Monday, 30 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Easy "Green" Pasta with Pancetta

I’ll be posting some festive recipes soon, but for the moment I’m concentrating on easy, delicious recipes that make life less stressful at this busy time of year. This recipe is just right for one of those evenings after a long day, or after an exhausting session of Christmas shopping. It is so easy, and perfect for using up the lovely autumn vegetables we are getting now. Leeks and courgette (zucchini) are plentiful and they taste delicious. I like to use cubed pancetta (Italian bacon) in this recipe, but if you want to keep this recipe vegetarian, just use an extra tablespoon of olive oil and leave out the meat. It really is so quick to put together - okay, there is a little light chopping involved, but that can be quite therapeutic after a rough day!

You can use any pasta shapes you like for this, although penne is a good one to use as it is budget-friendly. By all means use whole wheat pasta if you want to ramp up the fibre and vitamin content; I did not have any the night I took the photograph so I used white pasta, but it makes no difference to the finished dish what sort you use. The recipe will serve 4 hungry people.

1 tablespoon olive oil (2 tablespoons if you are leaving out the pancetta)
70 grams of chopped pancetta (or bacon lardons)
(You can use 3 or 4 slices of streaky bacon, chopped, if you can’t find pancetta.)
3 leeks (white part only), washed and cut in thin slices
1 courgette (zucchini), washed and cut in fairly thin half moons
(Slice the stem and end off, then cut the courgette in half lengthwise, and then slice - this will give you half moons)
generous handful of frozen peas
250 grams pasta shapes
4 generous tablespoons ready-made basil pesto
2 tablespoons half fat (low fat) crème fraîche or sour cream

Prepare the vegetables and heat a medium size frying pan with a lid to medium heat. Add the pancetta or bacon (or heat 1 tablespoon oil in the pan if you are not using meat). Toss the pancetta (if using) around for a minute to allow some of the fat to release. Add the leeks and courgette (zucchini).

Drizzle 1 tablespoon oil over the vegetables and toss with the pancetta. Cook for about five minutes and then put the lid on and stir occasionally, until the vegetables start to soften and the pancetta is cooked.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large saucepan in plenty of boiling salted water, according to package directions.

Add the pesto and crème fraîche or sour cream to the vegetables and pancetta in the frying pan. Stir and heat through.

Drain the pasta and return to its pan. Add the vegetable and pancetta sauce to the pasta and toss to coat.

Serve with a nice glass of red wine - you deserve it :)

Friday, 27 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Leek, Beef and Beer Stew with Carrot and Parsnip Mash

This is a gorgeous, warming stew for a blustery winter’s evening. The carrot and parsnip mash gives a lovely hit of color alongside the stew, and it’s a great way to get your antioxidants this time of year.

This recipe will serve four, but don’t worry if there are only two of you, the leftovers taste lovely if you cool them quickly, store in the fridge and re-heat thoroughly the next day!

For the stew:-
2 tablespoons butter
3 or 4 leeks, washed and sliced in thin slices
about 500 grams of chuck steak, cut in chunks
275 ml bottle lager beer (I use Coors light)
250 ml beef stock (ready-made or from a cube is fine)
1 bay leaf
1 generous spoonful of red pesto or tomato paste (tomato puree in the UK)
150 grams orzo

For the mash:-
3 – 4 carrots, washed, peeled and cut in chunks
3 parsnips, washed, peeled and cut in chunks
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350℉ or 170℃.

In a large stove top to oven safe pan /casserole dish with a lid (I use a large shallow one by Le Creuset but a deeper one will work just as well), melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leaks and fry for a few minutes until they are beginning to soften. Stir in the beef and cook until browned, stirring pretty much constantly.

Pour in the lager and the beef stock. Bring the mixture to the boil. Stir in the bay leaf and the red pesto or tomato paste.

Put the lid on the casserole and carefully put in the oven. Cook for an hour and fifteen minutes, stirring once after about forty minutes. If it looks like it is cooking too quickly, lower the heat a bit.

When there are about ten minutes left to go, steam the carrots and parsnips on the stove-top until tender. Drain and mash with the butter and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and set aside to keep warm, or place in a covered casserole dish in a low oven.

Remove the stew from the oven and place the casserole on a heat-proof surface. Add the orzo and stir. There should still be a fair amount of liquid in the stew, but if not, add a bit of boiling water just so the orzo has liquid to absorb. Stir again.

