Wednesday, June 20, 2012

gifts from the garden

Summer is gently making her grand entrance. Nights are velvety soft and twinkling with fireflies, making it impossibly romantic to be outdoors. We went to Ashford Manor to kick off the season with the first summer concert and picnicked on the lawn grooving to Abbey Road, a Beatles tribute band. Bogdan came home earlier that day during lunch with a variety of cucumbers and peppers, compliments of a co-worker's garden's harvest. Since this past week we had been slurping up cucumber gazpacho at Heirloom here in Athens and Star Provisions in Atlanta, it was a no-brainer what to make to take with us for a refreshing start to our picnic.

Here is my interpretation of chilled summer cucumber gazpacho:

1 1/2 lbs. cucumbers, peeled & de-seeded
2 long green peppers (Anaheim Chilis/California Green Chilis), deseeded
1 large clove garlic, pressed
juice of half a grapefruit
1/2 cup European/Greek style yogurt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp sea salt

Cut up cucumbers into chunks and roughly chop peppers. Place everything in a blender and puree until smooth. Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours or for a quick chill, place in a sealed container and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Makes 3 Cups of gazpacho (serves 4 small cups).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

the color of summer

it's almost here. and although we've been experiencing mild days with weekly thunder showers, i'm starting to crave the boldness and freshness that summer fruits and veggies cool us down with. this weekend we're off to the low country to kick it with some friends at the beach. i can't wait to swim and eat some good seafood! and while cleaning out the fridge for today's lunch, i scrapped together some remains from our early summer treats, with a little bit of spring lingering behind.

it's so simple. watermelon. tomato. haloumi cheese. throw it all on the grill. i had some really left over macerated balsamic strawberries* i had made with fresh pickings from Washington Farms that served as the perfect sweet to the salty bite of the cheese. the tart balsamic juice drizzled over everything added extra zing. sprinkle everything with maldon sea salt and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. minced fresh mint and basil to top off. and toasted kalamata olive bread to sop up all of the goodness. don't know if it's the bit of greek in me, but i could feast like this all summer....

*jaime oliver's balsamic strawberries

1 pint strawberries
2 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp balsamic vinegar

hull & cut berries into bite size. in a bowl, sprinkle sugar over berries and add vinegar. mix until well coated and let sit at least 2 1/2 hours in the fridge. the berries i had have been in the fridge over a week, which translates into an extremely syrupy juice and macerated fruit. great as a topping for almost any desert!

Friday, May 11, 2012

a savory pie & kidney bean salad

An intense desire to channel my maternal grandmother's cheese pie recipe has taken hold of me as of late and I really wish she was still around to direct me how it is to be made. The cheese pie she made was epic. I still have friends from high school raving about it. The ingredients are not the challenge in this case, as I felt like making spinach cheese pie instead, a slight variation. Cracking the code involved figuring out how to roll the pies in swirls and get the topping just right so that everything melted or molded all together into one glorious well-formed individual pie that could be cut out of the pan, creating her signature touch. We're not talking about your generic spanikopita here people!

Enter fillo dough, a force to be reckoned with. The force is two-fold, as defrosting the dough can pose challenges when ready to separate the delicate and extremely fragile sheets, as well as needing to keep an eye on how fast one assembles so as not to let the dough dry out and start cracking into brittle pieces. The intention here is not to scare you away from working with fillo, although I know that it may not be for the faint of heart. For those of you up to the task, stay with me, it is well worth it!

Immediately as I opened the package, a wave of memories overtook me, mainly from my childhood when it seemed as though fillo dough was always strewn across the kitchen table being used for making baklava or sweet and savory pies of some sort. And, as if possessed, it didn't even take a second before my husband came scurrying over to tear off corners of the "paper" and eat it raw, something I think all Romanian children do.

"Don't eat too much or your tummy will hurt," I found myself instinctively telling him, echoing my mother's and grandmother's words from decades ago.

