The spice contest

A really quick & dirty post today to fulfill my bet with Katha (whose blog esskultur you should be reading if you speak German).

It all started on twitter – after winning an impromptu “competition” about the number of dried pasta shapes we have in the kitchen (27), I felt too secure and accepted Katha’s dare about the number of spices we each have. What was I thinking? Why didn’t anyone stop me? She is the daughter of a spice dealer!

My number is: 148! Not bad, but short of her winning 167! (Rules were: any single or mixed spices, herbs, etc, but no pastes, no oils)

Short breakup of my spices: 13 different red paprikas/chilies (1 up from the last time I counted), 12 peppers, 12 salts. Things that I assume are rare in other kitchens (maybe even Katha’s?): mentuccia (a Roman mint type), mirto leaves (of the myrte tree from Sardinia), salade du pêcheur (a mix of sea algae from Japan), roses, zahter (like the famous za’atar but not the same) from Turkey, sahlep (salep, not the ready-mix to make the drink that is full of chemicals but the real thing, the milled flour of the root) and damla sakizi (gum mastic). The fresh and good mint and sumak she misses, I have in abundance (the Turkey connection!).

So I bow my head in shame – I have lost! Katha, I’ll be bringing you a good wine to October meeting. And I see the time has finally come to organize my spices in these nice tins that I have ordered!

How many spices do you have?

Advertisements

Almond, lemon and berry cake

2 weeks ago, as I was going through my kitchen notes, a yellowed piece of paper fell into my hands. There was a handwritten recipe on it, written in that basic style that a cook uses only for herself. I am sure you know the style, just so much information that you – and only you – understand what the outcome should be. Almond meal, lemon juice and sour cherries were involved. A google search didn’t bring up anything similar, so I have no idea where this recipe came from – if you recognize the recipe below, please let me know, I’d like to give due credit.

With the prospect of a dvd filled late-afternoon in our cool, air-conditioned bedroom behind closed shutters (this July has been brutal in Rome), I dared the idea of turning the oven on. The kitchen was already terribly hot (no AC here), so I thought “in for a penny, in for a pound” and cranked up the oven.

Since I was born with the CFR-syndrome* (and because I didn’t have everything at home and there was no way I was going outside to the 44°C / 111°F heat), I made some changes. The cake turned out lovely and I have since repeated the success and even made some little tweaks. This is an uncomplicated cake with a surprisingly multi-layered taste – the almonds give a slight crunch and a nutty taste, lemon juice and powder make it fresh and underline the berry taste.

Almond, lemon and berry cake
source: a little yellowed out piece of paper, with some changes by me

prep: 10 mins
bake: 40 mins
cool: 10 mins

all purpose flour, 135 g
baking soda, 1 tsp (5 g)
almond flour**, 85 g
citrus powder***, 3 tsp (substitute fresh zest)
butter, 185 g
sugar, 200 g
lemon juice, 60 ml (I obtained that amount from 1 very juicy big lemon)
Vanilla extract, 10 ml
eggs, 2
berries, 125 g (any berries you have or even sour cherries)

Heat the oven to 180°C / 360°F, line a loaf cake pan with heat proof paper (with overhang!) and butter it liberally.

Mix the flour, baking soda, almond flour and citrus powder/zest. In a casserole type pan, mix butter, sugar, lemon juice and vanilla extract, let it completely melt and dissolve on low heat. Add slowly to the flour mixture and mix with a spatula to just combine. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until completely incorporated. Fill the (runny) batter into the lined and greased pan. Scatter your fruit on top – no need to push down, they will sink!

Bake for 40 minutes (a skewer should come out clean). If you are using frozen berries, it will take up to 20 minutes longer.

Take the loaf pan out and let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. You can then remove the cake from the pan easily by just grabbing the ends of the lining. Eat at room temperature. Some whipped cream on the side is a lovely addition. Keeps in the fridge for at least 3 days (the longest we had some left over).

This is not a very fluffy cake, rather a bit on the dense and coarse side but not unpleasantly so. The size is just right to serve it to a couple of friends for coffee and maybe have leftovers for the next day. No one has been able to eat less than 2 slices!

* Can’t Follow Recipe
** so much better to make your own than buy: just pulse whole blanched almonds for 20 seconds in a food processor or similar. Some coarse crumbs are perfectly ok, it doesn’t have to be too fine.
*** Take an untreated, preferably organic citrus of your choice (orange, lemon, mandarine…), slice into really thin rounds and dry in the oven for a few hours at a low temperature with the fan on. When they are perfectly dry and crisp, grind them to fine meal / powder in the food processor. I made mine in the winter with perfect oranges and have been using it in pasta sauces and salad dressings. You can substitute fresh zest of the lemon you are using for the juice.

