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Last Saturday I actually baked something fabulous. This was a very big deal. I never bake anything fabulous. Maybe decent.  Maybe tasty-but-ugly. But never fabulous. At least, I never think of it that way. This is partly because of my over-arching perfectionism.  I’m no pastry chef but I always expect to bake like one. Last week saw a good couple of disasters in the kitchen, which is why I haven’t posted much of anything lately. I bungled a lemon yogurt cake and some cupcakes I made ended up largely in the garbage.

I had been thinking about making Ina Garten’s recipe for Cheddar-dill scones for ages. I’d been wanting to bake something savory, something different from what I ordinarily bake. The thing is, I’m generally not a fan of scones.  The handful of times I’ve bought one at a coffee shop I was disappointed.  They were so dry and crumbly that I needed a huge cup of tea to wash them down with, and they were often stale.  Ina Garten, I reasoned, would not let me down.  Almost everything I have made from the two recipe books of hers that I own has turned out wonderfully. The one caveat is that I think she often uses an excessive amount of fat. This recipe, for example, calls for a cup of heavy cream. I substituted the cream with buttermilk, not sure what the result would be, but take my word for it–the scones were amazing. I couldn’t stop eating them. In fact, I gobbled down six of them while they were still warm. Six! Granted I halved the recipe and made small scones–my stab at portion control–but still …

Needless to say, I spent a very long time on the treadmill the next day.

 

Ina Garten’s Cheddar-Dill Scones

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

Makes 16 large scones

Ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

2 teaspoons salt

3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced

4 extra-large eggs, beaten lightly

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 pound sharp yellow Cheddar cheese

1 cup minced fresh dill

1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

coarse sea salt

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 400F. Combine the flour, the baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and mix with a pastry blender until the butter is in pea-sized pieces.

2) Toss together the Cheddar and dill with 1 tablespoon of the flour mixture in a separate bowl.

3) Mix the eggs and buttermilk and quickly add to the flour mixture. Combine until just blended. Incorporate the Cheddar and dill.

4) Dump the dough on a well-floured surface and knead for 1 minute, adding more flour if needed, to prevent sticking. Roll the dough into a 3/4 inch thick square. Cut into four squares and then in half to make triangles.

5) Brush the tops with egg wash. Sprinkle each scone with the coarse salt. Bake on a sheet lined with parchment paper for 20-25 minutes until crusty and golden.

guac

I love certain foods I used to hate. Mayonnaise. Cilantro. Avocados. Okay. Maybe love is a strong word. Especially when it comes to cilantro. But I now use these foods often whereas I once disdained them. My mother used to tell me this would happen when I got older–especially when she was serving liver for dinner. For the most part, my mother was right.

I disliked avocados for their texture and bland taste. In fact, I still can’t eat them plain–scooped from their skins and eaten like fruit. An avocado still needs a lot of embellishment–salt, some lemon juice and even a dash of cumin. In fact, guacamole is pretty much a staple in my fridge these days. I eat it with corn chips and Mexican food, of course, but I also like it in wraps, on BLTs or even a scoop of it on my salad.

To make 3 cups of guacamole you need 4 avocados, preferably the Haas avocados from California. Make sure they are ripe; they will just give to the touch when you press them. I find most of the avocados sold in the supermarket hard as rocks, so I put them in a paper bag overnight to accelerate the ripening process.

avocadoes

Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Score each half by running a knife vertically several times down the length and then diagonally; this will give you a nice, chunky guacamole. Turn out into a large bowl. Immediately add the juice of one freshly squeezed lemon and toss.

tomatoes

Seed 1 medium-sized tomato and cut into small dice. Cut 1 small red onion into small pieces as well. Add these to the avocados, along with 1 minced garlic clove. Toss with about 1 tablespoon each of salt and pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of cuminpowder. You can also add a few dashes of tabasco sauce if you like.

potsaladOver the years, my parents have hosted a lot of our relatives from their native Serbia: my mom’s cousins, her aunt, both of my father’s sisters as well as a couple of his cousins. My great grandmother came out twice–the first time being when she was 72 years old. I always looked forward to these occasions. I loved seeing my world through their eyes.

