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Sour Cream Mashed Sweet Potatoes

28 Feb

Wow. It’s been 56 days since my last blog post. 

 

While my mother is probably already muttering under her breath that I’m  not finishing what I have started (is there ever such a thing as finishing a blog, though?!), I think that for once it’s safe to say she has a point. 56 days is entirely too long and I have no excuse for blowing the ‘Blogger of the Year’ award straight out of the water like that, but whatever. I’m not writing this blog to stroke my ego with awards and admiration. Wait! What? Who am I kidding?! I’m totally writing this blog for unconditional admiration from total strangers. Don’t judge.

 

The thing is, I feel like I’m not cooking anything blog-worthy nowadays. All we can really afford is chicken, and all those plump rosy thighs & breasts spiraled me straight down into writer’s block. I betcha that never happens to the writers of Hustler Magazine. It’s an unfair world, y’all?! In typical Teutonic fashion, I think I just set my own blogging bar entirely too high. I’ve always aspired to be an over-achiever, which has once driven me to attempt 78 sit-ups in 60 secs and resulted in a pulled muscle, but we digress…

 

Yesterday, my newfound love for sweet potatoes broke me loose from my self-imposed writing chain. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first since I’ve had a long-standing passive-aggressive relationship with sweet potatoes. I generally hate them. Then I get into a health kick and buy them anyway, only to not cook them out of fear of disappointment and – upon realization that decay is setting in and I’m wasting $5-$10 worth of food – I get angry at their underachievement in freshness and it cultivates my ice-cold disdain for them even more. No wiiiirrre hangers!!!! Shudder.

But yesterday was different. It all started a few months ago when my friend Laura invited me over to her house for a dinner party with an old colleague of ours. We did some wine drinking, and then sum mor wein trink’n, and then we kissed Francis Coppola and then Laura cooked the most amazing ‘Five Spice Tilapia’ and served it alongside a baked sweet potato, loaded with nuts & yogurt and stuff. The tanginess of the yogurt was perfect with the sweetness of that potato, and in combination with the saltiness of that delicious Tilapia… I swear, I nearly peed myself from culinary excitement. If only Liberace would have understood subtle balance like that!

 

Laura’s yam made me re-think the whole idea of sweet potatoes. No more cloyingly sweet casseroles or sugary mashes. And puh-lease, hold the damn marshmallows! The mash below is mildly sweet, but it’s the tanginess of that sour cream that steps it up and shows that yam who’s boss. I’m totally team sour cream.

 




SOUR CREAM MASHED SWEET POTATOES

(Recipe courtesy: “The Madison Inn”, Ascheville NC)

– 1 dozen large red sweet potatoes or yams (or both), peeled and sliced in chunks

– 8 cups of chicken stock

– 1 cup sour cream

– 1/4  cup light brown sugar 

– 1/4 cup of maple syrup 

– 1/4 cup whipping cream

– 4 Tbsp of butter

 

In a large pot, combine sweet potato chunks and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Simmer until potatoes are tender and easily mashable. I mashed my potatoes by hand, but you can also use a mixer. I like my mashed potatoes a bit chunky still. 

 

In the meantime, melt 4 Tbsp of butter and stir into the cold whipping cream. Pour over cooked mashed sweet potatoes and blend well. Fold in sour cream & brown sugar, and season with salt & pepper to taste. If you like your mashed potatoes sweeter, add some more maple syrup or sugar. (I omitted the maple syrup altogether, and the mash was just the right amount of sweetness to me)

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Cottage Pie with Root Vegetables

28 Aug

In exactly 44 days, my mom will land at Los Angeles Int’l airport. It’s an event the Farklepants’ household is already mentally preparing for, if nothing else, than to cross off the days on our kitchen calendar to see precisely how much more time we have left to bring the cleanliness & organization of our apartment up to military Cecilia’s standards.

It’s no easy feat. My mother, bless her heart, is a densely woven tapestry of arduous self-imposed rules & regulations, enforced daily by a deep, unrelenting desire for order & control. Flying by the seat of your pants, which is pretty much the mantra in our house, is something my elderly mom has a hard time coping with. She unwittingly, and with the best of intentions, attempts to smash & stuff our souls into her daily mold of how things ought to be, and at times this collides with the chaotic habits of my free-thinking creative family. She also takes planning and organization to uncharted heights. You know, the kind of heights Martha Stewart can only dream of reaching with her hand-carved & antiquated Scandinavian pinewood ladder.
On the other hand, underneath that regimented ice cap of self-imposed order and control, hides the woman that walks into a grocery store in Spain and buys a box of cat food by pointing her index finger into her wide-open gaping mouth and speaking the words ‘meow meow’. The same woman who has mastered the art of overly dramatic Japanese Kabuki-style facial expressions to anything that she finds a) odd, b) inappropriate, c) silly or d) all of the above (*)… It sometimes brings me to the brink of embarrassment, evoking a sheepish smile and a spontaneous “I’m sorry, she’s not from around here” response.
(*) Per example, she once addressed an unassuming diner waitress with a Maori battle cry when the poor woman came around to kindly refill her beverage and caught my mother off-guard. You see, Cecilia doesn’t believe in wasting any food or drink (and isn’t that a good Christian virtue?!), so even though she is full, her own set of imaginary rules mandates that she MUST finish whatever is presented to her. Also… she did NOT want any ice in her drink!!!!

