Monday, January 30, 2012

Fish with Thyme and Vegetables--Mediterranean Diet to Fix the Heart

Ever since I started this blog there has not been a longer break between posts than just few days. Until now. For the first time ever food and cooking became completely unimportant to me for almost two weeks. A dramatic health event, which affected my family member, made me unable to cook and even enjoy food. But at the end it came back to food again. The whole experience has proved one more time, what I often stress in my posts on this blog, that food and diet together with a lifestyle defines our health and also the way we look.

But although I believe in benefits of a healthy diet, I was surprised to learn that, even in this modern medicine times, before reaching for medication, doctors would prescribe diet to correct a problem. So again, food became very important to me, more than ever.

Today, staying in that healthy mood and convinced even more about its benefits, I made fish for dinner. I prepare this dish very often. It is a light and easy dinner, in the Mediterranean diet tradition. It works great with such delicate fish as sole or trout when no much seasoning is required. Thyme, lemon, olive oil, and vegetables do the trick leaving the delicacy of the fish intact. When you open the foil in which the fish is baked you can smell the aroma of fresh thyme evaporating from the fish. I usually serve this fish with boiled baby potatoes or brown rice.

Fish with Thyme and Vegetables
(Serves four)

1 lb (6 fillets) of sole or 2-3 trouts,
1 yellow or orange bell pepper,
6 baby or 2 regular zucchini,
3-4 Roma tomatoes,
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
1/2 bunch of fresh thyme (about 12 branches),
1/2 lemon.
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Cut out 6 pieces about 12 by 12 inches,of aluminium foil.
3. Cut tomatoes in slices and put 2-3 pieces on each of the foil.
4. Place one fillet of fish on each foil, on top of tomatoes. Season fish with salt and pepper.
5. Cut the bell pepper in half, remove seeds, and cut into thin slices. Place a few on each fillet.
6. Cut each zucchini in four and put on fish (if you use regular zucchini take the seedy core out).
7. Remove leaves from half of thyme brunches and sprinkle over the fish and put the remaining thyme brunches on top of each portion.

8. Sprinkle each fillet with olive oil and lemon juice. Close the foil first alongside and then on both ends.

9. Place each piece on the oven rack and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Let fish cool in the foil for about 5 minutes. Remove from the foil and serve.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fancy Red Cabbage Salad--For Health Reasons

I did not look for a reason to post this recipe but I was almost provoked to do it when I talked to my cousin living in Germany. She is a very good cook, although her cuisine is more of a traditional, country style, often German or Polish. She generally favors fish, lamb, and salads.

In addition to being a good cook she is totally obsessed with healthy food. All she eats has to be organic and ecological and, most importantly, healthy. Just to give you a few examples, she buys only organic food in Germany, brings gallons of organic oil from the Balkans, imports organic apples and jars of organic beet salad from Poland, bakes her own whole-grain organic bread, and she even buys organic tuna, although I am not sure how it can be determined what is organic or not in the deep waters of the ocean.

She knows that I love to cook and my cuisine is on the light and healthy side, but each time we talk, she is very concerned about us in America eating very unhealthy stuff. During our conversation she examined me what we had for dinner. Everything seemed to be fine until I got to arugula salad with nuts and pumpkin seeds. "You are not supposed to eat green salads at winter!" she almost screamed. "They are full of pesticide, artificially grown without sun! You can eat only Belgian endive (as it grows in dark places) and cabbage."

My arguments that I buy only organic salads cultivated in the regions where there is always sun and mild climate, did not convince her. Instead, she gave me a recipe for red cabbage salad with sunflower seeds. But I decided that mine, which in fact I prepare in winter quite often, is more interesting. So, for all the health reasons, which indicate that in winter you should eat mostly cabbage, here is the very wintery red cabbage salad.

Fancy Red Cabbage Salad
(Serves four)

1/2 medium red cabbage(4-5 cups, if shredded),
2-3 celery sticks,
10-12 dried apricots,
4 tbsp slivered, roasted almonds,
1 tbsp lemon juice,
1 glass of white wine,
1 tsp sugar,
1/2 cup mayonnaise,
1 tsp salt.

1. Shred cabbage finely. Put it in a large bowl. Add salt, mix, and set aside for 30 minutes.
2. Place dried apricots in a medium bowl and cover with wine. Let them soak for 30 minutes.
3. Cut celery into thin slices and add them to cabbage.
4. Drain apricots from wine (but keep the remaining wine) and cut into thin slices. Add to cabbage.
5. In a medium bowl mix the remaining wine with sugar, lemon juice, and mayonnaise. Add to the cabbage and mix all the ingredients. Throw in roasted almond, mix, and set aside for 15 minutes to marinate all the ingredients.

