maandag 13 december 2010

Cider and cheese soup / Mulled cider

This is another double blog- perhaps it reflects my personality quite well- easily side-tracked?
I also had to laugh at this blog, there I was feeling a bit overindulged- and came up with a boozy, creamy soup and some mulled cider- is it the Nigella in me?! Well the two recipes do share a common denominator- CIDER.

If you didn't realise already I love good food and drink- but believe me too much of a good think can be bad. In fact it can be very bad leaving one very worse for wear- and we still have Christmas to look forward to! I have been guilty of overindulging, which has resulted in a (temporary) loss of inspiration and appetite.
Yesterday I didn't quite know what I fancied, and decided to eat absolutely nothing but a few Kettle Balsamic vinegar crisps. We don’t have the real salt n vinegar crisps here sob sob. But a person has to eat 'proper' food so after careful consideration I opted for soup- one I made at school to be exact, must be a sure case of hungering for comfort food. Cheese and cider soup.
The only problem was I didn't actually have a recipe. No worries- with Google everything is possible- isn't it?
I had suggested making this soup several times before, only to let hubby put a dampers on it. He just couldn't see it working- we are talking about a man that used to throw a wobbly at seeing pieces of pinapple on a pizza- what does he know! The sweet and savoury thing was absolute taboo- but gradually he is opening up to the idea. And in any case he wasn't here to talk me out of it this time- and if he is hungry he eats (nearly) anything.
But another reason for waiting so long to make this soup was that cider just wasn't available here in Holland. Sob sob. In fact I was quite excited to see in the shops. First Savanna Dry at the Sligro, Dutch food wholesaler. And then a little over a year ago, Jillz and Strongbow Gold on the shelves of my Albert Heijn supermarket. Thank you Heineken.
Strongbow Gold is slightly different to English cider- I can't quite put my finger on it (I do enjoy this kind of research mind). I checked out the labels and it seems that the English Strongbow contains artificial sweeteners while Strongbow Gold does not. English Strongbow is also a little more alcoholic 5.3% vol opposed to the Gold 5% vol.
Jillz is a fruity cider-beer alcoholic beverage that incidentally does not contain 'hops' (that give beer it's bitter taste) It's aim is obviously to tempt the female beer drinkers amongst us.

Back on track. My Google search was not very yielding so I would have to improvise. Hmm what do I remember of my vintage soup- that it contains cider, cheese, onions, potato and milk/ or cream. Did I really make this at school? Alcohol on school premises seems quite unlikely? Maybe my memory is failing me- everyone knows cider is alcoholic, don't they? Well actually NO- one of my best friends didn't realise and had a very good evening 'cider tasting' (but a very bad morning after) I mention no name.
If anyone has a recipe I would be so pleased to hear.
Here is what I came up with.

Cheese and cider soup:

2 onions, finely chopped
2 medium potatoes, finely diced
3 small cloves of garlic, finely chopped
oil for frying, olive or arachide (peanut) oil that I generally use these days
300gr vegetables (I used a packet of mixed vegetables- leek, carrot, celery leaf, cauliflower)
2 small celery sticks, finely diced
1 liter cider (I suppose you could use apple juice)
1 small carton 200ml cream (I used UHT)
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
pinch nutmeg
salt and pepper
stock cube (since we are using no liquid stock)
125gr cheddar cheese, grated
large knob of butter
little water

Fry the onions in the oil for a few minutes. Add potato and garlic and cook for several minutes.
Stir in the coriander, cumin, nutmeg. Add the vegetables, stir and add a little water (the potatoes will be sticking slightly.
Braise the vegetables until tender. Add the cider and a stock cube and heat until almost boiling point. DO NOT BOIL- the alcohol will evaporate!
Add cream, salt and pepper and puree if desired ( I usually opt for half as I like a bit of a bite) with an immersion blender.
Add cheese and a knob of butter and stir until melted increasing heat as necessary. Do not boil or this will toughen cheese.
Alternatively you could add cheese in individual soup dish.
I nearly added bread and cheese à la French onion soup style but quickly remembered my hubby detests French onion soup.
BTW he did enjoy his cider and cheese soup!

After last week’s mulled wine, and with cider on my mind (I think I am recovered) I decided to make some mulled cider or hot cider punch- whatever you care to call it.
My friend Breda made this for us at a Halloween gathering a couple of years ago and boy was it good! It warms the cockles of your heart and makes your whole house smell delicious.

This was roughly the recipe- she is, like me a cook that tweaks everything.

Mulled Cider

1 liter cider
sugar brown/ white or honey whatever you prefer, start with 3 - 4 tbsp.
2 Clementine’s, sliced
1 tsp all spice berries
1 piece cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
100ml whisky (or spirit of your choice- rum, brandy)
marmalade, 1 tbsp approx (optional)

You could also use other ingredients like fresh ginger, star anise, even whole peppercorns!

In a large pan add everything except the whisky and heat, stir until the sugar has dissolved. When steam is rising turn it down. DO NOT BOIL.
Turn off heat and allow to 'mull' for a minimum of an hour so all the flavours of the spices can infuse in the liquid.
Reheat just before serving. Add whisky, Serve with a slice of orange.
For anyone living locally, Tucker Box, Leiden offers a wide selection of ciders and other drinks.

zaterdag 11 december 2010

A box of groceries

Yes it's that time of year again. Visualise four people crowding around and excitedly packing out a box of groceries. Hamper time has arrived!
Funny how all year round nobody shows interest in doing the weekly shopping- let alone helping to pack it out!
The recession is evident, if the faces around me are anything to go by- everyone is slightly less enthusiastic than normal.
So what goodies does the Albert Heijn Christmas hamper 2010 contain?
Well yes lots of fillers. There are plenty of snacks in stock that's for sure:
Savoury: crisps, savoury nibbles, tapenade (looks more like salsa) and nuts with caramalised red onion.
Sweet: chocolate-hazelnut cookies, meringue, Christmas shaped cookies and sweets, chocolate 'coffee beans'.
Drinks: Fair-trade tea- rooibos and spices, organic coffee (who still uses coffee these days? I thought everyone uses Senseo pads or Nespresso cups)
Amé, an elderberry and lemon soft drink.
Other items: A packet of soup, shower gel, body lotion.
A game similar to Jenga, with mini glasses instead of bricks. (Yes we couldn't resist to have a game)

Where have all the luxury items disappeared to? Mustn't sound ungrateful mind. Setting aside the fact that it is all free- there is a lot of work and effort gone into putting together these items. Someone has had to create an interesting box of groceries on a budget, someone else had to do all the packing.
We certainly enjoyed packing it out and I guess someone will enjoy eating it. Thank you Albert Heijn.
And now time for me to go away, have a good think about coming up with creative ways to get family members as enthusiastic about the weekly shopping…!

donderdag 9 december 2010

Getting into the festive spirit- Mulled Wine.

