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Lemon Curd

13 Mar

Lemon curd.

It’s not exactly an attractive sounding name, is it? Who reads that and goes “oh yum, I must have some C.U.R.D…!”. Unless you’re British and scones make up 70% of your daily dietary intake, I don’t think anyone gets super-hyped over curd. It just doesn’t excite like Javier Bardem chocolate does, does it?

Nonetheless, lemon curd has been on my list of “things to give a go” for a while now. I love lemon flavored things, but I never really grasped the vast deliciousness of curd until I made it last Sunday morning. Somehow, I always thought of making curd as a complicated ‘fancy’ thing. And somehow, I always thought the effort wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t have hit further off the mark if I was a 10-yr old boy in a public urinal. I was so wrong. Wrong-er than Richard Simmons’ aerobic outfits, and that is a whole other dimension of wrong, folks!

It all started with a trip to Underwood Family Farms with my fiery Latina colleague Maritza. If you’re in the greater Los Angeles area, you must visit some time. If you don’t have a fiery Latina colleague named Maritza, bring your kids to achieve the same level of vivaciousness & spunk. Being a full-fledged operational farm, complete with muddied farm workers & equipment that looks like it could be featured in a Halloween horror movie. The farm has brilliantly married its day-to-day operations with modern society’s obsession with Instagram, selfie-taking and a reconnect with Mother Earth. Opening a portion of their farm to the public, the owners’ genius created a farm fun-land for city slickers like yours truly. Beside a petting zoo, a playground, farm-themed kids’ entertainment and a fairly large farm stand for those who do not ‘dirt & sweat’ well, you also have endless…endless!… fields of U-pick deliciousness which rotate with the seasons. They are, after all, a real farm. Not a Disneyland farm.

Forget the quality of the produce for a minute… If you’ve already swan-dived into farm-fresh produce, carry on. For all others, sit down next to me and read on: picking your own produce is fun & therapeutic.  I never knew that snapping broccoli off its mother-stem had addictive qualities. The very moment you know it’s going to snap off, is incredibly satisfying. Or the wet, almost muted swooshing sound a beet makes as its roots leave the ground… Not to mention the suspense of not knowing how large that sucker is going to be? Right?  Then there’s the incredible aroma that fills the air when you yank a bunch of fresh cilantro out of the dirt. I have no words for that. Or, the delicateness with which you carefully harvest raspberries, making sure you’re as gentle with them as you are with your grandmother’s porcelain. Or cupping a handful of blueberries and watching them happily dart into your basket as they release… And, last but not least, the heroic courage you find within yourself to boldly reach into a cobwebbed cluster of branches to pick the ‘perfect’ lemon, only to then frantically fling your hand a Mach 3 speed to ensure all you got was the lemon… I find it all extraordinarily relaxing and rewarding.

And then there’s the flavor… It’s the stuff of fairytales. The thing is, one day you’re eating the flavorless fruits and produce you’ve always liked and you wouldn’t change a single thing. And then, one day, the triple-threat crunch/sweet/juicy punch of a fresh vegetable gets under your skin and suddenly, the grocery store landscape is a bleak, depressing place without these fresh beauties.

Dirty, sweaty and tired – I came home with the mother-ship of Meyer lemons. Funny enough, curd wasn’t even on my mind at the time. I figured that with the Farklepants’ brothers battling a nasty head cold, I would just juice them (the lemons, not the brothers) with some ginger… but then Bobby Flay ate a scone with lemon curd on Sunday morning. All bets were off.

The recipe below makes approx. 2 cups. You’re going to want to eat this sweet tangyness straight out of the jar, so I suggest you get your spoon ready.

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LEMON CURD

(per a recipe form Life Currents)

– 0.5 cup of Meyer lemon juice (or regular lemon juice)

– 1 stick of butter (4 oz), cubed

– 0.5 cups of granulated sugar (add an extra tablespoon if using regular lemon juice)

– 1/4 teaspoon of salt, or ‘a pinch’

– 4 large egg yolks + 3 whole large eggs  (use 3+3 for extra large eggs)

In small saucepan, combine the lemon juice, sugar, butter & salt. Heat over low heat until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved.