We would take my relatives to all of the local tourist attractions as well as on overnight trips to Vancouver Island or Harrison Hot Springs. It wasn’t all fun and games, though, because my parents still had to go to work. Our visitors often ended up spending several hours a day on their own. Not knowing any English or their way around, they stayed home and found ways to amuse themselves. Often this resulted in a lot of fresh ironing and help with getting dinner on the table. The women in my family, including my mother, are all well-versed in the home arts. I’m sad to say that this gene has largely passed me by. I’m not a slob, but try as I might, I can’t iron a shirt to make it look as if it has come fresh from the dry cleaner or bake picture perfect cakes with countless layers. As fascinated as I was with my relatives’ cooking and baking skills, I could have paid more attention and taken advantage of all that they had to teach me. Somehow I lacked the patience and preferred to learn on my own.

The first time I ever had this Serbian-Style Potato Salad was when my Aunt Anna came to visit. Although she was Slovak, she was married to a Serb and had been living in Belgrade for decades. My mother made the American style potato salad with mayonnaise. I didn’t know that people ate potato salad in Serbia. I had never seen it there.

I wasn’t sure I would like a potato salad without mayo or chunks of egg, which to me, is usually the best part. But I found that once my aunt put this on the table I couldn’t stop eating it. It was so simple yet absolutely delicious. Years later, when I tried to replicate it, it tasted bland and cardboard-like. What was the secret, I wondered? How had I gone wrong with so few ingredients? With a bit of research I discovered that the key was to refrigerate the salad overnight, or at least several hours, and then bring it to room temperature before serving. The onions become soft from the olive oil and all the flavors meld together to create a wonderful side dish to bring to a barbeque or on a picnic. I often have it for dinner with some fine European sausage.

Serbian-Style Potato Salad

Serves 4

4 large potatoes

1 large yellow onion

1/4 cup olive oil

1/8 cup white vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

1-2 teaspoons salt

1/2 – 1 teaspoon black pepper

Directions

1) Peel the potatoes and slice very finely on a mandoline. Boil for twenty minutes or until cooked. In the meantime, slice the onion very thinly as well.

2) In a glass jar with a lid, combine the vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper. Shake vigorously.

3) Toss the potatoes and onions in a bowl with the dressing. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours.

4) Bring to room temperature. Check seasonings. Add more salt and pepper if required.

Notes:

* In many recipes for Serbian potato salad, a chopped roasted red pepper is often called for. I don’t like this because I think its flavor overpowers the salad, but you can add it if you like.

* The amount of salt and pepper you use is entirely up to you. I tend to like salty potatoes in any form but you may want to experiment to see how much you prefer. Start with a little and keep adding until you find the amount that suits you.

* Use a good quality olive oil. It really makes a difference.

fishAlthough I absolutely adore shellfish without exception, I’ve never been a great lover of fish.  It’s not so much the fish itself, but the act of eating it. Picking through every sliver of my meal looking for tiny bones or chewing with the fear of choking on one that I might have missed takes a lot of enjoyment out of the act of eating.  Truth be known, my favourite fish is the kind that is deep fried in thick batter, doused with tartar sauce, and served on newspaper with a pile of crispy fries. Not exactly what doctors mean when they tell you to get more fish to up your intake of omega acids.

Which is why I came up with this recipe for fish cakes. Crab cakes have long been one of my favourite appetizers and I sometimes make a large one and have it alongside a salad for dinner. But I have found using frozen fish fillets or even salmon from a can can make a lovely and healthy substitute. They don’t need to be cooked in much oil and you can add any number of spices or flavorings. I like green onion and chopped parsley. The trick to keep them from falling apart is using equal parts of fish and mashed potato and to refrigerate them for awhile before frying.

I serve these with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce cut with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.

 

Fish Cakes

fishcakes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

12 oz (350g) potatoes, cooked

12 oz (350g) boneless fish fillets, skinned

1/2 cup (60g) fine breadcrumbs, divided

2 tablespoons milk

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon horseradish or cocktail sauce

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1 scallion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

 

Directions:

1) In a food processor pulse the fish, lemon juice, horseradish, and mustard until fish is finely chopped.

2) Mash potatoes with a fork and add milk and olive oil. Add potatoes to fish mixture and pulse to combine. Follow with 1/4 cup breadcrumbs and the herbs, garlic, and onion. Add salt and pepper. Pulse for a few more seconds to make sure everything is well blended.

