Baking and blooms

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I have had a growing sense over the past few years that I needed to pay more attention to herbs and spices – particularly to the use of flowers – in cooking. I am always drawn to the variegated dunes of spices in the markets, find myself picking rosemary leaves from the bushes by the gate at my grandparents on my way to the door just to smell them and, this past summer, fell in love with culinary bouquets at the farmer’s markets (posies of edible flowers and herbs, yes please!). I think that it may have something to do with my romantic invocation of old English kitchen gardens, medieval spice caravans and poems about herbs for healing. Scents have stories it seems. Not that long ago I did find a little illustrated cookbook of recipes (the best kind) that revolved around incorporating the diverse flavours of ‘herbs de Provence’ into sweet and savoury dishes. I have also used rose petals to dress cakes a few times this last year – but I have had this sense that there was more than could be done. Even though school work takes up most of my creative energy, these ideas have been simmering away, so to speak, on the back burner in my brain.

All that to say, when my friend Lauren presented ‘Lavender’ as a plant and product in our community group a few weeks ago (presentation complete with lavender scones to sample!), I finally made my first move. After a Wholefoods excursion I was ready to start – I experimented with a butter cake recipe from the Vintage Cakes cookbook – a birthday present from my grandmother. The cake book is a delight and the cakes (one loaf and several-many cup cakes) turned out so well for a first try. I added 3 tablespoons to the classic birthday cake recipe and made vanilla butter cream as the frosting. It was very decadent – but such a treat. All in all, I feel my lavender explorations have only just begun – the cake called for ‘cake flour’ which incorporates some corn starch into the mix – something that I am quite unfamiliar with. I think it makes the grain of the cake quite fine – not necessarily my favourite texture. For now I will count this as an excellent first attempt and will keep exploring the exciting world of herbs, spices and flowers in food. I will keep you posted!

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Crunchy Oats for Breakfast

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Very loosely based on the grain free version of this recipe from Our Four Forks, I had a go at developing this nutritious toasted muesli recipe for my breakfast. I’m trying to get into making things for breakfast ahead of time, so I am more likely to make wise decisions when I’m hungry – following the advice I’m quick to give students … and am finding harder to follow now I’m the one who makes most of the food decisions in my house! I love sweet potato more than I do pumpkin, so that was my first switch – I also made a quite a big batch of this so it would last longer. We tried it out soaked overnight for a softer cereal (very nice), but it is also delightful crunchy, served with cold milk in the morning! I’ve recently tried a few other delicious ‘granola’ recipes; the peanut butter and honey one from Cooking Classy combines some of my favourite things (peanut butter and honey combined is my long time favourite toast topping … yum!) – I added some sunflower and pumpkin seeds too. I also really enjoyed the Oh She Glows Blissful Buckwheat Granola Clusters, very yummy! Although I might try using some buckwheat in my version next time I make it, the simplicity of the dates and sweet potato as the ‘wet mix’ is a bit of a winner! Hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

Dry Ingredients:
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup currents
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup pepitas
1/4 cup linseeds (partially ground in a coffee/spice grinder)
1/2-2/3 cup almonds (roughly chopped)
1/2-2/3 cup pecans (roughly chopped)

Wet Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups orange sweet potato/kumera puree (either boil in water, drain and puree or roast and then remove skins and puree soft inner sections*)
20 dried dates
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt

a note about spices … 
when I made it the first time I under spiced the recipe – it was still delicious, here I’ve upped the spice levels so you can taste them but feel free to adapt and adjust to your own preference. 

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 140oC (my oven can’t go much lower without going out, if you can make it lower, do, it will take longer to cook though).
2. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
3. Mix the wet ingredients (including spices) and blend these with the dry till the texture is uniform.
4. Sprinkle the clumps of ingredients over about 3 baking trays and cook for about an hour and 40 minutes. Keep and eye on the mixture to see how it is drying out, adjust time if needed. I rotated the trays around every 30 minutes or so – this way it cooked evenly.
5. Enjoy as is or blend with other ingredients to stretch it out – rice puffs or raw oats could be nice, or perhaps chia seeds and psyllium husk for some extra fibre.
6. Serve with milk or yogurt and perhaps fruit. Enjoy your delicious breakfast (or snack at another time of the day)!

*See this link for helpful guidance on roasting sweet potatoes for making puree. The degrees centigrade conversion is 190oC .
http://thehealthyfoodie.com/deliciously-healthy-sweet-potato-brownies/

Warm in side and out: Chicken tagine

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While I have a lot to learn regarding the finer points of Middle Eastern Cookery, I am definitely inspired to try more recipes in that style after making this warming, satisfying dish. It was not to hard to make and was full of interesting, complex flavours that seemed to nourish us deeply at the end of a big day. The recipe is originally from the Women’s Weekly Slow Cooker book – here I have included some of the variations I made while I was cooking it at home. The olives were our addition – I had used them in the past for another tagine recipe and remembered how well they worked. And they did again! I would probably add 100g to the sauce while it simmers next time and then serve with another 100g that are still ‘fresh’ from the jar.

On another note – this dish was my first time using saffron for its flavour and colouring in a dish. Knowing only a very little about it beyond a few details of its very expensive production method, I think I would like to do some more investigations its use and history in both food and textiles – so stay tuned!

Ingredients:
8 chicken thighs
1 tbsp olive oil
2 brown onions
400g can diced tomatoes (or several chopped tomatoes and a tbsp of tomato paste)
125mL (1/2 cup) chicken stock
165g (1 cup) dried apricots
1 cinnamon stick (1 tsp of ground dried cinnamon worked fine too!)
Roughly chopped pistachio kernels, to serve
Fresh coriander sprigs, to serve
Sicilian green olives, to serve
Steamed cous cous to serve (we used wholemeal pearl cous cous)

Chermoula ~
1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander
1/4 cup chopped fresh continental parsley
1 long fresh red chilli, halved, deseeded, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
large pinch of saffron threads
1 tbsp cumin seeds (1-2 generous tsp of ground cumin was my successful substitute here)
1 lemon, rind and juice

1. The chermoula mix is prepared as a marinade mix for the chicken pieces. The fresh herbs, chilli, garlic are mixed with the dried herbs in a glass bowl. The chicken thighs then need to be let soak up all those flavours for at least 2 hours.
2. Ideally this would be prepared a tagine, the Moroccan cooking vessel this dish is named after, however a large frypan will produce a tasty result too!
3. Heat the oil in your chosen piece of crockery or pan and cook the chicken in batches till all pieces have been browned and have a golden crust.
4. Remove chicken and sauté the onion in the same pan till soft.
5. Add the tomato, stock, apricots and cinnamon. Increase the heat till the mixture is simmering and then add the chicken, nestling it in the thick sauce in tidy chicken-thigh bundles.
6. Cover the pan and allow the dish to cook for about 25 minutes or thereabouts – by this time the chicken should be cooked right through.
7. Remove the lid and allow the dish to continue to cook for another 15s or so till the sauce thickens.
8. Serve with cous cous and vegetables (we chose broccoli, cauliflower and sweet potato) and garnish with more coriander, the olives and pistachio.
9. Enjoy this delight to the senses!