In a medium size bowl, whisk 4 egg yolks and 3 whole eggs together until well-combined.

Here’s the tricky part: gently & slowly incorporate half of the hot lemon/butter mixture into your eggs, all the while whisking. This is called ‘tempering’ your eggs and forming an emulsion, so you don’t end up with scrambled eggs.

Place the bowl with the tempered egg mixture over a gently simmering pot of water (au bain marie) and incorporate the remainder of the lemon/butter mixture until it thickens. The thickening starts around 150F and will have the right consistency around 180F. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, just look for the consistency of custard. It will take approx. 5 min of constant gentle whisking (do not stop whisking, or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs!)

Also make sure to NOT boil the mixture.

Run the custard through a mesh sieve to get rid of any potential egg bits, and place the curd into a jar. Chill for at least 3 hours in the fridge.

Spiced Cranberries with Port

30 Oct

A decade ago, I apparently crafted a legendary cranberry sauce. Who knew?

Certainly not me. I wasn’t aware of its legacy in Harry’s mind, until I met my ex-colleague’s wife Yvette during an industry event several years later.

Harry & I both worked for the same laid-back outdoorsy-type tour operator in 1999-ish. Every year, we’d host an informal pot-luck Christmas luncheon in our warehouse-type office building, and since this was my very first employer in the USA and my first official ‘American’ Christmas party, I was eager to make an impression and volunteered to bring cranberry sauce. Truthfully, having been in the country for only about 6 months at the time, I hadn’t the faintest idea about traditional American holiday dishes. Candied yams, green beans with crispy onions, stuffing… it was all foreign, to me, but I knew cranberry sauce so – pen in hand – I jumped on our pot luck list like a pouncing tiger and victoriously jotted down my name for it.

I don’t recall receiving any compliments for that sauce, but that could easily be because I was too busy being mesmerized by Ken’s unfazed deep-frying of 2 turkeys in our warehouse’s back parking lot. He, Harry and a handful of others had moved some of our tour vans out of the way and were about to drop 2 fat turkeys in what looked like a homemade contraption of a few camping stoves and metal pots, the latter filled with oil that bubbled hotter than lava… This was all too much for Ebenezer Scrooge our British boss Tony, who lividly charged at us, clutching a ‘Safety in the Workplace’ pamphlet in his white-knuckled hand, and yelled a series of unsavory choice words I cannot repeat on here. I will never forget this, because Tony’s anger rattled me so, that I practically saw my work visa shredded before my eyes for even partaking in such unauthorized holiday hooliganism… in the work place, no less! And deep-fried turkeys? Whoa. Shut the front door. That, was entirely a new concept for Flemish old me.

Fast forward 12-13 years, and apparently, Harry is still talking about that cranberry sauce. When I met his wife Yvette again after nearly a decade of hiatus, and we got past the initial ‘hey, where do I know you from?!’ awkwardness, she animatedly explained to me that ‘my’ cranberry sauce has become THE standard by which her husband Harry has measured all other cranberry sauces for the past twelve years… “The sauce from that German girl in my office”, he labeled it.

Well, Harry, you’re forgiven for labeling me German in the first place…. And without further ado, you can now rest assured that your holidays will be properly sauced, provided you make it worth Yvette’s while. You’re welcome.

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SPICED CRANBERRIES WITH PORT
(The way Harry likes it…)
– 2 packages of fresh cranberries (2x 12oz)
– 2 cups of Ruby port
– 1.5 to 2 cups of white sugar (depending on your own personal taste)
– 1 stick of cinnamon
– 2-3 cloves + 1 star anise (in cheese cloth, so you can easily remove them)
– 1 small orange, juiced
– 1/2 whole peel of the orange, not zested!

