Tag Archives: gluten free

{6} Kransekager

Each year, reaching my sixth post is something of a relief – we’ve made it to the half-way point without the kitchen catching fire or being destroyed by scalding molten sugar and burning butter. It feels like we’re on the home stretch, even if it means I’ve got to produce another six bakes to complete the series. Every time I do this challenge, I really enjoy it, but baking against a (self imposed) deadline of Christmas Eve does sap a little of the fun out of the process. And then we do it again the next year…

To celebrate getting this far, I’ve made a celebratory cake. Kransekager hail from Denmark, as well as Norway where they go by the radically different moniker of…eh…kransekake. They are made from a mixture of ground almonds, sugar and egg whites, which is mixed into a marzipan-like dough, and then baked until golden. The result is a slightly crisp exterior, with a soft, chewy centre, and they are utterly delicious. They also happen to be gluten-free if that’s your thing.

The impressive way to make them is by shaping the dough into ever-smaller rings (krans means wreath), then drizzling each layer with white icing to build a tall conical tower that can hide a bottle of champagne. These cakes are popular at Danish weddings, and in Norway on national day on 17 May. I’ve seen some suggestions from Danes that kransekager should be eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve with champagne. I’m not a massive fan of champagne with very sweet things, so I’ll leave that one to you. To each their own!

kransekager2
There is also a variation on the kransekage tower. Rather than a cone which rises into the air, the rings can be arranged into an overflødighedshorn (say that after a few glasses of champagne!) which means “horn of plenty” or “cornucopia”. This can then be filled with sweets and chocolates, for a truly dazzling showstopper. If you’re looking for a way to serve all your Christmas baking in a memorable way, then this might be the way to do it. Perhaps I’ll have a go at that next year.

All these fancy cakes are great when you’ve got the time, but as you can see, I’ve avoided the elaborate cake tower and a fantastical horn of plenty, and instead made a simple bar form, with either end dipped in dark chocolate.

kransekager1
I have found a few Danish versions online which all suggest using marzipan, sugar and egg white. However I’ve learned the hard way that what we call marzipan in Britain has quite a high proportion of sugar to nuts (usually a 3:1 ratio, rather than the 1:1 in Danish “raw” marzipan). The result in the past has been that I’ve ended up making things that were so sweet they were inedible! No worries about that here – I’ve made this using equal parts of ground almonds and icing sugar to get the perfect balance. I’ve also added a little bit of almond extract for that distinctive flavour. I love it, and a little really enhances the kransekager, but if you want to leave it out you can.

kransekager3
These were really easy to make – the dough comes together easily, and it straightforward to shape. I opted for some long batons – you just measure out the dough, roll it into a ball, then roll into a long sausage. I’ve finished them with traditional white royal icing, but I dipped the ends into dark chocolate  – this provides a flavour contrast to the sweetness, but it also tidied up the messy ends after I’d baked them. I was originally going to leave them with just the icing, but I picked up the chocolate tip from Gitte at My Danish Kitchen. If you’re interested in finding more Danish recipes, her blog is great and there are so many recipes on there – it it’s Danish, I think Gitte has made it at some point!

To make Kransekager (makes 10)

For the marzipan dough

• 1 large egg white
• 150g ground almonds
• 150g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the icing

• 75g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon egg white
• few drops of lemon juice

To finish

• 100g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub the paper with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

2. Lightly beat the egg, then add the ground almonds, icing sugar and almond extract. Mix to form a soft dough (start with a fork, then finish with your hands).

3. Divide the mixture into 10 pieces. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Form each piece into a ball, then roll each one into a sausage, around 9cm long. Press the sides so that you have a long triangle. Transfer to the baking sheet, leaving space between each for the kransekager to expand slightly.

4. Bake the kransekager for around 13-15 minutes until just golden, turning half way for an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. If dipping in chocolate: temper the chocolate, then dip either end of the batons in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave to set.

6. Make the icing – briefly whisk the egg white, then add the icing sugar and lemon juice. Beat until smooth but stiff – add more icing sugar is needed. Transfer to a piping bag and drizzle a zigzag shape on top of the kransekager. Leave to set.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Aubergine Pasta

When I was younger, I was never really a fan of aubergines. In my student days, I started to experiment with them, and while I was always aware that aubergines mop up oil like a sponge, I still always ended up with something greasy and, well, just not that appealing. I probably made the novice error of adding more and more oil as the aubergine was cooking. Yes, this meant that I endured many, many meals involving badly-cooked aubergine with too much oil served pasta, with salt, pepper and spices seeking to mask the horror that I had cooked up.

