Saturday, 15 December 2012

Castilian Beef Stew With Prunes and Pine Nuts

“It’s better to have two mouthfuls of beef than seven of potatoes”

As this old expression suggests, the Spaniards consume a lot of meat and judging from the taste and quality of their meats, who can blame them?  Whenever I am in Spain, I consistently forget to eat my veggies so hooked  am I on their abundant and enticingly vast array of meat dishes. Merely reading out a menu is like reciting sweet poetry; the words undulating around my tongue and straight into the pleasure centers of my brain:
Morcilla de cebolla,
Estofado de buey,
Caldereta de cordero

ahhh,  !


Platter of freshly carved Jamon

Callos Madrilenos (Madrid-style tripe)
Morcilla (blood sausage) with quail egg

Flaming little fat sausages

Needless to say, after a few weeks of carnal debauchery, I habitually return home with a raging appetite for salads, and believe me that is grossly out of character.

There is a wonderful stew recipe I came across many years ago in a Spanish cook book and it’s a frequent go-to for me if I have guests coming around and don’t want any surprises. It’s a sure thing and I have yet to meet someone who has not liked this dish. But don’t let its looks deceive you because behind those vibrant colours and textures lies a shamefully easy recipe that packs in mucho sabor.

Ingredients: (serves 4)
Olive oil
2 ½ lb. (or 1 kg) stewing beef (i.e. shin), cut into large chunks and season with salt and pepper
3 carrots, sliced thickly
A dozen small whole pickling onions or shallots, peeled
1 ½ cups of prunes, pitted
2 ½ cups good red wine
2 tbsp. pine nuts, lightly toasted
Chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

·         In a casserole pot, add oil and brown the beef on all sides.
·         Add the rest of the ingredients, save the pine nuts and parsley
·         Cover and cook on low heat on the stovetop for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally
·         When done, sprinkle with pine nuts and parsley

I like to serve this stew with either polenta, thyme roasted potatoes, or even couscous. But if you can’t be bothered, grab a fresh baguette and dig into this sustaining Castilian stew.

Monday, 10 December 2012

ODE TO LOVAGE: Cooking With The "Herb of Love"

My home grown lovage

Have you ever heard of the "Herb of Love"? Nah, not that herb...

It wasn't until I was well into my adult years that I learned the English name for this most aromatic and fanciful herb called Lovage. Like many Romanians, I  grew up on it. Though it has always been a staple in the Romanian kitchen, this herb was in fact widely used in many countries for centuries before it has somehow fallen into disuse. Why this is is a mystery to me as you only have to taste it once to be converted to its distinct charms. So if you’re cooking anything from stews, to fish, or just simple potatoes, (cue the Beatles song): All You Need is Lovage , da da-da-da da.

Lovage transforms foods into something quite special, much like Love. Perhaps, this is why it translates into the “herb of love”. You will see ordinary meals through Lovage-tinted glasses. The first time I cued in on the love connection was while living in Germany. I wanted to make a traditional Romanian sour soup called Ciorba which necessitates the use of lovage to give it its distinctive flavor  So off I went to my weekly farmers market and there it was, green and bushy, looking much like oversized parsley but with an unmistakable aroma. They call it Liebstoekel over there. Ach, meine liebe Liebestoekel! It was such a curious thing to find out it literally translates into “love sticklet”, hah hah, I won’t even go there. You may also find it in some gardening stores in Toronto. It plants easily and does it's own thing, quickly growing into a full bushel given the space. And if this hasn't sold you, Lovage has many practical medicinal properties as well, so you won’t be planting it in vain (I.e. migraines, kidney stones, menstrual disorders, colic, pink eye, flatulence, canker sores, etc.).Here are some ways for you to transform the following dishes with Lovage, as well as a simple potato lovage soup that is certain to warm you up on a cold winter’s night:

Potato Lovage Soup

            25g butter
            2 medium onions, finely chopped
            500g potatoes, diced
            6-7 tbsp. chopped lovage leaves
            About 1L chicken or vegetable stock

  • Melt butter in a soup pot, add chopped onions and diced potatoes, and gently sauté for 5 min. until soft
  • Add 4 tbsp, chopped lovage leaves and let cook for 1 min.
  • Pour in the stock, bring to boil, then turn down to low heat
  • Cover and simmer for about 30-40 minutes or until potatoes are soft.
  • Puree soup, adding the rest of the fresh chopped lovage, and season with salt and pepper.
  • Return to pot and cook gently for another few minutes, tweaking the seasoning as needed.
  • Serve with croutons and a drizzle of cream. Sublime!

