Thursday, August 25, 2016

Buckwheat Berry Striped Cake & August Baking

Always on the lookout for recipes with different kinds of flour, I came across this beauty of a late summer cake recipe by Melissa Clark – a pretty as a picture Buckwheat Berry Stirped Cake. Melissa points out that „the combination of buckwheat and whole wheat flour gives this deeply buttery cake a character that is nutty, rich and complex, while a little almond flour adds tenderness“. And, on a weeknight, it is nice to go with something simple yet stunning for dessert – like this amazing cake.

And baking this cake in a tart pan with removable bottom instead of  a cake pan allows the colorful berries to rest on top of the batter rather than sink to the bottom. I found the berry stripes simply striking and opted for late season redcurrants and blueberries here. You should definitely feel free to create any design you like. And do remember to serve this on the same day as you bake it, preferably within 6 hours of baking. It is true, because this is a rather moist cake, it does not keep that well overnight.

Buckwheat actually comes from the seeds of a plant related to rhubarb and is neither related to wheat, nor, technically, a grain.  It is usually found in ground form, but can also be bought as wholegrain groats, cracked as flakes or cereal, and in processed foods such as pasta.  Delicious in salads, it lends itself well to being mixed with other pseudo-grains such as quinoa. Buckwheat flour – or farine de sarrasin in French – is in itself always gluten-free. It can be added to pancakes, muffins, rustic porridges, pierogi dumplings, blinis, galettes, fruit flans and soba noodles. The fine-textured flour is grey-ish, speckled with black.

Buckwheat has an intense, earthy, slightly nutty and smoky flavor. Healthwise, buckwheat is rich in vitamins and minerals. Buckwheat flour is available in specialist stores, Polish or Russian grocers, some supermarkets and most health food stores and it is pretty easy to find online. And note that as buckwheat contains about double the oil of most cereals, which affects its shelf life, once opened, it should be kept it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Some cooks and foodies assert that „buckwheat is an acquired taste. But once you've acquired it, you'll want it all the time“. Andf I believe they are right.

Buckwheat Berry Striped Cake
(recipe inspired by the wonderfully talented Melissa Clark)

Ingredients for the Batter
  • ⅓ cup/40 grams almond flour (or grind natural almonds yourself)
  • ⅓ cup/45 grams AP (plain) flour
  • ⅓ cup/45 grams whole wheat flour
  • ¼ cup/30 grams buckwheat flour
  • ½ tsp Ceylon cinnamon (which I believe goes so well with the flours used in this recipe)
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 stick/114 grams unsalted butter, softened, more for buttering the tart pan
  • ½ cup/100 grams superfiine (caster) baking sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp pure vanilla sugar
  • 1 egg (L), free range or organic
  • ¼ cup/60 milliliters buttermilk, sour cream or whole milk yogurt (I used natural yogurt)
  • 1 cup mixed berries, such as blueberries and redcurrants

Ingredients for the Topping
  • 1 tspn raw turbinado sugar
  • confectioners’ sugar, for serving
  • softly whipped, lightly sweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche (optional)

  1. Heat oven to 190° C (375°F) and butter a 25 cm (10-inch) tart pan with a removable bottom. 
  2. Line the bottom with a round of baking parchment, and butter that as well.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together almond, all-purpose, whole wheat and buckwheat flours, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
  4. Using an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugar and vanilla sugar until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. 
  5. Beat in egg, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. 
  6. Beat in buttermilk or yogurt. (The mixture will look curdled, and that is fine - as soon as you add the dry ingredients, the batter will smooth out again.)
  7. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until just combined.
  8. Scrape batter into prepared tart pan, smoothing and leveling the top.
  9. Place berries on top of batter and sprinkle with turbinado or granulated sugar.
  10. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. 
  11. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack and unmold. 
  12. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, serve as is or with whipped cream or crème fraîche.

Honestly, I cannot wait to make this cake again. I will experiment with other fruit and let you know how that turns out. We took it to one of our picnics and it transported so well, not really needing anything but a slight dusting of confectioners´ sugar on top – that day we skipped the lightly whippped cream or the crème fraîche as we were outside but having served this at home as well, I can attest to the fact that it tastes heavenly with a bit of cream on the side…and this cake is a wonderful alternative to those buckles, grunts, tarts and galettes that are all utterly delicious but that miss that elegant and different look of this beauty of a cake. Let´s not forget to mention the texture of this cake, it is very moist, it literally melts in your mouth and it is ever so slightly crisp at the edges - truly a cake that the Britsih would refer to as a "damp cake", shortly, my kind of cake.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fabulous Coffee & Late Summer Panforte

