vendredi 28 novembre 2008

Cheating Noodle Soup

I know I make a lot of soup, but it's winter, so cut me some slack. I make this soup whenever I eat too much afternoon tea. This is often. Sometimes I go to Sadaharu Aoki for a lemon tart and then they're offering free tastings of chocolate coated macaroons, so I taste the three flavours, and then I get curious about the other flavours, and they're so reasonably priced, and then suddenly dinner seems pretty much unjustafiable.

And yet there is no protein in those macarons, and vitamins are thin on the ground. So a delicious, light, extremely healthy dinner is sometimes the only course of action.

This soup is so damn easy I hesitate to call it a recipe. I am of the Bittman school of soup recipes, which believes that soup is basically water and vegetables. All you do is boil up some vegetable stock with a few dashes of soy sauce, then throw in chopped carrots. After a few minutes add some buckwheat soba noodles and any other medium-cooking-time vegetable (this time I added the second-to-last serving I am likely to get out of my beloved butternut). When the noodles are almost done, throw in a big helping of broccoli florets. When they're cooked, the soup is ready. The carrots and broccoli are a must because they turn the boring stock base into a really rich broth, and this is a great way to eat these vegetables without chucking the water down the sink (and with it all the vitamins and half the flavour).

I like to top it with a boiled egg just so that it looks like some kind of effort went into preparing the soup. I'm not sure why I continue with this obvious charade, since I am the only witness to my culinary cheating, but frankly it makes me feel better about the whole thing.

mardi 25 novembre 2008

The Fabled Ispahan

So I finally got around to trying the fabled ispahan - the combination of rose, lychee and raspberries that made Pierre Herme a demi-god. Credit where it's due, of course, and this little individual treat is beautiful and delicious.

I think it's definitely a much more refined dessert than I usually go for. (My personal preference is to faceplant in a bowl of melted chocolate wherever possible.) But the combination is light and sweet and pretty complex, so if you like food for thought, go for it.

samedi 22 novembre 2008

Rollet Pradier in Paris, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Snooty Servers

Rollet Pradier sure think a lot of themselves. I don't think I've ever been so snootily served, but it was a very inoffensive snootiness. They weren't rude or mean. I just got the strong impression that all of the people working there truly believe their pastry shop is the highest achievement of western civilisation.

And you know, it's not too far off. First though, I have to say, don't bother with the bread. It's nothing special. But the macarons are fabulous. SO fabulous. I mean these are the third-best macarons in all of paris (Pierre Herme and Gregory Renard come in 1 and 2). I asked the snooty server what she recommended and ended up with a pistachio and poppy macaron. The pistachio was great, but the poppy macaron is completely divine. I would like them to make me a poppy macaron drip and hook me up to it when I get stressed.

I also tried their delicious croquant royale, which is a chocolate and caramel mousse thingy. This was actually the perfect density, not too agressive but not too frothy. It was amazing. Although, as you can see, it didn't look so pretty after I carried it across Paris back to my apartment. (On foot of course - the more I walk, the more poppy macarons I can stuff into my mouth.)

vendredi 21 novembre 2008

Eat your goddamn vegetables (in a pie)

Vegetables. Damn, I love them. I feel so smug when I read nutritionists advising people to eat more vegetables. It wouldn't be physically possible for me to eat more vegetables. I'm like some kind of voluntary foie gras duck when it comes to vegetables. I apologise for that cruel and unusual visual.

This bake is a good way to eat lots of different vegetables. And it's healthy because though it has mozarella in it, it also has five different types of vegetables plus kidney beans. And that's pretty much it, so I guess it's also extremely easy. This is my recipe (it evolved from an ancient recipe for a brown lentil and cauliflower bake) which I always do slightly differently every time I make it, so don't bother following it too closely. You could use almost any vegetables - sweet potato, parsnip, carrots and swedes are some I've used successfully in the past. I almost always use broccoli though because it is so delicious with mozarella.