Having not worked with fillo dough since high school, I guess I forgot the tricks to making it easy to work with. So I set off on this adventure blindly, hoping it would all come back to me. I think the most important part is once you decide to make your pie, stick to the timing and don't let the dough sit in the fridge for too much longer than the time needed to defrost (I waited until a day later). Otherwise, I think what happened to my dough will happen to yours and the sheets will stick to one another in certain areas and not separate. I think I wasted half a roll of dough because of this.

The next challenge was figuring out how to make the pies creamy and "held-together" like my grandmother would make them. Enter my husband's recollection of his maternal grandmother's technique, the special topping.

So here is my rendition of Spinach Cheese Pie:


1 roll of fillo dough (found in freezer section at market)
1 bag of frozen spinach (organic if possible), thawed
16 oz. good quality cottage cheese
About 5 oz. good quality feta cheese
1/4 bunch green onion, chopped finely
About 1/2-3/4 cup fresh fill, chopped finely
2 eggs
About 1 cup olive oil
Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

For topping:

1 egg
About 2 heaping tablespoons greek style yoghurt

Special equipment needed:

2 Baking Sheets (I used a 12"x19" to roll out the dough so that it can easily lay flat for use and not make a mess and a 9"x13" for assembling the pies. You can lay the fillo straight out on the table if you have enough surface area, but putting it in a sheet pan contains the mess.)
1 baking pan
1 pastry brush

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Defrost fillo dough according to instructions on box. In a sauté pan, heat about 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the green onion for a minute then add the spinach and sauté for a few minutes until softened. While preparing the spinach, in a bowl, crumble the feta using a fork and add the cottage cheese. Add spinach and onion and add dill, eggs, salt & pepper to taste (bear in mind feta is salty) and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated.

I cut the fillo dough sheets in 1/2 starting on the long side to form smaller rectangles. These sheets fit perfectly into my 9"x13" pan. Pour olive oil into a bowl and with pastry brush, brush the bottom of the sheet pan and lay down one layer of dough. Brush that layer with oil until transparent, add another layer on top and repeat oil brushing. Repeat 2 more times until you have 4 layers (sheets) of dough with the top layer brushed with oil as well. If your dough starts to tear (and it will), do not fret, do as I did and it works out very well. Just piece together enough to form a complete sheet and make sure you brush well with oil. The sheets will miraculously adhere once you roll everything up.

Spread a very thin layer of filling across the dough and starting from one corner, start to roll the dough on a diagonal. When you reach the end, pull the whole roll closer into you to the center of the pan so you have room to complete the roll. Taking one end of the roll, loosely roll it in to meet the other end, like into a lollypop swirl, until you have a round pie formed.

Brush the baking pan with oil that will hold the rolled pies and continue assembling and rolling pies and place them snugly in rows, using a spatula to carry the pies carefully intact. I was able to fit 3 rolls per row. Since half of my dough was all stuck together, I was left with filling and got 6 rolls total. I am sure I could have made another 3-4 rolls with the mixture I had remaining, for a total of about 9-10 pies.

Give the tops of the rolls one last brush with oil and into the oven they go. Time will vary according to your oven, I had to keep them in for about 45-50 minutes, watching carefully for that magic moment when the pies are perfectly golden brown, but not overly brown. You will be able to see the mixture breaking through and the cheese will be bubbling and a bit browned as well. While waiting, beat one egg and mix in the yoghurt until a creamy liquid forms. It should not be too watery, but not too thick either. Adjust amount of yoghurt needed.

Take the pan out when pies are ready and brush the topping on top. Pour remaining topping so it fills all of the nooks and crannies and spaces in between each pie and down the sides of the pan. Put back in oven for about 10 minutes and watch carefully again. At first, the topping will cause the dough to look like bad wrinkled skin, but then it will baked on to form a nice custard-like layer and become golden brown again. Use your judgement and do not  leave in too long as to over-bake.

The result is this amazing sheet of twirled goodness that should be cut immediately into individual servings and savored pronto.

