un marché provençal

Anyone who has never visited Europe often makes the very common misconception that everyone in France spends at least a portion of their day wandering around a farmer’s market. The sun is shining; no matter what time of year, every second stall sells homemade cheeses, someone has bought their chickens which are laying eggs right in front of your eyes, you shout slightly over the clucking while bartering over a bunch of earthy carrots, you take your change from the farmer’s wife’s rough hands before running home to chop up the carrots and throw them into your boeuf bourguignon.

Don’t get me wrong; French famer’s markets are exquisite, and while there are some that are open every day, most happen once a week and most people; the city folk in particular, get their produce from the supermarché.

When I first arrived in France, I too was under the impression that I would be able to buy vegetables that still smelt like soil right outside my front door, but sadly the closest I got was an open-air garage sale selling secondhand skirts and tacky jewellery around the corner from my apartment disturbing the peace on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Being an expanse of green pastures, New Zealand has its fair share of pretty remarkable farmer’s markets so I have made it my mission to visit as many markets as I can around Europe looking for something comparable that I can add to my list of foodie must-sees. After getting off to a bit of a rough start, I would soon find something not too far from my front door.

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Le grand marché in Aix-en-Provence is every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, people come from all around to shop, eat and absorb the atmosphere; especially on Saturdays, which are by far the busiest. Aix-en-Provence is a picturesque rural town in the Bouche-du-Rhône region of Southern France and its geological placing makes for a sensually overwhelming variety of fresh, artisanal products. The city itself is a mere stone’s throw from the banks of the Rhône river, just 30km from Marseille, you can count that any fish at the market will be freshly caught, and the olives, grapes and vegetables are grown on the sun soaked plains that surround the city.

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The Aix-en-Provence markets are not something you just pop down to to pick up a few things, it really is a whole day event! Roads are closed, squares are packed with as many stalls as they can fit and everyone wanders at their leisure. The warm Mediterranean air mingles with the pollen of the bright flower bouquets, fresh bread and cured meats, creating an intoxicating aroma almost too good to imagine.

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We began the day early. Walking out of an ancient stone corridor, we were greeted by mounds of exotic spices, all different shades of an autumnal rainbow piled in neat little rows. Past stalls of old records and paperback novels, we found what we had come for: food! And what a variety of food there was; four of the main squares were condoned off and filled with row upon row of vendors. We wandered for the rest of the morning, our eyes as big as our stomachs as we tried any sample we were offered; bread, salami, cheese, fresh fruit, sundried tomatoes, stuffed olives and roasted nuts. By the time we had tried everything, fearful of missing any morsel, we were faced with the challenge of choosing what we wanted to buy for lunch, only to realise that we were so full that we didn’t need lunch.

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After a bit of sightseeing- the cathedral is dauntingly beautiful and constantly filled with the sound of the organ echoing off the dimly lit stone walls- we settled on a capsicum relish, a crunchy loaf of bread and a chunk of gooey cheese. It is fair to say that we had a well-deserved nap on the train home.

arriba arriba, tortilla tortilla!

Spanish tortilla; a staple recipe that every Spanish housewife knows off by heart and can whip up in no time in the event of entertaining unexpected guests. And around Corpus Christi, one should expect a lot of unexpected guests.

While the general concept of a tortilla is very simple to prepare, there are a few complex nuances that are needed to prepare the perfect tortilla – they are essential, because, remember, the whole street is going to be judging you based on it.

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A tortilla is essentially a potato omelette – a frittata, so the ingredients don’t really extend further than potato, eggs and milk. Oh, and an unreasonable amount of oil. My first piece of advice is to think about the amount of potato you have in relation to milk and eggs in relation to the size of your frying pan. You don’t want too much potato that each piece isn’t saturated in egg mixture, but you want enough so that when it is all in the pan it isn’t spread too thinly. I would suggest two medium size potatoes to three eggs and a cup of milk.

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My second piece of advice is to cut the potatoes very small, you want them to cook all the way through without crisping up too much. And the smaller the pieces the quicker they will cook. As a guide, I would say cut them into pieces roughly the size of your fingernail. I did it here with parsnips.

