Friday, February 25, 2011

Brussels sprouts and pecan pasta

What a strange combination. A strange, wonderful, combination. Having braised lamb with figs and walnuts last weekend, my mind was on hot nuts: walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, heated and central to a dish. And my mind was also on brussels sprouts, which are available in abundance here now. This is certainly not something I would have welcomed with open arms a few years ago, but, in a final (and rather belated) leap into adulthood, I have developed not only a taste, but indeed a passion, for brussels sprouts.

And so: a brussels sprouts and pecan pasta. The result is unusual, but it works – in fact, it works terrifically well, what with the sweetness of the pecans balancing out the bitterness of the brussels sprouts. We used blue cheese stuffed ravioli, which added another complexity to the flavour. I do think that a strong-flavoured pasta is necessary with this recipe; otherwise, the pasta will simply sit in the background and not play a role in the dish.

Try it. This is the height of late winter dinners.

What you need: (serves two; the recipe scales well)
  • strongly flavored pasta of your choice (blue cheese ravioli or sweet potato gnocchi both work well)
  • butter
  • 20-30 brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and cut in half
  • 1/2 cup pecans, lightly toasted in a dry skillet
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

What you do:
  • Steam or boil the brussels sprouts until just tender. Meanwhile, heat 2-3 tbsp butter in a skillet.
  • Once the brussels sprouts are tender, drain them well and transfer them to the skillet. While they are soaking up the butter, cook the pasta.
  • With one or two min. to go on the pasta, add the pecans and half of the Parmesan to the brussels sprouts and mix gently.
  • To serve, scoop the brussels sprout-pecan mixture over the pasta and top with the remaining Parmesan.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lemon shrimp risotto with leeks and spinach

Aha! Instead of trying to take pictures of finished meals after dark, I snapped this picture of my main ingredients at lunchtime today, when there was at least a modicum of daylight.

Risottos can be a challenge to make. They sound daunting, what with the don't-stop-stirring-for-an-instant instructions (honestly? ignore these instructions – risottos do not need to be tended so carefully), and feel daunting, with their it-took-forever but-tastes-blah record.

Here's the solution: a perfect, warming, citrusy and deeply flavorful lemon-shrimp-leek-spinach risotto.

It still does take a fair amount of time, much of which is prep. But it is a laid-back approach to risotto, and one which brings the best of winter flavours to the table. It is adapted from The Year in Food, which is my newest favorite food blog (her photography is magnificent; I console myself with the thought that she lives in California, where the sun always shines, while I live in what could charitably be termed northern Europe, where... well, we've had three days of sun since the New Year). I was originally led to try this in part because the ingredients overlap so well with my standard white bean dish, allowing me to simplify grocery shopping for the week – an important task with our fog, blowing snow and 40 mile an hour winds. But the result is much more than just a convenience: it is a beautiful meal, and one I will return to often.

What you need (two servings; to increase number of servings to four, simply double the recipe):
  • up to 2 cups homemade vegetable stock
  • a dollop of olive oil
  • a tablespoon or two of butter
  • 1 leek, white part only, chopped
  • 8 large shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • 2-4 cups spinach (or baby spinach), to taste
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • zest of half a lemon
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • heaping cup arborio rice

What you do:
  • Before beginning to cook, make sure that all of your ingredients are prepped as above (that is, chop the leek, peel and devein the shrimp, grate the cheese, zest and squeeze the lemon, and rinse the arborio). Also, bring your vegetable stock to a near boil.
  • In a small saucepan, heat the butter. At the same time, heat the olive oil in a skillet.
  • Cook the shrimp in the butter until just done, and remove promptly, preserving the buttery juices.
  • Sauté the leeks in the olive oil until soft. Then add the rice, and stir for a few moments. Don't let it burn, but get the rice good and hot.
  • Add the wine and let simmer until nearly fully absorbed by the rice.
  • Add the stock to the rice one ladleful of the time, allowing each ladle to be nearly fully absorbed before continuing. Stir after adding each ladleful, but don't get het up about stirring constantly. I managed to get a good deal of quilting done while the risotto was cooking. Also, add the buttery juices from the shrimp – their flavor is not something you want to pour down the drain. While this is happening, chop the cooked shrimp in halves (or thirds, if big).
  • Once the rice is fully cooked, toss in the spinach. Now you will have to stir, and vigorously, to get the spinach to wilt. This is the terrific thing about spinach: when you heat it, it wilts down to almost nothing. I put four cups of spinach into my risotto with no trouble, and could have continued had I not been quite hungry.
  • Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in shrimp, Parmesan, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Topinambour-apple-sweet potato soup

It is February, and high season for topinambours (also called Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, or, in Danish, jordskokker). I love their nutty flavor, and the fullness they give a vegetable soup – admittedly, however, I don't much love peeling them what with their knobs and lumps. Fortunately, I found large organic topinambours for sale here – large enough that peeling them is no longer an exercise in frustration. This soup, which I have made every second week since the beginning of January, only needs three ingredients (topinambours, sweet potatoes, and apples), and the result is a lovely nutty, earthy soup with a hint of sweetness.

