Saltimbocca

Remembering Jenny & Popo

That passion for food, those kitchen skills and hospitality. But above all, those smiles… Jenny & Popo are dearly missed by many people, myself included.
I won’t write much here, for I’d like to remember them through food instead of words. So tonight, I made this wonderful dish, which they taught me during a cooking workshop for the book Zuid Kookt!, back in 2008. I will post a picture of the dish soon.
My thoughts are with their family and close ones.

(Recipe below)

A taste journey (Bisi bele bhath)

(Recipe below)

I can come up with so many reasons and excuses for this blogging hiatus. Life happened, I guess. The main reason is smiling at me from the living room rug while I’m writing this: baby O. It’s true, babies gobble up all your time.

I won’t suddenly turn this site into a baby blog and write about the wonders of parenthood. Nope. But there is one aspect of this past year that I’d love to share: O’s taste journey.

What a ride it’s been. From five months onwards, things got interesting. O started to eat solids, from puréed fruits and vegetables onto more lumpy mashed foods, rice, pasta and now, proper meals, although still without salt and spice. Nothing remarkable there, but it did give me a renewed sense of what the joy for food really means. With every new bite I read complete surprise, utter disgust or pure joy on his face. Just imagine for one moment how every spoonful that enters your mouth offers you new flavors and textures. Our taste buds have become lazy, or at least mine have. I’m trying to approach more foods as if I’m having my very first bite of it.

But then the no salt, no spice thing. It does become a bit boring after a while, even though the foods themselves are exciting. That is what we’ve thought at least, because O obviously couldn’t tell us why he lost interest. All we know is that when we added loads of flavor through spices as turmeric, cinnamon, coriander or cumin, he started chowing down impressive quantities.

We discovered we have a favorite comfort food in common: bisi bele bhath, ‘hot lentil rice’ from the region of Karnataka, India. Whenever we make it for ourselves, we keep a portion aside before we add salt and spicy spices, but this still has enough flavor to entertain the already slightly bored baby taste buds.

 

 

Agretti: Seasonal Treats (Spaghetti con agretti e gamberi)

agrettiAppeared earlier in Romeing.

One of the most exciting things of life in Rome for me is the neat distinction between produce seasons. That eagerly anticipated day when, finally, the Roman artichoke makes its arrival, or the leafy greens that disappear at your greengrocer’s overnight.

My heart jumps when I see agretti at the market early spring. They are also called Barba di Frate (monk’s beard), because supposedly it was the Capuchin friars who started cultivating them. And they had green beards. Or so the vegetable legend goes.

Agretti are salty-tasting, grassy greens that grow only in coastal areas. In Italy, they are cultivated mostly in Tuscany and Lazio. The season is ultra-short, they are available a little more than a month in the spring.

Cleaning agretti is a pain, but once you manage to get all the dirt off, they are ready in a flash. Some people eat them raw, but I prefer to eat them slightly cooked or steamed with a good glug of olive oil and a splash of lemon. Since their taste is a bit salty, not unlike samphire, but milder, I decided to pair the vegetable with seafood in an extremely simple, but surprisingly good pasta dish.

spaghetti_agretti

Ready for the nuthouse (Olive Ascolane)

Frying Olive AscolaneAppeared earlier in Romeing.

Sewing your own clothes. Canning your own vegetables. Building your own furniture. All activities in the ‘why-on-earth-would-you’ realm. A lot of blood, sweat and tears just to proudly call something homemade. But really, is homemade always so much better than store-bought? One glance at that sweater your aunt gave you for Christmas and you know the answer.

So please be forewarned when you decide to make olive ascolane. After an entire afternoon spent on making these stuffed and deep-fried olives, I was ready for the nuthouse. Granted, the result was magical. But how could it not have been? Hello! Chunky olives, different meats, cheese,  and…deep-fried!

The olives are originally from Ascoli Piceno, a province in the Marche region. They are now on pizzeria and trattoria menus in Central Italy – including Rome. Served as an antipasto, they are perfect to take the edge off your hunger. But after my endeavor I will never again gobble up these olives when they arrive at the table. Instead, I’ll savor them. In fact, that might be the whole purpose of DIY – you experience how much effort goes into making (artisanal) items, so you’ll give them the attention they deserve. Yes, that’s even true for the funky sweater!

