Friday, December 30, 2011

Party Snacks--To Welcome New Year

It's party time. Many days off, half days, and plenty time to meet family and friends. An excellent opportunity to relax, enjoy company, and have fun in these not so funny times.

So, without talking too much, I would like to share some ideas for party snacks that are easy to make and are great, especially for cocktail-style parties.

If you are lucky like me to have special tiny party dishes, which I got from Belgium, they are wonderful to serve individual single-bite portions, if not, larger serving plates would do as well.

Recently I have been making these simple snacks very often and because of their variety, they are likely to satisfy everyone.

Party Snacks

1. Use small ready-made phyllo shells and fill them up with pâté. Decorate with spicy red pepper and capers.

2. Cut slices of small Japanese or kirby cucumbers, top with slices of good quality smoked salmon, finish with wasabi mayonnaise, or crème fraîche, and chives or dill.

3. Wrap squares of persimmons in pieces of prosciutto or Serrano ham.

And here are other party snack ideas that I have already shared on my blog:

Party Ideas--Delicious Icebreakers

Bell Pepper Rolls--For Party Dinners

Crispy Artichoke Roulade--A Wine Party Snack

Festive Potato Wedges--Thanksgiving Snacks and More

Spicy Pecan Cookies--Something out of Nothing

Crispy Mushroom Crostini--Party Alternative to Crunchy Veggies

Blue Cheese and Pear Snacks for Wine Lovers

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Spicy Chickpeas--Easy After Holidays Dish

It is hard to talk about food and share recipes when there is still plenty of holiday leftovers in the refrigerator and in the past days we almost never felt hungry between meals. But I am afraid my kids are done with all the Polish specialties and even every one's favorite borshch does not excite them too much any more. When given choice of some leftover dishes, my younger son asked "Maybe something different--a butter chicken?" So it seems I will have to cook something special for them today anyways.

Sometimes when I have no idea what to cook for kids I prepare some nutritious grains. Not often but once in while I make a chickpeas dish, which is high in protein and tasty. It is slightly spicy and everyone likes it. I think Asian recipes for grains are best. A great variety of spices nicely contrasts with the rather mild chickpeas and makes it taste interesting.

I like this dish because it is served with yogurt chutney, which goes very well with the tomato sauce in which chickpeas are cooked. I do not serve it with rice but rather with some Asian breads, which we dip at the end in the yogurt sauce. Because the day is rainy and lazy here is this easy, perfect for such time, recipe.

Spicy Chickpeas
(Serves 4-6)

Two 15 oz cans of chickpeas,
6-8 medium tomatoes, chopped, or two 14 oz cans of diced tomatoes,
1 medium onion, chopped,
2-inch piece of ginger root, grated,
3 garlic cloves, minced,
3 tbsp chopped cilantro leaves,
2 tbsp vegetable oil,
1/2 tsp ground turmeric,
2 tsp garam masala,
salt and pepper to taste.

Ingredients for the Yogurt Chutney:
1 cup of European style or Greek yogurt,
3 spring onions chopped,
2 tbsp fresh chopped mint,
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Heat oil on a frying pan. Fry for about 3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and fry for another two minutes. Add turmeric and garam masala. Fry for a few seconds to make a smooth paste.
2. Add tomatoes to the pan with spices. Season with salt and pepper. Mix and add drained chickpeas. Simmer on low heat for about 15 minuets, or until tomatoes turn into thick sauce.
3. To make yogurt chutney mix all the ingredients in a small bowl.

4. Just before serving add chopped cilantro, mix with chickpeas, and serve with yogurt chutney on top.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Savory Stuffed Pastry-- for Borshch or for a Party

We never buy more flour than we do these days. This week, I have bought the fourth 4-pound bag of flour and I am sure I will need at least one more before the year ends, as my holiday baking is far from over.

I have already baked a lot of cookies. I and will make my Christmas cakes by the end of this week. And, yesterday, I baked four sheets of small pastry that I will serve with clear borshch, for which the recipe I have just posted. I baked them until they turned slightly gold, let them cool down, and froze them for later. I can reheat them in the oven, whenever I need them, and serve them warm.

I made two different types. I used my own old recipe and another one from my friend. In both recipes, the stuffing is made with cabbage and porcini. This time, for change, I stuffed half of them with fried white cap mushrooms and the other half with the paste I made from white beans. The latter have a very neutral taste and can be served to accompany any clear broth soup like, of course borshch, but also chicken broth, beef broth, or tomato broth. They are also excellent alone, served warm, as party snacks.