This year, since our apartment is at full capacity and my mom fully expects me to lodge her in my house regardless of that fact, I tapped into my professional travel network & award points and was able to conjure free lodging for an epic 7-day road trip through the Southwest USA. It’s an adventure we’re both excited for, if it weren’t for my car having trouble with its right front wheel all of a sudden. We don’t even have enough money to make it through the month at times, let alone that I’m now having to face a dreaded trip to the mechanic, so he can take a look at it and tell me it’ll be $637.41 or so to fix it… Hurray! Let me write you a check. Right. This. Minute. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I guess God will take care of that predicament in due time. Note to self: have faith.

If our financial situation was a person, it would probably be a circus freak. Maybe even the Elephant Man. Or Quasimodo. I picture this is what mom went through as well as a single parent with a delinquent ex-husband. I pretty much spend my entire days worrying in anxiety biting every penny in half, whilst scouring Pinterest in search of hearty rib-sticking meals that cost mere pennies. Our protein-plan exists out of chicken & kielbasa, and the occasional ground beef. We haven’t had ribs or a juicy roast in a good long while, and steak & fish have vanished off of our menu entirely due to their price tag. The thought of Thanksgiving & Christmas dinner currently gives me the willies. Pray that by then, we’ll be blessed by the hand of the forces that may.

Mom cooked a lot of ground beef recipes, and I do too. One of my beloved cheap(er) dinners is ‘Cottage Pie’. It’s flavorful, hearty and it feeds my family of 3 hungry men + yours truly for pennies on the dollar. To add bulk, I use a gaggle of root vegetables that caramelize slowly, which gives the whole dish another depth of flavor that I find very tasty. The recipe below fills my large 15’ Lodge cast iron pan + a smaller oven dish, and it typically feeds us twice.

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COTTAGE PIE WITH ROOT VEGETABLES
(a la Hungry Belgian)
For the beef mixture:
3 lbs of ground beef, at least 15% fat
1 onion, diced
2 rutabagas (or 2 small), diced
3 carrots, diced
2 parsnips, diced
1 celery root, diced
3-4 ribs of celery, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 6oz can of tomato paste
A handful of thyme & rosemary tied together in a bundle
A few dashes of ‘kitchen bouquet’ browning liquid or Worcestershire sauce
3 Tbsp of flour
1 16oz bottle of Stout beer or a dark beer of your liking
Salt & pepper to taste

I use a Dutch oven to cook the filling, but you can use any heavy large pan. Start by dicing the vegetables into even dice so they all cook at the more or less the same speed. Mince the garlic and have everything ready to go.

Start by heating up your pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the ground beef and a few dashes of browning liquid, and crumble while browning. When it’s all browned, take it out of your pan and set aside. Drain some of the fat, but leave some so we can caramelize the vegetables in it.
Turn the heat down to medium-low, add all of your diced vegetables (excl. garlic) and let them slowly caramelize a bit for 30 min or so, stirring regularly to achieve an even browning.

When vegetables are browned, add beef back to the pan and turn heat to medium-high. Add tomato paste and brown the tomato paste with the vegetables & beef for 2-3 minutes. Then sprinkle a few tablespoons of flour over the lot, and brown another 1-2 minutes. Your pan will be cruddy on the bottom, but don’t worry, this crud adds a ton of flavor!
When mixture appears well browned, after 3-4 minutes, add beer and scrape all of the tasty bits off of the bottom of your pan over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic, rosemary & thyme bundle, then add salt & pepper to taste. Turn heat to medium, and let the mixture reduce & thicken for another 20-30 minutes. If too thick, add some water or beef broth. If too thin, keep simmering and I promise it will reduce further. When it’s done, take rosemary/thyme bundle out of the pan and allow the mixture to cool a bit.

For the cheddar mashed potatoes topping:
5 lbs of Yukon gold potatoes
4-6 Tbsp of butter
Approx 1-1.5 cups of milk
1 cup of grated white cheddar
1 tsp of grated horseradish (not horseradish sauce!) (completely optional)

Peel, cube & boil potatoes until soft. While the potatoes are cooking, warm the milk & butter in the microwave until melted & combined. Add salt & pepper to milk mixture, per your preference.
When potatoes are soft, drain them and mash them as usual. They will be lumpy, which is what I like best. Add warmed milk mixture to mashed potatoes a little a time, until you achieve a soft but form mash and the milk mixture is well-incorporated. You may have to use a bit more or less.
Add grated cheddar & horseradish (if using), and fold until blended. Your potato mash should be firm and not too soft.

Butter or grease your oven dish(es) and spread all of the beef mixture on the bottom(s). Top the beef with the mashed potatoes to fully cover the beef layer. My personal cottage pie math is, is that I like to have 2/3 beef mixture and 1/3 potatoes on top. You can do half/half, it’s whatever you prefer, really. With a fork, make a few lines or crimps in the potato layer, so that when it brow in the oven, you’ll get crispy edges on those ridges. Alternatively, you can also pipe your mashed potatoes on top of the beef mixture ‘duchesse’-style.

Bake in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min until the edges of the potatoes are well browned. Serve hot, with a pint of Guinness and an Irish joke or two.

Bon appetit!

Spanish Chickpeas with Chorizo & Piquillo Peppers

18 Feb

Shortly before the holidays, my friend & pastor Erika G. tagged me in a Facebook ad she saw from a local kitchen supply store, with the mentioning that I simply ‘had to’ respond. “This is so you!”, she said, “You should apply!”. I don’t know how or where she saw the ad, but I never did and Lord knows I spend enough time on Facebook food pages that I should have seen this. Anyway, considering the fabulous Erika G. is my pastor, I think she was summoned by divine intervention and then asked to channel one of the three wise men and deliver this gift to me… by means of modern communication, rather than camel.

