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‘Stressed’ is just ‘desserts’ spelled backwards…

Hello my foodie darlings! Contrary to what my long and unexplained disappearance might suggest, yes, I am still alive…but it feels like I have been snowed in under an avalanche of work for the past few weeks, and I’m only just starting to emerge for air. And as I’m sure you all know, too much work means stress, and stress means comfort eating (at least for me. I envy people like my mom who lose their appetites under stress)… so let’s just say my sweet tooth is out to play.

Today I have been craving chocolate-dipped strawberries. There’s something magical about this dessert, because it satisfies my craving for something sweet and indulgent, but at the same time is not terribly sinful (as in, it could be worse as far as desserts come- eg. glazed sugar donuts), so having a few will not result in egregious calorie intake. Here’s a quick how-to from Food Network Kitchens, but the best part about chocolate-dipped strawberries is that they don’t really require a recipe, and they take next to no time to make. It may just be the perfect sinful-but-not-so-sinful busy-person dessert.

You will need:

  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate (or any other variety of your choice, such a milk, dark, bittersweet or white) – for dipping
  • 3 ounces of white chocolate, chopped – for drizzling (again, feel free to switch up the varieties as long as the drizzling chocolate is different from the dipping chocolate)
  • 1 pound strawberries with stems (about 20), washed and dried

Melt dipping chocolate and drizzling chocolate in separate heat-proof bowls by placing each bowl over a pot of boiling water (never melt chocolate in a pot placed directly over the heat source because it will char). As the chocolate melts, stir until smooth. Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a microwave for about 1-2 minutes.

Line a sheet pan with parchment or waxed paper. Holding the strawberry by the stem, dip into the first chocolate (semisweet in this case), lift and wait until any excess chocolate drips back into the bowl before setting the strawberry down on wax paper. Once all starwberries are dipped, dip a fork in the white chocolate and drizzle over the dipped strawberries. Set aside until the chocolate sets, about 30 minutes.

In good health,

F

* Image and recipe courtesy of Food Network

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Weeknight dinners for a busy busy bee

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In keeping with my busier-than-busy life this week, here’s a classic favorite from Rachael Ray’s speedy 30-Minute Meals: chicken paillard. Quick, healthy but still tasty- what could be better on a hectic weeknight?!

In good health,

F

* images courtesy of Patterson Maker and Food Network

Butter therapy

I’ve got a case of the blues today, y’all..and on days like this one, let’s be honest, there’s nothing like comfort food to make one feel better, right? And what’s better than Paula Deen’s butter-tastic recipes for a little bit of mood-lifting? Let’s call this “butter therapy.” Although I’m away in a different city for work and cannot bake anything until I’m back in Dubai on Wednesday evening, I’ve made this rich caramel cake recipe before and it was sinfully delicious. So if, like me, you feel like eating your feelings today, bake yourself some Paula.

Note: While this cake is sure to make you feel a little better -at least temporarily- please don’t go overboard. Bombarding your system with too much sugar will lift your mood initially but can actually cause it to tank shortly afterwards. High sugar in your blood causes your energy levels to rise initially, but also triggers a very strong insulin response, causing your sugar levels to then drop sharply to levels even lower than what you started with. So…as they say in alcohol ads, “please enjoy responsibly.”

You will need

For the cake:

  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 cups self-rising flour, sifted
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the filling:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the frosting:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream, or more if needed
  • 1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 3 (9-inch) cake pans.

Using an electric mixer, cream butter until fluffy. Add granulated sugar and continue to cream well for 6 to 8 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour and milk alternately to creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Add vanilla and continue to beat until just mixed.

Divide batter equally among prepared pans. Level batter in each pan by holding pan 4 inches above counter dropping it flat onto counter. Do this several times to release air bubbles and assure you of a more level cake. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown.

While cake is baking, in a saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, and milk. Cook and stir over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Remove cake layers from oven and allow cake to remain in pans as you prepare to stack and fill. Remove first layer and invert onto cake plate. Pierce cake layer with a toothpick over entire surface. Spread 1/3 of filling mixture on cake layer. Top with second layer, repeat process. Top with last layer and repeat process again.

*Cook’s Note: As you stack layers together, stick them with toothpicks to prevent cake from shifting.

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat and stir in brown sugar and cream. Bring to a boil, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Beat with a handheld electric mixer until it reaches a spreading consistency. At this time it may be necessary to add a tablespoon of heavy cream, or more, if frosting gets too thick. Be sure to add cream in small amounts because you can always “add to”, but you can’t take away. Frost cake and sprinkle top with chopped nuts, if desired.

