Tag Archives: vegan

Greek Baked Beans

4 Nov

Last weekend, I found a package of giant dry white beans or ‘gigantes’ in my cupboard. These tasty plump beans are a staple in Greek cuisine, and the mere mentioning of the word ‘Greek’ always sends my mind to the time my best friend & I had pizza & cheap wine in her shoebox-size apartment in the ‘Lange Vlierstraat’ in Antwerp. I know it’s a bit of stretch and a far cry from the usual images of breezy seaside tavernas with vine-wrapped trellises and ouzo. Bear with me, please.

While most young adults live with their parents when they’re still in college, my friend lived solo’ and her digs were usually the place we’d hang out at to channel our inner-dork. Not that ‘two-buck-chuck’ & pizza nights were so unusual during our college years, but that night in particular, she was preparing to move in with her now American ex-husband and the purpose of our gathering was to get silly on cheap wine to facilitate her move into her fiance’s beautiful house on the left banks of the ‘Schelde’ river in Antwerp, and mostly to get rid of the stuff that really shouldn’t see the light of day when you’re twenty-something and about to engage in a serious relationship of co-habitation with the other sex.

On a side note, per my mother, W. & I have had a life-long reputation of unbridled ‘silliness’. ‘Onozel doen’, like mom would say. As a matter of fact, with W. living in Florida, we speak over the phone weekly. Or at least attempt to hold a conversation, which usually starts off with W. bursting out in a suffocating fit of snorting laughter the minute I answer my phone, muttering “I’ll call you right back” in between giggles, which spirals me into a similar guffaw before I even know what it is she wants to share with me. It’s like our ‘tween-gene’ is activated the minute we connect, and we are instantly transported back to the late 80’s.

Anyway, we digress… Thirty odd years ago or so (Gah! I’m old), we found ourselves slumped back on her couch, plastic Dixie cup of wine in hand, and thumbing through an old photo album with letters & pictures of her long forgotten high school pen pal: Kostas. He was Greek. He was twenty-something compared to her sweet sixteen. He had curly black hair, no bodily shame and he was censored by my friend’s prudence by means of black tape. The naughty picture in question was carefully glued in her album, with a strategically placed hand-crafted ‘trap door’ of black tape, which could be lifted to behold all of Kostas’ glory. Like a mini-peep show from the comfort of home, so to speak. I also remember he later came to visit from Greece with his friend while we were much older and already in college, and he turned out to be quite full of himself and a royal penis, pardon the pun.

If you think you can picture the ridiculousness of two grown women giggling like pimpled high school girls over a nude picture of a not-so-good looking young man, think harder and then multiply the dorkiness level by tenfold. That’s us! So any time I hear the word ‘Greek’ now, I have to think about Kostas. And that naughty trap-door picture that had us doubled up in silly laughter.

IMG_1225

GREEK BAKED BEANS
(‘Fasolia Plaki’… adapted per my own flavor preferences)
– 1 package of dry ‘gigantes’ or large white beans (500 gr or 0.5 lbs)
– 3 large juicy tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 1 15oz can of diced tomatoes)
– 1 small can of ROTEL ‘mild’ tomatoes & chillies
– 2-3 roasted red bell peppers, peeled & diced (the jarred kind are fine too)
– 6 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
– 1 large onion, diced
– 2 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 2 Tbsp of dried oregano (or a few sprigs of fresh oregano, chopped fine)
– 4 Tbsp of dried parsley (or a handful of fresh parsley, chopped fine)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped fine
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes (*)
– salt to taste
– 2 cups of the boiling water from the beans
(*) when using Rotel tomatoes & chillies, 1 Tbsp will do you just fine and will turn the dish medium spicy. For mild heat, leave out the red pepper flakes al together. For NO heat, leave out the red pepper flakes and use 2 more tomatoes instead of a can of Rotel chillies, and season with some pepper. For more heat, add more red pepper flakes. You get my drift…

Soak beans overnight in a large container of plain unsalted water, with at least 2-3 inches of water topping the beans once submerged. Let them soak on the counter.