Summer is almost over but not quite. School starts again in a few days. To say we were treated to nice warm weather would be overstating it, but personally, I prefer a bit of a breeze when we are travelling on route to Belgium and the Netherlands on day-trips. One such day-trip always leads us to visit the Exotic Market in Antwerp, Belgium and there a visit to my favorite mobile coffee roaster has become a must. During my last visit to the Market, the lovely Alfio "an Italian in Belgium with the passion of [sic] coffee" recommended an Ethiopian coffee to me and I happily followed his recommendation, bought a bag of his wonderfully fragrant coffee beans, roasted on sight in his coffee truck, happily sipped a warming, milky cappuccino and glanced at the coloful fruit and veggie stalls all spread out over the Theaterplein, the rather large area where the Exotic Market takes place every Saturday.

The next day, I contacted Alfio per Instagram - the fun part is that I posted a picture of his coffee truck a while back and we have been following each other´s accounts since - to get more information about the coffee beans that I bought. And I was wondering what kinds of flavors would complement his wonderful coffee the best - Panforte came to my mind, immediately, it is a cool summer after all and the strong character of Panforte turned out to be a wonderful complement to his Ethopian organic coffee which Alfio comments as follows: "Ethiopia Sidamo, a superb coffee from Ethiopia that has a unique flavour, mild, spicy and wine-like with floral aroma". Ethiopia Sidamo is a type of Arabica coffee of single origin grown exclusively in the Sidamo Province of Ethiopia.

Panforte or as its is also referred to Panforte di Siena is a traditional Italian treat that somewhat resembles fruitcake or German gingerbread (Lebkuchen). It is a flat, yet chunky, rich, boldly spiced indulgence, dense with toasted nuts and dried fruit or candied fruit peel. It may date back to 13th century Siena, in Italy's Tuscany region. Documents from 1205 show that panforte was paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tax which was due on the seventh of February that year.

Literally, panforte means "strong bread" which refers to the spicy flavor. The original name of panforte was "panpepato" (peppered bread), due to black pepper used in the cake. There are references to the Crusaders carrying panforte, a durable confection, with them on their quests, and to the use of panforte in surviving sieges.

But do not let its humble looks deceive you. A dark, bumpy appearance barely concealed by a dusting of icing sugar, panforte is a most delicious thing. It it not really a cake it is actually more like soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat chock-full with toasted almonds, hazelnuts and a copious amount of candied peel or dried fruit.

The process of making panforte is fairly simple. You toast the nuts (hazelnuts and almonds are traditional) until they are fragrant and golden. Then you chop the nuts very roughly or leave them whole and dice the dried fruit or candied peel. You then mix together the flour, cocoa, spices, nuts and fruit.

Now you make a syrup of sugar and honey. You warm the sugar and honey gently until they’ve dissolved into a syrup. Now working quickly, you pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and stir until everything comes together into a sticky mass. Now using a spoon and your hands, you press the mixture down into a shallow baking pan you have lined with rice paper or baking parchment. Then you simply bake your panforte for about 30 minutes. Once it is cool you dust it heavily with icing sugar - which always reminds me of the abundant dusting of icing sugar on my German Stollen (here).

Personally, I have a definite weakness for toasted almonds and hazelnuts, dried friuts such as figs and sour cherries,  heavily spiced confections, and medieval undertones. As Gillian Riley notes in her Oxford Companion to Italian Food, in the 1500s panforte was said to have „strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness“…now what more could one ask for...

If you ask me, this fabulous chocolate confection should not only be an Italian Christmas favorite, and a great homemade festive gift, it should be eaten year-round, best eaten after a big meal with a wonderfully fragrant espresso or espresso macchiato, brewed with coffee beans from your favorite coffee roaster, like the one you will find when visiting the Antwerp Exotic Market (for more info on the market, visit my blog post here and for more info on the lovely coffee I used visit Alfio´s site here)

Late Summer Panforte

  • Vegetable oil, for greasing the baking pan
  • 40g unsweetened cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting (use Dutch process cocoa powder)
  • 100g dark quality chocolate, chopped - I like to use a high-quality chocolate with 70 per cent cocoa solids, with deep cherry tones
  • 150g toasted almonds, coarsely chopped or left whole
  • 150g toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped or left whole
  • 100g AP (plain) flour
  • 200g dried fruits such as figs and sour cherries that I used OR candied mixed peel, chopped
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp ground mace
  • ¼ tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ tsp ground black pepper
  • 200g superfine baking (caster) sugar
  • 200g clear honey (I used orange blossom)
  • icing sugar, for dusting

