Monday, June 23, 2014

Watermelon, Feta & Mint Salad

Watermelon, Feta & Mint Salad

Summer simply does not want to arrive in Finland this year.  We had a beautiful May, and then the arrival of June brought with it increasingly cold weather.  Last Tuesday, there was slush in Helsinki, snow in Tampere, and freezing temperatures around the country.

Finland's Midsummer weekend, 20-22 June, a time when you typically open the summer season with outdoor barbecues, giant bonfires, and late nights out by the lake/seashore, boasted soaring temperatures of +12°C and lows of +6°C.  This is why sauna was invented here:  "Suomen kesä on vähän luminen" (Finland's summer has only a little snow) is a phrase I've heard repeated by many Finns, but never quite grasped the meaning of until that recent snowy Tuesday in June.

Watermelon, Feta & Mint Salad

But never mind:  imported summer fruits from warmer climates have made their way to my table to be combined with herbs from my garden, and this salad, while it won't warm my cold toes, brings with it the essence of summer with vibrant colors and a rush of flavor.  Simple to throw together, it's great as a side dish, or as breakfast - which is how I enjoyed it this morning.  It'd be an easy take-along for a picnic; as a side salad for your burger; thrown on top of a pile of freshly-picked lettuce and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or simply enjoy a bowlful.

Just you with a spoon in hand & a big bowl of this salad, preferably with sunshine on your face, but drizzle outside the window if the weather insists on being ornery, and let this salad bring on the essence of summer anyway.

Watermelon, Feta & Mint Salad

Watermelon, Feta & Mint Salad

1.5 kg / 3 lbs watermelon; peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
200g feta cheese, drained
1/4 cup / 1/2 dl mint leaves, rinsed, leaves picked (I used a combo of pineapple mint & peppermint)

1.  Cut up the watermelon and put into a medium-sized bowl.
2.  Add the feta cheese.
3.  Stack the mint leaves on top of each other.  Slice very thinly into ribbons, and then cut cross-wise again to make small bits of mint.  Add to the bowl.
4.  Stir well to combine all ingredients.  Cover & place into the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to overnight. 
5. Serve and enjoy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Coconut-Orange-Cacao Nib Power Bites

Coconut-Orange-Cacao Nib Power Bites

If you've ever run an endurance race, climbed a mountain, backpacked up a long trail, competed in a triathlon...or gone to the gym straight from work, looked for snack after a day of power shopping, chances are good you've purchased some kind of packaged energy bar.  Some of them are decent, especially those I've seen more recently like the Raw bars and the Pure Bars.  Some were designed by athletes-turned-entrepreneurs, like the Clif Bar, who's founder wrote a great story about how and why his company was founded, Raising the Bar - a book well worth reading.  Others, like Power Bar, though ubiquitous, always make me feel a bit put out and gloomy - as though I've gotten the short end of the stick and there's nothing left to do but gnaw on the chewy end of a brown mass of unrecognizable ingredients.

After you've eaten your way through a formidable pile of these, though,  you can start to wonder if the price-value ratio is in line, or...if maybe you start playing with flavors and just make your own.  So I saved the wrapper on an energy bar recently and read the marketing text on the front and the back:  "dates and nuts.  that's it" it proclaimed.

Hmmmm....dates and nuts....I have some of both hanging around the house, so off I rumbled to the kitchen once more to see what a bit of experimentation might yield.  Judging from the name, I'm guessing the Raw people don't toast their cashews, but I like the flavor of toasted cashews, so that's where I started.  And then, while the combination of dates and cashews sounded appealing by itself, so did the addition of a few other ingredients, so I tinkered and weighed and tasted and tasted and tasted....

Really, really nice.  I've been packing a few of these Power Bites to work every day for that energy slump that inevitably comes between lunch and the 5 PM "go-home" time.  I don't know how many calories they have, but dates and cashews are both calorie dense, so don't go too crazy with these if you are watching your waist line.  On the other hand, if you are heading out for a day of hiking, biking, running, whatever...pack the whole batch and share with your friends. You'll all be happier at your destination.  Though I've gotta say, they are not bad with a cup of coffee either...just in case leaving home today is not in your plans.

