Tuesday, January 12, 2016

TUSCAN BEAN SOUP, Kind Of Like Ribollita.


This is such a flavorful soup!  Love it! Two tricks involved: use dried beans, the ones that need to be soaked overnight, and also use a nice dose of vegetable broth or a combination of chicken and vegetable broth if you like to have chicken broth (canned beans? Who's kidding, they'll do in a pinch)!
This soup is very similar to ribollita soup. I have left the bread out because I try not to eat too much bread these days. It's just as good without it. In fact, it's so good that I can eat it cold, or I can even eat it for breakfast! Okay ... as the trend goes, this is the part of the blog where I regale you with some cute personal incidents from my adventurous life. Stillness ... Can't think of any. Some other time perhaps. Not disappointed, I know you are not disappointed! 



Ingredients: 

1 pound dried cannellini beans
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, sliced
1 shallot sliced
1 (15-ounce/500 gram) can whole tomatoes
1 leek, cleaned well and chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
½ bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch Swiss chard, chopped
1 bunch kale, chopped
¼ Savoy cabbage, chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano
the leaves from 1 sprig of rosemary, chopped
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
8 cups vegetable broth
6 cups water
For topping:
grated Pecorino cheese
extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

Soak the beans overnight.
In a large heavy pot heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and sauté the sliced onions and shallots until they have caramelised. While sautéing, season the onions with some of the oregano.
Mash the tomatoes and add them to the pot. Add the juice the tomatoes were packed in, and also add two cups of the water.
One by one add all the vegetables, stirring to mix after each addition.
Add the herbs and the rest of the olive oil.
Allow the mixture to cook for about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, puree nearly half of the beans and add them to the vegetables.
Add the rest of the beans.
Add the broth and the remaining water. Mix well and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a slow simmer and cover the pot. Allow the beans to cook for two hours, stirring occasionally.
Ladle into bowls and top with the grated cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.
Store leftover soup in the refrigerator for about 3 days or in the freezer for one to two months. 







Monday, January 4, 2016

VASILOPITA WITH BRANDY AND CITRUS FLAVOURS


She's looking good, isn't she? Very easy to make. Lovely brandy and citrus flavours. This is a vasilopita made with baking powder instead of yeast. Its texture is that of a dense cake, which is characteristic of a vasilopita, also not very sweet, another characteristic. That's how vasilopitas are made; they are celebratory New Year's cakes, so they have a more substantial, doughy texture than an average cake. 

By now you may have noticed the Santa decoration. What's he doing up there you may ask? Doesn't Santa take a much-needed vacation after Christmas Day? No, not really. He still has the Greek New Year's Eve to contend with, that's when Santa visits Greek households. You might ask why, the words "Greek time" might come to mind, but that isn't the reason for Santa's late arrival. Saint Basil and Santa are one and the same in Greek tradition. Saint Basil's feast day is on January first, therefore, Saint Greek Santa (Agios Vasilis) puts in his appearance directly after the arrival of the New Year. Oh, then there's the coin. There is a coin hidden within every vasilopita. Saint Basil was a generous individual, a philanthropist, so the coin commemorates that fact. The actual practice of hiding a small trinket inside a cake, a surprise meant for a lucky recipient, dates back to pagan times. The practice was very popular and rather than eradicate it, the early Christian church incorporated it into its rituals. It's a fun ritual that survives to this day. 

I wrapped a shiny penny in aluminium foil and dropped it in the dough right before baking. A penny I thought, not the usual quarter. To me, a penny is symbolic of much more than a quarter dollar can be. Problem was, the penny being small, people had trouble finding it. "Did you forget?" they asked several times. I was entitled to two pieces, one for myself, and another for an absent friend. I took them apart, who wants to eat vasilopita when the coin can't be found? I turned them into crumbles. Cake crumbles are just as nice to eat as regular cake, alright? Everyone else also smashed their slice into tiny pieces. "Is it that important?" my nephew Alex asked. This from the kid who a few years ago used to storm upstairs and hide in his room if he couldn't claim the coin. "Yes, Alex, it's important, it's very important." "Where is that coin? Let's have the cake x-rayed. Can we get a portable x-ray machine over here?" That one got a big laugh. "Then we'll eat it and glow in the dark." We all gave up after a while. After a long, long while. 

