29 October 2008

simplify your... duck

Once in a while, like in every other household, it happens that I have no idea what will be for dinner until I start cooking.

An honestly, I really like that sort of challenge.

I have always liked to try and make the best out of what was at hand. Like that time when we had to figure out how to build something like a broom from what you can find in the forest (because the proper brooms were still at home). Or standin on a a stage and trying hard not to let the audience notice that it was not part of the script that some part of the set had just collapsed.

Things like that.

What I am actually trying to say here, is that like to improvise.

And every once in a while, on rare occasions, I get lucky and not only make do, but make something really good I would never have thought about otherwise.

Like that one, memorable day when I was shopping, my lovely wife next to me, and we found these lovely duck breasts. I had never made duck before, we only knew we loved it in almost every version.

So we bought them, with little to no idea what to make out of them actually.

Back at home, I checked what we had in the larder. Canned apricots, soy-sauce and apple-juice. Nothing stunning, but it gave me an idea.

And it turned out fabulous. Historically great.

Duck'n apricots has since become a household staple, and returns ever so often as soon as the weather is miserable enough to call for such pungent flavours. It is a hearty dish, sweet and spicy and tart and fragrant, and by now the smell of roasting duck always makes the tip of my tongue tingle in anticipation of that gravy.
Sort of like Pawlow's dog, only with less saliva.

Cooking this may result in the reception of several marriage proposals. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Duck'n Apricots
(serves four)

800g duck breast (usually two, sometimes three filets)
2 cans of apricots
200 ml apple-juice, unsweetened
200 ml light soy-sauce
1 tablespoon apricot jam
1 teaspoon five-spice-mix
salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to about 180°C.

If necessary, pare the filets and remove remaining feathershafts. Cut the skin diagonally, trying not to damage the meat underneath. Rub with some salt and a generous amount of pepper.
It might look like unnecessary decoration, but I have found that the neater and the narrower I cut the skin, the crisper it gets. And admittedly, it does look nifty.

Drain the apricots, but keep the sirup.

In a large pan, heat a little bit of olive oil, until almost smoking. Fry the duck, skin side down, for a few moments, until it gets some colour. Turn and fry from all sides.

Take the pan off the fire and deglaze with the soy-sauce.
Watch out, this is, once again, the perfect moment for a truly memorable mess. Keep the meat in the pan while deglazing, skin side down, preferrably. It gives a lovely, dark colour to the meat.
Unfortunately, when I took the pictures for this dish, that was the step I had forgotten. I am still getting used to my new kitchen, and so, to my eternal shame, the meat is a little pallid compared to usually. Next time will be better, I promise.

Transfer the meat (skin side up, this time) onto an oven-proof dish and keep in the oven until the meat feels just firm when pressed with a spoon.
Put it a little higher than the middle, so the skin has a chance to get crispy. If you want, you can also add the grill, but that's risky business.

In the meantime, add the apricots, the apple-juice, 200 ml of the reserved sirup, the jam and the spices to the soy-sauce and bring to a rapid boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer until the first apricots start to look soft and a little frazzled.
By then, the gravy should have thickened sufficiently on its own, if not you can add some cornstarch mixed with cold water.

Take the meat out of the oven and leave to rest for a minute or two.

Cut into thin slices and serve with lots of sauce and pasta or rice.
This is one of the few dishes I have yet to find some decent vegetable side to. Though, I don't really miss it either, in this case.
Pasta is great for another reason besides the fact that pasta is a good thing by and in itself: when you put the water for the pasta on the stove at the same time you start frying the meat, both pasta and duck will be ready at the same time. Neat, isn't it?

Pasta and remaining sauce, even without meat, make excellent lunches the next day.

26 October 2008

an exercise in period dining

It was my father-in-law's birthday this weekend.

And as usual, we had some guests over, family and friends, for a nice evening all together.

We usually try to have something like a motto going for these birthday parties, and this year we went for a classic sixties buffet. An exercise in period dining, so to speak.

