Sunday, November 20, 2016

Pumpkin soup with tahini and sumac-roasted pumpkin seeds

Hello friends. It’s been a while, I know. I missed you too. I missed coming here to share my food and thoughts with you, and I would like to thank all of you who emailed me or left me messages here asking if I am okay. I am okay. I am more than okay. I am great actually. Better than I’ve been in a very long time.

What I’ve been up to these past few months? Well, for the whole of September I was on vacation in Greece having the time of my life. When I returned, my hair still smelled of the Mediterranean Sea, my face was still warm from the Greek sun —with small freckles that I always get and had missed seeing on my face—, and my kitchen smelled of dried oregano, mint, and quince spoon sweet while I savored each precious bite of the walnuts and honey I brought back from the mountains of North Euboea.

I returned to the Netherlands feeling re-energized, rejuvenated and excited for all that life had to offer. Vacation does that to you; makes you see life more clearly, set new goals, find the strength and courage to try new things.
Being with my family and loved ones in Greece made all the difference for me. I needed their kind words, their love and attention. I needed their wisdom and the belief that they have in me.

I had a fabulous time, with ups and downs —it wasn’t a drama-free time, let me tell you— but life happens, you know, life, with all the good and the bad. What you take from any experience and what you choose to keep close to your heart is the important part.
I chose to retain the positive feelings and relaxing mood, and the beautiful images of the places I’ve seen and of the faces I love and cherish.

And then worked happened, too much work to be exact, but the kind that makes you feel good about yourself, about your achievements and capabilities.
A positive vibe, a feeling of hopefulness and sweet anxiousness of what’s to come has been prevalent in my life these past few months and I cherish it.

As for this blog, I have neglected it, I am aware, but life is more important than any blog. Living life out there is what can make this right here more interesting. Not the other way around. So I don’t regret not being here but I promise to return more often and share with you all the delicious things I cook, eat and enjoy, because as I’ve said a myriad of times before, good things need to be shared.

Many recipes that I have cooked and shoot these past few months never made it on the blog because I didn’t have time to sit down and write or edit photographs. I will slowly post them, one by one, so that you can make yourselves some yummy foods to share with your family, friends or significant others.

I’ve made a version of this soup about four times this autumn, and now that winter is fast approaching, I thought it was a good time to share it with you. This is my final version of the soup, the one that for me is the best interpretation of the classic pumpkin soup with deeper, richer flavors.

More spicy, more vibrant, more earthy, more wintery. A soup capable to soothe your soul and comfort your body; warm you up and calm you down. With sweet carrots and leeks, pungent onions and garlic, a few mushrooms for their unsurpassed umami flavor and fresh thyme for its woody, grassy flavor; with creamy, earthy tahini that thickens the soup and adds a wonderfully smooth nutty flavor; with turmeric, coriander and a good amount of pul biber —the Turkish red chilli flakes that you may know as Aleppo pepper— giving a pungency and heat that I adore; with a topping of roasted pumpkin seeds flavored with cinnamon and sumac imparting a slightly sweet, sour, sharp and smoky flavor to the seeds and in effect to the soup.

I hope you enjoy it.
I am so glad to be back!

Pumpkin soup with tahini and sumac-roasted pumpkin seeds

I used the classic, orange-colored pumpkin but you can also use a butternut squash or even a kabocha squash.

The spicy, roasted pumpkin seeds can be eaten on their own as a snack.

Yield: 6 servings


for the soup
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion (150 g), roughly chopped
1 leek (150 g), white and pale green part only, sliced thickly
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper (20 grinds of the pepper mill)
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp pul biber (aka Aleppo pepper / Turkish chilli flakes)
600g peeled pumpkin, cut into pieces
2-3 carrots (300 g), peeled and sliced thickly
100 g fresh white or chestnut mushrooms, sliced
3 small sprigs of fresh thyme
750 ml chicken or vegetable stock
350 ml hot water
⅓ cup (90 g) tahini, well stirred before measuring

Fresh lemon juice, for serving, to taste
Grated lemon zest, for topping the soup
Sumac-roasted pumpkin seeds, for topping the soup (see below)

for the pumpkin seeds
80 g whole pumpkin seeds (retrieved from the pumpkin you use for the soup)
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp sumac
⅛ tsp ground cinnamon

Special equipment: immersion or regular blender, medium-sized, rimmed baking sheet


for the soup
In a large, heavy bottomed pan (I use an enameled cast-iron pan), add the olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onions and leek and sauté for 2-3 minutes, until soft. Add garlic, salt, pepper, ground coriander, turmeric and pul biber, and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute, stirring continuously.
Add the pumpkin pieces, the carrots, the mushrooms and the thyme, and stir well. Cook stirring continuously for 2-3 minutes, so that the vegetables are coated with the spices and oil.
Pour in the stock and hot water and stir well to mix. Bring to the boil over high heat, then immediately turn heat down to low and cook for about 25 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

While the soup is bubbling away, roast the pumpkin seeds (see instructions below).