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Gently heat about three tablespoons of oil in a pan and add the potatoes, stirring frequently. ADVICE: Use a non-stick fry pan or don’t even bother. Speaking from experience, if it’s not non-stick, you will end up with lumpy scrambled eggs.

It will take you about 15 minutes to cook the potato all the way through, be patient. When you think they are done, wait a few more minutes, because you are probably wrong and no one likes to eat raw potatoes.

Scoop the potato out of the pan, keeping the oil for later. While the potato cools, whisk the eggs and milk together. Some recipes say to separate the eggs and whisk the whites to firm peaks before mixing in the milk – you can do this but I don’t think it makes for a better end product and just takes up time. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and half a teaspoon of nutmeg. Nutmeg is the key ingredient, the ‘secret’ ingredient – just ask anyone, they are all more than willing to tell you, as long as you promise you won’t tell anyone, and if you do tell anyone each person will insist that they came up with the great idea of adding nutmeg.

At this stage, you can add anything fancy you want; spinach, sundried tomatoes, or cheese. I prefer mine left plain and simple. Mix the potato into the milk, reheat the oil and pour the mixture in. Use a slow eat so the tortilla cooks through without burning, this will take about 5 minutes or until the edges have begun to solidify.

Mentally prepare yourself for the hardest part of this recipe – the flipping. Turn off the heat, place a plate on top of the pan and with a tea towel in each hand, and flip the pan upside-down. The plate will now have the tortilla on it, raw-side down. Place the pan back on the heat and slide the tortilla back into the pan and cook for another 5 minutes.

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Flip it out of the pan, slice it into wedges, bit-size pieces or just tuck into it with a fork each. It’s not much to look at but tastes like an afternoon lying in the sun. Serve with salad, beer and people you like.

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olives and oven-baked feta

Since starting to make my own cheeses, I have begun experimenting with different ways to use it. Although feta goes great on toast with a drizzle of honey, I thought it was probably a better idea to push my abilities more than that, regardless of how good it might taste.

I have been pleasantly surprised with feta’s versatility; its creaminess allows for it to break down into a rich sauce, yet it is soft, spreadable and ideal for a snack of crackers or bread. It is also able to hold its form rather well when baking. And that is what I am doing with it in this recipe.

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Even though I have never been to Greece, I think that it is probably my food spirit country, a member of the long list of ancestors’ homelands, I have a hereditary love of olives and feta, don’t get me started on the correct way to make horiatiki or moussaka, and we have previously discussed how obsessed with baklava I am.

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This recipe is not a Greek dish per say, but it is inspired by Greek flavours, adapted from a recipe I found in an old cooking magazine recently. The proportions for this dish are very fluid, and my fluid I mean you can add as much as you want of anything. But here is what I used: one green and one orange bell pepper, one punnet of cherry tomatoes, one onion, about 200grams of feta (yours doesn’t have to be homemade, but mine was) and about ½ of a large jar of olives. I used Kalamata olives but any kind will work, if possible, try and avoid pitted olives because they won’t keep their shape when they cook.

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To start with, thinly slice your onion and combine it with a small dash of lemon juice and a teaspoon of sugar. Thinly slice the peppers and place them in a large roasting dish with the onion and olives, you can also add some whole, peeled garlic cloves if you so desire. Season with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil, a dash of red wine vinegar and add a bay leaf. Depending on your tastes, you can add a teaspoon each of chilli powder and fennel seeds, a dash of cinnamon and the zest of a lemon (I used dried lemon peel).

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Roast at 180°C for 25 minutes, stir is occasionally to get an even roast and cut the tomatoes in half while you wait. Break the feta into quarters, place on top of the vegetables and pour the chopped tomatoes over top, add more pepper if you think it needs it.

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Bake for another 10 minutes, the tomatoes will become tender and the cheese will soften and begin to crisp up slightly. It is best that the tomatoes do not become too tender and lose their shape, too long in the oven and this will happen to the feta too.

As a summer meal, serve the dish warm, with a loaf of crusty bread to soak up the juices. This dish has all the makings of a delicious, comforting winter meal; add lamb fillets or chops to the dish before you begin cooking.

place the peppers in the pan

I must be in a very Italian mood at the moment because last night I had the biggest craving for Peperonata that I don’t think I would have made it through the night if I hadn’t made it immediately… so I did. Peperonata is an Italian stew made with bell peppers, with a consistency somewhere between a pasta sauce and a chutney, it is a real comfort food that works well in so many situations.

