how to: roast pepper hummus

The beginning of the year is always a hard time to get back into the swing of normalcy and even though we are almost a month into 2016, I am still finding it difficult to function.

The beauty of it being summer means that I can get away with running on 70% manpower; it’s easy and acceptable to focus dinners around salads, masses of raw vegetables and things easy to cook; like corn.

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I recently tried my hand at making hummus; it’s fun, it’s healthy, and because it doesn’t involve any cooking, its quick and stress-free to whip up and still elevates the flavour and vibrancy of even the simplest of dishes.

Here is the recipe I use; it’s the most basic of basic recipes and works as a great template for experimenting with a variety of flavours. I added slow roasted red bell pepper in these photos, but roasted eggplant, olives or even carrots could be used.

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Into the food processor we add: 400grams of chickpeas – that’s one can, 2teaspoons of tahini paste for a rich and nutty sesame flavour, a clove of garlic (or more!), ½ a teaspoon of salt, 3tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil and the juice of ½ a lemon. Top this off with whatever additions you choose and whiz it up until it’s smooth and creamy.

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Summer is the time for cheese boards and meze platters in the sun; a vibrantly coloured bowl of hummus makes a brilliant addition served alongside toasted pita chips, dotted on a pizza or even added to your favourite salad.

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fennel-crusted aubergine salad with kale and pomegranate

As 2015 rolled to an end I was working on my pre-summer recipe repertoire and begun a bit of a love affair with fennel; the bulbs, the seeds and the fronds seemed to find their way into many a dish I created. Here, here and here are a few of them.

And now I am going to add one more to the list – fennel crusted aubergine served with a fresh and earthy kale and pomegranate salad.

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I must admit, this recipe was a bit of a ‘best-case scenario’ kind of thing – no one who I was cooking it for had much confidence that my idea was going to work. But it did! The eggplant came out beautifully soft and buttery sweet and the fennel fronds added a hint of smoky, liquorice crunch almost.

And it was so easy!

I sliced an eggplant into 1cm disks, salted them liberally and let them sit for about 20 minutes. I picked the fronds off a large fennel bulb and roughly chopped them, adding them to a bowl with a tablespoon of ground almonds, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne pepper.

Once I had accomplished this task, I rinsed and dried the eggplant, I submerged each slice into a bowl of egg wash and coated both sides with the fennel frond mixture before placing them onto an oven tray, drizzling with olive oil and baking at 180°C for 30 minutes. I flipped them over at the halfway mark and topped each rondelle with a tiny dollop of butter – just for good measure.

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While the eggplant baked to delicious perfection, I shredded a bunch of kale leaves to form the base of the salad; dressed simply with extra virgin olive oil, a dash of apple cider vinegar and of course, sea salt and black pepper. I know kale is no longer the health food du jour, but I don’t care – I never ate it for its trendiness and actually like the taste; earthy leaves with a satisfying crunch and a savoury pepper favour boarding just on the edge of bitterness. Yum!

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The bronzed eggplant rings sat atop this deep green forest of kale, and for an added pop of colour, I added a scattering of pickled radish and some spherical sunset red pomegranate seeds. Each one bursting with sweet flavour to counterbalance the rest of the flavours.

Just a simple dish really, a feast easy to prepare that will blow any dinner guests away – and that’s even before they taste it!

lentil, fennel and mushroom salad

SAM_3508Salads are a great way of experimenting with food; much of the planning can be done in your head during the day and they are often quick and easy to throw together, plus the trial and error process is always an interesting way of finding a great flavour combination.

As summer approaches, I have seen fennel salads popping up on menus all over the place, and even though the ones I have sampled have been delicious, they haven’t exactly been substantial enough to work as a standalone meal.

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The obvious solution to this problem was to make my own and see what I could string together.

A fennel bulb looks like a beautifully ridiculous onion, with fine green feathers sprouting from the top. Its flavour is sweeter and more subtle than onion or leek and coats anything it touches in a faint liquorish scent – I find the seeds a little overpowering but the bulb makes a great base to a salad; it even works as a substitute for lettuce!

Slice one fennel bulb as thinly as you can and combine with the zest and juice of one lemon. I diced a couple of black olives and mixed them through too, with a bit of the olive brine for saltiness and a dash of cider vinegar for tartness.

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Peel and half about six mushrooms, coat them in egg wash and roll them in breadcrumbs, I used panko because the pieces are larger; meaning they crisp up better and aren’t so prone to burning.