I conveniently chose the salad to accompany the pie that uses some of the same ingredients so that prep time efficiency is maximized. This is one of my husband's favorite salads that I was introduced to by my mother-in-law and it has quickly become one of my family's favorites as well. On one of my "Vegan Tuesdays" at my Mom's, we made kidney bean salad and my Mom had made some quinoa on the side. I simply added it to the salad and it was so utterly amazing that now my husband is hooked. This salad is not a Romanian recipe, but we think it may be Armenian since my husband's aunt married an Armenian and my mother-in-law seems to think that is how she learned the recipe. It is so refreshing and packed with protein, especially with the quinoa. In fact, it makes it a complete protein salad and accompanies the vegetarian pie perfectly!

Kidney Bean & Tri-colored Quinoa Salad.

1 can red kidney beans (organic preferably), well washed and drained
3/4 - 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
1/2 -3/4 cup loosely packed fresh dill, finely chopped
2 lemons, zested and juiced
About 1/3 cup olive oil
Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 cup dry quinoa prepared according to instructions on packet (I used tri-colored quinoa from Trader Joe's) and let cool for about 10-15 minutes

In a large bowl, combine the kidney beans, green onions, dill, zest of both lemons and juice of both lemons, olive oil to coat well and salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked quinoa and mix until all is coated well in lemon and olive oil juice.

So when grandmothers' forces unite, huge success ensued, a complete match made in heaven just like me & hubby!

Friday, April 27, 2012

a tasty treat

It's Friday Y'all! It seems as though I may have been focussing a lot on really light, healthy foods around here lately. Maybe because I've been in the cleansing frame of mind while teaching a Kundalini Yoga Detox series. But I promise you, we do get down and dirty in the kitchen from time to time. And I must confess, I have to muster up a bit of courage to venture into the land of pastry and baking. Perhaps due to my long hours put in steaming over gigantic vats of lemon curd and filling countless éclairs in what felt like a 100 degree pastry kitchen while a wee intern. It's not easy. All of the measuring and precision kind of cramps my style. When it comes to sweets, I'm the first to line up to consume, and less of a  pioneer in the pastry kitchen itself. But sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do (mainly to satisfy her husband's sweet tooth as of late!).

I finally got a Donna Hay book after almost a decade of being introduced to her elegant simplicity and no-nonsense way of putting food together. I have been cooking my way through the book the past couple weeks and love every single concoction. The best part is how ridiculously easy and truly "fast" (as the title suggests) the preparations are.

Little Chocolate Brownies. I made round #2 today after round #1 last week disappeared in 2.5 days. But I did make half of the quantity called for in the book so we sort of behaved in that respect. I adapted the recipe in a couple of ways: it is gluten free and I used almond flour for a nutty flavor. Plus I dressed them with strawberries and cream. What could be more tasty? 

Here is how I did it:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

5 oz. butter, softened until just starts to melt
1 cup pure cane sugar

Blend until light and fluffy in a mixing bowl.

Add ingredients and mix:

3/4 cup organic raw cocoa powder
2 eggs
1/4 cup almond flour
3/4 cup Red Mill gluten free all purpose four
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 teaspoon baking powder

First of all, you're wondering, "xanthan gum"? what the???? I was always suspicious of this ingredient and thought it was something chemical to preserve processed foods. Totally wrong answer. It's a thickening agent for gluten free foods. Mystery dispelled and after successful incorporation of the product, I feel confident using it and you should too. If you can't be bothered to make them gluten free, simply substitute the "gluten free all purpose flour" for regular all purpose flour and don't use xanthan gum. And if you don't have almond flour, use 1 whole cup of flour.

After mixing everything together, it becomes thick and stiff. Not what you are used to from store-bought brownie mix. It's ok, proceed to spooning the mixture into a non-stick muffin tin. Since my recipe was half of what I gave you, I used my mini muffin tin. Personally, I feel like mini treats are so much more gratifying and much less guilt-inducing. But these are organic, gluten free, antioxidant rich treats anyway, so who cares? Proceed to baking for 10-12 minutes.

Let cool before removing from tin. Some may come out whole, other's caps may come off in the process, but not to worry. Pop a whole one in your mouth if you can't control yourself once out of the oven, but to really treat yourself right, do them up proper style. I top the whole ones with crème fraîche and sliced strawberries.

