Sunday, November 13, 2011

new nordic inspiration

"we do not stop the world when we eat, we go into it a little more deeply." - olafur eliasson

dandelion, nasturtium, seakale fruit and yellow beetroots
noma is the world's top restaurant. i've been reading their beautiful cookbook published by phaidon - NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi. (it's so wonderful that i actually had to use capital letters.) :-) i'm not sure i'll actually try make any of the beautifully photographed recipes, as they are very advanced and some require special equipment (liquid nitrogen, smokers), but i will be using some of the raw ingredients they use. and i simply i can't remember the last time i got so much pleasure and inspiration from a cookbook. it's completely sumptuous and very thought-provoking.

truffle dessert
noma is a combination of two danish words "nordisk" and "mad" - nordic food. they use only fresh, seasonal ingredients from scandinavia and the book explores the early days of the thinking behind the restaurant. rené and claus meyer (another purveyor of new nordic cuisine) went on a voyage of discovery around scandinavia - from the farøe islands to iceland to greenland to norway, sweden and back to denmark - to put together the thinking and the menu. the cookbook includes excerpts from rené's diaries of the trip and is an inspiration.

radishes in a pot

the notion that our diet should be composed of things that are available and seasonal in our surroundings is at once both retro and revolutionary. our ancestors surely ate like that, but we've become accustomed to the availability of tomatoes and strawberries year-round. we can have what we like, whenever we like, because it's there on our grocery store shelves. but what if we returned to seasonal eating? what we ate more root vegetables and cabbage in the winter and only ate tomatoes in the summer? what if we used wild plants from our forests and ditches? what if we ate more game? more fish? what if we were more closely bound to our surroundings in our diet?

pork neck, bulrushes, violets and malt
i heard on the radio that there's a study going on that's focused on new nordic cuisine and tho' they aren't finished yet, one early result has been that those participating have lost 3-6 kilos, which wasn't one of the goals - but more wild, lean meat like venison and more vegetables from the area instead of pasta and rice have had an effect.

dessert of flowers
it might initially seem that to use only seasonal, local ingredients is limiting, but once you start looking around, there is a bounty all around us. and we are left feeling more connected the world that we inhabit. as olafur elliason says in his introduction to the book, "Whether we like it or not, what we eat affects how the world looks. And that affects the way we understand it. When we look at a  plate of food, we should see the greater ecosystem too. If we find out where the food comes from and where it goes to, maybe this knowledge can be made into a different kind of flavor-enhancer. ... Food can be political. Food can be about responsibility, sustainability, geography and culture."

if you get the chance, at least borrow this book from your local library.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


i never really saw myself as a chicken person - oh yes, i eat it, but i never thought i'd have chickens myself. i remember being a little bit surprised when i visited bee and found she had chickens, tho' they were posh, with fancy feathery feet, so i decided it fit quite well with her home in the english countryside. but me? have chickens? no way. fast forward nearly two years and we have 12 - 3 proud little roosters and 9 hens. and they've begun to lay eggs (well, the hens have anyway). and now i think i won't ever be without chickens again. the pleasure of going out and gathering the eggs (we're getting 2-3 a day, as they've just begun) and even just watching them is not to be underestimated. chickens are funny little characters. and the eggs, oh the eggs. they're just about the most magical cooking ingredient of all, aren't they?

squash, sage & bacon soufflé
despite that they only lay 2-3 eggs a day, that rather quickly ends up being a lot of eggs. so i've embarked on making soufflés and other egg-related dishes (we already eat an omelette at least once a week because they're so easy on a busy schedule). i was a little worried the first time, but already with the second one, i started to get a bit creative.  and i can tell you that soufflés aren't nearly as temperamental as you've heard.

the first one i made, i used molly wizenberg's classic cheese soufflé recipe, which she adapted from one by julia child, following it pretty much to the letter.  it came out perfectly and gave me the confidence i needed - it didn't even threaten to fall, it was light and gorgeous and even stayed up after we had taken it out a bit early, spooned into it, discovered it wasn't quite done, and put it back in the oven. a very forgiving soufflé. and a great base recipe, which i gave an autumn twist last night.

cheesy sage and squash soufflé

2 T finely grated parmesan
1 C whole milk
2 1/2 T butter
3 T flour
1 C baked squash
1 small package of bacon, diced and fried to crispy perfection
4-5 fresh sage leaves, sliced into ribbons
6 eggs, separated
1 C grated cheese (gruyère or something similarly meltable is perfect)
salt and pepper to taste

cut a small squash in half and de-seed it. bake it in the oven with a lump of butter in the cavity, until it's soft and done. allow it to cool and spoon it out. i used a hokkaido squash and it resulted in about a cup (metric folks, just fill a 250ml measuring cup) of squash.  if your squash is larger, safe the rest for another purpose (an autumn soup perhaps?).

dice your bacon and fry it to crispy perfection, set it aside. just before it's done, throw the ribbons of sage into the bacon fat and allow the heat to crisp them and release the sagey goodness.  grate your cheese and set it aside.

separate your eggs. my eggs are still very small, so i used 6, if yours are the jumbo size from the grocery store, you can probably do with 3 or 4. molly's recipe calls for 4 egg yolks and 5 egg whites, but i used all of all 6 eggs with good result (and no waste). set your kitchen mixer to whipping the egg whites until they're glossy and have high peaks. reserve the yolks.

preheat your oven to 200°C/400°F. butter a ceramic soufflé dish and coat the buttered edges with the grated parmesan. this makes the most lovely outside crust, so don't skip this step. gently warm the milk in a pan.

in a heavy saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour, whisking to make a roux. cook it 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, taking care not to let it brown, but getting rid of that raw flour-y taste. remove from the heat and allow it to stand for a minute. return it to the heat, add the warm milk and keep whisking it over the heat until it's very thick - this should again take 2-3 minutes. remove from the heat and whisk in the squash and the bacon and sage. whisking constantly, add the yolks one at a time. set the mixture somewhere to cool to room temperature. season with salt and pepper to taste.