In a sauce pan, heat port with cinnamon stick, orange juice & peel, cloves & star anise over medium-high heat until bubbly. Immediately add fresh cranberries & sugar, and stir to combine. Simmer until berries spontaneously burst and are beginning to break down, and sauce thickens. Approx. 20-25 min. Take from heat, remove cinnamon stick, orange peel and spice packet. Serve at room temperature or allow sauce to cool in the refrigerator. When cool, this sauce should be the consistency of a thick jam. Makes about 4 cups.

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.

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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!

Blackberry Balsamic Onion Jam with Bacon

1 Sep

A few years ago, during a random browsing session at Williams-Sonoma, my eye fell on a small jar of balsamic onion spread. With a $10.99 price tag, I decided it was entirely too expensive so I bought it anyway. For a little while I smeared it on anything from bread to crackers and grilled cheese sandwiches, until I could see the glass bottom and went into full-blown panic mode and rationed it as though the end of civilization was nigh.

So when my mom arrived for a visit some weeks later, we picked up a few gorgeous cheeses and a loaf of crusty French bread at the farmers market for lunch one day. As I was setting the table, mom came upon my nearly empty jar of balsamic onion spread, tucked in the back of my fridge, where it was shielded from impulsive midnight snacking. I think she must have seen the frantic expression in my twitching eye, cause she grabbed it and dismissively announced that wherever it came from she was sure they had more. Later that afternoon, one sales rep at Williams-Sonoma in Palos Verdes, CA became employee of the month for a record sale of balsamic onion spread, financed by the ‘Bank of Mom’.

With onions being fairly inexpensive, and fueled by my degree in Business, I figured their profit margin on that drug stuff must be sky-rocketing high, and so I set out on a quest to recreate my precious anything-spread. Only, I’d make it even better. There was some unpalatable trial & error, and a fair amount of spontaneous gagging, but in the end I came up trumps with something that is out-of-this-world delicious. The addition of bacon was real stroke of genius, but you can leave it out if you prefer a vegetarian version.

For your BBQ pleasure, I also smear this deliciousness on a Brioche bun, and top a crusty browned beef patty with some blue cheese, a fried egg and arugula, for a killer-hamburger that has just the right amount of ‘wrong’!

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BLACKBERRY BALSAMIC ONION JAM WITH BACON
(…because bacon makes everything better!)
– 4 slices of thick-cut bacon, sliced into very small pieces
– 2 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
– 1/2 cup of fresh blackberries
– salt and cracked ground pepper, to taste
– 2/3 cup good quality balsamic vinegar (*)
– 1 tsp Dijon mustard
– 2/3 cup cooking sherry
(*) I used a lovely blackberry balsamic vinegar I found at the Torrance farmers market, and it gave this jam an even sweeter & fruitier touch.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the bacon pieces and cook until browned but not crispy, approx. 5-8 min. Remove the bacon from the pan and let it drain on a paper towel-lined plate.

Drain off all but 2-3 Tbsp of the bacon grease and then stir in the onions. season with a pinch of salt & pepper, to taste.

Saute the onions for 2 min. then add a splash of cooking sherry, and scrape the browned bits off of the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the blackberries, cover the pot and cook the jam until the onions are soft and brown, and the berries have broken down, approx. 15-20 min.

Stir in a small pinch of cayenne pepper, the balsamic vinegar, mustard, and remaining sherry, and add in reserved bacon. Bring the mixture to a simmer and simmer uncovered until the sauce thickens and is almost completely absorbed, approx. 10 min. The jam should be a dark rich brown at this point.

Allow to cool and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a week.

Bourbon Pecan Pumpkin Butter

29 Aug

With pumpkin season lurking right around the corner, I can’t contain my excitement any longer. If I had to name one thing that I absolutely love about Fall, it’s that for 8-12 weeks out of the year you can find pretty much find anything with the comforting aroma of warm spiced pumpkin.

