30 April 2014

Review: Mediterranean Cookbook

http://cn.dk.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,11_9781465417619,00.html#

When DK contacted me about reviewing a book from their Mother's Day boutique, my first instinct was to say no. Ever since my mom died, Mother's Day hasn't exactly been a happy time for me. But I decided to take a look at the books anyway. I was happy to see a good selection on offer, and when I saw the Mediterranean Cookbook it immediately reminded me of my mom, an amazing Greek cook. So in honour of her I thought I'd go ahead and review the book, after all, and test a few of the Greek recipes while I was at it.

Before I get to that, let me first say that the book has a satisfying heft to it. It's well designed, has plenty of lovely photos, and tons of tempting recipes from all over the Mediterranean region (albeit a tad heavy on Italy). I liked that it also includes special sections on the cuisines and foods of the different areas; the Greek one brought up pleasant memories for me (the others were just fun to read about).

The first recipe I tried was Revithosoupa, a chickpea-potato soup with rosemary and lemon that's apparently a specialty from Corfu. I actually had never had this soup before (maybe because my family hails from Sparta), which is unfortunate because it's really good. It's delicious (fresh and bright), filling (but not heavy), healthy, and easy to make. One bowl was a great light meal, but it would also be good as a side. It's also vegan (I suspect it originated as a dish for Lent). This is something I'll be making again.

Next I made the Saganaki, a classic you probably know from your neighbourhood Greek restaurant. This version does not get flambeed, but as my cousins like to point out, that's just for the tourists. It might not be authentic but it is fun, so if you decide to flambe the dish anyway (shouting "Opa" is optional), remember to do so with caution. Try explaining to the insurance company that your house burned down because your flaming cheese got out of hand. In any case, this was another easy recipe, taking all of ten minutes from start to finish. Maybe not as healthy as the soup but just as delicious: crispy and salty with a tang of lemon. Even my cheese-hating SO approved, stating, "That's a very inoffensive cheese" and likening it to a lemony grilled cheese sandwich (minus the bread). High praise indeed. For your eating pleasure I've included the recipe below.

Lastly I made Keftedes Tiganites, which translates as Fried Meatballs. My mom made these all the time (often serving them with rice and a red sauce), so I'm quite familiar with them. At some point over the years my mom switched from frying the meatballs to baking them, so I did the same with this recipe. They're good either way, but I prefer to skip the extra fat. The recipe in Mediterranean Cookbook differs from the one I'm used to, and--no surprise--mom's wins. Although the book's version is easy to make (this seems to be a common theme), the SO and I both agree that the meatballs were only okay. Of course, we're prejudiced. If you get the book, give them a try for yourself and see what you think.

While I stuck to testing Greek recipes in honour of my mom, she was always happy to try new things. The Mediterranean Cookbook offers all kinds of tasty possibilities, including:

Middle East/Turkey/Lebanon/Israel: Marinated Olives, Mujaddara (rice, lentils & crispy onions), Kibbeh Samiyeh (spiced meat dumplings)

North Africa/Morocco/Egypt/Tunisia: Beid Hamine (spiced eggs), Tagine bin Hout, Bstilla bil Djaj (savoury tart)

France/Provence/Languedoc: Sardines Farcies aux Epinards (stuffed sardines), Tomates Confites, Daube (beef stew)

Portugal: Pasteis de Bacalhau (cod fritters), Rojoes de Porco (potatoes and pork), Acorda de Mariscos (bread and seafood stew)

Spain/Andalusia: Arroz a la Cubana, Atun (tuna) Escabeche, Churros

Italy/Sicily/Tuscany/Sardinia: Acquacotta di Funghi (wine & mushroom soup), Ravioli alla Fiorentina, Risotto Primavera, Pizza Napolitana, Cannoli

Balkans & Pyrenees: Tarator (garlic-walnut soup), Omelet Basquaise, Piperade Sauce

