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!

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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.

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.

the cheese diaries

Hobbies are a good thing to have, we all need hobbies. I have been reading a lot lately about artisanal cheese makers and the ever-expanding market in which these cheese makers have found themselves in. So, to mark two years since I arrived in France, I decided to try my hand at home-crafted cheese. I have his romantic idea of moving to the countryside somewhere and becoming an artisanal handyman, where I would make cheese from the goats I milked, and make jams and preserves from the fruit on the trees that I prune and tend to.

Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain
Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain

Obviously, with this post celebrating ‘French-ness’ I should be making a French cheese; camembert, gruyere, reblochon, etc. But these cheeses are pretty difficult to make and I don’t want to start my cheese making career off with a failure, so I think I will just work up to that.

To start off with, I decided to make ricotta. Ricotta is an Italian cheese similar to the Spanish ‘queso fresco’. The name means ‘re-cooked’, i.e. the milk is heated to a higher temperature than other cheeses. The milk being heated to a higher temperature means that ricotta is not a live culture cheese, it does not need time to develop mould over time in order to gain its flavour texture and of course, its smell. Cheeses like ricotta, feta and queso fresco can all be eaten the same day they are made. This is good news if you have a short attention span and love cheese.

nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta
nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta

Cheese production can be on as small or as large of a scale as you want it to be, for this reason instead of a recipe, I will give you somewhat of a maths equation… for every 1 litre of milk, you will need 7.5mls of rennet or other acid and 1.5 cups of boiling water.

Firstly, let’s talk rennet. Rennet is an enzyme that curls milk, it is naturally produced my calves to solidify milk particles and make them digestible. Rennet is also the reason why some vegetarians do not eat cheese- as it is an animal by-product. There is such thing as vegetarian rennet if you want to make vegetarian cheese. When I learnt to make queso fresco in Spain, we used lemon juice as the acid does a similar job. I experimented with a mixture of rennet, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar.

ALWAYS sterilise your equipment
ALWAYS sterilise your equipment

Rennet is a sure-fire way of knowing your ricotta is going to work out and the concentration is always going to be the same. Lemon juice doesn’t have this consistency as one lemon is going to vary from the next. Apple cider vinegar creates a nice tart and dry ricotta, so it is perfect to use if you want to cut the ricotta into slices. If you are more partial to crumbly cheese, then I suggest you use lemon juice.

Ricotta can be served sweet or savoury. For the sweet version, add a teaspoon of sugar to your milk, for savoury, add a teaspoon of salt. I did both versions and both are delicious, I also added a pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon to my sweet ricotta.

Place your milk in a large saucepan and warm on a very low heat; you only need it get it to about 22°C – or just below room temperature. If you have a milk thermometer you can use it, if not use your judgement after a couple of minutes. With a cheese like ricotta, the creamier the better! So use full fat milk, the highest fat content I could find was 4% so I suggest you look for something similar.

Next, take it off the heat and add your rennet or acidifier. There is no need to stir it as the curds will automatically cling to each other. Leave the milk to curdle for at least an hour.

curds and whey
curds and whey

After an hour, a large clump of curds will have formed in a sea of whey. Cut through the curds with a wooden spoon and pour over the boiling water; this will help separate the curds and the whey even further. Leave for an additional ten minutes before straining the curds through a cheese cloth and placing it in a mould to set. Discard the whey if you like, but it is very high in protein so it can be added to a smoothie for a bit of a health kick!

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Place the mould in the refrigerator for another hour to get rid of as much liquid as possible, now it is ready to eat! You could also place it is a bath of high concentrated salt water for several more hours if you want to turn it into feta (highly recommended also).

What I love about ricotta is that it is so versatile; eat it as it is, incorporate it into a salad, use as the base ingredient of a cheesecake or spread on toast with a drizzle of honey.

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My next entry into my cheese diary will be a harder cheese, I am not sure what though. My two choices are blue vein cheese or camembert, camembert will be a bit more difficult, but do you think I am up for the challenge? What do you think?