The ad in question came from Surfas-Culinary District, and it was an open invitation to all local food bloggers to apply to become a ‘product reviewer’. Sounds fancy, huh? I nearly wet myself from excitement. Not only have I been a customer of theirs for several years, but more importantly, I love that store. As in ‘luuuuvvvvv’. I totally understand that this sounds fishy now that I’m an official Surfas endorser, so to speak, but if you’ve followed this blog, then you’ve seen me write about Surfas long before I even applied to their ad. And my friends know that if they dare ask me where to find something, I send them to Surfas. Plain & simple. The walk-in store in Culver City, CA is the perfect combination of industrial urban-ness and artisanal food shopping, and while the building and/or atmosphere inside may not be as visually elegant as ‘Sur La Table’ or ‘Williams-Sonoma’, there is nothing you can want that Surfas doesn’t deliver… It’s foodie heaven, I tell you. My mother knows this too, and a trip to Surfas is on the agenda every time she visits from Belgium. It’s also my ‘go-to’ place when she tells me that she *must* find natural squid ink to make black risotto or a ‘thingy that looks like a pincette but is much larger’, which some random celebrity chef uses in Cecilia’s favorite cooking show on Belgian TV… You can bet on it that Surfas has that too.

But we digress… Last Saturday, my package with the first few items arrived. I’ve long wanted to try Piquillo peppers, and yesterday was my lucky day. Piquillo peppers are in the chili family, and are traditionally grown in the Northern part of Spain, where they are harvested at peak ripeness and then roasted whole and preserved in brine. The peppers are small, with firm sweet flesh and no heat. They are named after a bird’s ‘piquillo’ (get your mind out of the gutter) or beak, since the peppers have a pointy shape. The fruit very much resembles regular roasted red peppers, but they are sweeter and with a distinct flavor I can’t quite place my finger on. I guess you could say they have a more intense pepper flavor and their texture is firmer yet silkier than that of a regular roasted pepper.

Most recipes for Piquillo peppers call for the peppers to be stuffed with anything from cheese to ground beef & fish. However, I wanted to make a meal out of it yet stay true to the flavors of Spain at the same time. The result was pretty darn tasty, and I served it alongside a grainy artisanal bread to emulate that Mediterranean flair.

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SPANISH CHICKPEAS WITH CHORIZO & PIQUILLO PEPPERS
(adapted from a recipe for ‘Garbanzos con Chorizo’ that I found on the Internet)
– 4 13.5oz cans of chickpeas
– 1 13.5oz can of crushed tomatoes, unseasoned
– 1 13.5oz can of Piquillo peppers, sliced into ribbons
– 3 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
– 2 shallots, finely chopped
– 7oz of dry chorizo, sliced in thin slices or cubed finely
– a few good slashes of cooking sherry
– 2 Tbsp of fresh oregano, finely chopped (or 1 Tbsp dried oregano)
– 1-2 Tbsp of Piment d’Espelette or another hot pepper like cayenne or a dash of sriracha
– salt to taste
– parsley, for decoration

Preheat oven to 350F.

Drain chickpeas and rinse until no longer foamy. Drain Piquillo peppers in a separate sieve and slice each pepper into thin ribbons.

In a cast iron skillet or heavy pan, brown the chorizo until it starts to sweat and turn color a little bit. You don’t want it to be crispy at this point. Add chopped shallots and sauté until shallots turn translucent. Add tomato paste and minced garlic, and cook for additional 1-2 minutes. If your pan is getting a bit crusty, add a splash of cooking sherry and scrape up any bits.

Add chickpeas, pepper ribbons, crushed tomatoes, Piment d’Espelette and oregano, and fold everything to combine well. Pour a few splashes of cooking sherry over the heap of yummy goodness and bake for approx. 15 min at 350F until the top is slightly crispy and the chickpeas are heated through.

Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top for prettiness, and serve alongside grainy bread or rice.

Warm Blue Cheese Sriracha Corn Dip

9 Jan

I confess that I know nothing about American football. Well, almost nothing. I know that the Minnesota Vikings’ uniform colors are purple and GOLD!, not yellow. It looks pretty yellow to me, but who am I to judge?! I also know that you’re not supposed to hold a conversation during the game for longer than, say, 30 seconds. Commercials is when your verbal diarrhea is tolerated. And I know that you’re not supposed to jump up with arms extended and a loud ‘HELL YEAH!!!’ when there’s a flag against your team. A flag is evil… and a tat effeminate, if you ask me, but I’ll hold my vile tongue.

I have no clue what all the conferences mean, let alone how they stack up against each other. I’m truly a lost atom in the football vortex. I understand just about as much from football as I would from any scientific debate in Norwegian, and that notion is aggravated by the fact that I can’t even keep football and baseball straight. I kid you not, 90% of the time, I still think the Red Socks are a football team! Ouch.

The kicker is (ain’t that a nice pun?!), I actually enjoy watching football. Very much like the cats. I don’t per se lounge on the ottoman like a jezebel and elaborately start grooming my nether regions, but – like the resident felines – I’m pleasantly entertained by the movement on the screen. I like seeing all the pretty colors. And then there is Mr. Farklepants too, with his spontaneous loud outbursts of approval and/or animated annoyance about certain referee calls. Watching him watch football, amuses me. I’ll come right out saying that there is no specific team I’m a fan of, and as such, I mostly root for the team wearing the prettiest colors the team that pleases my visual cortex the most. Contrary to what I just stated (I am female after all), the Seahawks will always have my vote because a) I have very dear friends in Seattle and feel a misplaced loyalty to their team, b) Seattle is quite possibly the coolest city in the USA and c) Pike Place Market. Enough said there.

