Home made granola

I love grains for breakfast. They’re healthy, they’re tasty, and I can last until noon on them. The kind of grains I love most for breakfast is granola. In Belgium, we don’t really have granola: breakfast grains, even the ‘sticky’ kind, are called muesli. In the USA or Great Britain, muesli that’s been baked with honey into crunchy clusters, is called granola. A few months ago, I bought a little book on how to make muesli and granola, and I finally had some time to give it a try. It’s actually quite easy, but the whole process takes some time. I’ve been enjoying my homemade granola every morning since (actually, it’s almost time to make a new batch). You can alter it to your own taste as you like, mixing up the grains and nuts.

Ingredients:

300 grams of oat flakes (try to find bigger ones than the regular Quaker kind, although mine were that size and it turned out fine – no ‘instant oatmeal’ though!)

120 grams of mixed nuts, for example:
40 grams of roughly chopped pecan nuts
40 grams of roughly chopped hazelnuts
40 grams of almond flakes

120 grams of mixed seeds, for example:
40 grams of sesame seeds
40 grams of pumpkin seeds
40 grams of sunflower seeds

1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract (I use cheap homemade stuff with vanilla pods soaked in vodka for at least two months)
200 grams of sweet stuff such as liquid honey, agave syrup, maple syrup… (I used a mixture of honey and agave)
200 grams of fruit compote (apple, or apricot,… but not with big chunks, you can mix it if necessary)
2 tablespoons of sunflower oil

How to:

Preaheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Toast the oats, nuts and seeds in a heavy skillet until slightly golden and fragrant, add salt and cinnamon. Set aside. Heat the sweetner, compote, vanilla and oil until completely liquid, then mix carefully with the dry ingredients until they are completely covered in the syrup mixture. Now spread the mixture over two baking tins and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.

Every ten minutes, take the granola out of the oven and turn it around with a spoon to let it bake evenly. When it’s al baked, dry and golden brown, take the granola out of the oven (you might need a little longer than 45 minutes, I did – it depends on your oven, how much it cools when you open it, etc…)

If you want to add in dried fruit, this can be done after baking. Keep the granola in an airtight container. Very tasty with some yoghurt and honey or syrup.

A sad day in Brussels – Een trieste dag in Brussel

Today, a man working for the Brussels transportation network was beaten to death. For no real reason, other than the bus (not even the one he’d been driving) got in an accident with a car. It was one of those moment where you think about the bigger picture, the insignificance of everyday matters, about useless cruelty, about the state of things, about this society we live in and why some people are driven to absurd deeds like this.

In a moment of reflection, I thought back to the habit I started for myself last year, when I moved here. Every time I enter a bus in Brussels, I try to nod, smile or say hello to the driver. It doesn’t always happen, usually because of the business when entering the bus – but to me, it’s an important habit. Firstly, it’s a way to wish them a good day – something we should do more often to each other, to every one around us. But it’s also a sign of appreciation, recognition, for the people to whom we trust our lives every day. On such a sad day like this, I hope more people will resolve to show some appreciation to the people who make our lives easier every day, like the bus driver, or the man who cleans our park, or the policeman regulating our traffic. Let’s give it a try.

 

In het Nederlands:

Vandaag werd een man die werkt voor de MIVB, het Brussels vervoersnetwerk, doodgeslagen. Zonder enige reden, behalve dan dat de bus (die hij zelfs niet bestuurde) in een ongeval met een auto was verzeild. Het was zo’n moment waarop je even stilstaat bij het alledaagse leven, bij onze eigen ‘kleinheid’, bij zulk nutteloos geweld, bij de ‘normale’ gang van zaken, bij deze maatschappij en bij de reden waarom sommigen tot zulke absurditeiten gedreven worden.

In gedachten ging ik terug naar de gewoonte die ik vorig jaar ben begonnen toen ik naar Brussel verhuisde: ik nam me toen voor om telkens ik op de bus stapte, de chauffeur even te begroeten met een knik, een gebaar of een goeiedag. Het lukt niet altijd, omdat het soms te druk is bij het instappen, maar ik vind dit een belangrijke gewoonte. In de eerste plaats om de chauffeur een goeie dag te wensen, iets dat we vaker zouden moeten doen voor iedereen in onze buurt. Maar het is ook een teken van appreciatie, van erkenning, voor de mensen die we elke dag ons leven toevertrouwen. Op zo’n triestige dag als deze hoop ik dat meer mensen zich voornemen om een blijk van erkenning te geven aan de mensen die ons leven elke dag makkelijker maken: de buschauffeur, de vuilnisman die onze straat proper houdt, de politieagent die ons verkeer regelt. Laten we hopen.

Vegetable lasagna

Spring has come around, so I’m getting excited for delicious sun-ripened vegetables! Seems like the perfect moment to post this vegetable lasagna, which I found as an external post on Jamie Oliver’s website and then tweaked it a bit. Basically, this is a really rich (but healthy!) lasagna using 4 different vegetables. It takes a while to make this lasagna (about two hours), but it’s really worth the wait. It’s a vegetarian-safe dish but I’ve served it to several carnivores and they all agreed, it doesn’t need meat at all!

This amount is good for 5-6 servings.

