Sunday, December 30, 2012

Chickpea Flat Bread from Tuscany

I have read about this interesting flat bread, called "cecina" in at least three Italian cook books. It is made of chickpea flour and olive oil and should be baked in a large shallow pan. The original recipe comes from northern Tuscany.

Cecina batter is greasy and liquid and very easy to make. However, it is important to remember to set it aside for at least an hour before putting it in an oven.

All kinds of bread, especially Italian, are very popular in my home. So the other day I bought a chickpea flour, which so far I used only in Indian recipes, and made my first cecina.

It came out very nice and crispy. It had a yellow color and a slightly "eggy" taste, although not a single egg was used to make it. No one could guess what this bread was made of but everyone enjoyed it.

Cecina could be served as an appetizer and makes a wonderful party snack to accompany a glass of wine. You can sprinkle it with rosemary or pepper flakes, but my favorite is the traditional version of it with sea salt and ground black pepper.

Chickpea Flat Bread

1 and 1/2 cup chickpea flour,
2 cups water,
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
1/2 tsp salt plus extra for sprinkling,
freshly ground black pepper.

1. Put the water and one tbsp olive oil in a bowl. Add chickpea flour and salt and mix everything until it makes a smooth batter. Let it rest for at least an hour or even overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 425 F.
3. Pour the remaining 3 tbsp of olive oil on a 12-inch metal pizza or shallow, non-stick baking pan. Stir the batter and pour it on the pan. It should not be more than a quarter inch high.

4. Bake for about 20-30 minutes, until the bread is set and golden brown on top.
5. Remove the pan from the oven and when it is still hot sprinkle it with salt and pepper.

Serve it warm.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Cream Cheese Cookies with Apricot Filling

I am not a cookie person, especially when it comes to these soft chocolate chip cookies that my son loves so much. Therefore, today, I will share a recipe for the cookies that I like.

They come from Poland. It is an easy recipe and it always works. Last time I made them was decades ago, when I was making my first steps in the kitchen.

I made them at that time with the slightly sour white farmers' cheese and different home-made sour cherry or plum preserves, or poppy seeds filling. I loved the taste of these cookies as the slightly sour dough nicely complimented the sweet filling from fruits preserves.

Recently, I found a version of the same cookies calling for cream cheese instead of farmers' cheese. I also learned that this recipe originally comes from the Jewish culinary tradition, which I was not aware of since, over the years, it blended strongly into the Polish cuisine.

A couple of weeks ago, when I made bow-tie cookies, I used my favorite apricot preserves. But for Christmas I am planning on using an exquisite and aromatic rose petal preserve which a friend of mine brought me from Poland. Any preserves of your choice can be used in this recipe, and they would not be too sweet, as the dough does not have any sugar and you just dust them them with icing sugar at the end.

Cream Cheese Cookies with Apricot Filling

8oz cream cheese or farmers' cheese (Polish "twarog"), at room temperature,
2 sticks (about 250 g) butter, room temperature,
2 and 1/2 cup all purpose flour,
1 cup of preserves of your choice,
1 tsp vanilla extract,
icing sugar for dusting,

1. In a stand up mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter until soft and well combined. Add the vanilla extract, flour, and beat slowly until a smooth dough forms.
2. Wrap the dough in a plastic foil and chill for two hours or preferably overnight.
3. Take out the dough from a refrigerator and let it stand in room temperature for 1/2 hour.
4. Preheat oven to 400F.
5. Roll out the dough on a large surface, slightly dusted with flour. Cut 2-inch squares. Place a teaspoon of preserve in a middle of each square and bring the opposite corners together slightly squeezing them. Put them on a buttered cookie sheet.

6. Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes, until puffed and gold.
7. Cool down the cookies and dust them with icing sugar.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cabbage Rolls with Buckwheat and Mushrooms

Cabbage rolls (Golabki) are one of the most popular and well-known Polish dishes. The classic version of cabbage rolls stuffed with ground pork and sometimes served in tomato sauce was a dish you could find on most every Polish menu.