Pumpkin was not a big thing in Belgium when I grew up. It was mostly used in soups, but I hear from friends that nowadays Halloween celebrations are popular too. As a child, I can’t remember a single fun Halloween celebration. My only memories of ‘All Hallows Eve’ are that it was a solemn Catholic affair, and not the commercial circus it is today. Instead of happily hanging orange or purple-glowing pumpkin- & bat-shaped porch lights, mom would dress us to the nines and we’d be picked up in my dad’s old Ford to attend a full blown Catholic mass with his side of the family. If a 60-min Catholic mass in Latin wasn’t enough to sit through as a young child, especially hearing all the happy ding-ding-dong’s from the fair rides echoing over the town square, we’d also had to gather outside in the icy cold October air after mass and stroll the cobblestone pilgrimage path around the grey stone church building 3x, with the adults reflected in deep prayer. After that ordeal, we’d then swing by the graveyard to ‘visit’ people I had never even heard of and place potted chrysanthemum bushes on their gravestones, and finally, when the blood in my young veins was adequately congealed and my cold hands just the right shade of bluish pink, we were allowed to get in the car and drive to someone’s house for sandwiches and soup… followed by hot ‘oliebollen’ at the fair!

Nowadays, I actually enjoy the atmosphere Halloween brings along. I’ll come right out saying that I’m very wimpy and as such not a fan of the various scary haunts you find across town (*), but I love seeing the pumpkin patches appear and the fact that Halloween sort of rings in the pumpkin-flavored ‘anything’ season. I never knew pumpkin butter was so tasty, until I saw it at the store one time and decided to try it for the sake of culinary progress. I can literally ssschhhhmear pumpkin butter on anything from bread to yogurt, and in the dead of night on occasion, I can be seen spooning it straight out of the jar… Because let’s be honest, whatever I put it on, is really nothing more than a vessel to get that deliciousness in my mouth. A few years ago, when perusing Williams-Sonoma, I willy-nilly picked up one of their recipe cards for pumpkin pie. If you think the jarred stuff is good, wait until you make your own! It’s so easy and tasty, you’ll allow none to touch it until they pry it out of your dead hands. Let ye all souls be warned!
(*) I once bravely accepted an invitation from a friend to go to ‘Shipwreck Queen Mary’ in Long Beach, CA… where I may or may not have screeched at the top of my lungs and spontaneously slapped a blood-covered ax-wielding actor in the face out of fear for my life. I plead the fifth… but I did apologize profusely. Oh dear.

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BOURBON PECAN PUMPKIN BUTTER
(Inspired by a recipe for pumpkin pie)
– 1 29 oz can pumpkin puree, approx. 3 1/2 cups (not the pie filling kind)
– 1/2 cup apple juice
– 1/3 cup of good quality Bourbon
– 2 tsp ground ginger
– 1/2 tsp ground cloves
– 1 1/3 cups brown sugar
– 1.5 Tbsp ground cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
– 1 tsp of ground cardamom
– juice of 1/2 lemon
– 1 cup of pecans

Reserve lemon juice, pecans & bourbon, and combine all other ingredients in a medium Dutch oven or large sauce pan. Bring to a simmer and cook without lid over low heat for approx. 45min until thick. Stir occasionally.

In the meantime, preheat oven to 400F and toast pecans for 10-15 min. Allow to cool and grind them into a powder with a food processor… Or crush them with a hand mixer for a chunky butter.

Pour bourbon into warm pumpkin mixture during the last 30 min, and simmer until liquid is evaporated.

Fold pecans & lemon juice into the warm pumpkin mixture and allow pumpkin butter to cool completely. Adjust spices as needed, to your taste.

Store in an airtight container in the fridge. It will keep for approx. a month… Not that it’ll last that long!

Roasted Pear & Plum Chutney

22 Aug

I don’t know about you, but my mind has been on Fall lately. It may be because my morning commute has been blanketed in coastal fog the past few days, or perhaps I’m excited about my mom’s pending visit from Belgium in October. Either way, I’m over the California Summer heat and I want Fall to get here already.

Tucked in the Northeastern corner of Belgium, is the province of Limburg. With its rich, fertile soil, the region is dotted with fruit growers and groves. Whilst cruising on the rural byways in Spring, you drive in a cloud of pinkish white petals from all the blossoming orchards that produce enough fruit in Fall to stop world hunger for a few months. Sint-Truiden, one of Limburg’s finest cities in the heart of the apple- & pear producing region of ‘Haspengouw’, is truly the Oak Glen of Belgium. There is a lot of friendly mockery when it comes to Limburgers’ heavy local dialect, but if you ask me, the province has so much historical beauty and peaceful homestead allure, that there is little else to mock but the country twang of its inhabitants.