Savory Stuffed Pastry

Ingredients for the pastry:
2 and 1/2 cup all purpose flour,
2 sticks of room temperature butter,
2 tbsp vegetable shortening or extra two tbsp butter,
3 egg yolks,(save whites for the glazing),
4 tbsp sour cream,
1 sachet (1/4 oz) of fast rising dry yeasts or 50 g fresh yeasts,
1/2 tsp salt,
1 tbsp coarse salt or caraways seeds for finishing.

1. In a medium bowl mix egg yolks, yeasts, and sour cream.
2. Sift flour into a large bowl, add 1/2 tsp of salt, butter, and shortening. Working with hands rub in the butter into the flour until it forms small crumbles. Add the yolk mixture and make a smooth dough. Wrap in plastic foil and let it chill in a refrigerator for an hour.
3. Preheat oven to 370F. Grease with butter a large cookie sheet.
4. Dust your working surface with flour. Unwrap dough and roll it out into one large disk. Cut it out into 2x2 inch squares. Put a tsp of filling on each of them. Fold them into triangles. Push two edges with a fork to secure the filling. Brush tops of the pastry with whites and sprinkle with caraway seeds or coarse salt. Transfer to a cookie sheet.

5. Bake for 30 minutes, until gold. If you intend to freeze them, bake them only until they are just slightly gold.

Bean Filling

1 can of white beans of any kind,
1 small onion chopped,
2 tbsp olive oil,
1/4 tsp ground red paprika,
1/4 tsp ground caraway seeds,
1/4 tsp ground coriander,
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste,

1. Heat oil in a frying pan. Add onion and fry until transparent.
2. Open a can of beans and rinse them on a colander.
3. Add spices and onion. Using a hand blender puree the beans into a smooth paste.
4. Divide among the pastry cut into squares.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Clear Beet Soup--Polish Christmas Eve Borshch

I should not need any particular reason to post another beet recipe; there is always at least one among my top-ten posts. But for me as Polish, Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to share a recipe for this clear vegetarian borshch, possibly, the most famous Polish soup.

Until today I have never cooked this Christmas borshch myself. My mother has always been cooking it for us, either in Poland or here when she was visiting us. The Christmas Eve savory dishes (all of them vegetarian) were her specialty and I made the sweets. Unfortunately, this year she decided that this long trip overseas was too tiring for her, so the burden of keeping up with the tradition fell entirely on me.

But, on the positive side, it also became an opportunity for me finally to learn how to make borshch, especially that this is the most liked soup at me home. After a couple of phone calls, and making sure that I got all the ingredients and steps right, I got it done. And it turned out that it could not be easier.

There are many ways to prepare borshch and many families have different traditions of doing it. In our home, for example, we did not add dried porcini to it, like some other families do. During Christmas we eat cabbage with porcini or serve borshch with pastry stuffed with mushrooms, so it always seemed too much to put mushrooms also in the borshch. The other reason is that my son, who loves borshch, also hates mushrooms, so naturally I need to avoid putting them in the dishes he eats.

The most characteristic thing about this soup is that beets are not cooked, so all their nutritional values are preserved and the soup has the most beautiful and intensive purple color.
Also some of the spices used make it taste unique. Borshch is usually served in special bowls with pierogi, or accompanied by small, stuffed pastry. On occasions other than Christmas Eve it can also be made in a non-vegetarian version, for instance as a beef-beet broth and served with beef-stuffed pierogi. But my most favorite version is this Christmas Eve vegetarian borshch.

Polish Christmas Eve Borshch

3-4 medium carrots, peeled,
1/4 medium celery root, peeled,
1/2 parsley root, if available, peeled
1/2 medium leek, washed thoroughly in between leaves,
6 medium beets,
vegetable bullion (optional, only if your vegetables do not release enough taste on their own),
2 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 tbsp vinegar,
2 tbsp sugar,
1/2 tsp ground caraway,
2 bay leaves,
4 all spice,
4 black peppercorns,
5 whole cloves,
4 prunes (optional),
1 tbsp salt and black pepper to taste,
1 tbsp fresh chopped dill (optional).

1. In a large pot bring to boil 8 cups of water with salt, bay leaves, peppercorns, and allspice.
Add carrot, celery root, parsley root, and leek, and cook for about 40 minutes, until vegetables are soft. Try the stock and if it does not have much taste you may add bullion or extra vegetable stock.
2. Peel off the beets and cut into 1/4 inch-thick slices. Add them to the pot with vegetable stock. Bring to boil but let it boil only for about a minute or two. Turn off the heat. Add caraway, ground black pepper, cloves, garlic, prunes, sugar, and balsamic vinegar.

