Friday, October 29, 2010

Party Ideas--Delicious Icebreakers

In our neighborhood Drinks in the Driveway are a well-established tradition. Weather permitting, we meet once or twice a month, every time in front of a different house, to share a bottle of wine, meet people from the neighborhood, and have a relaxing chat.

It is a little bit too early in the afternoon for my schedule, so I am not able to attend that event often, but I love the idea, which truly shows how open the Americans are. When I think about the countries I lived in, I do not think it would have been possible in England or Switzerland, and even less so in Poland.

But why not to apply this revealing idea into your lifestyle? Just invite some friends and neighbors that you wish to know closer for drinks, make some snacks, and spend a nice evening, chatting with them and getting to know better the people you meet in the elevator, or while collecting mail. It does not take much--a bottle of wine or two and half an hour in the kitchen--and they will be impressed not only with your private library, art collection, or the fashionable Italian sofa, but also with your hospitality and your culinary talent. And next time, encouraged by your success maybe they will host a similar event.

Here are some easy ideas to help you put quickly a few attractive snacks on the table. It would be great, if you are a passionate cook and tried to prepare all of them, but even one could be appreciated, as it is all about a kind gesture and creating good atmosphere. These recipes will also work for holiday parties and other informal social occasions.

Party Ideas

1. Prepare blue cheese and pear snacks.

2. Wrap bacon slices around mushroom tops and bake for 20-30 minutes.

3. Wrap stripes of Prosciutto over avocado and arugula pieces.

4. Using wooden picks attach prosciutto to figs.

5. Make some mushroom crostini.

6. Wrap cooked shrimps in bacon and bake until it becomes gold.

7. Serve a plate of good quality cheese with pears or figs jam and Marcona almonds.

Enjoy and have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Creamy Chanterelles on Toast--Fall Squares from the Wild

This was supposed to be a very seasonal post. You may ask what is so seasonal about bread? Nothing, but my original idea for the opening photo did not work.

I meant to make a post about chanterelles, wild mushrooms that are my fall favorites, and very Polish at the same time. I am not sure if many people, with the exception of the French, even know what I am taking about. Chanterelles are used in many rather exquisite dishes, as they are seasonal and grow only in the wild. You can buy them in certain food stores, and maybe even in your local supermarket. They are available at Whole Foods Market at this time of the year, but at a whooping price of almost 40 dollars a pound, which seems an exaggeration, even to such an amateur of chanterelles as myself. They also appear seasonally at Costco, for about 7 dollars a pound, harvested in Canada, but I did not manage to take a picture of them fresh. I promise I will if I buy them again this fall.

I usually buy many boxes of chanterelles in the season, fry them, and freeze. This way, whenever I feel like cooking something with them, I have them always at hand. In Poland we prepare chanterelles in many different ways. We eat them fried in a creamy sauce and serve with potatoes as a dish in itself, we make scrambled eggs with chanterelles, we make pasta with them, and add them to meat sauces. Here, since they are such a rarity, I serve them usually with veal, and only to those those guests who I am sure will appreciate their taste. Since they are part of my culinary heritage, to me, serving them, is not a snobbish thing to do, but rather it is part of the "back to basics" philosophy, which inspires many chefs to rediscover the seasonal and naturally grown food.

This said, the recipe I share today is not a traditional one, but since I do not get to eat chanterelles as often as I would wish, I decided to prepare them in the most attractive way I could.

Creamy Chanterelles on Toast
(Serves six)

6 slices of white toasting bread with the crust trimmed off,
1 pound chanterelles,
3 shallots,
1 cup heavy whipping cream,
1 bunch green asparagus,
1/2 cube vegetable bouillon,
2 tbsp butter for the toasts,
2 tbsp butter for frying,
salt and freshly ground pepper.

1. In each piece of bread cut a small square (see picture) and spread butter thinly on each side.

2. Toast the bread in an oven until gold.
3. Wash thoroughly the chanterelles, cut them into smaller pieces, and fry them on melted butter for about 5-8 minutes, until all the water disappears and they start becoming dry.
4. Add cream to the the pan with chanterelles, crush in half a cube of vegetable bouillon, add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 5-7 minutes. At this point, you can add a little bit of water if the sauce becomes too thick.
5. Cut out about 1/3 from the asparagus and blanch them in boiling water for about 3 minutes--they should be al dente and still green.They can be made ahead and serve cold.
6. On the individual plates arrange pieces of bread and decorate with asparagus.
7. Spread chanterelle sauce equally between toasts, making sure that it fills in the square holes.
8. Serve warm.