What I like best about the ‘Super Bowl’, though, is that it comes with a widely accepted ‘diet pardon’ that makes it OK to stuff your face with chips dipped in whatever melts into a tasty homogenized blob in the oven. A while ago, I found a recipe for a hot blue cheese & onion dip and, true to my non-conformist nature, I turned that deliciousness into a corn version… with a bit of help from Pinterest. It was love at first bite.

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Warm Blue Cheese Sriracha Corn Dip
(Adapted from several hot dip recipes I found on Pinterest)

– 4 oz of cream cheese, softened
– 3 oz of blue cheese, crumbled (such a Roquefort or Danish Blue)
– 1/2 cup of sour cream
– 1/2 cup of mayonnaise
– 1 1/2 cups of Monterrey Jack cheese, grated + more for topping
– 2.5 cups of fresh or frozen corn
– 1 red bell pepper, diced finely
– 1 green bell pepper, diced finely
– 2 shallots, diced finely
– 2-4 Tbsp of Sriracha sauce, depending on the level of spiciness you desire.
– 1 tsp of ground cumin
– 1 tsp of Hungarian sweet paprika
– 2-3 green onions, for garnish.
– salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 350F.

If using frozen corn, take out of the freezer and let it defrost in a sieve, allowing the thawing juices to drain. If using fresh corn, cut corn off of the cobs and set aside. I prefer fresh when in season, but either works just fine!

In a skillet (I use my 12-inch Lodge Cast Iron skillet), sauté the shallots and bell peppers until beginning to soften. Turn off the heat and add reserved corn, allowing the corn to cool down the skillet just a bit.

In a bowl, mix cream cheese with mayo, sour cream, Sriracha Sauce & Monterey jack cheese. Add salt to taste. Add cumin & corn mixture from skillet and mix until well combined. Either pour mixture back into skillet or pour into an oven-safe casserole dish. Top with a little bit of Monterey jack cheese, and bake uncovered for approx. 30-40 min, until mixture is bubbly.

Slice green onions finely and sprinkle over top of dip. Serve hot, with tortilla chips, crackers or crusty French bread slices.

Cider Braised Chicken

12 Nov

“What on God’s great Earth is Jidori chicken breast?!”, I asked myself slightly puzzled, whilst typing up a fancy restaurant menu for a client of mine. My first thought was that it was probably a specific type of chicken. You know, like when you’re driving on a road trip in the Montana wilderness and spontaneously burst out in amazement: “OMG!!!! LOOK HONEY!! A flock of free roaming wild Jidori chickens!”. Okay, maybe not like that, but either way, I wasn’t that far off…

When I spoke with the Chef in question, he explained to me in a thick French accent that ‘jidori’ chicken is like the ‘Kobe’ beef in the poultry world. The term is Japanese, and roughly translated, it means ‘from the ground up’. “Um… Is there any other kind except for the GROUND-roaming kind ?”, I asked? “Do I need to start watching out for free-FLYING, sky-roaming pooping wild chickens?!”. Laurent laughed a hearty belly-laugh. “Ze term revers do ze virst class freshzness and robuste flaveur”, he explains. Story has it that at some point in Japanese history, underneath a blossoming pink cherry tree in my imagination, a precious pure bred ‘Hinaidori’ chicken made wild love to a handsome ‘Rhode Island Red’, et voila, the ‘Akita-Hinai’ chicken was born. The young chick was raised in traditional Japanese ‘Jidori’ style, and there you have it: the Akita-Hinai Jidori chicken. Jidori farmed chickens are cage-free birds that are free roaming and fed an all-vegetarian diet, including clover, juicy tomatoes & crisp apples. These organic birds are free of any hormones and/or other meat by-products, and are delivered for consumption on the same day they went to poultry heaven, to ensure the utmost freshness. Jidori chickens are never frozen, which means they retain less water and have a firmer, plumper & pinker breast and a deep, robust chicken flavor… The term ‘Jidori’ is trademarked in the same way ‘Champagne’ is trademarked. Only chickens that are bred and raised in this manner, are allowed to be name ‘Jidori’ chickens, but the term doesn’t per se refer to the animal’s origin, like Kobe beef does to beef. Freely speaking, any chicken can be a jidori-chicken for as long as it is bred in the traditional jidori-way. Technically, this means that ‘Catharina The Great’ from your own backyard coop can also be a jidori-style chicken, provided you love her, tell her bedtime stories and feed her organic fodder that contains plenty of whole foods and no meat by-products… If you think about it, jidori chickens are like the Pamela Andersons of the poultry world. (hashtags: spoiled, vegetarian, plump breast)

In the late 1990’s, Dennis Mao from Mao Foods brought jidori chicken to America, and mainly to the Los Angeles based restaurant scene. Since then, like any true Hollywood Starlet with plump pink breasts, Jidori chicken’s rise to fame cannot be stopped and nationwide demand far exceeds Mao Foods’ supply… As a matter of fact, unless you are a fancy chef with a Michelin-star restaurant, it’s nearly impossible to buy jidori-style chicken as a regular consumer. So are we cheated from the ultimate deliciousness in poultry? Not entirely. In a fairly recent newspaper interview, Dennis Mao admits that a sustainably raised chicken that is treated humanely in a stress-free environment, fed quality feed and bought directly from a small organic farm, probably tastes as good as his own ‘jidori’-style chicken… and that’s good news for us plain folks. I’m all for eating happy chickens, as horrible as that sounds to some of you.

