Monday, May 28, 2007

A Culinary Alpine Hike

This past long weekend, we spent in Pont de Nant, Switzerland which is a lovely and rather remote spot in the Swiss Alps. The idea was to surprise my mother-in-law who was expecting a quiet weekend in the mountains. In the end there were about 25 of us all celebrating in the gorgeous, fresh mountain air. We went for a hike on Saturday that made me think of how well one would be able to survive if they had to live off the land here. First off, if you have temperate, rainy weather (it rained a lot this past weekend) you have big, big snails (that's escargot, folks!) left, right and center. Evidently, to make them edible, you must catch them and soak them in different changes of fresh water for at least a day to get all the sand out. Then they're great right out of the oven with garlic, parsley and butter.

Then with the gentiane flower (well, actually the root) you can make the famous Gentiane liquor. What you see here is a small gentiane flower, but the one you can make booze from is the "gentiana lutea" the large gentaine flower, another type from the species. I actually have no idea how one makes liquor out of it but it's available all over the Vaud region of Switzerland and probably elsewhere as well.

Finally in the late spring and throughout the summer there are berries everywhere. Here you see a wild strawberry flower that will become a strawberry within a month. After the strawberries, in July and August, there are wild raspberries to pick.

Not too shabby!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Balsamic - Wild Strawberry Preserves

Balsamic vinegar is the best thing that's ever happened to strawberries. Now strawberry preserves have always left me a bit cold. Why spread that on your toast when you have fig jam, wild blackberry preserves and pear-coriander chutney, I ask? It didn't occur to me until very recently, that if balsamic vinegar can bring out the strawberriestness of fresh strawberries, then it can do the same for strawberry preserves. At the market last Saturday, I bought more tiny wild strawberries than we could finish and the rest were getting a bit soft so I went online trying to find a good balsamic-strawberry preserve recipe and found out that this is much more the kind of thing one spends $10 a jar on in a schmancy shop than it is a thing one makes from scratch. (Meaning I didn't find any recipes.) So I winged it. For those of you with more time and culinary talent than money, here's the recipe:

1 lb strawberries (wild, if you're really lucky)
1 lb sugar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (please! no aged-for-25-years stuff, save that for drizzling and use the cheap stuff for this, ok?)

In a large stock pot place 2-3 clean empty glass jars (recycled jars with screw-tops will do just fine), cover with water and put over high heat. It usually takes a long time to get a large volume of water to boil, so put the jars on the stove before you start the preserves. Place the strawberries, sugar and balsamic vinegar in a medium-sized sauce pan and bring to a boil. Cook until the boiling bubbles seem thick. This took me 15 minutes. (When the preserves are thick enough, the bubbles at the surface seem to take longer to pop). Test the doneness of the preserves by letting a drop of it fall onto a room-temperature saucer. Music to test wild-strawberry preserves by: "No Way to break My Heart" by the Wild Strawberries". The drop should remain like a high dome. If it spreads at all, the preserves are not done yet; continue cooking for another couple minutes and try again.

Once your preserves are thick enough and your jars and lids are at a rolling boil, you’re ready to jar the preserves. Utensils you will need: 1 long wooden spoon, 1 ladle, 1 plastic funnel cut in half so that the pouring space is narrower than the jar mouths but wide enough for the preserves to go through, 2 oven mitts and ideally 1 friend standing by, surgical technician-like, to make the process go more smoothly. Using the long, wooden spoon, fish out one of the jars and shake it upside down to remove excess water (the spoon should be inside the upside-down jar). Place the jar right-side-up next to the pot of preserves. Place the funnel over the jar, ladle in jam up to just millimeters from the very top, fish out a lid with the spoon and, using oven mitts, screw the lid on very tightly. Flip the sealed jar upside-down on the counter and proceed with the subsequent jars. Allow to cool completely. There are often some extra preserves that won’t fit into the jars and that can be ladled into a cup and eaten with toast the next morning.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Le Nespole - Would You Eat This?!

In the spring, Milan's open-air markets fill up with two great types of fruit: strawberries and medlars. Ever heard of a medlar? I hadn't until about 2 years into this European living experience. I figured "nespole" in Italian and "nefles" in French didn't have an English translation like mango and papaya are always called "mango" and "papaya" in Europe and the Americas. I like them even though I have to avert my eyes while I'm eating them. Have any of you English-speakers ever heard of this fruit?