These toasts can be served with white wine as elegant dinner appetizers. The initially crunchy toasts will become soft and mushy from the creamy sauce. A friend who recently tried it, commented that he would wish to have it served at his wedding. Would you?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Endive and Persimmon Salad--Inspired by a Super Model

A couple of days ago, I was checking what's new in the world, while drinking my first coffee of the day and wondering what recipe to post next, when I got an email from a friend who is a great fashionista. He was bragging about the posh parties he had recently attended. It read like a real high-life reportage, straight out of the pages of Vanity Fair, written be a fashion corespondent focusing on every detail of (mostly his own) attire.

His excitement was fueled by the sight of Inès de la Fressange, a great French super model from the eighties, whom he met at one of the recent parties. Inès became large than life when she posed for Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. She has always been one of my favorite models, a rare natural brunette, with an inimitable personal elegance and style, transcending her professional image as a Chanel model.

At the party where a friend of mine spotted her, she was wearing a yellow dress, which I am sure beautifully complemented her dark eyes and hair. In contrast to her smashing looks, she drove away in a workmen's van. What a photo opportunity! Unfortunately, a friend of mine was so mesmerized by her appearance, that he forgot that he had a camera in his phone.

Yeah--I thought after reading his email--some live the high life and get to see the most beautiful women in the world, and some live an ordinary life, trying to capture a beauty of everyday food.

Still in that mood, later that day, I opened my refrigerator. I took out endive and decided to make a salad with just one objective--to make it look elegant. Endive has little nutritious value, but also almost zero calories and a lot of fiber--a great dish for those on diet.

Endive was one of very few vegetables that were thriving in my parents' yard, and every winter we enjoyed its bitter taste in salads. At that time, endive was completely unknown in Poland and eating it regularly for dinner was making me a culinary snob. Probably from that period I have a sentimental attachment to endives, and although I know that green lettuces are much richer in vitamins, I still buy a lot of endive. For this salad, I used persimmon leftovers from the dessert that I had made the day before, and started to experiment by adding different ingredients. Actually, it turned out to be a very delicious salad, with the sweetness of the persimmon complementing the neutral taste of the endive. I also tossed in a few roasted hazelnuts to strengthen its taste. And I do hope you enjoy my yellow and black composition.

Endive salad with persimmon
(Serves four)

2 endives,
2 persimmons,
1/3 cup roasted hazelnuts,
4 tbsp champagne orange vinegar or a juice from half a lemon ,
hazelnut oil,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Cut endive and divide it among four plates.
2. Peel off the persimmons, cut them in half and slice, arrange slices on the plate with endive.
3. Spread crushed hazelnuts.
4. Sprinkle each plate with champagne vinegar or lemon if you prefer more siuer taste,and oil.
5. Salt and pepper for taste and serve immediately.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Curried Pumpkin Bisque--A Soup that Tastes Better than it Looks

Every year my next door neighbors organize a soup party. It used to be held in fall, but since recently they have been hosting also a Halloween party, the soup party has been moved to spring. They invite many friends and cook huge pots of soup for their guests. You are also encouraged and welcome to bring your own favorite soup to share. It is a nice pretext to meet friends and neighbors, have a glass of wine and a chat.

This party event makes me slightly ashamed because it should have been me who came up with such a party idea, since in Poland every dinner starts with a plate of soup. But I am not crazy about soups--I like only some of them, and I am happy to skip them in my menus, and replace them with salads, which I love more than anything.

When the party was held in fall, the hosts prepared a pumpkin soup which I liked a lot and asked them for the recipe. This soup is heavier than many that I know and therefore if it is served with bread it can be the whole meal in itself. I also love its spiciness which comes from curry and other Indian spices. The recipe I received from them also includes smoked ham, but since they are vegetarian, I have always had only its vegetarian version, which is delicious anyway, and one that I cooked recently myself.

