what the fig?

The first time I tried figs I thought that they were the worst. I was at university and my mum included a packet of dried figs in a package she sent me because she knew they were disgusting and thought it would be funny. Thanks Mum, happy Mother’s Day.

Years later, when I had put this trauma behind me and built up the courage to try figs again (fresh this time), I was shocked to discover that I had been giving them a bad rap for far too long. They are really unlike anything I had ever tasted before; a perfect balance of nectary sweetness while still seeming wholesomely savoury.

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In this part of the world they can be a bit pricey so I have always been a little reluctant to experiment with them but went out for dinner s few weeks ago and had the most incredible baked figs that I could resist giving them a go in my own kitchen.

This is a great dish and so versatile! You can serve it as a snack, a starter or even a dessert, and it looks beautiful!

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Slice as many fresh figs as you like in half, I would say about two per person as a constraint against over-indulging. I’m still not a fan of measuring anything properly so this recipe is really measured in pinches and dashes. Top with a tiny dollop of butter, an equal amount of honey and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon. Admire their beauty and take in the scent of the flavours melding together.

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Bake at 180°C for 15 to 20 minutes – it really depends on the ripeness of the fruit you’re using but in my opinion, this is a prime example of when the saying ‘low and slow’ applies.

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A couple of minutes before I took my oozing little beauties out of the oven, I topped each with a tiny ball of goats cheese – it adds a savoury element to make it not-just-a-dessert food and the chèvre compliments the honey and cinnamon oh so well.

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The one problem I find with these bite-sized morsels is how moreish they are – I honestly believe I could eat my bodyweight in them!

 

homemade: pomegranate lemon tea

I saw an article the other day about a retired couple who had embraced sustainable living and the very in-vogue concept of ‘zero waste’ to such an extreme that they took an entire year to fill up one rubbish bag.

Now, I am nowhere near this level of dedication and while I can admire it, I am not completely sure that I could aspire to it. That being said, like much of my cooking, my recent pomegranate obsession (here and here – if you’re interested) left me with one by-product that I could bear to see go to waste – the pomegranate skin.

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Even though it isn’t something I would want to eat, the pomegranate’s skin is brightly coloured and fruity scented, it would be sad to see it go to waste and it also has a whole truckload of health benefits.

Trawling through the internet looking for interesting uses, many people suggest adding dried pomegranate skin to your shampoo and other beauty products for silky hair and smooth skin.

I’m not one to put the hard yards into anything if there isn’t going to be a benefit to my taste buds so instead I made a pomegranate and lemon powder to make tea infusions and flavour dishes in a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean way. Any added beautification is just a bonus!

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Using as much concentration as possible, I sliced the outer layer of blood-red skin away from the soft, white pith, and did the same with two small lemons. You can dry the skin in the oven like I did for my dried citrus peel or in a slow cooker like these limes – I used the slow cooker so I didn’t have to pay so much attention to them. Leave the lid slightly ajar once the pot has heated up and mop up any condensation with a paper towel.

Once the pieces are brittle enough to snap, you know they’re done. Remove them from the slow cooker and once they are cooled, crush them into a relatively fine powder in a mortar and pestle.

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Steep a teaspoon of the powder in hot water for a fruity, homemade tea, add a sprinkling into a sauce for a fruit punch. Or make your own grenadine syrup without any sugar by mixing equal parts of powder and hot water before diluting with ice cold sparkling water.

have you heard of salsa verde?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how I was planning a trip to Argentina. I had this revelation at about the same time that I started planning my Christmas menu and thought it might be a nice opportunity to try my hand at another quintessential dish. Bringing us to Christmas condiment number 2; salsa verde.

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Salsa Verde is Spanish for green sauce, it is packed full of fresh herbs which give it a punchy flavour, great for enhancing any meal!

Like I said the other day; our Christmas meal was a beautiful rack of lamb, and what is a traditional, go-to side to roast lamb? Mint sauce! Salsa Verde is essentially mint, basil and parsley which makes it not only delicious, but quick and hassle-free to make, and perfect for the summertime!