In good health,

F

* Recipe and image courtesy of Paula Deen on Food Network.

Did someone say cleanse?

I came across Bon Appétit’s “Food Lover’s Cleanse” a few days ago while browsing their website (something I do at least 2-3 times a week) and really, can we say YUM?? Speaking from experience, I have become completely against fad diets and crash detoxes, but I must say that this doesn’t look like a traditional “cleanse” to me at all. While it is intended to be a detox challenge for the first two weeks of January, it is all about healthy, balanced eating, and getting lots of nutrients from a relatively low-carb, high-protein eating regimen full of fresh, colorful, seasonal ingredients. And just because we’re two weeks into the year already, doesn’t mean you can’t start it now. It includes a fortnight’s worth of creative, healthy and easy-to-make recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, complete with a shopping guide and some handy make-ahead suggestions…and the best part is that it really does not sound like much of a sacrifice!

Check it out here, and bon appétit!

In good health,

F

Middle Eastern recipes II: Semolina pudding

I know, I know. Semolina pudding does not sound (or look) like the most appetizing dessert on this green Earth. However, this is definitely a case of never judge a book by its cover, because what’s hidden inside is definitely worth exploring. And no, it is not the most waistline-friendly dessert either, but if you’re in your mood to indulge a little one day, give this recipe a shot. Known in the Arabic-speaking world as halawet il smeed, this sweet pudding may just be the perfect winter dessert because it is so rich and warming. My grandmother (who else!) made it for us while I was at home last week, and when I asked her about the recipe all she said was, 3-2-1. 3 cups semolina, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup water. How easy is that?

Well, of course then she went on to tell me that there’s a little bit more to it, but the recipe is still very simple. The only difficulty might be in locating some of the less common ingredients, such as the specific variety of cheese that is sprinkled onto the pudding. This is known as Arabic cheese, white cheese, jibneh baydah, or jibneh Akkwai. It is a salty cheese made of cow milk that originates in Palestine (from the town of Akka), and is mildly similar to Halloumi but slightly richer, saltier and more elastic. While pretty rare outside the Arab world, you may be able to find it in Middle Eastern markets elsewhere. Rose water is also widely sold in bigger supermarkets and Middle Eastern food shops.

You will need:

  • 1 1/2 cup “sweetened” shredded white Akkawi cheese
  • 3 cups fine semolina
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup ghee
  • 1 tsp rose water

Cut the white cheese into cubes and soak in water, changing the water a few times to drain the salt from the cheese and “sweeten” it. In the meantime, begin making sugar syrup by boiling the water, sugar and lemon juice together over high heat. When the liquid starts to boil, turn heat down to medium-low and let simmer for 15 min. Add rose water. Heat ghee in a large pot over medium heat. Once hot, add semolina and toast until golden brown. Add syrup to toasted semolina and let simmer for a few minutes. Remove from heat. Drain “sweetened” cheese and add to pot. Stir gently once or twice. Serve in small bowls and garnish with almonds.

In good health,

F

Pumping iron

I woke up this morning craving spinach. Yup, spinach. Call me weird, but I’m dying for some dark green veggies like spinach, kale, bok choy and broccoli. I am mildly anaemic, so I guess these cravings are my body’s way of making sure I get enough iron in my system (I also cannot get enough red meat lately)…and I think I’m in luck, because it is just the right season for dark leafy greens. I was browsing through a few of my food magazine subscriptions last night (which might also explain why food was on my mind first thing this morning) and recipes for these kinds of veggies were everywhere. EVERYWHERE I tell you. Here are 5 scrumptious-looking, iron-rich winter recipes that I might just have to make for myself throughout this week. Spinach will definitely be on my plate tonight!

1. Iron triple threat: red meat, beetroot and sweet potato are all iron-rich foods. Get the recipe from Bon Appétit’s Food Lover’s Cleanse (scroll to day 14, dinner).

2. Spicy parmesan green beans and kale – great side dish. Here’s a recipe from Giada de Laurentiis on Food Network.

3. Broccolini with crispy lemon crumbs – another great side dish. Find Food & Wine Magazine’s recipe here.

4. Warm quinoa, spinach and shiitake mushroom salad – a great lunch option. Get Martha Stewart’s recipe.

5. Sauteed collard greens with garlic – a fresh, healthier take on the traditional creamed spinach side. This is another recipe from Martha Stewart.

In good health,

F

Heaven is a place like this

Hello foodies! Sorry for my erratic posts; I think I’ve realized that it may be a bit unrealistic for me to write posts over the weekend (weekend is Fri + Sat here) because I always seem to be busy doing something or being somewhere. So maybe for the most part this will become more of a weekDailyAmuseBouche. Haha.