  1. Heat your oven to 150°C (300°F).
  2. Line the base of a 22cm (8 or 8.5 inch) cake pan (springform pan) with oiled baking parchment paper, and dust the base and sides with cocoa powder.
  3. In a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chopped chocolate.
  4. In a large bowl, mix the cocoa, nuts, flour, dried fruit, salt and spices.
  5. Gently heat the sugar and honey in a pan until the sugar has dissolved, then cook over a higher heat for three minutes.
  6. Pour the syrup and melted chocolate into the nut mixture and stir to combine. NOTE: it will be very sticky.
  7. Use a firm spatula to scrape the mix into the prepared baking pan and, once cool enough, wet your hands and smooth the top so the surface is flat and even.
  8. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes.
  9. Remove from the oven, transfer the pan to a cooling rack and leave to cool in the pan.
  10. Turn out the panforte, peel off the parchment paper and dust the top with icing sugar, rubbing it all over with dry hands so the baked panforte is completely covered and white.

There are many shops in Italy producing panforte, each recipe being their jealously guarded interpretation of the original confection and packaged in distinctive wrapping. Usually a small wedge is served with coffee or a dessert wine after a meal, though some enjoy it with their coffee at breakfast.

In Siena, which is regarded as the panforte capital of Italy, it is sometimes said that panforte should properly contain seventeen different ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena. It means that depending on the recipe you use, you could be forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you count the mixed fruit as two different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make panforte, you need to go with the right ingredients and try to use high-quality chocolate, Dutch process cocoa powder, good nuts and your favorite dried fruit or candied peel.

To serve the panforte, cut into thin wedges with a large sharp knife. The cutting will take some force, so be careful.

This traditional Italian nut and dried fruit chunky, sweet and chewy treat is not only delicious, I assure you, but it is also highly addictive. It will keep at room temperature for up to three months if wrapped well in plastic wrap and up to a year if kept in the fridge. Of course, you won’t be keeping a batch around for that long because it is that good, especially when you have friends and family around to enjoy it along with you.

Therefore, I highly recommend you have some on hand all year round, no matter the occasion. Panforte is easy to prepare and in my Late Summer Version the dried figs are absolutely delicious in combination with the dried sour cherries that harmonize so well with the dark chocolate - a perfect match for Alfio´s Ethiopian Sidamo coffee.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Orecchiette con Grano Arso with Watercress, Aubergine, Broad Beans & Burrata Pugliese

Recently I have developed a foodie obsession with a little known variety of Pasta with grano arso - grano arso literally translates as burnt grain, hence the dark color of the pasta. This unusual pasta is made with Farina grano arso which is a type of flour from Puglia in the south of Italy on the Adriatic coast. The two main theories as to the origin of Grano arso are both associated with the so-called cucina povera, or the cuisine of the less fortunate.

One theory with respect to the origin of this pasta claims that in the 18th and mid-19th century landowners permitted poor farmhands struggling to survive and feed themselves and their families, to remove the bits of grain left in the fields following the harvest and subsequent burning of the fields. Back then, landowners would harvest the wheat and then burn off the stubbles that were left in the field, to be plowed under. After the farmers burnt their fields and before the fields were plowed, the less fortunate farmhands would hurry across the field, gathering the burnt remnants of wheat, which they would then grind into what was basically burnt flour.

Another theory suggests that villagers would sweep their communal wood-burning ovens to collect the burnt flour that was left behind after baking bread, then mill it to obtain a flour that was intensely dark, with a bitter taste, to make pasta or more bread.

In either case, the burnt grain couldn’t be used by itself. It was necessary to mix it, at a proportion of one part grano arso to four parts all purpose flour, for it to become palatable.

These days you are unlikely to find people running out to the burnt fields or communal bread ovens anymore to augment their poor diet. Instead I find myself trying to track down this amazing tasting flour and/or the pasta that is made with Grano arso. I learned that a few Italian flour mills have been producing a newer version of Farina grano arso, a type of toasted grano duro (durum wheat) flour that reproduces the nutty, smoky flavor of the original. But being far from Italy these days, although I was unable to track down the flour itself, the Farina grano arso, I found Orechiette con Grano Arso. 

When I tasted the Pasta with grano arso for the first time I was immediately intrigued. As a homecook, I’m always looking for new flavors, textures, and interesting ingredients, and Grano arso reminds me of the burned edges of Italian bread such as Ciabatta or pizza that emerged from a wood fired oven, which are flavors I truly treasure.

For starters I tossed the cooked Orechhiette with olive oil, young garlic, chili and shards of Parmigiano Reggiano. Another time I mixed the pasta with with fresh young peas, Pecorino Romano, and prosciutto.