In The Netherlands the festive season begins when a rather tall gentleman enters the country, his name-
I know I'm a little late - (it's the story of my life) Sinterklaas is traditionally celebrated on 5th December, but none the less let me share with you my Sinterklaas evening and a delve a little into the background as to who/ what Sinterklaas is and exactly why he is so dear in the hearts of the Dutch. I won’t get into the history- google ‘St Nicholas’- it’s an interesting story.
I have been in The Netherlands for some time and Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) and his Zwarte Pieten (helpers) have really won me over. At first I couldn't quite understand it all, why were the Dutch stubbornly insisting on celebrating at the beginning of December while everyone celebrated at the end! I wrongly assumed Sinterklaas and Santa Claus were one and the same! Much to my husband / his family’s annoyance I insisted my Christmas tree was ready on time for Sinterklaas! To this day so does my mother- she always makes sure my Christmas card arrives 'on time'- (despite explaining year after year) the other day she asked me if my tree was up!
Almost immediately I was swept along by the festivities, and I became equally fond of this tall white haired man with a beard, especially when I had children of my own- it is a very children orientated celebration. But adults alike just can't help getting carried away - I too was guilty of enthusiastically waving and shouting at a passing Sinterklaas, and his Pieten! Hubby burst my bubble by saying "Vanessa- he isn't real". On another occasion one of the blackened faced Piets shouted greetings at my husband and I looked wide eyed in awe at him: "WOW you actually know one of the Zwarte Pieten?...."- haha!
We were just talking the other day about what an impact he actually has on everyone, young and old alike, even visitors from abroad are intrigued by him and his black face Peters. Everyone in Holland can sing a Sinterklaas song- even someone suffering with memory loss can often find joy and recognition upon hearing an all so familiar Sinterklaas melody.
I just mentioned foreigners- initially they may raise their eyebrows at the Zwarte Pieten but honestly no harm is meant and no one should be offended. Even the newspaper salesmen at the our local supermarkets like to dress up and sing along.
Sinterklaas is a Saint that arrives in Holland by steam boat from Spain, at the end of November to be welcomed by no-less the mayor, and warmly greeted by scores of children. Each year he arrives at a different port of entry. This year it was Harderwijk.
His presence will be evident in shop displays and in music playing at many locations. In nearly every town and village there will be a welcoming parade though the streets, children waiting along the route, braving all weather conditions, for a glimpse and perhaps a handful of cookies/ sweets. In the days leading up to 5th December (and the celebration of his birthday) he will visit many children, at school, at home, (sports)clubs, in shopping centers but even in the local supermarket. He will bring sweets, cookies and sometimes small presents (low budget). In the evenings just before bedtime, chilren often sing and leave their shoes by fireplaces or more often the backdoor with perhaps a carrot for the white horse of Sinterklaas. In return the next morning, they will find a treat (candy/ toy) in their shoes.
5th December
All this excitement leads up to a really special family celebration held on pakjesavond (parcelevening). Sinterklaas and his helpers have a very busy schedule visiting families across Holland in one evening delivering goods to all the well-behaved children. If the children are lucky they will get a personal visit, if not they will get a loud banging on the window and lo and behold a sack of goodies will appear as if by magic, dropped off on the doorstep to wide eyed, excited, and sometimes frightened children.
As the children get a little older and wiser, things change slightly and gifts come in the form of 'surprises' this is a well thought out 'package' with gift(s) inside and (usually ) a poem, which has relation to the person and the gift. This can be quite hilarious (Sinterklaas knows everything- he has ears and eyes everywhere). It is a way of having a bit of harmless fun with your loved ones.

Just after Sinterklaas arrives in the country the names of all participating persons are drawn out of a hat like a lottery and a budget is set. Everyone is responsible for making one 'surprise' and is the reciever of one 'surprise'.
Dutch Treats
With the Sinterklaas celebration comes a lot of delicious food related sweet goodies:

Pepernoten or kruidnoten are tiny round spiced cookies. Sometimes coated in chocolate.

Taai Taai are soft aniseed flavoured gingerbread.
Speculaas (spiced cookie). Gevulde Speculaas ( filled speculaas) is a spiced cake filled with almond filling (amandelspijs).

Further there are various treats in the form of letters. Large chocolate letters ( a-z ) are available in white/ plain / milk chocolate or Banketletters, a sweet pastry with almond filling in the shape of a I, M or S.
Also candy plays an important role often mixed with kruidnoten/pepernoten generously handed out by the Zwarte Pieten, as well as mandarin oranges.
Marsepein (marzipan) is widely available in all shapes/ colurs and forms.

Pakjesavond doesn't actually center around a traditional meal although gourmet has become quite popular making it a little more special.
As far as drinks are concerned hot chocolatemilk is popular for the children and mulled wine for the adults.
It is a tradition at our house to celebrate with cheese fondue. This is an ideal meal, very social, easy to prepare and little cleaning up work afterwards paving the way ready for an evening of entertainment as well as present opening. The 'surprises' are opened one for one, first the 'tongue in cheek' poem is read aloud, and then the package is opened to reveal the gift(s). The exchange of regular presents is equally commonplace. The presents are not generally extravagant but this does not in any way detract from the occasion. On the contrary my husband has been shocked to see the way Christmas presents are opened in England. In just minutes flat parcels are ripped open with increasing frenzy, the contents, carelessly tossed aside without a glance. He was also astonished to find out that a visit to Santa Claus (if he could be found) was relatively expensive. Actually he was quite disillusioned with 'Christmas'.
Once I understood the essence of Sinterklaas I couldn't help but want to participate. In the beginning, not being able to rhyme in Dutch, I actually wrote poems to my husband and children in English! My family also love Sinterklaas, and from the moment we each know who our 'culprit' is there is a positive air of excitement. In utmost secrecy everyone is busy with making their ‘surprises’. We have had some pretty spectacular 'surprises'- each year it is a challenge to come up with new ideas and creations. The standard of poems is exceptional- obviously everyone is equally enthusiastic.
We actually celebrated Sinterklaas on the 6th this year- and broke the rule. On the morning of 6th Dec Sinterklaas retreats back to Spain and all signs are erased only to be replaced by everything Christmas related including de kerstman (Santa Claus).
Here is a summary of the fun we had:

The 'bottom' had to have been the topper of the evening. It doesn't really need explaining but the present (or part of) was hidden inside an edible cake. It was made by a colleague of Martin. Here is the website. The cake didn't just look fantastic, with its beautiful intricate detail, it tasted absolutely delicious, light and sweet but well balanced with chocolate butter icing.

Mulled wine
You could of course buy a bottle but believe me it's just as easy to make your own- and the smell of freshly made Mulled wine is heavenly. The heady aroma really sets the atmosphere.
Drinking warm spiced wine is like having all the festive spices in one glass. You are free to add all your favourites. I actually also have some mulled wine sachets (like teabags) which are ideal if you like 'clear' wine. Start with 1/4 tsp of your chosen spices. You could wrap your spices in a bit of muslin or use a tea infuser or just strain before serving. I don't mind pieces floating in my mulled wine.

I use a liter bottle of red wine. Doesn't have to be expensive- you will be heating it (so shame to spoil an expensive wine), the spices and sweetness will lift a less good wine- so as long as it is of good colour and full bodied it should be ok.
Recipe for Mulled wine:
1 ltr of red wine
Sugar to taste, a good few tablespoons. Use white or light brown sugar, dark sugar tends to spoil the colour. Honey is also possible.
approx 200ml of water
Orange, lemon or lime, halved, spiked with a few cloves (4-6)
1-2 cinnamon stick
Optional extras: a piece of fresh/ ground ginger, a vanilla pod, star anise, cardomon pods, allspice, nutmeg (pinch) The choice is yours, try not to use everything though.
approx 125ml alcohol of choice- rum, brandy, whiskey.