Serve with cold cuts, meats, or just alone with breads.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Plesniak--Polish Moldy Cake

When I was a very young girl I made this cake pretty often, but I have not done it for more than twenty years. Somehow, I have never been a big fan of it and I forgot about it readily when I learned to make more complicated desserts. However, I have learned recently that there are Polish people somewhere in America who miss it a lot and, from all that Polish cuisine has to offer, this cake is what they crave most. So I decided to post this recipe, which somehow over the years has become another Polish classic.

Plesniak or plesniawiec, as this cake is sometimes called, is a funny name, because it translates as "moldy" or "rotten" cake. But do not be put off by the name, which comes from the moldy appearance of the cake, when it is cut in portions. This look is achieved with nothing more than a sweet meringue mix, which is baked between dark coco and vanilla layers of the crust.

What makes this cake very Polish is the use of plums or black currant preserves (powidla) that give it a unique taste. Any of these are hard to buy in the US. You can replace the plum powidla with the plum pie filling or with plum preserves that you can buy here but they will be much sweeter than Polish plum preserves and would not contain as much fruit. I liked this cake most with black currant preserves with whole fruits inside which gave this plesniak a characteristic, almost spicy and burning taste.

I dedicate this recipe to my homesick compatriots and their American friends.


5 eggs, at room temperature,
1 and 1/3 cup icing sugar,
2 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour,
1 cup Wondra flour (if it is not available replace it with one more cup of all purpose flour),
2 sticks unsalted butter,
1/2 tsp baking powder,
4 tbsp cocoa powder,
1 jar of plums preserves or 1 can of plum pie filling,
1 tbsp of butter for the form.

1. On a large cutting board mix both flours and baking powder. Add butter and using a sharp knife chop it until it will combine with butter and resemble small crumbs.

2. Separate eggs. In a small bowl mix egg yolks with just one cup of sugar (keep the rest for the meringue mix) and pour over the flour. Quickly mix it, but do not form an integrated dough but try to create bigger and smaller lumps. It will not be difficult as the dough is rather dry and hard to gather together.
3. Divide the dough into three part, where one will be bigger than other two.
4. Preheat oven to 350 F ( 180C).
5. Butter a 9-inch baking form with higher walls. It will help if walls are removable. Spread on the bottom the largest part of the dough and gently push it to adhere to the bottom of the form, so the are not gaps in between the form and the dough. Put it in a refrigerator while making the meringue mix.
5. Using a whisker or an electric mixer beat egg whites until stiff. At the very end add 1/3 cup of sugar. Beat again for about one minute, or until the meringue mix becomes almost shiny.
6. Take the form out of the refrigerator and cover the dough with a layer of plum preserves. Then spread the meringue mix evenly on top of it.
7. Put the second part of the dough in a medium bowl and add 4 tbsp of cocoa powder to it. Rub it in with fingers until the dough becomes all chocolaty in color. Toss pieces of it on top of the meringue mix and press them in (this will create later this moldy look). Cover the top of the meringue mix with the third (vanilla) part of the dough.
8. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the crust on top becomes gold. Cool down. Remove the walls of the form, cut the cake, and serve.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Raclette Party--All About Melting Cheese

Last year by this time I hosted at least three raclette dinners. The weather was quite "wintery" and the idea of eating warm melting cheese with a glass of wine seemed very appealing. This year, weather is unusually warm and it took me a long time to do my first raclette. I use that opportunity to introduce those who never tried raclette to that easy, no-haste and a very social party idea.

When I lived in Geneva, every Friday, starting late at fall, we met at our friends place for either a fondue or a raclette dinner. At that time, I preferred fondue, as it seemed more tricky to make. Today, I like to serve raclette as something more versatile and more fun to eat. In Switzerland, raclette is often served with sliced meats: salami, dried ham dried or cured ham, but most often I make a simple vegetarian version of it.

Raclettes and fondues are served and most appreciated in the skiing resort cabins, where all the tired skiers with cold feet finish their days.

To make raclette you need a few things.

First, you need a special machine that you can purchase easily on line from, as I did a few years ago, the simpler, the better.

Second, you need the right cheese. The most important aspect of the raclette cheese is its melting capacity. You can get a special cheese called Raclette (Trade Joe's and Whole Foods usually carry them during the season, or you can buy it at specialty cheese stores) which melts easily and smells wonderfully (or, as some say, dreadfully).

Instead of the Racleete cheese you can buy a more expensive Appenzeller, Gruyère, or Comté which originally were used in the raclette mix. I also add two different types of cheese, less aromatic and milder in taste as Jarlsberg or Emmentaler. You need about a quarter pound of cheese per person.

Third, you need cooked potatoes. You cook them until soft and place on top of the raclette machine. They will get slightly roasted while you will wait for the cheese to melt underneath. I like to use baby potatoes, but any not too large potatoes will do. You need about 2 pounds for four people.

Fourth, you need marinated vegetables and mushroooms to serve with the raclette. They should be small (the smaller the better) cornichons, pickled baby onions, and marinated mushrooms. You can buy good cornichons at any food store, but make sure they are not "sweet", with no honey added, which makes them taste like a dessert rather than something pickled. Their sourness in an important aspect as I think it helps to digest the cheese.

You can buy marinated mushrooms that are pretty good, but I often make my own which taste even better. However, it is hard to get pickled onions here, so I buy pearl onions preserved in salty water. I drain the salty water away and replenish it with a half measure of hot water and another half measure of 6-percent vinegar. Then I close the jar, and let the onions marinate for at least one day. I also like to buy sweet and sour hot peppers to serve, just for the extra spiciness and color.

And lastly, you need white wine. I would say the lighter and cheaper the better. In Switzerland a special, almost bubbly wine is served in one-liter bottles. I think that very dry sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio are closest substitutes for the original Swiss wine. My latest favorite, and not only for raclette, is Coteaux Du Languedoc.

Good sea salt and freshly ground pepper are also indispensable.

To Make Raclette:

1. Preheat the machine to the maximum temperature.
2. Put cooked potatoes on top.
3. Put marinated vegetable in medium bowls,
4. Cut cheese in slices an place a serving on each little pan and grill the cheese until it melts.

5. Scrape the cheese with a spatula, drop it on top of the potatoes, and season with salt and pepper (but mostly pepper).

...and enjoy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Beans and Capers Salad--Fast and Healthy

Sometimes there are days like yesterday. It is winter but feels more like spring. This unusual warmth does not cheer us up, but disappoints our kids dreaming about true winter, snow, and skiing. And the bright sunny skies too early in the season make us rather tired than energetic.

There is so much to do, but no mood to do anything. And this is that kind of day day when I do not feel inspired to cook. Instead, I opened a can and made a simple nutritious salad. I think this salad comes from the Greek cuisine tradition: it calls for capers, olive oil, and lemon. It can be the whole lunch with bread alone, or could accompany cheese and cold cuts. It can also be served with grilled meats, especially lamb, which likes bean's company very much.

I seem to have all the ingredients for this salad always available. I am a big fan of capers: both proper capers and the large caper berries, so I buy a big jar of them; even if open, it can be stored in the refrigerator for a few months. I add them to my salmon in green sauce,  veal sauce, or salads like this one to spice them up.

White Beans and Capers Salad
(Serves four)

2 15-oz cans of cannelini beans,
1 clove of minced garlic,
2 tbsp capers,
4 tbsp flat Italian parsley,
3 stalks spring onion,
juice from one lemon,
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Open the cans and wash the beans under the running water, drain them, and place them in a medium salad bowl.
2. Mix lemon juice with olive oil, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Pour over the beans.
3. Chop spring onion and parsley leaves. Add to the beans.
4. Rinse caper under the water and add to the beans. Mix and serve.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Leek Tart on Walnut Crust--Instead of Leek Soup

One would think that since I love to cook and share so peristently my culinary experience on this blog, my kids must be open-minded or even adventurous when it comes to food.

Ironically, it is almost the opposite. They favor the typical American kids' diet based on pasta, pizza, and chicken nuggets. They do not like traditional Polish dishes except for borshch and pierogi, which for them fall rather under pasta category together with ravioli and tortellini.

My younger son, Philip, is particularly difficult when it comes to trying any thing new. Luckily, sometimes he bows to the authority of his French teacher, who occasionally also teaches French cooking classes at his school. This is how Philip got introduced to green salad with balsamic vinegar, omelette, quiche, crème brûlée, and flan, all of which he eventually also got to like.

