Friday, September 30, 2011

Spicy Afghan Pumpkin--First in the Season

My Afghan friend brought me this dish a couple of years ago, when our kids were still riding horses together. She often spoiled me with her national dishes bringing me on Friday afternoons some samples of what she was preparing for dinner. It happened to be during the Ramadan and this one was of the many dishes she prepared for the evening meal that day.

Until I met her, kebabs was all I knew from the Afghan cuisine. When I started to meet her regularly, I tried a new Afghan dish almost every Friday. These were often simple, vegetable dishes but I was always surprised how good they were. They were less spicy than Indian dishes but they always had a very strong aroma, which made me feel hungry long before dinner time. From those times I added many Afghan dishes to my diet. And even my fastidious younger son likes some of them, particularly if they are accompanied by a big amount of yogurt sauce and a fresh flat bread.

Yesterday I got my first pumpkin this season. Not too big and not for decoration only. First of all of course I took many pictures of it. Later on I used a half of it to make my family's favorite pumpkin risotto. And I used the other half to try this Afghan pumpkin recipe. I made a whole large dish and it was more than enough for a dinner. It was spicy but not hot. It also had a sweet and sour taste underneath, as it is served with the yogurt sauce, whose sourness compliments the sweetness of the pumpkin.

Spicy Afghan Pumpkin

About 4 lb (2 kilograms) of pumpkin,
1 large onion, finely chopped,
4-6 garlic cloves,
about an inch (two and half centimeters) of fresh ginger, peeled off and grated,
1 tsp turmeric,
1 tbsp ground coriander,
2 tbsp sugar,
olive oil for frying,
salt, pepper,
a pinch of chili pepper,
1 cup of European or Greek Yogurt,
1 garlic.

1. Cut the pumpkin into thick slices, peel it off, and remove seeds. Cut pumpkin into smaller squares.

2. In a large frying pan heat 2 tbsp of oil. Add about a half of pumpkin pieces and fry on both sides until they turn brown. Transfer to an oven proof dish. Follow with the other half, adding more oil.

3 Preheat oven to 400F.
4. On the same frying pan that you used to fry the pumpkin, heat extra 2-3 tbsp of oil. Add chopped onion, ginger, and garlic, and fry until onion becomes transparent. Then add turmeric, coriander, salt, and pepper, and cook for another 1-2 minutes. When spices are cooked, add about a cup of water to make the sauce.
5. Sprinkle the top of the pumpkin with sugar and chili and pour the sauce over. Cover and bake the pumpkin for about 30-40 minutes, until it becomes soft (check it with a fork). At that point, remove the cover and let water evaporate to make the sauce thicker.

Serve warm with the yogurt sauce on top and Middle Eastern breads.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Chocolate Mousse--Doctor-Prescribed

Just recently, in one of the September issues of Time magazine, I read an article "What to Eat Now. Uncovering the Myths About Food" by Dr. Mehmet Oz, a mega TV celebrity, a heart surgeon, and also an expert on diet and healthy lifestyle. There has not been an article about food I read in recent years that I enjoyed more.

I am lucky to stay on the slim side and not needing to follow any diet, but a healthy nutrition is a very important aspect of my everyday life, which I try to respect, especially when it comes to teaching my kids to acquire good nutritional habits.

My diet is often vegetarian, rich in fruits and vegetables. I try to buy many organic products, and always organic milk and eggs. I do not like sodas at all and avoid "lite" dishes and artificial sweeteners. But at the same time I have also my nutritional weaknesses. I am not afraid of cream and butter, I love my coffee with whole milk, I snack on chocolate with my afternoon coffee (on a rainy day it can be the whole bar), have my dinner with a glass of wine (or two) and a nice dessert after that.

But it turned out, according to Dr.Oz and the new Dietary Guidelines that my nutritional sins could be considered a dietary advantage. Just read that:

"Want to get healthy? Forget about diet sodas and low-fat foods. Instead, tuck into some eggs, whole milk, salt, fat, nuts, wine, chocolate and coffee"

"... red wine every day: it has relatively few calories... and it is thought to raise good cholesterol and reduce the bad kind..."