Heat the wine and water in a large pan with a few tbsp. sugar, the fruit, and spices until the sugar is dissolved and steam is rising. DO NOT BOIL. We don't want the alcohol to evaporate!
Turn off the heat and let it 'sit' for at least 10 minutes preferably longer but up to about 30 minutes.
Remove the fruit and spices. Or leave if you like a pronounced taste.
Give the mulled wine its 'punch' by adding the alcohol of choice and reheat- DO NOT BOIL. Check and adjust the sweetness level and serve steaming hot. Enjoy.

maandag 22 november 2010

Recipe request: Churros

I am the one generally responsible for what is on our daily menu at home. Sometimes it can be a bit daunting, trying to come up with interesting variation in the diet and not falling back to my all time favourites. I am not only open, but encourage suggestions but they all seem happy to leave the task to me.
It is that I know that my family are quite satisfied with what I come up with, because my 'boys' are not exactly generous with their compliments. Sadly, in general I only hear when something doesn't go down too well- typical men! Comments about the dishes are not often made unless I initiate. Usually with a simple Dutch "lekker?" don't ask me to translate- it isn't really 'tasty' that is smakelijk, it isn't 'nice' that is more leuk. But on the other hand, contented faces- and empty plates speak volumes. And they have been known to lick their plates- something I don't encourage!
Recently I got a recipe request from my youngest son that I became quite intrigued by- Churros. These are Spanish dough-snacks in the form of sticks that I had never actually eaten. The very next time I saw them on a street stall I immediately bought a portion- purely for research mind- not because I actually wanted to eat these sweet smelling long fluted sticks. It was interesting watching them being made by the street vendor and judging by the long queue, they are pretty popular. They are made per customer request so piping hot and fresh. I wasn't disappointed- these 'doughnuts' were quite pleasant, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and coated in cinnamon sugar- delicious.
Before I had the chance to try to reproduce Churros myself my son decided with a group of friends to try it himself. I think they turned out pretty ok- apart from a (my) ripped piping bag that is.

I did a bit of research and discovered that Churros are found all over Spain and often eaten as a breakfast treat with a cup of chocolate milk (thicker than we are accustomed to drinking) The ultimate experience is, so they say, to dunk your Churros!
The dough is prepared similar to choux pastry. The snacks can be straight or curled, and often made with wheat four or alternatively potato. It seems that they are becoming quite popular at festivals, fairs, and at (Disney) attraction parks. They are not only found in Spain but also Mexico and other Latin American countries, as well as USA, and is also available in the form of a 'mix'.
The best way to eat them is hot and fresh from the fryer- they can't really be re-heated- but don't worry- there will probably be none leftover anyway!
Next time you spot them try them and experience a part of Spanish culture and then try making them yourself . They are absolutely delicious but be warned- quite more-ish. You'll be craving for your next 'fix' soon enough.

A photo taken by my other son last week in Spain. A high calorie breakfast with real Spanish Churros central.

As you would expect from any fried snack- Churros are not a dish for the health conscious or weight-watchers among us!
To be honest I actually forgot my promise to replicate the Churros- (is this why they don't make requests?) until the other day. I was watching Nigella's kitchen she was true to form,- it is an absolute a joy to watch her indulge on calorie rich food. Guess what was on the menu? Yes! Churros!
Her recipe was so simple with minimal ingredients- I decided to try it at the next opportunity. The dough/ batter is literally made in minutes. It then needs to be squeezed out of piping bag with a star-shaped nozzle to become long fluted sticks. This is what ensures that the Churrros are of the correct texture (crispy outside/ soft inside)
I was quite surprised that her recipe was eggless and googled to discover that authentic Spanish Churros doesn't actually contain egg. Or cinnamon.
The indulgent Nigella paired her Churros up with chocolate sauce- I didn't. (this time) I haphazardly mixed a bit of caster sugar with some cinnamon- you have to draw the line somewhere- they is too much of a good thing.
Although they actually turned out quite well and they are quite fun and simple to prepare- I will try adding a bit of butter and maybe an egg next time for a bit of nutrition and variation. Or even a grated lemon/ orange or perhaps a savoury version. They would certainly be a great party pleasers. Cheap and cheerful.
Where does the name Churros come from you may wonder- well the Navajo-Churro sheep of course- take a look at these horns! The recipe was developed by shepherds tending their sheep.
Luckily I found the Nigella recipe here so no need to have to jot everything down while pausing the video recorder!
If you want to go the whole way click over to Nigella and enjoy dunking your Churros in chocolate. If you want to keep it simple this time read on.

Nigella's Churros
125g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp olive oil
250ml freshly boiled water
A mix of caster sugar and cinnamon to your own taste.

To make the churros, put the flour into a bowl and stir in the baking powder, then beat in the olive oil and freshly boiled water from a kettle. Keep mixing until you have a warm, sticky dough, and leave to rest for about 10 minutes or for as long as it takes for the corn (or vegetable) oil to heat up.
When you are ready, load up a piping bag with a large star-shaped nozzl and fill with the churros dough. In my opinion the star nozzle I used wasn't quite big enough. And can you believe I actually ripped another brand new piping bag! I may use my aluminum cookie gun next time.
Squeeze short lengths (I made longer ones than Nigella) of dough into the hot oil, snipping them off with a pair of scissors as you go.
I turned them once during cooking. Once they turn a rich golden-brown, fish them out of the oil with a slotted spoon, spatula or tongs onto a baking sheet lined with some kitchen roll.
Nigella recommends: To keep the cooked churros warm while you fry the remaining dough, blot with kitchen roll, transfer them to a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in a low oven (100C/220F/Gas ¼). Even if you want to eat them immediately, they do need 5–10 minutes to rest before you eat them, to allow them to set inside.
(As it is such a small batch I didn't bother)
Just before serving, toss all the hot churros in the sugar and cinnamon mixture and shake them about to get a good covering.

