Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Steam Team

Carciofini, Patate Dolce, Fagioli di Soia, Asparagi & Menta, al Vapore
Steamed Baby Artichokes, Sweet Potato, Edamame, Asparagus & Mint

Springtime is with us, although it may be a bit slow in kicking into gear at the moment. Still- I have my first asparagus of the season and I mean to use it! So this evening, I decided to try thinking up yet another dish- one that would be a little different to the "same-old-same-old, slathered in butter sauce and wrapped in ham" kinds of dishes that drive me crazy... Doesn't anybody else out there want to try anything a little different already?!?!

One of the things that drives me crazy about "traditional" asparagus dishes in Germany and France at least, is when people talk about them being so "light", just because asparagus is a vegetable and because it is usually either cooked by boiling or steaming. That part of it is fine. The part that isn't, is the hideously fatty sauces, made with lots of butter and some egg yolk that totally overpower it... some even have cream added... and are thickened with flour or corn starch... ugh! You may enjoy those kinds of dishes, you have every right to do so- but I don't- and I say nay, nay and thrice nay!

Let me just get down from my soap-box. There ya go! So- where was I? Exactly... my supper this evening! This was a dish that WAS light, that was also delicious and  that was full of fresh, Springtime flavor. 

As usual, the ingredients were simple and few- but so tasty and good! I had 3 baby artichokes, 2 small sweet potatoes, a good handful of frozen edamame (does it even exist in fresh?)- haha! It definitely doesn't here in Europe! A handful of green asparagus, a nice sprig of fresh mint and a Spring onion for a touch of savory sweetness to bring all of those other flavors together. With a hint of lemon and some good olive oil... that was all I needed right there. Oh.. except for plenty of steam to get it all cooked!

So, the first thing that needed to be done was for the potatoes to be peeled and cut into slices of about 1" thick and for the artichokes to be prepared. If you haven't done this before, it is very simple. Pluck away the tougher, outer leaves and then cut away the top third of the leaves- these are always tough and not eatable anyway. 

As soon as you have cut the artichokes, make sure to rub the cut surface with lemon or dip it into lemon juice to prevent it becoming dark and discolored. Next, cut the artichokes first into halves and then into quarters and then cut away the "choke", those fine "hairs" at the heart of the artichoke... which you will indeed choke on of you don't remove them. And again- remember to rub well with lemon.

Lay the artichokes out in your steamer, face-down, so that the steam gets right into them and goes straight in-between the leaves and spread the sweet potato slices in-between.

Have I ever mentioned that I set my steamer on top of a frying pan and not a saucepan? Well I do :-) and the reason I do this is that a.) you do not need that much water to make a whole lot of steam and b.) because it obviously comes to the boil much, much quicker. I sprinkled them lightly with salt and steamed them for 10 minutes... this was step one.

Step two involved flipping the sweet potatoes and artichokes over, adding the frozen edamame, seasoning properly with salt and pepper, a little nutmeg and half of the mint, finely chopped. And then back onto the heat they went for another 10 minutes.

In the meaning, I took a little handful of green asparagus and cut the stalks in half. This makes it look more delicate and obviously cook more quickly and easily... even though it can be a rather fiddly affair to cut them in the first place.

I found that by using a small vegetable knife, or paring knife and holding the asparagus stalk in one hand and running the knife down the length of it with the other, it was much, much easier than it is if you lay the asparagus on your chopping board and try to use a kitchen knife. 

As soon as the sweet potatoes and artichokes second side were steamed, I flipped them over again, added the asparagus and popped it back on the heat for a further 5-6 until the asparagus was cooked but still crisp and fresh tasting.

As soon as I removed the lid,the aroma that greeted me was pretty fantastic- minty and sweet with a rich asparagus undertone- each ingredients unique flavor and texture coming through- that's what I call Springtime!

This dish is based in principle on the classic Italian combination of artichoke, potato, mint and peas... but of course I had to be different, didn't I? Haha!

I then scattered the finely chopped Spring onion on top and then replaced the lid to let it lose a bit of that rawness and become a little milder. Next cam the last of the finely chopped mint, a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, pepper and a nice drizzle of olive oil- that is all you need to add lots of flavor and to bring out all of the other ingredients own flavors... because it is always about teamwork in cooking! 

So there you have it- much, much lighter... I would say much tastier and a lot more fun- and just as pretty as a picture! What's not to like?

