ode to the pomegranate

I had never really come across pomegranates before I relocated to Europe and was astounded by everyone’s obsession with them. Round and regal, with skin a strong, matte red, filled with tiny pellets; tart in flavour and vibrant in colour, pomegranate was this week’s pick from the market.

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The form of pomegranate that people are most familiar with is grenadine syrup. Dark pink and sickly sweet, to say the French are obsessed with it is an understatement! A guzzle of syrup topped with anything from water, lemonade or even beer is many people’s idea of a thirst-quenching treat.

Me, I prefer my pomegranates the natural way; popping a handful of the little red raindrops in my mouth – a million little explosions with every crunch. All it takes is a bit of a whack on the shell with the back of a wooden spoon!

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What I have also found interesting about Europe’s love of this interesting fruit, is how much it has been absorbed into architecture – in particularly in the south of Spain.

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The word pomegranate is derived from a bunch of Latin words essentially translating into apple of Granada, and oh, how Granada has taken that name and ran with it!

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Patterns painted on buildings and printed along tiles, buildings and fences topped with crowned bronze orbs – an elegant yet quirky touch to theming an entire region.

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fennel, potato and aubergine anna

After turning my fennel fronds into a fresh and fragrant salad the other day, I had to come up with a way of using the actual bulb… shouldn’t that be the other way around?

What I love about fennel, and similar  vegetables like garlic and leek, is that they jam pack any dish with so much flavour but it’s never too overpowering which makes it perfect for fennel, potato and aubergine anna.

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This receipe is my fancified version of potatoes anna; a light French dish of potatoes baked in butter – similar to a potato bake, but I decided to jazz mine up with some fennel and eggplant.

Begin by thinly slicing some potatoes, I used about six large ones, as well as one eggplant. Salt the eggplant slices and set aside to draw out the moisture and bitterness.

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Roughly chop a bulb of fennel, similar to how you would an onion or leek and evenly spread it along the bottom of a large baking dish.

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Rinse off the eggplant and combine them in a large bowl with the discs of potato. Now is your chance to add any extra flavours – I added the chopped leaves of one sprig of mint and a handful of fresh parsley leaves, along with a good crack of salt and pepper.

Layer this mixture on top of the bed of fennel in as much chaos or order as you see fit, it works better if the discs are all laid flat.

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Now for the pièce-de-résistance; melt ½ a cup of butter (or any combination of butter and olive oil) and drizzle it over top of the heaped vegetables. Place the dish into a hot oven and cook for 30 minutes.

The beauty of this dish is the variation in textures you will end with; a bed of soft and steamy fennel, a layer of crisp potato slices on top of a firm bed of juicy potatoes and soft, creamy eggplant, a smattering of herbs throughout and a rich buttery sauce. The flavours meld together perfectly and the excess butter absorbs the aniseed bite of the fennel and the minty freshness.

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Serve hot on a winter’s night or cold with a fresh salad as a summertime lunch. The flavours are full enough to act as a standalone dish, but subtle enough to work aside fish, chicken or even beef.

lentil, fennel and mushroom salad

SAM_3508Salads are a great way of experimenting with food; much of the planning can be done in your head during the day and they are often quick and easy to throw together, plus the trial and error process is always an interesting way of finding a great flavour combination.

As summer approaches, I have seen fennel salads popping up on menus all over the place, and even though the ones I have sampled have been delicious, they haven’t exactly been substantial enough to work as a standalone meal.

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The obvious solution to this problem was to make my own and see what I could string together.

A fennel bulb looks like a beautifully ridiculous onion, with fine green feathers sprouting from the top. Its flavour is sweeter and more subtle than onion or leek and coats anything it touches in a faint liquorish scent – I find the seeds a little overpowering but the bulb makes a great base to a salad; it even works as a substitute for lettuce!

Slice one fennel bulb as thinly as you can and combine with the zest and juice of one lemon. I diced a couple of black olives and mixed them through too, with a bit of the olive brine for saltiness and a dash of cider vinegar for tartness.

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Peel and half about six mushrooms, coat them in egg wash and roll them in breadcrumbs, I used panko because the pieces are larger; meaning they crisp up better and aren’t so prone to burning.

