Monday, November 9, 2015

Roast pecans

A perfect holiday and party snack. Salty, crispy, addictive. A good gift, too.

My Aunt Yvonne used to make these. At her beautiful old house in Paarl, there is (was?) a pecan tree. And she would shell the nuts herself, and then roast them. I think her recipe is a little different - my cousin Kate says she uses butter.

This sounds too simple to be good, I know. Trust me.

1lb fresh pecans
4 tablespoons soy
2 tablespoons sugar

Heat the oven to 350'F/180'C

Combine nuts, soy and sugar in a  bowl. Toss the nuts to coat them as thoroughly as possible. Spread in a single layer on an oiled cookie tray (or two, if one is not big enough to hold them). Place the tray in the oven and roast them for 15-25 minutes. After 10 minutes check on them every five minutes, shaking the pan every time to turn them.

Once they are browned and the sugar and soy have caramelized, remove from the oven and let them cool. Shake the cooling pan/s every now and then, or pry the nuts loose with a spatula to stop them from sticking.

The magic: as they cool, they turn crunchy inside a wildly delicious thin caramel shell.

When completely cool, store them in glass jars. Or set them out with drinks and snacks.

They disappear very, very fast.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The best banana bread

I hated banana bread when I was little. I don't know why. My mother made a dense, dark version for my brother Francois, who loved it. Then Alice Wooledge Salmon (only the English...)'s House and Garden Cooking with Style arrived in our house and I saw the light.

If you are like me, this will arrive and remain in your repertoire until you are no longer able to bend to shove the bread pan into the hot oven. One can only hope that, when the day arrives, someone else will make it for us. Huh. THAT's why one has children. Oops. Oh well.

This is more cake than bread, if we're being honest. I sometimes put lingonberry jam or rosehip jam (not too sweet) on it.

If you don't have wholewheat flour in the house, use all-white flour. I have substituted pecans and hazelnuts for macadamians, have added cranberries (fresh) or cherries or barberries (dried, soaked for an hour). I use more sour cream or yogurt than AWS stipulates and the milk is all mine. I also use spicebush instead of coriander, for my forage walk snack.

Otherwise this is the impossibly named lady's recipe. If you can find a copy of the out-of-print book, get it. It's wonderful. Near the top of my list for Save in a Flood.

Banana Macadamia Nut Bread

100 gr/3.5 oz unsalted butter
100 gr/3.5 oz brown sugar
2 eggs
2 ripe bananas, mashed or sliced thinly (I slice)*
4 Tbsp/1/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp lemon juice
150 gr/ 5 oz unbleached white flour
150 gr/5 oz wholewheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda (bicarb)
pinch of salt
1 tsp toasted and crushed coriander*
1/4 cup (or less) milk
100 gr/3.5 oz macadamia nuts, roasted (substitute pecans or hazelnuts)


1. Instead of coriander use 3 finely chopped dried spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries.
2. Add 3/4 cup fresh cranberries, dried cherries or barberries.

Heat oven to 350'F/180'C.

Slice or roughly chop nuts. Roast them if they are raw. The texture and flavor improve.

Butter a loaf pan.

Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Beat eggs into the mixture and add a little flour if (when!) the mixture separates. Add the bananas, cream/yogurt and lemon juice, mix well. Add the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt, and mix thoroughly. The dough will be quite stiff. If it is too thick and dry, add the milk (the variable flour one uses makes a big difference: the more wholewheat the stiffer it will be). Finally, add the nuts, stir again, and transfer to the loaf pan, smoothing a slight hollow down the length of the dough.

Baking times vary, but it will be risen, brown and done in about 50 minutes. Use a sharp skewer to test the interior, if uncertain. If it comes out sticky, not done. Turn out of the pan and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Try not to eat it all at once. Fantastic for breakfast with strong coffee.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Meatballs with pine nuts and currants

When we lived in Cobble Hill we ate at Frankie's in neighbouring Carroll Gardens [this post was first published in January, 2014, so here is a 2015 interjection: and now we live there: wheee!].

I like their food very much. The unnecessary noise, I hated. It is an insult to the food, because it makes conversation impossible. For me, sitting down to eat is as much about the company's conversation as the food. And at Frankie's you can only shout.

There are recipes for Frankie's meatballs all over the web, and this is very much based on their published version, with a few tweaks. I use less bread, parmesan rather than pecorino, currants rather than raisins, fewer eggs, and I roast the meatballs at high heat (450'F), rather  than very low (325'). High heat gives them a nice crust.

Meatballs (for two, and then some)

1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup milk
1 lb organic ground beef
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
2 garlic cloves,finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan
1/4 cup Spanish pine nuts
1/4 cup currants
1 large egg

Soak the breadcrumbs in milk, then squeeze out as much of the liquid as you can. Put the soggy crumbs in a bowl, and add the ground beef. Season with black pepper and the salt. Mix the crumbs and meat together thoroughly, using a fork. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, nuts and currants. Mix again.

