29 August 2009

I'll start considering

Somehow, the more bread and rolls and cakes and stuff I make myself (as opposed to buying it at a bakery), the more of it my family seems to be eating...

I mean, seriously, are the bakeries in Germany that bad? They shouldn't be.

Admittedly, their bread goes dry in a day and moldy in two, which mine doesn't manage in a week. But still. Just saying.

I just realized how little we buy at the bakery these days. An occasional piece of pastry when I'm in the mood, nothing else. And I really don't miss anything.

It's only two weeks ago that I made a whole batch of raisin buns, and they're all gone already. Making new ones today.

As soon as our neighbours start asking me for bread, I'll start considering a career change.

20 August 2009

nothing but pink clouds

How many unsharp pictures you think one can take of the same object? A non-moving, well-lit object at that, while using a pretty foolproof point-and-shoot camera?

More than you think, apparently.

Going through the pictures I had taken at our summer party right before the hungry locusts (aka our guests) were called in, I found that none of the pictures I had taken of the gravlax, the cured whole salmon I had made, were even remotely sharp.

More than that, the salmon seemed to have poisoned the pictures it was in. Picture of cheese platter and italian vegetables - sharp. Picture of cheese platter and a tiny corner of gravlax - mostly sharp. Picture of cheese platter and gravlax - damn unsharp. Picture of gravlax - nothing but pink clouds. Tiny corner of gravlax and tuna tabouleh - sharp again!

What the fudge?!

So, this is what I could salvage, a cutout from a larger 'groupshot':

But despite the pictures, the gravlax itself was a resounding success. Especially considering how little work it actually had been to prepare.

I've been told it's a traditional swedish(?) way of preserving salmon, and the recipe is one I've got handed down from my mother. Curing with salt takes some of the moisture out of the meat, making it firmer, more intense and darker, pretty much like a cured ham. After two days curing, it is still recognizably 'fishy' in texture, but at four days, it really is more ham than salmon, except for the taste, of course.
My family is a little divided on how many days curing are best, but two days seem to be the best compromise.

The sauce that goes with it is traditional and pretty nice, especially if you make it completely from scratch and grind your own mustard, but that's not really necessary. Also, it is far from the only option - my wife skips the sauce completely and sticks with garlic smetana to go with the gravlax.

Whatever you put on top of it - the gravlax is a dead-simple way of preparing a different, intensely tasty salmon dish, perfect for a light summer dinner or as a nice starter.

gravlax (cured salmon)
(Serves 4-6 as a main, double as starters. Images show a whole 6kg salmon.)

for the gravlax
1kg fresh salmon with skin, in two equally-sized pieces
5 small bundles dill
1 tablespoon white pepper
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons coarse salt

for the sauce
3 tablespoons hot mustard
1 teaspoon mustard powder
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon plain vinegar

Wash the salmon and descale, if necessary. Pat dry.
When you buy the salmon, make sure it is very fresh. Curing will make it taste more intense, for good or bad. Also, making sure you get two pieces of the same shape helps a lot.

Roughly shop the dill and coarsely grind the white pepper. Mix both with the sugar and the salt.

Put one piece of salmon onto a large sheet of tinfoil, skin-side down. Cover well with the spiced salt-sugar-mix, then lay the other piece on top, skin side up.
In the end, you should have skin-meat-salt-meat-skin.

Wrap the salmon tightly with the foil and put into a high-rimmed dish. Lay something heavy, like a stone or a full water-bottle, on top of the whole thing, making sure there's some gentle but insistent pressure all over the fish.
I actually have a few cobblestones in my larder right for that purpose... and as doorstoppers, if need be.

Cure the salmon in a cool place (but not the refrigerator) for two days, turning the bundle each twelve hours.
Do not discard the brine running out, you'll need it for the sauce.

On the day of serving, unwrap the fish and discard the remaining salt and spices. Depending on how intense you like the dish, you can even wash it off, as long as you carefully dry the salmon afterwards.

For the sauce, add four tablespoons of the brine with the remaining ingredients, and stir or blend until smooth. Correct seasoning, trying to find a rather mild balance between hot/salty/sweet.

Serve the fish in thin slices with some fresh dill, the sauce and some fresh bread. Pickles or cucumber salad go very well with this.

The gravlax keeps in the fridge for a few days, but grows more and more intense and ham-like each day.
By the way, I've heard rumours about a version of this involving rainbow trout, coriander green and ginger instead of salmon and dill... My fingers twitch even thinking about this. MUST. TRY. SOON!

12 August 2009

something similarly silly

Well, I know I already mentioned I made all the bread for the summer party. But did I also mention what a fun it was, kneading and folding almost twenty pounds of dough in a laundry tub?

Or the mess I made when I poured the whole thing onto my kitchen counter for pre-shaping?

It was great. And I am actually looking forward on doing something similarly silly again next year.

