Friday, March 23, 2007

Faves on Friday #3: Orange Polenta Cake

I never speak about my job on this blog, and don’t really plan to (especially not on Fridays!), but forgive a brief reference. One thing I do is help identify, document and share “lessons learned” from my organization’s work, so that we can keep using approaches that are successful and remember not to repeat past mistakes. I thought of this aspect of my job earlier this week, while considering the fact that it has been a couple of months since my last Fave on Friday.

“Why such a lapse?” I asked myself. And therein lay a lesson learned: I should not tie myself down to doing anything in particular on Fridays. What was I thinking? On Fridays, I am a get home from work and have a glass of wine kind of person, or a de-stress by playing a set of tennis kind of person (and, I must admit, sometimes I am BOTH kinds of people). On Fridays, I am not, however, a cook something tasty and write about it kind of person.

Which is why I decided that I need to become a prepare something tasty on Wednesday, write about it on Thursday and simply press “publish” on Friday kind of person.

This orange polenta cake is moist, moist, moist – almost to the point of disintegrating before your very eyes. The orange and lemon make it light and bright, and the polenta adds a distinct heartiness to the texture. It is a welcome dessert after a heavy meal, or a fantastic accompaniment to your afternoon tea. And, as befits a Fave on Friday (even one prepared on Wednesday!), I’ve baked this cake again and again and again….

Now, those of you in Zimbabwe will read this recipe and say: where do you buy polenta? You don’t use mealie meal as substitute do you? Ground almonds – wherever do you find ground almonds? And sour cream? You find sour cream in the shops? Are you sure you live in Harare?

Full disclosure: I brought back quite a bit of polenta from my trip to Rome – mealie meal is just too fine to use as a substitute. For ground almonds, check Green Park and hope you catch them just before they raise prices – otherwise their ground almonds can be quite pricy. Sour cream is nowhere to be found. I substitute crème fraîche.

Orange Polenta Cake with Whole Orange Syrup
From Food and Home Entertaining, July 2005
Serves 8

125 grams / 1 stick plus 1 scant tablespoon butter, softened
225 grams / 1¼ cup castor (granulated) sugar
3 large eggs
75 grams / ½ cup plus
scant tablespoon self-raising flour
75 grams / ½ cup plus
scant tablespoon cake flour
125 grams / generous ¾ cup fine polenta
60 grams / generous ½ cup ground almonds
80 grams / 1/3 cup sour cream
Rind of 1 lemon, grated
Rind of 1 orange, grated
60 milliliters / 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Whole orange syrup
2 whole oranges with skin, thinly sliced
180 grams / ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons castor sugar
300 milliliters / 1 1/5 cups water

Crème fraîche, to serve

Grease and line a 20-centimeter / 8-inch cake tin and preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F).

In a medium bowl, whisk the butter and castor sugar together until pale. Continue whisking as you add the eggs one at a time. If your mixture looks a bit curdled, don’t worry – everything will come together once you add the dry ingredients.

In a separate bowl, sift the flours together. Then, add the flours to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Stir in the polenta, ground almonds, sour cream, zest and lemon juice. Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin. Bake for 75 minutes, covering the cake with tin foil during the last 15 minutes if it is getting too brown.

Meanwhile, place the oranges, castor sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture is thick and syrupy – about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Once the cake is baked, let it rest for 15 minutes before turning it out onto a plate. Cool for another 15 minutes. Then, use a wooden skewer or piece of dry spaghetti to make holes in the top of the cake. Pour the orange syrup over the cake. Decorate the cake with the orange slices, and serve slices with a dollap of crème fraîche.

Read my past Faves on Fridays:
#1: Curried Tomato Soup
#2: Spaghetti with Beetroot Pesto

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cooking Stew, Reminiscing Too

You cannot read Colette Rossant’s Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes without envying the stunning array of Egyptian and French food – from simple street food to elaborate wedding-day specialties – that she enjoyed as a child. Nor can you help admiring Rossant’s vivid memories of how these favorite dishes wove themselves in and out of her daily life. You also can’t avoid pondering what recipes might form the culinary unpinning of your own memoir.

Today, as I prepared Soeur Leila’s Red Lentil Stew – one of the book’s 43 recipes – I reflected on just this question: what recipes might help me tell the story of my childhood? Surely, this was too big a question to fully answer on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Even so, a rush of scents and flavors and recollections flooded into my head. In fact, I’m lucky Rossant’s lentil stew recipe is so effortless – anything more complicated would have been too much for my distracted brain to handle.