Heat the oven to 450'F/220'C.

Now roll the mixture into golf-sized balls. Golf makes me fall asleep. It helps to have a bowl of water handy while you are rolling - keep wetting your palms with a little: it prevents sticking.

Place the meatballs on an oiled baking sheet and slide into the oven. Take the tray out after 10 minutes and flip each meatball. Slide back in.

While they are roasting I make a quick tomato sauce:

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 can of good tomatoes
Pinch of sugar
Salt (maybe)

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and saute the garlic till translucent. Do not allow to brown. Add the tomatoes, crushing them in the pan till they are in pieces. Or chop first!

Add the sugar. Stir. Cook over medium-high heat for 20 minutes, bubbling. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary, as well as pepper.  If you have the time, allow to cool for 10 minutes then puree till smooth. Return to pan and keep warm. Otherwise serve it rough and ready...

(If you want to be funny you can add two strips of orange zest to the tomato sauce while it cooks - it's really good, and an idea form the late, lamented Inoteca on Rivington Street.)

Add the meatballs to the pan with the sauce and cook at a low simmer for 5 minutes.

Serve nestled in sauce and topped with some more passing thunder showers of cheese.

Here's the Frankie's cookbook, if you'd like more of the food, and none of the noise.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thai chicken curry

This is my favourite chicken curry recipe, a staple over many years.

Curry comes from the Tamil word kari, and means sauce. So curry can be almost anything. 

This one was born from the memory of a wonderful curry made at The Elephant, a Thai-French hybrid owned by a Frenchman on East 1st Street in the East Village. I used to eat lunch there sometimes, when I worked around the corner, at my garden designing desk. Lunch was a fraction of the dinner prices, although the menu was exactly the same. This curry was rich, and deep, a little salty and a little sweet, and also a little sour. It was perfect.

It took me a while, but as far as my taste buds are concerned, this is it.

The Elephant closed a few years ago, so I can't go back to compare.

Part of the curry's charm lay in its presentation - a deep china bowl of amber sauce with islands of chicken, carrot and potato breaking the surface, sprinkled with shredded mint. And beside it, a dinner plate with a dome of jasmine rice, a tiny banana, one side of it neatly cubed, the other lying lengthwise beside the cubes, small pieces of mango, a sprinkling of roasted peanuts and half a lime, sliced not across, but from top to bottom, off center, no mean wedge but a generous, squeezable handful. I usually ate the curry from the bowl, adding lime and mango and banana and rice as I went.

For Two

1 Tbsp coconut oil or other oil
4 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 finger of ginger, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp shrimp paste (or 2 salted anchovies - not the same, but not bad)
1 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp tamarind paste (subst. 2 Tbsp lime juice plus 1tsp sugar)
2 chicken thighs and 2 drumsticks
1 lemon grass base, sliced in half
3 Tbsp fish sauce
1 can coconut milk, without any additives, if possible
2 medium potatoes, in quarters, or 4 small, whole potatoes
1 large carrot, peeled, cut in large chunks
3 cups of water
1 Tbsp red chile flakes (this is not proper), or two hot dried Thai chiles
3 fresh makrut lime or lemon leaves or 1 dried Persian lime (heresy, but it has the same effect, really)
3 sprigs Thai basil
Fresh mint or cilantro or both
1 lime, cut into wedges
3 Tbsp roasted peanuts
1 ripe banana

Saute the garlic, ginger and onion over medium heat till the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste, shrimp paste, sugar and tamarind. Stir to caramelize the tomato a little, and add the chicken pieces, allowing them to take a little colour, about 4 minutes

After a couple of minutes, add the fish sauce. Things will get smelly. Now add the coconut milk and stir very well to scrape up the sticky bits on the bottom. Add the vegetables, top with water until just covered, and stir again. Add the chile and lime/lemon leaves.

Cook at a simmer until the chicken is about to fall apart, about 1. 5 hours. Taste. You are aiming for slightly sweet, a little tart, hot, rich. You can add some more fish sauce or some lime juice if you like. Just before serving add the fresh basil and stir in.

Serve with steamed or sticky rice, with a side of chopped banana, a sprinkle of chopped roasted peanuts and fresh mint or cilantro. More lime is good, squeezed over just before eating.

This goes well with cold, cold, c-c-c-c-cold beer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Black Currant Chutney

Black currant gin after two months

...and the story of how it was born.

I developed this chutney recipe after straining a large batch of black currants from their gin bath two years ago. I  could not bear to waste the gin-soaked fruit. While pies, cakes and jam are good alternatives, chutney is a more savory and complex way to preserve flavor, and also to eke out an ingredient whose season is fleeting.

