25 May 2009

severe overexposure in early years

Slowly, spring is giving way to an early summer here, and I couldn't be happier with it. The last weeks have been unusually warm and moist, and everything outside is growing like crazy.

It looks as if we are going to have a historic harvest of all kinds of berries this year, and even the little peach tree next to my kitchen is carrying fruits.

Nicest of all is the herb garden right below the kitchen balcony, only a few steps away from my stove. I love cooking with herbs, and especially I relish in the fact that I can just step outside, gather some greens and can come up with something tasty.

Actually, I think, it was herbs that helped me overcome one of my (very few) childhood traumatas.

See, at my parents' home, we had a very international cuisine compared to everyone else around. But in many ways, it also was a very German household. I mean this in the best way possible, but in terms of cooking this meant that no 'proper' meal was complete without potatoes, preferrably peeled and boiled.
You might have some pasta every now and then again, or the odd dish with rice, but that wasn't 'proper' food. I still vividly remember my grandfather ordering potatoes as he wasn't going to eat rice.

And although there is nothing wrong with potatoes, the whole story filled me with that deep, heartfelt kind of loathing that only severe overexposure in early years can accomplish.

It took me years after moving out and having my own household to even consider cooking potatoes, and even several more years to accept them peeled and boiled on my plate.

And of all things, it was potato salad that lured me back to eating (and loving) spuds. Not that heavy, mayonnaise-laden version, nor the slicky, luke-warm lardy version of my grandmother, but a light, summery salad that owes a lot to my mother's 'potatoes vinaigrette'.

It is a perfect dish for a light summer meal, or as a slightly substantial side for a lemony grilled salmon, which incidentally we had on saturday. With the temperatures rising and herbs as abundant as they are now, this is the perfect time to try it yourself.

Too late...

summery potato salad
(serves four)

750g potatoes, approximately
1 teaspoon caraway seeds

roughly one cup or 250ml loosely packed fresh herbs, preferrably chives, origanum, rocket, a few leaves of sage and rosemary
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons mild white vinegar (cider or balsamic)
1 tablespoon honey
salt & pepper

1 handfull cherry tomatoes

Clean the potatoes, but do not peel. Bring to boil in a pot, barely covered with water, the caraway seeds and some salt. Boil until almost done, about 20 minutes depending on the size of your potatoes.

Once done, pour off the water and leave the potatoes to cool without a lid on the pot.
They will go wrinkly and maybe dusty gray from the salt, but that's okay here.

Once cooled, peel the potatoes and cut into slices not thicker than your pinkie.
The potatoes do not absolutely have to be cold, but shouldn't be hot either, as the herbs would wilt and turn unsightly gray then.

In a high measuring jar or your blender, combine the herbs, oil, vinegar and the honey and blend until the mix resembles a slightly runny pesto. Season with salt and pepper, and maybe a little more vinegar or honey, until the sauce is intense but well-balanced.
I prefer to take about half chives, half origanum. Sage and rosemary I usually employ only sparingly, as they can swiftly overpower the whole dish. But basically all soft, green herbs (as opposed to the rougher, dustier ones from mediterranean climates) will do nicely.

Pour the sauce over the potatoes and leave to marinade for a while.
Up to here, the salad can be prepared a day ahead, as it only gets better.

Right before serving, dice the tomatoes and toss with the rest of the salad.

Just ignore the salmon. We grilled it and had it with some fresh sauce hollandaise, nothing really worth mentioning, but it insisted being in the picture.

Serve cool but not right out of the fridge, either with crisp bread as simple meal or just as it is as a side. Goes well with fish (as seen above) or with any other light summer fare.
Diced onions can make a great addition, but then the salad would be much more assertive than the mild, breezy version I like so much.

21 May 2009

at peace with the pâté

Somehow, I just couldn't keep my fingers off the 'pâté de campagne'.

After the miserable, depressing failure on saturday, I had to get right back into the saddle and searched for another recipe and got new ingredients for a small batch on monday.

And, to my immeasurable relief, it turned out nicely:

Nice, but not really good yet. The texture is a little to dry, and the taste of liver and calvados is a little too pronounced. But, and this is the important part, it is working, and tasty, and all that lacks is a little tweaking and testing and then I'll be at peace with the pâté again.

