Tag Archives: Summer

Mason Jar Salads

12 Aug

Mason jars. Aren’t they just fantastic? Not like a ‘Bananas Foster’ kind of fantastic, but more like a ‘ooh, look!’ kind of fantastic. I already own a not-so-modest selection of small & medium glass jars that currently sit on my shelf showing off their pale hues to one another in anticipation of being called upon for my random storage needs, but then Pinterest beguiled me last Saturday morning with the idea of ready-to-eat ‘grab & go’ salads in mason jars. In that precise moment, the moment in which I brought my iPhone closer to my face so I could actually see what was on the screen, I heard cherubs plucking tiny golden harps. Honest to God.

I’m not a fan of office lunches. Mostly because my weekday lunches in our small office kitchen are boringly uneventful, and the selection of food that is available for purchase in the immediate walking area surrounding LAX airport, pales in excitement compared to my grandma’s knit sweater. I either have the option of buying overpriced food at one of the fancy airport hotels nearby, or I can go to the only 2 places available that are within walking distance, neither of which is particularly exciting. About half the time I end up packing my own lunch at home, but getting up at 05:30A to do so is most definitely not fun, and my packed lunch usually symbolizes this pre-dawn Beowulf mindset.

So when I saw these mason jar salads on Pinterest last Saturday morning, it felt like I got struck by lightning… Not only do they look so very tasty & fresh, they require zero prep in the morning. BINGO! As an added bonus, my colleagues can do all the shoving they want in the office fridge, since my salad jar fits in the refrigerator door and is not exposed to the brutality that is a community refrigerator. Since I have an impulsive streak, I can tell you that by Saturday afternoon we were at our local hardware store and by Sunday morning, my 12 shiny new quart-size mason jars had gone through 2 hot cycles in our dishwasher. When I open the refrigerator door now, and see my colorful mason jar salads neatly lined up on the shelf, it almost makes Monday mornings feel like less of a satanic cult a drag. Almost.

I used quart size jars, but feel free to use pint size jars or any size jar you like, really. Just keep in mind that for these salads to last the full 5 days that they reportedly stay crisp and fresh, you have to layer them properly. If they aren’t layered properly, fuhgettaboutit!. Also, keep the dressing in the bottom and don’t shake or tip them. You want that dressing to live its lone solitary life in the bottom of the jar until such time you’re ready to dump & eat.
I posted an Asian Chicken Salad below that I found on foxeslovelemons.com, but you can let your creativity run wild. The idea is to place all your salad toppings in the jar first and end with lettuce, so that when you dump the jar out into a bowl or on a plate, you have a no effort gorgeously crisp salad to eat without any prep.

Proper layering is key:

BOTTOM: dressing. Use dressing that easily pours out of a jar. I used simple vinaigrette variants, but if you like creamy dressings, dilute them a little with cream or milk so they’ll easily come out. In a quart size jar, you want to cover the bottom ½ inch. It’s tempting to add more, but it’s not necessary.
FIRST LAYER: this layer of vegetables will actually sit in the dressing itself, so use any kind of vegetables that are hardy and can withstand pickling. These vegetables will absorb some of the dressing, making them even more flavorful. You can also add ‘al dente’ noodles and pasta here, and they’ll absorb some of the dressing too. Build this layer so it towers slightly out of the dressing and forms the base for the next (dry) layer. (e.g. cucumbers, carrots, onions, peppers, cabbage, rice noodles…)
SECOND LAYER: This layer will be the first layer that will actually not come into contact with the dressing, but may still absorb some the dressing flavor from sitting in the jar. You want to use vegetables or toppings that will benefit from absorbing some of the dressing flavor without actually touching the dressing. (e.g. tomatoes, edamame beans, regular beans, olives, corn…)
THIRD LAYER: nuts, cheeses and meats. This is where the final toppings come into play. They are far removed from the dressing and stacked to ensure your salad stays crisp and fresh for up to 5 days.
TOP LAYER: lettuces. Unless you shake or tip the jar, which is a no-no in jar salads, your lettuce will stay crisp and fresh just like it would if you were to store it by itself.

If you follow the above layering order, you should end up with easy ‘grab & go’ salads that will stay fresh & crispy in your refrigerator for approx. 5 days. If you’re like me, and you lack time on weekdays to get everything done that you need to in the first place, then these are a godsend come lunch time. I don’t know who came up with this idea but whomever you are, I bow to your genius.

