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?

 

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aubergine and sweet potato summer stack

Even though the in-between parts of seasons are problematic for guessing the weather forecast or planning a temperature-appropriate outfit, they are a great for a varying abundance of produce.

Unless you’re going to buy your produce imported or from a greenhouse, things that I try and steer away from, this recipe really is only viable while aubergines are in season. Even though it is warm and roasted, there are so many fresh and raw elements that it makes sense to limit it to the warmer months.

My aubergine and sweet potato stack is a dish stuck somewhere in between a roast vege salad and a plate of raw greens… in a good way! Layers of soft and warm eggplant, crisp discs of sweet potato and spinach leaves full of crunch, topped off with sweet smoked bell peppers, soft crumbly feta and capers for a salty pop.

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It’s so easy; the hardest part is stacking it all up without the tower toppling over!

Begin by roasting an entire red bell pepper under the grill of an oven, or, if you’re feeling dangerous, on a gas stove element. Roast on a high heat until the skin begins to blacken and blister; this will take a while but keep an eye on it and rotate it for even charring.

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Use this time to slice an aubergine into 1cm thick slithers, and one large sweet potato into 2cm thick discs. Getting a uniform consistency with the sweet potato will be difficult because they are such a beautifully ugly vegetable (one of the reasons I love them so!), but having nice even slices will make the stacking part a bucket load easier!

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Drizzle them in olive oil, turn the oven to bake, lower the temperature to 180°C and switch them the with pepper. If possible, bake the vegetables on different trays and place the aubergine on a lower shelf inside the oven. By arranging the trays like this, the eggplant slices will slowly bake without crisping, and by the time the sweet potato is cooked tender and golden, the aubergine will have garnered a soft texture; not too crisp but no longer tough and chewy.

Flip each rondelle after about 15 minutes and continue baking for a further 20 or until they look like they’re done.

In the meantime, slice the top off the smoky bell pepper and peel off the skin so you are just left with the tender red flesh. Slice into thin slithers and that component is complete!

Wash the leaves of one bunch of spinach and tear the leaves into manageable bite size segments. Fun fact: tearing the leaves, instead of cutting them, stops them from browning. Crumble some feta and once the eggplant and sweet potato are cooked, you’re ready to plate up.

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Begin with two mountains of spinach, on separate plates and pile alternate layers of eggplant, sweet potato and the remaining spinach with the utmost care – hold your breath so the tower doesn’t collapse if you think that’ll help.

Once you have exhausted your vegetable piles, dress with the snakes of red pepper and crumbled feta, top with a teaspoon of capers, a drizzle of olive oil and a grind of pepper.

Serve with a congratulatory glass of red wine – you deserve it!

ten steps to moussaka

Fun fact: Every time I talk about Greek food, I always mention my love of moussaka, yet I have never actually written a post dedicated to this hearty Hellenic feast. Until now.

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Moussaka is something that I can only make when I am home alone, and when I know that the house will remain empty for at least three hours. There are several reasons for this; it’s a long process, while the components are not entirely difficult, they are plentiful, I also manage to use every pot and pan we have and spread myself over every surface in the kitchen and a large portion of the dining table too. I don’t like people getting in my way while I’m in the kitchen and I find it even more infuriating when people think they’re being helpful by starting to tidy up for me before I’m done.

So, I had a few hours to myself the other day and wanted to take advantage for it. When I say you need a few hours I really mean it, minimum of two, or at least the ability start in the early evening, unless you want dinner around midnight.

For those who don’t know, moussaka is essentially a Greek lasagne. It uses eggplant in place of the pasta sheets and should be made with lamb mince. It is cheesy and warm, the aubergine is soft and salty, the sauce packed with flavour – the Valhalla of comfort food!

You will need:
2 eggplants
1 large egg
1 cup of breadcrumbs
2 potatoes (optional)
500grams of minced lamb or beef
1 large onion
a teaspoon of garlic paste
a large can of tomatoes or jar of tomato sauce
1 ½ cup of milk
1 cup of grated cheese
a pinch of nutmeg

Step one:
Slice our eggplants into round slices, salt them and set aside for about ten minutes. By adding salt to the eggplant’s flesh, the bitterness is removed – otherwise the whole balance of your dish could be upset.