Then I remembered a jelly recipe in "Perfect Preserves" by british food writer, Nora Carey. To give you a sense of the medlar's popularity, she had to introduce the recipe by explaining to her English-speaking audience what a medlar was: "a somewhat forgotten, old-fashioned fruit" and how you're supposed to eat it: "The medlar is not considered mature until it is completely rotted which can occur on the tree...or the fruit can be picked earlier and then spread on a straw mat in a cool place." To the left, you see fresh, pretty medlars ready for buying, but nowhere near ready for eating. The looks of a ripe medlar (photo up at the top) are, I imagine enough to warrant their unpopularity but they really are good, sweet and tangy once they're full of ugly brown spots.

So my question is, would you eat this?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Homemade Soba Noodles With Sesame Dipping Sauce

Japanese soba noodles are often (if not always, I'm not a Japanese food expert) served cold, so they're an excellent choice for Brown Bag Lunch #5. Delicious and wholesome, this is a dish that makes my restaurant-going co-workers green with envy.

Here in Italy, packaged soba noodles are hard to come by, so I decided to make some myself. The combination of all-purpose and buckwheat flours give the noodles a brown-grey cast, almost exactly like Italian Pizzocheri. In fact when Italians ask me about soba, I tell them it's Japanese pizzocheri, and they get it, sort of.

I followed an online recipe that seemed to be genuine and traditional. It called for all-purpose, buckwheat and high-gluten flours plus salt and water. That was it. It produced a very dry dough that I thought would work well. As I rolled it through the pasta machine, it seemed too easily breakable, but I soldiered on. The first soba noodle brown bag lunch was tasty, but by the time the noodles were rolled out and boiled, they had almost all broken into 1-inch pieces. This was worrying to me since I'd read online somewhere that the longer the soba, the longer your life! So, I modified the recipe by adding an egg to the dough to bind the noodles and keep them in long pieces. The egg did the trick and, traditional or not, I'll be using it here on in.

Here's my recipe whech serves two:

1 1/4 cups buckwheat flour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup high gluten flour (bread flour)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
up to 7 tablespoons of cold water
extra all-purpose flour for dusting

Combine flours and salt in the bowl of a food processor pulse to combine. Add the egg and 2 tbsps of water and mix until they are incorporated. Open the food processor, grab some dough and squeeze it between your fingers. If it falls apart in crumbles, add more water one tablespoon at a time. When you have a cohesive dough, let it rest in the processor for 30 minutes.

Take the dough out of the processor and onto a floured wooden board. Cut the dough into 6 pieces and process them through a pasta machine until the 5th setting flouring after each roll-through (for me the 5th is the second to thinnest setting) Flour the lengths of pasta again and process them through the thin spaghetti cutter. Music to cut soba by: "Soba Violence" by the Beastie Boys from the release "Anthology".

Boil for 45 seconds to a minute in abundant salted water. When cooked, run under cold water to chill.

Serve with Sesame dipping sauce:

4 tbsps sushi seasoning (or a combo of rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp toasted sesame seed oil
1/2 cup minced cucumber
2 tbsps minced chives or green onion
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp sesame seeds

Whisk the first 3 ingredients together and pour onto the cold soba noodles. Sprinkle the opther ingredients on top. Pack into your Beastie Boys lunchbox and enjoy!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Martha Stewart Pound Cake With Orange-Blossom Syrup

Indian, Middle Eastern and Greek desserts have captured my attention for years now. They're the pinnacle of sweet decadence often deep friend and then soaked in a sugar syrup. It's hard to eat a lot because of the intensity of sweet. Our Halal butchers offer a variety of Middle Eastern sweets that knock your socks off (and your blood-sugar levels up) like Baklava, Bellah Essham (churros-like dough fingers deep fried and soaked in syrup) and Basboosa, a coconut cake, which once baked is also soaked in syrup. Clearly in the Middle East dessert is all about the syrup.

I made a loose version of the Basboosa minus the coconut that features orange-blossom essence in the syrup that permeates the cake. I use a modified version of Martha Stewart's pound cake recipe adding a syrup of sugar, water and orange-blossom essence while the cake is still hot out of the oven.

