– 1 cup of yellow grapefruit juice (the pink & red varieties are too sweet)
– Juice of 1 lemon
– Juice of 2 limes
– 30 cloves of garlic
– 1/4 cup of good quality dried oregano
– Pinch of cayenne pepper
– Salt & pepper, to taste
(*) instead of a combination of orange juice, grapefruit juice, lemon & lime juice, you can also use 4.5 cups of bottled ‘bitter orange’ juice or ‘Naranja Agria’. There’s several brands out there, but my store clerk recommended Goya.

Combine everything together, and give it a quick blend with a handheld mixer, or blend everything together in a food processor.

For the pork
– 3lbs of pork shoulder or pork butt
– Adobo seasoning (or your favorite pork seasoning)
– 6-8 medium sized onions, sliced into rings

Slice onions into rings. Place a layer of onion on the bottom of your slow cooker or Dutch oven. Reserve the rest to place on top of the meat.

Cut the pork so that it fits into your slow cooker or pot, then stab it all over so the juices can penetrate the meat. Season it all over with the adobo or pork seasoning, and give it a quick sear so all sides are browned. Transfer browned pieces to your slow cooker or a Dutch oven.

If you’re cooking this in a slow cooker, turn your machine on ‘low’ and cook for 10 hours. If you’re cooking this in your oven, preheat your oven to 325F and cook the meat in a lidded Dutch oven for approx. 4 hours.

When the meat is fork-tender, take it out of the braising liquid and pull it just a bit into a large bite-size chunks. Reserve some of the braising liquid. You can eat it ‘as is’, but for more Cuban tastiness, add the pulled pork to a buttered baking sheet and pour about 1/2 cup of the reserved braising liquid over it. Roast in a 350F oven for about 30 min… or give it a quick sear in a cast iron skillet!

Lucette’s Calvados Apple Butter

12 Sep

Just last week, my colleague Alex asked me if I could figure out the recipe for Lucille’s famous apple butter. If you’ve had the pleasure of dining at ‘Lucille’s Smokehouse’, you know what I’m talking about. It’s that gooey, buttery sweetness you spread entirely too thick over those soft warm biscuits… of which they only give you two! Good Christian women are not greedy!

Until a friend treated me to a BBQ lunch at Lucille’s one time, I had never heard of apple butter. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I had ever tasted freshly baked warm biscuits either. Biscuits were non-existent when I lived in Belgium. The whole idea of serving a semi-sweet pastry with something even sweeter to smear on top… for dinner!…. is an abstract concept that was entirely foreign to me. Baked goods and sweetness belong with breakfast or way after dinner, not during dinner. The preposterous absurdity of eating something sweet with dinner, prompts my mother to give me her best ‘get this away from me!’ face every time she visits. To place this blatant snubbing of a Southern staple into perspective, Cecilia’s idea of a delectable dessert is a smelly plate of French cheeses with crackers… which is entirely an appetizer in my book, but whatever. She usually passes on a ‘real’ dessert altogether. Evidently, she is sweet enough ‘as is’. ZING! POW!

The smooth, tasty apple lover of Lucille’s is a compound butter that is made with real butter, unlike the typical delicious fruit butters you see appearing on grocery shelves around Fall. I figured I did not want a regular compound butter with big chunks of apple in it, I wanted the smooth bluesy James Brown kind the restaurant chain itself offers. I found several recipes online but ‘powdered apple’, really? I don’t know about you, but a dehydrator is not something that collects dust on my kitchen counter. I also do not per se want to plan my apple butter-making adventure 7 days in advance so I can then order my ‘powdered apples’ online some place, nor do I want to spend 8-10 hours tediously watching apples dehydrate in my oven to see if they are dried enough already but not turning brown! I read somewhere online that reportedly Lucille’s blends its butter with the fruity canned apple butters you find jarred in various supermarkets, and an undisclosed amount of Karo corn syrup. I opted for using plain old dried apples. They’re readily available everywhere, and you can also buy them in bulk in farmers market-type stores like ‘Sprouts’ here in Southern California.

In the end, I took the best of what I read online and ran with it… I think this delicious apple butter comes very close to Lucille’s in flavor, but can perfection really be… well… perfected? Let’s just consider my butter to be Lucille’s more sophisticated twin sister, and as such, I’m naming her Lucette. There.