3) Refrigerate mixture for at least 30 minutes. Heat a bit of olive oil in a non-stick skillet (about 2 tablespoons) on medium. Form into patties and dip into the remaining 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs. Fry fish cakes on each side for ten minutes, or until they are cooked through and a deep golden brown.

greekIn the introduction to his book The Man Who Ate Everything  Jeffrey Steingarten tells how upon his appointment to Food Writer at Vogue magazine he set out to conquer his list of food phobias. How could he be an objective critic, he reasoned, if the mere thought of eating anchovies or dill sent him into spasms of revulsion. High on Steingarten’s list of reviled foods was Greek cuisine, something I found hard to believe. How could one think this uncomplicated yet delicious cuisine distasteful?  Plates piled high with tender calamari, savoury little pitas and pies, moussaka, chunks of roasted lamb or chicken on skewers … what’s not to like, I ask you? Jeffrey worked hard at neutralizing his palate but I suspect that not very many Greek restaurants are high on his list of preferred dining locations. I think he might think differently were Aglaia Kremezi to cook for him.

Aglaia is an international authority on Greek food and often contributes to Gourmet magazine and the LA Times.  She won a Julia Child award for her book The Foods of Greece.  Recently I came across her wonderful book The Foods of the Greek Islands, a collection of authentic recipes from Corfu to Cyprus and all the islands in between. I spent about a week cooking from this book. Even the simplest dishes, like lentils and rice, were tastier than I imagined, and I was surprised by the diversity of the offerings in Greek cuisine, most of which you won’t find on the menu of your local taverna. From the chicken with tomatoes and feta, to the veal stew with quinces, to the onions stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts, everything I have made from this book has been delicious.

As much as I love Italian and French food, I have grown weary of cooking it. My taste buds have been crying out for the zing of something completely different, and Aglaia’s recipes fit the bill. They are relatively simple and rustic yet highly flavorful. You won’t have a problem finding most of the ingredients at your local supermarket these days. My favorite chapter is on pitas and pies. Pitas are closed pies–meat, homemade cheeses, zucchini, eggplant, greens and other vegetables wrapped with thin layers of pastry. Spanakopitas are the most well-known type of pita in North America, of course, but the truth is that there is a multitude of these little pies popular across Greece.

I am including Aglaia’s recipe for phyllo here because it’s the best one I have found. Earlier, I put up my recipe for Balkan Style Cheese Pie, which proved to be a popular post. You might want to try making it with homemade phyllo dough. Making your own phyllo is something I think every home cook should try at least once.

The other two recipes shown here are for a couple of simple recipes I like to make at home when the mood for Greek taverna style food strikes–Calamari and Saganaki. I adore calamari and I mean, who can resist fried cheese?

Aglaia Kremezi’s Cretan Phyllo Pastry Dough

Adapted from The Foods of the Greek Islands

Makes 1 pie or 50 small turnovers

Ingredients:

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt

1/2 cup vodka

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

about 2/3 cup water

 

Directions:

1) Pulse flour and salt in food processor until mixed. With the motor running, add the vodka. lemon juice, and oil. Add just enough water to make the dough soft. Let it rest in the processor for 15 minutes.

2) Process the dough until it is slightly elastic, about 1-2 minutes. Let it rest for another 30 minutes.

3) On a lightly floured board, knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Add a little flour if it becomes sticky. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and cover 3 of them with plastic wrap so they won’t dry out.

4) Roll out the dough with a rolling pin as thinly as possible, dusting with a little bit of flour to prevent sticking. The thinner the better. If you have a pasta machine, you could alternately roll out strips of phyllo that way.

5) Repeat with remaining dough. Use immediately, proceeding with instructions for individual recipes.

 

Fried Calamari

calamari

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer

Ingredients:

1 pound (500g) frozen calamari rings, thawed and drained

1 cup (250ml) all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon pepper

vegetable oil

parsley and chopped red onion, to garnish

lemon wedges

 

Directions:

1) Rinse calamari rings under cold running water and drain. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan to about 375F. You do not have to use a lot of oil; just enough to submerge the calamari halfway.

2) In a large bowl toss flour, salt, paprika, and pepper until well-combined.

3) Toss calamari rings in the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Fry on each side for about 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Check for tenderness as you are frying, as calamri can quickly become rubbery.

