Friday, July 29, 2011

Pan-Fried Steak with Salad of Potatoes and Asparagus

I love watching French cooking shows. Not only do they help me improve my French, but they keep me up to date with the food scene in my beloved France. Of course, they also provide me with a wealth of cooking inspiration. That's why I always keep my pen and notepad ready!
Last week I came across a recipe that immediately caught my attention- veal liver in a reduced wine sauce served with a lovely salad of potatoes and baby asparagus. Now, let me tell you. The dish itself looked extremely appetizing, but the liver...
You see, I've only recently come to appreciate all things with liver. That aversion came from those slightly traumatizing Saturday morning breakfasts with fried liver and scrambled eggs- my mom's desperate attempt to help her slightly anemic daughter. I won't go into her beet milkshakes because I'd rather not scare you too much, but oh that liver! Luckily, I'm healed (both from the anemia and the liver aversion) and I can now happily eat products made with liver, like French paté which has become a standard weekend treat at our house. For some reason though, I still have issues with cooking a fresh piece of liver, not in a paté, but by itself. 
The fact that this particular recipe called for liver didn't stop me from fiddling around with it of course. As I said, these cooking shows serve as a source of inspiration. Most of the time I'll just take a recipe and rework it to something I know my family and I will enjoy. And because on Friday evenings Hans and I love a good steak, I decided to make something similar, with steak and without the liver.
This isn't a recipe to try if you're pressed for time or already starving. Not that it takes a lot of effort to make either, but it's better to leave it for an occasion when you want to spoil yourself and someone you love. Remember to make cooking a labor of love- light some candles, play some nice music and pour yourself a glass of good wine while you cook. Oh, and don't forget to let your steak come to room temperature before it hits that pan. Also very important.
Bon Appétit!
Pan-Fried Steak with Salad of Potatoes and Asparagus
Serves 2

First start by being very frivolous and making your prosciutto ham chip! Simply preheat the oven to 200C and place two pieces of prosciutto (a little smaller than the palm of your hand) between two pieces of baking paper and between two baking sheets. Or just place the prosciutto on a baking sheet (on the baking paper), place the other piece of baking paper on top of the prosciutto and weigh down with a small baking tray. This ensures that the prosciutto will not curl. Bake for about 8 minutes and set aside.

For the potato and asparagus salad:
1 tbsp mild olive oil
100g baby asparagus
300-400g potatoes, cut in medium-sized chunks
2 tbsps good mayonnaise
1/2 tsp grainy mustard
1 small clove of garlic, finely minced
finely minced chives and parsley
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste

First heat up your grill pan, add the oil and grill your asparagus for about 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and toss them as they cook. Once done, cut them in half. In the meantime, bring your potatoes to the boil and cook them until tender but not soft. Drain well, allow to briefly cool and add the asparagus. Make a dressing by combining the mayonnaise, mustard, garlic, chives, parsely, salt and pepper. Add this to the potatoes and asparagus and stir to combine.

Now on to the steak...
2 steaks (150-200g per steak)
25g butter
1 tbsp mild olive oil
1 shallot, minced
50ml red wine
2 tbsps armagnac
1 tbsp balsamic syrup
2 tsps truffle mustard
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste 

Make sure your steaks are at room temperature. Heat the butter and oil in a large frying pan and give your steaks about 2-4 minutes per side, depending on their thickness and your own preference, and seasoning each side with salt and pepper as you turn them. Set the steaks aside and immediately add the shallot, wine, armagnac, balsamic syrup, truffle mustard and a touch of salt and pepper to your pan. Stir on a low-medium heat until the sauce reduces and becomes gloriously thick and dark (about 3-5 minutes). 

To assemble the dish, serve the potato salad with the steak, pour the pan juices over the steak and tuck the prosciutto chip between the steak and the potato salad. Serve with a fabulous Bordeaux, perhaps a Saint-Émilion. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Chicken in Red Pesto Cream Sauce for a Family of Chicken Lovers

I have a family of chicken lovers...
My husband tells me stories about how he would always order chicken with fries when he was still living at home and his parents went out for their anniversary meal. To this day, nothing makes the man happier than getting a text message from me saying "we're having chicken for dinner!" And when it comes to his birthday meal, he still remains his same, down-to-earth, chicken loving self. After a roast chicken dinner followed by a hearty slice of my double chocolate cake, he can once again say that he's had the best birthday ever.
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree and indeed, Kirstie has really taken after her dad. One of her favorite meals these days is my chicken in red pesto cream sauce. When she knows that's on the menu for that particular evening, she'll tell me all throughout the day how much she's looking forward to dinner. It's so sweet and it really makes my heart smile! 
Call me old-fashioned (and I am!), but in my opinion, nothing can please a mom (and a wife) more than knowing she's taking good care of her family. Cooking and the love that goes into putting a lovely meal  together is truly what makes a house a home. It's a shame that nowadays people go for convenience food more often than they should. Of course, I also have evenings when I'll throw a pizza in the oven, but at our house they're the exception rather than the rule. I'd much rather cook fresh, with good ingredients and most importantly, with love.
But back to the chicken in pesto cream sauce! This meal is based on a recipe card Kirstie picked up at our local supermarket once. She handed it to me and said, "mom, can you please make this sometime?" I never really cook from those recipe cards, but the recipe did look kind of interesting. It missed a little flair, but I took care of that. 
I really encourage you to give it a go. Chicken lovers or no chicken lovers in your family, you'll all love the smooth, creamy, tomatoey sauce that coats the tender legs of chicken in this recipe. I suggest you serve it with some tagliatelle and a side of creamed spinach, but rice and perhaps some French beans would also be fabulous. Enjoy!
Chicken in Pesto Cream Sauce
Serves 4