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Fry the mushrooms in butter at a low heat – you want them to cook through without burning! Transfer the mushrooms, and any dislodged crumbs to a plate and add a few of your favourite spices to the leftover butter. I used cinnamon and chilli powder. Add a can of drained lentils and stir so the spices are evenly distributed. You only want to heat the lentils for a few minutes; just enough to warm them slightly and get rid of any excess water. It goes without saying, but dried lentils that you have cooked yourself will always be better as they hold their shape better and tend not to go mushy.

Distribute the fennel between two plates and top with a mound of lentils. Balance the mushrooms on top and sprinkle with some diced red bell pepper and chopped parsley for a bit of colour.

speculoos – belgian spice cookies

What I love about travelling is how easy it is to carry on dreaming about the holiday long after it has finished; flicking through an album of photos on a rainy day, recreating dishes in your own home, or getting really desperate and taking a tour through a city on street view on Google Maps.

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My first trip when I arrived in Europe was to Brussels, where I discovered the magic that is speculoos – a bronze coloured treasure that I was delighted to find, accompanied almost any cup of coffee ever served in France. They were so readily available that it never occurred to me that I was more than capable of giving them a whirl in my own kitchen.

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I am happy to announce that I have since remedied this problem.

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Speculoos, also known as Belgian Spice Cookies, are dark caramel in colour, sweet and gingery in flavour and brittle in texture. Describing them almost as a crunchy piece of gingerbread may not be the most glamourous of definitions, but it is certainly the most accurate. The perfect consistency for dunking into a cup of coffee or steaming hot chocolate, they are also decorated with the cutest little pictures.

For this recipe, you will need:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon of ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon of allspice (or you could use ground cloves)
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1 cup of butter
  • ½ cup of white sugar
  • ¼ cup of raw sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla

I know it sounds like a bucket load of ingredients but that’s all part of the punch of flavour that comes hand in hand with these biscuits!

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Begin by sifting the flour with the spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a larger bowl cream the butter with the two sugars and vanilla extract. Even though I have used raw sugar here, you can use brown sugar if you wanted; it will give it a smoother finish but I like them a little granulated for extra crunch.

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Gradually combine the dry ingredients with the creamed butter until you have dough that is soft, yet firm. As with any dough mixture; if it’s too dry, add a bit of water; and if it’s too wet, add a bit more flour. You shouldn’t have this problem because it is almost saturated with butter, keeping it smooth and silky.

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Form into a ball, wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate from at least an hour.

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On a layer of baking parchment, roll your dough into a thin, flat rectangle. For a nice finishing touch, roll over the layer with a patterned rolling pin (aren’t these so cool?!)

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Baking at 175°C for 25 minutes, the dough will still be soft and spongey when it comes out – don’t continue baking it! It will harden as it cools down, and it’s at a perfect consistency to slice into squares with a pizza cutter (or a knife, should that be easier).

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Enjoy with a cup of coffee at break, or after lunch, or as an afternoon pick-me-up. Perfect for a bit of happiness when the weather is grey and dreary.

sweet potato croquettes

Boys will be boys. We’ve all heard it before, usually from an emotionally exhausted parent in our youth, but some of us may have even uttered the words ourselves. I found myself in a bit of a ‘boys-will-be-boys’ situation recently; a phone call from my frazzle mother – my little brother had toppled off his skateboard as he raced down a rather speed hill, breaking his jaw in three places. Typical.

Gone are the days when doctors would wire a broken jaw closed like the monster from a B-grade horror film, but he is still restricted in what he was allowed to eat. Sympathetic of a diet of tired mashed potatoes and tomato soup, I graciously took on the task of inventing some delicious, yet soft and smooth meal ideas.

French cuisine is so much more expansive than many of us imagine, boeuf bourguignon and foie gras are not quotidian meals as any French-cooking themed film would lead us to believe. Au contraire, they are traditional – time-consuming and expensive to make, and like the variety of French wines, are very regionally specific. I have decided that I needed to increase my knowledge on the larger umbrella that is the way that French people actually cook. I have been flicking through my newly acquired copy of 100 Styles of French Cooking by Karl Wurzer, marking recipes to try in my own variation of Julie Powell’s homage to Julia Child in The Julie/Julia Project – the story behind Julie & Julia for those who have no idea what I’m talking about.

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Sweet potato is something that I grew up eating a lot of, I could never pass up a huge pile of deep-fried sweet potato fries, crisp and salty – the perfect picnic dinner while sitting on the beach. They are basically a more interesting version of a standard potato and when I stumbled upon Karl’s recipe for croquettes à l’algerienne – Algerian croquettes, I knew I had to try them out!