The combination with the sweet potato, mint and edamame is lovely and mild, as well as being "light" and filling at the same time. Sure, those sweet potatoes are carbs... but please don't get me started on that subject! The big thing to avoid is excess fat and this is a great way to do it! 

So- a new favorite combination is born... another handful of aspragus is gone... and a final handful remains and will be transformed into something else to thrill and delight you all! And more importantly than anything else- to be my supper!

And maybe to be yours too, should you like the look and sound of it... although somehow I am pretty sure that you will...

Monday, 14 April 2014

Pie to the Power of 2

Tortina Salata con Asparagi, Dragoncello, Menta & Ricotta Salata
Asparagus, Tarragon, Mint & Salted Ricotta Tartelette

Ah, the joys of living alone... Not! On the one hand, this was the second great meal I made from one single bunch of green asparagus- and there is third of that bunch left to make yet another meal this week. Which is very cool. But at the same time- this was a really amazing little dish and with a little salad on the side it would have been enough for two! Sigh!

And of course I could have just made a regular, small-sized tart rather than make 2 separate little individual ones... but you have to admit- these are pretty cute-looking!

One thing I always have in the fridge is puff-pastry. Everybody loves it, nowadays it is almost always a great quality, no matter where you buy it from... and does also have magic powers. That's right! I always lets you transform the most basic of ingredients into something simply delicious! 

To make 2 little individual tartelettes, or one small tart that will serve 2 people, you will need 2 eggs, a handful of asparagus (these were 14 stems if you want to be so precise!), a shallot, a sprig of mint, a couple of sprigs of tarragon and a small piece of salted ricotta cheese. 

And as always- there is a little rinsing and chopping to be done- is that too much to ask? Nah! Other than that, this is so little work and so easy to make that I am sure you have 2-3 minutes to slice the shallot up really finely, to finely chop the mint and tarragon and then to first trim off the tips of the asparagus at around 2" and to finely chop the rest. 

Once you have done that, turn your oven on at the top setting to get it nice and hot and ready for our little pies... they will be going in there in just 15 minutes or so!

The next thing to do is to pop the finely chopped asparagus into a small frying pan with just enough water in it to cover the surface and to crank up the heat, bring the water to the boil, season with a little salt and pepper and toss until the water has evaporated away and the asparagus turns one shade darker- at that point it is pre-cooked enough and can be set aside to cool.

Whilst the asparagus was cooling, I cracked the eggs into a bowl, added about 12 tablespoon of salted ricotta and added the finely chopped tarragon and mint.

I seasoned them with plenty of freshly ground mixed pepper, a little salt (remember that the salted ricotta cheese is rather intensely salty!) and plenty of freshly grated nutmeg.

Now that the frying pan was empty again, I carried on by quickly tossing the very finely chopped shallot with a little olive oil, just a tiny drop, at a high heat until it became transparent and indeed began to brown a little- all good flavor and added sweetness when shallots or onions begin to caramelize... mmm!

I added the asparagus to the beaten eggs now that it was cool, along with the soft and delicious shallot- and my simple little filling was done! All I needed to do now was to organize a great pastry casing for it!

And of course I did that by using my favorite method... baking it in a frying pan!

I cut a circle pastry to size to make the base of the tarts, then laid out 3 strips of extra pastry around the outside in order to get a really wonderful, flaky edge. And as I said, I managed to get 2 of these lovely little pies made with just a few ingredients and just one roll of store-bought puff-pastry. And I would call that a good thing!

I poured in half of the egg/asparagus/herb mixture, then quickly tossed the asparagus tips with just a touch of olive oil to give them a light glaze and added half of them to the center of each little tart.

Last but not least came a final sprinkle of grated, salted Ricotta and then onto the stove top it went for 3-4 minutes to pre-bake from below. Before transferring them to the oven I waited for the egg began to bubble a little which meant that the  tarts were almost already half-done.

Around 10 minutes later, the pastry was nice and puffy and the egg was nearly set... so I turned on the broiler for 3-4 minutes to give both an extra blast of intense heat from above. This made sure that the egg set properly, that the ricotta turned nice and brown and that the pastry ABSOLUTELY puffed! 

Just look at that for a beautiful finish! Are you all drooling? Good! Now I don't feel so alone! Haha- I could eat one of these little beauties all over again!