Apologies for the awful photo's- the Churros were gobbled up before I could get a good shot of them!
The best laugh of the day was that hubby misunderstood me- he thought he heard me say I was making 'Gyros' instead of 'Churros'. Being a meat lover he was needless to say rather disappointed......can't please everyone....

zaterdag 6 november 2010

From sticky rice to perfect risotto

What is your biggest fear in the kitchen? Everyone surely must have something, a dish or ingredient that constantly goes wrong. I certainly do, or dare I say I did. Don't asume it is something elaborate like a Soufflé but one of the all time basics- RICE, YES really! Sticky / gooey/ wet or worse unevenly cooked- believe me- my family has experienced it all!
But what is more satisfying than facing up to your culinary fears (how could one possible scrap rice from the diet being a staple food for nearly one half of the world's population!?) and finding the skills to conquer them!
I used to have a big problem with Quiches which I quite successfully managed to overcome but as far as rice is concerned, just when I think I've mastered it and I'm used to turning out light, fluffy, perfect separate grained rice, I go and spoil it by producing a batch that makes me what to go and hang my head in shame!
Last year I held a Indian themed dinner party- it was a great success- apart from my Basmati rice- which was an absolute disaster! Overcooked and mushy on the bottom but hard on the top! OK it hasn't happened since but it shouldn't happen at all! How difficult can it be? The fault was in the pan (don't believe the saying a good craftsman never blames his tools!), because I was catering for a large group I used a different pan with a thinner bottom than I am accustomed to using.
For those who still struggle with rice see below for the absolute foolproof way of cooking rice. (as long as you use the right pan that is ;-) )

Something I very much enjoy is a Risotto. Because of my rice phobia I had for a long time I avoided making Risotto. The thought alone made me nervous! I had only ever made it a handful of times but now it is almost weekly on the menu!
A bit worrying is the saying: "risotto waits for no one" It must be cooked, served and eaten at once! Failure to do so will result in disappointment and disaster- as it continues to cook in it's own heat and become sticky and dry. I've often wondered how they are prepared to such perfection in restaurants, I understand they are 'half' cooked and finished off to order.
Risotto making is quite labour intensive (but not nearly as bad a polenta) It does require constant attention and regular stirring however- stick to this and all will be well (how do you like my positive thinking?!) I have made very bad risotto in the past, but with my new found confidence with rice, it now turns out perfect every time!.
I became particularly fond of Risotto during my visits to Italy. Not surprising since it originates from Northern Italy. It has restaurant status there. You can usually choose in every restaurant out of a wide range on the menu. It is so creamy, flavourful and satisfying. It a wonderful comfort' food, ideal at this time of the year.

The type of rice to use in risotto is the medium/short round grain. Varieties include: Carnaroli, Vialone Nano and the more common Arborio. Strange enough the first two are the easiest to cook but a little more expensive. Risotto can be made with many kinds of vegetables, meats and herbs.
If you adhere to a few simple steps & add a ladle full of patience then YOU could be turning out the prima donna of Italian cuisine!.
Always use 'risotto' rice.
Never wash the rice prior to cooking!
Fry the rice in butter/oil before adding stock. Always use hot stock. Add the stock one ladle at a time, make use nearly all the water has been absorbed before adding more. Don't worry if you don't need all the liquid and if you don't have enough just boil some extra water.

Basic method for Risotto:
1. Start with the 'Soffritto' which is a mixture finely chopped vegetables, such as onions, garlic, and celery, that is sautéed in butter/olive oil and used as a base for many Italian dishes. Use a large wide pan and heat the oil/butter. Add the finely chopped onions and sweat them for several minutes (do not brown) Add garlic finely chopped celery or other vegetables.
2. Vegetables or meat that require longer cooking times should be added at this stage. (Sausage/ pumpkin/ butternut squash/ fennel /mushrooms/peppers)
3.Add the rice, increase the heat and fry for approx 4 minutes stirring well. This is known as 'toasting the rice' the rice should be fully coated with oil, and warmed through, and appear translucent (not brown!)
4. Add the wine/ vermouth, the alcohol will cook out quickly but the delicious essence will be left behind. And smell like heaven!
5. Once the wine/ vermouth has become absorbed, begin adding the hot stock. The water used to reconstitute dried mushrooms can also be used. Ladle for ladle Your pot should be at a constant, moderate heat throughout. As each addition of liquid becomes absorbed/ evaporates add more. You may have stock over or you may need to boil more water- no worries.
6. Add any vegetables, seafood, or meat that need short cooking heating though accordingly. (cooked/ smoked chicken/shrimps/ tomatoes/peas)
7.After 17 minutes begin tasting the rice at regular intervals, reduce the quantity of stock towards the end ( to 1/2 ladle) Generally it should be ready in 20 minutes. You are looking for 'al dente' rice but certainly not hard. It should have a creamy consistency.
8. Once you are satisfied with the rice and sauce you are ready for the final stage: 'mantecatura'. Turn off the heat and add a large knob of butter and parmesan cheese (if not using fish), stir well and let it sit for a few minutes.
9. Add extra herbs if desired i.e. parsley.
10. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and serve immediately.

This versatile recipe is easily adaptable to suit many ingredients. Once you have mastered the basic technique you are open to many delicious flavour combinations. Keep it simple with not too many flavours- very typical of Italian cuisine and it will be at it's very best. I have done a run on sausage meat, strange enough I'm not a great lover of sausages! You could also use (smoked)chicken, or bacon, prawns even left over meats or even go vegetarian. Further recipes coming soon. Great combinations are so easy to come up with. Let a particular herb lead the taste or try the flavourful gorgonzola cheese as basis. I certainly will never bore of Risotto.
I use fresh herbs. I am lucky enough to have Thyme, Sage and Rosemary available all year round in my garden. You could of course substitute dried herbs.

Sausage thyme risotto
Sorry no photo's of this one, these were on the laptop that got stolen. This is a fairly basic recipe flavoured with fresh Thyme. I think this was one of my first risotto successes.

Serves 4
300gr Arborio rice
850ml stock, hot
1 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1-2 sticks celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
olive oil
500gr sausages, skin removed cut in slices/pieces
100ml vermouth
few sprigs of fresh thyme
chopped parsley about 1 tbsp.
40gr butter
40gr parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

Follow the steps for basic Risotto above adding chopped/skinned sauages at step 2 and cook for a few minutes. Add thyme leaves stripped of the stalks.
Continue until step 10 with adding parsley/extra thyme at step 9
Serve with a sprig of thyme.

Chirozo thyme risotto with cherry tomatoes
The sausages I used in this recipe were bought in AH, (five in a packet) This is certainly one of my favourites. The cherry tomatoes add a little explosion of flavour. (don't forget to pierce them or they will literally ‘explode’ when you try to fork them)

Serves 4
300gr Arborio rice
850ml stock, hot
1 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1-2 sticks celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
paprika powder (sweet)
350gr Chirozo sausage, skin removed cut in slices/pieces
150ml vermouth
8-10 cherry tomatoes, kept whole but pierced
few sprigs of fresh thyme
chopped parsley, approx 1-2 tbsp.
40gr butter
40gr parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

Follow the steps for basic Risotto above adding chopped/skinned chirozo at step 2 and cook for a few minutes. Add thyme leaves stripped of the stalks and paprika.
Continue with the steps, adding the whole tomatoes when the risotto is almost cooked. Add parsley/extra thyme at step 9
Serve with a sprig of thyme and a sprinkling of parsley.

Butternut squash risotto with sage
I love pumpkin and butter nut squash. This year I even managed to grow a few in my garden. As I did with the pumpkin pasta I chopped the butter nut in varying sizes In this way you get a creamy sauce with an occasional bite of pumpkin. Pumpkin and sage go very well indeed. Don't forget to crisp the sage leaves for topping prior to cooking. This is a lovely colourful creamy risotto. My photographs (still learning to work with my new camera) certainly does it no justice at all. The colours are vibrant in real life!

