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!

 

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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.

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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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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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!

writing, comma food

I have recently begun reading ‘Will Write for Food’, by Dianne Jacobs; a charming guide to all things falling under the grand canopy of food writing. Each chapter of the book ends with a series of tasks, designed as an aid to improving one’s writing and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to share my journey through each section by publishing my musings for each task encountered.

A summation of the first chapter’s tasks is to explore finding your own voice and writing style by describing a favourite food while looking at similes, metaphors and enhanced descriptions.

For integrity purposes, I have left all editing and annotation visible, as it is really about the journey and the process as opposed to the finished product.

I ate a lot of cherries while I was in Spain. I am a huge cynic of anyone who overuses the word ‘literally’, while saying I ate them by the tonne may be a slight exaggeration, but I did literally eat bucket loads of them. Breathing in the warm summer air, my mind easily floats back to a time when my mind life was filled with nothing but fluorescent, deep red orbs, when the staining, tartly sweet taste of them barely ever left my mouth.

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What draws me to eating, and cooking with cherries is their sheer versatility; plump scarlet slithers in a cherry jam, velvety sweet in a clafoutis or bursting with juice at the end of the season, melting in your mouth like a molten ball of summer.

In my opinion, half of the satisfaction of eating cherries comes from the preparation; such an awakening of the senses! The sun beating down on your shoulders and the lactic acid building up in your arms as you reach for the sweetest fruits on the highest branches, everyone worker bees in a row at the kitchen table removing stalks, removing pits and slicing fruit in half, purple-stained hands adding each crescent moon into jam pot.

There comes a point, midsummer, when a cherry tree’s output becomes exponentially greater than a human’s rate of consumption. An afternoon of jam making makes easy work of a big bucket of cherries morning’s pickings, but what are you to do with the other two buckets?

Cherry pie
Cherry juice
Cherries mixed through gooey vanilla ice cream
Cherry crumbled topped with shards of caramelised sugar
Cherry-infused vodka, gin or brandy

As the blood-red sun begins to set on the summer’s horizon, and the soft, ripe fruit is given away to anyone who will take it, you stop loving cherries; you think you can’t stand the sight of another cherry, let alone the taste.

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Until next summer.

cafe chocolate con churros

If you were to say the first thing you thought of when I said ‘Spanish food’, what would you say? My guess is either ‘churros’ or ‘paella’. While I don’t think that I have the willpower to correctly make a paella; it involves not stirring the pan while it simmers and I am far too hands-on for that, I do have the willpower to make churros!

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chocolato con churros

Spanish cuisine has not expanded into the mainstream Western world to the same degree as Italian or faux-Chinese, and even though most people would not be able to differentiate between Spanish and Mexican styles of cooking, I would say that 9 out of 10 people have tried churros before.

Before travelling to Spain, I had only ever eaten churros as a dessert, you can imagine my glee when I discovered these crisp, sugary treats are eaten at any time of day, even breakfast!

I recently had churros at a night market with a friend who is somewhat of a self-proclaimed churro aficionado and gladly shared with me some of her pointers on what makes a good churro. Like any traditional food; a pizza in Italy, a croissant in France, you will not find a churro as good as a Spanish churro anywhere but Spain. The ratio of sweet dough and runny chocolate sauce for dipping has to be just right, it must easily coat the golden batter and not be too thick like a paste – in Spain the churro is treated as an accompaniment to hot chocolate rather than the other way around.

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What I find most important is the dough, it needs to be crisp and golden, but often I find it has been deep-fried for too long, and while it is aesthetically perfect, the scent of caramelising sugar and the crunch as you bite into it are let down by the dry centre, and the disappointment at realising that crunch that you initially savoured is there the whole way through.

I kept this in mind when I decided to make my own, instead of deep-frying mine, I wanted to oven-baked them. Because of the slight moisture levels in an oven, I could save them from drying out, and in order to achieve the quintessential golden colour; a few minutes under the grill after they have baked through.

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Heat 1 cup of water in a medium size saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 170grams of butter and a pinch of salt. Simmer until the butter is completely melted and the mixture begins to boil. Remove from the heat and mix with 1 cup of flour and leave the mixture to cool slightly. While you are waiting, whisk 2 eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract until the egg begins to foam up. Mix the contents of both bowls together and the batter is done.

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Now comes the fun part!

Transfer the batter into a piping bag with a serrated bit and a width of about 2cm. If you don’t have a piping bag, cut the corner off a zip-lock plastic bag, it won’t have the jagged edge that is usually associated with churros but it will work nonetheless. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and pipe the dough into sticks about 8cm in length, it is helpful to have a second pair of hands with this step as the dough in incredibly thick so get an assistant to chop them with a pair of scissors as you pipe them – the bribe of fresh churros should be tempting enough!

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Bake at 220°C for 10 minutes before switching the oven’s settings to grill for 5 minutes. Such a hot temperature will almost steam the insides of the churros, while the butter will liquefy and provide an even golden shade. Once they have crisped up nicely, turn the oven off and leave the tray in for a few more minutes. Remove from the oven, dust with sugar and cinnamon and leave to cool.

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I served mine with a simple espresso dark chocolate sauce: a shot of espresso, 50grams of finely chopped dark chocolate and just enough milk to thin the chocolate out, gently heated until melted and gooey.

