Monday, July 25, 2016

Fregola Sarda with Broad Beans, Caramelized Fennel and flatleaf Parsley - A Lunch in July

Who is not fond of and enjoys those tiny pasta shapes such as Orzo, the small, grain shaped pasta that is truly wonderful in a Mushroom risoniotto (here),  or the Acini di Pepe, perfect to use in soup recipes, the Ditalini (“Little Thimbles”) or the star-like Stelline or Pastine, a super tiny pasta that is perfect for children. Their utter cuteness and versatility are the reason why the small, pearl-shaped Fregola caught my attention at my favorite Italian market the other day. That and, of course, the wonderful packaging.

Fregola also called Fregola Sarda (meaning "from Sardinia") are made in the same way as couscous, the wheat (Semola di grano duro) dough is rubbed until it forms tiny beads. The Italian name Fregola comes from „fricare“, the Latin for „to rub“ – this is also where the English word „friction“ comes from. Fregola possess a texture somewhere between the fine, sandy grains of Couscous and Mograbia. As far as the flavor is concerned, there is a distinct toasty note to some brands, like the one I used, as the pasta beads have been lightly toasted (fregola tostata) as they dry.

Generally, you cook this Sardinian specialty pasta in deep, boiling water. Steaming it as you might its finer cousin would most definitely result in a rather stodgy mass. Cooked in water, sometimes stock, the Fregola will be chewily ready in 10 to 12 minutes – the point at which to add it to your veggies. The pasta beads will soak up the notes of garlic and they will plump up with a succulence unavailable in fine couscous. Alternatively, you can also opt to cook the pasta in a tomato sauce until done. But no tomatoes in sight today.

I opted for fresh broad beans (also referred to as fava beans in the US). These are sweet and delicious pod beans with a smooth creamy texture. They are at their best from the end of May through to mid-July, when the pods are pale green and soft and the beans are still small. So get them while you can and make this dish.

Sweet broad beans, double-podded, of course, caramelized fennel, spring onions, young garlic, loads of herbs and fregola are heaven on a plate.

Fregola Sarda with Caramelized Fennel, Broad Beans and flatleaf Parsley
(Author: TheKitchenLioness)

  • 250 grams fregola
  • 1 kg broad beans in their pods  – you will end up with about only 250 grams with their skins and pods removed
  • 2 fennel bulbs (about medium sized), trimmed, though outer leaf removed and sliced thinly - keep the fennel fronds for garnish
  • 2 whole spring onions, trimmed and sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
  • Italian (flatleaf) parsley, a whole bunch, washed, dried and stems removed, chopped coarsely
  • freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
  • a good quality mild olive oil
  • Pecorino Roman (optional)

  1. Prepare the fregola: put a large pot of deep water to a boil. Salt it generously, as you do for pasta. Always salt the water and let it come back to the boil again before adding your pasta. Add the fregola to the boiling water and simmer for about 10 minutes, testing regularly for doneness,  until it is tender. Though it is up to you how much bite you like, I like mine to retain some bite – depending on the variety of fregola used, it can take a few minutes more to cook them to your liking. Drain thoroughly, tip into a bowl then drizzle a few drops of olive oil over it and toss to coat evenly. This will stop the beads sticking together as they cool.
  2. Prepare the broad beans: after you have removed the pods, blanch the broad beans in boiling, salted water for a couple of minutes and then drain. Cool. Remove the tough skins. Set aside.
  3. Prepare the fennel: heat the oil in a shallow pan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced fennel and salt well. Fry until caramelized and browned in spots. Then transfer the fennel to a paper-lined plate to drain off some of the oil.
  4. Prepare the spring onions and garlic: warm some more of the oil in the same shallow pan, add the sliced spring onions and garlic and fry them gently until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Now add the drained fregola to the pan, together with the caramelized fennel and drained broad beans, continue to fry gently until warmed through. Turn off the heat, add half of the parsley to the pan, season with salt and black pepper to taste, then stir briefly to let the parsley wilt ever so slightly.
  6. To serve, stir the other half of the parsley through the fregola, ladle the fregola into individual bowls or one large bowl and then scatter over some fennel fronds.
  7. Optional: if you feel the need to dress this dish with cheese, may I suggesta good Italian Pecorino Romano which will add more sharpness and saltiness to the dish.