Admittedly, we weren't too scientific when it came about re-creating the things our parents and in-laws remembered from that time. But we came up with a lot of stuff that was plain fun to make, and actually quite pretty (if a little odd) to look at.

There was nothing much noteworthy in terms of recipes, as most of this is nifty decoration. But I definitely know now that I really, really do not like caraway schnaps with preserved plums.
I have learned, though, that I can dig in quite a lot of raw minced spiced porc with onions, and that it is called (quite fittingly, I think) 'German sushi' by the Japanese co-workers of a friend of ours. (So little surprise here that I like it.)

As you can guess, it was a really nice evening, and dinner was (once again) a nice talking point to get things started.

I just wonder what we are going to do next year...

19 October 2008

sunshine on command

If you'd ask me if there is a specific scent to any given season, I’d be hard pressed to give an answer. Of course, a lot of scents jump into my mind the very instant I think of any place, weather, or season, in this case.

Summer, especially, is a hard thing for me to put an olfactory label on.

There is the scent of pine trees in the sun, warm and dry, reminding me of the Croatian islands and childhood vacations at the Cote d’Azur.

And of course, smoke. Smoke from campfires in the forests of northern Portugal, smoke from the barbeque at the pool, from my parents’ fireplace in their wintergarden. All of those, naturally, only being the prelude for other favorites: of herbs burning among the embers, rosemary especially, of steaks and squid on the grill, sizzling and steaming.

There is the smell of lavender, of tomato fields, lemon peel and olive oil, of warm concrete and even the dry brown smog of Paris in July, or the cloying stench of harbour water and rotting seaweed – the list is endless.

But if you turn the question around, and instead ask me if there is any one scent that instantly reminds me of summer, the answer would come like a snap.

Lemon chicken and potatoes. The lemon potatoes even more so than the chicken.

Don’t ask me why, but that scent of crisp potato wedges, dark and fragrant in their coat of almost burned lemon juice always sets my mind to ‘summer’ mode. Suddenly, I’m buzzing with ideas of goat cheese that would work wonderfully if marinated, or of squids on the grill that might almost be as good as those I had as a kid on that beach in Greece. It makes me feel as if I had spent a day in the sun.

For me, it is the scent of summer.

There is something imminently more-ish about this dish. Something deeply satisfying that made the whole family sit around the messy baking tray, eating just one more wedge despite being already stuffed, scraping and dipping and trying to get as much of the scented oil and concentrated juices onto their last piece.
Which, of course, it usually wasn’t.

And this recipe has one absolutely endearing quality that sets it miles apart from all other summer food I know – it is just as good in winter. It’s completely unaffected by the season outside, and the ingredients, as simple as they are, are available all year round in passable quality.

Now that the time of the year has come where the drizzle is never ending, and cold is seeping into my bones that has nothing to do with the temperature, I always know that I am only an hour away from a plate of sunshine on command. And yesterday evening was the perfect opportunity for this.

Lemon Chicken and Potatoes
(serves four, though we usually double the amount, as leftovers make great office lunches)

for the chicken
1 large chicken
1 large lemon
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
some olive oil
chilli to taste (we prefer about a teaspoon of chilli flakes, or two to three small dried pods)

for the potaoes
1 kg of potatoes
1 large lemon
200 ml olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon thyme (or more, if you like. I do.)
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
chili to taste

If necessary, clean the chicken.

Cut the zest off the lemon, chop it very finely. Quarter the remaining lemon along its length.
Only use the yellow peel of the lemon, with none of the white stuff as it gets bitter. I think it is easiest to get off the lemon with a really sharp potato-peeler.

Mix the spices and the lemon zest with salt and honey; add some olive oil so the rub will be moist but not too runny.
If you have a mortar and pestle, this is the moment to use it, especially to get the fragrant lemon oils out of the zest. Probably a food processor will do just as well.

Rub the chicken with the spice mix, using all of it. Stuff the peeled and quartered lemon inside the chicken’s chest cavity.
Use the entire rub, if some falls off, it’ll just spice the potatoes.