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All you will need for this tasty accompaniment is:

2 handfuls of parsley leaves
1 handful of mint leaves
1 handful of basil leaves
2 tablespoons of capers
2 large gherkins
1 tablespoon of wholegrain mustard
3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
the juice of half a lemon
8 tablespoons of olive oil
a big crack of pepper
1 handful of cashew nuts

I know that ‘handful’ isn’t exactly a scientific way of measuring anything but I think it works here – if you’re picking the herbs from your garden you can wrap your hands around as many stems as you want for each of the three. I bought mine at the market and just made one bunch the equivalent of a handful and the ratio worked well for me!

Cashew nuts are not in any recipe I have seen online but I added them for two reasons; I thought their subtle nutty flavour would mellow the harsh zing of the herbs, and I have come left over from when I made my stollen.

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Give the leaves a rinse under cold water and discard the stems, whiz all of the ingredients up in the food processor and you are good to go! The herbs retain a little bit of their crunch and absorb the sweet spiciness of the golden, pale green olive oil – it’s a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds, so irresistible that I may or may not have mopped the remnants from the food processor with a piece of bread!

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Served alongside the lamb and a pile of new potatoes, the green smattering of sauce gave my plate a needed burst of colour and brought the flavours to a whole new level!

 

olive tapenade; christmas condiment?

Since Christmas was over a week ago, we can now begin to look back at it in a nostalgic frame of mind, reminiscing over the lovely time we had and start counting down the days until the next one. I like to spend as much of January as I can talking about what we all ate to carry the magic on for as long as possible.

In my household, we never do Christmas the ‘traditional’ way; we never have a turkey, we don’t play Christmas carols and we decorate a baby fruit tree which we later plant during my mother’s “Christmas spirit ceremony” – a little unconventional but over time I have come to accept it as our version of normal.

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This year was no different. My father was hell-bent on serving a lamb rack from Christmas lunch, something I was never going to object to! I put myself in charge of preparing the condiments and allocated the lamb preparation to Dad; roasted with a simple crust of panko breadcrumbs and preserved lemon, it was moreish and crisp, the tartness of the lemons nicely juxtaposed with the sweetness of all the butter used to hold the crust together like a fantastic culinary clay.

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I digress; the condiments, that’s what I am really talking about here, the condiments. Clinging onto the usual theme of a summer Christmas in a Southern Europe-inspired household, condiment number one was a velvety and zingy olive tapenade.

Olives are always a staple in my pantry; without a jar of olives, I get a sort of meal creation anxiety. It’s for this reason that I thought it was a must that I incorporate my favourite purple pebbles into our celebratory meal.

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Olive tapenade is by no means a difficult side dish to create; it doesn’t involve a large about of kitchen prowess and you only need to invest a small portion of time into it.

For my recipe, here’s what you’ll need:

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A jar of olives – I opted for Kalamata olives but it is completely up to your preferences
3 cloves of garlic – more or less as you see fit
2 tablespoons of capers
a small handful of fresh parsley or 2 tablespoons of dried parsley
the zest of a lemon, and half of its juice
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of wholegrain mustard
a good crack of salt and pepper

You can add anything else you like, obviously stick to ingredients with a Mediterranean feel – sundried tomatoes, anchovies, even figs. Or just keep it nice and simple and let the olives do the talking.

A few notes, too: it’s 100% okay to use extra virgin olive oil here because the tapenade isn’t cooked; the smooth, smoky flavour of the oil is not wasted.

Regardless of if you are using Kalamata olives, black Spanish or green Italian olives, I strongly suggest you buy them whole and pit them yourself. In my opinion, the flavour will be better and the texture of your tapenade will be sleek and not mushy. It’s great if you have, or can locate a cherry or olive pitter (which is extremely difficult if you don’t live in Spain), but slicing them with a paring knife and removing the pits by hand doesn’t take too long.

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Now onto the ‘recipe’: place all of your ingredients into a blender or food processor (or use a mortar and pestle if you’re hard-core!) and whiz until combined and smooth. It is such a beautiful shade of burgundy that you might want to paint your kitchen with it!