Curried Pumpkin Bisque

2 lbs butternut squash peeled, seeded, and cubed,
1 green pepper, seeded, and finely chopped,
6 whole scallions chopped,
1/4 cup of parsley, chopped,
2 tbsp fresh chopped basil or 1 tbsp dried,
1 can (14 oz) plum tomatoes,
4 cups vegetable stock,
2 tbsp butter,
1 garlic clove, minced,
1/2 tsp ground allspice,
1/4 tsp ground mace,
pinch of ground nutmeg,
2-3 tsp curry powder,
salt and pepper.

1. In a large saucepan, over medium heat melt butter and add chopped scallions. Cook for 2 minutes, and add garlic, green pepper, parsley, and basil. Stir and cook for 5 minutes.
2. Add squash to the saucepan and stir until squash is covered with herb mixture.
3. Add tomatoes, stock, allspice, mace, and nutmeg. At this moment, you also add ham if used. Heat to the boiling point, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 40 minutes until squash becomes tender.
4. Remove soup from the heat and (take out the ham if used), puree in batches in a blender.
5. Transfer to another saucepan. If you like the soup to be lighter, you may add some water.
6. Stir in the curry powder and bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes stirring frequently.
7. Season with salt and pepper and serve with white bread or Indian Naan.

When I made it recently and wanted to take a picture, a friend of mine was very sceptical about the photogenic aspect of it. However, after trying the first spoon of it, his verdict was "Delicious! It tastes a thousand times better than it looks!"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Apple Half Moons--to Dream About

It would have been extremely rude to complain about a country that has been my home for the past fourteen years, and has been nothing but friendly to me but, especially in this season, I have one pet peeve about America--APPLES!.

I just cannot understand how on such an enormous continent it is impossible to get a good quality apples that are suitable for cooking. In Europe we have probably hundreds of different apples, which are excellent to be eaten raw, but we also grow apples that are destined exclusively for cooking. They usually are stronger in taste, more or less juicy depending on the dish they are used for, more sour and having this specific winy taste that you can always find under the sweetness of added sugar in all kinds of tarts, preserves, and desserts.

Some would consider Granny Smith cooking apples, but in my opinion they are not and I am sure that my European readers understand exactly what I mean. Granny Smith lacks this natural tartness and does not soften desirably during cooking. It is just another version of the same apple on the supermarket shelve, and not the one unique in taste, like those from my family's backyard orchard.

During my recent visit to Poland I saw a recipe for apple half moons (or "apple kisses" as they are called back home), which my grandmother used to make when I was a child; every Friday or Saturday evening she was baking something sweet for Sunday. I used to help her making the yeast dough for them and when I saw the recipe for them in a cooking magazine, I realized how much I missed them with their smell filling my grandma's kitchen adding to its warmth and comfort.

My grandmother was a master of all kinds of cakes and pies. I have learned from her all of them, except for those that were based on yeast, which I still cannot get to be as light and fluffy as they should be. But this recipe is fairly easy as it is half butter and half yeast dough. I made with them with Granny Smith apples but any of the European cooking apples would be better.

Apple Half Moons

2 sticks butter,
2 and 1/2 cup flour,
1 egg and 1 yolk,
1 sachet dried yeasts,
1 tbsp sugar,
a pinch of salt,
3 sour cooking apples,
1 tbsp butter for the baking tin,
confectioners sugar and cinnamon for taste.


To make the dough:
1. Place butter and flour in a big bowl.
2. Using knife or hands make small crumbles.
3. In a smaller bowl or a measuring cup mix eggs, sugar, yeast, and sour cream.
4. Add egg mixture to the flour and butter crumbles and make a smooth dough.
5. Wrap in foil and chill for at least one hour or over night.

To make the half moons:
1. Heat up the oven to 350 F.
2. Peel off the apples, remove the cores and cut apple in 1/2 inch quarters-about 10-12 per apple.
3. Roll out the dough--it should be 1/4 inch thick.
4. Using a cookie cutter cut out circles that have about 3-4 inches in diameter.
5. Place a quarter of apple on each circle, fold the circle to cover the apple and place on a buttered baking tin.

6. Using a brush paint each half moon with egg white.
7. Bake for about 30-35 minutes or until gold.
8. Serve them still warm or cold dusted generously with icing sugar and cinnamon.