For today´s recipe, I decided to pair the almost black pasta with that noticeable smoky taste with freshly-podded broad beans, grilled slices of aubergine, decidedly peppery watercress and decadently indulgent, creamy Burrata Pugliese. The colors and flavors mix beautifully here. - Perhaps it is noreworthy that three of the components, namely the Orechhiette, the Burrata as well as the Farina grano arso all originate in Puglia.

Orecchiette con Grano Arso with Watercress, Aubergine, Broad Beans & Burrata Pugliese
(Author: TheKitchenLioness)

  • 250g Orechiette con grano arso (or use regular orechiette here)
  • 500g broad beans in their pods – you will end up with about 125g broads beans once their pods and skins have been removed
  • 2 aubergines (M) or one large one
  • 2 spring onions, white and green parts, cleaned, dried and sliced thinly
  • 3 cloves young garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
  • watercress, a whole bunch, washed, dried, stems removed and leaves plucked – keep a few stems with leaves intact for decoration 
  • freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
  • a good quality mild olive oil
  • 2 Burrata (approx. 350g), torn into nice chuncks (or leave whole if using small Burrata, also called „Burratina“)
  • herbed grilled chicken breasts or salmon (optional)

  1. Prepare the orechiette: put a large pot of deep water to a boil. Salt it generously, as you do for pasta. Always salt the water and let it come back to the boil again before adding your pasta. Add the orechiette to the boiling water and simmer for about 12 minutes (or follow the package instructions), testing regularly for doneness, until tender but retaining some bite (al dente). Drain thoroughly, tip into a bowl then drizzle a few drops of olive oil over the pasta and toss to coat evenly. This will stop the orechiette from sticking together. Set aside.
  2. Prepare the broad beans: after you have removed the pods, blanch the broad beans in boiling, salted water for a couple of minutes (about 2 to 3) and then drain. Cool. Remove the tough skins. Set aside.
  3. Prepare the aubergine slices: heat the oil in a grillpan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced aubergine and salt well. Fry until you see grill marks and the slices are cooked through. Then transfer the aubergine slices to a paper-lined plate to drain off some of the oil. Cut in half or quarters.
  4. Prepare the spring onions and garlic: warm some more of the oil in a  shallow pan, add the sliced spring onions and garlic and fry them gently until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Now add the drained orechiette to the pan, together with the grilled aubergine slices and drained broad beans, continue to fry gently until warmed through. Turn off the heat, add the watercress leaves to the pan, season with salt and black pepper to taste, then stir briefly to let it wilt ever so slightly.
  6. To serve, ladle the orechiette and veg into individual bowls or one large bowl and then serve with sliced, herbed chciken breast, salmon or as it and place burrata on top. Decorate with a few watercress stems.

Buratta pugliese is becoming increasingly popular and is an insanely decadent cheese. It is made in a similar way to mozzarella. It is a cooked curd, and the only real difference is that it is made with cow's milk, not buffalo's milk like the Mozzarella di Bufala. The curd is stretched, and the stringy pieces of curd tucked inside, making little pouches. Some cream, or panna, is then added into the pouch, and a knot is tied at the top before the pouches are placed in brine.

The way to serve burrata is very simple, as it has a peculiarly delicate and special flavor, you can serve it with grilled bread or you could serve it with seasonal tomatoes and basil with a drizzle of olive oil on top. Again, a typical strong-tasting olive oil from Puglia would be most authentic. But it also wonderful when integrated in a pasta dish such as this one.

One of the qualities I love about pasta called Orecchiette is the texture and size.  If made correctly, and boiled for the right amount of time, you’ll end up with a lovely, al dente, bite-size pasta morcel that will go brilliantly with a variety of sauces. Orechiette literally translates to "little ears" in Italian. Outside of Italy you can find Orecchiette in specialty Italian food shops or in other grocery stores who stock import foods. The same holds true for Burrata or Burrata Pugliese - chances are you will have to go out there and look for it nnd then order it - but this insanely decadent treat is worth the effort. If you cannot find it, use Mozzarella di Bufala.

You can combine the pasta recipe with grilled herbed chicken breasts or salmon or enjoy on it its own. When you taste this dish, you will notice that the texture of the pasta is slightly grainy, and the flavor is deep and toasty which in turn combines rather well with the creamy broad beans, mild Burrata, slightly smoky aubergine slices and decidedly peppery watercress.