The next day, drain beans from the soaking water, and place in a large pot. Bring beans to a boil and let simmer until tender, but still with a bit of bite. The ‘older’ the beans, the longer this stage will take, but for my 6-8 month old package of dry beans, this was approx. 75 min.
Drain beans, reserving approx. 2 cups of the bean water, and set aside.

If using fresh tomatoes, carve an ‘X’ in the bottom your tomato and flash-boil for about 1 minute in the boiling bean water (or a pot of boiling water). The edges of the ‘X’ will start to curl and this process will make peeling your tomatoes significantly easier. Peel each tomato, cut in quarters, remove seed-cores and dice the flesh in small cubes. Try to reserve some of the juice, but don’t worry too much about that.

While the beans boil, preheat oven to 350F. In a heavy oven-proof skillet (I used a cast iron skillet, but you can also use a regular pan and then transfer everything into a casserole), sauté the diced onions until tender and translucent, approx. 5 min. Add tomato paste, garlic, roasted & peeled bell peppers and red pepper flakes, and sauté for another few minutes to ‘cook out’ the tomato paste a bit. Then add diced tomatoes (with juice), can of Rotel chillies and all of the herbs. Stir the sauce and cook for another 10-15 minutes to reduce and thicken a little bit.

Fold cooked beans in the tomato sauce, and pour the reserved bean water over the beans until they are ‘just’ submerged. Stick bay leaves in the pan and bake, uncovered, in a 350F oven for another 75-90 min until the juices have evaporated. The top will be slightly crispy.

Serve hot with crusty bread. Or with an omelet, like I did.

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.

20131030-203615.jpg

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.

Spicy Butternut Squash with Sage

27 Sep

In exactly 185 hours and 29 minutes, my mom will be landing at LAX airport. In about 184 hours, we’ll roll into a full-fledged panic and do things like finally clear off the dinner table and dust behind the bed posts, and things like that. It’s a good thing mom arrives once a year, as otherwise our dining room table house would never be available for eating thoroughly cleaned. If it’s anything like 2 years ago, our kitchen floor will be drying whilst I go and pick up mom at the airport.

Last year, however, she missed her connecting flight at JFK airport and we had a gratuitous 2 hours to clean vowed to “..never EVER!!!!..” fly via New York “..ever!!!!..” again. The combination of being 69, arthritic, thoroughly jetlagged and not speaking enough English to ask where to go next, made for a seriously grumpy capuchin monkey senior when she finally did come down the escalator in Terminal 5. Throw in an 18+ hour journey, and she collapsed in an audible coma in our guest room by 08:00P. I hope her transatlantic flight treats her better this time around. Play nice, Atlanta!

I remember the first few years that I lived here, I missed everything from Belgium and my grocery wish list was as long as from here to Baja California, including, but not limited to: Maggi bouillon cubes, Kwatta choco, Vondelmolen peperkoek, Royco minute soup, Lotus speculaas, Cote d’Or chocolate, Sultana raisin cookies and Sirop de Liège… all things I thought I couldn’t possibly live without. She even smuggled in a 24-count tinderbox of the finest Cuban cigars at one point, as I thought it would make a nice Valentine’s present for my then boyfriend. Oye, the excess luggage I have subjected my aging mother to, have earned her the privilege of bossing me around for 9 days…(and I’m counting on her lack of English proficiency here!) Nowadays, my desired Belgian grocery list isn’t nearly as long, but there are just certain things you either can’t afford here or can’t find in the store, such as ‘Piment d’Espelette’.

‘Piment d’Espelette’ is a spicy pepper from Espelette, a picturesque village nestled in the Pyrenees in the Southwest of France, in the Basque region by the Spanish border. A stroll down its cobblestone streets, reveals balcony upon balcony draped with endless bunches & strings of these lovely red peppers, which are drying in the blistering afternoon sun. As a matter of regional pride, this pepper is so famous, that it has been given a protected designation by the European Union, ensuring that only peppers grown in the Espelette region may be labeled as ‘Piment d’Espelette’ (an ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’). The small pepper is red when ripe & mature, and relatively mild. When dried, Espelette peppers turn dark, with a slightly smoky & hot peppery flavor that can be intensified with roasting or sauteeing, and is commonly used in the Basque cuisine of Northern Spain and Southwest France. Heat-wise, ‘Piment d’Espelette’ is similar to smoked hot paprika, but not quite as smoky as paprika. Either way, smoked hot paprika would be a good substitute for Espelette pepper, however, for the purists, you can order ‘Piment d’Espelette’ online from specialty grocers, but be prepared to sell your first born shell out cold hard cash.