I remember my brother & I being sent off to Scouts Camp for a few weeks every year during our 2 month Summer vacations, and many of these camps took place somewhere in Limburg. We’d pitch our tents in the woods or on the heather-covered hills, and – being giddy tweens – we’d make fun of the local boys during scavenger hunts in which we left our campground and skipped across the rural towns in search of clues. During these outings, for which we were sternly lectured by camp staff as to the do’s and don’ts and the potential consequences we’d face if we broke the rules, we’d often slip into the orchards to celebrate our freedom from camp regulations and share our deepest camp secrets underneath the shady canopy of an apple tree. The utmost privacy of our secrets being sealed by a pinky swear and the solemn promise to always be friends.

Apples & pears are staples in Belgium’s culinary repertoire. From ‘Luikse Stroop’ to ‘beer-braised rabbit with prunes’, Flemish cuisine often marries stewed or roasted fruits into its regional specialties. I love the savory & sweet combination of these flavors, and for that reason, chutney is winner in my book. I’ve played around with chutneys here & there, but it wasn’t until I came across a mango chutney recipe from an old edition of ‘Bon Appetit’, that I knew I had a winner on my hands. Since I love pears, I tweaked that recipe a bit to favor pears and… voilà! Get some cheese & crackers, and you’re all set for a true Belgian Fall favorite!

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ROASTED PEAR & PLUM CHUTNEY
(Adapted from a recipe by ‘Bon Appetit’)
– 2 ripe pears, peeled & cut in half (preferably Bosc pears or another firm variety)
– juice & zest of 1 lemon
– 1/4 cup + 1 Tbsp of sugar
– 3/4 tsp of ground cinnamon
– 1/4 tsp of ground cloves
– 2 Tbsp of canola oil (or another oil)
– 1/4 cup of pure maple syrup
– 2 shallots, halved and cut into slices/strips
– 1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
– 1 tsp of freshly grated ginger
– 3 Tbsp of currants (or dried blueberries works great as well!)
– 3 Tbsp of chopped dried figs
– 1/2 cup of champagne vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
– 1 tsp of hot red pepper flakes
– 1 tsp of fresh thyme, chopped finely
– 1 cup of ripe plums, diced small
– 1/4 cup of dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Toss the pears with the lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the cinnamon, and cloves. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and coat the foil with half the oil. Set the pears cut side down on the pan. Brush the pears with the remaining oil, and roast until caramelized and tender, approx. 40 to 50 minutes. Take out of the oven, and set aside to cool.

While the pears are roasting, bring all of the remaining ingredients to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan (like a Dutch oven). Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool as well.

Using a small spoon, scoop out the cores of the cooked pears. Cut the pears into 1/2-inch slices. Combine the pears and the onion mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 day before serving.

Dilled Cucumber Salad

25 Jul

Belgian Summers are notoriously finicky. Either the weather stays fairly overcast and entirely too cold for the time of the year, or the country is hit with a sweltering, oppressive heat wave that makes you wish you never cursed the wet dreariness from the past 7 months in the first place. With temperatures generally hovering between ‘%$!@, it’s freezing!!’ and ‘jeez, it’s still raining?!’, most brick homes are not equipped with central cooling either. During these brutally hot summers, windows and doors would be propped open, protected by colorful ribbon-screens to keep flies & bugs out (*), and you’d at least get the illusion of air circulating. Buckled under Mother Nature’s oppressive grip, I swear you could practically hear a faint, collective moan wafting through the air.
(*) unless you lived in our home, where a certain someone that I am not naming, thought it was fun to braid those vibrantly colored ribbons together into a visually pleasing work of art, and you’d inadvertently end up with the mother-ship of all mosquito colonies in your house. I’m not proud of it.