Anyway, I spent the second week of my winter vacation back home in Jordan with my family, and as always, I was treated to my grandmother’s divine home cooking almost every day. Apart from seeing my family and friends, the familiar and comforting but ever-fabulous flavors of the dishes I’ve loved since my childhood are unquestionably my favorite part about being home. I am back to work in Dubai today and missing those delicious aromas and tastes already, but I thought it was high time to do some blogging about Middle Eastern dishes. And what better way to get that ball rolling than to feature my absolute favorite dish of all time: stuffed grape leaves.

Disclaimer: this dish is not for the impatient cook. Far from an amuse-bouche type of dist, it is very laborious and time-consuming to prepare, but trust me when I tell you that it is definitely worth it.

You may have heard of a version of this dish, the very famous Greek dolma: vine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs, cooked in oil, and served cold. Although this version of the dish also exists in my part of the world (known as yalanji), its better-known counterpart in Arab cuisine consists of vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced beef, cooked with tomato sauce, and served warm. On their own, stuffed grapeleaves are known in Arabic as wara’ enab or wara’ dawali. However, they are often served alongside stuffed zucchini, eggplant, and peppers, as well as some melt-in-your-mouth lambchops, in which case the dish is collectively know and mahshi, which literally means “stuffed.” As you can imagine “stuffing” grape leaves (or zucchini, eggplant and peppers for that matter) is no easy feat, and the preparation of this dish, like everything else my grandmother does, is a true labor of love. This is especially true considering the enormous quantity of food required to feed everyone in our hungry family on weekend family lunches. It is without doubt a high-ranking favorite among both young and old, and has the power to transform a ordinary meal into a special occasion.

The preparation goes something as follows: prepare stuffing, stuff and roll vine leaves, stuff other vegetables, pile high into a deep pot,  and cook for several hours. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. I once tried to help my grandmother with the stuffing process, and was extremely proud of myself when I finally managed to roll one that did not immediately fall apart….only to discover that in the meantime, my prolific grandmother had rolled about 20. I guess that’s what comes from 50 years of experience. I wonder how many grape leaves my grandmother has stuffed in her life…the average batch she cooks has at least 250, and she makes the dish at least 20 times a year, and has done so for over 50 years…so that makes at least 250,000 grape leaves. Holy crap. I love you, grandma.

Anyway…I cannot claim to have ever successfully cooked this dish myself, but here’s the method straight from grandma’s lips. The problem with grandma-style cooking is that she she never needs to use precise measurements because she has more than enough experience to know what looks just “right.” This recipe give you the basic proportions but perfecting the dish is something of a trial and error exercise that you will need to experiment with and tweak until you find a mix you like. And you will usually have to scale up the amounts below depending on how many people you plan to feed. A large pot like the one pictured here feeds 10-15 people.

You will need:

  • Stack of fresh flat grapeleaves
  • Assorted baby zucchini (x10), eggplant (x5), cored
  • 2 green peppers
  • 12 lamb chops

Stuffing

  • 1 cup white rice
  • 1 cup minced lamb
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp mixed Middle Eastern spices
  • 1 tsp very finely chopped parsely (almost minced) – optional
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil

Cooking sauce

  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp ghee
  • Room-temperature water

Dipping sauce (very similar to Greek tzatziki)

  • 4 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 large cucumber, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp crushed dried mint

Method:

1. Prepare vegetables:

Wash all vegetables thoroughly and gently pat dry with kichen towels.

Look for grape leaves (found at most Middle Eastern food stores or grocers) that are large and sturdy and quite dark green in color, as flimsier ones will keep breaking. Weed out leaves that contain tears or are unsuitable for stuffing. Alternatively, you can buy a jar of brine-preserved leaves, but fresh is definitely better.

Core zucchini and eggplant using an apple corer, taking care not to damage outside skin or make any holes in it.

2. Prepare stuffing

Wash rice once or twice under running cold water and drain well. Place in a medium bowl and toss with vegetable oil to coat. In another bowl, combine meat, salt, black pepper, mixed spices and parsley and mix well. Combine meat mixture and rice. l

3. Stuff

Lay first vine leaf flat with pointed edge facing away from you. Place about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of stuffing in the center of leaf (1). Fold bottom of leaf upward and tuck under rice (2), then fold sides of the leaf (3), and roll up tightly (4) to form a compact cylinder shape (5). Repeat until you have wrapped enough leaves to fill the majority of the pot you plan to cook with. Stuff cored zucchini, eggplant and peppers.