Definitely one of the nicest sights of the whole event was the pile of loaves on my dining table on friday before the party, growing slowly but steadily, filling the house with their scent, crackling softly.

And with all the good food (and especially all the meat), it was little wonder that last weekend, we all longed for something a little less... meaty, actually. As not all of us are overly fond of piles of vegetables, pasta seemed the obvious choice.

Homemade pasta.

It's dead simple - should I write down the recipe and how-to, anyway? And with a nice heap of grated cheese, and a big bowl of long-cooked, almost caramellized tomato-basil sauce, there's hardly anything simpler and better to be had on a nice, calm summer evening.

09 August 2009

somewhat accidentally

This recipe has entered our household somewhat accidentally.

A few years ago, while preparing for our summer party, I realized I had much more zucchini and eggplants than I would have needed. Mostly, this was due to the fact that august is the month of the dreaded zucchini deluge, with all neighbours bringing some of them as a (only moderately welcome) gift.

But, you know, in the best sense of making lemonade out of life's lemons, I roasted them, doused them in balsamic and put them onto the summer party's buffet. It was an instant hit and has been repeated every year since.

As we are usually running out of these antipasti before 10pm on our summer party, this year we made an extra large batch of them. Which led my dear aunt to comment on the inevitable leftovers the next morning: "Oh my, look at this, that's almost two pounds of leftovers! What a shame..."

At which I only smiled wryly, saying: "Well, they ate twenty-two out of twenty-four pounds. I think that's pretty spot-on."

We serve really big bowls at our summer party, did I mention that?

Anyway, this is a great way of offering vegetables in a different way and can be varied endlessly to accommodate season and tastes. I've already added squash, chanterelles and oyster mushrooms to the mix, and they all turned out pretty great.

And in the rare case you do get leftovers - they keep perfectly for quite a few days.

grilled vegetables, italian style
(serves eight as a side, images show... a manifold batch)

two medium zucchini
one medium eggplant
four red and / or yellow peppers
two red onions
four cloves of garlic

one sprig each of sage, rosemary, thyme
two teaspoons salt
pepper or some peperonici
200 ml balsamic vinegar
400 ml mild olive oil
1 tablespoon honey

On the day before serving, clean the vegetables and peel the garlic and the onions.

Cut the eggplant and the zucchini into slices about as thick as a finger. Peel and quarter the onions. Arrange them on a baking tray lined with paper and put them under the very hot grill - without any seasoning or oil - until they are dark brown, almost charred, on top.
Charring and browning are important for the taste of the dish - actually cooking the vegetables not so much. If you manage to get them slightly charred while they still have a bite to them - you rock!

To save space, zucchini and eggplant slices can overlap like slates, as long as each slice will have a chance to cook and brown.

Meanwhile, clean the peppers and quarter. Arrange on a baking tray skin-side up, and grill until the skins show black blisters.

[optional] To peel the peppers, cover them hot out of the oven with a wet kitchen towel and leave to cool a little. After that, the skin should come off easily.
As I have come to learn, this really is entirely optional. Usually, I made the effort and peeled all of the peppers. Last year, though, I had another kind of peppers that didn't want to separate from theirs skins try as I may. So I chucked them into the bowl, charred skins and all. Nobody complained, nobody left pepper skins on they plates. So I figured - why bother?

Combine the warm vegetables in a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Toss lightly until all is covered and leave to marinate for a few hours, best over night.

Toss again before serving, correct seasoning if necessary.

Serve with crusty white bread as a starter, or with grilled meat as a cold side.

Covered with olive oil, leftovers keep in the fridge for at least a week.

06 August 2009


The peaches are ripe!

Admittedly, peaches grow and ripen all over the world, every year, so basically it's no big news.

But these are the peaches in our garden, and considering that we live in a corner of Germany that for good reason is called 'Hessian Siberia', this is a small miracle indeed.

There's a bowl of them standing right on my desk, filling the room with their sweet scent, all of them still warm from the evening sun. So very lovely.

05 August 2009

candlelight and iced rosé

A few years ago, I got my hands on a tub of harissa and decided I had to make something with it. Anything.

I would make tuna tabouleh, I decided.

The only problem I had was that I had never eaten any, nor consciously seen a recipe, or anything in that general direction. What I had in mind were half-remembered rumminations of... something, a salad of bulgur, herbs, and said harissa.

I had no recipe. More precisely, I had no idea of where I was going when I started throwing together the ingredients.

Even today I don't actually know if what I call a tabouleh actually IS one or not, though I am reasonably sure by now. If anyone of you knows more about mahgreb cuisine than I do, I'd really appreciate some help here.

But - and I bet you all saw that coming - my 'tabouleh' turned out great. A delicious, hot-sour-spicy summer fare that at least for German standarts is pretty exotic. When I am asked to bring something for a party, usually it is this salad I am asked for.