After cooling off for 5-6 minutes, the pastry became nice and firm and was easy to lift out of the little pan and to set out onto a serving dish. You will probably be as impatient as I was, smelling that delicate herb perfume of the mint and tarragon... but if you can manage to be patient the filling will stand up better to slicing- as you can see... these turned out to be more than perfect!

So- again a slightly different little recipe with asparagus, paired wonderfully (even if I DO say so myself!) with the tarragon, mint and salted ricotta- what's not to love?!?

They tasted perfect served nice and hot, but I am sure they would have been just as wonderful served cold in the morning... if only they had been around for that long! Hope you try and enjoy them too!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Oh Baby- It's Rice!

Piccoli "Bok Choi", Fiocche di Riso, Pepe & Pancetta
Baby Bok-Choi, Rice Flakes, Peppers & Bacon

I know, you are thinking to yourselves, "Hey! Who are you calling "baby", eh?", but no, I am not being overly-familiar with any of you, I am much more referring to these tiny and delicious, little baby Bok Choi! Aren't they just adorable?

And you may even be thinking, "Rice? I don't see any rice!", but there it is, right before your eyes! Nope, these are nice rice noodles, not as such... and maybe you have seen them before- but it had been a while since I had last prepared them and so here they were again, those weird and wonderful "rice flakes"!

I saw the baby bok choi on Mrs. Wong's stand in the Frankfurt Market Hally yesterday... and although it was almost sad to take those innocent little babies, right there at the verge of their prime... I did it! I mean- regular bok choi is small and tender enough, but these little babies were just so adorable! I had to have them!

So, supper this evening consisted of 10 baby bok choi, a red pointy pepper, a Spring onion, a little ginger, 2 handfuls of rice flakes, a handful of finely chopped bacon and a handful of fresh cilantro. And about 20 minutes of cooking time. Which isn't bad going!

This was another of those meals where I improvised and multi-tasked and managed to cut down work and time and wash-up considerably- just by using a little common-sense. The first thing I did was to pop the bok choi into my steamer and get them started and although it is not traditionally an Asian thing to do, I did sprinkle mine with a little salt.

Whilst that was happening, I quickly chopped up the pepper, ginger and Spring onion. All the while I had boiled up a little more water in my electric kettle for those funky rice flakes- and they were next on my list!

I prepared them by simply pouring boiling water over them and within just 5 minutes or so, they re-hydrated and swelled to almost twice their size. I carefully poured off the water, as there was a lot of starch in it from the re-hydrating and I didn't want them to stick together to much.

The next thing I did was to take the lid off the bock choi and to flip them over, then drop the rice flakes into the water in the saucepan before putting the greens and the lid back on top... THIS is what I mean by multi-tasking and time saving!

After just 5 minutes, the rice flakes could again be drained and set to one side, leaving me free to take care of the bok choi, which I popped into a frying pan with a little sesame oil, where I let them sizzle away for a few minutes more and become slightly glazed and sweet and delicious. 

Once the bok choi was done, I laid it out on a serving plate and it to one side, on the steamer, where it could remain warm for the last few minutes before serving...

Next, the bacon, ginger and sliced pepper went into the pan with the heat cranked up high and I gave everything a good shake and stir-fry until the bacon was beginning to crisp-up, the peppers had a nice shiny glaze and the ginger was also just starting to gain a little color.

I then added the rice flakes along with the last bit of water that had drained from them, and with a brief blast of steam, the pan was suddenly deglazed and all of the flavor of the peppers and bacon came up from the bottom of the pan and immediately colored the rice flakes a nice, rich golden color- which was of course filled with salty bacon flavor and the sweetness of the sweetness of the red pepper.

I seasoned with a splash of Thai fish sauce, a little chili oil and a squeeze of lime juice and then added the Spring onion and half of the cilantro, which I chopped nice and finely, so that it could be stirred-in more easily and would coat the rice flakes nicely and give them that refreshing, clean flavor... delicious!

I served the pepper rice-flakes on top of the bok choi and finished everything nicely with a drizzle of oyster sauce and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.

Another un-Asian meal using Asian ingredients and a little of my own kitchen-insanity... it was just bound to work out well!

So Supper was what I jokingly referred to as "a Vegetarian meal- with bacon"... but that little bit of bacon did make all the difference... for me at least! There is just something wonderful about the flavor and the aroma of bacon and onions frying together... don't hate me for it! But of course you CAN make this in a purely Vegetarian version, without the bacon- maybe adding mushrooms if you feel something is missing... it's all good!