And never underestimate the reaction you will get to the color of this amazing, and yes somewhat elusive, Pasta con grano arso.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Coconut Yogurt Bundt Cake with Redcurrants

At the end of July, summer farmers market season is in full swing and this week I was overjoyed to find loads of redcurrants there. I saw them and made them mine immediately. These are berries of which I have very fond memories. In my grandma´s garden in the Northern part of Germany, where I spent all my summer vacations, there were a lot of redcurrant bushes. And year after year, they provided a magnificent yield of delightfully tart, intensely flavored and gloriously colored redcurrants. Back then, there never seemed to be any question about us not being able to eat as many as we could manage.

The usual answer when I come across an abundance of redcurrants, is to get them home, give them a thorough rinse under cold water and then munch away. And there is simply nothing better than being able to stash away a few jars of homemade redcurrant jelly for when the weather gets colder and we yearn for those tastes of summer. And I love to serve them alongside my deep dark chocolate cookies or my famed Dutch Boeterkoek (here), their tartness offsets beautifully the indulgent sweet, buttery goodness of that traditional Dutch teatime treat.

But this time, something else was called for. What about something everyone likes, a slighty tangy, coconutty bundt cake with added redcurrants. The great thing about a bundt is that you don’t have to put in much work to end up with a spectacular looking (and tasting) cake. Just pull out one of your spectular bundt pans (or any other bundt or gugelhupf pan you might have – just beware of the capacity) prepare an easy cake batter, toss in some lovely seasonal berries or fruit of your choice.

Redcurrants work well here in my recipe as they not only taste great when baked but also look attractive when presented on a cake plate, but equally delicious results will no doubt be achieved with blueberries, strawberries or gooseberries when they are in season. 

In my version, as redcurrant flavor is a little tart, I didn’t go with all natural jogurt but chose a mildly sweetened coconut yogurt instead. I added unsweetened shredded coconut to the batter but if you feel that your redcurrants are extra tart, feel free to sub sweetened coconut in your bundt. The result was sublime. The coconut yogurt added just enough sweetness here so the bundt does not become sweet, but keeps a little kick of tartness from the redcurrants, which is something that I very much like when eating this sort of cake. Then there is a little added vanilla but you can also sub organic lemon, lime, or orange zest here which also pairs beautifully with coconut. Overall, this recipe is a wonderful combinaton of color, fragrance, flavors and lightness. Fitting for afternoon tea, picnic or even breakfast.

Coconut Yogurt Bundt with Redcurrants
(Author: TheKitchenLioness)

(my recipe is for a 2.1 liter or 9-cup capacity bundt pan)
  • 180g unsalted butter, softened
  • 270g superfine (caster) baking sugar
  • 3 eggs (L), free-range or organic 
  • the scraped seeds of ½ vanilla bean OR use 1 ½ tsps pure vanilla sugar
  • 270 g all purpose (plain) flour, sifted, plus some for the pan
  • 50g unsweetened, shredded coconut, organic if possible (while the organic coconut it is a bit more pricey, it is far superior in taste)
  • 1 ½  tsp baking powder
  • a generous pinch of fine sea salt
  • 150g natural coconut yogurt (use whichever is your favorite and the best you can afford)
  • about 50 g redcurrants, washed, dried well and taken off their stalks
  • icing sugar, optional (for dusting the cake)

  1. Grease and flour a 2.1 liter (9 cup) fluted bundt or gugelhupf pan.
  2. Preheat your oven to 180° C (160°C fan-assisted) / 356° F.
  3. Put the butter and sugar into a bowl and beat well using an electric mixer until the mixture is very light and fluffy. 
  4. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well between each addition. 
  5. Add a little flour if the mixture starts to separate. 
  6. Add the scraped vanilla seeds. Mix.
  7. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, shredded coconut, and salt and stir half into the butter mixture together with half the coconut yogurt.
  8. Beat well together.
  9. Add the remaining flour and yogurt and mix well. 
  10. Spoon a third of the batter into the prepared pan.
  11. Add the prepared redcurrants, then top with the remaining two thirds of the batter. Level the batter.
  12. Bake in the oven for 55 to 65 minutes or until golden brown and a wooden skewer instered in the middle of the cake comes out with only dry crumbs attached and the cake starts to pull away from the side of the baking pan.
  13. When cooked remove the cake from the oven and leave to cool in the bundt pan for 5 to 10 minutes.
  14. Turn the cake out onto a wire rack over a tray (that will help lessen any mess from the final dusting of icing sugar onc ethe cak eis completely cooled).
  15. Leave until completely cold before serving.
  16. Dust with icing sugar and serve additional redcurrants alongside. NOTE: To prepare redcurrants, wash, dry on paper towels or kitchen towels, then, holding the stalk over a bowl, grip it at one end and sweep a fork down its length, making sure that the stalk runs between the fork's tines - all the berries should pop off. If you like, you can also remove the little brown tip at the base of each berry (just pinch it off between thumb and forefinger) but I never do because flavor-wise it does not really make any difference.

The bundt pan I used for my recipe is a Nordic Ware Stained Glass Bundt Pan that you can find easily online. When I saw it I just knew I had to have one in my collection. It has a 9 Cup capacity – therefore my recipe is designed for a 9-cup capacity bundt pan but feel free to halve it and use a smaller bundt pan.

This is a really great and really easy cake. Quick to make, and easy to play around with the type of fruit or berries you use to suit what you like. Surely worth trying.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Fregola Sarda with Broad Beans, Caramelized Fennel and flatleaf Parsley - A Lunch in July

Who is not fond of and enjoys those tiny pasta shapes such as Orzo, the small, grain shaped pasta that is truly wonderful in a Mushroom risoniotto (here),  or the Acini di Pepe, perfect to use in soup recipes, the Ditalini (“Little Thimbles”) or the star-like Stelline or Pastine, a super tiny pasta that is perfect for children. Their utter cuteness and versatility are the reason why the small, pearl-shaped Fregola caught my attention at my favorite Italian market the other day. That and, of course, the wonderful packaging.

Fregola also called Fregola Sarda (meaning "from Sardinia") are made in the same way as couscous, the wheat (Semola di grano duro) dough is rubbed until it forms tiny beads. The Italian name Fregola comes from „fricare“, the Latin for „to rub“ – this is also where the English word „friction“ comes from. Fregola possess a texture somewhere between the fine, sandy grains of Couscous and Mograbia. As far as the flavor is concerned, there is a distinct toasty note to some brands, like the one I used, as the pasta beads have been lightly toasted (fregola tostata) as they dry.

Generally, you cook this Sardinian specialty pasta in deep, boiling water. Steaming it as you might its finer cousin would most definitely result in a rather stodgy mass. Cooked in water, sometimes stock, the Fregola will be chewily ready in 10 to 12 minutes – the point at which to add it to your veggies. The pasta beads will soak up the notes of garlic and they will plump up with a succulence unavailable in fine couscous. Alternatively, you can also opt to cook the pasta in a tomato sauce until done. But no tomatoes in sight today.

I opted for fresh broad beans (also referred to as fava beans in the US). These are sweet and delicious pod beans with a smooth creamy texture. They are at their best from the end of May through to mid-July, when the pods are pale green and soft and the beans are still small. So get them while you can and make this dish.

Sweet broad beans, double-podded, of course, caramelized fennel, spring onions, young garlic, loads of herbs and fregola are heaven on a plate.

Fregola Sarda with Caramelized Fennel, Broad Beans and flatleaf Parsley
(Author: TheKitchenLioness)

  • 250 grams fregola
  • 1 kg broad beans in their pods  – you will end up with about only 250 grams with their skins and pods removed
  • 2 fennel bulbs (about medium sized), trimmed, though outer leaf removed and sliced thinly - keep the fennel fronds for garnish
  • 2 whole spring onions, trimmed and sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
  • Italian (flatleaf) parsley, a whole bunch, washed, dried and stems removed, chopped coarsely
  • freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
  • a good quality mild olive oil
  • Pecorino Roman (optional)

  1. Prepare the fregola: put a large pot of deep water to a boil. Salt it generously, as you do for pasta. Always salt the water and let it come back to the boil again before adding your pasta. Add the fregola to the boiling water and simmer for about 10 minutes, testing regularly for doneness,  until it is tender. Though it is up to you how much bite you like, I like mine to retain some bite – depending on the variety of fregola used, it can take a few minutes more to cook them to your liking. Drain thoroughly, tip into a bowl then drizzle a few drops of olive oil over it and toss to coat evenly. This will stop the beads sticking together as they cool.
  2. Prepare the broad beans: after you have removed the pods, blanch the broad beans in boiling, salted water for a couple of minutes and then drain. Cool. Remove the tough skins. Set aside.
  3. Prepare the fennel: heat the oil in a shallow pan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced fennel and salt well. Fry until caramelized and browned in spots. Then transfer the fennel to a paper-lined plate to drain off some of the oil.
  4. Prepare the spring onions and garlic: warm some more of the oil in the same shallow pan, add the sliced spring onions and garlic and fry them gently until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Now add the drained fregola to the pan, together with the caramelized fennel and drained broad beans, continue to fry gently until warmed through. Turn off the heat, add half of the parsley to the pan, season with salt and black pepper to taste, then stir briefly to let the parsley wilt ever so slightly.
  6. To serve, stir the other half of the parsley through the fregola, ladle the fregola into individual bowls or one large bowl and then scatter over some fennel fronds.
  7. Optional: if you feel the need to dress this dish with cheese, may I suggest a good Italian Pecorino Romano which will add some sharpness and saltiness to the dish.

