Tag Archives: festive

Pommes Duchesse with White Cheddar & Rosemary

31 Dec

Yesterday, whilst playing refrigerator ‘Tetris’ with a few leftovers, I noticed that magnum-size bottle of Prosecco I won during our annual office Christmas raffle. I shoved it in there in anticipation of our New Year’s toast. At the time, I hadn’t even given our New Year’s Eve dinner the slightest thought, but I figured that at least we’d be all set with a chilled glass of bubbly come toasting time. Priorities, people!

This morning, however, I came to the realization that I better start thinking about what to cook for tonight’s dinner if we don’t want to end up with canned tuna on toast. I almost bought a frozen turkey during an impromptu grocery run late yesterday afternoon, thinking I had plenty of time left and all, but then – for some bizarre unknown reason – decided against it… and thank god! Personally, I’d like to interpret this divine intervention as a celestial sign that we were meant to have a beef roast instead, but maybe it’s just my cultural heritage talking.

Roast beef is a classic New Year’s Eve dinner in Belgium, typically carved tableside and served ‘au jus’ with English peas and ‘kroketjes’, the latter being scrumptious deep-fried cylinders of crispy mashed potato heaven. I vaguely remember my mom even having a special machine that formed kroketjes from homemade creamy mashed potatoes, but most of time she’d buy the packaged frozen kind because she was a lady of convenience. The challenge as a child was to always make sure to boldly claim your kroketjes before anyone else had a chance, because once that plate of crispy golden fried deliciousness hovered 2 inches above the table came within fork’s reach, those suckers went fast and you’d risk ending up with just a measly 1 or 2. It was the 1980’s version of ‘The Hunger Games’, really, and it required strategical insight and precise fork-placement. Later in life, mom would ask us how many we think we’d eat and then halved that number whilst giving us a lecture on gluttony and reminding us that there were children in Africa who didn’t have kroketjes. In an attempt to be smart, I once sassily replied that maybe we should ship some to Africa, a lesson I was forced to contemplate from my bedroom for the remainder of the evening… And since my bedroom didn’t come with a Playstation, a teevee or a computer, my no-nonsense mother made sure I wouldn’t be wasting my time of inner-reflection by staring at my ‘Up With People’ posters and dreaming of dance superstardom, and she handed me a volume of our ‘Encyclopedia Brittanica’ with the instruction to look up recent data on world hunger and write a brief essay with my thoughts as to why I was sent to my bedroom. Would it shock you if I said my mother was a hardcore teacher?

At the Farklepants’ household, we don’t own a deep fryer by design. It would be our death, really. I could accomplish ‘kroketjes’ in a contraption of a Dutch oven, hot oil and a candy thermometer but I’m the daughter of said lady above and therefore, genetically predisposed to anything that even remotely inconveniences me. This leaves me with the dilemma of ‘ease vs. New year’s Eve glamour’, and it’s for precisely this occasion the French came up with ‘Pommes Duchesse’. These pillowy miniature mounds of oven-crisped mashed potato not only look festive, they are a happy median between the crispness of deep-fried kroketjes and the creaminess of mashed potato. They look elegant enough and they’re super easy to make.

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POMMES DUCHESSE WITH CHEDDAR & ROSEMARY
(Adapted from a classic French recipe)
– 2.5 lbs of russet potatoes, for approx. 25 puffs
– 6 egg yolks
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– 1/3 cup of chopped rosemary
– 1 cup of grated white cheddar
– 3 cloves of garlic, grated or finely minced
– salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.

Peel, rinse and chop potatoes in mandarin-size chunks. Place them in a large pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium and cook until potatoes are fork tender, usually +/- 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and place pot back over low heat for a few more minutes, so excess water can evaporate.

With a potato ricer or in a food mill, mash the potatoes very fine. Season with salt & pepper and a dash of nutmeg. Add in half & half and egg yolks one-by-one until you get an even, thick consistency. The potato mixture should be able to hold its form when you squirt it from a pastry bag. Add in the cheddar, minced garlic & chopped rosemary,  and stir to combine well. Allow to cool until room temperature to the touch.

Fill pastry bag with large star tip, and squeeze little heaps onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake for approx. 10-15 min in the hot oven, until ridges are browned and potato appears crispy. Serve immediately.
Consequently, you can also pre-make these potato piles and refrigerate them until you are ready to bake them.

Bourbon Spiced Nuts

11 Dec

A few years ago, it was wasabi peas. Last year, it was pumpkin butter. Nowadays, it seems my stepdad’s survival & emotional well-being depends on teriyaki beef jerky. He’s presently engaged in an illicit cross-Atlantic love affair with dehydrated beef, and since my mother aims to please, I have been instructed asked to pick up 10 packages and ship them to Belgium. Pronto! Preferably yesterday, really.