Here's a half recipe of the pound cake:

2 cups sifted flour (Martha suggests cake flour but I used all-purpose to a good result)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsps baking powder
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar (the original recipe calls for more than twice that but we'll be putting enough in the syrup)
8 eggs at room temp.
1/2 cup milk at room temp.
2 tsps orange-blossom essence (Martha called for 1 tsp vanilla extract and 1/2 tsp grated lemon zest, but we know better)

Here's the recipe for Orange-Blossom Syrup:

1-1/2 cups water
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup orange-blossom essence

For the Cake:

Preheat oven to 325F. Butter and flour a round 9 x 3 inch cake pan. Whisk the flour, salt and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, mix the butter and sugar together until fluffy (this takes a lot of elbow grease and some time or you can just use a mixer if you have one, I don't). Add one egg to the sugar-butter and beat until fully incorporated. Add each other egg one at a time beating to fully incorporate before adding the next. Once the last egg is incorporated, add the milk and orange blossom essence and stir until they are well mixed in. Add the flour mixture into the wet ingredients 1/3 at a time. Bake for 1 hour or until the cake is a deep golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. With the same toothpick poke deep holes all over the cake at 1 centimeter intervals. This will help the syrup to be absorbed.

For the syrup:

Pour the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil, cooking until all the sugar is dissolved. Take off heat and add the orange-blossom essence. Pour slowly onto the cake, making sure to saturate every part of it. Hopefully you will be able to use the high rim of the cake pan to catch extra syrup so that it doesn't spill over. Let cake rest until completely cooled (a few hours at least) before serving. Music to let cake rest by: "Stickshifts and Safetybelts" by CAKE (you just gottsta LOVE this song!) This is very sweet (but not as sweet as the halal butchers' Basboosa!) so it goes very well with an unsweetened cup of black coffee or a shot of espresso.

Now, my cake is tasty, but to see orange blossom cake at its beautiful best, go to Passionfruit and Mangoes!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Middle Eastern Rice Pudding With Essence of Orange Blossom

This rather easy dessert, with the milk and orange-blossom is the essence of cool. You'll actually feel a degree or two cooler once you've tasted it. On a quest for a standard rice pudding recipe, I found this one and made it a bit less super-sweet, added some salt for complexity and took out the cinnamon so that all you taste is orange blossom.

Here's my version:

1 cup of raw arborio rice
2 cups water
3 cups whole milk
1/2 to 3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon orange-blossom water
1/2 tsp salt

Heat the rice and water in a very large pan to the boiling point then lower the heat and simmer covered until the rice is done and the water is completely absorbed, aprox. 15 minutes. Add the milk and stir to incorporate paying particular attention to scraping all the rice from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook stirring periodically until the mixture becomes thick and creamy. Add the sugar and orange-blossom water. The consistency will become more liquidy as a result, so continue cooking and stirring for another 5-10 minutes until it is thick and creamy once more. Refrigerate for a few hours and serve chilled. Music to chill out with Orange-Blossom Rice Pudding: "Rice Pudding" by Jeff Beck.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Glory of Orange-Blossom Water

I was doing a sort of kitchen inventory the other day and realized that my almost full bottle of Lebanese orange-blossom water expires in 2 weeks. My main use for this up to now has been to add it to plain yogurt, along with some sugar making a delicious and fresh-tasting snack. Evidently, I haven't been keeping up on the plain yogurt consumption, so with an orange-blossom emergency on my hands, I went to work.

I googled "orange-blossom water" and came up with a goldmine! A thread on the Chowhound forum all about different uses for orange-blossom water from orange blossom cocktails to fresh, savory salads to dozens of sweet, fresh desserts. For me, though the most appealing ideas were the simplest: orange-blossom iced tea, orange blossom rice pudding and Martha Stewart's pound cake with orange blossom syrup. This stuff is so good, I've already bought a new bottle to replace my quickly dwindling supply.

Here's my simple recipe for orange-blossom iced tea:

4 cups water
4 tsps loose assam tea
8 tsps sugar
2 tsps orange-blossom water

Fill a 1-quart (1 liter) container with tepid water and stir in the tea leaves. Allow them to steep for several hours or overnight. Strain and pour in to 2 - 1/2 liter (16 oz.) water bottles, add sugar and orange-blossom water and shake. Music to shake orange-blossom iced tea by: "Orange" by The Dandy Warhols. Serve well chilled. The effect of the orange-blossom water is to make the iced tea seem even more cooling, so it's perfect for hot days.