These days, however, me and the aubergine have made up and get along just fine. I love them smoked and made into salads or baked and turned into baba ganoush (even if they’ve been known to explode all over the inside of my oven), but most recently I’ve been making lots and lots of this simple aubergine and tomato sauce. Very easy, very delicious and fantastic with pasta.

aubergine_sauce1

This recipe really is sheer simplicity. Just chop the aubergine into small cubes, then put into a pan with some olive oil and salt. At first, all the oil is soaked up, and you think that nothing will happen when you cook it. But be patient, and the  aubergine transforms into something browned, soft and delicious. The flavour is rounded out with some tomatoes and herbs, and that’s about it. This is great on pasta, cannelloni, polenta, gnocchi…with chillier days, that’s the sort of stuff we like!

aubergine_sauce2

To make aubergine sauce (enough to serve 4):

• 2 medium aubergines
• 50ml olive oil
• salt, to taste
• 4 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• sugar, to taste
• pinch of chili powder
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano

1. Cut the aubergines into 1 cm (1/2 inch) chunks. Put into a large saucepan with the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Cook on a medium heat until the aubergine is soft and it is starting to brown, around 15 minutes (At first, the aubergine will soak up all the oil, but keep heating it and it will release the oil and cook down).

2. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir well and adjust the seasoning if needed. Leave to simmer on a low heat until the sauce has reduced down. Just before serving, adjust with a little water and/or olive oil if needed (this sauce can be made ahead and reheated at the last minute).

Worth making? I reckon so – I’ve probably made this four times in the last three weeks!

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Almond Biscuits

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys making things that use a lot of egg yolks (custard! ice-cream! mayonnaise!) then you’ll know the problem you can face with a bowl of egg whites. I faced just this predicament after making some raspberry tarts with a vanilla custard filling. I always think it’s incredibly wasteful to throw them away, so it’s useful to have a few recipes up your sleeve that you can whip us with things you have in the cupboard, and these tasty little almond biscuits tick that box.

almondcookies

These biscuits are essentially like simple Italian amaretti, round little domes with a nice crisp/chewy shell on the outside, with a little crunch and sparkle from caster sugar, but a soft marzipan-like filling. The name actually translates as “small bitter things” but I assume that refers more to the almond flavour than their temperament. They would be similar to what Italians call amaretti morbidi, a name that I always find rather sinister. I know it means soft amaretti, but I always translate morbido in my head as morbid (a false friend). I mean…a morbid biscuit…really? I think the results are about as far from that as possible – a lovely light golden colour and those jaunty, random cracks on the surface. They might not look perfect, but I think that adds to their charm.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to almonds with a pronounced flavour, they use those, but to make sure you get a proper almond flavour, it’s fair to cheat a little and add a dash of almond extract. I know some people get a little sniffy about this, but I think it really makes a difference, and takes them from just being sweet and chewy to proper little almond bites.

You’ll see that this recipe uses a little flour – I find this helps to bind the mixture, but I’ve made them using both normal plain flour as well as a gluten-free flour mixture. Both were equally successful, so these treats can easily be made gluten-free. It’s also the use of flour that means I haven’t called these amaretti. Don’t want to offend Italian grannies and all that.

How to enjoy them? They can be kept for a few days, but I think they are perfect with coffee, and you’ll probably struggle to stop at one.

To make almond biscuits (makes 24):

• 2 large egg whites
• 230g ground almonds
• 230g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• extra caster sugar to sprinkle

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub lightly with oil.

2. In a bowl, whip the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add 200g of each of the almonds and sugar, plus the almond extract and the flour. Mix well. Add the rest of the sugar and almonds only if needed – the mixture should be firm and not be wet, but still soft enough to shape using teaspoons.

3. Take teaspoons of the mixture and form into rough balls. Using damp hands, roll into smooth spheres (you’ll probably have to rinse your hands after four cookies), place on the baking tray a few centimetres apart, and flatten slightly. Sprinkle with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 15 minutes until lightly golden (they will be paler in the centre). Turn the tray around half-way during baking to get an even colour.

Worth making? Definitely. The mixture is quick and easy to make, so easy to whip up when you’ve got a spare half an hour. And delicious too!