It’s ready to eat straight away but the flavour will deepen the longer its left – it will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

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I spread it liberally over the juicy lamb and used the leftovers as a colourful addition to our many Christmas cheeseboards and even spread it over pieces of crusty bread as an easy afternoon snack.

What was your culinary highlight of Christmas?

 

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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virtual walking tours

Easing back into real life after a holiday is always tough, especially after an extended vacation of endless summer days in a sunny daze. What I find is a healthy alternative to pining for white-sanded beaches while curled up in a ball in a dark room is going on virtual tours of my favourite places on Google Maps.

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Portovenere

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Rugged and rocky beaches, twisting cobble roads and gelato stores on every corner; Portovenere is my favourite hidden Italian gem. It sits on a shagged outcrop, nestled high above the Mediterranean in Northern Italy – just down the road from the picturesque (and tourist-saturated) Cinque Terre. As the coast continues from Riomaggiore, the railway veers into La Spezia, taking the tourists with it, making a cramped bus trip the easiest way of reaching Portovenere. Snack on focaccia and breathe in the warm, salty air – if you’re lucky, you might even see a wedding in the shady piazza.

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Lisbon

Lisbon is a city of great variety; flat coastal promenades and buildings perched on hilltops, wide open plazas and windy little side streets. Essentially there is something for everyone. I love walking along Avenida Ribeira das Naus; watching the ferries crossing the harbour, revelling at the Praça do Comércio and visiting the markets. The best thing about visiting the city on street view is that you avoid all of the throngs of tourists!

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Vienna

One day in Vienna and you are without a doubt that that this city was once the centre of Europe; the opulence and elegance of each buildings’ façade is unlike anything I have ever seen. Even though it’s not as easy to virtually walk about the city as most other places, it is one of the easiest places in the world to just sit and stare at the chalk-white buildings and watch the world go by.

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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bitter sweet coffee sauce

Since arriving in France, my dependency on coffee has increased dramatically – last winter involved a self-enforced intervention when a colleague pointed out that I had guzzled a grand total of 10 (!) shots of espresso in one working day. Any French person will tell you that French coffee is one of the finest crafted beverages you will ever encounter, this is not the case. As a vase and wide spreading generalisation, I have found that the French often burn their espresso and boil their milk, and even though the standard is rather below par, I still enjoy wrapping my hands around a café allongé, imbibing the steaming, sweet aroma, or sipping a dark, smoky espresso after a meal.

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Like I said the other day, hot drinks in sticky weather aren’t the best combination, so I have had to get inventive in order to get my caffeine fix. This idea developed from an iced coffee; the obvious choice for a cold coffee craving, without all of the sugar and whipped cream that so many places add to it. My coffee sauce is strong and bitter, creamy with a real punch of flavour.

I like my coffee strong, strong like the Italians drink it kind of strong, and I wanted this recipe to reflect that. I began with half a plunger of leftover coffee and slowly simmered it down to half a cup; a little time consuming but well worth it in the end.

In a separate pot, combine 50grams of melted butter with 2 tablespoons of corn flour over a medium heat until it forms a thick paste that smells like baking dough; a good roux will help make your sauce full-bodied and thick. Whisk in ½ a cup of cream or condensed milk, whisking will help evenly combine the roux and aerate the mixture. Stir constantly over a low heat until it begins to thicken, then add the coffee.

Continue to stir the mixture to avoid it boiling – this could lead to it splitting! How long you leave it really depends on how you like it, I kept mine relatively runny so that I could easily pour it over vanilla ice-cream but you may want to thicken it to make a dipping sauce or even the base of a cake icing.

cayenne-infused aubergine fries

One of the (many) perks of living in Europe, is how easily accessible such a wide range of fruits and vegetables are. Because of New Zealand’s geographical isolation, the cost of importing out of season produce is hardly economically viable, and vegetables that are grown in greenhouses, like tomatoes, lack that fresh, powerful flavour that real sunshine gives them.

Aubergine is one of my favourite vegetables; no doubt I have harped on about it numerous times already and I love that in Europe I can eat them basically all year round for almost the same price in any month; back home winter price can be at least three times the price in summer- sometimes even more!

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Even though I am the first to sing the eggplant’s praise, I am not in a hurry to admit that it isn’t the perfect vegetable – it does have one to two faults. One of those being that it has to be cooked. Well. Unlike many a vegetable that we find one our tables and plates during the warmer months, we cannot toss it through a salad like cucumbers or carrots, nor can we barbeque or pan-fry them; relishing the soft crunch as we sink our teeth into them. Eggplant requires a relatively lengthy cooking time – the kitchen isn’t exactly my ideal summer destination.

This recipe is something I picked up in el país vasco – the Basque country of northern Spain. Not only are they delicious, but they need hardly any prep time and can be left in the oven to cook while you do something a bit more fun!

I love the crunch that thinly sliced aubergine gets when it is baked in a hot oven. I find the nutty flavour of the eggplant is a real showpiece of this dish; subtle and savoury in contrast to the spicy seasoning I added.

While your oven is heating to 180°C, slice your eggplant in half, then into thin fingers about 1cm in width. The taller sections can be sliced in half, or even thirds. The fleshy centre isn’t going to crisp up as well as the firm outer layer; you can discard it if you want but I don’t like waste and it is delicious all the same.

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Now for the pièce-de-résistance; the spices are what really bring this dish to life. As I am not one for carefully measuring anything out, I will leave the proportions up to you. Place you eggplant fingers in a large bowl and liberally drizzle them with olive oil. Along with a dash of salt and pepper, sprinkle with cayenne pepper, chilli powder, a hint of ginger and cinnamon. While neither the ginger nor cinnamon are traditionally used in this tapa, the sweet, whispering undertones really enhance the flavour.

Toss the contents of the bowl until they are well combined, adding additional oil or seasoning as you see fit, before roasting for 25-30 minutes.

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Serve with a simple yoghurt sauce, like the one I used here, and some chopped parsley for a bit of freshness to cut through the spice. I think many people don’t see the benefits of eating spicy food in hot weather like this because it makes you sweat more; but sweating is actually a good way for your body to regulate its temperature and excrete toxins. The yoghurt sauce will cool your mouth while the spices warm your body – especially the cayenne pepper and ginger which are good for circulation. So, putting two and two together, I think what I am saying is that by eating my spicy eggplant fries every day, not only am I creating a delicious meal, but I am also doing wonders for my body! Oh, très fantastique!

mazagran granita

As the temperature creeps into the high 30’s, it is almost as important to keep cool as it is to keep hydrated. Even though I know it is so necessary, I always have a hard time forcing myself to drink water on days like these – be it lying on the beach or having a picnic in the park; no matter how cold your bottle of water is when you leave the house, it quickly becomes lukewarm and not I find that never quenches my thirst.

I recently had a leftover pot of coffee – I had brewed it before remembering that drinking coffee in 30°C heat makes no sense, so I devised this little goodie with the leftovers; perfect for a cool afternoon snack on the balcony or a light dessert in the balmy evening air. I present you with my mazagran granita.

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Mazagran is also referred to as Portuguese Ice Coffee, although it actually originates from Algeria. I first came across it while I was visiting Portugal last year, however I had been drinking a version of it for years prior, mazagran is essentially an Iced Americano served with a lemon wedge and a little more sugar than is socially acceptable to add to your coffee.

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Such a refreshing drink, but I wanted to make it into an even more refreshing dessert – and what’s more refreshing than shaved ice?! It is by no means difficult to make, although it does take a bit of time and attention. Mix half a litre of black coffee with 4 teaspoons of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. I used plunger coffee but you could also use 6 shots of espresso and add cool water to make up the difference. Leave it to cool before popping into the freezer.

After 40 minutes, ice crystals should have begun to form around the edges of the bowl, break them up by mixing through the liquid. Repeat this step every 20 minutes as the mixture becomes mushy and thick, until the entirety of the dish forms thin, coffee-coloured shards of ice.

Serve as is, or divide into parfait glasses or dessert bowls, top with candied lemon or a dollop of whipped cream. For an adult version, add a dash of dark rum before freezing and substitute the lemon juice for orange juice.

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