Olive Ascolane

Pranzo di Natale (Cappelletti in brodo)

This article appeared earlier in Romeing

A few Christmases ago, I was invited to a pranzo di Natale. The event of the year for many Italian families, it was an honor to join this typical Christmas lunch. Picture three generations of a large extended family gathered at the table (plus me), getting increasingly louder and more cheerful, and slowly eating themselves in a food coma. Boy, I imagined I was going to eat a lot, but the grand total of food served (and eaten!) was truly astonishing. Italians invariably complain that the amount of food at celebrations is too much, yet without heaps and heaps of food a party just isn’t a party. In this sense Italians are definitely my kind of people.

One must-serve course at the Christmas lunch table is cappelletti in brodo (‘little hats’ in a meaty, clear broth). Even though cappelletti are originally from Emilia-Romagna, you’ll see them at many Roman holiday tables too. They are tiny pasta cushions stuffed with a mixture of ground meats and a pinch of Parmigiano. The store-bought version is widely accepted, since cappelletti require a maddening patience only nonnas still seem to have.

And then the broth. Seemingly simple, it takes actually quite some time to get the flavor just right. After the soup is served, the boiled meats that went into the brodo are served separately.

In Dutch Herring Heaven (Herring Tartar)

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on the blog Novel Adventurers.

It’s definitely an expat thing. That specific craving for a motherland food that hits you at the most random times. On home visits, the first thing you do once you get off the plane is to immediately gorge on that long-missed item. I have American friends who O.D. on hamburgers back in the States, Mexican friends who put away as much fresh guacamole as they can hold and French friends who have buttery croissants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

For me that food is herring. A silvery, oily delight that just doesn’t travel at all. And although the fish is ubiquitous in Germany and Scandinavian countries as well, the Dutch variety – raw, sort of – makes for one of the best treats in the world. Especially eaten the Dutch way: you grab the little monster by its tail, dip it into some raw onions and scarf it down, tilting your head back. The mere sight makes foreigners’ eyes pop out.

The Dutch have been eating herring for some 1000 years. Back in those days, only seafarers’ towns near the North Sea had the pleasure of eating haring, though, because the fish spoiled easily and quickly. After a process called haringkaken (gibbing) was introduced in the 14th century, herring became known in other parts of the Netherlands as well. Gibbing involved removing the gills and part of the gullet to eliminate the bitter taste. It was still heavily salted back then.

Nowadays, the fish is cleaned except for the liver and pancreas that release enzymes for flavor, then frozen so nasty bacteria don’t stand a chance. Finally, it’s brined in a slightly salty solution. This process of ‘sousing’ makes the fish incredibly tender and mild.

Early June is an exciting time. The Hollandse nieuwe (new Dutch fatty herring that has reached the appropriate size for consumption) is announced with a bang. On Vlaggetjesdag (Flag Day) at the end of May, a herring boat race announces the new season. Then, out of nowhere, red, white, and blue stalls pop up to brighten Dutch streets. There, the herring is extracted from the ice on order and further cleaned. When you’ve polished off your fish, napkins, lemon water and breath mints are at your disposal (you’ll need them). It’s quick, healthy, and delicious.

Some of my Italian acquaintances tend to make fun of Dutch cuisine, which, they claim, is non-existent. ‘What do you eat’, they rhetorically ask me, ‘Ah yes, bread and unsalted potatoes. You poor people.’ While I never doubt the Greatness of All Things Italian (God forbid!), I wish I could drag them to the herring stalls. But then again, those same acquaintances are not particularly known for their adventurous eating outings. Too bad for them!

What marathon training taught me (oatmeal-peanut butter balls)

‘If I don’t run, I don’t feel like me.’

‘Without my daily runs, I get anxious and jittery.’

‘Running keeps me sane.’

Etcetera.

If you’ve ever spent time with those annoying running addicts, you’ve probably heard it all. Confession: I’m one of them. And all of the above applies to me, too.

Aside from the obvious physical benefits (and occasional discomfort), running offers me even more mental advantages. A good run disentangles thoughts and calms down. Something I’d get worked up about suddenly seems trivial after a good jog.

I’ve been running for the past 10+ years, but I don’t know what got into me lately. Somehow I find myself training for my second marathon. After the Rotterdam edition last year, apparently it’s time for the Rome one. Different course, different sights, same distance (42,2 km/26-ish miles), albeit with significantly more hills.