Other ways to incorporate Lovage into your cooking:

  • Incorporate finely chopped lovage leaves into the butter when cooking white fish fillets

  •  Stir in fresh chopped leaves  into your mashed potatoes

 ... or potato purées

  • Use the lovage stalks and leaves when cooking red meat stews
  • Incorporate the fresh leaves into your salads (goes well with tomato and onion)
  • Use it in bean or lentils stews
  • Incorporate the fresh leaves into your meatballs

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Best You've Ever Had: Rustic Bread,Two Ways

Rustic No-Knead Bread and Focaccia Bread

For the sake of this blog entry, I will argue that you can make bread that is so good and so easy you may very well want to live on bread alone.

I have spent most of my life chasing the taste and texture of those round Transylvanian loaves of bread on which I so happily grew up, but alas have had little luck. The vivid memory of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers bringing these massive spherical loaves to their chests and slicing them between their ample pendular apron-donned bosoms is tattooed in my brain. That memory is what bread means to me; comfort, nourishment, and warmth personified. I came close to this ethereal experience once I began making my own bread. There is a German saying that a woman is fit to marry once she has mastered slicing bread up against her chest… as yet, I still cannot slice bread between my bosoms.

Here is the super simple, no knead bread recipe I have happily executed about once a week for the past two years, so you know it’s not just an occasional fling. Just one very important thing: you will need a cast iron pot with a lid!

Rustic No-Knead Bread

3 cups flour
1 ¼ tsp. salt
 ¼ tsp. dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water

·         Place the flour, salt, and dry yeast into a big bowl and give it a mix with your fingers.
·         Add the warm water to the bowl of dry ingredients and mix with your hand. No need to knead (hah hah), just use your fingers to bring everything together (this is really just a 10 second affair).

·         Once the dough has come together cover it with a tea towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm place, I use my water closet.
·         Leave to rise for at least 12 hours. I find it practical to do this before I head off to bed, as it only takes 3 minutes to prep, and leave the dough to rise overnight.

·         In the morning I preheat the oven to 250 C or 500 F with the cast iron pot inside.
·         Meanwhile, flip the risen dough out of its bowl onto a clean work surface that has been lightly dusted with flour and flatten it out a bit with your hands.
·         Fold  in the corners of the dough towards the middle, like an envelope, then sprinkle the top with some more flour.

·         Once the oven is as hot as it can get, take out the scorching hot pot and quickly transfer the dough to the pot, folded sides up. Cover with lid and pop back into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20-25 minutes.

Whenever I cut through the bread's thick crusty exterior and down to its warm and moist interior, I am always astounded by its infinite power to please and comfort like nothing but real hand-made bread can.

Focaccia Bread

 Now that you have mastered a simple no knead bread, you are ready for more advanced level bread-works. I say advanced because there are a few more steps, and a bit of kneading but it’s still damn easy and oh so satisfying. The good thing is, there is less waiting around for the dough to rise.

500g strong white flour
5g powdered dry yeast
10g salt
325ml warm water
1tbsp. olive oil (plus extra for coating dough)
1 tbsp. chopped rosemary
coarse salt

·         With your hands mix flour, yeast, salt and water in a bowl to form a sticky dough
·         Add olive oil and mix in with fingers
·         Turn dough onto clean counter and knead until smooth (circa 10 min)

·         Shape the dough into a ball and coat with olive oil

·         Cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour
·         Once doubled in size, tip over onto the counter and mould it into a rectangle
·         Transfer onto an oiled rectangular baking tray, pull the dough out to fill the tray, and push dough into the corners 
·         Cover tray with towel and leave to rise for half hour
·         Meanwhile, preheat oven to 250 C or 500F
·         When bread has puffed up, poke holes into it with your fingers until the entire rectangle of dough is dimpled
·         Drizzle over with olive oil then sprinkle with coarse salt and chopped rosemary

·        Pop into the oven to bake for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 200C or 400 F and bake for 10 minutes longer

Enjoy with some Italian cold cuts, cheese or antipasti.

