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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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.
 

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.

mama mia i’m melting

It’s official. Summer is definitely here. And although I am very grateful to be getting a second summer in a row I don’t think I was at all prepared for this. To me, a ‘hot’ day in summer is about 25°C (77F), so I was more than happy when it hit 28°C last week. The last three days have been 34°C (93F) and I actually feel as though my face is going to catch on fire, and that’s only a bit of an exaggeration.

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Luckily, the beach is not too far from our place and it’s lovely. On a beach excursion yesterday I was able to cool off in my first swim in the Mediterranean and as I lay on the sand catching the last of the sun’s rays at 8pm I thought how nice it would be to be on a nice beach island in this perfect weather (surrounded by cool trendy locals [see above] as apposed to throngs of tourists).

Apparently fate is a bit of a fan of mine because whaddya know,  the next day my friend in England told me that we are planning a high school reunion in September in Greece! So, I will be able to settle myself on a nice little island for a few days and do whatever you do on a Greek island with your best friends. Sing and dance along the hills like Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried? I think so.

In light of this little bit of destiny I decided to celebrate with a little cooking, obviously. Baklava is a tasty Greek treat originating from the Ottoman Empire and eaten basically everywhere around the Mediterranean. I have been in love with it ever since my Turkish uncle introduced me to it, it’s a combination of nuts with sweet pastry and syrupy sugar and is one of the easiest things to make. I made it for the first time last Christmas and I was a little bit anxious because every blog or recipe I looked at made it sound so complicated, they were lying big time!

IMG_3488You will need a packet of filo/phyllo pastry, about 450 grams of walnuts, a cup of butter, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a cup of water, a cup of white sugar, half a cup of honey and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. With this amount of butter and sugar it obviously goes in the ‘eat occasionally’ category!

First off, turn the oven on to 175°C, butter the bottom and sides of a decent sized tray and toast the walnuts in a frying pan with the cinnamon (DO NOT add oil or it will all turn into the world’s biggest disaster). You don’t want to burn them but you want to keep them in the pan until the have darkened, they should be crunchy the whole way through. If you have bought pre-toasted walnuts a guess just mix them with the cinnamon but that is less fun and will make you feel a lot less authentically Greek. Remember that when you’re at the grocery store.

Next you want to chop the nuts quite finely, or use a blender because it will take about 5 seconds instead of way too long.

IMG_3492In the buttered tray layer the pastry one sheet at a time with a layer of melted butter in between each sheet, be generous with the butter because the more butter the better it will taste! Add the chopped nuts when you have layered half the filo and then layer the rest, continuing to butter each sheet. Now cut diagonally from two of the corners, the slices should overlap to create diamond shapes, each cut should be about 4 inches apart making four rows.

Now it’s time to pop it in the oven for 50 minutes and start or the syrup.

Boil the sugar and water together until the sugar has dissolved and add the honey and vanilla. Bring down to a low heat and simmer for 20 minutes. To add another element, I added a teaspoon of chilli powder with the honey and vanilla to make it a bit spicy because I love dark chilli chocolate and I thought that this would work; it did! So feel free to borrow my secret ingredient.

When the baklava is finished baking, take it out of the oven and pour the sugar syrup along the lines you cut into it before baking, this way the pastry and the nuts will absorb the sugar and become sticky and moist and delicious. Unfortunately you have to leave it to absorb properly before you can eat it; probably the hardest part of the whole thing. Between 5 and 8 hours is what most recipes would recommend but if you have the self control to leave it overnight then that would be best.

This is what you should be left with in the end!

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Just thinking about this makes me so excited to be sitting on the beach, in Greece with the largest plate of baklava ever. But in the mean time I guess I am just going to have to satisfy myself by enjoying it on my tiny balcony and spending my days looking at the beach and searching for Greek looking people.

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