Ingredients:

2 large eggplants, cut into 1 cm-thick slices
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1 cm-thick slices
3 red or yellow peppers
9 sheets of lasagna (depending on the size of your baking pan, you need 3 layers of lasagna)
250-300 grams of ricotta cheese
400 grams of fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes or slices
150 grams of grated parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks
a handful of basil, leaves torn
a handful of chopped parsley leaves
500 ml of good tomato sauce or your own fresh tomato sauce (fry some oil with garlic, add tomatoes, perhaps a bit of white wine or extra passata and let it simmer for a while, season to taste with Italian herbs and salt and pepper)

Get cooking:

Heat the grill/broiler function on the oven. Lay the eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle on both sides with salt, let them stand for about half an hour and  then squeeze as much liquid out of them as possible, then pat dry with paper towels. Lay them on a wire rack, brush both sides slightly with oil, sprinkle with pepper and salt and grill them on both sides until tinted (not brown) and soft. If your oven is small, you may need to repeat this a few times.

While the oven is hot and you’re waiting for the eggplant, you can start with the peppers. Cut the peppers into large flat pieces (two or three parts per pepper) and remove the seeds and inner parts. Lay them on a wire rack and grill until they have black ‘boils’, then put them in a plastic freezer bag and let them steam so the skin will come off more easily. Peel off the skin when cooled (watch out, they’re hot). If you have a really thin peeler, you can try peeling the skin off this way.

Steam the zucchini slices for a few minutes until tender but with enough bite left. The way I do this is by putting a ‘pasta colander pan’ into a fitting pan with a little bit of boiling water on the bottom. You can also use a steamer if you have one, or just add a little bit of boiling water in a regular pan and blanch the zucchini shortly.

Cook the lasagna sheets shortly in salted water if this is indicated on the package and let it drain (the best quality Italian lasagna has to be cooked beforehand).

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsuis (about 350 Fahrenheit). Mix the ricotta, mozzarella and half of the parmezan with the fresh herbs, season to taste with salt and pepper.

Brush the sides of a 25 x 25 cm baking pan (or one about the same size, around 625 square cm) with olive oil and add about 1/4 of the tomato sauce. Arrange the eggplant slices on top of this layer.

Now add 1/3 of the cheese mixture and top with lasagna sheets.

Add another layer of tomato sauce.

Now top with the zucchini slices.

Repeat with the cheese and the pasta. Add another layer of tomato sauce.

Now top with the peppers.

Repeat the process again, using up all the cheese mixture. Top the last lasagna with the remaining tomato sauce and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

Top the baking pan with tin foil to prevent burning. Put the dish into the oven and let it bake for 55 minutes, then remove the tin foil and let it bake for 5 more minutes. Take it out of the oven, let it cool for a little bit and enjoy!

My worm box project

Attention: this may not look like a food related post at first, but I assure you it is! You see, as a home cook I like to work with fresh vegetables as much as possible. This usually results in having some leftover potato peels, or less attractive pieces of veggie, or inedible parts of fruit… you get the picture. At home with my parents, those organic leftovers go to the domestic animals (dog, sheep, chickens) or the compost heap. Most cities offer a program in the garbage schedule to pick up organic stuff. Unfortunately, Brussels doesn’t. And ever since we’ve moved here, it’s bothering me to throw away my organic waste with the other plastic and styrofoam stuff, since these bags usually end up in the incinerator. I started thinking of other ways to get rid of the organic stuff. We don’t have a real garden or yard, so making a compost heap isn’t really an option. Then, I read about an alternative for gardenless people like me: a worm box.

It sounds a bit icky at first, but it really isn’t. A worm box is a type of mini eco-system, designed to get rid of your organic waste and get organic worm fertilizer and fertile ground instead, all the while feeding our little worm friends. It’s the perfect solution for city people who want to get rid of their organic waste but don’t have a garden to do so. Here’s how it works:

You have a box that contains your worms, in their natural habitat, which is some decomposing and already decomposed organic soil. On top, you put your organic waste (such as vegetable and fruit peel – no bread or cooked meals, also no large amounts of citrus fruits). This will decompose and the worms will then turn it into organic soil. Your ‘worm bin’ has small holes in it and is on top of another bin with a slight space in between the two. This is because the worms produce a fluid (called ‘worm percolate’) which is extremely fertile for plants. So, the fluid will seep into the lower box through the holes, from there you can dilute it with water and it give it to plants. Once the organics have been turned into compost, you can add another box on top with holes in the bottom through which the worms can crawl. You add organics to the top box and once the worms are ‘done’, they’ll start moving up toward new food. This way you can use your other soil for plants, and restart the cycle.

That’s the theory. I’m not that far yet. After a failed trial to obtain worms in early February (it was too cold so they refused to be caught by me, even if for benevolent purposes), I finally got around to collecting my worms from my parents’ compost heap. We just overturned soil until we found a spot with a lot of worms and ecolife going on with millepedes, centipedes and other fun little creatures. I scooped a plastic bag of the soil and sought out some extra worms and subsoilers. At home, I filled the bottom of my box with the dry remains of some plants that didn’t survive the winter season. I then added the soil containing the worms. I then added some food leftovers like the peel of a pear, some old herbs, some potato peels and some cardboard stuff like egg cartons… Now I’m supposed to let the worms ‘acclimatize’ for a week or two. I’m really excited to see what happens!

   

 

Wok with kohlrabi, shiitake and noodles

I don’t consider myself an adept at the SouthEast Asian kitchen, but I do love its flavors. Every once in a while I try something myself and this improvised dish came out particularly well! I started with kohlrabi (koolrabi in Dutch), a kind of ‘forgotten’ vegetable I really love – it’s like cabbage, but sweeter and crunchy. By chance, I found myself at the Wednesday bio market at Sint-Katelijneplein in Brussels (a true foodie experience!) and while I was munching down a fish burger from the seafood store as lunch, I spotted kohlrabi at one of the vegetable stalls and couldn’t resist buying some. This neigborhood also harbors a mushroom-specialty store which I’d been dying to check out and several Asian supermarkets – et voila, my dinner was born. I even managed to sneak in tofu without complaints, adapting from a marinated tofu recipe I once made. It’s important to marinate the tofu for at least an hour, because tofu itself is a little tasteless. Also important is to use a wok that can get really hot (mine is from IKEA) on your largest fire pit.

