Tag Archives: easy

Sunchoke aka Topinambour, and Halloumi Salad

Sunchoke Salad

Last weekend while shopping for whatever-vegetables-look-best, I realized to my utter delight that sunchoke season has arrived in Finland – and promptly purchased a bag.  Sunchokes (aka topinambours, Jerusalem artichokes, jordärtskocka in Swedish or maa-artisokka in Finnish) are one of my favorite-ever vegetables, for reasons more than their – remarkable and awesome as they are! – culinary qualities.  Not only are they utterly delicious, both raw, sauteed, and in soup, but they are also decently rich in Iron, Phosphorus and Vitamin B1, contain other B-group vitamins, and, despite being wonderfully filling, are very low in digestible carbohydrates, which makes them a darling of anyone avoiding excess carbohydrates in their diet.

An important thing to know about sunchokes is that despite looking like most long-keeping root vegetables (potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc.), they are, in fact, extremely seasonal and should be eaten very fresh.  When kept too long, their flesh tends to ‘rust’ due to high Iron content where damaged (and they bruise easily), and their flavor and texture both degrade.  It’s also important that when fresh, their skin needs no more than a washing with a scrubbing sponge, and can then be ignored, but turns tough and fibrous, not to mention unattractively brown, with time.  To sum it up, they are fresh and ready in Finland now, and now is when you should eat them – sort of like strawberries, they are great when they are local and when it is their time, and mediocre-or-worse otherwise.

So how should you eat them?  Well, their root-vegetable appearances really belies their flavor and texture, which, when fresh and raw, resembles nothing more than a water chestnut and sunflower seeds (latter makes perfect sense, because sunchokes are tubers of a flower in the sunflower family), and are absolutely great eaten just as they are, washed and sliced into a salad.  Sunchoke flavor also marries exceptionally well with umami-type savories.  It goes great with cream in soups, or with mushrooms and mild quinoa or spelt grains in warm dishes, both raw and sauteed, and I have heard they are also lovely roasted in wedges but I haven’t tried that yet (note to self, try!).

The ones that I have bought were exceptionally young and fresh, and I needed lunch in a hurry (do you perceive a trend here yet?), so making a raw sunchoke salad was a no-brainer.  Sunchokes, due to their flavor, don’t actually need a complicated dressing – a light drizzle of olive oil and a powdering of some dried herbs and they are good.  And, have I mentioned that they work great with cheese?

Halloumi, sliced

Oh yes.

What you need to make this:  (serves 2 as a filling but not hugely heavy lunch)

  • 5-8 sunchokes (less if they are very large, but I didn’t weigh them), scrubbed, rinsed and toweled dry, ends trimmed, sliced into 3-4mm thick rounds
  • A large handful of cherry tomatoes (halved) or 2 medium tomatoes (chopped)
  • A large handful of baby spinach or other fresh greens, washed and dried (or out of washed-and-ready-to-eat packet)
  • Good olive oil, about a tablespoon
  • Frying oil such as refined rapeseed, peanut or ‘light’ olive oil, about a tablespoon
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano or a few leaves of fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1 block of Halloumi cheese, drained and sliced
  • 1/2 tsp chili flakes (optional)

What you do:

  • Set a large nonstick pan on medium-high heat and add the tablespoon of frying oil to it.
  • Toss the spinach, tomatoes and sunchokes into a bowl.

Sunchoke Salad

  • Rub some dried oregano leaves over, or add fresh oregano.  Drizzle with olive oil.

Sunchoke Salad

  • Once pan is hot, put your halloumi slices into it, sprinkle with chili flakes, and let them heat through and sizzle until they are swelling a bit, porous and turning golden on the underside.
  • Flip the slices and add more chili flakes if you like.

Halloumi Cheese with Chili

  • Once golden, remove from heat (halloumi burns really easily) and put onto plates.
  • Toss the sunchoke salad and serve alongside.

This is very quick, supremely easy (hey, halloumi is easier to fry than eggs – which, by the way, would work great here if you prefer them to the fried cheese!), and utterly delicious, with bright fresh flavors and great crunch from the sunchokes.  Enjoy them while they last!

Obviously, this is vegetarian, unless you choose to add meat to it, and – for my friends with Coeliac disease! – naturally gluten-free.  I have not changed my views, and I still don’t, and probably won’t ever advocate gluten-free diets for people who aren’t allergic to it.

Things Food Bloggers Eat – 2: A Vaguely-Japanese Fried Rice

Fried Rice

Yesterday’s post began a series which has been in the works – or at least in my head – for a long time, but hadn’t been realised until now: a series of pictures of random things T and I eat when the story of lunch goes something like this:  wake up with a headache, mop around slurping coffee a while, realize it’s 13:30 and there is hungry squeaking emanating from T’s office as he types, and panic.

Or well, not panic precisely, but brainstorm in a rush about what can be cooked and fed to hungry academic in less than 30 minutes flat.  So, to continue the story from yesterday, not having a single box of food in freezer that could be reheated, I run to pantry and fridge.

Things found in pantry without too much searching:

  • Box of sushi (round-grain Japanese) rice
  • Bottle of Ajipon citrus-flavored soy sauce (one of my favorite-ever ingredients to keep on hand whenever I can).

Things found in fridge:

  • A red chili pepper
  • Bag of slightly-sad scallions (salad onions)
  • Bag of prewashed baby spinach leaves
  • A pack of Chinese cured sausages that I’d bought a week or so ago for making Singapore noodles ‘sometime soon’.  There’s more than enough sausages in there to make noodles five times over so grabbing two won’t ruin future noodle plans.

What does this make?  It makes a very vaguely-Japanese-style fried rice.  No, I do not have a recipe.  What I did is remember the lovely and very simple Japanese fried rice I used to eat at (the now sadly closed) Tachibana in Saint Louis years ago, and thought that I have more than enough here to approximate it.