3. Taste the soup--it should be sweet and sour, but also spicy from pepper and garlic. You may add an extra tablespoon of vinegar or sugar depending on the sweetness of the beets and carrots.
4. Cover the pot and let it stand over night to infuse all the aromas.

Reheat borshch before serving it, again without boiling it for too long. Add dill, and serve it with pierogi or small pastry.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Speculoos Cookies--from Belgium for Christmas

I have not heard about Speculoos until I visited my friend in Brussels two years ago. She insisted that I take home a heavy jar of that typical Belgium specialty for kids to try. It looked pretty much like crushed cookies mixed with caramel.

Speculoos for Belgium is what Nutella is for Italians, and peanut butter for Americans--a spread that is served on anything you like, mostly bread. It is creamy but at the same time almost crunchy with the buttery caramel taste, enhanced by some spices.

I did not expect to be impressed much with Speculoos. But when I tried it, I became highly addicted to it, especially with a sweet tooth like mine. I alternated with my son making frequent trips to the kitchen cabinet where Speculoos was hidden and three days later the whole jar was gone.

I looked at the list of ingredients trying to discover the secret of its taste but there was nothing special in it but regular cookie ingredients. I searched different sources to get the right recipe. All the recipes I found were pretty similar. The only difference is that some used egg, some did not. Some recipes called for light brown sugar, other for dark brown sugar. Recently, one was also shared in The Washington Post Wednesday food section.

This week I volunteered to prepare two dozen cookies for my son's Christmas cookie party at school. Instead of making typical American cookies, which I am not good at, I decided to try the WP recipe for Speculoos cookies. My choice was also very seasonally appropriate: in Belgium, they make these cookies on the 6th of December for St. Nicolas and serve them trough the entire Christmas season.

Speculoos cookies are traditionally very thin and either square or animal-shaped, but it is hard to make them very thin at home. I made them about 1/8 inch thick and used Christmas cookie cutters to make different shapes. I also used an advice from the Washington Post recipe and rolled out the dough between wax paper sheets which made working with that pretty sandy dough much easier.

Speculoos Cookies

2 sticks plus two tbsp (250 g) of good quality butter, room temperature,
1 and 1/2 cup dark brown sugar,
4 and 1/2 cups sifted unbleached, all purpose flour,
1 tsp baking powder,
3 tbsp milk,
1/2 egg (or no egg at all but add extra tbsp of milk),
1 tsp ground clove,
1 tsp ground cinnamon,
1/2 tsp ground star anise,
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg,
1/2 tsp salt,

1. Beat butter with sugar in a stand-up mixer on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until smooth. Stop the mixer a couple of times and scrape the walls of the bowl.
2. Beat egg with milk in a separate bowl and add to the butter mixture. Run mixer for about 2 minutes, or until all ingredients are combined.
3. In a large bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Add them to the mixture, about a cup at a time, while running the mixer on a low speed. Let incorporate each dose in between, scraping again the walls in between. The dough would be kind of lumpy and sandy but not too sticky.
4. Place the dough on a working surface. Knead gently to form one big ball. Divide it in half.
5. Cut four large pieces of waxing paper about 20 inches long. Place half of the dough in between two wax paper sheets and roll it out with a rolling pin into a rather thin square. Leave the dough between the wax paper sheets. Place both of them on top of each other on a cookie sheet and refrigerate, preferably over night or at least for two hours.
6. Preheat oven to 370F.
7. Grease two or three large cookie sheets with butter.
8. Place the first piece of a dough on a working surface. Remove wax paper from the top of the dough and cut out cookies with the cookie cutter (or a sharp knife, if you do rectangles).

9. Using a thin spatula, transfer them to the baking sheet. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, until brown. Cool them on a wire rack.

Serve plain or coated with melted good quality Belgium chocolate.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sour Cabbage Sautéed with Mushrooms

Sour cabbage is a typical winter vegetable. In Polish cuisine there are at least three types of dishes featuring it as a main ingredient: sour cabbage soup, sour cabbage salad, and many versions of sour cabbage cooked or, rather sautéed, with dried mushrooms, including our famous "bigos".

But I have just realized that, so far, I have not posted any sour cabbage recipes. One reason for that is that my favorite sour cabbage-based dish (sour cabbage sautéed with dried porcini mushrooms), which we serve for Christmas Eve, requires a lot of dried porcinis, which may not be affordable here in the US, unless you have picked up your porcinis yourself (like my friend from Bethesda, who finds porcinis in his backyard).

So, if someone asked me about a sour cabbage dish I would probably recommend this simple modern dish based on sour cabbage and white mushrooms, which in Poland we often pair with cabbage. It is an easy dish and requires only widely available ingredients.