Currant season in July

That was a crazy early September: my book was launching, I had menus to prepare and cook for the parties, and we had to move from Brooklyn. I have almost total amnesia regarding the details of the move, as a result.

Ingredients for a book party, ferried by Sarah Owens

I served this chutney with pork belly rillettes at the Book Court launch party, along with lambs quarter and amaranth-stuffed phyllo pastry and Sarah Owens' BK17 bread (her sourdough book is available for pre-order, now).

Rhus Hour cocktail

The place was packed, the food was wolfed, the foraged cocktails - sumac vodka and prosecco - were sucked dry. That is a very happy memory, and quite intact.

Party, waiting for packing

So, to the chutney - since this year's currants are freshly bottled in gin. Step one is covering the clean fruit in gin (or vodka), of course. It's not quantum physics: Pack your chosen jar with fruit, top with the liquor. Simple.

I leave this mixture to infuse for up to two months.

For the Chutney:

10 cups gin-soaked black currants
1 cup sugar
1 cup raisins or dried 'black currants'( just to confuse you; they are very small raisins)
5 slices peeled ginger (slice lengthwise, about 3")
3 slices peeled fresh galangal (omit if you can't find it)
8 allspice berries
1 Tablespoon dried chile flakes
2 teaspoons freshly cracked pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 cup water

Variations: 5 bay or 10 bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) leaves, 6 spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries

(There is no reason you can't make a black currant chutney by skipping the gin-infusion. Use fresh fruit, and add 8 juniper berries to the spice mix.)

Combine all the ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot. Heat the mixture gradually over medium heat, stirring often to prevent any sticking and scorching. When foam rises, skim it. Cook at a gentle simmer until the currants and raisins are tender and the mixture resembles jam - about 20-25 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, sterilize glass jars in a 200'F oven (10 minutes) or in a boiling water bath.

Allow the chutney to cool a little before pouring into the glass jars.

When it has cooled, store it in the fridge.

It is excellent served with pork, especially ham and rich cuts like pork belly, as well as with game, curried lamb, pâtés and cheeses.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Elderflower cordial

I love elderflower cordial. I used to settle for commercial versions (some very good). But in June 2014 I walked into a grove of elderbushes in bloom and struck white umbel nirvana. I picked till I was drunk. Then I began to read.

And here is a recipe that made me very happy. The manymany cordial recipes I researched were very similar, though some use even more sugar, and about half called for citric acid. I decided to rely on the acid in the lemons, alone.

Having made many batches over two summers, I know now that fermentation speeds vary. My recipe below calls for 4 days, but recently I made a batch that I bottled only after 8 days, because it started out so slowly (I picked the flowers after rain) and then remained very active. Please do more reading on your own - I am just scraping the top of this fermentation iceberg and rely a lot on instinct.

Elderflower Cordial - a lightly alcoholic fizz

(I use the same method for common milkweed flowers, but with half the lemon juice)

6 oz / or approx. 30 elderflower umbels
1 lb sugar/450 grams sugar
1.5 liters /52 fluid oz/6 cups water
1/2 cup (about 3-4 lemons-worth) fresh lemon juice
Zest of 4 lemons, peeled in strips, without pith

Don't wash the flowers. Instead, shake them upside down over a cloth to evict any small insects. Strip the tiny white flowers from the green stems, using your fingers. Discard as much green as possible (in any plant it will add a tannic note, but with elderflowers the green is toxic). Weigh the flowers, if weighing, and pack them lightly into a large mason jar (I use a 1.5 liter capacity jar). Dump the sugar on top of them, and add the lemon juice.

Add the cool water and the lemon zest and fill the jar to the top (include the zest), stir well, and screw the lid on.

Leave the jar at room temperature for 4 days. While the mixture is sitting out, open the jar's lid once or twice a day to allow any accumulated gas from natural fermentation to escape ("burping"). For the first day or two you may notice no gas accumulation.

Whatever you do, don't just walk away from a sealed jar and forget about it for days or you will have an elderflower detonation on your hands...

After Day 4, strain through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Bottle, and keep in the fridge.

I found that some live yeast persisted in the elderflower bottles even after 12 months. Basically the cordial is aging on the lees, a Champagne making method. You can disgorge the bottles when all the yeast has settled on the bottom (died). I never have.

To drink, dilute with sparkling water, add to a gin and tonic, or to shaken cocktails (like this one, with vermouth, or this one, with hyssop, or this one, with mint and gin), or simply splash into a glass of prosecco or Champagne.

Good luck not finishing this in a week, flat.

[This was still effervescent one year later.]


                        Book a Botanical Summer Walk

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cheese bread with field garlic

Picnic in the rain

When I was little my mother baked a rustic, cheesy loaf I loved (especially toasted, smeared with love-it-or-hate-it Marmite).