The menu I was typing for my client featured a cider braised Jidori chicken breast. When I hear cider, I think ‘Normandy’ in France. I think warm Camembert ‘en croûte’, green pastures, bovines and delicious apple cider… The recipe below is my own take on authentic Normandy chicken. Give it it a try, oh… and buy happy chicken, y’all!

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CIDER BRAISED CHICKEN WITH ROSEMARY, APPLES & MUSHROOMS
(Adapted from “Knack Weekend”)
– 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts or 6-8 thighs.
– 2 apples, peeled & cut into wedges or dice (I use Jonagold or Golden Delicious)
– 1-2 large shallot, minced
– 3 sprigs of fresh rosemary, whole + a bit more finely chopped, for garnish
– 16oz of white button mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered, if large
– 1/3 cup of Calvados or white wine
– 3 cups of hard cider
– a splash of cream
– 2 Tbsp of all purpose flour, to thicken the sauce
– salt & pepper to taste

Rinse and pat chicken dry. Season on all sides with salt & pepper. Melt 3 Tbsp of butter over medium-high heat, and brown chicken, approx. 3-4 min per side.

Sprinkle chicken with flour and allow the flour to melt with the butter so it forms a “roux”.

Add Calvados, and ignite to allow alcohol to evaporate quickly. Stand back and be careful! Then add apple cider and rosemary, scrape browned bits off the bottom of the pan and braise chicken without the lid of the pot for approx. 25-30 min.

In the meantime, in a separate pan, melt another 2 Tbsp of butter over medium-high heat and brown shallots, mushrooms & apples. When all are browned and caramelized, approx. 10-15 min or so, add all of it (incl. their liquid) to the pot with the chicken, and allow to braise without the lid for another 10-15 min until chicken is tender and cooked all the way through.

Finish the sauce with a splash of cream and a sprinkling of finely chopped fresh rosemary, if desired, and serve with crusty French bread or roasted potatoes.

Greek Baked Beans

4 Nov

Last weekend, I found a package of giant dry white beans or ‘gigantes’ in my cupboard. These tasty plump beans are a staple in Greek cuisine, and the mere mentioning of the word ‘Greek’ always sends my mind to the time my best friend & I had pizza & cheap wine in her shoebox-size apartment in the ‘Lange Vlierstraat’ in Antwerp. I know it’s a bit of stretch and a far cry from the usual images of breezy seaside tavernas with vine-wrapped trellises and ouzo. Bear with me, please.

While most young adults live with their parents when they’re still in college, my friend lived solo’ and her digs were usually the place we’d hang out at to channel our inner-dork. Not that ‘two-buck-chuck’ & pizza nights were so unusual during our college years, but that night in particular, she was preparing to move in with her now American ex-husband and the purpose of our gathering was to get silly on cheap wine to facilitate her move into her fiance’s beautiful house on the left banks of the ‘Schelde’ river in Antwerp, and mostly to get rid of the stuff that really shouldn’t see the light of day when you’re twenty-something and about to engage in a serious relationship of co-habitation with the other sex.

On a side note, per my mother, W. & I have had a life-long reputation of unbridled ‘silliness’. ‘Onozel doen’, like mom would say. As a matter of fact, with W. living in Florida, we speak over the phone weekly. Or at least attempt to hold a conversation, which usually starts off with W. bursting out in a suffocating fit of snorting laughter the minute I answer my phone, muttering “I’ll call you right back” in between giggles, which spirals me into a similar guffaw before I even know what it is she wants to share with me. It’s like our ‘tween-gene’ is activated the minute we connect, and we are instantly transported back to the late 80’s.

Anyway, we digress… Thirty odd years ago or so (Gah! I’m old), we found ourselves slumped back on her couch, plastic Dixie cup of wine in hand, and thumbing through an old photo album with letters & pictures of her long forgotten high school pen pal: Kostas. He was Greek. He was twenty-something compared to her sweet sixteen. He had curly black hair, no bodily shame and he was censored by my friend’s prudence by means of black tape. The naughty picture in question was carefully glued in her album, with a strategically placed hand-crafted ‘trap door’ of black tape, which could be lifted to behold all of Kostas’ glory. Like a mini-peep show from the comfort of home, so to speak. I also remember he later came to visit from Greece with his friend while we were much older and already in college, and he turned out to be quite full of himself and a royal penis, pardon the pun.

If you think you can picture the ridiculousness of two grown women giggling like pimpled high school girls over a nude picture of a not-so-good looking young man, think harder and then multiply the dorkiness level by tenfold. That’s us! So any time I hear the word ‘Greek’ now, I have to think about Kostas. And that naughty trap-door picture that had us doubled up in silly laughter.