The how:  (this makes about 3 portions – two got eaten, third got boxed and stuffed into freezer)

  • Rinse the rice a few times and cook according to package directions (in my case, 250g of washed and drained rice into 330ml of cold water, bring to boil, simmer 10 min under lid, turn heat off and let stand 10-20 minutes).  Except, as soon as rice is boiling and you are covering it with a lid, put 2 links of Chinese sausage on top of the rice.  Cover the rice with lid and forget the sausages were there – cook as normal.
  • In meantime, wash and dry scallions and chili.  Seed the chili and slice it into thin crosswise strips.  Trim and slice scallions thinly, all parts included (other than the trimmed-off roots and sad ends of green parts, obviously).
  • Turn heat off under rice pot and run to take a shower while it sits for 10 minutes.  Towel self off and take the sausages that have steamed and plumped up out of the pot.  (Shower is optional but I had the time).
  • Heat a tiny drop of oil in a large pan (nonstick is great here) on medium-high heat.
  • Slice sausages thinly and toss them into the oil.  Chinese-style sausage is very fatty and more fat will render out of them as they cook.  Saute for a few minutes till the sausage slices begin to look a little golden.
  • Toss in chili and scallions and stir-fry a few seconds to a minute.
  • Dump the rice in and mix it all thoroughly, pressing any lumps of rice with a spatula to separate the grains.
  • Toss in a large double handful of baby spinach leaves and fold rice around them to wilt.
  • Grab your bottle of Ajipon and sprinkle a little bit of it (don’t overdo this) into the pan.  Turn heat off, and mix the fried rice a little bit to combine with sauce.
  • Scoop into bowls, grab some chopsticks, and eat!

Fried Rice and Ajipon Soy Sauce

So, here’s what an emergency fried rice looks like.  And while I give the ingredients that I have used above, they are by no means a recipe.  Take this as a guideline and use whatever you have in the fridge or freezer.  Cook other veg a touch longer than a few seconds, if using shredded chicken or such, add a bit more oil, experiment.  Tachibana used to have some tiny green peas and sometimes matchsticked carrots and such in their rice, they’d go great with this too.  Ajipon is a lovely, very light and citrusy soy sauce that you can find at most Asian shops, but if I hadn’t had it, a splash of Kikkoman would certainly have worked.

Rice was cooked fresh for this, but cold rice from the fridge obviously works as well.  And while long-grain rice such as used in Chinese-style fried rice dishes doesn’t take well to being fried while still fresh and warm, Japanese short-grain rice is more forgiving and thus friendlier in mini-lunch-emergencies such as today.

Things Food Bloggers Eat – 1: A Soup of Peas and Greens

Peas and Greens

I am feeling decidedly under the weather.  The weather in question is lead-grey and heavy and presses on my head like a concrete block is resembles.  I have the creeping suspicion I’ve caught a cold.  It is the sort of exhaustion that makes one uninterested in cooking or moving in general, but leaves one still interested in eating.  Or perhaps it’s just me, it takes a lot for me to lose appetite.  Which means I am eating out of the fridge/freezer for lunch today.  And that isn’t a bad thing.

You see, I’ve been thinking of writing a series of posts about food that a food blogger (this particular food blogger here) eats when she’s not making glamorous food that looks great and can be photographed classily during prep and prettily plated.  Because let’s be honest, no one without a personal chef eats like that on a daily basis.  Or at least I can’t imagine many people who would never have a blah day when sofa, blanket and something out of the freezer is about all they can or want to manage.  On some days, that means ordering a pizza or takeout, but I try to minimize that to really too-sick-to-look-at-oven situations, because 1. while the pizza here is quite ok, it tends to stick to my proverbial behind, and 2. it’s expensive for what you actually get – compared to cooking at home, obviously.

And besides, it’s not that every not-photo-opportunity meal is one had when ill.  Some of them – the majority, in fact, are what I’d term ‘simple daily fare’.  Except that, having talked to a lot of people, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘simple daily fare’ is not one and the same thing for different people.  And while most of my posts aren’t what I’d call difficult or complex (I am not into that sort of cooking!), I’ve decided to photograph and write a series of posts about things this food blogger eats on a regular basis when the dish isn’t actually intended for a recipe post.  One could then, I suppose, point out that it would make all the dishes intended for such by definition, but I still know the difference, and trust me, when you’ve seen the approximated-and-abbreviated recipes and cooking times for the ‘daily food’, you’ll see what I mean.

In a way, this also ties into the long-ago post where I gave advice on stocking the pantry (and my long-ago promise to write about shopping for fridge and freezer as well), because what normally happens when I want to eat something quickly and without effort, is that I check my freezer for a tupperware box of soup or stew.  I normally freeze leftovers in neat lunch-or-dinner sized boxes rather than let them rot in the back of fridge – trust me, they are far more appealing a few weeks or months later reheated and spruced up with a grinding of pepper or sprinkle of grated cheese, than a week later found in the back of the fridge looking gelid and with mold growing on top!

When this method fails (i.e. all I can see in freezer are packages of deep-frozen meat and nothing I can just stick in microwave), I turn to the fridge and pantry.  However, that’s a story for another day.  The story of today is that I got my hands on that coveted box of soup, microwaved it just enough to unstick it from the box and finished heating it to boiling in one of our enormous (5dl) coffee mugs.  Because a mug seemed the more appropriate vessel for slurping it in a pile of blankets on sofa than a bowl, in an entirely soup-appropriate size.

On this day, the soup obviously came from a small box in the fridge, but it really is a very good, flexible recipe which I have made for many a lunch this summer, and which can be easily made with stuff you might buy and keep on hand in the freezer even in winter.  This soup literally comes together in mere minutes (I never timed it but it is very very fast!).  It has a fresh, herby flavor which persists even after deep freeze and reheating, and is really very worth making, eating and freezing for the eventuality of this sort of days.