The other day, he came home and asked for leek soup, handing me the recipe he got at his French class. He never liked leeks so I was surprised but also happy to fulfil his wish. I took out leeks (which I almost always have in my refrigerator) sliced them and was about to start the soup, when I read the recipe and noticed that the soup needs to be simmered for eight hours. I did not have so much time that day and I hardly have so much to cook anything. But since I prepared leeks already I decided to make my favorite dish--a tart, hoping that since I knew he liked an onion tart and seems to like leek soup, he will also like a leek tart.

Leeks and walnuts make that tart very interesting. I like very much the contrast between the softness of the sweet and spicy leek filling, in which you can detect blue cheese, and the crunchiness of the walnut crust, which blend perfectly in the mouth.

Leek Tart on Walnut Crust
(For a 9-inch tart pan)

Ingredients for the crust:
1 and 1/2 cup all purpose unbleached flour,
1 and 1/2 cup ground walnuts,
1 stick butter,
3 tbsp iced water,
1 tsp sugar,
1/2 tsp salt.

For the filling:
3 medium leeks, washed carefully and sliced (they will make 4-5 cups),
2 eggs,
1 cup heavy whipping cream,
1/2 lb Italian Gorgonzola (but it can be any other blue cheese, Roquefort would be particularly good),
3 tbsp olive oil,
freshly ground pepper.

1. To make crust place flour, salt, sugar, and butter in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture turns into crumbs. Add walnuts and icy cold water. Run the processor until a smooth dough forms.
2. Roll out the dough on a surface slightly dusted with flour, forming a circle of about 11 inches in diameter. Using a rolling pin transfer the dough to a tart pan greased with butter. Place the pan in a freezer (for as long as it takes to make the filling).
3. Preheat oven to 375 F.
4. Heat the oil on a large frying pan. Add sliced leeks and fry for 8-10 minutes, until they soften up. Let them cool slightly.

5. Beat eggs and cream. Add crumbled blue cheese and pepper.
6. Place the crust in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the crust is baked but not yet gold.
7. Take out the crust from the oven. Place leeks on the bottom and pour the cream mixture on top of the leeks.
8. Lower temperature to 350F and bake the tart for about 40 minutes, until the filling rises and gets brownish on the surface.

Serve with a green lettuce and tomato salad.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Grand Marnier Mousse--Something Special

In the Polish New Year's Day tradition, having a table abundantly filled with rich delicacies on that day was a promise of a prosperous and plentiful year ahead. Also in my parents' home, on the first day of January, the table was always full of the most exquisite dishes, made with the ingredients that were expensive and often very hard to get.

These days, especially here in the US, where almost any kind of food is available all year round, if you are lucky enough to afford it, it is somewhat difficult to grasp the true meaning of this tradition and make this day feel special. To face this challenge, I decided to make yesterday Grand Marnier Mousse, an exquisite dessert made with my favorite orange liqueur.

Just by reading the ingredients list I imagined that it must taste exceptional. The only concern I had were the raw eggs, which I try not to use these days. But the recipe advised to add hot sugar syrup (instead of sugar) during the process of beating eggs, which perhaps lowers the risk of any salmonella contamination. Also, I always use organic eggs, and first wash them with hot water and dishwasher liquid.

Surprisingly, this elegant and delicate dessert is very easy to make. I served it in small, Belgian chocolate shells, decorated with orange segments on the side and grated orange peel. If you do not have chocolate shells, you can serve it in glass goblets and then decorate it with chocolate. Either way, Grand Marnier Mousse certainly is a wonderful dessert, and it did fulfill my desire of preparing "something special" for this special day.

Grand Marnier Mousse
(Makes 6 portions)

3 egg yolks (preferably organic),
1/3 cup sugar,
2 tbsp water,
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream,
2 tbsp Grand Marnier Liqueur,
2 oranges
candied orange peel and mint leaves to decorate.

1. Wash oranges well, dry and grate the peel. Cut out the white parts and cut out the segments without white membranes.

2. In a small pot mix water and sugar. Bring to boil and cook vigorously for about 2 minutes, until the syrup thickens a little bit.
3. Using and electric mixer beat egg yolks with orange peel. With mixer working on the high speed pour in slowly hot sugar syrup. Continue beating for about 3-5 minutes, until eggs change color from yellow to almost whitish and double in volume.
4. In a medium bowl beat heavy whipping cream until almost stiff. Fold gently in yolks mixture. Add 2 tbsp of Grand Marnier and again gently mix.
5. Transfer mousse to chocolate shells or goblets. Chill for at least two hours.
6. Before serving decorate with candied orange peel, mint leaves, and serve with orange segments.