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Serve your churros with strawberry jam if chocolate isn’t your thing, or you want an excuse to make them for breakfast. They are even delicious eaten by themselves.

How do you like to eat your churros?

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arriba arriba, tortilla tortilla!

Spanish tortilla; a staple recipe that every Spanish housewife knows off by heart and can whip up in no time in the event of entertaining unexpected guests. And around Corpus Christi, one should expect a lot of unexpected guests.

While the general concept of a tortilla is very simple to prepare, there are a few complex nuances that are needed to prepare the perfect tortilla – they are essential, because, remember, the whole street is going to be judging you based on it.

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A tortilla is essentially a potato omelette – a frittata, so the ingredients don’t really extend further than potato, eggs and milk. Oh, and an unreasonable amount of oil. My first piece of advice is to think about the amount of potato you have in relation to milk and eggs in relation to the size of your frying pan. You don’t want too much potato that each piece isn’t saturated in egg mixture, but you want enough so that when it is all in the pan it isn’t spread too thinly. I would suggest two medium size potatoes to three eggs and a cup of milk.

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My second piece of advice is to cut the potatoes very small, you want them to cook all the way through without crisping up too much. And the smaller the pieces the quicker they will cook. As a guide, I would say cut them into pieces roughly the size of your fingernail. I did it here with parsnips.

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Gently heat about three tablespoons of oil in a pan and add the potatoes, stirring frequently. ADVICE: Use a non-stick fry pan or don’t even bother. Speaking from experience, if it’s not non-stick, you will end up with lumpy scrambled eggs.

It will take you about 15 minutes to cook the potato all the way through, be patient. When you think they are done, wait a few more minutes, because you are probably wrong and no one likes to eat raw potatoes.

Scoop the potato out of the pan, keeping the oil for later. While the potato cools, whisk the eggs and milk together. Some recipes say to separate the eggs and whisk the whites to firm peaks before mixing in the milk – you can do this but I don’t think it makes for a better end product and just takes up time. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and half a teaspoon of nutmeg. Nutmeg is the key ingredient, the ‘secret’ ingredient – just ask anyone, they are all more than willing to tell you, as long as you promise you won’t tell anyone, and if you do tell anyone each person will insist that they came up with the great idea of adding nutmeg.

At this stage, you can add anything fancy you want; spinach, sundried tomatoes, or cheese. I prefer mine left plain and simple. Mix the potato into the milk, reheat the oil and pour the mixture in. Use a slow eat so the tortilla cooks through without burning, this will take about 5 minutes or until the edges have begun to solidify.

Mentally prepare yourself for the hardest part of this recipe – the flipping. Turn off the heat, place a plate on top of the pan and with a tea towel in each hand, and flip the pan upside-down. The plate will now have the tortilla on it, raw-side down. Place the pan back on the heat and slide the tortilla back into the pan and cook for another 5 minutes.

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Flip it out of the pan, slice it into wedges, bit-size pieces or just tuck into it with a fork each. It’s not much to look at but tastes like an afternoon lying in the sun. Serve with salad, beer and people you like.

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corpus christi in the pueblo blanco

Tomorrow marks the holy feast of Corpus Christi; one of the most important religious days in the calendar for many people in Southern Spain. This time last year, I was staying in a small pueblo blanco called Olvera, in North-Eastern Cadiz.

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With a population of 8000 people, I was completely taken back by the live and energy the festivities of Corpus Christi breathed into this seemingly sleepy little community. Many of the town’s young people come back from the cities where they have moved for university or work to celebrate and spend time together – not just important from a religious perspective, it also features very highly on the locals’ social calendar.

I think that the social element of the day may have overshadowed the original meaning behind it, as someone who had a very non-religious upbringing, I asked many of the locals what Corpus Christi was actually celebrating; none of them knew. For many of the older generation, particularly the older housewives and widows I spoke to, it was about judging the other women’s tortilla recipes, making sure everyone noticed your new dress or shoes, and generally gossiping about everyone else in the neighbourhood.

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The preparation begins a week before, each household must wash the exterior of their house; doors are scrubbed, door handles are polished, and as it is illegal to paint your house any colour but white in the older part of the town, houses will sometimes even be repainted in an attempt to have the whitest walls in the street. The more work you put in, the more impressed everyone will be by how nice it looks, more importantly is that the more time you spend cleaning, the more people will see you putting in the effort, and that’s what really matters.

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On the day, the streets are decorated with palm fronds and a shrine featuring the Virgin Mary on each block. The statue on our street was outside the house I was staying in, so I was roped into hoisting banners and flags up through the windows and arranging vases or flowers, all the while being fed roasted peppers, gazpacho and tortilla. The locals were more than happy to share their recipes with me, although whenever I asked them to write it down for me they wouldn’t, or more accurately, couldn’t. Many of the women are illiterate, having grown up under Franco’s regime where education was not considered important, especially for girls, they are only now beginning to learn to read and write.

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As the afternoon sun begins to wane, the procession begins.

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The local priest, accompanied by many of the school children and important local figures, makes his way from the church at the top of the hill through the old village, stopping at each shrine to say a blessing. The locals line the streets dressed in their Sunday best to watch this age-old ritual before following behind to visit all the other shrines, because you have to see them all to be able to gossip about them later!

Later on this week, I will share some quintessential Spanish recipes I picked up on my travels; a traditional tortilla and oven-baked churros with dark chocolate espresso sauce.

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