Saturday, 21 February 2009

Kasha varnishkes

Isn't that a great name for a dish? Varnishkes - I don't really even know how to say it, but I like the pleasingly jarring sounds (I am the daughter of a speech therapist after all). I found this recipe in my book of Jewish cooking and had had it bookmarked for ages. It's a simple dish of mushrooms, pasta bows and buckwheat, but I had put off making it because I wanted to try it in all its original 'shroomy glory before tinkering with substitutes - and of course that meant waiting for an opportunity when The Fungus-Hater Scientist and I were eating separate meals.

It wasn't only the mushrooms that attracted me to this dish. There was also the buckwheat which I've been reading is a bit of a powerhouse, but which I've only previously put in one of my favourite seedy breads. There was the combination of buckwheat and pasta which sounded interesting. And then there was the dish's Eastern European origins which made me feel as though it should be part of my cultural heritage and I'm always one for a bit of getting back to my roots.

Buckwheat is one of those sneaky foodstuffs that pretends it's one thing but is actually another. In this case the little kernels you buy in the shop are not a grain, but the fruiting seed from the buckwheat. It's often toasted, in which case it becomes kasha. Mine was regular buckwheat but it got toasted as part of the recipe. Each little groat is also a nutritional angel, containing all the different types of essential amino acid, lots of fibre, and essential fatty acids (would you credit it, I just found a website called 'Buckwheat Health Benefits').

I made this dish a few weeks ago and had my recurring winter photography problems so the pictures aren't too good. Eventually I got fed up and just ate my dinner. Which was very nice. The buckwheat stays quite nubbly - one of those grains which is almost impossible to describe. It was simultaneously hard - a bit like bulgar but more so - and yet quite soft, but with a bit of chewiness. It was softer than spelt but had a more assertive presence than brown rice. Am I getting over how it tasted here?? Just try it. Its unusual texture partnered nicely with the soft pasta, and of course the mushrooms raised it to a new level of bliss. It made a really nice healthy satisfying dish, and all my amino acid receptors tingled with glee (Dr Eco Sis: I don't wish to know that there aren't such things. In my world everyone's body strives to a balance of humours and the uterus roves around a woman's body and can cause hysterical strangulation. In my world the date is somewhere around 1700...)

I have discovered in the last six months or so that I love almost every wholegrain going. Spelt? Loved it. Barley? Love it. Bulgar? Yum yum yum. Kamut? Don't know - the packet is still unopened, but I have high hopes. The only exception is amaranth which is (I believe) almost entirely pointless. You may laugh, but when we had one of our Friday night treat dinners this week The Scientist got a very colourful and healthy-looking microwave paella, and I made a dish of brown rice, wheatberries and mushrooms - and loved it. I didn't take a photo but there's a lot more in the freezer so I hope it will appear here at some stage. The Scientist isn't quite so universally enamoured of new grains so I tend to try them out on my own first. They have to pass the barley versus spelt test to move on to the joint menu planner: he finds the former too slimey but liked the latter when he tried it. Bulgar passed; amaranth, needless to say, did not. I can usually make some sort of assessment of whether he'll like a new grain on those grounds, but buckwheat defies classification a bit because of its unusual texture. It was close enough to bulgar that I'd try it, but I think I'd have a side-dish of mashed potato on standby just in case. For those grain lovers among us though: buckwheat rocks and I recommend that you get in touch with your Eastern-European amino-acid-loving heritage immediately.

Kasha varnishkes (from the Jewish Traditions Cookbook)

Serves 4-6 [I just made a little portion and had the leftovers cold for lunch)

25g dried well-flavoured mushrooms
500ml/ 2 1/4 cups boiling water or stock
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3-4 onions, thinly sliced
250g mushrooms, sliced
300g/1 1/2 cups whole coarse buckwheat
200g pasta bows
salt and ground black pepper

Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl, pour over half the boiling water or stock and leave to stand 20-30 minutes, until rehydrated. Remove the mushrooms from the liquid, then strain and reserve the liquid.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the onions and fry for 5-10 minutes until softened and beginning to brown. Remove the onions to a plate, then add the sliced mushrooms to the pan and fry briefly. Add the soaked mushrooms and cook for 2-3 minutes. Return the onions to the pan and set aside.

In a large, heavy frying pan, toast the buckwheat over a high heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Reduce the heat.

Stir the remaining boiling stock or water and the reserved mushroom soaking liquid into the buckwheat, cover the pan and cook for about 10 minutes until the buckwheat is just tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water as directed on the packet, or until just tender, then drain.

When the kasha is cooked, toss in the onions and mushrooms, and the pasta. Season and serve hot.