Leave the chicken to rest.
Half an hour is fine, two hours or three is better.

Meanwhile, clean the potatoes if necessary, and cut (unpeeled) into wedges.
Try to keep the smallest diameter of the wedges approximately the same, so they will all be done at the same time. I usually quarter them along their longest side.

Mix the lemon juice, the olive oil, spices, honey and salt.
Spice with a little chilli if you like, but normally the lemon alone will have enough zing to keep things interesting.
I usually add the second lemon’s zest to the chicken rub, but you can also add the lemon peel to the potatoes for added scent. Just warn your guests that it is decoration and not very tasty…

Put the potatoes in a big bowl and toss with the dressing until they are evenly coated.
This is usually the perfect moment to make a truly memorable mess out of your kitchen, especially if you are preparing a batch of 10kg as I did a few weeks ago… Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Pour the potaoes onto a high-rimmed baking tray (or into a large oven dish), the chicken on a gridiron above them and put into the oven at about 180°C. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes (or more for bigger batches), and turn once or twice so both the chicken and the wedges have a chance to brown evenly on all sides.
There should be hardly any liquid left among the potatoes, and they should be crisp outside and soft inside. Both the tray and the potatoes should be smudged with a fine, brow layer of caramelized, partially burned lemon juice. Actually, you might want to line the tray or the dish with non-stick paper, as the lovely, tasty stuff is close to impossible to get off again.

Take out of the oven and leave to cool for a moment, then serve.
This is mostly to allow the juices recover a bit and resolve some of the caramelized lemon juice. And of course, the wedges are fragging hot inside, and we have had more than one unhappy accident with overeager eaters…

As a side, you can serve any green salad, and my mother-in-law and me especially like to have heavy, Greek-style yoghurt to go with it as a dip.

Leftovers make a perfect office lunch the next day, hot or cold, once again with some yogurt.

13 October 2008

right up my alley

I usually try to stay away from political discussions as far as I can. This is not because I am not interested, not at all. But I think a lot of people (including politicians) have little to no idea of what they are talking of most of the times. And I include myself, as I know at least enough to know that I should'n put my foot in my mouth by discussing things I don't even know half of.

But just a moment ago, I stumbled over this article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan, which resounded deeply enough with me to make an exception. As it is dealing with food, I think it fits neatly into this blog.

"Farmer in Chief" by Michael Pollan

It is, at least in my eyes, a very interesting and quite comprehensive essay on the challenges of the modern food industry. And not only valid for the US market, for which this open letter is written, but with a few exceptions for every other 'modern' food industry.

Go have a read.

12 October 2008

bountiful is a big word

When I look out of the window, there is no denying that summer is over. But that is not to say that the months-long, depressive gray soup of German autumn has already come up.
No, the sun is shining, golden and still surprisingly warm, adding a glow to the last flowers outside. And the apples, of course.

We have spent the weekend mostly in the garden, weeding the dead plants out, de-scumming the pond, generally making the first attempts at getting everything settled for the winter to come. Oh, and we harvested the last bunch of grapes. I am still more than a little amazed myself, but we have a proper grape vine covering two storeys of one south wall of our house, and harvest has been surprisingly bountiful. (Yes, actually bountiful enough to justify such a big word.)

I have grown up with apples, pears and plums growing in almost every garden. But grape vine is something quite exoic for me, at least to have in my own garden. Well, to have next to the driveway, but that would be nitpicking, wouldn't it?

I just wonder when our peach tree will bear fruit for the first time, and our kiwi plant...

Anyway, this is the season for apples, no way around it. And apple cake, consequentially.

I have been on search for a recipe that would be sufficiently moist (she'd say soggy) enough for her to like, with some sort of vanilla cream and still not too artificial in taste.

We've been through a good number of miserable fails in this regard already, but finally, it seems we're on to something. Maybe it still requires a little tweaking here and there, but this one definitely is a keeper.