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Sweet Potato Wedges

Autumn is now with us. The mornings might be bright, but there is that unmistakable crispness in the air that signals things are about to get a lot “fresher” in the coming weeks, and the evenings are getting dark very quickly. Sure, it might still feel warm if you’re in a sunny spot, but when you’re in the shade, or a breeze blows past, you feel just how nippy things are getting.

With the chaos of moving house almost at an end, I’ve finally been back in the kitchen. All of a sudden, my cooking has moved away from the salads of summer, and quick, light suppers, and into much more substantial fare. Lentil dishes with lots of spices, curries, baked squash, soups, fritters…it’s the time of year to batten down the hatches and do all you can to fend off the cold weather that is approaching. It’s not a conscious change on my part, but there are certain dishes the you just have a craving for as the seasons roll by. I have, however, resisted the urge to buy Christmas pudding, even if my local shop has decided that this is exactly what we want to eat in October.

In much of my cooking at this time of year, I use a lot of spices, and I take a heavy-handed approach. I somehow feel that lots of cumin, pepper, ginger, garlic and sambal will help to fight off the sniffles during the colder months. It might work, it might not, but it certainly makes things a lot more tasty. It’s also worth getting a little more creating in how you season things – one of my current favourites is ground allspice, which is very common in sweet treats like biscuits and gingerbread, but it adds an interesting dimension to savoury dishes too.

It was with all this in mind that I got round to trying something that was on my “to make” list for quite some time. I love sweet potatoes baked and topped with feta, so I expected great things when they were spiced and baked as wedges.

Pleasingly, these are very, very simple to make – nothing much more than peeled sweet potato, cut to size, then tossed in oil with some spices, and then baked. They also have the benefit of looking very impressive – a jolly autumnal bust of orange when freshly cut, turning a deeper colour after baking. They can also be prepared hours ahead of time and left in the spice mixture to marinade (if it is possible to marinade potatoes?), and make a great snack or side dish. However it is the spices that take these from so-so to wow-wow. The spices you use are completely up to you – I went with some personal favourites (allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin). A tasty little dish as the long nights draw in.

As you can see below, these wedges hold their shape rather nicely too after being baked in a hot oven.

To make sweet potato wedges:

• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• spices – select 5, and use 1/2 teaspoon of each(*)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut lengthways into eight wedges, then slice each wedge diagonally (so each potato provides 16 pieces).

3. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil and spices. Mix well, then add the potato wedges.

4. Transfer the coated wedges to a tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30-40 minutes until you can insert a knife easily, and the wedges are just stating to brown at the edges.

5. Serve immediately with the dip of your choice.(**)

(*) For the spices, I used allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin. And then I cheated and added some dried thyme too.

(**) I served these with a sprinkle of salt, and a dip made from tahini, yoghurt, sambal and lime juice.

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Tumis Buncis (Indonesian Green Beans)

Gosh, it has been a rather hectic week! Packing, sorting, tidying and living between two places. However, it’s also a rather cathartic process of sifting through what feels like mountains of “stuff” and getting rid of things that I either no longer want or need. One of the perks of where I live at the moment (Stoke Newington) is that if you put something in the street that is vaguely usable, it’s a virtual certainty that someone will take it and give it a new home. As a result, I’ve managed to de-clutter without actually throwing much in the bin. Result!

As part of all this packing, I’ve also rediscovered some long-lost items. Old t-shirts which I had forgotten but which I now love once more, books that I read years ago and want to read again, photos from my travels and…my recipe file. Yes, I’m old enough to have a recipe file. I started this when I lived in Brussels and it contains recipes from magazines, Internet print-outs and some scrappy hand-written ideas. As you can tell, this pre-dates the days when everyone has Internet access at home, and back then there was a need to have a bundle of never-fail recipes at your fingertips.

Funnily enough, I recently read an article in which the author was musing about the way that we record our recipes today. Wind back a decade or so and it was all about writing down recipes or cutting them out of magazines, but in the age of online content and blogs, there is just not that imperative to tear out recipes from the weekend papers to file for later reference. So it seemed fortuitous to me that I dug out my old file, and I was rather curious about what was in there.

