Thursday, August 11, 2011

Semana Española: Gambas Pil Pil

Today's post will not only round off my semana Española, but it may just be the last one for the next couple of weeks. We are leaving for France this Saturday (yay!) and between packing and rounding off some other work, I am not sure if I'll be able to post again after today. I will definitely try to post little messages about my adventures on twitter, so if you're interested in what I'll be doing in Burgundy and Lot-et-Garonne, just check out my twitter!
Vacations are a time of inspiration for me, so I do hope you'll join me again at the end of August for some tasty French stories and lots of new recipes! In the meantime, let me tell you about today's Spanish dish- gambas pil pil!
I adore prawns, especially the thick, fleshy ones that we've sometimes purchased at the Dutch fisherman's village of Volendam. Give me a serving of those pink, juicy babies with a dollop of garlic mayonnaise and a cold glass of rosé and you can't find a happier woman! I also love prawns in pasta with a little red pesto, some lemon and a handful of rocket leaves (a Jamie Oliver recipe). In Spain, prawns are a much-loved tapas dish. Gambas pil pil are a classic dish in many Spanish tapas bars, but I also happen to think that they make an excellent light meal if served with some bread, a nice, big salad and a bottle of chilled wine. 
For a little mediterranean flair, I recommend you serve the following recipe for lunch on a warm, cloudless summer's day. Preferably outdoors, perhaps after a few sangrias and definitely in good company. Buen provecho y hasta la proxima!
Gambas Pil Pil
Serves 8 as a tapas dish or 4 as a light lunch

5 tbsps mild olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 red chilli pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
500g fresh prawns, cleaned
1 tbsp dry sherry
pinch of smoked paprika powder
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste
few handfuls of freshly-chopped parsley
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and gently sweat the garlic and the chilli pepper for about 5 minutes. Make sure your heat is low and your garlic doesn't burn! Turn up the heat, add the prawns and the sherry and stir-fry until the prawns turn pink and feel firm (2-3) minutes. Sprinkle with the paprika powder and a dash of salt and pepper. Stir in the chopped parsley and serve. If you are serving this as a light meal, just put the pan on the table and let everyone help themselves! And remember to mop up those fragrant juices with chunks of fresh bread!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Semana Española: Garbanzos con Chorizo

Beans and pulses were a staple at my house while I was growing up. I remember my mom cooking Cargamanto beans in her pressure cooker at least three times a week. Every now and then she would make a pan of lentil soup and for Christmas, we sometimes ate moros y cristianos (a dish of black beans and rice). I still love beans. These days I am particularly fond of using kidney beans, Puy lentils and chickpeas. I use them in stews, soups and even salads. Not only do they add a rich, nutty taste to dishes, but they're also full of protein and fiber!
Today's Spanish dish is a treat if like me, you're especially fond of chickpeas. It's also real lifesaver if you find that it's almost time for dinner and you still haven't got a clue about what to make. The recipe calls for ingredients which are pretty much found in every pantry, with the exception of the chorizo perhaps. I'm all for fresh, but in a pinch, there's nothing quite as comforting as opening the door to my pantry and making a meal using things like canned tomatoes and beans!
The beauty of this recipe not only lies in its simplicity, but in its full, earthy flavors. It's amazing to spend just 20 minutes in the kitchen, feel like you haven't cooked and then sit down with a glass of red to enjoy this gorgeous meal. You can serve the dish over some rice, with bread or even with a healthy serving of spinach, like I did. Buen provecho!
Garbanzos con Chorizo
Serves 4

2 tbsps mild olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, halved, deseeded and thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
250g spicy chorizo sausage, sliced
an 800g can of chickpeas, rinsed
a 400g can of chopped tomatoes
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste, although you probably won't need much
fresh, chopped parsley and extra virgin olive oil, to serve

Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan and gently sweat the onion and the bell pepper. Increase the heat just a little, add the garlic and the chorizo and cook for a further 8 minutes. The chorizo will begin to release its fragrant oils- yum! Add the chickpeas, stir well and follow with the tomatoes. Allow the dish to cook for 10 minutes in an uncovered pan, stirring every now and then. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. I find the chorizo has enough flavor, so I usually omit the use of salt. Perhaps a grinding of fresh pepper is all you'll want to add. Serve with a sprinkling of parsley and a drizzle of good, extra virgin olive oil.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Semana Española: Albóndigas

Buenos dias and welcome to day two of this semana Española! My family and I are really delighted with all the Spanish food I have been cooking these days. The rich, earthy flavors and ingredients of the Spanish kitchen are really bringing in the sunshine- a welcomed treat considering the cool, gloomy weather we are having this summer here in the Netherlands! It can be gray and raining outside, but the moment I start frying chorizo or I smell the oaky aroma of smoked paprika, I am in sunny Spain!
Around this time of year, many of the Dutch are returning home from their vacation, and since Spain is one of the most popular destinations, I really hope these posts will help you hold on to that holiday feeling for just a little longer. For me, these last couple of days have been very inspirational. I am really looking beyond what's in the pan and trying to understand the ingredients that characterize the country's cuisine. It's also amazing how much similarities I sometimes see with the kitchen of my parent's native Antioquia- a region of Colombia which appears to have a particularly huge Basque influence. This is evident in foods such as morcilla, chorizo and many of the beans and meat dishes we Paisas eat. I even discovered yesterday that our arepa (small cake made of cornflour and water), may be closely related to the talo of the Basque Country! I am still in the processing of discovering my own culinary roots, but understanding the Spanish kitchen and cooking techniques is really shedding some light on many of the dishes my family prepared while I was growing up. 

Today's dish is albóndigas, or Spanish meatballs. I remember we ate a lot of these when I was little. My mother usually served them over rice or sometimes she served them in a soup with potatoes. In Spain, albóndigas are served as tapas or as a main dish. The following recipe also comes from the book I mentioned in yesterday's post, The Real Taste of Spain. Again, I have made a few alterations based on my own preferences and keeping in mind the ingredients I had at hand. 
These tender, juicy albóndigas are first browned before cooking for about 45 minutes in a flavorful tomato sauce. You'll notice that the recipe asks that you first roll the balls through some flour before rolling them in egg white. I must admit I've always done this the other way around (and in a whole beaten egg), so I found this technique rather messy. I leave the choice up to you! The  albóndigas and their hearty tomato sauce go beautifully over a bed of fluffy, white rice. Buen provecho!
Serves 4

500g minced beef and pork
sea salt and freshly-ground pepper
pinch of nutmeg
2 garlic cloves, pressed
4 tbsps dry sherry
small handful of chopped parsley
small handful of fresh breadcrumbs
2 eggs, split
4 tbsps mild olive oil
30g flour

For the sauce:
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, pressed
a can of chopped tomatoes (400g)
200ml good beef stock
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika powder
pinch of sugar

In a large bowl, combine the minced meat, salt, pepper, nutmeg, garlic, sherry, parsley and breadcrumbs. Allow this to stand in the fridge for about an hour. Add the egg yolks to the mixture and make sure everything is combined well. I like to use a potato masher to do this. Whisk the whites lightly in a separate bowl and put the flour in a shallow plate. Divide the mixture into 12 balls and roll them first through the flour and then through the egg whites. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and fry the meatballs in two batches until they are browned but not cooked. Place the browned meatballs on a separate plate. Once all the meatballs are cooked, lower the heat and add the onions and garlic to the pan and gently sweat them. Add the chopped tomatoes, stock, bay leaf and paprika powder and allow the sauce to cook for about 5-8 minutes or until it has thickened a little. Add the meatballs to the sauce, cover the pan and let them simmer gently for about 45 minutes. Serve over white rice as a main meal or make the meatballs smaller and serve them as tapas.   

Monday, August 08, 2011

Semana Española: Pollo Con Aceitunas!

For the last couple of weeks , I have been glued to BBC2 on Thursday evenings. The reason? Rick Stein's amazing culinary journey through Spain! Watching Rick on his travels has always been a pleasure. Wherever he goes, he makes sure the viewer is there with him, cooking and eating with the locals. He really does a great job at letting us taste the places he visits and this make his shows very inspirational.
In his Spanish series, his enthusiasm and passion for food were once again evident. After every episode, I had the urge to run into the kitchen and cook with pimentón, fry some chorizos until they released their spicy, orange oils or pour myself a glass of Jerez! If it wasn't for the fact that the shows finished around 10 PM, I probably would have.
Inspired by Rick and craving the taste of my ancestors, I decided to make this past weekend a Spanish one. It started with a bottle of Jerez and ended with a satisfying meal of albóndigas. We had tapas: paper-thin slices of sweet, perfectly marbled Jamón Ibérico, garlicky olives and pan al ajo. We drank Rioja and for two days, my house had the scent of Spain. 
Initially, I had intended on buying the book that went with the series, but my local bookstore did not carry it yet and because we are leaving for France this week, ordering wasn't an option. I had no choice but to be patient and leaf through other books on Spanish cuisine. I was lucky enough to find a gorgeous book inspired by the markets of Spain: The Real Taste of Spain. The beautiful photography, combined with easy, straightforward recipes made me love the book from the moment I picked it up. That and the colorful inside cover composed of pictures of just about every tin of pimentón imaginable!
I have cooked two recipes from the book so far and thought I would like to share my versions with you in today and tomorrow's post. I may just give a few more recipes a whirl by the end of the week, so if you like a little sabor Español, make sure you stay tuned for what may turn out to be a semana Española (Spanish week)!  
Again, these recipes are pretty much original, with the exception of a few alterations made to our tastes in my kitchen. For the actual recipes, check out the book. I'm sure you'll love it just as much as I did.
And for those of you living in the Netherlands who really want a taste of Spain, I highly recommend a visit to my favorite Spanish shop, Hollandaluz- the place for wonderful Spanish hams, oils, wines, spices, cheese and even Spanish pottery!

Today's recipe is one we really enjoyed for dinner on Saturday- pollo con aceitunas (chicken with olives). You'll notice that the recipe calls for authentic Spanish ingredients such as paprika powder, dry sherry, plump black olives and aromatic lemons. Your best bet is to serve the chicken with lots of bread. Even the pan juices are a fragrant example of the elaborately balanced flavors of the authentic Spanish kitchen. Buen provecho and muchas gracias to Rick Stein for the Spanish inspiration!
Pollo Con Aceitunas
Serves 4

4 chicken quarters (preferably free range/organic)
sea salt and plenty of freshly-ground peppercorns
3 tbsps mild olive oil
a few sprigs of the following herbs: rosemary, thyme and mint
1 1/2  tsp of smoked paprika powder
2 onions, halved and finely sliced
6 cloves of garlic, bruised and left whole
1 red chili pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
100 ml dry sherry
100 gr fat, juicy black olives
1 lemon, halved and each half quartered

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan and fry the chicken until it browns on all sides and the skin crisps beautifully. This will take about 5-7 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Reduce the heat and add the onions to the pan. Gently sauté for a minute or two. Add the garlic and the chili pepper and do the same, making sure that the garlic does not burn. Place the chicken back in the pan, sprinkle with the smoked paprika powder, add the chopped herbs and pour in the sherry. Cover and cook on a low-medium heat for about 45 minutes. Check every now and then to see if the dish is too dry. If so, add a little more sherry. Add the olives, squeeze in the lemon parts, add them in and let the dish cook for a further five minutes. As I mentioned, I served the chicken with bread (how else would we clean the pan?), but mashed potatoes might also go wonderfully with this dish. 

Care for a glass of vino? How about a dry, fruity rosé? We really enjoyed the palate-cleansing, well-balanced flavor and ripe tannins of the Parador 2010 Rosado from Navarra. This fruity wine is made from a selection of Garnacha Tinta grapes. It has a hint of red berries, beautiful floral notes and a fresh, long finish.


Friday, August 05, 2011

Inspiration, Utter Enjoyment and Palatable Gratification

There was a time, long, long ago, when calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salt were regarded as the enemy. Dirty words almost. Words that kept me from truly enjoying food and kept me overly focused on its nutritonal content. Not that I no longer regard good nutrition as important. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Believe it or not, in the past, my diet consisted of mostly processed food masked as 'healthy'. I was a sucker for things labeled 'fat free', 'low carb' or 'sugar free' and could care less about reading labels to see what I was actually putting into my body. I remember a time when I started my day with a huge cup of coffee sweetened with a few of those pink 'fake sugar' packets. Perhaps some fat free waffles sprayed with a certain butter replacement which was so good (not) that it was hard to believe it wasn't butter (not, again). I shudder at the thought now.
The changes slowly started to take place when I moved to Europe in the autumn of 1997. From Hudson County, New Jersey to the countryside of Borger- a town in the north of the Netherlands. My mother-in-law was the one who introduced me to real food- I saw how she cooked simple, good meals- while  Hans was the one who actually pulled me into the kitchen to cook. I'll never forget the first time I peeled a clove of garlic. I was nineteen and it was Hans who showed me how to do it. It was at that point that the transformation from city health freak to country home cook started to take place.
Our trips to France opened up my eyes even more. I saw how many of the French had their own fruit and vegetable gardens. Markets were a big deal and freshness and regionality of great importance. I've always regarded France as my cooking school. It was there that I truly discovered a great passion for food, simply by observing, tasting and cooking.
The other day I came across an interesting wine columnist for The Globe and Mail, Beppi Crosariol. I really liked the way he talked and wrote about wine-informatively and unpretentiously. There was a particular video that caught my attention and that video is actually the reason why I am writing this post. In the video, Beppi is in his Italian father's garden and they are discussing wines to go with tomato based dishes. What I loved most about the video was his dad's enthusiasm and love of food and wine. He made a wonderful pasta sauce and mentioned that he had picked the tomatoes from the garden that same morning. He also talked about his love of wine and expressed an opinion I wholeheartedly agree with: "Listen, I always said, first France maybe, but then Italy and Spain, and then come all the others." He went on to make a pasta sauce (one I knew I had to recreate) and he commented about how much he loved the moment of breaking bread with his son. His passion for life really touched me. It reminded me of how far I've come and how lucky I've been. Real food has become so important to me. My idea of good nutrition evolved from a media brainwashed perception of 'healthy' to a pure way of eating, living and most of all, enjoying.
But that pasta sauce! I could almost taste its freshness, the homegrown tomatoes and the gently sweated onions and garlic, the good olive oil! Yum! This is my version. I had no recipe to go by. Just pure inspiration and a quest for utter enjoyment and palatable gratification. Buon appetito!
Fresh Italian Tomato Sauce
Serves 2

