Friday, April 10, 2015

Pasta with zucchini, saffron and smoked pancetta


I do not showcase pasta as much as I probably should on this blog, given that I live in Italy and we all love it in any shape or size. The reason is that more often than not, we throw together a pasta on a Friday night, while opening a bottle of wine to unwind, using up the last wilted greens and limp vegetables left in our fridge, and embellishing it with some pantry favorites (tuna, anchovies, smoked pancetta, olives...). No recipe, no amounts, no pre-planning. Just a relaxed, last-minute family meal made even better by the endless possibilities of the whole week end stretching ahead of us.

Granted, pretty much all of the recipes I blog about are easy and foolproof, but pasta somehow always just seemed too obvious to write about. That is until I started thinking about all the times I look up techniques or recipes  that are extremely common, staples in many households, especially when they are dishes from different cultures. If I look up how to make an authentic curry or how they cook rice in Japan, there must be someone in India or Japan wondering how much to salt their pasta water or how to get their pasta dishes creamier without adding butter or cream.
What may be obvious and second nature to some of us, isn't necessarily so for others. Sometimes we just need basic guidelines or flavor profiles to boost our confidence when trying to cook something new.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Moist, dense banana-date bread (no sugar, butter or white carbs and a hidden ingredient)

There is no denying that I am super excited about this recipe: a totally delicious dessert/breakfast loaf that is made without white carbs, sugar and butter but is full of hidden antioxidants and vitamins.

Plus, I did not have to buy one. single. ingredient. to bake this, I used up a ton of odds and ends I had lying around and the result was loved by all. How satisfying is that?

That bunch of shrivelled up, utterly dried-out medjoul dates that I just didn't have the heart to throw away (but that nobody had been eating anymore for a couple of months)?

The expensive bag of goji berries I bought out of the sheer excitement of coming across them in a store a few years ago, after reading about them for months? The ones I never really know what to do with (except for mixing them into granola and yogurt) and that, to be truthful, none of us even like?
In (but hidden)! And just 10 days before their expiry date!

That almost empty bottle of coconut oil that I've had for months and never used until I overused it in a made-up cookie recipe in an attempt to feel less guilty about buying yet another ingredient that would collect dust on a shelf? A recipe that turned out so bad, that I never felt a twinge of guilt again upon seeing the bottle?

Finally made a dent in my spelt flour stash, you would think I was a spelt hoarder.

Luckily whisky ages well, because I don't even remember where that bottle of whisky we have came from...

And let us not forget the bags and bags of chocolate chips I keep buying whenever I go to the States because I-just-can't-get-that-flavor-dash-size-dash-quality-dash-brand-here that takes up way too much fridge space (yup, that is how long they hang around) but that I never use in an attempt to make my kids reasonably healthy snacks.

The result: a whopping banana bread that was dark, dense and incredibly moist. That was so good it was hard to believe there was no sugar (minus the choc chips - that are totally optional), white flour or butter in it. Also, there was no trace of the goji berries, which you already know is a good thing in my book, except for their presumable health benefits (but who knows at this point?). What unfortunately also got lost in the mix were the chocolate chips (except the ones you see on top), so definitely not worth the hidden calories/fat/sugar if you ask me. The dates and bananas totally did their magic without any extra help needed, and I can see myself pairing them over and over again in the future.

So in the same week, another cake you can bake and eat too... without the guilt!

8-9 oz. pitted dates
water as needed
whisky as needed
2 cups spelt/farro flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp coconut oil
1 cup goji berries
3 ripe bananas (frozen or fresh)
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
(3/4 cup white chocolate chips)

Pit the dates and put them in a small bowl. Heat a mix of water and whisky (or pure whisky if you like) until just simmering and pour over the dates so that they are covered. Set aside and let soak for at least 15 minutes.

In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Preheat your oven to 175°C/350°F and grease a loaf pan.

When the dates have softened up, blend them in a food processor with as much of the liquid as you need to obtain a smooth, loose (but not too loose) paste (I ended up using all of it). Then add the goji berries, if using, and blend some more. The paste will turn a beautiful shade of reddish brown. Add the coconut oil and then blend in the bananas until just smooth.

Beat the eggs into this mixture one by one, then add in the vanilla extract.

Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture, then mix in the chips (if using) until just combined. Pour into the pan. Bake for about 60 minutes, possibly a little longer. Insert a toothpick or a strand of raw spaghetti into the middle: remove from oven when it comes out clean.

Let cool before removing from pan.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Orange, carrot and almond cake (no flour, butter or oil!)

This post has been a long time coming. There was a quick family trip to the subpolar temperatures in NY (although there was plenty of sunshine and love to warm our hearts while there). Then came jet lag, work overload and, to be honest, also a reasonable degree of laziness.

Until a few days ago, when I finally decided to bake a cake that had piqued my curiosity a while ago when it kept turning up in one version or another on some favorite blogs, to finally see it pop up again here a few weeks ago.

Of course what originally caught my attention was the concept of boiling a whole citrus fruit and then blending it, skin and all, to become the base of the batter. Now I was further intrigued by the idea of baking with no flour/carbs. And of course, the leitmotif of this blog of mine, the idea of a one-bowl, five-ingredient cake (well six, because I threw in a large, knobbly carrot too at the last minute) appeals to me even more.

So we have oranges, carrots, almond meal, sugar (mostly refined), eggs and baking soda. No flour, no butter, no oil. Lactose and gluten free.

I tweeked the last recipe I linked back to by using mostly unrefined sugar (unfortunately I ran out while baking this or I would have used only unrefined sugar). I also added that carrot I mentioned above because my orange didn't weigh in at 350gr. Plus, hooray for the extra nutrients and vitamins, right?

What I pulled out of the oven was Bundt cake with a very grown up, heady aroma of Christmas Eve and Mediterranean nights and a pudding/flan-like consistency. Don't get me wrong, it has some crumb, but it is moist and dense at the same time, making it hard to decide whether to eat it with a fork or a spoon.

I liked it and was perfectly satisfied with the result, although I admit it wasn't love at first bite, and the kids were all "meh" about it (then again I never would have eaten anything even reminiscent of orange zest as a child).

But then it started working its magic. My husband and I just kept going back to it again and again, peeling back the aluminum foil, cutting off sliver after sliver of it (the round serving in the photos is purely for blogging purposes, the whole cake and slices just didn't photograph well).  Then, on the third day, even my daughter (who does not budge once she has made up her mind about not liking something) asked for another slice, quickly followed by another. Something about the lovely citrus fragrance, the nuttiness, and the texture of the almonds and grated carrot just becomes addictive.

1 large or two small oranges (about 325gr)
1 carrot, grated
6 eggs
250gr almond meal/flour
250gr sugar (preferably unrefined - I used a mix)
1 heaping tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt (optional)
butter and flour for tin
A few hours before baking the cake, bring a pot of water to a boil and slowly simmer the orange(s) for about an hour, or until it goes completely soft and you can easily pierce itwith a fork. Drain and let cool.
Blend 250gr of peeled almonds until you until reduced to flour, our buy it pre-packaged.
Grate the carrot, preheat the oven to 190°C and thoroughly grease a baking tin (I used a bund pan but any kind works -however, keep in mind that a loose base will make it much easier to extract it) with butter. Coat with flour and set aside. 
When the orange(s) has cooled off, cut into quarters and get rid of any seeds. Then reduce the citrus to a pulp by blending it in a food processor, blender or with an immersion blender.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Then, beating after every addition, mix in the orange pulp, carrot, sugar, almond meal and the baking powder (and salt, if using).
When your batter is ready, pour into the tin and bake in the oven for up to an hour. After about 45 minutes check it by inserting a toothpick, if it comes out clean it will be ready. Otherwise, cover it with some aluminum foil so it doesn't get too dark, and bake a little longer.
Let cool and unmold.

Friday, February 13, 2015

La vie en rose

I tend to be an optimist, I have always been that way (unless we're talking bureaucracy, then I am given to looking on the black side). To me the glass is usually half full, not half empty, if you know what I mean.

That doesn't mean I don't have bad days or moments, of course. I most certainly do.

Like the other day for example.