Leafing through, I came across a simple but quite tasty recipe that I received from an Indonesian colleague when I lived in Brussels. It’s incredibly simple – just garlic, green beans and tomatoes, seasoned with salt, sugar, nutmeg and sambal or chili. It makes a great main dish with rice and some chopped peanuts, or as a side dish. The nutmeg in particular adds a little extra something to the overall flavour. So there you have it – a recipe for tumis buncis rediscovered as part of my packing, and I suspect the last recipe that I post from North of the River!

To make tumis buncis (main for 2 or side for 4)

• 350g green beans, washed and sliced diagonally
• 350g cherry tomatoes, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
• 2 tablespoons oil
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• sambal or chili

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Saute the garlic for a couple of minutes.

Add the green beans and tomatoes and cook for a further two minutes. Add the salt, sugar, nutmeg and sambal/chili and cook on a high heat until the tomato juice has made a slightly thick sauce, but the beans are still firm. Check the seasoning, and add more salt and sugar if needed.

Serve with white rice, and if you want to go to town some satay (peanut) sauce.

Worth making? This is a really easy dish to make, but bursting with flavour from the tomatoes and nutmeg. It all comes together to make a very satisfying dish that can be whipped up in a few minutes, and makes a great main or side dish.

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Fourth of July: Boston Baked Beans

Today it’s the Fourth of July – so let’s make something traditionally American, the good old-fashioned Boston Baked Beans!

Well, I say “good old-fashioned” but actually, I don’t know very much about them other than I like their name, so I thought it was about time to give them a bash. And a recipe from The Well-Cooked Life looked just perfect.

I know some people get terribly snobbish about baked beans and don’t like the tinned ones, but I’m not one of them. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a Saturday morning involving toast covered in cheese, grilled and then topped with baked beans. Delish.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of making beans from scratch that had a bit more pep to them. A few minutes on Google told me that they are normally made with salted pork and molasses, so you’ve got a powerful savoury/salty yet sweet flavour. Clearly the pork was not going to happen in my case, so I added a bit of soy sauce instead to get more “savoury” than just salt would contribute. The other ingredients also promised something rather grand – lots of spices, hotness from sambal (my preferred way of adding heat to a dish), sweetness from molasses and fried onions and sharpness from some cider vinegar.

Boston Baked Beans are also a complete doddle to make, albeit a little planning is needed to make sure that the beans are properly soaked and cooked, but it’s mainly a case of soak, boil beans, mix sauce, bake.

One little wrinkle that affected my beans – I didn’t have dinky little beans (like you get from the tinned ones) so I used the ones I had in my cupboard, which were crab-eye beans. They were a little larger, and stayed a little firmer when cooked. They were still delicious, but when I make these again, I’ll be using the smaller beans in the future.

What you do need to be prepared for is that these beans are not a neon orange hue – all that molasses or treacle makes the sauce a rich red-brown colour. However, the flavour is completely, totally, utterly sensational. The sum is greater than the individual parts – and actually, that makes this a rather fitting dish for Fourth of July.

To make vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (adapted from here):

• 350g beans
• water
• 3 tablespoons oil
• 1 clove garlic, chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 white onions, chopped
• 2 heaped teaspoons paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 large pinches ground cloves
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons concentrated tomato puree
• 1 teaspoon of chili or sambal
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 240ml treacle or molasses

• 120ml cider vinegar

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water.

2. The next day, cook the beans according to instructions on the packet (how long you boil and simmer depends on the type). When cooked, drain the beans.

3. In the meantime, make the sauce. Fry the onions in the oil until golden. Add the garlic, cook briefly, then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.

4. Mix the cooked beans and the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

5. Pour the beans into an ovenproof dish. Cover and bake in the oven at 160°C (320°F) for 2-3 hours until the sauce is thick and the beans are soft. If the beans get too dry, top up the water.

Worth making? This is a complete flavour explosion, and utterly delicious. The basic recipe should appeal to most tastes, and you can tweak and adjust the spices to suit what you like. Definitely worth having a go at.

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Yaki Onigiri

That’s fried rice balls to you and me. Now think about it…fried starch…sounding pretty good, eh?

My first experience of yaki onigiri was in Brussels at a Japanese restaurant called Kushetei. It was a great dinner, but things got a little weird when we got to dessert – no selection of exquisite Japanese sweets, but instead we got mochi filled with ice-cream. Straight from the packet, complete with cute anime-style characters. I am sure that this would be delightfully whimsical to aficionados of Japanese culture, but to me, back in the day, it just seemed a slightly odd way to complete a meal.