So what recipes did I think of? To describe an everyday weeknight in my home, the memoir would have to include pepperoni pie – a dense quiche studded with spicy nibs of pepperoni. I don’t eat meat anymore, but if you put a slice of this beloved childhood dish in front of me, I’d find it hard to resist. Another weeknight favorite was a salad made solely from lightly-dressed chicory – a frilly, bitter-tasting green that, I suspect, no other sibling team in history has loved as much. Armed with think slabs of Italian bread, my brother and I would dive right in, elbowing each other over who got to soak up the leftover vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. (My dad calls soaking up sauce or dressing with bread “mojuring” – I have no idea if this is an English word, and Italian word, or a made-up word. But that is the word we use.). And, of course, I’d feature my grandmother’s molasses cookies, mature versions of the brown sugar spoonfuls she gave me when I had the hiccups, and tell the story of how, later in her life, her cookies tasted different every time depending on which ingredient she had forgotten to add.

Growing up, I remember contributing to the preparation of many dishes, although my parents might have different perspective on whether I was helping or hindering their efforts. On long weekends, my dad would labor over Italian specialties passed down through his ancestors’ kitchens. Lasagna made with a layer of sliced braciole was a favorite, and it was my job to help him tie strings around the rolls of breaded meat. When my mom prepared her meatloaf, she would beckon me from my homework spot at the dining room table so that I could squish the ingredients together with my hands. I also liked to make an appearance during the most exciting part of chicken cutlet preparation – the assembly line production of dipping each piece of meat in egg, then breadcrumbs.

Other food memories are inexorably linked to holidays. When I was in school, the weeks approaching Christmastime were a time for accumulating huge quantities of candy canes from friends and teachers. Taking advantage of this bounty, my family and I would crush the canes and make peppermint stick ice cream. And, to this day, Christmas parties feature my mom’s minestrone soup, a dish that, amazingly, she has never tasted because she doesn’t like beans, but which has gained acclaim from even the most vociferous vegetable-haters. If my mom doesn’t make minestrone soup at Christmastime, she risks an insurrection.

Another soup recipe would also have to make the memoir – pasta fagiole. I love this soup so much that, during my sophomore year in college, my parents made the valiant (and slightly nutty) attempt to send me a few servings in a care package. At my university (and, I would assume, all universities), whenever care packages arrived, you would accumulate an ever-growing troop of observers (a.k.a. aspiring package-sharers) as you carried your box from the post office, into your dorm, and up to your room. How disappointed my bystanders were to discover that my package contained no candy, no cookies – only spoiled soup that had leaked out of its Tupperware container.

Although my food memories are quite different from Rossant’s, they, too, are blessed with the warming combination of family, celebrations and the daily bread of everyday life. The red lentil stew recipe Rossant shares is a hearty, wholesome dish she was served on Fridays at her convent school. Like many a favorite childhood food, it is, she says, a recipe she continues to make today.

Soeur Leila’s Red Lentil Stew
Slightly adapted from Apricots on the Nile
Serves 4 as a main course

500 milliliters / 2 cups split red lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 liter/ 4 cups vegetable broth
2 large onions, chopped (divided)
1 large tomato, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 small zucchini, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
150 grams / 1/3 pound angel hair or vermicelli pasta, broken into small pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons olive oil
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Place the lentils, broth, 1 onion, tomato, carrot and zucchini in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that bubbles up. Then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Purée the mixture using a hand blender. Stir in the ground cumin, pasta, salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add additional vegetable broth if you would like a slightly thinner stew.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small fry pan over medium heat. Add the remaining one onion and sauté for 8-10 minutes, or until golden. Add the onion and any remaining drops of oil to the lentils and simmer for five minutes. Serve in bowls with a sprinkling of parsley. Rossant recommends garnishing with croutons made from pita bread.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Dairy

“Right near your house there is a Greek woman who makes haloumi. Just round that corner and look for the black gate. Tell her I sent you.”

“The wife of my Japanese mechanic sells the tofu she makes at home – let me know if you want to buy a block.”

An endearing feature of life in Harare is the vast number of unmarked, unpublicized businesses that you hear about by word of mouth. Restaurants that only open for small groups on pre-arranged days; immigrants and expatriates that sell homemade, traditional foods, straight from their kitchens; talented artists who market sculptures from hidden backyard galleries framed by rows of maize.

One day, more than a year ago, two friends told me they knew a couple who drove twenty minutes outside of town to buy milk and cheese from a dairy farm, that the farm was impossible to find unless you followed someone, AND that it was only open for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. The couple with the insider knowledge was making a trip later in the day.

Did we want to go? Of course we did.

And so Mark and I became acquainted with what we now simply call “The Dairy.” The Dairy is run by an unintentionally charismatic mother-and-son team (let’s call them Shirley and Frank), and the reason it is open for only two hours a day is that these are the hours when the cows are milked. The milk travels from udder to pail to your container. It is still warm. And rich. And creamy. Like a concentrated version of store-bought milk.

In addition to milk, The Dairy also sells goat and cow feta, a dense and creamy soft goat cheese, and a cottage cheese speckled with chives or fresh thyme. This cottage cheese is what I would call cream cheese, although Frank says I am wrong. Cottage versus cream is not the only linguistic debate I have with Frank, who also contests my pronunciation of gouda. I say goo-da, he says gow-da. “Is the goo-da ready yet?” I ask. “I don’t make goo-da, I make gow-da,” Frank replies.

