Sunday, December 21, 2014

Roasted Onions with Walnuts and Pancetta--Italian Style

For me, being Polish, traditionally, the Christmas Eve supper is the most important meal during the whole Christmas season. This is the day when I make and eat all my favorite Polish dishes: cabbage with dry porcini mushrooms, cooked yellow peas, clear beet soup, herrings, and pierogi with cabbage, just to name a few. But because of my kids, who are still very picky and eat only certain dishes from a long list of traditional Polish Christmas food, this feast lasts only one day.

Then, for the rest of Christmas Holidays, I prepare dishes that come from other culinary traditions, less meaty than Polish but equally delicious, and that everyone at home likes. And that to me is the way to celebrate holidays, the big part of which is to enjoy good, special food, good wine, indulging desserts, and share these special moments with family and friends.

So when my Italian friend mentioned that pearl onions cooked in vinegar are often served with roasted meat for Christmas dinners, I decided to prepare an onion dish that I found in one of many Italian cook books. It is very rich and therefore perfect for this time of the year. These roasted onions can be served just by themselves as a dish, or just as a starter, or be one of many dishes at a holiday table.

Inspired by pearl onion cooked in vinegar sauce I finished this dish with a drizzle of balsamic di Modena glaze which gave it a nice presentation and extra flavor.

Roasted Onions with Walnuts and Pancetta
(Serves four)

4 large onions (but not the sweet ones),
5 tbsp olive oil,
1/2 cup lean diced pancetta,
1 cup chopped walnuts,
1 cup chicken stock,
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves,
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar of Modena glaze,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Rub whole, unpeeled onions with 3 tbsp olive oil and bake them 40 minutes.Cool.

3.Peel the onions. Cut off their tops and bottoms and cut them in halves horizontally. Remove the insides leaving about 2-3 outer layers. Chop finely the insides of onions, which will be used for the filling.
4. Place the onion halves in a oven-proof dish oiled with 1 tbsp of olive oil.
5. Heat last two tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan. Add pancetta and fry until brown. Stir in walnuts and chopped onion insides. Cook everything together for about 3 minutes.

6. Pour in 1/2 cup of chicken stock, add thyme leaves and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
7. Fill the onion halves with pancetta stuffing. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of stock to the bottom of the baking dish and bake for about 20 minutes, or until lightly brown.
Serve warm with white Italian loaf bread or baguette.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cooked Spinach Salad--Meditearanian Style

This salad, coming from a Moroccan cuisine, is not a typical spinach salad because spinach used in it is not fresh but cooked. It is also better to use large spinach leaves for it, which have more texture and a richer taste rather than baby spinach leaves, which are often is used in salads because they are more tender and delicate in taste.

The only challenge involved in preparing this salad is that it calls for many green ingredients and spices. They combine into a wonderfully rich taste. For me, preserved lemons and saffron are the ingredients that contribute most to defining this salad's flavor and saffron also adds a characteristic yellowish color to it. I did not have a preserved lemon when I first prepared this salad and I felt that something was missing. When I made it for the second time I added it and it made a big difference, making the salad more tart and more exotic.

In winter, this salad can be served in room temperature, but in summer it should be served straight from the fridge, as cold as possible.

Cooked Spinach Salad

2 lb spinach leaves(regular, not baby leaves),
4 tbsp olive oil,
1 bunch flt leave parsley, chopped,
1 bunch cilantro,
2 garlic cloves,
2 medium tomatoes (heirloom as best as they are not so juicy) blanched, peeled and chopped,
a pinch of saffron,
1 tsp ground cumin,
1 tsp paprika,
1 preserved lemon (skin only) cut into very small cubes,
1/3 cup red olives,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Blanch spinach in a large pot of boiling, salted water for about 3 minutes. Drain well, squeeze out the extra water, let it cool and chop it.

2. In a large frying pan heat the oil. Add to the pan parsley, cilantro, saffron, cumin, paprika, garlic and preserved lemon. Let it simmer for about 5 minutes, until a green sauce forms.
3. Add to the green sauce chopped tomatoes and let it simmer again for another 5 minutes.