Of the many tasty things that I tried that night, what stood out for me were the fried rice balls. The staff did have an annoying habit of sprinkling fish flakes over them (I don’t think they got that fish flakes were not a vegetable), so each time a fresh batch arrived, the fish flakes had to be picked off with forensic precision. Once that was done, the rice balls were delicious.

Back in my Brussels kitchen I decide to try making them myself, but my early attempts went rather spectacularly badly. What went wrong? Well, I failed at almost the first hurdle. I reached into the cupboard for rice, any old rice, and it was a packet of the plain white stuff. I had put enough thought into the process to realise that the rice needs to be somewhat sticky so that it could be formed into balls, so I just boiled it until sort of soupy, drained, and proceeded on my way. Well, whatever I did, it didn’t really work and I ended up with rice balls that had a tendency to collapse. I ended up with a large plate of oily, partially-fried rice swimming in soy sauce. It just about tasted alright, but this was not something that would cause the skilled chef in a Japanese restaurant to lose sleep. If anything, he’s probably have attached me with a sushi knife for my lame efforts!

Fast forward more than half a decade. Putting aside the fact that time seems to fly past with increasingly alarming speed, I would be so bold as to suggest that I am now a better cook, but more fundamentally, I also have access to much better ingredients. Brussels had good shops, but if you really want to get hold of culinary items that are strange, niche or obscure, London will oblige (with the exception of yuzu fruit – still no trace of it!). I’ve blogged about my searches for peculiar raising agents for baking (like ammonium or pottasche). For the rice balls, I needed sushi rice. Well, luckily that’s actually pretty easy to come by in this town. So as they say in the movies, let’s do it again, but once more with feeling (and the correct rice).

This time, I am happy to report that my rice was obligingly sticky, the rice balls could be formed with ease (and very sticky hands), and the result was sensational. Utterly sensational. One of those it is so good I can’t stop at three types of dishes. My only regret is that I did not make double the amount, and this is definitely going to be one of my kitchen staples from now on. I mean – fried starch. We all love that, right?

The good news – all you need is rice, oil and soy sauce. You’re about an hour away from something utterly delicious!

To make Yaki Onigiri:

• sushi rice
• oil (I used grapeseed)
• soy sauce(*)

1. Cook the sushi rice according to the instructions on the packet. Assume 75g per person.

2. While the rice is still warm, shape into balls or cubes. It’s easiest to keep your hands very well-oiled, as the rice is super-sticky.

3. Fry the rice balls. You probably don’t need more oil – what’s on the balls should be enough. Once golden all over, remove and brush with soy sauce. Fry again until crispy. And that’s it! Just sit back and enjoy!

(*) If you are feeling adventurous, mix the soy sauce with other things – I added a dash of sambal to mine (Indonesian rather than Japanese, but never mind) for a tiny dash of heat, and a little sesame oil for a nutty flavour.

Worth making? Get the right rice, and O-M-G these work amazingly well. These are fantastic as part of a meal or as snacks with drinks. While utterly delicious, they are also vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free, so they should be a winner with everyone.

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Sienisalaatti

…or mushroom salad, if – like me – your knowledge of Finnish is less than fluent…

This was a little dish that I came across as a part of the Most Amazing Organic Breakfast at the Klaus K hotel when I was in Helsinki last summer for a wedding. It was hidden in amongst the breakfast goodies, and at first, it did not look all that dramatic. In terms of appearance, it was clearly overshadowed by bright orange buckthorn and vivid purple blueberry juices, cakes, cheeses, rolls and similar, but I’m a mushroom lover, and decided to take a little of it, just to try.

I must admit, this was with a slight twinge of reluctance, for their version was rather finely hacked, and a couple of us were looking at it for a while to work out whether it really was mushroom salad, or some disguised tuna mayo to catch out unwary visitors. Luckily, it was tuna-free, and it was delicious. So delicious. Utterly delicious! I kept going back for more, and by day three, I was piling the breakfast plate high with the stuff.

Given how good it tastes, this really is a rather simple recipe – sliced mushrooms, mixed with a savoury cream sauce. The only “trick” is that the mushrooms are boiled for a minute or two after slicing, so they take on a texture which is not quite raw, but they’re not as tough as they can been when they’ve been cooked for ages. They keep a little bite, but they are not too fragile. However, if you prefer your mushrooms fresh, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t skip the cooking step and go raw.