18 May 2009

I think I am in mourning

This weekend has also seen several kitchen experiments, with the two biggest of them turning out to be failures, unfortunately. One of them was merely not-quite-perfect, the other one was much more of a disappointment.

But let's stick with the proper order.

First, I felt adventurous on saturday morning and as we hadn't planned much for the weekend so far in terms of cooking, I decided it would be time for me to try my hands at a 'pate de campagne', a coarse terrine of porc and bacon, something that is about as french as wine, cheese and rillettes.

And I was so happy finding a recipe by my admired Molly Wizenberg of Orangette, so I really felt on the safe side of things.

I packed my lovely wife and we went shopping, loading our basket with so much meat and bacon that it made us all giggly. That was, until we arrived at the till - damn, if you buy A LOT of bacon, it really turns expensive.

But that didn't dampen out spirits for long, and soon I was back in the kitchen, mincing and chopping, sautéing onions and reducing cognac and so on.

The farce even smelled right, creating a faint memory of the large slices of pate de campagne I knew. And it looked pretty, there's no denying.

What came out of the oven, though, wasn't pretty at all. It smelled wrong, and greasy, and was weirdly pale. Also, it had a certain wobble that had 'disaster' written all over it - a certain, rubbery wobble that most unpleasantly reminded me of a hot meatloaf.

And yes, a first bite confirmed my worst suspicions: I had, with a lot of effort, many dirty pans and bowls and a whole heap of perfectly fine ingredients, created the world's saltiest meatloaf.

It was disheartening, to say the least, made worse by the fact that I have no clue on what went wrong. It was pretty close to inedible, and so very far away from what I had hoped to make. I think I am still in mourning for all that wasted food.


The next experiment turned out much better, though still not really good. At least, I know what went wrong, and there is still hope.

Do you remember I told you about the favourite bakery of ours here in town? The one that stopped making our chiabatta and indirectly taught me how to make my own? Probably not, and why should you.

Anyway, said bakery has now raised the prices of their 'cheese-sticks' again, now taking 1 Euro 30 cents for a soft strip of bread the size of a ruler, covered in cheese.
This isn't all over the top, but quite a lot of money for what you get, especially considering the fact that I had learned I could easily replicate and even surpass their quality.

Easier said than done, at least this time. I got some sourdough starter from my mother-in-law, bought a block of Gruyere cheese, and went to work.

The first deep irritation came up on saturday evening when my mother-in-law showed me how to get her sourdough reactivated. I am surely not a by-the-letter-of-the-book kind of cook (see above), but her completely free-flying approach was startling, to say the least. It felt like watching a child making mud-pies to me. I'm not saying she did anything wrong, but as great as we usually get along, her and my way of baking are worlds apart. Many worlds.

But the dough came along nicely, and this time, I pulled out of the oven what looked like a pitch-perfect copy of those expensive little things:

Smell and texture were pretty perfect as well - only the taste was a severe let-down. I had taken a generous teaspoon of salt for no more than 500g of flour, assuming that the cheese would be salty enough. Yeah, right.

Did I already mention I suck at guessing? Or assuming, in this case?

Turns out the cheese was salty, but not salty enough, and the first bite of the 'cheese sticks' is so startlingly tasteless that you could just as well be chewing on pillow stuffing. I mean, like, really tasting of nothing, I have no idea of how this is even chemically possible.

But, after a few bites, it gets getter, almost good, actually. And I think with another teaspoon of salt they'll be up to my usual standard.

As you can see, this leaves quite some work for the next weekend, and maybe one day I'll even find our what killed my 'pate de campagne'...

16 May 2009

not a question to ask a lady

I replenished our stock of cantuccini this weekend.

Once again, this is a recipe that has come a long way. I got this one from a colleague of mine, who's about as picky as myself when it comes to food, so this was an endorsement indeed.

She, in turn, had the recipe from a lady working at the municipality we currently have a contract with. I am not sure, but we think that woman got the recipe from some kind of 'Weight Watchers' program which she participated in at that time (and very succesfully so, I must add).

But definitely this is not a question to ask a lady, is it?

Anyway, these cookies are 'classic' italian fare. I have no clue whatsoever if they are 'authentic' - they're lovely, and they taste way better than any of the industrial bricks sold unter the same name.