Cover the casserole and return to the oven for ten minutes. Remove once again and check the liquid level. If it has all been absorbed, add a tiny bit more boiling water (only a little!). Return the casserole the oven for five to ten minutes more. At this point, the orzo should be tender and most of the liquid should be absorbed.

Serve the stew and mash with some warmed crusty rolls.

By the way, it is easy to make vegetable mashes and they are a healthy alternative to mashed potatoes served with just about anything. As well as carrot and parsnip mash, you could try parsnip and turnip (swede in the UK) or butternut squash and sweet potato. Just steam the vegetables and mash with butter and seasoning as above.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Thanksgiving Tradition

It is Thanksgiving in the United States on Thursday. I think having a set day every year to join together in being grateful for all our blessings and to spend time with our families is a wonderful tradition. I come from Canada and we have Thanksgiving there too, only it is celebrated a bit earlier, on the second Monday in October. No matter what is happening in our lives, we all still have things to be grateful for, and it is good to take time out to do that. Even though I have lived in England for over twenty years now, I still make a point of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with my family. It is not a holiday here, but we still have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, even if it is on a workday! It does not just give my family and I an opportunity to be grateful, it also enables me to celebrate my heritage and instil this tradition in our son, who is, after all, a dual citizen just like me.

For Americans Thanksgiving is said to have begun back in 1621, with a meal shared between the Plymouth Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians. Since 1863 it has been a tradition to repeat this celebration on the fourth Thursday in November with family gatherings, traditional meals and parades. The Macy’s Parade in New York City may be the most famous, but parades are held in many American cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Plymouth, Seattle, Pittsburg and Los Angeles. For Canadians, Thanksgiving stemmed from the historic European tradition of a day of thanksgiving for the harvest and also from a thanksgiving celebration held by Martin Frobisher, a British explorer, on his arrival in Newfoundland in the late 1570’s.

The Canadian Thanksgiving is a much lower-key celebration than in the United States, but just because the celebrations are lower key does not mean Canadians don’t feel Thanksgiving is an important part of their lives and heritage. In fact it is often the holiday tradition those who leave Canada miss the most.

In England where I live, the only harvest-time Thanksgiving celebration I know of is that held by the Christian church on the Sunday in September or October consisting of a thanksgiving service during which a collection of food is made for the poor. Sometimes there is a church lunch afterwards, or a harvest supper. It is lovely, but the trouble is, anyone who does not attend church misses out on the opportunity to celebrate their blessings and be thankful. As a result, there is no one corporate reminder here in the UK for secular society of the very important premise of gratitude and how it should figure prominently in our lives.

However, in the case of both the American and Canadian celebrations, Thanksgiving has become much more secular over the years. Although I’m not a tremendous fan of religious celebrations being assimilated into popular culture (and sometimes losing some meaning in the process), in this case I think it is a good thing. You see, the majority of people in North America celebrate Thanksgiving regardless of their faith. Most of us have a lot to be thankful for whatever our circumstances and whatever your faith, being grateful is a positive emotion. It benefits not just the person who is grateful, but also those around them.

When I was a little girl in school, they always used to ask us what we were grateful for at Thanksgiving. It made us stop and think. It is so easy to rush through our lives, getting caught up in the corporate quest for “more” and forgetting that, in most cases, we already have so much. It is not just children who need to be reminded.

Whether you are in a country that celebrates Thanksgiving or not, if you were to celebrate it on Thursday, what would you be grateful for? In other words, what are you grateful for right now? My family, my home and the abundance in our lives are only just a start on my list. And if you are celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, do enjoy it. It is entirely possible that Great Aunt Martha might drink too much and Uncle Bill will probably say something controversial as usual, but does it really matter? And if the turkey isn’t perfect or someone forgets the green bean casserole, never mind. What you eat isn’t important, eating it with a grateful heart is. It is a privilege to celebrate Thanksgiving - so please do have a happy one!

Monday, 23 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Balsamic Brandy and Onion Sauce for Beef

This is a fantastic sauce for beef, whether it be fillet steak or Salisbury steak! (For anyone who is not familiar with Salisbury steak, this is a very popular dish in North America made of seasoned ground beef and shaped into an sort of oval shaped patty to resemble a steak.) I developed this sauce on Friday night to serve with some sirloin steak I got from our wonderful butcher and it was received very warmly by my tireless recipe testers (my husband and son). It really is delicious, and very, very easy to make, transforming a fairly ordinary steak dinner into something wonderful - or turning a hamburger patty into something very special indeed.