Ingredients (amounts as given make 3 medium servings)

1 medium tin of red kidney beans or equivalent dried
1.5 cups chopped cauliflower
1.5 cups chopped broccoli
1/2 a cup potato cut into cubes
1/2 a cup of butternut cut into cubes
About 3/4 cup of buffallo mozarella
3-4 tablespoons of plain or greek yoghurt
dried coriander to taste
dried cumin to taste
chopped fresh parsley to taste (at least half a cup, come on, it's so delicious)
salt, pepper to taste

1. Put the beans in a saucepan with coriander, cumin, salt and pepper. Let simmer gently while you do the rest of the recipe. If you used dried and soaked beans you need to do this for at least an hour, as I am sure you know.
2. In a large pot of water, add the potato, then the butternut. When they're about half done, add the cauliflower and broccoli. Let cook until they're soft but not falling apart.
3. Drain the vegetables and then partially mash them roughly with a fork, adding the yoghurt and half or 2/3 of the mozarella (cubed or torn as you like). Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the parsley. I added at least a cup because I love parsley.
4. In a pie dish or what have you, put down about an inch thick layer of the thick vegetable mash. Then drain the beans of excess water and put down a layer of beans. Then top with the rest of the vegetable mash.
5. Take the rest of the mozarella, torn up into little bits, and sprinkle it evenly over the top of the vegetables.
6. Bake in the oven or in your sad student-flat microwave with the grill on until the top gets brown. I dont have an oven, so I can't give you an actual temperature. I use aforementioned sad microwave and I use the highest setting on the feeble imitation of a grill element. It doesn't really matter since everything is cooked already, you're just getting all the flavours to mix into each other and making the cheesy top all golden and delicious.

mercredi 19 novembre 2008

My friends the red aduki beans

Red beans, or Aduki beans, are unusually high in protein and low in fat even as beans go. They're also very high in calories, but nobody cares, because they are delicious. My experience of these beans is mostly in the form of sweet red bean paste, which I have eaten in buns, in motchi balls, and on matcha ice cream. They are also used in savoury dishes, but I'm not really interested in that because they're so outstandingly delicious in a sweet paste that I can't move on from it.

I made a sweet chunky red bean paste as my first foray into cooking these myself, and it was very easy. You just soak the beans overnight, then boil them until they're very soft, and then mash them up, and then add sugar to taste. I used brown sugar even though I am sure most recipes call for white.

I was going to make red bean crepes, but the morning was too crushed for time. I decided to have oatmeal instead, and so I discovered that stirring in two or three spoonfulls of the red bean paste to oats porridge just before it is finished cooking is amazingly delicious. It also sweetens the porridge so you don't need to put extra sugar or honey on it, so you can convince yourself that you're being somewhat healthy. Maybe.

mardi 18 novembre 2008

LeNotre in Paris

LeNotre is really my kind of place. Their dedication to chocolate is complete and unswerving. When I trotted up there last week (carrying the butternut of previous note on my back) they had so many different chocolate desserts that I tuned out about halfway through having them explained to me. I was in a sort of pre-emptive chocolate trance. If you've never had that experience I urge you to hang around in more chocolate shops.

This time I went with the nougatine, a chocolate tart that has a really extreme attitude problem. Eating this tart is a serious matter that should not be undertaken by the faint of heart. If you have ever had the thought "Wow, that was too much chocolate," then this is not for you. The tart doesnt have a crust - it only looks like it does. What that actually is is a hard caramel shell with a matte dark chocolate coating. The nougatine sheet is supported by a chocolate truffle, and the actual chocolate tart filling is so dark and intense that it must have been at least 70% cacao.

They also make the best pistachio macaron I have found yet in this city. God bless them for having a store so close to where I live.

dimanche 16 novembre 2008

Does someone want to explain this one to me?

If you don't read french, you might not appreciate what's going on in this picture. I bought this bottle of sage (sauge) at the Franprix. When I got home I noticed that the only listed ingredient is rosemary (romarin).

But it is sage. So someone at the label printing department of LACO is possibly in a lot of trouble.

samedi 15 novembre 2008

Butternut soup with toasted pumpkin seeds and sage butter

I bought a butternut at Tang Freres this week. Never having dealt with an entire butternut before - I used to have my dad do this kind of scary stuff - I was a little nervous. But I dispatched it pretty well after a few minutes of hacking and cursing. So now I had all the butternut I could want, and the next step was obvious: soup.