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ASIAN CHICKEN SALAD
Based on a recipe from foxeslovelemons.com)
– 3 quart size mason jars (or more, if smaller size)
– 1 large boneless & skinless chicken breast, poached in broth, cooled & cubed
– approx. 1.5 cups of shelled edamame beans, cooked
– 2 red bell peppers, cut into thin strips
– 3 carrots, julienned or cut into thin sticks
– 1 10oz package of Udon or Soba rice noodles, cooked, cooled & drained
– 1.5 cups of raw soybean sprouts (if you can’t find them, don’t worry. You can leave them out)
– 1.5 cups of unsalted, roasted peanuts

Boil noodles according to package instructions. Drain, rinse with cold water and allow to cool completely.
Pour dressing (see below) into each jar, until approx. ½ or ¾ of an inch in height. You don’t need any more, trust me.
Place a layer of noodles in the dressing until they tower above the dressing (+/- 1.5 – 2 inches high)
Place a layer a of carrots on top of the noodles, then a layer of bell pepper (approx. 1 inch each, but this is not an exact science. J)
Sprinkle a handful of edamame beans on top of the bell pepper, then top with soybean sprouts.
Finish veggies with a layer of diced chicken and top with peanuts.
Screw lid on jar and refrigerate. Repeat with remaining jars.

For the dressing:
– 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil (or any oil you like)
– 1/4 cup of soy sauce
– 1/3 cup of rice vinegar
– 4 hefty squirts of Sriracha for medium-spicy dressing (depending on how spicy you want things)
– 3-4 large scoops of peanut butter

Put everything in a small mason jar and stir to dissolve peanut butter just a bit, screw on lid and shake vigorously until well-combined.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Creamy Herbed Pea Soup

15 Aug

Ask my mother what my favorite vegetable is, and she’ll loudly proclaim: ‘SWEET PEAS!’. Well, she’d actually say ‘zveet peez!’, what with her having learned English by watching subtitled episodes of ‘The Golden Girls’ and all. (On a side note: they eat surprising few peas those golden girls!).
I’ve been in love with crisp fresh English peas for decades. Seeing them happily clinging together in their tiny pods, reminds me of lazy Summer weekends hanging out on the porch and sipping ice cold tea with your best girl friends. I know it’s a stretch, but stay with me…

With pea season arriving right around the time the winter chill leaves the early morning air, there’s nothing that stops me from planting my pajama-clad ‘derriere’ in one of our floral cabana patio chairs, armed with a mug of coffee and a bowl of fresh English peas for hulling. With the canopy of a big fat loquat tree shading our patio, I usually get the company of a few humming birds whizzing about and/or house finches, chirping loudly over who gets to perch on the top tier of our birdfeeder. These kind of lazy Sunday mornings are my favorite. The ‘house men’ are night owls and tend to sleep in late, so I have our cozy apartment all to myself, with the cats snoozing in the morning sun somewhere inconvenient or doing their cute feline chit-chattering thing to the birds in front of the open window, secretly plotting for you to break a leg as you try to avoid stepping on them when you walk back inside with a bowl of hulled peas.

I like hulling peas. Seeing them bounce around on the bottom of the bowl as they come cascading in with the help of my thumb, I can’t help but think it must feel like a roller-coaster ride to them… I’ve always had a vivid imagination. It doesn’t help much that my office cubicle overlooks the take-off & landing strips of Los Angeles International airport, and I occasionally find myself day-dreaming about being sprawled out in a polka dot bikini on an exotic white sand beach with coconut palms swaying back & forth… That is, until the roaring engine of Air Tahiti Nui’s flight #85 approaches and thunders by my 6th floor office window, which usually sets off an overly sensitive car alarm or two. I’m instantly reminded that Century Blvd isn’t even remotely near Tahiti, and if I dare squeeze my curves into a tiny polka dot bikini, I’d risk getting a ticket for bringing the human form into disrepute. But we were talking about peas… See what I mean with vivid imagination?! Sheesh.