Monday, 16 February 2009

A tasty daal - and a narrow escape

We all know that cats like kooky corners and unlikely hidyholes, but sometimes they don't think of their own self-preservation. Scooty is generally too bright white and alarmed to get himself caught, but I am always worried about shutting small, stealthy and tabby-brown Mausel in the wardrobe. She has already proved her capacity for initiative beyond all laws of physics and leverage - she can somehow through extreme doggedness (surely cattedness?) get the sliding door of the wardrobe open no matter how carefully I close it, but I still worry. Last night both my fears and the strength of my emotional bond with my little lap-cat were demonstrated. I opened the airing cupboard door on my way to bed, and she hopped in. I dithered about, went to bed, read, turned the light off, started drifting off to sleep. Then I awoke to a strange, brief banging noise. It was unusual enough to make me alert, but certainly not feline-sounding. I suddenly had a flash of intuition that I had absent-mindedly closed the airing cupboard door again on my way upstairs, and couldn't rest until I'd checked. I'm so glad I did, as I had shut the poor little thing in, though she seemed perfectly happy and purry to see me when I opened the door. I dread to think of how hot it would have got in there when the hot water tank came on in the morning. I'm sure she wouldn't have been the first cat to get caught in a nice warm cupboard - in fact I know that Vet Mum and Dad's cat has spent at least one night in theirs - and has also accidentally leapt from an upstairs window and survived, but still. She is stretched out on my lap as I type so she has evidently put it behind her entirely.

All this is entirely unconnected with the tasty daal I made last week. I have become completely converted to the food columns in the Saturday Guardian recently. I particularly like Dan Lepard's How to Bake column and really enjoy reading Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's even if the recipes are often a bit meaty for me (though not always - you can rely on Hugh to pick a good topic regardless of food type). I really want to like Ottolenghi's column as the restaurant and cookbook are both super-trendy, and it's all about vegetarian food. But I all too often find the recipes overly complicated and sometimes not too healthy and move on. Last weekend though I knew immediately the recipe was a winner - spiced lentils with cucumber yogurt. We both love a good daal - it's tasty, healthy and satisfying, and what's more, yogurty dips are the only way The Scientist will eat cucumber. We even had some fresh coriander lying around after making sweet potato falafel. I made it that very night, and it was very good indeed - tangy, tasty, filling, comforting - I could go on. I used curry powder instead of curry leaves, and missed out the optional asfeotida and fenugreek as we didn't have any, but I did the rest exactly as stated. The Scientist ate his with sausages, and I had mine with wild and basmati rice. The next night I had it atop a grilled portabello mushroom it was yum like that too. I think that it would make great soup too, with a bit more liquid added. I opened this weekend's Guardian with new hopes - and have cut out the noodle salad recipe to ponder some more. I may yet be a convert.

Spiced rice with cucumber yogurt, by Ottolenghi: recipe here

Friday, 13 February 2009

Fixing a brownie problem

I noticed to my surprise the other day that I only have one entry on this blog tagged as 'brownies'. It's possible I made a couple in the early days before I started tagging my posts, but still - that must be at least ten months with no blog-worthy brownies. Surely this is impossible - some brownie-hating little blog fiend must have been swallowing up my posts. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that blogging has made me want to try out new things every time I bake, and the old tried and trusteds have fallen by the wayside. When those tried and trusteds are brownies this is surely a travesty of the highest order which must be rectified immediately.

Luckily, I had an excuse. When we were in Leeds visiting Munchkin Gramps and family a few weeks ago we went into a posh little bakery in the Corn Exchange. It was a Sunday and very quiet, and the young man in there - who also did all the baking - let us taste lots of things. While the others were making appreciative noises about the very non-veggie-friendly lime jelly covered cheesecake, I was looking around, and noticed some manger-shaped brownie cakes filled with some sort of luscious chocolate ganache. When I pointed them out to The Scientist (once the distraction of the cheesecake had been dispatched) he looked very interested and suggested that they could be a good offering for a gaming night.

This weekend was the one. I knew I wanted to make little cakes with proper finished edges rather than slices from a big cake, and so I chose a recipe I'd cut out from a magazine for a brownie cake. It differed from other brownies I'd made because you separate the eggs, whisk the whites and fold them into the mixture at the final stage. Does that make it a cake and not a brownie? Who knows. As a joky nod to the fact that The Scientist has gone gaming over Valentine's Day (not a problem AND he sent me flowers as a surprise before he went), I baked them in heart-shaped moulds, and they looked pretty cute. I must admit that I never got as far as the ganache. I was going to make chocolate buttercream which is The Scientist's favourite, but I was just too tired in the end after a busy week, and we decided there was enough chocolate involved. But if I were making them to woo my beloved at a homey Valentine's supper, I might go the extra hog (sugar-induced coma - always a romantic end to a night).