What you need (makes about 1.5-2L of soup):

  • 1 onion, peepled and chopped finely
  • 1-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • A handful or two each, fresh or frozen peas and green beans, latter snapped into 2-3 cm pieces.
  • 100-200g frozen chopped spinach (I buy those very handy bags of it frozen in pellets and keep them around year-round)
  • A large double handful (5dl or so) of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley.  I buy this in a Middle-Eastern shop because it’s cheap there, can be purchased by weight and is of good quality.  It can also be bought by weight out of buckets in most Swedish supermarkets.  I don’t recommend using the tasteless curly stuff here.
  • A few sprigs of any fresh herbs you have growing around your house and balcony, chopped
  • 3-5dl stock (optional)
  • A little cooking oil or butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Good extra-virgin olive oil to serve

What you do:

  • Heat oil or butter on medium heat in a pot.  Add onions and saute gently until translucent.
  • Add garlic and cook a few seconds until it just turns aromatic.
  • Add stock (if using), and enough water to make it up to 1.5-2L mark, and bring it all to a medium boil.
  • Add the peas, green beans and frozen spinach pellets and cook a few minutes until spinach is dispersed and peas and beans are heated through and turned luridly green.
  • Add parsley and other fresh herbs, and stir to combine.  The parsley should look bright blanched-green in seconds.
  • Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
  • Ladle into bowls and drizzle with some good fruity olive oil to eat immediately.

To freeze, allow the soup to cool a little, and ladle into containers.  You can add some olive oil to those.  Cover containers loosely and allow to sit on the counter until no longer hot (warm is ok).  Snap the lids on tightly and stick into freezer.  Rejoyce in the future availability of soup when you need it!  To defrost, run tap water over container lid till it loosens (trying to pry it open when deep-frozen can break the plastic).  Microwave for 1-2 minutes until the soup is no longer entirely solid, move the soup into a bowl or mug and stir.  Cover and microwave until boiling, then add any olive oil if you feel like it, and there you go – one serving of delicious, healthy soup ready to go.

No-Knead Sourdough and a Few Words about Finnish Flour

Plain sourdough no-knead bread.

Plain sourdough no-knead bread.

There isn’t much I need to say about this – the result of me waking the starter up (and worrying it’d kicked the bucket), and then thankfully finding out it didn’t.  I will just let these pictures speak for themselves.  There isn’t a crumb photo because the bread is still cooling, so I haven’t cut it yet, but I will happily add that later once I have one.

This is a happy-ending post to the saga of me reactivating Gloop, my Stockholm-brewed sourdough Type 1 starter from dry state.  The recipe for this bread is exceedingly simple – it’s the newer (edited) version of this one, using the 3.25dl water, slightly lower oven temperature (as mentioned in the opening paragraph of said post), and with the lavender taken out, because I wanted a plain, plain bread dough to let me see its development and bubbles without specks of dried herb or anything extraneous in the way.

I think I can pronounce the sourdough test bake in Finland a success.

Test bake

While at it, I would like to say a couple of words about bread flour found in (just about any) Finnish supermarket.  Those words would be – it’s awesome.  The local flour goes up to 14% protein content, and handles incredibly well, creating a beautiful, smooth, elastic dough without much effort at all.  The proof is, obviously, in the tasting (coming up rather soon!), but if the smell is anything to go by, I will stand by the ‘awesome’ verdict.

Here is a photo of the developing dough during the final proof in the banetton.

Test bake

Note that the beautiful shape and structure was achieved with literally zero kneading, only two double folds after first rise, and very rough shaping.  Color me impressed.

So, with this in mind (and eye, and nose – oh, the smell in the apartment right now is amazing!), I will feed my starter again, and contemplate bread recipes old and new – perhaps something with some rye and wild blueberries (aka bilberries) or lingonberries to celebrate Finland! – to bake over the next few weeks.

P.S.  And yes, I haven’t forgotten my promise of sourdough flatbread recipe.  Now that the starter is demonstrably awake, the recipe for that is on the short-short list of things to bake and write about!

Orange and Chili Tiger Prawns with Lemon Thyme

JätteräkorAlthough I have posted about prawns before (and here, and here, too), I still don’t feel that I have done this amazing, healthy and luxurious food justice.  In my opinion, crustaceans in general, and giant prawns in particular, are among the best things to eat – and easiest to prepare as well.

Besides, it’s early March, which here, in Sweden, is still technically winter – if you count -12C overnight temperatures and snow piles not yet melted outside as winter.  I mean, we have flowers now, too – the snowdrops are blooming their white little hearts out – but it’s still winter.  Not for much longer, though – and while I love the Scandinavian winter, I long for summer warmth.  And nothing screams summer like citrusy prawns with just a touch of heat and bite from chili.  When consumed, they instantly transfer you to a sunny spot in a garden – provided that you’ve remembered to shut the windows against the bright sunny -5C day outside after freezing airing the apartment out.  What I am trying to say, is that these aren’t just for when it is summer out – they are even more wonderful when you wish it already were.

The best part about these (after how divinely they taste – the clean, bright flavors are such an antithesis to all the winter soups and stews and roasts!), is how amazingly easy and fast these are to prepare.  You know me.  I will not wiggle a lazy little toe more than I have to, and yet I want to eat and I want to eat healthy and gorgeously.  And these prawns are it.  And you can start with a bag of them deep-frozen, like I have, because prawns are one of those foods that defrost quickly and well when submerged in a sealed bag in a bowl of cool water.  You can have these prawns out of the freezer and on the table within 30 minutes if you want – although I would recommend taking closer to an hour during which you do something else – like take a shower, read a book or vacuum the apartment out – while they marinate.  But because seafood soaks up flavors so fast, an entire 40 minutes of marinating is not strictly necessary – these will be fine just after ten.