Friday, 19 October 2012

BEING CHEEKY AGAIN – Braised Beef Cheeks

Braised Beef Cheeks

The very first time I ate braised beef cheeks was in a little hard-core Spanish tapas restaurant in Kensington market back in Toronto. The dish was aptly called “tongue and cheek”. I have been eating tongue all my life (insert cheeky remark here), but cheeks were a novelty indeed. Incidentally, my choice of menu items that night had prompted the chef himself to come out into the dining room to see for himself who was ordering his “ballsy” dishes. I must mention, I also had the bull’s testicles, they were absolutely divine.
Oh, I was hopelessly absolutely smitten with the beef cheeks and from that point on every time I saw this beautiful item on a menu, it had my name on it. Le Select restaurant in Toronto does a wonderful job with this dish, so if you have not tried it, I highly recommend you give it a go.
Needless to say, when I spotted beef cheeks in Farro’s meat section I pounced on them like a cat, then looked around nervously to make sure no one had spotted my over-eager display of supermarket hunting prowess. I bought home this beautiful piece of meat not really knowing how to prepare it, so I resorted to my fuzzy recollection of Le Select’s tour de force. I have made it very regularly since and I promise you it is the most unctuous and elegant cut of beef you can imagine.


(serves 4)
3 TB olive oil
3 .5 to 4 lb of trimmed beef cheeks
2 carrots – cut into medium slices
One roughly chopped onion (alternatively use a leek, or 8 whole shallots)
2 cloves garlic - crushed
1 bottle of red wine (Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec)
A few sprigs fresh thyme 
1 TB butter
Salt and Pepper

  •  First, preheat the oven at 160C or 325 F.
  • Now you will need to trim as much of the fat off the cheeks as you can without cutting away too much of the meat. This can be tricky with cheeks so using a combination of sharp knife and kitchen scissors can be more effective here. 

  • Season the cheeks with salt and pepper. In a large heavy bottomed pot, preferably cast iron, brown the cheeks in the olive oil, then set aside.
  • Throw in the onions, carrots and garlic into the same pot the cheeks were browned in and let cook for about 2-3 minutes.
  • Add the beef cheeks back into the pot, throw in the thyme sprigs and let the flavours marry for a minute. 
  • Pour in the wine making sure all the ingredients are fully covered.
  • Place lid over your pot and pop into the oven for 2.5 -3 hrs. turning the cheeks over now and again.
  • Once done, remove the cheeks and carrot chunks and cover in foil to keep warm.
  • You will be left with a nice rich liquid but to make an extraordinary sauce simmer the liquid on medium heat until reduced to about 1/3.
  • Stir in the butter just before removing from heat. Strain the jus. You now should have a rich and glossy sauce to pour over your cheeks.
Serve with couscous, mashed potatoes, parsnip or celeriac puree. Anything mild or sweet that can absorb the sauce well and compliment the beef cheeks.

I hope you enjoy this French classic as much as I do.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Stinging Nettle Soup and Nettle Purée with Bacon and Scallops

It is Spring here in New Zealand and Spring always compels me to put into practice my belief in eating local seasonal food. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can be more seasonal and more local than stinging nettles found in some park nearby. Most people might only recognize stinging nettles as pesky plants that will cause you some serious discomfort when touched. However not many know that stinging nettles are not only edible but sublime. In some countries, usually in countries where people have no other option but to eat seasonal foods, these are a highly anticipated healthy Spring delicacy. Sadly, in affluent countries, the incentive to find seasonal foods is nil as there is no real demarcation of seasonality in supermarkets.