2 tbsps mild olive oil
8 chicken legs
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper
125 ml water
125 ml dry white wine
1/2 a chicken stock cube
50ml cream
100g red pesto

Season the chicken well with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and fry the chicken on all sides for approximately ten minutes. You might want to do this is two batches. Add the water followed by the wine and make sure you scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of your pan. Add the crumbled stock cube and make sure you blend it well into the liquid. Cover the pan and cook on a medium heat for approximately 25 minutes. Check every now and then to see if the chicken needs a little more liquid. Stir in the cream, cover and leave to cook for another 10 minutes. Add in the pesto, making sure it's well combined into the sauce, and cook for a further 3-5 minutes. Serve with joy!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ají Antioqueño- A Tribute to My Roots

Last night I found out about Joe Arroyo's death and was rather saddened. Being raised by Colombian-American parents, I pretty much grew up listening to Joe's hip-swinging salsa music. Songs like Rebelión and La Noche were played at almost every family gathering, much to the delight of my mother, who could dance salsa with envy-provoking flair. My aunt Estrella had a great big American townhouse so family gatherings usually took place there. All the dancers in my family (and there were a lot!) would split into couples to dance to Joe's music.
Unfortunately, I never took after my mother. In fact, I was too Americanized to really enjoy the music and during those parties, I would sometimes escape to my aunt's bedroom to watch television instead. Peeking at the show taking place in the living room every now and then or running to the dining room table to score an empanada.
After hearing about Joe's death, I went to You Tube and listened to some of his songs. It's amazing how music can bring on a flood of memories. I was thrown back 20 years and saw myself as a little girl, staring at my mom dance like only she could. This time though, asking her to teach me to dance just like her.
I may consider myself an American with a French heart and a Dutch nationality, but my Colombian roots are so deeply anchored in me that I literally get goosebumps (the happy kind) every time I hear or see something that has to do with the country where I spent the first two years of my life.
Colombian food can also have that same impact on me. Mention bandeja paisa (an oversized and extremely delicious peasant dish) and my mouth starts watering. I sometimes even have dreams of eating real Colombian food, either made by my family or enjoyed at one of my favorite Colombian restaurants in Union City.
While I have tried my hand at making certain recipes, I'm always left with the feeling that they don't come out exactly the same. It could possibly have to do with the fact that some of the ingredients are hard to source here. Take buñuelos, for example. I've tried making them with mozzarella instead of queso blanco (farmer's cheese), but they're not really what they're meant to be.
After being bit by the Colombian bug last night, I decided this morning that I needed to eat something Colombian. Preferably something simple. I had a good look through Patricia McCausland-Gallo's book, Secrets of Colombian Cooking, and decided to make Ají Antioqueño- a fabulously aromatic, lime-infused salsa consisting of chopped scallions, tomatoes, red habanero peppers, lots of cilantro and various condiments. I chose this recipe because it's a specialty of my region Antioquia, and because with the exception of the habanero peppers, I knew I could easily get all of the ingredients.
The salsa is traditionally eaten with soups, meats, on rice or my favorite, with empanadas. My choice was to serve it over a simple salad of thinly sliced tomatoes and ditto avocado. The taste of the salsa combined with the ripe, creamy avocado did more than satisfy my cravings for a taste of Colombia. If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the cool, spring-like climate of the land I left behind so many years ago.
Here's Patricia's recipe for Ají Antioqueño (with my own little modifications), followed by the simple salad I served it with.