For enough sauce for three to four servings, you need:-

1 generous tablespoon butter
1 large onion
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brandy
1/2 to 3/4 cup canned beef consomme or beef stock

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté gently for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and balsamic vinegar and stir through.

Pour the brandy over the onions and very carefully light the alcohol with a match. Allow to flame for a few seconds and then carefully blow out the flames.

Add about 1/2 cup of the beef stock and stir in. Turn the heat up to high and allow to reduce, stirring fairly regularly. If it thickens too much, gradually add a bit more stock, but keep the mixture fairly thick by keeping the heat high.

Lower the heat to medium, stir again and serve over your steak.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Emergency Chicken Noodle Soup

It’s that time of year again - the time when colds and flu strike and make folks feel really awful, just when they want to be enjoying themselves. The other day my son came home from college full of cold and feeling really terrible. All he wanted was a nice hot bowl of soup. The only problem was my favourite soup recipe takes rather a long time to make. I got to thinking that there had to be an easier and quicker way to a hot and comforting bowl of soup - and luckily, I was right. I just started with some chicken stock and went from there. Slicing the scallions thinly and grating the carrot means it all cooks up in no time.

Sadly that time I had no cooked chicken in the fridge, but the soup still tasted really good without it. I thought how it would be even better if you did happen to have some though and so the other day I had another go at making this easy recipe. It only takes about fifteen minutes, and can make you look like a domestic goddess any day! Actually, this would be a great way to use up some of the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. You could freeze small portions of turkey ready to defrost in the microwave - ready for any emergency that might be helped by a lovely, hot bowl of soup.

By the way, emergency soup for vegetarians is just as easy; simply replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock and leave out the chicken. It's still a lovely warm and comforting treat.

To make Emergency Soup for one person you need:

8 to 12 ounces of chicken stock (made from cubes or packaged is fine)
1 “nest” of Chinese egg noodles
3 or 4 scallions (spring onions), very thinly sliced
half of a carrot, peeled and grated
1/2 cooked chicken breast, shredded or finely chopped

Heat the stock on the stove over low to medium heat. Add the scallions and grated carrot. Put a lid on the pan and simmer for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package directions. When they are ready, drain them and add to the vegetables and stock. Add the chicken (or turkey). Heat through and serve.

Instant comfort - whether you have a cold or not!!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Where Foodies Go To Play

Over the past twenty years, Britain has gone from having a cuisine that could at best be described as "basic" to becoming a nation of foodies, full of gourmet shops and restaurants. More and more people are enjoying cooking on a regular basis, and we Britains love to eat, drink and talk about food almost more than anything else. As a result, for several years now, the BBC has been running Good Food Shows in Birmingham, London and Glasgow and attendance at these events is always really high.

In the past my husband and I have attended the Birmingham show, but now we live closer to London, we attend the BBC Good Food Show at London's Olympia Exhibition Venue every year. This year it has been re-named “Masterchef Live” after one of the BBC's very popular cooking programmes, but honestly, most folks still think of it as The Good Food Show.

Small food and drink producers, wineries, kitchenware stores, cook book resellers and speciality shops all have stands at the show. Most offer samples and discounted “show deals” if you decide to purchase their wares. Major restaurants - which this year included Launceston Place, Theo Randall at the InterContinental, The Ivy, The Boxwood Cafe and Caprice - offer small but exquisitely formed portions of their signature dishes in the Restaurant Experience. There are also shows, demonstrations and lectures about all things food and drink by some of the larger suppliers and by food groups such as Slow Food. It's foodie paradise.

This year, Masterchef (a cooking programme in which amateur chefs compete for the coveted title of Masterchef) presented Masterchef Live, offering several shows each day in which past winners and contestants cooked in front of an audience, either developing new dishes on the spot or showcasing dishes that won them their titles. The shows were fast paced and entertaining, and played to packed audiences. On another stage, some brave members of the public submitted themselves to "The Invention Test". They were given five ingredients (unknown until the actual moment of the competition) and twenty minutes to prepare a dish from them. The results were very entertaining, and in many cases, quite amazing.