My big complaint with this book? The Moussaka recipe. Now, since moussaka (a layered dish of meat and vegetables with a creamy topping) is my absolute favourite food, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not forgiving of versions other than my mom's. I will tolerate reasonable facsimiles; however, the recipe in this book is absolute sacrilege. The filling seems passable, but the topping is the real problem: under no circumstances does Greek yogurt or feta cheese belong in moussaka. Ever. Moussaka has to be topped with Bechamel. Perhaps the author wanted to make a lighter version of the dish--that's still no excuse. If I had access to my mom's recipe right now I'd share it because it really is the best moussaka of all time (perhaps I'll do a future post on it). In the meantime, I suggest that anyone wanting to make Moussaka using the Mediterranean Cookbook use the topping from the Pastitsio Makaronia recipe instead of the one given for the moussaka (it's at least in the ballpark of what the topping should be).

Other than the moussaka issue, I think this is a great book. I can see myself using it over and over, and many of the recipes becoming favourites. I think my mom would have liked it too, and that is the best seal of approval I can think of.

Saganaki

2 x 8 oz (250 g) packages halloumi cheese [I found it in the deli section of my local supermarket]
flour, for dusting
1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 handfuls of thyme or oregano leaves [I used dried because that's what I had]
juice of 2 lemons [I found 1 lemon to be plenty]
1 lemon, cut into wedges to serve [optional]

Rinse the halloumi cheese before using to rid it of excess salt; dry well on paper towels. Cut the halloumi into 1/2" (1 cm) thick slices and lightly dust with flour [I dipped mine into the flour and shook off the excess.]

Heat the 1/2 cup oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat and cook the cheese for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

Remove from the pan and sprinkle with the thyme/oregano and lemon juice. Serve immediately with a little oil drizzled over the cheese and with lemon wedges on the side [I skipped the extra oil and lemon wedges and didn't miss them, but the book's way is more traditional.]

The book suggests serving with crusty bread and a spinach and red onion salad. I think it would also be great served alongside tomato wedges and cucumber slices (lightly salted, sprinkled with oregano, and drizzled with olive oil).

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.


Want to buy the Mediterranean Cookbook for your mom (or yourself)? It and a bunch of other DK books are on sale now--just click on the badge and get cooking...


http://cn.dk.com/static/cs/cn/11/nf/features/mothersdayboutique/index.html

Mediterranean Cookbook, edited by Marie-Pierre Moine. Published by DK.

13 April 2014

Review: The Kitchen Garden Cookbook


I'm a fan of cookbooks. I enjoy reading them, drooling (figuratively) over the illustrations and photographs, trying out the recipes, and basking in all the potential they offer. My interest in cookbooks has led to a nice collection of two hundred-ish books (and a somewhat ridiculous collection of loose recipes gleaned from newspapers, magazines, and the internet). Some might be satisfied with that number but I'm always on the lookout for interesting and creative additions to my collection. The Kitchen Garden Cookbook has turned out to be a great one.

On the practical side, the book is well designed and organized. Conveniently divided by season, each section offers recipes featuring the fruit, veggies, and herbs that are ripe during that particular season. This works well if you're a gardener with a glut of produce (and what gardener isn't?) or just want to eat store-bought food when it's at its peak. Although the food at the grocery store will never be as good as homegrown, even the big box stores will have tastier tomatoes in August.

As each new food is introduced in the book, a sidebar is included with info on picking, storing fresh, preserving and freezing that food. Even better, there are special features throughout on various methods of preserving and storing your bounty, from preserving vegetables in oil, to making pickles and relish, bottling fruit in alcohol, making jelly and conserves, and storing root crops in boxes. This info is invaluable, especially if you grow your own; being able to save part of your harvest for later is nearly always a necessity, and there are some ideas here I haven't seen elsewhere. Big thumbs up.