But you know... I really DO like that bacon! ;-)

Secret of The Hidden Pancake

Fritelle Dolce con Pistacchie & Limone, a modo Coreano
Pistachio & Lemon Pancakes "Korean-Style"

What better way to start a sunny Sunday than with a stack of yummy, healthy pancakes! Healthy you say?!! Sure, I say! And why ever not? All you need to know, to be able to make them, is a little Korean secret I picked up whilst surfing down the information superhighway of the interweb, all the way to Korea... 

...and though I don't understand a word of Korean, and have no idea what the lovely little old lady on the film I saw was saying, I saw what she was doing- and that was plenty for me! Nice, little fluffy pancakes with hardly a drop of butter or oil... I liked that! In fact, I liked it a lot!

There is little... or no difference at all in the way I made the batter for these little beauties... there is just one little difference in the way they were fried that made it possible to make them fat free... the little difference that made these into "hidden" pancakes... but we will get to that in just one second ;-)

First things first- the ingredients for 10 itty-bitty but oh-so-yummy little pancakes! Believe it or not, all it took was 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of flour, 3 cups of plain yogurt, 1 tablespoon of ground pistachios, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and a handful of whole pistachios. Oh... and don't forget that honey... yummy!

Before we get started, lets chop those lovely purple-green pistachios in half and pop them into a dry frying pan to get them slightly toasted- just 2 minutes or so will do- we just want them to become a little drier and crisper, but not to get toasted, as they will otherwise lose their wonderful color.

Whilst that is happening, finely chop 2-3 strips of lemon zest, ready to sprinkle over our pancakes to give them a zingy citrus flavor... That'll wake 'em up!

The prep-work couldn't be any more straightforward... split the eggs and whisk the whites into a nice, thick, fluffy snow and whisk the yolks up with the flour, baking powder and yogurt. Were you expecting anything else? Nah! It's easy-peasy stuff and that's good! Sweeten with a little sugar, Stevia, whatever you prefer, but don't overdo it... after all, there is that yummy honey yet to come when the pancakes are ready...

Preferably using a hand-whisk shaped like an unhappy chick, stir the egg-yolk batter into the egg-whites, little by little and careful not to overdo it and stir the fluffiness out of the whites... You wouldn't like it if you got badly beaten, would you? At this point, add half of the ground pistachio into the batter- but keep the rest for later... because along with the chunky pistachios, the lemon zest and the honey, they are what are going to make your pancakes ultra-awesome!

Check to see if your chick is smiling. If he isn't, but the batter looks nice and smooth, then turn him upside-down like this and pretend he is smiling. Still looks miserable, doesn't he? Oh well- into the sink with him and on with the show for us!

So- the BIG revelation as to why these pancakes are known (by me), as "hidden pancakes... and I hope you are ready for this... is because they are made with the lid on the frying pan. That's right. "Big deal" you may think- but I don't know about you, but it is not something I would normally think of doing. The thing is, that by keeping the heat and humidity in whilst the pancakes cook, you speed up the process and give them a different consistency, making them seem more as if they are baked and not fried... and I like that thought!

So, the method is this... pour just a little neutral cooking oil onto the pan and then wipe it over with a paper towel, just giving it the slightest coating, then get the pan nice and hot before beginning. Spoon in the batter, just 2 tablespoons of batter per pancake and then put on the lid and allow them to cook/steam/fry- you decide what you want to call it, for 2 minutes.

After 2 minutes, they should be nice and set on the base, so that you can flip them over easily. I used a wooden spatula, but the lady in the video did it using chop-sticks, which looked very cute and cool... but I couldn't quite manage!

In any case, once they are flipped, press them down firmly, return the lid and let them finish for 2 minutes from the other side... and that's it! 

Once the pancakes are done, we can start making them yummy, by adding the remaining ground pistachios and the lemon zest, before we drizzle them lightly with lovely golden honey... hmmmm! Now don't they just look delicious?

Yes, they DO look delicious- but only half as delicious as they will after adding the chunky, crunchy half pistachios, a little more lemon zest and a last extra trickle of honey on top! 

Actually, to be honest, I didn't add all that much honey at all- maybe 2 teaspoons in all- and for my taste, that was all that was necessary. As with all things, even if these do look decadent, it is all a matter of balance. It would obviously be easy to add more honey, you could drench the pancakes in it if you prefer... but that is just overkill. And it is not necessary. I am not going to dictate to anyone- but for me- less is more as long as it still looks and tastes as delicious as this!

