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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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Mediterranean Orzo with Roasted Vegetables & Lemon Zest

11 May

Dinner parties. It’s a time for pretty table linens, elegant dinnerware and culinary flights of fancy. A time in which my little apartment kitchen seems all too tiny and I start dreaming of a spacious farm kitchen, complete with brick walls and weathered wooden family table. When I was a child, our house was usually filled with dinner guests on Saturday evenings. My brother & I knew the kitchen was off-limits for pretty much the entire afternoon, as mom was in there whirling like a tornado and mostly cooking a 6-course meal for guests that would arrive later in the evening. Setting foot on the tile kitchen floor, meant the risk of being sucked into mom’s dishwashing vortex so we generally steered clear.

Fast forward 35 years, and – despite my good intentions – I realize I have turned into my mother. Rats. While I’m not yet wearing high-waisted hot pink capri pants that reach to my bra straps, or pee behind a spruce in Yosemite NP because the call of my bladder is far stronger than the language on any of the Park Ranger warning signs, I share my love of cooking with Cecilia. I enjoy entertaining guests with food I prepare, and I take joy out of billowing crisp, brightly colored linens over my table in preparation of the festivities. I enjoy buzzing around in my kitchen, hovering over pots & pans and making sure my guests will ooh & ah, whilst at the same time banning my house elves family members from entering the kitchen with a certain air of authority and mild annoyance. (*)
(*) Note to self: Must fight this genetic pattern before hot pink capris become all the rage.

Yesterday, J. was coming over for dinner. She had to drop off some papers, so – naturally – I suggested I cook dinner for all of us. I had planned on cooking a big pan of my lemon-braised chicken and serve that family-style, since I had to work all day and didn’t have much time whip out my whole arsenal of culinary wizardry. Lemon braised chicken has such a unique flavor, that it’s always a bit hard to find a side dish that will accompany it flawlessly without being blah, but the orzo below did just the trick. The roasted vegetables burst with flavor and are slightly caramelized which brings a note of sweetness, while the lemon dressing breaks that sweetness with the right amount of tang. The freshness of the scallions and basil not only adds to the wonderful flavors, but also makes this really pretty t look at.

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MEDITERRANEAN ORZO WITH ROASTED VEGETABLES & LEMON ZEST
(inspired by a ‘Barefoot Contessa’ recipe)
– about 2 cups of uncooked orzo pasta
– 1 red bell pepper, sliced into 1 inch pieces
– 1 yellow of orange bell pepper, sliced into 1 inch pieces
– 1 small eggplant, diced into 1 inch pieces
– 2-3 small red onions (tennis ball size), diced into 1/2  inch pieces
– 3-4 ripe lemons, zested & juiced
– 1 bunch of scallions, sliced thin
– 1/4 cup of pine nuts, toasted
– 2 good handfuls of fresh basil, julienned or sliced into thin ribbons
– 2-3 cloves of ROASTED garlic (optional)
– olive oil (+/- 1 cup)
– salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425F.

Place the peppers, onions & eggplant on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt & pepper and coat liberally with olive oil on all sides. Roast in the oven until tender and caramelized, approx. 30-40 min. Set aside and allow to cool to temperature. Turn off oven.

In a small sauce pan, toast pine nuts until golden brown. Set aside and cool.

Zest 3-4 lemons, and set zest aside. Slice scallions and basil, and set aside.

For the lemon dressing, juice zested lemons into a measuring cup or bowl. Preferably one with a pour spout. You should have approx. 1/2 cup of lemon juice. Add about 3/4 cup-1 cup of olive oil to the lemon juice and blend well. Add salt & pepper to taste. Add pureed roasted garlic to the dressing, if you desire.

Bring a large pot of liberally salted water to a boil, and cook orzo according to package instructions. Drain well and pour into large serving bowl.  Immediately, while hot, pour about half of the lemon dressing over the pasta, and coat well so it won’t stick as it cools to room temperature.

When pasta is cool enough to handle, add roasted vegetables & lemon zest to the orzo, and gently fold until well combined. If the pasta salad seems a bit dry, add some more lemon dressing. Fold in toasted pine nuts, scallions and basil. keep a few basil leaves for decoration.

You can eat this pasta salad warm or cold. This recipe will make a large bowl that will comfortably feed 8 people or more. It can be served as a side, or with crusty French bread for a light lunch.

Bon Appetit!

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’.

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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’.

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…

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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!

Summer Broccoli Tabouli with Ham & Pine Nuts

31 Aug

It’s been really toasty here in Southern California the past few days, with coastal temperatures soaring well above 90F… I hate to think what the hinterland must feel like, but then again, I think I know if I take a look at our crowded beaches.