My apple half moons came out pretty good, but the apple slices did not soften, as much as Polish cooking apples would have. If you try this recipe and find a suitable kind of apples, please share it with me, as I still dream about the perfect ones.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Crispy Mushroom Crostini--Party Alternative to Crunchy Veggies

There is a one type of party food, besides chips, that I tend to ignore--a plate of raw vegetables and the white dip that accompanies them. And the arguments that carrots are good for your eyes, celery for your vitality, and broccoli for everything else do not convince me to move any closer in their direction. I love all those vegetables in any kind of dish, and I do eat them raw in salads, as I am huge veggies lover, but the idea of crunching them at a party, especially when a glass of wine is served, seems awkward to me. I do not come to a party to watch my diet, but to enjoy myself, or even indulge in foods that are not necessarily on my doctor's "must eat" list.

For that reason I am always happy to find a new recipe for a party snack, especially one that can make the party experience complete, even if you are hosting people just for drinks. A good party snack is a nice touch and it shows that you care. I often serve, with great success, blue cheese and pear snacks. Those tiny toasts do not require much preparation but are much more attractive and satisfying than chips and crunchy veggies.

This one is another such party idea, especially since wild mushrooms are now in season. I served it once to my guests as a dinner appetizer. From the whole dinner it was one of my friend's favorite part. On the way home he was raving about those snacks to my other friend, not to mention that he had at least twenty of them that night. As holiday party season approaches, I dedicate this recipe to those party organizers who would like to move beyond serving chips and crunchy veggies.

The original recipe calls for wild mushrooms, but since they are not so easily available in the United States, you can use white mushrooms, or a mix of white, shiitake, portobello, or any mushrooms you can buy.

Mushroom Crostini
(Adapted from Bon Appétit--serves 6-8 people)

1 baguette cut into slices quarter inch thick,
2 tbsp butter,
2 tbsp olive oil,
3 shallots,
5 cups (about 12 oz) mushrooms,
2 garlic cloves,
1/4 cup table cream,
1/2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary,
1 cup grated Fontina cheese,
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Chop shallots and saute on melted butter for about one minute.
3. Chop all the mushrooms and saute them for 6-8 minutes, until well cooked, almost brown.
4. Add crushed garlic and cook together for one minute.
5. Remove the pan from the heat and add rosemary, cream, salt, and pepper. Mix and let cool.
6. Add shredded Fontina and Parmesan.
7. Cover each piece of baguette with one tsp of mushrooms topping and place on a baking sheet slightly greased with oil.
8 Bake for 15-20 minutes, until crostini become gold and cheese is melting.

I have made a few modifications to the original recipe. I replaced the heavy whipping cream with table cream, to save some calories, skipped the lemon peel and bake the entire crostini at once, instead of baking first the baguette slice and later broiling them with the topping. They turned out to be perfectly crispy and strong in taste. A wonderful wine accompaniment.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hearty Goulash--the Hungarian Eintopf

In the north of Poland where I come from, and which was under German influence for many years and boasts to be the homeland of Nicolaus Copernicus and Immanuel Kant, this type of dish was called Eintopf (one pot dish)--a very heavy soup or rather a soupy dish, and was often served on Mondays.

In the English speaking countries people call it a stew, which rightly or wrongly I associate with something unattractive from the culinary standpoint. Another well-known variety of the same idea is the Hungarian goulash--which is a heavy soup or rather a whole very nutritious meal made in one pot, which because if its consistency often poses a dilemma as to whether to eat it with a spoon or a fork.

But, under these different names, this is really all about convenience and comfort. It is something easy to make, when you mix all the ingredients and after cooking them together, you have a very satisfying meal, which you can serve with wine or beer. It is a great idea to prepare this almost no hassle dish for a big gathering, especially on a cold evening. It is so easy that it can be an every day dinner or a life saving dinner idea when unexpected guests arrive.

There are many one pot dishes in Polish culinary repertoire, as during the economically difficult times, we often had to cook up something out of nothing. By adding potatoes and different vegetables, a small portion of meat was expanded into a meal that could feed the entire family.

As the season for local vegetables still goes on, I had an idea to make a Hungarian goulash, which thanks to the colorful vegetables and dried paprika content, is one of the most attractive looking Eintopfs. Although, as the name indicates, it is a Hungarian dish, it has been so deeply-rooted in Polish cuisine, probably since the times when Hungarian kings ruled in Poland and Polish kings ruled in Hungary, that we really consider it being Hungarian only by name.