While we are still in the midst of summer and enjoying the warm temperatures, I must admit that I am already looking forward to cooler weather when fregola will add substance to a bowl of soup. But for now, this recipe has become a foodie obsession of mine and the Fregola Sarda is my prime candidate for tossing with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes or roasted beetroot and a balsamic-type dressing. I believe I will use it for bolstering a summer garden with grilled courgettes and summer squash. Or cook it with a cornucopia of seafood in a rich sauce. It is so verstaile and can also be cooked like a risotto or simmered in stock. It is hearty, and it gets better as it sits by absorbing the liquid that you cook it in.

For a different staple on your plate try this amazing Sardinian pasta made from semolina (Semola di grano Duro). It pairs so very well with other Mediterranean flavors like the caramelized fennel and the broad beans in my recipe.

But I will tell you that you will probaly need to go to an Italian deli or specialist food outlet for Fregola Sarda, also referred to as "the sun-dried and toasted Sardinian couscous". Or you can easily order it online. While you can substitute other tiny pasta here, I wouldn’t substitute regular couscous for the Fregola, which is rather more like dense pasta peas than semolina grains, but you could use the larger Midde-Eastern or Israeli couscous instead, also called giant couscous. But it is definitely worth seeking out Fregola Sarda at least once. It might take a bit of an extra effort but it will be worth it and for me finding a treasured ingredient is part of the fun of cooking new dishes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A basic Vegetable Salad Vinaigrette for a hot Summer´s Day

It is high summer and that means that there is a need for dishes that are better eaten warm than hot, for desserts that can be prepared the day before and enjoyed the next day, for refreshing drinks that will replenish and refresh you, all using the summer’s best ingredients.

So here we have it, a summer lunch just as good whether it is eaten warm or cool. Just a recipe suggestion for an easy and basic salad vinaigrette to which you can add different vinegars, use local honey and a mild mustard instead of the Bavarian sweet mustard that I used together with the Dijon mustard. Or add different kinds of herbs from your garden, think parsley, tarragon, basil…go where your mood takes you.

A fresh summer salad and a tangy vinaigrette go hand in hand, as you can hardly enjoy one without the other. Vinaigrettes should lightly coat a salad without overwhelming it. But a good vinaigrette can do so much more. It can enhance the flavors of the ingredients or add another dimension altogether. It can bring together different elements as well as provide much-needed moisture to drier ingredients.

It is easy and fast to make your own from scratch, and a homemade vinaigrette tastes so much better than store-bought. Plus, by mixing your own, you take control of the flavor balance - think acidity, sweetness, and seasoning - as well as what goes into it, so you can avoid undesired ingredients.

A summery salad topped with a zingy vinaigrette, a lovely local cheese and toasted bread slices make for a wonderful lunch when the weather heats up.

Here, I just added the vinaigrette to my yellow and green French beans to serve alongside some boiled new Baby potatoes (leave that skin on when boiling), French sea salt, Gorgonzola dolce, local bread, and some raspberries that we picked that day...

When dressing beans with a vinaigrette, make sure that they are dry and cooled before you add the vinaigrette. If you prefer a more tangy bean salad with a more acid overtone, dress the beans with the vinaigrette sans the oils while they are still warm and THEN add the oils to the cooled beans – you will end up with a vinaigrette that has a more pronounced vinegar flavor and that will not look quite as emulsified but that´s is definitely just as delicious.

Basic Vegetable Salad Vinaigrette

  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1tsp Bavarian sweet mustard (if you cannot find it at your supermarket, deli, or online, you can sub a mild grainy mustard and then add a tsp of mild runny honey)
  • 3½ tbsp sunflower oil
  • 3½ tbsp mild olive oil
  • fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • freshly cut chives OR other soft herbs such as Italian (flat leaf) parsley, tarragon or basil

  1. Whisk together the white wine vinegar and mustards in a bowl until smooth and well combined.
  2. Gradually whisk in the sunflower oil and olive oil until the mixture has thickened and is glossy.
  3. Season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  4. To serve, drizzle the vinaigrette over the summer salad/cooked vegetables and mix well to coat the vegetables.
  5. Divide equally among serving plates.

Feel free to dress your potatoes, tomatoes, fennel, salad greens, asparagus, peas, or radishes - a summery vegetable salad is meant to be easy, good-natured food for the dog days of summer.