Dead easy to make.  Disappear quickly.  Nothing dodgy. And you'll be able to spell and pronounce every ingredient (though cacao vs. cocoa can twist your tongue and your mind).

Power Bites!  Come on, you know you want one.  Go ahead, make the inner athlete in you feel very, very happy.

And if you try them, please let me know what you think of them in the comments below.  I'd love feedback on these.

Coconut-Orange-Cacao Nib Power Bites

Coconut-Orange-Cacao Nib Power Bites

300 g / 10.5 oz pitted dates (I used Iranian dates; Medjool or other would work well too)
150 g / 5 oz cashews, toasted
25 g / 3 tablespoons cacao nibs*
zest of one organic orange**
25 g / 1/4 cup small, raw coconut flakes*

*25g = roughly 1 oz
** in a perfect world, all of the ingredients would be organic.  If you have to choose one, though, buy organic oranges to avoid the pesticides on the peel/zest.

Toast the cashews in a heavy pan or pot over high heat, shaking the pan regularly to make sure they don't burn.  Alternatively, toast them in the oven at 200°C/400°F for 5 minutes or until lightly golden.   In either case, watch them closely so they don't burn.  You want them just lightly toasted for added flavor, but not overly crunchy.  Remove from heat/oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, pit your dates by slitting them lengthwise with a knife and removing and discarding the pit. Zest the orange into the bowl with the dates.

Pour the cashews into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the standard blade.  Place the lid on and process until the nuts are chopped very fine.  With the motor running, add the dates along with the orange zest, a little at a time.  Towards the end, you'll need to stop the motor to scrape the very sticky mixture back down to the bottom toward the blade.  When the dates are all in and mostly incorporated, add the cacao nibs.  Process a few minutes more until dates are chopped small and the mixture looks mostly uniform.

Using a tablespoon or a small ice cream scoop (1-2 tablespoon size), scoop the mixture into round balls onto a plate or pan.  Once you've scooped out all of the mixture, roll each ball in coconut flakes, coating the entire outside.  Store in an airtight container at room temperature for as long as they last.

Note:  these are quite soft.  If you'd like them to be more firm, increase the quantity of cashews by 50 grams or so.  I did like that they were on the moist side, though - typically I need to chase energy bars down with a long drink of water - but these were a pleasure to eat, with or without a liquid accompaniment.

Makes 28 power bites.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Smoked Paprika & Chipotle White Bean Dip

Smoked Paprika and Chipotle White Bean Dip
Sometimes a woman just needs a good snack.  A few days ago, I had a loaf of corn pudding sourdough baking in the oven, pushing its fragrant fresh bread smells out past the kitchen and into the living room where I was trying to get stuff done.  It was clear that once the bread was out of the oven and cooling on the rack, some sampling would need to happen and I probably would need something to sample it with.

I had been planning to make a white bean soup for dinner, so the beans were already bubbling away on the stove top.  Meanwhile, I'd been distracted reading a story on London's best brunches and noted that one of the recommended restaurants served white bean hummus as part of the brunch.  And so of course the wheels started turning in my head about how I too could whip up a batch of white bean hummus to go with my soon-to-be-ready corn pudding sourdough, and off I rumbled to the kitchen to get started.

The dish quickly turned from hummus to bean dip when I decided that the wonderful flavor of Tahini was not what I was in the mood for, and I decided to kick it up with some spices instead.

Go ahead, get started on this one.  If you plan ahead, you can soak & cook your own beans.  If that feels like too much bother, use canned beans, but I recommend warming the beans up in their juice on the stove so that the juices just begin to bubble, and the proceed with the recipe.  Best served warm.  With fresh bread.

Except there's one more thing:  by the time the bean dip was done, the bread was still too hot to eat, so I spread the bean dip onto croutons I'd made from the previous batch of bread.  That was delicious.  So was the corn pudding bread with bean dip a little later in the day.  You really can't go wrong with this, no matter what kind of bread receptacle you put it on.

Smoked Paprika and Chipotle White Bean Dip


Smoked Paprika & Chipotle White Bean Dip

If you start with dried beans, the night before, combine in a bowl:
1 cup dried white beans 
3 cups cold water

The next morning, drain and rinse the beans, cover with about 1 inch of water in a pot.  Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer so the water just barely bubbles.  Simmer for 45 minutes and then add:

1 teaspoon table salt
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

Continue simmering for 15 minutes.  The beans should be very tender.  If not, cook an additional 10 - 15 minutes.  Remove from heat.

If you start with canned beans, do this:
1 can of white beans - should equal about two cups, with liquid
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

Pour beans into a pot, with liquid.  Add garlic cloves.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Proceed with recipe.

Pull out your food processor or blender.  Pour the beans and their liquid (if more than 1/2 liquid, reserve some and add later if needed) in the processor/blender bowl.  Process until the mixture is smooth, then add:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle
6 grinds fresh black pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)

Process until the mixture is thoroughly combined.  Taste to see if you need more salt. Adjust as necessary. Tip out into a bowl and serve warm or at room temperature.  You can make this ahead and store in the refrigerator for up to a few days, and then warm it up slightly before serving.

Makes 2 cups.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tomato Soup

Tomato Soup & Fresh bread for lunch.  Life is good.
When I was a kid, I didn't like tomato soup.  At all.  Sunday afternoons, we'd get home from church, and standard fare would be tomato soup and open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches (definitely better than some versions):  Thick round slices of homemade bread topped with a generous hunk of Tillamook orange cheddar cheese, and often finished off with slice of summer sausage (metwurst) before being grilled at high temps in the oven until the cheese melted, started to bubble, and turned all lovely and crisp around the edges.  The sandwiches were great and I happily ate those.  The tomato soup, on the other hand, was not.  Ah, Campbells!  What did you do to us? Someone (not me - I refused to touch the stuff), would pull out several cans of Campbell's tomato soup from the cupboard, empty it into and appropriate-sized pot, and heat up for everyone else to enjoy.   Condensed soup out of the can.  High in sugar (why?  cheap flavor).  High in sodium (same reason).  High in vitamin C (thanks to the tomatoes).  You know you can do better than that.

It wasn't until I had passed my third decade and was sent off to complete a project in Bielefeld, Germany for a month that I finally had tomato soup worth talking about.  I stayed, for the duration of the project, in the Mercure Hotel at the center of town, and because I was working long hours, ate a good number of my meals there too. Hotel restaurants don't typically change their menus very often, and so one night, having exhausted all the other menu items a few times too many, I decided I had nothing to lose by ordering the tomato soup.  A white bowl was placed in front of me with a few fresh, chopped tomatoes, some roasted pumpkin seeds and chopped basil.  Over this was poured a steaming hot, fragrant tomato soup.  I dug right in and ate with relish, only coming up for air when the bowl was empty and my stack of German bread (oh my how I love German bread) was gone.  A revelation!

Since then I've made many tomato soups, and it's a simple meal I love when time is short but I want something warm and savory to fill my belly, as I did last week while working from home and needing something quick for lunch.  This is a soup that needs very little coddling, comes together quickly, and is deeply satisfying.  Leftovers, if there are any, taste just as good the second day, and of course you could freeze it - though thawing & reheating would probably take the same amount of time as making it fresh.  The red pepper flakes add a nice hum to the soup and the vinegar adds depth.  You could leave either or both of them out, but I highly recommend adding them in - it makes a big difference in the overall flavor of the soup.  And I guarantee you that either way, it'll make you a lot happier than the aforementioned Campbell's soup.

Let's dig in.

Simple Tomato Soup

Tomato Soup

In a pot over medium heat, pour:
2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat for about 30 seconds and then add:
one onion, chopped
1/4 cup (about 1 stalk) celery, diced

Saute the onion mixture for 3-5 minutes until softened.  Add:
1 bottle (650 g) tomato passata (or two 15 oz cans of tomato sauce)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce to a simmer; cook 5 minutes.  Blend the mixture in the pot using an immersion blender, or carefully transfer it to a blender and blend until smooth.

Serve garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and a few fresh basil leaves.

Serves 4.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Bilberry (Blueberry) Apple Walnut Breakfast Bowl

Bilberry Apple Walnut Breakfast Bowl

Happy days start here.

This is the simplest of breakfasts, has a pile of protein, great flavor, a nice crunch from the apple and chia, and a touch of sweetness from the jam.

First you need to understand why I need the color and super foods in my life: Winter has finally arrived in all it's snow-covered, long-lasting, sigh-begetting glory.  I am not a fan.  I much prefer the rainy days of a milder winter, but nonetheless, here we are, parkas unpacked, hats unrolled, scarves unfurled, ready to face a morning commute, and the only thing between us and departure is breakfast.  We might as well make it a very good one!

Any apple will do here.  You could even substitute pears or pommelo, pineapple or pomegranate seeds - or even thawed berries that you lovingly froze last summer.  Any jam will do too:  I happened to have an open jar of Bilberry Thai Basil jam, so I used a generous spoon of that.

Any type of yogurt that makes you happy works well too - or do as I did one morning and use viili instead.  Delicious!  Chia seeds  and walnuts could be replaced by sunflower seeds, sesame seeds or ground flax seeds, almonds, cashews or pecans - or a few spoonfuls of your favorite muesli.  You can really make this one your own.  And it's dead simple:  layer the ingredients in the bowl, one on top the other, grab a spoon, and indulge sitting, or standing, or on the bus. Your call.

One side note on viili:  once you have some, you can easily make your own from there on out.  All you need to do is save one tablespoon of viili.  Put it into a clean one liter bowl or container and smear it around the edges of the container.  Add one liter/quart of whole milk (or other milk if you insist - even coconut milk will work), cover, and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.  The natural cultures in the viili will inoculate the milk, and there you'll be, smiling into your breakfast bowl.  If you live outside of the Nordics, here's one source for the cultures.  

Bilberry (Blueberry) Apple Breakfast Bowl 

1/2 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup yogurt (or viili)
1/2 apple, core removed, diced
1 heaped tablespoon of bilberry, blueberry or jam of your choice
8 walnut halves, crushed in your hand
1 heaped teaspoon of Chia seeds

Layer the ingredients in a bowl in the order listed.  Sprinkle Chia seeds over the whole thing.  Grab a spoon, take a seat, enjoy.  This also travels well - so make a second one in a portable container while you are at it, and enjoy it as an afternoon snack!

Serves 1.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kamut, Egg, Goat Cheese and Yellow Pepper Breakfast Skillet

Kamut, Egg, Goat Cheese and Veggie Breakfast Skillet 

Whole Grain Mornings.  That's the title of a new cookbook I don't yet have, but whose very title has my head spinning with ideas.  Megan Gordon's new cookbook will be arriving at my front door soon, thanks to Amazon, but I already have to thank her for inspiring me to make one of the best breakfasts I've had in a long time.

A week or so ago, while prowling the aisles of my local Punnitse ja Säästä shop (it's a bulk foods store for those of you who don't understand Finnish or live nowhere near here - the name means "weigh and save), I came across a bin of Kamut. A relatively unknown grain, Kamut is believed to be the grain of the Pharaohs, with legend proclaiming grains found in their tombs in Egypt - a great story, even if unproven.  Though its actual origin and history are not known, it is believed to have been cultivated in small quantities in the Near East, North Africa and Central Asia.  It had not been grown for commercial wheat until, the story goes, an American airman sent a few grains across the ocean to America to his family in 1949.  Eventually two farmers from Montana, Mack and Bob Quinn, decided to begin growing the grain.  Originally called Khorasan, the Quinns registered the grain under the name Kamut(r) after the Egyptian word for "wheat or wheaten bread" (source: Wikipedia)

So what's the big deal about Kamut?  Besides the fact that I love the idea of cooking with an ancient grain, I also like that Kamut seems to have far fewer allergens than common wheat, with tests showing that two-thirds of people with wheat allergy have no allergy to kamut.  Like all wheat, it contains gluten, but many gluten-sensitive people can eat it without side effects.  (Source: Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford) In addition, it is rich in unsaturated fats and proteins, slightly larger than the modern wheat kernel, and has a pleasant, chewy flavor that holds up well next to heavy meats and vegetables, in soups, or, well, as a pleasing base for your breakfast.  I had it first with Teriyaki Chicken and Steamed Broccoli and it was fantastic.

I don't know yet if Whole Grain Mornings has any recipes for kamut, but here's one I'd like to share with you.  This recipe is for one, because I was the only one home for breakfast by the time I dreamed this up.  If you are feeding more people, get a bigger skillet and multiply the quantities accordingly.   Could be served up for any meal of the day - but I especially liked it for breakfast

Most health food stores and many larger grocery stores now carry kamut.  Here in Finland, Punnitse ja Säästä carries a big bulk bin of it.  You can also order it online.  If you can't find it, substitute regular wheat kernels, farro or brown rice instead.

Kamut, as with many whole grains, takes a while to cook. I recommend pre-soaking it: I soaked it for about 8 hours (overnight) and then cooked it for 30 minutes.  More specific instructions can be found here from Bob's Red Mill, a great source for whole grains.

Thank you Megan, for the inspiration.  I look forward to cooking through the book.

Kamut, Egg, Goat Cheese and Veggie Breakfast Skillet

Kamut, Egg, Goat Cheese and Veggie Breakfast Skillet

small knob of butter, approx 1 teaspoon
1/3 cup / 3/4 dl cooked kamut (can substitute other whole grains if you can't find kamut)
1 small shallot, diced small
1/4 yellow pepper, sliced in half and then into thin strips
1 organic egg
1 tablespoon soft goat cheese
1/4 cup alfalfa sprouts
4 basil leaves, julienned
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat.  Add the shallots and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the kamut and stir until the grains are fully heated, about 1 minute.  Add the yellow pepper and stir to lightly cook it, one more minute.  With your spatula, spread the mixture toward the outer edges of the pan to create a hole in the center.  Put a small piece of butter there, and crack an egg on top.  Allow the egg to cook for 1 minute, then pour in 3 tablespoons of water and cover the pan with a lid to steam-cook the egg.  Allow it to steam for 2 minutes.  Remove the lid and distribute the goat cheese in small dollops around the kamut mixture in the pan.  Cover with a lid and cook for one more minute.  Turn off the heat, arrange the sprouts over one side of the mixture, sprinkle on the basil, add salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy!

Serves 1.  Multiply quantities to suit the crowd.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Salmon and Pomegranate Salad with Raw Vegetables & Sprouts

Salmon and Pomegranate Salad with Raw Vegetables & Sprouts
There's been no lack of cooking around here - the problem is the most of the stuff that's landing on my table these days is getting consumed long before any thoughts of photographic evidence enters my mind.

This year, I've begun to focus on three things more and more:  using whole foods, playing more with herbs and spices, and making really great artisan bread at home.  Using whole foods means more than just cooking from scratch, something I have spent the last couple of years learning how to do with greater efficiency.  Instead, I am looking at using foods in their most unrefined state:  whole grains: barley, wheat, rye, and seeds: quinoa, amaranth, chia, flax.  Unrefined sugars from honey, maple syrup and organic coconut palm, for example, rather than white sugar - and mostly leaving out sugar as much as possible except for on the occasions when only a lovely dessert will do - more on that at a later date.  For fruits and vegetables, it means going local and organic as much as my budget allows so that I can eliminate the pesticides and eat food that is simply of better quality most of the time.  This also means eating more with the seasons:  there is no point in having asparagus in the winter; I am happy to wait until spring when it's popping out of the ground all over the world and I can have it at its best.  It means that all the berries and vegetables that I picked and froze last summer are now being used more actively and being put to good use on a daily basis.  It means questioning the wisdom of peeling vegetables and fruits:  if the food is organic, do I need to peel the carrots, beets, or parsnips before roasting them?  Does it negatively impact the flavor or cosmetics if I leave the peel on?  The answer to both questions is often no.  For example, nowadays when I make a stir fry, I wash the carrot before slicing but I don't peel it.  No problem.  Save yourself the time in many cases and you'll find you're really not making a compromise at all.