I know several dishes based on that idea, including one that is probably utterly Polish invention, as it is based on Polish sausage, although it is made with a lot of Hungarian paprika as well. I would say Hungarian paprika is a key ingredient in every goulash and its color and taste make a huge difference in this particular dish. Therefore, it is worth purchasing the original Hungarian paprika, which is now available in the international food section of many stores in America.

To make it a one pot dish I added a potato to the goulash, as it is done in Hungary. Good tomatoes are also important, although Austrians make goulash without tomatoes and in the Polish version we often make it without potatoes, but we add dried porcini for example and serve it with different kinds of noodles or buckwheat.

Next time, if you have no idea what to cook for dinner, maybe you get some paprika and try goulash.

Hungarian Goulash
(Serves 6-8)

2 lb beef of good quality, cut into cubes.
2 onions cut into half slices,
4 garlic cloves, crushed,
2 green peppers (sweet Cuban peppers are a good substitute for the original Hungarian pepper, which have very characteristic strong flavor), cut into thick half slices,
2 large tomatoes, cut into medium-sized quarters,
2 lb baby potatoes or regular potatoes cut into cubes,
2 bay leaves,
1 tbsp Hungarian paprika,
1 tbsp caraway seeds,
3 tbsp lard or oil,
1 tsp salt,
1 tsp pepper.

1. In a large pot with a thick bottom, preferably cast iron (like Le Creuset) heat the lard or oil.
2. Add onion and fry until gold.
3. Take a pot off the heat to add paprika (it is important not to burn paprika, as it will become bitter) and meat and combine them until the meat becomes all covered with pepper. Let it simmer on low heat until the meat is slightly brown.
4. Add bay leaves, salt, pepper, caraway seeds, and garlic.
5. Cover with water and let it cook for about 30-40 minutes.
6. Add pepper, tomatoes, and potatoes. Add extra water if needed to cover everything, and let it cook for another 30 minutes or until the meat and vegetables are soft.

I like to garnish it with chopped parsley (a very Polish tradition), and in the Hungarian tradition you may add a dollop of sour cream on top of the portion, just before serving. Goulash can be served with white bread, which can be used to scoop up all the delicious sauce at the end.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Red Herring Salad--Polish Sushi in Nordic Style

Last week, Delicious Days featured an interview with René Redzepi, a chef of Noma, a renowned Danish restaurant, which was voted the world's best restaurant by a British magazine "Restaurant". Noma's menu draws on the Nordic culinary tradition, and is sometimes described as new Nordic cuisine, a term René does not like.

I associate Nordic cuisine mostly with fish and in particular herrings. I remember excellent Dutch Maatjesharing (or Matjes as the Germans call them) and many varieties of Scandinavian herring, which have become very popular in the world through IKEA. But I also discovered that at Noma they use a lot of sorrel, a vegetable that grows in Poland like a weed, and which we use to make a sour soup.

After reading this interview, I came to the conclusion that although Polish cuisine is generally classified as Eastern European, it has a lot of Nordic character to it. This is probably because of the Baltic sea, the cold climate, and long winters we have. Herrings, potatoes, blueberries, sorrel, unique grains, and many preserves that we eat during winter months make our cuisine more Nordic than Eastern European with which we share the affinity for all kinds of noodles, pancakes, and dumplings (e.g., Polish pierogi).

Among all these Nordic elements, herrings have a particularly strong culinary tradition in Poland. Herrings preserved well in salt, oil, or vinegar and therefore they could be transported far in land and were available all year round. Herrings were often served on Fridays, during Lent, and are a very important part of the traditionally vegetarian Christmas Eve supper.

Many years ago, a new recipe for herrings came to my home, and ever since it has been my favorite way to prepare them, even though I am not a big herring lover. This is the only herring dish that I eat eagerly. It was called "Herring à la Japonaise", but please do not ask me why. Probably, because it was very different from the traditional Polish way of serving herrings.

When my foreign friends, perhaps out of curiosity, ask me to prepare herrings, this is the way I serve them, for the fear that if I had done it the typical Polish way (with sour cream and onion), their taste would be too harsh for those who never had them before. Originally we use for that recipe salted herrings, but any herrings preserved in oil, especially Matjes will do. You can get them at Scandinavian or Eastern European food stores. All the additional ingredients make it taste less "herringish" and for those who love sushi and seafood in general it can be an interesting new experience.