Ingredients for 4-5 people

300 grams of firm tofu
3 pieces of kohlrabi, peeled and chopped into thin match-size slices
300 grams of shiitake mushrooms (or Parisian brown mushrooms, if you can’t find shiitake)
250 grams of thin noodles
1 onion, chopped
3 cm of ginger, finely chopped
sesame oil
1 large tablespoon of sesame seeds

for the tofu marinade:
2 tablespoons of liquid honey
2 tablespoons of ketjap manis
3 tablespoons of (dark) soy sauce
1 small chili pepper, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
2 tablespoons of sweet and sour chili sauce

Get cooking!

Mix all the  ingredients for the marinade. Cut the tofu into 2cm cubes, put them in a bowl or box and cover with the marinade, carefully spoon the marinade through the tofu. Cover with a lid or plastic foil and let it soak for at least an hour. Scoop the liquid marinade from the bottom over the top of the tofu a few times.

Boil water in a saucepan and cook the noodles as instructed. Drain and set aside.

Drain the tofu in a colander above a bowl, keep the marinade. Cut the larger shiitake in half. Heat a wok on a high fire and add a swig of sesame oil, let it get really hot, until it’s smoking. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry for five minutes, until the small mushrooms are starting to shrink. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Empty the wok into a bowl and set aside.

Heat the wok up again, add some sesame oil and bake the tofu. Stir-fry carefully or shake the wok every now and then to let them brown evenly. When the sides are turning crispy and golden brown, remove the tofu from the wok and let it drain on paper towels.

Heat up the wok again with sesame oil and add the onion and ginger. Stir-fry until soft and add the chopped kohlrabi. Stir-fry the kohlrabi until it becomes a little more tender – don’t let it become too soft, it should still be crunchy. Add a little of the marinade to the vegetables and keep on stir-frying. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. When the kohlrabi is al dente, add the noodles, stir-fry a little and then add the tofu, shiitake mushrooms and the rest of the leftover marinade. Mix everything until the marinade is soaked up and the entire dish is hot and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Taste and season with pepper and salt if necessary. Enjoy!

Ravioli with ricotta and tomato sauce

We all love Italian pasta, right? It’s so light, full of flavor, simple, addictive, and to me it’s still one of the cuisines that pulls off vegetarian food most effortlessly and naturally. This recipe from delicious. magazine has become one of my personal favorites. It’s not difficult to make, but filling the ravioli will take some time (it’s very much worth it though!). I started out with my ravioli stamp but soon switched to making cut-outs by hand, because this is faster. There’s only one piece of equipment you really need and that’s a pasta machine. It’s possible to roll out the pasta by hand, but it will never be as fine as the machine-made.

Ingredients for 4 people:

for the pasta:
400 grams of ‘tipo 00’ flour (gran duro: it’s also possible to use regular flour but this kind is better for pasta, you can find it at Italian supermarkets)
4 eggs

for the filling:

250 grams of ricotta
the grated zest of one organic lemon (or at least a non-chemically-treated lemon)
a pinch of sugar
a pinch of salt
freshly ground pepper

for the sauce:

olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
garlic clove, chopped
one can of whole peeled tomatoes (or canned cherry tomatoes)
a dash of white wine
small can of tomato passata
note: I made this in February, and I try not to use fresh tomatoes in Winter since they’re just not tasty. If you’re making this in Summer, please use real sun-ripened ones!

topping:

chopped flatleaf parsley
grated parmesan cheese

How to:

Start with the pasta. Put the flour in a bowl, make a cup and add the eggs. Mix with a fork and then with your hands until you have a coarse dough. Take it out of the bowl and knead the dough for at least 10 minutes, until it becomes smooth and elastic (when I get tired I try to see this as a good work out). Wrap it in plastic foil and let it sit for at least 30 minutes.

Make the filling by mixing all the ingredients.

Make the sauce at least 20 minutes before serving, to give it time to simmer. Heat the olive oil in a sturdy saucepan and fry the onion and garlic until soft. Add the canned or fresh tomatoes. Heat the tomatoes and add some white wine. Let this simmer for a while and add the passata. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let it simmer on a low fire until you have a tasty sauce. At this point, I ‘cheated’ and added a bit of leftover Barilla pasta sauce that I had in the fridge. Of course, you’re free to use your own preferred tomato sauce recipe, but simplicity is key.

Assemble the ravioli while the sauce is simmering. Fill a large saucepan with water, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil while making the ravioli (one of those pans with an extra ‘colander’ piece is ideal, because you can make several batches of pasta without refreshing the water each time, but a slotted spoon or pasta spoon works fine too). Roll out the pasta with a machine (or by hand), start with a third of the pasta dough. Position the machine at its widest and turn the dough through, fold double and repeat. Keep making the sizes smaller and rolling the dough through twice until you’re at the finest position. Make equal squares or rectangles of the rolled-out dough. I made 5×7 cm, but smaller will work as well. Put a teaspoon of filling on half of the rectangles, then cover with a second rectangle and press carefully, excluding as much air as possible. Finish the edges by impressing them with a fork. Repeat for all of the dough. Boil the ravioli in batches for 3-5 minutes (until they come floating on top) and take them out of the water. Add the pasta to the tomato sauce and mix carefully. Arrange on a plate and top with parsley and parmesan. Enjoy!

Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way

On a dreary November afternoon, seven friends got together at our place to join in for an afternoon of Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a board game which can vaguely be compared to Risk – only nothing is left to chance (there are no dice). The starting point for the game is Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Each player represents one of seven superpowers in Europe, and through dialogue, intrigues and the occasional backstabbing every superpower tries to become the master of Europe. If you’re interested, Wikipedia has more info.

So, these seven men set out to redesign the map of Europe (on a board) – a bit like an analogue LAN party. After a draw of luck, it was decided who would be England, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Turkey and Russia. Of course, they had to eat something while they were at it. This is where I come in! As I don’t exactly see myself as a good Diplomacy player (I tend to take these things a tad too personally) I decided to do a little project of my own: I set out to provide for an afternoon of hors d’oeuvres and finger foods, all in the theme of the seven superpowers. My quest for recipes carried me through my cookbook collection and I ended up making at least a dish per superpower, although I must admit I had nothing for Austria-Hungary, since I planned to make Sachertorte and there was already plenty of dessert. I’ll post a Sachertorte recipe to make up for it!

What follows is a report in pictures and recipes of this lovely day. If you’re wondering who won in the end: France and England made a superpact (not exactly historically plausible) and slayed the rest of the players, employing much trickery, theatre, drama and a bit of backstabbing. I’m sure another Diplomacy get-together will follow within a few months, since many superpowers are plotting for revenge. Maybe I’ll come up with new recipes by then!

 

Italy: gorgonzola, pizza and caponata

My inspiration for the gorgonzola spoon and the caponata comes from a little book I have called ‘Amuse Italiano’. The pizza recipes are from Martha Stewart.

Spoon with gorgonzola, pear and honey

Cut a pear and 100 gram of gorgonzola cheese into little cubes. Place these on a spoon and top with a little liquid honey. Very easy but the combination of these two flavors is great!

Pizza with cherry tomatoes; pizza with bacon and potato

I admit it, the bacon-potato pizza isn’t very Italian, but the recipe is great. For the dough, I used Martha Stewart’s pizza dough recipe. The tomato pizza is topped with cherry tomatoes (cut in half), olive oil, mozzarella and a bit of leftover gorgonzola. The bacon pizza is topped with thinly sliced potatoes, bacon strips, olive oil and some chopped fresh rosemary.

The pizza dough recipe (start in time, at least 2 hours in advance!):

1 cup of warm water (I use about 250 ml for a cup)
1/4 teaspoon of sugar
2 teaspoons of dry yeast (in the supermarket: Bruggeman)
about 3 cups flour
1,5 teaspoons salt
1,5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for the bowl

Pour the warm water into a small bowl, add sugar and yeast. Stir with a fork until dissolved. Let it stand in a warm spot for 5 minutes, until yeast is foamy.

Combine 2 + 1/4 cups of flour with salt in a large bowl. Add the yeast mixture and the olive oil, mix until you have a smooth dough (add more flour if necessary). Transfer to a clean surface and knead the dough 5 turns, shape into a ball.

Brush the inside of a bowl with olive oil and place the dough in it, smooth side up. Cover with a clean tea towel or plastic foil and let it rest in a warm spot for about 40 minutes, until doubled in size. Remove the towel/plastic foil and punch your fist into the dough. Fold the dough onto itself 4 or 5 times. Turn the dough over again, folded side down, cover again and return to rise in a warm spot for another 30 minutes (until doubled in size).

Punch down the dough again and transfer to a clean surface, divide the dough evenly using a knife (I make 4 mini-pizzas from this quantity).

Preheat the oven to at least 220 degrees Celsius. Roll the dough portion out (quite thin), cover with a little olive oil and your toppings of choice. Put it in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is melted or the bacon/potatoes look done, take it out and cut into wedges (careful, hot!). Yum!

Caponata

I really love caponata, I first ate it on a wonderful Easter day lunch with friends in Palermo. It is a perfect mixture of sour, sweet and salty. Most of all, it has a lot of eggplant in it, one of my favorite vegetables. You need some time and patience to prepare it, but it’s so worth it (and it keeps well in the fridge for at least a few days). This recipe is a mixture of a recipe in the Amuse Italiano book and some internet recipes I looked up. Grated dark chocolate or cocoa powder is the secret ingredient!

For about 24 spoons:

1 large eggplant
half a cup of olive oil
stalk of white celery, chopped into small cubes
2 plum tomatoes, peeled (good ripe tomatoes, in winter I prefer whole canned tomatoes or tomato cubes)
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon black olives, roughly chopped (please don’t use the bland canned type but good Italian, Spanish or Turkish)
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon golden raisins
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic or red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder or grated dark chocolate
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves

Peel the eggplant and cut into small 1 cm-cubes and sprinkle with salt, let it sit in a sieve or colander for at least 30 minutes. Squeeze out as much water as possible and pat dry with paper towels.

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy skillet and fry the onion and celery until soft. Turn the fire up a bit, add the eggplant and let it fry along until golden brown. Add the tomato and heat until simmering. Add olives, capers, pine nuts, sugar, cinnamon, cocoa, thyme, raisins and vinegar. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for a while, so that the flavors intermingle. You can add more sweet or sour ingredients to taste. Turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature, serve in little spoons or larger portions as desired.