Like most delicious things, these crunchy globes of mustard coloured mash are best finished off in the deep fryer, but because I 1) don’t have a deep fryer and 2) am not using that much oil in one go, I decided to pan fry them and finish them off in the oven – kind of like my churros.

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Peel and dice one sweet potato per person and boil until cooked through and tender. Drain through a colander and leave so as much of the water as possible can drip through. Sauté ¼ of an onion per person in olive oil or lard – I used chicken fat from a roast the night before, it gives it a nice meaty flavour without making it seem too heavy. Mash the potato and stir the onions through once they are soft and syrupy, along with 2 tablespoons of ground almonds or cashews per person, ½ a teaspoon of cumin, ¼ a teaspoon of nutmeg, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a big grind of salt and pepper. I added a pinch of dried herbs too.

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Based on your skill and patience, there are two ways to shape the croquettes – you can either shape them into flat rugby ball shaped spheres with your hands, or into quenelles using two tablespoons. Either way, you’ll get the same result. If you are organised enough, I would recommend doing this much of the process the day before and refrigerating the quenelles so they hold their shape better. If that’s not possible then I guess that’s fine too.

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Fry your croquettes in as much oil or melted butter as you want – the more you use, the easier it will be, but as you increase the oil, you increase the un-healthiness – a lose-lose situation. I lightly fried mine on either side before baking them for a further 10 minutes to get an even crisp and to heat them the whole way through.

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I served mine with a yogurt and tahini dip and sprinkled over some more herbs, salt and pepper, just in time for my brother to tell me he couldn’t make it. More for me I guess!

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les différences entre nous

There are many aspects of life that we all take for granted, and I’m not talking about the usual things; having a roof over our heads, running water and food on the table. I’m looking at this from a more day-to-day level, like knowing what shop to go to when you need to buy blu-tac. Moving to a new country, even when you’re not faced with the language barrier (even if there isn’t a direct colloquial understanding – a topic for another post, on another day), you will always find yourself earning for the familiarities of the way things work back home.

France may take the cake when it comes to sweets and pastries, but trying to get your banking done is far from a breeze – no matter how buttery and soft that pain au chocolat is, stepping into a bank branch will have you dreaming of home. Like much of France, from supermarkets to boulangeries, banks are never open on Sundays, and often closed Mondays too, they are usually closed for Saturday afternoons and sometimes even after lunch on Wednesdays. If you do manage to get into the branch while it’s open, you better hope that it’s the branch you’re registered with. With today’s technology, I was used to walking into any branch, anywhere in the country and being able to open a new savings account or set up my internet banking – sadly that’s not the case. Speaking of internet banking, I had to register my phone number, get sent two different codes by post and register my overseas account (also by post) just to transfer anything in or out of the account. Le sigh.

Brigitte Bardot in “Vie privée”
Brigitte Bardot in “Vie privée”

 Once you have found a way of accessing your money, you might want to go and do something fun with it. You may even want to do it with some friends. If you do manage to find someone who can leap over the language barrier, you may still find yourself sitting alone at the bar. Don’t worry, it’s not that you’re boring, its jus that everyone is outside taking a cigarette break. New Zealand isn’t a nation teeming with smokers, quite the opposite in that many smokers find themselves looking through the window of the bar, stamping their feet to ward off the cold as their friends all sit inside having fun and enjoying the warmth. France is the opposite; there have been many a time that I have found myself alone at a table of six, or even lounging over four barstools as all of my friends stand in the cold, smoking and enjoying each other’s company.

The differences are not all bad, European bars and restaurants always seem to have somewhere to hang your coat. I have often found in New Zealand, much to my infuriation, that the only place to leave your coat is hanging off the back of your chair, or in a crumpled mess next to the dance floor. In Europe, it’s different. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs all have hooks under bar benches and free coat checks at the door. It’s the ideal student job – working as a vestiare at a nightclub; all of the hustle and bustle of a bartender without ever spilling beer all over your feet.

You win some you lose some, the grass is always greener somewhere else and all the rest of those sayings. No one said it was easy; settling into a new way of life always takes time but it always works out in the end.

how to not get mugged

They say that it happens to every traveller at least once as they meander across Europe; getting mugged is almost seen as a rite of passage, an event that upon surviving means that you have transcended the threshold of tourist and become something bigger.