"The polyphenols in coffee ... is in fact the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the Western world and in some studies has been associated with lower incidence of dementia, Parkinson's disease and Type 2 diabetes."

And most importantly for my today's post:

"Chocolate is another source of antioxidants--in this case, in the form of flavonoids, which are what give cocoa beans their pungent taste."

The other day on an already cooler and cloudy day I craved chocolate mousse. I made the mousse and in the evening I ate two bowls myself. And I felt no guilt: that delicious dessert was doctor-prescribed. At least in moderation.

Chocolate Mousse
(Makes 6 portions)

1 full cup (7 oz) of bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips,
4 egg yolks,
3 tbsp sugar,
1 tsp vanilla extract,
1 and 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (sweet cream with a minimum of 30 percent fat content),
1 tsp vanilla extract,
a pinch of salt,
1/2 tsp coffee extract.

1. Heat 3/4 cup of cream in a small pot, on a medium heat, until very hot, almost boiling.
2. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks, salt and sugar. When the mixture becomes smooth and well combined, add the hot cream.

3. Mix it again and put it back in the pot in which the cream was heated. Return to the heat and cook it slowly, stirring continuously, for about 3 minutes, until it turns into a thick custard.
4. Turn off the heat but leave the pot on the heater. Add all the chocolate and mix it with the custard until all the pieces melt completely and make a smooth, chocolate mixture.

5. Add the coffee extract and cool it down.
6. Whisk the remaining cream (3/4 cup) until stiff. Fold it into the chocolate mixture in three batches, until the whipped cream disappears completely in the custard.
7. Divide into serving bowls and chill in a refrigerator for 6 hours.

Serve dusted with cocoa powder.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tomatoes Roasted with Bulgarian Feta--It Must be Bulgarian

Three weeks ago, when my niece was visiting us, our daily conversations were often going back to the memories of our childhoods. And, when we were talking about those old good days, the food we ate then was inevitably coming up as one of the best childhood memories. There is almost a two-decade age gap between us--she was raised on Nutella, which I did not know as a child--but surprisingly we loved and missed almost the same food. We recalled many dishes that we do not eat that often any more, because they require too much work or some specific ingredients which are hard to obtain outside Europe. We both agreed that Polish green and yellow beans, Polish small and crispy cucumbers, and our red sweet and fleshy tomatoes were probably among the best in the world.

One day, while talking about tomatoes and their variety available at the Polish farmers' markets, a dish, which is Bulgarian in origin, came to our minds. It required the very best tomatoes and the Bulgarian feta cheese. I once made a similar dish long ago. My niece used to have it often when her mother (my cousin) was making frequent business trips to Bulgaria and in a trunk of her car she was bringing canned Bulgarian cheese, which she later used to make this dish. We decided to make it ourselves again.

The next morning we rushed to my local Middle Eastern grocery store. They often sell very good tomatoes and three types of Feta cheese: French, Greek and most importantly Bulgarian, which the recipe is calling for. We bought all the necessary ingredients and in the evening in no time our dinner was ready. We sat on the deck and with a warm baguette and a glass of wine we indulged ourselves with an aromatic dish and talked even more about the old good times

Last week, I prepared the roasted tomatoes with feta again. Unfortunately, I did not have the original Bulgarian feta at home and the one I used, turned into small curds--a very undesirable effect. So if you get encouraged by my post to make this dish, I strongly advice you to get a real Bulgarian feta. And when you serve it together with white bread and red wine I guarantee you will enjoy it very much on a cool autumn evening.

Tomatoes Roasted with Bulgarian Feta
(Serves four as a side dish or two to three as a main dish)

3-4 large beefsteak tomatoes, very ripe but not too soft. Good Roma tomatoes (about 6-8 of them) would do as well,
4-5 long hot peppers,
6-10 garlic cloves (depending on your taste),

1 lb (half a kilogram) of Bulgarian feta cheese,
1 branch of rosemary,
a small bunch of thyme,

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil,
freshly ground pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Cut tomatoes in quarter and remove stems. Lay out about half of them on the bottom of a medium oven proof dish with a lid.
3. Cut the feta into thick slices and lay them on top of tomatoes. Cover it with the remaining tomatoes and whole hot peppers
4. Add garlic cloves and whole branches of herbs. Season with freshly ground peeper and pour the olive oil on top.