This recipe uses the whole package of herrings, so at the end the amount of salad is pretty big and it can serve 4-6 Polish or Scandinavians, probably 8-10 Japanese, and easily 20 other people, who never tried herrings before.

Herring à la Japonaise

4-6 herring fillets in oil, neutral, no spices, Matjes are the best,
1 cup cornichons (dill pickles),
1 medium sweet onion,
1 cup mushrooms in vinegar,
1 can (15 oz) green peas,
1 can (6 oz) of tomato paste,
1/2 cup grape seeds oil or any other neutral vegetable oil,
freshly ground pepper.

1. Cut herrings, cucumbers, onion, and mushrooms into very small cubes and put them together in a bowl.

2. Rinse the peas in water and add them to the mix.
3. In a separate bowl, mix gently the tomato paste, oil, and pepper until you obtain a smooth dressing.
4. Pour it over the herring/vegetable mix and combine gently not to destroy the texture of the salad (the ingredients should not get mashed).
5. Let it marinate for about 2 hours in a refrigerator and serve.

It is a nice party snack that should be served in small portions with small pieces of baguette. If you have available some Japanese style spoons, or so now popular in Europe "petites cuillères" they are excellent for that purpose. As Japanese serve their fish with sake,in Poland we serve it with a shot of icy cold vodka.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Plum Cake--A Never Ending Story

When I read other, already famous food blogs, I get very jealous these days. Most of them, like Orangette, Mowielicious, or Smitten Kitchen have already published their recipes for plum cake--the perfect fall dessert. And I still look at my recently made pictures and ideas and cannot decide which one I should share.

The only excuse for sitting on the fence for so long is that in Poland we probably have one of the richest collections of plum recipes in the world. We make many plum cakes, either with a yeast- or a baking powder-based crust. Some are soft and spongy, and some are crunchy. We also make potato dumplings with plums inside, which we serve with butter, cinamon, and sugar. (These are my favorite and I have to be restrained when I start eating them.) We prepare plums in cooked desserts, we make a plum jam spread, and preserve them in vinegar as meat accompaniment. We also make a Christmas soup with dried plums (prunes) and, like many other nations in that region, we also produce a plum vodka, called Slivovica.

There are also many different kinds of plums being cultivated in Poland, and when I think of what was growing in my family garden I could easily name at least five different types--tiny, yellow ones called Mirabelle, big and round, which here are called simply Black, oval and dark Italian or as we called them Hungarian (in various sizes), which are most popular for making preserves, round and pinkish as those that here are called Satsuma plums, and several others that I simply do not see anywhere else in the world.

I simply love them for their sweetness and the sophisticated, yet subtle taste, and their unlimited culinary uses.

My today's recipe was not the one that was most popular in my home, as we made mostly tarts with Italian plums (I will post a recipe for that in the future), but I finally decided on this cake, because it is very universal as any available kind of plums can be used to make it.

Plum Cake
(For the 11'' baking tin)

All the ingredients should be in room temperature.
2 lb any ripe plums,
4 eggs,
1 stick butter,
1 cup sugar for the cake and 3 tbsp for the topping,
1 2/3 cup flour,
1 tbsp corn starch,
2 tsp baking powder,
4-5 tbsp sour cream,
1 tbsp vanilla extract,
2 tbsp slivered almonds (optional).

1. Preheat oven to 250F.
2. Grease baking pan with butter.
3. If you use Italian plums just cut them in halves and remove stones, any bigger plums you should cut in quarters.
4. Using a mixer beat together butter and sugar until smooth.
5. Add flour, corn starch, baking powder, and vanilla extract (at the very end), and mix.
6. Add 2 whole eggs and 2 yolks (save the two remaining whites) and beat with a mixer until all the ingredients are combined into a perfect blend.
7. Add sour cream to it and beat together again.
8. Spread a batter on the baking tin.
9. Put plums pieces on top pushing them half way into the batter.

10. Bake for about 30-40 min.
11. Meanwhile, whip the two remaining whites until almost stiff. Add a tbsp of sugar and beat again. Add the second spoon of sugar, beat and eventually add the third one until you obtain a smooth meringue frosting. Spread the forsting on the cake, scatter almonds, and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the top becomes gold.

This cake is nothing fancy, but believe me, it is very comforting on a cool fall day with a cup of coffee or lemon tea.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Simplest Polish Beet Salad--Back to the Roots

I would not be Polish, if I did not talk about beetroots again. And I admit that they are one of my favorite Polish vegetables. Luckily, I have found them without any problems everywhere I lived. In Switzerland, where they also make beetroot salads, I could buy them already cooked, and here in America, I can buy them in more colors than red.

Going through food magazines I realized that beetroots are becoming increasingly popular. Many famous chefs and top restaurants include them into salads, while farmers clone them into unusual colors. But only in Polish and Russian cuisines beets have a truly prominent and well established position.

We prepare many national dishes with beetroots--the famous beetroot soup (barszcz aka borscht) and cold beet soup (chlodnik), and many varieties of salads. I love to eat them in the simplest way as accompaniment to meats and a dinner salad, but I also keep trying new recipes and look for new inspirations. The other day I have found a South American salad with beets that I will incorporate into my menu. It looked very original and I am sure the taste will not be disappointing. I was wondering today, if I should make something fancy and elegant to make you crave for beets, like the not-so-Polish beet salad that I make often, or rather make something really simple and familiar to show beets the way we eat them most often in Poland.

I think that if you are not afraid, or rather curious of beets, you should try them the way that we prepare them in their Polish kingdom. I would probably not post this easy recipe on any Polish blog, but since my native readers are a minority on my blog, I feel excused to do that. I hope to encourage some others to try beets, perhaps for the first time ever.

A good news is that beets (and especially their juice) are not only fashionable but also very healthy, as they are known to help fight cancer.

Since beet juice is so healthy I made just one modification in this traditional recipe and do not cook beets in water, as we do it in Poland for any kind of salads, but bake them in an oven. This way I preserve not only their beautiful color, but also some of the nutrients that would be otherwise thrown away with the water. I usually plan, and bake them when I use the oven to bake some other dish. Baked and peeled they preserve well in a refrigerator for up to 5 days.

I also add caraway seeds to that salad, as it has been done in my home, but if you do not like that specific taste you can easily skip that, without diminishing taste of the salad.

Beet Salad

4 medium beets,
1/2 sweet onion,
3 tbsp red balsamic vinegar,
1 tbsp sugar,
2 tbsp olive oil,
1 tsp caraway seeds,
salt and pepper.

1. Preheat oven to 375-400F.
2. Wash beets and wrap each of them separately in the aluminum foil.
3. Place them in the oven and bake for around one hour, or a little bit more or less, depending on their size.
4. Peel off the foil, remove the skin (the best is to do that in gloves, as beets will color hands), and grate the beets on a grater with very large holes.
5. Peel off the onion and cut into very small cubes.
6. Mix beets with onion, add vinegar, sugar, oil, salt, and pepper. Taste if you need more vinegar or salt, depending on taste.
7. At the end, add caraway seeds if used.
8. Let them marinate for a couple of hours and serve cold, as salad.

This salad can be stored in a refrigerator up to 4 days. It tastes best with red meats or cold cuts.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Squash Gnocchi with Fried Sage--Halloween is Coming!

I am getting more and more nervous every day seeing pumpkins popping up everywhere.

When I came to America, almost from the first day, I met new qualities of life, which I embraced right away and forever--almost 300 sunny days a year in DC, smiling people (even though many Europeans may consider that superficial), 24 hour grocery stores and store return policy, the inclusive school system, and the great international diversity within the local community, just to name a few. But there is one aspect of living here that I have never really accepted--the American cuisine with its two main ingredients--the turkey and the pumpkin.

I know that as my son is getting excited about Halloween and pumpkin carving, he will eventually ask if I shared any pumpkin recipes on my blog, which I have not. I have tried a home-made pumpkin pie years ago just to discover that it was not my kind of dessert. Too bland. It could be a comfort food, but only for those who grew up here, I suppose. Back home, we ate pumpkins preserved in vinegar, as meat accompaniment, or in a sweet soup with milk and noodles, which I never liked either.

But I don't want to get in trouble with my American kids and the majority of my readers. Once in a while I try to make something new with pumpkins or their family members, hoping to be able to acquire some of the local taste. In this vein, last July, I made squash gnocchi.

I bought two squashes--acorn and butternut. At that time they were not local for sure. I used them to make the gnocchi and topped them with fried sage from my garden. They turned out to be a great hit. The sweetness of the squash was not overwhelmingly dominant and the crispy and aromatic sage helped to bring out the nuttiness of the squash. Since my family loves pasta and dumplings of any kind, this dish had a great chance to match our taste to begin with, but the result exceeded my expectation as the gnocchi disappeared in the blink of an eye.

We will certainly make them again this fall and again we will not have enough of them, especially that beautiful locally grown acorn and butternut squashes can now be found everywhere.

Squash Gnocchi with Fried Sage
(Serves four)

1 Acorn and 1 Butternut Squash about 1 pound altogether,
1 1/2 cup flour,
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese plus extra for garnish,
20 leaves of sage,
1 stick (about 100g) of butter,
salt and freshly ground pepper.


Sage fried in butter
1. Cut sage leaves into strips,
2. Melt butter in a small pan and add sage leaves.
3. Fry the sage until it becomes darker and crispy.

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Cut squash in slices, remove seeds, and arrange on the well-oiled baking tin.
3. Bake until soft, for about 30-40 min.
4. Cool down, remove skin, and scoop up the flesh.
5. Using an electric blender turn the cooked squash into a purée.
6. Add flour and make a dough. If it is too sticky add a little more flour.
7. Make the dough into a long roll and cut it diagonally into small pieces,1/2 inch long--see picture.

8. Boil a pot of water with 1 tbsp of salt and drop the gnocchi in it.
9. Wait until they rise to the surface and, from that moment, cook them for another 3-4 minutes.
10. Drain the gnocchi on a colander, put them on a plate.
11. Serve them with the fried sage leaves and the butter in which the sage was fried, shredded Parmesan, and freshly ground pepper.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Watercress and Roasted Tomatoes--The Elegant Salad

A friend of mine, who works in the music industry, often says that he has two big regrets in life--one, that he will never record The White Album and two, (he is a baldish type) that he will never have hair like Robert Plant. My biggest regret is that I will never write a romantic bestseller like Sense and Sensibility, and that I will never cater a dinner for John Kennedy Jr, in his Tribeca apartment, like a host of Zen Can Cook was lucky to do.

It is entirely understandable that he was granted such an opportunity, as his dishes, and especially the way they are presented, are culinary art. That is exactly what I was expecting to be treated to when I went to a three Michelin star restaurant and what I dream and try to achieve, cooking at home for my friends and guests.

The idea of this simple salad has been in my heart for almost two decades, ever since I read about it when I was living in London. All I remember is that it was created by one of the top Australian chefs for his Sydney restaurant. I am not even sure if I can remember correctly all the ingredients, but I did my best to make sure that my version remains in the same healthy yet elegant style.

All the ingredients are very simple and well known, and the presentation is key. It would be one of the dishes that I would put under a title "How to impress....", let's say, someone you meet for the first time. I made it a few times for my guests, since I often feel as hosting a culinary blog obliges me to do more than just tasty food, and also because I simply enjoy eating and creating attractive compositions on my plate.

What is nice about this salad is that everything can be prepared in advance (tomatoes and asparagus even a day earlier) and just assembled and served at the last moment.

Watercress and Roasted Tomatoes Salad
(for 6 people)

1 bunch of watercress,
6 medium or 12 smaller (cocktail, but not cherry) tomatoes,
1 bunch of asparagus,
6 slices of Pancetta,
1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese,
balsamic vinegar,
extra virgin olive oil,
salt and freshly ground pepper.

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Remove skin from the tomatoes. In order to do that, put the tomatoes first in the boiling water for about 20-30 seconds and right after that put them in the cold water. Take them out and remove the skin.
3. Place the tomatoes on a baking pan, salt them, and drizzle with oil.
4. Bake for 20-30 minutes, depending how big the tomatoes are, or until soft, and cool them down.
5. Cut 1/3 off asparagus stalks and blanch in the hot water for about 3 minutes, or cook on a frying pan in a little bit of oil and water for about 5 minutes, until they become softer, but still firm (al dente, if you will).
6. Cut the pancetta into smaller pieces and fry on a dry pan until gold and crispy.
7. Arrange the watercress, asparagus, and tomatoes on a plate. Sprinkle with a coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

As I served this salad to my friends, I was wondering "Would John Jr. be smitten?"