It takes at least a day to go through all of the stands and exhibits and also to attend the various shows and presentations. We visited the stands of some of the producers we already know and love like the wonderful Dorset bakery Honeybuns for their gorgeous cakes and Littleover Apiaries for their wonderful honey. We also discovered some new favourites. I was particularly impressed by The Coffee Fairy, a company run by Martina Gruppo. She sources coffee from Miraflor in Nicaragua (actually going there and getting it herself!) and ploughs a portion of the proceeds from the sale of it back into the community there, working to offer educational scholarships to enable the children to go on to secondary school, and also renovating the school there. The coffee tastes amazing and what a wonderful, ethical fair trade business!

Some of the producers are very small indeed, like another one of my new favourites The Good Chutney Company. Offering some very creative sauces and condiments, The Good Chutney Company is literally a one (wo)man band; the award winning sauces are made by one very talented lady in her own country kitchen. I bought two jars of their scrumptious Horseradish Mustard along with some other goodies including a yummy Gooseberry Chutney. We also bought lots of wine and port, and even found a new bespoke wine sourcing service for folks like us who love our wine.

Lunch consisted of various dishes at the restaurant experience. The servings are reasonably priced and so small so you can taste lots of things, and sharing is definitely allowed! We started with lobster soup with brandy and saffron cream served in a cocktail glass from Lauceston Place (see photo above), and then I tried The Ivy’s rich and tender beef and bashed neeps while my husband chose Masterchef winner Steve Wallis’ pan roasted sole with chantrelle mushrooms, oysters and white wine sauce. We also shared two dishes from Roast Restaurant - Pork Belly Bridge Roll and Fish finger and tartare sauce cones. Both were fantastic examples of old fashioned British comfort food at its best. For dessert, we shared the vanilla and gingerbread cheesecake with mulled fruit from the Boxwood Cafe which was light and delicious (the mulled fruit had lovely zing), and also the soft chocolate cake from Theo Randall at the InterContinental. This chocolate cake was by far our favourite dish of the day. Served with a soft marscapone cream, it literally melted in your mouth, and was one of the nicest desserts I have ever eaten.

The Good Food Shows are a great day out, and wonderful places to find out about the new and different. There are also a great source of ideas. We did a lot of Christmas shopping and brought home loads of goodies. We even ordered all our Christmas wine and spirits. Tickets are very reasonable at around £15 each, but you can also buy a more expensive VIP ticket which gives you access to a private dining area in the Restaurant Experience, a lounge with complimentary tea, coffee and snacks, free storage for your purchases and priority queues for book signings. It is well worth the extra cost to take advantage of this option.

The next BBC Good Food Show is being held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham November 25th to 29th, or there is a Summer one also being held at the NEC 16th to 20th June 2010. The next BBC Good Food Show in London is in November 2010. For more information, go to

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Fast Food Parisian Style

For a culture that reveres “slow food”, the French are becoming very au fait with the fast kind too - and I’m not just talking about the Mcdonald’s restaurants you will find scattered all over France these days. Although long, multi-course meals are still the norm there, two “fast food” chains that are way beyond burgers are now on the scene.

The first has been around for many years and, as frequent travellers to Paris, I have to confess it is one of our favourites. L’Entrecôte de Paris has branches all over Paris, but the one we return to most is at 29 rue Marignan, literally just off the Champs Elysées (the nearest metro station is Franklin D Roosevelt). Although there are many items on the menu, the most popular is their “Formule” – a set menu of walnut salad with a beautiful vinaigrette dressing followed by steak frites – steak with thin and crispy French fries. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have eaten here but the steak is always good – delicious and tender – and cooked to order. It is served on a metal tray with tea lights underneath so that the steak and frites stay nice and hot. If you run out of the latter, you can just ask for more. However the best thing about L’Entrecôte is their buttery, mustardy sauce. Its piquant taste has been the source of endless speculation, but the recipe is still a closely guarded secret. You will often hear the request “plus de sauce s’il vous plait” (more sauce please) from happy diners – it is quite indescribably delicious.

Tables at L’Entrecôte cannot be booked, and it is not uncommon for there to be a queue. If there is, I have noticed over the years that the host or hostess always says “cinq minutes” (five minutes) when you request a table. Sometimes this standard estimate is wildly inaccurate, but it is worth the wait. However as a diner, I have never, ever felt rushed. They have a super wine list and we have happily spent over an hour here even when it has been busy without so much as a sideways look from anyone. This is French fast food at its best, and the fact they are constantly busy is testament to this.