Apple cake with vanilla custard

for the shortcrust pastry
250g butter, cold
400g flour
100g sugar
1 egg
one sachet vanilla sugar
one generous pinch of salt

for the filling
6 large apples (Boskoop or similar)
one tablespoon of butter
300 ml cream
100g sugar
1 whole vanilla-pod
4 eggs, whole

In a large bowl, add all the ingredients for the shortcrust pastry and swiftly mix to incorporate all flour. Set aside to chill.
I usually take the mixer for this, running through the dough until it just starts to form clusters and looks like coarse sand or real good crumbles. (Which you could take this recipe for just as well, actually.)

Preheat the oven to 170°C.

Peel and core the apples, cut into slices.
Originally, the recipe called for the apples to be freid in some butter before adding them to the cake. For boskoop apples, this might be unnecessary as they turn rather soft when cooked. Other sorts might benefit from this, use your own judgememt.

In a small pot, heat the cream and the sugar. Open the vanilla and scrape out the seeds, add to the cream. Bring all to a short boil, then leave to cool a little.
You can add the emptied seed-pod to the cream and fish it out before you continue. But I save those pods to make vanilla-rum-sirup in a bottle on my kitchen shelf, so mine goes there everytime.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs until pale and fluffy. Add the cream, first in little steps, then in increasingly greater quantities. Mix until well combined; there is no need to work in air at this step.
Never pour the eggs into the milk. You'll end up with vanilla-flavoured scrambled eggs, which might be nice as well under certain circumstances, but is definitely not what we need here.

Line a round springform pan with non-stick paper or grease well. Either roll out the shortcrust pastry or pour in the coarse crumples to form the base and a rim more or less three fingers high.

Loosely arrange the sliced apples on the base, then pour in the vanilla cream, but no higher than the rim.

Bake until the custard has set, approximately 40 to 60 minutes. Leave to cool on a rack, do not cut before the cake has cooled sufficiently.

The cake is moist and rich, actually I can imagine this making perfectly nice desserts when made in individual portions, maybe in a muffin-pan or somehing similar... I will have to try this one day.

05 October 2008

It's this time of the year...

Usually, my first reaction to the whole gamut of christmas food appearing all over the shops at the end of September is one of slightly disgusted irritation.

It is September, dammit, and the whole golden October still ahead of us. Christmas cookie season starts with the first day of December, not a day earlier.

That noble sentiment usually lasts for about two days.

And then, there is this inevitable, creeping feeling of dread. Dread that I will, once again, buy a whole heapin' pile of that stuff as soon as I get the chance.

As you can imagine, I am a little picky when it comes to food. Sweets I am especially careful of what I eat and what not. And, you see, I love Dominosteine, a German confection of gingerbread layered with jelly and marzipan. But only from one very specific producer. And said specific producer has that slightly annoying habit of only delivering once to all the retailers at the beginning of the season, and if some of their stuff runs out of stock mid-November, then it's tough luck for all the customers.
(Maybe that's just an error of perception on my part, but after having spent two Decembers already without, I won't err again.)

So I buy my Dominosteine the very first week of October and hide them in the larder. And I almost always manage not to eat any of them before the first of December.

But this year, things were a little different.

Sure, the whole line of Christmas cookies and whatnots appeared in the shops right at the end of September, as usual.

But this time, my first tought wasn't said slightly disgusted irritation. No, my first thought actually was that there was still one of my homemade Stollen of last Christmas in the larder, and that I should really find a way to use or to get rid of it.

And the second, much more jolting thought was that this year, I mustn't forget, absolutely and under no circumstances, to make Pfefferkuchen dough in time. Pfefferkuchen, literally 'peppercake' is a spicy, soft version of gingerbread. And both the dough and the resulting cookies have to rest for a few weeks each before they are good. Unfortunately last year, I only remembered half-way into November, so it was too late by far.