On those blistering days, we predominantly lived in our grassy backyard, barefooted. I can’t remember a Summer day on which we did not precariously shuffle a tray of plates & silverware to our teak-wood table. Our dinners on these sultry evenings were long family gatherings, in which we’d eat for a few hours by citronella candles and watch the threatening thunderstorms crack & pour down from underneath the comfort of our covered garden patio. The crisp cool air that followed these torrential Summer storms, made it all worthwhile.

Requesting a cooked meal on these sweltering days would have sent any respectable housewife into a tizzy, but our mom merely looked us in the eye with James Bond-like ‘cool’ and would calmly announce we’d be having salad for dinner, with some sort of barbecued meat, to distinguish lunch from dinner. For good housekeeping measure.

Mom got very creative with salads, and I remember loving most of them. Those summertime salads were also my first introduction to – insert dramatic drum roll here – the mandolin slicer! I think I must have been all of about 7-8 years old when I was allowed to touch one very carefully under the watchful eye of El Commandante mom, and was specifically instructed to always use the protective guard that comes with any mandolin slicer. Ha! The irony.

The crisp cucumber salad below is one of my favorites in my salad repertoire. It’s a play on Greek tzatziki. I think I got this recipe from mom, but I’m not entirely sure as it’s one of these dishes that just live in my head and surface out of nowhere. Either way, this tangy refreshing salad is perfect for hot Summer days…

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DILLED CUCUMBER SALAD
(Inspired by Greek tzaziki)
– 4 seedless cucumbers, preferably hot house
– 16 oz of Bulgarian yogurt (or plain yogurt. Not the thick Greek-style yogurt)
– 1 Tbsp of white wine vinegar
– juice of 1 fresh lemon
– 3 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
– 2 cloves of garlic, depending on size & strength, pressed or minced (or more)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped
– 2 Tbsp of fresh mint, chopped
– a handful of fresh chives, chopped
– 1 Tbsp of fresh lemon zest
– salt & pepper, to taste

Half & seed cucumbers lengthwise, and slice into very even, medium-thickness slices. A mandolin slicer works great here, but watch your fingers and knuckles. (not that I know anything about that! OK???) Place slices in a colander or sieve, and sprinkle liberally with salt. Place something heavy directly on top of the slices of cucumber, and let them drain out 15 min or so bit over the sink.
In a large bowl, combine yogurt with olive oil, lemon juice and white wine vinegar. Stir until you get an even consistency, it should be fairly liquid, dressing consistency. If it’s not enough, add a splash of water. Add garlic one clove at a time, and taste to desired garlicky-ness. Add salt & pepper to taste as well.
Add cucumber slices and fold until everything is well-coated. Fold in chopped herbs and cover. Set in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, so cucumbers have time to absorb the delicious yogurt vinaigrette.

Perfect as a side with grilled shrimp or salmon!

Banana Butter

24 Jul

It is no secret that there was a lot of banana-love to go around in our humble, ranch-style country home. As a matter of fact, my brother & I loved them so much that – to this day – we both vividly recall a traumatic very unfortunate episode from our youth in which mom decided to stock up on canned bananas, in an effort to meet basic supply & demand on a teacher’s budget. Since our mother was of the ‘no-nonsense’ type breed, she didn’t just buy a single can or two to give them a try. NO! She went ahead and bought a Costco-size pallet of them, to ensure she’d get us through the banana-famine that were our harsh Belgian Winters back in the day. Her heart was in the right place, but seriously mom?! Canned bananas???

If you’ve never heard of ‘canned’ bananas, go hug your mom now and thank her for not crossing over to the dark side. They were, for lack of better wording, nasty! Mom Tootsie Farklepants didn’t help the matter by maintaining a strict zero-tolerance policy in wasting food so… There you have it. I’ll spare you the gory detail, but let’s just say that for several months later, you would find partially-chewed canned bananas stuffed in the most peculiar places. Including our lawnmower.

None of this was enough to kill my banana-love, though. Nothing makes me happier in the morning than a warm, toasted English muffin, schmeared with butter and topped with honey-drizzled sliced bananas. Yum!

