July 15, 2018

Mapo Nasu

I'm a big fan of Mapo Tofu, a Sichuan dish that integrates small cubes of tofu into a spicy (think Sichuan peppercorn) flavourful minced pork sauce (or, if you want to get old-school, integrates spicy pork sauce into cubes of tofu) and served atop rice. Whether you lean more heavily to the meat-side or the tofu-side, it's a delicious meal. But wait! There's more.

While classic Chinese Mapo Tofu is very popular in Japan, Mapo Nasu is a localization that substitutes the tofu with eggplant. As with the original, there are a lot of versions vying for position as the ur-recipe, but that just means you can be very flexible in your approach.

I recommend long, narrow East Asian type eggplants, here, rather than the Mediterranean type, as they are generally less seedy and less bitter. The ones I used here were super skinny Japanese eggplants, the diameter of bratwurst, but wider ones work just fine (and are a bit less fragile). You can choose to sauté the eggplant strips in hot oil instead of broiling them, if you prefer, but they do tend to fall apart a bit more that way.

Mapo Nasu

Serves 2-3

Total prep and cooking time: 20 - 30 minutes

1/2 lb. lean ground pork or beef
2 tablespoons dry sherry or vermouth
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
300 grams Japanese eggplant
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Sauce ingredients
1 tablespoon fermented chile bean paste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste (optional)
2 tablespoons less-sodium soy sauce
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon white pepper OR ground Sichuan pepper
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch diluted in 1/4 cup water

If you're serving this over rice, get it started first, as it can wait patiently if need be. Preheat the broiler with a rack set 15cm/6inches from the burner.

Combine the meat, sherry, 1 teaspoon of cornstarch, and set aside. In a small bowl, combine sauce ingredients up to the white pepper and set aside.

Slice the leafy ends off the eggplant(s) and quarter the eggplant lengthwise. Slice the long spears of eggplant into finger-lengths, and brush with sesame oil. Place skin-side-down in a single layer on a baking sheet and broil for 7 - 10 minutes or until slightly browned and blistered. Remove from oven and keep to one side.

In a large skillet, over medium heat, cook the meat until evenly browned, breaking up any large clumps. Add the onion and cook until the onion turns translucent. Stir in the spicy sauce mixture until the meat is evenly coated. Add the eggplant and stir gently (you don't want to mash the tender pieces). Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Stir in the dissolved cornstarch and cook, stirring constantly but gently, for a couple of minutes until the sauce has thickened.

Serve over steamed rice with a green vegetable. May I suggest Kale Gomaae?

July 05, 2018

Z-Balls - Zucchini Polpette

These delicious veggie-packed Z-Balls can be everything from a pakora-like appy (pass the chutney), to a sandwich filling, to a stand-in for traditional meatballs on a big plate of spaghetti (or spaghetti squash, if that's how you roll).

This recipe was developed from my classic Zucchini Fritters recipe, but has a bit more body to better withstand the round(ish) shape without getting doughy. I'm using classic Italian flavours for these ones, since they'll be topping spaghetti, but you can of course customize the seasoning profile to your taste (Old Bay-type seasoning would be awesome for sandwich-filling Z-Balls, for example).

It's zucchini season! What are you waiting for?

Z-Balls (Zucchini Polpette)

Makes 24 Z-Balls
Total prep and cooking time: 45 minutes

5 cups grated zucchini
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 cups fluffy breadcrumbs ~ such as panko
1/3 cup finely minced onion
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon kosher/coarse sea salt
1/4 cup flour
oil for shallow-frying

Make sure that the strands of grated zucchini are not too long - cut a slice into the zucchini lengthwise (stopping before you hit the stem) before grating, and then position the zucchini against the grater so that the grated strands will be short. You could also grate the zucchini normally, and then give it a quick chop-through with a knife. Either way, Squeeze the grated zucchini by the handful (over a colander in the sink, to catch escaped strands) to release extra liquid. Place the shreds in a medium mixing bowl.

Add the flour and stir with a fork to thoroughly distribute the flour throughout the zucchini strands. Add the eggs, melted butter, bread crumbs, minced onion, salt and herbs. Mix well with a fork, so that all ingredients are evenly distributed. The batter will be quite wet, so you will need a scoop to shape the balls. A disher with a release mechanism works best. The one I use a no. 18-8 disher, which has a tablespoon capacity, which makes a nice sized ball, whether it's a meatball or z-ball. Without a scoop, I would use two tablespoons, and the quenelle method.

Pour frying oil into a skillet to make about 5mm deep. Heat the oil over medium heat, and be patient until it gets hot enough to fry, about 190°C/375°F. You don't want it too hot, or the balls will burn before they cook through. Also, if you overheat the oil, it will begin to break down and smell fishy (especially canola oil), so never let it get so hot it smokes. You can test the oil by putting a strand of zucchini in the pan. If it starts to sizzle immediately, the oil is ready. If it browns immediately, remove the oil from the heat, because it's too hot. Let it cool off the heat and try again. You can also use other methods to test the oil temperature if you don't have the right kind of thermometer.

When you're ready to start frying, use the scoop/disher to shape the ball, and release it directly into the hot oil in the skillet. Add a few more balls, well spaced to avoid over-crowding the pan, and fry for a few minutes on each "side", until dark golden brown. These are pretty soft, so you may need to gently re-shape them as you turn them - tongs are the best tool for the job, but two forks works well, too. Or you could learn to love the slightly irregular, rustic shapes they form naturally, like the ones shown here.

Finished balls can be kept warm in a warm oven. Continue to cook the z-balls in batches until you've used up all the batter.

Top a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce with these crisp, flavourful nuggets for Spaghetti & Z-Balls - sure to make anyone smile from their sheer deliciousness!

Leftover Z-Balls can be reheated very nicely on an ungreased baking sheet (or pizza pan) in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) for 10-15 minutes (flip halfway through) to restore the crisp exterior. Perfect for wraps!

June 27, 2018

Chicken-Bacon-Jalapeño Popper Pasta

Whew, that's a mouthful! Really, it's just an extra fancy macaroni and cheese, because adding chicken, bacon, and peppers to tasty basic recipes is almost always a good idea. Best of all, the leftovers heat up beautifully for an indulgent lunch.

This recipe doesn't use actual jalapeño poppers, but it does use all the ingredients for them. Much easier than deep frying though! You can use any small pasta shape - elbow macaroni, mini bow-ties, mini penne (pictured), or small shells, but don't use the really tiny ones, such as stars or alphabets, as they need to be able to stand up to the chicken chunks.

Chicken-Bacon-Jalapeño Popper Pasta

Serves 4

15 grams (1 tablespoon) butter
300 grams (10 oz) chicken breast, cubed in bite-sized pieces
125 grams bacon lardons
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, pressed
2-3 fresh jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher or other coarse salt
200 grams (.75 cup) evaporated milk, divided
500 mL (2 cups) water (preferably, recently boiled and still hot)
200 grams (1.5 cups) elbow macaroni (or similarly small pasta shape)
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
3 shakes of Tabasco sauce
200 grams (1.5 cups) grated sharp Cheddar cheese, divided
100 grams spreadable cream cheese
6-10 pickled jalapeño pepper rings, roughly chopped
6 buttery crackers, such as Ritz or Club crackers, crushed into crumbs

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F with a rack in the middle. Lightly butter, oil, or grease a 2 litre (2 quart/11x7") casserole dish and put to one side.

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Melt the butter, and add the cubed chicken breast. Give it a couple of stirs to lightly brown the outsides, and then remove the chicken pieces to a clean plate to stand by (the chicken won't be cooked through, but it will finish cooking in the oven). Without cleaning the saucepan, add the bacon lardons (this is just short, chunky pieces of bacon - feel free to chop up some thick-cut if you can't find lardons or slab bacon to make lardons from). Let the bacon sizzle and stir it about a for a couple of minutes until it renders about half of its fat, and then use a slotted spoon to remove them from the pan (you can add them to the chicken plate).

Next, add the finely chopped onion and the garlic, and sauté until the onion turns translucent. You'll want to keep stirring so the onion bits don't stick to the fond left behind by the chicken and bacon, and turn the heat down if the edges start browning. Add the minced fresh jalapeños, and stir them for about 30 seconds. Leaving the onion, garlic, and peppers in the pot, add the water and 125 mL (1/2 cup) of the evaporated milk and bring to a boil (you can turn up the heat to medium high, once the liquid has been added). Add the salt and the macaroni, and cook (stirring frequently) until the macaroni is tender and the liquid is reduced to a small amount burbling up between the pieces of pasta. This should only take about 7 or 8 minutes.

Put the remaining 60 mL (1/4 cup) of evaporated milk in a small bowl with the Tabasco and the cornstarch. Stir until smooth. Add to the cooked macaroni and stir until the sauce begins to thicken – no more than a minute or two over high heat. Turn off the heat and add the 1 cup of the cheddar cheese, one handful at a time, stirring it in each time, and adding a tablespoon or two of room-temperature water if it gets too thick to comfortably stir. Once the cup of cheese has all been added, stir in the cream cheese and stir until it melts smoothly into the sauce.

Add the chicken and bacon back into the pasta pot, including any juices that might have pooled in the bottom of the plate. Add the minced pickled jalapeños now, and stir them in, too. Scrape the pasta mixture into the prepared casserole dish, and cover with the remaining cheddar cheese and then top with the crushed cracker crumbs.

Place in the oven, uncovered, and bake for 20 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

June 10, 2018

Coconut Lime Chicken & Rice Skillet

I developed this recipe because I had a lot of jalapeños to use up, and because I love skillet dinners. It's not quite Caribbean, not quite Mexican, and not quite South East Asian, but it's extremely tasty and a very satisfying meal that takes just over an hour to get on the table - half of that time unattended.

We served this with a salsa fresca (pico de gallo) on the side, but any nice fresh salad would also do the trick. I'm pleased to report that the leftovers, if you're that lucky, also make an excellent filling for wraps - with or without the rice.

Coconut Lime Chicken & Rice Skillet

Serves 3-4

6-8 bone-in chicken parts, with skin
2 tablespoons coarse salt
zest of 1 lime
juice of 1 lime, about 2 tablespoons
200 grams (1 cup, 7.05 oz) uncooked parboiled rice
165 mL (2/3 cup, 5.5 oz) canned coconut milk
4 large jalapeños
1 small onion
2-3 tablespoons shredded fine unsweetened coconut
2 cloves garlic
375 mL (1 3/4 cup, 12.5 oz) boiling water
1 small bunch cilantro, stems removed, chopped roughly (a generous handful)

Preheat the oven to 200 C/400 F.

Remove any excess skin and/or fat from the chicken with a sharp knife. Combine the lime zest with the coarse salt in order to make a seasoned rub. Massage the seasoned salt into the chicken on all sides, discarding the excess salt that falls off in the process. The tops of the chicken pieces should have a sparse but even coating of salt.

In a large (30cm/12") skillet or braising dish, lay the chicken pieces in a single layer, skin-side up. Place the dish in the oven and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes, during which time you can prepare the other ingredients.

Finely dice the onion, and mince or press the garlic. De-seed the jalapeños, and finely dice one of them. Cut the remaining three jalapeños into rings and set aside until the final stages. Squeeze the juice from the lime. Rinse the rice under cool water until it runs clear.

After the chicken has cooked for 30 minutes, remove it from the oven, and place the skillet on a moderately hot burner. Use tongs or a spatula to transfer the chicken pieces to a clean plate. Into the juices left behind in the emptied skillet, add the onion, garlic, and finely diced jalapeño. Sauté for about two minutes, until the onion softens and turns translucent. Add the rice, and stir it around to coat the grains in the onion and chicken fat mixture. Turn the burner off. Add the lime juice and stir through. Add the coconut and the coconut milk and stir through. Add the boiling water (carefully), and stir though, using a spatula to smooth the rice into an even layer beneath the liquid.

Use tongs or a spatula to transfer the chicken pieces back to the skillet, arranging the pieces in a single layer on top of the rice. The tops of the chicken pieces should not be covered by the cooking liquid, but the sides may be a little until the rice starts absorbing the liquid.

Place the full pan back in the oven, uncovered, on the middle or upper middle rack, and bake for another 30 minutes. You may wish to check it after 20-25 minutes, to make sure it's not drying out, but unless your oven is hot, it should be fine.

Remove the skillet from the oven, and scatter sliced jalapeños and cilantro over top if you're serving the whole dish at the table.

Distribute the chicken to the individual diner's plates, and stir the jalapeños and cilantro through the rice. before serving the rice.

If you would like to make this dish entirely stovetop, that's also manageable, but requires a bit more hands-on labour (and the skin won't be crispy): Sear the seasoned chicken breast on both sides, cooking for a total of about 10 minutes, and set aside. Proceed as above, but reduce the boiling water to 295 mL (10 oz) and instead of placing the assembled dish in the oven, bring the liquid to a gentle simmer on the stovetop and turn the burner to its lowest setting. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, and cook for 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and move the skillet to a cool burner or heatproof pad and let sit undisturbed without ever lifting its lid for another 15 minutes. Serve as above, adding the sliced pepper rings and the cilantro and stirring it through the rice.

May 19, 2018

Jjajangmyeon: Korean Black Sauce Noodles

Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) or Jajangmyeon (자장면) is a Korean noodle dish whose name translates roughly to "Fried Sauce Noodles." Sound familiar? Perhaps you recall Zhajiangmian, the Chinese dish with the same translation. This dish is generally considered to have evolved from the Chinese recipe, but however similar the names are, the Korean version took a few detours along the way and the results are significantly different.

The very first important thing to understand, is that Korean-style fermented black bean paste must be used in order to get the correct flavour and texture. Don't try to use a Chinese black bean sauce or paste - it will not be the same. What you want is a smooth fermented black bean paste called chunjang (춘장).

There's a bit of chopping involved, but once your mise en place is, well, en place, the recipe comes together very quickly. You have some leeway with the vegetables used in the sauce: onion is essential, white radish (Korean joseon radish or daikon) is an almost universal choice, and cabbage, zucchini, - even potato! - are also frequent choices. You can add celery, mushroom, carrot - really, the choice is pretty much up to you. It's all going to get coated with a thick, black sauce in the end, so use whichever firm vegetables you like.

Like its precursor, Jjajangmyeon is usually based on pork, and in this case I'm using pork belly, although any marbled cut could suffice. However, the beauty of Jjajangmyeon's versatility is that you don't actually need meat at all. I've included portobello mushroom in my vegetable mixture, and you could easily replace all of the pork in this recipe with the mushroom. It's really up to you. (Because the pork belly is the only animal-derived product in this dish, if you opt to switch it out for the mushroom, your resulting dish will actually be vegan.)

What kind of noodles? If you can get Korean noodles specifically for Jjajangmyeon, go for those, obviously, but you can also use fresh ramen, udon, or even instant ramen, in a pinch. Wheat-based noodles are standard, but if you need to use rice noodles instead, I won't tell.


Adapted from The Woks of Life

Serves 4

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1/2 pound pork belly, diced small
1 1/2 cups small diced daikon or Korean radish
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
2 tablespoons finely diced fresh ginger
1 1/2 cups small diced zucchini
1 portobello mushroom, stem and gills removed, diced small
1/2 cup of chunjang, Korean black bean paste
2 1/2 cups water, divided
Cornstarch slurry (2 tablespoons of potato starch or cornstarch, stirred into 1/2 cup cold water)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1-2 teaspoons rice vinegar (optional)

4 servings freshly cooked noodles

julienned cucumber
sliced danmuji (yellow pickled daikon radish)
raw sliced onion

For goodness sake, make sure your prep is done. You won't have time to chop-and-drop this one. Set a pot of water on to boil for the noodles, too.

In a wok or large skillet (I used my 30cm/12" nonstick skillet), heat a tablespoon of the canola oil over medium-high heat, and add the pork (if doing a vegan version, add all the mushroom at this point). Stir it into a single layer, and fry it for a few minutes, until it gets golden and renders some of the fat away. Add the radish and ginger and stir it through, and let it fry for about a minute before adding the rest of the vegetables. Give them a quick stir, and then cook for another two minutes, stirring occasionally. The vegetables will give off some liquid that will help keep them from sticking to the pan, but if they are sticking anyway, lower the heat a bit. When the onion is translucent, clear a space in the middle of your pan/wok, and add the remaining two tablespoons of canola oil. Let the oil heat up (about 10-15 seconds) and then add the chunjang. Use a wooden wok tool or spatula to fry the chunjang in the pool of oil in the centre of your pan for about two minutes (it might start to stick a bit, which is fine, just scrape it free with your spatula). This stage cooks the bitterness out of the black bean paste, so take your time - and lower the heat if necessary to keep it from burning.

After the two minutes of frying the black bean paste, stir it into the surrounding vegetables until they are all evenly coated, and then add 2 cups of water (room temperature is fine). Stir through again, scraping up any stuck bits, and then bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to medium and put a lid on. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pork and the vegetables are tender. You can use the cooking time to cook the noodles, so that they're ready when the sauce is.

After the 10 minutes, mix up the cornstarch slurry, and add it to the skillet, stirring constantly as you add it. It will thicken the sauce almost instantly, but stir and cook it for a couple of minutes longer, to make sure there's no raw flavour from the starch. Taste, and if there is still a bit of bitterness, you can add the 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. You can also add a splash of rice vinegar, if you want it tangy. If it has thickened too much, you can add a few tablespoons of room temperature water to loosen it back up.

Stir in the sesame oil, and divide the sauce between four bowls of freshly cooked, hot noodles. Garnish with the raw and pickled vegetables, and tuck in immediately.

May 10, 2018

Stuffed Turkish Peppers & Sultan's Chickpea Pilaff

The long, pointed, bright green peppers used extensively in Turkish cuisine have quite a number of excellent uses. They are mild enough to chop into salads (while still being more interesting a flavour than green bell pepper), but can be added to pilaffs, stews, casseroles, and pasta dishes with a certain wild abandon. They also bake up beautifully when stuffed.

A lot of stuffed pepper recipes are based on (or incorporate) rice, or some other grain into the stuffing mixture. These peppers are so narrow, though, that I decided to make a filling that was just seasoned meat - lean, to account for minimal shrinkage in the oven - and serve the rice on the side.

Stuffed Turkish Peppers

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F, with a rack in the middle.

8-10 pointed Turkish peppers (such as Charleston/Çarliston Biber)

Prepare a mixture of meat and seasonings...you could use pretty much any meatball recipe you like, though. This is the one I used:

500 grams lean ground beef
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 cup parsley, divided

Wash the peppers and lay them on the cutting board. Slice off a strip along the top, going about halfway to two thirds of the way down each pepper, and use a spoon or paring knife to carefully remove as many of the seeds as possible. Take up about a tablespoon of the raw meatball mixture, and use your thumbs to push it into the hollow of each pepper pod, pressing the filling gently down into the pointed end as much as possible.

Lay the peppers in a shallow baking dish (or baking sheet with sides). Brush with a little canola oil to give them a sheen (optional).

I had more filling than peppers, so I simply made the remaining filling into some large meatballs, and placed them at the end of the tray full of peppers.

Bake the peppers, uncovered, for 30 minutes, and serve warm with yoghurt sauce, feta, and toasted pine nuts.

While the peppers are baking, you can make the pilaff and the yoghurt sauce (timing works best if you've already done the prep for the pilaff before putting the peppers in the oven, and toast the pine nuts):

Sultan's Chickpea Pilaff

Adapted from The Turkish Kitchen, by Ghillie Başan

Serves 4

200 grams (1 cup) basmati rice, washed
220 grams cooked chickpeas, rinsed (approximately 1 400 gram can, drained)
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, minced
300 mL (1.25 cups) chicken stock or broth (from concentrate is fine)
ground white pepper to taste

Rub the chickpeas and discard any skins. In a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the minced onion, and stir and cook until translucent but not browned. Add the rice, and stir it about so that each grain gets some of the butter on it. Add the chickpeas, broth, and a bit of white pepper (a 1/4 teaspoon should do it). As soon as the mixture is bubbling, turn the heat to the lowest setting, put the lid on the pot, and let cook undisturbed (no peeking!) for 15 minutes. Then, still without lifting the lid, remove the pan to a cool burner (or completely off the stove on a heatproof pad) and leave undisturbed for another 15 minutes. Then you can open the lid and fluff the rice up to redistribute the chickpeas throughout the rice (they have a tendency to migrate to the top of the pot).

Yoghurt Sauce

This is the same sauce that I use for Çılbır

150 grams plain thick yoghurt
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley (or dill, or mint)
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt

Stir together in a small bowl.

Assemble however best you see fit.

These heat up beautifully the next day, but are also delicious cold or at room temperature.

January 28, 2018

Couscous Lunch Boxes - Lazy Lunch Prep

One Cup of Couscous = 4 lunch boxes.

I admire the folks who assemble beautiful identical lunch boxes on the Sunday evening to set them up for the first four (or five) days of their work week. This doesn't really suit me for a few reasons. One, I'm not inclined to eat the exact same thing every day, no matter how delicious, and two, even if I were so inclined, our tiny German fridge simply doesn't have room for this many packed lunches at any given time - even for one person, let alone two. I also try to use up any cooked meats within three days of cooking (unless it's going into the freezer). My packed lunches need to be cold or room temperature, as I do not have access to a microwave or stove at work.