4. Add chopped spinach and cook briefly on a high heat, stirring constantly.
5. Finally fold in olives and turn off the heat. Cool the spinach completely.
6. Garnish with cilantro leaves and cherry tomatoes cut in halves.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Almond Cake with Persimmon Compote

This very nice Italian-style cake is one of the easiest cakes to make. It can be prepared entirely in a stand-up mixer. In principle, it is a cheesecake, but it does not taste like one. True to its Italian roots, it is made with the ricotta cheese, which gives it a nice moist texture but it does not stand out in the taste. As a result, the cake is very delicate and tastes more like a sponge almond cake than a cheesecake.

I decided to garnish this cake with persimmons, which are now in season and are easily available in most of the stores, especially Asian and Middle Eastern. They have a beautiful color and wonderful honey-like sweetness. Because they are so sweet, to tone them down a little, I made a wine and lemon syrup in which I cooked them briefly. Then I poured it over the cake. This combination could not be better. Just try.

Almond Cake with Persimmon Compote
(For a 9-inch round baking form with removable walls)


For the cake:
1/2 cup all purpose flour,
1/2 cup ground almonds,
1/2 cup ricotta cheeses,
2/3 cup sugar,
1 and 1/2 stick unsalted butter,
1 tsp baking powder,
4 eggs.

For persimmon garnish:
4 firm persimmons,
1/2 cup sugar,
1 cup dry white wine,
juice from 1 lemon,
1/2 cup whipped cream or creme fresh to garnish.

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Line a bottom of a baking form with wax paper, grease with butter, and dust with flour.
3. In a medium bowl mix flour, ground almonds, and baking powder.
4. Melt the butter and pour it in a bowl of a mixer. Add sugar and ricotta and beat on a high speed until the mixture becomes very smooth and white, for about 5 minutes.

5. Add to the mixture eggs, beating well between additions. Incorporate dry ingredients and beat again.
6. Transfer the batter to the form, smooth and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top becomes gold. Let it cool down.
7. To make the persimmon compote peel off persimmons cut in half and slice them into a 1/2-inch thick quarters.
8. Pour wine, sugar, and lemon juice into a medium pot. Bring it to boil and cook on a medium high heat for about 30 minutes, until it thickens to a consistency of a syrup. Add persimmon quarters and let it boil in the syrup for two-three minutes. Cool down completely.

9. Remove a cake from the form on a serving plate and finish with persimmons and cream.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lentil Chili with Fresh Garnish

Lentils usually come to my mind as a comfort food, some time in cold January. But winter weather has surprised us again this year so I decided to make a lentil dish to warm up.

This time, it is a chili style lentil dish coming from South American tradition. This basic recipe is quite similar to all lentil dishes. It is cooked rather long with vegetables and many spices, as often lentil is. But what makes it different and interesting is the garnish that it is served with. Tomatoes and fresh herbs make a nice contrast to well cooked and spicy lentils.

I used regular lentils for this recipe but if you have French, smaller and more green, the dish will be equally tasty but even nicer in presentation.

Lentil Chili

2 cups lentils, washed,
32 oz of chicken or vegetable broth,
1 onion, chopped,
3 garlic cloves, minced,
1 carrot peeled and cut into small cubes,
2 celery sticks sliced,
1 red bell pepper cut into small cubes,
2 jalapeno chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped,
4 tbsp olive oil,
1 tsp sea salt,
1/2 tsp black pepper,
1 tbsp light brown sugar,
1 tbsp paprika,
2 tsp ground cumin,
1 tsp. dried mustard,
2 tsp dried oregano,
1 tsp dried thyme,
1 bay leaf.

1 cup small tomatoes cut in quarters,
1/2 cup chopped cilantro,
1/2 cup sliced spring onions,
1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt.

1. In a large heavy duty pot heat the oil. Add chopped onion, garlic, celery, carrot, bell pepper, jalapeno and fry, stirring often for about 6 minutes, until soft.
2. In a small bowl mix together salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, cumin, mustard, oregano, and thyme.

Add them to the vegetables and fry together for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Add lentil, bay leaf and broth. Bring to boil, turn down the heat to low, cover and let simmer for about an hour, until lentil becomes soft. You may add extra broth or water if it evaporates too fast and lentil is still too hard.

4. When lentil is soft, turn off the heat and let it cool for 5 minutes. In the meantime cut tomatoes and fresh herbs.

Serve accompanied by tomatoes with herbs and sour cream.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Pear and Ginger Cake--Easy Fall Dessert

Pears are wonderful fall fruits. I like them particularly well in combination with different cheeses, and in salads. But somehow, besides using pears in savory dishes, I rarely make cakes with them. If any, I make a tart with pears, on a barely sweet base, since the fruits are quite sweet themselves, or mix them with cranberries.