Turkey: sigara börek and baklava

I first ate sigara börek in the little town of Aglasun, where we were excavating the site of Roman Sagalassos. Our workmen took turns bringing baked goodies to the tea breaks and this was an instant favorite. Since there are plenty of Turkish shops in my neighborhood, it’s easy for me to find the authentic Turkish ingredients. But don’t panic: yufka dough can be replaced by filo dough and Turkish white peynir cheese by regular feta. The recipe is actually from Malouf’s Turquoise and it works great every time I make it! I even freeze these little cigars (unbaked) to have them ready for instant hors d’oeuvres.

For 24 sigara:

24 triangles of yufka dough (a Turkish thin dough, but a little thicker and more substantial than filo dough. If you use filo, use a larger piece and create more layers by rolling it. You can usually buy ready-cut triangles at Turkish shops, but you can also buy the round ones and cut into triangles yourself, or even use dürüm dough for this).
400 grams of white peynir cheese or feta
2 eggs
one large onion, roughly grated or finely chopped
2 handfuls of chopped flatleaf parsley
salt and pepper

In a large bowl, combine the white cheese with the onion, eggs, parsley and mix with a fork. Season with salt and pepper (true to Turkish tradition, I use a lot of salt but it also depends on how salty your cheese is). Take out a dough triangle and put a full tablespoon of cheese mixture about 2 cm from the edge on the short side. Fold in the sides and roll it up, attach the bottom piece with a bit of water. Do this for every ‘sigar’, then heat some olive oil in a heavy skillet and bake the börek until golden brown. Serve (but be careful, they’re hot!)

Everybody loves baklava. We used to get it on the Sagalassos site when there was a special find of the week. It’s not that hard to make, but a bit elaborate – especially if you don’t have a food processor, like me. The result is totally worth it though! It’s a really sweet dish, but mine is still not half as sweet as the real Turkish kind (after you eat Turkish baklava, Coca-Cola doesn’t taste sweet anymore – true story!).

For 24 x 24 cm dish of baklava

15 sheets of filo dough
150 grams melted clarified butter (see blinis recipe)

syrup:
150 grams sugar
150 grams liquid honey
100 ml water
50 ml orange juice
juice and grated zest of one lemon
2 tbsp orange blossom water
1 tbsp rosewater

nut mixture:
400 grams of mixed nuts, chopped finely (you can use walnuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, but try to include walnuts and pistachios at least)
100 grams sugar
2 tbsp cinnamon
2 tbsp orange blossom water
100 grams melted butter

Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Roast the nuts in hot skillet or the oven until fragrant. Mix all the nut mixture ingredients in a large bowl.

Use an ovenproof dish that has the same shape as your filo dough. If smaller, cut the filo dough to fit the dish. Butter the form lightly. Take five sheets of filo dough, keep the rest under a moist tea towel. Put the sheets in the dish, one by one, coat with clarified butter in between. Divide half of the nut mixture over this first stack of dough.

Now repeat the first step with another five sheets of filo dough. Add the rest of the filling, cover with the last 5 sheets of dough, butter the top sheet and press the sheets carefully, tucking the sides under a bit. Sprinkle with a bit of extra cinnamon. Cut the baklava in triangles with a sharp knife.

Bake the dish in the oven at 180 degrees for 20 minutes. Lower the temperature to 150 degrees and bake another 30-40 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. In the meantime, make the syrup.

Make the syrup by combining the water, sugar, honey, orange juice, lemon zest and juice in a saucepan on medium heat. Let the sugar dissolve, then let it boil and reduce for 10-15 minutes. Add the orange blossom water and rosewater and let it cool.

Take the baklava out of the oven and pour the syrup over – don’t worry if it hisses a bit. Let it cool down completely – you can decorate the triangles with a bit of ground pistachio.  Really yummy with some Turkish tea!

Russia: blini with sour cream and smoked salmon

Blinis are small savory buckwheat pancakes. I used a Martha Stewart recipe for the batter, you can top them with whatever you like. Since Russian caviar was a bit expensive, I went for sour cream and salmon.

For about 24 blinis: 

100 grams butter
1/3 cup buckwheat flour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
200 ml milk
150 grams of sour cream
150 grams of smoked salmon
Few sprigs of dill or parsley to garnish

Clarify the butter: melt in a saucepan over low heat. Using a spoon, remove white foam from surface of melted butter, and discard. Allow butter to sit 15 minutes. Pour off the golden liquid, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the saucepan. Set aside.

Place both flours, baking powder, salt, egg, milk, and 1 tablespoon clarified butter in a large bowl; whisk until well combined.

Heat 2 tablespoons clarified butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Drop batter into skillet, 1 tablespoon at a time. Cook until blinis are covered with bubbles, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip; cook until brown, about 1 minute more. Repeat with remaining batter.

Top the blinis with a teaspoon of sour cream, a piece of smoked salmon and a bit of dill or parsley. Enjoy!

England: cheddar-corn potatoes and shepherd’s pie

The cheddar corn potatoes are a nice party snack. Very savory, very cheesy and very English – there’s not much more to be said about them. I got the recipe from Trish Deseine’s book Party Food.

10 small firm potatoes
1 medium can of sweetcorn
200 grams grated Cheddar cheese
50 grams melted butter
salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes unpeeled. When cooked, slice in half and take out a little of the potato at the center. Cut a sliver from the bottom so the potato won’t roll over. Mix the potato with the sweetcorn, cheese and butter. Season, and top each half-potato with a spoonful of the mixture, then brown for 3 minutes under the grill.

Shepherd’s pie

The shepherd pie was something I’d never tried and came out quite successfully. I’m a vegetarian and therefore didn’t try one, but it smelled quite good and even  though the players had been munching all afternoon, the pies were met with quite some enthusiasm. I made them in small cocottes but of course you can make it in a large ovenproof dish. The recipe is for 4 people.