10 Things in the Pantry

pickles

Tursu, pickles, a pantry staple in Turkish kitchens

I was reading through yesterday’s edition of Katha‘s “10 days, 10 lists” series (in German) as I stopped right in my tracks. In this post she writes about 10 things she always has in her pantry or fridge in Vienna, Austria. Moments ago I had already read Anke‘s list for her kitchen in Hamburg, Germany. And found it funny how different countries influence the very basics in our kitchens. So here are my 10 things that I always have in the kitchen.

1. Wine Ok, wine should never be in the kitchen (too warm!) except for its short stint in the fridge, but it is also unthinkable for me to eat without drinking wine, so it is on the list. Mostly Italian.

2. Pasta I live in Italy. Enough said? Ok, add to that: I am too lazy and dough-handicapped to make my own pasta. A mix of regular, organic, wholewheat, with egg, etc. At last count there were 18 different shapes in my pantry.

3. Risotto rice see above. Always Carnaroli, sometimes also Vialone Nano or Arborio.

4. Olive oil see above. Local and organic.

5. Butter This is not typical central Italian, but we just love it. On bread, for cooking (risotto!) and baking (bake something chocolate-y with salted butter and you’ll understand). Especially semi salted French ones that are very hard to get around here.

6. Guanciale So Roman, so unctuous, my secret weapon.

7. Garum, Colatura or sardine paste (aka something fishy). The Italian answer to fish sauce – more subdued, more elegant. Secret weapon #2

8. Olives Taggiasca, Gaeta or Sicilian.

9. Flour Regular. I used to say I am not a baker, but the last couple of years have proved me wrong. I do bake. Not bad either. I just don’t feel comfortable handling dough.

10. Canned tomatoes Italian, organic. In the winter they are better than fresh (especially after I saw the hothouses stretching to the horizon in Sicily) and give you a soup or a pasta sauce in 1 minute.

You might think where is all the fresh stuff? Vegetables, fruits, herbs? You can’t be living off of carbs and fats only! Well, we do eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, at every meal actually. But we always buy them fresh, seasonal and often very local (though not always, I admit) in the market – we go to a market around 5 times a week. So I don’t consider them things I stock in the pantry.

We also buy fish at the market, about once a week. We are not vegetarians (see 6 & 7), but a substantial piece of meat like a steak, roast or chicken etc. we buy only around once a month from our favorite butcher Annibale, often from organic and local, definitely happy animals.

What are your 10 things?

Menu For Hope is going on till the 25th of December – have you donated yet? Your chance to win great food & wine related items and feed the poor for only $10! My offer has the code EU23

Gravlax

Shines like a jewel after 6 days

Shines like a jewel after 6 days

I usually have conflicting feelings when T. asks me something about cooking. “How do I cut the onions?” is innocent enough, he is my kitchen assistant, and I very gracefully sometimes let him take care of the lower tasks. Examples being cutting the guanciale and the bread, washing the greens – have you seen how much dirt comes from that spinach? – and reaching for things that are higher up.

coarse salt, sugar, herbs

coarse salt, sugar, herbs

A totally different story it is when he asks, seemingly innocently as we wait our turn at the fish stand (“bionda”, blondie, is what everyone gets called here), something like “how do you make the gravlax?”. Instantly, I have voices inside my head. What, you don’t have voices inside your head when you are cooking? “Why does he want to know? What does he plan? Is he thinking he can make the dish himself? Why is he so self-esteemed all at once? Ha, he needs to peel a ton of potatoes before he can cook a dish alone.” And, most importantly: “Sh**! He is going to see how easy it is to produce something so show-stopping!

bed the salmon in the mixture

bed the salmon in the mixture

Because easy and show-stopping and delicious it is! There are 100 ways to use it, too: drape slices over potatoes or blinis with some creme fraiche-horseradish mix, put pieces&bits into scrambled eggs, combine with zucchini for a delish pasta sauce…..

weigh it down with a matching wine!

weigh it down with a matching wine!

So, now go buy the freshest piece of salmon you can lay your hands on, with half of it make Nicky’s Salmon tartare for instant gratification while you wait (the only difficulty in making gravlax!) for the rest to turn into jewels!