When preparing this just remember to use the best of summer-season vegetables, fruits and herbs and enjoy what nature has to offer us these days. And do not forget about that favorite cheese of yours, maybe from a local producer, and your favorite bread from the bakery in your neighbourhood.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Joy of visiting a Ceramics Market & using Pottery for the Presentation of your Everyday Food

The popular belief that dictates the use of matching plates, when presenting food should, in my humble opinion, be considered somewhat outdated. When you look at the food photography in the social media or browse through the photographs in cookery books or the food pages in magazines, it is rather obvious that the chef and the publisher have gone to great lengths when choosing the dishes on which the food is to be presented. When the photograph shows a selection of dishes to accompany the recipes, it is rare to see them displayed on matching pieces, but the colors and materials of the dishes always harmonize

When putting food together for either an fun family-style lunch, a formal dinner menu or for a buffet, while the foods selected will complement each other, they will each require a different style of dish from which to be served. That is where the fun comes in. Choosing vessels that best present the individual portions of a meal can also mean using very different pots and plates, bowls and boards, made of different materials like clay, wood, pewter or porcelain.

We all need to eat so why not enjoy it to the fullest. Eating from a paper plate at the seaside or the state fair is a pleasure we take from childhood into adulthood and there is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary. However,when it comes to sharing our table with family and friends, a lot more effort goes into it. So why do so many of us not give the same attention to the presentation.

Probably because finding beautiful pots and plates to serve and eat from are not always readily available, so we end up using the same ones over and over again. But our choice of dishes and the way we cook them are as personal and individual as we are. So why not take it that one step further and put our own stamp on our table and presentation.

I am continuously on the look-out for pretty and unique plates and serving dishes. Sometimes I visit fleemarkets, garage sales and goodwill stores, at other times I visit as many arts and craft shows and pottery markets as I possibly can. These days my attention is focused on natural looking plates with a special touch, those that complement the food that is presented in and on them. While I will most definitely try to go for a few matching plates, I do not mind if they are all unique.

The other day, when visiting a Craft Fair, I came across a beautiful bowl by German pottery artist Alina Penniger and I fell in love with one of her many designs. Her bowls and plates that I like the most look like they were „stamped“ with a lace design. Very unique. And a beuatiful way to present just about any food.

So I asked her to craft some plates specially for me. Luckily, she immediately agreed to do so and and brought them to the next pottery market she attended. I am now the happy and rather grateful owner of a small, albeit growing, collection of her work. I brought my loot home safely and on the same day I happily displayed four of her plates and bowls - plus a tiny vase – on our table in the garden – just for us to enjoy. While these plates and bowl have a matching design, they are all still different an dunique and will harmonize with many other dishes that I own.

Following are a few impression of the beautiful wares that were on display and for sale at the Pottery Market in the pretty town of Siegburg (Germany). Here are spome more of the amazing pottery that was crafted by Alina Penninger.

I might chose these plates next time and  go for this design of hers. The colors used and the design will match my food creations perfectly, I am sure.

Cherrries look even prettier when displayed this way. I enjoyed the way the artists arranged their wares in different ways - colorful flowers complemented their unique pottery in the most delightful of ways.

These jugs from a different artist were so pretty - the different shades of turquoise and greens were real eye-catchers, to say the least. I liked the shiny glaze and the look that is reminiscent of Greek designs.

One potter displayed bright orange and yellow nasturtium in a specially crafted vase that looked like a natural rock.

Beautiful colors – I could imagine that the morning cereal or café au lait tastes even better when served out of these amazing creations.

More of these wonderful jugs and vases and plates and tea pots. And more lovely flowers on display to complement the pottery.

Budding artists - like our youngest crafting her own little bowl - this picture is for my friend Mary - the Aspen cap she send came in very handy again on this sunny day in July...

Loved these tiny bricks.

Beautiful dark and bright colors make for very pretty glazes for these bowls.

Very unique pieces on display at this stall.

More tiny bricks to play with - these are perfect for children as they inspire youngsters to get creative. These came in different colors and the ones in the picture had soaked up all that warmth from the sun that day - the kids adored them.

Unique contemporary ceramic art.

Pottery cames in many shapes and sizes - it can be as unique as the artist her- or himself. It can be a piece of art to be displayed in a showcase but it can also be used in everyday life, to complement the food we so lovingly prepare for our families and friends. You can buy a whole set that matches or you can chose one or more unique pieces to complement your other dishes.

Should you get the chance, make sure to visit a local pottery market or ceramics fair. It is fun to take a look at a diverse range of original ceramics for sale from lamps, tableware, and vases to sculptures and unique pieces. And then, if possible, support the wonderful artists that create those amazing everyday wares and unique pieces of art.