4 large peeled potatoes (soft-cooking)
salt
500 grams lamb minced meat
55 grams butter
2 onions, finely chopped
40 grams flour
1/2 teaspoon mustard
4 dl lamb broth
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp worcester sauce
60 ml warm milk
salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes with salt. Preheat the oven to 210 degrees Celsius.

Melt 25 grams butter in a skillet, fry the onions until soft and add the minced meat. Add the flour and mustard. Add the lamb broth in small portions and keep stirring until you have a thick sauce. Add the parsley and worcester sauce, season with salt and pepper.

Mash the potatoes and add milk, the extra butter and pepper and salt.

In a buttered dish (small or large), spoon the meat mixture and cover with the mashed potatoes. Smooth the potatoes with a spoon and then make a diamond pattern with a fork. Bake the dish for 40-45 minutes in the oven, until the top is golden brown. Enjoy!

France: cheese

What’s more French than cheese? To represent France, I served Camembert, Bleu d’Auvergne with baguette. The after-dinner cheese platter was completed with English Cheddar and Italian gorgonzola. The Herve and Chaumes cheeses are Belgian, which was undoubtedly occupied territory at the time of serving.

Germany: Schwarzwalder Kirsch (Black Forest Gateau)

This awesome cake is one of my traditional holiday recipes. I have a few different recipes from several books, but I was never quite satisfied with the chocolate cake batter they provide. Therefore, I replaced it with Nigella Lawsons’s Devil Food Cake batter. This was definitely a great improvement! The cake is named after the Black Forest in Germany and traditionally combines chocolate, whipped cream and cherries (fresh, potted and/or maraschino).

For the cake (recipe Nigella Lawson):

50g best-quality cocoa powder, sifted
100g dark muscovado or brown sugar
250ml boiling water
125g soft unsalted butter, plus some for greasing
150g caster sugar
225g plain flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I use my own vanilla extract, home made with 1 cup of wodka, at least 2 vanilla beans and 2 months patience)
2 eggs
three 20 cm cake tins (I only have on so I bake the cakes in three steps, or if I’m impatient I bake them all at once and cut them in three, but this is not optimal)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark. Line the bottoms of the cake tins with baking parchment and butter the sides.

Put the cocoa and 100g dark muscovado sugar into a bowl with a bit of space to spare, and pour in the boiling water. Whisk to mix, then set aside.

Cream the butter and caster sugar together, beating well until pale and fluffy; I find this easiest with a freestanding mixer, but by hand wouldn’t kill you. While this is going on – or as soon as you stop if you’re mixing by hand – stir the flour, baking powder and bicarb together in another bowl, and set aside for a moment. Dribble the vanilla extract into the creamed butter and sugar – mixing all the while – then drop in 1 egg, quickly followed by a scoopful of flour mixture, then the second egg. Keep mixing and incorporate the rest of the dried ingredients for the cake, then finally mix and fold in the cocoa mixture, scraping its bowl well with a spatula. Divide this fabulously chocolatey batter between the 3 prepared tins and put in the oven for about 20-30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Take the tins out and leave them on a wire rack for 5–10 minutes, before turning the cakes out to cool.

While the cakes are baking, start with the frosting and cherries:

250 grams sour cream
200 grams dark chocolate, chopped (or Callets)
250 ml whipped cream
70 grams fine sugar
350 grams potted cherries (drained weight)
dark chocolate flakes, for decoration
maraschino cheries, for decoration

Melt the chocolate au bain marie and mix with the sour cream. This is the ganache that will cover the outside of the cake. Let it cool. Beat the cream stiff with the sugar and keep cold.

Assembly:

Put a few dollops of whipped cream on a serving platter and place the first cake layer on top (this prevents the cake from shifting). Add a 2 cm-thick layer of whipped cream. Take half of the cherries and drop them into the cream, evenly dividing them on the cream layer. Add the second cake layer and repeat with more cream and the rest of the cherries, keep a little cream apart for the cake decoration. Add the third layer of cake. Now decorate the outside with the chocolate ganache, using a palette knife. Decorate the sides with chocolate flakes. Using a piping bag, add a few tufts of whipped cream and top with a maraschino cherry. Add some more chocolate flakes on top, as you like (I ran out of whipped cream so in the picture it’s not that pretty, but you can use your imagination any way you like on the cake decorations). Enjoy!

Austria-Hungary: Sachertorte

As said, I didn’t get around to making the sachertorte, but you can find a recipe here. Maybe I’ll try it another time!

 

 

Salmon with ricotta, dried tomatoes and tarragon en papillote

I made this for New Year’s Eve dinner and can’t say my guests were complaining. It’s actually really easy, the hardest part is taking the salmon out of the oven in time – this takes a bit of practice but also depends on the size of the salmon. Try it for a dinner with guests or just for yourself, it’s really yummy.

Ingredients for 4-6 servings

1 or 2 salmon filets (at least 2 cm thick), in total about 1 kg (you can use frozen and thawed salmon but fresh is better)
4 tablespoons of sundried tomato tapenade or red pesto (try to use good quality – I use Père Olive, for the tapenade and sundried tomatoes)
200 grams of ricotta
several sprigs of fresh tarragon
8 to 10 sundried  tomatoes
olive oil
freshly ground salt and pepper
kitchen string (use good kitchen string, remember Bridget Diary’s blue soup!)
parchment paper

Heat the oven to 210 degrees Celsius. If the salmon has skin, remove this gently by pulling it away using a knife (I actually left part of the skin on for the bottom part, this works fine). Depending on the size of your filet piece, either cut it lengthwise or in half, so that you get two solid and equally large parts. Remove fishbones with a pincet.  Coat one side of each salmon piece with the tomato tapenade (if you kept skin on, don’t coat the skin side!).