20130912-205706.jpg

LUCETTE’S CALVADOS APPLE BUTTER
– 1 cup of unsalted butter, softened
– 2 Tbsp of light brown sugar
– 3 Tbsp of good quality honey (preferably orange blossom, but any kind will work!)
– 1 tsp of ground cinnamon
– 1/2 Tbsp of vanilla extract
– 6 oz of dried apple slices (not candied!)
– 1/4 cup of Calvados (French apple liquor)
(*) This is a sweet butter. If you want the butter to only be mildly sweet, reduce sugar & honey, to your liking.

In a food processor, soak the dried apples in the Calvados for about 20-30 min, then blend apples until you achieve a fairly smooth paste-like substance. Add in the butter, and blend until well combined. Then add the cinnamon, honey & sugar, and keep blending until you get a gorgeous and fragrant butter-like substance. Place in an airtight glass jar, and store in the fridge for a few weeks… as if this would even last a few weeks!

Hearty Polish Sausage & Beans

11 Sep

I consider myself to be a resourceful person. My ‘creative thinking’ ability was evidenced at a young age, when I once received a homework assignment from my strict Catholic school, with the instruction to listen to the Pope’s Easter mass & speech and fill out a 100 item questionnaire about it. Faced with the horror of having to sit through 4 hours of televised prayer in Latin – on Sunday no less! – I told my teacher that our TV was of a communist brand and that therefore we weren’t able to tune into the channel in question as our airwaves were censored by the Russian Orthodox Government. I think I should have gotten an honorable mentioning for such creativity, but instead I got to copy the “Ten Commandments”… 25 times!

I entirely blame my mother for this kind of quick-witted creative thinking. After all, she was a pro at it herself and she was known to smite the nonsensical ways of the strict Catholic establishment on a routine basis. As an example, when she was hired by the private convent school in question, the bearded dragon head nun made it clear to her that she was expected to wear a long, calf-length skirt & stockings, and to refrain from engaging the girls in any scandalous or improper activity such as, but not limited to: cartwheels, splits, summersaults, exercises that required us to spread our legs, headstands or anything else that could potentially expose the Lord to juvenile indecency. Since it proved futile to reason with the clergy about the scholastic curriculum of a physical education class, my mother creatively taunted the school’s ridiculous policy and showed up for her first day on the job wearing a long skirt… with a snazzy pair of shiny red metallic Adidas sweatpants underneath!

Creativity and independent thinking ranked high on our mother’s list of virtues she deemed necessary in life. She made sure our little brains were exercised daily, and she made it a point to teach us to think outside the box and to never accept nonsense as suitable answer or solution.

I’ve had to be creative with our food budget on many occasions, but when I came home to a virtually empty fridge yesterday, it gave culinary creativity a whole new meaning. With payday still 3 days away, I took a quick gander in our pantry and figured I could manipulate a recipe for Polish sausage & beans I saw on Pinterest a little while ago. The result was a hearty & flavorful stew of tomatoes, peppers and kielbasa, and it received two thumbs up from all of us.

20130911-211427.jpg

Hearty Polish Sausage & Beans
(Adapted from a Pinterest recipe)
– 3 15oz cans of your preferred beans (*)
– 1 Polish sausage or Kielbasa
– 1 large red bell pepper
– 1 large green bell pepper
– 2 medium yellow onions
– 2 Poblano peppers
– 6-8 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped finely
– 1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
– 1 Tbsp of sweet Hungarian paprika
– 1/4 cup of fresh dill, chopped
– 1/4 cup of fresh parsley, chopped
– salt & pepper to taste
– 2 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
(*) You can use any beans you like, but I prefer a combination of white cannellini beans, black beans & pinto beans.

Drain and rinse beans under cold water, set aside.

Chop peppers and onions into large dice. Crush garlic with the back of your knife, and chop into fine pieces. Slice kielbasa into small rounds.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot, and sauté peppers, onions and garlic until beginning to soften. Add crushed tomatoes, paprika, dill, parsley, salt & pepper, and simmer until vegetables are soft.

Add kielbasa and beans, and allow to simmer until everything is warmed through. Serve over brown rice or with a crusty loaf of bread.