While we are still in the midst of summer and enjoying the warm temperatures, I must admit that I am already looking forward to cooler weather when fregola will add substance to a bowl of soup. But for now, this recipe has become a foodie obsession of mine and the Fregola Sarda is my prime candidate for tossing with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes or roasted beetroot and a balsamic-type dressing. I believe I will use it for bolstering a summer garden with grilled courgettes and summer squash. Or cook it with a cornucopia of seafood in a rich sauce. It is so verstaile and can also be cooked like a risotto or simmered in stock. It is hearty, and it gets better as it sits by absorbing the liquid that you cook it in.

For a different staple on your plate try this amazing Sardinian pasta made from semolina (Semola di grano Duro). It pairs so very well with other Mediterranean flavors like the caramelized fennel and the broad beans in my recipe.

But I will tell you that you will probaly need to go to an Italian deli or specialist food outlet for Fregola Sarda, also referred to as "the sun-dried and toasted Sardinian couscous". Or you can easily order it online. While you can substitute other tiny pasta here, I wouldn’t substitute regular couscous for the Fregola, which is rather more like dense pasta peas than semolina grains, but you could use the larger Midde-Eastern or Israeli couscous instead, also called giant couscous. But it is definitely worth seeking out Fregola Sarda at least once. It might take a bit of an extra effort but it will be worth it and for me finding a treasured ingredient is part of the fun of cooking new dishes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A basic Vegetable Salad Vinaigrette for a hot Summer´s Day

It is high summer and that means that there is a need for dishes that are better eaten warm than hot, for desserts that can be prepared the day before and enjoyed the next day, for refreshing drinks that will replenish and refresh you, all using the summer’s best ingredients.

So here we have it, a summer lunch just as good whether it is eaten warm or cool. Just a recipe suggestion for an easy and basic salad vinaigrette to which you can add different vinegars, use local honey and a mild mustard instead of the Bavarian sweet mustard that I used together with the Dijon mustard. Or add different kinds of herbs from your garden, think parsley, tarragon, basil…go where your mood takes you.

A fresh summer salad and a tangy vinaigrette go hand in hand, as you can hardly enjoy one without the other. Vinaigrettes should lightly coat a salad without overwhelming it. But a good vinaigrette can do so much more. It can enhance the flavors of the ingredients or add another dimension altogether. It can bring together different elements as well as provide much-needed moisture to drier ingredients.

It is easy and fast to make your own from scratch, and a homemade vinaigrette tastes so much better than store-bought. Plus, by mixing your own, you take control of the flavor balance - think acidity, sweetness, and seasoning - as well as what goes into it, so you can avoid undesired ingredients.

A summery salad topped with a zingy vinaigrette, a lovely local cheese and toasted bread slices make for a wonderful lunch when the weather heats up.

Here, I just added the vinaigrette to my yellow and green French beans to serve alongside some boiled new Baby potatoes (leave that skin on when boiling), French sea salt, Gorgonzola dolce, local bread, and some raspberries that we picked that day...

When dressing beans with a vinaigrette, make sure that they are dry and cooled before you add the vinaigrette. If you prefer a more tangy bean salad with a more acid overtone, dress the beans with the vinaigrette sans the oils while they are still warm and THEN add the oils to the cooled beans – you will end up with a vinaigrette that has a more pronounced vinegar flavor and that will not look quite as emulsified but that´s is definitely just as delicious.

Basic Vegetable Salad Vinaigrette

  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1tsp Bavarian sweet mustard (if you cannot find it at your supermarket, deli, or online, you can sub a mild grainy mustard and then add a tsp of mild runny honey)
  • 3½ tbsp sunflower oil
  • 3½ tbsp mild olive oil
  • fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • freshly cut chives OR other soft herbs such as Italian (flat leaf) parsley, tarragon or basil

  1. Whisk together the white wine vinegar and mustards in a bowl until smooth and well combined.
  2. Gradually whisk in the sunflower oil and olive oil until the mixture has thickened and is glossy.
  3. Season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  4. To serve, drizzle the vinaigrette over the summer salad/cooked vegetables and mix well to coat the vegetables.
  5. Divide equally among serving plates.

Feel free to dress your potatoes, tomatoes, fennel, salad greens, asparagus, peas, or radishes - a summery vegetable salad is meant to be easy, good-natured food for the dog days of summer.