It all started when she came to visit last October and we strolled a dozen or so local farmers markets, some as far North as Hollywood. On one of these markets, her eye fell on a booth with home-made grass-fed beef jerky. “What’s jerky?”, she asked slightly bewildered, already clutching a package in her hand. Smelling a sale, the vendor tipped his cowboy hat and launched into a passionate sales pitch about his family’s decades’ old ranch, his small business endeavors and the quality of his beef… all of which was efficiently halted at 0.5 seconds by mom’s brusque hand gesture and the mentioning in poor English that he needn’t bother because she doesn’t speak English. Cecile: 1 – Jerky Jim: 0
I whipped out my best apologetic smile and explained to my mom in Dutch that jerky is dehydrated beef and a common snack item in America. Jerky Jim understands. He’s not fazed by international language barriers and – whilst patiently waiting for me to finish my explanation – he kicks up the charm and proceeds with handing out a sample to my mom with a beckoning smile and a wink, as though to say “please accept my peace offering, oh Great Lady of the Comfortable Stretch Pants”. She is clearly charmed. And so it began…

Eight odd weeks later, I get a call from mom – out of the blue – asking me to please mail her 10 packages of ‘that jerky’ we bought ‘somewhere’. Why, of course! “Do you remember where we bought those, mom?” Personally, I would consider this a normal question considering we’ve been to a dozen odd markets, but this seemed to have caught my mother by surprise because, you know, I am a walking inventory of all things grocery in the greater Los Angeles area. “No, but YOU should because your brain is younger than mine and besides, YOU live there, not me?!”. I surrender. To aid me in my quest, she states she has mailed me the wrapping (?!). She could have scanned and emailed me the label, but she’s technologically challenged and her proficiency with electronics stops at kitchen gadgets and her television set she bought in 2001 or so. I respect that. I get lost in translation reading my stepsons’ Facebook statuses, and I’m only 43 21!

So, at my mom’s house, the latest episode of ‘F.C. De Kampioenen’ is enjoyed over the gregarious chewing of teriyaki jerky. I’m not much of a TV snacker myself, but I like nuts. I vaguely remember my mom’s addiction with nuts when I was younger, and her tête-a-tête with wasabi peas she discovered here a few years ago. Maybe she’ll fall in love with these nuts as well… Nuts are crazy-good in Belgium, anyway, but to rock them out of the house, I’m adding bacon, fat & sugar. What’s not to love?!

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BOURBON SPICED NUTS WITH BACON
(based on several recipes I found for spiced nuts. I kid you not, Pinterest alone is a haven of spiced nut recipes. I changed a few things and took the best of all recipes I found. These are heavenly!)
– 2 ½ cups of mixed pecans, almonds and cashews. (Or any combination you like, really)
– 1 large egg white
– 1/2 cup of maple syrup (or honey)
– 3 Tbsp of Bourbon
– 1 tsp of cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp of ground cumin
– 1/2 tsp of sea salt
– 1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg
– 1/4 tsp of ground ginger
– 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper (I use Piment d’Espelette)
– 6 slices of crisped cooked bacon, crumbled into large pieces (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Mix all the spices together in a small bowl. Beat egg whites with a whisk until foamy, then add the Bourbon & maple syrup and whisk a few minutes more to combine thoroughly.
Add nuts to the bowl with the frothy egg whites and coat well, then add all of the spices and mix until well-combined.

Pour nut mixture onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet, in a single layer. Bake at 350F for approx. 15 min, stirring every 5 min to turn the nuts and roast all sides. After 15 min, add the crisped bacon pieces and bake for an additional 5 minutes (bacon is optional, but oh so yummy!) The nuts should be nice and toasted now, but if not, give them another 2-3 minutes.

As soon as they’re done, remove them from the oven and spoon them onto a new sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Allow them to cool. If some pieces stick together break them apart once they’re cooled.

Curried Orange-Mustard Glazed Turkey

18 Nov

Turkey Day is almost here. At the Farklepants house, we’re excited about that. There’s nothing that screams ‘family bonding’ more than a variety of X-Box controllers, ipods, Wii remotes & laptops gathering around a roasted ex-bird, as horrible as that sounds to my vegetarian friends.