I decided to work off Pim's recipe for Potimarron soup with sage butter but as I don't have an oven, and as I hate washing up, I decided to see if I could do it in one pot. This is roughly how it happened and it served one (me).

Sautee about half a very little yellow onion until it has caramelized, then put it on a plate and set it aside. Then in the same saucepan, boil about a cup and a half of chopped butternut in just enough water to cover it. A little while later throw in about 3/4 of a cup of white beans (if you use canned you can just throw them in here, if you used dried you need to precook them like I do. Use dried! They're infinitely better.) Leave that to boil for about ten minutes, then mash it up and let it stand.

While it is standing, turn your attention to the sage butter. I didn't have sage leaves, so I just melted some butter with some dried sage in it in a little saucepan (thus ending the one-pot dream). This was delicious in the soup in the end, although I can't say whether it measures up to proper sage butter because I have never had it. I left the sage butter to the side and went back to the soup.

Add some milk until it is the thickness you want, then added the onion back in. Puree the whole thing with an immersion blender (or in a traditional blender if you swing that way). When it goes back on the heat, add a tablespoon of greek yoghurt or creme fraiche. Now it needs to be stirred constantly otherwise the bottom will burn. When it comes back to the boil, it's done. You can put on as much sage butter as you like, I used about a teaspoon for my single serving, as well as some toasted pumpkin seeds.

Toasted pumpkin seeds are very easy to do in a skillet or pan, since they announce when they are done by popping and cracking and generally being a nuisance. Then it's just a matter of throwing some fleur de sel or kosher salt on them and drizzling them with olive oil.

I think the caramelised onion goes so well with the butternut, and the sage butter is so much nicer than just adding sage right to the soup. This is really outstandingly delicious, and I had it with Poujauran's delicious sourdough bread.

mercredi 12 novembre 2008

Nachtmarkt in Vienna

The Nachtmarkt never seems to close down. I went there on my first morning in Vienna for breakfast – an excellent nectarine and a cold but delicious apfelstrudel. When I walked back to my hostel that night it was still going. The next day the lunch place I was looking for turned out not to exist and a woman in a nearby café directed me back to the Nachtmarkt for lunch.

There are numerous restaurants in the Nachtmarkt, with falafel stands, asian noodle bars and doner kebabs crammed right in next to the expensive wine shops, smelly cheese displays and fresh vegetables. I eventually decided on a restaurant called Indian Pavilion, because most of the other places violated one of my sacred rules : never eat anywhere with photographs of food on the menu displayed outside. I don’t do this because I’m a snob but because it’s generally a good indicator of poor quality. (L’As du felafel in Paris is the exception.) I had a vegetable masala with rice and cucumber raita – nothing transportative, but very good.

There are loads of little bakeries in the Nachtmarkt and after lunch I wandered through and picked up a spelt wheat ball – I’m not sure what was holding it together but it had a texture like marzipan and seemed like the healthy, cinnamony cousin of the chocolate rum ball. It was outstanding.

mardi 11 novembre 2008

Passion Chocolat in Prague

Passion Chocolat is hidden away south of the National Museum in Prague. It’s a bit of a hike and I resented that I had to walk past several tacky sex shops on my way to lunch. But chocolate is a great motivator and I made it there in time to order the outstandingly reasonable soup + quiche + dessert menu for about 8 euros (195 Kroner).

The soup was wonderful; I’ve never enjoyed onions and shallots as much as I did in this light tomato broth. The soup was pulpy and almost sweet. (You can see my travel diary in the picture there. I made it myself but I didn’t meet any other Hitchhikers fans so most people I met just thought I had some kind of anxiety disorder.)

The zucchini and mint quiche was a really impressive combination. It rescued quiche from its usual trap, namely, that it is quiche. Quiche is horrible when it’s soggy, which is sad because it always is soggy unless you eat it as soon as it comes out of a blast furnace. But this was a great quiche (though it still would have benefitted from two minutes in a blast furnace).