The next day at breakfast, Alex finished eating his slice, and there was the penny, he found it. "Somewhere in the middle of the piece," my brother said when he called. I had asked him for the coordinates. 

Below is the recipe. Decorate the cake as you wish, perhaps use a dollar coin, it's larger, or you may want to use a penny, much more fun! As you probably know, the alcohol in the brandy gets burned off during baking, and only the flavour of the brandy gets left behind. For those of us either permanently or temporarily on the wagon, that's a plus!



Ingredients:

All ingredients should be at room temperature. Remember that beating egg whites into a meringue requires a bowl and a whisk that are free of oils. Make sure no yolk has accidentally fallen into the egg whites.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour
4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Grated zest of 2 oranges


5 eggs, separated
a pinch of cream of tartar
1 ¼ cups sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
6 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

¼ cup brandy
½ cup milk


Directions:
  • Preheat the oven to 375° F, 190° C.
  • Grease and flour a 10-inch, 25-cm, round cake pan. Fit a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan and grease the top of the paper. 
Note: I use a square 11-inch, 28-cm, pan because I don't have a round 10-inch one. My vasilopita doesn't suffer, but I should note that I am looking to buy a round 10-inch pan, it's been on my "to buy" list for years. There is an unwritten rule specifying that vasilopitas must be round. The circle is a symbol of  lots of things, I like to think it symbolises love, love without beginning or end. Oops, I got sentimental and somewhat serious for a moment, I apologise.
  • In a bowl, whisk together the flour, the baking powder, the baking soda, and the orange zest. Set aside.
  • In the large bowl of your mixer, on high speed and using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar until stiff peaks are achieved. You want a nice, thick meringue. When ready, remove it to another bowl and set it aside. 
  • Clean your mixer bowl and add the yolks. Beat with the whisk attachment until the yolks are creamy. 
  • Add the sugar and beat until creamy and pale in colour.
  • Add the butter and oil, and beat until incorporated. 
  • Add the orange juice, brandy and milk, beat until incorporated.
  • Slowly add the reserved flour mixture to the yolk mixture. Halfway through, switch to mixing by hand. Use a spatula and mix only until incorporated. 
  • Fold in the reserved egg whites. 
  • Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula. 
  • Bake the cake for about 1 hour, or until it's golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 
  • Cool on a wire rack before removing from the pan. Decorate as you like, let your inner artist take command!

Season's Greetings Everyone!!!

Monday, February 2, 2015

HAPPY BIRTHDAY LANGSTON HUGHES! Let's have some cinnamon mocha coffee to celebrate!

It's wonderful to participate in Cook the Books once again! Lots of changes kept me away from this blog altogether, but I knew it was going to be only a matter of time before I returned.  My endeavors will be a bit more limited this time around, I mean to join as many Cook the Books as possible, Simona's Novel Food will be on my agenda for sure, and then there is Deb's Souper Sundays... 

There are other things taking up my time, and you can read some of them here!  I mean poems of course, and the more of them there are in the world, the better. Just like soup, and books and flowers.  Poems! However, Imaginings in Verse will be on the back burner today so that I can spend time here at Sweet Almond Tree. Where do I come up with these names? 

For this round of Cook the Books, we read "Sustenance and Desire, A Food Lover's Anthology of Sensuality and Humor"  

Chosen for us by Rachel, from the Crispy Cook, the book is edited by Anne Bascove, who goes by the mononym of Bascove, and Bascove also supplied the paintings appearing in the book, because after all she is an artist/illustrator. Have a look:

Still Life with Eggplants
   
Still Life with Heirloom Tomatoes
There are some wonderful pieces of prose and lots of good poetry that Bascove chose for this anthology.  Some of the authors represented are Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Marcel Proust, Allen Ginsberg, May Sarton...  should I go on? Get the picture? A lovely compilation, in a book that should stay on your shelf and be available to frolic with every so often.
  
For my entry, I decided to focus on a poem by Langston Hughes.  Not only is it a beautiful poem, but just yesterday, February 1st, was the commemoration of the author's birthday, so it seemed very appropriate that I say thank you Mr. Hughes, your poetry has made a difference in our lives and in our culture.  The poem is called "Harlem Sweeties," and on the Internet it can be read here.
I was inspired by the poem to make a uniquely flavored drink. 

drops of honey, and sticks of cinnamon, a dusting of cocoa, a sprinkling of cloves
Cinnamon Mocha Coffee contains honey, cinnamon, there is coffee for the most part because it is after all a type of coffee drink, there is cocoa also, and a few cloves are thrown into the mix.
All these earthy flavors are in keeping with Hughes' theme, which is that there is an untold and uncounted variety of hue in the integumentary aspects of "Harlem Sweeties," that there is lusciousness in the skin color of people of color. Hughes is offering a hymn of praise to African Americans, and by extension to all people who show their courage by embracing difference. Thank you Langston Hughes, and Happy Birthday!  


Here's the recipe for Cinnamon Mocha Coffee, based on one from Taste of Home magazine:

Ingredients:

1/3 cup ground coffee
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup 2% milk
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
a few cloves

4 cinnamon sticks


Directions:
In a coffeemaker basket combine the coffee and cinnamon. Prepare four cups of brewed coffee according to the manufacturer's directions.
Meanwhile combine milk, sugar, cocoa, cloves and vanilla in a saucepan. Cook over low heat for about seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain the hot milk mixture into four coffee cups, then add the cinnamon-flavored coffee.  Garnish with cinnamon sticks.  


So easy to prepare, a warm drink with luscious colour!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ROMAINE LETTUCE AND FENNEL SALAD: A GREEK SPRING GREENS SALAD


A very nice salad, light, refreshing, simple and quick to make but with lots of flavor. It's a popular late spring-early summer salad at the Greek table. That's the time of year when the ingredients in it can be found at their best and freshest in the garden.  Of course, if your vegetable garden is at the supermarket, as is mine, you can enjoy this salad anytime. Try it in the summer though.  It really is refreshing hot weather fare.  Here's how it's made:

Ingredients: 

3 romaine lettuce hearts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
1/2 of a fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
5 scallions chopped, use white and light green parts only
about 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of one small lemon
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions: 

Mix the fennel, dill, mint, and scallions.  



Add the lettuce and mix to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with the oil and lemon juice, then sprinkle the grated cheese on top.  Easy!



Saturday, November 2, 2013

PIZZA DOUGH, GREEK STYLE

Wish I had one slice left.  Even half a slice.  I would settle for half of a slice. Unfortunately it's all gone.  I am left with just the pictures.  And with the memories.  Ah, the taste memories!  I am eulogizing this pizza because it's not store bought, I made it myself.  Made the dough, arranged the toppings, even used zucchini from my garden, and handpicked the basil leaves from the plant that grows on my patio. So I had special feelings about this pizza.  We had a relationship.  It's over now.  The pizza has been eaten. 

What can I say?  Greeks love bread. I would wager it's every Greek's favorite thing to eat. So just about any Greek who cooks knows how to bake bread with homemade dough.  And they all like to argue about whose dough is the best. I long ago decided that there is no need to argue the point, since my dough is, if not the ultimate # 1 dough, then the ultimate #1.5 dough.  A difference of half a point is hardly worth arguing about.  Now we come to the subject of pizza.  Can you have pizza without dough?  Perhaps in an alternate universe that could be possible, but it would hardly be worth the experience. So since pizza depends on dough to become pizza, the pizza with the best dough makes the best pizza.  Perfect the art of making dough, and you will have perfected the art of making pizza. Another important thing in pizza making is to have a flavorful sauce. Not a bland unseasoned sauce, nor a strong over-seasoned one, not a runny sauce, and not an extra thick heavy sauce. Pretend you are a politician who has to tread the middle of the political spectrum, and then make your pizza sauce accordingly.  It will not be a middle of the road sauce, it will be a balanced sauce.

So I'll tell you how I make my pizza.  The recipe is tied and true, it makes pizza shop style pizza, and my family and I have been making it for 40 plus years.  It became perfected in the restaurant my parents owned.  I miss that place.  I worked there while going to college... and beyond.  We used 30 pounds of flour to make a batch of pizza dough.  That's a bit much if one is making pizza at home.  I've adjusted the ingredients to come up with a wonderful home version.

Ingredients:


4 cups bread flour
1½  cups very cold water (in summer we used to add ice to the water)
¼ cup vegetable or olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
a little more flour, cold water and vegetable or olive oil

Directions:


In the bowl of an electric mixer add the water, the salt, sugar, oil and yeast.  Using the paddle attachment mix until the ingredients are incorporated.  Switch to the dough hook and add the flour in 8 batches, mixing after each addition.  Mix until the dough is smooth and clears the sides of the bowl.  If it’s too wet and does not clear the sides sprinkle a little more flour into the bowl and mix until done. If the dough starts to wrap itself around the dough hook and looks as though it’s heading out of the bowl on its own, add some water.  You want a dough that is soft and just a little sticky.  
Sprinkle flour on the counter and transfer the dough onto it.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the parchment.  Cut the dough into pieces and weigh it:  14 ounces are good for a large pizza that will serve about 4 people, and 8 ounces are good for a smaller one that will serve about 2 people. 
Form each piece of dough into a round and place it on the sheet pan.  Brush the dough with oil, and cover the pan well, using a plastic bag. 
Place the pan in the refrigerator.  It should stay there to rest overnight. Any dough that will not be used the next day can be individually wrapped in plastic and placed in a freezer bag.  It can be kept in the freezer for 2 to 3 months.

To make a pizza, place a dough ball on the counter.  If frozen, let it come to room temperature.  Cover it with flour and flatten it with the palm of your hand.  Let it rest for 20 minutes and then flatten it to the appropriate size by using a rolling pin.

I like to bake my pizza in a pizza pan which is placed on top of a pizza stone. So at this point I place the dough in the pan and I stretch it with floured hands until it has reached the sides of the pan.  If the dough shrinks back from the sides, let it rest for a few minutes and it will become pliable and stay put.  I use a pan with a 14 inch diameter for a large pizza, and a pan with a 10 inch diameter for a small pizza. 

Once the dough is stretched out in the pan, it's time to spread on the sauce. Two tablespoons of sauce for the small pizza, or four tablespoons of sauce for the large one. After that I sprinkle on the cheese.

Why not add a nice touch like sesame seeds?  With just a touch of olive oil sprayed on the seeds...

At this point the dough has to rest again so that it can rise.  Cover it with plastic and let it rise for about 2 hours.  If the pizza will not be cooked after the 2 hours, it can wait in the refrigerator.  When ready to cook add any toppings that will be used.  The oven should be preheated to 500º F. Place the pizza in the oven, on top of the pizza stone.  Baking time will be approximately 8 minutes.

If the top cooks before the bottom, next time move the pizza stone to a lower shelf.  If the bottom is nice and crisp before the cheese and toppings are browned, then next time the stone should be placed on a shelf that sits higher in the oven. 

Take the pizza out of the oven and with the use of a long knife or spatula transfer it to a cutting board.  Don’t slice it yet.  Inhale all the different aromas arising from the pizza.  You will smell the freshly baked dough, the caramelized cheese, the fragrance of roasted vegetables if any have been used.  You will feel the heat rising up from the pizza, and the heat will spin all those fragrances around the room.  Then look at all the lovely colors.  Admire the golden dough, the melted cheese…  or the ham, or the mushrooms or the pepperoni… is it any wonder pizza is the world’s favorite food?  Is there anyone who does not love pizza?  OK, it’s now time to stop admiring.  Your pizza, she is ready to be eaten. It needed a few minutes of admiration so that its beauty could be thoroughly appreciated, but also so that the cheese could set slightly and become easier to slice.  Well, what are you waiting for?  Slice that baby and… you know what to do after that.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