I grew up eating nettle soup in Romania. After a long Winter in the absence of fresh greens and vegetables (we pickle pretty much everything we can get our hands on in the Autumn to keep us fed through the Winter months), nothing gives your vitamin and mineral deprived body a better kick-start than fresh young nettle leaves. I can go on and on about all their various health benefits but I’ll name just few here; nettles have copious amounts of iron, vitamins A and C, potassium, manganese, calcium and are rich in protein.

This is in no way a rant on being environmentally responsible or being all health-nutty, these are just the side benefits of eating this delightful leafy green. I am first and foremost keen on flavour and it just so happens that local seasonal food has the best flavours. Nettles have the intense taste of spring, a flavour you simply must try and are worth any small effort you make trying to track them down and pick these prickly little suckers.

As I mentioned on an earlier post, I love to scavenge for my food, I look forward to it and come Spring I am like a kid in a candy store. Armed with a plastic bag and my pink rubber cleaning gloves I venture out into nature’s bounty.

Where and when to find them (100% guaranteed):
Auckland – Cornwall Park near the Archery grounds - September/October
Toronto – Riverdale Farms along Lower Road – April/May

My stinging nettle stash , Cornwall Park


  •  Pick only young shoots
  •  Use gloves at all times when     
  •  handling the nettles
  •  Despite their stinging disposition when  raw, soaking nettles in water or cooking them will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled and eaten without incidence of stinging.

Now that you've picked your leaves, and washed them thoroughly, it’s time to make magic. Here are two simple recipes for nettles. The first is the Romanian soup recipe I grew up on and was passed down to me from my mother. The second is a nettle purée and scallop entrée I developed as a way to celebrate the best of Spring.

Stinging Nettle Soup / “Ciorba de Urzici”


A large bowl-full of nettle leaves
1 Onion, finely chopped
100 g Bacon or pancetta, chopped into cubes
1 Egg yolk
½ Lemon
2 Tb. sour cream

  • Sauté the bacon and onions in a soup pot until the bacon is browned and  onions are translucent
  • Add water, bring to a boil, then salt the water
  • Add the nettle leaves
  • Let simmer for 1 hour
  • Turn off the heat.
  • In a separate bowl, lightly beat an egg yolk and the juice of half a large               lemon, then take a ladle-full of the soup broth and add it to the bowl with the yolk, whisk it lightly and pour it back into the soup pot
  • In a separate bowl, whisk the sour cream and a ladle-full of the soup broth and then add it back  to the soup.

Enjoy with a crusty slice of fresh bread!

Nettle Purée with Bacon and Scallops


1 cup of vegetable stock and 1 cup of water (or 2 shallots finely chopped and 2 cups of water)
3 cups of young stinging nettle leaves
½ a potato, chopped in mid-sized cubes
Lemon to taste
2 Tb. butter
2 wide slices of bacon
A dozen scallops


  • In a small pot heat up 1.5 cups vegetable stock. If you have not made any just sauté some chopped shallots and then add 1.5 cups of water which you will bring to a boil. This second option will yield a subtler flavour but is good nevertheless.
  • Throw in half a chopped potato, add about 3 cups of nettles, turn down the heat and let simmer until the liquid is reduced significantly.
  • Once a thicker consistency is reached, season with salt, pepper. Take this to a blender and puree. Here you may add some butter and squeeze a bit of lemon to your desired taste.
  • Transfer the purée back to the pot and continue simmering it for another few minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  • Meanwhile, stick a couple of slices of bacon on a baking sheet and pop them into the oven until crisp.
  • Then fry some salt and pepper seasoned scallops in hot butter. Only a minute or two on each side depending on their size. I like to squeeze some lemon into the butter sauce so I can drizzle it over the scallops and puree afterwards.

  • Make a little pool of nettle purée on your platter, set the bacon on top and then line the scallops on top of the bacon.
  • The flavours here go so well together particularly, when you have some crusty bread to scoop the purée up with. Enjoy as a first course or light lunch.

Monday, 3 September 2012


Arrabbiata and Other Tomato Pasta Sauce Basics

My Spaghetti all'Arrabbiata (but if you're a purist use Penne)

Years ago when I lived in Germany, I used to travel to Italy incessantly. When not heading down to bella Italia, we had Italia head up to us. This was an informative period for me. It was the time I learned how real pasta dishes ought to taste and how to make them. Mostly I learned it from my ex who lived in Italy at one time and who had various Italian friends coming and going, imparting their pasta know-how.  Out of all the things I learned to make in that period of my life, nothing has given me more mileage than the knowledge of how to prepare various pasta dishes.