Tune in next for a great Middle Eastern orange-blossom rice pudding dessert and Martha Stewart's pound cake with orange-blossom syrup.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Lavender Sea Salt Scrub

Disclaimer: This is NOT an advertisement for EO brands (I'm just recycling the jar), in fact it's the opposite. Here's a recipe to make your own lavender-scented olive oil sea salt body scrub for next to nothing. An Italian friend of mine told me about this skin smoothing secret. In a moment of student poverty, she made this scrub as a Christmas present for all her friends and family. She bought 1 bottle of essential oil of lavender (this'll run you from 15 to 20 euros but a little goes a long way), a bottle of olive oil (couple euros) and a couple kilos of non-iodized salt (cheaper than dirt). The beauty part is that for very little money, you can give presents that seem chic and sheeshy!


2 cups non-iodized salt*
3 tbsps olive oil**
15 drops of essential oil of lavender (or be creative and use essential oil of anything else, rose geranium is a favorite of mine)

Pour the salt into a sturdy, sealable container (plastic or glass jars are perfect). Make a well in the center, pour in the olive oil and drop in the essential oil of lavender. Mix first with a spoon then by closing the containet and shaking like mad. Music to shake Lavender Sea Salt Scrub with: OutKast's "Hey Ya" (shake it like a Polaroid Picture!) Get in the shower or tub, get wet (if you really want a really, really effective skin-sloughing effect, soak in the tub for 15 minutes then start scrubbing) Grab hanfulls from the jar and scrub all over with this mixture (singin' OutKast all the way through) and then use soap and water to wash away the oil. You will feel like a pink and shiny new person.

*Here in Italy, the cheapest stuff is sea salt but non-iodized Morton's or, better yet, the generic brand will scrub just as well.

** I used extra virgin and its rich yellow-green color left an ugly, yellowy tinge in my scrub, so I'd suggest to save the evoo for your baby field green salads and use lesser grade which will be clearer.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Buen Cinco de Mayo!

Ok, ok, so I've been a bad blogger. I'm posting my Cinco de Mayo recipe one day late. Sorry. I'm finding my work-blog balance a little tough these days. I've also been experimenting with new recipes and learning that I have to tweak things a bit in order to come up with some blogworthy recipes for you all. The upside is that you'll be finding out about at least 3 new recipes using orange-blossom water.

But on to great, quick and easy Mexican food. Yesterday Gabriel and I celebrated Cinco de Mayo with these tacos al pastor and tacos de chorizo mexicano. Living in Italy means having to run your own personal import-export business if you want to eat good Mexican food. This past Christmas, I brought back Mexican chorizo, fresh corn tortillas (which have both been waiting in my freezer), a can of chipotle chiles in adobo, and dried corn husks (for the tamales I failed to make over the winter).

Yesterday, I made pork carnitas, crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside pieces of pork that are the basis of great tacos al pastor. I browned some chorizo and made a quick chipotle-tomato salsa to flavor everything. Granted, if the tortillas had come directly from one of the 3 tortilla factories around Chicago yesterday, and not 5 months ago, it all would have been even better, but the rarity of this meal on this continent made up for everything.

Recipe for pork carnitas:

1 kg (2.2 pounds) of bone-in pork shoulder
2 tbsps salt
the juice of 1 lemon

Cut the pork into 1-inch cubes. Place them in one layer into a large sautee pan. Use 2 pans if necessary. Cover the pork pieces completely with water and put over a high flame. Add the salt and the lemon juice. Bring to a boil and skim the foam off the surface of the water until it subsides (about the first 5 minutes of boiling). Keep boiling until all the water has evaporated. At this point, all the rendered fat from the meat will become the frying fat to make the carnitas crunchy and brown with no extra fat added (hey, it's almost diet food! - almost). Brown the cubes on all sides and transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate. These crunchy, brown bits of meat are so good, you could eat them all before you get the chance to assemble the tacos. But if you have patience, a little salsa and some queso anejo, you can make a great informal dinner.

One side benefit to carnitas is all the rich, brown fond that's left in the pan when you're finished. You can take 1 cup of medium-grain rice, toast it in the remaining fat in the pan, add 2 cups of water, cover and in 20 minutes, you have the most flavorful rice you've ever tasted. Try it!

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