PIZZA QUATTRO STAGIONE for 'A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN"



I thought I knew all there was to know about pizza.  After all, I can make really good pizza, and I have been making it for years. (The secret of good pizza is in the dough.  If you have a good dough, chances are you'll have a good pizza).  But, surprise, I found out something new about pizza.  There exits a topping I didn't know of. No, it's not ham and pineapple.  It's quatro stagione, or four seasons pizza.  Quatro stagione pizza is topped with:

Marinated artichokes for springtime...

Tomato slices and fresh mozzarella for summer.  Sliced basil goes on after the pizza comes out of the oven.  I enjoyed slicing the basil, it gave off such a wonderful aroma...

Sauteed mushrooms and onions for autumn...

Ham, for winter.  I have three types of ham here.  Some I baked with the pizza, some I put on after the pizza came out of the oven, and some I picked on before I took this picture. So not all three types are clearly visible...

Make the pizza.  Dough, sauce, cheese.  Visually divide the pizza into four sections, and top each section accordingly.  The toppings can vary, as long as each section they are placed on represents one of the four seasons.

Bake and enjoy. Whoever thought of the concept of a four seasons pizza is a certified genius as far as I am concerned. It is a scrumptious pizza, a wonderful excuse for having a multi-topping pizza, except, in quattro stagione pizza the toppings are not piled one on top of the other, which truthfully, I find unappetizing.  Here, the toppings are artfully arranged on the pizza, giving it an air of sophistication.   And I like sophistication. Which is why I really liked reading the thriller A Very Private Gentleman, (1990), written by Martin Booth. As far as thrillers go, it reeks of sophistication. As do I. 

This is my contribution to Novel Food, the literary-culinary event hosted by Simona from Briciole. Read it, and then cook something that the reading has inspired you to prepare.  For this edition of Novel Food I enjoyed reading A Very Private Gentleman.  In one of my favorite chapters the main character takes his mistress to an out of the way restaurant where the two of them enjoy a bottle of wine and a "pizza quatro stagione." I loved the description of the event so, so much, that I wanted to be a patron at the very same countryside restaurant, ordering along with the protagonists.  


This is a thinking person's thriller, aesthetically pleasing, with an unforgettable protagonist. He is signor Farfala, thus called by the locals of the small town where he lives.  He is an artist who paints rare butterflies. Or so he pretends.  That's his cover.  In actuality, Signor Farfala, leads a life so secretive that even we, the readers, don't know his real name or nationality. He is well educated, a man of fine tastes.  He knows how to appreciate nature, art, architecture, good food and wine, good music and books, and he loves good company.  He always moves from place to place, sometimes because of work, sometimes to evade capture.  His real work is done in secret.  He is a gunsmith who crafts made-to-order weapons.  They carry a very high price tag because they are used for high level assassinations. He feels that he has helped to shape history, but now he is getting old and would like to retire.  When we meet him, he is promising that he's working on his last commission.  He likes the small Italian town where he's taken up residence, and he would like to settle there, in the company of Clara, a young student who moonlights as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. (Nothing wrong with that, right?).  Unfortunately, just as signor Farfala makes up his mind to settle down, he becomes aware that someone is after him.  And so the cat and mouse game begins... Booth's writing is clear, intelligent, tense and thought provoking.  A Very Private Gentleman is a first rate psychological thriller, a book that is hard to put down. The movie The American (2010), staring and produced by George Clooney, was based on this novel. The script has some significant differences from the novel, but both movie and book are first rate. With the release of the movie, the novel was republished under the same title as the movie.  So a very private gentleman was forced to become an American.  I don't think Martin Booth (who died in 2004), would have liked this change.  He didn't give his character a nationality, and I enjoyed trying to guess where signor Farfala could have come from.  
Martin Booth's "The American," previously published as "A Very Private Gentleman."
For the curious, that's George Clooney on the cover, aesthetically pleasing as always.