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GREEK BAKED BEANS
(‘Fasolia Plaki’… adapted per my own flavor preferences)
– 1 package of dry ‘gigantes’ or large white beans (500 gr or 0.5 lbs)
– 3 large juicy tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 1 15oz can of diced tomatoes)
– 1 small can of ROTEL ‘mild’ tomatoes & chillies
– 2-3 roasted red bell peppers, peeled & diced (the jarred kind are fine too)
– 6 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
– 1 large onion, diced
– 2 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 2 Tbsp of dried oregano (or a few sprigs of fresh oregano, chopped fine)
– 4 Tbsp of dried parsley (or a handful of fresh parsley, chopped fine)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped fine
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes (*)
– salt to taste
– 2 cups of the boiling water from the beans
(*) when using Rotel tomatoes & chillies, 1 Tbsp will do you just fine and will turn the dish medium spicy. For mild heat, leave out the red pepper flakes al together. For NO heat, leave out the red pepper flakes and use 2 more tomatoes instead of a can of Rotel chillies, and season with some pepper. For more heat, add more red pepper flakes. You get my drift…

Soak beans overnight in a large container of plain unsalted water, with at least 2-3 inches of water topping the beans once submerged. Let them soak on the counter.

The next day, drain beans from the soaking water, and place in a large pot. Bring beans to a boil and let simmer until tender, but still with a bit of bite. The ‘older’ the beans, the longer this stage will take, but for my 6-8 month old package of dry beans, this was approx. 75 min.
Drain beans, reserving approx. 2 cups of the bean water, and set aside.

If using fresh tomatoes, carve an ‘X’ in the bottom your tomato and flash-boil for about 1 minute in the boiling bean water (or a pot of boiling water). The edges of the ‘X’ will start to curl and this process will make peeling your tomatoes significantly easier. Peel each tomato, cut in quarters, remove seed-cores and dice the flesh in small cubes. Try to reserve some of the juice, but don’t worry too much about that.

While the beans boil, preheat oven to 350F. In a heavy oven-proof skillet (I used a cast iron skillet, but you can also use a regular pan and then transfer everything into a casserole), sauté the diced onions until tender and translucent, approx. 5 min. Add tomato paste, garlic, roasted & peeled bell peppers and red pepper flakes, and sauté for another few minutes to ‘cook out’ the tomato paste a bit. Then add diced tomatoes (with juice), can of Rotel chillies and all of the herbs. Stir the sauce and cook for another 10-15 minutes to reduce and thicken a little bit.

Fold cooked beans in the tomato sauce, and pour the reserved bean water over the beans until they are ‘just’ submerged. Stick bay leaves in the pan and bake, uncovered, in a 350F oven for another 75-90 min until the juices have evaporated. The top will be slightly crispy.

Serve hot with crusty bread. Or with an omelet, like I did.

Balsamic Chicken with Figs & Port

15 Oct

How is it, that 10 days flew by so fast? Yesterday, I dropped my mom off at LAX airport from what seemed like a 10-day visit at mach 3 speed. We spent a few days driving through the Angeles and Sequoia National Forests, and onwards through Yosemite NP and Death Valley NP. The parks were ‘officially’ closed due to our infamous Government shutdown, and we received stern warnings from the Park Rangers that stopping or getting out of our car was strictly prohibited, but – given the ridiculousness of this situation – I felt that this policy was open for creative interpretation, so we stopped and took beautiful photographs. Right? The only downfall was that all restrooms were bolted as well, and with a 2.5 hour drive through Yosemite NP, this meant that my unscrupulous desperate 70-year old mother may or may not have ‘wild peed’ behind a tree at Tuolomne Meadows… Please forgive her. If you were in Yosemite around 11:42A last 7th Oct, you needn’t wonder any longer if the national park is habitat to some sort of rare ‘sierra flamingo’. You merely caught a glimpse of my mother, clad in hot pink pants, precariously perched somewhere off-road in between the pines. I’m deeply sorry.

Besides being a colorful character, it also became apparent during this trip that my mother excels in charging stuff to her Belgian visa card, and neatly folding those receipts into her wallet with mathematical precision. “To verify the charges, when the bill comes in”. Among various kitchen gadgets and other pleasantries, she gifted me a really nice 6.5 quart Cuisinart slow cooker and a fantastic Nordic Ware waffler, which happens to be the best frigging waffle iron I have ever owned. While I’m tickled pink with the waffler, it’s the slow cooker that really fills a void in our home. When my old one died in the midst of slow-cooking a satanic 3-lbs Mojo-marinated Cuban pork shoulder, it broke my heart. But now that Cecilia-in-hot-pink-pants flew to the rescue, we have a shiny new 6.5 quart fancy Cuisinart cooker for our Fall & Winter enjoyment. Hurray!

To pay proper respect to my mom’s visa charge, I’m dedicating this recipe to my mother. It’s sweet and tangy, a wee bit odd and chockfull of character… kinda like Cecilia.

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BALSAMIC CHICKEN WITH FIGS & PORT
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– olive oil, to brown the chicken
– salt & pepper to taste
– 1/2 cup of good quality balsamic vinegar
– 1/2 cup of Ruby port
– 1/2 cup of chicken broth
– 2-3 Tbsp of chopped fresh thyme
– 16 dried figs, roughly chopped
– 2 shallots, finely chopped
– 4 oz of Spanish chorizo, finely chopped

Rinse chicken thighs under cold water & pat dry. Season with salt & pepper, then brown in a skillet in a bit of olive oil.

Place browned chicken thighs in the insert of your slow cooker. Add chorizo & shallots to the pan, and give them a quick flash fry for a few minutes.

Deglaze the pan you used for browning the chicken & chorizo with the balsamic vinegar & port, scraping up any browned bits. When done, add broth and pour liquid & pan drippings over the chicken in your slow cooker, including chorizo & shallots.

Add the thyme & figs, and stir to combine.