But over the years, as more and more people became vegetarian and others switched to a more healthy food, also the traditional cabbage rolls went through many makeovers. Instead of the basic green cabbage, other cabbage varieties like savoy or even red became used and rolls started to be stuffed with different ingredients that you could find in Polish cuisine, such as different types of kashas.

My favorite version of vegetarian cabbage rolls is the one made of savoy cabbage, stuffed with a buckwheat and mushroom filling. Buckwheat, as a gluten-free grain, became very popular in recent years in many different cuisines and became widely available in most American stores. Buckwheat has more taste than other kashas and therefore it replaces successfully the meat that is used in the traditional cabbage rolls. The addition of mushrooms to the filling enriches the taste of buckwheat. White mushrooms are used in this recipe but if you have dried porcini, they can be added to the sauce for extra aroma.

Cabbage Rolls with Buckwheat and Mushrooms
(Makes about 16 rolls)

1 medium savoy cabbage,
2 cups buckwheat,
1 large onion,
2 large eggs,
1/2 lb white cup mushrooms, or half a cup dried porcini, soaked and cooked for 10 minutes,
1 stick of butter plus extra 2 tbsp,
1/2 tsp ground caraway seeds,
1/2 tsp coriander seeds,
1/2 tsp paprika,
1/2 tsp ground mustard seeds,
1 tsp dried marjoram,
salt and ground black pepper,

1. Peel off the outer leaves from the cabbage and cut out the stem.
2. Put the whole cabbage in a pot of boiling water (the pot must be large enough to fit in the whole cabbage). Bring water to boil again and cook the cabbage for about 3 minutes on a medium heat. Turn off the heat and let the cabbage stay in the pot to blanch.
3. Drain the cabbage on a colander and peel off gradually all the leaves trying to keep them whole.
4. To make stuffing, cook buckwheat according to instruction. Let it cool down and place it in a large bowl.
5. Melt about 2 tbsp of butter in a frying pan. Add chopped onion. When onion is translucent, add white mushrooms grated on a large whole grater. Fry until mushrooms release water and become slightly gold. Add mushrooms and onions to the bowl with the buckwheat.
6. Beat two whole eggs and add them to the buckwheat filling. Season generously with salt and pepper and add the remaining spices: paprika, caraway, coriander, mustard and marjoram.
7. Working with hand mix all the ingredients into a smooth stuffing.
8. Place cabbage leaves on a cutting board. Put about about 1/4 cup of stuffing on one end of the leave, fold in the sides and roll the leaves up. If, at the end, you have some leaves left, you can wrap some of the rolls in a second layer.

9. Preheat oven to 375F.
10. Place the rolls on a heavy duty backing dish, tightly, next to one another.

11.If you have dried porcini, scatter them around the rolls (to make sure they are soft enough, soak them in water and pre-cook a little). Cut the remaining butter into small cubes and put them on top and between the rolls. Add a cup of water to the bottom of the dish and cover the dish with the aluminum foil. 12.Bake rolls for about 40 minutes. Remove the foil and let the rolls become gold, which will take another 10-15 minutes.
Serve warm with a tomato salad.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cream of Beets Soup--a Different Type of Borshch

As Christmas approaches I think more and more about beets and borshch, the traditional Polish beet soup. I will make the clear broth version again just before Christmas and, as always, I will serve it with small short crust pastries stuffed with mushrooms or mushed beans. But, since I already shared the recipe for the clear beet soup, today, I want to talk about the cream of beets soup, which, although made of beets, is not from the Polish menu.

Cream soup can be made almost out of anything, also beets, one of the vegetables that I enjoy a lot, especially during winter months, and that I am very familiar with. I made this cream of beets recently and I liked it very much. This soup is richer and easier to make than any other beets soup I know, but still has this familiar beet taste and the wonderful purple color. The spices that we use to season beet dishes, such as caraway, dill, and allspice, together with the sour cream enhance this soup make it taste similar to a traditional Polish borshch.