There is a long-standing tradition of eating sour cabbage in France, especially in Alzace (choucroute) and Germany (sauerkraut) and also among Jewish people. However, I noticed recently an increased interest in sour cabbage beyond this traditional circle. I suppose this is as much for its rather exotic sour taste (at least for those who did not grow up eating it) as for its great health value.

The lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) play a key role in the transformation of cabbage into sour cabbage and are also important anti-cancer agents. The importance of lactobacilli has been acknowledged by modern nutrition science, and many food items are now enriched with them. They can sometimes cause a strong digestive reaction in some people, but they are also responsible for the very low rate of digestive tract cancer, especially colon cancer, among the Polish population.

Those who are curious how cooked sour cabbage tastes, may wish to begin with this sample dish.

Sauerkraut saute with mushrooms

2 cups sour cabbage (look for it under "sauerkraut" in your local supermarket),
2 cups chopped onion,
2 cups finally sliced white cap mushrooms,
salt and freshly ground pepper,
1 tsp caraway seeds,
4-6 tbsp vegetable oil.

1. In a frying pan heat the oil and fry the onions for about 5 minutes, until transparent.
2. Add mushrooms and fry together until the mushrooms become slightly gold.
3. Add to the pan cabbage, caraway seeds, freshly ground pepper, and mix everything thoroughly.
4. Turn down the heat to "low" and sautée cabbage for 20-30 minutes, until it is soft.

This cabbage tastes best served with water boiled or roasted potatoes. It can also be used to stuff savory pastry and pierogi.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Poppy Seeds Cake--to Follow Tradition

There is in Poland a long tradition of poppy seeds cakes for Christmas. Choices are many: strudels, cookies, croissants, tarts, and elegant cakes layered with cream.

Poppy seeds desserts have been so popular in Poland that nowadays you do not need to go through the messy and labor intensive process of soaking and grinding poppy seeds several times, but you can get a very good ready-to-use poppy seeds paste in most food stores. I usually bring a couple of cans of it from Poland for my Christmas cake.

My favorite poppy seeds desserts is the layered cake with light coffee cream. Somehow the combination of poppy seeds and coffee is very unique and sophisticated. But not everyone has access to the really good quality poppy seeds paste. Fir instance, the one that you can buy in the US in small cans next to almond paste is not good enough, so I decided to post a simple poppy seeds cake that we make from whole seeds.

Whole poppy seeds are sold in Eastern European or Middle Eastern food stores--especially Jewish--and sometimes in Indian stores, and in some regular food stores where it they are sold as a spice. Even for this simple yet delicious cake it is important to get a good quality, preferably blue, poppy seeds. When you buy them, please make sure they are fresh. Unfortunately, sometimes they may have a kind of musty taste, which can ruin the whole cake.

Poppy Seeds Cake

Ingredients for the cake:
2 cups flour,
2 stick butter,
1 and 1/2 cup sugar,
4 eggs,
1 tsp baking powder,
1 cup milk,
1 cup poppy seeds,

Ingredients for ganache:
1 cup milk chocolate chips,
3 tbsp half and half cream or table cream.

1. Put milk in a medium pot together with butter cut into cubes. Bring to boil. Turn off the heat and cool down the mixture to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 350F.
3. Separate eggs. Put the yolks in a bowl of the stand-up mixer. Add sugar and beat together until eggs are almost white. Working at a slow speed pour in milk with butter, then flour with baking powder and, at the end, poppy seeds. Let it mix well.
4. Beat whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Using a spatula fold them in the poppy seeds batter. Mix well.


5. Spread a tsp of butter over the nine inch baking tin with high walls. Sprinkle with a little bit of flour (Wondra is the best for this purpose) until all the surface is covered. Pour in batter and put in the oven.

6. Bake for 30 minutes, then increase the heat to 370 for another 15-20 minutes, until the top of the cake is gold. Cool down the cake completely.
7. In a small pot melt chocolate with the half and half cream, stirring all the time until it is melted and smooth. Cool down a little bit and spread on top of the cake. Let the chocolate set for about half an hour in the refrigerator and serve.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fresh Persimmon Dessert--Light, Easy, and Healthy

About this time a year ago, pomegranates were the hit of the season for me. I simply could not get enough of them. This year, for change, I have gone crazy about persimmons. I buy them by pounds, peel off, cut, and eat like apples, several a day. I have never seen them more ripe and sweet and just cannot resist their taste. They are so perfect that they hardly have this characteristic, starchy aftertaste, but they are just sweet like honey, which makes me almost want to squeeze some lemon juice on them.