There’s running and there’s marathoning. Two extremely different things, I found out when I was training in the dreary Dutch winter last year. I learnt how to listen to and trust my body, that it is so, so much stronger than I ever thought possible.

But, by far the most valuable lesson from marathon training: It’s all about the journey.

That sounds trite, I know, but it’s just true. If I picture the entire course that’s still ahead until I reach home or worse, if I picture myself already being home with some hot chocolate, the run will take forever. I will get bored, hungry, and cold. If I instead decide to focus on the surroundings (such as the magnificent tree-and-ruin-lined Via Appia Antica), the sun, my favorite running songs, and my wandering thoughts, I’ll have a ball.

For a goal-oriented person like me, this is quite challenging. In life I’m always planning the next adventure, eager to find out what’s next. Finishing the marathon is the ultimate goal, of course, but in the mean time it’s good to enjoy every single one of those 42,2 kilometers.

Oatmeal-peanut butter balls

Makes about 20 balls

Kitchen corpses (Empanadas de carne)

Kitchen corpses. If you love to cook, you’ll be likely to have a few (too many) of them. You know, those utterly useless machines clogging cabinets and those ‘handy’ utensils always jamming drawers. After every birthday party, you can add a few more precious items to the museum of kitchen futilities. Egg slicers, chocolate fountains, apple corers, pop art toasters or those cutesy corn-shaped skewers for eating the real thing on the cob….basta!

For one of these gadgets I’ll happily make an exception: my empanada maker. To make empanadas, the popular Southern-American pastries, you don’t even need this plastic tool. Latin ladies crank out perfectly shaped half-moons in a flash. And a bit of a rustic look is actually a pro for the home cook. But the thing is, if I don’t grant this empanada maker some precious storage space, I’ll forget to make them. Every time it comes tumbling out of the cabinet when I reach for something else, my friends are in for a treat!

Empanadas de carne

Makes about 8 large empanadas

These empanadas are my take on the traditional Argentinean/Chilean pastries. The dough is supple, not too flaky. It’s a tad bit sweet, which contrasts nicely with the spicy-sweet stuffing. A hearty winter snack!

For the dough:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening (or okay, margarine)
  • 2.5 cups of flour (300 grams)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

For the filling:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 2 small dried chillies (no seeds, finely chopped)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon mild paprika powder
  • pinch of ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 400 grams ground meat (I asked my butcher for a 50% pork, 50% beef mix)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons raisins
  • splash of white wine vinegar (no more than 1 teaspoon)

Mix the egg yolk and water with a fork until blended.

With your hands (because you don’t own a hand mixer with dough hooks!) work the butter and vegetable shortening into the (sifted) flour, into which you’ve added the salt and sugar.

Add a little bit of the egg mixture and start kneading. Keep adding small amounts of the mixture and keep kneading until you have a supple, smooth dough. If it’s too sticky, add some flour. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

For the filling, heat the oil and sauté the onion for a few minutes over medium heat until transparent. Add the carrots and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add the spices, keep stirring, and add the meat. Stir! When the meat is done, add the tomato paste, raisins and vinegar, mix everything, lower the heat and let simmer for another 10 minutes. If the mixture is too dry, add a spoon of water.

Preheat the oven to 200 °C (375 °F).

Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until about 3 mm thick (0.12 inches). Cut out circles a bit bigger than the tool’s surface when open. Place the dough on the surface, add a few spoons of the meat mix onto one half (not too much!), close and press well. Scrape off excess dough with a knife, open the form and gently place pastry on a parchment paper-lined baking dish. With a fork, prick a few holes in them. Brush the top with a bit of egg yolk and bake the empanadas about 20 minutes until golden. Let them cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature.

Another few beautiful pictures by Luis Herrera!

Entranced at Cuckoo’s (Handi gosht)

When my friend Katie Parla asked me about my best bite of 2011 I had to think hard. There were so many! Kaymak in Istanbul, momo’s in Kathmandu, gnocchi all’amatriciana in Rome, my mom’s hare stew in Rotterdam. But, there was only one restaurant experience that really stood out: Cuckoo’s Den in Lahore, Pakistan.