For more information on ceramic artist Alina Penninger  and her handmade stone dinner ware and garden ceramics, you can go here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Summertime Cookie Heaven & A Recipe for Tahini and Halva Cookies with White Chocolate

Summer holidays are here to stay for the next six weeks. That means a lot of fun activities, visits to markets and fair grounds, excursions and day trips to nearby Belgium and the Netherland. It means family movies and visits to the museum, swimming pools and suntan lotion, garden parties and BBQ´s, good books and great stories, and arts and crafts. It also means baking, despite the warm and summery temperatures in my tiny kitchen. I just cannot NOT bake. There is always something wonderful about baking. Combining different tastes and textures, putting the doughs and batters in the oven, and waiting for that moment when the scent of cookies, quiches and cakes whafts through the house and draws you into the kitchen.

These days, fresh cookies are a real must. I love to bake cookies and have done so extensively in the last couple of months. Some of the recipe have been blogged about, like the buttery French Sablés Breton (you can consult the recipe here), some have not, at least not yet.

I am also a strong believer of pairing fruits and sweets and I just know that soft and fudgy cookies are delicious paired with a handful of summer fruit. Come summertime, I will serve my Deep Dark Chocolate Cookies with tangy, juicy red currants or sweet cherries. And I adore serving my Biscoff Oatmeal Cookies (picture below) with sweet flat peaches, apricots and nectarines.

But these days I also love to experiment with different flours. I will bake my Peanut Butter and Dark Chocolate Cookies only with spelt flour, and I love to bake these Tahini and Halva Cookies with rice flour. Different flours and different and unusual ingredients is what grabs my attention these days.

The recipe that I am featuring today features not only rice flour but also Tahini as well as Halva. As most of you know, Tahini is one of the most popular spreads in Israel. People will eat it with just about everything, inside their pitta bread, as a simple sauce for vegetable salad, the love for this spread is intense. And Halva (pictured below), is a sesame confection made from Tahini sweetened with a simple syrup made with sugar or honey and fragrant orange blossom or rose water, sometimes both. It can be “plain” in flavor, strewn with pistachios or even swirled with chocolate. The mixture is molded and pressed into containers or molded into different shapes. It is a wonderful confection on its own and I love to bake with it. I have baked Ottolenghi´s Halve and Walnut Cake (you can look here) and I most certainly love to bake these Tahini and Halva Cookies with White Chocolate.

Tahini Halva Cookies with White Chocolate
(recipe inspired by my favorite hippest London baker Claire Ptak - for another recipe from Claire, please consult my blog here)

  • 100g tahini paste*
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 125g golden caster sugar (I like to use Tate&Lyle „Light Soft Brown Sugar“)
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla (I like to use 2 tsps homemade vanilla sugar)
  • 1 egg (M), free-range or organic
  • 250g rice flour (easily available at your favorite health food store, I like to use the one from Müllers Mühle)
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon or opt for cardamom instead
  • 200g plain halva, broken into pieces**
  • 150g white chocolate, broken into pieces (use the very best quality you can afford, I like to use the one from Coppeneur)
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds, for topping (I like to use organic sesame seeds from my favorite health food store)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
  2. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment or silpat non-stick baking mats
  3. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the tahini, butter and sugar until fluffy.***
  4. Add the salt and vanilla, then beat in the egg.
  5. Add the rice flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon.
  6. Add the halva and white chocolate pieces, and carefully mix these through the dough.
  7. Scoop portions on to your prepared baking tray and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
  8. Bake in the oven for 15to 18 minutes or until light golden brown.
  9. Let rest a few minutes on the baking sheets until cool.
  10. Serve straight away (which is what I do) or store in a cool place in airtight container/cookie tin between layers of parchment paper for up to three days.

*NOTE: for tahini check out markets in your community that specialize in Middle Eastern foods  or try a natural foods store – to find a brand that you like.
**NOTE: for those of you unfamiliar with halva, as this is a Middle Eastern confection typically made from tahini paste, nut butters and sugar, you may have to go to a specific shop to find it but generally, it is available at larger grocery stores and at Middle Eastern markets. While there are many different varieties of halva available, such as the chocolate-marbled one, you should try to use plain or vanilla Arab-style sesame halva for this recipe. Arab-style halva is said to be the best tasting.
***NOTE: if you don’t have a mixer with the paddle attachment, you can make the dough by hand, with the help of a pastry blender.