Also, you can make it in smaller quantities and make fresh tuna steaks instead of using canned tuna, and suddenly this dish turns into a great summer dinner, classy enough to be shared with someone special on a balmy august night with candlelight and iced rosé wine...

Ahem. Sorry.

Before I got carried away, I just wanted to add that bulgur, the cracked, parboiled and dried wheat is usually harder to find than its finer cousin couscous. You can use couscous just as well in this recipe, though the texture will be a little bit less appealing (at least in my eyes) and there will be a bigger risk of the whole thing getting a little soggy.

Bulgur will make for a more coarse, interesting salad, and I am pretty sure the difference will be worth a little time spend searching. Who knows what else you may find that inspires you, like that tub of harissa did for me?

tuna tabouleh
(serves 6 as a side)

250g bulgur (alternatively couscous)
500ml water

juice of one lemon
50g harissa
100ml olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

one bundle each of flat parsley, coriander green and mint
a small bundle spring onions
one can tuna meat
(entirely optional) one more lemon and some borage blossoms for decoration

Prepare the bulgur (or the couscous) according to the instructions on the box - usually, that will mean boiling half a litre of water, pouring it over the grains and leave it until all the liquid has been absorbed, usually no more than a few minutes.
Some types of bulgur may require cooking, much like pasta. Won't make a difference here, though.

Leave to cool a little and mix to fluff up occasionally.

Mix the lemon juice, the harissa, the oil and the spices until smooth. Pour over the warm bulgur and mix until evenly distributed. Leave to cool for a while, even over night.
Depending on the brand you get, the harissa can be rather mild or pretty hot, so proceed with caution. Rather take less harissa and more cumin and coriander.

Clean the sping onions and chop very fine. Roughly chop the herbs and drain the tuna.
As much as I am for lazy cooking - I really prefer to take the stems off the coriander, as they can be a little too much of the good stuff for me.
Also, nothing forces you to use canned tuna here - a fresh tuna steak directly from the grill is absolutely lovely on this salad, though maybe not really the point when you're preparing for a party. Or exactly the point, depending.

Mix the bulgur to fluff up again and correct the seasoning, if necessary.
It should be spicy and leave a nice, moreish tingle in your mouth, but shouldn't incinerate your palate.

If the bulgur feels too dry, add some more olive oil and / or lemon juice.

Right before serving, add the chopped onions, the herbs and the tuna, and toss until well combined.

If you want, you can decorate the salad with lemon wedges and borage blossoms.
I picked borage blossoms for four reasons: a) they are edible b) they are all over our garden in summer c) their taste goes nicely with the salad d) their colour goes so lovely with the blue bowl we always serve the tabouleh in. Shallow, I know, but soo pretty...

Serve lightly chilled with crusty bread and maybe some greek-style yoghurt with a little bit of mint. Doesn't really keep well beyond a day or two.

Can be varied with some canned or cooked chickpeas or some other legumes added to the mix for more texture.

04 August 2009

a real highlight

Now this was a whirlwind weekend if there ever was one.

And what a wonderful summer party it was! Almost unbelievably, the weather remained warm and sunny, so unlike the years before, and we were able to sit outside all night, until finally the last guest had left at half past two in the morning.

The food was a great success, as we had hoped for. I made all the bread, two huge pork roasts with crackling, the cured salmon and, and, and... Even though we calculated the amounts rather generously, we hardly had any leftovers.

First thing we ran out of was my mother-in-law's indian cucumber salad, followed by the eggs in hot curry sauce and the tiramisu. I'm still stunned by the sheer amounts of food these people have stuffed themselves with! But happy with it, of course, and still glowing like a christmas tree with all the compliments me and my lovely crew have received.

Actually, the most complimented dish on the whole table was my wife's pasta salad - which enraged her ever so slighty, as she had made the exact same salad each year before, and it had never received much attention so far. Who said our guests were reliable eaters...

Anyway, it was a great party, and a real highlight of my year. I'll post some of the recipes individually over the coming days, while we sort through the remaining debris and the piles of unmarked (and mostly edible) presents that somehow have wordlessly accumulated on our sideboard. At least I assume they are presents, if not, someone please let me know.

Especially that tiny, elephant-shaped vase, wrapped in a red silk scarf, amazes me to no end. Where did that come from? And what am I supposed to do with it?

01 August 2009

a few hours from now

Just a few hours from now, close to seventy people will be flooding our house. The bread is ready, as is the salmon and the grilled italian vegetables.

All that's left is the meat, the salads, the sauces and the dessert. And we still have to set up the bar in the garden, and clean the house, and buy some wine that for whatever reason we forgot to get from the wholesale market...

It sounds so mad, I know, but I am looking forward to this whirlwind of chaos each year, and I am having a blast each time. Let's see what stories I'll have to report come tomorrow morning.