Monday, August 22, 2016

Charred eggplant with tomato, tuna and quick-pickled onions

Succulent, plump summer tomatoes and eggplants. Good, firm, meaty tuna in olive oil. Lightly pickled, sweet and sour red onions. Fresh flat-leaf (always) parsley, lots of it.

The tomatoes are grated and that glorious, sweet, red pulp is spread on a platter.

The eggplants are put straight on the flame of the gas stovetop —or on an open grill or bbq if you have it— until they are charred and blistered and wrinkled all over. Until they are meltingly soft and start to ooze out their juices.

They are peeled and their smooth pulp is chopped up. It gets tossed with extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice, sea salt and piment d’espelette, a Spanish red chilli pepper, adding a mild heat and flavor.

Red onions are lightly and quickly pickled in some honey, good white-wine vinegar and salt. They are scattered on top of the eggplant, and then the tuna is flaked over the top. Lots of flat-leaf parsley is sprinkled over the whole lot, followed by some salt and a good grinding of pepper that complements the tuna so well. The whole thing is then drizzled with more extra virgin olive oil.

Sweet, intensely smoky and savory eggplant, juicy, ripe, redder than red tomatoes, robust tuna, tangy, sweet and sharp onions, rich, fruity olive oil, and herby parsley added not just for show but to bring freshness to the dish. Perfect play of summer flavors.

Have your grilled bread ready. This is going to be the best bruschetta you’ll ever make. Enjoy!

Charred eggplant with tomato, tuna and quick-pickled onions
Adapted from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij

The quality and flavor of the eggplants and tomatoes will make all the difference in this dish. You won’t have any problem sourcing good produce because it’s summer! Now is the time for eggplants and tomatoes, so make the most of them.

Eat this as a main dish together with lots of grilled bread to dunk in the juices or scoop up the mixture, or eat it as a bruschetta, topping your grilled bread with it.

Yield: 4-6 servings as a light lunch

2 large eggplants (about 250 g each)
Juice of 1 medium-sized lemon
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
2 good pinches of piment d’ espelette (or other mild red chilli pepper)
1 red onion (about 100 g), peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tsp white-wine vinegar
1 tsp runny, clear honey (I used Greek wild thyme honey)
4 fresh plum tomatoes (300-350 g in total)
250-300 g (net weight) good quality canned/bottled tuna in olive oil
A large handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
Sea salt
Freshly ground black or white pepper

Special equipment: box grater

Rinse the eggplants well under cold, running water and strain them.
Using a gas stove-top, sit the eggplant on the flame of the gas burner, set at a medium heat, and allow to cook, turning the eggplant around from time to time. They’re ready when the eggplant has collapsed, start to ooze out juices, the skin has blackened, wrinkled and charred, and the flesh has softened. This will take 15-20 minutes.
Using an open grill, place them whole on direct heat and char-grill them, turning them around periodically with tongs in order to char them evenly all around. In the end, they should have a blackened skin that crackles and falls off when you touch it and they should be soft inside.
Using the oven, preheat it (on the grill setting) on 200°C. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the eggplants on it. Prick them in a few places with a fork. Place baking sheet on the upper rack of the oven and grill the eggplants for about 50 minutes, turning them over regularly, until their skins are charred and they are soft inside.

When ready, place them in a large bowl until they’re cool enough to handle. Remove the skin with your hands (it’s okay if there are some stubborn little pieces of skin stuck to the flesh), discard it and place the flesh on a chopping board. Chop it roughly and place back in the bowl. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, a little salt and the piment d’ espelette and mix through with a fork.
The prepared eggplant can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days, covered with plastic wrap.

In a small bowl whisk the honey, vinegar and a little salt, and add the sliced onion. Mix through and set aside. You can do this a day before and keep the onions in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap. They keep for 3 days in the fridge.

Grate the tomatoes on the big holes of a box grater. Empty them in a large platter (it’d be better if it has a small rim) and sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper. Spread the eggplant on top and flake the tuna on top of the eggplant. Sprinkle with some pepper and scatter the onions over the top followed by the chopped parsley. Sprinkle some salt and drizzle with some olive oil.

Serve immediately with lots of bread. Serve in individual dishes, scoop the mixture with your bread, or make bruschette.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Blueberry cake

Traveling, especially during the summer when the days are long and the nights are soft, is amazing. Tasting new foods, seeing new places, experiencing different cultures and countries, discovering things about myself along the way, is everything that I love about traveling.

There’s nothing like coming home to my familiar surroundings, making a cup of good, strong coffee, cosing up in the kitchen and cooking or baking something inspired by those travels.
This time, it was cake. A blueberry cake.

Blueberries are all over Northern Europe at the moment. They are at their prime, especially wild blueberries that I love. I couldn’t find any wild ones at the market, but these were exceptional nonetheless. Sweet and plump, juicy and shiny; they were perfect.

They made my cake not only flavorful but beautiful as well, with that purple, deep-blue hue of theirs. And it was a warm, fluffy and soft cake, intensely aromatic and elegant, with the juiciness and freshness of the blueberries, the slight acidity from the lemon and the warming cinnamon.