Step two:
If you are going to use potatoes, now is the time to peel and parboil them. They will be used as the base of the dish, I don’t always bother with them, but that’s not to say you should completely ignore them.

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Step three:
Rinse the salt from the eggplants, whisk an egg and coat the eggplant in egg before bathing them in breadcrumbs. Experimenting as usual, I coated mine in a mixture of breadcrumbs and ground almonds, just to get another flavour in there. Drizzle the eggplant slices with a dash of oil and bake at 150°C for 30 minutes, flip them over at the 15 minute mark.

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Step four:
While the aubergines roast away, try and concentrate on something other than the beautiful smell escaping from the oven. There will soon be equally delicious aromas coming from your stove – it’s time to start working on your sauce. I use follow a simple tomato sauce recipe; garlic and onion sweated down in oil, a bay leaf and a dash of wine if I’m feeling fancy, salt, pepper, a can of tomatoes and a bit of tomato paste. Simmer on a low heat for about 30 minutes while you’re preparing the final components
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Step five:
Fry your mincemeat in a fry pan, drain the fat and reserve for later. Add the meat to the sauce once it has reduced nicely. It should be time to take your eggplant out of the oven.

Step six:
Now for the béchamel. As part of my zero waste policy, I use the fat from my mince to make my sauce. Butter can add a nice sweetness to a dish, but I like my béchamel on the savoury side. I know that using lard is not something most people are too keen on – so the choice is up to you. Melt two tablespoons of whichever fat you prefer and whisk in two tablespoons of flour and a pinch of nutmeg until it forms a thick dough-like paste. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking to combine until it thickens to the consistency of custard. Add ¾ of the cheese and we are ready to assemble!

Step seven:
Start with a smear of tomato sauce on the bottom of a large casserole dish, follow with a layer of potatoes, continue with the pattern of eggplant, béchamel, mince and back to eggplant until you run out – try and end with eggplant, you may have to do a mock run with eggplant first so you know how many slices make a layer and work out how many layers you can make from that. Pour any remaining cheesy béchamel overtop and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

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Step eight:
Bake at 180°C for 30 minutes, the top should be golden with a cheesy crunch – cover with tin foil if it looks like it might start burning.

Step nine:
Instead of staring through the oven door waiting for the dish to bake, I suggest you get a start on the dishes because there will be a lot of them. I ended up with two frying pans, 1 large and very dirty pot, 2 chopping boards, a mixing bowl and several plates, wooden spoons and ladles. But in saying that – I am a bit of a messy cook!

Step ten:
By far the easiest and most enjoyable – eat it! Serve with salad or nothing at all, just enjoy the rainbow of flavours and textures; the crunch of the cheesy top, the gooey béchamel as it mixes through the mince and the aubergines; the pièce-de-résistance, soaking up the juices of the tomato sauce while keeping the slightest crunch from the breadcrumbs. Smoky and soft, they will fall apart at the touch. Heaven.
 

camembert complete!

It has been a long and windy road on the path to becoming an artisanal cheesemaker, and I feel like I have finally taken a step forward; my camembert has finished ripening, and it is edible!

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I cannot say that it is in an ideal condition but I think I can chalk this one up as a win for me.

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The sharp, pungent odour escaped the wheel as I delicately cut it open, although I didn’t smell it until several minutes later when I finally let out a sigh of relieve. The soft centre of I speckled yellow wheel did not ooze out onto the plate, or stick to the edge of the knife with each attempt of cutting it, nor did it crumble at the slightest touch. While I didn’t really resemble the cheese of my initial vision, I think that it actually turned out perfect for the situation I ended up eating it; it sliced thinly and held its shape to fit perfectly atop of a cracker or as the cracker with pesto or chutney spread across it.

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I love eating sharp, hard cheeses with sweet fruit chutneys, each bite of my cheese tasted like a mouthful of the Mediterranean (in a good way) which was great salty contrast to serve with preserved plums and sweet, fresh grapes.

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Mission accomplished!

 

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.

ode to julia child

As I sit here on my balcony looking out at the beautiful sunny, Southern-French weather, it occurred to me that I have been here for almost a month. How time flies!