Serves 4
300gr Arborio
1 onion, diced
1 small butternut squash (or small pumpkin), peel and dice in varying sized cubes
3 sausages, skinned, cut into slices
olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
150ml vermouth
850ml stock, hot
sage leaves, washed and thoroughly dried or dried sage (I used about 20 small leaves)
knob butter
100ml creme fraiche
30gr parmesan (I use Grana Padano)
salt and pepper
chili flakes
olive oil / Excellent chili oil
pine nuts (optional) toasted in a dry pan

Heat a little oil in a pan and gently fry about 9 of the (washed and thoroughly dried) sage leaves until crisp. Place on a piece of kitchen roll.
Using the same pan, add a little more olive oil and begin with the steps for basic risotto.
When you get to Step 2 add first the butternut squash fry for a few minutes, then add the sausages, remaining sage leaves, finely chopped and a shake of chili flakes.
Proceed through the Steps, at Stage 8 (add the creme fraiche with the butter and cheese) until completed.
Serve with the crispy sage leaves, sprinkle with parmesan and chili oil. Pine nuts optional.

Rosemary Chirozo Risotto
This time chirozo combined with rosemary. You could use wine or vermouth but this time I opted for balsamic vinegar/ red wine vinegar. The crispy rosemary on top is absolutely delicious.

Serves 4
300gr Arborio rice
1 liter stock, hot
olive oil
5 chirozo sausages, skinned and sliced
2 red onions, finely diced
2 celery sticks finely diced
rosemary, handful, washed and thoroughly dried
4 small garlic, sliced finely
1/2 red bell pepper (capsicum) finely diced
paprika pepper (sweet)
4-5 tomatoes (or 9 whole cherry tomatoes pierced)
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
20gr parmesan
20gr butter
20gr pine nuts
olive oil/ Excellent chili olive oil

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan for a few minutes (don't leave them- like I always do! They will burn quickly) Leave to cool.
Pick out 4 rosemary stalks. Heat a little oil in a pan and gently fry the (washed and thoroughly dried) rosemary until crisp. Place on a piece of kitchen roll.
Using the same pan, add a little more olive oil and begin with the steps for basic risotto.
When you get to Step 2 add the chirozo sausages, remaining rosemary, finely chopped, red pepper and paprika.
At Step 4 substitute vermouth/ wine for balsamic/ red wine vinegar.
Add tomatoes about 5 minutes before you anticipate the rice will be cooked.
Serve with the crispy rosemary, pine nuts and a sprinkling of parmesan and chili oil if desired.

Perfect Basmati rice
From one type of rice to another.
If we are eating Indian I use Basmati rice and follow the "absorption method" this works for me, is simple and reliable. It is where just sufficient water is added to the rice resulting in all the water being fully absorbed by the rice. No wet sticky rice hooray. There is a ratio of 1 cup rice to 1 1/2 cups water.
You also need a fairly thick flat bottomed pan with a tight fitting lid. The rice will considerably increase in volume so make sure the pan is large enough. I love plain white rice, it is simple and fragrant, I never add salt or fats to the rice. Whether I rinse the rice prior to cooking or not depends on the directions on the packaging. Sometimes I soak the rice which does give good results if you have the time, but not absolutely necessary. The measured rice and water is brought to the boil, stirred the lid is placed in position, the temperature reduced and now you must resist peeking for 10 minutes. Try the rice, cook if necessary for a couple of minutes more but ten minutes is usually fine. Let stand for a minimum of ten minutes with the lid firmly in place and just before serving 'fluff' the rice.
If we are eating Thai, then I use Pandan rice which is stickier than Basmati. I still follow the absorption method as above.

And remember- if at first you don't succeed.....
The more you learn and practice, the more confident you will become.
Good Luck!

zondag 31 oktober 2010

Dalmatian panna cotta and 'dog' bone cookies- Halloween

We kept up with tradition and this year celebrated Halloween once again at our Irish friends house. And I was, once again, elected to cater for dessert. We decided to add an element of fun and do fancy dress. I decided go as Cruella de Vil and to follow the theme down through the dessert. I already had my inspiration: a few weeks ago I had participated in an Italian Workshop, hosted by Victor Russo. Passione Italia. The dessert was Panna cotta.
It is a traditional Italian dessert, originating from Piemonte (North Italy) but eaten all over Italy. Panna cotta is Italian for 'cooked cream'. It is made from simmering cream and sugar, mixing in gelatine and allowing to cool until set. It is often served with a fruit sauce or topping. It is a very easy dessert with few ingredients. The key to making a good Panna cotta is getting the consistency just right. We are aiming for a soft velvety textured dessert with a slight wobble but certainly not rubbery! It should melt in your mouth but hold its form when taken out of its mould. The gelatine demands good mixing for a smooth even texture.
I decided to opt for Dalmatian panna cotta with dog bone cookies. It is a very simple dish to make especially if you are catering for a large group of people. I made 24 individual desserts.
I heated 1.5 litre cream with 120gr sugar to simmering point and stirred until the sugar was dissolved. I scraped out the seeds from 2 vanilla pods. (by slicing it lengthwise and using a knife to run along and collect the beans/seeds)

Don't be alarmed by the red chopping board- I don't use this one for meat!
You could of course use vanilla essence. I then added the pods and seeds to the cream. In the meantime I took 10 gelatine sheets (one extra than the original recipe, see below, to ensure speedy setting) and soaked them for around 5-10 minutes in a little cold milk (enough to cover them) halfway though the time I turned them around ensuring they were completely submerged.
I mixed the cream mixture to disperse the seeds evenly. I used a whisk but didn't 'whisk' as such but just stirred. I turned the heat off and allowed it to cool slightly.
I squeezed the gelatine sheets one for one and added them to the vanilla cream stirring thoroughly each time until all the gelatine was used. I discarded the milk.
Unfortunately I was running late. The panna cotta needs 5 hours in the refrigerator and it was 15:00! I therefore decided to cheat and speeded up the cooling process by placing the pan over ice cold water, stirring frequently. When it was beginning to thicken I divided the mixture into individual glass/plastic pots/cups. I made 24. Because I didn't have any room in my refrigerator and because of time pressure I decided to place the panna cotta in the top of my chest freezer hoping this wouldn't have any adverse effects on the setting process (formation of crystals or such) I needn't have worried (phew!) the panna cotta was perfectly set in time for the party. Lastly I sprinkled currants on the desserts as a finishing touch, completing the Dalmatian panna cotta.

I used the same recipe as last Halloween to make the dog bone cookies. Last year we had severed fingers.
Dog bone cookies
225gr butter, softened
110gr caster sugar
1 egg
1 tsp almond essence
1 tsp vanilla essence
275gr plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
a good pinch salt

Beat butter, sugar, egg, almond essence and vanilla essence. I use the Magimix. Beat in flour, baking powder, and salt. Refrigerate for 30 minutes (I put mine in the freezer for a short while). Working with a quarter of the dough at one time (keeping the remainder cool) shape the cookies. Use some flour on your fingers and take a small piece and make a roll, making cuts with scissors in each end. Form the ends into bone shapes and place on a baking sheet with baking paper. Bake in an oven 160°C. for about 20 minutes. They should stay as white as possible. I made 42.