once the mixture is cooled, fold in a good-sized dollop of the egg whites and gently mix it to lighten up the yolk mixture. then gently fold in the rest of the whites and the grated cheese. transfer immediately to your prepared soufflé dish and pop it into the oven immediately. bake it for 25-30 minutes, taking care not to open the oven during at least the first 20 minutes. it's done when it's golden brown on top and has just the slightest jiggle visible in the middle. serve it immediately with a simple salad.

our salad consisted of a box of mixed leaves, diced cucumber, some of the last of the garden tomatoes, diced and the popping, ruby seeds of half a pomegranate. i made a simple creme fraîche dressing to accompany both the soufflé and the salad - just with a bit of chopped, fresh sage and some garlic pepper. it didn't last long, as you can see.

be adventurous, make a soufflé for dinner tonight. i guarantee it will impress your family and friends.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

a berry good year

red currants (and proof that there was the occasional bit of sunshine this summer)
our rainy, cool weather this year was a boon for the berries. our strawberry season lasted a month and the red and black currant bushes were loaded with berries that i made into bottles and bottles of cordial for the winter. the blackcurrant cordial might be the best one of them all, tho' the more recent one i've made of elderberries is a close second.

berry cordials

4 cups (1 kilo) of berries (red currants, blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, elderberries)
2 cups sugar

if you want to give it some zip, add some slices of fresh ginger root, or throw in a vanilla bean. i also mixed them occasionally - red and black currants together. strawberry and rhubarb (it's a classic), tho' i kept raspberries and elderberries alone, because they're so outstanding on their own. the elderberries have the faintest undertone of their spring version - the elderflower, but with layers of autumn on top. mixed with hot water and a dash of vanilla vodka (see below), they make a gorgeous, warming drink, for a nippy but clear autumn day.  i made several batches using honey instead of sugar, since we've also got our own bees and i had a lot of honey on hand - the result was a deeper, more complex cordial. 

autumn raspberries - they produced from august - october!
"rumtopf" - with vodka, red currants, black currants, strawberries and sugar
i've been throwing a handful of whatever berry is in season into this jar and topping it up with vodka all summer  - it will make a lovely fruity tipple come christmas time - filled with the echoes of summer during that dark time of year. all you do is take a cup of organic sugar, all the berries you have at hand and keep them covered with vodka. whenever you add more berries, if they're not submerged, add more vodka. this one was started in june and i added the last berries in october (photo from the beginning). you can also use rum (hence the name - rumtopf), but we're vodka drinkers around here, so that's what we used.

black currant cordial
the cordials can be mixed with fizzy water for a sparkling drink. they're great with white wine or a dash of vanilla vodka. they can be quite tasty with lemon schweppes. they're also just fine with plain water - hot or cold, depending on your weather.  the limits are only those of imagination.

thanks to my buddy chris, who is a co-contributor over on the sustainable life blog, i ventured into making my own vanilla vodka. she was making vanilla extract and i've got a batch of that going as well, but decided to make some vanilla vodka for drinking as well - it tastes more natural than the absolut version. it's a very nice companion when you're using these cordials as the base for a cocktail. if you check eBay, you can find great prices on vanilla pods in bulk - i got 30+ for €11 including shipping. speaking of which, it's time to order them again, in preparation for winter baking.

Monday, September 26, 2011

green hummus and a garden bounty pasta

the garden is winding down, but it has been a bountiful summer - borlotti beans (that's the red pods here), tomatoes, small delectable aubergines, tasty cucumbers (so much more flavor than the store-bought kind), artichokes (none visible in this photo), small succulent squash, broad beans and autumn raspberries coming out of our ears for more than a month. the bounty from the garden has been so good that it's almost turned us vegetarian without any effort (tho' we haven't given up bacon - can one be a bacon-tarian?).

with tomatoes and cucumbers as plentiful as they've been, we've tossed them together with feta or mozzarella and a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and some fresh, chopped parsley (it's been a good year for parsley with all of the rain we've had) or sometimes mint for salads nearly every night.

but the real revelation has been a nigel slater-inspired broad bean hummus. we've experienced the entire spectrum of the broad bean...from tiny little green and nearly pealike ones, to the large mature kind that you have to boil and then peel away the grey outer husk before pureeing them into a delicious green hummus.

green hummus

20-25 large broad bean pods (these may be called favas in the US or hestebønner in denmark)
2 cloves garlic
1 big spoonful of tahini
salt & freshly-ground pepper
olive oil
handful of parsley or mint

shell the broad beans - it should result in a generous cup or so (you don't have to be that exact), boil them in salted water until they're tender (about 20 minutes). drain the water, allow them to cool and remove the greyish outer covering (it comes off easily after boiling). throw the beans into your food processor with the garlic, tahini (nigel doesn't use tahini in his, but i liked it better with tahini - it gives it that hummus kick that it otherwise lacks) and the herb of your choice (sometimes we wanted the freshness of mint, sometimes the brightness of parsley - use whichever, according to your mood), add a generous sprinkle of salt and a good glug of olive oil. whirr it up in the food processor. if it doesn't go smooth, add more olive oil until it's a smooth, hummus-like consistency. serve it with freshly-baked bread. 

if you make a simple chopped tomato, garlic, basil mixture with a bit of olive oil and balsamic for bruschetta, you'll have a meal with simple ingredients from the garden paired with a loaf of bread lovingly baked. 

i made this at least once a week, all summer long. the beans give you the protein you need so you don't have to eat meat. it refrigerates well and tastes even better the next day, once the garlic and tahini have melded with the broad beans. 