The first turkey I ever roasted, was an uncharted adventure to me. I had no idea what I was doing, really. I had been in the country for nary a year or so, and I was all gung-ho about buying a whole turkey and roasting it to a crisp in my sub-par apartment oven. I had dreamy fantasies of American holiday greatness, and Thanksgiving wasn’t going to be Thanksgiving without a turkey. Period. My kitchen was the size of a shoebox with barely any counter-space. Let me tell you, over the years I have come to understand the value of counter-space real estate. As a matter of fact, if counter-space had any equitable value, it would be comparable to a gaudy mansion, complete with gold-plated tiled Roman pool and room for an Arabian race horse. Counter space is everything, and the lack thereof on a day like Thanksgiving transforms me into Beowulf.

But we digress… I roasted my first bird 13 years ago. It was just myself and I wasn’t expecting any guests, but roasting a bird on Thanksgiving was practically a rite of passage to my new American life, and I wanted to do it the traditional way with the stuffing cooked inside. Ambition is my middle name, y’all. Truthfully, the turkey turned out moist and delicious, but the stuffing very much resembled a Columbian cartel-ghetto… on a bad day! Also, this is probably not news, but roasting a whole turkey when your only dinner guest is you, means that you will have committed to a turkey bonanza for 3 odd months or so. The good news is, is that cooked turkey meat freezes surprisingly well.

I’ve since earned my stars & stripes in this country, which was recently re-enforced by boldly venturing into the eggnog realm of the holiday season, but last year I got adventurous with Mrs. Bigglesworth and rubbed her all over with a sweet curry & cumin concoction, in true Bollywood-style. I’m not sure if I just got lucky with a juicy bird, or if some sort of sweet voodoo happened with the seasonings, but that bird was to die for. Also, the smell of this turkey was like a siren call. Quite frankly, with a house full of teenagers and electronics, I can’t wait to hear those game controllers & remotes to crash on that tryptophan rock again…

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CURRIED ORANGE-MUSTARD GLAZED TURKEY
(a Hungry Belgian original)
– 1 whole turkey, 18lbs or less
– salt and pepper
– 6 Tbsp of sweet curry powder
– 4 limes, juiced
– 4 tsp of ground ginger
– 2 tsp ground cumin
– 1/2 stick of softened butter
– For the cavity: a bundle of fresh herbs, 1 quartered onion, a few roughly chopped celery stalks and carrots

Glaze:
– 1/3 cup of orange marmalade
– 1/3 cup of grainy mustard or brown mustard

Preheat oven to 450F. (Bear with me… a high ‘starting’ temperature will cause the fat underneath the skin to brown the skin from below. Starting off with a low temperature, will cause the flavorful fat to melt and run away into oblivion, without doing any tasty browning at all).

Remove gizzards and neck, then wash the turkey and pat dry. Liberally sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper. Contemplate what to put in the cavity of the turkey…. Personally, I put a bundle of fresh herbs in my turkey’s cavity, consisting of lots of fresh rosemary, fresh thyme and sage. And I also stuff a quartered onion, a few chopped celery stalks and some roughly chopped carrots in there, for good measure.

Place the turkey on a rack in a foil-lined roasting pan. You want to prevent the bottom from getting soggy, so if you don’t have a rack, use some imagination to ‘prop’ your bird up from the bottom. Make sort of a rack with a few hard veggies like carrots, turnips and potatoes, or buy 2 disposable roasting pans and crumple them up to form an improvised V-shape rack. The possibilities are endless, just make sure your contraption is food safe and oven safe.

Cut a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and fold in a triangle shape. Lay it on top of your turkey’s breast and mold it to form sort of a warrior shield for the breast of the turkey. Tip facing down towards the cavity, wide part of the triangle to go over the bird like a cape. Once molded, remove the foil making sure to keep the mold ‘intact’ and set it aside.

Combine the curry powder, lime juice, ginger, cumin, and butter. Rub the mixture all over the turkey and under the skin.

Place the turkey in the blazing hot oven for 30-40 minutes, just to give the breast a chance to brown. After about 30 min, the breast should be nicely browned. If it isn’t, put it back in the oven and give it another 10 min or so. When the breast is browned, take the pan out of the oven and place the molded aluminum shield over the breast. This will deflect some of the heat and keep the breast from drying out while the red meat cooks. I learned this from Alton Brown. Honest to God. Stick your thermometer directly through the foil in the thickest part of the breast, making sure not to touch any bone.

Place the turkey back in the oven and drop the oven temperature to 350F. Roast at 350F until the thermometer registers 155F, or about 2 hours later for an 18 lbs bird. About 10 to 15 minutes before the turkey is done, or roughly after 2 hours and 15 minutes, remove the aluminum foil shield from the beast and discard, combine the preserves and mustard and brush generously over the bird. Continue roasting until internal temperature reaches 161F, about 15-min longer.