So there you have it- my healthier little pancakes for a sunny start to any day. As I said, these are a little different, a little firmer, but a lot healthier and trust me- every bit as delicious as they look. Because the flavor is simple, it is fresh and that is more than enough for me! 

I hope it is for all of you good people too! Enjoy!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Stalking the Dragon

Insalata di Radicchio, Asparaci & Fagioli con Dragoncello & Limone
Radicchio, Asparagus & Bean Salad with Tarragon & Lemon

It is that time of the year again... Asparagus time! Be it green from Italy or Spain, or the traditional German white, our market hall here was filled with the first stalks of the season today... and although I am not the greatest of fans, a nice big bunch of Italian green found its way home with me... and I am sure you will make its acquaintance over the course of the next few days...

Another one of my favorite things that I picked up today was a nice little bunch of fragrant tarragon. I didn't really know what I was going to do with it at the time, but whenever I see it, I think of its name in Italian and smile. How adorable that they call it Dragoncello! You have just got to love that name!

Ok, I said I am not a big fan of asparagus... let me say that what is closer to the truth is that I am not a fan of many of the ways it is often prepared- especially the white asparagus and Hollandaise sauce excesses "enjoyed" here in Germany. May I say "whatever"? To boil or steam it and then pour a buttery sauce over it is... well... just plain boring to me. I wanted to try something different. And as you can see- of course, I did :-)

For the first of my asparagus dishes this week, I decided to use it raw, in a salad with some lovely, bitter radicchio, some mild and tender Greek beans out of the can, a little onion, lemon, the aforementioned tarragon and a little honey, garlic and olive oil for the dressing. Sounds good... looks good... tastes good... IS good!

And of course it is super- simple to prepare! First things first- the radicchio needs to be freed of its trunk, so that the leaves can me separated and  briefly rinsed and dried, ready to use as little boats to hold the beans and asparagus.

I know that not everyone likes the bitter flavor of radicchio, but I personally find it delicious and refreshing... 2 great reasons to eat it for me- as well as its lovely vibrant color.

The rest of the ingredients needed just a little of my attention too- I first cut away about a third of the asparagus' woody ends, bending the talks slightly from the towards the tip, little by little, until I got to an area where it easily snapped- try it and you will see what I mean- it is an easy and foolproof method. As for those end pieces, they can be used for stock or soup wonderfully of course! There is a lot of good flavor in them... only... you don't want to be chewing on a piece of wood! Haha!

Keep the tips to use as a decoration at the end and finely slice the rest of the asparagus, as well as the Spring onion. For a little bit more of a "zing" of citrus flavor, I also cut off 2-3 strips of lemon peel as finely as possible and then chopped them into super-fine slivers to sprinkle over the salad... I love doing that with my dishes!

All that needs to be done now if for the radicchio to be laid out decoratively on your serving dish and for it to be filled, layer by layer with the other ingredients. Begin with the beans, which are simply taken straight from the can and drained and are the main part of this lovely dish- they will weigh down the radicchio and keep it in place, which is also very practical. 

Now you can sprinkle them with the finely sliced asparagus and onion, scatter generously with the lemon zest and plenty of tarragon... and then get busy shaking up a lively little dressing to bring it all to life!

I made the dressing from the juice of the lemon, 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of honey, a good pinch of salt and a generous grind of mixed peppers. I gave this a good shake in a sealed jar, then poured it over the salad and  gave it a little extra pepper, just to give it a bit of oomph to contrast with the sweetness of the honey in the dressing and the sourness of the lemon.

Of course the radicchio is already bitter from the start, but the beans are so mild and "buttery" tasting that they balance all of these other flavor components out wonderfully... as well as making this light salad into a rather satisfying Spring or Summer meal. 

The cool thing about the asparagus and beans filled into the radicchio this way is that it makes it very easy to serve without it becoming messy and losing any of its prettiness... which would have been a shame- don't you think?

Which also makes this very suitable to serve as an appetizer or as a great addition to the buffet spread of any party. It certainly is quite an eye-catcher! And it definitely is something just a little different!

So that was dish one with my green asparagus- and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Stay tuned over the next couple of days... as the best (and the rest!) is yet to come! But buon appetito for now!