Ají Antioqueño
Makes 1 1/2 -2 cups

2 tsps minced, seeded red habanero pepper (or just a normal red chili)
1/3 cup white vinegar
2 tbsps lime juice
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup chopped cilantro (I used about 1/2 a large bunch- I love cilantro!)
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes (I used two)
1/2 cup chopped scallions (I used three)
1/2 cup diced white onions (I used 1 small onion)
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp pepper (I used a good grinding of mixed peppercorns)
4 tbsps sunflower oil
1 tbsp tabasco sauce (I omitted this one as I'm not such a fan of extremely hot foods)

Patricia's instructions: 
"In a blender, puree the habanero pepper with the vinegar, lime juice, salt and 1/3 cup of water for 1 minute. Pour into a nonreactive bowl. Add cilantro, tomatoes, green onions (scallions), onions, sugar, pepper and oil and mix well. Add the tabasco, if using (this will make a very hot sauce even hotter!), and mix well. Refrigerate 8 hours to improve flavor. This is a mixture of ingredients that will blend with each other and become one with special character and aroma if left to set for this time period or overnight. It will keep refrigerated for about a week."
Truth be told, I couldn't wait and had the salsa immediately. It was still delicious!To make the salad, simply thinly slice two tomatoes, arrange on a plate and top with some of the salsa to taste. Do the same with the avocado and serve. Buen provecho!

A Little Early Morning Writing and a Weather-Indifferent Herbed Tomato Soup

As I sit here on this early Wednesday morning, it's just me, my cup of tea and the quietness of a house that has not yet come to life. In my opinion, when Mr. Ben Franklin said "early to bed early to rise...", he knew what he was talking about. I feel as though I can think better in the morning- something that comes in very handy when I have a deadline or when I just need time to collect my thoughts and get ready for the day ahead.
When I write early in the morning, I'm usually seated at my dining room table. From there, I pretty much have a wonderful view of the garden. It's great to take a break from the keyboard every now and then and see how the sky is changing or witness the moment when the sun finally peeks through the clouds.
Unfortunately, that last bit hasn't happened much these last few days (dare I say weeks). It seems like the sun has gone on vacation, because all we wake up to is gray skies, rain and unseasonably cool temperatures. It's quite interesting to note how the weather can have such a huge effect on everything and everyone. The shops have stopped selling barbecue items, people are walking around wearing coats and I'm finding myself lighting the fireplace and candles before the evening sets in! Not to mention that I feel as though I'm automatically cooking more autumnal foods!
It looks like things might get a little better today though. The sky is a pale shade of baby blue and with the exception of a few watercolor clouds, there doesn't seem to be much to worry about. As luck would have it, it also happens to be market day, so I think I'll wait until Kirstie gets out of bed and we'll have a wander through the stalls- in the sun! In the meantime, I would like to share the recipe for a rather weather-indifferent soup I made this Sunday. My thick, herb-infused tomato soup was comforting enough to make us forget the wet, Dutch climate, yet bright and sunny enough to remind us that it was still summer.
Note: This hearty herbed tomato and smoked chicken soup is full of deep flavors- the result of a night's worth of marinating and a slow-cooking time of about three hours. You'd be surprised to know that I've used can tomatoes. In my defense, good canned tomatoes. The lack of summer left me no choice. There are no good tomatoes to speak of. Complaining aside, here's the recipe. Enjoy!
Herbed Tomato and Smoked Chicken Soup
Serves 4

2x 400g cans whole, peeled tomatoes
2 tbsps mild olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic syrup (vincotto/crema di balsamico)
small bunch of thyme and a small bunch of rosemary (tied in a little bundle)
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3/4 tbsp dried oregano
pinch of chili flakes
2 1/2 tsps sugar (I used rosemary infused sugar)
250 ml water
350g smoked chicken breast, diced
sea salt and plenty of freshly-ground pepper, to taste

Put the tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic syrup, herb bundle, garlic, oregano, chili flakes, sugar and salt and pepper in a medium-sized heavy bottomed pan. Using a potato masher, give everything a bit of a mash, stirring as you go, in order to combine all the flavors. Don't mash everything too much though! You'll want some nice chunks of tomatoes. Place the lid on the pan and set it in the fridge overnight. The next day, about 2-3 hours before you want to eat, place the pan on the stove and bring everything to a quick boil. Add the water and immediately reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer. Allow the soup to simmer for about 2-3 hours, checking and stirring every now and then and adding a little more water if necessary. Add in the cubed chicken about twenty minutes before the end of cooking time. Taste the soup, correct the seasoning and serve.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Welcome to a Brand New Week! How Was Your Weekend?