Food safety guidelines tell us that we should roast poultry to an inner-temperature of 165F. Keep in mind that once you remove the turkey from the oven, it will continue to cook for several more minutes while you allow it to rest, which means that if you take it out of the oven at exactly 165F, it will be over-cooked! Taking it out of the oven a few degrees shy of 165F, like at 161F, will mean that by the time you’re ready to carve this turkey, it will be perfectly cooked at 165F and still juicy & moist…

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.

Nutty Blue Cheese Apple-Parsnip Soup

10 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go hug your child. Seriously.

Speculaas Cookies

20 Aug

Another blissful childhood memory of mine is ‘Sinterklaas’ day and the traditional ‘speculaas’ that comes with it. A typical Belgian holiday favorite, this spiced dark brown cookie is the star behind the ‘Biscoff’ speculoos cookie butter (or Trader Joe’s cookie butter) you see appearing on more & more American grocery shelves nowadays.

‘Speculaas’, or speculoos with double ‘o’, is readily available in Belgian grocery stores year-round, but its national primetime is definitely on ‘Sinterklaas’ day! Many bakeries press this deliciously spiced cookie dough in special wooden ‘speculaas’ molds, to create various imprints and shapes of the cookie, often with depictions of Sinterklaas.

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Top of the line pastry boutiques and fine bakeries even create toddler life-size Sinterklaas statuettes, that adorn their elaborately decorated & animated store windows and are admired by passers-by for their artistry with a sense of wonder.

‘Sinterklaas’ day, celebrated on 06th December, is deeply rooted in Catholicism since the Middle Ages. It is traditionally a celebration of Saint Nikolaus, patron saint of sailors, among others. Legend has it that Saint Nikolaus, a Greek bishop from the city of Myrna in present day Turkey, would roam the lands alongside the Mediterranean Sea, to remind folks of their religious duties. It is said he would preach about good moral values and spread cheer among the sailors’ families & children.

Sinterklaas festivities may seem insensitive to many Americans, but these traditional celebrations came long before they acquired any racial connotations later on in history. With the legend of Saint Nikolaus so deeply rooted in Catholicism and the religion’s pre-occupation with ‘good vs. evil’, the depiction of a ‘white’ holy man and his ‘black’ assistants has nothing to do with racial equality or differences… and everything to do with pitting good vs. evil. As such, Sinterklaas is depicted as a ‘good’ holy man, and his black assistants – Black Pete’s or ‘Zwarte Pieten’ – are meant to represent the ‘bad’ immoral influences we are tempted by. In that role, the ‘Zwarte Pieten’ are not meant to be depictions of actual humans, but rather portraited caricatures of frolicking, mischievous black devils that accompany the holy man to represent the evil influences that seemingly taunt us in our quest to be ‘good’. After all, if you were even remotely raised with deeply rooted religious beliefs, you have been warned a handful of times that the devil can take on any form to try and sway you from the ‘right’ path… Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet truly are considered equals in the story, with each their own role to shine in, and the Black Pete’s form of dress is merely an accurate depiction of what men would wear during the medieval times in Moorish Spain, and not intended as mockery.

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In present day Belgium, Sinterklaas still arrives by boat and many port cities will stage and broadcast his arrival over national & local media. In smaller towns, Sinterklaas rides the streets on a white horse and visits local schools, grocery stores and other public buildings. Just like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas makes house calls the night before, and parents urge their children to place a shoe by the hearth or the front door, so Sinterklaas can leave candy & goodies overnight. The importance of leaving a carrot or two for his beloved equine companion, is equally stressed! Throughout the year, parents cleverly use the whole Sinterklaas story to urge their children to be ‘good’, because being ‘naughty’ results in being whisked away to hell in Black Pete’s burlap sack. As a child, this was a credible threat that one could not take lightly!

‘Sinterklaas’ day was always fun. It broke the academic tediousness of school. You knew that anything could happen on this day, and you’d keep your eye out in giddy excitement for a glimpse of any of the Black Petes or a sign they were present. Many times, we’d hear the ruckus & screeching from a few classrooms down, and your heart would start racing with whirly anticipation of Sinterklaas’ arrival into your classroom. The first ones to arrive, were always the ‘Zwarte Pieten’. One would come barging through the door, throwing candy around and sending kids clambering all over their desks to get some, while another would mischievously start writing on the blackboard with blatant spelling errors and disregard for the scholarly establishment… Yet another would start emptying or rearranging book shelves or cabinets, or sit down next to you whilst mimicking your every move, much to the excitement of your peers. With Sinterklaas striding into class elegantly, almost royally, he’d immediately reprimand the shenanigans of his assistants, and inquire in class to spill the beans on what his assistants had been up to so far. Many children will eagerly blurt out everything from A-Z in hopes of pleasing Sinterklaas, much to the staged chagrin of the Pete in question, while others – like Teutonic little me – would feel there was no place for all of this frivolity until such time it was revealed who was on the ‘good’ list and who on the ‘naughty’ list. This was serious business, folks!