*  *  *

very often this summer, i would wander out to the garden around 5:30 or so, with nothing much in mind for dinner. the day i gathered the veggies you see above, i brought them in, washed them and just started chopping, not sure where it would take me. 

garden bounty pasta

handful of borlotti beans
125g bacon
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small aubergine, diced
1 small zucchini/courgette, diced
handful of swiss chard leaves, chopped
2-3 small/medium tomatoes, diced
salt & pepper
chili (optional)
chopped, fresh parsley (or oregano or marjoram or basil if you have it)
1 package linguini (or spaghetti or shells or whatever pasta you like).
freshly grated parmesan to garnish

boiled up the pretty pink-spotted borlotti beans and crisped up some chopped bacon with some onion and garlic while they were boiling. add the diced aubergine and zucchini (courgette) squash. when the beans are done, drain them and turn them in the bacon and veggie mixture. boil up some fresh linguini noodles, or whatever pasta you have on hand would be fine. once the pasta is nearly done, add some chopped tomatoes and chopped swiss chard to the vegetable mix at the last minute, so that the tomatoes are just warmed, but keep their structure and the chard wilted, but retains its green brilliance. salt and pepper to taste and it is ready to serve over the pasta. garnish with freshly chopped parsley and fresh parmesan. you could also sprinkle some toasted pine nuts on top if you had some on hand. 

this became a fast favorite and has also been on our table, with slight adjustments for what veggies were ready, for much of the summer.

if you don't have a garden, just visit your local farmer's market or the fruit and vegetable counter of your local grocery store, and see what's in season.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

baking for bunnies (and horses)

somehow, we've ended up with four pet rabbits at our house.  and it occurred to me that i was spending a small fortune keeping them in bunny treats. and then one day, i tried to read the ingredient list on the bunny treats i've been buying in the pet store and i got a little concerned when i saw vague words like "cereals" and "derivatives of vegetable origin" not to mention a big list of preservatives. i realized that i was paying a premium for something that probably wasn't all that great for our bunnies.  so i decided to try making some treats for them myself.

whole grains, lots of nuts and plenty of fresh carrot, with a bit of honey and some sunflower oil were thrown together in my mixer and baked. the first batch i made was a bit more cookie-like in form. before i could tell him they were for the bunnies, husband accidentally ate one, thinking they were healthy cookies. they're a bit boring to humans, since i kept the honey minimal not to make them too sweet for bunnies. for the second batch, i decided to make them smaller and more treat-shaped. and i also realized that our horse would love them, since they're full of things she likes too - oats and carrots. i will not be buying the iffy and expensive kind in the pet store anymore. 

bunny/horse treats

2 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup honey (from our own bees, of course)
1 cup graham flour
1 cup plain white flour
2 large carrots, grated
1/2 sunflower oil
1/3 cup flaxseeds
1/3 cup sunflower seeds

mix it all together in the mixer and add enough water to bring it to a thick cookie-type consistency (i'm not sure how much water i added, as i didn't measure that...maybe about a 1/2 cup).

spread it out in a baking pan and bake it at 180°C/350°F for 20 minutes (not all the way). remove it from the oven and slice it into "treat size", then pop them onto a cookie sheet and into the oven and bake another 20 minutes or so.  voila. happy bunnies and horses.

our pets mean a lot to us, so it only makes sense to me to give them quality food, just like i would my family.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

marshmallows & nutella: homemade stylie

it's been raining this week (again, again) and watching the news this week has been positively depressing - riots all over england, stock markets down, people starving in africa. i found myself in need of comfort. escape. something sweet.

so i decided to make nutella. and when that didn't feel like enough, i also made marshmallows. the nutella is good, but not yet The Business, but the marshmallows? fluffy clouds of heaven, i tell you.  i found the nutella recipe via, but strangely, the site is down as i write this, so i can't give you the original link. and, as usual, i didn't entirely follow it anyway, so i'll give you what i did and you can check instructables later (i'm sure it's temporarily down).

chocolate-hazelnut spread (ala nutella) - take 1

250 grams hazelnuts (about 1 cup)
250 grams good quality dark chocolate (i actually used a combo of dark and milk because a certain someone in this household doesn't like dark chocolate and she's the primary consumer of this in this house)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
a pinch of salt
a drizzle of good quality sunflower oil
toast the hazelnuts in the oven for about 10 minutes at 180°C/350°F (watch them, as you don't want them to burn). put them in the food processor and whiz them up as fine as you can get them. add a drizzle of sunflower oil to help it out. this is where i think the recipe i followed was off...i found it very difficult to get the hazelnuts ground finely enough in my food processor - next time, i might try a coffee grinder.  but my advice is, grind them longer than you think.

while they're grinding, place the chocolate in a double-boiler and melt it over medium heat. once it's melted, stir in the salt and the sweetened condensed milk and mix it well. once they're smooth and the nuts are as finely ground as you can get them, tip the chocolate into the nuts and whizz it up in your food processor until it's smooth and creamy. if you think the texture isn't quite right, you can add a drizzle of sunflower oil. 

this made two and a half half liter jars. i sterilized them, but am keeping them in the refrigerator, as i'm not sure about how well they'll keep. they taste delicious, but the texture isn't exactly nutella-like. it's not smooth enough. on the other hand, it has a much more hazelnutty depth to it and i actually like it quite a lot better than the real thing. i'm not done, tho' i'm trying to perfect this, so expect me back with further experiments on this front.

and now onto the marshmallows, which worked far beyond expectations. my recipe comes from karen solomon's jam it, pickle it, cure it, tho', of course, i adjusted the gelatin because it comes in leaves here and not in powdered packets.


2/3 cup of water
6 leaves of gelatin (or 3 envelopes unflavored gelatin)
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of light syrup
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
confectioner's (powdered) sugar

coat a medium-sized pan (8x8 or 9x6) in vegetable oil and generously coat with powdered sugar.

combine the gelatin and 1/3 cup of water in the bowl of your stand mixer.

meanwhile, mix the other 1/3 cup of water with the sugar and light syrup in a medium saucepan. whisk them until they the sugar is nearly dissolved. place it over a medium heat and without stirring (this is the bit i couldn't believe, but it's really true) heat it up to 115°C/240°F. use a candy thermometer. it takes about ten minutes. don't be tempted to stir, the bubbles will effectively stir it as it begins to boil. 

once it reaches the correct temperature, remove from the heat and pour it carefully into the gelatin mixture in your mixer. turn it up to medium-high, add vanilla and mix until it becomes fluffy white and stiff. this takes about 10-12 minutes (tho' if it's humid, it could take longer).

pour them into the prepared pan and allow them to set for at least an hour. then slice them into bite-sized squares and roll them in powdered sugar (or cocoa or flaked coconut) and enjoy. our weather is a bit humid and i'm keeping them in the fridge, as they seemed a bit soft. i think in normal, dry weather conditions, they'd stay firm and lovely and you'd even be able to toast them over the coals like you would a store-bought marshmallow. but actually, they're just perfect as they are...sweet, fluffy, light and melt-in-your mouth. i will definitely be making them again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

the ruby goodness of rhubarb

awhile ago, i promised to do a rhubarb post. i love rhubarb. it's one of the first things to appear in the garden in the spring and it just keeps on giving all summer long, especially if you keep picking it. our place came with about a dozen rhubarb plants and once we moved them from the grassy area where they were being choked out and separated them a bit (into more like two dozen plants), they have thrived, as you can see above (in fact, i need to get out there and pick).