Cover the slow cooker & cook on high for 2 hours, until the sauce is thick and somewhat syrupy. Serve with roasted potatoes or over rice.

Greek Stuffed Eggplant

26 Aug

Don’t these look pretty?

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Eggplant always look appealing to me. They’re so visually stunning in their gorgeous deep purple jackets, and whenever I see them flirting with me like that, I instantly want to buy a dozen. But then I find myself stumped for ideas of what to do with these beauties, since I haven’t gotten much farther than Baba Ganoush or ratatouille, and the stuffed eggplant recipes I’ve tried before all sort of came up kinda ‘blah’… like Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s last night.Right?! Good Lord!

Until recently, stuffed eggplant weren’t our thing. That is, until I saw a recipe for moussaka I had clipped back in the day when people still clipped recipes out of magazines using scissors. The horror! Either way, I made a note to my foodie self that I should make moussaka again soon, but since I have to cut back on carbs and starch, what with Satan playing tricks with my blood sugar lately, I was trying to think of a way to do this sans potatoes… and then BINGO!, it totally dawned on me I could simply make the meaty deliciousness and stuff that directly into an eggplant. It was a stroke of genius that I completely credit to the glass of Pinot Grigio I enjoyed in my other hand. So much for the blood sugar thing, but hey, Rome wasn’t built in one day either.

These turned out really good and I think we’ll have them in regular rotation. And if you wanted to make this vegetarian, you could totally replace the meats with a whole grain like quinoa, or whatever it is you fancy instead of meat.

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GREEK STUFFED EGGPLANT
(Adapted from a recipe for moussaka)
– 4 medium eggplant
– 2 onions, diced
– 1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
– 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded & diced
– 8 oz of ground pork
– 1 lbs lean ground lamb (or beef)
– 1.5 Tbsp of ground cinnamon
– 2 Tbsp of fresh oregano, chopped finely
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– 1/3 cup of toasted pine nuts
– salt & pepper, to taste
– olive oil
– Parmesan cheese, for garnish
– freshly chopped parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400F.

Cut eggplant in half, and with a spoon, scoop out flesh. Set ‘shells’ aside on a lined baking sheet.

In a heavy bottom pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chopped eggplant, garlic and onions, and sauté for 5 min until beginning to soften. Add diced bell pepper and cook for a few min longer.

Add meats and crumble whilst cooking in the vegetables. Add cinnamon, oregano and salt & pepper to taste. Add a pinch of cayenne for more heat, if desired. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until meat is browned.

Fold toasted pine nuts and diced tomatoes into meat, and scoop mixture into hollowed eggplant to form a little dome in each one.

Cook eggplant in hot oven for approx. 20-30 min until crisp browned and heated through.

Before serving, sprinkle with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese and parsley over the top.

Smakelijk!

Zucchini & Fennel Dauphinoise

23 Aug

The other day, a Belgian friend of mine hit me up over Facebook chat and asked if I had any tasty zucchini recipes I could share because her urban garden had produced a monster load of them and she exasperatedly told me she was at her wits end of what to do with all that squash… I was just about to send her the link to my recipe for curried zucchini fritters, which were recently featured in Boston Magazine, when she quickly chimed in with “…but NOT zucchini fritters!!!”. Well, okay then.

I’ve always loved savory one-pot meals and oven dishes. There’s something really cozy and homey about them, not to mention that they’re usually prepared in beautifully colored Dutch ovens or cast iron skillets. I’m a sucker for rustic, visual appeal. It’s because of people like me that the cooking stuff industry is thriving. Unless an item is ridiculously over-priced or I see it as blatant a fail, I naturally gravitate towards the prettiness of products and labels. I’m fairly level-headed with a good head on my shoulders, but put me in a store like ‘Sur La Table’ and all of that sharp wit goes straight out the door amidst… so much happy!!!. It’s a blessed thing I have a small apartment kitchen, as otherwise my house would be filled with brightly colored Dutch ovens, stacks of vintage tableware and gorgeous linens.

Greatness is, is that my innate love for pretty things also causes me to adore fruits & vegetables. All those bright colors of the produce aisle play out like a true Van Gogh before my eyes. It’s almost like taking a stroll through the Louvre in my mind. Okay. Maybe not entirely, but seeing all the vibrant colors and different shapes of all this produce makes me so happy. It’s an affliction my men don’t seem to share, unless I also happen to pick up potatoes, cheese, beer and/or hot dogs. We live in separate worlds, those men & I, but luckily we find common ground in gratins.

In my post about blue cheese potato & rutabaga gratin, I already proclaimed my love for the spud, but the dish below is a tasty twist on a classic French potato gratin. There’s truly nothing that can go wrong when heavy cream is involved, in my opinion. Just like butter, it has the magical power of turning anything it comes in contact with into a sumptuous dish you can’t get enough of. It’s gorgeous made with zucchini, but you could get creative and also cook it with carrots, parsnips or any other root vegetable. 
 

ZUCCHINI DAUPHINOISE
(Created after a French classic)
– approx. 2 medium sized zucchinis
– 2 large fennel bulbs
– 3 lbs of Yukon Gold potatoes (or another ‘firm-cooking’ variety, approx. 5-6 large potatoes)
– olive oil, to grease the oven dish
– approx. 1.5 to 2 cups of heavy cream
– 3 large cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– ground nutmeg, as needed
– 1/2 bunch of fresh thyme, leaves removed and stems discarded
– salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a pie dish or a 10-inch cast iron skillet.