Blueberry cake

Choose plump and juicy blueberries and make sure to remove any stems that are attached to them before adding to the cake.

If you can’t find fresh blueberries, use frozen. Defrost and drain them, and add to the cake as you would the fresh ones.

Yield: 1 cake / 10 pieces

130 g all-purpose flour, plus 1 tsp for tossing the berries
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp sea salt
115 g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
160 g caster sugar
2 large eggs
Freshly grated zest of 1 small lemon
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
300 g fresh blueberries
1 tsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed

Special equipment: 22 cm round springform pan, baking paper, fine sieve

Butter the bottom and sides of the springform pan. Line the bottom with baking paper. See here how to make a round piece of baking paper.

Preheat your oven to 175°C.

Sieve together in a bowl the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the softened butter and sugar, and beat on medium-high speed, using the paddle attachment (or a hand-held mixer), until light and fluffy, for about 4 minutes.
Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Then add the lemon zest and the vanilla, and beat well to mix through.
Add the sieved flour mixture and beat on low speed until it is just incorporated and you have a smooth batter.
Empty the batter into your prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula or the back of a spoon.

Rinse and drain the blueberries, add them in a medium-sized bowl together with the 1 tsp of flour and the lemon juice, and toss to coat them. Add the blueberry mixture on top of the cake batter, making sure to distribute the berries evenly.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

When ready, remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool for about 15 minutes. Then remove it from the pan (run a knife around the outside to ensure the cake hasn’t stuck to the pan) and allow it to cool completely on the rack.

Transfer to a cake platter, berries side up, and serve cut into pieces.

You can keep it at room temperature, covered, for 2-3 days.

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Greek grilled octopus

I’ve been cooking a lot of octopus lately; I always do so during the summer when my cravings change and I yearn for fish and food that evokes memories, as well as quick and easy recipes that don’t require a lot of time or effort.

Octopus to me is the epitome of summer. It’s the food I grew up eating at our summer house by the sea outside of Athens and the sort of mezes I always order when I’m at a seaside restaurant in any coastal part of Greece.

I love cooking octopus and I never got why people are afraid of it. As with anything else —a good beef steak, a hamburger patty, a nice piece of fish— it has its technique, but that’s it. Nothing too complicated, nothing too hard.

Whether it is cooked in its own juices or in water, it all comes down to how long you cook it and checking it periodically. Granted, not all octopuses were created equal and some are tougher than others, so checking it with a fork after a certain amount of time and knowing how its texture needs to be when it’s done cooking, is all you need to know.

I have shared with you a couple of octopus recipes in the past, both Greek; one for braised octopus with pasta, and another for boiled octopus with vinegar, olive oil and oregano, and this one is yet another amazing octopus preparation; the grilled octopus. I usually grill it (essentially griddle it), but you can use an open grill/bbq as well.

The octopus, cooked this way, is soft and juicy on the inside and beautifully charred, crusty and almost caramelized on the outside, just like it should be. It is the perfect mezes to have with a horiatiki salad, lots of grilled bread, some potato fries and other seafood, and of course with a glass of wine or ouzo.

Greek grilled octopus

Octopus, when it’s been cooked perfectly, is soft yet retains an ever-so-slightly chewy texture. When it’s cooked for longer than it needs to be, it becomes too soft, mushy and unappetizing. When it’s cooked less time than required, well, then you know how it is, it’s as tough as leather.

I rarely remove the skin from the octopus in general, and I never do it when I’m going to grill it, because the skin caramelizes and it becomes even more delicious.

You can read a tutorial in this post on how you can clean and prepare a whole octopus.

Yield: 4-6 meze servings

1 large octopus (about 1½ kg), fresh or frozen (and thawed)
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled
3-4 dried bay leaves
10-12 black peppercorns

1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling over the octopus
Greek wild dried oregano
Salt (I only use sea salt in my cooking)

Special equipment: large pan with lid, griddle or grill pan (I use this one) (or you can use your outdoor grill/bbq)

Clean the octopus and separate its head according to the instructions in this post.

Add the octopus (tentacles and head) in a large pan, put the lid on, and place over a low heat. When the octopus starts to release its juices (it will take 5-6 minutes), add the garlic cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns, and boil it in its own juices for about 35 minutes or until it has softened. Check it every 15 minutes in case there’s not enough liquid, and if so, add a bit of boiling water. Also, turn it around once halfway through cooking.

Check for doneness with your fork. If it goes in the thick part of the tentacle easily, it’s done.

Remove the octopus from the pan and place it onto a platter to cool. Then, separate the octopus tentacles by cutting with a knife where they are joined at the top.

Heat your grill over high heat and once extremely hot, brush with some olive oil (use a heat resistant brush for this). Turn heat down to medium-high and place the octopus on the grill. Cook for 12-15 minutes in total, until it’s charred all over.

Transfer onto a platter, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with dried oregano and salt. Serve immediately.

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