I was really there for the dessert, and I chose the bille (it should be clear by now that the owners of this restaurant are French, not Czech). It had a dark chocolate icing on top of a chocolate ganache block, then a layer of small crisp rice balls, then a very thin layer of wafer and finally a layer of chocolate on the bottom. And if you can read that description without putting Prague on your list of places to go, then God help you.

dimanche 9 novembre 2008

Fassbender & Rausch in Berlin

Fassbender & Rausch are one of the oldest, and currently the largest, chocolatiers in the world. Their store in Berlin is massive - and as I discovered only too late, they have a chocolate restaurant above it too. The first thing that impresses you is the variety of different hand-crafted chocolates. There should be more 50 metre long glass cabinets full of chocolates in this world. But at least now I have seen one.

It's also surprisingly well priced, especially compared to the chocolatiers in Paris. This made me worry that they couldn't measure up to the quality I was used to from Rochoux and La Maison du Chocolat. And in fact the first chocolate I tried, a saffron truffle, was quite overpowering and left my tongue numb (though I am told this is a reaction to saffron some people naturally have).

But they made up for it in the caramel department. I love caramels and I bought six different types, and each one presented a different texture and flavour. Some were very dark and sticky, some were very salty, others more toffee-like with a buttery taste, but every one of them was fantastic. They also do a great pistachio ganache and a lot of different pralines. And the servers were friendly, which isn't always a guarantee in the Parisien shops. As they were bagging up my chocolates and my completely self-indulgent tin of hot chocolate, they tossed in a couple of little wrapped squares of chocolate, "for tasting".

Unfortunately they wouldn't let me take home their chocolate frog.

samedi 8 novembre 2008

W der Imbiss in Berlin

Imbiss means fast food, and Berlin is really big on fast food. You can probably eat very cheaply in Berlin if you like sausages and white bread. But I don't, so when I was in Berline I went to W der Imbiss to get my fast food, and dang it was excellent. This was my favourite place in Berlin. They do great fusion food, lots of indian and asian inspired food and heavy on the spices. They're famed for their naan pizza, but I went for the daal with garlic naan and a small side-salad.

Okay, I thought it was going to be a small side salad, but it wasn't small. This delicious and nutritionally outstanding meal came to about 6 euros and was one of the best I had travelling around Europe. (This is actually the first time I've seen alfalfa sprouts since I got here.) The salad had a creamy, tahini-based dressing and the naan was outstanding, better than I have had at most indian restaurants.

Come to think of it the daal was also better than I have had at most indian restaurants. I don't know how the tall, skinny german guy in the kitchen managed it. Maybe he's a wizard.

vendredi 7 novembre 2008

Sadaharu Aoki in Paris

There are a lot of folks who say Pierre Herme is the greatest patisser in Paris, and there’s no denying the man is some kind of magical wizard. He certainly makes the best macarons. But my personal pastry chef allegiance is to Sadaharu Aoki, the Japanese-born Parisian creator of the greatest caramel tart known to man. The tart is amazing, a thin layer of butter salted caramel under a thin swirl of chocolate mousse - it is deceptively tiny and difficult to finish. He is also a wizard with matcha, which is probably what puts him at number one for me. His matcha millefeuille and matcha macaron hold special places in my heart.

I decided to branch out from matcha a while ago, and tried this hazelnut praline and chocolate pastry (though as you can see I had to have the matcha macaron too). It was light and crunchy, and the chocolate layer was perfectly dense - exactly what you'd expect from a master. I have never carried anything even slightly disappointing home in a Sadaharu Aoki box.
The man is a genius.

mardi 4 novembre 2008

The Sacher Hotel in Vienna

My friend Liz counseled me on where to go in Vienna, and the Sacher Hotel was the recommendation that stuck with me. Probably because, as she explained, they invented the Sacher torte and they're still serving it today.

I had never had Sacher torte before I went to Vienna, and generally I like my cakes more aggresively dense and moist and overpowering. But I really enjoyed it. This is a really refined take on chocolate cake, without being stuffy or fussy. It's a very soft cake, moderately dense and moist, with apricot jam and a thin layer of chocolate icing. Because it is not overly moist it is perfect with a dollop of whipped cream. It really is a very pleasing experience.