Sadly the second of the two restaurant chains is nowhere near as good. Bistro San Ferdinand at 275 bd Péreire in the 7th arrondissement (just near the Port Maillot metro station) is one of a number of restaurants conceived by Willy Dorr where the order of the day is “tout compris” or “everything included”. For 38 Euro, you are offered an apéritif, starter, main course and dessert along with a half bottle of wine per person. The premise of this is fantastic, and very good value indeed for Paris. However the reality is disappointing. We stumbled on this version of French fast food by accident, having eaten in a restaurant in the same location some years before, and thinking we were going back to the same establishment. We were wrong.

Although the décor in this location is lovely, tables are placed even in the hallway between the main and rear dining rooms, meaning that you are being bumped into by the waiters rushing back and forth constantly. The kir apéritif (sparkling wine with blackcurrant liqueur) was very nice, and the house wine was excellent, but things went downhill from there. The starters were unremarkable and the worst thing was the main course. The chef completely ignored our requests for steaks cooked to medium, and we were presented with steaks that were very rare indeed –in fact they were practically “blue”. We sent them back to the kitchen and they returned charred on the outside, but still far too rare inside. Accompanied only by three small boiled potatoes, the plate was pretty empty, and the meat was tough and virtually inedible. We felt rushed throughout the whole meal, and the atmosphere was one of “hurry up”, both for the staff (who literally ran through the restaurant at times), and for diners. When it came time for dessert, our crêpes Suzette were plonked on the table in front of each of us, without any sauce or explanation, and tasted awful. When a flaming pot of sauce arrived we were very relieved, and they did taste better after that. On the whole it was really disappointing, and we left stressed and frazzled by our second experiment in fast food Parisian style. Not only that, but the only consideration towards our uneaten main courses was the removal of the cost of a bottle of water we had ordered from the bill! We definitely won’t be returning.

I’m not entirely sure that I would want the French to embrace fast food too enthusiastically as part of the reason we travel there is to experience the marvelous cuisine and long, relaxing meals. L’Entrecôte is a wonderful bridge between the fast food of the well-known chains and the traditional Parisian eating experience and I am sure it will always be one of our favourites. I would skip the Bistro San Ferdinand entirely next time. Frankly I’d rather have a McDonald’s!

Friday, 13 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Crab Linguini with Pink Peppercorns

Many years ago I had a delicious brandy and pink peppercorn sauce at a restaurant called Horniman’s in South London (which is sadly no longer open). The sauce had a lovely flavour - ever so slightly peppery, but also sweet and gorgeous. Ever since then I have been fascinated with this very intriguing ingredient. You see, despite being called ‘peppercorns’ these bright pink spheres are not peppercorns at all. Their flavour is similar to pepper and when crushed, they do give off a peppery smell, however they are actually the fruit of a small tree native to South America. It is called the Baies Rose plant and is now cultivated in many places, including Madagascar. It used to be really difficult to find pink peppercorns, but now even my local grocery store stocks them. You can buy them preserved in brine or dried. (I prefer the dried ones as you have to rinse the ones that are preserved in brine before use.) If your grocery store does not stock them, most speciality cooking stores do and you can also source them on the internet.

This recipe is a really nice mid-week treat for two, although it will stretch to three if you use a bit more pasta (about 100 grams more) and add a bit more stock and cream. (You could add a few extra peas as well.)

It is a very easy recipe and just that little bit extra-special. Of course, neither crab meat nor pink peppercorns are exactly budget-friendly ingredients. If this is a problem, this recipe does taste very nice even without the addition of the curious little pink spheres. (Although of course in this case, you might want to call it simply Crab Linguini.) You can also use canned (tinned) crab meat, which tends to be slightly less expensive than fresh.

In the Italian style this pasta does not have a lot of sauce; the pasta and crab are the stars of this dish. However what sauce there is does cling nicely to the pasta and give it a lovely texture. Feel free to use a bit more cream if you prefer a bit more sauce. (Remember to add only a little bit at a time - it’s hard to take cream away once you’ve added it!)

225 grams dried linguini
100 grams fresh crabmeat
(or canned white crab meat, rinsed and drained)
150 ml vegetable stock
(made from a cube is fine, although store bought chilled fresh stock is lovely)
about 200 ml single cream
a handful of frozen peas
1 scant teaspoon pink peppercorns

Cook the linguini according to package directions. Meanwhile, heat 200 ml stock in a small saucepan over low heat.