This year, I buy mostly the hachiya variety of persimmons. They are larger, sweeter, more juicy, and have a brighter orange color than the more common Jiro persimmons that look like flat unripe tomatoes. In the Middle Eastern or Asian stores, where they truly know how they should taste, they are sold in their most perfect stage--very sweet but not yet mushy.

Sometimes, the products of the nature are so perfect that we cannot do much to make them taste better. I think that it is the case with persimmons. But I was just thinking how to popularize these wonderful fruits, which are rich in oxidants and potassium, but also help digest lipids and therefore help prevent heart diseases.

To preserve their nutritional value I was thinking about serving them fresh. My first idea was to make a smoothie with them. Unfortunately, milk made the persimmon taste too bland. So I puréed the fruits with a blender and spooned over the glass goblets. Then I topped it generously with my favorite Greek yogurt. It was good but the contrast was too strong, so I drizzled a bit of running honey on top of yogurt. It was almost perfect but I just needed some extra texture. I sprinkled yogurt with toasted almonds and when I tried it for the last time it was what I was looking for. It became my favorite dessert in last weeks and sometimes, when I added some toasted oatmeal to it, also a breakfast.

Persimmon Dessert

4 hachiya persimmons,
1 cup of Greek fat free yogurt,
4 tsp running honey, preferably acacias,
4 tsp toasted almond flakes,
mint leaves to decorate.

1. Cut each persimmon in half, remove the seeds, and the tough core.

2. Peel off each half and chop. Put fruits in a blender and run the engine until the fruit is nearly puréed. Or just chop the fruits very finely. Divide it among four glass goblets.

2. A a tablespoon of Greek yogurt to each goblet. Drip a teaspoon of honey on top and sprinkle it with toasted almonds. Chill for about half an hour in a refrigerator.

Decorate with mint and serve.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oyster Mushroom Soup--not Only for Vegans

Growing up in Poland I lived among boringly homogeneous people who ate and liked the same, mostly traditional Polish food. There were of course different ways of preparing the same dishes but I do not recall meeting anyone who would not like cabbage or beets or certain traditional meat meals.

It all has changed when I left Poland and especially when I came to the US and started making friends among people coming from different cultures and regions of the world, each of them having grown up in their own culinary traditions. I became acquainted with exotic cuisines and learned many new dishes and included them in my menu.

But somehow, this experience of growing openness and culinary syncretism, runs against the trend that I have been recently noticing with an increasing frequency that more and more people declare themselves being subject to very specific food restrictions or, at least, culinary reservations. Just last month I heard so many times "I do not eat meat. I do not like red meats. I do not eat pork. I am not crazy about chicken. I do not like fish. I avoid dairy products. I am vegetarian. I am vegan."

Can you imagine to have ten such guests over for dinner? I do not cook meat often but at the same time my vegetarian dishes, and especially desserts, often contain at least one egg and some cheese, or milk. Preparing a vegan dish seems to be the only way to meet all these constraints, and to be absolutely sure, it should better be gluten-free.

With this reflection in the back of my mind, I reminded myself about a soup that was often made in my home when oyster mushrooms suddenly became very popular in Poland. I liked it then very much because of the taste of marjoram that is used in that soup. It is a very Polish accent in that light soup, which is also perfect for such a cold day as today.

Oyster Mushrooms Soup

1 lb oyster mushrooms,
4 medium carrots,
2 celery sticks,
one small leek,
2 medium potatoes,
1 tsp salt,
4 cups of vegetable organic stock (you may not need it if you use organic vegetables or bought them at a farmers' market),
1 tbsp dried marjoram,
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp olive oil.

1. Wash mushrooms and cut from the stem into separate pieces. Slice them across the gills
2. Wash the leek thoroughly to get rid of all the sand that is between the leaves. Slice it into thin slices.

3. In a frying pan heat oil and add the sliced mushrooms. Fry them for 3-5 minutes mixing all the time, until water evaporates. Add leeks and cook everything for another 3 minutes, until the leeks become softer and transparent.

4. Peel off carrots and potatoes. Cut carrots in thin slices and potatoes into small cubes. Slice the celery sticks.
5. In a large put 2 cups of water, add vegetable stock with tsp of salt and bring it to boil. Add celery sticks to the boiling water. Let them cook for about 5 minutes, and then add carrot. Cook together for about 10 minutes. Add potatoes and cook them for 15-20 minutes, until they become soft.
6. Add fried mushrooms and leeks to the pot. Season the soup with marjoram pepper and bring it to boil. Let it simmer for about 3 minutes to infuse all the flavors.

I like to serve it with a white baguette.