Garnering some real travel nouse may seem great, but getting mugged isn’t too fun. While I managed to make it in and around the continent without getting swindled of anything valuable, I did witness one or two criminal encounters along the way and have come up with a couple of pointers to avoid any unwarranted visits to the police station.

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  • This goes without saying, but I am going to say it anyway – don’t be flashy with your brand new iPhone. Keep it in your front pocket when you’re not using it, not waving about in your hand as the sunlight reflects off the screen, attracting unwanted eyes. And don’t use it as you walk down that derelict, yet picturesque side street, especially at night and especially if you’re alone. Better still, just don’t have an iPhone. No-one was ever interested in stealing my phone, probably because it looked like it came straight out of 2004.

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  • Invest in a sturdy bag. I’m not saying you should walk about with a fanny pack everywhere you go; that will probably just draw more attention to you as a tourist. A friend of mine once had a little bag that she would throw over her shoulder by a thin little strap, one strong tug and the strap snapped and the bag was whisked down the street by un voleur, never to be seen again.
  • Another one that should go without saying is not to carry your passport with you unless you’re actually going to another country. This rule won’t really stop you from getting mugged but it will save you a lot of hassle and peace of mind if you do. Hostels have lockers and getting a new passport is a rather difficult, expensive and time-consuming ordeal from what I’ve heard.

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  • If you’re visiting a non-English speaking country, chances are the locals won’t like you. It’s a bold statement but it’s true; maybe because often tourists are annoying or maybe because there is still a bit more xenophobia in the world than we would like. To avoid sticking out as a monolingual foreigner, don’t speak loudly in English amongst yourselves and don’t flail about as you do it. A gaggle of excitable young English speakers can make for an easy target – so if possible, refrain from having any fun in public.

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A lot of this is easier said than done, so I think the sagest piece of advice is to have your wits about you, look out for your friends and hope for the best. And if it happens, you’ll come away with an interesting tale for years to come about police officers making the culprit apologise to you before leading him off in cuffs, or chasing someone through the windy streets of a little port town while the locals gawked at you.

the smallest kitchen in paris

My approach to learning the French language was slightly alternative to most; I didn’t take French at school, in fact, my school didn’t even offer French until I was 16. I studied Japanese at university then decided, in a rather spontaneous decision, to move to France instead of heading to Japan as originally planned.

Armed with a My-First-French-Words book, I set off on a whirlwind attempt at conquering this difficult little language. It turned out that my greatest tool would actually be a cookbook.

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La pétite cuisine à Paris by Rachel Khoo was first published in 2012 and details the recipes Rachel finds closest to her heart from her time in Paris. Like me, Rachel moved to France with basically no knowledge of the French language, unlike me, she has become hugely successful. Her love of food, cooking and entertaining is prevalent in this book, and that is what I love about it, it’s not pretentious, like French cuisine can easily become, the food is uncomplicated and gives a modern spin on many French classics without being too ‘modern’.

When I was given this book (as part of the French-est Christmas present ever) I was under the impression that Rachel had written the book in French, or translated it herself from the English version, but I am not quite sure I can confirm this as a true fact. But at the time I liked if for that very reason; it made me believe that it wasn’t impossible to master the language, even though so many irregular verbs should be illegal; if she could do it, and write a book to prove it, then so could I!

The language the book uses is relatively basic – the majority of it is recipes; they all follow a similar structure and repeat many of the same verbs and nouns. Reading it and cooking from it was an excellent way of improving my reading ability, practicing verb conjugation in a practical and delicious way while learning verbs and nouns that would eventually come in very handy! Faire fondu, préchauffer, and la recette are all phrases that anyone who has to cook anything in French needs to know.

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As well as teaching me how to say whisk in French and the words for a bunch of vegetables, it also provided me with a crash course on the French classics. We have all heard of coq-au-vin and macarons, but my favourite new encounter was her mini tartiflettes – a sinfully delicious Savoyard take on potato bake, filled with smoky lardons and gooey melted cheese; relatively unheard of anywhere else and one of France’s best kept secrets!

wine talk

Almost everywhere you go in this day and age, any restaurant which offers wine matching with a meal seems to be head and shoulders above the rest in terms of sophistication; an in-depth knowledge of wine has been deemed the epitome of food knowledge, and because France is synonymous with food culture, they have become the (probably self-appointed) specialists on wine.