Gravlax (Graved lax)
ancient method, own mix

prep: 20 mins
unattended: 6 days

Salmon fillets, freshest possible, without skin
coarse salt, 2x the weight of the salmon
sugar, 1x the weight of the salmon
herbs (I used fennel seeds, wild fennel greens, berries and leaves of myrtle; 1tbsp of each – feel free to use a mix that you like best – dill is traditional, if that rocks your boat!)

Wash and pat dry the salmon fillets. Check for any tiny fishbones that may be in the flesh, you can easily pull them out.

Mix salt, sugar and herbs. In a deep non-reactive dish (glass or ceramic) make a thin bed with the mixture. Put the fillets on this bed and cover completely with the rest of the mixture. Put foil saran wrap/cling film (thanks for reminding me, eat!) directly on the salt mixture, put the dish in the fridge and put something as a weight on it. I strongly advice to use the wrap/film, as the mixture will get soggy and smear on whatever you are using as a weight.

On the 2nd day, the fish will already start losing liquid, the salt mixture will get sticky. Check to see if you need to patch any bare spots. The fish has to be completely covered with the mixture throughout the process.

After 5 to 6 days the fish will be “graved”. It is hard, thinner and shiny. Bury it out of the mixture, wash quickly to get rid of the clumps of salt mixture and pat dry.  Discard salt mixture! To eat, slice real thin. Will keep, packed in parchment paper, weeks in the fridge. Can also be frozen.

Update:

There has been some discussion about eating raw salmon and possible parasite infection in the comments and in emails.  Here is what my research (in various government and/or research institute based sites in English and German) delivered and how I handle the situation:

* Raw fish, especially fresh water (or mixed-living) fish, can have parasites. Salmon is one of the those fish.
* The parasites live in the stomach and/or intestines of the fish when it is alive. When it dies, they go into the flesh.
* That is why fish are gutted as soon as they are caught – the worms have no time to eat themselves into the flesh. Don’t ever buy un-gutted salmon at the market.
* If some parasites (or their larvae) have found their way to the fish flesh, they are detectable with the bare eye – they are at least about 1 cm long.
* Almost none of the fish worms can’t adapt to the human system and don’t live in humans. There are no certain numbers but there have been about 200 infections in the USA in the past 27 years.
* Freezing at temperatures around -40°C (which you can’t achieve in a home freezer) and also cooking the fish kill all parasites. Hot smoking as well, but not cold smoking.
* Marinating (acids) doesn’t kill the parasites. There is uncertainty about salting. Some sources say abundant salt (as I use in my recipe as opposed to some lighter “graves” in other recipes) is enough to kill all parasites.
* All fish in Europe that are sold for explicit raw consumption have been frozen before – like in sushi restaurants.
* The fresh salmon from which I get the fillets at the market is not frozen.
* But it is very fresh, it has been gutted quickly, and I do visually examine the fillets before “graving” them with a lot of salt.
* Everyone should decide himself if he wants to eat fresh raw salmon or any other fish. I will surely keep on doing it, observing the above rules.

slice it thin - flavor explosion!

slice it thin - flavor explosion!

Pumpkin Soup Indian Style

Pumpkin Soup Indian Style

Pumpkin Soup Indian Style

Hello World!

Oh, I can still blog! Who would have thought, after (I have to go check) – wait, what, 2 months??? No way! How did that happen? I promise, dear readers (if there are any of you still out there!), that I won’t let my business (which, by the way, is becoming a huge success, thank you for asking) get in the way anymore. I have been cooking and eating delicious food, so blogging will continue.

Delicious food like above, from delicious days, the book. Now, I do have a love affair going on with pumpkins (or squash, or gourds) as you might remember, so this recipe from Nicky’s book (I am friends with a real cookbook author, how cool is that?) was one of the first I tried – aside from the recipes I was lucky enough to receive months earlier to test and have been going back to all summer long. I made a lot of diners here in Rome very happy, I might add.

One of the best aspects of Nicky’s recipes is that they are suitable for seasoned cooks and absolute beginners alike. If you have been in a kitchen for more than just a couple of times, these recipes deliver a great base, a new idea that you can build around and vary according to what you have on hand and still get great results. And if you don’t feel adventurous or this is the first time you are using your kitchen (this book is definitely a good one to start cooking with) just follow the recipe and surprise yourself.