one of the most delicious things i've made is a rhubarb-vanilla cordial. as you already know, i've gone a bit mad for cordials this year. they're just so much nicer to serve to your guests than a regular old purchased soda. with all of these good things in the garden, it gets my creative juices flowing and i've been trying all sorts of combinations of things (coming soon, berries).  but this rhubarb-vanilla one is one we reach for again and again.

rhubarb-vanilla cordial

20-25 stalks of rhubarb
1 vanilla pod
a little bit of water in the bottom of the pan, just to get started.
500 grams sugar (2 cups)

clean and slice the rhubarb into manageable chunks. place it in a pot with the vanilla pod (split it open to release the little black flecks) and put a little water in the bottom of the pan, just to get things started. gently heat it and simmer until the rhubarb has gone completely soft. i usually wander away at this point, so i'm not sure how long this takes - maybe between 20 and 30 minutes. remove from the heat and let it cool down a bit. strain through a cheesecloth, collecting the beautiful pink juice. squeeze out the cloth, getting all of the good juices. you should have about a liter of juice, but if you don't, you can add water to get to that. if you have more than a liter, even better. return the juice to the pan and add sugar. i used organic sugar and as you can see above (my rhubarb cordial is next to the honey), my cordial is a bit dark. if you use regular white sugar, it will stay a bright pink. bring it to the boil again and then pour it into a sterilized, prepared bottle.

i often fish out the vanilla pod to be used again in another batch, as there's lots of goodness left in it and they're too precious to just throw away. you can also rinse it off and stick it in a jar with some sugar for a fragrant vanilla sugar.  and i give the rhubarb mash that's left over to the hens - they gobble it right up.

this week, i'm going to make a batch with a hunk of ginger instead of vanilla - i think rhubarb and ginger will be very nice together.

in my opinion, the most perfect companion to rhubarb is the strawberry and i've made this rhubarb-strawberry crisp half a dozen times during the month our strawberries were in season.  it's just as good with rhubarb by itself, but rhubarb and strawberries are a match made in heaven. in contrast to many crisps (or crumbles - not sure of the difference - do any of you have an opinion?) it has the topping on the bottom as a sort of crust as well. that makes the dish.  it's a variation of a recipe my mom sent to me and i'm not sure where it originated.

strawberry-rhubarb crisp

1 cup flour
3/4 cup oatmeal
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter

mix together and place half of the mixture in an buttered baking dish (i use one that's ceramic and rectangular, but you could use a round tart dish as well).

4 cups fresh rhubarb (cubed) and strawberries.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 T. cornstarch
1 t. vanilla

in a saucepan, cook the fruit, sugar and water until softened and gently boiling. mix the cornstarch with a couple of tablespoons of cold water and stir it into the hot fruit mixture. add the vanilla and pour into your pan. put the remaining crust mixture on top.

optional: sprinkle with 1/2 cup chopped walnuts. bake at 180°C/350°F until the top is golden and crispy.

serve in a bowl with a bit of fresh cream on top.

whether it's an everyday evening treat or for guests, it can't go wrong. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eat/Drink more Yogurt

Did anyone see the Harvard study which was published, and widely reported on, this week?
After 20 years of monitoring which foods seemed to be most associated with weight gain, the study revealed the following list of baddies:
  1. french fries!
  2. potato chips
  3. sugar-sweetened soda
  4. unprocessed red meat
  5. processed meats . . . like bacon
  6. trans fats
  7. potatoes
  8. sweets and desserts
  9. refined grains
  10. fried foods
  11. fruit juices
  12. butter
There are no huge surprises here, but it is still a bit deflating (or, rather, the other way around) to see that potatoes have made the list three times!  I wouldn't dream of making french fries at home, but in restaurants I have been known to order a meal just because it offers fries on the side.  My favourite meal in the world?  Probably steak frites.  Still, I regard them as a treat -- and really, we eat very little red meat otherwise.

The main conclusion of the study is that we should all be eating food that is as minimally processed as possible . . . and with the odd exception, Julochka and I have already been preaching (and eating) that gospel.  I may need to rethink my loved of baked goods, but in my defense, we hardly ever eat any dessert/sweets that aren't homemade with good-quality ingredients.

One of the most helpful aspects of the study was its revelation of the five foods most associated with weight loss -- and the fab five are:
  1. yogurt
  2. nuts
  3. fruits
  4. whole grains
  5. vegetables
I've been trying to eat more yogurt for several years now, but for some reason I find it a bit tedious in solid form.  I do like greek yogurt with blueberries and a squeeze of honey, but it's not something that I can talk myself into eating every day. 

I think that smoothies are going to be the answer -- at least for me.  This summer, I finally broke down and bought a blender -- despite my lack of counter space -- and now my children and I are obsessed with it.  With all of the great fresh fruit that's around these days, it is such simple work to drink several servings of the good stuff.  I never make the same smoothie twice, but my basic blueprint is to throw in a banana, a handful of strawberries and/or raspberries, blueberries, pineapple or peaches, between 4 and 6 ounces of yogurt and a handful of ice.  You will need some liquid to get things going, and I add either orange juice or skim milk -- depending on whether I am the mood for something creamy or juicy.  You may also need a squirt of honey, depending on your sweet tooth.

Sadly, there's nothing more American than french fries and a Coke -- and America has the obesity rates to prove it.  Julochka and I were laughing about an article about the fried foods which will be offered up at State Fairs around the country this summer.  Doesn't that just sum up some of the most dreadful (and wonderful, of course) aspects of American eating?  I love the creativity and the sense of humour, but the sheer decadence and gluttony isn't as admirable.  Does anyone really need to be eating Fried Kool-Aid?  Who even dreams this stuff up?

As for my summer eating, I'm thinking more along the lines of a yogurt smoothie and a handful of raw almonds every day . . .