Keep a few sprigs of tarragon apart, mix the rest of the leaves (without the harder parts) with the ricotta, season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover the first piece of salmon (if you have skin, it should be on the bottom) with the ricotta mixture and the sundried tomatoes. Put the second piece of salmon on top, so that the ‘head’ and ‘tail’ pieces of the filet are on opposite sides and the ‘prettiest’ part on top. Add the extra tarragon. Now, cut a few pieces of string and carefully tie the salmon and its contents as on the picture (2-4 times, depending on the size of the salmon).

Take a large piece of parchment paper and grease with a bit of olive oil. Put the fish roll on top. Fold the papillote around the salmon (roll it carefully around) and fold closed as tightly as possible. I used some extra string to secure the package. Put it in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes – if you’re not sure whether it’s ready, take it out of the oven at 20 minutes and check whether the salmon is done, you can close the parchment paper again. My tip: don’t let the salmon bake completely through – take it out when the inside of the fish meat is still a bit darker and looking ‘wet’, it will continue to bake a little out of the oven. If you wait until it’s completely done, the salmon can become somewhat too dry. Enjoy!

 

Decadent hazelnut meringue pie

I decided to go all out yesterday and made this hazelnut meringue pie. The recipe is from the famous Holtkamp Bakery in Amsterdam via delicious. magazine (February 2011). I’d been drooling over the article for quite some time so yesterday I finally got around to trying it. The result is very pretty and about to be consumed this afternoon, but I have no doubt it will be delicious (I tried plenty of the mocha buttercream to be fairly certain about this). The only thing you need is a lot of time and patience (i.e. a free afternoon dedicated to cooking) and possibly some friends to eat this with you. Actually, the recipe advises to wait a day since the pie is at its best after one day. Have fun!

The recipe consists of several different parts. I have tried to list them according to the order in which I prepared them: 1. meringue pie layers 2. custard cream  3. hazelnut paste 4. coffee extract 5. butter cream 6. assembly. It’s not as elaborate as it sounds, if that’s any consolation.

Ingredients for the meringue pie layers

2 egg whites (you can use the yolks for the custard)
110 grams fine sugar
75 grams powdered sugar
75 grams ground hazelnuts (I didn’t find this in the regular supermarket so I went with ground almonds, oops)

Heat the oven to 120 degrees Celsius. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt. When they become foamy, add in a bit of the sugar, then add in the rest by the end when they’re completely stiff. Fold in the powdered sugar and ground nuts. You now have a kind of meringue batter, the recipe tells you to use a piping bag but I just used a palette knife. Spread this batter out on two baking tins dressed with parchment paper in a circle shape with a 22-24 cm diameter (it should be about 1,5 cm thick). Put in the oven for 45 minutes, take out and let it cool. Carefully remove from the parchment paper before use. These will be the meringue layers for the pie.

Ingredients for the custard cream (makes about 700 grams)

500 ml of full-fat milk
100 grams of sugar
half a vanilla bean
45 grams of custard powder (I bought vanilla pudding mix, like Dr. Oetker and noticed that one bag is about 45 grams)
2 egg yolks

Put 450 ml milk in a saucepan with 50 grams of sugar. Cut open the vanilla bean, scrape the seeds from it and add both to the milk. Put the saucepan on the  fire and bring to a boil, switch off immediately when it starts to boil and remove the vanilla bean. Meanwhile, mix the remaining 50 ml milk and 50 grams sugar with the custard powder and egg yolks. Add a bit of the hot milk to this mixture, mix well and then add the cold mixture into the saucepan milk. Stir, bring to a boil on a low fire and let it bubble for about two minutes  while stirring continually (this burns very quickly so don’t leave the pan). Pour the custard into a cold bowl and let it cool, while stirring occasionally.

Ingredients for the hazelnut paste (makes about 95 grams)

60 grams of white hazelnuts (without skins)
35 grams of sugar

Roast the hazelnuts in a hot skillet until they’re golden brown. Mix the hazelnuts with the sugar in a food processor  until this is a thick, almost fluid paste. I have no food processor so I used a stick blender, which also works, but it’s not ideal. You can conserve any extra’s in the fridge for up to a month.

Ingredients for the coffee extract

half a cup of strong, warm espresso (50 ml)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp Nescafé (instant coffee)

Mix the hot espresso with the sugar and Nescafé until completely solved. Let it cool and preserve in the fridge.

Ingredients for the butter cream, or crème au beurre (for about 600 grams)

300 grams of custard cream (recipe above)
65 grams of sugar
200 grams of soft butter, beaten until fluffy

Using a mixer, beat the sugar through the custard cream. Now add the soft butter (if this doesn’t go easily, you can use a hair dryer to heat the bowl while adding in the butter). You can keep this cream in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for a few months.

The glorious assembly!

100 grams of hazelnuts, roasted and crushed coarsely using a mortar and pestle
a few whole hazelnuts for decoration
30 grams of powdered sugar

Mix 600 grams of butter cream with 25 ml of coffee extract and 35 grams of hazelnut paste. This is the coffee hazelnut cream that will make the filling of the pie. Put a few small dots of the cream on the plate on which you will assemble the pie. Put the first meringue layer on the plate. Put the coffee cream into a piping bag with a medium star-shaped tip and cover the meringue layer with a layer of coffee cream (I started at the outsides, making a circle drawing closer to the center). Add the second layer of meringue. Now, the recipe told me to add a thin layer of cream to the sides, but I found this very difficult as the outer parts of the meringue were rather thin and my cream was a bit too fluid. So I piped a layer at the side/top of the upper meringue layer, which then sort of fell into place on the side of the pie.