Crush the pink peppercorns - you can use a mortar and pestle or very carefully crush them on a bread board using the flat of a knife. Set aside.

When the pasta is nearly done, add the frozen peas and 100 ml cream to the stock. Turn the heat up to medium and let it bubble away so that the sauce reduces slightly. Now turn the heat back to low and stir in the crab meat and crushed pink peppercorns. Heat through.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan. Pour the sauce over and lightly toss to mix. If it is not quite moist enough add a bit more cream and heat through. Serve and enjoy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Balsamic Chicken and Bacon Pasta

Chicken and bacon are a classic combination, but the addition of a balsamic vinegar spiked sauce makes this pasta dish really special. This is one of those recipes that tastes so good, no one can believe how easy it is to make. It really does not take a long time either, but it is important to take your time sautéing the onion as this really helps the flavour to develop. Onions are one of those things that get better the longer you cook them, provided you keep them over a very low heat so they do not burn or catch.

The quantities below serve 2 very generously - in fact I am pretty sure they would stretch to 3 if you use the 7 ounces of pasta. It’s easily doubled though if there are more of you.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
½ cup mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 ounces chicken stock (from a cube is fine)
2 generous tablespoons half fat crème fraîche or low fat sour cream
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon pepper
about ¼ cup chopped pancetta or bacon
6 to 7 ounces whole wheat pasta (depending on how hungry you are)
1 large cooked chicken breast, thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a medium frying pan over low heat. Sauté the onion gently for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and continue to fry over low heat for five to ten more minutes.

Meanwhile, fry the bacon or pancetta in a small pan over medium heat and start to cook the pasta according to package directions.

Now, add the stock and balsamic vinegar to the onions and mushrooms and turn the heat up to high. Let it bubble away madly, reducing the stock, for a couple of minutes.

Turn down the heat and add the crème fraiche or low fat sour cream and the pepper. Drain the pancetta or bacon, add to the sauce mixture and stir through. Add the chicken and fold in very gently. Turn the heat down to low and heat through.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan. Fold the sauce in gently. Serve in warmed bowls accompanied by lots of hot, crusty bread.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sweets From the Land Where West Meets East

I’ve eaten a lot of baklava over the years. It’s one of my guilty pleasures, although it can be hard to find where I live. Baklava is a sweet treat made from multi-layered phyllo pastry, nuts, fruits, syrups and honey. It has been part of Greek, Turkish, Cypriot and Arab cuisine for centuries, although recipes for it have evolved as time went by. I tasted baklava for the first time at the home of a Greek Cypriot friend when I was a teenager. It was served in tiny diamond shapes. The beautifully flaky phyllo pastry rendered it incredibly light and the concentrated filling made with ground nuts, enhanced by the layers of syrup poured over it made it incredibly sweet and delicious. Since then baklava is my special treat of choice – when I can find it.

The only thing is, no baklava ever really measured up to stuff that my friend and her mom made all those years ago, except once when I found a tiny Cypriot bakery tucked in the back streets of a town in the north of England. But last week all that changed. I visited Athens for the first time and discovered baklava like I had never tasted before.

Baklava is believed to have been developed by the Assyrians back in the 8th century, but it is the Greeks, more specifically the Athenians, who are credited with incorporating the lighter pastry into its construction. Originally the Assyrians made it with a much heavier dough, almost like a bread dough. “Phyllo” means “leaf” in Greek – and the many-leaved pastry is what makes baklava so light – but it is the nuts I love. Chopped very finely or ground, they make this sweet treat something incredibly special. However I learned on my visit to Athens last week that actually I knew very little about baklava. In fact, there are almost more versions of baklava than you could possibly imagine.

Greek people are famous for their hospitality, so it should have come as no surprise to me that their portions are generous. However even I was surprised when the first baklava I ordered (at the Orizontes café at the top of Lycabettus Hill) came in a slice the size of a piece of pie. I was used to the tiny morsels served in western countries, and this portion was the size of about ten of those, (Thank goodness my husband and I had decided to share.) Not only that, but it came garnished with ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Mmm – three of my favourite things on the same plate – this was looking good.

And oh my goodness, it was. Walnuts and pistachios had been blended together in this confection in very generous portions. In fact if I had scraped all the nuts out of the baklava we were served I am sure there would have been about half a cupful. This was a festival of nuts, offset by delicious Greek honey and layer upon layer of pastry. Delicious.