4. Assemble cooking pot

Line bottom of your pot evenly lamb chops, then zucchini, eggplant and peppers. The begin stacking the grapeleaves in concentric circles until you reach the top of the pot, but leave at least an inch of space. Combine lemon juice, tomato paste and ghee, add enough water to dissolve them, and drizzle evenly onto surface of pot, the pour in more plain water until all the grape leaves are submerged. Cover the top of the grape leaves with a heat-proof dish to keep everything in place, then place lid on pot and cook over medium heat until water starts to boil, the lower heat to medium-low and continue cooking for 3-4 hours. If water level drops too low, you can top it off with some more. After about 3 hours, you can start to sample-taste the grape leaves to test how cooked they are; they are “done” when they taste good to you. Some people prefer the rice cooked al dente, but I personally prefer it to be melt-in-your-mouth soft and squishy.

5. Serve

Uncover pot, remove plate, and place a large serving tray over the pot. Carefully flip the pot onto the tray, shake gently, then remove to reveal stacked dish (lamb chops will now be on top). Combine yogurt, cucumber, garlic and mint, mix well and serve alongside grape leaves.

My favorite way to eat this is to first squish/ mash my grape leaves a little with my fork, then dip them in the yogurt sauce before letting the savory, lemony, juicy flavors flood my senses…sheer heaven.

In good health,

F

* Stuffing method images (stage 3) compliments of mideats.com

Craving Paris: Crêpes Suzette, mais oui

Crêpes Suzette may just be my dad’s favorite dessert, and a few years ago after living in Paris for a few months, I learned how to make them. He was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday so I made them for him in an attempt to make him feel better – and I think it worked!  Although crêpes may seem daunting to make (at least, they did to me), they’re actually easier than they look; the secret is a very wet batter and a very hot pan. It’s also a great winter recipe because it uses fresh oranges, which are in season this time of year.

You will need:

For the crêpes

  • 3 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups milk (I use skimmed milk – no reason to use full-fat)
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp orange zest
  • 1 tbsp Grand Marnier or other orange liquer (optional)

For the orange sauce

  • 1 1/2 cups fresh orange juice
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp orange zest
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • Splash Grand Marnier or other orange liquer (optional)

I usually start with the sauce because I find that it takes longer to cook. In a large skillet over high heat, bring the orange juice to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the sugar and orange zest. Allow the mixture to simmer for 10-20 minutes (varies depending on water content of oranges) until mixture is reduced and becomes thick and syrupy. Remove from heat and add the orange liqueur to the syrup, then flambé by setting the pan alight using a match or lighter. Be VERY careful while doing this to avoid burns and singed eyebrows!!! Alternatively (if you’re feeling less adventurous) you can keep the pan on the heat when you add the liquer and let simmer for a few minutes so the alcohol burns off.

To make the crêpes, whisk eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk in half the quantity of milk, then sift in half the flour, then add the rest of the milk followed by the rest of the flour. Add the salt, vanilla, orange zest and Grand Marnier (if using) and whisk until combined. If the mixture is too thick, you can add up to 1/2 a cup of extra milk to thin it to the right consistency. You are looking for a very watery batter.

The trick to successful, thin crêpes is a very wet batter

Heat an 8 or 9-inch pan or skillet over medium-high heat for about 1 minute, until the surface is very hot. Brush the surface of the pan with butter and wait until it sizzles. Using a large ladle, ladle some of the batter onto the middle of the pan and immediately swirl to distribute batter evenly over the surface. Cook about 45 seconds, until the underside of the crêpe can wiggle freely when the pan is moved (no longer sticks to the bottom of the pan). Flip over and cook the other side for 30 seconds. Remove to a plate and keep going with the remaining batter, adding fresh butter before each new crêpe.

Orange sauce simmering on the left, and crêpe forming in hot pan on the right

Fold crêpes in half and then fold halves in half again. Drizzle orange sauce generously over each one. Alternatively, you can serve them as cylinders. You can also serve them with orange sections, some orange zest, powdered sugar, chopped nuts, or vanilla ice cream. Bon appétit!

I definitely need to invest in a better camera to spruce up my food photos for this blog! (this one was taken with my BlackBerry)

In good health,

F

* Top image courtesy of BBC.