I think there are a range of reasons behind this; being a waiter in France is a high calibre profession, say what you will about French waiters, there is an art and science to it that they alone seem to have discovered. It also could just come down to French snobbery.

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On the subject of snobbery, I once had an encounter with a French man in regards to wine snobbery which sees me seething with hot anger, still to this day. In my opinion, becoming knowledgeable on wine is something that takes time, years even; not a skill that you just instantly gain. This gentleman had a differing opinion. We were at a house party, he was offered a glass of wine, cask wine – something I am not particularly fond of, but this particular wine was reasonably good. Yet he had a distinct opposition to cask wine; ‘I only drink nice bottles of wine’. He continued to talk about his extensive knowledge on the subject so I inquired as to how he had obtained said knowledge. His answer: being French meant that he was genetically designed to just know these things, absorbing it almost by osmosis just by being around people who are always drinking wine. Anyone non-French who grows up around people who are always drinking wine would just say they were raised by lushes.

Decent wine doesn’t necessarily come in a bottle and I think many people get hung up on how much they are willing to spend on wine – a huge price tag doesn’t automatically signal a perfect blench. That is not to say that a Saint Émilion or a Chateau d’Yquem are not exquisite – there is top shelf and then there is completely out of reach to most of us. Here, I am talking about the midrange stuff; you don’t have to spend half a week’s wage on a bottle of wine. Looking at wine reviews in magazines and results from wine awards, it is interesting to see that the usual winners are not the ones with the highest price tag, in fact the priciest bottle usually ends up floundering in the middle of the rankings.

Which brings me to my final point: Cooking with wine. People seem to have an aversion to cooking with anything but the wine you are drinking. The point of adding wine to cooking is to infuse the meal with the flavours of the wine, it doesn’t matter how smooth or rough the wine’s texture, velvety or harsh – any marks of the vintage will evaporate off with the alcohol, simmering down to the fruity tannin tones is what is really important here.

Conclusion: as someone whose wine tasting experience starts and ends at Beaujolais nouveau, my wine knowledge is actually rather limited. I know when to serve red wine and when to serve white, I know that the depth of colour in a red comes from the amount of sunshine on the grapes, and that’s about it. I think the idea of owning a vineyard would be wonderful, but maybe a little bit of expanding my knowledge practically would be a better first step.

things about garlic

In my opinion, garlic is an essential ingredient in any dish, with very few exceptions. I roast it whole, I slice it thinly and add it to sauces, I even crush it and spread it over hot, butter toast; an instant garlic bread!

While most families’ vege gardens are teeming with carrots, bushels of lettuce and tangles of shiny tomatoes, the most predominant feature in my family’s garden was always row upon crocked row of flaxy green garlic shoots. We took great delight in looping the thin stalks together into wide plaits, the bulbs sleepily drooping as they were hung up to dry.

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I recently bought a big bunch of bulbs for a bargain of a price, and I was stoked with my score. Until I got home. On closer inspection, many of the cloves were going to seed, some were even rotting and growing mould; I was distraught. No wonder they had been so cheap! For those of you who aren’t fussed enough to remove the germ, David Lebovitz did an interesting test with them here.

My brain peddled into overdrive as I listed all of the ways I could use as much of it up as possible; can you freeze garlic? How long will they last drowned in olive oil? How much roast garlic could I eat in one sitting without making anyone not want to sit in a two metre radius of me?

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Obviously, I turned to the internet to answer my questions. Yes, you can freeze garlic, although its best to slice it before you freeze it so it can go straight from the freezer into the pan. If crushed and mixed with double the amount of olive oil, the mixture won’t freeze solid. Instead, it will maintain a thick, pulpy consistency – giving you long-lasting garlic and delicious, perfumed oil.

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I didn’t want to use so much oil, so I opted for the option of a garlic paste. My fingers were numb by the time I had peeled and degermed the cloves from seven garlic cloves, so it’s a good thing the next steps are so straightforward. Add the garlic to a food processor, for each bulb drizzle in a tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt, I also added a pinch of turmeric for flavouring.

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Whiz until it’s as smooth or as chunky as you would like, transfer it to an airtight jar and store in the fridge or freezer. A perfect garlic bread spread or to add a dollop to any meal!

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