The sweet vanilla scented white chocolate pairs extremly well with the salty, melt-in-the-mouth Halva and sesame Tahini paste. As I said before, feel free to experiment with these lovely and a bit unusual ingredients and make sure to stock up on one or more tubs and jars if you enjoy their distinct nutty, sesame-infused taste. 

As much as I adore the combination of salty-sweet in my chocolate, I love it even more in cookies such as these Tahini and Halva Cookies with White Chocolate. Summertime Cookie Heaven.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Cherry, Prosciutto & Goat Cheese Bruschetta

When I was growing up we lived in a big old house with fourty-three fruit-bearing trees in our garden – the reason why I remember that number of trees is rather simple. My parents told just about everyone we knew or met at the time that our garden was studded with all those apple, pear and cheery trees. And I must admit to having loved that garden. My sisters and I built a tree house in one of the many apple trees and our afternoons were filled with times spent in the garden.  Those were the days…

One tree I remember in particular was a sour cherry tree that bore a ton of fruit each and every year. Its sturdy branches were hanging over one of the upstairs balconies and reached almost all the way into the house. We loved being able to pick the cherries of the tree while sitting on the terrace and we loved those small, tangy, juicy sour cherries.

These days I still adore sour cherries but we do not have a cherry tree anymore and it turns out that they become harder to find in the markets and at the green grocers with each passing year. People prefer those big, burgundy sweet cherries. I still love both varieties and try to make as many dishes and recipes with them as I possibly can. The Dark and White Chocolate Cherry Brownies I blogged about last month, are still a huge hit at our house (for the recipe, please go here) - but cherries also add a "wow" factor to many savory dishes, such as my Cherry, Prosciutto & Goat Cheese Bruschetta.

Ripe sweet cherries, together with mild creamy goat cheese, delightfully salty prosciutto, a very lightly nutty pistachio oil, and just a bit of high-quality sea salt are absolutely and utterly addictive when enjoyed together in one dish. The flavors of these few components combine beautifully on these toasted slices of Italian Ciabatta – just the perfect little and very tasty nibble for a summer party. While cherry season lasts (we seem to have only another three to four weeks to go around here) you could also serve these for breakfast, brunch, and dessert all summer long or until the end of cheery season.

When shopping for cherries remember that there are many different types of cherries, including maraschino, griotte and Morello cherries, from which Kirsch and Black Forest Gâteaux (Schwarzwälder-Kirschtorte) are made. The best cherries are plump, firm, glossy and free of blemishes and their stems should be fresh and green. Cherries benefit most from being stored at cooler temperatures - warmth can compromise their flavor and texture.

Cherry, Prosciutto & Goat Cheese Bruschetta

  • 1 loaf of Italian or Italian-style Ciabatta
  • 100g creamy goat cheese (it is nice if you can get your hands on a local goat cheese here - whichever one you use, make sure to choose a mild, soft goat cheese suitable for spreading and for use in desserts)
  • about 12 fresh, plump, ripe and blemish free sweet cherries for the bruschetta PLUS a few more for serving alongside
  • 80g Italian prosciutto
  • mild pistachio oil OR go for extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt (optional) such as the British Maldon sea salt OR the French Le Fleur de Sel de Guérande

  1. Heat the grill to its highest setting.
  2. Cut the ciabatta into 12 slices.
  3. Grill the sliced bread – make sure the slices do not get too dark and turn once. 
  4. Remove the grilled bread from under the grill and place on a pretty platter.
  5. Using a butter knive or a small offset spatula, spread over the creamy goat cheese.
  6. Pit and halve the cherries and arrange them on top of the bruschetta with the prosciutto.
  7. Drizzle over some pistachio oil to serve and sprinkle with a bit of the best sea salt that you can afford (that is optional and depends on the saltiness of your prosciutto and goat cheese).

Goat cheese should always be white on the inside, with none of the yellowness that is common to cows’ milk cheese. If you’re worried about the pungent flavor that some goat cheeses can have, ask your cheese monger to let you taste it before you buy it and make sure to look for young, soft, creamy cheeses. Due to the number of varieties, goat cheese is available year-round, but some are best in the summer.

With this delightful recipe, there is absolutely no reason to wait until dessert to serve this juicy summertime fruit - take cherries on a fun and savory spin as a bruschetta topping for a kind of appetizer that will impress all those lovely people that enjoy the mix of sweet and salty, fruit and cheese and best of all, love, love to eat seasonally.