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