I was pretty confident that I could work out a recipe for this salad myself – surely I just had to work out how to combine mushrooms, cream, salt, pepper and some chives. Well, I was more or less right on that. However, I checked a few sources, and was being recommended some horrific levels of salt. Two teaspoons to three tablespoons of cream! My brain was yelling to me that this was clearly far, far, far too much, so I decided to follow the method (cook the mushrooms in water with a squeeze of lemon juice, then make the sauce), but let myself be guided by by own sense of taste – just a little salt in the sauce, and then round it out with a dash of sugar and some freshly ground black pepper. This is also a good rule of thumb when you see a recipe, either in a book or online – read it, and think about it – does it work? Does it have everything you’re expecting? If someone promises the lightest, fluffiest cake but there is nothing in the method or the ingredients list to provide the necessary va-va-voom for lift off, are you really going to follow it blindly? Exactly!

With the mushrooms done and the sauce mixed to my taste, I combined the lot, and the flavour was almost perfectly as I remembered it. Substantial, earthy and intensely savoury. It reminded me a little of walking in the forest on a damp day – which is, in itself, a rather Nordic thing to do. But something wasn’t quite there. Then I remembered that I had not added any onion – it just needed a tablespoon of very finely shredded onion. I added it, and that did the trick – it just added that tiny extra tangy touch to finish off the dish.

So there you have it – a light, simply Finnish mushroom salad that you can enjoy when spring and summer finally get here, and a nice savoury contrast to the sweet Nordic goodies I’ve looked at recently (creamy semlor buns and cinnamon rolls). There has been a lot written of late about how this year we’re going to see Scandinavian and Nordic food become more popular, and frankly, it’s about time too! There are some real culinary gems in there waiting to be discovered. Think of dinner outside on a warm evening when the sun hardly sets…and given I am writing this as I see pouring rain and trails of water flowing down the glass, that cannot come soon enough for me!

To make sienisalaatti:

• 300g mushrooms (12 large-ish button mushrooms)
• Squeeze of lemon juice
• 3-4 tablespoons double cream
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• pinch of sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion or spring onion
• fresh chives, chopped, to serve

Wash the mushrooms and slice finely. Bring a pan of water to the boil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, then boil the mushrooms for 2 minutes. Drain and pat the mushrooms dry with some paper towel.

While the mushrooms are cooling, make the sauce – combine the cream, salt, sugar, pepper and onion. If too thick, add a dash of water. Taste and adjust the seasoning as required, the mix with the mushrooms. Just before serving, put into a bowl and sprinkle with chopped fresh chives.

Worth making? The only thing that is annoying with this reicpe is just how long I waited before making it. The flavour is absolutely delicious, the method is very easy, and it makes for a wonderful addition to dinner as a side dish, or as part of a breakfast spread. Highly recommended.

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Labneh

I love cheese. Show me a groaning cheeseboard, it’s hard to resist the urge to pick, pick, pick. Cheddar, Stilton, Wensleydale, Manchego, Comté (darn, that Comté!), Brie…you name it, I love it.

What I have not really done much of is trying to make my own cheese. I’ve followed the posts on Pease Pudding with interest, but frankly the realities of living in the middle of a very large city makes getting hold of the right sort of milk rather challenging. Keeping a dairy herd out back is rather impractical, and I’m not sure the woman downstairs would be trilled to find a couple of Frisian cows munching on the recently-planted birch trees or peering into her kitchen in the morning. That, and I can get hold of just about anything in London if I really need to (although yuzu fruit and edible frankincense oil have managed – thus far – to escape me).

However, there is one option which is both relatively quick and very easy. This little miracle is called labneh (which you may also see spelled labni, lebni or labne) which is essentially strained yoghurt. OK, I realise that doesn’t sound too appealing! But what you do is allow most of the liquid to drain off, which leaves behind a very thick yoghurt, something like cream cheese. This can be made with low-fat yoghurt if you’re looking for a healthier version, and I think it is particularly good if you use goat milk yoghurt.

The method here is simplicity itself – pour all the yoghurt into a bowl, add salt, mix well and then strain through a cloth. Then leave it for a day and you’ve got the labneh. 24 hours is the minimum you should leave it, but if you can manage longer (up to 48) then so much the better. You might prefer to use a (very clean!) tea-towel rather than a piece of cheesecloth, as I learned from experience that if the cloth weave is not sufficiently fine, the yoghurt just pours straight through. The sort of messy mistake you make only once!