The ones that don't come out whole from the tin, I make little tartines (open-faced sandwiches) spread with crème and strawberries. Happy Weekend!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

the simplest soup

Cooking, believe it or not, requires a load of planning if you want to make a true art of it. It starts with planting the seed in your mind of what you want to produce and then letting it take root in the form of a shopping list.

"Well, duh!," you pontificate.

But I'm not talking about preparing one meal. It's the kind of cooking I liken to weaving a basket, where the original elements (your shopping bag loot) form the foundation, and where new meals are born out of the last, introducing a new ingredient or two as you go, like weaving in the next piece of straw.

I have been recently considering if how I cook is really sustainable. Not in the sense of buying organic and composting, etc..., but rather am I really being efficient with my time and resources? No matter how I love preparing meals from scratch and rejoicing over the nourishment the soul receives as a result, there inevitably comes a time when the last thing I want to do is cook. The monotonous cycle of shopping, loading the fridge, figuring out what to make, (if I had planned well enough, I would have had a meal plan for the week so that would reduce one notch in the cycle of what to make), prepping the ingredients, actually assembling them (the fun part), eating (even better) and then the dreary act of clearing the table and loading the dishwasher (which is even more of a drag when the last load has not been emptied), and finally starting over the next day - it can become so exhausting, and then burnout happens and it's all about eating out (for the next several meals).

My fabulously multi-talented wedding photographer Jen Altman put it so beautifully in her food blog entry 'the little things': "it ebbs and flows," this desire and energy to cook. And I can surely attest to that. Not only is cooking at home less of a hit on the pocket book, but it's also the healthier route, no doubt. So why is it so damn easy to throw that logic out the window and cave into being lazy and jumping in the car to eat enchiladas at TDS???

I recently have been obsessing over this book that I picked up a couple weeks ago in CA, and coincidentally, the author is one of the co-founders of one of our favorite restaurants in Athens. It has completely made me re-think and in essence re-learn the way I cook.

I could wax on about the sheer simplicity in her cooking principles. But I would much rather you read the book and I can get on to the recipe you came here for!

So without further ado, I present Turnip Greens Soup.

Remember these little critters?

I made a killer lamb stew with these baby turnips on Monday that I honestly wish I had time to document (except for these)

Yum. As per Tamar's instructions, I saved the greens. Here in the South, this "greens" business has taken a while to register on my cooking radar and I had been admittedly a bit intimidated by what to do with this kind of produce. If you have a Farmers Market in your neighborhood, I assure you, this whole vast world of "greens" can be revealed to you as well. It's an adventure well worth getting on board with.

Because it was my "Vegan Tuesday", I would make the simplest soup out of the greens. How hard could it be? Tamar proclaims they (the greens) are "worth their weight in gold" so why throw them out?

By mere coincidence, the recipe that I clicked on upon doing a quick google search, happened to be from a vegan blog, go figure. I have adapted it by using turnip greens instead of radish greens and increased the quantity of fresh herbs by a lot. You can play with it too and add whatever greens you have on hand or are inspired to buy.

Turnip Greens Soup

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 Large Shallots, finely chopped
4 Cups Turnip Greens (or other greens), packed
4 Cups Vegetable Stock (I used a low sodium variety)
1/4-1/2 Cups Fresh Mint, roughly chopped (I had this amazing apple mint from the farmers market that was very bulky)
1/4-1/2 Cups Fresh Italian Parsley, roughly chopped
Sea Salt (to taste)
Freshly ground pepper (I used a Pepper Blend)
Fresh Lemon Juice (to taste)
French Breakfast Radishes for garnish (optional)
Crème Fraîche for garnish (optional)

In a stock pot or large sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat and add shallots, stirring often to prevent browning.
Sauté until translucent.
Add the greens and wilt and then add the stock.
Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, covered.
Add chopped mint and parsley.
Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Remove from heat.
Purée in a blender in batches or with an immersion blender.

Serves 4 large bowls, 6-8 small.

To serve: garnish with left-over herbs if you have any or with thinly sliced radish and a fresh crack of pepper. Note: do not over-pepper as some of these greens already have a peppery quality to them. Taste first! Add a generous squeeze of lemon juice. This really brightens up the soup.