I have to include a moment here to thank ‘Lucille’s Smokehouse’ for feeding me that delicious apple-butter that comes with their sweet, warm biscuits. The recipe below was totally inspired by that genius, so I owe them at least an honorable mentioning.

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BANANA BUTTER
(Inspired by ‘Lucille’s Smokehouse’)
– 1 stick of room-temperature butter
– 1/2 of a very ripe banana
– 1/3 of a small, sweet apple, grated
– 1/4 cup of agave syrup (or honey)
– 1/2 tsp of cinnamon
– a pinch of grated nutmeg
– a pinch of ground clove

In the bowl of a food processor or mixer, combine all the inredients until well-combined & blended. Scoop mixture onto parchment paper and make a 1-1.5 inch roll out of it. Twist ends of the parchment to press butter roll together. Place roll in the refrigerator and allow to firm up for a few hours.

Coincidentally, this sweet butter goes great with the crepes I posted the other day, or melt a slice of the butter into some warm dark rum for a tasty hot buttered rum beverage!

Animal-style Mayonnaise

18 Jul

My Belgian roots seem to trump any American traits I have adopted over the years when it comes to French fries. For instance, I will not settle anymore for plain old non-flavored coffee, but I still like the creaminess of mayo with my steaming hot & crunchy fries. It’s considered an oddity here in ketchup-loving California, but I bet the epicenter of mayo-based casseroles balmy Southern states share my dipping joy.

So when I was introduced to a California institution named ‘In & Out Burger’ by my American family, and was told with much excitement that this red & gold vinyl circus was the Mecca of all hamburger joints, I was highly disappointed there was not a drop of mayonnaise to be had. At the time, I already had a wee bit of a chip on my shoulder as fast food is not exactly my idea of culinary sophistication, so I may or may not have had a an air of superiority about the whole thing. I plead the fifth. Not being able to drown my fast food sorrow with a vat of mayonnaise, probably put me over the edge. “Try the animal sauce…” , Scott proclaimed, “…you’ll like it”. I’m sure I must have looked at him with an air of complete disbelief, but I aim to please and reluctantly bit the corner of a little plastic pouch of animal sauce, and – with some trepidation – squirted some on a ‘test fry’… I swear, I heard the faint sound of violins and saw rosy-cheeked cherubs blowing kisses in my general direction. Honest to God!

I figured animal sauce can’t be that hard to recreate as my taste buds instantly recognized its delicious mayonnaise base. It was just a matter of adding a few things to it.

I listed a recipe for basic mayonnaise here, as well as my own recipe for In & Out’s animal style hamburger sauce.

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BASIC MAYONNAISE
– 2 eggs, yolks only
– 1tsp of white vinegar
– 2 tsp of freshly squeezed lemon juice
– 1 tsp of dijon mustard (not the grainy kind)
– 1/2 cup of safflower oil (or cannola oil)
– 1/2 cup of olive oil (or safflower/cannola or any other oil you like)
– salt & pepper to taste

Since mayo is an emulsion, it’s an important to use room temperature ingredients. If you keep your egg in the fridge, take them out about 30-45 minutes prior to making this mayo and let them warm a bit. When at room temperature, separate the yolks and discard the whites. In regards to the oils, olive oil has amore pronounced flavor then safflower or cannola oil, so use light olive oil or any other light oil if you don;t care for the flavor of olive oil.

In a stainless steel bowl, whisk yolks, mustard and vinegar together until smooth. Add salt & white pepper to taste (using blackpepper will leave little flecks of black in your creamy mayo).

Now here comes the tricky part… You will need both hands, so make sure the bowl on your countertop is secured. You can do so by placing it on top of a non-skid mat, or by using a cold damp towel that will hold your bowl in place whil you whisk.