4) Remove from pan and drain on a plate covered with paper towel. Sprinkle with chopped red onion, parsley or garlic chives, and serve hot with lemon wedges.

 

Saganaki

saganaki

Saganaki isn’t actually a type of cheese but the name of the cast iron frying pan it is usually made in. The best cheeses to get for making taverna-style saganaki are hard yellow Greek cheeses like kasseri or kefolotiri.

To make this popular meze, cut strips of cheese about 1/3 of an inch thick. Dip in a bowl of warm water and then press each side of the cheese onto a plate sprinkled thickly with all-purpose flour. The warm water will help the flour stick and not slide off while you are frying the cheese. Dip in warm water again and fry the cheese in olive oil or a knob of butter until golden. Serve immediately with a good dousing of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

strawcake1

I did something incredibly stupid on the weekend. It was Saturday and I was trying to shoot a photo to go with an article I had written for a local magazine. Although I have a beautiful bay window, the light in my place is not always conducive to taking food pictures. I decided to take my things outside to the courtyard of my building. My mind was on gathering everything that I needed as I headed out. The second I shut the door I realized I’d left my keys inside.  I had locked myself out.  In my slippers.

I knocked on the doors of three neighbors, hoping one of them would lend me their phone so I could call a locksmith. Of course, no one was home. With trepidation, I finally knocked on Carol’s door. I hadn’t seen her since Easter, when I had taken her some of my tiramisu.

I felt bad about bothering Carol. Her husband died suddenly at Christmastime, leaving her with two small children to take care of. Carol is from the Philippines.  She’s a homemaker and doesn’t drive. A couple of weeks earlier she had fallen at the supermarket and broken her leg. Feeling foolish, I explained what had happened. Carol sympathized with my plight. She let me use her phone and offered me tea. We chatted until the locksmith came.

I wanted to thank Carol for her kindness so I made this Strawberry Mascarpone Tart from the April 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine. I had been wanting to make this tart since I’d seen it on the cover but hadn’t been presented with the opportunity. Piled high with fresh strawberries drizzled with port glaze, this easy tart was truly impressive. Tomorrow I will go get my tart pan from Carol and see how she liked it.

I don’t know about you, but this economic downturn and financial instability have left me with a persistent sense of unease. But now when I feel sorry for myself, I think of Carol.

Strawberry Mascarpone Tart with Port Glaze

Adapted from Gourmet, April 2009

Serves 8

strawplate

Ingredients:

for tart shell:

1 1/4 cups flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

7 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 large egg yolk

for filling:

1 1/2 lb strawberries, trimmed and quartered lengthwise

1/3 cups sugar

3/4 cup ruby Port

1 lb mascarpone cheese (about 2 cups)

1/4 cup icing sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

1) To make tart shell blend together flour, sugar, salt, and butter in a bowl with a pastry blender, or in a food processor, until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.

2) Beat together yolk, vanilla, lemon juice, and water with a fork. Drizzle over the flour mixture and blend until the ingredients come together. Knead gently with floured hands on a floured surface until dough forms.

3) Press into a 5-inch disk and place in the center of a tart pan. Cover with plastic wrap. Using your fingers and the bottom of a measuring cup, press out dough to evenly cover the bottom and sides of the pan. Prick bottom of tart shell several times with a fork and freeze for about fifteen minutes.

4) Preheat oven to 375F. Line tart shell with foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for about 20 minutes, until set and lightly golden in color. Remove foil and continue to bake until the shell is deeply golden all over, about another 20 minutes. Cool in pan for 45 minutes.

5) While the tart shell cools, make the filling. Stir together strawberries and sugar in a bowl and let stand for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain over a sieve set over a small saucepan, reserving berries. Add Port to liquid in saucepan and boil until reduced to about 1/4 cup, about 10-15 minutes. Cool slightly.

6) Whisk together mascarpone, sugar, lemon juice, zest, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until stiff. Spread mixture evenly in cooled tart shell, then top with strawberries. Drizzle Port glaze all over tart.

stcakebright

Cooks Notes:

*Be sure to add the strawberries to the pie just before serving, otherwise the tart will end up looking messy if it sits around.

*Make sure the liquid is strained adequately from the strawberries. Too much liquid on top of the tart will make it look soupy and messy.

*For a lighter version, use half mascarpone, half ricotta cheese.