On Tuesday, I ate as is, vegan style. But my husband enjoyed it with a healthy dollop of crème fraîche. Although I was blessed to have such a cleansing meal on Tuesday evening, I licked my bowl dry when I got to add my even healthier dollop of crème the next day, its resulting girth and depth making it incomparable to its vegan counterpart.

So there it is. 15 minutes and you have a wholesome meal if you add a hunk of bread to it. Although I firmly advocate for simplifying in the kitchen as much as possible, I also believe in giving the stove top a break as well to allow that flow to return to the spirit. As I told Jen the other day, "Never feel bad about not wanting to cook. If love isn't going into it, then what does the soul have to digest?" So next time you feel the urge to really go shopping and cook, I challenge you to let that flow weave a multitude of meals for you throughout your next week.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

cycle of life

"Good morning little bird," exclaimed Bogdan as he gently stepped out the door so as not to disturb Mama bird. In my mind, I realized that was the first time he vocalized a greeting to our feathered friend after a few weeks of inhabiting the nest that had been perched up in a corner of the back porch when we bought our home. Qualifying this gesture as out of the ordinary, as if to signal foreshadowing, I went about my morning.

Mama bird sits on her nest all day long, watchful for any sudden moves. As soon as we approach the door, she is on alert. Once stepping out the door, no matter how mindful our movement, she takes flight, abandoning her eggs momentarily to take cover. We mean no harm and I wish she would feel comfortable to stay.

"That's what they do, we don't want them to get used to humans," proclaims Bogdan. "Domesticating them puts them in harms way..."

Throughout the day, I noticed she did not return. And each time I passed the door, I looked, as if a worried mother myself, wondering about her whereabouts, checking in on her location status. To no avail, and by late afternoon, I found myself mourning her absence, as if subliminally reading into the universe's great secret.

"Why has she not come back?" I pleaded with Bogdan upon his return from work. "This is the first time in these weeks that she has been gone all day."

"She must have abandoned the nest, maybe the eggs are no longer viable."

And then Papa bird swooped in, monitoring the situation. Perhaps there was hope left. But I couldn't help thinking that she no longer wanted her roost.

This is not supposed to be a dreary anecdote. In fact, this morning greeted me with warm sunshine and I jumped out of bed to get to the Farmer's Market. No recipes to share today, nor any fun links. Just the delight that Spring brings to the soul.

And what a joyful occasion it was. Bright dragon snaps, baby turnip greens, fresh rye bread, and apple mint were my pickings, amongst others.

"You're in for a treat" delighted one of the girls as I picked up a bag of 'Fancy Pants'. "Every time you open a bag, a party comes out, watch out!" How can you not party with greens and petals so bold and yet dainty as these?

Decidedly, Mama bird had definitively left. And preying birds that were circling the area yesterday got to the nest.

I had noticed the nest was disheveled and even some strands lay strewn out on the deck. Only until I opened the door to step out on my way to market did I notice the reality of fallen eggs, two of them, yolks exposed to the first light of day.

"It's ok, that's the cycle of life," Bogdan giving me a reassuring hug. For a brief moment, I lamented the premature loss of little spring chicks. But Mother Nature knows its course, as did Mama bird.

The cycle of life continues as the story goes, for a fresh new mossy nest has been gathered and a new Mama bird roosts on our front porch! The Divine Hand is indeed at work. This weekend we celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter. And new life resurrects, not skipping a single beat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

digesting the road

The thrill of getting away on vacation is every much exhausting as it is exciting. No matter how much one tries to "relax" or makes a point of selecting a destination intent on "unplugging" from the race, it inevitably creeps up on you as soon as you step foot back on familiar soil and settle back into the rhythm of being home. Traversing time zones routinely does a number on the body, even if only 3 hours west in this case. Not only are you physically time traveling, but you ascend through layers of atmosphere as if transcending into a spirit realm of sorts, imbued with the evident lack of free-flowing oxygen. When I step off a plane, I feel as though my molecular structure has been jostled and re-configured (because it has been) to the point of nausea and it takes half a day to even begin to feel grounded.