Even though the place is crowded and there is a line to get in, they don't rush you here. I sat at the bar next to the other people travelling alone, and met a lady from Tennessee who was in Vienna for only a few hours on her way out to a seminary in the mountains of Austria. She chose to spend some of her precious time in the Sacher Hotel. And it makes sense. The cake was just that good.

dimanche 2 novembre 2008

Potato, Zucchini and Basil Frittata

I have never made a frittata before because most recipes call for them to be finished under a broiler. I don’t have an oven, ergo I don’t have a broiler. However, I was very glad to learn that the traditional way to make a frittata – and its Spanish older brother the tortilla – does not involve a broiler. Broilers are for sissy wimps. Real women use plates to flip the tortilla and cook it using only a frying pan. And I have a frying pan, so I went to it.

This is my recipe; again it’s based on many I have seen around. Most add cheese, some even add flour and baking soda, which I am sure is another way to sissify the tortilla. I’m afraid mine isn’t truly Spanish. But it does taste great.

4 small fingerling potatoes, cooked
1 small zucchini
3 eggs
¼ cup of milk
fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

1. Slice the fingerling potatoes into rounds. Slice the zucchini into rounds, salt and let stand for 30 minutes (either in a colander or on a plate – if you choose a plate then you may need to blot the zucchini to get the water to really come out).
2. Heat up some olive oil in a pan. While it’s heating, separate the eggs and whisk the whites until they fluff up (but you don’t want it stiff, just fluffy). Mix the milk with the yolks. Continuing to whisk the whites, pour the yolk mix into them in a steady stream.
3. Sautee the zucchini. Add the potatoes, seasoning as you go. When the mixture is nearly done, add the basil and stir it in. Arrange the vegetables so they are roughly in layers then pour the egg mixture over and turn the heat down to medium.
4. Let cook for a while, until it is fairly solid and when you lift up the side with a spatula you can see it is golden brown on the bottom.
5. Slide the tortilla out onto a plate, then put the pan on top and invert in one confident swoop (I think the confidence is the key – the frittata will know if you are a sissy or not and will respond accordingly).
6. Depending on how crispy you want it you can let it cook for another 3-8 minutes. This is a small tortilla and serves 2-3.

As you can see I used a really deep pan so I couldn’t get the damn thing to slide out without compromising the structural integrity of my lunch. I had to do a double inversion – flipped it once onto a plate to get it out of the pan, but then it was the wrong side up, so I inverted it again between two plates, and then finally back into the pan. It worked fine – it didn’t drip or slide around at all. Clearly, I am no sissy.

samedi 1 novembre 2008

Coconut Ginger Sweet Potato Soup

Once again, this is a recipe which is my riff on several that I saw around the internet. The internet seems to think this is a "Thai" sweet potato soup. I'm not so confident. The extent of its Thai-ness is probably just that it uses thai red curry paste, ginger and coconut milk, all of which are abundant in Thailand.

This recipe is so easy it borders on the biblical sin of sloth. All you need is sweet potato, coconut milk, thai red curry paste, vegetable stock, chopped ginger and toasted sesame seeds. How much you use of each of these ingredients is up to you. In general half a large sweet potato serves one person. I like about a 1 cm cube of ginger and 2 teaspoons of red curry for each half sweet potato, but I like it hot, if I can say so without inducing snickering.

Chop the sweet potato up into very small cubes - the smaller the better, since they cook faster and are easier to blend later. Put them in a pot and just cover them with stock, then add the curry paste and chopped ginger and boil it until it's very tender. You should be able to squash the peices into a pulp with a wooden spoon on the side of the pot.

Take it off the heat and let it cool. Mash it up as much as you can before you blend it, so you can see if you should drain off or add some stock now. This step is doubly important if you use a hand-held blender like I do, because they get tired and grumpy after about a minute of use. I tend to add more stock as I blend since I invariably get my amounts wrong in stage one.

Once it's smooth, put it back on the heat and add coconut milk to taste. If I feel greedy I add 1/4 cup to my single serving, though, sometimes just a splash is enough. It's the interaction between the coconut and the heat of the ginger and chilli in the paste that makes this great. Bring it to the boil again and then serve it hot with toasted sesame seeds on top.

I always add bean sprouts and some cubes of firm tofu, which makes this soup a meal. I generally pan fry the tofu beforehand in some sesame oil to give it a little more personality. This time I also added puff tofu and udon noodles, which need to cook in the soup for a little while, so add them when you add the coconut milk. Fresh coriander also works wonders in there.