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Fry the mushrooms in butter at a low heat – you want them to cook through without burning! Transfer the mushrooms, and any dislodged crumbs to a plate and add a few of your favourite spices to the leftover butter. I used cinnamon and chilli powder. Add a can of drained lentils and stir so the spices are evenly distributed. You only want to heat the lentils for a few minutes; just enough to warm them slightly and get rid of any excess water. It goes without saying, but dried lentils that you have cooked yourself will always be better as they hold their shape better and tend not to go mushy.

Distribute the fennel between two plates and top with a mound of lentils. Balance the mushrooms on top and sprinkle with some diced red bell pepper and chopped parsley for a bit of colour.

the chapter continues: making sourdough

I have always imagined that becoming an artisanal baker would be a rather idyllic and romantic way of living life. That is probably because while my imagination cascaded ideas of kneading dough and eating crusty bread, drenched in olive oil, it also conjured up an image of doing so in a 17th century villa surrounded by fields of sunflowers that doubled as my (currently non-existent) children’s magical forest play land.

I know the reality of that ever happening is slimmer than a slice of biscotti, but it’s nice to have dreams, isn’t it? Maybe I would settle for having a house with a wood fire oven, that way I could make pizza too!

It’s great to have things we want to attain in life, but most of the time we have to start out small; in this case, a small oven – this is how my first attempt at making sourdough went.

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To say it was a dreary morning sounds like the beginning of an unoriginal film noir script, but it was. I only mention that because the drear filled me with dread that I was not in the best of weather conditions for bread making. But I did it anyway – I’m a trooper.

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I measured out two cups of my pungently fresh sourdough starter and swirled through a tablespoon of melted butter and ½ of a cup of warm milk. Next, I sprinkled in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar before sifting in 3 cups of plain white flour.

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The best way to make bread dough is with your hands, though I do suggest loosely combining the mixture with a wooden spoon before taking to it with fist one and fist two. Tip the dough (and any particles that haven’t stuck together) onto a floured surface and knead with the heel of both hands for about 5 minutes. You will probably definitely need to add a touch more flour.

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Using your fingertips, roll the dough into a big, flat oval and roll up like you would if you were making a cinnamon roll. Knit the edges together between thumb and forefinger, place on a tray and leave to rise for about 3 hours.

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If you’re a little bit phobic about it not reaching the optimal rising temperature like me, try putting it in a warm oven for the time it takes to rise.

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Remove the loaf from the oven and heat to 190°C. Bake the bread at this temperature for 10 minutes before turning the temperature down to 175°C and baking for further 40 minutes.

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It is ready to eat at soon as you pull it out of the oven. Dense and zingy, it is perfect just smeared with a layer of butter, but it also makes a great accompaniment for dinner because it is so flavoursome and savoury. Serve on the side of a stew or top with left over tamarillo salsa!

dried herbs; parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

I once dated a chef who detested dried herbs. And I really mean detested, to the point of often commenting to wait staff when a dish used dried herbs, and I don’t mean nice comments. It’s safe to say, we are no longer together.

I love dried herbs, I think they are handy in every style of cooking. And even though they never have the same flavour as fresh herbs, I wouldn’t necessarily say their flavour wasn’t as good.

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The issue I find with fresh herbs is that, unless you keep them in a little pot on the windowsill, you run the risk of never using them because, like me, it is far too much of a hassle to run to the front porch to pick some parsley while you’re in the midst of cooking.

Because of this reason, I noticed that a) I was hardly ever using fresh herbs and b) my herb pot was barely noticeable underneath the tangles of lime green that used to be a quaint little parsley plant but has more recently transitioned into a fully-fledged tree. It was going to seed and I had to do something about it.

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So, I spent the better part of an hour snipping any useable leaf off the plants before some serious pruning; cutting the plants back to within an inch of life. Obviously I did all of this while trying to avoid disturbing the snails and other creepy crawlies that have set up shop down amongst the weeds.

Drying herbs is by no means a difficult task and there are a range of ways to do it; from hanging it in bushels above the window, dancing in the breeze and basking in the sunshine, to using a dehydrator or slow cooker. I opted to do use the oven because I was not overly confident that the sunshine wouldn’t give way to rain, and there was a table hen in my slow cooker.

Low difficulty factor aside, the time factor is rather high – it does involve having the oven on for most of the afternoon so it’s a great excuse for avoiding any social contact on a day when you would rather be sprawled out on the couch or sipping a mojito on the veranda.

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Rinse your herbs, pat them dry and leave on a tea towel until all surface moisture has evaporated. Spread them artistically on a baking tray lined with baking paper and take a moment to admire their pure, green beauty. Insert the tray into an oven which is set at slightly above body temperature – mine was just below 50°C and prop the door slightly ajar with a folded tea towel.