So there is a certain 'pre-start' to the Christmas season in my household once again this year. I have prepared the Pfefferkuchen-dough on the first weekend in October, we will bake the cookies the first weekend in November together with the Stollen, so all will be nicely matured the first days of December.

Alright, this year the first sunday of Advent is going to be November 30th already, so it's not exactly working out, but that's a minor flaw, don't you think?

Anyway, I will add this recipe as some sort of an extra to my weekly posts, as I won't be able to show the results until November. This particular one has been handed down in our family from my wife's paternal grandmother, and legend has it, from her mothers before.

Of course, I couldn't quite resist to meddle with the original a little. I've added some more butter, mostly for handling, as the dough is very sticky and every tiny bit of fat helps tremendously. If it improves the taste, we will see in eight weeks.
And I evened out the amounts of spices and added ground anisseed, for pure olfactory balance. Once again, it'll take eight weeks before we can see how it pans out.

Grandma Ursula's Pfefferkuchen
(makes for a lot of cookies)

500g of runny honey, the darker the better
300g sugar (I prefer unrefined cane sugar)
100g butter

1kg all-pupose flour
75g dark cocoa powder
100g raisins (Zante currants)
100g candied orange peel
100g candied lemon peel (succade)
100g ground almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground macis
1 teaspoon ground clover
1 teaspoon ground anisseed
3 corns black pepper, finely ground
2 teaspoons ammonium carbonate (salt of Hartshorn, 'Hirschhornsalz', should be available in the pharmacy)
2 teaspoons potassium carbonate (Potash, 'Pottasche', same as above)
2 eggs

In a small pot, gently heat the honey, the sugar and the butter, until the sugar is halfway dissolved.
Do not boil the mix. This is what I call 'kitchen napalm', and it is getting really, really hot and flies and sticks and hurts like you won't believe. Please, take care.

The candied citrus peels should be chopped finely, I usually mix them with the ground almonds and run them trough the food processor until the look like coarse sand and smell delicious.

Next, add all the dry ingredients in a big, heatproof bowl and mix thorougly until well combined.

Have the buttered honey cool down for a moment, then add the whole bunch to the spiced flour. Mix with the kneading hooks of your electric mixer. Add the eggs and kned until smooth and well combined.
Now as the the rising agents get in contact with the warm liquid, all hell will be breaking loose in your bowl. For one, the pale mix with turn dark brown where moist, it'll start to bubble and foam wildly if the honey is still too hot and most important of all - it'll stink.
Imagine an onverheated pack of chemical hairdye exploding between bottles of cough sirup, and you get the image. Hot ammonia with spices, lovely. Hardly bearable, but it'll pass. I promise.
Reason for this is that the honey ought to be still warm at least, and very runny. Because as it cools down, the dough will get very tough and even more sticky, and no fun at all to work with. So bear with the smell, you won't notice a thing in four weeks when it's time to make the cookies.

Leave the dough to cool. Wrangle into a manageable shape (I prefer a large roll, but a ball would do just fine as well, I assume) and store in an airtight container for at least two weeks, ideally four.
I wrap the dough up in a generous layer of clingwrap, with another layer of tinfoil for good measure. Worked perfectly so far, but I think any airtight container will work.

No unsavoury comments, please, I've had enough of that this year already, and it's not the dough's fault.

More on this project in four weeks.

The island at the edge of time

Pretty much one year ago, our dear friend Mel visited from Australia. We picked her up in London, where she visited another mutual friend, and then took off on a two weeks tour by car to show her around Europe.

At least, we showed her around Paris, and so many German castles and baroque parks that I lost count along the way.

But one hightlight definitely was the detour we took on our way from London to Paris. While not exactly 'en route', the Mont St. Michel was close enough to warrant an extra stop on our tour, and luckily, we deciced to stay the night on the island itself.

It was magical.

The Mont St. Michel is a terribly touristy place. It is a breathtaking sight, especially when the island first looms on the horizon like some very weird kind of spaceship. But the place itself is so crowded, you can harld see the buildings or the monastery, you're just being shoved on by the huddled masses.