If you never taught that refined French cuisine could teach your palate anything about heat, I suggest you splurge and order a jar of this stupendously flavorful pepper. It’s a ‘finishing’ spice – meaning it can turn a bit bitter if cooked for too long – and extremely versatile. The recipe below holds the perfect balance between the sweetness of winter squash and the spicy smokiness of the ‘Piment d’Espelette’.

20130927-183634.jpg

Spicy Butternut Squash
(Adapted from a recipe out of ‘Chili Pepper Magazine’, 2008)
– 4 Tbsp of good quality butter
– 1 large shallots, thinly sliced
– 2 Tbsp of loosely torn fresh sage
– 2 Tbsp of Piment d’Espelette
– 1/2 cup of honey
– a pinch of salt, to your liking
– 1/2 cup of dry white wine
– 1/2 cup of vegetable stock
– 2 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and sliced into ‘fries’ or cubes.

Preheat oven to 450°F.

In cast iron skillet or large sauté pan, melt the butter, and sauté the shallots until translucent. Stir in the honey, wine and stock. Season with salt only.

In a large bowl, toss the squash, onions and torn sage leaves with the shallot mixture. On a baking sheet, spread everything in a single layer, and bake. After 15 minutes, toss things around so everything browns on all sides. Roast until tender, about another 5-10 minutes or so. Remove from oven, and dust all sides lightly with ‘Piment d’Espelette’.

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.

20130910-144954.jpg

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.

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…!

20130828-192541.jpg

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.

20130828-195742.jpg

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!

20130822-125601.jpg

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.

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?!

20130815-182319.jpg

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!

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:

20130812-114414.jpg
(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.

20130812-115257.jpg

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.

Naughty & Nice Hot Pepper Jelly

9 Aug

My burning love for hot peppers, all pun intended, didn’t fully develop until I hit Californian soil and damn near scorched the skin off my upper lip with a habanero chile salsa, because “how hot can it be?!” , she said with an air of disbelief.

Right. Carry on…

Unlike many Southwest natives, I didn’t grow up with chiles. As a matter of national embarrassment, I don’t even recall ever having seen hot peppers in my Flemish grocery store? Then again, cooking with hot peppers was such an oddity in Belgium in the early 1990’s, that I may have unduly ignored peppers altogether. It’s a dark void in my memory, like that time where I lip-synced Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry like the wolf’ in my bathroom and got caught. Don’t ask. It’s too painful.

After all these years, I’m slowly but surely learning to navigate my way around the many varieties of spicy hot peppers. Occasionally, however, my inner-Sacagawea brazenly surfaces during farmer’s market strolls and I inadvertently end up destroying a Flemish taste bud or two, encouraged by this kind of peppery food porn:

20130809-193758.jpg

The idea of a hot pepper jam didn’t even occur to me until my colleague Alex channeled her inner-foodie and excitedly told me about ‘the best’ jam she’s ever eaten! She confessed she could smear it on just about everything… well, maybe not everything. Either way, we made a pact that I would try my hand at recreating her fantastic pepper jelly, if she became a follower on my blog. I’m totally cheap that way.

I know how to make jam as Belgians are big on canning and preserving sunshine, what with our 9 months of rain and all, so I accepted the challenge. This jelly turned out beautifully and so flavorful! And yes, I too will boldly smear this on anything that will hold its deliciousness…

20130809-232503.jpg

NAUGHTY & NICE HOT PEPPER JELLY
(Adapted from a recipe by ‘River Cottage Preserves’)
– 1.5 lbs of sweet peppers (red, yellow or orange), approx. 3-4 large
– 3 small scotch bonnet peppers or habanero peppers (*)
– 3 red jalapeno peppers (*)
– 1 medium size red onion
– 1 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar
– 2.5 cups of white sugar
– 1/2 cup of dry white wine
– a pinch of red pepper flakes
– a small pinch of saffron
– 1.5 oz of fresh grated ginger
– zest of 2 lemons
– 1.5 oz powdered pectin
(*) you can use any combination of peppers you like. For a few pointers, check out my friend Debi’s blog over at Life Currents)

Chop sweet peppers in half, removing bitter white ribs and seeds. Slice into thin ribbons, then into small dice. Chop onion into very small dice as well. Peel and grate (or finely chop) the ginger.