Nutty Blue Cheese Apple-Parsnip Soup

10 Sep

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the drop in temperature of late. It seems Fall is finally creeping into the Southland, and my early mornings have been blanketed in damp coastal fog the past few days. Also, with school back in full swing, my commute to work is usually halted by the busy crisscrossing of school buses or kids shlepping themselves to school with backpacks that look like they could harbor a medium-sized farm animal.

This morning, it seemed the private Christian high school by our house was going on a field day already. I saw several coaches loading up giddy, uniformed kids with a few over-zealous moms stuffing the last few things in their brood’s backpack. You know who you are. It reminded me of my school field days, on which my mother made us pack our own lunch and told us in no uncertain terms to behave and to not spend all our money on ‘silly things’. Our field days were always an exciting combination of not having to be in class that day and having extra cash in your pocket to spend on silly things ‘spend wisely, when you need to!’. I have some really fun memories frolicking at ‘Walibi’ or ‘Meli Park’, but we also had scholastic outings to Brussels and places like ‘Bokrijk’. When I was about roughly 8 years old, one of our mandatory school outings in history class was to the former Nazi concentration camp of ‘Breendonk’, located in the Northeast part of Belgium. I haven’t been back there since, but I remember it to be lacking a candy vending machine a huge musty-smelling compound of old, somewhat dilapidated brick buildings, that were enforced by barbed wire and had rusty iron gates that creaked when you pushed them open. I also vividly remember a very tall, black-burnt smoke stack, which I don’t need to detail what that was for, but at the time I had no clue. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like an uplifting day filled with fun, but I actually don’t have any grim memories that tarnished my soul or scarred me in any which way. What I do recall, is that I came home, sans cash and with a bunch of silly things, and innocently blurted out to my mother that I was happy for the people who had to live there… UmCome again?!

I’m pretty sure my mother must have pondered where exactly in my upbringing she went wrong, but she stayed cool as a cucumber and asked me what exactly made me think this was a ‘happy place’ for people to live?! And here comes embarrassing childhood confession #43… during our 3-hour docent-led tour of this depressing work camp, me & my slightly muddy patent leather mary jane’s had spotted huge weathered message boards tacked on various walls all over the bleak compound. On those, a daily roster was pinned, announcing the tedious hourly routine in big black type-setting, on yellowish newspaper-like posters. Wake-up call was to take place at 04:00A, ‘Arbeit’ was to be done from 04:00A-06:00A and so forth… with each block of 2 hours seemingly broken by a brief pause, labeled as ‘APPEL’. Even at 8 years old, I grasped the horrible brutality of these days, with no time to shower or play, no lunch breaks or recess… but what my plaid-skirted & pig-tailed innocent self didn’t know, was that ‘Appel’ meant ‘roll-call’ in French… and not ‘apple’ in Dutch! Somehow, in this dark oppressing atmosphere of forced manual labor and dire living conditions, my wee sensitive heart had found a beacon of happiness knowing that these unfortunate people at least got an apple every 2 hours… And this, dear people, is why you should hug your child right now before this kind of heart-warming innocence flies out the window.

I’m afraid I am destined to have to live this one down, as the mere sight of a basket of apples at the farmers market, will prompt my mother to chuckle her way through the story in great animated detail. I’m glad I can be of service to her that way. I’ve never been a huge fan of apples, but I like them in this lovely apple parsnip soup that I adapted from a recipe I found for a simple root vegetable soup. It’s real Autumnal pleaser, and I hope you enjoy it too.

20130910-144954.jpg

NUTTY BLUE CHEESE APPLE-PARSNIP SOUP
– 2 apples, preferably Jona Gold or Golden Delicious, chopped into cubes
– 1 Tbsp of fresh thyme, chopped
– 4 sage leaves, finely chopped
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
– 4 oz of pecans, roasted and chopped
– 4 oz of hazelnuts or walnuts, skinned, roasted and chopped
– 1-2 Tbsp of butter
– 1/3 cup of heavy cream
– 3 oz of blue cheese, crumbled
– Salt & pepper, to taste
– 4 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
– sliced browned mushrooms, for garnish
– a drizzle of walnut oil, for garnish
(*) You can really use any combination of nuts you like, but I like pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts the best.