Ready?  Here’s what you need for a summer-invoking lunch for two:

  • 6 giant tiger prawns or 10-12 regular-sized ones
  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped off twigs and chopped (I just took scissors to my lemon thyme pot on the window with some rigor)
  • 1 teaspoon of chili flakes (more or less depending on how hot your chili flakes are and how much heat you like)
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt to taste
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • A squeeze of lemon (entirely optional – I added this because my orange was very sweet and lacked any hint of citrus tang.  If you are blessed with a tangy orange, this is not needed)
  • 2-3 tablespoons of neutral cooking oil – I use rapeseed (canola) because it has a similar fatty acid profile to olive (very good for your health!) but not the strong olive taste
  • A cast iron griddle
  • Makings for a green salad and/or some bread – whatever you like with your crustaceans

JätteräkorHere’s what you do:

  • Put your frozen-solid prawns into a plastic bag and submerge it while holding the top above water, into a bowl of cool water.  Clip top shut after the air is forced out.  Let float.
  • In meantime, juice and zest your orange.  Discard pulp and put the zest and juice in a bowl.
  • Press garlic into same bowl, add chili flakes and chopped thyme and swirl with a spoon to dissolve salt and taste, then adjust seasoning if needed.  Set aside.
  • Poke your prawns.  They should be defrosted or nearly so.  Rinse them in cold water and using sharp kitchen shears cut through their backs and devein them if needed.  Devein if needed, cut through backs in any case unless they are already pre-cut.
  • Drain on paper towel where they can finish defrosting if they are still a little stiff inside.
  • In meantime add the oil to your marinade and swish with a spoon or fork to mix.  Add prawns one by one to the bowl, poking them about so that marinade gets inside the cut  backs of shells.  Push them into the liquid as far as they’ll go (mine stuck out some) and let sit 10-40 minutes, depending on how hungry you are.
  • Five minutes before you take the prawns out of the marinade (or nearly right away if you are opting for the 10-minute marinade), preheat a heavy cast iron frying pan coated with a thin layer of lard (if you are against lard, use non-hydrogenated shortening, coconut or cooking oil, whatever floats your cookware!) on medium heat.  I use setting 6/9 on my induction stove.  The pan should get hot enough to sizzle if you splash a drop of water on it, but not nearly hot enough to smoke.
  • While pan heats, arrange your salad on plates, toast bread, etc.
  • When ready, fish prawns out of the marinade (I use a pair of steel kitchen tongs), shake excess marinade off, and set them onto the hot pan.  Prawns (over)cook very quickly, so don’t walk away!
  • Cook without moving on one side until the prawn flesh has gone opaque at least to the halfway point in the cut you made in back of shell, and the shell on the underside has turned gorgeously pink.
  • Flip the prawns and cook until the prawn is opaque throughout and no bits of shell are ‘uncooked’ grey.  Do not cook longer than that, because overcooked prawns, which you have all met in many restaurants and family dinners, are rubbery.  And that’d be a shameful thing to do to such wonderful food!

JätteräkorPour yourself a glass of sparkling or just a good white wine, and sit in a sunny spot in your room.  Instant summer!

Seasoning Mixes and A Very Easy Grilled Salmon Lunch

Rajah Seasonings I know, I have been remiss at posting in the past few months – life got busy again, and when that happens, blog, sadly, takes second place to immediate priorities.  And then, on top of it all, both T and I got a terrible case of influenza together, and spent the two weeks over the winter holidays in bed with thermometers, cold-and-flu drugs, and endless pots of tea, instead of out in the beautiful snow.  I’ll stop about that here before the blog post degenerates into whining.

As a result of it having been winter holidays and us having been sick, I have decided to post about two things which came as holiday presents, and came to be needed.  The first thing is that my wonderful beloved, among other things, bought me a set of seasoning mixes from Rajah, which is a very nice English brand of seasonings – not for English food.  In the United Kingdom, they are mostly found in ethnic shops and the ethnic food departments of supermarkets.  The other thing – a result of us having been so sick – is that I am cooking a lot of rather simple, everyday food that is easy on the stomach and short on prep and effort. As far as the seasonings are concerned, I am not really worried – I have bought many Rajah brand mixes before (in particular their curry powders), and they have always been of great quality.

The ones I received this Yule – none of which I’d tried before – are Jerk Seasoning (insert immature giggle here), Barbecue Seasoning, Hot and Spicy Seasoning and Lemon and Chili Seasoning.  I also got a pack of good Ras-Al-Hanut mix which isn’t by Rajah and isn’t in the picture, but I’ll write about that separately once I have tried it.

The thing about seasoning mixes bought in bulk like this is that they aren’t at all the same as the single-portion packets of ‘taco seasoning’ and ‘dressing mix’ that are sold in supermarkets.  It so happens that I think those ‘shortcut’ packets – which are mostly not made of spices, but of cheap filler – are vile.  This is not to say that all seasoning blends are bad – quite the opposite.  Good quality spice blends found in the spice department of your supermarket, at your favorite ethnic shop or at the spice traders’ are incredibly good to have around the kitchen for when you just aren’t up for standing and measuring and mixing and grinding and… you get the idea.

So, out of these four packets so far, I’ve only tried the Lemon and Chili and the Jamaican Jerk Seasonings.  The latter was used as it was intended, as a rub for a roast chicken, and the former I have used for simply the easiest lunch of grilled salmon.  Now, as I’ve mentioned before, salmon fillets should be on everyone’s list of things to buy when you can get them for a good price  (with the reasonable exceptions of allergic people or those who hate salmon with a passion).  Why?  Because not only are they healthy and really, really good for you, but they are also one of the easiest things in the world to make into hot, delicious food in under 20 minutes.