Scratch whatever itch you may have on your face now, because you’re done touching your face for the next few minutes!

Chop hot peppers in half, remove white-ish ribs and seeds, and chop into very fine dice. Try not to breathe through your nose or touch any sensitive areas, as the capsicum in these babies will avenge you get to you.

In a heavy, non-reactive pan, place sweet & hot peppers, grated ginger and onions and pour apple cider vinegar & white wine over them. Sprinkle pepper flakes on top and slowly bring to a simmer.

When simmering, add saffron, lemon zest and sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil, then add pectin. Boil hard for 6 minutes to activate the pectin. Remove pan from heat and set aside for 20 minutes.

Ladle jam into small glass jars, and let cool… Or alternatively, for a longer shelf-life, process in a water bath or canning machine.

This jam will remain fresh in your fridge for approx. 1 month.

Belgian Rice Pudding with Saffron

5 Aug

‘Rijstpap’ or rice pudding is a much celebrated treat in Belgium, and it’s no coincidence why this rice dessert became a traditional regional dish in the Province of Brabant, encompassing the central heart of Belgium.

Every year in Flanders, from small rural towns to larger cities, this creamy dessert makes a star appearance during the annual ‘Brueghel Feesten’. These medieval-type festivities compare to the American renaissance fairs, but traditionally focus around food & drink whilst celebrating Flemish cultural heritage and the world-renowned artwork by ‘Master Painter’ Pieter Brueghel. During the 16th Century, Breughel’s work was highly sought after by the wealthy elite of the richer cities, and the humble ‘peasant’ painter was warmly embraced & respected in the high society circles of thriving medieval Brussels. His works mostly featured magnificent landscapes and bustling farm village life, often painted with a comical yet honest approach and illustrating the abundant food & drink at the festive farmers’ table in great detail. Since then, the often 2-day long ‘Breughel Feesten’, for which people dress up in traditional 16th Century peasant grab, are synonymous to copious amounts of free-flowing ‘tap’ beer, fantastic food and… plate after plate of creamy golden ‘rijstpap’.

Rijstpap made an appearance early on in Flemish history, and quickly became associated with rural life and heavenly simplicity. After all, as per an old Flemish folkloric saying, heaven welcomes you with bottomless bowls of rijstpap and golden spoons. I can’t testify to the veracity of this tale, but I’m on board!

This sweet, milk-based porridge bears somewhat of a resemblance to American rice pudding, but not entirely. For starters, a traditional Belgian rice pudding is spiced with saffron & cinnamon, and not just vanilla. Secondly, the texture is more porridge-like (‘rijst’ meaning rice, and ‘pap’ meaning porridge) and not quite as sweet or sugary as a pudding. And lastly, the dessert is classically eaten with a hefty dusting of dark brown sugar, that slowly melts into a molasses-type syrup when it blends with the milky rice. It’s ridiculously good and it brings back many happy childhood memories of the ‘Brueghel Feesten’ for me…

20130805-144353.jpg

Belgian Rice Pudding
(As per a childhood recipe)
– 1 liter of whole milk (or approx. 32 fl oz)
– 4 oz of long grain, white rice (dry)
– 1 vanilla bean
– 1 stick of cinnamon
– 1-2 hefty pinch(es) of saffron (if you like the flavor & color of saffron, use 2. If not, use 1)
– 5 Tbsp of sugar

Add the milk, rice, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to separate the grains. Add the cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and saffron threads, cover and simmer over very low heat for 30 minutes or more, until the rice is tender and has absorbed the milk. Do not stir the rice during this part of cooking.

Stir with a wooden spoon when rice is tender, to spread the saffron color evenly.

Discard the cinnamon and vanilla, scoop the rice pudding into small bowls and allow to cool completely. Sprinkle with dark brown sugar before serving.

%d bloggers like this: