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.