When the soup ready, remove from the heat, let soup cool for a while, remove the thyme sprigs and add the tahini. If you’re using an immersion blender, blend the vegetables in the pan until smooth and creamy. Then, if you have a regular blender, transfer the vegetables little by little to it and blend until you have a smooth and creamy soup. Return soup to the pan, give it a taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Serve in soup bowls, top with the roasted pumpkin seeds, grated lemon zest and add lemon juice if needed.

As with all soups, it will taste better the next day.

for the sumac-roasted pumpkin seeds
Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Use the seeds from the pumpkin you are using in the soup.
Scrape the seeds from inside the pumpkin with a spoon and pull away any strings that are attached. Rinse the seeds well under cold, running water to remove all the pumpkin strings and place them in a bowl.

Take a medium-sized, rimmed baking tray and spread the seeds on top. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle the sumac, cinnamon and a generous amount of salt on top. The amount of salt depends on your taste; I add about 1 tsp for this amount of seeds. Mix the seeds with the olive oil and spices using your hands and spread them evenly on the baking sheet.
Bake on the lower rack of the oven for 6 minutes and then transfer to the middle rack and bake for a further 6 minutes, or until lightly golden brown and crispy, being careful not to burn them.

Leave them to cool completely on the baking sheet and then put them in a clean glass jar with a lid (or other airtight container).
You can keep them at room temperature for a week.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cucumber, blueberry and feta salad with lettuce, almonds and a honey vinaigrette

I’m not a professional blogger, food blogging is my hobby, so I wouldn’t share with you anything other than what I cook for us to eat at home. And these days, this is it. All sorts of light dishes in sync with the summer vibes and super hot days we’ve been having here in Holland.

What I cook daily, apart from seasonality, is largely determined by our appetites and what I have available in my fridge and cupboards. I use up everything and I never let anything go to waste. I believe it’s a shame to throw away food and ingredients, so I regularly go through my cupboards to see what is close to its expiration date (flours, dried legumes, rice) and go through my fridge looking for any forgotten nuts, seeds, cheeses, dried and fresh fruits and of course vegetables that I can use in my dishes.

It always happens that I have cucumber in my fridge. All. the. time. Mainly because I make tzatziki every other day, but also because I add it to horiatiki (Greek) salad, which during the summer I make almost every day. But still, we never seem to eat it all. So, this salad was the best way to use it up, together with blueberries that can be found in abundance this time of year at the Dutch markets.

This salad is so refreshing and light yet deeply satisfying and fulfilling with a balance of flavors and textures that play off of each other.

Crunchy, fresh cucumber and nutty, earthy, whole almonds, juicy, sweet and acidic blueberries, crisp lettuce, tangy, creamy feta, refreshing mint. The dressing is made with rich, extra virgin olive oil and sharp white-wine vinegar, to add a much welcomed acidity, and with some honey to sweeten things up. It could be a meal all on its own, for all you vegetarian souls out there, and it can accompany meat, chicken and fish dishes.

Cucumber, blueberry and feta salad with lettuce, almonds and a honey vinaigrette

I have also made this salad with grapes instead of blueberries and it is equally delicious, so use whichever fruit is available were you live. If you use grapes, you can substitute the honey in the vinaigrette with petimezi (grape molasses).

Serve with fresh bread or rusks (Greek barley ones if you can find them).

Yield: 4 salad or appetizer servings

300 g fresh blueberries, rinsed and drained
1 cucumber (about 200 g), thinly sliced (no need to peel it)
10 large butter lettuce leaves (or other kind lettuce), chopped
3 spring onions, finely chopped
A big handful of fresh mint leaves
2 big handfuls of whole, unsalted, raw almonds
200 g feta, crumbled or cubed

for the vinaigrette
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp white-wine vinegar
1 tsp runny honey (I used Greek wild thyme honey)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, 5-6 turns of the pepper mill

Whisk in small bowl all the ingredients for the dressing.
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the salad and toss with ¾ of the vinaigrette. Give it a taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.
Serve immediately in a big salad bowl/platter or on individual plates, and add more vinaigrette to taste.

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Chocolate-hazelnut spread (a homemade, far better Nutella)

I could say a lot of things about this spread. I could give you a myriad of reasons why you should make it. Do I really need to, though? Is there anyone in this world, except of course those who are allergic to nuts, who doesn’t want to eat this? Who doesn’t drool at the mere mention of chocolate-hazelnut paste?

I won’t say Nutella because this is not Nutella. Far from it; and I mean this in a good way. Nutella, as much as I like it, is not the best representation of a hazelnut spread. It only contains 13% hazelnuts and tonnes of sugar. I want the real thing. I want something that has the flavor, the texture of hazelnuts and chocolate, and I want real ingredients. Good quality ingredients.

What are those? Hazelnuts and almonds, milk and honey, sea salt, three types of chocolate. Best quality and not the cheap stuff. Believe me, it makes all the difference, and by omitting the sugar from the list of ingredients, you really get to taste the nuts and the chocolate, and it’s truly fantastic.