These cantuccini are a stock item in our household, for several reasons. Not only does close to everybody I know really like them - no, they go with every hot drink, they keep perfectly for months, they are great to nibble along while working just to refill some sugar and they are relatively healthy with the tiny amounts of sugar and butter used. Also, to top it off, put them in a cute jar with a ribbon around and you'll have a great little present that surely won't gather any dust.

They're real multi-purpose cookies, or, as I say: Never make a home without them!

Cantuccini (almond biscotti)
(makes about 60, the pictures show a double batch)

I never knew my mixer could go THAT fast...200g almonds (unroasted, with their brown skin)

250g flour
100g sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 sachets vanilla sugar
1/2 flask bitter almond essence
1/2 teaspoon salt
25g butter, softened
2 eggs

The evening before baking, boil about half a liter of water and pour over the almonds. Leave to soak for a few minutes, then pour away the water. Cover the wet almonds and leave until you need them the next day.
This is not to peel the almonds, but to get them moister and a little softer. If your almonds were too dry after the first bake, it'd be close to impossible to cut through them and you'd end up with a whole lot of crumbs and almonds instead of nice slices.

For the dough, mix all of the remaining dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the butter and the eggs, then mix until just combined. Add the almonds and mix until they are (roughly) incorporated, then cover and chill for at least half an hour.
Adding more butter improves the handling significantly, but then the cantuccini don't keep as well.
If you knead the dough until it's fully developed, the final cookies will be smoother and have a more uniform crumb. It's good for handling, but feels quite industrial - see mine in the first picure for a bad example.
At this point the dough can be chilled up to a day or two before baking.

Preheat the ove to about 150°C. Quarter the chilled dough, shaping each piece into a long roll about as thick as a walnut or a small egg. Put them onto a baking tray lined with non-stick paper and bake until they start browning on top, about 15 to 20 minutes.
The loaves will flatten a little while baking, but not much. If you prefer your cantuccini more elongated, you should flatten them a little before baking.

Leave the loaves to cool. Once they are cool enough to handle, take a really sharp knife and cut them into slices about as thick as your thumb. (That's where 'a rule of thumb' comes from.)
It's a bit tricky to get smooth cuts at first. For me, slightly serrated blades like those for tomatoes work best.

Put the slices back onto the tray and bake at 150°C for another 15 minutes, until they are nicely golden all over. Put on a rack to cool, or into a colander if you make multiple batches, and leave to cool completely. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.

The cantuccini are not very sweet, but go very well with any unsweetened hot drink. I really cannot share the fondness of having them with wine, but that shouldn't keep you off anything.
They also make excellent 'brainfood', something to nibble on while working with your mind, as they are a good combination of carbohydrates releasing their sugars at different times.
Best of all, they keep close to indefinitely and can be made well in advance in large batches, so you'll always have some around.

13 May 2009

lovely, plain lovely

Is there anything worth mentioning about a grilled steak with Sauce Mornay, green pepper and some fries?

I don't know. But coming home from work this was a simple and delightful dinner, prepared in less than half an hour including a swift kitchen cleanup.

Not even the Sauce Mornay is really mentionable, being nothing else but a Bechamel with grated cheese whipped in to melt. But lovely, plain lovely. I mean, come on, cheese!

I really have to think of something to cook that's worth posting a recipe one of these days...

09 May 2009

for no reason but extra taste

With our annual summer party looming at the horizon, we're starting to get even more creative in the kitchen than usual. Therefore, I have nothing really substantial to post but a whole lot of pictures of half-successful experiments.

But let's start at the beginning:

Constantly on the search of some new dessert for the party that will survive both several hours on display as well as our quite discerning guests, we came up with the idea of 'truffle pots', as a simplified version of my wife's banana cake. So basically, we gathered up all shotglasses in the household, and some espresso cups on top, dropped some diced fruits in each and topped it with a ganache of (hopefully) complementing chocolate.

Look & handling turned out close to perfect for the occasion, but the tastes and textures still need a lot of tweaking. Especially disappointing were the rasberries, which surprisingly were completely overwhelmed by the dark chocolate ganache they were covered with.

Next was an attempt at making cigar 'börek' myself, a turkish specialty made of yufka (or filo) dough sheets and a filling of goat cheese, parsley and lemon juice. The pictured filling was pitch perfect and a real treat, but I had attempted to make the dough myself, and it was awful. Just... awful. I still feel like wailing when I think of the wasted food.

But I definitely have to note down the filling, for it was really good. I mean, it had butter for no reason but extra taste in it, how bad can it be? Julia Child would have loved this.

My wife made marbled muffins today, also an experiment. And those turned out flawlessly. I so love her, she saved my day.

And apart from that, tomorrow is another day, and I'll have quite some more things to try. We'll see how those turn out.

06 May 2009

Now talk about simple pleasures...

This blog exists, at least partially, to give me a reminder to improve on my cooking. Less so in technical terms, but to remember me that food is something emotional, sensual and wholesome, and not merely a necessary part of physical maintenance.

And tonight, I realized (once again) how perfectly this is paying off. We had a salad of tomatoes and mozzarella with some roasted bread - nothing fancy, but it was great. I had my own ciabattini, some of them roasted with honey, some of them roasted with a 'pesto' of sorts, made from the herbs that grow right next to my kitchen door in the garden - sage, rosemary, origanum, chives, arugula - some olive oil, salt and pepper.

I really, no, profoundly enjoyed it. It made me happy.

I don't think I ever consciously enjoyed food so much as of late, or that I ever was able to be grateful for a rainy spring just because of all the things that will grow (and the herbs are growing like weeds, I tell you). Paying a little more attention to my food added a quality of life I never knew I was lacking.

Basically what I want to say is: I am feeling happy and grateful as a man possibly can, and all of that over a piece of bread with herbs. Now talk about simple pleasures...

03 May 2009

next time, I'll hide the frogspawn

Sometimes, you're longing to re-create something you've eaten a long time ago. Out of a childhood memory, perhaps, or something that connects you to a special moment.

And if you do, it is good. Food can connect to memories in a way that only scent can match.

Unfortunately, those memories are rarely shared with others. Which led to my wife and my father-in-law leaving our table in disgust, yesterday evening.

I had made my grandmother's rhubarb and strawberry tapioca, just the way I remembered it. It was delicious. At least, that is what my mother-in-law and I thought of it.

My wife and her father just squealed as I put the bowl onto the table and left a few moments later. Admittedly, the dessert looked like pale, pink frogspawn, and everything but tasty.

But that't just the way I remember it!

Scratching our respective heads, my mother-in-law and I remained at the table, wondering what could be so wrong with something so delicious. Rillettes don't look any better, and no-one has ever complained about that in my household!

In retrospective, I have to admit that it might have been a little more diplomatic to boil fruits and tapioca separately, as the fruits wouldn't have completely disintegrated that way.

But hey, you live, you learn. Next time, I'll hide the frogspawn between pieces of fruits. ^^

And just to be nice, I'll give you another picture of the flowers in front of our house instead of the final dish. Pretty, eh?

rhubarb and strawberry tapioca
(serves six)

1kg fresh rhubarb
500g fresh strawberries
100g brown sugar
100 ml Cointreau (or similar)
150 - 200g tapioca (or sago) perls

Clean the rhubarb and the straberries, cut into small pieces.
Especially the rhubarb shouldn't be bigger than a few inches, as longer pieces will make the final dish draw strings like cheese.

In a large pot, gently heat the fruits, the sugar and a few tablespoons of the Cointreau. Bring to a gentle boil.

Once the fruits have drawn enough liquid to be submerged, add the tapioca while stirring gently. Keep on lowest heat until the pearls are soft with just a tiny, white eye in the middle, about ten to fifteen minutes.
This is the lazy man's version, as I have eaten it at my grandmother as a child. You could, of course, just blanch the fruit, boil the tapioca separately until they are neatly clear and mix them in the end. This lazy version is much less of a hassle, but it'll look like pink frogspawn. It'll taste just as good, and maybe you got some kids who'll love the thought of having frogspawn for dessert...

Take off the fire, and leave to cool for a moment. Add the remaining Cointreau and stir to incorporate.

Fill into a glass bowl or individual glasses and chill before serving.

Serve as it is or with some lightly whipped cream.