1 kilo of the best vine-ripe tomatoes you can get your hands on
2 tsps dried oregano
2 tbsps sherry vinegar
3 tsps sugar (I used my rosemary infused sugar)
3 tbsps mild olive oil
a few beautiful sprigs of thyme
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
a small bunch of fresh basil, roughly chopped
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
good pasta, to serve
excellent extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling over the pasta

The first thing you need to keep in mind is the simplicity of this dish. There's no room for inferiority here. Get yourself the best tomatoes, herbs, olive oil and pasta you can get your hands on. First, you'll need to blanch your tomatoes. Using a sharp knife, make a cross on the underside of each tomato. Submerge them under boiling water for 3-4 minutes or until their skins begin to curl. Put them in a cold water bath and start to remove their skins, coring them and de-seeding them as you go. Chop the tomatoes roughly and put them in a large bowl along with the oregano, sherry vinegar, 2 tsps of the sugar, 1 tbsp of the olive oil, thyme and plenty of salt and pepper to taste. Give everything a good stir and let this sit in the fridge for about three hours. A little longer will do no harm. In fact, the longer the better.
About an hour before you are going to eat, heat up the remaining two tbsps of the oil and gently sweat the onions and the garlic for about 5 minutes. Increase the heat and throw in your beautifully marinated tomatoes. Allow everything to cook at a high temperature for about 2-3 minutes and then immediately reduce the heat to  a low-medium temperature. Cook in a covered pan for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining tsp of sugar, taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. take the sauce off of the heat, add in the chopped basil and serve with some freshly-cooked pasta. Don't forget a drizzle of good olive oil, a loaf of wonderful bread and a bottle of Chianti. Salute!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Seasonal Pleasures and Gifts From Mother Nature

What a joy it is to wake up to a gloriously sunny Monday morning after a wonderful weekend! It's amazing how much fun we can pack into two days- going to the movies, having a Saturday wine lunch at a lovely restaurant, preparing a great steak and enjoying it with one of the best wines we've ever had (more on that later), doing some garden work and being the only ones brave enough to have dinner outside, by the wood burning stove that is. As I've mentioned before, we aren't having much of a summer in the Netherlands. Lots of rain, gray skies and cool temperatures. We're hoping to catch up on all of that missed sunshine in a few weeks when we go to France, but in the meantime, we make the best of what mother nature offers us now. And at the moment, that also happens to include strawberries!
I'm always amazed when I spot strawberries in the shops or at the market during the winter, mainly around the holidays. You'd be surprised at how much they're actually sold, despite the fact that they're watery, pink instead of red and about as big as a golf ball. It seems as though we've forgotten all about nature these days. Who cares if those strawberries are imported from halfway aroud the world! As long as we have them as a garnish for our fancy Christmas dessert!
This doesn't only apply to strawberries. In fact, it has to do with a gradual disconnection from nature. The days when we only ate what the seasons had to offer are long behind us. You can get anything you want these days, at any cost. Even if it means forgetting all about nature, disregarding those hard-working local farmers and instead contributing to unecessary food mileage. I can't help but feel a sense sadness, especially when I realize how many children are growing up today completely oblivious to nature. Forget those who buy summer fruit in winter and think about their kids who might not know the difference between a courgette and a cucumber!
The garden can be one of the best places to teach children about food and nature. By planting a fruit tree or growing things like cherry tomatoes and strawberries, they'll learn to not only appreciate nature, but also to respect it.
There's absolutely no need for a huge space. I grow many of my fruits and vegetables in large pots. And should your harvest be less than wonderful, there's no reason to panic either. This summer, for example, we've been luckier with some things than with others. You've heard enough about our courgettes and our apples are growing stronger and redder every day, but our strawberries...
While we did manage to enjoy some from our plants, the harvest just wasn't what it should've been. I'm not sure if I should blame the magpies who beat me to the punch every morning, or the gloomy weather and lack of sun, but I'm happy that I have at least done my share by teaching Kirstie one of nature's many valuable lessons.
Here in the Netherlands, strawberry season runs from June to right around the middle of August, but honestly, I think they're at their best for about two or three weeks- from about the end of June to about the middle of July. Therefore, I really notice a difference in their taste right now and instead of eating them fresh, I would rather use them for things like pies and jams.

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!