We served the panna cotta with a bone in the cups but the traditional way is to 'turn' them out onto a flat plate. You need to loosen the edge carefully with a knife and turn them upside down and they should pop out. Decorate as desired. You could serve with a fruit coulis or a drizzle of Crema di Balsamico. I actually intended to make a wine sauce but had run out of time!

Here is the original recipe:
Panna cotta
0, 5L cream
40 gr icing sugar
3 sheets gelatine
1 vanilla pod

Heat the cream with the sugar and cut open the vanilla pod and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes to draw out the flavour.
Soak the gelatine for about 5 minutes in a little cold milk.
Squeeze the gelatine and stir well into the vanilla cream (heat is switched off!). Allow the vanilla cream to cool stirring frequently. Pour the cream into the vanilla pudding molds and allow to cool. Refrigerate for about 5 hours. Serve the panna cotta with balsamic sauce and the wine sauce and three of jams in the range of Passione Italia, Katwijk (organic pears from Tuscany jam, peach jam and strawberry jam. Also vailable from his webwinkel.
Buon appetito

dinsdag 26 oktober 2010

Broccoli and basil soup / Carrot, orange and thyme soup

I hate waste. I rarely throw anything away. Having said that I love eating fresh ingredients. So what do I do with that piece of broccoli that has been left in the fridge for a few days? Well I make soup of course!
In the summer I love salads but once the weather changes out comes my soup pan. Practically every weekend I will have a pan of homemade soup ready at hand. The nice thing about most soups is they can be made in the time it takes to locate a can opener! (since mine is usually jammed up in my overfull kitchen drawer) And think of all that added salt not to mention all the other additives found in tin soup! I admit on occasions I do eat tin soup- but even then I just can't leave it alone- a dash of olive oil here- for great looks, a few chopped fresh tomatoes there- for a fresh taste!
Soup is great way for using up vegetables that are just past their best, as was my broccoli- don't worry, if the broccoli has turned yellow I DO throw it away!
I have a large American side by side refrigerator and sometimes there can be a few 'lost' veggies lingering. Perhaps not quite enough left of any one vegetable to make a complete dish for a family of four, a leek, a few carrots, a piece of cauliflower, a few tomatoes- but ideal to contribute in making a vegetable soup.
There is nothing more comforting than a bowl of steaming soup and a chunk of Focaccia on a cold day. My favourites include mustard, lentil, pumpkin or butternut squash, carrot, and broccoli. The soup I least care for is tomato soup! And I know the Dutch are crazy about tiny meatballs in their soup- but I'm not!
I'm not great at food presentation but I love my soups to look pretty. Toppings include fresh herbs, croutons, a drizzle of flavoured olive oil, or a swirl of crème fraise these all make a difference to appearance as well as taste. These two soups are fairly simple and a splash of flavoured oil really help to lift them.

I eyed my piece of broccoli, I wanted to make a quickie soup. It is often paired with (blue)cheese, mainly Stilton- nothing wrong with that but I wanted something different. I still had some fresh basil in my kitchen and I picked what was left of my home grown basil in the garden and went to work to make my delicious and very healthy soup. Broccoli is vitamin rich (A, B, C & K complex), contains nutrients like potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium, is high in fiber and even has anti-cancer properties. Combined with basil it produces a fragrant but delicate tasting creamy soup.

Broccoli and Basil Soup

Serves 4
2 large potatoes
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
olive oil
Approx 750ml water or stock
200ml cream, I used UHT cream which I always have on hand.
large bunch of Basil
small bunch parsley
salt and pepper
olive oil or basil flavoured olive oil ( available at AH- Excellent)

Peel potatoes and chop them into cubes. Chop onion and garlic (don't bother to crush it because the soup will be pureed anyway). Chop the broccoli stalks in cubes and make florets from the broccoli. Boil a kettle of water.

In a large pan heat some olive oil (approx 2 tbsp.) Add the chopped onion and fry for a few minutes. Add garlic and potatoes. Cook slowly for about 10 minutes. Add the broccoli and stir fry for a few minutes. Add approx 3 mugs of boiling water (or stock). Stir and bring to the boil, then simmer until the broccoli is cooked. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat, add the roughly chopped basil (reserve some whole leaves for garnish), parsley and cream. Blend with the immersion blender. Add pesto to taste (couple of table spoons) Re-heat but do not boil. Serve with a few croutons, basil leaves, a dollop of pesto and a dash of basil/ olive oil. You could add a sprinkling of parmesan and a few pine nuts.

Another all time favourite in our household is carrot soup- you know you are on a winner when you get requests for carrot soup!
I grew up hating carrots, we're not talking about those lovely sweet little carrots like I buy now a days- I mean those big strong 'tasting monsters that are even unpleasant to eat raw!
Because I loathed carrots so much and we were always 'encouraged' to finish our plates, I introduced my own children to small portions. I would offer them each a carrot to eat raw while I was preparing dinner. Later they started expecting one- I was on the right track!
It obviously worked because not only do my two eat their 'greens' they actually enjoy them.
This soup is sweet and fragrant. Cumin and thyme are perfect with carrots. I quickly made it as part of testing out MY NEW Magimix- yes I finally did it! (A Magimix blog will be coming soon) so it is a simple no fuss soup but lovely none the less. Unfortunately my camera let me down on this day so I apologise for the poor quality pics.
I have Thyme in my herb garden. It is a perennial, so winter hardy. It is available all year round, obviously it is at it's best in the summer months. It does stop growing in the colder monthsso should be only harvested lighly.

Carrot, Orange and Thyme Soup

Serves 4
8 small carrots/ Dutch worteltjes (Approx 400gr)
2 small red onions
olive oil
1 red pepper (capsicum)
2 garlic cloves
200ml orange juice
1 tbsp. ground cumin
a shake of chili flakes
salt and pepper
2 tsp honey (or sugar)
several sprigs of thyme
small bunch of parsley
approx 750ml water/stock
large knob of butter
Olive oil/ chili oil ( AH excellent) to serve

I grated the two red onions and garlic in the Magimix You could of course chop manually. Hear the olive oil in a large pan and add the onions/garlic.
Grate the carrots and grate/slice the red pepper. After a few minutes add this to the pan together with the cumin, chili flakes and thyme- stripped from their woody stems.
Add your sweetener (honey or sugar), the water/stock and bring up to the boil. Simmer the carrots until tender- they won't need long because the carrots are grated.
Turn off the heat, add the orange juice and roughly blend with an immersion blender- I personally like some bite in my soup. Bring up to the boil, add the chopped parsley (gives a fresh taste), a large knob of butter, seasoning and serve with a sprig of thyme and a drizzle of (chili) olive oil.