I’m blessed to live less than a mile away from the beautiful Redondo Beach pier. These days, a boardwalk stroll reveals an ocean of tanning oil-covered people, shimmering in the sun and trying to get some reprieve from the brutality of the sweltering Summer heat that oppresses the East counties. Every time temps soar, they arrive in droves. Complete with family-size coolers, boom boxes and colorful beach umbrellas, they are masters at weaving an elaborate tapestry of beach towels and Serape blankets… I can’t blame them, their concrete jungle buckles under the oppressing thumb of the inner-city heat wave. At least over here, we have a faint ocean breeze.

The recipe below is exactly the kind of dish you want to eat on a blistering hot day like today. The mint makes it refreshing and the addition of crisp cucumbers gives it a cool bite. Throw some shrimp or chicken on the barbecue, and you have a healthy, satisfying meal that will please the whole family.

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SUMMER BROCCOLI TABOULI WITH HAM & PINE NUTS
(Adapted from a recipe for regular Tabouli)
– 2 medium size heads of broccoli
– 4 scallions
– 1/3 cup of pine nuts, lightly toasted
– 1/2 large English cucumber, seeded, peeled & diced
– 2 thick slices of smoked ham or Canadian bacon, cubed
– 8 oz of herbed feta cheese, cubed
– 1/2 bunch of basil, finely chopped
– a few sprigs of fresh mint, finely chopped
– 3-5 Tbsp of olive oil
– 2 Tbsp of pesto
– 1/2 lemon, juiced & zested
– salt & pepper to taste

Wash broccoli and pat dry. With a sharp knife or box grater, starting at the top of the floret, grate or slice broccoli into a couscous-like mass.

Remove outer leaves of scallions and slice into thin strips.

In large bowl, combine broccoli ‘couscous’ with sliced scallions, cucumber dice, cubed feta cheese, cubed ham and toasted pine nuts. Fold in chopped basil & mint.

In a smaller bowl, combine lemon juice with olive oil, pesto and lemon zest. Pour over broccoli Tabouli and fold until well combined.

Serve cold.

Kickin’ Chayote & Melon Salsa

28 Aug

I have a confession to make. Until I set foot in the USA, I had only vaguely heard of salsa. Let alone that I knew what it was supposed to taste like. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried it, was at a grungy roadside diner located across the street from my then office in Rockaway, NJ… Let’s just say that it was an overly sweet, jarred disappointment. It wasn’t until I set foot on California soil that my taste buds were properly courted by the smooth Latin lover that is ‘salsa fresca’.

Mom is an adventurous amateur chef, so it baffles me a wee bit as to why I didn’t really hear about salsa until I came to the USA. Frankly, growing up in Belgium and vacationing frequently in sweet Provence, we were surrounded by juicy tomatoes fresh from the vine every late Spring & Summer. When we moved into our new house in the country, mom even planted a few odd tomato plants against a sunny wall we shared with our neighbor. It so happens to be that those tomato plants set off a royal feud with Mr. Grouch, who never got over the fact that our yard was twice the size of his, and who vehemently claimed that watering our tomato plants caused structural damage to his garage’s wall. He was a royal pain in the you-know-what, and I won’t even go into detail about what happened when my soccer ball went over the fence and landed on his prize-winning dahlias. I don’t think the food blogging world could stomach the horror of such atrocity. But we digress… I think the problem with Flemish salsa may have been that things like limes, fresh cilantro and jalapenos – the latter being imported into Belgium and so by default ‘expensive’ – were either not in our family’s budget or not readily available… or mom didn’t care for them, which is the least likely of all three.

Mom is madly in love with fresh salsa & ‘pico de gallo’. During her weeklong California visits, she single-handedly powers through 2-3 family-size (!) containers of the stuff from the ‘salsa man’ at Torrance farmers market. She even engages in pseudo-English conversation with the man, using partial hand gestures and broken soap opera English. (*) She likes his stuff that much! Yes, the salsa man and my mom share a special bond.
(*) Like the time she walked into a grocery store in Spain, intending to buy cat food for the strays, sans knowledge of any Spanish, and resorted to signaling out “cat food” by pointing into her wide-open gaping mouth and uttering ‘meow meow’ to the unassuming store clerk. Per God’s blessing, I wasn’t present for this linguistic embarrassment.