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Depending on how much you are drying, and I suggest you make the quantity rather large, the drying process will take at least 3 hours but do not take them out until they are as dry as a dead autumnal leaf. The low temperature won’t set them alight if they are left in slightly too long – I went to bed and woke up in a panic-stricken state at 2am because I hadn’t turned the oven off, and mine turned out fine!

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Once they are out of the oven and completely cooled, crush them and store in a jar or airtight container, this can be done either by hand or with a mortar and pestle. The leaves will break up as you jam them all into the jar anyhow.

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One last word of advice; make sure you label the jar rather boldly, we wouldn’t want anyone seeing it and assuming it’s something else… you all know what I mean, don’t make me say it!

pumpkin and lime soup

The in-between part of the seasons can be lethal; I have a habit of being too optimistic as Winter gives way to Spring and too idealistic as the days begin to shorten as Summer leaves us. That is a roundabout way of saying that I often find myself dressing for what I want the weather to be, rather than based on what the weather really is. And that is just a long way of saying that I always get sick in the in-between seasons; I am the only person I know who can manage to get a chest-rattling cough, bordering on pneumonia in the last month of spring.

But it happens. Routinely. And I find myself craving warm, wintery comfort food a good six weeks on either side of winter. One of my winter staples is pumpkin soup; creamy and fragrant with spices and exotic flavours, the aroma could almost transport you to a warmer place when the city is monochromatic and grey.

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Pumpkin soup is so versatile; lace it with cumin and coriander for a cooling summer snack or pack it with spices in the winter. I often make a soup version of these pumpkin chips… or maybe the soup is the inspiration for the chips – who knows?! I also find an explosion of citrus in the mix brings it together nicely.

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Here’s how I do it:

Take a whole pumpkin and riddle it with holes with a sharp knife or metal skewer and microwave on medium for about 15 minutes so it is easier to cut and then add it to the slow cooker – cutting and peeling raw pumpkin is the bane of my existence, I hate it!

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Add a cup of water or stock, a tablespoon of peanut butter, a teaspoon of red curry paste, a pinch of cumin, coriander and cinnamon, a bay leaf and two or three slithers of dried lime and cook on low for 6 hours. Mash or blend – depending on how you like it, stir through a dollop of cream and you’re ready to eat!

I can’t stress enough how the addition of the lime elevates the flavour; it’s a subtle tang, a sweetly acidic bite that’s mellowed by the pumpkin’s creamy smoothness.

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With or without the lime, you can never beat soup on a dreary day. It is guaranteed to improve your mood; I once had pumpkin soup every day for 3 weeks just to get through the awfulness that is winter!

What’s your favourite winter soup?

peanut butter banana milkshake

Continuing on the recent theme of drinks of the fruity and delicious variety, today I am going to share something a little different to my usual ware and fare.

I was flicking around on the internet the other day – I am constantly amazed at how quickly I find my very detailed search has moved onto a rather unrelated topic – and I came across a delicious looking recipe on the little kitchen for fried banana milkshakes.

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I love fried bananas; the caramelization of the sugar is my favourite part and I love the granulated crunch that surrounds the soft fruit. I fell in love with the pictures on the blog post and knew that I had to try it – so I did, with a little twist. Bananas are wonderful when combined with peanut butter; a salty crunch meets soft and sweet, and both flavours are relatively subtle so I knew neither would overpower the other.

Thinly slice four bananas, Julie uses two but I adjusted the proportions to be fruitier, rather than creamy… and also a bit healthier! Fresh bananas will hold their shape better than frozen; although they will end up being blended together so it doesn’t really matter. If you are using frozen bananas like I did, and if you don’t have a lightsaber, here is a good method of peeling them if you didn’t have the foresight to do that before popping them in the freezer.

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Melt three tablespoons of butter in a large fry pan, add two tablespoons sugar; white, brown or raw – your preference, and add the bananas.

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Once the bananas are beginning to show the slightest signs of caramelization, stir through a tablespoon of peanut butter – crunchy adds another dimension to the finished product, but again, it’s something that you can decide based on how you like it. Set aside to cool after about 5 minutes.

Blend the bananas with ½ a cup of milk and two scoops of ice cream. I used French vanilla (or as they say in France, just vanilla) but chocolate or strawberry would both make great combinations. Pulse until the shake is at a smooth consistency and it’s ready to enjoy.

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The flavour combination is one of the oddest I have ever tasted; the glass is packed with four bananas so I know it has a decent amount of nutritional value, but it tastes so sinfully good that I just don’t believe that. Maybe that has something to do with all of the ice cream?

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As someone who isn’t particularly a ‘health foods’ person, this peanut butter banana shake is a great, healthy dessert option, or something I would feel really good about drinking for breakfast, just don’t ask for any nutritionists’ opinions on that idea…

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!