Pumpkin soup Indian style
slightly altered from original recipe in delicious days, the book
serves 4

prep: 10 mins
cook: 20 mins

hokkaido pumpkin, a smallish sized one around 1000g
onion, 1
garlic, 1 clove
ginger, fresh, a 2cm piece
ghee, 2 tbsp
yellow curry paste, 1 tbsp
garam masala spice mix, 1 tbsp
coconut milk, 1 can (400ml)
vegetable broth, 600ml
brown mustard seeds, 2 tbsp

Wash and cut up the pumpkin. Get rid of the seeds and the fibers. If you are using a hokkaido, no need to peel. Cut the pumpkin into chunks. Dice the onion and the garlic, finely mince the ginger.

In a big pot, heat up the ghee. Roast the onion and the garlic, add the ginger, curry paste and the garam masala mix, wait till the aromas are released. Add the chunks of pumpkin, roast for a couple of minutes. Add the coconut milk and the broth. Cook for about 15 minutes, till the pumpkin pieces have become soft. Mash finely with a stick blender, till no chunks are left.

Dry roast the mustards seeds in a pan and decorate the soup in individual bowls with them. Definitely eat with good, heavy, country bread (or naan, if you can lay your hands on some) and drink a full bodied and aromatic white wine with it.

Hot Days, Cold Food

watermelon granita

watermelon granita

It is so hot in Rome that we choose the gelateria on our once, twice, thrice daily visits according to the shadow/sun ratio of the route to get there.

And sometimes, we just have to stay at home and eat one of these:

melon granita

melon granita

chocolate sorbet

chocolate sorbet

watermelon granita unveiled

watermelon granita unveiled

These are all so easy to make. For any granita, you just need any ripe, real fruit. Puree, add a tiny bit sugar (do this even if your fruit is very sweet, sugar helps with the crystallization of the granita) and a little bit lemon or lime juice. Mix and put in the freezer. For a granita you absolutely don’t need to mix it in between, just before serving, take it out and scrape with a (stable!) fork to obtain the fluffy mountain of cold goodness. Of course you can add alcohol, herbs, just be creative!

For the chocolate sorbet, I used David’s recipe (via Smitten Kitchen). Serve with some pistachios, hmmm!

These were not the only ice creams and granitas in my kitchen. I also adapted David’s Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream (via Cafe Fernando). Just mix a can of condensed milk, one can (use the milk can) of strong espresso, add the fabulous cajeta you have in your fridge (I omitted the ground coffee as I dislike the gritty texture), mix and put in your freezer. You will have to mix this every couple of hours to get a nice, smooth ice cream without ice crystals.

Another great quick ice cream was fig ice cream. Boil a pound of figs with some brown sugar, grated lemon peel and some juice and a dash of homemade vanilla vodka. After it cools, mix it with 250 ml of cream, add some more lemon juice and freeze, as above, working it every once in a while with your stick blender. Serve with little pieces of candied orange peel!

And here are some tips for making very quick ice cream from none other than Harold McGee!

Keep cool!

melon granita - scratch with a fork!

melon granita - scratch with a fork!

The Unbreakable: Cherry & Everything Upside-Down Cake

cherries are in season

I am not a baker. All the intuition and adventurous spirit I have when I cook is totally gone when I bake. I am not familiar and do not understand exactly what happens when I bake. I read and try to understand the chemistry behind it (and theoretically I do), but when it comes to put theory into practice I fail. So I bake rarely and on these rare occasions I stick to the recipe to a t – which impresses my T. a lot, because that is a very rare thing!

There have been some baking endeavors in the past months in the food vagabond kitchen, and one I even tinkered with without failing, so I got courageous. I read Deb’s account of how she tried to ruin the cherry cornmeal upside-down cake from Bon Appetit and still couldn’t, so I decided to try this. I loved the cherry-balsamico-cornmeal combination and was sure I could “improve” the cake.

And improve I did.

Doesn’t it look like a bejeweled crown? And it tastes so moist, with the just-right sweetness, and the mouth-feel is great, too, although I did do something wrong (the egg whites had a teeny dot of yolk drop and refused to be whipped solid as I knew they would, inspite of the old trick – pinch of salt – so I added them to the batter not stiffened, knowing it wouldn’t work, but it did!). Other than this “mistake” I did only one alteration to the original recipe: I added some other delicious stuff to the cherries. I had some dried fruits and shelled, unsalted pistachios from my trip to Istanbul (yes, I will write about it shortly!) and these, after a short bath in some marsala (any sweet wine would do) went into the pan along with the cherries. What a delight they were!

So go out, buy some cherries (they are in season!) and bake this cake. I baked mine on Saturday and by Monday evening it was gone! The two of us had no problems eating this cake for coffee and for dessert for two days.

sliced cherry-everything upside-down cornmeal cake