Hi! Welcome to a brand new week!
How was your weekend? Come on in and let me tell you a little about my weekends.
It was rather autumnal here in the Netherlands and we were all complaining about the weather and the lack of summer. Of course I was a little disappointed, but knowing this too would pass, I took the time to read something nice, eat great food, lounge on the couch with a glass of wine and just plain relax. Hope you did too, no matter what the weather was like in your part of the world!
I truly adore weekends. Usually, I am the first one up on Saturday mornings. Somewhere around 7AM you'll find me downstairs in front of the tea kettle and a little after that, I'll walk into the garden, cup of tea in hand. Early, but I can't think of a better way to start the weekend than with a breath of fresh air and the feeling that I have the world all to myself. I'll have a look at the apple tree and delight at how pretty my apples are growing. I'll run my hands through the lavender and take in its sweet, calming scent. Perhaps trim the geraniums or remove a snail from my courgette plants. Why would I want to sleep late when all of nature is wide awake and ready for me to enjoy?
When we had Meiki (our Siberian Husky), I would take her on a long walk very early in the morning. We were pretty much on our own, enjoying the quietness while the rest of the world slept in. It's one of the things I miss most. I do go on early morning walks alone sometimes, but it's not the same. I'd much rather wait until I pick up Kirstie from school so that we can venture off together, or wait until the weekend when we all hop in the car and drive somewhere beautiful for a long walk.
Hans and Kirstie join me a little later and we have breakfast on our long wooden table, the one we had hand-made when we bought our lovely home. Hans is a great cook, so sometimes he'll surprise me with something delicious for breakfast. I feel so spoiled!
We usually listen to a little French radio while we eat and discuss our plans for the day. No weekend would be complete without a visit to the market, so usually that's the first thing on our agenda.
We love the market in Hilversum and the organic market in Amsterdam. At the one in Hilversum we always stop by Le Perron, a great stand selling amazing French breads and pastries. Their buttery croissants are to die for, as are their mini-quiches, especially the one with leeks. I'm usually at the Noordermarket in Amsterdam a few times a month for my culinary walks. After I'm done guiding a group through the city's best gourmet spots and we've ended our market walk, hubby joins me for our own weekend shopping.
Wherever they may take place, markets are such a great source of inspiration! I may not have a clue about what I want for dinner that evening, but after a walk through the market, I'm simply busrting with ideas!
Dinner on the weekends, is of course, something we really make a point of enjoying. On Saturdays, Hans and I usually plan a dinner date at home after Kirstie's gone to bed. Lunch on the other hand, is always an easy affair. If we don't head somewhere nice for lunch, we might buy a delicious pie from the Pie Man in Amsterdam. They sell the best English pies ever! It's just a matter of adding a salad, perhaps a chilled glass of white wine, and lunch is served!
This weekend though, we went to our favorite place for a pancake lunch. The Dutch are known for their deliciously oversized pancakes and at De Vuursche Boer their eggy, generously-topped pancakes are always a delight to eat. My favorite is their house pancake with tuna, onions, peppers and tomatoes. Perhaps a strange combination, but oh-so yummy! Especially with the little bowl of ketchup they serve with it.
The rest of our Saturday afternoon is spent either with some leisurely shopping or should the weather permit, in the garden, with a glass of something nice and a good nibble.
We both love cheese, so a cheese platter is really something we look forward to. Especially if it's accompanied by one of the wines we've brought back from our travels through France. The first sip is always full of memories. I can recall how and when I bought the wine and I can almost taste its region.
On Sundays we might have a barbecue. I love to cook, but I am hopeless in front of the grill. That's why I'd rather sit by the hydrangeas and geraniums- after I make all the side dishes, of course. Hans is much better at grilling than I could ever be.
On sultry summer evenings, we'll round off the day in front of our outdoor fireplace. Perhaps with a nice glass or armagnac at hand and definitely with some good conversation. It's always a moment to relish in the joy of being at home, with the people I love the most.
So how do you celebrate your weekends? I'd love to know! Till next time!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Domesticity and a Tasty Smoked Chicken and Courgette Quiche

Earlier this week, I told you about my courgette plants and warned you about yet another upcoming courgette post. You've read about my courgette soup, my mini-quiches and my omelette. So, what was the next courgette creation? A quiche! And not just any quiche, but one that tastes as good as a Sunday stroll through the countryside!
Quiche has always been one of those foods that makes me feel all warm and domestic. It might just have to do with the crust- which I am shamelessly proud to tell you, I make myself. Whenever I'm in the kitchen rolling out that buttery dough, my head is in the clouds and I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. As far as I'm concerned, I am June Cleaver and Martha Stewart all in one! Ha! My crust is all natural. Not from a box and not from a roll. I can make the world's best quiche crust, therefore I am! Silly, I know. But hey, I get the same feeling when I mop the floor!
The base for this quiche is a combination of flour, butter, a bit of salt and a beaten egg. Depending on the weather, I might add a little iced water to make the dough softer and more pliable. Nothing more to it. I also use this combination for sweet pie crusts. Instead of a half teaspoon of salt, I use a mere pinch and add just a touch of sugar.
My quiches happen to love vegetables, ham, bacon or fish. Funny enough, I've never tried one with chicken until now. And for that, I must thank my hubby. When we were doing food shopping earlier this week, I mentioned making a quiche to him and asked if he had any suggestions about what to put into it, bearing in mind that it would also include my beloved baby courgettes. He immediately mentioned chicken. Thinking plain chicken would be a tad on the boring side, I opted for smoked chicken strips.
As far as flavorings, I plucked a handful of basil leaves from the garden, chopped them up and threw them in with a few teaspoons of dried oregano. The combination of flavors worked exceptionally well in this recipe. I do hope you'll give it a go and let me know what you think! By the way, when I made this quiche, my daughter's friend was over for dinner and voraciously cleaned her plate. She's a picky pre-teen, so seeing how much she enjoyed my quiche made me feel even more like that fascinating combination of June and Martha! Enjoy!

Quiche with Smoked Chicken and Courgettes 
Serves 6

For the pastry:
200g flour
125g cold butter cut into small cubes
1/2 tsp salt
one beaten egg
iced water, if needed

crème fraîche
4 eggssmall bunch of fresh basil, chopped 
2 tsps dried oregano
1 courgette, or two small garden courgettes, cubed
200gr smoked chicken strips
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste

Mix flour with butter and salt in processor at low speed for about 20 seconds until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add beaten egg and pulse until dough comes together into a ball. If the dough seems dry, add a drop or two of iced water. Shape the dough into a disk and refrigerate 40 minutes wrapped in cling film. Let it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes before using it.

Preheat oven to 180C and grease a 25cm quiche pan with a little olive oil. Roll out your dough on a floured surface and drape over quiche pan pressing it up against the edges. Prick the dough with a fork all over its surface and blind bake (I use baking beans on a crumpled sheet of baking paper) for about 8 minutes. Remove the baking beans and paper and allow the bottom of crust to slightly brown. This will take just a minute or two. Meanwhile beat the 
crème fraîche, eggs and salt and pepper. Fold in the courgettes, smoked chicken, oregano and basil. Pour the filling into the crust and bake for 40 minutes. Allow the quiche to rest in at room temperature for an extra five minutes before serving. Serve with a simple green salad and a vinaigrette made with olive oil, herb vinegar, grainy mustard and a pinch of salt.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Forgotten Tins

I'm ashamed to admit that as far as my baking is concerned, I've become a little boring. Besides my financiers, madeleines or canelés, all I bake is muffins and cakes. Why boring? Well, not in terms of flavor- it's not like I'm only baking blueberry muffins- but in terms of shape. 
You see, I happen to have just about every shape and design of baking tin known to man. From odd-looking snowman tins to really pretty bundt tins that are basically serving as wall decoration and hardly being used. Shame on me.
I also have a few of those silicone baking molds which, as opposed to my other bakeware, I have guiltlessly abandoned. The few times I've used them (just to see if I was the one doing something wrong), my baked goods came out pale and soggy. I've  never understood how you can bake something like canelés in those molds. 
After a good rummage through my cabinets yesterday, I came across my baby bundt tin- one of those things that has only been used once, maybe twice. I purchased it somewhere after Nigella Lawson's  How to Be a Domestic Goddess came out- a fab book that I wholeheartedly blame for starting my love affair with my oven. Shhh, don't tell my hubby!
I needed that tin to make her lemon baby bundt cakes. Just like I needed a heart-shaped tin to make her chocolate raspberry heart. And a foot-shaped cookie cutter to make cheesy feet. Can you guess when my addiction to bakeware started?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Edible Garden

You might be wondering why I've posted so many recipes with courgettes recently. Well, of course I love courgettes, but the actual reason is that at this very moment I can just pluck them from my garden! They might not be the biggest, fattest courgettes ever, but they are the tastiest! Actually, most of the courgettes you see at the shops are a tad on the overgrown side, and therefore spongy and lacking a lot of flavor. The best courgettes are the little guys, the ones smaller than 10cm.
So how do I know this? And why did I place my courgette plants right next to the lavender (bees)? Am I such a keen gardener? Not really. A lot has just been a matter of experimenting and waiting to see what happens. Last year, for example, I swore my apple tree was dead. It was covered with some sort of fuzz and it did not produce a single apple! This year, however, it's bulging with healthy, little apples and I'm very excited at the thought of harvesting them a few months from now!
I've also been luckier with some varieties of tomatoes than with others. Two summers ago, I purchased seeds for Marmande tomatoes in France. I was lucky enough to actually try these wonderful tomatoes in Marmande and totally fell in love with their fruity taste and robust flesh. They grew amazingly well in the somewhat wet, cool Dutch climate and at the end of the season, I had developed an even bigger taste for them since they were in just about every salad I made! Cherry tomatoes on the other hand, weren't all that successful. Not that they weren't delicious, it's just that my harvest  was, well- rather tiny.
I started trying my hand at growing my own fruits and vegetables after reading Jamie Oliver's book, Jamie At Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life. More than a recipe book, Jamie actually has great gardening tips and lets the reader see that having your own vegetable patch is not as hard as it seems. The recipes in the book are organized according to season, which is also very motivating. I kept thinking: "Wow, as soon as I have  strawberries, I have to try that recipe with grilled strawberries! And ooh, when I get my first tomatoes, I'll definitely be making Jamie's Summer Tomato Pasta!" Should you also be interested in growing more than just chives and parsley, this is definitely a book I highly recommend.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dinner For Two...and Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Wild Garlic Goat's Cheese

Ever since we became parents, Hans and I have made it a deal to have a dinner date at least once a week. Our dinner dates give us more quality time as a couple. We don't hire a babysitter and head to a restaurant, but instead we give Kirstie a nice meal and wait a little longer with having our own meal until she's gone to bed. If we're very hungry, we'll share a glass of wine and something small, perhaps some crackers and paté while Kirstie eats her dinner.
We usually plan our dinner dates on Friday or Saturday, and believe me, they are a wonderful way to keep connected. Making a point to sit down to a nice meal accompanied by a good bottle of wine gives us time to really talk about our lives, laugh and enjoy the moment together.
The fun begins with the planning. Where should we get our products from? What kind of wine should we have? Who's going to cook? How about dessert? We also make an effort to make our meal cozy and romantic.  There's always candles and usually a few French records playing in the background.
So what do we usually eat? Actually, most of the time we choose for simplicity. A perfectly grilled entrecôte with a nice salad and some good bread. Perhaps a duck breast finished off with a shot of armagnac and some pan-roasted potatoes. Sometimes an easy seafood pasta or some mussels with frites. 
Other times, I just wait for inspiration to hit and then run with an idea. Like this Friday when I decided to make something that required a little more effort- stuffed chicken breasts. I got the idea when I saw that my supermarket was carrying wild garlic goat's cheese. Being a  cheese lover, this was something I had to try! I imagined it would be wonderful with chicken- and it was! Should you not find goat's cheese with wild garlic, you can simply add some chives to a little soft goat's cheese.  The taste of wild garlic is milder and closer to chives in taste than to the stronger, normal garlic. 
A good excuse to making time for dinner for two tonight, perhaps?
Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Wild Garlic Goat's Cheese
Serves 2

mild olive oil
2 good chicken breasts
40g wild garlic flavored goat's cheese
few leaves of basil
2 slices of prosciutto
125 ml dry white wine
sea salt 
freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 180C. Make a pocket in each chicken breast and fill with the goat's cheese and the basil leaves. Secure with a wooden skewer and wrap lengthwise with a slice of the prosciutto. Season well with salt and plenty of ground pepper. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the chicken breast for about three minutes a side. Transfer the chicken to a small casserole and add the wine to the pan, making sure to scrape up any brown bits.  Drizzle the wine juices over the chicken and pop the casserole in the oven.  Cook the chicken for approximately 25 minutes and serve with the juices. You might want to serve this with some steamed rice or creamy mashed potatoes. We had ours with spinach tortellini! 

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Craving for Quiche

I remember reading Susan Herrmann Loomis' Tarte Tatin and her mentioning that she sometimes bought these gorgeous little quiches at her local market in Louviers. According to Susan, Madeleine and Jean-Pierre made the best quiches she ever tasted. If I had more time, I would love to escape to Normandy and try one of these quiches, because truth be told, I do adore a good quiche!
It's the perfect lunchtime treat and (once sliced) packs up wonderfully well for a picnic.  I also love quiches for their versatility. The golden, eggy custard can pretty much carry anything your heart fancies- from vegetables to all kinds of meats and fish!
Generally speaking, I always make my own crust from good butter (I cannot stress how important this is), flour and an egg. I find that it gives a better result than the rolls of ready-made pastry you buy in the shops.  I know I should really share my recipe for quiche lorraine with you first (as that is the mother of quiches!), but after a sudden craving for quiche yesterday, I came up with these tasty, rustic little quiches and I am just dying to share the recipe with you!
Within half an hour I was sinking my teeth into a hearty quiche, and I was very happy indeed.
In case you're eager to make a bigger quiche, you might  want to try another one of my favorite quiche recipes- with broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes and goat's cheese.  This quiche has earned me a lot of compliments, so do give it a go. But before, I give you the recipe for my mini-quiche, I am curious to know what your favorite quiche recipe is?  What kind of filling does it have? And where do you buy the best quiches?
Here's my mini-quiche recipe, which for the sake of convenience (and my sudden quiche craving), uses ready-made pastry. A great added bonus is that I also had the opportunity of using up some of the ingredients left over from yesterday's omelette!

Quick Mini-Quiches
Makes 6
3 small square sheets of ready-made pastry (that's how they sell them here in the Netherlands) or enough ready-made pastry to cover 6 holes of a regular muffin tin
2 eggs
100ml unsweetened evaporated milk (yup, you read right- this made these babies so much richer)
60g garlic-flavored cream cheese
1/2 small courgette, diced
2 thin spring onions, finely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat your oven to 180C and generously grease 6 holes of your muffin tin. Defrost your pastry if necessary and roll it out just a little thinner. Line the muffin tin with the pastry, nipping and tucking it a little here and there and not worrying about being too neat! Whisk the eggs, evaporated milk, cheese and salt and pepper to taste.  Add in the courgettes and onions.  Divide the mixture between the pastry-lined holes and pop in the oven for about 25 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly on a wire rack (in the tin) before serving.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Beautiful Omelette- with My Own Courgettes

To me, one of the most rewarding things is growing my own fruits and vegetables. From the planting of the seeds in the early spring to the excitement and expectation that comes with seeing them grow.  The best part, of course, is reaping the rewards when the time to harvest rolls around. After months of loving care, your beautiful fruits and vegetables are ready to be enjoyed.
Last year, I started growing courgettes for the first time.  It really is so easy, and the best part is that you don't need a big garden at all. A large flower pot will do just fine.  I've tried growing them from seeds, but for some reason I seem to have better results when I buy young plants at my local garden center.
I plant them around early April and by the middle of July, the first courgettes are ready to be harvested.
We had our first garden-fresh courgette yesterday.  It looked so beautiful that I almost felt guilty cutting it off the plant.  So what did I do with it?  I made an omelette!
I've always thought courgettes and eggs make a perfect combination, and because I had some beautiful red onions lying around, I decided to sweat them gently and throw them in as well. To kick up the flavor without masking the delicate taste of the courgette, I whisked in a little garlicky French cream cheese into the eggs.
The result was lovely- a creamy, golden omelette with sweet courgettes and lightlty caramelized onions.
Courgette and Red Onion Omelette
Serves 4

2 tbsps mild olive oil
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 large courgette, thinly sliced
70g garlic-flavored French cream cheese
7 eggs
3 tbsps milk
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste

Heat one tbsp of the oil in a frying pan.  Add the onions and gently sweat them for about 10 minutes. Remove the onions and set aside.  Increase the heat just a little and add the other tbsp of oil to the pan.  Gently cook your courgettes for about 3-5 minutes, turning them over every now and then and making sure they cook evenly. Whsik the eggs with the cream cheese, the milk and some salt and pepper.  Pour the eggs over the courgettes and top with the onions.  Allow the omelette to cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes.  Get your grill nice and hot, remove the pan from the stove and pop it under the grill for 3-5 minutes so that the omelette cooks on top and browns nicely.  Serve with rice, steamed vegetables or just a simple green salad and some French bread.

Bonne fête à tous!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pork Chops in Mustard Tarragon Cream Sauce with Mushroom

It's a shame that pork is often shunned as the lesser meat, when in fact it is an excellent source of B vitamins, protein, iron and zinc. Of course, all things in moderation and from a good source- in other words, organic.  The taste is just so much better! While regular pork might sometimes have a rather strong taste and smell, organic pork is mild, sweet, less watery and cooks much nicer.
One of my favorite ways to serve pork is in stews.  A while ago I wrote a recipe for pork in wine sauce for Ze, a Dutch publication. Perhaps this is a combination that you wouldn't think of right away, but it works surprisingly well.
Another recipe I adore is my pork chops with mustard tarragon cream sauce and mushrooms. It is such a beautiful, hearty dish, a pleasure to cook and it goes really well with some steamed basmati rice or some hot, buttered noodles.
Pork Chops in Mustard Tarragon Cream Sauce with Mushroom
Serves 3

2 tbsps mild olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, finely sliced
3 pork chops
1 generous glass of dry white wine
250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
125ml single cream
2 tsps grainy mustard
2 tsps dried tarragon
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat one tbsp of the oil in a frying pan and sauté the onions and garlic for 2-3 minutes. Set aside.  Add the other tbsp of oil to the pan, season your chops with salt and pepper and fry them for about 3 minutes on each side.  Add the wine, scrape any brown bits, add the onions and garlic and lower the heat. Place a lid on the pan and cook the chops for 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms, cream, mustard and tarragon.  Make sure the mustard is fully combined with the cream. Allow the dish to cook for a further ten minutes, taste and correct the seasoning and serve.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tasting the Region: Lentilles du Puy

Weeks before I go on vacation, I start doing research about the area, and most important, about the food my destination has to offer. What's in season now? What dishes are they known for?  What are the local specialties? I am stunned to hear that there are people who actually cannot name one regional dish or product from the places they've visited.  Believe it or not, there are even some who pack up the camper's mini-fridge with food from home- because they think it's cheaper and because they could care less about the 'exotic' dishes of other countries.  What a shame!
If you're like me, your heart probably sings when you wake up in a foreign town and realize it's market day. Or when you bump into a little gourmet shop selling wonderful treasures such as mustards, oils and fancy salts.
Actually, vacations have become the source of new culinary addictions for me. Take Burgundy for example. After tasting dishes like boeuf bourguignon, oeufs en meurette and coq au vin (all dishes made with red wine), I cannot live without a bottle of pinot noir in the house- just in case I need to make a dish a little more exciting.
In the Ardèche, I fell in love with chestnuts. I remember eating at a restaurant where they served a mean salad made with local ham, crème fraîche and sweet, crunchy chestnuts.  It was addictive!
On a trip to the Auvergne, I discovered lentils like I've never had them before- lentilles du Puy.  These little dark-green delicacies won my heart from the first bite.  No trip to France goes by without me buying a few boxes of the really good, authentic stuff.  My favorite way to eat these lentils is in a stew with some spicy merguez sausages on the side and perhaps a cool tomato or endive salad. I've also cooked them in soups and used them in salads with goat's cheese and bacon. And the best part?  They're rich in protiens, vitamins and minerals- unbelievably healthy!
This salad is also one of my favorite ways to eat them. I am sure you'll love it. And if you haven't experimented with these lentils before, do give them a shot in other dishes. Honestly, I feel like such a healthy country girl when I eat anything with Puy lentils! 
Bon Appétit!
Salade de lentilles à la Grecque