With a great variety of fresh, flavorful salsas readily available here in Southern California year-round, I’ve never been challenged to come up with my own creation. I also don’t own a food processor, an excuse I’ve used far too many times to justify my salsa laziness. Now that I’m trying to live a little healthier with more ‘whole’ foods and fewer manipulated foods, I’m trying to move away from the jarred stuff which often contains ingredients that sound like they could be Klingon. No offense, Trekkie fans! The fresh tomato kind tends to come in the same boring old flavors, and I wanted to try something new. I can’t wait for my mom to be here in October, so she can then tell me in her dry, ‘matter-of-fact’ teacher voice that the tomato stuff from the salsa man is better. I’m fully prepared to embrace that defeat…!

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KICKIN’ CHAYOTE & MELON SALSA
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 1 chayote squash, peeled & diced very small (*)
– 1/4 honey dew or Galia melon, diced very small
– 1/2 red onion, diced very small
– 1 Serrano chili, seeded and chopped very fine
– juice & zest of 1 large lime
– 1 tsp of agave syrup
– 1/2 tsp of ground cumin
– 1/2 bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
– salt, to taste
(*) If you’re not familiar with chayote, see picture below, you should know that they have a crisp, cool flavor similar to cucumber. The flat, almond-shaped pit inside is edible too, but I remove it for this salsa.

Place all ingredients in a bowl, and gently fold together to combine. Let ‘rest’ in the refrigerator for a few hours, so flavors have time to develop and meld beautifully.

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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.

Honey & Lime Roasted Carrots

17 Aug

I roasted these lovely carrots in combination with my deliciously crispy curried chicken drumsticks the other night. The sweetness & tanginess of these carrots pairs perfectly with the earthiness of the curry flavored drumlets. It was a budget-friendly marriage made in heaven, if you ask me.

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HONEY & LIME ROASTED CARROTS
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 6-7 large carrots, peeled whole, or 10-12 mini carrots
– 2 shallots, roughly chopped
– 1 lime, zested & juiced
– 1/4 cup of olive oil
– 1 tsp of ground cumin
– 1 Tbsp of honey
– salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 425F.

Halve carrots lengthwise, and if using large ones, halve each half lengthwise again. Cut each quarter crosswise, so you end up with long carrot fries, so to speak.

In a large bowl, pour lemon zest, juice, olive oil & honey, and stir until well combined. Pour over the carrots & shallots, and toss to coat well.

Pour carrots, shallots and oil mixture onto a baking sheet, and sprinkle with cumin, salt & pepper.

Roast for approx. 30-45 min, until caramelized and charred around the edges. Bon Appetit!

Butter-braised Savoy Cabbage with Speck

16 Aug

Yesterday, my new Facebook friend Linda V. K. asked me if I knew what ‘wirsing’ means in English? While the word ‘wirsing’ is actually German for a lovely dish of butter-braised Savoy cabbage, the dish is decidedly Belgian in nature. Belgium is a land of country cooking & hearty food, and what could possibly be more country than cabbage?!

Whenever I see cabbage, I am instantly reminded of the frosted-over cabbage fields sprawled out over the western Flemish farm belt. The fields stretch for miles on end and are planted in perfectly straight rows, with dirt pathways cutting through the geometrical pattern like goat trails. Lone farmers tend to their crops with their weathered hands clad in woolen fingerless gloves, their rosy cheeks glowing like red beacons of life on the otherwise desolate, bleak fields. I used to cycle alongside these fields on my way to or from school, often pulling my sweater’s sleeves over my hands to give my fingers some relief from the icy morning fog that blankets these lands in Fall & Winter. I’m sure my mother’s ‘Don’t forget your gloves!!’ must have echoed a million times through our hallway.

When kicking off our snow-covered boots and darting over the frigid garage floor in our socks, the warmth of the kitchen and the aroma of butter-braised cabbage and browned sausage felt like the culinary equivalent of sitting by a warm hearth. In my post about braised red cabbage, I already proclaimed my love for the deep purple vegetable, but dark green Savoy cabbage was never all that popular. It’s a universal phenomenon for kids to dislike leafy green vegetables, and Belgian youth is no exception to this. I remember Bert & I used to heap butter and some of the sausage’s pan drippings over the green cabbage, to make it more palatable.

The recipe below is for Linda. As promised, it’s imported directly from a trusted source in small rural Flemish village. Photo courtesy goes entirely to Belgian celebrity chef Jeroen Meus.