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

lemony roast chicken salad

most of the cooking i do is by the seat of my pants. recipes are but a suggestion in my mind and i don't do all that much planning ahead unless we're expecting guests. very often, it's 5:30 p.m. and i wander into the kitchen, bleary-eyed from the computer and open the refrigerator and take out a few things that look inspiring. and sometimes the result is worth writing down. of course, the secret to this kind of cooking is having good ingredients at hand. i can tell already that the garden is going to really help me on that front. the weekly box i have delivered helps a lot too - it means i've always got interesting vegetables and things like quinoa and couscous around. i'm also a sucker for good buys on interesting or unusual ingredients when i'm at the grocery store, so the staples in my cupboards include things like a jar of grilled artichokes or roasted red peppers.  i thought i'd share with you a recent invention. i made it for the second time today, adding a bit to it from the first round and it was wonderful. it's a chicken salad made from your roast chicken leftovers.

lemony roast chicken salad

the remains of one roast chicken, diced into bite-size pieces
1 jar of grilled artichokes in seasoned olive oil, roughly chopped up on the cutting board
  save the seasoned olive oil from the jar to use as your dressing
1 lemon, sliced thinly and cut into little wedges
1 60gram package of pinenuts
1 package of brown mushrooms
100 grams of quinoa, cooked as directed on the package (20 minutes in twice as much water as quinoa)
1 bunch of green onions, sliced finely
handful of spinach or kale, cut into ribbons
juice of one lemon

dice your roast chicken leftovers into bite-sized pieces (i specially-roasted a chicken for the purpose today, as we have a couchsurfer here, so it was not just going to be the three of us). remove the artichokes from the jar and roughly chop them into bite-sized pieces. save the seasoned oil from the jar to use as a seasoning.  slice the lemon into thin rounds and then chop cut them into little wedges, throw them in, peel and all. clean your mushrooms and slice them in halves or fourths if they're large - sauté them off in a pan with butter and a little olive oil, then sprinkle liberally with soy sauce until they've lost their rawness (but not 'til they're shrunk down to nothingness). chop the green onions. toast off the pinenuts. put all of these ingredients into a large, flat bowl and keep tossing it together (i do it with my hands as i add each ingredient). lastly, sauté off the spinach or kale (i used fresh-picked tuscan kale from the garden). while you're chopping, cook up your quinoa - a highly nutritious and delicious grain that gives body, texture and loads of nutrition to the dish. dress it all with the seasoned oil from the artichokes, juice of a lemon and a bit of salt & pepper. can be served immediately or refrigerated and taken on a picnic. serve with plenty of fresh bread. and you can never miss with a crisp white sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio.

serves 6 - 8 (if you use a whole chicken and not just leftovers). people may leave little piles of lemon rind on their plates, but that's ok.  make this for a cool lunch on a hot summer day. you won't regret it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

found flowers: cordially speaking

rhubarb + vanilla, violet and elderflower cordials
a few elderflower blossoms, which we were using in our pancakes.
and some freshly-harvested honey from today (not ours yet, but soon)
oh, and those strawberries? from our garden.
i've been going a little bit mad around here on the cordial front. it started for me earlier this spring with violets. they were the first flower around here that came in something like abundant quantities. as you can see from the post over on the sustainable life blog, i started with jelly, but soon switched to cordial. my family likes it better - they're not jelly people, it seems (perhaps because the actual violet flowers i put in the violet jelly looked a little bit like flies, but just leave those out). but the violet cordial has been brilliant. i mused a little bit about the actual picking of violets here - it takes an eternity to pick enough, but it's a bit like meditation, and i definitely need that, so i've made 5 batches. you can see that there's not much left in the bottle above, so i suppose i'll be out in the field, meditating again soon.

violet cordial
2 cups of violets (the flowers only)
2 cups of boiling water
4 cups of sugar
juice of one organic lemon

place your violets in a glass or ceramic bowl (don't rinse them, you'll be straining, so it doesn't matter if there are small bugs in with them) and pour two cups of boiling water over them. cover the bowl with a plate and place it somewhere to steep overnight. it will turn a lovely shade of teal, but don't worry, the lemon will fix that. strain the violets - i use a metal strainer lined with a clean tea towel. then add the sugar. stir and place on the stove and begin to slowly heat to boiling. pour in the juice of one lemon and watch the liquid magically turn from teal to brilliant purple. my batches have actually varied in shades of purple as my violets have varied - some days there were more white ones and variegated shades of purple, so some batches have been more purple than others. once it boils, let it boil only for a few minutes and then pour into prepared bottles. 

i prepare mine by running them through the dishwasher on a hot cycle, pouring boiling water over (for good measure), rinsing with a preservative product called atamon (which i then completely pour out). for several of these batches, i've skipped the atamon because i knew we would use the sirup right away.

it would be excellent over ice cream (if one had a freezer - don't ask and don't mention the smeg) or even pancakes. but we use it almost exclusively as a soda. about an inch and a half in the bottom of a glass and the rest filled up with sparkling water (and ice if you have it) and you'll never want to buy regular commercial sodas again. 

like bee, i've also been making elderflower cordial. yesterday, i counted no less than 21 elderflower trees (they are not bushes around here, no siree) on our property and then husband saw five more down in our forest, which is a couple of kilometers away from our main property. i could practically go into making commercial quantities if i had enough large pots.

i make mine the same way i make the violet cordial, by making a "tea" using about 30 of the flowers and hot water first. i used to add the sugar to that water, like bee's recipe suggests, but i had several batches begin to mold on me before i thought they had steeped long enough (the sugar speeds this along, especially if the weather is warm and humid). with the elderflowers, i let them steep for 48 hours, rather than only 24, to get all of the perfumed goodness out of the blossoms. then, i strain them and add sugar in the same quantities recommended by bee. i use 3 teaspoons of citric acid (available in both pharmacies and the grocery stores here) and the juice of four organic lemons as well. i used to use slices of lemons, but now i just juice them and add them to the elderflower "tea" when i boil it with the sugar. these are the best batches i've ever made (and i've been trying now for ten years).