Cream of Beets
(Serves 4-6)

4 medium beets, peeled,
2 shallots,
4-6 cups vegetable or beef broth,
1/2 apple (could be McIntosh, or any juicy and sour apple),
1/2 tsp allspice,
1/2 tsp ground caraway seeds,
1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar,
1/2 cup sour cream,
2 tbsp olive oil,
2 tbsp chopped dill,
1 garlic clove, minced,
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

1. Heat the oil in a large heavy duty pot. Add chopped shallots and fry until soft.
2. Add beets cut into small cubes. Mix and let it all cook together on a small heat for about 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the peeled and cut into cubes apple and cook for another 3 minutes.
3. Add the stock to the pot with beets, bring it to the boil. Season with salt and pepper. Turn down the heat and cook for about 20-30 minutes, until the beets become soft.
4. Using a blender purée the soup. Add minced garlic. Season it with vinegar, allspice, and caraway. If at that point the soup seems too thick add extra broth and bring the soup to boil again. Divide the soup among bowls, top with a dollop of sour cream and chopped dill.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mexican Style Potato Salad with Avocado Salsa

Avocados are one of those fruits that, like grapes and bananas, I almost always have at home. Everyone in my family likes them, and since they are also very nutritious and healthy, why not always have them handy? Philip, my younger son likes them, as i call it, the American way, accompanied by cottage cheese with chopped chives on top. I like them plain with lime or lemon juice, cilantro and fresh tomatoes. Sometimes if they are about to go bad I chop them and add to arugula salad, sprinkle with walnuts or pumpkin seeds, lemon juice and walnut oil. An excellent salad to be served after any light dinner.

The only trick with avocados is to catch them at the right moment. I prefer to buy hard avocados and let them ripen at home than buy them soft, already touched by too many hands, and often blackish inside. When avocados reach the perfect soft state they can be stored for a couple of days in a refrigerator where they will not go bad too fast.

My new discovery has been this potato and avocado salad. It seemed a bit of a strange combination since both avocado and potatoes are mild in taste, but the addition of tomatoes and crispy pepper make this salad rather refreshing.

Potato Salad with Avocado Salsa
(Serves four)

4 large potatoes, peeled off,
1 large ripe avocado,
1 yellow bell pepper,
1 medium onion, chopped,
4 medium tomatoes, sliced,
1 garlic clove, minced,
1 tbsp olive oil,
2 tsp lime or lemon juice,
3 tbsp chopped cilantro leaves,
1 green chili, if you like it spicy,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Slice the potatoes and cook them for about 15 minutes, until tender. Drain them and let them cool down.
2. Prepare the salsa. Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit. Place the avocado in a medium bowl. Using fork mash the flesh.
3. Add olive oil, chopped onion, lime juice, garlic, and chopped chili, if used. Mix well.

4. Slice the tomatoes and and cut the bell pepper into thin strips. Mix them together.
5. On a large serving plate arrange a layer of potatoes, follow with a layer of tomato and yellow bell pepper slices, Top with avocado salsa, chopped coriander, and season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thai Egg Noodles with Roasted Sesame Seeds

Noodles, dumplings, and pasta of all kind are the dishes that you cannot go wrong in my home. My kids just love them (and to be honest I do too). Most often they win over any vegetable dish that I try to sneak into their diet.

My recent discovery--egg noodles with sesame seeds--a Thai cuisine recipe, turned out to be a big hit. A very simple and nutritious dish that can be made in minutes as an emergency meal. I almost always have in the pantry all the ingredients that the recipe calls for and, in a moment of desperation (e.g., when traffic complicates my schedule) I can quickly turn them into a nice dinner. Good roasted sesame seeds are available in most Asian food stores.

I use dried Thai egg noodles, but if I plan making sesame noodles ahead, I can buy in my local Asian food store fresh egg noodles, which I simply boil in the water for two minutes. Then I pour a cold sauce, mix, and serve. I sprinkle the ready to serve dish with chopped coriander leaves. My son likes to add also some chopped chives.