At home with Heston Blumenthal

Among the gifts I received for Christmas this year was one of British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s cookbooks, Heston Blumental at Home, and I must say it has quickly made its way to the top of my list of favorite cookbooks. Although I have not yet had the chance to try out any of his recipes, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was not your average cookbook. While most chefs simply share some of their best recipes in the cookbooks they publish, Blumenthal also shares insights about his cooking philosophy and the science of cooking, something which I personally find fascinating. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through the first few sections of the cookbook, where Blumenthal explains the chemistry behind taste, flavor, food pairings, and a wide host of cooking techniques. As a “scientific” cook known for harnessing technology and chemistry in his three Michelin star restaurant The Fat Duck, Blumenthal’s cooking has always seemed like a bit of an enigma to me; something far out of the reach of  the amateur home cook. However, reading some of his tips has truly helped demystify his approach and made the science and technology he uses so well feel a bit more accessible. Highly recommended!

In good health,

F

 

Hello 2012!

Happy new year everyone! May it be a year filled with health, love and good food!

Our potluck dinner party on New Year’s Eve was a lot of fun and oh so very tasty and creative..my friends definitely outdid themselves putting together a great meal for all of us to share in celebration of the end of one great year and the start of a hopefully even better one.

On the menu:

Team Amuse-Bouche: crostini duo, one with thinly-layered smoked salmon, fresh mango, creme fraiche and chives, and another topped with a slice of parmiggiano with honeycomb and basil, paired with a flute of champagne and fresh holly berries. Truly ingenious all around.

Amuse-bouche spread

Team Entrée: shot of cold and spicy zucchini-curry soup with garlic croutons, followed by a pizzette of sauteed mushrooms (including delicious fresh chanterelles!), parmeggiano and creme sauce on a puff pastry crust, paired with a mojito-champagne cocktail. This course, particularly the pizzette, somehow managed to turn comfort food into chic party fare.

Zucchini-curry soup

Mushroom pizzette

Team Salad: smoked duck salad with baby spinach leaves, avocado, orange sections, grilled red peppers, baby mozzarella and basil on a cherry tomato, dressed with a French vinaigrette, paired with an orange liquer cocktail with sugar-rimmed glasses and orange peel. I must commend the meticulous attention to detail that this team invested into making what most people would consider a very simple/easy course.

Salad course and orange cocktail

Team Main Course (my team): slow roasted 7-spice rubbed beef with a mushroom gravy, maple-glazed sweet potatoes with balsamic caramelized onions, and lightly buttered French green beans, paired with cabernet-sauvignon

Slow-roasted beef with maple glazed sweet potatoes, caramelized onions and green beans (I was busy plating and serving so this is sadly the only picture I have!)

Team Dessert:lemon-meringue tart paired with a flute of champagne with strawberry puree. Classic but delicious. Dessert often loses in food competitions, but this was our winning team!

Lemon-meringue tart...the winning dish!

I must say foodies, this dinner was truly a big learning experience for me. I think I have been lucky so far that every time I’ve cooked a big meal for a dinner party, things thankfully always ran quite smoothly and I have managed to avoid any big disasters (well, at least I haven’t had to deal with any that were unfixable), and I would even dare say that I have been proud of the meals I’ve produced. But for some reason this time around I experienced first hand the panic that comes from discovering a bit too late that the meal you’re cooking is not coming together exactly as planned. To be fair, I would say that the meal was festive and delicious, and I’m pretty sure everyone had a great time. However, I also sadly learned the hard way that it is not the best idea to attempt making a main dish using an unusual cut of meat (brisket) when you’re buying from a butcher in a small French-speaking Alpine ski town on the morning of New Year’s Eve. My French is pretty decent, but sadly none of my language classes covered conversations with butchers about a cut of meat that is quite rare in Europe. So we ended up with what the guy described as “shoulder steak,” which I can only assume comes from the chuck portion of the cow, and I was disappointed to discover (as we were carving the meat!) that it was much fattier than expected, with unsightly veins of fat running through it. The sweet potatoes were not ripe enough, the maple syrup was a bit runny, and all in all our course turned out fine but was just a bit…average. And I HATE average, especially when I know I am capable of better…maybe it was too ambitious given that I was cooking in a new setting, at altitude, without my usual utensils, etc and that a main course in a potluck is a big responsibility to begin with, but whatever the case, it is still quite a disappointment not to have put together a meal that I can truly say I was proud of. Oh well…admittedly not my finest culinary moment, but live and learn, right? They say that failure is just as important in the learning process as success, so I guess I’m just thankful that this was a mini-failure rather than a spectacularly disastrous one. I just wish it hadn’t happened on New Years!

How was your New Year’s Eve? Any fabulous culinary feats? Any disasters?

In good health,

F

New Year 2012 photo credit (top): designyoutrust.com

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