This spread is addictive, as much as the regular Nutella is, if not more, and the texture, for me, is far better. It may not have that super smooth texture of Nutella but it is airy, somewhat like a very dense mousse, it is slightly granular (which greatly depends on the power of your food processor) and it melts in the mouth, it doesn’t stick to it or to the back of your throat like Nutella does; you know the feeling. This one coats your tongue delicately and dissolves in the mouth, with those tiny granular nuts clinging just a little bit longer, giving you a glorious aftertaste of hazelnuts.

It’s not too dense when refrigerated and it’s perfectly spreadable; on your bread, your croissant, your cake. It’s soft and creamy and particularly fluffy because when you beat it in the food processor, a lot of air is incorporated into it which makes it mousse-like. You will notice that when you finish preparing it, it will be runny, something which shouldn’t worry you at all because firstly this means that you can easily sieve it if you want a completely smooth paste, and secondly because after a few hours in the fridge, it firms up to the ideal consistency.

I followed the recipe by monsieur Lebovitz who in turn adapted it from the book Encyclopédie du chocolat. I have to say, the first time I made this, I wasn’t quite sure the almonds really make a difference, but I love the slight hint of them in the background. It enhances the flavor profile of the spread. Or it could be because I love Greek chocolates so much. In case you don’t know, chocolate bars with whole or ground pieces of almonds are among the most popular and beloved chocolate bars in Greece.

The flavor of this paste is undeniably nutty and chocolaty without being too sweet. It has the full flavor of the chocolate and of the nuts that have been toasted in the oven for maximum flavor. The milk chocolate adds sweetness whereas the two dark chocolates with different cocoa percentages add depth of flavor and balance that sweetness, while the ever-so-slightly salty undertone enlivens the chocolate and intensifies its flavor even more.

Please tell me you’re gonna make this as soon as possible?!

Chocolate-hazelnut spread/paste (a homemade, far better Nutella)
Barely adapted from David Lebovitz

Use the best quality chocolate you can afford, it makes a difference. Also, what really makes a difference is the freshness and quality of the nuts. (Read here some tips on how to store nuts properly).

The best way for me to enjoy this homemade Nutella is to spread it on my favorite dark, mutligrain bread and sprinkle it with sea salt flakes. Perfection! I have more ways to use it, in several recipes, one of which is perfect for when the weather is warm and which I will share with you soon.

*Update: Many of you asked me about the powdered milk (which, incidentally, is not the same as the one babies drink). Powdered milk is commonly used in pastry-making instead of fresh milk because it binds recipes better (for example ice creams, various creams/puddings, etc.). I haven’t tried this recipe without it but I suspect that by omitting it you will end up with a somewhat less firm spread. I plan on trying the recipe without the milk powder in the next couple of weeks so I will return with my verdict.
Don’t substitute the milk powder with any other ingredient.

Yield: 4 medium-sized jars (net weight of the spread: 900g)

160 g unsalted whole hazelnuts
40 g unsalted blanched almonds
400 g fresh whole milk
60 g powdered whole milk (see note/update above*)
40 g runny, clear honey (mild-flavored so it doesn’t affect the flavor of the spread)
A pinch of sea salt
140 g good quality milk chocolate (at least 33% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
100 g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
70 g good quality dark chocolate (55-60% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces

Special equipment: rimmed baking sheet, large food processor (the stronger the better), glass jars with lids

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Add the hazelnuts and the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet, keeping them separate, and place them on the middle rack of the preheated the oven. Toast them for 7-8 minutes (stirring them every a couple of times) or until they are fragrant and have taken on a golden color. Be careful not to burn them. Nuts catch easily.

In the meantime, add the fresh and powdered milk, the honey and the salt in a small saucepan and warm them, stirring to dissolve the ingredients. When it starts to boil, remove from the heat and put on the lid.

Place all three kinds of chocolates in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (bain marie) and keep stirring until they are melted. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the chocolate is smooth, remove bowl from the top of the pan and set aside.

When the nuts are toasted, remove them from the oven. Transfer the hazelnuts in the center of a large, clean tea towel, fold up the ends of the tea towel to create a pouch and rub the hazelnuts with your hands to remove the skin. It’s okay to be rough when doing this. Not all skins will come off, but most of them will.

Transfer the hazelnuts to your food processor (leaving the skins behind in the tea towel) together with the almonds and grind them until they liquefy. This will take approximately 15 minutes in total (my processor is a strong one). As you are processing the nuts, you will notice their transformation from coarsely ground, to liquid form with small specks of nuts. Take a look at the photos. As I mentioned in the main body of my post, how finely ground your nuts will get, solely depends on how strong your food processor is. While you’re processing the nuts, stop from time to time to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

When they reach the desired consistency, add the melted chocolates and process to incorporate and to create a smooth mixture, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl when needed. Then, add the warm milk mixture and process until everything is well combined and you have a light, smooth mixture. It will be liquid, not paste-like.
At this point, you can sieve the mixture to get rid of the small pieces of toasted nuts and have a smooth spread, but I never do this because I enjoy their slightly granular texture.

Transfer the mixture into sterilized glass jars and put on the lids. (See here how to sterilize glass jars).
Place the paste in the refrigerator. It will take about 8 hours to properly firm up.

The paste/spread can be kept in the fridge for 1½ to 2 weeks at most.

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