I have thought of Michael Pollan's line many, many times:  "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants".  Great advice.  I still eat meat - just a lot less of it, and what I eat is much better quality.  I eat a lot of plants - and love the color and flavor variety they add to the plate and how easy it is to whip up a great salad or a flavorful stir fry in 10 minutes with great vegetables, good oil, tasty vinegar, and carefully selected spices or fresh & dried herbs.

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.
Herbs and spices are used most masterfully in the Asian, Indian and North African kitchens in my opinion.  It's not uncommon to see a list of 10 - 15 different herbs and spices in a recipe:  some pounded together to make a paste, some toasted and then ground to make a special spice mix, and any way you spin it they add an astonishing level of flavor that let's free yourself from pre-packaged mixes and bags and boxes and cans found in the store, and to know what's really gone into the food on your plate.  I am working to understand how these sometimes exotic spices & herbs (galangal is a brand-new one for me this year) work together to transform a dish from ordinary to mouth-watering.

And bread.  Ah, this one has been a five year journey for me:  from the day I first put flour and water in the bowl, determined to learn how to make bread using wild yeast, and waited and fed it and waited some more, hoping for the telltale bubbles that indicated that my starter was alive. I produced a lot of rye bread and wheat bread that served better as doorstops then as welcome additions to the table.  Then slowly, I started getting bread that if not awesome, was at least palatable.  The bread got better, the starter stronger and I began to understand the art and science behind it all just a little better with each attempt.  I read & researched & experimented; tried and failed and ate a lot of bread.  At the end of December last year, it finally happened: I discovered awesome coming out of my own oven.  A satisfying moment that is hard to explain, I'll share some of that with you here too.

The staff of life.  Sunflower Millet Sourdough.  Pretty awesome.
So if you're ready for a year of a journey toward putting even better food on the table, welcome along for the ride!  I look forward to comments, questions and suggestions as we move through the year, from plate to plate, meal to meal, from one culture's cuisine to the next with a lot of fusion cooking along the way.

And to start us off with a seasonal bang, here's a salad highlighting my favorite fruit of the winter season, the pomegranate.  I used to think getting the edible fruit out of the pomegranate was almost more work than it was worth, until I learned the easy way to make it happen.  Cut the pomegranate in half around the equator.  Hold one half in the palm of your hand, cut side down and your fingers spread, over a bowl.  With a wooden spoon, hit the outer surface of the pomegranate and watch with great delight as the seeds obligingly fall into the waiting bowl.  You can also garnish a salad or finished dish directly by performing this banging action directly over your plate.  You may need to dig out the last few seeds and remove a few pieces of white pith, but at least you won't be pulling out each sweet seed one by one as your stomach growls unhappily.

Now that we have that down, let's get started.


Salmon and Pomegranate Salad 
with Raw Vegetables & Sprouts

In a medium bowl combine:
1 small head of dark lettuce, separated and washed and torn into small pieces

2 green onions, thinly sliced into rounds
1/2 cup raw cauliflower, cut into small pieces about the size of a fingertip

Pour the over (no need to pre-mix):

1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon raspberry vinegar
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
pinch salt (lime salt if you have it)

Then toss to coat the mixture lightly with the dressing.  Divide the lettuce mixture between two dinner plates. Arrange the following ingredients on top of the lettuce mixture:

1/2 cucumber, sliced thinly
1 carrot, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 cup alfalfa sprouts
150g smoked salmon (or baked if you have some leftover from a previous meal)
seeds from 1/2 pomegranate
1/2 avocado, diced
1/4 cup fresh mozzarella, diced

Serve immediately.  Serves 2.  Can be double or tripled easily to make you or a crowd quite happy.