A hearty salad, delicious on its own as a healthy lunch or served as a side dish with a roast chicken.

Serves 2

120g lentilles du puy, rinsed
375 ml water
1 bay leaf
2 thin spring onions, chopped (also use the green)
150g cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered, depending on their size
10 thick green olives filled with red pepper, chopped
half a cucumber, peeled and chopped
70g feta, cubed
small handful of parsley, chopped

for the dressing
1 tsp grainy mustard
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp dried oregano
3 tbsp extra vergin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring the lentils along with the bay leaf to the boil.  Immediately reduce heat to a simmer and let the lentils cook for 30-35 minutes in a covered pan.  Drain the lentils, remove the bay leaf and allow to cool. Whisk all of the ingredients for the dressing in a large bowl.  Add the spring onions, cherry tomatoes, olives, cucumber, feta, parsley and the lentils to the bowl.  Stir everything carefully and serve. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Little Quatorze Juillet in the Netherlands

I must admit, I've been a little sad lately.  Sad because  I will not be celebrating Bastille Day in Duras this year, something I promised I'd always do. On the other hand, I know there's absolutely no reason to complain. We will be there in a month and I already see myself having a pastis at the Tip Top Bar or a fab seafood pizza at Don Camillo's.
But why do I find being away from France during its national holiday so difficult? Well, because my heart is French and because no one can celebrate like the French! On the 14th of July, every French town has a party.  There's food, wine, music, laughter, more wine and at the end, there's fireworks.  The last couple of years we would all gather together at Le Château de Duras for a fantastic display of courage.  Every year the same guy amuses the audience by putting on a bull costume loaded with fireworks. Yup, you read correctly. The fireworks came from his costume! There was also a parade through the town which was great fun. Especially for the kids who carried beautiful lanterns and marched along with the band and with their parents proudly by their side. 
As luck would have it, a few days ago I found out that there was a French celebration (Bonjour Festival) taking place in Breda, just a little more than an hour from here.  I was so happy because I thought this celebration might just make up for the fact that I wouldn't be in Duras this Thursday.  And it sure did!
We spent a wonderfully French Sunday afternoon listening to music, drinking pastis and eating fromage! I was amazed to see how many people, just like us, have also been captivated by France and the French culture. I guess I won't be the only one putting up the French flag this Thursday...

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Fab Mocha Cupcakes: Dedicated to Some Very Special Teens

These delicious little cupcakes are dedicated to my children: my daughter of course, but also the children I have taught during the past two and a half years.  The ones who always sat at my desk to have a chat and keep me company.  The ones who shared their lives with me, their tears and their happiness. The children who never failed to make me smile or make me feel young beyond my years. The ones who saw me as a friend they could trust.
Education is a rewarding job. Rewarding in the sense of gratitude and love you get from your pupils, and not in the financial or professional sense.  The fact is, there are a lot of teachers out there who are too tyrannical, too indifferent and too uncaring to make a difference.  I leave Helen Parkhurst knowing that I've made a difference, and that feels unbelievably good. Just as good as these cupcakes taste...

And because I know you want the recipe, here it is:
(Inspired by Nigella's Cappuccino Cupcakes)

Fab Mocha Cupcakes
Makes 10 cupcakes

125g self-raising flour
125g soft butter
125g sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsps instant espresso
1 tsp cocoa powder
3 tbsps milk

For the frosting:
150g white chocolate
60g butter
125g sour cream
200g powdered sugar
chocolate sprinkles

Preheat the oven to 180C and line a muffin tray with 10 liners.  Use the food processor to mix all the ingredienst for the cupcakes.  Divide the batter between the liners and bake for about 20 minutes.
Let the cupcakes cool in the tray for five minutes on a wire rack. Remove them from the tray and allow to cool completely before frosting.
To make the frosting, gently melt the chocolate and the butter au bain marie. Allow the mixture to cool and whisk in the rest of the ingredients until you have a smooth consistency. Swirl on top of the cupcakes and top with the sprinkles.