When I thought more about it I did remember a few more brownies which have graced our oven in the last year. There was Dogophile Vegan Nurse's vegan brownies for one. And the golden syrup-based ones which Noodle helped me make. And I tried some black-beany ones which I rediscovered in the freezer the other day and which are a little odd (I am forced to concede that beans don't improve *everything*). And there was another more recent batch which had Celebrations chocolates baked into it which I planned to post about but which didn't photograph too well. I was relieved to think that the dearth hasn't been quite as bad as I'd feared, but it's good to put a conclusive stamp on it by selecting 'brownie' as I tag this post.

Mini chocolate brownie cakes (from ?? - oh dear, I must start labelling where the recipes in my folder came from. I suspect the Sainsbury's Magazine)

Serves 10

175g unsalted butter plus extra for greasing
225g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
200g caster sugar
3 medium eggs, separated
65g plain flour
50g chopped pecan nuts [I left these out; one of The Scientist's gamer friends has a nut allergy]

Heat oven to 180C/Fan 160C/Gas 4. Butter a 20-25 cm cake tin and line with greaseproof paper. Or, do as I did and use a silicon muffin pan.

Place 175g of the chocolate, plus the butter and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until melted, stirring occasionally. Leave to cool [I wouldn't skip this - the eggs might scramble and that wouldn't be pretty]

Whisk the egg yolks into the chocolate mixture, then add the flour, nuts and the remaining chocolate.

Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then gently, but thoroughly, fold into the chocolate mixture.

Pour into the prepared tin(s) and bake in the centre of the oven for about 35-40 minutes, until crusty on top. I set the timer for 20 minutes for my little muffins and then started checking on them at 5 minute intervals. They probably still took close on to half an hour but everything takes a long time in our oven. Leave to cool, then turn out. The recipe suggests dusting with icing sugar and serving warm with custard or cold with cream.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Winter apple loaf

Just a quick post tonight - hectic day, plus my old college is on University Challenge as I type! This is the bread that we ate with our roast chestnut soup. It's another Dan Lepard recipe from his How to Bake column in the Guardian. It's a yeasted bread but it had the texture of a soda bread (though perhaps I was tricked by the fact that it's baked in the same shape as a soda bread). Either way I wasn't complaining - I love soda bread, and I loved this bread too. It was nice and wholesome with the malted flour and seeds, but with a nice sweetness from the apple. It complemented the chestnut and apple soup too. The Scientist found it slightly doughy which was a shame - I could see what he meant and it probably needed slightly longer in the oven though it had even a bit more than its time because I was in the middle of a work task when the oven timer went off! I froze what we didn't eat with the soup and have been eating it as toast and sandwiches. I was sorry when it was all gone and will definitely make it again.

Apple bread with random counter-top accessories!

Better go - my alma mater looks as though it needs all the support it can get!

Winter apple bread, recipe here

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Roast chestnut, apple and parsnip soup

It's been a bit of a crazy old week, this one. Our semester started, so that meant lecturing and sorting out admin, we have a HUGE admin deadline coming up at work to revalidate our whole undergraduate programme, and a whole load of snow dumped itself on our doorstep at the start of the week. It does make me wonder how so many parts of the world cope so perfectly well with proper snow for half the year, when you see what a bit does to us. Norse God - how do you manage? Fortunately I was able to hunker down in the house with a heater and a hot water bottle (shaped like Bagpuss since you ask - much more snuggly) for most of the week, but on Thursday I had to brave the outside to get in for teaching. I left extra early, assuming that I wouldn't be able to cycle most of the way to the station, and the whole neighbourhood was beautifully white but eerily quiet. The snow had deadened all the sound, and since almost everyone else seemed to have decided to follow the hunkering down option I was practically the only person out, making shamefully mundane tracks in the virgin white snow. I did get on my bike once I was down on the main road, but even there it was very slushy and snowy, and all the cars were going at snail pace. Anyway, I got in ok which is more than some of my students who were still coming back to university from home managed.

All this is to say a) do you miss us and our weather, Kiwi Family?! and b) it is most definitely the weather for warming wintry soups. I've been wanting to try some savoury dishes using chestnuts for a while, and this recipe fortuitously appeared in a magazine recently (I think it was Sainsbury's magazine though I wouldn't swear to it). I don't generally like nuts, and chestnuts come up tediously regularly every Christmas as suggested vegetarian options so I've been a bit put off. But I'm trying to vary my intake of 'good fats' and liked the softer texture that chestnuts have compared with other nuts. They are also the lowest fat of the nuts, just for info. This soup teamed them up with parsnip, which we had just got in our veg box, and apples, which I would eat at every meal if I could. It took a bit of work to track down the chestnuts at the supermarket (they appear for Christmas and then gracefully retire for 11 months) but I was lucky and found some leftover seasonal boxes which were reduced.