Preheat the oven to 400F and place nuts on a large baking sheet. When oven is hot, roast nuts for a few minutes until warm and toasty. Allow to cool slightly, rub off as many of the skins as you can with a clean damp cloth and give the nuts a rough chop.

Peel the parsnips, apples and onion, and chop into chunks. In a heavy pan, melt butter and add parsnips, apples and onions, together with the chopped sage. Sauté over medium-low heat until onions are translucent and vegetables have softened.

In the meanwhile, heat broth in a large pot, and add sautéed apples and vegetables. Add roughly about 3/4 of the toasted nuts, bring to a boil and simmer soup for another 15 min or so. With a handheld mixer, puree the soup until everything is smooth and blended well, then add cream & blue cheese. Season with salt & pepper, to taste.

Slice mushrooms and brown in a bit of butter. Don’t crowd the pan, or your mushrooms won’t brown!

Ladle soup in bowls, drizzle a bit of walnut oil over the top and garnish with the browned mushrooms, remaining nuts and thyme.

Go hug your child. Seriously.

Bangkok Chicken Satay with Coconut-Peanut Sauce

7 Sep

Football season is here! And with it, so is finger food season.

I confess that I know nothing about American football. Whenever a game comes on, I root for the team wearing the prettiest colors get lost in trying to figure out who actually has possession of the ball and when flags and penalties are dished out, all bets are off. I vaguely grasp the concept of a ‘first down and 8 yards to go’, but I guess football is one of those sports you must have either played yourself or grown up with, in order to fully comprehend the intricate detail of grown men throwing themselves on top of one another for… an oblong-shaped ball?! And why is that ball oblong shaped to begin with?! And who on earth understands what that referee is saying in that echoing microphone?

The first time I was graciously invited to someone’s house for an American cook-out and football BBQ party, I actually managed to silence an entire room by loudly jumping up from my comfy chair and belting out a cheer, complete with arms fully extended and the required high-pitched “WOOHOO!!!!”, when the referee threw a flag… against the team we were all supposed to be rooting for. Whoopsie!

I remember this incident greatly embarrassed my then boyfriend to the point where he felt compelled to formally apologize on my behalf to everybody in the room, and explained that I was from Belgium! I learned three things from that unfortunate moment: a) football is a serious thing over here, b) a man who-we-shall-not-name is an asshole and c) Thai chicken skewers are delicious!

Fast forward 10 years, and my football expertise hasn’t much improved since then. I grew up playing a lot of sports and I love watching sports, but when it comes to American football, I stick with my tried & true routine of picking the team with the snazziest outfit… And I do so from the comfort of my kitchen, where the magic of football parties really happens!

20130907-092347.jpg

BANGKOK CHICKEN SATAY WITH COCONUT-PEANUT SAUCE
(Adapted from a recipe by Bobby Flay)
For the chicken satay:
– 3 lbs of skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch pieces
– 1/4 cup of soy sauce
– 3 Tbsp of dark brown sugar, firmly packed
– 2 Tbsp of fresh lime juice
– 2 tbsp of peanut oil
– 1 Tbsp of curry powder
– 2 garlic cloves, minced or grated
– 1 tsp of fresh ginger, grated
– 1/2 tsp of ground cardamom
– 24 wooden skewers, soaked in cold water for 20 min

Cut chicken into 1 inch cubes or bite-size pieces and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine all other ingredients and whisk to make a marinade. Pour marinade over the chicken, cover with plastic foil and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Thread 6-8 pieces of chicken on each skewer. Heat a grill pan or griddle over medium high heat, and cook chicken skewers for 8-10 min, turning once half way through… or cook skewers on the BBQ. Serve warm alongside peanut sauce below.

For the coconut-peanut sauce:
– 1 13.5oz can of coconut milk
– 1/4 cup of creamy peanut butter
– 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar, packed
– 1 Tbsp of soy sauce
– 1 1/2 tsp of red curry paste

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 3-5 minutes. Pour sauce in the a small bowl and serve alongside chicken skewers.

Zippy Orange, Fennel & Avocado Salad

6 Sep

The other day, I was on the phone with a friend from Belgium, chatting in Dutch or ‘baby language’ as my All-American family calls it. Having landed here well over 13 years ago, my brain is firmly lodged in English and I find that there are certain Dutch words that have completely vanished from my ‘old world’ vocabulary… Consequently, my conversations in Dutch tend to be more of a linguistic comedy of errors rather than anything else, and they tend to be laced with free interpretations of what I feel certain English words should sound like in Dutch. It irritates my scholastic mother to no end when she hears me stomp my way through Flemish, and she will immediately revert back to her 7th grade school teacher self upon hearing a word that I mispronounced, or worse yet, doesn’t exist! If I dare confess that I have forgotten a word altogether, well, all bets are off.

Without fail, she arrives on my Californian doorstep with a stack of Flemish tabloids and cooking magazines she acquired to entertain herself on the 16-hour flight over here, and makes it a point to ostentatiously hand those to me with a firm, somewhat patronizing announcement that reading those will help me maintain my mother tongue. I haven’t yet been handed any homework assignments, but I’m fully expecting those to kick in should my Dutch proficiency drop below the level of acceptance on my mother’s learning curve. On the other hand, she quit her English class in her home town because she got homework it wasn’t fun anymore and she was only taking the class to gain English proficiency for social pleasantry… Besides, it’s universally known that wherever my mother travels, people should just learn to speak Dutch already. Full stop.

The recipe below is a free interpretation of one I found in my mom’s leftover magazines. I came across it when I was hell-bent on purging my ‘old’ stack, in anticipation of the glossy new stack of magazines that will arrive in early October. They had been sitting on our bedroom floor, strategically placed as a feline perch, for the past 12 months. It’s not that I dislike these magazines, as a matter of fact, I’ve asked my mom to bring some more, but prior to ownership of an iPhone, converting measurements from the metric system into the wrong American system was a real pain. Now that I have an app for that, it’s a breeze. And how pathetic is that? So much for all those tedious hours my mother spent patiently sitting at the kitchen table with me, teaching me decimals and fractures using pickled gherkins and carrots… If only Steve Jobs would have sent her memo back then that he was working on a technological break-through, she could have been watching those endless reruns of ‘Paradise Island’ after all.

But we digress… I made this salad a little while ago. First off, is there anything more photogenic in the vegetable world than fennel?! It’s the Linda Evangelista of the produce aisle, really. The addition of sweet orange wedges and tart pomegranate seeds makes this salad a real refreshing treat when it’s this gross hot & muggy outside…

20130906-152843.jpg

ZIPPY ORANGE, FENNEL & AVOCADO SALAD
(Adapted from a recipe out of ‘Flair’)
– 1 large orange
– 2 medium fennel bulbs, with stems
– 1 ripe avocado
– 1/2 pomegranate
– 1/4 cup of champagne or white wine vinegar
– 1/3 cup of olive oil
– 1 Egg, yolk only
– 1 large clove of garlic, grated or minced
– A pinch of cayenne pepper
– Salt & pepper, to taste

Cut peel & white-ish rind from the orange, leaving the fruit whole and exposing the bright orange flesh in each ‘pocket’ or partition. With a sharp knife, slice orange flesh out of each ‘pocket’. Try to leave the fleshy orange wedges as whole as possible. When all flesh is removed, take orange and squeeze out remaining juice in a separate bowl.

In bowl with squeezed orange juice, add egg yolk, garlic, vinegar, cayenne pepper and salt & pepper, and whisk brusquely to combine. Gently and in a thin steady stream, add olive oil whilst whisking feverishly, to emulsify the dressing into a smooth liquid. If you add the olive oil too rapidly, the dressing will not combine properly. Set aside.

Remove stems and outer leaf from fennel bulbs. Pluck a few fresh, young leaves from the stems and reserve as garnish. Discard stems. With a mandolin, shave fennel bulbs into thin slices and set aside. Slice pomegranate in half, and remove bright fleshy red seeds for their pocket. Set aside.
Peel & slice avocado into thin wedges.

In a large bowl, very gently combine fennel, avocado & orange wedges. Pour dressing over the salad, and gently toss to spread the dressing. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over the top and decorate with the reserved fennel leaves. Sprinkle some more salt & cracked pepper over the salad, if so desired.