i have made batches both with organic sugar and regular white sugar this year and there is a big color difference. regular white sugar gives a gorgeous yellow that will make you think of liquid sunshine. the organic sugar results in a darker, more brownish, honey-colored elixir.  i'm not sure which i like best, tho' i lean towards organic on principle. i know tho', that next winter when we break into the golden ones, we'll feel a much-needed direct connection to those long, golden danish summer nights.

our elderflowers are still in full bloom and i've got batches 6 and 7 brewing as we "speak." i want to lay in a good supply for the coming months.

chive flower vinegar and olive oil
and last, but not least and not at all a cordial, thanks to the inspiration from chris, one of my partners on sustainable living, i used all of the chive flowers i found around the garden (discovering a load of hidden chive plants i didn't know were there) to make an absolutely beautiful chive vinegar and olive oil.  all you do is pick the chive flowers, rinse them very well and pop them into clean bottles (at least half full, but preferably 2/3 if you have enough chives), then fill to the top with good quality white vinegar in one and a good extra virgin olive oil in the other. within a couple of days....instant salad dressing.  i have repurposed tomato sauce bottles and they work just great, so there's no need to go out and buy something fancy. 

*  *  *

and as for the rhubarb + vanilla cordial? i'll do a rhubarb post in the coming days, so stay tuned for that.

*  *  *

for more inspiration on what to do with found flowers, check here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Elderflower cordial

For me, hedgerows are the quintessence of life in the English countryside.  I grew up with wide open spaces and barbed wire; how different and mysterious are these living fences.  They line every narrow road, and make a secret garden of every neighbour's property.  They divide up the countryside like the embroidery thread of a patchwork quilt.

All year long, the hedgerows brim and buzz with life . . . and edible things.  After many years in England, I mostly don't recognise the different kinds of greenery until it actually presents its treasure of blossom or berries.  I still have the constant feeling of surprise.

Unlike me, my youngest daughter is an observant person -- and it was she who pointed out that the elderflower had come into bloom.  It's one of those things that I mean to look for, and pick, every year; but most years, I miss it.  First comes the blackthorn blossom, then comes "the may" (hawthorn), and for about three weeks in June, you can find the creamy-yellow elderflower blooming. 

Last week, I seemed to spend most of my week in the car . . . and everywhere I drove -- through Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey -- I saw masses of elderflower blossoms on the roadside verges.  (It thrives in sunny, open places, but it obviously doesn't mind a bit of car exhaust, either.)  I kept wanting to stop the car and gather up armfuls of the stuff.  Blink, and it will be gone; and that's a shame, because homemade elderflower cordial is delicious stuff.

You want to pick your elderflower just as the blossoms are opening . . . if they are still green, the elderflower won't have much scent or flavour, and if they've gone a bit brown it will tend to bitterness.  A perfectly ripe elderflower will be rich with scent -- a somewhat lemony, but otherwise indescribable, smell all its own.  Elderflower is one of the flavours of English summer -- and unlike the sun, which is being highly temperamental at the moment, you can bottle it.

Elderflower Cordial
1.3 litres/2 1/2 pints water
1.8kg/4 lb granulated sugar
25 elderflower heads
2 lemons, sliced in rounds
65 g/2 1/2 oz citric acid (in England, this can be purchased from the chemist)

First, give the elderflower heads a good shake (to make sure they are free of dirt and tiny bugs) -- but don't wash them, as that will dilute their flavour.
You want to strip off the flowers -- leaving as little of the green stem as possible.
(If you are like me, give this job to a willing child.)
Then, place the water and the sugar in a large saucepan and slowly bring to a boil.  When all of the sugar is dissolved, remove from the heat.
Place the elderflowers, slices of lemon and citric acid in a large plastic or glass container and pour the sugar syrup over the other ingredients.
Cover, and leave the mixture to infuse for three days.  You should stir it once a day.
After infusing, you need to strain your mixture -- ideally, through a muslin-covered colander into a clean bowl.  Then decant into containers (plastic or glass containers with lids) and store in the refrigerator.

It should keep for months . . . but only if you don't actually offer it to anyone!
We had an (indoor, sadly) barbeque last weekend and I passed around the elderflower cordial with an arguably too-lavish hospitality.  Hopefully, I can steep another batch of it before the end of its short season.

I like elderflower cordial as a drink -- made with sparkling water (but still water is good, too).  Fill the glass with ice, and then add approximately one part cordial to three/four parts of water.  (It depends on how sweet you like it.)  A slice of lemon, and maybe a sprig of mint, makes a nice garnish.
You can also add elderflower cordial to spirits -- like vodka or gin.
Or, splash your ripe June strawberries with it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

grilling season

it's that time of year at last! time for meals on the grill. time for laughter and a whimsical summer rosé and for lingering in the garden 'til dusk (which is how we learned we have a hedgehog).

because of the reality of our weather (evenings can be cool, even in summer), we had a grill table made by a blacksmith - then husband repurposed some old palettes as the actual table bits. it has a grill down the middle of it, which both means people can grill their own food and keep warm, as the metal boxes holding the charcoal warm under the table. even the cats have noticed and come and flop down under there as the evening starts to get chilly.

we find ourselves grilling most anything we have at hand and even learned that grilling mussels works very nicely!  you just pop them on the grill and they open right up when they're done (if they don't, throw them away!). i stirred up a homemade aïoli (garlic mayonnaise) to go with them.

aïoli (garlic mayonnaise)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed in a pestle and mortar with a pinch of salt
1 tsp. vinegar
1 egg yolk
1 T warm water
canola oil (at the beginning)
a good fragrant olive oil

whirr this all together in a food processor until it's frothy and bubbly, then, while the processor is running, begin to VERY slowly (i cannot stress the very enough) drizzle in oil - i almost always use a combination of a good quality rapeseed (canola) oil (i owe you all a post on how the danes have made canola oil posh) and a fruity extra virgin olive oil. i start with the lighter canola, as it helps the mayonnaise come together (it can be temperamental and i have had many failures) before adding the heavier olive oil, once it has begun to look like mayo. i'm not really sure how much oil i add, but somewhere around a 1/2 cup makes a good batch.

this pork tenderlion, i browned on the stove, then wrapped in ramsløg (those wild garlic you get in the spring) and bacon, then wrapped it in foil and we finished it off on the grill. once the wild garlic season is past, you could use any other herbs...sage would be lovely, as would spinach or even just coating it in a nice pesto before wrapping in bacon.

a standard part of virtually any grilled meal at our house includes sliced eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (corgette), sweet red peppers, onions (small ones, leave the skin on and slice them in half), asparagus - whatever is tasty and in season. we even grilled some small artichokes (cut in half). i make a bowl of olive oil filled with minced garlic, salt, pepper and chopped, fresh herbs to brush over them while they're on the grill. we eat them as soon as they're ready.  sometimes, i bake some small potatoes on the grill - scrubbing them well and wrapping them in foil.

but the very best thing we've been making on the grill is homemade tortillas. the recipe comes from the river cottage bread book and has me so convinced that i will never buy store-bought tortillas again. they are easy and outstandingly delicious.