There are also tons of tempting recipes (most with pictures) in The Kitchen Garden Cookbook. A few I can't wait to try include: (Spring) Braised Cauliflower with Chiles and Cilantro, Swiss Chard Cheese Tart, Rhubarb and Custard Ice Cream; (Summer) Warm Tomato and Garlic Vinaigrette, Papas Arrugadas ("wrinkly potatoes"), Basil and Vanilla Custard, Fresh Mint Cordial; (Autumn) Butternut Squash Tagine, Pumpkin and Orange Spiced Jam, Portuguese Apple Fritters; and (Winter) Spicy Spaghetti with Broccoli, Wasabi Beef with Bok Choy, and Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Saffron and Thyme.

I did get to try three of the recipes from the book. Confession: the recipes I made were all out of season. Unfortunately, we're still staying at the insurance-provided condo while our house remains in unlivable condition, so our pantry is severely limited right now. That, coupled with a choosy (some might say picky) co-eater meant having to stick with recipes approved by him, which also required minimal ingredients and equipment. I managed to find three.

The first recipe I tried--Baked Ricotta with Roasted Tomatoes (Summer)--was disappointing. Not to get all Food Network on you (although I have been watching way too much of it lately) but this dish seemed one-note to me. I think some fresh basil would have made all the difference (I'd also skip the roasted red pepper and put in more tomatoes). Luckily, I had better luck with the next two recipes.

I really enjoyed the Leek and Potato Soup (Winter). It was easy to make, healthy, and tasty. I liked the technique of mashing the potatoes and adding them back to the broth, which resulted in a nice texture that was neither too chunky nor too smooth. I also appreciated that it's served warm (much preferable, imo, to the cold versions out there).

The final recipe I tried was our favourite: Green Beans with Toasted Hazelnuts (Summer). Another easy, healthy, and tasty one. If you don't like hazelnuts you can substitute almonds or pecans. In any case it's one you should try:

Green Beans with Toasted Hazelnuts

8 oz (250 g) green beans, trimmed
sea salt
2 tbs butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and coarsely chopped [We didn't skin ours and they were just fine]

1. Put the beans in a pot of salted water and boil [or steam over the water] for 5-6 minutes, or until they are cooked but still have a bit of bite to them. Drain and then refresh under cold water so that they stop cooking and retain their color.

2. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the butter and toasted hazelnuts.

[If you want to go to slightly more effort, you could stop boiling/steaming the beans a couple of minutes early and transfer to a frying pan over med-high heat with the butter and chopped nuts. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. This results in the beans getting nicely coated in the nuts.]

The recipe recommends serving this dish with lamb or chicken. We had it with chicken, but I think it would work well with any protein.

Want your own copy of The Kitchen Garden Cookbook? Lucky you--it's on sale now (along with lots  of other awesome reads) at DK Canada:

http://cn.dk.com/static/cs/cn/11/nf/features/earthly-pleasures-boutique/index.html

The Kitchen Garden Cookbook by DK.

05 April 2014

Apron Strings 6

Every time I finish making an apron, I inevitably think: "This is the best one yet." But the utility apron I just finished really is the best one.

To start, how awesome is this fabric?




The background here looks grey but in reality it's more of a soft aqua (the colour shows up better in the next photos).
Secondly, the apron was easy to make. I could have probably knocked it out in an hour (two, tops). But not only was it simple, it's practical and customizable. And you get to channel Batman with your own (much cuter) version of a utility belt.

I made pockets to hold my sewing scissors, a pen, and my phone, as well as two large pockets (in the middle) to hold odd-shaped items or anything else I might need (like the magnifying glass in the photo).


I really love the scissors pocket. When I'm sewing, my scissors never seem to be handy. No more!


Cute apron, easy to make, comfortable to wear, and customized to your needs. Best apron ever? I think yes.

I used this tutorial (big thanks to Rosey Corner Creations for sharing).
Fabrics from Dragonfly Fabric.

Photos ©Whimsy Bower