When preparing this just remember to use the best of summer-season vegetables, fruits and herbs and enjoy what nature has to offer us these days. And do not forget about that favorite cheese of yours, maybe from a local producer, and your favorite bread from the bakery in your neighbourhood.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Joy of visiting a Ceramics Market & using Pottery for the Presentation of your Everyday Food

The popular belief that dictates the use of matching plates, when presenting food should, in my humble opinion, be considered somewhat outdated. When you look at the food photography in the social media or browse through the photographs in cookery books or the food pages in magazines, it is rather obvious that the chef and the publisher have gone to great lengths when choosing the dishes on which the food is to be presented. When the photograph shows a selection of dishes to accompany the recipes, it is rare to see them displayed on matching pieces, but the colors and materials of the dishes always harmonize

When putting food together for either an fun family-style lunch, a formal dinner menu or for a buffet, while the foods selected will complement each other, they will each require a different style of dish from which to be served. That is where the fun comes in. Choosing vessels that best present the individual portions of a meal can also mean using very different pots and plates, bowls and boards, made of different materials like clay, wood, pewter or porcelain.

We all need to eat so why not enjoy it to the fullest. Eating from a paper plate at the seaside or the state fair is a pleasure we take from childhood into adulthood and there is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary. However,when it comes to sharing our table with family and friends, a lot more effort goes into it. So why do so many of us not give the same attention to the presentation.

Probably because finding beautiful pots and plates to serve and eat from are not always readily available, so we end up using the same ones over and over again. But our choice of dishes and the way we cook them are as personal and individual as we are. So why not take it that one step further and put our own stamp on our table and presentation.

I am continuously on the look-out for pretty and unique plates and serving dishes. Sometimes I visit fleemarkets, garage sales and goodwill stores, at other times I visit as many arts and craft shows and pottery markets as I possibly can. These days my attention is focused on natural looking plates with a special touch, those that complement the food that is presented in and on them. While I will most definitely try to go for a few matching plates, I do not mind if they are all unique.

The other day, when visiting a Craft Fair, I came across a beautiful bowl by German pottery artist Alina Penniger and I fell in love with one of her many designs. Her bowls and plates that I like the most look like they were „stamped“ with a lace design. Very unique. And a beuatiful way to present just about any food.

So I asked her to craft some plates specially for me. Luckily, she immediately agreed to do so and and brought them to the next pottery market she attended. I am now the happy and rather grateful owner of a small, albeit growing, collection of her work. I brought my loot home safely and on the same day I happily displayed four of her plates and bowls - plus a tiny vase – on our table in the garden – just for us to enjoy. While these plates and bowl have a matching design, they are all still different an dunique and will harmonize with many other dishes that I own.

Following are a few impression of the beautiful wares that were on display and for sale at the Pottery Market in the pretty town of Siegburg (Germany). Here are spome more of the amazing pottery that was crafted by Alina Penninger.

I might chose these plates next time and  go for this design of hers. The colors used and the design will match my food creations perfectly, I am sure.

Cherrries look even prettier when displayed this way. I enjoyed the way the artists arranged their wares in different ways - colorful flowers complemented their unique pottery in the most delightful of ways.

These jugs from a different artist were so pretty - the different shades of turquoise and greens were real eye-catchers, to say the least. I liked the shiny glaze and the look that is reminiscent of Greek designs.

One potter displayed bright orange and yellow nasturtium in a specially crafted vase that looked like a natural rock.

Beautiful colors – I could imagine that the morning cereal or café au lait tastes even better when served out of these amazing creations.

More of these wonderful jugs and vases and plates and tea pots. And more lovely flowers on display to complement the pottery.

Budding artists - like our youngest crafting her own little bowl - this picture is for my friend Mary - the Aspen cap she send came in very handy again on this sunny day in July...

Loved these tiny bricks.

Beautiful dark and bright colors make for very pretty glazes for these bowls.

Very unique pieces on display at this stall.

More tiny bricks to play with - these are perfect for children as they inspire youngsters to get creative. These came in different colors and the ones in the picture had soaked up all that warmth from the sun that day - the kids adored them.

Unique contemporary ceramic art.

Pottery cames in many shapes and sizes - it can be as unique as the artist her- or himself. It can be a piece of art to be displayed in a showcase but it can also be used in everyday life, to complement the food we so lovingly prepare for our families and friends. You can buy a whole set that matches or you can chose one or more unique pieces to complement your other dishes.

Should you get the chance, make sure to visit a local pottery market or ceramics fair. It is fun to take a look at a diverse range of original ceramics for sale from lamps, tableware, and vases to sculptures and unique pieces. And then, if possible, support the wonderful artists that create those amazing everyday wares and unique pieces of art.

For more information on ceramic artist Alina Penninger  and her handmade stone dinner ware and garden ceramics, you can go here.