Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Same Name, Different Drink

saucepan of chai simmering on the stove

If I find myself at a cafe in the afternoon (usually for a meeting), I try to avoid coffee, since the caffeine interferes with my sleep. Instead, I’ll often order a chai latte. At a cafe, that usually means an instant beverage—spice powder or syrup mixed into steamed milk.

I enjoy the occasional chai latte. But it bears little resemblance to the real thing.

I was introduced to chai by a friend who grew up in India. He taught me how to make chai by steeping black tea and whole spies i simmering milk. The process is definitely not instant, and it requires a close eye to prevent the milk from burning.

That ‘slow’ chai, made on a winter evening in a kitchen full of friends was always more than a drink. It was a gift—of time, knowledge, memories, and love. No instant chai will ever be able to deliver the same.

I seldom make chai at home, but a few weeks ago on a cold dreary afternoon, I felt the need for more than a cup of tea. I made myself a chai instead, and enjoyed a drink that not only satisfied my desire for a cuppa, but also wrapped me in friendship and warm memories.

No cafe chai could come close.

Lemon Coconut Pancakes

Earlier this week, my husband made a curry for dinner which took a small quantity of coconut milk. The remainder of the can of coconut milk sat in the fridge all week.

So this morning I made an experimental breakfast to use up the coconut milk—lemon coconut pancakes. They turned out pretty good—fluffy and light, and quite different from ordinary pancakes. They were good with maple syrup, and even better with gooseberry jam.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try them yourself:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup barley flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 cup coconut milk
3 Tbs melted butter
1/4-1/2 cup water

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, lemon rind, coconut milk, melted butter and 1/4 cup water.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Mix just until all the flour is moistened. If the batter is too thick, add more water.

Cook by the spoonful on a greased skillet, flipping when the top of the pancakes become bubbly, until both sides are golden brown.

Flour tortillas–old dog, new tricks

A week or so ago, I ran across an article somewhere on the internet extolling the virtues of using boiling water in breads and pastries. I was curious, and a bit dubious (particularly in regards to the pastry) but they mentioned that in Mexico, flour tortillas are made with boiling water.

Hm. I’ve been making flour tortillas regularly for two decades. It never occurred to me to use boiling water.

So yesterday evening I gave it a go. Using my own tortilla recipe (see below), I simply replaced the water with boiling water.

As the article mentioned, the flour absorbed the boiling water much more quickly than cold water. The texture of the dough was more dry and crumbly than usual, and at first I was worried it wouldn’t roll out well.

But I was able to work each ball of dough into smoothness, and the rolling out went like a dream—I was able to roll the tortillas thinner, with little sticking or ripping.

They cooked as usual, and then came the real test—eating.

The finished tortillas were pliable and strong, and the flavour was definitely superior to the cold-water version—less floury, more cooked.

And just like that, my tortilla recipe changed… Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Go ahead and try it for yourself.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 tsp salt
2 tbs olive oil
1 1/2 cups boiling water

Heat a large heavy cast-iron skillet on high.

Whisk together the flours, cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil and mix. Add the water and stir until evenly moistened. Lightly knead until the dough comes together in a ball. Pinch off small balls of dough (about 5 cm (2-in) in diameter). Knead each ball lightly, then roll out on a generously floured board until they’re 1-2 mm (1/16-inch) thick. 

Lay the tortillas, one at a time, onto the preheated skillet. Flip after a minute or two—when the tortilla begins to bubble and the bottom is spotted with brown. Cook a scant minute on the second side, then stack inside a folded tea towel. Flip the whole stack over before serving (this helps equalise the moisture levels in the tortillas so the bottom ones aren’t too soggy, and the top ones aren’t too dry).

Gevulde Speculaas

I recently purchased the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh (because the book was always checked out of our local library when I went for it). Like Ottolenghi’s other cookbooks, Sweet is a celebration of flavours, and unapologetic about excess.

My first foray into making some of the glorious recipes in the book was gevulde speculaas—stuffed speculaas.

Speculaas is a staple cookie in my household—richly spiced, quick to make, and delicious any time of year. Ottolenghi’s gevulde speculaas recipe, however, is speculaas for special occasions.

His spice mix includes cinnamon, aniseed, white pepper, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. These are incorporated into a soft dough that is wrapped around an almond paste filling flavoured with lemon and candied citrus peel.

The cookies are baked as a log and cut into slices when cool. Each bite is a spectacular flavour explosion. Unlike traditional crisp speculaas, these stuffed speculaas are soft and moist. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea, and look amazing too.

They are a lot of work to mix up, but they partly make up for it by being baked as a log, so there’s no individual cutting or shaping of cookies to do. They’re definitely celebration cookies, not everyday ones, but I’m certain I’ll be pulling the recipe out again.

A Squirrelly Weekend

Dried vegetables don’t look nice, but they’re great for backpacking.

I had a very squirrelly weekend last week. It wasn’t full of bushy-tailed, nut-eating rodents (they don’t live in New Zealand); I was the squirrel in my weekend. Squirrelling away food for later.

Thursday, I addressed an overabundance of zucchini by making zucchini bread. I tucked three loaves into the freezer to eat in the coming weeks.

On Friday, I used more of that zucchini, along with lots of other vegetables from the garden to make a vat of pasta sauce. Some of the sauce was eaten for Friday’s dinner, but most went into the freezer to eat in the coming months.

On Saturday, I shelled dry beans from the garden. Once they’ve fully dried, I’ll pack them in jars to be made into chilli and refried beans over winter.

Later that day, I made six meals worth of veggie burgers to squirrel away alongside the pasta sauce in the freezer.

All weekend, I had the dehydrator running, drying fruit and vegetables for tramping (backpacking) trips over the next year.

On Sunday, I picked, processed and froze the year’s harvest of soy beans.

My husband got into the act, too. He made two large pizzas, two-thirds of which we froze for future meals.

The garden is beginning to empty and the freezer is filling up. It’s a good feeling, in spite of the work involved. Like a squirrel, I’ll be able to curl up in my nest through the winter, nibbling on the food I’ve stored up.

Aromatic Memories

Smells have amazing powers. They can conjure spirits.

I was chopping parsley and mint the other day to put in dinner and, as the combined smell wafted from the cutting board, I though of Rhian Jones.

I shared a house with Rhian and five other women during my last year at university. Yellow House, as we called the brightly painted Edwardian edifice, was a good place to live. Though all seven of us had different majors and different personalities, we shared a desire to make the place feel like home.

We all enjoyed cooking, and regularly shared food. Rhian made tabbouleh that sang with flavour. “Granny’s” tabbouleh, because the recipe came from her grandmother. I still have that recipe.

I haven’t thought about Rhian for years, but the mix of herbs under my knife the other day drew her into my kitchen. I heard her infectious snorting laughter, remembered her vast collection of colourful bras, and tasted her granny’s tabbouleh shared among us on hot summer days.

I don’t know what became of any of my housemates from that year, but it was lovely to have Rhian laughing in my kitchen thirty years later. I hope wherever she is, she’s still making tabbouleh.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Happiness is a Kitchen Full of Baked Goods

The weekend was crazy-busy with garden work. Saturday, I worked from 7 am to 6 pm weeding, mulching, digging post holes. Sunday’s schedule was similar, but I stopped around 3 pm because the final job on the list was planting out lettuce seedlings, and the weather (hot and with severe gales) was sure to kill them all. Besides, I could barely move—back, arms, hands and feet all hurt from the punishing work. All I wanted to do was collapse.

Except that I wanted to collapse with baked goods in hand.

So instead of sitting down, I baked. Apricot tart for dessert, and a double batch of Irish coffee crunchies (from The Gourmet Cookie Book) for lunches. Baking made me forget my tired body for a couple of hours. As I pulled the last of the cookies from the oven, I was on a roll. I started in on chopping vegetables for dinner. While dinner cooked I filled the cookies with icing and finished cleaning the kitchen, so that by the time dinner came out of the oven, the cookie jar was filled, the tart was waiting to be cut, and all the dishes were washed.

I could barely sit upright long enough to eat dinner.

But every time I’ve been in the kitchen since then, I’ve looked at those baked goods and smiled. Okay, and maybe I’ve snitched a cookie too, but don’t tell anyone. 

Happiness is definitely a full cookie jar.

Pumpkin Scones

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may be so, but laziness is invention’s maternal grandmother.

I was lazy on Sunday morning. I wanted pumpkin muffins, but I didn’t want to have to grease and then wash the muffin tins.

So I made up a new scone recipe to satisfy my pumpkin cravings. The results were delicious and satisfying. Best of all, there was no greasing and washing of muffin tins. Here’s the recipe in case you’re feeling lazy too.

2 cups barley flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and salt
125 g (1/2 cup) butter
1 egg
1 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup brown sugar

Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, pumpkin, cream and brown sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just moistened. Knead lightly and briefly until the dough comes together into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake 11-12 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF) on fan bake.

*I added nothing to these scones, but they’d be excellent with dried cranberries incorporated into the dough. I expect that replacing half a cup of the barley flour with cornmeal would be a nice variation too.