*The tart shell can be baked a day ahead and kept at room temperature.

cheesepieWhen most North Americans think of phyllo, Greek food usually comes to mind; spanakopita, bougatsa, baklava, and various other turnovers and pies that are eaten all over the Greek Isles. But phyllo pastry is popular throughout the Balkans, in Slavic cuisines, as well as in the Middle East. From Armenia to Turkey, phyllo stuffed pastries can be found alongside breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or simply enjoyed as snack food.

One of my favorite versions is this cheese pie eaten throughout the regions of the former Yugoslavia. I always looked forward to the nights when my mother was too tired to make a three course meal and baked this pie, serving it with a simple salad. She always had phyllo dough on hand. Layered with eggs and cheese and baked for half an hour, it was a quick dinner that also tasted great leftover for breakfast.

We’re lucky, my mother and I, because whenever we yearn to make this pie all we have to have to do is go to the corner store and pick up a package of the flaky pastry and we’re halfway to dinner. Not too long ago, the woman in my family had to make the phyllo dough from scratch because it wasn’t available in the shops. If you haven’t seen anyone make phyllo before, it’s a truly fascinating yet laborious process. I used to watch my Aunt Maria with awe as she stretched the dough across the whole length of the dining room table, coaxing it down over the edges, until it was so thin you could see through it. She would then rub it lovingly with olive oil until it gleamed like white satin. The baked product result was amazing, crispy and bubbling, with silky soft layers in between–almost like a rustic puff pastry. Now that supermarket phyllo is available everywhere in Serbia, no one bothers making it anymore. I’m sad to say that this store-bought phyllo is the same kind you can buy here, and its in no way comparable to the real deal. If you ever get a chance to try real homemade phyllo, you will know what I mean.

I plan to make my own phyllo one day. I’m psyching myself up for it. I have a recipe for Cretan phyllo from Aglaia Kremezi’s wonderful book The Food of the Greek Isles. It’s a modern version, requiring a food processor. Although the recipe says to roll the dough out as thinly as possbible, nowhere does it say it has to be six feet long, like your kitchen table! Perhaps I can convince my mother to give me a tutorial. I’m going to let you know how it goes.

For now, I’m going to keep making this cheese pie whenever I have an extra ten mintues and some phyllo leaves in the freezer.

 

Balkan Style Cheese Pie

Ingredients:

1/2 pound (500g) cottage cheese

1/2 pound (500g) feta cheese, crumbled

3 eggs

1/2 cup (150ml)club soda

1/4 cup (75ml) olive or canola oil

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

8 phyllo leaves

You can omit the salt if you find the mixture salty enough from the feta. I personally like this pie on the salty side. The club soda helps make the pie light and puffy.

Directions:

1) In a large bowl mix together the cheese, eggs, club soda, oil, and salt with a spatula until well combined.

gibbatter

2) Grease a 9-inch pie pan or spray with non-stick cooking spray. Place two sheets of phyllo, one crossed over the other, over the pan and gently tuck in. With a ladle, spoon over some of the cheese mixture.

Like this:

stepone

3)Fold the corners of the phyllo over the filling.

layers

4) Pour over some more of the cheese mixture.

finallayer

5) Repeat twice, alternating the phyllo leaves with the cheese mixture. Pour any leftover filling over top layer.

Like this:

unbaked

6) Bake at 375F for about 30 minutes, or until top is golden and pie has puffed up.

baked

6) Cool until lukewarm and serve.

gib

In Balkan countries, this cheese pie is often eaten with plain yogurt. You can serve it for breakfast with some fruit, or alongside a salad for a light meal.

For variation, sprinkle layers with fresh spinach leaves, sauteed mushrooms, or browned ground lamb or pork.

Some notes on working with phyllo:

* Defrost phyllo overnight in the refrigerator for best result. Bring to room temperature before using.

*Do not remove the phyllo leaves from the plastic packaging until you are ready to use them, or they will dry out.

*Phyllo dries out very easily. While you are working, cover the unused sheets with a damp tea towel to prevent them from drying out.

*Phyllo is fragile but forgiving. In this dish it doesn’t matter if you tear the leaves. Also, in most recipes tears or breaks don’t matter on the inside layers. Any large holes can be patched with pieces of dough and then brushed with melted butter before shaping and baking.

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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