Egg Noodles with Sesame Seeds

2 packs 8 oz egg Thai noodles (preferably round),
3 tbsp rice bran oil or sunflower oil,
2 tbsp sesame oil,
2 garlic cloves minced,
2 tbsp smooth peanut butter,
3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds,
4 tbsp light soy sauce,
1 tbsp fresh lime juice,
1 green chili seeded and chopped very finely (optional, if you like it spicy),
4 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves,
2 tbsp chopped spring onion,
pepper to taste.

1. Cook noodles according to instruction.
2. To make a sauce, in a medium bowl mix together rice bran oil, sesame oil, minced garlic, soy sauce, and peanut butter. Mix to create a smooth dressing. Add lime juice, pepper to taste, and chili if used. Mix again.

3. Drain the noodles and place them in a large bowl. Add the sauce and toss well. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and chives and serve immediately.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Caramel Flan from the Caramel Dessert Family

A couple of weeks ago, while walking on the streets of Washington, I passed by "Jaleo", a famous restaurant owned by José Andrés. On early Sunday afternoon, the place was packed with people, who finished their lunches, and were awaiting desserts and coffee.

A young couple sitting next to the window was just served crème caramel, which looked very appetizing: shiny and wobbly with brown caramel around. I had no time to walk in and try it but when I came home I could not forget the dessert and decided to make crème caramel myself.

Somehow, I have never made crème caramel and I was looking for a recipe that would be easy enough but would work. I found one in my son's International Cooking Camp Cookbook. This recipe differed from others in that it called for eggs and two types of canned milk.

Crème caramel made with such ingredients is a little bit more firm or textured than its traditional version made with just milk and cream. But I liked it even more as the taste of eggs in not too strong and the two kinds of milk make it taste a bit like white chocolate.

Last week, talking to a friend from Mexico, I learned that what I made was a traditional Mexican dessert called there caramel flan.

All in all, crème caramel, caramel flan, or creme reverse are many variations of the same similar dessert with caramel on top, which is easy to make and delicious in taste.

Caramel Flan

4 large eggs, preferably organic,
one 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk,
one 12 oz can evaporated milk,
1 tsp vanilla essence,
1 cup sugar.

1. To make caramel, pour sugar and four tablespoon of water in a small pot and bring them to boil. Cook on high heat until it bubbles. This will take about 5-8 minutes. At first, sugar will turn almost white and later it will be gradually getting darker. When it turns gold watch it carefully not to overburn it. Caramel should be light brown color.

2. Divide hot caramel among six oven-proof ramekins and place them on a baking form with relatively high walls.

3. Preheat oven to 350 F.
4. To make custard, place both milk and eggs in a large bowl and whisk just to mix well all the ingredients. In can also be made in a food processor or mixer.
5. Divide custard among the ramekins with caramel at the bottom. Pour around the ramekins enough hot water up to about half of the ramekins' height. Put the whole baking form in the oven and cover the tops of the ramekins with a sheet of aluminium foil.
6. Bake for about 40 minutes. Water should not boil around the ramekin. If it does, lower the oven's temperature to 325F. After 20 minutes you need to check how your flans are doing. Flan should be set but still wobbly.
7. Remove ramekins from the water and cool at first in room temperature. Place them later in a refrigerator and chill for four hours.
8. Before serving, run a small knife around the edges of the ramekins, cover the ramekines with small serving plates and turn them upside down (one by one), to release the flan with caramel on top.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Parsnip and Potato Gratin--Variation on an Old Theme

Many people confuse parsnip with parsley root. Although quite similar in their look, they are different in taste and aroma. But the most distinguishing difference between them is that parsley leaves (flat leaved parsley, also called Italian parsley) are very good and are used widely as a herb in many cuisines, while parsnip leaves are toxic and cause a similar to poison ivy reaction. For that reason, parsley root is often sold with leaves, but parsnip never.