I wanted a transportable treat for the attendees of my Inwood Field Garlic Walk, and this recipe, a hybrid of several found online, with plenty of my own interference, has delivered a walk staple.

Garlic mustard and field garlic

We top the slices with field garlic butter or a garlic mustard pesto. 

Garlic mustard pesto

This recipe uses baking powder, not yeast, for leavening, and is best eaten fresh, within 24 hours, and later, as the toast I loved when I was small. It is still excellent with Marmite.

In a nod to our South African campsite baking adventures, I added beer, and of course you can substitute your favourite cheese.

Cheese Bread with Field Garlic

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour ( I use King Arthur, unbleached)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
2 large eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil or field garlic oil
1/2 cup beer, plus a little extra
3 oz coarsely grated Gruyère
2 oz cheddar, cut into very small cubes (about 1/4")
1/2 cup minced fresh field garlic greens (or chives)
Coarse salt to sprinkle on the top of the loaf

Variation: instead of the field garlic or chives, use 1 Tbsp of ground sumac, and substitute cider for the beer.

Preheat the oven 350'F/180'C. Butter or oil an 8.5" long loaf pan (or muffin trays, for that matter,  if you'd like individual servings. They will bake much faster).

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the eggs, milk, olive oil and the beer. Stir gently till well mixed. Add the cheeses and field garlic or chives and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. The mixture should be quite stiff, but if it is too dry to turn easily with the spoon, add another slug or two of beer. Do not overmix, or it will become a brick.

Pour the bread mixture into the prepared pan,  making a shallow hollow down the middle of the batter, lengthwise. Sprinkle the top lightly with coarse salt (or sumac).

Bake for 50 - 60 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and gently tip the loaf from its pan. Place on a cooling rack. It can be eaten right away.

Cheese and field garlic bread with field garlic butter


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Spring Meatballs

This recipe is inspired by well, spring; and then by dishes with a heavy Middle Eastern spin, unapologetic with the spices and herbs. It owes a lot to Ottolenghi's Jerusalem cookbook, which pretty much changed my meatball life.

The Frenchman wolfed these. I only told him he was eating weeds halfway through. That's how you reel them in.

You may know the knotweed story by now. Japanese knotweed hails from Asia, as its common name suggests, where I assume it has natural pests and competition. But Polygonum cuspidatum (its other botanical names are still floating about: Reynoutria japonica, Fallopia japonica) is highly invasive in parts of North America and Europe (the UK has an annual budget in the millions to combat it).

And it happens to be a really good vegetable in the springtime, when it is tender. Most people do not know that. It is also packed with anti inflammatory - they say - resveratrol, which has been cited in treatments for heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

I just like the taste. I have still not run out of ways to use it.

Serves Two, with Leftovers

Adding some breadcrumbs to meatballs makes them wonderfully pillowy; the dill and cumin reward you with a fragrant puff of flavour when you bite into them. Dill works well with tart flavours, and sorrel-tart is what Japanese knotweed is all about.

(If you don't have Japanese knotweed, increase the lemon juice to 3 Tbsps, and add a cup of peas to the fava beans.)

For the Meatballs

1lb grassfed or organic beef
1/2 cup Panko breadcrums (or homemade, coarsely ground bread crumbs)
1 cup finely chopped scallions
1/2 cup chopped dill
2 teaspoons cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1 happy hen egg

Grapeseed oil, for browning

For the Sauce

2 cups tender Japanese knotweed tips, or 2 cups peeled J. knotweed stems, joints removed
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup water (or chicken broth)
1 cup fava beans, shelled
10 springs mint, torn up
1 Tablespoon olive oil

In a large bowl combine all the meatball ingredients except the egg and mix well, but gently. Add the egg last and stir well to incorporate. (You could do this the day before and leave, covered, in the fridge.)

Form the mixture into golfball-sized meatballs. It helps to wet the palms of your hands every now and then, to keep the mixture from sticking. Put aside on a plate (this can also be done the day before, and left covered in the fridge. But it does not take long - about 10 minutes).

Heat a couple of tablespoons of grapeseed oil in a large pan. When it is hot add about 8 meatballs, brown them on all sides; remove to a plate and brown the next batch. Once they have all been browned return them to the pan, and add the knotweed, the lemon juice and the 3/4 cup of water or chicken broth. Over high heat shake the pan to get the knotweed in touch with the heat. It will begin to lose its fresh green colour. After a couple of minutes add the fava beans and continue cooking until they are tender.

Taste the pan juices, and add salt and pepper. Just before removing the pan from the heat drizzle the tablespoon of olive oil over everything and add the torn up mint leaves. Stir to allow the oil to emulsify, and serve at once, in bowls.

* Pick knotweed only where you see the previous season's canes growing above the shoots. This indicates that no weedkiller (usually Round Up) has been sprayed there.

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