Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oven-baked sweet and spicy spare ribs

As I was talking to my mom on the phone the other day, she said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. D (my brother) decided to become a vegetarian”. The phone almost fell from my hand and I began laughing. She had to repeat that statement at least six times before I finally believed her. D a vegetarian? Whaaat?? D who when we were growing up used to steal the pork chops from my plate? D whose portion of kokkinisto (Greek veal stew cooked in tomato sauce) was at least half a kilo?? I never saw that coming, to say the least.

So, to get on his nerves, as a proper sister should do, and tempt him, even though I doubt he will be tempted, he’s a strong-willed person, I’m posting these spare ribs in his honor.

But besides my brother, there’s you, and since the holidays are upon us, I’d like to share this recipe for spare ribs with you as well as my view on holiday dinners. When you reach the point where you have been cooking Christmas and New Year’s dinners for family, friends and loved ones for some years, you get bored with the same kinds of dishes. Sure, turkey is great, a big ham is excellent, but there are so many meat dishes you can choose to cook apart from those that are, well, boring.

Spare ribs. They may be messy to eat, you may need to use your hands (who am I kidding, you’ll most definitely need to use your hands), and you may have to steal the last piece from your fellow diners, but you will be rewarded with happy people enjoying a fulfilling meal that’s absolutely delicious and holiday-worthy. And, you will not be too tired after preparing it, cause it is so very easy. It only needs fifteen minutes of your time.

You prepare the spice and sugar rub, you rub it all over the ribs, wrap them in foil and bake them in the oven for three and a half hours. When they’re ready, you pour the juices in a small pan, add some vinegar and reduce a bit to create a thick-ish sauce that you pour over the caramelized, sweet and spicy, smoky and hot spare ribs. They are pure sin, with the tender, juicy, falling off the bone meat that melts in the mouth, and the spicy and slightly acidic sauce that balances the sweetness.

They are ideal for those occasions, holidays or not, that you want to share with your closest friends and family, those who don’t mind eating with their hands, those who won’t look you the wrong way when you reach for the beer bottle with greasy hands. In a nutshell, the people we all should be spending our holidays with.

PS 1: Thank you to everyone for your kind wishes on my last post. Your support means a lot!

PS 2: I have nothing against vegetarians. I hope they have nothing against me either.

Oven-baked sweet and spicy spare ribs
Slightly adapted from The New York Times

Serve them with thin fried potatoes, or roast potatoes, a big green salad or slaw to give freshness to the meal and to balance the sweetness, spiciness and richness of the pork.
We love heat in our ribs but if you can’t stand the heat of chilli, add a little less.

Yield: more than enough for 4

1.7 – 2 kg spare ribs

for the rub
200 g (about 1 cup) soft dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp chilli powder (add 1-1½ Tbsp if you can’t handle spicy)
2 tsp pimentón de la Vera, dulce (Spanish sweet smoked paprika), (add regular sweet paprika if you can’t find pimentón)
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp sea salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves

for the sauce
the juices from the cooked spare ribs
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar

Special equipment: large baking pan, aluminum foil, baking paper

Rinse the spare ribs and pat them dry with kitchen paper. They should fit in one large baking pan in one layer. I buy two long slabs and they fit in my somewhat small oven in one layer perfectly. If yours don’t, cut them into two slabs.

Preheat your oven to 150°C.

In a medium bowl, add all the ingredients for the rub and mix with a fork or whisk to blend.

Take two large pieces of aluminum foil (large enough to fold around the spare ribs) and lay each one on your kitchen counter. Sprinkle some of the rub mixture along the center of each piece of foil and place a slab of spare ribs (meat-side down) on each aluminum foil piece, on top of the rub. Sprinkle each slab with the rest of the rub and rub it well on all sides with your hands.

Keeping the ribs meat-side down, fold the foil to create two tightly sealed packets. Be careful not to tear the foil or make any small holes.

Line your baking pan with baking paper and place the packets on the baking pan, one next to the other, making sure the seal of the foil faces upwards otherwise juices may run out. The reason you add baking paper to the baking pan is because sometimes juices may run out, causing the aluminum foil to stick to the pan thus making it hard to remove the packet from the pan without tearing the foil and losing the juices.

Place on the middle rack of your preheated oven and bake the ribs for 3½ hours, turning the pan front to back halfway through.
They are ready when a fork easily penetrates the meat.

Remove the pan from the oven. Unfold carefully each packet and pour the accumulated juices into a small saucepan. Fold the foil again to keep spare ribs warm.

Place the saucepan over medium heat and stir in vinegar. Simmer the sauce until it reduces by a third, being careful not to over-reduce it to the point that it becomes syrupy and too sticky.

Serve the spare ribs on a large platter, whole or portioned, with the sauce on the side so that everyone can add as much or as little as they want on top.


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Monday, December 8, 2014

Five years (and a few days) and a special dessert

Every year, around this time, I buy chestnuts, lots of them, to use in savory and sweet dishes or to eat them simply roasted on a cold evening. Chestnuts to me represent autumn and winter, yet this time I made something that I’d normally make during the summer. I made ice cream, chestnut ice cream.

I had a very specific dish in mind. I wanted to make a dessert, a somewhat special dessert for a special day in late November, which was the day this little blog of mine, this cherished part of the internet, turned five.

FIVE. I truly can’t believe I have been blogging for this long. I don’t think I’ve ever been this committed to anything for five years. It feels weird, yet fantastic. It feels like a huge accomplishment but I’ll be honest with you. This past year it’s been a struggle to keep up with this blog. The notion of giving it up crossed my mind and it was the first time I really did not care about it that much. I didn’t want to post as regularly, I wanted to keep things to myself more, live life without having to think about taking photographs of the food I cook or jotting down recipes with every little detail, and words didn’t seem to flow out of me as easily and as much as they used to.

However—and that is a big however—the fact that I found this anniversary worth celebrating, led me to the realization that I do still enjoy blogging, that I do enjoy this type of communication I have with you, the readers; those who quietly pass by, those who always leave a few words that make me feel that what I’m doing here is worthwhile and is being appreciated, those who send me emails with pictures of dishes they cooked from the blog, those who share their knowledge of food with me and who teach me new things, even those who are sometimes a bit harsh or abrupt in their comments; because I truly love creating recipes and sharing them here, with each and every one of you, and it brings me joy having you as my companions on this journey.

So, I had this idea to make a chestnut ice cream but then I thought, it’s winter, I want something else to break that icy feeling. I thought biscuit, and then sablé breton came to mind, a crumbly, sandy biscuit that’s not too sweet and has a light saltiness to it to add another dimension to the dessert. And then I wanted another component, like a sauce, chocolate of course, but with something else in it, to make things more interesting. Alcohol always works with chocolate and then I thought of Armagnac. The best.

A thick sauce that’s creamy, rich, and deeply chocolaty with a kick from the Armagnac, poured over the nutty and smooth ice cream that is cold but earthy at the same time, and the biscuit, that crumbly, buttery, crispy and slightly thick biscuit, adding another texture in the palate, creating a unique dessert. That was the dish I had in mind, and that’s what I made; a balanced and delicious dessert worthy of the five year anniversary of my blog.

So, happy birthday little blog. I really do love you with all my heart.
And thank you to all of you who have been following my adventures in the kitchen these past five years. Hope you join me for the next five to come.

And if you’re in the mood for more recipes with chestnuts, check out these recipes:
Sweet Chestnut Cream (Crème de Marrons)
Chocolate and Chestnut Truffles
Chestnut Cream Truffles
Chestnut Tiramisu
Chestnut Soup with Port
Chestnut Crêpes with Creamy Wild Mushroom Filling

Chestnut ice cream on sablés bretons biscuits with chocolate-Armagnac sauce

Sablés bretons are traditional French butter biscuits from the Brittany region.

You can easily serve this dessert after a festive meal during the Christmas holidays or on New Year’s as it’s so easy to make ahead; the biscuits can be made 1-2 days ahead, the ice cream 2-3 days ahead. The only component of the dessert I’d advise you to make on the day is the chocolate-Armagnac sauce. It is most flavorful the first day, but you can store it in the fridge for 3-4 days.

Also, you can just make any of the three components of the dessert for different occasions. The sablés make the perfect holiday cookies, the sauce can be served over poached pears or quinces for a quick desert, and the ice cream, well, it pretty much is perfect on its own.

The proportion of the biscuit, which is about 1.3 cm thick and 8-8.5 cm in diameter, works great for one large scoop of ice cream and for one serving. You can also cut out the biscuits smaller so you can have more portions of the dessert.

Yield: 8-10 servings


for the sablés bretons (makes 8-10 large biscuits, 8-8.5 cm diameter)
200 g all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of sea salt flakes (I used Maldon)
125 g caster sugar
3 large eggs yolks
150 g unsalted butter, cut into cubes and very soft

1 large egg yolk + 1 tsp cold water, for egg washing the sablés

for the chestnut ice cream (makes about 1 kg)
250 ml fresh, whole milk
250 ml cream, full-fat (35%)
½ tsp vanilla bean paste (or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract)
Pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
50 g caster sugar
300 g sweetened chestnut cream (ready-made or homemade*) or chestnut jam

for the chocolate-Armagnac sauce (makes about 1½ cups)
170 g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), chopped
80 ml cream, full-fat (35%)
1 tsp vanilla bean baste (or pure vanilla extract)
1/8 tsp sea salt
2 Tbsp Armagnac (or Cognac or brandy)
20 g (1½ Tbsp) unsalted butter, cut into very small pieces, at room temperature

*If you make my homemade sweetened chestnut cream, make sure to prepare it a day before you make the ice cream and keep it refrigerated.

Special equipment:
for sablés bretons — stand mixer or electric hand-held mixer, plastic wrap, rolling pin, baking sheet, baking paper, 8-8.5 cm round cookie cutter, pastry brush
for ice cream — heatproof spatula, fine sieve, plastic wrap, ice cream machine
for chocolate-Armagnac sauce — heatproof spatula


for the sablés bretons
In a medium bowl add the flour, baking powder and sea salt flakes and mix with a spoon.

In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the sugar and 3 egg yolks and using the paddle attachment (or a hand-held electric mixer) beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, for about 2 minutes. Add butter little by little, beating well after each addition, until fully incorporated and you have a smooth mixture. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until a dough starts to form.

Lightly flour a clean work surface and empty the dough on top. Knead lightly to form a uniform dough, shape it roughly into a ball and then into a flattened disk, and place it between two sheets of baking paper. Using a rolling pin, roll it out 1 cm thick. Transfer it onto a baking sheet and place it in the refrigerator for 1 hour or until it is firm.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Prepare the eggwash by adding in a small bowl 1 egg yolk and 1 tsp cold water and mixing well with a fork.

Remove the dough from the fridge, remove the top sheet of baking paper and using a pastry brush, brush the top of the rolled-out dough. Using a fork, make a criss-cross pattern (see photo for reference) which is the traditional pattern for the sablés bretons.

Place baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and bake dough for 6 minutes. Remove baking sheet from the oven and, using an 8-8.5 cm in diameter cookie cutter, cut 8-10 rounds and return baking sheet in the oven. (See photos for reference). Bake for further 8-9 minutes or until the dough is golden brown.
Remove from the oven and leave to slightly cool on the baking sheet for about 30 minutes. Then, using the same cookie cutter as before, carefully and cleanly re-cut the sablés and place them on a wire rack to cool completely.

Don’t throw away the small pieces of biscuit that you’ll be left with. Use them as a crispy topping for ice cream.

You can keep the sablés bretons at room temperature, in a cookie tin, for a week.

for the chestnut ice cream
In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the milk and cream and heat over medium-low heat until tiny bubbles appear around the edges of the pan, being careful not to boil the mixture.
In a medium bowl, add the eggs yolks and sugar and whisk well with a wire whisk until light and smooth.
Very slowly, pour the warm milk and cream mixture into the egg mixture, whisking quickly and continuously so the eggs don’t curdle. Pour mixture into the saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula, making sure to keep scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir the mixture until it thickens and coats the spatula, for 5-6 minutes.

Pour the custard through a fine sieve and into a clean bowl. Add the vanilla bean paste (or extract) and salt and stir well. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes and then add the sweetened chestnut cream or chestnut jam and mix with a wire whisk to incorporate. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for about 2 hours or until the mixture is cold.

Empty the mixture into your ice cream machine and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Once the ice cream is ready, empty it into a container suitable for the freezer and freeze it for at least 4 hours before serving.

for the chocolate-Armagnac sauce
Place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (bain-marie) and melt, stirring often with a spatula. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water otherwise the chocolate will burn.

In the meantime, in a small pan, add cream and heat over low heat until bubbles start appearing around the edges of the pan.

Once the chocolate is smooth and melted, turn heat off so the water stops simmering underneath, but do not remove the bowl from the top of the pan so it stays warm. Immediately add to the melted chocolate the heated cream along with the vanilla, the salt and the Armagnac, and stir well with the heatproof spatula to incorporate until you have a smooth sauce.
Add the small pieces of butter one by one, whisking with a wire whisk continuously to incorporate each piece into the sauce before adding the next piece. This will ensure that the mixture won’t split. You should end up with a smooth, shiny and somewhat thick chocolate sauce.

Empty it in a bowl and if you plan on using it on the same day, keep it at room temperature. If you plan on using it the next day, cover it well with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. You can reheat it in a bain-marie or in the microwave, being careful not to burn it.
You can keep it in the fridge for 3-4 days but it has the best flavor on the day you make it.

assembling and serving the dessert
When you have all the components of the dessert ready, start assembling your dessert.
In individual plates, place one sablé breton biscuit. On top, add a large scoop of chestnut ice cream and then either serve the chocolate sauce on the side, in a small container, or pour the sauce over the ice cream.
Serve immediately.


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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms and crème fraîche

The best type of dinner is the one I can prepare quickly and not in the sense that I want to get it over with, even though sometimes that is the case, let’s not kid ourselves, but in the sense that there’s a certain satisfaction in cooking and eating something that’s special in less than half an hour.

I love this kind of meals during a busy workday when my energy levels are low and I can’t possibly bring myself to cook anything that requires too much of my attention or time, or on a Sunday when S and I have the whole day to ourselves and I don’t wish to spend too much time in the kitchen but rather at the dinner table with a glass of wine, some beautiful food and my partner’s company.

This is how this creamy fettuccine dish was created last Sunday; with the glorious porcini mushrooms, the kings of the mushrooms, crème fraîche and parmesan, shallots and garlic and some semi-sweet wine.

The earthy, nutty aromas that emanated from the pan while I was sautéing the porcini, tricked me into thinking I was cooking some sort of meat rather than mushrooms and led me to the realization that if I could have fresh porcini on a regular basis, I would consider becoming a vegetarian. Perhaps.

The crème fraîche added acidity to the dish, without masking the umami flavor of the mushrooms, whereas the salty parmesan took away the sharp edge from the crème fraîche, and the woody thyme added freshness. With a glass of semi-sweet white wine, it was a pretty special, and quick, Sunday meal.

PS. Last night I watched this movie and it was sweet and light and full of marvelous food, aromas and flavors. You have to watch it!

Fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms and crème fraîche

If you can’t find fresh porcini, use fresh chanterelles or girolles or any other wild mushrooms you can find.

Don’t wash or rinse the mushrooms because they will soak up all the water and lose their flavor; just scrub them lightly with a soft brush all over to get rid of the dirt. There are special mushroom brushes that you can use, but if you don’t have one, you can use a very soft, unused toothbrush.

You don’t want to cook the porcini to oblivion because you want them to retain that springy and delicate texture. Their meaty yet subtle flavor will shine through but you mustn’t overwhelm them with too many ingredients. You want to complement their flavor not overpower it.

Yield: enough for 2 hungry people

250-300 g dried fettuccine
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
200 g fresh porcini mushrooms, brushed and sliced thickly lengthwise
1 garlic clove, minced
100 ml semi-sweet white wine
150 g crème fraîche, full-fat
2 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves picked
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan, grated

Special equipment: colander, mushroom brush (optional), cheese grater

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil over high heat and add the fettuccine. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard) or cook to your liking. Reserve about 60 ml (¼ cup) of the pasta water and drain the fettuccine in a colander (but don’t shake the pasta), discarding the rest of the water.

While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce.

Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large, wide sauté pan (one that will fit the pasta as well) over medium heat and add the shallots. Sauté for 2-3 minutes until they become translucent and very soft. Empty shallots and oil into a bowl, wipe the pan with some kitchen paper and heat the pan again over medium-high heat.
Lay the porcini in one layer in the pan and dry them out i.e. cook them until they release their juices and the juice evaporates, for a few minutes on each side, being careful not to burn them; moderate the heat so it’s not too high.

Season the porcini with salt and black pepper, add the garlic and 1 Tbsp olive oil and continue to fry on medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Return shallots and oil to the pan and mix well. Then deglaze with the wine. Oh the aroma! Scrape any bits that have stuck to the pan, that’s the good stuff!

Add the crème fraîche and some fresh thyme leaves, stir gently and leave to incorporate into the sauce over low heat. Add a little pasta water to thin the sauce out a bit if it’s too thick and add one last Tbsp of olive oil.

When the pasta is ready, add it to the pan and mix with the sauce.
Sprinkle with some more black pepper, the rest of the fresh thyme leaves, lots of grated parmesan and serve immediately.

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