Albert Heijn 'Excellent' flavoured olive oil.
These flavoured olive oils are an excellent addition to any dish; risotto, soup, pasta, omelette, or simply over vegetables. Available in bottles of 250ml.

donderdag 7 oktober 2010

Fig and Brie Toast

I have had a whole month to be angry at the thoughtless thief that invaded my space. I have felt extremely down which has resulted in me taking my frustration out on others, namely my telephone provider Vodafone. I can assure you I have sulked and even mourned about the loss of precious photo's. My appetite suffered. But enough is enough. My passion for food was back the minute I spotted fresh figs on the shelves of the supermarket.
Figs: Food of the gods. Simply delicious. It is even suggested that the fig was the 'forbidden fruit' in the garden of Eden, which would make sense since Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their...well...'nakedness'.
On the outside they are not exactly the most attractive 'fruit', in fact rather dull looking, but cut them open to reveal a hidden exotic beauty- a luscious pink fleshy centre which actually happens to be an inverted flower! I love edible flowers.
If you have never tried fresh figs then I urge you to try them- they are nothing at all like dried figs. Give them a chance- forget the 'laxative' stigma (who else remembers 'Fig Rolls' as a child ;-) ) often associated with figs- just enjoy. The flavour is unique, delicate, sweet but not overly so. They 'marry' well with the salty taste of raw cured ham and many types of cheese like brie and goat.

The 'fruit' is packed with fiber and a good source of potassium, calcium, and iron.
Furthermore they couldn't be easier to prepare- no peeling or de-seeding necessary. Versatile too, use them as a starter, dessert: Or a salad on the side. I personally love my figs in salads.

This particular recipe is one I spotted about a year ago on the blog of Sara Mae, New York (isn't internet wonderful?). I couldn't wait to try it- and I wasn't disappointed.
A good friend spotted my photograph and couldn't wait to try it too. We had to be very patient and wait for figs to come into season by which time Sara Mae's blog was offline! Luckily the recipe was simple and thus easy to remember. Yesterday was the big day:

Fig and Brie Toast:
per person
2 thick slices of bread, I used AH Liefde & Passie Pain Tradition
1 fresh fig
extra virgin olive oil
drizzle of honey
handful mint leaves

Preparation: Wash and pat dry the mint. Slice fig(s), Slice bread. Slice brie.
Rub extra virgin olive oil on one side of bread and toast under grill, turn and repeat. When the bread is nicely browned turn off the grill. Place the slices of brie on the toast. Place under the (still) warm switched off grill for a couple of minutes- the heat will be enough to slightly melt the brie. Top with slices of fig, the mint leaves and a drizzle of honey. I served mine with a small salad, Enjoy.

Thank you Sara Mae- you created something very special. I hope you will forgive me for 'stealing' your recipe. I would be committing a crime not sharing this recipe on internet! It really does melt in ones mouth. I categorise this as 'simply delicious' (simple & delicious) I would even go as far to say that this combination would win a person over who doesn't normally care for Brie.
Figs can be found at the supermarkets for just a limited time. Can you believe the girl at the checkout didn’t even know what they were!
Before you know it, the fig season is over so hurry up. They are very perishable so handle them with extreme care.
They don't store well (don't refrigerate them) so buy only up to one day before you actually intend to use them.
So if anyone wants to buy me a bunch of flowers- I'll have the fig variety thank you- but please don't be offended when I eat them!

donderdag 9 september 2010

While we were sleeping...

In the early hours of Tuesday morning the unthinkable happened- someone broke into our house, a man rummaged through our belongings and personal things were removed- all while we were sleeping....
Clearly he didn't care if anyone was home or not. Shameful how they have no concern or respect for the feelings of others.
This is the second time this year we have been victim to crime. Earlier this year our bank card was skimmed during our holiday in Brazil. On this occasion it was shocking but it doesn't nearly compare to having your own home invaded by strangers and losing precious, personal possessions.
Our laptop, camera's, mobile telephones, sunglasses and wallets/purses (only to be left discarded minus cash, outside) were taken, stolen. The worse thing- my photo's, ones recently taken still on the SD card in my beloved camera and all my photo's on the laptop- priceless to me, of no value to anyone else. We have had to change passwords because many were set to an 'auto fill' option on the laptop- you think you are safe in your own home.
Yes it could have been worse, we could have woken up and disturbed the thief, he could have come searching upstairs....I shudder to think....
But still, it is truly disturbing, I feel violated.
For a fraction of a second I forget- I start to look something up in the laptop, I want to grab my camera for a photo, I want to send a text....everything is gone. My world has been invaded.

Take precautions, learn from our mistakes, don't like us, be lulled into a false sense of security. It can happen to you! Make sure your home is safe. Ensure you make a back-up for your photo's and computer files and keep it up-dated!
In the last few weeks I had been busy with various blog postings but now all my supporting photo's are gone.
My appetite has suffered, I haven't cooked for two days and that speak volumes...
I am rapidly losing faith in the human race.

woensdag 18 augustus 2010

Holiday Inspiration. 3 words Olive oil, Saffron, honey- which country?

With the holiday season rapidly drawing to a close it is perhaps a little premature to consider next year’s plans... Some of us may still be savouring the lingering taste of scrumptious foreign delights (more in our minds than on our palate), while others may be suffering the familiar holiday perils: extra pounds, uncomfortable sun burn or overspending- but you all have undoubtedly experienced new things and have precious memories to cherish. Travel is so broadening.
There is nothing so blissful as a holiday. Being in the branch ourselves unfortunately, we are unable to get away at this time of year. We have to hang off the words and experiences of others! It is amazing what a change a vacation break can make- our customers may leave with big smiles in their 'holiday home on wheels' excited yes, but often showing slight signs of apprehension, (at the prospect of driving such an awesome sized vehicle?) and often still attempting to tie up work related loose ends and other commitments (the joys of mobile phones). The quality time spent with family and the chosen path must work wonders because everyone returns recharged, relaxed, sun-tanned and brimming with stories to tell. We even have 'regulars' so we obviously must be doing something right.
Choosing a holiday destination can be exciting but somewhat daunting. The world is a large place, so should you discover new territories or do you return to a known and treasured location that has already stolen your heart? Every country has its charms, be it the hot sun and cocktails of Brazil, the flora and fauna of Costa Rica, the great food and wine of Italy, the impressive temples and Nile sunsets of Egypt or the warm, friendly caring nature of Thailand.
It is personal choice but often there is one country that stand head and shoulders above the rest for its overall appeal. For me it is the answer to the three clues........Greece. Did you guess correctly? My dream holiday would be to take a camper and drive down to Italy take a ferry and explore as much Greece as possible.

Three years ago I visited Greece for the very first time, I choose the largest of the Greek islands- beautiful Crete. In fact Vai beach, Crete is the film location of the Bounty chocolate bar of the 90's- so it really is a taste of paradise.
It was a fabulous vacation, I did the usual touristic things but was also lucky enough to experience a glimpse of real Crete. It is a country with many different faces. The Northern part is where you'll find the bigger holiday resorts (including the prime destination for party goers- Hersonissos / Chersonissos) but also picturesque towns like Rethymnon, and in Southern Crete it is much less developed and rockier. It has a good balance of old world and modern comforts. The climate is perfect.

It is quite stunning, it has lakes, mountains, crystal clear, strikingly blue waters and skies, with beaches to suit all tastes- sandy, pebble, rocky, lively or secluded. You'll find wildlife and beautiful species of flowers, plants and trees. Throw in catchy Greek music, very good food and intoxicating cocktails! With names like 'Sex on the beach' or 'Greek Passion'- how can you possibly resist?! The main challenge is not how many you can drink, but not to blush when you order!

The people are warm and friendly. They are very much 'traditionalists'. Especially in the villages the Cretans like to retain the 'old' way of life. They are content and show little interest or desire to leave their paradise- but they are happy to show you their beautiful country.

In the summer months the emphasis is largely on the tourist industry. After the last charter flight leaves in October, Crete is devoted to farming and agriculture. They harvest their olives, oranges and other products. There are no direct flights at all to Crete during this period (only via Athens), but in March the flights resume and tourism becomes important once more.
Every family is encouraged to produce and tend their very own olive groves. It is therefore not surprising to hear the ratio is 60 olive trees to each inhabitant! Because families gather their olives and process their olive oil, they are lucky enough to have their own personal supply! Usually there is one type, a kind of 'house oil- I guess- an all purpose oil, used for both hot and cold dishes, savoury or sweet. When I left Crete I was given some in a 1 1/2 liter 'soda' bottle- it was lovely, very pure tasting olive oil.
I too felt happy and very content in Crete, the way of life is relaxed. Their motto: work to live and not live to work. It is that simple. Are you ready to give up the Rat Race?
I always try to find a holiday destination that will inspire me on a culinary level. Of course it is difficult to always appreciate 'mass produced' food in Hotels. But my general opinion of Greek food is good. The wine is another story- the local wines taste more like fortified wine. Stick to the cocktails!
The Cretan diet is famous for being very healthy, tasty and nutritious, the rich soil ensure an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, which they prepare in simple but delicious ways, honey is important not to mention fish. All this is washed down with copious amounts of olive oil! (on average 25 liters per person annually!) The Greeks love to grill, be it vegetables or meat. Although you can expect a variety of different meats/ fish, I believe the huge quantity of meat often served in Greek restaurants in Holland is largely to cater for the Dutch people and is not particularly representative of Greek cuisine.
The down side of my introduction to Greek olive oil was it spoiled me somewhat, being the best olives / oil I had ever tasted, I now much prefer Olive Oil from Crete on my salads or just dipping.

I do use other types of (olive) oil for cooking- which are actually processed oils- from the likes of Bertolli and Carbonell. My tip: Carefully read the labels with much suspicion. You may think you are getting good olive oil but even 'pure' olive oil is the term for refined oil (processed) that has been mixed with Virgin olive oil!
Don't be misled. Olive oil that has been bottled in say Italy doesn't say anything about the origin of the olives/oil in question! There are a lot of dubious practices regarding olive oil...welcome to the oil business! There are too many cases of olive oil being 'adulterated'- that is, olive oil diluted with olives originating from other countries or even with other (much cheaper) oil types! Further olive oil is often chemically manipulated to altered the acidity levels and even artificially 'coloured'.
I am especially disturbed by misleading labeling- there is a definite a lack of overall regulation. It needs to be addressed and standarised. It's quite scandalous. We, the consumers are being cheated, not only out of our money but our health! I will be doing a blog on olive oil in the future. Watch this space.
Cretan olive oil is a top quality oil with very low acidity (0-1), largely hand harvested, and traditionally produced. For as long as it remains in the hands of the 'people' and not the 'industry' it will retain it's superior quality. The extra Virgin Olive oil I use has a golden slightly green colour, and a exceptionally fine taste and aroma reflective of the good climate, fertile soil and ideal conditions for the prime development of the olive trees.
Greece rank 3rd place (18%) in world production after Spain (30%) and Italy (24%).
My next important find was Saffron-

This is the most precious, colourful, and expensive spice in the world. Saffron are the stigmas from the Crocus Sativus flower. Krokos Kozanis (produced in mainland Greece) or Greek Red Saffron is a superior quality Saffron. Saffron is expensive because it is very labour intensive to grow as well as harvest. The stigmata is extracted by hand and dried, each flower contains a mere 3 filaments- 150 crocus flowers yield only 1 gram of dried saffron!

Saffron is not just a fragrant, colourful food enhancer it has many therapeutic qualities. It aids digestion, asthma, is anti cancer / anti oxidant and even boosts your sexual energy!
The much cheaper safflower flowers can be used to offer some colour to foods but no flavour. Safflower is frequently confused with and sometimes passed off as saffron. Make sure buy your saffron from a reputable source! We were once cheated in Egypt- we were offered the real thing to sample but were sold or 'fobbed off' with safflower! It wasn't until we were home and unpacked it that we became aware of the deceit. The difference is that whereas Saffron consists of loose red filaments, safflower often is 'clumped' and often yellow/orange in colour.

Saffron dissolves well in oil, water, milk, lemon juice or even alcohol! (apparently vodka yields extremely good results I have yet to try- but I will!) I have been all too often disappointed with the colour produced by my saffron- not really knowing quite what do with it or how much to use. I had once read that large doses of saffron can be lethal! I now realise it would have to be of unaffordable quantities!
I now use a little warm water and soak the strands for anything from 15minutes to two hours, then I press them with a spoon, it is amazing how much colour will be released.
Saffron rice:

Other finds include olives, honey, in particular- Thyme honey (and wild flower)- yet again high quality and acclaimed as being one of the best in the world. But don't be alarmed it doesn't taste strongly of Thyme! The honey is rich in the aroma and flavour of pollen collected by bees from the wild Thyme (and wild flowers) growing abundantly on the island. It is often sold in pretty glass jars with mixed nuts.

I also purchased various dried herbs- these are often served on a Greek salad and mixes for making authentic tzatziki. And of course some real Feta cheese. Rich and creamy, salty, moist and slightly sour, semi-solid and certainly not hard and tasteless like you often find here.
Also I was intrigued by a number of non food products. Natural sponges and olive oil based skin products. Olive soap, but also face moisturisers, toners, cleansers, shampoos and even sun tan lotion. We opted for this natural sun screen (of course not totally chemical free) and it was superb.
Add these little goodies to a couple of bottles of Ouzo and you have one happy lady!
It will be no surprise to hear that one year later I returned to Crete to stock up on my supplies- and I actively encourage other family member to visit Greece (with my shopping list) in order to satisfy my passion.

I was so inspired in Crete that I immediately threw a Greek themed party on my return.
My BBQ menu included Feta filled burgers. Souvlaki (chunks of meat with herbs and spices cooked and served on skewers) I used the sweetest tasting lamb. Greek chicken, bread, Greek salad and Bourekakia (Feta cheese/ spinach filled triangle pastries) Fresh fruit including pineapple and water melon and cocktails!
Unfortunately I have no photo's of the food but here are the cocktails:

The Feta filled burger- otherwise known as Biftekia Yemista or Biftekia Gemista
This has since become a firm favourite in our household. Who doesn't love oozing cheese? These are minced meat/cheese burgers but without the bread bun and with the cheese on the inside- lets be kinder and call them meat patties.
I was inspired by this recipe
You can vary the type of mince, the herbs and cooking methods (BBQ, grill, oven or frying pan!) and even try different cheeses.
I have tried all sorts, including with and without breadcrumbs and egg- all with excellent results. Photo to follow.

I hope you have found inspiration during your vacations and wish you lots of happy holidays in the future.
PS If you are heading in the direction of Greece feel free to mail me for my shopping list.....;-)