2 cups flour
1/3 cup of water (you may need a little more or a little less, so don't add it all once)
1 T salt

mix well, using the dough hook on your mixer. if it's too dry, add a bit more water (flour can behave differently depending on the grind and frankly, the weather). put it aside in a bowl and let it rest for at least half an hour. then form into golf ball size balls and roll them out with a rolling pin. then put them in a hot pan - i use a bit of olive oil, tho' the original recipe doesn't - we find it makes them a bit more pliable. we usually flip them and then put them directly on the grill at the end, where they puff up wonderfully. we also make quesadillas right on the grill, by filling with cheese and pesto and other yummy things and folding them over as they cook.

as an accompaniment, i nearly always make a big bowl of creamy tzaziki


1 C (250 grams) greek yogurt
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 a cucumber, grated
salt and pepper to taste
a few leaves of chopped, fresh mint if you have it

grate the cucumber, salt it and put it in a sieve to let some of the moisture drain out. squeeze it well and add it to the yogurt and garlic, stir it well.

now if the sun would just shine this weekend...because writing this made me quite hungry.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Royal Wedding Whoopee Pies

A few years ago we visited New Hampshire and I discovered, for the first time, whoopee pies.
Once again, America brings you a delicious (albeit decadent and dubiously named) baked good.

When I was a child I used to be mortified by that old song, Makin' Whoopee.
(Did they think that kids couldn't figure out what that meant?)
If you can remember the lyrics, you will also recall that the direct result of makin' whoopee is marriage.  (It was a different time, of course.)
In Maine, the state which has made them its offical state "treat," they are spelled whoopie pie . .  . so maybe it's only in England that they have gotten confused with sex.  I really don't know.  Maybe no one in America has that association; just me. 

At any rate, they are definitely something to get excited about.  And as soon as I saw this recipe, I knew that they would be the perfect treat for our Royal Wedding tea party last Friday.
Was it only a week ago that we were glued to our television screens . . . happily mocking Princess Beatrice's hat, and cooing over the perfection of Kate Middleton, and singing along with all of the hymns?

We were also drinking tea and eating whoopee pies . . . and believe me, the wedding coverage lasted a lot longer than the whoopee pies did.

While whoopee pies have been common fare on America's East Coast for a while now -- and East Coasters love their doughnuts, too -- they are just starting to catch up with the rest of the foodie world.  In the last few months I've spotted a whoopee pie cookbook . . . AND they have been added to the Starbucks menu.
Clearly, their moment has arrived.

This is an English version of the recipe -- and much improved for it, in my opinion.
They are miniature, instead of fist-sized.  And instead of a sickly sweet filling (containing vegetable shortening, no doubt), you add clotted cream and jam.
They are perfectly proportioned for snacking -- and they are lighter than a scone and much less sweet than a cupcake.  I predict that they are going to be our preferred treat all summer long.

Whoopee Pies
with clotted cream and jam
(from the Waitrose weekly newsletter)

50 grams of softened butter
50 grams of caster sugar
1 medium egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
125 grams of self-raising flour (or, the same quantity of plain flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder)
50 ml whole milk
clotted cream and jam (raspberry or strawberry)
icing sugar for dusting

Note:  this quantity will make 20 halves -- or 10 miniature whoopee pies.  It would, and could, easily double.
That would probably be a good thing as they are very MOREISH.

Preheat the oven to 180 C.
Cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture is pale and light -- at least 3 minutes.
Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Fold in the flour in 2 batches, alternating with the milk to form a soft mixture.

Drop the dough, with two teaspoons, onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
Slightly level the surface of each blob with the blade of a knife or the back of a spoon.
Bake for 12 - 15 minutes until risen and firm to touch.  Remove carefully!
Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
** I made these night before and kept them in a sealed plastic bag.  Once cool, they aren't very delicate.

Just before serving, slather them with the cream (you could substitute thick whipped cream) and jam and sandwich the two halves together.  A dusting of icing (powdered) sugar makes them look nice.
Lemon curd would also be delicious, I'm sure.  Next time I make these, I'm going to try that variation.

Also on the tea party menu:  sugar cookies, chocolate covered strawberries and miniature "wedding cakes."
The cakelet tin was purchased from Williams-Sonoma (as was the wire cupcake stand).
There were also finger sandwiches, and meringues with fresh berries and cream.

Instead of champagne, the girls drank elderflower cordial and sparkling water.

Taking the party out into the garden . . .

Like the Queen, my daughter wanted a blanket for her lap.  (It was a rather chilly day, but at least -- big sigh of relief! -- it didn't rain.)  Unfortunately, you can't see her strapless white lace dress . . . as it is covered by her gray hoodie.  The first rule of eating al fresco in England:  bring a "cardie."

CONGRATULATIONS  to the winner of the Mad about Bread giveaway.
To Michelle in Madison:  We are giving the official title of Bread Baker back to you!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

blueberry muffins

these blueberry muffins were characterized as "to die for" on the website where i found the original recipe. in its original state, which was lumpy and far too thick (needed more liquid and more eggs), i think dying of them would have been closer to the truth. however, i adjusted the recipe and they were quite good, tho' i think it would take an awful lot for me to die for a muffin. use fresh, plump blueberries, they're what makes it.

blueberry muffins

1.5 C flour
3/4 C sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/3 C sunflower oil
1/2 C buttermilk
2 eggs
1 C fresh blueberries

1/3 C flour
1/4 C butter, cubed
1/3 C sugar

preheat your oven to 180°C/375°F. place the dry ingredients in your mixer bowl. in a large measuring cup or another bowl, mix together the oil, buttermilk and eggs and pour them slowly into the dry ingredients, mixing on low speed. when it's well-blended and the lumps are gone, gently fold in plump, fresh blueberries.

in a separate bowl, mix the topping mixture together (i found it was good to do this with a fork, but you can also get in with your fingers) - you can add a bit of cinnamon as well if you feel like it.

pour the batter into prepared muffin tins and sprinkle a bit of the topping on top. bake for 20-25 minutes and serve the hot muffins immediately with a fresh pot of tea. fresh from the oven, they don't even need butter, tho' it's quite yummy to butter them later once they're cooled down. if any of them survive the first round of serving, that is.