5. Cover the dish with a lid. Bake it covered all the time for about 40 to 50 minutes. Cool down, and remove the lid to let the steam out.

Serve with white baguette and, at the end, dip it in the oil.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Aromatic Roasted Figs--With Crème Fraîche

There are about 20 figs on my yet small fig tree but I am not sure they will have enough time to ripen fully this year. A wave of cold weather came suddenly to DC and, although days are still sunny, crispy nights may not allow my figs to get to their peak.

I am waiting hopefully but in the meantime I buy figs at a store. And I cannot complain at all. They are sweeter than any past year I remember. I love them simply with prosciutto or cheese and baguette. But sometimes their sweetness is nearly overwhelming when they are served with savory accompaniments and wine. That gave me an idea, besides eating them fresh, to make a dessert. Fruit desserts are great as those days everybody seems to be on diet and resists any sweets.

In that recipe I combined many different ideas but in a Mediterranean style. I think that spices coming from that region bring out a wonderful taste of figs. Here is how, served with crème fraîche and a delicate biscuit, figs make a wonderful and light dessert.

Roasted Figs
(Serves four)

8-10 black figs if larger or 10-12 smaller,
2/3 cup of orange juice, the best is freshly squeezed,
a couple of slices of orange peel cut off from the oranges that you squeezed, but you can also use candied orange peel, especially home made,
1 tbsp of running honey--the best for this recipe is lavender honey, if you happen to have such,
6-8 coriander seeds,
a small, about two-inch long cinnamon stick,
1 inch of vanilla pod,
1 tbsp of orange blossom water, or rose water,

1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Cut figs in half and place them in a round (nine inches, oven proof dish).

3. In a small bowl mix orange juice, honey, and orange water.

Pour it over the figs. Place on top coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, vanilla pod, and orange peel.

4. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about 20-30 minutes uncovered--the liquid around the figs should boil for a few minutes.

Cool down the dish. Divide figs between plates and pour over the thickened sauce. Decorate with a dollop of crème fraîche and a biscuit if you like.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Crème Fraîche--How to Make it

I decided to post from time to time a simple recipe that can be useful and, despite its simplicity, is not so obvious. Today, it is about crème fraîche. You can buy it easily in France or other European countries. But in the U.S. until recently, and at least in my area, it was not always available. And I still like to make my own crème fraîche. The list of recipes calling for it is almost endless. Crème fraîche is thick and creamy but is neither sweet nor sour. Crème fraîche is used in various cakes and tarts, like Tarte Tatin, other desserts, like the delicious Vacherin, some soups, sauces, various gratin dishes, and many other dishes. If you think about making your own crème fraîche to use it in any recipe two days from now, this is how you make it.

Crème Fraîche

1 cup heavy whipping cream (or 30 percent sweet cream),
2 tbsp buttermilk.

1. Mix both ingredients in a bowl and leave in room temperature for 24 hours.
2. Stir the cream and leave for another day.

Your crème fraîche should be ready in 2-3 days, depending on how warm your house is. It can be stored in a refrigerator for about a week to ten days.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Easy Beet Salad--with an Oriental Twist

I consider cabbage and beets the pillars of Polish cuisine. No wonder then that whenever I hear about them being used in different cuisines or served differently than we do in Poland, I get territorial. I am extremely open to try new dishes and particularly vegetables, and I always look forward to trying and assimilating new recipes. But, whenever I read a recipe calling for beets or cabbage, my undeniably Polish nature comes out and I approach these recipes with a great dose of scepticism. What new could possibly anyone say about these vegetable to people who have been eating them for ages in any possible incarnation, often several times a week, and which are fundamental ingredients of all our holidays?

A new color--there are yellow beets available in many food stores, new shape--even in Poland we sell new beets that are long like cucumbers, or an old style salad recipe just refreshed by adding beets? But this recipe, one of those that I found in Met Home, appealed to me from the first moment I saw it. I believe that whoever created it, really understood what beets need to taste good. Beets are rather mild by nature and usually need a lot of sourness and some other spices to bring out their delicate taste. This recipe used some Middle eastern ingredients and, believe me, this beet salad with an Oriental twist tasted extremely good and interesting.