How?

Salmon 3288

It’s really simple.  So simple, in fact, that you don’t need a recipe.  All you do is:  preheat the oven to about 200-220C, and smear a small drop of cooking oil over the bottom of a small baking dish.  Blot your salmon fillets with a paper towel and smear them in … well, any seasoning you like.  I used my new lemon and chili seasoning from Rajah.  It worked great.  However, you can use your favorite mix, or you can simply season the salmon with salt and pepper and rub those into the surface.  Put the seasoned fillets into the oiled baking dish, and place the baking dish into the middle of the oven and grill for 15-18 minutes (depends on how large your fillets are and how done you prefer them).

Salmon is a fatty fish and so while it can handle glazing really well, it doesn’t even need that – the oil in the fish itself will mix with the seasoning as it grills.

Salmon 3293

See the salmon fat pooling down there in the bottom of the baking dish?  Like so!

Toss some greenery onto the plate, chop a cucumber or ball a melon or something – or both, season that with a drizzle of good olive oil, spatulate the salmon over to the waiting plates and you have a gorgeously elegant, healthy and tastebud-tingling meal in less time than it would take to get takout pizza (even if you live above the pizzeria!).

Grilled salmon - plated with melon and cucumber salad

As to seasoning mixes – I definitely recommend the Rajah Lemon and Chili, and the Jerk one isn’t half bad (it’s meant for chicken, not fish, however), but this post is not a plug for Rajah brand as such.  Most fish-friendly seasonings will work here – it is simply that if you have one on hand premixed – either bought or compounded by your very self, it makes a great meal come together without any effort.  And that is a worthy thing in itself.

Combined with a chunk of baguette, or a couple of boiled baby potatoes with peel on, and a glass of white wine or bubbly, this makes for a great dinner as well.

P.S. In case you are wondering, the salad here is just a handful of greenery topped with cucumber and melon, with some flaked sea salt, chili flakes and dried oregano sprinkled on top, and drizzled with a good olive oil.  Melon and chili work wonderfully well together, and I tend to think that anything more complicated than that would be entirely unnecessary.

Preserving the Bounty: Easy Spiced Plum Jam for Beginners

Edit:  if you are looking for a recipe for spiced fig jam to go with your cheese, it’s here and it’s just as easy and awesome as this one.  For plum jam, and the better-detailed rundown on equipment and hot-water processing, read on!

One of the things I adore most about autumn is the fruit – a generously wide variety of it, beautiful, ripe and inexpensive – in some cases even free, unless you count picking it and hauling it home.

Obviously, as the time and stomach volume permits, I munch away at all of this glorious bounty raw, or in pies and tarts, but there is something incredibly comforting about preserving some of the perfectly ripe fruit at the peak of its flavor in jam jars, to keep for when the landscape turns white and blue, to remind us (and the lucky recipients of such jars) that winter is not forever.  And that, for all it’s -20C and pitch dark at 6pm outside, at home there is warmth and candlelight, and in the meantime, there’s jam.

Best thing about plum jam is that of all the jams I’ve ever tried to make (with the possible exception of the very pectin-rich quince), it’s the one that sets the fastest and most reliably, without the need for any added pectin.  So all you really need to make it is sugar and plums.  And if you’ve got whole cloves or star anise or cardamom pods in your pantry, it’ll be that much better.

The second best thing about it (though not unique to plum jam in my experience) is that you can make it in tiny batches, and you can make it fast – far faster than the hours-spent-at-the-stove image a jar of homemade jam might evoke, so that you can cook a tiny batch of it whenever you have a couple of handfuls of plums on hand, and be able to gift (or keep to yourself greedily) the jam jar the very next morning, and channel the domestic goddess without much effort at all.

I sincerely recommend using the spices listed (one of, not all three together!) in the cooking process.  They do not detract from the plum flavor, but in fact enhance it and elevate your jam to heights far above the regular off-the-shelf shop-bought stuff by giving it that extra-fancy complex scent like the really expensive gourmet stuff you might or might not have tried – or the best-ever homemade jam that I hope you have.  If you haven’t – just do it, you won’t regret it!

Star anise or cinnamon stick can be used in either golden or purple plum jam, as they are easy to see and therefore get out at the end of the process.  Cardamom is harder to see in purple plum jam, but is easy to remove from golden (unless you tie it in cheesecloth, in which case it’s easy either way), and cloves can be left in the jam after cooking, so use them in either.

A note about ripeness of plums:  you should use mostly or only ripe fruit.  If one or two of your plums are hard, it is no trouble, but if all of them are just slightly underripe, your jam will set so hard, you could slice it with a knife – underripe fruit are too rich in pectin, making them ideal to add to overripe ones to set a jam, but not to make a jam of on their own!

And then, of course there’s the problem of canning apparatus and tools.  Or not at all, as it happens – if you use small jars (250ml ones are great for gifting!), you don’t need much at all, and all you need is probably already there in your kitchen.  That is because the plums have high acidity, and so boiling-water processing is all it takes to make plum-based preserves shelf-stable for about a year (or more, but don’t quote me – most reputable canning websites suggest eating homemade jam within 1-3 years of preparation).  What this means is that you don’t need any fancy apparatus to process the jars – a stockpot, a silicone trivet and a pair of jar tongs (or if you are like me and don’t have those, a silicone spatula and a wooden spoon to place jars inside the pot and fish them out) are all that is needed.

So, if you’ve ever thought that in order to have lovely rich-tasting jam, you either need to empty your wallet and hit the gourmet store, or have a country estate with a huge kitchen equipped like a miniature canning factory, you’ve been terribly misled.

So, how do you go about it?  It’s all really very simple!

This will make approximately 750ml jam (3x250ml jars of it).

Equipment:

  • A 2L+ pot for cooking the jam
  • A wooden or nylon spoon
  • 3x 250ml canning jars, washed.  I use the sort with screw-top lids by preference, they seem to work best for me and seal reliably – though I’ve also made and processed jam in washed-out honey jars, it’s not generally recommended to reuse those.  Thicker-walled jars for home canning have a far lesser chance of cracking during processing or when filled with very hot jam.
  • Your glasses (if you have them), or a pair of goggles such as pictured (mine are my old laboratory eye protection gear), which are entirely optional – but I like the safety that having something between my eyes and hot sugar syrup provides.
  • A timer/thermometer is helpful, but not necessary.  If you want one, you should get a cheap and good dual-function one at IKEA – I love mine and it’s worth every one of the pennies (not many!) it cost!  (No, I don’t work for IKEA’s ad department.  Sadly.)

If you plan to gift the jam or store it outside the refrigerator, you will also need the following to process the jars:

  • A 4L+ pot for boiling-water processing the jars
  • Something (like a silicone trivet) to prevent jars from knocking about too much in the processing pot.  Some people use a 100% cotton tea towel, or a metal rack-style trivet.
  • Jar tongs or something you can use to lift the jars out of boiling water.  I would recommend the jar tongs for safety – I’ll buy a pair myself as soon as I can find a good one for a decent price!

Ingredients:

  • 500g ripe plums of any sort, pitted and sliced or chopped into small pieces.  I quarter the plums, and then slice them crosswise into pieces about 0.5cm thick
  • 300-350g sugar (I would not recommend using less than 250g or half the weight of the fruit as the jam may not set)
  • 1 cinnamon stick (be careful what sort you buy!), OR 3 stars of star anise, OR 12 whole cloves OR 4-6 cardamom pods (all optional, any are recommended)

That’s all!  Now, what do you do?

  • Put your jars and lids opening-down on the oven rack and set the oven to 75C.  This will sterilize and dry them while you make the jam.
  • Put your plums and your sugar in the smaller pot and turn on medium-high heat.  I use 6/9 setting.
  • Set the larger pot with 3L of water in it on the back burner.  Stick your glasses or goggles on if using those, and feel like a scientist tinkering in his or her lab!
  • Stir the plums with sugar and mash them a little until sugar dissolves.  Add the whole spices.  Keep stirring until the jam boils.
  • Set a timer for 15 minutes.  This is a guideline, not an absolute measure.  Keep watching and stirring the jam so that it does not stick and burn (it isn’t prone to that, really, but you don’t want to chance sugar burning – it’ll ruin the entire batch).
  • Reduce heat a little if the jam boils too vigorously – it should boil but not spit.
  • To know when the jam is ready to be jarred, you can follow this easy guideline courtesy the National Center for Home Preservation:

Jelling Point Spoon Test

  • At first the syrup will drip off the spoon in a single drip (not pictured so well), then after a while it’ll drip in two simultaneous drips (it really does!), and then, after a little while longer, it will sheet or drop off the spoon in blobs (see rightmost picture).  At that point your jam is going to set.
  • Once you’ve reached this point, turn off the heat, stir the jam well and remove the cinnamon stick, anise stars or cardamom pods.  If you used cloves, feel free to leave those in the jam, they will do it no harm.
  • Take your jars out of the oven using potholders.
  • Pour or scoop the jam into the prepared jars, and screw the lids on thoroughly.  The lids and jars will be hot, so use a tea towel.
  • If you plan to eat the jam within 2 months and store refrigerated, go no further.  Allow the jam to cool to room temperature and place in the refrigerator.
  • If you want to make the jam shelf-stable and/or plan to give it away, bring the larger pot of water to a boil if it’s not yet boiling.  Place the trivet inside.  Carefully lower the jars into the water using jar tongs (or whatever contraption you come up with), and time 10 minutes.
  • Take the jars out, place them on a wooden board, and allow them to cool.  Once cooled, the tops of the screw-top lids will ‘ping’ into the depressed position, indicating a vacuum seal – that’s your sign that processing succeeded.

Note:  If a lid does not depress after cooling, store the jam in refrigerator for up to 2 months (I don’t recommend re-processing), and eat it or use it in dessert.

Tian Provencal, Revisited (and simplified while at it)

Thanks to the changeable and on-and-off awful weather, I’ve been on some sort of oven-cooking kick.  Or, to skip excuses, I am back to all my favorite colder-weather dishes which I have avoided in the summer, and I want to cook and eat them all, now, as soon as possible – there is only half a year of cold weather left!  So, oven on and om nom nom nom nom nom!

I’ve written about Tian d’aubergines before, and therefore it may well be superfluous to write about this again, but I am of the opinion that anything worth doing, is worth doing well (and again), at least where food is concerned – and besides, this is a far less fussy preparation, which will take a lot, I repeat, a lot less of your time, which makes it entirely worth writing about.  And in its golden, savory wonderfulness, it is a vegetarian dish to make even carnivores such as myself weep with joy – and put away a giant bowlful of, not wanting a single thing more for lunch.

You can, of course, serve this alongside some roast fowl, or with a well-marinated piece of grilled meat, or a quick-fried good quality steak, and it’ll make a large and filling celebratory dinner.  Or you can plate this into small ramekin-sized containers (or, indeed, as mentioned here, bake it in individual casserole dishes – but this is making things more complicated again!), and serve as starters at an autumn dinner party.  And, should there be leftovers (and there were some – far less than one’d expect! – from my large casserole dish), you can always stuff them into a sandwich (cold as they may be from the fridge), or between two tortillas with a little cheese and chipotle paste, and dry-fry into amazing quesadillas.  Although, if you serve this at a party, I doubt there’ll be any leftovers – and you will wish there were.

The main difference with the aforementioned recipe is the aubergines – both, the variety and the preparation (or lack thereof).  The method of baking remains very much the same (how much can one simplify the instruction of “put in oven, leave in there for X time“, really?), but is still gloriously simple and forgiving.

What makes the big difference, is using not the giant purple-skinned aubergines, which are notorious for having a bitter off-taste more often than not, and require a slicing-and-salting to leech the bitter juices out, but the adorable striped and/or tiny egg-shaped white ones, the latter of which, I believe, is what gives the vegetable its English name, ‘eggplant’.  I’d be surprised if there was another reason for it – just look at them!

The white and the striped ones, unlike their shiny purple cousins, are not bitter at all.  I know.  I licked them after slicing just to be sure, even though I’ve been told so before.  Which means, you can dispense with the pre-salting, and pre-frying of aubergines, and can, in fact, assemble the whole shebang as you slice and go along.

Note – the cornucopia of vegetables in the above photo was me having bigger eyes than a casserole dish, for all it was a large one.  I had to leave out a couple of the potatoes, 2 of the mushrooms, and 2 of the little white aubergines because they simply didn’t fit.  Since I cannot predict the size of your vegetables (they don’t come in standardized shapes and sizes, thank the gods!), my advice regarding quantities will be – take out more than you think you need.  Washing and drying vegetables and then putting the leftover ones in the fridge washed and dried does them no harm.

What you need to make this:

  • Time: 2 hours.  This bakes for 1.5 of those.
  • A large casserole dish.  I use a cast-iron shallow thing I bought ages ago.  Use whatever size you want the tian to be, so long as the thing fits into your oven!
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Rosemary (recommended), fresh, 2-3 large sprigs, leaves stripped
  • Sea salt
  • Aubergines, sliced
  • Tomatoes, sliced
  • Squash (zucchini or golden, not winter squash), sliced
  • Onion, sliced
  • Garlic – I used a generous handful of cloves, outer papery skin removed, clove shells left intact, root tips cut off
  • Cheese to top, if desired (I always desire cheese)
  • Other optional vegetables – some small potatoes, firm large mushrooms (baby portobello, for example), fennel bulbs – also sliced thinly

What you need to do:

  • Preheat oven to 200C.
  • Oil the casserole dish with olive oil generously.
  • Grab 3-4 of your vegetables – I usually start with aubergine, tomato and zucchini, and start alternating slices of those in a repeating pattern:  zucchini-tomato-aubergine, zucchini-tomato-aubergine – in whatever order you like, and leaning them against the side of the casserole dish, going around the outside.
  • When you have covered about 3/4 of the circle, begin inserting onions every repetition (easiest way I found is ‘after every vegetable x’), and moving the other veg along a bit as needed.
  • Stick other vegetables into the spacing in order to close the circle as necessary.  Begin the same rotation with whatever is left, adding optional vegetables if needed.  Slice more if you run out as you go along.
  • When you have filled the entire pan with concentric circles or rectangley-things (if your pan is rectangular), gently wiggle garlic cloves into the available spaces, and slip all remaining sliced-up veg into whatever sections look flatter than the rest of the pattern, evening it out.
  • Scatter rosemary leaves over the vegetables, pushing some into any nooks, drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
  • Cover with lid or foil, and place in the oven for 1 hour.
  • After an hour, check and remove lid – the vegetables should be cooked through and steaming.  Add cheese if using (do, do, you know you want to!), sprinkling evenly over the tian, and place back in the oven for ~30 minutes to finish browning.
  • Remove from oven when cheese is bubbling and browned.

Like so.

Shovel into plates while steaming-hot, add a bit of green salad (or nothing), grind some black pepper on top if you like it (it’ll do it good!), and celebrate autumn in all its colorful glory!

P.S. I tend to fish the garlic cloves out in my plate by the tail end, squeeze them out with the side of a fork, and spread the velvety-soft flesh on my vegetables.  Yes, I suck the shells clean, too, if it’s not in public.  You do as messily or as politely as you will!

Potato and Mushroom Gratin – Real Quick (for a Gratin!)

The weather had turned autumn-ward several weeks ago.  And while I wish we’d have had our full share of summer, and not had it truncated at the end of July (I mean, where DID the August go, really?), I also can’t say I am unhappy about the excuse to get out pretty and warm clothes, drink hot drinks, and cook cold-weather comfort food.

Most comforting dishes such as my beloved cassoulet and various beef stews, are long-and-slow cooked creations that require thinking ahead and preparation.  Happily, this one is not one of those – the entire prep and initial cooking takes maybe 15 minutes, and then it is 40-45 minutes of doing nothing while the oven does its job.  An hour may not sound like it’s a very fast dish, but when you consider that most potato gratins take more like an hour and a half or two to achieve that perfect consistency, then an hour from start to finish with only a quarter-hour of active involvement really isn’t so much of an investment.  Especially – especially!!! – when the results are so creamily, comfort-heavenly good.

This generous portion will serve two for a generous dinner, or four as a decent side dish to steak or roast chicken.  The recipe is somewhat adapted from Nigella Express – quantities changed a little, and I chose to use heavy cream for part of the milk specified, black pepper instead of white, and a little more wine than was called for.  The results were just the right thing to take the edge off a tiring Monday night grown rapidly chill with sunset.

A word about the potatoes – the main star of this show:  I bought the pre-washed shiny golden ones that ambushed me in the entrance to the supermarket.  But really, any will do.  Don’t bother peeling, but if they are dirty, do give them a good scrubbing in addition to the non-optional rinse.

What you need:

  • 700g potatoes, rinsed and patted dry, sliced into 3-4mm thick slices
  • 150-200g mushrooms, sliced thinly
  • 2.5dl full-fat milk
  • 1dl heavy (36%+ fat) cream
  • 0.5dl white wine
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • Garlic granules or powder (optional), to taste

What to do:

  • Preheat oven to 220C.  Butter a large casserole dish thoroughly.
  • Put potatoes, milk, cream and wine into a pot.  Place on medium-high heat, bring to a boil and add salt and garlic granules if using (I did, and they worked wonderfully well).  Cover, turn heat down a little to avoid burning the milk, and let simmer while you prepare the mushrooms.
  • Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan on medium-high heat.  Dump mushrooms into the pan and saute until they are giving off a tiny bit of liquid and are turning soft and a little translucent, maybe 5 minutes.
  • Pour the entirety of the mushroom pan into the pot with potatoes and stir carefully, avoiding breaking the potato slices.
  • Pour the contents of the pot into the buttered casserole dish, and pat gently with a spatula into a uniform layer.
  • Place casserole dish on a rack in the middle of the oven and set timer for 40 minutes.  Go take a bath, power nap, or finish that last bit of business for the day to get it off your mind.
  • When timer goes off, check the gratin.  If it is not quite golden enough on top for you, turn the broiler (top grill) on for a few minutes while you watch it (watch it, it will brown FAST!).
  • Take out of oven, and shovel into plates (warm the plates if you want to be really decadent).  Eat on sofa off your lap, or serve with half a glass of white wine for a luxury workday dinner.

P.S.  I’d like to note that the clean-up for this isn’t half bad – if the casserole dish was buttered well (mine was), all it takes to loosen the browned dairy bits off the sides is a bit of soaking in water, and a light brushing.  No heavy scrubbing required!

Green Salad with Honey-Roast Figs and Kabanos

In addition to studying for my law degree, I tend to take entirely too many projects on.  Mind you, I am not some sort of workaholic with insane work-ethical worldview that makes me run around doing stuff like crazy – far from it.  I am lazy at heart.  But, there are just so many interesting things to visit, see, read, do, make, write, cook, grow and eat out there!  And as a result, I run around trying to juggle the schoolwork and hobbies like a madwoman.

Like this morning – I just got done watering all the orchids and picking up around the kitchen, and it was already lunchtime!  Where did the bloody time go, tell me?!

Guess where I take the shortcut?  Lunchtime.  More often than not, I end up opening the fridge and staring into it in fascination trying to figure out what I can take out and prepare in 20 minutes or less.  No, ramen noodles aren’t on the menu – ‘something to eat’ in our household which consists of myself and a spoiled other half needs to be healthy, delicious and fresh.

Unless I realize (in horror) that we’d run out of our resident packet of greens, what we end up eating on a daily basis, is some permutation of a green salad.  Frankly, I don’t have a single set ‘recipe’ for a green salad – I just grab all that looks promising out of the fridge: greens, vegetables, cheese of some sort, and cured or cooked meat of some description, and then figure out what sorts of seasoning and dressing it would go well with.

This salad, however, was memorable enough in its semi-accidental nature, that I think it ought to be written down and shared, for it turned out lovely and fresh and full of rounded flavor without any component overpowering the whole.  The delicate sweetness of roast figs goes oh-so-wonderfully with the smoky meat, and the freshness of the mint and basil set it all off to perfection.  I could wax poetic about how great it is to have fresh potted herbs on my windowsill, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Anyway, the salad!  The quantities given were enough for a large lunch salad for two people.  If you want to feed four, feel free to double the recipe as main dish for lunch or light supper, or use below quantities and have smaller portions as starters.

What you need:

  • Two large handfuls of baby salad greens
  • 1 red sweet paprika – I used the long sweet variety that are thinner-fleshed and a little less watery than typical bell peppers, but using a bell pepper here would harm the salad not at all
  • 1 good-sized tomato
  • A chunk of cucumber 10-15cm long
  • 8 very fresh mint leaves, rolled and chiffonaded
  • 4 sprigs of Greek basil, snipped – a large sprig of regular basil, chiffonaded, will also work.
  • 150g white brined curd cheese (I use a German white cheese which is a bit less salty than feta, but feta or anything like it will work too – you might need to reduce the amount of salt)
  • 1-2 figs
  • 1-2 teaspoons of honey
  • Kabanos sausage, or other smoky-flavored dry-cured or smoked sausage, sliced into easily edible bits.
  • A large (or small) pinch of sea salt flakes and a good grinding of black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar
  • 2-4 tablespoons of good extra-virgin olive oil

What to do:

  • Slice the figs into quarters nearly all the way through, so that the four quarters remain attached at the bottom.  Drip a teaspoon of honey into each fig, place in a baking dish and bake at 225C for approximately 10 minutes or until the figs are open and bright-pink inside and ooze a little bit of pink syrup when prodded.
  • Remove from oven.
  • While the figs roast, toss the greens, chopped peppers, cucumber and tomato, finely snipped/chiffonaded fresh herbs and cubed brined curd cheese to the bowl.
  • Sprinkle with vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and toss thoroughly.
  • Add olive oil and toss again.
  • Plate the salad out, and garnish with roast fig or figs on top, and smoky sausages on the side (or wherever the heck you want them!).

Enjoy.  The entire ‘cooking’ process for this takes approximately 15 minutes.  In fact, there’s even time to make a couple of cups of honeyed mint tea to go with it.

You don’t know how to make mint tea?  Nothing easier!  It is one of my favorite non-caffeinated hot drinks out there, and probably the easiest to make – and it is lovely, lovely, lovely for your throat if you are down with a cold!

Take a large (500ml or so) coffee or soup mug.  Place inside it a sprig of fresh mint, and a teaspoon of honey.  Pour over boiling water and let steep about 10 minutes.  Stir honey in and remove the sprig.  And it’s good with nearly any Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean-style dish you I can think of.  Try it, you definitely won’t regret it!  (Unless you hate mojitos or something.)