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I wish I had a wonderfully exotic story for where I first came across this little beauty, but in fact I actually tried it for the first time at the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market in New Zealand many years ago. However I was reintroduced to it in Italy, where I learnt to make it, and it was surprisingly easier than I had originally thought.

What I love about this recipe is the simpleness of it; essentially one main ingredient – bell peppers, yet it is packed with so much flavour. The original concept of this recipe was to use a large amount of peppers at once, at times when they were in abundance or excess. This is not so much the case anymore with most vegetables being accessible all year round, but it’s nice to have these kinds of recipes in your arsenal when certain vegetables become really cheap.

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Start off by cooking one finely diced onion and several smashed cloves of garlic in olive oil. I sometimes add a tablespoon of sugar to give the dish a bit more sweetness, stir occasionally until the onion is soft and slightly caramelised. Cut five bell peppers into large square shape pieces; about eight per pepper. I used red peppers but you can use any colour, a mixture of different coloured peppers will give you a nice vibrantly coloured dish at the end. Place the pepper pieces into the pan, skin-side down until they begin to blister; this should take a couple of minutes. Add one cup of red or white wine, a dash each of apple cider vinegar and red wine vinegar. Using red wine will give the dish a fuller flavour so it depends on how your plan on serving it. For a tarter taste, substitute the wine for red wine vinegar.

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Once the wine and vinegars have been absorbed, add pepper, a teaspoon of rock salt and your choice of herbs. I used rosemary, thyme and a bay leaf. Depending on the season, your timeframe or your pantry, add a can of tomatoes or six fresh diced tomatoes and simmer until it has reached a consistency that you like the look of.

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Serve with pasta, on toasted bread like bruschetta, or on the side of a juicy piece of steak or fish.

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raw food club: courgette and mushroom salad

Summer is upon us, my friends! I know that it feels like winter ended about yesterday, and European Spring really isn’t much better than winter, but believe me; it will just jump out from around the corner and it will be here!

Plaza de España - Sevilla, Spain
Plaza de España – Sevilla, Spain

Summer is the time for salads. There are several reasons why this is the case; when the temperature is up in the early forties, we want to spend as little time in the kitchen near a hot stove, and the idea of a hot meal is far less appealing. So here is my solution.

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This is my raw courgette and mushroom salad with feta and pickled radishes. The acid in the dressing slightly pickles the mushrooms, taking the raw edge off their earthy flavour, making them juicy with an awesome zing. In contrast, the courgette is fresh and crunchy, I slice it as thinly as possible with a mandolin to create an almost leafy texture.

For the dressing, you will need:
1 clove of crushed garlic
1 teaspoon of lemon zest
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar

Combine all of the ingredients with a bit of salt and pepper and set aside. Peel and thinly slice 6 button mushrooms and pour the dressing over top to marinate the mushrooms. Thinly slice 2 courgettes, if you don’t have a mandolin you can use a regular knife to slice them as thinly as possible, you can also use a vegetable peeler to get a more desirable effect.

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Combine the courgette slices with 2 handfuls of torn spinach leaves, mix through the mushrooms and ¼ cup of feta (mine was homemade, just saying). Top with a small handful of pickled radishes, adding a tablespoon of the pickling liquid overtop. You could also a handful of roasted almonds or ½ of a diced avocado. The almonds could also act as a substitute for the feta.

If you are having trouble finding pickled radishes, they are so easy to make! Here is how I do it; thinly slice a bunch of radishes – enough to fill whatever size jar you have, for a small jar add ½ a teaspoon of salt and sugar each and fill the jar with vinegar or vodka. Screw the lid on and give it a good shake, the radishes will be nice and pickled after a few days and will keep for a while in the fridge. Easy!

Courgette and mushroom salad, homemade feta, spicy buttered potatoes
Courgette and mushroom salad, homemade feta, spicy buttered potatoes

This salad is takes about 10 minutes from start to finish which is perfect on a sunny day when cooking is the last thing on your mind! Serve by itself for lunch, or with some buttery boiled potatoes as a meal, or it is ideal accompanied with an antipasto platter of cheese, olives, capers and breads.