To make this salad a meal, serve with some freshly grilled shrimp from the barbeque! Delicious!

Zingy Potato Salad

5 Sep

Ugh. It’s been hotter than a tandoori oven here in Southern California. We’ve seemingly landed firmly in the mid to upper 90’s at the beach, and we’re not headed anywhere cooler any time soon if Tootsie Farklepants the forecast is correct. Combine this with the complete absence of our usual ocean breeze and the rising humidity, and it’s downright hell in our non-air conditioned apartment. I recognize that this muggy grossness is probably a fine day on the porch in the South, but for us temperate coastal Californians, this kind of heat is downright brutal – and frankly, unacceptable in the ‘Book of Helga’. Despite it being extra-ordinarily hot & muggy lately, California weather is not my cup of tea in general. Over the years, I’ve been asked countless times what I miss most from Belgium, and as I’m writing this, it dawns on me that it’s not chocolate or quaint cafés, or even abbey-brewed beer. It’s not my friends or family (they visit, after all), or the many French-Fries-on-wheels that dot the town squares, nor is it ‘zoute haring’ or mussels. I miss ‘seasons’. Dreadfully.

Southern California is perpetually stuck in its own ‘non-season’ with year-round pleasantness of 75F and mostly sunny blue skies. Every now & again, temperatures dip well below 60F, at which point we collectively shiver and ‘Brrrr…’ our way through Starbucks’ hot beverages assortment and whip out our sheepskin-lined flip flops, you know, the Winter-kind that keeps the top of your foot warm but still allows you to show off that killer pedicure you paid $45 for. There’s a deep-seated seasonal confusion here in La La Land Los Angeles. Spring & Summer range from sunny warm to hot and are exactly alike, with the exception that in Spring your kids are still in school and your house stays moderately clean throughout the day. Most of the time Fall is simply an extension of Spring or Summer, only slightly cooler and with the gratuitous option of dressing up slutty for Halloween. And in Winter, we get crisp evenings and occasional moderate rainfall, which prompts us all to drive like a troupe of aging circus folk and cover our cars with giant weather-repellent plastic out of fear our paint job may suffer damage. With all meteorological bets off lately, I hold no hope for stew and hot pumpkin lattes any time soon.

On blistering hot days like the past 2 weeks today, my delicate Belgian constitution demands cold fare. One of my favorite Summer dishes is a nice cold potato salad, but I’m not keen on the mayo-laden American version of this classic. It’s not that I’m frantic about my waistline, but I simply like the zing of a vinegar-based potato salad better… I also think it’s more flavorful, but as the French would say: “Les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas”… which freely translated means that you are wrong in your opinion about flavors and colors, and they are always right. Et voila…

I am letting you know right now that you are not obligated to like this potato salad, but once you take a sumptuous spoonful of it, I know you’ll fall in love because… BACON! Bacon vincit omnia, ya’ll.

20130905-195219.jpg

ZINGY POTATO SALAD
(A Hungry Belgian original adaption of ‘Luikse Sla’ and German Potato Salad)
– 2 lbs of Fingerling or Yukon Gold potatoes
– 1 package of thick-cut bacon, sliced in strips (approx. 12 oz. Don’t skimp, this is where the flavor is at!)
– 2 large shallots, diced finely
– 1/3 cup apple cider or red wine vinegar
– 1/4 cup of honey
– 1 Tbsp of Dijon mustard
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 4-5 green onions, sliced thinly or slivered
– a handful of crisp arugula

In large pot of salted water, boil potatoes in the peel until fork tender but still with a bit of bite. Drain and allow to cool.

In the meantime, fry bacon in a heavy pan until slightly crisped. Take bacon out of pan and set aside on a paper towel lined sheet, and drain all but 1/4 cup of fat from the pan.

Add diced shallots to pan, and cook in reserved bacon fat until translucent. Add vinegar, honey, mustard, salt & pepper in pan, and heat until hot & bubbly.

Slice lukewarm or cooled potatoes in 1-inch pieces, and pour warm bacon dressing over them. Gently fold in the reserved bacon pieces and sliced green onions. Top with arugula and gently toss one last time.

For extra protein, serve with 2-4 hard boiled egg halves on top.

%d bloggers like this: