Okra – a Love Hate Relationship

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Okra is one of those black and white vegetables – you either love it or hate it. Just to set the record straight, I’m an okra lover so when I walked by the local halal market and saw a box of these green fingers, I had to buy some.

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I was craving gumbo-style soup on that gray day and okra is a key ingredient. It imparts a wonderful texture as it cooks – some would say a peculiar slime – but in this recipe the viscosity adds body and heartiness to the soup.

It’s easy to make and comes together in about 30 minutes. First, saute the vegetable trinity of New Orleans cuisine: chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. Sweat these vegetables until they release their juices and are tender.

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Slice the okra in 1/2″ pieces then add that to the pot along with garlic and stir briefly until garlic is fragrant.

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Add chicken stock, tomatoes, a bay leaf and some cooked chicken. If I have some in the house, I also add cubed zucchini and fresh corn cut off the cob. Simmer the soup until the vegetables are tender, add cooked rice and serve it up, maybe with a nice slab of cornbread.

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You can take this soup in a lot of different directions. Add Andouille sausage and raw shrimp for a heartier gumbo, make it vegetarian by leaving out all animal proteins or use turkey instead of chicken (thinking ahead here to Thanksgiving leftovers).

In any case, it’s a handy little soup that I often make after a roasted chicken dinner, using the carcass for stock and the leftover meat for the soup. Top with a few squirts of Sriracha sauce and, as they like to say here in London, “Bob’s your uncle”.

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Chicken Gumbo Soup

2 T olive oil

1 cup diced onion

1/2 cup each diced celery and green bell pepper

2 cloves garlic minced

1 1/2  cups okra, sliced in 1/2″ coins

2 cups chicken stock, more if necessary

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped or 1-14.5 oz can chopped tomatoes and their juice

1 1/2 cups cooked chicken meat, in bite-sized pieces

1 cup cooked Basmati rice

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion, celery and pepper and saute until vegetables are soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add garlic and okra and stir until garlic is fragrant then add the stock, bay leaf and tomatoes. Season well with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower heat to barely simmering, stirring occasionally, until all vegetables are cooked through. Add the chicken and rice and heat through. If needed, thin with additional chicken stock or water. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with Sriracha sauce or Tabasco if desired.

Yield: 4 servings

 

 

 

 

 

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One Good Bite

You know you’re in for an intriguing restaurant experience when there are so many great things on the menu you can’t decide what to order: Brew on the North Cote Road in southwest London holds a treasure trove of choices.

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This location is part of a group that includes four Brew cafes and two Antipodea restaurants (all in southwest London) that are inspired by Australia. That means great coffee is front and center with a variety of hot java drinks as well as fresh-pressed juices, smoothies and milkshakes. They have an in-house baker that makes all the bread, brioche, pastries, pizza dough and even bagels. An onsite butcher cuts all the meat, makes the sausages and grinds fresh beef for the burgers. Some locations have wood ovens for pizzas blistered to perfection and the freshness of produce and ingredients is palpable in each bite.

We started with a couple zingy juice drinks that set the table for our day. The Red Rooster was a gorgeous ruby color with a kick of ginger to get the blood flowing while the Forest Berry Smoothie was a rich, deep magenta blend of four types of berries and apple.

On the heels of that healthy beginning came the Brew Melt, a comforting nosh of ham and melted gruyere with tomatoes on Brew’s homemade bread. Two perfectly poached eggs had our forks jousting for yolk position while a dab of pesto spiked up the Indian summer flavors.

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An order of woodland mushrooms with yogurt, spinach and more of the pesto exceeded the sum of its parts; the creamy sauce was a shoe-in for some cholesterol laden concoction but it was really just Greek yogurt stirred into the luscious pan juices of the season’s best fungi. I’ll be making this one at home….

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Of course, you get what you pay for so prices are a little higher than the competition for mains, egg dishes and those fun drinks; our brunch cost about £26 however we shared the sandwich and mushrooms.

That doesn’t seem to put off customers – as we left, a line streamed out the door and down the block, a testament to the popularity of all things Brew, which serves the neighborhood with Aussie inspiration for every meal of the day.

On the Hunt for Olive Oil in Puglia

Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot, is the largest producer of olive oil in the country. The dry, hot climate is perfect for the groves of olive trees that carpet the landscape all the way down to the shores of the Adriatic.

It was there that we discovered gorgeous century old trees, sculpted by sea breezes through the decades. The teeny fruit was ripening under the blistering August sun creating a gorgeous coiffure atop the twisted trunks.

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“People have been coming here and moving these trees to places like Dubai,” Laura Barnaba tells us. “We were losing our heritage so a law was made to protect them,” she continues. The law, passed in 2007, created a system of labelling and surveillance of the ancient trees and is unique to Puglia and the first in Italy.

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Photo courtesy of Sorelle Barnaba

We’ve come to Barnaba’s family farm where olives have been grown and pressed into oil for many generations. Laura and her sisters took over running the business from her parents and are now bottling the fine oil under their own brand name instead of selling it to large producers. The quest for artisan olive oil is in its infancy in this part of Italy and Sorelle Barnaba are hoping to capitalise on this growing business by giving tours and tastings. This aspect of the business is so new that there are no signs on the road to find the farm; we stumbled around with Google Maps pulling into farmyards and deserted fields, finally finding it through trial and error.

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There isn’t much to see in the middle of August, just the mill and some tanks housed in a large barn; harvesting and pressing won’t happen for several more months. But we get to taste the oil from these historic lands, and it gets our attention. The first sample is of the Soffio oil, a bright green label giving a clue of what’s inside. The oil grabs at the back of the throat with bright, grassy flavor and my companions hack, cough and sputter. It reminds me of fresh-pressed oil, spicy and robust. The next is Pizzico, with mellow and smooth flavors, an all-around oil useful for many purposes. Finally we get to taste Il Secolare, oil pressed from trees that are a century old or more. It’s silky with a depth of flavor belying all the years the trees that grew these olives have been on the Earth. The three oils are pressed from 17,000 trees spread over 110 hectares of land; 1500 of the trees are considered ancient. Sorrelle Barnaba produce 600 tons of olive oil each year.

Laura then takes us to one of the most unusual places on the Barnaba property – an underground stone mill. These mills are present all around Puglia and are places that contain a fascinating history of earlier times. The cave enabled the olives to be kept dry and the oil warm irregardless of the weather outside. The fruit was unloaded directly into the large stone presses through a shoot in the side of the chamber and the residue of waste after pressing was easily absorbed by the limestone floor. Mules pulled the wheels to press the oil and man and beast co-existed underground throughout the harvest.

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Photo courtesy of Sorelle Barnaba

The Barnaba’s cave also has evidence of religious symbolism and there is speculation that worshippers – who had to hide their spirituality from the various invaders of Italy though the centuries – found a safe haven in this space. The family intends to one day make a museum to share with visitors the beauty, spirituality and history found in the chamber.

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We happily packed our bottles of Sorelle Barnaba oil into our suitcases as a reminder of a special time in Italy. With each drop of green gold drizzled on soups and avocado toast or whisked into a dressing for a leafy salad, I’m taken back to the beautiful trees of Puglia.

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Love Letter to Lisbon

Dear Lisbon,

I had no idea that you were such an elegant and sophisticated city. Rife with history, culture and natural beauty, you gave us plenty to explore during a recent weekend.

We were thrilled to discover your culinary gems, such as the Mercado Da Ribeira, an amazing amalgamation of a historical fruit, veggie, fish, meat and cheese market combined with a hip food court. The bounty from the area was eye popping, with gleaming fresh fish, roast suckling pig and even snails trying to escape their net bags.

The food court was created by Timeout Publications and offers everything from sushi to pizza, tartare from a Michelin-starred chef and some of the best Portuguese hams and cured meats to be found anywhere. It was here we were almost brought to tears by warm, luscious pasteis de nada, the country’s infamous custard tarts.

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The National Tile Museum, housed in a 16th century convent, was surprising in its offerings with unbelievably colorful tiles from the 14th century on up as well as a couple of jaw-dropping, gilt encrusted chapels filled with relics and paintings. One of the highlights is a mural of Lisbon done in tiles which shows the city in all its glory before the 1755 earthquake that wiped out large parts of it.

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We loved this detail of another mural that depicts a glamorous chicken being taken to a ball in a colorful carriage. Chickens hold a warm place in the hearts of Lisboetas because

in Lisbon, there is a piri piri  shop on virtually every corner. The inhabitants of this great city love to get their chicken fix and one of the best outposts is in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood.

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Step inside and smell the delicious aromas of birds that have been bathed in a sauce of hot chilies originally brought from Africa. Piri piri sauce is a marinade for chicken as well as a bottled sauce that is ubiquitous here and used to fire up everything from soup to eggs. Every cafe, diner and restaurant makes their own and the flavors and textures vary as much as the people who make up this hilly town.

We happened upon this fantastic chicken place on a walking food tour with Culinary Backstreets. In 6 hours we ate and drank our way around this out-of-the-tourist-fray district, trying traditional cherry liqueur called ginjinha, fish stew, bacalhau (another national dish made from salt cod) that is fried into tasty croquettes, pork vindaloo, cheeses and cured meats all washed down with fabulous (and underrated) red wines from the countryside.

Another reason I fell in love with you, dear Lisbon, is because you are much like my home city of San Francisco. Your hilly streets are also navigated by rickety cable cars,

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you have a scenic waterfront where one can consume red wine purchased from an adorable truck (don’t think SF has one of these yet)

and then used to make a toast to you and your version of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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I’ll be back to visit again, there is still way too much to see and taste to be away too long. Until then, dear Lisbon, keep singing your hip-swinging songs, painting your beautiful tiles and cooking up delicious traditions.

A Second Life for that Loaf

Recently friends were visiting and came back from a day playing tourist with a gift of a lovely, large baguette.

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We didn’t use it that night or the next day and when I pulled it out of the bread box it was hard as a rock. I hate wasting food so started thinking up ways to use it up.

First, I cut a third of it into cubes using a sharp serrated knife then fried some of them with garlic and oil to make crispy croutons for salad or to top a steaming bowl of soup.

 

The rest of the cubes became the base for a savory mushroom and asparagus bread pudding inspired by a recipe from Georgeanne Brennan.

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The rest were whizzed into crumbs in the blender.

Breadcrumbs are extremely versatile and can be kept in the freezer for months. You can just pull out the amount you need then return them for future recipes. Crumbs can be used for binding meatloaf and meatballs, crisped and used on pasta dishes or as a crunchy topping for vegetables or coating for oven-fried chicken or fish. I made baked apricots and cherries with amaretto crumbs for dessert last night with great results; the dish would also be good at breakfast topped with yogurt.

So hang onto that stale loaf and give it a second life in recipes for just about every meal of the day.

BAKED STONE FRUIT WITH CRUMBS

Now that stone fruits are coming into season you can try different varieties to suit your taste.

4 apricots, halved

6 cherries, pitted

4 tablespoons breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon Amaretto

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C. Arrange the apricots and cherries in a single layer in a small baking dish. Combine the remaining ingredients and sprinkle evenly over the surface of the fruit. Bake in a hot oven for 12-15 minutes until fruit is soft and jammy and crumbs are crisp and golden. Serve warm with ice cream or cold with yogurt.

Yield: 2-3 servings

 

Magic from the Isle of Wight

The first time I strolled through our weekly farmers market in Balham, I was immediately drawn to the beautiful stall from Isle of Wight tomatoes.

All through the dreary London winter, the folks from Isle of Wight would show up each week with their bounty of fresh tomatoes in shades of yellow and red as well as a bevy of products from the farm, such as passata, ketchup, slow roasted tomatoes with spices and organic oak roasted tomatoes.

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When I marvelled at finding fresh tomatoes in London in January, they explained that the Isle of Wight is positioned to get more sun then the mainland of England. The farm is located in the Arreton Valley, an area that has produced tomatoes for quite some time in the rich, loamy soil there. The tomatoes are vine-ripened in large greenhouses and nourished with compost produced on-site from all the spent plants and other growing material. Upwards of 200 varieties are grown throughout the year by both organic and conventional methods and Isle of Wight uses biodynamic principles to curb pests, pollinate the plants and promote natural habitats around the farm.

Lately the stall has had padron peppers, those petite, piquant capsicums popular at Spanish tapas restaurants.

They are dead easy to prepare and lip-smacking good to eat. Simply heat a pan and add a generous splash of really good olive oil. When it’s shimmering, toss in the padrons. Stir them frequently in the hot oil until they blister and get browned then turn out on a platter and serve with salt – I used Hawaiian red salt.

Another inspiring product, the oak smoked tomatoes, featured this week in a bastardised Caprese salad for lunch. Smoked and fresh tomatoes were mixed with chunks of ripe avocado and creamy, fresh mozzarella then showered with fresh basil and splashes of Tuscan olive oil; each bite transported me to Florence in the early summer when tomatoes and basil have just returned from winter break. The smoked tomatoes contributed intense bursts of flavor with a haunting backbeat. Tonight I’m thinking of adding them to a cheesy pasta dish with asparagus but they’d also be great with other starchy ingredients like potatoes or rice or in egg dishes.

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Suffice it to say the products at Isle of Wight Tomato Farm really get my creative juices flowing. And I’ve been nourished in health and spirit by a little taste of summer even when a cold rain is falling outside.

A Week in the Life

London has an incredible diversity of activities to experience and I’ve been out there doing just that. In this past week, I’ve shopped at the fabulous Borough Market,

walked through a gorgeous tribute to India’s use of orchids at Kew Gardens,

and seen how they play ice hockey in England as the Streatham Red Hawks took on the Invicta Dynamos

And after all that running around we still had to eat. A look in the fridge revealed leftover roast chicken and not much more than that. I remembered Lancashire hotpot from the comforting detective show “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates” and came up with this recipe using chicken instead of the traditional lamb. It’s an easy way to use up leftovers for a quick, nourishing supper.

First, sauté onions in olive oil until golden

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Then whisk in some flour to make a roux

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Stir and cook the roux until it is lightly browned then whisk in chicken stock

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Bring to a boil then lower the heat and cook for 5 minutes or so until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Fold in the chicken and some cooked vegetables and incorporate well.

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Transfer the stew into an oven proof casserole and top with thinly sliced potatoes then brush the potatoes with olive oil or melted butter and pop in the oven.

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Voila! In no time flat a hotpot worthy of Hetty and her crew is ready to enjoy.

Chicken Hotpot a la Hetty Wainthropp

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

salt and pepper

2 cups cooked chicken, cut in bite-sized pieces

2 cups cooked vegetables such as carrots, peas, turnips, zucchini, mushrooms

2 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 350F/160C. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat then add the onions and sauté until golden and softened. Whisk in the flour until a smooth roux forms and cook for a few minutes then add the chicken stock and whisk rapidly over high heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, stirring frequently until mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and fold in chicken and vegetables then transfer to a medium ovenproof casserole dish. Smooth the top then lay the sliced potatoes in a spiral design over the stew. Brush the potatoes with the remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until the stew is bubbling and the potatoes are browned and crusty, about 35-40 minutes.