So when you find yourself, as one often does, with nothing in the refrigerator, when you are tired from a long day of work, when you have impromptu guests coming over, or when you’re just lazy, you can count on penne all’arrabbiata or bucatini all’amatriciana just to name a couple, to save the day.

Arrabbiata means angry (fem.) in Italian because this sugo or sauce is made with hot chillies. I will focus on the arrabbiata sauce here because it is a good example of a basic tomato-based sugo.  This is a very easy dish but it’s the little things that make it magical. So here are a couple of tips to keep in mind if you want your pasta dish to taste like the real thing:

1.      Use only Italian passata, or canned pomodori pelati/peeled tomatoes. Passata di pomodoro refers to tomatoes that have been "passed" through a sieve to remove seeds and lumps. In this form, it is generally sold in bottles. It is uncooked and contains no additives. Do not make the mistake of using tomato paste or prepared tomato sauce. I know local is better, and then there’s the carbon footprint dilemma, and so on, but trust me and make an exception with the tomatoes. It really tastes infinitely better so look for the Made in Italy seal.

Pomodori pelati, passata, and peperoncini

2.      The best chillies to use are these little hot dried bird's eye chillies. If using chilli flakes, it would take quite a lot of them to bring in the heat. You can also use fresh bird eye chillies. The important thing to remember is that the chillies have to be red and very hot so it takes only a few to render a spicy sauce without altering the taste.
Fresh bird's eye chillies
Dried hot peperoncini

3.      Whatever the cooking time instructions are on the pasta box, take it out half a minute earlier because you will need to transfer the pasta to the sauce pan where the pasta will continue cooking.

Ingredients (2 portions):
  • 1 large garlic clove or 2 small cloves, chopped
  • Olive oil, 1tbsp
  • Pepperoncini – dried bird eye chillies (I use 2 or 3 as they pack in a lot of heat)
  • 2/3 of a bottle of tomato Passata or 1 can of pomodori pelati (skinned whole tomatoes)
  • 250 g Penne Rigate or Spaghetti (again, use an Italian brand like Barilla or De Cecco)

Making the Sugo all’Arrabbiata:

·         Heat up the olive oil in a skillet and then sauté the chopped garlic and crushed peperoncini for about half a minute

·         Pour in the tomato passsata or canned peeled tomatoes accompanied by about a half a cup of water. If using the whole peeled tomatoes let them cook for about 15 minutes first before mashing them down with a wooden spoon for a smooth texture.

·         Add salt to taste and let the sauce simmer on low heat for about 35 to 40 minutes so that it has had a chance to reduce and become thicker and more concentrated flavour.

·         Place the pasta in a large pot of boiling and well salted water. Remove the pasta from the pot just short of the recommended cooking time and transfer it to the pan where the sauce is cooking. Be sure not to drain the pasta completely as you need to bring with it some of the starchy water it has been cooking in (about 2-3 tbsp.)

·         Stir the pasta through the sauce making sure it’s covered well, about half and minute. This process will ensure the pasta and sauce are cooking and emulsifying together.
·         Take off the heat and transfer to plates. Garnish with grated Parmigiano Regiano, olive oil, chopped flat parsley, and then tuck into this hot little number.


As mentioned earlier, using this sauce as a base you can make a variety of other pasta dishes (just be sure to cut back on the chillies). For example, add 2 tbsps. of ricotta cheese towards the end of the cooking time of your tomato sauce. Alternatively, you can add some cream at the end for a creamy rose sauce. Or you can easily make one of my favorites, Spaghetti all’ Amatriciana by starting out the dish by frying up a handful of diced pancetta, guanciale (see Real Cheeky Carbonara blog post)  or double smoked bacon, then continuing in the same way as above with the garlic and tomato passata.

Farfalle or bow-tie pasta with tomato ricotta sauce