Tag Archives: gluten free

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!

Hearty Polish Sausage & Beans

11 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

Drain and rinse beans under cold water, set aside.

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

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

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

Nutty Blue Cheese Apple-Parsnip Soup

10 Sep

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

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

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

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

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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.

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!

Zingy Potato Salad

5 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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!

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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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.

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