Adding the oil to your egg-mustard mixture is where things can go wrong. Gently and in a steady motion trickle oil into the egg & mustard mixture one drop at a time, whilst whisking constantly. When the emulsion is beginning to thicken, you can go from droplets to a thin stream and so forth. You will need pretty much all of the oil, but when you see it is getting harder to incorporate the oil, it means you are reaching the limit. If this is the case, stop adding oil as otherwise you risk your mayonnaise separating again. If your mixture is not thickening, you are liking whisking too vigorously so slow down a bit. The pace of whisking should be steady, but neither too fast nor too slow… it’s a learnt art!

When you have achieved a beautifully creamy sauce, add the lemon juice and some more salt & pepper to your taste. Enjoy your homemade mayo!

(*) You can also add herbs to flavor your mayo, such as finely chopped fresh tarragon for a French twist, minced garlic for a traditional aioli or a few drops of sriracha sauce for a spicy fiery mayo. The possibilities are endless.

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ANIMAL SAUCE
(adapted from In & Out Burger)
– 1/2 cup of mayo
– 3 tsp of ketchup (for the recipe, look here)
– 6 tsp of pickle relish
– 1.5 tsp of distilled white vinegar
– 1.5 tsp of white sugar

Whisk all ingredients together and enjoy on a hamburger bun with your favorite hamburger, cheese, lettuce, tomato & onions! Yum!

Homemade Nutella

13 Jul

If Belgium’s contribution to world peace & happiness is chocolate, than surely Italy’s is Nutella.

Pietro Ferrero, the brilliant mind behind ‘crema giandujot’, invented a chocolatey hazelnut butter during WWII, when chocolate was scarce and the traditional European chocolate butters that his children adored were no longer available. Pietro, driven by his desire to preserve his children’s happiness during the war, created a deliciously nutty paste of finely ground hazelnuts, milk and chocolate… and so ‘gianduja’ was born. Later, Italian chocolatier Ferrero-Rocher started marketing Pietro’s recipe as ‘Nutella’, and the rest is history.

Filberts, aka hazelnuts, have long been on my friends’ list too. It’s no secret that Nutella and my double chin I have been tangled up in a love triangle since my sweet sixteenth. I finally swore off the stuff because – as a cruel act of nature – my hips would expand every time I even remotely glanced in the direction of something I liked sugary.

I thought it would be fun to try and recreate Nutella. However, browsing the Internet for a recipe quickly became a Herculean task. From Vegan to French, pretty much all recipes called for the elaborate task of roasting, peeling and grinding hazelnuts into a fine paste and combining that with molten milk chocolate. I happen to know that Italian ‘gianduja’ is made this way, so I figured I could skip this step and create my own recipe using gianduja instead… The texture is not quite as creamy as Nutella, but the flavor is really close, in my opinion. You should be able to find the ingredients at your local specialty kitchen supply or baking store, or you can order most of it from Surfas online.
(*) if you decide to make your own gianduja, blend 1 cup of roasted & peeled hazelnuts with approx. 7 oz of melted milk chocolate and 1tbsp of butter. You will need a professional strength food processor or a vitamix, in order to achieve a fine paste or butter that is not ‘gritty’. Pour mixture out on a plastic lined baking sheet using a candy mold, and allow it cool outside the fridge in a chill area of max. 65F until it sets. You can then dice it or cut it as you like.

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HOMEMADE NUTELLA
(recreated from various recipes on the Web)
– 3 oz of milk chocolate, chopped
– 1 oz of bitter dark chocolate, chopped
– 5 oz of pure gianduja chocolate, chopped
– 1 397gr. can of UNsweetened condensed/evaporated milk
– 1/4 cup of turbinado sugar (or brown cane sugar)
– 1/2 cup of heavy cream (or half & half)
– 1 tsp of pure hazelnut extract
– 1/2 tsp of pure vanilla extract
– 0.5 oz of cocoa butter (or 1/4 cup of coconut oil)
– pinch of salt

Warm condensed milk and cream over medium to low heat. Add chocolate & cocoa butter and sugar, and melt everything together until it’s well-combined. Add hazelnut & vanilla extract and stir to incorporate the flavor. Give it a pinch of salt to your liking, and pour into glass jars. Allow to cool & harden in the refrigerator for a few hours.

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