Oriental Beet Salad

3 medium beets cooked or roasted and peeled off (if you cannot buy them like that, cook whole raw beets in water for about one hour, or bake in an oven wrapped in aluminium foil for 45-60 minutes, then let them cool down and peel them),
2 small shallots sliced into very thin half rings,
2 tbsp sherry vinegar,
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (available in most Middle Eastern grocery stores),
2 tbsp rose water (also available in oriental food stores),
3 tbsp extra-virgin oil.

1. Cut beets into smaller pieces. Add cut shallots.
2. Mix vinegar,molasses,rose water and oil to make a smooth dressing.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Pour the dressing over the beets, cover and let them marinate for minimum 2 hours, or overnight.

Serve alone as salad itself, as accompaniment to meats, or add to other, for example green salads.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lemon Tart or Lemon Bars--Whatever You Prefer

I thought that this recipe for a simple yet delicious dessert would be a great transition from summer to fall. A sour and refreshing top, for still hot days, yet with a baked bottom, like many fall deserts. But in the past few days weather has been here rather very autumny, more like in October, with rains that seem never to take breaks. Since I bought extra lemons for that recipe I decided to make it anyway. And even more so because my niece from Poland was visiting me and we enjoyed our afternoon coffees with a piece (read "three") of home-made cake.

This crust is the one that I make most often. I also use it in my tarts, which have cream and egg fillings, but originally it comes exactly from this recipe. I love it not only because it is very delicate and sandy, but most of all because it does not require any special techniques to make it, but three ingredients, two hands, one oven, and a cake is ready in no time. And the classic lemon topping seems to be everyone's favorite.

Sometimes I make it in a square form and cut it into rectangles--then someone called "oh, lemon bars". But, more often, I make, as I call it, a French (elegant) version in a round tart form and then it becomes rather a lemon tart. I sprinkle it with icing sugar and always decorate with seasonal berries.

Lemon Tart or Lemon Bars
(For a square or round 9 inch baking tin)

Ingredients for the crust:
2 cups all purpose flour,
2 sticks, cold, unsalted butter,
1/2 cup icing sugar.

Ingredients for the filling:
1 can sweetened condensed milk,
4 eggs,
3/4 cup lemon juice,
1 tbsp lemon zest,
1 tsp baking powder,
1 tbsp flour.

1. Put flour, butter, and sugar in a large bowl. Working with hands break the butter into small pieces and rub in the dry ingredients to make large crumbles.
2. Place the crust in a plastic bag and let it chill for a minimum of 30 minutes. This step can be made ahead and the crust can stay in a refrigerator for couple of weeks.
3. Preheat oven to 350F.
4. Spread the crust crumbles on the baking form and its walls.

5. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until the crust is slightly gold.
6. Using an electric mixer (I do that in a stand Kitchen Aid mixer) mix milk and eggs. Add lemon juice, flour, baking powder, and lemon zest. Spread the filling over the crust and bake for another 20-25 minutes, until the top is set but not too hard.

Cool down and cut into diamonds or rectangles,

or into triangles.

Serve decorated with fresh berries and whipped cream, if you like.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Coconut Beef Satays--For Hurricane Season

Grilling season is still going on, but that is not the reason for my today's post and recipe. We were lucky in my area not to be in any way hurt by Hurricane Irene. On the same Saturday evening when Irene was picking up around DC we were able to land at Dulles Airport in a pouring rain quietly and smoothly. But some were not so lucky. My niece, visiting her friends in New Jersey experienced (I guess for the first time in her life) a five day long power outage.

I think many understand how long those day feel in our "modern" civilization when you no access to phone, computer, or even TV. No light for reading either. And If you are one of those people who like me have this sleek and shiny electric cooktop (which otherwise I love deeply as it heats to a maximum temperature and cools down in just nine seconds) you may have had no warm meal for five days either. My niece survived on grilled food and just wished to have more grilling ideas.

Power cuts, which happen on my street from time to time, due to weather condition was one of the reasons I decided to get a beautiful new outdoors kitchen and grill, to have a backup gas option when disaster strikes. At the same time I started to enjoy grilling and I do that at least once a week. Here is my latest grilling recipe, which comes from the Asian culinary tradition.