Pakistan is not your average tourist destination, I know. Unless you have a reason to visit (I went for Children of Tomorrow, the education organization I volunteer for), western governments discourage visiting the country at this point in time. That’s unfortunate, because from what I’ve seen during two visits the landscapes are unique, the people most hospitable and the food just a-ma-zing. Pakistanis are true masters of barbecue and grill entire slabs of meat to sheer perfection.

The beautiful old city Lahore is known as the food capital of Pakistan, ever since the era of the Mughals. Here, all discussions sooner or later arrive at: ‘What are we eating? And when? ‘Food is the only real entertainment we have these days’, my host told me. He and his wife took me to Cuckoo’s Den. This famous restaurant is in the red light district of old Lahore (yes, Lahore has a red light district, Heera Mandi. Read more on it here). The owner is an artist, whose mother was a prostitute. Painted portraits of local women line the walls at the entrance. As you climb up three flights of steep marble stairs, encountering more objets d’art, dark carved wood and old tiles, the smell of grilled meat intensifies.

When we reached the rooftop, it left me speechless. Dimly lit by only a few bulbs that give the wafts of smoke a mystical air, the rooftop is a museum of curiosities. Roman busts mixed with carved elephants, mixed with buddha’s and ornaments. And, from any one of the wobbly tables you have a view on the majestic Badshahi Mosque.

The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the food all that well. I know it was good, very good indeed, especially the handi gosht (mutton stew). But in this ambiance, sitting outside in the sweltering Lahore air, you could’ve served me anything. I was under Cuckoo’s spell.

Handi Gosht (Pakistani mutton stew)

 

Delicious superstitions (Speck-wrapped salmon in pomegranate sauce)

A few years ago I’d easily walk under ladders, didn’t freak out when I accidentally crossed glasses when toasting and when I spilled some salt well, I just cleaned it up. But here in Italy, where superstitions run rife, I’ve noticed some changes in my behavior.

Not that I suddenly started to believe in supernatural causation after I do or don’t do something. I find myths and old wives’ tales highly amusing, but my no-nonsense nature prevents me from finding any consolation in them. However, I hate to step on toes, especially since I’m a minority. I decided to learn about the most common superstitions when my umbrella almost (by accident!) opened in a bar and I got yelled at. Rome blogger Eleonora Baldwin gave a great introduction a while ago, but I keep hearing new things every day. Who knew hearing a cat sneeze brings good luck!

Actually, if something is supposed to bring good luck, I’m all for it now, especially food-wise. If it doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt and at least I ate well! Last week at the market an elderly signora told me pomegranates are supposed to be on the holiday table as they bring good luck. I knew they were considered lucky in Turkish culture (the seeds represent prosperity and money), but in Italian too? After a quick search I discovered this ancient fruit symbolizes long life, eternal youth, fertility, offspring and luck in love.

Wow, good thing I love to cook with pomegranates. They will be on the new year’s table together with the mandatory lenticchie con cotechino (lentils with traditional pork sausage) bringing money and good fortune, so we got everything covered for the new year ahead. Happy 2012 everyone!

Speck-wrapped salmon in pomegranate sauce

I meant to use bacon or thinly sliced smoked pancetta for this recipe, but when I couldn’t find that I decided to go for the nothern Italian speck. It’s nice and smoky, and has enough saltiness to balance out the sweetness of the sauce.

  • 1 decent-size salmon slice per person
  • 2-3 thin slices of speck, pancetta or bacon per salmon slice

For the sauce:

  • 4-5 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (look for Turkish ‘nar ekşisi’ or Iranian ‘Rob-e Anar’)
  • Seeds of 1 pomegranate
  • Pinch of chilli pepper
  • Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 180 °C (350 °F).

Lightly wrap every piece of salmon in 2-3 slices of speck. Heat olive oil and sauté every slice carefully over high heat for 4-5 minutes on each side. Place in a baking pan, cover with tin foil and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes.

Add the pomegranate molasses to the sauté pan. Stir over high heat, add a couple of spoons of water, a pinch of chilli pepper and salt and about half of the pomegranate seeds. Let it reduce to a velvety sauce. Reduce heat, add the rest of the pomegranate seeds (keep a few on the side), add the salmon and warm for another 2-3 minutes. Serve on heated plates and sprinkle with remaining seeds.

Picture: stock xchange (pomegranate) and Luis Herrera (salmon dish)