What you need:
  • 10 large or 15 small topinambours, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1-2 apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
  • 2-3 sweet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3-5 shallots, peeled and chopped [optional]
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced [optional]
  • vegetable stock*
  • 2 tbsp olive oil or butter
  • garnish: hazelnuts

What you do:
  • Heat the fat in a large pot. When hot, add the shallots and garlic (if using) and cook until soft and fragrant. Then add all the vegetables (and the apple, which, I suppose, is a fruit) and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. You want to release the flavours but not burn the vegetables.
  • Add vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Let simmer for about one hour, or until all vegetables are soft. Let cool slightly, and blend to a smooth soup.
  • To serve, garnish with finely chopped hazelnuts.

* Please, please make your own. Two simple steps: keep veggie cut offs (including stems, leaves, etc.) in a bag in the freezer. I keep celery leaves, carrot tops, snap pea tips, the greens of leeks, mushroom stems, and just about all other cast off vegetable bits which pass through my kitchen. A couple of hours before you want to make soup, put a few handfuls of cut offs in a pot of water and bring to the boil. Simmer for at least one hour. Ta da! Stock.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

White beans with roasted tomatoes

I don't know what to do about the abject lack of natural light for taking photos of food in my flat. The sun goes down before I eat. Well before. I suppose that I can take consolation at the thought of midsummer here, when we will have more daylight than we know what to do with.

White beans and tomatoes is a base I work with frequently; it's a solid start to a meal and easy to spice up in different ways. This week I used three additional ingredients -- leeks, spinach and chorizo -- and the result is ideal against the tremendous storms we've been having in Aarhus. So many branches and trees have coming crashing down over the past four days that the campus is nearly impassable to bicycles. Hundreds -- literally -- of them lie in tumbled heaps outside the university buildings, incapable of being used and incapable of remaining upright. One in particular has caught my eye twice now: lying on its side, it has a lovely turquoise crochet seat cover with a gaudy red flower pinned to the back.

White beans with tomatoes, leek, spinach and chorizo (serves 4)

What you need:
  • 2 cups dry white beans
  • vegetable stock
  • 3 leeks, chopped (white part only; save the tops for stock)
  • ~2 tbsp olive oil (or, if you happen to have it, bacon fat)
  • 3-4 cups cherry tomatoes 
  • up to 8 cups spinach (or kale), roughly torn -- it cooks down to nothing!
  • 3/4 cup thinly sliced dry chorizo sausage

What you do:
  • Begin by heating the fat in a heavy bottomed pot. Once hot, add the leeks and sauté until mostly soft.
  • Add the beans to the pot, along with enough stock to cover the beans by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then simmer, covered, until the beans are cooked (1.5 - 2 hours). Add more stock if the pot begins to boil dry.
  • In the meantime, you can roast the cherry tomatoes if you want to bring out their flavor. To do so,  put a bit of olive oil and the tomatoes in an oven proof dish and roast at 375 until the tomatoes are barely blackened and nearly falling apart. This is not necessary, and I often skip it.
  • Once the beans are cooked, add the cherry tomatoes (roasted or not), spinach and chorizo to the pot. Heat gently for 10 to 15 min. to allow the flavors to build.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Eggs, asparagus and carapaccio

A year ago in New Zealand friends of our made us a simple and perfect light lunch: fried eggs over asparagus, with parmesan. We recreated it last weekend, with the addition of carapaccio. It's a combination which shouldn't work, which has no right to work, but which is sublime. It would hold its own at a fancy post-wedding brunch just as at a weekend hangover fixup.

In many ways, this dish resolves my multitude of problems with the traditional English breakfast [having married an Englishman, I'm more than familiar with the t.E.b.]: the grease, the lack of colour and the lack of a variety of textures. But here! Here we get the brilliant red of carapaccio, the crunchy green of the asparagus, the tang of the parmesan and the softness of the eggs. It's lovely, especially as an antidote to Aarhus' grey-rain-fog face.

Looking at the plating (or lack thereof) above: must learn to poach eggs. But not with the $1-per-egg organic etc. eggs I've been buying here in Aarhus. Perhaps I'll pick up a sacrificial batch of inexpensive eggs to experiment with on the weekend.


Simple? Yes.

Delicious? Yes.

Blood oranges, blueberries and lemon mint.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Root vegetable pasta. And a 2+ month hiatus.

I moved to Denmark. It's a good excuse.

Cooking for one. I'm not used to it. I keep finding my fridge chock-full of vegetables, of fruits, of seafood. But oh, what a joy to be shopping for food in Denmark: the quality, the variety, the entire experience are a world away from Eastern Europe. My fishmonger – Havnens Fiskehus – is a short walk from my flat, across campus and through a park-like cemetery to the sea. Small fishing boats, seagulls, looming port cranes, and a bustling shop offering sushi-quality salmon and tuna, shellfish galore (scampi, scallops, clams, oysters, mussels, and various as of yet unidentified varieties), roe, regular fish from here to Timbuktu, gravlax, smoked fishes and herring. It is wonderful.

This dish, however, has nothing to do with the sea. It's a terrific way of using up odds and ends of vegetables. Practically anything can be used – in the photo, there are carrots, celery (plus leaves), sweet potato and red beet (hence the hue); parsnips would also work well given their sweetness. Simply julienne vegetables, sauté them in butter until soft and releasing some sugars, and then pour in a little bit of wine or stock. Let them simmer while you cook up some pasta (linguini works well), and toss all together. Top with celery leaves and lemon zest.

It's an unconventional pasta sauce, for sure. The slight bitterness of vegetables, the hints of sweetness, the lingering crunch and the variety of tastes work together, though, and the dish is thoroughly satisfying and thoroughly different.

Quantities: you need approximately 1 cup of julienned vegetables per person.