Since we traveled back to our other "home", the California motherland, we weren't particularly giddy with anticipation of uncharted territory. We were just going up the coast, a jaunt to Santa Barbara and Big Sur. I never underestimate the intrinsic power of a Big Sur trip, as with it always comes a sense of transformative vitality. But since we threw Santa Barbara into the mix,  I must say I was a little curious as to how I would embrace this old teenage haunt as an adult. My memories reduced to mission architecture and spending weekends with one of my favorite high school friends at her uncle's hacienda, I immediately entered jaw-dropping mode to find a whole new world I never knew existed. It was like love at first site and the sheer glee that came over me was uncontainable. Why had I waited decades to return to this glorious resort-like setting?

Traveling for me is very much about the lodging as well as about the food. And I must say I pat myself on the back for having unearthed this little gem of a location: the Presidio Motel. I actually stumbled upon it while following links for a jewelry designer and ended up at the Supply Room online, the motel's exquisitely curated shop for all things ultra chic. From the moment we checked in, my head was buzzing and I ran from room to room trigger-happy. You would too if you saw these rooms:

Room 6

Room 14

Room 14

Room 12 Detail

Room 12 Headboard
The next order of things was to see how my egg coloring experiment turned out. Yes, I carried the eggs in a container full of stinky cabbage & vinegar water from Huntington Beach, as well as my props, and now it was time to unveil them. So although this was supposed to be vacation, it felt very much like I was on a work mission, but who cares? I was in Santa Barbara!!!

So if ever in the area, please do book a room at the Presidio and please stop in the Supply Room.

Please eat at Jane which is a 5 minute walk from the motel. If you have a hankering for Japanese, then Arigato Sushi is a must, just a few more minutes down State St. on foot. Oh, and did I mention that EVERYTHING you could possibly want to do in town is within walking distance on State St.???

For the health nuts out there, Backyard Bowls for breakfast is awesome. This is "the backyard bowl" which kept me full for several hours and well fueled for a good hike up Cold Springs Trail.

 I was doing a vegan fast that day so lunch at The Natural Cafe was amazing.

The Farmers Market had just set up after stepping out from lunch. My heart swelled seeing the mountains of produce as I wistfully longed for a market such as this in Athens. It's ok, I count my blessings for the market we have (that by the way started last Saturday while away, hooray!), but I almost wished we had a full kitchen to play in so we could buy up loads of market specialties.

We did indulge in three baskets of strawberries from an Oxnard farm and took bikes down to the beach and gratified ourselves with a bit of sweetness before dinnertime.

And on advice from Food & Wine, we brunched at the Scarlet Begonia before I held my husband and sister hostage at The French Press (again, on State St.!) to pump out the last blog entry. I didn't fuel up on caffeine, but boy did the coffee look enticing.

It's hard to describe in words what Big Sur does to me, although the beatnik greats effortlessly achieved encapsulating its mysteries. The road there is itself a wrinkle in time. And once there, all there is to do is breath in all of its redwood and cedar air and float up in the mountain mist, into the ethers.

Apart from all of the more affordable charming (and somewhat rugged) inns and cottages, if you are not staying at the Ventana Inn or Post Ranch Inn (which should be on everyone's 'must do once in their lifetime' list), there is really not much else available, or so I thought. I was thrilled to find Glen Oaks Inn which was completely overhauled 5 years ago and struck the perfect balance between traveling on a budget and ultra luxury.

Room 2, fireplace standard in all rooms!
If you ever find yourself in Big Sur, you must never bypass Nepenthe, or Cafe Kevah and stop in the Phoenix shop. Breakfast or dinner at the Big Sur Inn is divine. And if you want to treat yourself right, do have a dinner at Cielo or get to Sierra Mar before the sunset to be embraced by the big blue ocean. For fine local culture, visit the Hawthorne Gallery and of course, the Henry Miller Library is always fun.

So as I sit here (a bit off-kilter from jet-lag) contemplating the road and the process it takes to get there and back, the discomfort always seems to be outweighed by the inspiration and fuel one generates from time away. And I resign to the fact that "the road more traveled" is always the better choice.