Coconut Beef Satays

1 lb skirt steaks cut into thin slices (in Asian food stores you can buy them already thinly sliced),
1 lime,
2 garlic cloves,
1 tbsp dark brown sugar,
2 tsp ground coriander,
2 tsp ground cumin,
1 tsp turmeric,
4 tbsp coconut milk,
salt and pepper.

1. Squeeze juice from the lime and sprinkle over steaks.
2. In a small bowl mix garlic, salt, sugar, coriander, cumin, turmeric, and coconut milk and make a thick paste.
3. Rub it all over the steak strips. Cover and marinate for a minimum an hour, but preferably overnight.
4. Thread beef on bamboo skewer, brush gently with oil on top.

5.Grill quckly on a very hot grill.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cod in Paprika Sauce--From Hungary

During vacation I browsed through my very old recipe book, which I still keep in Poland (it always seems too heavy to bring it to the US) and discovered some old and often never tried recipes.

Many very interesting ones came from abroad, mostly our neighbouring countries, simply because they were easy to adapt, as our neighbors, like us, had limited food resources at that time. In particular, recipes from the Hungarian cuisine always caught my attention. I have already posted a recipe for Hungarian goulash, and today I would like to share a Hungarian recipe for cod.

Cod used to be a rather ordinary fish in Poland, almost always available, mostly frozen rather than fresh though. We used to serve it fried in breadcrumbs. Nowadays, when fish are more popular than ever, especially among vegetarians and those who favor a healthy diet, cod undergoes its renaissance. Deservedly so, as it is very rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin B12 and B6 and, which is very important to me, has almost no fishy aroma. I also think that, besides the healthy qualities of the cod,
the combination of red paprika and sour cream sauce make this dish very attractive.

Cod in Paprika Sauce
(Serves four)

1 lb of cod fillets,
1 large onion,
1 cup of white wine,
1 cup sour cream,
2 tbsp butter,
1 tsp of paprika (preferably Hungarian),
1 tbsp, all purpose flour,
sea salt,
freshly ground black pepper.

1. Cut cod in smaller pieces to make four portions. Season it generously with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside for about 30 minutes.
2. Peel off onion, cut in half and then in thin, half-moon slices.
3. Melt butter in a medium frying pan with higher walls. Add onion and fry until onion becomes very transparent. Add flour, mix, and let it cook together stirring constantly until flour becomes gold.
4. Pour in wine and let it boil for a minute. Add sour cream and paprika. Mix well, bring to boil and add cod fillets to the sauce. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes. Uncover and let it cook for another 10 minutes.
5. Serve with cooked baby potatoes or whole grain rice.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Spinach and Gruyère Salad--In a Minute.

No simple food is too simple. I can say that based on my life experience and by how the simplest recipes tend to be the most popular. I like them too, especially after coming back from vacation when my refrigerator is still empty and many daily activities take precedence over cooking.

When I was shopping to restock my supplies, I saw this beautiful fresh spinach, and all of a sudden, a salad that my Italian friend made once sprung back to my mind. I remember that it was so easy that she brought all the ingredients to the picnic at Geneva Lake and put it together on the spot. The quality of the ingredients used--especially the cheese and the olive oil--was the only secret of this salad, as is often the case with such simple recipes, especially those coming from Italy.

I used aged Gruyère, tossed in very fresh and white mushrooms, and added the best extra virgin oil I had in my pantry. In no time my lunch was ready and after three weeks of eating tons of labor-intensive Polish food I enjoyed this easy green salad very much.

Spinach and Gruyère Salad

1 bag of very fresh baby spinach,
6-8 fresh and hard white mushrooms, without stems,
1/2 cup shredded Gruyère cheese, preferably aged,
3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
freshly ground pepper,
good quality coarse sea salt (I used French grey sea salt).

1. Place spinach in a large bowl.
2. Wash mushrooms, dry them in a towel, and slice then thinly. Toss them over spinach.
3. Using a vegetable peeler shred thin slices of Gruyere on top of the salad.
4. Season generously with salt and pepper.
5. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with good bread and prosciutto or smoked salmon.