Various forays into little tavernas and visits to the odd bakery (okay, I probably ate too much baklava, but it was in the name of research) led me to realise that baklava comes in all shapes and sizes, and can contain everything from nuts to dried fruits and even coconut. Most people are passionate when they talk about the baklava they make or serve. One man said that they only used goat and sheep’s milk to make their baklava (which kind of horrified me as I’m a bit funny about stuff like that, but in truth their baklava was delicious). Another explained to me that the reason some of the baklava we get in England is not quite the same – I’m talking the packaged stuff that you buy in store, not from speciality bakeries – is that it is a dry version of the original. This helps it to keep better for shipping. Come to think of it, some of the pre-packaged baklava I have bought in the past did have awfully long shelf life dates stamped on it. In fact, it was all beginning to make a lot more sense. I have purchased fresh syrup-soaked baklava in the beautiful Harrods’ food halls in London before, and it was always displayed in a refrigerated case. The shop staff always say that if you are not going to eat it straight away, you should refrigerate it too but to definitely eat in within a couple of days. There is no way something that has sat on a shelf for a couple of months can compete with that.

It certainly explained why I loved the baklava in Athens so much – it was definitely fresh - with lots of honey and syrups. In fact, I found that some varieties of baklava in Athens actually contain more fruit than nuts, gorgeous plump dried fruits, syrup-soaked to the point of saturation. My husband ordered one of these at Dionysos, a restaurant in the shadow of the Acropolis. He likened it to Christmas pudding, and when I tasted it I could see where he was coming from. The dried fruits outnumbered the nuts and they were absolutely sodden with spiced syrup. I could taste cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. There was less pastry in this version, but it was still incredibly delicious. Once again it was served with ice cream, but this time surrounded by crème anglaise and caramel.

Since I got home, I’ve been talking to lots of people about baklava, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it. In fact, most major cities, including London, Chicago and New York, have bakeries that make their own version of the real thing. Fans of baklava are passionate about their favourite source, and I have actually heard arguments break out over the subject of where you can get the best baklava outside of Europe and the Middle East. As for me, I have learned that while baklava may come in a myriad of different guises, it is still one of my favourite treats. Whether nuts or fruit prevail, the combination of layer upon layer of light flaky pastry, delicious fillings and mouth-watering syrups is something I can’t help but love – and I’m definitely in very good company when it comes to that!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Banana Walnut Muffins

The cold and rainy autumn weather always makes me want to bake muffins and fruit loaves. They are delicious for breakfast or a snack, and the ones that involve fruit and nuts do actually qualify as pretty nutritious, although they are fairly high in sugar.

This is a really easy recipe to throw together, and is a great way to use up over-ripe bananas. It may seem odd to have both buttermilk and milk in a recipe, but trial and error has led me to the discovery that in the case of banana muffins, using all buttermilk can make the flavour slightly too rich. Having said that, buttermilk really adds something to muffins so I didn’t want to leave it out entirely - hence my compromise of half and half.

I love the spicing in these muffins, and the smell of them when they are baking makes them hard to resist. Try to use freshly grated nutmeg if you can - it really does make a huge difference to the flavour. Another tip - use the ready chopped walnut pieces that you can buy in most grocery stores. They are cheaper than walnut halves and it saves time and mess if you don’t have to do the chopping yourself.

My recipe makes a big batch of 24 large muffins, but that is no problem as they freeze very easily once cooled. If you really don’t want 24 muffins, just pour half the mixture into a loaf tin and make a banana walnut loaf instead of all muffins. You just have to remember to bake it for longer - about 50 to 60 minutes, instead of the 20 to 25 minutes the muffins take.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 medium ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup oil
(sunflower or mild olive oil works well, but not extra virgin olive oil)
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup milk

Measure the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and walnuts into a large bowl and stir to mix.

Place the mashed bananas in a medium bowl and add the sugars, eggs, oil, buttermilk and milk. Mix thoroughly.

Add the banana and sugar mixture to the flour mixture and stir thoroughly until well blended, but don’t beat. Divide the mixture between 24 large lined (or greased and floured) muffin cups.

Bake at about 350℉ or 170℃ for 20 to 25 minutes or until a piece of dry spaghetti inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean (ie. with no batter clinging to it). Keep an eye on these in the last five minutes or so of cooking or they will over-brown.