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BUTTER BRAISED SAVOY CABBAGE WITH SPECK
(Adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)
– 1/2 head of Savoy cabbage (or green cabbage)
– a small pinch of sodium bicarbonate, to retain the cabbage’s bright green color during cooking (*)
– 8 slices of thick cut bacon, chopped into small pieces
– ground nutmeg, to taste
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 3 Tbsp of good quality butter
– ¼ cup of heavy cream
(*) This is completely optional but safe and flavorless! Sodium Bicarbonate is similar to Alka-Seltzer, for instance, or other stomach acid drugs. You only need a little bit for a whole pot of water, and it will not affect the flavor of the dish, nor is it unsafe to use. Sodium Bicarbonate ensures that the bright green color of cabbage is preserved in the cooking process, as otherwise the cabbage turns into somewhat of a drab brownish green. Many restaurants use this trick to preserve the bright green color of many green vegetables.

For an authentic flavor, you will need a head of Savoy cabbage (see picture below), and you will also need 2 large pots or Dutch ovens.

Start with filling one of your pots with water and bring to a rolling boil. While the water is heating, clear tough ‘older’ leaves from the outside cabbage and discard (or compost!). Cut cabbage in half, reserving one half for later. For the other half, cut the hard core out of the middle and cut that half in half again, so you end up with 2 quarter cabbage parts. Slice each cabbage quarter in very thin strips.

When the water is boiling, add a pinch of sodium bicarbonate to ensure the cabbage retains its bright green color. Add chopped cabbage, and simmer (blanch) for approx. 3-4 min until cabbage is crisp tender. Pour cabbage into a colander, and drain very well.

In the second pan, add 1 Tbsp of butter and brown bacon pieces until crisp, approx. 10 minutes. Reserve a few bacon bits for garnish. Add well-drained cabbage and sauté for 2-3 minutes more until cabbage is soft and well combined. Fold 2 Tbsp of butter and cream into the braised cabbage, and season with salt, pepper & ground nutmeg to taste. Sprinkle reserved bacon bits over the top and serve with browned sausage or you favorite protein.

Another Belgian classic! Enjoy!

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Wine Braised Cabbage with Plums & Bacon

14 Aug

The other day, I discovered a smoked turkey sausage in the back of my fridge. With ‘it’ being far removed from my much more popular non-processed food corner, I didn’t even catch its presence until famine set in and I nosied around in the fridge for a quick dinner idea, or shall we say, in a desperate attempt to save myself a trip to the grocery store. And there it was. Sitting proudly in the ‘man corner’ of the fridge, right next to the hot dogs and beer. I’m usually pretty good with keeping a detailed inventory of our fridge’s contents in the back of my mind, you know, in that special lobe that keeps track of all practical things, but that darn sausage snuck up on me. I’m not ‘big’ on things that have an unnatural and/or freakishly long shelf life, but with our finances seriously strapped these days, a sale on $5.00 smoked sausage goes a long way…

Just like Velveeta, I believe there’s a place for kielbasa in this world as well. However, when I bought that sausage, I must have not been entirely sure where exactly that place was. Come to think of if, this is probably why it ended up on the ‘man shelf’ in our fridge in the first place. Then, as per divine intervention, I remembered: ‘Rookworst met rode kool’! Braised red cabbage and sausage is not only popular in Belgium, but in Holland as well. Although our northern neighbor traditionally opts for braised kale or ‘boerekool’, rather than red cabbage. Either way, braised cabbage is everywhere in the lower lands and many a Flemish child grows up on that stuff.

With my flavor palette a bit more refined these days, I fancified my vocabulary this cabbage a little bit. Rather than braising it traditionally with just bits of apple and vinegar, I opted for a more flavorful combination of red wine, dried plums and bacon.

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WINE BRAISED CABBAGE WITH PLUMS & BACON
(A “Hungry Belgian” original…)
– 1 small head of red cabbage, shredded thinly or chopped finely (+/- 1.5 lbs shredded)
– 2/3 cup of good quality red wine + more for soaking (*)
– 2-3 shallots, chopped into small dice (or 1 medium size red onion)
– 10-12 dried plums, slivered
– 2 small pears, peeled, cored & diced
– 2 sticks of cinnamon
– 2 cloves
– 1 laurel leaf
– 4-5 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced into small slivers
– salt & pepper, to taste
(*) The age-old adage is: if you don’t like the wine for drinking, don’t cook with it either!

Soak plums in a bit of red wine to soften them. Place a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over high heat and brown the bacon until crisp. Remove from pot and set aside.

In the bacon fat, brown shallots until translucent. Then add shredded cabbage with wine, pears, spices and salt & pepper to taste, and fold so everything is well combined. Cover the pot and braise over medium-low heat for approx. 45 min until cabbage is soft. Add plums, and simmer 10-15 min more to allow most of the liquid to evaporate. Remove cinnamon, laurel leaf and cloves, and add bacon bits back in.

Serve braised cabbage alongside your preferred choice of crisp browned sausage links.

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