Marseille is a lot different to Paris, although in some ways, also very similar. Like Paris, the food is also amazing and the sightseeing is great. People here also ignore the traffic lights and pedestrian crossing and don’t seem to really mind when people walk out in front of their cars. But what I have found to be so different is the complete lack of anything English. I don’t think I have seen a sign in English since I got here apart from at a very cafés that are aimed at tourists… which means they are terribly overpriced.

So, basically since I have arrived in Marseille I have filled my time with sightseeing; mainly a lot of old churches and palatial buildings, which I have enjoyed a lot. I have yet to get over the amazement I feel every time I see how old some of these buildings are. There is a fort here and parts of it are 1000 years old. Crazy times. Marseille is also the European Culture Capital for 2013 so there are lots of cool and quirky events scattered throughout the year; there was a fire  festival the other week which was really exciting, but unfortunately it didn’t photograph well.marseille collage

As a sort of initiation into French life, I dared myself to try a traditional French dish; and what better inspiration than Meryl Streep and Amy Adam’s Movie Julie and Julia? So I set out to make Bœuf Bourguignon (it’s the one that Amy Adams makes for the food writer who never turns up, the one that she ruins in her first attempt).

Luckily for me, my attempt went nothing like the character’s first attempt. it went off without a hitch and it was delicious! Now, I must confess, I did not use Julia Child’s recipe, as I am on a budget, I used Rachel Khoo’s recipe (@rkhooks on Twitter or rachelkhoo.com) but I assure you that most of the recipes are rather similar.

Anyway, what you will need is:
900grams of stewing beef, cut into about 6 or 8 chunks and coated in plain flour
150grams of lardons (smoked bacon or prosciutto will also work)
10 shallots
a couple of crushed garlic clovesSAM_0229
a bay leaf (if you have them)
the stalks of a bunch of fresh parsley
a sprig of thyme and/or rosemary (I used thyme)
3 cloves (once again, if you have them)
10 crushed peppercorns
500mls of red wine (about 3/4 of a bottle)
tomato puree
a teaspoon of salt and another of sugar
10 button mushrooms
chopped parsley for presentation

STEP ONE (well my step one anyway): Go out and buy a nice bottle of olive oil, a cute bottle of bay leaves and a bottle of French wine. Firstly, wine in France is so, so cheap! Secondly, when buying wine to cook with, don’t think that you have to go for an expensive bottle, I always use cheap wine in cooking because it is all about the flavours the wine has in it; the quality doesn’t matter when it gets cooked. To avoid any unneeded stress in the middle of cooking, I suggest that you open the wine before you start. Back home, wine bottle have screw-tops, I didn’t even think that French bottles aren’t the same and my lack of knowledge on uncorking a bottle  caused me to have a little bit of a breakdown and I may have contemplated smashing to top of the bottle, I didn’t, but I was tempted.

SAM_0232STEP TWO (or actual step one): Turn the oven to 150°C and heat a bit of olive oil in a casserole dish or a pot that can go in the oven. Brown the meat on each side and set aside  but keep the oil. Add the lardons, the shalloSAM_0233ts and the garlic and cook until the lardons are brown and slightly crispy.

STEP THREE: Add the herbs (the thyme, rosemary, parsley stems, peppercorns and cloves) and return the meat to the pot. Add the salt and sugar, 300mls of water and the wine. I also added a couple to diced carrots because I had a craving for carrots, it wasn’t in the original recipe but it did no harm. Scrape any bits that are stuck to the bottom off the pan to add extra flavour.

STEP FOUR: Cover the pot and put it in the oven. Leave it to cook for about 3 hours, the meat should be falling apart a little bit and really tender. Add the mushrooms about 30minutes before you take it out of the oven.

STEP FIVE: Serving suggestions. I served mine with mash potatoes because I thought that would be the best for absorbing up all of the delicious juices. You could also use plain boiled potatoes, dumplings or just a nice loaf of crusty bread (which I did as well). Serve with a nice bottle of red wine, or just drink the leftovers from the bottle you cooked with.

Voilà! A delicious, tradational French feast in only five steps, Julia would be proud!

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