*  *  *

and don't forget to enter to win the river cottage bread book!
we're drawing the winner on friday!

Friday, April 29, 2011

mad about bread and a giveaway

i've been pouring over these these two bread books for the past few weeks. one is danish chef claus meyer's baking book. claus meyer is a passionate advocate of nordic cooking, using locally-sourced ingredients and there has recently been a 6-part series of his nordic cooking programs on television. i am utterly smitten by his passion and enthusiasm as well as his knowledge of the traditions and ingredients  in our part of the world. the other is one of the wonderful river cottage handbooks. i've got this one on bread, the one on mushrooms and the one on preserves. i can highly recommend the books as very useful, accessible, well-written and inspiring (and no, i have no vested interest in saying that).

both books cover the ins and outs of everything from all of the baking accessories you need (i've got to get my hands on some of those proving baskets like the one pictured above) to the different aspects of the grains and how they behave in their various ways of being ground. i found myself hanging on every word and generally being fascinated by the whole chemistry of baking. wishing now that i'd paid a bit more attention instead of reading dostoevsky during science class in high school. and both books sold me on the notion of making my own sourdough starter.

so, about two weeks ago, i did exactly that. for the first stage, you take 150g of good strong wholemeal flour (rye, spelt, wheat are all fine) and 250ml of water and beat them up well with a whisk in a container with a lid. i used a large tupperware container. it would be ideal and a bit more aesthetically-pleasing to have a crock of some sort, but i felt all of the ones i have were a bit large for the task, so tupperware it was. then you leave it sit on the counter somewhere out of the way and you begin to check on it. the natural yeast that's all around us will begin to work its magic (perhaps within a few hours, but for sure within a couple of days) and you'll start to see bubbles coming up in the mixture. once you see those little bubbles, it's time to feed the starter, which you do by adding 150g of flour and 250ml of water (that's approximately a cup of each for those using american measurements). you don't have to be exact about this, just use roughly equal portions of flour and water. 

you continue this feeding for a good ten days. after the first two rounds, you should discard half of your dough when you do the feeding (or it will become a VERY large batch rather quickly), which is again 150g flour/250ml water, well whisked in, because you want to get as much air (and thus bacteria) into the mix as possible. the whole process is quite fascinating and daniel stevens (who wrote the river cottage book) is not wrong when he says that the starter will become almost like a friend - which indeed it will become if you keep it going endlessly like many bakers do (daniel knew bakers who had had their starter for 30 years!). you'll constantly be checking on it to see how the fermentation is coming along. it will develop different smells along way. mine currently smells like apples. but it could smell vinegary or malty or even like sour milk. get to know yours.

after about ten days, it's ready to use. both books have a variety of sourdough bread recipes and claus meyer's book actually advocates using the sourdough starter together with a pinch of regular yeast in any bread you make. i have yet to try that.

it requires a bit more planning ahead to make sourdough, as it requires more proving time, but it's totally worth it. i used the river cottage sourdough recipe, which is as follows:

before going to bed, mix (using the dough hook of your mixer) well:
650 ml warm water
500 grams strong white bread flour
and a good ladleful of sourdough starter

remember to feed your starter after you take some, otherwise you'll deplete your supply.

the next morning, pour the bubbly, rather soupy mixture back into the mixer and add:
600 grams strong flour
25 grams of salt

that may sound like a lot of salt, but bread needs the salt (tho' it does interfere a bit with the rising) to get the right crispy crust. claus meyer is a big advocate of plenty of salt in the bread.  mix this in your mixer with the dough hook - once it's combined, turn it up on high and let the mixer knead it for 10-12 minutes. or knead it by hand if that's what you like (i'm lazy, so i let the mixer do it). plus, this dough is rather soft and sticky, so it's difficult to knead by hand.

for mine, i used a mixture of a couple of flours, but you can use a regular high quality wheat flour, or mix in a bit of spelt or whatever you'd like. my starter itself has been subject to my flour whims in its feedings, so it has had snacks of good wholewheat flour, some of the nordic grain sorts - emmer, ølandshvede and svejderug along the way, so it is very wholegrain. but you can be as purist as you like, or use what's available in your area. whatever you choose, the starter will have the personality you give it.

next, the bread requires four provings (according to the book). i actually only gave mine two, because i had to go away during the day. and let's face it, four is rather intimidating.

the bread is baked at a very high temperature - 250°C/480°F when you first put it in the oven. there are a lot of instructions about spraying it with water and about putting a pan of water in the oven, but i'll admit i didn't do that (it was too overwhelming, but i will try it another time, especially after i sat down and read how that makes a good crusty crust). you turn down to 200°C/390°F once it puffs up (which it will do rather alarmingly) and the crust starts to brown. the recipe actually should make 2-3 loaves, but i made one giant loaf. mine baked for about 40-45 minutes, but it may take longer (i always think my oven is fast). you will know it's done by knocking on it. it just sounds done (vague of me, i realize, but try it, you'll see what i mean).  we ate it, fresh from the oven, with a fresh batch of hummus and i utterly neglected to photograph it.

this book can be yours!
and my adventures in sourdough will continue as i intend to keep my starter going for a long time to come. the best part about an established starter is that you can give a bit of it as a gift. plus, as it matures, it just gets better and better.

and to encourage you in your own baking adventures, we're going to give away a copy of the river cottage bread book right here (i somehow ended up with two - undoubtedly in a confluence of bad memory and amazon order button madness).  just leave a comment about your most memorable bread experience and we'll draw a lucky winner on friday, may 6.


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