Speaking of The Dairy’s gouda…oh, how wonderful it is. Shaped like an oversized hockey puck, wrapped in wax and, inside, smooth with just a tinge of sharpness that unravels as it hits your tongue. The gouda is rarely available and, when in stock, is stored out of sight. You need to know to ask for it. To secure a wheel, you also must demonstrate respect and love for cheese. Frank tells the story of a woman who wanted to buy two wheels of gouda, one to eat now and the other to freeze for future consumption. He refused to sell her any cheese because she had considered desecrating the cheese by freezing it.

Today the gouda was tantalizingly close to me – Frank retrieved two wheels from his hiding place just so we could take a photo. He said the cheese tastes good now, but is too mild – it would be ready for sale in two weeks. I had an idea – couldn’t I just buy a wheel today and keep it in my fridge for two weeks? No, Frank said, he knew how much I liked the cheese and didn’t trust me – I would surely eat it early. The Dairy drives a tough bargain.

A few months ago, we heard The Dairy might be taken over as a result of the government’s ongoing land reform program. I can’t say we were shocked, but we were immensely saddened – sad for the family, the farm workers, the animals, and, quite selfishly, ourselves. No more calming walk past the animal stalls with the farm dogs scrambling around our feet. No more debates over goo-da and gow-da. And the thought of having to buy the soggy, chewy, greasy supermarket products that pass as “cheese” was just unbearable. Luckily, The Dairy survived. We appreciate it even more.

This post is an entry in Food Destinations #5: Where Everybody Knows Your Name, hosted by From Our Kitchen. Food Destinations is a food blog event established by I Was Really Just Very Hungry.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Rotating Veggies, Roasted

My favorite recipe-of-the-moment? “A Rotating Cast of Vegetables, Roasted, with Cheese from the Dairy.”

Let me explain. You already know I have a soft spot for recipes that are flexible – ones that welcome, without judgment, the variety and quantity of veggies that presently occupy my fridge. But I haven’t let you in yet on my nascent roasting kick. It started with roasting broccoli, and has expanded to roasting leeks, garlic, carrots, zucchini, tomatoes and green beans, with a preference for tossing a handful of fresh herbs atop the veggies during the last five minutes of their roast. I also haven’t acquainted you with my love of cheese – hard cheese, soft cheese, pungent cheese, mild cheese, sharp cheese, all cheese. My husband and I buy our cheese from a family-run dairy on the outskirts of town, a dairy so wonderful that it is worthy of its own separate post (coming soon!). I eat some of this dairy’s cheese – cow feta, goat feta, a creamy boursin, and, when available (oh-too-rarely), a velvety gouda – practically every day.

Lucky for me, many dishes qualify as “A Rotating Cast of Vegetables, Roasted, with Cheese from the Dairy,” including myriad soups, dips and casseroles. Today, my dish of choice was Moroccan Turlu Turlu with Feta. This dish is a cornucopia of vegetables tossed in a warmly-spiced tomato-y dressing, roasted, and anointed with crumbled feta. It is substantial enough to serve for dinner with some crusty bread. Have leftovers? They’ll make a savory filling for your omelet the next morning. It goes without saying that the vegetables in this recipe are quite flexible. Use the ones listed below – or select your own cast.

Moroccan Turlu Turlu with Feta
Adapted from Sprigs: Fresh Kitchen Inspiration
Serves 8 or more

12 small zucchini (a.k.a. courgettes), cut into 12 millimeter / ½-inch slices
2 medium eggplants (a.k.a. brinjals, aubergines), cut into 12 millimeter / ½-inch cubes
2 onions, cut into wedges
1 green pepper, thickly sliced
6 carrots, cut into 12 millimeter / ½-inch slices
300 grams / 2 2/3 cups green beans, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 400-gram / 14-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 garlic cloves, crushed
45 milliliters / 3 tablespoons olive oil
20 milliliters / 4 teaspoons coriander seeds, freshly ground
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon ground allspice
300 milliliters / 1 1/3 cup tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons cilantro (a.k.a. fresh coriander) and/or parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
200 grams / 1 1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled, plus more for garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (390°F).

Place the zucchinis, eggplants, onions, green pepper, carrots, green beans and chickpeas into a large mixing bowl.

In a separate, small bowl, mix together the garlic cloves, olive oil, coriander seeds, ground allspice, tomato paste, salt and black pepper. Pour this dressing over the vegetables and toss well until all the vegetables are evenly coated. Transfer the vegetables to a large roasting tray and roast for 45-60 minutes until the vegetables are tender, giving the vegetables a stir after 30 minutes or so.

Stir in the cilantro and/or parsley and the feta cheese. Serve warm with extra fresh herbs and feta for garnish.