Other than ‘speculaas’ and chocolate, Sinterklaas – said to be hailing from Spain – also brings mandarins, marzipan and ‘lieve vrouwtjes’ as well.
(*) a marshmallow type candy in the shape of the Holy Mary

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SPECULAAS SPICES
(Adapted from Flemish celebrity chef Piet Huysentruyt)
– 4 Tbsp ground cinnamon
– 1 Tbsp ground cloves
– 1 Tbsp ground mace
– 1/3 Tbsp ground ginger
– 1/4 Tbsp ground cardamom seed
– 1/4 Tbsp ground white pepper
– 1/4 Tbsp ground coriander seed
– 1/4 Tbsp ground anis seed
– 1/4 Tbsp ground nutmeg

Put everything in a ziplock baggy and shake well! Store in a small glass jar, in a cool dark place.

SPECULAAS COOKIES
(Adapted from a recipe by Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus)
– 1 lbs light brown/golden sugar
– 1 lbs of pastry flour, self-rising flower or all purpose flour, sifted
– 8 oz of good quality butter, room temperature
– 1 egg, yolk & white separated
– 1-2 Tbsp of speculoos spices (see above. Use 2 for a spicy flavor)
– 1 tsp of baking soda
– 1 tsp pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients into a large mixing bowl, and mix with a mixer or your hands until you get a smooth dough that doesn’t stick to your hands. Wrap dough ball in plastic foil, and rest dough in the fridge overnight to allow spices to develop flavor and permeate the dough.

Preheat oven to 400F. Roll dough into a sausage, and slice into cookie slices. Alternatively, roll dough out on a floured surface, and use your cookie molds to cut out shapes.

Place cookie dough on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and bake for approx. 25-30 min. Allow cookies to cool and crisp.

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Fig Tartlets with Goat Cheese & Honey

13 Aug

Ah… Fresh figs!

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I love everything about fresh figs, really. The sweet stickiness that lingers on your lips, the earthy smell, the bright red flesh that offsets the crisp green or deep dark purple of the skin, the plump texture with just the right amount of crunch form the tiny seeds… I even like the shape of the bright green leaves and the knottiness of the tree branches. Let it be known that if I were to reincarnate as a tree, I’d like to come back as a fig tree.

Mom must have loved figs too, because I remember us bringing back a few saplings during one of our vacations in the South of France. Mom carefully nursed them on our dining room window sill, where the afternoon sunlight would caress their tiny organic bodies and would cause their little leaves to quiver from the warmth. The next Spring, we planted two of them in the backyard, in a post-winter ritual involving partially decomposed dog doodoo and a rusty shovel (with possibly some canned banana shoved in the hollow handle) (*). We didn’t hold much hope for the saplings’ survival of the first brutal Belgian winter that would be nipping at their fragile roots come November, nor did we expect for them to thrive in our cold, wet climate. Despite all odds being stacked against them, these little knotty fig trees have grown to reach the edge of my mom’s single level’s rooftop over the years. Overwhelmed by the amount of fruit they’d produce every late Summer thru early Fall, we couldn’t keep up with the harvest and… well… let’s just say that the crows & squirrels of the ‘Jasmijnenlaan’ were well fed.
(*) For more intriguing story lines of ‘canned bananas’, please read my banana butter post here.

I realize that figs are expensive outside of Southern California. Lucky for me, however, I happen to live in a dry, sunny climate, similar to the Mediterranean where fig trees thrive. Even better is that ‘fig season’ actually comes in 2 installments… The first crop, named the ‘breba’ crop, grows from branches that sprouted the previous year and is the harvest that begins in late Spring. It’s a fairly short-lived season, usually with the last crops harvested around early Summer. The second & larger harvest, sprouting from this year’s branch growth, begins in mid-August and runs as late as October for some varieties. This means that, with a bit of clever pre-planned farmers market hopping, I can actually enjoy fresh figs with nary a hiccup through fall. Most of the figs around here are ‘Brown Turkey’ figs or ‘Black Mission’ figs, with the deep purple black mission fruit usually having a more intense fig flavor. Later in the summer, you see ‘Kadota’ figs and ‘Calimyrna’ figs. Kadota figs are used mostly for drying, but the bright green Calimyrna’s are excellent for eating raw as well. ‘Adriatic’ figs and striped tropical ‘Panachée’ figs are quite scarce over here, so if you see them, grab them.

If you’ve never eaten fresh figs before, don’t be alarmed. When ripe, there are few fruits that compare to their sweet juiciness and I know you’ll love them too. Simply rinse the whole fruit, trim the stems back a bit and sink your teeth in like you would a strawberry. On the other hand, fresh figs are a treat when roasted in the oven with some goat cheese or chopped in salads, or you can bake them into a sweet or savory tart like I did below.

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FRESH FIG TARTLETS WITH GOAT CHEESE & HONEY
– 4 pieces of puff pastry, sliced into 6-7 inch rounds (or squares)
– 5-6 oz of soft, mild goat cheese (or if you don’t like goat cheese, use ricotta)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh oregano, chopped
– 1 tsp of lemon zest
– 6 fresh figs, sliced fairly thinly (like you would a lemon)
– Honey, for drizzling
– Salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 350F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place 4 puff pastry rounds on top, spaced approx. 1.5-inch apart. In small bowl, soften goat cheese with some salt & pepper to taste, and the lemon zest. Divide goat cheese mixture evenly over the center of the puff pastry rounds, making sure to leave approx. 1 inch of the edges clear. Sprinkle chopped fresh oregano over the goat cheese.

Place fresh fig slices over the goat cheese to more or less cover. Fold the edges of the pastry over themselves just a little bit, so you get a bit of a thicker edge on the outside.

Bake the tartlets in the oven for approx. 15 min until the edges are puffed and the center looks caramelized and somewhat gooey. Drizzle some honey over the top and serve warm.

Belgian Endive Salad with Blue Cheese & Walnuts

12 Aug

A few weeks ago, I wrote a tidbit about crunchy & faintly bitter ‘witlof’ in a post featuring a delicious Summer red beet, apple & fennel slaw. Authentic ivory-colored Belgian endive tends to be expensive over here, but you can find the red variety in California fairly easily and at a much lower cost. In order for the leaves of ‘witlof’ to stay a pearly white, it needs to be grown and tended to in a dark, cool & temperature-controlled environment. With this wisdom uncovered, I’ve always been baffled as to why the USA seemingly can’t reproduce this elegant chicory variant, so a few years ago, I set out on a ‘witlof’ mission… Inspired by this beauty, which makes my Belgian heart pine for witlof each and every time:

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(Photo courtesy ‘Roquefort Cheese Co’)

Back then, my local ‘Henry’s produce & farmers market’ was kind enough to aide me in my quest to understand witlof pricing in the US, and summoned their Regional Purchasing Manager to explain a few chicory facts to me. As luck may have it, Mr. Roden happened to in town that morning, and showed up clasping a leather-bound file folder tightly in his arm pit, whilst gently cradling a white and a red chicory root in the palm of his aging hands. “The ‘real’ Belgian endive”, he says in a serious teacher tone of voice whilst holding up the all-ivory root, “has to be imported from Belgium”. He continues stating that it is usually packaged and shipped to the USA in 10 lbs boxes. Because the vegetables are exposed to sunlight during transport, it causes these tender delicate roots to develop their natural, greenish color. As a result, each box has to be unpacked upon arrival at the East Coast, with each individual root of ‘witlof’ needing to be stripped of its outer leaves by hand and subsequently repackaged to be distributed to the rest of the country. “All of this is very labor-intensive and thus costly”. I nod my head in agreement.

Another cost-factor”, he continues, “is that much of the endive grown in Belgium is grown artisanally by a method called ‘forcing’”. In Belgium, many farms that grow endive use this labor-intensive agriculture which involves replanting the chicory root by hand. That replanting process, called ‘forcing’, must take place in a darkened, temperature-controlled room. Twenty-one days after the roots are planted, employees then crouch down on hands & knees, scrape the dirt off the endive and harvest it. I look bewildered. He continues that after decades of seed trials and piddling around, the USA managed to grow a red variety hydroponically (i.e. in water), eliminating the need for workers to hand-wash the dirt off of the roots and eliminating much of the shipping- & import costs. Unfortunately, growing endive still involves a costly production process that is labor intensive.

I thank Mr. Roden for his time in sharing his knowledge with me, and sheepishly add that I’m from Belgium and miss being able to afford Belgian endive now that I live on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. He shakes my hand firmly and promises that the red variety virtually has no difference in taste, which prompts my confession that the pearly white roots simply hold nostalgic value to me. I think I inadvertently struck a chord in the somewhat stern older man, because on my way out of the store, the clerk I spoke with earlier, stopped me in my tracks and handed me a bag of ‘real’ Belgian endive, “courtesy of Mr. Roden”, she winks with a smile.

With its faint bitterness, witlof is a bit of an acquired taste. However, paired with the sweetness of a ripe apple and the creamy sharpness of a marbled blue cheese, this bitterness dissipates and melds beautifully with the other flavors introduced in the salad.

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BELGIAN ENDIVE SALAD WITH BLUE CHEESE AND WALNUTS
For the salad:
– 3 Belgian endives, washed and torn into individual leaves
– 1 sweet apple, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
– 4 oz of blue cheese, crumbled into chunks
– 1/3 cup of walnuts, roughly chopped

Peel & discard outer leaves of the endives. Remove inner leaves individually and arrange on a serving platter. Toss thinly sliced apple wedges over the endives and sprinkle crumbled blue cheese & chopped walnuts over the top. Drizzle dressing over the top.

For the dressing:
– ¼ cup of champagne vinegar
– ¾ cup of olive oil
– 2 tsp of Dijon mustard
– ½ tsp of fresh grated garlic
– 1 egg yolk, room temperature
– salt & pepper, to taste

In a non-reactive bowl, add vinegar, mustard, egg yolk & garlic and whisk until well-combined. Continue whisking and slowly pour in olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Season with salt & pepper to taste.

Sinful Chocolate Truffles

7 Aug

What could possibly be wrong with a sumptuous mouthful of cream, chocolate and butter? If your genetic profile is anything like mine, there’s a lot wrong with these delicious truffles. As a matter of fact, I might as well bypass my digestive system completely and stick these directly onto my hips and thighs, since I’m incapable of eating just one. Who can, really?

Belgium’s love affair with chocolate ‘pralines’ & truffles traditionally unfolds at various quaint country tables, adorned with one’s best china and grandma’s hand-embroidered floral table cloth. Neighbors and friends eagerly gather around to catch up on the latest small town gossip, and to reconcile important town data such as who is getting married to whom and what was it that Marie overheard whilst standing in line at the butcher’s? To facilitate these impromptu social gatherings, a pot of freshly brewed coffee is there to loosen the tongues and the sugary sweetness of truffles is presented to melt away the bitter shock of hearing that the elderly pastor now has a pretty new housekeeper… and why is she so young? Not proper, I say.

Coffee is consumed by the liter in rural Flanders & beyond. You can’t ring someone’s doorbell without being beckoned to sit down at the kitchen table and have an unsolicited cup of joe appear under your nose within the first 5 minutes of entering, usually followed by an invitation to grab something from a box of sweets that permanently lives in the middle of the table. To my mom’s generation, a knock on the door holds the promise of an exciting bit of town gossip and one must be prepared for this kind of opportunity 24/7. No Belgian household is without coffee or chocolate. It’s just not proper.

When I first moved to the USA, glitzy Los Angeles of all, I remember that random people I had never seen before would wave at me enthusiastically on the street or greet me with a smile during my visits back to small town Belgium. It later dawned on me that my move to ‘Aahhhh-merica’ must have been the topic of conversation during many such coffee-orgies, undoubtedly piquing the interest of people who did not know Cecilia’s brave and/or adventurous daughter yet. I’m sure the news of ‘Helga-sightings’ spread fast within the community, like I was some sort of rare caribou one had to look out for. My mother’s main agenda for my visit back home was to cram in as many coffee gatherings as a week would allow. The upside of this was homemade cookies & Leonidas truffles at each one…

The truffle recipe below is an old-fashioned, artisan recipe I found online years ago. I tweaked it for flavor & richness of texture, but it’s fairly authentic and you can proudly serve these in a bowl… on your granny’s hand-crocheted doily. For good measure.

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BASIC TRUFFLES
For the ganache:
– 8 oz of dark chocolate
– 4 oz of heavy whipping cream
– 2 oz of good quality unsalted butter

For the coating:
– 4 oz of dark chocolate, melted
– ½ cup of semi-sweet cocoa powder

In a bowl, break chocolate into bite-size pieces and set aside. In a small sauce pan, heat heavy whipping cream over a medium heat until very hot. Add butter and stir until butter is melted. Then pour hot cream mixture over chocolate pieces and stir until all chocolate is melted and you achieve a smooth mass. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the chocolate mass, and refrigerate for a few hours until ganache is set.

When cold and stiff, take ganache out of the refrigerator. Using a double-boiler method, melt remaining chocolate for coating in a small saucepan. When melted and cool enough to handle, scoop small balls out of the ganache and gently coat them with the melted chocolate. Needless to say, coating the truffles is by far the messiest part of this recipe, but there’s no avoiding it so you might as well enjoy the mess. The best way to coat the truffles, is by gently rolling them around in the melted chocolate, using a chopstick or toothpick.

When coated, immediately take them out of the melted chocolate with a toothpick and roll them in a coating of your choice. Traditionally, semi-sweet cocoa powder is used, but you can also use chopped nuts, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate shavings, coconut flakes.. whatever you fancy, really.

Place the coated truffles on a parchment lined plate, and let harden in the fridge a little before serving.

ORANGE GRAND MARNIER TRUFFLES
Use basic truffle recipe above, and add the following in the ganache:
– 1-2 Tbsp of Grand Marnier or Cointreau liquor
– 2 Tbsp of freshly grated orange zest

Coat truffles with semi-sweet cocoa powder.

IRISH TRUFFLES
Use basic truffle recipe above, and add the following to the ganache
– 1-2 Tbsp of good quality Whiskey
– 2 Tbsp of very strong coffee

Roll truffles in white chocolate shavings.

WHITE CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES WITH HONEY & SAFFRON
Use basic truffle recipe above, but replace dark chocolate with white chocolate. Add the following to the ganache:
– a pinch of saffron
– 1 Tbsp of honey
– a splash of white rum

For the coating, use melted white chocolate and roll truffles in powdered sugar, unsweetened coconut flakes or very finely chopped almonds

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Pink Grapefruit & Limoncello Mousse

6 Aug

Last time my mom visited from Belgium, I randomly asked her if she still remembered those little cups of yogurt mousse she used to buy for us by the dozen. We were on our way to ‘Surfas’ kitchen supply store in Culver City, in search of organic black squid ink – don’t ask! There was nothing in particular that sparked my question, so it is entirely possible that I overwhelmed her with the randomness of it, but mom firmly stated that she had no idea what I was talking about and quickly concluded that I must be remember things wrong, because mom is always right… even when she’s wrong. It’s a Flemish miracle, really, and one that should be recognized by a ribbon from the Pope and possible sainthood.

I know that I didn’t dream up this deliciousness, because I still remember exactly what the packaging looked like and I remember that this fluffy delight came in lemon, strawberry and blueberry flavor. The tart, sweet lemon flavor was by far my favorite, and I recall I would secretly re-shuffle the containers in the fridge so that the lemon ones were always hidden from plain sight in the back of the fridge, thusly, increasing the odds of saving them for yours truly by 200%. I was stealth like that.

Besides custards, mousses are my next favorite dessert things. I love their airy, light fluffiness. It was only recently that the idea of a pink grapefruit mousse slapped me in the face, when I read an article about how incorporating this fruit into your daily diet promotes weight loss… and what better way to do it than with dessert? Right?

Yeah.

I’m sure this is not what the author had in mind, but whatever. Don’t rain on my culinary parade, please.

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PINK GRAPEFRUIT & LIMONCELLO MOUSSE
(Adapted from a variety of mousse recipes)
– 2 ruby red or pink grapefruit
– 6 oz of thick Greek yogurt
– 7 oz of heavy whipping cream
– 2 Tbsp of limoncello (or another citrus-flavored liquor)
– 3 egg whites
– a pinch of salt
– 4 sheets of gelatin
– 2 Tbsp of sugar

Place gelatin sheets into a bowl of cold water and allow it to swell. When gelatin is soft, pour cold water out of the bowl and add 2-3 Tbsp of very hot/boiling water and allow swollen gelatin to melt. Let cool slightly while you prepare the other ingredients.

Juice both grapefruits and strain juice so all fleshy bits and pits stay behind. Combine clear grapefruit juice with limoncello. Fold sugar into yogurt, and add juice. Beat yogurt mixture with handheld mixer until well-combined and somewhat fluffy. Taste for sweetness, if it’s too tart, add a bit more sugar.

Beat heavy whipping cream until it is firm & fluffy, but not super stiff. Fold it gently into the yogurt mixture, together with the lukewarm melted gelatin.

Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, and gently fold these into the yogurt/cream mixture. Try to keep the air in the egg whites, as this will give your mousse a light, fluffy texture.

Divide mousse over 6 ramekins or small glasses, and allow to set in the refrigerator for at least 2-4 hours.

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