As cheeses go, this is (or should be) relatively low-fat – I used low-fat yoghurt in my version, so the resulting cheese is rich and creamy, but not oily in any way. Of course, all that is undermined by adding a little olive oil for serving…but I think the combination of the thick, creamy labneh with olive oil works very well.

Once made, there are a few ways to store and eat it. Either roll into balls and store in a jar of olive oil, or use to fill dishes, add a drizzle of olive oil, some lemon zest and salt, pepper and toasted nuts for a delicious dip. You might even prefer to use some dukkah mixture to add another layer of Middle Eastern flavour. Alternatively, spread on toasted bread and add a drizzle of honey for breakfast.

To make labneh:

• Large pot (450g) natural yoghurt
Large pot (450g) goat milk yoghurt
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

In a large bowl, combine the yoghurt and stir well to incorporate the salt.

Line another bowl with a clean tea-towel (it should come over the edges).

Pour in the yogurt mixture, then gather the edges of the cloth and tie in a bunch. Hang the cloth above the bowl, and leave for at least 24 hours to drain (best to start first thing on a Friday morning, then by Saturday evening it’s done). When you return, there should be clear liquid in bowl. If you can leave it longer (up to 48 hours) so much the better.

When ready, open the cloth. The outside of the yoghurt will be firm, although the inside may be a little soft. Mix everything together until smooth, and then either form into balls and store in oil, or use as a dip or spread with bread.

Worth making? This is a fun, easy way to make cheese at home, and really worth trying. It’s delicious on sourdough toast with honey.

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Spicy Lentils with Mint and Goat Cheese

I’m still in the post-Christmas health kick phase. There has been lots of walking instead of taking the bus, “body attack” classes at the gym, and I’m still sticking with my attempt to cook lots of healthy dishes based on lentils and beans. So mostly, I’ve been feeling the effects of exercise on a scale that I’m really not use to – ouch!

But on the culinary front – we did beans last week, so today, it’s lentils, and one of my favourite easy dishes.

This dish basically consists of lentils in a spicy tomato sauce that is enlivened with crumbled goat cheese and some shredded fresh mint. You’ve got a filling lunch or supper which is, in turns, warm, spicy, creamy, tangy and minty-fresh. It therefore lends itself very nicely to this time of year, but it’s equally suited to a lazy lunch or dinner on a warm day (remember those? Just a few months to wait…).

This is one of those dishes that is easy-peasy. I know that so many blogs promise recipes that are “really easy” (which begs the question – would anyone really post a recipe that requires three days in the kitchen???), but I promise you, this really, really is. You essentially throw everything into a pot, and then let it simmer slowly until the lentils are tender. Allow to cool slightly, then add the cheese and mint – job done!

For the spices, you can pretty much go with whatever you have to hand, so take this more as a guide rather than any sort of precise list. I like to add turmeric (for a slight yellowish tinge), paprika or piment d’Espelette, a dash of cumin and coriander, dried oregano and thyme, and a few cumin and mustard seeds for busts of flavour. Most likely I have never used the same combination twice – I just go with what I see in the store cupboard.

If you’re after more depth of flavour – and don’t mind some extra steps in the cooking process – you can fry the spices before adding the lentils (either dry fry or cook in a little olive oil), but that is about as complicated as this dish gets. I often fry the spices in oil, but when I’m in a lazy mood, I go for the “all in” approach and it works just fine.

The only thing that I add towards the end of the cooking process is a tiny pinch of salt – I read somewhere that it can make lentils tougher if added too early. I have no idea is this is true or not, but it’s become one of my kitchen rituals, so I guess it’s a habit that I am stuck with.

To make spicy lentils with mint and goat cheese (4 portions):

• 250g brown or green lentils
• spices, according to taste (around 4 teaspoons in total)

• 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
• stock cube or salt

• goat cheese or feta, crumbled
• fresh mint leaves, chopped

Rinse the lentils and put into a large saucepan with the spices.

Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, then add the tomatoes and simmer until the lentils are tender (around 30 minutes). Season with the stock cube or salt, then keep cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Serve warm or cold, with crumbled goat cheese or feta and some chopped fresh mint.

Worth making? Definitely worth making – this is quick, easy and very, very tasty. Tweak the spices according to preference, and you get a delicious lunch for the next day too!

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury