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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The art of preparing a choke

If you tried out my last recipe Toucinho do céu, you might need something to assist your liver in recovering from it.

Some vegetables, spices and herbs are known to assist the liver and bile function. In my opinion, there is one particular ingredient that deserves much more attention than it currently gets: the artichoke. Artichokes are not only very healthy, they are a true delicacy.

In Italy, Carciofi serve as a very important ingredient in many typical dishes. Also in Southern France, people know what to do with the thistle flower. The more Northly we travel, people seem to be scared of this strange-looking 'vegetable'. Some have undoubtedly encountered the beautiful artichokes on the vegetable market, but simply don't know how to prepare them, whilst others kept wandering what the dull green-yellow slice was that made the Quattro Stagioni pizza so special. So let's bring an end to this mystery of how to cook artichokes and let's hope they may soon bring more variety to your diet. I'll give you my quick version:


1 Cut away the stem as close as possible to the flower
2 Remove all outside leaves that are hard, small or have opened
3 Cut away the tips with a strong pair of scissors (you can use garden pruning scissors)
4 Wash thoroughly


1 Mix a teaspoon of white flour per artichoke with enough water to cover the artichokes
2 Add 4 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, half a lemon and a bayleaf
3 Bring to the boil and let cook for 20 minutes
4 Let the artichokes cool down in the liquid


Peel away the outer layer of leaves. The rest of the leaves can be eaten; well, that is: the wider section can be pulled of when squeezed between the teeth. Very nice with a garlic dip sauce. The most valued part of the artichoke is the heart.  Once all the leaves are removed (they become smaller and smaller towards the inside, but more and more edible), gently pull off the 'hair' (the choke, still edible in smaller specimen). You are now left with a round base, the artichoke heart.

Hints and tips
  • Raw Artichoke leaves can be very sharp, use protective gloves if needed.
  • The flour, vinegar and lemon serve to prevent the artichokes from turning brown while cooking. The fresher the artichokes, the less acid will be needed to prevent oxidation.
  • Artichoke leaves are very decorative and can be used to garnish a plate.
  • You can add parsley stems to the boiling water to add more taste.
  • Cut a few artichoke hearts on a slice of bread and season with salt and pepper; Simple but delicious!

Recipe: marinated artichoke hearts

  • Freshly cooked artichoke hearts
  • a handful of fresh coriander
  • a handful of fresh parsley
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 cup of Extra virgin Olive oil
  • a teaspoon of White wine vinegar
  • a squeeze of Lemon juice
  • Salt, Pepper

Blend all the ingredients (first start with the garlic, add the fresh herbs in the end) in a blender. Marinate the artichokes in the dressing overnight.

Hints and Tips
  • Add some freshly roasted sesame seeds to create a surprising taste.
  • Bring to room temerature prior to serving.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

'Bacon from heaven' (Toucinho do céu)

Ladies (and gentlemen), this is what you have all been waiting for. No, don't be mislead by the title of this recipe; this is one of the nicest sweets I know and it comes from the traditional Portuguese cuisine.
Portugal has very strong culinary traditions, and every region or city in the country has its own typical pastries and sweets. Very often, these culinary delights originated in the monasteries and have sound names like: Fatias de Tomar; Palha de Abrantes; Bolos de Dom Rodrigo; Nozes de Cascais; Brisas do Lis; Pudim do abade de Priscos; Queijadas de Sintra... a single trip to Portugal is probably not enough to taste a tenth of the variety of sweets the country has to offer. One thing they usually have in common: they contain plenty of egg yolks and sugar.
In the early 8th century, Portugal was invaded by Moorish conquerors. Apart from beautiful building styles and traditions, the Moors left the Portuguese with something else: a taste for sweets. The most famous Portuguese pastry is undoubtedly the Pastel de Belém, of which the original recipe is confected at the Fábrica dos Pastéis de Bélem near the capital of Lisbon, at an average of twenty thousand little tarts a day!

A few years ago, I was attending a concert of one of my favourite Portuguese music bands, Madredeus. I had noticed a beautiful long dining table at a remote corner of the theater bar where we ended up after the concert. From the way the table was dressed up, I could only guess that the band had been invited to have dinner at the theater. It happened to be a Portuguese theme evening and typical Portuguese dishes were being served. One thing struck me: there was no dessert on the menu. Well, a Portuguese meal without a dessert, that is unacceptable! I immediately called the restaurant manager, and proposed to make a typical Portuguese dessert for the music band. He agreed. A restaurant worker took his bycicle and I balanced on the back  luggage holder to the closest nightshop in Antwerp, where I bought the necessary ingredients to make Toucinho do céu, served on a layer of custard cream. An hour later, I was sitting alongside and chatting with Teresa Salgueiro, the beautiful lead singer of the band.

That was a night to remember, and now you understand even better why Toucinho do céu is one of my favourite desserts, and its name already suggests why: it comes from heaven. Literally translated, it reads: 'bacon from heaven'. The original recipe from the monastery at Odivelas (near Lisbon), was extremely rich, and might even have contained bacon, hence its name. There are many varieties of this recipe, some contain flour and others don't. I created my own version, and adapted it a little bit to be closer to its origins: I made it very rich (much more egg yolks). If you indulge yourself, you better do it right:

Toucinho do céu 'Madredeus':

  • 200 g sugar
  • 100 g freshly ground almond powder
  • 10 egg yolks and 3 entire eggs
  • a tablespoon of ground cinnamon
  • vanilla
A low round cake form (18cm)


Beat the eggs end yolks and butter the cake form.


Put the sugar on a medium hot stove with 3 tablespoons of water. Let it simmer until the moment where another 2 minutes would turn the sugar  into caramel (before it starts colouring).Add the almond powder and let it simmer for 2 minutes under continuous stirring. Turn of the heat and incorporate the eggs, cinnamon and vanilla. Turn the heat back on and let it simmer until it thickens. Keep stirring so its does not burn. Poor the batter in the cake form and bake for 15 minutes at approximately 190 degrees.


Leave to cool and decorate with icing sugar. Serve just like that or with ice-cream, custard, chocolate...

Hints and Tips
  • Use freshly ground almonds.
  • Never touch the sugar while it is on the stove. It is extremely hot. (in case you are tempted)
  • Add a pinch of salt. Salt will make many desserts, including chocolate desserts, taste better.
  • It is better to remove the Toucinho from the oven to early  than too late. Extended baking will result in a dry pastry. Leave it a little moist at the center.
  • Although this recipe is heavenly as it is, you can experiment: replace some of the almonds by coconut or add a little lemon peel; decorate with flaked almonds and sugar before baking in order to create a unique caramelized almond taste...

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Time for Thyme

Common Thyme (Thymus Vulgaris (Lat.), Tijm (Nl.), Thym (Fr.))

When I smell the sweet aroma of Thyme, my thoughts are immediately carried away to the mountains in the Provence: that is where, probably at the age of 7 or 8, I had my first encounter with this amazing herb, in its best form: in the wild. We could find Wild Thyme after a beautiful hike to La Chapelle de St.-Médard. There, many years before I would become interested in its Latin name, the harsh habitat and unusual growing habit of the plant was most surprising to me; it looked like the herb was simply growing on the rocks, without any soil. Indeed, Thyme is a very hardy plant and enjoys a well drained soil in a very sunny position.

I use Thyme practically every day. It accompanies any soup or stew I make and is happily releasing it's aroma whenever I need to glaze some onions or braise some vegetables. And if I am not using it in the kitchen, it serves as a powerful tonic or my number one medicine: Thyme has very effective anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties and its infusion, if drunk a few times a day, will cure colds, respiratory disorders and relieve digestive problems. A strong infusion of wild Thyme will increase athletes' performance.

Thyme is one of the predominant herbs in the famous Herbes de Provence mixture. I gave this mixture my own name: 'Neighbour herbs'. Yes, next time when you are having that poolside barbecue ('braai' for the South-Africans), generously poor some of the mixture over the meat or fish you are grilling - and you will understand why.

There are many varieties of Thyme, of which some are purely decorative and have a lesser culinary value. But Lemon Thyme undoubtedly deserves a special place in your herb garden; next time you feel like offering your guests a special treat, try making Lemon Thyme sorbet or simply have Bacon and Thyme:

"Those herbs which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but, being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild thyme and watermints. Therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread."
Francis Bacon

Thursday, 08 October 2009

The art of frying red meat

If you are reading this paragraph I assume that you are not following a vegetarian or a vegan diet and that you enjoy a tender, juicy steak that is grilled to perfection. Anyway, I promise that I will disclose some of my favorite vegetarian tofu and seitan recipes in the future.

Few disciplines in the kitchen require so much attention to detail and many years of experience as the frying of red meat does. Every cow is different, and so is every piece of meat that resulted from its grazing; hence we can not treat two steaks as if they were exactly the same. What I am trying to say here is that there is no standard formula as the one we know for boiling an egg (and still, we would have to take variables into account such as the size of the eggs, the altitude at which we are cooking, the food the hens were fed (as this will affect the thickness of the shell and the composition of the egg)). Frying meat is more than throwing a steak on a frying pan. The art of frying meat is: meeting the perfect frying conditions.

1 Preparing the meat
Call this my first meat-secret: take the meat out of the fridge at least 2 hours before frying time so it can adapt to the room temperature. Unpack it and put it on a little grill to make sure any blood can leak away in a plate without the meat resting in the blood.  For large portions such as roasts, you can take the meat out of the fridge up to 4 hours in advance. Just make sure the room temperature is not too high and cover the meat with a towel to prevent contamination by insects.

2 Choosing the right tools
Meet secret two: a (usually black) cast iron frying pan with a relatively thin base. Make sure the base is level and choose a pan that is just big enough for the job; there should be no free space while frying, as this will result in burned, carcinogenic fats and smoke.

3 Seasoning
Generously rub both sides of the meat with salt and freshly ground pepper 10 minutes before frying time.

4 Using the correct grease in the right amount

Nothing can replace the taste of real butter, that should not be a secret anymore. Ideally, you should use clarified butter. Normal butter contains approximately 18% Milk solids, and these burn easily when heated, almost as if you were pooring low-fat cream in heated olive oil.

5 Frying technique
Heat the pan very well before you add the clarified butter and before you start frying. After having added a small spoon of butter, immediately sear the steaks by pressing them against the pan. Do not use excessive butter, but rather just enough to avoid meat sticking to the pan. Leave at the highest stand for approximately one minute, then lower the heat so the steak continues to fry without burning. If the temperature drops too much, the meat will start cooking in its own juices; if the temperature is too high, the meat will most likely burn and become dry. Leave the meat frying on this one side for at least two thirds of the frying time. Once you turn over the meat, put the stove on full heat again for half a minute, then remove the pan from the heat and spread a few chunks of fresh (unclarified) butter over it. For big portions, put the meat in a pre-heated classic oven at 155°C until the point where another 5 extra minutes would take it to perfection (= the way you want it). Remove the meat from the oven and follow step 6.

6 Let it rest
Frying drives the juices from the exterior of the meat to the center and the sides. The result of this sudden heat  is that the meat tends to be dry and hard. By letting the meat rest on a warm spot (in the opening of the oven) on a little grill (make sure the meat does not rest on a flat surface), the juices will redistribute evenly over the meat and the meat will become tender.

7 Serve

Serve the meat on a hot plate. Add few fresh grinds of pepper if required.


Tuesday, 06 October 2009

Keep it simple

Very often, the simplest creations can take us to heaven. One does not need to be an expert 3 star chef to bring a smile on someone's face in the kitchen, as long as the following 3 (star) basic rules are respected:
  1. choose the best and the freshest ingrediënts;
  2. respect the product;
  3. present it nicely.
Choosing right the product often comes down to some basic knowledge of the seasons; again, one does not need a degree in nuclear science to know that salad naturally will not grow in your backyard in the freezing winter months. So instead, go for those cabagges and hard fruits that preserve well after the autumn harvest. When you have the choice between a quality product or a class B cheaper variety, never let your wallet take the decision. If your basic ingredients are poor in quality, so will most likely be the food that you prepare with it.

Respecting the product means: do not cover your delicate fresh oyster of Normandy with a garlic and chili sauce; otherwise, you might as well have chosen to prepare frozen chicken. You won't taste the difference anyway. The bottom line is: combine ingredients in such a way that the secondary flavours will enhance the typical characteristics of the main ingredient instead of covering it. It's like putting a frame around a picture. It's all about the picture, not about the frame (unless you have recently watched episode19 of How I met your mother) Here, you can play with the basic taste sensations known to man: sour, salty, bitter, sweet and umami) and make sure there is balance.

Presenting it nicely is exactly what the frame in the previous paragraph is all about: unlike most inhabitants of the animal kingdom, people 'taste' food with their eyes, and there is undoubtedly an enormous and often underestimated psychological aspect when it comes to taste. Add a red colourant to plain yoghurt, put a strawberry on the label... and some people will believe they are eating Strawberry yoghurt. Of course, I don't want to send you the message: 'go and put some colourants in your food'. No, we have to use the natural colours that nature provided us with: fresh green herbs, shiny red peppadews, black eggplants... and it are these contrasting colours that will make the gastric juices flow in the audience!

So here's my recipe for the day, it is simple and 'ooooh so good':

Bread with chunky cottage cheese and radish

  • Brown bread or Health bread
  • Chunky cottage cheese
  • Radishes
  • Spring onion
  • Chives
  • Freshly ground black or mixed pepper
  • Salt

Wash the radishes and cut the bread in slices. Roughly spread a nice layer of cheese over the slice of bread. Grind the pepper over it and sprinkle some salt over it according to taste. Now slice the radish on top and garnish with freshly chopped spring onion and chives.  


Serve just like that, on a wooden board. Or serve it like I would do it, that is: with a nice beer, preferably a Trappist  

Hints and Tips
  • For the bread, the best option is Pain de Campagne (see recipe of Carbonade à la Flamande. In South Africa, this bread is available from e.g. Ile de Pain in Knysna, in Belgium and many other countries from Le Pain Quotidien)
  • Take the cheese out of the fridge and open it beforehand; this way, it is not to cold and the delicate taste will be more pronounced.
  • Just when you think it has enough pepper, make a few more twists with the grinder; it is also the pepper that makes this recipe so special and surprising.
  • Finally, you can also add some fresh sprouts (e.g. of Radish or French Leek - see picture) to add more colour and taste.

Saturday, 03 October 2009

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Generations of people have been inspired by Herbs and Spices, and even wars have been fought over it. Today, as a result of a modern transportation economy, we can find almost any spice we want in each corner of the world.

Whilst the most common herbs such as Parsley, Rosemary and Thyme are readily available from the supermarket, we often have to rely on our own backyard or some pots behind a kitchen window if a more varied or exotic range is preferred, in order to give that special touch our dishes. Because that is exactly what herbs do: they turn ordinary recipes into exciting 'I want more'-formulas. But our green friends can do much more: they can prevent ilnesses and cure diseases, perfume our skin or make it velvety soft. Some plants keep away mosquitoes or flies, others are even believed to bring good luck. That's why I thought there are reasons enough to invite you to my herb garden. Each month, I will try to discuss one of the herbs that grows in my garden.

This week, I will discuss Sage.

If you are aware of a traditional use of Sage that I failed to mention, or if you have that winning recipe with sage and you are willing to share it, please do not hesitate to post it in the comments, or simpy send me an e-mail - I will test the recipe and gladly give it a special place on this blog.

Sage (Salvia Officinalis (Lat.), Salie (Nl.), Sauge (Fr.))

One of the oldest culinary and medicinal herbs, Sage was highly valued by the Greek and the Romans, who dedicated its domestic virtue to Zeus and Jupiter. In medieval times, Sage has long been used as a hair tonic, as it was (and still  is) known to darken greying hair.

Since I have hair with character - it prefers falling instead of turning grey - let's talk about what we can do with Sage in the kitchen:

Sage is an ecxellent accompaniment to both fish and meat dishes, but is particulary at home in the mediterrenean cuisine, together with lemon or white wine. It is a key ingredient in Saltimbocca alla Romana1, a traditional veal recipe that gained popularity in the provinceof Italy's capital city Rome, but originated in Brescia. In England, the semi-hard Sage Derby cheese gets its typical flavour from the ancient herb and even porridge is sometimes sprinkled wih freshly chopped leaves. (did a drunk Englishman mistakenly see his plate of porridge for a veal escalope and decided to bring back some memories of a visit at the Colosseum?)

Medicinally, Sage is best known for its antiseptic properties, and the fresh leaves are used to create gargles,  mouthwashes, and tea ice-cubes that are useful in the treatment of  ulcers, sore tongue, laryngitis and tonsillitis.
Sage is an excellent remedy against excessive transpiration, and infusions can assist in relieving symptoms of depression and nervous anxiety, which might be due to its positive effect on liver disorders.

To conclude this first chapter on herbs, let me finish with a famous Turkish quote:

The Sage speaks of what he sees; the fool of what he hears

(1) Saltimbocca literally means 'jumps in the mouth' and traditionally consists out of rolled veal strips with Prosciutto and Sage in a white wine sauce.