Now, decorate the sides and top with the crushed hazelnuts. I did this by sprinkling the hazelnuts on top of the cream and adjusting where necessary. When the sides are done, use the rest of the hazelnuts on top of the pie. Pipe a few decorations onto the pie and add a whole hazelnut (see picture). Finish by dusting with powdered sugar (it’s so pretty you don’t really need to do this, in my opinion). Enjoy!


My New Year’s resolution

A new year! Time to celebrate and wish each other all the best for the future. For 2012, I wish you all the time to enjoy moments together with friends and family, good health and much joy in your endeavours, whether those are work, hobby, studies… And it goes without speaking that I wish you all the time and opportunity to enjoy great food!

The start of a new year is more than a time for wishes, for most of us it’s a time to make resolutions. Some may decide to find a worthy charity to donate to, some become a vegetarian for a year, hopefully all of us will resolve to make some small changes in our daily lives to stop pollution and reduce global warming. But the number one New Year’s resolution (besides contributing to World Peace, of course) has to be to do something about our waistlines! How many of us have decided that this time, in 2012, we will finally reach our desired weight, or fit into that tiny – but oh so flattering! – dress. I know I’ve been there, several times.

It usually goes like this: at the beginning of the year, I’m fed up with the second chin that’s sneaking up on me and my ever-expanding waist and decide to take some action. A few years ago, I did Start to Run – 5K in 10 weeks and really liked it. So I kept on running and went on one of those protein bar-and-shake diets. It worked really well, until I went back to normal meals, and fell into bad habits again, you can guess the rest. I haven’t lost my love for running since, although it’s hard to stay on track during the winter months (rain! darkness! no way I’m getting up to run before work!). Last year, I went at it again and joined Weight Watchers. Their program is absolutely great, and it really works. But then, once I’ve achieved an acceptable weight loss and don’t want to keep on paying for their expensive weekly pep talks, the bad habits come back. It’s only human, I guess.

So this year, it will be different. I will stop counting and tracking and cheating with grams of chocolate and I’ll also stop dreaming of having a figure like Jennifer Aniston (Beyonce, more likely). In 2011, I read Michael Pollan’s book ‘In Defence of Food’. Pollan is a journalist/food philosopher. In the book, he explores the Western world’s relation to food during the 20th century. It’s intriguing to see how things like politics and lobby organizations have helped shape the way we think about food. Pollan’s main point is that we’ve stopped thinking of ‘food’ and have replaced this by ‘nutritional thinking’. He points out that our grandparents (or at least great-grandparents) had no idea what antioxidants, monosaturated fats, omega 3-fatty acids (I’m not sure these exist) and other ‘nutritional building blocks’ were, yet they were usually healthier and less overweight than our own generation. Our grandparents used their common sense and ate food that was available during the season; we eat E-numbers, hydrogenated things and constantly have a huge amount of cheap food (or edible foodlike substances, as Pollan calls them) readily available at the supermarket, the train station vending machine, work… No society in history has ever been so obsessed with eating and dieting, yet no society has ever had so many problems with obesity and all modern diseases that follow from it. I could go on about the contents of the book – it’s well-written and utterly fascinating, but if you’re interested I suggest you read it yourself (or borrow it from me). It’s the end of the book and the book that follows from it that’s the most important.

Pollan explains how damaged our relationship with food has become and suggests ‘rules’, based on common sense, food tradition and scientific knowledge to follow in order to repair this relationship. These rules are: Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pretty simple, huh? He elaborates on these three basic rules in his next book, ‘Food Rules’, which contains 64 rules on how to eat. They’re mostly common sense and if I evaluate my eating habits, they’re not so bad. I do mostly eat real food and not too many highly processed foods and as a vegetarian, I probably eat more plants than many of my friends. However, the ‘not too much’-part is where I usually get off track a bit – especially at rule 60: Treat treats as treats. And when I delve deeper into the ‘eat real food’-part and started looking at labels of the things I munch on throughout the day, there’s a lot of ingredients I can’t really picture in my kitchen – or that I can’t picture at all.

So, here’s my New Year’s resolution: I will try to follow Michael Pollan’s Food Rules as closely as possible (luckily, the very last one is ‘break the rules once in a while’) and restore healthy eating habits. By doing so, I’ll probably reduce my sugar, fat and calorie-intake without really paying specific attention to it, which is exactly what most diets try to make you do. It won’t stop me from cooking as I like, since Pollan recommends cooking for yourself as much as possible: when you realize how much work it is to bake Devil’s chocolate cake or make deep-fried chicken yourself, you probably won’t want to eat it every day (oh, the poor man hasn’t met me yet!). I especially like the S-rule: no sweets, snacks or seconds, except on days that start with an S. Sounds like a good way to start! Hopefully, my other yearly resolution, running the 20K of Brussels in May, will also help me get healthier (if only it would stop raining so I could go for a run though!). It will require some adjustment, a lot of discipline and perseverance and occasionally others to take the cookie jar away from me but I’m convinced that I can do it!

For those who are interested: you can find more information on Michael Pollan and his books at http://michaelpollan.com/

And oh yes, food posts will resume very soon – I still have a wonderful culinary day to report on!