Take the muffin pans out of the oven. Remove the muffins from the pan and cool on wire racks. I feel obliged to mention here that these are delicious warm from the oven with a nice hot cup of tea!

Once cooled, store in a sealed container in the refrigerator if possible. (Bring to room temperature or warm in the microwave before eating.) To freeze, wait until completely cool and then seal in freezer bags or containers before freezing.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Flavours of Modern Greece

Up until a few days ago, I had very little experience of Greek food aside from moussaka and baklava, and the versions of those I tasted were mostly produced outside of Greece. In fact, aside from one afternoon spent at the home of a Greek Cypriot classmate over twenty-five years ago when I was served homemade baklava and a thick, strong Greek version of coffee I had never really tasted anything that could be remotely construed as authentic Greek food. I had never even been to a proper Greek restaurant, but I certainly made up for that this week when we visited Athens.

One of the things that has interested me most is Greek cooks’ clever use of herbs and spices, both fresh and dried, and how this lends a distinctive style to their traditional dishes as well as the more modern, fusion cooking that is becoming so popular in Greek restaurants. Greek chefs have been training abroad and bringing their learning back home with them, meaning that while traditional Greek cooking has lost none of its popularity, new and different dishes are coming to the forefront in some of the more modern restaurants too.

Authentic moussaka was lightly spiced with cinnamon and lamb and chicken souvlaki were flavoured with rosemary, thyme and oregano. Even French fries came sprinkled with delicious herb combinations. Eggs, whether they be scrambled or in omelettes, are often flavoured with herbs – especially oregano – as well. I had a veal chop served on a bed of fresh rosemary, which lent it a fragrant earthy taste. At one restaurant, my son was served a plate of over ten different kinds of salts – from a black Peruvian version to one flavoured with pink peppercorns – alongside his fillet steak.

Frankly I was not expecting pasta to be such a popular food item here, nor risotto either. However Greek chefs have found ways of making these Italian specialities their own with unique combinations of herbs, spices and other ingredients that you would never expect to find in pasta. I had an amazing Spaghetti Napolitana spiced with the faintest hint of cinnamon, which gave it a unique warming hit of flavour I found both unexpected and delightful. I also saw pasta served with the addition of dried fruits and nuts in creamy sauces, and a risotto served with parma ham, melon and red pepper cream. It sounds a bit odd, but tastes utterly delicious.

Roast vegetables are drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs – even parsley has a fresher flavour here than the stuff I have grown from seed at home. Honey is used in both sweet and savoury cooking, adding flavour to everything from vegetable dishes to desserts including the famous baklava and loukoumades, delicious yeast based sweet dumplings fried in oil. It is also used to make some versions of Greek Spoon Sweets – so named because they are so sweet they are served only by the spoonful. Chunks of orange complete with rind, plump raisins and ripe plums are soaked in syrup and served in small portions after a meal. Greek honey is stronger than many other varieties, as the bees get their pollen from thyme plants, olive trees and even pine trees. It is delicious on the many varieties of bread served for breakfast (and indeed at nearly every meal although without the honey in those cases!).

Bread is served with herb butters, whipped cheeses or taramasalta (a spread or dip made with fish roe). I have had butters flavoured with every herb imaginable, and even one rolled in pink peppercorns giving it a delicious hit of both heat and taste. One butter I tasted was flavoured with beetroot, giving it a gorgeous pink colour and a delicious earthy tang.

Dried fruit served in Greece is nothing like the versions I have had at home in England or even in North America. It’s somehow softer, fresher and far more flavourful than anything I have ever had anywhere else. As for fresh fruit – everything is delicious. Residential streets are lined with orange and lime trees, and there is as much freshly squeezed orange juice here – even now in November – as I have ever found in Florida.

Of course, olive trees are everywhere, particularly on the famous hills. They surround as you walk up the lower part of the hill leading up to the Acropolis and as you climb Lycabettus Hill opposite. As we sat, exhausted from our climb up that famous hill outside the church of St George, we watched ripe olives drop onto the pavement and roll along its sloped surface towards the edge of the viewing point, being chased by the wild cats that are everywhere in Athens. They refused to eat them, but could not resist chasing the fat dark ovals as they rolled away.

Abundance is everywhere here, from the serving sizes and hospitality prevalent everywhere we have visited, to the visible agricultural bounty growing even on the streets and hillsides of a place as urban as Athens. Greece is a delicious country to visit, and one from which I have learned many things to take back with me to my own kitchen.