I could tell you the story this way: the other day I left the office to meet a friend for lunch. We were supposed to meet up with another friend too, but she had to cancel at the last minute because her daughter had a fever. Initially, we thought of postponing the lunch, but then decided to go anyway because we hadn't seen each other in ages. We met in front of her office and had a salad in a café across the street. At 3:00 I had to be somewhere for work until 5:00. Then I had to pick my son up from kindergarden at 5:30, go to my daughter's school to meet with her teachers and get her report card, and pick her up.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Stuffed cabbage soup

Stuffed cabbage soup is what you make when you bought the ingredients to make stuffed cabbage only to realise you just don't have the time to go through the whole process (after you have been pushing it off for three days in a row) and your ground meat really needs using up. And guess what? It is just as good (or at least we thought so), very comforting, warming and full of flavor, and can be ready in under an hour, so I knew you would appreciate if I shared.

I used potatoes because I had some that were starting to sprout, but adding raw rice (about a cup for the amount below) would probably be more fitting, since stuffed cabbage is often filled with ground meat and rice. Up to you entirely, but make sure you add more liquid if you do this, as rice generally absorbs more than potatoes while cooking.

Also, I used pimenton de la Vera because that is what I had and I love the smoky flavor it adds, but using spicy Hungarian paprika - or any other sort - is more than ok since this soup is loosely based on Eastern European stuffed cabbage recipes.

The amounts below are just a suggestion, I usually eyeball them depending on how liquid or spicy or meaty I want the soup to be.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Zucca in agrodolce, or sweet and sour grilled butternut squash

Life is bittersweet in all of its nuances, in the big things and the little things.

In the big picture there are love and loss, health and illness, success and failure.

And then there are the daily minutiae, some good and others not so much: a great meal, your wireless not working right before a deadline, a good laugh with a friend, a bad driver in front of you.

An unexpected drawing from your child, a tantrum.

A great day in the office, a note from the teacher.

The list goes on and on, day after day. And then, every once in a while, there is perfection.

Not because everything is exactly what you hoped for or dream of.

Not because something earth shattering happens, but because for a moment in time everything falls into place, like the pieces of a puzzle. They fit perfectly and it just feels so right in its utter simplicity.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Making bone broth and soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) in Asian-inspired pork bone broth

The worst thing is starting a new week with little sleep.

I know because my week began with just a handful of hours between Sunday and Monday.

It all started with a nightmare and soothing a little one back to sleep. Just as I was finally managing to drift back off almost an hour later, the crying started again, with sniffling pleas to come into our bed, a special treat (for us so that we can get right back under the duvet, or for them?) for the really bad nights.

I quickly agreed and tried to re-enter slumberland with my little boy's body curled into mine with such an intensity that I doubted it was going to happen any time soon. That is when I felt the scorching heat, it was like lying next to a radiator. I dragged myself out of bed again to get the thermometer and surely enough the little guy had a high fever.

As he slept on in his aura of heat, I lay awake, my mind racing. I was supposed to be in the office extra early that morning because there was a lot to deal with and it was just going to be one of those days. People were counting on me being there, but there was no way I was going to find a sitter at 3:00am in the morning. I started sending messages and emails to warn my colleagues. Then I lay awake feeling guilty. My husband was snoring, oblivious. My son was sleeping a fitful sleep and everytime I tried to move away from his burning limbs wrapped around me to cool off, he nudged his way right back into my arms.

Needless to say, we both awoke feeling lousy.

He didn't want any breakfast so lunch had to be nourishing and I wanted to keep him hydrated throughout the day. I knew I had some bones and some scraps of vegetables in the freezer. I would make bone broth, the healing, nutritious superfood of our grandmothers, great grandmothers and great-great granmothers.
Rich in protein, vitamins, and nutrients and minerals in general, it is actually known to block cold symptoms and help build up your gut. I even read somewhere that warm salt water helps keep mucus thin and kill bacteria and vegetables are known to help boost the immune system.

I had never used pork bones before, but I had randomly picked a few up the previous week and thought they would make an even richer, darker broth. However, when I started making it, I noticed the smell was stronger than usual, more penetrating, to the point that it almost bothered me a little. My mind started working: the strong flavor probably would stand up to some very bold, aromatic ingredients, and that was how this oriental-inspired broth was born. I threw in a large knob of ginger, some star anise, a nice glug of soy sauce for saltiness and there it was. At that point, the soba noodles sitting in a drawer and some fresh bean sprouts seemed like the perfect match.

It was our lunch and then it became dinner for the whole family with the addition of a runny scrambled egg that firmed up nicely when I poured the boiling broth over it.*