This was a very good wintry, hearty, sweetish soup. I really liked the combination of sweet apple, creamy chestnut and distinctly flavoursome parsnip, and The Scientist was a fan too. We ate it with some apple and cider bread which I will post about soon as well. This is a soup I will definitely return to - but possibly not until chestnuts reappear in the supermarkets next December!!

Roast chestnuts, apple and parsnip soup (from Sainsbury's magazine, I think)
Makes 8 small cups or 4 regular servings

25g butter (I used less)
2 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 x 200g pack roasted chestnuts, roughly chopped (I followed the directions on the box to pierce the vacuum pack and microwave briefly first)
800ml hot stock

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the parsnips, celery and seasoning [I was a bit puzzled about this direction as there didn't seem to be any extra seasonings in the ingredients list. I tasted and seasoned as I went along though I have to admit that I can't remember exactly what herbs I added). Stir over a high heat for 4-6 minutes until the vegetables are lightly golden. Tip in the apples and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 4-5 minutes. Add the chestnuts, pour in the stock and simmer. Cook for another 5-10 minutes until the parsnips are tender, then remove from the heat. Using a blender, liquidise the soup until smooth. Return to the pan and adjust the seasoning. Thin with more water if you prefer it thinner, and serve with an optional swirl of cream.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Sweet sweet potato falafel

I feel a particular attachment to falafel as I feel that they must be part of my culinary culture as a Jew. Our relatives were from Eastern Europe so they're not exactly part of our own cultural cuisine, but with morsels as tasty as that I am prepared to invoke a sort of innate predisposition. Falafel stands are ubiquitous in Israeli towns, and are a brilliant standby for hungry backpacking vegetarians (nay, even vegans as long as you're careful about the dressings). There's a little falafel takeaway joint in the parade of shops near Israel Grandma's flat, and one time I was there I went on an errand to pick some up for everyone. Each portion is a big round pitta - not at all like the elongated tear-drop shaped ones you get from the supermarket here (I like them so much that I've been known to bring packets of them back in my suitcase). Into this goes a load of salad - always including very finely cut up tomato and cucumber - a few big round wonderfully greasy and fragrant falafel, and your choice of extra condiments, chillis, and sauces. I always pick hummus, but tahini dressing is another alternative. It's all wrapped up in a serviette so you don't get completely covered in hummus and grease, and there you are - a tasty, filling and vegetarian-friendly meal on the hoof.

I've posted before about my home-made falafel which are really only Anglicised and healthied up cousins of the real things, but which are equally tasty in a different way. When I saw a post on A Spoonful of Sugar about sweet potato falafel from London health-food take-away chain Leon I leapt to the opportunity to combine one of my favourite foods with one of my favourite vegetables. The falafel are made of mashed roast sweet potato, seasoned well and bound together with chickpea flour to retain some of the taste/spirit of the chickpeas in falafel. They sounded so tasty that immediately I promoted them to the menu for Munchkin Granny's birthday dinner, which took place last weekend. She saw the bookmarked recipe on my laptop and thought it sounded good, so was very pleased to hear it was going to appear on her plate.

I have to admit that I microwaved the potatoes - I just can't bring myself to heat the oven for just a few little spuds, and I didn't need it for anything else. Since it's the skin that benefits most from oven baking though, I don't think it lost out. I also didn't want to buy chickpea flour just for one recipe so I ground up dried chickpeas in my coffee grinder. It probably wasn't quite as fine as bought flour but I quite liked the added texture. And that's all that needs saying about the recipe really - it was very easy and very tasty indeed. I served the sesame-seed-topped falafel with the quick mango chutney from Veganomicon, fried halloumi and some shredded and stir fried sprouts with lemon and almonds. We all liked all the components and we'll definitely be making the falafel again.

For dessert I made cider and ginger poached pear with orange shortbread, but my photos were so awful that I will just have to say that they were tasty too. I just can't get the hang of food photography in the winter evenings. I particularly liked the gingery poaching liquid poured over the top of the pears, but I think that the fifteen minutes the recipe gave for poaching was wrong by a factor of three or so! My pears were rather hard and presented a bit of a danger to one's dignity when trying to eat them with a spoon out of a bowl. Still, Munchkin Granny took them in the birthday spirit they were intended!

I hadn't heard of Leon before I read Angela's post but I'm keen to try them out next time I'm in London now. The link features their menus - look out for those falafel! The menu (featured in The Guardian is here)