So I was very happy to find a new recipe for a pear cake. It seemed even more attractive to me because of the fresh ginger that the recipe called for. I already made a fish dish which was served with pear ginger sauce and I like that combination a lot as ginger added a nice spiciness to the mild pear.

I was surprised how easy and fast the cake was, since the batter was entirely prepared in a standing mixer. When it was ready, the cake turned out very nice. Pears, plunged in a cake, were firm but delicate and the cake was nicely balanced in sweetness and spiciness thanks to ginger. So here are the details of this very easy and comforting fall dessert.

Pear ad Ginger Cake
(For a 9-inch bottom pan)

3 medium soft pears, peeled off, cored and cut into a thick slices,
2 tsp freshly grated ginger,
2 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature,
3 medium eggs,
1 and 2/3 cup self rising flour,
1 cup sugar,
1 tbsp brown sugar,
1 tbsp plain breadcrumbs,
1/4 cup crème fraîche or whipped cream to serve.

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Grease the form with a tbsp of butter taken out from two sticks. Dust with bread crumbs.
3. Cut out another tbsp of butter and save aside. Place the remaining butter and custard sugar in a bowl of standing mixer. Beat until pale and fluffy.
4. Add eggs, beating in between, then sift in flour and add grated ginger. Beat everything until smooth for about 3 minutes.
5. Transfer batter to the baking form. Place pear slices on top pushing them gently into batter. Sprinkle with brown sugar and thin slices of saved tbsp of butter.

6. Bake the cake for about 50 minutes until set and gold on top. Let it cool, remove from the pan, cut and serve with crème fraîche or whipped cream.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Pumpkin Pancakes--Savory or Sweet

Again, as always this season, I am left with a gigantic pumpkin from my porch that I have no heart to keep just for decoration and throw away after the first frost. So yesterday, to use this wonderful vegetable, I made pumpkin risotto for dinner. It was delicious but this dish just took care of two slices of my pumpkin.

Today, I decided to make another pumpkin dish--pumpkin pancakes. I used my old Italian recipe for the zucchini pancakes, which I slightly changed, and the result came our very interesting. I threw to the batter a little bit of chopped rosemary, which is often paired with the pumpkin and adds extra flavor to its generally mildly sweet taste. I also seasoned the dough with salt and a bit of pepper.

But even then the pancakes were still so delicate that they could be served in a sweet version. So the first batch of them I served with a spicy yogurt sauce and the second batch I dusted with icing sugar and turned them into a wonderful sweet evening snack. Whatever version you prefer it is a very easy and nice dish to try and a great idea on how to utilize these huge fall pumpkins.

Pumpkin Pancakes
(Makes about 16 pancakes)

2 cups of pumpkins, peeled off and grated on a large-hole grater,
2 eggs,
1 cup self-rising flour,
1/4 cup whole milk,
a tsp of salt,
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves,
1/2 cup Greek yogurt,
1 tsp red chili pepper,
vegetable oil for frying,
icing sugar (optional).

1. Place eggs and milk in a medium bowl. Beat them together. Add flour and mix until smooth.
2. Add grated pumpkin and rosemary to the egg batter. Season with salt and mix.

3. Heat 2 tbsp of oil on a large, heavy duty frying pan. Pour a large tablespoon of the pumpkin batter in the oil (about 6 per batch) and fry on a medium heat for 3-4 minutes per side, until dark gold. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

5. To make sauce, place yogurt in a small bowl. Season with salt and mix with the chili flakes.
6. Serve the pancakes accompanied by the yogurt sauce or dusted with icing sugar.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Apple Pie with Olive-Oil Crust--Vegan Version

In recent years, more than ever before, people follow all kinds of fashion diets and submit themselves to different dietary restrictions. Unfortunately, because of that it becomes increasingly challenging to respect everyone's dietary preferences. For instance, it is surprisingly difficult to offer a really tasty and elegant dessert that would follow strictly vegan dietary rules. So today I would like to share an apple pie recipe that happened to be vegan and which seemed to me very simple and interesting, even if you are not a vegan.

I got this vegan pie recipe from my neighbor's mother who has been a vegan all her life. I find a traditional butter pie perfectly tasty but when I heard about this olive oil crust I thought that maybe it was healthier than the butter crust. Then I got surprised how delicate and sandy this crust was. A delicate taste of olive oil was also detectable in the pie's taste. I used golden delicious apples for this recipe and added just a little bit of sugar since they have natural sweetness. If you use sour cooking apples you need to add more sugar (about half a cup) to this, according to taste. A handful of walnuts enriched this pie in additional nutrients.

Apple Pie with Olive-Oil Crust

2 cups all purpose flour,
1/2–3/4 cup olive oil,
3–4 tbsp icy cold water,
a pinch of salt,
4 golden delicious apples,
1/4 cup sugar,
1/4 cup chopped walnuts.

1. Place flour and salt in a food processor. With the engine running slowly pour in half a cup of olive oil. If the dough is too dense add an extra 1/4 cup. When crumbles are formed add 3–4 tbsp cold of water and run the processor until a smooth dough forms. Turn it off quickly at that point.
2. Wrap the dough in a plastic foil and cool in a refrigerator for an hour.
3. Preheat oven to 375 F.
4. Divide the dough into 2 portion with one slightly bigger than the other. Roll each of them on a working surface dusted with flour.
5. Transfer the bigger disk into a 9-inch bottom pie dish and spread the edge of it on the walls.
6. Peel off the apples and grate them on a grater with big holes. Add sugar and mix well with apples. Fold in walnuts and transfer the filling into the baking dish.

7. Cover the pie with a smaller disk and using a fork or fingers seal the edges of both disks together. Using a fork make holes in the top of the pie so the moisture can evaporate during baking.
8. Bake for about 50 minutes, unit light gold.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Round Zucchinis Roasted with Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Fresh zucchinis, even those late fall ones are so perfect that they do not require much cooking. Just sliced and lightly fried in olive oil with herbs can be absolutely delicious. And today's recipe is based on this idea. It came to me when I found in refrigerator a piece of leftover Gorgonzola cheese that had to be used rather fast. I decided to use it with round zucchinis I bought at Friday market.

I also made a tomato sauce from fresh, barely cooked, tomatoes. Then I cut the zucchinis, baked them, and finished them with the cheese-walnut stuffing. A simple yet delicious fall dish was ready.

Round Zucchinis Baked with Blue Cheese and Walnuts
(Serves 6)

6 small round zucchinis,
2 large heirloom tomatoes,
1 small onion, chopped,
2 tbsp olive oil,
1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese,
2 tbsp chopped walnuts,
1/3 cup flat leaves parsley, chopped,
salt and pepper.

1. Blanch the tomatoes in hot water for a minute. Cool, remove the skins, and cut into small cubes.
2. In a frying pan heat 2 tbsp of oil and fry onion until soft. Add chopped tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, mix. Spread the sauce on the bottom of an oven dish large enough to contain zucchinis.
3. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
4. Cut off the tops of the zucchinis and cut each into eight quarters not going completely to the bottom so the zucchinis keep their form. Place them on the sauce and sprinkle the tops with with salt.

5. Bake the zucchinis for about 20 minutes until their tops are slightly transparent.
6. Mix crumbled cheese with chopped walnuts and parsley and divide between zucchinis pushing the stuffing gently inside. Season with pepper.
7. Bake the zucchinis for another 10 minutes, until the cheese melts.
Serve with fresh baguette.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Barley Salad with Pomegranate and Halloumi

The season for pomegranates, one of my favorite fruits, has just started. I have been experimenting with them again, adding to any dishes for their wonderful taste and health benefits. Today, then, a middle eastern style barley salad with pomegranate arils.

The green salad with barley that I shared some time ago, and made at home I do not remember how many times, has been one of the most popular salads I ever served. Although there are many ingredients in that salad I would mostly credit the barley for its uniqueness.

Barley is quite popular in Poland but I never saw it served as salad. But I like to use it for that purpose because no matter how long you cook it barley almost never becomes entirely soft and gives a nice texture to any salad. In this particular salad, pomegranate arils contribute the sweet and sour taste and extra crunchiness. I finish it with fried halloumi cheese, which makes this simple salad wholesome and tasty.

Barley Salad with Pomegranate and Halloumi
(Serves 4–6)

1/2 cup barley (cooked until tender),
1 bunch flat leaves parsley,
pomegranate arils from one medium pomegranate,
1/2 Halloumi cheese (about 4 oz) cut into slices and then smaller pieces,
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
juice from half a lemon,
1/4 cup roasted pine nuts,
1 tbsp chili flakes,
sea salt to taste.

1. Cook barley for about 20 minutes, until tender. Drain and cool completely. Transfer barley to a large serving bowl.
2. Remove arils from the pomegranate avoiding all white membranes and place in the bowl with barley.
3. Wash parsley and chop the leaves. Add to the barley.
4. Heat one tbsp olive oil on a pan and add halloumi pieces. Sprinkle with chili flakes and fry until dark gold. Cool.

5. In a small bowl mix the remaining one tbsp of olive oil with lemon juice and salt. Pour over the salad, add toasted pine nuts, and and gently toss.
6. Finish the salad with fried halloumi and serve.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Butternut Squash Party Dip

This squash dip is a perfect idea for all kind of fall parties. It can be made either from squash, which will be slightly sweeter and more intensive in color, or from a Halloween pumpkin.

The recipe is very simple but very healthy and the really worth sharing. First, the squash is baked then puréed in a food processor with all the additional ingredients. This particular one is made from butternut squash. I made it on the spicy side, by adding red chili pepper. I finished it with nigella (black onion) seeds that add an extra taste, which contrasts nicely with the orange squash.

The dip can be served just with pita bread but it tastes even better with sea salt or whole wheat crunchy pita bread chips.

Butternut Squash Dip
(Serves 6–8)

2 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed and cut into cubes,
4 tbsp Greek yogurt,
1 tbsp lemon juice,
1 tsp paprika,
1 garlic clove.
1 tsp red chili pepper,
2 tbsp olive oil,
1 tbsp nigella seeds,
sea salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Place squash cubes on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt and rub with olive oil. Bake for 20–30 minutes until soft. Cool.

3.Place the squash in a food processor, add garlic, lemon juice, yogurt, and paprika, and pulse until all the ingredients are blended. Taste and season more if needed.
4. Transfer the dip into a medium bowl. Add chili pepper, mix, and smooth the top.
5. Sprinkle with nigella seeds or extra chili flakes and serve.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Plum Pie with Pistachio Crumbs

This season in Poland, my grandmother used to make plum cakes. They were made on different bases but always were absolutely delicious. The smell of the freshly baked cake filled her whole house. The most aromatic were those made on the yeast base. They took some time to be ready as the dough had to rise for hours in a warm kitchen. Then she put the plums on top and covered them with sugar crumbs.

Sometimes, she made plums cake on a delicate, butter, short crust. I make excellent tarts using my grandmother's recipe but, unfortunately, I have never mastered her yeast cake. So when the fall comes and I see plums I think about the plums cake I used to have in Poland.

Last week, I bought beautiful Italian plums and made a plum cake which is a combination of a pie and my grandmother's cake. On a typical, unsweetened pie crust I put plums coated on sugar and covered them with sugar crumbs. But just for extra color and taste I added to them some chopped Iranian pistachios. Iranian pistachios have much stronger green color than the regular ones which comes out beautifully in the presentation.

Plum Pie with Pistachio Crumbs
(For a 9-inch bottom oven-proof dish)

1 stick cold unsalted butter,
1/4 cup vegetable shortening,
1 and 1/2 cup all purpose flour,
2 tbsp ice-cold water,
a pinch of salt,
1 tsp butter for the dish.

1/3 cup butter,
1/2 cup sugar,
1/3 cup flour,
1/3 cup green, slivered or chipped pistachios,
2 lb Italian (sometimes called Hungarian) plums,
2 tbsp sugar.

1. Place flour, salt, and butter cut into small pieces in a food processor. Pulse it until crumbles form. Add 2 tbsp cold water and run the engine quickly just until the moment when a smooth dough forms. Wrap the dough with plastic foil and chill in refrigerator for at least an hour, preferably overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 400 F.
3. Grease the oven-proof dish with butter. Roll out the dough to a circle of about 11 inches in diameter. Transfer to the dish making inch-high walls.
4. Place the butter, sugar, and flour in a medium bowl and, working with fingers, make crumbs. Add chipped pistachios and mix.

5. Cut plums in halves, remove stones, and place in a medium bowl. Add 2 tbsp sugar and gently mix with plums so they are coated evenly.
6. Place the plums on top of the dough. Cover them with pistachio crumbs. Bake for about 50 minutes until the edges of the pie and the top are gold in color.
7. Cool and serve slightly warm or at room temperature.