But at nightfall, all this changes. The tourist busses leave, and with them all the noise, all the nervous buzz and hawking touristy-ness. What remains is just a handful of people who stay in the few rooms available there and the staff of hotels and retaurants. Within less than an hour, the whole place seems to take a deep breath and once again turns into that magic place travellers have come to marvel at since centuries.
It is basically just you and this medieval town below the looming monastery, with the sea all around, sights and sound so timelessly breathtaking they feel like from the very edge of time.

From dusk till dawn, you're left alone, and sunrise on the island was another moment I will never forget.

Naturally, we had dinner on the island as well. We were lucky to get a table with a view all over the bay, and were right on time to see both the tide come in and see the shadow of the island wander along our view like the pointer of a giant sundial.

Food wasn't too memorable, with two notable exceptions. The first being Mel's first time of trying foie gras, or 'tortured goose liver', which she didn't like too much, to put it mildly.
And the other exception was the starter my wife had chosen, a bowl of 'moules a la creme', mussels in cream. They were good, much better than expected, actually they were positively exceptional.

I had grown up with Odettes version of 'moules aremoricaine', being mussels in a broth of tomatoes and white wine, with tons of garlic and parsley. Very good, and actually one of the first seafood I really liked.

But these moules a la creme at the Mont St. Michel were something special. Right there in the restaurant, I couldn't quite put my finger to it, mostly due to the fact that my wife only allowed me to taste two measly spoonful of her bowl. But there was something that 'clicked', some aromes that worked perfectly together and both underscored and enhanced the taste of the mussels.

I had to promise on spot that I would learn how to re-create this recipe.

And guess what, I did. I remembered the taste of a lot of onions, bay leaves, and white wine, and not much else. Heavy cream, of course.

Back at home, I tried the simplest possible version of the recipe, and ZAP - an instant keeper.

Simple, with very few ingredients, failsafe and plain lovely. The bay leaves and the onions in the white wine just work perfectly for the mussels, to a point that the recipe feels a little to me like this was the way mussels were intended to be served from the very beginning: in a steaming bowl, with cream and a lot of fresh, crispy bread to get as much of the delicious broth as possible.

Moules a la creme - Mussels in cream sauce
serves 2

2 kg mussels, cleaned
3 medium onions
75 g butter
1 heaped tablespoon flour
2 bay leaves
0,5 l dry white wine
0,5 l heavy cream
pepper, garlic and ground anisseed to taste

If necessary, clean the mussels.
We were lucky to get a bunch of galician mussels, which I vastly prefer to the usual ones you get here. They are a dirty, gritty, hard-shelled bunch, those Galicians, but damn, they are healthy. Hardly a dead one in between, all of them sturdy and almost snapping at your fingers, even after a trip through half of Europe. A real mess to clean, but worth every extra minute.

Finely chop the onions.

In a large cast-iron pot, melt the butter and stir in the onions. Cook until the onions begin to soften and start smelling sweet (until they lose their bite). Add the flour and mix until well combined.
75g butter are a lot, but I highly recommend being generous in this case. It is worth it.

Add the bay leaves and the white wine and bring to a vigorous boil.
If you want to, you can add a bit of garlic, some ground black pepper or some chili at this point. A little anisseed works lovely as well, though no more than a quarter of a teaspoon maybe. I usually leave it at the basic recipe, though, as the simplicity only adds to the appeal in my eyes.

Add the mussels, bring to boil again and cook for about ten minutes. Stirr occasionally, until all mussels have opened.

Take the mussels out of the broth, and set aside. Boil down the broth until only about two thirds remain.

Add the cream, and reheat.
Do not boil, or else the sauce will fall apart. If it does, it can be remedied by adding a little more flour mixed with cold water.

Season to taste.
There is no need to add salt, usually, as the mussels will have added enough salt on their own.

Pour back the mussels to the sauce, reheat one last time. Serve with fresh white bread and more of the white wine used for cooking.