Last Spring, I came home with a 5 lbs bag of fresh English peas from the farmers market. We pretty much ate pea-anything that week. It was as if we were on a 7-day pea cleansing program, which I’m sure exists somewhere here, in Beverly Hills or so. Among many other green adventures, I made the Summer soup below. It’s served cold, like gazpacho, and it’s such a refreshing dish on a hot Summer day, but if you like, you could eat it warm too… Aren’t peas just awesome?!

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CREAMY HERBED PEA SOUP
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 1 large shallot, diced
– 1-2 Tbsp of grapeseed oil (or light olive oil)
– 2 3/4 cups of chicken broth
– 1/4 cup of Pinot Grigio (or other crisp white wine)
– 1.5 lbs of fresh peas (or equal amount of frozen peas)
– 1/3 cup of heavy cream
– 1 Tbsp of fresh mint, chopped very finely
– 1 tsp of fresh tarragon, chopped very finely
– 2 Tbsp of fresh parsley, chopped finely
– 1 Tbsp of fresh chives, chopped finely
– zest of 1 small lemon
– salt & pepper, to taste
– crème fraiche, for garnish
– 1/2 leek, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional)

In a sauce pan, add oil and sauté shallots over medium heat until softened, but not browned! Add broth, wine and peas, and simmer until peas are mostly tender but still bright green. Remove from heat and add lemon zest. In a blender, or with a hand-mixer, blend the soup so it’s smooth and lump-free. It should be a fairly thick but liquid consistency. Pour blended mixture into a bowl and set in iced cold water to cool the soup quickly and retain its bright green color. (Make sure the ice water won’t pour into your soup!)

When soup feels cool enough to the touch, add cream & herbs. Season with salt & pepper to taste, and serve in bowls. Swirl a dollop of crème fraiche through it and sprinkle with a few of the shavings of leek, for garnish.

Pairs really nice with smoked salmon toast or cold shrimp. Yum!

Curried Zucchini Cakes

29 Jul

My good friend Glynis posted a picture of her delicious home-grown zucchini crop on Instagram the other day, and freely confessed she had been on the hunt for zucchini recipes on Pinterest lately. My mind instantly went to a stack of curried zucchini cakes I whipped up months ago. I think last time I thought about frying up zucchini cakes in my skillet was probably when one of my colleagues arrived at my desk with a bag of monster-squash. She had grown them from seedlings and – by the sentiment in her voice – I could tell she felt comforted knowing her squash babies’ were going to someone who would love them as much as she did… I thanked her for sharing her glass house crop, and promised her I’d turn them into something magically delicious for lunch. Like Mary Poppins. Almost.

I’m not sure if these things happen to just me or everybody else, but at times I think my brain just randomly archives itself when it reaches system overload on all the foodie stuff. There are certain dishes I love and vow to put on regular rotation, and then, for some bizarre reason, I completely forget about them for months! Zucchini cakes are one of them. Every time I fry them up I fall in love with their crisp deliciousness and that token dollop of tart crème fraîche that goes on top, but somehow it nearly always takes some sort of a visual stimulus, like Glynis’ Instagram picture, for me to go “oooohhh, zucchini cakes!”.

I figured that I should post these forgotten gems on my blog, and hopefully I won’t forget about them anymore. Right.

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CURRIED ZUCCHINI CAKES WITH GOAT CHEESE & PINE NUTS
– 4-5 small zucchini, grated (approx. 2 cups)
– 2 small carrots, grated (approx. 1/2 cup)
– 1/2 of a small onion, grated
– 2 Tbsp of finely chopped fresh dill
– 1/2 cup of feta cheese, crumbled
– juice of 1 lemon
– 1 cup of flour
– 3 eggs
– 1.5 Tbsp of sweet curry powder
– salt & pepper, to taste
– olive oil, for pan-frying
– mild goat cheese (*)
– toasted pine nuts
(*) Soledad‘s lemon-lavender goat cheese is delicious with these fritters!

Grate zucchini and place in a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and lemon juice, and let drain for 15-20 minutes. Afterwards, take zucchini and squeeze excess out of the vegetables. Place in a large bowl.

Add grated carrot and onion, eggs, flour, feta cheese, dill, and curry powder, and combine into a chunky batter. Add salt/pepper taste.

In a heavy skillet, heat olive oil until nice and hot (but not smoking) over medium heat. Place a hefty scoop of batter in the pan and press down a bit to flatten out. Cook until brown & crisped, +/- 4 minutes. Flip over and brown the other side.

Transfer to a 200F oven to keep warm, while you cook the rest in batches.

In a separate pan, toast pine nuts for a minute or so. Be careful, cause they burn easily!

Serve the zucchini cakes while still warm & crisp, with a dollop of goat cheese on top and a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts.

Dilled Cucumber Salad

25 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect as a side with grilled shrimp or salmon!

Rémy’s Ratatouille (Rat-a-too-ee)

16 Jul

So…how many of you saw the title and instantly wandered off to romantic Paris in their mind, with its cobble-stoned rues and fresh baguettes? Right? A few Christmases ago, my sweetheart surprised me with Pixar’s ‘Ratatouille’, and I instantly fell in love with it for more reasons than just the adorable rat Rémy and the equally as lovable man who gave me the movie in the first place. I loved it because it teaches us a very simple but important lesson in life: no matter who you are or where you come from, there’s always something wonderful around the corner when you follow your passion. Aw.

Now the thing is, there’s nothing even remotely Belgian about ratatouille. It’s a dish straight out of French cuisine, Provence to be precise. As children, my brother & I spent many Summer vacations in our family’s sweltering caravan, on a dusty campground at the Cote d’Azur. How lucky were we?
Ratatouille is reminiscent of the flavors of my childhood vacations, so it has a special place in my heart, right next to the smell of gasoline and roasted salty & sweet peanuts. Don’t ask.

Rémy didn’t actually cook ‘ratatouille’ as his showcase dish for Mr. Anton Ego, the austere & disdainful food critic in the movie. No. Rémy cooked ‘Confit Byaldi’.

While similar in flavor, Confit Byaldi is the more elegant version of its often too soggy & overcooked Provençal cousin ratatouille. Visually stunning, Confit Byaldi tempts with caramelized layers of equal size slices of zucchini, yellow squash, Japanese eggplant & roma tomatoes, all resting happily on a bed of piperade sauce. Doesn’t that sound sexy already? And with all these gorgeous Summer vegetables making a happy appearance at your local farmers’ market right now, the timing couldn’t be better.

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CONFIT BYALDI
(adapted from Thomas Keller)

For the Piperade sauce:
– 1/2 red bell pepper, seeds & ribs removed, finely diced
– 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds & ribs removed, finely diced
– 1/2 of orange bell pepper, seeds & ribs removed, finely diced
– 1 small clove of garlic, minced (+/- 1 tsp)
– 2-3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
– 1.5 cups of crushed tomatoes
– 1 small onion, finely diced
– 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, left whole
– salt & pepper
– 1 bay leaf

Heat olive oil in a pan and sauté onion & garlic over medium-low heat until onions are soft but not browned, +/- 8 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, thyme & bay leaf, and simmer until everything is very soft and very little liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Add peppers and simmer until soft, another 8-10 minutes or so. Discard bay leaf & thyme, season with salt & pepper.

For the vegetables:
– 1 zucchini (4 to 5 ounces) sliced in 1/16-inch rounds
– 1 Japanese eggplant, (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
– 1 yellow squash (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
– 4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
– 1 small red onion, sliced thinly but make sure rounds stay together and don’t fall apart
– 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced in rounds
– 1 tsp minced garlic
– 2 tsp of extra-virgin olive oil
– 1 tsp of chopped fresh thyme leaves
– 1/2 cup of sliced black olives (if you hate olives, you can totally leave them out. No big deal)
– salt and pepper, to taste

(*) I use a mandolin to slice my thumbnail all vegetables nice & evenly, but you can definitely do this by hand as well. Just make sure all slices are even in size.

Spread piperade sauce on the bottom of an oven-proof pan. Heat oven to 250F degrees.
Arrange alternating vegetables in a close spiral, so that 1/4 of each slice of vegetable sticks out. Repeat until pan is filled and all (or most) of the vegetables are used.

Mix garlic, oil, and thyme leaves in bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over vegetables.

Cover the pan with foil and seal well. Bake until vegetables are tender, about 2 hours. Uncover, turn oven to 400F and bake for 30 minutes more, or until the dish is slightly browned and liquid has mostly evaporated.
Take out of the oven and sprinkle olives and fresh thyme over the top.

I typically serve this over couscous or brown rice, barley… You name it. Chicken or fish are great with this dish as well.

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