With a mandolin (or by hand), slice the zucchini into 1/8 inch slices. Do the same with the potatoes & fennel. In a small sauce pan, heat cream with garlic and half of the thyme leaves, reserve the other half for sprinkling over each layer and a bit for decoration. Don’t boil, just heat until it’s nice & hot and the flavors have had a chance to develop a bit.

On the bottom of the pan or skillet, arrange a layer of potato slices so that they overlap slightly. Dust lightly with a bit of nutmeg, salt, pepper & sprinkle a few thyme leaves over the top. On top of the potatoes, arrange a layer of zucchini slices, also overlapping slightly and sprinkle with nutmeg, salt, pepper & thyme as well. Gently press down to compact the 2 layers. Repeat potato layer, then layer fennel and season with nutmeg, salt, pepper & thyme leaves. Press down and repeat this process, alternating fennel & zucchini in between potato, until you reach you run out of potato & vegetables.

Pour hot cream mixture all over the dish, so much so until it appears that roughly about half of the dish is submerged in cream. Bake the gratin uncovered in the oven for approx. 2 hours., but cover about half way through to prevent the top from browning too much. If you like, you can also sprinkle some freshly grated Parmesan cheese over the top to create a gooey cheesy crust over the top.

Take out of the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle reserved thyme leaves over the top and serve warm.

Blue Cheese Potato & Rutabaga Gratin

1 Aug

Belgium is big on potatoes, hence our national love affair with French fries… Potatoes were also my grandpa’s favorite dish, and genetically, I think that’s where I got my potato-love from. He especially liked mashed potatoes, with loads of butter & cream, to the point where they had to be served in a shallow bowl to ensure all that buttery deliciousness didn’t land on the antique parquet floors.

To further add to my love for potatoes, both mom & dad would take me to local farms for basic provisions like milk & eggs, butter, tomatoes… I was very little and I don’t remember many of them, but I do vividly recall one of them. It had a stone arched entrance with large, cast-iron gate doors that creaked when you pushed them open, and the old stone farm house & buildings were wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with the prerequisite droppings of horse manure and hay shoveled in the corner. The grounds were guarded by a large mutt that once bit my brother in the ass was allowed to roam freely and would come barrelling down towards you, stopping only a few feet shy, and then taunt you with his bark until the farm hands would shoo it away. You never knew which corner ‘the creature’ would come from, and as a little girl, that made me grasp my mother’s pants extra-tightly out of fear for death by wild canine. To further confirm my belief that this was purgatory, the plump farmer’s wife would often beckon us into the farm house in her stained apron and with a semi-toothless smile, and then proceed with pinching my cheeks with her callused, rancit smelling hands. The farm ‘office’ had several yellow sticky fly traps hanging from the ceiling with a handful of flies desperately trying to free themselves from certain death, and I always tried not to look at those things, because it made my little heart weep for the shimmering blue-green souls. The only upside I remember about that particular farm was that we were allowed to play on the potato fields whilst serious business was conducted inside the office. On occasion, we’d be handed a small garden shovel by a farm hand and asked if we’d like to go digging for spuds. I loved digging for potatoes! To me, it was like hunting for buried treasure: you never knew whether you’d come up with tiny little ones or the BIG monster kind that earned you serious bragging rights. Our loot would be taken home and prepared, and somehow it always tasted waaayyy better then when we’d buy potatoes from the store. I think I learned early on that farm fresh food tastes better then the stuff you buy in the grocery store.

Just like my opa, potatoes have a special place in my heart and on my hips. Belgian cuisine is the more down-to-earth sibling of French cuisine, and as such it is heavily French influenced. However, being more of a hearty meat & potatoes kind of country, we worship the lowly tuberous crop alongside many other root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga etc. Potato gratin is one of those dishes that seem to always make it to family get-togethers during holidays or festivities, and often in duplicate too. I’m not sure where precisely I got the recipe below from, but I think I based it loosely on ‘Gratin Dauphinois’ and then sort of made it my own over the years.

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BLUE CHEESE POTATO & RUTABAGA GRATIN
– 1.5 lbs of firm-cooking potatoes (Yukon Gold, for instance), more or less even in diameter
– 4-5 medium rutabaga
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– ½ cup of chopped fresh thyme
– 6-8 oz of Gruyere cheese, shredded
– 4 oz of blue cheese crumbles (Danish Blue or Roquefort work great)

Heat oven to 375F. Peel and wash potatoes. Peel rutabagas. With your mandolin slicer, slice potatoes and rutabagas into thin, even slices (approx. 1/8 inch thick).

Butter an oven pan on all our sides. In the bottom of the pan, make a ¼ inch layer of the potato slices and rutabaga slices combined (you can mix & match them, so your ¼ inch thick layer has a bit of both), overlapping them a bit. Sprinkle with some of the blue cheese and a bit of the fresh thyme, then lightly toss some gruyere over top. Repeat this process until you reach the top of your pan. Reserve about 3-4 oz of the gruyere and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine milk & cream, add /minced grated garlic and salt & pepper to taste. Add remaining thyme, if you have any, and give everything a good stir. Pour all of it over the potato/rutabaga mixture in your pan. The cream mixture will thicken as the potatoes release their starch, so don’t worry if it looks a bit too soupy at first. Cover pan and cook in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min, until potatoes & rutabaga are tender and easily pricked with a fork. Uncover, sprinkle remaining Gruyere over the top and brown until the broiler until cheese is nicely melted, a bit browned on the edges & bubbly.

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