In the spirit of planning a bit ahead and also using up foods already on hand or leftover from the previous night's dinner (not to mention avoiding the canteen at work), I had the idea that I could prepare a base of flavourful couscous on Sunday night, and then portion it out over the following four days. While you'll see a certain amount of repetition in the ingredients, each box was different enough from its predecessor to feel like a completely different meal.

I started by making my standard fluffy couscous base, which takes about 5 minutes active time, plus 15 minutes inactive:

Couscous Base

1 cup dry couscous
1.25 cups boiling water
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, divided
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon paprika powder (check that it's not stale)

In a large container (preferably one with a tight-fitting lid), add the dry couscous, half the salt, and the paprika. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice, olive oil, and the other half of the salt. Basically, you're making a vinaigrette of sorts. Stir it well until it emulsifies, for the best effect. Pour the vinaigrette over the couscous, and stir quickly with a fork until every grain is coated with the lemony oil mixture. Add the boiling water and stir quickly to distribute the grains of couscous evenly, and then cover tightly. Wait for 15 - 20 minutes, remove the lid, and marvel at how easily the couscous grains fluff up when you stir them with a fork. Let the couscous cool, and store in a sealed refrigerator container.

Lunch Box #1 - Monday

Couscous, baked chicken thigh (curry seasoning), finely diced cucumber, tomato, yellow bell pepper, and spiced sweet potato coins with a bit of sliced green onion.

The chicken and sweet potato were leftovers from Sunday dinner. The bone and skin were removed from the chicken. You can't actually see the bottom layer of couscous, but it's definitely there!

Lunch Box #2 - Tuesday

Couscous, Berbere-spiced chickpeas, diced tomatoes, diced cucumber, crumbled feta, sliced avocado.

In the morning, I opened a tin of chickpeas and extracted half of them. The rest were transferred to a refrigerator container, along with their liquid. I rinsed the chickpeas, and then quickly sauteed them in 1/2 teaspoon olive oil and a 1/2 teaspoon of Berbere spice mixture. I spread out the couscous in the bottom of the box, and scraped the seasoned chickpeas into one side before filling in the rest of the ingredients. I let the box cool before closing and stashing in my work bag.

Lunch Box #3 - Wednesday

Couscous, boiled egg, diced yellow bell pepper, avocado, and spiced sweet potato coins.

The egg was boiled up the night before and stashed in the fridge overnight. In the morning, I peeled it quickly with a spoon, and cut it before putting it in the box. The spiced sweet potatoes are continued use of leftovers from Sunday's dinner. You can actually see the bed of couscous in this one!

This box was full of delicious things, but in combination it was a bit dry. A bit of sauce or dressing would have made a big difference, which I will keep in mind going forward.

Lunch Box #4 - Thursday 

Couscous, Caribbean-curry-spiced chickpeas, finely diced cucumber, yellow bell pepper, crumbled feta, spiced sweet potato coins with sliced green onions, and diced dried apricots.

These chickpeas were done quickly in the morning, using the other half of the can of chickpeas I'd opened on Tuesday, and opting for a spicy Caribbean curry powder for the seasoning. The other items we've seen in previous boxes, but the one special ingredient here was the diced dried apricots which lent a wonderful fruity sweetness that went very well with the curried chickpeas. The inclusion of the apricots made this final box feel a bit special.

By Friday, I was ready for something entirely different, and had a homemade bento with Japanese rolled omelette with yakionigiri and gingered carrot coleslaw. But that's another type of lunch, for a different type of post.

This was not a completely effortless scenario - each day I had a couple of small tasks to pull the day's box together - but having the couscous waiting for me did inspire me to make good use of my leftovers, to vary my ingredients, and motivated me to actually do it.

December 17, 2017


Pfeffernüsse ("Pepper Nuts") are traditional German cookies that flood the markets and stores during the Christmas season. Light yet dense, sweet but spiced, they are pretty much the taste of Christmas. They really do have pepper in them, along with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, coriander, ginger, anise, and cardamom. That's a lot of spices! Fortunately, here in Germany, you can buy sachets of ready-blended "Lebkuchen Gewürze" (gingerbread spices) but you could mix them yourself (or use pumpkin pie spice, plus cardamon and anise, or other gingerbread spice blend).

The cookie-making part is easy and not time-consuming, but the glaze requires a bit more patience. The good news is, these cookies actually get better with age, so you can make them well before you need them. In fact, you should wait at least three days before eating them, as the cookies will be too hard at the start. Don't worry - that's a sign of success! Just box them up and leave them at cool room temperature, and they'll last for weeks.

The texture is partly owing to the old-fashioned leavening power of ammonium bicarbonate (Harzhornsalz) or ammonium hydrdocarbonate (Hirschhornsalz), which I discussed more thoroughly in my Amerikaner recipe. See safety note at the bottom of this post.


Makes 20 good-sized cookies

Adapted from My Best German Recipes

100 grams honey
25 grams Zuckerrübensirup (dark sugar beet syrup (such as Goldsaft) - you could also use treacle, or fancy molasses)
50 grams sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
250 grams all purpose, unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon ammonium bicarbonate
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons Lebkuchen spice mixture (see comments above)
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/16 teaspoon salt

125 grams powdered sugar
1 tablespoon rum
1-2 tablespoons cold water, as needed

Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F, with a rack in the middle.

In a small pot on the stove, combine the butter, honey and sugar, and warm gently until melted.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, mixed spices, and white pepper. Add the honey mixture and stir through quickly, and then add the beaten egg and mix until thoroughly integrated. You can use a food processor or stand mixture if you like, but I just use a wooden spoon.

Let the dough stand for about 15 minutes to allow it to firm up, and then use a tablespoon or small scoop to form small balls of dough. Roll each ball between your palms to make it round(ish) and place on a lightly greased baking sheet with plenty of space between them (eg 9 - 12 cookies per standard baking sheet). I used a 1 tablespoon-capacity scoop, scant-filled, to get 20 cookies. You could make them a bit smaller, although reduce the baking time if you do.

Bake the first tray about 12 minutes or until golden brown - watch the bottom edges to make sure they don't burn. BE CAREFUL opening the oven! See the safety note below: avert your face from the oven door as you open it.

Transfer the freshly baked cookies to a rack to cool. Bake the next portion first for only for 10 minutes, and then check to see if they're ready. The cookies will be hard as rocks (very light rocks, that is) but don't worry. It's all part of the master plan.

When the cookies have completely cooled - 20 to 30 minutes - it's time to glaze them.

In a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar and rum and a bit of water by mixing all ingredients well until smooth, but not too thin. Depending on the thickness of the glaze, you can dip the cookie-tops, or use a knife to spread the glaze over the cookies. You may need to adjust the thickness of the glaze by adding more sugar or water, to get the consistency you need for your environment.

Let the cookies dry completely (overnight should do it), before boxing them up in a waxed paper (or parchment) lined tin. Add a small piece of bread or a slice of apple (ideally, not touching the the cookies themselves - I put it between the folds of parchment). Wait, oh-so-patiently, for at least three days (a week is better, to be honest) before devouring, ideally with coffee.

*Safety note: ammonium bicarbonate is an irritant to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. The heat from your oven causes a certain amount of it to sublimate, which releases it as a gas into the hot air inside your oven. If your face is in front of the oven door when you open the oven to remove the cookies, you will get a face-full of ammonia gas. Don't do it; instead, shield your face whilst opening the oven door, to give the gas a chance to disperse. If possible, open a door or window or use a hood fan for additional ventilation while you are cooking with this chemical. For more information, click here.

December 10, 2017

Potato Stroganoff Skillet Dinner

Stroganoff doesn't have to be served with noodles! This quick weeknight-friendly recipe uses quartered nugget potatoes for maximum speed and a rustic, chunky, satisfying dinner. If you'd rather slice your potatoes into thin rounds to mimic the packaged version, go for it, but it will take a little longer in prep time.

This recipe was developed as a hybrid between my Hamburger Stroganoff Skillet Dinner and my Bauerntopf mit Hackfleisch (Farmer's Skillet Dinner), and it is a saucy, creamy delight. You might enjoy a bit of crusty bread on the side to mop up the last of the sauce. We served this with steamed broccoli for a hearty meal. Leftovers, should you be so lucky, heat up really well for lunch (or dinner again).

Potato Stroganoff Skillet Dinner

Serves 4

500 grams ground beef (or ground turkey)
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 medium yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
200 grams mushrooms
Pinch thyme
1/8 teaspoon celery salt
2 cups beef broth (or stock cube & water)
600 grams nugget potatoes
1/2 cup cold water
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
200 grams schmand (or smetana, or thick sour cream)

Peel and slice the onion into thin half-moon slices. Brush clean and slice the mushrooms. Wash and quarter the potatoes (if your potatoes are a bit bigger, cut them into wedges). Prepare a slurry by shaking together the cold water and flour in a lidded container. Peel the garlic.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and then fry the ground meat until the water has evaporated and it begins to brown nicely (remember: no-longer-pink doesn't equal browning; take the extra minute or two). Add the sliced onion and stir through, and then add the sliced mushrooms and stir them through. Continue to stir and fry for another 5 minutes or so, until the mushrooms have given up their liquid and the onion is tender. Add a tablespoon of water to keep it from sticking, if needed. Add the white pepper and celery salt, and stir through.

Add the potatoes to the skillet and stir them through so they get coated in the meaty flavours. Next, gently stir in the beef broth. Crush (or mince) the garlic and stir it in. Let the heat come up to a simmer, and add the slurry (give it a final shake just before adding). Stir the slurry through and return to a simmer, and then turn the heat to low and put a lid on the skillet.

Let the skillet simmer gently, covered, on low for ten minutes, and then stir and let simmer (still covered) another ten minutes, or until the potato quarters are fork-tender. You can stir periodically if you're worried about the potatoes sticking to the pot, but don't lift the lid too often or the potatoes will take longer to cook. Stir in the schmand (or heavy sour cream) until smooth, and let the dish come up to a simmer one final time, and then it's ready to serve.

December 03, 2017

Çılbır: Turkish Poached Eggs in Yoghurt with Spiced Butter

I love a good breakfast, and Turkish culture really knows how to do it up as a feast. Menamen (scrambled eggs in pepper sauce) might be the best known (internationally) egg-based breakfast dish from Turkey, but by golly cilbir should be on everyone's list, too. Cilbir (anglicized somewhat from Çılbır) is pronounced, roughly, as CHILL-ber (like Wilbur, but, you know, chill).

What is it? Well, the beauty-base-zero version is poached eggs in garlicky yoghurt, drizzled with browned butter infused with chile flakes. There are a LOT of variations to be had, though - most of which appear to be placing the basic version on top of an additional element - kıyma, for example (fried seasoned ground meat), or sautéed spinach (like a Turkish version of eggs Florentine). This versatility explains why cilbir is eaten not only for breakfast, but for any other meal of the day.

Between the above description and the pictures, you probably don't need a recipe, but I'm going to give you one anyway:

Çılbır: Turkish Poached Eggs in Yoghurt

Serves 2

Yoghurt base

300 grams plain thick yoghurt
1-2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (or dill, or mint)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt

2 - 4 Poached eggs

I'm going to assume you know how to poach eggs, and have a preferred method. If not, go ahead and google it, or even just fry your eggs sunny side up, or soft boil them (I won't tell)

Spiced Butter

2 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 teaspoon - 2 teaspoons Turkish pepper flakes (eg. Aleppo) or paprika, adjusting for the level of heat as desired


Prepare the yoghurt base first, because you want it more room-temperature than fridge-cold. I take the yoghurt out of the fridge as soon as I get up, before I shower or make coffee, to let it warm up a bit. When you're ready to get cooking, combine the yoghurt base ingredients in a small bowl, and beat until everything is well integrated. Set aside for the flavours to mingle while you prepare the rest.

Warm a couple of bowls by filling them with hot water and letting them stand. You probably don't need to do this in the summer.

Prepare the spiced butter next. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. If you are using unsalted butter, add a tiny pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the butter boil and seethe until the water evaporates and the milk solids start to brown (alternatively, you can use ghee). Remove the butter from the heat, and add the chile flakes. I was using extra-hot oiled Pul Biber (Turkish chile flakes), so I didn't add a lot, but with a milder chile you can add quite a bit more (which does look very pretty). Let the butter and chile flakes infuse together while you prepare the eggs.

Prepare the eggs as you like - I poached mine in a skillet of bubbling water for 5 minutes, but your mileage may vary.

Just before the eggs are ready, take your warmed bowls (drained and dried) and add a generous spoonful of yoghurt base into the bottom of each. Use the spoon to swirl it out to cover the bottom of the bowl. When the eggs are ready, use a skimmer to lift them from the water, and place them in the bowls. Use a teaspoon to drizzle the desired amount of spiced butter over and around the egg(s). Serve at once with warm flatbread, and maybe some nice sliced vegetables and hummus.