Being Polish I am very familiar with parsley root, which we use in soups and salads for its strong aroma, but much less with parsnip. However, I have been happy to learn recently that this unassuming and easily available tuber, especially in the fall, is also very healthy. It is very reach in vitamins, most of all vitamin C, antioxidants, vitamin B complex group, folic acid, and vitamin K.

Among many parsnip recipes I found in different culinary sources there was one idea that sounded interesting--parsnip and potato gratin. Adding parsnip makes this well-known and easy potato dish slightly sweet and more aromatic. I made it last week and served it with green salad as a main dinner dish.

Parsnip and Potato Gratin

1 lb potatoes,
1/2 lb parsnip,
1 medium onion,
2 garlic cloves,
1/2 cup shredded Gruyère or Cheddar cheese,
one cup table cream or half and half,
1/2 stick of butter,
salt, freshly ground pepper,
a pinch of nutmeg.

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2.Peel off potatoes, parsnip, and onion. Slice them thinly.

2.Grease a shallow oven-proof dish with butter.
3. Put half of the potatoes on the bottom of the dish. Cover with sliced parsnip and onion. Put on top small pieces of butter and half of the cheese.

4. Cover with the rest of potatoes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Sprinkle the rest of the grated cheese on top.
5. Heat the cream until hot and pour over the vegetables.
6. Bake for an hour until vegetable are soft and the cheese bubbling and gold.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spicy Sweet Potato and Goat Cheese Cream or Soup

So far, I knew only one way of serving sweet potatoes the way I like them--roasted. I cut them in wedges, add a few garlic cloves, drizzle with a very good olive oil, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and fresh rosemary, and bake until slightly brown. Roasted, they become attractively crispy and lose some of the sweetness that, otherwise, I find overwhelming.

But since sweet potatoes are very healthy (rich in Beta-carotene and Vitamin A) I have always been looking for more good ideas on how to prepare them.

When I recently saw in a French magazine a recipe for a spicy sweet potato cream (velouté), I instantly decided to give it a try. Moreover, the recipe included goat cheese and in my refrigerator there was a log of goat cheese waiting to be used. I made some changes to the original recipe to make it less sweet and even more spicy. I think it worked very well--the cream was definitely savory and almost not sweet at all.

I admit this dish is very rich, not only owing to the sweet potatoes but also the generous amount of goat cheese. But, probably because of that, it is also so good. Served in small, testing dishes it can be a nice Thanksgiving party snack that I am sure everyone would enjoy. By adding extra broth you can turn it into a cream soup.

Spicy Sweet Potato and Goat Cheese Cream

1 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes,

2 medium shallots,
3 oz goat cheese, at room temperature,
2-3 cups of vegetable or beef broth,
1 tsp harissa or cayenne pepper,
salt and black pepper,
1/4 cup chopped chives,
2 tbsp olive oil.

1. Heat the oil in a large heavy duty pot. Add chopped shallots and fry until transparent. Add potatoes cubes, mix and fry them for about 3 minutes.
2. Pour in 2-3 cups of broth, enough to cover the potatoes, and cook on low heat for about 30 minutes, until potatoes become soft.
3. Take the pot off the heat and using a hand blender make a smooth purée. Put the pot back on the medium heat, add half of the goat cheese and, stirring often, let the cheese melt in the purée.

4. Bring it to boil, let simmer for a minute, and turn off the heat. Let it stand for 5 minutes.
5. Put the other half of the goat cheese in a small bowl, add harissa or cayenne pepper and, using a fork, make a smooth paste.

6. Divide the potato cream among small serving dishes, top with a bit of goat cheese paste and chives. Serve warm.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chestnut Mousse with Persimmon Sauce--Dessert in no Time

Last year, when I shared a recipe based on chestnuts, it was a savory dish--cornish hens with chestnut stuffing. The chestnut season is upon us and I decided to experiment with chestnuts again. For this purpose, I bought several bags of the organic shelled and roasted chestnuts to make a dessert based on chestnuts.

I was inspired by the Italian cuisine and my Italian cookbooks where chestnuts appear often as a main ingredient of many desserts: cakes, creams, and mousses. I chose a chestnut mousse, a very simple dessert that can be prepared in no time. I was full of doubts how it would turn out after my chocolate and chestnut cake disappointment a few years ago. This time, I was pleasantly surprised.

I liked the taste of the mousse very much--it was delicate but chestnuts gave it a kind of earthy flavor. And the whole dessert was not too sweet. I also added a tablespoon of the hazelnut liqueur, which made it taste even more "earthy and nutty".

But I needed something extra to finish the whole dessert and create a nice presentation. I chose the persimmon sauce. Persimmons, like chestnuts, are typical fruits of the season. It was a good combination, since the delicate persimmons did not overshadow the taste of the chestnuts. Overall, chestnut mousse, although somewhat unusual, seemed interesting enough and very in season to be a Thanksgiving dinner dessert.

Chestnut Mousse with Persimmon Sauce
(Serves six)

1 cup (7 oz) of roasted and shelled chestnuts, or a full cup of raw chestnuts,
1/4 cup of sugar,
1 tbsp of hazelnut (Frangelico) or walnut liqueur,
1 cup heavy whipping cream,
3 persimmons,
a pinch of cinnamon (optional),
juice from half a lime,
mint leaves to decorate.

1. If you use raw chestnuts, blanch them in boiling water for 5 minutes then drain and peel off. Put the peeled chestnuts in a small pot of boiling water and simmer for about 30 minutes. Drain them and chop. If you use cooked or roasted chestnuts just chopped them roughly.

2. Put sugar in a small pot, add two tbsp of water and bring to boil. Boil briefly stirring until sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat. Add to the pot chopped chestnuts and using a hand blender make purée. Let it cool down.
3. Add hazelnut liqueur and cinnamon, if you like. Mix well.
4. Pour heavy whipping cream into a medium bowl and beat until stiff. Add chestnuts purée in two batches gently folding in. Chill the mousse in a refrigerator for half an hour.

5. Meanwhile, peel off persimmons and remove the hard parts around the stem.

6. Cut two persimmons in small pieces, add lime juice and, using a hand blender, make a smooth sauce. Cut the third persimmon into slices and use for decoration before serving.
7. Remove the chestnut mousse from the refrigerator. Dip a soup spoon in a hot water, get a spoon of mousse and place two spoons on each serving plate. Drizzle with persimmon sauce, decorate with persimmon slices and mint, and serve.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fava Bean Salad with Herbs--Greek Style

This simple salad comes from the Greek tradition. I found it in a book about Mediterranean food. I made this salad for the first time in the summer, two years ago, to serve with grilled meats. I think it turned out pretty good. Someone even asked me for the recipe. Recently, I made it again to use the rest of my most delicate herbs from my garden, which already suffered a few cold nights.

First time, I made this salad with Fava beans and mint, which the recipe called for. Since I am not a big fan of Fava beans, last time I used baby Lima beans (can be fresh or frozen) and I like this version better. I also replaced mint with the last harvest of dill from my herb garden.

Bean salads, especially this one, enriched with feta cheese, can be very filling. But chopped herbs (dill or mint) and lemon juice neutralized this sensation. In fact, I find this salad rather refreshing, although also nutritious.

Fava or Lima Bean Salad

2lb baby Fava or baby Lima beans (fresh or frozen),
juice from half a lemon,
lemon zest grated from one lemon,
1 cup crumbled feta cheese, preferably Greek,
1 garlic clove, minced,
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
1/ 3 cup chopped chive,
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill or mint,
freshly ground pepper.

1. Cook beans in a large pot with a tbs of salt, until soft. Drain and cool down. Transfer to a serving bowl.
2. In a small bowl make dressing by whisking lemon juice, lemon peel, olive oil and pepper.
3. Add feta cheese, chives and dill or mint to the beans. Mix gently to coat the beans with feta and herbs.
4. Pour the dressing over the beans and again gently mix all the ingredients.

Leave in a refrigerator for 30 minutes to let the flavors infuse. Serve cold.